Today's Reading

Mars leaned over the communications console, speaking in whispers to Leonid as Vostok 5 settled into its orbit. Mars would stay there, mouth held millimeters from the microphone, until the capsule rounded the horizon and communications were handed off to other stations—Makat, Sary-Shagan, Yeniseysk, Iskhup, Yelizovo, Klyuchi, Moscow, Leningrad, Simferopol, Tbilisi, Kolpashevo, Ulan-Ude, Sibir, Suchan, Sakhalin, Chukotka, Dolinsk, Ilyichevsk, Krasnodar—where strangers would carry on impersonal conversations with Leonid, more concerned with inserting data into tables than speaking to the lonely cosmonaut. When the launch crew arrived back in Star City, Mars would head directly to the communications room, where he would remain for the duration of the mission, as he had done for every mission after the second, when his own twin had launched. Back when they still hoped to bring the twins home. More than once, the Chief Designer had thought he heard Mars's low voice ask, "Do you see him?" Mars's brother, though, had burned up on reentry. There was nothing left to see.

"Mars," said the Chief Designer, "it's time to go. We must make it to the plane before that storm arrives." He pointed through the wall in the direction of the approaching thunderhead.

Already the speaker fed back only static. Mars flipped several switches and silenced it. He had developed a hunch to his shoulders, as if he were always leaning down to speak into the microphone. His hair, thick and black, he kept cropped so close that scalp showed through. He often forgot to shave, his beard growing in far longer than his hair. Mars stood and left, snatching his cap from a hook by the door.

The Chief Designer took a final look around the bunker. Everything was off that was supposed to be off. He tucked chairs under the console. He picked up and pocketed a pencil someone had left behind. As tidy, he thought, as the inside of a concrete block could be. He turned to leave.

A figure shifted in the corner, amid shadows not so dark that they should have been able to conceal someone. The scent of cheap cigarette smoke wafted from the corner, sullying the air. Even though he did not believe in such things, the Chief Designer at first suspected a ghost. Certainly he was a person worth haunting.

"Here's to another successful launch, Chief Designer."

The woman emerged into the lit part of the room as if coalescing from the dark. She was part smiling face, the rest leather jacket, several sizes too big. The high fur collar rimmed her neck. Her hair was cut in a Western style, her makeup like something an actor might wear to portray a pharaoh. She dropped a cigarette, snuffing it out with her heel. The Chief Designer sighed. It was Ignatius, a writer for Glavlit, responsible for crafting every word written about the space program. She was the one who had decided to never use his name.

Two glasses of vodka balanced on the palm of her extended left hand. The Chief Designer took one and accepted her toast. The vodka was pure, obviously filtered many times, better than the swill he and the other engineers had been sharing earlier. He gulped it down. If he believed in such things, it would have felt a little like sealing a deal with the devil.

"Are you here for an interview?" he asked.

She laughed. Not once had she interviewed him, though many, many times she had attributed to him words he never spoke. The nameless Chief Designer of the newspapers orated grand statements of Soviet glory. Seldom did he speak about outer space.

"I simply wished to see the launch," she said.

"The bunker doesn't offer the best view."

"Everyone, even you it seems, thinks only of the ignition of the engines. You wouldn't need a roomful of people if it were as simple as that."

"Hardly simple. One day you should count the parts of the R-7."

"I'm not sure that I'm qualified to tell where one part ends and the next begins. At what division is a part of a part a thing itself?"

"Ask Mishin. Or Bushuyev."

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