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Last Contact – by John
Solar flares and sunburn! Can’t a guy even be alone in space?
I threw my hand over my eyes. Outside, in the dark sea of space, a school of fish-like lightbulby things flashed all around. I hard-blinked to toggle off my ocular amplification implants. Never thought I’d be glad about being old and half-blind.
Now half-deaf, sonny, that’s a different story. I’ll admit to “selective deafness” every doggone day on Mercury Station. Especially with those young good-for-nothings I had stomped past for the last time this morning.
“Hey, old man!” One of the little twerps had spied me from ambush. I felt along my ear for the mute button. “Ferguson!” The syllables globbed out of the boy’s mouth like snot bubbles in freefall. “Fur…GAS…son…” I punched the subcutaneous bump that cut off my hearing aid. The boy’s face jeered at me like the old silent movies my mother used to watch. Freaks.
Yep, I’ll admit it: I stole me a space pod and headed right out from Mercury Station. I’d spent a half- century scanning space, listening for first contact, roving asteroids and pirates, only to find exactly nothing. There were no aliens, space pirates never came this far sunward, and I had no friends worth sticking around for–not anymore. I was going to fly straight into a solar flare and let the sun’s superheated ejecta do its thing. Poof!
Seemed to me that a dog had the right idea: just head out alone, find some peaceful place, and lie down and die. That’s what Old Blue did.
Back in the winter of my eleventh year, I had sat down next to him in the kitchen where he lay in front of the fire. He heard me and looked up. His big brown eyes were full of an unusual expression, though I didn’t understand until later. I patted his head softly, shivering a little at how cold and rubbery his skin felt. He’d lost a lot of fur, but his greeting was as friendly as ever. “Arrooup.” I smiled a little and the weight of worry melted away. I laid down and draped an arm over his bony body. We’d fallen asleep together on that floor, my dog and me. When I had woken up a little later, he was gone.
The console strobed a red warning light. In the staid manner of a butler, the pod’s navigation computer announced, “Correcting course to return to Mercury Station.”
I smacked the override on the space pod console. “Doggone it, NaviComp, I’m not going back!”
Momma always said, “Stop running or some day you’ll run into something you cain’t outrun.” I huffed and glared out the viewplate at the aliens. I couldn’t shake them.
They wagged little wispy tails behind them, more like flame than the trail of debris that gets blown off a comet body by the solar breeze. Their bodies glowed, not like moon, but as if they had a light all their own.
The NaviComp broke in again. “Approaching region of high solar flare activity. Rerouting.”
I didn’t catch it at first, because my arthritis had just lit my hip on fire. I rubbed my leg and jammed my rear as hard as I could into the seat. Its low-grav suction gave way, allowing me to shift my body easier. My bones ground together and pain jolted up my side, but mercifully the joint popped back into place. I relaxed with a sigh. Can’t wait to get this over.
The space birds, or whatever they were, had veered off to one side. I hard-blinked to reset my visual implants. The console came into sharp focus, revealing the change of course. Straight ahead the stars nestled against the haze of the Milky Way. “Not the right way,” I muttered. I banged the right heading back into the console. “Not the right way.”
Momma had been there waiting for me, that day after Old Blue died. “Come inside, my boy.” As I stood at the threshold of the kitchen, she pulled me into the doorway and touched my rosy cheek with a tender hand. “You sure are a popsicle.”
I couldn’t move. My feet ached from walking in the woods all day, but they just stuck to that threshold. Over Momma’s shoulder, a fire blazed in the hearth and the dog’s old woven bedrug lay bare. Tears came silently from my eyes, but I held my tongue.
Momma hugged me close. “Oh, honey, it’s not your fault. Dogs know when their time is coming and they do what is natural to them.”
I swallowed hard. “I couldn’t find him.”
She let go and pulled at my coat sleeve. When I didn’t budge, she just held on.
“Momma, I couldn’t find him. I know that he’s out there somewhere, and I looked everywhere I could go. I just never found…the right way…just not…the right way.” I raised my eyes to hers, which were large and shining. Her mouth was twisted like she was fighting to stay strong, fighting to hold back her own sorrow. Her eyes were brown, too, just like Old Blue.
I squeezed my eyes shut. In my mind, there he was, tail wagging. He barked his usual greeting. “Arrooup!”
How many times had we gone hunting together in the woods? He’d snuffle the earth eagerly, then shimmy about in wider and wider circles. When he’d found a trail, he’d let out a big “Arroooo!” and away we’d fly. I once shot a bird a mile away and across a creek, no less. Old Blue nosed it out.
I opened my eyes to the ground, the hard ground that had left me no tracks to follow. “I could have found him if I had been him. If I could have been a mixed-up mutt of a Dachshund and a Beagle, I would have found him.”
I tore away and spun outside, kicking a dent in the doorframe with my steel-toed boot. Momma never did ask me to fix that.
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