Peter Higgins’s superb and original creation, a perfect melding of fantasy, myth, SF and political thriller, reaches its extraordinary conclusion.
Vladimir Kirillov (1889–1943)
We will leave our planet by a radiant new path.
We will lay out the stars in rows
and ride the moon like a horse.
Mikhail Gerasimov (1889–1939)
On the canals of Mars we will build the palace of world freedom.
She sees with eyes too wide, her ears are deafened with too much hearing, she feels with her skin. She is the first bold pioneer of a new generation: Engineer-Technician 2nd Class Mikkala Avril.
To be part of it. To do her task.
The almost-bursting heart in her ribs is the heart of her generation, the heart of the New Vlast, a clever strong young heart pounding at the farthest limit of endurability, equal parts dizzying excitement and appalling terrible fear.
Today will be a day like no other.
It is not yet quite six years since the armies of the enemy surrounding Mirgorod were swept from the face of the planet in a cleansing, burning wind by Rizhin’s new weapon, a barrage of atomic artillery shells. Not quite six years–the vertebrae of six long winters articulated by the connective tissue of five roaring summers–but for the New Vlast the time elapsed has delivered far more and felt far longer. General Osip Rizhin, President-Commander of the New Vlast and Hero of the Peace of a Thousand Years, has taken time by the scruff of the neck. He has stretched the weeks tight like wire and made each day work–work!–like days never worked before.
Some may express doubt that all this can been achieved so quickly, Rizhin said on First Peace Day, outlining his Five Year Plan, his Great Step into the Future. But the doubters have not grasped the true nature of time. Time is not a dimension, it is a means of production. Time is too important to be trusted to calendars and clocks. Time is at our disposal and will march at our speed, if we are determined. It is a matter of the imposition of human will.
Rizhin had seen the Goal and envisaged the completion of Task Number One. It would be delivered at the speed that he set.
And so it was. In two thousand hammer-blow days, each day a detonation like an atomic bomb, he made the whole planet beat with a crashing unstoppable rhythm perceptible from a hundred million miles away. The New Vlast was a pounding anvil the sun itself could feel: it shook the drum-taut solar photosphere, the 6,000-degree plasma skin.
But no day will ever beat more strongly or echo more enduringly down the corridors of the coming millennia than this one day, and Engineer-Technician Mikkala Avril will play her vital part.
She pauses on the airfield apron, savouring the moment, fixing it in memory. The furnace weight of the sun’s heat beats on her face and shoulders and back. Hydrogen fusing into helium at a steady burn. She feels the remnants of the solar wind scouring her cheeks and screws her eyes against the bleach and glare. The air tastes of bitter herb and dusty cinder, of hot steel and of the sticky dust-streaked asphalt that peels noisily away from the soles of her shoes at every step. Breathing is hard labour.
Chaiganur is a scrub of desert steppe, baked dry under the rainless shimmering sky, parched to the far horizon. Flatness is its only feature. The dome of the sky is of no colour, the sun swollen and smeared across it, and the steppe is a whitened consuming lake bed of silent fierce unwatchable brightness. Nothing rises more than a few inches above the crumbling orange-yellow earth and the low clumps of coarse grey grass, nothing except pylons and gantries and hangars and scattered blockhouses: only they cast hot blue shadows. Miles to the south lies the shore of an ancient sea, and when the hot breeze blows it brings to Chaiganur a new covering of salty corrosive grit: ochre dust, clogging nozzles and caking surfaces.
The workers at Chaiganur put scorpions in bottles and watch them fight.
Throughout the two-hour flight from the Kurchatovgrad Barracks, Mikkala Avril had studied the technical manual, memorising layouts and procedures she already knows by heart. The night-duty clerk woke her in the early hours of the morning, agog with news, his part in her drama. A telephone call had come: instructions to go instantly to Chaiganur, transport already waiting. Her principal, Leading Engineer-Technician Filipov, had been taken suddenly and seriously ill and she–she, Mikkala Avril, there was no mistake, there was no one else, none qualified–was required immediately to take Filipov’s place. Not an exercise. The thing itself.
As she put on her uniform she spared a thought for Filipov. He and his family would not be heard from again. Their names would no longer be spoken. It was a pity. Filipov had trained her well. Her success this day would be his final and most lasting contribution.
The plane bringing her to Chaiganur flew low. She watched through the window as they crossed the testing grounds and saw scars: the wide grey splash-craters of five years’ worth of atomic detonations, the fallen pieces of failed and exploded engineering, the twisted wreckage of spent platforms cannibalised from war-surplus bridges and pontoons. Half-buried chunks of stained concrete resembled the dry bones and broken tusks of dead giants.
Didn’t mammoths once walk this land? She might have heard that somewhere. Hadn’t someone–but who?–taken her once, a girl, to rock outcrops polished smooth by long-dead beasts (by the scraping of scurf and ticks from their rufous hairy sides). That might have happened to her, she wasn’t sure. Whatever. Nothing thrives now in all that flatness of stony rubbish but scorpions and rats and foxes and the sparse nomadic tribes with their ripe-smelling beards and scrawny horses.
