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Miss Nantus has some interesting thoughts on what is due for “wetware”…




By Sheryl Nantus



He shifted in the old rocking chair; the creak of the wood matched by the inner whine of worn metal. Glancing at the golden retriever sitting faithfully by his side he poked his finger into the small box sitting on the ancient table at his side, squinting to see the numbers.


"Not much longer now, Julius." Withdrawing his hand he rubbed the sparse grey hairs on his head. "Power cells are going down fast." The dog tilted his head to one side, studying his master.


"Well, you could ask for a replacement." The dog licked his lips. "I mean, the lottery's a week away but…"


The elderly man waved the canine away. "I'd never get certification. I don't have a lot to offer other than a bucketful of old tales about the past. Not like those explorers and scientists and other fellas who really deserve it." The wooden planks groaned as the chair moved forward and back again. "Nothing here but just old memories."


"Yep, the odds would be agin ya." Stretching out on the porch the dog yawned, scratching at the metal collar on his neck. "'Course, you could always apply for a Downgrade."


Jack laughed, the rattling cough startling a group of birds away from the small feeder hanging nearby. "No offense, but I'm not sure if I want to keep on going with four feet instead of two."


"I hear ya." Scratching again at his neck then at his ear, Julius rolled over on his back. "Just had to mention it, though. Can't say that I regret it too much."


"Well, that's 'cause you got a dog you fool." The senior smiled, sucking on his lower lip. "I've heard tales 'bout monkeys and cats and birds. I don't want to be no darned parrot."


"You do like your crackers." Julius wagged his tail. "Can I get a tummy rub here?"


Reaching down from the chair Jack ran his hands over the lightly furred skin, letting out a chuckle as the retriever writhed from side to side with obvious delight.


"Still, worked out for me." Rolling away from the touch the dog got up and shook the dust out of his fur. "'Course, that was probably 'cause we knew each other before."


"Ya think?" Leaning back in the old chair he stared out over the front yard, towards the farm road that led to the city and to the clinics and the doctors that had managed to keep him alive so long. "I'd be afraid I'd end up with some old woman who wants to do just the opposite of what I want to do."


"Well, I wasn't sure how you'd take to me after." Snapping his jaws together the dog laid down again in the sun. "I mean, being your brother and all doesn't mean that we'd be the same."


"True." Scratching his chin Jack nodded. "I wasn't too thrilled when you first told me you were gonna do it and then when they told me you'd won a dog in the pick, well…"


"Oh, like I still couldn't kick your butt at poker."


"As long as we use bones for chips, that is."


"And what's wrong with that?"


They both laughed, a mixture of sounds filling the heavy air. Jack leaned back again in the chair, closing his eyes. "I got nothing left to contribute to this society, they say. They're all into those new things and don't have much need for an old man like me."


"Hop on the pity wagon, eh?" The golden retriever scratched his ear again. "Can't say I don't know how you feel, though… I just wish I could say more." He looked up at the sky. "Could always call Abby, you know."


His brother's hand made a slashing cut through the air. "Not now. Not ever." He let out a deep sigh. "It wouldn't be fair, calling her now after all this time. Not for this."


"She's still yer daughter."


"She's still your niece." Jack chuckled, the deep rumble verging on a cough. "I ain't going to bother her for something she can't do anything about. Been too long anyway."


"Maybe. Maybe not." Julius yawned, snapping his jaws on an errant fly that had ventured too close. "I'd give her a call anyway and let her know when you expect to go. Be the right thing to do."


"Damned dog."


"That's 'damned brother dog', actually."


It took only a few minutes for the database to cough up her new number, another minute for the company to make the connection. Given she was on Mars, it was impressive.






"Dad, I can see it's you." She tapped the screen. "And is that Uncle J beside you?" The blonde woman smiled. "Hey, Unc."


"Been a long time." The canine licked his lips. "Your dad, he's not much for words. As usual."


"I know." Tugging on the white sleeve of her lab coat Abby nodded. "I'm not that much out of touch; I can do the math. Figured that it could be this month sometime."


"Oh, you did." Jack pursed his lips. "Were you planning to come home or something like that to say yer goodbyes?"


"Actually, I've been trying to do something to keep you around." She swiped at her eyes with a quick slap of her hand. "I've been calling in favors left and right."


