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Friday, 14 November 2014

Saturday Story - 'A Gigantic Leap' - 1 of 2

As we get pictures from the Rosetta mission, relaying details of the remarkable landing of its probe Philae on comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko, I thought it might be appropriate to feature this previously published sci-fi story.  Full details on the historic Rosetta mission can be gleaned from here 

Soyuz - Wikipedia commons



Nik Morton


I remember the date well - June 30, 1971 – as that was when my world changed forever. 

            A little less than a month earlier, I, Kolya Volkov, had been one of the proudest children in the Soviet Union.  Anxious but proud. My father, Vladislav Volkov, was a cosmonaut.  Now, it is hard to comprehend the primitive nature of our nation’s space-craft in those days.  As my father joked once over dinner, ‘we went into space by the seat of our pants!’  He was a charming handsome man with gentle features, small eyes and dark hair.

            An indescribable mixture of emotions ran through me when my mother and I learned that the designated crew for Soyuz 11 had to step down as one of them had suspected tuberculosis.  My father, with Georgi Dobrovolski and Viktor Patsayev, were the stand-by crew.  Four days before the launch, they took over the mission.

            He was confident and never doubted his ability as the flight engineer. After all, this wasn’t his first journey into space as he’d been there before in Soyuz 7. 

            The preceding mission, in Soyuz 10, had been a failure as they had been unable to dock with Salyut 1, the world’s first space station.  Now that honour rested with Soyuz 11 and my father. 

            My mother and I were transfixed as we watched from the secure buildings of Baikonur Cosmodrome.  She nervously twisted her lace-bordered cotton handkerchief with one hand, a habit I had observed more than once. She had a box of these handkerchiefs and I recalled her saying in exasperation, ‘My grandmother gave them to me. She laughed at what she called our silly village superstitions.  Remember, Kolya, you never give handkerchiefs or knifes as a gift.’ 

            There were other odd things she inculcated into me, such as never celebrating a birthday early – as if you would; and never show your newborn baby to a stranger until it’s forty days old. (I abided by that with my little baby Nessa, foolish man that I am.)

            My mother gripped my arm tightly with her free hand as the blast off turned our vision red and yellow.  I felt my insides surging with joy and immense pride as the spectacular flame rose into the sky on that day on June 6.  D-Day, they call it in the West. Was that for ‘Doom’, ‘Destiny’ or something else?  I’m sure I knew but now I forget.

            The day following the launch, Soyuz 11 successfully docked with Salyut 1. How the cheers exploded around the mission planning centre.  I know now that you must grasp those moments of body-thrumming pleasure because they are rare. The effusive joy was short-lived as bad news came into the centre and within seconds everyone’s face looked downcast.

            Clambering inside the space station, the crew had encountered a smoke-filled atmosphere.  They reported that the air was clogged with the raw metallic stench of burnt electrics.  Undaunted and using oxygen cylinders while they worked, the crew replaced part of the ventilation system and then patiently waited in Soyuz 11 until the air had cleared.  Even then, I remember thinking that they were every bit as resourceful as the Apollo 13 crew a year earlier.

            Once back inside the space station, my father and his comrades occupied their time with minor experiments. They also tested the exercise treadmill, but desisted after a couple of attempts as its use seemed to seriously destabilise the station itself.

            The highlight for my mother and me - and the other families - was that we were able to speak to and view the crew through a television link.  The picture was poor and the sound scratchy at times, but we didn’t know any better. It was wonderful to us at the time. So much to say, yet I was tongue-tied when it was my turn to talk to my father.  I remember blushing and saying something inane.  I promised to keep up with my studies.

            On the eleventh day a fire broke out in the space station but quick action brought it under control. After that scare, groups of mission planners seemed to be constantly huddled together. Sometimes I think my mother had a sixth sense or was at least prescient. There were strange stories she would tell me of her childhood village in Byelorussia. Somehow, she snatched whispers out of the ether and she said that the controllers were actually considering the abandonment of Salyut 1. 

            Naturally, being a child, I didn’t appreciate that such a decision would have been a serious setback to our space conquest. And it would have been a terrible embarrassment. I think we have inherited the concept of ‘face’ from the East.  We Russians don’t like to be seen to fail or lose. To counter this, the crew argued that it was safe enough for them to stay and they did, establishing a space endurance record of twenty-two days, which wasn’t bettered until the Americans’ Skylab 2 mission two years later.

            After a normal re-entry, Soyuz 11 landed at Karaganda in Kazakhstan on June 30. We families watched from an accompanying coach.  With its enormous parachute trailing in the dust, the capsule looked like a bathyscaphe or some contraption out of Jules Verne. What kind of pummelling did my father and the crew get when it hit terra firma?  I was brimful with admiration for him and his brave comrades.

