Maskirovka

tagnone

21

21

23 April, 1967

She peered through the tiny porthole at the tumbling point of light that was Soyuz 1. A speaker further around the bridge deck was playing the intercepted audio from the cosmonaut's conversation with ground control, barely audible over the constant vibrato roar of the AEDFS Grutte Pier's ventilation systems.

"You're sure he can't see us?" Richardson said from just over her shoulder. She jumped, convulsively losing her grip on the hand-hold at the edge of the port and drifting loose from the wall. She reached out a hand to steady herself, turning to face the captain and wishing desperately that her face wasn't on fire.

"Uhh- absolutely, sir! The new countershading system means we match the brightness of the Earthlight, our hull coating takes our albedo down to almost nothing, we're in a higher orbit than he is, and, uh, we're actively scrambling their ground radar-"

Richardson gave her a polite grin and she felt the flush deepen.

"Relax, Miss Perryman. I'm just messing with you. We all have the utmost confidence that your anti-detection systems are working perfectly."

"O-okay! Uh, sir."

"Your shift is also up, Miss Perryman. Get below and catch some shut-eye, if the generator will let you."

She gave him an awkward salute, realized she was using the wrong hand, and pushed away from the wall, floating across the bridge area to the floor bulkhead that lead deeper into the bowels of the ship. She'd been on her fair share of AEDF ships before- she'd spent nearly four months on the Traveller, developing the camouflage systems that the Pier was testing right now. But the Traveller was a torch vessel. A tin can on the end of a firework, they'd called it. The Grutte Pier was… well, it was huge, comparatively.

The central companionway stretched down, down, down- five whole decks, room for a crew of more than fifty people- she paused uncomfortably as a wave of minor nausea washed over her. They'd assured her that it was just a minor side-effect of the vessel's null-gravity engines- as if engines that could kill a man in seconds if he stood too close and were actively poisoning her could be said to have "minor" effects. Compulsively, she glanced at the dosimetry badge as she began to pull her way down the handrails along the edge of the companionway. Still green.

Getting in to the crew quarters was like spelunking- she had to squeeze through the almost foot-thick layer of lead shielding. The Pier's quarters had been made to hot-bunk 25 people- now the thickness of the insulation meant that it could barely fit 12. It was all necessary, though. Despite it being cramped and muggy, the crew deck was the only area on the ship where the engine's radiation couldn't kill them. Or at least kill them quickly. She shuddered despite the heat.

"Close that hatch, Perryman! You're letting all the warm air out!"

That was the lilting Welsh accent of Jones, her shift's environmental control officer- his head poked grub-like out of his sleeping pod. Tucking her feet into the handles mounted on the inside of the hatch, she braced her arms against the side of the passage and yanked the thick plug of lead shut. It closed with a satisfying thunk, leaving her hanging in the red-lit semi-darkness of the crew quarters. The place was always kept dark, the better to help regulate the sleep schedules of a crew on a 6-hour on/off rotation. As she drifted towards the open door of her pod, Jones gave her a convivial nod. He had an incongruously fluffy woolen sleep mask over his forehead, and a pair of chunky earphones tucked around his neck.

"How's the poor commie bastard doing then? Still out of control?"

She gave him a wry smile. The Grutte Pier wasn't supposed to be observing a Soviet space mission, but they'd been in the neighbourhood.

"We're, well- not quite sure, sir. Going by the radio chatter they're having all kinds of control and telemetry problems."

Jones let out a wide yawn, little specks of spittle floating gently out of his open mouth. He wiped them out of the air lazily.

"So long as they're not talking about the bloody great spaceship lurking a few kilometers away, then everything's fine in my book. That pretty camouflage of yours is working, right girlie?"

She resented the crack, but it was true that all things considered her part of the mission- the Pier's new countershading and jamming systems- were a complete success. She feigned a scoff as she tucked herself into her sleeping pod. She'd learned that the AEDF crews- especially the real vets who served on ships like the Pier- thrived off a little light bullshitting.

"You're- you're goddamn right. Keep that air flowing and I'll keep us invisible."

The environment technician gave her a blank stare, then snorted.

"Well I'll be damned. They shoulda never let women into this sad excuse for a space navy, I tell you."

A sleeping capsule popped open.

"Would you kindly shut the fuck up? Some of us are trying to sleep."

The thick Indian accent could only have come from Dasgupta, one of the astrogators. Jones shrugged.

"Touchy, ain't we? Sleep well, girlie."