The plane that brought her leaves again immediately, engines dwindling into sun-bleached silence. She heads for the control block, picking her way across pipes and thick cables that snake along the ground. She might be only one small component in the machine, one switch in the circuit, but she will execute her task smoothly, and that will matter. That will make a binary difference; that will allow the perfection of the most profound accomplishment of humankind. She will make no mistake. She will do it right.
Exactly one hour after the arrival of Mikkala Avril, a convoy sweeps at speed past the security perimeter of the Chaiganur cosmodrome trailing a half-mile cloud of dust. Three-and-a-half-ton armoured sedans–chrome fenders, white-walled tyres–doing a steady sixty. Motorcycle outriders and chase cars. They are heading straight for Test Site 61.
The sun-baked sedans carry the entire membership of the Central Committee of the New Vlast Presidium, and in one of the cars–no one is sure which, the bullet-proof windows are tinted–rides the President-Commander himself, General Osip Rizhin. Papa Rizhin, the great dictator, first servant of the New Vlast, coming to witness this greatest of triumphs and certify its momentousness with his presence.
Two jolting trucks bring up the rear. A sweating corps of journalists is tucked in among their movie cameras and their tape recorders. The men in the open backs of the trucks crook their arms in permanent angular shirt-sleeved salute, cramming homburgs, pork-pies, fedoras down tight on their heads against the hot wind of their passage. None but Rizhin knows what they are coming to see.
The party might have flown in to the cosmodrome in comfort but Rizhin refused to allow it, citing the presence among them of ambassadors from the new buffer states. We must never permit a foreigner to fly across the Vlast, he said. All foreigners are spies. That was the reason he gave, but his purpose was showmanship. He didn’t want his audience seeing the testing zones or getting any other clues. None among them, not even the most senior Presidium member, had any idea how far and how fast the project had progressed. And so they all rode for three days in a sweltering sealed train with perforated zinc shutters on the outside of the windows, and then in cars from the railhead, five hours across baking scrubland, to arrive red-faced and dishevelled at Test Site 61, where a cluster of temporary tin huts has been erected for the purpose of receiving them.
The temporary huts crouch in the shade of a two-hundred-foot tall, eighty-foot diameter, snub-nosed upright bullet of thick steel. The bullet is painted crimson with small fins near the base. The fins serve no functional purpose but Rizhin demands them for the look of the thing, to make it more like a rocket, which it is not.
The Vlast Universal Vessel Proof of Concept stands against its gantry, an ugly truncated stub, a blood-coloured thumb cocked at the sky, a splash of hot red glimmering in the glare of the sun.
Three time zones west of Chaiganur and eight hundred miles to the north, in the eastern outskirts of Mirgorod, a short train ride from the shore of Lake Dorogha, a woman in a shabby grey dress picks her way across a war-damaged wasteland.Five years of reconstruction across the city have passed this place by, and the expanse of bomb craters and ruined buildings is much as she last saw it: tumbled brick-heaps, charred beams, twisted girders, tattered strips of wallpaper exposed to the sun. There are brambles now, nettles and fireweed and glossy grass clumps on slopes of mud, but otherwise nothing has changed. It is still recognisable.
The place she is looking for isn’t hard to find. She chose it well back then. It is a warehouse of solid blue brick, a bullet-scarred construction of blind walled arches and small glassless windows: roofless, but so it had been back then. During the siege this place had been contested territory: again and again the tanks of the Archipelago passed through and were driven back, and each time the warehouse survived. An artillery shell had taken a gouge from one corner, but the walls had stood. She’d used the upper windows herself for a week. It made a good place to shoot from when she was waging her private war, alongside the defenders of Mirgorod but not of them.
She crosses the open ground to the warehouse carefully, taking her time, moving expertly from cover to cover, using the protection of shell holes and bits of broken wall. There are no shooters to worry about now, only wasps and rats, nettles and thorns. Almost certainly there is no one here to see her at all, no faces in the overlooking windows, but it’s as well to take precautions. She mustn’t be noticed. Mustn’t be seen. The sound of the city is a distant hum. She is getting her dress dusty and mud-stained, but she has anticipated that. She carries a change of clothes in the canvas bag slung on her back. She is nearly forty years old, but she remembers how to do this. She was good at it then and she is good at it still.
Inside the warehouse the stairs to the cellars are as she remembers them. She has brought matches and a taper, but she doesn’t need them. She finds her way through the darkness, familiar as yesterday, by feel. Nothing has changed. It is possible that no one has been here at all since she left it for the last time on the day the war’s tide turned and the enemy withdrew.
She crouches at the far wall and runs clenched, ruined fingers along the low niche, touching brick dust and stone fragments and what feels like a couple of iron nails. For a moment she cannot find what she is looking for and her heart sinks. Then she touches it, further back than she remembered but still there. Her fingertips brush against an edge of dusty oilcloth.
