“Commander Silva wants what, sir?”
“A dog, Martedi. She wants to pet a dog. Come on, it’s not that hard. Canis familiar: four limbs and a cold wet nose, with a tail connected to its back… Honestly, you hot-house kids! Don’t they teach you anything useful in those compounds? Anyway, it’s the Commander’s last wish, and upon my honour…”
“Drop the dramatics, Camargue! She didn’t ask for the blood of her enemies laced with gin,” said Lieutenant Costa with a long sigh that made the poor ensign cringe. When the enrolment officer told Martedi that a spaceship crew was like a family, they forgot to mention that the lieutenants would fill the role of the bickering siblings looking to establish their position at the pecking order.
And now the bickering siblings had an unlikely problem in their hands. If Commander Silva had asked for the blood of her adversaries, she’d have it in fanciful glasses within the hour. But a dog?
“Ensign Martedi, contact the nearest base and see if they know anyone with a licence for such animals… You’ll have better luck trying a zoo or a Living History reservation, try those first.” Camargue then turned to Costa. “Did the Commander ask for a specific breed?”
“There are different breeds?”
“Martedi, don’t interrupt me!” Costa stifled a nervous laughter, and Camargue then turned to her, cold as the outside air. “You should supervise the quest since you find it such a laughable matter. And you might as well pick the animal yourself, or else the ensign will end up bringing a cow abroad!”
“A what now?” Martedi made the mistake of asking, and had to run away from the room before Camargue cuffed his ears as he shouted a fine selection of descriptions about the ensign’s birthplace, mental capacities and upbringing, and while Costa choked on her laughter.
* * *
After a couple of hours studying the subject in question, Ensign Martedi concluded people from the First Generation were soft in the head. A “dog” was too broad a term: there were different shapes, sizes, colours and uses for that pre-space age creature. How was he supposed to know that?
But the Space Fleet didn’t pay him to think about his lacklustre education or the minutiae of such bygone beasts; he had received an order and had to go through with it, however absurd it sounded. “I found a Living History community who owns this dog thing, ma’am,” he informed Lieutenant Costa later that day. “They breed the specimen for such purposes. Bereavement animals, they call it. They said we’re welcome to borrow it.”
“Oh, excellent, fantastic.” Another long sigh from Costa. It reminded Martedi of his mother whenever someone from the family came with more news from the battles over the settlement borders. “I’ll inform Camargue and get to the reservation as soon as possible. Time is of the essence.”
“Ma’am…” Martedi hesitated. “Permission to speak?” Costa nodded as she stood up, the creaking of her joints and the creaking of the chair making a duet. “I was told the Fleet will promote Lieutenant Camargue to Commander when…”
“When this is over?” Costa helped Martedi, and the ensign nodded, relieved. “Well, he is the eldest of the lieutenants, so I suppose they will pick him up for the duty. Why are you asking?”
“The place will have a new atmosphere once he becomes the boss.”
That was the understatement of the millennium, cocooned in politeness and professional distance. Commander Silva was one of the last members of the First Generation, the last of the space pioneers. She was passion incarnate. Camargue and Costa belonged to the Second Generation, born to parents who lived in the days before the space conquest. Costa had been born on Earth, while Camargue belonged to a Mars base—as much of a hot-house human as Martedi, but with enough first hand memories of the “good old days” back on Earth.
But regardless of their birthplace, the fact was that the grand age of discoveries was past them—what need was there for the curiosity that moved humanity across the galaxy, now that the hard work had finished?
“Don’t you like Lieutenant Camargue?”
“I reckon it’d be a better question to check whether he likes me, ma’am.”
“I suppose he could do with a smart ensign, so do your best to keep him pleased. Now, tell me about the dog. Does it have a name?”
“It’s a Canis familiaris of the Teckel variety, ma’am, about three years old. It has a dark coat and knows how to deal with children and elders.”
“Martedi, that’s not what I asked,” Costa sighed, pinching the bridge of her large nose. “Never mind. I’ll inform Camargue you found it. The sooner we do this… Well, the sooner it ends.”
