December 2007 Volume One Issue Five
Marsdog - Beth Bernobich
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Jimmy, who lived on Mars.
Actually, he wasn't a boy and his name wasn't Jimmy. There are no pronouns in any human language for his sex, unless you made up one like Zhe or Lo. Zhe -- no, that's just too damned silly, let's stick with "he." He was really a Taledi, a six-legged arthropod; his carapace was blood red and shiny, his antennae little more than black stubs above his bright faceted eyes. The Taledi had arrived on Mars in the far, far past of this future, so long ago that their language and their mating habits had evolved well away from those Taledi who remained in the home planetary system of Jafal. There, on Jafal, the Taledi lived in dwellings open to the air, and mated without regard to caste or nest-affiliation, or even the survival of the species. The Taledi on Mars lived out their thirty or forty deca-revolutions in sophisticated pressure suits, which they only removed in the privacy of their in-dwellings, and only with members of their mate-unities, usual three or four in number.
But that's more than you wanted to know.
Let's start over. Once upon a time, in the far, far future of the past, there lived a prepubescent Talëdi named Danu-vil-fa who lived on Mars. Let's call him Jimmy and pretend that he's a boy.
Early that morning, Jimmy slipped away from the solitary in-dwelling where he lived with his father. The in-dwelling was like a carapace itself, constructed of polished metal -- one compartment for gorging and disgorging, another for their diurnal hibernation, and an open central chamber where nest members might visit with one another. You might think that in such confined space, a father would notice his son missing for an hour or a day, but not so. His father would never notice -- not today, not any day since Jimmy's mother had died, and his father had announced they would leave Yul City's glass towers to make a new life here on the frontier, beside the dizzy-deep canyons of Valles Marineris. His father worked hard, taking soundings, digging soil samples, programming the mining bots, but all that hard work left Jimmy to play alone, because there were no other mate-unities nearby.
Jimmy hurried along the rim of the canyon, scuffing up dirt into rust-brown clouds, his mandibles working in excitement and curiosity and traces of lingering grief. It was early morning yet. The skies arced clear and yellow overhead, shading to dusky peach above the horizon. A few azure patches drifted over Valles Marineris to the south, where even at mid-day the canyon's broken depths remained shadowed in bluest black, and columns of vapor rose from its unseen vents, the breath of minor demons or long-lost ice deposits breaking free, depending on whether you read the philosophers or the scientists. If you listened hard, as Jimmy sometimes did, you might hear the echo of sand grains falling into the infinity below. Jimmy usually kept well away from the crumbling edge of the canyon, but two days before, while exploring the rock jumbles and ravines, he had sighted a fissure in the cliff wall, right where the canyon's rim looped and wriggled like a worm. Maybe. An overhang made it difficult to tell if that inky line was a crack leading inward, or a trick of sunlight and shadow.
Treasure, he thought, his mandibles working faster. A vein of ebony ioathamite or the impossibly rare kanoboev would make them rich. And maybe, just maybe, his father might look up from the everlasting red soil and see him, Jimmy, and not those terrible images of hospitals and death-rites, which turned his eye-facets gray with misery.
A shrill burst overhead made him jump. He jerked up his head and saw a brilliant white streak traveling very very fast across the butterscotch skies. The next moment a tiny sphere appeared, hurtling toward the ground and trailed by miles and miles of string with a huge red and white rag at the end that whipped about madly. It was coming right at him! Jimmy yelped and ran, ran as fast as he could, his pressure suit squeaking under the strain, even though he knew it was impossible to outrun a streak of light.
The thing hit the ground with a loud thump. Jimmy dove behind the nearest rock, which didn't seem nearly tall enough to protect him. But hey, the thing didn't kill him and it didn't crash into bits. It bounced and skidded and tumbled end-over-end, throwing up gravel and sparks, right up to the canyon. Up, up, up. . . .
. .and over the edge.
Jimmy stared, his heart tissue beating so fast that the hemolymph thrummed behind his eyes. Dust hovered, like an old ghost, above the flats, marking the thing's landing. A few feet away lay a twisted metal rod. There was a sour smell in the air, which reminded him of Deg beetles.
All the warnings about the canyon and its dangers flipped through his juicy brain. Here and gone. The next minute, Jimmy was racing to the canyon rim. He stopped as close as he dared, dropped to his four knees, and peered over the edge.
The cliff plunged straight down a kilometer, or more. Jimmy squinted hard, but he saw nothing like the thing from the sky. He cocked his head and listened. Not even the faintest vibration reached his audio membranes, enhanced as they were by science and evolution. Maybe it was already at the bottom. Maybe it burned up in the air. Maybe --
Jimmy wriggled closer to the rim and slapped his clawed chelicerae onto the ground. The sticky patches on his suit gloves activated with a buzzing noise. He drew a deep breath and let his head dangle over the edge.
