NovelsSyne Mitchell Science Fiction and Fantasy Author

End in Fire

Prologue

 

 

 “Tensions between India and China continue to escalate over ownership of the Digboi oil field, which borders the Himalayan mountains.  Producing seven million barrels a day, Digboi is one of the few remaining sources of oil to fuel the billions of vehicles and generators not yet converted to renewable energy sources.”

CNN World News Report -- Monday July 8th, 2022

Tuesday July 9th, 2022 GMT: 16:34:01

Grant Williamson, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, thumped his knuckle against the printout, stamped top-secret in multiple places.  “Has this been verified?  I can’t give news this incendiary to the President and National Security Advisor unless it’s hard-core solid.” 

The lights in the walnut-paneled conference room were dim, obscuring the face of the man at the far end of the table.  A CIA field agent, called back to Washington to confirm his report.  He shifted uneasily in his seat, as if wishing to fade completely into the shadows.

When he spoke, it was through a voice-altering microphone, lending his words the low scratchy tones of a horror-movie serial killer.  “Three agents died to get that.  Yeah, it’s good.”

Grant felt the sushi he’d eaten that afternoon form a cold lump in his stomach. 

The other man in the room, the Director of the CIA, spoke quietly.  “You see why we informed you immediately.”

Grant pulled out his encrypted cell phone, no bigger than a pack of gum, and unfolded it.  He peered into the shadows at the far end of the table at the agent, getting only an impression of nondescript features.  He paused, his finger on the call button.  “You’re sure these numbers you intercepted were launch codes?  They couldn’t be something else, troop strength, an encrypted battle plan?”

The CIA operative jumped to his feet and slammed the voice modifier against the table.  The black plastic shattered against mahogany.  He leaned into the light.  It was an oval face, brown hair, brown eyes, unremarkable except for the utter stillness of his expression and cheeks pockmarked by fresh cigarette burns. 

“I promise you,” the agent said in a low rumble.  “Unless we stop them, China plans to launch a nuclear attack sometime in the next seventy-two hours.” 

 

Chapter 1

 

Tuesday July 9th, 2022 GMT: 18:56:19

Claire Logan orbited Earth at twenty-eight-thousand kilometers per hour, protected from killing vacuum by only the hull of Space Station Reliance: aluminum seven millimeters thick.

Lab four was a claustrophobe’s nightmare, the walls cluttered with handholds and elastic straps, coils of tied-down cabling, photographs of the crew’s family, mission patches, white nylon cargo bags.  There was no empty space to rest her eyes.

Claire hunched her slender shoulders over a laptop mounted on a maneuverable ball-and-socket arm.  Her foot was tucked under a handrail to keep her position in weightlessness.  To her right was a joystick, to her left a slider to control the pincher hand, before her were flat-screen monitors displaying three different views from cameras mounted on the Candarm16.

Behind her, so close she could feel their breath on the back of her neck, hovered the rest of the crew of Reliance station. 

Commander John Cole was closest, he floated over her left shoulder, holding onto a handrail mounted on the wall.  In his fifties, he was athletically lean, with narrow, squinting, eyes that looked like they’d seen everything, and been surprised by none of it.  He gave Claire an encouraging nod.

Above him, clinging to the light grid, was Josephine Jones.  Her ponytail streamed from the back of her head in waves of blonde, red, and brown.  A newly minted PhD on her first flight, she'd been dubbed ‘Jo-Jo’ by the crew.  Her eyes were wide with wonder and anticipation.

Rob Anderson floated free over Claire’s right shoulder, occasionally tapping the wall to position himself.  She could see him mentally checking her every move and calculation.  He was twenty years younger than Cole, with a deceptively boyish face, tempered by the test-pilot hardness in his eyes.

Farthest away was Hyun-Jin, a Canadian microbiologist.  He looked nervous, his olive-skinned fingers erratically tapping the handhold he clung to. 

They watched her every move…waiting for her to make history.

Claire wiped her sweating palms on the knees of her pants.  She glanced at the picture of her husband Matt and their four-year-old son Owen tucked under an elastic strap on the wall above her.  It had been taken three months ago, shortly before she launched, Matt and Owen wrestling on the patch of lawn behind their house.  Matt was flat on his back, and Owen reared over him, ready to plunge down.  They were both laughing.  It was the last picture she’d taken where Matt looked happy. 

Claire inhaled deeply, letting all that go, and unlocked the joystick.

This moment, the deployment of the Equatorial Solar Reflector, was the culmination of two years of hard work.

If she did everything perfectly, and didn’t damage the fragile ESR during extraction, it would boost itself to geosynchronous orbit where it would unfurl over twenty kilometers of 400-micron-thin solar collectors.  Energy collected by the solar station would be transmitted to the collection station in White Sands, New Mexico in a continuous beam. It was the prototype for a network of satellites that would replace on-earth nuclear power plants and the dirty coal-burning facilities, and end the war between India and China.

Claire rubbed her hands together, then took hold of the joystick with her right hand, the pincher control with her left.

