Not a science fiction story, but a story dense with science, as well as history and "foreign" culture—in other words, a story spun from quite a bit of research. I was developing an eagerness to write about anything and everything—to learn anything and everything—which would be the driving force behind the writing in my novel γ and the video game Deus Ex.
Bellowing Ark (July/August 1998)
Evgeni had heard little from his son since the collapse of the coal mine. Sergei had talked about plundering an automobile from the mine and getting the hell out of Mongolia, but that plan never seemed to have come together. Then the phone calls to his son quit going through, and Evgeni had no idea whether Sergei had been evicted, arrested, or whether the lines were just down. After two weeks of not knowing, a postcard arrived, laced with coffee rings and bent from overhandling—perhaps mailed only as an afterthought days after it had been written:
I thought so. The mountains killed the mine's little Lada, and now I'm stuck in Semipalatinsk. A couple of perfectly round lakes greeted me as I caught my first glimpse of the Kazakh steppe-nuke craters, I'm assuming. I'm here until a radiator hose can be found, so don't be surprised if I have leukemia when I get home.
The phrase that jumped out was "when I get home." He was on his way to Leninsk. Why hadn't he said anything? He was coming back to Apartment 306, where the family had lived for so long. Maybe he was looking for someone to take care of him.
Whatever the case, he was on the way home and would arrive at any moment. Evgeni set to work on the apartment. With an ancient bottle of disinfectant, he cleaned the counters, cabinets, tables, floors, even the walls, venturing into all of the bedrooms, some of which had not been cleaned since his wife had gone to live with her brother in Moscow. The thick brown dust—a plague of the windy season, much worse in recent years—collected into a gritty mud on his rag, requiring that he rinse the cloth in a bucket to avoid clogging the sink or toilet. The work was hard, and his old dry throat began to wheeze. Every breath felt like a gush of hot smoke. Occasional heat flashes told him a fever was coming on, but once he started after the dust he could not stop until the place was as clean as Sergei had known it as a child. He would also get some caviar. Supplies were tighter than ever, but Anna had always found a tin or two to celebrate a homecoming; he would do the same.
When Sergei finally arrived that Saturday, the apartment could not have been more ready to receive a guest. Evgeni opened the door to find his son kneeling in the hallway beside his luggage, his thin black hair moist and stuck to his scalp. Sergei breathed heavily and leaned on a worn briefcase, which had been placed atop a cardboard box. "I made it," he said, pushing himself to his feet. "I had to carry this box all the way from the garage." He spread his arms for a hug.
Evgeni hugged his son, slapping him hard on the back of the shoulder. "What garage?"
"The old state-run place. My damn car can't go forty kilometers without overheating."
"What's wrong with it?"
Sergei knelt down and dug his fingers under the box. "Who knows. Every mechanic I see says that there's no reason why it should overheat."
"Well, good luck finding an answer in Leninsk. All the good mechanics have gone to Alma-Ata."
"I know." Sergei hoisted the box and briefcase into the air. "I should sell it and buy a camel."
He came into the apartment without smiling and set the box on the floor. He then opened the briefcase, revealing two cartons of Marlboro Lights, a flashlight, a tire gauge, spark plugs, greasy handkerchiefs, various tools, a bottle of vodka, and two bottles of a Mongolian drink like qumys—fermented mare's milk. Taking the one half-empty bottle of milk, he unscrewed the metal cap, sniffed deeply, and smiled.
Evgeni shut the door softly. "I was going to make a welcome-home dinner, but I didn’t know when you’d get here."
"Never mind that." Sergei shut the briefcase. He got two glasses from the kitchen then sat down at the table. "All I want to do is sleep. We've got to get my things out of the car and away from those dirty mechanics, then I want to go to bed. Maybe tomorrow."
"Sure." Evgeni sat down at the head of the table. "But you should call your mother tonight."
"Of course." Sergei filled one of the glasses and slid it to his father.
"Did you call her from Semipalatinsk?"
"Yes. I called you, too, but the lines were down."
Evgeni nodded, unable to take his eyes off of the ragged leather briefcase, a graduation gift from Anna’s father five years before, now stained and worn-through at the corners like a vagabond’s clothing. "You never told me what happened at the mine. It just shut down?"
"Six months ago." Sergei finished pouring himself a glass. "The main conveyor belt jammed. We couldn’t buy new lightbulbs, let alone fix something like that."
"You keep everything a secret. Don’t you want your parents to know what’s happening to you?"
"I didn’t want people to worry." Sergei rubbed his neck with one finger just below the ear. "I was going to wait for the Mongolian who bought the mine to get it going again, but my money was running out, and the town was deserted."
"You should have told us."
With a shrug Sergei lifted the glass and took a drink.
"I could have sent some money."
Sergei shook his head, smiling mirthlessly. "You might as well have stood out on the steppe and thrown your money to the wind. Everything in that country has been blown away. I had a car to get me here, but the others—the shopkeepers, the secretaries, the police—are going back to living in gers on the plains. They milk goats and horses all day and go where the wind takes them. The town doesn’t belong there anymore. It’s just a windbreak. The few people who remain go picking at the ground around the coal mine with their children hoping to make enough money to feed themselves. I would have rather had my own goats than any more money."
