Copyright 2006, 2020, Lisa Summers
“Oxygen recirculation systems – go,” Sam said. I glanced at her – had there been hesitation in that response?
“You sure?” I asked.
“Yes…I did say ‘go,'” she responded, maybe a little irked. Her vaguely almond-shaped violet eyes flashed at me, though her naturally blonde hair indicated her mixed ancestry.
“I’m sorry, it’s just me,” I replied. “My husband says I’m a ‘little’ controlling. I’ll get over it, I promise.”
“No worries,” she replied in her soft New Zealand accent. Or maybe it was Australian, I’m no good at identifying those kinds of things. You’d think an army brat would be.
“Temp control?” I asked, consulting the checklist.
“Uhh…temp control A-Ok,” she said. She pushed back from the console, and then caught herself before she crashed into the panel behind her holding about a dozen science experiments.
“Oops,” she giggled.
“Yeah, it takes getting used to, no matter how many rides you’ve taken on the Vomit Comet,” I replied, using the nickname astronauts had bestowed long before Sam or me for the airplanes – currently a modified Boeing 727 – used to simulate zero gravity conditions like those found in the International Space Station.
“Okay, that’s it, then. Looks like we’ll make it another day,” I said with a smile.
“That’s good to know. It’s darned cold out there, and not a whole lot of air,” Sam, short for Samantha Severson, said. She was originally from Queensland, Australia, and had also spent a fair amount of time in Auckland, New Zealand, which I suppose explains why her accent was difficult to pin down.
Her youth spent surfing had encouraged her to grow up long, tanned and quite beautiful. I supposed that her time in New Zealand had added her predilection for informal and rough clothing. She’d apparently been sheep farming there. I didn’t know much more than that, except that she was an expert in earth sciences, livestock, agronomy, agriculture, and some ‘miscellaneous sciences,’ and was in charge of overseeing the numerous ongoing experiments on the Station.
“Well, we’ve got enough air to last us, umm, theoretically forever, or until the reactor powering the CO2 scrubber gives out anyway. In practical terms, that’s forever, I guess,” I said, answering her comments.
“Jan, you’ve been up here for nearly 9 months now, aren’t you anxious to be back home?” Sam asked, her brow furrowed, her violet eyes intent on mine. Her normally long dark blonde hair was tied back in a bun, a very practical way of handling long hair in a gravity-free environment. She wore a tee shirt and gym shorts similar to those that I had adopted shortly after my arrival on the International Space Station almost nine months before. Sam had arrived just a month ago, and was still getting used to the cramped quarters, and adjusting to her one and only roommate, me.
I’m Jan Fredericks, a veteran pilot at age 28, graduate of the Naval Academy, married, no children, petite but shapely. Being fairly short makes my small breasts look much bigger, but I’d never received any complaints from my husband. My hair, unlike that of the new ‘surfer’ girl – my joke nickname for her on occasion – was dark and cut military short, a pixie style. And of course, given that I was an astronaut and a member of the military, rank Captain, also in very good physical condition.
“Yes, oh yes,” I replied wistfully. I missed my husband Tom quite a bit, and looked forward to my return to earth within the next three months. I absently brushed back my hair over my right ear, my blue eyes tearing a little, and then ran my fingers like a comb through my short cut hair from front to back. “Tom reminds me how much he misses me when we get a chance to talk, it gets hard. How about you, anyone keeping you thinking of earth?” I asked.
“Yeah, there’s…someone. I really miss…” Her voice trailed off. I think I understood how she felt by now, especially the first month of parting. I assessed Sam. A highly competent research scientist, in spite of looking like Australian Baywatch (a show from my childhood), she’d almost immediately gotten into tending the existing experiments and starting some new ones. Sam was a civilian, of course, and can I say it? I would have killed to have hair that glossy and healthy!
She was tall, 5′ 9″, rounded and busty, very attractive. I figured on first seeing her that she had a ton of boyfriends, as she wasn’t married. She was way more intellectual than me, which I guess follows with our respective lines of work. She was one year older than me and quite accomplished at such a relatively youthful part of her life. I was used to science experts in their forties on the Station.
