Sci-Fi Shorts: In Gagarin’s Time
Yuri Gagarin pin. Credit: Clint Budd via flickr

Sci-Fi Shorts: In Gagarin’s Time

10/11/2017Written by Admin

Read the winning tale of the over 16 category in our Sci-Fi Shorts competition.

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We have our winners for our inaugural Sci-Fi Shorts Competition! Every Friday between 6 October and 10 November we’ll be publishing each winning story here on this blog. Check our competition webpage for links to all the winning tales.

Once again, congratulations to all our winners and a huge thank you to everyone who took part!

Award ceremony will take place at 12:30 on Saturday 18 November at the National Space Centre, as part of the Literary Leicester sci-fi events.

This week, we bring you the winner of the 16+ category, In Gagarin’s Time, by Laura Ward.

The judges said: “In this piece, the author makes a small tweak and delivers an exciting plot alongside fantastic world building in a delightful short story package. What a gripping alternative history!”

In Gagarin’s Time

by Laura Ward


Anna​ ​squeezed​ ​her​ ​grandfather’s​ ​hand​ ​as​ ​they​ ​paused​ ​at​ ​the​ ​threshold​ ​of​ ​the​ ​one​ ​place​ ​they had​ ​both​ ​dreamed​ ​of​ ​seeing​ ​for​ ​themselves:​ ​the​ ​headquarters​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Soviet​ ​Space​ ​Agency.​ ​

The building​ ​that​ ​was​ ​once​ ​the​ ​centre​ ​of​ ​every​ ​space​ ​enthusiasts’​ ​ambitions​ ​now​ ​stood​ ​in​ ​disrepair; a​ ​concrete​ ​ghost​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Russian​ ​landscape,​ ​mimicking​ ​the​ ​world’s​ ​shattered​ ​dreams.​ ​They​ ​had died​ ​on​ ​that​ ​fatal​ ​day​ ​in​ ​1961​ ​etched​ ​in​ ​everyone’s​ ​memory:​ ​when​ ​man​ ​went​ ​into​ ​space…​ ​but never​ ​returned.​ ​That​ ​was​ ​the​ ​day​ ​that​ ​the​ ​Space​ ​Race​ ​died.

Yuri​ ​Gagarin’s​ ​last​ ​words​ ​on​ ​Earth​ ​echoed​ ​in​ ​Anna’s​ ​head​ ​as​ ​she​ ​started​ ​up​ ​the​ ​overgrown​ ​path towards​ ​the​ ​building.​ ​​“POYEKHALI!”

“Do​ ​you​ ​think​ ​they​ ​will​ ​believe​ ​you,​ ​Dedushka?”​ ​she​ ​whispered​ ​to​ ​the​ ​old​ ​man​ ​by​ ​her​ ​side.
“Oh,​ ​Anna,”​ ​he​ ​sighed,​ ​slowing​ ​his​ ​pace.​ ​“I​ ​don’t​ ​even​ ​think​ ​the​ ​guide​ ​will​ ​care.​ ​But​ ​I​ ​must​ ​go​ ​- just​ ​in​ ​case.”

At​ ​the​ ​entrance​ ​a​ ​man​ ​stood​ ​waiting,​ ​leaning​ ​back​ ​against​ ​the​ ​brickwork​ ​to​ ​rest​ ​his​ ​legs.​ ​Visitors were​ ​few​ ​and​ ​far​ ​between​ ​now,​ ​yet​ ​he​ ​was​ ​still​ ​expected​ ​to​ ​stand​ ​there,​ ​day​ ​after​ ​day,​ ​as​ ​the building​ ​and​ ​its​ ​contents​ ​began​ ​to​ ​crumble​ ​away.

“Welcome,”​ ​he​ ​announced,​ ​as​ ​he​ ​slowly​ ​unlocked​ ​the​ ​door​ ​to​ ​the​ ​complex.​ ​“Here​ ​stands​ ​the remains​ ​of​ ​our​ ​Space​ ​Agency.​ ​Beginning​ ​in​ ​19-”

“Yes,​ ​yes,”​ ​the​ ​old​ ​man​ ​dismissed,​ ​“we​ ​know​ ​all​ ​of​ ​that.​ ​Let’s​ ​just​ ​get​ ​in​ ​and​ ​started,​ ​shall​ ​we?” The​ ​doors​ ​led​ ​into​ ​a​ ​large​ ​entrance​ ​hall,​ ​with​ ​a​ ​statue​ ​dominating​ ​the​ ​centre.​ ​Anna​ ​brushed​ ​her hand​ ​over​ ​the​ ​bronze​ ​cast​ ​of​ ​Laika,​ ​the​ ​first​ ​dog​ ​in​ ​space,​ ​as​ ​if​ ​to​ ​pet​ ​her.