Watching the video feedback on the monitors, she used the joystick to drive the robotic arm along its rails into place over Reliance’s cargo bay.  All systems reported nominal functioning. 

She pushed the joystick forward to cause the arm to bend down and retrieve the Equatorial Solar Reflector payload. 

The arm didn’t move. 

On the laptop’s screen was the vague diagnosis: “Gear motility error.

Claire cleared the error and re-ran the procedure.  The same three words blinked back at her on the screen.  Gear motility error.

Jo-Jo craned her neck to peer at the laptop.  “What’s going on?  Is something wrong?” 

Claire felt her face go hot. 

She’d spent three months in space constructing and preparing to launch the ESR.  This was supposed to be the highlight of her mission.  Plastic pouches of sparkling apple cider were already chilled and stowed in a nylon mesh pouch near the bank of laptops, waiting for the post-launch celebration.

“Hold on,” Claire said through gritted teeth.  She typed in commands to reinitialize the arm and re-sent the move operation.

Gear motility error.

Anderson snorted.  “Anyone see Corley sneak onto the station?”

Claire scowled at the screen.  She didn’t find Anderson’s joke funny. 

Lucius Corley, Ph.D. led a group of scientists who protested the ESR project on the basis that it was unknown what a microwave signal of that strength would do the upper atmosphere.  The controversy had raged in the United Nations for years, but the recent energy crash had raised oil prices to the point where alternate energy sources had to be found. 

Sweat beaded on Claire’s brow as she hurriedly ran through the Canadarm’s diagnostics.

“Enough,” said Commander Cole.  He waved a hand through the air, directing the crew towards the hatch that led from the lab four to the rest of the station.  “Back to your scheduled tasks.  Claire will tell us when she’s got this bug worked out.”  He gave Claire a significant look as he followed the others out.  “And you will solve it.”

Four hours later and a full reinitialization and system analysis of the Canadarm, including external camera scans had turned up nothing more definitive than “Gear motility error.

Cole popped his head in through the hatch.  “How’s it going?”

Claire skimmed her chin-length hair back from her forehead with her palms, flattening the golden afro it formed in weightlessness.  She blew out a frustrated sigh. 

She was exhausted and wrung dry by frustration.  Claire wanted to scream, to pound her fists against the keyboard of the laptop controlling the recalcitrant Canadarm.  She was this close to a perfect mission, to making a real difference in the world.  This close.  “I need to EVA,” she said.  “Check out the problem first hand.” 

Cole’s right eyebrow rose.  “There isn’t another EVA scheduled.  The crew’s due to rotate home in two days.  That’s barely enough time for the prebreathing protocol.  You’d better leave any EVAs to the replacement crew.”

“No!”  Claire’s voice came out sharper than she’d intended.  “Sorry, Sir, I mean—I can do this.  I need to do this.  If Hyun-Jin and I camp out overnight, we won’t lose much time off the work schedule.  Most of the work we’ve got left is data analysis and can be done remotely from the crew lock.  Please.  I’ve been working on the ESR release for the past two years.  I can’t go home with it unfinished.”  Claire was damned if she was going to leave with the deployment of Solar Reflector incomplete.  Failure wasn't the way to earn a place on future missions.

Cole pursed his lips and contemplated Claire a long moment.  Then he clipped his palmtop computer back into place on his thigh clip.  “Let me check with Mission Control.”  At Claire’s grin he warned her, “No promises.  They aren’t going to like an unscheduled EVA any better than I do.”

 

#

 

Wednesday July 11th, 2022 GMT: 03:27:01

Risaldar-Major Bisnu Rabha scanned the Himalayan Mountains that bordered Assam to the east.  On this moonless night, they were present only as the absence of stars, a serrated edge of blackness rising halfway to the sky.  It was another absence, however, that worried him.

The winking lights of the Chinese encampment were gone.  Reconnaissance reported that the Chinese army tanks and ground troops had pulled back into the foothills of Nepal.  After nearly three months of entrenched ground fighting, with the Indian army doggedly clinging to the Digboi oil fields despite heavy losses--the Chinese had backed off.  The mood in the camp was equal parts relief and bravado.  Assam’s troops had beaten back the invaders, shown them that though Chinese army was larger and better armed, India was a tiger to be reckoned with. 

Bisnu didn’t trust it.  Not one bit. 

“Why the long face?” asked Lieutenant Rasmussen.  He held an open canteen in his right hand, a yeasty smell wafted from it.  Rasmussen offered the canteen of illegally-brewed beer to Bisnu.  “This is a time for celebrating.”  He gestured at the United States troops camped to the North.  They had arrived earlier in the day.  Six battalions of marines, led by Colonel Trent Garrett.  “The dragon has realized he cannot fight both the tiger and the eagle.”

Bisnu frowned and pushed away the canteen.  Another time, Bisnu would have chided his subordinate for drinking, but the Lieutenant-Colonel--an insipidly foolish man--had tacitly permitted the festivities by hosting a celebration of his own among his top officers. 

