The whisper of static bled from the
speakers in her helmet, no voice from the ground station calling
alarms or the all-clear, but Leena hardly noticed. She didn’t have
the luxury of confusion, no time to stop and reflect on the
impossible situation in which she found herself. With unfamiliar
vistas stretching out below, the Vostok module began slowly to
rotate out of true, falling out of orbit toward the strange planet
Below her on the cabin floor, just
visible past the edge of her helmet’s visor, the eight ports of the
Vzor periscope device flashed the story of Leena’s coming doom. When
the craft’s attitude was positioned correctly, the module centered
perfectly with respect to the planet’s horizon, all eight ports
would be lit, the sun’s light reflected through an elaborate
mechanism worked into the hull of the sphere.
As Leena watched in growing horror, the
ports began to wink out and go dark, first one, then three, then
six. Then, as the rotational forced dragged at her insides like a
fist, the ports lit again, then grew dark, then lit, strobing in
increasing frequency as the module began to spin faster and faster.
There followed a faint tolling, like
distant bells, the automated onboard systems indicating a rapid
increase in velocity and drop in altitude. A high pitched scream
began, at the edge of hearing, the upper reaches of the atmosphere
clawing at the surface of the module as the craft dipped ever lower
towards the planet’s surface.
The temperature within the cabin
started to climb, and even nestled within her insulated SK-1
pressure suit Leena began to feel the heat.
Leena would have cursed if she’d had
the chance, would have screamed herself red with rage at the
injustice of it, but this was another luxury she could not afford
herself. She would have to do something, there being no one now who
could help her, or in very short order she would be dead.
The controls of the Vostok module were
all set to automatic by default, any necessary course changes
controlled remotely by technicians on the ground in Star City. The
Chief Designer had been concerned since the beginning about the
fallibility of those chosen for service in the Cosmonaut Corps, and
had put as many safeguards between the effectiveness of an operation
and the potential breakdown of the cosmonaut as possible. The
authorities had relented, though, in the face of continued
opposition from the cosmonauts themselves, by allowing manual
control in emergency situations.
This situation was an emergency, if any
could be, so Leena had no compunctions against initiating the
Unfortunate, then, that the combination
needed to unlock the manual controls was transcribed on a slip of
paper in an envelope kept safely in a zippered pocket on her left
thigh. Unfortunate in that the rotational forces whipping the module
ever faster had left Leena feeling too sick even to blink, her arms
pinioned against the walls of the cabin as securely as if they’d
been glued there.
The manual controls, just centimeters
away, would allow Leena to fire the attitude rockets, stop the
maddening spinning of the craft, and eject the service module in
preparation of ballistic reentry. With too much longer a delay, the
craft would descend too far into the atmosphere for the rockets to
be of any use, and with the service module still attached to the
reentry sphere the whole of the craft would burn to a cinder in the
The fire would finally have her, at
Unable to move, vision swimming and
stomach in revolt, Leena plummeted to her doom.
She was going to die, she was dying,
she would be dead. Her life ended, burned down to particulate matter
at the heart of a cold steel sphere, to rain down as dust and ash on
the surface of an unknown world. She would die with questions left
unanswered, left even unasked, mysteries she would never solve:
Where was she, and what had brought her here?
The curiosity, which had led her from
Stalingrad to Moscow to university, then sustained her through years
in military service, then driven her to excel when first selected
for the cosmonaut program, burned within her hotter than the red
tongues which now licked the outer surface of the module. In a
sense, Leena had been an explorer since childhood, blazing a trail
alone through a strange and hostile world since the day the firebomb
had taken away her parents. Now, a whole new world of discovery
before her, the thought of surrendering to the doom which had dogged
her heels was unacceptable. Whatever the cost, whatever the risk,
she would survive. She simply had to know.
The module was now spinning on three
axes, the rotational forces pinning Leena to the inner surface of
the module. Her hands and arms were unable to move more than a few
centimeters, her head forced to one side with her ear pressing hard
against the helmet’s lining. Metal clamps on the floor of the cabin
held her booted feet in place, but Leena felt the centrifugal pull
working against them, dragging her knees up and towards her chest.
If her left boot were to be worked
free, the force of the rotation would be enough to bring her left
knee up almost to her breast, the zippered pocket on her thigh only
centimeters from her left hand. The inside of the module was growing
hotter still, hazing like the air over hot desert sands. If Leena
was going to act, she would have do it now.
