There was an old painting in my grandparents’ attic. Neither beautiful nor ugly, it simply depicted an empty room with no figures, an old living room with an armchair, library, and fireplace... [+]
By morning, the dog's fallen silent, surveying James with his one good eye as he licks his master's chin.
"What is it, feller?" James asks, his legs, cold and cramped from his night on the civic exercise track. Gone are the benches and shop doorways he remembers from his childhood. No room for such luxuries in the city anymore.
The dog licks his chin a second time, whimpering softly.
"Have you got the scent?" James asks, taking a third lick as an indisputable yes. "Attaboy. Off we go then."
The City Nature Garden isn't quite as grand as its name suggests: a token strip of land sandwiched between the high-rise school and the private hospital. It's wild and scrubby and overrun by rats, just like everywhere else. But there's grass and trees—proper living ones with real leaves—and the rare butterflies flitting across the buttercups are more beautiful than any of the medicinal artwork adorning the hospital behind. The dog's in his element now, bounding off through the tangled undergrowth with another mad round of barking. Either that's a rat he's caught, or the scent of treasure.
It's hard, curious work digging without a spade. Who knew there were so many creatures lurking under the soil? But James is nothing if not determined. By early afternoon there are seventeen holes dotted across the Nature Garden, and seventeen matching towers of earth. The little birds are having a field day, pecking out worms as if they're going out of fashion. There's still no sign of the promised treasure, though.
"Come on boy," says James. "It must be here somewhere."
Unless this is Some Bright Spark's idea of a joke . . .
The dog barks and wags its stump, pawing at the ground with his single front leg—no easy feat, even for a canine wonderbeast like him.
By five o'clock there are twenty-six holes. James is tiring now. Hunger crouches sniper-like in his stomach, firing pangs up through his belly with increasing regularity. He and the dog haven't eaten all day.
"Perhaps we should give it a rest for now, boy," he suggests. "Try again tomorrow."
The dog growls.
"But I'm hungry," argues James. "Aren't you hungry, boy?" His thoughts turn briefly to the spiced tomato soup at the underground shift shelter; to the comfort of a white-sheeted bed drawer. And then he remembers handing over all his credits to Some Bright Spark in return for the dog. But what a dog he is, treasure or no treasure. What a beast.
"Okay, boy. Last try. This is the big one, eh?"
The dog barks, and James musters up what's left of his strength, tearing up another rough clump of grass and digging down into the warm soil beneath.
"How much farther, do you think?" he asks, eyeing the fresh tower of earth next to his knees. But the dog just barks. And barks.
By the time James's nails snag on something hard and solid, the dog's barking so loud he's fit to burst.
The treasure—when James finally works it free—isn't exactly what he had in mind. He was hoping for a wooden pirate chest like the one in Treasure Island, his all-time favourite upload at the city library. He was hoping for rusted metal hinges and a whiff of the ocean—the old, wild ocean that is, not the poor tamed beast trickling through the Energy Board's complex tunnel system. He was hoping for a glittering gold hoard. But the dog doesn't care, and why would he? Treasure is treasure. He wags his stump and howls, drool dribbling off the end of his beard like liquid happiness.
"Well done, boy," says Crazy James, holding up their muddied find to show him. "We did it." He wipes the soil off on his trousers and examines the phone more closely. It's like something out of End of an Era, his second favourite library upload of all time. He especially likes the bit at the end where everyone wakes up from staring at their little screens and realises what they've been missing out on. Phones have been gone a good fifty years now in real life, melted down to use in early air processing units and medical equipment. Which is why collectors will pay good money for such a well-preserved one as this.
"We're rich, boy," says James, holding it up to his ear like they do in the film. Rich enough for a whole month's sleeping credits at the underground shift shelter. Full-day shifts, even, if he wants them. Rich enough to buy that cat Some Bright Spark was telling him about. The one that picks the winning lottery numbers.