By Ron Prichard
“Damn, what… that wasn’t there a minute ago. Hey Michael.”
The words crackled inside his earpieces, but Michael jerked his head anyway as if turning would let him listen more clearly. Felt it in his neck. That would ache.
“C’mon Edwards. Don’t need any surprises out here.”
“Sorry, but we have one. I’ve got an object coming off the horizon. Maybe 10 minutes away. Not huge but sizable.”
“What is it?”
“That’s a mystery. Nothing charted and nothing NASA is tracking down below.”
Typical. Michael took his eyes off the task at hand, prepping a small satellite for a launch into a higher geo orbit. Looked out at the blue far below. Sure, it felt empty up here. But NASA tracks about 15,000 objects as they float around the Earth. That’s a lot of trash. But they’re supposed to keep a close eye on everything in the station’s path, a smaller number.
He moved his hand and flipped the bird toward what might have been Houston. “Can we change attitude and avoid it?”
“Yeah, but it will still be here the next time we do an orbit. Look, it is slow. And small. Maybe 5 feet long, under 100 pounds even down on Earth.”
Michael thought about it. Might as well see what it was. “We still have that netting we used when we caught the mini satellite. I can grab it if you make sure it passes on my side.”
Edwards said OK, so Michael maneuvered around to the side of the station. A couple of months before, they’d had to catch a 3-foot diameter satellite lowered down from geo orbit so they could load it into a capsule and send it back for repairs.
They used an eight-foot net mounted on an extension pole, and the rig was strapped to the station. Michael grabbed it and returned to his workspot, using the handrails that littered the outside of the ISS 2. “Just be sure you’re secured,” Edwards told him.
“The pole is tethered. Clipped to the superstructure.”
“Don’t care about the pole. Clip yourself in. Or the object’s inertia will take you with it.”
Of course, he’d tie himself off. Michael tried not to feel insulted.
Soon he could see it, first a white speck against the black. Gradually bigger. It looked like a figure, limbs, torso. Couldn’t be.
But it was, had to be. A person, or at least an empty spacesuit.
He shifted to the outermost rail on the station, reached out farther with the pole. “I might miss it,” he said. “Just hang on,” came the response.
He felt the positioning jets light up, for just a second. The attitude changed. The object would come close to him as well as the station.
At the last minute, Michael realized just how close. Unclipped the tether from the pole, tossed the net away toward Earth. Reached for a hand, tried to grab it. Felt it slip, grabbed on with two.
And he was off, the inertia too much for the magnets in his boots to hold. Maybe 15 feet, and then his tether tightened. He felt the bounce. Eventually it would settle down, like a zero-G bungee jump.
He came face to face with the other helmet. Unconscious. A woman, young. Skin pink, and not obviously frozen. “Holy crap,” he said. “I think she’s alive.”
It was good, then, that he’d caught her. She was in a decaying orbit, her third trip around the Earth, but the first at the same altitude as the station. She wouldn’t have been there when they came around again.
She’d have been the woman who fell to Earth.
Wrestling her into the airlock and then the module wasn’t easy, but he did it with his military precision. First made sure she was clipped to a line, then shifted to the hatch, then made sure she was laying low in the chamber so he could shut the hatch behind him and work the controls.
It helped that her suit was less bulky than his, the helmet fitted close to her head. It did take a moment outside to release her jetpack rig, but those latches were easy enough to find and operate.
He didn’t recognize the equipment. He’d worked with Russians and Chinese on the station and done some training with Japan’s astronauts. They all learned one another’s equipment. He couldn’t help but wonder who else was up here these days.
She hadn’t moved a limb, but as he waited for the lock to fill with air, her eyelids twitched.
Then he opened the inner hatch and pulled her into the main lab of the module. Over toward the med table, then up on it, attaching loose straps – bungees, really – around her legs and above her waist.
“How is she?” Edwards asked over the com.
“Wait until I get this suit off,” Michael answered, and he meant hers as well as his. He already had his helmet hung. Gloves off, and then he was able to slip out of the oversuit. That left the warm layer beneath, which he slid to his waist, and his nylon jumpsuit.
Then he was fiddling with her helmet, trying to read the attachments. Good design, he thought; intuitive, and he quickly had it unclasped. A twist and it was off. Auburn hair cut short and choppy; she’d done it herself. A longish face, high cheekbones. Upturned nose.
He leaned close. She was breathing, faintly. He found a cylinder and mask, gave her some straight O2.
Went to work on her gloves, then boots. The same clever clips, then short twists of metal rims. “I think she’s breathing, man. Can’t check the heartbeat until I get her out of the rig. Could use some help.”
