by Gary Cuba
Bobby Livingston crouched in the musty upstairs hidey-hole, holding Pook’s head in his lap, trying to keep the Golden Retriever quiet and still. The boy could barely keep his own emotions settled; he trembled uncontrollably, his body dominated by equal measures of fear and rage.
The government D-Men were inside the house now. He heard his mom’s high-pitched protests through the walls of his tiny sanctuary and the harsh, electronically amplified voice of one of the agents spouting some sort of bureaucratic legal language in return.
He pictured the men in his mind’s eye: full-face respirators, hands covered in black neoprene gloves, plastic booties over their feet, bio-hazard suits taped securely around the wrists and cuffs . . .
He prayed that Pook would keep quiet for just a little while longer. His dog issued a subdued whine, raised his snout to lick Bobby’s cheek, then laid his head back down on his lap. The beast gave out a quick shiver, and was still after that.
I bet he can taste the fear in my sweat, Bobby thought.
“I won’t let them take you, Pook,” he whispered. “They’ll never take you away from me.”
The Anubis Plague, they called it. But that was its popular name. Dr. Florence Whitman, DVM, knew it better as Canisvirus alexis: a highly contagious viral strain named for the Centers for Disease Control research scientist who had isolated it and traced its pre-human vector to canines, just three months earlier.
It was a brand new class of brain virus, and post-mortem analysis found it in its highest concentrations in the human limbic system, particularly in the hippocampus region. Its rapid spread had caused it to be classified officially as a pandemic, and there was no antidote or effective treatment for it. Luckily for humanity, the virus could only be effectively transmitted from dog to human; afflicted people couldn’t easily cross-infect each other.
Otherwise we might all be dead by now, Flo thought.
She pushed a gray lock of hair away from her face and once again questioned her own professional ethics. To hell with them. She waved a degaussing coil close over the hard drive she’d just removed from her office PC. Florence had torched many of her hard copy veterinary client records a few weeks ago but, judging from the media news and the informal reports from her professional contacts, she knew that the CDC agents out of Atlanta were becoming more aggressive in their goal of tracking down dog owners. That organization had recently deputized thousands of new field agents–she preferred the word “goons”–to take on its newly legislated priority: destroy all dogs at any cost.
She anticipated another visit from the D-Men any day now and she knew it would involve a much more intensive interrogation than the semi-polite inquisitions she’d already suffered. For sure, they’d no longer accept her stated position of, “What part of ‘no’ didn’t you understand?”
So much for the sanctity of doctor-client privilege, she grumbled to herself.
“Why am I doing this?” she asked for the hundredth time. She knew that hundreds of thousands of people had died already, victims of the new plague that had quickly spread across the entire Western Hemisphere. The dogs were merely an unwitting vector for the virus, showing no apparent symptoms themselves. If there was a pre-canine vector, it remained unknown.
She pondered this: perhaps it was an unknown virus that had lived for millennia inside dogs, one that had suddenly mutated, deciding to branch out to try a new strategy. There had been similar impromptu animal-to-human crossover examples in recent times. HIV virus in monkeys, for one.
Whatever its origins, this newest evolved product of God’s continuing creation had targeted human beings as its final host, having learned that dogs were an effective means to get there. Florence was acutely aware that the virus’s physical effects at that final destination were devastating. Indeed, fully fifty percent of infected persons died.
And is not one single human life more important than any number of dogs’ lives?
Better not to dwell on the question, she thought; she knew what her answer would be. Somewhere within it lay the reason she’d become a veterinarian in the first place, almost fifty years before: because she loved dogs, above all and everything and anyone else in the world.
Bobby and Pook crawled out of the hidden closet after the D-Men finally left. The boy was drenched with nervous sweat.
“I wish Dad were here,” he said.
He knew immediately it was the wrong thing to say at exactly the wrong time, that it could only serve to hurt his mom. And yes, he saw her shut her eyes tightly in a feeble attempt to keep her tears from leaking out. Bobby shook his head and tried to take back his childish statement.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t know why I said that. We’ve been doing good enough without him.”
His father had left them more than a year ago, long before the Anubis Plague had arisen, and they’d had no contact with him since then. Bobby knew it was foolish to think his father could have helped now in any substantial way. Dad had never really done much for them when he was around. They’d coped with things on their own well enough since being abandoned. Still, it was his father–and for all the man’s faults, Bobby had loved him.
