R*E*X by Mike Adamson

Mike Adamson holds a PhD in archaeology from Flinders University of South Australia. After early aspirations in art and writing, Mike returned to study and secured degrees in both marine biology and archaeology. Mike currently lectures in anthropology, is a passionate photographer, a master-level hobbyist and journalist for international magazines.


R*E*X

After two months one would think anyone could tire of a sight, no matter how amazing, but this never grows old and my heart is missing it—missing her—already.

Maxine is with us as always, and to see her bounding effortlessly across the red soil in Mars’ low gravity has been both the amazement and delight of the mission. Ironic perhaps—we crossed the gulf between worlds and witnessed all a new world has to offer, its sweeping vistas of rock and dust, its misty chasms and rolling dunes beneath an unpolluted sky in which the stars burn bright; but the single best memory we shall carry forever is simply Maxine, racing effortlessly beside us, tail wagging furiously and her bark in our helmet speakers.

Jim, Elsa, and Kwan are with me, all four of us on our last EVA. The La Perouse will be lifting off at 15.00 to reconnect with the EM drive sled in orbit, then we’re off back to Earth, a six-week crossing at this time of year. Maxine won’t be coming with us. We always knew this, but it breaks our hearts. The mission planners knew it would. This was the price for all the other things she has brought to us in our stay on the red planet. Not just her utility, but her companionship; which is why our mission has a mascot in the first place.

She reminds us of home in the deepest, most meaningful way possible, and the stability she brought us is beyond price. At the end of a difficult day she was the balm that soothed frayed nerves and recharged optimism, and her lick and unshakeable happiness reminded us all would be well.

We spent evenings after dinner reading or playing cards, our German Shepherd snoring softly among our feet or sprawled out on a couch at our side in the cramped habitat of Chryse Station. Nothing could more perfectly make an alien world seem welcoming. Few would have ever dared imagine a dog would accompany explorers on their respectful pilgrimage to the long-weathered remains of Viking 1 and Mars Pathfinder, but we have the images to prove it.

We are by the old seabed chasms on the south side of the Chryse Gulf, the Simud Valles at 18˚ N by 37˚ W, collecting the final samples from the data stations. Four white suits, gone pink with the dust, move with careful action. We have time yet to stand and relax, to look up at this sky of indefinable color, see the arc of the sun to zenith—subtly dimmer than the sun of Earth. But we became used to it: our pupils expanded naturally to compensate for the fractional twilight.

The rover is parked at the crest of a rise, its cameras and instruments monitoring us, providing a high-capacity data bridge back to base and a channel to the orbiter if need be. We can speak to Earth from here, though the forty-minute lag time makes conversation impossible.

I heft the last specimen cases aboard the rover—soil and rock taken from specific points and specific depths into the geologic past—then stretch and know we’re all done here. The stations will keep working. Mars is covered with electronic outposts, the planet hums with cybernetic activity whether humans are present or not.

Kwan is throwing a ball for Maxine. We brought a box of them, sure they would get lost or deteriorate in the severe Martian conditions. She never tires of chasing them—of course not, it’s what she was made for. She bounds in massive, racing, galloping strides that cover fifteen meters or more each, a slow-motion streak covering ground as we may only hope to, despite our own prodigious performance when we get up to speed in these suits. We stand around, laughing and applauding her leaps and tumbles, and loving every moment as she comes trotting back, ball in her mouth. We look at each other, catch glances through our faceplates, and we know we’re stretching the moment because we can’t bear for it to be over.

But the time comes. “Time to go, guys,” I say softly. “It’s a long way back and we have final prep to do.”

“One more throw, Frank,” Elsa says, her voice catching. We make it a good one, see Maxine streak away, leap in a perfectly-calculated arc through the cold, thin air, and intercept the red ball. She takes it neatly in her teeth, then lands in a plowing action of red soil, brakes, turns, and trots back. This time she doesn’t throw it down at our feet and prance, asking for another, but simply lays it down and looks around us with a knowing expectancy which pulls at our hearts.

We mount up, take our seats, and Maxine launches up onto the rover. She finds her spot among us and drops a paw into the recharge socket. She sits with an alert look, scanning all around, and we know even now, her glance is sending data to the mainframe, accomplishing observational tasks in realtime.

What an asset she’s been! The time Jim was overdue, she grid-searched two square miles in minutes, found him—fine but with an unserviceable transmitter—and bridged his signal back from an output cable at her collar socket. She has been Earth’s most mobile outpost, the eyes in the backs of our heads, our guardian.

The rover is back at Chryse Station, on a line roughly between Taxco and Warra Craters, in 150 minutes—Maxine could have run it in less than an hour. We go through the process of shutdown, lock into the solar recharge system by the habitat, then head into the airlock one last time.

Maxine trots in with her ball and watches us use the compressor line to blow our suits clean. She shakes violently and stands to be blown clean of dust and carbon dioxide ice the same way. Closing up, we look out across the plains of Mars for a long moment: four humans and their dog. Then the hatch swings closed with a terrible finality.

***

Four places are filled when we start engines and the La Perouse begins her journey home. The dust races, the flag strains on its pole as the rockets deliver, and the white module kicks free of its descent stage and platform to rise into the pink sky. Cameras around the base watch us go, sending us our own image as we ride the shuddering craft away to space.

But we leave a piece of ourselves behind: the fifth member who was with us when we arrived. We spent as long as we could with her, cuddles went on for a long, long time, and we made sure she had everything she would need. The last we saw, she stepped into her basket, turned around twice and settled down, chin on her paws and her ball at her side. She had a last thump of her tail for us as we closed the hatch and the habitat cycled down to minimum housekeeping levels. She closed her eyes and heaved a long, contented doggie sigh.

She’ll be there when the next crew arrives. She’ll wake, recharged, bouncing with joy and tail wagging furiously, greeting the next explorers, whom she’ll look after with the same diligence as ourselves. She’s more than a mascot, more than a drone. The Remote Excursion Xenobot is a true caninoid with a level 2 artificial intelligence. Ground Control assures us she’ll wake from time to time, go out through hatches which respond to her needs, take a turn around the monitoring stations and commune with the other cybernetic lifeforms up here. She is the first dog on Mars, and in never returning to Earth she has anchored our hearts there. Chryse is a place made real and welcoming, if only in the mysterious maze of the human psyche, by virtue of the canine nature we cannot do without.

 

END

 

Image, Creative Commons: https://pixabay.com/en/users/TheRokon-1953055/