Roxy


 
There's a full moon tonight, and the patch of light that falls through the window onto the carpet has moved half-way across the floor as I watch, unable to sleep. I am thinking about tomorrow, and all the things that will be lost, gone like forgotten bones buried in the dark, sweet earth.

Once, I was useful. Once, I had a career.

And I think back to where it all started--in the kennels behind the Precinct, where I first met Teva.


Her hands are gentle, but they are strong hands that lift me from the ground .

"We're going to be partners, you and I, Roxy," she says, her blue eyes looking directly into my brown ones. And I listen, not struggling nor squirming.

After a year and a half learning basics like tracking and drug detection and how to subdue an assailant, I am entered into the Enhanced Canine Corps. And my world changes.

It is 2035, and Human-Artificial Intelligence linkages have been perfected. Now, quietly, an experiment is about to begin to develop canine partners for special operations police officers.

At our precinct, the six of us new canine candidates are given limited exposure to the AI connection through skull caps. With their metal surface and their webbing of wires, the caps are uncomfortable and feel heavy at first. And when I make the AI linkage, I am frightened. The swirling bombardment of words and ideas and images makes me feel as if I've fallen into a deep, cold river and been grabbed by the current, slipping under the surface every now and then.

The breaks between the sessions are like hitting calm waters, and these breaks come just often enough for me to catch my breath. Gradually, I spend more time in the AI linkage and less time in the restoring breaks, until I am a confident swimmer in the AI current. Until I finally master the river of images.

Two of the canine candidates, a Blue Heeler and another Border Collie, can't handle this trek into unknown territory. The rest of us persevere, and are rewarded with permanent AI implants.

We don't all handle this step well, either. Morley becomes violent. He comes within a whisker of biting me, his sister! Sasha, a Shepherd, won't get out of her bed after her implant. In both cases, the implants are withdrawn.

That leaves Fitzy and me.


A week after each of us receive our permanent implants, I see Fitzy swagger past, his bushy tail held high. He's a fine specimen of a German Shepherd, healthy and strong. His face is almost pure black. This gives him a sinister expression which is softened slightly by his deep brown eyes with their keen spark of intelligence.

"I'll be back," he says in a growly voice. I just stare at him as if seeing him for the first time.

"Back from where?"

"Don't you watch movies with your human? That's a line from one of the classics," he replies, holding his ears at a haughty angle.

"I've been listening to poetry podcasts with my master," I confess. "I like the rhythm. The way the words flow together."

Just for a moment, there's this expression on Fitzy's face. It's the same expression Morley got one time, when he ate grass and got a blade of it stuck halfway down his gullet.

"Isn't that just like a Border Collie," he sneers. Then he snorts and walks away.

 The truth is, I like thinking about the poems I hear. I love the old stuff, like Frost and Hopkins and Service. Who cares what Fitzy thinks, I tell myself. Besides, he's meant to be the Storm Trooper type. Me, I'm born to be a thinker. I make a face at his retreating back.


As time goes by, I learn my job. I get along well with most of the officers, with the exception of Nixen. I suppose it's my fault, for showing off.

Just after we learn drug detection, I sniff some prescription painkillers -- lots of them -- in Nixen's desk. I signal as we walk by, as I've been taught to, figuring this is another test. When I see the expression on his face, I realize I am mistaken.

"Get that damn dog away from me," he snarls, in a tone of voice that makes my hackles rise. "And keep her away."

On the other hand, Fitzy and I gradually warm toward each other. Whenever he sees me, he gives me the same greeting, "I'll be back,"  though I never do figure out why he thinks that's such a big deal. We all come back, don't we, to report for work?

I like Fitzy's master, too. His name is Luc, and his family hails originally from New Brunswick. His Micmac heritage shows in his black hair and a skin tone that constantly looks like he has a good tan. He has a sense of humor as sharp as old cheese, and he clearly loves Fitzy. The feeling is mutual -- you can tell Fitzy adores him by the goofy look on his face whenever Luc is around.


