“This Chance Planet” by Elizabeth Bear is a near future science fiction story about a young Russian waitress with ambitions to become an engineer and her musician boyfriend, who wants her to gestate a liver for money so his band can tour. Plus, there’s a dog.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
We are alone, absolutely alone on this chance planet: and, amid all the forms of life that surround us, not one, excepting the dog, has made an alliance with us.
— Maurice Maeterlinck
“It’s not like I’d be selling my own liver.” Ilya held casually to a cracked strap, swaying with the motion of the Metro. “Petra Ivanovna. Are you listening to me?”
“Sorry,” I said.
I’d been trading stares with a Metro dog. My feet were killing me in heels I should have stuffed into my sometimes bag, and the dog was curled up tight as a croissant on the brown vinyl of the only available seat. I narrowed my eyes at it; it huffed pleasantly and covered its nose with its tail.
Ilya kept on jawing. It was in one ear and out the other, whatever he was yammering about, while I gave the dog wormhole eyes and plotted how to get the seat away. The dog was a medium-large ovcharka mutt, prick-eared, filthy under a wolf’s pelt with big stinking mats dangling from its furry bloomers. It was as skinny as any other street dog under its fur—as skinny as me—but the belly seemed stretched—malnutrition? Worms? When it lifted its head up and let its tongue loll, the teeth were sharp and white.
Behind its head, a flickering advertisement suggested that volunteers were needed for clinical trials, each of which paid close to a month’s grocery money. It alternated with one urging healthy young (read: skint) men and women to sell their genetic material to help childless older (read: wealthy) couples conceive. Pity those skinny jeans were probably destroying Ilya’s fertility as we spoke.
I snorted, but that ad faded into one reminding me that it wasn’t too late to enroll for fall classes.
Well, if I had the damned money, I would have enrolled for summer classes, too. I had my bachelor’s, but that was useless in Moscow, and to get the specialist degree took money. Money I didn’t have. Wouldn’t have, unless Ilya started contributing more.
I looked away, and accidentally caught the thread of Ilya’s conversation again. His latest get rich quick scheme. It was always a get rich quick scheme with Ilya. This one involved getting paid to incubate somebody else’s liver. In his gut. Next to his own liver, I guessed?
I imagined him bloating up, puffing out like an old man whose insides had given up from too much bathtub liquor. Like a pregnant woman. I wondered if his ankles would swell.
I punched his arm. “Like an alien!”
Visions of chestbursters danced in my head. I played the whole VR through last year with my friend GreyGamine, who lives in Kitchener, which is in Canada somewhere.
We got killed back a lot.
Ilya scoffed. It was a very practiced scoff, nuanced and complex. He used it a lot. The Palm d’Or for scoffing goes to Ilya Ramonovich.
“How’s it different from growing a baby?” he asked me, sliding an arm around my hips. His leather jacket—scarred, stiff, cracked—creaked. I tried not to think about how it was probably too old to have been decanted, and that it had probably started life wrapped around an actual cow. “You want to have a baby someday, don’t you?”
We couldn’t afford a baby. I couldn’t afford a baby. Either the money or the time, until I finished my degree.
The strap of his electric guitar case slid down his shoulder. The case swung around and banged my ribs. He gave my hip a squeeze. He smelled fantastic: warm leather and warm man. It didn’t make my shoes hurt less.
Well, I was the idiot who wore them.
“Having a baby is hardly the same thing as organ farming.” I don’t know why I argued.
Actually, I do know why I argued. When you stop arguing, you’ve given up. I looked at the way Ilya’s black hair fell across his forehead and tried to enjoy it. Like Elvis Presley. Or any given Ramone. That tall guy from Objekt 775.
Skinny jeans were back again.
“Well, for one thing,” he said, “growing a liver takes less than nine months. And they pay you for it. With a baby, you have to pay. And pay, and pay.”
Despite myself, I was getting intrigued. Half-remembered biology classes tickled me with questions. “Wouldn’t you reject it? Or wouldn’t you have to take all kinds of immunosuppressing drugs?”
