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Art by Melissa Mead

Dharma Dog and Dogma

Steve Mathes has always been too philosophical for his own good, and also has a soft spot for dogs. Steve's fiction has appeared in various science fiction publications, most recently in Flash Fiction Online. He has also published a couple of articles in computer magazines such as Linux Journal.
The door crashes open, shattered by a kicking black boot. The police have cloaking devices, noise cancellation, robots, battering rams, and computerized lock picks--technology. The big black jackboots? Awkward, but what a retro statement. A full fire team of Forces of Order and Security thunders into the apartment, all wearing the boots, their weapons and voices raised, until they see Dobbin brandishing his own classic piece of drama. His thumb presses a big red button.
"Stop!" he says with a grin.
The troops freeze. He sits on an oddly shaped chair, one leg over the arm like a bored monarch. His big German shepherd, Chuck, sits next to him. It stays when commanded to do so--even when someone breaks the door--but the police dog is another classic piece of drama. A part of their vernacular. The dog scares the hell out of the jackboots.
"The button's sensitive," Dobbin says. "It triggers when I release it. It also triggers if I push too hard. I wouldn't try any funny business."
"You don't have to do this," says the sergeant.
The nervous Chuck nudges Dobbin's trigger hand with its nose, wanting reassurance. Dobbin obliges by reaching across with his free hand and scratching its ear. He fears that his dog understands more than these intruders.
"If you kill me, I have to release the button. Our bomb loses the signal. Boom. If you use the neural gun, my hand cramps up. Button goes down. Again, our bomb loses the signal. Same kind of boom. It's pretty simple."
Someone new enters, someone with the same boots, the same black unitard, but with perky red epaulets and a riding crop. Really. A riding crop. He walks with the calm tension of authority, an officer, until he sees Chuck. The huge dog complicates.
"I'm Steve Potts," the officer says. "I'll be your negotiator."
The riding crop is not part of the uniform. Only a ranking Party member could carry something as flashy as that. And his eyes keep glancing nervously at the dog.
"Hi, Potts! Love the outfit."
"Can we talk about your demands?" says Potts.
They know they need to be straightforward with Dobbin, and that's nice, but he has no demands. He never did. All he ever wanted was to make the world better, make people better, make himself better. He finds it difficult to keep a straight face, faced with those red epaulets. Floorboards creak under the weight of those boots.
"Demands? Gee, let me think," Dobbin finally says.
He tries to imagine what he will be like after he releases the button. Already, his pressing thumb has started to hurt--one of those psychological things like an itchy nose when you need a free hand. Come to think, his nose could use a scratch, too.
He wrote the encryption hash that keeps the peace between his button and the nirvana bomb. They could maybe hijack this authentication stream, but that would take a lot longer than anybody has in the here-and-now. Maybe explaining this to Potts would be entertaining, but from the man's look, the explanation would be redundant.
They all understand that one mistake will hasten the ending.
"We've made some arrangements," Potts says. "One of your fellow cultists is coming up to chat with you?"
"Cultists?"
"Someone who once knew you well. Debbie China?"
They need to stall, to think of something, so they send Debbie; Dobbin will play along. He smirks and points between his legs.
"I'm sitting on it," he says. "It's the chair, the bomb is this chair, in case you were wondering."
"Miss China would like to talk to you."
"Do I hear the building being evacuated?" Dobbin says. "Is this just a ploy to get people out of the building? That would be a waste."
"Why is that?" says Potts.
"Because the bomb's effective range is about a kilometer."
Soon the view in the distance is filled with even more activity. That makes it better. This standoff needed a time limit anyway. The Security and Order Party needs to fulfill its mission with a minimum of disorder but with maximum haste. This flurry of hidden agendas and evacuation is enough to force events. Furthermore: Dobbin's thumb really is getting sore.
The dog nudges again, and it causes Potts to flinch. Dobbin has neglected his scratching duties.
"Look, I hope you won't take this amiss, but I need to move this detonator to my other hand. No need to panic. I don't want to set anything off just yet."
He watches their eyes. They gape at his hands with a combination of fear and calculation. He knows they must have a hundred ways to sieze control of that button. Oh yes, they must have a standard plan for big red buttons. Just one disadvantage of cliche, it fits in the category of predictability. He needs to keep the situation fluid. He needs to keep things moving fast. He needs to challenge the traffic passing through the chain of command.