Carefully she hooks the bundle out from the niche. It’s narrow and four feet long, bound with three buckled straps cut from an Archipelago officer’s backpack. The touch and heft of it–about twelve pounds weight in total, she estimates without thinking–brings memories. Erases the years between. She notices that her hands are trembling, and she pauses, takes a breath, centres herself and clears her mind. The trembling stops. She hasn’t forgotten the trick of that, then. Good.
In the blackness of the warehouse cellar, working by feel, she brushes the grit and dust from the oilcloth bundle and wraps it in the towel she stole before dawn that morning from a communal washroom. (The towel is a child’s, faded pink with a pattern of lemon-yellow tractors, the most innocuous and suspicion-disarming thing she could find. If she’s stopped and searched on the way back, it might just work. Camouflage and misdirection. Though she doesn’t expect to be searched: she’ll be just one more thin drab widow lugging a heavy bag. Such women are almost invisible in Mirgorod.)
She stows the towel-wrapped bundle in the canvas bag, hooks the bag on her shoulder and climbs back up towards the narrow slant of dust-filled sunlight and the morning city.
In a temporary hut at Chaiganur Test Site 61 the ministers of the Central Committee of the Presidium and the other dignitaries assemble to hear a briefing from Programme Director Professor Yakov Khyrbysk. The room is unbearably hot. Dry steppe air drifts in through propped-open windows. Khyrbysk’s team has mustered tinned peach juice and some rank perspiring slices of cheese.President-Commander of the New Vlast General Osip Rizhin fidgets restlessly in the front row while Khyrbysk talks. He has heard before all that Khyrbysk has to say, so he is working through a pile of papers in his lap, scrawling comments across submissions with a fountain pen. Time moves on, time must be used. Big fat ticks and emphatic double side-linings. Approved. Not approved. Yes, but faster! Why so long? Do it now! Rizhin likes to draw wolves in the margins. I am watching you.
He listens with only half an ear as the Director runs through his spiel: how the experimental craft will drop atomic bombs behind itself at the rate of one a second and ride the shock waves upwards and out of the planetary gravity well. How the ship is not small, as space capsules are imagined to be, but built large and heavy to withstand the explosive forces and suppress acceleration to survivable levels.
‘Vlast Universal Vessel Proof of Concept weighs four thousand tons,’ he tells them, ‘and carries a fifteen-hundred-ton payload. She was designed and built by the engineers of the Bagadahn Submarine Yard.’
He tells them how the explosions generate temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun, but of such brief duration they do not harm the pusher plate. How Proof of Concept is equipped with two thousand bombs of varying power, and the mechanism for selecting the required unit and delivering it to the ejector is based on machinery from an aquavit-bottling factory. That gets a chuckle from the back of the room.
The ministers of the Presidium play it cautiously. They keep their expressions carefully impassive, neutral and unimpressed, but inwardly they are making feverish calculations. Who does well out of this, and who not? How should I react? Whose eye should I catch? What does this mean for me?
Rizhin listens with bored derision to their sceptical questioning and Khyrbysk’s patient answers. So that thing outside is a bomb? No, it is a vessel. It carries a crew of six. How can explosions produce sustained momentum not destruction? It is no different in principle to the operation of the internal combustion engine of the car that brought you here. Is the craft not destroyed in the blast? Will the crew not be killed? I hear there is no air to breathe in space and it is very cold.
Fucking doubters, thinks Rizhin. Do they think I’d have wasted time on a thing that doesn’t fucking work?
But he listens more carefully as Khyrbysk explains how each bomb is like a fruit, the hard seed of atomic explosive packed in a soft enclosing pericarp of angel flesh. The angel flesh, instantly transformed to superheated plasma in the detonation, becomes the propellant that drives against the pusher plate.
‘We call the bombs apricots,’ says Khyrbysk, which gets another laugh and a flurry of scribbling.
Rizhin is deeply gratified by this exploitation of angel flesh. Since Chazia died at Novaya Zima and the cursed Pollandore was destroyed, he’s heard no more from the living angel in the forest. No falling fits. No disgusting invasions of his skull. All the angel flesh across the Vlast has fallen permanently inert, and the bodies of the dead angels are nothing now but gross carcasses, splats on his windshield, and he is moving fast. Even the mudjhiks have died. Nothing more than slumped and ill-formed statuary, Rizhin had them ground to a fine powder and shipped off to Khyrbysk’s secret factories. Yes, even the four that stood perpetual guard at the corners of the old Novozhd’s catafalque.
‘And now,’ Khyrbysk is saying, ‘we will retire to the cosmodrome and watch the launch from a safe distance.’
But there is a brief delay before they can leave. Rizhin must honour the cosmonauts. A string quartet has been rustled up from somewhere, and sits under the shade of a tarpaulin playing jaunty martial music: ‘The Lemon Grove March’.
The cosmonauts, three men and three women, march up onto the makeshift podium and stand in a row, fine and tall and straight in full-dress naval uniform in the roaring blare of the sun. Brisk apple-shining faces. Scrubbed, clear-eyed, military confidence. Rizhin says a few words, and shutters click and movie cameras whirr as he presents each cosmonaut in turn with a promotion and a decoration. Hero of the Vlast First Class with triple ash leaves. The highest military honour there is. The cosmonauts shake Rizhin’s hand firmly. Only one of them, he notices, looks uneasy and doesn’t meet his eye.
