Alex is a spider’s thread, the stick-point at the end of a long white line. There is a high rough whine and that’s it. You disappear into one small mistake.
Two weeks later, he is knocking on a door. The knock makes a strange echo inside the house. Alex supposes this is because of the hole in it. There’s no answer at first, just a scuffling sound that might be a person or mice. He looks up. White altocumulus flock in a band overhead. There’s a vague itch in the back of his throat. The scuffling clarifies, becomes steps.
A man stands in the doorway in his dressing gown and pants, flanked on one side by a scrap of white mutt, a tiny cloud that flickers with electricity. At a quiet command the dog sits still. Mr Ravka is not a tall man but his body is tall-shaped, bent from ducking. He has a clipped white beard that makes his face look doctor-like. Alex sees they are about the same age, retirement age. Mr Ravka looks at the stripes on Alex’s breast pocket. Alex looks at the piles of newspaper on the floor, peers into the dark behind Mr Ravka’s head.
‘Hello, Mr Ravka,’ he says.
‘You took your time,’ Mr Ravka says.
‘I didn’t know I was expected.’
The man grunts, picks at something behind his ear.
‘Alex Kuchin.’ Alex holds out a hand.
Mr Ravka doesn’t take it. ‘You’re from the government,’ he says.
‘Not exactly. May I come in?’
His head is tugged a millimetre back towards the inside, but he doesn’t turn.
‘No,’ he says.
The dog shifts on its hips. Alex feels his sinuses prickle.
‘They told me they had everything they needed,’ he says.
‘I’m not here about the compensation,’ Alex says. Mr Ravka’s eyes focus out of their weariness. They are small eyes, rimmed red. His expression is hard to read.
‘I am still waiting for the cheque,’ he says.
‘It is not my area,’ Alex says.
Mr Ravka’s hand clamps on to the door handle. ‘What, then?’ he says. His voice is clipped. ‘What is your area?’
Alex clears his throat. A hand dives into his pocket for a handkerchief. ‘I have come to apologise,’ he says.
Mr Ravka smiles. ‘Oh, apologise. You want to apologise. You think you can apologise? Look at this.’ He waves a hand behind him. Alex looks up and sees the gaping hole, far larger than he expected, almost the size of a room. ‘Two months and I haven’t seen a kopeck.’ A piece of tarp dangling, and through it the loose white band of altocumulus.
Alex sneezes. ‘Allergic,’ he says, waving a bundle of handkerchief at the dog.
Mr Ravka’s eyes return to Alex’s stripes. ‘Come back when you have the cheque,’ he says. He closes the door, leaving Alex standing there. He hears the dog’s toenails scatter across the floor like hail, lifts his hand to knock again, but stops. He can feel his face prickling. He gets back in his old Mercedes, turns on the air conditioning and pulls away.
Driving on land Alex feels closed in. Other cars, it must be. Apart from the radio, he is alone up there, in control. Well, as much control as the machine allows. As much responsibility.
If he hasn’t lost his job, it’s only because of his age. Due to go in the next eighteen months, and after the incident it is generally assumed it will be sooner. He is a military man and though he left the real air force long ago, in the dark years after the collapse, he has not lost his military habits. He has lived this job for the last fifteen years and he has little to go home to. A decent house, paid off at last, and the old Mercedes. A woman who comes once a week to clean. No pets, because of the allergies. But he is happy, he would have had a clean record if not for this one mistake.
He rarely thinks about the difficult years, but he has heard those words before, the words Mr Ravka said: Two months and I haven’t seen a kopeck. Chechnya. Flying tin cans at half staff. The hell of it, flying for fear, not knowing when your pay was coming. Pilots in the east on hunger strike for their wages. Talk of looting. The condition of the aircraft forced you into bad risks. He was glad to leave.
But he never lost his judgement and he never missed a target, not by accident. Not since the war. His life would have made a clean white line, if not for this one mistake. So it was strange, the sensation he felt. The moment of knowing he had missed the high point of the cloud, let go too soon, was bad enough. But afterwards, to hear of the destruction. It shocked him. It shocked him because it felt so perfectly good.
For some time it has been obvious that the Weather Modification Office is cutting costs. The work is expensive, technical, and more common than most people realise. In fifteen years it has gone beyond seeding and into the realm of agriculture. Humans are farmers of weather now, Alex thinks, as we have been farmers of crops. It pleases him that our technologies are so lacking in imagination that we simply repeat the same patterns on different scales: sow, reap, sow, reap, planet or Petri dish. His father and mother kept pigs. And though there are unusual risks in this line he is glad his work smells of high-octane fuel, ice and chemicals, and not of shit. This is advancement of some kind.
