“Collies in Space”

Competing for the Ursa Major Awards in two categories:

  • Published Short Story by Paul McComas & Heather McComas (5,000 words)
    © 2011 by Paul & Heather McComas
  • Published Illustration by Stefanie Sylvester
    © 2011 by Stefanie Sylvester and Paul & Heather McComas
    NOTE: Available on T-shirts, note cards, a poster, and other items benefiting Collie Rescue of Greater Illinois, Inc.

Both originally appeared in Paul’s collection Unforgettable: Harrowing Futures, Horrors, & (Dark) Humor (2011, Walkabout Publishing).


    The wide expanse of the universe stretches out in blackness, swirls of intergalactic dust, and pinpoints of light that blink the stories of billions of unknown stars, planets, and moons. Space is infinite and eternal, a source of endless questions, strangely silent in its majestic mystery.
    And yet…
    Somewhere far, far beyond the Milky Way, on the outskirts of Star System 92708, a long, elegant snoot tucks between the front paws of a curled-up canine—who heaves a deep, whistling, cosmic sigh.
    “Clono-14!” The tri-colored collie spins around in her chair at the communications panel. “You can’t be napping again, you mutt!”
    The aforementioned snoot rises a few inches, and the rest of the dog’s handsome head is now visible: the black mask of a German shepherd, the lean face of a greyhound, the thick gray hair of a husky, and a collie’s slight white blaze on the forehead. “Hmmmmm?” Clono-14 yawns wide, licks his chops, and sneezes. “Whazzat?”
    Minka leaps from her chair and trots over to her crew mate. “You! Sleeping! Again!” She leans over and gently nips Clono-14’s left half- prick ear. “This ship isn’t going to steer itself.”
    Clono-14 slowly stands, then stretches his front legs forward and raises his rear in a textbook downward-dog. “Take a chill pill, Uhura.”
    Minka leaps on Clono-14 and scruffs his neck with her maw. Clono- 14 flips her over, and the two dogs roll in a somersaulting tussle toward the front of the spacecraft, all the way up to the command station; when they realize where they’ve landed, both dogs immediately freeze.
    Belle, a stunning sable-and-white, looks down from her seat at the conn. She is, of necessity, part mission captain, part tie-breaker, and part den mother. One disapproving look from Belle is worth five minutes of scolding from a human master on Earth. “Is there a problem?” She stares at Minka and Clono-14 for one moment more, then turns her attention back to the switches in front of her. “We should check in with Houston.”
    Minka jumps into her seat to the right of Belle and paws a headset awkwardly over her ears. She peers over her shoulder to Clono-14’s seat behind them. “Mongrel half-breed,” she mutters, loudly enough for Clono-14—but not Belle—to hear.
    “What?” Clono-14 pounces at the back of Minka’s chair. “What’s that, Little Miss I-Couldn’t-Navigate-My-Way-Out-of-the-Earth’s-Atmosphere? Miss They-Had-to-Send-a-Search-Party-Out-For-Me-My-First-Night-at-Cape-Canaveral-Because-I-Got-Lost-Chasing-a-Squirrel?” Clono-14’s paws tear at the back of Minka’s seat; luckily, the “footies” of his silver spacesuit prevent his nails from ripping the leather.
    Minka spins around in her chair; her upper lip curls back from her left fang. “Well, because of you, we’re ‘Collies in Space’ with an asterisk! Collies in Space . . . and, by the way, we have a melting-pot quadroon on board, too!’”
    A loud, sharp bark sounds from the captain’s seat.
    Minka and Clono-14 again freeze.
    “You should both be ashamed of yourselves.” Belle swivels to give her crew mates a good, hard stare. “My litter back home was better behaved, even before they were weaned!”
    Clono-14 slinks back to his seat. “Yes, ma’am.”
    Minka turns back to her station. “Sorry.” But she can’t resist glancing back at Clono-14 and whispering, “Asterisk.”