‘Nervous, my friend?’ he says.
‘No, my General. The sun is hot, that’s all. I don’t like formal occasions. They make me uncomfortable’
‘Call me brother,’ says Rizhin. ‘Call me friend. You are not afraid, then?’
‘Certainly not. This is our glory and our life’s purpose.’
‘Good fellow. Your names will be remembered. That is why the cameras and all these stuffed shirts have turned out for you.’
On the way back to their cars the dignitaries stare at the stubby red behemoth glowing in the sun: the Vlast Universal Vessel Proof of Concept with its magazine of two thousand apricots, rack upon rack of potent solar fruits.
Rizhin is walking fast, oblivious to the heat, eager to be on the move. Secretary for Agriculture Vladi Broch breaks into a waddling jog to catch up with him. Broch’s face is wet with perspiration. Rizhin flinches with distaste.
‘Triple ash leaves?’ says Broch. ‘If you give them that now, what will you do for them when they come back?’
‘When they come back?’ says Rizhin. ‘No, my friend, there is no provision for coming back. That is not part of the plan.’
‘Ah,’ says Broch. ‘ Oh. I see. Of course. But… so, how long will they last?’
Rizhin shrugs. ‘Who knows?’ He claps Broch on the shoulder. ‘We’ll find that out, won’t we, Vladi Denisovich? That is the method of science. You should get friend Khyrbysk to explain it to you some time.’
In the control room at Chaiganur the tannoy broadcasts radio exchanges with the cosmonauts. From the edges of the room the whirring movie cameras follow every move with long probing lenses, hunting for the action, searching for the telling expression.‘T minus 2000, Proof of Concept. How are you doing?’
All is good, Launch. Very comfortable.
The cosmonaut’s voice grates, over-amplified and crackling.
‘I remind you that after the one-minute readiness is sounded, there will be six minutes before you actually begin to ascend.’
Understood, Launch. Thank you.
The cosmonauts have nothing to do. No function. No control over their vessel unless and until the launch controller flicks the transfer switches. Their windows are blind with heavy steel shutters, which they will take down once they reach orbit.
If they reach orbit.
The last of the ground crew is already three miles away, racing for the safety perimeter in trucks.
And so the cosmonauts wait, trussed on their benches, separated by the thickness of two heavy bulkheads and a storage cavity from a warehouse of atomic bombs. They are sealed for ever inside the nose of Proof of Concept, locked in by many heavy bolts that will never be withdrawn, and the ship beneath them is alive with rumble and vibration, the whine of pumps, the whisper of gas nozzles, the thunk and clank of unseen mechanisms whose operations the cosmonauts barely understand.
The technicians who actually control Proof of Concept are ten miles away inside a low concrete caisson, a half-buried blockhouse built with thick and shallow-sloping outer walls to deflect blast and heat up and over the top of the building. Not quite twenty in number, the technicians occupy a semicircle of steel desks facing inwards towards the launch controller at his lectern. They lean forward into the greenish screens of their cathode readout displays, flicking switches, twisting dials, turning the pages of their typescript manuals. They wear headphones and mutter into their desk microphones. Quiet purposeful conversations. For them this is no different from a hundred test firings: everything is the same except that nothing is the same.
Behind the controller a wide panoramic window of sloping glass gives a view across the flatness of the steppe. The assembled dignitaries and journalists sit in meek rows between the controller and this window on folding chairs, the sun on their backs, not wanting to cause a distraction. In something over thirty minutes they will turn to watch Proof of Concept climbing skyward to begin her journey. They have been issued with black-lensed spectacles for the purpose. For now they clutch them in their laps and observe the technicians, alert for any hint of anxiety in the muted voices. They watch for the flicker of red lamps on consoles, the blare of an alarm, a first indication of disaster. More than one of them wants to see failure today: a grievous humiliation for Director Khyrbysk and his protectors could mean great advantage for them. Others are cold-sweating terrified of the same outcome: if Khyrbysk’s star wanes, theirs will tumble and crash all the way to a hard exile camp or a basement execution cell.
Guests and technicians alike smoke relentlessly.
President-Commander Osip Rizhin has not yet arrived in the control room. An empty chair waits for him between Khyrbysk and the chief engineer, whose name is never mentioned for he is a most secret and protected national resource.
‘T minus eighteen hundred, Proof of Concept.’
Thank you, Launch.
‘You are all well?’
There is an implication in the question. The captain of cosmonauts carries a pistol in case of… arising human problems. The psychology of each cosmonaut has been thoroughly and expertly examined, but the effects on emotional stability of massive acceleration, prolonged weightlessness and extreme separation from the planetary home are unknown. Every member of the crew is equipped with a personal poison capsule. The foresighted bureaucratic kindness of the Vlast.
We’re all good, Launch. We could do with some music to pass the time.
‘We’ll look into that, Proof of Concept.’
The launch controller’s gaze sweeps across the technicians at their workstations and settles on Engineer-Technician 2nd Class Mikkala Avril. He raises an eyebrow and she stands up.
