by Vaughan Stanger
“Berkut, this is Zarya-1. You are instructed to proceed on your own initiative, over.”
Yevgeny Khrunov turned in his seat and frowned at Pavel Popovich. As far as he was concerned, it was unprecedented for mission control to say something so ambiguous, but his commander merely shrugged his shoulders before supplying the default response.
Pavel toggled a switch on the control panel, thus ensuring mission control could not hear their conversation. But for now, Yevgeny thought his commander looked lost for words.
“Pasha, don’t you think that was a very strange thing for Zarya to say?”
Pavel shot Yevgeny a look of reproach before delivering a typically slow nod.
“Unless, perhaps, the situation in the Caucasus has worsened…” Pavel puffed out his breath before continuing. “Still, that is one for the politicians.” Now he faced Yevgeny and gave a tight-lipped nod. “We have trained for many months to undertake this mission, which we will perform to our utmost abilities. We will show the Americans what we are made of.”
“We will also show Alexey.”
His commander winced.
“I won’t, Zhenya, but you will.”
Yevgeny knew that Pavel too would have dreamed of being the first cosmonaut to walk on the Moon, but unlike the Apollo missions that responsibility did not rest on the commander’s shoulders. Instead, it fell to him to succeed where Alexey Leonov had failed and achieve a solo landing. Despite their longstanding personal animosity, which arose from his illustrious comrade’s initial assessment of Yevgeny’s piloting skills, Alexey had passed on the lessons he’d learned during his near-fatal attempt and wished him luck, as any cosmonaut would.
In truth, they were lucky to have the chance after NASA terminated their lunar landing programme following the loss of Apollo 13. None of the cosmonauts had expected the Soviet programme to continue. But with Korolev’s N1 rocket working reliably at last, the Politburo had decreed that the Soviet people should continue to pursue their destiny in space by building a base on the Moon. If Yevgeny succeeded then the Soviet Union would regain the lead in manned spaceflight while American efforts remained hobbled by a faltering Space Shuttle programme and a belligerent president.
The sound of throat-clearing jerked Yevgeny out of his musings. Pavel was smiling at him.
“As your commander, I order you to proceed as planned!”
“Don’t worry, Pasha. I will not disappoint you.”
He snapped a salute and commenced suiting up.
The contact light flickered for a moment before stabilising. Yevgeny’s heart pounded in time with the metallic clicks from the LK lander’s body as he peered through the down-slanted window, watching the dust settle amid the harsh sunlight. The landing radar had done its job and so, too, had Yevgeny.
Beat that, Alexey!
No, that was a churlish thing to say in this moment of triumph. His training required him to do better.
“Zarya-1, this is Medved. I have landed successfully! Two percent of landing fuel remains. The LK’s tilt angle is five degrees. I am now performing my emergency take-off checks. Over…”
He listened to the radio link. Nothing! The absence of a human voice confirmed his suspicion that his achievement had gone unnoticed.
Until the LOK’s orbit brought it into line-of sight, Yevgeny would be the loneliest man in the world.
The Apollo moon-walkers had made everything look so easy, Yevgeny reflected as he struggled with his long-handled scoop. So far he had failed to collect an acceptable soil sample. Despite the superior design of his Krechet-94 spacesuit, he was finding it harder to work on the Moon than the Americans did. If an Apollo astronaut had fallen over, his comrade could have helped him back onto his feet, whereas he would have to rely on his suit’s rear-mounted roll bar. He intended to report his frustrations to the mission planners when he got home, a thought that emphasised his continuing isolation at this moment of apparently supreme importance to the Soviet people.
“Zarya-1, this is Medved. Over.”
Yevgeny’s suit radio hissed noise at him in apparent mockery of his efforts. Everything was working normally, yet he’d heard nothing from mission control since a terse acknowledgement after he’d undocked from the orbiting capsule.
This wasn’t “proceed on your own initiative.” This was abandonment.
He glanced at the watch he’d strapped to the left arm of his spacesuit. Forty-five minutes remained until the scheduled end of his moonwalk. But the LOK’s orbit would bring it above the foreshortened horizon in less than five. It would be good to talk to Pavel again. In the meantime, since mission control refused to communicate with him, he would perform a task of his own. He extracted the plastic-wrapped photograph of Svetlana and Valery from his thigh pocket, tapped it against his faceplate and then dropped it onto soil the colour of ashes.
His wife had begged him not to fly again after his first mission, but cosmonauts did not listen to their wives.
“See you soon my darlings.”
Assuming the return home went to plan.
Pavel’s voice came over the radio.
