by Ryan Napier
I was the unhappiest man in space.
I had done six missions to the space station. Each mission lasted six months. Six months on the Vlast, six months on earth—that was my life. To the station, to earth, to the station again.
On the Vlast, I slept in a sleeping bag strapped to the wall, and I watched the planet turn beneath me, over and over. We orbited the earth sixteen times every twenty-four hours. Every day I saw sixteen sunrises and sixteen sunsets.
I had become a cosmonaut because I cared about progress. I wanted to push humanity forward. I wanted us to take up our life among the stars.
Sometimes I imagined going on a spacewalk, cutting my own tether, and floating off toward Mars.
I complained to others in the Agency. I told them we should have ambition. We should remember the Fifties and the Sixties, when we beat the Americans into space. We should remember Laika and Gagarin. We should explore.
“We can’t,” said the Agency. “It would take nine months to get to Mars, and another nine months to come back. We don’t know if the human body can survive that much time in space.”
“Then test it,” I said.
I proposed a new mission. I would stay in space. For a whole year, I would not leave the Vlast.
The Agency didn’t like it. Too risky. Too much time in low-gravity. My muscles might atrophy. My skeleton might deteriorate. My mind might fall apart.
My mission wasn’t approved.
For seventy years, we had made progress. We had the revolution, we ended economic exploitation, we beat fascism, and we put the first man in space. And now it was going to end. We were going to circle the earth, sixteen times a day.
And then I got the call. Someone in the government wanted to speak to me, face-to-face. A secretary gave me instructions. “Come immediately,” she said.
I flew to Sevastopol. A man met me at the airport. We drove for an hour, first through the forest, and then toward the beach. In the distance was a resort, and beyond it, the Black Sea.
We came to a large house—five stories, long balconies, bright yellow stone. It was the country house of some big party official, I was sure. My driver brought me into the sitting room, and there he was.
It was the general secretary himself.
He invited me to go for a walk. I told him it would be the greatest honor of my life.
We walked along the beach, and the wind blew from the sea. The general secretary said he had heard about my mission. “You want to live in space, to see if you can endure it?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Just like Laika,” he said to himself. “Are you old enough to remember Laika?”
“Oh, sir, of course!” I said.
Laika was a dog—the first creature in space. They didn’t know if a human would survive in zero gravity, so they sent a dog.
“Laika was good,” said the first secretary. “She gave people hope.”
“She gave me hope, sir. I cut her picture out of the newspaper and tacked it above my bed. It was the picture of her in flight harness and her red scarf. Every night of her flight, I had stared up at the sky, deciding which light was her.”
The general secretary smiled. “We need a Laika for today. People wonder whether we will endure—whether socialism will last. People need hope today.”
“Unfortunately, sir, the mission wasn’t approved.”
I stopped and shook his hand with both of mine.
“I approve,” he said. “But you must understand the stakes. The people will count on you. The future counts on you. You can endure, or you can sacrifice. You cannot quit.”
He didn’t need to tell me. I understood how progress worked.
The general secretary told me I was brave. He was wrong, of course. I was terrified. I didn’t want to lose my muscles or my bones or my mind. But I knew I had to risk it. That was what it meant to be a hero.
My father had fought the Germans. He had risked it—and lost his right eye. Lenin had fought the exploiters—and worked himself to death. Even Laika—a few days after the launch, she died. She ran out of oxygen.
I had loved her, and for a long time, I was angry that she had died. But I came to understand. A hero sacrifices. A hero isn’t afraid of losing his own little life. A hero knows that he is simply a hand, pushing humanity into the future, toward the stars.
The general secretary and I walked back to the house. A photographer took a picture of us—the general secretary with his famous red birthmark, me with my red scarf.
For the next few weeks, I was the most famous man in the world. I visited schools and factories. I spoke to journalists from Europe and China and America. I even gave a speech at the Twenty-Eighth Party Congress. I told the delegates about heroism and progress, and everyone stood and clapped.
Finally, it was time for the launch. I woke up early and watched the sun rise. It was a hot day, and the sun looked very red. This was Kazakh steppe, desert steppe, and the sand simmered. It was all very uncomfortable, but I tried to savor it. It was my last bit of sun and heat for a long time—perhaps forever.
I had never seen the launch site so crowded. There were press, workers, children—even the general secretary himself. I waved to them, but I said nothing. No words were needed now.
The other cosmonauts and I boarded the ship and began our preparations. Outside the ship, music blared. I had chosen it myself. It was the great music of human progress—Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The music played in our headsets too. The countdown began. The strings sang. The chorus thundered. “Be embraced, you millions!” they said. “Seek your hope beyond the stars!” They sang in German, of course, but even that was beautiful. The drums crashed, and the ship’s engines echoed them. Everything moved in unison and sang of joy.
The first six months were easy. The Vlast went around the earth sixteen times a day. But now I didn’t feel hopeless. I had a purpose. I was going around and around, but I was also going forward.
Every day, I measured myself—my pulse, my breathing, my strength, my urine and bowel movements. I ran on the treadmill and recorded my time and speed. I wrote my dreams and thoughts in a little notebook. I asked the other two cosmonauts to read it every day. I told them to watch for signs of mental deterioration.
After six months, a new ship arrived. Two cosmonauts left, and three new ones came. One of them was Bulgarian. It was part of a new program: we were demonstrating that friendship between socialist countries rises even to the stars.
Another five months passed. I only had a few symptoms. Without gravity, blood stays longer in the brain. My head was puffy, and my legs were thin like a bird. My strength and my pulse had decreased. I couldn’t smell it, but the others complained of my odor.
