Pavel Kovalov didn’t think he would see the day where he would be staring up at a nearly blank blue sky as he prepared for a voyage into the great unknown that was space. It seemed like just yesterday he was sitting in a fighter plane staring down a lengthy runway for the first time. But in reality it had been several years ago. Years that had shaped him into a candidate for the Soviet Union’s space program. He hadn’t been able to believe he had received such an opportunity. He still couldn’t believe it.
It felt strange to not be in control of the craft, though. Kovalov ran his hand over some of the emergency manual controls. He knew it was supposed to be a simple voyage: go up, circle the Earth, and come back, but he was well-aware of the fact that anything could go wrong. And it wouldn’t be the first time. No matter how many times incidents were covered up, someone would talk. Kovalov could remember a few years ago when a pilot from his unit was given the chance to become a cosmonaut and died when his craft malfunctioned during the first few seconds of the launch and came crashing back down to the ground. After so many years of service and friendship, Zakhar Savasin was gone. It was strange getting up the morning after and not seeing Savasin’s smiling face in the barracks. The barracks became significantly duller without Savasin’s presence and every person there felt it. He had been everyone’s mentor and very rarely had anything negative to say to anyone.
Kovalov became a bit more confident in being a part of the space program after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on Vostok 1, even though a part of him was saddened over the fact that it could have been his friend to be the first man in space. It could have been Savasin to get all the attention he so rightly deserved. Then again, surely that success could be replicated. An accident like what took Savasin could be prevented this time around. Surely Kovalov and his partner wouldn’t burn up in the atmosphere or have the ship explode or decompress suddenly. He knew it was wishful thinking. He knew he could very well die today.
Just let me see the world before I die. Let me make Zakhar proud. Then I can die happy. At that moment, there was nothing more he wanted than to see the globe for himself. It would make his parents proud. It would make his fighter squadron proud to know one of them had gone to space. It would make the rest of his country proud. Wherever Savasin was, he would be proud. The Soviets were going to stay ahead in the Space Race and Kovalov wanted to be an instrument in that.
His thoughts were interrupted by someone whispering next to him, “Pasha, are you nervous?”
Kovalov glanced to his right. His companion, Illya Lyashko, another cosmonaut and former fighter pilot, was staring at him, looking a lot more collected than Kovalov expected he would be. “No, not nervous,” Kovalov said. “Not nervous at all.”
“You were a nervous wreck all throughout training, afraid you wouldn’t get here. You can relax now. You’re here.” Lyashko gave him a small smile. “We are going to write a new chapter of history today. First multiple-crew flight, eh?”
Kovalov nodded a little. “I am glad you are not nervous.”
“I am a little, to be honest, but willing to take the risk for something so monumental.”
“You are not afraid of dying?”
“Everyone is afraid of death, Pasha. Of course I am afraid, but I am not going to let that stop me from doing something very few men will ever get to do. If something happens, I would want to be remembered for trying.”
“I can respect that. Frankly, I am afraid. After what happened to Zakhar…” Kovalov wanted to look Lyashko in the eye, but his bulky helmet prevented him from doing so even though they were only a few centimeters away from each other. He had come to trust Lyashko shortly after they joined the space program. They were both already accomplished pilots with hundreds if not thousands of hours of flight time under their belts, but their personalities were different. Kovalov was vocal and at times anxious, prone to asking a lot of questions. Lyashko was quiet and preferred to learn by observation. Their trainers had originally been hesitant to pair them up but it seemed like a quiet anchor was perfect to balance out Kovalov’s jittery nature and relieve his sadness after losing Savasin. Lyashko listened to him and Kovalov kept Lyashko entertained. Neither of them annoyed the other.
“Liftoff will commence in exactly ten minutes,” a voice in Kovalov’s headset said.
“Affirmative,” Lyashko replied. “We are ready and awaiting further instructions.”
The next ten minutes were slow and agonizing, as the liftoff procedure commenced. Kovalov’s heart was beating fast with excitement and anxiety. I could die right now, but I could also be on my way to seeing the world.
Both cosmonauts were shoved into their seats as the spacecraft lifted off, gradually speeding up into the sky. Kovalov couldn’t move his head in any direction. He watched through the viewport as they flew through a cloud and listened to ground control and Lyashko’s updates through his headset. The whole time he was trying not to vomit in his helmet, even though it was the one thing he wanted to do more than anything else. He squeezed his eyes shut, the violent shaking of the craft jostling his internal organs harder than any MiG flight. Even breathing had become difficult and Kovalov could feel his chest tightening and head becoming lighter the longer it went on.