But advancement is always compromised. There have been cuts, reallocations. They are down to a skeleton staff. A few weeks ago Alex was in the hall, reading his schedule for the next fortnight. Beside him, Dmitri, who had been training to become a pilot until the program was dissolved. They promise it will be back, the training money, but they don’t say when. Dmitri is stuck on the ground for now. Summer is their busiest time, the highest demand for clear skies. Reading the chart, Alex was shocked at how many shifts he was expected to cover.
‘There will be mistakes,’ said Dmitri. ‘No-one should be made to work so often on his own.’ Alex nodded. He withdrew without remark. But he felt nervous.
And now the cement, when they are supposed to use silver. Silver iodide, dropped in flares from the wings. The canisters open and the chemicals disperse; the crystals help the ice to form. It isn’t so toxic. An everyday compound, they use it in photography. But it is expensive. In the weeks before the incident, the stocks were depleting and there were no fresh orders. And one day he came in to find there was a pallet of cement where the flares should be. Cement in double brown paper, plain as houses. They had a meeting, questions discouraged. Tests had compared it, they said: 63 per cent of the effectiveness at 12 per cent of the cost. They had a PowerPoint. You trusted them.
You fill the canisters, they explained, mix a little iodide in, and it disperses. It is all the same. Collision and coalescence are what you engineer. A little of the crystal will do; the rest is weight. ‘It is better than bags of shit,’ Alex said afterwards. ‘Soon it’s you and I,’ Dmitri said. ‘You and I, we’re silver iodide. One day soon, they will hire cement.’
Since the beginning of the summer Alex has been flying alone, no co-pilot. He is busy. They are in demand. There are summits, sporting events, droughts, visiting presidents, celebrity weddings, national holidays, parades, elections. Mistakes.
After he visits Mr Ravka, Alex drives two-thirds of the way home, changes his mind, and heads for the office. The boys are both there, Dmitri and Vassily, unloading more pallets of cement. They wave, too far away to speak. Alex goes into his office, sits at the computer and begins to type his letter of resignation. When he has finished it is late. He prints two copies, places each in an envelope and puts both envelopes in his locker.
A week later he is standing in the same position, a hand hovering over the unsent letters. The boys around him interrupt his thoughts, packing up for the day, changing out of their work gear.
‘She’s all refuelled and loaded for the morning. I thought you’d gone home already,’ says Vassily, the words muffled by the shirt he’s lifting over his head.
‘Who’s on tonight?’
‘Security? Pyotr, I think.’ ‘Good. I have some paperwork,’ Alex says, waving a hand. ‘I’ll be in later.’ He locks the letters in the locker and goes out to the car. The evening is light and warm and cumulus fractus recede beautifully into the far distance towards Siberia. From habit he traces the scars of wind across the sky to the east, checks the budding cauliflower formations, the updraft pressing against their flat bottoms. Tomorrow there will be good seeding clouds.
Vassily passes him in the car park, offers a nod. ‘See you tomorrow, Captain,’ he says. ‘Don’t work too hard.’
Alex drives out of the gate and turns the wrong way. He heads back towards Mr Ravka’s place, to the north of the city. It’s a long drive. The press of houses turns into sparser villages and then into woods.
He knocks three times before Mr Ravka answers. There is a TV sound coming from the top of the house, floating through the hole.
‘Good evening, Mr Ravka,’ he says. ‘I am sorry to be so persistent. But the thing is this.’
The tarp behind him flaps a little in the summer breeze. Alex means to apologise but when he opens his mouth, it is too ticklish for speech. He coughs, embarrassed. ‘You see, I …’
He waves a hand in the air and sneezes. The allergies. The back of his nose feels strafed by fire.
Mr Ravka steps out onto the mat, closes the door behind him. ‘What do you want?’ he says. He is a short man but his face is threatening, tilted up at Alex’s. Alex composes himself.
‘I am sorry, Mr Ravka.’
‘Which is useless,’ says the shorter man.
‘I know,’ says Alex. Useless, he thinks, and not even true. The apology solves nothing. He feels no better. A sneeze clusters in his nose but dissipates before it bombs. He presses the handkerchief to his face.
‘Look, do you want to try it?’ He snuffles.
‘The thing is, Mr Ravka, I have a house. If you would like to try.’
He peers at the pilot stripes, his small eyes blink. ‘You were flying the plane,’ he says.
‘I’ll get my shoes,’ says Mr Ravka. Before he goes back inside he turns his neat little head and shakes it at Alex, like a teacher confronted with an amusing wrong answer.
In the car Mr Ravka tells Alex his name is George. He’s not a doctor or a teacher; he used to fix radios, but he’s retired. They stop at Alex’s house to turn on all the lights. The summer nights are bright, but lights will help.
‘You live alone?’ Mr Ravka says, looking at the few neat ornaments and the small kitchen table with two chairs, one covered in books. Alex nods.
