A Triptych Tale …

Still Life With Dog

A Triptych Tale

 

“My fellow Americans, as most of you know by now, there has been some major volcanic activity on the African continent. Last week a rapid lava flow from Nyiragongo killed nearly a hundred thousand people, and seismic readings suggest another such eruption may be imminent. Yesterday, tremors released trapped methane and carbon dioxide from Lake Kivu in unprecedented amounts, resulting in an event with a death toll possibly as high as a million. Initial surveys with unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — suggest that there are unlikely to be survivors. While eruptions and quakes have caught most of the attention, there is also a deep-sea lava flow that makes the surface events small by comparison. Although much of our remote survey equipment is rendered inoperable by the sulfur levels, high–altitude surveys combined with data from NASA and other countries’ satellites suggest that a major geological event has begun.

“In 2005 we discovered that the Ethiopian Rift was capable of sudden large-scale events. We had no idea how large, or how sudden. The sulfur in the magma and gases released are permeating the ocean as sulfur dioxide. The undersea methane release is already larger than the recent Gulf spill’s total output, and the dead zone created so far is the largest seen since records have been kept, encompassing the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Most of the region’s fishing industry has already been destroyed. Unless the volcano ceases of its own accord, the current will carry toxic water along the seabed and upward into the rest of the Pacific. There is a mass extinction going on in our deep oceans, and it is spreading.

“Initial surveys with unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — suggest that there are unlikely to be survivors.”

“This has happened before. Not in our lifetime, nor in the lifetime of our species. This has happened in the distant past. None of the organisms we’re accustomed to were alive then. Each time the deep ocean has lost oxygen the effect has moved upward, into the surface waters and then into the atmosphere. Each time there has been a major extinction event. Without the algae in the Pacific, life on Earth as we know it will become untenable for humankind. Even if we survive the atmospheric and climatic changes in the short term, we may have a century, we may have a millennium — but if we take no steps to save ourselves, mankind will die out.

“Our first hope when this rift opened was that the gases would be depleted soon, that they would cause only a few long winters and a few bad years of fishing. This will not happen. Geologists and seismologists have tested new equipment to measure the welling magma that’s releasing into our oceans, and they have preliminary results. It’s becoming clear that there is no end in sight. Even if there were, our pollutant levels may be high enough that even the first part of the eruption will have tipped the balance against our continued survival.

“Our talent as humans has always been our ability to invent our way out of difficulties. We will take as our greatest priority research into saving ourselves. I, along with other world leaders, have begun forming panels to explore the feasible options. This may include domed cities, air-scrubbing technology, and large-scale greenhouses. In the short term, in our volcanic winter, we must find a way to feed ourselves and stay warm. In the long term, we will have to consider the effects of more permanent atmospheric changes, as warming carbon compounds and our decimated plant population become more significant than the sulfur emissions.

“However, throughout human history, if we could not have what we needed in one place, we have migrated. Now may be the time to look up at the Moon and consider whether it will be our new home.”

My husband snapped off the television before the yammering heads could start to tear apart the President’s speech. It all seemed clear enough; the alleged experts could only make a simple thing complicated. Simply, while the ball of silicates we called home would continue to revolve around the sun every 365.25 of its rotations, very little of the life currently on it would be around to notice. What survived would be the forms that could handle an atmosphere with more than one part in a hundred of carbon dioxide, and blistering acid rain — which ruled out most or all mammals.

“Now may be the time to look up at the Moon and consider whether it will be our new home.”

Heidi, clever puppy, woke and scrabbled to her feet, ears atilt, then turned sober. She picked up her fuzzy-bug and placed it in my lap. She was right; I needed to do something. I rubbed her chest, then tossed the toy for her to fetch. Germaine stroked our son’s curly hair as the boy slept draped across his lap. Jason’s evening ritual was to fall asleep during the evening news, which held little to engage his preschool mind.

“Never mind it’s the most important news of his lifetime,” I said, feeling fond and terrified.

“Just when we finally felt it was worth it to try having a baby,” Germaine said, “wouldn’t you know the end of the world would come along?”

#

Germaine’s committee of engineers was organized first. He’d consulted before on robots to explore other worlds; now he worked on the robots to colonize those worlds, if they could be colonized. If we could find the courage, or the fear, to colonize them. He was gone for days at a time while I taught classes, organized my laboratory to run itself, and took care of Jason. His calls home were of structural materials and engineering puzzles. We talked about how to create a greenhouse on another world or on an Earth grown unfamiliar. He talked about the challenges of making glass from the powders of Mars or the Moon, screening out ultraviolet radiation to protect crucial microbes in the hoped-for planting fields, and how the best source of water for off-planet settlements was probably the north polar ice cap of Mars, though there were other pockets. I talked about the local reactions to the television’s incessant bad news; most people were still in denial even as the sun turned dim and snow fell in September. Church attendance was up. Food prices were up. Africa continued to tear itself to bits. The expected wave of refugees came, and was smaller than anyone could have imagined.

