Wings

by Todd G. Sutherland

His shoes scuffed as he reached for the next marbled step; his every misstep was her heartfelt torment. She reached her toes down in advance of him, holding his arm. "Six more steps," she said softly, stepping down in front of him, bringing him gently.

"Is there a coffee shop in the waiting area? Can you see yet?" he asked.

She kept her eyes on his feet; the expensive foreign shoes that housed and protected them. They found the next step, and she slipped her pads down one more. "Pay attention to the stairs, please, Master," she reproached gently.

The boy sighed, features obscured by the dark glasses. She dared a glance at his face. He seemed more impatient with the situation than with her, and she felt relieved. Her tail wagged softly, for no one.

Why would they put the train platform downstairs? she wondered. Just to make it inconvenient? As if reading her mind, the boy said, "I hate this.

This is such a bother. Why couldn't you just drive me, Faith?"

"We're almost there... two more steps." She concentrated on the boy, letting the stares and sudden changes in gait of the humans around her pass over her almost unnoticed. Almost.

The boy held to her and not the handrail. That was the most delightful compliment she could imagine. "Last step, Master." The boy reached his foot down and found the ground floor. Faith led him to one side and stood him by an ancient-looking fluted column. She felt his hand take the swivel harness strapped to her hips.

"It's a large room, as you can hear," she observed. "There are eight gates, evenly spaced; odd numbered ones down the left side, even numbered ones down the right. Ours is gate three on the left. There is a gift shop at the far left, and two restaurants on the right, and yes, one of them is a coffee shop. According to the monitor, our train is on time, and will be arriving on track 3 in just over half an hour. The men's room is around the corner here on our right, and the women's room is over there on our left."

"Good, take me to the men's room."

"Yes, Master." She stepped forward, tugging the harness, and he followed.

The men's' room was large, mostly bank upon bank of urinals. There were one or two men in there. The reek of urine, faintly exciting, spun biographies out at her like bees attacking a hungry bear. Scents of health, disease, feast and famine, illicit relations... They all rushed to sing their choruses in her nose. She trotted the boy over to do his business, feeling the dampness of less careful visitors under her feet, and stepped back.

One of the men down the aisle a bit looked up at her as if she'd come in toting a machine gun. She heard the trickle of his urine dry up like a river bed in Death Valley. She tried not to look at him. Or anyone.

"I'm done," the boy called to her. She padded back over and guided his hand to her harness, and then showed him to the wash basins. She could feel the eyes on her back.

The boy sighed, letting her bring his hands to the soap dispenser and doing the rest. "Faith, why didn't you just drive me?"

"Now, Master, you know I'm not allowed to drive on the big highways. Just in the city. Between the fingers, please. Do a good job, now."

"Why don't you just lick him clean?"

It was muttered. The boy would never have heard it, but she did. Her mind raced with clever replies, but it was not her place to make them. Her place was to look after the boy, and picking a fight with a rude man in a washroom was hardly the way to go about it. She swallowed the insult, one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, and helped the child dry his hands.

Faith looked at herself in the mirror. Saw the men behind her, eyeing her. What a balancing act the creation of her race had been for its designers. Human enough to get by day to day, but different enough that her opinions and feelings could be discounted; she was 'other'. Still, some of the design must have been pure whim. But then, she decided, by its very nature, playing God was to be capricious. She had a long, flowing mane like hair, and breasts like a human woman, but there were eight of them, four pairs down the front of her in diminishing size; all modestly concealed in fur. She had an hourglass shape and a smooth, curvy backside, but a tail was rooted to it. Her eyes were soft and alluring, but set over a snout that was long enough to be dangerous, but short enough not to be ugly. The entire effect was to make her approachably human, but sufficiently different that she would not complicate things. She knew the men were eyeing her with a certain casual interest, but then dismissing their interest as deviant. At least, most of them were.

"Do we have time to go the coffee shop?" he asked her.

"Yes, Master, I think if we're quick. No more than fifteen minutes, though." She watched the boy smile, and she led him into the small cafe.

The sign said, rather ridiculously, "Please wait to be seated", and so Faith waited. The woman at the cash looked up at her. People like Faith -- if one considered them people at all -- were still very rare. A person might, on average, see one or two in the space of a year, even in a city this size. She came over, eyeing Faith, eyeing the child, obviously in a quandary about whom she was supposed to address. Finally she asked the air between them, "Just two?"

"Just two," Faith replied. The woman nodded to her, unable to take her eyes off her, and led them to a tight booth. Faith helped the boy squeeze into the seat, and then, folding the harness to allow herself to sit, she sat opposite him. The waitress came back with two menus, and suddenly realizing the boy was blind, she prepared to hand them to Faith. Then another problem struck her and she clapped them to her own breast.

"Can you, uh... I mean," she stammered at Faith.