Six meters down, the thing clung to a tiny lip of rock almost directly below him. Three of its spiky legs dug into the vertical wall over its head; two more braced against the rocky outcropping, which was crumbling underneath its weight.
"Hold on!" Jimmy called out.
He swung his pack from his shoulder and dug out the climbing gear he had brought to explore the fissure. Lickety-split, he planted two stakes in the ground, and even before the anchors clicked out, he'd attached the extra strong plasti-metal-rope to the anchor's loops, then to his own pressure suit.
Jimmy tugged at the line to make sure it held. Took another deep breath. "I'm coming," he yelled. Then he swung himself over the edge of infinity.
Eighty-five billion thinking species do did will inhabit the known galaxies. Many of them blip into life and vanish. More than you think tell adventure stories, grand swooping tales about heart-stopping excitement (for those species with hearts, or their equivalent). There are the humans with their stories of Kim and Odysseus and Sinbad the Sailor, the Leitikaans and Kas-kilas with their multi-volume questing sagas. And let us not forget the Bibiinolavii, who have twelve sanctioned story patterns for adventures alone, which they embroider upon to each other in endless variations, recording them on metallic disks and even transmitting them across the galaxy so that far-away settlements, such as the Taledi on Mars, have picked up the signals tens of thousands of years later. Stand alone exposed, on the surface, and you can sense those signals vibrating within your bones, like whispers from the dead.
In other words, there are no new tales under the sun, whatever its name or whichever the galaxy. So imagine for yourself how Jimmy made his descent down the cliff's wall, how he struggled to attach his ropes to the thing, then to the hooks on his own pressure suit. Add a few setbacks, including one that nearly sent both Jimmy and the thing plunging into the canyon depths. A quick save. A few clever tricks that Jimmy learned from those same Bibiinolavii recordings (for the scientists had long ago decoded their clickety-clack language, and the stories had become popular). And finally, imagine the relief and wonder Jimmy felt when the mechanism built into his suit successfully hauled both him and the thing up to safety. He loaded his new-found treasure into his sack (not forgetting the broken-off leg) and hurried back to the in-dwelling, arriving, as the patterns require, ten minutes before his father. He had barely time enough to hide the thing in the dusty crawl-space, behind coils of extra rope and a few abandoned machine parts.
That night, while his father lay motionless on the padded hibernation shelf above, Jimmy dreamed. His were arthropod dreams, of course, born of the chemicals that whorled about inside his carapace, and his stubby antennae twitched this way and that, as though seeking new alien transmissions. No luck, Jimmy boy. Your in-dwelling is too well shielded against radiation, and your father switched off the transmitter-receiver because of those dust storm that kept him at home all afternoon. So dream of yesterday, little bug. Dream of Old Jafal and your ancestors, of the cities they built across their home planet, until there was no room for another nest and the Queen wailed in grief for children born and absorbed before they truly lived. Until the clouds of time opened, and a clawful of unities fled to the stars.
"Marsdog," Jimmy said. "That's what I'm gonna call you." Then he added wistfully, "I always wanted a dog."
Jimmy had waited until his father left on morning rounds, then hauled the thing from its hiding place. In the thin yellow sunlight of the early Martian morning, it looked even stranger than he remembered. It (he?) was tiny -- only a meter tall at the tip of its dented cone. In fact, it no longer looked much like a cone. All that bouncing and crashing had turned Marsdog into a semi-demi-maybe-not-so-spherical shape. All that rolling and bumping had cut deep grooves into the dull gray paint -- almost like a skin -- that covered Marsdog. Underneath the gray, Jimmy could see a shinier color, a bright silvery-white, like the first sunflares of the day.
Neat, he thought and leaned close to get a better look.
A double row of shiny black dots circled all the way around Marsdog's head. They looked like shallow thumbprints pressed into Marsdog's gray skin. Those had to be its eyes, Jimmy thought. More gray-and-brown spots made a freckled pattern on Marsdog's belly. Not eyes, though. Something different. Maybe they were special markings. Maybe it was an alien language.
Jimmy fell over with a squawk, his arms and legs flailing.
Marsdog's five spiky legs punched out in all directions. Jimmy scooted back a few meters. All of a sudden, his high-tech pressure suit felt tissue thin. All of a sudden, those stupid lectures his father gave about dangers and why don't you pay attention, don't you remember how far away we are from civilization didn't sound so stupid anymore.
