On the first day of training, we were shown a short film about the famous Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. I’m sure it was already familiar to everyone as it’s one of the more remarkable, well known tales of mishap, danger and a narrow escape from death in the history of manned spaceflight.
Just about everything that could go wrong, did. His suit inflated too much during EVA, requiring partial depressurization to fit back in through the hatch. Then the door wouldn’t quite shut and had to be held in place during descent. Chutes deployed, but were ripped away. Retro-rockets failed.
He survived the hard landing because the capsule impacted a deep snow bank in Siberia, but it still broke both of his legs. Then wolves gathered, having witnessed past re-entries, knowing that when fireballs descend from the sky there’s often food inside.
Alexei scared them off using the small pistol included in Cosmonaut emergency gear, then dragged himself as far as he could through the snow before passing out. A peasant woman who happened to see his capsule fall recovered him, and nursed him back to health in her nearby cottage.
I’m sure they tell us this to illustrate the importance of our training, that if we remember it when it is crucial it can save our lives against long odds. It has the opposite effect though. I know too well that the only reason the world knows Alexei’s story is because he lived.
Dozens or hundreds more perished during re-entry. Or in space. Or even on the launchpad. Those ones are harder to hide, usually Pravda reports that the payload was a satellite. Pravda’s an excellent paper, for when you’re out of firewood.
Such stories occupied what little down time we had during training. Much of it in networks of caves, for reasons never adequately explained to us except that it was a remote, harsh environment analogous to the surface of another planet.
Unable to make a fire due both to the enclosed environment and constraints of the sim, we gathered around a gas heater of some kind designed to capture its own CO2 emissions using chemical absorbant. This meant no properly cooked food. Everything came in self-heating cans or packets, where you turn a key releasing two chemicals inside which generate heat on contact for a few minutes.
A sort of automatic camaraderie exists between those who’ve made it to this point in the selection process. It is guaranteed that our dreams overlap. And because the criteria they use to filter the applicants are so precise, those who make it through tend to have similar personalities.
Some of my fondest memories are of those dinners around the heater, huddled with Radoslav, Mikhail and Grigori. Patiently waiting for the jets of steam from the little holes in the top of our canned meals to abate, indicating they were ready to eat. Dense, fatty meals rich in the calories we’d need for the strenuous exercises, day after day.
Much of it was familiar to me as I’d performed identical exercises in the tundra months earlier, when there were more of us. Pretending to have fractured your leg, so others could rehearse procedures for transporting you back to the mockup lander without taking off your pressure suit, that sort of thing.
Bittersweet, in that all of this training centered around operations on the surface of a planet or Moon. At this stage in my country’s space program the most I could hope for would be to orbit the Earth a few times, perhaps perform a spacewalk or dock with an American module as a piece of political theater, then return to Earth.
Among the privileged few who ever fly, even fewer ever see the inside of a space station. If you could call them that. So far, all single modules, not much larger than the Soyuz you arrive in. Officially as footholds for future space colonies, if you are the sort of naive tankie who takes the state line as fact.
Really, platforms for photography and other forms of observation. Someday possible to perform remotely by radio, at which point I’m sure they’ll stop sending us. Also not so long, I imagine, before some of these observation platforms also bear weapons.
Not my concern. In these times one either lives to serve the state, or does not live. And as I have never had any interest in politics, only spaceflight, any government which permits me to realize this dream is acceptable to me. Would Capitalists have chosen a poor mason, born to a potato farmer and a prostitute, for such an honor?
So it is with pride burning in my chest that I approach the launch facility. Unexpectedly, a subterranean silo. I wonder if this has anything to do with my cave training. Once or twice I tried to break the silence with a joke, but the political officer riding next to me does not react. What a shame, she is quite lovely. I’m sure whoever she reports to will have more luck.
Once inside it’s very much like any missile base save for additional facilities for cosmonauts. The rocket defies my expectations, simply an ICBM with a crew capsule where the warhead should be. I ask a few questions, met with stern silence and annoyed looks. Taking the hint, I ask no more, and simply go where directed.
