Sergey Vasiliev stares out the window, eyes wide. No matter how many times he sees it, it makes his spirit soar.
“Really Sergey? It’s not like you haven’t seen a sunrise before. In fact, you see it every ninety-two minutes. That’s like a bajillion since you’ve been on this mission.”
Sergey smiles and shrugs his shoulders. He looks back at Kiyoko Watanabe as she pulls the daily calendar page, wads it into a ball, and releases it, watching it float away.
“Seven days and a wake-up,” she says, a smile spreading across her face. “Going to make it home for Aimi’s fifth birthday!” She moves her hand to her lips, then to the picture above the daily calendar. “Goodbye International Space Station—hello baby girl!”
A glint of light pulls him back to the window and he watches the sun become visible above the curvature of the earth. Glorious. A new day, and all the hope and promise that comes with it.
“Good morning ISS crew.”
“Mornin’ Houston,” Mission Commander Jules Rousseau says in his best Texas drawl.
‘There you go, Commander,” the mission controller cheers him.
Sergey can hear the laughter in the background. With the sun fully visible, he abandons his window on the world and starts for the breakfast area.
“Who’s picking the music this morning, Commander?”
“My turn, Jules!” Kiyoko says in a sing-song voice.
“Please let it be, ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” Jules mock pleads.
“In your dreams, my French Cowboy. This morning I want a little ‘Pepper’ with my breakfast,” Kiyoko declares.
“Nooo,” Jules wailes. “Sergey requested them yesterday, remember? ‘Back in the USSR?’
“Jeez, Jules. Not the Beatles ‘Sergeant Pepper,’ Just ‘Pepper.’ You know… the Butthole Surfers.”
“Butthole Surfers? Why would anyone request music by a band called the Butthole Surfers?”
“In honor of you,” Kiyoko informs him, “You know…because you’re an asshole.”
Sergey laughs hard at the unexpected retort.
“Is that Sergey laughing?” the mission controller asks, his voice incredulous.
“Don’t know, Control. Never heard him laugh. Not sure I’ve even heard him speak,” Jules teases.
* * *
Breakfast was always Sergey’s favorite meal. He recalls his childhood, sitting with his parents at the breakfast table enjoying butterbrots and kasha, his parents chirping about his mother’s writing or papa’s work in the lab at the university, then shifting their attention to him, enraptured by his accounts of school. The optimism of his parents at the start of each day sustained him, regardless of what the day might later bring.
On the ISS, the crew typically gathered for meals, and over the mission, Sergey had grown quite fond of his crewmates, especially Jules and Kiyoko. Though each was involved in serious work weighted by immense responsibility, their macaronic banter was eurhythmic, always bringing a joy to the table that attenuated the pressure of their mission. It was reminiscent of his childhood, the optimism sustaining him through the loneliness of months in space. He adored listening to Kiyoko’s stories of Aimi—how her face lit up when she spoke of her daughter, who at the age of four, was already using computers as well as children twice her age. “She’ll be twice the computer scientist that I am,” Kiyoko predicted.
Jules’ stories often involved his family’s vineyard and how much he loved giving tours, especially to schoolchildren. “They’re our future, Sergey,” he would insist, and Sergey was thrilled when Jules had asked him to assist him in presenting a biology lesson that would be transmitted to the schoolchildren in his hometown in a few short hours.
The time in space had given Sergey time to think about his own future. His status as ISS astronaut elevated his already impressive engineering resume, and he was certain that when this mission was over he would have a choice of opportunities that would assure him of a comfortable, if not lucrative lifestyle. Maybe then, Larissa would take his marriage proposal seriously. He imagined their marriage, followed by a honeymoon in Hawaii, and then a life together with three, maybe four children—
The alarm startles them, temporarily gorgonizing each before spurring them to action. Sergey allows the others to depart the compartment first, before propelling himself to his assigned station at the controls of the robotic arm.
“Commander, do you have a visual?”
“Where am I looking?” Jules asks.
“Port, eleven o’clock,” mission control tells him.
Sergey looks out the window. In the distance he can see it and he readies himself at the controls of the robotic arm. With an estimated half-million objects in space and less than forty-three thousand tracked, close approaches occasionally occur and a collision course is a constant concern.
“See, it,” Jules says.
“Can you calculate its trajectory?” Mission control asks.
“On it,” Kiyoto tells them.
Sergey can feel the tension through the silence. “What are we tracking?” he asks.
“Mobile Satellite,” the mission controller says, brusquely.
“J2000 projects it to be on course for intersect with 2015-158A. ETI three minutes. Approximate distance from ISS, one kilometer.”
“What satellite is mobile?” Sergey asks.
“2016-0027,” comes the terse reply from mission control.
“Malfunction?” Jules asks.
Sergey looks out the window, but can no longer see the satellite. “Are we a safe distance?”
“We’re safe,” Jules assures him. “Resume normal activities.”
“Negative on resuming normal activities, ISS. Prepare for maneuver,” Mission Control instructs.
“What’s going on?” Sergey asks, but his question goes unanswered.
