“Don’t you think we’re coming in just a little fast?” asked a husky voice behind Jake in the tiny spaceboat.
“There’s a critic on every ship,” Jake muttered, without breaking his concentration.
“Just doing my job, I’m just — whooo, that asteroid’s really coming at us!” Jake didn’t argue. The gray, potato-shaped object was indeed getting large quickly — which was exactly according to his plan. Its orbit was less than ideal, and he had only one day to make a survey before it caromed off another asteroid. He wanted to find out: Was it a candidate for mining? Was it worth chasing if it got knocked out of the cluster?
“Like I said, we want to get in fast and get out, before it bounces off NEA-238,” Jake said. If he was right and this rock turned out to have mining potential, his tagging it could be just what he needed to break out of the ranks of the junior surveyors. A lot of Earth-approaching asteroids had been nudged by robot boosters together into this Near-Earth cluster, but not many of them had been studied in detail yet. He had a feeling about this one. “Look — haven’t I logged, like two hundred asteroid landings? What are you worried abou — oh crap, what’s that?”
An alarm honked, the spaceboat jerked, and there was suddenly a much-too-bright flare of rocket exhaust in his peripheral vision. Jake glanced at the control board, then outside — and was horrified to see a bright jet of flame shooting sideways out of the boat. Sideways! He slapped the cutoff, checked for signs of fire — there were none — then hastily rechecked his approach speed. He’d been okay before, but not any longer. He’d just lost his main engine. Without that for braking, he was definitely approaching too fast.
“Rrrr, you just shut off our rocket,” Sam said, squirming around behind him. “Why’d you do that?”
“Had to,” Jake said with a gulp, trying not to betray the fear that was rising in his throat. Think fast now! “Looks like we’ve got to use the attitude thrusters for braking.”
“But they’re — isn’t that just for emerg—”
“This is an emergency!” Jake disengaged the computer from the thrusters. He needed them all firing in the same direction to brake. “Okay — almost — hold on now!” The thrusters sputtered, and he felt a push, slowing them. But not nearly enough.
“You aren’t doing this to impress me, are you?” cried Sam.
“No!” He shut up and focused on the asteroid swelling before them. Oh jeez, too fast! Trying not to panic, he kicked in thrust to the right. The asteroid mushroomed before them, and they glanced in with a bone-jarring crack. They bounced in a flat arc, sending a cloud of dust spraying from the surface — and for a moment, he thought they’d skip off entirely. But no … they bounced twice again, before skidding and shuddering to a stop. The dust they’d kicked up arced slowly back down in the feeble gravity.
Jake gasped and slumped in relief. Then he put out a spacesuit-gloved hand to check the readouts on the console — and got a jolt of electricity through his spacesuit glove. “Yow!” He rocked back as sparks shot from the console. “What the—?” He punched the master cutoff — but too late, his console was smoking. It must have been the dust, carrying an electrostatic charge — powerful enough to short out his instruments. “I need to vent! Are you sealed in?” he yelled. As soon as he heard Sam’s yes, he popped the canopy and pushed it open. The cockpit atmosphere puffed out, taking the smoke with it.
“Rrr, I’m okay. Are you okay?” came a muffled voice behind him.
He blinked. “Yeah, I’m all right. Dunno about the boat, though.” He poked tentatively at the console and switched the master back on. Nothing. At all. No power, no comm, no nav, no thrusters. Air in his suit was still flowing, at least. Looking out the cockpit window at the surface of the asteroid, he was grateful that the dust had cushioned their impact. But they needed help — and soon. He keyed his spacesuit comm. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is scout EX-71, can anyone hear me?” He repeated the call half a dozen times. But there was no answer, and he knew perfectly well there wasn’t going to be one. His suit comm didn’t have the range.
Turning his head, he squinted through his helmet visor. Earth was about the size of a tennis ball, white and blue against the black of space. It was about ten days away by direct flight, if they had a ship designed and fueled for such a trip, which they didn’t. He turned his head the other way to pick out the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia. A bit of directional calculation confirmed that their sightline to the mining survey base was presently blocked by the asteroid. Well, it was sixteen hours away under normal thrust, with a working rocket — which they didn’t have, anymore.
