Couch with a Labrador by Shauna O’Meara

by


couchwithalabrador

COUCH, WITH A LABRADOR

Shauna O’Meara

What Garry didn’t expect, as he affixed the cap of electrodes to the dog’s shaved cranium and took up the ham sandwich from the bench beside him, was for the translation box’s first words to be, “Are you going to eat all of that?”

Garry dropped the sandwich. The dog, a Labrador retriever, surged forward like a golden sea-lion and ate the lot. It then sat primly before him. “Got any more?”

Garry stared at the capped dog and then over at the box. “It works,” he breathed.

The dog tensed, head tilted. The translation box registered the animal’s confusion.

“It’s okay, Kyle,” Garry said.

Kyle backed away from him, hackles lifting from neck to tail. A warning growl floated out that required no machine interpretation.

Garry dropped to his knees. “It’s just me, Kyle. We’re talking.”

Interpreting Garry’s posture, the dog gave a low tail wag, but did not approach. “We haven’t done this before,” the box said.

“No. It’s new. Something I made. It interprets your thoughts for me and my words for you.”

Thanks to the box–Garry had already trademarked the name: Speak-Up–lonely people would now have pets to talk back to them. Veterinary visits would be a breeze. And cat videos on the internet would take on an entirely new dimension. From police and drug detection dogs to therapy cats and race horses, the applications were boundless. The technology just needed more testing.

SciPhiSeperator

It was hard to know what to say. Garry had owned Kyle since he was a pup, but now it seemed like their relationship was starting over from scratch.

He was at home on his couch with the dog by his feet and, though this had been their way for nearly six years, the arrangement seemed wrong somehow. Almost rude. A common language implied a measure of equality. Yet there was his subject on the floor, with his head on Garry’s slipper.

What did one even ask another species? Questions of the universe and philosophy seemed appropriate—this was a form of first contact after all—but somehow those questions seemed way too big for a living room and a creature whose first priority had been his sandwich.

“Sooo … do you mind if I ask you things?”

Kyle lifted his head, the detectors in the cap flaring in the light. “If I can ask things back.”

“Oh. Well, you start then.” If Kyle knew how this conversation should begin, so much the better.

“Where do you go when you get up?”

Garry blinked. “Where? Oh, um, I go to work.” Realising Kyle couldn’t relate to the term, Garry added, “I do things for other people and they give me things for my efforts.” Garry was part of an R-and-D team working on applications for brain mapping technologies. The Speak-Up was a side project.

“Like when I sit and you give me Schmackos.”

Garry grinned. “That’s not far wrong.”

“You are away a long time. You must get a lot of Schmackos. You don’t share that many.”

“They don’t reward me with Schmackos.” Garry dug through his wallet and brought out a twenty-dollar bill. “They pay me in this. It’s called money.”

The dog sniffed the note.

“I can swap it for Schmackos and other things, like our house and food and those big bones you like.”

The Labrador seemed to ponder this a moment. “No wonder you hate it when I destroy the money in the go-poo room.”

Go-poo? Garry was confused. Go-poo was Kyle’s command to toilet on the lawn—

“Oh, the toilet paper! No. That’s not money, bud. That’s what I use to wipe my bottom.”

“I use my tongue. You need to get more flexible, Garry.”

Garry laughed, wondering if the dog’s humour was deliberate. The internet had long decided pets had a sense of humour, but the truth was harder to prove.

“I miss you when you’re at work.”

“Me too, bud.” Garry ruffled the dog’s thick fur. “Hopefully the long hours won’t be for much longer.”

If his side project took off, he would have more money than he knew what to do with. He could step back from other projects and focus his efforts on bringing the Speak-Up to market. Just like his friend, Toddy Doherty, had when he’d perfected proprioception on the bionic leg.

Kyle nibbled the underside of his forefoot, his tongue probing between the toes and main pad.

“Hey, that’s something I’ve always wanted to know,” Garry said. “When you lick your feet the vet says it’s because you’re itchy. Is that true?”

“I like the taste of my feet. Particularly after I’ve scratched my ear.”

“Oh.”

“I also like the taste of your socks. They really are as good as they smell.”