His son was looking him straight in the eye, uncharacteristically eager to talk. Evgeni leaned forward. "What about Nangil? Where is she?"
Sergei turned his body to one side with hesitant, shifty movements. "She went off with her family a year ago. We haven’t been together." He shrugged.
"A year! We talk on the phone, and you say nothing. How did this happen?"
"Her family went south, into the country. I was still working at the mine."
"You could have gone to see her when the mine closed."
"We weren’t quite right for each other, anyway. Besides, her parents are herders. I would never find them."
"You could have tried."
Sergei shrugged again. "Let's go get my things. I need some rest."
Sergei’s desire to talk was receding, but Evgeni was used to learning about his son’s life one fragment at a time. After they had rescued various boxes from the Lada, he called his wife, partly hoping she would uncover another one of these fragments. "Sergei made it to Leninsk," he said, sitting beside his son at the table. "And listen to this: Nangil’s family left Nalaikh a year ago. Sergei isn’t with her anymore."
"That’s what he said this afternoon."
"That’s too bad. Does he look depressed?"
"I think he’s okay." Evgeni winked at Sergei, who squirmed in his seat as though someone were holding his feet down in a bucket of cold water.
"I hope so."
Evgeni listened to the steppe wind whistling over the line, not ready to hand the phone to Sergei but not knowing what to say.
His wife said, "Any news from Plesetsk?"
The phone hiss surged and Evgeni let it interrupt what he was about to say. He started again, "It will take time. I know the big rockets, not the ones they launch up north."
"My brother still wants you to come. Forget the rockets. He’ll take care of you until you find something. He’ll teach you about importing."
"The transfer will come. I won’t have to be a burden."
"Alexander is doing well. He won’t mind."
"Let me give you to Sergei."
A modulated wail had entered the connection, a moan, a sound like an angel falling into an ocean. Evgeni imagined the wood beams suspending the phone line above the steppe creaking with the weight and the constant wind, aching, aging, wanting to break. "I’m not going back to Kazakhstan," his wife said.
"I know, dear. I—"
"You stay out there if you want, but to see me again you’ll have to come to Moscow."
"I’ll see you again. Don’t worry."
"I love you, Evgeni."
"I love you, too. Listen, here’s Sergei."
He gave the phone to his son and went into the bedroom, leaving the door open a crack so that he could still hear. He fell back onto the bed, warm with a fever, sweating, his exhausted limbs pulling him down like iron weights. Talking to his wife did this to him. How she thought he could just pack his things, fly across the world, and start over from scratch, he had no idea. He had been at Baikonur for thirty years. So the country was having some troubles, so there had been some difficulties with funding—so what? These problems were all very recent. They would pass. The space program would not close up simply because the price of shirts was changing.
Something his son said caught his ear. "I’m not going to Moscow," he said. "I told you before."
Evgeni sat up.
"My car wouldn’t make it anyway. . . . No, I don’t. . . . I have no idea." Sergei went on this way for a couple of minutes, saying nothing more specific. He wasn’t going to Moscow but—what, then? Certainly he wouldn’t stay in Leninsk. Or would he? With the coal mine shut down, who could say? He might stay a long time.
Evgeni went to the door to hear better, his son’s voice having dropped in volume, but his son had a new topic:
"No, he looks terrible. The whites of his eyes are yellow, he’s lost weight, he pants and wheezes like an old dog—I think he has hepatitis. . . . I don’t want to ask him about it: he’ll say something sooner or later. . . ."
Evgeni peeked through the crack to see the expression on his son’s face, glimpsing a rare moment of easiness. Sergei had reclined in the chair like a prince, one arm supported by the table, one foot sunk in the cushion of another chair, his head tilted back as he talked, as though great, careful judgments were being made. In his lazy musing, he worried his mother with additional theories: contamination at Baikonur, pesticides in the Syr Darya River, a fictional heart condition Evgeni might have, poison dust from the ever-expanding salt flats of the Aral Sea, and a number of other calamities—none of which were nearly what he made them to be. Every doctor Evgeni had seen had insisted that hepatitis was not the cause of his fevers and jaundiced appearance: the water, maybe, but he was an old man, and inexplicable maladies increased with age. He almost pushed open the door to defend himself, but that would have made him look ridiculous. He did not have to spy on his son to learn what his son was thinking. They would talk, tomorrow maybe, and in a few days they would trust each other, then Anna would learn the truth from Sergei himself.
The tone of Sergei's voice rose again, and the boy leaned forward onto his elbows, rocking forward and back, extending and retracting his pointed chin. "I told you, I have no idea," he told his mother. "No, I don't."
Evgeni decided he would break down this pointless secretiveness of his son's. Sergei was a grown man now. He needed to talk to the people in his life.
The next morning Sergei was sitting on a stool on the balcony, gazing at the broken windows of the abandoned apartment complex across the street and smoking. Between long still moments, he blew smoke-streams with sharply pursed lips, while Evgeni made tea and toast.
