The Way Home by Gary Cuba [sci-fi]

Imprint - SciFi Imprint Logo 200wThe Way Home by Gary Cuba

A dog had no business being aboard the first manned space flight to Mars.

Given that, Thomas Fielding could only assume that the panting cur staring at him now was an apparition, a mental figment triggered by a stray cosmic ray crashing into a particular brain cell inside his skull that produced a cascade of perceptual memory traces. At least, that’s what he hoped it was. This wasn’t the best time or place to consider the alternative: that he was going bonkers, just sixty days out on his solitary, two hundred and forty-day mission.

The dog sat in the access port to the maintenance module, ears perked and tongue agog. It was a smallish, mixed breed with a pointy nose, alert eyes, and short, coarse hair painted in a pattern of brown, black, and white. A tooled leather flight harness encircled its torso. Thomas instantly recognized the image and recalled the dog’s name: Laika, the Russian space dog. He squeezed his eyes shut. When he reopened them, the creature had disappeared.

He pulled his squeeze bulb off the Velcro strip on the tiny round table in the mess module and took a long, slow swallow of lukewarm coffee from it. The bulb gurgled softly while he sucked on it. An LED indicator on the wall behind the spot where Laika’s image had appeared winked on and off like a lonely firefly.

No way I’m going to report this.

Thomas’s reluctance was bred from pure habit, in deference to the first unwritten rule of astronaut training: never say anything that admitted of mental instability during the grueling selection process leading up to a flight. And he was not about to imply to Mission Control at this late date that he was going stark, raving mad.

It had been the single aspect of the Barsoom’s mission that most worried its planners: can a solitary human hold his or her wits together for the better part of a year in the loneliness of deep space? The flight was conceived as a two-man mission, but the payload numbers refused to fall into line. In the end, Thomas had drawn straws with Andrei Mishakov, the Russian cosmonaut who was originally slated to accompany him. They had been the only two candidates who’d managed to pass the intensive psychological testing regime leading up to the flight. Andrei picked the short straw, and graciously accepted the role of mission communications lead.

***

Thomas knew Laika’s story. He’d read about it many years before: the lost spirit of a humble mutt, sacrificed on the altar of Russian rocket science. Shot into orbit on Sputnik-2 in 1957, with no plan in place to bring her home.

As a young lad, not long after the fall of the Iron Curtain, he’d learned more than he wanted to about Laika’s demise. The truth, hidden for so many years, was that the poor dog had died a panicky death due to a failure in the thermal regulation system in her tiny capsule, just a few hours after liftoff. It had been a kludged-up system at best, thrown together on an arbitrarily tight schedule dictated by impatient politicians.

The harassed Russian technicians had done a little better job with the slow-scan TV camera mounted in Laika’s spacecraft. They successfully captured a crude image of the living, orbiting dog and released it to the worldwide press. It was a propaganda coup, but viewing that old, archival picture devastated Thomas: a lonely soul, lying in a cramped capsule with her front paws crossed, her haunting, accusing eyes turned up toward the lens.

Betrayed by her keepers. Not a fair deal, not a fair program, any way you look at it. And maybe not such a great omen for me.

***

The Barsoom’s program was a roundabout of Mars: a flight plan consisting of a long, lazy swing around the planet, a couple of orbits, and a long, lazy trip back home again. Proof of principle, they called it. A ninety-million–mile journey to validate man’s claim to the universe.

Thomas snorted. I’m just along for the ride on this fully automated flight. He twitched at the sound of a transformer circuit cutting on from somewhere deep within the bowels of the spacecraft. Getting a bit jumpy, aren’t we? Down, boy.

In the days that followed, Laika began to reappear to Thomas more often. Since there was little actual work for him to do on the mission, he found it hard to ignore the dog’s importuning presence.

“I’m not seeing you, mutt,” he said. “You’re not here.”

