The color must have drained from my face, because seconds later the man was clapping me on the shoulder.
“Relax, my young friend. I’m not gonna bite. Look … see.”
The man used his left index finger to lift his thick mustache and upper lip to reveal a normal set of teeth, though in considerably better shape than a man of nearly eighty had any right to.
“See. Nothing pointy or sharp. You’ll find no animals in the village with two little teeth marks either.”
I somehow mustered the strength to speak, “Then how do you…”
The man thumbed in the direction of the bar maid, “She gets it for me, from the butcher I think, though it’s not exactly a secret in town either. The coffee shop down the street’ll serve me if I’m in a bind, but I can only get in there in the winter, and only if I don’t linger. But Anna has never left me high and dry. She wants me to make her one, when she gets older, but I’m hoping she’ll change her mind.”
I felt like someone was putting me on. The blood had to be cornstarch or something else. Some local trick to get the best of the locals. But if the man was playing a game he wasn’t playing a very good one. Even an amateur would’ve sprung for the teeth.
“So … if you don’t bite anyone, how did you…?”
The man knocked back the rest of his drink and nodded to the bar maid to get him another, “Not all at once. You have to indulge an old man his ways, especially when he buys you a drink.”
The woman walked over and set down two glasses, his opaque, mine frosted. Even though the glass was clear I was hesitant to take a sip, not quite sure of the contents. As it turns out the quality of the beer had significantly improved. Evidently the bar maid didn’t give out the best stuff to just anyone.
“Anything for a fellow cosmonaut. As I said, I was like you as a child, dreaming of one day not just going to the stars but living there. You Americans may have landed on the moon first, but we were the first to make space our home. Our greatest hero dies in a plane crash, we keep going. Our first space station crew asphyxiates on reentry, we send up another. There was a spirit in those days, something I think your country forgot, of space being the next frontier.”
“And so I wanted to be a part of it. Most cosmonauts started as pilots, so I joined our air force at 14 by lying about my age. I was an experienced flier by 19 and a candidate for the Soviet Space Program by 22. We’d been launching space stations since the 70s and the last of the Salyut line, Salyut 7 was launched just a few years before I joined the program.”
“I trained harder than men twice my size. I wanted to get to the head of the line as soon as possible. But my body began refusing to cooperate.”
“What happened?” I asked.
The man gave me a wry smile, “I’m anemic, or was anyway, which as ironies go is a pretty good one. I’d been able to stave off problems before with regular transfusions, but the training program was straining my body beyond its limit. Somehow I was able to keep myself upright through sheer force of will during the day, but at night I would collapse into my bunk, not sleeping, but simply unable to command my body. My internal organs were deprived of oxygen, and if that goes on for long enough your body begins to shut down.”
“How did you hide what was happening to you?”
“Early on in the program I made the acquaintance of one of the program’s doctors, Andrei, who helped me get my transfusions without the rest of the team knowing. Sometimes he would stop by my bunk at night to give me something to help me sleep and restore me to some kind of working order. I think we both knew that actually flying a capsule might kill me, but he wanted to help me try.”
“One night I collapsed in the hallway on the way back to my room, gashing my head on a crate as I went down. Still have the scar.”
He parted his hair back his forehead and a thin white line extended for nearly three inches, starting from his temple.
“How did you survive?”
“I didn’t. I don’t know how much blood I had lost when Andrei found me. I was shifting in and out of consciousness and could only sense a vague form lifting me up, then putting me down on a table. I don’t know if he tried to ask me, asked me if I wanted to become like him, but the question had been answered a dozen times as I kept trying to force this shell to get me into space.”
“The transition is painless. at least it was for me. The body does not strain, the mind does not trash. There is only a sense of warmth slowly ebbing away. At the time I had thought I was only dying. But then I suddenly awoke, and Andrei was looking at me with sad dark eyes.”
To be continued…