Chapter 2

Kharkiv, Ukraine, 25 kilometers west of the Russian border

The deep, basso-profundo booms had grown fainter now. They were no longer loud enough to shake the windows, although Alexei could still feel their vibrations through the ground. It reminded him of the summer thunderstorms he remembered as a child growing up in a village on the Russian steppe. Under different circumstances, they might even be soothing.

The larger guns must be moving away, Alexei thought to himself. But there were other noises, too: loud, sharp snaps that sounded like the staccato song of firecrackers. Those were more sporadic, but he took no comfort in that. On the contrary, he much preferred the cosmic indifference of the artillery shells to the cruel, hard expressions of the security forces, rifles slung casually around their backs, Winston cigarettes dangling with practiced insouciance from their lips as they sauntered through the ruined streets. 

And the laughter. Alexei repressed a shudder. It was so much worse when they laughed. The thought that anything human could enjoy such horror. 

He risked a brief look through the shattered window, careful to keep his head as low as possible. The apartment building he’d holed up in must have been more than half a century old, all cement construction and Soviet-era Brutalist architecture. The better to protect him from the bullets, he supposed. The street below was empty except for a stray dog trotting cautiously through the rubble and abandoned cars. 

Alexei knew the tableau was deceptive. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of people on the street, huddled like him behind whatever shelter they could find. He’d only seen a handful of people since the fighting began: gaunt, sallow-faced Ukrainians with a desperate, hungry look in their eyes. Everything, the people, the buildings, the landscape, the sky, looked as if the color had been drained, leaving only ashen shapes behind. 

He turned his back to the outer wall and let his body slide to the floor. He wondered what he looked like now, after two weeks. He’d been using a shard of broken mirror to shave, and the man who stared back at him looked like a stranger. His blond hair plastered to his scalp with sweat and grime in a limp, uncombed tangle. His cheeks, once rosy and plump, had caved in, leaving gaunt lines behind. And his eyes, which once flashed a bright, curious blue, now looked back at him over darkened circles. He stopped shaving shortly thereafter. Maybe because shaving seemed like a vain extravagance under the circumstances. Or maybe because he couldn’t bear to see himself in the mirror anymore. 

He pulled a box of Gauloises cigarettes from the front pocket of his muddy jeans and lit one. A few weeks ago, he’d thought making it out of Russia was going to be the hard part. After that, everything was supposed to be smooth sailing. He chuckled ruefully to himself. Gládko bílo na boomágye, da zabíli pro ovrági, his mother used to say. It was smooth on paper, but we forgot about the ravines

Inside the cigarette pack was the thumb drive. Alexei pulled it out carefully with his thumb and forefinger, as if it were a delicate piece of glass that might shatter at any moment, making all his sacrifices meaningless. 

Now that would be a laugh, he thought to himself as he examined the drive. All this, for such a tiny bit of data

The sound of gunfire interrupted his thoughts, and he quickly replaced the drive in the cigarette pack and stuffed it back in pants. The gunfire was distant still, but coming closer. He could hear male voices shouting orders in Ukranian in the distance. Alexei felt his body tense. This could be his chance. 

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He wasn’t a spy, wasn’t a traitor, and certainly wasn’t a soldier. While his friends had left the village when they turned eighteen for their compulsory service year, Alexei had been studying satellite imagery and mass spectrometry graphs. The other boys had laughed at the models he built in his room: the Soyuz capsule, the Mir space station, the Venera probes. He in turn had laughed at their braggadocio, the self-serious way they carried themselves, the military posture they had adopted after only a few months of basic training, all their ridiculous talk about weapons and tactics and stratagems they would never use.

Mother Russia likes nothing so much as irony, he thought grimly. He’d likely seen more combat now than any of those boys from his village ever had. No doubt they’d be surprised to see him alive after the last few weeks, though no one could be more surprised than Alexei himself. 