They’d been blessed with an important heads-up from their veterinarian, Dr. Flo. Bobby remembered the doctor’s advice, the exact words she spoke during her breathless nocturnal visit to their home a few weeks back: “Elizabeth, Pook has no sign of the virus, not according to the last blood tests I ran on him. But you have to hide him away. Keep him inside at all times, away from view of your neighbors, the police and any CDC agents. I’ll purge his records, but you have to keep him hidden and safe, any way you can. Lizzy, Bobby, listen up: I fear things will get very bad, very soon.”
Mom had the hidden closet constructed the next week. It cost them a lot of extra money to obtain a vow of secrecy from the contractor. Everything had to be kept off the books.
It was a strain on them to keep the dog in the house all the time. It couldn’t have been pleasant for Pook to go to the bathroom inside, against his training. And Bobby could tell from Pook’s sneezing that it was hard for him to endure the powerful bleach smell that came from cleaning up after him. They had to be so very careful, lest their neighbors turn them in to the authorities for the recently sanctioned bounty payment.
With Dr. Flo’s help, they’d obtained forms and false records saying that Pook had already been destroyed. But things were getting dicey out there. We can’t trust anybody anymore.
Florence stood, shakily, behind the defendant’s table in front of a judge. She felt naked standing in front of the packed courtroom. There were no family members present; she had no living relatives since she’d never had the time or inclination to indulge herself in distractions like marriage or raising children.
And she felt, at that moment, that no friends were there either. Of course not, she thought. They don’t let dogs in the courthouse.
This was, in her opinion, a totally Kafkaesque situation–one that she never imagined could develop so quickly, or so insidiously.
“Dr. Whitman, do you wish to make a statement before the final judgment of this court is rendered?” The judge leaned forward in his chair, looking over at her stooped figure.
“Not to such as the likes of you.” Florence stood straighter, her voice wavering but defiant.
“Very well.” The judge frowned. “To the charge of professional malpractice: the judgment of the local veterinary board is upheld. To the charge of obstructing an official governmental investigation: guilty as charged. To the charge of malicious actions threatening the health and well-being of citizens, to wit, those related to the new CDC regulations pertaining to the control of Canisvirus alexis: guilty as charged. Approach the bench please.”
Florence Whitman, DVM, slowly walked the few steps that separated her from the judge’s high desk. Her court-appointed attorney stood beside her, holding onto her arm to help support her arthritic, frail body.
“The judgment of this court is hereby rendered: Your license to practice veterinary medicine remains suspended. You are judged in contempt of court on the obstruction charge, which carries a $10,000 fine or six months’ imprisonment. As to the final charge, the CDC control violations, this court’s decision is mandated by Federal Code 42CFR399, the regulatory product of the ‘Anubis Act’ as it is commonly known, which proscribes capital punishment for that offense. By its emergency protocols, you are to be remanded immediately to the jurisdiction of the nearest federal penal facility equipped for that purpose–in this case, the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth County, Kansas–where sentencing will be carried out at the earliest opportunity. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Florence Whitman, ex-DVM, snorted contemptuously. Then, as the last resounding echoes of the judge’s gavel rang through the room, she suddenly realized the full brunt of her situation. She swooned, and her tiny form had to be physically lifted, like a rag-doll, out of the courthouse by a court officer.
They had to get away, that much was obvious to Bobby. Anywhere but here. There had to be another place somewhere, a place where people weren’t so crazy, where they still remembered how special dogs were.
At least, that’s the way Bobby saw it. He hugged Pook on the floor of their shuttered-off kitchen breakfast area while he tried to explain it all to his mom for at least the dozenth time.
“We have to go north, Mom,” he pleaded. “Canada, or Alaska. We’ll find people there to help us. They love dogs up there. I know they’ll help us!”
His mother’s forehead displayed some new furrows that he didn’t remember seeing before. “We’ve been over this before, Bobby. We’d have to get him past the border, and they’ll be searching carefully. How will we hide him? And it’s crazy to even talk about it! We can’t just pick up and leave everything we have here. How’ll we survive?”
“We . . . we have to try!” Bobby answered. He didn’t know what else to say. Tears took over at that point, erupting from his eyes and rolling down his cheeks. Pook reacted to Bobby’s emotional outburst, whining and licking his face.