Marsdog whirred and hissed. One leg -- the longest -- rotated with a grinding sound that made Jimmy wince. Still he kept a wary bug-eye on that leg, which had six jointed toes, all of them ending in wicked points. Sure, the leg wasn't long enough to reach him, but now he remembered his dad's warning about the poisonous Zibi worms, which could jump seven meters even before they grew wings. Marsdog might not be a worm, but it might know how to jump, and jump fast. Maybe it would even eat his brain!
Ssssssssss . . .
Jimmy kept one eye on Marsdog, glanced toward the in-dwelling with his other. Luckily, he hadn't put Marsdog in between himself and the door, but who knew how fast alien things could move? And what if he did get inside, only to find out Marsdog could eat through metal?
Ssssssssss . . .<click> . ..hmmmmmmmmmmm.
The hum caught Jimmy's full attention. It was almost like the after-echo of a bell tone, dark and sad and fuzzy with vibrations. "That's different," he said.
<click> Whrrrrrr. Hmmmmm?????
"Are you asking me a question?" Jimmy said.
More humming and clicking, then Marsdog opened up the claw.
Jimmy tensed, ready to jump up or down or sideways, but Marsdog did not move except to slowly rotate its claw, humming all the while. Light glinted from the metal points, and in the distance, Jimmy thought he heard dust whispering over the ground, as the morning breeze lifted with the rising sun. There was a spicy scent in the air which filtered into his suit -- mineral fines kicked up by land rovers, or churned out by the mining bots. A vinegar smell from a very nervous Jimmy. But too he caught a whiff of something sweet and oily that drifted toward him from the now-motionless Marsdog.
He's trying to trick me, Jimmy thought. His mandibles twitched as he tried to figure out what he ought to do. He no longer thought Marsdog would eat metal (though he wasn't entirely sure), but he still didn't trust this alien metal-thing that had rocketed down from the sky.
"Who are you?" he said.
Exasperated, Jimmy made a rude sound. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Hey, maybe it was trying to repeat his words.
"Say Jimmy," he demanded.
Zhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. <click> Mmmmmmmmmmm. <hiccup> e-e-e-e-e-e -- --
It was talking. Or trying to. Jimmy tried a couple other words, which Marsdog copied, but there were lots of times it just clicked or hummed, and it still made that awful grinding noise whenever it rotated its claw. Jimmy figured that Marsdog was just stretching out, like when his Dad stretched and groaned after a hard day on the steading. Except that when his Dad stretched and groaned, he ended up making happy grunts afterwards, like everything felt better, and Marsdog just clicked and hissed.
"You're hurt bad," he said. "And I guess I scared you."
<click> Hrrrrrrrt <click> Ysssssssssssss.
"Well," Jimmy said, "we better get you fixed up."
After explained what he wanted to do, Jimmy rolled Marsdog over to his father's workshop building. Bumpety-bump went Marsdog, who clicked and cried at first, before it gave a scary shudder and retracted all its legs inside itself. Marsdog still wasn't round like a ball, but now Jimmy could roll and steer his new dog-friend easily. "You're a smart one," he said.
Smmmmmmrrrr . ..noooooo . ..no smrrrrt.
Huh, Jimmy thought. Marsdog was learning fast. "You are smart. You figured out how to talk to me, and you figured out what I was trying to do. Maybe you can help me fix you."
Marsdog said nothing except to click a few times, as though he disagreed but he was too polite to say so. Jimmy once had an aunt like that. After his mother died, that same aunt had offered to take Jimmy into her own mate-unity "just to help out." But Jimmy's father had called her a miserable old busy-body, and she left in a Grand Talëldi huff.
Jimmy spent three Martian hours tinkering with Marsdog before he finally gave up in frustration. His father had bought all kinds of tools for the steading, because out here on the frontier, there were no other mechanics, and Jimmy's father knew he'd had to repair and maintain his equipment himself. Jimmy carefully took up each tool and tried matching it to any part of Marsdog. Nothing fit. Nothing like, as his mother used to say.
Jimmy swallowed and oozed sweaty tears from his thorax. Mom would have liked Marsdog, he thought, wiping away the secretions with the back of his chelicerae. She would have helped him look up stuff on the info-net, then badgered Dad into buying new reference books they'd never need again, just to see what they could find out. Mom was nearly as curious as he was, and she'd been all grown up.
"Mom isn't here," he told Marsdog. "You're stuck with me."
Marsdog's eyes flickered. Zhhhhhmmmmeeee, it said. With-with-with-me.
"You're funny," Jimmy said, but he felt better anyway.
He spent another hour going through his father's tools, being careful to replace everything just as he'd found it. The whole time he worked, Jimmy chatted and asked questions about everything and nothing, which he answered himself. Marsdog clicked and whirred and occasionally said something, but otherwise they made no progress. Then the workshop clock chimed, two long sonorous tones that signaled mid-day.
