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The Electric Dog
by S. Ronnoco

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Faces are drifting above me, in a circle of blinding white. Darkness swells and retreats around the circle, making it grow and shrink to a complex rhythm. Somewhere inside my head, I can feel a vein constricting and dilating to that same rhythm.

The man's creased face is bordered by the light at his back, making him look like an angel, and I lie on the cold metal table and stare up at him with my shivering vision. His hair is short but as uncombed as it could be, like a static grey fire around his head. He's saying something that thuds hard into my eardrums but which my brain only notices as a forceful murmur. Gradually the sound seems to be filtered down, like the white noise fading out when you tune in a radio station, and I can hear him:

'A little more, a little more. He's coming round.'

'Blerkll,' I say, closing my eyelids. I seem to lack the strength to keep my eyeballs in place and I let them swivel back inside my head as they please.

'We had to sedate you,' an invasive voice rumbles through my mind. 'This injection will help you wake up.' I feel no better for the denial of unconciousness. I am glad only when the rumbling stops.

I feel something cold slide into my arm. It's a needle, I know, but it feels like something thicker - a lamp-post, maybe... There's a sensation - maybe something's being pumped into me, maybe something's being taken out (that would be more the way with these Government types) - and the darkness unfolds and my ears burst open and I sit up, opening my eyes.

'Help,' I say. I feel very bad, as if I've got pneumonia trickling down my spine and diarrhoea swimming in my intestines. 'I'm sick.'

'No. It's just a side-effect of the sedative we gave you. It will pass.'

I close my eyes for a moment, feeling a wave of nausea. 'Help?' I ask.

There's a hand on my back now, the grey-haired man's. 'Yes, Mr Fitz.' But the hand on my back's a cold gesture: clinical, precise, unfeeling. I shrug it off and mutter something important. I'm still groggy and don't know what I'm saying. It's been at the front of my mind all this time, though, carefully stored in that part of my brain labelled 'UNFAIR!'

'Yes,' he says, 'yes. Of course. In your place, I'd be upset too. But, then, I'd never put myself in your place.' His expression of lazy sympathy dissipates and leaves one of distaste. 'You must have realised the consequences of your actions, Mr Fitz. Even as you planned it, even as you built it - you must have known.'

'What?' I say.

Another man beside the table on which I lie talks now.

'I'm afraid I disagree,' he says in a reedy voice. 'While it can be said that everyone is responsible for their own actions, I'm afraid I disagree. He's clearly mad. How can he be held responsible...'

'What?' I say.

The first man calls the other a moron. He begins to inform him of some tests that have been carried out in Brazil on groups of monkeys that conclusively prove...

'What?' I say, interrupting his sentence. I'm not asking a question any more, it's just a convenient word to express my confusion. They go on talking, regardless.

The room is harsh and white. The sheet over my body is thin but I wrap it around me and determine to go to sleep. I'm very tired, and pushing my face into the sheet and closing my eyes puts me in mind of falling over in the snow as a child and lying, gasping, limbs full of lead, on the ground for a long time before getting up. I burrow into the snow that smells faintly like washing powder and fall asleep.

Now I've composed myself. Now I sit in another room of the asylum and stare at the psychologist who sits opposite me. There's no desk, just the two of us in chairs of equal size. No desk for him to sit behind, the Doc has made sure, for obvious reasons, but he still has the advantage of being able to leave this place at the appointed hour, and he can't conceal that.

'I don't belong here,' I'm saying, and my words rebound off walls of unimaginable depth. The Doc's heard such words a million times, I see.

'Exactly,' he says. His voice is smooth and level, like the perfect DJ's; it comes close to harmonising with mine, making me believe he's in league with me, but there is a plastic, practised quality to it which lets me see the truth. 'So,' he goes on, 'Mr Fitz, it's our task to get you ready to rejoin the rest of society.' He smiles brightly at some invisible person over my shoulder.

'I am ready,' I protest.

