Chapter 14

“So, Romy, want to pick out ears and a tail?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes, sorry. Just thinking.”

“What about? Not changing your mind, are you?”

“No, no, not that.” She smiled, laughing at herself. “Not even close. I was thinking about two things, actually.”

“Yes?”

“First off, is there some way so I’d be decent in a fight, if I needed to be? One of my jobs is going to be to defend Alicia, and I can’t do much of that the way I am. A normal dog could.”

“There’s a few things we can look at, yes. I think so. The second?”

“How loyal can you train me to be?”

“How loyal? Well, it depends on the time frame…”

“You said a couple of days. How loyal can you make me to Alicia in two days.”

“Using normal methods, not very… Besides loyalty is something that fades fast without reinforcement. Why?”

“I… I could be wrong. But… I’ve lived through a divorce, and I think the Larsens are going to break up soon. There are little things… Besides, it’s not uncommon.”

“What do you mean?”

“You get some couple that’s been married for forty or fifty years, they feel like they’ve been together forever. But something’s missing, they need something new. They can’t think what it is, but they get the idea that it’s a kid, that they want a kid. So they take out a loan for a license, and soon they are happy parents. But the problem is actually that they were drifting apart, and they just hid it by giving themselves something to focus on: The child. Then in a few years, the payments on the loan start coming due, and the newness of the child has worn off, and they find they don’t actually have anything in common any more.”

Talib knelt to deal with Romy on her level. “Personal experience?”

“As the child stuck between them. It can get pretty ugly…”

“So you want Alicia to have a loyal defender, who can keep her safe, no matter what. So she doesn’t have to go through what you did.”

“Yes. Someone she can rely on, no matter what, someone she can confide her secrets in, and know they will never be used against her — or against others.”

“And you don’t think you’ll be able to be that on your own?”

“I’m not a kid. As much as I like being a dog, eventually I’ll want…”

“To be more than a child’s pet.”

Neither said anything for a long moment. “You’re thinking about something, aren’t you? You said ‘using normal methods’. How about abnormal methods? How loyal could you make me then?

“There is something. You’d have to ask for it specifically, I’m not sure I could even tell you it’s possible, but if I have your permission, it’s legal…”

“What. Tell me about it. I want to know.”

He hesitated a moment more, then broke down. “You know how your implant is thought-activated?”

“Yeah? I mean, of course it is. So?”

“And it’s linked in to all kinds of systems in your body; if you want it to, it can feed you all kinds of stuff, right?”

“Uh-huh…”

With your permission, and passcodes, I can get past the firewalls, and into the internals of the implant. And change programming there. Circumvent security protocols. I can have it do things on classes of thoughts, or specific thoughts, right as you think them, or almost before. Without notifying you.”

“This would be more than just changing how I pronounce words, I take it?”

“That was simple stuff: Motor control modification. You were alerted it was going to happen, and it couldn’t change anything besides your speech itself. Besides, you could turn it off.”

“And this I couldn’t.”

“You wouldn’t even know it was there. It would happen so fast you wouldn’t even be aware it had done anything.”

“What, exactly, would it do?”

Talib took a deep breath. “You want loyalty. It would link thoughts of loyalty — and loyalty specifically to Alicia — to rewards in the pleasure centers of your brain. Thoughts of disloyalty, betrayal, abandoning her, would be linked to discouragement patterns.”

“And that means?”

“Anytime you thought of loyalty to her, you’d get rewarded. The slightest hint of anything resembling disloyalty, and you’d get, well, uncomfortable with the thought. The stronger either thought is, the stronger the reward/punishment. You wouldn’t directly notice, it would just happen. Thinking of, or being, loyal would make you happy, satisfied. Especially with your sex drive gone, it would be the strongest reward you’d get. And the converse is also true: Even considering being disloyal would feel like the worst possible thing you could do. Knowing about it, you could resist the effects, but only by consciously trying, and even that wouldn’t work very well. The more loyal you are, the happier you are. Your mind would work out the relationship, and you’d find yourself getting more and more loyal.”

“How loyal would I get?”

“As loyal as it’s possible to get. It’s the strongest drive: Nothing else matters, relatively. If you can be loyal, it doesn’t matter what else is being done to you, you’ll still be happy. And it doesn’t matter what paradise you are put in, if you have to be disloyal, you’d rather slit your own throat.”

“Rather walk in hell by her side than lie in heaven at the feet of angels?”

“Exactly.”

“Sounds like what I want. But you’re acting like there’s another downside.”

“Not ‘another’; it’s part of the same thing, but it’s not obvious. To remove it, you have to request it again, and give your permission. Which means you have to ask to be disloyal.”

“Ah. So… I’d never be able to remove it?”

“You could. You just wouldn’t, not after a few months anyway. You’d just rather be completely and utterly loyal to Alicia for the rest of your life, no matter what. It’s what makes you happy.”

“I see.” She sat and thought about it for a while, and Talib gave her some space. “I still want it.” Talib looked over, surprised. Romy smiled at him. “Maybe I’m an impulsive youngster, but I do remember how lonely it was growing up. It was only a decade ago, after all. And if I’m right about her parents… She’ll need a friend, a good one. Someone she can rely on. So the friendship lasts longer than her childhood. I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out. Especially since I’ll be willing.”