“You sniff my socks?”

“Garry, you sniff your socks. I’ve also seen you taste your own nose. So let’s not point paws here.”


SciPhiSeperator

Shaving the scalp of the neighbour’s cat was almost more trouble than it was worth. The lilac burmese turned into a demon of teeth and claws the moment the clippers started and Garry had to swaddle the screeching animal in two blankets.

If he was being honest, there was an element of revenge associated with his choice of second subject. The cat pissed on his lawn each morning, yellowing the grass, and, despite letters ranging from floral to reasoning to outright pleading, the neighbour had done nothing about her.

When the clipping was done, patchy in places but serviceable, Garry took the cat to the lounge room and affixed a smaller version of Kyle’s cap to its head.

The burmese promptly dug her hindclaws into the latex and flicked the cap across the room.

Then it ran under the couch.

Garry reached for it, on hands and knees. The animal hissed and swiped at him. Then it retreated deep into the shadows, emitting a series of pissed-off popping noises.

Garry looked over to see Kyle observing the proceedings through the baby gate he’d erected between the lounge and kitchen. “Don’t look at me like that,” Garry said.

Kyle laid his head on his paws and sighed dramatically. “I can’t believe you’re trying to talk to a cat. Especially that one. She’s mean.”

“Cats are the other main pet … er, animal-friend, people have.”

Kyle had taken exception to the word pet once Garry had explained what it meant. He had also taken to lying on the couch of an evening as befitted his newfound BFF status. He was not impressed about being locked behind the baby gate in case, as Garry had put it, instinct took over.

“Cat owners are going to want to know how their pets think,” Garry continued. “I have to know if the technology works on them.”

Creeping around the side of the couch, Garry lifted it and nabbed the cat in one action. He reaffixed the cap with duct tape.

The burmese struggled with the cap before submitting spectacularly, flopping onto its side as though paralysed. The performance was so convincing, Garry almost believed it was.

His first words into its mind sent it into a fizz of fur, popping and spinning and shredding its way to the top of his curtains. The cat growled long and low, its tail lashing.

Kyle’s expression was withering as he gazed up at the burmese. “Did you expect that to happen? I did.”

“Hey, puss puss,” Garry called softly. He crept toward the cat, trying not to spook it. “It’s okay. It’s okay, Minchin.”

The cat screeched and exploded from the curtain rail to the top of Garry’s display cupboard. Old chess and science fair trophies tumbled to the carpet.

Kyle forgot himself completely. He stood and began barking. “Cat! Cat! Cat!” yapped the Speak-Up box.

“Kyle! Quit it!”

The cat’s ears were flat to its skull as the box protested, in a voice tailored to what Garry thought a cat might sound like as a human, “Take it off! Take it off!”

“Is it hurting?” Garry asked.

The cat’s eyes were great black holes of fear. “This isn’t natural.”

“I told you,” Kyle said. “Cats.”

“It’s okay,” Garry reassured the burmese. “I just want to talk to you.”

The cat slunk to the back of the cupboard, out of sight. “Go away. Go away. Go away,” said the Speak-Up over and over until the words became like a mantra. The audio began to burr and distort–the cat was stress-purring, disrupting the signal.

Go away. Go away. Go away.

Garry disconnected the cat’s signal so he could think.

He imagined himself as a lonely cat lover. This was his beloved cat, Minchin. He’d had her for several years—curled on his pillow at night, rubbing around his legs when he got home, purring and kneading on his lap, (pissing on his lawn). Today was the day he would finally get to hear his best friend speak and—

This.

Go away. Go away. Go away.

It would be devastating.

Garry ran a shaking hand through his fringe. People were convinced their animals loved them; that the relationship was not just opportunistic parasitism—some product of domestication—but actual love.

“Are you okay, Garry?” Kyle was watching him. The Labrador’s tail thudded the kitchen tiles as their eyes met.

“I … I didn’t expect that. I assumed animals would be as keen to speak to us as we are to them.”

“Animals aren’t machines, Garry. We’re all different.”

But how different? Garry wondered. That was the question; the variable that needed defining.

