His Master’s Voice
I don’t know if it meant to do it or not: even now, I have a hard time understanding it. It hissed at me, its back arched. Then it jumped forward and scratched my nose: it burned like a piece of hot coal. That made me mad, weak as I was. I barked furiously and chased the cat around the deck. Finally, I collapsed, exhausted, and realised that I was hungry. The autokitchen down in the master’s cabin still worked, and I knew how to ask for food. But when I came back, the master’s body was gone: the waste disposal bots had thrown it into the sea. That’s when I knew that he would not be coming back.
I curled up in his bed alone that night: the god-smell that lingered there was all I had. That, and the Small Animal.
It came to me that night on the dreamshore, but I did not chase it this time. It sat on the sand, looked at me with its little red eyes and waited.
“Why?” I asked. “Why did they take the master?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” it said. “Not yet.”
“I want to understand. I want to know.”
“All right,” it said. “Everything you do, remember, think, smell — everything — leaves traces, like footprints in the sand. And it’s possible to read them. Imagine that you follow another dog: you know where it has eaten and urinated and everything else it has done. The humans can do that to the mindprints. They can record them and make another you inside a machine, like the scentless screenpeople that your master used to watch. Except that the screendog will think it’s you.”
“Even though it has no smell?” I asked, confused.
“It thinks it does. And if you know what you’re doing, you can give it a new body as well. You could die and the copy would be so good that no one can tell the difference. Humans have been doing it for a long time. Your master was one of the first, a long time ago. Far away, there are a lot of humans with machine bodies, humans who never die, humans with small bodies and big bodies, depending on how much they can afford to pay, people who have died and come back.”
I tried to understand: without the smells, it was difficult. But its words awoke a mad hope.
“Does it mean that the master is coming back?” I asked, panting.
“No. Your master broke human law. When people discovered the pawprints of the mind,they started making copies of themselves. Some made many, more than the grains of sand on the beach. That caused chaos. Every machine, every device everywhere, had mad dead minds in them. The plurals, people called them, and were afraid. And they had their reasons to be afraid. Imagine that your Place had a thousand dogs, but only one Ball.”
My ears flopped at the thought.
“That’s how humans felt,” said the Small Animal. “And so they passed a law: only one copy per person. The humans — VecTech — who had invented how to make copies mixed watermarks into people’s minds, rights management software that was supposed to stop the copying. But some humans — like your master — found out how to erase them.”
“The wrong master,” I said quietly.
“Yes,” said the Small Animal. “He did not want to be an illegal copy. He turned your master in.”
“I want the master back,” I said, anger and longing beating their wings in my chest like caged birds.
“And so does the cat,” said the Small Animal gently. And it was only then that I saw the cat there, sitting next to me on the beach, eyes glimmering in the sun. It looked at me and let out a single conciliatory meaow.
* * *
After that, the Small Animal was with us every night, teaching.
Music was my favorite. The Small Animal showed me how I could turn music into smells and find patterns in it, like the tracks of huge, strange animals. I studied the master’s old records and the vast libraries of his virtual desk, and learned to remix them into smells that I found pleasant.
I don’t remember which one of us came up with the plan to save the master. Maybe it was the cat: I could only speak to it properly on the island of dreams, and see its thoughts appear as patterns on the sand. Maybe it was the Small Animal, maybe it was me. After all the nights we spent talking about it, I no longer know. But that’s where it began, on the island: that’s where we became arrows fired at a target.
Finally, we were ready to leave. The master’s robots and nanofac spun us an open-source glider, a white-winged bird.
In my last dream the Small Animal said goodbye. It hummed to itself when I told it about our plans.