“Her​ ​capsule​ ​is​ ​over​ ​here,”​ ​the​ ​guide​ ​called,​ ​motioning​ ​her​ ​to​ ​see​ ​the​ ​four​ ​metre-high​ ​cone shaped​ ​object.​ ​Sputnik​ ​2​ ​had,​ ​of​ ​course,​ ​been​ ​lost​ ​on​ ​re-entry​ ​but​ ​the​ ​replica​ ​still​ ​took​ ​her breath​ ​away.

“How​ ​small​ ​it​ ​is,”​ ​she​ ​breathed,​ ​staring​ ​sadly​ ​into​ ​the​ ​tiny​ ​cage-like​ ​space​ ​that​ ​Laika​ ​spent​ ​the last​ ​hours​ ​of​ ​her​ ​life​ ​in.

“Yes..​ ​Hmm-mm.”​ ​The​ ​guide​ ​cleared​ ​his​ ​throat​ ​and​ ​attempted​ ​to​ ​block​ ​out​ ​the​ ​realisation​ ​that the​ ​museum​ ​was​ ​actually​ ​a​ ​mausoleum.

“And​ ​this…”​ ​Anna​ ​rushed​ ​to​ ​the​ ​other​ ​side​ ​of​ ​the​ ​hall​ ​to​ ​a​ ​metal​ ​sphere,​ ​just​ ​over​ ​2​ ​metres​ ​wide. “Look,​ ​Dedu!”​ ​she​ ​cried.

Her​ ​finger​ ​traced​ ​a​ ​line​ ​across​ ​the​ ​surface​ ​of​ ​the​ ​capsule​ ​to​ ​the​ ​open​ ​hatch.​ ​Silently,​ ​she​ ​gazed in​ ​wonder​ ​at​ ​the​ ​instruments​ ​that​ ​lined​ ​the​ ​inside;​ ​the​ ​TV​ ​camera;​ ​the​ ​very​ ​seat​ ​created​ ​for​ ​the world’s​ ​first​ ​cosmonaut.​ ​She​ ​heard​ ​a​ ​harsh​ ​tut​ ​from​ ​her​ ​grandfather.

“A​ ​replica​ ​of​ ​course,”​ ​he​ ​reminded​ ​her.​ ​He​ ​turned​ ​to​ ​the​ ​guide,​ ​who​ ​had​ ​removed​ ​his​ ​cap​ ​in honour​ ​of​ ​the​ ​fallen​ ​man.

“Enough​ ​of​ ​this.”​ ​The​ ​old​ ​man​ ​folded​ ​his​ ​arms.​ ​“I​ ​haven’t​ ​come​ ​to​ ​see​ ​these​ ​toys.​ ​I​ ​believe​ ​the control​ ​centre​ ​is​ ​still​ ​here.​ ​I’d​ ​like​ ​to​ ​view​ ​it​ ​now.”

“We​ ​normally​ ​leave​ ​that​ ​until​ ​the​ ​end,”​ ​the​ ​guide​ ​responded​ ​weakly.

“Take​ ​it​ ​that​ ​this​ ​is​ ​the​ ​end.”

He​ ​nodded​ ​and​ ​began​ ​to​ ​fumble​ ​with​ ​the​ ​tangle​ ​of​ ​keys​ ​inside​ ​his​ ​pocket.​ ​Anna​ ​skipped​ ​over​ ​to him​ ​to​ ​help.

“Don’t​ ​mind​ ​grandfather,”​ ​she​ ​whispered.​ ​“He​ ​always​ ​seems​ ​a​ ​little​ ​gruff.​ ​But​ ​we​ ​would​ l​​ove​​ ​to see​ ​the​ ​command​ ​centre.​ ​It’s​ ​been​ ​our​ ​​dream​.”