And just under two days from here — without any rocket power at all — was asteroid NEA-238, on a collision course. “I wish I’d listened to you,” he muttered to Sam. Sam had wanted him to stick to his filed flight plan, instead of detouring to follow his instinct on this new rock.
“Me, too. Am I being a bad dog if I suggest we get out and check for damage?” Sam said, nudging him in the back of the helmet.
Releasing his harness, he floated out onto the step-down ledge. He bounced a little to gauge the gravity — not much — then turned to help Sam with his harness. The smartmutt’s black-and-white face was just visible through the helmet faceplate. When Jake released the buckle, the border collie launched himself up and out of the cockpit, gliding in a graceful arc to the asteroid surface. In his spacesuit with the air and power pack on his back, he looked less like a dog than a small cargo pod with legs. Nonetheless, he managed well in microgravity, and he swung his head around now, assessing the local conditions. He reared up momentarily on his hind legs. “Not much to hold us here. We should move carefully.” He started nosing around the outside of the broken spaceship.
It didn’t take long to tally up the bad news. The main rocket had burned through the side of its combustion chamber and was useless. It was a miracle it hadn’t blown up. The thrusters were dead. So there was no way they could fly back to base under their own power. Also, the hard landing had cracked the hull casing under the electronics, and the short caused by the electrically charged dust had indeed taken out all communications, as well as computer and nav.
“Bones,” Sam said, sitting disconsolately by Jake.
“Well,” Jake said, “at least we know the transmitter’s beyond repair, so we won’t waste time with it.”
Sam cocked his head inside the helmet. “Oofff. Are you saying that to reassure me?”
“Not really. Just saying … we need to think of another approach. And we don’t have much time. What — two days? No, eighteen hours.”
“But — rrfffff — people will come looking?” Sam’s encased tail slapped once, hopefully, in the silence.
Jake’s face burned. “When we don’t report in, yeah. But they’ll look in the wrong place. I feel really dumb now, not calling in the course change.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I just wanted to get this first look, without anyone yelling at me, before it was too late. I know it was stupid, but you have no idea how much I want to—”
“Get promoted, so they don’t treat you like a kid. I know.” Sam swung his head around, pointing with his nose at the flank of the survey boat. “What else have we got in there? Anything that can make a signal?”
“Let’s look.” Jake started opening the side compartments. “We need to pull the sled out first. Stand back.” He yanked a couple of levers to free the cradle arms holding the large sample sled, then slid the unit out until the flat sled stuck out from the hull, a foot off the ground, like a wide gangplank. “I wonder if this thing still has power.”
“Thought all the power was dead,” Sam said.
“This is separate. It’s got a small zeep converter, for its levitator.”
“You mean one of those quantum vacuum thingies?”
“Zero point energy. Yeah.” Jake switched the unit on and released it from its cradle. The sled — a flat, rectangular pallet with an opening and some gear in the center — sank until it floated, bobbing slightly, about six inches off the ground. A flat plate on the underside provided the levitation, drawing energy for its repulsive force from the virtual particles that flickered continuously in and out of existence in the apparently empty vacuum of space.
“If that thing can float like that, can’t we use it somehow to get off this rock?” The border collie lifted his elongated faceplate-covered nose, as though to sniff the thing.
“Thing is,” Jake explained, “this is the only thing it’s good for — floating just off the ground. It’s great for that, because it doesn’t need batteries or fuel. But it’s strictly a local effect — close to that levitator plate. As soon it gets more than a few inches off the ground, the effect disappears.”
“So if we tried to ride it—”
“It’d be a really short flight. We can jump higher than this thing can float.” Jake turned the unit off and it settled to the ground.
“Rrmmf. Squirrels and bones.” Sam started to raise his spacesuited leg to the sled, then apparently thought better of it.
“Anyway, we’re wasting time.” Jake stuck his head into the compartment. “There must be something in here we could signal home with.” There wasn’t. He opened the next compartment. “A laser of some kind would be nice, like a torch laser. But I don’t see anything. This prospecting scanner has a laser inside it, but we’d have to tear it apart to get at it. There ought to be some flares or something.”
“Any spare communicators?” the dog asked.
“I wish. You know how in the old days, there used to be redundancy?”
“I wasn’t there.”
