Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"A Girl and Her Dog"

a short story
by Bev Vincent

February 8, 2023
3,020 Words
Genre(s):

Madison came home from school one afternoon to discover Lucky lying on the street in front of the house, bleeding and mangled. At first, she was sure her dog was dead, but Lucky opened his eyes and tried to lick Maddy’s hand. Maddy wiped away the tears blurring her eyes while she called her mother at work.

Her mom came home immediately and took charge of the situation, acting like a doctor on TV. She nodded to herself as she performed a quick assessment, gave Lucky a shot for the pain, and then scooped him up and took him away. She didn’t get home until late.

The next evening, she took Madison out for burgers at her favorite restaurant and told her everything was going to be all right. She’d said the same thing about her dad three years ago, when Maddy was eleven. She was sure she’d never see Lucky again. She fumed about the careless driver who had struck her dog, but there was nothing she could do about it.

This time, though, her mom was telling the truth. A few weeks later, she brought Lucky home. The dog bounded out of the car, ran at Madison full tilt, and put his paws on her chest, almost knocking her off her feet.

Lucky seemed mostly like his old self, except he was stronger than before and not nearly as lazy. He could run faster and jump higher, and hardly ever got tired. He was always ready to go whenever Madison wanted to play.

He felt a little different when Maddy petted him, though. Her mom said that was because some of his ribs had been replaced with metal and he had pins holding his bones together. That sounded pretty cool to Madison. She had a franken-doggie.

According to one of her teachers, Maddy was “off the charts” in terms of her academic abilities. She had learned this via a bug she’d slipped into her mom’s pocket before a parent-teacher conference. Her “socialization skills” could use some work, according to the teacher, but she was well-behaved and did her homework on time. Maddy looked that phrase up on the internet, but she still wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. Something to do with not being able to make friends, which she guessed was true. The things the other girls were interested in bored her, and the boys hated that she was smarter than they were.

When her mom found the listening device a few days later, Madison was grounded for a week, but she thought that her mom was more amused rather than angry by this “transgression,” a word Madison associated with church. Her parents had taken her fairly regularly when she was younger, but they hadn’t gone back after her dad’s funeral.

Madison liked to take things apart, a hobby her dad had encouraged. “Best way to figure out how something works,” he’d said. She’d dismantled old computers. She’d put toy cars into the vice in her dad’s workshop and pounded them with a hammer until they looked like they’d been in a demolition derby. She especially liked wind-up clocks. They had so many parts that all meshed together to keep time perfectly. She’d never managed to put one back together and get it working again, though. She almost always broke a part that couldn’t be fixed or replaced or lost something important.

Recently, she’d started taking apart computer programs—decompiling them so she could understand how they worked. She’d even tweaked a game to give herself an infinite number of lives. Her score was currently ten times higher than the second best, and people were constantly asking her on Reddit how she’d done it. Several users refused to believe she was a girl and tried to chase her away, but she wasn’t going to let herself be bullied. She sent one of them a link to a site that would download a virus to his computer and that was the last she heard of him.

She wasn’t a hacker, though. She was too smart for that. Breaking into other people’s computers was against the law. The NSA would show up and take her away if she got caught, or so her dad liked to say. He used to go on and on about government agencies. For a long time, after the stroke, Maddy had thought it was the NSA who had taken him away.

However, when she found the panel on Lucky’s back, her curiosity got the better of her. It reminded her of a battery compartment, but Madison knew Lucky wasn’t running on batteries. He ate twice a day, same as before, and Madison still had to take him for a walk so he could do his business.

Lucky didn’t seem to notice when Madison inserted a fingernail under the panel’s edge and popped it open. Inside, she found a USB port, several LEDs and a button labelled “Standby.” The compartment was held in place by four small Phillips head screws. Madison couldn’t imagine what they were fastened to.

Then, suddenly, she understood. Her mom hadn’t taken Lucky to the vet—she’d taken him to her office, where she did something that had to do with the state-of-the-art prosthetics she promised she’d explain to Maddy someday but never did. She had fixed Lucky. No, that wasn’t a good word for it. Her mom had repaired Lucky. There’d probably been a vet involved, to stop the bleeding and to fix broken bones and torn muscles, but her mom had a hand in it. Had some of Lucky’s nerves been replaced by wires and his joints by servos? There was only one way to find out.

Lucky followed Madison up to her room. In a red toolbox she kept in the closet, she had a set of tools, most of them hand-me-downs from her dad, who had been very good at repairing things before he got sick. She had hex wrenches of all sizes and a little kit that contained flat and Phillips head screwdrivers, her go-to tools for disassembling clocks and other small appliances. She flipped open the toolbox lid and got ready to go to work.

