Not sure why Boss assigned me to this investigation. Perhaps it was because of my previous cosmonaut training. In any event, as I watched the capsule float to Earth I was evaluating possibilities in my mind.
This is what I knew as fact thus far. On April 19, the Soviet Union placed the first scientific space station into Earth orbit. The Salyut 1 consisted of four areas: a biological laboratory, a compartment filled with scientific instruments, a rear compartment containing a propulsion system for changing orbits, and a forward compartment fitted with an airlock passage and docking collar for manned Soyuz spacecraft.
On April 23, 1971, Soyuz 10 was launched and became the first spacecraft to achieve docking with an orbiting space station when it docked with Salyut 1. Soyuz 10 tested approach and docking techniques but did not involve any transfer of cosmonauts.
On June 6, 1971, Soyuz 11 was launched with Georgy T. Dobrovolsky as commander, Valdislav N. Volkov as flight engineer, and Viktor I. Patsayev as test engineer. They made history by becoming the first men to dock with and enter an orbiting space station -- the Salyut 1. Everything was proceeding excellently until twenty-three days later when they reported a spattering and periodic banging against the spaceship on the night side of the orbit. In addition, as they looked down toward the Earth, they witnessed a beautiful meteor shower as tiny pebbles turned into flaming streaks as they collided with Earth's atmosphere and burned up.
To be on the safe side, preparations for landing were made as soon as possible. The cosmonauts transferred research materials and flight logs back into the Soyuz 11 spacecraft. To land at their correct destination, the separation and retrorocket fire to slow the Soyuz 11 would have to be performed in the area where the meteor shower had been encountered. After the retro fire a crackling was heard over the communications, and then silence. Monitoring equipment on board did not indicate the presence of any life.
A completely sealed clean room sufficiently sized to house our largest spaceships had been built near this location when we first began going to the moon with the Sergei Korolev designed Luna space flights in 1959. Not knowing what might lurk out there, we did not want to be responsible for unleashing any unknown strain of life upon the Earth. The giant clean room was camouflaged as a barn but contained all the equipment of a modern scientific laboratory. A huge flatbed truck equipped with tracks for negotiating the snow and terrain awaited the silent return of Soyuz 11. As a precaution, my plan was to unbolt the hatch after the spacecraft was safely sealed inside the clean room.
As the capsule was about to touch Earth, landing rockets automatically fired to soften the impact. The automatically controlled landing seemed flawless as the chutes settled gently down, over, and around the craft. I ordered that the chutes be bagged in plastic and taken to the barn.
A cover story had already been fabricated, attributing the cause of the tragedy to a "faulty seal" that resulted in rapid decompression and almost instant death for the three cosmonauts.
A large crane hooked onto the craft and quickly loaded it onto the flatbed. Yellow caution lights blinked on the vehicle as it began its slow crawl into the barn. Once the truck carrying the capsule was safely inside the barn, I, along with two bacteriologists who were experienced in autopsies, began our entry into the clean room. Our initial entry was through a thick metal door which we closed and locked from the inside. This door gained us entry into a small sealed passageway containing safety equipment required for entry into the actual clean room. At the other end of this rectangular passageway was the airtight door into the clean room.
Changing into protective body suits complete with external breathing tanks, we helped zip each other up. Then turning the wheel shaped safe deposit type handle on the inner door, we entered the huge clean room which now contained the truck and flatbed trailer on which sat the Soyuz 11 capsule. We closed and locked the heavy door behind us.
"Comrades," I began, "let's perform an examination of the outside of the craft as thoroughly as possible before opening the hatch." We proceeded to climb onto the flatbed and examine the craft, but found no profound holes or damage. From all indications the craft should have supported the lives of the cosmonauts.
Using two large wrenches we began to unbolt the hatch cover with some effort due to our bulky self-contained survival suits. As it was removed, no sounds emanated from within the craft. After a few seconds I poked my head and shoulders into the dimly lit interior of the craft while holding onto the outside. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw that all three men were dead, still strapped into their seats. There was no visible damage to their flight suits, they looked perfectly at peace.
The first cosmonaut's upper body fell against me as I unstrapped him. His flight suit was very bulky but I was able to pull him out with help from one of the doctors. The other cosmonauts could not easily be reached without entering the spacecraft and since I did not want to trample any possible evidence, we delayed removing their bodies. This one would keep the doctors busy for awhile.
The cosmonaut was taken to a side examination room where an autopsy could be performed. After helping the doctors remove the bulky space suit and clothing from the body we all concurred that the cosmonaut had no visible wounds. Our only unusual observation was a small splattering of rust colored stains on the inside of the cosmonaut's face shield. Apparently he had coughed up some blood immediately before death. Similar observations were to be made on the other two face shields. I returned to carefully examining the inside of the spacecraft while the doctors performed the autopsy.
