The Escape by Nick Sweeney

Aleksi knew he’d had enough of life in the sticks when his uncle Maks died in his own Viking funeral, an incident involving vodka, a firelighter and the teetering presence of firewood—damp, but not enough. The smell of burnt maple lingered around the lean-to and the kitchen garden for weeks. When Aleksi recalled it even years ahead, he was sure, it would be the smell he associated with his planning and preparation, with his transition to the next stage of his life.

Those plans were crude. He would steal his aunt Klara’s money—all the money Maks had left unspent and undrunk—and leave. He would deposit Tomchik, his imperfect hound, with Anna Feodorovna Voznosenska, his imperfect girlfriend. He would not write them a note—out of the three of them, Tomchik was probably the best at reading, anyway—would just leave.

An imaginary friend—Ivan Ivanovitch, let’s call him, because one had to call them something—might have asked a jovial where are you taking me? Aleksi might have ignored him, because the question made him uncomfortable. Back to Voronezh, for a start. He would find Ekaterina Kastanovna, his childhood sweetheart, look her up and down to check if he still liked her, see if she had any marketable skills—book-keeping, sewing, secretarial, any—and then head with her for Moscow or Petersburg or beyond, across the Gulf of Bothnia on a ship with drunken Finns and Balts, and then… beyond, to where snow was a novelty and made newspaper headlines.

He was walking briskly but aimlessly along the shore, an absurd mixture of gaits, but it was impossible to be leisurely when it was so cold. Indoors he was too hot, though—his aunt had bypassed the heating control with some disgraceful hack that ensured that the place was like an oven—and his limbs felt constricted when still, and yet hurt when he moved them. He was vaguely annoyed by all these contradictions.

A man was bent over something near the water’s edge. He looked up and called out to Aleksi, “It has legs!”

Aleksi nodded, made half a wave, and made to pass on, then stopped, unable not to, and called, “What has?” The guy on the beach let his hood slip to reveal a colourless local individual whose name didn’t come back to Aleksi. He remembered him as a kid unable to keep still. His dad had survived a notorious plane crash only to get creamed by a truck the first time he rode the gleaming motorbike he’d bought with his compensation. Meanwhile, his mother was red-eyed drunk in town by eleven in the morning, shouting at passers-by in a range of styles from imploring to abusive, often presaged by her conversational admiration of their unremarkable footwear. He had no friends, Aleksi had observed, and scavenged on frosty beaches—yes, Aleksi remembered him, Vasil-Something; no harm in him, but worth avoiding.

“It has teeth,” Vasil called.

Aleksi had no friends, either, but he didn’t want friends like Vasil-Something, nor did he want to have to share in his gruesome finds on a beach on which irradiated creatures from Christ-knew-where washed up. He walked on, wrapping his coat around him, and pulling his collar up.

Later, he wondered if Vasil had been reading Aleksi’s mind and talking about the plan to escape that lay in it. He had become superstitious since he’d been moved out to the sticks. He half-believed that Vasil was indeed reading his mind as he passed, or breaking into the house to study his coffee grounds, or, worse, stools, on days when the flush froze.

Aleksi had often thought he’d have liked it there more if his uncle Maks could… leave, somehow—just go. Maks had often threatened to do so, but had been crippled by his small ambitions and love of home comforts in a home devoid of them. The anxiety and unhappiness that was all he brought to the table set everybody’s nerves on edge. However, since his untimely barbeque, the silence he had left was almost unbearable.

There was an imbalance in the atmosphere of the house, a sense that nothing was going to change. Aleksi woke every day feeling that atmosphere crushing him, having to almost physically tug his ribs back into place to allow his internal organs to work properly again.

Aleksi’s aunt Klara was petite and neat, her greying hair cut close to her skull like a convict, and her eyes slightly too big, which made anybody with her feel that she was staring deep into theirs. She rarely ate or drank. She only spoke to Aleksi if it was really necessary. It was not out of malice, he knew; he had once heard her telling somebody—one of her few friends, he had supposed—that her work had taught her not to use up the air, because there was a finite supply of it. On that occasion, he had seen plainly that she was alone in the house.

The top layer of the snow was melting when Aleksi discovered that his aunt Klara had plans for him. He gathered some of it from whispers in town, from looks sent across squares, out from the windows of the town’s scruffy cafes and bars. Those friends of his aunt’s were the culprits in giving it away, with their nudges and cackles, the barely concealed knowledge on their faces when he came into their view.

Heads of families were paid, he remembered, to volunteer younger family members to work on the Belamor Canal, which was either marvellous or terrifying, depending on who was talking about it. A year of a son’s or daughter’s back-breaking labour got them a one-off payment and a house with an extra room, or a larger allotment of land for urban farming. Two years got them another room, another few square meters. A nephew’s labour would do: a nephew’s back broke just as easily. The final touches to the subterfuge were at home, he saw, his eyes opened: Klara’s painfully innocuous conversational touch, and her mending his clothes and shoes, and those of his uncle, that could be of some use in the pursuit of canal-building.

The final proof was Aleksi’s finding of the requisition form for his services, plus several pages of a school notebook filled with his aunt’s practice of his flamboyant teenage signature. He was tempted to leave a message in the book, under the evidence of his aunt’s scheming, but refrained. Escape was the thing, he reminded himself. It would result in the absence of a canal-building youngster, like him, and the freezing of the money she’d be paid, and the trouble she’d be in. He knew that, while the authorities quite possibly turned a blind eye to the machinations of scheming patriarchs and matriarchs—they wanted that canal built, after all—they were duty-bound to investigate them if they didn’t come off, and if it suddenly turned out that they were without the canal-builder they’d pencilled into their plans.

