“A Bot Named Dog”
by Wendy Nikel
It was lucky we were at home when Dog went on the fritz. Had we been off on one of our museum excursions or wandering around the farmers’ market, I’d have had to carry his limp, aluminum-encased body home, and there’s no way I could have done that without remembering all the times he’s rescued me. I’d have gotten all weepy and bleary-eyed and probably fallen off the edge of a cliff or stepped into traffic, and who would have been around to save me then?
I knew it was bad as soon as his LED eyes started flickering and displaying the “Code 0374” message. Dr. Beckwidth had warned me that he was likely to start having issues soon; Dog was a first-generation Support Bot, and few providers even worked with such outdated technology anymore, much less serviced them or carried repair parts. Beckwidth, of course, had been trying to get me to upgrade to a newer, shinier replacement model, like the ones in the catalogs around his office.
“You’re not getting any younger, Reese,” he’d told me at my last appointment, as if I didn’t already know. “One of these days you’re going to need something big like a heart transplant and overextend the thing. These newer Support Bots can whip out something like that like it’s nothing.”
“A newer Bot wouldn’t know me like Dog does,” I’d argued.
“We can transfer your data—”
“Having my data isn’t the same as knowing me.”
From his place at my feet, Dog had wagged his tail in agreement.
When Dog’s twitching and blinking didn’t stop, I made him comfortable on his bed beside my recliner and turned all his settings down to power-saving mode.
Are you sure? His message screen blinked and wavered, and I nearly teared up right then.
“I’m sure, old friend. Conserve your energy.” I checked the time; I was due for another insulin check in six hours. With his processing chip malfunctioning, he couldn’t run the test for me, synthesize the proper dosage, or administer the injection. I’d have to get in to see Dr. Beckwidth for both of us.
“We can give you your test here,” the receptionist on the phone told me, “but the doctor is up at Northview University today for a presentation, so you’ll have to wait to have your Bot serviced until tomorrow.”
I glanced over at Dog. Northview was on the other end of town – a long bus ride away, involving two transfers – but I couldn’t leave my best friend in such a sorry state overnight. “Tell Dr. Beckwidth we’re on our way.”
Dog was a gift from my father.
This was back in the day, during the Medical Revolution, when researchers around the world were busy unlocking and throwing open the doors to synthetic organ printing and gene therapy and the reversal of cellular senescence. The very first Service Bots had just been released – marketed as a reliable, low-maintenance alternative to service dogs and other support animals. My father, in his desire to constantly be on the cutting-edge of things, pre-ordered one for his newborn child, along with a 12-year service plan and annual upgrades.
My mom humored him, secretly convinced that the Service Bot would soon become nothing more than an overpriced, underutilized toy.
Dog proved her wrong just three days after his arrival, when I stopped breathing in my crib and Dog – with his emergency first aid module – administered CPR. That was the first time he saved my life, and it sure wasn’t the last.
Everyone had a Service Bot now – assigned at birth as part of the universal healthcare system and upgraded throughout one’s life with the features necessary to keep each individual safe and healthy. There were upgrades now for practically every medical condition from epilepsy to PTSD to allergies to depression to dyslexia, so that each bot was like a first aid kit, paramedic, and psychiatric counselor combined.
They weren’t even all dogs anymore, like the early models. The driver on the bus to Northview had a cat-shaped bot on her lap. A tortoise and a Flemish rabbit were tucked up beside their owners in the next row. A miniature hippo yawned from beneath the seat across from us as the bus pulled from the curb.
I stumbled down the aisle, unsteady on my feet without Dog pressed up beside me to support me if my bum knee gave out. Dr. Beckwidth would scold me if he could see me; I shouldn’t be carrying him at my age, in my health.
When we reached an open seat, Dog rested his head in my lap, the gentle rhythm of his respiration rising softly above the city noise. I held him close, talking to him about the fields near our old family farm where we used to spend our summers and reassuring him that everything would be all right. Usually, when my old foe Anxiety reared its head, Dog would be the one to calm me with video recordings of ocean waves and timed breathing exercises, but I didn’t want to strain his circuits, and besides, it wasn’t about me this time.
