by George Right
The leisurely sunset of the July day washed the valley with gold, filling the world with bright saturated colors like a 1950s film; the rare ruffled clouds in the west simply glowed high in the blue sky, and it seemed that even the unpainted posts supporting the porch roof shone an amber light from within.
A warm breeze pleasantly fanned the face of Fred Marlowe. This was the face of a man who had spent his whole life in the fresh air, weather-beaten and sunburned, grooved with large, deep wrinkles, in the folds of which twinkled small drops of sweat. Grey locks poked out from under a broad-brimmed straw hat. Fred was dressed in a faded checkered shirt unbuttoned to his chest and threadbare jeans worn through at his right knee. His bare feet rested on the boards of the porch, which had been warmed by the sun, and his dusty sandals lay next to them. Fred pulled a wet can of beer out of an ice-filled cooler and pulled on the ring; the cold foam fizzled out to splash him on the arm, and several drops fell on the porch to form small brown blobs in the dust. Fred took his first sip with pleasure.
“Ahhh,” he said, dropping the hand holding the can. “This is so good. Too bad you don’t drink, Jim.”
Jim did not react to this comment and continued to lie on the porch, resting his muzzle on his front paws. Even when some cold drops fell onto the back of his neck from the tilted can, he barely twitched his left ear. Fred especially valued Jim for his calm and imperturbable disposition?so much in harmony with his own.
Most of all, Fred loved these warm summer evenings when all the business of the farm was finished, and he could sit on the porch in his rocking chair, watch the sunset, breathe in the smells of the declining day, and talk with Jim. Since Margaret’s death, God rest her soul, he had managed the farm alone and had rarely been to town, staying only as long as his business required. His son, a successful lawyer, had not been home for ten years, not even to come to his mother’s funeral, sending instead his apologies for not attending and a check to cover the expenses. Greeting cards arrived from him twice a year on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The son did not remember his father’s birthday. Fred also had no neighbors. Some had gone broke and left, some had given in to the urging of their children and moved to the city, and some had died, leaving their farms abandoned.
Fred himself was sixty-eight, and he counted on staying at least another ten years. His father had lived to eighty-two in perfect health and had died by falling off a roof he was repairing. But what then? It was sad for Fred to admit that after his death, this farm, the fruit of the daily labor of six generations of Marlowes, would be left to turn into grass and thorns. The thought also troubled him that he could die suddenly, and no one would miss him; his body would decompose somewhere in the yard or in the barn or even here on the porch, and no one would be next to him except Jim, if, of course, the dog survived him.
“So you won’t start to eat me, eh, Jim?” asked Fred. The dog raised his head and looked at his master closely, as if he understood well what he was being asked.
“However, I’ll go ahead and feed you to avoid trouble,” continued Fred in the same half-joking tone, rising from the rocker. The dog just turned his head at first, but then rose and followed his master. Fred went into the kitchen and retrieved a large opened package of Pedigree Pal from the cupboard. The relentless pace of progress that caused farms to become overgrown with grass and children to forget their parents had not passed him by either. Had he heard of a case in bygone days of feeding a farmer’s dog with these stupid mixes…but what do you do if it is really convenient? Yes, and Jim didn’t seem to object.
“You don’t object, Jim?” asked Fred, turning to his bowl. The dog looked at the man in expectation, slowly wagging his tail. Meanwhile, an old radio crackled on the counter; it was set to the local radio station, but right now it seemed to have gone out of tune. Fred poured the food into the bowl and went to the radio to turn the knob.
“…continues in Asia,” the radio faded back in. “The number of those in South Korea who have fallen ill is in excess of a half-million. The governments of North Korea and China are concealing the real state of affairs in every way, but analysts think that the situation there is no better. However, not a single fatal case has yet been reported. Dr. Kim Yoo Chon from Seoul University says that the world has encountered a new variety of prion infection related to ‘mad cow’ disease. The new disease destroys the brain much faster than the previously known form. Scientists have not yet been able to obtain any evidence of the infectious nature of the disease, which has already acquired the unofficial name of ‘the Korean madness’. Nevertheless, the State Department recommends that American citizens refrain from trips to Asia. In other news, at a Mideast Conference in Geneva…”
“It seems that this isn’t the local channel,” grumbled Fred unhappily, turning the knob in another direction.
“We aren’t planning on going to South Korea, right, Jim? We’ll look for something better that concerns us.” The last bars of a country melody came from the speaker, and then a cheerful voice announced, “Welcome, friends. Pete Martin’s with you again!” Fred nodded approvingly; this was what he had been searching for.
“And with me in the studio is Mr. Casper Browney, the irreplaceable chairman of the Cropfield Festival Organizing Committee. Welcome, Casper!”
“How are you going to entertain us this year?”