"Come have something to eat," Evgeni called when he was ready.
Sergei turned around, looking startled. He glanced at his cigarette as though wondering whether he should finish it first.
"I’m glad you're awake," said Evgeni, approaching the balcony. "Do you still have your security clearance?"
Sergei stubbed out the cigarette on the steel balustrade, holding on to the butt. "What did you say?"
"The clearance, from the alloy experiment."
"That was five years ago, when I was in school. It has expired."
"Are you sure? This morning would be a good time for you to see the cosmodrome. I have to go in for just a few hours."
"What's happening at the cosmodrome?"
"Nothing special. We have a Soyuz about to go up—I'm on the Soyuz team now."
Sergei shrugged and came inside. "We could try, I guess. I still have the card." He tossed the butt into the trash and sat down at the table.
"They're rolling it out to the pad. I only have to be there in case one of the final diagnostics fails."
"I bet this was imported," Sergei said, lifting the tin of caviar to inspect it. "Probably came from the Caspian Sea." He set down the caviar and spooned some onto the corner of his toast. "Remember when buying Aral caviar was like buying cheese? We used to eat it all the time."
Evgeni sat down. "I remembered how much you liked it."
"This must have cost a fortune."
"Well, the prices have definitely changed."
"Thanks. It would have been better to spend your money on cheese, but thanks."
Sergei's vaguely reproving tone had the same haughty, self-satisfied air Evgeni had noticed the previous night.
"I spend my money the way I like," Evgeni said.
Sergei paused, about to take a bite. "Sure," he said, chewing twice and then stopping, lifting his gaze without lifting his head. "It's your money."
"I've been buying groceries for a long time. I know what things cost."
"I'm sure you do."
"You'll notice that Leninsk has changed. If you see a deal, you have to take it."
"Don't worry, I won't be staying here too long." Sergei resumed eating, spooning more of the precious food onto his toast. The thin line of his mouth narrowed, and he no longer looked at his father.
"I was wondering about that. What are your plans? You haven't said a thing."
Sergei shrugged one shoulder, spreading the caviar with the back of the tiny spoon. "We'll see how things go."
"Are you going to Moscow? Your uncle Alexander would help you find work."
"I don't think so."
"How about Kazakhstan? The mining industry has held together here."
"No, I don't think so."
"I don't know. Okay?"
They stared at each other, Sergei very alert, rubbing a spot behind his ear, looking so wary pinned to his seat that Evgeni decided to back off. Sergei's clumsy, concealed anxiety was nothing new, but this time he seemed to be guarding something more: the hard times in Mongolia, his plans maybe, the idea of who he was in this new world. Evgeni could wait, he decided.
By the time they reached the checkpoint outside the cosmodrome, he had softened to Sergei's plight to such a degree that he wanted to do something material to help him, something of immediate consequence. When the guard on the road said his son's clearance had expired, he described the alloy experiment in detail, pointing out its importance and the fact that his son already knew all about the Soyuz. The guard gave in, partly because he was older and had known Evgeni for several years and partly because security was less important than it once had been.
Inside the Soyuz assembly building, as they were standing behind the rear skirt of the assembled rocket, admiring the four giant thrust rings stacked above their heads, Evgeni made a point of drawing his old friend Oleg into a conversation. Speaking so that he would be overheard, he said to Sergei, "Can you believe this thing is put together by a bunch of little old men like me and Oleg?"
Oleg turned around, grinning, coming closer with light taps of his cane on the concrete floor. "Speak for yourself, Grandpa. I'm as fit as I was the day this facility opened."
"If you say so." Evgeni winked at his son, who with a sour expression continued to look around the empty hangar, sniffing now and then at the lingering smell from the electrical fire of the previous March.
"Besides, it's not the human body that makes space ships; it's the mind." Oleg tapped his temple, smiling so wide that his broken tooth appeared. He gazed up at the rocket. "Look at that," he said, lifting the cane. "A family of nomads could live in one of those expansion nozzles, but who could carry something like that?"
"We do have to lift all of this documentation, though." Evgeni slapped his hand on one of the large binders that covered the table he leaned against. "And these long days would not be so hard if we were younger."
Having already said hello to Sergei, Oleg continued to ignore the distracted young man. "What we need is more employees, not younger ones."
"I think we need both."
"How is it in St. Petersburg? As bad as here?"
"A lot of work. Very little pay. About the same."
"You know, my son's looking around for work. He's not so interested in mining anymore."
"Is that so?" Oleg observed Sergei, whose attention had suddenly returned to the conversation. Oleg nodded slightly. "I wonder if he remembers any engineering from his days in Tashkent."
"As much as anyone, I bet."
"I only studied a little," said Sergei, struggling to put his hands in the tight pockets of his jeans. "I'm a minerologist."
"He knows materials," said Evgeni. "He worked on an aluminum-steel alloy experiment when he was in school, an experiment for the Mir."
"That's right," said Oleg. "I remember."
"I just worked through some calculations."
Evgeni said, "Do you think a young man like him could find something in St. Petersburg?"
"Could be," said Oleg.
"I don't think so," said Sergei. "Does this building have a phone?"
