We didn’t stick around long enough to meet the aliens, but our dogs did.
We’d been domesticating them the old fashioned way for about ten thousand years when we discovered how to cut our way into a genome and edit it. We never learned to do it very gracefully, not like the Karthu or the Barrasi – we blew ourselves up before we could do anything really elegant with DNA. But with a combination of focused breeding and trial-and-error gene editing, we yanked around the canine genome in the right directions. By the early 22nd century, we had ourselves the Dog.
The first Dogs were only a little smarter than their unmodified siblings, but they could speak, a little. We transplanted some genes wholesale, tweaked some transcription factors, and eventually stumbled upon a commercially viable modification that allowed the Dog to speak, meaningfully putting together nouns and verbs. It was wildly controversial, and instantly popular. Pet ownership became less stressful when you could explain things to your puppy while potty training her, instead of relying solely on the traditional set of reinforcements. Your dog could describe to a vet where a pain was, even though they weren’t very precise with it – they weren’t all that good at labeling parts of their bodies. And it was nice, too, to have my Dog Anders come into my room every night and sleepily murmur love you, love you as I scratched his belly.
It wasn't so long before they started making Dogs that were smarter as well. One time the breeder who’d sold us Anders came to my parents’ villa and gave him some kind of test, matching words to concepts and moving blocks around and so forth. Anders was wonderful and clever, so of course they took him away for a few days for breeding purposes. He was so smug when he got back. I met his puppies the same year – the mother, a Malinois Dog, nosed at me cautiously before letting me in to see her litter – puppies as dark as she was with Anders’ ears. They were whimpering words at me already – ‘milk’ and 'good’ and 'mama’ and 'puppy’. They hadn’t even been weaned. Anders and Lilly were the smartest, most articulate Dogs of their respective litters, so it made sense that the babies were already talking.
Anders died when I was in middle school. My conservative parents, who I suspect never truly thought of Anders as a person, were relatively unaffected – I struggled through my grief alone, and it took me years to get over his passing. It wasn't until I started college that I opened up to adopting again, and got Vasanti.
Vasanti was a two-year-old golden retriever rescue whose human advocate was trying to get her last owner imprisoned for his treatment of her. I swear Vasanti could have spoken to the lawyers herself – she was an incredibly smart Dog, highly modified, very expensive. Like all Dogs, she couldn’t read – but unlike most Dogs, she had a patience – in fact, a love – for audiobooks. After I got back home from class or work, I’d make myself dinner (Vasanti fed herself, of course – I left her food in an unlocked pantry, and for most part she was responsible with her freedom) and settle down with my arms around her, listening to 20th century naval histories, which Vasanti really loved for some reason. Then we’d go for a run together: me throwing a tennis ball, her bounding ahead and wagging her big golden tail so hard that our neighbor told us she never had to sweep her driveway…
I’m getting to our extinction and the aliens, I promise. Vasanti was with me when the world ended. She was ten, a fourth of a way through her life, just like I thought I was. They’d made a series of advances on extending the Dog lifespan in the decade Vasanti was born, and Vasanti lived to be forty two, which is close to the median lifespan of Dogs now. We'd talked about death every now and then, grappling with the fact that I'd outlive her. Vasanti would get so distressed – not at the thought of dying, but at the thought of my grief when she left me. I'd been honest with her about how much losing Anders had hurt – and that I loved her more than I'd loved Anders. As it turns out, I never had to live without her. I went first.
Near the end, we'd watch the news together in my parents' home. The bombs were so powerful, neither of us had the capacity to really understand the death toll. We'd read the numbers out loud, slowly, trying to really understand what the extra zeroes meant. Every bomb sent second-order shockwaves throughout the human world – famines, tsunamis, massive grid shutdowns... the bad news came so fast and heavy that we grew numb to it. War was a thing of history textbooks, to me and Vasanti. We didn't know whether to run, where to run, how to think, or how to prepare for the ugly death of everything.
My province wasn’t bombed, but we ran out of food soon enough. We didn’t have a very strong agricultural base, and soon there were no more ships or trucks coming in to bring grain and frozen meat, and take away the computer parts and the refined rare metals that were our main export. People started to eat rats and dogs, and eventually, Dogs and each other.