So few refugees are easy to ignore, we discovered.

Church attendance was up. Food prices were up. Africa continued to tear itself to bits.

My committee, Project Ark, was formed by the time the first ships were launched. Sitting on our living-room floor with Jason and Heidi, and later in the hospital room of my husband, I watched the huge rockets thunder up the television screen into space. We talked about robots that would dig wells and craft domes to trap a potential atmosphere. We talked about how hard it had been to program robots to make greenhouses and wondered what would happen if the programs held a coding error. Jason had a wonderful time imagining bluehouses next to the greenhouses, or domes with the air on the outside, or a million other possibilities that only a child’s creative science could invent.

We talked about everything except Germaine’s failing heart.

#

I fought with Germaine’s sister. “The Lord will protect us,” she insisted. “He would not let his chosen people die.”

People, chosen and otherwise, died by the millions as ash clogged the sky and killed food crops. They died by the millions as volcanic gases flowed across Africa or surged north to the Arabian Peninsula. I saw no reason to think God would preserve the United States, her pick for the chosen people. Eventually, I offered something that seemed a compromise. “The Lord helps them what help themselves,” I quoted, and she permitted me my delusions that my work might make a difference.

#

Project Ark had scientists from all over the world, flown in when ash clouds permitted, and none of us seemed to share basic assumptions. The committee work was a stream of controversy punctuated by intermittent harmony. “No cows.”

“Agreed. We can get leather, meat, and milk from other species that eat less and pollute less.”

“And down and wool from a good many.”

“Shouldn’t we be able to synthesize all those things more efficiently?”

“From what? There’s no petroleum or coal on our target worlds — thank heavens, since that seems to be a large part of our problem here. The carbon’s in the atmosphere or a payload.”

“From plants. The servitude of the animals is just a shortcut …”

The rest of the committee shared a collective eyeroll. Sendil used the word servitude more often than was entirely necessary. “Personally,” said Miranda, “I’d much prefer that if our colonists end up short of resources, they regressed to enslaving animals rather than each other.”

“Besides,” Iain added, “the reason we used animals for wool and milk, historically, is that they’re quite efficient at manufacturing them. We need efficiency.”

“We aren’t here to decide whether to send animals, but which ones,” I reminded them all, but especially my difficult committee member. Every committee had to have one, but putting Sendhil Acharya on the panel seemed an extraordinary decision on someone’s part, even if he was brilliant in the field of soil microbes. Somehow I’d earned the unenviable job of trying to keep this multicultural chaos on course. “We should look at highland species, probably, that are used to thinner air and sparse grazing. Icelandic sheep, for instance, and Shetland.”

“And pick genetically healthy specimens for cloning and germ cell storage. DNA screening is getting pretty good, in domestic species at least. We don’t have any excuse not to use it.”

It was agreed. All specimens would be screened thoroughly for known health problems. There was no room on the ark for illness or weakness, no reason to send any but the best genes to our new worlds. Every milligram of genetic material had a cost in rocket fuel and storage capacity. All the colonists would be the winners of a genetic lottery as well, and I already knew I had lost. The delicate respiratory tissues of asthma had no place on a planet of delicate atmospheres.

I pushed that thought aside and moved on. “Project Sequoia has given us a list of pollinators and soil-developers they consider essential. It looks to take up half our allotment of species already.”

“Have they told us what we can expect for fodder? Or do we dictate that?”

“I believe we’re supposed to work with them on that.”

It was agreed. All specimens would be screened thoroughly for known health problems.

“What about fly?” Hyung-Suk rarely spoke up. He emphasized his point by tracing an erratic path with his finger, as though a fly could have braved the building’s air filtration system.

There was a universal squirm around the table. “What about them?”

Hyung-Suk was adamant. “You think there will be no death on Mars, no decay? Will nothing die on Moon? It is not enough to look at how things grow. You must look at how they decay, how they become soil, how they become the next generation. You need fungus, sowbug, earthworm. You need fly.”

He was right. We had thought only of keeping our colonists alive, as though they would be only guests on the planet face who would come home again eventually. We had lost the talent for thinking of journeys that go only one way, or that might not have everything at their destination that we might need. These colonists would have no friendly loam beneath their feet, not when they arrived. Not ever, unless we thought of how to create it. The world we knew best showed us how to make a desert, not how to unmake one.