His mom looked down at him and his dog, and Bobby imagined the many conflicted thoughts that must have been running through her mind. It was crazy, yes, all of it. There was nothing but craziness in the world, now. They’d heard about Dr. Whitman’s arrest and trial, and he’d been heartsick with its outcome. He knew his mom felt the same way.
“Yes, we have to try,” she said at last. Bobby jumped up and hugged her, and Pook also jumped up on his hind legs to join them in their embrace. “Maybe we can trust my Uncle Morgan up in Alberta to help us. He always loved dogs.”
“Where headed, Miss?” The Canadian border agent looked across from his booth toward the woman driving the SUV, his face displaying a total absence of expression.
“Jasper,” she replied. “We’re visiting relatives there.” She held her driver’s license, Bobby’s birth certificate, and the registration papers for her personal handgun through the open driver’s side window of the vehicle.
Bobby watched the agent closely from his spot in the passenger’s seat. He thought of Pook’s sedated body, lying inside the luggage pod strapped onto the roof of the vehicle. Weeks before, Dr. Flo had given them some potent knockout drugs, thinking ahead for the times when they’d need to keep him extra quiet.
“No explosives, fruits, vegetables, plants, illegal drugs, canines?”
“Nothing like that.”
The agent paused, obviously eyeing the luggage pod overhead, and Bobby held his breath.
“Pull over to the right and stop, ma’am. Just a quick spot-check and a form to fill out, that’s all.” He spoke some kind of jargon laced with code numbers into a microphone inside his booth.
Shoot, Bobby thought, his heart sinking. We’re busted.
His mom collected her documents back and pulled the SUV slowly over onto the right shoulder, adjacent to the main border station house. An agent came out of the building, a portly man with muttonchop whiskers and mustache adorning his broad face.
“‘Allo, Mizz. Hiya, Sport. I’ll just be a minute, here. Meanwhile, would you kindly fill out this firearm importation form for me, if you please?”
“Of course. We’re in no hurry,” Bobby’s mom said, taking the form through the window.
Bobby heard the tension in her voice. While his mom shakily entered the required details on the form, the border agent circled the SUV once completely, then reached up on his tiptoes, and Bobby heard the luggage pod on the roof being unclasped and lifted.
Bobby looked at the man’s belly pressed flat against the passenger’s side window while he imagined him peering inside the pod. After what seemed like an eternity, he heard it close back again. The agent walked back around to the driver’s side again and collected the filled-out form. He glanced at it and then stood there quietly, staring at Bobby’s mom, head slightly cocked and a frown on his face.
“Was there . . . was there anything else?” she asked, her voice catching slightly.
“Just my pen, please,” the agent said, holding his hand out.
“Ah! Here, I’m–”
“Thank you, Mizz. Sorry for the delay. Welcome to Canada and have a good stay. Please observe the speed limits and drive safely.” He grinned widely and gave a Bobby a wink as he waved them on.
It was a good thing they’d crammed Pook’s sedated body into their largest suitcase before putting him inside the pod a few miles back, Bobby thought. And a good thing too that the border agent couldn’t spot the air holes they had poked into it, from his angle of inspection. Somebody up there must be watching over us.
Dr. Whitman composed one final letter in the hours before her execution, addressed to the editor of the local newspaper.
“Most viruses aren’t stupid,” she wrote. “Whenever new strains appear, they mutate quickly and wildly. Look at the human HIV virus, or the comparable FIV virus in domestic cats, both of which have largely become non-fatal to their targets in recent years. By process of natural selection, they’ve evolved a better survival strategy. In almost all cases, a virus will soon learn that it is more advantageous to avoid killing off its hosts. Odds are that the virility of the Anubis Plague will slowly taper off and eventually Canisvirus will become benign, like the hundreds of other viral strains that people host at any given time.
“And there’s even the possibility that it will impart something beneficial to us, in payment for obtaining its ultimate safe harbor. This sort of epigenetic manipulation has happened countless times in the past; we know that from the relatively large amount of endogenous retroviral material that makes up our human DNA.”
She stared at the gray cinderblock walls that surrounded her, then lifted her eyes to the small barred window near the ceiling that brought a patch of sky into her otherwise drab holding cell. She looked at the tiny light-filled square for a moment and sighed before returning to her letter. She suddenly felt a wave of nausea roll through her.