'You feel you are ready to do so now, then?' Easily answered questions - the surgical tools of psychology.

'Yes, Doctor.'

He smiles a smile of infinite calmness and patronage. 'Society, at present, would seem to disagree,' he says, mildly.

'But I don't. I know there's nothing wrong with me.'

'Ah. So you feel you are above society's judgement?' A dull scalpel, prodding, prodding.

'Well, no. It's just...' I raise my arms briefly and extend my palms, indicating the room with a powerless gesture. 'All this is so unnecessary. I'm not about to... to hurt anyone. There's no need to lock me up like some animal, some monster.'

The scalpel stabs. 'Are you aware of quite what you've done?' he asks, his eyes taking on a look of moderated opposition.

'Of course. And so you can see why I don't...'

'Perhaps,' he says, 'you could go through it with me. Just to make sure you recollect every detail.'

The room is a pale institution green. Plants obscure the corners. It's a room calculated to be an indifferent jail. I can see no way out of this but to agree with him.

'Fine.' I prepare myself. 'It started with a dream...'

I worked for a toy company. I suppose I still do, technically. I've not been sacked, but I couldn't really go back now.

We - they - made toys: action figures and dolls and dinky cars. Since the laws on toys were passed in 2012, we've - they've - had to turn out the same crap all other toy manufacturers do these days. Let's see, there's Gratitude Graham, the action figure that teaches boys how to say 'Please' and 'Thank you'. ('Young boys,' the 2012 report reads, 'can have particularly violent and antisocial tendencies. In future, toys for this section of the market will encourage good manners, self-control and honesty.') Then there's Loving Lucy, who shows girls how not to be bitches. ('Girls, while more inclined to conversation and general sociability than boys, are liable to gather themselves into groups based largely on appearance and reputation. Toys for this section of the market will demonstrate openness and acceptance of others' merits and faults.') There are very strict rules. Toys must be nice. Toys must be inoffensive. Toys must be nice. Toys must be conducive to childhood development. Toys must be Nice.

Of course, there were those among us who said, with the passing of the law, 'What the hell's the point?' Some pointed out that the human element was hardly needed. 'Why not just let a machine design the toys and be done with it? Why do you need us any more?' But we were still needed. The toys had to be designed 99 per cent artificially, but there had to be something human to them. The toy companies needed the human spark to give them an edge over their competitors - not a blazing spark, but a spark just bright enough to stand out. Kim Kindness and Generous Geri were very laudable ideas, by law, but what would make one better than the other? If a person came along and gave Geri a cute little nose or Kim an eye-catching suit, that would make all the difference. So people were needed, but just to remove the sterility from the toys.

I was a heel man. I 'designed' the heels of the toys we made. That is, I took the computer's designs and picked one, maybe altered it slightly, and then sent it on. If someone asked me what I did, I told them I was a toymaker - they might smile slightly at that, make some joke about Pinnochio - but I wasn't. There are no 'makers' any more, no creativity. There are just ready-made parts that are strung together in a slightly different way than last time.

When the law was passed, I said nothing. I went quietly to the new Heel Department. I kept my head down. I agreed in my small way when the law was presented to us, and I continued with my work. Before, I had designed entire toys, but now I made only heels. There would be no more success, I knew - years before I'd come up with Annihilation Andy, a huge worldwide success, but there would be no more Andys. There would be only Nice toys. And there's not a lot you can create with the word Nice in mind. And when your creative canvas is a solitary heel, well...

But I worked. Five years, five long years after the law. I tried hard, I tried to find heels interesting, I tried to let the smooth rounded shapes of them fill my world. But it wasn't enough. I found the desire to make a toy, a real toy, like the toys of the old days, growing within me with each passing day. I quelled it for a while, I tried to hold it down like you try to hold down hunger or the need to use the toilet when you lie in bed, but, like those other natural compulsions, my desire won out in the end.