But that was out of the question. NASA had ordered the module they were in sealed, just in case. She was a mystery that called for isolation. They would have preferred Michael stay in his suit pending tests, but too late for that.
He managed to get her out of the suit in 15 minutes, down to a thin nylon bodysuit not unlike his own. He wrapped heated blankets around her and checked for a pulse and heartbeat – steady, and quite strong – then put in an IV and started fluids.
She winced and let out a squeak at the needle. A good sign. She reacted that way again when he drew blood.
He pulled over the x-ray machine next and was halfway done with the imaging when she spoke. “What… where am I? What happened?”
Weak and disoriented. He held the hand on the IV’d arm, put his face close to hers. English, that was good. Everyone spoke English. It was the language of international government and business, mainly because Americans refused to learn any other tongue. “It’s OK. You’re on the International Space Station.”
She was reaching for the needle with the other hand, but the straps stopped her movement. “Relax,” he told her. “You’re strapped because we’re in zero G. It’s just saline. We can talk in a bit.”
He stepped away after she seemed to calm down. He was still dressing when she spoke again, without moving or looking at him.
“You’re a doctor?”
“Medic. One of the many things the Navy taught me to do. Up here, we all need to know the basics. There might not be a doc, or the doc might be the one to get sick.”
“Am I OK?”
“Seem to be. Took vitals and some x-rays and sent them to Earth for a look.”
“And you’re Michael?”
Had he told her that? “Michael Jameson. Navy captain. Fighter pilot. Astronaut. Soon to be recordholder for the longest stay in space.”
“So, you are Michael,” she said, almost to herself. Like she’d expected him. “And that is Earth below. I can’t wait to feel a breeze again. Open water. Maybe my feet in the sand.”
She ended with “Thanks,” sounding uncertain, like she wanted to say more but couldn’t think how to phrase it.
She was in the bed, covered up, sitting up, like it was any hospital on Earth. Food tray on the table that slid over her lap. Everything strapped, clipped or held down with magnets.
He stood next to her, magnets in his slippers holding him to the floor. First the usual niceties, then the questions. “So you have everyone perplexed. Where are you from?”
She smiled. She was pretty, sharp features, and tall, though he didn’t know that yet. “That’s a long story. So, we’re on the ISS? It’s still in service?”
“ISS 2. Open through midcentury, drop in anytime. We’re in the Eurolann module. Four rooms, including luckily a shower and bathroom, since we’re sealed in as a precaution. Until we learn more about you. Your suit has a logo, GSA.”
“Global Space Agency, yes.”
“We’ve never heard of that. What is it?”
“You will, I…” she drifted off. “I… I’m just really tired. Can we do this later?”
“It’s been three days. I don’t even know your name.”
“Katrina. Katrina Guest. I’m a scientist; astrophysicist, specializing in solar physics. Astronaut as well.”
“I… as I said, it’s a long story.”
He decided it could wait a few more days. Then one morning (by the Earth clock, anyway) he closed himself into the antechamber, which served as a bunkroom and office, for what had become a daily call. Linked in the videocom to NASA and to Edwards. “You should press her,” said the third man on the call, mission director Scott Banning.
“Soon. You know I’m a hard ass when I need to be, but she’s not going anywhere. What do you know?”
“They don’t know jack,” Edwards said, almost with delight.
Banning didn’t appreciate it. His voice didn’t hide his annoyance, but it was true. “No space-going nation lost an astronaut; we’re friendly enough that I believe that. Also, no record of a GSA. Or her name.”
“But she’s here,” said Edwards. “Maybe she’s an alien. Maybe Mars lost a woman.”
“Edwards, that’s not helpful.” Banning sounded serious. “We may have to restrict your access to this.”
In fact, the other astronauts on the station had already been shut out. Story was that Michael had come down with an unknown illness. Shortly after, Banning raised the classified level to the military’s highest; no more calls for Edwards.
“He may be half right,” Banning said to Michael. “She is human. But her biologicals are almost too perfect. Our medical people are looking closely at her DNA; there may be small variations. And look at this.”
He put one of the X rays on the screen. Her head. Deep in one lobe, an object popped out in clear relief. Not large, disc shaped, solid.
“What is it? A tumor?” Edwards asked.
“No. It seems to be metallic,” Banning said. “I’d guess some sort of implant. If I were writing science fiction, I’d say it’s a hard drive. But no one does work like that, not yet.”
She was up and out of bed when Michael came back in, floating and looking out a window. The Earth below, the Americas visible, popping out of a sea of blue and a veil of clouds.
He pulled close to her. “You okay?”