"Whoops," Jimmy said. "Dad will be home soon. I'm gonna have to hide you again, buddy."
Call mmmmme Mrzzzzdog.
"Okay, Marsdog. But I still have to hide you. Dad might not understand."
Marsdog clicked and hummed.
Of all the species in the Universe, few can approach the Talëdi for complexity when it comes to eating. Imagine a Japanese tea ceremony, the installation of a new pope -- But no, even those cannot approach the Talëdi rituals for gorging and disgorging. First comes a period where the guests sample the dishes in tiny sips and nibbles, with entire sub-rituals of phrases and gestures in between, which succeeding generations have added to. Next comes a period where everyone eats in silence, filling their stomachs to near-bursting. This portion is called the True Gorging, and has not changed since Old Jafar. An interval of quiet conversation follows, with the guests continuing to sample from their favorite flasks and dishes. When that comes to an end, the ceremony of disgorging begins.
Let us pass over that part, however, which could only interest another Talëdi, and even then only an anthropologist or philosopher from old Jafar.
Jimmy and his father reclined on cushioned platforms, the dining shelf in between. The interval of tiny bites and many exchanges was past; now they ate in silence. Or rather, Jimmy tried to eat. His antennae wiggled in excitement as he thought about what adventures he and Marsdog would have, once Jimmy repaired his new friend. And though he could not see himself, you should know that his eye-facets glittered bright gold and silver. He scooped up a clawful of noska paste but hardly noticed what he ate, even though noska paste was his favorite, and the cool grainy texture felt good after a morning under the Martian sun. Briefly he wondered if Marsdog were hungry, or if Marsdog could even be hungry. It hadn't acted weak or sick, even after crashing into the ground, then spending a whole afternoon and night underneath the in-dwelling. But how could you tell? He finished off the noska paste and started on the glëvi pie, chewing rapidly as he thought about it. What did you feed an alien dog? Maybe he could filch some laka-oil beans and see if his new friend would like those. Maybe --
All of a sudden, he realized his father was asking Jimmy questions about his morning.
"Sorry," he muttered, though his father had not scolded him.
His father tilted his head and quirked his antennae. "You look happy about something."
Jimmy said nothing. He swallowed down the glëvi pie and reached for the last handful of gënë pellets.
"I'm glad," his father said. "I worry that you'll get bored out here with no friends."
Jimmy shrugged. "It's okay."
A pause followed as father and son shared out the last of the mimesed juice.
"I noticed you took your climbing gear out this morning," his father said.
"Yeah. I thought I saw something yesterday."
"Not in the canyon, I hope."
Jimmy eyed his father warily, but decided that his father was guessing. He didn't really know what Jimmy had been up to that morning.
"Did you find anything?" his father said.
"Naw. Well, just some stuff."
"You know. Stuff."
His father waited a moment, then gave the gesture of resignation. (One he'd used all too often, as Jimmy approached the teenaged years.) He switched on the radio receiver, which they sometimes used when conversation flagged. A bright crackling sound invaded the engorging chamber, indicating that an electric storm danced and sparked over the rust-red plains between Yul City and the Valles Marineris. Jimmy's father fiddled with the tuning rods and sensors until, with a loud click, the static changed into clear musical voices.
" . . . an unidentified object sighted yesterday morning over the Amazonis Planitia . ."
Jimmy stopped chewing and listened intently.
" . . . scientific and philosophic councils reported that the object emitted a burst of radio signals, which triggered both our space and aviation alarms. So far, the Imperial trackers have not located its remains, but the search continues. The incident has sparked a lively debate in the scientific and philosophical communities, coming just three weeks before the councils meet to discuss further migration options -- "
Jimmy's father cut off the transmission with an angry stab at the switch. He looked both annoyed and unhappy, but not the same kind of unhappy as when he thought of Jimmy's mother. Then he gave Jimmy a weak smile (or the Taledi equivalent). "Sorry, Jimmy. I didn't mean to lose my temper. It's just that I know they'll rehash the same arguments all over again. Do we send out nest-fledglings to the stars? Or not? Can we afford to go? Bah. As though we'd find anything outside our world except a trillion kilometers of emptiness -- "
He broke off with a dry, chittering laugh. "And here I go, rehashing those arguments anyway. Maybe I need to talk to someone besides myself." He glanced at Jimmy, almost shyly. "Maybe we both do. Would you like to come along with me this afternoon?"
Jimmy's heart tissue did a funny skip. He almost said yes. He would have, except for Marsdog. With a voice he didn't quite trust, he said, "It's okay, Dad. Really. But, um, I was going to stay home and catch up on schoolwork."