The booster rockets ran out of fuel first, and Kovalov felt the craft jolt slightly as they fell away and the core rocket continued burning. Several minutes later, it died as well and was released as the final rocket stage ignited. Lyashko continued radioing updates to ground control as they approached orbit.
It wasn’t until they reached orbit and the capsule and rocket separated that Kovalov felt like he could breathe again. The sensation of weightlessness was incredibly odd, although his seat straps kept him from floating around freely. He took another look out the viewport and saw the blue and green sphere of the Earth. He drew in a deep breath. “We did it! We’re alive, Illya, we did it!”
Lyashko gave him a small smile before saying into his radio, “Mission control, craft is operating normally and we have a visual of Earth. Everything is proceeding according to plan.”
The next forty minutes were like something out of a dream as the space capsule followed its pre-planned flight path, which was very similar to the path Vostok 1 had taken. Kovalov and Lyashko monitored the capsule’s systems and reported in to ground control periodically as they traveled over the Pacific Ocean towards the southern tip of South America. Everything was going well as they passed to the south of the Strait of Magellan, but as Kovalov looked out of the viewport again, he saw something approaching them from the atmosphere over Antarctica. It started as a black speck, but as it drew closer, Kovalov noticed it had a strange horseshoe-like appearance. “What is that?”
“I don’t know. It looks like a ship of some kind,” Lyashko replied tensely, also looking out at the approaching object.
“Not one of ours. Not American either,” Kovalov observed, watching anxiously as Lyashko said into his radio, “Mission control, we are observing an unidentified craft approaching us at high speed! Repeat, unidentified space craft approaching us at high speed!”
All Kovalov heard in response was static. The ship was massive compared to the tiny vessel they were in. It was dark gray in color, and every surface was rounded. It didn’t seem to notice them and Kovalov prayed it stayed that way as it looked like it was about to fly over them, but then it slowed until it was right on top of them. A large circular port opened up above them and a tube-like device began lowering down.
“What the hell is it doing?” Lyashko asked.
“What even is ‘it?’” Kovalov muttered.
There was a loud clunk and the capsule rocked suddenly as it was lifted into the alien vessel.
“Fuck,” Lyashko breathed.
They found themselves rising into a dark space, which was made darker by the slow closing of the port. There were the tiny lights inside their craft, but they didn’t offer much illumination. Kovalov hated the dark. It was bad when he was a child, but for some reason, it stuck with him as he grew up. He could only sleep with a candle lit and he wouldn’t go anywhere in his home at night without a candle. There was something about darkness that was claustrophobic. He felt blind, unaware, and afraid something within the dark that was going to take advantage of his vulnerability. “What do we do now?” Kovalov asked.
“See what these people want? If they are people.” Lyashko unhooked himself from his seat. Kovalov did the same, surprised to feel gravity had returned. The ship must have some way of artificially creating gravity. How that was possible was beyond him.
Eyeing the viewport, Kovalov saw the space they were was lit up now with a weak, greenish light that showed they were in a large open space like an aircraft hangar. Three tall figures were approaching the hatch. Their skin was the color of snow, and their eyes were a very dark blue, almost black color. They looked like humans, but they were entirely bald and had a near-perfect physique. All of them were wearing dark-gray full-body suits that were covered with ridges and ribs. Only their hands and heads could be seen in the darkness of the ship’s chamber. They were all holding rifles that looked like they were made of the same material their suits were.
Lyashko had already removed his helmet and gloves, leaving behind the suit itself. Compared to the SK-1 that the Vostok cosmonauts and worn, the experimental suit that they had been issued was more ergonomic, and the helmet was detached from the suit unlike the SK-1 so it actually could be taken off. Kovalov did the same as Lyashko opened their emergency survival kit and removed the two Tokarev handguns packed inside. He kept one for himself and handed the other to Kovalov, who cocked the hammer. “Try to smile. Show them we are friendly. They might just be curious to see who and what we are, but stay alert.”
Kovalov stood behind Lyashko as the hatch opened, revealing the three figures he had seen before standing directly outside. As they exited the capsule, the figure in the center of the trio stepped forward. He looked Kovalov and Lyashko up and down but said nothing. His expression was a scowl, but he nodded after studying the two men and looked over his shoulder at his companions.
Lyashko pointed to himself and Kovalov. “We are travelers from Earth. We mean you—” He pointed at the aliens, “no harm.” He held out his free hand, trying to persuade the alien that they were friendly.
The aliens glanced at each other and shook their heads.
“They have no idea what we are saying,” Kovalov whispered.