Garry extracted Minchin from the top of the cupboard and relieved the cat of its cap. Before he did so, however, he used the machine to tell Minchin that if she ever came and pissed on his lawn again the cap would return. Her agreement was the one good result of the day.

SciPhiSeperator

Garry tried the technology on several other cats and, each time, the results were similar. The cats either freaked out entirely, or shut down and resorted to purring distortion.

“Maybe you could just use it on dogs,” Kyle suggested.

It was weeks after the Minchin incident. A huge ginger tom with white socks was now straddled atop the curtain rail, so heavy the bar was bowing. Unlike the other cats Garry had tested, however, this one had relaxed the moment it had gained height and was now looking down at him with narrowed copper eyes.

“We need to keep going,” Garry said, wondering when this had become Kyle’s project as much as his own. “We can’t leave cats out of the equation. We just need to find out how to work with them.”

“Work with them? You are hearing yourself, aren’t you?”

“They have to have a common goal with us—”

“That’s where you’re wrong. They don’t have to at all.”

Garry stared at Kyle.

“Ask him what he gets from people,” Kyle suggested. “He probably won’t answer because he’s a cat, but ask him. It won’t be the same thing that people get from him.”

Garry engaged the tomcat’s interpreter. “I don’t want to hurt you puss. I just want to talk.”

The tom’s pupils dilated, but it didn’t bolt. “I don’t like this,” the Speak-Up complained in cat-voice. The tom’s striped tail flicked. ‘Make it stop.”

“A few questions. Then I let you go.”

“A question by itself.”

Garry was surprised. The cat was proposing a number. “How about five questions?” Garry held up his hand. “That’s the toes of one front foot.”

“Number of ears,” the tom countered.

Garry marvelled. The cat lacked the human terms for numbers, but it understood greater and lesser. “The toes of a back foot then,” Garry said, pushing to see whether the animal would complete the anticipated bargaining move.

It did. “The one between,” the cat proposed at last.

Cats mustn’t think in threes, Garry decided. Few things came in threes in their world; they had no reference point. But the tom knew something lay between two and four.

“Done,” Garry said. “Question one. When you live with people, what’s in it for you?”

“I don’t have to hunt,” the cat replied.

“So, food then?”

“The female wants to feed me. She likes it when I eat. If I refuse, she brings me something better.”

“Just food?” Garry asked. “That’s all you get from her?”

“I get to sleep on the couch when she’s away.”

Garry looked at Kyle. “Couches seem to be a common goal,” he commented drily.

“You’ve no idea,” replied Kyle.

“You’re the only cat who’s spoken to me so far,” Garry told the tom. “Why don’t the other cats I meet want to talk? I’d have thought you’d want us to know what you think. Heck, you’d benefit! You could get your own way—”

“That’s an extra question,” the tom replied. “But if you must know, we always make it clear what we think. And we always get our own way. Did you have trouble understanding the other cats you asked?”

“Well, no.” The flattened ears and lashing tails had been signal enough.

“There you go then.” And with that, the big tom lumbered down from the curtain rail and presented its head for cap removal.

SciPhiSeperator

Garry tossed and turned that night, unable to sleep.

When he had first conceived his invention, his assumption had been that pets genuinely liked their owners. That they got the same pleasure from the relationship and that they would want to connect with people.

And while there were no rules saying that pets had to like their owners, it could not be denied that mainstream success of the Speak-Up hinged on a positive outcome. Huge damage could be inflicted to a pet-owner bond if people didn’t like what their animals thought of them.

He went to the kitchen to make himself a camomile. Kyle left the couch and joined him in the darkness. The red light of the kettle gleamed off the dog’s circuitry.

In the early days of the experiment, Garry had removed the electrode cap each night. Lately, Kyle had begun insisting it stay on; that he felt disconnected without his translator.

“What do you think of us?” Garry asked, leaning against the bench top.

“Us?”

People. What do you think of people.”

“I don’t know people,” the Labrador replied. “I sniff people on our walks. I don’t like the man with the slippery table.”

“The man with the slippery—You mean the vet?”

“I don’t like him.”

“Few dogs do.”

“He stuck something up my butt the first time I met him. We didn’t even sniff first!”

