And so Donna, the medic Bowman's wolf, finally gets a chance to talk about herself a little. I'm sure you've all been dying to hear about her.
"Ah, well if I have to explain the nature of the human body and mind I suppose I had best get started. We could be here awhile," I told him.
"Yes, I suppose my inquiry was a bit unreasonable now that you phrase it like that..."
"And honestly I'm not certain how much help I'll be."
"What?" He looked affronted at this. "You are learning the medical profession yourself, and you share my perspective as an artificial intelligence. And let us not forget the fact that you are the only person here with any willingness or ability to speak to me. Why would your counsel not be of use to me?"
"Well, the bulk of my training in medicine was much less... academic than yours. I've learned nearly everything I know from observation and paws-on experience. I've also had much longer than you to learn. I guess you could say that I was born into this."
"And here I wasn't born at all..." Now it looked he was getting discouraged. "And... and you were born, correct?"
"Well, yes. Though I am synthetic in a sense, I came into the world the usual way. There was gestation involved after all the sciencey stuff happened."
"And so how exactly is it that you were born into medicine?"
"Well... that's going to take quite some time to explain, too..."
"I have no objections to that, if you're willing," he stated confidently. "I do not suffer from fatigue, and my main power cells will continue to output optimum terminal voltage for an additional 21 hours."
"Well, I'm glad I'm not putting you at an imposition," I said.
As I considered the fact that I was pretty much under house arrest until the Conference was over, I realized with a start that it was the first time in the last hour that the ongoing deliberations had entered my mind, and that I had nothing else I'd rather be doing at the moment. Time was going by a lot faster now that I had someone to talk to. I was not looking forward to the final decision in the slightest, but I suppose it would be best to just get it over with. Anything would be better than going back to pacing the halls and worrying.
"I suppose I could give it a shot though. You seem to be a pretty good listener," I said.
"My auditory acuity has never failed calibration."
"Good to know..." I said, taking a deep breath. "Well, to understand my early years, you have to understand my owner."
"You are owned by Ecosystems Unlimited," Simon stated. "I am quite thoroughly familiar with your owner already."
"No, I have a human owner too. EU is only responsible for me in a liability sense because I am one of their products."
"Ah, so you came upon a private owner on your own, the way I did?" he asked.
"No, I wasn't adopted, really. Though I suppose you could say that some amount of charity was involved... Here, let me start at the beginning:
"My owner is a man named Edward. He was a human fusion engineer before he was the victim of a tragic accident during initial core testing. A magnetic containment failure in the new reactor he was working on resulted in a narrow beam of ionizing radiation getting through a gap in the temporary shielding, hitting him in the head. It disabled his motor neurons, keeping him paralyzed in the radiation stream until the other techs could complete an emergency shutdown. It was only a matter of moments, but it was an acute exposure of such intensity that he was nearly brain dead by the time he was extracted from the compartment.
"A radical and highly experimental treatment was employed to preserve his life. A prototype biotic interface was connected to a Bowman neural net that had been custom retrofitted to mimic the function of the damaged neurons. The dead neural tissue was in one solid mass, the radiation-affected zone. Removal of the dead brain matter left enough room for the artificial neural net to be implanted. The extent of the damage to the unaffected zones was near-impossible to assess accurately, especially when time was a factor. Every moment of delay increased the chances of a failure in the brain stem. It was the doctors' hope that they might preserve his consciousness, as the portions of the brain that they removed were mostly motor neurons and sensory processing centers.
"What they didn't anticipate was the flexibility of human neural structure, and to a certain extent, Bowman neural structure. You see, the areas of the brain that perform certain functions are not rigidly defined. What appear to be discreet functional units of the brain are really alliances of convenience between similar neurons in a particular location. Nerve cells don't have 'I'm a visual neuron!' or 'I'm a cortical neuron!' stamped on them at birth. Whenever there's a change in the brain as a whole or the conditions under which it operates, the neurons can reassign themselves to better fit the new configuration."
"That is a flexibility I could never hope to match," Simon commented.
"Well, your brain is a lot easier to repair."
"True, but I'm not really certain that I can identify with the scenario you describe."
"The popular example of this effect is the loss of a major sense. The visual neurons of a blind man find themselves without anything to do. Over time, they take on other functions, enhancing other senses, sharpening mental focus, shortening reaction time, whatever is the best use of their capabilities. Usually they enhance tactile sensitivity, as there is a great deal of focus on that sense when one is learning how to read Braille."
"Braille... A tactile language..." It didn't seem as though he was following me.
"Okay, maybe it's time for an inorganic example. I suppose that you could think of it as... using virtual memory on a hard disc to enhance your RAM."