Bisnu was already late for the event, but he couldn’t stop himself from looking at the darkened hulks of mountains in the east.  There were rumors the Chinese hid weapons of mass destruction in Himalayan caves after its recent invasion of Nepal.  “I do not trust an enemy who backs away in the night.”   

 

#

 

Wednesday July 11th, 2022 GMT: 04:46:27

Claire Logan climbed out of the airlock into the merciless vacuum of space.  Her protection now even thinner, just a multilayered space suit between her and the endless universe.  Her breath rasped inside her helmet as she fought to maneuver her pressurized suit.

Cole had won the argument with Mission Control; Claire got her EVA.

Before her was a view that--even after three months in space--took her breath away.  They were over Europe and the nighttime Earth glittered with a lacework of man-made lights: illuminating cities and roadways, outlining the paths of rivers.  A blue-green aurora danced around the North Pole.  Beyond was the black infinity of space.

The juxtaposition of planet and universe always gave her a melancholy sense of wonder, a feeling of being at once endless and insignificant.  She was struck once again by the tiny muddy miracle that was Earth.

The radio in her helmet crackled.  “Everything all right?” Hyun-Jin asked from where he hovered, still inside the open airlock, his slender form bulky in a white spacesuit identical to her own: NASA and mission patches on the upper arm, controls mounted on a rigid chest plate, and a pair of headlamps rising up beside his helmet.

“Yes.”  Claire fought to keep from sounding sheepish.  “Just distracted by the view.”  With her left hand she clipped in a second, longer, tether and released the first. 

Hyun-Jin was her backup for this spacewalk.  With her, he had camped out last night in the air lock, prebreathing an oxygen mixture to prepare their bodies for the lower pressure used during extra-vehicular activity.  If something went wrong, he was the only person on the station able to come to her rescue.  It didn't comfort Claire that he was an astrobiologist from Indiana, with only six months of preflight training, and had never EVA’d before.

Ahead of her the crippled Canadarm16 was frozen in place, its elbow gear unresponsive to commands from the station.  Claire pulled along the row of handholds to the malfunctioning arm, conserving the fuel in her EVA jetpack. 

 She crawled to the arm's base and clipped her tether to a handhold.  The Canadarm16 loomed above her, fifteen meters of white-painted titanium that ended in a two-prong pincer. 

Claire’s breath reverberated in the closed sphere of her helmet.  It was harsh from her exertions manipulating the inflated space suit.  She tasted the brine of sweat in the recycled air and her pulse pounded in her throat.

“I'm in place,” she called back to Hyun-Jin.  “Beginning visual inspection.”

Claire clung to a handhold at the base of the Canadarm 16.  The robotic arm shouldn't have failed.  Each of its six joints had an electronic monitor.  If any of the electronics driving the gear-motors malfunctioned, the controller should have been able to re-route the commands through redundant systems. 

A white outline against the star-studded blackness, the pitch and yaw shoulder joints at the base of the Canadarm16 looked normal.  Claire attached a computerized multimeter to the electronics.  Everything checked.

She sighed and fogged her faceplate.  The solar reflector had already been delayed by the catastrophic decompression and subsequent decommission of the aging International Space Station six months ago.  If she couldn't repair the arm, the Space Program would be further discredited and the Solar Reflector’s schedule would slip until new parts for the arm could be sent up on the next supply ship, three months hence.

Worse would be the look of disappointment from her son, Owen.  She'd promised him pictures of the solar panels unfurling, and four-year-olds were not known for their patience.  Astronaut mommies were supposed to come back heroes, not failures.

And Earth needed a hero.  Since the oil crash, the global economy had been in a tailspin, blackouts were more common than reliable power and the skies were dark with soot as energy companies turned back to mining coal.

By launching the solar reflector, Claire could be part of the energy solution, and create a better future for Owen.  It would justify all the hours she’d spent away from him in astronaut training…and the leave of absence her husband had to take from his professorship while she was in space.

She crawled farther along the arm.  Leaning close, she saw a tear in the housing of the elbow pitch joint. 

“Found something.  Looks like a micrometeor strike or a collision with space junk.  There any record of previous damage to the housing of the elbow joint?”

“Let me check,” Hyun-Jin said.  A moment later, his voice returned over the radio.  “Nothing listed in the maintenance logs.”

Claire unhooked the top flap of a pocket on her thigh and pulled out a socket wrench.  She braced herself and loosened six bolts, removed the housing, then pointed her flashlight inside.

There.  A gash cut across the disc of the interior gear where a fragment or rock had punctured the housing.

She ran the beam of light along the damage.  “Looks like a--” 

A flash dazzled her peripheral vision.   

Startled, Claire jerked her head up, throwing her off-balance.  A green afterglow imprinted on her retinas.  In weightlessness, her sudden action caused her to tumble backwards.  Claire scrabbled blindly for a handhold. 