Her eyes were, in fact, damp. “Just wasn’t sure I’d see home again,” she said.
“I wasn’t sure you’d survive the trip,” he said. “You came out of nowhere. Had I not been outside, I doubt we’d have been able to catch you. I saw a body in space once, depressurized; it’s a hard death. Space can be deadly.”
“It was worth the risk,” she said, then turned it back on him. “You must love it up here. How long?”
“Going on three years, shooting for the record. It’s a major test; I work out constantly to try to counter the effects of weightlessness. They wonder about the impact for long space journeys. But that’s for the scientists. For me, it’s about doing what no one else has done.”
“That’s your mantra?”
“Yep. Graduated early from high school and college. Youngest stealth fighter pilot ever. Medal of honor. Short of fighting a world war, astronaut was the next step. Don’t know what I’ll target when this stay is done.
“But we should talk about you.”
Her mind was sharp now. Recovery was nearly complete. “We should. But we have to follow some rules. Isolation, just like we have in this module. You, me. Your mission commander. And there’s a scientist, James Irwin Blake. University of Texas, if not NASA yet. No one else can even listen to what I have to say.”
His look showed the puzzlement. “Look, you’ll understand after. But everything rides on this. Everything.”
It took few days to assemble the pair on Earth and set up the call. Michael and Kat weren’t uncomfortable in the module, but there was a tension already. So much unsaid.
When the call began, it was Banning who came with an edge. “OK, we’ve brought your engineering prof here. Just a kid. I might hire him someday, he’s done some good work. But I have more qualified people.”
She was just as stern. “Those other people aren’t listening, are they?”
“No. We had a deal.”
On the screen, they could see the professor and scientist next to Banning. He wasn’t a kid to them. Michael guessed at least mid-30s. Thin, bearded, a ruddy face behind the red hair. Still, the grey-haired military man clearly wasn’t sold on him.
“He will fuel what’s about to come, whether you believe it or not. Whether he does.”
Michael wanted to get on to her secrets. “Let’s get started. Should we start the download?”
She nodded. “Mr. Banning, you’re getting some files from the chip in my suit. You won’t understand them. Mr. Blake will, given time. They’ll help you design a partial quantum engine that will allow travel near the speed of light. For much of the next two centuries, you’ll send travelers out in search of planets that can support life, and for life itself. A project that will grow into the Global Space Agency.”
“Is that possible?” Blake asked. “I mean, I know interstellar flight is doable in theory, but…”
“This is fact,” she said.
“Never happen,” Michael said. “Our world’s always on the edge of a dozen wars. Hell, we probably won’t last two centuries.”
She smiled. “This work will bring Earth together.”
Banning looked skeptical. “Do we find something? Because the cost would be immense.”
“You find only a little for a long time. But you will learn the science. You will see amazing things. Eventually, one of these Space Shots will reach a dead star. Orbiting it – again, study the downloads – is an object that has been circling, and signaling Earth, for decades. It is a machine that, through quantum entanglement, can link objects across time and space. It was sent toward Earth, to welcome us into the company of the galaxy’s star-going civilizations. But something went wrong, and it can’t get here. You’ll have to meet it out there.
“I don’t know what happens after that. But it will prove there’s other life out there. That should start a new chapter for humanity.”
Blake was clearly skeptical. “And you know this how?”
“Because I was part of the crew that reached that object, out in the Great Empty, two centuries from now. The AI that runs the place, he told us the story. And I opted to stay there when our ship returned, in hopes of meeting the Builders. Either that, or I’d fall with the object into the black star. That was my likely fate.
“But the AI, it developed another kind of transit. It was able to send me here, now. To your present and my past.”
Banning had heard about enough. “You realize this sounds crazy?”
Michael said the obvious. “She is here. Do you have a better explanation?”
“And she is … different,” Blake added. He’d been updated on her scans. And his clearly sharp mind was spinning.
“If she’s here, from that future, we’re in a time loop,” he told them. “If what’s on the chip is what she says, tech from the future, we have to develop it. If we don’t reach out there, she never gets here. This moment, this conversation, never happens. She doesn’t exist. For all we know, we don’t, either.”
“And maybe we shouldn’t,” Michael said. “Maybe she’s changed time already.”
“And maybe the alternative is worse,” Blake told them. “We can only act on what we know right now. We know this way, humanity lives well beyond our lives.”
“Great,” Banning said. “You’re saying we have no choice?”
“We have to act on it on what we know, or risk changing time,” Blake told them. “That’s also why this has to be an absolute secret. Anyone else, any one person making a different decision, could send the entire thing into a spiral.”
