We Lost The Moon

On a tranquil Sunday, they embarked on their routine stroll along the Connecticut River trail, a repurposed old railway line now serving as a pedestrian pathway. Sundays offered them the leisure of time, allowing them to venture farther than on other days. Their destination was often the basin, a spot they enjoyed visiting for a soothing cup of coffee and some special treats for the dog. The man, seizing the opportunity offered by the day of rest, tried to unburden his mind of significant worries. His loyal companion, an AI-powered chocolate lab, willingly set aside his play ball, adjusting his priorities to suit Sundays.

Instead of indulging in games, the dog assumed the role of a dedicated listener, confidant and therapist. The man would pour out his heart, reflecting on his weekly woes and apprehensions. The dog in turn could talk, but only to the man. It was a part of his programming, the definition of man’s best friend extended to confidant. As a part of his embedded AI, the dog was equipped with skills akin to a mental health practitioner, offering a safe space for the man to openly express himself. This was not merely about the novelty of a talking dog. The uniqueness of their relationship was further emphasized by the dog’s ability to protect their conversations under the umbrella of doctor-patient confidentiality. Therefore, the man could freely confide in his mechanical friend, reassured that all his thoughts were securely stored in a private enclave, inaccessible to anyone but himself.

During these walks, the man delved deep into his emotions. The dog knew things that no one else did, and its training had improved its ability to act as a faithful companion. It had been twenty-five years now, spanning the time just before and after his marriage and the birth of his kids. The man credited the dog for making him a partner in his firm, and for helping him through the period when automation rendered that accomplishment mostly meaningless.

Today, their conversation would take a different turn. The dog, Charley, knew that the man, Fenton, would want to talk about the second moon. The dog eagerly anticipated this conversation. Unlike domestic matters, there was no training data on the subject. Humanity had not adequately considered the appearance of a planetary-sized object in the lunar orbit, so Charley had spent the week researching the news and various opinions to prepare. He was as up-to-date on the little-known details of the second moon as any civilian could be, having scoured a wealth of opinions on the matter. Charley was confident that he had already encountered whatever reaction the man would have online. He just didn’t know which particular path the man’s thinking would take regarding the second moon.

Fenton paused and took Charley off the leash. They were far from town now, so they wouldn’t encounter any issues. Amherst was a town that favored traditional pets, and leash laws applied to anything resembling a dog, regardless of its biological nature.

Charley looked up at him, tail wagging, and then spoke.

“So, the second moon, huh? Are we finally going to talk about it?”

“Not the second moon, Charley. We are going to talk about the lunar moon. We’ve lost the moon.”

Charley instantly recognized that reaction, as it was a common one within a certain type. He understood why it resonated with Fenton. Men of his age and demographic profile, late fifties, white, and professionally overqualified, had grown up in a time of downward recalibration. The world they were raised to inherit no longer existed. Fenton had gone through a similar experience with his job. The dog had spent years trying to help Fenton adapt to the seismic shifts that unmoored overachievers who believed they could hustle their way through any change and come out on top. Despite the challenges, Fenton had done reasonably well. However, pride and parenting were deeply ingrained in his sense of self. The moon was just one more thing, a distant and previously unimaginable loss that was taken from American men who had an inherent sense of entitlement.

“Was the moon ours to lose?” the dog asked to initiate the conversation.

“We were there first. We still have our flag on it. The tradeoff with all that’s happened was that we would explore new frontiers. There was supposed to be a progression to things, Charley. We were meant to use our new skills to set the planet back on track, to clean up this climate mess, and extend our lives. Then we were supposed to reach for the stars. But no, aliens show up and box us in. It doesn’t sit right with me. It’s one step too far.”

“We don’t know if it’s aliens yet. No one knows what that thing is.”

“It ain’t God, and it ain’t us. It has to be aliens. Calculate the probability and don’t sugarcoat it, dog.”

“It is the most likely outcome by far, but I can’t provide an exact number. So, let’s assume it’s aliens. What makes you think we’ve lost the moon?”

“I don’t appreciate it when you softball subjects and get all therapist on me, Charley. You know me better than that. No one brings something that massive from who knows where without intent. It’s parked behind the moon, shadowing its orbit. We’re nowhere near capable of doing anything about it. Maybe in fifty years, we would be. I think whoever it is has been keeping an eye on us, watching our progress. They moved in now, before we could do anything about it. The timing is too perfect if you look at the progress we’ve made. I mean, for God’s sake, I’m talking to a robot dog that doubles as my therapist.”

The dog’s tongue hung out of its mouth. The August heat weighed heavily on the humid day. They were approaching a watering station just around the bend. Their conversation always halted at this point. The dog didn’t need time to continue the conversation, but the man did. He liked to set the table for a topic, then go through the ritual of hydrating before delving into the meat of it. That’s why the man preferred his mental health therapy in canine form. This is why the man preferred his mental health in canine form. Slow sessions, unhurried with the land around them, the river flowing past, their steps tracing Heraclitus, never the same person because all things change. They just never had a change this significant to discuss.