Five minutes later, hurrying back down the passageway from the recreation room with an armful of gramophone records, hot with anxiety to return to her console, Mikkala Avril runs slap into men in dark suits armed with sub-machine guns. Rizhin’s personal bodyguard, walking twenty-five steps ahead of the President-Commander himself. Papa Rizhin–Papa Rizhin! In person!–is bearing down on her.
Terrified, the young woman in whom beats the heart of the New Vlast presses herself flat against the wall and shows her empty hands, the stack of records tucked hastily under her left arm. She has been taught what to do in such an extremity. Always look him in the eye, but not too much. Stay calm at all times, be respectful, answer all enquires with humour and firmness, above all conceal nothing.
Mikkala Avril stands against the wall, back straight, eyes forward. The gramophone records are slipping slowly from the awkward sweaty grip of her elbow. Any moment now they will fall to the floor and there is nothing she can do about it. Desperately she squeezes them tighter between arm and ribs, but it only seems to make the situation worse.
Papa Rizhin glances at her as he passes and notices her confusion. Stops.
‘Are you working on the launch?’
His voice is recognisable from his broadcasts but it is not the same. It is surprisingly expressive, with the tenor richness of a good singer. Up close his cheeks are scattered with pockmarks like open pores, something which is not shown in portraits: the legacy of a childhood illness, perhaps.
‘Yes, General,’ she says.
‘What is your task?’
‘To monitor the telemetry of the in-atmosphere flight guidance systems, General. The vessel carries small rockets to correct random walk—’
‘Yes,’ says Rizhin, interrupting her. ‘Good. You are young for this responsibility. And is all in order? Is there any concern?’
‘No, General. None. All is in perfect order.’
Inevitably the sweat-slicked gramophone records choose this moment to fall slap in a heap at Rizhin’s feet.
Mikkala Avril stares blankly at the wreckage: the titles of the musical pieces in curling script on the glossy sleeves; the monochrome photographs of mountains and lakeside trees. She feels her face turning purple.
Rizhin shows no reaction and does not look down.
‘What is your name?’ he says.
‘Avril, General. Engineer-Technician 2nd Class.’
‘That is good then. Avril. I will remember the name. The New Vlast needs young engineers; it is the noblest of professions. You are the brightest and the best.’
He glances at last at the fallen records and smiles with this eyes.
‘Youth must not fear General Rizhin,’ he says. ‘He is its friend.’
When he’s out of sight she crouches down to scrabble for the records. Shit, she mutters under her breath over and over again. Shit. Shit. Shit.
‘T minus twelve hundred, Proof of Concept. We have some music for you.’
A syrupy dance tune begins to play over the tannoy: ‘The Garment Workers of Sevralo’.
Yakov Khyrbysk groans inwardly and glares at the launch controller. Must we? He glances at his watch and wonders where Rizhin has got to. Wandered off, sniffing out buried corpses. It makes Khyrbysk uneasy, and he is edgy enough already.
On the other side of Rizhin’s empty seat, the chief engineer is leaning forward, long dark-suited limbs gathered in tight about him. He steeples his long slender fingers. The fingernails are ruined: blackened sterile roots that will not grow again. The chief engineer (whose name on Rizhin’s order is never spoken now, not even by himself) survived five years in prison camps before Khyrbysk found him and managed to fish him out. He hunches now like a bird on a steep-gabled rooftop, watching in silence. He has the pallid complexion of a man who lives his life underground and takes no exercise, but he is hot with energy. It stares from his eyes. Fierce, stark intelligence. Such energy would have burned through a weaker person long ago, but the chief engineer’s constitution is a gift of nature. It is hard to tell how old he is, a young forty or a harrowed twenty-five. His hair is cut short at the back and the sides like a boy’s.
The convoy of sedans waits outside, lined up, engines running, ready to race Rizhin and the dignitaries to safety in case of disaster. Khyrbysk wonders if someone has thought to issue the drivers with dark glasses. He is considering checking on this when Rizhin arrives and takes his seat. Kicks back, legs stretched out, reclining.
‘Today we start the engine of history, Yakov,’ says Rizhin. ‘Today we blow open the door on our destiny.’ He fishes for a paper packet of cheap cardboard cigarettes and lights one, drawing the rough smoke deep into his lungs. ‘Those are good phrases. They have a smack to them. I’ll use them in my speech.’ He exhales twin streams through his nose. ‘No problems, eh, Yakov? No fuck-up?’
‘We’ve made test firings every week for the last three months.’
So many tests that the Chaiganur desert is scorched and glassed and pitted for hundreds of miles in every direction, the landscape pocked with scar-pits that show the corpse-grey rock beneath the orange earth. So many tests. Yellow plumes and dust streaks still linger in the upper atmosphere like nicotine stains.