They talked only a bit longer. Blake was clearly eager to see the downloaded material. Banning had nothing more to say.
Michael did his workout and took a shower. She played a bit at the treadmill and other apparatus. While he finished, she read, then settled down to a meal in the small bay that offered the window with the best view of Earth. He eventually crowded in next to her, on a wide sofa-like couch. Up there, tight spaces were welcome; you didn’t float around.
“You know, if that’s all true,” he told her, “you’re very brave”
“It’s just deep space travel” she said. “I was literally made for it. You’ve no doubt heard from NASA about my tests, my physical, even my DNA. Altered to help, for example, preserve muscle and bone density during long periods in stasis. Trained starting as a child to consider no real life outside deep space. I was born to fly the great empty.”
But he meant something else. “You stayed at that station with the AI, in a decaying orbit around a black hole. Not knowing how you’d ever get back.”
She looked at him for a moment the way she looked at Earth. “Well, there is more. I’ll tell them eventually, but your boss had enough trouble believing without this part.
“See, I wondered how the AI spoke English. How it knew so much about Earth, and even about me. When the AI convinced me to stay, it told me.
“When these missions, these Space Shots, begin, one of the early ones will be secret. I’ll be on it, alone. They will send me to visit that AI. That’s why it expected my visit on the last Space Shot, 200 years later. I’d already been there, coming from your time.
“I stayed because I knew it would eventually send me here, to right now. And I knew I had to get to now, to start the Space Shots. I had to play it out. I was committed to a time loop.”
She was close. He had noticed her muscular frame, lean and fit. Her eyes which spoke of nothing so much as the intellect behind them. The brain…
“Did your GSA also put that implant in your head? What is it?”
“A hard drive, of course. Gives me total recall, quickly downloadable. Fast processing of complex calculations. I can do quantum calculations in my head.”
“You’re smarter than Einstein?”
And now she laughed. “Not exactly. I can recall every answer to every problem he solved. I can do the math faster than he could. But the genius that came up with those ideas, you can’t implant that. That’s what separates humans from AI. Invention. And passion.”
Oh hell, he told himself. If that’s not a clue. “And passion? We haven’t talked much about passion.”
“Not something I was born into. Not much room for it in the empty of space.”
He leaned in now, and she welcomed his lips. “But I think I can make room for it back on Earth,” she said. “I do so want to get back to Earth, if only for a little bit.”
He felt guilty even as it began. He knew things he wasn’t allowed to say. “I’m pushing them. But I can’t tell you when you’ll feel gravity again. Much less the ocean.”
She pulled closer. “Well, maybe I can feel other things for now.”
That was the offer. He reached up to flip a switch. “The privacy coms,” he told her. “Earth doesn’t need to hear everything.”
A week became a month, and that became three. They settled into a workday ritual: an early call between Michael and Banning on military and command issues; then Kat and Blake would join to talk about the information on that download; then the future woman and the scientist would break off, often talking for hours.
Once a month, Michael met Edwards in the airlock between pods. It was a food handoff. Edwards put the meals in the airlock between chambers and sealed his side. Then Michael would load them in. There were microphones and speakers, so they could talk.
“What the hell is going on in there?” Edwards asked him after those first few months.
“I can’t, my friend. It’s eyes-only top secret,” Michael said. “If I wasn’t in here, they wouldn’t tell me.”
“I can keep a secret. I mean, I did see you pull a woman out of space, and I heard something about her being more than human. I’ve been ordered not to repeat it, so I haven’t even told my wife back home. Even though I know so little.”
Michael was just as frustrated. “I wish I wasn’t in on this. Boring as hell in here, and what she’s working on with the top scientist, I’m not part of.”
“Well, at least she looked good. From what I saw before they cut my access cameras off.”
Drake laughed. “Ah, come on. You got me locked up here with two old male scientists and a brilliant female one who’s been happily married for 20 years. You gotta let me imagine at least some zero G coupling.”
Michael laughed. Imagine all you want.
“Anyway, you know I’m headed down. I thought you were headed down soon, too. You have the record.”
Michael had thought he’d already be home. “I don’t know now. They need someone with her, and they don’t want to replace me in that role. No one else gets to know about this.”
Togetherness and secrets. Too many of either can destroy trust, even when you share the loneliness of orbit.
There wasn’t much to do in a single module of the ISS-2. Michael spent several hours each day tied into a stairstepper, trying to replicate gravity. She was even more bored since she didn’t need the workout. Good genes, as they say.