    Clono-14 tugs his headset on and grunts, “You’re getting to be a pain in the asterisk.”
    Suddenly: the crackle of static—and a high-pitched squeal. All three dogs jerk in their seats at the piercing noise. Then, a human voice: “Cerberus, are you there? Come in, Cerberus.”
    “Yes, we are, Mission Control.” Minka adjusts her headset. “But we could do without the dog whistle; we read you just fine, Sam.”
    Sam chuckles. “Sorry about that. But you know our tech folks can’t resist the occasional joke. And, you never know: as you get farther away, that whistle may come through better than my voice.”
    Minka snorts. “I understand human language just fine, no matter how many light-years we are from Earth. I am fluent in English, Russian, and Collie.”
    “Oh, yeah?” interrupts Clono-14. “What’s ‘spoiled princess’ in Russian? ‘Czarina?’”
    Belle quickly breaks in: “Shall we review our position and do a systems check, Houston?”
    Sam’s deep laugh booms over the transmission. “Atta girl, Belle. You go right on and yank their leashes.”
    Even Belle, the epitome of patience and grace, has her limits. She emits a low growl—soft enough that no one in Mission Control can be certain of it, yet loud enough to get her point across. “I thought we agreed: no more canine condescension. Now, let’s get through this; I need some rest.”
    “You got it, Captain.” Sam is all business now. “Clono-14, you want to run down your coordinates?”
    Clono-14 paws the screen in front of him and dips his nose to take a closer look. “We’re currently passing through Sector 253-Baker, heading for space/time-jump entry point to the Canis Major constellation. If all goes as planned, we should reach Sirius and its larger planets within twenty-four hours.”
    “Excellent; right on schedule. Everything going okay out there, Clono-14?”
    Clono-14 leans back in his chair and yawns. “Yup—the bitches and I are doing fine.”
    “Clono-14!” Sam’s gasp is audible, even over the millions of miles. “That’s out of line. You’d better apologize, my friend.”
    “It’s okay, Sam.” Belle glances back at Clono-14 and winks. “Minka and I are bitches—there’s no denying it.”
    “Um, all right, Captain; whatever you say.” Sam pauses; then: “I just got a printout of your systems check. Everything looks good from back here. Y’all seeing any problems?”
    Belle scans the elaborate panel of controls and switches, adjusting a few knobs along the way. “No trouble that I can see. All systems look normal.”
    “Good, good; that’s what we like to hear. Well, unless there’s anything else, I guess we can sign off for now.”
    Minka and Clono-14 immediately pull off their headsets and jump out of their chairs, leaving Belle, as always, to finish the job.
    “We’ll be in touch when we have a visual on Sirius.” Belle spins back in her chair. “Over and out, Houston.” She pulls off her own headset— and spots both Minka and Clono-14 heading toward the large, metallic- silver dog beds at the back of the cabin. “Oh, no, you don’t!”
    Clono-14’s thick brush tail dips between his legs; he lowers his head and looks up at her with guilty eyes. “Aw, I just wanted to catch up on my Z’s, Belle. But Minka and I can watch things up front for a while, if you need a break.”
    “Roger that. We’re at T-minus-twenty-four hours till the culmination of our mission.” Belle steps into her bed and turns around three times before lying down. “I need to be completely alert when we reach Sirius.”
    Minka quickly turns back and trots over to Belle’s station. “No problem! I’ll take the conn.”
    Belle raises her head. “This is just a temporary thing, Minka. Let’s remember who’s in charge.”
    Minka tosses her long mane and jumps up into the captain’s seat. “Yes, I know: you’re the boss.” She surveys the control panel and mutters, “Because a mommy in space sells newspapers.”
    Belle hears this, but she’s too tired to respond. Maybe, she thinks, a few hours at the controls will ease Minka’s jealousy. Or maybe, after I wake up, I should try to have a talk with her, a real snoot-to-snoot chat, and get everything out on the table.