            All smiles, the recovery team rushed over from their support vehicle and moved their mobile ladders to the side of the globe-shaped module. Two of them clambered up the ladders and opened the capsule with practised ease; it was obvious that they’d done this many times before.  Small, vital cogs in our mighty machine. 

            Then the speaker system in our coach suddenly went into overload and just as abruptly stopped, to be replaced by silence. Ominous silence. The looks on the faces of the recovery team told us that something was amiss.

            Wiping her eyes with that old lace handkerchief, my mother whimpered, ‘Oh, Kolya, they’re pulling them out.’  I could have been mistaken but I thought I saw her fleetingly cross herself. I never again saw her make such a pious and dubious expression until she was on her death-bed.

            The recovery crew handled the cosmonauts like shop dummies, hauling them onto the hard unforgiving ground. Medics rushed forward and one man knelt over my father, performing resuscitation, alternately pumping his chest and then breathing into his airway.  My heart pounding, I stared, not aware that I was breathing.  My mother’s hand almost crushed mine as it flexed repeatedly. After about fifteen minutes, the team stopped and slumped back, exhausted.

            Later, back at the base, my mother and I were allowed to see him.  His face was still drawn in the horrible rictus of asphyxiation.  Mother leaned over and kissed his forehead and tenderly held her handkerchief over my father’s lips and intoned some ancient words from the Steppes; probably some superstitious ritual.  I dutifully kissed his cheek and was surprised how cold he felt.  I was twelve.

            The rest is a hazy slide-show of memories. The state funeral. Thousands of people lining the streets. An American astronaut was one of the pall-bearers, but I forget his name. 

            My father and his fellow crewmen were buried in Red Square’s Kremlin Wall Necropolis.

            Over the years, I tried to visit this tomb at least once a year. But life got in the way.  Now, I have a busy international career as a microbiologist.

            So, to my eternal mortification, five years passed before my most recent visit.  I was taken aback by the state of the marble blocks.  They were stained brown, as if with rust, and lichen grew in the small cracks, radiating outwards.  I wasn’t too surprised; much had fallen into disrepair since the USSR collapsed.  But I felt shame, too.  I spent an hour or so finding a shop where I could buy bleach and rubber gloves. It was the least I could do for my father’s memory, I thought, as I dabbed bleach on the cloth and rubbed at the lichen. 

            It had no effect.  I knew that there were plenty of fake products on the market. Was this yet another one?  I fished in my pocket and pulled out a red paper serviette – as a young man I’d made a habit of pocketing my serviette when leaving a restaurant.  Waste not, want not, my mother taught me. An insubstantial handkerchief compared to my mother’s lace ones.  I dabbed the serviette and the colour drained from the tissue.  The bleach worked, then.  But it didn’t have any effect on the growth that discoloured my father’s tomb.

            An armed sentry marched over to me and asked politely, ‘What are you doing, comrade?’

            I smiled. ‘Not a lot,’ I answered truthfully enough. ‘This is my father’s tomb and I was trying to clean it. But with little success.’

            The soldier saluted me. ‘An honour to meet you, comrade.’ He eyed the three names on the tomb. Which one is your father?’

            I told him, gesturing with the bottle of bleach.  ‘Do you know how long it’s been like that?’

            He shouldered his weapon. ‘I was here on sentry duty last week and I can assure you the marble was as new then.’  His face showed concern. Maybe he was worried he would get the blame. ‘Comrade, let me contact City Maintenance for you.’

            ‘No,’ I said, astonished at my response.  ‘I’m sure they have enough to do these days.’  With the new freedoms came the freedom to drop litter and spread graffiti. It was easy to understand that many old Muscovites pined after the old days.  ‘But thank you for your concern.’

            The soldier saluted and marched off. 

            By then it was getting late so I walked back to my apartment.  Twenty years ago it had been shared with two other families. Even the family of a dead hero of the Soviet had to suffer privations for the cause.  Now, though, I had recovered it for myself and my daughter Nessa.  She was twenty-two and helped me with my work. My wife ran off with a ballet dancer when Nessa was eight.

            Sometimes I think Nessa is psychic.  She opened the door as I stopped to insert my key.  ‘You look troubled, father,’ she observed as I entered.  She closed the door and bolted it.

            No matter how much I tried, I saw my wife in Nessa’s high cheekbones and bright grey eyes.  She had the poise of her grandmother and the strange characteristic of occasionally rubbing her lower lip with the end of her thumb, just like my father.

            I shrugged off my jacket and loosened my tie and sank into a leather armchair.  ‘No, just perplexed a little, that is all.’ 

            Our apartment was snug and homely. Most of the furniture had belonged to my parents.  Dark wood. Creased and worn leather. Threadbare rugs.  It still smelled of them, too. Warm and welcoming; the people who shared with us long ago left no impression. Although I owned an apartment in London and another in New York, only this place was home. 

