Banto and Benny
Banto and Benny
Banto, a young Toba on his first space mission, tentatively put his hand on the door, wondering what strange alien artifacts might be on the far side.
Steeling himself, he twisted the doorknob (a surprisingly common way of opening and closing doors across hundreds of alien cultures, according to his mandatory Alien Research and Contact classes), and pushed the door in.
He held his breath.
On the far side … …was a small room, with a bed, a desk, and a chair. Banto let his breath out again.
Shyla, Banto’s mother, appeared behind him. “How do you like your room?”
“Mom, I know I said I wanted to see Earth…but so far, it’s really boring!”
“Houses really only take on a few different styles across most of the races of the galaxies, Banto. Most bipedal land-dwelling species have houses much like this. Although there was that one planet where we had to take on bat-like shapes, and sleep upside down in communal -“
“I know, mom, you’ve told me that story a hundred times.”
Shyla shrugged. “Well, if your bedroom is boring, and my stories are boring, maybe you should explore the back yard.”
“Many humans on Earth apparently have small private parks attached to their house. This one, according to the listing, even has a small artificial swimming lake in the garden.”
Banto, despite having some internally conflicted desire to stay bored, was intrigued despite himself, and set off to explore the ‘back yard’.
“Wait a second, Banto!”
“Yes, mom?” “Your disguise is slipping - get back in character before you go outside.”
Banto nodded, concentrated hard, and felt his arms, which had begun to lengthen a bit towards his natural Toba body type, shorten and thicken.
Shyla nodded. “Much better.”
Shyla turned to the other two Toba - Geem, her mate and the commander of the starship Leinhard that had brought them to Earth, and Lini, another young Toba who, like Banto, was on her first mission.
“Shall we begin planning tomorrow’s itinerary?”
Geem nodded. “I was just about to ask the same thing. I’ve identified several museums that might be worth our time, and I believe that Lini has identified several high technology firms nearby that we might want to investigate for our research on human technological progress.”
Shyla pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat. “Great. Let’s begin.”
Shyla looked up from her data tablet. “Banto, what is it? Are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine. But mom, the house next to this one…they have a ‘back yard’ too, just like ours. But they have some sort of animal in it!”
“An animal? Like a - “ she’d learned the English word in her linguistic training, but it took a moment to recall it “- a bird? Or a squirrel?”
“No, bigger. And it’s running around and making sounds -“
Lini said, “A dog?”
Banto shrugged. “Um…maybe?”
Lini gave him a stern look “Didn’t you finish the linguistic classes?”
Banto felt a mix of emotions, both shame and annoyance “Yes. I did! This wasn’t in the linguistics class.”
Lini, rebuffed, said softly “Oh. Maybe it was in some of the other reading I did.”
Shyla said, “So, anyway, Banto, this creature - a dog, maybe? – what about it?”
“It’s short, and it’s furry, and it’s really smart!”
Geem, Banto’s father, and the commander of the mission, looked up.
“Really smart, how?”
“When I talked to it, it talked back!”
“Talked? In English?”
“Well, not talked talked. But it did make these barking sounds.”
Geem shrugged. “Lots of animals make sounds.”
“Well, OK, but this animal was making sounds like it was trying to talk to me. Like it knew things that I was saying to it.”
Shyla, who had been doing research on her tablet, interrupted. “Actually, we have reports on ‘dogs’ from previous missions. One of them, to Northern Italy about 1,700 years ago, even tried to purchase a few dogs to take back to Quantum Prime for research, but apparently, they didn’t succeed. The mission notes say that apparently humans find it offensive if you offer to buy dogs from them. The notes do mark the dogs as worthy of further study, though.”
Geem thought for a moment. “Hmmm…interesting. Perhaps we can go next door and talk to the human there and see if we can interact with this dog of theirs.”
Benny, the Golden Retriever, dropped from a sitting to a lying position, rolled over, and then sprung to his feet, his tail wagging furiously.
Banto laughed, delighted, and rubbed both hands over Benny’s neck and back, the way that Sarah, Benny’s owner, had shown him.
“I can’t believe you don’t have dogs back home. Where did you say you lived?”
Geem answered. “Ah…Stockholm.”
“They don’t have dogs there?”
“We have a very small apartment.”
Sarah shook her head. “Well, it’s a shame. Every boy -“ she looked over at Lini “- and girl deserves a dog when they’re growing up!”
Geem nodded. “Yes…I can see that you’re right. Tell me, would it be possible for us to visit Benny again?”
“Well, of course! Benny loves the attention. I work from home, so any time you want, just knock on the door.”
Geem nodded. “Thank you very much. That is very kind of you. We must go now, but we will return tomorrow.”
Sarah smiled and shook her head. “You Europeans are so formal! But, ok, great. See you tomorrow. Tah!”
The four Toba sat around the kitchen table in the rented Earth house. Shyla frowned “Do you really think that dogs are a second sentient species on Earth? We’ve never before encountered a planet where the C.O.D.E. has altered two species in that way.”