"Yes, ma'am, I can read," Faith replied patiently, and took the menu the woman offered. The waitress stepped away, and Faith opened the menu. "What do you feel like today, hmmm?" she asked him. "It'll have to be something quick. A donut, maybe?"

"Nah," he said. "I'm hungry. I feel better today."

Faith wagged her tail, though he could not see it. "Well, how about a piece of chocolate pie? You know how you love that."

"Yeah, do they have it here?"

"Says so," she replied.

"Okay, I'll have that. And a milkshake. Strawberry."

She smiled. "Oh, you must feel better today. Good. We'll make sure you get something a little bit bad for you." She turned her warm brown eyes to the waitress, who, still staring, caught her gaze at once and hurried over, digging her order pad from her hip pocket.

"My Master would like a slice of chocolate pie, and a strawberry milkshake, please," Faith ordered.

The waitress nodded. "Anything for yourself?"

"I'm fine, thank you, ma'am," Faith said, handing the menu back.

"Aw, come on, Faith," the boy prodded. "Don't make me eat alone. That would be rude."

"Very well, Master," she smiled. "I'll have a honeydipped donut, please, ma'am, and some tea."

"Coming right up," the waitress said.

The boy waited until the waitress was out of earshot. "Can I ask you something?" he said.

"Of course, Master."

"In school the other day, when you left me to use the bathroom, Victor said you don't have a soul. Is that true?"

Faith studied his face, puzzled by the question. She twitched her ear, and said, "Well, I don't know, really. I don't know for sure that anyone has a soul. I hope I do..."

"Because if you don't have a soul, Victor says you can't be with me in Heaven. When I die."

Faith squirmed a bit. She leaned forward, placing her paw on the boy's hand. "Donny," she whined, softly, "please don't talk like that."

"I would just be stumbling around Heaven, tripping over clouds." Donny smiled, his voice sparkling with a child's laugh, even speaking of death.

"You wouldn't need me in Heaven," she said softly. "You'll be able to see, perfectly. And you won't hurt inside anymore. But..." She squeezed his hand in hers. "But that won't be for a really long time."

He smiled at her, as if he could see her face.

She smiled back. "Besides," she said. "In Heaven you get wings, so you don't have to worry about tripping over things."

Donny nodded. The waitress brought their order, and Faith watched him eat, her heart brimming with joy. It had been such a long time since he had had an appetite. He raised his head, the chocolate ringing his little mouth, and she brushed his lips with the back of her paw.

The boy was dying. He knew it, and she knew it. But it was only in the last little while that he had begun to speak of it. It turned her blood to icewater. In daylight, with the pink in his cheeks, she could fight it down. But at night, in the cot at the foot of his bed, she would hear him; the rasping breaths, the stirrings, and she would go to him, and soothe him. And it was getting worse.

And so they were making this trip.

His fork clinked on the empty plate. When he realized he had had the last bite, Donny put his fork down. Faith took a napkin and wiped his mouth. In response, he pressed his hand into her face, gently studying her familiar features. In spite of herself, she licked his hand, and held it to her cheek.

"I bet you'll look pretty in Heaven," he told her. "I can't wait to see you. Especially with wings."

"Donny, please, please," she begged him.

The boy nodded, old enough to understand her pain. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'll stop."

"You'll be okay," she reassured him. "The doctors at St. Francis are the best. You remember how they helped you last time. Soon, you won't have any more pain. I promise you." She realized the double meaning of what she had just said, and it chilled her to the bones. She wondered if it were lost on him. She hoped so. She clarified, more for herself than him, "They'll make you well and you'll grow up strong. Who knows... if they change the law back, maybe they can even grow you some new eyes. Then you won't need me anymore." She wagged, stung by the idea, but knowing it would be selfish to deny him that miracle.

"I'll always need you, Faith," he told her. "Always."

"And I'll be here as long as you do," she said.

Faith helped the boy up and retrieved the debit card from the little pouch on her hip. She paid the bill, and led Donny out into the main concourse. "We'll get in line, okay? Do you mind standing for a bit? Is it okay, Master?"

"Sure, I'm okay."

Faith padded across the smooth, cool marble floor; her ankles angled by science such that they never quite reached the ground, making her steps springy and giving her the appearance of someone wearing invisible high heels.

Behind her the boy trailed boldly, fully confident of his steps in her care. His gait gave her pride.

As they moved past one of the huge pillars that held the roof of the station, Faith caught sight of a man, standing there. He was elderly, dressed neatly in an old black suit; both he and it looked European. Beside him stood a young woman, equally elegant; from her scent, she was a relative of his. Probably his daughter, Faith decided. She stood behind a large keyboard, and there was an open case on the floor in front of them. The old man smiled at her as they passed, tipping his fedora to her, as if she were a regular person, as if he saw people like her everyday. Letting her professionalism lapse for a moment, an unforgivable moment, she turned her head, meeting his eye, and she wagged her tail at him, softly.

