by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Beyond Centauri, Issue #35, January 2012
“I told you not to feed the dogs scrap metal!” Sandy’s dad said.
TJ coughed a telltale cloud of non-ferrous impurities, and L2D2 was still dulling his shiny alloy teeth on a ragged piece of scrap in the corner.
“They’re just robots,” Sandy said scowling. She kicked another piece of rusty pipe to TJ.
“I’ll remember that next time TJ gets stuck in a command loop, and you come crying to me to fix her,” her dad answered. He went back to programming their spaceship’s flight plan. But then he stopped, and, after a moment’s thought, said, “Actually, that’s not a bad idea. It’s time you took on more responsibility. I think you’re old enough to repair your dogs yourself now.”
Sandy groaned. “Can I go play?” she asked.
“Sure,” her dad answered, without looking up from the spaceship console. They’d been on this asteroid a week, and he hadn’t left the ship yet. Sandy had already found all the good playgrounds in the atmo-bubble community and made friends with the local kids. But she could sympathize with her dad. What was the point of making friends? They’d just be off to another asteroid next week when Mom finished teaching her seminar on robo-econo-ethics. Then Sandy would be alone again.
Of course, she had her dogs. They weren’t real, but they were something. Sandy took them everywhere with her.
No matter how far she strayed from the ship, L2D2 could always lead her back home, and no matter how scary some of the asteroids they visited seemed, she could count on TJ to protect her. Only a fool would attack a little girl guarded by a model 6500 Roboweiler. The laser eyes could burn through metal in seconds, let alone hostile flesh. Not to mention the 6500’s sonic attacks…
Little Sandy Starstrong was a very lucky girl to have two top of the line, all extras included, brains loaded with elasti-particle wiring, robotic dogs. Sure, at night they recharged on the floor beside her bed instead of snuggling with her, but then their plasti-alloy casings weren’t all that snuggly anyway. And L2D2’s glowing nose made an excellent nightlight. Sandy found it very comforting.
Today, Sandy headed for Kite Hill, a park where artificial anti-grav waves painted the sky. Of course, the painting they made stayed invisible until someone flew a kite — zipping and zagging through the high and low grav fields — through it. Sandy didn’t have a kite, but she found it hilarious to watch TJ chase an erratic frisbee, hopelessly trying to predict where the fluctuating grav fields would ricochet it next.
Sandy wasn’t the only kid to think of using Kite Hill that way, and when they got there, another dog was already running frantically back and forth to the hilarity of a boy about her age. There was something different about his dog though.
Sandy pulled an Aero-Supreme cybernetic frisbee out of her backpack and joined in the fun. She knew the boy, and they naturally fell into a rhythm, alternating their frisbee tosses to maximally spaz out their dogs. One frisbee after another — red Aero-Supreme followed by the boy’s yellow WindTronics — arched and looped above Kite Hill, and the dogs chased them as if their entire AIs were only subroutines inside an overriding loop, “IF Frisbee, THEN Fetch!”
Of course, all AIs are not created equal, and TJ clearly had the best frisbee tracking subroutines. L2D2 mostly ended up running around in little circles. The boy’s dog, however, made up for any lack in spatially extrapolative algorithms with a natural grace that took Sandy’s breath away.
When the game finally ended, dogs panting and L2D2’s thermal meter reading dangerously into the red, everyone collapsed on the spongy Altarian moss covering the hillside.
“Jimothy?” Sandy asked, looking at the luxuriously fuzzy casing on his dog, “Where did you get your dog?” The eyes looked so real and bright.
“Oh, I’ve had him since he was a puppy,” Jimothy said, patting the golden, floppy-eared head.
Sandy was trying to figure out if puppy was a brand or a model — clearly Jimothy had given the dog some serious upgrades, a complete overhaul — when she finally understood. “Oh,” she said. The soft fur, the pink tongue, the bright, liquid eyes... She should have known. “I’ve never seen a real dog before.”