The brilliant white light had come from the horizon of Earth, on the Asian subcontinent.  In its aftermath, an elongated fireball rose, surrounded by a luminous red sphere hundreds of miles in diameter.  Below it, for just an instant, was a flat glowing disk. 

The fireball expanded and faded out.  That region of the globe looked strange.  It took Claire a moment to recognize the difference: the ground under the explosion was dark, city lights had been snuffed out.

“What the hell was that?” Claire shouted over the radio.  Her heart pounded in her chest.  It was unthinkable, but it had looked like a nuclear explosion.

Cole, the station commander, spoke over the ship-to-suit frequency.  “Yi, Logan, get in here.”

Claire protested, “But the spacewalk--”

“We just lost satellite communications with Houston.  Attitude control and guidance subsystems report circuit failures.  I want you back inside, ASAP.”

Claire activated her tether's winch at full speed and reeled back to the airlock.  She drew her arms and legs into fetal position, forming a ball against the pull of inertia.

Hyun-Jin was already inside.  His pockmarked face was pale and there were beads of sweat on his upper lip.  When Claire was in, he sealed the airlock behind her and started the pressurization cycle.

Claire touched her helmet to Hyun-Jin's so they could speak without the radio.  “What was that?”

His eyes slid to the small airlock window.  “An accident at the Digboi oil refinery?”  His voice held more hope than confidence.

Claire shook her head.  “That wasn't a ground explosion.  I saw a pancake luminescence, charged particles bouncing off the atmosphere.  That was a high-altitude burst.  At least a hundred kilometers up.”  Her voice quavered with a hideous wonder.  “An explosion with that much power…it had to be nuclear.” 

 

#

 

Risaldar-Major Bisnu was crossing the encampment to the Lieutenant-Colonel’s tent when the sky above the Himalayan Mountains exploded.  Bisnu threw his hands over his face and dove to the ground.  His training kicked in, too late.  When he opened his eyes, he saw nothing but a green retinal afterimage.  There were shouts and curses.  A hot wind blew across him, stinging sand and gravel across the back of his neck.

Then the face of Shiva, the destroyer, appeared to him through the haze.  Red and growing overhead.  Feeding off the air around him.

Scrabbling across the packed earth of the encampment, Bisnu half-ran, half-stumbled back to his tent.  He fumbled the gas mask from his footlocker and jammed it over his head.  He inhaled deeply, sucking hard to pull air through the filters.

Through the amber-tinted glass of the faceplate, Bisnu was nearly blind, but he saw the rising fireball he had mistaken for the face of a god.  Only one kind of bomb could create such destruction: nuclear.  High-altitude, or they’d already be dead.

A junior lieutenant backed into him, spun off his feet, and fell.  It was Rasmussen.

Bisnu picked him up by his collar.  The young man cried out in fear.  He struggled and kicked. 

“Courage,” shouted Bisnu, over the din of half-drunk and frightened soldiers.  To the man he held, and all others in earshot, Bisnu shouted: “Don gas masks.  They may follow with a chemical assault.  Assemble troop formations in the central commons.”

The camp had gone dark, save for intermittent fires around which men had warmed themselves and drunk to the Chinese retreat.  The electric power was out.

“Assemble the Squadron,” Bisnu ordered Rasmussen.  “I’ll meet you in the commons.”

Bisnu stumbled through the darkness towards the radio tent.  The glow of the fading fireball lit his passage.  A satellite dish was mounted on the central pole of the tent.  Bisnu lifted the flap and ducked inside. 

Two men huddled around the radio.  One held up a cigarette lighter while the other worked the dials in its feeble glow.  Static poured from the speaker.

“The main radio is blown,” said the light-skinned Pharsi holding the lighter.  His deep-set eyes were wide with fear.  “This is the battery-operated backup, radiation hardened.  But there’s no signal.  We cannot contact the satellite network.”

“High-altitude...nuclear...explosion,” Bisnu panted.  “Satellites...destroyed.” 

With the nuclear bomb, the Chinese had cut off long-range communications without destroying the precious oil field.  But why?  The conflict was months old.  What point was there for secrecy now?

Incoming missiles whistled overhead.

Bisnu stuck his head out and saw one hit the mess tent.  Billowing yellow smoke roiled out of it.  Men inside the spreading cloud crumpled to the ground screaming and twitching.

He checked the seals on his gas mask and lowered the flap.  “Nerve gas.  Or something like it.” 

The radio technicians scrambled for gas masks hanging on hooks near the door.

In the distance the rumble of Chinese tanks and cannon fire marched closer.

“What about the ground-based repeater towers?” Bisnu asked through the muffling filter of his gas mask.

The darker of the two radio men twiddled a few knobs, then shook his head.

“Keep trying,” shouted Bisnu.  “We have to let headquarters know about the attack.”

Bisnu ran outside.  Men milled in panic and confusion.  Only a quarter of them wore gas masks. 

Greenish sheets of flame lit the sky to the North and the South. 

“It is the end of the world,” Bisnu breathed.