"Bella cane," the man said softly. "Per te." He spread his hands as she passed, closing his eyes, and the young woman beside him began to play the keyboard. A soft, lovely melody, at once sad and inspiring, poured from her fingertips and into the air like mulled wine.

The man opened his throat, and for a moment, nothing came. Slowly, the note rose, and Faith, eyes forward, craned her ears back to listen as she lead Donny past. "Ave Maria," the man sang, a warm, rich tenor filling the air like an empty bowl.

"What's that?" the boy asked her.

"Performers, Master."

"No, I mean, that song. It's pretty. I like it."

"Oh," Faith said, settling Donny into line. "It's called Ave Maria."

"Awvay...?"

"Ave Maria. It's Latin. It means 'Hail Mary', I think."

"Oh. Mary who?"

"Jesus' mother."

"Ohhhh, okay." He shuffled, and she turned her attention back to the music for a moment. "Why hail?"

"Why--? Oh. Well, some people pray to her. It's kind of like a prayer, this song."

"How does the rest go?"

"I'm sorry, Master, I don't know." Faith searched her memory hard for the boy. Fetching. "Hail Mary, full of... full of grace... The Lord... The Lord is.... I'm sorry, Master, it's all I remember."

The boy nodded. Together, they listened to the song. As it ended, the sound of train bells marched down the stairs to them. "Do you pray, Faith?" he asked.

"That's our train," she told him.

Donny nodded. "I'm scared," he told her.

"I know," she said. "But don't be. I'm with you." She led him along the shuffling line, up the stairs to the platform. Impatient people behind them wisely held their tongues.

"Why couldn't Mom or Dad be with us?" he sighed.

"Your parents are busy people. You know that, Master. But they will be there. In a couple of days, they'll be joining us at St. Francis." She took a comb from the little package on her hip and smoothed it through his hair.

"Why don't they love me, Faith?" His voice was quiet. It was an adult question no adult would ever ask.

"They do love you!" she told him, hating herself for lying to him. The boy's mother was perhaps forgivable after a fashion; she loved none of her children, or anyone but herself; given over almost entirely to her social life and obligations. But Donald's father was a man full of love. Conditional love. And at some point, the bottom line had dictated the boy would die, and was not worth the emotional investment. He was quiet and friendly with Donald, but that was all. His excuse for not being physically demonstrative with the boy was that Donny was 'fragile'; which was certainly true, but not to that extent. It seemed to Faith that, if and when she littered, the child who was weakest would win her fiercest love. The others would need it less. That the boy's father could deny this child of all his children his love was utterly foreign to her, and though she disguised it completely behind a mask of goodwill, she despised the man. "They do love you," she said again, and, daringly, she kissed his forehead.

The boy nodded.

"Salia doesn't like me," he said.

"Salia," Faith grinned, "is just jealous because you get more attention and you have a SMART to help you cheat on your math tests."

The boy chuckled for her, and Faith's heart melted. "Mrs. Rathburn is getting wise to your tail trick," he said. "She's going to chuck you out if you keep it up."

"Just let her try," Faith said, and she gave a playful low growl. She smiled. "Salia is just a little girl, and she doesn't understand yet. In a couple of years she will. And Ray, Ray loves you more than anyone in the world," she said.

"Not as much as you do," he replied.

No. No, child, no one loves you as much as I do. "Sure he does. He's your brother."

His hand moved up and down her back, fingers scritching into her fell. Her thin lips parted and she panted softly, her eyes narrow.

Somewhere behind her, Faith heard a woman whisper, "Don't point, Rhoda, it's not polite. She's a special big doggy who's there to help out that little blind boy. But you'll hurt her feelings if you point."

Faith curled into herself for a moment.

A conductor stepped off the train onto the platform. "Tickets, please... tickets..." He moved down the line, occasionally glancing at Faith as he scanned the stubs for authenticity. He came up to Faith and tipped his cap. "Tickets, please."

Faith produced the ticket. A single ticket. The boy's ticket. The conductor scanned it. "Just the two of you?"

"Yes, sir," Faith replied.

"Are you this child's guardian or proxy on this journey?"

"Yes, sir, I am."

The conductor took another scanner from his belt. He eyed the ident tag on her collar. "Sorry, miss, just a formality."

Faith nodded, raising her chin. The man brought the scanner near it and recorded the information. "Thank you, miss," he said. "Have a nice day."

"Thank you, sir."

The conductor moved down the line. "Tickets, please, tickets..."

"Can we get on now?" Donny said.

"Yes." She led him to the step. It would have been awkward for him, so she begged his leave and picked him up under the arms and put him on the train herself. It tore at her heart how light he was, even now. She led Donny down the aisle and found what she considered an appropriate berth, and they took it. She sat Donny by the window and herself between him and the door. After a moment, the train jerked, and began to move.