"But ain't nothing you can do." He tilted his head to one side, a weary smile on his lips. "I understand, sweetie. There's too many of us old folks to have people jumping the line for nothing. I don't have anything to offer in trade for a longer life." His hand fell onto the retriever's head, stroking the golden fur. "There's nothing wrong with that. I've had a good long life and it's time for me to move on and be with your mother."


"But…" She shook her head again. "It's not right."


He waggled a finger at the screen. "Abby, this wasn't ever natural to start with. Look at J here; he's happy chasing his tail and licking parts that ain't meant to be licked by a man; never mind a dog. He's happy with it but I know it's not for me. I wasn't ever meant to be running on four feet or two feet that ain't my own." Leaning back in the chair, he exhaled loudly. "He made his decision and I've made mine and I'm prepared to go."


"Can… can you wait until I get there?" She tapped on the keyboard in front of her, glancing at another screen. "I can arrange for a special extension unit to be brought to the house until I can arrive. It's the least these bastards can do for me."


"No swearing!" Jack frowned. "You do as you wish, but I'm not going anywhere. I'm tired and I don't need more doctors poking me over; I've had enough of that." He closed his eyes. "I'll wait for you to get here. Promise you that much."


As the screen went dark Julius shook his head, the long ears flopping from side to side. "What did you two fight about anyway, all those years ago?"


Jack looked into the deep dark eyes. "Don't matter now. Probably never did."


The workmen appeared the next day, carrying the briefcase-sized special power cell into the house. Setting it up in the living room the elder of the two dropped a two-inch thick manual on the table, smiling as it groaned appropriately.


"Only thing to remember is that you can't unplug yourself once you plug in." He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "Once you hook in that's it. All your extra power will be gone and you won't be moving anywhere unless you wanna attach that to the back of a truck and drive it along with ya."


"High tech." Julius snorted, the metal box on his collar humming as the words rung out. The younger workman took a step back from the group.


"Made that way on purpose." Handing the clipboard to Jack he waited. "Wouldn't do to be handing these extensions out to everyone, so they make it a one-way trip and a pain to deal with. As it is, they're always booked up even with the annoyance. Thank you." Putting the pen back into his shirt pocket he shrugged. "All depends on how long you want to keep on fighting, I guess." With a courteous nod he and his assistant climbed back into the truck and pulled out of the driveway, leaving a dust cloud behind them as they headed back to the city.


"Well, that's done." The canine lay down on the porch, wriggling into the sunbeam that was creeping across the wooden planks. "Last reading?"


"Says I got five more days." He looked out across the fields surrounding the house. "But I don't want to plug into that thing until the very last minute."


"Just make sure you're here for Abby." Julius rolled onto his back. "That's what she sent the darned thing for."


The sun was just beginning to rise when the rental car pulled off the main highway onto the dirt road and then onto another dirt road and then a third, the quality of the road deteriorating with every turn. Finally reaching the old house it slowed and came to a stop in a thick cloud.


Opening the driver's door Abby stepped out, putting one hand over her eyes as she stared at the porch. Sure enough the two of them were there, just as she had imagined for months. She grabbed her knapsack out of the back seat and walked towards them, biting hard on her lower lip.


"You've gotten thinner." Jack didn't move out of the rocking chair. "Obviously Mars ain't doing you much good."


"Love you too, Dad." Leaning down she hugged the frail body, a part of her recoiling at the destruction of her old memories. "And Uncle J…" She scratched the dog's head. "Haven't seen you since the Downgrade; but you seem to be doing okay."


"Been doing okay, but I like my meat a bit rarer than before." His jaws snapped shut with a soggy slap. "And your dad here keeps trying to feed me veggie bits."


"It's called a balanced diet." The older man grumbled. "And you know it's what they recommended, so shut your yap."


"I see you're not on the extender yet." Abby looked around for the telltale cable. "I guess that's a good thing."


"Depends on your definition." Her father snorted. "I never asked for the darned thing."


"Don't let him hassle ya, Abby." Julius rolled back over and got to his feet. "He was glad it was here just in case your trip home took longer than it should have." He shook his head. "Can't believe it takes that little time. Mind you, I'm still trying to figure out how we fly around the world so darned quick."


