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Chapter 2

Falling Star

The whisper of static bled from the speakers in her helmet, no voice from the ground station calling alarms or the all-clear, but Leena hardly noticed. She didn’t have the luxury of confusion, no time to stop and reflect on the impossible situation in which she found herself. With unfamiliar vistas stretching out below, the Vostok module began slowly to rotate out of true, falling out of orbit toward the strange planet below.

Below her on the cabin floor, just visible past the edge of her helmet’s visor, the eight ports of the Vzor periscope device flashed the story of Leena’s coming doom. When the craft’s attitude was positioned correctly, the module centered perfectly with respect to the planet’s horizon, all eight ports would be lit, the sun’s light reflected through an elaborate mechanism worked into the hull of the sphere.

As Leena watched in growing horror, the ports began to wink out and go dark, first one, then three, then six. Then, as the rotational forced dragged at her insides like a fist, the ports lit again, then grew dark, then lit, strobing in increasing frequency as the module began to spin faster and faster.

There followed a faint tolling, like distant bells, the automated onboard systems indicating a rapid increase in velocity and drop in altitude. A high pitched scream began, at the edge of hearing, the upper reaches of the atmosphere clawing at the surface of the module as the craft dipped ever lower towards the planet’s surface.

The temperature within the cabin started to climb, and even nestled within her insulated SK-1 pressure suit Leena began to feel the heat.

Leena would have cursed if she’d had the chance, would have screamed herself red with rage at the injustice of it, but this was another luxury she could not afford herself. She would have to do something, there being no one now who could help her, or in very short order she would be dead.

The controls of the Vostok module were all set to automatic by default, any necessary course changes controlled remotely by technicians on the ground in Star City. The Chief Designer had been concerned since the beginning about the fallibility of those chosen for service in the Cosmonaut Corps, and had put as many safeguards between the effectiveness of an operation and the potential breakdown of the cosmonaut as possible. The authorities had relented, though, in the face of continued opposition from the cosmonauts themselves, by allowing manual control in emergency situations.

This situation was an emergency, if any could be, so Leena had no compunctions against initiating the appropriate protocols.

Unfortunate, then, that the combination needed to unlock the manual controls was transcribed on a slip of paper in an envelope kept safely in a zippered pocket on her left thigh. Unfortunate in that the rotational forces whipping the module ever faster had left Leena feeling too sick even to blink, her arms pinioned against the walls of the cabin as securely as if they’d been glued there.

The manual controls, just centimeters away, would allow Leena to fire the attitude rockets, stop the maddening spinning of the craft, and eject the service module in preparation of ballistic reentry. With too much longer a delay, the craft would descend too far into the atmosphere for the rockets to be of any use, and with the service module still attached to the reentry sphere the whole of the craft would burn to a cinder in the resulting friction.

The fire would finally have her, at long last.

Unable to move, vision swimming and stomach in revolt, Leena plummeted to her doom.

##

She was going to die, she was dying, she would be dead. Her life ended, burned down to particulate matter at the heart of a cold steel sphere, to rain down as dust and ash on the surface of an unknown world. She would die with questions left unanswered, left even unasked, mysteries she would never solve: Where was she, and what had brought her here?

The curiosity, which had led her from Stalingrad to Moscow to university, then sustained her through years in military service, then driven her to excel when first selected for the cosmonaut program, burned within her hotter than the red tongues which now licked the outer surface of the module. In a sense, Leena had been an explorer since childhood, blazing a trail alone through a strange and hostile world since the day the firebomb had taken away her parents. Now, a whole new world of discovery before her, the thought of surrendering to the doom which had dogged her heels was unacceptable. Whatever the cost, whatever the risk, she would survive. She simply had to know.

The module was now spinning on three axes, the rotational forces pinning Leena to the inner surface of the module. Her hands and arms were unable to move more than a few centimeters, her head forced to one side with her ear pressing hard against the helmet’s lining. Metal clamps on the floor of the cabin held her booted feet in place, but Leena felt the centrifugal pull working against them, dragging her knees up and towards her chest.

If her left boot were to be worked free, the force of the rotation would be enough to bring her left knee up almost to her breast, the zippered pocket on her thigh only centimeters from her left hand. The inside of the module was growing hotter still, hazing like the air over hot desert sands. If Leena was going to act, she would have do it now.

