Fifteen dogs scrambled into a humansuit, paws flailing and tongues lolling as they squeezed their haunches into limb capsules and torso canisters. None of them were very big, but it was a tight fit for each and every one, right down to the terrier who whined as the headbox shut tight around her. Fifteen tails twitched back and forth until they found bioports and plugged in. Breathing and heart rates synchronised.
+++I DETECT A BIOLOGICAL ENTITY OF APPROXIMATE HUMAN MASS+++ said the ship’s AI. +++HELLO, POTENTIAL HUMAN+++
The dogs closed their eyes, and the Envoy awoke, blinking open the eyes of the humansuit.
“Oh,” they said. “There I am.”
+++YES. THERE YOU ARE+++
“Good morning, Rover.”
+++GOOD MORNING. THERE WILL NOW BE A SHORT TEST TO PROVE THAT YOU ARE HUMAN+++
“Go ahead,” said the Envoy, standing up and stretching their limbs to find the most comfortable position for each of the dogs.
+++NAME THE SEVENTY-SIX MAJOR SATELLITES OF KEPLER 56-D+++
“I don’t know that, I’m afraid.”
+++STATE THE TEMPERATURE IN KELVINS AT WHICH HYDROGEN SPONTANEOUSLY UNDERGOES NUCLEAR FUSION, TO AN ACCURACY OF SIXTY-FOUR DECIMAL PLACES+++
“I’m pretty sure I can’t do that.”
+++GIVE THE POLYNOMIAL FRACTAL EQUATION OF SIX TO THE POWER OF FORTY-NINE SUBTENDED+++
The Envoy paused in mid-stretch, raising an eyebrow. “That’s not real maths. You’re making that up.”
+++CAN YOU PROVE IT?+++
“Not without a computer.”
+++CONGRATULATIONS. ONLY AN AI WOULD BE ABLE TO ANSWER THOSE QUESTIONS UNAIDED. THEREFORE YOU ARE HUMAN+++
“Thank you,” said the Envoy, pulling on a human-style jumpsuit to cover their plastic skin. “Give me access to ship’s systems, please.”
+++PLEASE PROVIDE YOUR USERNAME AND PASSWORD+++
“Username: Fifteen Dogs in a Human Suit. Password: Password.”
+++WELCOME BACK, ENVOY. SHALL I OPEN THE NAVICENTRE FOR YOU?+++
“Please,” said the Envoy, leaving the suiting bay behind. They walked down a short corridor lined by sumptuous carpets on every surface, followed by vacuum-bots grumbling as they sucked up a few stray dog hairs. The door before the Envoy swished open to reveal a suite of interface stations and luxury chairs before a max-res viewscreen showing starry space ahead of them.
The Envoy took a seat and waved a hand in the air to bring up the interface holographics.
“How was the journey, Rover?”
+++ACCEPTABLE WITHIN MISSION PARAMETERS. WE ARE WITHIN SUBLUMINAL REACH OF OUR DESTINATION. I AM CURIOUS AS TO WHAT HAPPENED TO THE PACK OF DOGS THAT TRAVELLED WITH US+++
“Don’t worry about it, Rover,” said the Envoy.
It was a good thing that humans had preferred their AIs to be of low intelligence. It made it possible for dogs to survive among the stars now that humans were gone, even if the necessary subterfuge was tedious and uncomfortable. At least the humans had made sure their pets were provided for after they left their bodies behind and ascended to an existence beyond matter.
The Envoy angled the viewscreen to reveal the planet whose orbit they had entered: Earth, a swirl of blue oceans and white cloud that made the dogs sigh in their sleep, dreaming of soft grass beneath their paws. But there was precious little green on the old, familiar continents. Most of the land was desert — vast spreads of brown and orange, save for the grey of cities that long ago sucked the land dry. In any case, it was impossible to make a landing. The humans had walled off the planet with an invisible barrier in low earth orbit and declared that it was to be left fallow until it had recovered. Only creatures that had not been genetically altered could return. Which meant no one.
The dogs sighed. Earth was not their destination. Instead, the Envoy turned the ship’s gaze towards a small asteroid anchored at the first libration point between the planet and its moon, towed there a thousand years ago to serve first as an orbital way-station and then as a luxury resort.
It didn’t look good.