Briefing only adds to my confusion. I take a seat in the front row before a whiteboard. An unfamiliar device resembling a riveted steel sphere with a tangle of hoses coming out of it sits on a table to the right. Before long a man with no hair save for an impressive grey mustache enters the room, accompanied by a political officer there to listen in. As ever.
“I’m sure you have a great many questions. But if you hold onto them for now, what I’m about to tell you is likely to answer most of them.” He pulls down a projector screen over the whiteboard. The lights dim, and a ceiling mounted projector hums to life.
“First, congratulations. If you’re here, you are the absolute cream of the crop. Selected in part because of your proletarian background, but nonetheless you’ve cleared every hurdle placed in front of you. I’m certain your dedication comes from a deep seated love for the Mother country, for The Party, and a recognition of your duty as a Soviet citizen.”
The first slide depicted what I recognized as a portrait of Yuri Gagarin. The next depicted his famed launch, making history as the first man in space. “As promised, you are here to explore space. But in the course of the accelerated technological development which has followed from tensions with the West, it’s been discovered by physicists that space can mean many things.”
The next slide depicted a dot, line, square, wireframe cube, then some tangled mess made from two cubes with lines drawn between their vertices. The mustachioed man continued. “The space we inhabit is three dimensional. Arguably four, if you characterize time as a dimension but there is a fourth spatial dimension as well. And a fifth, sixth and so on.”
The slide changed. Earth, as seen from space. Repeated over and over. “With the means to travel five-dimensionally or higher, a plurality of alternate histories and futures become accessible. Of academic interest primarily, except that many of these other Earths are uninhabited and have preindustrial densities of valuable resources. I’m sure you can guess at the military value of leveraging the oil and metals of five, ten, or a hundred Earths against the Capitalists.”
The next slide seemed obviously fake. I could accept no other explanation. Soviet officers, soldiers and laborers assembling a base from prefab sections in a field as a volcano erupts in the distance, and a herd of what look to be herbivorous dinosaurs grazes nearby. In spite of myself, I laugh. The mustachioed man pauses, possibly irritated, but continues.
“An unexpected windfall, and bountiful new resource! All good news, if it weren’t for the fact that we aren’t the only ones to have developed this technology. There exist a scant few worlds to which our old German enemies escaped final defeat, using a bell shaped device.
It was the recovery of one of these devices following the fall of Berlin that enabled our physicists to begin developing the basis for a militarized dimensional exploration program, which you’re now a part of. The Americans have their own similar program but have met only with failure so far. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Philadelphia experiment.”
I waited for the punchline, but he appeared quite serious. Even as I balked, the slides continued to progress, showing me things I was not remotely inclined to believe. This one depicted some sort of futuristic city, advanced beyond anything I’d seen. But with an American flag flying from one of the buildings. My heart sank.
“There exist also a great many alternate Earths where events do not unfold in a way that is favorable for the Motherland. The Capitalists have their way, and the world suffers for it. We have discreetly established bunkers in some of these continuities, that we might determine why this outcome is so common and conspire in our own reality to prevent it.”
The next slide depicted some sort of spherical metal room with a chair bolted to a platform at the center. A nervous man wearing a bulky illuminated wristwatch sits in the chair, surrounded by angled hollow glass rings filled with metallic fluid.
“Efforts to return from these continuities to our own have been...inconsistently successful. If the device is fired at the bottom of a gravity well, the precision suffers. And if the destination is in the future or past, there is no guarantee you will not arrive inside of a solid object, or something similarly undesirable.”
The lights came back on and the projector shut off. “So”, he concluded, “further experimental use of the dimensional transect engine has all taken place in low Earth orbit. The destination no longer random, and with more or less guaranteed return to your Earth of origin. For this reason the dimensional exploration program has merged with the space program, which is why you’re here.”
I clapped. Still believing it was some sort of ruse, or psychological test. Unimpressed, he summoned a pair of escorts to take me to the capsule. There, I found the descent module from standard Soyuz except for the addition of a device on the inside, identical to the one I’d seen in the briefing room taking up one of the seats normally filled with another Cosmonaut.