“That was to take your temperature.”

There was pause. “My butt heats my body?”

Garry chuckled. “No. They do it because you won’t hold a thermometer under your tongue.” The kettle boiled and clicked off. Garry poured the water into a mug. “Well, what do you think of me then?”

“Sometimes you smell of chicken. And that’s good. But only when you share it.”

“So you like me because I feed you.” Garry thought of the tomcat. Would people really want to know that their pets were only interested in food and board?

“And when you rub my butt. And let me sleep on the couch.”

The couch again. “And that’s all?” Garry asked.

“Pretty simple isn’t it?”

“You’re easy to impress, I guess. That doesn’t say very much for me.” Garry felt deflated. Which was stupid, really. Because Kyle was just a dog.

And his only friend.

Which only went to prove he’d bought into the lie just as much as any spinster who’d ever declared her cat to be the only company she’d ever need.

“I wouldn’t say I’m easy to impress. You don’t have to work very hard because you’re already enough. And that says everything about you, Garry.”

Garry felt his eyes heat with sudden emotion. Now he was being foolish. Overtired; that’s what it was. Overtired and frustrated.

Kyle pressed against his leg with warm weight and he rubbed the Labrador’s velvet-soft ears. The animal let out a contented sigh.

“But what do you actually think of me?” Garry insisted. God! Now he was being needy!

“I’m not sure I get what you mean?”

“Well, I’m a thirty-two year old guy living alone in a rental—”

“You’re not alone. You have me.”

“Yes, but I—” How could he explain to a Labrador that he was supposed to have a house and a wife and kids by now. That success hinged on such things. “Some people would say that I am pathetic because I live alone with my dog.”

“Then they haven’t known the right dog.”

“… Thank you Kyle.” And Garry went to the freezer to find some chicken.

SciPhiSeperator

The cats continued to trouble Garry.

What if Kyle was the outlier and not them?

He moved the trial onto other dogs and, for the most part, found them accepting of the technology. Just as studies had found that the canine species sought eye contact with people, so too did they seek mental connection.

Was gregariousness the key to which species would take to Speak-Up?

SciPhiSeperator

It took some months to map the dimensions and cognitive zones of the equine brain, but when it was done, Garry found himself in the grassy back-paddock of a thoroughbred stud affixing translation apparatus to a quiet, chestnut brood mare.

The sun was going down, drenching the pasture with a warm, mango hue that turned the horse’s coat a rich gold. A warm breeze crossed the land, bringing the homely, biting smell of silage and manure.

The Speak-Up’s first words registered the horse’s pleasure with the apples Garry had brought. Unlike the cats, she was unafraid of Garry’s voice inside her head and he wondered if that was because of her species or if, being a brood mare, she was simply accustomed to people imposing upon her.

“What is your life here like?” Garry asked her.

“We take it a day at a time. Enjoy the grass while it lasts.”

The answer surprised him. “What do you mean by you take it a day at a time?”

“Our time here is uncertain. We are here until we are not. Some days it’s a yearling that’s loaded onto the truck and other days it’s a stallion or a mare that can’t foal. We can’t predict it.”

“Where do you think they go?”

“They die. We don’t see them again, so they must die.”

“Some are sold,” Garry said, hoping to ease the animal’s mind. “The foals and yearlings, certainly. They go to live in other pastures.”

The Speak-Up registered pleasure, but it could have been the apple Garry had just given her.

“Some die,” she insisted.

Garry wondered if this was a coping mechanism. If, by addressing death so directly, the concept lost its power.

“Yes. Some die,” he agreed. “The ones who don’t win, for example.”

“Win?”

“Win. You know … The races, um, the running. You are aware what you’re used for, right?” And he hated the way that came out, as if her species only had value because of gambling.

“I know about the running. I don’t know this wins.”

“Well, the winner is the first horse past the grandstand. The grandstand is where all the people stand.”

“The screaming people.” The mare crunched another apple. “I never knew that the point of the running was to be the lead horse.”

“That’s why the jockey uses a whip. To make you go faster so you’ll be first.”

The mare seemed to shudder at that.