With that he disappeared into his sleep pod, sliding its folding door shut behind him. She supposed it was a victory, of sorts. The door to her sleeping pod closed with a soft click and she wriggled her way into her sleeping bag, still slightly warm from the body heat of Velasquez, the engine technician who had been using the pod during the previous shift. She barely even noticed it at this point- as a low-ranking guest on board- not even a real AEDF member, she was technically Research Division- she was forced to hot-bunk with the rest of the crew. Captain Richardson had his own cabin- roughly the size and shape of a phone booth- but he was the exception. Everyone else onboard the Pier got used to sharing.

She yanked her dosimetry badge off, attaching it to the fuzzy Velcro inside of the folding door- she'd exchange it for a new one at the start of her next rotation. She strapped her slippers, notebook, pencils and slide rule to the end of the compartment, shucked off her jumpsuit but left it in the sleeping bag. Finally, blissfully, she settled into immobility, bouncing gently against the straps of the bag. Her eyelids drooped as if they were under actual gravity, and she floated gently in the sleeping pod, letting the white noise of the ventilation systems soothe her.

Less than a year ago, she hadn't known the AEDF existed. She'd just been a low-level Research technician specializing in anomalous optics with an interest in camouflage and a few internally-published papers under her belt. Then that letter- a transfer to Containment that hadn't seemed particularly special until they'd made it clear that yes, they were actually going to send her to the Moon. And that terrifying, thrilling, vomit-inducing ride in the little space-plane, and the stars, my God, the stars…

She awoke to an insistent whisper in one ear.

"Perryman. Perryman, acknowledge."

She sat up instinctively, the motion causing her forehead to bounce gently off the padded ceiling, not that the term mattered in zero-gravity, of the sleeping pod. The little speaker next to her head kept whispering away.

"Perryman, acknowledge. Don't make me send someone down there t'get you."

Blinking, she checked her watch and reached for the control unit- she'd been asleep for barely two hours. Whatever it was, it was important as hell if they were gonna wake her off-shift.

"I'm awake. What's the situation?"

The speaker crackled- it was the voice of Groenberg, the XO.

"To the bridge, now. Development with the Russians. Out."

The line clicked, but she was already halfway out of the sleeping bag, tugging her slippers on as she held the slide rule, and notebook in her teeth. She was halfway out the hatch towards the central companionway, with two pencils tucked behind one ear, when she realized she'd left her jumpsuit behind, but that seemed of secondary importance. There had been a note of real urgency in Groenberg's voice that woke her up better than a cup of black coffee would. She'd seen other members of the crew performing emergency drills in their undershorts- privacy was a secondary concern in the void, it seemed.

The bridge was a hive of activity- Captain Richardson and Commander Groenberg were gathered around the communications terminal, speaking intensely in quiet tones, while several other lower-ranking members of the crew drifted between various stations. Based on the activity at the astrogation desk and the piloting controls, they were obviously preparing to fire up the null-gravity engine and actually move the ship. If anyone noticed that she was only wearing a sweat-stained sleeveless top and a pair of standard AEDF-issue drab men's undershorts, they made no comment. The XO, who was holding a thick notepad covered in calculations, noticed her first.

"'Bout time, Perryman. When we call you, doesn't mean you've time t'fix your hair."

It was a meaningless jab, of course- they'd made her crop her hair uncomfortably short the moment it became clear she'd be stationed on one of the Fleet vessels.

"S-sorry, sir. What's the problem?"

Richardson absently indicated the porthole, eyes still fixed on the electronic readout showing him whatever message was coming through from the wider Authority. She peered back out again, angling her body to avoid one of the astrogators who was taking measurements with some kind of theodolite. The little white dot that was the Soviet craft was visibly spinning faster than she remembered- and she could swear that it, and the Pier, were orbiting lower.

"That, uh- that doesn't look good."

Groenberg nodded, and indicated the plot one of the astrogators was drawing up one-handed while he manipulated an electrical slide rule with the other.

"They're gonna try and deorbit within the next 30 minutes. Capsule power is mostly dead, automatic control is out- s'a miracle they have enough control to try it."

She nodded- there'd been a simulated loss-of-attitude drill on the Traveller once- the memory still made her stomach twinge. She couldn't imagine what the Soviet cosmonaut strapped into his tiny capsule must be feeling.

"I understand, sir- sirs. But why am I-?"

Richardson shut the communications display off and looked her straight in the eyes. The man had that intense but slightly unfocused stare that all experienced AEDF personnel had- they still hadn't figured out why prolonged exposure to zero-g gave you bad eyesight, but it did.