Because it had to end. It wasn’t what Lieutenant Costa wanted, Martedi could tell from the weathered look in her hooded eyes. But the Fleet wasn’t paying for her opinions either, so she soldiered on, hoping to be transferred to another spaceship or another planet as soon as possible.
But those thoughts were as useful as a raincoat on Mars. It’d be for the best to look towards that Teckel variety, whatever it was.
* * *
The Teckel variety was the oddest thing Martedi has ever seen in all of his nineteen years.
It was ridiculously shaped, for starters: built like a small oxygen tank laid on its side, with woefully short legs and ears that were just too long. Its bark was too deep for such a compact animal, and again the ensign wondered why his Commander would want to stroke the fur of such a wild thing as her last wish.
Costa, on the other hand, was besotted. “Oh, what a pretty boy!” she smiled upon seeing the specimen in the arms of the Living History reservation manager. It was the first proper smile she gave in over two months.
Martedi tried not to laugh at the manager’s historical jogging trousers and ceremonial hoodie, and bit his tongue so not to pass comment on the ridiculous houses in the walled community. Those reproductions of 21st architecture were too huge and too beige, so different to the squat, silver-panelled lodges of his childhood.
“Yes, a bonny creature,” said the manager as he scratched the specimen’s head. “A little heartbreaker, our Dashing is. Everyone’s favourite. I am sure he will make your Commander happy in her last moments.”
“I can only hope so. And what a darling you are,” Costa bowed down to caress the specimen’s black fur. “Yes, you’re a splendid boy, aren’t you? You are! It’s been so long since I saw one of those. Brings back memories…”
“You had a Daschund back home, Lieutenant?”
“She was fifty percent Daschund and fifty percent God knows what. Clone of a clone, my dad’s inheritance pet from the days when he lived on Earth. She didn’t look this good, though.”
“We breed them in the old-fashioned way over here. Our Doxies are all one of a kind,” the manager sounded like a proud father. And while he talked, the specimen wiggled from its grizzly caretaker’s arms and dashed straight to Martedi, who froze on the spot. Though the animal was little, it had sharp teeth—a bite on the right spot and Martedi could bleed half to death. He had researched that sort of thing. “Just… Just what is it doing?”
“Why, he’s sniffing you,” the manager smiled. “That’s his way to make friends. Come back here, Dashing, you’re frightening the poor officer!”
Martedi wanted to argue that he had seen many battles before he had joined the fleet—he had grown up in a Martian frontier outpost, after all: blood and guts by the red roads were common occurrences. A hairy cylinder with dysfunctional legs would not frighten him.
But he kept quiet for the sake of his pride, if not because he didn’t want the reservation manager to think ill of the Fleet. And all for the better, because Lieutenant Costa began discussing the logistics with the manager as she held the specimen close to her chest as if it was a long-lost toy.
* * *
“Only one caretaker aboard, ma’am? Is that enough to contain that beast?”
“We’re dealing with a dog, lad. We’re not bringing a lion to the spaceship,” Costa said as they rode past the gardens towards their ship.
“Is that as dangerous as a dog?”
“Martedi, please tell me you are joking.” The ensign, however, didn’t dare to open his mouth again, flushed red with embarrassment. “Didn’t they teach about the animals of Earth back at school?”
“Why would they? It’s not like any of us compound kids would ever end up there, anyroad. And if any of us ever ended up there, what would be the chances of actually meeting those creatures?” Martedi straightened up his shoulders, checking and adjusting his position. If he carried on running his mouth when nervous, he’d never be promoted. “If you allow me to speak, ma’am.”
“Permission granted, lad. What did your family have, back in your hometown? Just wondering.”
“They had what everyone had, ma’am. A plot of land and a job building the roads.”
“But no pets.”