“Ok, if that’s what you want. I’m going to leave it for last though; give you plenty of time to think about it. It will only take a couple of minutes. And, you need to tell Alicia. Not the eight-year-old adorable little girl, the young adult she’s going to be someday, who finds themselves with a completely loyal pet that they’ve had since childhood, and they don’t know what to do with. She needs to know that you chose this, and why. From your mouth, before the loyalty has set in to epic proportions.”

“Sure. That sounds like a good idea. I’ll record something for her.”

He paused, then looked back at her. “How much protection do you think she’ll need?”

Romy managed to shrug. “The world is made for adults, not kids. Especially when parents are so involved in fighting each other that they forget about the child… She could need a lot.”

“There’s a mod I found a while back, that I’ve always wondered how it would work. I couldn’t really justify it for myself, and it’s not something most of my clients would be interested in — or afford, for that matter.”

“I don’t have that much spare cash…”

Talib waved it away. “I can afford it; I’ve got more money than I really know what to do with these days anyway. I’m the best, and I price myself accordingly. People pay. This… Call it a gift. To Alicia, because I know how dangerous the world can get. And to you, because if you are that loyal… If something happens, you’d always wish it was possible for you to do more.”

“But not with this?”

“With this, you’ll know there is nothing anyone could have done that was more than you did, if push comes to shove.” He started pulling up a viewscreen, and hunting for a location long-forgotten. “It’s a cross between a hunting mod some extreme LARP group put together out west, and military combat mods.”

“It’s legal?”

“Barely. Class-19, restricted. You need a top-notch nannie-pad set, and you’ll have to agree to some terms.”

“What terms?”

“First off, you use it only for self-defense. That includes your owner if you are Property, but you can’t play with this one. Secondly, it’ll install an augment to your implant: It’ll be continually recording everything you sense, and if you activate the mod it will write the last two minutes — as well as the entire time the mod is activated — into semi-permanent storage that only the Government can erase. Not you, not the local police. Top level only. And even they can’t modify it, just wipe it clean for you if you ask. Third, you get two markers: One in the comm-net, and one on your skin. They’ll alert anyone who cares to look that you’ve got a lethal battle mod. The one on your skin will glow in the dark, so it can be seen day or night.”

“I don’t want to scare Alicia.”

“You won’t. The mark isn’t big, and it’s there precisely because mod isn’t visible.”

“And what, exactly, does this mod do?”

“It’s a werewolf mod. It does three separate things. First off, it lays in reserves of energy and material, that you can use in an emergency. Secondly, it uses those reserves to heal you. And I don’t mean the normal speed-healers: It gives you the equivalent of medical-grade healbots, tailored exactly for you. Speed-healers can heal a broken leg in a few hours. You’ll be able to heal it in seconds. Of course, it costs, and you’ll have to activate it. If you are out of reserves, it’s down to speed-healer speeds. Thirdly, it lays in the ability to use a couple of alternate forms, and sets up for a quick-change to either one. You won’t be able to hold either long, and they use the reserves as well, but they’ll give you quite a bit of power. The first of the two forms is a large wolf. It takes longer to change into, but you’ll be able to hold it longer. It’s also faster over long distances, and gives you the best of both human and wolf senses. The other form is a wolf-human hybrid: You’ll get claws, the ability to stand, teeth, some hints of fur, extra reach, speed, strength, and reaction times. It only takes a couple of seconds to change into, but you won’t be able to hold it very long. Of course, while you are in it, nothing without armor is a match for you. Thick armor.”

“So, if Alicia needs it…”

“You can get up after wounds that would kill you now, and fight better than anything this side of a team of Special Forces operatives. Or carry her away faster than any human can follow. Or track her like a bloodhound.”

“And anyone with the money and the willingness to accept the terms can have this?”

“Well, you have to pass a background check, and show some reason for wanting it. That loyalty clause is helpful too; it means you aren’t going to use it for personal gain. And note that any time you activate either of the alternate forms, there will be an alert sent out. If anything happens, the authorities will know who did it. And they’ll be able to get your sense-records of the incident, so you can’t lie either.”

“Will this mess up my other mods?”

“Not unless you have some I don’t know about. Yes, they’ll have to be set to work together, but I can do that. It’s designed to not visibly affect your normal form, even modded.”

“And if I don’t go to extremes?”

“There are paw-mods with claws, some retractable. Nothing in between that won’t scare little girls. I mean, I could give you a muzzle full of teeth, but you’d lose the ability to talk, and I notice we didn’t bring that up with the Larsens. And you’d look like you had a muzzle full of teeth. There are some other unarmed-combat mods, but you’d have to stand up and fight like a human, and most would conflict with your current mods.”

“Just trying to sink my mind around the idea.”

“As I said: if something happened, and I had someone who’s job it was to protect me, this is the mod I’d want them to have. Pet or not. If something happens, you’ll want to know you did everything possible to protect her. With this, you’ll know no one else could have done more, no matter what happens.”

“Yeah, it sounds good. Anything else?”

“Just that it will take about thirty hours to set, and you have to be contained until it does.”

“So, back to the cages in your basement?”

“Yep.”

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