#

Project Sequoia made its first launches, lightly manned with much robot help. Many of the animal species the botanists had sought room for in our launches were incorporated into theirs, for without those microbes and worms the first plants could not grow. We made trades in the launch schedules, exchanging our tiny creatures’ eggs and spores for their second-wave seeds. The animals and fungi, mosses and legumes together would start the process of soil-building, helping the colonies move from hydroponics to true agriculture. Or so we hoped.

“What about dogs?” I asked my committee as we chose our lines of llamas and sheep, sorting for hardiness and health. Half of them now attended via teleconference, when the signal could be beamed through our thickening sky. Air travel had become sporadic and risky.

“What about them?” asked Alethia.

“Shouldn’t we include a few?”

“Why?”

“Should we perpetuate this servitude of the species on a new world?” said Sendil, who made this case for every species. I wondered once more how he came to be on this committee, but someone had insisted that an animal-rights expert be included. As far as I could tell, the animals had the right to go extinct here on Earth, according to Sendil. I wondered, idly, if he thought the human animal ought to as well.

“They’ve been our companions and helpers for ten thousand years or more. I don’t see why we’d stop needing them on Mars or the Moon.”

“There isn’t room in our storage containers or sufficient resources for our incubators for mere pets.”

I dropped the subject for the day, meaning to marshal further evidence and bring it up once a week until I got my way. I could not imagine mankind without its four-footed companion, assistant, and conscience. I could not imagine life without the option of sharing it with a dog. Since Germaine’s death, I relied heavily on Heidi for her steady and protective sense. What this committee would send was my legacy for the future, I believed: if not my genes, then others that were important to me.

After the meeting, I made it a full ten yards down the corridor before standing, wheezing, waiting for the inhaler’s medicine to work its way through my closed passages. Sulfur, chlorine, fluorine — this would only grow worse as the air continued to fill with poison.

“Are you all right?” Wallace asked, touching my shoulder.

“There isn’t room in our storage containers or sufficient resources for our incubators for mere pets.”

My snorted negative knocked trapped air from my lungs, letting me gasp in a fresh replacement. I could tell the building’s air filters were working full-force. I could tell it wasn’t enough.

“You won’t be going to Mars, then.”

Every fit person that could be persuaded — most could, as it happened — would be sent. Everyone wanted to go; those with genetic diseases or flaws argued their merits, protested in the streets, and designed new ways to fuel rockets so that more people might be lifted from our freezing, starving planet. They raised the number of possible colonists from thousands to millions, but still so very few. I shook my head. “Asthma, oncogenes, a predisposition to mental decay with age.”

“Did you get Jason screened?”

I shook my head again. It seemed hopeless that Jason could have dodged all my poor genes and also my husband’s hypertension and recessive sickle cell. We knew our own genes and family history well.

“Screen him. You never know. If he dodged your asthma and kept your brains, those colonists will need him.”

I shrugged. It couldn’t hurt. As his mother, I could swipe his toothbrush for a few minutes without getting caught. I could collect a sample without getting his ten-year-old hopes up.

And I ran the screening myself. I stared at the results, and went over them once more with a less maternal eye, and then I made Wallace check them again. Jason had somehow pulled off the lottery, danced through a great genetic feat, and failed to carry a single one of his parents’ mismatched diseases.

Jason would migrate. Jason would fly.

#

The Ark committee was composed entirely of scientists devoted full-time to their single projects. Some had been in the Peace Corps or similar organizations. None had ever considered the dog as anything other than a companion. Dogs fetched balls, or sat on laps, and nobody would have time for laps or toys on Mars. I argued that we were thinking only of the first few generations, and that we could not deny the humans of a thousand years in the future a loving companion. I brought out Temple Grandin’s suggestion that dogs were what made our particular line of hominids into the humans we became, that a troupe plus a pack made a tribe, that socially we became canids as the dogs co-domesticated us. I argued that we needed dogs for their skills; we could not count on the sheep to be docile and the laboratory rats to stay in their cages forever. I argued until they relented just to make me quiet, and because they knew I must step down soon. Even our videoconferences, more difficult to arrange as the weather patterns grew more chaotic and ash choked the sky, were becoming too taxing for me.

"If he dodged your asthma and kept your brains, those colonists will need him.”

Their parting gift to me was a dozen precious slots in each Ark launch. There were to be five drops near each pole of Mars, and one at each pole of the Moon, where natural refrigeration could augment our technology. I could give the colonists a dozen dozen puppies to be thawed out and grown in an artificial uterus if dogs were ever deemed a necessity, or if our colonies were ever ready for the luxury.

