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What would the space race be without the Russians, our age-old nemesis? In truth, the loss of funding for NASA has found us relying on them in ways we once never imagined. In this next story, Soviet-born Alex Shvartsman imagines his fellow countrymen’s efforts to send the first man to reach a new target in . . .


by Alex Shvartsman

“There’s nothing new under the sun,” said Anatoly, his voice carried via skip broadcast across millions of kilometers of space from the command center at Baikonur.

Aboard the Yuri Gagarin, Nikolai concentrated on the exposed panel in the inner wall of the ship. He winced at the sight of the cheap Ecuadorian circuitry as he used the multimeter to hunt for the faulty transistor. Damn contractors couldn’t resist cutting corners. He sighed and looked up. Anatoly’s face filled the screen. Nikolai didn’t mind the banter. It broke the routine. He pointed at the opposite screen, which displayed the live feed from outside of the ship, a vast blackness punctured by tiny pinpricks of light. “Which sun?”

“Our sun. Any sun.” Anatoly shrugged. “You’re a cranky pedant, aren’t you?”

“Matter of opinion,” said Nikolai, his gaze returning to the uncooperative panel.

“As I was saying, there’s nothing new under the sun,” Anatoly said. “We won the original space race, when we launched Sputnik a hundred years ago, and we’re going to win this one, too.”

Nikolai cursed under his breath as the multimeter slipped out of his hand and slowly floated upward. He caught the wayward tool. “The space race hasn’t gone so well since. Americans beat us to the moon, and the Chinese beat us to Mars.”

“Those are just a pair of lifeless rocks in our backyard,” said Anatoly. “In the grand scheme of things, they won’t matter much. Not once you land on Arcadia.”

Nikolai continued to hunt for the faulty transistor. “You’re assuming this heap of junk won’t fall apart around me first.”

Gagarin isn’t luxurious, but it will get the job done,” said Anatoly.

“I sure hope you’re right,” said Nikolai. “I’d hate having to get out and push.”

Anatoly grinned. “You’d push all the way to Arcadia if you had to. Russian people make do with what we’ve got. Back in the 1960s, American astronauts discovered that ball-point pens didn’t work right in a vacuum. So NASA spent all this time and money to design the space pen. You know what our cosmonauts did? They used a pencil.”

“That story is bullshit on several levels,” said Nikolai. “Americans used pencils, too. But the shavings were a hazard in zero gravity—they could float up one’s nose, or even short an electrical device and start a fire. That’s why the space pen was needed, and it was developed by a private company who then sold a handful to NASA at a reasonable price.” He wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead. “You of all people should know better.”

“Okay, you got me, it’s a tall tale,” said Anatoly. “But my version makes for a much better story to tell at parties.”

“Next time I’m at a party, I’ll be sure to try it,” said Nikolai.

Anatoly frowned, the wind gone out of his sails. Nikolai knew he had scored another point, but this time by hitting below the belt. His handler must’ve felt guilty about the one-way trip, even if he tried his best to hide it.

Nikolai eased off. He let Anatoly fill him in on the gossip from home—the latest politics and entertainment news that felt so irrelevant, so far away.

It took him another thirty minutes to find the defective transistor. He grunted with satisfaction and reached for the soldering gun.

Three months prior, Nikolai Petrovich Gorolenko sat brooding at his desk in a cozy but windowless office of the St. Petersburg State University math department.

There was so much to do. He needed to type a resignation notice, to contact an attorney about a will, and worst of all, to figure out a way to break the news to his family. There was a knock on the door.

Nikolai didn’t feel like speaking to anyone, but he needed a way to break out of his despondency.

“Come in.”

A stranger walked into the room. This middle-aged man was perfectly coiffed and dressed in a smart business suit. His sharp eyes seemed to take in everything without missing a single detail, and yet he had a nondescript look about him that could only be perfected in one line of work. Nikolai pegged him for an FSB operative.

