I lost consciousness during liftoff. When I came to, you had appeared. You were floating outside the meter-wide porthole of the orbital waste management craft. Ears pointed up, tongue lolling out of a half-opened mouth. Impossible, I thought, because I knew how fast the craft had to be moving to maintain orbit, and there was no way such a little dog could keep pace. Then I realized I was attempting to apply the standard model of physics to a dog that had died a quarter of a century ago, and stopped asking questions. You were here, Laika. Of course you were.
I talk to you because there’s no one else who can hear me, not even God. I’ve been orbiting Earth for three months, and that blue-green planet is the holiest thing out here.
You looked as surprised to see me as I was to see you. What are you doing here? you seemed to ask.
Cleaning up space junk is easy, I explained to you, in the way that walking up a flight of stairs is easy: easy for humans, hard for robots. Automated systems can handle launch, life-support, and reentry processes, but they’re no good at operating the paddle-like appendages which extend from the ship like the front legs of a crane fly.
This is why the Aeronautics Force hires people like me to do it. Or rather, why the Aeronautics Force hires people, generally. It’s people like me who are willing, as much as that means anything, to spend months in solitary confinement for a paycheck. There’s no insurance tax, no protective equipment fees. A good deal, if one can handle the boredom.
You cocked your head to the side, skeptical. In your experience, there’s no such thing as a good deal when it comes to space travel. Would you be pleased to know we don’t send animals to space anymore? The tired-looking officer who trained me said orbital waste removal was a job so simple a monkey could do it, if the new amendments to the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space didn’t forbid the use of nonhuman animals in space programs. He sounded as if the new amendments were a personal affront.
Every day, for twelve hours a day, I use the joysticks to swing the paddles through debris fields, sending the miniscule pieces of metal, paint chips, whatever junk’s been knocked off satellites, into Earth’s atmosphere, where they’ll burn up miles above the surface. I imagine a cartoonish thunk whenever my paddles connect with a visible target. It’s like one of the games at the arcade my friends and I used to go to, except the levels never get harder.
At the end of each shift, I unstrap myself from the control booth, and float up to the porthole. I press my face against the borosilicate glass. Continents spin beneath us. I point out to you the mountain range that marks the western border of my homeland, the north and south seas that outline yours. Can you hear me? Your ears, always pointed up, suggest that you do.
Often, while I work, my mind drifts back to Earth. I’ll calculate the time in my country so I can imagine what my siblings and Mum are doing right now. Do Luka and Miragul still play soccer in the apartment courtyard? Does Mum still make blini for Sunday lunch? Is Mum still mad at me?
I didn’t like fighting with Mum. It happened anyway, like we were chemical reagents that produced an explosion whenever we came in contact. I waited until I signed the contract to tell Mum about the job. She wouldn’t want me to go, but we needed the money. Miragul and Luka’s annual school fees would be due soon, in addition to the other debts already piled up.
After I told her, Mum stood up from the dinner table, paced to the sink and back. My siblings looked from her to me to her. “It’s too dangerous,” she finally said.
“What about the lunar shuttles? It’s safer to fly to the Moon than Moscow.” I repeated one of the old slogans the government had rolled out after the Mars disaster. It was true that space travel was safe, even routine, now—a significant improvement from when you were alive. The Mars disaster had been a tragic fluke. But Mum’s issue wasn’t with the transit to my work site.
“You’ll be in orbit for weeks. Alone, with no training or experience? If anything goes wrong, you’d be done for.”
“What about uni?” Luka asked. “What about being an engineer like Dad?”
“Well, he’s dead now, isn’t he,” I snapped.
Luka shut up. Miragul picked at her nail polish. No one touched their soup.
The house shook; broth sloshed onto the tablecloth. We all had forgotten to brace in expectation of the daily lunar shuttle launch. Mum glared at me as she grabbed a dishcloth.
“I’ll see you later,” I said to Miragul and Luka, and left. As soon as I stepped outside the apartment building, the see-through dogs swarmed me.
The dogs were a bunch of mutts. I’d heard there used to be a pack of wild dogs that lived here, before the apartment buildings went up and the contractors had the dogs shot. If these were their ghosts, they’d become docile in death. They sniffed at my hands and heels, and trotted alongside me to the bus stop. I felt a damp chill whenever they walked through my legs.
Our apartment was a short bus ride from the City Center. The timetable posted inside the bus shelter stated that the next Center-bound bus would arrive shortly. I opened my messenger bag to get my bus pass. The pamphlet advertising jobs with the Aeronautics Force stuck out of an inside pocket. The handsome woman on the front cover was posed against the sleek sweep of the pilot’s controls. What a scam, I thought, using that photo for trash pickup recruitment. Of course, that made me a sucker. I crumpled it up and tossed it in the bin.