“Well, that was the old days. Wait! Here are some flares!” With a rush of hope, he pulled the box out and examined the contents. His heart sank. “For marking landing areas. Probably not bright enough for anyone to see back at base. We can try, though.” He set the box aside and pulled out everything that looked as though it could possibly be useful. “We’d better take stock…”
The shadows were already long; soon, the sun set and they paused to rest. The inventory was bleak. The little boat was meant for short-range surveys, close to the base-station. Jake had taken them a little further afield than the boat really was equipped for — which would have been all right if the crash landing hadn’t taken out so many of the onboard systems. They not only had to worry about a collision in fifteen hours with asteroid NEA-238, they also had dwindling power. Oxygen and water weren’t immediate worries, but their power was limited mostly to the packs that recharged their suits. The boat’s fuel cell was producing only a trickle, which put the last nail in the coffin of any hope of getting away on the boat.
“We’re going to have to tap whatever power we can get from the sled,” Jake muttered, “and see if we can cannibalize that laser.” The asteroid had a slow rotation rate, and they had some time yet before the base-station would come up over the horizon. At that point they would try to signal with the flares, with a makeshift laser, or with anything else they could manage.
While Jake worked by the light of a small lantern, Sam, with his border-collie can-do spirit, determinedly kept at his job; he was going to keep Jake’s morale up by pummeling him with questions. At first he quizzed Jake on what he was doing, but Jake growled at that, and the dog switched tactics. “So, is that nice girl in Analysis ever going to notice that you like her? She treats me real nice. Wufff.”
Jake looked up from a tangle of wire and glared. “If we get back alive, you can introduce us.” He cursed at the useless hardware in his hands. “Sometimes I think you dogs were more useful before we gave you speech.”
The dog bobbed his head away and looked out at the stars. He coughed as if he’d gotten something stuck in his throat. “Okay, no talk about girls. And you don’t want me to ask what you’re going to do with that wire, even if you do get it hooked up…”
“I’m trying to feed power to the batteries, and hope it keeps us from freezing, and maybe lets us fire up a laser.”
“Oh.” Sam didn’t sound convinced.
“Talk about something else. Distract me.”
“Hoo — hmmm. You want to talk about the elections coming up back home?”
“Okay, then.” Sam turned his head, as if searching the dark of space around them for ideas. “All right, I got it. I got it. This thing’s been on my mind ever since I heard about it.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?”
The dog made a whuffing noise. “Well … it’s about space. You know how space is big? Really, really big?”
“Listen, you asked to be distracted … and there’s something that’s always bothered me. About the universe.”
“The universe!” Jake looked up. “What about the universe?”
The dog sighed. “It’s such a mind-boggling concept, you know? The universe. It’s so huge. We sit here and look out at it, and I can’t even wrap my mind around it.”
“Maybe dogs weren’t meant to think of such lofty things.”
Sam snorted in derision. “Like you understand it so well. I may just be a gene-spliced mutt with a chip in my head, but that doesn’t mean I can’t wonder about the awesome grandeur of space.”
“Don’t even start. Like this crazy business about the universe expanding—”
“It is expanding.”
“I know that. And it’s expanding faster all the time. What’s that all about, anyway? Even though gravity’s sucking on the universe, trying to make it crunch back down?”
Jake glanced up again, frowning. “Well, yeah. That’s because there’s a force—”
“I know, I know. I read about it. Dark something. Dark emissary? Dark—”
“Energy. Dark energy,” Jake said.
“No, that’s not it. Wouldn’t make any sense. Dark enigma?”
“No. I mean, yes — it’s an enigma. That’s not what it’s called, though.”
“Dark matter,” the dog guessed.
“Dark matter doesn’t push the universe apart. In fact, dark matter helps hold the galaxies together.”
“Grrrr. I thought that was strings.”
Jake squinted in the dim light at the lengthening line of half-untangled wire in his hand. I really don’t know what I’m doing, he thought. Finally he reacted to what the dog had said. “No, string theory’s different.”
“Grrrrrr. Maybe dark superglue holds the galaxies together, then.”
Jake laughed. “Okay, I’ll buy that.”
“So what is it that’s pushing everything apart?”
“I told you. Dark energy.”
“Wullll … what kind of name is that? Isn’t energy supposed to be light? Like glowing stuff? And fire?”