It started with a dream. It was clear and crisp and meaningful... for as long as it lasted. Then it was just confusing. Memories had slid into place in my mind, as if they'd always been there, just to make the events of my dream credible, and then faded when I awoke. I can't go into the dream here, because it wasn't really about what this story's about, but one of the weird things that happened in my weird dream caused me to wake up and mutter, 'A dog... An electric dog.' And this is what matters. The dog was the by-product of my luminary dream, like the leftovers after some crazy party when all the revellers have departed and the team of acrobats someone called up while drunk have left in anger. What matters is the idea, the electric dog.

But, lying in my bed in my little flat after the dream, staring at the bumps in the ceiling with the quilt all around me, the words 'electric dog' were effaced by 'work'. So I dragged myself out of bed and dressed and went to work.

All day, sitting over my design board, staring at the bulbous curve on the sheet before me, I dreamed of my electric dog. I sketched it a thousand times in my mind's eye, but I dared not make a mark on the page besides those which brought a new, soulless heel into existence. And the day finally ended and I'd done hardly anything. Mr Angle summoned me to his office and stared at me over his polished mahogany desk - his cheeks were shiny, like the plastic cheeks of the dolls he produced - and said, 'Maybe you need a holiday, Mr Fitz.' I nodded as the words swept over me: 'Take a break... been a little overworked... valuable contribution...' I nodded when he nodded and smiled when he smiled. He ordered me kindly not to come in tomorrow. I nodded. I left.

I took the bus home. The ideas I'd considered all day came together to form one perfect single electric dog. This would be the toy to end all toys. I would make it myself, at home, and then I would show it to Angle. Then he would see. They'd all see. Overworked? Underworked, friends, underworked. Doing menial repetitive tasks like the people who used to work on our factory lines did in the bad good old days. I'd show them. Then they'd see. Toys weren't meant to be Nice. They would see. Toys were meant to be alive. I'd show them. Toys were meant to be felt. They'd see. Toys were meant to be Electric.

I dropped from the bus with sweaty palms and eager eyes. My destiny barked on the horizon and I ran quickly towards it. Tonight. I'd make it tonight. I had the tools. I'd been prepared for something like this for a long time. I had messed around with circuit boards and motors at home for want of something else to do. A hobby, soon a profession once more. It was all ready.

My area is ugly, but by night it's almost beautiful. I could see the rows of lamps heading towards my tenement building, about every second one knocked out by kids with makeshift clubs and rocks. I walked down the path towards my place and headed through the tunnel, under the road. There was just a flickering orange light here and I could see three shadowy figures ahead of me. They were at the other end of the tunnel, throwing fireworks on to the road overhead. Kids, fifteen, sixteen. These kids were the product of that law that said toys had to be Nice. Nice toys pen people's aggression up, give them no choice but the right choice - to be Nice. That is, until their rage boils up in them and releases itself like this. Ugly, ugly... Much better that a child take his aggression out through an Annihilation Andy than like this. Burning cars, wrecked buildings... All our fault. But the dog would change that. My dog would be a real toy, an honest toy - not Nice, but normal, allowing kids who played with it to be normal.

I would change things. I strode on across the shimmering orange floor of the tunnel. I ducked between two of the boys to leave, but they turned and, with one accord, pressed me against the cold graffiti-stained wall at my back. They held me and I struggled, but not in the purposeless way people generally do when held back. I had somewhere to go, I had something to do, I didn't have time for this. It was like a chess match between two people who played with completely different sets of rules to one another. I broke free and walked a few paces. They grabbed me and pushed me back against the wall. I continued walking on the spot until I broke free once more.

This was getting me nowhere, so I looked into the wretched angry face of the boy before me. He had blond hair and hard eyes, with a few shallow dents in his cheek. Ugly, ugly...

'I have to go,' I told his pockmarked face, apologetically.

There was some laughter from the darkness, like the arrogant laughter of the bad-guys in a martial arts film just before Bruce Lee kills them. But this, of course, was reality, and that realisation hit me suddenly and a sickness began in my stomach.

