Dog in the Machine


 
The old scientist sat within a brief circle of light, intent on the metal confection in his hands, and his dog lay at his feet. Darkness swallowed the warehouse around them, but the two creatures, the man and the dog, did not need to see the machines that filled the space. The man had built them, and the dog had watched. The clink of metal against metal echoed through the cityscape of metal, bouncing back from the high ceiling and the farthest concrete wall, a football field away. Sometimes the man forgot. But he had the dog to remind him.
   
Now the man pushed back from the table with thick and steady hands, brushed the shaggy white hair back from his face, and scooped a number of devices in the cradle of his arms. The dog perked up her ears.

“Walk?” she said. “Walk, King? Time to walk? Now?”
   
"That’s it, Queenie. Walk.”

Queenie jumped to her feet and wagged her bushy caramel tail. With her forepaw, she patted the man on the knee. “Good boy,” she said. “Good boy, King.” They set off into the darkness, passing between two metal cubes the size of garden sheds, and into the heart of the machine. The lights came on wherever the man stepped and winked out as he passed. The dog bounded ahead and dashed back again. The man moved slowly, like a sleepwalker, touching the tubes and plates.

The dog jogged back again, and this time the man perked up, smiled and marched with Queenie matching his stride until they stopped in front of a hard bubble set into the wall. Under the plastic, a single red button beckoned.

"The button,” Queenie said.

King’s fingers twitched, but he turned and moved on. “Come on, girl.”

The dog stood up on two legs, with her front paws braced against the wall and her nose almost touching the console. “Can we push it, King? Can we push the button?”

“Not now.”

“When?”

“Soon.”

“In seconds minutes hours days weeks months years?”

“In one day, I think.” He walked on.

The dog sat back on her haunches, scratched behind her floppy ear. “Oh.” She took a few steps and then looked back. “Is it a day yet?”

“A day is after I install these couplings and transformers, we will sleep. When we wake up, there will be breakfast, then lunch, then dinner, and then after dinner, and that will be one day.”

“Breakfast, lunch, dinner,” the dog repeated. “Not now.” She took a last glance at the button, hung her head, and padded after her master, her claws clicking on the floor.

When he’d emptied his hands of parts, the dog wagged its tail. “Will we go outside now, King? And then sleep in bed?”

“That’s right, girl.” He scratched her behind the floppy ears and her tail whisked the air. “Good girl,” he told her. “You’re a good girl.” She trotted back through the darkness and waited for him at the door, but he stopped at his workbench and scratched his head.

“The couplers. I installed the couplers. What day is this?”

“It’s night.” Her nose pressed up against the reinforced window by the door.

“Is it Friday? Am I on schedule? I’m late for something, aren’t I?”

Queenie scurried back, her claws clicking on the concrete floor. She hopped up onto his chair and clamped her teeth around a desk calendar, transferring only a minimum of doggie spit to the pages. Plucking it from her muzzle with two fingers, he wrinkled his brow, but he called her a good girl. It took a few minutes for him to examine the page, and then he set it down again. Queenie scampered back to the door.

“I can push the button,” she said. “Can I push the button? Can I push the button?”

“You can push this button, now,” he told her.

“Just this button. Just now,” she said, clawing up on the air vent to stand on her hind legs. “Not the big button. Not now. That button we can push later. The door button we can push. Let’s push it now!” She tapped at the panel beside the door and it slid open. Queenie scampered outside.

They walked twice around the square warehouse, and he let the dog push the button again to let them in. Then he set the security code and they went to bed.

Queenie fell asleep immediately at the foot of the bed, without even turning around once. Once in the night, the scientist moaned so loudly that she woke up. He rolled to the foot of the bed and laid his head beside her. He put his arm around her, petted the soft fur. She licked his nose, and said, “Good boy, King.”

“Good girl, Queenie,” he told her. Then he slept.

In the morning, he brewed his coffee and fed Queenie in the alcove kitchen. She wolfed down her food, then looked up at him with her brow arched, a pathetic puppy-face on a twelve-year-old dog.

“Can I have coffee?” she asked.

“No.”

“Can I have eggs?”

“Maybe.”

“Can I have vitamins?”

“Yes.” He found the bag of nutritional biscuits in the little closet, fished the last one out, dropped it to the floor, and tossed the box in the instant composter.

Queenie gobbled it down. “There are no more vitamins in the box,” she said, sniffing the side of the composter. “Buy more vitamins, King, please, so we have vitamins later.”

“We won’t need them later,” he said

“Why?”

“We won’t be here later.”

“We’re going! We’re going!” Queenie scrabbled up his pant leg to stand on her hind legs and nuzzle his belly. “In the car?”

But he smoothed his hands over her silky ears and down the side of her head. “We’ll see.” He ate some food out of a box. Queenie lay at his feet and watched to see if he would let any crumbs fall to the floor. When none were forthcoming, she jumped up.

