by Carrie Vaughn
Natalia Voronova slammed against the side of the Yak-3’s cockpit, her head and leather cap hitting the canopy. Her ears rang, her vision splotched, but she shook off the pain, blinking through her goggles.
The world outside lurched.
“Nyet!” she yelled and hauled back on the stick. She wasn’t quite in a spin yet; if that happened she’d soon be nothing more than a streak of debris on the ground below. Another Stalingrad casualty.
“Voronova, you hit?” a voice scratched in her radio headset.
Her wingman, Elena Kirova. Natalia was too busy to answer coherently and growled instead. The Yak fought her, drag pulling down even as she worked to get the nose up. And then, she was level, soaring, the engine a healthy rumble instead of a screech. Vibrations traveled under her seat, up through her hands, and she searched for the least hiccup. But the Yak was hers again. She opened the throttle, roared ahead, and looped back to the fight.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she called back to Elena. “Got hit with some debris. Coming around for another run.”
Patrols had spotted the formation of German bombers, and the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment scrambled to intercept. The bombers had a thick escort of Messerschmitts, like a swarm of wasps. The cold, clean air filled with the noise of engines, the buzz of insects writ large.
All was turmoil. The dozen other fighters from her squadron, the dozen German fighters working to draw them away from the bombers. She could dismiss the bombers; that task belonged to another wing. Her job was to occupy the fighters.
Fear was ice in her arms and legs. Fear told her not to move, that if she hid, maybe she would be safe. But it was far too late for that, thousands of feet in the air, closing on the enemy. Ignoring her racing heart, she relied on her training, the memory embedded in her body, and the overwhelming desire to kill German planes.
Natalia scanned for Elena, who had broken from the fight to look after her and now raced along off to her side. The fighters banked and juked to keep out of each other’s sights. She followed the arcs and rolls, trying to predict where each plane might end up next. Shoot not where they were but where they’d be a heartbeat later. And if she were very lucky, one would pass right over her crosshairs, and she’d have the instincts to press the trigger in that same moment, before her mind knew what she was seeing.
This moment happened, a Messer swooping down, right in front of her, lingering for her benefit and offering itself as sacrifice. She fired, the gun bratted out a line of bullets—and she missed. Burning trails flung off into the air, and the German fighter soared on, unscathed. Natalia swore and thumped the side of the cockpit. She had it—
Then the aircraft fell to pieces anyway. Scraps of metal curled and scattered, popped rivets tumbled like confetti. The engine exploded, trailing black smoke, and the Messer turned into a cloud of debris and smoke, containing a glimpse of a tumbling body that may or may not have been flailing, slapping itself in search of a parachute release it couldn’t find.
She was so close she flew through the debris. Scraps of it thudded against her canopy—she ducked reflexively. Her propeller stuttered, cutting through something that fell into it. She opened the throttle, and the engine roared back, stayed strong.
In two seconds of smooth flying, she made a visual check. All her instruments—altitude, pitch and yaw, engine RPMs—all steady. Canopy wasn’t cracked, remained secure. No apparent bullet holes in the fuselage. Wings still in one piece. Except—looking on the right, something was caught on that wing’s leading edge. A scrap of fabric? A round mass, dark gray, incongruous. Surely nothing like a body; she was sure the pilot had tumbled away to whatever fate held for it. She glanced back at the wing, and again expected the wind to take hold and whip the object away. But it stayed. And . . . did it move? Buffeted by the wind, it clung.
And then it slipped over the edge, under the wing, out of sight.
She was seeing things. Or going crazy. She supposed it was inevitable, through all this war, this fighting.
Elena laughed over her radio. “Natalia, you got him!”
“But I didn’t,” she murmured, baffled, looking out at the wing again, waiting for what she had seen to reemerge.
While she had been preoccupied with the disintegrating Messerschmitt and what had fallen away from it and onto her, the air around her had cleared. The forest ahead was blooming with explosions and smoke—the bombers had dropped their payloads early and fled for home, the remaining fighter escort offering cover. A voice on her radio was telling her to break off, they were done, their mission had been successful.
Elena repeated, “Natalia! You scored! Your first kill!”