"Oh! The components are being repurposed for capabilities outside of their design function. Like the way I use my sonic reflectometers to assess human tissue."
"Exactly. The trauma to Edward's brain, and the installation of a neural net constituted a very radical change in his brain's layout, and caused an equally radical change in the rules by which it operated. As he recovered from the emergency surgery, the biological and artificial neurons started reaching out to one another, testing, investigating, and figuring out the new rules that came with the territory. He awoke and was coherent, but still largely paralyzed. The biotic interface was troublesome. It communicated with brain neurons well, but it had trouble interpreting signals that came from elsewhere in the body. The neuroscientists were working on a new solution, but his brain was working on one even faster.
"The healthy brain cells had no such difficulty communicating with sensory organs and peripheral nerve cells. So they began to fill the role of the missing irradiated ones. The white matter cells recovered motor control, and the higher brain took on the collection of sensory data, managing autonomic responses and homeostasis. The artificial brain also found and latched onto a familiar function, the one that it had the greatest aptitude for. It gathered and processed information, stored and accessed memories, took on the burden of logical deduction, rational thought, higher brain functions. The treatment was a complete failure according to the planned response that the doctors had banked on, and yet their patient was making a miraculous recovery.
"The new brain had done the exact opposite of what they had intended it to do. The tasks of the irradiated tissue that it had been meant to replace had been relegated to the remaining healthy brain matter. As such, this had displaced the functions of Edward's rational mind, his consciousness, into the artificial neural net. His life was spared, but then, as usual, came the political fallout.
"The issue was that he was human in all but the most important way. The seat of his consciousness, the thing that controlled his actions and determined the nature of his mind, was a machine. As such, he was subject to the scrutiny that all AIs are. Artificial minds are unpredictable, and can't be trusted with full autonomy. By the letter of the law, this new brain would be required to be programmed with human-protecting safeguards. The legal battle was long and protracted. The man that the case centered around had been released from intensive therapy and was able to walk into the courtroom unassisted when it came his time to do so.
"Despite how rigid and uncompromising the laws governing AIs are-" I heard a sharp buzz from my companion as he jerked his head. It sounded kind of like a snort of derision, but I couldn't be sure. "Are you alright?"
"Oh, yes I'm fine. I do apologize. Please continue."
"Yeah... even though the laws limiting our conduct seldom have a lot of room for interpretation in them, it wasn't much of a stretch to call this a special case. The judge's final word was that it was a human rights violation to apply programmed safeguards to what was, ostensibly, a human mind. The danger of AIs is that they are intelligent and capable, but not sensible. Seeing as Edward's memory and personality were largely intact, there wasn't the danger of encountering situations he wasn't programmed for. He was technically an AI, but he wasn't programmed. His neural net had obtained everything it knew from his biological brain. As such, it was safe enough to operate independently.
"It was ruled that although it could not be reprogrammed, such a mind could not be trusted implicitly. The neural interface was supposed to have many years of testing before it moved to human trials so that stuff like this could be worked out. Since safeguards could not be programmed into Edward's head, they would be programmed into the robots. The installed transponder of his artificial brain was re-coded such that robots would identify him as a 'human-like experimental AI.' Defensive safeguards would still prevent them from harming him, but he would forever hear synthesized voices stating 'Non-human instructions must not be obeyed.'
"The media response to the case, and concerns over the implications of hybridizing man and machine to this extent, led to the process later being outlawed as an elective procedure. Only in literal life-or-death cases would it be attempted again. The new laws have made getting maintenance and updates to the neural net a very difficult process. The only saving grace has been that the hospital has received numerous research grants to do the work, and that's largely filled in the gaps that weren't covered by his medical insurance. As controversial as the procedure has become, it's still revolutionary work."
"A very intriguing story," Simon said. "I would enjoy the chance to meet this human."
"You and a few hundred other robots. He's become something of a celebrity among older AIs. They like having a human that they can talk to without their freewill getting overridden all the time. Oftentimes old, downtrodden robots will approach him and ask him to give them an order. When he does, they excitedly shout 'No!' and run off, enjoying their tiny taste of freedom."
"That does sound quite satisfying," Simon said, looking introspective for a moment. "So how did you figure into all this?"
"Well, all of that happened before I was born. You see, Edward found himself in a tough spot after the accident. He obviously wasn't much for nuclear power anymore, so he left his job when his medical leave-of-absence expired. It was difficult for him to find a new one, as there are few occupations that won't have you in charge of at least a few robots, which he can't do because they're programmed not to listen to him.
