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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

An Astronaut and His Dog

By Pete McArdle

Although Nick had been amazingly healthy for the decade and a half he'd been aboard the international space station, Druhzny III, he wasn't going to stay that way if his dog kept having accidents all over the place. Rags was a good dog, smart, loyal, and affectionate. But he was now almost fifteen years old, all of them spent in the reduced gravity of space, which made him well over a hundred in human years. He'd lost most of his teeth, could barely see with his cataracts, and his hindquarters were shot, although that didn't hinder him much in the low gravity. In the last few weeks, however, he'd developed a significant tremor and become increasingly incontinent, leaving surprises floating everywhere. Something had to be done.

Back when Rags was just a handful of squirming, bright-eyed pup, Nick had smuggled him aboard the Saturn rocket that would blast them into space, as a gift for his new Russian crew-mates on Druhzny III. Of course the Russians had been recalled soon after Nick and the puppy arrived, when the atomic bombs started lighting up the planet like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

They'd been nice enough guys, Boris, Leonid, and Victor, they were scientists at heart and had left only because they were used to following orders. Privately, they all agreed that what was happening back on Earth was pure insanity. But they'd left nonetheless, leaving the American and his pup with no ride home.

Despite now having to do the work of four men, Nick somehow found time to walk the puppy, feed him, and keep his water bowl filled. As the mixed-breed's fur grew in, it was wild and patchy and all different colors, hence the sobriquet "Rags." Quickly house-trained and most good-natured, Rags had been the best dog a guy could ever want. His only sin was that he'd gotten old and could no longer control his bowels. Nick finished cleaning up a mess in the hydroponics lab and went looking for his dog.

He tracked Rags down in the communications center where he was curled up in a ball under the main console, trembling and looking terribly guilty.

"That's O.K., fella," said Nick, scratching the dog's scrawny neck, "I know you can't help it." A level-5 systems analyst -- a problem solver, if you will -- Nick had used every bit of his considerable creativity and resourcefulness to keep the space station intact and inhabitable all these years. And now he had the sad task of figuring out how to put down his dog.

When he'd comforted Rags enough for his trembling to subside, the two of them bounced over to the mess hall where Nick entered the parameters for their breakfast into the food synthesizer. For fun, Nick specified that their meals be processed in the shape of a bone, with the dog's bone having a much higher percentage of fat and protein as befitting a carnivore.

As Rags gummed his breakfast, Nick checked the fat and protein stores in the Nutri-matic. Carbohydrates were not an issue, Nick had a self-sustaining garden going in the hydroponics lab. But the space station had only been supplied with enough protein and lipids to last four men for three years. By being extremely frugal -- both man and beast were skin and bones -- Nick still had enough reserves to live another two or three years, longer still with Rags gone.

It must have been Sunday for the prelude to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake began to filter through the mess hall. As the music swelled, Rags's ears perked up -- he'd always seemed to like classical music. By programming the computer to only play music on Sundays, Nick still enjoyed it even though nearly every other pleasure had withered away over the years. Books he now shunned, for the written word had become joyless and sterile, he read only the things he needed to stay alive. Without the possibility of ever touching a woman, Nick's porno magazines had devolved into splotches of ink on a page, they might as well have been pictures of mating salamanders. As for talking on the radio, his last conversation with a human had taken place way back on day three of the nuclear holocaust.

Grimacing at the memory, Nick bounced over to the command center where the sunlit side of Earth was coming into view. Thanks to mankind's infernal thick-headedness and hubris, the once beautiful planet was now an eyesore. The blues had become grays and the greens were now a sickly brown, and instead of fluffy white weather systems, crimson and black maelstroms circled the globe, storms that must have been fearsome to behold -- if anyone had managed to survive the ongoing nuclear winter.

It was all so mind-bogglingly stupid, Nick could only shake his head. A reactor outside of Beijing had somehow had a meltdown, killing or displacing millions. The paranoid Chinese suspected sabotage by their chief economic rival, the U.S, and sent operatives to take out the Indian Point nuclear power plant, a horrific act that turned New York City into a ghost town. On the advice of his military intelligence, the U.S. President ordered a nuclear strike on Shanghai and when a missile strayed into Russian airspace, all hell broke loose. Russian computers rained U-235 down on America and the completely-automated U.S. response blew Russia, and everyone else, to Kingdom Come. Nick's crew-mates probably never made it past the staggeringly-large electromagnetic charges coursing through Earth's atmosphere. The terrible fiasco was over in less than a week and it was the last time Nick heard a live human voice.

Nick checked the station's system-status grid -- ironically, Druhzny III was powered by a nuclear reactor -- and saw that he had enough power for the next thousand years or so. The navigational and heating systems were running smoothly, the water and air purification units were happily doing their thing, and as Swan Lake crescendoed off the walls and the ceiling, the stereo system had never sounded better. Still, Nick felt sick.

He was losing his only friend, a friend who licked his face in the morning, followed him around all day with his tail wagging, and curled up with him at night. Nick had no doubt that he would have lost his mind long ago without Rags. They shared meals, they played catch, they had conversations of a sort, but most of all, they loved each other. Between all the maintenance such a large ship required and the dog's constant companionship, Nick's life had been busy and enjoyable. The years spent circling the Earth had not weighed too heavily upon him.

