“Next Giant Leap” by Patrick Chiles

Vladimir Vaschenko’s first indication that his landing attempt might not have planned for every variable was when the ground beneath him exploded.

Frozen nitrogen tended to do that when it changed phases, which it was doing with gusto under his rocket exhaust. The plume from his descent engines had a long reach; the radar altimeter showed him to be more than a hundred meters above the surface. Liberated by his exhaust heat, brilliant white clouds of violently sublimating nitrogen erupted beneath him and obscured the ground. Spires of what he assumed to be more of the same rose above him; he was threading a path down through a forest of frozen gases. The safer course would have been to boost above the terrain, but that would cost propellant he’d need later—assuming he could find a clearing through this fog.

The indistinct picture from his ground mapping radar, suggesting a corridor between the spires, marginally increased his confidence. Or it could just as easily be noise in the returns. He’d seen it happen before in the fighter aircraft that the radar had been adapted from. Pilots who trusted it too much often ended up dead.

The LK lander’s big window was of little help. Rising clouds of nitrogen and methane stubbornly followed his track. Wherever he pointed his craft, a blinding fog soon appeared. The unease of flying through this strange environment was tempered by the joy of doing it far from the reach of ground controllers nitpicking every decision. The liberties he’d enjoyed during the long journey had already expanded his personal horizons beyond anything in his previous experience—what might his surface exploration bring?

Vaschenko chided himself: First he had to land this rickety thing. He pressed ahead, eyes darting between his window and instruments. That this world had even less gravity than his lander was originally designed for translated to more time in his favor, an advantage which was disappearing by the second as he continued hovering. Indecision took time he didn’t have, and cost him fuel he couldn’t spare.

A broad, dark mass emerged at the end of the corridor on his screen. Better definition suggested less ice, but he needed to get out of here for a clear view of where he was going. Deciding to sacrifice fuel for the safe bet, he tipped the craft forward and goosed the throttle.

With its spindly legs and spheroid upper stage riding atop a column of rocket exhaust, the buglike lander rose out of the mist to trace a parabola above the ice spires. Vaschenko cut back on the throttle and coasted over the top toward what he hoped was solid ground.

At three hundred meters the terrain ahead looked clear, displaying ruddy shades of orange and brown with flecks of white.

At two hundred meters, those flecks resolved into sporadic patches of ice across the surface. He leaned farther into the window, expanding his field of view and hoping to find a large enough clearing free of ice and boulders. After coming all this way, he didn’t think that was asking for much.

One hundred meters. Random clouds of nitrogen mist billowed up as his descent engines blasted away at the scattered ice patches. They dissipated quickly, which told him the ice wasn’t very deep. It was worth the chance. He pulled back the throttle a bit more.

Fifty meters. Descent fuel at twenty percent. Time to commit. There was a shallow depression ahead, smoother than the surrounding terrain, not entirely free of ice but not icy enough to worry about, either. The thought occurred to him that it was quite possibly a frozen pond with a deceptive coating of dust, which he quickly put out of his mind. He’d see soon enough.

“I am passing fifty meters now. Initiating final descent.” His microphone was hot, transmitting everything he said to his comrade orbiting overhead in the Soyuz they’d named Dvina. He’d said almost nothing until now.

Thirty meters, down to seventeen percent. He eyed the abort handle. If the landing site turned out to be unstable, he only had to twist the handle and let the ascent engine boost him back into orbit. After coming this far, he saw that as an unacceptable capitulation. He was no daredevil, but he was no quitter either. This had to work.

At twenty meters, another cloud of nitrogen ice erupted beneath him as he hovered over the shallow depression. Fourteen percent fuel. He held his altitude, letting his landing rockets blast away a clear space. He eased back on the throttle as the whiteout subsided.

Ten meters, then five, and soon wires hanging from beneath each footpad contacted the ground, sounding an alarm in the cockpit. “Contact,” Vaschenko announced sharply as he stabbed the engine cutoff. The LK fell the remaining two meters in slow motion, hitting the frozen ground with a jolt that resonated through the little craft. The map must translate to mass market size and resolution.

