Ann lit a cigarette and slowly inhaled. The cheap tobacco smoke scraped her throat raw, but the kick of the nicotine unknotted her shoulder muscles. Ann leaned back in the chair, one eye on the clock. Five minutes to four, almost time to go home. Hell, if a call came through now, she'd ignore it.
She took another drag on the cigarette, blew a smoke ring gently to the ceiling.
The phone rang.
Ann turned her back on the customer service screen, and watched the white curls of smoke instead. Two rings, three.
"Priority call. Picking up automatically," the desk computer said. Shit. Ann stubbed out her cigarette. Bad enough the computer could override her line; there was no need for it to sound smug. She forced a smile as the screen dissolved to show the customer. Her smile slipped into a grin before she managed to control it. Where had the man found that suit? It looked like a period prop for a movie, maybe even manufactured from real animal fur. Come to think of it, the man could have been a prop himself, metal-rimmed glasses pushed up onto his bald head.
"Simoco Limited," she said. "How may I help you?"
"I want you to collect this... object... immediately." He brandished a model 232 robo-dog, shaking it vigorously. A gash in the soft orange synth-fur of the dog's head exposed a pale net of optical fibers. The old man must be stronger than he looked if he'd caused the damage.
"If the unit is defective, I can order a replacement. We have a wide selection of..."
"I don't want a replacement. I don't want your sales pitch. And I most certainly don't want this... thing... lurking in my apartment, sticking its steel snout into my private business."
"Sir, I assure you Simoco is in full compliance with the UN guidelines on reasonable privacy."
"Don't treat me like a senile dotard, girl. The guidelines are worth rat's spit. I know precisely what that thing's doing, with its beady little eyes watching me."
Ann took a deep breath and counted to three. Never raise your voice at the customer. She glanced at the information highlighted at the bottom of her screen. "It says here the robo-dog belongs to your son. So he's the only one who has access to its video logs."
"Exactly! He's spying on me." The old man thumped the dog on the table, and its bright orange ears wriggled in protest. "Now would you please get rid of this thing?"
"I'm sorry, I can't authorize the unit's removal without your son's consent."
"Bullshit. You're the senior service representative on duty. You can issue a recall whenever you feel like it. So shift your backside and get on with it."
Beneath the edge of her desk, Ann made a rude sign. Every so often, one of these centenarians would call up wanting their unit removed. At least this one hadn't started ranting about the Good Old Days. Turning to the camera pickup, Ann gave her best saccharine smile. "I'm sorry, sir. We only issue recalls if our equipment is hazardous. Apart from a little cosmetic damage, there's nothing wrong with your unit. Even so, I see your son requested an auxiliary unit as backup. It should arrive tomorrow morning."
"Another one?" the man asked hollowly, all the energy seeping from his voice. At Ann's nod, he sagged in his chair, his mouth working silently. Ann bit her lip. The fragile kind were worse than the Good Old Days brigade. Sitting there, his face all crumpled, the old man reminded her of her grandfather. In the months after Grandma's death, Grandpa would spend whole days alone in his apartment, staring at a 2-D photo of their wedding, not even bothering to look up if he had a visitor.
The old man straightened up. "Please. Ann. I'm not asking you to break the rules, just to bend them at the corners. All I ask is a week or two... find some excuse to recall the units for that long. Please."
Ann hesitated. "Why? What are you planning?"
"To subvert the government."
Ann's eyes widened before she noticed the corners of the man's mouth twitching upward. "Oh, very funny. What are you really doing?"
"I don't want to discuss it over the phone. Why don't you come around and see for yourself?"
"I have a few packets of Marlboros you might care to sample..."
"How do you know I smoke?"
He shrugged. "I scanned the files on Simoco's employees, cross-checking with the public databases. You're one of the few who opposed compulsory sterilizations in South America, and of those you're the only one who smokes. I can't stand tobacco myself, but I like people who don't just do what's fashionable. So, how about it? Will you come over?"