            Nessa was psychic: she placed a tumbler of vodka and ice in my hand and I sipped it gratefully. ‘Thank you, dear.’

            On the mantel-shelf resided a sealed clear square plastic container.  Inside it was my mother’s lace handkerchief. She’d never used it again after touching my father’s lips with it.  A piece of band-aid was stuck on the top and in her spidery handwriting was the faded date of his death.  The container was flanked on either side by photographs of my parents.   My father still looked a handsome thirty-six-year-old in his uniform and medals; my mother’s picture was more recent and the years had not been kind towards the end, draining the colour from her hair and face.

            I explained to Nessa about the state of my father’s tomb.

            ‘Is the fungi just isolated to his tomb?’

            I shook my head. ‘No, it radiates from all three of them.’  I pictured the Necropolis again. Black marble, austere stonework, but no evidence that any other tomb was in such a poor state.  ‘None of the others seem affected.’

            ‘Yet,’ she said, prophetically.

            The sky was grey and downcast, reflecting my mood, as I returned to the Necropolis the next day, this time with Nessa. The fungal outgrowth from the three tombs was worse. 

            ‘I don’t like this.’ Nessa shuddered.

            I’d looked after her long enough to trust her body’s reactions to places and people; if she shuddered, then there was a good reason for it. Kneeling down, I took out from my jacket pocket my pen-knife and scraped a sample of the growth into a paper tissue since I was out of serviettes.

            ‘Let’s get away,’ Nessa urged, tugging my arm. 

            At first I thought she was being melodramatic. But I trusted her feelings.

            ‘We need to talk to Federov,’ she said decisively. ‘He’s the expert on fungi.’


Anton Federov was an old student friend and we’d kept in touch over the years. Now he was a perplexed mycologist.  He squinted at the sample under his microscope and then straightened, a hand going to his back.  ‘None of us are getting any younger,’ he smiled, withdrawing his spectacles. ‘How old do you think this stuff is?’

            ‘Stuff?’ I said.  ‘You’re not usually so imprecise.’

            He shook his head and scratched his unruly greying hair. ‘It isn’t any kind of plant life I’ve come across, Kolya.’ 

            ‘As for its age,’ I added, ‘judging by the growth rate, I’d estimate it only started being visible about a week ago.’ I didn’t register the significance of the date then. ‘The sentry tends to confirm that, too.’

            Federov gestured at the microscope. ‘A week... It’s like bacteria, reproducing at a phenomenal rate. Cells splitting every few seconds. This isn’t my field, Kolya. You need to show these slides to a bacteriologist – Tomich will be intrigued, I imagine.’

            ‘But why is it only to be found at the tomb of the Soyuz 11 cosmonauts?’

            Federov pulled a face.   ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say the craft brought the spores from space...’

            ‘But there were quarantine regulations,’ I said.  ‘I remember waiting ten days to see my father after he came down in Soyuz 7.’ 

            ‘Really, that’s an arbitrary duration. Different viruses have different incubation periods. Exposure risks vary. As for something from space – nobody actually knows...’

            I glanced with concern at Federov and Nessa. ‘Could we have been so unprepared?’

            ‘Our so-called experts thought that no pathogens could live in the vacuum of space or survive the heat of re-entry. If you believe the Americans, they thought differently and were ultra careful.’

            ‘The Americans – I’ve worked with them, Anton – they go over the top. Always have. You know that.’

            Federov chuckled. ‘But rumours get out, don’t they? Their Operation Wildfire in Nevada was a failure, by all accounts.’

            ‘That was fiction.’  I caught The Andromeda Strain film on a hotel television once, years after its release date of 1971.  Life’s full of coincidences that mean nothing except to the conspiracy theorists.

            ‘Fact dressed up as fiction, I heard.’  Even in our new so-called free society, we’re not immune from the rumour-mongers. Some of them are quite plausible, too. That’s what comes of having a secretive society – the truth is as hidden as the falsehoods. Next, they’ll be telling us the Pope’s assassination attempt was engineered by a secret psychic group in Kazakhstan.  Just because the demented fool was hearing voices in his head. The Kennedy assassination conspiracies prove that – nineteen theories at the last count. America kids itself that it’s the land of the free. A great many of the people with power and knowledge may be free, but the majority are not.  They are not free to know; that privilege is denied them. I’ve been there, seen it at work.

To be concluded tomorrow…

Previously published in Midnight Street, 2009.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014

Author’s dedication and declaration

‘A Gigantic Leap’ is dedicated to those brave souls who gave their lives in the tragic accident of June 30, 1971. The story is a work of fiction and, while it hinges on a real event, all the characters depicted are figments of my imagination and bear no resemblance to any person, living or dead.

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