The reverberations of the incoming howl threshed the narrow passageway, its length a minimal advantage in tempering the crest. A loose, pine shutter slapped the exposed brick maddeningly, keeping a syncopated rhythm. Somewhere, in the darkness between the two avenues, she huddled, her head buried in the suffocating stench of stagnant pools. Droplets scurried between her follicles, each minute disturbance throttling the roots, the sensation mimicking a wave of unsupervised pinpricks.
A screech drew her from her minimal curtain, an equally squalid feline’s adventurousness tipping a garbage can onto the cobblestone. It departed, unwilling to sacrifice another moment of discomfort. The spoils, of victory and week’s old refuse, invited her to the accident. A wax paper bundle held a particularly inviting scent, a fragrance of sweet bread, lemon even.
Fangs, and the invisible drip of saliva, buried any hope of sustenance. The wild beast of chocolate and licorice had stomped his way into her field of vision, his lip reared, his upper gums swollen and throbbing. No recourse but to acquiesce to the larger predator and live to starve another day. He refused to shake off the pounding storm, the pick of the litter his to decide.
The splash of an incoming direct hit littered the alleyway’s entrance with muck, a pair of yellow headlights casting a terrifying shadow across the uneven walls. The tan passenger door slammed, a lantern added to the mix, stunning her pupils until they shrunk. Her bladder released, unnoticeable to the stomping dress shoes. Corded hemp surrounded her frightened pose, the net flipped as the hunter called to his comrades in victory. She spun madly into the web, her rival already galloping towards the opposite end of the corridor, his long legs able to carry him infinitely into the darkness.
The leather seat provided a towel, a cotton shawl to soak up the crust of the forgotten hovel. Her captor steadied her as the two-wheel-drive skidded into the oncoming lane, the wheel jerked ferociously. They argued politely as the driver lamented the construction of the metropolis’ grid. She was assured with a tap to the head, a palm presented, the perfect platform for a morsel of cheese. Sniffing the offering, she twisted her head from the placebo to the earnest, hazel eyes. A nod of his cleft chin preceded her own acknowledgment, the salted rind a satisfying reward. The thumping wipers continued the annoying harmony of the hammering shutters until an outpost blasted the windshield with suspicious and aggravating light.
She quivered and tucked her head, unraveling once the antiseptic fluorescents had settled into a minimal buzz. The steel table was frigid, yet she sat obediently, enduring the familiar sting. A white-robed sentient mumbled into the tiled observation room, his task to ferry a cart from her view, a bloodied cloth draped over the failed experiment. The hunched henchman was replaced by the swinging doorway, the hazel eyes returning, a new set of blue to his left, their mouths shrouded. Bulky rubber gloves produced more cheese, much to her delight. He rubbed the tip of her nose playfully, her belly immediately exposed for further affection.
Kudryavka, they called her.
He took note of the outline of her ribcage, the eerie brown coloring that ran down from her neck. Dry flakes were brushed away from the folds of her hindquarters. He lifted her gently and transported her to a plastic bassinet. Her weight tickled the pressure plate, dragging the needle between five and six. The blue-eyed recorded the number before she was escorted through the double doors. This late in the evening accounted for a lack of bodies, a lack of inquisitive eyes. She was able to discern the destination long before the hard right and the thrusting forearm against the window.
Her prison was to be several units above the tile, the frantic screaming of other specimens birthing a tremor across the two dozen cells. Varying, drastic sizes of both breed and confinement served as a preview of either bad behavior or inevitability. She was given a pleasant view, enough room to turn around, a bowl of sediment-free water. She lapped immediately from the shallow dish as the bars were shut and the lock ensured.
His hazel eyes were called away momentarily with a single command: Vladimir. He chatted with his compatriot, comparing handwritten notations with a sensitive document hidden in a manila folder. A pat to her snout retired the pair for the evening, the lights doused. She took to her belly, her tail unsettlingly still. The cobbled alleyway seethed in her memory; the chance of escape had been lost.
The irritating glare of the overhead illumination insisted she rise, the unlocking of her cage pumping vigor into her stiffened limbs. Vladimir cupped her across his arms, the hallway traversed for some time, a photographic identification card presented at each chokepoint. The terminal had been pressurized, the bulkhead gasping before they entered. A spherical housing rested in the center of the nearly blank room, a bird’s nest of wiring descending from the ceiling and connecting with the crown. The front hatch opened with the help of a switcher sequence from an adjacent electronics cart. A fellow white-robed assistant thwacked the snout of the seated specimen, his displeasure executed with a guttural, fearful bark, his limbs swinging maniacally. A leash was successfully connected, and the poor boy was practically dragged past her, his performance continuing until the bulky door was shut.
