Virtual Pet

Virtual Pet

By Linda Kelly

A Mare Inebrium Story

Mare Inebrium Universe created by Dan Hollifield

I walked into the Mare Inebrium on a busy shift turn. As usual, the crowd was roaring and the background band played something with a honky-tonk beat that 20 or so species, most of whom I recognized, were gyrating to on a crowded dance floor with a large burn on it. There is a special smoky, cinnamon odor to the Mare, which underlies the alcohol and other more exotic concoctions patrons drink. Maybe it's the combined odors of sentience from around the galaxy and beyond, who knows. I don't really know what causes that aroma, but to me, it smells like home.

Trixie came by with my usual decaffeinated, nonalcoholic, nonnarcotic herbal tea with a piece of dry ice floating and smoking on top. I don't drink and get tired of the nasty little interspecies cracks about 'tea totalers' - that's why the dry ice float. For some reason, dirtwalkers tend to avoid talking about my drink Come to think of it, they avoid me, too. Somebody said I reminded them of a witch, with my long white hair and black cape over my black shipsuit. The hair is natural - premature, but natural - and the clothes are practical. My ship is the Cauldron, a name not of my choosing and it came with uniforms on board. Buying her was the extent of my credit and credits. Getting new uniforms, changing her name, or anything else was not financially possible at the time I bought her. And now that I have the credits to do so, I'm used to the name and the black, so why bother. Besides, the Cauldron and I have built a reputation, of sorts. Together, we have a reputation for luck. Actually, we make our own luck. I'm not much of a pilot, but the Cauldron is one heck of a ship. Her AI is as smart as some hotshot pilots I know. I, on the other hand, have intuition. A feeling, now and then, that has kept us out of more trouble than I care to add up. Some spacers call that witchcraft. I don't.

The hard wood-like plastique barroom floor must have been sound absorbing, because, if I focused, I could hear different conversations from different tables. Now, I only speak 20 or so dialects, all of them poorly, but it's fun to eavesdrop on the clicks, chirps, growls and groans to hear what the general gist is: "Now what does he have tonight"... "That crazy fool is going to blow us up like he did his lab last month."..."The absent minded professor always has something of interest"..."Remember when he..." Everybody seemed to be focusing on the corner of the bar where Doctor Camfortt was untying a plastic-wrapped box about the size of a spacer's helmet.

The doctor carefully pulled the thing out of the box and placed it gently on the bar. It looked like a blob of chewing gum with buttons pushed into it. One of the customers chittered, "I hope he doesn't tie us all up again like he did that guy that went off with the girl rock and roll band." Doc simply ignored them, or perhaps didn't hear them. He is really an absent minded old fool of a genius.

He pushed several buttons and the thing started inflating. He lifted the plastic wrap the rest of the way off and disclosed a replica of some kind of a shaggy four-legged creature with long floppy ears and a wagging appendage it's other end. It emitted "ruff - ruff ruff" from its mouth.

"This toy is a virtual pet." Doctor Camfortt announced. "He is man's best friend." Doctor Camfortt put the machine through its functions: sit, fetch, heel, lie down, roll over, stay. I just couldn't see what the point of the machine was.

The rest of the room, for the most part, lost interest quickly. One yellow and black striped furred alien, an ambassador of considerable power and influence, crossed the room toward the virtual pet. As he approached Doctor Camfortt, the fur on his back and neck stood straight out. "I don't know what it isssss about that robot, but I am fasssssinated by it.", he purred. "My litter and heirssss live far away and I would like to ssssend them such a toy as thissss." Doctor Camfortt, always generous, always foolish, always tenderhearted, held it out the Kzin and said, "My gift to you and your small ones."

The Kzin took the virtual toy with many thanks and walked over to my table. "Tabatha" he said to me. "Pleassssse to let me ssssit with you." "Be my guest.", I responded, being careful not to imitate the drawn out "sss" of his racial accent.. As I sipped my tea and he lapped his creamy drink, we set down to business.

"I have a slight commissssssion for you, if you care to acc(sss)ept it. I would like you to carry thissss item to my home and pressssent it to my mate to gift my heirssss." I always like doing business with the Kzin. They are honest, straight-forward, reliable businessbeings, unless you don't honor a contract or threaten their offspring. Then they eat you. Since this looked like a piece of cake job, I didn't hesitate. The credits he offered would keep me in fuel for many a parsec and as I had a month before my next commission was scheduled. I took the job.

As I cleared the space port, the virtual pet strapped into the copilot's chair, my live pet and partner, Furball, came out of his planet quarantine hold and hopped into his basket beside the copilot chair. "Meow!" he greeted me. I opened my mouth to say "Hi kitty" when suddenly the virtual pet started yapping "ruff, ruff, ruff" and jumped up and lunged toward Furball's basket. Only the restraint harness saved Furball the indignity of being trounced upon. The virtual pet somehow squirmed free of the harness (Doctor Camfortt does make intelligent robots) and jumped toward Furball. The kitty ran up the copilot's seat, jumped into the galley and ran round and round the room, virtual pet at his heals. Kitty fur flying like leaves in a tornado pushed by the air circulation.

Although cats have been partnered with space faring earth humans since space travel began, there are some things you may not know about cats. One thing is, when they are frightened, they loose hair. Not all of it, but enough to cover every inch of a cabin. In freefall it can clog everything environmental tanks, sewage, food production tanks.. So, before I went another parsec, I put Furball back in his planet quarantine hold, added a mild sophoric to his air, and plugged in the environmental cleaner and programmed it to up every hair Furball had shed.

While my cleanbot, which I call R2dir-T, was meticulously cleaning, I had some time to think, and I got this feeling. Intuition. I remembered reading about cats when Furball was a kitten. There had been a mention of something called a 'dog.' I now went to my computer and started a search for 'dog.' What I learned was fascinating. ' Dog' was exactly what the virtual pet looked and acted like. Although they were, for the most part, banned from known space, due to biting and something called fleas, they had been called, long ago, 'man's best friend'. As I read farther, I discovered their relationship with cats was not always congenial. Ah-ha!

I immediately changed course back to Bethdish and hightailed it back as quickly as the Cauldron is capable. As soon as we landed, I boxed the virtual pet and took it back to Doctor Camfortt. I explained to him what I had learned about his virtual pet. Doctor Camfortt was dismayed. He went back to his lab and quickly made some modifications to the robot and off I zipped to the Kzin's home world and delivered the modified virtual pet.

Next time I happened to be at the Mare Inebrium, as Trixie served me my herbal tea, she told me about the Kzin's heirs satisfaction in the virtual toy. I chuckled and confided to her about Doctor Camfortt's modifications to the virtual pet: grey hair, pink nose, beady pink eyes, tail like tiny piece of cable, and the "ruff, ruff, ruff" changed to "squeak, squeak." Yep, a virtual mouse!


Copyright 1999 By Linda Kelly

To reach me, pleas email me at my favorite Email address:

Bio: I'm a 50 year old lady who works as a chemical dependency counselor. I live in Black Diamond, a village in the country outside of Seattle, WA. Besides being an avid Sci-fi reader, I enjoy playing with my grandchildren. My four year old granddaughter and I recently took a 2,000 mile road trip to California, but that's another story!

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