Chapter 1 Preview - Please Don’t Share


Kaytee lay in the gloaming, pleasantly buried in a pile of warm, drowsy good boys. She loved this hour, one of the busiest of her week. The dogs scheduled for this slot knew each other well and had long ago contrived an arrangement by which each one had as much or as little physical contact with her as needed. Tacoma, a dalmatian who worked for the Minos Tower residential development, liked to press the entire length of his body against one of her legs. Similar was the terrier, Flint, who always curled up to the left side of her stomach. Others were a bit more aloof, particularly Veghel, the ridgeback companion to County Director Willard Bruno. Veghel always curled up with his head just within Kaytee’s reach. He never slept, preferring to watch the flickering images on the surrounding wall and nosing Kaytee’s hand if she went too long without stroking his ear. Occasionally he’d sniff at her hand, as if he could smell the red and blue tattoo and recognized her from it alone.

Nine good boys in all, surrounding her with companionship that hardly anyone in the five colonies got to experience.

Technically, she was the companion in this case, but Kaytee never considered the difference and wouldn’t have cared if she had. By her reckoning she had the best job in the world.

A tiny paw landed on the back of her left hand. She looked down into the intense, chocolate-eyed gaze of Oslo, a chihuahua who supported the Hydraulics Guild. He cocked his head, gestured twice with his nose toward the wall on her left, currently showing long grass blowing in a breeze beneath an azure sky. Kaytee concentrated for a moment, and half that wall. A wooded hillside appeared in the corner, with a stream flowing merrily down the slope. At regular intervals a leaf broke free from a branch, landed gracefully in the water, floated out of their view. Oslo sighed heavily and turned three times before nestling back against Kaytee’s hip.

A soft chime sounded, announcing the arrival of one more guest, though more specifically informing her simply that the door had opened. The particular timbre told her the noise was only in her head, not apparent to her canine friends. The lack of physical location was another clue: she heard the light tap-tap-tap of toe nails against the floor somewhere to her left as the newcomer headed toward the relief room, but the arrival chime lacked a sense of direction. If she associated a place at all, it was somewhere in the back of her head, about midway down the brain stem. Kaytee knew of the tiny mass of circuitry tangled within the organic mess of her medulla oblongata, of course — the health of her conbox was part of her annual check-up — but she gave no more thought to its workings than she did her heart or lungs. She just knew that the audio signals occurred in the back of her brain, in the same way she was certain that hunger pains manifested somewhere in her stomach.

She heard a real sound, the barely audible hiss of the bidet, as Cadiz finished his business. Also a terrier, but of a different type than Flint, Cadiz belonged to two Sevens who produced some of the colony’s most popular music. That their companion should mix with those of an entire apartment complex or a good boy from the Hydraulics Guild wasn’t so surprising. Every citizen, no matter how lofty a position he held, needed his or her companion to be as well-adjusted as possible. If Cadiz achieved perfect center in Kaytee’s group pile with the likes of Tacoma and Oslo, his people certainly wouldn’t protest. They were probably delighted, as the group session was far cheaper than one on one time.

Cadiz sniffed Oslo’s ear briefly, nuzzled the side of Kaytee’s neck, then flopped down against both of them, causing the entire pile to squirm briefly until everyone had his (or in Kaytee’s case, her) favorite spot. On the walls and ceiling grass blew in the wind, water trickled merrily through the trees, and the sun shone through the barest wisps of white clouds. Kaytee stroked Veghel’s silky ear and drifted only half-conscious herself, bringing peace to all her boys.

#

“So you just cuddle with them and watch cinema?” asked Jaum. JM39440, according to Elvee, but now that they’d been formally introduced, Kaytee would think of him as just “Jaum,” unless they happened to meet another JM Three. She saw no need to look that far ahead, though. They sat atop a small autoflat, en route to Stellar Scenery. The restaurant was Kaytee’s current favorite. Diners watched live feeds of mining operations from all over Bownes Seven, the small planet above which the colonies had parked for over five centuries. Kaytee particularly liked that the table screen was controllable, allowing one to switch between atmospheric, surface, subsurface, and underwater mining. Elvee always wanted to watch the massive rail gun firing containers full of raw materials into the sky, but Kaytee got bored quickly with that process. Every launch was exactly the same; after three or four she stopped “oohing” at the run-up of lights and the sensation that the massive cargo holder was hurtling straight at the viewer. She’d rather see the miners, especially those underwater, where the aquatic creatures native to Bownes Seven occasionally swam past the camera.

