Copyright 2015 Atlas
English translation 2015 Ingrid Wolf
Cover art & illustrations 2015 Anastasiya Glebova
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At weekends he went to the pet market. Got up before daybreak, prepared unhurriedly, and took a long, jolty ride in the empty streetcar across the whole city. He would sit in the back of the car, put a rolled sacking bag on his knees, lock his gnarled hands together and shrink into his shell, portraying another pet in his imagination. Some fluffy thing, but not too sweet. I don’t want to get attached and suffer. A rabbit. A stupid, brainless rabbit. Black, fat, hot-eared. Of some five kilo. So he amused himself in the journey, watching the dawn transform the city.
The sun, blurry in the morning fog, looked like a giant five-pointed star crowning his life. The time tarnished Red Star they had dropped to his lapel in 1980. So long ago! The very thought of all the time that passed since then was scary. He darkened and looked with loathing (or so it seemed to him) at the napping conductor in her orange vest. That’s no good, he grumbled to himself, feeling the lancet wrapped in a torn piece of newspaper in his pocket. Twice he got swindled in the marketplace; after that, he always took the lancet when going there. Everyone got out of hand, all restraint aside. We need Andropov to restore order. He always finished with this phrase and screwed up, recalling his encounter with the omnipotent KGB chairman.
The idea was borrowed—he admitted it—from the Japanese. Kamikaze, the divine wind taking half a ton of waking love to the target. Half a ton in TNT equivalent. With a biological homing device. A gentle sakura petal falling to the aircraft carrier deck, but in the heroic Soviet spirit, without the Nazi brutality. It was quite similar to what the Soviets did with their space dogs.
Appointments were made in the usual way. The chief developer was an academician, a deputy of something significant but now forgotten, and listed as the co-author was him, the young engineer who did all the calculation. And the lion’s share of practical experiments too; no one else wanted to soil their hands. The defeated had such a great lot of promising projects that the winners lacked hands to develop all. Taking over these secrets was half the work; making use of them was far more difficult.
The engineer was a wincer, one of those pedantic and painstaking people whose diligence often made up for their lack of talent. Concentrating so hard his strain was almost physically sensible, he could produce a drawing in a single night; a thoroughly checked, perfect drawing of a device that would never work. Whatever he did lacked a spark, a God-given talent, that vivifying touch of a genius that could never be substituted by constructor skill. That trophy Japanese groundwork was a true bonanza to him.
The little stars of discoveries and ideas were sometimes dropped into the project by the silent, sinewy industrial workers with coarse hands. They kept aloof and spoke little, probably ashamed of their lacking education, but nurturing a secret contempt for the academicians. The amazingly simple and reliable model of hanging gyroscope, on which several labs toiled in vain, was brought in by one of those humble men of few words—that startled everyone.
It was Andropov himself who presented the engineer with the Red Star Order. Andropov who almost had a heart attack when he saw the engineer’s creation. Who covered the engineer’s excited handshake with his palm, said “Thank you, Comrade!” and went away weak in the knees, astonished by what the Soviet scientists had accomplished.
This first success was followed by problems; then things went wrong for the whole country. The Empire dissolved in the bitter saliva of state sovereignties. Fully digested, it flowed away into the exporting pipe, and the oncoming, plentiful stream of electronics changed the military research priorities.
Falling on hard times during the nineties, witnessing dissipation and satanic dance all around, the engineer took his work home. He anatomized on the kitchen table. The written-off EAM occupied most of the free space in his tiny one-bedroom apartment; he got the machine from his institute in exchange for three privatization checks, his and those of his parents who, still spry back then, scolded him for this unwise decision.
Silently freezing in his heart with solitude, he cut, soldered, and checked his calculations. He advanced science, in a word, as fast as he could. In passing, he learned to dress skins; the experiments also left him with enough meat to sell. He felt like just a bit more—and he’d be able to put a final dot in this dragging story. The golden star flashed in his vision so bright that the engineer screwed up in sweet catharsis.
“Father,” a husky whisper rustled into his ear. “Wanna buy a dog?” A shabby man whose age was hard to tell, with a hangover grimace on his face, gave a conspiratorial wink. Sat down next to the engineer, glanced at the dozy conductor, and took a small, shaggy dog from his bosom. The engineer reached for it, as though enchanted, snatched the hot tiny body, put the dog on his knees, feeling the steady beat of its little heart. White, with a black star on its forehead, the dog watched him calmly and trustfully; its gleaming brown eyes were almost human.
The hangover sufferer mumbled enthusiastically, calling him for a morning-after drink. The engineer waved it away with irritation. Slipped him the money without counting, snatched the dog and got off at the next stop. Following the streetcar with his eyes, he estimated how he’d place the dog in the shaped location plate, ready and waiting at home, but suddenly got ashamed and put it down. Zuzya, a name came up in his mind from goodness knows where, some strange, long-forgotten feeling waking in his sad, lone soul.
“Zuzya,” he said aloud. The dog wagged its tail welcomingly, went circling around him, as though glad to meet, then gave a merry wuff and minced away on its small legs, looking back often, as though inviting him to follow.
“Stop!” he screamed in fright. Came up in a few steps, bent over to pick the dog but suddenly collapsed, without realizing what it was, pounding against his ribs so desperately from inside.
Raising himself on the elbow, he glimpsed a white tail vanish into the apartment block across the road. With a tremendous effort, he stood and rushed after, almost on his fours, his hands all but touching the asphalt. The cool semi-dark of the staircase gave him strength. In a few leaps, he covered the steep flight, caught the lingering runaway and stopped, panting, by the broad window.
Suddenly Zuzya gave a furious bark, sending a loud echo throughout the floors. Almost immediately, from above came the sound of a door lock, deafening in this morning silence. The engineer felt a burning pain, like that from the frost, below his ribs, an overcoming grudge and vague jealousy. He seized the dog by the scruff of its neck, put it into the bag, clutched it to his chest and froze, hunching up.
Hearing hasty footsteps behind, he craned his neck and shouted affectedly into the open ventlight, “Pete! Pete, come home! Oh goodness, that boy’s a nuisance!”
The words scratched his dry throat like emery. His heart pounded loudly and scarily, breaking out of his blazing chest. They will not have it! Clutching the razor-sharp lancet in hand, he waited, choosing the right moment, listening keenly to the silence behind him.
“Mister,” a childish voice hit on his stretched nerves. “Have you seen my dog? Little Star?”
The engineer screwed up, biting his lips so as not to let out a single drop of the sticky terror filling the whole of him. The little Star thrashed impatiently; he poked it with the lancet through the sackcloth, in a single brief, faultless move. Some part of him, permeated with unbearable shame, was bursting out as a guttural rattle. He gurgled, coughed, but said in a suddenly clear voice, “No. I haven’t.”
Without looking back, he retreated for the staircase, sidling, and stomped down on stiff legs, barely hitting the stairs and feeling the hot blood spread around his belly. Down the case, already seeing the rectangular exit, he felt some tiny strings burst in his chest, one after another. Overcoming faintness, he dashed ahead, for the light, but collapsed, his agonizing hands still holding his little windfall star.