IT WAS NO KIND OF night for a dog to be alone. A blast of wind howled down the streets of Moscow, firing pellets of snow against buildings. Not a person was out. No cars passed by. Every person who could was closed up in their home, enjoying a warm supper and the company of family. Outside, under the overhang of a shoe-store stoop, a little dog curled against the storm.
The dog was nameless. Only Warm Dogs were given names: dogs who lived in houses and ate from bowls and snuggled with children beneath warm blankets. Cold Dogs—the ones on the streets—had no use for names. The little dog thought only of her next meal. The mouse she’d caught two days ago no longer filled her belly. This was the Winter of Many Snows, when food was scarce. She’d survived two winters before, but this could be her last.
From the darkness came a snarl.
The little dog sprang to her feet. Snow stung her eyes as she squinted into the wind. Streetlamps outside the shoe store flickered weakly, revealing nothing.
The snarl came again.
Three Cold Dogs stalked into the light. She had crossed paths with two of them before. The grizzled old black one with the missing eye and the brindle who towered three times her height. The third dog was still a pup—it must have been his first winter—and desperation shone in his eyes.
This was not the first time the little dog had to defend her territory. It had taken weeks of scouring the city to find a place tucked away from the street, protected from the wind. A family of mice lived in the walls, drawn to the smell of the cobbler’s kitchen. Most important, the steps blocked the view from the road where the dogcatcher stalked the streets.
The little dog bared her teeth against the intruders.
“Back!” she snarled.
The old black dog lowered his head and growled a low warning. “Run away, little one. We’re taking this stoop.”
The little dog stood her ground. “Get back!”
The pup began pacing. Judging by the lack of scars on his snout, he hadn’t been in many fights and was anxious to prove himself.
The black dog gave a meaningful look to the brindle, who slunk forward into the light.
“This stoop belongs to us now,” the brindle threatened.
“It’s mine!” the little dog growled.
The brindle looked back at the one-eyed dog.
“You are alone,” the old dog said in a gravelly bark. “You have no pack. You have no mate or pups. Dogs do not survive alone.”
The little dog lifted her head, her eyes unwavering. “The only way to survive is to be alone.”
The cold ground was freezing on the pads of her paws. Despite her raised hackles, she was shivering.
The pup started pacing again. The two older dogs exchanged a look, and then the black dog nodded. The brindle bared his teeth.
“It isn’t your choice.”
The brindle lunged. His claws tore through the fresh-fallen snow. The little dog braced herself. As he swiped at her, she twisted nimbly away and sank her teeth into his shoulder. Then the pup lunged with an oversize snarl. His teeth sliced at her as she shielded her eyes. A sting of pain ripped through her front paw. The pup snapped again, taking a chunk of fur from her ear.
The old black dog watched, his one yellow eye unmoving.
The brindle lunged for her again, and she dove into a broken crate just big enough for a pair of shoes—just big enough for a little dog. When she pressed herself against the far end, not even the lanky pup’s scrambling claws could reach.
“Back!” the little dog ordered from the safety of her crate. “This stoop is mine!”
The pup kept snarling at the open end of the crate. The brindle sniffed around the outside, searching for weak boards. Inside, the little dog breathed fast. She ignored the sting of pain. If she lost the safety of her territory, she wouldn’t survive another day.
At last, the black dog stood. With a grunt to the brindle and the pup, he turned and disappeared back into the storm. The pup whined, but after a sharp bark from the brindle, he retreated as well.
The little dog’s breathing was ragged. She shivered from tail to snout. Pain throbbed in the bites on her paws and head. She waited as long as she dared and then crept out of the crate. There was no sign of the pack. She licked the wounds on her front paw.
It wasn’t a question of whether the pack would return, only when.
For a brief moment, the storm lightened, and the little dog felt a break from the bitter cold. Soft rays of light shone down on her. From behind the broken clouds, the stars were coming out.
The little dog blinked up at the brightest one, the Dog Star.
“Thank you,” she barked softly.
The star shone in glowing pulses. The little dog felt a gentle voice deep within her heart—the voice of the Dog Star.
You saved yourself, little one. You were brave. Soon there will come a time when you will need to be brave again.
All dogs—Cold Dogs and Warm Dogs and even the Wild Dogs who dwelt in the forest and spoke in howls—honored the Dog Star. Though his ways were mysterious, the Dog Star ruled the fates of all dogs, watching over them, guiding them, loving them from his celestial seat in the night sky.
As the little dog curled up in her crate, her eyelids began to fall. Every muscle ached. Surrendering to sleep, she heard the Dog Star add softly:
Braver than any dog has ever been.
