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.
Click here for part 2!