Since Astropup last went into space, he has started to think big thoughts about the Universe. Now he is torn between the love of his owner, Jenny, and his thirst for space exploration. He returns to the launchpad for another mission with his companion the Major (who is a parrot in the Space Force). But this time the Major takes matters into his own beak.
My name’s Astropup, and if you are one of the pack that heard my earlier adventures, you’ll know that I have seen wonders and abominations in all four corners of the Universe. But in between my voyages through space, I lead a normal family life. I live with a little girl called Jenny who looks after me. You may recall that Jenny and her family moved to a sunny part of the world called Kuwait. Their home was in a compound surrounded by a high fence. There were other houses for the families called 'expats', and we all shared a big garden with shady palm trees and cooling fountains. Some might have called it paradise.
Every now and then, I would come across a cat creeping through the flower beds on its fat belly. I found that I had lost the urge to chase such pathetic creatures. When you have seen all infinity, you have bigger thoughts on your mind than pesky felines. Yes, thoughts, they were what ailed me. I hadn’t had many of them before, but seeing other worlds and meeting alien life forms expands a dog’s mind. I started to wonder if pampering and love might be a sort of slavery. I had an itch for freedom, and you couldn’t scratch it. I had seen the Planet of the Cats. I longed to discover the Planet of the Dogs.
Sometimes I would put my paw in Jenny’s hand and she would gaze at me with loving eyes and say:
“Don’t worry darling Bonzo. I’m never ever going to let them shoot you up into space again. If they come to get you, I’ll hang on to you and I won’t let go. They’ll have to send me with you to the other side of the heavens, and Daddy will never let them do that.”
'Bonzo' was what she called me by the way. It was an affectionate name, but it didn’t seem to fit me anymore. By then I thought of myself as Astropup, the space explorer. My exterior was the same fluffy, waggy friend that Jenny had known since puppyhood. But on the inside, I had changed.
The cruelest, most gut wrenching moment of my life took place one day in the garden of our compound. I was lying under an orange tree, when I heard an unhappy voice from within the house. It was Jenny crying and saying: “No no. I won’t let them take him. He’s my dog and he belongs here down on Earth, with me, for ever.”
Jenny ran out into the garden and flung her arms around me. I licked her face to tell her that I loved her, but I felt another force tugging at my heart. I saw a man with a Parrot sitting on his shoulder. He was my old friend and comrade – the Parrot I mean – and he squawked: “Hurry up old boy. The rocket’s on the launch pad." And with a woof I bounded over and joined him.
As we drove off, I pressed my nose against the back window of the van, and I saw Jenny standing in the doorway of the house with tears in her eyes. My heart was wrenched into two.
Well I had chosen adventure over the cushy life, and boy I got it. I’ve told you before how take-off is a nasty experience, well this was a blast to remember, because as we were going up, and the g-force was pulling our stomachs down, I saw a piece of metal fly past our window. The Major – that was the Parrot – saw it too. “Uh-oh,” he said, And oh, how I wished I was back in the arms of Jenny.
But eight minutes later we reached orbit safely, and all systems seemed to be A-ok. It’s so tranquil up there that it’s hard to worry. I gazed back down at the world and thought how life goes round in circles like a pup chasing its tail. Even space travel becomes routine after you’ve done it a few times. Well the mechanics of it do, but I’ll always feel a sharp thrill at the start of an adventure. It’s more exciting than even the waft of rabbit scent in the wind. Our mission was only a small one. A quick trip to Mars. My role was to dig in an ancient river bed and bring back samples of Marsian mud. The humans thought they might contain microscopic life forms.
The Major’s job was to set the coordinates, and fire us off in the direction of the Red Planet. He was a cool-headed bird, and normally he worked calmly and methodically at the control panel. It beats me how he remembered which buttons to press, but he did. This time I noticed that his head was nodding more frantically than usual. That worried me. My worst fears were confirmed when he squawked into the microphone:
“Houston, we have a problem.”
The human chatter from the speakers grew quite intense, but the voice of the controller remained calm. He said:
“Ark 3” – that was our ship – “Remain in orbit. A rescue shuttle is standing by.”
I was pleasantly surprised. I had assumed that the humans would leave us hanging up there, rather than go to the trouble of rescuing a bird and a dog. Perhaps the ship was too expensive to dump. But the Major replied:
“Hold on. I can fix it.”
He was grasping an electric screw driver between his claws and undoing a panel. I had never seen him do anything like that. The human controller was saying:
“Major. Your orders are to stay in orbit and await assistance. Do not attempt maintenance. Repeat, do not attempt maintenance.”