On the closed channel, Jules tells them, “Meet me in Unity Node.”
Sergey is the first to arrive, his distance from the robotic arm only a few meters from Unity Node.
Kiyoko is next, and they hear Jules moving toward them. Sergey doesn’t like the way she is frowning and avoiding his eyes.
“What’s going on, Jules?” Sergey demands.
“This could be bad. A maneuver is precautionary, in case we are targeted.”
“Targeted? Who would be targeting us? Why?”
“You know the scenarios, Sergey.”
“Guys, I don’t think it’s us. The target, I mean.” Kiyoko looks at each of the men. “2016-0027, that’s the North Korean satellite, and it’s either malfunctioned or is deliberately being maneuvered on an intercept course with U.S. early warning.”
“What does this mean?” Sergey asks, looking from Jules to Kiyoko.
“We’re not sure, Sergey. Maybe nothing. Maybe the children are playing games, you know, trying to frighten each other again,” Kiyoko says with a shrug, though her tone makes the reassurance feel disingenuous.
“Well they need to stop with the games,” Sergey says, “it’s dangerous and irresponsible.”
Jules puts a hand on his shoulder. “Look, Sergey, we don’t know what it means, so there is no point getting worked up about it. We just need to focus on our training and hope for the best.”
“ISS, maneuver commencement in one minute. Recommend crew move to Quest,” mission control announces.
Kiyoko puts her hand on Sergey’s back and gives a gentle pat before following Jules to the conjoined Quest airlock. Sergey follows and within seconds, they are in.
“Mission control, we are prepared for maneuver,” Jules announces.
“Copy, initiating thrusters.”
During past maneuvers, the movement of the ISS to maintain altitude or avoid debris had been so slight that Sergey could offset the effect by placing a pinkie finger against a fixed object. This time, Sergey feels his body shift as the station moves.
“Do you feel that?” Kiyoko asks.
Jules gives a slow nod.
“They’re trying to move us in a hurry, Sergey says as he checks his watch. For the next three minutes, no one speaks.
“Mission control to ISS Crew, we request one of you go to the cupola for visual confirmation.”
“Roger, control. Confirmation of what?” Jules asks.
“US Space Command has lost data from 2015-158A.”
“Shit,” Kiyko moans.
“Exactly,” mission control answers.
“I’ll go,” Jules volunteers.
“Me too,” Sergey says, giving an apologetic shrug to Kiyoko.
They move through Unity to Tranquility and then to the Cupola, the entire trip taking less than two minutes. Sergey follows Jules in, head first, their legs protruding into the Tranquility node.
“Kiyoko, can you give us those coordinates again?” Jules requests.
Sergey cranes his neck, turning to see anything that appears out of the ordinary, when in his periphery, he catches an intense flash.
“What was that?” Sergey yells.
“Mission control to ISS, US Space Command is reporting launch of ICBM.”
“Sacre bleu,” Jules exclaims, covering his face with his hands.
“No, no, this can’t be—,” Kiyoko says, her voice breaking.
Sergey looks through the cupola glass at the earth and sees intense flashes up and down the Korean peninsula and in nearby Japan and China.
“Stop, please stop,” Sergey moans.
“What, Sergey? What’s going on?” Kiyoko asks, alarm rising in her voice.
Sergey feels a hand on his forearm. Jules is shaking his head.
“Kiyoto, what is our current altitude?” Jules asks.
His question goes unanswered as they continue their eastwardly orbit over the Pacific. They watch in horror as a missile streaks past them in its downward trajectory. From the waters off the Hawaiian Islands, sagittate projectiles rise on an intercept course.
“Yes,” Sergey says, for the first time feeling something akin to hope.
“Wha—?” Jules yelps as his body jerks downward.
“Move,” Kiyoko says as she projects herself past him into the cupola.
She twists, and Sergey knows she is trying to locate Japan, but he can’t take his eyes off the missiles shooting towards each other. Suddenly, where there had been one downward missile, there are many.
“Where is it?” Kiyoko cries. “Where is Japan?”
“It’s out of visual range,” Jules calls up.
“Mission control, MIRV’s deployed over Hawaii,” Sergey reports.
“What the fuck is a MIRV?” Kiyoko says, still searching for Japan.
“Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle,” Jules says, his voice deflating.
Kiyoko glances down at him before twisting her head side to side while Sergey continues looking toward Hawaii. Her sharp intake of breath causes him to turn. “What?”
He can see they are just off the California coastline and Kiyoko stares, mouth open in horror, at the streaks emanating from the ground.
Sergey follows her gaze, sees the myriad of lines streaking into the sky in long arcs from California and the Washington coastline. The intense flash from the west causes them both to cry out and cover their eyes.
Sergey feels Kiyoko brush against him as she departs the cupola.
“Let me see,” Jules says, and Sergey imagines him pulling Kiyoto’s hands from her face so he can inspect her eyes.