He woke in the night, after dreaming of that requisition form. In the image of it that lingered after his dream, it was a carbon copy, which meant only one thing: the original had been sent. His world collapsed on him and squeezed him into his bed, immobilised him until morning, when he heard his aunt stirring, and moving around the kitchen, daydreaming, he had no doubt, of the extra room, the extra beans she would grow, extra cucumbers for pickling. Well, thinking was the nearest she was going to get to them, for sure.

It was out of the question that he should just leave. He had to fix his aunt good and proper. A few years before, he had been plagued by a fantasy in which he’d gone stir-crazy during January—the month when those who lived out there were expected to—and butchered his aunt and uncle, then set fire to the house and watched its embers sinking into the ice till the whole thing sat a metre down on the bare permafrost. He had laughed it off at first. Then he had headbanged it away, his earphones on, music raging hard and loud, then drank it away and wanked it away, then fucked it away, he and Anna, whose blood had almost frozen in the course of the two-kilometre trudge to Aleksi’s house. He had emerged, in February, purged of those thoughts of butchery and flames, but, as the year had gone on, and the approach of January, dodging in and out of all the holy days and saints’ days, the idea had begun to glow again. And maybe it wasn’t such a bad one.

He was not going to go canal-building. He was just not. He would rather do time for murder. As the thought grew, the picture of aunt Klara’s head separated from its body joined that of uncle Maks’ blackened corpse, his feet fused to the floor in his rubber-and-felt boots, and his absurd jazz hands showing lines that would leave perfect carbon prints, and became commonplace in his mind, and therefore less disturbing.

Klara Petrovna Kerson hadn’t asked to be Aleksi’s aunt. If you became a parent, it was your choice if it was wanton, or your fault, if you were careless. Nobody consulted you about whether you wanted to be an aunt. There was something unfair about that.

Before she was Aleksi’s aunt Klara, she had been a hero of the Union, a cosmonaut. She had spent more time than anybody she knew in space. She had heard her friends and colleagues over the base radio, reporting fires and then frying in their own fat, or disappearing into the far reaches of space, their garbled speech literally fading beyond human knowledge. She had been present at the opening of cockpits fallen back to Earth, and seen the shrunken remains of her predecessors, perfectly small and well-formed, but drained of hair, blood and organs, and with comic alien eyes of red jelly. She had inspected others, found a melange of burnt flesh and congealed blood, for all the world as if the cosmonauts had simply given up on the mission, sneaked some poor beast on board, slaughtered it up there and had a barbeque and, with no hope of attaining such a perfect meal again, had exited their craft for a postprandial levitation that went on as long as the air in their suits lasted.

Klara had been pushed out of buildings, and caught in nets, had fallen out of aeroplanes blindfolded so as to simulate the dark world beyond the known one, and, g-forces in and out of every cell in her body, was one of the few human beings on the planet who had been pressurised and depressurised so many times her brain had shrunk in earthly terms but expanded in ways nobody had ever been able to catalogue. She had been too afraid to impart the terrible truths left in it to the scientists and researchers. One day, they’d invent some infernal machine that could allow them to see in there, but in the meantime she allowed them to drive themselves mad with a concept of deepest infinity known only to her and those like her.

“It is not… natural to go into space,” Klara had said, once, at a gathering of colleagues, researchers, scientists and space programme bureaucrats. A top man from the military—a Space Force major—had stood up and braved the hubbub. First, he had signalled sternly to the note-taker, rumoured to be his mistress, to stop scribing. She had raised her pen, showing it inactive. He had checked around the room, spotted the only party apparatchik present, had waved away the technicians sat behind him, drawn a pistol and shot him in the centre of his forehead from close range. Another technician had begun to creep away—foolish man, lost his nerve: they had long suspected that he was a party stooge. In his white coat, and silhouetted against a white door, his exit was made all the more dramatic with the aid of a resounding five shots, all of them describing an oval between breastbone and stomach; that major wore advanced marksman badges on his uniform, and it was clear that he had earned them. It was clear too that those on the space programme really were allowed to make the rules up as they went along, as had always been rumoured in the Cosmodrome.

He had resumed his seat in the auditorium, and had said, pleasantly, “Comrade Cosmonaut Klara, I apologise for the interruption.” He had signalled to the note-taker to be ready, and she had duly raised her pen again. “Now, please resume your report of the findings from your latest training session, but, of course, please include no words that might…” He smiled widely, sought a word. He found it, beamed, held a finger up, said, “Endanger our funding, our futures in the stars, and our… friendship.

Aleksi’s aunt Klara’s revised words It Is Natural to Go into Space were inscribed on a medal distributed throughout the Union every time a craft went up and came back. Unusual among her colleagues, Klara was sent up seventeen times. The limit was ten, and most cosmonauts went up five times. The programme directors had obviously taken it upon themselves to teach Klara that, for some, going into space would become the most natural thing a woman could do.

Sometimes in town people squinted at her, or did a comic double-take meant to be seen, stepped to one side to see her profile, and remembered that medal, perhaps, and intoned those few words on it. Then they caught a look in her face, something alien and extrahuman, and stopped themselves, stepped around her, blessed themselves and promised to kiss an ikon in the town’s creaky wooden church as soon as they could, in case some dark material had worked its way out of her pores and into theirs.

Klara suffered the looks and the averted glances. She suffered marrying the man they called the Ashkenazi, for reasons nobody was sure of, not even her. She had the idea he’d been sent to keep an eye on her, to make sure she didn’t talk about the vanished people—like Yuri was said to have done—and the unfortunate accidents to apparatchiks—as Yuri had apparently related—and about the vastness of space and the haphazard way the programmers were sending the cosmonauts into it, or not—as Yuri was said to have said. She wore her days away on her pension—routed through the Ministry of Agriculture—which always arrived in a twice-sealed skin, the top one like a regular cardboard envelope, the inner one marked with the words Our Lips Are Sealed against Our Enemies who Deny that Knowledge is Power.