‘Niece.’ The girl is pictured at her graduation. Now a microbiologist in America, with grown kids of her own. Alex is embarrassed. His house is bigger, cleaner, more intact than Mr Ravka’s. But empty.
‘You should get a dog,’ Mr Ravka says.
‘My allergies,’ Alex shrugs.
‘Ah, bad luck.’
‘I don’t mind,’ Alex says.
He’s looking out the tall window at the trees in sideways sunlight, lit again from below by the strong lights on the outside of his house. They look like rustling green storm clouds, cumulonimbus, cumulus congestus, dark and patient. Alex grabs his coat off the couch, because although it’s warm outside, it’s cold up there.
‘Let’s go,’ he says.
Alex tells Mr Ravka to hide his head under the coat as they approach the airstrip, and he does so without protest.
‘Hello, Pyotr,’ Alex says into the guard’s box. ‘I have some paperwork. How are the wedding plans coming along?’ His daughter, next weekend.
‘Vicious,’ he says. ‘I am being mauled by women.’
‘There are worse fates. See you on the way out,’ Alex says.
‘All right, Captain.’
Alex opens the roller door and shows Mr Ravka the bags of cement. The boys have stacked them neatly on top of each other. Most of the labels face the same way. They are good boys and he will miss their professionalism against the odds.
Alex shows him the canisters and the instruments. Mr Ravka moves restlessly around the room, nodding at everything.
‘You can make it snow?’ he asks.
‘Yes. But mostly rain.’
‘Can you make it stop snowing? In a hard winter?’
Alex shakes his head at the man’s bent back, a lifetime of broken radios. ‘I’ll get the keys,’ he says.
Mr Ravka turns around. ‘Why are you doing this?’
Alex hesitates. ‘Think of it as … an eye for an eye. A roof for a roof. Because of all your trouble.’
‘You’ll lose your job,’ he says.
‘I retire tomorrow.’
He hesitates, then nods, settles on something and grins. There’s a tooth missing on one side, towards the back.
‘Okay,’ he says.
Alex straps Mr Ravka in and gets Pyotr on the radio. ‘I’m taking the 340 for a test run, she was playing up today. Won’t be out long.’
‘Right you are,’ says Pyotr.
‘Safety first,’ Alex adds. ‘Over.’
Mr Ravka stifles a noise in his throat. Alex runs through the routine instrument check, buckles himself in. Shows Mr Ravka the button that releases the catch on the wings where the flares are held.
‘Don’t press that until I tell you,’ he says.
Alex takes off to the south and flies in a smooth arc to the west, towards his house. The wind is light and they reach 4000 feet without difficulty.
‘There’s your place.’ Alex spots the patch of blue tarp and points it out to him. The sun bobbing along the horizon gets into his eyes so Alex banks and turns to head east, towards the village near his own house. He can soon see it shining in the distance, bright as an alien ship in the long St Petersburg dusk. He flies over once at this comfortable altitude. Things don’t just look smaller from the air, they also look more connected. You can see the patterns, the way people tend to clump together. Alex points out his house, sees how it sits apart, snug with the curve of a hill on one side, pushing out a circle of trees.
‘I’ll do another pass. Get ready,’ he says. He can feel Mr Ravka looking at the side of his head, but does not check for the expression.
Alex makes a ninety-degree turn, then another, letting the plane lose altitude. He needs to be high enough to do some damage, but close enough to be sure of a hit. He is focused, feels stronger than before, almost has the adrenaline rush of a young man flying a bomber. His last flight, he supposes. Make it count for something.
He ducks and turns, passing low over the trees towards the house. He can see the tops of pines bend and shake away from the plane. Flying, he knows the moment, knows the right shape of the curve it will make, where it will end.
‘Now,’ he shouts.
Mr Ravka moves his hand. Alex flies almost straight up, loops fast and tight before he remembers that his passenger might be afraid. When he looks across Mr Ravka is clinging to the seat but smiling.
‘Yes,’ Mr Ravka shouts, ‘but no more upside down!’
Alex passes over the house again. He is absorbed in his flying, and when he calls ‘Now’ for a second time he doesn’t see the man’s hand float over the button, for the second time float past without touching it.
They return at a higher altitude, easing above the few low clouds.
‘Seems to be clearing,’ Alex says.
Mr Ravka doesn’t answer. Alex gazes past him, out to where St Petersburg lies glowing and smoky in the evening sun. The Nevsky hums, the bridges shine like crystal miracles behind a field of grim tower blocks. It is the last time he will see it from the air.
‘What are you going to do,’ asks Mr Ravka, ‘when you retire?’
‘I don’t know. I suppose I will make myself useful.’ Alex shrugs. ‘Fix my roof.’
Mr Ravka coughs. ‘Ah,’ he says.
© Jennifer Mills