Locating an extension cord and a strong light source, I held the light in the spacecraft and once again leaned inside, carefully examining the floor before entering. Looking down, it was fortunate I had not immediately stepped into the craft, for on the floor were numerous globs of gray colored, shiny, greasy looking material. It appeared to ball up and rest on the floor without actually spreading over the floor -- much like the behavior of liquid mercury. In addition, across from the cosmonauts' bodies against the wall of the spacecraft were some splotches of grayish black discoloration as if some of the material had been blasted against the wall. No such markings were on the wall against which the cosmonauts rested. Jumping down from the flatbed vehicle, I walked over to the massive metal door through which we had entered and picked the phone off its wall mounted cradle. This phone was a simple direct line to the outside -- fifteen feet away.
"Yes sir?" came the response as I put the receiver to my ear.
"Get with the space agency people and provide me a list of all materials onboard the Soyuz 11 which are either liquid or which could become a liquid state. Oils, greases, rubber, et cetera. I want a description, especially color, and ask about any hazards to humans. Get back to me as quickly as possible."
As I hung up the phone one of the doctors approached me. "Sir, we have determined the cause of death. Both lungs are filled with fluid. It appears to be severe double pneumonia."
"But these guys died instantly, we know that. Could his lungs have filled with fluids after he died?"
"Probably not. The bodily processes would quickly shut down. It would be possible if he was unconscious for a period before he died, but not after he died."
"I was told that death in all three instances occurred immediately. Come with me, I want to show you something to be on the lookout for."
Going over to the Soyuz 11, I held the light barely inside the door and pointing out the gray material on the floor, continued, "Proceed with your autopsy and look carefully for any material resembling this."
Just then a clicking was heard coming from the far wall. Walking over to investigate I discovered a printer printing out the list of materials and descriptions I had requested. When the report had completed I advanced the paper and tore it off. Glancing down the list there was nothing unusual and nothing that was listed as being gray in color.
Returning to the two doctors in the autopsy room, I began, "We may have an unknown material in the spacecraft. How would you recommend it be collected?"
One doctor departed to a storeroom to see what was available. He returned with a suction ball apparatus and two large stainless steel cylinders, about 60 centimeters long by 20 centimeters in diameter. "These should do," he said.
After patiently vacuuming up every particle of the gray matter on the spacecraft floor, with the help of the doctors, the remaining two bodies were removed to be autopsied. The results were identical, the cause of death being pneumonia.
With the autopsies completed, the doctors bolted me into the spacecraft and slowly moved the light source over the outside surface of the craft on the side from where the cosmonauts were removed. We hoped to find some small pinholes to explain the blotches on the opposite inside wall of the craft. Sure enough, in the almost total darkness inside the Soyuz 11, small shafts of light from the outside light source could be seen. Further testing indicated no additional holes on other parts of the craft. But what caused the "pneumonia" induced deaths?
It was not these extremely small pinholes, because the cosmonauts were in their pressurized spacesuits in preparation for reentry. The insides of the spacesuits contained a self-sealing material to protect against small punctures, so the light test would not work as a method to test for holes in their suits. However, I hoped if the gray material had penetrated the suits, that possibly small pieces of gray matter had been trapped as the self-sealing material closed over the holes. We examined the inside of the back of each suit but nothing could be seen with our naked eyes.
Locating a large magnifying glass and based on where we found pinholes in the craft and the position of each cosmonaut, we looked intensively at the spot where the pinholes would have lined up with the suit. Indeed, not only did we find small specs of gray but they also fit the pattern of the pinholes. We then examined the area of the cosmonauts' backs where the corresponding suits had been penetrated by the gray matter. Looking closely with the magnifying glass we found what appeared to be needle pricks in the same pattern as in the spacesuits. The gray matter had apparently struck the craft with such velocity that small volumes of it penetrated the spacecraft, then was scattered as if from a shotgun blast. A small amount had penetrated the skin of all three cosmonauts -- causing instant death.
One doctor took a small sample of gray matter into the scientific lab in an attempt to discover its chemical composition by various tests -- gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, et cetera. In the meantime, the second doctor entered the animal lab where I had the foresight to have ten chimpanzees delivered before the Soyuz 11 landed.
Selecting three chimps and using a large needle less syringe, a small amount of gray matter was forced down their throats. To our surprise nothing happened. They didn't even get sick.
"Well, perhaps it only has an affect on humans," declared one of the doctors. "We could get some human test subjects."
"We could, but I'd hate to do that," I countered.