“My condolences, Professor Gorolenko,” said the stranger.

Somehow, he knew. Nikolai hadn’t told anyone, and yet he knew.

Nikolai did his best to keep calm. “Who are you, and what are you talking about?”

The man waved an ID card in a fluid, practiced motion. “Vladimir Ivanovich Popov. I’m with the government.” He put the card away. “I’m here about your test results from this morning. The brain tumor is malignant. You’ve got three, four months. Half a year if you’re lucky.”

Nikolai bristled at being told this for the second time that day. At least the first time it was his doctor, who had sounded genuinely sympathetic. This stranger merely stated facts, politely but without compassion.

Popov pointed at the chair. “May I?”

“What do you want?” Nikolai ignored his request. A dying man has little use for being polite and little fear of authority, he thought.

Popov sat anyway. “I hear this is a bad way to go. Very painful, in the end. I’d like to offer you an alternative.”

Nikolai tilted his head. “An alternative to dying?”

“An alternative to dying badly,” said Popov. “Let’s call it a stay of execution.”

“I see,” said Nikolai. “I suppose you’ll want my soul in return?”

Popov smiled. “You aren’t so far from the truth, Professor.”

Exasperated, Nikolai leaned forward. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re offering in plain terms?”

“Our experts have examined your brain scans and the biopsy sample,” said Popov, “and determined that you’re a perfect fit for an experimental nanite treatment developed by the Antey Corporation. It won’t cure you, but it will slow down the tumor and contain the metastasis. It can buy you two more years.”

Nikolai chewed his lip. Two years was such a short time, but for a drowning man it wasn’t unseemly to grasp at straws. “You’ve got my attention.”

“There is a catch,” said Popov.

“Of course there is. Neither the Antey Corporation nor our government are known for their altruism,” said Nikolai. “What do you need from me?”

“What do you know about Arcadia?” asked Popov.

“Huh? You mean the planet?”

Popov nodded.

“It’s been all over the news. Admittedly, I’ve been . . . preoccupied. But I do know it’s the first Earth-like planet ever confirmed—breathable atmosphere and everything.”

“That’s right,” said Popov. “The Americans discovered it in 2015. They called it Kepler-452b back then and it was the first Earth-like exo planet ever found. Fitting that it will become the first world humans set foot on outside of the Solar System.” He shifted in his chair. “There’s enormous propaganda value in getting there first. The Americans are dispatching a twelve-person exploration team. India already launched a colony ship, with sixty-odd people in suspended animation.”

“So quickly? They only confirmed Arcadia as habitable last month.”

“The world’s superpowers have been preparing for this moment ever since the eggheads figured out the workaround for the speed of light problem, and sent out skip drones every which way.”

“I see. So the Russian Federation is in this race, too?”

“That’s right, Professor. Our plan is to send you.”

Nikolai stared at the government apparatchik across his desk. “Why me?”

“I’m not a scientist, so I can’t explain the reasoning thoroughly,” said Popov. “In layman’s terms, they’ve been going over the brain scan data from terminal patients across the country, and they liked your brain best.”

Nikolai scratched his chin. Like most children, he dreamed of going up into space once, but that was a lifetime ago.

“Forgive me,” Nikolai said, “this is a lot to process.”

“There’s more,” said Popov. “I don’t want to sugarcoat this for you. It would be a one-way trip. If we succeed and you land on Arcadia, and even if the atmosphere is breathable and the water is drinkable, your odds of survival are astronomically low. If the local microbes don’t get you, hunger likely will. If you’re lucky you might last long enough for the Americans to get there. We’re trying to time the launch just right to give you that chance. Even then, the tumor might finish you before they return to Earth.”

Nikolai thought about it. “Why can’t you send enough food and water for the crew to survive?”

“You don’t get it. You are the crew. Just you. The ship’s ability to accelerate to a skip velocity is inversely proportional to its mass. The India ship is en route but it’s huge and therefore slow. Americans have a much faster ship, and they might launch before we do. In order to beat them to the punch, we must send a very light vessel. Every milligram counts. So it’s you, and just enough oxygen, water, and food to get you to the finish line.”