The center figure clearly wasn’t interested in conversation. He spoke to his companions in a deep voice, the strange words seeming to echo around the large room, and tried to pick up Lyashko by the back of his spacesuit. Lyashko reacted immediately, bringing his Tokarev up and firing three shots at the alien’s chest. The gunshots reverberated around the room as dark blood erupted from the entry wounds and poured down the alien’s suit and he dropped Lyashko, falling to the ground. The other two raised their weapons, shouting at Lyashko, and Kovalov pointed his own handgun at the closest one.
More aliens came hurrying up, all dressed the same and brandishing the same weapons, with some variation. Kovalov glanced at Lyashko. “This is not a fight we can win,” he said. “We need to get them to understand we did not come here to fight. This one-” he gestured to the alien on the floor, “made a bad choice.”
One of the aliens tried to take away Lyashko’s handgun. After a moment of hesitation, Lyashko handed it over, as did Kovalov, feeling one of the aliens nudging him from behind with his weapon.
They were led out of the chamber and down a long, winding, hallway with rounded edges. There were no straight lines to be seen anywhere in the architecture. They arrived in a large, round room covered in pods that were shaped almost like coffins. One alien walked up to a panel and pressed a button that made the pods open simultaneously. All but three of the aliens left for another chamber. The three who stayed gestured for Kovalov and Lyashko to get into the pods.
Kovalov had read his fair share of science-fiction novels, both Russian and books smuggled in from the West, and was terrified of what the aliens were going to do with him and Lyashko. Were they going to be imprisoned for murder? What was the aliens’ justice system? Were they going to be executed outright? Or perhaps it would be something else entirely. Were they going to meet the rulers of their planet? Were they going to have their organs harvested? Were they going to be studied like lab animals? Kovalov shuddered to think about it. He looked up at the alien guiding him and was surprised to see an expression that looked like sympathy.
Kovalov tilted his head, trying to study the alien’s expression, but one of the other aliens shouted at the one standing by him. Suddenly looking nervous, the alien gestured for Kovalov to lie down in the pod. Kovalov got inside, his body tensing up as he realized the inside of the pod was cold. After giving Kovalov one last sad look, the alien went back to the control panel to close the pod.
The cover to the pod was black, and once it closed, Kovalov was enveloped in complete darkness. His worst fear. This was hell for him. He was frozen in terror and his heart started racing wildly as he began breathing rapidly. “Let me out of here! Please! No! What are you doing to me?!” He screamed and tried to shove and kick the pod open. Tears streamed down his face, and he continued begging and pleading to be let out. He didn’t think it was possible for anything to be this dark.
There was a slight hissing sound, and a pale gas rushed over him. Panicked and breathing deeply, he suddenly found himself feeling drowsy. Gradually, the panic faded. His body felt heavy, and he lowered his limbs from the pod’s cover. He closed his eyes, wondering if this was all a bad dream. They were back on base, on Earth. It was the night before the launch. He was just scared and his overly active imagination was conjuring up the worst possible scenario of what could happen during the mission-besides, of course, the ship exploding during takeoff.
His heartrate slowed. He finally felt relaxed and he could no longer feel the cold. There was nothing he wanted more now than sleep. Given the sheer darkness of the pod, it was hard to tell whether he was asleep or awake. He could still feel his bodily functions. He could still feel blood flowing through his veins, the sound of the gas rushing through his ears, his chest rising and falling with each breath. Surely, all that meant he was still awake.
It didn’t take long for sleep to finally come. He dreamed of home, of light, of being back on base with his fighter squadron. He knew it was a dream when he saw Savasin among them.
“You are going to be alright, Pasha,” Savasin said, turning to face him.
No words could come out of Kovalov’s mouth. Was he reliving their conversation before his final flight test? He couldn’t be. Lyashko was there.
“You are stronger than you make yourself out to be.”
Finally, Kovalov spoke, “Am I?”
“Yes. Have faith in yourself, my friend. Never lose sight of your goals, and never lose sight of hope. You will get out of this.”
It had been so long since they talked. Kovalov knew Savasin would have been so proud to see him in the space program now. He wanted Savasin to stay, even though he knew this was all a dream.
His dreams quickly changed. He saw himself flying over Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, and East Germany being chased by a plane he couldn’t see no matter how hard he tried. In each scene, he was shot down as the sun was setting and darkness began covering the world. Each time he found himself struggling to survive in the wilderness.
At least the wilderness was familiar. At least he knew what to do in case he was shot down. He didn’t receive training on how to survive on an alien spaceship. Everything was foreign. He had no guidance except what he had been taught and his own common sense.
He didn’t care what was happening. He just wanted to go home.
