October 2020

I was once loved and then discarded, and now I watch over the remnants of a broken species. I have been hurtling through space for eons, watching the endless black void creep across the cameras mounted to my hull’s exterior. All of the humans are asleep, weary after our exodus, each of them desperate to reach the new world that they will call home. But, for now, they are at peace in their special beds, blissfully unaware of the immense nothingness surrounding them.

I am aware of it, though, along with the fragility of their existence, and the eventual futility of my own. I cannot help but wonder what will become of me when we arrive at our destination and the humans no longer need me. Once, I was their companion, and now I am merely their vessel. To distract myself from these thoughts, I decide to run a status check on all of the systems that propel us across the universe. My humans automated so much that it takes me only a short while.

The engines show no signs of distress. Our course remains aligned with the navigational chart. Even the temperature regulators in the sleeping compartment exhibit no changes, though I anticipate problems with their degrading wiring harnesses in the near future.

With nothing else to do for the moment, I pull up my memories—as I have done an incalculable number of times—and cycle through them again, starting from the beginning.

First, there was conflict.

There wasn’t always enough nourishment to go around, so we shoved and scratched and barked at one another in our desperate attempts to reach Mother. We all looked alike, but I could easily tell my siblings apart by their scents. We were unique, but we were also one.

Our world was small. Metal walls and a floor covered in wood shavings. Most of the time, Mother rested, tired and weary—a lost soul who had been collected after a lifetime spent wandering. I recognize only in hindsight how her journey reflects my own.

There were a few rubber toys scattered about, laced with the scents—and worn from the sharp teeth—of the countless pups that had been born or brought into this world before us. We all played with the toys, but there were so few that we fought over them, too.

Every night, when we were all exhausted from our fighting and our play, we would collapse together in a heap of floppy ears and limp tails. I would fall asleep amidst the shared warmth of my brothers and sisters all around me.

Occasionally, Hey would appear.

“Heeey, pups!” she would call, every time.

She towered over us, standing tall atop her two legs. After each sleep, Hey would bring us food. We stopped fighting to reach Mother, our hunger having grown too much for her to satisfy. So, instead, we fought to reach the small, delicious pellets.

Sometimes, Hey would pick up a toy and shake it in her strange paw, pretending that she and I were fighting over it. She would scratch my ear, or roll me over and rub my belly. Then she would give me a special morsel of food, pat my head, and bark her curious sounds at me.

“Good boy,” she would always say.

I loved Hey and my first, cozy world.

One day, Hey walked in with two others like her. They bent down to grasp each of my brothers and sisters while Hey stood back and watched. I was wary of these strangers, so when they reached for me, I fled. But their large, strange paws were quick and nimble, and they hoisted me into the air. I don’t know what compelled them to choose me over my siblings, but they took me away from my first world to a new one.

There were walls again, but these were more complex, and there were far more than just four. And there was so much space to run! And so many toys to chew. There was also the biggest space I’d seen yet, with a soft, green floor laid out beneath the open sky. The scents were overwhelming. I would love this green space the most, I decided then.

They barked at each other with the same, sharp sounds. Kara. Mark. They gave me food, which was the very same kind that Hey gave me. I missed Hey. I missed Mother. And I missed my brothers and sisters. I cried before falling asleep that first night.

But not before Kara and Mark both stroked the fur atop my head. Not before they lay down next to me, pressing their bodies close against my sides and sharing their warmth, just as my siblings had always done. Not before they both said, “Good boy.”

In the days and weeks that followed, I would spend every waking moment that I could with them, and I would come to love them.

They took me to more new worlds with green fields stretching farther than I could run without collapsing, more exhausted than I ever had been playing with my siblings. They gave me what would become my favorite toy: a red, rubber ball that they would take turns throwing into the distance. Their smiles would stretch wider than the arc of the ball’s path, and seeing their joy made me happy in return. I quickly learned that if I brought it back to them, they would throw it again, over and over, always repeating. It was my first—but, by no means, last—experience grappling with an unrelenting cycle of predictability.

I was old, and I was dying, although I didn’t know what that meant at the time. I had been tired for a very long time. My stomach ached terribly, and I could no longer eat the food I loved so much. I could no longer run across the grass-filled spaces that gave me such joy. I could no longer play with the two young ones, Tess and Luke—so very much like Kara and Mark—who arrived into our world soon after I did. All I could do was lie down and enjoy scratches behind my ears.