THE MOMENT THAT NINA STEPPED inside the midnight-blue circus tent, her lips fell open in wonder. Thousands of candles hung from gossamer ropes to look like a sky full of stars. Outside, it was a gray, blusteringly cold night, but within the tent, giant torches threw out rippling waves of heat. It was as though she had stepped into a magical new world.
Still, despite the warmth, she tightened her scarf around her neck.
“Nina, keep an eye on your brother.” Mama was frowning in Ivan’s direction. He was already disappearing into the crowd, pushing his way toward the popcorn cart. He had turned ten the week before and seemed to have decided that he was now an adult, capable of setting his own bedtime and reading Papa’s newspapers over breakfast.
Mama continued, “Your father needs undisturbed time with his colleagues from the Institute. Remember, we are here for his research, not your amusement. I expect you to keep your brother out of trouble.” Her eyes settled on the knotted tassels of Nina’s scarf and then went wide with recognition. “Take that scarf off.” She paused. “It’s warm in here. You don’t need it.”
Nina dug her fingers into the soft folds of the scarf. Though it was made of sturdy, warm wool, it felt like silk against her fingers. The first time she’d seen it, around the neck of her best friend, she’d thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world. It was sky blue—a color rarely seen in Moscow winters—with delicately embroidered pink and orange flowers and thick oversize tassels that tickled her chin.
“But it belonged to Ludmilla,” she argued.
“Shhh!” Lowering her voice, Mama explained, “That’s exactly the problem. Everyone remembers a scarf like that. And we don’t want people recalling our connection with Ludmilla or any of the Sokolov family. What if Director Sonin sees you wearing it?” Mama’s eyes slid to one of the men standing with Papa, the one with glasses and a scalp so bald it shone in the torchlight.
Nina clenched her jaw to keep from saying something she’d regret. Ludmilla had been her best friend since even before they were born—their mothers had been pregnant at the same time. They’d gone from throwing tea parties for their dolls to sneaking off together during school ceremonies, hiding behind Soviet banners to flip through contraband American magazines and try on lipstick borrowed from their mothers’ purses. But Ludmilla, along with her family, had disappeared a week ago. The day before Ludmilla vanished, she’d pulled off the scarf and thrust it into Nina’s hands. I know you’ve always liked it, she’d said. Take it. Wear it so you don’t forget me.
At the time, Nina had only laughed. You’re just going on holiday, not to the moon.
But Ludmilla had never returned to class.
Now every time Nina wound the woolen fabric around her neck, it felt like Ludmilla was still with her. Sky blue. The color of Ludmilla’s eyes.
She unwound the scarf and shoved it into her coat pocket.
Mama’s expression softened. “Here. Popcorn will warm your spirits.” She pressed a coin into Nina’s hand before joining Papa back at the tent entrance. Nina looked down at the coin in her palm and sighed. As though popcorn could take the place of a best friend.
Nina searched through the crowd for Ivan and found him pressed into a group of children clustered around a fortune-teller’s table. An old woman with glittering gold earrings loomed over animal skulls and crystal balls.
“Tell me, children,” the woman said, holding up a deck of cards covered with illustrations of crowns, skulls, and daggers. “Who among you is brave enough to have your fortune read?”
The other children shrieked and backed away, but Nina’s ears perked up. “I’ll do it.”
Ivan tugged on her arm. “Nina, don’t! My teacher says superstition is dangerously backward. She says it’s as bad as religion.”
Nina rolled her eyes. “And who will tell, eh? I seem to remember a boy who, just last summer, used to tie extra trousers around his waist and chase me through the house, claiming to be the six-legged Bukavac.” She poked him teasingly in the side. She’d expected Ivan to smile at the memory, but instead he frowned harder.
She turned to the fortune-teller. “I want to know what will happen in the future.” She twisted her fingers into the scarf in her pocket. “If things can ever go back to the way they were.”
Ivan drew in a sharp breath. “I’m going to tell Papa!”
“Wait!” Nina called after him as he scurried into the crowd. But the tent was thick with people, all of them breathing heavily, the sound of crunching popcorn and crumpled tickets beneath their boots. Finally she caught sight of Ivan’s gray felt hat bobbing between the tiger cage and the main stage.
She pushed toward the stage, where a mustachioed performer in a red hat was feeding beans to a monkey perched on his shoulder. The monkey had small black eyes and a pink face surrounded by golden fur. When the man held out his arm, the monkey ran down it and onto a stool. The crowd cheered as he bowed and took his monkey backstage.