Ann bit her lip. For all his grumbles about privacy, the old man had no scruples about poking into her background to try to manipulate her. Contradictory and devious and charismatic— and that, too, reminded her of Grandpa, but in the years before Grandma died.
"Okay," Ann said. "I'll come."
The transcity lines terminated half a mile before the old man's address, so Ann had to walk the rest of the way. Even with a robo-Alsatian tagging her heels, she didn't like the narrow streets, fetid with decomposing garbage. Boarded up windows and discolored graffiti-streaked walls loomed above her. The old man had money, so why was he living here?
Ann quickened her pace, careful to look straight ahead. From the corners of her vision, she glimpsed faces peering out at her, the whites of their eyes pressed to cracks in the buildings.
The route-finder beeped: number 572. The old man's place. Ann blinked. A yellowing brick house squatted between two plas-frame slums, its windows picked out in fresh green paint. Despite the building's age, the walls were free of graffiti. Puzzled, Ann pressed the doorbell. "Mister Warnell?"
The old man opened the door. "That thing stays outside." He pointed at the Alsatian. "Don't know why you had to bring it."
"I don't want to leave it on the street. People might—"
"If it stays where it is, no one will bother it." Warnell closed the door firmly behind her.
Ann sniffed; there was a rough damp smell she didn't recognize, a bit like a wet rug, but more agreeable.
"Through here." Warnell waved her forward. As they passed a locked door, something metallic scraped behind it. Warnell grinned. "Your robot's in there; I tricked it into a small trap. But first, come see my dark secret." He wiggled his eyebrows theatrically, and opened another door.
Wet rug smell and high-pitched yaps assaulted Ann before she sorted out what she was seeing. There were patches of brown fur jumping around the floor at her feet, like miniature robo-pets, but there was something wrong with them. Brown hairs littered the worn carpet. Alive, the creatures were alive. Ann backed away, her throat dry as sand, trying not to inhale.
One of the things bumped against her leg, its cold wet nose snuffling her. She pushed past Warnell, but the door was locked. Images from school holo-vids ate at her: the plague, children with their skin peeling from their faces, rats and cats and dogs being hurled into the incinerators. Gulping, she saw Warnell standing there calmly, letting the animals touch his bare skin.
Ann forced herself to breathe normally. If the dogs were carriers, it was too late anyway. "The penalty," she said carefully, "for keeping mammals is life imprisonment. But I didn't think there were any left, and I certainly didn't think anyone was stupid enough to try. What if they escape outside? What if—"
"They're called dogs, and they've all been vaccinated."
Ann shook her head. "No. When I was eight, I asked my grandmother what animals were. At first she wouldn't answer, but I nagged at her. And eventually she told me about the plague. How tramps were shot in the streets because people assumed they were infected. And the morning her mother put the cats out in a box for the incinerator man. I'd never seen Grandma cry before. If there had been a vaccine, people would have used it."
"Don't be naive. The military had a vaccine almost from the start, but if they'd used it people might have suspected they knew a little too much about DY22 to be natural." Warnell held one of the puppies in his arms. His thumb rubbed gently back and forth across its fur, but his voice was harsh. "And, as one of the generals pointed out, it was hurting our enemies worse than us."
Ann's flesh prickled with cold goose bumps. "That can't be true. Someone would have told the doctors—"
"One of the technicians tried. They caught him taking serum from the lab; a week later his name was listed as a plague victim." His mouth twisted. "Hell, it wasn't all bad. At least there are no more rats."
Ann stared at the bundle in his arms, a little scrap of fur with pudgy legs and moist eyes. It wasn't what she'd imagined: neither a manic beast prowling for victims, nor the calculated cuteness of the holo-vids. The vids never mentioned the smell. She'd have to do so if she was interviewed: "Woman Who Smelled Real Dogs."
One of the dogs bumped insistently at her calves. Ann bit her lip. The vaccine must be safe; there hadn't been any cases of plague in over a decade. She bent over and lifted it up. The dog was warm and wriggled in her grip, struggling to free itself. "Woman Who Held Real Dog In Her Bare Hands." Ann giggled; the situation was ludicrous. "What's the matter with this one? It won't stay still."
