If Dogs Could Talk
The brittle Martian regolith broke softly underfoot as he jogged. The lonesome sound reverberated through his space boots, up his legs, into his torso, and then seemed to echo to a stop inside the clear dome of his pressurized helmet.
At his knee trotted his dog, Duv, in her four-footed survival suit with its clear bubble helmet and twin oxygen-filled side packs. Her attention pointed straight ahead, doggedly enough, and her head bobbed up and down and jigged slightly to the right with her every other step. Mouth hanging open in a grin, her tongue lolled in happy oblivion to the perilous circumstance she shared with her master.
He tried to pace his gait while he continuously gazed across the curve of his birth planet’s horizon, looking for it. But there was nothing. No sign of it. His mouth hung open with a frown as he squinted ahead, straining to spot it. But as far as the eye could see, only scattered stones of wild dimensions interrupted the easy swells of Mars’ oxidizing dunes of windborne dust. Nowhere rose the modest sign of civilization he was expecting to find. More forcefully now and from the new direction of south-southeast, the breeze pushed at his thin body from afore as if to check his onward progress.
Slowing with fatigue, he dropped into a hurried walk and his posture sagged in a brief mental moment of defeat. If caught in the open with no other protection than a pressure suit, wind here meant death. Tendrils of powdery sand would worry themselves into vulnerable crevices on his suit, resulting in serious malfunction. Nervousness cleaved little lines between his dark brows. Night was rapidly descending. Dim, green-tinted shadows cast by the fleeting moonlet, Phobos, were beginning to trail behind the rocks and boulders that marked the landscape, precisely opposing the drift of the orbiter as if possessed with a living awareness that feared the moon’s notice.
Too tired to take another step, he stopped to catch his breath and watch Mars’ dull ochre colors fade to dusky grays in the diminishing light of the evening. As he inhaled, deep and rapid, he realized for the first time in his life that, though surrounded by the vastness of the alien outdoors, he could only smell the metallic air from his tankpack. Why had he not wondered about the smell of Mars before? What was her peculiar odor?
Looking down, he noticed Duv staring at him. When his gaze met hers, she barked once, questioningly. He saw her jaws move, so he knew that she had barked, though he could not hear the sound. He checked his suit’s wrist console readouts. Less than an hour of oxygen remained, slightly more than that for poor little Duv. Frustrated, he looked around carefully now that he was standing still. Except for the loneliness of scattered rock formations, the dry landscape was empty. His compass told him he was headed in the right direction, but on foot he couldn’t tell how far ahead his destination lay. Without being the usual ten feet below the seat of his vehicle, the landmarks all looked different. Whatever roads or tracks that tried to form out here were casually erased; completely dusted over each day by whorls of nomadic sand. Cursing, he turned and glanced back. In the distance, sail dutifully furled, the gaunt aluminum mast of his wrecked windjammer jutted conspicuously from the night-shaded surface like a lone, dead timber.
Turning away from the miserable sight of his broken transport, he trotted into a full run. It took only moments this time for his chest to start to burn and seconds later his sides began to ache. His slim body was not accustomed to endurance running. Being born on this planet, he didn’t have the natural Earth-born musculature as the immigrants enjoyed. He was small, thin-boned and flat of muscle. With each jarring step, his legs threatened collapse. Yet, as night continued to deepen, resolution began to harden in his spirit. That old customary stubbornness that seemed to lose for him the best of arguments was coming to the rescue. He wasn’t going to die out here, he vowed to the brightening stars. Faced daily with the dangers of living in a mining community on an alien world with no atmosphere, he hadn’t lived this long to be killed by something as trivial as a broken axle. The seconds thumped past, keeping time with lonely footfalls that spoke the rhythm of his desperate dash for life. He kept telling himself that he was almost there, almost there.
Then suddenly, through the invisible screen of rarified atmosphere, the landmark appeared against the starry backdrop of space. There! Sentinel to Tharsis Chasma was the ensign, snapping in the ever-present Martian breeze. In the night, the flag’s brilliant colors were suffused yet seemed to glow eerily, as if bathed in an ultraviolet spectrum.
Fighting exhaustion and the quivering in his legs, he pressed on. Soon the gaping black canyon drew into ever-sharpening focus. He checked his oxygen. Two minutes!! The transport cage down would take eight! There was no time for it. Without breaking stride, he snatched Duv out of her awkward suit-trot, raced for the ragged lip of the escarpment…and jumped!
Freefalling in the near vacuum, he jammed a surprised Duv between his knees and dropped along the cathedral cliffs, arms wide, reaching terminal velocity within seconds. He began to count aloud…one, two…. Wind whipped at his suit, pressing it uncomfortably into places where it wasn’t meant to ride. Remembering survival drills, he stared wide-eyed at the black abyss below, his mind whirling. The real thing was far more electrifying! Five, six…he kept his cool as he drew out the fall until the last possible moment. Eight, nine…now! He yanked the ripcord. Above his head, a trail of silken silver flowed and billowed until the large emergency chute opened fully. Now he was floating.
Suddenly he spotted pinpoints of light. The canyon floor. The town’s outer court. Expertly trained, he guided their descent and after a two-mile plunge, placed them like a feather only a few yards from the airlock of his goal. Its outline lay countersunk into the rock of the canyon wall and only the name stamped into the metal set it apart from the many identical locks that trailed away in either direction.
Stumbling through the complex aperture, he was greeted with the reassuring sounds of home. He had passed from death-and-danger into life-and-safety within the lapse of a few heartbeats. He took a moment to adjust.
"There you are," his mother said. She eyed his and Duv’s dust-covered suits with suspicion. Wordlessly, he shucked his surface gear while his mother freed the dog from its pet suit.
"You’re a little late." She seemed to be waiting for a response.
The boy spread his hands and looked away. "Sorry."
Mother said, "School tomorrow, you know. Have fun at Timmy’s sleepover?"
"Anything exciting happen on the way back?" She stroked Duv’s ears and the dog yipped excitedly.
If only dogs could talk, thought the boy. I’d be grounded! Not wanting to raise alarm with his mother that could risk his future freedom, he shrugged and with a crooked smile and replied, "Nah, not really. Dad back from the mine? I need to talk windjammers with him."
© 2001 Bobbi McCutcheon
Bobbi McCutcheon is the author of a completed science fiction novel, which she's spent the last four years developing. Several of her stories have appeared in previous editions of SouthernCross Review. She grew up in Boise, Idaho, and now lives in Juneau, Alaska, with her husband and three children.