BURNING CHROME by William Gibson 1986

He’d asked Psychiatric Officer Bychkov to help him dress in his old uniform, the one with the Star of the Tsiolkovsky Order sewn above the left breast pocket. The black dress boots of heavy quilted nylon, with their Velcro soles, would no longer fit his twisted feet; so his feet remained bare. Bychkov’s injection had straightened him out within an hour, leaving him alternately depressed and furiously angry. Now he waited in the museum for Yefremov to answer his summons. They called his home the Museum of the Soviet Triumph in Space, and as his rage subsided, to be replaced with an ancient bleakness, he felt very much as if he were simply another one of the exhibits. He stared gloomily at the gold-framed portraits of the great vi- sionaries of space, at the faces of Tsiolkovsky, Rynin, Tupolev. Below these, in slightly smaller frames, were portraits of Verne, Goddard, and O’Neill. In moments of extreme depression he had some- times imagined that he could detect a common strange- ness in their eyes, particularly in the eyes of the two Americans. Was it simply craziness, as he sometimes thought in his most cynical moods? Or was he able to glimpse a subtle manifestation of some weird, unbal- anced force that he had often suspected of being human evolution in action? Once, and only once, Korolev had seen that look in his own eyes on the day he’d stepped onto the soil of the Coprates Basin. The Martian sunlight, glinting within his helmet visor, had shown him the reflection of two steady, alien eyes fearless, yet driven and the quiet, secret shock of it, he now realized, had been his life’s most memorable, most transcendental moment. Above the portraits, oily and inert, was a painting that depicted the landing in colors that reminded him of borscht and gravy, the Martian landscape reduced to the idealistic kitsch of Soviet Socialist realism. The artist had posed the suited figure beside the lander with all of the official style’s deeply sincere vulgarity. Feeling tainted, he awaited the arrival of Yefre- mov, the KGB man, Kosmograd’s political officer. When Yefremov finally entered the Salyut, Korolev noted the split lip and the fresh bruises on the man’s throat. He wore a blue Kansai jump suit of Japanese silk and stylish Italian deck shoes. He coughed politely. “Good morning, Comrade Colonel.” Korolev stared. He allowed the silence to lengthen. “Yefremov,” he said heavily, “I am not happy with you.” Yefremov reddened, but he held .his gaze. “Let us speak frankly to each other, Colonel, as Russian to Rus- sian. It was not, of course, intended for you.” “The Fear, Yefremov?” “The beta-carboline, yes. If you hadn’t pandered to their antisocial actions, if you hadn’t accepted their bribe, it would not have happened.” “So I am a pimp, Yefremov? A pimp and a drunk- ard? You are a cuckold, a smuggler, and an informer. I say this,” he added, “as one Russian to another.” Now the KGB man’s face assumed the official mask of bland and untroubled righteousness. “But tell me, Yefremov, what it is that you are really about. What have you been doing since you came to Kosmograd? We know that the complex will be stripped. What is in store for the civilian crew when they return to Baikonur? Corruption hearings?” `There will be interrogation, certainly. In certain cases there may be hospitalization. Would you care to suggest, Colonel Korolev, that the Soviet Union is somehow at fault for Kosmograd’s failures?” Korolev was silent. “Kosmograd was a dream, Colonel. A dream that failed. Like space. We have no need to be here. We have an entire world to put in order. Moscow is the greatest power in history. We must not allow ourselves to lose the global perspective.” “Do you think we can be brushed aside that easily? We are an elite, a highly trained technical elite.” “A minority, Colonel, an obsolete minority. What do you contribute, aside from reams of poisonous American trash? The crew here were intended to be workers, not bloated black marketeers trafficking in jazz and pornography.” Yefremov’s face was smooth and calm. “The crew will return to Baikonur. The weapons are capable of being directed from the ground. You, of course, will remain, and there will be guest cosmonauts: Africans, South Americans. Space still re- tains a degree of its former prestige for these people.” Korolev gritted his teeth. “What have you done with the boy?” “Your Plumber?” The political officer frowned. “He has assaulted an officer of the Committee for State Security. He will remain under guard until he can be taken to Baikonur.” Korolev attempted an unpleasant laugh. “Let him go. You’ll be in too much trouble yourself to press charges. I’ll speak with Marshal Gubarev personally. My rank may be entirely honorary, Yefremov, but I do retain a certain influence.” The KGB man shrugged. “The gun crew are under orders from Baikonur to keep the communications module under lock and key. Their careers depend on it.” “Martial law, then?” “This isn’t Kabul, Colonel. These are difficult times. You have the moral authority here; you should try to set an example.” “We shall see,” Korolev said.

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Categories: Gibson, William