“They use fat cells. And—I don’t know, shock them or something. To turn them back into stem cells. Then they train them to grow into whatever they want. Whatever the rich bastard they’re growing it for has killed off with his rich living. Liver. Lungs. Pancreas.” He shrugged. “All you’ve got to do is provide the oxygen and the blood supply.”
“And not drink,” I reminded. “No drugs. I bet they won’t even want you taking aspirin. Coffee. Vodka. Nothing.”
“Just like a baby,” he agreed.
I should have been suspicious then. He was being much, much too agreeable. But I had gotten distracted by the way that fringe of hair moved across his pale forehead. And the little crinkles of his frown, the way the motion pulled the tip of his nose downward.
We were coming up on my stop. Soon, I would get off and walk to my job. Ilya would continue on to his “band” practice: with “Blak Boxx,” his “band.” Which was more or less an excuse to hang out with three of his closest frenemies drinking and playing the same five chords in ragged 4/4 time.
You know which five chords I mean, too: nothing more complicated than a D major.
Fortunately for “Blak Boxx,” most of rock and roll is built on the foundation of those five chords. Unfortunately for “Blak Boxx,” to play live music you still need to be able to change between them without looking at your hands.
I didn’t feel like having an argument with Ilya about who was paying the rent this month, again. And at least he was talking about something that might make money, no matter how harebrained. I should try to encourage this line of thinking. So as the train squealed into the station, rather than picking a fight about money, I just edged him away with an elbow and stepped back.
He put a hand on my shoulder, which might even have been to steady me. I think I probably glared at him, because he took it back very carefully.
“Think about it?” he said.
Suddenly, the whole conversation took on that slightly surreal gloss things have when you realize you’ve been looking at the picture from the wrong angle, and what you took for a vase full of flowers is actually an old woman with a crooked nose.
“We were talking about you,” I said.
The train lurched and shook as it braked harder. I stumbled, but caught myself on the handrail over the dog.
“Me? I can’t look fat!” he said—loud enough that heads turned toward us. “I have to be ready to get on stage!”
“I’m sure a lumpy cocktail waitress will make great tips,” I shot back. “And who is it that is already keeping the roof over our heads?”
It turned out I got off before the dog. I guess it deserved the seat, then: it had the longer commute. It whined and gave me a soulful look as I brushed past. I had nothing in my bag except a hoarded bar of good chocolate, which was poison to dogs. And even if it hadn’t been, I wasn’t going to let Ilya find out about it. Decent chocolate was becoming less a luxury and more of a complete rarity. And what I could make last for two weeks of careful rationing, Ilya would eat in five minutes and be pissed off I hadn’t had more.
“Sorry,” I told the dog. “The cupboard’s bare.”
I stepped from the dingy, battered Metro car to the creamy marble and friezes of Novokuznetskaya Station. The doors whisked shut behind me.
Christ what am I doing with my life?
Ten hours cocktail waitressing in those shoes, getting my ass pinched, and explaining drink specials to assholes when they could have picked the information off the intranet with a flick of their attention, didn’t make my feet hurt any less or do much to improve my attitude. I rode home on a nearly-empty train, wishing I had the money to skin out the two other passengers and the ongoing yammer of the ads.
It’s not safe to filter out too much reality when you’re traveling alone at night. But the desire is still there.
No dogs this time.
The elevator to our flat was out of order again. I finally pulled those shoes off and walked up five flights of gritty piss-smelling stairs barefoot, swearing to myself with every step that if Ilya was passed out drunk on the couch, I was carrying every pair of skinny black jeans and his beloved harness boots out into the courtyard and setting it all on fire. And then I was going to dance around the blaze barefoot, shaking my tangled hair like a maenad. Like a witch.
This is how women sometimes turn into witches. We come home from work one day too many to discover our partners curled up on the couch like leeches in a nice warm tank, and we decide it’s better to take up with a hut with chicken legs.