The​ ​guide’s​ ​face​ ​softened,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​jumble​ ​of​ ​metal​ ​became​ ​easier​ ​to​ ​handle.​ ​In​ ​no​ ​time​ ​he​ ​had located​ ​the​ ​correct​ ​key.​ ​Anna​ ​bounced​ ​along​ ​beside​ ​him​ ​as​ ​he​ ​led​ ​the​ ​way​ ​down​ ​corridors​ ​and through​ ​dust​ ​filled​ ​rooms​ ​until​ ​he​ ​found​ ​the​ ​heavily​ ​bolted​ ​door​ ​that​ ​they​ ​needed.

The​ ​guide​ ​flicked​ ​on​ ​light​ ​switches​ ​as​ ​the​ ​three​ ​of​ ​them​ ​entered​ ​the​ ​room.​ ​There​ ​were​ ​four​ ​long rows​ ​of​ ​desks​ ​filled​ ​with​ ​screens​ ​and​ ​buttons,​ ​abandoned​ ​papers​ ​and​ ​files.​ ​This​ ​was​ ​no​ ​replica; it​ ​had​ ​been​ ​kept​ ​intact​ ​from​ ​1961​ ​until​ ​the​ ​present​ ​day​ ​as​ ​a​ ​continuing​ ​reminder​ ​of​ ​what​ ​the Earth​ ​tried,​ ​yet​ ​failed,​ ​to​ ​do.​ ​

Anna​ ​lingered​ ​in​ ​the​ ​doorway​ ​not​ ​wanting​ ​to​ ​disturb​ ​the​ ​chilling atmosphere​ ​in​ ​the​ ​room.​ ​As​ ​her​ ​grandfather​ ​marched​ ​forward,​ ​the​ ​guide​ ​began​ ​to​ ​follow​ ​but​ ​she quickly​ ​pulled​ ​him​ ​back.

“Why​ ​are​ ​there​ ​so​ ​many​ ​screens?”​ ​she​ ​asked,​ ​knowing​ ​the​ ​answer​ ​already.​ ​She​ ​nodded​ ​politely as​ ​the​ ​guide​ ​gave​ ​her​ ​a​ ​long​ ​droning​ ​answer,​ ​but​ ​her​ ​gaze​ ​flitted​ ​to​ ​her​ ​grandfather​ ​whenever she​ ​could.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​crouched​ ​down​ ​at​ ​the​ ​end​ ​of​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​rows.​ ​Anna​ ​thought​ ​that​ ​perhaps​ ​he had​ ​found​ ​what​ ​he​ ​was​ ​looking​ ​for,​ ​but​ ​no.​ ​Up​ ​he​ ​popped​ ​again​ ​and​ ​headed​ ​slowly​ ​down​ ​the second​ ​row.

The​ ​guide​ ​was​ ​coming​ ​to​ ​the​ ​end​ ​of​ ​his​ ​answer​ ​now,​ ​and​ ​she​ ​realised​ ​that​ ​she​ ​would​ ​have​ ​to keep​ ​him​ ​talking.​ ​She​ ​blurted​ ​out​ ​her​ ​question,​ ​the​ ​one​ ​she​ ​really​ ​wanted​ ​the​ ​answer​ ​to,​ ​before he​ ​had​ ​fully​ ​finished​ ​his​ ​previous​ ​ramblings.​ ​Both​ ​the​ ​timing​ ​and​ ​the​ ​question​ ​shocked​ ​him​ ​to silence​ ​for​ ​several​ ​seconds.

“What​ ​do​ ​you​ ​think​ ​happened​ ​to​ ​Gagarin?”

After​ ​he​ ​collected​ ​himself,​ ​he​ ​answered​ ​slowly,​ ​gauging​ ​how​ ​blunt​ ​he​ ​could​ ​be​ ​with​ ​the​ ​girl. “Well,​ ​now,​ ​I​ ​think​ ​everyone​ ​knows​ ​what​ ​happened​ ​to​ ​that​ ​poor​ ​man.”

“He​ ​went​ ​missing,​ ​I​ ​know.​ ​But​ ​what​ ​do​ ​you​ ​think​ ​​actually​​ ​happened?”