Nikolai frowned. “You weren’t kidding about the stay of execution, then. And it explains why your people are looking to recruit from among the terminally ill. Leaving the heroic explorer to die on Arcadia would be terrible PR otherwise.”

“You’re grasping the basics quickly,” said Popov. “No wonder they picked your brain.”

“I’m not sure how a few extra months of life on a spaceship followed by death alone on an alien world is better than spending my last days with my wife and daughter,” said Nikolai.

“Well, there’s having your name live on forever in history along the likes of Magellan and Bering,” said Popov. “And then there’s the obscene amount of money you’ll be paid for doing this.”

Nikolai hadn’t saved much money on a college professor’s salary. There would be medical bills, his father’s retirement, his daughter’s college tuition . . . “When do you need my answer by?”

“Tomorrow morning, at the latest,” said Popov. “Though, given your circumstances, I’m a little surprised you have to think about it much.”

“I don’t, not really,” said Nikolai. “But I do owe it to my wife to let her weigh in.”

At times, Nikolai felt like his ship was falling apart around him.

He didn’t understand how the skip technology worked—only a few dozen theoretical physicists on Earth could legitimately claim such wisdom—but he knew that an object had to reach a certain velocity before it could puncture a momentary hole in space-time and reemerge elsewhere.

Yuri Gagarin would accelerate continuously for six months until it reached the skip point located somewhere in the Kuiper Belt, wink out of existence only to reappear fourteen hundred light years away, then spend a similar amount of time decelerating toward Arcadia.

As a mathematician, Nikolai couldn’t help but marvel at the amazing speed his vessel would achieve after half a year of constant acceleration. By now he had already traveled farther than any other human in history, but he didn’t feel special. He felt tired and anxious, and somewhat claustrophobic in the cramped cabin that smelled like rubber and sweat.

The ship’s memory bank was loaded with a nearly infinite selection of music, books, and films to break the monotony of the journey. Nikolai was stuck drinking recycled water and eating disgusting nutrient-enriched slop in the name of conserving mass, but the electrons needed for data storage had no significant weight, and the ship’s designers could afford him this luxury. But he had little time to partake of the digital library. Instead, he put all of his hastily learned engineering knowledge to use and performed maintenance.

Much of his time at Baikonur had been spent learning how to service the systems inside the ship. There had been no spacesuit, but then there was little that could go wrong on the outer hull. The engineers’ real fear was that the internal systems might malfunction. The culture of graft was so deeply ingrained in the Russian industrial complex that even a high-profile project like this was afflicted.

It wouldn’t do to deliver a corpse to Arcadia. Pre-flight, they spent nearly ten hours a day teaching Nikolai how to repair the recycling systems, solder the circuit boards, and improvise solutions to an array of worst-case scenarios with the materials available on board. One of the American-educated engineers kept referring to these techniques as “MacGyvering,” but Nikolai didn’t know the reference.

En route, Nikolai was forced to deal with cheap circuit boards, subpar, off-brand equipment, and software subroutines that were at least two generations behind the times. He had one thing going for him—the ability to remain in contact with Baikonur. The broadcast signal had no mass and was able to skip almost immediately. Mission Control was only a few seconds’ delay away, able to offer advice and support.

While all the fires he had to put out so far were figurative, Nikolai eyed the tiny Bulgarian-made extinguisher with suspicion.

Nikolai waited until their four-year-old daughter was asleep. Pretending that everything was normal, that it was just another weeknight, was incredibly difficult. He was emotionally and physically exhausted, and his wife Tamara could sense that something was wrong, but she too kept up the pretense of normality until their little Olga was tucked into bed.

As the sun set over St. Petersburg, coloring the skyline in bronze hues, Nikolai told his wife about his diagnosis and everything that had happened since.