"Support it properly, and then pat it," said Warnell.
Gingerly, she stroked the dog's back. There, it seemed happier, its head lolling against her. Odd how satisfying it was to hold it. Ann stopped that thought angrily, and set the dog on the ground. There was no sense in getting attached to the creatures. Vaccinated or not, they were bound to be killed. When the news had broken about a laboratory in Switzerland that still had live monkeys, UN forces buried the site beneath 400 feet of concrete.
Ann cleared her throat uncomfortably. "You know I have to report this."
"And there I was, erroneously assuming you had free choice." Warnell's gaze pierced her sarcastically, before returning to the puppy in his arms. "Canis familiaris, a species renowned for their loyalty and trust, the first animals to be domesticated by man. And, barring any other reckless criminals harboring disease-prone beasts, the only land-based mammals left alive. Other than man, of course. How proud you'll feel when you've exposed my scheme, how safe when the soldiers eliminate the last dangerous specimen."
Ann flushed, her fingernails digging into her palms. "That's not fair. You were the one who asked me here. What'd you expect me to do?"
"I expected you to have more guts."
"You're trying to manipulate me."
"Of course I am! Six hours ago, that metal monstrosity with its prying camera eyes landed on my doorstep. I never guessed Mark, my son, would do that to me. I'm out of time, and I need your help. Please."
"Sorry. There's nothing I can do. Now if you'll unlock the door, I have to leave."
Without a word, without looking at her, Warnell undid the door.
Her lips pressed into a hard line, Ann marched to the entrance, and let herself out onto the street.
Ann knew she should call the police immediately, but she told herself it wouldn't hurt to go home first, have a shower. They'd probably question her for hours, and then keep her in some hospital isolation ward for tests.
She stood in the shower for half an hour, letting three days water ration course down her body. But it didn't help. Even the last of her cigarettes didn't help, the smoke souring in her mouth. Each time she thought of reaching for the phone, she felt sick. But she didn't have any real choice, whatever Warnell said. She wasn't prepared to spend years behind bars because of some old man. Dogs were only dumb animals, less sophisticated in many ways than Simoco's robots. Why did it matter what happened to them?
Finally, she sat by the phone, pressed the emergency button. A sunburnt man appeared on the screen, his uniform stretched taut over his paunch. "Police, fire, or—"
"Sorry. Mistake." She disconnected the call. Her fingers shook as she selected another number. One ring, two.
"Yes? Who's there?" Warnell had switched off the video link.
"Ann Connor. Look, even if I wanted to help you, there's nothing I could do. Right?" This wasn't coming out how she'd intended. She tried again. "Suppose I got rid of the robo-dogs for a week, that would only delay things slightly."
"Long enough for a friend of mine to drive down to see me." Warnell's face solidified on the screen. "She's a good friend, with a large transport truck. She tells me she's found homes for forty breeding pairs."
"Forty pairs? You have eighty—"
"Just so. You didn't wait to see the rest of my house. Or to sample my cigarettes."
"All right." Ann had the distinct impression she'd regret doing this, but her mouth carried on by itself. "I'll come back over, take your robo-dog away. But that's all. Okay?"
Warnell grinned. "It's a start. Thank you."
Ann sat in her office, waiting for Warnell's son to phone. Every day for the past nine days, he'd called at precisely noon. She took a final drag on her cigarette, and braced her shoulders.
The phone rang.
Gritting her teeth, Ann pressed the receive button. "Mister Warnell, what a surprise."
"Ms. Connor." Warnell, Jr. lounged in an executive water chair, his scarlet tunic conspicuously filigreed with designer holos. "My lawyer tells me the two Simoco units are still on your premises. Is that correct?"