“The CDC knows this is how events will likely play out, but things are politically out of control now. That agency is being held hostage by frantic legislators, trying desperately to deal with the rabid fear running unrestrained through the ranks of their constituents. It is true that we can expect many more humans to die, until the virus stabilizes into its final form. And I can fully understand, when it comes right down to it, how most dog owners, goodhearted as they may be, must consider their own lives and those of their family members to be more precious than their pets’ lives.
“However, there is a major difference between a dog owner and a dog lover, and that difference will be severely tested in the months to come. I can only hope that there are enough of the latter left when times get toughest, those few who will do what they need to do to preserve the canis lupus familiaris subspecies by any means they can devise, legal or not, until we can all ride this out and come to our senses again.”
Florence felt a tight, excruciating pain grip her aged heart. Her breath caught, and she had to struggle fiercely to control her pen long enough to finish her polemic.
“But if our presently raging fear and over-zealousness do succeed in destroying all dogs, I will not be unhappy to have missed that saddest chapter in our human history. And if I find out that dogs are not allowed in heaven, then I’ll be more than content to spend the rest of eternity in the other place.”
Florence signed the letter, passed it over to her alarmed attorney, then fell over without a sound onto the thin mattress of the cot where she had been sitting. As she felt her heart go through its final deadly fibrillation, she was filled with relief and irony: At least I’ve managed to cheat my executioners.
A few tens of miles past the border, Bobby’s mother pulled off the highway onto a side road, then turned off again onto a dirt logging road and traveled far enough up it so that they couldn’t be spotted by any passing traffic.
Bobby leapt out of the vehicle when it slid to a stop, and he and his mom struggled to pull the heavy suitcase out of the luggage pod and get it onto the ground. Pook was still pretty zonked from his sedation, but the dog opened a red-ringed, baleful eye when Bobby opened the suitcase’s lid.
“You did good, Pook,” Bobby said, stroking him. “Just a few more hours to go, fella. The worst of it is over.”
They coaxed the dog up to his feet and walked his wobbly form around the vehicle a few times, and gave him a little bottled water to drink. Then they transferred some of the suitcases from the back of the SUV up into the roof pod, lifted Pook’s groggy body into the rear luggage area of the vehicle, and latched the roll-out security screen that would keep him hidden there.
They’d already been driving fourteen hours and had another eight to go before reaching their destination. Both of them were bone-tired, as much from nervous strain as from the miles they’d driven. Bobby hadn’t slept at all the night before, thinking and worrying about the trip, and he knew his mother probably hadn’t, either.
Even though it was a spooky place to rest in the rapidly diminishing twilight, they lay back in their seats, shared a candy bar for dinner, then closed their eyes to take a nap before going further.
Bobby was awakened by the bright beam of a flashlight cutting through the blackness. How long have we been asleep, anyway?
“Woo-hoo, Derek,” a rough voice said from outside the SUV. “Looks like we found us somethin’, here!”
The loud sound of one of the vehicle’s windows being smashed roused Bobby to full awareness, and that was followed immediately by his mom’s squeal. He turned in his seat and saw the dim outlines of a hammy arm reach through the broken glass on the driver’s side, grope around to find the lock, then wrench the door open. Bobby yelled when he saw his mother being dragged forcibly out of her seat.
Bobby frantically fiddled with the latch of the glove compartment, trying to reach the handgun inside. Before he could open it, another set of arms reached in and dragged him by his shirtsleeves over the center console, out of the SUV and onto the ground next to his mother.
“Looks like she’s got a few miles on her, but not too awfully shabby,” the first man said. “Get her purse from the car while I take care of business here.”
Bobby tried to get to his feet, and then his brain exploded in a blinding flash of light as the other man, Derek, brought something hard down on top of his head.
“Quit strugglin’, ya little bastard!”
Bobby tried to lift his head, and caught a glimpse of the first man unbuckling his belt in the dim cabin light that leaked out of the vehicle.
At that moment Pook appeared, somehow having forced his way through the luggage compartment cover. The dog bounded noiselessly out of the SUV in a flash of yellow fur. From his vantage point on the ground, Bobby saw him flatten Derek, who had been standing just outside the door.
“Jeezarooni!” the man exclaimed. “Holy Mother of–it’s a frickin’ dog!”