The​ ​guide​ ​cleared​ ​his​ ​throat​ ​before​ ​continuing.​ ​He​ ​spoke​ ​in​ ​monotone,​ ​eyes​ ​focused​ ​on​ ​nothing but​ ​the​ ​wall.​ ​“Major​ ​Yuri​ ​Gagarin​ ​reached​ ​orbit​ ​in​ ​Vostok​ ​1.​ ​Soon​ ​after​ ​that​ ​moment​ ​we​ ​lost​ ​all radio​ ​contact.​ ​That​ ​was​ ​to​ ​be​ ​expected,​ ​but​ ​the​ ​ground​ ​control​ ​were​ ​confident​ ​that​ ​they​ ​would receive​ ​a​ ​status​ ​message​ ​in​ ​due​ ​course.​ ​No​ ​message​ ​came.​ ​Vostok​ ​1​ ​was​ ​never​ ​seen​ ​again.”

Anna​ ​saw​ ​that​ ​her​ ​grandfather​ ​was​ ​standing​ ​in​ ​the​ ​centre​ ​of​ ​the​ ​room,​ ​between​ ​two​ ​rows​ ​of desks.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​a​ ​peculiar​ ​smile​ ​on​ ​his​ ​face​ ​that​ ​she​ ​couldn’t​ ​quite​ ​decipher.

“What​ ​if​ ​he​ ​was​ ​still​ ​alive?”

The​ ​guide​ ​turned​ ​to​ ​face​ ​the​ ​man,​ ​not​ ​even​ ​noticing​ ​that​ ​he​ ​had​ ​crept​ ​past​ ​him.​ ​“Impossible.” He​ ​paused​ ​for​ ​a​ ​moment,​ ​but​ ​then​ ​repeated:​ ​“Impossible.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​enough​ ​oxygen​ ​and​ ​food​ ​for ten​ ​days.​ ​It’s​ ​been​ ​over​ ​50​ ​years!”

“We’re​ ​not​ ​so​ ​sure​ ​about​ ​that,”​ ​Anna​ ​smiled.​ ​“Depending​ ​on​ ​our​ ​position​ ​and​ ​speed,​ ​time​ ​can seem​ ​to​ ​run​ ​slower​ ​or​ ​quicker.​ ​In​ ​space,​ ​time​ ​moves​ ​more​ ​slowly​ ​than​ ​on​ ​Earth.​ ​What​ ​if​ ​those 50​ ​years​ ​for​ ​us​ ​were​ ​only​ ​50​ ​minutes​ ​for​ ​Major​ ​Gagarin?”

“It’s​ ​not​ ​​that​​ ​much​ ​slower,”​ ​the​ ​guide​ ​laughed.​ ​“The​ ​mathematics​ ​of​ ​the​ ​mission​ ​stated​ ​that​ ​-”

“But​ ​what​ ​if​ ​that​ ​was​ ​wrong?”​ ​The​ ​older​ ​man​ ​moved​ ​sideways​ ​along​ ​the​ ​row​ ​of​ ​desks​ ​where​ ​he had​ ​been​ ​standing.​ ​His​ ​hands​ ​were​ ​hidden​ ​from​ ​view,​ ​and​ ​Anna​ ​realised​ ​what​ ​he​ ​was​ ​looking for.

“It​ ​couldn’t​ ​be,”​ ​he​ ​asserted​ ​again.

Anna​ ​spoke​ ​quickly,​ ​distracting​ ​the​ ​man’s​ ​attention​ ​from​ ​her​ ​grandfather​ ​as​ ​he​ ​ducked​ ​beneath a​ ​desk​ ​to​ ​fiddle​ ​with​ ​switches.​ ​“I’ve​ ​been​ ​studying​ ​with​ ​my​ ​grandfather​ ​since​ ​I​ ​was​ ​old​ ​enough​ ​to reach​ ​his​ ​telescope.​ ​He​ ​has​ ​been​ ​plotting​ ​an​ ​object​ ​for​ ​the​ ​past​ ​half​ ​century.​ ​It​ ​moves​ ​so​ ​slightly each​ ​night​ ​that​ ​it​ ​is​ ​hard​ ​to​ ​tell,​ ​but​ ​over​ ​the​ ​years​ ​he​ ​is​ ​certain​ ​that​ ​it​ ​is​ ​following​ ​the​ ​orbit​ ​that Vostok​ ​1​ ​was​ ​intended​ ​to.​ ​​What​ ​if​​ ​-​ ​?”

A​ ​crackling​ ​burst​ ​into​ ​life​ ​across​ ​the​ ​tannoys​ ​and​ ​the​ ​old​ ​man​ ​stood​ ​up​ ​triumphantly.
The​ ​younger​ ​man​ ​rounded​ ​on​ ​him​ ​as​ ​lights​ ​flickered​ ​and​ ​screens​ ​came​ ​into​ ​life​ ​around​ ​the room.​ ​“What​ ​have​ ​you​ ​done?”