“Kinda. It’s not just cuddling, though. I can tell who needs more attention, and I connect with them, make them feel relaxed. Then they go and do the same thing for their people.”

The autoflat turned a corner without slowing down, and Jaum put one arm around Kaytee’s shoulders. He hadn’t clicked his safety belt, and if the autoflat tossed him at a sharp turn, it would continue on merrily without noticing. “Why don’t you just do your thing for people, instead?”

“Silly. It doesn’t work that way. Dogs center people, and dog-nappers center dogs.”

“You should wear your safety belt,” said Elvee.

“But I don’t see why a person like you can’t center another person instead.”

Kaytee shrugged. “I can’t connect with other people like that. It’s kind of like, when I concentrate on a dog it’s almost like I can feel what he feels. Like, if he’s angry about something, I know it and I can help him calm down. Or if he’s anxious, I figure out what would make him feel better.”

The autoflat slowed as they entered a busy office complex. People walked purposely in all directions, some boarding autoflats, many headed for a monorail tube entrance between the buildings. Good boys and good girls trotted alongside them, some clearly attached to individuals, others en route to some purpose of their own. One sat outside the door of a bank. She seemed to grin as every man and woman who left the bank reached down to rub her head briefly.

“Elvee makes me feel better when I’m unhappy,” said Jaum. He grabbed Elvee’s hand with his own, the one that wasn’t draped on Kaytee’s shoulder.

Elvee smacked him on the arm. “You’re not listening. It’s not the same thing, right Kaytee? Oh, we got a table confirmation! We won’t have to wait in line.” She closed her eyes momentarily; she always closed her eyes to concentrate when sending a message through her conbox.

“’The tangled pair does not exist,’” Jaum quoted.

“Yes!” said Kaytee. She hadn’t been all that impressed with Jaum, but if he knew Usu’s Tenets by heart, maybe she should cut him a bit more slack. “’By nature, any given pair is not reflexively harmonious.’”

“I got all nines in philosophy,” Jaum said proudly, then added, “but only on the memorization. I don’t really know what that stuff means.”

The slack vanished. “I guess I know because it’s my job. Two people can’t really center each other because when one is down, the other one is often down, too. Your companion can make you better, but eventually you and your companion will be down at the same time, and nobody gets better. It’s true for pairs of people, and true for a dog and his person. The best way for everyone to be happy is for the doggo to center the person, and someone else to center the doggo.”

“Like you.”

“Like me.”

The autoflat glided to a halt. A tall woman stepped aboard; from her elegant suit and expensive handbag, Kaytee guessed her a Six or even Seven, possibly. Perhaps she was an important person at one of the big offices they’d been passing. A large beagle walked along with her. Kaytee and her friends stood respectably to allow the woman past, toward the empty seats beyond Elvee, but her beagle paused to gaze up at Kaytee.

“Hi there,” said Kaytee. She reached down to scratch under the beagle’s ears. The tall woman looked back sharply at her, then relaxed when she spotted the red and blue symbols on the backs of Kaytee’s hands. A hint of gold and black peeked out from beneath the woman’s on long sleeves. Definitely at least a Six, Kaytee thought. The beagle sniffed at her arms; though she’d showered after her shift, she knew the dog’s acute olfactory sense could still detect Veghel, Oslo, and company.

“This is one happy girl, ma’am,” Kaytee said to the woman, who smiled.

“I’m glad to hear it. Are you three on your way to have fun?” As if on cue, the autoflat pulled forward again.

“Yes, ma’am, we’re going to Stellar Scenery. We just had a table assigned. This is my friend, Elvee. She’s had perfect attendance for three months and traded in her points for a table lottery. And guess what? We won!”