“Vehicle is down, upright and stable,” though he could detect a slight list forward that was disorienting in the low gravity. An inclinometer by his shoulder confirmed the ground wasn’t completely level, but it was in tolerance. He wasn’t going anywhere.

A giddy voice crackled in his headset. “It is good to know you are upright, comrade colonel. Otherwise I don’t believe we could find a tow truck out here.”

It was Gregoriy, still watching over him from orbit. “I will take your word for it,” Vaschenko replied, just as giddy. “If you can’t find one, no one can.” It was nonsensical and he knew it, though who could fault him? He’d just become the first cosmonaut to land on another world, coming as far as any human had traveled, in fact as far as any human could reasonably hope to travel.

He couldn’t decide what was more improbable: That their machines had brought him safely to a distant expanse of frozen tundra more forbidding than the Siberian wastes, or that they’d covered the distance in only six months. Blindingly—almost inconceivably—fast, but still not enough for dramatic relativistic effects. When they returned next year, they’d be a few days younger than the people they’d left behind. The long signal delay was disquieting enough.

And liberating. For the first time in his career, he’d had the unchallenged command of an amazing spacecraft. For what could Moscow do to interfere when simple verbal exchanges took hours?

Ah, well. Such thoughts could wait for later. He checked the mission clock. They were on a tight schedule and an even tighter energy budget, thermodynamics being more pitiless than the Kremlin’s worst bureaucrats. His fuel cells could run for days, but his suit batteries could only hold out for so long when ambient temperatures flirted with absolute zero.

“Ambient” temperature . . . that was amusing. Who’d have thought there would be enough atmosphere for it to be a concern? Even this world’s exceedingly thin envelope of gases conducted away enough heat that it threatened to drain batteries and freeze fragile components solid, yet he still needed the alcohol vaporizing system to draw excess heat away from sensitive electronics.

He made his way through the post-landing checklist with swift efficiency, speaking with Gregoriy up in Dvina only when necessary. “Vehicle is secure, ready for surface operations.” He finished his report and took a deep, cleansing breath. The upcoming rest period would be his only break for several hours.

* * *

Rest, such as it was, came fitfully. The lander’s cabin heaters combined with the warmth radiating from its electronics to keep the killing cold at bay, though he could still feel its malign presence through the cabin’s outboard panels. The lander’s slight incline had kept him tucked up against a pressure bulkhead as he tried to sleep, just enough for the cold to wake him whenever he touched it. He ended up curled into a fetal position inside of his sleeping bag.

Vaschenko stretched as best he could in the cramped cabin. A thin layer of frost coated the forward porthole, there being just enough atmosphere outside to cause problems. He turned and stuck his head into the extravehicular suit port. For this harsh environment, the hard-shell surface excursion suit had been mounted outside as an extension to the cabin. Its backpack life support unit formed a small, rectangular hatch that he would climb through into the suit.

At least that was how it was supposed to work. With the suit now hanging lopsided at a shallow angle he clumsily fell into it, banging a leg against its internal control box along the way. Cursing, he snugged his feet into rubberized insulating socks and tested them against the hard boots. He bounced a few times until he was satisfied his feet wouldn’t slip around too much, ignoring the throbbing pain in his shin.

He was more concerned about having possibly damaged the controls mounted just in front of his chest. He hurriedly inspected the box and its settings, checking for damage or misconfigured switches before snapping on its internal power. The suit’s rebreathers came to life, filling his metallic cocoon with a dull whine as he reached into the LK to pull its outer hatch closed. Warm air hissed through vents around his waist and shoulders as he eyed gauges mounted just below the rim of his bubble visor. Satisfied he wasn’t about to freeze or suffocate, Vaschenko called to his comrade in orbit. “Suit is on internal power, air cycling is nominal. Preparing to close.”

“Very good, Comrade Colonel. Don’t forget your snowshoes.”