The third seat was taken up by a heavy lead case of some kind. “You’ll find further instructions inside there. Do not open until after you’ve landed.” I protested, but was hurried through preparations and strapped into the only empty seat. His parting words were “You’ve been told only what is necessary, in order to limit the damage if you are captured. Not to worry, everything you need to know is in the case.”
A team of young looking technicians in clean suits fretted over me as I strapped myself in. Shining a UV light around, taking measurements with a Geiger counter and all manner of last minute checks. I’d not realized when I arrived that launch would be effectively immediate. Unheard of, so far as I knew.
With the hatch closed, the only light came from the rows of illuminated switches and tiny porthole to one side. I could hear a great shuddering groan overhead as the launch door opened. The urgency concerned me. Never has a launch been so hurried. On top of the absolute insanity of the briefing, something about the whole mess felt off.
Following final checks by radio, main engine burn was initiated. Every organ in my body flattened against the seat as the bizarre patchwork spacecraft lifted itself up out of the silo and began climbing into the night sky.
Why an ICBM? Secrecy, surely. So they could pass it off as a weapons test. Shortly, I felt myself become weightless, and the jarring sensation of the Soyuz jettisoning the exhausted ICBM behind it. I released my straps and peered out the porthole, witnessing the curvature of the Earth from space for the first time.
It was enough to make me forget everything. The years of training. The bizarre briefing. A perfect moment, culmination of my dreams and closest thing to a spiritual experience The Party will tolerate. I began to weep, salty droplets escaping my tear ducts and floating freely about the interior, eventually sucked into an air filter.
Then the small black and white CRT in the console flickered to life. The mustachioed man, this time in a labcoat. When I tried to respond I discovered it was only a recording. “Do not concern yourself with operation of the device, that is automated. Ensure you’re buckled in prior to firing, transects are known to be somewhat turbulent. Do not open your instructions until you’ve landed. Burn them after reading. Good luck.”
Static followed, then an onscreen countdown. One minute, thirty seconds. To what? It was still difficult to take any of it seriously. Part of me believed I’d soon re-enter, land by parachute and receive a grand parade. But the timer only continued to count down. So I strapped myself back in, and dutifully waited to enter the unknown.
The capsule began to vibrate. Almost imperceptibly at first, but more and more violently until it rang like a bell. A sort of white fog materialized all around me, growing brighter until I couldn’t see anything else. Intense nausea seized my gut, but then immediately released it, and then white fog dissipated.
I sat there for a time, dumbfounded. Then a new countdown appeared, this time to re-entry. My mind raced. What was that? Had I gone someplace? Where was I now? I would soon descend to Earth. But if I could believe what I’d been told, there was no telling which Earth.
A buzzer sounded, and I went about standard procedures for re-entry from memory. The capsule shook around me, eventually stabilizing as it began to plummet through the upper layers of the atmosphere. As expected, a bright orange glow shone through the porthole. Flames licking at the rest of the capsule from the edges of the red-hot heat shield.
Retro rockets fired, sending painful reverberating shocks through my skeleton. Once sufficiently slowed, I waited for the signal, then deployed the chutes. It was like hitting a brick wall, and made me lament the utilitarian nature of Soviet engineering. But after that, the ride down was relatively gentle until impact.
It made me wonder how one could survive re-entry following months of muscular wasting and bone degradation. I now felt lucky rather than deprived that I’d not been selected for a Salyut mission. Allowing a few minutes for the capsule exterior to cool down, I then unbuckled, pocketed the emergency pistol, and opened the hatch.
Lugging the case with me, I trekked down the mountain I’d landed on towards what looked to be quiet American style suburbs below. I speak English fluently and am skilled in concealing my accent, something I now suspect contributed to my selection.
I leaned against a tree, surveying the town. Only to notice after a time that the tree wasn’t real. I couldn’t believe it until I felt the bark more thoroughly, but sure enough, it was fiberglass. The next one was made of the same material. And the next.
I recalled entire fake towns being constructed for nuclear weapons tests and briefly worried that I’d landed in such a place. But as I approached I could see people traversing the sidewalks, well dressed and seemingly calm as could be.
