Floating through endless night in a tiny silver ball, surrounded by noise and confusion and the overpowering scents of metal and her own push-stink, the dog Laika dreams.
Snow crunches under the pads of her feet, biting at them with tiny unseen fangs. She is running with a pack of others through the cold and the city-smell, claws skittering on slippery hard water. They are all shaggy and long-toothed and their breath makes little clouds in the air. Frost grows a fur coat over Brother’s whiskers and nose, like a pup’s first layer of down. The cat they are pursuing is just strides ahead, a leap and a shake away from being warm meat between Laika’s jaws, when people appear at the mouth of the alleyway holding nooses and sticks.
In the real world, the catch-men had taken everything. In dreams, they are fooled as easily as rabbits. Laika is a smart dog. She grows brown-and-white wings, like a pigeon or a seagull. The other members of her pack follow—Brother’s feathers are as black and tangled as the rest of him—and together they fly away, leaving the catch-men empty-handed far below. The cool air lifts Laika up and up. She can smell garbage and fish-gutting places and the sting of salty water, all the wonderful reeks of home. Cat water-stink. The less pleasant odors of tar-coated poles and burning dead things, harsh enough to dull the best nose. They all go to a park with grass and trees and lots of cat push-stink to roll in. The puddles here aren’t hard. Laika drinks until her stomach sloshes and water dribbles from the corners of her mouth.
She wakes from the dream needing to make water-stink herself and whines softly when she realizes where she is. The padded ball is her den now, and everything inside her whispers that making stink in one’s den is not a thing smart dogs do. But eventually she has to. Nothing else remains. The world through the window is black and empty, marked with tiny faraway gleams that might be the eyes of unknown animals. All the trees and grasses and even the whitecoats have long since vanished in a blur of heat and tumbling, fearful movement.
There’s a rubber bag strapped to her hind end, a net of harnesses holding her tightly in place, and a feeling of floating that never disappears no matter how many times she scrabbles at the floor for purchase. It makes her dizzy and sick. Beneath the straps her skin itches, so warm and close it feels like it might split open. She cannot turn around or even circle to make a proper bed.
Laika re-adjusts herself as best she can, closes her eyes, and wishes for brown-and-white wings.
There is no trusting the ball and no understanding it, no more than one can understand the intentions of a whitecoat. Like them, it is neither good nor bad. It emits a constant howl, dispenses food slime, and shakes so terrifyingly that Laika trembles and makes water-stink without thinking. She would curl into a tiny invisible ball if she could, but the chains and the harness hold her in place. All she can do is bark to let the panic out, over and over until her throat hurts and the metal walls echo like she is many.
Her coat reeks of the whiteplace-smells they rubbed her down with before fastening her in the metal ball, painful and numbing to sensitive nostrils. Little bits of plastic are taped here and there, attached to long tails of rubber that hum quietly with strange energy. They make her nervous. Everything makes her nervous; she’s been scared and panic-bitten almost since the day the catch-men put the noose around her neck. There’s always some new terror crouched just beyond her reckoning, waiting to spring in an unseen way.
It had begun with shining crates, slippery and cold-smelling. The whitecoats spoke kindly to her, far gentler than the rough-handed catch-men, and Laika wagged her tail politely, resisting the urge to snap and bite at their hands even when they shaved her fur and poked the bare spots with stinging needles. The loss of Brother gnawed all the fight from Laika. She let them drag her from cage to progressively smaller cage without resistance, and they patted her head and gave her a name and called her good dog. She ignored the other crate-dwellers, even when they screamed and wailed and flew at the bars as she was tugged past, and the whitecoats said she was steady, ignoring the way her limbs shivered and twitched.
Cages and spinning, noise and noise and noise. The whirl-crate had been the worst, like being picked up by the scruff and twirled around by a giant unseen hand. Old food and stinks flew from both of her ends. The whitecoats would pull her out, wash her off, scrabble scratches onto their ever-present papers, and push her back inside the thing to go again. It happened forever, for what seemed like many forevers. The streets and breezes and Brother vanished into the foggy places inside Laika’s head, shadowlands where she couldn’t smell them to follow.
She does not miss the whitecoats, the whirl-crate, or the noises. She misses the blue blanket from her first cage. She misses chasing pigeons with Brother, the feeling of meat and bone crunching gristle-thick between her teeth.
She dreams about the week one of the whitecoats took her home to stay with his family, grass and blue sky and not a cage in sight. The children scratched her ears and threw sticks for her to bring back—it took her a while to understand what they wanted—and at night she slept on a towel in the kitchen-place beside the stove, breathing in the smells of vegetables and stew. Laika knew it wouldn’t last—she had snuffled the treachery before it even rounded the corner—but a part of her yearned for it to go on for as many forevers as it could. Like a puppy she pretended it actually might, right up until they loaded her back into the truck and drove to the waiting metal ball.
In her dreaming, the week never ends. On and on it goes, and Brother is there too, to share the sticks and the stew and the warm fingers scratching just so behind a cocked ear.