The woman sat down and her companion jumped up, curled into the seat next to hers. “I hope they have an excellent show for you tonight. I’ll ask the car to drop you folks first.” Their co-passenger turned away slightly, began scratching absentmindedly at the beagle’s neck while her eyes took on the glazed look of someone focused entirely on her conbox. She undoubtedly had far greater con access than any of the Threes; even Kaytee’s ability to control the nap room screens via conbox was a special privilege granted through her work. She guessed that an important woman like this could probably send messages directly, read and sign important documents, perform all manner of tasks with nothing more than her thoughts.

“I still don’t really get it,” said Jaum.

Kaytee turned her attention back to her friends. Both Elvee and Jaum looked at her strangely, and she realized they were a bit awed by her free interaction with a Six, or possibly Seven.

“Oh, I know!” she said. “Have you ever been to a symphony?”

Jaum nodded.

“You know how one person plays a note, and everyone else tunes their instruments to match that note. You hear this really weird noise at first, but they slowly settle in to where everyone’s in tune, and it sounds beautiful, right?”

Jaum nodded again.

“It’s like that. My good boys come in, and I think at them in a way that helps them get in tune.”

“I love this,” said Elvee, smiling.

Jaum’s forehead wrinkled. “I’m still confused. Who helps you find center, when something’s wrong? It sounds like there’s no one for you.”

Kaytee thought about that for a moment. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I guess I’ve never been really unhappy.”

#

The line outside Stellar Scenery was long. Not surprising — in addition to it being one of the most popular restaurants in the county, every citizen of the colonies was aware that Station BSW-13 would be deployed any day. Neither the exact time nor the station’s purpose were public knowledge, but everyone wanted to witness the positioning. Kaytee had seen one such launch before and was thrilled at the thought of another. She still remembered vividly the great metal box floating majestically into position, guided by bursts from small jets to a permanent spot among the five massive colony ships. From there the station simply seemed to grow. Doors opened, robotic arms emerged, panels slid into place, and what had started out as a simple metal cube slowly transformed into a glittering collection of solar panels and equipment that Kaytee couldn’t even hope to identify. She wanted to see the process unfold again, as did everyone she knew.

Thanks to Elvee’s luck in the reservation lottery, if they’d also stumbled into the right timing they’d get to see the launch from the enviable vantage point of Stellar Scenery. Indeed, plenty of those in line cast envious looks, though no one complained. The system was precisely fair, of course, and feeling otherwise wouldn’t change it.

“I really like my new residential building,” Jaum was saying. “Everyone gets their own bathroom, and there’s a companion in every wing of every floor. Mine is named Agnes.”

Kaytee had had her own relief room her entire life, but thought it would be rude to point that out. Besides, something was bothering her. She looked back and forth, certain that something was out of place, but the restaurant entrance didn’t seem any different from dozens of other visits.

“I like sharing the relief room,” said Elvee. “We take turns cleaning it.”

“Do you…hear something?” Kaytee asked. She stopped, just short of Stellar’s open door. The scanner there had already connected with Elvee’s conbox and was flashing her table number on a small screen.

“I also have my own view screen, in my room,” said Jaum. “You want to come over later?”

“Maybe,” said Elvee. “I — Kaytee, what are you doing? Come on!”

That foreboding feeling had grown even stronger, become something urgent, and Kaytee had the distinct sense that the source wasn’t far from the restaurant, though clearly wasn’t inside. She felt a pull, almost like someone was calling her name across a distance.

“Kaytee?”

“You guys go ahead,” she said, only half-hearing her own words. “I need to…you go ahead.”

“Kaytee!”

She was walking at a fast clip now, leaving Elvee and Jaum to gape at her from the doorway of Stellar Scenery. A line of thickly muscled goats carried boxes from a cargo flat into a construction site; she dodged through them, bumped into their foreman on the other side, and ignored his, “Hey, careful!” as she continued down the street. At the next intersection she paused, uncertain, watched two enclosed cars whistle by, then felt the pull again, off to her right. An autoflat was headed straight for her, but she’d given it enough distance that it slowed automatically, allowing her safe passage.

A low-pitch, reproachful tone sounded in her brain. She’d knew she’d just lost points for crossing against a signal and inconveniencing others, but she didn’t care. The urgency had grown, reminding her of emergency drills when the siren beckoned everyone to a rallying point. She couldn’t explain what drew her, but she knew she had to keep moving until she found the source of distress.