“I thought you packed them?” Vaschenko smiled to himself as the pilot answered with a simple double-click of his mic switch. Gregoriy would have sold his own children to gypsies for the chance to do this, especially after the EVA their crewmate Alexi had enjoyed during the long journey here. He would make certain to arrange a similar jaunt outside for his mission pilot on the return leg of their grand tour.

Satisfied with his suit’s function, he reached back once more to close its internal hatch. As he locked down the seal directly behind him, it disengaged him from the LK on the other side. He hung loosely against the portal now, his feet resting on the lander’s porch.

“Suit port is closed and free,” he said. “Preparing to disengage.”

The suit itself was a bulbous shell that looked as if it could have been scavenged from a movie set. He slipped his arms through rotary joints at the shoulders and elbows, then settled his hands into roughly articulated gloves at the ends of each sleeve. He flexed his arms and swung them through their range of motion, which was remarkably good for being a pressurized suit of armor.

He braced against the railing to take a step forward, just as he’d practiced hundreds of times in Star City’s simulator bay. The backpack slid out of its suit port more smoothly than in practice, a nice surprise which he attributed to the low gravity. He was careful not to put too much force into his movements lest momentum overtake him—this world might have offered only a fraction of Earth’s gravity, but that didn’t change the suit’s considerable mass.

The porch offered just enough room to position himself at the top of the ladder. It looked impossibly shaky, its angles changing as it folded over one of the LK’s insectoid legs. Shallow, then steep. He’d practiced it so many times that he could just about do it blindfolded.

“I’m on the ladder,” he reported. “Ready to descend.”

There was a burst of static followed by a new voice. “Understood, Comrade Colonel.” It was Alexi in the control block aboard their mothership Arkangel. Gregoriy’s Soyuz and its radios were now below the horizon and beyond his line of sight.

“Heading down now.”

The rungs were far apart, too much for a normal human, but perfectly spaced for a man in a hard suit. He made quick work of it, having learned from his many ground simulations that this was probably the riskiest phase of his EVA short of stumbling into some undetectable subsurface geyser. He let himself fall the final meter in slow motion and came to a stop atop the leg’s footpad. “I am at the base of the ladder.”

Alexi’s voice crackled in his ear, the radio static emphasizing his distance despite being almost directly overhead now. “And how is the view down there, comrade?”

Of the many challenges he faced on this expedition, visibility was not one of them. The bubble visor gave him a wide field of view while the lander’s floodlights made up for the distant sun. Vaschenko shook off the gnawing sense of isolation as he considered a suitable answer. For the moment he only cared about what might be directly beneath his feet. He drew a breath, knowing he was being recorded and determined to not sound the slightest bit shaky. “The surrounding area consists of hard, rocky soil with what appears to be a number of fresh divots. I suspect they held subsurface ice which my landing rockets evaporated. I can see more nearby, outside of the blast zone.” He paused. “Much of the surface has a clear glaze of ice . . . perhaps water ice, atop the nitrogen?” He had trouble believing his own assessment—finding water would be stunning, were he correct. “I also see veins of blue and green within the ice, which would indicate methane.”

“Thank you, Comrade Colonel. What is your suit’s skin temperature?”

Vaschenko knew what Alexi was getting at. He checked another gauge by his control box. “Minus one hundred twenty, not enough for anything to violently sublimate.”

The younger cosmonaut laughed. “More than cold enough to chill a bottle of Stoli, though.”

Vaschenko laughed with him. A good stiff drink would have been welcome at the end of all this. He took another deep, expectant breath. The time had come. “I am stepping off of the footpad now.”

With one hand still on the ladder, he cautiously poked at the crust with his left toe. Any loose material had been blasted away during his landing and what remained was almost as solid as rock. He pressed his foot into the regolith and withdrew it, studying the small impression it left behind. It was like stamping forms into dry ice. He released his grip on the ladder, stepped out with both feet, and exhaled. He held out his arms and turned in a circle to test his footing. He was actually here, standing free.

He cleared his throat before making the announcement their mission managers had waited so long for: “Standing on the shoulders of our comrades before us, I make this great leap forward on behalf of the people of the Soviet Union.”