But it was not so simple as not looking. The dog began to insinuate itself directly into his mind, transmitting foreign memories and sensations that mapped themselves onto some deeper, visceral plane of his mental landscape. In this way, she began to relate the story of her life to him; Thomas felt the memories about her puppyhood in a dingy alley in Moscow. He could smell the aroma of Laika’s mother’s teats, and feel how physically content the dog was while nursing. He sensed the tactile comforts of being buried amid squirming littermates in the cold Moscow night. Thomas’s stomach growled in sympathy as Laika showed him how she’d learned to survive as a stray in the city, finding food and shelter where she could. And he shared her fond reflections of humans, too—especially the small ones, who occasionally gave her dinner scraps and affection.

Thomas strained and sweated on the ship’s bio-exercise machine, trying to purge his brain, to burn out these strange, unwanted impressions. To deny all that haunted him.

But Laika persisted; she immersed his senses in tales about what happened later, after she was scooped up from the streets of Moscow to become a cosmonaut. About the wild, churning rides on the training centrifuge, and the loneliness of being conditioned to isolation for days on end in a mockup of her cramped nosecone. The dog streamed images of her trainers to Thomas, and translated her feelings of loyalty, her remembrances of the kindness and attention they gave her as they prepared her for the rigors of her impending journey. Eventually, she passed to him the gut-wrenching, emotional pain she felt when she realized she’d been abandoned, and, at the last, the moments of extreme physical suffering that had sealed the act of betrayal.

Thomas shivered, and he thought of his boyhood pet dog. It had been a Fox Terrier, not too dissimilar in appearance from Laika. He still remembered the day his mother had decided to take the sick animal to the veterinary clinic to be euthanized, while he was still at school. Another dog who’d died with no one there who loved her. But it was not just any dog: that one had been his heart-dog; she’d taken a special piece of his soul with her when she left. Thomas could still feel the aching edges of that void, after so many years.

Tentatively, through a film of tears that suddenly clouded his eyes, Thomas reached down and patted Laika’s apparition behind its ears with his gloved hand. It was a clumsy gesture, but the dog leaned luxuriously into his hand, eyes closed.

“Love me, Thomas. Be with me,” Laika said, using his own vocabulary inside his own head. “Believe in me.”

***

The Barsoom neared its Mars orbital entry vector, dumping velocity as it screamed toward the planet’s swelling mass. Geological highlights filled the viewport: a mad, impressionistic orgasm of swirling ocher shades and meandering black shadows. The crucial point in the mission was only hours off now, and Thomas occupied the moments by calling up display after display on the system monitor at the pilot’s station. The ghostly image of Laika sat by his side, watching him attentively, head cocked to one side.

“You know, girl, the old American astronauts used to gripe about the fact that they were just ‘Spam in a can.’ Just along for the ride. That’s a lot like me on this flight. The trajectories are all set and preprogrammed by Mission Control. They’ve designated me as the pilot, but what am I actually doing on this flight? Nothing. I’ve been reduced to a symbol, just as you were.”

“Undifferentiated meat,” Laika said inside Thomas’s head.

Thomas laughed, hearing his own meaning, words plucked from his own vocabulary, echoed back at him. “Yeah. Protoplasm ejected from the Earth, to see if the equipment can keep it viable. Maybe the lifeform will overheat, maybe freeze. Maybe it’ll get scrambled by cosmic radiation or solar flares. Maybe it’ll go crazy, being so alone, so far from home. Who can be sure?”

Thomas looked down and studied the dog. He leaned over to pat her haunches and sighed. “But they say it’s important that a human is on this flight. I have to keep it all together, in case something…unexpected happens. Robotic missions alone will never get us to the stars. You should understand that, as much as anybody.”

Laika barked in reply, then faded from view.

***

The craft swung around the far side of the Red Planet in precise accordance with the software routines streamed from Mission Control at Baikonur, Russia to the ship’s propulsion control systems. For a brief, quiet half-hour, it would be hidden from Earth’s electromagnetic spectrum.