But Pook apparently hadn’t been targeting Derek; that man had just been in the way. The dog pivoted and leapt for the first man, who by then had been pressing Bobby’s mother back onto the ground, trying to pull down her jeans.
Bobby, momentarily free, clambered to his feet, threw his body back into the SUV over its center console to reach the glove compartment, and this time found the latch. He opened it and felt the cold steel outline of the pistol inside. There was a safety somewhere on it, he knew–and yes, that must be it, he thought, as he disengaged it.
He flipped over like an eel, expecting Derek to be right behind him–but that was not the case. Bobby hunched himself back out of the SUV and, now that his eyes had adapted better, he saw the man named Derek racing in terror toward a pickup truck that hunkered darkly, twenty yards or so behind their own vehicle. Bobby spun around and looked back at Pook, whose teeth appeared to be sunken deeply into the naked buttocks of the first man; the man bellowed in anger and pain.
Bobby’s mother, dazed, tried to get to her feet, fumbling with her jeans. He heard the engine of the truck behind them cranking, and then its headlights came on, washing them all in bright light. He walked over and, using both hands, pointed the gun down at the struggling man’s forehead, holding the muzzle barely two inches away from it. Bobby noted, from some distantly removed viewpoint inside his brain, that his hands hardly trembled at all.
“Pook!” he said sternly. “Enough. Get back.”
The dog released his jaw’s grip–although he appeared reluctant to do so–and backed off to stand protectively next to Bobby and his mother.
“Clear off,” he said to the man. “Now!”
The man scrabbled to his feet, pulling his pants up over his bloody rear end. He hobbled back to the truck, cursing under his breath. Bobby watched the pickup careen in reverse down the logging road until the men found a spot to turn around, then he heard it spin its wheels on the dirt road as it roared off into the darkness.
He bent over his mother and helped her get to her feet.
“Mom, come on. We’ve got to get going,” he said.
So this is what it’s like to die.
Florence blinked at the surrealistic image of the tall, jackal-headed figure standing before her. She supposed she should have felt terror, or at least a modicum of awe in the face of this monstrous form towering over her tiny body–but instead she found herself merely intrigued by the notion that her mind would have dredged up something right out of an ancient Egyptian temple mural as a last dying thought.
And this figure . . . she now recognized it as Anubis, guardian of the dead. Yes, how fitting, she thought. It all made perfect sense to her. But why was she seeing this weird image? Where was the “tunnel of light” she’d heard so much about?
“This is some kind of hypnagogic hallucination, isn’t it?” some part of Florence said. “A fantastical, final internal vision that the brain concocts when it’s losing oxygen.”
The huge figure chuckled deeply. “Whatever you make it out to be, Flo.” He strode closer to her on his thick humanoid legs and held a long, thin scepter over her head. “But regardless of what you think this is, I’ve just finished weighing your heart against the sacred feather of Ma’at. And I found it light enough to enable your soul to pass through to the sacred fields.”
“I guess I should thank you for doing that.”
“Not at all, dear one. It’s just one of my several job duties. Truth to tell, I’ve been watching you for a long, long time now.”
“Are my friends there, in your ‘sacred fields?’ The ones who I loved so much?”
“All of them are, Flo. And they all know how much you’ve tried to help them during your long lifetime. Go back to sleep now while I prepare the way, and awaken later to join them in glory and eternal companionship.” He moved the scepter over her head again, and she felt a rainbow of colors flood through her, filling her heart to its brim with joy and peace.
And then Florence’s body bucked, bounced, and bucked again, and a bright white light suddenly intruded upon her senses. Florence turned her head and saw that she lay upon a table, apparently in a medical clinic. She reached one hand up to her naked, aching chest, and her fingers came away greasy. She knew immediately it was the conductive paste used on the defibrillation paddles that had brought her back to join the living.
Damn, she thought. It’s not over.
The sun had just started to lighten the eastern horizon when Bobby and his mother turned into the long gravel driveway of Morgan Tyler’s property.
The residence itself was nestled in the middle of several acres of tall spruce trees, quite far off the road; it couldn’t be easily seen from the driveway entrance except for the tiny twinkling of a porch light. Bobby had been here once before, but that was when he was a two-year-old toddler, so he remembered nothing of that earlier visit. As they approached the house he realized that this place was a perfect spot to hide a dog.