“Walk! Walk!” she howled in her dogsong. He took her around the warehouse once. “Time to work!” she announced when he’d let her push the button to come back in.

He nodded and returned to his desk. Queenie amused herself, racing around the machines and then back to him, over and over. In the late morning, they took another walk through the innards of his invention, checking connections and running currents. As they passed the big button, Queenie regarded it with a hungry longing.

“The button! The big button!” She spoke like a worshipper anticipating the bodily arrival of her god. “Let’s push this button!”

“It’s not time yet,” he reminded her.

“When is it time?”

“Later.” And he hustled her away from the console.

When he started tapping codes into one keypad, she sniffed the machine. “What’s this machine for?” She’d asked that question a million times, most likely. This machine did many things. Sometimes he told her the whole story. Sometimes he told her little pieces. Sometimes he ignored her.

“This component will eradicate satellite signals, network connections, and computer servers across hundreds of different intelligence and defense agencies in three dozen countries, effectively disabling communication among government personnel and preventing chain of command orders being passed.”

The dog whimpered, stretched out on the floor, and covered her eyes with her paws.

“They won’t be able to talk to each other or their machines through their computers,” he amended.

Queenie’s ears flicked up. “They will have to talk through their mouth like me.”

He shook his head and finished entering in the test codes. They moved on to the next stack of metal and wires. “What is this machine?” the dog asked.

“This component targets known caches of weapons-grade uranium and other radioactive materials at a subatomic level and transforms them into an inert substance.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It will break their weapons so they can’t hurt people anymore.”

“Hurting is bad.” She wandered around another object. “What is this machine?”

“That’s a synchronizer. And the thing next to it is a relay.”

By afternoon, they reached the far end of the warehouse. Then they marched back through the monolithic maze and the lights snapped off behind him as Queenie darted ahead. She waited for him at the button, and he found her sitting in the vestibule looking up at him with a long-jawed canine smile and expectant eyes.

“Soon,” she said.

“That’s right, girl. Soon.”

She trotted on ahead, and the darkness crept up behind them until they came to the single circle. Except for the computer, he had cleared everything off his desk.

The scientist eased his body into the chair and pulled it closer to the desk. The dog curled around his feet. He began running tests, his eyes alert, his back only slightly curved. The results pleased him and he smiled.

“Why build a machine, King?” Queenie asked that evening, and he looked down from the screen for the first time in hours.

“Why?”

“Why?” she repeated. “I know the machine will do many things. The machine will stop some things far away, it will break some things far away, it will change some things far away. Your enemies will be mad. Am I right, King?”

“You understand.”

“I understand. But why? Instead, I would invent a flying car. A flying car would be fun. We could chase ducks. This machine isn’t fun for anyone, so, why?”

He watched the numbers flashing on the monitor but didn’t really see them. “I have made many mistakes,” he told the dog, “I have done many bad things, and I feel bad that I did them, and this machine will fix my mistakes. It will fix many people’s mistakes. It will make the world better. Only bad people will be mad.”

Queenie patted his knee with her paw. “Then it is a good machine. And you are a good boy.”

“I think I am, at last,” he said.

Queenie paced around the desk and he told her she could press the door button and go outside and press the button when she wanted to come in again. She jumped up, but returned a few minutes later. She lay at his feet, occasionally peeping up at him. He nodded at his computer monitor.

Around midnight, someone knocked on the door.

“The door, King, the door!” She jumped up and wagged her tail. She wanted to bark, but he had trained her well. “Someone is here. We must push the door button.”

“Sit down, Queenie.”

The knocking came a little bit louder and he restrained Queenie with one hand. The numbers ran down on his screen.

“Dr. Kingman, we’d like to have a word with you,” a muffled voice said. Someone pounded the door. “Dr. Kingman, we know you are in there, and we are prepared to break this door down.”

He said nothing and the banging got louder.

A resonant crash startled the dog, whose ears lay flat back on her head, but King just nodded. The numbers on his screen stopped moving. Dozens of armed military police ran into the room. They didn’t need to break the door. He hadn’t reset the security code.

“Queenie,” he said as they advanced with their guns, “it’s time to push the button. The big button on the machine, Queenie. You can go push it now.” He spoke in a low voice, and she jumped up and dashed into the darkness.

“Stop that dog,” someone barked, but Queenie didn’t weigh enough to trigger the lights, and their ears weren’t sharp enough. They didn’t know the labyrinth like she did.

He let them put the cuffs on him and listened to the dog’s claws clicking against the floor and echoing with each bound until they came to rest in the very center of the sleeping juggernaut. He pictured her hopping up on two legs, nudging the plastic cover aside with her noise, and he envisioned the red cylinder sinking down into the console under the happy pressure of the dog’s paw.

The machine began to roar.