She had suffered too the death of her sister and the surprising receipt of all her worldly goods, in the form of one Aleksandr, a dissolute youth from Voronezh exiled into the wilds and not very happy about it. For a long time, she wasn’t quite sure who he reminded her of. He had the somewhat scruffy look, and demeanour, she thought, of the poet Mayakovsky when he was young and louche, though there was nothing poetic about him.

Those who didn’t know Klara might get into conversation, perhaps in a bar near the square on market day, and ply her with platitudes.

“It’s all changed,” they would say.

She rarely processed the words as any conversationalist would; those words, she had once told a psychiatrist, went the way of the iron ball that traced out its journey on that infernal American invention, the pinball machine, with a logic of their own that was pleasing, but unknown to her, too fast to grasp at a glance. She got all the meanings of the words at once, or none. Those who spoke to her didn’t care; they wanted to speak more than be heard. She would cast her infinitesimal blue gaze over them without seeing them.

“The Union no longer holds,” she would be told, by a vague acquaintance or an interloper into the space around her. “It’s rotten at the core, and the rot spreads out through the land, like a stain. The electricity fails, the refrigeration, then, the cooker, the television. And why? There is a man in charge of the plant who used to be the premier. He failed as the premier—fine. So they punish him—fine. They used to shoot them—and that was fine, too. But who passed the law to stop the shooting?”

Aleksi’s aunt Klara would be nudged. She saw the whole conversation, whizzing from pin to pin. She saw that man as a minister—may even have met him, she didn’t know or care—saw him in his office, drinking his tea, saw him in his bath-tub with a wrinkled babushka from the electricity plant, saw the fading lights, the plant grinding to a halt, the grid glowing once, then cooling, fading, fizzing out.

He passed that law.” The interloper sounded satisfied, despite the delivery of a punchline demonstrating her dissatisfaction. “He did.”

In a lull, they might interject, “It’s… lonely, out in space?”

“No,” Klara said. “He was wrong, the man who sang that in a song. It’s not lonely at all. It’s… beautiful, out in space.” It wasn’t, but people liked to hear that, for some reason, and she would be there all day if she regaled them with all the adjectives space tore out of the recesses of her mind. She also hung onto a need to retain the one thing that made her—almost—unique: the things she had seen and could never unsee, and could never share without doing them an injustice.

They had packed up the market, more or less. Boys hung around, with not much to do—not even any mischief. It was already getting dark.

“You’re her,” the interloper said.

Klara smiled. She had seen the end of the conversation, that steel ball pinged all the way back up, unravelling words.

“Married the Ashkenazi. An… enigma. What is he like? What is he like, really?

“Oh.” Klara smiled. “Dead. He’s dead now.”

“No. Really? But I saw him.”

“He’s dead.” Klara had seen him, too, the model of a man made of carbon and leather. He wasn’t about to go walking, not sealed into the trench the funerary bulldozer had gouged into the ice. “He really is.”


“It was the boy,” Klara was convinced. “The boy. It was the vodka, and the firewood store, and the flames. But really it was the boy.”

Your boy?”

“He’s not my boy,” Klara said, but nodded.

“But why would he…”

“Yes.” Klara got up, hoisted her shopping to waist-height.

Why would he?

All kinds of things came back to Klara in various ways. She would sometimes look at the boy, and not remember who he was. And had the Ashkenazi really just been keeping an eye on her for the military? Had she even married him, really?

“Yes,” she would remind herself. She had photos of the wedding. She kept them nearby. She had a marriage certificate. She had it pinned to the wall in the kitchen, over the pickling jars. Where had she met the Ashkenazi, though? Had she ever had sexual relations with him? “Yes,” she would say to herself. She remembered that, but sometimes memories of those occasions came back to her in fragmented photos, which sometimes featured people from her past and, she had the odd idea, from her future, though she would probably not be having any more sexual relations.

She remembered the Ashkenazi dying. She remembered the look on the boy’s face. She remembered, suddenly—the words glowing, written into the night sky of inner space—that she would need to fix that boy. What she didn’t remember was the awful detail that it was she who, reacting to the Ashkenazi’s slur on her, her sister, and her whole house, if you will, had chucked a burning firelighter at the Ashkenazi as he stood in the woodshed and drank from a demijohn of overproof vodka. That boy would get what for, she decided, the next day—he would have to.

The boy came in for his food. She made it. She was on auto-pilot, as if on the edge of a cryogenic sleep. She had been in several during her training, for periods ranging from weeks to months—she had been asleep for most of nineteen eighty-two, woke up and Brezhnev was gone, which brought the flicker of a smile to her face, as the old goat had made it clear, on a visit to the Cosmodrome, that he expected to see her in his room wearing the ridiculous negligee he had thrust into her calloused hands, engine oil in the wrinkles on her fingers. His smile had served only to let out the reek of decay from his terrible teeth. She had not gone to his room; it had never occurred to her. He had stared across the canteen at her all during his breakfast the next day—he would eat some real food later, she was sure—and he had simply grinned, and wagged a finger. She had mailed the negligee back to him care of the Kremlin.

Nobody knew the long-term effects of such a sleep. Nobody would ever know, because only those who had been through it were equipped to say so, but there were no words invented to put it over to those who hadn’t. When she lapsed into the petit mal of a cryogenic flashback state, she honestly did not know, at such times, whether the thing she had just done had taken minutes, days or years. The boy was the same, so—minutes… she supposed. She studied him closely: he was the same, had not grown a beard nor a paunch, not married nor sired a family, nor died… yet, as far as she could see. So… minutes.

She had looked at the boy differently since the Ashkenazi died. He had been at best an irrelevance to her life. She had long been estranged from her sister, partly because the space programme was isolating—you held allegiances only to your country, party and comrades. Once you discovered that your comrades would abandon you in deepest space if they had to, for tactical reasons, or were told to, for reasons that made perfect sense or none at all, or just decided to, because the universe had invaded their brains and expanded into it, with no single thing having reason anymore, there was only the party, and the country. She couldn’t be fond of them—nobody could be fond of them: anybody who said they were was a liar or deluded. The boy had been a creature that needed to be fed and sheltered. She and the Ashkenazi had done that, dutifully and indifferently. She had often found herself in the room with him, by the fire, looking at him and thinking, who are you, and how did you get here—how did a creature so… long and… repulsive pass through my sister to come screaming into the light?