He slides his thumb half-off the red button, puts the other next to it. He switches hands. It goes smoothly until he thinks he has it, then he trembles, fumbles a little. The detonator almost gets loose, he grabs too hard, pushes the button maybe too hard; he braces for the detonation. Nothing happens, but they all duck.
"Whew!" he says. "Sorry about that!"
Someone whimpers. Still too early for a good yield from the bomb. People who want nirvana want to know that it comes.
There seems to be a delay in these negotiations. Where's Debbie? He adores Debbie China, the sweet woman so close to enlightenment. At least now he can scratch the dog without the discomfort of reaching across himself.
Potts clears his throat.
"If you don't mind my asking, what would have happened if the detonator had slipped too far?" Potts says.
Dobbin wonders. Is it part of the negotiation protocol? To ask a question in that vein, that nervously? Somehow he doubts it. Still, it entertains him to answer.
"It's a bomb, dude! It explodes!" he chirps. "Enlightenment in a flash!"
"Killing people."
"Not necessarily. Not even mostly! You'll love the feature that no property is destroyed. Beyond that, I don't understand what happens, really. You'd have to ask at the monastery. Oops, I mean at the cult headquarters! It's not really like the blast happens on this plane of the Universe. Granted, some people vanish, although not enough of them. Take Debbie for example."
He brings her up in the conversation because, yes, the troopers are now doing the same in a more physical way. Bringing her up. The front steps, just outside the window. He waits for her to come up. He gestures as she is led into the room.
"Here she is," he says. "What a treat. Now you can ask her how it usually works."
Chuck the dog recognizes her, gives a little whimper-yelp of welcome, trembling because he has not been released from his sit. She approaches to scratch him, looks at the detonator and backs away nervously. Order and Security would frown, perhaps, on the petting of terrorist dogs. The terrorist dog groans his disappointment.
"Is it okay if Miss China sits?" Potts asks.
Poor Debbie does not quite appear happy to be here. Dobbin stops scratching Chuck just long enough to make a gesture for her to sit. She opts to keep standing. And frowning.
"Why?" she says. "Why? Don't you even care about people's souls? And why are you putting the dog in danger?"
Dobbin shrugs. He swirls the the red button in a little flourish.
"Of course I care. We disagree some about what that means. Details. Can't we just agree to disagree?" he says.
"Salvation without consent? Salvation without effort?" she says. "Those are two ways I can't agree to disagree. And poor Chuck."
"Yet, you're here."
Potts has taken to slapping his riding crop into his palm, like the bad guy in some movie. The fire team still has weapons trained on Dobbin, still looks ready to open fire, although their faces have begun to sag from fatigue. Even fascists sag.
"And yet," Dobbin repeats as he smells a rat, "you're here..."
"Caught in the middle..." she says.
The slap of the crop changes as Potts begins using it against his thigh. He looks like he wants to bring himself to a gallop. Chuck groans again, still hoping to visit Debbie. Potts eyes the dog and puts his free hand on the handle of his sidearm.
But at least Dobbin feels better. His thumb has gotten used to pressing the button at the right pressure. He feels he could hold it that way forever.
"What would happen?" Potts asks Debbie. "What would this bomb do?"
Party members should not ask, let alone know. No way this fits into standard negotiation. Dobbin feels a flush of pleasure to think about this new downward spiral toward negotiation chaos.
"Yes," he says. "Tell us what happens with these bombs, Deb."
She looks from Potts to Dobbin, exasperated.
"The ones capable of living without fear, greed or pain? The ones capable of enlightenment? They go straight to Bliss. To Heaven. But they go unworthy, having sacrificed little. And the others? They live on, never seeing the here and now, incapable, but they live knowing they're incapable. They're given the curse of knowledge."
The black booted troops curl their lips in contempt. The Party officially refuses to believe in enlightenment. Potts winces with official distaste. Yet right now they tolerate this irrational prattle. Why? Why do they stall? The evacuation? Everyone in a radius of a kilometer? That will take hours!
Chuck nudges again. As Dobbin remembers to scratch, his fingers feel like hardening epoxy. He takes stock of his other hand. He flexes his pinky. It moves but only with great effort. No wonder he holds the button so steady. The stiffness feels unnatural.
