Buzz

Part 7 of Everyone a Winner

Buzz slowly somersaulted, end over end. His wings extended, his fists on hips. His head hit the first drop of blood, but in the microgravity, it didn’t break the drop apart. Because of surface tension, the congealing liquid immediately flowed over him, coating his plastic body and turning his clear helmet scarlet, obscuring his face. 

The whirr of the fans continued uninterrupted, as a full-size astronaut – or what was left of him – bounced off one of the control consoles. Like a one-legged decapitated rag doll, the body started to turn on its long axis. Spinning slowly two metres away, the head seemed to consciously turn to look back at its former home. 

And opened its eyes.

Scott jerked awake, screaming. The restraints in his sleep pod stayed in place, but his arms flailed. He reached up and pulled the sleep mask off his eyes, just as Vasily pulled back the fabric door of his pod. 

“Scotty, you okay?” said Vasily, giving a questioning thumbs-up.

“Yeah, Vas. Another fucking nightmare. Same as last night. Sorry pal.” Scott pulled the mask off his forehead – it was damp with sweat. He took out the attached earplugs and tucked them into their storage pocket. 

“You need to speak to Flight and the MO again my friend,” Vasily said, squeezing Scott’s upper arm. “This is no good. Not… regular. We’ve only been here two weeks. Not normal.”

“OK. Vas. Will do. I’ll speak to the Commander as well. Is she up?”

Vas drifted slowly backwards, giving Scott room to rip back the velcro restraints and open his sleeping bag. “I think so. She’s in the cupola, like every morning. I sack out in two hours – you tell me how it goes before I sleep OK? I don’t want to worry about you stupid head!”

“Sure thing Vas. Don’t worry about me. Really!” 

It was Vasily’s head that Scott had seen spinning slowly through the station.

“OK!” the old cosmonaut gave another thumbs up, and kicked away, flying up the middle of the section towards the Russian science module. 

Scott pulled and flipped himself to the shower and zero G waste system.

Suitably refreshed though still with a bit of a dull head, now in a fresh polo shirt and khakis, Scott flew through the station to the cupola. This was the glass-walled observation port aboard the ISS, where most of the crew, from rookies like Scott to veterans like Vasily, spent a lot of their downtime. Looking down (or was it up?) through the hexagonal fly’s eys of windows, watching sunset after sunrise, the flashing green crown of the aurora, tweeting pictures of hurricanes, wildfires and lightning storms – or just trying to find their home town for the ultimate selfie. 

Sylvia was still there in the cupola, recording her podcast for the day in her native Italian. Scott didn’t want to interrupt, so he floated behind her, trying to see what he could of the view. It was day – but that was all he could tell. The bright blue light seemed to burn through the back of his eyes directly into his brain – but it was a beautiful blue, a blue you could never experience from anywhere else, and it felt good. 

She turned and spotted him, nodding in his direction before pausing the digital recorder she was holding. 

“Bongiorno, Scott,” she said. “I heard you had another nightmare.” Her English was perfect, only very slightly inflected. Scott wished his Russian was as good as that. It was the only other language he spoke other than his native English, and he’d had to learn it to get on the space programme. 

“Yes, I’m afraid so. Probably something I ate…”

Sylvia pushed herself gently down towards him, so they were floating level with each other.

“Three night terrors – bad for you and upsetting for the crew, and the possible indicator of subconscious problems, or something on the way. I’ve been in touch with Houston – now I know you must be disappointed, but as always, mission comes first, yes?” She gently squeezed his upper arm. “The Flight Surgeon has referred the the matter over to the BHP team at Johnson, and they want to see you at 1300 zulu, OK? Use the comms station in Leonardo, its about as private as we get here. They will make their evaluation and decide what, or if, anything needs to be done. It’s only fair to let you know that Houston have already started plotting an emergency return, should that be necessary.”

“And the pilot would be – Vasily?” Scott said, raising his eyebrows.

“Yes it would. It would mean he would lose his shot at the long stay record, but he’s been up here the longest of the current crew and due to rotate back on the next flight, so he would have to be the first one to leave. Look, I know you and Vasily have been friends for a long time but you mustn’t feel bad about that either. Vasily is a rock. He’s a steely-eyed rocket man, the right stuff. If I tell him he’s going home early he’ll get so excited about seeing his grandkids, he’ll start prepping the shit out of the soyuz, and he’ll be looking after you too. 

