Chapter 1: A Day Off

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Smolensk, June 22, 1941

Ceding control was the hardest part for Aelya.

"Yuri Antonovich!" she shouted over the wind. Formally addressing Yura always kept him on his toes. "Take over!"

"Yes, Comrade Instructor."

In the front seat of the biplane, Yura glanced furiously between the instruments and the ground, searching for the next waypoint. Aelya wished she could remove her goggles and helmet, let the wind flow through her hair, and allow the engine to calm her with its hypnotic juddering. But she hated taking her hands off the stick. It felt unnatural to her as a pilot.

Her mother would say that just being a pilot was supposed to feel unnatural. "Man was not meant to fly," the true red Socialist always said. "When you ascend in an airplane, you're proclaiming your triumph over nature."

Her father, when his wife was out of earshot, would counter, "When you're in the air, nothing feels more right. How can that be unnatural?"

Focus, Aelya thought. Let Yura learn the nuances for himself and observe. For Aelya, traversing the air came as easily as gliding through water did for an Olympic swimmer. It took hours and hours of practice for a complex machine to become an extension of oneself. She kept her patience, resisting the urge to correct her student.

The plane crossed the last of the waypoints, a marker flag in the vast open field behind Aviation Plant No. 35. Now for final approach. Time to take up the slack. If Yura made any mistakes trying to land, he could damage state property. That would be on her, a blemish against her future Communist Party membership. She was already under enough scrutiny as the aeroclub's youngest instructor.

"Turn now. You're late!" she shouted.

The plane jerked violently as he overcorrected on the rudder. Aelya lined it up properly with her controls in the back seat. Now the descent.

"Flare up! Flare up!" He always nosed up late when touching down. The wheels hit the ground hard. The aeroclub had the privilege of using the paved runway at the plant's test facilities, so the plane remained level.

As the propeller made its last few revolutions, a technician met the slowing plane on the tarmac. They climbed out of the aircraft, Aelya declining Yura's hand despite her small frame. The technician guided the plane toward a hangar while they approached the aerodrome office to go through post-flight forms. Inside the low clapboard building, they removed their helmets and jackets in the stifling early-summer heat.

"I think you need more rudder pressure on takeoff," she said, looking at his neck. There was a gap of smooth, pale skin showing between his blue worker's jacket and white woollen scarf. She thought of another criticism and braced herself to look him in the eye, but his gaze fell somewhere over her shoulder. She turned and caught a glimpse of golden-blonde hair.

"Dear Spacegirl, you're not giving poor Yura a hard time, are you?" Vasya beamed. Though the nickname was meant to be derisive, Aelya had embraced it ages ago. Being named after a fictional Queen of Mars, she had to. Her elder sister only dredged up "Spacegirl" to belittle her in front of boys.

Vasya fidgeted with the strap of her fashionable red leather handbag and drew near to kiss Yura on both cheeks, her vibrant locks flicking from side to side. Aelya ran her fingers through her own matted hair. Why did she have to sweat so much in her flying helmet?

"Dear Vasya, were you waiting here for me?" asked Yura with a lopsided smile that other girls apparently found endearing.

"Oh Yura, I thought you were so wonderful. Surely Spacegirl will let you fly on your own soon?"

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