“Medved, this is Berkut. How do you hear me? Over.”
“Berkut, this is Medved. I hear you loud and clear. But I have not heard from Zarya. Do you think he drank too much vodka and fell asleep on the job? Over.”
“Medved, this is Berkut. In Zarya’s position, I would have been drinking vodka too.”
Something in Pavel’s voice made Yevgeny realise he was not the only one who felt desperately alone.
“I will take off on schedule, my friend.”
He at least would not deviate from the mission plan.
“Welcome back, comrade.”
Yevgeny’s commander sounded like a party apparatchik addressing the cosmonaut corps. No congratulations, no bear-hug, no relief expressed at the successful completion of a mission phase made even more hazardous by the need to undertake a spacewalk in order to return to the LOK. The lack of a pressurised tunnel, as used on Apollo, was another disadvantage he intended to mention to Korolev, assuming he got the chance.
“Pasha, what is wrong?”
“Did you hear from mission control?”
Yevgeny shook his head. “No, not even once! Did you?”
“Just one brief transmission, which ended abruptly.”
“What did Zarya have to say for himself?”
“It wasn’t Zarya this time.”
Yevgeny raised his eyebrows. “Then who was it?”
“It was Alexey.”
A chill seeped into Yevgeny’s bones that had nothing to do with the capsule’s temperature. Alexey knew the mission protocols as well as any cosmonaut, but had breached them anyway.
“What did he have to say for himself?”
“Alexey stated his sincere admiration for you…”
“Hah!” Finally, the recognition he deserved. Yet the look in Pavel’s eyes suggested that this was not the right moment to gloat. Instead he asked, “Was that all?”
“Alexey said that we should choose wisely.”
Yevgeny frowned at him. “What on earth did he mean by that?”
Rather than answer, Pavel glanced at the mission clock before swinging an assembly of tubes and lenses scavenged from the LOK’s cameras over the docking cupola’s window. When directed, Yevgeny peered through the eyepiece.
The instrument revealed a drifting view of Eastern Asia. After several seconds he spotted a flash of light to the west of the Urals. Yevgeny turned away, his mouth gaping.
Pavel nodded. “I have also observed multiple detonations in Europe and North America.”
A picture of Moscow transformed into a crater flashed into Yevgeny’s mind. His beloved Svetlana and Valery would be nothing more than streaks of carbon on pulverised brickwork. He did not wish to see that.
Now he wished he’d kept the photograph.
Pavel’s voice jolted him out of his introspection.
“We are faced with a bitter choice.”
This was what Alexey had meant. Their comrade had known what was coming and what it implied for them.
Yevgeny nodded. “I understand.”
There were, he knew, only three options, each of which would leave them dead: two slowly and one much more quickly. They could choose to return to Earth, where they would doubtless die of thirst or starvation while awaiting a rescue that would never come. Or they could remain in lunar orbit and die of suffocation—the fate of the Apollo 13 astronauts. The alternative was to go out like heroes of the Soviet Union, in a blaze of glory. The LK was dry, with no way of refuelling it. But a carefully calibrated boost from the LOK’s engine would lower its orbit’s perilune sufficiently to achieve a crash-landing.
He turned to his commander. Pavel had a family too, but they would be no less dead than Yevgeny’s.
“My friend, do you really want to go home?”
Pavel gave a slow shake of the head. “No.”
Yevgeny took this as his cue to explain his idea. When he finished, his commander frowned at him.
“True, it would mean something to me to know that I’ll be the second cosmonaut to land on the Moon, but are you absolutely sure this is what you want?”
Yevgeny had told his commander about the photograph before the launch. If he could not see his family again, he would at least be reunited with them, after a fashion.
He nodded. “Yes, for me, this would be for the best.”
“Then we are agreed.”
A pang of self-doubt exploded inside Yevgeny’s head.
“Do you think Alexey would approve?”
Pavel gave a slow nod.
“I am certain of it.”
These things mattered to cosmonauts.
Yevgeny snatched up the mission plan folder and began scribbling numbers on his notepad. “Let’s see how close we can get to my family.”
Having trained as an astronomer and subsequently managed an industrial research group, Vaughan Stanger now writes SF and fantasy fiction full-time. His short stories have appeared in Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Postscripts, and Nature Futures, among others, and have been collected in Moondust Memories, Sons of the Earth & Other Stories, and The Last Moonshot & Other Stories. Follow Vaughan’s writing adventures at vaughanstanger.com.
This Hard SF story explores a situation where the impossibility of survival must be accepted, yet a meaningful choice must still be made: a decision predicated on the characters’ training but also their personal needs.