“Yeah, usually. But—”
“Bombs. They make a lot of light. And noise. Ka-boom!” The dog sneezed. “So how can this other energy be dark?”
Jake finally had the wire untangled. He began stretching it from the sled to the battery bay. “I guess that’s the point. They called it dark because nobody can see it. They can’t even measure it directly. It’s too subtle, I guess.” Should he connect this wire straight to the battery?
Sam was shaking his head, his ears flapping inside his helmet. “If I say black is white, is that subtle?”
“Subtle as a screen door on a submarine.”
“Whoa, boy. Did you just learn that?” The regulator. He should attach the wire to the regulator.
“Never mind. You’re trying to get energy out of that wire. If we see a spark, we’ll know it’s real. But how do we know this dark energy is real, for Pete’s sake? I’ll bet even Pete doesn’t believe it.”
“Pete wouldn’t believe it if I told him the sun rose in the east.”
“It doesn’t, on the station. Okay, bad example. But if you’re going to give something a crazy name like dark energy, don’t you at least have to know it’s there? Know something about it?”
“We do know something about it. Can you shove those pliers towards me? We know something’s pushing the universe to expand.”
“But how?” The dog nudged the pliers. “How do we know?”
“Because of supernovas, I think.”
“Supernovas are pushing the universe apart? I love supernovas! They’re so bright!” The dog’s face widened in a toothy grin inside his helmet.
“Supernovas aren’t causing it. Supernovas are how we know.” He paused; Sam looked crestfallen. “They’re like measuring sticks.”
“Okay. Next fable, please.”
“Really — astronomers use this special kind of supernova as what they call standard candles. By observing them carefully, they can tell how bright they are.”
“Well, rruff. What’s so hard about that?”
“Nothing, if the supernova were right next door. Of course, then we’d be toast. But they’re not, they’re off in distant galaxies. Thing is, there’s this special kind of supernova that astronomers know are all pretty much the same brightness really — not just how bright they look in our telescopes — and that lets them figure out how far away the galaxy is.”
“Woofee! They know how far away the galaxy is. I’m so excited I can hardly breathe. Can you see me fogging up my faceplate?” Sam was breathing fast, and actually was fogging his faceplate a little.
“It’s not that easy to measure, you know. They can’t just, like, shine a laser-finder on it.”
“Speaking of lasers, how’s that thing coming? I’ve been watching our rotation, and I think the base will be over the horizon soon.”
Jake flexed his gloved fists, which were starting to cramp up. He wasn’t just wishing he hadn’t taken the detour; he was wishing he’d paid more attention in his electrical classes. He had the laser awkwardly hanging out of the survey scanner. It needed juice from the boat’s batteries, and right now it wasn’t strong enough. “I’m doing my best here. I’m just hoping we can pull enough extra power from that sled to make this laser work.”
The border collie leaned in and licked at him — catching only the inside of his faceplate. “You can do it. Anyway, you’re not fooling me.”
Disconcerted, Jake said, “I’m not trying to fool you.”
“About the galaxy distances, I mean. They could figure it out from the red shift, right? So these astronomers have learned zip, the way I see it.”
Jake sighed, reaching to loosen a connector. “Dummy. Why’d we ever give you dogs voices, anyway? How can you say they’ve learned zip. They’ve learned a lot—”
“Don’t call me a dummy. Or I’ll call you worse.”
“I doubt you even know anything worse.”
“Oh yeah? You pink and pukle son of a Jack Russell—”
“All right. You’re not a dummy. But the thing is, they get a different answer from the red shift. Different from the one they get from the brightness, I mean.” Jake gestured, making a stirring motion. “They put the two numbers in a big equation pot—”
“What equations? You know I don’t like equations.”
“Equations for how fast space expands — from the Big Bang and stuff. They stir these numbers all around, and what they come up with is—” He paused, and squinted at the terminal on the battery regulator. Did he have the right one?
“I’m waiting. Earth to Jake. Please continue.”
“Huh?” The wire slipped out of his hand, and he swore. “Well, it turns out the galaxies are farther apart than they should be, based on how fast space was expanding a zillion years ago, according to the red-shift.” He caught the wire again, and started twisting it around the terminal.
“So?” the dog prompted.