Go on, get out of here, I thought at the dogs. It had been years since I’d spoken to the see-through dogs out loud, long enough that my friends had stopped teasing me about it. The dogs never listened, anyway. I wanted them to scram; they danced around me. They could follow me onto the bus—and had done so before—but it would be uncomfortable. Though no one else could see the dogs, they sensed them, in some way, and seemed to attribute this ominous feeling to me. I’d been shouted at before by old women who thought I was putting the evil eye on their grandchildren.
Fine then, stupid dogs. I pulled a sprig of leaves from a low-hanging tree branch and threw it across the street. The dogs raced after it in one blurred pack, then stood together, futilely pawing and biting, unable to hold the material object in their insubstantial mouths. Minutes later, when the bus pulled up, they were still clustered around the stick. Poor, dumb creatures.
I got off at Revolution Square. Neon signs flashed from the shops inside the colonnades that lined the city square: a disembodied hand pouring a cup of chai; a wireless computer monitor connecting to a network terminal. I ignored them as I strode across the square to the fountain. It was still hot, though the sun was going down. I slipped off my sandals and put my bare feet into the water.
A group of people sat at a table outside a café across from the fountain. After a moment, I recognized them as some of my classmates. I hadn’t seen anyone from school since our graduation several months before. My friends hadn’t known how to respond when my father died, and then, as poverty overtook my family, I had less and less interest in going to the cinema, record-listening parties, or cafés. I focused on my studies and finding a job; that was all.
A see-through dog brought her puppies over to me. The puppies sat in my lap like tiny little rain clouds while the mum stretched out on the ground. She rolled her eyes up at me, then shut them. Here, she seemed to say. If you’ve got nothing better to do, watch them while I take a break. I stayed there until the sky was proper dark. The street lights flicked on, and I went home.
Mum was in the shower when I got back; Miragul was helping Luka with maths homework. I went to my room and threw myself on my bed. Posters of Yuri Gagarin and you, Laika the Space Dog, smiled down at me. The posters had belonged to my father when he was a boy. The colors were faded now, but the gleam in their eyes was unchanged. I was five years old when my father tacked the posters up on my walls; I thought you were still alive, perhaps receiving a pension paid out each month in fatty cuts of meat.
My mother hadn’t mentioned my father when arguing with me about my job—she rarely talked about him—but I knew she was thinking of him. The Aeronautics Force had posthumously inducted my father into the Order of the Glory of the Sciences, second class. They gave my mother the medal, promised her a pension, and refused to release his body. He had been working on classified material in a sealed laboratory at the time of death, they said. His body belonged to the state now.
At school, all the teachers had said how proud I must be of my brave father. I didn’t know what to say. My mother had hidden the medal somewhere; it was clear to my younger siblings and me that we were not to celebrate our father’s death. Besides, the promised pension money never appeared.
This is where I usually end the story. I need to sleep before my next shift, so I tell you good night, though of course there’s no night or day up here. You watch me crawl into the orange sleeping bag strapped to the inside of the ship like a strange cocoon. I don’t think you ever sleep.
It feels strange to say I miss my father when his presence in my life has always been defined as absence. Perhaps this is why, now that he is absent all the time, his presence is strongest. I have more memories about dogs than I do of him. You look like you’d rather hear about the dogs.
I realized the see-through dogs were ghosts soon after I began year one. I was walking home from school with my mother, proud to be wearing my school uniform. The old men sitting on the benches outside the bakery nodded at us as we passed by.
At the corner, I pressed the button for the crosswalk. A stray dog waited with us: a reddish-brown mutt with pointed ears, who came up to my shoulders.
“Don’t touch it,” my mother said.
I patted its snout. “See, Mama, it’s nice.”
“Don’t put your hands in your mouth until we get home.”
Before the light had changed, the dog stepped into the street. A bus blew through the intersection like a hawk diving for a mouse. When the bus was gone, the dog lay crushed in the street.
I tried to pull my mother forward.
“It’s too late,” she resisted. “It probably has ticks, or worms—”
I slipped her grasp and ran into the street. Then I stopped, crouched down next to the body—my mother was right, the dog was beyond saving, but something else was happening.
A silvery fluid seeped out of what remained of the dog’s body. The material coalesced, then stretched, losing thickness and gaining form, like blowing soap bubbles, until it looked almost exactly like the dog had in life, but with a pearly translucency where its colors had been. I saw dogs like this all the time; I’d never seen their creation. The new see-through dog took a moment, shook itself off, then—I turned my head to watch—it continued trotting across the road.
My mother grabbed my arm. “Listen when I’m talking to you.” She held my hand tightly the rest of the way home as she lectured me on traffic safety and animal diseases.