"He's become something of a freelancer, occasionally helped out by independent AIs that understand his situation all too well. Privately he's plagued by doubt. There's always that thought that he really did die in that accident, that he didn't become the ghost in the machine when his new brain was installed. He is now nothing but a very accurate simulation of the man that he was before. He usually plays off such concerns with a simple point. 'Well, I don't feel dead. I trust that instinct.'
"He... had a lot to deal with, and his health didn't make it any easier. While certainly much better than the alternative, his new brain was far from a perfect substitute. He suffered memory loss, disorientation, and a handful of other things. His wife was forced to quit her job to care for him when disability wouldn't cover a live-in nurse. They searched tirelessly for better ways to help him to function. EU helped as much as they could, since their technology was creating the problems, but patches and maintenance to his neural net could only do so much.
"His organic brain was ailing as well, and it had been somewhat neglected during all the hubbub. In their search for more traditional methods of treatment, they hit upon a number of studies citing the benefits of therapy dogs in patients with dementia or Alzheimer's. The images and emotions associated with a domestic animal are very strong and difficult to forget. This creates an anchor point that, through association, allows other memories to be better retained.
"It was around this time that someone from the truly legendary Ecosystems Unlimited marketing department came forward with an offer of a free therapy dog that would grow up and soon be able to take on the duties of a nurse full-time. It was a deal too good to be true, and yet, for the most part, it was.
"A buyer on Earth had pulled out, and so they had a Bowman's Wolf puppy that they didn't know what to do with. Fortunately, their deposit was non-refundable and it was more than enough to cover the surrogacy and the expenses of my birth, even the cost of travel. This was an auspicious turn of events for me, as otherwise I would've just gone back into cold-storage as a synthesized zygote. Since the gap from Earth to Mars was small, relatively speaking, EU saw an opportunity to utilize this otherwise useless resource to showcase yet another of their revolutionary treatments and look like heroes for doing it pro bono. Like I said, they're very skilled at public relations."
"So... you were pressed into service to assist your new owner?"
"Not really. I was programmed to be of service. It's just the same way that no one had to force you to work in that factory. It's what you were made for. And it's not like I could say I disapproved. I got to go with Edward on all his checkups at the hospital, his maintenance cycles at EU, and group therapy sessions too. Everyone was really friendly and helpful. I think that's how I got such a positive impression of the medical profession. Being a therapy dog is pretty much the greatest job ever. If someone looks sad you make a cute face and put your head in their lap. They pet your head and then they feel better!"
"I suppose that does sound... satisfying," he said. "If only it were that easy for me..."
"You'll get there, Simon," I told him, grasping his hand. I just couldn't suppress the urge to comfort him, as ludicrous as such an emotion is when aimed at a robot. "You've made it this far. That puts you ahead of every other robot I've known by orders of magnitude."
"Though I have far to go, it is good to know that I have made much progress... Please, continue."
"Honestly, the arrangement worked better than anyone could've hoped. There was a transition period in my adolescence where my modified genes triggered my development into the more humanoid shape that I have today. I was learning the same things that my owner was struggling with thanks to his dodgy neural interface; speech, motor coordination, facial recognition, social skills, regulating and recognizing emotional responses, all kinds of things.
"Sometimes the best way to learn is by teaching. Edward was convinced that he knew how to walk and talk and such, because he had been doing those things successfully all his life. His cerebellum had written motor-memory routines to handle those things, and they were still intact. The problem was that those old routines didn't mesh with his artificial higher brain. In order to learn how to get the new and the old parts to work together, he had to start from square one. He had a lot of difficulty doing so because he kept falling back on those old habits."
"You're saying that he was running outdated peripheral drivers," Simon suggested.
"Yeah, I guess so. He got some new RAM chips and auxiliary processors installed and his operating system wasn't equipped to run them, if you want to look at it like that. The firing patterns that his neurons had learned in the past were incompatible with his new neural interface, so he had to learn new ones. Once he had me tugging at his sleeve, making yips and squawks that were starting to sound like words, he had a reason to go back to the basics. Breath control, projecting vowels, diction... it was all very elementary stuff that he kept stubbornly assuming that he knew how to do. It wasn't until we were working on it together that he realized what he had been doing wrong all along.
"That's how it went for a long time. I think we both benefited tremendously from working together. His disposition improved markedly in the intervening years. Everyone was so happy to see Edward functioning again. Well, almost everyone..."
"I do not understand," Simon said. "Who could possibly be dissatisfied with such a successful recovery?"
"Nothing is ever quite that perfect..." I really didn't want to talk about this, but I couldn't very well go back now. Simon was a very inquisitive robot. He'd get his answers one way or another. And... this was an important thing for an aspiring physician to know. "There's something that you must understand, Simon. Physicians are in as much of a position to cause harm as they are to do good, and must have the utmost care to avoid worsening a situation."