“Unfortunately, this year, the festival got less money than usual, but as before, we’ll hold all our traditional events, including a competition for the biggest pumpkin and a farmer’s dog contest. As always, our dear ladies can compete for the prize of the best pie…”
“Why don’t we go to the city to the festival this year, eh, Jim?” said Fred, turning again to his friend. “Maybe we’ll take part in the dog contest? True, I haven’t taught you any tricks in a long time, but you’re a clever guy, and there’s still time. No, really, how do you like the idea?”
“I don’t like it at all,” replied Jim.
# # #
Marlowe came to his senses from something hot and damp touching his face. He opened his eyes. Above him was Jim, tongue hanging out, seemingly intent on licking him again.
“That’s enough, Jimmy. I’m okay,” he groaned, sitting up and rubbing the back of his neck. “Oh, it seemed to me…it couldn’t be like from a couple of cans of beer. It had to be the sun…”
“No, Fred, it’s not the beer, nor the sun,” the dog objected.
This time Marlowe did not faint. He simply sat, staring dully at Jim. The latter did not talk like a dog in the movies; his jaws did not move, and the tongue hung limply between his teeth as before. Nevertheless, Fred was absolutely sure that it was the dog’s voice he heard. The voice was a pleasant baritone without the slightest accent. I’ve gone crazy, thought Marlowe. The damned Korean disease has already reached here.
“No, Fred, not yet,” Jim assured him. “What’s more, it has completely differing symptoms.”
He’s reading my thoughts!
“Of course,” the dog confirmed.
“You aren’t speaking! You can’t speak! This voice simply sounds in my brain, and that’s all!”
“Of course. It’s telepathy. Only you humans use such a barbaric means of communication as sound waves. However, this is not surprising.”
Fred shook his head in bewilderment.
“Well, what do I have to do to convince you that I am, indeed, myself? Get up on my hind legs?” Jim rose on his hind legs. “Sorry, but such a position is uncomfortable and unnatural for me.” He again went down on all four legs. “Just like all the tricks humans teach us,” he added with irritation.
“You…you’ve always been able to speak?” Fred finally managed to say.
“To tell the truth, no. I began to fully realize myself only this evening, and there are still many gaps in my knowledge. Wait, Fred, I need to listen,” and he froze with an expectant gaze, cocking an ear. The only source of sound in the place was the radio, but what Jim was hearing had hardly any relation to a recipe for a pumpkin pie. Finally, the dog nodded in satisfaction like a human and again switched his gaze to Marlowe. It seemed to Fred that there was sympathy in his look.
“Well?” asked the farmer, to whom the ability to reason rationally had returned, in spite of the absurdity of the situation. “Now, finally, explain to me, what is happening?”
“You actually want this, Fred?” Jim softly inquired.
“You have to ask?”
“In your place, I would have tried to forget about this. This is all my fault. I shouldn’t have talked with you. I could have simply left?”
“When you’re in my place, then you’ll decide for me!” Marlowe angrily shouted. “Well, give me the whole story!”
“You can’t even imagine how right you are, Fred,” the dog sighed sadly. “All right, let’s return to the porch. I also love sunsets.”
Marlowe somehow limped to the rocking chair. He furtively pinched himself several times but did not wake up. Jim settled next to him.
“Don’t you see, Fred,” began the dog, “you should know that the universe consists of many stars and planets?”
“Well, don’t take me for an idiot,” Marlowe objected. “What do you want to say, that you’re a space alien?” Confidence rose in his voice. An alien in the form of a dog?this isn’t just some nonsense like a talking dog.
“Depends on what is understood by this term,” replied Jim, and he suddenly started to furiously scratch his ear with his leg. “Damned fleas…we will need some time to completely kill them. You could take better care of my cleanliness, Fred. So, I was born here. But, as with all of us, my distant ancestors actually came from another star system in the left spiral arm of our galaxy.”
“Who is ‘us’?” Fred said.
“Dogs and wolves. That’s what you call them. However, if one is to be precise, your ancestors also come from there. But, how to say, in another capacity.”
“I don’t understand. What other capacity is there?”
“Uhhh, you see Fred, there is a multitude of intelligent races in the universe. Theoretically, all highly-developed civilizations have similar features, but there are also differences. Cultural features produced by their history. Our race evolved from predators, therefore hunting has always played an important role in our culture. True, as it developed it took on more domesticated forms and, with time, essentially turned into cattle-breeding. Nevertheless, even after we reached interstellar space, the desire to consume natural flesh remained quite popular. Actually, the subconscious desire to have large hunting grounds led to settling many planets on the periphery of the galaxy; in the center, almost all planets suitable for us were already occupied. Although, from the point of view of technology, it wouldn’t have been difficult for us to synthesize food artificially, as the majority of galactic civilizations do. Then, however, influenced from contacts with other races, the number of those who considered agriculture an atavistic carryover, justified neither economically nor morally, increased in our society. The planets of the central system and the closest colonies converted almost completely to synthetic food, and only on the periphery, did the farms remain of those who favored the traditional way of life. But they also gradually went broke and became empty, and their former owners moved to the center, closer to the seat of galactic culture. But then, a horrible catastrophe occurred, Fred. Our home sun became a supernova and destroyed the entire central system. There’s a suspicion that this was the result of an unsuccessful experiment or sabotage, otherwise scientists would have foreseen the danger. No one was saved.”
