Starlight Barking by TT Linse
I hope that you all have had the chance to read over the amazing submissions for the Space-y Christmas short story contest. If you haven't had the chance, make sure to check out the previous ones! Lately, I've been wrapped up in the world of my space opera series, Mechalum Space, and so it was a nice break to switch to a really fun short story. I hope it's a good read!
Sho wanted a puppy for Christmas. He loved all things that grew, and he was jealous of the low-siders who could just walk out their doors and put their feet in grass and see a rabbit jump by.
“Rabbits?” he asked his older sister Noda, who was doing her school work. “Aren’t they called rabbits? Those animals that ate Ausmania? Downwell?”
“No,” Noda said, looking up from where she was drawing an orbit trajectory. “Rabbits were a long time ago. Those were harrows—when they crossed rabbits and sparrows.”
“Oh,” Sho said. He looked out the window where he sat in the alcove watching the sunrise over Earth’s horizon for the second time since he’d gotten up. The stars winked out in the black sky as the rim of the planet got brighter and brighter and then blazed into light. “I thought they were rabbits.”
Noda put down her stylus. “If you’re going to run your mouth, go find Yanni. She doesn’t have physics to do.”
Sho was supposed to be doing his schoolwork too, but he’d gotten behind in his lessons and so he was avoiding it. They had a break over Christmas, but he was supposed to be trying to catch up—his mom made sure of it. Noda and the other brothers and sisters were good at the self-directed thing, but Sho was not. In fact, he hated it. The one time he’d been in a physical classroom with other kids—when their family had lived in the Issie City habs—he’d loved it, and he wished daily that he could be in a classroom, rather than having to learn through his interface.
"He looked out the window where he sat in the alcove watching the sunrise over Earth’s horizon for the second time since he’d gotten up. The stars winked out in the black sky as the rim of the planet got brighter and brighter and then blazed into light."
“Remember,” Mom’s voice came down the hall. It made Sho jump, since he felt guilty. “We’re going out later.” She’d gotten a lead on a derelict, and so the whole family was headed out to see what they could find. Then after that, they’d have Christmas dinner, open their presents, and then jet out in their suits to go caroling to the neighboring habs.
They were junkers, and all-around their shifting ramshackle hab were nets and shipping containers with original parts and specialty items that you couldn’t get any more. Everyone knew to come to the Tanakas when they wanted the real thing. They’d get an order and pack it up and ship it. Of course, a lot of people just fabricated their own parts, but they were never as good as the originals. At least that’s what Dad said.
“Which means you better get your work done,” Noda whispered.
“Whatever,” Sho said and pushed himself out of the alcove. He was floating to the opposite portal when Mom appeared. He jumped.
“Since you aren’t doing your work, go out to the sling and do your exercises,” Mom said. The sling rotated and had a near-earth-gravity gym.
“Uh, Mom?” Sho said.
She stopped mid-flip and turned back to him. “Yeah?”
“Can I talk to you about something?”
“Sure, Mite,” she said. She called him Mite when she was in a good mood. It was good sign. “Come to the kitchen.” She glanced over and smiled at Noda.
Sho followed her down the passageway. She was pulling herself handhold to handhold, but he’d been practicing trying to make it all the way down the hallway without touching anything, but then he misjudged the timing and ended up ramming his face into her foot. Luckily she had on her soft indoor slippers.
“Hey!” she said and smoothly flipped and caught him in her arms. He tried to wiggle out of her grasp but didn’t succeed. She just hugged him closer.
He gave up struggling. “I finally figured out what I want for Christmas,” Sho said.
Sho felt her stiffen. He knew what it meant. They didn’t have many credits, especially this year, what with the competition among junkers.
He plunged ahead, “I really really really really want a dog. A puppy.” When she didn’t say anything—with her arms wrapped around him, he couldn’t see her face—he said, “It can be an old dog too. I don’t care.” Maybe it would be easier to get an old dog.