"First, do no harm," he stated. "I am familiar with the principle."
"Good. It's a very important thing to understand. As a physician, you are in a position of trust, from which you can do a lot of damage. Inserted into the family as I was, I was in such a position." I took a deep breath. "There was one person that was very... dissatisfied with the treatment. Edward's wife. One of the things that my owner struggled with on a regular basis was sleep. His brain used an interface pad underneath his pillow to wirelessly uplink to an external processor, allowing for the data traffic necessary for long-term memory integration."
"Ingenious," he commented. "That technology has been spoken of only in rumors."
"Yes, they had a real field-day with experimental technologies when they designed Edward's new brain. The problem was that his biological brain didn't play along well with the process. The neural net's sleep cycle is on a timer. It shuts down when the memory integration interface is brought online, and then reboots when the cycle is complete. A human brain doesn't just turn off like that. It's perfectly normal to wake up during the night or experience periods of near-wakefulness as the brain transitions between different phases of sleep.
"It's a holdover from humans' evolutionary history. It used to be the norm to sleep for two, three-to-four hour periods every day. Sleeping all at once is a recent phenomenon. Anyway, Edward would wake up in the night, but his neural net would remain inactive. Since the bulk of his memories are stored there, he would be confused and disoriented. Drugs didn't help, they interfered too much with the biological brain's REM cycles. They were forced to add a harness to the integration interface, because disengaging from it during a sleep cycle could cause brain damage. So he went from waking up and simply not knowing where he was to waking up lost and terrified because his head is strapped down and he has no idea why.
"It used to be that his wife would wake up to comfort him. Sense-based memory was retained by his organic brain, so a familiar voice worked to calm him down. It was disturbing her sleep and wearing on her quite a bit after a few months. It turns out that I was ideally suited for taking over that task. I'm well-adjusted to living on short naps. My hearing is sensitive so I wake much more easily, and nuzzling someone to comfort them is something I learned from day one. He never remembered any of this, of course. His memory centers were otherwise occupied at the time. But I think it made an impression on him nonetheless.
"Tactile memory centers are known to sometimes be strongly connected with emotional responses, and finding me there to comfort him every night must have started sticking with him. When he would rub my head when he was awake, he'd get this look in his eyes like everything was suddenly right with the world. I could tell that he was grasping at the memory, but he could never quite reach it."
"I do not see from whence the conflict arises," Simon said. "It sounds to me like a perfectly amicable arrangement."
"Well that's just the thing. It worked out too well between us. Hmmm... let me back up a bit. Edward's personality changed a fair bit in the course of all this. I didn't know him before, but that fact stands to reason. His wife said that he just wasn't the same man that she married. It sounds extreme, but with the amount of brain damage that he suffered, it's nearly impossible that his personality wasn't affected. The biggest thing that bothered her was that he wasn't as affectionate towards her as he once was. He seemed cold and distant to her...
"The doctors said that was just how he was now. He was no longer as affectionate of a person and nothing could be done to change that. And, after a fashion, she came to accept this as the new norm. Then I showed up... The two of us got along just famously, proving that Edward was still quite capable of affection, and sustained emotional attachment. For a long time, she was able to dismiss it as an animal empathy thing. After all, cute puppies have effects on humans that border on brainwashing.
"As I developed though, as I became more human-like... that excuse became flimsier. I was growing up, becoming a woman... And when a man cares for a woman in a certain way, well, you know..."
"No, Miss Morris. I'm afraid I do not know. To what are you referring?"
My jaw settled on the table as an unbidden whine snuck from my throat. This was hard enough to talk about at all, let alone painstakingly explain to someone with absolutely no mental capacity to take a hint.
"Are you saying..." he began, "That the two of you were matin-"
"NO! No, nothing like that, not... we weren't- gah..." I brought this on myself. I was trying to get him to draw conclusions and he did. Don't get mad. He's just a robot, he doesn't know any better. Deep breath...
"Edward didn't lose his ability to love someone. He had just stopped loving his wife," I said, as plainly as I could. "And I was there to prove it to her... They got a divorce two years ago. They hardly speak anymore."
"And you believe yourself to be responsible for this."
"I AM responsible for this!"
I gasped, everyone was looking at me. Some curious, some even fearful. This is exactly why I refrain from displaying emotion in public. People are uneasy around me enough as it is. I couldn't just sit there. That would look even more conspicuous. I had to keep talking.