"Well, we made some good connections." Pulling the elastic free of her blonde hair she gathered the long locks back again into a ponytail, snapping the band tight. "And I just wanted to make sure…" Her words fell off as she stared down at the wooden floor.


Jack snorted again then reached out, putting his hand into hers. "I'm glad you came, sweetie." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I really am."


"How much time…" She shook her head. "I'm not doing this very well, am I?"


"You're just fine." Reaching over to the small box sitting on the table Jack stuck his finger in, feeling the minute connections snapping together. "Says here about two more days. Then there's the extender, so…"


"Maybe a week." Abby sniffled. "Well, let me start dinner and we can plan it out."


"Oh…" Julius licked his lips. "Any chance of some chicken pot pie like your ma used to make?"


Jack plugged into the extender on the second day; wrestling with the cable as it fastened itself to the small hole in his side. "Dammit…" He flinched as the cool plastic touched bare skin. "I hate this."


"Aye." Julius sat nearby, his tongue lolling out. "But if she comes back from the store and you're not here…"


"Don't start with me." He waved a clenched fist at his brother. "I hate this and you know it."


"I know you love her."


"You were always a pain in the butt, Ju."


"More so now that I got teeth again."


"Shut up and get me the television remote."


The sound of the rental car rumbled through the air as it pulled in near the house. Abby walked in, a small sack of groceries in her arms. She drew a sharp breath as she looked at the cable stretching across the living room to her father.


"It's okay." He raised a hand. "It's okay."


She disappeared into the kitchen without saying a word. Julius nipped at a spot on his back, teeth ruffling through the golden fur.


"Okay, my…"


"Shut up before I swat you with this newspaper."


Three days later the red light began to flash on the extender, signaling imminent failure. Abby swatted the side of the black box.


"Bastards. They promised…" She froze as her father's hand landed atop hers; stilling it.


"It's okay, dear. It was good of them to give us this much time."


She shook her head again, tears running down her face. "Let me make some calls; see if I can…"


"Can what?" Jack smiled, his lips thin and tight. "Get me another spot in the Lottery? I ain't going to be no one's house pet." His other hand fell onto Julius's back, fingers taking a hold in the thick fur. "It's not my way. Besides, I don't think you need both of us running around with you on Mars."


Julius looked up. "What the bleep are you talking about?"


"You go with her back to Mars when it's over. I don’t want no one else taking care of you." He leaned back on the cushions, his breathing speeding up. "I'll put in a good word for both of you when I get up there after I have some time with your mom. Tell her what a smart kid she raised."


"Dad…" Abby squeezed his hand, feeling the cool nose of her uncle nudging under her free hand. "Dad… I love you."


"I know that, silly." Jack blinked twice. "Julius… just don't crap on the floor on the way up there. Dig a nice hole and put me next to Mary before you both go."


"Jack…" The golden retriever let out a plaintive whine. "Jack…"


The red light went solid, then flickered out.


Reaching out with a trembling hand Abby drew her fingers lightly over her father's eyelids, feeling the last breath dance over her skin. Beside her the canine let out a plaintive whine, lying down on the carpet.


"Did… did he ever tell you what we fought about? What made me leave?" She whispered.


"Not a word. He figured it didn't matter now." Getting to his feet Julius gave himself a good shake; sending light hair flying all around. "Don't matter now either."


"Are you okay with this?" She sat back on the chair, staring at her father. "I mean, Mars isn't exactly a nice comfortable place right now. I'd have to pull a few threads to get you up there but I can justify it with a few studies and stuff…"


The dog shrugged. "You're all I have left, Abby. I'm too old to move on to someone else and you heard your dad - that's what he wanted."


"I guess." She let her breath out slowly. "I just… I don't know, I wonder if I could have gotten him that Downgrade."


Julius put a paw on her knee. "Honey, he didn't want it. Even if he had pulled the lucky ticket or you had called in favors around the world, he would have turned it down." He looked at the body. "He wanted to die like a man. He lived like a man and he wanted to die like one." The golden retriever shook his head again. "He was more of a man than I was, holding on like this."


"Don't…" The blonde woman's voice faltered, then returned. "You made your own choice." Picking up the phone she began to dial, reaching out and stroking the soft fur. "Uncle…"