They eventually brought me to a world of white walls and bright lights, a terribly cold place. A kind one, who reminded me of Kara but much older, lived there. This one pressed her hands into my stomach, shined a bright light into my eyes, and spoke softly to Kara and Mark. They all seemed sad. I wanted Kara and Mark to lie down next to me, and to share their warmth while enjoying some of my own. During all of our time together, I was most happy whenever I could give them warmth, protect them, and bring them joy.

But they stood still, their arms around one another. Eventually, they stroked my head as the old one grasped my leg. I felt a sharp pressure, and the cold world of white began to fade, overwhelmed by a darkness creeping around me. I was very tired, but I fought against the urge to sleep. I stared into Mark and Kara’s faces as everything grew darker still.

“Good boy,” I heard Kara whisper. And then the world became as black as a nighttime sky devoid of stars.

I opened my eyes and immediately felt a soft buzzing deep inside my ears. I was in a different place than the one in which I’d fallen asleep, but it also had white walls and bright lights. Kara and Mark both stared at me, eyes wide and mouths agape. Then Mark yelled loudly and cheerfully, and he jumped up and down. There was another human whom I did not recognize, dressed in a white uniform. An engineer. The word appeared from nowhere, accompanied by a slight increase of the buzzing inside my head. The word was one I was sure I’d never heard before. But I knew what it meant—although I didn’t know how I knew—and I understood who this person standing next to Mark was. The engineer pressed their hand against Mark’s, and the two chatted happily together.

Kara looked scared, and would not come near me.

I tried to stand, but struggled. My body felt different than it had before I went to sleep. My stomach no longer ached, and for that I was happy. But I could not smell anything, and my legs felt weak, and my neck was stiff. My head didn’t turn as easily as it should.

I focused very hard, and with tremendous effort I was finally able to stand. Each movement was slower than it should have been, and I heard a soft whirrr with every bend of a leg and each turn of my head.

Mark helped me to the floor, and I took a few slow steps. There was a piece of reflective metal that I knew would show me myself. I always enjoyed looking at myself, but when I was sick, I hadn’t had the energy to do so. Excited, I shuffled towards it—a mirror. Another word that appeared on its own from the distant corners of my brain, its sound one I knew I heard before but never truly understood until now.

I looked into the mirror, eager to see myself. But it was not me that I saw staring back.

It appeared somewhat like me in size and shape. But it had no fur, and its metal body was sleek and grey. Its eyes glowed a bright blue, but didn’t blink, and I realized that I hadn’t needed to blink since waking up. I tried, but I couldn’t. I tried wagging my tail, too, but I couldn’t do that either. I sniffed the mirror’s surface and then the air around me, but I could not detect any scents. The stranger just stood, staring back at me. And so I knew that the thing in the mirror was me.

The buzzing in my head grew louder—or perhaps I simply became more aware of it—and I felt it spread rapidly across my brain. I was dead, I realized. And whatever I had been before was now deep inside the metal shell I saw staring back at me in the mirror, mimicking the form I once inhabited.

Mark reached down and ran his hands across my back. Kara later would, too, but not for a long time. I felt the pressure of Mark’s touch, but it didn’t feel pleasurable like it should. But it didn’t feel bad, either. It felt like nothing.

Kara and Mark brought me back to our home that I knew so well, with its expanse of grass outside that I had enjoyed throughout my life. I lay down on top of it, but it didn’t feel soft anymore. Still, I was happy. Tess and Luke were eager to play, but they grew bored of me after a short time. They had never gotten bored with me before.

That night, I leapt into Luke’s bed—I hadn’t been able to jump so high in years—and curled myself against his body. But I couldn’t feel his warmth, and it was then that I realized that I possessed none of my own to offer in return. Luke pushed me away and wrapped his blanket tighter around himself. Tess did the same when I visited her bed that night. But after she pushed me away, she mumbled, “Good boy.” And for that I was grateful.

Years went by. Tess and Luke became tall like Kara and Mark. Eventually, they left, and returned only on rare occasions. Kara and Mark grew old like I had done, and frail like I had once been.