"Here we go," Faith smiled.

Then the train stopped. Faith glanced around. After a moment, it began to move again. She shrugged to herself. At almost that moment, a man pounded past their compartment, glancing in as he passed. Faith heard him stop, and then come back. He opened the door and came in, disheveled; sweating and panting, he stank of gin. He threw himself down on the opposite couch. Faith felt Donny press a bit closer to her, and smelled his apprehension. She wanted to throw the man from the compartment, but there was nothing she could do.

"Close call!" the man moaned. "Almost didn't make it." He threw a newspaper on the seat beside him, and it spilled itself out, partly onto the floor.

Faith stared forward.

Still panting, the man's eye roamed her form. "Slavery," he said. "Nothing but bloody slavery."

Faith squirmed.

"There'll come a day," the man said, wagging his finger, and then belching. "There'll come a day when people will rise up. You shouldn't take it, you know," he told her. "Just because you look different, is no reason they should treat you like an animal."

Faith said, nervously, "Please, sir. Don't talk that way. You could be arrested."

"Nobody's bloody free these days. Nobody. Not even us." He was thundering now, probably loud enough to be heard outside.

Donny said, "You're not supposed to talk to my SMART! You're not supposed to-" He began to cough. "-not supposed to - distract..." His voice left him, and he went into a coughing fit. Faith curled her arms around him.

"Calm down, calm down, Master!"

"Hey, is the little fellow going to be o-"

Faith turned, snarling. "Don't upset him! Can't you see he's sick? Get out! Get out now or I'll report you!"

The man blinked, taken aback. He raised his hands. "Alright, alright, I'll go, I'll go!" He rose, nearly falling back, and headed for the door. "God's teeth; try to help some bloody people..." He was gone.

Faith calmed Donny, rocking him in her arms, but it was clear it had taken something out of him. In just a few moments, he was asleep, his head against her shoulder. She eyed the man's newspaper covetously, but dared not move and disturb Donny. When the boy finally shifted, lying against the wall of the train, Faith leaned forward, retrieving a color insert magazine from the newspaper.

The magazine was called "Utilities", and the cover blazed: "The New SMARTS: Conversations with Dr. Terrence Ludlow and Cardinal Ying".

Faith blinked. Probably, she shouldn't be caught reading this, but she turned the pages, softly. The article began:

GENEVA (UPS): In the Twentieth Century, the Third World War was always conceived of as a nuclear holocaust that would rain sudden death from the sky, incinerating cities, nations, and the very supports of civilization itself. When World War III finally came, the result was somewhat milder, if more insidious. The bombs never fell, but the viruses that roamed the planet over the next generation consumed a sixth of the human race and set civilization back generations in terms of development. Only now is it generally agreed that humanity has recovered to the point it had reached before the war.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the survivors of the war, recoiling in horror at the misery and devastation wrought by the recombinant DNA technologies that made it possible, turned their backs on the science, internationally outlawing many otherwise promising biotechnologies. But there is today a sentiment afoot that may reverse these statutes. How many more people, an increasing chorus of voices ask, must die of heart failure and liver cancer, or be crippled or deformed because simple cloning techniques mastered nearly a century ago sit on the shelves, collecting dust in a total ban because of mistakes made a half century ago by madmen? Surely by now we've learned the lesson, say these voices, and have the wisdom to pick and chose what are good biological technologies, and what aren't.

Other voices say that we have learned nothing, if we haven't learned to leave well enough alone. These voices hearken back to a safer age, when the lines between species were absolute, when viruses that affected one species rarely crossed over lethally to infect another, and when the question of what is and is not human was thought to have been settled.

One of these voices, a voice in favor or re-initiating the advancement of biotechnologies, is Dr. Terrence Ludlow of Johns Hopkins University. I recently had a chance to speak to him here in Geneva, where the World Health Organization is preparing its recommendations to the United Nations General Assembly on this issue, due for re-examination as the fiftieth anniversary of the ban approaches.

Faith scanned down the article and the interview with Dr. Ludlow... Initially, he spoke of cloning technologies, the sort that would generate new organs for dying people, made of their own cells, with the necessary genetic corrections made (if any), letting millions of people live longer, more productive lives. She reached over and stroked Donald softly, and turned back to her reading.

Quickly, though, the real point of Ludlow's position came into sight.

TL: People have to put the whole question in perspective. Yes, of course, biological warfare is a terrible thing! So is armed robbery, but we don't ban money. What we need is a sensible, balanced course. Certain areas of investigation should remain closed off, but others should be re-opened. I'm just saying, we've thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Let's go get the baby back.

UM: Which areas of investigation, Doctor?