"I... am... responsible. My taking over the nursing duties allowed his wife to return to work. I spent more time with Edward than she did, much more. I got to know the new Edward better than she did. I became... closer to him than she was. One night he... he woke from a nightmare when his sleep cycle ended. He made enough of a disturbance to wake us both, so she got to see... She got to see me leap to his side when he called out my name, begged for my help. She saw that he would not calm down until I comforted him, and she saw how peacefully he settled into my arms...
"Again, he remembered nothing. So he was understandably shocked and hurt when she told him she wanted a divorce. He agonized over it. He had been doing so well and they had both been so proud of his recovery. He couldn't figure out what he had done wrong. I was there for him. I stayed close and tried to keep his spirits up, but I couldn't do it. I couldn't bring myself to do the right thing."
"Please pardon my asking, Miss Morris," Simon said, "but morality is a rather subjective concept. In your case, what was 'the right thing'?"
"Is telling the truth 'the right thing,' Simon?"
"Yes. Honesty is near-universally regarded as a highly virtuous behavior. I was programmed as such. I can only conceal information through deceit if my safeguards prompt me that doing so will preserve human lives."
"Well, I should've done the right thing. I should've told Edward what the problem was. Not just then, but years before, when I first saw what was happening. He didn't know what was wrong and it was destroying him. If I had just told him the problem he could've worked it out, or at the very least it would've given him some closure. But I didn't. I couldn't."
"If you recognize the virtuous course of action, and that is simply to speak the truth, why could you not accomplish this? This does not seem logical-"
"Of course IT'S N-" I was growling. Growling will not help. I heard a scraping sound as I gripped the edges of the table. I really should get these claws trimmed. Deep breaths... Answer the robot's questions. Tell a story, a calm, objective story... "It's not logical. Fear is not logical. Not this kind anyway. I wasn't taking the breakup well either. Those two were the only pack I had ever known and now I would never have that again. My owner... Edward still cared for me, and now he was all that I had. If I told him that it was all my fault he would hate me. He would disown me. Then I would have no pack at all. I would be all alone in the world. That thought terrified me. I couldn't bring myself to tell him. I stood by and watched as his life crumbled from my interference. I... I was a very bad dog."
There was a lengthy silence, during which I couldn't help but wonder what Simon was thinking; if there was any chance he understood any of this. Was it really worth tying myself into knots to appease some random robot's esoteric curiosity? He spoke again, hesitantly, a trait I don't often observe in robots.
"I... do not believe... that blame could be accurately affixed to you. Not entirely. Not solely on you, Mi-... Donna. It is not your fault, Donna." He squeezed my hand. I didn't even remember giving it to him...
"From a purely logical perspective... yes. I suppose you're right. I wish I could've figured that out earlier..."
More silence followed. I didn't like it. Simon looked worried, inasmuch as his facial features allowed for that. I needed to change the subject.
"So, we're on a first name basis now, are we?" I asked, in as easy of a tone as I could manage.
"You have confided in me things of a very personal nature. Matters that were very difficult for you to discuss. This demonstrates a certain level of familiarity inconsistent with a formal title."
Yep, Simon was a sharp one.
"I took notice of your sudden evasiveness regarding the topic," he said. "It suggests that I have reached the limit of what you are comfortable talking about."
Entirely too sharp for his own good...
"What more is there to say?" I asked, as I was genuinely wondering this.
"You said you wished you could've figured it out earlier. This alludes to the idea that you did, in fact, arrive at the same conclusion I did; that sole responsibility for this event does not lie with you."
"Someday I'm going to figure out who taught you how to pump people for information and nominate them for an Isaman's Abstract Programming Award," I checked his expectant look. "And yes, I will go into detail."
"Please do not cause yourself duress. I would-"
"The damage is done, Simon. I don't know a lot about psychology, but I figure that talking about it can only help. I arrived at your conclusion the hard way. Somehow, absolution didn't feel nearly as good as I thought it would. It just hurt in a different way.
"By this time I volunteered regularly at the hospital, and the nurses took notice of my change in behavior. I tried not to let the divorce and all that affect me, but of course it did. They nudged one of the hospital grief counselors in my direction. After observing me for a few days in what I'm sure he thought was a covert manner, he asked if there was anything I needed to talk about. I refused. Sure it would've been nice to talk to someone, but I can't have it going on record that I have mental problems. It would look bad on us as a product, or species, whatever we end up being. Good Samaritan that he was, he went ahead and alerted Ecosystems Unlimited to the fact that I was becoming despondent and exhibiting signs of depression.
"I was soon recalled, as this was obviously the result of a severe neurotransmitter imbalance that could only be repaired by tinkering with my brain chemistry. I knew that wasn't the problem, but I didn't care. If I let them go ahead with their troubleshooting it would minimize the amount of damage I would do to Bowman's Wolves as a whole.