Lieutenant Rasmussen had fifty men assembled, all in gas masks in the commons.  They were half-dressed, some tilted as if drunk.  All snapped to attention when Bisnu entered the clearing.

Bisnu grabbed a bullhorn from the general’s review table to amplify his muffled voice.  “The Chinese are attacking Digboi oil field.  It is up to us to save India’s most precious natural resource.  Are you ready to fight?”  He was grateful his sweating face was hidden by the mask.  His bellow sounded more confident than he felt.

“Sir, yes sir!” shouted from fifty muffled faces.

Bisnu waved at the tanks parked a hundred yards away.  “Tank battalion.  Let’s show the Chinese this tiger has claws.”

#

 

Pajama-clad Owen Logan hopped onto his child-sized bed.  There were cartoon rocket ships and spacemen on his PJs.  He scrunched up his face at Matt, “I wish Mommy was here.”

Matt distractedly rummaged through a toy box for a goodnight book.  He pulled out James and the Giant Peach and Wiggo and Wanky go to Space.  He put the book about puppy-dog astronauts back and selected The Wind in the Willows before Owen could see the other book.  “You’ll see Mommy soon,” Matt told his son for the hundredth time that day.  “Tomorrow we fly to Florida--

Disneyworld!  Disneyworld!” Owen chanted, bouncing in a kneeling position on the bed.

“--and visit your Grandma Logan,” Matt continued as if there had been no interruption.  “Then two days later mommy lands.  And then we’ll all go to Disneyworld together.”  He held out the two books.  “Which one do you want?”

Wiggo and Wanky,” Owen leaped out of bed and snatched up the picture book from deep in the toy box where Matt had buried it.  He held it out with glee.  Wiggo and Wanky!”

Matt sighed and picked Owen up and sat them together on the bed.  Owen had requested this book every night for the past three months while Claire was in space.  After dozens of reading, Matt could recite from memory every line of dialog the two space-faring puppys yipped and yapped at each other.

While his colleagues at the University of Houston taught English Literature, debated the descriptive prowess of Flaubert, and attended colloquia on the symbolism of Shakespeare…Matt Logan barked and growled the story of two cocker spaniel’s adventures on the spaceship Bone.

In two days, Claire’ll be back, Matt promised himself.  Two days until I have help with Owen.  Two days until I get my life back. 

#

 

Claire’s mind raced while she and Hyun-Jin waited for the airlock to finish cycling them back into Reliance’s atmosphere.  She hadn’t just seen a nuclear explosion.  That wasn’t possible.  Countries built nukes, and threatened to use them—but no one actually did.  The repercussions—both political and environmental--were too great.  It must be something else.  Once they made contact with Houston, they’d know what had really happened, and have a good laugh.

As soon as the airlock finished cycling, Claire popped her helmet seal and Hyun-Jin pushed open the round hatch.  They kicked through into the rectangular crew lock and desuited in record time, bumping into each other and the cluttered walls as they helped each other crawl out of their spacesuits’s hard torso unit and pull off leggings. 

Claire hastily jammed her suit’s components onto the storage frame, uneasy about neglecting the suit’s post-EVA maintenance.

Hyun-Jin followed Claire as she grabbed one of twenty metal hand rails that lined the walls and exited the docking-and-stowage module.  Claire kicked and yanked herself up the connecting passages: rectangular with equipment and drawer pulls covering all six surfaces it was like traveling through someone’s cluttered walk-in closet.  Two levels above, they reached the cramped command module.

Twenty feet long and five feet wide, the walls of the command module were paneled with storage drawers and a bewildering number of handrails and smaller handholds.  Over the drawers were elastic straps that held equipment to the walls: binoculars for the portholes, a cordless screwdriver, battery charger for handheld computers. 

The walls were painted different shades of neutral grays and greens to help with orientation, but that only added to the industrially cluttered feel of the place.

At the far end, three laptops were mounted on ball-and-socket arms, the nerve center of the station.  Commander John Cole and the other two crewmembers hovered around the radio, clinging to the walls from various angles.

The meter-wide round cover had been removed from the forward viewing window and the twinkling lights of the nighttime Earth filled its view.

Commander Cole wore a sage-green clamshell radio headset that positioned a boom mike in front of his lips.  He floated in front of a laptop, gripping his own knee to hold himself in a seated position.

Despite the headset, the speakerphone was on.  Static hissed from its grid, punctuated occasionally by a word.  “I don't copy,” Cole spoke into the microphone in slow, distinct, syllables.  “Please repeat.  Reliance over.”  Sweat beaded his forehead, dewing the white hairs of his crew cut.  Houston, this is Reliance.  Do you copy?”

Anderson hovered next to him, shoulder-to-shoulder in the cramped space in front of the laptops.  His round face twisted into a frown of concentration as he typed keys, toggling through frequencies.  “I'm not getting a signal on any of the ship-to-ground channels.  The satellite network isn’t responding.”  Anderson's full lips tightened into a white line.  Claire recognized the expression from training simulations...when everything had gone wrong. 