He and his father stared at one another. The Talëdi do not have expressive features -- the blood-red carapace that encloses their face and body segments creates a stiff mask, unreadable to most to other species. For the Taledi themselves, however, a mere flick of the antennae, an involuntary quiver of the mandibles, express more drama than any human speech. The eye facets are the most telling -- they glitter, or brighten, or turn dull; within an eyeblink, they can change to any color along the spectrum. Seeing the opaque shine in his father's eyes, the unnatural stillness of those stubby antennae, Jimmy perceived a new reserve in his father, one that found an echo inside himself. It was a strange uncomfortable thing, as though a bottomless gorge had opened between them. For one brief moment, Jimmy had the urge to leap across . . .
The moment passed. Jimmy dropped his gaze. His father sighed, picked up an oily crumb from the plate before him.
Another Martian day, another Martian dollar.
That afternoon, after his father returned to his rounds, Jimmy sat on the floor of his father's workshop and scowled at Marsdog. He wasn't mad at Marsdog, but he was frustrated, and in spite of the filters and climate conditioning units, he exuded enough sour-stink secretions to make his olafactory glands contract. Marsdog just sat there.
Nothing works, Jimmy thought with a sigh.
His father's neat workbench had disappeared underneath heaps of equipment -- clamps and wrenches over here, valëf connectors, buckets of screws, rolls of plasti-patch and olabob compound, and even an old vomish meter. But nothing fit. Nothing fit. Not even the shapes were right. The closest he could come were the stupid wrenches, but those all had six-sided openings, and the few bolt-type things Jimmy found on Marsdog's butt were all eight-sided.
"I wish I knew what to do with you."
Doooo...with-with-with-me, said Marsdog. If he had been a real dog, he probably would have thumped his tail on the floor, or poked his snout under Jimmy's hand. As it was, he continued to sit there.
"I mean," Jimmy went on, "if I were a computer whizz, maybe I could look up something on the info-net, but Dad has that all locked down tight while he's gone. And I bet that wouldn't matter anyway because you're an alien and we don't know anything about alien stuff except what those stupid Bibiinolavii recordings -- "
He stopped. Marsdog was rocking back and forth. "What is it?"
Bbbbbbbb <click> bbbbbbbb <CLICK!>
"Are you trying to say Bibiinolavii?"
Jimmy stared. "What about them?" Then he remembered exactly what he'd been babbling. "You mean you want to listen to those weird recordings?"
Ja-ja-ja-ja-ja-ja-ja-ja-ja. Marsdog rocked harder.
"How can that help -- "
Then Jimmy also remembered how smart Marsdog was -- learning to talk in less than a day. And whoever sent him those million-gadjillion miles must have thought him smart, too. Maybe, just maybe, they could figure out something together.
"Okay," he said. "But we'll have to go inside."
Jimmy laughed. "You goof, I mean inside the house."
He reassembled his pressure suit around his carapace (a process that Marsdog watched intently with his row of bright black eyes). Taking great care, he tilted Marsdog onto its side, so he could roll his friend out the door, down the ramp, then up and through the next pressure doors and into the in-dwelling. Inside he maneuvered Marsdog into the nook where his father kept the info-net console.
"Let me try first," he said. "I think I remember how to get to the recordings."
Marsdog clicked but said nothing.
Without bothering to remove more than his gloves and helmet, Jimmy settled into the sling in front of the console. He paused and his mandibles worked nervously. He had never tried to operate the console by himself, and certainly never tried to break past the locks and filters his father had set. The screen, a big square of dark blue plasti-fabric stretched inside a metal frame, stared back at him. You can't see me, Jimmy thought, even though that was exactly what he feared. Beside him, Marsdog was humming softly.
There were two black mesh touch-pads to the left of the console, a single larger one on the right. Jimmy took a deep breath and pressed both his chelicerae onto the right-hand touch-pad. Immediately he felt a strong tingling sensation as the chemicals flowed past, reading his imprint, and a sweet-salty-sour taste infiltrated his brain through the fuzzy lobes between his claws.
The screen emitted a bluish-purple glow. Jimmy held his breath as patterns of squares and dots flowed past in the boot-up sequence. Next a series of tinny notes blared from the speakers. These were followed by several rank smells. (Deg beetles again.) Then the screen went blank.
Jimmy blew out a breath, frustrated. "He's locked it up, Marsdog."
Just to be sure, he went through the boot-up sequence a second time, but the screen blipped on and off right away. Darn.
Jimmy glanced down at his friend, who looked agitated. Or impatient. "What? You want to try?"
Another chirrup, this one louder.