She caught up to Ivan just as he reached Papa, who was wearing his brown military jacket with the red epaulets on the shoulders and had been deep in a hushed conversation with his colleagues. Now the conversation stopped. Papa looked sternly at Ivan behind his thick brown beard, then at Nina. So did the others, including Director Sonin. Nina drew in a sharp breath. These men and women were the scientists who did top secret work on rocket ships and outer space. Scientists who kept Papa at the Institute of Space Medicine, an hour’s drive from Moscow, so late that sometimes she’d hear him come in after midnight and leave again before breakfast. Scientists who had been irate when Ludmilla’s father had been granted rare permission to have his family accompany him to his astronomy conference in America, only to never return.
“What is it, Ivan?” Papa asked, but his eyes went to Nina, who at two years older than her brother was usually the wiser one. “Nina?”
Nina grabbed Ivan’s hand hard and quickly said, “We were … wondering if we might watch you work on the Starflyer mission. We won’t say a word.” When her comment was met with cold silence, she added, “For the glory of the Motherland.”
Papa’s face broke into a smile. “Ah, you hear that, comrades? My daughter, such a good Communist.”
“She makes the future of the Soviet Union look bright,” one of the female scientists added with a smile.
But Papa’s boss wasn’t smiling. Director Sonin’s eyes drifted to the sky-blue scarf that had slipped out of Nina’s coat pocket in her hurry and was now dangling toward the floor. Quickly, Nina stuffed it back into her pocket and hoped he hadn’t recognized it as having belonged to a traitor.
“What do you know about the Starflyer mission, Nina Konstantinova?” Director Sonin asked in a low voice.
Warmth crept up her neck. Suddenly she wondered if she’d said too much. Though the details of the Institute of Space Medicine’s work were top secret, the government-run radio and newspapers had been hinting of a bold new space mission that would put their American rivals to shame. Every newspaper carried speculation: Who would be the first to conquer space, America or the Soviet Union?
She stammered, “Ah … it’s a program to train animals to ride in rocket ships to see if people could ever live in space. And … it will doubtless ensure the Soviet Union’s supremacy not only on Earth but in the stars as well.”
Director Sonin raised an eyebrow, glancing at her father. “I see. And can we trust you to keep what you see backstage today secret?”
She glanced at her father, who was watching her carefully. “Of course, sir.”
Director Sonin nodded. “Then come with us. You too, my boy.” He patted Ivan on the shoulder. “Meet the future heroes of the Starflyer mission: monkeys!”
Nina and Ivan exchanged a surprised look. Monkeys? In rocket ships? It was too wild to believe!
As she followed the scientists through the crowd, the loudspeaker announced that a constellation show was about to begin. The torchlights lowered, and the voice on the loudspeaker began to talk about times long ago, before lights and cities, when the stars lit the world and people found shapes in their positions. Papa held open a curtain to a backstage area, where several more scientists were speaking to the monkey trainer from the stage. The circus monkeys were in cages now. They didn’t jump and swing and eat beans like in the show. They hunched over and scratched at bald patches on their backs.
“… not suited for outer-space conditions,” the trainer was saying. He had taken off both his red hat and, shockingly, his mustache. “Monkeys are sensitive to loud noises and extreme temperature changes. They might return to Earth wounded or with substantial trauma.”
“Nevertheless,” one of Papa’s colleagues said, “we have trustworthy reports that American scientists intend to send apes into space and study the effects on them when they return. Their physiology makes them most similar to our human cosmonauts. If apes can survive the conditions, then it is likely that humans can, too.”
“The Americans.” Director Sonin gave a snort. “The Americans are apes. Isn’t that right, little Communist?” He turned to Nina. She froze in place, unsure how to answer. She’d heard Mama and Papa whispering that Ludmilla’s father was working for the Americans now—for the enemy—in a city called Boston, but anytime she brought it up, Mama and Papa hushed her immediately and darted to the window to see if any parked cars outside were watching.
“The Americans are indeed apes, sir,” Nina replied.
He nodded, pleased. But the truth was, Nina didn’t understand exactly why America was the enemy. If America was so awful, why had Ludmilla’s family defected there? America had its charms, of course—the movie stars, the beautiful clothes, the vast mountains and forests—but everyone knew the Soviet Union was the greater nation. In America, women were expected to be only mothers and wives, whereas in the Soviet Union, they could serve as leaders and scientists, equals to men. In America, the poor lived on the streets, begging for scraps, whereas the Communist Party cared for each of its citizens and gave opportunities to all.
Copyright © 2021 by Megan Shepherd Back matter photos © Alamy