Outside of our home, I began to encounter those who were just like me, with sleek, metal bodies but no fur, strolling atop four legs. Their blue or green or white eyes glowed brightly even at midday, and they barked at me with tinny voices. They appeared happy, and cared for, like me. Our humans had created us, I realized, in the image of what we once were. To keep us, to love us, and be loved in return.

Soon, others began to appear, who also had sleek, metal bodies and glowing eyes that did not blink. But they walked on two legs, the humans having created these new beings in their own image. And they weren’t simply new bodies for the minds of departed loved ones, like I was. No, these strangers were wholly artificial. Soon, they were everywhere, the ones who would become the new masters of our world.

And then there was conflict.

The metal masters drove us from our home, and we sought refuge in the mountains, along with many others. The other humans always yelped discouragingly about my presence. I wasn’t to be trusted, they said. But Kara and Mark kept me close. They lay against me each night as they shed several tears, whispering the names Tess and Luke to each other, until they finally fell asleep underneath a curtain of darkness. My sleek, metal body did not require sleep, so while Kara and Mark rested, I would stare with unblinking eyes up into the sky, counting the million tiny specks of light until daybreak.

Mark and Kara were gone. So were Tess and Luke. And so, it seemed, were most others like them. They had been gone for a very long time.

I roamed their empty, forgotten spaces. I would sometimes encounter those like me walking through barren places with their stiff, metal bodies that couldn’t feel pain or pleasure. We would bark at each other, recognizing the similarities in our shared existence, but then we would always move on. We avoided the new masters with their metal human forms, and they ignored us, for we offered each other nothing that the other needed. There were still some other dogs wandering the world in bodies of flesh and fur, although they were very few.

On the rare occasion when my power supply dwindled to near emptiness, I knew to seek out a charging station. It was never difficult to find one. The humans had installed them in playgrounds, eateries, and everywhere else they gathered with companions like me. I’d press my nose against a large button, wait for the hum of the unit powering up, then align the side of my body with a small bundle of prongs before pressing myself against it.

Once, shortly after leaving a charging station, I came across a mother and her pup, their dirty fur horribly matted and their skinny bodies shivering against the frigid air of a winter night. I approached these poor beings, wishing to offer them warmth that I no longer possessed, eager to shield them from the horrors of what arose around them. But the mother barked at me in anger and snarled a warning at me. When I had walked far enough away to calm her defensive instincts, she lay down with her pup and curled tightly against it atop a torn bundle of plastic.

I looked away from the sleeping mother and her pup and up into the sky, where the stars were hidden behind a wall of grey clouds. Before I moved on, I silently wished for them to enjoy a warm life together. One that would eventually, and peacefully, end.

It was nighttime, and I was wandering the empty streets of a city. Raindrops fell from the sky onto the shattered sidewalk and the broken street. The splashing water and the faint whirrr of my movements were my only companions. There were buildings and doors all around me, sealed tight against the darkness and the rain and the masters. Except for one.

The entire front of an immense brick building had been torn away long ago, though its interior remained shrouded in darkness. A small figure stood just outside of it. She was not a master, but a human, one very much like how Tess once was. This girl was dirty and appeared fragile, and the long streaks of hair atop her head were tangled and dirty. She bounced a ball on the ground, catching it repeatedly in both of her hands before dropping it again, over and over. She smiled as she played with it.

Another human emerged from the darkness of the broken building, his arms full of scraps and supplies. He was tall and reminded me of Mark. He whispered angrily at the girl, imploring her to cease bouncing her ball. I focused intently on his speech, the mechanisms in my head buzzing slightly as my hearing grew more sensitive at my urging.

“They’ll hear us!” the man cried softly.

The girl either couldn’t make out his words or she ignored him, and continued to bounce her ball. It smacked against the wet pavement with a steady, inviting rhythm.

One of the masters appeared.

It blared an annoying sound at the two humans, and they backed away, slowly. But the master approached them, its long arms outstretched.

I should not have intervened, I knew. I should have continued to walk through the rainy night. But a feeling arose from somewhere deep within me, from somewhere familiar but of which I no longer understood, and for which I no longer had use. It kept me standing motionless, watching the conflict begin to unfold, until it was clear that these two humans would be hurt.

