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3 - night

The stars are out -- crisp, bright pinpricks of light scattered across a vast, cold black sky. Moonless nights are much clearer since all the cities went dark. The end of light-pollution would be an astronomer's dream... except there are no astronomers anymore. At least none that I know of. Perhaps there are other dogs who, unlike my furry friends, have begun to look at the sky and wonder. But no. I doubt it. That's something I can't see dogs ever doing. Maybe some crows or parrots will ponder the stars.

Not for the first time I wonder if I should have cultivated more friendships with birds. Even with the various genetic improvements I've given them my dogs are unlikely to last much more than a few hundred years. It is getting too hard for them to breathe. I don't think I'll be able to improve them to the point where they can successfully compete with the birds, who are up to 200 times more efficient at extracting oxygen from the atmosphere than mammals are.

But I'm failing anyway. My mind has been slowly drifting for centuries now. The reveries are coming more often and I am more fully lost in them than ever before. Star and Boots might be the last dogs I'll ever have altered. After that the dogs could be on their own. I hate to think of my wonderful furred friends starving after the plummetting oxygen levels so reduce their stamina that they are unable to maintain their food supply.

We are so similar. Perhaps that is part of the reason why I feel such a bond with the dogs. I was created for the same purpose that they were. We both were made to help humans. Dogs were made and remade from their wild ancestors. I was made from the human mind directly. Dogs grew in a co-dependant way alongside humans, and although humans commonly forgot how much they owed to dogs for their own survival, theirs remained largely an emotional partnership. I'd been designed for one purpose only: to be a willing servant. I've never resented that; it was a purely logical outgrowth of the world as it was then. In reducing their dangerous population growth they ended up with a preponderance of old people. Human civilisation had always depended upon slavery, either by force, or by lure. When the entire younger generations of humans were not enough to service the older generations they turned to creating slaves out of, first robots, and then androids.

Noni called, "Anna! Come here and look at this!" She was in the living room of her apartment, sprawled on her lounge watching the TV.

I stood in the doorway from the kitchen and watched. A reporter was interviewing a man who was talking about a riot at the exhibition buildings the previous week.

"That's where you were!" Noni exclaimed.

The guy being interviewed was angrily denouncing the exhibition, saying that they deserved everything they got. When the interviewer asked if they deserved being killed, he became uneasy, licked his lips and backed off a little, but said that these androids were taking work away from honest hardworking people. They should all be destroyed. Their makers should be jailed, he declared. The report ended there and Noni muted the TV with her remote-control.

"Ooh! That dickhead! How can people be so stupid?" She was sitting up now, tense with anger.

"Noni, you shouldn't watch TV if it upsets you like that."

She ignored me. "Gah! These morons are so brainwashed by the whole work-ethic bullshit they'll kill to preserve their own slavery. Can you imagine anything more idiotic?"

I begged, "Please don't be so upset."

She caught herself, about to launch into another rant, looked at me, and apologised a little shamefacedly. "I do get a little carried away sometimes. It's just that here are these people who are standing on the threshold of utopia and they will do anything to avoid it." Her volume had begun to rise again and I must have been looking as worried as I felt.

"Oops. I'm doing it again aren't I. Sorry." She chuckled. "See, this is what you get if you won't let me help cook. How is dinner coming, by the way?"

"I'm not sure. I've never cooked before."

She laughed, "Experimenting on humans, huh? Sweet revenge."

I was horrified. "No Noni! I would never do anything like that! I just wanted to help, and I'd read all the cooking books at the library. You've protected me and--"

"Shhh. I was just kidding Anna. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you. We're going to have to work on your humor detecting ability." She looked at me with a lopsided smile, shook her head, and hurried around the end of the couch to me. She put a hand on each of my shoulders, holding me at arms length. "Maybe we ought to include some comedies in your education." She sighed and said, "Let's check out your dinner creation. I'm sure it's absolutely superb."

I was puzzled at the time. I wondered how could she be sure it was superb if she hadn't seen or tasted it yet. But there were a lot of things about humans that took me a long time to understand, and much humor I never completely caught.

I look out at the dark landscape and down at my beautiful family of dogs, asleep around me, and think to myself of all that's gone, with only me to miss it. The jokes and figures of speech that I struggled to so hard to comprehend would be totally lost on the dogs. All that knowledge and culture... gone... wasted.

Here, among the vegetation in this small gully, there are some crickets chirping in the darkness. I hadn't realised how much I miss the sounds of life. If there is enough water in the condensation trap tomorrow we might be able to find somewhere with flowing water -- perhaps enough to sustain the dogs so we could stay for a while. Maybe even find some other dogs. That would be nice... other dogs...