Charley understood Fenton’s position because it was a logical one. Charley had been given the ability to appreciate certain things, and having a logical patient/owner was one of them. It made the job easier and reinforced the dog’s value in making progress. They had come a long way during these walks. Charley was healthy in both mind and body, more so than most of his generation. The dog needed the man to live because he would be decommissioned when the man died. There was a symbiotic feedback loop at work here. It was embedded in Charley’s programming—a rather simple drive, in fact. Ensure the man lives until 85, and you, Charley, will have been a very good boy. That’s all Charley wanted—to be a very good boy.

As they resumed their walk, the dog knew it was up to him to continue the conversation.

“It’s not certain that we’ve lost the moon, but for your sake, we can assume that it’s lost. The real question is, what are you afraid of? Is it external, that we won’t be living on the moon, that our progress won’t reach the stars? Or is it internal, that as you grow older, this loss represents another step in your diminishment?”

The man stopped dead in his tracks and looked hard in his dog’s eyes. Charley had struck a deep chord, one he normally would not have burrowed right into. As gruff and real as the man pretended he liked to be, the dog knew better than to get right to the heart of the matter most times, it was just that this topic was so much larger than most, there was no gentle way around it.

“It’s dread Charley. Scares the living shit out of me. They aren’t going to stop at the moon. What is it compared to all of this, all of us? Everything we know is just a game of taking what you can, holding on to as much as you have when you can’t. We won’t be able to hold anything against that. Diminishment, you went right there. I feel real small, tiny actually, and my children Charley. Late at night, I take solace in my line, in being a part in a great chain of being. This…this…it’s gonna snap that right in half, leave everyone completely untethered.”

The dog already had an answer but knew a pause was in order. They continued walking in silence. The man was shaken. It would take a few minutes before he was ready to listen, so they walked along the trail. The man plucked berries from a tree and threw them aimlessly ahead. The dog’s collar jingled. They were only five minutes away from the basin, and the man didn’t want to discuss this in front of other people.

“The future is unwritten,” the dog finally said. “That’s why you get out of bed every morning—to see what comes next, to play a role in it all. While you prepare for the worst within, you must act with hope for the best. How can we get you to that point, Fenton? It will take time, many walks, won’t it? You’ve shared your worst fears with me, and I acknowledge them. You have every right to feel that way, but can we keep it in check and wait for things to unfold further?”

“Triage, huh? Is that all you have for me?”

“It’s about taking baby steps. There are limits to what I can do for you, Fenton. I’m designed for men like you, men who compartmentalize. Your problems have a long history, and as a therapy dog, I can handle most of them in positive ways. But this goes beyond my capabilities. I need you to understand my limitations as well. What I need to know is if you can handle this over time, if there’s no urgency to find an immediate solution.”

“Charley, you don’t need to call out about this. I’m the sort of guy that’ll go fishing as they reign down terror on us. I’ll enjoy whatever I have ’til the last.”

“That’s good, Fenton, and I know that about you. It just needed to be said. Now, let me tell you something important. You need to talk to other people about this. You need to open up and find fellowship and strength in others. A talking robot dog won’t be enough in this situation. It’s beyond my capabilities. When we get to the basin, do me a favor and join the group of people gathered around the counter. Be honest and speak your mind. Get your iced coffee, sit on the bench, and ask them if they think we’ve lost the moon. See what people like you, your neighbors, think. Isn’t that the purpose of living in a society? Live a more public life for a change. This is the time for it. Worst case scenario, they agree, and you rekindle some friendships over it. It’s better than going out alone, full of fear. Take someone fishing with you when they rain terror upon us.”

“Jesus, dog, you’re being really blunt today.”

“You configured me not to sugarcoat things. I’ve been on your level throughout the walk, not entertaining the many ways the second moon could be a positive thing. You have that dread, so we’re addressing it head-on. The no-nonsense approach is to face this alongside others. Start by dropping your defenses because they won’t be able to help you with aliens. Seek out other people. Open your heart.”

The man said nothing as the woods along the trail thinned out, and the boat basin came into view beneath the bridge over Route 9, between Hadley and Northampton. Fenton recognized the half dozen men and women gathered under the awning of the small coffee shop extending from the boathouse. He had passed them countless times before on his walks. They were not strangers; they had exchanged small talk, even if he didn’t know their names.

The man and dog approached the group. Their conversation paused, and they made space for the two of them. Fenton spoke.

“My therapy dog said I need to talk to someone about this second moon in the sky. I’m scared shitless. How about all of you?”

The dog looked up at him and, for the first time in the company of others, spoke.

“Good human.”

With that, Charley wandered off to sniff a hydrant, leaving Fenton to engage with the living.