Summers pass with their cricket calls at night, and the autumn brings its fallen-leaf smell. Then there's winter and long naps by the fireplace, and springtime, bursting with new life and fresh scents.

As the years cycle past, Teva and I continue our daily routine. We go for a walk, first thing in the morning. She gets dressed and puts on her uniform and does a bunch of other stuff that I don't pay attention to because I have my muzzle buried in my food bowl.

Then we take a quick walk outside again, and stand beside the special vehicle that she drives, that has all the dog handling gear loaded in it. And she asks me, "Well, are you ready to go to work today?"

And I look at her and woof once, and she opens the door for me to jump in.

I sit in the back seat on the passenger side and bark if other cars come too close, to warn them away. It works really well. No one's hit us yet. I have no idea how she manages when she's in the car without me.

Most mornings, she turns on the radio, and if I recognize one of the tunes from her daughter Mia's dance moves video game, I'll bob my head along with the music. Mostly though I look out the window. And write poetry in my head. Haiku, mostly, like the one I wrote a few months ago:

    crisp winter morning
    in the back yard, I'm making
    snow angels with tails

I can't write the poems down, of course, but I remember them. I work hard at it because it's something that sets me apart from other dogs.

I wonder, sometimes, what it's like for the Bouvier next door, who trots along beside her owner, sniffing at lamp posts and grass. With her curly black hair it's hard to see her eyes, so I can't read her expression. Is she bored, or content? I can't tell which.


There's danger in our jobs, of course, but Master and I are safe, for the most part. We find what is lost, restore what has been stolen. We work the streets, and go into classrooms to talk about police work. We do our jobs. And everything seems good, until one day, Fitzy and Luc go out on assignment, and Fitzy comes back to the precinct without Luc. Instead, an officer named Jake is carrying Fitzy's leash.

Fitzy's head is low and his tail is tucked between his legs. I'd never seen him like that.

"You're back," I say trying to mimic the same growly tone he uses when he says his line.

He isn't amused.

"What happened, Fitzy?" I ask.

"I couldn't save him," he says, and that was all I can get out of him. The same thing, over and over again. "I couldn't save him."

So I prick up my ears for the office gossip.

"They knew. Somehow, they knew we were coming.," It's Mick Finn, still wearing his bulletproof vest. "Luc and Fitzy were in the lead, but they never had a chance. Fitzy got one of them, but Gonzo shot Luc and then got away out the back door."

Gonzo. That tells me all I needed to know. Gonzo's a local drug dealer that our precinct had been trying to bust since, forever.

I think with a shiver that I wouldn't want to be Gonzo. He might have gotten away this time, but police have long memories. So do police dogs.


On a beautiful, sunny summer morning about a month after Fitzy's run-in with Gonzo, I'm half asleep under Teva's desk while she catches up on paperwork.

I'm thinking about playing ball with Mia in the back yard last night. The robins were calling from the treetops, and the scent of flowers and shrubs was in the air. It was beautiful. Inspirational. I made exaggerated jumps to catch the ball, and Mia laughed. I think about our game some more and I make up a poem,

    leaping and falling
    the soft summer grass
    cushions my landing

My morning reverie is interrupted by a cheerful voice. It's the Captain.

"Good morning, Teva," she says. I usually would get up to greet the Captain -- she knows how to scratch just right, to get that itchy spot behind my ears -- but I feel lazy this morning. I decide to stay put, and stretch my legs out comfortably.

"Good morning," says Teva, "beautiful day out there."

They exchange a few more pleasantries, then the Captain gets to the point.

"Roxy's coming up to the end of her eighth working year," I hear her say.

"Yes, I realized that. I've been trying not to think about it." I hear Teva pushing her chair back and imagine her turning to look at the Captain. I can detect a note of strain in her voice, a hint of emotion.