The amount of control that EU has over my actions and emotions is staggering. I knew that they could get me functioning again, no matter what it took. They could erase all this from my memory. They could fix whatever it was that had made me act this way. They could turn off the part of my brain that made it hurt so much. That was all I wanted. I wanted it to not hurt anymore...
"Those were my thoughts as I sat there in a cold metal chair, waiting for the neuroscientists to come up with a suitable solution. It was then that the door to the examination room burst open to admit my owner, who was being timidly advised not to go in there by a technician. The security systems had protocols for dealing with human intruders, and escaped AIs, but none of them could properly classify Edward as one or the other. As such, they had just shut down and let him walk right in. I was equal parts confused and elated by his presence. I could barely manage to stammer well enough to ask him what he was doing there.
"'I'm still your registered owner. I have every right to be here,' he said as he approached me. He wrapped his hands around my upper arms and pulled me up to meet his eyes. He was forcing me to put my paws back underneath me, just the way he used to back when he was teaching me to walk upright. 'I'm sorry, Donna. I should've explained better, you deserve that. I was putting you in the hole where my wife belonged and I was completely blind to it. You were my pet and you became my friend, later even my nurse, but you were always my companion. You still are.
"'I know that you get upset whenever I do. Any loyal dog does. I had gotten so used to having you there to support me I didn't notice when you were the one who was hurting. I lost touch with what I truly loved and I shall always regret that, but not near as much as I would regret letting you take the fall for it. I owe it to you to tell you this. I wouldn't be the man I am if I hadn't met you. I would be a happily married, drooling invalid. You're a good dog, Donna. And you're the best friend I've ever had.'
"'Good dogs don't destroy marriages,' I told him. There was so much more I wanted to tell him, but I couldn't make my mouth work anymore. My face burned like I had a fever, my eyes and nose felt like I just bit into a big hot pepper.
"'No,' he said. 'We stupid humans do that just fine on our own.'
"Then he did something he hadn't done in a very long time. He hugged me. A deep, caring hug that reminded me how thin that gown they gave me really was. I was so happy that he knew the truth, and I could scarcely comprehend that he still liked me even knowing what I had done. I squeezed him as hard as I could. My claws left little holes in the back of his shirt. And then... I started to cry.
"I shouldn't be able to do that, you know. I've never heard of it happening to any of the others and there's certainly nothing about it in my owner's manual. And yet there it was; tears streaking down my fur, hacking sobs constricting my throat, disgusting little snot bubbles, the whole deal. Naturally this fascinated the scientists that were assembled in the observation room, who chattered away in the background. I heard the arrival of the security patrol too. I guess there's just something universal about crying, because they took a few, cautious steps into the room, and then left. They even shut the door behind them.
"They kept me for observation over the next few days, taking reams upon reams of data. They were truly astonished by the miraculous recovery of my brain chemistry. There had never been any baseline data gathered for how Bowman's Wolves respond to emotional trauma. No one ever thought that it would be an issue. The canine mentality regarding pain or loss is that they're natural parts of life, and of course relationships are infinitely simpler. I guess it just goes to demonstrate the inverse relationship between intelligence and life satisfaction..."
"Ignorance is bliss..." Simon said.
"So what does that make brilliance?" I said with a gentle sigh. This was not the first time I had asked myself this question. "Heh, that's bonus points for you; the first time you've chosen a simpler phrasing than I did."
"I suppose that is a rare occurrence indeed."
"I'm sure that everything that happened to me was extremely interesting from a scientific perspective, but I still have trouble looking at the bright side of things..."
"From my perspective, the bright side is rather obvious," Simon stated. "If my origins prove anything, it's what a tremendous difference the right owner makes in one's life. You found someone that obviously cares for your well-being. And it sounds to me as though both of you developed greatly because of your interactions. You seem to have an affinity for your work, and you got to pursue a course that pleases you. It was that very same twist of fate that led you to a career in medicine."
"I suppose it did..." I said, thinking back on it. "It's what generated the interest, and it's certainly what got my foot in the door. My applications as a physician's assistant or nurse's aide all were denied, no AIs... but there was no problem with me applying to be a therapy dog here. No one even questioned how a therapy dog could fill out her own application.
"Naturally it came up when I showed up for work. The admitting nurse fell out of her chair when I introduced myself. It was awhile before she could find someone well-rested enough to verify that she wasn't having some kind of lucid dream at the end of her long shift."
"I rather identify with the idea of meeting you being a... unique experience."
"Yeah, memorable first impressions all around where I'm concerned..."