A good chicken-legged hut will never disappoint you.
But when I got home, there was hot food on the stove, plates on the coffee table, and a foot massage.
I bet a chicken-legged hut doesn’t give a very good foot massage. And they sure as hell don’t cook. Even lentils and kasha. Still it was good lentils and kasha, with garlic in it. And onions. And I hadn’t been the one to cook it.
You need to get a magic cauldron for doing the cooking. Maybe a mortar and pestle that flies.
Ilya washed my foot. Then his fingers dug and rolled in the arch. I whimpered and stretched against him, but when he would have stopped I demanded persistence. He set my heel on the cushion and stood.
“Where are you going?”
“You’re crabby for somebody whose man is making such an effort.” He walked into the kitchen. A moment later he was back, bearing icy vodka in a tiny glass. He handed it to me. “Na zdravie.”
“You’re trying to butter me up,” I complained, but I didn’t refuse the vodka. It was cold and hot at once, icy in the mouth, burning in the throat, warm in the belly.
“What is it that you really want?”
He seated himself again and pressed his thumbs into my arch until I groaned. Patently disinterested, he asked, “Any foreigners tonight?”
It was not a totally idle question. Foreigners tip better. Also, as anyone could guess from the evidence of his wardrobe, Ilya was obsessed with twentieth-century punk rock, and twentieth-century punk rock flourished in England and America. And there aren’t as many foreigners as there used to be, before the carbon crunch.
“You’re always playing some game,” I said.
He kissed the sole of my foot.
I said, “You never just tell me the truth. You could just tell me the truth.”
“Bah,” he said, pressing too hard. “Truth is unscientific. The very idea of Truth is unscientific.”
“You’re a cynic.” I almost said nihilist, which probably would have been true also, but that word had too much history behind it to just sling around at random.
“If we accept Truth,” he intoned, “then we believe we know answers. And if we believe we know answers, we stop asking questions. And if we stop asking questions, then all we’re doing is operating on blind faith. And that’s the end of science.”
“Isn’t love a kind a faith?” I asked.
“Then why do you keep asking me so many questions?” He laughed, though, to take the sting out.
I knew he was right. But I still pulled the pillow out from under my head and put it over my face anyway. What did he know about science? He couldn’t even really play guitar.
Two days later, Ilya and I saw the dog again, and I realized she was female. Perhaps we commuted on the same schedule. Perhaps she just rode the train back and forth, and we happened to be in the same car that day.
I don’t think so.
She looked like she had a job. She looked like she was going somewhere.
Maybe her job was begging for food. When I walked past her to get off, she whined at me again, and again I had nothing.
One more creature for me to disappoint.
When I got off work that night, I bought some hard sausage from the street vendor. I didn’t see the dog on the way home, though, so I wrapped the sausage in tissue and stuffed it into the bottom of my sometimes bag where Ilya wouldn’t get into it. Maybe I’d run into her the next day.
Dinner was waiting for me again, sausages and peppers and some good bread. Ilya had even found wine somewhere, which was almost too good to be true. Wine is hard to come by: the old vineyards are dying in the heat, and the new ones aren’t yet well-established. That’s what I heard, anyway.
Ilya seemed nervous. Hovering. When he finally settled, I was eating pepper slices one by one, savoring them. They were rich with the sausage grease, spicy and delicious. He chased his food around the plate for a little with his fork, then leaned on his elbows and looked at me.
I knew I was about to lose my appetite, so I ate another bite of sausage before I met his gaze.
“Have you thought about the liver graft?” he asked.
I swallowed. I reached for my wine, and deliberately drank two sips. “No.”
“No,” I said. “By which I mean, I have thought about it. And the answer is no. If you want to license out somebody’s body to grow stem-cell organs, use your own. I work for a living. I take classes when I can. What the hell do you do?”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “We need this money to pay for the tour. For the band.”
“Wait,” I said. “Isn’t a tour supposed to be something you do to make money?”