“You thought Lucky was a robot?” Jimothy asked, and laughed. He gave his dog a hug. “You really do spend all your time on that spaceship!”
Sandy’s cheeks reddened, but she was too mesmerized by Lucky to feel her embarrassment long. All she wanted was to reach out and touch that soft golden fur… “May I?” she asked, and received permission. The fur was coarser than she expected, but she could feel Lucky breathing beneath her hand. Not simulated panting, but real, warm breath.
TJ growled possessively, a mechanical whine, but it was too late. Completely enchanted, Sandy was in love.
She rushed back to the ship, and her first words to her dad, who hadn’t moved, were “I want a dog!”
“You have two,” he said, without looking up.
“Not a robot!” she countered, “a dog.”
Her dad frowned, and her mom frowned too when she got home. All they heard the rest of the week was real dog, real dog, real dog! And when they left for the next asteroid, Sandy sulked, alone in her room with poor TJ and L2D2 moping outside her door. The entire flight, her parents worried. Usually, Sandy spent flights between asteroids mourning the briefly known friends she’d left behind and anticipating the new friends she’d soon make. This flight, however, friends found no space in a mind dominated by real dog.
“Will you take care of it?” her mom asked when Sandy finally came out. (Sandy couldn’t resist exploring a new atmo-bubble world, even to make a point to her parents as important as how much she wanted a dog.)
“Yes!” she cried.
“Real dogs eat real food, and if you don’t feed them, they get hungry,” her mom admonished.
Sandy rolled her eyes. Everyone knew that. Even so, she had to nod her way through a lecture about the time she let L2D2s battery run down, and she tried to recharge him with jumper cables and a friend’s gravity-scooter. It hadn’t gone well. Her dad had to special order a replacement alternator and spend several hours fixing L2D2 up in the shop.
Nonetheless, little Sandy Starstrong was a very lucky girl, and her parents decided to buy her a real dog. Sparky was a lanky, gangly spaniel at the tail end of puppyhood. His ears were curly brown, and the short, white fur on his body was covered in spots. Sandy lit up the moment she saw him, and he stole her heart when his wet tongue licked her face. There was no doubt; he was the one.
Her mom signed Sandy and Sparky up for obedience classes, and her dad went with them. He wanted to be sure that Sandy trained Sparky, in addition to spending quality time with him. Of course, it turned out that — just as her mom had warned — training a real dog was hard work. Sparky didn’t come preloaded with fetch, tag, hide-n-seek, and scramball. Nor could she simply hook him up to TJ and download those programs like she had with L2D2.
In fact, when Sandy wanted to spend the afternoon researching dog training on her computer, Sparky spent the whole time whining at her feet. He wouldn’t leave her alone and wait quietly like she expected. Instead, he stared her down with sad eyes until she felt too guilty to concentrate.
So, Sandy leashed up Sparky for a walk and headed out. But Sparky kept tugging on the leash. Every time he saw a scrubber-bot, he’d dash toward it, yanking her arm this way and that until she couldn’t take it any more. There was a park right at the edge of the space port — it looked like an abandoned cargo hold that had been painted to resemble a scramball court. Sparky took off running, as soon as Sandy let him off-leash.
He ran straight to a girl on the opposite side of the court. Sandy recognized Kella from Sparky’s obedience class. “Where’s your dog?” Sandy asked.
“Jellybean’s not my dog.” Kella picked up a nearby scramball and threw it for Sparky. “She’s a police dog. My dad’s letting me help train her, but she has to work. Like him. And Mom.”
“Oh,” Sandy said not knowing what else to say to Kella’s obvious loneliness. “Aren’t there other kids to play with?”
“Not a lot of humans.” Sparky brought the ball back, but instead of dropping it, he danced around playing keep away. Kella grabbed him by the collar and pulled the scramball out of his mouth. A few fakes and one good throw sent him scrambling after it. Kella smiled. Then, she shrugged. “We only moved here a year ago, so… Yeah. I don’t speak Altarian very well yet.”