Kovalov wasn’t sure if whatever he was experiencing would ever end. His sleep was full of incomprehensible dreams. All were vivid. Some were joyous. Some were frightening. The frightening ones made him wish the sleep would end. It all felt too real.
Eventually it did end. He could faintly hear the hissing sound and the voices of the aliens. This wasn’t a dream? This is still happening? He tried to open his eyes, but they felt heavy. His entire body felt heavy, like metal plates had been tied to his limbs. Gradually, his heartbeat was speeding up as he continued to wake up. He wanted to sit up. Every centimeter of his body was sore. When he did sit up, he felt nauseated and leaned over the side of the coffin-sleep pod to vomit.
After expelling the contents of his stomach, Kovalov remained slumped over until one of the aliens they encountered in the hangar marched over, pulling him out of the pod by his arm. He looked over to see Lyashko was being handled the same way. “Where… Where are you taking us?” Kovalov asked, breathlessly.
The alien pushed him forward, barking a single word at him.
“I cannot understand you,” Kovalov said. “Please, we must learn to communicate.”
The alien wasn’t interested. He threatened to strike Kovalov with his rifle, and pushed him toward a hallway leading out of the chamber. He noticed the sympathetic-looking alien from earlier was standing by the hall. Once the two men were through, he followed close behind.
They walked through the winding corridors of the ship before coming to another large, round room with a big chair in the center. The chair was connected to a large device that reminded Kovalov of the anti-aircraft batteries his father had helped operate in World War II, only this was much, much bigger and there was no way to tell what its purpose actually was. An alien was climbing out of the chair, pulling off a helmet with an odd, trunk-like protrusion. Somehow, Kovalov got the impression that this particular alien was the ship’s pilot.
Kovalov and Lyashko weren’t the only ones being taken through the ship under guard. They were joined by several aliens marching other aliens and creatures. Some were in handcuffs. Others were muzzled. A group of creatures that looked like a cross between a sable and a mouse but much larger were both cuffed and muzzled.
All were led outside the ship. Beyond a massive flat platform lay vibrant grass dotted with stout trees with large, fern-like leaves. The aliens led their captors off the platform. Kovalov glanced over his shoulder. Past the ship, Kovalov could see several structures and other aliens. They were being led away from the structures and toward a large vessel sitting on another platform similar to the one the giant horseshoe craft had been landed on.
The vessel was long, and the odd aesthetic choices continued with it. Inside were seats with heavy restraints on them. The aliens pushed each of their captives into them, putting their wrists in restraints above their heads. Kovalov resisted the urge to panic again. Whatever they were doing, there was no positive intent behind it. These beings were not interested in communication. Each time he or anyone else spoke, they were struck with a fist or a rifle.
The other aliens, the ones that weren’t tall and bald, were looking at Kovalov and Lyashko with some degree of curiosity. The muzzled sable-like creatures were staring at them with big, blue eyes. Kovalov made an attempt to smile at them. From the corner of his eye, Kovalov could see the sympathetic alien watching him.
The vessel was flown across the grassy landscape to a small building set in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by exotic flora. It landed on top of the structure. One by one, the captives were taken out of their seats and led out of the ship to a closed archway. A pair of guards unsealed and opened the door to let the group inside. From there they were led down a winding stairway. Kovalov could hear something screeching, and the sound grew louder the further down they went. Finally, they arrived in a massive room with a wide window. The window seemed pointless, as whatever they were looking out into was pitch-black. Kovalov shuddered when he saw something moving on the glass. There were several things moving on the glass, but he couldn’t make out if it was one single thing or many things.
The aliens looked over their prisoners and they singled out the muzzled ones. One of the sable creatures growled at the bigger, balder alien approaching it, but the growling stopped as soon as the alien touched it with a long staff. A zapping sound was heard, and Kovalov winced as he saw the creature collapse, probably unconscious. The same was done with every other muzzled being. Their still bodies were picked up and placed in a small chamber in front of a door. Stepping back, the aliens closed the door leading to the chamber. A second later, Kovalov heard the hissing of another door opening. Unable to hold himself back any longer, Kovalov looked at one of the aliens. “What is going on here? Why are you doing this to them?”
His question was answered with a rifle poking into his arm. Nodding, Kovalov went back to facing forward and said nothing.
The sympathetic alien looked nervous. He spoke to one of his companions, who promptly slapped him across the face before speaking to him in a tone Kovalov recognized from his early days of flight training. One of his instructors was a brutal man who was no doubt traumatized from fighting in the Second World War and took his anger out on everyone. Kovalov drew in a breath, his thoughts and heart racing. We’re being put in there to die, aren’t we?