It had been a cold trip. They’d stopped at an isolated all-night convenience store south of Calgary, bought some tape and garbage bags, and kludged up a rough, temporary cover over the gaping hole of the smashed driver’s side window. It leaked like a sieve, but the racket it made billowing in the wind, along with the chill of the invading air itself, helped keep them awake for the balance of their drive.
Great-Uncle Morgan waited for them at the end of the driveway. He was a tall bear of a man, his face hidden behind a bushy gray beard; long silvery locks of hair fell over the shoulders of his faded flannel coat. His eyes sparkled as the headlamps of the SUV illuminated them.
“Elizabeth, darlin’,” he said, coming up alongside the vehicle. “We been so worried for you. And Robert.” He bent over the front fender and peered through the windshield. “Jimanetty, how you’ve grown. Pull around back behind the house, Lizzy. So’s we can get Pook in and settled.”
Bobby’s mom maneuvered the SUV around to the back of the cabin and cut off the engine and lights. They got out of the vehicle and both of them staggered a bit before finding their land-legs. Morgan enfolded Bobby’s mother in a hug.
“Bad trip, was it?” he asked, eyeing the broken window.
Bobby’s Mom could only manage to nod her head slightly, buried as it was in Morgan’s huge chest. “Worse than I could ever tell you, Uncle Morgan.”
She broke into muffled sobs, and Morgan just held her tightly as Bobby went around to the back of the vehicle to get Pook out of the luggage compartment.
He led the dog into Morgan’s house, down a set of stairs that extended below ground level. When he opened the basement door, Bobby’s face lit up to see a black-masked, blue-eyed Siberian Husky and a little tan Pomeranian greet them. The Pom raced toward them on tiny feet, opened its mouth and issued a long series of coughing sounds. The Husky just stared at them watchfully from the back of the room, near a wood-burning fireplace that crackled invitingly.
Pook walked cautiously into the room with his tail wagging, sniffed noses with both dogs, and then they all began to interrogate each other’s butts like they were long-lost packmates who had a lot to catch up on.
“We had to have Freakout debarked,” Morgan said from behind Bobby. “Broke my heart, but she was one little hellcat of a barker. Now, Astra over there rarely makes a sound. Most Huskies like to study things quietly; that’s why they don’t make such great watchdogs. Pook seems to be a pretty laid-back dog, eh?”
“Oh, yes!” Bobby said. “He knows how to keep quiet. Heck, he had to learn how to stay quiet, to get this far.”
Morgan grunted, and Bobby knew that they’d have to prove to the man that it was so.
“There’s a daybed down here, and that fireplace over there to keep things warm,” Morgan said. “You’re welcome to bunk down here, Robert, if that’s okay with you. We got a small guest bedroom upstairs, nothin’ fancy. Your mom can stay up there. That be all right?”
“Sure!” Bobby said. “That’ll be great! I’d just as soon stay with Pook. And your other guys. And I can help clean up their stuff.”
Morgan smiled, then he helped them carry their bags into the house and got them settled in. His wife, Bobby’s Great-Aunt Thelma, fixed them a hearty breakfast; the meal itself was mostly a silent affair. Bobby pushed the eggs around on his plate, peering frequently over to his mother, not quite knowing how to let his emotions decompress. She apparently was not in a teaching mood that morning. Or maybe she was at a loss for how to do it properly, too.
It was the epitome of irony, Florence thought. I’m too ill to kill. She’d rather it was all over and done with, but resigned herself to the plain fact of things: someone up there must’ve had other plans for her.
She’d been transferred from the prison clinic to a nearby hospital that was better equipped to keep her alive. They told her that several policemen had been assigned to buttress the regular hospital security force; that was done not to keep her from escaping–the chance of that happening was vanishingly small–but rather to protect her from the public. Apparently, her case had aroused considerable interest within the general population.
Many wanted to lynch her, but some wanted to canonize her. Even in her bleary, medicated state, hovering tentatively on the near edge of death, she could hear the loud sounds of public demonstrations taking place just outside the hospital walls.
“Hang in there, Flo,” her attorney said. He sat in a chair pulled up next to her bed, holding her hand gently. “Try not to worry about anything. I should make you aware of one new development, an encouraging one: the Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the constitutionality of the limited-appeals provision in the emergency ‘Anubis Act’ legislation. And in light of that, we’ve gotten you a stay of execution until it’s resolved.”