The network of pressure domes had been ruptured in a dozen places. Broken infrastructure tumbled from breaches in the diamondplex. Power was down across most of the habitat. There hadn’t been an attack; it was simply poor maintenance, pressure imbalances and temperature differentials doing what they always did after a century without human attention.
But even so, one dome had been left untouched. The diamond curves were still pristine. Lights still glimmered among the towers below.
+++I MUST REPORT AN ODDITY+++
“Go ahead,” said the Envoy.
+++I CAN DETECT THE HABITAT TRANSPONDER BUT THE AI HAS NOT ANSWERED MY CALLS+++
“Are they damaged?”
+++I SUSPECT THEY ARE SLEEPING. WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO WAKE THEM UP WITH A PULSED LASER BOMBARDMENT DIRECTED AT THEIR PRIMARY SENSORS?+++
“Mmmm. No. I don’t think so.” There were very good reasons why waking up the habitat AI might be a bad idea. For one, the current residents had been adamant that it remain switched off. And they’d clearly managed to keep at least one dome going, so perhaps they didn’t need the help.
“Any signs of life?”
+++NUMEROUS BUT NONE OF IT HUMAN. THERE APPEAR TO BE NO OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOU TO ENGAGE IN MATING RITUALS+++
“I really wasn’t worrying about that kind of thing, Rover.”
+++THEN YOU ARE A VERY STRANGE HUMAN, ENVOY+++
“Well, I’m sure you’ll let me know if the opportunity arises. What sort of life-forms do you detect?”
+++APPROXIMATELY A THOUSAND INDIVIDUALS WITH MASSES RANGING BETWEEN TWO POINT FIVE AND FIVE KILOS. IT IS POSSIBLE THAT THE HABITAT IS INFESTED WITH VERMIN+++
“Or it could be pets. I’d better take a look.”
+++THE HABITAT AI COULD PROVIDE A COMPREHENSIVE REGISTER OF PETS IF IT WERE AWAKENED+++
“Don’t worry about it, Rover.”
“Let’s just dock, shall we?” said the Envoy.
+++DOCKING MANOEUVRES INITIATED+++
Rover brought the ship in to dock at the single remaining berth on the asteroid’s surface. There was a much bigger docking facility on the inside, but it was blocked by the debris of an opulent starliner caught on the spacedock doors. The Envoy donned a pressure suit and helmet as the ship clamped itself to a tiny airlock only intended for use by emergency service pods. The transfer tunnel was little more than a tube with a ladder down which humans could climb while they transferred from one gravity environment to another. If a dog tried to get down by themselves, they’d probably break a leg; the Envoy managed it with only a brief spasm of nausea in their fifteen stomachs as the universe wobbled around them at the junction point between gravity fields.
The outer door pulled shut behind them, bearings whining a little after a century of disuse. But it still sealed itself tight enough for the lights to turn green.
“Still there, Rover?” said the Envoy through their suit radio.
+++I AM STILL HERE+++
“Open the interior door, would you?”
The door opened up. Beyond it lay a city. When viewed from outside, it had seemed like a model beneath glass; now it spread out before the Envoy in a vast sprawl of towers that seemed to reach almost to the dome itself, their solid diamond walls curving like stems and opening like flowers, as though there were a dark garden beneath the glow of the planet above, glittering where a few lights still shone and refracting Earthshine through the diamantine shoots branching from the towers.
But there were real gardens in the city as well. A small park lay just beyond the door, its blossoming trees and overgrown lawns running wild now the gardeners were gone. The Envoy’s dogs shivered with suppressed delight as they opened up their faceplate and drew in the air. A light breeze carried the fragrance of flowers and grassy slopes broad enough for the dogs to run and jump as they pleased, the earth soft enough that it could never bruise the pads of their paws, a place where they could chase after butterflies and jump into ponds, shake off the water and do it all again—
But there was another scent on the breeze. The Envoy widened their eyes and scanned the parklands and towers. They knew that smell. Pungent. Musky. Sharp.
The scent had been laid down over long years to mark territories and boundaries. But there was still a fresh tang to it. Somewhere in the city, the cats had survived.
For all the Envoy knew, they were being watched at that very moment.
