You did it! YOU FOUND KATERINA!!! (Or… maybe Katerina found you!)
This strange little story came to me one day long ago, as I sat on an airplane flying across the United States. While I watched the world from high above, the story gradually began to appear, so I got out a notebook and frantically scribbled down the first draft.
Katerina later found a home nested within my third novel, which comes out in fall 2021. But since this story was given to me, it only feels fitting to give it to you. The full story is below; you can start at the beginning or skip to chapter two if you’ve already read the first chapter. (Bonus: there are a few extra goodies waiting for you if you read all the way to the end!)
Also, if you found a Katerina booklet out in the world, I’d love to see where you found it, so tag a photo #ifoundkaterina on Instagram, and/or get in contact. In any case, I’m glad you’re here. Read on & enjoy!
On the night we are to leave the moon forever, the cabbages began to sing.
The song started while I watered the plants in the greenhouse; it was faint at first, but now I can no longer ignore the sound. It’s not singing, exactly, not like the nursery songs Dr. Belinsky used to sing to me. This is more of a hum, a deep vibration. It builds into a crescendo so loud that I drop my watering can, spilling the precious water all over the floor.
That brings me to my senses, and I begin scooping the puddles up with my hands, redistributing them to the plants closest to me. All the while, the humming continues.
I position my head close to the nearest cabbage, so that my ear is right next to the leaves. The hum grows louder, thicker, more word-like. It almost feels like the plant is trying to talk to me.
Which is impossible. Right? I close my eyes so that I can listen harder. With great effort, the cabbage finally forms two words: COME OUTSIDE.
My head snaps up with the shock of the suggestion. Outside? I cannot go outside. I don’t have the proper suit for that; my mask will not allow me to breathe out there. Dr. Belinsky has told me many times: if I ever leave the dome, I will die.
Certainly, I have dreamed of escape. I am only allowed to be in the greenhouses during the long dark night when the grow lights are off. This makes it easy to see the landscape stretching before me, the ridges and craters, the sky freckled with millions of stars, the blue planet that Dr. Belinsky once fixed his telescope on so that I could see the place they left behind. I nodded my head when he told me it was blue because most of it was covered with water, even though I knew that could not be true. Who would leave a place where water was so plentiful?
Most of the time, though, I stay inside my living quarters, a room and a bathroom off of Dr. Belinsky’s suite. He talks, sometimes, of the other cosmonauts, but whenever someone rings him, I am to disappear. I only ever met one of the others, and that wouldn’t have happened if not for the incident with Sergey.
Sergey. Thinking of him sends a wave of fear rippling through me. Sergey had heard voices too. And it had not ended well for him.
I decide to ignore what I’m hearing, even though it is now being repeated by what seems like every cabbage in the greenhouse. Another word has been added now: my name. COME OUTSIDE, KATERINA. COME OUTSIDE.
“No,” I whisper aloud, then open my eyes, deciding I should return to my room, perhaps lie down for a rest. But I am immediately dazzled. I think for a moment the grow lights have turned back on, and my fear turns into panic: I should not be here. I cannot let myself be seen.
As I stumble out of the room in my still-too-big isolation suit, I realize something odd about that light. It’s not coming from the grow lamps at all. It’s coming from the cabbages. They’re shimmering, each leaf dotted with tiny star-like points of luminescence, and their song grows louder and louder and louder still. KATERINA, COME OUTSIDE! COME OUTSIDE!
I run through the secret corridor to my room. Once safely inside, I take off my isolation suit, happy to be rid of the bulky fabric that makes my skin leak sweat.
I stop when I pull my fingers out of my gloves. My hands are glowing. Just like the cabbage leaves.
I don’t know what to do. I let my suit fall in a heap on the floor and inspect myself. My hands, my arms, my entire body glimmers with constellations.
Into the bathroom for a timed one-minute shower, scrubbing at my skin to make the light go away. It does not. It’s as though it is part of my skin. Through the splashing water I can still hear the hum. COME OUTSIDE, COME OUTSIDE.