Me, I was one of a long series of flight jockeys whose job was to keep the Station in orbit over the earth. Not too far, not too close. Not all that different from a tugboat skipper, I guessed, except without old tires on the fender to keep from crashing into the dock. On the space station, we depended solely bursa escort on the shuttle to come and go, though there was a small escape capsule, an old Soyuz capsule from the Russians. That was pretty much theoretical, though, since it had never been used.
Sam and I had talked a lot over the last month, there’s not a whole lot to do after you get through the mandatory daily activity. She’d been pretty mysterious about her love life, but, it was none of my business anyway. The last thing you want to do with your sole roommate is pry into her life, or piss her off. I mean, it’s not like you can avoid each other! As a result, we’d tiptoed around the issues of private lives, and confined our discussions to other things.
The beeper at the com console went off, and Sam went windmilling by me, her legs and arms spinning as she dove for the headset. I heard a muttered “Shit!” as she sped by, her ponytail spinning in time with her body. She still wasn’t used to the lack of gravity, and the ‘equal and opposite reactions’ that sometimes occurred when she made a movement. She managed to regain control, and steadied herself at the seat in front of the small TV camera.
“Hello, Houston!” she greeted the Communications Specialist on Earth. We couldn’t see him, but he could see us. It was 915 hours GMT, so it was probably Mike McConnell on the other end. He had the late shift, it being 2:15 AM in Houston. Time gets a little screwy in space, I guess. I really liked Mike, he reminded me of Tom, so I always pictured Tom’s face when talking to him.
Sam adjusted the headset, then said, “Oh, okay.” As she punched the ‘speaker’ button, I heard the slight staticky sound of a radio transmission, then Mike’s voice. “…hear me?” he said.
“Yuh,” we both barked out. “Loud and clear,” I added. After a few seconds delay, he responded. The delay was a normal part of earth to space back to earth communications.
“Good. Look, I’ve got Dr. Sandcroft here, he has something to tell you.” We both looked at each other. Dr. Ivan Sandcroft was the Director of Manned Space Flight Programs at NASA, and had previously only addressed us on a few occasions. Sam shrugged her shoulders.
“Hey, what’s the worst?” she asked me, sotto voce. “They’re gonna fire us?” I grinned at her.
“I could live with that,” I said. “At least, as long as relocation was involved.”
“Hello? Hello?” Dr. Ivan Sandcroft’s voice bellowed over the speaker, causing it to crackle a little. Like many other people who should know better, Dr. Sandcroft unconsciously thought he needed to shout in order to be heard.
“Uh, you’re coming in four by four, Doc,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Jan, is that you?” he asked. I resisted the temptation to ask him who else it might be.
“Yes sir,” I answered instead. “We weren’t expecting a transmission…”
“Ahh, uh, yes,” he answered. “Commander, we’ve noted an…anomaly…outside of the orbit of Mars, and wanted to make you aware of it.”
“Anomaly, sir?” Sam asked, beating me to it by a nanosecond.
“Umm, there appears to be an object headed this way,” Sandcroft said.
“Yes, sir?” we both said in unison, still not clear what the concern might be. All kinds of space junk is either circling earth in a slowly decaying orbit, or small meteoroids are crashing into the atmosphere below us. If people knew how much junk from decades of space program efforts by literally dozens of nations circled the Earth, they’d be shocked. (It’s in the thousands.)
There was even talk of a mummified cosmonaut from the ’60’s still circling the earth, though I don’t know how much truth there was to that story. Less frequently were sightings of debris larger than a pinhead.
“I’ll spell it out plainly,” Sandcroft said. “It’s very small, perhaps the size of a car, but our magnetometer readings indicate that it’s extremely, extremely dense.”
“Iron meteroid, sir?” I ventured. “Some heavier metal?”
“Um, no,” he answered, after the delay. “It’s nothing we’ve ever encountered here before. One of our physicists believes it might be a black hole. Another group, a study group, thinks it might be a piece of anti-matter. ” The silence after that statement lengthened far beyond the normal delay. Either one of those theoretically could be catastrophic if they hit the Earth.
Finally, Sam asked, “What does that mean…to us and…Earth?”
“Unknown, Doctor Severson,” he responded. “As you know, we really know very little about black holes or anti-matter. Black holes, of course, are thought to be collapsed stars, which have become so dense that nothing that comes within range can escape their gravitational pull. Not even visible light. Hence the name, ‘black hole.’ Anti-matter, on the other hand, is an entirely theoretical class of matter believed to be incompatible with matter. Thus, it would be very difficult for us to handle and study anti-matter, much less find any. Er, until now, possibly. Why, I remember a conference in Paris in 2017 at which it was theorized-“
“Um, bursa ucuz escort Doc, so you all know something’s coming, you just don’t know what it is, or what it’ll do when it gets here,” I summarized.