During that time, Laika’s image intensified and became more stable. Thomas threw a balled sock for her to retrieve, down through the access corridor linking the mess and maintenance modules. A part of his brain knew she couldn’t be scampering down the corridor and back like she did, not in this weightless environment—she couldn’t really be there at all. But somehow, seeing the happiness in the eyes of the romping dog made it easy for him to suspend his disbelief. Thomas hugged her each time she brought the soggy ball back to him. She barked in excitement, and that was as it should have been. After all, “Laika” translated as “Barker” in English.

His moments of childish joy ended with a sharp barrage of audible alarms from the nav computer in the forward command module. Thomas hurled his weightless body through the length of the craft, heart pounding. Once ensconced in the pilot’s seat, he confirmed his worst nightmare: a trajectory deviation.

Thomas tried to swallow, but found no saliva in his mouth to do so.

“Damnation. What’s going on? Got to be an orbital insertion glitch, a data input error from the Baikonur cosmodrome. Probably some klutz of a contract engineer, somebody hired by the international lowest bidder at the minimum going wage!”

In an icy corner of his mind, Thomas knew immediately that he was dead. On a maneuver as delicate as this one was, it didn’t take much of a deviation to be fatal. Only the exact moment of his demise remained to be fully calculated.

How bad? How bad?

Thomas jabbed an inquiry into the nav unit’s keypad. His left leg started shaking as if it had suddenly come into possession of a brain of its own—one that had reached its own dismal conclusion about their situation. He tried to still it while the nav unit crunched the numbers.

“Crap. Won’t even make orbit. We’ll need to get some big-time correction vectors downloaded, stat. And that can’t happen until we get our line of sight back.”

He looked down at Laika, lying on the floor beside his seat.

“I think they’ve managed to screw the pooch.”

She stared back up at him, looking to Thomas just like the image he remembered from the Sputnik-2 publicity shots: a dog betrayed. If a camera had been positioned overhead, Thomas thought, he probably would’ve looked much the same.

***

Andrei’s crackling voice sounded like a ministering angel in Thomas’s headset. “We’ve been on it, we’ve been on it, Thomas. We realized the error just before you slipped out of range. We’ll give you a five-second rotational squirt on the port attitude thruster, then a main engine burn for three minutes to get you back into Mars orbit. That’ll leave us precious little fuel to break you out for home, but it’s the best we can do, my friend. The correction download should be arriving soon after you hear this.”

Thomas felt the centrifugal effect from the craft’s changing attitude push him lightly against the molded side support of his g-chair, then he braced himself for the main thruster’s charge. And felt nothing.

Do the diagnostics. Quickly, quickly.

He jabbed the system touchscreen suspended in front of him, paging through the displays in a breathless blur—but saw nothing amiss. There were no new alarm annunciations, beyond the two dozen or so false indications from nonessential, malfunctioning sensors that had been illuminated since he had left Earth orbit.

Where is the damned alarm? They must have overlooked programming the check logic for whatever circuit’s glitching. Thomas’s mind raced through memorized system specs, trying to identify the likeliest causes.

“Main burn self-aborted. I’m not seeing squat here on the displays, Andrei. I’ll need to check some of the test points back in the maintenance module. I’ll try to track it down on the hardware side.”

His comment would take a little over four minutes to reach Baikonur, but Thomas was already unbuckling his seat harness. He grabbed his wireless e-pad from its hanger and dove toward the aft end of the craft, using his legs and free hand to push, pull, and steer his weightless body through the ship.

Thomas floated into the maintenance module and scanned the two hundred and fifty flat electronics access panels, each about a foot square, that splayed across the five walls that surrounded him. Almost the same number of panels as the days in his mission—and a day per panel would have been about right for doing a workmanlike troubleshooting job.

Ten minutes, at best. Ten minutes before the ship reaches an unrecoverable bearing. After that, a blind date with the asteroid belt is in my future—and I’m not properly dressed for it!

He saw tiny twinkling stars floating around him, and realized they were beads of nervous sweat that had detached themselves from his forehead.

Thomas’s brain spun for a moment as he scrutinized the blank panels arrayed in front of him.

Were I a brainless robot, I’d begin at panel one and iterate systematically through to panel two hundred and fifty, interrogating every test point on every board inside every panel.

