Prologue

The MIR space station was launched in February of 1986. It followed the Russian space programs seven smaller manned space stations, beginning with Salyut I, launched in 1971, which orbited the earth for six months.

Mir, which means “peace,” is forty-three feet long and fourteen feet wide. It has ninety-eight foot-long energy-generating solar panels. Mir can accommodate six cosmonauts for short stays and three for longer periods. Fifteen months is considered the maximum time for a cosmonaut to remain in space.

Mir has six docking ports, and when most or all are in use the attached units make Mir look like a metallic dragonfly being attacked by space parasites.

Mir has four areas-a docking compartment, living quarters, a work area, and a propulsion chamber. The docking compartment houses television equipment, the electrical-power supply system, and five of the six ports.

In the living space are two small sleeping cabins and a common area with dining facilities and exercise equipment, plus a toilet, sink, and a water-recycling system.

The work compartment contains the main navigational, communications, and power-control systems. Attached to the sides of this compartment are two solar panels that provide Mir’s electricity.

Space suits are needed only in the propulsion compartment, which is not pressurized. This compartment has rocket motors, a fuel supply, a heating system, and the sixth docking port, used only for unpiloted refueling missions. Outside this compartment are the antennae for all communication with the earth.

In the docked modules are an observatory with x-ray and gamma-ray telescopes. Another module, with an air-lock system, is used for repairs outside the station. A third module is used for scientific equipment and as a docking port for heavy spacecraft. Two more modules with various functions complete Mir.

Mir is a marvel of technology, the pride of Russian science, and for the last five years of its existence it has been rapidly decaying and experiencing a series of disasters-some small, some large, and at least one that began as …

Tsimion Vladovka sat before the console in front of the axial docking port, wondering if dreams were different in outer space. He pressed the buttons on the panel in front of him and watched the lists and numbers scroll by, certain that if something was wrong the automatic part of his mind would notice and nudge him into action and out of the memory of his dream.

Tsimion had been on the Mir space station for eight months. Early in his stay he had decided that there were three things about the journey around the earth to nowhere that he did not like.

First, he did not like the loud squawk of the alarm that woke the cosmonauts each morning and blared when there was a problem or potential problem. At first he had slept just below the level of consciousness, strapped in to keep from floating about the cabin, slept without dreams, dreading that blare. Now he had learned to anticipate it, check his watch, unstrap himself, and float past whoever might be sleeping just below him. Long before the others awoke, Tsimion was drifting weightlessly about the communal cabin, eating alone at the work and dining table. At forty-two, he was the oldest of the three cosmonauts on board the space station. If he took after his father, whom he already resembled, he would soon be white haired. At first, Tsimion had routinely shaved carefully, finding even the smallest hair on his throat, cheekbones, and beneath his ears. His beard was dark and grew quickly. Lately, he had begun to shave just enough so that there would be no questions from ground control about his appearance. There was a slightly Asian look about his face, a look of eastern Russia and the farming village in which he was born, that weightlessness somehow accented. His family went back at least a thousand years in that village not far from St. Petersburg, inbreeding with other potato-farming families till everyone in the town looked as if he or she had been cloned from the same original, with more than a touch of the Mongols who had long ago raided and raped their way through the plains.

When he brushed his teeth, Tsimion had to remind himself to keep his mouth closed tightly so that the toothpaste would not drift about the cabin. Even with frequent warnings and reminders it was inevitable that food particles would get away. It was routine for the cosmonauts to gather in stray floating bits as they came upon them and dispose of them in safe boxes. Washing was not so bad, but it had its own problems. Globules of water clung to the skin and had to be coaxed with a sponge to do their job. Capturing a fleeing globule of water in a plastic bag was a daily game.

“You sound tired, Vladovka,” Mikhail Stoltz had said once, his voice deep with years of smoking Turkish cigarettes. “Kahk dyehlah, ‘how are you?’”

Pryeekrahsnay, ‘fine,’” Tsimion had answered.

