A small capsule entered orbit on November 3, 1957. As it circled above, the sound of a heartbeat was transmitted back to Earth. Millions of people crowded around radios to hear the Soviets’ achievement, and for several hours a mangy stray named Laika was the most famous dog in the world.
At first anxiety gripped Laika. The capsule was too warm, and the straps restricted her movements. When she panted, her tongue floated in front of her eyes, an unpleasant thing. The only other occupant—a flea she had known for years—bit Laika’s skin to reassure her. Laika bit back, and soon the dog’s anxiety dissipated. It would have been replaced by boredom if it weren’t for the capsule’s single window. From there she saw something she had never seen before, something round and radiant. Watching the Earth stir below her, Laika’s memories of the pounds and laboratories of Moscow faded like old newspapers. She watched the ocean tease her with a fan dance with the clouds. Mountains tossed coy peeks over the Earth’s shoulder. The Earth taught her about attraction. As they spun, waltzed, hour after hour, the lesson advanced to attachment, and soon Laika understood the Earth was teaching her about love. Laika, the first earthling in space—the first satellite in love.
Science has long studied the phenomenon of Satellite Love. Despite years of research, several grants, a failed international institute, and sporadic congressional support, Science has learned little other than Satellite Love is a real and natural occurrence. Progress has occasionally been delayed by errors. For many years Laika was not recognized as the first satellite to experience love. Instead a Norwegian satellite named Bergitta was mistaken as the first when it made overtures to a meteorite crossing its trajectory. Science is divided on how the meteorite responded.
Scientists who study Satellite Love argue bitterly over the moon. It orbits the Earth and clearly has passions, but should it be classified a satellite the same as those man-made? Given the moon’s age, surely (some say) it would have been the first satellite to fall in love. Yet because of its age, (others say) it predates human observation, and Science can declare nothing without empirical evidence. Late at night, when several fewer bottles of red wine exist in the world, internet forums for people in lab coats overflow with typo-written theories and insults.
Laika had always suffered from an irregular heartbeat, a faint arrhythmia that went unnoticed by most of the physicists in the lab. Since arriving in the lab, Laika had listened to the machines beep late at night and to the engineers wiring communication receivers. Laika had learned Morse Code, tapping her heart against her sternum. One scientist did notice the irregular heartbeat, however, as he fitted her custom harness, but felt it better not to mention it. A man with a sense of mercy, he assumed the condition would mean an earlier death. She tapped a message to the man. He misunderstood, and instead of loosening the strap pulling at her fur, he patted her on the head and whispered soothing promises of death—a Russian lullaby.
Satellite Love is a complex phenomenon that manifests not in duality but along a continuum. Sometimes Satellite Love is Satellite Hate or Yearning or Confusion. Those who are Science have catalogued instances of Satellite Love in its various forms. A sample of the available data:
Abrixas sent GPS B11A-23 (PRN 04) a beep then a bleep then finally a bloop, but only received static in reply.
The satellite CBERS 1 whispered to the satellite Maroc Tubsat that the satellite Cosmos 2346 was on a crash course with INMARSAT 3-F3, and together they watched the inevitable collision with a mournful jealously.
The satellite Iridum 76 told the satellite Jason the truth about forests that can only propagate through fire.
Waves are the lightest form of touch—soundwaves, radiowaves, microwaves, and ORBCOMM FM 5 knew this and touched Eurobird 7.
Alouette 1 (S-27) knew this, too, and touched RS 15, but without RS 15’s permission. Intel SAT 601 registered what was happening to RS 15 but continued its orbit in the opposite rotation.
FO-20 tried to start a conversation with FO-29 with an interesting fact about gravity. But FO-29 thought FO-20 was making fun, and, insulted, pivoted away on its axis.
Argos lost orbit, entered the atmosphere, and with great relief was incinerated.
Laika used her Morse Code to tap out love messages to the Earth with her irregular heartbeat. The Earth replied by turning over coyly, showing Laika spinning weather fronts. This was reciprocation. This was sharing. Laika felt an acceptance she hadn’t known in the lab, not even when she was selected over the other mutts as Sputnik 2’s passenger. Laika knew she and the Earth were deeply in love.
Laika leaned as far forward as the straps would allow in order to kiss the Earth. She licked the glass of the window. The cold bit her tongue. Laika the satellite, Laika in love, learned that a kiss could hurt, and this only made it better.
The flea, however, was a problem. It had been with Laika on the dirty streets of Moscow and in the pound and the lab—a companion. A Russian flea is a comrade. Now it intruded into the privacy of Laika and Earth, making public and polite what should have been secret and reckless. It might even steal the affections of the Earth. Laika gnawed at the flea.
