The Care and Feeding Humans
It wasn't necessary to read the scientific studies showing that humans possessed a high level of intelligence and a complex and expressive language--it was these precise qualities that made them such excellent pets.
Of course, "pets" didn't really do justice to their function. Their ability to empathize whilst also being creatively unpredictable made them excellent companions in stimulating the elderly and animating the lonely.
"I've read they fall ill a lot," the customer told Sox. Sox smiled and patted several of the customer's limbs.
"All our humans are fully immunized and the first five years' pet health insurance comes as standard."
"What about their psychological frailty? Don't they fret if they're kept alone?"
Sox maintained her smile. Gaps in a customer's knowledge were usually either exploited by alarmist rumor or unscrupulous merchants. But she was far more scrupulous than most of her competitors. He was lucky he'd come to Sox's shop.
"It's just that my neighbor had a male that pulled its hair out and scratched itself raw," the customer said. "What do you do with them around mating season?"
"They need to be kept stimulated, certainly. That's why their box comes with a viewing cube loaded with all the entertainment visuals from their home planet. As for a mating season--they don't have one."
Well, in the sense that it was a never-ending pursuit in the species, thought Sox.
"But if your human shows signs of regular overexcitement, neutering remains an option."
"Oh, no. I don't think I'd like that. They say it affects their moods. And their voices."
Sox was careful not to confirm or deny what the customer had read. That was in the manual. Never do anything that might potentially alienate the customer. If that included lying by omission, so be it. "Did you have a particular color in mind?" she asked.
"Is there any difference?"
"None at all." Funnily enough, it was only the humans themselves that saw something important in it. It had the scientists baffled. Ditto the humans' pack ranking due to sex, sexuality, and other irrational factors.
"Then I'll take this one." The customer pointed to a male dressed in a skirt, bow tie, and cowboy hat. Accessories were another sales bonanza for the dealers.
"A fine choice."
The human squirmed as Sox plucked him from the communal box. She paused to show the customer where it was best to hold them without causing damage or getting sticky fingers.
"And I can bring him back if I'm not fully satisfied?"
"Of course. For an exchange or your money back."
The customer wouldn't take her up on the offer, she knew that from experience. They never did. For some, it was the sheer challenge of trying to train their human, but for most it was the sentimental attachment they forged with their human from the first day. The biggest danger was overfeeding and spoiling them. 'Pet,' went the joke in Sox's line of business, 'is short for petulant.'
"Have a nice day," she wished the departing customer, who already had the box up to his mouths and was cooing at his human.
Sox sighed. They treated them better than they did their own offspring.
"Shut that racket up," she told those in the communal box. "It's not feeding time yet." She blew out the fires a few of them had started. Now the customer had gone, she switched on their viewing cubes and watched them hurry over and fall into their customary stupors, mesmerized--as she saw it--by their own reflections.
She left them staring at themselves. The presence of all that language and intelligence was one thing, she could have told the scientists--but it was what you did with it that counted.
Sox went out to the back of the shop, sat down, and began sorting out the latest batch to arrive. Some of them were still attached to the lures and she had to disentangle the fake blondes, discount designer wear, and lost wallets. One had managed to hook himself on all three. Another, a female, stepped out of the shuttle and looked up at her.
"Tayk mee tu yorr leeduh."
They were cute when they mimicked their owners.
"Eye demand yu tayk mee tu yorr leeduh. We arr knot slayvz!"
Up to a point. There were quarantine procedures for the dangerous ones. Little Miss tayk-mee-tu-yorr-leeduh was about to find out what that meant. On the other hand, Sox had recently heard of humans being used as eyes for the blind, investigating gas leaks, and excellent early-warning alarm systems. She pulled over a box for loud Miss Leeduh and wrote: 'NEW IN: INTRUDER ALERT' on it.
Sox amended her earlier dictum: It wasn't what your human was endowed with, but what you did with it, that counted.