“Soooo … after looking at all this, which at first made no sense, they concluded that the universe isn’t just expanding, it’s expanding faster now than it was before! That’s why the galaxies are farther away than they should be.” He tightened the terminal nut and looked at the spacesuited dog. “So how could that be? How could the universe be speeding up, when gravity is trying to slow it down?”
“Arrr, that’s what I’m trying to ask you — how could it be?” asked the dog.
Jake shook his head. “It’s been half a century now, and they still don’t know for sure. They call it dark energy, but they don’t understand it.”
“Who is this they person, anyway?” Sam asked, with a little yip in his voice. “It could be aliens behind it all, making us think this stuff is true. Are aliens the they?”
“I don’t think so. Not unless aliens have taken over all the astronomy departments on Earth and the Moon and Mars.”
“I suppose it could, yes. But I don’t think it has. Are you keeping track of our rotation for me?”
The dog snapped to attention and peered at the constellations. He hopped up on top of the cockpit. The inertia of his oxygen pack nearly carried him right on over to the other side. “Yes. My friend, if you have laser light, I think we may have a sightline to base.” The dog’s tail wagged slowly in its encasement.
“All right. I need a little more time. Tell me when it’s coming near to overhead.” Jake worked in earnest now, testing the connections with gentle tugs. He took a deep breath and turned on the zeep generator on the mining sled. A meter on the battery indicated a slight charge coming in. Good. Jake turned his attention to the laser dangling out of the scanner housing. It was going to be really hard to aim…
“Shine your light now,” Sam said.
Jake gripped the unit and aimed the laser up. The base should be one of those points of light just south of Altair. He squeezed the switch. A faint sparkle of green laser light shone through floating dust. When the dust cleared from the path, he couldn’t see the beam at all. Determinedly, he swept it around the patch of sky the best he could. “I don’t know if this is—” he began. The power light on the unit went out. He swore.
“Aww,” Sam said. “Grrr. Can you fix it?”
Jake pursed his lips and sighed. “Not enough juice. I guess this quantum-energy thing isn’t really made to be an electrical generator. It makes enough for its own controls, but mostly it just levitates.” He looked up into the black sky, with its sprinkling of stars. “I wonder if anyone saw the laser.” He shook his head and picked up the flares. “We’d better light a couple of these.” Taking two flares, he hiked far enough to place them on a mound for maximum visibility. He lit the flares and then, unimpressed by their red sparkle, trudged back to the boat.
“We’d better keep thinking,” he said, mulling the approaching NEA-238.
While they were pondering, Jake swapped fresh oxygen and power packs into their suits. He thought briefly of trying to tap power from one of the suit packs. But he was too afraid of draining or blowing the packs. It wouldn’t do any good for them to be seen if they couldn’t last long enough for rescue. They had a quiet meal, of the pasty stuff you ate right inside your helmet. It tasted incredibly good to him right now.
“I’ve been thinking,” Sam said, hopping down from the boat in a graceful arc. He swung his space-helmeted snout toward Jake. “Finish telling me about dark energy, please.”
“Look, I don’t really think right now is—”
“Please. It won’t hurt.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “What do you want to know?”
“Tell me what dark energy is,” said the dog.
“Nobody knows — except that it’s an energy field that’s pushing against gravity.”
“Okay, so it’s a sort of antigravity, right?”
“And this energy is coming from…?”
“Well, it seems to come from space itself.”
“Like that zero-point stuff you were talking about? Like the levitator uses?”
“I guess. Maybe.”
“Uh-huh.” The border collie cocked his head and grinned. “Rrrrffff! You know something? I think we’ll get to see the sun rise in the west tomorrow, after all.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The dog padded over to the sled and put a paw on it. “Zeep — zero — energy. The levitator pushes things apart — just like dark energy. Right?”
“R-r-right. I guess.”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Jake stared at the dog open-mouthed for a moment. “Well, we’ve been through that. It can’t levitate against space. It needs something to repel. And as soon as it gets a few inches off the ground, its power falls way off.” He shook his head at the dog. “It just doesn’t work at a distance.”
“Rrrr. It pushes real hard up close, though, doesn’t it?” The dog was gazing at him intently.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Can we try something?” the border collie asked.
Jake shrugged. “All right.”