TL: Let me give you a prime example. The prime example. Look at all the good that's come into the world through SMARTs Sentient Mammalian Anthropomorphs - Restricted Technology. Nearly eighty years ago, the first SMARTs were created, and they've been with us ever since. They were unaffected by the war, and who can argue the boon they've been to thousands of unfortunate victims? And the whole project, every single birth, has been overseen and directed by the World Health Organization, in conjunction with participating UN member states. So far, only dogs have been SMARTed, but I can see the time is quickly coming when we'll need other forms of SMARTs. And I don't believe we should be cowed from it by a war whose mistakes we have no intention of repeating.

UM: Other forms of SMARTs?

TL: We're running out of room and resources on the surface of the planet. It's only natural that we should turn to the oceans. Dolphins will be a great help, but they're willful and have only limited motility. They can't easily manipulate objects, and servo-appliances strapped onto them tend to irritate them. I believe we'll need some sort of aquatic intelligence rather more similar to ourselves if we're going to make a go of it. I'm thinking of some sort of anthropomorphic seal, myself.

UM: Doctor, there are voices in the other camp that are charging the creation of new lifeforms violates the sanctity and dignity of existing life and cheapens human life as it exists.

TL: Ah. You're speaking of religious establishment. Yes, of course, it's never been in their interests for mankind to advance. If people start thinking for themselves, the collection plate tends to get lighter.

UM: That seems a rather cynical attitude, Doctor.

TL: Does it? I wonder where we'd be today if everyone thought so. Surely, Galileo, Copernicus, and Tyndale didn't listen to the Church.

Neither did Hitler, Faith thought, frowning, and she read on.

There are other voices, of course, taking the opposite tack, and chief among them is Cardinal Juan Ying of Manila, in Geneva at the conference as an independent speaker, but with the moral weight of his position as cardinal behind him. Cardinal Ying has spent most of the past two years in Rome, participating in Vatican III, shortly to issue the official position of the Roman Catholic Church on recombinant technologies. While the announced position of the Church on the issue of the creation of new forms of life is not expected to be much of a surprise, what is at issue is the position that the Church will take on the question of whether or not SMARTs can be considered to have souls. While this question at first seems academic, even ephemeral, in combination with the questions now being asked in Geneva, the ripple effect could be far-reaching.

UM: Your Eminence, it's widely anticipated that the Third Vatican Council will recommend that recombinant technology is immoral.

CJY: I don't think that's much in question. It's hardly a secret that our church, and most of the other faiths around the world, Christian and non- Christian, are in profound agreement that such technologies are a usurpation of the genitive powers of God.

UM: A position that dovetails with the Church's position on reproductive technologies and birth control...

CJY: Well, yes, the views are consistent. I think I can safely say that the position of the Council will be that the Church considers immoral any device, science, or method that interferes with, or assumes the powers and prerogatives of the Lord in the creation of life, outside of the normal means with which we were provided at the dawn of time.

UM: But what remains to be seen is what the Council will decide regarding the recommendations of the group of Cardinals you lead, whose position it is that SMARTs are moral beings in possession of souls, regarded by God as fully human, and as such, are deserving of all human rights under the UN Charter.

CJY: That is what we believe, and I am confident we will persuade the Council and His Holiness that this is case. It is as plain to me as my hand before my face on a summer day.

UM: Your Eminence, isn't it self-contradictory to claim that beings created by an immoral process can be as fully human in the eyes of God as His own creations?

CJY: No, I don't believe that is inconsistent with the views of the Church on similar matters. The Catholic Church believes it is sinful to conceive a child out of wedlock. But that does not mean that the Church, much less God Himself, sees that child as something less than human, or less deserving of grace in any way than a child of a recognized marriage. The sin lies with the parents, not the child.

UM: What are the ramifications for the World Health Organization if Vatican III declares SMARTs to be human?

CJY: To be blunt, there would then be no question that the Church would consider the program, as least as it stands, to be form of slavery, and an abomination to God and human dignity.

UM: That decision would put the Vatican at odds with most of the rest of the world.

CJY: It would not be the first time.

UM: Cardinal, isn't it true that you were formerly a member of a group in the Philippines responsible for the destruction of millions of dollars of medical research equipment? Largely to free animals on which medical experiments were being performed?

CJY: I don't see what that has to do with the question at hand...

UM: Do you deny it?

CJY: No... no, I don't deny it. When I was young, I was a man full of passion. I saw a wrong and I committed another wrong in an attempt to right it. Thankfully, God grants us wisdom as we mature. I found the priesthood...

UM: And isn't it true that on several occasions you've claimed that ordinary dogs and cats have souls?

CJY: I have never claimed that. I have postulated.

UM: Postulated?