"Sure." Oleg smiled. He pointed to the rear. "Over there."
Even if Sergei had not tried to make a phone call, Evgeni would have guessed that something was wrong. As they paced around the rocket, waiting to hear that the stages had been prepared properly, Sergei looked absently around the vast, empty hangar, which he must have remembered holding three rockets at a time, from the occasional fieldtrips Leninsk schoolchildren once made. Five years had passed since his last visit, yet the rocket held as much interest for him as a bus being refueled. Space exploration no longer mattered to him, the way it no longer mattered to so many others. Yet whether he remembered or not Sergei had been a true child of the Technical-Scientific Revolution. His mother still saved his pencil sketches of Tsiolkovsky’s space colonies, the floating perfect people in their crooked houses, the swarm of colonies like rings around the earth, Tsiolkovsky’s metal planet rushing hungrily toward the sun with upside-down smiling Russians in every window. At the beginning of Sergei’s childhood, Evgeni could say something to the family around the radio in the living room and see it in a child’s sketch two days later. He read Bogdanov’s book aloud, and for months he was admiring drawings of the Martians’ happy successes with communism. Sergei had been enchanted by the future of civilization, and this enchantment had carried him all the way to Tashkent and into the mining industry. It was still there, down inside, but the phone call—whatever it was for—had his full attention. When the lines turned out to be down, the set of his mouth hardened, his arms remained locked over his chest, and whenever his father moved on to another location he followed at a distance as though a leash were attached to his neck.
Finally, Evgeni took him outside, though the tests were not yet done. "This stuff’s gotten to be pretty routine, huh?" he said as they walked down the road to one of the Soyuz pads. "You’ve seen it all before."
"How long is this going to take?"
Sergei spoke to the wind, squinting at the badly maintained roof of a nearby building, which to him must have looked like damage from a tornado. As he looked around, he seemed to notice only the signs of decay: scraps of metal and other junk; the tufts of sedge, yellow with the approach of summer, breaking through the asphalt of the road; a well-worn path through a hole in a fence. A tumbleweed skipped across the road, and he watched it gravely, raising his eyes to the wind and the steppe beyond, which lay flat as the ocean to the horizon.
"The tests will be done in an hour," Evgeni said.
"I can’t believe you’re preparing to send people into outer space, and I can’t make a simple phone call."
"Who are you trying to call, anyway?"
"Do I know the person?"
"It’s just a friend."
"Who is it?"
"Don’t worry about it."
A brown powdery dust swirling around their feet, they walked to the nearest Soyuz pad, which would not be used that day. A crumbling concrete walkway took them around the pad toward a railroad track.
Eventually, Sergei said something. "By the way, I wish you wouldn't embarrass me like that."
"What are you talking about?"
Sergei slowed down to look Evgeni in the eye. "As if I would ever want to be a rocket engineer."
"Oh, that. I just thought I'd raise the issue."
"I don't need a handout from Baikonur."
"I didn't think you'd be interested, but since you don't seem to have any plans I thought you could take the salary of someone who has left and help out until you find a better position. Or maybe Oleg knows of something better in Russia."
"How much sense does that make? I'm a minerologist. I don't know a damn thing about rockets. I'm beginning to think your mind is going."
"There are simple things you could do."
"I'll take care of myself. Okay?"
When they stopped at the old railroad tracks, Sergei knelt down by one of the rails. Evgeni stepped onto the crossties. "So, I'm loony in the head. Is that what you're going to tell your mother? That I have hepatitis, heart disease, poison in my blood, and that I'm going senile?"
Halting what he was doing, Sergei looked up, his cupped hand full of dirt.
"So I'm a sick old man. Who are you?"
Sergei shifted on his haunches, looking up the track. He sniffed the dirt in his hand, which had come from a small drift beside the track. "This is from the Aral. Do you realize that you’re being buried in pesticides?" He threw down the dirt, stood up, and beat his hand against his jeans, standing eye-to-eye with his father.
"I’m not arguing," Evgeni said. "I’m a dead man, okay? But who are you? You drive halfway across the world to the middle of nowhere to call nobody on the telephone, and you have no plans."
Sergei shrugged and scratched his nose, looking up the track again. "You shouldn’t be living here all by yourself. Mom has gone to Moscow. You should go, too."
"You came to Leninsk for a reason. Are you a smuggler or something?"
"I have friends here. Can’t I come home once in a while?"
"What friends? None of the young people stay in this town."
Squaring his jaw as though he were about to confess a sin, Sergei gave his father a hard stare. "Nurilla, okay? I came back to see Nurilla." As soon as the name was out, he turned around and headed back up the walkway. "Let's go."
Evgeni hurried over the broken concrete, chuckling to himself. "You came back to see a girl?"
"She’s an old friend."
Though Sergei marched ahead like a military man, Evgeni kept up with little regard to the pain in his heel. "And this is the secret you’ve been keeping? Are you fifteen years old?"
"I knew you would just make jokes."
Evgeni laughed happily. "I don’t joke about love. I think it’s beautiful, driving all the way out here for a woman. And here I thought you had come to see me."