"They would be death row inmates anyway. This way they would contribute something to society," he reasoned.
Reluctantly I picked up the phone and ordered that three human test subjects be provided. When they arrived we passed them through the two sealed metal doors of the entrance chamber. They were still in their prisoner's garb. All three were pitiful looking, run down, nearly dead men. One held his stomach as he bent over in pain, almost doubled over.
Initially we placed them in a small observation room and opened one cylinder containing the gray material. After awhile we had them breathe directly from the opened cylinder. After all, maybe we were wearing these uncomfortable suits for no good reason. We all agreed that transmission was not by breathing.
Then a small drop of the gray material was placed into each of three small glasses of water. To our surprise it mixed fine, so water was a solvent for the unknown material. We had each of the prisoners drink one of the glasses. There was no visible affect on the first two relatively healthy prisoners. However, when the prisoner with the stomachache drink his glass, a shocked look came over his face as he instantly raised his right hand to his mouth in an effort to cover a deep hacking cough. A tremendous second cough sent a fine mist of blood exploding from his mouth and nose. Before he could cough a third time he lay dead on the floor. This naturally had an unsettling effect on the remaining two test subjects. The two doctors were amazed at the suddeness of the death. The blood and phlegm contained a gritty material which the doctors later identified as microscopic particles of lung!
We dragged the dead man out, locked the remaining two prisoners in the room, and headed straight down to our autopsy lab. I wanted to sit in on this one. First, we verified the cause of death as "pneumonia." Then I asked them to open his stomach. I suspected he had bleeding ulcers. This was correct.
"Comrades, do either of you believe we need these uncomfortable self-contained suits on any longer? The gray material is apparently fatal when it enters the blood system. It was basically shot into the cosmonauts at high speed and this victim's stomach was open to his blood." We all agreed to remove our suits and it felt good to be free and unencumbered.
The three of us then set out to determine how dilute the mixture was which the prisoners drank. We filled the glass to about the same spot and poured it into a graduated cylinder. About 60cc. We estimated a drop of gray matter as 1/20th of a cc. That made the dilution a 1 to 1200, yet the man died instantly.
We had ten chimps and two humans to experiment on. But now the prisoners could not be allowed to leave alive. They would be a security risk with all they had seen, so we might as well use them. We started at an extremely low concentration, dropping one drop into a two liter bottle. That made a dilution of approximately one part in forty thousand. After placing the prisoners into separate rooms we injected 4cc directly into a vein of one of the prisoners and he was pronounced dead within thirty minutes.
We poured one-fourth of our mixed solution into the largest container we could find and added 4500cc of water. We calculated this would be a 1:400,000 part solution. We injected 4cc into an arm vein of the remaining prisoner and monitored his condition throughout the night. He became ill within an hour, reached a maximum temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit, coughed and expelled bloody phlegm, and was pronounced dead in the morning. He had survived eight hours after receiving the 1:400,000 part injection!
The doctors wanted to experiment further on the remaining chimps and with various methods of neutralizing the "virus." By boiling it for example. However, my assignment had been completed. I knew what had caused the deaths and I knew how it had entered the cosmonauts' bodies.
We needed to complete our investigation as there would be an open casket state funeral for the three cosmonauts since they were state heroes. However, I had their internal organs removed hoping all gray matter had been contained in them as they had died so quickly. These organs and the three bodies of the prisoners were placed in locked cold storage along with the gray matter which we found as liquid, as well as the flakes which we carefully scrapped from the spacecraft. When the cleanup was completed the two shiny stainless steel cylinders were approximately three-fourths full of the "gray matter" material.
Exhausted from the experience and lack of sleep, we carefully documented our investigation. After discussing the importance of secrecy concerning our findings I had the doors opened and released the bodies of the cosmonauts and the spacecraft. Placing our documentation in a locked briefcase and handcuffing the briefcase handle to my right wrist, I departed to report my findings and recommendations to Boss. From this point on it was in his hands.
In all probability he would turn over the toxin from outer space to the Biopreparat. This was the name of our recently formed chemical and biological warfare unit. Biopreparat was the logical agency to handle the undetectable gray toxin.
Four days later, a local news story appeared in the back pages of Pravda detailing the deaths of two renowned bacteriologists. Both were killed in an automobile accident. The same two doctors who had assisted me! The bodies had been cremated, so that no autopsies could be conducted, I'm convinced. I became somewhat paranoid knowing this had to be part of a cleanup operation and knowing I was the only lower echelon individual who knew what had occurred. No one ever informed me a cleanup operation was required for this job!
I watched my back and lay low for several months.
Proceed to Chapter Four. Table of Contents. Questions or comments?