Today's Reading

LEONID WATCHED HIMSELF launch into space. A small spark flashed at the base of the R-7, and then it grew, flaring so bright that the rocket itself was swallowed up. He worried something was wrong. Even though he had seen four previous launches, the fireball seemed impossible to survive, the rocket a matchstick igniting the sun.

He felt the rumble coming even before it rattled the bunker. It knocked him off balance. At breakfast that morning he'd only managed two bites of black bread. His brother, his other self, had eaten everything else. That was the first time they had seen each other in months, one of only a few times over the years. They had always trained separately, always pretending to be one and the same person. Leonid's brother did most of the real training, this Leonid learning just enough to appear capable, his main job to wait, to stay invisible until such a time as he was needed. Until today. Neither brother had spoken a word the whole meal. Now Leonid's breakfast would leave the very planet it came from.

The trusswork petals around the rocket separated and then fell back, a bloom of metal and flame. At first by fingerbreadths and then meters the rocket rose, and then it ate up sky, leaving whole lengths of itself behind as smoke. Leonid thought of a gray thread stitching blue fabric. The thread grew finer as the rocket drew away, until all he could see was a distant orange glow, fading in and out behind wispy clouds. The glow faded a final time and never returned to view.

The smoke trail thinned, feathering at the edges, and took up position in the sky as a narrow cloud. A tether without substance, carried across the steppe by the dry, hot wind.

Through the slitted window, Leonid could see the other bunker, the control room, about half a kilometer up the main road. The bunker looked like an anthill from afar, just a bump rising out of the dirt. All the other twins were there now, manning the controls, or like Nadya, just watching. Leonid was the last twin, and so this bunker was his alone. The other cots would remain empty. He'd spend the three days of the mission sleeping, eating the premade meals, and staring out the window at the unchanging scenery. He noted the clouds on the horizon. The storm would soon turn the complex into an edgeless field of muck, but he was grateful for the rain. It was the only movement he would be able to see through the window.

His eyes followed the smoke trail up to the vanishing point. He spoke his brother's real name, the one given by their parents, not the one the two of them now shared. Leonid knew that secret name, as did the Chief Designer, and of course Tsiolkovski. No one else, though. Not since Grandmother said goodbye and they boarded the train and Tsiolkovski spoke to them for the first time: "From now on, you are one boy, the same boy. Your only name is Leonid."

All of a sudden, that first statement was true. Leonid, in his tiny bunker with its crack of a window and uncomfortable cot, was the only Leonid on Earth. The bottom of the smoke trail lifted, breaking contact with the ground.

• • •

ENGINEERS SCURRIED AROUND the control room, giddy, always about to bump into each other but somehow never colliding. Molecules in a gaseous state, thought the Chief Designer. It was always like this after a successful launch, especially one with a cosmonaut on board. The tension of waiting was replaced with euphoric release. The technicians made short work of the post-launch checklist. Systems were shut down, valves secured, inspections made. One by one, the indicator lights on each control panel darkened. Mishin and Bushuyev gathered the fifteen thick volumes of technical data on the R-7, barely able to hold half each in their arms, and carried the books out to the Chief Designer's black Volga sedan. The driver offered to help load the volumes, but Mishin and Bushuyev declined. Sometimes it seemed as if they always had the books wrapped in their embrace.

The last person to leave the bunker, besides the Chief Designer himself, was Mars. Azerbaijani by birth, Mars's personal history had of course been rewritten to make him a proud son of Leningrad. He and his twin had quickly learned the accent, the local customs. Though they did not exactly look the part, no one had ever questioned their heritage. Mishin and Bushuyev took the Mars twins, one at a time, on tours of the city, but the Marses themselves ended up serving as guides. Through their studies, they had learned Leningrad better than even lifelong residents, navigating the streets without hesitation. That was how they trained, too. The Chief Designer recalled the simple assurance with which the other Mars would flip a switch. It seemed like such a small thing, a toggle of mere millimeters, but Mars had mastered that tiny gesture in a way the other cosmonauts never would. This Mars had shown the same confidence as his brother in the simulator, though he had spent far less time inside it. It pained the Chief Designer to see how much that confidence had been purged from him.
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