Today's Reading

"You know, the truth, even the most bitter truth, is always better than a lie."
—YURI GAGARIN

BAIKONUR COSMODROME, KAZAKHSTAN—1964

Nadya had been the twin who was supposed to die. But she lived, and it was her sister, the other Nadya, who'd departed. The Chief Designer placed his hand on this Nadya's shoulder and squeezed. He meant it to comfort her, but it had also become a superstition of sorts. The first time, at least, he had meant to comfort her. Since then, it was for his own comfort. No launch had ever failed following the gesture. This calmed him in a way the vodka never could.

The bunker walls were bare concrete. The control panel, a patchwork of different metals, unmatched switches, knobs, and dials like a hundred varieties of flower, faced the wall opposite the door. A half-dozen engineers manned positions at the console, and as many as that stood behind them. The Chief Designer knew only a few by name.

Had Nadya lost weight? He remembered her being meatier, muscles sculpted. She still trained back then, he supposed. No need for that now. Perhaps he simply misremembered. This was only the fifth time his hand had so much as grazed Nadya over the years of the program, once for each launch. Hell, he even managed to touch his wife more often than that. His wife and son, how long since he had last seen them? He looked at the countdown clock.

Some of the engineers called the Chief Designer Medved because they did not know his name, but also because of his breadth. The large scar on his head, too, befitted an animal. The gouge ran from just above his right eyebrow deep into the territory of his balding pate. He would never discuss its origins. Half his teeth were artificial, the incisors grayed like an old cheap saucer.

He slid sideways through the narrow space at the end of the control console to the bunker's periscope, a box of raw metal with goggles protruding from the side. The distance shrunk the R-7 rocket to toylike proportions. Only the top showed above the great tulip framework of the launchpad. The four metal buttresses, gripping the rocket like a vise, would not fall away until the thrust reached a certain level. The pad's design had been Mishin's. Or was it Bushuyev's? The Chief Designer could never remember.

Beyond the pad spread sprawling flatness, the Kazakh steppe like something from a nightmare, one where he would run and run but never seem to make progress. Downrange had become a graveyard for spent rocket parts, dropped early stages, shrapnel from the occasional explosion. Not as occasional as the Chief Designer would have liked. Some of the younger technicians took trucks, vintage from the war, and searched for souvenirs. Mars had returned once with a piece of metal sheeting, the skin from a failed rocket, with a red slash painted on it like a wound. It was the tip of the sickle. He had searched for the hammer, Mars said, but the steppe was a big place. Or a non-place. After a certain point, a thing's vastness diminished
its identity.

The Chief Designer did not look at the landscape, however. He scanned the sky, grimacing at the gray roiling over the horizon. He had received word of a storm surging across the steppe, the kind that would muddy the whole complex and postpone the mission.

"There's only so much of nature I can conquer at once," he said, speaking the words as if through the periscope. No one in the control room heard him.

The mission had already been delayed once after a single centimeter-long wire shorted out. Of the kilometers of wires, hundreds of vacuum tubes, and thousands of other little electronic devices, all it took was the tiniest glitch to ground the whole thing. The Chief Designer hated that faulty wire, sometimes he even hated the engineers who had installed it. In his more generous moods, he would congratulate the engineers on the foresight of the indicator light. Left unrepaired, even that forgettable span of wire could have destroyed the whole rocket. The fuse was always tiny compared to the explosion.
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