by Kris Schnee
Text ©2006 Kris Schnee; illustration ©2006 Cubist
Alexei sat with a heavy coat draped over his office chair, a chewed pencil in his hand, and his mind a million miles away. Hed never wanted to work in any place identifiable as the office, but he was biding time til the big chance came. Beneath his desk lay piles of technical manuals, ranging from Sergei Korolevs lunar rocket to the latest Star Trek ship blueprints. Sometimes his computer would flash a news alert on some new piece of research. Sometimes someone would walk by the cubicle. Alexei just let the pencil explore the lined paper in front of him, swooping like an incoming shuttle.
The faint sketch smudged against his left hand even as he drew it: Himself, the way he was in his dreams. He wore the crimson uniform of some future worlds Spacers Guild, but with a fox-tail flicking behind him as he posed. One gloved, clawed hand rested on the curved flank of his Starwing fighter, and on his chest shined a medal from the Tsar himself. He could feel the cold metal, the hum of the photon-pressure engines that would carry him into the sky. Fuzzy ears stood out at a jaunty angle, obviously glad to be free from the flight helmet beside the ship. But outside Alexeis head, there on the actual page, it was just graphite: grey uniform, uneven lines, eraser marks. Nothing ever looked right, not in any of his sketches.
Leika coughed behind him. Alexei spun, making his chair clatter on the plastic floor. In his hands the notepad cut against his palms. Leika! Hi! I was just, uh
Leika had been a swimmer all her life, and it showed in the tanned muscles of her bare arms. Whats that?
Nothing! he said instinctively. Hed mentioned art to her that one time, over lunch, and shed given that bell-deep laugh of hers and asked, werent cartoons for kids?
Leika gave an easy shrug. Anyway, Ivan needs the design specs for the afternoon meeting, so he asked me to go over a couple of points with you.
Okay, Alexei said. He turned to put the notepad away and it smacked onto the floor instead. With his face flushed he swept one arm down to grab it but the page tore, and Leika was stepping into the cubicle to try to help. Alexei fumbled the notepad into a cheap plastic inbox and kept staring in its direction, drumming one foot on the leg of his chair. The meetingwhat points?
Is that your sketching?
I was only idle a minute. Waiting for an e-mail. Really it was just a minute, here and there, that Alexei felt alive.
Really, she said, tossing her hair back over one shoulder. Boys and their cartoons. She laughed.
Alexei tried to laugh with her.
An endless hour of dull detail. Smoke curled through the conference room from their cigarettesone in Leikas hand, one in most of the other employeesand snaked into Alexeis lungs. Gradually he came to wonder how much Leika cared for the work herself. Each time they resolved some detail of the companys armature designsoriginally meant for space station components, now reduced to desk lampsLeika seemed to trail off, lost in the smog. He leaned forward and sideways in his chair, thinking of smoke tendrils as nebulae where stars were born. She would only laugh again if he asked about planets and satellites, about whether she would drive with him to the country where the cold night sky was sharp and pure. There was furniture to put on the market, new lamps for old.
Not a minute passed between the six oclock buzzer and his march out the door, with his coat flapping behind him like a cape. A wave of icy wind hit him, drove him back for a moment into the company lobby until he fought the air and trudged outside.
Grey towers fenced him in. The city that had swallowed Alexei felt empty to him, even as taxis zipped along the roads. All down one street, the storefronts stood empty, yet merchants had racks of cell phones and televisions just outside, where the breeze rattled the steel shelves. A woman in a headscarf eyed him suspiciously from behind a cheap card table.
Alexei paused, imagining what would happen if a thief snatched something. With a yelp Alexei would spring into action, be a hero. But even that little daydream felt hollow as he walked by.
Alexei the Space Fox burst into the criminals den on a faraway asteroid, expertly dodging gunfire as his stunner ray flashed in the dark!