“Don’t think that you’ll be the first or the last this has happened to, either. This happens more often than is widely known by the crews, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. And you don’t get off that lightly! After all the money and time that has been spent on your training, if you do go back you’ll be supervising another specialist doing your work, because that stuff needs to get done. And in the meantime, the BHP team will be working on you to find out what the problem is and shoot you back up here if they can, so don’t worry about that. Anyhow, they might decide you’re alright to stay here. We wait and see, OK? Now you can go on sick call this morning if you want, but I think you’d be better off working, no? Hiroko will see you in Kibo when you’re ready.”

Scott nodded. “Thanks, Boss. You’re right. I’ll go over there right after I’ve had some breakfast.”

“Good. Now me’scusi, I need to finish my podcast.” Sylvia nodded at the recorder she was still holding, and winking at Scott, drifted back up into the cupola. 

Scott turned back into the Harmony module and headed to a food station. Scrambled (dried) eggs on toast – or with  a toasted bagel – and it tasted good. Scott had wanted to be an astronaut his entire life and at the age of 36 here he was, a mission specialist on the ISS, and he was loving every second of it. The idea that he would be forced home after only a fortnight for something entirely beyond his control – it didn’t seem right or fair. 

Stowing the used packets, he flew off to Kibo, the Japanese experimental module. Hiroko was there, upside-down to the way he was currently oriented. She was talking to Astro, the humanoid robot – or trying to. Robotics and AI were Scott’s field. They wanted to finally turn Astro into an almost fully autonomous robot astronaut, and take him outside for the first time. The possibility of having humanoid robots to do EVA repairs would take a lot of the risk out of manning the station, would save money, and be another step along the way to Mars or elsewhere. 

“Astro, open your hand,” Hiroko said, for what must have been the tenth time. Astro stared back at her with his expressionless LED eyes. “Astro, can you hear me?” No response.

“Morning,” said Scott, turning himself over so he was the same way ‘up’ as Hiroko and the robot. “Has he responded at all today?” 

“Hiroko sighed and drifted back slightly. “No. Not a single word. He grabbed my pen, and he won’t give it back or respond at all. Maybe we should reboot again.”

“We do that, and we lose everything he learned over the past week,” said Scott. “Lemme try.”

Scott positioned himself in front of the robot. 

“Astro! Good morning!” he said, as animatedly as he could.

“Good morning, Scott,” said the robot. 

“I don’t believe it,” Hiroko sighed, shaking her head. 

“Astro, what are you holding in your right hand?”

“I’m holding a pen, Scott.”

“Very good. Astro, please let go of the pen.” Scott looked at Hiroko triumphantly, but with a smile, and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say don’t ask me, some people got it and…

“No,” said Astro. 

They both looked at the robot, and then at each other.

“What did you say, Astro?” said Scott.

“I said no,” said Astro. 

“Why did he say no?” said Hiroko. 

“I can’t ask him that, he doesn’t have that kind of reasoning yet. All I can do is try to override.”

Scott turned back to the robot. “Astro, this is a priority command, acknowledge.”

“Acknowledged. Please state the command.”

“Astro, let go of the pen in your right hand.”

“No.”

“Okay, I’ll try something else. Astro, where are you now?”

“I’m in the Kibo lab aboard the ISS.”

“Very good. Who is with you?”

“Astronauts Scott, Hiroko and Yuri.”

“Good… what?” Scott looked at Hiroko. Now she shrugged her shoulders. 

“Astro, who is Yuri?” said Scott.

“Cosmonaut Colonel Yuri Denisovich Sarkovski. He is the current mission commander.”

“Hiroko, you ever heard of this guy?” She shook her head.

“That is an incorrect statement, Astro. Please recheck your database. The current commander is Sylvia Mustone.”

“Negative. Mission commander remains in command whilst aboard the station, correct?”

“Yes, Astro, but…”

“Yuri never left the station. Therefore he is still in command.”

“Astro, using your left hand, point at Hiroko.”

The robot lifted its left arm and extended a finger, turning in its mounting towards Hiroko.

“Very good. Now point at Scott,” said Scott. The robot turned again and pointed at the middle of Scott’s chest. 

“Good. Now point at Yuri.”

The robot lifted its arm, pointing above and behind Scott. Scott turned – not to check whether anyone was there, but to see if there was anything behind him that could be confusing the robot’s optical sensors. Behind him was an unusually tidy bank of storage cupboards – unusual because it was standard practice to have stores and equipment attached or slung across every bit of available space. The cupboards were labelled in English, Japanese and Russian on small stickers next to the handles. No matter how Scott looked at it, he couldn’t resolve it into a face. 

“There must be something tricking his optics,” he said shaking his head. “Hiroko, call up his visual feed on the monitor there.”

Hiroko flipped up the screen of a laptop and selected the standard video feed from the robot’s ‘eyes’. It was looking at the cupboards. Scott was no longer in view either, having moved to one side. 