“Raise that sled up as far as it will go, then throw some sand or something up under it. Right up against the levitator plates.”
“Um — okay.” Frowning, Jake adjusted the sled controls until it was floating six or eight inches off the surface of the asteroid.
“Good. Let’s test Newton’s laws. Got a shovel?”
He looked around and found a small, flat spade. “All right. Let me get some dirt here.” He scooped up some loose dust, then maneuvered close to the sled. “Here goes.” Feeling very awkward, he flung the dirt under the sled, trying to angle it up.
The dirt never touched the levitator plates. Instead, it ricocheted down with a force that made Jake hop back in alarm, and sent a cloud of dust out the sides. The sled bounced up a few feet from the reaction force, then sank slowly back down, bobbing as though on a sudden wave.
“Holy freakin’—” Jake began.
“That’s it! Rruffff! That’s what we have to do! It’s just like a rocket!”
“That’s amazing! But—”
“There’s plenty of dust and loose stuff here.”
“True. But we can’t just stand beside it shoveling sand under, can we?” Jake whispered.
“Maybe we can. Now bear with me on this…”
Loading the sled with loose dirt was a time-consuming and extremely messy business. But the sled was built for carrying dirt samples, and it came equipped with side panels to hold the loose stuff, and even a transparent tarp to go over it to keep samples from floating away in the microgravity. It had a pulverizing auger aimed down through the square hole in the center of the sled, but the boat’s dying fuel cells didn’t have enough power to drive it.
In the end, Jake shoveled. Fortunately, there was plenty of loose stuff on the surface. The dirt had almost no weight, but it did have mass and inertia, and when he got it moving upward, it tended to keep moving upward. He lost quite a few shovelfuls before he got the hang of lifting and then redirecting it down into the sled. After a while, he clanged onto rock and metal. Metal! He was right about this asteroid! he thought. He moved the sled to a fresh patch of loose dirt. Gradually, the sled began to fill up with asteroid dust.
“I couldn’t dig better myself,” Sam said with a woof.
“You’ll get your chance,” Jake muttered, panting from the exertion. He eyed the slowly growing pile inside the sled. They had a long way to go.
By the time the sled was piled high with asteroid dirt, Jake needed a rest and some food. The sled looked like a loaded cart without wheels, and with a funny-looking post at one end, holding the controls. “Spare supplies next,” Jake said, sucking food paste and water from his helmet dispensers.
“And a name,” said Sam. “It needs a name.”
“You think about that, while I do this.” Jake got busy bringing spacesuit recharge-packs from the boat. He used vacuum-grade duct tape to hold everything to the control post, including the remaining flares. Then he levitated the sled again and used a lot of duct tape to secure a couple of clipboards and his shovel at an angle to the unused auger, where it extended downward through the square hole. Jake stood with his hands on his hips, studying his handiwork. The shovel and clipboards were pretty crude; but they only had to withstand comparatively minor forces, deflecting the dirt sideways under the levitator.
“All we really need to do, right, is get off this rock and get headed in the right direction toward base. When we get closer to home, they’ll be able to pick up our suit-comms and flares. Right?”
“Right,” answered the dog. “And you found iron and nickel here, so maybe they’ll forgive you for being so boneheaded.” He paused. “Get it? Boneheaded?”
“Yah,” Jake said wearily.
“Wouldn’t it be funny,” Sam said, “if, after all this, they came right here and rescued us?”
“I wouldn’t mind a bit,” Jake said, yawning. He needed some sleep. They only had about eight hours until asteroid NEA-238 would loom very fast. But they couldn’t try anything until this asteroid had rotated to the proper launch position, with the base-station above the horizon. So in their urgency to get off this rock, they had four hours to kill.
“I don’t know about you,” Jake said, “but I’m bone tired. Let’s get some sleep, okay?”
“Bone-tired, rrrff,” said Sam. “All right, let’s rest.” That said, he turned around a few times before settling down. A minute or two later, he was sound asleep.
It took Jake a little longer.
In the morning, they woke to the stars circling overhead, and the sun disappearing behind the asteroid horizon. They ate a brief breakfast of spacesuit-grade paste. “You look like you’ve been through a mud-bath,” Sam said.