First order of business was to secure a change of clothes. I’d not go unnoticed for long in a pressure suit, especially if anybody had reported witnessing my capsule on re-entry. Why send me here? Right in the middle of everything. Capture seemed like a certainty.
I snuck about until I found entry into one of the back yards. There I took a pair of pants, undershirt, button down blue shirt , underpants and socks from the clothesline. I climbed the fence into the next yard hoping for a jacket or shoes only to find the exact same set of clothing hanging on their clothesline.
I found the same thing in the next yard, and the next. Without shoes I could also feel, through my feet, that something was wrong with the grass. Kneeling down for a closer look I found it was not alive, but plastic strands similar to what’s used in sports stadiums. I boggled over this until, glancing into the house through the sliding glass door, I realized it was empty.
I don’t mean bereft of furniture. I mean simply a wooden shell. No carpet, no wallpaper, not even subdivided into rooms. Damndest thing I’d ever seen. Even panelak are not so barren. Lost in confusion, I did not realize I’d been spotted until one of the two old women beyond the fence called out to me.
“What are you doing in there? For Heaven’s sake. Are you lost? Not a burglar, I hope. I’ll call the police if I have to.” My body seized up and I hastily thought of a plausible story. “Oh, please don’t. I’m a drifter, just looking for warm clothes and something to eat as I’m cold and terribly hungry. I mean no harm, and beg your mercy.”
One whispered to the other. Both dressed to the nines, perhaps on their way to or from church. “Well before any of that, come with us and let’s discuss the matter over tea.” I stared quizzically. “You do look cold and a spot of tea is just the thing for it. Don’t say no young man, I won’t hear of it, just come with us.”
Seeing no chance to escape without the incident being reported, I obliged. Their company, at least, rendered me less suspicious to others. We soon arrived at a decadent Western residence, with three floors and all manner of decorative flourishes. Inside I was seated opposite the two pleasant, aged ladies at a small table with a frilly laced tablecloth in a space they soon informed me was their “breakfast nook.”
Despite myself, I scowled. A room just for breakfast? While one of their neighbors could not even afford wallpaper. As expected! But the tea truly was refreshing and I enjoyed listening to the old hens’ banter. Until one lifted a bundle of meat wrapped in paper and twine, as if fresh from the butcher.
Delicately, she unwrapped it. Gore spilled out. Intestines, chunks of lung and liver, half of a heart and various other entrails, now spread out across the table. The ladies looked at one another excitedly, then at me. That’s when they took off their masks.
It was so sudden. One hand under each of their chins, then off it came like a rubbery hood. Underneath, something resembling an immense maggot. Rippling folds of translucent white flesh, beady little black eyes and rapidly twitching, almost mechanical looking mouth parts. They dug into the bloody mess before them, meticulously searching for only the choicest morsels.
I stood up and backed away, hand over my mouth. Still struggling to comprehend any of it. The two creatures ceased gorging and stared at me. “Aren’t you going to have some?” one gurgled. The other then asked “What’s in the case, dear?”
I clutched it to my chest, and fled. Even during training, I never ran for so long. Barging out through the back door, I hoisted myself over the fence in a flash, desperate to put distance between myself and the feast.
I exhausted myself halfway up the mountain. If the capsule got me here, I reasoned, there must be some mechanism for return. But the capsule was gone. I searched the area I knew I’d landed in, confirmed by scorched Earth and a couple of perchlorate candles that’d fallen out when I opened the hatch. Yet, the descent module itself was nowhere to be found.
I broke down. In spite of my training. In spite of everything. The mind has certain limits. Crying, screaming, collapsing to the ground and thrashing until I could regain control. The picture grew somewhat more clear when I finally thought to open the case.
Inside, cushioned by foam, sat a MIRV. One small conical warhead, usually launched six to a missile, each of them able to independently target a different city on descent. Just one would do, it seemed, for the mission at hand. Which was explained as completely as they deemed necessary by the single sheet I found in a manilla envelope, secured to the inside of the lid.