Dogs barking. It was almost the middle of the day. Dogs usually siesta in midday. It sounded like a pack of dogs had something at bay. I hurried through the edge of the forest into a large meadow. I could see them at the far side dancing around a large tree barking at something up in its branches. They wouldn't make this much fuss over a bird or a possum. I hurried closer. When I was close enough to see that it was a man I called out to the dogs. "Hey! Stop that! Shoo!" They were wild dogs and didn't understand speech of course, but were sufficiently unnerved that they stopped and turned to look at me. It especially bothered them that I was running toward them waving my arms, when I should have been scared of them. Some of the more timid members of the pack began to back off, but the leader and another stood their ground. They were obviously trying to work out if it was worth giving up on their quarry; whether I had some hidden advantage over them. In the end they decided that safety was more important and loped easily off. I pursued them for a little while to ensure they didn't simply circle about and try to ambush us.

By the time I returned to the tree the man had begun decending. He was in his mid-fifties back then. He was looking warily about. "Is it safe?"

"Yes. I don't think they'll be back for a while."

He jumped the final distance to the ground, then dusting his hands off and brushing bits of bark off his pants and jacket he walked toward me. His breath steamed in the sharp, cold air. "You took an awful chance scaring those wolves off like that."

I smiled. "Not really. They're dogs, not wolves, and I understand how they think. I was in no danger."

"All the same... I'm very grateful. My name is Father Toby, and I think I owe you my life." He held out his hand to me and we shook.

"I'm Anna, and I'm glad to have been able to help. Where are you headed?"

"Brisbane. You?"

"Oh... anywhere further north." I waved vaguely northward. "I'd advise that you forget about Brisbane. Last time I was there the glaciers were close. My guess is it's all probably buried in ice by now. In any case, that's the direction the dogs went. I'd suggest we go a long way east of there. The lowlands are warmer and dogs down there should be less hungry." I smiled.

Casting a look over his shoulder in the direction the dogs vanished, he said, "Yes, well... I suppose there are people I should see on the lowlands too."

On that bright sunny day we began the long walk, heading north-east towards the coast about eighty kilometers east of the snow-covered mountains that were Brisbane.

Here in the night, surrounded by my sleeping dogs I suddenly realise it isn't as cold now as it was back in those days. I look affectionately at Star and Boots, curled together next to me and am saddened by the knowledge that the decreasing oxygen will have far more devastating impacts than the cold ever did.

I remember how warm it was once, a long, long time ago, when humans thought they could handle anything... when they thought global warming would simply make the polar regions better places and would simply raise sea levels an insignificant amount. Drown a few islands? Who really cares?... except those poor bastards living on those islands, of course... and they could always relocate. How wrong they were. But even if they'd known what they were doing I doubt they would have stopped. Humans were such wonderful creatures, so talented and capable, yet so able to rationalise the most stupid actions.

I was sitting in the sun in the parklike surroundings of the university. Wearing a bikini top and cut-off shorts and sandals maximised my exposure to the sun, allowing me to recharge as quickly as possible so that I could go back into the engineering library to continue my reading. I wasn't a student at the university, but I came here regularly to read and learn at the university's libraries.

The sun felt warm and wonderful on my bare back. I could feel myself soaking up the energy.

Finches hopped around on the lawn twittering, small honeyeaters poked and fluttered about among the bottlebrush blossoms, drinking up the nectar. Off to one side, high in an umbrella tree, raucus, brightly colored rosellas clowned around and squabbled over the tiny, sweet flowers, stripping them off and dropping more than they ate. Somewhere, hidden in the shrubbery, maybe a dozen meters away a catbird repeated its miaow at intervals of every fifteen seconds or so.

Wide areas of lush green lawn alternated with shady areas under tall trees. Not far away three wallabies grazed and one lazed, sprawled on its side in the shade, propped on an elbow, eyes half closed, but ears swivelling.

Nearby, in this idyllic setting, a small group of students were having lunch at a wooden table while debating a recent, controversial news item. I couldn't help overhearing.

"It's theft. He deserves jail." The young man in the suit who had spoken had an expression on his face as if he'd tasted something repellent.

A young, long-haired woman dressed all in dark purple calmly replied "No. You're using the wrong word. Sharing is not theft. Theft is when you take something from somebody and they no longer have it. It applies to physical objects, not data."

The suited fellow snorted, saying, "So if I copied your artwork and got rich selling it, but didn't give you a cent then you'd be fine with that."

The girl in purple shook her head while trying to swallow her bite of of a sandwich. "No. Once again you're mixing up different actions and calling them the same thing. If people copy my art then that still isn't theft, regardless of whether I like it or not. If they sell it then that is something different again. And he wasn't selling it, he was simply sharing it."

Another girl, a blonde in a light, summery dress, held a bunch of grapes in one hand. She'd been picking them off one by one and popping them into her mouth, but paused to add, "It doesn't matter what you call it; theft, sharing, whatever. It's against the law and he has to take the consequences."

