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Chapter 1

Sparrow, Dawning, Seven

As the first stage rockets ignited, a low-frequency rumbling somewhere far below her like the voice of the earth’s discontent, it first occurred to Leena that she might die. At this hour, on this day, caught up in a fiery holocaust as the liquid chemical engines overtook their processes and burned all of Baikonour down to ashes. Fire had licked at her heels all her life, and this was the moment it would finally outpace her.

“Pjat’, pjat’, pjat’,” came the voice of the technician in the control bunker, calling the all-clear. Five, five, five. His voice buzzed in her ears, the sound from the speakers rebounding around her visored helmet like a shouted echo in a hangar.

Leena rechecked the seal on her gloves, squinting in the low light of the red bulb burning. Any minute now, she was sure. The technician would call out the warning, Three, three, three, and the flames that had burned at her footsteps since Stalingrad would finally be upon her. Her parents, and Sergei, and now Leena herself, all fuel for the fire.

The engines below her entered their primary stage, the low rumbling intensifying into the roar of approaching thunder, her teeth set on edge. Smoke and steam would be billowing out now from the base of the launch pad, Leena knew, though she could see none of it, the viewport blocked by the heavy nose fairing covering the module. She thought of the others in the barracks, listening in on radios wired to the walls, and the select few dignitaries joining Korolev and the technicians in the bunker. Yuri would be there, weighted down with medals, as would Gherman and Andrian, Pavel and Valeri. And Valentina, of course.

Valentina Leonidovna Ponomaryova would be nearby, sealed into her bright orange pressure suit, ready to take Leena’s seat in the event that a replacement was needed, determination burning beneath her thick brows. Leena couldn’t help but pity her. Twice a second, first for Tereshkova and now for Leena, at this rate Ponomaryova would never reach the stars.

“Pjat’, pjat’, pjat’,” buzzed the voice of control in her ears.

Leena could stand the anticipation no longer. Either she would launch, and serve the Soviet as few before her had, or she would die in a fiery conflagration, there on the pad. There were no other options. Let the technician buzz Five, five, five until his lungs bled out all their air, damn him. Leena would not wait.

“Poyekali!” Leena shouted, not to the technicians, or Korolev, but to the spirit of flame that had haunted her days. Let’s go! Not an eager cry for adventure, as it had been when Yuri had shouted it three years before, but a challenge to her pursuer to finally face her.

“Vorobyey,” came the voice of the technician in her ear, as the timbre of the engine’s roar crescendoed. “Zapuskat’.”

Sparrow. Launch.

Slowly, like dawn stealing softly over a wide plain, the rocket began to rise. So light was the transition from earth to flight that Leena at first didn’t recognize it. There followed a slight shiver, and then the vibrations rippling through the metal sphere module shifting up the spectrum, becoming a high frequency whine like a kettle gone to boil.

The pressure of acceleration pulled at Leena’s face, the g-load slowly climbing from Earth normal to roughly five times that. She tried to speak into the microphone fixed to the base of her helmet, to respond to control’s calls for status, but she found it difficult to talk, the muscles of her face drawn back taut against the bones of her skull.

All three stages of the rocket were firing now, pushing against the bonds of gravity, shooting towards the far horizon, and the curve of space beyond. Leena felt pinned to the seat like a butterfly on cork, unable to move even if the heavy straps were not still in place.

Without warning the strain eased, and Leena felt herself grow lighter. The pressure pushing her against the seat dropped suddenly, and it seemed to her as if something had separated from the rocket. Creeping silence followed, the high-pitched shrill of the engines growing ever and ever softer. The fairing, a heavy plating covering the module to protect against air friction during the steep climb, fell away. The viewport finally unobstructed, Leena could see outside.

Looking up through the circular window, Leena saw hanging above her the curve of the Earth, a kind of aura around the horizon bleeding from light blue into violet into the black of space beyond. The stars, hanging on the curtain of deepest black, were larger and brighter than Leena ever could have imagined possible. The Earth’s seas, passing overhead, were of a uniform gray from this perspective, the surface rippled and uneven like windblown sand dunes.

Only a handful of people before Leena had seen their planetary home from this height, the half-dozen cosmonauts who’d preceded her and a handful of Americans, if the reports from overseas were to be believed. They had all come for only brief stays, though, the longest of them no longer than five days. Leena, the second woman to come this far, would outlast them all, ten days spent orbiting the Earth as high as the lower Van Allen belt in the belly of Vostok 7.

Ten days, and then she’d return to the bosom of the Earth, Hero of the State, welcomed into the Party with open arms, and perhaps even given an honorary promotion in rank. Senior Lieutenant, perhaps, or even Commander, but never Major. That was for Yuri and the others. The men. Poor Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, on her return, had not even been granted the slight honor of a Senior Lieutenant’s commission, still holding only the Junior Lieutenant’s grade that all of the members of the female cosmonaut group had been awarded years before. Though she’d never risen higher than the rank of private in the Red Army, with her previous military service record Leena hoped for something better.

Senior Lieutenant Akilina Mikhailovna Chirikova, Female Cosmonaut Group. It had a certain ring to it.

Pulling a pencil and tablet from a zippered pocket at her side, she intended to take the requisite notes but became too engrossed in the slow ballet of the pencil spinning end over end in zero gravity. Leena smiled, muscles moving strangely without resistance, and laughed at her early fears. She’d come this far, this high, because the fire had never caught her, after all. She’d been silly to think that it ever would.


