Fetch – B. Morris Allen

Fetch – B. Morris Allen

She had died from overheating. It was an unlikely death, in the star-spark darkness beyond the atmosphere, where the outside temperature measured in single digits Kelvin. Yet temperature in space flight was a tricky thing. In Laika’s case, a part of the ship had failed to separate. Torn insulation and a compromised control system had cooperated to simulate an intolerable summer day. She had died in hours.

His own cabin had multiple failsafes, multiple mechanisms to compensate for radiative heat loss, for the lack of convection, advection, conduction. And of course they watched him. Just like they’d monitored Laika, but with cameras.

He faced his favorite now, the smooth curve of glass like HAL’s dark and ominous eye, but with only human intelligence behind it. “Hello,” he said. It would take a year for the message to reach Earth. There was no hurry. Not anymore.

‘Leica’, read the white lettering curved above the purple of the lens. He’d pasted a softscreen up beside it, with a color image of Laika in her cramped training cage. She’d been unable to turn around. She’d stopped urinating.

“No need to worry, girl.” After a while, he’d gotten used to the limited movement, the claustrophobia. Drugs had helped. He had his four by four by four — sixty-four glorious meters of freedom in an ungainly cube. The clumsy bulk of it didn’t matter. The cube was empty of everything but air, which might as well be stored here as in the outside tanks.

He was small, of course. On the growth front, Asian and Latin genes had won out against European and Scandinavian, producing a short, blond, tan-skinned man with blue eyes. Like Laika’s he liked to think; the records weren’t clear, but she’d been part Husky. The New Frontiers project had loved him from the start. He could have been dreamed up in a public relations brainstorm for the brand-new United League of Earth and its shiny, attention-distracting launch to the edges of the solar system. A Swedish grandmother for robust health, a Venezuelan Wayuu one for compact durability, cancer-free grandfathers who’d survived Chernobyl and Fukushima for radiation resistance. American parents working in foreign aid who’d brought him up in Guinea, Liberia, Rwanda, Tanzania — always heading east in search of something they’d never found.

“Well, we’ve found something, haven’t we, Laika?” He’d made history, in any case. Furthest man in space. First human to the Oort cloud. First to stake a claim on behalf of the United League. Even after fifty years in transit, no one had gotten here first, no one had zipped past with new technology and a shrug of apology. Earth would send congratulations, no doubt. They might even have thought to send them in advance. Despite the morning’s diagnosis. Or perhaps because of it.

He’d proved it was possible, proved that with drugs and smarts and entertainment, it was possible to stay sane.

“Mostly,” he acknowledged to Laika. “Mostly sane.” There had been a few dark periods. Every life had those. “You helped.” He reached out to stroke the screen, and she arched her neck to one side. The animation had been tricky. It had taken months to get close, years to perfect. Earth hadn’t helped. Hadn’t known to help, though they would have been willing.

“Cutaneous radiation injury, they said,” he told Laika, though she’d heard it already. “Plus, maybe,” he checked the morning’s message, “leukopenia, thrombocytopenia, erythema, keratosis, and telangiectasia. But you knew that, didn’t you, girl?” He’d run out of clean cloth for bandages. There wasn’t enough water left to wash them effectively. He could soak them, but then the cycler took time to process the murky fluid. He’d tried boiling the ooze off the bandages in the airlock, but of course it made the water shortage worse. And then the bandages were cold. He settled for changing bandages every hour, letting the damp ones dry in the cabin until the room was oppressively dank and smelly.

“Sorry, girl,” he shrugged at Laika. “Scrubber can’t keep up.” Only the sail controls and radio worked well these days. “Software error.” He coughed, a spray of straw-pale fluid that floated across the cabin like a cloud. “Problem in the flesh drive.” Laika cocked her head and wagged her tail to laugh.

Would he have lived longer on Earth? It seemed unlikely. Less radiation, of course. If he’d avoided Luanda, Bishkek, Winnipeg, and the other places the UL had pacified. Had there been more, after he left? It didn’t matter. New Frontiers had taken him on, more sold on his heritage than on hard-won but second-rate degrees in astronomy and medicine, but they’d taken him. He owed them for that, anyway.