Tamara listened without interrupting, even as she clutched a couch pillow, a mascara-tinged tear rolling down her cheek. When he finally unburdened, having told her the facts and having run out of assurances and platitudes, the two of them stared out the window and shared what was left of the sunset in silence.

It was only after the sun had disappeared completely in the west that she finally spoke.

“Why you?”

Something was very wrong.

At first it was just a feeling, a sensation in the back of Nikolai’s mind. It seemed that his subconscious had figured out something important, but wasn’t prepared to communicate what it was.

Nikolai chalked it up to paranoia. Anyone stuck on a one-way trip out of the Solar System in a tin can could be forgiven for having uneasy thoughts. But the feeling persisted, almost bubbling up to the surface until eventually the concern bled from his lizard brain and into the conscious mind.

Nikolai pulled up the various sets of relevant data on his screen and began crunching numbers.


After his wife had finally gone to bed, Nikolai stayed up making a list of people he needed to say “good-bye” to. He kept adding and crossing out names on a sheet of graph paper, until he crumpled up the page and tossed it into the trash bin.

Farewells would be painful. He didn’t want to do it. Life had already dealt him a bad hand and he felt justified in skipping whatever unpleasant business he could avoid.

In the morning, he called Popov and accepted the deal, requesting that his involvement be kept a secret for as long as possible. He had little enough time to spend with his family and didn’t want to waste it being hounded by reporters. Then he went to see the only other person who needed to know the truth.

Petr Ivanovich Gorolenko had recently moved into an assisted living facility on the edge of town. It was nice enough, as retirement homes went. Nikolai was relieved that, with the money his family would receive, they’d no longer have to worry about being able to afford Father’s stay here.

Like Tamara, Petr listened to his son’s tale without interrupting. He sighed deeply when Nikolai was finished. “It is a great tragedy for a parent to outlive his child.”

“I have little time, Dad, and a chance to do something meaningful with what’s left.”

His father straightened his back with great effort. “Claiming an entire planet for Mother Russia is no small thing.”

“Well, it isn’t exactly like that,” said Nikolai. “Arcadia isn’t like some tropical island in the age of colonialism. Planting the flag won’t claim it as ours. The government wants to land a man there first purely for propaganda.”

“I see,” said Petr. “The oligarchs in charge are desperate to show that Russia is still a world power. And they’re willing to sacrifice your life to do it.”

“I’m dying regardless,” said Nikolai.

“They have the means to prolong your life, and they’re withholding treatment unless you volunteer for a suicide mission. Doesn’t that bother you?”

Nikolai looked around the sparse, depressing room where his father would live out his remaining years. Was his own fate really worse than that?

“Of course it bothers me,” he said. “Dying bothers me. Having Olga grow up without a father bothers me. But so what? It’s not like I have a better option.”

“Your great-grandfather was conscripted into the army on the day the Great Patriotic War began,” said Petr. “Stalin had murdered most of his competent generals by then, and was utterly unprepared for the German invasion. He needed time to regroup and mount the real defense, so he ordered tens of thousands of young men with no training and no weapons onto the front lines.”

Petr’s words dissolved in a coughing fit. He cleared his throat, and continued in a raspy voice. “Grandpa’s platoon of forty men was given a total of three rifles to fight with. They were told to kill the Germans and capture their weapons, and sent to the front lines. A squad of NKVD—the secret police—was positioned a kilometer or so behind them. Those men were well-armed, and had orders to shoot anyone who tried to turn back.”

Petr paused again, the monologue visibly taking a lot out of him. He took several deep breaths and pressed on. “Grandpa was very lucky. He was wounded in the first engagement, and by the time he got out of the hospital his platoon was long gone. He was assigned to another division, one with weapons, and fought all the way to Berlin in ’45.”

“You’ve told this story, more than a few times,” said Nikolai.