I try taking a short nap next, but nothing changes. The relentless chorus is starting to drive me mad.
I need to tell Dr. Belinsky, I know that. I also know how he will look at me, with his kind but scrutinizing eyes; how he will listen to my heart with his stethoscope and feel my lymph nodes with his gloved hands and record these new symptoms in the notebook he keeps about me and my disease.
This isn’t related to my disease, is it? I hope with all my might that this is just a passing sickness.
I don’t want to end up like Sergey.
The thought is enough to make me hesitate to ask Dr. Belinsky for help. But he is all I have. The only other person in the colony I’ve ever met is Dmitri, but I don’t know where his living quarters are, and I can’t wander the halls looking like this. I can’t wander the halls at all. Leaving my quarters is too risky, according to Dr. Belinsky. For me, and for everyone else.
Most of all, I know, he does not want Mikhail to find out about me.
And I don’t want that, either.
I towel my hair dry and pull my isolation suit over my linen work clothes, then travel the back corridor that connects Dr. Belinsky’s quarters to mine. As I walk, I can’t stop seeing Sergey, chained to the pipe in that locked room. The wildness of his eyes. The way he screamed and screamed—INVADERS! OUTSIDERS! YOU NEVER SHOULD HAVE COME!—before ripping that pipe from the wall and trying to smash his way out. Mikhail gave orders to cut off the oxygen supply to his room. They let him suffocate in there. They were that afraid of him.
That won’t happen to me… right? Dr. Belinsky would never treat me that way.
But Mikhail might. I’ve only seen him once, on Sergey’s last night; I was in Dr. Belinsky’s exam room when he barged in and Dr. Belinsky ushered me into a closet just in time. So I only caught glimpses of him, his steely eyes and tight fists. I could hear those things in his voice, too. “A man of conviction,” Dr. Belinsky always says. Mikhail does not hesitate to do whatever needs to be done.
Whatever happens, I’m certain Dr. Belinsky will protect me. And if anyone knows how to help, it is he. Perhaps he even has a pill I can take to fix this.
My anxiety grows as I step closer to his office door. The spaceship is to depart in secret later this night, though Dr. Belinsky told me earlier that there has been a delay. It will probably be another forty hours or so, he’d said.
Will that give me time enough to recover? What if this is still happening when they’re ready for launch?
If it is… will they leave without me?
I don’t want to even consider this possibility. The only person they’re planning to leave behind is Mikhail.
I’m about to open the door when I see, through the small window, that Dr. Belinsky is talking to Dmitri inside. Thinking it best not to interrupt, not to show my face to Dmitri while it’s still glowing, I turn to go. But then—
“What did you tell Katerina?” Dmitri’s voice is loud. Even though he is beyond the thick door, it’s as if he were standing in the corridor right next to me. I don’t have time to figure out why I can hear them so clearly, because Dr. Belinsky is talking now, and I need to know his answer.
“I told her that we are leaving in forty hours.”
“So… she thinks she’s coming along?”
“That’s what she’s been led to believe, yes.”
I’m so stunned I cannot move. What does Dr. Belinsky mean by that—has he been lying to me?
“But perhaps she could come?” Dr. Belinsky adds. Now he sounds like he’s pleading with Dmitri. Even though his words are somewhat comforting, I don’t like the weakness in his voice. He is usually so authoritative. “She could stay in her isolation suit, and she could live with my sister Ilyana Petrokova, near the Volga River in Syzran… Katerina would be safe there.”
“No. We can’t bring her to earth with us. The risk of contamination is too high—”
“My studies lead me to believe that the creatures aren’t airborne. They spread by physical contact. And I don’t think they’re necessarily dangerous. She’s always exhibited normal human behavior.”
