I wrote this last night while I was on a flight back to home. Yes, freaking yourself out by writing a space drama while at 38,000 feet is a great idea. Not. This one has a twist in the tail.
Decommissioning the International Space Station required a very precise plan, but even the best plans could not factor in every ‘x’. An old space vehicle that had been cobbled together the longer it stayed in space, there were modifications and necessary fixes that didn’t show up on the shared schematics. If a problem was going to arise, it would most likely begin with one of those.
The decommissioning crew were now down to a skeleton crew; only three were left aboard, and they were in the final hours before they’d shut the station down and return to Earth. The ISS, having been stripped over months, was now only a fraction of the size it had grown to, and it was to be put into a decaying orbit that would see it mostly burn up on reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
“There’s ice in the telemetry arm,” Gordon said into his throat mic. It was true that as the ISS powered down some small problems and glitches occurred, but this particular one held no foreseeable problem. Communications would be shifted over to the shuttle soon enough, and with it the need for onboard telemetry would be redundant. He grunted as he stood from the uncomfortable crouch that had numbed his legs and locked his knees. “We copy ice in the telemetry arm, Gordon,” replied the tinny voice from Mission Control. There was nothing else to be said; it was merely an acknowledgement.
Gordon moved on easily, the artificial gravity now in the wind-down phase. In minutes it would be time to fit his helmet, when the oxygen ran thin. After that, all that would be left operating in climate control would be the heating that would keep them alive until they boarded the shuttle. He popped two of the pills marked for today that he’d been given at pre-launch, and he fitted his helmet.
“Life support systems shutdown in T minus one-five minutes … mark,” said Casparich, one of the two Russians on board. “Copy one-five minutes mark,” said Ilyanov, the other Russian. Nothing came from Gordon, and so Casparich repeated his updated time mark. Still no reply, and so he toggled Ilyanov and said he was going to check on Gordon. Just as he came out of the boarding tunnel between the ISS and the shuttle, Gordon came around from the Dock Control area and, seeing Casparich, he tapped the side of his helmet and made a ‘throat cutting’ gesture. So that was it; Gordon’s helmet was malfunctioning and his mic had cut out. Casparich held up his thumb to gesture understanding, and he kept coming up the tunnel.
Procedure dictated that Casparich had to do a visual check of Gordon’s helmet and then if a quick solution couldn’t be found, he’d help Gordon change his helmet before the residual air became too thin. Gordon made another cutting gesture, as if to say he didn’t need help, but Casparich kept coming. It was the procedure.
As Casparich reached the end of the tunnel Gordon leapt forward, pushing the Russian hard in the chest and signalling him to turn back into the tunnel. Casparich moved to toggle Ilyanov, and in that second Gordon hit the face plate of the Russian’s helmet with a heavy wrench. He hit it again, causing it to chip and slightly crack. Casparich, aware of and trained in space sickness, turned and began a low-gravity lope back down the tunnel. Gordon turned, overriding the door lock and pulling it shut, where he sealed and jammed the mechanism. He was alone in the ISS.
“Mission Control to Gordon. This is Pat, Gordon. We hear there’s a little bit of tension going on up there,” Pat said in a smooth and calm voice. Whatever the situation or emergency, the flight controllers back on Earth had been schooled in making their voice stay calm. Panic helped no one. “Mission Con …” his voice crackled again, before being cut off in mid-sentence. “I heard you the first time,” Gordon said, an edge of anger in his voice. There were a few seconds of silence and then “Copy that, Gordon. How are things going up there?” It sounded like a tearoom chat with one guy casually asking another what the weather was like outside. “Things are fucked, as if you didn’t know,” rasped Gordon.
After nearly twenty seconds of silence Gordon’s helmet crackled with diffused noise as Pat made contact again. “Gordon,” he said gently, “you need to breathe. Your vitals are spiking all over the place.” In the Control Room there was tense silence amid the undercurrent of fast activity. Gordon’s heart rate was skyrocketing and his respiration was shallow and ragged. “Get fucked!” was Gordon’s surprising reply before he shut down his helmet comms. In a second they’d been overridden by Control. “Gordon, what’s the problem?” the calm voice of Pat once more came through. “You are, you piece of shit,” Gordon snarled before committing himself to ignoring Pat completely.
“He’s going EVA!” said an alarmed controller, instantly alerting all other section controllers. It was true; Gordon had opened the inner airlock membrane and had walked with purpose to the outer airlock where even now he was tapping in the code to open the outer door. Quickly and deftly fastening himself to the running cord, he used the emergency override key to blow the door, resulting in immediate and catastrophic decompression. Gordon was, quite literally, sucked out into space with all the available air and atmosphere.
Yanked hard when he reached the end of the cord, Gordon began reeling himself back toward the ISS before quickly, recklessly, and dangerously making his way along the outer shell until he reached the shuttle tunnel. Reaching for the tools he’d strapped to his side, he chose a sharp-edged cutting tool and began hacking at the material of the tunnel wall. It began shredding under the onslaught, and the low-level chatter that had filled his helmet now became shrill. Small jets of atmosphere began erupting from the torn tunnel, and inside the shuttle Casparich had to do an emergency airlock procedure or face losing atmosphere.
In some small recess of his mind Gordon registered that Ilyanov was not aboard the shuttle, but had been in the Control room of the ISS when Gordon had sabotaged the exit mechanism to the tunnel. Gordon hadn’t intended that but neither did he give a fuck about it. With a satisfying grunt the cutting tool opened a long and ragged tear in the tunnel fabric. Just one more thing to do.
He pushed off from the tunnel, free-floating between it and the ISS, until he came into contact with the ISS just feet away from his next target. Clumsily but effectively, he began hammering the main feeder box that housed the gyroscopic controls. The housing had not been developed with an assault like this in mind, and it gave way easily. Reaching in, Gordon tore at the wires. The ISS had just lost the ability to autonomously control its direction and stability.
Gordon knew exactly what to do. He had disabled telemetry and antennae, and with them the only hope Mission Control had of remotely commandeering the ISS. That the ISS would reenter the Earth’s atmosphere was certain. Where or at what pitch was now unknown, although those experts in Control were working on answers.
Gordon felt a mild vibration, a tremor, through the skin of the ISS, and through his blazing hatred he registered that the shuttle had made an emergency breakaway, blowing the bolts that held it to the tunnel. He vaguely registered Casparich’s helmeted face against a porthole, staring at him in disbelief, as the shuttle moved away from the ISS.
The shuttle stayed with the ISS, running parallel with it for as long as it was practical. In the silence of space it finally broke off and became a dim dot before disappearing into the distance. As the ISS broke into the Earth’s atmosphere Gordon positioned himself directly outside of a porthole in the Control room. Ilyanov came to the other side of the glass, looking through it and directly into Gordon’s eyes. He saw nothing but madness in them.
Accelerating through the atmosphere now, the air around the ISS rapidly began climbing the register toward superheating. Gordon was wrenched free of his position and he tumbled along the outside skin until his cord caught and left him dangling. It soon snapped under intense heat and pressure, and he was gone. Without its heat shields raised, the ISS soon burned and tore itself apart in a thunderous explosion.
Back on Earth, even though they knew the outcome before it occurred, everyone in Mission Control was stunned into silence. One person in particular, a medical orderly who had been a friend of Gordon, felt like he couldn’t breathe. He’d been the one who, for a joke, had replaced two complex vitamin pills with two homemade placebo laced with a little methamphetamine. He had thought it’d give Gordon a mild buzz, to add to his excitement, but he hadn’t considered the effects on a body that had been in space for six months and was under duress.
Now he knew.