And abruptly, there it was. Halfway down the next block the buildings opened up into a courtyard, filled with tables and lined with food stalls. A maze of large, transparent tubes was suspended above the tables and benches. Water rushed through the tubes at varying speeds. Flags lit up randomly at points throughout the maze, and small, robotic craft raced to claim them. The diners below could watch the races, as well as take manual control of individual crafts. It was great fun, except that when Kaytee arrived, no one was watching the races, and no one was dining.

Instead, a dozen or so people were gathered on one side of the courtyard, pressed up against two of the food stalls. A pair of SecCon officers stood in front of them, rather unnecessarily; the spectators simply stood and stared at the clear space opposite them. The tables had been pulled away, making the diners’ area even more crowded. Dozens of plastic crates had been stacked against the far wall, but two or three stacks had tumbled, creating quite a mess on that side of the courtyard. The stacks should have been secured to the wall, but someone had been lazy — the restraining straps dangled freely from their hooks.

Next to the mess stood a goat. One hand was pressed hard against the side of his face, and he rocked back and forth slightly, shifting his weight from one foot to another. The signs of distress were universal to all goats, as were the wide, white-less eyes and scrubby head growth that resembled hair, but was far more hygienic and maintenance-free. Clearly, this goat had caused the landslide of storage containers. If the newly created mess prevented him from finishing his task, he’d stay that way indefinitely, until someone he recognized as an authority helped him change course.

But Kaytee’s attention had only a split second for the goat. A greyhound lay on the floor next to the strewn crates, writhing and whining. Her front paws scratched at the metal ground while her hind legs lay inert. Her tail end seemed oddly disconnected from the rest of her body, as if her entire rear were just dead weight attached to her chest by skin and fur. The skin had burst open along her right hip, though, revealing at least two gleaming shards of what had to be bone. Each time the greyhound thrashed and twisted, trying to get to the terrible wound, the puddle of blood beneath it grew.

Kaytee cried out and dropped to her knees, crawling toward the agonized dog, but strong hands grabbed her shoulders and stopped her. “Easy,” said a voice in her ear. She continued scrabbling toward the greyhound, but her hands and knees just slid uselessly in place as the man held her back.

“Easy, I said. I’ve already tried to get to her. She won’t let anyone near.”

Kaytee blinked away tears and the hand on her arm swam into view. The symbol on the back was similar to hers — an upside down “V” topped by a cross, with a single dot floating above and to the right — but the man’s was black and red, rather than red and blue. In addition, a golden halo looped the cross. He was a doctor, specializing in canines.

“Help her,” Kaytee said, still trying to pull away.

“I can’t. She’s in too much pain to let me close. She…she actually bit me.”

For the first time Kaytee saw the other marks on the man’s hand. Blood dripped from two jagged cuts across his fingers. She stared, horrified. In all her life she’d never heard a credible story of a dog biting a person. There were always rumors, of course, but they were no more believable than the idea that the colonies were going to pull away from Bownes Seven or that aliens had taken over the Dead Ship.

“It’s okay,” said the doctor. “She’s not herself right now; extreme pain does that to people and dogs. Trust me, she doesn’t even realize she snapped at me.” He gestured to the SecCon officers. “I can’t have those guys stun her. She’s already weak enough that I’m afraid a stun shot might kill her.”

The greyhound whined again, and elsewhere in the corridor, a hound of some kind howled.

“I can help her. I can help her be calm,” said Kaytee, though she was anything but certain that she could do anything of the sort.

“What do you—” said the doctor, then snatched at her wrist, turning her arm so he could see the back of her hand fully. “Oh, hell. Go!”

