It took an elastic mind to work security on a crossroads station like Amalgam. It took a very elastic one to work with the JOATs, who tinkered daily with things ordinary mortals were not meant to know. For Lir Marken, the phrase, "I think I know where I went wrong," was just as much a portent of doom as, "what could possibly happen," or, "hey, watch this."
Knowledge of station and district laws was a daily tool. As was her hobby of anthropology. JOATs weren't just a human phenomenon, they happened to all species, equally - except, perhaps, the spacebourne Xyrak'l. But nobody had yet figured out a way to reliably communicate with them to find out. So, as well as coping with the human JOATs, who fiddled with the laws of physics to see what happened next, she had to deal with varying species' JOATs, who fiddled with the laws of nature because they had a theory.
Then there was the quasi-regular feud between Rael, an Engineered Life Form produced by the B'Dauss, and Toq'tik, a B'Dauss bio-engineer.
Rael disliked his creator-species because of their inborn disability of not always thinking things entirely through. He loathed his creators with an almost belligerent atheistic passion, threw parties when his creator-company suffered a legal loss, and sent Insulters to the people responsible for his design on the anniversary of his rollout. By and large, he was usually content to give B'Dauss a very wide berth if he couldn't avoid them altogether.
The problem was that Toq'tik had to keep apologising on behalf of his species. And trying to make up with Rael. Often within days of court-mandated product inspections, which always put Rael in a bad mood.
And now there was this.
He looked like a dog, but there were also signs he'd been made instead of bred. The opposable thumbs were a dead giveaway. The clothes, not so much. People, especially humans, projected onto their pets by dressing them up. This one wore something from mid-twentieth-century stereotypes, coming across halfway between bellhop and dancing monkey to Lir's mind, and included high-waisted culottes that allowed for free movement and the perpetually-wagging tail. He also wore a little vest and a pillbox cap strapped to his head.
"Hello," he said. "You friend? You help? Boy want Master."
Rael, freshly pulled away from yet another confrontation with Toq'tik, stiffened beside her. He had a Thing about gene-slaves, gene-slavers and gene-slavery, and all of it perfectly rational, because he had been victim to all three. The problem was, not all suspected gene-slaves were gene-slaves. Modding pets with a limited vocabulary was acceptable, if a grey area. Helper animals were still everyday.
Finding one with both attributes was... creepy.
Lir gave a little, calming signal to the inwardly-bristling Rael, and tried to remember to speak plainly and clearly, but not down to the dog.
"I am friend," she said, "I can help. Have you lost your master?"
"Master go hide," said the dog. "Boy seek scent. No find master. Boy want master."
"Do you know your master's name?"
"Master is master."
Oh great. "Do you know your name?"
"Boy is boy. Good boy."
Rael, freedom advocate for fellow ELFs everywhere at the drop of a gasket, bent so he was closer to the dog's eyeline. "Your master calls you 'boy'?"
"Yes! Boy good boy," the dog's tongue lolled out of his mouth.
"Do you remember anyone calling your master anything else?"
"Master is master," said the dog. He sniffed Rael. "You is blue. Master is blue. You no smell like master."
Well, that was a start. Lir set her eyepiece to sort cam feeds in order to find anyone who was bluish.
"Is he blue here?" Rael touched his face.
"Yes! Good boy! Good dog!" Boy's tail wagged so hard it almost took the rest of the dog with it.
"There's my good boy!" said a new voice. It belonged to a blue-faced old man Lir put in the 'frail' stage of old age. He was half-Gebran, which was why the normally blue skin was more mauve. Human ancestry did weird things to skin colour. His hair was snow white and his loose clothing probably fit some decades prior, when he was a much younger man. "Get lost sniffing out our new home?"
"Master! Master master master! Kiss kiss, Boy happy. Boy is happy. Master here." The dog fell to licking his master's hand and otherwise fawning up to the old man.
He dug a treat out of his pocket and handed it to the dog, possibly on automatic. "Good boy, finding the authorities. Good Boy."
The treat vanished with a small unk noise.
"Is your gene-slave registered?" interrogated Rael.
"Rael..." Lir warned. "He is just an augmented dog, right?"
"Just an augment, fully tested by Cogniscent Rights," said the old man. He helped himself to some cases on the dog's cart to produce an infoshard. "Here's all his documents."