It now became clear to Thomas why humans were not quite yet obsolete. Protoplasm had one advantage: it could cut corners, make educated guesses—bad ones, often, but sometimes winners—and save a lot of wasted effort. He had ruled out more than two hundred of the panels on his trip back to the maintenance module, based on his best guesses about which circuits and logic interlocks might have caused the main rocket to abort. The months of preflight study, the time spent poring over system schematics and specifications, had been well spent.

“Great. Now we’re down to only a week’s worth of effort.”

He identified and pried off a nearby panel, brought up that subsystem’s specs on his portable e-pad, and traced out the part of its data circuit that supported ignition of the main thruster. Halfway through, he stopped.

“This is not going to work. Not enough time.”

He clamped his palms against his temples and forced his brain to race through the propulsion interlock logic again, looking for a better, quicker short-cut. Thomas knew the answer was there somewhere, locked inside his head. As the seconds counted down, slices of horrific memories suddenly began to vie for his mental attention: the boating accident where he’d almost drowned as a teenager; the low-altitude flameout he’d had during flight school; the toxic electrical fire that came within a hair’s breadth of getting away from them during his stint on the ISS. Away! Focus, damn it! He suddenly realized he’d stopped breathing and gasped when diminishing arcs of grayness began to fill his vision.

At that moment, Thomas felt Laika’s presence enter his mind. She raced through his cerebral cortex, running back and forth through the narrow corridors, wending her way at last to the exact neural location he’d been searching for.

Laika substantiated next to him and announced herself with a bark. The dog pawed at a maintenance panel to Thomas’s left, growling, yipping, and carrying on as if a rat was behind it. He reached over and popped it off, and watched Laika nip at one particular circuit board in the rack. Thomas called up its specs on his e-pad, scrutinized them for a moment, then pressed a test switch on the circuit board. A neighboring LED, which should have gone dark, stayed alive.

He spoke into his headset microphone, for the record, while he uncoupled the bad board from the rack. “Might have something here, Andrei. I’m looking at the pressure sensor logic circuit for the oxidizer injector pump. The sensor’s working fine, but apparently its data signal got cut off down here. Must be a circuit board component failure. Make a note to get that test point added to the software alarm display logic—it didn’t show up there.”

He yanked the circuit board out and jammed a dummy jumper board back into its slot.

“I’m going for it now, Andrei. Manually initiating a restart attempt.”

Thomas flipped to the Barsoom’s propulsion command screen on his e-pad and mashed the “Resume Program From Fault” icon. The main propulsion engine cut on and the sudden acceleration slung him against the aft wall of the maintenance module. Laika slid against him, and ended up in his arms. Thomas hugged her and wept like a baby, all the way through the burn.

“Now I know what you are, Laika. Not a bad omen after all, but rather the best. Mankind’s heart-dog. Even after we did you so wrong, you never held it against us. Your love for us was too strong. I should never have doubted you.”

Thomas knew then that Laika would always be there when they needed help, an archetypal force buried deep within the innermost part of the human mind. All the way to the stars, following her blazed path.

***

The main engine was running on fumes by the time the Barsoom achieved final docking with the ISS in orbit above Earth. Thomas did a final systems shutdown check, then sat back and waited for the hatch to be opened.

“Heck of a flight, Thomas,” Andrei said over the comm unit. “That was some bodacious troubleshooting you did, my friend. None of us down here can imagine how you pulled it off, how you managed to cut through that complicated knot so quickly. I have to admit something to you, though. In the midst of it all, when I heard you start barking like a dog up there—I thought you’d completely lost it.”

Thomas smiled, pulled off his headset, unbuckled his seat harness, and arose to exit the now-opening hatch. At the hatchway, he turned and looked back at Laika’s spectral image, lying beside the pilot’s seat.

“Come, girl. Stay with me for just a little while longer.”

Laika stretched lazily, her front legs extending and her tongue curling out in the grand arc of a dog yawn. Then she padded over to accompany Thomas on the last leg of their journey home, to a temporary, well-deserved sojourn amid the green fields and clear streams of Earth.

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