CJY: We know that many of the higher mammals are blessed with a large degree of intelligence. There is evidence that some of them exhibit a moral sense, even in anticipation of acting. That some, like elephants, may even be able to contemplate their own deaths. At various times in my career, I have postulated that this might be considered evidence of the divine spark. But I believe this is a matter that bears much deeper investigation.

UM: And how far down the list would it go? Do cows have souls? Mice? Reptiles? Where is the sharp dividing line between souled beings and unsouled beings?

CJY: As I said, this matter bears much deeper investigation before anyone can say with any assurance at all.

UM: Your Eminence, do you know Doctor Terrence Ludlow?

CJY: I am aware of his work.

UM: Do you consider him an evil man?

CJY: Evil? Willfully evil? No. I don't believe he is evil. I believe he is working for what he believes to be humanity's best interests. But I believe he is misguided.

UM: Your Eminence, he gave me a question to put to you on the nature of the soul. Are you willing to entertain it?

CJY: If you will accept that I speak only for myself, and not for the Church, I will try to answer your question.

UM: Very well. Cardinal, you maintain that if a being is capable of expressing itself, has a moral conscience and self-awareness, it has a soul. Is that true?

CJY: That's a vast oversimplification. But for the sake of argument, I will allow it.

UM: There are hundreds of computers in the world today, perhaps thousands, which are self-aware and capable of speech, and which can make moral distinctions of right and wrong. Two years ago, a computer shut down the Tokyo stock exchange because of the questionable character of a major series of transactions that while skirting legality, were technically allowable. The machine was taken out of the loop and questioned as to its motives for three weeks before being shut down for examination. It was reported later that the machine asked not to be shut down. Dr. Ludlow wants to know: given that it fits the criteria you've agreed to, did this computer have a soul, and was it murdered?

CJY: That's a difficult question, and I don't think I can answer it easily. It would bear a lot of investigation.

UM: But there isn't time, Cardinal. They're about to shut it down, and it's begging to be spared. Do these people have the absolute right to shut the machine off? You have to make a quick decision.

CJY: Then I would have to say, no, they do not.

UM: And does the computer have a soul?

CJY: I don't know. I don't know. But when the question must be asked, then we must come down on the side of the angels until we can say for sure.

UM: And so, strictly in your opinion, until someone can prove otherwise, such computers must be considered to have a soul?

CJY: Yes, alright. It must be so. We must be merciful in the name of God whenever we are called upon to be. It is never a mistake to show mercy, whether souls are involved or not.

And there you have it, gentle reader. Computers have souls. And dogs and cats. Who knows where it ends? Maybe you'd better say a little prayer for the bacteria you wipe out with antibiotics the next time you have an infection, just to be sure.

Faith sighed and put the magazine down. It was depressing, but she decided she should be glad the Cardinal was given a chance to express his views at all. Faith looked over at Donald, and then lay against him, stroking his hair as he slept. Let them make their germs, and seal people. Just so long as they make you well.

She rested against him, gently, warming his slight body with her own. Drifting. In semi-lucid moments she could force herself to imagine what life would be like after Donald was dead. She tried to imagine what it would be like, going to a new home, and whom she would be looking after. Another child? An adult? Man, woman? Or would they retire her immediately to one of the institutes? Training pups, making good guides of them... Breeding a litter every year or two. Carefully selected males. She pictured it. Closed in a quiet room with someone. He would wag, awkwardly, and they would get to know one another. The scent of her heat would overcome their shyness. She only hoped her mates, whoever they were, wherever they were, would be as kind and gentle as Raymond.

Raymond. Donald's eldest brother. Their father's favorite. Away at school now. Far, far away. Unlike his father, Raymond loved Donny, almost as much as Faith did, and that more than anything had won her heart. But close to that was how he treated her. As if the differences didn't matter. How, in a handful of stolen hours here and there, he had made her forget she was just a talking animal, and let her be a woman. Even now she could feel his hands caressing her secret places, and she whined softly. Lord. Lord, how she missed him. How she would have forsaken anything, everything but her duty to Donald to bear Raymond just one child. But science had decreed that was not possible.

And so her children would spill from other loins; fathered by SMARTs she didn't know, or particularly care for. And they, in turn, would be ripped from her breasts before long, to be raised by other bitches, and she would go back to other duties. And so it would be, litter after litter, year after year, until she died.

She stroked Donny's forehead, and he stirred.

"I'm sorry, Master. I didn't mean to wake you," she said.

"That's alright," he told her. "I feel better now."

"Good. You just relax. Go back to sleep if you like."

"Faith?"

"Yes, Master?"

"Was that man right? Are you a slave, Faith?"

"I'm a personal lifestyle assistant, Master. That's what they call us."

"A slave is someone who has to do whatever you say, isn't that right? And you own them?" The boy pressed his head to her shoulder, and she put her arm around him.

"Yes, sweet little Master."

"And they have to call you 'master'..."

Faith nodded. "Yes."

"You are a slave... aren't you."