    Belle closes her eyes and rests her head on her front paws. She can see her three sons and five daughters rolling around in the grass and playing, biting each others’ ears and yipping their shrill puppy yips. A wave of sadness hits her. They’ve grown so big while she’s been gone— she can see it in their weekly video chats—and she, their mom, has missed out on so much….
    She paws her nose and allows herself a single sniffle.
    But we’re so close to reaching our goal. With a tiny nod of her head, Belle resolves to look forward, not back—and to keep her mind on her job. The picture behind her closed eyes turns to the blackness of space and the twinkling dots of faraway stars. They’ll be near Sirius soon . . . and then, on to the Dog Planet.
    One final thought before Belle, Chief Collie and Captain of the NASA shuttle Cerberus, drifts off into her interstellar nappie:
    What a long, strange seven years (in dog time) it’s been. . . .
    The scientific world, and then the world proper, had been stunned twelve months earlier, when ultra-high-frequency radio signals from light-years away had relayed an audible message of greeting and good will to Earth.
    A message punctuated with barks.
    First Contact had been made not by humanoids, it appeared, but by a race of alien dogs.
    The nations of the world mobilized and conferred. At a U.N. conference, it was agreed that a rendezvous mission should be mounted—and that it should be “manned” not by Man, but by his best friend.
    Various breeds were tested for intelligence, stamina, loyalty, and the ability to resist licking their loins in the face of crisis; most failed miserably. Greyhounds nearly made the final cut, but as pilots they were prone to going full throttle right out of the gate. Border collies were the runners-up: they proved plenty smart and dedicated, but their high energy level suggested that they simply wouldn’t be able to stand the confinement of space travel. (Also, at the testing site, they tried—with some success—to herd a pair of flummoxed Pentagon officials.)
    The standard collie breed, however, passed with flying colors, albeit colors that they, as dogs, could not accurately see. From thousands of applicants, there emerged three unusually bright specimens—so bright, in fact, that unconfirmed rumors of human-gene splicing and/or brain-tissue grafting quickly ran rampant. The dogs themselves—a mixed- breed male and two purebred females—took umbrage at such talk . . . yet thereby succeeded only in fanning the flames, for whoever heard of a dog taking umbrage?
    The male, thirteenth clone of a remarkably perceptive collie/greyhound/shepherd/husky mix named “Pono” (Hawaiian for “Goodness”), was chosen largely for his industriousness and keen directional sense; he was trained to serve as the ship’s navigator and engineer. The younger female, being uncannily social, vocal, and—yes— verbal, was slotted into communications, and also was instructed in basic veterinary practice. And the older (i.e., four-year-old) female—a quick-on-her-paws combat veteran and career bomb-sniffer who had bravely risked her own life, time and again, to save the lives of others—was the obvious choice for command.
    Of course, designing and building a spaceship, and all of its equipment, specifically for canine use required something of a paradigm shift for the folks at NASA. The interior had to be fully oxygenated to allow the collienauts to go without helmets, for in test runs with the headgear, the trio’s frequent panting instantly fogged up their glass face-screens. In addition, Earth’s gravity was replicated inside the cabin, in part for comfort and in part to keep the sojourners’ kibble and Tang inside their respective bowls.
    As for the Cerberus—whose blueprint was developed in consultation with the collies themselves—it was, in a word, unique. To the standard space-shuttle body was appended an elongated, tapering, snoutish nose-cone at the bow, as well as a jointed, tail-like rudder apparatus to stern that aided in course stabilization via a back-and-forth “wagging” motion.
    At long last, eight and one half months after first contact: launch day at Cape Canaveral.
    The ship was ready; the equipment was ready; the crew was ready. But—was the world ready?
    It would have to be. For its fate now lay firmly within a dozen padded paws.
    “Look, ahhh, you are heroes, each one of you.”
    Belle’s ears prick up: I know that voice. She lifts her head sleepily, peers through blinking eyes at the monitor. Sees the familiar and handsome human face.