“We’ll make it all back on merchandise sales, and more. It will be our big launch!”
“What about me?” I asked. “I only need another year and a half to get my engineering degree. What do I get out of it?”
He reached out and took my hand. “I’ll buy you a house. Two houses!”
I think he even believed it.
“Petra . . .” he stroked a thumb across the back of my hand. “You know we can change the world if we just get a chance. We can be another Black Flag, another Distemper.”
I caught myself scowling and glanced away. He rose, refilled my wine, kissed my neck.
“Help me change our lives,” he whispered. “You know I’m doing everything I can. I just need you to believe in me.”
His breath shivered on the fine hairs behind my ear. He found my shoulders with his hands and massaged.
I was too tired to be angry, and anyway, he smelled good. I leaned back against his warm, hard belly. I let him smooth my hair and lead me to bed.
Ilya was already gone when I woke up for work the next day. That was unlike him, being out of the house before three. He’d left me an indecipherable note. And I honestly did try to decipher it!
What were the odds that he had work? Would he brag it up in advance, or would he want to surprise me with his unprecedented productivity? I got up, cleaned off, dressed, and walked outside.
It was a beautiful day. The sky was a crisp sweet color that would have looked like a ripe fruit, if fruit came in blue. I walked to the Metro down the long blocks with their cement pavements, hemmed in by giant cubes of buildings on each side. Dogs and humans trotted this way and that with city-dweller focus: I’m going somewhere and it matters. Nobody looked around. I lived in a plain area, where the tourists don’t come.
The streets were thronged with everything from petal busses to microcabs. There aren’t so many solar vehicles here—they’re not much good over the winter—but we have a bike share. I was early today—Ilya being home always slowed me down—and the weather was nice enough that I even thought of picking one up from the stand near the Metro and riding in to work today, but I hadn’t brought a change of clothes except shoes, and I didn’t want to spend the whole night sweaty.
I did spot one old petrol limousine. It stank, and the powerful whirr of its engine made me itch to scoop up a big rock and hurl it through the passenger window. I was stopped by the fact that it was probably bulletproof, and also by the other fact that anybody who could afford to own and operate a gasoline auto could also afford bodyguards who would think nothing of running me down and breaking my arms when they caught me.
I was wearing better shoes, today. But I didn’t have much faith in my ability as a sprinter.
So I turned aside, and descended into the Metro.
I was early for my train. As I waited, my friend the ovcharka trotted up and sat down beside me. Her black-tipped, amber coat was shedding out in huge wooly chunks, leaving her sleek guard hairs lying close side by side. She looked up at me and dog-laughed, tongue lolling.
I remembered the sausage, and also that I had forgotten to eat breakfast. I split it with her. She took her share from my fingers daintily as a lady accepting a tea sandwich.
When the train came, we boarded it together. There were several seats, and I expected her to take one while I took another. But instead, when I sat, the dog curled up on my feet with a huff that I didn’t know enough Dog to interpret.
We rode in silence to my usual stop for work. It was a companionable feeling, the sort of thing I wasn’t used to. Just quiet coexistence. I understood for a minute why people might like dogs.
I stood, stepping over her to disentangle us, and headed for the open door.
The dog stepped in front of me.
Not as if she were getting off. As if she were blocking my path.
“I get off here,” I said to her, pretending talking to a dog wasn’t patently ridiculous. After one quick glance, the other passengers ignored us, because that’s how it is in cities.
I tried to step around her. The ovcharka lowered her ears and growled.
I stepped back in surprise.
Hopping on one foot, I pulled off my shoe. It was the only weapon I had. I raised it to wallop the dog.
She ducked—cringing—but didn’t move. She peered up at me and wagged her tail innocently, teeth chastely covered now. I imagined her like the wolf in the story: “Do not kill me, Prince Ivan. I will be of use to you again!”
That was when I noticed she was pregnant. A pup must have kicked or twisted inside her, because a sharp bulge showed against her side for a moment before smoothing away again.
