Chapter no 23

Winter World

AWAKE with a mask over my mouth and a man squeezing an attached plastic bag, pumping air into me.

My chest burns. Throat throbs.

He takes the mask away and studies my face. “Commander Matthews, can you hear me?”

My voice is scratchy, barely audible. “Yeah.”

He holds a bottle to my lips. “Drink this, okay? It’ll help.”

I nod, and he squeezes the liquid into my mouth—a salty, sugary mix that must be glucose, sodium, and other electrolytes. It’s like balm on my burning throat, coating and soothing.

His helmet is off. His eyes pan away from me. I can tell he’s speaking into the headset. “Goddard, we’re okay here. I think she’s just dehydrated and malnourished. Borderline hypothermic from the reduced environmental output on the capsule and low blood sugar and electrolyte imbalance.”

A few seconds pass, him listening to Goddard’s reply. I study him as I gulp down the liquid. His face is lean and unlined except for a few shallow creases radiating from his eyes. He must be about my age, mid to late thirties. His hair is short, sandy brown, and hangs about halfway down his forehead. Eyes are blue and focused, but gentle. Beyond the concentration, there’s an element of concern. I feel an instant level of comfort with him.

“Copy that, Goddard.” To me, he says, “Feeling better?” “Some.”

“Good.” He takes the bottle and Velcro-straps it to the wall so it won’t float free. “I’m sorry, but I need to examine you.”

We stare at each other for a second. I simply nod.

He reaches for my right glove and slips it off, then takes the left.

My body is so weak I shake as I try to sit up. “Wait, you mean… up here?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Why not on the ground?”

“We… won’t be back on the ground for a while.” “How long is ‘a while’?”

“In this case, a while is roughly ten months. Give or take.”

I break into a laugh. He has to be kidding. But his expression is blank, his face a mask of concentration.

“Are you serious?” “I am.”

I glance around the capsule. We won’t last more than a few weeks up here. Then I remember the other capsules, the rockets depositing them into orbit like tin cans floating in space.

“What’s the plan?”

“Commander, we’re very short on time.”

“Please. The short version. And call me Emma.”

He nods. “Okay, Emma. I’m a member of a team that’s been sent to survey the artifact.”

My eyebrows knit together, and he reads my confusion.

“The vessel the probe found—the image you sent back to Earth before the ISS was destroyed.”

“The other capsules that were launched. They’re going to assemble.” “That’s right. Into two ships. The Pax and Fornax.”

“You’re not here for me.”

“You’re not the primary objective, but rescuing you is very much part of the mission I signed up for.”

“They gave you a choice?” He pauses. “Yes.”

“And you said yes.”

“I did. I said I’d do whatever I could to bring you home. Fowler, everyone down there at mission control—they care very much about you. They went to great lengths to make this happen in a very short amount of time.”

I’m overcome with emotion. Gratitude. Humility. I feel so lucky. I can feel the tears welling in my eyes, but I blink them away and inhale sharply,

hoping he can’t tell.

“Okay. What next?”

“In the next ten minutes, the Guiana Space Centre is going to launch the last capsule.”

“And then?”

“Then we wait and see if the artifact reacts the way it did to the ISS.” “You mean, we see if it tries to destroy us.”

“Yes. Or simply throws us away from Earth’s orbit and tosses some debris at us. Either way, whatever capsules remain will assemble after that. It’s going to be hectic. We need to be ready.”

“That’s why you want to do the exam now.”

“I need to see if you have any existing trauma that needs to be treated.

It’s going to be very busy after the ships assemble.”

My mind is racing, trying to process this. I was due to come home from the ISS in a month. Another ten months in space? My bone density can’t take it. Assuming we even get back.

But that’s a future problem. I have to deal with my current problems.

And figure out who I’m dealing with. “What’s your name?”

“James. Sinclair.”

The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t place it. “You’re a doctor?”

He hesitates. “Yes.” “I’m sensing a but.”

“But I never practiced. I’m also a mechanical engineer. A robotics and AI designer.”

Didn’t see that coming. He answers my next question before I ask. “I’m going to build the drones that will survey the artifact.”

Going to?”

“Yeah, en route.” “Interesting.”

“It will be. But right now, I need to get your suit off.” I can’t help but smile and raise an eyebrow.

“For strictly medical purposes,” he adds quickly. “Says the non-practicing doctor.”

“Yeah, well, I’m the best doctor in this capsule, I can assure you.”

It’s a mediocre joke, but when he smiles, I can’t help but smile too. I like his smile. And I like him. I feel comfortable with him, for whatever reason.

“All right, best doctor in this capsule, proceed.”

He reaches down and unclasps the lower torso assembly of the suit. “I’m a little rusty, but it’s like riding a bike.” He slides the lower torso off and glances up. “Physical exams, that is.”

“Of course.”

I hold my arms up and the upper torso assembly comes off. He must have removed my helmet and communications cap before, when he was doing CPR.