Josephine Jones hovered above Cole and Anderson, laying down in the space above their heads.  She held a pair of Ziess 20x60 stabilized binoculars and peered through the meter-wide window.  She steadied herself by grabbing the window’s cover, which was flipped back on its hinge.  Jo-Jo tilted the field glasses against window for a better angle.  “There's a dark patch near the Himalayan Mountains.  Looks like power is out in one of the major cities.”

Cole turned at Claire's approach.  He passed the headset to Anderson and pivoted to the rear of the command module.  “Keep trying.”  He waved Claire and Hyun-Jin forward.  “Tell me everything.”

Claire grabbed a handhold, then closed her eyes and summoned the image from her memory.  “There was a flash.  Then a growing red pinpoint of light.  It looked like the fireball elongated vertically.  There was an instant where it looked like the fireball rested on a glowing disc, but the disc wasn't completely flat, more of a low-sloped cone.”  She opened her eyes and met Cole's blue gaze.  “There was also a red glowing sphere around the fireball.”  She shaped the sphere with her hands.  “It must have been hundreds of miles in diameter.”

“Holy shit, look at that,” Jo-Jo shouted, pointing out the window. 

They all pressed towards the porthole, clinging together to hold position.  Claire smelled the garlic Hyun-Jin had for lunch and felt Anderson’s breath on her cheek.

In the window, Twin blue-green auroras danced on the horizon, lighting up the Himalayan Mountains and the Bay of Bengal. 

“What is that?” Jo-Jo asked.  She squirmed upwards, so the others could move in closer.  “Turn off the cabin lights.”

Claire above their heads and hit the touchplate that controlled the overhead lights.  The only illumination left in the cabin was the glowing screens of the laptops and the backlit touchpads of the instrument panel.  It took a moment for everyone's eyes to adjust.

“It looks like the Northern Lights back home,” said Anderson. 

Claire watched blue-green fingers of luminescence elongate and flicker.  The eerie light made the hairs on the back of her neck prickle.  “But that isn't the North Pole.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”  Cole ran his fingers over his scalp.

“I've seen this before,” said Claire.  “Starfish Prime.”  All eyes turned to her and she swallowed.  “A film I watched as an undergraduate.”  She licked her lips, not wanting what she feared to be true.  “Of tests the U.S. performed in 1962 of high-altitude nuclear bombs.”

The command module went silent.  The only noise was background hum of the station’s computers and air filtration units and the groaning and flexing of the hull.

“It has to be an accident,” sputtered Hyun-Jin.  “No one would deliberately--”

“Don’t be stupid  Anderson interrupted.  “It’s the war between India and China, over that oilfield in north-east India.  It’s gone nuclear.”

Jo-Jo's hands covered her mouth.  “A nuclear war?”

“Let's not jump to conclusions,” Cole boomed, pushing away from the window and back to his station in front of the command-module’s controls.  “One explosion is not a war.  We need to contact someone on the ground and find out what's happened.”  His expression was relaxed and confident, but Claire saw the muscles in his neck were corded with tension.  “In the meantime, we'll record this event.  The data may be useful groundside.”  Cole checked his wristwatch.  “I'm marking GMT of the explosion as 04:52.”  Cole pointed at Jo-Jo.  “Keep watch out the window and let us know if anything else happens.”  Turning, he said, “Hyun-Jin?”

The astrobiologist startled at the sound of his name.  “Yes?”

“Pull up a map, try to figure out which cities have gone dark.”  Cole pointed at Claire.  “Claire, take over the radio.  Anderson...”  Cole swallowed.  Anderson, I want you to go run preflight on the lifeboat.” 

The crew stared at Cole.

He ran his hand over his scalp.  “We don't want to jump to any conclusions, but we don't want to be caught with our pants down, either.” 

“Yes sir.”  Anderson slipped the headset off and handed it to Claire.  She slid into the place he had occupied next to Cole and tucked her foot under a handhold.

The station was a civilian post, but Anderson still snapped a salute to Cole before he left.  It worried Claire that Anderson's military reflexes had clicked into place.  It meant on some level he expected a battle.  And a battle was one thing for which Reliance was not equipped.

Claire clamped the headset over her ears and adjusted the microphone in front of her lips.  She typed in command codes to open channel-S communications.  Houston, this is Reliance.  Do you copy?  Over.  Houston, Reliance.  Do you copy?”

“Holy shit,” breathed Jo-Jo.  “Half of India's gone dark.”

Claire pulled her foot from under the handhold and kicked off it towards the window.  Hyun-Jin and Cole were behind her.  Cole stretched his arm over her head for a handhold and Hyun-Jin lightly grasped her shoulder for position.

The space station, orbiting at twenty-eight thousand kilometers per hour, had overtaken the horizon and the site of the eruption was now in view beneath them.

Three months of Earth-watching had made Claire familiar with the brilliant diamond webs that covered the nighttime globe.  City lights spread out from centers of commerce, trailed along rivers.  The pixie dust of electricity highlighted industrialized nations.  Usually India burned like a white tiger's tooth in the center of the Indian Ocean.  Tonight, however, over a third of the tooth on India's eastern border was missing, chipped away by the explosion that had taken place ten minutes ago.

