We were in my office. The old dog lay in Simon’s lap. “She’s been with me twenty years,” he said. “Seems like forever.”

He had been bringing her to my clinic for three years. “You got her while you were still in the Corps?”

He nodded. “I was assigned recruiting duty on Napoli. A little boy came in with a box of pups. She jumped out. I caught her.” Simon looked up. A faint yellow light glittered in the lenses of his optics. “Do you believe animals choose their owners?”

I smiled. “There’s no scientific evidence for that — but I think it happens. Especially with dogs.”

“Right.” He stroked the sleeping dog. “She’s some kind of terrier. A mix, I suppose.”

We had discussed Col’s antecedents before, during other office visits. But I didn’t hurry him. He needed the time.

“She saved my life,” murmured Simon.

Here was something new. “Saved your life, how?”

For a long time he just sat there, Col quiet in his lap. Finally, he sighed and began to talk.

“She was ten when I was — when I was wounded.” He emitted a curious kind of laugh. “When I was killed, really. My tank was hit. Burned. You know how androids are made.”

I knew what he meant. In my youth, before veterinary school, I spent several years as a medic in an Imperial Marine regiment. One of my jobs was to record the brain patterns of Marines too badly wounded for regenerative therapy. The bulky neural network modules were then shipped to special labs where the patterns were transferred into blank android pseudo-brains. Artificial inputs stabilized the recorded psyches prior to the mating of pseudo-brain and mechanical body. At least, that was the theory. I never heard an android discuss what happened between organic death and mechanical rebirth.

The dog shifted slightly and moaned. Simon touched her gently. His lower arms were bare, clear plastic sheaths packed with tubes, wiring and steel rods. I wondered why he kept the plain military body, especially the head, adorned with nothing more than a speaker grille, a pair of mobile lenses, and audio pickups on either side. The speaker grille had an orifice on one side. Simon smoked cigars.

One hand cradled Col’s head. The gray qua-skin that sheathed his hands was more than a covering for the complicated machinery within. The skin was lined with sensory pickups, analogs to organic senses. The dog moaned again. Simon stroked her shoulder.

He spoke without looking up. “Is she in pain?”

“Maybe a little. There’s bound to be some discomfort. Her internal systems are failing.”

“Have I waited too long?”

The old question. Every pet owner who cares for their companion agonizes over the ending of that precious life. “Simon. We discussed this. You’re here because it’s time.”

“I know. I just…” He shifted the dog slightly and looked up. His optics were dark. “She knew me. When a friend brought her to the rehab facility. She knew me.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant. “You mean after they made you into a droid?”

“Yes.” He paused a moment. “It seemed impossible. I was all metal and plastic — not wearing any of my old clothes — not at the clinic. I hadn’t been smoking my usual cigars. Didn’t have the smoking rig yet. That came later. But she knew it was me.”

“Maybe it was your voice. They go to great lengths to reproduce your normal — your organic speaking voice. She must have recognized it.”

He shook his head and made a stiff, shrugging motion. “I don’t know. But they let me keep her there. Without her I — I wouldn’t have made it.”

“I understand.” Two in ten new androids do not survive beyond a month. Col had obviously been an important reason Simon lived through that initial period of adjustment. In the years since, she must have provided an important anchor for his life, his existence.

He seemed to have nothing more to say. Col slept. I got up and opened the door into an adjoining exam room.

“When you’re ready, Simon. I’ll prepare the medications.” He nodded, but said nothing.

The drugs are a mild sedative to ensure that the animal remains calm, followed by a quick-acting toxin. My hands automatically performed their simple tasks. I breathed deeply and worked to quiet my mind. Even after twenty years of helping animals find an easy death, I find the process upsetting.

Simon came in slowly, cradling Col. He handed me a small, ragged blanket. I spread it on the exam table. People bring blankets, pillows, small toys — things familiar to the animal, familiar to the person. Somehow they are a comfort.

Col awoke and stirred a little as he eased her down on the blanket. She nudged his hand and licked it once, as if sensing his anguish. I wondered how she knew. What could Col be sensing from an android? Then I realized that I too was aware of Simon’s grief — perhaps from the set of his shoulders, the way he touched the dog. She had lived with him for two decades, man and droid. How much more sensitive would she be to his moods than I, a relative stranger?

Col, the product of 20,000 years of canine contact with humans, clearly sensed the sadness of the man within the metal and plastic.

She relaxed on the blanket and closed her eyes. She seemed tired. I frequently get that sense of fatigue from old animals when I am about to end their lives.

The process took but a moment. Simon’s hands were touching Col as she went away.

Most people need a few minutes alone with their departed friend. As I closed the door, Simon bent over the small dog, metal shoulders shaking. Strangled sobs escaped his steel speaker grille.

He wept, but the only tears were my own.

JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.

This story was sponsored by
Naked Metamorphosis — All the world’s a stage… and Franz Kafka wants to direct. An absurdist’s version of Hamlet complete with heretofore unexplored heights of depravity, cockroach transformation, Shakespearean bawdiness, and split infinitives!

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