There. He finally said it. The words had been carefully scripted by committee, approved by the Politburo, and drilled into him with a final demonstration for the mission political officer prior to their launch from Baikonur. He imagined the self-satisfied grin on that officious buffoon’s face when his words were received in a few hours.

Vaschenko hoped they would mean something to his countrymen. After being rehearsed so many times, they meant nothing to him. An empty sentiment, and a small price to pay for being able to command such a bold mission. He’d made worse compromises over his career.

“Congratulations, Comrade Colonel! It is a privilege to be the first human to hear you announce this glorious achievement.” The high-frequency static couldn’t hide the giddiness in Alexi’s voice. Even if his reply hadn’t been as well-rehearsed, he still answered in the manner expected. “I will relay the TsUP’s response as soon as we receive it here.”

“Thank you, Alexi.”

He wondered when his countrymen would be allowed to know they were here, as their mission had been a tightly guarded secret from its inception. Signal delays at least followed clear physical laws which made them predictable. Political delays were another matter, only having to follow whatever passed for laws or logic in the head of the decision maker.

As Earth grew ever more distant, the light delay had quickly tested ground control’s limits. The mission managers had tried to compensate by making the daily activity plans even more painstaking than usual—and he’d already been accustomed to overly ambitious plans in his days aboard Mir—which Vaschenko and his crewmates had eventually ignored. They’d made a dutiful effort to comply at first, but Arkangel was simply too complicated. The operational concept of a nuclear pulse drive was straightforward enough, but the execution had been another matter entirely: It was a lot of mass, propelled a frighteningly long way, at unheard-of velocities, whose critical systems had never functioned under varying levels of acceleration for such long periods.

It was perhaps fortunate that they had been forced to keep so much of it simple—aping the Americans’ tendency to overcomplicate designs and incorporate every wish-list item from every manager who touched the project would have left them crippled in orbit before detonating the first propellant slug. The combination of complexity and extreme distance had made them more self-reliant—and therefore freer—than anyone envisioned. Their mass and velocity had meant that even an immediate return order would have taken months to comply with.

Vaschenko trundled over to the equipment bay, now covered in the same frost that coated the rest of the descent stage. He scraped at it with the hard edge of his glove until he could get a hand around its latch. After some effort, he could feel the ice crumbling around its mechanism and the lever reluctantly gave way. He still had to pry the access panel free, working the hardened tips of his gloves through the crust of ice and around the lip. Once open, he reached in to remove a long-handled scoop and sample bag from their mounts. He turned and scraped at a patch of mostly loose soil, scooped up as much as the bag could hold, and clipped it to a cable on his waist. “Contingency sample secure,” he said, which Alexi acknowledged with two rapid clicks of his microphone. If something happened and he had to make an emergency return to orbit, he would not leave empty handed.

Vaschenko returned to the equipment bay for the next item on his list, removing a tripod and telescoping pole with a roll of fabric mounted at one end. He trudged away from the lander, eyes down, watching each step until he appeared to be out of the blast zone.

Satisfied he was in the clear, he set the pole onto the ice. Not surprisingly, it barely penetrated the surface. He lifted a small mallet from his utility belt and began hammering away at the top of the pole until it could stand upright, then unfolded the tripod around its base. Every otherwise mundane task in spaceflight had to be thought through and engineered, and this was no different. Whoever had been responsible for the flagpole had anticipated that it might not be able to stand on its own.

Vaschenko paused to look up from his work for the first time, turning to take in the full scope of his surroundings. Working around the lander with his back to the horizon almost this entire time, he’d stayed focused on the patch of ground around the little spacecraft which had served him so well, its familiarity shielding him from the dread of being utterly alone on such a forbidding world. If the word “alien” had any meaning at all, then it must surely apply here.