The real Alexei cringed from a passing limo carrying some mafia don or parliament member. He gritted his teeth and kicked the corner of a building to feel the blaze of pain, which he deserved. He was a coward. He supposed that was the reason he dreamed of a fox. Being another self, better even in looks, helped justify a different personality. Foxes were bold, yes? Except maybe for the new sort it was said had been bred in the east The world was full of strange things, and he was cut off from them as though the wind were a net swaddling him from the world. A faint layer of snow from the weekend muffled his boots.
As he neared his apartment the weather swirled and the air now pulled him along, making him think hed lost his way and been turned around. But no, there his building crouched, eight identical stories painted Brezhnev grey. He liked to take the side alley to reach it, to feel just a little endangered. He limped into the shadows there.
A hiss. Alexei froze and then stepped around the corner to peek. Something had stained the alley wall and dripped still, like a starry night
Through the bricks Alexei could see the stars. Air trickled through the wall as if it were a drain. If the pull were stronger, the hiss would become a howl and there would be more than a cold breeze blowing. And at the bottom of the night was a landscape of cratered grey. Silver domes stood on the lunar horizon.
Alexei stepped back. This was not something he knew how to deal with! But another look showed him what seemed an open gateway, not a stain, not a mural on the wall. There was a city in those domes! A city on the moon
What would Alexei the Fox do? Alexei could picture him leaping through fromyes, hed be coming through from there, because that was his home. The fox would be brave enough to want to see the other side.
Alexei looked at the dead rocks beyond the wall. He picked up a stray vodka bottle that lay in the alley and tossed it underhand. Like a ponds surface, the wall rippledand the bottle seemed to land inside, on grey lunar soil. His fingers began to tremble, clenching and unclenching. Something was there, waiting for him. Destiny.
But there was no air on the moon! Putting so much as a hand through might kill him, or cripple himhe wasnt sure, as his own world had never explored the universe enough to learn by experience. He might burst in an instant, freezing and boiling on opposite sides.
The wind nudged him closer to the wall, but seemed gentler now. Diminished? Straining his eyes, he thought the edges where the other world reached his seemed closer together, shrinking.
If he didnt go, he would return to his apartment and cry, never knowing what hed missed. That world was waiting for him to be that better version of himself, the hero, the adventurer. How many people were ever offered that?
Alexei yelled and quashed all his thoughts as he threw himself headlong at the wall. Nothing for him here. His stubbed toe made him stagger. When he touched the wall the edge bit into his skin, burned him, froze him, spun him around and hurled him somewhere.
Plastic pressed on his face. Alexei felt dry air in his lungs, echoing through a helmet. Grey rock
With one hand he shoved the ground he was kissing. It pushed right back and threw him into the air!
Or lack thereof.
Alexei spun in slow motion between the moon and blue Earth, feeling strong, graceful muscles armored against all the dangers of space. His body turned once around and let him land on one knee, gloves to the grey soil. Feeling an idiot grin on his face, Alexei stood and with shaking hands felt at his helmet. Some kind of protrusion on the front. A muzzle! And behind him, yes, he felt something fuzzy squashed into a tube hanging from his spacesuit.
His spacesuit! He leaped straight up and flew so high he yelped in fear, thinking he might never come down. When he realized how slowly he was moving the terror froze into a roller-coaster feeling he realized he hadnt felt in years. He had time to bellow and hoot like a maniac all the way down to a gentle landing. The discarded glass bottle lay with vapor trailing from it, a piece of trash from a backwards, blighted world hed escaped.
So at long last his destiny stood on the horizon! The domes glittered with the light of Earth hanging in the sky. He knew they needed a hero; why else would he be here? With each stride he bounced high off the ground.
There seemed to be no end to the cold, dry air in his suit, but not to the empty land either. Only gradually did the lunar domes draw closer. He still couldnt find the proper rhythm for walking. shuffle, bounce, land, hop, shuffle, bounce Alexei flailed and came down hard on his right ankle. Then on his face. His big nose smacked against his faceplate and stars flashed in his eyes. Even touching his ankle made it seem to catch fire, made him hiss and his tailhis tail!curl. Alexei sat in the grey dust and began to feel the cold of endless night seeping into his suit.
But Im a hero!