“Oh, baby,” she said but then didn’t continue. She just held him.
That was really bad. She didn’t even say something nice to make him feel better.
“Maybe Santa can find one?” Sho said.
His mom hesitated and then flipped him around, her hands on his shoulders, their faces almost touching. Her breath smelled of the peppermint tea she made from a few plants she nurtured under the grow lights in the humid greenhouse bubble. Her forehead was squinched in the middle. “That sounds like a great idea,” she said quietly, her voice catching. “Put it on your Christmas list.”
Sho tried not to hear the forced brightness in her voice. To try to cover up his discomfort, he said, “You like growing things. I do too. I know dogs aren’t plants, but they’re the next best thing.”
“Dogs are even better than plants,” Mom said, the corner of her lip twitching. “But …” She didn’t finish the thought. She was still for a second before opening her eyes widely and saying, “Say, you know those greens you like? The crunchy mushroom wraps? Why don’t you go cut a bag-full? That’ll go well with ponics fish tomorrow.” She reached over and pulled out a mesh bag and handed it to him.
She knew how much Sho liked collecting greens—the peaty smell and the moistness in the room that evaporated from the capillary seepage into the zero-g grow-balls. The heat of the full-spectrum lamps. He liked sticking his fingers in the loam and looking for shiny green biome bugs. Feeling the leaves—some soft, some spiky with fuzz—under his fingertips. Nibbling on this plant and that and tasting melty sweetness or lemony acidity or sharp bitterness on his tongue.
He knew that she knew he liked it, and his hopes fell—because if she was trying to make him feel better already, she knew something he didn’t.
Putting on a bright fake smile, he said, “That’d be great.”
He tried not to see her look in return.
After he collected the greens—big leaves of green and purple romaine—and delivered them to the kitchen, he went to find his dad, Big Sho. He found him helping Grandma Dane pressure-wash parts. Their hands were inserted in gloves to the elbows on opposite sides in the wash box. Parts were floating or spinning between them, and they’d done it for so long that if one needed a part out of reach, the other would shoot cleaning fluid at it to send it the other’s way without a word. Grandma Dane was singing loudly off-key, and Dad was humming and whistling along with her.
“Got a whale of a tale to tell you lads, a whale of a tale or two,” Grandma Dane bellowed as Dad whistled.
“Dad?” Sho said. When his dad didn’t respond, he tugged on his sleeve. “Dad!” he yelled.
His dad glanced over at him and smiled. “Shshsh!” he said. “This is the good part.”
“Nights like this with the moon above,” Grandma bellowed. “A whale of a tale and it’s all true. I swear by my tattoo.” Grandma did indeed have lots of tattoos, something Sho had always admired.
Dad turned to look at him, a smile on his face. “Yeah?” he said.
“I … I’d like a dog for Christmas,” Sho said, trying to telegraph how much he wanted it by how wide he opened his eyes.
“A dog, huh?” Grandma put in. “Space dogs are the best.” She looked at Dad. “Say, remember that blue heeler pup we picked up over at the Barnhart Collective?”
“She was a beauty, that one,” Dad said, pulling his hands out of the gloves and scratching his chin. “Her line still had the herding instinct. Remember that?”
Grandma laughed. “Yeah. She’d bounce from one end of the hab to the other, launching herself from all the surfaces and nipping at people’s ankles and elbows.” She chuckled at the memory. “What was her name?”
“We called her Hati, remember?” He looked at Sho, a grin on his face at the memory, and put a huge warm hand on Sho’s shoulder. “The wolf who chased the moon.”
“That day we spilled the pet mice?” Grandma said. “We thought we were going to be overrun, but Hati gathered them up one by one. Didn’t harm a hair on their heads, just brought them to us gently, with her mouth. Boy did they squeak!”