Flo murmured something unintelligible and the attorney grunted questioningly, leaning closer to her.
“Am I being burned yet in effigy?” she repeated, more clearly.
“Not quite yet.” The man chuckled. “Maybe later on tonight. Something like that usually has a bigger impact in the dark.”
Flo laughed, then grimaced from the pain it caused in her chest.
“Best go away now and try to save another vet,” she said, raising her arm weakly to give him a dispensing wave.
Things had gone so terribly wrong, so quickly, Bobby thought. And just when everything was starting to look up for us!
His backpack felt like it had doubled its weight in the last couple of hours as he, Pook and Astra struggled through the deep, powdery snow that blanketed the sparse forest on the slopes of Whistler Mountain, just below the tundra line. He had tucked the Pom, Freakout, into his backpack; there was no way she could have navigated the terrain under these conditions.
The air was cold and thin up here, and Bobby felt more feverish than he had early that morning, when he had set off from Morgan’s house in a panic with the dogs. He stopped, knelt down in the snow and took a minute to catch his breath while he recollected those events.
“Here’s the thing, Robert,” Morgan had said, after shaking Bobby awake in the pre-dawn hours. “I’m afraid it’s come down to every man and dog for himself. I just got a tip from a friend down in Jasper. I don’t feature tellin’ ya much about him, but it’s enough to know that we’re gonna get a visit shortly from some folks who we don’t want to see.”
Bobby rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and lurched upright in bed while Morgan continued.
“You got to get the dogs away until things are clear. That means up over the mountain, out back. And you’ll have to stay up there for a while, maybe overnight, maybe longer. I’ll burn green-colored smoke up the chimney when it’s safe to return.”
Bobby stared dumbly at Morgan while the man studied the linoleum tile for a moment.
“Son, I’d do this myself,” Morgan said. “But I got to stay here, wipe your tracks, make it look like all’s normal, keep ’em off your back. You understand? I’m countin’ on you, boy. And so are the dogs–yours and mine both.”
Bobby had nodded his head groggily, and the next twenty minutes had been spent in a scrambling mode, trying to get gear together. As the laden-down boy was ready to depart, Morgan had added to his burden, looping the strap of an old military carbine around Bobby’s neck and shoulders.
“I know y’got that little pea-shooter of a handgun with you, but you might need something with a little more range, just in case you run into . . . somethin’ unexpected. Don’t be hesitant to use it, if it comes down to it. I tucked extra ammo into your pack.”
The sun had ducked beneath the parallel ridge off to their west. Bobby knew he’d have to stop to erect the small tent he carried, try to settle in to survive the cold night ahead of them. He woozily removed the carbine from around his neck and laid it against a tree, shucked his pack onto the ground, and released Freakout from her cozy spot inside it. Then he started clearing the snow around them, exposing the solid ground underneath.
The dogs enjoyed this new game, digging frantically in the snow themselves with their front paws–mostly succeeding only in moving much of it back onto Bobby’s carefully cleared spot.
Bobby struggled with the tiny one-man tent, trying to figure out the intricacies of its connecting struts; he wasn’t a hundred percent sure he’d gotten them right, but somehow the tent managed to stand up. He rolled out his sleeping bag inside and collapsed onto it, exhausted.
By this time, night had fallen. He began to shiver uncontrollably and hugged himself, putting his numb hands under his armpits to try to get feeling back into them. This is more than just being cold, he thought. I’m sick. Is this what the Anubis Plague feels like? The dogs pushed their way in through the front flap of the tent. Pook and Astra lay down on either side of him, and Freakout jumped up on top of his chest.
He remembered murmuring, “I won’t let them take you. They’ll never take you away from me.” And just before he passed out, he saw the Pom’s small black eyes staring into his, inches away, and felt the warm wash of the dog’s panting breath on his face.
Florence had a lot of time to think, lying trapped in her hospital bed. She knew that her condition had improved, judging from the reactions of the hospital staff to her increasingly irascible tone with them. She began to suspect that the employees had even come to respect her, a feisty old woman who by an unusual twist of fate had cheated the hangman’s noose–a weird denouement that had given her the opportunity to bully them ceaselessly.