Alexei staggered to his feet and took a low, shuffling step. Even the low-gravity landing brought tears to his eyes when his ankle hit. He tried bouncing along on his left foot, but lost his balance and smacked his right leg against a rock, making him yelp.
Trying to stand again only made him collapse. His breath came shallow and made him dizzy. Alexei whimpered, on his knees. In the plastic helmet he could see part of his own face reflected: slitted pupils, rusty fur. It was who he was meant to be. And he couldnt walk, he just couldnt.
Gritting weirdly sharp teeth, he made a bouncy crawl towards the faraway city. It was harder than it should have been. Too heavy, too tired
White light stabbed Alexeis eyes. He groaned and rolled over, getting tangled in sheets and squashing his legs or something.
His tail. He remembered all at once. A wave of shame washed through him; how could he have failed at walking? Hed wanted to stride into the base and have crowds part as he passed. Thats what should have happened!
Something blocked the hot light, throwing him into cold shadow. A monster with a broad grin, a black nose, triangle ears. NoAlexei shook his head. If he was Alexei the Space Fox, then of course it was a world of foxes. He should find her beautiful. Maybe, he thought, maybe this was his girlfriend, his crewmate among the stars! His laugh turned into a cough that wracked his whole body, until he mercifully drifted off again.
When he opened his eyes the light jabbed into them again and blood pulsed in his head. The fox-woman loomed nearby, saying, You should be able to get up soon. Her voice felt distant, and odd through that muzzle, but still familiar.
Leika? he said. Somehow it was her! The whole world felt unnaturally light, with even the covers drifting at a sixth of their proper weight.
Yes? A smile from her face, though it was hard to tell.
My mission. I want to go back and start helping again.
A pause. Your mission. Yes. Rest up.
Before long he saw doctors and nurses, all fox-folk, who reluctantly let him go with a promise to return soon and explain what had happened. Did they think hed gone missing on an adventure and somehow returned, or had he been added from nowhere just as hed surely vanished unnoticed from home? He wished he had an answer, himself. The questions spun around him as he walked the hospital halls in a daze, but there was one thing to hang onto.
He was a hero.
It was Leika who met him in the hospital foyer, with silk flowers. Alexei found he could smell the cloth and the plastic stems with the gigantic nose in front of his face. He kept reaching for it, not quite believing it was his.
Is something wrong? Leika asked.
Today she wore the sort of dress that made Alexei smile. An ideal uniform! Not at all.
She led him to a complex of buildings worked into giant support struts for the shining dome overhead. He stared at the honeycomb ceiling, the grey stone of the streets beneath his boots and ankle brace, the fox-people scurrying on errands as though their lives were ordinary. His grin spread further. I take it theres a briefing waiting for me?
Of course, she said. Everyone will want to hear about your adventure out there.
It was strange how even a spaceport had an ordinary waiting room, one with herringbone wallpaper and a receptionist (even one with fur and steepled ears). He began to wonder about this inhuman body, how to move with it, how to sort out the scents, but shoved the thought aside. It was his now, and it was not his place to doubt the miracle. Besides, thinking too hard here would make him trip on his face again. He bowed to the secretary and felt his tail wagging, telling himself it was the most natural thing in the world. The secretarys ears perked and she smiled. By the way, Alexei said, Id like my uniform back. It would be good to feel the Spacers Guild emblem with his own hands. Hed once thought of making such a uniform for himself, but he would have thought himself a fool. He felt that way about many things, many reckless plans hed had in his old life.
The ears flicked back a bit. Are you all right, Alexei?
Yes, of course.
Come on, said Leika. Together they twisted through halls and stairs that burrowed into the lunar rock. Everything spiraled down. And here we are.
Alexei pressed one hand to the plastic and jumped back, about to retch. He knew what was in there! It couldnt be!
Here, its all right. Sit down. Leika pushed open the door and ushered him inside.
Here was a little office with a chair, a computer, and a blueprint for desk lamps.
Alexei sank to one knee, steadying himself with his arms over the chair. No.
What is it?