“Well, yes, that’s it precisely, Jan.” He added, “The Tunguska blast in Siberia in 1908, which flattened a good part of the countryside for miles around, was thought by some to be a piece of anti-matter the size of a pinhead. Unless it was a black hole. Or, an asteroid.” I rolled my eyes at Sam.
Sandcroft continued. “And we can’t even tell how big it actually is. It appears to be the size of a car, but it could be the size of a baseball, or the size of a continent. We can’t get it focused in with our visual wavelength telescopes. We just don’t know.”
His next words were chilling.
“And as far as we can tell, it’s headed toward Earth.” There was a long silence then. I had no idea what to say, nor did it appear that Sam knew.
“We’re expecting, at the very least, an extinction level event. Worse case, the earth itself will be destroyed. I’m sorry,” Sandcroft finished. There was only the hiss of static then, for a few long seconds.
I heard a sob from Sam, and turned to see her face crumpled in fear, or sorrow, or both. I imagine I looked much the same. I had trouble catching my breath.
“We’ll keep you updated as best we can,” Sandcroft said. “We considered bringing you two back in an emergency rescue, but to what? In any case, if it hits us, it’ll be within the week. We expect Earthfall by the 17th, 6 days from now.”
“What do you want us to do, sir?” I asked.
“Continue on with your activities as scheduled,” he said, his voice tinny. “If the object misses us, your experiments won’t have been disturbed. If it doesn’t, well, I guess your schedule then will be up to you. I’ll be in touch with you every four hours, and keep you updated. Pray for us…and yourselves. Signing off now.”
Sam and I sat in silence, and then I heard her softly crying next to me. I turned to look at her, tears, in spite of the lack of gravity, rolling down her cheeks. I began crying too, and I took her in my arms, the touch of another human being the only familiar thing in that inhuman environment. Her body was heaving as she sobbed, and I felt relief that she could express my feelings for me, as I strove to keep us from completely collapsing.
We stayed like that for nearly an hour, and then both fell asleep, only waking when we floated off into the side wall. I led Sam to her seat, and buckled her in, then did the same for myself, and we slept some more, until the next time that Sandcroft called us. His updates didn’t do anything to relieve our fear, but we came to treasure them as possibly the last time we’d ever speak to, or listen to, another human being besides ourselves.
I appreciated more than I could express, his putting Tom on to speak to me, before the end, his voice so wistful and tragic to me, but so precious in its rarity. I held myself in check, as I knew that the only other choice was to break down completely. Tom expressed his undying love for me, and I, mine for him. We knew we were sharing it with the world, at least that portion of the world that wasn’t looting, or committing suicide, as news of the impending calamity had gotten out quickly.
I was mildly surprised when Sam, too, expressed her love, but to a woman named Kristin. It didn’t make me think less of her, by any means, it was just unexpected. I tried not to overhear her conversation, but practically speaking, that’s impossible on a space station, and in any case, the world heard it too. I was surprised at how normal it was, at least considering the circumstances. I mean, it was the same as would occur between a man and woman.
The days passed quickly, far too quickly, until we were on a final countdown and all was clear. We in the space station would not be directly affected by the object. It turned out to be about 500 meters in diameter, but far denser than any known asteroid.
It certainly wouldn’t hit such a small object as ours, and its kinetic energy, released throughout the earth itself, like a dum dum bullet shattering a human head, wouldn’t likely reach up into space in any meaningful way that would affect us.
We, Samantha and I, would become bystanders then, observers of the destruction of a good part of the biosphere of earth. The planet itself might survive, quite capably, but as to how much of any species, much less homo sapiens, would survive, was unknowable. The last time such an event of this magnitude had happened had been about 65 million years ago, when most of the dinosaurs, and many other species, had been wiped out by both the collision of an asteroid with the earth in the vicinity of the Gulf of Mexico, and by the conditions that followed it.
