“C-Series Bow-Wow 9000: Voted Third Most Realistic Artificial Dog by Cyborg Magazine”
I remember the tacky bright colours of the box it came in. The bright pink text proudly announced its bronze medal status over a low-res jpeg of a star. Next to it was an image of the supposed third most realistic artificial dog, jumping up to catch a Frisbee that wasn't there. As with most things, the real deal didn't measure up to the dream being sold by the packaging.
The cyborg dog stood there next to the box looking up at me, its subtly wrong proportions giving away its artificial nature. Its head was slightly too small for its body which in turn was slightly too big for how short its legs were. It was wagging its tail in an exact 45 degree angle in a facsimile of happiness while its tongue moved up and down at perfectly regular intervals in time with its breathing. As I held its dead-eyed gaze, it cocked its head to the side in a manner I was sure its manufacturers thought would be cute but made it look like it was about to dispense some kind of beverage.
My parents stood arm in arm a few feet behind it, smiles frozen on their faces as they anticipated my reaction. They looked almost as artificial as the dog in that moment. I was old enough to understand they were expecting a big reaction. I'd been bugging them for a dog for months leading up to my birthday. I knew they were expensive. These days, you only saw live animals in rich neighbourhoods or leaning out of luxury sports vehicles that had no business being driven around the city. Poorer families had to make do with these ersatz automatons comfortably nestled in the very bottom of the uncanny valley. I knew this but I thought maybe giving my parents a lot of notice before my birthday would give them enough time to save up and get the real deal.
I forced a smile on my face and swallowed the bitter taste of disappointment as I kneeled down in front of the black machine and wrapped my arms around its neck. As I moved my hands down towards its back, I could feel the millions of metal rings interlocking together to form its outer shell which allowed it to move about with some degree of flexibility. I felt strangely unsettled by something I couldn't put my finger on until I realised I couldn't smell or feel the humidity of its breath, even though it was definitely making breathing noises.
I looked up at my parents and mustered the most sincere thank you I could. In truth I was already plotting a way of losing it or breaking it in a way that couldn't be traced back to me. My parents sighed in relief and excitedly told me I should go walk it.
“What'll happen if I don't?” I asked.
“Well he'll get sad, obviously,” my dad replied.
“You mean it'll start making whimpering noises when the arbitrary timer in its circuitry reaches zero,” I thought. Thankfully I had the sense not to vocalise that particular thought.
I felt like an idiot walking around with this dog that had about as much sentience as a furry tea kettle. Its erratic movements made it look like it was walking around in stop motion and it made the exact same happy sounding bark whenever we walked past someone on the street. I could already start to hear some fuzz in the noises it was making after 20 minutes, presumably because whatever hidden speakers the noises were coming out of were already on the fritz. About every fifteenth lamppost, it would stop and lift its hind leg and a stream of clear blue liquid which smelled strongly of dish soap would eject out of it and splash against the pavement. I had to assume this was for added realism but the frequency at which it stopped to do this made me think my parents had accidentally purchased the incontinent model.
I was about ready to start heading back when I saw Jordan coming round the corner walking his majestic greyhound. Unlike mine, this one was a genuine flesh and blood canine. Beautiful coat of white and brown fur and perfectly aerodynamically shaped. The dog was a mean bastard too. He took after his owner in that respect.
I desperately hoped to walk by unnoticed but when I heard Jordan's obnoxious guffaws reaching me from across the street, I knew I would have no such luck. I figured running away would be more pathetic than standing there and letting him humiliate me so I stopped in my tracks and turned to face him as he approached me.
“Hey man, sick vacuum cleaner, where'd you get it?” He said through his shit-eating grin.
I clenched my jaw but said nothing. I didn't have a leg to stand on in this encounter. I'd spent the last few months telling Jordan I was going to get a bigger, meaner dog than his for my birthday and he'd be super jealous when he saw it. I was really paying for those words in that moment. It's like that saying, don't count your chickens before they hatch. Because the chickens might turn out to be fucking robots.
“Hi Jordan.” I finally said miserably.
“No really man, I'm super jealous.” Jordan said, leaning in to have a closer look. “My dog doesn't have USB port to charge it overnight. That's a great feature.”
“Yeah, ok, fine.” I mumbled and turned to leave, hoping he'd had his fill. Instead I felt a strong shove into my back. I stumbled forward and nearly lost my balance.
“Don't walk away from me. That's rude.” Jordan snarled, the smile gone from his face and replaced with a scowl. A low growl began emanating from his greyhound. “So you think you're all that with your little can-opener now, do you? And what happens if I sic ol' Jaws here on you?" The growling dog hunched down on those words, ready to pounce. I knew I should run away or call for help but I was too petrified to move.
“Is it gonna protect you? Let's find out. Get him boy!” And on those words the greyhound leaped. Whereupon my false dog's eyes lit up bright red and a pair of stainless steel blades jutted out of both its front paws. In one smooth motion, the blades flashed across the greyhound's throat and before I knew it, he lay at my feet, whimpering and bleeding out.
“What the fuck?!” Jordan yelled.
“RUN!” I yelled at my dog out of instinct and we immediately booked it down the street. We ran at full speed all the way back to my house. It was only after slamming the front door behind us that I realised Jordan hadn't given chase.
I kneeled over to catch my breath. I looked up and noticed the robot dog looking up at me, headed cocked to the side again.
“You know, maybe this dog isn't so bad,” I thought as I looked into its dead eyes.