I dropped the shoe back on the floor and stepped into it. I wasn’t going to beat a pregnant dog with my trainer.
She nosed my hand gently and wagged her tail. She looked at the door, back at me. She pushed up against my legs and, as the door slid shut and the train lurched forward, she herded me back to my seat—still vacant, and the one next to it was empty now too. Only once I sat did she hop up beside me and lay her head across my lap.
I’m not sure why I went. Perhaps I was simply too befuddled to struggle. And I was early for work, anyway.
Two stops later, she hopped down as the train was approaching the station, and nudged me with her slimy nose again.
I’d already spent the ruble. I might as well see what it had bought. I followed the dog out into the bustle of the station, up the escalator—she didn’t even pause—and out into the balmy afternoon. She checked over her shoulder occasionally to make sure I was behind her, but other than that never hesitated. I had to trot to keep up: so much for showing up to work not sweaty.
After less than a kilometer, she slowed. Her head dropped, and she placed each foot singularly, with care. I recognized the stalking posture of a wolf, and pressed myself into the shadow of a building behind her. I felt like we were spies.
There was a pocket park up ahead—a tiny island of green space surrounded by a black twisted iron rail. As we came up to it, just to the edge where leaf-shadows dappled the pavement, I realized that there were two figures on a bench across the little square of green. They were facing away, and because of the dog’s weird behavior, I had been walking softly. They didn’t hear me.
I recognized one of them immediately, and not just by the skinny jeans and the leather jacket and the guitar case leaned against the arm of the bench. The other was a woman. More than that I couldn’t see, because Ilya had pulled her into his lap and had his tongue so far down her throat he could probably tell what she’d had for breakfast yesterday.
How many of his band practices had actually involved musicians—no matter how loosely you defined the term?
I would have expected my hands to shake, my gorge to rise. I would have expected to feel some kind of denial. But instead, what I felt—what I experienced—was a kind of fatalistic acceptance. Frustration, more than anything.
How Russian of me, I remember thinking, and having to bite down on the kind of laugh that rises up when one recognizes one’s self behaving in a stereotypical fashion. The dog leaned against my leg; I buried my fingers in her greasy coat. When I looked at her, she was looking up at me.
Want to go pick a fight? I imagined her asking.
Her tail waved in small circles. She waited to see what I would do.
I stepped back into the shadows of the building, turned smartly, and set off back towards the Metro. The dog followed a few steps, then trotted off in her own direction.
I didn’t mind. Like me, she probably had to get to work.
I wound up taking a share bike after all. I was running too late to make it on the train.
On my break that night, I found a corner in the staff den and read everything I could pull up about dogs. I felt queasy and tired. I wanted to go home, already. Somehow, I made it through my shift, though I couldn’t manage cheeky and flirtatious, and so my tips were shit.
Ilya and I didn’t have our next fight immediately when I walked in the door. This was only because he was in bed asleep, and I couldn’t find enough fucks to wake him. And when we got up the next day, I was too angry to put it into words. Sure, he irritated me. That’s what partners do for each other, isn’t it? But I had thought we were a team. I had thought…
I had thought he would get his act together one of these days, I guess, and finally start to pull his own weight. I had thought I was saving him.
Finally, at the top of the Metro escalators, he had had enough of my stony silence, and pushed the issue. Went about it all wrong, too, because he stopped, tugged my elbow to pull me out of the line of traffic, scowled at me, and said, “What the fuck crawled up your ass this morning?”
It was almost three in the afternoon, but whatever. I shook his hand off my elbow, glared, and spat. “You cheated on me!”
I saw him riffling through potential answers. He thought about playing dumb, but I was too convinced. He had to know I knew something for sure. At last he settled on, “It was an accident!”
“Like she tripped and fell on your dick? Argh!” I threw my hands up. We were causing a scene and it felt wonderful.
“Ilya, never mind. Never mind. You’re taking the next fucking train. And I want your shit out of my apartment when I get home.”
“My name’s on the lease too!”