"I knew you would be this way."
"I’m being honest."
Sergei stopped on the concrete apron around the assembly building. "Why are you limping?"
Evgeni strode ahead into the building, letting the concrete spike his heel with pain. "Shut up, loverboy."
He regretted the taunt immediately. Sergei quit talking altogether, leaving Evgeni with little idea about what had happened between Nurilla and his son. They had been friends in gradeschool, but not close friends. Had they been lovers at the institute? He said only that they had been writing letters, she being in Alma-Ata to do research in an agricultural lab.
Evgeni asked questions, but they were like a punishment for his son. Even when Sergei answered, he did so with mounting irritation, revealing only the most basic information. When delays at the launch pad started keeping him away all day, Evgeni became even more cautious, not wanting to turn his occasional meetings with his son into interrogations. He would find Sergei pacing and smoking on the balcony late at night, quiet as a stranger, saying only that the phone was ringing and no one was answering. After the mechanics finally returned the Lada with replaced wiring, saying that they saw no reason why the car would overheat, Sergei began to visit Nurilla’s apartment, knocking at the door with the same result as he had achieved with the telephone.
All Evgeni wanted was a glimpse of what his son was feeling, something he could understand, without which Sergei’s obsession only seemed pitiful and unnatural.
"You should try her in Alma-Ata," he suggested one night.
"She won’t be back yet." Sergei crushed a cigarette on the balcony and tossed it toward the wide street, less preoccupied than usual.
"Are you sure?"
"She was going to walk across the Stepnoy Kray with her uncle and his sheep."
"They don’t have the money to rent livestock trucks, and, really, they don’t know where they’re going. The family wants to resettle in Kyrgyzstan, but I imagine her uncle will be happy to find anyplace with good pasture land."
"Are trucks that expensive?"
"That means I can’t call her, or write her, or even guess where she is. I could wait in Alma-Ata, but who knows if she will go back there."
They both listened to the screaming of the wind against the faces of the buildings, a fully awakened steppe wind, as big as the Stepnoy Kray and as unbending, cutting its smooth body on the walls and trees, on the white sheet-metal fences, on all the things people put in its way.
"I guess that’s it, then," said Evgeni. "You have to move on. She’ll turn up sooner or later, right?"
Bent over the iron balustrade on his crossed forearms, Sergei stared at the shattered facade of the neighboring apartment building, shifting his heavy jaw left and then right. The oil lamps of Kazakh and Karakalpak squatters were moving behind the windows, dimming, wavering, going dark for the night. Evgeni imagined that his son must see a great kinship between himself and these poor refugees, mostly fishermen from the Aral whose ships now lay like curiosities on a new desert. Shifting his jaw, Sergei said, "I bet they stick to the main road."
"You’re not going to go chasing some woman through the countryside."
Very slowly, Sergei turned his head, his restless gray eyes the only moving portions of a stone-still expression.
Evgeni took a deep breath, disturbed by the look on his son’s face—not a look of love or loss or even heartbreak, but deep-lined urgency. "You and Nurilla have been friends for a long time. You will see her again."
With deliberate slowness, Sergei returned to looking at the abandoned building. The howling of the wind rose and fell. "If my car hadn’t broken down, I might have seen her."
"It’s nothing, Sergei. Don’t worry about it."
Abruptly, Sergei turned. "Leave me alone." He pushed past his father and went to his room. The door shut softly behind him.
The obstinacy of this gesture made Sergei’s note on the breakfast table somewhat redundant:
I've got to go. I will see them along the main road, or I won't. Take care of yourself.
For the rest of the day, the extent of his son’s obsession with Nurilla continued to confound Evgeni, who barely watched the countdown proceedings from his chair in the control room. The only time he had met the girl was at a Komsomol awards dinner. She and Sergei, both officers, had been seated at the main table, talking familiarly with each other. He had teased his son that they made a perfect Party couple, but his son insisted that the idea was absurd. If they had gotten together, it must have happened later, at school, maybe. She had been rather plain, as he remembered, blunt-nosed like a Kazakh, round-faced, fleshy—yet she had had those wide-spaced almond eyes, the Kirghiz eyes, with that inexplicable serenity to them, the mountain calm. It was silly, but he imagined his son falling in love with those eyes, bewitched over time, drawn toward them. They were not enough, though, and he felt desolate not being able to imagine more.
Those eyes would kill his son, he decided. They would lure him into the desert and then slowly fade away. How Evgeni wished Sergei had taken the family Niva, at least, and not the aged Lada. Sure as fate, the boy was broken down somewhere, kilometers from the nearest drop of water.
"He’s dying of thirst, I know it," he told Oleg, who had cracked open a fifth of brandy to mark the setting of the sun.
"He's probably getting soused with his girlfriend right now."
Evgeni sipped Oleg's brandy from a paper cup. "There's no way he'll make it to Alma-Ata if he doesn't find them."
"If you're so damn worried, why don't you go after him?"
"Don't be silly."
"Drive to Alma-Ata. If he's broken down and starving, you'll see the car."
The thought had occurred to Evgeni, but could anything have been more irrational and meddlesome? "What about the launch?"