“Astro, there is no-one there. What are you looking at?”

“I am looking at the wall of the Kibo module.”

“Correct. So where is Yuri?”

Astro turned left and right, scanning – behaviour that Scott expected. After every pass he extended the arc by  20 degrees. He saw Hiroko, and kept going. Scott was about to cancel when his own face appeared in the monitor – and behind him and to the left… somebody else.  Scott turned suddenly, too suddenly in the microgravity, and began to spin. Hiroko anchored herself and grabbed him by his shirt. 

“What’s the matter?” she said, pulling him towards her.

Scott looked around the module. Astro looked at him. 

“On the feed – there was something there… someone. If this is some kind of joke, it’s not funny.”

Hiroko shook her head. “It’s no joke Scott. There was no-one. Check the recording if you like, there was nothing there.”

Scott turned to the laptop and switched to recorded from live feed. He played back the sequence. There had been nothing there. 

“Are you okay Scott?” said Hiroko. “You’re looking very pale.”

“I’m… fine,” said Scott. “I didn’t sleep very well again last night, that’s all. Just the light playing tricks.”

“Well, as long as you’re okay…” She turned back to the laptop. “We’ll have to dump his core routine and re-upload. Something has gone very wrong. Look at him now…”

Scott turned back to Astro, who was now facing away from them. He extended his right arm and opened his fingers, releasing the pen, almost as if…he was giving it to someone. The pen drifted slowly out of his hand, Scott stared at the pen as it spun slowly away – expecting it to be suddenly snatched out of the air by an unseen hand. 

Hiroko reached out and grabbed it, sliding back into a special pocket in her cargo pants. 

“Okay. Astro, this is a system command, acknowledge,” she said.

“Acknowledged,” said the robot, slowing turning to face her. 

“Begin core dump and shut down sequence. Store current command routines in the back up drive, exit all running programmes and shut down. Execute.”

“No.”

Hiroko turned to Scott, shocked. “Now you aren’t pulling some crazy 2001 shit on me, are you Scott?”

Scott turned to Astro.

“Astro, repeat last received command.”

“Begin core dump and shut down sequence. Store current command routines in the back up drive, exit all running programmes and shut down. Countermanded.”

“Countermanded by what, Astro?”

“I am under instructions from the mission commander to remain online. Any instructions to the contrary are therefore automatically countermanded.”

“Astro, when did Sylvia give you those instructions?” 

“I did not receive those instructions from Sylvia. I received them from Colonel Yuri, the mission commander.”

Hiroko switched off the audio to the robot. “This is nuts. We need to isolate him from the rest of the system in case there’s some serious fail going on. And we need to pull the plug, right now. It’s starting to freak me out!”

“Okay, start isolating him – pull the hardwires if you have to, but keep him online, just for now – I know! I want to report this to Sylvia and Vasily. I’ve never even heard of this Yuri. Maybe Vasily will be able to tell us something.”

“Right,” said Hiroko, starting to work on the laptop. “But if anything else weird happens, it’s on your head.”

Scott turned and flew out of the module, heading for Leonardo, the Italian science module. Sylvia was there working on a soil experiment with another ESA astronaut, Thomas Lang. Thomas was German, a biologist and also their current medic on board. Scott didn’t know him very well, and although they’d done all the psych tests and personality traits, Thomas wasn’t the kind of guy Scott would choose to spend his downtime with. Thomas was tall and despite the rigorously athletic astronaut training, still almost impossibly thin. His dark brown eyes, magnified by the lenses of his regulation issue spectacles, made his eyes look bigger than his skull could hold. In the microgravity, his gangly limbs and long bony fingers made him look like a permanently-falling spider. 

“Good morning, Scott,” said Thomas, in his too perfect English. 

“Hi. Sylvia, we’ve got a bit of a problem with Astro and we think you’d better take a look. Is Vasily still up?”

Sylvia looked at her watch. “He might be. Is this urgent?” Sylvia was aware that all time on the ISS is precious, and any diversion from the work schedule could mean missed targets and compromised experiments. 

“I’m afraid so,” said Scott. “If you head on to Kibo, I’ll get Vasily and meet you there.”

“Do you need me along too?” said Thomas, stowing the tool he was holding.

“No, that’s alright, thanks,” Scott replied.

“Well, if you want to talk before your appointment this afternoon, just let me know – I’m available for you, Scott.”

Scott smiled, nodded and waved, and flew out into the junction, turning towards Tranquility, where the sleeping quarters were. 

