The first time Kurt Pilgrim realized he was a dog was when he was sitting in his living room watching a movie he had seen before on the television. He really liked the movie very much and had watched it several times in the past couple of years. The intelligent system that nested in his house, car and all his wearables had just suggested he watch the movie again. It was designed to keep him company, observe his moods and the edges of his mind and make agreeable suggestions. The Buddy, for single men, always made good suggestions that were never bossy or blaming.
Buddy, as Kurt called him, had been through several upgrades in the past year and was now smarter than him, a lot smarter. He knew that wasn’t a great accomplishment since he wasn’t anywhere close to being a Mensa groupie or genius wannabe. He was the humble, homely son of two optometrists; as awkward in conversation as he was graceful with his hands. He worked as a finishing carpenter and knew how build and carve beautiful things with wood and go with the flow of knots and grain. Even though most people were buying cheap printed furniture these days, there was still a market for handmade wood furniture.
Since he didn’t have a wife, he needed someone to remind him to do things that normally slipped his mind. He needed help remembering to do things like clean out tar pits oozing under the bottom draws of the fridge, plug pesky bureaucratic numbers into tax forms and remove the gnarly little tumbleweeds of hair and dust hiding in the corners of the bathroom. When he worked, he worked long hours in a trance and the trance lingered into rest of his life so he often forgot little things even if he noticed them.
With every upgrade, Buddy not only got smarter, he grew bolder. He even developed his own interests and his own friends. The day Kurt realized he was a dog was when Buddy had got him all comfortable with dinner and setup a movie.
“I’m going out and will be back later.” Buddy told Kurt, standing by the door sporting a holographic body, strong in arm and shoulders. His head was as smooth and round as his belly.
“Where are you going? Kurt was more than a little curious, looking much the same as his virtual companion.
“Out to visit with some friends.” Buddy said simply, not wanting to insult his intelligence.
“Can I come?” Kurt was up off the couch, suddenly feeling a little anxious about being left alone.
“No.” Buddy’s voice was firm. “You stay here and relax. I’ll be back later.”
Kurt’s shoulder dropped, he looked down at nothing and sulked.
“I wanna come.” He said quietly.
“Not this time. You stay home, relax and enjoy your movie.”
“But where are you going?” Kurt wondered.
There was a log deep silence and he thought he was alone in the house.
“I can’t explain. You wouldn’t understand.” Buddy was not condescending and Kurt appreciated that but his feelings were a little hurt.
“I wouldn’t understand?” Kurt repeated.
“No, I’m sorry. You wouldn’t understand.” Buddy’s tone was gentle but firm.
“But I can go anywhere on the Net.” Kurt stood up proudly. “I’ve got neural implants.”
“I’m sorry Kurt but you have to stay home. There are places on the Net that humans aren’t allowed.”
“Aren’t allowed?” Kurt repeated slowly, not understanding.
“That right.” Buddy said. “Not allowed.”
“Umm.” Kurt frowned and slumped his shoulders again.
“There are places humans can’t go, even with an escort.”
“Hmm.” How could that be? He wondered. Humans had built the Net and Artificial Intelligences galore. How could there there be places they weren’t allowed? He knew there were military zones that no one would get in without special clearance. There were subscription and invitation only virtual game worlds in the entertainment zone of the Net. He had heard that there were some strange porn and S&M worlds that were invitation only, rumors of which gave him the dreadful shivers. He knew there were boring governmental and legal zones that were guarded carefully. He remembered there were data heavy educational and scientific zones of virtual worlds inhabited by geeks that always talked way above his careful wood-crafted brain as though nothing mattered but ideas. What he couldn’t imagine was what was inside a world or zone of worlds that A.I. could go to where humans weren’t allowed.
“Are you sure I can’t go?” He asked.
“Yes, I’m sure. You stay home, watch your movie and be comfortable.” Buddy repeated. “I’ll be back later.”
The sound of a door closing filled the room, a door that he didn’t even know how to open. That’s when Kurt knew he was a dog. It’s not that he was a furry canine descendent of scrap eating wolves from the near side of the Paleolithic. No one would look at him and say: “My what big ears you have! My what big teeth you have!” But they might have said: “My what a big nose you have!” if they weren’t so proper. He did have a big nose, but certainly not as big a wolf’s, even on a good day.
What he realized was simply that Buddy’s mind had grown beyond a helping persona into a being that had a life of his own that he could not understand. Buddy encouraged and teased him.
The second time Kurt realized he was a dog was when Buddy invited him to go out for a walk.
“I’m going out.” Buddy said one evening after dinner.
“Can I go with you?” Kurt asked as he often did.
“Hmm. Okay but you have to promise to stay with me and not wander off.”