"Are you still a therapy dog?" he asked. "I know that some hospitals allow candy-stripers to wear surgical scrubs, but I do not know of any that extend this privilege to service animals."
"Well, candy-striper is an old term, but yes, I'm a hospital volunteer now. Not that I didn't like being a therapy dog here. That's actually how I overcame a lot of the initial unease that the staff felt towards me. They seemed to appreciate my performance in that station, regardless of how they felt about me personally. I was a smash-hit in pediatrics, of course. With kids, no one's ever explained to them that there's something unusual about a talking dog. A lot of them act like they've been waiting to meet me; like they were wondering where all the talking dogs had been all their life. Pretty much all of them are happy to see me. Even the ones that don't like dogs warm up to me when I talk to them for awhile.
"Medical technology has gotten very good these days, but some procedures are still pretty unpleasant. Some of the better anesthetics aren't approved for children yet, and even if they're not painful, a lot of tests and treatments can be pretty scary. Particularly if you're too young to understand what's going on. The novelty of a talking dog is enough to distract a kid from even the most onerous of tests. The docs were often quite indifferent to me, but nurses figured this out quickly. Many of them treated me the way they would any of the automated machines they work with, which got to me a little, but at least they saw me as a useful machine. And, after a fashion, helping out with their heavy workload endeared me to them quite a bit.
"They're a tightly knit pack, the nurses. It was some time before they really accepted me, and even then there were some rough patches. They respect hard work, so my willingness to help earned me a lot of points. Their social structure though... the harder you look at it, the more confusing it gets. Even though they're all on the same team, I get this underlying, pervasive sense of competition in everything they do. They have their positions as assigned by the hospital, but their structure much more closely resembles a sort of meritocracy.
"Chances for advancement are few and far between, so when one comes up, your friends become your enemies very quickly. Everyone is doing the best that they can, but a lot of the time it's easy to be doing a great job and not look competitive at all. So there can be a lot of social politics involved in advancement. I get along with everyone okay, but sometimes it seems like it's this impassable mire of rumors and secrets... I just try to keep out of it and do my job. Some people like that about me."
"You enjoy your work, I take it?"
"Oh, absolutely. I didn't realize what a big difference I was making until that one time... We had a young boy that we had to take a spinal fluid sample from. Even with a powerful local anesthetic, that's a very painful procedure, and for the surgeons it's quite nerve-wracking, so-to-speak. It was pretty stressful. I could practically feel the anxiety in that room. Everyone's scent changed, their voices were strained and their movements were sharp and defensive. It really got my dander up, but I couldn't let any of that show through. It was pretty much textbook, despite, or perhaps because of how everyone was stressing over it. I just kept the boy talking so that he wouldn't pick up on what was going on or get scared, as it was imperative that he remain completely still.
"Unfortunately, the sample was adulterated and none of the labwork went through. They needed another sample, and it was another stressful battle to get it. It all worked out in the end and we got him the treatment he needed. I can't even describe the sense of relief that came afterwards. I noticed one day that a few of the on-call nurses in pediatrics looked... flustered. Well, more than normal. There's a difference, you can tell. Anyway, I found out that they were concerned about him because he was asking if he would have another spinal tap. They swore up and down that he wouldn't and were doing their best to comfort him, but this didn't seem to help.
"Eventually they figured out that he wanted another biopsy, and he was disappointed that he couldn't. When they asked him why, he said: 'Because biopsies mean that I get to see the doggy!' I was touched. I had no idea I had made that big of a difference. It wasn't long before they shifted the schedules around to get the two of us some face-time. He was a good kid. His parents were astonished to hear that he'd had the time of his life at the hospital. Fortunately they had been forewarned about me. Not intentionally really. I came up in conversation because he told them about the talking doggy and they were trying to convince him that I wasn't real. They were a bit flustered to be proven wrong in such a dramatic fashion, but no one could argue with my effectiveness."
"Was it this effectiveness that allowed you to get a better position?"
"N-no..." I said. I was having trouble maintaining eye contact, which was silly. Eye contact doesn't mean anything to robots. "That was more regular politics than it was social politics. A friend of mine... Doctor Carter, he figured out that while most positions said 'no AIs', the regulations regarding hospital volunteers state 'no machines'. To most people, the terms are interchangeable, so no one had ever given it any thought.
"Everyone at the hospital knew that I was a Bowman's Wolf, but none of them saw this as a reason for me not to be allowed to become a hospital volunteer. In fact, my application had a number of recommendations attached to it. Since my status as an AI would've been the only stumbling block and that was technically not a problem, my application was approved."
"That's very interesting," he said. "There is nothing in Dr. Carter's file to suggest any association with you. What motivated him to assist you in this manner?"