Sho had heard this story. They still heard the great-great-grandchildren of the mice skittering through the vents and found nests in walls and electrical panels. Sho’s sister Rone kept a warren in her quarters of mice she’d collected.
“She was a piece of work,” Dad agreed.
“'Nights like this with the moon above,' Grandma bellowed. 'A whale of a tale and it’s all true. I swear by my tattoo.'”
“So can I have one too?” Sho asked.
“Sure you can,” Dad said heartily.
“Nothing like a space dog,” Grandma said. “It brings good luck.”
“For Christmas? Can I have one for Christmas?” Sho insisted.
“Sure you can,” Dad said, but he didn’t sound convincing. It sounded more like one of those things he said and believed to be true but wasn’t actually true.
“When the time is right,” Grandma said, nodding her head slowly, “a dog will show up. That’s how life is.”
Dad looked at Grandma and joined her in nodding like it was settled. It didn’t at all feel settled to Sho, but he gave up, making his way out to the sling to jump in the trampoline ball.
He was only able to bounce for twenty minutes when his mom called over the intercom. “All hands on deck,” she said, her voice tinged with excitement. Every time they went out to scavenge a derelict, Mom was sure this time they’d strike it rich. They’d find an intact high-end tokamak or a fixable next-gen energy weapon instead of just the run-of-the-mill navigation computers or drive assemblies.
Sho had started to think it wasn’t the money that made Mom excited. Money was almost beside the point. What she really wanted was hope. Dad believed, but maybe Mom didn’t believe quite as much.
And it did turn out to be a decent run—they’d bought a chance to scavenge a high-end luxury liner after the officials had gone over it, and it only took a couple of hours in and out to grab what was left. It had largely been picked clean of big-ticket items, but the Tanakas were known for the low-end but quality parts and they scored a number of things they’d been getting low on. Nothing to flip about, but enough to make up the price and a little more. That’s what Mom said.
“We work till the work is won,” sang Grandma Dane through the comms. “Hi-ho, and the day is done.”
“It’ll do,” Mom said with a smile.
As far as Sho was concerned, it was the best score ever because of what he found. It wasn’t a dog, but it was good. He and the other three youngest siblings had been sent to search every hold and locker and storage area they could find. If a bit coin—the plastic disc that represented credits—was snuggled among the cushions of the crash couches, they were supposed to find it. If a seed collected in the garbage disposal, they were supposed to find it. If a black space diamond or Mars opal slipped it's fitting and found its way into a crack in the grating, they were supposed to find it.
But Sho found something even better. Whoever had lived in the cabin he searched had been a bit of a hoarder, and there was trash everywhere, floating and then spinning away as he propelled himself through it. Sho wondered idly if any of the loose stuff had nicked anyone on a high g burn.
But among the useless bits and bobs of metal and cloth and paper was a flat square of something about the size of his head. It was edged in thick pieces of wood. He caught it and held it in his hands. It looked cheap but very old and had seen better days. It had a wire attached with screws across its back—what was that for? He tilted his head and looked at it. Maybe there had been something attached to the wire? It was too loose to keep the wood pieces from pulling apart, and they were glued together, so not that. He turned it one way and another and then flipped it over.
There it was—the best image he had ever seen, and it wasn’t even digital. It was dogs, lots and lots of dogs! Seven of them of all different kinds. Floppy red ears and perky gray ears and ears that were both floppy and perky. Coats that were long and fluffy and black and white on the belly. Coats that were short and red and white down the face. Splotchy black and white and gray. All gray. All brown. Most wore collars, some thin and some wide with large bulging rivets.
They must be downwell—he could tell because blue and red and white chips and cards with red patterns laid on the tabletop and, unless they were magnetic, there was nothing to hold them there but gravity. The chairs the dogs were sitting on, unless they were bolted to the floor—and how could they be since they were tucked up against the table in a way that would make it hard to sit and rise—were held there by gravity. What really gave it away, though, was the glass of some sort of brown liquid sitting by a dog’s elbow and a grandfather clock—hadn’t he read that they work by some kind of gravity mechanism?
