by Marie Vibbert
Lottie wanted to break something. Because she hadn’t! She’d shaped the cafeteria tray perfectly, with an ergonomic curve to support her elbow. She hadn’t had access to screws or nails, so she cut tabs into the workbench and slots into the tray, but the creators of workbenches had clearly not thought ahead to the eventual need for a series of slots to be cut, so when she’d inserted the expansion tray—with minimal force!—the entire surface had broken. How was that her fault?
“We’re in this together,” Saravit said. Which was a lie. He was in with them, with those who cared more about toeing imaginary lines than creating a better work environment. How stifling it was to live in a closed structure, surrounded by the same hundred people day in and day out. Everyone knew everyone’s reputation and didn’t care to learn more.
Saravit waited for her to look at him before he continued speaking. “Tell me what happened. Start at the beginning.” He was saying all the things he would say in a regular session. This was not a regular session. Their regular sessions were in a semi-private cubicle inside the station infirmary. There was a wall of translucent pink that curved around Sara-vit’s little area. It was meant to be informal, to put the patient at ease. It reminded her of a nail salon waiting room, especially with the comingled scents of astringents and the sounds of nurses and doctors going about their business. Maybe it did set her at ease.
Today they were not in the nail-salon waiting room cubicle. They were in Saravit’s private bedroom, with the door closed. A gently tapered cube of a room, like her own, only with a built-in desk where the roommate bunk should be. It smelled vaguely spicy, like an expensive male perfume. Saravit sat on his bed: military corners, the blanket turned flocked-side-up for a softer look. A battered teddy bear sat near the foam pillow. Lottie sat in the room’s only chair, which swung out from under the mounted desk so she felt balanced on the edge of scissors.
Saravit’s fingers flexed where they were interlaced over his knee. He was moving carefully. There was a line like a separator between his thick eyebrows. “Lottie, you know why you’re here.”
It was unfair how he was making her start the conversation. A minor humiliation, an acceptance of guilt. The stillness was boiling in her. She stared hard at the depthless eyes of the toy bear. “Because people are afraid of me.”
“No. No.” Saravit leaned forward, blocking her view. His eyebrows had gotten even straighter, the line between them even deeper. “This isn’t about what other people feel, nor the equipment you damaged.”
“Ha! No one cared. No one dragged me to see you until I took apart the bench. Anyway, I didn’t damage it. Not really. It was already damaged; it wasn’t going to work like it was. Anyone could see that.”
“Could they? Dispassionately, how would you evaluate your behavior this week?” Saravit’s eyebrows normally tilted outward, giving him a sheepish expression when he smiled. The expanse between his brows was paler than the rest of his face. The crinkle made his whole countenance darker. She realized suddenly that he could perfectly play a tragic, brooding hero: someone who is found out later to be a vampire or to have sealed his rival into a chamber in his basement. The heroine would know better, but still fall for him.
Throughout graduate school, a gothic novel a week was Lottie’s main vice. In antique paper or digital copy, the heroines might have attacks of “nerves” but the symptoms were always gentle, passive: a weak cry, a faint. Her love had betrayed her or gone missing or died, but for the sake of his honor and her own reputation, she would make no greater sound than a kitten’s sigh.
Lottie was not a romantic lead, but neither was she the monstrous spinster hidden in the attic. “I didn’t hurt anyone. Everyone is acting like I hurt someone. I didn’t. I never would.” Yes, sometimes she felt like she was boiling and the only way to release the pressure was to turn something into a mess of itself, but this was not one of those times.
Saravit parted his large, thick-fingered hands. “You promised you’d come see me immediately if you stopped sleeping at night or felt restless.”
“There were no warning signs.” No, bad answer. That was an admission that there could have been. “I feel fine.” Lottie wanted to get up and move, but that was a warning sign. She stared hard at the ceiling. The insulation layer made it look like it had been dipped in marshmallow. How insane it was, that the station padded its ceilings and bolted down its chairs. If something happened with enough energy to disrupt the thousands of tons of inertial force that kept them spinning, bumping their heads or tripping on chairs would be the least of their worries.
Saravit made a long, slow groan, like a metal brace deciding if it was going to fail. He leaned forward, arms on his knees, and shook his head. His hair was bristly, black, showing flashes of brown scalp.
Lottie got the distinct feeling she’d missed something, made some confession without noticing. “I know when I have warning signs. How could anyone else know but me?”
“Lottie, the jig is up. You’ve been avoiding contact with your supervisor and the medical team. You lied to your roommate and piled sample containers in your bed so she’d think you were sleeping. Most importantly, I know you deleted all the security footage from the camera in your bedroom. Why would you do that?”
This was an easy area—the area of things instead of people. “I deleted the footage for your sake. The security AIs can’t make nuanced decisions. They would page you in the middle of the night when I’m just not feeling sleepy. It’s ridiculous that they’d bother you because a person stepped outside their rigid, unrealistic boundaries of ‘normal’ behavior. People get insomnia. For ordinary reasons. Caffeine, for instance. Or worry. The gravimetric project is at a delicate stage. We aren’t sure the initial experiments are reproducible. We need to isolate all sorts of variables in the redundant tests, and we can’t order new equipment for overnight delivery to Jupiter!”
Saravit wasn’t listening. He was waiting for her to finish talking. There was a flatness in his eyes. “A failure in any system on this station could result in the loss of life. Those cameras make sure there are no pinholes in pressure, no fires, and yes, no behavioral anomalies. Your neighbors say you were skipping rope all night.”
“That’s ridiculous. Who can jump rope all night long?”