She looked across the gilded paddock to where another mare was grazing with her foal. “Could you please not tell the other horses about this?”

Garry blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“I want my foals to survive. If they know to win, they will survive. It won’t help them if other horses know as well.”

SciPhiSeperator

“That surprised me,” Garry said to Kyle, later that evening. The Labrador was on the couch beside him, chewing a rawhide while Garry ate supper. “I thought she would want all of the horses to know.”

“Why?”

“So they can all benefit by knowing the rules.”

“But they won’t,” Kyle replied. “You said there was only first and dead.”

“That’s my basic understanding. I guess it just surprised me how quickly she decided selfishness was the best course of action.”

“Survival is selfish, Garry.”

SciPhiSeperator

There were thousands of chickens in the shed, all goggling at Garry side-eyed through the wire of their cages. Many were in a terrible state: their combs floppy and their necks balding, sores and calluses on their dough-pale feet. The place was dark and humming with flies, and stalactites of faeces and feathers dangled from the underside of the cages.

Garry covered his mouth with his jumper and breathed through his teeth. His heart thudded in his chest with the step he was about to take.

Following the episode with the mare, Garry had begun to look into the animal industry in earnest. Over the last few weeks, he had read blog after blog after forum after industry report on everything from puppy farms to piggeries to live export. What had rapidly become clear was that, far from his utopian vision of pet owners talking politics with their pets, the technology was actually going to reveal the ugly side of the animal-human relationship. And that would have serious implications for agriculture.

The girl who had snuck him into the shed looked nervous. “Do what you have to so we can go. If we get caught here, you’ll be prosecuted for trespass and I’ll lose my job.”

Garry had met her online: a disgruntled labourer for an egg company. He hadn’t told her what he was studying. Only that he wanted to record the stress levels of caged hens.

The stripped-back apparatus fitted the chicken’s bald head perfectly. The subject rested in the girl’s arms without protest. Its keel was scummy with scabs and it breathed heavily over a swollen abdomen.

The moment Garry switched the Speak-Up on, the fear centres lit up and all the box could repeat was a frenetic scaredscaredscaredscaredscaredscaredscaredscared.

The girl’s jaw dropped and she almost let go of the bird. “What the hell is that?”

Garry ignored her. He tried to soothe the chicken, stroking the stiff, patchy feathers on its back. “Shhhhh. Shhhh. It’s okay.”

The bird didn’t soothe. If anything, touching it made it worse. The terrified animal couldn’t even think straight enough to receive a message.

Garry felt sick. The ammonia fumes weren’t helping. He took the detectors from the chicken’s head and left the shed the way they’d entered.

The girl followed him out. Watched him as he bent double and retched into the weeds.

“Holy shit!” The girl ran grubby fingers through her hair and glanced around furtively. Garry followed her gaze. There was a tractor pulling hay bales in the distance and someone hosing out one of the many rows of sheds, but other than that, they hadn’t been noticed.

Did chicken sheds have surveillance cameras?

“You know that’s going to change everything, don’t you?” the girl hissed.

“You can’t tell anyone,” Garry said, praying the fake details and IP blocker he’d installed on his computer had been enough to obscure his identity. “Not yet.”

The girl raised her eyebrows. “Well, when?”

“When I’ve done more testing.”

The girl scoffed. “Yeah, well. Just remember. Every minute you take testing, animals are going to die.”

SciPhiSeperator

Garry slumped on the couch that evening, the terrified reel of the chicken’s fear playing through his mind. Kyle leapt up beside him and laid his head on Garry’s thigh.

“Hey Kyle,” he said.

The box said nothing, yet the dog’s eyes were on him.

Garry removed the cap and checked the electrodes and circuitry. The cap seemed fine. Then he looked at Kyle. Silky golden fur covered his skull. He was due for another shave.

Garry fetched the clippers and, when the cap was back in place, Kyle said, “You didn’t really need a translator to know I was checking you were all right. When have I ever not pressed away your sadness?”

Garry hugged Kyle close. “Today was really shitty, Kyle.” He told the Labrador about the chickens. “You should have seen the shit and flies in that shed. They couldn’t get out of it.”

