The space age wouldn’t have started the same way without Scooty and his sisters and brothers, although none of them got any credit or for it.

There are two main reasons for this.

The first one is that Scooty lived one hundred and forty seven million years ago.

The other reason is that during Scooty’s time on Earth he had been a prehistoric seahorse, a small swimming creature whose short happy life was lived entirely within an undulating mass of sub-aquatic slime.

Of course the seahorse didn’t really have a name, but with his aristocratic bristles and fragile fins who could think of calling him anything else? He swam about his world of slime with a dignity and speed that could only be described as scooting.

Although an intricate wonder of early model creation, Scooty was, like all seahorses, fundamentally stupid. Swimming about the brine at the bottom of a sea that was never on a map and has long ceased to exist, there were many things Scooty just didn’t appreciate.

From the surface of his home he could have seen sunlight shining through the water as swaying beams of the brightest blue and sauropods (a particularly frolicsome species of aquatic dinosaur) in silhouette gliding around them and snapping happily at each others tails. But as a mere proto fish, possessed of dignity and compactness but only the barest hint of a brain at all, Scooty never did stop to admire the view.

He was also oblivious to the undersea volcano that towered above his home, and paid no attention at all to the cobalt tinted methane bubbles that occasionally erupted from the mud beneath and wiggled their way to the surface.

There are people that would go so far as to say that even if Scooty could have somehow known that around 147 million years after his death he and his sisters and brothers would make it possible for the Soviet Union to launch the first man into space they wouldn’t have been smart enough to be agitated, but this simply isn’t true.

The afternoon that the volcano he was living on tore itself apart in a spectacular undersea eruption Scooty had been caught by the kind of pyrotechnic chaos that could easily be compared to a rocket launch, and he didn't like it at all.

Within his primitive brain synapses had crackled and snapped, and the faint gleam that appeared on the surface of his enormous seahorse eyes was a sort of panic. Scooty had never seen anything like the light that started to filter through the slime and fill his world with red tinted strangeness, and within every cartilaginous bone of his little seahorse body he felt a terrible rumbling.

With the arrival of the first volcanic rock, hissing from red hot to radiant black as it bounced off the slope and ripped into the sticky mass that was his home, Scooty’s terror was complete, and it caused him to do something he had never done before. He scooted out of the slime and into the void of the open water.

For a full five seconds he pulsed through the ocean, his tens of thousands of sisters and brothers half a second behind him. Everywhere were fluttering fins, fishy fear and the glow of lava reflected off tiny seahorse scales. Even in the unfamiliar cold and space Scooty could feel a change in the way the water moved, could sense he was just ahead of something that was huge and bearing down on him fast.

Far above, the surface of the sea was a chaos of bubbles- down below Scooty, along with his tens of thousands of sisters and brothers, none of whom had even got close to escaping was caught, twisted and twirled snout over tail, enveloped and smothered and buried by an avalanche of mud and slime and stunned fish.

And so there’s no doubt at all that if he could have somehow travelled through the ages and beyond the salty limits of his tiny seahorse brain to see the rocket that put the first man into space, this the roaring, rattling, volcanic thing built to escape from a planet that (they were teaching their children) would very soon be a socialist paradise, he would have hated it- that he would have wanted no part of it at all.

But of course poor Scooty never got a choice.


Down below, over the course of ages and under unimaginable masses of water and clay and rock, Scooty the seahorse, his sisters and brothers, and the slime garden that had been home to them all stewed in the eerie, silent warmth of the Earth’s crust.

Up above everything was changing, and for the longest time Scooty stayed very much unseen. The sea dried up and the dinosaurs came and went. There were ferns and swamps and deserts and glaciers and finally a forest of pine trees that hung on fitfully in the sandy soil. There were lungfish and voles and monkeys and apes- including upright apes, that called themselves people.

People, for reasons comprehensible only to themselves, got incredibly worked up over this particular patch of forest, the one that had appeared over the spot where Scooty had lived all those millions of years ago. Their problem was other people- that there were too many them, or too few of them, or they were the wrong shade of white or not white enough, or something- with people it was always something, and they never were very clear about what. Whoever these people were, or perhaps more to the point, whatever they claimed be, they were all equally given to throwing rocks at each other.

“It’s impossible!” they were always shouting in a variety of basically similar languages, “Get out. Get out! This is our country, not yours!”.