"Miss Perryman- will your radar jammers work in atmosphere? Can we run them with the waveguides retracted?"

She blinked, as schematics and signal-diffusion patterns raced through her head. And then the implication hit her.

"You're going to steal that space capsule as it enters the atmosphere. Use the EM flux of reentry as cover to help jam the Soviet ground signals while we what, attach a line and pull it back into orbit? Why?"

Richardson sighed and grinned. Groenberg gave a bark of a laugh.

"Guess you're notta pretty face after all. S'right, Perryman. We're stealing the man on board. Rescuing, more like. That capsule's never gonna land in one piece."

The captain floated towards her, passing over a printout covered in an array of overlapping dots and tiny numbering.

"That's a narrow-beam radar return on that capsule's upper hull, Miss Perryman."

"I, uh, I know what this is, sir."

She frowned at the pattern that was emerging.

"That's, uh- that sudden drop in metal density, that's a crack-?"

Richardson nodded.

"We're pretty sure based on what visual observations we can piece together that it's part of the hull containing the capsule's drogue and main parachutes. They're explosively fired, so when they go- if they go…"

She gulped. Her experience of spacecraft construction only extended to how different hull materials responded to radar signatures, but it didn't take an expert shipbuilder to realize the problem.

"If they go the capsule will, uh- well would it explode or just crack in half from the sudden pressure differential?"

Richardson shrugged, an elaborate maneuver in free-fall. Groenberg had moved off and was peering intently at the main radar display.

"Doesn't matter either way, Miss Perryman. Either way, it's our duty to assist a craft in distress, even if they haven't asked for help."

She stared blankly at the printout, mind still whirling.

"It'll cause a lot of heat buildup in the hull, running the systems like that, but we should be able to keep up jamming. Visual camouflage will be completely useless, of course- but we can hide the ship in the capsule's ablation plume I guess, they shouldn't be able to pick us up from the ground at least, but…"

She looked up sharply, hit by another realization.

"But sir, they're- uh, they're the Soviets. Aren't we on, well- aren't we on opposite sides? I had thought the Authority and the Iron- uh, the Soviet anomalous community were pretty much splits, sir. Do they even know we have a space fleet?

"We are- but saving the life of a cosmonaut with no questions asked is a bargaining chip we can use, Miss Perryman. Think of it as a show of force that saves lives instead of taking them. If this all goes according to plan, everyone ends up happy. And yes, I think it's safe to assume the Soviets know we have a space fleet- why do you think they're rushing their rocket programs? How else do you explain a rickety slap-dash job like the machine we're trying to save?"

He unhooked a handset microphone from the arm of his acceleration couch.

"Now then."

The PA clicked.

"This is the bridge. As you may have guessed, we're not tailing the poor bastard in that capsule just for the fun of watching. We've got approval from AEDF command to attempt a rescue."

A whoop of enthusiasm echoed up from somewhere belowdecks.

"We'll make our move as the capsule hits the atmosphere. Helm will carry us under it, and we'll use our hull as a heat shield while matching its downward velocity. Exactly the kind of rough-environment work Pier was built to do. We'll put a boarding team out the ventral airlock, pull the cosmonaut, and let the capsule fall. It likely won't survive re-entry or landing, but the crewman will, we'll make sure of that."

He gestured for Groenberg to hand him the notepad, scanning the rows of figure.

"Plan is to wait for the last possible moment so re-entry flux hides our signature from their ground radar. Our guest from Research," he nodded at her, "assures us that the jamming systems should keep the Reds from noticing us, or at least getting an idea of what we're flying. Operations begin in 30 minutes. Bridge out."

He closed the channel and glanced at Groenberg, who disappeared down the companionway, notebook in hand.

"Now then, Miss Perryman. Would you kindly get those jammers up and running from inside the hull?"

She turned to her slide rule as the bridge exploded into activity around her. The next half-hour drifted by through a haze of higher mathematics and chatter.

Stow panels, trim and lock rads for atmo, please.
Attention all personnel, vessel is now in low-energy mode, deactivate all nonessential…
Engineering reports grav flux at 20% and rising.
How's that trajectory coming, astrogation?
Engine ready to initiate, sir.

Panels stowed, rads locked, aye.
NG core status?
Realigning gyros for null-grav flight.
Locked in, sir. Got a nice parabola for you.
Grav flux steady at 45.3%.
Set rad-warning to blue, all ahead full on my mark.