“No pets, no. There was no food or air or time for such…” “For such fancies,” he was going to say. But you couldn’t say those things out loud to a superior—not if you planned to stay on the ship. He attempted to remember that the mission wasn’t about him or his upbringing, or about the superior breeding of Lieutenant Costa—even though he’d never imagine she was this rich, with parents that could keep cloned souvenirs from Earth.
That errand was about Commander Silva—who probably grew up in houses like those in the Living History area, and wore clothes such as those weird jogging trousers and ceremonial hoodies in her youth. She had been born with her feet on a different ground, with a sky that wasn’t rusty but an odd shade of washed blue.
Martedi didn’t know whether he should envy his commander’s peaceful and bountiful past, or to be disgusted by that silly display of wealth and pride. The little beast was superfluous, yes, but blameless—a token of the past, that was all.
* * *
Martedi expected the dog handler to be older—or, at least, to look like they knew what they were doing. The caretaker, however, was only a couple of years older than he was, dressed up in the reservation flannel and denim work garb, wearing long braids on her jet-black hair.
“I come from a family of dog breeders, if that’s what you are wondering,” said the young handler, seeing Martedi’s doubtful look. “But don’t you worry, Dash here knows better than to cause trouble.”
“It’s not the animal I’m worried about, to be honest.”
“Is it your first death ceremony? I suppose people over here go through this fast. I mean, she’s top brass, the Fleet won’t skimp on the painkillers. It’ll be over sooner than you’ll know.”
“Small mercies,” he whispered to himself, as Dashing approached to sniff his boots. “Is this really necessary?”
“Dash’s not gonna bite you, silly lad. He thinks you’re friendly. So, you’ve been here for long?”
“Three years’’, Martedi said as he tried to keep composed.
“Why, you signed up young! Space sailor’s life the one for you, then? Or were you voluntold?”
“It was either this or road building, and I didn’t want road building. What about you? Always wanted to breed these beasts?”
“Dashing is a dog, not a beast. And yes, I am to the manner born, to quote the scripture.”
“Martedi! Where is the damn animal?” Lieutenant Camargue, in his dark blue dress uniform, marched inside the docking bay in a hurry. He looked every inch the heir apparent, from his slicked, parted slate grey hair to the tips of his well-polished boots. Upon seeing the young handler, Camargue lowered his voice. “You must be Pereira. Welcome aboard. So, is the animal ready?” The young girl, tongue-tied by that demonstration of anger and power, only nodded. “Have it properly leashed at all times. It’s my ship, and I don’t want a mess. I understand the creature is not to be kept on artificial gravity for long, is that correct?”
“It does a number on his poor joints, yes” the handler said, in a futile attempt at regaining her former composure.
“Then we shall not tarry. Come along,” he signalled they should follow him down the ash coloured corridors.
Of course, the crew had to stop to watch the strange procession. Many, like Martedi, have never seen a dog that close before or ever, and only held back from making questions about the beast because of Camargue’s imposing presence at the head of the queue. While registering the childlike wonder and curiosity in his friends, the ensign also noted some of his colleagues couldn’t disguise a different breed of smile—they weren’t curious about the dog; they were disgusted at the display of such an Earthly vanity, unfit for the time and the place.
Lieutenant Costa, meanwhile, was waiting by the door of the Commander’s cabin. She lowered herself to pat the dog and Dashing almost jumped on her with unalloyed joy, looking for safety in her arms. “Come on, Dashing,” Costa smiled one more time. “You have a big job, now.”
“Please refrain from speaking to the animal as if it could understand things,” Camargue sighed. “It’s unbecoming.”
“When you get the promotion, you can issue orders. Until then, shut the deuce up,” Costa replied, almost baring her teeth like the dog. The grimace only lasted for a second, but it burned on Martedi’s mind for all time.
* * *
In the end, it was all too peaceful: Commander Silva passed away with her first officers around her instead of a family, holding on to Dashing as she lost consciousness in the same way one falls asleep. Contrary to what Martedi expected, there were no deathbed speeches, no anointment of the next commander. Silva was tired of all that ceremony, and the one thing that brought her joy was the dog snuggled on her lap.