The sun is bright against her face. The light chews the tether of her sleep apart and then she’s suddenly awake again. Realization creeps in like a mouse stealing kibble, a slow prickling that moves in a wave from the tip of her snout to her rising hackles. Confused as her senses are in this place, Laika understands the feeling. It’s a familiar one, an old packmate from her days at the whiteplace.
She is being watched.
The inside of the ball is filled with Laika and the things that hold her down. If so much as a flea was hiding within the tangle of wires and chains she would smell it, sense the movement and the hunger and the tiny pulsing life. When she left the world, nothing rode with her. Now there is a definite something. A faint scent of burning that does not come from the ball. Invisible eyes resting on her head, taking in every sneeze and pant.
Laika cannot see whatever it is, but she has no need to. It’s there, waiting in the shadows, content for now to merely observe.
Laika and Brother had occasionally come across human-shapes with no smell, usually in abandoned buildings or other forgotten corners of the city. Dogs, too. Like echoes they were nothing but memories of memory, old thoughts drifting smoke-thin through the damp hallways and streets until a gust of wind blew them away. Taking one’s scent seemed a cruel thing, for how could one truly be without it? This is much the same, but not. It has a smell. She can feel its thoughts bouncing through the walls, plink-plink-plink, like the chirps of fluttering bats.
The sensation grows. It gets bigger, and bigger, until Laika’s head is pulsing with confusing ideas that are not her own. Pictures of flame and white-hot light flash behind her blinking eyelids. They drive everything else out: Brother, the fear, all her memories of streets and cages and needles and whitecoat-men shoving her roughly into a tiny silver ball. Nothing remains but fire, licking tongues of fire lapping at the darkness like thirsty dogs. It consumes all that Laika is. She throws back her head and lets out a howl, but to her ears it sounds like the crackle and roar of a great blaze. The world is heat and orange glow. Long-legged, four-legged shadows dance and gallop through it, snapping and growling.
All at once, it pulls away. Laika is Laika again, alone in the nothing. Her howl drops to a whimper. The feeling withdraws, leaving her bewildered and mournful and somehow even lonelier than before. She raises her muzzle for a final cry, calling out to a pack that does not exist. It comes from the very bottom of her, the she that resides in her stomach and scent glands.
And from somewhere outside, there is an answer, and a blossoming of white fire in the dark.
Light streams through the bubble-window. Laika finally sees the watcher.
It’s a ball of dog-sized, dog-shaped flame and headlamp-glare. Heat ripple crawls along its coat. Rays of light jut ear-and-snout fashion from the place where a head might be. Shadow-rimmed legs stretch down and down into the nothing sky, paddling at the emptiness. It flicks its fiery tail and swims closer to the box, so bright Laika has to squint against the shine. The hairs on her shoulders and neck bristle again, and a challenge-bark tickles the back of her throat. Is it a predator? Some new whitecoat-trick?
Who are you? Her bark asks. What pack do you run with? Friend or foe? Come closer and I will bite you! Even the stupidest puppy knows that snapping at fire is foolish, but it’s the only defense Laika has. Speak! Speak speak! Why are you here?
There’s a flash that leaves little dots of darkness skimming across her eyes. When they clear, the dog-thing has fled. The air smells like a fire, crackling somewhere out of sight.
It’s almost too hot to breathe. The air burns Laika’s insides and dries out her nose. She pants constantly, even in her sleep. No summer she has ever known has been this warm.
Her dreams mix with the awake-time. Noiseless, scentless shapes appear and vanish, looking like great leaping rats or fluttering birds or drifting blue lights. Sometimes the walls of the ball fall away and she’s back in the whitecoat’s kitchen with a dish of water that fades to fog just as she bends her head to lap. Brother comes to see her once—she knows it’s not really Brother, this hollow-eyed, smell-less shadow, but she wants so much to believe—and after that a whitecoat with the head of a dead dog, flies buzzing around its dried gums. She crouches and curls her lip and rattles a warning deep in her throat until it goes again. Knowing the thing is a not-creature makes it no less terrifying. If anything, that simply makes it more wrong.
When green fire blossoms across the ceiling and walls, panic finally overwhelms sense, and Laika screams. The harness pinches clumps of hair from her shoulders. Tubes rip free and float around her like weeds in a river. The flames roll into balls that skitter and spark across her coat, bouncing without scorching, crawling all over her in that same horrible way. She thrashes, froths at the mouth, shrieks and howls and claws at her restraints, a cloud of spittle and loose fur forming around her head. Laika’s energy is blazing now, the urge to live tugging at her muscles. Death is a lean and tireless wolf. If she stops for a second it will catch her and tear the meat from her flanks and belly.
Laika fights. She is braver than the whitecoats could have ever guessed.
Two of the sun dogs now, peering through the window at her with whitecoat curiosity. Laika can no longer focus. Her brain is full of heat and humming insects, chewing and scraping and buzz buzz buzzing. Thoughts drift by like soap bubbles, impossible to hold onto. Each breath flutters stale and shallow beneath her ribs. Lifting her lip for a snarl would use more strength than she has left.