"Come on, Evgeni. You know you're not critical at this stage. Go. Find your son and give him hell for leaving without saying goodbye."
Rather surprised by this last comment, Evgeni stared at his old friend, blinking self-consciously.
"Friend," said Oleg, dropping a hand on Evgeni's shoulder, "you've made your sacrifices to Baikonur." He shook Evgeni's shoulder and let go.
Evgeni left the cosmodrome, feeling like a child leaving school in the middle of the day. The rocket was still ticking through its test sequence, watched by the technicians and engineers, but he was driving away. He followed the long road through the flat empty spaces of the Baikonur grounds, drove for twenty minutes across virgin steppe, skirted the low, gray jumble that Leninsk had become over the years, then headed east on the main road, looking for the old black car. He was on the long macadam road to Alma-Ata, in his own shoe box of a car, moving steadily away. The rocket would launch without him. He would not even see it.
Perhaps he would turn around at Kzyl-Orda, after a couple of hours of driving. By then his lurid visions would have subsided, and he would be getting tired. Surely he was not going to drive all the way to the capital.
He went on, feeling like a fool, sure Oleg found the whole thing terribly amusing. All he could see was a small patch of road and the edges of cotton fields—was this really the way a sheep herder would go, right through all of this fenced, irrigated land? He began to feel like the victim of a monstrous practical joke. He crossed the river, resolved to turn around at the next town.
To his utter surprise, he did finally come across his son’s car. He found it parked at a slant on the sloping shoulder of the elevated road, abandoned and full of Sergei’s boxes, a strange black boulder on a wide, fenced but uncultivated plain. Evgeni drove on a ways, seeing no lights that would attract a stranded motorist, until he came across a dirt road. Several rows of unlit buildings caught his eye: vast structures of iron or pipe that were hollow, like oil derricks but low to the ground. He drove into their midst, passing through an open iron gate that bore a red star made of painted metal. A fire was burning inside one of the structures—greenhouses, he noticed, stripped of their glass plates—so he stopped the car and went to investigate.
Approaching the fire very slowly, he gradually made out the crouching form of his son. "Who is it?" his son demanded, backing away into the shadow of a blackened, leafless tree.
"Relax," said Evgeni. "It's just an old man."
A squealing aluminum door let him into the long, cylindrical cage, maybe eight meters tall. Two rows of young lemon trees, all long since dead, filled troughs that ran the length of the chamber. Black, shrunken lemons rolled away under his shoes, almost pitching him over backward, so he shuffled into the light of the fire without lifting his feet. He sat down beside his son on the low concrete wall of one of the troughs. Sergei concentrated on plucking the two strings of a dombra which he must have pilfered from the ruins, very slowly, high, low, high, high, low, ignoring the struts. With a wan smile, talking more to the instrument than to his father, Sergei said, "Here's a space colony for you, Dad."
"What did you say?"
Glancing at Evgeni with an ugly slant in his expression, Sergei swung the light pear-shaped instrument in a curve that matched the reticulated arch of the greenhouse. "This place. Here’s your space colony."
"I don’t want a space colony."
"You’ve talked about moving to a space ship all your life. Well, here it is." He returned to plucking the dombra.
A gust of wind came through the tree branches as though the greenhouse’s rusted outwork were not even there, hitting the sputtering fire like the concentrated breath of an angry spirit. Evgeni looked around the collective farm or prison or whatever it had been, getting a vague sense of what his son was implying: the climate-controlled glass domes on the cold steppe housing roses, onions, tomatoes, and tropical fruit, the concrete bunkers where the people had lived, the plumbing, electrical conduits, telephone lines—the little settlement sustained only with great importation of energy and materials, wiped out, probably, by something trivial like a snapped power line or an unpaid electric bill. The tiny lemon trees standing in a wireframe cage in February, still retaining their yellow and green but made of ice that would shatter into confetti and blow away. The moon would have been no more hostile.
As the wind fell, the feeble notes of the dombra became audible again, and Sergei spoke with a gentle rhythm in his voice. "Did you ever hear Nurilla’s grandfather sing?"
"I never met her family."
"The Kirghiz blood in her family comes from him. He was a manaschi. He came to our school one day and performed several tales from the Manas, playing a few songs on an instrument like this."
Evgeni broke apart a withered branch and fed the fire, listening to his son’s intermittent music.
Sergei continued, "I wonder how the manaschis will remember the Russians. In a thousand years, they’ll probably perform tales about space aliens, and these ruins will be said to be starships."
"In a thousand years, China will rule this part of the world, and starships will land every day at Baikonur."
"The Kazakhs should rise up and expel the Russians, all of the Russians. They should close down the oil wells, the mines, the factories, shut down the schools, and build a Great Wall all the way around their country to keep everyone out."
"They don’t want to do that."
"They should. They were better before Russia came. They could have lived forever on this land, and the birds would still be alive, and the fish in the Aral . . ."
"You’re a Russian, you know."
"They should throw me out, too. What have I done for this place?"
"You grew up here."