Alexei looked up at her bewildered face. Dont you know? This isnt my job! Im a space pilot!
Her jaw opened and shut. Wait here. She dashed away, up spiraling halls.
Why hadnt the world given what it had promised him? It was a sick joke to make him a fox, the creature of his dreams, and then to deny him the life that came with it! With one hand he slapped the chair and hauled himself to his feet, then shoved the chair into the desk with a bang. Not even satellite parts were here for him to design! He would talk toyes, he would find the Spacers Guild himself and tell them who he was. He stomped out of the office, hit his foot too hard, hobbled a bit, then hurried back along the hallways. When Leika came back with two strong fox-men, muttering concussion and delusional, he ducked into a side room to let them pass. Ha! He had the stealth of a hero, didnt he? Something hissed behind him and he whirled to see an advanced, lunar coffee maker.
Going for a walk, he said to the front-room secretary. She made no move to stop him, and soon he was outside. Only a glassy dome between him and space. The way it should be.
The grey streets seemed filled with exotic cargo, sleek white boxes on gliding carts. This worlds people all seemed sure of themselves. He belonged here as their hero. In the distance he saw a gleaming building with a familiar logothe Guild! He hobbled toward the armored doors, which opened only after camera eyes stared him down. Alexei would tell themhe should tell them everything! He was meant to come here and be this person, and there had been some terrible mistake. He was a spacefarer.
As the doors parted, he saw a vast lobby with a jagged crystal in a display case. At the far end a real wooden desk and its occupant rested beneath a gigantic golden logo, with flags and news-screens. A map of the starlanes stood to his left, and to the right was a portrait. He spun to stare at it. Life-size, showing a fox in crimson with a helmet in his hands and a cargo ship behind him. He hadnt looked in a mirror, but it seemed so like him, it had to be him!
While walking towards the desk and rubbernecking at the portrait, he tripped. Smack onto his nose on a hard wooden floor.
The woman behind the desk gasped and hurried to help him to one knee. His aching nose twitched, making him sneeze. Drops of blood hit the floor, stained his clothes, even got onto the crystal case. The woman whipped out a handkerchief and held it out for him. He blew his nose, sniffled, sneezed blood. Of all the stupid ways for a hero to hurt himself!
Take your time, she said. Are you here to see someone?
No. He had to tell her who he was meant to be.
But why would she believe the bloody-nosed klutz in front of her? He had come to be someone, hed been given this shape and a life on the moon; could it be that not everything would be handed to him?
Alexei coughed and held the handkerchief to his nose. Im here to apply for a job. Someday, I want to be a hero.
Alexei left in a daze, seeing the lunar streets with new eyes. This was his city now. In the constant twilight of the domes sky he found it hard to tell what time it was. Way down the street the horizon curved too close. He leaned against a wall and felt vertigo plus the pleasant scratching of concrete against fur. He would call this a morning, call the Guild building the center of of his world, and anchor himself that way. He had a short trip to make.
His workplace was as grey and lifeless as the version from his own world. He would be glad never to see it again. This time he strode in calmly, knowing what this place was and that it was not for him.
The secretary stared at him. Im all right, Alexei said. I was just upset. Could I speak to Leika, please?
She nodded and spoke into her phone. Alexei paced the reception area, not wanting to see that office again. Alexei picked up a computer pad from a coffee table and was delighted to find he knew how to tap his little claws on its buttons. It came alive with news from Earth and Mars and far Europa, whole worlds of foxes
Alexei! He looked up to find Leika standing there, saying, We were all worried.
Im joining the Guild, he said. I quit.
Alexei, why? Youre a valuable member of the department.
She was the same as the human Leika, and seemed to know him. Did that mean he had a complete history here as a drudge? It shamed him, made his ears droop, to think of all his failures being doubled. I was meant for something better than this. More exciting and important. Ive been given a gift and I just have to take it.
Youve been through a lot of stress. Why dont you take a little time off and think about this?
You dont know what it means to me to be here. Goodbye, Leika.