Scooty’s solution to all the chaos would have been to dart off to where the slime was thickest and hide. People would have called this primitive, but for all the size of their monstrous, troublesome minds when it came to the problems they made for the patch of sand and stunted pine trees that Scooty’s undersea swamp eventually became, the so called solutions they came up with often involved nothing more constructive than inventing a new name for it and then using that name justify yet another round of pointless fratricidal violence.

Romania, Russia, Moldova, the Grand Dutchy of upper Wallachia or the particularly short lived Peoples Democratic Republic of the lower Danube! In conjunction with the rocks the word ancient got thrown around a lot with these names people invented for the place they lived, although of course none of them, being people, could possibly even begin to imagine what ancient meant.

And eventually, somehow, from somewhere beneath the scrappy pine forest, and the feet of the crazy (although undoubtably imaginative) upright apes which had come to inhabit it, Scooty the seahorse- fossilized, blended, disintegrated and transformed completely, was sucked from beneath the forest, the final dregs from an oil field tapped twenty years earlier by a team of guys from Texas.

The Texans sunk their first well in 1937, at a time when the forest found itself inside what the upright apes called the Kingdom of Romania, just a few kilometres from the border with the Soviet Union. They had been brought in by the employees of a man whose full name was Nicodim the Third, Autocrat and Overlord of all Romanians because the oil from beneath this particular forest had properties previously unseen in oil from anywhere else and had the potential to make them all abundantly wealthy. It burned slow and steady and with a strange greenish flame that was hotter than any flame studied before. To the few people whose job it was to know about these things why it behaved in this way was an utter mystery. All that was clear was that its strange qualities made it perfectly suited for refining into rocket fuel, and thus exceptionally valuable.

No one even began to guess that it had anything to do with prehistoric seahorses.

In 1945, on the day after World War Two ended, Ivan Lenovsky was lying flat on his back in the sun. Around him was a meadow of goat nibbled grass, in front of him a stream of clear water.

When the man with the maps arrived to speak to him and saw him lying there his first thought was that he had finally died. Although the war had been over for a day the disease which for months now had been consuming Lenovsky from the inside hadn’t heard the news.

It was only after he wearily plonked down beside him on the grass that he saw he was mistaken. It was the lice that gave it away, through what remained of his hair he could see the little bastards darting about over his peeling scalp. After so many years of war he knew that lice didn’t bother with the dead.

Apart from that Lenovsky showed few other signs of life. His face was gaunt , his skin was the colour of putty, and though his wire framed glasses had somehow survived the war intact they looked as though they had been fitted to a bigger man. Even compared to a week ago he seemed to have contracted inwards.

The man sitting next to Lenovsky wore a uniform so filthy that the star sewn onto his shoulder patch, originally red, had turned a vivid dog crap brown. The name on his tunic read Nicoli Lebed. He drew his knees up to his chest and sat contemplating a goat that was lying in the shade cast by the pine forest on the other side of the stream. With its forelegs tucked beneath its white belly and its jaws slowly working on some spring grass it looked very contented.

Both the goat and the forest were in Romania. Lenovsky and Lebed were in the USSR.

“Lenovsky” he said.

“It might be hard to believe” Lenovsky breathed, not answering, barely moving his lips, “but there were birds here before the war”.

Nicoli looked at him and saw that he was talking in his sleep. Behind his glasses he could see how swollen and red his eye lids were.

“Lenovsky, it’s me, Nicoli, wake up”.

“Maybe it wasn’t the war then” he continued showing no sign that was willing to be interrupted in his dream, “though I think it was. Maybe it was before that, when they built the refinery over in Romania that all the birds stopped coming”.

Nicoli didn’t know why he was talking about birds, although it was clear enough how the refinery had got into his dreams. Even now in this meadow, sitting by a stream and bathed in quiet and May sunlight the smell of it was strong enough to be nearly overpowering, an truly awful chemical odour. For some people just breathing it felt like being burned.

“The speckled honey eater?” Lenovsky continued. “Why, it’s green and yellow. Sure I’ve seen it here but it’s a bit early now, they say it goes to Africa for the winter and doesn’t come back till June”.

Nicoli gently laid a hand on Lenovsky’s shoulder and shuddered involuntarily. It felt like touching a skeleton that was dying of fever.

Lenovsky opened his eyes but stayed flat on his back.

“You scared me Ivan” said Nicoli looking down and him and unsure of what else to say, "I thought you were dead”.