To release the clamps on her boots,
without her hands free to aid in the process, Leena had to force her
feet down and forward, and then pull up at her heel. Opposite the
forces pulling her body the other direction, with her weight feeling
as though it doubled with every centimeter she moved, she inched her
painful way towards her goal. Drawing on her last reserves of
energy, Leena managed to work her booted foot fractionally forward
in the clamp. Centimeters like kilometers, eyes closed against the
maddening gyrations of the craft, she crossed the small distance.
Leena’s skin began to prickle, an
instant sunburn spreading over her like scalding water. With teeth
gritted she managed to angle her heel up the slightest fraction of
an centimeter. That centimeter was all it took. As soon as the grip
of the clamp was loosened, the rotational forces pulled her foot
away from the cabin floor like a rocket, her knee forced up and
slamming into her sternum with a thud.
Knocked breathless, Leena could not
afford elation. With every passing second the craft spun faster,
hotter, and nearer disintegration.
The fingers of her left hand were bare
centimeters from the pocket on her thigh, now forced against her
abdomen. Once the envelope was free, she’d have to mangle the
contents out, read the combination, reach nearly a foot along the
wall to her right and unlock the emergency controls, then manually
fire the braking and attitude rockets.
Seconds to go, and she’d only come a
fraction of the way.
Straining, her mind and will almost to
the breaking point, Leena fell into a kind of fugue. With one
portion of her being concentrating on the task at hand to the
exclusion of all else, another smaller part of her conscious mind
walled itself away, seeing events unfold as a detached observer.
Like watching an actress in a play, Leena saw herself struggle
against the bounds of force to wrest the envelope from her pocket,
watched the mad fumble as she brought hands together from left and
right to tear and claw at the envelope’s seal, watched herself
fighting to lift her head forward far enough to read the combination
typewritten on the paper clutched in a vice grip in her hands.
Throughout it all, watching herself
slowly dying, Leena could only think how sad it was that there would
be no one back at home to mourn her. A plaque somewhere, perhaps, if
she were lucky; a cryptic and official notation in the government
files back in Moscow if she were not. But no statues, no parades to
the glorious dead. Those back in Star City would not know how she
had died, only that she was dead, and the grand work would continue,
the march into the future of the Soviet Man continuing without her.
As Leena watched herself batter at the
combination tumbler, spinning the last number into place, she was
strangely disappointed. She had been quite involved with imagining
her own funeral in absentia, and now plans would have to be
Her last erg of motivation draining,
Leena stabbed at the switch that initiated the braking procedure.
She slammed forward in her harness,
thrown towards the center of the module, as the braking rocket
fired. The g-load reversed, then increased, the straps biting into
the fabric of her pressure suit, bruising her skin. The rotations of
the module increased, and then after forty seconds of thrust the
rockets petered out. With a resounding bang, the service module
broke free, and the reentry module continued its descent.
The module began again to spin, this
time back and forth, 90 degrees to the left and to the right. Leena
felt herself being tossed back and forth in her harness like a rag
doll, the g-load steadily increasing as the craft dipped further and
further into the atmosphere.
Leena caught a glimpse of the
instruments, the hand of the altitude dial spinning like a
propeller, and then everything began to grow fuzzy. A blanket of
gray falling over her, Leena could only trust in the automated
systems to take over for her.
There came a whistling of air, and
flashes of red from the viewport overhead, stars dimly visible
through the burning curtain of sky.
At 7,000 meters, the first explosive
bolt on the hatch blew like a shot, then another. Leena blinked, her
eyes for the moment sightless, unsure whether she was yet free of
the craft or not. The forces on her relaxed, and she lifted her
head, hoping to make out her position through the haze which blurred
her vision. At that moment, her chair shot up through the hatch with
such force that she bit down hard on her lip, blood streaming out
onto the helmet’s visor. She and the module, now separated, fell on
parallel courses towards the planet below, the service module
burning up somewhere in the atmosphere above them.
The ejection chair, Leena strapped
firmly in place, spun end over end, tumbling like a falling leaf
through the cold blue sky. A cannon fired, jarring Leena with the
shock of it, and the stabilizing chute shot out from the top of the
chair, dragging behind and straightening her descent.
Leena rotated slowly to the right in
the chair, blinking back tears of panic and exhilaration, trying to
see something of the land below her. To the south there were
mountains, purple and tall, to the east an endless expanse of
oceans, and below her a carpet of forest stretching out to the
western horizon, a wide river ribboning through it.
