The contrail was still a streaking arc of white against the red sky when Pilot darted on four legs into the long straight canyon. He looked up every few seconds, marked its clean curve, tracked it like he would a scent as it vanished into a horizon that wasn’t as clean, a horizon that was nothing but dense foliage, black against the sky’s blood red, the color that clung to the surface of the planet, the choking atmosphere that he had come, in his brief life, to breathe without difficulty. Everything here should have been enough to kill him, regardless of his pedigree. He was simply not from here. But he accepted it, because Pilot accepted everything. And his lungs had adapted, so he could pant the visible floating particles, like he could pant the untainted oxygen behind vacuum-sealed doors. Right now he was panting, his tongue flapping out the side of his mouth, for he was missing a tooth and there was nothing to restrain it. Drops of saliva scattered behind him and mingled with the floating red dust.
The words “Pilot go” bounced from one tall pointed ear to the other. They vibrated through his lanky black body and up every coarse hair. He was electric with “Pilot go.” He glanced at the contrail again as he skidded down the steep dive into the canyon, letting himself lose his footing, surfing on red silt, diving between boulders at the bottom sharp as coral, and padding through grass that was almost as black as his coat. At his neck a small, triangle-shaped piece of metal jingled upon the collar. He liked it. He liked making as much noise as possible–always did–announcing himself to the canyon and its shadows.
The Run was a narrow trench, perhaps a quarter mile wide but much narrower in spots, and he’d never been to the end of it. As far as Pilot knew, it stretched forever. He didn’t check his pace after reaching the grass, and his amber eyes locked fiercely upon what might have been the boles of trees on the planet where he was born, but here were the colossal stems of flora. He was quickly amongst them, stretching full from the triceps in his front legs to the biceps in his rear legs, bounding over some mound that emerged with a rumble from the grass, a white mushroom that was sprouting even as he leapt, for this is how fast things grew here in the red dust. How thrilling to stretch, to race, to let his fugitive tongue flap behind him. Two more mushrooms rose, and another, older one towered, glowing, and he slunk beneath its striped white and pink gill, six feet in circumference. The aroma was fragrant, but he was not deceived. Once he’d taken a small bite which made him vomit pink froth for a full week.
A thicket of shoots thirty feet high, their closed buds hazy in the red mist, now began to wall him in, and he put his nose to the ground though he still scrambled fast, trying to track his own scent, and found the space where he had gone some time ago. But there was no path any longer. Reniform leaves brushed at him, and he sprang backward, snarled, looked left and right and chose left. He squeezed his slender body between the thick stems while seed leaves twitched angrily at him. Out of spite, he tore one loose, shook it in his thrashing head, and released it, leaping forward before the shoot could retaliate.
Pilot was now past the wall, amidst smaller flowers that nonetheless rose high above his ears. The orange buds opened responsively while he looked at them. The corollas unfolded like puzzles elegantly solved. They even seemed to spin as they shook off red dust, stamen and pistil reaching out, groping like a glowing yellow tentacle, while the stems began to stoop, and then the pistils licked searchingly through the grass, twisting like snakes toward Pilot. And he ran. He launched himself over the slithering pistils, brushed his pointy ears against the orange petals, then was clear.
The ground fell suddenly, and now his paws did lose their grip, and he tumbled. The world turned over and over in his vision, a blur that revealed a fast-approaching vine, as tall as he, stretched along the bottom of the ravine. The vine was black as the grass, but there were sharp angles sticking outward, what he realized were thorns. He brought all four legs straight in front of him, trying to brake himself, and when he saw he wouldn’t stop, he let them catapult his lean body over the vine and toward the clearing behind it. A thorn scraped a paw, but didn’t pierce him. And it only touched him because the vine moved, reacted, sought him.
The vine belonged to a Venus flytrap of a variety that Pilot had never seen before, but he was certain now that he had never come this way. It was a very wide mouth with whiskers covering two red lips, and the whiskers were sharp as knives and gleamed gunmetal. Pilot had landed a foot from one of them, but it did not move. The trap was patient, and confident in its patience. Another trap was just to Pilot’s right, and his eyes flickered over to a mouth that was clamped shut, bulging in the gullet, and thrashing with its unseen prisoner in just the way that Pilot had shaken the seed leaf a few moments ago.