“My point is, our government has a long-standing tradition of solving problems by throwing whoever they have to into the meat grinder,” said Petr. A smile stretched across his wrinkled face. “But also to reiterate that dumb luck runs deep in our family. Perhaps you can beat the odds and last long enough to hitch the ride home on the American ship. So, if you don’t mind, I won’t mourn for you just yet.”

Nikolai hugged his father. “I’ll try, Dad. I’ll try my best.”

Nikolai and his family relocated to Baikonur, the desert town in Kazakhstan that housed the world’s oldest spaceport. The dry heat of the Kazakh Steppe was difficult for the Gorolenkos to tolerate, and seemed to contribute to Nikolai’s rapidly worsening headaches, but it was a moot point: he spent almost all of his time in the vast, air-conditioned labs of the Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

He was given crash courses in astronomy by the scientists, in equipment maintenance and repair by the engineers, and in public speaking by the PR flaks. Some of the lessons felt surreal to him—a sole student surrounded by a cadre of overeager teachers.

The plan was to unveil the mission at the last possible moment, lest the Americans or the Chinese launch a competing one-man ship powered with their superior technologies and snatch the accomplishment away from the Motherland. As far as the world knew, the Americans would get to Arcadia first.

The Chinese had dominated space exploration for much of the twenty-first century. It was the People’s Republic of China’s skip drone which had explored Arcadia in the first place. Unfortunately for them, China was undergoing a period of political upheaval not dissimilar to Russia’s perestroika of the 1990s. The government lacked the funds and the willpower to support an interstellar project.

The enormous Indian ship was already en route, and would take over five years to reach the skip point. They wouldn’t be the first on the scene, but they would be the first to succeed—or fail—at establishing a permanent colony.

The Americans launched the Neil Armstrong with all the pomp and pageantry that was expected of them, and it was scheduled to reach Arcadia in a little over a year.

The plan had been for the Russians to launch the Yuri Gagarin on the same day, and steal the Americans’ thunder. Despite its inferior propulsion, the Gagarin’s much lower mass would allow the Russian ship to beat their competitors to Arcadia by up to several months. But, by the time the Armstrong had launched from Cape Canaveral, Nikolai hadn’t even seen his ship.

The Gagarin was being constructed elsewhere, a joint effort between the Russian government, the Antey Corporation, and a number of smaller domestic firms sufficiently favored by the current administration to be awarded the lucrative contracts.

Another month passed. Nikolai’s headaches continued to worsen and, despite the Baikonur doctors’ assurances to the contrary, he suspected that the nanite treatments might not be working.

At first, he was perfectly content to miss the launch date. The delay meant more time to spend with his family. But then he had realized that he actually wanted to go. While Olga was blissfully unaware of what was happening in the way only a young child could be, the situation was taking a noticeable toll on Tamara. She had a hard time coping with the prolonged farewell, and even though she did her best to hide it and stand by her husband, Nikolai hated being the cause of her anguish.

At some point over the course of this extra month on the ground, Nikolai stopped thinking of the impending launch as a death sentence and began looking forward to this final adventure. He didn’t discuss these new feelings with Tamara, whom he felt would not understand, but wrote about them at length in letters he penned for his daughter, to be given to her when she turned sixteen. The letters became a sort of a diary for Nikolai, an outlet for his anxiety, a catharsis.

The word that the ship was finally on its way to Baikonur came at the last possible moment.

“This is good news,” Nikolai told Tamara during their last dinner together. By mutual agreement, they decided not to speak again after the ship had launched. Nikolai wasn’t happy about this, but he was willing to let go, for Tamara’s sake. “I’m only going to beat the Americans by a week or so.”

She took his hand into hers, and her lower lip trembled.

“I can make the food and water last that long,” he said. “The Americans will take me in. It would make them look really bad otherwise.”

There was pain and doubt in the way Tamara looked at him, and only the briefest glimmer of hope.

Later that evening, he tucked Olga into bed for the last time.

“Daddy is going away on a business trip for a while,” he said, struggling to keep his voice even.