Martedi paid attention to Costa’s heartfelt tears, the way Camargue’s hands betrayed his contained impatience and how the younger officers wanted the whole thing to end so they could go on with their work. But the one thing that jarred him was how the commander died with a smile on her lips. Martedi couldn’t remember his own parents smiling in that way, or the friends he had lost in the skirmishes at the frontier.
No wonder his shipmates were rolling their eyes: who among them had known such a sedated death in their families?
Costa murmured something about God taking care of Commander Silva’s soul; Camargue sighed and closed his eyes during the prayer, but he was the first to raise his head once Costa ended the litany. “There, it’s finished. Remove the dog, please, and let us proceed with the rest of the affair.”
“Could you please give us a moment?” Costa complained.
“We’ve had the moment. Life goes on, and so should this ship. Martedi, on your feet, lad—take the handler and the dog somewhere they can rest. As for us,” he turned to the officers, “let us carry on as our former commander would expect us to.”
But the tears still ran from Costa’s face as she picked up the dog and left the room, followed by the other officers. Martedi was the last to leave—mesmerized by the raucous, undiluted sadness and weariness and the deep smugness in Lieutenant Camargue’s eyes as he looked around the room that would soon be his.
* * *
“How bad is it, this news?”
“It’s not bad, Miss Pereira. Unexpected, perhaps, but not bad.”
“Back at my patch of land, ‘unexpected’ almost always means trouble.”
In Martedi’s patch of space too, only he’d never admit it out loud. It wasn’t bad news, he repeated to himself over and over, and yet, the nasty feeling in his stomach was still here, making him queasy.
They’d followed all the rules and protocols of the Fleet: the communication officer transmitted the death announcement to the other spaceships in a timely fashion, neither too soon as not to appear too eager, nor too late as if they had to hide an unnatural death; Silva’s body was prepared and then sent away for incineration with all the expected pomp.
The one thing out of order was that the Fleet made Lt. Costa Commander of the spaceship at the end of the daily cycle. It wasn’t the news that made Martedi queasy, it was the way the Fleet announced their decision. “‘Though he is the oldest lieutenant, the Fleet does not believe Lt. Camargue is ready for such an onerous duty such as the command of such an important spaceship’,” Martedi read out loud the Fleet message to Miss Pereira. “Wait, there’s more. ‘This was the explicit recommendation of Commander Silva, and we will acquiesce to her sound advice.’”
“Well, are you happy with your new commander?” Pereira asked as Martedi prepared the dispatch ship. Dashing left the handler’s arms and trotted to sniff Martedi’s arm and hands. “You may have your own opinions, you know.”
“Not when I’m in uniform and aboard a spaceship,” Martedi stiffened and then laughed when the specimen’s cold nose touched the palm of his hand. “Hey, you. Stop it!”
“Why don’t you stroke Dashing’s ears? Here, try this.” Pereira guided Martedi’s hands over Dashing’s cranium. The mixture of fur and cartilage and warmth felt odd to the ensign, just like the puff of hot air coming from the animal’s nostrils or the bumps and callouses in Pereira’s hand guiding his movements.
There, then: that was what his former Commander was looking for to guide her through the fear as she died. It was comfortable and joyful, though fleeting as vapour. How great it must have been to have received that sort of caress when your child, instead of the harrowing uncertainty of the red roads of his youth, where the silence was an enemy as dangerous as the ray guns.
It was Lieutenant Camargue, still in his pristine dress uniform. Martedi removed his hand from Dashing as he stood up. The lieutenant’s face was as placid as always, his voice as bossy as it had always been, and yet he looked different. Was it the lock of hair falling over his forehead, almost touching the eyelid? Or the way he looked over the dock before entering the place, surveying exits and entrances like a seasoned soldier about to enter an ambush?
“I will escort the lady back to the reservation myself,” Camargue said to the ensign. “I suppose it is the least I can do to thank them for their kindness. Please prepare the transportation.”