Tsimion had wondered at first why Stoltz, who was head of security at the Star City cosmonaut training center twenty miles outside of Moscow, had recently begun communicating with Mir. There was no point in asking and it wasn’t Tsimion’s concern. If there were a security problem on the space station, Tsimion was reasonably certain which of the other cosmonauts might be involved.

“I have been working on the fungus experiments,” Tsimion had said. “I lost track of time.”

“That is what your watch is for,” Stoltz had said with a laugh, a laugh patently false and carrying a hint of warning.

Their brief daily conversations, both men knew, were monitored by countries around the world, but they were most concerned with convincing the Americans that these communications were light and confident. There were breaks in radio contact with space control in Karolyov and Star City resulting from Mir being on the opposite side of the earth from Russia. In fact, acceptable radio contact lasted only minutes a day. Though he did nothing different from his normal routine during these breaks of contact, Tsimion looked forward to them precisely because they isolated him and the others from all earthly control.

The second thing that Tsimion disliked about his mission was his company. It was natural, he knew, that in such confines people would begin to get on each other’s nerves. They had all been taught that, all been trained in techniques of dealing with each other. Tsimion had spent much of his free time in the Spektr module, sending long e-mails to his wife at the Star City cosmonaut training center. He knew the correspondence was being monitored and analyzed by psychologists and military officers, and so he kept his innermost thoughts to himself. For much of his time, Tsimion had taken to keeping a journal and recording his dreams. The journal was a neat, thick, blank-paged book with a hard cover. He had, when he first began keeping it, asked the others aboard Mir about their dreams. Early on they had cooperated. The most cooperative had been the American, Tufts. Tufts’s Russian was grammatically correct but heavily accented. Tsimion’s English was no better. The two had become friends and had once been chastised by Vladimir Kinotskin for playing catch in the communal room with a ball of rolled aluminum foil that floated wildly across the small area.

“You could break something,” Kinotskin had said, suggesting but not exerting his command as senior officer, though he was more than a decade younger than Tsimion.

Tsimion was a botanist with no great ambition. Space was not the final frontier but an escape from his routine and badly paid future of agricultural research in Siberia. He had volunteered for the training, threw himself into it, and succeeded in qualifying.

“Everything is already broken,” Tsimion had said.

“Nevertheless …” Kinotskin had said, and the game had stopped. Kinotskin was muscular, blond, and humorless, with a doctorate in aeronautical engineering from Moscow State University. He was ambitious, handsome, unmarried, and slated to be a spokesman for the Russian space program when he returned to earth, his uniform covered in medals, his teeth covered in caps of artificial whiteness, and the small mole just below his left eye neatly and surgically removed without leaving a scar.

The American was gone now, taken back to earth by an American space shuttle at 17,500 miles an hour, replaced by another Russian, Rodya Baklunov, who had joined the crew carrying specimens of fat white worms in carefully sealed canisters. In addition to his other chores Baklunov, a small, powerfully built, and nearly bald man, spent most of his time with his worms. He did not share the nature of his experiments with Kinotskin or Tsimion, who now sometimes dreamt of those worms. In his dreams, the worms, hundreds of them, had escaped and were floating around the cabin. Baklunov was floating after them and with gloved hands slowly recapturing the worms and placing them back in a canister from which they immediately escaped.

“Don’t touch them,” Baklunov said in the dream. “Just a touch will make your skin burn and peel off in seconds, leaving a bloody screaming Vladovka begging to be shot because when the bleeding stopped, Tsimion Vladovka would turn into a giant, bloated white worm.”

In fact, in the dream, one fat white worm squiggled through the air and clung to the exposed hand of Tufts, the American, who immediately began to peel to near screaming death. And then Tsimion saw that three more worms were heading toward him. Beyond these worms, Baklunov was still patiently, calmly plucking worms from the air and putting them in the canister from which they would immediately escape. This was always the point at which Tsimion awoke.

Tsimion had recorded that dream and the variations in his journal. He wondered if when he returned to earth the dream would continue to come. He felt sure it would.