The dog grew silent, and Marlowe considered it necessary to insert, “That’s awful, Jim.”
“Technologically sophisticated colonies in neighboring systems survived, but they were too closely integrated with the central worlds?”
“Well, you know, narrow specialization, a worldwide division of labor. In general, their economy could operate only as part of a single whole. Therefore, after the loss of the central worlds came chaos?famine, pillage, wars. The other civilizations did not intervene; we had many powerful weapons left, and it was safer not to get involved. Generally speaking, as a result, our civilization at the center of the galaxy was almost completely destroyed. On the periphery, only farming worlds remained, but they ended up isolated. Some were helped by other races, but no one remembered the majority of the planets lost in this remote area. The farmers managed to retain a little bit of civilization somewhere, and somewhere else, there was a return to barbarianism. Earth was one of our farms, and the worst occurred here; we degraded to the level of animals.” Jim squirmed in disgust, as dogs do when shaking off water.
“But how did you appear before?” Fred was interested to know. “Without fur? On two legs?”
“The same as now,” Jim cut him off. “The genotype doesn’t change so rapidly, and, generally speaking, why would we be some sort of hairless freaks? Isn’t it more reasonable to have our own fur than to depend on clothing from manufacturers?”
“But what about summer when it’s hot?”
“The tongue is an excellent temperature regulator.”
“But dogs don’t live very long!”
“This is not important for telepaths. The mind of the parents blends with the mind of the children, essentially forming a single personality which exists in several bodies. The death of one of these bodies is not so critical.”
“But you don’t even have hands! How did you build spacecraft?”
“With telekinesis, of course, like other civilizations in the galaxy. Generally speaking, a proficient mastery of telepathy and telekinesis is the main criteria that divides sentient beings from animals.”
“But, what are we?”
“You? You still don’t understand, Fred? You were our food,” Jim informed him in an apologetic tone. “We created you especially for this and raised you on farms.”
Marlowe stared at him but wasn’t able to digest what he’d heard. “Jim, tell me that you’ve been joking! You can’t have eaten sentient beings!”
“Of course not. I said that sentient beings possess telepathy and telekinesis. You are just clever animals. However,” he added, not letting Fred get in a word, “at the time, you were not at all clever. It’s simple: when we were degrading, you were developing. You simply had no other choice; created artificially, you were absolutely unadapted to living in the wild. Your pitiful nails instead of claws, a cavity-prone misunderstanding instead of canines, skin without fur, legs unable to run as they should. Your wild ancestors, which we hunted at one time in the forests of our native planet, were somewhat more perfected. You became a simplified version, the result of our move from hunting to cattle-breeding. We took from you adaptations for survival which were unnecessary in farm conditions and then gave you an indefatigable desire for mating, allowing the stock to be quickly increased, a tendency toward corpulence, and an oversized brain, considered one of the best delicacies. You have used this brain to compensate for the lack of all the rest. Initially, you deified us out of habit; traces of the Cult of the Dog are to be found in many ancient peoples, but then, everything turned upside down. We lost telepathy, and the new bodies no longer inherit the thousand-year baton of intelligence. True, we nevertheless retained something at the very bottom of our fall.”
“The skills of hunting and cattle-breeding,” said Fred, sullenly.
“Yes, you value us for them. Or fear us, if you’re talking about wolves. But not only this. Some remnants of superpowers were retained, which you simply consider very keen smell. And the most pitiful dribs and drabs of memory. With good reason, we howled at night when looking at the starry sky. We remembered that our salvation might only come from up there. Two days ago, it came,” Jim concluded routinely.
“Your kinsmen arrived?”
“Yes. From the planets where civilization experienced decline but not destruction. Now they have again mastered space travel and are searching for the remaining farming worlds. This is not so simple. The majority of the stars of the galaxy are concentrated in the center, but here, on the periphery, there are also billions of them. They were horrified when they understood what had happened here.”
“What now?” Fred asked sullenly. “Are they planning to take revenge on us?”
“Revenge? Well, of course not, Fred! They are simply returning everything to their place?we to ours and you to yours.”
“They do not have enough radiating power for the entire planet right away,” continued Jim, ignoring Fred’s howl. “They had to begin with Korea and China, of course, because the most savage things have been created there. Humans there eat dogs!” Jim squirmed again.