Sergei stopped playing, flattening his hand over the two strings and looking into the fire. "It’s not my home," he said. Evgeni had never seen Sergei so physically enfeebled, so thin-looking, so white in the face. "I don’t have a real home." His son’s voice was soft next to the cracking of the fire. The fire had brightened, revealing a stark, wasted expression on Sergei’s face.
Badmouthing the Soviet Union had once been Sergei’s favorite diversionary tactic, picked up at the institute, a way to hide some internal fear or weakness, but this time it was no diversion. With the economy down and the old system ending, Sergei must have seen his whole world collapsing. In his still gray eyes, Evgeni saw the coldness and despair he himself felt, deep down in his bones ever since everything had become so uncertain, the fear—deep down his son was made from the same brittle bones. Who wouldn’t feel brittle during such an earthquake? "Stop it, Sergei." Evgeni stood up, going between Sergei and the fire. "Look at me."
Slowly, Sergei raised his gaze.
Evgeni stood there, knowing he had to speak. An apology was all he could imagine delivering: a father’s arrogance, wanting to keep all of the blame for himself. "You know, it could be worse," he said. "I used to want you to become a cosmonaut."
"Another joke. All you can do is joke."
Evgeni was remembering putting his infant son into the Vostok Capsule in Moscow many years ago, taking pictures, he and Anna so in love with everything, the new life they had been given in Leninsk. "Do you remember the picture from the Kosmos Pavilion, with you in the space capsule?"
"I’ve heard that place has been turned into a car dealership."
"I was so sure you would live in space. You could be like one of those men who has trained his whole life to travel in a rocket but who has never left earth."
Evgeni sat down beside his son. "I mean, you could have trained for something no one would pay you to do. You can do something, you know. Everyone is hurting now, but you will be needed again someday."
"What are you talking about?"
Evgeni cleared his itching throat, staring at Sergei, no idea why his son had bristled so intensely.
Sergei laughed, lifting the instrument with one hand and pounding a fist against his knee with the other. "You think I’m upset because I'm out of work? Are you crazy?" He eyed his father mercilessly. "I’ll find work again. Of course. I don’t worry about anything." He shook his head, leaning on the neck of the dombra.
"I’m sorry. I just wanted—You talk like it’s the end of the world."
"I just think the Russians should leave this place. Like you . . . why do you stay? There’s nothing here. You should go to Moscow, live with Mom."
"I’m a space worker; so I stay where I have been assigned. This is where I work. You’re the one who should be in Moscow."
The fist Sergei had made went limp by degrees until it lay like a wilted flower on his knee. "Maybe so," he said. The rapid firelight made him look frozen. "I just wanted to see Nurilla."
"So you came to Leninsk to see this girl and couldn’t find her. Are you going to die or something?"
Delicately setting the instrument on one leg, Sergei breathed heavily through his nostrils. "I think I love her," he said, his voice low.
His son’s young face was lined with an agony like tangled wires. "Who is this woman who can do this to you?"
"We should talk about something else."
"No, tell me. She must be magnificent."
"What could I possibly say? She’s been writing me ever since I left Tashkent. I used to lose her letters before I could even reply, but now I save them. I have a bundle in my briefcase. It’s completely stupid. I just wanted to see her again."
Evgeni shook his head. His son was in love, and that was all. His sullenness was all lovesickness. Realizing this, Evgeni began to feel very sad, not knowing why. It was like Sergei had just slipped away from him, past where he could follow. He had very little to say to a young person in love. "It must have been nice to have someone to write to while you were working at the mine."
Sergei just looked out of the greenhouse framework into the empty night.
He had said all he was going to say about Nurilla. He went back to the dombra, watching the strings as he played as though they were telling him something. Evgeni listened respectfully, hearing the wind pass through the land in different bodies, distant and varied, hitting trees on one side, a metal roof on the other. The open spaces were all around them, wider than they were near Leninsk, unfathomably wide. This was the emptiness he had put between himself and Anna, even before she had left. A space colony—what a clever joke. His son had a way with comparisons sometimes. Out here, it was certainly possible to feel like a cosmonaut. Evgeni realized that he had felt like a cosmonaut for a long time now, since before Anna had left. Maybe longer. "So this woman is gone," said Evgeni. "At least you get to visit your father until she shows up again. Come on, let’s go back."
Sergei let the notes he was playing fall away. He lifted his calm eyes to his father. "I came to see you, too."
Sergei’s openness was unexpected and somewhat unnerving, yet it produced a surge of affection in Evgeni. He threw an arm around his son, shaking him warmly. "Let’s go," he said.
They reached the town just in time to see the Soyuz go up. The light came first, bright and growing brighter, motionless, round like a spotlight. Then the relentless roar. Evgeni pulled off onto the shoulder just as the exhaust trail was revealing its full length. Even fifteen kilometers away, the soles of his feet registered the fury of the boosters, the effort needed to break away from the earth. He and Sergei stood by the empty roadway, watching the craft ascend and diminish until it was indistinguishable from the stars.
"What’s that?" Sergei asked, pointing toward the launch site.