Dr. Sandcroft had told us of what to expect, and to our shock and horror, that’s pretty much how it went. There was a bright streak of light, beginning bursa elit escort at the upper edges of earth’s atmosphere, impossibly small and thin, just a toothpick being stuck into an apple. A smaller flash of light followed the first, like a pilot fish after a shark. Perhaps a broken off piece of the object.
Where the toothpick stuck into the apple, however, the fruit rotted and turned greenish-gray, a ripple of destruction and decay radiating outward over the globe. The object struck somewhere around Spain, and Europe disappeared quickly, then the rest of the globe gradually disappeared in a weird gray haze. It was nothing like the wave of destruction we had been told about, but obviously of global proportions. It was impossible to know what happened from that point on, as the entire globe was eventually wrapped in the weird grey cottony mantle. Watching the tragedy, I was suddenly overcome and blacked out, but only briefly. Apparently Sam did too, I supposed it was the shock of watching the end of the world.
Radio transmissions disappeared, not just those from Houston, but all others too on all bands. Sam and I were left in silence, as life on earth gave itself up. Silence, like a mighty scream, filled what we thought might be the last outpost of humanity. Sam and I had already cried our tears for Tom, and for Kristin, for our families and for all mankind. We had to consider our future, but for now we could only mourn without tears.
The next couple of days were the closest I can ever imagine to hell, as we observed, and took what few notes we could. Truth to tell, what was there to note? The earth was hidden behind an impenetrable cocoon of clouds, and there were no radio, television or any other kinds of transmissions that we could detect. I think that we were both in shock, and I think it was definitely for the best, so that we could ignore the pain surrounding us.
We both skated numbly through the station, attending to our self-assigned duties, hiding behind routine. It was two weeks later that we finally broke down, and, I think, began to move on. It all started with a simple request.
“Sam, would you get me the chronometer from the drawer behind you?” I asked.
She looked up at me.
“I’m busy right now with this calculation, I’ll get it in a minute,” she said, a small hint of sharpness in her voice.
“Look, it’s right there. Just toss it across, I’ll catch it, I played softball at the Academy,” I said.
“Goddamnit, I said I’d get it for you in a minute,” Sam snapped at me. “And I don’t really appreciate you trying to be a fucking comedian.” Then she said something that I just barely caught.
“What did you say?” I said sharply, and glided across the station to glare at her from inches away.
“I said, ‘Bitch!'” she said, her jaw jutting out defiantly. “I’ve had about enough of your ordering me around. I’m not your fucking slave.”
“Call me a bitch?” I huffed. “You’re the one who’s acting like a snotty little stuck up cunt around here!”
“Fuck you, you wanker! Get away from me!” she yelled, giving me a push. Of course that moved me as well as her, in opposite directions. For some reason that infuriated me, and I slapped at her, my open palm missing her face by inches. It probably would have ended things, shocking us both, if I’d connected then, but we both began screaming and wrestling, tearing at each other.
Fighting in zero-G is really pretty unpleasant, as we rolled through the small space of the cabin, smashing into the thankfully padded walls, trying to get a stranglehold on each other. Every time one would get a grip on the other, the reaction would allow the other to escape, which only maddened us both further.
We were screaming, slapping, punching and pulling at each other for about five minutes, both of us bruising, fortunately not suffering any serious injury, when our shouts began to turn to sobs, our grabbing at each other becoming less and less that of anger and a desire to hurt, and more and more a reaching out to find another human being to find comfort and solace in.
Our death grips turned to grips of desperation, as we realized that we had both been immensely hurt by events, yet we had suffered nothing in comparison to the rest of mankind. We cried out, each of us then, not in anger and hate, but in a feverish despair, in search of the other, and we came together in a frenzy, much like that they say couples experience in time of desperation.
Somewhere in the dim recesses of the lizard brain inside each of us, is the response to procreate, to mate, when the race is threatened. Men and women will couple as though filled with lust, when they know they’re doomed, an atavistic effort to keep the human race going just one day longer. Sam and I were no different. We were locked together in an embrace of grief, two women mourning our losses, our bodies sweating, our breathing rapid and shallow, our emotions completely out of control.
I became acutely aware of the feeling of Sam’s body against mine, her breasts jutting into mine through the fabric of our NASA tee shirts, the incredible heat of her body, the smell of her body’s intimate fragrance mingling with the smell of her animal sweat, her long hair floating free around us, her fingers against my head, grabbing at my short hair.