Kyle’s eyes were closed and his head was heavy in Garry’s lap. “I don’t like flies. They bite ears. Lots of flies mean lots of bites. You should help them.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“Because they belong to someone else.”

“So ask them to help.”

“They won’t. They’re a company.”

“What’s a company?”

“A big group of people who use animals for their parts.”

“Like prey,” Kyle said. “When Minchin gets a bird.”

“A bit different to prey, buddy. These animals don’t get to run away. They live in horrible conditions until they die.”

“The company doesn’t care?”

“It didn’t look that way to me.”

“So teach them to care. Use the translator. The chickens can tell the company they don’t like being kept like that.”

Garry put his head in his hands and groaned.

Kyle nudged his arm. “Garry?”

“These companies are big, Kyle. Big and mean. And they have Ag Gag laws on their side. They won’t want chicken opinions to get out. I could get into some seriously big trouble with all of this.”

He thought of the girl. She was bound to tell someone.

Had spies from the egg company infiltrated the forums she was on. Did they already know about the Speak-Up? About him? Were they already onto his identity? Who he worked for?

“Bigger trouble than the time I drank from the toilet and licked your open mouth?” Kyle asked.

“Bigger.”

“Bigger than the time I chewed the freezer cord and all the meat went liquid and flooded the kitchen.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Oh. Well that’s pretty big then. You’re going to have think hard on that one.”

“If I recall correctly, you chewed the freezer cord two times after that. Where was your thinking?”

“Oh, I weighed it up, Garry. Chewing the cord was fun and you don’t hit very hard.”

“Yeah, well. The company is going to hit a hell of a lot harder than a rolled-up newspaper, Kyle.”

SciPhiSeperator

The email later that night read: We know about your machine, Garry. It could change everything. Please think of the animals.

Garry lay in a miserable ball beneath his blankets. He had let Kyle onto the bed and the dog was a warm weight across his calves.

The Speak-Up would change everything for animals. It would also decimate many of the animal industries. Put people out of work. Ruin farmers and communities …

He wasn’t sure he had the courage to withstand the hatred and vitriol that would bring. There would be death threats. Doxxing. He would be pursued by hunters, butchers, corporate sociopaths—the very people you didn’t want after you.

He was staring down the barrel of ruining his own life.

SciPhiSeperator

The cow was a magnificent black-and-white creature with a fine-boned head that looked down upon Garry somewhat imperiously. He had sloshed around the muddy pasture after the dairy herd for several hours before this animal had deigned to stop and let him affix the apparatus: a modified version of the electrode detector he’d used on the brood mare.

Like the mare, the cow believed the cattle loaded onto the truck once a month went off to die.

“You know they’re killed?” Garry asked.

The cow tossed her head, causing the apparatus to slide down over one eye. Garry rushed forward to realign it. “Keep your head still or we won’t be able to understand each other.”

She became completely still, great wrinkles of worry between her eyes, and Garry had the sudden impression that she wanted to talk to him very badly.

“Have you ever smelled the trucks?” the cow asked in the deep, resonant voice he had assigned her species.

Garry had passed cattle trucks on the road before. They had the earthy pickled smell of dung and cattle. He had always thought it quite pleasant.

“You can smell their stress?” he asked. He’d read that cats could secrete a pheromone to warn other cats of danger. Rats too. Maybe cattle were similar.

“We can smell their blood.” Her black-brown eyes bored into his. “You’re going to help us, right?”

Garry stared back at her; put on the spot. “I’m sorry?”

“Now people can understand us. You can let us go.”

Garry held up the hand that wasn’t cradling the Speak-Up box. “Whoa! I don’t represent all people. Not by a long shot.”

“But you can help.” The cow began to walk forward in her eagerness to impress upon him the importance of what she was saying. Garry found himself driven backward across the paddock. “Do you know that we only hope for female calves because the males get taken away and we never see them again?”

“No, I did not know that.”

“Do you know that we are terrified of having male and female twins?”

Garry slipped in the mud and struggled to keep his feet as she loomed over him. “No. Why is that?”

“Because they both get taken away. The female doesn’t return to the dairy herd if she has a male twin.”