Then she had a brief mental flash, like a premonition. Her vision started with an alarm clock under her bed that was now nothing more than a four-inch bowl containing cogs, springs, nuts, bolts, and the hour, minute and second hands that she had popped off the clock’s face. It then transitioned to Lucky sprawled out on the floor on his back, a hollow core like one of those disappointing chocolate Easter bunnies that looked solid but were only shells. If she couldn’t reassemble a clock, what chance did she have of putting Lucky back together?

The USB port gave her a better idea. Instead of taking Lucky apart and messing him up, she’d explore Lucky’s operating system. She lured Lucky onto her bed and opened the panel on his back again. Then she pressed the standby button. Lucky collapsed as if he’d suffered a catastrophic stroke, like the one that had sent her father to the hospital, never to return. Two of the LEDs pulsed red.

Panicked, Madison pushed the button again and Lucky sprang back to life as if nothing happened. Thus reassured, Madison pushed the button a third time. She put her hand on Lucky’s side. The dog was still breathing, although much slower than normal. Hibernating, like her computer did after being idle for a while. Or in a coma, like her dad, except the dog could be brought back at the push of a button.

Everyone should have a button like that, Maddy thought.

She rummaged through a drawer for a cable and plugged Lucky into her computer. An error message popped up: USB device not recognized. The operating system volunteered to search the internet for a suitable driver, but Madison hit the cancel button.

Not much chance of finding a robotic dog interface, she thought.

She started up a program she’d used in the past to mess around with apps on her iPad. Soon she had a rudimentary understanding of Lucky’s inner workings and had built a program that allowed her to send and receive instructions via USB. No doubt her mom had something far more sophisticated at work, but Madison could make Lucky’s legs move, his tail wag and his gums draw back to expose his fangs.

Unsure how long she could safely leave Lucky in standby, she disconnected the cable, pushed the button, and replaced the panel. Lucky jumped up, licked her face, shook himself like he was wet, scratched an imaginary flea with his hind leg, and trotted downstairs.

Madison was pleased with her accomplishments, but she had been limited to triggering involuntary reflexes. She was sure the interface also provided direct access to Lucky’s brain, but she hadn’t been able to figure it out. If she could map out Lucky’s operating system completely, she’d have the best science fair project ever. She might also end up grounded again, but it would be so worth it.

She wanted to ask her mom questions about Lucky, but she was busy most of the time. She stayed late at work every day. When she arrived home at nearly ten o’clock one evening with Lucky in tow, she said she’d needed to take the dog to the vet to check on his recovery, but Madison knew better. Apparently her mom wasn’t finished with Lucky yet.

Madison searched the internet for articles about animal / human interfaces.  Most of the ones she found were about scientists inserting wires into the brains of cockroaches or mice to control their actions. The accompanying pictures revealed contraptions lashed to the backs of the test subjects, amateurish and clumsy looking devices compared with what her mom had accomplished.

One day she found a news article about a team that had invented a way to transmit thoughts from one person to another over the internet. One guy watched a video game screen and thought about moving his finger to launch a missile without actually doing it. Another guy who couldn’t see the video game pushed a button in response to the stimulus and blew up the target. The first man wore an EEG cap and the other had on a device that delivered transcranial magnetic stimulation to the brain. The news item referenced several scientific papers. Madison used her mom’s credit card to download them from an online library. One showed the experimental setup in detail.

Building an EEG cap was easy. They were simple gadgets made from inexpensive components. The TMS device, though, was another matter. The cheapest one she could find online was over $6000 and it was nowhere near as sophisticated as what she needed. However, she knew where she could find one.

The next morning at breakfast, Madison asked her mom if she’d read about the experiment. Her mother put her newspaper aside and sat up straight in her chair. She looked at her daughter as if seeing her for the first time and launched into a long speech, the gist of which was that the academics were just now “discovering” things that she had been applying at work for years.

“Could you show me?” Madison asked. “It’s for a school project.”

“Like ‘take your kid to work’ day?”

“Yeah,” Madison said. “Exactly.”

That Friday, Madison’s mom showed her around the building where she worked and introduced her to her fellow employees. However, before she could get into much detail about her projects, she was called away to deal with a problem. This suited Madison fine, as it gave her time to snoop around.

First, she logged into her mom’s computer—it had the same password she used at home—and looked through her documents. She found a few that seemed interesting. These, she transferred to a flash drive, along with some programs she thought she might be able to use.

Then she looked through her mom’s cabinets and bookshelves. On the latter she found a ring binder labelled “The Lucky Project,” which was full of diagrams, schematics, and data sheets. Many of the entries were recent. Madison used the scanner app on her cell phone to copy the most interesting documents.

A couple of hours later, a pretty lady who worked in the outer office asked Madison if she wanted lunch. The woman led her to the cafeteria and told the cashier to charge whatever she wanted to her mom’s account. Madison thought this was the coolest thing ever. She had three slices of pizza, a massive Coke, and two pieces of chocolate cake. When she eavesdropped on two women sitting at the table behind her, she learned nothing about what they were working on, but she did hear a lot about their love lives. She was curious about this, too, but the details made her blush, so she returned her attention to her food.