“We’re not going to be a pretty ship,” Jake said, wiping them both down as well as he could. He didn’t care so much if the suits looked dirty, but they needed to see clearly through their faceplates. They were depending on the stars for navigation.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?” Sam said.
“True. Have you thought of a name yet?”
Sam grew nervous, when the time came to be strapped into place. The dog’s tail twitched, as Jake tested the straps, then clipped the tarp down, and finally tightened the cords securing himself to the control post. “It’ll work,” Jake assured him. “It was your idea, remember?”
The dog was looking around through the clear tarp. “I don’t want to go flying off into space.”
“You’ll be fine. Just do what comes naturally.” He surveyed the sled and shook his head. Sam was strapped onto the top of the dirt pile, under the tarp containment. Behind the dog was the opening in the sled.
Jake looked up. The correct star groups were almost overhead. Their trajectory was going to be, to say the least, approximate. But they just needed to get close enough to the base-station for somebody to triangulate on their signals. “Ready?”
“Ready to launch space-sled Dog Star. Zero!” He switched full power to the levitators. “Dig, Sam — dig!”
The sled lurched up from the surface of the asteroid on the levitator’s repulsion field. Sam dug ferociously, spraying pebbles and dust down through the opening — where it deflected off the clipboards and flew directly under the levitator. The instant it entered the levitator-field, the dust shot downward with a silent whoosh, creating a crude rocket blast that billowed out as it hit the surface. The thrust came in gentle bumps and lurches, as the dog shoveled with his feet. The sled wobbled alarmingly and threatened to careen to one side. Jake shifted his weight like a windsurfer. It was precarious, and he nearly overbalanced, but finally he managed to steady it.
Sam didn’t answer, but kept digging. The sled continued wobbling upward — inch by inch, it seemed. “It’s working!” They were climbing, really climbing, up over and away from the wrecked spaceboat. It couldn’t possibly work — and wouldn’t have, in stronger gravity. But it did work. As the border collie dug, panting audibly, spraying dirt into the repulsion field, they continued their slow, bobbing climb away from the asteroid. Beneath them was a rocket contrail of asteroid dirt.
“We’re away!” Jake cried. “We’re away, Sam!” Peering past his feet, he could see the spaceboat shrinking. The rounded shape of the asteroid was becoming visible. The sun blazed around the edge, then came into view, forcing him to look away. He craned his neck to focus on the star-patterns above them, and the few recognizable glints of light that were other asteroids in the Near-Earth cluster. “A little more to your left, Sam!”
“Woof!” the dog said, panting happily.
There was a lot of space to cross between here and the base station. But if Sam kept digging, and they didn’t run out of dirt, and they managed to steer this thing, and their suit-comms worked, and nothing else went wrong — why, they could be in radio range of rescue by dinner time. Jake felt a rush of confidence. “Good dog!” he crowed.
“Hree-haw!” Sam barked, digging as he’d never dug before. And why not? The fate of the Dog Star was riding on him.
Afterword to “Dog Star”
I’d been pondering for some time how to tell a story about dark energy, a concept so cosmic — its effects felt only over billions of years — as to seem impossible to tell in human terms. Somewhere in my unpredictable subconscious, this urge dovetailed with my fond recollection of a joke circulating on the internet: “How many dogs [name your breed] does it take to change a light bulb?” For the border collie, the answer is: “Just me. And while I’m up there, I’ll bring that wiring up to code for you.” (I once had a border-collie mix, the smartest dog I’ve ever known. And yeah, his name was Sam. Jeez, I miss that dog.)
The central conversation about dark energy was the first piece of the story that I wrote, though I didn’t know yet that it was a dog asking the questions. I had to get that right, and clear, and conversational — and that was hard enough in itself. The next hard thing was figuring out how to wrap a story around it in which that conversation, and really knowing something about dark energy, would make a difference in the lives of the characters. I hope I succeeded. I realize the story is, in many ways, a throwback to the can-do, just give me a wrench and a place to stand, science-fiction stories of the 1950’s. But that’s okay — I loved those stories, and I don’t see why they can’t be updated to the Twenty-first Century.
But I confess, I wonder — along with Sam — what were those astronomers thinking, when they named an invisible something that holds the galaxies together dark matter, and a few years later, named another invisible something that pushes the universe apart dark energy? What were they thinking?
Copyright Jeffrey A. Carver