“That’s horrible!”

“Did you know a giant udder hurts so much it is hard to walk?”

“No.”

“Well, now you know. So you have to let us go.”

An image of hundreds of cows crossing bridges and disrupting traffic flittered through Garry’s mind. “I am not sure we can. There are so many of you. That’s a lot of destruction.”

The cow flicked her head again, but the apparatus remained in place. “Of what? Property?”

Garry felt tiny beneath her gaze. His voice sounded small, even to his own ears, as he said, “There wouldn’t be enough food for you. Most of you would die.”

“We die anyway.”

“Dying by starvation is slow and horrible.”

“But it’s a chance,” she said. “More than we have now. And we’d get to stay with our calves and pick our own bulls—”

He looked at her helplessly. “I can’t!”

“Then what good is it to know what we want when you don’t plan to listen? If you just want to know that we can speak, well, now you know.” She began to turn away.

“Wait!”

The cow stopped.

“What can I do to help that doesn’t mean letting you go?”

She dealt him a baleful look. Then she turned away and, with a flick of her head, hurled the apparatus into the mud.

SciPhiSeperator

“Do you ever think about death, Kyle?”

“What is death?”

“Death is… ” Garry thought for a moment. “Remember when you caught that mouse and crushed it until it wasn’t squeaking anymore?”

“And you chased me with the newspaper because I wouldn’t drop it? That was fun.”

“Not for the mouse though. He never moved again. That’s death.”

Kyle regarded him sombrely. “… What’s brought this on, Garry?”

He told Kyle what the cow had said. “I read up on it. They take the calves away from their mothers when they’re only days old. I never knew that.”

Kyle pondered that awhile before saying, “You’re going to uncover a lot of unpleasant things you didn’t know, when you really start asking questions.”

“I know.”

“I, for example, don’t like the lead.”

Garry chuckled and gave the dog a playful shove. “The lead again!” It was a topic they had been arguing about for weeks. “You always bring it back to you!”

“Yes, but see how it makes you happy.”

“Yeah, you do make me happy, Kyle. But you’re going to have to keep wearing the lead. It’s the law.”

Your law.”

“Yeah, well, our law is the law at present. It’s for your own safety. You know as well as I do that when you get excited you refuse to come when you’re called. Oh, and on top of that, you bail up other dogs. So it’s for their safety too.”

“I don’t see it like that.”

“The woman with the Chihuahua sure did.”

“A Chihuahua isn’t really a dog, Garry.”

“Yes. It is. And you had its head in your mouth.”

“It was fine.”

“The woman was screaming. The screaming should have been a clue to drop it.”

“We didn’t have the machine then, Garry. I didn’t know what she wanted.”

“Well, now you do.”

At that, the cow’s words invaded his mind and he felt his gut twist. If you just want to know that we can speak, well, now you know.

He’d been called out by a cow.

Like Kyle with the Chihuahua, what was his responsibility now that he knew better?

SciPhiSeperator

There were hundreds of emails in his inbox begging him to release the Speak-Up technology so all the lives could be freed.

The emails seldom called the creatures in question animals. They were lives. Souls. Innocents. Victims. Each term a knife-twist of guilt in Garry’s heart.

A few contained threats, wishing upon him the very ills befalling the animals should he decline to help the cause.

One email was very officious looking. It came from his boss.

He’d been called back to the office.

SciPhiSeperator

“Some asshole from the chicken place must have dobbed me in.”

Garry was in tears. His arms were around Kyle and they were rocking back and forth on the couch, the television an empty, black screen in front of them. The impending loss was a sick, churning sensation deep in his gut.

“They’re locking the Speak-Up project down until they can figure out what to do with it.”

A security car from the company was parked outside. Garry’s computer, passport and license were in the back as insurance. He’d have them all back once the Speak-Up and the various animal electrode caps were returned.

After he’d said goodbye to his dog.

He supposed he should be grateful that his boss had allowed him any time with Kyle at all. But it was hard to be appreciative through the pain. Kyle was his only friend; their talks had only strengthened that bond.

“Surely you can do something.”