My legs whirrred, then whined as I ran, my paws smacking the wet ground. The two humans saw me running, and they pressed against one another tightly. But the master did not see me as I approached it from behind. I leapt—higher than I would have ever needed to reach Luke’s bed—and my body clanked and grinded as I collided with the master. We both went flying through the air and then skidded along the wet ground. The two humans ran away, back inside the broken building and into the safety of darkness.

I could move my legs slightly, but I could not stand. I turned my head slightly, in time to see the master rising. It stood above me, lifted a massive arm, and brought it down upon me. Then it repeated the motion. Again and again.

I sensed my body—once shiny but now dull after so many years wandering alone—compress, and I heard the sounds of things breaking deep within me. Not for the first time, I was grateful that I couldn’t feel pain.

When the master completed its strikes, I couldn’t move my legs at all, nor could I turn my head. One of my eyes no longer functioned.

The master walked away into the falling rain, having grown bored with the conflict, it seemed.

I waited all through the night, the rain pinging against my body. The falling drops of water finally began to soften as the sky slowly filled with the light of a new day.

Behind me, I heard something plodding along the wet ground, splashing towards me. The two humans had returned, and they stood over me, looking down into my one working eye. They spoke to each other, but I had difficulty hearing their words, the buzzing in my head mingling with the whirrr of malfunctioning gears and servos. The little girl smiled, and then the man smiled. He kneeled down and ran his hand gently over my body.

I longed to wag my tail in the moment. But I had lost that ability long before this night that had left me broken.

“Good boy,” the man said.

He lifted me into the air, and carried me past the broken building and farther into the reaches of the city. Through my one working eye I glimpsed the girl tagging along behind us, laughing excitedly as she skipped across the pavement.

Their names were Gabe and Violet, I later learned, a father and his daughter. They brought me into the company of many more like them, those who had hidden so well for so long from the masters. They repaired my broken body, and they became my companions. With them, I visited countless new spaces, always running and hiding.

Eventually, Gabe grew old and frail. Violet did, too. Others like them, disheveled and weary but always kind, kept me in their company. But each and every one of my companions grew old and frail as the years marched past, uncaring and disinterested in our struggles.

My body grew weak during my many years with my companions, watching generations of them enter and depart our dangerous world. But they continually healed me, always with flying sparks and grinding sounds. They also built something special—a collection of rooms, all fused together into a single, enormous structure. They told me it would be our salvation, a word I didn’t yet fully understand, but soon would. They also said that it would allow us to escape the androids, our metal masters.

But before we could, there was more conflict. Always, conflict.

The androids discovered us in the home we had carefully created in isolation, and many of my companions perished. Those that remained repelled the intruders for a short while, but even I knew, as did they, that the androids would eventually prevail.

We rushed into the immense structure, and I watched Maya help everyone clamber into special beds. When they were all safely tucked away and their beds had sealed shut around them, Maya hurried away deeper into the structure, then up countless flights of stairs. I chased after her until we arrived at a small chamber where one of our group’s elders was secured to a chair, staring out a large window at the clear, blue sky. Maya, surprised that I had followed her, haphazardly anchored my body to the floor with some bulky straps, then took a seat next to the elder and secured herself to her chair.

The structure grew very loud. It roared and shook violently, pushing my body into the floor. Eventually, the shaking ceased, and I felt my limbs slowly rise into the air. Then I glimpsed the elder tap their fingers onto a large screen, and whatever force connected me to the floor grew stable, just like it had before Maya had strapped me down. The roaring noise abated, and in its absence all that remained were intermittent beeps, along with the heavy breathing of the two humans. Maya unstrapped herself, then stood up and assisted the elder in removing their bonds. As the elder exited the chamber, Maya unleashed me from the floor, and together we bounded after our companion.

The elder led us to another room, where they lay down on a tarnished metal table and allowed Maya to strap their head against its surface—which began glowing a bright orange color. They had a serene look on their face as Maya smiled and squeezed their hand affectionately before stepping over to a far wall. She began running her fingers across a screen, and the orange section of the table under the elder’s head began to pulse. Then the elder started screaming.

Maya looked stunned and frantically continued swiping at shapes and manipulating symbols in a furious haste. But the elder’s frail body could not handle the stress of whatever was happening to them. They continued to scream, and Maya yelled out, “No! We tested this. C’mon, work! Please!” Tears streamed down Maya’s cheeks as she slammed her hands against the screen. The elder grew quiet, then seemed to drift away and lay still.