 

#

 

A light went red on Hank Rubin’s command board.  He put down the cup of black coffee he’d been about to drink from and looked over the rows of computer stations to communications. 

Amanda Jackson was CAPCOM for this shift.  Thirty-something, black, and out of Georgia Tech with a PhD in electrical engineering, she had washed out of the astronaut program when she’d developed adult-onset diabetes.  She dressed sharper than any other engineer on his team, and always looked in control--except now.  “Sir, we’ve lost contact with Reliance.”

Hank lumbered over to her station and squinted at the green monochrome screen.  The eye doctor had prescribed reading glasses, but Hank didn’t wear them.  He wasn’t ready to be that old.  “Can you route it through another satellite?”

Amanda typed rapidly on her keyboard, her red-lacquered nails clicking staccato.  “Sir, the entire eastern network is down.  I can’t raise anything east of Europe, or West of Australia.”  She brought up a log of NASA’s communication satellites.  “There was a spike ninety seconds ago.  Then--nothing.”

“Solar flare?” Hank asked.  Heartburn flared in his gut.  This was a mystery, and Hank didn’t like mysteries--not on his shift. 

“I don’t know, Sir.  Nothing was predicted.  The sun’s in a quiet period, but I’ll call NOAA, see if they picked up anything.”  There was a note of panic in her voice.  “Be a hell of a solar flare to take out the entire East-Asian network.”

The phone at Hank’s workstation rang.  He pointed his finger like a gun at Amanda.  “Find out.  We’ve got a launch scheduled in two days, and five astronauts in the air.  We can’t afford to lose contact.”

Hank picked up the phone.  Jammed it against his ear.  “Hank Rubin, Houston command center.”

“Grant Williamson, Pentagon.  The bhangmeters registered an event.”

Cold sweat trickled down Hank’s back.  The bhangmeters were instruments mounted on radiation-hardened military satellites, able to detect the characteristic light of a nuclear explosion.  Hank licked his suddenly dry lips.  “Where?”

Assam, India.  High-altitude burst.  We’ve lost satellite coverage of that area.  We need your astronauts to visually monitor the situation.”

 

#

 

Claire, Cole, Jo-Jo, and Hyun-Jin clustered around the meter-wide observation window, transfixed by what they saw--or rather didn’t see, the missing city lights over Eastern India.

“If it was a nuclear explosion,” Hyun-jin said, “where are the fires?”

Only half the usual bank of lights in the command module were on, to facilitate Earth observations.  Amber and red warning lights cast the small chamber in a hellish glow, reporting the failure of half-a-dozen non-essential systems that had gone down since the blast. 

Squeezed in next to him at the window, Claire shook a negative.  “Not if it was a high-altitude burst.”  She hadn’t had time to clean up after her EVA and stank with the musk of fear and stale sweat.

Claire pushed Jo-Jo’s foot out of her face.

“Sorry,” the younger woman murmured, pulling a handhold to pivot position.  She was dressed in navy shorts sewn with six blue stripes of Velcro across her thighs, a white tank top with the JPL logo printed on the front, and slate-blue hiking socks.  Jo-Jo drifted above Claire, using binoculars to look out the large viewing window.

“Why not use a conventional ground-burst ICBM?” asked Hyun-Jin.  He clung to the rim of the window with a white-knuckled grip.  “It would do more damage.”

“If Anderson's right and this is about the Digboi oilfield,” Cole pushed off from the frame and folded his body into in front of the bank of laptops in the middle of the module, “China might have used a high-altitude burst as a warning shot, or to knock out India's satellites and power grid without damaging the oil fields.”  He nodded at Claire to take the com.

Claire pushed off from the wall and caught a handhold on the wall, slid her knees under the pull-out workshelf near the communications laptop and tucked her foot under a handrail for stability.  She pulled a clamshell headset off the wall with a Velcro rip and settled it around her head.  In place, she used the laptop to activate a radio transmission:  Houston, this is Reliance, do you read me?  Over.”  She pulled the boom microphone of her headset away from her mouth.  “I'm not getting anything.  I can't even reach the radiation-hardened military satellites.  I don’t know if there’s too much radiation interference, or the digital tuner got fried.”  She looked over at Cole.  “I can try a line-of-sight radio signal to Moscow, use the old analog tuner and bypass the satellite network completely.”

Cole sucked his upper teeth, considering.  “Do it.  But let me talk to them if you get through.”

Claire moved the microphone back into position, changed radio protocols, and tried again: “Moscow Mission Control, this is Reliance Space Station.  Do you read me?  Moscow, this is Reliance.  Do you copy?”

Static.  But there was a rhythm in the hiss, the cadence of a distorted voice.

Claire pressed the earpiece into her ear and turned on the speaker.  Hyun-Jin and Jo-Jo were still at the window.  They turned to look. 