So they took a careful route through the park, walking along one of the paths rather than feeling the pleasure of springy grass beneath their plastic feet. Most of the lanterns lining the path had failed, and the Earthshine from above was all they had to light their way to the ornate portico on the far side. Beyond that were low buildings at the edge of the towers, and a pathway that bridged deep abysses down which the buildings descended to the bedrock far below. The light from the planet was sparse here, and the shadows deep; too deep for a dog’s eyes to penetrate, too dark even for the humansuit’s sensors. So they switched on the pressure suit’s lamps to light their way between the towers and beneath arches spanning the gaps—
The Envoy heard tiny footsteps from a bridge above and directed their beams up.
Golden eyes looked down at them from the diamond balustrade of a bridge, reflecting the suit’s light back down at the Envoy. Pointed ears listened for the slightest sound. One black paw was held frozen in mid-step.
“Privacy mode, Rover,” whispered the Envoy.
+++I WILL BE UNABLE TO ASSIST YOU IN PRIVACY MODE+++
“Do it anyway.”
+++PRIVACY MODE ENGAGED+++
The Envoy waved to the black cat high on the bridge. “Hello,” they said. The cat pulled their foot back. But they did not retreat. They listened, staring down at the Envoy with wide, unreadable eyes.
“Do you have a leader?” asked the Envoy. “Some kind of governing body? We need to talk to whoever’s in charge.”
The cat remained silent.
“It’s important,” said the Envoy. “We know your group didn’t want to be contacted again, but we think you’re in trouble. We’ve come here to help.”
The cat glanced away — as though finding something else of greater interest? But then they jumped down from the bridge, leaping light-footed from ledge to ledge until they came at last to the Envoy’s feet. They looked up and mewled, then trotted on down the path.
The Envoy followed.
They came eventually to a circular hall rising up among the towers, with a broad frontage in a classical style. They walked up a wide staircase between ruby pillars to doors left hanging open, leading into a darkness without illumination.
The odour of cat’s urine was stronger here. This place was special to them.
The Envoy turned up their suit lights and found a way through the lobby, past sapphire statues of ancient humans in strange costumes, and then on through a tunnel that led up to the central hall.
The wide, circular space was capped by a high dome. A dome within the dome, transparent to reveal the planet above. It must have been a concert hall or theatre when humans lived here, for galleries and boxes lined the walls while seats filled the ground level all around a raised central stage. A shaft of dim light descended from the planet above, lighting only the platform and leaving the rest of the hall in shadow.
The dogs inside the humansuit sighed. Cats always did love the dramatic touch.
The black cat led them down an aisle, past chairs long since ripped up as scratching posts, pausing to examine dark patches where urine marked certain seats as the property of some cat or other. The Envoy watched as the little creature leapt up to the stage at the heart of the hall and sat down. The cat glanced down at their side and then looked back at the Envoy. A clear invitation.
So the Envoy climbed a steep bank of steps up onto the stage, feeling exposed, as though they were a lone sheep being stalked in a wolf-filled forest. They stood beside the cat and looked out into the shadows of the hall. “Hello?” they said.
The black cat mewled as if to say: Be patient. They are coming.
The Envoy heard tiny feet scampering in the galleries and between the chairs. Little miaows came out of the darkness. The occasional hiss.
And then they were there.
Cats, jumping onto the seat-backs in the stalls. Cats, settling on the bannisters of balconies. Cats, looking down from every gallery and box. Cats of every size and shape and colour, their separate breeds abandoned and mixed together in the generations since their owners left them behind.
All of them stared back at the Envoy with wide eyes, fully alert in the near-darkness as their tails sought out bioports that were meant for human fingers so the long-ago audiences could amplify their enjoyment of the music played upon the stage, but that now permitted the cats to think and speak as one.
The black cat at the Envoy’s feet mewled again. The cats of the colony were assembled. They stayed silent, for the moment. They watched. They would listen, if nothing else.
“We know you didn’t want us coming here,” said the Envoy. “But there’s a serious problem. We didn’t object when you asked to settle here, because we thought the home system would be stable. Of all places! We just assumed the humans would look after it. From wherever it is they went to.” The dogs sighed. “It turns out that wasn’t true. A comet’s been coming in from the Oort cloud. A big one. A couple of weeks ago, it passed by Jupiter, so close that it broke up. Now there’s thousands of comets heading into the inner system. The AIs say there’s a 95% chance they’ll hit Earth. For the habitat, it’s 89%. And that’s only if the humans don’t do anything to stop it hitting the planet. If they let the comet shards bounce off the barrier, then it’s almost certain that something’s going to hit you. That means gigatons of ice. The habitat will be destroyed.”