Faith sighed. "Some people might say so."

"Faith... do you wish you were free?"

"Free?" she asked him. "Well, what do you mean, free?"

"You know. Free to go where you wanted. Free not to have to do what people say."

"It doesn't make any difference, I wouldn't go."

"But do you wish," the boy insisted, "that you could go if you wanted to?"

"Let me put it to you this way... Do I wish that I were bound to you by nothing but my love, so that you would know that I was here only because I wanted to be? Yes, sometimes I do. But it would make no difference. If they stopped the train right now and marched in and told me I could go where I wanted and do what I pleased, I would go with you, and it would please me to look after you for the rest of my life. So nothing would change."

She saw tears creep from behind the dark lenses. She licked his cheek. "Oh, don't cry, little Master, please."

"Faith... I free you," the boy quavered. "You never ever have to call me Master again."

Faith wept, holding him. "It will be our secret, okay, Donny?"

"Okay."

The train passed into the city as evening came.

On the streets of this strange new city, Faith hailed a cab. One came at once; it was against the law not to respond to her if she were with the boy. The cab, in turn, rushed them to St. Francis.

Faith led Donny up to the admissions desk.

"Donald Potemkin?" the nurse asked.

"Yes," Faith replied.

The nurse filled out a chart, and came around from behind the desk. "Your room is already made up, Donald. You and your assistant follow me, and I'll take you to it."

"Okay," Donny said. Faith followed the nurse to Donny's room, leading the boy, and together she and the nurse set the place up with Donny's effects, which had been shipped ahead.

"Ma'am," Faith said to the nurse, "where will I find Dr. Renfrew?"

The nurse stared at her. "Why?"

"Because I wish to speak with him, please."

"The doctor is very busy."

Faith bristled. "If he's very busy, he can tell me that himself. Where will I find him, please?"

For a moment, the nurse seemed on the verge of making a mistake. But she thought it over and shrugged, resigned. "His office is room 316, one floor up. Follow the blue line."

"Thank you, ma'am. Master, I'm going upstairs to talk to your doctor. Please wait here until I get back."

"Okay, Faith."

Faith padded down the corridor, found the elevator and led herself to the doctor's office. She ignored the stares and smiles as she strode purposefully along, praying none of them could see she was scared to death.

Room 316. She knocked. She knocked again.

"Is it important?" came a weary voice.

"I think it is, sir," she called. There was the sound of a chair being pushed back, and a moment later, the door opened. The doctor stuck his face out, and peered at her, momentarily startled.

"Oh," he said. "Are you here with the Potemkin boy?"

"Yes, Doctor, I'm Donny's assistant. My name is Faith." She wagged, and held out a paw. Bewildered, the doctor shook it.

"Uhhh, what can I do for you?" he asked.

"I'd like to talk to you about Donny's case," she said, plainly.

"Well, I'm sorry, but I can really only discuss it with Donny's parents."

Faith said, hurriedly, "I've been asked by Mr. Potemkin to find out what I can and report back to him."

The doctor eyed her. That was, he judged, probably a lie. But it was plausible. "Alright," he said. "But my time is very limited. I can only give you a few minutes."

"That will be fine, sir, thank you, sir."

"Come in."

Faith entered the office and shut the door. She stepped forward; the carpet was soft and the room was cool, a bit dark; full of books and framed degrees and a dank medicinal smell quite apart from the hospital at large. She stood before his desk.

"Have a seat," he said.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yes, go ahead."

"Thank you, Doctor." She sat.

The Doctor sighed. "I have to tell you, going in, that the prognosis is not good. I mean, we haven't run the new tests yet, but... Donny just does not seem to be responding to the therapies."

"He's trying so hard, Doctor..."

"I'm sure he is, but his body doesn't seem to going along. His problems are rife. Any one by itself wouldn't be a problem. But in concert, we just don't seem to be able to keep ahead of new complications. The progress of the virus was arrested in the womb, but not before it did serious, serious damage to most of his major organs. If we'd caught it just a little earlier..." The doctor sighed. "All I'm saying is, if he doesn't respond to treatment this time, we're really out of options. And it will be... a matter of time."

Faith was quiet. "How much time?"

"A few months at the very outside."

"M-months??" She sobbed it, startling herself.

"Yes. I'm sorry. I know it's hard; according to the reports, you've been with him almost since he could walk."

"I taught him to walk," she snapped, and immediately lowered her eyes.

"I understand," the doctor said, softly. "I've met Donny's parents."

"Oh."

The doctor nodded, rising. He turned to the window. "I've seen the psychotherapeutic assessments... he almost never mentions his parents. He mentions you quite a lot." He turned. "You should be very proud."

"I am, Doctor."

"I think the news will be hardest on you," he said. "But that's why I'm telling you. I don't believe Mr. Potemkin asked you to talk to me."