The third thing, and most important, that he disliked about Mir and that caused him to think, “if I get to earth,” was the gradual disintegration of the space station. Systems were dying and had to be jury-rigged and frequently repaired. The inside of the spacecraft, so clean in photographs and diagrams shown to the world, was beginning to look like the messy workshop of a weekend tinkerer. Cables with fraying wires were wound with tape, panels once lit were permanently dark, and small metal boxes on the floor were tied in to perform tasks that should have been part of the internal system of the station. Solar panels shut off without reason. One of two oxygen generators in the Kvant I module seldom worked. The backup generator frequently failed. Their backup was an emergency cylinder that could be started to create a chemical reaction which produced oxygen. Tsimion was not at all sure the emergency cylinder would work. The last backup was individual oxygen packs with a supply of a few hours, supposedly enough time for the three cosmonauts to make it through the docking passage and into the Soyuz capsule, which could detach and return them to earth.

But there had been problems in the past, even a fire before Tsimion’s time on Mir, and it had become clear that even following emergency procedures there would not be enough time for all the cosmonauts to get to the Soyuz and detach while a major breakdown was underway. Even if they could detach, an explosion destroying Mir, which might happen in seconds, could overtake and destroy the Soyuz before it could distance itself from the station.

Ground control knew and Tsimion and the other cosmonauts knew that they were sitting inside a space bomb continuing to circle the earth, performing meaningless experiments simply to demonstrate to the world that the only space station, the first real space station, in orbit was Russian.

There had been a time when Russian children wanted to be cosmonauts, treated when they returned from space missions with the welcome of heroes. Parents gave their children the names of cosmonauts. Russia was overcrowded with Yuris named in honor of the iconic Yuri Gagarin, who was overwhelmed by his being a national treasure for simply sitting in a sphere he didn’t control and circling the earth a few times.

Now Russians did not even know the names of the cosmonauts who orbited the earth. Children wanted to be economists, bankers. They wanted to earn degrees in business. Engineering schools and research institutes, like the one Tsimion had attended, were closing down. Science and space were of little interest. The young were looking to the earth and their bank accounts, not to the skies.

And so, Tsimion spent each day in nearly resigned anticipation of that squawking alarm that would tell them yet another system had failed, another crisis was about to begin.

Tsimion Vladovka did not blame the solar-winged tomb in which they sped. Mir had been launched more than a decade ago. It was not intended for existence beyond a decade. It had done its job. It was tired.

Mir reminded Tsimion of the little horse in Raskolnikov’s dream in Crime and Punishment. It was Raskolnikov’s dream that had haunted him for more than two decades and was responsible for Tsimion starting his dream journal, which, he rationalized, might be of scientific interest back on earth.

In Raskolnikov’s dream, he is once again a small boy in the village where he was born. He is with his father. A big man comes out of a tavern and climbs into a cart. The cart is to be drawn not by the large horse with thick legs who normally pulls it, but by a small horse. The man takes the reins and invites people to join him on a ride.

“Come,” the man shouts drunkenly. “Climb aboard.”

People come laughing and climb onto the cart, crowding together.

The small boy tells his father that the horse cannot pull all those people. The father tells the boy that there is nothing they can do.

The big man yanks the reins and orders the small horse to pull. The horse tries valiantly, stumbles, breathes cold air. The big man whips the horse and then climbs down to beat him. The boy breaks away from his father and runs to help the fallen horse, who is now being clubbed and whipped. The big man turns to the boy, saying, “This is my horse. I’ll kill him if I wish.” The horse dies and as he dies the boy kisses his mouth.

Tsimion thought of Mir as that small horse and himself as the young Raskolnikov. The difference was that the man who owned Mir was faceless and on the ground, and Tsimion Vladovka did not dare protest as he rode the horse through starry blackness and red-white sunlight high about the clouds of earth.

It was a gamble. All others had gone. They had managed to leave the dying horse before its last breath.

