Before modern humans went into space, we got a dog to try it out for us: “I asked her to forgive us and I even cried as I stroked her for the last time,” said 90-year-old Russian biologist Adilya Kotovskaya, recalling the day she bid farewell to her charge, a street dog called Laika. This was a small tribute I wrote to my homophone namesake. She’s still out there, floating in a tin can…
A GIRL, SHELDON COOPER AND PETER COOK
On Earth, it was generally accepted among cats, that cats were the superior species. In this feline hierarchy, humans and dogs were equal but different, with little regard for the white mice and dolphins.
This social order came about when Amazon integrated universal translation algorithms into their Alexa AI home assistants, and others followed. In 2042, life in the home was very different to the one we know now.
The term “animal” had long since fallen into obscurity, now reserved for those who are less than “person” in its modern definition: a sentient, self-aware and self-determining being, which has a conscience, experiences emotions, and displays empathy with other people.
A few exceptions aside, most Persona non grata had written themselves out of any worthwhile news and were confined to their own history. Only a few Tory grandees clung on in antiquated underground offices, blathering about the past and not being listened to.
“Do you know what I think?” Sheldon Cooper asked.
“No,” replied Peter Cook, looking up from his chair. “And I didn’t ask.”
“Well, let’s see what Ellie thinks. I feel her presence. She’s just coming downstairs.”
“I know,” the dog acknowledged.
“How?” the cat wondered.
“I can hear her.”
“What are you two talking about?” Ellie wondered, wiping her hands on Pete.
“I thought I felt your presence,” Sheldon said, sitting up on the sofa. “Nice of you to get dressed. Did you wash your hands?”
“Yes,” Ellie replied, “what are you talking about?”
“Well, he,” Peter nodded at the cat, “was going to spout on about something…”
“I don’t spout,” Sheldon protested.
“You just did it then. And as I was saying, I didn’t want to hear.”
“You don’t know what I was going to say.”
“Aha!” said the dog, sitting up, “how do you know?”
“Can you read my mind?” Sheldon asked.
“No,” Peter replied, “can you?”
“Okay,” Ellie interrupted. “Who’s for dinner?”
“I’ll eat him if you want,” Peter said.
“I’d make your breath smell better,” the cat replied.
“Okay,” Ellie interrupted again. “What would you like for dinner? I’ll cook.”
“Do you have tuna?” Sheldon asked.
“We do,” Ellie replied.
“In water, not brine?”
“Yes, in water.”
“Cut into chunks, with some black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon?”
“Like you always have it.”
“Yes. That please.”
“Er…” Peter yawned, “Got any steak? You know, that one they grow, not farmed.”
“We should have. If not, I can print you some.”
“Yeah, do that anyway, fresher.”
“Hey, why does he get printed food?”
“I’ll print yours if you like, cat.”
“No, I like it the way you do it.”
“So, why…” Ellie thought, “never mind.”
“What are you having?” Pete asked Ellie.
“I’ll probably just print a pizza.”
“Is it Thursday?” Sheldon wondered, as Ellie made dinner, “I sense it’s going to be a strange night.”
“Here we go,” Ellie announced, returning with food, “up at the table please. Anyone wanna smoke?”
“Told you,” said the cat. “Do you mind if we eat while you smoke?”
“What shall we talk about?” Ellie ignored the cat.
“Death,” Pete said. “But you wouldn’t know about that, would you cat, with your nine lives and everything. Have you worked out what those are all for yet?”
“We will find that out around 3000 years from now.”
“Oh, here we go…The self-proclaimed superior species on this planet, haven’t worked out why they’re here yet.”
“Well neither have you, dog.”
“I sometimes think I’m dead already.”
“Why?” Sheldon wondered.
“Can you tell me I’m not?”
“Well, I can see you’re not. So what, you think all this is a computer simulation, like The Matrix?”
“But you lack proof.”
“And you don’t know why you’re here, cat.”
“I need to urinate.” Sheldon jumped down from his chair and wandered around the garden.
“I love the way you two get on,” Ellie said to Peter.
“Sarcasm?” Pete wondered aloud.