Stark white ice floes with variegated shades of blue and green stretched to the horizon, which itself appeared dizzyingly close. Random wisps of gas curling up from cracks in the surface implied some source of internal heat, while jumbles of nitrogen icebergs were clustered around a frozen shoreline perhaps a half-kilometer distant. Its crust was pockmarked in an odd, pebbled texture which he would investigate if his suit batteries held up long enough. Behind the lander, the white spires he’d had to negotiate during his approach stood tall, like sails on the sea.

He drew an arm back inside and turned down his suit radio. Mission rules required that he keep it in voice-activated mode throughout surface operations, but they hadn’t said anything about volume control. One didn’t rise to the level of colonel without learning precisely how and when to break the rules.

The silence became a sound unto itself, as eerily chilling as the icebound landscape. He could hear the frozen ground’s muffled crunch beneath his hardened, heavily insulated boots. The dull whine of air exchangers rose and fell with each breath, their background noise punctuated by the sharp pops and groans of his suit’s outer shell as it withstood the menacing cold. He was the only human on this world, one of only three to have traveled this deep into the Solar System—and no one outside of his crew, his mission control team, and the innermost circle of the Politburo knew about it. He hadn’t thought it possible to make a man feel any more isolated from the rest of humanity than he was right now, but they had found a way. Of course they had.

What would his wife and children think, once they eventually learned of his adventure? Would they rejoice in his achievement, or would it be just one more in an already too-long string of absences? All they knew was that he was on another long-duration mission classified “Most Secret” with all communications home restricted to recorded messages. Trust the KGB to take full advantage of the signal delay to keep the cosmonaut families in the dark.

As he contemplated this strange landscape, he was taken with an even stranger notion: What if he just started walking, away from the safety of his landing site and the control of others? Nothing but his own inhibition could stop him. What if he simply kept going until his batteries ran out or his carbon dioxide filter became saturated? Was there freedom in abandonment? Or was death the ultimate liberation, as the long-suffering Orthodox priests of his youth had once tried to convince him? He pushed those thoughts from his mind before the crush of loneliness threatened to paralyze him, just as he always had. Only the scenery had changed.

How to describe this place without sounding like a starstruck child? Fortunately no one was expecting flowery, poetic language from him. He was expected to record what he observed, and that’s what he would do. He turned the volume knob back up and was rewarded with the comforting hiss of a two-way connection again.

He unfolded one last section of tubing at the top of the flagpole. As it locked into place at a ninety-degree angle, a garish red banner bearing an embroidered golden hammer and sickle unfurled beneath it. His next words had been rehearsed just as many times as had his first announcement from the surface:

“I now plant the flag of our great people and hereby claim this planet, Pluto, for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

* * *

Vaschenko sensed something had changed the moment he and Gregoriy returned to Arkangel. Alexi waited for them at the docking tunnel, his forced smile hinting at something else behind the sentiment. The flight engineer had been unusually clipped and businesslike during their return, forgoing the levity that normally peppered their exchanges.

He traded looks with Gregoriy. “Not a warm welcome home I think, Alexi Mikhailovich.”

“My apologies, Comrade Colonel. I am not very good at hiding things, I’m afraid.”

“You’d have made a terrible GRU officer,” he agreed, “which is one reason I wanted you on my crew.”

The younger man’s eyes lit up at the compliment. He handed his commander a strip of paper from their thermal printer. “New orders from Moscow,” he explained.

Vaschenko studied the text. “This time stamp is five hours ago. They will be expecting my acknowledgment.”

Alexi looked uncomfortable. “I reminded them that you were presently occupied with returning to Arkangel, and that I would relay their orders immediately upon your return.”

Vaschenko frowned, then handed the printout to Gregoriy. The pilot read it with disbelief.

“They do realize how long a direct return will take?”

“The emergency plan is six months,” Vaschenko said. “Less time than with our scheduled Neptune and Uranus flybys, but it will require all of our reserve propellant.”

“I don’t understand, Comrade Colonel. What good can we do?”

“We don’t have to understand anything,” he said, more coldly than he felt. “We only have to follow orders. Acknowledge my receipt.”

