When I heard Laika’s frantic barking, my first reaction was annoyance. I turned over in my bed and muttered sleepily: “Shut up, you silly bitch”. That lasted only a fraction of a second; then consciousness returned – and with it, fear. Fear of loneliness, and fear of going mad. For a moment I did not dare open my eyes; I was afraid of what I might see. Sense told me that no dog had ever set foot upon this world, that Laika was separated from me by a quarter of million miles of space – and more of that – five years of time.
“You’ve been dreaming,” I told myself angrily. “Stop being a fool – open your eyes! You won’t see anything except the walls.”
That was right, of course. The little cabin was empty, the door closed. I was alone with my memories, overwhelmed by the transcendental sadness that often comes when some bright dream fades into drab reality. The sense of loss was so great that I wished
to return to sleep. It was well that I did not do so, for at that moment sleep meant death. But I did not know this for another five seconds and during that time I was back on the Earth, seeking for the comfort in the past…
No one knew Laika’s origin, though the Observatory staff made a few inquiries and gave several advertisements in the newspapers. I found her, a lost and lonely ball of fluff, huddled by the roadside one summer evening when I was driving up to Palomar. Though I have never liked dogs, it was impossible to leave this helpless little creature to the mercy of the passing cars. Wishing that I had a pair of gloves, I picked her up and threw her in the baggage compartment. When I had parked the car at the Monastery – the astronomers’ residential quarters, where I had been living for a few years – I inspected my find without enthusiasm. I intended to give the puppy to somebody but then it whimpered and opened its eyes. There was such an expression of helpless trust in them that…well, I changed my mind.
Sometimes I regretted that decision, though never for long. I had no idea how much trouble a growing dog could cause. My cleaning and repair bills soared, I could never be sure of finding an undamaged pair of shoes and an unchewed copy of the astrophysical journal. But finally, Laika became a well-trained dog. She was the only dog that was ever allowed to come into an Observatory. She lay there quietly for hours while I was busy, quite happy if she could hear my voice from time to time. The other astronomers also became fond of her (it was old Dr. Anderson who suggested her name), but from the beginning she was my dog, and obeyed no one else. Not that she always obeyed me.
She was a beautiful animal, about 95% Alsatian. It was because of that missing 5%, I think, that her masters abandoned her (I still get angry when I think of it). Except for two dark patches over her eyes, she was a smoky grey, and her coat was soft and silky. She was very intelligent, and when I was discussing spectral types of evolution of stars with my colleagues, it was hard to believe that she was not following the conversation.
Even now I cannot understand why she became so attached to me, as I have made very few friends among human beings. Yet when I returned to the Observatory after an absence, she would go almost frantic with delight, jumping and putting her paws on my shoulders – which she could reach quite easily – all the time uttering small squeaks of joy which seemed strange for so large dog.