This is one of a collection of stories that are like “Final Destination” meets “The Monkey’s Paw” (W. W. Jacobs, 1902). As such, they are tragedies more than either mysteries or horror, and would appeal most to readers who enjoy the inexorable pull of a story arc that leads to doom. In each story, a protagonist makes a wish that comes true with fatal results for someone, often the person making the wish. Nothing supernatural, but just how things work out. (Or is it?) The technical details surrounding the fatal (or near-fatal) event are drawn from real cases in the US OSHA incident report database or similar sources and are therefore entirely realistic, even if seemingly outlandish. The plots draw lightly from cultural beliefs around actions such as pointing at someone with a stick or knife, wishing in front of a mirror, or stepping on a crack.
Arlo was a Siberian Husky service dog. He had received genetic treatment as a newly fertilized egg cell, and as a puppy had been fitted with neural implants. These modifications increased his general intelligence and the ability to understand concepts like road rules, traffic signs, and short, simple, written instructions. His job was to deliver medical supplies and materials around the campus and in surrounding suburbs. The need for transporter service dogs was driven by the increased priority to maintain distancing between humans, their ability to cover greater distances and quicker than wheeled robots, and the fact that drones had proven to be unrelentingly noisy. When genetic engineering, materials science, and bioelectronics had produced dogs that could read, a new service industry was born.
Steve Valeika, DVM, PhD was the veterinarian in charge of training, monitoring, and providing care for the 24 Huskies in the program. Steve was energetic and loved the outdoors and hiking, which was good, because Huskies are, at the very least, energetic. Having two dozen of them was a joy, but they tired him out. Their moods ranged from playful to histrionic to full-on lightning bolt. Since taking on this program, Steve had gone from trim to thin, but he had to admit that as vet jobs went, this was just amazing. The boost in the dog’s abilities and intelligence brought out the peak dork in Steve, and he made a valiant effort to tell the pack “Dad jokes” from his endless supply. It was usually futile, and the dogs were just so serious about the jokes that it made it all so much funnier. The Huskies understood humor, but their taste in jokes ran towards hiding stuff from him, eating his lunch, and pretending the receptionist took it, and their favorite, running away with his instruments. The only food they would never steal from him was anything with mushrooms. Steve loved mushrooms, but the Huskies all thought those dishes smelled like wet dog, and why, they reasoned, would anyone want to eat anything that smelled like an old, wet dog? Arlo’s ancestral memory suggested to him that maybe mushrooms were like eating grass, and that Steve ate them because he wanted to vomit. The other dogs agreed on this point, but some suggested that maybe Steve just liked vomiting.
The program was running well so far, but Steve had identified three behavior elements that remained problematic. The first was that there was no way to prevent the dogs from stopping to sniff things and getting petted by the staff, who just adored the big playful Huskies. They also sometimes stopped to pee on things. The dogs were usually quite accepting of the new “No Pee” signs at places where it would be problematic, and given that a Husky service dog could trot 8 hours a day at 15 miles an hour, the occasional pee stop seemed trivial.
Steve functioned as a participant observer, doing a form of dog ethnography, and had noted the emergence of what he had termed a “super pack.” He had drawn groans from his family and blank stares from the dogs when he had cracked a joke about a “Husky SuperPAC” that was raising money for more bones and fewer cats. The thing that worried Steve was how the software geeks kept adding “little tweaks,” often in response to some input from the client. He argued with them that there was no such thing as a “small tweak” when you were dealing with a complex adaptive system on top of another one. Each Husky was in itself an adaptive system, and each operated as a functional component of a pack that was a meta-adaptive meta-complex system. A recent “little tweak” had resulted in a large shift in what Steve wrote as “emergent pack synchrony.” The Huskies were doing things in a more synchronized way that he didn’t understand. For example, they might be milling about as usual before feeding time, and suddenly they would all fluidly face in the same direction or vocalize in the same way. Yesterday evening after feeding, for instance, they had fluidly formed a perfectly spaced circle around him, all 24 dogs, and had all stared at him and vocalized a long, low, groan. It had been a freaky experience, and he had absolutely no idea what it meant or why they had done it.