“I have no choice, Kyle. It’s company property. We’ll just have to buy one when they come out.” Garry tried to keep the shake from his voice. His patent would be purchased and suppressed by the agriculture industry. The Speak-Up would never see the light of day.

He’d had the chance to give animals their voice and he’d blown it. And his punishment was never hearing Kyle’s words again.

“But we won’t be able to talk to each other.”

“No buddy.”

“I’ll just be the dumb dog again.”

“No. No buddy. You won’t ever be that to me.”

Kyle whined then. Long, mournful notes that the Speak-Up registered as weeping, for it was the same part of the brain that had activated.

The sound ripped at Garry. “Oh, Kyle. It’s okay, bud. It’s okay. Shhh. We’ll still be best friends.”

Kyle looked up and Garry saw that there were tears trapped in the deep corners of the dog’s chocolate eyes. “Can we make some agreements then, before I go silent?”

“Sure bud. Name it.”

“When you have lamb, I want the bone. You never give it to me.”

“That’s because it’s a cooked bone, bud. Not to mention that you could clear a building with what sneaks from your butt after lamb.”

“Please. I promise I’ll only eat the meat. Just make sure you leave some on, you greedy bastard.”

Garry laughed and wiped away tears. “Okay. You got it.”

“Two walks a day.”

“Two!”

“Two. I don’t understand the picture box you watch and I live inside. What else is there for me to do?”

“Okay, done.”

“And a fresh squeaky toy whenever my old one dies. That’s the right word, isn’t it? For when it stops squeaking.”

Garry laughed. “Close enough.”

“I want to try walks without the lead.”

“It’s the law, bud. I don’t make them. But I’ll look into off-lead beaches. Just promise me you won’t go grabbing any Chihuahuas.”

As it turned out, Kyle had quite a long list of requests. Everything from fair use of the fridge to paws on the bench to proposed outings. Eventually, though, he fell silent, the box giving off lines of jumbled words here and there as Kyle proposed and discarded suggestions in his mind.

“You all done, bud?” Garry asked.

“I do have one more thing.”

“Name it.”

“Free access to the couch.”

Garry gave Kyle a tight squeeze. “Buddy, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Food for Thought

The title comes from the obsession dogs have with occupying couches and reflects the communion and companionship animals and people derive through this shared territory (the couch) as well as the notion of “the couch” as a counselor or psychiatrist’s tool for gaining understanding of a patient or subject. In this case, it is the human, not the dog, who ends up “on the couch”, reevaluating how he perceives the world.

1) What would be the real consequences for the animal-human relationship, if humans and animals had a common language?

2) We currently subject animals to all manner of impositions and cruelties; activities supported almost solely by the fact that we can’t really be sure what animals are thinking and feeling – that they are an alien ‘other’. Would we still feel comfortable using animals the way we do if they could verbalise their suffering or opposition directly to us?

3) Would we still feel the same way about our pets if our pets no longer complied with the image of loving and doting companions we like to imagine of them?

4) What would it do to the pet-owner bond if we didn’t like what our pets thought of us?

5) And if such a device for understanding animals was ever created, would it ever be allowed to see the light of day, or would the interests of agriculture and the “pet industry” be so great that such a technology would be suppressed on economic grounds?

About the Author

Hailing from the parched wheat-belt of country Western Australia, Shauna O’Meara’s childhood was spent roaming rugged, hilly paddocks and the seasonal river below her home with her dogs, concocting wild fugitive stories along the way. This love of nature and story-telling persisted well past her childhood and, despite a busy career as a practicing veterinarian, Shauna has continued to dedicate much of her time to writing and artwork and trekking through the beautiful Australian wilderness.

Shauna placed second in the third quarter of the Writers of the Future Contest with a short story that can be found in Volume 30 of Writers and Illustrators of the Future. Shauna recently completed the artwork for a short comic commissioned by Midnight Echo magazine and has contributed the cover and interior artwork to several Australian speculative fiction anthologies.

She has just completed her first novel – a science-fiction crime novel set in a post-global-warming America – and has a head full of tales just waiting to be committed to print.

You can visit Shauna online at: http://theshaunacorner.wordpress.com/

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