Hunter sat down at one of the familiar mess hall tables across from Jason and Atlas. All of the tables were metal and contained a set of grid squares to use as a chess set, and Hunter had brought along a compliment of magnetic pieces from one of the storage lockers next to the soda fountain. As he began setting up the field, he glanced over at Jason, who seemed only partially immersed in his book while his free hand scratched behind the dog’s ears.
Atlas barked to Hunter once the chess board was set up, and Hunter made his first move.
“So why don’t you explain Atlas here, to me?” Hunter spoke to Jason. “What makes him special?”
“Genetic engineering,” Jason replied lamely.
“Yes, but you aren’t that skilled a geneticist,” Hunter teased and moved another piece.
“I dabble,” Jason frowned. “But all right, I didn’t actually work on the program, they called me in the consult. And after it was shelved… I stole the prototype.”
“Just walked out of there with a several billion-credit specimen,” Hunter waved.
“Are you kidding?” Jason cracked one of his rare grins. “There’s like ninety-seven cents worth of genetic base material in there. The dog food he ate growing into puppy-hood cost more than making him. Besides, the school has all the research, they could have synthesized another one easily enough.”
“I still can’t imagine your superiors being all that happy,” Hunter mused.
“Well, my conclusions were pretty straightforward,” Jason sighed. “Then I just sort of said ‘I’m gonna go ahead and take the prototype.’ And they said ‘That’s fine, he’s just going to rot in the storage locker.’ And then I dropped the puppy in my pocket and left.”
“So only ‘stole’ in the ‘didn’t pay for’ sense,” Hunter nodded. “All right, outline the specs for me, what makes this fine furry fellow so great?”
Atlas growled at Hunter and let out a few low barks.
“Not that I’m saying he isn’t great,” Hunter waved. “I just wanna know why. Also, can you explain how magnets work? It’s been bugging me.”
Jason closed his book and leaned back, folding his arms over his chest and settling his eyes on Hunter.
“Atlas was part of a program to produce a superior police dog,” he began. “The program director assembled a list of specifications and the team in charge carried it out. As the… fore-most expert on genetic memory within the Foundation, I was asked to consult on the programming.”
“You mean what memories he was born with,” Hunter smirked.
“No, actually,” Jason shook his head. “For the project they used something similar to the semantic memory enjoyed by dragons, facts independent of context. Experiential memory would have been too volatile, in general problematic for the program. They wanted a specific set of commands embedded in the creature’s mind, I don’t mind telling you it was quite an interesting challenge.
“It was the operational parameters, though, that I found myself more interested in. Atlas here is based on something called a ‘german shepherd’, that’s a dog breed.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Hunter rolled his eyes.
“Well, you tend not to know anything about crap like that,” Jason snapped. “Anyway, normal shepherds only live for around ten years. As police or military animals, they only get about four or five years operational life expectancy. Which means MPs who commit to a carrier in the K-nine unit can expect to see at minimum eight dogs during their carrier.
“Now, I know you’ve never had a pet, but people tend to get very attached to them. Loosing a dog is like loosing a partner. There is of course the monetary aspect of it, training and caring for traditional service animals is quite costly, but that was hardly the main concern. The average MP to go into the K-nine unit endures four years of training while at the academy, and burns out after just ten. Some of them quit the force, most transfer to other areas, but we were wasting a lot of resources training men and women to work with dogs, and not getting anywhere near the desired return.
“Studies showed that the problem lay almost entirely in the deficiency of the dogs. Those MPs who quit after less than ten years had typically gone through two to four animals in their carrier. That’s hard on a person. Like I said, the dogs are like partners, like family. Some of them go down in the line of duty, and that hurts; but even just seeing your partner grow old and die isn’t easy.
“So Atlas’s physiology has been substantially altered, giving him a total life expectancy of around sixty-five years, and an operational lifespan of forty.”
“Long enough to last his human partner’s entire carrier,” Hunter whistled.
“And most of his retirement,” Jason nodded. “The dogs are two or three years old when they’re issued to a cadet still finish Military Police training, about four when they enter service. By the time the MP retires, the dog is maybe forty-five or fifty, with another twenty years left to enjoy retirement along with their human. Most people will probably outlive the dog, a few won’t, many will go at around the same time. The point is, potentially, a good dog can last the officer’s entire carrier.
“Of course, after that, we had to make them heartier, beef up their immune systems and healing capabilities. Dogs had to be as tough as humans, and they were. And since the project was already doing all that, they figured why not add in a few extra… features.
“For example, Atlas here may look like a shepherd, but he’s got the nose of a bloodhound. There’s a whole long grocery list of enhancements, he’s a damn good dog.
“And then, of course, came my part—or, the part I consulted on, I didn’t do much—obviously incorporating all of those capabilities into a multi-role dog meant they would be harder than usual to train. You could set them up for all sorts of capabilities, but we said ‘why not’ and just built the training right into their genetic code.”
“So…” Hunter said calmly as he considered the chess board in front of him. “If you guys did all that, why’d the project fail?”
“I guess you might say it was a classic case of feature-creep,” Jason sighed. “All the various changes and genetic memory ended up making him significantly smarter than we intended.
“Its difficult to quantify, in the simulations we weren’t able to get an accurate yard-stick. Atlas is definitely smarter than any dog alive or dead, smarter than horses, whales, dolphins… smarter than primates. We couldn’t tell for sure, but the virtual prototypes were either near or vastly exceeding human intelligence.”
“You made him too smart,” Hunter summarized.
“Way too smart,” Jason nodded. “Atlas, here, is at the very high-end of the spectrum, but even dialing it down a great deal the animals were easily smart enough to express free will. Smart enough to communicate.”
“I’ve noticed,” Hunter agreed while Atlas yipped impatiently at him.
“Anyway, we couldn’t create a full-on race of super-dogs and hope some of them decided to become cops for us,” Jason continued. “And when we reduced their mental acuity enough that they no longer registered as ‘sentient’ according to Foundation criteria, they made even worse police dogs than an unmodified animal.
“It was like… take everything that makes a dog stupid, add in poor reasoning and even worse judgment, and now make it know how to drive a car or operate a computer. That’s what we ended up with: dogs who were normal dogs but knew how to use credit cards—and could qualify for them, as we learned from one simulation…”
“So the project was shelved,” Hunter finished. “I’m a little fuzzy on one thing, though: Atlas. Everything you could have possibly needed to know you could get from simulations, so why a metal—or in this case fuzzy—prototype?”
“I… may have suggested there might be certain things we could learn from a flesh-and-blood animal that could not be discerned inside a simulator,” Jason replied distantly. “At a… crucial time when there was still enough interest to perform such a maneuver but not quite enough life left to see it come to fruition.”
“They made Atlas, then shut down the program a few weeks later,” Hunter snorted. “Nice maneuvering.”
“What can I say?” Jason shrugged. “Other than checkmate.”
“You could try explaining to me how he got to be such a bloody good chess player,” Hunter said, pointing an accusing thumb at Atlas. “He beats me every darn time!”
“He played with Lily quite a bit,” Jason shrugged. “I can’t beat him either.”