She hardly noticed the acceleration alerts, her mind lost in signal pattern loss ratios and collimation data.

Mark.

At first it was a gentle weight on her chest cavity, which grew and grew and grew until she was struggling to breathe. It wasn't quite the same drop-kick of acceleration as on a fusion torch vessel, but her innate sense of balance was telling her that something was wrong, that gravity was somehow forward, that they weren't accelerating but falling… and with a clunk it stopped. As abruptly as it had vanished, weightlessness returned, though it was now accompanied by the clicking of the anomalous radiation detectors. She adjusted her dosimetry badge semi-consciously and kept working.

Field cancellation at 91%, within safe limits.
Steady within the minimal-danger mark. Max exposure time 6 hours.
20 minutes until crash-halt and trajectory match.
Check. On course, subject to atmospheric variation. Helm, watch for chop.
Sir, boarding party is suited and prepped.

How are our levels, Environment?
We'll try to be done long before then. Time to intercept?
Well done. Astrogation, check?
She'll stay steady as a rock.
Torp bay reports grapnels ready, sir.
Exterior temperature gradient normal.
Cooling systems are functioning within limits.

She had just finished punching in the last of the adjustments for the crew manning the radar when the captain turned to her.

"How's that interference coming, Miss Perryman? Are we invisible?"

A light clicked green on her console, and there was a slightly increasing hum as the radar array began to draw more power.

"Uh, it's running, sir. You're probably going to get some substantial heat effects on the surface of the hull, and the engineering team will get some nasty microwave burns if they're not careful, but, uh… well, we're invisible."

Next to her, the radar operator- a normally stolid Brit named Quigley- stifled an oath.

"Sir, we're being painted. Military-spec targeting radar of some kind."

There was an uncomfortable silence.

"Miss Perryman?"

She re-checked her figures. She was faintly aware that she was babbling.

"Uh… that- uh. System is running, sir. Unless they suddenly switched operating bands but how would they know…?"

She ran the jamming systems through a quick diagnostic. Oh, thank God, she thought.

"It's not ground-based, sir. Not even Soviet, doesn't match their power curve, uh, I think. It's another ship. Or ships. And whatever they are they're putting out a gigantic amount of static."

Next to her, Quigley adjusted his scope, frowning.

"Four objects, too big to be missiles, sir. On an intercept course and actively painting us."

Richardson sighed wearily.

"Now who do we know who likes to intercept falling spacecraft and runs the loudest anomalous engines on this side of the Asteroid Belt?"

The bridge crew seemed to tense. They clearly knew the answer.

"Uh, Captain? Who would that be, exactly?"

Richardson gave her a wan smile.

"Everyone's favorite alien-hunters. If I'm not mistaken, in about a minute someone from Project Blue Book is going to be yelling at us about UN statutes and the Safety of Life in Space treaty."

"Captain, we're getting a wide-band scrambled message on all standard SOLIS emergency frequencies."

"Decode and put it through. Let's hear what international laws we're supposed to be breaking."

She realized that she was holding her breath. They'd told her about Blue Book- the Authority's main rival when it came to the realm beyond Earth, supposedly, and she'd had to write an exam on SOLIS and orbital comms… but this was above her pay grade. The bridge speakers crackled, and then, through a haze of static, came a thickly-accented voice.

"..the 3rd International Joint Interceptor Wing, Grom-1 commanding. Unidentified Authority vessel, state your purpose. Repeat-"

Groenberg groaned. Judging from reactions of the rest of the bridge crew, the feeling was mutual.

"Oh fuck. It just had ta be the 3rd, didn't it?"

He glanced over at her.

"What, don't they teach you Blue Book force organization in Research Division? That's a Warsaw Pact squadron. Means they answer to the Reds first and the UN second."

Richardson motioned to the radio operator, his face thunderous as he picked up his handset.

"Broadcast."

"Line's open, sir."

"This is Captain Emanuel Richardson, aboard AEDFS Grutte Pier, Inner-System Fleet. We are currently conducting a rescue operation on this capsule. We believe it is unlikely to reenter safely and, as per the terms of the 1960 SOLIS Convention, are legally and morally obligated to attempt to save the life of the cosmonaut inside."

He cut the channel and turned to Groenberg.

"Action stations. Set Condition one."

The XO pressed several buttons on his console, starting a low but insistent alarm. The main lighting cut out, replaced by red emergency lights. The captain continued.