To do their job, the dogs were uniformed and wore bright green lightweight high-visibility jackets that identified them as staff members. The jackets had each dog’s identity number and bold lettering that said “Hi Human, I’m not stray, I’m working.” The jackets had pouches, a universal attachment system for cargo, and a rickshaw connector. The dogs either pulled wheeled rickshaw trailers with up to 35 kg of cargo or up to 10 kg in their pouches. For express deliveries of urgent samples or medications, the Huskies could cover round trips of up to 30 miles at 20 mph at a lope. Part of their embedded circuitry included communicators that enabled some degree of inter-dog communication, but which mainly sent data to a control room that tracked the dogs and their missions on a huge, full-wall geographic information system screen.
In response to staff complaints, union demands, and dire warnings from Legal about thefts from staff cars, muggings in the parking garage at night, and clinician burnout, the facility had reluctantly invested in more security, panic alarms for staff, and a Hospital Wellness Program. The CIO increased tech support for security by adding cameras and had integrated panic detection into new smart ID badges. Squeezing the badge chip or waving the card in front of one’s face sent a silent alarm to Security. As an afterthought, IT added an emergency protocol to the service dog’s bionic implants. If the dogs saw suspicious activity, they would alert security, especially if they noticed alarm or violence. The dogs also had a protocol to place themselves between any assailant and victim and make a hostile show to frighten off any would-be attackers.
To address the rising burnout amongst clinical staff, the facility contracted a leading wellness consultancy firm to set up a wellness website, an ensemble of workshops, guides, and videos, and mandatory resilience training. It was a comprehensive program that included resiliency training sessions, management kits, and templates for HR, Legal, and Finance. The consultants emphasized the various benefits of making the resiliency training modules mandatory. For one, they virtually absolved management and the facility from lawsuits related to burnout, and the courses had inbuilt evaluations that made it easier to identify clinicians who were already degraded. Naturally, the firm also furnished HR and Legal with workflow and forms to greatly facilitate the process of separating clinicians that showed signs of burnout. The program was likely to reduce liability and legal costs and make for an improved financial outlook.
Scott Mullin, PhD, was a somewhat balding man whose enthusiasm for the wellness program that he led was slightly excruciating. Previously a chemical engineer who had been replaced by an AI system, Scott was making sure that he kept this job as long as possible. He wasn’t oblivious to the way facilities sometimes adopted a wellness program rather than remove or reduce work stressors, but he liked to put a happy face on things. His motto was that having a toxic workplace plus a wellness program was better than having a toxic workplace without one. Scott was decidedly a mug half full kind of guy, even if that meant constantly topping it up. His naturally gregarious nature was a good fit for the role of wellness leader, but on most days, he was assisted by copious cups of coffee, numerous bottles of Diet Coke, and a frequent, surreptitious bar of chocolate. The rate of consumption usually correlated with the degree to which the resiliency training was being used as an alternative to fixing the causes of burnout.
Scott peered over the top of his laptop at one of his facilitators and asked how the afternoon resiliency session had gone. “Bleak” was the cursory response. The causes were pretty commonplace: The facility was grindingly and serially understaffed and was not making enough profit to allow hiring. They just had to “do more with less,” as the CMO kept suggesting. Scott swiveled his brown eyes to where his supper had been. Trying to get the program launch done in as short a time possible, and trying to fit the client staff availability, the wellness team was working 9 AM to 10 PM, which meant eating at the hotel was off and ordering take-out was in. However, his drunken noodles and egg rolls were gone, and Diet Coke and chocolate seemed to be what was for dinner tonight. As part of cost-cutting measures, the hospital canteen closed at 5:00, but sometimes the canteen staff left a few baked potatoes out for the night shift. Tonight was Christmas Eve, and while Scott was still busy doing his part of the final evening of resiliency training, a vascular surgeon who had just done 48 hours on call and five emergency thrombectomies on femoral veins walked by, sniffed out the wafting aroma, and annexed the hot Thai dish they found in an apparently unoccupied office.