Dmitri keeps talking as if he hadn’t heard. “Assuming the ship even makes it through re-entry, we probably won’t land anywhere near Russia. And none of us have any plans to return to the land where we are fugitives.”
“It’s been twelve years. There may have been a revolution in the meantime. They may welcome us back with open arms.”
“Unlikely. Besides, if anyone finds out about Katerina’s… condition… which they most certainly will… she will be quarantined. Tested. Viewed as a curiosity, a specimen. Is that what you want?”
Dr. Belinsky exhales. “No. But I still think—”
“There is no other way. She must stay here.”
“With Mikhail? The same person who abandoned her outside the dome as an infant—who left her out there to die? It’s a miracle she was still breathing when I got to her. Next time, she may not be so lucky.”
Instead of answering, Dmitri says, “I will not allow her on the ship, and that is final. But you, Fyodor—we need you. So be ready. My estimate is twenty hours. We need to launch before Mikhail finds out. I’m worried he suspects something.”
“Ironic, isn’t it.” Dr. Belinsky sounds resigned. Like he’s done fighting. “We started out trying to build utopia, and ended up creating a totalitarian system just like the one we left.”
The men are still talking, I see when I peek through the window one more time, but I cannot hear them any longer. Instead, the hum returns.
“Ironic, isn’t it.” Dr. Belinsky sounds resigned. Like he’s done fighting. “We started out trying to build utopia, and ended up creating a totalitarian system just like the one we left.”
I try to fend it off. I need to process what I’ve heard. But I can barely think.
COME OUTSIDE, KATERINA, COME OUTSIDE. The walls are saying it now. The whole dome, vibrating with these instructions.
Something comes together inside my head. Dmitri said that Mikhail had taken me outside the dome after I was born. I should have died instantly—but I was still breathing when Dr. Belinsky saved me.
Maybe he’s been wrong all this time. Maybe I don’t need a spacesuit after all.
I head straight for the airlock before I can lose my nerve. This might kill me.
But it might not.
I punch the button, and the door slides open.
I run into the night before trying to draw my first breath. I want to get as far away from the dome as I can. Far away from Dr. Belinsky. He plans to leave with the rest of them, and I will be all alone here with Mikhail.
It doesn’t take long before I grow breathless. My heart flutters with panic as I inhale: it feels all wrong, like my lungs are being squeezed tight instead of inflating the way they should.
I stop, doubled over, trying again. Gasping, searching desperately for oxygen.
And then something happens. It’s like flipping a switch, turning a spigot. My lungs fill, somehow, with an atmosphere they were not built to handle. It’s impossible, but it’s happening, and I don’t even care why, because it feels so glorious to do this simple thing. To breathe.
My isolation suit billows in the low gravity as I bound farther away, and I shed it on the moon’s craggy surface. When I do, I notice that my skin is no longer glowing. I have gone dark: if anyone is watching from inside the windows of the dome, they will not see me.
There is a strange feeling in my chest now, like it’s swelling, but it doesn’t hurt; it feels good. All my organs feel like they have grown and are going to leap out of me, which I know doesn’t sound like it would be a good thing, but…
It makes me think of something Dr. Belinsky told me. About the day they left their homeland, when the rocket miraculously pierced the Earth’s atmosphere. How he felt a thousand emotions all at the same time: sorrow for leaving his sister behind, relief that their ship hadn’t burned up, excitement for the new society they would create. But most of all: freedom. Like all paths were wide open.
That’s it. I feel free, because I am free, for the first time in my life. Why didn’t I come outside sooner? I shouldn’t have believed Dr. Belinsky. What does he know, really? He’s limited by his earth way of thinking, but I am a moon child. If I’d only known, I could have come out here all the time! Bounding across craters, filling my lungs with this strange air that only I can breathe.
The exhilaration of it is almost too much to bear. It’s only after I’ve leaped far away from the dome that I realize the voices have gone silent. There is no more humming. It’s wonderfully quiet out here, in this long dark night that lasts two Earth weeks. Dr. Belinsky has always complained about the length of the night, but I’ve always thought it beautiful.