"I want guns loaded, aligned and ready to fire on a moment's notice. Skip the tubes, we won't have time to stow grapnels. Mister Quigley, Miss Perryman- are they still painting us? Any sign of ground intercept?"

She double-checked her console and gave the radio operator a nod.

"No change, sir."

The bridge speakers came to life once more.

"Grutte Pier, this is Grom-1. The Soyuz 1 capsule is the property of the people of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a nation which does not acknowledge the right of the Authority to meddle in its private affairs. My unit will take charge of rescue operations. Should you persist, we will classify you as potential hijackers and respond with all the resources lawfully allowed us."

Richardson motioned to the XO.

"Anything in the Anomalous Accords about this?"

The Norwegian nodded.

"We could argue the samaritan clause."

"Worth a try. Channel open. Grom-1, this is Richardson. Under the terms of Article 12 of the Anomalous Accords, we invoke the right of samaritan-hood, to prevent the unnecessary or cruel loss of life. Your colleague in that capsule is about to attempt a deorbit burn with what we are certain is a faulty parachute and severe fatigue fractures in his pressure hull, do you understand? If we can't get him out now-"

"Pier, the condition of the capsule or its crew are immaterial to you. Move off immediately or you will be fired upon."

"For God's sakes, man-"

"You have thirty seconds to comply."

The line closed with a sharp click. Richardson didn't hesitate.

"Comms, tell me you've been recording all this? Transmit to AEDF command with Priority Zero, all channels. The Soviets are going to have a hell of a time explaining this bullshit. Pardon me, Miss Perryman."

Something on her radar display caught her eye- a faint fuzz, as if some other signal was boosting the main one still bathing the Pier, bouncing off something nearby. She did a quick angle of incidence calculation, and cleared her throat.

"Captain? They, uh, they've got Soyuz 1 painted as well. Same target radar, different ship."

Richardson began to speak but was cut off by an electronic screech from Quigley's console. Hers began to howl as well.

"Active jamming from them!" yelped the radar operator. "And- incoming! Small projectiles, fourteen of them, close burst."

"Helm! Evade!"

The ship lurched upwards, the engines making an echoing screech like a mallet hitting a high-tension wire. She gritted her teeth as the acceleration couch dug into her back and neck, then stifled a scream as- THUNK- something hit the ship.

"Environmental, how are we?" Groenberg growled.

"No pressure loss, no damage control reports. Looks like two, maybe three simultaneous hits to one of the outer hull bulkheads."

"Radar, fire order- 20 rounds, maximum spread. Get some metal between them and the capsule. Fire when ready."

"Solution plotted, firing!"

The captain didn't even pause at the TUMP-TUMP-TUMP of the ship's three turreted cannon discharging, or seem to notice the jolting of the Pier's attitude thrusters as they compensated for most, but not all, of the recoil.

"They've dodged the screen, second volley incoming."

"Helm! Authorize full power!"

This time there was no sensation of movement- it happened almost too fast for her brain to register. The engine was making indescribable noises. The radiation detectors howled and the lights through the porthole flashed dark-light-dark-light with impossible speed.

She tried to steady herself by checking the position of the Soyuz on the scopes.
They were cutting it close, but it wasn't past the critical point. Yet.

They'd done anti-asteroid drills on the Traveller but this didn't compare. The ship was alive around her, radiating power- power that the wailing detectors told her could be lethal.

And then a new blip appeared on the radar.

THUNK THUNK CRUNCH
Minor hull damage, no pressure loss. Radiator 2 leaking coolant.
Tighten spread 15, fire rate to 50.
Firing.

TUMP-TUMPTUMPTUMPTUMPTUMP-
Watch those salvo patterns, gunnery.
Hit. One ship pulling away- engine damage.

TUMPTUMPT-T-T-T-T-
Fish in the water!

"Sir, they're firing on the capsule."

"Gunnery, re-target. Miss Perryman, can you jam its signal?"

"Uh…. sir, that would melt the-"

"Melt the damn radar. Jam that missile."

She turned most of the settings on her console to maximum, praying a fuse wouldn't blow. About a dozen warning indicators went on and the bridge lights flickered… but it held.

T-T-T-T-T-T-T-T-T-T-T-T-T-

"Second target hit flak. Pulling back."

"Status on that missile?"

She chanced a gulp of breath.