Sergey hears her crying, but the sound is interrupted by audio warnings. He rubs his burning eyes, trying to restore his vision while simultaneously attempting to discern how many warnings and what they mean. For certain, the close proximity warning is alarming as well as an equipment failure warning. Is it the solar panels? He blinks a few times to clear his eyes. Is that a fire alarm?
“What’s happening Jules?”
“She’s okay,” Jules answers, elevating his voice above the alarms. “And you?”
“Okay. What about the alarms? What’s happening to the station?”
“Mission control, what’s the status of ISS?” Jules asks on the open channel.
For a few seconds there is silence, and then static.
“Mission control, come in.” Jules repeats.
More static, followed by a popping noise.
“Mission control, what’s happening?” Sergey yells.
“Mission control, come in now,” Kiyoko demands.
“Sergey,” Jules says looking into the cupola and pointing.
Sergey looks through the glass and gasps. To the west, a mushroom cloud rising far higher than the ISS, appears over Hawaii. “EMP,” he mumbles, knowing that no amount of yelling or insistence would restore communication with mission con
“We have to check the status of the station,” Jules insists.
“Stay,” Kiyoko sniffles, “I’ll go with Jules.”
Jules and Kiyoko disappear into Tranquility node and Sergey returns his attention to the cupola, where the view is disorienting. Satellites appear outside their normal orbits, and nothing seems to be in its normal place. He watches a weather satellite lose altitude, falling into the path of orbiting space junk where it is pummeled by debris, before breaking apart and assimilating into the mass. He witnesses several near misses and one spectacular collision which, thankfully, is far enough away to not impact ISS.
They are over Texas when he sees the first streaks rising above the north pole. The counter-launches from Kansas and Missouri are immediate, as is his nausea. Sergey leaves the cupola, struggling with dizziness and what feels like the start of a massive headache. He propels himself toward Quest, his heart racing as he pulls forward. Inside, he searches for the transdermal dimenhydrinate patch he hopes will bring him physical relief. Sergey finds it in the space suit and applies it to his arm. He closes his eyes and tries to will his heart to slow, his stomach to settle and his heart to stop breaking. He counts backwards from one hundred, reaching twenty-seven when the fire alarm goes silent. The other alarms have also abated and now, the only sounds are the proximity alarms.
He wants to believe this is good news, that Jules and Kiyoko are putting the station back in order. When his count reaches fifteen, he is interrupted.
“Sergey, can you hear me?”
“Yes, Jules, I hear you. Is everything back to normal?”
There is a slight hesitation and then, “Please meet us at Rassvet.”
Sergey bristles. Rassvet is the port where the Soyuz craft is docked. Were they considering leaving ISS?
“On my way, Jules.”
When Sergey reaches Rassvet, Jules is outside the Soyuz capsule, his face pale and grave. Looking past him, Sergey sees Kiyoko sitting inside, clutching the photo of Aimi to her chest.
Jules steps forward, taking Sergey’s forearm and directing him back towards Zarya module. “She’s insisting we return,” Jules says.
“Why, is life support failing?”
Jules shakes his head.
Jules shrugs. “The station’s still functional, though the navigational system is fried. We may be losing altitude, but that’s not what concerns her. She’s insisting we return so she can find her daughter. She said she’s leaving with or without us.”
Sergey looks from Jules to Kiyoko and back. “What do you think, Jules?”
Jules sighs. “For us, there are no good options.” He looks back at Kiyoko. “If I had a daughter, I would go back.”
* * *
From the Cupola, Sergey watches Kiyoko and Jules depart the ISS. He lifts his hand, though he doubts they can see him and immediately feels the intensity of loneliness. The pull starts in his stomach and radiates outward until he feels as if he’s been sucked into a blackhole. He’s over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge when he loses sight of them.
In his fantasy, Kiyoko and Jules splash safely off the coast of Japan, are picked up by a science vessel and taken to Tokyo where government leaders assist in reuniting her with Aimi. “It’s okay, mama,” Aimi will assure her, “the missiles didn’t work. Can we go to the festival and get Choco Bananas?”
The fantasy provides some relief and his spirit is bolstered again when Africa comes into view, the twilight revealing a continent unscathed. Perhaps the concatenation isn’t as catastrophic as he feared. He rubs his burning eyes. The emotion of the past hour has been exhausting. With eyes closed, he thinks of Larissa, wonders what she is doing, whether she is afraid and who is with her to provide comfort. He vows he will never leave her again…and his mind slips into unconsciousness.
* * *
His eyes pop open at the sound of the alarm. Through the cupola the earth is dark. How long has he been asleep? He checks his watch. He should be seeing the sunrise, but instead… He puts his hand to the glass and feels tiny vibrations. His head spins with the realization that he is in the midst of a pyrocumulonimbus cloud. Soon the entire station is vibrating, alarms blaring.
He recognizes the alarm for abandon station, and realizes that the ISS is in catastrophic danger. His eyes brimming with tears, he tries to imagine Kiyoko and Jules safely in Japan, reunited with Aimi. From his window on the world he begins humming a song, then singing, “Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. And I say, it’s alright…”
Image: Free-Photos via Pixabay