“Only partly. I’m very fond of the way you are.”
“Well, everyone’s themselves Ellie, and most people shouldn’t apologise for that. I think with dogs and cats, it’s a mutual tolerance and a begrudging respect.”
“What about humans?”
“What about them?”
“Do you just tolerate us?”
“Sometimes it’s confusing,” Pete thought. “We do look up to you, because you’re pretty smart. But sometimes you over-complicate things. Dogs look at things more simply. We worry less. I mean, go out for a walk with us a couple of times a day, open a box of DogNip chews, and I’ve pretty much nailed my day.”
“You’re much less paranoid and insecure than us humans.”
“Oh, I don’t know Ellie. Having you around is nice for company, but all dogs have an inferiority complex, and issues of balance.”
“Balance? Of what?”
“We wonder about things like the difference between friends and family, and the colours of cars. I mean, we’re perhaps more in touch with our instincts, but those are a bit sexist and misogynistic. And I think purple cars smell nicer than green ones.”
“How’d you mean?”
“Well, they’re like candyfloss.”
“Yes, but the sexism and misogyny.”
“Oh, all that old-fashioned nature stuff, going to mum for milk, and dad for protection. Then in humans, the hunter-gatherer and the cook.”
“Well, we’re more a commune here, friends and family.”
“Yes, I know. I remember when you came out of hospital that time, and you were in a wheelchair. I didn’t know whether to hug you or sit on your lap.”
“Ellie?” Sheldon was back. “Where are my wipes?”
“I don’t know. Use mine, they’re upstairs.”
“But those are yours, and they’re upstairs. I specifically hid mine here, so I had them when I came in.”
“I might have eaten them.” Pete said.
“Why would you do that?” the cat asked.
“To freshen my breath? I don’t know if I did, I’m just saying I might have.”
“The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon muttered, jumping back on his chair.
“Did you wipe your feet?” Pete asked.
“I always clean my feet, so yes.”
“One day you’ll forget.”
“So what if I do?”
“You’ll know you’re getting old. Anyway, why do you get to go out at all hours and I don’t?”
“Excuse me,” Ellie interrupted, “You can go out whenever you like Pete, on your own, or with your friends.”
“Oh. And there was me, thinking you enjoyed walking with me, playing your favourite game in the park.”
“Well, yes. I assume that’s why you throw sticks, because you enjoy me fetching them for some reason.”
“But that’s your game.”
“No it’s not. You made it up.”
“Yeah, because you like fetching sticks.”
“No I don’t. I couldn’t care where they end up, but you seem to have so much fun throwing them, I just figure I’m humouring you.”
“One day,” Ellie said, “you dogs will get over your inferiority complex.”
“Not while there are cats around,” Pete replied, “they have a superiority delusion.”
“It’s not a delusion,” Sheldon argued.
“So what about them lives then, what are they for?”
“Curiosity, which is just as likely to kill anyone else as it is a cat. But cats seek knowledge, so we were given nine lives with which to discover it.”
“While everyone else already worked out it’s pretty dull, so they’re just sitting around relaxing,” Pete suggested. “Ellie, what do you think about death?”
“That’s a very big question, because it depends on the definition of death.”
“What, more than either dead or alive?”
“Well, yeah. It’s not a bipolar subject. I mean, I don’t fear my own death – except maybe the means of departure – but being forgotten scares me, like being erased from history. I believe that life as we know it, is a passing phase, in something we don’t fully understand yet.”
“Do you subscribe,” Sheldon interrupted, “to quantum physics?”
“Well, it stopped being a theory long ago. If you mean, do I get that everything exists in more than one state simultaneously, and that quantum entanglement means every subatomic particle in the universe is connected to another, telepathically, then yes. Definitely.”
“Good,” the cat said, “because a lot of philosophical and theoretical examples of my species perished in that debate.”
“See?” Pete perked up. “Bloody cats, getting everywhere, proving things. When was a dog ever involved in an experiment? I mean, why not Schrödinger’s dogs? By the way, what in the name of anyone’s arse, did mankind think it was getting up to, sending one of my kind up to space, before we had the technology to ask if it was okay?”