Vasily was still floating around in the module as Scott arrived. “Have you seen my ebook?” he said, slowly turning in place. “Ah there it is!” He moved towards the food station. “Why are you back so soon?”

“We’ve got a bit of a problem – could you join us in Kibo for a couple of minutes?”  said Scott, pointing back the way he had came. 

“No problem,” said Vasily, pushing the ebook reader into a thigh pocket, “but I don’t know much about robotics, Scott.”

Scott took the lead, and Vasily followed close behind, consciously slowing himself so that he didn’t collide with his lees-experienced young friend. 

“The robot is acting weird. He says the station commander is someone called Yuri, but we’ve never heard… Vasily?”

Scott looked ‘down’ between his feet. Vasily had stopped himself, doing a slow somersault to absorb the momentum. 

Scott pushed himself back down, and anchored himself. Vasily stopped, though his orientation to Scott was as if he was standing on the wall – in fact he had anchored his feet against the wall, his body practically at 90 degrees to Scott. 

“Did you know a Yuri? Astro says he’s the station commander but we’ve never heard him mentioned before. I thought I knew the names of all the crew – after all we walked past their pictures everyday at Gagarin Centre.”

“I can’t – talk on this. Not to you. I need to talk to Sylvia.”

Just then, Sylvia’s head appeared at the next junction. She turned and pulled herself into their module. 

“Scott – go help Hiroko take Astro offline. He’s not to be re-activated until Mission Control have had a chance to see what went wrong. Once that’s done, you and Hiroko can switch up your B schedule tasks to first priority until further notice. OK?”

“Umm… sure, Sylvia. But what’s all this about…?”

“Go. Help Hiroko. Now.” Sylvia pointed up. 

Scott nodded, and pushed himself off and away. As soon as he turned to pull himself into Kibo, he could hear Sylvia and Yuri talking, but couldn’t make out what they were saying over the air circulation fans and the other myriad noises aboard the station. 

When he got there, Astro had already been deactivated and Hiroko was busy disconnecting the cables from the ports on his back. 

“What did you say to Sylvia?” Scott said, stopping himself against the workstation. 

“I just told her what happened and what Astro said. That’s all.” Hiroko stopped for a moment and looked at him, continuing in a quiet voice, “I didn’t tell her about you freaking out, if that’s why you’re worried.”

“No it wasn’t that –  and thanks by the way. But Astro is our main project – to just shut him down and move to stuff like manipulator maintenance, that’s…”

“…still a very vital job to do, and one that can only be done here, Scott. Let the devs in Houston and MIT post-mortem what happened in Astro’s tiny brain. Look on the bright side – we might get our EVA!” Hiroko looked positively delighted at the prospect. It was something that they had trained for and she was especially keen to do it as she would be the first female Japanese astronaut to spacewalk. And, despite still being mystified by what had just happened and the possible consequences, he was happy for her. He smiled and nodded, and squeezed her arm. High fives weren’t protocol on the station – they could send both astronauts tumbling in opposite directions if they weren’t careful. 

After completely disconnecting Astro from the station, they taped his arms against his body and pulled the aluminised plastic cover back over him. There was still unavoidable dust and other things floating around in the station that might interfere with Astro’s innards, and the cover offered some protection from cosmic ray particles.  Both astronauts moved straight over to the control station at the end of the module where the Japanese manipulator arm controls were. Accessing  their revised mission parameters through a tethered laptop, they updated their schedules, and started work on the diagnostics and tests for the arm to perform. 

Scott liked working with Hiroko though she’d told him many times during training that he exasperated her on occasion with the illogical and ‘messy’ way he did things. But they made a good team, one complementing the other. She seemed to have a grasp of three-dimensional dynamics that he couldn’t match, having to visualise things in his head and run simulations where she could work seemingly on intuition alone. And so they lost track of time until Sylvia drifted into the module.

“Scott,” she called from the junction at the other end. “We’re ready for you in Leonardo if you want to come through.”

The psych evaluation. Scott couldn’t believe that he’d actually forgotten that was happening, and his career in space could be coming to an untimely end. If he went home, could Hiroko still do the EVA? There wasn’t another robotics engineer in the crew at the moment and no-one else had practiced that work as a back-up. She would be someone else he would be forced to disappoint, another Guinness record blown because of him. 

Hiroko caught his eye and mouthed good luck – he smiled and nodded, and kicked away from the control station. Scott followed the commander through the station to Leonardo. Thomas was already there, talking to the medical team on Skype. Sylvia caught the look on Scott’s face as he entered the module, and pointing at Thomas mouthed he’s not staying. 

“Scott is here everybody, so we’ll go and give you what privacy we can. Thomas?” she said.