'Fucker.' The eyes blinked coldly at me. The mouth twisted into a smile too filled with hate to hold any humour. I took no offence, for the hatred was not meant for me. 'I have to go,' I repeated. I began to reach into the inside pocket of my coat. I don't know what was there. I think I thought I had some papers, as though this were customs and I could just go through if I showed the right form. He was sharp, though, as sharp as his cruel bony knuckles when they touched my temple, and I didn't have the chance to reach the nothingness near my chest. There was a black field filled with dizzying orbits of stars and then concrete on my neck. I got up on hands and knees, held my head with two fingers as if I had a migraine.

'I have to go. I have something to make.'

He lashed out with his foot. 'Fucker,' he said. An inexpressive word, a desperate gesture to control something of the world around him... This was all my doing, all our doing. If he'd had an Annihilation Andy, if he'd had an electric dog... I ducked out of the way of his fashionable trainer but still felt an odd bloody tingling in my nose, as though I'd been struck.

'A dog,' I gasped, a weak man in a flat coat that draped over his prostrate body, a nobody trying to build something. 'There's a dog...'

'Bark, fucker.' He stood like a dictator in the golden stream of the subway light, and - what does that Edgar Allan Poe poem say? - laughed but smiled no more. Ugly, ugly... A horrible sound, like a ship trawling for mirth in a barren sea.

I stood up and he fell upon me, pushing me to the floor. I held his fleshless arms and he held mine. Minutes of wasteful, meaningless combat. Cavemen butting heads and adrenalin gushing through veins... And yes, I think I enjoyed it. The cool prickling of my skin and the bloodless feeling in my gut, the hardness of my hands and the power behind my mind. Futile and ugly, we flung one another around and rolled and rolled to that old music: the hot thudding rhythm that beats persuasively like drums in the head of anyone when they feel the sudden furious urge to hurt, maim, kill... But I had a dream. There were more important things than this. No time. When he next rolled on to his back I stood and jumped over him and ran stooping from the tunnel, cowardly and free to chain myself to my work.

'Fucker!' came the cries from the tunnel. Ugly, ugly... And a horrible loneliness followed me, stretched behind me and grew around me, and their tortured cries carried across the vacuum. But a man who makes things has to feel alone, when so many others would destroy.

I reached my building. The druggies had knocked themselves out under the stairs. The reek of urine seeped from the walls. The uncertain warbling sound of a siren increased in urgency as I climbed the steps, soles slapping loudly.

My flat. Drawn curtains, floor of clothes, messy bed, tidy corner filled with tools. I went to that corner now and set to work. An electric dog... I thought, maybe I said it. A toy, a real toy, not one of those damn plastic frauds, not one of those ergonomically designed, politically inoffensive, Nice toys. Not plastic, no. Metal. Good sturdy metal. Let the kids cut themselves, Mr Angle, it'll teach them a thing or two about the world. Let there be wires, like the barbed wire around the world, I said, and there were. Let there be eyes, like beacons to reveal the darkness, and there were. Let there be a tail, to be still when there is no happiness, and there was. Let there be an Electric Dog. And there was, and I saw that it was Good.

Electricity was freed and steel was brought to life. Hours had gone by and dawn tinged the skyline through the crack between the curtains. I had worked feverishly, fanatically. The nose was carved perfectly and the heels were extravagant and the eyes, the eyes. Terrifying eyes, real eyes - glass that held a real spark of life, not the manufactured life of the guys in the Eye Department. Of course, it wasn't as perfect as I had dreamed. When I had dreamed, I hadn't thought of the fiddly necessities: the nuts and bolts a few millimetres long, the solder that had to be squeezed between each wire, all that. But finally it was made, and it was a very respectable Dog. Not quite a perfect copy of my dream, but it had made the leap from dream to reality relatively unscathed. Now it was solid and real and I could see it and be proud.