The next parachute opened, blossoming
orange and huge above her, then the next, both dwarfing the
miniature stabilizer which had opened first, hanging small and white
above them, a moon to their twin suns. The chair’s rate of descent
slowed, and looking down past her feet Leena saw the river and dense
foliage below her. Unable to direct the motion of the chair, she
could only watch as they grew nearer touchdown.
Fluttering down beneath orange canopies
as if on a slight breeze, Leena’s chair dropped slowly and directly
towards the wide river below.
As the chair touched down, Leena’s feet
disappeared below the surface of the water. The water burbled up to
her waist, the weight of the steel chair dragging her down, and
Leena couldn’t help but think that she might have her funeral in
absentia after all.
With a splash of finality, the chair
disappeared beneath the swift currents, the three parachutes
floating on the surface like fallen leaves until they, too, were
The ejection chair sank like a stone
into the murky depths of the river, drifting slightly with the
strong undercurrents. Strapped securely in place, Leena experienced
something very near a state of shock while breathing up the last of
the oxygen reserves left in the pressure suit. The air hose, which
should have sealed off when separated from the life-support systems
of the Vostok module, had failed to close completely, and a hiss of
water spilled with slow but relentless finality into the helmet. The
silty water had filled up to the level of Leena’s chin, and it would
be a close race whether the helmet filled first with water or with
exhaled carbon dioxide.
The chair touched down on the soft bed
of the river, kicking up clouds of silt that were drawn away
downriver by the current like smoke in a strong wind. Leena, head
tilting ever further back to escape the rising level of the inflow,
moved her stiff fingers in slow motion through the water to reach
the strap releases.
The straps ran across her shoulders,
chest, and waist, and she had the first of them released when the
riverbed drew up slowly to embrace her. The three parachutes, still
attached to the chair, floated on the river’s surface, and were
being dragged downstream by the strength of the current. Tethered
like an anchor on the riverbed, the chair was being towed along
behind, but the chair’s weight was too great for it to move far. In
the tug-of-war between gravity and river flow a balance was struck,
and the base of the chair remained firm on the silty bed while the
top end was dragged forward and down, swinging like a door closing
shut, face first into the ground.
Leena found herself trapped under the
heavy chair, the faceplate of her helmet pressed into the loam of
the riverbed, mouth and nose trapped in a growing pool of water with
the last pocket of air trapped behind her head. The design of the
chair, pressed into the riverbed, left her hands and arms free to
move, but she had only her last gasp of air to sustain her.
Eyes stinging and nearly blinded by the
murky water, she hammered at the catches on the remaining straps,
releasing first one, then another, her pulse pounding in her ears
and her lungs feeling as though they would at any second explode.
Drifting on the edge of unconsciousness, exhaustion threatening to
overtake her, Leena slammed open the last of the strap releases.
Pushing forward with arms thrashing, she frantically attempted to
get free of the chair, beating arms and hands and head into the soft
surface of the riverbed, sending up massive clouds of silt. Free
from the waist up, though, she found that her legs below the knees
were still trapped below the heavy weight of the chair.
Turning on her side, twisting painfully
from the knees, she managed to angle her head far enough to let out
a sputtering cough and take in another lungful of air. Then she
turned her attention back to the chair, trying to push the chair up
off the riverbed far enough to pull her legs free. The surface of
the riverbed was soft and yielding, and the harder she pushed,
though, the farther her hands sunk down into the soil. The chair had
not moved an centimeter.
The air pocket was shrinking fast, the
helmet filling faster and faster, and unless she was able to
extricate herself from the chair and reach the surface, Leena had
only minutes left. She was trapped, and drowning.
If she could not lift the chair, and
lacked the strength to pull her legs loose, her only option was to
shovel away the silt beneath her, freeing her legs from below. The
air remaining in the helmet slipped out in a steady stream of
bubbles through the partially sealed hose, replaced by cold and
murky water. The pounding of her heartbeat in Leena’s ears
increased, until she was sure her eardrums would burst. She had very
little time to act.
Forcing herself to remain calm, Leena
pressed back into the semblance of a sitting position on the
overturned chair. This provided her space to move, with less than a
meter between her head and torso and the soft floor of the riverbed.