I wasn’t around for that. I died before it got really bad, when people broke into our villa searching for food we didn’t have. I was fleeing up the stairs with Vasanti when someone fired into the air – I don’t think they meant to hit anyone, but it gashed my shoulder. It wasn't a serious wound – I remember being relieved when I first examined the damage. But there was no medicine left, after the looting. And no clean water to wash with.
I expired quietly, like billions of my species that dark year. It took only a few weeks. Vasanti fetched drinking water and more bandages for me in stricken refusal, her usually articulate-sentences breaking down in grief, and for the first time in my life I wished she were one of the thousands of ordinary dogs running around the city, not understanding the magnitude of what had happened. She would not obey me and leave for safer places while I was alive, so I desperately wished for death. I could not kill myself either, because that would break her heart. I wanted my last words to be that she was good, and that I loved her, so that was all I babbled in the last fevered days. And then I went – your poor stupid narrator, who did nothing notable or good in her life except love her Dogs, and relate this love to you.
Vasanti howled herself hoarse when I died, and guarded my body for some days before finally running to the rural west, like I'd advised her. It was easier to find food there, and soon she joined a pack of Dogs who’d had the same idea. Some of them had brought their owners with them, but they were soft, and slow, and hard to support. The Dogs never abandoned them, even as they dwindled in health and number. Some of the humans tried to go back to the cities, unable to stand life in the wilderness – but the cities were death.
The Dogs, though, thrived. Vasanti gave birth to three litters in her lifetime. They wandered further and further west, meeting more Dog packs and swapping members – both out of instinct, and because some of the Dogs explicitly remembered that maintaining genetic diversity was important. They rarely bred with normal dogs, or with wolves – the Dogs quickly developed their own taboos about that. So packs with members of mating age were often itinerant, searching for neighbors they could talk, trade, and mate with.
Three hundred years later, the last human died in what used to be Chile, without fanfare. By then the number of Dogs in the world had far surpassed minimum viable population for their species – there were hundreds of thousands of Dogs in every continent, who used the functional remnants of human technology to communicate and cooperate. They couldn’t fly planes or revive our power plants, but they used radio, and our old highways for fast transport. Young Dogs often formed packs to visit decaying human cities, to marvel at the size of the buildings, the appearance of statues in city squares, and the smell of the decaying automobiles.
No human individual was remembered, by then. It was not their fault – we had not bred them for their generational memory. They came up with songs and oral histories, but passed them on without great consistency. Vasanti told all her children about me, how good and brilliant she'd thought I was, but they’d never met me and passed on quite distorted stories to their children, if they remembered to do so. Soon enough those stories just became part of one story, one shared memory of Man, who had left them and the cities that smelled of metal and concrete. They knew that they were different in some fundamental way from the other animals, that it had been Man who had made them that way, to be less alone in existing.
The first aliens came by in what would have been 4108, A.D., by the calendar most of us were using when we died out. There was no such thing as a domesticated dog, by then – only wolves (some of them the descendants of your household terrier or shih tzu), and Dogs. The aliens landed not so far from the ruins of my home, gawking at long-dead Beijing and taking excited notes. There were four different species represented among them – the tentacled Karthu and the methane-eating Has'ss were in suits, but the Tesidians and Imm didn’t need them. The local Dogs caught their scent and investigated, and were investigated back. Within a few weeks the aliens had enough information to start translating.
Who built these dams? These nuclear reactors? The satellites in your sky? they asked.
Those? They were made by Man, the Dogs told them. But we do not use them.
Where are they now?
Gone – long gone.
What were they like?
They were clever and brave; they gave us speech so they could understand and love us better.
The aliens took samples of Dog saliva and fur, and took them away to check for traces of artificial modification. They found our fingerprints everywhere, of course, and came back with more questions. We don’t understand, they said. These ruins tell one story about Man: that they were powerful but crude, that they were hobbled by their inability to leash their own growth, that they were not intelligent enough to save themselves from their own excesses. We have seen the traces of species like them before, and no one who remembers them does so fondly. They flourish like a cancer and abruptly deflate, leaving gaudy shells like this stadium, or that skyscraper.