It was seven dogs playing a game of cards. One dog was suspiciously eyeing another dog, who was holding his cards close to his face. Another was sitting back and panting—or was it laughing? What really got him and made him laugh out loud was one of the smaller pugnacious-looking dogs in the foreground was cheating, passing a card under the table to another smaller pugnacious-looking dog next to him.
Sho stared at it for a full half-hour, finding new things every time he looked, before his younger brother Dom came looking for him. His mom took one look at what he’d found and nodded, letting him keep it.
Sho held it to his chest the whole way home in the cruiser and carefully stowed it in his locker at the end of his bunk.
By the time they were done with the salvage, they were all tired, but Mom had arranged it so Christmas dinner was ready when they walked through the door. The place smelled heavenly.
There was a vita-ham that Sho’s oldest brother Amon had grown in the protein greenhouse and cured in salt and spices that they roasted and ate on skewers. There was edamame casserole glued together with a cheesy white mushroom sauce. There was mac and cheese—the cheese was fake but it didn’t matter. There was expensive jellied cranberry that the cousins had picked up wholesale. There was rich and spongy injera bread that didn’t give off crumbs. There were custard cakes filled with lemon curd and crumb-less pumpkin pie. There were smooth vanilla ice cream milkshakes that they sucked from pouches to go with the pie.
The sun was setting out the windows for the fifth time that day when the whole extended family hooked into their chairs in the ball of light created by the glow bulbs Noda had tethered to every nook and cranny. Sho could hardly wait as Grandma Dane first thanked the universe for providing everything they needed and then they all went around and each said what they were thankful for. When it was Sho’s turn, he wanted to say he was thankful for the dog he was going to get when they opened presents—he was going to name it Gun—but instead, he said he was thankful for the picture he had found in the salvage. Because was he really going to get the dog? Really? Before, he’d always gotten what he’d asked for, but this seemed so big and so important, and he wasn’t sure. He really wanted to be sure.
"One dog was suspiciously eyeing another dog, who was holding his cards close to his face. Another was sitting back and panting—or was it laughing?"
Then, after the last piece of pie was eaten, the last packet of ice cream sucked from its flexible straw, it was time. The moment of truth. Time to open presents.
Stockings first. Santa had come while they were out for the day—Sho loved imagining him in his sleek red spacesuit, intricately embroidered designs in white thread around his ankles and wrists, his helmet glowing with light. A broad grin on his face as he belly laughed through the comms. The elves who were his crew—Sho particularly loved Blitzen, who was the engineer elf in charge of propulsion whose costume was always accented with gold. The magical fabricator that could churn out toys faster than you could think them up. Santa’s ship that always looked so streamlined and fast but festive, too, with its sparkling lights and shiny fins—it was aerodynamic, of course, since Santa had to go to children’s habs downwell too.
All through dinner, they’d had to endure glimpses of things poking from the tops of the stockings under their little containment nets. That wasn’t Sho, though, and he tried to act excited as he pulled out a bag of chocolate ems and a candy cane and a pair of heated indoor socks and a little intricate metal puzzle made of spare rivets and nuts and bolts that he was pretty sure his dad had made. There was also a packet of seeds like his mother liked and a packet of colorful temporary tattoos that reminded him of Grandma Dane.
Then to presents. It was all he could do to wait as they each opened the presents from the other family members. The rule was they had to be small presents that you made yourself—Sho had spent weeks recording a video for each of them of a trick he’d learned to do on the trampoline. When the other members of the family each, in turn, brought up his gift, they laughed or gave him a thumbs up or slapped him on the shoulder. “Good job, Sho,” they said. “That’s kickass.”