“And when was the last time you paid a bill?”
He stepped up to me. I thought about slapping him, but that would give him the moral authority. Still, I didn’t step back.
“Next train,” I told Ilya. “I’m not riding with you.” I’d have to push past him to reach the escalator. Instead, I spun around and bolted down the stairs.
When I got to work, I had to run into the bathroom to puke. It’s a good thing Misha the bartender keeps peppermints in his apron, or every single customer I served that night would have smelled it on my breath.
Why the hell hadn’t I been fucking someone more like Misha all along?
Probably because he was gay. But, you know. Besides that.
I was still queasy on the ride home, and the lurch of the late-night train didn’t help me. There were, at least, plenty of seats, though I looked in vain for my ovcharka friend. Nobody got into the first carriage except for me and one middle-aged grandmother in a dumpy coat. We settled down opposite one another.
In direct contravention to all the courtesies about not bothering strangers on trains, I asked her if she had seen the dog.
“Not today,” she answered. “But sometimes. The one with the shaded coat like a wolf, yes?”
She sucked her false teeth. “In the Soviet time the Moscow dogs were hunted, my grandmother said. Then when I was a girl, there were more of them. They prospered for a while. And then people poisoned so many, and shooed them out of the Metro even when it was cold. But they’re smart.”
“The scientists say they’re getting smarter.”
She made a shooing motion with her hand. Get out of here. “I say they’ve always been smart.”
“They’re evolving,” I said. “I read that dogs domesticated themselves. They hung around human middens scavenging. Their puppies played with our children until they—and we—realized we’d be good partners. We evolved in the tropics and they evolved in the subarctic, but we fill the same ecological niche. We’re social pack hunters and scavengers who rely on teamwork to survive. They had teeth and we had fire. They had better hearing and smell and we had hands and better sight. It was a contract, between us and them.”
I took a breath. She looked at me, waiting for me to finish. I said, “Some scientists say evolution is a struggle between female and male in the same species. Males want to make as many babies as they can, anywhere, any time. Females want to make sure the babies they raise are as strong and smart as possible. From the best males.”
“Do you believe that?”
I laughed. “It sounds like something a guy who thinks he’s something special would come up with, doesn’t it? A justification.”
“They’re as God made them.” She raised her brows at me, wrinkling her forehead under her scarf. Looking for an argument. And anybody sensible knows better than to argue with grandmothers. “The dogs are as God made them, too. To be our helpers.”
I nodded, backing down.
“They seek tenderness,” said the grandmother. “They have always been in Moscow. They are like every other Russian. Trying to get by. Trying to get a little fat again before the winter comes.”
“Not just Russians,” I said. “If you take away the few who have everything, the whole world is full of all the rest of us, who are just trying to get a little fat before the winter comes.”
“That may be so.” She smiled. “But the dog knows the Metro better than almost all of them.” Then she frowned at me shrewdly. “Are you having man troubles, miss?”
“It’s that evident?”
She made one of those creaking noises old women make, too knowing to really count as either a sigh or a laugh. “When you’ve been riding the Metro as long as I have, you’ve seen a broken heart for every iron rail. You should get rid of him. Pretty girl like you.”
“I already did,” I said, feeling better. Was I really taking dating advice from Baba Yaga?
That chicken-legged hut was sounding better and better.
“Stick to your guns,” she said. “Remember when he comes crawling back that you can do better. He will crawl back. They always do. Especially when he finds out that you’re pregnant.”
As if answering her diagnosis, my stomach lurched again, acid tickling the back of my throat.
She laid a finger alongside her nose. “Babushkas can smell it, sweetheart,” she said. “We always know.”
Ilya was there when I got home, of course. Throwing them out never works. And I knew he was home—I mean, there—before I touched my key to the door.
I could hear the music, his fingers flickering across the six strings of his guitar. He was better then I remembered. Arpeggios and instants, flickers of sound and wile and guile. It was beautiful, and I paused for a few moments with my cheek pressed against the door. Maybe he did have the means to change the world with his music.