The mission plan of Vostok 7 was simple: a high altitude flight into the lower Van Allen radiation belt for radiological-biological studies, lasting ten days, at the end of which the craft’s orbit would be allowed to decay naturally to re-entry. That the studies were concerned primarily with what would happen to the human organism if exposed to the radiation of the lower Van Allen for ten days, was a factor of the mission upon which Leena chose not to dwell. Having been obsessed with flight for so many years, she would now be flying higher and longer than any human before her. And after the first few hours of the flight, she was feeling no ill effects of the radiation exposure. The interior of the craft was holding steady at a reasonable 20 degrees Centigrade, and though she’d not yet released the harness holding her into the launch chair, in the low-gravity environment neither the tight straps nor her cumbersome pressure suit were especially noisome.

Bykovsky was originally scheduled to make this flight, but in March of the past year the decision had been made to have him fly Vostok 5 in the place of Ponomaryova. She was certainly the most qualified, both technically and emotionally, of any in the female cosmonaut group, more qualified than many of them men; but Ponomaryova was an agitator, always complaining about the treatment the women received, always saying that they were the equal to the men and should be treated as such. And she was not an ideologue, causing many to doubt her loyalty to the principles of the Soviet. Instead of women flying both Vostok flights, 5 and 6, as planned, only Tereshkova was allowed to go, with Bykovsky pulled forward out of Vostok 7 to take Ponomaryova’s place. Initially, it was suggested that this was for safety purposes, and that Ponomaryova would be going aloft in Vostok 7, but in November when the flight crews for the next seven Vostok missions were announced, the task had instead fallen to Leena. Ponomaryova was on the list, but only as Leena’s second. Worse, when news arrived a few weeks later of the American president’s assassination, and with the Chief Designer making plans to begin Soyuz launch the following year,  there were already talks about canceling any future Vostok missions, and going to the multi-crew Voskhod configuration for all future flights, to compete with the American’s two-manned Gemini missions. Any three-manned Voskhod mission would be precisely that—three men. Korolev would never agree to send up three women in the same capsule, and decorum would not allow one woman to accompany two men. And so the chances were increasingly slim that Ponomaryova would get her chance at glory. And chances were good that Leena might be the last woman into space for some time to come.

Leena didn’t spare time to worry about such hypothetical eventualities. She had mission operations to consider; so far, however, the flight had been far easier on her than anticipated. Leaving aside any radiological fears, it seemed to Leena that the potential hazard of low-gravity, too, had been overestimated. Once the initial stress of launch was passed, the flight hadn’t been nearly as bad as Leena had feared. The rumor was that Tereshkova had been so ill and nauseated from turbulence and the subsequent low-gee that she was virtually incoherent for much of her seventy-one hours in orbit, and it was whispered that even Gagarin had been unable to control his rioting stomach on initial launch. Leena thought the orbit itself was much easier to endure than the interminable training that had preceded this day. Hot mock-up—whole days and nights spent in full pressurized spacesuit in the ground spacecraft simulator—had been more grueling than this by far. Yerkina, who was to have been Ponomaryova’s backup on Vostok 6, had been excluded from the mission after removing her boots one day into the hot mock-up simulation, having eaten only three rations in the three days of her test. It had reflected badly on all the female cosmonaut group that Yerkina had failed so miserably… though Leena could not help but notice that similar failings by the male cosmonauts did not cast a shadow over their entire groups.

The orbital path of Vostok 7 would carry the module over the northern reaches of the Soviet Union, across the Pacific Ocean and the southern Atlantic, then over the length of Africa, over the Atlantic, Turkey, the Black Sea, and then back over the Soviet Union.

The orbital period was just under two hours, and the module had nearly completed one complete orbit, passing over Northern Africa, the Mediterranean just coming into view. Leena knew that, in the coming days, it was a sight that she would see countless times again.

From the radio came a sudden burst of static. The module was approaching the broadcast range of Baikonour itself, and the operator at the Baikonur ground station might be trying to contact her. Leena adjusted the gain and frequency, trying to regain the signal.

“Povtorjat', pozhalujsta.” Leena said, confirming that the tells on her transmitter showed active. Repeat, please.

Just then, the interior of the module was filled with a blinding white light, and squinting against the glare Leena leaned up to the viewport to look outside. There, just before her, hung an object that shone like the sun. It was impossible to judge size or distance, but it seemed small and close enough that she might reach out and snatch it up in her hands. A sphere, it glinted like a mirror, reflecting back the light of the sun behind her.

Could it be another satellite, some early Sputnik prototype the authorities had not publicized? Or an American counterpart, positioned over Russia for the purposes of espionage? Whatever it was, it was directly in the path of Leena’s module, the distance between them closing with every heartbeat.

“Centr upravlenija?” Leena whispered into the helmet microphone. Control center? Before she could go on, before the ground crew in the Baikonour facilities could answer, the module was upon the object, only bare meters away.

Leena gritted her teeth, anticipating a jarring impact. She closed her eyes, and felt a wave of unease flood over her. There came no jolt or bang, nothing to indicate the object had struck her craft.

Tentatively, Leena opened her eyes. Through the viewport, the mirrored sphere was nowhere to be seen. What she did see, however, was impossible.

Where before there’d been only the gray sand dunes of the Mediterranean with the southern edge of Turkey just visible on the horizon, she now saw mountains surrounded by lush green forests, blue ribbons of rivers slipping down to the seas, tan deserts stretching out across the far distance.

Leena knew her geography. She’d studied the protected path of Vostok 7 in its orbits until she could have drawn maps of the continents from memory, had pored over the photos snapped by the earlier cosmonauts until they painted her dreams, and at no point, in all of those months and years of work, had she ever seen anything like the vista stretching out before her.

Wherever she was, whatever had just happened, she was no longer orbiting the Earth she knew.

continue to Chapter 2

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