Though it was odd that a lieutenant would perform such a minor task, Martedi wouldn’t bother to contest the order. What stopped the ensign on his tracks was the fact the lieutenant had said “please”.
In the split second between hearing Camargue’s words and replying ‘yes, sir’, Dashing escaped from Miss Pereira’s hands and, true to its name, dashed through the door and into the main corridor leading to the bridge.
Pereira and Martedi ran after the dog, who was barking as if trying to send a distress call to all and sundry in the galaxy. People screamed at the scene; half the security guards thought the ship was under attack and the other half joined the mad chase, trying to get the dog before he caused a disaster.
Dashing knew where he was going—even if it took him several rounds to divert from the humans stopping him from arriving at Commander Costa’s cabin, scratching the door as he yelped in an anguished cry.
Martedi saw the body before he could comprehend what had happened in the darkened cabin. The small pool under Commander Costa’s laid-down body looked as placid as the surface of a Martian lake. Silence in the untouched room, the same sort of silence after an attack at the frontier outposts: time to come out of the foxholes and comb through the debris.
It was Pereira’s scream that put two and two together. Dashing jumped towards Costa’s lap, trying to rouse her up. Someone in the corridor screamed an auxiliary ship had left the dock. And Martedi, between duty and the dog, decided he’d help the dog, and ran towards Costa to help revive her.
* * *
Martedi later told Costa and the Fleet representatives about how the failed insurrection went about. And he made a point of informing the officials of Dashing’s role in the affair. “If it weren’t for him, perhaps we’d have found Commander Costa too late.”
“Saved by a hairy cylinder with small legs. You don’t get to say this a lot these days,” Commander Costa smiled for the briefest of moments. “The Fleet will promote you, Ensign. You showed great courage in the aftermath.”
“Thanks, ma’am, but I’ve decided I’m staying over here for the time being.”
“Over here” was the Living History reservation. He had escorted Miss Pereira and Dashing back to the beige houses after the commotion died down and the insurrection ringleaders disposed of. And, on the spur of the moment, he decided that if the museum could employ a hot-house kid who had never owned a pet, he’d more than gladly take the position.
“Did that man plan to blame poor Dashing for the riot?” Pereira asked.
“No, I don’t think he expected Dashing to foil his plans. He was too Earthly, in that aspect” Martedi looked to Dashing asleep on its bed by the corner of the room. Everything was beige in there, save for Dashing’s dark fur, the brick red bed, and Pereira’s red flannel shirt. “I suppose they didn’t teach Second Generation officers how to improvise in the Fleet.”
“But they taught you?” Commander Costa tried to sound nonchalant, but she couldn’t help sounding offended. Though Camargue tried to kill her, they shared the same education that Martedi now mocked.
“I grew up in a Martian frontier under heavy dispute, ma’am,” Martedi shrugged. “If you don’t move, you end up dead.”
By the way Costa frowned, Martedi guessed it was the wrong thing to say. She didn’t move when Camargue invaded her living quarters demanding explanations about the promotion, and that was why she ended up head first against her own working table. Martedi didn’t retract his words, however. Costa had to learn how to move if she wanted to have a peaceful death. There would always be someone bigger wanting her place, after all.
“Suppose he took us with him,” Pereira asked as she drank from a flask. “The two of us and Dashing. What then?”
“We’d be dead by now. No manoeuvres and no mercy for expendable people,” Martedi looked to Dashing as it snored. “Are they all like this?”
“Calm in their sleep.” Martedi took a sip of the flask. Whatever was inside, it burned his throat and made him cough. Dashing woke up and raised its head in the sound’s direction, looking for the ensign to make sure he didn’t need help.
In the end, all Martedi felt was pity—for Commander Silva’s longing and Commander Costa’s awakening, and for the former Lieutenant Camargue’s fall from grace. But Martedi refused to feel pity for himself. He didn’t know what the future would turn out to be, but now was a good a place as any to start. “Rest easy, Dash,” he smiled. “I suppose we are not going anywhere just yet.”