Dana watched as the Director dropped the newspaper on the meeting table.
“There it is. They’ve done it.”
It was a copy of the former day’s Pravda. The cover was a feast of cyrillic letters, but the place of honour was taken by the photograph of a cosmonaut clad in a space suit, the familiar red star and CCCP letters on a box on the suit’s chest, standing on a grey plain. The most striking feature, however, was the red crescent that floated behind the figure.
“What does it say?” one of Dana’s scientist colleagues asked.
“‘People’s heroine, Valentina Tereshkova, stands proudly on the surface of Phobos’”, Dana translated. “Then it goes on with the usual rhetoric about how the proletariat has once again beaten us capitalists. The triumph of communism and so on.”
“Have they really reached Mars? Couldn’t all that be a ruse?” the politician said.
Dana heard her boss sigh. This politician was a new one. He hadn’t attended previous meetings; these days they changed as often as her boss changed ties. And he loved ties.
“No, senator. They have arrived, one full week before us. We have been monitoring their Mars-Soyuz ship on the radar as closely as ours. Closer perhaps. Not only that, but we have transcriptions of their radio transmissions.”
“Those could be faked, I’m sure. Sent so we believe they’re true,” the senator insisted.
“Not really, no. Not only we do record the transmissions themselves on tape, we also track their origins. Faking the radio emissions from their Mars-Soyuz, including the delay and doppler shift… I’m not saying it’s impossible, but if I were to try it… I think I’d fail.”
“So, the Soviets beat us again,” this was the Director. “After their Luna base, now this. The public will laugh at us.”
“Ares is just one week behind, sir,” Dana’s boss said.
“They’ve even taken a detour, dammit!” the Director said. “They didn’t need to stop on Phobos. Even standing there is hard, and you know it.”
“Propaganda,” Dana said. All eyes converged on her. “Look at the image. The power of crescent Mars behind Tereshkova. That beats the hell out of some nondescript images from the surface. Pardon my French.”
“How’s that possible, is what I want to know,” the director said.
Dana’s boss nodded to her. She opened her folder and passed along copies of her report.
“We’ve already been discussing that,” she said. “They must have been pushing their reactor. We detected the anomaly soon after take-off: the speed of Mars-Soyuz was beyond our expectations, or what we know about that ship.” She stole a glance towards the man who sat, silent and a bit to a side. The Spy.
He surprised her by actually speaking up.
“We gave you all we had on the Mars-Soyuz,” he said. “And you also have had full access to the classified Area 54 documents.”
Dana nodded. It was true. All they knew for sure was thanks to the Soviet shipwreck the Spy’s agency had salvaged, unknown to the Soviets, and stored in Nevada’s secret facility. She didn’t really trust the Spy, however, and she didn’t really know whether to be worried by that or not. She thought her mistrust would be a good trait for a spy, and hated herself for that.
“Yes,” she continued. “It is because of those facts that our assessment is that they ran their reactor over its nominal working point for much of the trip. It seems it’s not an uncommon practice in their nuclear submarines as well.” She saw the Spy nod. “They gained such an advantage that they could even make their… picturesque detour. In short, they took a risk, and won.”
“Dammit to hell,” the Director whispered.
The door opened. It was the Diplomat, who should have been there from the start. She looked flustered, as if she had been running knowing she was late.
“You’re late,” the Director said.
“Forget that,” she said, and threw her own report on the table. “This just came in. Absolutely official, directly from the White House. Red Phone. Maximum priority from now on. Mars-Soyuz has had a reactor meltdown. The Soviets are asking for our help.”
This is my accompanying entry for the Weekly Writing Exercise: February 13–19, 2017 on the Writer’s Discussion Group in Google+. I am responsible for creating the prompts for the Exercise, so I don’t take part, but I still like to write a story each week.
I grew up dreaming of the Space Race. As a Spanish child, the political implications got lost on me: all I saw where the rockets, the spaceships, the discoveries. In that sense, I’ve always dreamed about what would have happened if the impulse the Space Race gave to scientific research had gone on.
Call me naive.