"I'm afraid so. Their diagnostic routines are—"
"Don't bother to fabricate another excuse. At first I assumed you were merely incompetent. But it's become clear you're deliberately stalling. Unless both units are installed within the hour, I'll ensure you lose your job. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Mister Warnell," Ann grated. Her blood pressure was doubling, and her jaws ached from her frozen smile. "But if you would just give me a little more time, I assure you—"
"You have one hour. I'm confident you'll decide to cooperate."
That smug, self-assured... Ann flicked up the volume of her outward transmission. "You pompous asshole. I'd rather lose my job than help you spy on your father. It's none of your business what he does in his own home."
"But it isn't his own home," Warnell, Jr., murmured. "Under UN rules I assumed legal guardianship on his hundredth birthday. Purely for his own best interests, you understand."
He clicked the disconnect, and the screen flickered back to Simoco's logo.
Ann hummed to herself as she approached Warnell's house. In the autumn sunlight long shadows flowed across the buildings, the light piercingly clear. She felt as though she'd been turned inside out, upside down. She'd lost her job, yet she was happy.
A sheet of plastic shifted in one of the windows, and a boy peered out at her openly. She waved at him, then jumped as a man appeared beside him.
"Ann?" Warnell leaned out of the window. "Come in here for a minute."
The front door creaked open.
Cautiously, Ann stepped through. There was a wet... doggy... smell in the hallway. Warnell ushered her into the single downstairs room. Two foam beds were folded against the walls, a small rusty cooker in the corner, but the place was clean. And in the center, clutched in the boy's arms, was a golden-brown puppy.
Warnell nodded at it. "Half Labrador, half the Lord knows what. And this is Thomas, he's minding the dog while the others are out."
The boy sniffed noisily. "Hello. Don't mind if you sit down."
Taking that as an invitation, Ann eased down onto one of the beds.
"Thanks." She looked around, noting the three hardcopy books on a makeshift shelf, the neatly patched clothes.
Warnell raised an eyebrow. "Not what you expected?"
"No, I, that is, on the vids..." Ann stopped, unable to continue while the boy was listening.
"On the vids, unemployables are always criminals. That doesn't make it the truth. Don't watch like a dope-dulled idiot. Think for yourself." His mouth twisted sourly. "Not that I ever did."
Ann sat there awkwardly, her cheeks hot. She played with an object in her pocket, taking it out as the silence stretched.
"What's that you got?" The boy gazed round-eyed at her.
Glancing down, Ann focused on the little hand-carved dog with its pointed muzzle. "The man in the antique shop said it was a Border collie. Here, you can have it."
"For real? I can keep it?"
"Sure. I was going to give it to Warnell, but he won't mind." She glanced up at Warnell, but the old man didn't respond. Ann frowned. "Maybe I should come back tomorrow. Warnell?"
He didn't react as she stood up.
"Warnell?" She laid her hand on his back. "Is something wrong?"
"Sixty-nine years," he muttered. The muscles bunched in his arms, and he swung round. "Sixty-nine years ago to the day. I was eating oysters in a French cafe when the lab director phoned, priority message. There'd been a power surge, half the networks had gone down, and several of the DY22 rats were missing."
He shook his head. "I'd never had any qualms about our research, thought we needed to maintain a covert strategic advantage. Arrogant, self-deluded fool." His voice trailed into silence.
For a minute, Ann couldn't think of anything to say. She stared at the old man, at the boy crouched on the floor beside him, his arms wrapped tight round the puppy. There was an odd pressure in her chest, and her voice emerged thickly. "You've done what you can to make up for it. Just standing there blaming yourself won't help anything." She paused. "Besides, you're a centenarian now. I thought that meant you weren't responsible for what you did."
Slowly, Warnell looked at her. His mouth crooked into a smile. "Are you calling me old?"
Ann grinned at him, her throat too full to speak.
Mary Soon Lee has sold over 30 stories. Her story "Universal Grammar" will be in the April 97 issue of F&SF (on sale in March), and her previous story in F&SF, "Ebb Tide," is currently on the preliminary Nebula ballot.