And for Mor-Mor. After the terror attacks, she’d been the only family he had left. A bedridden old Swedish woman in a flat in a suburb of Vänersborg, itself now a suburb of Trollhättan. She’d lived only for weekly visits from the therapy dogs, and video-chats from one lone grandson, when he could afford them.

“She didn’t have you though, did she, girl?” Laika wagged and barked. “That’s the spirit.” Mor-Mor had believed firmly in spirits — and ley-lines and charms and all the things her Methodist parents had disapproved of. ‘Your parents’ spirits are somewhere in the world,’ she’d told him. ‘It’s just up to you to find them.’ But when his search had taken him off Earth, she hadn’t fought it.

‘I need to go,’ he’d told her. And, because he wanted to do it, really wanted to, and because he had nothing else, she’d let him go. ‘Take this,’ was the only thing she’d said, and sent a scan of Laika, faded black and white from some old newspaper, stained with the tears she’d wept back in the 20th century, and in the years since. ‘I want to go,’ he’d assured her, though she already knew. ‘I choose to go.’

He wouldn’t trade it for anything, half a century on. He’d accomplished little beyond a study in isolation, little that an automated probe could not have done better. He’d read up on the law, during his voyage, confirmed that the trip was more symbolic than precedential, and let it go. He’d read thousands of books, written a handful of his own.

“I had to go,” he told Laika now. The pay for his effort had settled Mor-Mor in an elegant home with a view of the dog park, bought her the best care that he’d never told her was his real reason for going. The rest had funded a small dog rescue foundation. Would he have accomplished more had he stayed, worked his way out of poverty and into the middle class like a few lucky others? In her last message, some forty years back, now, she’d told him he was right to go. It was hard to tell, through the UL censors, but he’d taken it as a confirmation that things had gotten worse. He’d sent her back a still from his Laika simulator, then capable of little more than an exaggerated doggy grin.

“But you can do more than that now, can’t you girl?” She wriggled and rolled over in her little space. It took some maneuvering. “Of course you can.”

He’d done some wriggling himself, over the years. When even the drugs weren’t enough to calm him, when he needed motion, he had the Track — a circular tube running around the outside of his cube. A meter wide; just enough to pull himself along in endless circles, or to pump his legs a bit on the clever ratchet-cycle New Frontiers had built.

There was more room now, of course. On two ends of the cube, a hatch led to empty tanks and holds. If he wanted, he could pressurize them, wander past their complex struts and bulkheads like a spelunker exploring lost caverns.

“After a while, the space doesn’t matter,” he told Laika. “Your perspective shifts.” All that food and water had provided shielding. Laika had had none, but she hadn’t lived long enough for it to matter. Here, the cycler reused everything it could. Over a fifty-year journey, though, there were losses. The holds were bare now. Over the years, they’d held spares, gardens, waste, play areas, meditation chambers. There had been years when he lived in them, heedless of exposure. Years when he’d hidden in his little cube core. Now it made no difference. He checked his bandages, an old jumpsuit torn in strips. The seepage wasn’t bad. Not troubling.

“Is it time?” he asked Laika. She quirked her head to one side, ears cocked. “Do you think it’s finally time?” She quirked her head the other way, eyes eager, tongue lolling just to the edge of her teeth. “It’s now or never, girl.” They’d given him a year to live, the UL doctors, in the message they’d sent a year ago. “Shall we do it?”

“Arf!” she replied, with a naughty gleam in her eye.

“I thought so too,” he agreed. And of course he’d been planning this for years. Ever since Mor-Mor died, in a way.

“I’m turning the sail,” he announced to his distant audience. They still listened, still watched. He got weekly messages, advice on problems no longer relevant, suggestions for synthesizing drugs from materials long out of inventory, advice on how to compact waste he’d long since dumped. “I’ll be out of touch for a while.” It was a dereliction of duty, his first in fifty conscientious years. Without the sail to focus their faint signals, he would no longer hear Earth’s messages, no longer be able to send his own.

“We did our part, though, didn’t we, girl?” Laika grinned back. “I think we did.” With a twinge of guilt and uncertainty, ruthlessly suppressed, he tapped the icon for his pre-calculated sail shift. It would take weeks.