Cole put on a second headset and spoke into the microphone.  Moscow Mission Control.  This is Reliance Space Station.  Do you copy?”

“...nity, this...Mos...control.”

Moscow, Reliance, come again.  I missed that last.”

A Russian-accented voice said, “Reliance, Moscow.  We read you.”

Claire blessed Wilbur and Orville for being American.  At any airport in the world, in addition to the country's native tongue, you could address the control tower in English.  This had carried over to space flight.

Jo-Jo whooped and blew a kiss to Hyun-Jin, who blushed. 

Cole's grin was tempered.  He took the headset from Claire.  Moscow, Reliance.  We're having trouble contacting the satellite network.  Can you patch us through to Houston?”

A pause.  Then the same heavily-accented male voice, “We, too, experience difficulty.  The eastern network is non-responsive.  Do you have information of this malfunction?”

Cole turned off the radio’s VOX so his next words wouldn’t be transmitted.  “If that was a nuclear explosion, there's going to be a lot of political tension that I don't want any part of.  And if it wasn't, I don't want to start a panic.”  He keyed the microphone manually.  Moscow, this is Reliance.  We've seen an event we need report to Houston.  But we don’t have any conclusive evidence.  Can you patch us through?”

Sweat beaded on Cole's head as seconds ticked by.

While they waited for MCM to respond, Claire said, “They'll listen in on any communications we have over their network.”

“Probably they know already.”  Cole blew on his hands.  “They’ve got at least as many nuclear-blast detectors as the U.S.  This,” he gestured at the still-silent speaker, “is just politicking.”

“I can see more of India,” said Jo-Jo from overhead.  She panned the stabilized binoculars across the window.  “It's still blacked out.  The power outages are spreading.”

Reliance, Moscow.  We have made contact with Mission Control Houston, patching you through, now--”

--a metallic thunderclap reverberated through the station.  Reliance lurched forward.  Claire's ankles cracked against the handrail.  Her body flung forward, slapping her chest against the laptop in front of her.  Its telescoping arm folded forward, crumpling beneath her.  

A loud clanging, then a hollow grinding that sounded like a trashcan rolling along Reliance's hull.   

Jo-Jo's head thwacked against the metal rim of the window.  “Shit!”

Cole‘s ribs slammed into a wall of drawers.  His body bounced off and tumbled like an out-of-control skydiver.

Tiny pings chimed from all over the station.  Under Claire’s stomach the laptop arm shimmied. Carabiners clipped to a handhold near her face rattled. 

Hyun-Jin clung to a handhold on the side of the control panel.  “What the hell was that?”

A high-pitched emergency alarm keened in alternating tones.

Cole pressed a hand to his side.  “Pressure readings!”

Claire checked the gauge on the instrument panel.  “14.0 psi and falling.”  Her heart flip-flopped in her chest. 

Cole jerked the emergency procedures manual off the wall.  The flip-top book came free with a Velcro rip.  He opened the tab for decompression.  “Open Channels 1 and 2, and transmit.”

“But Mission Control can't hear--”

“--do it.  Then get Anderson on the radio.” 

Claire jabbed the channel 1 and 2 radio buttons and the button marked 'XMIT'.  She reported her actions as she worked: “Channels one and two open.  Transmitting.”  There was comfort in the routine that she had practiced a thousand times.  All three membrane buttons illuminated.  Then she changed to the ship-to-ship frequency.  Exodus, this is Reliance.  Anderson, you there?”

There was no answer.

“Damn.  Where is he?  We've got to evacuate,” said Cole.  “Claire, disconnect the air duct between the service module and the crew escape vehicle.”

Claire typed commands.  “Disconnected.”

Cole waved Jo-Jo and Hyun-Jin through the hatch. 

Claire kicked off from the command center.  Cole caught her hand and pulled her through the circular hatch, then slammed it shut behind them. 

They hurried along the gray-paneled access tunnel leading to the lifeboat, kicking off of drawers and the white nylon cargo bags strapped to the walls, grabbing and yanking the long handrails.  

Hyun-Jin's foot caught Claire in the face.  He looked back.  “Sorry, oh God--sorry.”

Cheek throbbing from the impact, Claire shouted: “Go!  Just go.”

They turned the corner to the lifeboat.  Anderson hung in the middle of the passage, one hand on the closed and locked hatch.  Blood trailed in oscillating bubbles from a cut above his left temple and drifted toward the ventilation filter.  His eyes fluttered open. 

Cole grabbed Anderson's shoulders.  “What the hell happened?  We've got decompression.  Why aren't you in the lifeboat?”

The pressurization alarm cut off in mid-warble. 

Hyun-Jin and Jo-Jo looked around at the cargo-cluttered walls in amazement and tentative relief.

Anderson breathed hard.  Between gulps of air, he said.  “I've got.  Good news.  And bad news.”  He panted until his breathing slowed.  “Good news: I isolated and contained the leak.  Bad news: we were hit.  The lifeboat won't hold pressure.” 


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