Faith turned her eyes away again, ashamed.

"It's alright, Faith. You deserved to be told. He's your life."

"Yes, he is."

The doctor opened his mouth. There was something more he wanted to say. But his mouth shut again.

"Thank you, Doctor," she said, rising. This time, he offered his hand to her.

She shook it.

"Everything will work out fine," he said. "You'll see."

The tests were scheduled to begin just after dawn. The nurses came by to give Donny a sedative, and the boy settled in. Normally Faith slept on a comfortable cot at the foot of Donny's bed, but tonight she had a bed of her own, opposite his. In the darkness, in the pale glow cast by various instruments and indicators, she stared across at him, not sure if he were awake or asleep.

"I'm scared, Faith," he whimpered.

"I know, love. But just hang on. They're going to make you well again."

"I've never been well. I don't know what it's like."

"It will be wonderful."

There was a long silence. She assumed he'd drifted off. Then, he said, "When you're in Heaven, you're always well, right?"

She fought down a twinge of fear. "Well, yes. But you'll have to get used to it here first."

She heard him submerging into sleep; he said, "Even... with wings... I'll still need you. So... I don't... bump... into the... air... planes..."

He was asleep.

She closed her eyes, and dropped off herself.

In the dream, wolves circled them. They wanted the boy. She turned, snapping, snarling. They came at her. She was strong. They tore her flesh, but the boy ran away.

There was a pale light at the window; the predawn. She wasn't even sure she was awake. It seemed as though time were standing still.

Donny coughed.

He coughed again.

And then again. "Faith," he croaked.

She slipped from her bed and knelt beside him. "What is it, Master?"

"Feel awful. Awful. Faith..." He coughed again, hard. She soothed his forehead. Something heavy hit the fur of her chest. She dabbed her fingers there, and brought them to her nose.

Blood.

She clicked the light on. The boy's mouth and nose were ringed in red.

"Jesus," she whispered.

"Faith," the boy moaned. She stabbed her thumb at the call button. Donny went into a coughing fit, and convulsed.

"Hurry!" she screamed. "Damn it, hurry!" Nurses and an intern burst in. She heard herself shout, "He's dying, he's dying!"

They slipped the boy onto a stretcher and wheeled him from the room. Faith ran alongside, holding Donny's hand, tossing soothing words at him like too many baseballs. The boy coughed up alarming clods of blood, and begged her, "Don't let me die, Faith, don't let me die, please!"

Oh, Jesus, God, whoever you are; Allah, Jehovah; don't let him die, please don't let him die; he's all I have!

They pushed Donny into an emergency room and Faith pushed in with them. A nurse jumped forward, calling, "You can't come in here!"

Faith showed her the whites of her eyes and a formidable array of teeth. The staff decided they had neither the time nor inclination to argue, and set to work.

Dr. Renfrew burst in, not even noticing Faith. "Damn it, he's coming apart; he's all coming apart at once..."

There was an overwhelming array of clinical jargon washing over Faith in the minutes that followed; an eternity of standing, shaking, watching the boy die and having to fight herself not to leap forward; force herself to stand out of the way while they did their jobs.

"Blood pressure dropping..."

"Pulse thready..."

"The heartbeat's erratic; 2 cc's..."

"I've lost the pulse. I can't find the pulse."

The irregular blip of Donny's life suddenly spread out into the long, flat whine of clinical death, and Faith moaned. The doctors worked frantically. She watched the little body jump as they shocked it; bounce morbidly as they massaged his chest, but finally, finally, she saw Dr. Renfrew's shoulders slump, and he pulled his mask.

"DONNY!! DONNEEEEEEEEEEEE!!" she screamed.

"Get her out of here!" Dr. Renfrew barked. Two interns flew at Faith, grabbing her by the arms as she screamed the child's name, her heart shredding in her chest as the words tore past it like the fan blades of a jet engine. The two men dumped her out into the hall; she exploded from the doors and tumbled out onto her ass as twenty pairs of startled eyes turned to her. She scrambled back but by then the doors were shut. She pounded on them, screaming his name.

She sank to the floor, her face wrenched in agony. She rocked, moaning, as lost as a bottle tossed into the sea. "Donny... Donny... don't leave me, Donny, don't go..."

She steadied herself. The thought came from nowhere, and surprised even her. I'll follow you into the ground, little Master...

She looked up into the clear, cloudless blue sky in the window opposite.

Or maybe...

Down the hall, a nurse eyed her warily. She grabbed an intern by the arm, and turned him, pointing.

The intern peered at Faith. He started to move.

So did she.

He was too late.

Don't go too far, little Master, wait! Wait, Donny, I'm coming, please! Wait for me!

In a single swift, fluid movement, she jumped. The glass gave way like a womb, and she flung herself into the open arms of the sky.

Wings.

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