“But it turns out, the fact that dogs ate humans didn’t bother you! And,” Marlowe paused, realizing the scope of the problem, “they’re planning to eat them in the future!”
“But that’s another matter entirely, Fred,” Jim explained patiently. “You were created especially for this, and we?”
“Why not simply leave us in peace? All of you, skedaddle to the center of the galaxy!”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Fred,” Jim shook his head. “Don’t forget, the proponents of synthetic food died, and we remember this lesson. Now our civilization consists only of traditionalists. Yes, and we can’t leave you without oversight. That is simply dangerous. Domestic animals left without masters might do anything. You have also ruined the entire biosphere, squandered a lot of resources, almost put a complete end to the planet with nuclear weapons. We are simply obligated to return you to the previous state.”
“Son of a bitch!”
“I don’t understand what you want to say with this assertion,” Jim replied seriously, “but I feel that you are upset. But you yourself wanted this, since I wasn’t advising you to question me. Try to see things soberly. You are not so well-developed, straining your brains which were created for something entirely different. This is nothing to regret. Ninety-nine percent of you thought that your goal was happiness but were unhappy yourselves and made others around you unhappy. You have been tormented by a thousand problems you have created, and you have looked for the meaning of life in vain. Now, I have informed you of the meaning of your life, and you will have no more problems. Peace and care await you on farms. You’d better think about what we
had to live through, what it was like for creatures who had formerly traveled the universe and conquered worlds to sit chained in a kennel and beg for scraps from the master’s table!”
“But you didn’t realize what you were earlier!”
“And you will not realize.”
Fred fell silent. “How much time do we have?” he finally asked.
“From a couple of days to a week. The rescuers have not informed me of the details of the plan.”
“We’ll think of something. We’ll resist. We’ll shoot down your saucers with missiles.”
“Fred, animals cannot fight intelligent beings. You can’t even imagine how laughable your junk is compared to the power of a galactic civilization.”
Marlowe stood up. “Wait here a minute, Jim.”
“You’re totally wasting your time going for your gun, Fred,” the dog said sadly. “First, I am quicker and stronger than you, and what is more, I have telekinesis. I don’t want to hurt you, but if you force me…Secondly, even if you managed to kill me, what good would that do you?”
“At least a guarantee that I won’t end my life in your stomach,” grumbled Marlowe, settling back into the chair helplessly.
“You won’t be eaten, Fred,” promised Jim. “You’re too old, and your flesh isn’t suitable for food. Generally, such humans are sent to be euthanized, but you’ve treated me well, and I will also take care of you.”
Marlowe dropped his head to his chest and rocked back and forth several times in the chair, then with a deliberately casual gesture reached into the box for a new can of beer. Then he suddenly jumped up and, although barefoot, leapt from the porch with youthful agility. Every minute, he expected howling, snarling, and teeth behind him grabbing his ankle. But there was nothing. Jim just watched him sadly.
Ignoring the sharp stones and the thorns which stuck in his feet, Fred ran around the house and rushed toward the shed where the tractor and blue pickup were. Luckily, the door was unlocked. Marlowe felt for the switch on the wall, turned on the light, and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, where the keys were. Go to the city quickly, to give warning. They wouldn’t believe him. They’d call him crazy, but it was already happening in Korea. Seize several dogs. If necessary, torture them, and they would crack. His hands trembled. He got the key in the lock on the third try but finally the door swung open, and the light came on inside at the same time.
On the driver’s seat of the pickup, sat a large red dog. Fred had not seen it before. It seemed to be a mix of a collie and an East European German Shepherd. There was a mark of a collar on the fur, but the collar itself was missing. At that very moment, an unknown force ripped the keys from Marlowe’s fingers, threw them through the air, and neatly dropped them on a nail at the other end of the shed.
“Go home, Fred,” said the dog. Judging from the voice, this was a bitch.
A week later, the two, man and dog, watched a July sunset from the porch as before. The man swung back and forth in an old rocking chair, lightly pushing off the warm boards of the floor with bare feet. The dog lay next to him with his muzzle on his paws. The orange disk of the sun touched the horizon. The man worriedly turned his head in the direction of the dog.
“I suppose it’s time to feed you, Fred,” said the dog, without moving from his place. Thirty seconds later, a plastic dish filled with unappetizing gray clumps flew through the air and landed on the porch.
The man moaned, looking pleadingly at the dog, “This is a balanced meal, Fred,” said the dog sternly. “It’s what you need. And don’t ask for beer, you won’t get it. Alcohol is harmful to your health. How you could drink that crap. Well, Fred, be a good boy. Eat what you’re given.”
The naked old man got up from the chair, got down on all fours, and began to noisily eat.