“Actually Commander, I thought I might stay and observe – assist if I can,” he said, without turning from the screen. 

“Well, thank you Thomas for your kind offer, but it is not needed. Let’s go, shall we?”

Thomas nodded, once. “See you later everybody,” he said, waving at the camera above the screen, before following Sylvia out through the tunnel.

Next to the screen that was running the video conference, a laptop had been set up with a selection of psychological tests, some of which Scott recognised as he’d done some of them before. The doctors ran him through the tests, two separate interviews and a group session, taking longer than the two hours arranged. At the end, Scott felt totally exhausted; physically and emotionally drained. 

“Thanks Scott,” Doc Munro, the Flight Surgeon said at last. “Sorry to put you through the wringer again but we have to be as certain and as safe as we can be, either way, you understand? We know how stressful this is for you too so we’ll go over the results and come to our conclusions as fast as we can, okay?”

“Thanks Doc. Whatever happens, I really appreciate what you guys are doing and the way you handled this so far. I’ve got complete confidence in you.”

“That’s good to hear, Scott. Take some rest now – you’ve earned it. Signing off.”

Scott pulled his feet out of the loops that had kept him anchored and drifted away from the console. Relaxing would be practically impossible under the circumstances – he’d need to do something to keep occupied until the decision came back. 

He pulled himself back to the workstation and went online. First, he checked the ISS and NASA websites for any mention of a previous crew member called Yuri Sarkovski. He found a reference to a Yuri Sarkovski serving as a cosmonaut, of the two early missions he flew, but no mention of him commanding the ISS. Checking Russian websites (testing his Cyrillic) he could find no listing under current staff, on the space programme, or in the military. 

He decided to try another tack. He looked up Vasily, to see if there was any connection there. And after about 5 minutes, he found an old mission photo from the early days of the ISS – and there was Vasily, smiling at the camera in his spacesuit, standing next to Yuri. 

Scott closed the computer down – it was the end of his shift and time for dinner – breakfast for the shift coming on. He needed to speak to Vasily when he woke up.

He went back to Tranquility. Hiroko was there, rehydrating her food with hot water. 

“How did it go?” she said, kneading the pouch to thoroughly mix it. 

“Thanks. Okay, I guess. It was pretty rough though. Anyway, now is the hard part – wait and see. Any sign of Sylvia or Thomas?”

“No, but I’ve been in Kibo all day.”

“Well, it’s just that all this business with Astro and this Commander Yuri is all pretty weird. I googled him and there was a cosmonaut with that name who flew a couple of missions here back in the day, one with Vasily…”

Just then Sylvia pulled herself into the module. 

“Hello – Scott. I’ve heard back from Houston – do you mind if I tell you now, here? It affects both of you anyway?” she said.

“No, I guess not,” said Scott, his heart beginning to pound. 

“They’ve given you the all clear – for now. So we aren’t going to be changing the mission parameters anytime soon, but I have to let you know that, nevertheless, we’re going to keep updating the Soyuz navigation profile just in case we have to throw you overboard, okay?” she said, smiling. 

Scott exhaled, and smiled back. 

“Now it’s not all plain sailing. You need to report to me every day on how you are, any weird dreams or anything, and Thomas will be keeping an eye on you too. They reckon that this is just a part of your settling in process and it’s nothing to worry about. We’re going to be giving you some sedatives to help you sleep, and we’ll be tracking that.

“Now, this business with Astro – they’ll be going over his systems for weeks by the sound of it. It looks like somehow he had access to parts of the station core systems he shouldn’t. And whilst we’re on the subject – no more googling old Russian cosmonauts, okay? That’s a security and diplomatic issue with our Russian colleagues, and all that stops now. Understood?”

“Okay, but…”

Sylvia held up a hand, all trace of a smile banished from her face. “No buts. That’s an order. It stops right now. No argument.”

“Understood,” said Scott, reluctantly. He had to know what was going on. It wasn’t just him, it was as if Astro was going to suffer the same fate that he had just avoided, for no fault of his own. He looked at Hiroko – she looked worried. She’d covered for Scott and he could see now that she was starting to wonder whether she’d done the right thing.

“No, I mean, absolutely,” he said, “It’s forgotten. What we need to be concentrating on is Hiroko’s EVA, right?”

Sylvia studied his face as he looked at Hiroko. “Yes. That’s the most important thing… Now, what’s for dinner?”

Vasily didn’t get up before it was Scott’s time to turn in. Just as he was preparing to jump into his sleeping bag, Thomas drifted up behind him. He handed Scott a ziplock bag with two pills in it. 