    “And we are all with you three: Michelle, the girls, Bo—especially Bo—and I . . . not to mention our nation. After all, there’s not a human America and a canine America; there’s the United States of—”
    “WOOF!” Belle bounds to her feet and straight toward the conn. “Out!” she half-whispers, half-snarls.
    Minka bolts.
    Belle leaps into her chair, then quickly composes herself. “Mr. President . . .”
    “Ah, Captain Belle.” A broad smile. “I was hoping I’d have the honor of speaking with you.”
    “The honor’s mine, sir.” She shoots a glance apiece at her crew mates “I’m just sorry no one around here saw fit to inform me . . .”
    “Look, every leader has the occasional, uh, skirmish with staff. Why, earlier today, Joe Biden said the damnedest . . .”
    The signal flutters; it cuts out, in, out again.
    “Mr. President!” Belle points a brusque paw at Minka. “Get him back!”
    “I’m trying!” the tri-color yelps, desperately punching control buttons with her nose.
    “Equipment malfunction?”—this from Clono-14, padding over for a look.
    Minka shakes her head. “All systems fully functional. It’s something else.”
    The navigator turns back toward his captain. “I think I know.”
    Belle leans forward. “So?”
    “The entry point. We must be near.” He tilts his head toward the view screen. “That ringed planet over there’s the marker.”
    Belle nods firmly. “Acknowledged. Prepare for entry, everyone.”
    “Uh . . . actually,” says Clono-14, “I have to go.”
    “Go? Go where?”
    “You know.”
    Minka, likewise, turns toward the commander. “Me too.”
    Belle rolls her eyes; she mutters, “In the name of Saint Bernard. . . !” Then, more loudly: “There’s no time. Just ‘go’ in a . . . an empty supply box or something, would you?”
    The other two draw back from her as if slapped. Gasps Clono-14, “What are we—cats?”
    “All right, then; take your space walk—but make it quick! I’m not gonna see this mission botched by your baby bladders. Am I clear?”
    In unison: “Yes, Captain!” And off they bound.
    Gazing after them, Belle shakes her head … but her ears flatten back in concern. Once they’re out of the vessel, she knows, Clono and Minka will be on their own; if trouble should arise—as it well may—their captain will be unable to help. Belle heaves a worried sigh as she recalls the old saying: “In space, no one can hear you bark.”
    A minute later, Belle watches her now-helmeted and -tethered (not “leashed,” as Sam once called it) subordinates float past the aft porthole. “What the hell?” she grumbles—then realizes they’ve headed for the one place that’s out of camera range. Belle raises a paw and flips the switch to activate their helmet mikes: “No time for modesty, people—just get it done.”
    The reply voice is Minka’s: “You’re not helping!”
    Clono-14 finishes quickly, then shuts the airlock-drop-chute in the rear of his suit and (dog-)paddles toward the open bay doors. Within seconds, he’s back in the shuttle, pawing his way out of his helmet and then re-joining Belle on the bridge.
    “What is she doing out there?” demands the captain.
    The male shrugs. “I dunno. Want me to go fetch her?”
    “Mr. Clono, I’ll thank you not to use the ‘F word.’ It’s offensive.”
    “Even when we use it with each other?”
    Finally, the tri-color saunters in.
    “Ms. Minka, to your post.”
    The younger bitch complies, mumbling, “At least out there, no one’s barking out orders.” Belle’s hackles rise slightly. “None of your mouth, young lady.” Then, to the male: “Mr. Clono, what’s our position?”
    “Nearing the planet’s outermost ring; wormhole imminent.”
    Minka’s head jerks around. “Ringworm?” Her eyes are wide with fear.
    “No,” Belle says evenly, “he didn’t say ‘ringworm.’” Then, sotto voce to the mutt: “She had a bad case as a pup. Lost a lot of hair.”