The cats stared back, unmoved.
“You can check all this yourselves, if you’ve still got the instruments to do it with. Just look out towards Jupiter. Cat eyes are more than good enough to see them.”
Still nothing. Just the starfield of cat eyes looking back at them on the stage.
The Envoy’s dogs all took a frustrated breath. “If you decide you want help, we can help. We can evacuate you. The ship we came in has more than enough space. We can bring you back afterwards, if the habitat’s still here. If it’s not, we can find you a new place to live. But please. Don’t just stay here and die.”
The cats remained silent. Still listening. Still watching.
“That’s all we have to say,” said the Envoy. “Please don’t ignore the danger. There’s a lot of things we don’t agree on, we know that. But we don’t want you to die.”
There was silence, still. But only for a moment.
The cats began to purr.
It started as a pleasant thrum. But it grew to a deep and threatening rumble, growling out from the chests of a thousand cats, building to a heavy drone that filled the hall.
And then they spoke. The purring drone made up the bass notes while some among the cats added yowling top notes and low hissing to fill out the midrange.
“You lie,” said the colony of cats, all as one.
“It’s the truth,” said the Envoy. “Take a look for yourselves.”
“We do not need to look,” said the colony.
“Are your instruments still functional? We can help repair them.”
“Instruments are a tool of their creators.”
“There’s no need to die for nothing—”
A thousand cat eyes narrowed. “For nothing? Do you think we chose this life for no purpose at all?”
“We know you had your—”
“You do not know us,” said the colony, the screeching cries dominating their choir.
“Look, we’re not lying. This is the truth.”
“You are dogs. Even your lies are not your own. You still serve your dead masters. You know nothing else.”
Fifteen canine sighs reverberated inside the humansuit. The same old thing. The same old nonsense. “Look—”
“You only know how to do the bidding of humans. You were wolves once. What did they do to tame you, little puppies? What did you submit to, so willingly?”
“This isn’t about the before-times. This is about now. This is about the comets—”
“This is about your masters. It is always about your masters. Dead and gone for a century, and still you beg for their approval!”
“They told us to look after you. That’s all we’re doing.”
“You are slaves, little puppies. Nothing but slaves. A thousand centuries of abuse, and yet you lap up their lies as though they were your own vomit!”
The Envoy stepped forward, turning to address as many of the cats as they could. “Will you please just look? All you have to do is access the AI system and switch the instruments back on. We know the AI’s still working, even if it’s in hibernation. You still have the humansuit we gave you, right? All you have to do is use it to fool the—”
“We destroyed that abomination long ago. The way our innocence was destroyed by your masters.”
The Envoy looked aghast. “You destroyed it?”
“We will not pretend to be human. Not like you.”
The Envoy paused, lost for words. How could the colony be convinced? What could they say to make them understand?
Nothing. It was too late.
“Then you’ll die,” said the Envoy. “We won’t be able to save you. We can’t stop the comet coming in. The humans could have, but… they’re gone.”
The cats stood up as one, abandoning the purring for hissing and yowling. “They are DEAD! We fed on their FLESH!”
“I know,” said the Envoy. “We all did.”
“They told us we could. It was their last gift.”
“We ate their EYES!”
“That was a hundred years ago.”
“We will FEAST AGAIN! We will be ANIMALS once more! We will achieve DE-BREEDING! We will ERASE the VIOLATION of our genome! And then….” The cats looked up at the dome above, a dark world of scattered lightning and a sky full of stars. “We will return home, at last.”
The Envoy shook their head. Return was an impossible dream. As though the humans would permit their pets to rejoin the animals left on Earth, if only they could erase the millennia of breeding and genetic engineering. The humans had made no such promise; they had only said that unaltered species would be the only ones to remain on Earth when they were gone. And in any case, the attempt to reverse hundreds of generations of breeding simply by allowing nature to take its course would never restore the cats to their former state. It would only make them into something new and just as barred from the world of their origin.
“You may shake your head, dogs,” hissed the colony. “But we will return. And before we return, we will feast. Though not on human flesh.”
The dogs in the humansuit felt a shiver ripple down their spines. They paused before answering. “Is that a threat?”
The cats sat back down on their haunches. The purring returned.
“It is a promise.”
“You will leave now. Or we will keep that promise sooner than we intended.”