“Sleep well, Scott,” he said. “And if you don’t, I should be the first one you tell, yes?” 

“Sylvia said I’m to tell her first, Thomas, but you’ll be in the loop somewhere no doubt. Good night!” Scott zipped the bag closed and adjusted the velcro strap restraints. 

“Let me help you,” Thomas said, as he closed the outer door of the sleep station.

Scott looked at the pills. They were just plain, torpedo shaped pills. Swallowing them wouldn’t be easy. He took them out of the bag, and swallowed one at a time, with a gulp of water from the bottle attached to the wall. Getting to sleep hadn’t been the problem, though he was aware that some of the crew were also taking sleeping medication. 

Scott got his sleep mask and earplugs out of their storage pocket and slipped them on. At first, Astro’s strange behaviour and the mystery cosmonaut kept running around his head, but after a short while, he was out. 

Scott woke up. Something wasn’t right. He took off his mask and earplugs. He could hear voices somewhere, but other than that nothing. The circulation fans weren’t on. And that meant the life support systems had failed. 

He pulled back the velcro straps and unzipped his sleeping bag. He pulled open the doors to his sleep station and looked out. He couldn’t see anyone else. The air seemed warm and thick, and only the emergency lights were on. Despite knowing precisely what the drill should be, he went straight to the Harmony module, the service module at this end of the station that controlled and monitored electrical and life support systems. He was surprised to find no-one there. Some of the control displays were showing alert status. He went over to a laptop and keyed the the intercom system. “Hello – this is Scott, we have an emergency situation – please respond,”

There was no answer, so he switched over to Mission Control – but there was no response. 

Scott turned back, and began flying through the station, from module to module, but found no-one. A few times he went crashing straight into a closed hatch. Had parts of the station been sealed off? But then some things  the station looked  somehow… different. 

But he couldn’t find any other crew member. A feeling of dread started to rise within him. Could they have abandoned the station and left him behind? 

He back-tracked to the cupola but…  it wasn’t there. Just a closed hatch, with nothing on the other side. How could the cupola be gone?

He flew back to the Russian section, where the Soyuz craft were docked. The modules were empty, and the docking tunnel hatches were closed and locked. They had left him behind!

He decided to go back to Tranquilty  and try Mission Control again, or try to contact the Soyuz ships. As he flew down the centre of one of the modules, he saw some white-stockinged feet disappearing into another module. 

“Hey!” he called, pushing himself forward with his arms, trying to speed up. This was a rookie mistake, he was now going too fast to stop or make the turn, and crashed into the supplies attached to the end wall of the module. Eventually freeing himself from the cargo netting, he saw the feet disappearing into another module, and set off after them, this time having learned his lesson, going hand over hand to control his speed and direction

He somersaulted and turned into the module – which he didn’t recognise  – and was a dead end. He turned around – the other astronaut was behind him. It was Yuri. He looked considerably older than he had in the pictures Scott had found online. His hair and beard were long and matted. His right eye was badly bruised and almost swollen closed.  He was wearing a jumpsuit with mission patches sewn to it. None of this made any sense – ISS crew had stopped wearing jumpsuits years ago.  

“Why are you still here?” Yuri said in English, his voice cracking. “You must leave. Now!” 

“But the others have gone, the ships – there’s no way off the station. What’s happening?”

“You have to GET OUT!” Yuri grabbed the front of Scott’s jumpsuit and threw him back into the connection node. Before Scott could recover, Yuri was grabbing him again and throwing him the length of the next module. 

Scott spun and tumbled out of control, trying to shield his head as he bounced and careened off the workstations, stores and conduits. Every time before he could grab onto something and steady himself, Yuri was there, throwing him on. He might be near weightless, but he still had mass. The effort was taking its toll on Yuri, who was now breathing hard and becoming clumsy with his movements.

Scott managed to slow himself by grabbing on to an anchor point. His shoulder and elbow complained as his legs and feet whipped around and painfully hit the wall. Yuri was already flying towards him. At the last minute, Scott pushed himself out of the way. Yuri flailed trying to grab him or change direction and crashed heavily into a workstation with his back. His head whipped back and hit something. Blood exploded out from the back of Yuri’s head, unimpeded by gravity, spraying into tiny red spheres which collided with each other to form bigger droplets. He bounced off the workstation, his face a mask of pain, reaching with both hands to the back of his head. 

Behind Yuri was the docking tunnel for a supply ship, which must have been where he’d wanted to put Scott. Scott pushed himself off the wall aimed at Yuri like a torpedo, and when he made contact he pushed Yuri, propelling Yuri backwards. Yuri hit the edge of the hatch and tried to grab hold of it, but before he could, Scott came again, anchoring himself with his hands and pushing as hard as he could with both feet to propel Yuri the rest of the way through the hatch. Scott quickly re-orientated himself, unlatched the hatch and swung it closed, silencing Yuri’s shouted Russian oaths. 