He set the second program running. He’d recorded his message over months, short as it was. “I wanted to get it just right,” he told Laika and the lens that no longer transmitted his image and voice. In the circuits behind the control panel, gates opened and closed, feeding a short, recorded message to the radio in a cycle of thousands of slightly different iterations. “It was mostly programming and calculation, actually.” He scratched her head, and she bowed her neck in pleasure. Her tail thumped against her cage, only the tip visible beyond the curve of its metal roof.

“I’ll just check the readouts,” he said, withdrawing his hand.

“Arf!” she said, asking for more scratching. When none came, she lay her head down between her paws and settled into her resting state. This far from the Sun, energy was scarce. The micro-reactor worked only at a low level, and battery capacity had dwindled with time.

The sailcord readouts were tied to the main screen, of course, but he liked to climb out and check the physical gauges when he could. He still had a working pressure suit, and of course exposure didn’t matter anymore. He tied another layer of cloth around his weeping chest. Body fluids loose in the suit could get in the circuits if they really tried. More important, they smelled bad. He smelled bad enough already. He felt bad for Laika, with her more sensitive nose. Of course, she was just a simulation.

Out on the hull, the sail was responding just as his simulation had predicted. It was early to say much, of course. The frozen bearings on #27 and the broken tension-pulley on #41 had required a little workaround, but it seemed to work just as it should.

He floated for a while sun-side. It didn’t matter anymore if he drifted a bit. In the early days, the focus of the sail had been a dangerous place to be; it would have burned through his suit in seconds. Now it was barely warm.

Thousands of AUs away, Sol was a small, bright dot. “Bye,” he said, and waved, as if he hadn’t said his farewells years before. The motion set him slowly spinning. The view didn’t change much. At this distance, even Sol didn’t look like much. He watched as the Milky Way slowly circled around him until the tension in his twisting safe-line stopped him and set him spinning back the other way. “Hi.”

They’d tried to stop him, of course, the do-gooders and the Luddites and the religionists. ‘It’s not fair,’ they’d said, and ‘You’ll draw the attention of aliens,’ and ‘Man was meant to live on Earth.’ But he’d had no family aside from Mor-Mor, he’d been young and handsome, and he’d had the League behind him, and the scientists, and the fear that the Confederation might get there first.

“Looks like we’re out here alone,” he told Laika. “No aliens. No angels. Darn.” He tugged the safeline to set him moving slowly back to the ship. “And this way, I got to be with you.” Mor-Mor had cried the day he left. ‘Go find her,’ she’d said. “And I will,” he said now. “I know you’re out here somewhere, kid.” Because where else could the soul of a spacedog go? “Playing with those aliens, probably, eh?”

Somewhere in the ship, an algorithm parsed the statement, generated a response. “Arf!”

Back inside the ship, he listened to the messages that still accumulated despite the slowly-turning sail. Long-winded bureaucrats celebrating last year’s 49th anniversary. Curt doctors detailing treatments he’d long since tried. Dull chemists proposing supplements scraped from hull surfaces and worn out suit parts.

He listened to it all. “Never know, eh, girl? Might be something good in there.” After a few days, the sail had shifted enough that the messages were too broken for the computer to reconstruct. “Now we’re really alone, hmm?” He checked the telltales. His message continued to go out in different codings, on different frequencies, as the sail slowly turned.

He slept for a time, woke with a start. “Thought I heard you barking.” He stroked her neck. “Not you, hmm?” She reached out a paw for more scratching, and he rubbed a hand on each side of her neck, setting her wriggling like a puppy in her restraints. “Not yet. Not long.”

He had no energy now to eat, and the water from the cycler was cloudy. “Smells bad, too. Well,” he coughed, and droplets of red floated up to dot the camera lens. “You did without water. Guess I can too.” He turned the speakers on so that he could hear his message, still transmitting, still repeating.

He settled his head comfortably against a cushion on the bulkhead, and listened to Laika breathing softly in his ear. Her muzzle came down soft against his shoulder and he smiled. “Good night, girl,” he murmured. As his eyes grew dull, she settled into rest mode.

In the still of the cabin, a recording played on. A whistle, high, then low. Then an enthusiastic call, “Лайка, вернись домой. Тебе пора отдыхать.” Laika, come home. It’s time to rest. At the outer hatch, a scratching sound might have been the scrabbling of claws, asking to come in.

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