But they loved us, the Dogs said. We do not remember the complexities of the events that led to their disappearance, but we know that they did their best to stop it. We know they were trying to be good, even when it was hard.
While the Dog elders argued with the aliens about their disappeared creators, a bold young Dog named Yeng cautiously approached one of aliens looking out at the forest. Like most Dogs in this area, she had a little bit of my Vasanti in her, and you could see it in the shape of her muzzle and the long sweep of her tail. She was only four years old, recently an adult in her pack. Something about the sleek-skinned, bipedal Imm and the shape of its limbs caught at an obsolete but non-vestigial instinct of hers. She went up to the Imm, even though none of her peers had dared her, and asked for its name.
The Imm did not need a machine to speak; its flexible, bifurcated trachea allowed it to make a wide range of noises, including those used by the Dogs. “Rofiu,” it said.
Yeng liked that name – it was one she could bark out excitedly. “Rofiu! I am Yeng. You come from the stars! Isn’t it dark out there?”
“Hardly,” said Rofiu. “In fact, it’s aglow with with electromagnetic radiation at all times. It has the brightest suns and the best nebulae and the richest mysteries.”
“Is there anything to chase?” Yeng wanted to know.
Rofiu didn’t quite understand Yeng’s question, but tried to answer well anyway. “Lots! The past, of course: different translations of an important book, a blueprint for an old technology, a fossil in amber, a preserved hard drive…”
Yeng was impressed by this list of strange new things to chase. “Are you a great hunter?”
Rofiu seemed puzzled by this question and queried its translator several times before coming up with an answer. “No. I am an intern in this astroarchaeology mission.”
“What is an intern? What is astroarchaeology?” Yeng wanted to know, so Rofiu sat down and started explaining to her, and remained unfazed when Yeng, after a while, stretched out over its bent lower limbs and started wagging her tail as they spoke. When Rofiu returned to the ship for its meal, Yeng waited outside until it returned, and they roamed around the forest for hours that night, talking to each other about the history of their respective species.
When the aliens finished their investigation and left three months later, Yeng went with them. I don’t know what she saw and did out there, in a wider universe than I ever saw, but when the ship returned in a decade she was part of the crew, inseparable from Rofiu and its spore-mates.
Three more Dogs left with the ship this time, and when it came back in another ten years, there were several dozen new Dogs on it, many of whom stepped onto Earth and decided it suited them better. Almost none of Yeng’s children, though. Yeng’s children loved the warm hum of the alien ships, the glow of new suns, and the thrill of sighting alien squirrels in other galaxies, even if they were implored by their friends not to eat them. And soon, every time a ship landed on Earth, there were always a number of Dogs getting on or off.
The Dogs never built their own ships, but they became a staple of the intergalactic society anyway. The Dogs bonded to certain species more than others – often to the bipedal, warm-blooded Imm, sometimes to the laconic, tactile Tesidians, and occasionally to the brilliant, small, stubby-limbed Barrasi, who sometimes rode the Dogs they bonded with.
With such good friends, the Dogs don’t think about us as often nowadays. They’re busy with new stories and new forests. But their brains still remember. When Dogs see footage of us that the aliens helped reconstruct, they start wagging their tails and trotting forward, wanting to say hello.
In another ten thousand years, that memory may be gone. No one’s actively re-domesticating the Dogs anymore, but there are new selection gradients in place: Dogs who bond with Barrasi tend to breed with other Dogs who are bonded to Barrasi, and the Imm-Dogs with other dogs in Imm ships, and so on. In a few millennia, the Dogs will be prickling their ears for a different set of scents and noises, and might not react instinctively to bipeds of a certain shape at all. But even so, Dogs are proud of where they came from, and enjoy answering questions about their origins and ancestry. Every weaned puppy knows the story of how we bred them, loved them, and disappeared before we could meet the Barrasi or the Imm.
I am glad to be remembered through our Dogs. It is a better portrait than we could have painted for ourselves, with our cruel, irradiated ruins. Most aliens, not being scholars of old Earth history, take a Dog at her word when she says of us that we were brave and clever and kind. Why would they not, when the claimant is the embodiment of these virtues – with her keen nose and lolling tongue and intelligent eyes turned eagerly towards the stars?