The only thing the boy had done of note was to set fire to his uncle Maks. She wasn’t sure if she cared. When she opened a door into her mind to wonder, the universe tried to fill it in, or to escape from it—she was no longer sure. There was centuries’ worth of information in there, and sights she had been unable even to relate to her superiors during debriefing after landing and decompression: dark matter creations dancing on beams made of black light, even a glance at which made your eyeballs shake in their sockets, the empty suits of lost cosmonauts sending out the looped recording of names dear to them on earth, that had echoed through their final thoughts, doing their own dances, the cargo ships of space nations’ fleets ablaze as they went too close to a star. Why would she care about anything a boy did? She didn’t, and yet she did. She wouldn’t be able to explain this to him. She would just have to show him. There was just one thing: the boy was family, okay, but also a guest in her house, and it was the height of bad manners to set somebody on fire in somebody else’s house, without being invited to.

She watched him. She tried to read his mind. She decided that he was blocking her. She watched Tomchik. The dog sensed a change, and searched for a sign of it from Klara. She knew Tomchik understood human speech, and would take the next step, and talk. Laika was the only dog Klara had known who was able to speak, as the space agency kidded the world that the first terrier in space had been lost there, a burnt offering. Even poor Laika hadn’t been able to tell them what was up there, and not because she was a dog, just simply because nobody could. The gift of speech had been wasted, and Klara had realised this, if the transcripts were to be believed, Laika’s last words very similar to those Klara had uttered the day the Space Force major had shot the apparatchiks: space was not the place for creatures of flesh and blood.

“She came all that way back,” Klara told Tomchik. “Just to put words in my mouth.”

“Terriers do that,” Tomchik agreed. “You… can’t really trust them. You have to, sometimes. But you can’t.”

She wondered whether to ask Tomchik if he would stay on when Aleksi was gone, if only until she got another dog. She sent the question to him telepathically, as they all sat in the room and watched the news, and the game show, and the music programme, until the electricity failed again, and they shared a minimal, silent anger at the one-time premier who couldn’t run a power plant to save his life… or, at least, to save anybody else’s.

Klara had gone to the post. Aleksi’s application to please the party and the country and work on building the Belamor Canal was in progress. It was only a matter of time.

She wasn’t sure why, but she started letting the house go to ruin. Aleksi, who was neat to the point of fastidiousness, had to make his way to his room through growing, festering piles of peelings, the most inedible parts of animals, cardboard and paper packaging torn open and dropped in situ, and the strange shapes taken on by dust as it sought a way out, then in again. The girlfriend, Feodor Voznosenski’s idle daughter, made her way through it, too, never once offering to tidy any of it up. Klara was sure that when Aleksi got his call to leave to go canal-building, part of him would be glad to go. And when he went? When he went, to build his canal in between eating weevils and fending off amorous criminals, the murdering little fiend, Klara would get a bigger house nearer the centre of town, and would keep next to nothing in it, except her portrait of Laika, and her medals, a transcript of what Laika said, and the warning not to go into space again.

On the recording, Laika had complained about the builders coming in once, and using one of her owner’s bone-handled butter knives for spreading plaster. “But you were a stray,” a man’s voice said, pleasantly enough. “You couldn’t have remembered that.”

Laika said, “No dog is born a stray. Every dog is born loved.”

Klara disagreed. And yet, it was absurd to disagree with a dog, especially a talking one, a strange being who had been into space and back, and yet remembered something as inconsequential as a bold builder and his uncouth use of a bone-handled butter knife that had been in her owner’s family since Katherine the Great. Or was it Peter? She had never known what to make of Laika. She had never learned her ultimate fate. There were just those recordings and transcripts, of a soft-spoken—well-spoken, too—terrier, a dog unafraid of going into the unknown, be it holes in the ground or in the fabric of space.

On a toilet wall in a facility near Kamchatka, somebody had written Every Space Dog Has Its Day and signed it Your Laika.

“Yuri’s friends fell to earth in bits,” it was whispered in those same toilets, and outside in the slush, watching the grey skies, the blood seep into the horizon, the chemtrails, the specks in the sky that came nearer, took on form. They would whoop, or be strangely silent, as if unable to decide on how to feel after falling for ten miles, as if pondering their achievement to examine it for more depth—more meaning, something more… relatable.

“Yuri was a survivor.”

“For a while.”

“We’re all survivors for a while.”

They didn’t impose a ban on attending Yuri’s funeral, but refused to issue passes out of the base in time, claiming an unknown infection making its way among them. By the time they issued the passes, there was no time to travel to it. “That’s rich,” Klara said, more than once. “We alone in the Union have travelled farther and faster than anybody else—faster than most people on the entire planet—but there is nothing fast enough to allow us to travel to our friend’s funeral.” Yuri’s family and fans complained that nobody from the base turned up; those one-time comrades of his were jealous of his renown, they said, as if determined to be too stupid to guess what had happened. It strangled the whole affair.

They bussed some pioneers to the funeral, those officious, pinchy-faced, sloganeering brats. They stood solemnly, though some, as ever, fiddled with their red neckerchiefs and their lanyards. Some gave speeches. “Will Yuri ever come back?” one asked. He answered his own question at once. “Yes. In fact, Yuri has not gone.” He waved at the banner erected over the ceremony: Yuri’s smiling face, as big as a house. He indicated the badge he and his comrades wore, pinned to their chests, and cited those millions of enamelled badges and medals and pennants and busts and statuettes flooding the Union. “Yuri will never leave. He will be with us in per… in perp…” A girl colleague broke the line and made a scornful, urgent whisper at him, and he finished, “Forever.”

Yuri was buried in his space suit, people said—not true. Yuri had to be sewn together, like fixing a rag doll, they said, pins in all his joints—not true. Probably. Yuri was in a sealed coffin with no means of opening it. True. A glow could be seen coming from the grave that night, they said. Obviously… not true, Klara often told herself, but she vowed never to approach it to check.

Klara found her little book of speeches to make for when cosmonauts didn’t return. Four typed pages bound by a rusted metal spine, they ranged from the brutal truth to outright lies: He/she is no longer with us. He/she is space dust. He/she is a monument to the Union in space. Comrade X partook of anti-Union activities while in space, and is now in a punishment facility until he/she learns the errors of her ways. As a reward for the successful completion of her mission, Comrade Y has been given permission to join his/her disgraced bourgeois family to wither away in a western country whose name will remain a secret.

She forgot where she had found the book—not a euphemism; she had not stolen it, but had genuinely found it, she remembered, discarded. She suspected it was because only half an order had been given. It was no longer to be used, she guessed, but the official decision had not yet been made to discontinue it, so it had been left somewhere. It had burned a hole in her hands, she remembered, though there was no evidence on her hands—surely those scars were from an accident one time, with either ice or fire, that one time, that one time when… she couldn’t recall; so many accidents. She knew the speeches off by heart. She was never sure why she kept the book, nor any of the paraphernalia of that life she’d lived in testing tunnels, in water, in the darkness, the blinding light that simulated space, and in space itself.

She heard the melodious bark adopted by Tomchik. She put her book down, and listened. The dog was in the garden.

“You will never be Laika,” she said, almost to herself. He heard, the poor demoralised beast. He whined once, and stopped.

She heard Aleksi in his room. There was a blast of loud rock music, and then the heavy report of the switch for the light above his bed—made in some disposable plastic, and badly put together.

The Americans had made new materials during their space programme, developed superglue, and Velcro, and a form of black paint that sucked both light and heat out of anybody who touched an object painted with it, and a gossamer gel that made people invisible if they spread it over their bodies. On the contrary, her country had been mean and secretive about its achievements in that respect, and had not even shared them with their loyal pilots and technicians and cosmonauts.

Klara heard a thump, Aleksi sinking onto his bed, she supposed, under his poster of some western musician holding a strange instrument, a guitar with two necks. The music blared, distorted, and… odd. She got out of her chair, walked down the corridor, and put her ear against his door.

Over the sound of the music came a low moan, and then an unearthly, sustained aaaaaaah. The Voznosenska girl wasn’t in there with him, Klara was sure. She hesitated, then turned away, but then stopped. She turned back and pushed Aleksi’s door open. The boy was standing, his back arched, his hair on fire, and flames glowing and growing behind his eyes and in his open mouth. His hand was fixed to the switch for the light over his bed, and it was see-through. Aleksi’s other arm was raised towards Klara, as if begging her to help.

Klara couldn’t help. She was unsure what to do. Aleksi was beyond help. She would never get the extra room now. She would in fact have to write a full report about Aleksi’s no-show at the canal project. The flames were dying down.

There was a horrible smell of burnt hair in the room; Aleksi had none left, and there had been a lot of it. His poster-boy musician, clutching his guitar with two necks, looked down on the scene, his own hair shaken back from his face, a concentrated expression on his face that Klara had never before noticed, his eyes crinkled, cheeks blown out. Was such effort required to play a guitar, even one with two necks?

Klara heard Tomchik howling in the living room. It was an awful sound. She would need to go and talk to him. She would need to get a fire extinguisher. The poster of the musician with the mad twin-necked guitar-thing was beginning to catch fire.

She hadn’t meant to sabotage the switching set-up to such an extent. Aleksi’s music had woken her up one afternoon, and she had come to confront him only to find the room abandoned to the music, and Aleksi out. She had switched the music player electrics to the light system, which had come on automatically with the timer. He was meant to have got a sharp little shock in his fingertips when he went through a series of switches in a certain order, but not an inferno. It was that damn electrical plant and its damnable director, he who’d authorised mass killings from his comfortable Moscow office, his fat arse on his chair; it was his incompetence, Klara was convinced, causing a surge that would be fatal when unleashed.

She would find him, she decided, and she would kill him. He walked in town, carried a grubby reusable bag, filled it with grey potatoes, the poisonous looks—he must have felt them—burning into the rear of his head. She would finish him, bring him to one of the masts outside town, connect him to the grid, fry him. No, better: bring him to Aleksi’s miserable room, and do it there.

One of Aleksi’s damnable songs had a line about setting the controls for the heart of the sun; it was the one that had woken her up, she was sure now. Something in her brain had latched onto the command in the lyrics, and guided her fingers to do exactly that. “It wasn’t the director,” she admitted to herself. “Not his fault.” She could still kill him, though. He’d made so many people’s lives a wretched misery.

She remembered Hala Kalininova, a long-gone colleague, getting into her undergarment, ready to suit up properly for a launch later in the day. Her family had been devastated in one of the one-time premier’s paranoid coups. Hala had spotted Klara in the doorway, watching her, readying to give advice, she supposed, or moral support. By then, Klara’s only advice was forbidden—it was don’t go up there, you will burn—and therefore silent. All the same, the woman had looked up at her, and said, “You won’t burn, Klara. You’ll start the fires, and put them out.” Klara had tried to laugh, but Hala had overstepped a mark. Klara had turned on her heel and left. Later, trapped in her suit, on the way to being strapped and trapped into the craft, Hala had sought out Klara among her clapping colleagues—a Pravda man had been covering it, so it had the added grotesque element of having to look like a big adventure, and not what it really was by then, a way of experimenting on the human form and brain. It had looked as if Hala was struggling to escape, and not to turn in search of Klara’s eye, begging forgiveness or threatening curses. An apparatchik had been alarmed, and had nodded to a minion to tug hard on Hala’s line and bring her to the craft quickly. Hala had burned that day in space, her last message being that the sun was in her eyes and her mouth. Just like poor Aleksi. Well, the director could share that vision with Hala, and with Aleksi.

Tomchik looked up, and jumped up, but only out of habit. He sent Klara a baleful, terrible stare, and then sat down again, licked his paw, but, again, only out of habit.

Klara said, “You… don’t feel like being a dog.”

Tomchik shook his head, unable to believe she had said the few words.

“I understand that. You… know what happened.”

“What do you think? I can smell it.”

So could Klara. She hurried into the alcove by the kitchen, threw stuff out of it, the Ashkenazi’s singed boots, his old gun, newspapers. She found the fire extinguisher, and gave it a shake, inspected the mechanism. She had used them often, but not for a long time. Tomchik followed her unhurriedly when she went back to Aleksi’s room. She sprayed the foam and water.

Tomchik watched from the doorway. “You’ll start the fires,” he quoted. “And put them out.”

The room was covered in white. Aleksi looked like an Egyptian mummy. He was still standing, trapped in a pool of the little body fat he’d carried, like a toy soldier on one of the little bases that had annoyed Klara when she was a child, made the Red Army somehow inoperable, each man trapped as he was on his plastic rectangle, unable to turn. Aleksi’s head looked round, and empty.

“I’ll tell the canal people,” Klara said. “Tomchik, will you tell the girl?” Klara had spotted some of Anna Feodorovna Voznosenska’s things, singed by the fire and scattered by the force of the foam; a paperback book with a cover showing a handsome soldier with medals and fancy gold-fringed epaulettes, a sparkly blue top, some pink underwear, an indoor shoe.

“I can’t.” Tomchik shook his head. “I can’t talk to everybody. You know that, surely?”

“Oh. Yes. I’d forgotten.”

“Only to you and… your kind. Listen. Aleksi had… plans.”

Klara held a finger to her lips, said, “Nobody will know them now.”

The ash and oil would never really disappear from the cracks and crannies. As it was almost certain that she was not going to be given a new place, a bigger one, and with more of a plot to grow vegetables, Klara set to making the house pristine. She was sweeping her front yard a few weeks later when an official came by. He wore a mac in a corrugated material so stiff it resembled a pavement dustbin. He asked for Aleksi.

He/she is no longer with us,” Klara said. “He/she is space dust.

“What’s that, now?”

He/she is a monument to the Union in space.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The man took a long look at Klara for the first time. “I need his actual whereabouts.”

“He’s working on the canal project in—”

“Belamor—yes, yes, I know,” the man said. He waved the sheaf of papers in front of him, and showed a badge. “I am a representative of the Canal Recruitment Committee.”

“Well, then. You know better than I do where he is.”

“He’s not in place.

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you.”

“I have some questions. I will require ingress to your residence. I may also have to search it.”

“For what?”

“I have a warrant.”

Klara made a show of reluctance that was not far from how she really felt. She was irritated, more than anything. She had almost forgotten her sister’s boy—she had almost forgotten her sister. With the Ashkenazi more or less forgotten too, she had been almost happy. It was… yes—it was irritating for this man to be standing in her kitchen pointing at the photographs the Ashkenazi had pinned on the cork board, saying, “Who’s that? Is that you? Where’s that? Where were they going in that car? Who’s he? What were you doing there? What year was that?” and inscribing laborious-looking words. He checked Klara’s paperwork to do with the project; he looked carefully at Aleksi’s signature on the flimsy copy, and held it up to the light.

He seemed interested in the photo of Aleksi with Anna Feodorovna Voznosenska, and asked about her. Klara told him where she lived, more or less. He seemed less interested in the photo of Aleksi with Tomchik, said only, “A boy and his dog.”

“Yes.” Klara looked the words back at him.

Poor Tomchik, she thought, pining away at the loss of his inattentive master. Either that, or just sulking at Klara for having made one of Aleksi’s western pop records come true for him. Either way, she couldn’t have a sulky dog around the house, bringing the atmosphere down. Klara was hyper-attuned to changes in the atmosphere. She went deaf on him. She had never got near to liking the poor dumb beast, and it would have been fatal for them both if she started getting attached to him now. Tomchik had always had half a wary eye on the winter berries, the dried fruit from the orchards outside the town. He had gazed from Klara to the wooden box, its arrival on the kitchen floor an event of which he was surely, and rightly, suspicious, its lid open, the sweetness gleaming inside it. He had swivelled his head a long time, and she had pitied him, refrained from joking that it looked like he was watching tennis. She didn’t want to have to explain what tennis was—explaining chess to him had been bad enough, when he’d caught sight of Aleksi’s board and pieces going into the oildrum as fuel. “Go on,” she’d said softly. “Eat them.”

Eat them?”

“Eat them all.”

All of them—are you sure?”

There were worse ways to go than in a sugar coma, the blood gorged with its full-on tannin toxicity; a blissful, sweet-and-sour descent into the deepest space any creature would occupy.

“What is the… hound’s current location?” the inquisitor asked.

Klara raised a hand: in truth, she was showing the man, because talkative Tomchik was now ash. At least a few particles of him were still in the air around them, she was sure.

“Ha—so it’s possible that Aleksandr Sergeyevitch took his canine companion with him when he absented himself.”

“It’s… possible,” Klara agreed.

“Like Dick Vitting-ton.”

“I don’t know him,” Klara admitted, though the name rang a distant bell. She had an idea that Dick—Wittgenstein, was it?—had a cat, not a dog. Or was that Schroedinger? Schroedinger’s dog would be dead, and yet still there, exactly like Tomchik. She was about to say this, then consigned the phrase to caution. “It’s probable. In fact,” she spelt out, “it’s almost certain, if you ask me.”

“I am asking you.”

“Well, then.”

“What else did he take with him?”

“I have no idea,” Klara said. “The usual things a boy can’t live without, I suppose.”

“Please show me to his quarters.”

Klara bit her lip. She looked down.

“There are consequences,” the man said. He placed his index finger on a line of bigger, darker text on his clipboard, and invited Klara to read. “For anybody caught diverting the delivery of an essential worker to an essential workplace. Now, please show me to the quarters occupied by Aleksandr Sergeyevitch.”

“Are you sure?”

Klara had changed her mind about killing the director of the power plant. She decided that it was too complicated. She had gone so far as to prepare everything. She had put on her best coat and boots. She had even put on make-up, melting the encrusted rocks of it she had found in a cutlery and tools drawer down to a workable putty that she was able to smear onto her eyes, lashes, cheeks and lips.

Her first attempt had taken her breath away; in the dim hallway mirror she had looked like the girl she had been when, at fifteen, the Union had decided that her scientific acumen, athleticism, ambition and fearlessness would suit the space programme. This was partly, she saw, because in those days the means of reproducing colour photographs had been primitive: as many as they could on the cheapest paper they could get away with had not furnished the best environment for the showcasing of space talent. After a while, the rate of attrition in space was such that the programme directors decided it would be wise not to draw too much attention to its ever-changing personnel. A simple change in the light, or a move away from the mirror to a different viewing angle revealed Klara to actually look like an alarming clown. She had wiped the muck off and started again.

Just a little made up, then, and in those best boots gleaming subtly, like gunmetal, and her best coat, a bright red with an Astrakhan collar, affixed to it her tarnished Hero of the Union rosette badge, she walked in town after close of work in the offices and factories. She nodded to anybody who hailed her, even though she didn’t know most of them, nor whether they had an actual claim on her attention or not—they all did, she supposed, if she was a Hero of the Union.

A woman stood in her way, and pointed at Klara’s boots. “Nice boots,” she said, as if talking to a dog. “Nice boots—nice… footwear.” Klara sort of knew her. She had been married to the idiot who took the enormous trouble to be the sole survivor of a domestic plane crash that was talked-about but never reported in the news. For about a week, he was hailed as the Survivor. Somebody from Aeroflot gave him a load of hush-money. He gave that away in exchange for a motorbike, which, after its sabotage by persons unknown, headed him off the highway as if with a mind of its own, into a monster truck and oblivion. The woman had been known to get violent, so Klara regarded her warily, said, “Wait right there,” found the nearest corner, and hurried away.

She sipped coffee from a stand, let most of it go cold. She nibbled at a hard roll made from flour that tasted, vaguely, of fish because they fleshed the flour out with powdered fish bones, people said. It never failed to amuse her, disgust her, a little, and divert her. When she looked up from this diversion, she saw the director. She had thrown the roll away and poured the coffee onto the ground, and set off after him.

He was a fat man gone thin, his pink face now a shade of grey, its flesh loose, his gait stooped from carrying the weight he’d got used to all those years. The director retained the thick sweep of hair he’d been known for. He shook it to one side, out of his eyes, an unconscious movement every minute or so. Even from a distance, and at dusk, his dark eyes were the same as ever, small and porcine.

Klara remembered a talk by a SMERSH spook to the gathered space programme personnel. It was about the inevitable surveillance the western powers would place on each individual. CIA and MI6 spies would follow each member of the programme when they were anywhere off the base—it was a fact, and they may as well be ready for it. They might think they had taken every precaution, but a good operative would get to them, would get them into some sort of compromising position and blackmail them, or coerce them, to give away the secrets of space. “You can’t hide from them, no matter how you try.” Klara forgot what advice had followed, but it was the notion that you could follow somebody and them not see you that she clung to, as she dodged casually in and out of the home-time shoppers and walkers and talkers.

The director had obviously heard the same talk. To his credit, he had paid some attention to it. Suddenly, Klara could no longer see him. Just as she registered this, she was aware of eyes on her: the director’s. A hand gripped her arm from behind.

“You may have a question for me.” He was next to her. Shoppers reached them, and diverted their steps at the last moment, went around them, fish avoiding stones in a stream. “But I must tell you that I am not answering questions, not even from a comrade Hero of the Union.” He had seen her badge, and was, even while placing each word in unwarranted quotes, acknowledging it. It aroused his curiosity, for sure. He faced her, looked into her eyes, hoping to see a hint of deep space, or just the cosmic carbon of her fried brain.

His guard down, and a face-to-face look being a mirror of sorts, she saw into his eyes, too, and what she saw was a man devoid of cares, or real responsibilities, troubled only by his deep and fearful loneliness. The millions whose arrest warrants he’d authorised in his time as a name, consigning them to death and camps? That didn’t bother him, she knew. The economic slumps over which he’d presided, the accidental famine, the starvation? No, not a glimmer of regret. It was the lack of human connection in his life that he hated, in a town like this one, far from the bright lights and the traffic, from the students and the tourists and the august buildings and monuments everywhere you looked. He wore a shabby coat, and scuffed boots. He clutched a raffia shopping bag, and sniffed back a drip from the end of his nose, absently moved the top set of his false teeth minutely with his tongue, in preparation to say more.

“I have no questions for you, comrade.” She assumed he too was a Hero of the Union—surely had a drawer full of the dull knick-knacks and gewgaws collected paradoxically from a glittering career, but he had done nothing heroic. He hadn’t gone into space. He hadn’t seen the remains of his comrades, or heard them on the ether, disappearing towards distant suns. She was not going to dignify him with the salutation.

She turned her back on him.

“So pretty,” he called. “Holiday coat and shiny boots of leather.

Klara had been tempted to change her mind.

“And such a made-up face.