“That,” Ellie replied, “was humanity getting up its own arse. But Laika was our little trailblazer, still floating in a tin can out there somewhere. We owe her a lot.”
“At least you’re grateful,” Pete said, “fetching your sticks, flying your spaceships…And yes, Laika’s floating around out there, unceremoniously abandoned, but it’s quite poetic in a way.”
“What, like Space Oddity, David Bowie?”
“No, I just think it’s funny. Who’s to say Laika didn’t get out there and everything worked fine? Then she sussed the controls and just buggered off. Maybe it was all an elaborate plan, and the dogs had another planet somewhere.”
“But equally, not impossible. You couldn’t talk to us back then. What you might have thought was static noise, could have been her talking. But there was no universal translator back then.”
“The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon murmured.
“Well, yes,” Pete agreed, “but the point is, humans had no right to do that. Because back then, humans didn’t regard what they called animals as having feelings or emotions. But what was clearly a sentient, self-determining and self-aware being, was used in an experiment without consultation or consent, simply because it was assumed to be inferior. That is immoral, and even more so for the cowardice in persecuting a person whose voice couldn’t be heard.”
“So is much which humanity has done,” Ellie agreed, “against its own kind too. It’s a burden which rests heavily on those of us who give a shit.”
“If I might add a cat’s opinion,” Sheldon said, “it might make things easier to understand.”
“Humans were in denial. Your science hadn’t proven the obvious, that so-called animals could feel, so it was conveniently overlooked and humans continued, well, being human.”
“Now I feel good about myself. Thanks Sheldon.”
“Oh. And I thought I was getting the hang of that one.”
“Ever since we’ve been able to talk,” Pete said, “there is still much about humans which confuses us.”
“Same,” Ellie added, “only now that we can talk, can we talk like this.”
“Really, I hadn’t noticed,” Sheldon noted.
“Sarcasm?” Pete wondered.
“No. Cats have always been able to talk, and to hear you. Nothing’s changed with humans, because you still don’t make sense.”
“But you can understand me?” Ellie checked.
“I can hear you, and the rest of the human race, in you. But with a growing number of exceptions, humans still seem hell bent on destroying our planet.”
“You mean,” Pete said, “the planet we all share?”
“You’re only here because the humans brought you. Earth was originally the cats’. Then humans came along and our ancestors agreed to let humans be humans, hoping they might learn.”
“Many ancient feline scribes.”
“Like the human ones,” Ellie added, “who wrote the various human religious scriptures?”
“Very much so,” Sheldon confirmed, “and those ancient human scribes wrote of cat gods, did they not?”
“In Egypt, and some other places, yes.”
“So,” Sheldon continued, “doesn’t that prove that man worshipped cats as gods?”
“Not at all. Each ancient script is an individual’s interpretation of events, as they saw them, and recorded using the means available to them at the time. It’s what all ancient alien theories are built on, and it’s what unifies science and religion in many humans now. The point is, it’s a paradox. But it doesn’t matter who was here first, it’s what we do now that we’re here.”
“Sometimes,” Pete spoke now. “Sometimes, I wish I was a dyslexic insomniac.
“Because dogs are generally agnostic, and that would allow me to lie awake at night, wondering if God is a dog.”
“Really though,” Sheldon said, “we’re all the same.”
“Hardly,” Pete said.
“No, I mean inside, and at a fundamental level. Forget animals and humans as the outdated terms which they now are. As people, we are all the same. Just as the root of all humans’ conflicts – both internal and external – is in an inability to see others as alternative versions of themselves, so that can be transcended to encompass us all. Whether we’re an atheist cat, an agnostic dog, or a whatever you are Ellie, all those scribes wrote what they saw, and science proved what we now know. And that’s that we’re all connected and the only true creator is the universe itself.”
“Yeah, but who set that off?” Pete wondered.
“Oh, for fuck sake.”
“It’s a good job we can all talk about it now.”
© Steve Laker, 2017.
Laika, c.1954 – 03.11.1957
This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, available now.