She was placed onto a burlap chair, a wedge of cheese to appease her. The material had been soaked with urine, but this detail went unnoticed as leather straps bullied her against the backing. Silence tempered her resolve as Vladimir disappeared. A board of dials, switches, and gauges had been fashioned out of plastic, their effectiveness tied explicitly to imagination.
Given little time to contemplate the use of the pod, she was rattled with a disheartening detonation. The rush of air and debris did not harm her, it was the trickery of mounted speakers, but the tyranny forced her to curl. She did not object as metal sheared against metal, the concerned voices of crewmen screaming under the flames. This experiment went on for some time, the clatter of an inferno licking at the exterior, surrounding her in a hellish wasteland. A vision port drew her head, and her tail, the bright joy of Vladimir’s face plastered against the glass.
Back to the cell block, a new cage conscripted, her bowl exchanged for a sipper bottle mounted to the bars. A tray was extracted from the base and a clear gel was excised from a rolled, aluminum tube with much distress. The spiraled offering was slipped through the barricade, her trust in him implicit. She devoured the paste, the flavor fueling a savory memory of beef, its dissolving action easy to swallow. Finished, she lapped at the metal bead of her water retrieval system, delivering a satisfying cleanse. Her tenement had been downsized, to turn would be an exercise in patience and ingenuity. She settled for a straightforward pose and observed Vladimir as he exited, the day’s pressure paused. The cobbled alleyway seethed in her memory; the chance of escape had been lost, yet the prospect might have proved foolish.
A second helping of nutrients was provided, her sense of duty lapping it into her throat. The others did not seem as convinced, swatting away the meager offering, jawing with complaints and vengeful retorts.
He returned eventually; the chokepoints passed without suspicion. Today, a gas pedal cart was employed, the journey short, the complex opening into the bright tone of the forgotten sun. The relative warmth multiplied under Vladimir’s care, but shadow and a tunnel of unexpected length swallowed them.
To a flat concrete wall and a pair of red-striped barriers, another inspection of his credentials allowing him to enter. A clanking, metal shutter folded upward on his command, revealing another crusted, burlap seat. An iron chest plate was fastened around her neck and belly until the bulk was flush. Strapped in fully now, cheese administered, he whispered something to her, but it was untranslatable, a liquid stew of feminine vowels and sharp consonants. The gateway closed and she wondered how long it would take for him to return.
An uninspired countdown began, a tremor seizing the curved walls of the capsule. The imitation instruments had been stripped; the vantage birthed through the same dusty vision port. The darkness of the shutter peeled laboriously, replaced with an unpleasant, pale green. The room spun, a wide glass window exposing Vladimir and his cohorts as they studied her. A second revolution brought her flush with her captors, but the ratcheting gears insisted she increase her speed and decrease her visibility. The molecules that huddled together, that absorbed and refracted the tiny perceptible wavelengths of color, stewed into an unidentifiable cocktail, each lap doubling the speed of the previous loop.
She was pinned to the burlap, her head rocketing to the side, unable to resist the pressure, the grinding iron persistence of oppression. She was without power, without the illusion of choice. Here, she was a specimen to the will of physics, and nothing but mercy could prevent her untimely demise. Time skewed, her obsession with studying the changes to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch nullified. She closed her eyes and absorbed the punishment, never allowing resistance to spill past her curling and flapping lips.
The never-ending sensation abated, the experiment a relative success. In the confusion of her release she was placed into a shrinking cage, the opportunity to turn removed, the ability to stand nixed. Her head spun with a throbbing magnetism as the lights were dimmed. The cobbled alleyway seethed in her memory; the chance of escape had been lost, yet the prospect might have proved foolish. The others howled for liberation, perhaps escape would have given her courage.
The protest did not dwindle. Sleep evaded her. Vladimir returned, a cadre at his flank, and she was selected, along with two others: Mushka and Albina, they had been designated.
Electric units were ignited, portions of their fur shaved down to the pink, fatty flesh. She skittered across the steel examination table as an unflattering needle prick invaded her vein. Just as the capsule had impeded her ability to resist, so did the soothing numbness of the injection.
As her head slapped the rigidity, she awoke in a panic, the operating room replaced with the satisfying squeak of leather. Vladimir ran his fingers over the peak of her head and down her neck. He had disrobed of his industrial medical sheen, his tweed jacket needing some tailoring to hug his gaunt frame. Her abdomen was swaddled in gauze, her legs sharing a similar pattern. A coil of multicolored wiring was looped and pinned, the excess disappearing underneath the blood-splotched dressing.
