EVEN THOUGH I’M out of contact with the ground, I write a message notifying them that I’ve identified a potential survivor, the location, and my intention to launch a rescue. The message will send the moment the capsule comes back into contact with a ground station. At that point, I may have my hands full.
Docking the capsule to the debris is tricky. The docking connector on the piece of the ISS is still intact. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, frankly, I’m a geneticist, not a pilot, so my flying skills aren’t the greatest in ISS history. But I’ve trained for this, and I do my best, which equates to docking after three attempts.
During the sloppiest docking in ISS history, I peer through the airlock window. What I don’t see scares me: my crewmate. Surely the person in the suit—if there is a person in the suit—felt the capsule connect with the module and reverse-thrust to counteract the impact. But no one came to the connector to watch, or wave, or cheer me on.
I push that thought out of my mind. Maybe they’re pinned down. Or unconscious. There are a hundred reasons why they didn’t come to the berthing connector. I tell myself that as I open the airlock and float into the ISS module.
The Russian Orlan space suit is placid as I approach, the visor a mirror reflecting the image of me floating closer, reaching out. My hope shatters when my hand touches the suit’s arm. My fingers sink right to the center. The suit has no pressure. The arm inside is hard and slender. In my gloved hand it feels like a toothpick.
I scan the suit. On the right hip, I spot the tear. And behind the suit, I see a hole in the module, and the black of space beyond. A piece of debris punctured the station and went through the suit. The oxygen rushed out, and the vacuum of space sucked every molecule of water from my crewmate’s body. I was lucky my suit didn’t get hit with debris. I was upwind, so to speak. Everyone on the other side of the station would have been showered with projectiles.
For a long moment, I don’t move. I float there, holding my crewmate’s suit, my fingers wrapped around their forearm. It’s as if my mind can’t process this. When I saw the suit… I was so sure of what would happen. I saw myself rescuing this person. Having someone else in the capsule. The two of us strapping ourselves in, gritting our teeth during reentry, and hugging and crying when the capsule touched down.
None of that will happen.
It’s as if I’ve entered a new reality, and I can’t accept it.
An impact on the module snaps me out of it. There’s another. Then another, like hail on a metal roof. Another debris field is colliding with this one.
My eyes flash to the hole in my crewmate’s suit. I have to move. Right now.
I know I should break for the airlock and leave the Russian suit and whoever’s inside it. But I can’t. I just… can’t.
I untether the suit and drag it toward the capsule. The hail of debris gains cadence, trumpets beating, an orchestra of destruction all around me. I’m through the airlock. The beating is a hailstorm now.
In rapid sequence, I disconnect from the ISS, close the airlock, and increase thrust away from the oncoming debris.
As the capsule zooms away, the thumping sounds grow quieter. It sounds like rain, and then a sandstorm, and then nothing. Through the window, I see the pieces of debris bouncing off the remains of the station, the larger pieces getting lodged, and a few perfectly sized shards going right through.
If I’d been in contact with the ground, they would have told me about the debris field. I should have gotten in and out faster. I need to get it together.
I turn my eyes to the Orlan suit. The pressure here in the capsule is the same as it is out there. No harm in finding out who’s inside.
I disconnect the helmet. Sergei.
It was a smart move getting in the suit. I bet he did it when the array went down. I should have ordered everyone to get into suits—or to evacuate to the Soyuz capsules then.
That thought lingers in my mind, haunting me. I know if I let it stay there long enough, it will destroy me, like a cancer untreated. If we let it, guilt has a way of growing.
I have to focus on the task at hand. Take one step at a time. Then the next. My mind—my ability to think—may be the only thing that will keep me alive out here.
With the stylus I type a message to the ground.
A FEW HOURS LATER, I finish the search.
I found no survivors. No other space suits. No remains. I appear to be the sole survivor of the ISS catastrophe.
I type my report into the terminal and send it. I’m over North America again, which has several ground stations with line of sight on me. As expected, the response comes quickly.
Understood. We are pressurizing the capsule. Stand by.
Why are they pressurizing? I assumed they’d start the reentry sequence and bring me home by now. Do they think my decompression sickness is bad enough for urgent attention? I’d rather be on the ground. I’m about to type a message when one appears on the screen.
Atmosphere in capsule is suit-equivalent. Please remove your helmet and we’ll start DCI treatment.
I unsnap the helmet and breathe in the air, which I can tell is pure oxygen, or pretty close. (For reference, the air on Earth is only about twenty-one percent oxygen.) Taking the nitrogen out of the air helps treat decompression sickness. They’re also going to bring the pressure up gradually, which will force the air bubbles in my body to dissolve back into my blood. I’ll be flat soda again.
For some reason, I suddenly feel so thirsty and hungry. I’ve been so scared since the station broke up I haven’t even realized how hungry I was. Constant fear of death has to be the best weight loss program ever.
I eat and chug water. I should probably slow down on the water. There’s not exactly a convenient bathroom around. They included a package of diapers in the capsule, and I quickly slip out of the space suit and put one on before getting back into the suit—just in case.
I exhale deeply. The pressure is coming up. It’s getting easier to breathe.
I’m taking longer breaths. And I’m so tired.
All I want right now is to go home. I was overjoyed the day I went into space. Now I crave the feeling of putting my feet on the ground and breathing in real air, not this sterile, recycled space air.
A speaker echoes in the small, still space—a man’s voice, with a Massachusetts accent, which always reminds me of JFK.
“Phoenix capsule, this is Goddard, do you read?” “I copy, Goddard. It’s nice to hear your voice.”
I finish off the bottle of water, then ask the question burning in my mind. “So. What’s the plan?”
“We’re working on it. For right now, we need you to tether your suit to the capsule. The oxygen and power are compatible with the ISS. There’s also a spare tank in the capsule. Recommend you swap out any depleted tanks.”
Why? It’s as if they think I’m not coming home soon. “Will do. Any idea on timeline for reentry?”
“Yeah, that’s unknown at the moment.”
“Why? What’s going on? Did the storm that hit the ISS impact the Earth?”
“Is there something wrong with the capsule?”
“No, Commander. Nothing like that. We’ve, ah, got our hands full down here.”
Hands full with what? Is it other launches? It has to be. I’m sure they don’t want to bring me back until they have the personnel to monitor the capsule and respond if anything goes wrong. If they’re working on a launch that’s time-sensitive, they would want to delay bringing me back. And treating the decompression sickness would need to be done either way— here or down there—and it’s best done quickly to avoid permanent damage. It starts to make sense—if my theory is correct.
“We’ll get you home, Commander. We’re doing all we can.”
“I know. Thank you. I should have said that earlier. I mean it. Thank you for everything. Before I saw the capsule, I thought I was finished. I knew it.”
“Just doing our jobs, ma’am.”
There’s a long pause. The food is making me sleepy. Or the thicker air.
My speech is almost slurred when I speak. “What can I do?”
“Just rest, Commander Matthews. And hang in there.” I float down beside Sergei and close my eyes.
Sleep comes quickly.