“What’s wrong with him?” A little, dark-haired head popped up over the back of the seat. The boy looked about five or six, and his bot was a sleek, silent model resembling a husky, which pulled him back down to a seated position with its teeth. The boy peered between the seat and the window, and I tried to smile at him.
“Dog here’s just old, like me,” I said. “He needs some new parts is all.”
The boy nodded knowingly. “My gran needed some new parts.”
“Organs. She needed new organs,” the boy’s father clarified, barely looking up from his book. “She had lung disease.”
“Her Bot made her new ones,” the boy said.
“Ah,” I said. “Dog and I have been through that, too. He made me a new liver a few years back.”
I ran a hand over his aluminum casing, recalling how, in my heavily medicated pre-op daze, I’d been more concerned with Dr. Beckwidth opening Dog up to remove the replacement liver that the bot had grown from my own stem cells than I had been about him cutting me open to implant it.
“He’s taken good care of me,” I said quietly. “It’s time for me to return the favor.”
It’s strange to be on a university campus again, after all these years. The students hurry from classroom to classroom with their Support Bots trailing behind them or poking their heads out of backpacks. They’re too busy – too wrapped up in studying and socializing and planning out their lives – to notice me, hobbling slowly along across the quad, with Dog wrapped up in my arms.
In my university days, I’d had to fight for Dog’s place at my side. Without a qualifying diagnosis, they were reluctant to allow the now-popular Support Bots in the classrooms.
They’ll be a distraction. Their memory drives will facilitate cheating. They’ll take up unnecessary space in the classroom.
Now look at them all.
The receptionist at the information booth told me Dr. Beckwidth was lecturing in the science building. Room 36A. I was panting, sweating, relieved when she mentioned the lecture hall was on the first floor.
“The spirit is willing, old boy,” I muttered to Dog, “but this body is weak.”
His eyes flickered yellow in concern. I smiled to reassure him. It either wasn’t convincing or he was on the fritz again, because they remained warning-yellow.
Outside Room 36A, I could hear Dr. Beckwidth’s voice. We’d made it. I leaned against the doorframe to catch my breath.
“Support Bots are – first and foremost – medical tools,” he was saying. “As professionals, we need to treat them as such.”
Every student in the lecture hall shifted in their chairs to look at me, obviously shocked that someone would dare contradict their lecturer.
“Reese?” Dr. Beckwidth asked. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for my friend.” I held out my arms and Dog let out a tiny, whirring whimper. Then my knees collapsed beneath me.
I woke up on a cot, with bright white lights shining down overhead.
“Glad to see you’re up, Reese.” Dr. Beckwidth sat at a desk across the small room. We were still at the university somewhere – the nurse’s office, maybe, from the mental health posters hanging up on the walls. “You certainly gave my students something to talk about.”
“Where’s Dog?” I asked, my voice gravely. I tried to sit up, but my head swam.
“You put yourself in harm’s way today, you know. You shouldn’t be traveling without an operational Service Bot. That could have been the death of you.”
“I don’t think you understand, doctor.” I sat up, still struggling against dizziness. “I’ve lived a good long life, and Dog has been there through all of it. My parents, my friends, my peers… they’re all gone. Dog is the only one I have left.”
The doctor spun his chair to face me straight-on. “You understand that by refusing to upgrade, you’re putting your life in danger.”
“Like I said, doc, I’ve already had a good, long life.”
Dr. Beckwidth sighed and shook his head. “I’m afraid I’ll probably never understand you, Reese. But I do respect you.” He swiveled his chair toward the door and called out. “Bring him in.”
In scampered Dog, a smile on his aluminum face and bright green lights of contentment shining from his eyes.
“You take good care of him, now,” Dr. Beckwidth said.
The message scrolled across Dog’s LED screen as I spoke it out loud, “I will.”
Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit