A Journal of The Plague Year, And Other Tales

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Orbital Stray

Orbital Stray

Never had the Samoyed seen any dog so grateful for attention; any who soaked up so much affection; any who was so grateful to be fed.

“I mean”, thought the Samoyed, “it’s not hare or venison, is it? It’s a high-protein gelatine paste. Hardly food, at all.”

Still, he mused, it came regularly and for free and was undoubtedly more wholesome than the spilt scraps of shashlik and piroshky around Moscow street kiosks that Laika the stray would formerly have survived on.

The Samoyed and she had gone through the same reception process. The assistants in the training laboratory had bathed them and deloused them. They had brushed their coats. When they saw how well their Moscow stray had scrubbed up – when her placid, likeable nature was allowed to shine through – they had stroked her and kissed her nose and called her Kudryavka, or “Little Curly”. Later, the Soviet Space Agency would change it to Laika, or ‘Barker’.

Laika lived these days in a small, hastily-built kennel on the edge of the cosmodrome, two hundred metres from the central facilities block and a kilometre from the launch pad. It had a hut where she and her fellow dogs could shelter from the cold of the nights on the open, barren steppe. It also had a small run, where the dogs could laze in the weak sunlight of the autumn days, at times when Soviet Authority did not require them in the vet’s clinic or the acclimatisation labs.

The Samoyed had left Laika in the central facilities block, being trained to sit placidly in her tiny space capsule; being trained not to resist relieving herself into a colostomy bag. She was the one they had selected to go into orbit. He re-joined his colleague the Borzoi - the second of the also-rans – who was lounging in the kennel’s run, redundant and ignored.

“It should’ve gone to a pedigree,” muttered the Borzoi, peering through the kennel’s chicken wire fence. “It should be a noble Soviet breed representing our union’s space programme, not some mongrel stray.”

The vets at the Space Programme had named the Borzoi ‘Tolstoy’. No one had bothered to ask his haute-bourgeois owners what they had called him. When they had arrested them, they had confiscated Tolstoy and put him in the kennels on a country estate outside Moscow, ready to serve the Soviet leaders when they wished to entertain foreign guests with a hunting expedition.

“Space travel,” replied the Samoyed, “is not all it’s cracked up to be. You may look back on these days and conclude that you dodged a bullet.”

The Space Programme called the Samoyed Fyodor, for some reason or the other.

“I am not saying,” retorted the Borzoi, tossing his small, elegant head in the direction of the launch pad, “that I want to be cooped up on top of that contraption and fired into space. That is not my destiny. As far as I am aware, there are no hares to chase in space, nor are there space foxes or space deer. I would be wasted in orbit.”

“So why not give the mission to a street mutt, then?” asked the Samoyed. “Someone with nothing else to live for?”

“Because it is a disgrace to Soviet dog-hood, that’s why. The eyes of the world are on us, but who is our face to the world? A half-breed … a tramp … an urchin plucked at random off from a gutter in Moscow. The humiliation of being deemed inferior to that … specimen. Whatever happened to Canus Sovieticus? That’s what I want to know.”

It had indeed felt humiliating, thought the Samoyed, to have flunked so badly compared with Laika at the acclimatisation trials. A week ago, all three dogs had been taken to the central facilities block. They had been strapped in a centrifuge machine and spun round at high speed to simulate the G-forces at work on lift off. The Borzoi and the Samoyed had emerged nauseous and whimpering. However, Laika appeared to be unscathed. She panted lightly in enjoyment, her eyes bright, her expression curious and her spitz ears pricked up.

The troika of dogs had been put in an icehouse for a day and examined afterwards. The Borzoi had almost died of hypothermia within the first two hours. The Samoyed, to his chagrin, had caught a chill. Laika, hardened by three winters in the open on the streets of Moscow, had emerged intact.

The Samoyed had seen her afterwards, being congratulated and cuddled by a pair of vets’ assistants (while the vets were out of the room) and realised Laika was having the richest days of her life. Then he saw the two assistants hug each other. As they drew apart, he saw they both had tears in their eyes.

“I was saying,” said the Borzoi, unused to being ignored, “whatever happened to canus sovieticus?”

The Samoyed contemplated the Borzoi’s arched nose and perfectly-sculpted figure. He contemplated his own pristine white fur.

“Our Soviet pedigrees are alive and well,” the Samoyed said. Then he murmured: “which is more than you’ll be able to say for Laika, one week from now.”

“Why do you say that?” asked the Borzoi, suddenly concerned. Despite his snobbery, he was fond of Laika, dog to dog.