The first test launches carried automatic radio transmitters. Later they sent up dogs and pigs and apes. One of the first monkeys to fly slipped free of its muzzle and screamed for three days until they had to cut the radio off. After that they equipped the beasts with remote-controlled execution collars. A bullet in the back of the neck. Nine grams of lead. Now there is a small menagerie of mummifying corpses orbiting overhead in thousand-ton steel tombs. The success rate was improving all the time, but nothing is certain. Khyrbysk knows that. Nothing is certain except his own fate if Proof of Concept pops its clogs and goes phutt! in front of the entire Presidium and the assembled press corps of the Vlast. Nine grams of lead for dear old Yakov Khyrbysk then.
If he were a weaker man, he would think it unfair. He would think Rizhin ungrateful. Was it not Yakov Khyrbysk who sent the shipment of atomic shells to Mirgorod so Rizhin single-handed could break the siege? It was. And was it not Khyrbysk who expanded the town of Novaya Zima into a huge, sprawling secret city where penal labourers built the armoury of manoeuvrable atomic field-weapons that tipped the balance of the war? It was. But Khyrbysk is a canny operator: he has never made the mistake of reminding Rizhin of all that he owes him.
Six months after the victory at Mirgorod, when the war against the Archipelago was still in the balance, Rizhin had ousted the feeble government of Fohn and Khazar and made himself President-Commander of the New Vlast. After that, the first thing he did was fly north to Novaya Zima to see Yakov Khyrbysk.
‘You must forget these bombs, Yakov,’ Rizhin had said. ‘I’ve got ten men who could run this show better than you. Talk to me about the other thing. Task Number One. Tell me about the ships that will carry us to the stars.’
Khyrbysk’s stomach lurched. It was sheer brutal astonishment. How did he know?
‘And bring me Farelov,’ Rizhin added.
‘Are you the brain here, Khyrbysk? Does all this come from your head? I do not think so.’
Khyrbysk had blustered. He cringed to think of it now.
‘Well,’ he said,’ of course the theoretical foundations were laid by Sergei Farelov. Sergei is a brilliant mathematician and a visionary engineer, truly visionary, but he is not the sort of fellow to be the leader of an undertaking like this. I made Novaya Zima. I am the organiser, I am the efficient man. I am the will that drives it on.’
‘Bring me Farelov,’ said Rizhin. ‘And Yakov…’
Rizhin paused, and Khyrbysk, caught off guard, found himself looking unprepared into the gaze of a potentate. The neutral brown eyes of a man who knows for certain and unremarkable fact that he can do to you anything that he wants, anything at all–cause you any pain, destroy you and those around you in any way he chooses–and there is no protection for you, not anywhere, none at all. It was not a fully human gaze.
‘Do not keep secrets from me, Yakov,’ said Rizhin. ‘Never try that again. I don’t like it.’
Farelov arrived, tall and slender as a birch tree with wide nocturnal eyes.
‘You are the great engineer, then,’ said Rizhin, raking him with his gaze. ‘You are a vital national resource. You belong to the Vlast. Your very existence is a state secret now. Your name will not be spoken again.’
Farelov returned his gaze without speaking. He nodded slowly.
‘How long will it take?’ said Rizhin. ‘How long to build this thing so it works?’
‘I will answer,’ said Khyrbysk hastily. A promise not kept was a death warrant. He hesitated, mind racing. ‘Fifteen years,’ he said. ‘At the outside, twenty.’
‘Five,’ said Rizhin. ‘Make it five.’
‘Five! No. Five is impossible.’
‘Why impossible, Yakov?’ said Rizhin. ‘This, nothing else but this, is Task Number One. Tell me what you need and you shall have it. Without limit. The resources of the continent will be at your disposal. A hundred thousand workers. A million. Twenty million. You just tell me. Never hide your needs. How does a mother know her baby is hungry if the baby does not cry?’
Khyrbysk looked at Farelov.
‘It can be done,’ said the chief engineer quietly. ‘In theory it can be done.’
‘So,’ said Khyrbysk. ‘OK. Five years then.’
And in five years, though it was impossible, he had done it. He’d brought Task Number One this far, to this point of crisis: Proof of Concept baking quietly on her launch pad in the country of the hot panoptic undefeated sun.
She climbs the wide shallow steps and pushes through the door into the dimness of the entrance hall. The sun never reaches in here and the lamps are off. There is no electricity supply during the day. No lift. She nods to the woman at the desk and crosses to the stairwell.
Her room is five flights up. The stairs smell of boiling potatoes and old rubber-backed carpet. On the landing of her floor an oversized picture of Papa Rizhin is taped to the wall. He is smiling.
She opens the door of her apartment into a blast of hot stale brilliance. The brassy early-afternoon sun is glaring in through a wide window. There is no one there. The women she shares with–young girls, sisters from Ostrakhovgrad–are out at work, but the room is heavy with their scent and full of things. The three beds, a table and chairs of orange wood, and shelf upon shelf of purposeless gewgaws and tat: make-up and toiletries, small china ornaments, magazines in faint typeface on thick brittle paper filled with advertisements and optimistic stories. The one big flimsy yellow cupboard stands open, overflowing with nylons and cheap summer clothes. Both girls are conducting affairs with high-ups in the Ministry of Supply. There is a can of raspberries tucked in the underwear drawer.
