I'd heard that Lady Clara had a lot of animals, but that had to be at least ten. Dogs, all of them, playing together on the grounds.
"Wasted stars," I breathed. "The expense. She's not even out watching them and they're in character."
"Are you positive they're not robots? For that kind of money you can get very good robots," said Linly, at my elbow. She was half my height, heavily modded - this month she looked like some kind of bonsai dryad. Next month she'd be eight feet high and glow like a lamp, or wear feathers and scales.
"They're not robots. That's why we're here. Hi!" I added, calling out to the dogs. They ignored me except for briefly looking in our direction and sniffing the air. Consummate actors. The performance was spectacular; I could have been watching an old recording. "If we could afford robots we wouldn't have this problem."
"Modders are even more expensive," said Linly.
"Modders," I said, nudging her by her wooden antlers, "can be convinced to do volunteer work. And if we're very lucky we won't even have to do that, we'll just be getting a donation out of the Lady's copious biotech profits."
"We should just get someone to loan us robots -"
"The props people are working on that as backup. Our job is to see if Lady Clara will lend us time with her contractors. Hi guys!" I called to the dogs again. "Put in a good word for us!"
They went on chasing each other across the garden, tails wagging. We approached the gate.
Before we crossed the fence, we consented to an information baffle. A robot administered us quick hypos of time-stamped, dormant amnestic that Lady Clara could activate if she didn't want us to remember what happened in her estate. Some planets forbade the measure even on the privatest of property; and it was a little nerve-wracking. But we still had our medical monitors to freak out off-site if Lady Clara turned out to like preying on random visitors, and it was up to us whether to take the drugs or forge ahead. Lady Clara wanted her privacy in case we wandered somewhere unauthorized, and we wanted to inquire in person about a borrowing of her staff. Fair enough. I still caught myself waiting to see if my chrono jumped. It didn't.
We crossed the garden, and we were sniffed and in one case licked by the dogs as we waited at the front step to be let in.
The door opened, and the dogs flowed around us as we went in to see Lady Clara.
Lady Clara was at least three hundred years old, but pretty lightly modded considering. She even looked some fraction of her age - not like she was planning to play a wizened old hag in a drama, but there were lines on her face and hands. She was plainly attired to match. I usually felt painfully unfashionable next to Linly - only re-sexed and re-colored, nothing dramatic or frequently revised - but Lady Clara made me feel overdressed. But the dog that hopped up on the couch next to her and put their head on her lap spoke of more means than it would have taken to turn myself into a centaur and back.
"Welcome," Clara said, when we'd sat opposite her. "I hear you want to talk about the dogs."
"That's right," I said. "We're from the Historical Society of Greater Saint Brian Metropolitan Area and we're putting on an educational about the Last Extinction. It'll be seen through the whole system, maybe the whole sprawl!"
"And you want to borrow my dogs?" she asked.
"Yes ma'am. We have actors volunteering who'll do all the scripted parts, already, but they aren't trained to act, well, naturally. We want the production to be really slick, you know? Realistic animals."
"We'd want to remod a couple of them, and we can cover that, and the mod back," said Linly. "Especially if any of you have already practiced modding as birds," she added to the assembled dogs, though of course they wouldn't be able to reply in their state.
"I don't think any of them have," Lady Clara said, sounding faintly amused.
"We can work around it if they can't fly," I cut in. "We can get someone who knows flying to stunt double, I think we can edit that convincingly enough. The problem is that actors who normally act the parts of people come across as slightly fake when they do animals, and we want it to ring true. We want viewers to almost miss dogs and birds and things."
"Do you miss dogs and birds and things?" wondered Lady Clara. She snapped her fingers and a robot servant brought a tray of snacks and lemonade.
"We're not old enough to miss them," I said. "We'd love to have you consult, though, or even interview, if you remember the real thing and want to tell us about it."
"I think everyone should miss dogs just the same, regardless of how old you are," Lady Clara said, pouring herself a lemonade. She fed the dog in her lap a tidbit of sausage. They ate it right out of her hand. "We evolved together with them, you know. They're why we don't smell very well."
"We know," said Linly. "We've done our research."
"Since the parts are unscripted, improv, we'd only want to borrow the actors for a few days," I said. "We might be able to partially compensate you for the gaps in their employment if some other budget matters go well, but - not all the way. We're hoping that since you're known to be passionately interested in animals you'll want our production to succeed."
"It's an interesting proposal," said Lady Clara. "Go ahead, help yourself to the food - what's the general outline?"
"It's a broad educational production," Linly said, and her eyes adopted the glassy look of peering at her notes. I grabbed a little sandwich. "We're covering what animals were, some of the things they used to do that interacted with people. Just brief digressions into how we used to make meat and fur and stuff, and the deceptive innocence of pet-keeping - and the dog evolution fact, that too, all the things they taught us about biology and ecology. And wild animals and the ways they were always under so much evolutionary pressure, killing them in droves. We're going to try not to be too intense for squeamish people though."
She paused to grab a sandwich of her own, and I picked up: "Then there's the sad bit about how animals weren't very smart but they were complex enough to suffer, except maybe insects and so on but probably them too. We've got a long segment about the Extinction War, we had some editorial infighting about how much of that to cover but we've come to a firm agreement. And then the Extinction itself, it was way more complicated to implement than most people know because some of the reproductive systems worked so differently, did you know we actually still have sponges, a few, in the Earth oceans, and those are technically animals? They're pretty sure they're more like plants in capacity for suffering - anyway, and there was resistance to the very end - even after."