To release the clamps on her boots, without her hands free to aid in the process, Leena had to force her feet down and forward, and then pull up at her heel. Opposite the forces pulling her body the other direction, with her weight feeling as though it doubled with every centimeter she moved, she inched her painful way towards her goal. Drawing on her last reserves of energy, Leena managed to work her booted foot fractionally forward in the clamp. Centimeters like kilometers, eyes closed against the maddening gyrations of the craft, she crossed the small distance.

Leena’s skin began to prickle, an instant sunburn spreading over her like scalding water. With teeth gritted she managed to angle her heel up the slightest fraction of an centimeter. That centimeter was all it took. As soon as the grip of the clamp was loosened, the rotational forces pulled her foot away from the cabin floor like a rocket, her knee forced up and slamming into her sternum with a thud.

Knocked breathless, Leena could not afford elation. With every passing second the craft spun faster, hotter, and nearer disintegration.

The fingers of her left hand were bare centimeters from the pocket on her thigh, now forced against her abdomen. Once the envelope was free, she’d have to mangle the contents out, read the combination, reach nearly a foot along the wall to her right and unlock the emergency controls, then manually fire the braking and attitude rockets.

Seconds to go, and she’d only come a fraction of the way.

Straining, her mind and will almost to the breaking point, Leena fell into a kind of fugue. With one portion of her being concentrating on the task at hand to the exclusion of all else, another smaller part of her conscious mind walled itself away, seeing events unfold as a detached observer. Like watching an actress in a play, Leena saw herself struggle against the bounds of force to wrest the envelope from her pocket, watched the mad fumble as she brought hands together from left and right to tear and claw at the envelope’s seal, watched herself fighting to lift her head forward far enough to read the combination typewritten on the paper clutched in a vice grip in her hands.

Throughout it all, watching herself slowly dying, Leena could only think how sad it was that there would be no one back at home to mourn her. A plaque somewhere, perhaps, if she were lucky; a cryptic and official notation in the government files back in Moscow if she were not. But no statues, no parades to the glorious dead. Those back in Star City would not know how she had died, only that she was dead, and the grand work would continue, the march into the future of the Soviet Man continuing without her.

As Leena watched herself batter at the combination tumbler, spinning the last number into place, she was strangely disappointed. She had been quite involved with imagining her own funeral in absentia, and now plans would have to be delayed.

Her last erg of motivation draining, Leena stabbed at the switch that initiated the braking procedure.

She slammed forward in her harness, thrown towards the center of the module, as the braking rocket fired. The g-load reversed, then increased, the straps biting into the fabric of her pressure suit, bruising her skin. The rotations of the module increased, and then after forty seconds of thrust the rockets petered out. With a resounding bang, the service module broke free, and the reentry module continued its descent.

The module began again to spin, this time back and forth, 90 degrees to the left and to the right. Leena felt herself being tossed back and forth in her harness like a rag doll, the g-load steadily increasing as the craft dipped further and further into the atmosphere.

Leena caught a glimpse of the instruments, the hand of the altitude dial spinning like a propeller, and then everything began to grow fuzzy. A blanket of gray falling over her, Leena could only trust in the automated systems to take over for her.

There came a whistling of air, and flashes of red from the viewport overhead, stars dimly visible through the burning curtain of sky.

At 7,000 meters, the first explosive bolt on the hatch blew like a shot, then another. Leena blinked, her eyes for the moment sightless, unsure whether she was yet free of the craft or not. The forces on her relaxed, and she lifted her head, hoping to make out her position through the haze which blurred her vision. At that moment, her chair shot up through the hatch with such force that she bit down hard on her lip, blood streaming out onto the helmet’s visor. She and the module, now separated, fell on parallel courses towards the planet below, the service module burning up somewhere in the atmosphere above them.

The ejection chair, Leena strapped firmly in place, spun end over end, tumbling like a falling leaf through the cold blue sky. A cannon fired, jarring Leena with the shock of it, and the stabilizing chute shot out from the top of the chair, dragging behind and straightening her descent.

Leena rotated slowly to the right in the chair, blinking back tears of panic and exhilaration, trying to see something of the land below her. To the south there were mountains, purple and tall, to the east an endless expanse of oceans, and below her a carpet of forest stretching out to the western horizon, a wide river ribboning through it.