Geem turned his data tablet around so that the other three Toba could view it. “The humans have a worldwide data network, and much of it is broadcast over satellites - which means that the Leinhard, in orbit, is perfectly positioned to intercept. The research group on the ship has done a concept search for me, as you can see.” Indeed, the tablet was scrolling past thousands of file, documentaries, websites, pictures, and more.
Shyla nodded. “And? Does all of that data show anything about the sentience of dogs?”
“Well…somewhat. The humans seem to believe that dogs have a rich inner life, and have emotions, and personalities, and can understand language.”
Banto said, “Maybe that’s why they have norms against selling their pets.”
Lini asked, “They have norms against selling dogs?”
Banto said, in a lilting tone meant to approximate Lini’s voice “Didn’t you finish the linguistic classes?”, then, teasing complete, continued in his own voice. “My Mom told you that an earlier mission to Earth found that a human didn’t want to sell his dogs.”
Geem said, “If I may continue? Also, Shyla, you asked about C.O.D.E. uplifting two species. Apparently, according to all of this -“ he gestured at his tablet, and the petabytes of information scrolling across it “- humans bred dogs from wild animals. Wolves.”
“Interesting.” Shyla put her head on one fist as she thought. “That’s something we’ve never seen before - one species using the gift of C.O.D.E. to almost, second-hand help another species.”
Geem nodded. “Apparently they started tens of thousands of years ago, and used dogs for help in hunting, but the - well, there’s no better word for it than ‘friendship’ - goes back almost as far.”
Banto had been enjoying playing with Benny, and was already sad at the idea of leaving him behind when the Earth mission ended, and blurted out “Can we take dogs back to Quantum Prime with us? I’m going to miss Benny, and Sarah said that boys -“
“And girls!” Lini interrupted.
Banto nodded “-need dogs.”
He crossed his arms, triumphantly, message delivered.
Geem thought about it. “Dogs certainly are interesting, and what I’ve seen here, just in the last two weeks, makes me almost certain that other Toba would also love having dogs as friends…or I guess the English word is ‘pets’?” He paused. “There’s just one complication.”
Banto sighed “What?”
“If the humans are right, if dogs really do have rich inner lives, then we can’t just take them. We’d have to ask them if they want to. You know the rules about dealing with intelligent species.”
Banto moped. “Oh, dad. Dogs can’t talk, though. So, there’s no way they can say ‘yes’…even if they want to. And I know Benny wants to! He loves playing with us.”
Shyla said, “You know…we could…” Geem nodded “Hmm… yes.”
Banto looked from face to face. “What? We could what?”
The four Toba sat in a circle in Sarah’s backyard and tossed a tennis ball back and forth. Benny chased the ball and barked, and when the ball came to Banto he held it up. “You want this, Benny?” Benny barked. “Yeah? Here you go.”
Benny took the ball, ran in a circle…and then dropped it right in front of Banto again.
Banto was about to pick up the ball and throw it to Lini when his father, Geem, caught his eye. Banto looked, and Geem inclined his head, pointing to the house. Aha. That must mean that Sarah was back at her laptop, doing whatever it was that humans did. This was his signal.
Banto reached into his pocket and pulled out the small plastic bag, opened it, and removed the ball of meat. Benny sat and raised one paw - the trick he did for Sarah when she had a good treat for him.
Banto looked at the meat…and thought about the small pill it contained. It had taken the lab on the Leinhard only a day to synthesize the compound, and then just 15 minutes for the small soccer-ball sized cargo drone to drop from Earth orbit, aerobrake through the atmosphere (where it looked like any other small shooting star) and then drop into the pool in the backyard of the rented house.
Benny barked, and Banto remembered where he was and what he was doing. “Here boy”.
Benny gulped it down…and then tilted his head.
The next day they were playing with Benny again while Sarah went to the beach with her new boyfriend.
“Hey Benny. Are you a good dog?”
Benny barked…and then said “Yes.”…and then immediately froze and went wide eyed.
He barked again, and then added “What’s happening? I talk?”
Geem answered. “Benny, we gave you … a kind of medicine.”
“Medicine make me talk?” Again, he was wide eyed, shocked to hear words come out of his own mouth.
“Yes. Have you been having fun playing with our family recently?”
Benny barked. “Yes!” This time he didn’t seem so wide-eyed - he was already getting used to his new ability.
“We were wondering if you could tell us what it’s like to be a dog?”
“I like being dog! Lots of fun! Chase balls! Chase squirrels! Go to beach with Sarah! Chase waves!”
Geem checked his watch (actually, a clever Toba facsimile of a human watch). “Sarah’s due back in thirty minutes.”
Banto turned to Benny. “Benny, remember how I told you that the four of us come from another planet?”
“Benny remember! House in the sky! By moon!”
“Well, not exactly by the moon, but … yes.”
“Benny remember, Banto.”
“Well, Benny … we have to go back home to Quantum Prime soon.”
“Will you come visit me after? Sarah’s brother Hank go home to Denver, but comes back to visit Benny. Takes a long time. Takes FOREVERRR…but he comes back! You come back too?”
“No, I don’t think we can come back Benny.”
Benny hung his head. “That make Benny sad. Benny love you, Banto.”
He looked up. “Benny love all Toba friends!”
