The Aitken Alexander Isolation Series: Muttnik by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon, copyright Charles Moriarty





They grew up on the streets, they were tough, they belonged to no-one. They cost nothing and they were expendable. They were kept in cages so small they wouldn’t shit or piss and they were kept there until they shat and pissed and it became normal. They were forced to listen to the sound of jet engines. They were spun in centrifuges. They were taught to eat meat jelly from a tube.

The decision was taken in the last few days. She would die, Albina would be her back-up, Mushka would be the control. The dogs knew none of this.

On that final morning Vladimir took her home to play with his children. The girls had a red rubber ball which they threw to one another over her head while she tried to catch it, her claws skittering on the polished wood. They rolled her over and petted her. They treated her like a friend.

The dogs were flown from Moscow to Tashkent, then from Tashkent to Tyuratam. They were driven to the Cosmodrome in a military truck. It was cold, a fierce blue sky and puddles crackling underfoot. She was separated from Mushka and Albina. Tubes were inserted into her ankles and chest. Patches of fur were shaved away and the bare skin swabbed with iodine so that electrodes could be fitted. She was washed down with alcohol. They strapped her into her leather harness and put her inside the same metal cannister they’d been putting her in for the last few days. There was a bag to catch her shit behind her and a feeding tube next to her mouth.

Vladimir closed the door and everything went black. She did not know what was happening, but she knew that everything would be all right, that Vladimirould look after her.

There was a roar like the roar of a great fire. It rapidly became so loud that she could no longer hear her own howling. The canister was thrown violently from side to side. She was terrified. Something pushed her to the floor and held there. She felt light-headed and nauseous.

Gradually the canister tilted to one side and whatever was pushing her to the floor released its grip. The shaking stopped and the roar died down so that she could hear only her own breathing, the dull hammer of her frightened heart and the muffled tick of machinery. Her feet could no longer find the floor. She floated like a fish in a tiny tank.

Outside the sky turned black and the horizon bent slowly into a circle. There was no window. She could see none of this. She thought she was still in the Cosmodrome. She could hear no voices, no noises of any kind outside. She wondered what had happened to Vladimir, to the other people, to Mushka, to Albina.

The canister was getting hotter. An insulation panel had been ripped away during the ascent. When they closed the door on her it had been a freezing October day, now she was trapped in a tiny metal box in high summer heat. She was panting hard and her head was throbbing. She scratched at the walls of the canister but she could get no purchase on the steel panels. She tried to bite her harness but it was buckled too tight. She barked until her throat was raw and she could bark no more.

She circled the earth four times. Her body went on to orbit the earth another two and a half thousand times over the next six months, a little lower at each revolution until the atmosphere finally snagged the satellite and she and it were burnt up over Mexico becoming, perhaps, nothing more than the tiniest change in the colour of the rain falling on a single hillside.

She died for science. She died for the Motherland. She died celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution. She was the happy face of an unspoken message that the USSR could fly over American cities with impunity. She became a hero. Her portrait was on teapots and matchboxes, on stamps and cigarette packets, on plates and badges. She was modelled in porcelain, in marble, in concrete.

Perhaps this is our greatest achievement, not that we can travel to new worlds, but that we will use anything and anyone from this world to further our own ends then tell ourselves a story that makes the pain and the damage and the loss seem not just necessary, but noble.

As for Albina and Mushka and Laika? They are street dogs. They have been living off the things we throw away for ten thousand years, since they first crouched in the dark at the camp’s perimeter, their eyes bright with the light of our fires. They are used to hardship and they are patient. They will walk among our ruins.