“It is safe,” spokesmen at ground control had announced. “Our problems have been small and we have planned for their correction and executed all needed repairs. No one has been seriously injured or died on Mir.

There is always the possibility of a first time. In the history of chance, there was always an inevitable first time that altered the odds forever.

Mir had floated for well over eleven years at three hundred and ninety kilometers above the earth, had circled that earth close to seventy thousand times.

Tsimion had recently developed a fourth concern. Baklunov had begun to talk to himself and he had developed a dreamlike gaze and a knowing smile. When spoken to he answered, but he seldom looked at Tsimion or Kinotskin when they talked to him. The little man performed his duties, kept himself immaculately clean and well shaven, ate with the others, and seemed to Tsimion to be going slowly mad, a condition with which Tsimion could sympathize. Though Baklunov had been on the space station working in his own module for only a month, Tsimion thought the stay was long enough. He had tried to convince Kinotskin, whose responsibility it would be to make the recommendation that Baklunov return to earth, but Kinotskin had his own future on earth to consider. To request the early return of one of the men under his command would be an admission of failure, an admission that would cost the Russian government a massive amount of money to remove the worm man.

“He is all right,” Kinotskin had told Tsimion only two days earlier as the two went over routine data and monitored the telescope telemetry.

“He is going mad,” said Tsimion.

“Ridiculous. He is eccentric. Biologists are often eccentric.”

Tsimion had wondered what extensive experience Kinotskin had with biologists that led him to this conclusion, but it was not an issue to be debated. Tsimion had long come to the conclusion that, though Kinotskin could easily beat him at chess, the poster boy with the blond hair and small mole was not particularly bright and possessed no imagination. He claimed, for example, that he never dreamt. Tsimion was inclined to believe him. The only subject outside of his work that Kinotskin entered into with any zeal was women. Vladimir Kinotskin never tired of talking about the women he had been with and the women he would be with when he returned to earth and toured the world.

“American women, perhaps the wives of diplomats, African women. You know, the women of Somalia are among the most beautiful on earth. And Mexican women, I have seen them with large breasts and lips that …”

Kinotskin had been at a loss for words. He had the soul of a satyr without the wit or words of a poet. His talk of women bored Tsimion, who was forced to endure it.

Five more weeks, Tsimion thought. Five weeks and I will be leaving. I can make it for five weeks. I have many dreams to record and to dream. I have my experiments.

The alarm went off, squawking, bleating. It was about time for the others to wake up, but there was something wrong. It was five minutes too early. Another system breakdown? Would they have to endure that maddening sound for hours till they could dismantle it?

Kinotskin shot through the opening to the command module.

Tsimion watched him bump into the side of the small tunnel, grab the bar next to the seat beside Tsimion, and say, “It’s … he …”

Shto, ‘what?’”

“‘Come,’ typeeyehr, now.”

It was the first direct order Kinotskin had issued to him.

Tsimion Vladovka had visions of worms floating through the passage into the module. He glanced. There were no worms. Not yet.

They were just coming into radio contact with the earth. Quickly the white-faced Kinotskin told him what had happened. The younger man spoke quickly, efficiently. It took less than fifteen seconds. There was nothing more to say to each other. They knew what must be done. Kinotskin began to transmit.

There was no television contact. Ground control had ended almost all such transmissions since problems had begun more than a year earlier. Voice contact was not perfect.

“Ground,” said Mikhail Stoltz, his voice weary.

“We have a Syehm, a ‘Seven,’” Kinotskin said calmly.

There was a silent pause on the earth before Stoltz came back, now alert.

“Prognosis?” he asked.

Kinotskin saw his future disappearing, but he managed to pull himself together and speak. “Unable to give one at this time,” he said. “We must go now. We will return with a report as soon as possible.”

Possibly never, thought Tsimion, who said quickly, “Ground, please tell my wife I love her.”

“Come,” said Kinotskin, tugging at Tsimion’s white T-shirt.

“And,” Tsimion added, reaching to turn off the ground contact, “if we go to Vossyeam, ‘Eight,’ please inform Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov.”

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