That was definitely a Let me try sound, Jimmy thought. He pushed the button to retract the sling and moved his friend closer. Marsdog sat still a moment, his black eyes flickering. Then he extended one skinny arm toward the right-hand touch-pad. The claw opened flat and thick short bristles emerged. Marsdog brushed the bristles over the touch-pad. There was a dreadful pause, during which Jimmy feared they had broken the console, he and Marsdog. He believed it even more when a rapid pattern of black and emerald green dots appeared, so bright and fast that his eye-facets hurt. He was so going to catch it his from his father . . .
A honey-sweet smell filled the in-dwelling. The screen flickered and turned butter-yellow. One by one, icons popped into view until they made a gaudy border around the edge.
"You are smart," Jimmy breathed.
They were into the system, and skimming through the info-net. Jimmy tapped his claws over the three smaller touch-pads. New combinations of chemicals zinged his sensitive lobes, and the patterns of squares and dots flickered like the tiny luminous zü gnats that made the desert twilight so lovely. Jimmy hardly paid attention. He was trying to remember exactly where those recordings were. Even though his father never let him use the info-console alone, Jimmy had often peeked over his father's shoulder.
"Here it is," he said pointing at the screen.
Marsdog reached out and started tapping on the smaller touch-pads.
"Hey," Jimmy said. "Stop that. You're gonna screw things up -- "
Then he snapped his mandibles shut. The Bibiinolavii icons had vanished, replaced by a lot of wriggly blue lines. Marsdog kept tapping, blinking, tapping some more. On the screen, the wriggly lines scrolled up and down, zoomed larger, then vanished to a new screen filled with tiny dot patterns. Jimmy recognized a couple words here and there. It looked like one of his father's extra-super-technical manuals, the ones he pulled out when the steading's electronic machinery needed repairs. Smart didn't even begin to describe Marsdog.
Finally Marsdog stopped tapping and chirped, Prnnnnnt?
"Huh? Oh, you want to print what's on the screen?"
Jimmy wondered how Marsdog knew about printing, but then he figured that Marsdog had read that from the screen itself. "Here's how," he said, and showed his friend the sequence for the bottom left-hand touch-pad. Before you could say Bibiinolavii three times backward, ribbons of scented plastic started to scroll out the console's printer slot. Soon they had a large jumble of them, which Jimmy collected onto a spool.
"Is that enough?" he asked Marsdog.
Now they could really get to work. Jimmy rolled Marsdog back to the workshop, where he and his friend tinkered and argued and fiddled with his father's tools, making them do things Jimmy didn't know was possible. First they replaced Marsdog's broken leg. Marsdog stood up and walked around the workshop, pulling items off the shelves, handing them to Jimmy. A couple times, Marsdog rewired a device in a way that made Jimmy cringe. Maybe he could tell his father that dread Ravünii bandits had attacked the in-dwelling.
A loud click jerked his attention back. Whoa. Marsdog had suddenly sprouted a couple of cylindrical shafts, like miniature rockets, and Jimmy had to blink six times before he could believe what he saw.
"Wow," he said. "What are you? Some kind of space ship?"
"That's not the question I would ask."
Jimmy's father stood in the entryway of the workshop. His eyes were shiny-bright. His antennae poked forward stiffly. Only the spiny hairs along his upper chelicerae quivered. Jimmy swallowed. He had not even heard the outer locks chime, or the inner doors whoosh open. Now he felt a sudden drop in pressure as his father continued to stare at him.
"I . . . I can explain," he whispered.
Jimmy's father shook his head. "What do you think you were doing?" he said, as though Jimmy hadn't spoken. "This isn't a toy. You might have hurt yourself. Or other people. You should have told me right away -- "
"When?" Jimmy yelled. "When could I tell you? You're always working."
"At dinner," Jimmy's father went on, heavily. "But you don't talk, you don't listen -- "
" -- I did listen. I listened so hard for months and months and you didn't say anything until last night and -- "
Jimmy broke off with a sob and sat down hard on the floor. More sobs followed and he oozed sticky secretions from his thorax that made the whole in-dwelling smell bitter. Marsdog leaned into him, humming deep and loud, and Jimmy hugged him tight. "I wish Mom were here."
Jimmy's father sat down next to him. "I wish that too," he said quietly. "Every day."
He gave a gusty sigh. Glanced from Jimmy to Marsdog. Jimmy clung to Marsdog tighter, not sure what his father might do.
What his father did was to reach over and run his gloved chelicerae along Marsdog's back. Soft and gentle and sure, like when he checked over a much younger Jimmy after a bad fall. Marsdog twitched, then held very still. "He's an odd one, isn't he?"
"He's . .he's a space alien," Jimmy said, subdued. He wiped away the secretions from his cheeks and thorax.
"Hmmmm. Maybe he is." Light flickered over his father eye facets.
Marsdog's eyes blinked and flickered back.
