Space was much louder than Laika thought. Under the rattling and banging and gutteral roar of the engines, there was something else – a constant noise that had nothing to do with the earthly sounds of her ship, her pounding heart, her ragged panting. There was a hissing, as if space itself was whispering its secrets to her. She strained to listen, but things were getting hot, so hot…
There were no windows in her ship, but she saw pinpricks of light, twinkling like the stars without. Darkness threatened the edges of her vision, forming a starscape that pulsed in and out of focus. The vision of space behind her eyes warred with the metal and machines in front of them.
listen… the whispers said. hang on. let go. listen…
The starscape pulsed in time with her heart, and the inside of her ship was replaced with snatches of memory. The vaguest sense of warmth, milk, brothers and sisters and safety… She saw the street she used to live on, the garbage she ate and puddles she drank from. She saw the lab she was taken to one winter morning, asked to do incomprehensible things but warm again at last. She saw the machines and the needles and the people, so many people, all patting her and touching her and sometimes hurting her but never meaning it.
Finally, the most painful memory of them all – She saw the children she had played with the day before launch. For Laika, people were mostly hands and smells and gestures, either kind or gruff or mean, but always lumbering and powerful. Children, though, children were all faces and laughter and light to her, kindness and joy and endless love. The memory-children blazed like the sun, like laboratory spotlights, like stars. They opened their mouths but only the hissing of space came out, louder now, drowning out the clunks and rumbles of her failing ship.
Listen… Do you hear it? It’s almost here…
She tried to lean forward but the straps held her tight. Her ears swiveled this way and that, trying to locate a sound that was all around her. She closed her eyes but it made no difference – the starscape was inside her head and outside the ship, with everything between useless and invisible. Her heart pounded in one last furious burst of speed, and then began to slow. Her head became heavy, too heavy to lift, and she relaxed, slumping against the too-tight straps.
“I can’t believe she’s gonna make it!”
“She won’t, if you don’t concentrate and help me get these tubes out of her!”
“What kind of monster straps an innocent being into a tin can and flings them into space without an air conditioner?”
“You know what kind. You know what system we’re in.”
“Poor thing. We’ll get her patched up good as new, with a TranslationMod so she can tell us where she wants to go next. It’s the least we can do.”
Laika’s eyes were gummy and hard to open, her body ached deeply and felt like stone. She was laid on a table, cool but not cold, firm but not hard. The voices were somewhere above her, and she felt herself being unhooked and detached. She was being separated, from the web of machinery that linked her to her ship, linked her to earth, linked her to the lumbering men of science that had strapped her in so far away and not so long ago.
Those voices… They sounded like the children she remembered, all sunlight and laughter and starscapes. One of them patted her head gently, and the tender love in the caress burst in her head like music. Laika listened, and her tail began to thump gently against the table.