“The war’s ended yesterday” he said. Awake the sound of his voice was completely different from when he had been sleep talking, it was a dizzy rasp. “So I can’t be dead. What do you want?”

Before the war Ivan Lenovsky had taught physics at the university in Odessa. In the war he was part of a crew of five people operating a mortar tube, which is a little pipe designed to spit small bombs arcing high into the air and down again on people they wanted to kill. Ivan’s job was to do the maths that would make sure the bomb would land right on target and spray jagged metal into as many living bodies as possible.

“You know the old high school, the refugee camp”?

Lenovsky nodded minutely, he would have preferred not to know. In their part of the war most of the refugees were practically walking corpses, people who had clearly lost their lives but still somehow refused to die. They were prisoners who had wandered out of unguarded death camps, they were run away conscripts from five different armies, they were people who had fled from fighting near their homes and become hopelessly lost in the chaos. Four years ago, when the war had begun, a lot of it seemed to be about organisation. Things had been counted and uniformed and ordered about. Now it had ended, and produced nothing except destruction and these frightening living skeletons, starved and withered to the point where a lot of them seemed to lack a clear gender, let alone a nationality. Ivan knew that it was possible that with intensive care some of them might find their way back into the world of the living, but their persistent haunted silence damned everyone and perhaps that's why they were, to the greatest extent possible, ignored. There couldn’t be any good news from the place where the refugees were.

“Well, they want us to drop some mortars on it tonight” Nicoli told him.

Nicoli kept his eyes fixed on the grass between his knees while he explained why, it was as though he was ashamed or worried that the Romanian goat on the other side of the stream might be able to lip read.

It was the oilfield apparently, the one that was across the stream and in the forest. Somehow, somewhere the decision had been made that it rightfully belonged to the peoples of the Soviet Union rather than King Nicodim the Third, Autocrat and Overlord of all Romanians. In the normal course of events this sort of thing could be a real problem, but given the circumstances, the solution was relatively simple.

Officially the bombs they were going to drop on the refugees squatting in the ruined high school would come from the other side of the border, fired by bandits, or fascists or counter revolutionaries or whoever the enemy was now the war had been over for a day. They wouldn’t have to drop many of them to provide an excuse for the Soviet Army to roll cross the border. They would be restoring order and doing their bit for world peace. Their seizure of the oilfield would be completely incidental.

Privately, he told Ivan, he thought that if whoever was giving orders had a direct line to Satan they couldn’t have done much worse.

“There’s no other way is there?” he said, and as he was saying it he was swatting his folded up map uneasily against the side of his knee. He wanted Ivan who through the whole two years they had known each other had maintained an authoritive, teacherly air, to say that of course there wasn’t, and sit to up and get started on the maths that is would make it possible for them to drop these mortar shells on the refugees.

Gazing over the stream at the forest Nicoli waited for what seemed like a very long time before he turned to see why Lenovsky hadn’t moved. It was a little colder now, the shadows from the first of the trees had almost reached them.

Ivan?” He had closed his eyes again. Nicoli could see from the way his ribs rose and fell under his chest that he was asleep. “Ivan, don’t be foolish, you know if you don’t do it they’ll find someone else, come on.”

Lenovsky was able to hear him, but also, somehow, able to choose to stay asleep.

“Think of your family” Nicoli urged, forlorn. “Don’t you want to get home?”

Lenovsky had known for days that he would never get home, to Odessa, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

He was already thinking of his family.

All these years he’d pictured the moment of his homecoming. Walking up the concrete stairwell to the apartment near the university where he had lived with his wife and son before the war. It had been a dream for the future that had kept him going when things were looking particularly hopeless, but even now he knew for sure that it would never happen in reality he was delighted to feel that there wasn’t so much difference.

“Alexei”, Lenovsky said, speaking in his sleep again. “What’s this? Don’t you recognize your old man now that his hair has gone grey?”

Nicoli Lebed looked at him sinking back into his dream and realised, with pleasure, that there was nothing he could do but leave.

“Come on, come here” said Ivan Lenovsky, father of the boy who would be the first man in space, physicist, upright ape, another life form fading from the world in a way that, except for his lack of fear and the smile on his face wasn’t so different from how Scooty the seahorse had gone one hundred and forty seven million years ago. “You haven’t grown too big to give your Father a hug now have you?”