“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
CNN World News Report -- Monday
July 8th, 2022
Tuesday July 9th, 2022
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.”
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.
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.”
felt the sushi he’d eaten that afternoon form a cold lump in his
other man in the room, the Director of the CIA, spoke quietly. “You see why we informed you
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
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.
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.”
Tuesday July 9th, 2022
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.
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.
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.
her, so close she could feel their breath on the back of her neck, hovered the
rest of the crew of Reliance
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.
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
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
away was Hyun-Jin, a Canadian microbiologist. He looked nervous, his olive-skinned
fingers erratically tapping the handhold he clung to.
watched her every move…waiting for her to make history.
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.
inhaled deeply, letting all that go, and unlocked the joystick.
moment, the deployment of the Equatorial Solar Reflector, was the culmination
of two years of hard work.
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
rubbed her hands together, then took hold of the
joystick with her right hand, the pincher control with her left.
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
pushed the joystick forward to cause the arm to bend down and retrieve the
Equatorial Solar Reflector payload.
laptop’s screen was the vague diagnosis: “Gear motility error.”
cleared the error and re-ran the procedure. The same three words blinked back at her
on the screen. “Gear motility error.”
craned her neck to peer at the laptop.
“What’s going on?
Is something wrong?”
felt her face go hot.
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.
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
scowled at the screen. She
didn’t find Anderson’s
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
beaded on Claire’s brow as she hurriedly ran through the Canadarm’s diagnostics.
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
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.”
popped his head in through the hatch.
“How’s it going?”
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.
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
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
had won the argument with Mission Control; Claire got her EVA.
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.
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.
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
distracted by the view.” With her left hand she clipped in a
second, longer, tether and released the first.
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
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.
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.
in place,” she called back to Hyun-Jin. “Beginning
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
crawled farther along the arm.
Leaning close, she saw a tear in the housing of the elbow pitch
something. Looks like a micrometeor
strike or a collision with space junk.
There any record of previous damage to the housing of the elbow
me check,” Hyun-Jin said. A
moment later, his voice returned over the radio. “Nothing listed in the maintenance
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.
the beam of light along the damage.
“Looks like a--”
dazzled her peripheral vision.
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
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.
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
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.
the station commander, spoke over the ship-to-suit frequency. “Yi, Logan, get in here.”
protested, “But the spacewalk--”
just lost satellite communications with Houston. Attitude control and guidance subsystems
report circuit failures. I want you
back inside, ASAP.”
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.
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.
touched her helmet to Hyun-Jin's so they could speak without the radio. “What was that?”
slid to the small airlock window. “An accident at the Digboi oil
refinery?” His voice
held more hope than confidence.
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
face of Shiva, the destroyer, appeared to him through the haze. Red and growing
off the air around him.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
had gone dark, save for intermittent fires around which men had warmed
themselves and drunk to the Chinese retreat. The electric power was out.
the Squadron,” Bisnu ordered Rasmussen. “I’ll meet you in the
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.
huddled around the radio. One held
up a cigarette lighter while the other worked the dials in its feeble
glow. Static poured from 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
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?
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.
checked the seals on his gas mask and lowered the flap. “Nerve gas. Or something like
radio technicians scrambled for gas masks hanging on hooks near the door.
distance the rumble of Chinese tanks and cannon fire marched closer.
about the ground-based repeater towers?” Bisnu
asked through the muffling filter of his gas mask.
darker of the two radio men twiddled a few knobs, then
shook his head.
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.
sheets of flame lit the sky to the North and the South.
is the end of the world,” Bisnu breathed.
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
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
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.”
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
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
“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!”
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.
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.
days, Claire’ll be back, Matt promised
himself. Two days until I have help
with Owen. Two days until I get my
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 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.
hastily jammed her suit’s components onto the storage frame, uneasy about
neglecting the suit’s post-EVA maintenance.
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.
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
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
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.
meter-wide round cover had been removed from the forward viewing window and the
twinkling lights of the nighttime Earth filled its view.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.”
shit, look at that,” Jo-Jo shouted, pointing out the window.
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.
window, Twin blue-green auroras danced on the horizon, lighting up the Himalayan Mountains
and the Bay of Bengal.
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
looks like the Northern Lights back home,” said Anderson.
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.”
got a bad feeling about this.”
Cole ran his fingers over his scalp.
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.”
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.
has to be an accident,” sputtered Hyun-Jin. “No one would
be stupid” Anderson
interrupted. “It’s the
war between India and
China, over that oilfield in
north-east India. It’s gone nuclear.”
hands covered her mouth. “A nuclear war?”
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,
The astrobiologist startled at the sound of his name. “Yes?”
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
stared at Cole.
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.”
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.
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
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.
this is Reliance. Do you copy? Over. Houston,
Reliance. Do you copy?”
shit,” breathed Jo-Jo.
“Half of India's
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
“Solar flare?” Hank asked.
Heartburn flared in his gut.
This was a mystery, and Hank didn’t like mysteries--not on his
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.”
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.”
picked up the phone. Jammed it against his ear. “Hank Rubin, Houston command
Williamson, Pentagon. The bhangmeters registered an event.”
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.”
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.
it was a nuclear explosion,” Hyun-jin said,
“where are the fires?”
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.
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.
pushed Jo-Jo’s foot out of her face.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.”
sucked his upper teeth, considering.
“Do it. But let me
talk to them if you get through.”
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.
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.
on a second headset and spoke into the microphone. “Moscow Mission Control. This is Reliance Space Station.
Do you copy?”
“Moscow, Reliance, come again. I missed that last.”
Russian-accented voice said, “Reliance,
Moscow. We read you.”
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
whooped and blew a kiss to Hyun-Jin, who blushed.
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?”
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.
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
beaded on Cole's head as seconds ticked by.
they waited for MCM to respond, Claire said, “They'll listen in on any
communications we have over their network.”
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.”
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.”
We have made contact with Mission Control Houston, patching you through,
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.
clanging, then a hollow grinding that sounded like a trashcan rolling along Reliance's hull.
head thwacked against the metal rim of the window. “Shit!”
ribs slammed into a wall of drawers.
His body bounced off and tumbled like an out-of-control skydiver.
pings chimed from all over the station.
Under Claire’s stomach the laptop arm shimmied. Carabiners clipped to a handhold near her face
clung to a handhold on the side of the control panel. “What the hell was that?”
high-pitched emergency alarm keened in alternating tones.
pressed a hand to his side. “Pressure readings!”
checked the gauge on the instrument panel.
“14.0 psi and
falling.” Her heart
flip-flopped in her chest.
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.”
Mission Control can't hear--”
it. Then get Anderson on the radio.”
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?”
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.”
typed commands. “Disconnected.”
waved Jo-Jo and Hyun-Jin through the hatch.
kicked off from the command center.
Cole caught her hand and pulled her through the circular hatch, then
slammed it shut behind them.
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.
foot caught Claire in the face. He
looked back. “Sorry,
throbbing from the impact, Claire shouted: “Go! Just go.”
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.
shoulders. “What the hell
happened? We've got
decompression. Why aren't you in
pressurization alarm cut off in mid-warble.
and Jo-Jo looked around at the cargo-cluttered walls in amazement and tentative
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.”