    “Oh.” He turns to Minka. “Sor—”
    But Clono-14 has neither the time nor the voice to finish his apology, for at once they are sucked into the wormhole. The reverberating ship barrels through an ever-unfolding wrinkle in the space/time continuum, twisting and turning, spinning like a top, speeding and slowing and speeding up again.
    Belle clenches her jaws tightly. If NASA’s calculations are correct, she reminds herself, this passageway should lead them well-nigh within piddling distance of the Canis constellation, the Sirius system . . . and the Dog Planet.
    Ideally, she thinks, in one piece.
    Clono-14 lifts his paws from his eyes and peers up through the forward view glass. “We’re out!” He gets up off the floor where all three dogs have been lying crouched, gives his head and neck a hearty shake, and climbs into his chair. “Hey, gals—you gotta take a look at this!”
    They rise and stand flanking him.
    Looming before the trio, filling most of the glass, is a large planet of sea blue and murky green. And though these colors appear to the crew in muted shades of gray, the collienauts nonetheless gaze at the sphere in silent awe. Minka cocks her head to one side to take it all in.
    “Like Earth,” Belle observes, her voice distant. “Only bigger. And …”
    “And with differently shaped continents.” Clono-14 points a paw toward the largest land mass, whose outline approximates that of a gigantic bone. “Wonder what that one’s called?”
    “Everyone to their stations!” Belle, having snapped back to the here and now, leaps into her chair and begins flipping switches to prepare for landing. “Clono, are you ready to initiate descent?”
    “You betcha!” the mutt pants in excitement, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. “Belt up!”
    Minka does so, then pulls on her headset. “Let’s get Houston on the horn.” She turns on her microphone and taps it a few times with her paw. “You read us, Mission Control?”
    Sam’s anxious voice crackles over the speakers: “Yes, but what the hell was all that thumping?”
    Minka shrugs. “Sound check.”
    “It sounded like a herd of elephants. No need for a sound check, Minka—I’ve explained that before. You’re not a roadie for Three Dog Night.”
    Background laughter from Mission Control.
    Minka begins to reply—then breaks into a sharp yelp, for the Cerberus is now looping in a corkscrew as it cants downward. Diving sharply into the Dog Planet’s atmosphere, the ship rocks back and forth in a lilting pattern, then tilts into another lateral rotation.
    Inside the cabin, it’s a veritable fireworks display of kibble—the tiny pellets fly everywhere, pelting collies and controls alike—as a big wave of orange Tang splats right onto one of Minka’s white fur patches.
    Belle peers anxiously at the control panel. “Houston, we’re losing control of the craft! Everything was fine a minute ago, till . . .” She stops mid-sentence, then looks back at Clono-14, eyes narrowed. “Don’t even tell me you’re responsible for that Snoopy World-War-I-Flying-Ace nonsense.”
    Clono-14 licks his chops and smiles proudly. “Yes, ma’am.”
    “Clono-14,” Sam’s stern voice crackles over the speaker, “you listen here. That ‘joy ride’ was strictly against protocol. No one told you to roll over!”
    Clono-14 snickers and nonchalantly scratches his ear. He flashes a toothy grin at Minka—who glares back while concertedly licking the Tang from her coat.
    Maybe if it had happened during the many dull, routine months of their mission up to this point, Belle would have lectured Clono-14, or Sam would have repeated his neutering threat. But now, both let it drop. Even Minka, though thoroughly put out by her sticky orange fur, has higher priorities than chastising her cremate for his antics. For at this moment, they are hurtling through the Dog Planet’s thick cloud cover, the bone-shaped continent growing steadily (and, thus, steadily less bone shaped) below.
    “Prepare for landing.” Belle noses at a few buttons on the panel, then turns to Clono-14. “Deploy the landing paws.”
    “Roger that.” He flips a switch, and all three dogs turn to a nearby monitor:
    Down from the bottom of the spacecraft unfold four large metal feet, padded for shock absorption. The dogs can feel the apparatus below them lock into place; they look at each other and nod in relief.