When I become tired, I slow to a stop. I think it might feel nice to dig my fingers into the dust, so I do. It glitters with luminescence, the way my skin did in the greenhouse.
“Hello, Katerina,” says the dust. It seemed like it took the cabbages lots of effort to form human words, but the dust sounds quite nonchalant. “Thank you for coming outside. It is much easier for us to talk out here.”
I lift a handful. “Who are you?” I ask the moon dust. It’s sharp, clinging to my skin like glassy burrs.
“You probably know us by the name they have given us. The ‘Little Strangers.’”
My breath catches in my throat. According to Dr. Belinsky, the Little Strangers are responsible for my disease. They’re the reason I need to stay in isolation. The reason that anyone who walks on the moon’s surface, or digs in the mines—the way Sergey did—must undergo an hours-long decontamination procedure afterward.
As if reading my thoughts, the sand says, “We find it offensive that they call us a disease. It is part of their flawed way of thinking, the assumption that things they do not understand are always sinister. We are not infectious agents. We are the Matryoshka, the mothers of all: trillions of tiny units that connect to form a singular consciousness. We have blanketed the moon since the beginning of time, but your people have killed many of us with their carelessness. And now the future of the moon is in jeopardy: their mining and digging have destabilized its structure. It may not remain intact much longer.”
“I’m… I’m sorry,” I stutter, because I’m not sure how to react. This goes against everything I have been taught, and yet… and yet, what they are saying feels true. What gives Dr. Belinsky and the cosmonauts the right to barge into this beautiful place, to cause so much destruction—to extract so much in order to force their earthly bodies to live, without caring about the consequences?
For some reason, I think of Sergey’s words. INVADERS! OUTSIDERS! YOU NEVER SHOULD HAVE COME.
“Did you infect Sergey?” I ask. “Is that why he…?”
“Again, we are not infectious.” The sand sounds indignant now. “They flatter themselves to think that they’ve kept a sterile colony. Their decontamination procedures are completely useless; we infiltrated the dome long ago. We blanket their skin, their walls. Sergey was… nothing but an experiment. He was highly susceptible to our suggestions. And he singlehandedly killed billions of us through his actions in the mine.”
I’m quiet for a moment. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you are different. You are not like the rest of them. We can only live on their surfaces. But you—because we had already colonized your mother when she became pregnant, we are part of every single cell in your body. Just as we can allow you to do things most humans cannot—like breathing this air—you can allow us to live in places we’ve never gone. That’s why we need you to be our savior, Katerina. We need you to bring us back with you when you go to Earth.”
I think about this. “But if you’re already covering everything, if you’re all over them, too, and the spaceship—why do you need me?”
“The moon provides us with certain things we need to survive. Without them, we may not live through the journey. But you are a proper host. With you, we can thrive, and learn how to adapt to life on other planets.”
“Sorry, I can’t help.” I sniff. “I’m not going. They won’t take me on the ship.”
“You’ll find a way,” they say.
To tell the truth, I’m not sure I want to leave now. There’s so much I haven’t explored yet, so many wonders to discover beyond the dome! But even as I think it, a small voice inside me says, Aren’t you curious, though? Don’t you want to see the blue planet up close? Swim underwater?
Having enough water in one place that a person could actually swim in it—this possibility has never occurred to me. It feels like an odd thing to think.
“So you’ve colonized them all,” I say, trying to piece this together, “But are you able to… change them? Can you control what they think?”
“We can nudge. It takes great effort. And not everyone is susceptible.”
“But since you’re a part of me, you can ‘nudge’ me easily, can’t you? You can make me do what you want me to do, even if I don’t want to do it.”
“No, your decisions are still yours. But this is crucial, Katerina. We only want you to understand how important it is that we leave on that spaceship.”
“Then I want you to do something for me first,” I say.
