Sci-Fi Shorts: In Gagarin’s Time
Read the winning tale of the over 16 category in our Sci-Fi Shorts competition.
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 love 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.”
Join us on Saturday 18 November for award ceremony, as part of the Literary Leicester Festival!