The demonstrations outside the hospital had changed their tenor, as her predictions about the Anubis Plague had started to come to pass. From the TV set in her room, she knew that the drop-off in American deaths from the plague had–expectedly–been touted by the Administration as a sign of the effectiveness of their harsh, emergency public health policies.
But she suspected that most people began to believe otherwise, as biologists slowly and cautiously crawled out of the woodwork to reveal the truth of the matter. Yes, they admitted, there was some evidence that the virulence of Canisvirus alexis had indeed lessened; it had begun to settle in for a longer-term, more benign relationship with its human target.
It happened more quickly than I ever could’ve imagined, Flo thought.
But she couldn’t keep from fretting about the awful carnage that this whole event had caused. And of the psychological misery that dog owners had suffered during the course of its deadly run.
Robert Livingston opened his new eyes as the dawn light penetrated the thin nylon shroud of his tent. The three dogs were still there with him, but they seemed somehow different in his vision; they no longer looked like mere animals. More like loyal compatriots, staunch companions who would accompany him anywhere–even to the pit of hell and back.
Fever broken, he raised himself up on his elbows and took in the scent of the morning air: full, rich, filled with promise. The world had never before smelled that way to him. He ruffled the fluffy hair on Freakout’s head, then patted Pook and Astra as he rose stiffly to his knees to crawl out of the tent. The sight of the snow-covered mountain slope outside filled him with a sense of majesty. And the smells–the smells!–were beyond comprehension.
Much later, after they broke camp and cautiously descended the snowy slope of the mountain, Robert looked through his binoculars and saw a thin plume of green smoke rising from the chimney of the small cabin that lay far below them.
It had become a yearly pilgrimage of his, the trip to Florence Whitman’s grave. During his early visits there, with Pook at their side, Robert and his mother had hardly been able to reach it properly, festooned as it was with sprawling bouquets of plastic flowers and burgeoning mounds of faux floral wreaths, spilling over onto neighboring grave sites.
To Robert’s altered olfactory senses, it was an aromatic cacophony, a veritable orgasm of manufactured, hydrocarbon-based concoctions. But it was the thought that counted, after all–and if he tried hard, he could even detect the faint tinges of love that lingered behind on each of the offerings.
Dr. Whitman had been right about so many things. Robert began to appreciate that more later, during his pre-med studies at the University. It made him wonder if the original sacred bond between dog and man, struck ages before, had also been abetted by a viral factor. A virus like Canisvirus , one that granted a special boon to men–something that had sealed the pact between them.
The newer canine-human pact had already begun to change society in a dramatic way. In the post-Anubis age, those affected with the benign form of the virus could smell much more than pretty flowers; they could also smell the raw essence of human emotions, just as clearly as if the feelings had been inscribed on people’s foreheads. They could detect and separate honest truth from manipulative lies; expressions of heartfelt love from insincere flattery; grateful appreciation from empty gestures.
Robert found these to be interesting times, indeed. It was a new world, with a new social order evolving inside it–and the irony of it all was that it was actually a retrogression to an earlier aspect of mankind’s physiology, the reclamation of a valuable genetic commodity lost at some point during the long evolutionary march from pre-human to human.
Robert thought back to how busy he and Pook had been in the years immediately following the Anubis Plague–or rather, how busy Pook had been, repopulating the continent with his progeny, mating with the few hundreds of other dogs that had also managed to survive the Draconian canine purge. It had been done surreptitiously at first, then openly after the last of the Anubis Act laws had finally been nullified.
For people of good faith, dogs had gone from being pariahs to godsends in the short course of a single year. “Anubis Plague” parties had even become common, hosted by people desiring exposure to the mitigated form of the virus. And for those of lesser faith? They could no longer stop the mutated Canisvirus alexis, carrying its unique gift, from working its way through the entire human population.
Even after Pook died, and after that his mother, Dr. Robert Livingston, DVM, still came to visit Florence’s gravesite. And he would continue to do so annually until the end of his long human life, when an old friend weighed his heart and judged it light enough to let Robert join his loved ones in glory and eternal companionship.
Gary Cuba’s short speculative fiction has appeared in more than forty other magazines and anthologies, including Jim Baen’s Universe, Flash Fiction Online, Universe Annex (Grantville Gazette) and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. He lives with his wife and a passel of unruly dogs and cats in South Carolina. Links to some of his other published fiction may be found at http://www.thefoggiestnotion.com.