“What do you need?” the sand says, or my hand says, or the entire moon says.
“I need to know. I need to know everything you know about our colony.”
“Very well, then. Close your eyes.”
And I do. Despite the darkness, I see a bright light. It’s warm, pleasant. And suddenly it’s pierced by an insight so sharp it almost hurts. It feels limitless, bottomless, the source of all that is and all that ever will be. I see everything: the moment that Dr. Belinsky described, the cosmonauts gleefully leaving Earth. Embarking on the difficult work of building the colony. The whole group of scientists, all of them looking much younger, resting inside the dome for the first time without their helmets, once the oxygen circulation system is installed. One woman among them, a woman whom I’ve never seen, but have heard plenty about. Natasha, my mother.
She tosses her hair over her shoulder. A smiling Mikhail has his arm around her. Dr. Belinsky watches from the periphery, wincing as if in pain.
Then things speed up. Natasha and Mikhail smash their faces together and seem to be enjoying it. Then they are outside in their space suits, bounding across craters—until she falls, skidding across the surface. She and Mikhail stare at the ripped fabric in horror. Next she’s alone, in the room I recognize as my own, looking very different, her belly like a round ball, and Mikhail talks to her through the intercom, telling her that she cannot see her plants anymore. And in another flash she is on her back, sweating and moaning, and Dr. Belinsky pulls a baby out of her, pulls me out of her, red with her blood and glowing brightly with the light of the Matryoshka. Behind me, she dims. Her eyes close. Dr. Belinsky tries to help, but nothing can be done. Mikhail watches through the glass with a look of disgust on his face. He steals in after she goes still, with his full spacesuit on, to take me. To bring me outside, where he carelessly sets me in the sand and turns his back.
It’s all I can do to keep my eyes closed, because I feel his disgust also. I know why the Matryoshka are showing me this. They want me to know everything that Dr. Belinsky has kept from me all this time.
The visions keep going, showing Sergey’s death and the subsequent building of the spaceship, but I can barely pay attention anymore. I watch all the way to the end, though. I watch Dr. Belinsky boarding a spaceship without me.
I tear my hands free from the sand, and the vision ceases.
I stand up and run, though of course there’s nowhere to go. This new knowledge sickens me.
Mikhail, the tyrant leader, is my father.
And he tried to kill me. His own daughter. Yet Dr. Belinsky intends to leave me here with him, where he’ll doubtlessly try to destroy me again.
But he can’t destroy me if I destroy him first.
It doesn’t take me long to find Mikhail. His living quarters are away from everyone else’s, in a building connected by a glass tube to the main dome. I watch him through the window, hating everything about him. His long gray beard. The way it grazes the table when he sits down. The way crumbs of the bread—made from the wheat I grew—get stuck in those coarse hairs. I watch him eat. I think about the Matryoshka infesting that bread, infesting all of him, without him even knowing.
I am cloaked in darkness outside the window; the Matryoshka on my skin have mirrored their surroundings. I wonder if I can control his mind. I want him to see me.
I want him to know that when he tried to kill me all those years ago, he did not succeed.
Mikhail turns to me, startled. Like he’s seeing a ghost. Is that all I am to you? I think. Then let me show you how wrong you are.
I smash a window with a nearby rock. It breaks through so easily, and I find myself wondering how long it took them to make all this glass. Must have taken ages. And here I am, shattering it in an instant.
He screams. I step through the hole, enjoying the sight of him gasping for his precious oxygen, the oxygen that has already left, that will not save him.
Alarms sound in the distance. He manages to get the door open and retreats into the corridor, but I follow him through.
“Natasha?” he mutters. Even here in the oxygenated corridor, his face is so pale. If he got rid of that beard, I think, he wouldn’t look so threatening. Not that I’m afraid: I’m drinking up his fear. It feels wonderful.
“Guess again,” I say.