Then, tucking her head down, she bent at the waist, reaching down to
her knees. She began to scrape furiously at the soft loam beneath
her legs, like a dog digging to hide a bone, sending up flurries of
It was like trying to dig a hole in wet
beachsand as the tide rolled in. As soon as Leena scooped away a
handful of the soil, the water pressure would push more in from all
sides. Alternatively scooping away with her hands, and pulling with
all her strength at her legs, she managed to work her legs
centimeter by centimeter out from under the heavy chair. After the
first few seconds, she rose back into an inverted sitting position,
tilting her head back and to one side to catch a quick breath, but
there was so little air left in the helmet that she drew in as much
water as oxygen. Racked by coughs, she steeled herself and returned
to the task at hand.
It couldn’t have taken more than a
handful of seconds, far less than a full minute at any rate, but it
seemed to Leena like an eternity before the ground gave way
sufficient for her to work her feet free.
Survival training winning a war of
attrition with her mounting panic, Leena remembered the survival kit
strapped to the side of the chair before pushing away to the
surface. The clouds of dirt and silt she’d kicked up with her
digging still hung around the area like a low, black fog, but Leena
was able to feel her way to the airtight metal case clipped to the
chair’s side. Her hand closing over the handle, Leena began to feel
a glimmer of hope. The kit’s contents, emergency rations, signal
flares, compass, medical supplies, knife, pistol and rounds, made
her feel equipped to handle whatever challenges this strange world
might present. She’d survived the siege of Stalingrad, the state
orphanages, several years of military service and cosmonaut
training; she could survive anything.
Pushing away from the riverbed, Leena’s
vision was almost completely obscured. A combination of exhaustion,
lack of oxygen, and the current-borne silt clouded her view.
Fortunately for her, the designers of her pressure suit had
anticipated the possibility of a water landing, if perhaps not the
possibility of being trapped by the chair. Around the base of the
helmet, which could not be detached from the suit, was a rubber
collar. Leena pulled the release tab, and the collar inflated,
pulling pressurized gas from a small reserve tank fixed to the back
of the suit. Floating blind, Leena let the collar drag her to the
surface, the current pulling her downstream from the chair.
Before reaching the surface something
brushed past her, almost knocking the heavy metal case from her
grip. Her limited vision couldn’t make out many details of what the
thing had been, but she’d gotten the impression of something huge,
something with massive teeth and a thick, leathery hide. Clutching
the survival kit protectively to her chest, she thrashed the waters
with her legs violently, desperate to reach the surface and air.
It wasn’t until she’d kicked her legs
twice against hard, unforgiving rock that she realized that she’d
reached the shores of the river. Scrambling over the stones, seconds
from passing out due to oxygen deprivation, she splashed her noisy
way to the surface.
Throwing the metal case onto the
ground, lying from the waist up in dry air with her legs and feet
still resting underwater and painfully on the rocks, Leena worked
frantically to open the helmet’s visor. Encased in wet
leather-palmed gloves, her fingers fumbled at the latch, useless.
There was some irony in this, a small part of Leena noted, to drown
only after safely reaching the shore. And after everything else that
had happened to her.
In the last instants before losing
consciousness, Leena managed to slide the visor open, and the water
trapped inside spilled out in a rush. She collapsed forward onto the
rocky shore, sputtering coughs shaking her, drawing in ragged
breaths until her pulse slowed to something approaching normal.
Rolling onto her back, she drew her knees up, feet dragged out of
the water, as though afraid the current might take revenge and drag
her once more under. The strange sun was high overhead, and Leena
closed her eyes, lying in red-lidded darkness while the rays of
light warmed and soothed her. She was still alive, and grateful for
A shadow fell across Leena’s face, the
backsides of her eyelids going from red to black. She opened her
eyes, and immediately wished she hadn’t.
It stood upright on two legs, with two
arms and a head, and in a dim light might have been mistaken for a
human being, but with the bright sunlight behind it there could be
no question. It was some sort of cat-thing, standing some more than
two meters tall, spotted like a leopard or jaguar. Black lips curled
back over wicked teeth under its pronounced snout, and while its
hands were shaped like those of a man, the fingers were tipped with
curved black claws that glinted like obsidian in the bright light. A
collection of straps and belts crisscrossed its chest, arms and
legs, with an abbreviated loincloth hanging at its waist. Otherwise
it was naked, the golden-yellow fur with the black and white spots
its only covering.
“Mat’ata’rrom,” the thing snarled,
pointing a clawed finger at Leena’s nose. “Mat’ata’das’ul.”
There came from all sides the sound of
low growling, and angling her head from one side to the other Leena
could see another half-dozen or more of the creatures approaching,
continue to Chapter Three