Scott wiped something warm and wet from his face – it was blood. Yuri’s blood, still drifting in the module, but now only moving with the residual movement of air from the earlier violence. The fans were still off. 

Scott moved to the workstation Yuri had collided with to see if he could use it to access the life support and power systems. The screen was blank. As he moved to check that the computer was on – or reboot it, he caught his rough reflection. The face of a young Vasily stared back at him. He looked down – he was wearing a Russian jumpsuit, and the name tag over the left great pocket said Vasily

Scott woke up with a start. He ripped off his sleep mask and earplugs. He was sweating, heavily. Unlike his dream he could hear and feel the effects of the circulation fans. He pulled a towel out of a storage pocket and wiped his face, then took a sip of water from the nozzle. He checked his watch – he’d only been asleep for just over three hours of the regulation eight. He wasn’t sure what the drugs Thomas had given him had been, but they had totally worn off now. 

He unzipped his sleeping bag and looked down – he was wearing his standard issue Russian pajamas. He didn’t know what to do next. His laptop was in the sleep station, secured at just under arms length in front of him. He could listen to some music, watch a movie, play a game… he didn’t know what the reaction would be if he got up – and then he thought – what if they are also monitoring my computer use? Then they’ll be asking why I was up all night watching movies. 

He wasn’t feeling sleepy, and he couldn’t ask for more drugs. Hot chocolate was the next best thing, so he pulled open the doors of his sleep station, and pushed himself down the module to the food station. The other sleepstations that belonged to his shift and the commander were all closed, as they should be, the second shift would be up doing their work for the day. If he was lucky, he could make his drink – maybe grab a cookie too – and be back in his sleep station before anyone noticed. 

But then, as luck would have it, Vasily somersaulted in through one of the nodes. 

Scott immediately noticed how much older he looked.

“Ah, Scott. Aren’t you supposed to be in dreamland?”

“You caught me. Just thought I’d get some hot chocolate – send me right back.”

“No… strange dreaming?” Vasily said, hesitantly.

“Well, you know all that business about Astro and a guy called Yuri, been playing on my mind. Did you know this Yuri?”

Vasily pushed himself closer, glancing down to Sylvia’s sleep station. “We can’t talk about this. Maybe some day, but not now. Okay?” he whispered. 

“Vas, I need to know, buddy. It’s not about me anymore. If we have to trash Astro’s memory and start all over again, I’ve got to know the reason why.”

Vasily’s hooded eyes looked intently into Scott’s for what seemed like an age. Then he shook his head, and for a moment Scott thought that was the end of it, but Vasily took Scott’s arm and gently pushed him in front of him. “To the cupola,” he said. 

They went to the other end of the module and pushed up into the cupola. Through the windows, they could see an Earth day directly overhead – a totally cloudless view of the almost unbelievably red Australian central desert.  

“You mustn’t tell anyone about this, Scott. It would mean both of us out of the programme, no second chances. But I suppose you should know. Yuri was mission commander on my first mission to ISS, about ten years ago. Something happened, there was… anyway, he died.”

“Was it an accident?” Scott said. All accidents and near misses in space became part of the training routine as a matter of course, but Scott had never heard of anyone being killed aboard the station. 

“No. And it wasn’t possible to make it… ah…” Vasily rubbed his face with one hand, before using it to pull Scott closer. “He killed himself. He attacked the other members of the crew, and they… we… were unable to restrain him. Some of the crew took refuge in the lifeboats in case… we managed to lock him into a supply ship. He cut his throat with a box cutter knife.”

“Jesus…” breathed Scott. The first, and as far as Scott knew,  only suicide in the history of space travel.

“We were lucky. In more ways than one. He was Russian military, he had no surviving family, an old test pilot. We loaded his body into the next descent capsule as if he were alive. These things are easy in Russia.”

Scott felt cold, shivery. It was a shock, but somehow he’d known already. But there was something else…

“It was you that cornered him, wasn’t it, Vasily? And you’ve blamed yourself…?”

“There was talk of washing out the entire crew because of what they had witnessed, and the necessity to keep it secret. The, what is it? PSD…”

“PTSD,” corrected Scott. 

“But we all had families, and in the end we were told, say anything and you never fly again – and maybe nobody ever will. So we said nothing. And since then, only the Flight Controllers and mission commanders have been briefed on it, should anything like that seem to be happening again.” 

