Drops of blood trickled through Natalie Kharitonova’s fingertips and splattered into the puddle below. She caught her distraught reflection in the pool of water and the glow on the horizon as a RD-300 rocket engine fired on its test stand, lighting up the night sky over Baikonur Cosmodrome.
Bracing herself against a silver sedan, smearing blood across the door, the roar was a distant hum under the sound of her own difficult breathing.
"Don't run," said the thick-jawed man from the window of the black Mercedes as he rolled up.
Natalie pushed away from her resting spot and stumbled further into the parking lot, trying to find someone to help her.
A minute ago she was reaching for her keys when the two men came to a stop.
"Natalie," the driver had shouted, feigning familiarity.
When she turned to look at who was calling to her, he fired his pistol.
The noise startled her more than the wound. She thought a rock or something sharp had flicked her. It was the growing numbness and the sight of blood on her palms that told her what just happened.
In an instant she knew this was about what she had seen a few hours ago.
It had been a clerical error. As a payload supervisor, normally it was her job to inspect all cargo before being loaded onto the Baikal rocket – except for military cargo.
But this wasn't a military payload, or at least she hadn't thought so. There was no certificate from the Army, much less a liaison officer from Roscosmos.
Clipboard in hand, Natalie had donned her clean room scrubs and entered the sterile chamber just like she did for every other launch. When she saw the plastic case sitting on the table, there was nothing indicating it was military. But when she cracked the seal and looked inside, she realized immediately there must have been some mistake.
She quickly closed the case, but it was too late. The escort assigned to the cargo had re-entered the room, having momentarily abandoned his post.
There were no words exchanged between them. Natalie made a quick exit, not even bothering to throw her garments into the bin.
She headed straight for Supervisor Volodin's office, Roscosmos Chief Zhirov's right-hand man, and told him what she had seen.
He listened carefully, made a call, then gave her a warm smile and told her it was just a mistake. Everything was fine. There had been a mixup with some sensing equipment.
Natalie thanked him, laughed it off, pretending the best she could. She knew he was lying. Having an engineering background, there was no mistaking what was in the case.
She wasn't sure what she was going to do about it, if anything. Then the Mercedes pulled up and the man shot her.
Natalie managed to weave through another row of cars, but her legs were betraying her. Darkness began to encroach her peripheral vision as she continued to bleed out.
She made one more stride, then collapsed on the wet pavement. Unable to move, yet still somewhat alert, she heard the footsteps of the approaching men.
"Get her into the bag, then place her into the trunk," one said to the other.
Natalie felt their rough hands as they picked her up and laid her inside a plastic pouch – the kind they keep onboard a spacecraft in case of a fatality.
The scent of the material reminded her of a spacesuit, which set off a mental trigger in her mind. She remembered where she'd seen these men before...
Their names were Yablokov and Domnin. They were cosmonauts. They weren't supposed to be here. They were supposed to be getting ready to launch in just a few hours.
That thought faded as quickly as it came. When they zipped the bag over her head, she worried about her daughter, Elena. If Natalie didn't call and remind her, she would forget to start the oven and dinner would be cold.