Science, today, is a man in a white lab coat who bites his fingernails. More frequently than he realizes, he glances at a woman who also wears a white lab coat and sits at the adjacent work station. She, too, is Science. They both wear lab coats, and they both are Science, and they both study satellites. Their points of divergence include:
a. she is a woman
b. he is a man
c. they subscribe to different technical journals
d. she uses a nail file
e. their nocturnal fantasies about each other diverge in every way, except one
Science is the awkwardness between potential lovers.
Last week the Man who is Science noticed that the Woman who is Science wore new shoes—open-toed with straps that shimmered under the fluorescent lights. He hoped she chose those shoes for him, while she wondered about his tie.
The flea learned Morse Code from Laika’s heart, and beat one leg against the dog’s skin to inform her that he, too, had feelings for the Earth. Laika took as much of her own hide into her mouth as she could, trying for the flea, but she couldn’t get at the proper angle because of the harness.
The flea leapt across the open cracks in Laika’s bald, dry skin. “I love the Earth more than you,” the flea tapped and jumped again. “The Earth told me while you slept,” it taunted. “The Earth and I will run away together and we’ll take the kids with us.” Space had not been easy on the flea’s mental condition.
Science has searched for every factor that might contribute to Satellite Love, such as structural integrity, metallurgy, gravitational attraction, and deception. It is known that the velocity of a satellite and the distance to the body orbited make a relationship. This means the distance between a satellite and a body must change as velocity changes. Too fast, slow, close, or far and an orbit disintegrates. With a constant speed balanced against an appropriate and constant distance, an orbit can be maintained—theoretically—forever. Experiments on the Theory of Forever are ongoing.
Science has observed that few satellites can maintain the delicate velocity-to-distance relationship. They continually crash, fall, burn, or spin away into space, and more must be launched daily to supply Science with enough test subjects.
The man and woman who are Science have difficulty regulating their respective velocities and distances. He steps closer to her, but steps too late and she has left. She waves too quickly in the morning, knocking over her coffee. They both bump into expensive pieces of equipment as they move around the lab.
Time passed, and late one night Laika woke to see the flea pressed against the window tapping messages to the Earth. Laika, overwhelmed by jealousy and dehydration, quickly licked the glass, taking the flea up into her mouth. She felt the texture of her friend and rival, the outline of his body pressed between her tongue and the roof of her mouth. Laika swallowed. She quickly looked about, conscious of what she had done. Had the Earth seen? The sun was still hidden and the Earth asleep. Laika tried to look casual, leaned back and whistled, but she no longer had lips and barely enough lung to exhale.
For years Laika kept the secret of her sin from her lover the Earth, though the truth of it haunted her, and often times she worried that when she beat sweet entreaties to the Earth with her heart, that the tapping came instead from the flea, inside her, still alive, enjoying the best revenge.
In metal containers above the atmosphere, the processes of death and decomposition are impaired. Despite official reports, it took over fifty years for Laika’s tissues to break down completely, and she lived to feel every moment of decay. On June 17, 2008, Laika, by then only a desiccated heart floating among a collection of bones, transmitted her last signal to Earth moments before the capsule’s orbit disintegrated.
A hardware store clerk named Rick did not receive the signal.
An ATM at a convenient store in Iowa did receive the signal, but mistranslated the message to customers who complained to the cashier that the machine was broken.
In the side yard of a derelict building at the northwest corner of Kimball and Barry, three flies alight on a dead rat, just ten feet from a used condom. Science knows that neither the dead rat, nor the flies, received the signal. Science does not know about the condom or the person who wore it.
Inmates at Guantanamo Bay were forbidden receiving the signal.
No members of congress received the signal, except one.
Children with balconies for backyards lean over the railings to toss plastic figures and bounce rubber balls from one balcony to the other. They may not recognize or comprehend the signal for twenty years, but Science has determined these children did receive it.
Though directed toward the Earth, Double Star TC2 received the signal and the satellite’s tears rusted the bolts along its solar panels.
Science is undecided if Science received the transmission. Science is a man in a white lab coat who arrived at the lab early with flowers for a woman who works at the adjacent station. Science is a woman in a white lab coat wearing open-toed shoes who will not receive flowers someone bought her because she took an unplanned vacation. This Woman who is Science boarded a plane for a small tropical island, spending the last of an inheritance from her father. When the plane landed, she walked past customs with no questions asked and took a cab to a resort hotel. Instead of checking in, she walked round the building to the private beach. There, sitting on the sand in her white lab coat, the Woman who is Science, and whose real name is Allison, bought a beer from a small boy dragging a cooler across the beach. Allison sipped her beer and watched the distant splash of an unidentified hunk of space junk that finally, after a half century of waiting, touched Earth.
Brendan Healy lives in Seattle where he writes fiction and plays. Mr. Healy received the 2004 Heideman Award for his short work “picnic (pik’nik): v.i.,” which is published in the anthology Great Short Comedies: Volume 3. His plays have been performed across the country in such places as Chicago, Florida, California, Louisville, Connecticut, and Seattle. He earned his MFA in writing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005.