Alexei stopped in the doorway, remembering the old version of her going to the same job every day, reading romance novels on her breaks. Come with me. Quit right now and well fly through space.
You know I cant just do that.
You can! he said.
Leikas ears flicked back and her teeth showed when she spoke. Thats nonsense! I cant run off to be a spacer and abandon everythingI have responsibilities!
Im sorry, then, he said, and turned away.
The Spacers Guild headquarters stood bright and tall in the perpetual dusk. Far overhead, beyond the dome, Alexei strained to see lights moving and blinking as they blocked a slice of the stars. The manmadeah, fox-madelights hinted at a vast ship, and the promise that it could be his.
In the front hall the heroic banners still stood. Even the new cordon around the central artifact case seemed glorious, the way it was so polished. He spent a moment staring into the bright facets of the crystal, full of worry about the step ahead.
The receptionist smiled at him from her desk. Sir, are you ready for your test?
She laughed and it took a moment to feel the reason: the prickle of fur standing on end all over his body. He looked to the wall hangings for inspiration; that was him up there. Or at least it would be. It was destiny that brought him here, wasnt it? I can do this, he told himself.
So his hostess called an old fox to take him past the inner doors, through halls where machinery hummed. In a minute he found himself in a room with real wood paneling and a spray of flowers in a trough of dirt along one wall.
The foxhis future co-workerfumbled some plain old papers from a plastic folder and eventually found a sheaf of them with a shining Guild Entrance Exam on the front. All right sir, youve got threeah, sorry, two hours.
Alexei sat on a wooden bench with clipboard, pencil and test. Page one Physics. Alexei felt his tongue hanging out and realized he was panting. Hed studied physics in the process of designing all those starships, working out orbital paths for fun. Now he focused.
Then came math. Hard, context-free numbers. He tried to put a purpose on each oneplanet masses, engine powerbut it took too long. He skipped ahead. Planetary history, now: when was Robinsons Third Martian Revolt? What was done with the European Beast? Here he could only guess, extrapolate, fill in whatever bubbles his pencil tapped first. And nextnegotiation tactics? Economics!? His tongue scraped against sharp teeth. He hurled himself up from his seat and struck the ceiling tail-first, still not used to the low gravity.
In trying to steady himself, he clutched a shelf and saw a bunch of papers lying there. The old fox had forgotten them. The wind of his jump had scattered the papers a bit, revealing
An answer key.
Alexei stepped back and glanced at the door, which was thick and locked from outside. He belonged in this world as a hero, right? It would be stupid to get denied the very thing he needed because he didnt know offhand what bubbles to fill in! All he needed was right here. He reached a clawed hand towards the papers. He would get himself the score he needed
And be a loser forever.
Say they handed him the keys to a starship; hed die in a day out there, with his knowledge. What kind of hero would he be?
But if he failed, hed be trudging back to that office, sitting in a chair just like the one on Earthif theyd even take his sorry tail back. He wanted to vomit at the thought of spending another day in that place. And at the idea of being honored for being a worthless liar.
Alexei cursed and bounded back through the room, to salvage what he could of the testing time. Maybe he could stumble through a few more
He waited in hell. In the reception area his foot kept thumping the ground, so that his nonchalant pose in a chair became an attempt to hang on and not catapult himself into a wall.
He yipped and looked to the door to see the old fox drumming claws against a clipboard and saying, It was very close
Alexeis heart waited patiently for instructions.
But I think we have a place for you.
Alexei leaped up and smacked his head on the ceiling.
The proctor grinned at him in midair when the fog cleared from Alexeis head. he had followed Alexei up and now whispered, Land with knees bent and slap the ground.
Alexei landed in a crouch and stared wide-eyed. Not a desk job? I get to go out to the stars?
The old fox chuckled. To the planets at least, boy. With a lot of work, you might make a good engineer if you can move without hurting yourself. And if you can continue to resist temptation.
Alexei found he was still crouched. Then I earned it! I actually deserve it!
Well, my boy, slow down. Its going to take training and hard physical
Not even Alexeis proctor was prepared for the low-G tackle-hug that ensued.