    “Requesting permission to land, Captain Belle.” Gone is the ruffian mutt of a few minutes ago, for Clono-14 is now focused on the most important job he’ll ever have: landing the Cerberus on alien-canine soil.
    Belle nods once. “Proceed, Lieutenant Clono.”
    The continent now fills the crew’s view: a massive, verdant expanse—a kind of vast, unending, unfenced yard. But as the Cerberus continues to descend, additional details become apparent: lakes and streams, bushes and trees, flowers and grass. No doghouses, though, nor any other sign of canine life. At least, not yet.
    Belle turns to the tricolor. “You getting anything, Ms. Minka?”
    She shakes her head. “I’ve been trying to establish radio contact since we broke through the clouds. Not a blip back.”
    Belle eyes her. For a moment, she doubts her subordinate’s abilities.
    From the look on Minka’s face, it’s a moment not lost on the younger female.
    Belle looks away. “Wish they’d send us some landing coordinates.”
    “Guess I’ll just try for one of these level fields, okay?” Clono-14 steers the craft with both paws, his brow furrowed in concentration. “Brace yourselves, bitches; this is it!”
    There is no need to brace, for the spacecraft sets down smoothly, almost gently, in a grassy clearing. And then, without warning, before Belle can even begin to shut down the ship’s power system, the collies see five smallish black-and-tan shapes running out of the brush and bounding toward the ship. They stop at the edge of the Cerberus’ shadow.
    “Oh, my Lord in heaven,” Sam gasps. “Minka, can you zoom in on them, please?”
    “Yes,” says Minka, still smarting from her captain’s look. “I can.” Then she adjusts the craft’s exterior camera, and an enlarged image appears on the collies’ view screen.
    “Well, I’ll be damned. . . !” Sam’s voice trails off.
    Minka finishes his thought. “They’re pugs! Pugs!” She jumps indignantly from her seat and runs around the cabin. “You mean to tell me that I’ve missed out on six months’ worth of walkies so that you stupid humans could make contact with a bunch of flat-faced pugs?”
    “Houston, they’re approaching.” Ever the leader, Belle remains calm and poised. She sits erect in her captain’s chair and watches as the short, stubby creatures begin trotting closer to the craft—close enough, now, that Belle can see their little corkscrew tails bobbling with each tiny stride. “Lieutenant Clono, run the weapons scan.”
    Clono-14 flips a switch, and a wide green light shoots out from the Cerberus. It sweeps across the five approaching animals, then back again. “All clear, Captain Belle. No weapons—at least, none our tech can recognize.”
    Minka, back at her post, grumbles, “No indication of distemper or rabies.”
    Belle, under her breath: “Not the Earth versions, anyway.” She rises up in her chair, eyes trained on the alien pugs now standing in a tight semicircle outside the craft. “Houston, do we have your go-ahead to disembark?”
    There is a long pause; only a soft buzzing sound can be heard over the transmitter. “It’s—” Sam’s answer breaks off; he coughs, twice. Then, voice thick with emotion: “It’s up to you, Belle. You know the risks.” Finally, all business: “Your call, Captain.”
    Belle stares out at the small forms standing below her. She thinks of her pups, and the whiskers around her nose quiver ever so slightly. What if I never see them again?
    Yet in the next instant, she knows she has no choice but to see the job through. How could she face her litter if she gave up now? What kind of example would she be setting? Decisively, Belle bounds off her chair and paws the switch to lower the exit ramp. “I’m going down.” She gazes expectantly at her crew.
    Clono is immediately by her side. “I’m in.”
    Standing next to her seat, Minka balks. “Shouldn’t one of us stay aboard?” She shifts her weight uncomfortably between her front paws. “You know…in case…?”
    Belle doesn’t try to hide the disappointment in her voice: “Suit yourself.”
    Minka’s head lowers slightly.
    Belle trots down the ramp, Clono-14 just behind, and peeks outside the craft.
    The pugs stand completely still, their bulging eyes unblinking.