Jo Gallegos, MD, was a highly active emergency medicine physician whose 5’2” body whizzed non-stop around the ED. She was the operational equivalent of hyperactive, keenly aware that there was a cascade of patients always waiting on her. Even as her hazel eyes were scanning patient records or peering at readouts on the monitors, her body was never still, and she fidgeted constantly. Tonight was worse than normal because she had let some staff take a few hours off for Christmas Eve, so here she was, supposed to be at the last possible mandatory evening resiliency training session, but there was always another patient or crisis to see to. She sat momentarily reading labs and bouncing a leg. “Where in the hell is the rest of this?” she called out to her team. Hearing that the lab was running behind, she rolled her eyes. “Well, what the hell can you do, it’s Christmas.” She took a hurried swig of Diet Pepsi and scooted to the next patient just as her head nurse reminded her that she was way late for the resiliency training. “This is your last chance, remember!” Jo had been busy each other night, and now it was her last shot at attending. As she headed for the door, a small child with a makeshift bandage on their head leaned forward and threw up spectacularly over Jo’s legs. “Oh, wonderful! … Oh no honey, you are good, don’t cry!” She immediately attended to the 7-year-old girl whose early present of an electric scooter had pitched her headfirst into the garage door.
It was 2 hours and several patients later before she finally sprinted to the office block where the resiliency training was being held, only to find them locking up. Scott was tired, starving, and had done his best for the whole evening to teach the class, maintain an instructional flow, and keep the group activities moving. It was a circus, though; physicians and nurses kept being paged, wandering in, wandering out again, and he lost track of who was in the class and in which break-out group. The attendees were very obviously not interested and only doing the class because it was mandated. Several were doing their own admin work instead of the exercises, two started discussing a medical case, and one suddenly got up, and just walked out. The performance ratings were used to calculate his pay, and every bad rating counted, but walkouts and no-shows were direct pay penalties. To cap it all, one of his facilitators had called in sick, and the other had to quit early because of a hacking cough. The cough got steadily worse through the evening, until one of the physicians took their arm, walked off to the ED with them, and didn’t come back. As he was hauling away his hand trolley piled with his equipment and materials, one of the no-shows arrived and asked if they were too late.
The discussion started with apologies on both sides and smiles, but by the time they got to the parking lot, their voices were louder, tones were strained, and the pitch had climbed substantially. Jo was arguing that this was an HR imposition on patient time, and Scott responded that this was nothing he could address; he was just the wellness coordinator and resiliency instructor. Volume and octaves climbed, gestures became more energetic, and at one point Jo waved her ID card in Scott’s face to make a point about mandated training.
Arlo was loping along toward the lab with bags containing samples when he felt a shift. He halted, tilted his ears, and sniffed. New priority. There was urgency, intrusion, danger, and he could feel the minds of a dozen other dogs who also sensed it. He paused to let out a full-throated howl and heard in his head the matching responses from the others. Rage and excitement welled up in Arlo, and he broke into an urgent gallop, the wind roaring in his ears, his fully-erect mane only kept down by the force of his speed through the crisp air. Arlo felt the others in his mind, all converging, their excitement joining and fusing. He lengthened his stride, the cold dark ground a blur under his claws, fangs bared as he made out his target in the distance ahead. He flew through the brittle darkness, gaining swiftly.
Jo fairly screeched about the whole resiliency training program being a “pile of patriarchal junk,” and Scott met that with a bellow about entitled physicians not caring about anything but themselves. Both had tunnel vision borne of heightened adrenaline, and neither were even remotely aware of several streaks of motion that converged on them with a suddenness that was faster than their visual systems could process. By morning, Scott would have been embarrassed by his outburst, and highly apologetic, but that was not to be. Before he ended his sentence, something heavy and fast hit him in his back, winding him and flipping his head back. The impact broke a few ribs, and it would have led to a painful ED visit, but Arlo’s jaws clamped around the back of his neck, and fangs sheared through skin and flesh and bone. Before his face slammed into the asphalt of the parking lot, the bones in his spine splintered, and a hot jolt seared briefly down the nerves. In seconds, 12 Huskies had buried their fangs in his body, and his inert form was thrown around in front of Jo like a rag doll.
The whole thing was over in less than a minute; one moment she had been yelling about the “stupid resiliency bullshit” and then she was standing in the cold moonlight with a torn and twisted corpse at her feet, with loose pages of resiliency training fluttering down like playful butterflies over the body. A silent crescent of Huskies now sat attentively watching her, making sure she was safe, and a low howl swelled in the still night air, as the third problematic behavior element made itself clear early this Christmas Day.