He released her and Kaytee nearly collapsed. Her arms shook. She felt anything but calm herself, but she forced herself to breathe deeply as she half-crawled, half-slid forward. The greyhound growled and whined as she approached, and the frantic scratch-scratch-scratch of its paws against the floor was the worst sound Kaytee had ever heard. Still, she inched forward, closing her eyes as she lowered herself completely, until she was sliding on her belly with one arm outstretched. She pictured Oslo’s favorite scenery, the gentle waterfall, the trickling stream through the trees. She heard the raspy panting of the injured dog, even smelled the terrible, iron taste of blood. The greyhound growled again, but softer this time, and Kaytee replied with soothing, shushing noises. She imagined the mesmerizing leaf, floating gracefully on the breeze, then landing on the surface of the water to continue its journey downstream. She felt hot breath on her outstretched fingers, then, after a moment, a cautious lick followed by a wet nose being pressed into her palm.

She opened her eyes and sidled closer, careful not to touch (or even look at) the terrible injury. The greyhound continued licking at her hand, stopping only to press her head into Kaytee’s palm when she reached up with her other hand to stroke the greyhound’s neck. The courtyard had gone deathly quiet, as if human and canine spectators alike were holding their collective breath. The wounded dog tried to raise her head toward Kaytee’s, but even that little motion sent a shudder through her body and she lay back down.

“It’s okay,” Kaytee whispered, still petting the long neck. “You’re okay. You’re a good girl.” She tried to visualize the stream again but couldn’t keep the image fixed in her mind. Instead, she kept her eyes open, focused on the greyhound’s face as she continued whispering platitudes and praise. She nearly jumped when the doctor spoke behind her, virtually whispering in her own ear.

“That’s good,” he said. “Excellent. Just keep her calm, so she doesn’t make it any worse. I’ve got help coming, should be here any minute.”

The doctor didn’t try to touch the injured girl himself, just watched as Kaytee resumed her ministrations. She didn’t think about what she was saying, simply reassured the greyhound that all was okay in the world, everything would continue to be all right, and that she in particular was a good girl. The last was of particular importance to Kaytee. Despite the doctor’s words, she had a distinct sense that the greyhound recalled snapping at the man’s hand, and her shame hurt almost as deeply as the physical injury. Kaytee did her best to assuage her guilt, all the while keeping her calm enough to not aggravate her own wound.

She hadn’t realized she’d closed her eyes again until the doctor touched her shoulder. His face swam into view; he’d slowly positioned himself opposite her, with the greyhound in between. He was older than her, at least sixty or seventy, and his wrinkled skin reminded her of Charleston, a bulldog who visited her every five days.

“You okay?” he asked.

Kaytee nodded.

“You’ve done great. I’ve got something here that’ll help put her to sleep enough that we can move her. It’s a lot gentler than a stun gun.” Again, he gestured with his head toward the SecCon. “Keep it up just a few more seconds. She’s going to feel just a little pinch, then it’ll take just a few seconds.”

Kaytee nodded again. The greyhound didn’t flinch as the doctor slid the needle home, and as he’d predicted, in less than a minute her eyes closed and her breathing deepened significantly.

“Ah, my knees,” the doctor said, clambering to his feet. He reached down and took Kaytee’s arm, drawing her upright as well. “We can extract every useful molecule from a planet, plant electronics in our brains, but we can’t improve the human knee. Pity.”

As he and Katy stepped aside, two young men sprang into action. Each wore a long jacket with the same symbol as that on the back of the doctor’s hands. They placed a thin board next to the slumbering greyhound, quickly but carefully slid her onto it, and lifted the entire affair onto an electric cart. One of them took the empty syringe from the doctor, returned it to a case which slid into a lot on the side of the cart. The pair departed with as much efficiency as they’d collected the injured dog, one guiding the cart smoothly via conbox.

Abruptly, the doctor enveloped Kaytee in a fierce hug. “You did great,” he said. “You most likely saved that girl’s life, you know.”

Then he was gone, hurrying after his assistants and the cart, and the courtyard came to life again. The applause was so sudden and loud that it frightened her; she found herself crying again despite the people gathering around to congratulate her. Elvee and Jaum had apparently followed her on her unexpected mission, though, and soon enough rescued her from the press of the crowd. Still, she couldn’t shake two images from her mind: the doctor’s bloody hand, and the terrible sight of jagged bone protruding through grey fur. She did her best to smile through an abruptly rescheduled dinner, but those memories haunted her until late in the night, when she was back in the relative solitude of her residential unit and fell into a thoroughly exhausted sleep.