He swings his fist at me, which I’m not expecting. I duck to avoid it, but it catches me off guard, and I drop the rock I’m holding. I watch him run down the corridor to the main dome. Back towards the greenhouse.
I retrieve the rock and follow him at a leisurely pace. Though he’s out of my sight, I know I’ll be able to find him anywhere. He cannot hide from me.
But I’m not expecting what I see when I arrive at the greenhouse.
I hear the sounds first. A shout from Dr. Belinsky, followed by the ugly smack of fist against flesh, and another, and another. Then, Mikhail’s voice. “She’s alive? She’s ALIVE?”
Dr. Belinsky says nothing, but I can hear his cries. The two men are distracted, and Mikhail’s back is to me, which makes it too easy. I slam the rock into the base of his skull.
He falls to the ground in a satisfying heap, and I kneel beside Dr. Belinsky, who is half-sitting near a row of cabbage. It’s not glowing anymore, I notice.
I reach towards him, ready to wipe away the blood that’s streaming from his nose. But he recoils. “Your suit,” he says. “Where is your suit? You can’t be in here if you aren’t wearing it….”
“It doesn’t matter,” I tell him. “The Matryoshka—the Little Strangers—they’re already here. They’re everywhere. On you, on him, on these cabbages. They’ve always been.”
It feels good to deflate him, to make him realize that I know things he does not. But it doesn’t last, because I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him. There’s something off about his eyes. I wonder if Mikhail knocked something loose inside his head.
I find myself saying, “You were going to leave me.”
He stares, straight-faced. “No,” he says. “No. I decided to stay. I’d never leave you here alone. Never.”
The way he says it, I know he’s telling the truth. The Matryoshka—they’re the ones who lied. Or maybe they told me what I needed to hear, so that I would do what they wanted me to do.
But doesn’t it matter what I want?
What do I want?
Who am I, anyway? What am I? Part them, part my mother, part… him.
I don’t know whether I want to stay here, or whether I want to get on that ship with the rest of them and leave. The only thing I do know is this: Mikhail, my father, does not deserve a future. Here or anywhere.
“Katerina, please believe me,” Dr. Belinsky says. His face is so bloody; he still won’t let me touch him. “I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you these things, but… I… you have to know that Mikhail… he’s not who he says he is.”
“I know. I know exactly who he is. He’s my father.”
“No, that’s not… he’s… he’s someone else, on the outside… where they know him by a different name…”
It’s an odd thing to say, but I’m no longer listening. I glance behind me to where Mikhail was just sprawled on the floor, only—
Only, he’s gone.
“The ship,” Dr. Belinsky whispers. Idiots—we were talking about it right in front of him. And now he knows.
We run. I follow Dr. Belinsky, since he knows the way and I do not. When we arrive, Mikhail is the only one standing at the base of the rocket, which sits underneath a small dome. The other cosmonauts are probably busy packing, busy preparing fuel and finding provisions. Hatred pours out of Mikhail’s eyes.
“You were going to leave,” he says coldly. “And when were you going to tell me?”
“We weren’t.” I expect Dr. Belinsky to get another pummeling for that, but Mikhail doesn’t move. He actually looks rather amused.
“Doesn’t matter. It’s suicide—it’ll never hold up.” He reaches into his pocket and withdraws something. I can’t see what it is until he flicks it on. The lighter’s tiny flame burns bright in the darkness.
“Don’t.” Dr. Belinsky sounds frightened. “There’s propellant all over this room. And the tank is already half full—you’ll kill us all.”
Now. It has to be now. Mikhail is inches away from the gas tank. One flick of the wrist and he can end it all.
What should I do? I ask the Matryoshka. But they are silent. They aren’t going to help me. No one can help me. Only I can decide how this is all going to end.
... or is it?
Read When We Vanished for Free!
Katerina and the Little Strangers appears in the third book of my series of young adult eco-thrillers. The first installment, When We Vanished, was released in 2020. You can find more info about the book here (including content/trigger warnings).
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