Olga smiled at him, her eyelids heavy. “Will you come back soon?”

“I’ll try my best,” said Nikolai.

“Bring me something nice.” She shut her eyes.

In the morning, they told him he would sleep through the first two days of his trip.

“We must lighten the load as much as possible,” he was told, “to make up, somewhat, for the delays. We’ll give you a shot to keep you asleep for as long as it’s medically reasonable. It will conserve air, food, and water.”

By the time he woke up, the Earth was a pale blue dot rapidly diminishing in the distance.


At first, Nikolai chose not to share his concerns with Anatoly. If he was wrong, he would sound like a paranoid lunatic. If he was right . . . Nikolai tried very hard not to dwell on the implications.

He pulled up the volumes on astronomy and physics from the ship’s database, and he checked the data from the ship’s sensors against the star charts, willing the results to make sense. He cut down the amount of time spent on maintaining life support systems, and the amount of time he slept. He checked the equations, again and again, but the numbers never added up.

By then he was getting desperate. He would have to bring his concerns up with Baikonur.

“Do you want to hear a joke?” said Anatoly by way of greeting the next time he called.

“Sure.” Nikolai wasn’t in the laughing mood, but he let the com specialist talk.

“When the Americans landed on the moon, Premier Brezhnev’s aides broke the bad news to their boss,” said Anatoly. “Brezhnev wasn’t at all happy.

“‘We can’t let the capitalists win the space race,’ he said. ‘I hereby order our intrepid cosmonauts to immediately launch an expedition and land on the Sun!’

“‘But Comrade Brezhnev,’ said the aides, ‘it’s impossible to land on the Sun. The Sun is extremely hot.’

“‘Nonsense,’ said Brezhnev. ‘Just tell them to go at night.’”

Nikolai stared at the screen, silent.

“Heard that one, eh?” Anatoly grinned. “That joke is so old, its beard has grown a beard. It seemed appropriate for the occasion is all.”

“What’s really going on, Anatoly?” Nikolai blurted out the words before he could change his mind.

The face on the screen stared, eyes widening in surprise. “What do you mean?”

“I calculated the trajectory, and the ship isn’t where it should be,” said Nikolai. “It’s accelerating much faster than it possibly could.”

“You must have made a mistake,” said Anatoly, a little too quickly, and glanced downward.

After so many rounds of verbal sparring, Nikolai looked into the face of the man on the screen and was certain he was hiding something.

“I taught mathematics at one of Russia’s top universities,” said Nikolai. “My calculations are accurate. A ship the size of Yuri Gagarin can’t possibly accelerate at this rate. And don’t feed me a line about secret technologies, I learned enough about propulsion at Baikonur to understand the basics of skip travel.”

Anatoly’s visage, normally cheerful and full of life, was grim. He sighed deeply and slouched in his chair, his shoulders slumping visibly.

“Wait, please,” he finally said, and cut the connection.

Nikolai felt trapped and powerless. Cut off from his family, his only lifeline a man he barely knew, a man who had apparently been lying to him this entire time. But lying about what? Was this a sick experiment? Did he leave Earth at all, or was he in some bunker in Kazakhstan, serving as a guinea pig for Roscosmos shrinks?

He felt claustrophobic, the walls of the ship closing in. His head spun and his stomach churned. Was this a panic attack? Nikolai had never experienced one before.

The salvation from certain death, the chance at fame, the money . . .why would this be offered to him, of all people? How could he be so stupid? This was a fantasy born of a cancerous mass pushing against his brain tissue.

The screen flickered back to life twenty minutes later, but to Nikolai it felt like eternity.

“I was hoping we wouldn’t have this conversation for a few months,” said Anatoly. “Some time after the skip.”

Nikolai stared at his handler. “Is there a skip?”

“There is a skip, and the ship is right on schedule, accelerating exactly as it should be.”

Nikolai waited.