Oh, those tricksters! Some new, improved neural gun? Freezing his hand?
He notes that not-so-poker-faced Potts has watched the pinky move with great interest. The implications of who knows what--unfold. Everyone knows the end game approaches. How much time until the thumb on the button refuses to budge? Dobbin hopes for more time. Finishing this in a panic would violate the wonder and spirit of this holy moment!
"If unworthies get into Heaven, what's that say about God?" he asks.
"God makes no mistakes, but we do," Debbie says. "All actions are part of his design, including consequences when we mess up."
"Whatever that means," Dobbin laughs. "Potts, here, will try to tell you that it's all bunk!"
Dobbin glances around at the faces of the troops. He doubts the bomb will save any of their jaded, smirking souls. Still, inside the blast radius will be some pious ones. They need time to hear the news, prepare for possible nirvana. They will hide, hope to be in the blast, rather than be evacuated.
Just a minute or two more.
"Everyone wants an easy way," he says to Debbie. "If I suffer but they win Heaven, so be it!"
"You'll be stuck knowing you're incapable," she answers.
"And you?"
"Just like me. I'm incapable."
She looks so sad, he knows she already knows something. The bomb on the West Coast? She must have been there? She must have failed?
And now. Here. His hand barely works through the hair behind Chuck's ear. The paralysis creeps into him. Yet he can speak just fine.
Time has always been his problem.
"I'm afraid it's time," he announces.
He waits a moment, to savor their wincing and ducking. He feels a smile bloom through his paralysis. But he waits too long! He tries to release the button. Nothing. His finger refuses to budge. He presses down. Still nothing. Completely locked up. The new, improved neural gun must have a focus function, must be aimed right at his trigger finger!
Tricksters indeed.
"Let's end this charade," Potts says contemptuously.
But he makes a mistake. He grabs Debbie a little roughly, so that she cries out in a little pain. She plants her feet, and Potts pulls. A struggle. Chuck takes issue, starting with a subsonic growl that quickly builds into a roaring bark.
Potts fears the dog enough already.
Dobbin, cornered enough already: he sees no other option. He hopes for a distraction, not really thinking about consequences. His current predicament proves his neglect with consequences.
"Go!" he says.
Chuck leaps straight from a sitting position. He leaps right at Potts. But Potts already has his sidearm out.
The sidearm blasts three shots. Chuck screams and falls on his side and twitches. His paws scratch at the floor, pathetic and weakening.
"Can a dog be enlightened?" Potts says in mockery.
Dobbin is stoked with adrenalin, trembling all over. He sucks a loud, outraged breath, yells in rage, feels the reflex of his hands as they clench. Just enough.
Just enough to press the red button.
The world goes out in a blinding flash, and when he can see again? The others are on the floor, all struggling to stand, including the dog. The sound of scrambling, everywhere.
The dog is the first to get to its feet.
"Woof!" it says.
And it vanishes with a loud pop. Nothing remains but a small pool of blood. No other sign of dog remains.
Nobody has missed this. Two men from the fireteam stagger up, still staring at the empty spot over the blood. The room has returned to a place where the only sound is the creaking of the floor. One trooper scratches his head and looks at the other.
"Wait," he says. "I think I get it!"
Pop! He vanishes.
"Woof!" says the other with a giggle.
Pop! Pop! Pop! People in the room vanish until only Debbie, Potts, and Dobbin remain. Outside the window survivors stagger around, calling to each other, suddenly, powerlessly insightful.
Dobbin, too, finds himself in possession of self-knowledge. Hence, his mind concerns itself with the Road to Hell and good intentions--although to his credit he has already come to terms with the notion of consequence. He lets out his breath, sadly.
Instead of securing his sidearm, Potts hefts it to check its load, then trains it on Dobbin's chest.
"I am what I am," Potts mutters.
He shoots. Just once. Then he holsters the weapon, pulls Debbie to her feet, and drags her out of the apartment.
Dobbin, still in his chair, feels the weakness spread through his being, feels the wet of his own blood gush over his front. Alone with himself, he wishes he could fight through the fog. He wishes his last wish, which even he knows are really only his last words.
"Woof!" he says too late.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 7th, 2011


The inspiration for this story came from a Zen koan from Jack Kerouac (a takeoff on the original from Zhaozhou): The student asks: "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" The monk replies: "Woof!"

- Steven Mathes

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