Sunday, 9 May 2010

Lost Cosmonaut

He stretches down the skin beneath his eye. He looks at the pink flesh. He enjoys staring at the arc, seeing the moistness of this secret space. He imagines shrinking and lying in there; drawing the eyelid back over himself like a shroud.

Volodya pulls himself away from the chrome's reflection and looks out of the window. He is travelling at 18,000 miles per hour, he estimates, the perfect speed to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Not too fast, not too slow.

As he leans back, he presses one hand into the metal and pushes himself further into the bucket seat. The super-cooled surface feels freezing on his palm. He snatches his hand quickly away and looks at the islands of condensation slowly disintegrate.

The Soyuz 1 rolls on its axis. It is over the Black Sea, and it turns its two solar panels perpendicular to the water, which is uninterrupted by cloud cover when seen from the night sky. The sea is expansive, unfeeling, immortal, and unkind, though Volodya cannot see it. Instead he feels his face, and glances up at the controls, wonders whether this will become a tomb, or an angel delivering him home.

A young boy sits on the pavement. It is St Petersburg. He plays with a toy aeroplane. He looks up at the aeroplanes flying above him, and he knows which is which from the sounds of their engines before they come. His mother thinks he is strange and the other boys tease him because of his obsession with flying. When he plays football he is flying. When he is walking to the shops he is flying. When he is sleeping, above all, he is flying.

He cannot see the other boys approach. He can feel the pit of his stomach fall away. He doesn´t want to show he is scared, but he is scared, and he focuses on swinging the plane around more clinically than before. But he can´t launch it into flight again. He grounds it, pretends it is taxiing across the runway, the paving slabs, the weeds, the dirt and the grit on his fingers transferred to his face but not to the clean aluminium of the plane's fuselage or wings.

They come over and the biggest boy stands above him. He doesn't say anything. Volodya is on his own, his mother is too far away to help so he takes what they give him. The punches rain down on his head, on his ribs, on his face and he takes it because he knows what they do not. He knows that one day he will fly among the stars and their blows will be as insignificant as the dying movements of a small insect, though probably not one that flies.

They leave him, prostrate and bleeding on the pavement. The blood mixes with stone, the grit is in between his teeth, his head feels boiling hot and it is not from the sun that beats down from a clear blue sky across which a Tupolev Tu-154 is slowly charting its course. He cries, but no water escapes. His body heaves. He runs inside and up the stairs, up another flight of stairs and into the attic. There is a wardrobe. There are a line of tin cans. He takes a knife and carves out a section from one of them, a rudimentary propeller, and he bends it into shape then leans out the window and releases it. He watches it spiral to the ground. As it lands a woman with another small child walking past stops in her tracks and they look up at the window.

Voldya tries to message mission control. One of the solar panels has not properly unfolded. He is without feeling, though, he is not fearful. He lets the training take over. Any anxiety he may be experiencing is perfectly normal for a cosmonaut in the final stages of landing a spacecraft and should be expected. The relaying procedure with the Soyuz-2 will take place another time, now. They were due to dock with him, were due to rescue him, in fact, but since that promise 10 hours previously the plan has been mysteriously scrapped. He will be sent back into space at a later date to complete the procedure.

He runs through a checklist of actions and fires the retro-rockets. A loud banging escapes from one side of the spacecraft and Volodya jolts forward in his seat. He keeps his hands firmly on the controls and focuses intensely upon them. It goes to plan. The spacecraft slows. As it does so its weight causes it to shift on its axis once again. The window turns towards the Earth. Volodya takes a moment to congratulate himself but does not see the Black Sea. Instead he sees a lightning storm above South America. For the first time he feels afraid, as gravity takes hold of his shoulders and drags him towards the Earth.

A boardroom, Moscow, Gagarin and the administrator are there. They are arguing. The administrator is saying that time is of the essence, that further testing is not necessary, that their track record so far is enough to build confidence that all will go well. Gagarin, chisel-jawed and as good looking as the photographs, disagrees, he bangs his fist down on the table but even he isn't strong enough to resist the administrator's will. The administrator reminds Gagarin that he would be nothing without him, that he should not fight battles that are not his, that his own life will be in the administrator's hands again and he would be wise not to interfere.

Gagarin asks Volodya whether he should lobby to take his place. That Gagarin is an asset that their fine country could not afford to lose. But Volodya tells him his training was not just the parabolic flights, the exercise regimes and diets, it was his entire life. Once in space is not enough. Once you have been up there you cannot come back. No one really ever comes back. Gagarin understands. He tells him he is a fine man but Volodya disagrees. He says he had no choice, that it was written from the beginning. That some men fly and some men walk, and the one man´s path will never be understood properly by the other. They go back and tell the administrator their decision. He seems happy.

The spacecraft shudders. The sound is deafening. The heat has hugely increased, it feels as though the seats may derail from the fuselage and food, sleeping bags and tools are falling from their positions, stowed away, and fly across the interior. Volodya closes his eyes. He is in God's hands now. There is nothing left for him to do. The Soyuz is designed to drop to Earth with no further intervention. There is nothing anyone can do any more.

He is over Russia. The spacecraft spins through the upper atmosphere. Gas rushes past its surface, whistling with confusion. How could anyone anticipate this heat, this harshness, the unfeeling, unfathomable nature of the universe? The sky plots its revenge.

He reaches for the radio. He has lost radio contact. He imagines that mission control must be happy with the way things have progressed. He does not feel afraid any more. He is one of the greatest Russians ever to have lived. There will be statues erected in his honour. His wife will proudly tell their children about how great their father was, and one day they will try to imagine what he sees now, what he feels now, what he hears now, though they will not probably be able to. He is lost. He wonders whether the president is aware of what is happening, how he will one day be reunited with him and there will be a ticker tape parade to rival anything the Americans ever managed.

He is in the middle of a lake. He is with her. She smiles at him, she is standing, they embrace, they are naked, they are in an island surrounded by mist, there are rings of smoke around them, blinking lights, but all they see is each other. They are perfectly in love. There is nothing above them and nothing beneath them. They are naked. Their bodies are intertwined. They kiss once more and he is a child, he is a cosmonaut, he is alive, more alive than anyone has been before or will be again. He has seen the world from above and he holds it in his palm.

The pair look up. The starry night is close, it is a blanket within which they swaddle themselves. A lone shooting star spins across the sky, leaving a trail of priceless dust in its wake. The man blows kisses, the lady laughs.

Volodya is thirty seconds from impact. He smiles to himself, happy at the thought of the future. The parachute is released. The Soyuz lurches to one side, and then pirouettes into a spin. Thrown across the cabin, he does not know why this has happened. The parachutes underwent many tests. Crying out at the pain now grabbing his side he feels metal in his mouth and his eyes are full of tears which stream down his face. The shuddering is too intense for him to cope with; he lets out one last, immortal gasp which echoes out of the spacecraft, into the night sky, drowns out the engines and wakes up his wife many hundreds of miles across Russia. She cries his name. The president pauses for a second then resumes signing documents. The administrator puts his head in his hands as the reserve chute entangles with the primary and the spacecraft's spin intensifies.

A snapshot. Two seconds until impact. An empty field soon to be ignited. A dead fly, its wings torn, shedding limbs as it falls. A man holding the sides of a bucket seat, his face distorted with pain, though deep inside an everlasting core shines brightly. The night sky. The ground. The clouds. The stars. An Antonov An-24 flying by, taking passengers back to Moscow. The moon laughs down, the memory of a distant heart-break pasted across its pock-marked face.

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