“You’re right though; the ship is much lighter and faster than you were initially led to believe.”

Nikolai seethed. “What the hell does that mean, Anatoly?”

“There were delays and complications,” said the com specialist. “We couldn’t get the life support equipment to work right, couldn’t get the ship’s mass reduced to an acceptable level. We had hoped the Americans would have similar troubles, but they launched on time, and we were out of options.

“In order to beat them to Arcadia we had to send a ship that was barely larger than a skip drone—nothing large enough to transport a living, breathing human.

“The best we could do was to send your mind.”

Nikolai gaped at the screen.

“Antey Corporation has been developing this technology for a decade,” said Anatoly. “We had to euthanize your body and upload your thought patterns into the computer. Your digital self resides in the Yuri Gagarin’s memory bank. A sophisticated computer program is simulating your environment. But, in fact, there is no air or food, nor the need for such.”

Nikolai stared at his hands, brushed his fingers against the stubble on his chin and then touched the control console of the ship, felt the slight vibration of the engine. “All this feels real enough to me.”

Anatoly entered a command into his own computer, and the world around Nikolai went blank.

He could no longer feel his own body, could not breathe or move, or see anything around him. It was extremely disorienting. Nikolai thought this was how purgatory must feel.

The physical world returned.

“Sorry about the discomfort,” said Anatoly. “I had to show you I was telling the truth. This is what it’s like without any interface at all.”

Nikolai felt his heart thumping fast, his face flushed with anger. How could those things be fake? “You . . .” he stammered. “You killed me!”

“Your body was already dying,” said Anatoly. “The nanites could only hold off the tumor for so long.” He offered a weak smile. “Think of the advantages—you will last as long as it takes for the Americans to bring you back home.”

“Advantages?” shouted Nikolai. “You were always going to kill me, weren’t you? All in the name of some propaganda stunt!”

“No,” said Anatoly. “Sure, we were prepared for this. You were selected because your brain activity and personality were deemed most likely to be digitized successfully and the nanites had been mapping your brain patterns from the beginning. But we would have vastly preferred the alternative.” Anatoly leaned forward and lowered his voice, sounding almost conspiratorial. “I know you’re angry and confused now, but think about it—really think about it—you’re going to make history, twice. You will not only be the first intelligent being from Earth to land on Arcadia, but you’ll be the first successfully digitized human, too.”

“You are monsters,” whispered Nikolai.

“You will get to watch your daughter grow up,” said Anatoly.

Nikolai had no counter to that. He pondered life as a ghost in the machine.

“Why did you lie?” he asked. “Why the ruse? You could have gotten a volunteer. Hell, I might have volunteered if you had laid the options out for me.”

“This truly was the backup option,” said Anatoly. “But also, we’ve had . . . difficulties with this process before. Several previous attempts at maintaining a digital intelligence have failed.”

Nikolai gritted his nonexistent teeth. The emotional rollercoaster ride wasn’t over yet.

“You’re doing fine,” Anatoly added. “I’m only telling you this to explain our actions. All cards on the table this time, I promise.”

“What sort of difficulties?” asked Nikolai.

“The transfer always worked, but the minds couldn’t adjust to the virtual existence. They went mad within days. But they weren’t as good a match as you.”

Nikolai shuddered.

“Through trial and error, we figured out the most efficient approach was to stimulate your senses in a virtual reality environment, and keep the truth from you until your program has stabilized.”

Nikolai stared at Anatoly, who raised his palms.

“I know, it was a long shot and a gamble. We really did run out of time. It was this, or scrap the program. You’re doing great, though.

“We created a believable and challenging simulation for you. Making you work hard to fix things, challenging your mind to remain sharp and active.” Anatoly began to gesture with his hands as he was prone to doing when he got excited about the topic of conversation. “Every anecdote, every little story I told you were carefully selected by our top psychiatrists to steer you toward eventually accepting your new reality.”