Saravit’s eyebrows retreated. Like they were forgiving her. Like he appreciated the aesthetic value of her lie.
by Rosemary Claire Smith
We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier . . . the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. . . . Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice. . . .
—John Fitzgerald Kennedy
July 15, 1960
Illustration by Eldar Zakirov
On this fine November day in 1967, Natalya Orlova took the oath to become a citizen of the United States, thereby clearing her last hurdle for acceptance into the astronaut training program. After nearly three years of giving her all to NASA, today should have been one of the happiest days of her life. If only Tomas, and their little Pasha, could have celebrated with her. Instead, Natalya returned to Merritt Island alone.
Striding toward her hard-earned place atop the roof of the Launch Operations Center, she caught sight of the sorrow and yearning on Pete Conrad, Wally Schirra, and Alan Bean’s faces. She’d begun working with these three aviators soon after her own desperate race down dark cobblestoned streets of Paris. Today, their eyes, like hers, were fixed upon Launch Complex 39 where the mighty Saturn V perched, with Apollo 4’s command module sitting empty.
Only once had Wally Schirra spoken to Natalya about the launchpad fire. As backup for Apollo 1, Schirra had trained with Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Schirra had been at the Cape that January day watching what should have been routine preflight tests, before catching a T-38 flight back to Houston with his buddies. Instead, he’d witnessed seventeen seconds of tragedy. Then came fifteen minutes of ghastly silence before the confirmation of what everyone already knew. Schirra’s words echoed in Natalya’s mind today: “We always expected to lose at least one mission before we reached the Moon. But we never expected it to be on the ground.”
Now, Schirra shifted to make room for Natalya, and Bean followed his example. Conrad, the chief mischief-maker among the rocket-boys, narrowed his startlingly blue eyes a fraction when he glanced at her and grudgingly made space. No doubt catching her momentary dismay, Schirra murmured to her, “Don’t let him get to ya, kid.” He’d taken to calling her “kid,” as though she were his younger sister, which Natalya found reassuring.
Bean nodded toward the Saturn V. “Isn’t she something?”
Schirra’s voice caught. “I bet she’d take you on one heckuva ride.” He was the only one of them who spoke from experience atop a Titan II.
Here she was today, almost halfway around the world from her homeland, thirsting for a launch as stirring as Vostok 5 and Vostok 6. How she’d cheered when those rockets fought their way upward from the sweeping Kazakh Steppe, upward into orbit. Back in 1963, she’d bought into Comrade Korolev’s assertion that American capitalists had nothing but “weak, puny rockets.” That had been her fellow Ukrainian’s first lie, although it hadn’t hurt her like his empty promise to see her orbit Earth.
At noon on the dot, Mission Control completed countdown. A gold-orange-brilliantly-white pillow of fire ballooned out, blasting Apollo 4 upward. Shouts of joy burst from all their throats as they collectively willed the majestic rocket to rage against gravity and pierce the sky. “Go, go!” Natalya bellowed, hardly caring when the building beneath her feet began shaking. A split second later, sound waves from the launch swept over the ops center, pummeling her. She stood gaping at the fast-diminishing rocket before turning to the screen to celebrate the first-stage separation and presently the second.
Bean switched on his thousand-watt grin. “We’re back on track, baby!”
“What a doozie!” a jubilant Conrad replied as the men slapped each other’s backs.
Natalya smiled to think how Pasha would have giggled in delight at that Americanism, “doozie.” Her smile faltered.
Moments later, Apollo 4 pierced the upper cloud layer, and there was nothing more to see. Yes, the United States was undeniably back on track. After nine trying months—a seeming eternity in the Moon Race—during which the Kremlin boasted of docking two remote-controlled spacecraft, the Americans had rethought, reconfigured, and retested. Today’s uncrewed flight featured the type of launch vehicle NASA expected to use for its Moon shot. Natalya permitted herself a measure of optimism about her own prospects, albeit as carefully rationed as Soviet medicine.
“Orlova, c’mon,” Wally Schirra held his cupped hand to his mouth and tipped his head back in the universal gesture for drinking. “Going to tip a few. For Gus and Ed and Roger.” Conrad and Bean had each lost a friend from their astronaut class. She caught the fleeting surprise on Conrad’s face at the invitation into their tight circle. Bean stood poker-faced, his gaze flickering between Conrad and her.
Natalya wanted to draw back, having endured Conrad’s pressed lips and stubborn silences, which went beyond his “concerns” she wasn’t “a team player.” He doubted her renunciation of Communism and Socialism, maybe even suspected her of being a foreign agent. Naturally, she couldn’t divulge to him the information she’d brought along regarding Star City’s capabilities and timetables.
And then there was the indisputable fact that she was female.
I could tolerate him better, she thought, if Chief Designer Korolev hadn’t lied by promising me the Soyuz circumnavigation of the Moon. What did it matter that I scored at the top in the physical, mental, and psychological tests? Or that I completed the most parachute jumps? Or that I was the best woman pilot in the cosmonaut training program? After Valentina Tereshkova’s remarkable solo orbit of Earth, Korolev had no further use for female cosmonauts.
Now, as Schirra held the door open for Natalya, Conrad motioned impatiently to her and said, “Unless you’re ready to concede!” Bean guffawed. Was this a crack in the ice sheet of Conrad’s attitude toward her or merely another test?
I’ll “tip a few,” Natalya thought, in Pasha’s name. She matched Pete Conrad’s confident grin with one of her own. She wasn’t about to let this U.S. Navy aviator, who stood two inches shorter than her, think he could out-drink her. Not when it came to American “booze” as they called it, and especially not when it came to vodka. Stashed downstairs were two bottles of Ukraine’s finest, which she’d taken when she escaped.