    Belle takes a deep breath and gingerly steps off the ramp. She is reassured to feel the slight bump of Clono’s nose against her hind leg. It’s good to know she is not alone.
    Collie and collie-mix alike take a half-dozen slow steps forward, then stop and stand on the grassy ground, noses twitching as they take in the strange scents of this new world.
    “Here goes nothing,” breathes Belle, then resumes stepping forward alone, eyes locked on the fawn pug standing in the middle.
    The pug’s upper lip curls back, revealing its fangs.
    Clono-14 is immediately at Belle’s side, his thick husky hair bristling around his neck. “I’ll take the three on the left,” he mutters. “You take the two on the right. They’ll probably hyperventilate and collapse before we even touch—”
    “Hush!” Belle whispers. “You know the plan: no aggression, except in self-defense.” She surveys the group, then looks back at Clono. “Besides, I would take three, and you would take two.”
    “Whatever,” grumbles Clono. “Let’s split up and circle, okay?”
    “Slowly,” Belle directs, then begins padding to the outside of the pug lineup.
    The pugs watch her every move.
    She eyes the dark one flanking the left side. Its tongue lolls out of its mouth in a ridiculous curl, and she can hear its random snuffles and snorts as it takes a step back. At this moment, she can’t help but agree with Minka: Pugs? Seriously?
    Clono-14 has moved to the right. Spotting a small bush nearby, he stops to sniff, then lifts a hind leg.
    The response is immediate: two pugs hurl themselves toward the newcomer, growling and barking. They stop just shy of him but continue to make an ominous gurgling noise.
    A low rumble sounds from deep within Clono’s chest.
    Minka stands at the top of the ship’s ramp, taking it all in. Yes, she’s scared—who wouldn’t be? It’s a pretty screwy world where pugs rule the roost! Yet as she watches both Belle and Clono fail miserably, she knows that the precarious balance of peace in the universe has fallen squarely onto her long, pointed snoot.
    And, after all, she is the communications expert.
    Minka trots slowly down the ramp, her thick, luxurious tail held high. She approaches Belle, stopping next to her; eyes on the pugs, Minka whispers furtively to her captain.
    Belle’s ears prick. “Really? Are you sure?”
    Minka sighs. “You got any better ideas?”
    Belle shakes her head. Slowly, she approaches the closest pug—but this time, instead of meeting it face-to-face, she moves toward the dog’s rear. Belle pauses and glances first at the expectant Minka, then at the baffled Clono-14. She clears her throat, then pronounces: “This is one small sniff for a dog . . . one giant whiff for dogkind.” And with that, Belle lowers her head and smells the pug’s butt.
    Excitedly, the pug begins wagging its ridiculous tail and nosing at Belle’s hindquarters. Belle’s own tail now begins to wag—tentatively at first, then steadily—as the dogs nose at each other’s rumps. And the captain thinks: They smell like us!
    Clono-14 is next. He steps toward his two antagonists and delicately sniffs their curly tails.
    They, in turn, cautiously snuffle him.
    Finally, Minka steps over to a rather portly pug and begins to nose its behind.
    The dog’s eyes roll in excitement.
    And from there, the sniffs and nosings and nudges are traded all around, from pug to collie and collie to pug, encompassing every possible mathematical combination.
    Sam’s voice emerges from the speaker back in the craft as he watches the live video feed: “Well, I’ll be damned. Those hounds did all right!”
    All tension is now gone as the dogs sniff and wag and bark and lick and grin. Belle manages a quick aside to her communications officer: “Good job, Lieutenant!”
    Minka beams. “Thank you, ma’am.”
    “You’ve done our breed prou—” Suddenly, the captain is bowled over by a hyper-enthusiastic male who proceeds to take a little play-nip at her neck. For all intents and purposes, thinks Belle, rolling on her back, this could be a dog park back on Earth.
    She bumps the male with her snoot, and they exchange a grin.
    But it’s not. No; it’s so much more.