And then it was time. The big presents, one for everyone, were all wrapped and tucked in a pile in a net next to the tree that had always been their tree. Mom had gotten a spruce sapling from God knows where many years before, and with the absence of gravity it had grown into a ball, but that made it easier to decorate. And it was the youngest’s job to hand out presents, so it fell to Sho’s younger brother Jojo, who was four. It took a long time, and Noda had to shush Sho twice for impatience.
As luck would have it, his was the second-to-last gift in the net. When Grandma Dane announced it was his, his eyes got really wide. He’d seen it in the net and hoped it was his because it was big enough for a puppy. And it seemed heavy, the way inertia pulled Jojo more than Jojo pulled it. When Sho took it into his arms, he hugged it tightly and put his ear up to it. There was no sound at first and so he shook it gently—he didn’t want to scare the puppy—and then it did make a bit of a scratching sound! He was sure of it.
He tore into the paper and saw that the top was loose—a dog would need air!—but then he yanked it open, everyone watching him closely, and something green leaped out and floated lazily above the box. Dogs aren’t green was his first thought, and then he realized it was a plant. More long tendrils crept from the box and floated out and up to the ceiling. It was the biggest and most beautiful Devil’s Ivy he had ever seen, lush with large leaves that were green with yellow-white streaks on vines that would cross and recross the room. It seemed to have a life of its own.
It would have been amazing, given the right circumstances. It would have taken years to grow it. Sho glanced at his mom. She had grown it—he could tell by her look of hopefulness and a touch of shyness. How had she been able to and he’d not seen it? Where had she kept it? Did she have a secret greenhouse? The mysteries of his mom crossed his mind but then quickly faded. He felt his heart sink to his toes. It wasn’t a dog. He would not be getting a dog for Christmas. He felt the grief well up within him. He took a deep shuddering breath and clenched his nails into his hands so that he wouldn’t cry. He couldn’t cry. Only kids Jojo’s age cried.
It was all too much. He’d known he wouldn’t get one. He’d known it. But he’d really really hoped, and now that it was for sure, he wasn’t sure he could take it. He was sure his heart was going to burst.
He tried really really really hard not to show any of it, but it must have come through because then his mom took one look at him and said loudly, “Last present! Who’s it for?” Then she came over and floated beside him, though she didn’t touch him.
He was glad she didn’t touch him because he would have burst out in engulfing sobs.
The rest of it was a blur. They admired each other’s gifts and played with them for a bit. They talked about what a great Christmas it had been. They gossiped about the relatives who weren’t there and they told stories about Christmases past. They drank hot chocolate and admired the lights.
But Sho heard none of it. He hooked into a seat off to the side with the plant filling his lap and mostly hiding his face as its tendrils snaked this way and that, slowly wandering in the breeze of the circulating fan.
And then it was time to go caroling. They lived among a neighborhood of a dozen habs, and so they all donned their suits to go out.
“I don’t feel well,” Sho said to Grandma Dane when she urged him out of his seat.
“Nonsense,” Grandma Dane said. “You’re coming.” When Grandma Dane said you’re coming, you went, so Sho pushed himself up and put himself in his suit, double-checking the seals like he was supposed to.
Maybe his breather would quit and nobody would notice and that would be that the end of it, he thought. Then I won’t feel so bad.
All suited up, they went out of the airlock in groups of four or five and floated by the hab, waiting for the others. Each of the younger kids was paired with an older person who kept a special eye on them. Noda was Sho’s person, but Sho ignored her, even when she gave him a thumbs-up, asking if he was okay. She let it pass.
It was a beautiful night. They were fully on the dark side of Earth, and light beamed out all around the huge circle that was the planet, a huge faint halo. The north pole, which was tilted their way, was streaked green with an aurora that danced like fire in a lazy circle. The cities were like ragged necklaces of diamonds along the coasts of continents. And away from Earth, the Milky Way blazed, billions upon billions of stars. The quarter moon was at just the right angle to have the dark part lit by earthshine, highlighting its friendly craters and shadows. And all the habs in their neighborhood had decorated their ports and grablines for Christmas, their multicolored lights shining in competition with the stars. With all the light, Sho could see the details of his glove in front of his face and clearly make out the back of Noda’s suit in front of him.