The limbs of canopied maple sprawled overhead, the dim morning casting frightening shadows across the dashboard. But she was comforted by his touch, her attempts to crawl across the bench seat annulled by her surgery’s tingle. With much pomp, they strolled through the front door, the joyous cry of his children igniting her tail into an unplanned joy. She was set upon a shagged, ochre carpet as instructions were handed down. The young boy and his sister rubbed her lovingly, her tongue thanking them personally for their mercy. A blue, rubber ball was fetched, her retrieval instinctual. She offered a playful bark, the first of its kind, and the sphere was bounced across the living room, ponging off the legs of dark oak furniture. Her height allowed her to duck and dive, the prize secured and redelivered. Limonchik, they repeated.
A woman met Vladimir’s height, a concerned conversation in hushed tones exchanged between them. His hands assured her of safety and of success. His lips pecked her cheek and she allowed him his temporary boyishness.
Meals would be provided as part of the furlough, though not the clear beef-substitute. Instead, a dripping, moist morsel was ferried beneath the table. The steak had been slightly undercooked, the texture both charred and heavenly. A buttered roll came next, this from his daughter, his son forced to understand the rules more clearly when a brussels sprout was offered, but not devoured. She would not be superseding his mother’s wishes for a healthy child.
No cage in the evening, replaced now with the cotton warmth of bed sheets, of a structured mattress. At the foot, she lay, snuggled between their restless legs, arched to avoid impinging the uncomfortable bunching of the embedded wiring. The steel prison seethed in her memory; the chance of escape had been lost, yet the prospect might have proved foolish. The others did not howl for liberation, for they had already achieved it. Escape would have given her courage, yet it grew in abundance here.
The pre-dawn stirred Vladimir; a shower taken to clear the previous day’s stench. To the tan sedan, the passenger door opened, it was her choice to enter. Blue had yet to invade the sky, the moon still lumbering across its route, preparing to dip below the horizon. The drive was tedious, lacking many operational turns.
When the door finally opened and the unmistakable morning greeted her, she was confident in her leap. Down onto the asphalt, up the rickety airstair, and into the belly of the propellered conveyance. Mushka and Albina joined them shortly, their leases tangled as they sniffed her, their bellies wrapped, their wiring loose but inconsequential.
The engines sputtered and they taxied successfully, gliding with ease and haste. The journey lacked excitement, however, the landing buttery smooth. To another four-wheeled vehicle, another corrugated tin roof. As the crew exited, she craned her neck toward the towering monstrosity. It pierced the sky, breathing thick sheets of billowing vapor. It barked at her, swaying majestically with the tepid breeze. Red scaffolding surrounded the beast, the stairwells choked with white-gloved and masked workers. She was offered no time to contemplate its purpose.
Mushka and Albina were taken to separate quarters; Vladimir reassured her with a bite of cheese. A brush crept over her fur, carefully clearing the remnants of trapped dirt and dry skin. An alcoholic solution was swabbed across the outer coat. Iodine was spilled onto a cotton ball and a pair of forceps painted her bare belly. Magnetic sensors snapped to the hidden receptors buried beneath the highlighted dermis. Her bandages were removed and designated as refuse before she was outfitted with a final polyester layer, her feet poking through the cuffs. A battery-powered receptacle was looped onto her back, the plastic buckle secured and tightened. Thorough testing of the equipment was performed, her vital signature displayed among fluttering gauges and analog screens.
The elevator’s ascent was fraught with strange noises, groaning steel, unoiled hinges. The shutter was opened by an assistant, but Vladimir insisted he continue alone. The capsule door was pried with his free hand, the control seat clear of urine, and other debris. She was placed carefully on her hindquarters and fortified with the help of more leather. He had but one morsel of cheese to spare; she knew more would be procured, as it always had been.
He leaned forward for one final adjustment: a gentle kiss upon her snout. Before he could pull away, she returned the affection, licking his cheek briefly. His hazel-tint had been obscured by doubt, a salty sheen shivering, diluting his honesty. His hand trembled along the capsule’s door frame, the saline warriors jumping down his cheek and scurried into the forest of stubble, each minute disturbance throttling the roots, the sensation mimicking a wave of unsupervised pinpricks. She mewled, sensing a breakage in the familiar pattern.
Nothing further trickled between them. The chamber was shut, the mechanism wheel rotated until the fastening nut was flush. Vladimir peered through the vision port, the confused tilt of her head shoving him from the bittersweet voyage and toward his civic duty. The vise prevented her from leaping after him, the instrumentation before her alerting the invisible voices to her panic. No longer forged from plastic and colored with cheap paint, this was not a test of her resolve. The soothing voice of her comrade echoed in the confinement, the words unknowable, yet she did not resist their cadence.