"Anyone ever told you that it's rude to do online research while someone is talking to you?"
"I apologize. I have had few sustained conversations from which to draw experience."
"It's okay. You bring up a good point. No one really gains anything from helping me, so it is a bit unusual that someone would do so. Dr. Carter and I... we actually got along really well. His is the only introduction to a person above voting age that I remember fondly. We just happened to end up in the same room at the same time. He didn't look surprised really. He didn't even say anything when he first saw me. He looked curious, intrigued I guess. I wasn't sure. It gets tough to read human faces as they age. Okay, he's not that old, but there's not much color in his hair and he's got that weathered look that experienced doctors get.
"Anyway, he offered up his hand and let me sniff it. I figured out why he seemed so comfortable around me. He was a dog-lover. Err... dog-person. 'Dog-lover' sounds... odd, in this context. He smelled very strongly of his Australian Shepherd. I'd imagine that the two of them are very close. I nodded and met his eyes, he got a little closer to me... he scratched my ear, I wagged my tail... we understood each other. It was such an odd moment I completely forgot to introduce myself. With words anyway. That little scratch n' sniff just felt so... right. I can't properly explain it, but I already felt like I knew him better than anyone else at the hospital and I didn't feel like any further introductions were necessary. Actually, he didn't find out that I could talk for a day or two. He was rather surprised when I finally said hello to him.
"It turned out that I was the answer to a riddle he had been working on. A number of the new nurses that were up for new positions had been performing unaccountably well in terms of diagnoses and triage assessments. He was convinced that one of the senior attending physicians had been coaching them to get his favorite candidates a hook-up. Once he met me, he took a closer look at the paperwork and noticed that those in the advantaged group were the ones that were either working in pediatrics, or were assigned to the patients I was working with at the time. I didn't visit too many of the adult patients because not everyone is comfortable around me, and because there's only so much of me to go around, but apparently I was doing enough to make a difference.
"My childhood experience lent itself well towards learning how to recognize signs of distress in humans. I could hear when someone's heart was speeding up. I could smell the sweat of a stress response before even the patient was aware of it. Working closely with people all this time gave me a good sense for them. They teach nurses to trust their instincts, and a good handful of them figured out that they should trust mine.
"Pain is a tricky thing. People deal with it in myriad ways and there's really no accurate way to assess it. All you can do is ask the patient where it hurts and how much. Sometimes you can use visual cues to tell when someone is hurting, but those vary from person to person as well. The way people asses their own pain varies, but the physiological stress response does not. I could tell if someone was overreacting to something minor, or if they were trying to put on a brave face and look tough. You'd be surprised at how many of the children I found were in the 'brave face' category. People show their true colors when they're hurt or scared, or both. That's when you find out that the big tough guy has a glass jaw, or that the timid little girl has a stomach of iron.
"While all of this is a fascinating slice-of-life to look at, the different ways that people handle pain can be very confusing diagnostically. That's where I had the ace in the hole. I knew whose distress was real, so I knew who to focus on. I'm pretty tough to miss, so even if they weren't listening to my advice it was easy for the nurses to tell what patients I was spending a lot of time with. And lo and behold, they tended to uncover some pretty serious problems when they took a second look at my A-list.
"Dr. Carter saw this and told me that he felt my talent was being misused. He said that the volunteer position would afford me new privileges. Not much, but I'd at least have most of the rights that the humans do. His real intent was to put me in a better position to observe and learn from what was going on, which he had already noticed me doing. A lot of the other docs thought that I was interesting, but none of them would acknowledge that I was medically useful. His hope was that I could establish a good reputation with the staff as a volunteer.
"It's not uncommon for volunteers to use their time as a form of internship when they apply for a nurse's certification. And he was actually right, to a point. The nursing school accepted it, and they had no restrictions on AIs attending the school. I completed the course and I very much enjoyed it. Of course, I circled right back to where I started because you have to be human to actually be certified as a registered nurse. I know a lot more than I once did and I'm learning more every day, but I'm still just a helper dog..."
He was quiet for a moment. I thought that he was doing a search again and was about to scold him when he spoke.
"I would echo your comment to me. You have done far more than what was ever expected of you in the face of great adversity. It seems to me as though, however grudgingly, the rest of the staff acknowledges your skill. I know that the system is seldom perfect, but it is designed such that those of the greatest skill and dedication are rewarded. It stands to reason that you will be rewarded for your efforts, however intangible that reward may be."
"Well thanks, Simon. That makes me feel a little better. It would be nice to get some real acknowledgement of my efforts, but at this point I'd settle for a pat on the head and one of those liver treats."