“Switched​ ​on​ ​the​ ​command​ ​centre​ ​again,​ ​that​ ​is​ ​all.​ ​No​ ​harm​ ​is​ ​done.​ ​And​ ​yet…”

The​ ​sounds​ ​were​ ​changing​ ​now,​ ​interference​ ​from​ ​the​ ​radio​ ​waves​ ​breaking​ ​down.​ ​Was​ ​that​ ​a voice​ ​coming​ ​through?​ ​It​ ​was​ ​tinny​ ​and​ ​faint,​ ​but​ ​was​ ​gaining​ ​in​ ​volume​ ​with​ ​each​ ​second.

“…​ ​read​ ​me?​ ​I​ ​repeat,​ ​Ground​ ​Control​ ​do​ ​you​ ​read​ ​me?”

Anna​ ​rushed​ ​to​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​microphones​ ​at​ ​the​ ​desk.​ ​“Mr​ ​Gagarin?”

“Ground​ ​Control​ ​do​ ​you​ ​…”

“This​ ​is​ ​Ground​ ​Control,”​ ​the​ ​old​ ​man​ ​asserted,​ ​taking​ ​the​ ​microphone​ ​from​ ​his​ ​granddaughter whilst​ ​ushering​ ​her​ ​away​ ​to​ ​a​ ​seat.

“I​ ​lost​ ​you​ ​there​ ​for​ ​a​ ​while​ ​Ground​ ​Control.​ ​I’m​ ​re-entering​ ​into​ ​sunlight.​ ​I​ ​repeat,​ ​leaving​ ​the dark​ ​side​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Earth.”

“Major​ ​Gagarin,​ ​can​ ​I​ ​ask​ ​for​ ​a​ ​time​ ​check​ ​on​ ​your​ ​flight​ ​please?”

There​ ​was​ ​a​ ​pause​ ​over​ ​the​ ​radio.

“Ground​ ​Control,​ ​you​ ​must​ ​have​ ​that​ ​information​ ​already?”

“Of​ ​course,​ ​Major.​ ​But​ ​we​ ​are​ ​just​ ​checking​ ​all​ ​is​ ​well​ ​with​ ​your​ ​systems.”

A​ ​relieved​ ​sigh​ ​was​ ​heard​ ​on​ ​the​ ​radio.​ ​“All​ ​good​ ​here,​ ​Ground​ ​Control.​ ​I​ ​feel​ ​fine.​ ​One​ ​hour​ ​and three​ ​minutes​ ​since​ ​take​ ​off.”

“Retrorockets​ ​will​ ​fire​ ​soon,​ ​Major,​ ​and​ ​bring​ ​you​ ​back​ ​down​ ​to​ ​Earth.”

Anna​ ​could​ ​see​ ​her​ ​grandfather’s​ ​furrowed​ ​brow​ ​as​ ​he​ ​hastily​ ​calculated​ ​from​ ​the​ ​information​ ​on the​ ​screens​ ​in​ ​front​ ​of​ ​him.​ ​“We​ ​estimate​ ​in​ ​15​ ​minutes.​ ​We​ ​look​ ​forward​ ​to​ ​your​ ​safe​ ​landing.”

The​ ​old​ ​man​ ​pushed​ ​himself​ ​back​ ​from​ ​the​ ​desk,​ ​legs​ ​shaking​ ​after​ ​his​ ​conversation​ ​with​ ​a​ ​man suddenly​ ​brought​ ​back​ ​from​ ​the​ ​dead.

All​ ​these​ ​years.
All​ ​the​ ​research​ ​and​ ​calculations.
To​ ​finally​ ​know​ ​that​ ​he​ ​was​ ​right;​ ​and​ ​that​ ​a​ ​man’s​ ​life​ ​and​ ​all​ ​the​ ​world’s​ ​dreams​ ​were​ ​still intact.

“Call​ ​your​ ​superiors,”​ ​he​ ​sighed,​ ​closing​ ​his​ ​eyes.​ ​“They​ ​have​ ​ten​ ​years​ ​to​ ​prepare​ ​for​ ​landing.”


And that's a wrap!
Join us on Saturday 18 November for award ceremony, as part of the Literary Leicester Festival!