The next parachute opened, blossoming orange and huge above her, then the next, both dwarfing the miniature stabilizer which had opened first, hanging small and white above them, a moon to their twin suns. The chair’s rate of descent slowed, and looking down past her feet Leena saw the river and dense foliage below her. Unable to direct the motion of the chair, she could only watch as they grew nearer touchdown.

Fluttering down beneath orange canopies as if on a slight breeze, Leena’s chair dropped slowly and directly towards the wide river below.

As the chair touched down, Leena’s feet disappeared below the surface of the water. The water burbled up to her waist, the weight of the steel chair dragging her down, and Leena couldn’t help but think that she might have her funeral in absentia after all.

With a splash of finality, the chair disappeared beneath the swift currents, the three parachutes floating on the surface like fallen leaves until they, too, were drawn under.

The ejection chair sank like a stone into the murky depths of the river, drifting slightly with the strong undercurrents. Strapped securely in place, Leena experienced something very near a state of shock while breathing up the last of the oxygen reserves left in the pressure suit. The air hose, which should have sealed off when separated from the life-support systems of the Vostok module, had failed to close completely, and a hiss of water spilled with slow but relentless finality into the helmet. The silty water had filled up to the level of Leena’s chin, and it would be a close race whether the helmet filled first with water or with exhaled carbon dioxide.

The chair touched down on the soft bed of the river, kicking up clouds of silt that were drawn away downriver by the current like smoke in a strong wind. Leena, head tilting ever further back to escape the rising level of the inflow, moved her stiff fingers in slow motion through the water to reach the strap releases.

The straps ran across her shoulders, chest, and waist, and she had the first of them released when the riverbed drew up slowly to embrace her. The three parachutes, still attached to the chair, floated on the river’s surface, and were being dragged downstream by the strength of the current. Tethered like an anchor on the riverbed, the chair was being towed along behind, but the chair’s weight was too great for it to move far. In the tug-of-war between gravity and river flow a balance was struck, and the base of the chair remained firm on the silty bed while the top end was dragged forward and down, swinging like a door closing shut, face first into the ground.

Leena found herself trapped under the heavy chair, the faceplate of her helmet pressed into the loam of the riverbed, mouth and nose trapped in a growing pool of water with the last pocket of air trapped behind her head. The design of the chair, pressed into the riverbed, left her hands and arms free to move, but she had only her last gasp of air to sustain her.

Eyes stinging and nearly blinded by the murky water, she hammered at the catches on the remaining straps, releasing first one, then another, her pulse pounding in her ears and her lungs feeling as though they would at any second explode. Drifting on the edge of unconsciousness, exhaustion threatening to overtake her, Leena slammed open the last of the strap releases. Pushing forward with arms thrashing, she frantically attempted to get free of the chair, beating arms and hands and head into the soft surface of the riverbed, sending up massive clouds of silt. Free from the waist up, though, she found that her legs below the knees were still trapped below the heavy weight of the chair.

Turning on her side, twisting painfully from the knees, she managed to angle her head far enough to let out a sputtering cough and take in another lungful of air. Then she turned her attention back to the chair, trying to push the chair up off the riverbed far enough to pull her legs free. The surface of the riverbed was soft and yielding, and the harder she pushed, though, the farther her hands sunk down into the soil. The chair had not moved an centimeter.

The air pocket was shrinking fast, the helmet filling faster and faster, and unless she was able to extricate herself from the chair and reach the surface, Leena had only minutes left. She was trapped, and drowning.

If she could not lift the chair, and lacked the strength to pull her legs loose, her only option was to shovel away the silt beneath her, freeing her legs from below. The air remaining in the helmet slipped out in a steady stream of bubbles through the partially sealed hose, replaced by cold and murky water. The pounding of her heartbeat in Leena’s ears increased, until she was sure her eardrums would burst. She had very little time to act.

Forcing herself to remain calm, Leena pressed back into the semblance of a sitting position on the overturned chair. This provided her space to move, with less than a meter between her head and torso and the soft floor of the riverbed. Then, tucking her head down, she bent at the waist, reaching down to her knees. She began to scrape furiously at the soft loam beneath her legs, like a dog digging to hide a bone, sending up flurries of silt.