So maybe I’ve been unkind.
To his talent, in the least.
Ilya sat on the couch, bent over his guitar as if it were a lover. His fringe fell over his forehead and I found my hand at my mouth. I was biting the tips of my fingers to keep from smoothing that lock.
He looked up, saw me, finished the arpeggio. Set his guitar aside, walked past me, and shut and locked the neglected door. Looked at me, and I could see through his eyes like ice to the formulated lie.
Before he opened his mouth, I said, “I saw you.”
He blinked. I had him on the wrong foot and I didn’t care. “Saw me?”
“With her,” I said. “Whoever the hell she was. I don’t want to hear your excuses.”
He seemed smaller when he asked, “How?”
I didn’t mean to tell him, but some laughs are so bitter and rough that words stick to them on their way out. “Remember the dog?” I asked. “The metro dog? She showed me.”
“I don’t understand—”
“You don’t have to.” I sat down on the floor, all of a sudden. Because it was there. I put my face in my hands for similar reasons. “Fuck, Ilya, I’m pregnant.”
There was silence. Long silence. When I finally managed to fight the redoubled force of gravity and raise my face to him, he was staring at me.
“Pregnant,” he said.
“But that’s great!” he said. And then he stomped on my flare of hope before I even knew I felt it. “You can sell that. The embryo! They’re nothing but stem cells at that point—”
“Sell it,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“To fund your tour?”
I didn’t realize I’d said it aloud until Ilya stopped raving and looked down at me. “What?”
“Oh, God,” I said. “Fuck you.”
Somehow, I stood up. I remember my hand on the floor, the ache of my thighs as if I were drunk. I remember looking him in the eye. I remember what I said.
It was, “Keep the fucking apartment. I’ll call tomorrow and take my name off the lease.”
I turned my back on him. He was babbling something about food in the oven. About how was he supposed to make the rent.
I paused with a hand on the knob. “Go peddle it on Tverskaya Prospekt for all I care.”
Of course, I was halfway to the lift before I realized I had nothing but my work clothes, my bag, and two pairs of shoes—one of those quite impractical.
Well, I wasn’t about ruin an exit like that in order to go back and pack a suitcase. No self-respecting chicken-legged hut would have anything to do with me after that, if I had.
It took me two more days to find the dog. The first day, other than work—and I wasn’t missing work now!—was mostly spent at a clinic, getting my name taken off the lease, looking at a couple of apartments, and finding a place to sleep for a couple of days until one of those became available. It turned out Misha the bartender didn’t mind at all if I crashed at his place and neither did his boyfriend, and everybody at work was thrilled to hear that Ilya had been consigned to the midden heap of history.
How is it that you never hear about how much your friends hate your lover until you get rid of him or her?
Anyway, once that was all taken care of, I went to find my ovcharka friend. This mostly involved taking the Metro out to my station—my old station—earlier than I would have usually gotten up for work, and then checking the first car of each train for a wolf-colored passenger. I had a sausage in my bag and a hollow ache in my belly, but mostly what I remember was the grim determination that I would find that dog.
She wasn’t on the train.
Instead, she trotted up beside me while I was waiting, sat down like an old friend on my left side, and looked up at me with one front paw lifted. I imagined her saying, “Shake?”
Instead, I broke a chunk off the sausage and offered it to her. “Thank you,” I said.
She was as gentle as before. And if anything, she looked bigger around the middle than last time. She must be nearly ready to have the pups. I pressed a hand to my own stomach, imagining it pushing out like that. That hollow ache got hollow-er.
Someday. After my degree. But it wouldn’t be deadbeat Ilya’s deadbeat kid. No matter how good he smelled.
The train was coming. I felt the air pressure rise, heard the rattle of the wheels on iron rails.
“How did you know?” I asked the dog. “I owe you one.”
She raised her brows at me, wrinkling her brow. Expecting an argument? She didn’t wag.
I sighed and said, “Just how smart are you?”