“Following the first nuclear tests, it was anticipated by all knowledgeable men that every country would develop their own as soon as feasible. So it goes with dimensional travel. The tremendous advantage of it ensured that we were not the first to develop this technology and won’t be the last.
But it is not only humans who traverse the many Earths. Nor are we the most advanced. There are...others...who have been at this far, far longer. Races which make a living out of attracting unsuspecting pioneers, new to dimensional travel. Lured by a decoy of familiar sights and sounds, believing they have returned home by some error, or found an Earth very similar to their own. Until the moment that the facade falls away.”
So, do not believe in the authenticity of anything you see. Instead, deliver the nuclear device you’ve been supplied with to the included coordinates. The energy requirements for a transect only permit passage from one Earth to the most similar neighbor, one at a time. So each new world must be painstakingly industrialized, so that the machinery necessary to reach the next can be built.
Our Earth is next in line. I trust you appreciate the importance of preventing them from completing a bridge to it. They use rockets very similar to our own, but simply send cases filled with dormant eggs.
If you hope to survive this, see to it that you’re on that rocket instead of the egg case when it launches, with the device set to explode some minutes after you’re in orbit. Descend below the surface to get close to the launch facility without being noticed. Below you will find instructions for setting or disabling the timer.”
So there were. I studied the material with newfound determination. Long had thinkers predicted that there might be intelligent life beyond Earth, jealous eyes fixed on the natural wealth of our planet.
The exact nature of that adversary, they could never have predicted. Nor how close it was. I pocketed one of the perchlorate candles on the off chance I’d need it on the way home, then headed back down the mountain.
I interpreted “descend below the surface” to mean traveling by sewer. Only upon removing the manhole, I did not find a sewer of any kind. I found a ladder, which I descended for about thirty feet before reaching the true ground level. From below, I now realized that the suburbs above me were constructed on a layer above the real city, held up by load bearing pillars every hundred feet or so.
The city, if I could describe it that way, made no pretense of being designed for humans. That was the purpose of the layer above it. Down here, the architecture was bizarre and unfamiliar. Endless rows of grey, featureless stone columns. Vast factories, which by the smell of it were for processing meat. A sticky creek of blood ran along the gutter, then down something like a storm drain.
Just then, one of those creatures rounded the corner. Entirely unclad, such that I could see its real anatomy. How could it fit in the shape of a human body? Easily twice my size, it lazily scuttled along on hundreds of twitchy little feet, shuffling its soft, bulbous white body towards me.
I froze. Then, thinking quickly, greeted it. Somehow despite the inhuman mouth parts, in crystal clear English, it greeted me back. Then continued crawling along. I would later see more of them, some in full human disguise. Others wearing the body, but with their masks off. Presumably for fresh air, or because wearing them wasn’t required down here.
It was a challenge to behave as though none of it phased me. The easiest thing was not to look. I could still see their impossible writhing forms out of the corner of my eye, but remembering the task at hand, I trudged onward towards the objective.
My sole advantage was the element of surprise, and I pressed it as far as it would get me. Because everything was designed in close imitation of Earth and it’s inhabitants, despite feeling intensely out of place, I fit in perfectly. It was just a matter of maintaining the charade long enough.
The launch facility was entirely below ground. Or below the false surface, to be specific. The launch door loomed above, the strange vehicle below it towering over me. A rocket, certainly. But unlike any I’d ever seen.
Angular, menacing looking fins jutting out from it at various tiers, the whole thing shiny black, more closely resembling a doomsday weapon than a spaceship. Although given what would result should it reach my own Earth, it was both.
No thought was given to security. I suppose it was assumed that if you were down here to begin with, you were one of their own. I crawled in through a waste chute, my pant legs soaking up the brown grimy juice running along the pipe at the lowest point. Or perhaps a hallway? With a lubricant so they can more easily slide through it.
So much I would never learn, but had no desire to. The pipe emptied into a juncture and through a grating, I could see a group of the ungainly grubs gathered around, chittering excitedly. Angling for a better look, I now saw that the object of their excitement was a projected image of the Earth. I didn’t have to guess which one.