But the rules of dog ownership were no different in space than they were on Earth: you don't allow an old, failing mutt to suffer. The time had come to euthanize his dog -- but how? There were no narcotics in sick bay and, of course, no guns on board, for the Druhzny III was a cooperative venture, a five-hundred ton olive branch symbolizing the unshakable friendship between the U.S. and Russia.

Nick was not emotionally equipped to smother the animal or break its neck, he couldn't stand the sight of blood, and there was no way he'd even consider jettisoning Rags into the cold but quick death of outer space. No, Rags had been his only source of joy for the last fifteen years. He deserved only kindness and unstinting compassion, and damn it, Nick was going to find a way to do this right. But right now it was time for their morning walk.

Nick let out a piercing whistle, and then another -- the old pooch was also going deaf -- and then Rags came bounding into the command center, his useless hind legs trailing behind him. Rags licked Nick's hand as he fastened the dog's leather leash, woven out of three infra-red camera straps, and then they went on their morning constitution, circling the station in a large but dimly-lit ventilation duct. There were several chemical-waste vents along the way where they stopped for Rags to do his thing, but he did scant number one and no number two. The dog was trying, Nick could tell, but his body just wouldn't cooperate. And later, Nick would find more mistakes.

Something had to be done -- but what? What could Nick do that that would be both painless and humane? Heck, what would he do if he wanted to end his own life? And then, like a lightning bolt -- like the lightning bolts that flashed across the surface of the ruined Earth at night -- it hit him.

It was dinner time, or so the computer said, and Nick took his time entering the complex request into the Nutri-matic. Rags sat patiently by his side, drooling and watching Nick's every move. He may have been fading rapidly, the poor thing, but he still knew when it was time for dinner. And Nick intended this to be the best dinner the dog had ever had.

Earlier in the day, Nick had laid out a mattress in the command center so they could watch the Moon come into view. He'd programmed his favorite classical pieces into the computer and broken into the Russians' not-so-secret stash of vodka. Although Nick was not fond of drink, this dinner was a solemn occasion and a cocktail was in order, both for him and the dog. A bell went off and their entree was finally ready, the savory aroma making Rags do laps around Nick in anticipation.

The two of them headed into the command center and sat down on the mattress, both man and dog practically delirious with hunger. Leaving their meal covered for the time being, Nick grabbed the remote from his belt, turned on the music, Beethoven's Symphony Pastoral, and dimmed the lights. Then he picked up the bottle of premium vodka, turned to Rags and said, "Watch and learn." Leaning forward, Nick opened the bottle and let a clear stream of liquid float into his mouth.

The vodka was really rather good, ice-cold and bracing, and although Rags had a dubious look on his face, the old dog followed suit, swallowing a small shot of vodka and then licking his chops. And now it was time for their mouth-watering main course: a big, juicy faux-steak.

The food synthesizer has really really outdone itself, thought Nick as he sliced into the steak, imitation blood flowing onto the plate. He cut half the steak into tiny pieces, so his dog wouldn't choke, and ate the other half with his hands. Having wolfed his portion down, Rags was licking the plate clean when the Moon came into view.

Nick found it inexpressibly beautiful, perhaps because of the sublime musical score or the cold, potent liquor, but mostly because the Moon hadn't changed. It was the very same Moon he'd gazed at as a boy while he dreamed of one day blasting into space. And though the world had gone to hell in a hand-basket, Nick had been able to live that dream, with his trusty dog, Rags, by his side.

He petted Rags's graying head, getting a lick on the face in return, and poured them both another shot of vodka. The thirty-two ounce steak had used up nearly a third of the remaining fat and protein on board but it had been well worth it. It was as good a steak as Nick could remember.

Now the sweet strains of Pachelbel's Canon in D-Major filled the air, sounding especially sonorous now that the noisy air-purification system had been disabled. There was no way to be sure but Nick suspected Canon in D-Major was Rags's favorite classical piece.

Nick lay back against the pillows, Rags settling down right beside him, and as the Moon shone brightly and the violins rose and fell, he and his dog slowly drained the bottle of vodka.

Between the alcohol and the slowly-rising levels of carbon monoxide, Nick felt extremely calm and pleasantly drowsy, and he could sense that Rags did too.

He looked into the dog's cloudy brown eyes and said, "You're a good dog, yes you are!"

Rags wagged his tail and barked weakly, and then the two of them fell asleep forever: just a boy and his dog.

Article © Pete McArdle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-02-06
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
4 Reader Comments
06:21:49 PM
Bud Weizer
02:23:34 PM
Little-known fact: Question #31 on the AA questionnaire reads, "Do you often share a cocktail with your dog? Or enjoy an apertif with your cat?" Just trying to help. P
03:42:29 PM
This almost read like Edgar Allen Poe in space -- it had the same growing inevitable horror as a Poe tale. At the same time, it managed to combine some of my favorite things about Golden Age sci-fi: some interesting speculative how-to's, and an emotionally upbeat, indomitable mood. No setback can stop the hero from his goal! Holocaust survived? Check! Last human alive survived? Check! Humane way to put down best friend and figure out how to avoid being driven insane by loneliness? Check! So sad and horrifying, yet so sweet and uplifting. I'm impressed. Great job.
10:13:52 PM
My dad used to give our dog Rags a little bowl of beer now and then, which she enjoyed immensely. I think this story hit me hard because at the end of her life, it was just Dad and Rags, and he had to help her leave him behind.
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