"Ho. What is he trying to do? Send us radio signals?"
"He doesn't need to. He knows how to talk."
Talk-talk-talk, said Marsdog.
Jimmy's father started in surprise. "I never thought -- Well, never mind what I thought. He does talk, and talks pretty well. Can you tell us who you are, my friend?"
"No, Marsdog," Jimmy said. "I named him."
His father's mandibles quivered. "A good name. So, Marsdog, where do you come from?"
Whirrrrrr <click> <click><click><click>
"He hasn't done that in a while," Jimmy said. "Only at first, before he could talk."
"Hmmmmmm." Jimmy's father made a humming noise much like Marsdog. "Maybe he'd let me take a look at him? What do you think, Marsdog?"
Marsdog clicked a few more times, then hummed back.
"I'll take that as a yes. But I'll need your help, Jimmy."
Together, he and Jimmy gently explored Marsdog's surface with the soft fuzzy lobes between their claws. It was Jimmy's father who discovered that brushing Marsdog's belly made Marsdog stutter and click. (Just like a giggle, Jimmy thought. He must be ticklish.) And his father also figured out that a couple quick taps on Marsdog's butt made his legs retract completely. But it was Jimmy who, when he tickled Marsdog underneath its eyes, made the biggest discovery.
Marsdog plopped down onto the floor of the workshop. A thin panel in his midsection slid open, and light poured out, a round translucent beam that caught the whirling dust specks in the air. In the middle of that silvery bubble, eight tiny figures appeared.
Jimmy's antennae quivered with unbearable excitement. "Who are they?" he whispered.
"Holographic projections," Jimmy's father said. He was whispering, too. "Maybe these are the people who built Marsdog."
Whoa. Jimmy leaned closer, hardly daring to breathe. The tiny figures, barely a half meter tall, were like nothing he'd ever seen before, even in the weirdest net zines. They were all different shapes and sizes and colors, from livid purple to brownish-red to the palest ivory, like bones left to weather on a hillside. But all of them were covered with strange leathery skin, not carapaces, and they all had long bendable necks and eight legs, each with eight long flexible toes.
Eight! Jimmy thought. Just like those bolts on Marsdog.
The tallest purple figure looked directly at Jimmy and his father. It lifted one arm (leg?) to its flexible trunk, right where Jimmy imagined its heart might be, and made a low trilling noise.
("What's it saying?)
(I don't know.)
...whrrrr <click> <click> <click> ...
The trilling noise hiccupped into real voices.
". . . twenty-nine thousand kilo-light years from your world . ."
(Hey, Dad -- )
(Hush. Marsdog is translating . .)
Another loud click interrupted them. Speckles and waves distorted the light bubble for a heartbeat, then it snapped into focus once more. Once more the tallest purple figure gazed directly at Jimmy and his father, but this time, his voice deepened to a lower, more musical register. And his words . .
"We call ourselves the Edälom. Our world we name Mauris Una. Ours is the solitary planet of the star named Maurenas, which lies on the outer rim of the Corvallis star cloud. Based on previous scans and transmissions, we estimate that we are twenty-nine thousand kilo-light years from your world. We cannot ourselves visit, I regret to say. It was just two generations ago that we discovered tiny wormholes, which allowed us to send out scouts within our star cloud, then later to distant worlds such as yours."
(Quiet. He's not done talking.)
(How do you know -- )
" . . . but we hope that within another ten generations, which are like six of yours, we dare to launch our first voyagers to the stars that we might share our knowledge with yours and others. We ask, as you ask, are we welcome?"
With a faint click, the voice fell silent, the figures within the bubble froze.
You are, are welcome. Please come. Yes. Come.
Ever afterwards, Jimmy could not say who had spoken, he or his father, or some other voice within Marsdog itself. He only knew that he had thought those words, as loud and fiercely as he could. What else could he say, they say? Forget us? Leave us to wonder at the universe's vastness, where a single raindrop vanishes in the immensity? No, that was impossible.
The light clicked off. The panel slid shut. Marsdog whrrrred and its black-black eyes twinkled in a syncopated pattern.
"He is a scout," Jimmy's father said softly.
Jimmy's heart thumped faster. An alien scout. This was better than any adventure tale he'd ever read or listened to. Then he remembered the broadcast from yesterday. "Does that mean we are supposed to call the scientists?" he asked in a small voice.
"Probably." But his father did not make a move to stand. Instead he picked up a tool and cocked his head at Marsdog. "So, Marsdog. Anything else needs fixing?"
Hmmmmm. <click> Yzzzzzz.