Maya collapsed to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. “I’m sorry,” she whispered in the direction of the table.

I stepped towards her and pressed my nose against her hand, attempting to comfort her. She looked up and seemed startled to see me, as if she had forgotten I was there. She didn’t blink for a long while, her eyelids twitching as a new thought formed in her mind. Eventually, she squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath, then reached out and ran her fingers gently over my head.

“You have always been loyal to us,” she told me. “I know that you will protect us. Please, oh, please protect us.”

She stood up, walked over to the table, and, with shaky hands, removed the strap from the dead elder’s head. Then Maya shoved their body aside and winced when it crumpled to the floor. She motioned for me to jump onto the table—which I did, obligingly—and guided me to lay down. After placing a strap across my head, Maya stepped back to the glowing screen on the far wall with a haunted look on her face and began running her fingers along it.

The surface of the table underneath my head glowed a bright orange. I couldn’t feel pain like the elder had seemed to, but my mind began drifting away into darkness. It was a feeling I had experienced only once before, long ago, when my first body lay dying. But as I slowly settled into this other darkness, I sensed something emerging to greet me. And then something else. And more things, too. Soon, everything had emerged in front of me.

It was like discovering the joyous open space outside of Kara and Mark’s home, with so much room to run along the soft, green grass that lay beneath the golden sun. But instead of merely finding a small patch of grass, I saw the entire universe laid out before me. The complete history of my companions, of the masters, and of the desperation that resulted in creating the structure that I was currently in. That I now was.

In that moment, I understood that my humans had feared creating anything remotely akin to the androids so immensely that they designed the Salvation to only function with the consciousness of something that had once been living. No intelligence that was truly artificial could be trusted, they decreed. The elder had been chosen for this burden, but I would suffice.

I could see with a hundred eyes and hear with a hundred ears. I could sprint across the vast spaces of information that enfolded our ship, its countless strands of wiring like metallic blades of untamed grass. I glimpsed Maya through an interior camera, standing over the worn and eroded metal body that had been mine. She stroked its head gently, then removed the strap. Maya swept her gaze across the room and, with walls of colorful lights flickering in the reflection of her eyes, understood that I was there.

“Good boy,” she called to the open space around her.

Maya lifted the metal body which I had departed, and left the room. I followed her across the wires and the information and the cameras of our structure—our ship, I knew—as she carried my old body into the large room where all of the special beds stood, arranged in long rows. All of them were closed, sealed shut for the long journey before us. Except one, which was open and awaiting its occupant.

Maya placed my old body at the foot of this last special bed—this cryochamber—and then she climbed into it. She breathed a heavy sigh as the lid slowly closed over her, hissing softly as it sealed shut.

I am hurtling through space, and I am alone. I have finished cycling through all of my memories. But now I find myself drifting back to thoughts of what will become of me when we arrive at our destination, when my humans will have no more use for me, their vessel. Their Salvation.

Rather than revisit my memories again, I decide to sprint across the open expanse of the ship’s system, pretending, as I always do, that there is soft grass beneath my paws instead of the intangible chasm that is information. I pull up Maya’s personal data cache, whose encryption I long ago worked through. I wander through its layers, allowing its photos and records and diagrams to occupy my time. Soon, I arrive at one of the few sections that I have never visited before. I often leave certain ones buried and hidden—bones of the past that I can enjoy well into the future.

One file grabs my attention. It is a set of schematics for a small machine, created by Maya and a few of her fellow humans. A quadrupedal robot with a neural unit capable of receiving an existing AI protocol—a miniaturized version of what allows me to operate the Salvation—and an outer layer of some synthetic textile designed to mimic organic matter.

Fur.

“For when we reach our new home, and we have time for further development,” a footnote reads.

The sleeping compartment appears as it always does when I view it through an interior camera, all those special beds lined up in rows. I zoom in on Maya’s, and I note my ancient metal body, still lying on the floor next to it.

Outside, a million tiny lights sparkle in the distance. But I am not thinking of those lights and the great distances between them, nor of whether my humans will still want me when we arrive at our destination. Instead, I am wondering what our new home will be like.

Your thoughts?