One of the sisters brought with her to Mirgorod a poster from the wall of the Ostrakhovgrad Public Library and tacked it inside the cupboard door: a photograph of strong women with the sun on their faces, shoulders back, heads up, the wind in their hair. DAUGHTERS OF THE VLAST, COME TO THE CITY! CITIZEN WOMEN! REBUILD OUR LAND! So many men were killed in the war, there was free accommodation on offer in Mirgorod to women of working age with no children.
The woman unwinds the pink towel with the lemon-yellow tractors and lays the long oilskin-covered bundle on her bed. Kneels on the floor to unbuckle the straps. Forcing clumsy hands to do what once went smooth as breathing.
She’d done a good job almost six years before. She’d left the rifle cleaned and wrapped in strips of cotton damp with lubricant, and it had kept well. No damp or grit had reached it. Awkwardly she strips it and cleans and oils each part. The touch and smell of the rifle is as familiar to her as her own body. The wood of the stock is still smooth and dark honey-brown. The magazine and firing mechanism, the telescopic sight rails, the pierced noise-suppressing muzzle and flash guard, all still blue-black steel, are a little scuffed and scratched–she remembers every mark–but there is no sign of corrosion. Only her own broken hands, finger bones snapped and carelessly re-fused, have to relearn their work. Figure it out all over again.
The Zhodarev STV-04–gas-operated, a short-stroke spring-loaded piston above the barrel, a tilting bolt–weighs eight and a half pounds unloaded and is exactly forty-eight inches long, of which the barrel is twenty-four. Muzzle velocity is two thousand seven hundred feet per second. Effective range with a telescopic sight, one thousand yards. The Zhodarev is not a perfect weapon: it is complex to maintain, a little too heavy, the muzzle flash too bright even with a flash guard; it tends to lift, and the magazine can come loose and fall out. The woman had always wished she had a Vagant. But she knows the Zhodarev intimately. She fitted the muzzle brake herself to counteract the lifting. It is her weapon.
She reassembles the rifle, lays it aside and checks the rest of the kit. Wrapped in a separate bundle of oiled cotton is the olive-green 4-12 x 40 VP Akilina telescopic sight, rarer and more precious by far than the weapon itself, its graticule adjustable both vertically for range and horizontally for windage. And there are paper packages, still sealed, containing five-round stripper clips of 7.62 x 54mm Vonn & Belloc rimmed cartridges. One hundred and twenty rounds. One combat load. Not really enough for what she needs but it will have to do.
‘T minus six hundred, Proof of Concept.’
Ten minutes to go.
Engineer-Technician 2nd Class Mikkala Avril settles herself at the familiar console and tries to calm the churning of her mind. She runs again through the routines. The launch controller is making his final tour of workstation checks before launch. Calling on each desk in turn for confirmation of go. Her turn soon. A matter of seconds. She scans the columns of figures again. All displays are showing within normal parameters. Dead on the line.
She has never actually done this task herself before, not at a real launch, not once, not even under supervision; except for practice exercises, she has always sat at Filipov’s left hand and watched while her principal made the necessary settings and corrections. Even so, she’s ready. She understands the procedures. It’s not that complex. Ever since she joined the Task Number One programme, fresh from graduating top of her year (the first graduating year of the New University of Mathematical Engineering at Berm), she has spent every spare moment in the technical libraries at Kurchatovgrad and Chaiganur studying the classified reports.
It was Khyrbysk’s policy to encourage technicians on the programme to learn as much and as widely as they could about the project as a whole and not limit themselves to their own area of work. His attitude to access to papers was liberal, and she took maximum advantage, beginning with the chief engineer’s own seminal paper, Feasibility of an Atomic Bomb-Propelled Space Vessel, and working her way along the shelves: A Survey of Shock Absorption Options; Trajectory Walk Caused By Occasional Bomb Misfire; The Capture of Radiation by Angelic Materials; Radiation Spill Around An Impervious Disc; Preliminary Sketch of Life Support For A Crewed Vessel. There weren’t many people at Chaiganur who knew more about the history, physics and engineering of Task Number One than Mikkala Avril.
She checks the central readout once more. The eight-inch-square display is connected to a von Altmann machine beneath the floor, which will, when called upon, analyse the telemetry from the vessel in flight and calculate any necessary corrective thrust from the banks of small rockets set in the midriff of Proof of Contact. It is her job to send the instructions for those corrections to the rockets themselves. It requires concentration, rapid reflexes, a steady hand. But all she has to do now is confirm readiness.
Launch is looking at her.
‘Guidance Telemetry?’ says Launch, relaxed and neutral.
And Mikkala Avril freezes.
Her screen has gone dark.
After half a second a short phrase blinks into life: Fail code 393.
Everything else, all the rows and columns of figures, have disappeared. She has no contact with the ship.
Fail code 393? It means nothing to her. Heart pumping, hands trembling, she riffles through the code handbook in mounting panic. 349… 382… 397… 402… What the hell is 393?
There is no 393. Not in the book.
Launch asks again, impatient now.
‘Guidance Telemetry, are we go?’