They are so bright, full of flickering life that ebbs and flows and throbs. The warmth burning beneath her skin is nothing compared to their glow. An idea cuts through her fever: If she can touch them, reach them, communicate with them somehow, maybe they will pull the heat away, like a big fire pulling a little one within. Slowly, painfully, against the crying out of her energy-sapped body, Laika raises her head. She stretches her muzzle and touches the glass with her nose.
And the brightness sucks her up, sight and hearing and smell, and Laika knows nothing at all.
Everything she has grown accustomed to has vanished. The wires and bags, the harnesses, even the silver ball itself. All have gone in the nervous flick of a tongue. Laika floats in a world of liquid fire, the heart of a great orange sun. Her thoughts are clear now. The fear that buried itself in her skin and fur like a fat burrowing tick is dried up and dead, fallen off somewhere with the rest of the whitecoat things.
She can smell heat, and burning, but it’s like paddling through warm water, not uncomfortable at all. A low-pitched sound like many throats singing to the moon hums just within reach of her hearing, endless variations on a harmonious theme. It vibrates deep inside her bones and makes her want to sing along. She wonders what sort of pack lives here to create such songs.
The sun dogs appear in flashes of white and yellow to either side of her. Laika barely has time to yelp before images flood over her, playing through her head like awake-dreams. Suns with pointed muzzles howling a joyful welcome, spewing great flames into the dark. Fields of glowing lights, singing songs of the beginning of the world. The sound she hears is the sun itself baying, accompanied by its many brothers and sisters.
The two are speaking to her, not in the muttered groans of humans, but in the language of her own kind, pictures and thoughts and bits of sense-memory. They send polite images of sniffing and tail-wagging, simple things she can understand. Laika hesitantly returns the gesture and the sun dogs act pleased, jumping about and play-bowing like sunbeams on a wall.
A mystery: How, one asks, did Laika arrive where they found her, drifting alone in a silver ball no bigger than a rock? Was there some purpose to it, some motive she had in mind when first starting out into the nothing? Can they help her reach the place she was going? The worlds the sun dog shows her are confusing jumbles that make no sense to her. The colors and sounds are all wrong, the creatures that live on them fearful and strange beyond smell or any other sensation Laika knows. She shrinks away and the pictures stop. The sun dogs pause courteously, waiting for her to gather the strewn bits of her own memory into something she can exchange.
Laika answers as best she can. City streets: wet, gray, bursting with smells and the noises of gulls and pigeons and people. Brother: shaggy black warmth and the gleam of long white fangs, big and solid and curled around her like a mother protecting a pup. The whiteplace: clean reek, fear reek, cold reek, as close to a nothing-smell as the whitecoats could manage. The whitecoats themselves, difficult to understand as any other world the sun dog showed her.
Tiny, cramped spaces. Shaking and roaring, pressure building in her ears until she cried out in pain and panic. No more grass, no more sun, no more blue sky. If there is a why to any of this, Laika cannot understand it. She gives the sun dogs everything she knows and waits to see if they have answers.
Long moments pad by. Reading the body language of the strangers is difficult, but their sudden silence and stillness make Laika afraid she has offended them somehow. Is something wrong? Will they open their bright teeth and toss her like she’s shaken so many rats? She tries to send apologetic pictures of bared bellies and tucked tails. They quickly reassure her that it is not her own actions that bother them, but the ones who sent her there in the first place. Their thoughts now are black and red bursts of confusion and anger, smoldering like coals. Something like a conversation passes between the two, and a decision is made.
The sun dogs present Laika with something she has not had in many forevers. They offer her choice.
If revenge is what she wishes, they will punish the whitecoats for their misdeeds. They will take everything from the humans—sight, hearing, even their smell—and leave them stumbling alone in darkness, scentless nothings not even a sharp-nosed hound could track. The marrow they gnaw from bones will taste like fog. The chirping of birds and mice and the trickle of clear water will go unheard. If they roll in carrion, the smell will drift right off their hairless skins. All Laika has to do is ask.
They can give her freedom, too. She will sing the forever-songs alongside them, endless and happy, bright as the sun that once hung in the sky. Her old body will burst into cinders like a log exploding in a blaze, all flame-crackle and burn smell, and the new one that emerges will be fiery, with great flaming wings to carry her wherever she pleases. Laika will have a pack. Brother is lost to her, but she need never be lonely again. There are new trails to follow, new sights to see and sniff and chase, new worlds she needn’t be afraid of. All she has to do is wish it so and it will be, as sudden as weeds burning.
Or they could simply send her home. Alone, of course, but back in her world, some place the whitecoats will never find her. Dirt between her toes, frost on her whiskers, and all of this nothing more than a terrible nightmare. All Laika has to do is think the thought.
She considers each in its turn, rolling them over inside her head like a crow with a nut. She gnaws at the marrow of them. But what Laika finally chooses is none of these things. Instead, she sends back an old dream: green grass, a warm kitchen smelling of stew and root vegetables, and Brother stretched out beside her, happy and safe on a battered blue blanket.
© 2012 Brooke Bolander