I added my bark to that, but something seemed to snap inside the Major’s feather breast. He jutted his beak at me:
“Shut your snout and that’s an order.” It was unusual for the Parrot to be so petulant. I don’t think he liked being told what to do, even by the humans.
After he had been working for half an hour with a soldering iron, he said: “Houston. I’ve patched in the emergency booster.” The human controller was saying: “Do not engage the booster. Remain in orbit and await assistance.”
I gruffed: “Better do what the humans say. It’s their show.”
But the Major replied: “Yeah, yeah yeah, I know what I’m doing. I’m not just a pretty polly you know.”
He pecked on the controls and a few seconds later we were rushing across the galaxy at four times the speed of light. The Major looked like a very pleased Parrot. He had wanted to prove something to the humans, and he had done it – or so he thought. We had only been going a few hours when a red light started to flash on the control panel. I noticed it through my half closed eyelid.
“Wake up,” said the Major. “We’re almost there.” But I felt in my tail that something was wrong. I looked up at the space chart on the ceiling. Mars was marked with a red circle. Our position was marked with a green light. The two were nowhere near each other. In fact, even to a simple minded hound such as myself, it was obvious that we were heading in wrong direction. I sat staring at it.
“What’s up?” asked the Major.
“We’re lost. That’s what’s up,” I said.
“Naaa!” he replied. But then he saw what I was looking at, and his face turned from yellow to bright yellow.
I couldn’t help myself. I howled and bayed:
“Aw-aw-awwwwwwwww! I should never have left my Jenny!”
The Major started to work at the computer, but I could tell that he didn’t really have a clue how to get us out of this pickle. He was a brainy bird alright, but on this occasion, too smart for his own good, and mine, unfortunately.
I curled up in my kennel and tried to sleep. Our oxygen and water could be recycled indefinitely. If we were careful not to wolf our grub down all at once we could keep going for two, maybe three months, but the end result would be the same - starvation in space. I wondered if, when it came to it, I would eat the Parrot. I hoped not, because he had been my friend, as well as my doom.
We didn’t hear anything from the humans. Either we were too far away, or they were fed up with us. The Parrot worked continuously at the computer for a week, but we kept on heading in entirely the wrong direction. Eventually he said:
“Alright. I’m sorry. You were right. I should have obeyed orders.”
“Don’t fret your feathers,” I said. “I forgive you. At least we will go out gloriously, as creatures of freedom.”
But how I wished I hadn’t left home. I began to think that if pampering and three meals a day is slavery, then perhaps freedom is overrated. And if it was our destiny to die in space, I would rather have gone down fighting the cat people than wasting away slowly of hunger.
The Major set the computer to beam out a Mayday signal. Actually, we broadcasted: “Help, Save our Skins” in all the languages that the Major knew, which included Parrot, general bird language, animal speak, English, Japanese, and a bit of German. He couldn’t bark, but he could understand dog language. He spoke to me in English and I woofed back. He asked me to record an “SOS”, and added my own “OW-OW-OWWWWW!” to the tape.
I can’t say either of us expected to meet anyone up there, but the Universe is so much smaller than you think, or at least that’s what I always find. After about a month of helpless wandering, the Parrot started to squawk excitedly:
“Dog. Dog. Wake up! We’re saved. Either that or death will come quickly. In any case, our suffering is at an end.”
I rushed over to the window, and could not help letting out a series of excited yaps. A spacecraft was approaching us, and the nearer it came, the bigger it got. It was huge. I mean the size of an oil tanker or two – and I’ve barked at some out in the gulf of Kuwait so I know what I’m talking about. It was not shaped at all like our own ship. It was more like a bird, with great wings out of the side. It was painted in all sorts of bright colours. In fact, it look liked a giant Parrot.
“Oh no. Oh no. It’s alive!” I yelped.
The beak of this ginormous bird opened and it was clear that it was going to swallow us up. This was to be our end. A snack for a space monster. There was nothing we could do. Our course was set straight into its mouth. I said goodbye to the stars and saw my life flash before me. I thought of my mother, my six brothers and sisters, the first squirrel that I caught (and then let go), of the day that Jenny chose me and took me home, and of our two trips to the Planet of the Cats.
But as all but the dimmest among you will have gathered, since I am here to tell this tale, this was not the end. It was not a bird that swallowed us up, but a spacecraft.
When I opened my eyes I saw that the inside of the ship was filled with branches, like a giant tree. We were surrounded by thousands of birds. Some were sitting, some were flying, some were pecking, and still others were doing one of those things and pooping at the same time.
The Parrot stared in amazement through the window. Eventually he said one word: