learn the language.”
I whipped around in fright. Busted! It was Mendayev.
“What is this place?”
“It is traditional for a monastery to pay its own way with some sort of service: making wine, making cheese, running a school, teaching music, making coffee, et cetera. You must have figured out by now that we weren’t always riding the honeybee gravy train.”
“Genetic engineering?” I ventured.
“Mmm-hmm. And why not?” he said. “It’s a vocation like any other, one that no one else was really doing, and we were good at it. It‘s really no different in concept than cultivating a vineyard, or breeding a better tomato.”
“I’m genuinely surprised,” I said, genuinely surprised. “Isn’t that tampering in God’s domain or something bad like that?”
He rolled his eyes. “Stop thinking like a Baptist, my son. This isn’t Frankenstein, this isn’t Prometheus. If God or The Universe didn’t want us to be able to monkey around a bit with this kind of thing, He wouldn’t have let us figure it out in the first place.”
I nodded, unsure if I agreed. “So what is Dan?”
“He’s illegal, that’s what he is. Also, his name is really ‘Dante.’” It took me a second to understand what he’d said. In the Gagarin accent, it came out as “Dayn-tee.”
“A bit more specifically, please. What is he?”
“He’s a Smart Dog.”
“I know he’s a smart dog,” I said, “But what is…”
“No,” Mendayev interrupted, “’Smart Dog’ is a trademark. He’s a kind of genetically engineered animal.” Then he explained: Smart Dogs were an experiment in genetic engineering that went spectacularly well and horrifically bad at the same time. Everybody had loved the idea of the Disney cartoon animal that can understand everything you say. Dogs are naturally so amazing and so capable that making them smarter could only be a good thing, right? So the monks tinkered with the intelligence of Man’s Best Friend, and found him not quite so friendly.
In the pack society of Timberwolves, the primary canine ancestor of the dog, there is one leader and the rest submit to him. This is one of the reasons that dogs live well with people: they recognize humans as Alpha to their Beta. In dog packs, the Alpha male and female of the pack are usually the smartest. Sometimes they are also the most aggressive.
The monk scientists needed dogs with large craniums to accommodate the enhanced brains, so experimental SD’s (Smart Dogs) were usually large breeds: Rottweilers, Akitas, Mastiffs, Bulldogs, Chows, Boxers, Huskies, and the like. Unfortunately, most of these breeds were originally intended for guarding and fighting.
So the engineering had gone spectacularly well, the dogs were very smart, but eventually not as submissive. They were intelligent enough to wonder why they should roll over for those tender skinned bipeds with their dull, useless teeth. After several human deaths, the practice was outlawed and the dogs were destroyed.
“Actually, it is a little bit Frankenstein, now that I think about it,” Mendayev said.
“So how did Dan survive?”
“Oh, we left a door open, threw a few harmadillo steaks outside, then closed the door behind them. We reported they’d escaped.”
“Very legalistic of you,” I said.
He shrugged. “So I’m a Pharisee. If it was the wrong thing to do, I’ll pay for it with my next incarnation. The Governor sent in the New Texas Rangers, who hunted a lot of them down before they got bored and went back to Ardan. We’re away off in the desert. What harm could they do? Over the years, the number that escaped the hunts has been whittled down by the usual causes. Dante was just a puppy at the time. We don’t know how he survived, he just showed up here again a couple years ago. We assume he’s the last one.”
I said nothing for a long time, while I digested that. Maybe a full minute.
“The Confederate Government insisted we come up with some kind of retrovirus they could spray from cropdusters to sterilize any gene-altered dogs so they wouldn’t breed. That project was abandoned following an accident in this very lab. Several of the brothers and I were exposed to recombinant viroids. That’s why so many of us are dying, but I’m sure you’d already figured that out. Actually, now that I think on it, there really is more than a bit of Prometheus in all this as well. Funny the things you don‘t notice until they‘re pointed out to you.”
“You’re….a lot of you…dying?” I said, a bit confused.
“Heavens, yes. You must have