“Benny, we can’t come back here…but I checked with my dad, and he said that you can come with us!”
Benny barked. “And Sarah and Sarah’s brother Hank come too?”
Banto shook his head. “No, just you, Benny.”
Benny hung his head again. “Benny can’t leave Sarah. Benny loves Sarah. Sarah Benny’s family. Benny Sarah’s ‘Good boy’. Have to stay with Sarah.”
Banto felt tears forming in his eyes, and he lunged forward and hugged Benny. Benny leaned into him.
“But I’m going to miss you, Benny!”
“I miss you too, Banto.”
Benny thought for a moment. “Banto should get his own good boy!”
Banto let go of the hug and sat back. “Another dog?”
“But humans don’t sell their pets. It’s rude, right?”
“Find a good boy that doesn’t already have a person.”
“Don’t all dogs have people?”
Benny looked sad. “No. Some dogs have no person to love them. No person to call them ‘good boy’.”
“And we can get one of those dogs?”
“Yes! Good dogs in pound need human Toba friends, to take them home.”
“I’m still going to miss you, Benny.”
“I miss you too, Toba friends.”
Anne, the volunteer at the dog shelter, walked them down the long concrete hallway past the rows of cages. “We’ve got everything from A to Z.”
Geem coughed. “Excuse me?”
Anne said, “I mean, we’ve got the dogs sorted by breed, from Akitas right here, to American Eskimo, Basenji, Bloodhound…all the way to Shiba Inus, Siberian Huskies, and Vizslas at the far end.” She paused. “I guess that’s not technically A to Z, is it? But it sounds a lot better than A to V.” she added, brightly.
“Is there a particular breed you’re looking for?”
Banto said “Do you have any Golden retrievers? My friend Benny said they’re the best breed.”
“Ah, your friend Benny owns a golden, does he?”
“No, he’s - “ and then Banto realized his mistake “ - he’s just a big fan of the breed.”
“Well, you’re in luck! Follow me.”
Anne strode crisply down the hallway, past the cages full of barking dogs, then came to a stop in front of a pair of cages. “We’ve got TWO goldens, one male, one female. Do you know which you’re interested in?”
Banto looked at Geem “Dad, could we get both?”
Geem nodded. “Yes, son.”
Anne clapped her hands. “That’s great! These two didn’t have long left.”
Banto tilted his head. “Long left…for what?”
Anne grew sober. “Well…we all wish that this was a ‘no kill’ shelter, but the funding just isn’t there. So, after 14 days, any dogs that aren’t claimed are euthanized.”
“Euthanized? What does that mean?”
Lini shook her head. “You shirked on the linguistics homework, didn’t you? It means ‘killed’.”
Banto almost shrieked, “Killed!?!”.
Anne shook her head sadly. “Yes. Unfortunately, there are far more dogs than there are homes for them, so most of our dogs are unfortunately put down. It’s quite unfortunate…but I’m thrilled that these two will be going to a good home. Now, let’s have you meet them in the play area, just to make sure that you’re a match, and then we can do the paperwork-“
Banto interrupted her. “OK, but…all of these dogs we’re not taking…they -?”
Anne sighed, “Let’s not talk about it, ok? Let’s concentrate on the positive. Now, if you’ll head through this door to the play area, I’ll get Strider and Cricket and meet you there in just a moment, ok?”
Banto nodded, and pushed through the door, then turned to his parents. “Mom? Dad? We can’t let -“
Geem nodded, held up a finger, and gave Banto a conspiratorial wink.
Banto looked up and saw the stars overhead. Normally it would be hard to see them in the middle of the city given all of the streetlights and other visual clutters, but it was the smallest trick of Toba science to arrange for a short-term blackout in the human electrical grid, and that guaranteed that no alarms, video cameras, or anything else would catch them. In ten minutes, they’d be gone, the power would come back, and no one would ever be able to figure out what had happened.
Geem and Shyla walked the two Siberian Huskies up the ramp to the shuttle, which was sitting in the center of the otherwise abandoned dog shelter parking lot. As they reached the top of the ramp and crossed into the shuttle’s cloaking field they wavered and disappeared, then returned a moment later, empty handed.
Geem said, “Banto, go check on Lini and the Vizslas.”
At that moment Lini exited the dog shelter. “No need, I’m here.”
One of the Vizslas brayed, and Lini shushed him “not here! not now!”
Shyla did a quick mental computation. “OK, that’s all of the dogs. Banto, time to load up and head back to the Leinhard…and then back to Quantum Prime.”
“Hang on, I forgot something!”
“You forgot…wait, Banto, come back! We need to go!”
…but Banto was already back inside the dog shelter, navigating by the dim glow of the emergency “Exit” door signs.
He reached the front desk, found the sign in clip board, and removed the top page and flipped it over. Grabbing a marker from a small cup, he traced out his message in human letters. Ha, Lini, take that. He had too been paying attention in linguistics class!
With a final jab of the pen for emphasis he added an exclamation point, then turned and sprinted for the waiting shuttle.
Behind him the note sat on the desk.
Don’t worry, we’ve all gone to a very good home.
The dogs [and their friends] !