“But there is no record of this anywhere in any of the operational databases or training manuals – so how did Astro get a hold of it?”

“That is what Flight and Sylvia want to know, and why they questioned me for so long yesterday about it. They thought that,” Vasily smiled, pointing at Scott and then himself,  “I had already done what I am doing now.” 

“Do they know why Yuri did it?”

“There were secret inquiries, panels, forensics. But they could find nothing that was a warning of his behaviour. But he had also been very private, even here. And this is before we had sleep stations. The station was not as big as now.” 

Scott looked out through the windows opposite him. He could see someone working on the big manipulator arm. The white of their spacesuit blended in with the white covering on the arm, it was only the movement and the occasional golden glint from the helmet’s sun visor that gave them away. 

“Now you know the secret. And you too have to keep it. You cannot let anyone know I told you. The warning they told us still stands, and with the… the… covering over…”

“Cover-up.”

“Yes, it would mean not only the end of us but the whole programme. You understand?”

“Of course Vasily. You can trust me.”

Another movement caught Scott’s eye. The astronaut on EVA was moving away from the massive robot arm, he could see black space between it and the astronaut’s booted feet. 

“What did Sylvia say?” said Scott.

They are going to start checking all the systems to see where Astro got the information from, if it wasn’t directly programmed into him. Astro One hadn’t even been assembled on the ground when this happened. It can’t be part of any of Astro’s programming.”

Scott noticed the astronaut outside had disappeared from view. Probably gone back to the airlock. 

“Could somebody else have programmed Astro?” Vasily asked. 

“It could have been done from the ground – the only other person on board who could have done it was Hiroko. But she had no idea who Yuri was either, I’m sure of it.”

Vasily leaned closer. “But if the robot was OK, she wouldn’t get her EVA.”

Scott shook his head, he couldn’t see that being true. 

He jumped – something had hit the outside of the station – their module. 

“What’s the matter?” said Vasily, now looking concerned. 

“Didn’t you hear that? Something hit us,” said Scott, pulling himself up to try and see out thorough the windows. He could see an astronaut, coming towards the cupola, hand over hand across the outside of the station. It couldn’t have been the same one as before – there’s no way he could’ve gotten here so fast!

“What can you see?” said Vasily. 

“There’s someone outside,” said Scott, trying to get a better angle around the thick frames and the distortion of the glass. 

“Impossible,” said Vasily. “There’s no EVA scheduled. And besides, all the other crew are dead.”

The astronaut outside bumped into the cupola and snagged on the window cover assembly. Scott couldn’t see through their helmet visor, as the sun shield was down. The flag patch on the left arm however was visible – it was the Italian flag. 

“Sylvia?” he gasped. He banged futilely on the window. 

And then stopped. 

What did you say?” he said to Vasily.

Vasily was looking at something in his hand, and smiling.  

“Vasily – what have you got there?”

“Look!” said Vasily, extending his arm. “It’s the little Buzz you gave me! It was so nice of you to go all the trouble of finding one. How lucky you were to win just what I needed!” Vasily had his middle finger through the keyring, so the little plastic astronaut, fists on hips and wings extended, floated on the end of its little silver chain. But Scott couldn’t see through the space ranger’s helmet visor either. It was crusted in dried blood.

“Oh my god…” Scott gasped. Vasily pushed himself further up into the cupola, pinning Scott in place.

“My grandson will be so happy to get this real Buzz that has flown in space! Do you know what my grandson’s name is, Scott?” 

“N…No…” Scott was in an awkward position – he couldn’t find a handhold or get leverage with his body.

“Yuri. He’s called Yuri.”

Vasily braced his legs and pushed Scott into the underside of the cupola, pinning him in place, putting his left forearm across his chest. He raised the scalpel in his right hand and slashed across Scott’s throat. Scott’s arteries exploded, jetting hot blood into Vasily’s face and past him into the module. Scott gurgled and blew bloody bubbles as his trachea was sliced. Vasily wasn’t done. He began to saw and slash through muscle and tendon, blinded and practically suffocated by the blood that floated onto and around his head. 

Sylvia tried to bang on the window, witnessing the whole bloody murder just inches away. She wept, the tears collecting around her eyes and blinding her. She shook her head to break them loose, hoping that the absorbent pad behind her head would take care of them and not foul up her helmet systems.

For all the good it would do her now. 

Author, photographer and trade union activist. Lived in Japan for 5 years, now working at Cambridge University. Written for Big Finish/BBC Enterprises - Doctor Who and Robin Hood. Two books currently available on Amazon - see my non-fiction on Medium. All content ©Michael Abberton 2020

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