I crawled through the tunnel until, peering through a grating, I discovered something of a nursery. Seemingly comatose creatures lay prone in medical alcoves, secreting one egg after the next, filling up translucent sacks. The door suddenly opened, giving me a start, and light poured into the room. The egg layers murmured in disapproval, little legs wiggling.
The one in the doorway was dressed as a man. It went around collecting the egg sacks that were full, tying them off, pulling them free of each ovipositor, then loading them onto a wheeled cart. Once fully laden, he pushed the cart out the way he came and shut the door behind him.
When things settled down, I pushed out the grate and gingerly tiptoed among the sleeping monsters. The smell was much like rotting meat and I had to fight back convulsions until I was out of the room. I found myself in a long, brightly lit corridor. I spotted the man with the cart rounding the corner at the end, so I followed at a distance.
Around the corner, I saw him enter a room through a transparent sliding door. A sort of airlock, it turned out when I got close. Nothing in the way of locks, so entering after him was easily done. The chamber on the other side looked out over the rocket, various hoses and cables strung to it from some kind of support tower.
He stood, back turned, loading the egg cases into a large cylindrical container. Words in some undecipherable language stenciled on the outside, no help to me. But I had a good idea of where it was headed.
I don’t know why I expected one shot to put him down. I don’t even know where their brains are. But upon shooting him in the back of the head, he screeched, turned around with murder in his eyes and lunged at me.
I continued shooting at various parts of his body. Pinning him down was no help either as he simply erupted from his human suit, now twice my size, and unfolded a pair of mantis-like arms from beneath his mouth parts.
I shot at the eyes, blinding the thing but not otherwise impeding it. Finally, a chance shot to the midsection caused it to collapse in a twitching heap. It took several minutes to slow my breathing down.
By the time I managed to heave the immense jiggling corpse into the empty egg cart, and cover it with a concealing layer of eggs on the top, I had quite a bit of its blood on me. Foul smelling black goo, somewhat resembling crude oil.
I couldn’t very well go undetected like this. Not savoring the idea but with no obvious alternative, I climbed into the human suit. It fit snugly and seemed to actively adjust to my proportions. Not simply rubber, but some sort of living material, possibly technology of some type I’d never had reason to imagine.
I wheeled the cart back to the nursery, stuffed the creature’s corpse through the vent, then dumped all of the egg cases in there with it. Took several loads, during which I encountered two human-suited technicians of some kind in white uniforms, who saluted me as they walked past me down the corridor.
“Hope you’re almost done with the egg cases, sir. The rest of the launch preparations are just about complete.” I’d evidently stolen the disguise of someone important. All the better. Once all of the eggs were stashed, I placed the MIRV, and set the timer for an hour.
With any luck long enough that I’d be entering orbit before then, but not long enough for anybody to discover the corpse and the eggs. I returned to the room where I’d shot the fellow whose skin I was now wearing, climbed inside the case intended for the eggs, and pulled it shut.
I waited in darkness for some time, growing anxious. What if I’d misunderstood? What if it went off before the case was loaded? What if someone found the body before then? My nerves starting to fail, I contemplated opening the case, but didn’t get the chance.
It lurched around me as some unseen pair of hands, perhaps hundreds of little ones, picked up my hiding place and loaded it onto a cart. Or small vehicle? I was jostled about slightly as whoever had come to collect the case delivered it to what I hoped was the launchpad.
“I don’t know”, I heard outside, somewhat muffled. “He just left. Yeah, I know you were waiting on him. He’s done this before, you’ll recall. Should really be replaced before he throws the project completely off schedule. You’re lucky I thought to check on him.” I heard a loud electrical whine and felt upward acceleration. A lift?
The case was then hoisted up and carefully slid into what I hoped was the capsule at the top of the rocket. Confirmed when I heard the loud clang of a shutting hatch, and felt pressure on my eardrums. Then more agonized waiting. Couldn’t I have set it for two hours? Would it have really made a difference?
I strained to see my watch. Just barely couldn’t manage, arm pinned by the confines of the case. It smelled faintly of the eggs I’d taken from it earlier. Then I heard some incomprehensible loudspeaker nonsense. Barking out one foreign sound after the next which, when I realized it was a countdown, sent me into paroxysms of joy.