They all hooked into the family line so that the youngest of them wouldn’t get distracted or float off without anyone noticing. Sho knew, too, that later, it would be good that Uncle Lee was hooked in because he loved mulled wine and had been known to veer off course.
And so off they went. The first hab they came to was an old couple named the Gringes, who had a general store that sold everything from dry goods to some of Mom’s pickles. The couple came to the window and waved as they belted out “Starry Starry Night” through their comms. Normally, Sho would love trying to differentiate everyone’s voices, but not tonight. Then the Gringes invited them in and the kids all had warmed herb cider and the adults had mulled mead.
Next was the McLeans, and once again they were invited in for fruit, cheese, and candy canes, and the inevitable hot drinks. On and on, they went from hab to hab, singing to themselves and then to the inhabitants of the habs.
Sho usually loved this. The habs seemed so separate most times of the year, but this was the time they all were welcome. They felt like a community. But not this year. Sho just wanted it to be over.
Finally, it was the last hab before they returned home, the Klosses. Another sunrise and sunset had come and gone. By this time, Sho was so tired and wrung out that it was all he could do to keep from falling asleep in his suit. When they invited them in, Sho sent to Dad asking if they could skip it. Dad told him that they couldn’t, but Sho could find a place to lay down when they went in and wait until they were ready to go.
“You okay, Mite?” Mom said through comms.
“Yeah,” Sho said.
"Floating in one corner with one claw idly hooked on a net was the momma dog. Two of the puppies were sleeping on the float next to her, each with a paw hooked into a crook of a leg, and three were suckling."
They were greeted at the airlock by Old Man Kloss and his son Nic. And something else. In Nic’s arms was something wriggling furiously, trying to break free.
What was that? Sho wondered, his brain foggy. Pretty big for a mouse, and mice didn’t act like that. He followed the group in as they shed their suits and hung them for the umpteenth time on the suit hooks in the entry. Curiosity was waking Sho up. What was that he’d seen? He was one of the last to pull himself into the living room, and then there they were—a wriggling writhing mass of animal. Sho couldn’t believe his eyes. What were they? What in the heck were those? It took one chasing another, bouncing off people and furniture for him to see they were fluffy curly red dogs.
Puppies! They were puppies!
Sure enough. Floating in one corner with one claw idly hooked on a net was the momma dog. Two of the puppies were sleeping on the float next to her, each with a paw hooked into a crook of a leg, and three were suckling. More were chasing about the room and pulling on rope toys, which was comical because they couldn’t brace and ended up yanking each other first one way and then another.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Nic said with a laugh, shaking his head. “Thirteen of the little buggers. A baker’s dozen. Red here has a friend in the Armstrong hab, and it turns out that they’re more than friends.”
A look came over Mom’s face, and Sho wasn’t quite sure what it meant. Then she asked, “How old are they?” in a nonchalant voice.
“Three weeks today,” Nic said, gently nudging two that were stranded and trying to kick their way to a wall. “The only reason they haven’t gnawed the whole place apart is that they keep stranding themselves in the middle of rooms. And the barking. They found a window the other day and started barking at the stars—all thirteen of them at once. I thought I was going to go deaf.” Then he looked back at Mom. “Why? You want some puppies? We’d be glad to share the joy if you were of a mind.”
A huge smile broke across on Mom’s face, and she glanced over at Sho. “What do you think, Mite?” she said. “Do we need a puppy?”
Meet TT Linse
TT Linse believes that Santa is a superhero and Mrs. Claus and the elves are his Scooby Gang, but also sometimes it’s Mrs. Claus who is the superhero and Santa who’s the sidekick. We are all the heroes of our own stories. Find TT at ttlinseauthor.com.