"That's the mandatory retirement mark for our canine workers," the Captain continues. There's a pause. Then, in a voice that tries to be reassuring but instead sounds sad, she adds, "We'll have a party for her."

"That would be nice," says Teva in a level tone.

"You know that also means---" the Captain paused, then gathers the necessary steam to carry on. "It means we need to remove the implant."

Usually I can contain my emotions but at those words my head flies up. Lose my AI connection? Become like those other dogs?

"You do?" Teva, putting my thoughts into words, sounds surprised. "You need it for other candidates?"

"No, the technology has advanced far beyond these early prototypes," she says. "It's a precaution. We don't want AI-enhanced dogs out in the public. Too risky, in case they fall into other hands."

I can imagine which hands those would be. The kind of hands attached to the wrists that we put cuffs around.

"How will it be for her, after that?" Now Teva's struggles to master the emotion in her voice are less successful.

The Captain's response, however, conveys patience and understanding.

"We don't know for sure," she admits. "Roxy is one of the first. But the research suggests that the AI connection over the past eight years has likely caused her brain to form new pathways. She won't be what she was, but she won't regress completely to the level of a normal dog."

And I repeat those words in my mind, to be sure to remember. It will be my anchor, my solace, in the coming days. The days of waiting.


It's two days later, and Fitzy and I are with a group of officers, visiting Gonzo at his new location. One last big assignment, for me, before -- well, you know.

We've dropped in unannounced, and not surprisingly, Gonzo doesn't open the door.

When Mike and Sheppard finish using the battering ram to perform that courtesy on Gonzo's behalf, Fitzy and I are the first ones in. There's an array of different scent signatures but we are interested in only one, at first.

Then, we run across a second, unexpected scent. I look at Fitzy, startled. I realize that he isn't surprised. So I lower my head again and in unison we run, silently but quickly, turning right down a hallway, bolting through the TV room, and stopping at the bookshelf.

The scent ends there, but Fitzy detects where a hand reached out to touch a switch behind a set of reference books, and he indicates the spot with his big snout for Jake to find.

We stand aside as Jake figures out the controls and then the bookshelf slides slowly to the left, revealing a warehouse-like room with tables and shelving. On the tables, cardboard boxes and bottles of pills are scattered as though someone tried to do a cleanup in a hurry and ran out of time.

And I see Gonzo, standing in the back corner, holding a handgun. His face is a mask of frustration and rage. And there is a second person, pressed up against the wall as though he wishes he were invisible.

Nixen.

Only he's in street clothes, and that's not a police weapon he's carrying.

Of course. The prescription drugs he's become addicted to. Gonzo must be his supplier. And Gonzo, in turn, must have blackmailed him.

"Put the guns down," Jake snarls at the two men. By now, the rest of our visiting party -- Mike, Sheppard, and Teva -- have arrived and their weapons are pointed squarely at Gonzo and Nixen. "Now!" Jake adds, jerking his gun slightly for emphasis.

Gonzo knows the jig is up, the dance is over, and he puts his handgun down, gingerly, and steps forward. Mike grabs him by the arm, spins him around, and attaches the cuffs.

Nixen isn't going down so easily. He reeks of rage and a tinge of fear. He is a cornered animal, and he's the one caught by surprise this time. He is desperate. And maybe, I realize, recognizing an echo of my own emotion thinking about losing my implant, maybe he doesn't care if he comes out of this in one piece, now that it's come down to this.

And suddenly I know what I have to do. And I also know I will be too late. So as I launch myself into no-man's land between the gun's muzzle and my master, I let out an agonized howl that reverberates through the room.

It startles Nixen for just a split second, and I see the flash of hatred on his face. That split second is long enough.

Because there is someone else in the room who isn't distracted by moody thoughts. Someone who came in with a single, unwavering intent. Fitzy. He's three strides ahead of me and already in the air. His teeth are reaching for Nixen's arm.