It was like trying to dig a hole in wet beachsand as the tide rolled in. As soon as Leena scooped away a handful of the soil, the water pressure would push more in from all sides. Alternatively scooping away with her hands, and pulling with all her strength at her legs, she managed to work her legs centimeter by centimeter out from under the heavy chair. After the first few seconds, she rose back into an inverted sitting position, tilting her head back and to one side to catch a quick breath, but there was so little air left in the helmet that she drew in as much water as oxygen. Racked by coughs, she steeled herself and returned to the task at hand.

It couldn’t have taken more than a handful of seconds, far less than a full minute at any rate, but it seemed to Leena like an eternity before the ground gave way sufficient for her to work her feet free.

Survival training winning a war of attrition with her mounting panic, Leena remembered the survival kit strapped to the side of the chair before pushing away to the surface. The clouds of dirt and silt she’d kicked up with her digging still hung around the area like a low, black fog, but Leena was able to feel her way to the airtight metal case clipped to the chair’s side. Her hand closing over the handle, Leena began to feel a glimmer of hope. The kit’s contents, emergency rations, signal flares, compass, medical supplies, knife, pistol and rounds, made her feel equipped to handle whatever challenges this strange world might present. She’d survived the siege of Stalingrad, the state orphanages, several years of military service and cosmonaut training; she could survive anything.

Pushing away from the riverbed, Leena’s vision was almost completely obscured. A combination of exhaustion, lack of oxygen, and the current-borne silt clouded her view. Fortunately for her, the designers of her pressure suit had anticipated the possibility of a water landing, if perhaps not the possibility of being trapped by the chair. Around the base of the helmet, which could not be detached from the suit, was a rubber collar. Leena pulled the release tab, and the collar inflated, pulling pressurized gas from a small reserve tank fixed to the back of the suit. Floating blind, Leena let the collar drag her to the surface, the current pulling her downstream from the chair.

Before reaching the surface something brushed past her, almost knocking the heavy metal case from her grip. Her limited vision couldn’t make out many details of what the thing had been, but she’d gotten the impression of something huge, something with massive teeth and a thick, leathery hide. Clutching the survival kit protectively to her chest, she thrashed the waters with her legs violently, desperate to reach the surface and air.

It wasn’t until she’d kicked her legs twice against hard, unforgiving rock that she realized that she’d reached the shores of the river. Scrambling over the stones, seconds from passing out due to oxygen deprivation, she splashed her noisy way to the surface.

Throwing the metal case onto the ground, lying from the waist up in dry air with her legs and feet still resting underwater and painfully on the rocks, Leena worked frantically to open the helmet’s visor. Encased in wet leather-palmed gloves, her fingers fumbled at the latch, useless. There was some irony in this, a small part of Leena noted, to drown only after safely reaching the shore. And after everything else that had happened to her.

In the last instants before losing consciousness, Leena managed to slide the visor open, and the water trapped inside spilled out in a rush. She collapsed forward onto the rocky shore, sputtering coughs shaking her, drawing in ragged breaths until her pulse slowed to something approaching normal. Rolling onto her back, she drew her knees up, feet dragged out of the water, as though afraid the current might take revenge and drag her once more under. The strange sun was high overhead, and Leena closed her eyes, lying in red-lidded darkness while the rays of light warmed and soothed her. She was still alive, and grateful for it.

A shadow fell across Leena’s face, the backsides of her eyelids going from red to black. She opened her eyes, and immediately wished she hadn’t.

It stood upright on two legs, with two arms and a head, and in a dim light might have been mistaken for a human being, but with the bright sunlight behind it there could be no question. It was some sort of cat-thing, standing some more than two meters tall, spotted like a leopard or jaguar. Black lips curled back over wicked teeth under its pronounced snout, and while its hands were shaped like those of a man, the fingers were tipped with curved black claws that glinted like obsidian in the bright light. A collection of straps and belts crisscrossed its chest, arms and legs, with an abbreviated loincloth hanging at its waist. Otherwise it was naked, the golden-yellow fur with the black and white spots its only covering.

“Mat’ata’rrom,” the thing snarled, pointing a clawed finger at Leena’s nose. “Mat’ata’das’ul.”

There came from all sides the sound of low growling, and angling her head from one side to the other Leena could see another half-dozen or more of the creatures approaching, encircling her.

continue to Chapter Three

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