As the sun rose, yawning its prickly rays above the flat, featureless vista, so did the rocket. Hell’s bane shot forth from the rear, tattooing the ground with a black stain. The scaffolding shuffled backward apologetically, the retracting hoses whipping free of the shaft. With the pre-launch manual satisfied, the eruption signaled success. From the salted earth galloped the majestic spear, splitting the airwaves with its arrowhead, tearing the mist from the obfuscating clouds. Binoculars adjusted for height and distance, eventually incapable of locating the dot in the abyss.
She was pinned to the burlap, her head rocketing to the side, unable to resist the pressure, the grinding iron persistence of oppression. She was without power, without the illusion of choice. Here, she was a specimen to the will of physics, and nothing, not even mercy, could prevent her untimely demise. Time skewed, her obsession with studying the changes to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch nullified. She closed her eyes and absorbed the punishment, never allowing resistance to spill past her curling and flapping lips.
A metered alarm sounded, the dial crossing the two hundred threshold and edging dangerously close to its zenith. Her heart panicked, compressing in a sprinting melody that failed to keep her anxiety grounded. From below, the burden of the undercarriage disappeared, the expended fuel tank jettisoned as the atmosphere shed itself. She shot forward, testing the resiliency of the creaking leather bands. Progressive momentum returned as the colorful, material world ceased. A thickened black pitch scoured the vision port, the foreseeable tinted with silver nonpareils, glinting and twirling to their own contentment.
Her head suddenly lurched, a malfunction above loosening the nosecone but refusing to release it fully, much to the chagrin of the chattering, static-filled voices. The jolt tipped the capsule momentarily, spinning her towards the lecturing glow of her home. She did not understand the purpose of the gentle marble, for it was too big to swallow and too small to focus upon. Vladimir’s solemn notetaking was broadcast for her to consider, his methodical approach noting time and date. The dangerously high readouts had slowly begun to return to normal as she climbed curiously into the void of the pod. While still somewhat protected, she floated playfully, her arms testing the air, paddling to reset her focus.
The tour was unaccompanied by explanation, the ticking face of a clock nearly winding one and one-half times before the large landmass below reappeared. The successful rotation was rewarded with a popping chamber, the contents a temperate heaping of beef chow. She ate hungrily, pleased with herself for following the rules. Vladimir again recorded the necessary information, his peers repeating the accuracy. A new voice spoke gruffly, drawing attention to the rising mercury. The silver liquid bubbled sluggishly within a long, thin vial, approaching the yellow-shaded thirty with speed.
Another circuit completed, another reward of beef cubes slathered in a thick roux. Thirty-five. She panted uncontrollably, her tongue dry, her gums leaning from red to pink. Once more around her home, the nosecone clicking as Vladimir pounded his controls, demanding an infinite number of attempts. Metal pined for release, but the hollow screeches of failure only frightened her, her ears rotating independently with each effort. The third completion birthed more food, but she hungered little. Her mouth was flush with white, her thirst unable to be successfully quenched.
Forty. Blood red. The cabin boiled, a haze now appearing across the vision port. Vladimir pinged the capsule, hoping to restart its vitality and strength. The sputtering return was met with frustrated sighs, the evidence crackling through the speakers.
Four times, now, the view gaining tedium. She could not reach the open tray, refusing, in part, to fill her belly more, to increase the uneasy gurgle of her intestines. The blue ball bled into the darkness, no longer perfectly spherical, but a wavering tide sucked to the deepest reaches. She holstered her tongue, her ability to temper her body heat stolen from her. She laid her head down onto the bucket of the seat as best she could, damning her restraints, her tail unsettlingly still. The instruments bled with condensation, the clear droplets slipping through the circuitry and wriggling down the face, detouring at the curvature of the glass-windowed gauges.
The cobbled alleyway seethed in her memory; the steel prison’s stench reverberated in her nostrils. The chance of escape had been lost, yet the prospect might have proved foolish. Only the chosen did not howl for liberation, for they had already achieved it, the ability to grant it upon others newly forged, yet strangely dismissed. Escape would have given her courage, yet she refused to fight, to cower so plainly. The light at the end of the alleyway seemed like freedom, the glow of the Earth convincing her it flowered there.
The comfort of Vladimir’s voice and the attention of his children held her at bay as she forced herself to drag her shriveling tongue across her lips. Her eyes danced carefully, finally settling on the vision port before ceasing their voluntary movement. Her pose was one of comfort, yet progress was all that would be extracted.
Vladimir and his team muttered their condolences, the recorded broadcast ending with a harsh, over-modulating clip.
Heavenly light passed through the stained glass as she completed another circuit around the planet, her return to be unannounced, her homecoming to be marked with flame and wreckage. She was silent; as still and useless as the uncharted and unclaimed expanse.