By then I feared it was too late. I had wanted to search the Andes, Alaska, the Alps, none of them accessible now, most of them the scenes of their own frozen tragedies years earlier. Like those places, Mars would be cold. Food would be scarce. The colonists would need tough, healthy, efficient animals capable of many different jobs. I suspected that my colleagues had believed I would pack in a few Lassies, the odd Rin Tin Tin, and a couple of Air Buds. I wasn’t searching for Hollywood dogs or show dogs. I was thinking of livestock, potential pests, blinded accident victims, and the slim odds that no colonist would climb aboard a rocket with a pocketful of illicit seeds or chemical formulas for recreational use. I was thinking of treadmill and sledge power on a planet with no fossil fuels.

It was Wallace who saved my legacy once more. He steered me to an old friend of his at the University of Illinois who had collected genetic samples of dogs from all over the world. To my great relief, Arthur Newsome had not discarded his wonderful collection. He and his graduate students had been everywhere. We consulted for hours by instant message and videoconference, his memory stunning me. We pored over herding dogs, terrier types, versatile working breeds. Chinook. Swedish Vallhund. Finnish Spitz. Tunnel Terrier. A Native American bloodline that nobody had ever even bothered to name, tenders of sheep and haulers of cargo. We regretted the extinct lines of turnspit dogs and odd little terriers that might have suited my purpose and which were beyond our reach to even consider, wiped out because someone a century ago considered them “degenerate.” I looked for cooperative and friendly natures, but not for lap-sitting pets. I looked for health above all else, for how could I hold them to a lower standard than that set for my own species?

We pored over herding dogs, terrier types, versatile working breeds.

I worried for my beloved shepherds, searching for a few that could measure up to my rigorous health screens and demanding performance standards. They were too big, or too tainted with secret recessive genes, or too sluggish of mind. The brilliance I admired in Heidi and her predecessors tended to come at a cost. At last I found a line of guide dogs, a line of police dogs, and a line of herding dogs that all ran small and efficient in their food consumption and that had no currently detectable genetic conditions. It was the best I could do for one of the most human of breeds. I stored their tray of potential puppies, a dog and three bitches from each line, in my slowly growing collection and moved on. I apologized to Heidi, now gray of muzzle and drowsy, for including none of her cousins.

She forgave me, which is the other duty dog performs for man.

#

“You’ve had an ally, you know,” Wallace told me as he watched me pack my office. I intended to press him into service to carry them, as I could barely lift the books one at a time.

“I did?”

“The President’s daughter is supposed to be a colonist, made it through the genetic screens and all, and believe me they were extra thorough for her. And then she said she wasn’t going if she couldn’t expect a dog again someday. She understood there wouldn’t be any on the rocket with her, but she was damned determined there would be some someplace, someday. Quoted that line about wanting to go where the dogs go if they don’t go to heaven. Pitched a fit. I think you’d like each other.”

“How did I not hear about this?”

Wallace shrugged. “I expect the powers that be thought it would prejudice your rational decision-making and managed, for once, to keep it sort of secret. I just heard about it from a friend of a friend. And her Facebook page. See what you miss by being old-fashioned?”

#

I stand beside Jason, now sixteen years old and not sure whether he’s excited to go to Mars or furious at leaving everything he knows behind. What he knows is death: a dying planet, dying friends, dying parents. He is thin and pale, as we who remain all are, but he breathes. He lives. I send him to a training camp set up by the Air Force tomorrow. Sons are supposed to leave their mothers behind, and I am proud and sad to be able to see him off. I no longer have to fear orphaning him before he goes. I had pleaded for this last day together, watching Project Ark’s first launch, and still have enough status to get it. My genetic legacies — both Jason and the canines — will make their way into the precarious future.

He lets me take his hand, finally not too mature to push me away, finally mature enough to know not to. My breath is short, as always. I am cold, as always. For the first time in my life, I have a vision, holding my son’s hand. I see a girl, my granddaughter or great-granddaughter or my ten-greats granddaughter, walking through a clear corridor on a red world. She is purposeful, with a job to do; a tall, thin girl whose stride is long in the low gravity. With her trots a pointy-eared dog, rusty-coated, short-legged and keen. I cannot tell its breed. It is nothing I have sent; it is all of them. Man has always produced the dog he needs. Whatever it is, it is ready to work. They might be going to tend sheep, search for a fuel-line leak, or wipe out an incursion of rats.

They look happy. They look well.

Erika Tracy is a writer, occasional dog-trainer, and mom, each job determined to intrude on the other two, in Georgia. She has studied an assortment of sciences, humanities, and fine arts, and might yet figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. She has published in Reflection’s Edge, The Future Fire, and Crossed Genres Magazine, among others, and has previously published both speculative fiction and a puppy-training book available at Lulu.com.