Faces are turning towards Mikkala Avril. She feels the gaze of Director Khyrbysk on her back. The chief engineer is watching her. Papa Rizhin himself is watching her. She can feel it.
‘Guidance Telemetry?’ says the launch controller a third time. ‘What’s happening, Avril?’
‘I’ve got a 393, Launch.’
‘What is that?’
‘I’m working on it, Launch.’
Ignore them. Focus only on the immediate need.
She has no idea what Fail code 393 means. It isn’t in the book, which suggests it’s a core manufacturer’s code, not set up by Task Number One. It might be trivial, only a glitch in the machine. But it could equally be a fundamental system failure that would send Proof of Concept pitching and yawing, tumbling out of the sky to crash and burn.
It is either/or, and the only way to find out is to switch the machine off and start it up again. And that will take ten minutes.
‘Last call, Avril,’ says the launch controller. There is tension in his voice now. The beginning of fear.
It is the epochal moment of the world, and it turns on her.
If she says go and the guidance systems misfire… No, she will not even think about the consequences of that… But if she calls an abort, Papa Rizhin’s flagship launch will collapse in ignominy in front of the entire Presidium, the ambassadors, the assembled press of the Vlast. It will be days–possibly weeks–before they can try again. And if the abort turns out to be unnecessary, only a twenty-three-year-old inexperienced woman’s cry of panic at an unfamiliar display code…
She hears her own voice speaking. It sounds too loud. Hoarse and unfamiliar.
‘Guidance Telemetry is go, Launch. Go.’
‘Thank you, Avril.’
Launch moves on to the next station.
With trembling hands, Mikkala Avril powers off her console, counts to ten, and switches it back on. The cathode tubes begin cycling through their ponderous loading routine.
‘T minus three hundred, Proof of Concept.’
Thank you Launch.
Five minutes. The sugary music cuts out at last. There is a swell of voices and a scraping of chairs as the dignitaries turn to the window and put on their dark glasses.
‘Can’t see a bloody thing from here,’ mutters Foreign Minister Sarsin. (The Vlast needs a foreign minister now. So the world turns.) ‘It’s below the fucking horizon.’
‘You will see, Minister,’ says Khyrbysk. ‘You will certainly see.’
An argument breaks out as camera operators try to set up in front of the dignitaries.
‘You don’t have to do this. There’s another team on the roof.’
‘Something could go wrong up there. We should have back-up footage.’
Khyrbysk makes angry signs to the press liaison officer to close the disturbance down. He hadn’t wanted the press there at all, or the ambassadors for that matter, but Rizhin insisted. Rizhin is a showman; he wants to astonish the world.
‘The risk,’ Khyrbysk had said to him on the telephone. ‘What if it flops?’
‘You make it not flop, Yakov. That’s your job.’
Rizhin needs risk, Khyrbysk realises. He burns risk for fuel. Everything races hot and fast, the engine too powerful for the machine. Parts that burn out are replaced on the move, without stopping. The whole of the New Vlast is Rizhin’s Proof of Concept, his bomb-powered vessel heading for unexplored territories and goals only Rizhin understands.
The cosmonauts feel the colossal engineering beneath them sliding into life, the coolant pumping round the shock-absorbing pillars, the bomb pickers rattling through the magazines in search of the first charge. Proof of Concept is a behemoth of industrial construction, but it is also very simple.
Mikkala Avril’s screens come back up with ten seconds to go. Everything is fine: readouts dead on the line. She is so relieved she wants to cry, but she does not allow herself; she is stronger than that and holds it in. She is the heart of the youth of the New Vlast and she is good at her job and she will not fail.
Two seconds to go, she remembers to put her dark glasses on. She turns up the brightness on her screen, closes her eyes, presses a black cloth against her face and begins her own interior count. For the first ten bombs it will be too bright to see, and Proof of Concept will be on her own: then Mikkala must open her eyes and be not too dazzled to work.
Before the chief engineer discovered the properties of angel flesh propellant, what Mikkala was about to do would have been impossible: the bombs’ electromagnetic pulses would have broken all contact between ship and ground. But now the ship’s instruments will sing and chatter as she rises, and be heard.
The cosmonauts’ cabin shivers with the clang of the first apricot locking into the expulsion chute.
Launch control is whited out in a flash of illumination that erases the sun.
Bomp–bomp–bomp. Bigger explosions each time. Brilliant blinding flashes. Slowly at first then faster and faster Proof of Concept rises, riding a crumb trail of detonations, climbing a tower of mushroom clouds.
The cosmonauts groan as each detonation slams their backs with a brute fist of acceleration. The whole ship judders and creaks and moans like a bathyscaphe under many thousand atmospheres of pressure.
For the observers in the launch control blockhouse at Chaiganur Test Site 61, the ship itself is lost, the explosion trail hard to watch. The repeated retinal burn forms blue-purple-green jumbling images. Brilliant drifting spectral bruises in the eye. President-Commander Rizhin stands at the window, the hot glare pulsing on his face, an atomic heartbeat.
I am the fist of history. I am the mile-high man.
A long time after the light the sound waves come.