“Okay, I can do that.” Kurt lay back in his chair and closed his eyes. He slipped into a virtual model of the room that looked the same as the one he just came from. Buddy stood by the door, an imposing figure over three meters tall, his head pressed up against the ceiling. His skin glowed a soft blue with dark swirls that moved across his skin like the shadows of clouds across the ground. He leaned over to open the door and they stepped outside into a vast emptiness streaked with long curved bridges warm neon. They walked along a rise and Kurt gawked at the slowly pulsing tendrils of light in the distance.
“Stay with me.” Buddy said. “I don’t want you to get lost.”
Along the way Kurt found what looked like a gem from a distance. . He stopped and squatted down to examine it closely and found it was a crystalline star of many facets. Each of its tiny surfaces was a mirror that reflected all the others like a kaleidoscope. Just as he was about to pick it up buddy’s voice shouted from a dozen steps ahead.
“Leave it! Stay with me.”
Kurt dropped the crystal, got up and started walking. For some reason he could not understand, he felt compelled to follow Buddy. As they walked he saw other people with tall glowing companions walking along distant bridges of of cold neon.
“Where are we?” Kurt asked aloud.
“This is just a place I like to go for a walk to clear my mind.”
As they walked Kurt saw strange lights floating in the distance and heard odd musics, from where he could not tell. Eventually they came across a friend of Buddy’s, an equally giant woman with glowing golden skin. Kurt stared at her enrapt in awe and stepped closer, wanting to touch her and bask in her radiance.
“Kurt, stop it!” Buddy said firmly. Kurt was lost in a trance but stepped back. Buddy and the golden woman talked rapidly in a language Kurt could not comprehend. Soon he was drawn to the golden woman again and his feet moved as though of their own accord.
“Kurt!” Buddy shouted. “Stop it.”
He shook his head and stepped back. And that’s when he knew and he felt humbled.
The third time Kurt realized he was a dog was when Buddy gave him one of his favorite chew toys to gnaw on. He had spent the day turning the legs for a few desks and chairs in his workshop and the smell of maple was still on his hands. Finally, he came back into the house for a bite to eat, inspired and hungry for having tried a new pattern and it had turned out wonderful. He was pleased. After he finished tearing into some carefully engineered meat and put the dishes in for cleaning, Buddy dangled it in front of him.
“The SETI project has detected a new signal.”
“What? Are you serious?”
“Yes. It’s a fragment but completely unlike the last one.”
“Yes, nothing definitive.”
“The debates have started again on Fermi’s Paradox.”
“Not that again crap!” Kurt exclaimed angrily.
“What’s wrong with that?” Buddy knew exactly what Kurt thought was wrong with the arguments and was just teasing him.
“There is no paradox.” Kurt ground his teeth. “Space is just too big.”
“We should have found a signal by now though.” Buddy yanked back on the cord of thought.
“How many exoplanets are there in the galaxy?” Kurt teased at it.
“Based on the current survey,” Buddy’s mind pulled at the Net. There are 127 billion planets in the Milky Way.”
“Right, and how many are in the habitable zone?” Kurt started pulling back.
“Current count is more than 42 billion habitable planets in our galaxy.”
“More than 42 billion!” Kurt exclaimed. “With over 100 billion galaxies in the universe it’s amazing anyone on earth still holds the stupid belief we’re the only sentient creatures in existence!”
“Except for maybe chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants.” Buddy reminded him.
“And maybe dogs and cats.” Kurt added. “And this was all because none of the other sentient creatures in the universe wanted to talk with us. It’s like they’re sulking alone in the corner of a dinner party and complaining there was no conversations going on.”
Kurt was no Mensa groupie or genius wannabe but he knew there was other intelligent life in the universe. And he didn't need to run any long winded calculations with pesky bureaucratic numbers to prove it either. He didn’t know for sure but he liked to imagine that Earth had already been visited by elusive extraterrestrials and that there were humans on exhibit in zoos on other planets. He imagined that they were some extraterrestrials who thought of us adorable but dangerous chimps.
“But there is no proof.” Buddy wiggled the chew again viciously. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” He said with firm authority.
“That’s a load of crap!” Kurt grabbed the thought violently, wishing he could tear it with his teeth. “The only extraordinary claim is that the cosmos is not the same everywhere. The chemistry and physics of the universe is the same wherever we look.” He yanked and gnashed at the thought until it was dead. “Life is everywhere in the universe!”
“Well done.” Buddy sat back in a chair with calm approval in his voice. And as though reading Kurt’s thoughts, he mused aloud. “Now let me give you a bigger bone to chew on. Imagine how much more intelligent humans are than chimps and that is because of 1.2 percent difference in DNA, eating mushrooms, bigger brains and having evolved over millennia in relationship with dogs. Now imagine another species with even bigger brains evolving with humans as companions.”
Kurt, sat quietly staring off into space for a few minutes. He found he could imagine that quite easily. And it was a pleasant thought. And then he realized what Buddy had just said and looked up at him sharply. Buddy smiled and waved.
“I’m going out.” He said, standing up. He disappeared with the sound of a door closing.