After lunch, she headed for the robotics lab. Everyone was attending a status meeting, so Madison had free run of the place. She found a couple of interesting gadgets that were small enough to fit in her backpack. In a cabinet at the back of the lab, she struck gold—over a dozen transcranial magnetic stimulation devices of various designs. Some looked like funny paddles with hoops on the end, but the one she liked best resembled an old-fashioned aviator’s hat. It was at the back of the bottom shelf, so she thought no one would miss it. It came with a small control box that interfaced with a computer and a DVD with software and instructions.

On the way home, her mom didn’t notice that Maddy’s backpack, which had been virtually empty when they left that morning, was now bulging.

Before leaping straight into trying to send her thoughts to Lucky, Madison first learned as much as she could about the dog’s modifications. From the schematics, she discovered that her mom had completely rewired Lucky’s nervous system by connecting microfiber neurons between damaged muscles and his brain. According to her notes, she had created the world’s first “artificial cerebral-neural interface.” Madison thought that was pretty funny, because the acronym was “acne.”

Once Madison had all the software and electronics configured, she went to work. According to her research, dogs had impressive long-term memories, but their short-term memories only lasted around ten seconds. By sending information directly from her computer into Lucky’s brain, she circumvented any short-term memory issues. Lucky never seemed to forget anything Madison programmed into him. With the right tweaks, Madison thought she might do more than win the science fair. She might be able to create the smartest dog in the world—better than the ones on TV that tugged on a person’s pants leg or barked to help rescue their masters from wells.

She pictured herself as the center of attention at the science fair as she took Lucky through his paces. Who needed socialization skills when they had that? Whatever anyone suggested, she could make Lucky do. She would be behind a screen so no one could claim she was using hand gestures or other signals, the way the magicians she’d read about sometimes communicated with plants in the audience. Besides, Lucky was going to be able to do all sorts of things no dog had ever done before. Maybe she could even make him speak for real. Wouldn’t that be something?

One evening, while Madison was modifying the software that controlled the TMS device, she realized the computer was executing commands she hadn’t told it to do. When she investigated, she discovered that Lucky, who was in standby mode, was accessing the internet. His body might have been hibernating, but his brain wasn’t. Madison couldn’t tell what Lucky was downloading, but by the way the lights on the wireless router were flashing, it was a lot. Madison didn’t disconnect the USB cable, though. If her dog wanted to learn on his own, so much the better. He’d be even smarter.

She stayed up late, fine-tuning the settings on the TMS controller in preparation for her first experiment. It was primitive compared to some of the others in her mom’s lab, but it was more sophisticated than the most expensive ones she’d found online. The beauty of the aviator hat was that it would fit on Lucky’s head, unlike those that were designed for human skulls.

Madison put on the cap to verify the settings. She’d have to make some adjustments for Lucky’s skull and brain, but she could get it close using it on herself. It was tedious work. Sometimes she spent twenty or thirty minutes on just one stage of the testing process.

Eventually, it was all too much. At about three in the morning, Madison fell asleep in front of her computer. The lights continued to blink on the wireless router. The hard disk chattered and spun as data was relayed from the internet to the computer and, ultimately, to Lucky via the USB cable. Programs on the desktop PC started up on their own.

Lucky whimpered. His legs twitched like when he was dreaming about chasing rabbits. The LEDs next to his USB port cycled and flickered. Eventually, Lucky brought himself out of hibernation using a software override. He sat up on the bed and cocked his head at the computer. More programs launched. Data flowed through the TMS interface. Madison’s right hand twitched. Her left eyelid blinked twice.

After a while, Lucky jumped off the bed, being careful to keep from getting tangled in the USB cable that connected him to the PC. He approached Madison and butted the girl’s leg with his head. He propped himself up on his hind legs and rested his forepaws on the sleeping girl’s lap. He pawed at her arm.

Madison sat up. She looked around the room, blinking and shaking her head. She scratched an itchy spot on her right hip. Once her eyes came into focus, she looked at Lucky. The dog looked back.

“Woof!” Madison said and panted. “Woof! Woof!”

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About the Author

Bev Vincent is the author of several non-fiction books, including The Road to the Dark Tower and Stephen King: A Complete Exploration of His Work, Life and Influences. He co-edited the anthology Flight or Fright with Stephen King and has published over 120 stories, with appearances in Ellery Queen’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s and Black Cat Mystery Magazines. His work has been published in over 20 languages and nominated for the Stoker (twice), Edgar, Ignotus and ITW Thriller Awards. Recent works include “The Ogilvy Affair” and “The Dead of Winter,” the latter in Dissonant Harmonies with Brian Keene.

bevvincent.com

Copyright ©2023 by Bev Vincent.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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