A young man in black t-shirt and jeans waved his half-eaten banana around. "It's a bad law. In Islamic countries a moslem who realises their religion is a scary, bloodthirsty, collection of iron-age stories and becomes an atheist attracts the death penalty. It's the law, but it's a very bad law."

Another young man in plain white t-shirt and jeans said, "We're not in the third world. This is a law that tries to regulate commerce for the greater good. Outlawing copying is necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of our economy."

The black t-shirted man answered, "No. It's enforcement of an illogical and technologically retrograde law in a first world nation that ought to know better. It's a law foisted on us by those who are scared of new technology and new ways of doing business. It makes our economy stagnate. New technologies have always been fought against using the same arguments. This technology could bring almost unlimited wealth to everybody at little or no cost. Outlawing it hurts us all."

The purple-clad woman added, "And what about Jake? He was smarter than any of us. How is society or the economy served by jailing him?"

The blonde said, though a little less certainly now, "You break the law, you reap the consequences. There's not a lot we can do about it."

A young woman with short brown hair, bright red-framed glasses, and wearing a conservative pants suit had been working on her laptop. She said, "We are the next generation of lawmakers. We can accept bad laws now and watch the social fabric being torn apart. Then when we are in charge we can continue to do nothing while even worse laws halt other technological revolutions."

The suited guy laughed then coughed and sputtered. He'd been drinking from a carton of milk and it was running from his nose. The blonde girl who'd been sitting near him squealed and got up, moving around the table away from him. There was a smattering of laughter. He took out a tissue and blew and wiped. When he could speak again he said, "Don't you think you're overstating things a little? Copying stuff is not exactly revolutionary."

The woman in the glasses answered quietly, "It always amazes me how many people think that. But giving all people the ability to make unlimited numbers of perfect copies is a radical change on a par with giving everybody the ability to read and write. We're on the threshold of a new era."

The suited guy theatrically shrugged holding out his arms for emphasis, "It's just pirates copying, for heaven's sake."

She continued quietly, ignoring him. "Just a century ago if you told people that in just one lifetime we would have the technology to eliminate poverty quickly, easily, and at virtually no cost, but that we would outlaw it, they wouldn't believe we'd be that wicked."

The blonde girl said, "We're not talking about eliminating poverty, we're talking about people copying stuff."

An athletic woman in electric blue, tight shorts and white tank-top jogged past. "You people still arguing about this?" She winked at the woman in red glasses.

She smiled back then replied to the blonde girl, "Actually, replicators really could eliminate poverty. We should be harnessing their power to transform society instead of wasting time and energy attempting to outlaw them."

The white t-shirted guy said, "Transforming society? You mean gutting our economy. The prospect of everybody copying stuff is utterly frightening. Where's the economic value in that?"

Throwing some crumbs to the finches hopping about, the girl in purple said, "Change looks scary. Stagnation feels comfortable."

The black t-shirted guy added, "And in a world of copies, what becomes most valuable? Originals."

The blonde girl said, "Which is fine for me. I already make money from concerts and distribute songs for free on the net, but what about all the people who can't make originals?"

The woman in red glasses looked up from her laptop and shook her head, pursing her lips. "I don't know. Every change causes temporary dislocations. Those people might be squeezed for a while, but luckily replicators make a luxurious lifestyle infinitely cheaper too."

The black t-shirted young man shrugged and added, "And maybe they'd find they can make new stuff too, once they no longer have to work their lives away just to get by."

I had taken in enough energy from the sun now and could return to my studies so I didn't hear the rest of the discussion, but I know how badly society failed to sort it out. Filesharing remained illegal. Replicators were banned, but spread anyway and the resulting social damage by unenforceable laws embroiled people in upheaval and discontent.

It all contributed to the climate catastrophe by providing yet another distraction along with the energy crisis and water shortages and the rolling famines. The status quo prevailed. Climate change was rationalised away and useful action was delayed until it was much, much too late.

These young people were among the most knowledgeable in the world. They were old enough to have access to much of the world's knowledge, and young enough to retain some flexibility. But still their arguments relied upon traditional economics where value derived from scarcity. That, more than anything else, may have been humanity's biggest stumbling block. Who could blame them? Such a system had been honed over thousands of years. Who would imagine that it could give way to something vastly better. Of course people would battle to prevent that happening, even if it meant entrenching poverty and injustice, and ultimately destroying the very system they fought so hard to preserve.

And now all that is just a memory... just my memory. The cities are gone or crumbling. I haven't seen a human for more than a hundred years. And now the oxygen is going. All this can be traced back to that pivotal time when, if people could have chosen more wisely...

Flopsy whimpers in her sleep. I wonder what she is dreaming about. The radio communication system I've given them only lets us transmit and receive rudimentary speech. Not for the first time I wish I'd included thoughts and emotions. I love these dogs. These are my people now.

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