"It's… uh, yes! It's missed! We need to shut down the-"

Something deep in the bowels of the ship let loose a deafening, electrical THUNK. The lights, as well as all the bridge panels, went off. She heard someone mutter an oath. Slowly, painfully, everything flickered back to life. The pit of her stomach wrenched and did a few somersaults, and she realized that the weird smoothness of antigravity- as well as the scream of the radiation detectors- was gone.

"-shut down the radar system, or… uh…"

Richardson gave a laugh to which the concept of humor was totally alien.

"Helm, engine status."

The helmsman gave a worried laugh.

"Well, it safed automatically, sir. Within expected parameters for a crash-stop. But we'll be dead for at least another 5 while the capacitors charge."

"Mister Groenberg, casualties?"

"None that I can tell, sir. Thank God. Lotta minor structural damage, but she'll hold."

The radar- somehow still functioning despite almost every error or warning light on the panel being illuminated- flickered to life.

"Enemy craft are moving off, sir."

"They had us, Mister Quigley. Why in the hell would they-"

She unbuckled herself from her seat and swung over to the porthole- the view was slowly steadying as the Pier's attitude control thrusters restored balance, but the ship was still tumbling slowly on its long axis. As the horizon swept by, she saw, far below them, the receding red-orange streak of Soyuz 1 re-entering the atmosphere.

"We lost them," she muttered, embarrassed at how close her voice was to a whine.

The captain joined her at the porthole.

"Well, Miss Perryman, at the very least your jamming systems went above and beyond the call of duty. I'll ask for your observations to be included in the mission log. You have to take even the small victories you can get up here."

Somehow she didn't quite believe him.


Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov, lately of Soyuz 1, dozed. The hospital room stank of disinfectant, the stringent odour covering a deeper, more primeval stink of iron.

Whirr-hiss.
Whirr-hiss.
Whirr-

The door opened.

"Apologies, Colonel Komarov. Did I wake you?"

"I- dreamed I was falling. No. No, it's fine."

"Can I get you anything? Are you comfortable? Given the circumstances?"

Whirr-hiss.

"As well as I could be. Though I have a terrible itch behind my left ear. "

"There, Colonel?"

"Lower. Ah. Thank you, Comrade."

"Of course. Now then- the Initiative is pleased to inform you that your deception operation has been a qualified success."

"Qualified?"

"Nothing wrong on your part, Colonel, I assure you. We encountered some unexpected radar disturbances, but our equipment on the capsule captured a wealth of film, accelerometer and magnetometer data on the Authority vessel."

"So they took the bait?"

"Correct."

Whirr-hiss.

"Was… was all this necessary, then?"

"You mean your current condition?"

"Yes. I- I appreciate the need to make the 'accident' look realistic-"

"It wasn't a matter of looking anything, Colonel. Your capsule genuinely failed."

Whirr-hiss.

"What?"

"Our conventional space program has grown somewhat unfocused of late. Lax. A disaster such as Soyuz 1 will make for an excellent motivator."

"I was told-"

"If we had given you the whole truth, would you have still volunteered?"

"I-"

"Our technological prowess only permitted the recovery of a small volume of matter from the capsule before the crash, hence your… condition. Rest assured, the Initiative is experienced in dealing with matters of this nature. Officially, you are dead. There will be a state funeral- we will see to the necessary… additions to the corpse, honours, a monument or two. The usual."

"And- and Valentina? The children?"

"They will be permitted to rejoin you when your health has recovered. We're not monsters, Colonel. Cover identities, relocation and some slight memory alteration will be necessary. Call it camouflage if you like."

"Forgive me, but did you say 'memory alteration'-?"

"As well as a substantial stipend and a well-placed officer's commission. You will live happy lives in privileged circumstances for the rest of your days, though it is unlikely that you will ever go to space again. The Initiative- and the Soviet people- are grateful for your service."

Whirr-hiss.
Whirr-hiss.

"May I- may I have a moment alone?"

"Of course, Colonel. Unfortunately, your new body will not be ready for at least another three weeks, so I'm afraid we will be seeing much of each other."

Whirr-hiss.

"Will you turn me to face the window?"

"Of course. Take care, Colonel."

Whirr-hiss.

The door closed.

Whirr-hiss.

Cocooned in surgical tubing and gauze, the severed head of Colonel Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov stared blankly out the window, eyes unfocused and full of tears. With each breath, the bellows-like mechanism keeping him alive expanded and contracted. The fluid flowing into his veins and out a series of aerating tanks was a pale yellow. Outside, the stars glittered above the Siberian steppe.

Whirr-hiss.
Whirr-hiss.
Whirr-hiss.

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