“I mean,” replied Samoyed quietly, “do you think they have even bothered to think about the problem of re-entry?”

“Come again?” said the Borzoi.

“I mean,” said the Samoyed with a sigh, “the problem of getting the capsule back into Earth’s atmosphere, because if they don’t…”

Here he stopped because he had spotted a vet’s assistant walking Laika back across the concrete yard. The assistant opened the wooden door to the kennel’s run, let Laika off her leash, ruffled the fur on her neck and gave her a short blast of baby talk before leaving.

Laika retreated to a corner of the run and sat down next to a bowl of dusty water. The Borzoi loped across to her, an amused leer across his muzzle.

“And how is Princess Cosmonaut this afternoon?” he asked. “Is all to her satisfaction, ahead of her magic carpet ride?”

Laika put her tail beneath her legs and lowered her head in submission. The Borzoi strutted back to the opposite corner of the run, triumphantly.

“It’s her placid nature,” thought the Samoyed. “They chose her because she won’t panic, with the roar and insane juddering of lift-off. She won’t try and fight it. She won’t have a heart attack and will live to get into orbit. Then they can see whether a living being can survive, in zero gravity.”

She would have the honour of being a glorious martyr to the cause, albeit an unwilling one.

He remembered, back up in Chukchia, hearing his sled master pointing across the frozen sea and telling his mates a story about the English sailors who had set out to find passage around the north of Siberia between Europe and the Far East. Their ship had got trapped in the ice, and they died agonising, lingering deaths from cold and starvation.

Space would hold the same fate for Laika, thought the Samoyed. The food would run out, and then the water, and then the oxygen. Or maybe it would be in a different order, but the outcome would be the same. Laika was headed somewhere beyond the very furthest reaches of space, which only the most spiritual and most clinically depressed amongst us might wish to explore.

How would she cope with it, in her final hours? Would she be looking out of the space capsule’s porthole window at the Earth, ears pricked up and eyes sparkling with curiosity – as they were on Earth - her soft panting slightly misting the glass? Or would she be lying hang-dog, with her chin stretched flat on the capsule floor, waiting morosely for one of the vet’s assistants to step in from outer space and fetch her back to her kennel?

The Samoyed was aware he was different to other dogs. He seemed to understand human speech and to apprehend what humans were doing. Plus: he had foresight, unlike Laika, who lived solely in the moment.

At 10 o’clock this morning, the Samoyed recalled, Laika had been paraded in her space harness to greet the Deputy Minister of Defence and a coterie of generals. They were grinning indulgently and feeding her bits of dry sausage. At 10 o’clock in the morning two days later, she would be dead – simultaneously in the heavens, and in heaven.

The Samoyed pieced together events slowly by eavesdropping on the recriminations of the scientists, as they de-rigged their equipment in the labs; on the self-defensive mutterings of the government men as they strode to and fro between the management block and their official cars; and the mourning of the vet’s assistants who wept for their Kudryavka as they prepared the Samoyed for his return journey to Siberia.

He learnt that Laika had died of dehydration on her fourth orbit of the Earth because the capsule had overheated, minutes after take-off. The craft, Sputnik 2, had been lashed together in a hurry so it could be launched on the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. No one had had time to design a reliable cooling system. Still less had they been able to prepare a plan for the capsule’s re-entry.

The Samoyed settled himself on the straw in the cattle wagon of a train that was rolling him back to the Great North and his former life of pulling a sled and eating seal meat. He let thought flow over him as he dozed.

He imagined Laika’s life: born in the filthy basement of an apartment block; a rough whelping; desperate cold and hunger; being chased off the pavements as vermin by angry citizen Muscovites.

He recalled what he had witnessed, after she had been plucked from the streets for her new life at the cosmodrome: her joy at being given food and shelter; at being petted and nurtured by the lab assistants; at being loved and prized and needed – if only for a couple of dozen days before she was again abandoned.

The Samoyed felt his eyelids becoming heavier and heavier and the words and his thoughts become disjointed. To have all that … all those things that make up happiness … to feel, even if for only once in your life, some sudden flash of joy and to think: ‘may this feeling last forever’ … think how many times you have these flashes and then add them all up and try and think how many seconds of your life they amount to … to feel that flash of joy even for a single moment … that was something to live for, wasn’t it?

The Samoyed yawned. His straw bed was growing pleasingly warm. He wriggled his way deeper into it. Us dogs, he thought, we live in the moment. Our lives run frame-by-frame, always captured in the arc of a single second.

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