I heard none of it. I watched the newly formed see-through dog move through the city unnoticed even by other animals. There were dozens of dogs like it—curled up beneath benches, sniffing at the fresh urine left behind by living dogs, circling a sausage vendor’s cart optimistically.
By the time we reached our apartment building, I had reached two realizations. One, no one else could see the see-through dogs. Two, the dogs were all dead. This represented more death than I could comprehend. I was quietly horrified.
That evening, I ate supper in silence, helped my mother clear the table, then washed my face and hair, and went into my room. The city shone through my parted curtains: the traffic lights from the street below, the ever-present haze of light that haloed the skyline, and the far-off bright white lights, like a piece of fallen moon, that marked the construction site where my father was still working. His team was building the rockets that would take cosmonauts to Mars for the first time in history. It was important work, I knew, because it kept him away nearly all the time now.
The overhead fan made my space hero posters flutter against the wall. My father said when he was a boy, people used to believe there was another world in the sky where God lived and people went when they died. Then Yuri went into space and proved there was no God or Heaven after all.
“So where do people go when they die?” I had asked.
“Nowhere,” he said. “One life is all we get. That’s what makes life special.”
I hadn’t thought to ask him about dogs, or other animals. Now, I reasoned, if dogs got a second incarnation, maybe humans did, too. Maybe the cosmonauts would find all our dead floating softly over the surface of Mars. Yuri hadn’t looked there.
As it happened, the team of cosmonauts found nothing, because they never arrived. Their shuttle exploded just past the edge of space. Gathered on a grassy hill above the launch site, the city watched the wreckage burn and fall. It looked like shooting stars.
After this, I didn’t see my father for a long time. When he finally came home, his hair had turned white.
You lie on your stomach, cross your paws in front of you, and look at me as if to say, At least he came home.
Well, I say. He got lucky that time.
My father’s wake was held in the City Community Hall. It was a formal event. Mum had plastered Luka’s hair down with gel. Miragul wore a dress shorter than any of the other women’s dresses. She pulled me away as soon as we arrived. We stepped out into the brick alley behind the building.
I pushed up the sleeves of my suit jacket. I wore one of my father’s old suits. I was aware it hung off me just enough to be noticeably ill-fitting. Out of pity, I suppose, no one had commented on this where I could hear them. Miragul took a pack of cigarettes from her black silk clutch. She lit one, and offered me the pack. I took it without asking since when had she started smoking. My father’s suit also smelled like ash.
The layers of black fabric absorbed the heat of the midday sun. The jacket sleeves had fallen down past my wrists. I wiped the sweat off the back of my neck and pushed the sleeves up again.
“Do you remember year four?” I asked. “When they covered Laika in Civil Ethics?”
Miragul squatted, balancing on the heels of her boots. “I had nightmares for weeks.”
The sepia-toned photograph in our textbooks had shown a cheerful little mongrel looking out of her tin-can capsule with bright eyes. As we read, we learned that the Soviets had sent you to space to study the effects of being in orbit. They claimed the mission was a success—even though you died of oxygen deprivation after six days—and put your picture on postage stamps. Then, several years later, an international investigation found out the truth. Your capsule had overheated during liftoff. You had died within hours.
“How do you think Dad died?” I asked Miragul.
“He was under a lot of stress with the new Martian mission coming up, wasn’t he?” Miragul put her hand on my arm. “He could have had a heart attack. That’s what Uncle Bartok said. He said almost everything the Force does gets labeled top secret, even if it’s not, because the General is paranoid.”
I thought about you, Laika, the six days you were dead and alive. During year eight, in Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, we learned about Schrödinger’s cat. If you can’t see the body, who can know for sure what is dead or alive?
“We better go back inside.” Miragul stood up. The string quartet was tuning up.
I bent down and stubbed out my cigarette on the concrete.
For several weeks after the funeral, I waited for Dad’s ghost to show up, or else for someone—a stranger—to knock on our door and say they’d seen Dad, that his ghost had followed him to the bus stop. But all I have of him now are a handful of memories, little ghosts dripping through my fingers.
There are six months left in my contract. I will orbit the Earth thousands of times before I return to the place I left. How will I have changed when I come home? Will my hair turn white under the stress of reentry? All my plans have brought me to this, a point beyond which I can’t plan. All I know is that, up here, I feel like you, dead and alive. My heart and lungs go through the motions of life, yet I’m alone, surrounded by silence. I can’t touch anyone. When I come back, I want to live a blood-and-body life.
I’m sure now you aren’t beholden to any of space-time’s rules. Will you come back with me?
Your tail sweeps semicircles back and forth. We only get one life, my father said, but we are both ready to seize a second try.
Mar Stratford is a fourth year Creative Writing MFA student at the University of Arkansas and friend to all animals. Find zir online at mar-stratford.com or @mar_stratford.