At last, the familiar crushing force of liftoff. A few minutes of violent shaking and pressure until everything was once again serene. I felt myself become weightless, and chose that point to open the case. I gasped for air, which helped somewhat, but soon grew dizzy again. Withdrawing the perchlorate candle from my pocket, I activated it, securing at least a few minutes of oxygen.
The capsule interior was baffling. As I suppose I should’ve anticipated as it wasn’t meant for humans and, evidently wasn’t even meant to support a living, breathing being. There were no whirring fans, no gentle hissing or any of the other sounds I associated with life support. Then I remembered the note.
Only designed to deliver eggs. No wonder the interior was so small. Nothing resembling seats either, just someplace to secure the cylinder. I began to panic, wondering if I’d asphyxiate before-
Just then, the device fired. Their equivalent of it, anyway. The white fog enveloped me, I felt my stomach drop, then all of a sudden everything returned to normal. As normal as it could be, given recent events. I peeled back the suit, struggling to squirm out of it in the tight confines of the capsule interior.
When re-entry began, there was nothing to strap myself into. The best I could figure was simply to climb back into the egg cylinder, shut it, and pray. A luxury I’d not had for decades, but my only recourse as I hurtled through the upper layers of the atmosphere, sweating profusely in my strange little coffin.
Thrusters fired. No chutes deployed. Evidently their technology allowed a powered landing. The burn continued until I felt the vessel set down. The hatch opened automatically, the cylinder was angled appropriately, then propelled out through the open hatch into the snow.
Glorious, familiar snow. I crawled out, blubbering, overcome with relief. In the distance, the headlights of the recovery crew approached. I laid back, sinking into the snow, and looked at my watch. Then laughed at the sky.
I was wrapped in blankets, and the beautiful political officer I recognized from the car now pushed Vodka on me, laughing and even planting a kiss on my cheek. The technician and soldier also riding in the back with me grinned ear to ear.
The launch facility was wholly undignified. Drinking, cheering and carrying on, all men I recognized had been tense before the launch. Many came up and hugged me, slapped me on the back and tried to get me to join them in song. I suppose I expected a hero’s welcome upon return. Going into it. But after what I’d been through, all I wanted to do was sleep.
I awoke ten hours later, give or take. Feeling hung over and wondering if the entire disturbing affair had been a bad dream. The political officer handed me a telephone, and informed me someone would like to speak with me. I told her I needed more sleep, but she was very insistent. I understood why when I answered the call.
It was comrade Stalin. I nearly fell out of bed. Collecting myself, I listened intently and responded as politely as possible. “I understand you completed the mission assigned to you. No doubt it was an ordeal. Very few expected you to succeed, much less return. I commend you for the invaluable service you’ve performed for the Motherland, and for humanity. I trust you understand why we could not tell you more upfront, and why it is necessary that you never discuss the particulars with anyone. Again, congratulations.”
I sat back, dazed. This would mean big things for my family. Not at all what I’d expected from a career as a Cosmonaut, but right then I could find very little to complain about. At the political officer’s insistence I was brought before a panel of various Party officials who wished to thank me in person. The partying had thankfully died down, most were asleep in their bunks, so soon I sat before a semicircular table with an array of uniformed old men sitting around it.
“The probe returned confirmation that the device detonated”, one began. A projector lit up an immense screen behind them, with what looked like magnified satellite imagery of a nuclear blast. “It was a long shot, to deliver the payload this way. But while they routinely shoot down autonomous weapons, they can somehow detect if there are living occupants, and if so, allow landing. By now, you know why that is.”
I nodded somberly, recalling the processing plant I’d passed on the way to the launch facility. “It is no exaggeration to say that your improbable success has set them back by years, perhaps decades. Buying us time to draw up strategies and build more vehicles in advance of a full scale invasion. Your actions may well have turned the tide of the war.”
I thanked them for their kind words but reaffirmed that I’d only performed the duties assigned to me in service of our great Socialist Republic. As I knew it would, this delighted them, and it took fully several minutes for their applause to die down. That’s when they took off their masks.