There is the sound of a gunshot, and of a bullet tearing into a body, and there are other gunshots and Nixen falls to the floor, with a red hole in his forehead and blood emerging from other spots in his torso.

But another has fallen to the floor, too, and I am the first one to reach him. I flick out my tongue and lick Fitzy's muzzle, but he is already gone. This time, he won't be back. And as I look at him I see the glint of teeth. His face is frozen in a smile.

Oh, Fitzy, I think.

He has avenged his master.

He has saved my life.

And in so doing, he has kept me on a collision course with a fate I dread worse than anything.


And so I am lying on the living room floor, and watching the moonlight's slow passage. I have not been delivered from tomorrow's ordeal, the removal of my AI linkage.

In the eight years since receiving the permanent implant, I have seen the world more sharply, more clearly. Have felt more deeply. And this makes what will happen tomorrow seem more cruel. More frightening.

The night air carries the distant who-cooks-for-you call of a barred owl, and I shiver.

I realize I am cold, and lonely, and stiff.

I slink into Mia's room, and hear deep breathing that sounds like it has a catch to it. As though Mia has been crying. I circle and circle, three times, then I curl up on the carpet beside the bed, where I finally, finally fall asleep.


The next day, in the car, I am quiet. I don't bob my head to the music, even though I recognize some of it. All the way, I think about the things I will miss.

We pass the Bouvier and her owner; instead of sneering, I try to imagine how it will be, to be like her. To be more like her, I correct myself, hoping that the Captain is right about that. That my descent will not be all the way down.

Oh, how fervently I hope she is right! That I won't be reduced to knowing a few simple things like "bed" and "car" and "dish" and "ball" -- Dick and Jane stuff that Mia mastered in the early grades.

And then, suddenly, the time has arrived. I am on the cold table in the operating room. It's the same table that I was on eight years ago, when I first received the permanent AI device. Which, come to think of it, seems less permanent now.

I think about the fears swirling through my mind and make up a poem:

    autumn approaching--
    the beautiful words
    falling like leaves

Then I am slipping, slipping under, as if someone has grabbed me by my hind legs, pulling me backwards into the unknown. Into unconsciousness. Into darkness.


It is morning, and Teva, wearing her work uniform, is taking me for a walk.

When we get back to the house she pauses in the driveway, long enough to make me hope we might be going for a car ride. I like car rides. I swing my tail from side to side and look at her face, puzzled to see a tear rolling down her cheek.  

We resume our journey to the house, and she leads me through the front door and into the slate entryway, unsnaps my leash, and blinks rapidly, turning away. A few seconds later, she faces me, bends down and pats my head, and says, "Be a good girl. I'll see you tonight."

I watch the door close behind her, then walk into the living room and lower myself to the floor, thinking I might close my eyes and have a nap.

After several minutes have passed, Mia comes into the room. "Hey, Roxy," she says in a strained voice. "Want to play?"

We go out to the back yard, and Mia throws the tennis ball, and I spin and jump and chase it and bring it back. As Mia draws back her arm for another throw, I see tears in her eyes. My ears droop as I look up at her. I wonder what is making everyone so sad, this morning. Have I done something wrong?

Mia drops the ball and falls to one knee, wrapping her arms around me and drawing me close. I cuddle in for a moment, then stretch my muzzle toward her face and kiss her gently on the cheek, trying to reassure her that everything will be alright.

Slowly, Mia lets me slide free and she stands up.

Seized by a sudden fit of silliness, I leap around her, giving voice to a high-spirited woof. I lean forward, fake left, and spin off right, inviting her to chase me, and she does, laughing, as I zig-zag around the yard, staying just out of reach.

As I run, I have a dim memory of being worried about something, yesterday, but that memory is like a bone from which the meat is long gone. Today, the sun is warm, the grass is soft, and the breeze is cool as it ruffles my fur. That is joy enough.


If you enjoyed this, you will also enjoy Into the Ring, also by Lisa Timpf.