* * *

That had been the answer a commander would be expected to give. The reality of their situation had been more complicated—and troubling—as Moscow’s subsequent orders had become even more heavy-handed: jettison all empty supply modules and unnecessary payload. Return immediately. Every day counted, therefore every gram of excess mass had to be shed, including everything he’d brought up from the surface.

Given their situation, were they compelled to follow orders? A year ago, he’d have done precisely as told. Now, given all that was happening on Earth, they’d still expected him to simply click his heels, salute, and carry on? It would have been laughable were the consequences not so grave, yet Gregoriy’s earlier question continued to haunt him: What good could we do?

It depended on one’s notion of “good,” which had become more elastic than he’d thought possible. He laughed darkly: one more assumption about himself this mission had irrevocably changed.

On the surface, each step he took away from the lander put him in more danger: hidden nitrogen pockets and crevasses, ice geysers and ruthless cold, all waiting for him to make a single mistake. How long would he have had if a battery failed, a heater burned out, or a seal succumbed to the cold? How far could he have walked before he was frozen in place?

The farther he’d ventured, the less he’d cared. Death would have been on his terms, as he’d known the risks, but had chosen to step out onto that alien tundra anyway. The many dangers had focused him on the present in a way he’d only occasionally experienced as a cosmonaut—that old pilot’s adage about hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. It had been the first time in his life that he’d truly lived in the moment, free of the micromanagement that had defined his earlier missions. Being alone on Pluto’s surface had been his first taste of real freedom.

Alone again now aboard Arkangel, he felt like a prisoner aboard his own spacecraft. His crewmates had been gone for months, abandoning him at the edge of the Solar System. Even if Moscow could have forgiven mutiny, even if he ignited the pulse drive and aimed for home, he’d waited too long: life support would run out well before he arrived at Earth. Alexi and Gregoriy had long since used up their own, their silent frequency confirming his calculations.

He stared at the words in his journal, from happier times with his crew:

It is good to be back aboard with my comrades after being in such a desperately cold, forbidding place. It feels warm and inviting here now in a way that a spacecraft never has. If it had a fireplace, the feeling would be complete!

Pluto was utterly unlike anything I expected, beyond anything else in a Solar System already filled with unlikely worlds. I call it “forbidding” deliberately, as “frightening” would be too harsh though others may disagree. It was certainly disquieting, as though I had stepped into a realm not meant for men. It was as if I had disturbed something precious and absconded with riches beyond measure.

There is much to learn from here, and we have been ordered to abandon it all. For what purpose?

A question that he’d long ago learned to suppress now dominated his thoughts: What if humans were uniquely created with a purpose? Did that not argue for the primacy of individual liberty over the collective? He’d certainly felt like a better commander as Moscow’s grip on them grew more tenuous with distance. Was that just his pride? If there was a difference, did it matter?

Yet even at the end, in a state of solitude beyond human experience, he could still feel the firm hand of Moscow tugging at his leash. It was a grip that would only be released in his death.

Was that where ultimate freedom lay?

He would soon find out.

Vaschenko closed his journal for the last time and secured it by his bunk. Perhaps one day someone would find it and the world could learn the truth of what they did here.

He pushed away and sailed forward, out of the crew quarters and into the command deck, settling into the docking tunnel. The air had become noticeably stale of late. He didn’t bother consulting the environmental panel: The headache he’d been carrying since yesterday told him the CO2 scrubbers would soon fail.

It was time. He reached for the tunnel’s purge valve, closed his eyes, and waited for the darkness to become all-consuming.

Copyright © 2019 Patrick Chiles

This story is set in the world of January 2020 hard science fiction novel Frozen Orbit, by Patrick Chiles. Patrick Chiles has been fascinated by rockets and spaceflight ever since he watched the Apollo missions as a kid in South Carolina. How he ended up as an English major in college is still a mystery, though he eventually overcame this self-inflicted handicap to pursue a career in aviation. He is a graduate of The Citadel, a Marine Corps veteran, and a licensed pilot. He currently resides in Tennessee with his wife and sons, two lethargic dachshunds, and a bovine cat.