Pilot barked twice, he had to, but he moved fast. The trap moved faster and closed about his foot. The plant was immense, and Pilot’s leg was little more than muscle and tendon, so he slipped between the blades and escaped the clearing just as another thorny vine came creeping after.
He approached a dell of spider mites, pink-luminescent and bony-limbed, trying to trap him as they drew their webbing from one prickly shrub to another, firing with a whispering hssssst. When he was completely surrounded by streams of white silky webbing, closing him into a tighter and tighter cylinder, he dug into the soil and cut himself a path beneath, and was free.
That was when he saw the dog.
It looked very much like himself, tall, long-necked, two sharp ears, black coarse fur. It stared at him from between immense oyster mushrooms, shining white. The dog did not move. It seemed to be studying Pilot, waiting for him, alert by the stance of the ears, the erect outward-pointing tail.
He struggled to process this. He knew no other dogs, not in the white tunnels of clean air, not in the entire Run, though he’d hardly penetrated much further than he was now. And as he tried to understand, he looked into the dog’s eyes and saw they were not amber, but the same black as the coarse hair. Pilot stalked closer, his head low, sniffing enough to inhale the entire world. And when he was only a few inches away, and confirmed the eyes were open and the pupils were the same substance as its muzzle and its haunches and its spine and its tail and its paws, the dog exploded.
It was a cloud of black pollen. The dog had been a creation of pollen, a tribute to the Pilot that had come this way before, left by the hulking flower that Pilot now saw lurking behind it, a dandelion of neon. The pollen went straight into Pilot’s nostrils, and he sneezed, retreated, sneezed, for a moment rolling desperately in the dirt. That flower lowered its petals at him, and more black pollen ejected, but he was gone, the other side of the oyster mushrooms, past and faster.
Amidst the black grass sharp objects landed with a soft puft-puft-puft. They were long pink thorns jutting out of the sod like spears, and they pulsed with light. But the foliage had retreated here, and he could see white smoke, the end of the contrail, and a hillock of erupted soil where the smoke was thickest. He penetrated, his senses intoxicated by the burning smoke, for it was his prize that he had discovered. His sharp teeth gnawed down. In the white haze only a black tail like a flailing whip showed of Pilot’s struggle. And then he emerged with a round sphere of soft metal, bright red lights, and two black holes that still issued smoky tendrils. He jumped, and a pulsing thorn took his space, puft.
He went a different path back, warily avoiding the place where the pollen-dog had been. He had gone just a little bit further than he’d previously breached, but he saw so many new things in the Run. Each time, new things. He was faster in the return, less cautious, but the soft gray metal in his teeth held his tongue back and gave him the fight he needed.
Finally he could see the flat white exhaust pipes emerging from the hill, and as he climbed, the full enclave came into view, the stretching rampart of metallic wall and round picture windows where bodies occasionally passed, glancing disinterestedly outward. And Pilot saw him, sitting in a chair and coughing red dust while conversing with her, both in visors that wrapped over their eyes and reflected red sky.
Pilot dropped the silver sphere at his feet, and it was a full minute before the man looked down. Then he turned back to his wife and resumed his sentence, and it was another twenty excruciating seconds before he picked up the ball without looking at it. His thumb clicked against one of the red lights, turning all of them green, the two black holes shot smoke, and the prize rocketed out over the horizon, deep into the Run, deeper, Pilot was sure, than it had ever been before.
“Pilot, go,” said the man, and he coughed on red dust, and went back to whatever he was saying.
Pilot was glad, and he was gone.
Jeff Kuykendall’s speculative fiction has appeared in The Singularity and Fiction Vortex. He received his MFA from the University of Washington, and is a former award recipient for short fiction in the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts’ Arts Recognition and Talent Search. He’s a veteran of the Madison Writers’ Studio in Madison, Wisconsin, and writes about science fiction, fantasy, and horror cinema at the website Midnight Only. Find out more atwww.jeffkuykendall.com.