by A.C. Buchanan
March 1961. You go first.
Before Gagarin, there is Ivanovich. At once a name and not a name, a name that means everyone and no-one. But on this cold day it is your name, and you will fly.
Your plastic skin is perfect beneath your helmet, inside your orange suit, your boots, gloves, helmet. You are not alive, but everyone comments on how lifelike you are, complimenting your creators rather than yourself. So closely do you resemble them that before you leave they write MAKET – model – across your head in thick black strokes so those who find you will not be deceived.
You fly not for yourself but for others, so they can test shape, weight, take-off, speed, oxygen, re-entry. It is an honour. It is a service.
You do not fly alone. You have dogs for company: first Chernushka, then Zvezdochka. The lizards, the 80 mice and guinea pigs, are less comforting companions but still you appreciate their presence. There’s a choir and a recording of a recipe for cabbage soup to test the communication systems, and it reminds you of home.
There is Vostok-3KA. There is a universe to explore. There is a future ahead of you. There is a beginning.
Where there is a beginning, there must be an end.
It is an elderly woman who finds you, amid the smouldering metal and the meadow-grass. She pulls you from the wreckage and hoists you over her shoulder, and the ease with which she does so makes her smile, for it reminds her of being young, of carrying her sons across the fields before they were old enough to scare birds or pull weeds.
You’re still in your suit when she seats you at the wooden table, but she pulls off your helmet and offers you goat’s cheese and dark bread and shakes her head at what she finds on your forehead. People have called her names before, she says, wetting a cloth in the boiling water to scrub the black marks from your face. The tears welling in her eyes are surely a result of irritation by the wood-smoke.
People may call you all kinds of names, she says, but you’re a person no matter what they say.
Those who made you will come looking for you, in time. They will find the light covering of snow melted around the metal, they will find footprints and threads of cotton snagged on a sharp edge. When they come to the cottage the elderly woman will offer them soup but they will tell her, dismissively, that they’re on important business and do not have time.
They will laugh at her as they place you carefully in the back of their dark van. Silly old woman, they’ll say, did she not realise it’s empty inside?
You won’t be able to tell them that we’re all empty, and that she understands that far better than they can ever know.
It is not humans who will bring you back. They have the technology, but they placed you in binaries long ago: living and dead, flesh and plastic, animal and machine.
The Hrttik treat such concerns with disdain, working by instinct, unafraid of soft edges. In the glass rooms above this warm, green planet, they pull you from silence. Your race’s twentieth-century foray into space may have been a false start in many ways, but it was a start nonetheless, and you are a pioneer, to sit at the council of those planets whose people found their own way to the stars.
By the time you awake, the rest are waiting for you: Neil and Sally and Yuri and Valentina and Marc and Laika and Michael and Buzz and Ham… You expect to be the freak amongst these once-mammals. Your boundaries are blurred: where does the gloss of your skin end, where does Zvezdochka’s canine fur or the scales of the reptiles that once skittered inside your torso begin? What is truly you?
You run your hand over your forehead self-consciously. There are no mirrors. Maket? you whisper, aloud. But they beckon to you. They are the only mirror you need.
What goes wrong is also what goes right.
Flung out of orbit, you are safe from the impact of metal against land, from the firm manipulations of your limbs by scientists, from the greasy fingers of children and the glare of photography which fades your perfect plastic skin. You want not for oxygen. Your eyes are open, always open, to the expanding universe.
The humans, those with flesh and veins ripe with blood, use words like survivable or inhospitable. They fear those who thrive where they cannot. They fear the water, fear the darkness.
The darkness opens to you. Over time the animals fall silent, then fall still. Carbon fills the space around and inside you. The choir continues triumphant.
You drift on. The patterns of stars change as you drift, but all reference points are gone. You could be anywhere.
Over the singing, you call out a prayer to the emptiness: cabbage, garlic, caraway seed, dill. The darkness is still, and hungry.
A.C. Buchanan lives just north of Wellington. They're the author of Liquid City and Bree’s Dinosaur and their short fiction has most recently been published in the Accessing the Future anthology from FutureFire.net and the Crossed Genres Publications anthology Fierce Family. You can find them on twitter at @andicbuchanan or www.acbuchanan.org.
Enjoyed this story? Sign up to Unsung Shorts and get a new short story delivered to your inbox every fortnight.