Under Marsdog's direction, Jimmy and his father repaired the last bits. They carefully popped out the three biggest dents. A new panel slid open to show a couple loose wires, which Jimmy's father reconnected. Then Marsdog tilted himself so that Jimmy's father could see the strange cylindrical shafts. Jimmy's father ran his chelicerae over the ribbons of printout Marsdog had obtained from the info-net. "These look like boosters."
"Then he's not a dog," Jimmy said. "He's a rocket, just like I thought."
"Rocket. Dog. Sounds like he's a little of both."
Jimmy's father made a few more adjustments, before they took Marsdog outside. With all his legs working, Marsdog lumbered and jumped and hopped over the hard-packed Martian dirt, sending up tiny red dust clouds when he landed. The whole time he was buzzing and his clicks sounded louder than ever. But these weren't hurt broken clicks. These were happy excited ones. When they reached the steading's main road, Marsdog took a few galloping leaps that made Jimmy laugh. "What is he doing?"
To his surprise, his father was shaking his head. "I think . . . I think he wants to fly."
"Fly?" Then Jimmy realized what his father meant. "Like, away from us?"
"Why not? He's a scout. And away from us means home for him."
Jimmy stared at Marsdog, who had stopped and swiveled around, its eye lenses blinking in the harsh afternoon light. "Do you?" he asked. "Do you want to go home?"
"But . .but . ." Jimmy's mandibles worked. "What about me? Don't you want to be my friend?"
Marsdog trundled back to father and son. Friend, he said clearly.
Jimmy blinked against tears. "But you're going away."
Home. All that humming was really Marsdog talking about how he wanted to go home. Just like Jimmy wanted to go home to Yul City someday. If I'm really his friend, I should understand that. I should let him go.
Gently, he touched Marsdog's bumpy head. "Will you come back someday? Maybe?"
<click> whrrrrrr <click>
That sounded so much like a negative, Jimmy's antennae slumped in disappointment.
"Maybe he doesn't know," Jimmy's father suggested. "Twenty-nine thousand kilo-light years is a long way, even with worm holes and fast rockets. You might be all grown up before he comes back."
"I know. I just -- -" Jimmy swallowed hard. "I'll miss him."
Marsdog bumped against Jimmy's arm and whirred softly. Zhmmmmeee frnnnnnd. Remmmmbrrr meeee.
"I could never forget you," Jimmy said fervently.
Marsdog extended his arm with the claw flattened out. With a glance at his father, who nodded, Jimmy touched his gloved chelicerae to the bristly pad.
"Promise?" Jimmy whispered.
Promise. Try-try-try to come back.
It was yet another pattern within the greater tapestry of adventure stories recognized by the Bibiinolavii and so many other species. The strange alien visitor. The lonely child. Their tightly-bound friendship disrupted by a necessary departure. The promise of an eventual reunion. (Or not.) Even as Jimmy acknowledged these truths, he wept great thick bug tears and gripped his father's leg segments as hard as he could.
Marsdog rocked and swiveled around. Whirring and clicking, he lifted each leg one after the other, extended it with a hiss, then set it back down, as though working out the kinks. Jimmy's heart squeezed tight as he watched his friend trundle back to the steading's road. Marsdog paused. His cone-head tilted forward. His legs bent slightly. Jimmy was about to call out when Marsdog started a bounding run directly toward the Valles Marineris.
"Won't he fall and crash?" Jimmy said anxiously.
"No, he won't. Watch."
Marsdog leaped into the air. Four stubby wings burst out from his sides, and a bright hot flare exploded from his rocket thrusters, making the air shimmer with crimson and gold. For a moment, Marsdog wavered over the canyon's void -- Jimmy held his breath so hard, his thorax ached -- then with another burst from his thrusters, Marsdog was high, high in the air, streaking toward the skies.
Jimmy let out his breath with a sob and waved as hard as he could. Bye, Marsdog, he thought. Bye.
The small bright dot that was Marsdog wavered in the sky, as though Marsdog had tilted its wings in farewell. Jimmy blinked away his tears. When he could see again, Marsdog was gone, leaving just a trail of smoke and glitter behind him.
"Do you think he will come back?"
Jimmy's father fluttered his antennae. "If he can. I think he's someone who keeps his promises. After all, he did once before."
The story does not end here, of course. As the Bibiinolavii would say, each variation of each story pattern links to the next and the next, like a string of stars across the sky, so that when you reach the end, you find the beginning all over again. But this particular chapter of this particular story ends here, with Danu-vil-fa and Degbalid-vil-no watching the bright point of light that was Marsdog fade from view. So much about them, the Talëdi, is so like us, and yet so different. No matter how many centuries I have observed them from my ghostly plane, my human speech falters when trying to convey what I see. But come, I hear the wind rising, and as night falls, I sense faint signals from the distant stars, vibrating within my bones, like whispers from the dead.
- END -