Lomonosov Moscow State University trained astronomers, after all, not fighters. Alexei had been happy there, the most exciting moments of his life consisting of new data sets transmitted from Venusian probes, 40 million kilometers away. For Alexei, there could be no greater thrill, no bigger adventure. To be the first human being to lay eyes on an image from another world, to be sitting in front of the screen as it appeared, pixel by pixel, through the vast interplanetary expanse. No Spanish conquistador setting foot on an unknown continent ever felt the same rush Alexei did when seeing those grainy, black-and-white images for the first time. 

Getting the Morningstar mission approved had been the crowning achievement of his career, the culmination of a childhood dream. Russia would be going back to Venus for the first time since the Vega 2 mission, before Alexei had even been born. And the boy from the steppe, who’d been deemed unfit for military service, who’d built model spacecraft in his room by day and dreamed of going to the stars at night, would be the one to lead them there. 

It had taken two years of planning and proposal writing. Another three to design and build the probe once the mission had been approved. More emails and phone conversations than he cared to remember, arguments over mission priorities, which instruments to include and which had to be cut. Every argument had exhausted him, every compromise on mission hardware and cost felt like a stab in the heart. Then the months and years of waiting for a launch window, the hopes that rose and fell after every scrubbed launch, and the crushing fear of a catastrophic launch failure, that one-in-fifteen chance that all those years of struggle and sacrifice would come crashing to the ground in a heap of flaming wreckage.  

But none of that had happened. Against the odds, they’d been funded and approved. The launch had been textbook, although Alexei had still held his breath from liftoff to final booster separation. Over the next several months, his heart would stop every time a course correction was needed or a communication glitch occurred. Every time he couldn’t help but think: this is it. This is where my dream dies. 

But somehow, somehow, Morningstar had survived the 40 million kilometer voyage, slid effortlessly into Venus orbit, and began transmitting. After almost a decade of work, the cheers that erupted inside the control room were deafening. Vasilov, the mission control commander, had even broken out a bottle of 25-year-old Bowmore for the team, despite protests from the patriots who objected to drinking anything other than vodka after such a historic day for Russian science.  

Of course, nothing could have prepared them for the data that came back. None of them could make heads or tails of it at first, until they spoke to the geologists who had worked on the Mars lander missions with the Americans. Even then, they’d managed to keep their excitement in check. The data was suggestive, but far from conclusive. It wasn’t until the X-ray spectroscopy data came in that some team members started talking about a possible Nobel. Even Vasilov, normally so cautious, had allowed his excitement to get the better of him, wrapping his huge Cossack arm around Alexei in an affectionate headlock.

“Wait until the Americans see this!” he’d crowed, his broad grin peeking out from behind his dark beard. He kissed Alexei forcefully on the cheek. “Your name will be remembered next to Gagarin after this!”

And then there was the Anomaly. 

At first Alexei had thought they they’d been the victims of an elaborate prank, that somehow someone had hacked into their systems and planted fake data. But the technicians had confirmed and reconfirmed the transmission signal: the data were real, and the signal was coming from Venus. So they retasked Morningstar to look at the Anomaly again. And again. And again. Seventeen different orbits. Seventeen identical images. 

That was when the emails started flying back and forth through the lab. Alexei couldn’t be sure when the surveillance started, but once the team started talking about the Anomaly, it was clear someone was listening to their network traffic. 

They had tried to keep the discovery as closely guarded as possible. Everyone had been certain there’d been some mistake, that they were making some basic, embarrassing error in imaging that would become blindingly obvious soon. No one wanted the press getting hold of a sensational headline that would undoubtedly prove false and humiliate the entire mission. Even so, they’d thought they were free to share their ideas, no matter how outlandish, amongst themselves. Surely, no one cared what a bunch of planetary scientists talked about over their internal network. 

Alexei shook his head. How naive they’d been. And how foolish. The first threats were so veiled he hadn’t even understood what they were saying. Government officials talking about funding being revoked, the project being shut down, disciplinary procedures for misappropriation of funds, criminal prosecution. Alexei had tried to placate them with assurances that Morningstar had found something that would make the whole world take notice of Russian science once again. In retrospect, he’d handed them the rope to hang him with. 