Sandy knew Kella seemed sad, but she couldn’t help being jealous at the idea of living in one place for a whole year. Sandy could hardly imagine that. If she lived here for a whole year, she could be friends with Kella. Real friends, not the temporary kind.
While Sandy thought about it, she watched Kella play with Sparky. With surprise, she realized Sparky was actually playing fetch. He dropped the ball at Kella’s feet, waited patiently for her to throw it again, and everything! “Hey,” Sandy said, “you’re good with dogs.”
“Thanks,” Kella answered, giving another throw.
“I’m not sure I’m cut out for it,” Sandy said, sadly. She wondered if Kella would be a better owner for Sparky than her. “I never had to train my other dogs.”
“You have other dogs?” Kella asked with interest.
“Just TJ and L2D2.”
Kella still looked really interested.
“They’re just robots,” Sandy said, kicking at the ground.
But Kella’s eyes grew wide. “You have robot dogs? No way! Where are they?” She looked around wildly, as if she thought they might have invisibility shields and have been playing fetch with her and Sparky all along. Which was of course ridiculous. Invisibility shields had been banned throughout the asteroid system.
“They’re back at the ship,” Sandy said. “Keeping guard.” Suddenly, Sandy felt a little guilty for leaving her other dogs behind. They had always been faithful to her. “Want to come see them?” she asked.
Kella was in raptures over TJ and L2D2 as soon as she saw them. You’d think she’d never seen a robot before. But, then, Sandy had to remind herself that it wasn’t so long ago that she’d made a compete fool of herself over Sparky. Now he was a chore.
“Why do you do it?” Sandy asked.
“Do what?” Kella asked, tracing the seams in TJ’s head armor.
“Help your dad train dogs,” Sandy said.
“It’s fun,” Kella said, absently. She was fingering the sensors and readouts clustered between TJ’s ears. “These robots are so cool,” Kella said. Her voice dripped with envy, but Sandy knew she was safe from Kella’s jealousy turning to disdain. Kella would no more risk their temporary friendship than Sandy would.
Kella didn’t want to be sent away from Sandy’s spaceship full of robot dogs and other hi-tech toys. Sandy didn’t want to be left alone without someone to talk to her. Another girl, her own age. Sandy knew the bargain they were tacitly making — she’d played it out on dozens of asteroids before. And she’d play it out on dozens of asteroids again.
So, Sandy made the most of her afternoon with Kella, wowing her with brainfeed videogames and gossiping. By the time Kella went home for dinner, Sandy had heard all about the Altarian boy Kella had a crush on (how could Kella like a boy with gelatinous skin? ugh), gotten some tips on training Sparky, and beaten Kella at Space Stalkers about a jillion times. It was a great afternoon, and Kella came over to repeat it almost every day until the Starstrongs had to leave. Again.
As always, it nearly broke Sandy’s heart saying goodbye. When their spaceship took off, Sandy watched Kella’s home grow smaller and smaller, through her bedroom window. Until it was just one asteroid in the rocky field of black space that was Sandy’s home.
But then, she looked down at the fuzzy head resting on her knee, and Sandy realized she no longer felt quite as alone as before. All the time she’d spent with Kella, she’d spent with Sparky too.
And looking into Sparky’s big brown eyes, Sandy found a comfort that couldn’t be matched by LEDs. Sandy loved her robot dogs, but sometimes it seemed like all they were was expensive toys. Sparky might be a lot of trouble, but he was a person. A short, fuzzy person. But a person no less. (Hey, if beings who stick leftover scrap metal to their gelatinous skin to build ad hoc exoskeletons count as persons, Sparky definitely counted as a person.) Besides, now Sandy was the leader of an entire pack.
One girl, two robots, and one dog — out to conquer the asteroids.