But I was still very healthy.
I was due to return to earth in a month. And then the call came.
The Agency called us on the radio. The station was over the western hemisphere, and I watched America turn beneath me.
The Agency told me that they had received new orders from the general secretary himself. My mission had been extended. They needed me to spend another year in space.
I was very happy.
A new crew came to the Vlast. Two new Soviets and a Cuban. After six months, they left, and were replaced by two Soviets and a North Korean.
The second year was harder. My muscles got weaker. Five minutes on the treadmill nearly killed me. I was a jellyfish.
By the end of the year, my hands were barely strong enough to hold a pen. Instead of writing in my notebook, I whispered my measurements and my dreams into a tape recorder.
But my mind remained. I played my tapes for the other cosmonauts, and they agreed: my mind remained.
I was still sane, but I did change. I started to think differently about the earth. I no longer cared about some of our tasks—observing weather patterns on the planet, tracking large forest fires. I tried to listen to the news reports, but I could no longer pay attention to them. I didn’t listen to my tapes either. Even Beethoven seemed small and stupid now.
I listened to nothing. I was quiet. And in that quiet I discovered something—the silent sound of the turning earth.
If you listen closely, the planet sings. It sings the same song, over and over. It repeats, but somehow it never finishes. The song is a hum, but it contains everything—all of our past, all of our immense future, the final peace and justice that we will achieve.
I learned the song well.
That song sustained me. It preserved me for months and months. But then came August.
I was strapped into my sleeping bag. The North Korean cosmonaut woke me up. He told me to come to the other module. The Agency wanted to speak to us.
We floated through the narrow tubes and came into the center module. The other two cosmonauts were already there. The Vlast was over the Pacific, and the earth looked like a planet of water.
The Agency crackled through the radio. “We are monitoring the crisis,” they said. “No matter who is in charge, we are committed to your safety.”
I looked at the faces of the others. “What crisis?” I said.
The others stared. I told them I didn’t listen to the news.
“There was a coup,” they told me. A group of generals had captured the general secretary. They were holding him in his country house.
That fine yellow house by the sea.
“But why?” I asked. They looked at me. I felt like a child. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t understand. Tell me.”
“The union is breaking up.”
“The union? Our Union? The Soviet Union?”
And then they told me what had happened since I stopped listening to the news. The shortages. The uprisings. The riots. The declarations. The collapse.
I returned to my sleeping bag. The earth continued to turn. The Vlast passed over the Pacific and Asia, Siberia and the Urals, Moscow and Leningrad, Crimea and the Dnieper.
It all looked just the same as before.
I knew then that I had gone insane. I must be insane. It was insane to believe that the Soviet Union could simply collapse, that humanity would turn its back on progress.
I shut my eyes. I hoped that when I woke, the psychosis would pass.
It was all wrong. I was supposed to die, not the country.
The next day, my delusion continued. I still heard the others talking about the coup and the break-up.
I whispered my hallucinations into the tape recorder. My mind was failing, but I could still be useful to science.
I started listening to the radio again. We could receive foreign stations from the Vlast. They were all talking about the coup.
The delusion ran deep. My mind was manufacturing whole radio broadcasts.
Had I gone so insane so quickly? A few days ago, I was normal, and now my brain really creating an entire alternate reality. It couldn’t be.
I started to believe that the union really was collapsing. But that couldn’t be either.
Both options were impossible.
Finally, of course, it didn’t matter. Either I was crazy or the world was. Either way, my response had to be the same.
If my mind had created an illusion, then I had to resist it. I had to avoid giving in.
If the Soviet Union really had collapsed, then I also had to resist it. If everyone else had given up on progress, then I had to work for it even more. To accept that selfishness had defeated human progress and heroism was its own insanity.
The radio continued to talk. The coup was over, it said. The general secretary left his country home, but resigned as head of the party.
The union was over, it said. I was now a citizen of the Russian Federation.
In celebration, the radio played the Ninth Symphony. Even Beethoven had betrayed human progress.
We continued to circle the earth.
At the end of September, the Agency called again. We all floated to the central module.
The situation had changed, said the Agency. The new economy was crashing. The Soviet Union could support a space station, but the Russian Federation could not. The Vlast mission was over. They would send a ship to retrieve us next month.
I tried to resist. I strapped myself into my sleeping bag. I threw weak punches, and kicked with my bird legs. I bit the North Korean’s hand.
It didn’t matter. They took me from the Vlast.
We landed again in the Kazakh steppe. We were on the earth, in Kazakhstan—a strange new Kazakhstan, a Kazakhstan that was no longer part of the Soviet Union, because there was no Soviet Union.
My limbs didn’t work. Someone carried me out of the ship and into the world. There was a big crowd, and they all clapped and cheered. I felt the heat of the Kazakh sun, the sudden speed of my blood, and the weight of gravity.
“You’re a hero,” shouted someone. “The man who lived in space!”
I could feel myself being lowered. For the first time in almost two years, my feet touched ground. I was turning with the planet again.
And then it started. Some cruel person turned on the music. It was the Ninth Symphony—the stupid singing, the crashing drums, the idiot strings.
What was there to celebrate? What joy was left?
I closed my eyes, and I felt a shock of hope.
Gravity pressed on my muscles and my bones, and Beethoven battered my soul. The crowd cheered, and the symphony sang out its false joy. But there was another music—the greater silent song. And I remembered it.
I was happy. A terrible time was coming—a time of selfishness and greed, a time of reaction. But I would endure it. I was Laika on earth.