The threats didn’t stay veiled for long. Soon, it wasn’t university administrators and government bureaucrats threatening them with censure and prosecution. Large men in black suits with blank expressions came to the lab to tell them their families were at risk. Some of the team told Alexei they were being followed on their way home from work, or that they’d seen cars with government plates parked across the street from their homes. 

He didn’t believe it at first. He couldn’t. Not his country. Not his government. Then one night Vasilov’s body was found, shot to death in his own car. No witnesses had come forward. Alexei knew none ever would. 

That was when he knew they had to get the data out of Russia. Releasing the information on the Internet wasn’t an option. Their network traffic was being too closely watched. Even if they were able to get the information past the censors, the entire team would be dead shortly afterwards, or at least all the members who wouldn’t cooperate. And without anyone alive willing to corroborate the data, the discovery of a lifetime would become just one more clever online hoax, an entry on Snopes and the subject of feverish YouTube conspiracy videos. 

Someone needed to get out of the country with the data. Someone who spoke English. Someone familiar with all aspects of the mission, someone with the background to be able to field the hundreds of questions that would follow, the accusations of fraud, the illiterate questions from skeptical news anchors. With Vasilov dead, Alexei was the only left.

They knew it wouldn’t be easy. The security forces weren’t stupid. They’d be watching for signs of them leaving the country. Catching a flight from Moscow to London would be impossible. Sneaking across the border would be the only option. 

Only Alexei would go. The rest would stay behind, helping to maintain the ruse that he was still coming to work everyday, making sure the security forces kept their eyes focused on anyone other than him. Fake email chains and phone calls from his mobile phone, body doubles driving his car, signing in to the office with his security badge. It was enough cloak and dagger to make him think the Cold War had come again. 

He left at lunch, right when he knew his minders would be changing shifts. The security forces were smart, but they’d become over-reliant on technology. So long as someone else carried his smartphone, they’d assumed he was still in the office. According to his digital footprint, Alexei’s routine hadn’t changed a bit. He’d been careful not to make any large cash withdrawals from the ATM, siphoning off cash every week in small increments until he hoped he’d had enough to his way to the West. 

They’d discussed his plans together, Alexei and the rest of the team. They had access to Earth satellite imagery gathered by the other teams, and some of them were pointed at the Ukraine border. The chaos from the war had made the border porous, giving him the perfect opportunity to slip through along with all the other paramilitary   forces, spec ops soldiers, and “volunteers”. The satellite imagery showed the gaps in security, the places where too few border guards were tasked with covering too much terrain, where the line separating the country was only a chain link fence. In the end, he was shocked at how easy it had been to cross. Well, he’d thought to himself as he left the fence behind and took his first steps into Ukraine, at least the hard part if finally over

If only. The fighting had started up again almost as soon as he’d made his way into Kharkiv. He’d hoped the city would be spared the worst of the conflict taking place to the south. But no sooner had he found lodgings, the shelling began. 

The timing was likely just a coincidence. Despite the lengths the government had taken to silence him, Alexei doubted they’d start a war just to find him. He doubted the security forces had been tracking his position through an RFID tag in his passport. He doubted  the satellites had been able to identify him crossing the border two days before. He doubted the men patrolling the streets of Kharkiv shouting orders in thick Muscovite accents were looking for him. He doubted it, but in his heart he knew it was so. 

The voices were coming closer now. They were doing sweeps of all the buildings. One at a time, thorough, methodical. They’d find him, then. 

Alexei thought back to the day Morningstar launched, the booster’s forming a bright, beautiful cone of exhaust as they carried his childhood dreams with them, higher and higher, all the way to the stars. He felt the shape of the pack of cigarettes through the denim of his jeans and pictured the small pen drive hidden inside. 

All this, he thought, for eight gigabytes of data

He slung his backpack onto his shoulders. They’d be here soon. Time to run. 

Next Chapter: Chapter 1