She was sure she hadn’t hit it. She’d been chasing the fighter, yes, lining up for another go. Then it had just . . . fallen apart. How could she explain what she’d seen? No one would believe her version, because what she saw was unbelievable.
“Let’s go home,” Elena radioed happily. READ MORE
by Ted Kosmatka
Space is to place as eternity is to time. —Joseph Joubert
* * *
The mission went wrong early.
Only nine years out. Past the Kuiper and deep into the Oort.
The tone of the transmissions had changed over time—the complaints small at first, then growing more heated. More personal.
“Doctor Nasmeth hasn’t seen fit to perform equipment checks.”
“Doctor Nasmeth skipped his turn at the air purifiers.”
“Doctor Nasmeth . . .”
For his part, the good doctor brooded but did not complain. Quiet and contemplative, he focused on the mission: a plan to carry three thousand cryogenically suspended blastocysts safely across the black, along with frozen crew. It would take the better part of a century, if all went well, an exploratory expedition to one of three candidate exoplanets and a mission like nothing humanity had ever before attempted.
The two men kept watch. Doctor Nasmeth and Jason Zaya. Sentinels of the long night; they updated the cryo-systems, prepped the saturation engines, and walked like ghosts among the frozen cells.
Back home, a dozen psychologists studied Nasmeth’s every word, every gesture, and none saw the breaking point until it came—revealed in an unplanned communication when on the twenty-sixth of December he took a seat at the comm’s desk, logged onto the transmission channel and spoke casually into the feed. The message was short. Two simple sentences, but they sent a shock wave through mission control and began a series of events that would shake the world and leave thousands dead.
Nasmeth keyed the mic, looked into the camera and whispered, “I’m going to tell you something, because there’s nothing you can do to stop it now. I’m going to kill Jason Zaya.”
* * *
The mission had begun in earnest more than a decade earlier. A thousand candidates tested and discarded—Nasmeth and Zaya the best of the best. Three sigma, whole-spectrum, with specialties off the scale.
The public loved them. Two explorers who’d hold the fate of thousands in their capable hands.
When the rockets lifted skyward, the people of Earth were divided, not by race, or nationality, or ideology. They were divided between those who loved Dr. Nasmeth, the quiet, studious biologist, and those who loved the flamboyant engineering specialist, Jason Zaya. There had been a dozen psychological exams. A dozen tests for temperament, intelligence, and mental stability.
There was one test they’d never thought to conduct. They never asked them if they liked each other.
* * *
The people of Earth followed the crew’s advance across space and time through a series of video transmissions. The faster the ship accelerated, the more attenuated the messages—arriving at first every two weeks, then every three, then five, then eight. All the while, for the astronauts aboard the Novus Initus, the pattern never varied. Their messages were sent like clockwork, and to them, it was the replies that took longer and longer to arrive.
It was as if time itself was attenuating, stretching thin and weak, along with their link to the world they’d left behind.
The fan clubs started in the schools for the most part. The children watched the broadcasts, and the fanbases grew—the two men like ascendant gods, safe to revere. Their mission, a new start for humanity. New territory. A place to do it right.
The kids picked their favorite and followed him closely. Nasmeth or Zaya. Zaya or Nasmeth. As opposite in appearance as personality. Nasmeth stiff and blond as a reed; Zaya brown-haired, wider, with a neck like a bull. A hundred thousand, a million, ten million fans, from Chengdu to Chicago. A whole generation grew up listening to their video talks, these men who didn’t seem to age—transmissions arriving like mini time capsules, growing further and further out of sync.
“The future is about choices,” Zaya said once, smiling into the feed. “You have to be willing to do the hard thing, or you end up erased from history.”
Future historians would take note.
The men gave talks on the saturation engines, the Big Bang, and universal inflation. Nasmeth a biologist. Zaya engineering. Between the two of them, you picked your hero.
* * *
The first hints went public slowly. A comment here, an odd facial expression there, revealed in the slow evolution of the video feeds. Only the most astute caught on. Perhaps the fans knew it first—even before the scientific teams.
“He’s a control freak,” they said of Zaya in a thousand pubs.
“What? Are you kidding? Nasmeth is a slacker.”
“They don’t put slackers in charge of the saturation engines. He’s just following the routines.”
“The routines don’t matter.” READ MORE