“All this, just to land a computer program on Arcadia,” said Nikolai. “Two dozen skip drones already landed there, getting air and water and soil samples. Why would anyone care?”

“It’s not the same. You’re still a person. A rational human being, capable of emotion and thought. A Russian. Your achievement will matter. Sure, there will be a few detractors, the Americans will argue like hell that a digital person doesn’t count, but we’ll sell it to the rest of the world if we have to shove it down their throats.”

“I’m capable of emotion,” said Nikolai. “Right now, that emotion is anger. Right now, I’m contemplating whether I should take part in your publicity stunt at all. Maybe I’ll tell the world about what you people have done to me, instead. Or maybe I’ll say nothing at all, play dead, and leave your glorious first-place finish devoid of meaning. How is that for a rational human being?”

Nikolai cut the connection.

Nikolai struggled to come to terms with what he was. Even now, the virtual reality he inhabited felt real to him. He felt hungry, and tired, and hurt when he tentatively bit his cheek. He was capable of feeling anger toward the government and love toward his daughter. Did the lack of the physical body make him any less human than a handicapped person, a quadriplegic unable to control his limbs?

He was never an ardent patriot, and now he was more disillusioned in his country than ever. But would carrying out his threat gain him anything beyond a fleeting moment of satisfaction?

And if he was to comply, if he was to return to Earth in a few years, would Tamara come to terms with this new him? Would Olga? He had no answers, only an ever-growing list of uncertainties.

To their credit, Anatoly and his superiors gave him an entire day to think things through before reestablishing the connection. Anatoly looked like he hadn’t slept, was buzzed on caffeine, still wearing the same shirt from the day before.

“What we did to you was crap,” he said without preamble, “but I won’t apologize for it. Exceptional deeds aren’t accomplished through kindness. It’s not just Russia, either. All of human history is one tale after another of achieving greatness by ruthlessly building upon a foundation comprised of the bones of the innocent.

“How many slave laborers died to erect the pyramids? The gleaming New York skyscrapers are inseparable from the legacy of smallpox-infested blankets being given to unsuspecting natives. You have already paid the price for humanity’s next great accomplishment. Why refuse to reap the benefits?”

Nikolai closed his eyes and pictured Olga’s face. She might or might not accept the virtual brain-in-a-jar as her father.

He thought of all the doors his success could open for her.

“I’ll do it,” said Nikolai evenly. “You can tone down the rhetoric.”

Anatoly straightened visibly, as though a heavy burden was lifted from his shoulders.

“There are conditions,” said Nikolai.

“What do you need?”

“One, I want to talk to my wife. I want her handling things on that end, from now on, because I don’t quite know how to tell the real from the virtual, and I don’t trust any of you.”

Nikolai held up two fingers. “Two, when I get back you hand the computer or the data bank or whatever my consciousness is stored in over to her, for much the same reason.”

Anatoly nodded. “Done.”

“I still hate the callous, cynical lot of you. But I’ll make the best out of this situation and find solace in the fact that my name will be remembered long after all your gravestones are dust. Speaking of that legacy, we’ll need to work on my speech. Something tells me ‘one small step’ isn’t going to go over well, in my case.”

“We’ll have speechwriters float some ideas,” said Anatoly.

“Finally, have your programmers work on some adjustments to my gilded cage. If I’m to eat make-believe food, making it taste this bad is needlessly cruel. Tonight, I’d like a thick slab of virtual steak, medium-well.”

Nikolai settled in for the long journey. There would be time enough to sort out his feelings, and to learn how to live as this new kind of being. He knew one thing for sure: like his great-grandfather, he would persevere and return home.

Yuri Gagarin, the tiny ship carrying the future hero of humanity, accelerated toward the skip point.

* * *

Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. Over 70 of his short stories have appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, Daily Science Fiction, and many other ‘zines and anthologies. The best of these are collected in Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories. He’s the winner of the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and the editor of Unidentified Funny Objects annual anthology series of humorous SF/F. His fiction is linked at

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