Lir bought out her hand-reader so Rael could read over her shoulder. For an augmented Dog, Boy was a little on the dim side. Not that augments were routinely that bright in the first place. Dogs followed orders, and augmented dogs rarely did anything they weren't taught how to do. If left on their own, the smarter ones could look after themselves, but they needed their owners for emotional wellbeing. Like all dogs, they followed their instincts without further input.
Boy was busy sniffing their feet. His stubby snout wavered to and fro.
"Does he have a tracker?"
"Subcutaneous, yes. It's how I found him. There's some bloodhound in his ancestry, somewhere. He follows his nose far too often."
"You augmented a mutt?"
"I'd cloned Boy five times before I was due to retire. I could never afford a nurse to look after me. I have no children. And I'm far too proud to enter a care home. Augmenting him... Seemed natural. He was always a good and faithful dog."
"Good boy," agreed Boy.
The man patted his chest. "Good boy. He's saved my life three times, already."
"Fetch medicine," said Boy. "Fetch help. Good boy."
Rael had his hand over his mouth. Only Lir's trained eye picked out a hint of silver in his everyday mauve.
"Are you moving in near the JOAT district?"
"The accommodations are cheap and the neighbours can handle anything," the old man repeated the popular joke. "It seemed appropriate, and we can't travel any more."
"I'll make sure someone drops by every now and again."
"Welcome-to-the-JOAT-district," Rael intoned without emotion.
"Blue friend smell funny," said Boy of Rael.
Lir decided to help Rael to find somewhere more mentally calming. He'd never encountered Augments, before, and given his psychological history... Well, it was just better to move him away.
Four weeks, and four altercations with Toq'tik later, Lir crossed paths with Boy again. She still had a firm grip on Rael's arm when the dog trotted up to her.
He was looking... Unkempt. The vest and pants bore transfer stains from assorted condiments. The little hat had a fine dusting of shed fur. Boy had more than a few transfer smears on his fur.
"Friend!" Boy grinned his doggy smile. "Boy fetch help. You help?"
"I'm sure we can help. What's the trouble?"
"Master make food. Big food. Need help."
"Did he add too many naughts on his steak orders, again?"
Lir hadn't found time to acclimate her sixth senses to Jor, nor Boy, but her vague glimpse of a potential future gave her pause.
"Master sleep," said Boy. "Master make food. Big food. Need help. Need cut."
"You can cut food, just fine," said Rael.
"Boy no cut Master. Bad phooey. Need help."
"I don't understand," Rael looked to Lir.
Lir's gift sparked just enough for her to lip-sync the dog's next words.
"Master is smell tasty," said Boy.
"Dogs are scavengers," said Lir. Her feet we already taking her to Jor's modest residence. "Left alone in a house... They've been known to eat their deceased owners."
Rael trotted to keep up. "I hereby appoint myself as Boy's advocate in the interest of his continued freedom and safety," he said, "I believe the dog is not responsible for Jor's death."
Lir used her ident to open the door, expecting some grisly scene of stereotypical gore.
What she found was rather sad, and a little bit pathetic.
Boy had done exactly as he was taught. He fetched the old man's medicine. It was still in his withered hand. He had run out for help, unfamiliar with Amalgam's comm system. Unable to find anyone willing to try to understand him, he'd returned to find the old man had died.
To a dog, a dead human is just more meat.
Boy had done as he'd been taught. He'd removed Jor's clothing and cleaned the corpse as he laid it out on the table. He prepared cutting board, knives, and storage baggies before he fell right into a fundamental flaw in his programming and education.
He couldn't cut up his dead master.
"Why did you do this?" said Rael.
"Master make food," said Boy.
"He doesn't understand," whispered Lir. "For him... his master loved him so much, that his master turned into food." There was no crime, really. Just one peculiar bundle of habits running headlong against established taboos. "Take him up to my boss, Sherlock. Boy's still young and he'll need a home and work. He's part bloodhound. Maybe he could be a sniffer dog."
"But he nearly--" Rael couldn't finish. He was descended from Cleaners, which ate their own dead. This was another manifestation of his ongoing Thing with gengineered life.
"He couldn't finish," said Lir. "Boy held fast to all his training, and did everything he knew how to do. It's not his fault we came too late, or that what he'd been taught... conflicts... with our rules." She took off his silly little hat so she could pat the poor creature's head. "Despite what you think, he was doing his utmost to be a good dog."
Boy grinned his doggy grin and wagged his tail. "Good boy," he said. "Food soon?"
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