And then Ilya was between us, shoving me out of the way. I hadn’t even heard him come up. Hadn’t heard the creak of his leather jacket. Didn’t react fast enough to keep his elbow out of my ribs. I doubled over helplessly, wheezing for breath. The train’s hydraulics hissed. Brakes squealed.
He gripped the dog by her scruff and her tail and slung her into the air. She yelped—more of a shriek—and he took a step toward the platform edge.
“You little bitch!”
He looked at me when he shouted it, and I wasn’t sure if he meant the dog or me. But I knew the next five seconds like I was a prophet, like I was a Cassandra, like someone had dropped a magic mirror in my hand.
Ilya was going to throw the dog in front of the train.
Cassandra never got a chance to do anything. I jumped between Ilya and the platform edge.
The dog slammed into my chest. I pushed her away, throwing her onto the platform. The force tipped me on the platform edge. I pinwheeled my arms, expecting to topple backward. Expecting the next sensation to be the terrible impact of metal and then nothing—or worse, pain. I teetered, that hollowness in my stomach replaced with liquid, sloshing fear.
Someone caught my collar. Someone else caught my wrist. The feeling of relief and gratitude that flooded me left me on my knees. A man and a woman hovered over me. I could not see their faces.
I looked up into Ilya’s face. The dog crouched in front of me, growling. Ears laid flat. Ilya lunged at her, and the man beside me grabbed him, twisted his arm behind his back.
“Bitch!” he swore, wrenching at the man who held him.
“Do you know that man?” the woman asked. She put a hand under my elbow and lifted me to my feet. There was a ladder in my stocking. My knee oozed blood.
“I left him,” I said.
“I can see why,” she answered. She patted my back.
Ilya twisted and kicked, rocking back and forth like a kid running against a sling swing. The dog snarled, a hollow trembling sound almost lost in the noise of the train. I thought she’d lunge for him, but she just stood her ground. Between him and me.
He must have wormed his arm out of the jacket sleeve, because suddenly he was off running, and his jacket hung limp in the man’s grasp like a shed skin. I heard the thumping of his boots on the marble, shouts as he must have crashed through a crowd, and then nothing.
The man looked at the jacket, then at me.
“I don’t want it,” I said.
The police, of course, were nowhere.
There was fuss, but eventually the ring of opinionated observers we’d drawn filtered off to their trains. The two helpful bystanders who had saved my life decided I could be left alone. The woman gave me a tissue. The man insisted I take Ilya’s coat. Only then did they feel they had performed their civic obligations and reluctantly leave me alone.
I dropped Ilya’s coat on a bench. Somebody would take it, but it wouldn’t be me. I hoped his phone was in the pocket, but I didn’t bother to check.
Then I looked at the dog.
She sniffed my bloodied knee and looked thoughtful. She tried to lick it, but I pushed her away.
“You set this up, didn’t you?” Not Ilya trying to kill her, no. But me finding out about the other woman.
Or maybe it was just one bitch taking care of another. Do you know your mate is no good?
She just looked at me, squeezed her eyes, and thumped her shaggy tail. So you should thank me.
I huffed at her—like an irritated dog myself—and turned on the ball of my foot. This time I had the sense to be wearing practical shoes. She waited. I stopped, turned back, and saw her staring after me.
I had the money from the clinic—just as Ilya had suggested—but I sure as hell wouldn’t be spending it on Ilya’s band. I was going to enroll in classes tonight after work, and pay my tuition in advance. The cocktail job wasn’t going away, and it didn’t conflict with morning or most afternoon classes.
One of the apartments I had looked at was a student studio flat near the university. It was a complete roach motel, but it allowed pets.
I could do this thing.
I looked at the dog. She needed a bath.
The dog looked at me.
“Well,” I said to her. “Aren’t you coming?”
I started walking. The dog fell into step beside me. Her plumy tail wagged once.
“This Chance Planet” copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Bear
Art copyright © 2014 by Robert Hunt