The next morning, I went straight into Mr Angle's office. He was in there with some representatives from another company, staring at the screen set in the wall. The screen displayed two children, separated by the classic red line of adverts comparing two products.

'Child A,' Angle was saying, 'has been playing with one of our toys, Caring Caitlin, while child B...'

I burst straight in and placed my creation on his sheening mahogany desk.

'I thought I told you...' he began, but stopped.

'There,' I said. 'This is what we need. Gentlemen, I give you my Electric Dog.'v

There it stood on the desk, its small dense metal frame constructed from a car wreck, its sharpened teeth made from Heinz Baked Beans cans, its glaring eyes cut from a discarded TV screen. (Poor components, I grant you, but you can admire a thing just for being well made, can't you?)

'What,' said Mr Angle, prodding the Dog, 'is that?'

'My Dog,' I said. 'This is the toy that will change things, sir.'

'But...' - he chuckled uneasily - 'look what it's made from. The eyes, the eyes.' His swivel-chair swivelled and his fat torso turned to face me. 'What were you thinking?'

The two reps had turned away from the screen and viewed my Dog with amusement. They thought it was funny, cute. 'Of course, it could never be manufactured, you know, but it is really original,' oozed one, trying to tickle the Dog's unyielding chin.

I felt an anger that was truly 'original' to me, that something I'd worked so hard on, filled with myself, should be spoken of in such a way, should be judged by someone who thought he was somehow better than I, should -v

'But why?' asked Angle, simply. 'Why did you make it?'

I stood for a while and searched my mind for a reply - 'To get rich,' 'To show you what toys should be like,' 'To create something worth while for a change.' All inaccurate, as I didn't know the answer myself. I formed some half-hearted response instead.

Before I could voice my response, though, the Dog yapped loudly and bit the rep's finger with its harsh tin teeth. He screamed and the Dog's yapping became furious. Its rodent head swivelled left and right, its eyes finally finding Angle and reflecting his shocked face, then it leapt on to him and savaged him. I was filled with pride.

Blood and a torn leather chair and blood and a stained mahogany desk and blood and blood.

'And that's what happened.'

The Doc nods. He stares for a while at the clear blue ruled lines of his notepad. 'I think it might be best, Mr Fitz, if we keep you under observation.' He smiles like a trap shutting and reaches out for his pen. A pair of hands grasps each of my arms. Two men - wearing the customary white - haul me to my feet and one of them pulls out a syringe.

'This won't hurt a bit, Mr Fitz.'

My brain sticks on the word 'bit'. My Dog bit Angle. Fitz bit the men in white... I bite. The forearm of one of the men holding me stains crimson, I taste salt. He releases me as a reflex and I grab the syringe from his hand. It glints white in the harsh light and I can't see if there's anything in it. No matter. I throw it at the Doc, and it hits him full in the throat and blood explodes like a flower opening and a scream comes like a violin cracking and then there's the soulless whisper of his empty spirit winging away. Then I'm running, towards the window and the brutal world. But I'll make it a better world.

The newspapers will say I'm mad, of course. But I ask you, what is that? Far madder the bitter journalists who write the papers, who create their outraged articles as I once created toys - to order. Naturally, I scare myself a little in planning a future as an independent maker of toys, because I don't know what these hands might make next, and whether what they build will be accepted. Yet for all that I would rather risk making a million toys no one but I loved than go back to the Heel Department. Then of course there are the more personal worries about my future: how will I live, and will I be happy? Unanswerable questions, as ever, but at least I've begun again to satisfy this urge in me to create things...

I land on the pavement amidst shards of glass and hurt my shoulder. I get up and cradle my wounded arm, hobbling away like a cripple when, in fact, for the first time in my life, I feel the awful weight of decisions all leading down dull grey roads lifted from me. There is just a single bright and blazing path before me now. I walk down it, feeling like a god, and already wonder what I should create next.

I disappear into the alleys, heading for home. I will build a new Dog, a better Dog, with bigger teeth and brighter eyes. I shall change my Dog. I shall change the world.

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