By Eric Choi
In Science Fiction by Scientists: An Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Michael Brotherton, Springer International Publishing, ISBN 978-3-319-41101-9, 2017, pp.161-180.
The International Space Station was dead.
From afar, the ISS outwardly looked much as I had remembered it, a long truss structure with four pairs of massive solar arrays and the stacked cluster of dull silver and off-white pressurized modules. But its attitude, its orientation, was wrong. The main truss was tangent to the limb of the Earth, but the gradient of gravity had pulled the stacked modules into a line pointing towards the surface of its planet of origin. As we approached, I saw insulation blankets that had once been pristine and white were now cracked and stained a yellowish brown. The solar panels looked drab and were pockmarked with ragged holes in various places. There were no lights in the windows.
I had been expecting to see this, and in fact the station was in somewhat better shape than I had feared, yet I could not help but be sad. Once upon a time, a lifetime ago it seemed, the ISS had been my home in orbit for five months. To see it like this was heartbreaking.
“Shénzhōu J-8, kāi shǐ fēi chuán duì jiē,” intoned Shěnyáng Mission Control over the radio, indicating clearance for approach and docking.
“Shì,” replied Commander Yuán Lìxúe. She turned to me. “Kristen, jì xù jiān kòng duì jiē mù biāo fāng xiàng.”
As I watched the range and range-rate numbers count down on the control panel, Commander Yuán grasped her hand controller and brought our spacecraft to within two hundred meters of the sprawling, lifeless complex. The rear thrusters fired, and we began to ease towards the docking port at a snail’s pace of a few centimeters per second. At ten meters, a proximity alert flickered on the screen. I overrode the warning, and we continued forward. Lìxúe aligned the white crosshairs on the screen squarely with the alignment target on the docking port.
Our spacecraft contacted the station with the slightest bump. Nothing happened.
I glanced at Lìxúe, expecting her to call down to Shěnyáng for instructions. Instead, she simply pulled us back a few meters from the port, fired the aft thrusters again, and rammed us home harder. This time, mechanical hooks and latches swung into place and locked the vehicles together.
Yuán Lìxúe and I were the first people to visit the International Space Station in over two years.
We were docked to the Poisk research module in the former Russian segment of the International Space Station. After going through the post-docking checklist, Lìxúe and I unstrapped ourselves and floated to the hatch at the end of the Shénzhōu’s orbital module.
Lìxúe asked Mission Control if they were receiving any telemetry from the station on environmental conditions. They said there was none. This was not surprising considering the station had no power, but it meant we were flying blind. There was no way to know what the environment was like on the other side of the hatch.
We adjusted our launch and entry suits, put on woolen hats, and donned oxygen masks. I threw the switch on my tank, breathed in deeply – and got nothing. The mask just collapsed around my face. I double-checked to ensure the switch was thrown. It was. I sucked in again, harder this time. The mask collapsed further around my face.
“Zěn me le?” Lìxúe asked. Her round open face was wrinkled and her black hair was streaked with grey. Unlike many Chinese her age, she did not dye her hair.
I told her my mask was not working. We went back to the Shénzhōu to look for a spare, eventually finding one in the descent module. I put on the new mask and flung the switch. This time, oxygen flowed.
Returning to the hatch, I grasped a small star-shaped valve and turned it. Holding up a finger, I felt air rushing into the station. The pressure in the Shénzhōu began to fall. Then, the flow stopped. The ISS was still airtight.
We opened the hatch. I dove ahead, but unexpectedly bumped into Lìxúe. We looked at each other. My startled annoyance quickly gave way to embarrassment as I realized my mistake. On this expedition, I was not the commander. I gave way, then followed Lìxúe into the station.
When the air hit my face, I realized how bitterly cold it was. Moisture from my exhalations froze in a tiny cloud around my face. I played my flashlight along the darkened bulkheads of the Russian research module. The beige walls and grey electronics boxes were covered with a thin coating of ice. Mold from past occupations was frozen on the panels.
My gas detector did not register any toxic fumes. I lifted my mask and took a cautious sniff, followed by a deeper breath. The air was very cold, but it seemed to be all right.
“Zhǐ huī yuan huì bào wēn dù?” Mission Control wanted to know the temperature.
We looked at our thermometers, and I was surprised to discover that the scale only went to zero degrees Celsius.
Lìxúe suddenly turned, and spat on the wall. I tried to hide my disgust. She looked at her watch, timing how long it took for her saliva to freeze. Twelve seconds. “Líng xià shí dù,” she declared. Minus ten degrees Celsius – a rather bracing Minnesota winter, I thought to myself.
We continued into the station, floating through the Poisk module into a small connecting node, where we did a ninety degree turn through a hatchway into the Zvezda service module. I opened the window shades to admit a little sunshine, but it was still terribly cold. With the interior lights out, the narrow fields of illumination from the windows and our flashlights created stark and eerie shadows behind the angular equipment. Sunlight streaming through the small windows lit up myriads of dancing motes and drifting rubbish. A small photograph tumbled by, and I reached out to grab it. The cherubic face of a little boy, perhaps three or four years old, smiled out at me.
Our first priority was to restore power, and with it heat, light, and full life support. Lìxúe and I removed a bulkhead panel and located Zvezda’s ancient nickel-cadmium batteries, replacing them with modern solid-state electrolytes. Connecting the new batteries to Zvezda’s power bus was a difficult task because we had to take off our gloves, and our hands soon become painfully cold and stiff. The silence was oppressive. With no motors or ventilators whirring, this frozen nook in space was the quietest place I had ever been.
My oxygen mask suddenly collapsed against my face. Startled, I looked down at the tank and saw the display still showing around 40%. I tapped the tank and flipped the switch back and forth, but no more air flowed. Resigned, I took off the mask and continued working. But without ventilators to circulate the air, exhaled carbon dioxide hovered about my face. My head began to ache, my arms and legs grew sluggish, and I started feeling drowsy.
“Nǐ méi shì ba?” Lìxúe said, asking if I was all right. Seeing my mask off, she handed me hers.
I brusquely told her I was fine. It really irritated me, this attitude that Westerners in general and Americans in particular were weak and needed looking after.
The ISS creaked and groaned under thermal stresses as it passed from sunlight into the Earth’s shadow. Lìxúe and I retreated back to the relative warmth of the Shénzhōu to ride out the orbital night. Forty-five minutes later, we emerged to resume our work.
The first battery was hooked up, and I saw Lìxúe smile as the voltage rose. The job went quicker for the other seven units. After a final check of the connections, I switched on the main power. Suddenly, the dead module sprang to life. Fans began to whir and the ventilation system kicked in with a low hum. Displays illuminated on several pieces of equipment. The interior lights came on.
“Shěnyáng, diàn lì huī fù chéng gōng!” Lìxúe smiled broadly as she reported our success to Mission Control.
A moment later, everything went dead again.