Today's Reading

The Chief Designer squeezed back around the console. Mishin, or was it Bushuyev, handed him the bottle of vodka. No glasses this time. For the first two launches there had been glasses, so that a successful launch might be toasted. By the time those launches actually occurred, however, there was no vodka left. They had drunk it all in the waiting.

The Chief Designer gripped the bottle with both hands and gulped down a mouthful, like a man emerging from the desert, scared that the substance might turn to illusion if he did not down it fast enough. He passed the bottle to Mars at the communications terminal quickly, so that the liquid's rippling would not reveal the tremors shooting through his body. Mars took a sip and passed the bottle along.

The radio crackled with static. An exhaled breath. The Chief Designer shoved himself next to Mars and took the microphone.

"T plus one hundred," he said. "How do you feel?"

"I feel fine." The voice came small and tinny from the speaker. "How about you?"

A round of subdued laughter crested through the bunker.

The voice belonged to Leonid, crammed inside the little globe of the Vostok capsule perched atop the R-7. It was the first joke the Chief Designer ever remembered him making. At least this Leonid. The other one had been trained to tell jokes, to be normal. More than normal. He was the socialist ideal incarnate. As if an ideal was something that could be trained into you. Sometimes the Chief Designer thought of them, the two Leonids, as the same person, but then that was the whole point.

Nadya slipped around the console to the periscope. She didn't press her face against it, but stood back, observing the small image of the rocket, fish-eyed by the lens. Speaking of ideals, thought the Chief Designer. How old was she now? Twenty-five? The original cosmonauts, the Vanguard Five, were all the same age, give or take a year. Nadya was the only one among them to achieve grace in a jumpsuit. Her blond hair so fine. He wondered what the other Nadya's hair had looked like in weightlessness. The first human in space, and no one had thought to take a picture. No one had thought to ask.

The only time Nadya's grace had failed her was the day before she was scheduled to launch. The little white dog Kasha, herself trained as a cosmonaut, had darted under Nadya's feet in the hallway. The Chief Designer had been there, along with Mishin and Bushuyev, walking from the training center toward the mess, discussing the logistics of launch day, though all of them knew the procedures so well by then that any recapitulation was pointless beyond even the usual levels of redundancy the engineers favored. Nadya seemed to rise up, over the top of Kasha, and then toppled to the beige-tiled floor. She looked down, her face seemingly stretched by surprise, not pain. Kasha sat beside Nadya, as if protecting her. Nadya hovered her hand above her knee and said simply, tragically, "It's broken." The Chief Designer remembered the electric shock those words had caused to pulse below his skin. That was his last clear memory of the first launch.

Now he stood, looming over the control panel like the rocket over the pad, both figures, to look at them, unlikely to ever leave the ground. His finger floated above the ignition button. Could he press it again? After the first launch, he had always pressed it himself. Whoever's finger did the work, though, the ultimate responsibility was his. It was his button, his rocket, his cosmonaut. No, he would not press it again. He would remove his hand, scrub the mission. He would stand on the scaffold of the launchpad as Leonid emerged from Vostok. He would welcome Leonid home like a son, though Leonid had never actually left the ground. Like Nadya. Like the Nadya who survived. What had her sister's hair looked like in space?

"We never think to ask the right questions," he said.

The Chief Designer mouthed the final numbers of the countdown: pyat, chetirii, trii, dva, odin.

He pushed the button, and the engines, all twenty of them, lit as one.

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