"For a surprisingly long time. Mostly pets," Linly said, "and some decorative and research interests, all the food uses were long replaced - mostly pets."
"We actually secured an interview with someone who was keeping parrots in his basement for years after the Extinction was mostly wrapped up in the wild," I mentioned. "Cloned them by himself. He got caught, but not before he condemned three more animals to living out lives of suffering without insight."
"There's some debate about parrots," Linly corrected. "And their level of insight."
"They never got smart enough to reflect on what might be bothering them if anything did and solve the problems systematically and consistently," I said. "Or to communicate as peers with human adults. They were crippled, as minds, to the point of -"
"I'm not saying that it's okay to clone parrots in your basement," Linly said. "Just that the insight line is more likely to go over a clip of mice than a clip of parrots."
"Is anyone being a parrot for the gentleman you found?" wondered Lady Clara distantly. "So that he doesn't have to miss them completely?"
"I don't think he can afford a full-timer," I said. "Let alone the, how many of you guys being dogs are there, a dozen? But we found him through an animal-mods hobbyist group, so he probably gets to hang out with people who are modding birds occasionally even if they're not acting the part or in his employ."
"Eleven," said Lady Clara. "Eleven dogs."
"You all look very enthusiastic about your work," Linly said politely to the dogs.
"You'll never find more dedicated," said Lady Clara.
"Do you think you can offer them their usual rates for a few days of participating in our educational?" I asked.
"Mm. I'm not sure. Is there a political slant to it?" asked Lady Clara.
"A political slant?" Linly said. "It's about animals. You know, the last vast well of pain. The educational's going to have a warning on it."
"The parrots fellow, he's not a holdout or anything?"
"He comes off a little nostalgic," I admitted. "But not some kind of apologist or revivalist. Nobody would be caught on record in this day and age saying they want creatures with senses and rudimentary minds to exist in meaningless misery for their intellectual stimulation or sensory pleasure or whatever. Let alone for food, we had to dig way deeper in history to find people defending that."
"I see," sighed Lady Clara.
"So about the dogs..." I said.
"I don't believe I will loan you my dogs."
She couldn't have them under too tight a contract. People who wanted to mod dogs and then play the part full-time were not so common that they couldn't negotiate for good employment conditions. "Any of you want to skip out on your boss?" I asked the dogs.
A golden-haired one scratched their ear. A spotty brown one yawned.
"Loyal," commented Linly.
"You'll never find more loyal," murmured Lady Clara.
"You can pet them," she added, "if you like."
Linly reached for a curly white dog. Their tail wagged.
...Its tail. Its tail wagged.
"Are these," I said, "real dogs?"
Linly stopped cold, hand poised over the dog's head.
Lady Clara stroked the one in her lap. It adjusted position slightly, closed its eyes.
"The information baffle," I said.
"Yes," sighed Lady Clara. "The information baffle. Is there any point to telling you?"
"You have real - real dogs - eleven of them - you can't even get them medical care -" Linly spluttered. "If one of them gets hurt, oh stars, it'll just, it'll just hurt, it won't know why or be able to fix it - you can't, you can't -"
"They don't understand anything," I whispered. "They can't communicate, all you know is whether they wag or -"
"I didn't think so," said Lady Clara. "No, of course not. You've never wanted to talk to something with more personality to it than a robot but less judgment than a person, you've never wanted to care for something with more complexity than a houseplant but less agency than an employee, of course you've never met a puppy and wanted one with all your heart -"
"We don't have to meet puppies to know what you're doing is wrong!" shrilled Linly.
"I am a doctor," said Lady Clara. "I'm in biotech now, but I used to be a veterinarian. I can take care of my dogs."
"They shouldn't be! They never chose to be, they have no choice now, if one wanted to die how would you know -" I exclaimed, watching one fall asleep on the rug. Dogs could dream, I remembered that from the research we'd done they could dream, if it had a nightmare it would never fully understand that whatever it feared was fake. If it had a good dream it would never have had a chance to write it down or tell its equally stunted friends. Nothing good was preserved and nothing bad had context and -
"I'll spare you the revivalist speech," said Lady Clara. "We'll come to no agreement. Why don't you let yourselves out? If you don't..." Her hand moved across her lapdog's back. The dog might love her or hate her but it didn't matter because she would never, ever let it go, and would have tamed it into submission and conditioned it to show all the signals of affection she wanted with her complete control over its food supply - "My dogs are very well trained."
If she told them to, they would do violence without any ability to know what cause they furthered. They'd savage us without empathy for the pain or even genuine malice to motivate the attacks. Our medical monitors would only show the bite, not that a real dog had bitten; and we wouldn't remember; and Lady Clara would explain on her employee's behalf that it was a misunderstanding of some kind -
Linly sobbed. I grabbed her hand and squeezed.
"Go," Lady Clara said.
My chrono jumped. Linly squeaked.
"Damn, that's creepy," I said. "What happened, did you wander into her library or something?"
"How should I know?" Linly asked. "Why do you think it was me? Maybe you decided to read her diary."
"I didn't - damn," I repeated, sighing. The dogs were inside the house, now, no chance of talking one into an under-the-table deal through the fence. "Let's hope the props people had better luck."
"Do you suppose it's fun, being a dog?" Linly wondered.
"They must get something out of it or they'd mod back," I said.
"Yeah," Linly agreed, "I guess."