Beneath the outer suit, astronauts wear a liquid-cooled ventilation garment. It’s basically a jump suit with tubing running all over. It keeps us cool up here inside the virtual oven the EMU creates. From James’s report, my ventilation garment must have kept me too cool.

He and I work together until the ventilation garment’s off and I’m lying in my long johns—basically standard cotton underwear, long-sleeve shirt and pants, that wicks away sweat. Even though there’s not much gravity up here, some astronauts wear bras. It’s personal preference. Some wear them to hide the outline of their body, some out of habit. I wore a sports bra during the hours I exercised each day. I’m not wearing one now. The only thing I have on under the long johns is a diaper, and I know it’s probably full to the brim with urine.

I glance at the camera in the corner. I’m about to do a strip show for half of NASA and who knows who else. In space, survival trumps modesty, but I can’t help feeling like a kid on a school field trip who’s just been discovered wetting her pants. The whole class is watching.

He follows my gaze to the camera. “They’re off. Figured the extra bandwidth and comm traffic might trigger another solar event.”

I exhale. “Understood.” My heart’s still beating like a drum. “It’s just you and me here. All I want to do is help you.”


That’s about all I can manage to say at the moment.

He doesn’t move. Only waits for me to initiate. He’s giving me control

—the option of whether to remove the top or bottom first.

My hands shaking, I hook my thumbs through the waistband of the pants and tug them downward. His hands join mine on the band, and he

pulls them off and dives down, closer to my pelvis.

“I’m going to apply some pressure. If it hurts, say ‘pain’ and then a number from one to ten—ten being the worst pain you’ve ever felt. If the pain changes, call out a new number.”


His hands press into my groin, gentle at first, probing, then more forceful. His face is only a few inches from my thighs. He looks up, his eyes meeting mine. I shake my head quickly, telling him I understand, but there’s no pain.

His hands work down my legs, always gentle at first, then firm and forceful, his head down, eyes raking over every square inch of my body.

On my left thigh, a bolt of pain shoots through me. “Pain. Two.”

He applies more pressure. The pain amplifies, then plateaus. “Three.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. It’s not that bad.”

“Just a bruise. No fracture.”

On my right knee, pain blossoms as he extends my leg and moves it side to side.

“Pain. Three.”

“Another bruise.”

There are half a dozen other bruises—nothing that rates above a two.

My right ankle is the worst. I wince as he wiggles it around. “Pain. Four.”

He’s methodical, moving it around, pressing with his fingers. “How about now?”


He looks up. “Sprain. Not bad though. No torn ligaments or fractures.” He takes a tube from the med kit and spreads a tingly balm all over.

“This is a topical analgesic. It’ll reduce the inflammation and help you heal. Try to favor your other foot for now.”

He wraps it tight, checking periodically to make sure it’s not too tight, then floats up toward my chest and once again waits.

My nerves ratchet up again. I think he’s waiting for me to take my shirt


But I’m wrong. He takes charge, reaches out, grabs my shoulders, and softly says, “I’m going to turn you over.”

I roll in the weightlessness of space, and he tugs my shirt off. I watch it float free ahead of me as his hands touch my lower back and begin working upward.

“Two,” I whisper.

This time he rubs some cream on my back, taking his time, hands gently massaging me.

He touches pain points three more times as he works his way up, hands moving over my back and sides, into my ribs as I float face-down.

My neck is sore (a two), and my shoulders and arms are bruised but require no treatment.

“Fowler told me what happened aboard the ISS.” He squeezes my hand then works his way down each finger. “You were very brave. And smart.”

“I was lucky.”

“True. And brave and smart.”

I feel myself blushing. I’m glad he can’t see me. A bolt of pain shoots out from my left pinky finger. I almost welcome it to change the subject.


He squeezes and twists the finger. “Another sprain. Not broken. I could tape it, but you won’t get back in the suit gloves.”

“It’s okay. Leave it.”

His hands return to my shoulders. I’m waiting for him to roll me over.

But he doesn’t.

“I figure you can do a self-exam on your torso.”

My heart is about to explode out of my chest. If he checks my pulse, he’ll probably treat me for hypertension.

I remind myself: survival trumps modesty. I reach out, brace against the capsule wall, and roll over and face him, staring straight into his eyes.

“Please. Finish.”

He swallows hard and breaks eye contact. He scans me, his hands reaching out, thumbs running along my left and right clavicles.


“Probably the neck pain radiating.”

I realize I’m holding my breath. I try to exhale casually, but I know he can feel my heart beating like a drum.

His hands never touch my breasts, they slide around and below, and I groan in pain.


He presses and kneads with his fingers. “Five.”

“Bruised rib. Unlikely it’s fractured. Nothing to do for it.” My abs are bruised too.

His hands stop at the top of the diaper—the last thing I have on. He doesn’t remove it. Gently, he says, “You’re in amazing shape. Given what you went through.”

“You think so?”

His eyes lock on mine. “Know so.”

We stare at each other, for how long I have no idea. Could be a second or a minute or an hour. The world stands still—until a boom shatters the silence and the capsule slams into us, me on top of him, and we’re hurtling through space.

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