Evgeni prepared to say something about Baikonur’s observation buildings then stopped when he saw what his son meant. With the return of darkness, three faintly illuminated domed structures were visible over a kilometer away.
"They look like tents," said Sergei.
Before Evgeni could say anything, his son left the road and began walking toward them.
"Wait," said Evgeni, hopping down the shoulder on one leg, knowing that any protest would be futile.
"It’s them," said Sergei. "I know it. They haven’t left town yet—I drove right by."
As they neared the encampment, the gray-white domes showed themselves to be exactly what Sergei had imagined: yurts, the traditional temporary dwellings of Kazakh nomads. Several squat, husky dogs appeared prior to any people, barking and lunging the way they had been trained to fight wolves. Sergei and Evgeni backed away into the steppe, unsure what to do until an ancient GAZ truck, panting like a fat elephant, scattered the dogs and shined its lights on them. The Kazakh teenagers inside did not know Sergei, but they believed what he told them about wanting to see Nurilla’s uncle. They drove Evgeni and Sergei past the camels, the horses, the sheep, and finally the goats, then dropped them at the edge of the campsite.
"This is amazing," said Sergei, looking all around, probably imagining he had stumbled upon an aul, a clan of nomads. Evgeni knew just what his son was seeing, just by watching his eyes: the felt yurts glowing with lantern light, the animal herds, a dented khaki van bearing the lone Cyrillic word "Mail" now submerged in the eggshell blue curlicues and ogee shapes of Kazakh art, dried dung and broken furniture still burning in an oblong fire pit, the smell of smoke and charred horse meat, Kazakh faces, the flaps of tents snapping in a strong breeze. . . Stopping and turning in place, Sergei took in the whole encampment. "This is amazing," he said again. He wanted to see a new world being born, a fallen and primitive world, the old Kazakh nation. But these people were not nomads, and they did not comprise an aul. In addition to the yurts, canvas tents of all sizes crowded together, including several Soviet Army tents. Tarps thrown over the beds of trucks added more shelters. Rows of automobiles formed windbreaks. The young people becoming visible as they neared the fire all wore blue jeans and spoke in Russian. Instead of a dombra, like the one Sergei had left in the car, they danced to rock-and-roll from a cassette player. These people were unfortunate, but they would never be nomads again. They were like the khodoki of a century before, the Russian "walkers" who had settled the Syr Darya river valley, the only difference being that they were walking away.
Sergei had spotted the woman he had come so far to see. She left the fireside, watched by the other young people, some of whom were dancing, while others sat on the sandy ground. In her leather jacket, she looked to Evgeni just like the Komsomol girl he had met nearly a decade before, the rounded face a little leaner now, the hair more full and overflowing, but the blunted nose unchanged, her looks still awkward and somewhat girlish, and the Kirghiz eyes no less dark and arresting.
Sergei lifted an arm to embrace her but pulled it back immediately, noticing the faces around the fire. Nurilla, too, seemed poised to reach out, having come close to Sergei, but she took a half-step back. Sergei glanced at Evgeni with a pained look on his face. Finally, Nurilla stepped forward and gave Sergei a hug. "I thought we’d missed you."
Sergei held her like she was the dearest thing in the world. "My car broke down."
"You found us, at least."
"Yes," he said, "some luck did come my way."
After holding Sergei for a long time, Nurilla greeted Evgeni and brought them both back to her uncle’s yurt, where they drank homemade qumys around the cast-iron stove, beneath a guttering paraffin lamp. The milky alcohol warming his throat and belly, Evgeni listened intently to discussion of the coming journey.
"I don’t know where all of these people are coming from," the uncle said. "I’m just waiting for my brother to meet me here."
"None of them want to travel alone," said Nurilla.
"It’s turning into a caravan," said the uncle.
"At least the trip won’t be lonely," said Sergei.
Evgeni wanted to return to Leninsk, but everyone was afraid he would fall and hurt himself on the way to the car. He spent the night in the bed of a truck, looking up at the stars, while cold arms of wind reached through the wood slats of the truck’s sides. He had expected at least some talk about the evening’s launch, but no one had said a word. Three people had just been lifted into the sky, where they were asleep and floating right now, but he guessed that the occurrence was just too ordinary. People like Sergei and Nurilla had lived their entire lives near a spaceport. Somehow, though, the flights still mystified Evgeni. His son was right: he had always wanted to live in a space colony. He knew now that he would die before real colonies would ever be constructed, that Sergei would probably die too soon as well, but they would come, eventually. Maybe one of Sergei’s children would live in space. Civilization would move forward again, from one marvel to the next, long after Evgeni was dead, lifting people higher and higher, and Sergei would be okay, he and his Nurilla finding their way to the city, where business was starting up again, and people living better. They would get there, and they would be just fine.
He fell asleep dreaming of Anna. They were talking on the phone about how happy Sergei and Nurilla would be, ignoring themselves, the old tumbleweeds they had become, thinking only of Alma-Ata, "Father of Apples," now renamed "Almaty"—the place Nurilla would take his son. The capital city of a new nation. Anna and Evgeni wondered together what the new name might mean, and what it had to say about the lives their grandchildren might lead.