It was a shame; it was all in place. The music, rigged to the lights, and then to the unstable grid, whose outside cables Klara had followed, with the aid of a detector, to the innocuous sub-station a block away. It was a waste, but she was used to her entire life’s work being a waste. As she walked away and left the director intact, unelectrified, and unburnt, but with his stupid grin and his solitary life and his raffia bag, she knew she’d be able to live with it, as long as he could.

The representative of the Canal Recruitment Committee had struggled out of his corrugated mac with some difficulty. He had also introduced himself formally to Klara as a bearer of the name Smirnov. “Not the… vodka people,” he said.

Nobody remembered the capitalist exploiter Smirnovs of Petersburg, banished to make their vodka elsewhere in the world after the Revolution. Klara almost laughed, and said, “I bet you have to say that to everybody.”

“No.” The lie disturbed him momentarily. Klara guessed that, unimportant as it was, and despite his saying it so often, it still seemed somehow wrong. “No… no,” he repeated, for good measure. He was a miserable man, Klara decided, with his refuge in guilt and pedantry, and the exact naming of things. “No. Not at all. Now.” He became all brisk and businesslike. “This room inhabited by your charge.”

Klara led him into the hallway, which was usually the darkest part of the house. No light leaked into it from the other rooms, whose doors were closed. In any case, their windows were covered in heavy blackout material that had once covered cosmonauts and their most essential equipment during re-entry.

“But what is it that we have here?” The man came to a halt, a finger in the air. “Music?” He pointed towards Aleksi’s room. “Music?

“Yes,” Klara admitted.

Popular music?”


“Popular beat music from the West?

“Yes—is it? Yes, I suppose so.”

“Are you in the habit of listening to such music?”

“No. I like…” Klara cast about for a name. She had never liked music. It all sounded the same to her. “Shostakovich?”

“This is Aleksandr Sergeyevitch’s room?”


Smirnov set his face sternly—he arrived at the exact face that had terrorised a generation of young canal inductees, Klara felt sure. He cast about for something to do with his sheaf of papers. He would need both hands, he was assuming, to manhandle a reluctant recruit away from the disorientating throb of popular western beat music. Finally, he handed the papers to Klara. He pushed the door open.

“Consequences.” Getting no reaction to the word from Klara, he said, “We need canals.” The three words were supposed to be authoritative, Klara supposed. Instead they were plaintive, and a little petulant.

Smirnov stepped into the room. The music rumbled. The representative said a tremulous, questioning hel-lo. He turned back to Klara, said, “It’s dark. I can’t see a thing in there. Nobody will hurt you,” he called into the room. “Please allow me to switch the light on.” He felt for the switch on the wall. It clicked uselessly.

“You need to put the switch on over the bed.” Klara opened the door as wide as it would go, allowing some light in from the hallway. She pointed.

Smirnov took a few steps towards the switch. Klara took a few steps back, picking up the swathe of blackout material she had left on the floor and wrapping it around herself as thoroughly as she could. There was a heavy click, and a flash of heat and light that reminded Klara of both lift-off and re-entry. She took a cautious look around the door. Smirnov had never needed a canal more than he needed it at that moment.

She was not going to get more room, but realised that, with the Ashkenazi gone, and poor Aleksi, she didn’t need it. She filled sacks with ash, and oildrums with fat, filled boxes with the astonishing range of pointless things men had needed in their lives, and disposed of it all. She gave the place an airing, and a top-to-toe redecoration, all in white—six coats of it in some places. She liked all the space.

She didn’t aim to stay there forever, anyway. The town was too sad, too frozen for too long, then slushy, damp. She looked at the people who greeted her in a sudden, alarming daze of puzzlement: who were they?

“He’s building canals,” she told the one person who asked her about Aleksi. It was that unfortunate Vasil-Somethingovitch-Something, whose father had survived his tragic re-entry in a plane but not the impromptu re-engineering of a motorbike, and whose mother had a compulsion to talk about people’s shoes to the point of obsession and aggression. Klara looked at him, and pitied him, a little. She said, “But be careful of people who talk about canals—steer clear of them. Even me.”

The Voznosenska slut never asked about Aleksi. She sometimes sent Klara dirty looks returned with neutral glances that still managed to project pleasure. She pointed at Klara once, from a café window, ensconced there with a group of friends. Klara had simply waved.

She saw the director, sometimes. He caught her eye in town, and tried to kindle a twinkle in his dead pig eyes, a laugh from his turkey throat. He waved a finger at her, as if to say I know you, and you’re a wit, you are, but there’s something awful about you, too. He didn’t fool Klara; he was still the saddest man in town, in the world. In the cosmos, even.

When she moved to the edge of the world, she wouldn’t think about any of them. She’d head to Kazakhstan, fix up a hut in the hills overlooking the Cosmodrome, make it invisible from the air using leaves and mud and blackout material. She would watch the spaceships going up, at least, parting the stars. And when it was time for her to go, finally, when her head was too full and her heart too heavy to go on, she would implement the final phase of her escape. Aleksi had a plan, according to Tomchik, to go deeper into the world in search of its sweetness; it had been small-minded—self-indulgent—and she had told Tomchik so. The poor hound, engaged in the consumption of his very own stash of sweetness, had agreed, a little distractedly, his mind already seeking sleep. When Klara escaped, it would be in the other direction: there were worse ways to go than stowing away in a spaceship—she knew exactly how—knocking or finessing the thing out of its trajectory and seeing where it took her, a space blanket wrapped around her, synthetic coffee cupped in her hands, her eyes blazing, and her mouth open in a last smile.

Nick Sweeney’s stories are on the web and in print. Laikonik Express, his novel about friendship, Poland, vodka, snow and getting the train for the hell of it, was published by UK independent publisher Unthank Books in 2011. He is a freelance writer, and guitarist with Clash covers band Clashback, and lives on the UK coast in Kent. The Exploding Elephant, his supernatural novelette set in Polish town Gliwice, is out with Bards and Sages. More than any sane person could want to know about him can be found on his website The Last Thing the Author Said.