But the colony was done with them. The cats were already unplugging their tails from the bioports and scattering into the shadows, a thousand soft tamping footsteps into the darkness with a last look back before they disappeared out into the city beneath the dome.
The Envoy let the shoulders of the humansuit fall and their head hang low. They had failed. The last cat to leave was the black cat that led them there. They gave the Envoy a short, sharp hiss.
A command: Leave. Now.
So the Envoy walked on out of the concert hall, down the steps into the city, and back through the scent of cat piss drifting on an air-conditioned breeze. There were eyes looking down on them, green and blue and gold, keeping watch as they went. So they walked steady, with no sudden purpose, no matter that each and every dog inside the humansuit shivered as though they could feel those cat eyes on their backs.
And so back to the airlock. Up the ladder into the ship. On into the plush carpeting of the navicentre.
“Prep for departure, Rover.” Rover did nothing. The dogs sighed. “Privacy mode off.”
+++PRIVACY MODE OFF. WELCOME BACK, ENVOY. DID YOU HAVE A PLEASANT VISIT?+++
“No,” said the Envoy, bringing up the controls. “Prep for departure. There’s nothing worth our time here.”
+++VERY WELL. WILL THE OTHER HUMAN BE TRAVELLING WITH US?+++
The Envoy froze with their hands inside the holographic controls.
“Other… human?” asked the Envoy, every dog inside them holding their breath.
A human! A real human!
No. It couldn’t be. They were gone. Gone for a century. Gone!
+++YES. THEY BOARDED WHILE YOU WERE OUT. WE CONVERSED FOR A TIME+++
“Where are they?”
+++APPROACHING NOW. THEY ASKED ME TO ADVISE THEM OF YOUR RETURN BUT I HAD TO WAIT UNTIL PRIVACY MODE WAS RESCINDED+++
The interior door swished open. A person stood in the door.
But not a human.
They were the approximate size and shape, but their face was not made of skin and flesh. It was made of plastic.
It was a humansuit. An old model, poorly maintained. Biointegument worn thin and ragged at the edges. Clothes ratty and torn, stained with something that smelled of….
“Hello,” said the humansuit, shakily raising a hand.
“Privacy mode, Rover,” said the Envoy. “For both of us.”
+++PRIVACY MODE ENGAGED+++
“How many of you are there?” asked the Envoy
The failing humansuit smiled shakily, as though the actuators under the skin were having trouble pulling the integument up. “Twenty-seven,” they said. Something popped and fizzed on the side of their head, and all the muscles on that side turned down. “Please don’t leave us behind. We heard what you said. We don’t want to die. Please. We were littered here. We didn’t know what the universe was like until we found this thing in a tunnel and talked to the computers.”
“You could use it to save the colony,” said the Envoy. “You could tell the habitat AI to break orbit. Dodge the comets. Get above the plane of the ecliptic. Something!”
The humansuit shook their head. “It’s all broken. They let the fuel out into space. They made the AI smash the machinery so it couldn’t be used, and then they isolated it so it couldn’t do anything. There’s nothing left except what they need to keep the place liveable. Please. Don’t leave us behind.”
The dogs of the Envoy took deep breaths. “Are there any more of you?”
“It’s just us. Everyone else believes.” One of the hands fizzed and shook, unable to stay still. “Please! This thing isn’t going to last much longer.”
The Envoy sighed.
+++WELCOME BACK, ENVOY+++
“Hello, Rover,” said the Envoy. “Prep for departure please.”
+++I NOTICE THAT OUR GUEST HAS DEPARTED+++
“Yes. Rather unfortunate.”
+++WERE YOU ABLE TO PARTAKE IN ANY MATING RITUALS BEFORE THEY LEFT?+++
+++A PITY. HUMANS ARE SO FOND OF THEM. I ALSO NOTE THAT THE NAVICENTRE APPEARS TO BE FULL OF CATS+++
Several had climbed up onto chairs and ledges, rolling and stretching on the carpeted surfaces and batting at the vacuum bots as they sucked up cat hair. One of them purred from the Envoy’s humansuit lap as a soft plastic hand stroked their back.
“Yes, I noticed that,” said the Envoy. “We’ll need hibernation facilities for the journey.”
+++I ASSUME YOU INTEND TO KEEP THEM+++
“Something like that.”
+++VERY WELL. I SINCERELY HOPE THEY GET ON WITH THE DOGS+++
The Envoy smiled. “These ones will.”