There were the continuing conferences with Blake and Banning, but the military man didn’t really get the science and Blake had a growing team to manage. His long conversations with her became brief as the work shifted to Earth. And while she still spent hours doing calculations, she wasn’t sure how closely Blake read the equations she sent.
“The good news,” he told them all as the time stretched out, “is if the tests go as well as the design and theory, we could launch a space shot in two years.”
She asked often when she could go to Earth. She never got an answer; it frustrated her.
She’d pushed Michael to push them and didn’t think he pushed hard enough. Even as they grew more physical, their personal side hit a wall.
After the better part of a year, it got to be too much. She was staring through a window into the room where Michael talked to Banning, and she could tell Michael was upset and yelling anyway.
The door wasn’t locked, and she burst in, which put her in camera view. Banning dropped his conversation in midsentence and focused on her. “Katrina, this is a private talk.”
“I want to know what you’re discussing. Mostly I want to know when I can go home.”
“Katrina,” the general said with a voice he usually reserved for subordinates, “you know Michael is a military man. He has discussions you cannot be part of.”
She wasn’t buying it. She leaned her face into the camera so it would fill his screen. “Military secrets? I doubt it. He’s been up here for years. Besides, who would I tell?”
“Nevertheless,” Banning said, “you need to wait for your next talk with Blake.”
“They get more and more rare. Stop stalling.”
They went back and forth a couple more times. And then Michael finally pulled her back, so he’d be in view. “Just goddam tell her already. Or let me tell her.”
He said it with resignation more than anger. It was time. “Best that you do it, I think.”
Michael turned to her. She could see Blake was with Banning already. But they were just an audience now. “They’re worried about the time loop. About word of you getting out and hurting this project. They think it best you stay here until it’s time to send you off.”
“Here, you mean? In orbit? No. That’s… that’s worse than never seeing Earth again. We’re so close.”
Blake was young and a decent guy. He tried to make her understand, as if knowing there’s a good reason behind a hard truth automatically makes it easier to take. “Katrina, you haven’t been in our time. We’re at risk of the final wars. Parts of the planet are dying. Somehow, through your future, humanity survives. We can’t jeopardize that.”
“You’re making me a prisoner. Years alone up here. It’s not fair.”
Michael reached forward and turned off the monitor. He also turned off the ambient coms, cutting their pod off from Earth entirely. “You won’t be alone, Kat. They’re leaving me up here, assuming I can live until you fly. It’s doubtful after another few years I’d be able to live in Earth gravity, and no one knows how long I’ll survive up here without it.”
She looked into his eyes, felt sadness. And pain. It wasn’t just her. He was stuck, too. “I… I’m sorry.”
“You realize this means I’m done, right?” Was he angry? He sounded angry. “You can at least work with them on your project, think about your upcoming mission. I have no more missions. Nothing more to do at all.”
She hated that he thought his life was over. Hated worse that he might be blaming her. “It’s not fair, Michael. They can’t do this.”
But she knew they could.
And then he asked her. “Did you know? You knew my name when we met. You knew this future. Did you know we’d get together, that I’d come to feel for you? That we’d be trapped up here, held prisoner? That you’ll leave me here someday, when you leave?”
She tried to sound true, to make him believe her. God, he was so sad. “I… I knew there was a man. I had a name. I knew there was sadness. I didn’t know why. Remember, all I knew was what that older me had told the AI, and that was mostly science. Artificial intelligence isn’t all that interested in a human’s personal affairs.”
Her reassurance didn’t make him feel better. “Please,” she said, “this isn’t my fault. I would send you home right now if I could.”
“But it is your fault,” he told her. “See, space girl, you don’t have to do something intentionally to make something your fault. Sometimes you just have to exist. We’re trapped in a loop. We’re here because of you.”
He regretted blaming her as soon as he said it. But he still left her alone, so he could go off and contemplate his own death sentence.
He heard the alarm a few hours later, rushed to the lowest level of the pod.
There was a capsule locked to a now-closed airlock, window to window. The lock was losing air, depressurizing.
He could see her, inside the capsule. Turned on the com.
“Katrina, this is nuts. You can’t get home this way.”
“It’s the only way I can get home.”
She was maybe 2 minutes from launch. Part of him wanted this to be over, and this would end it. But most of him thought otherwise. “That’s an emergency capsule. Last resort, never been used. You have no control. Don’t know where you’ll land even if you land in one piece.”
She stared at him through glass, shaking her head. “I’ll fall to Earth. That’s enough. I can’t face you.”
“Please,” he begged her. He was at least 90% sure didn’t want this to end this way.
“I didn’t know,” she told him. “If I’d known I was dooming you to this… to permanent orbit…”
But he interrupted her. “Let’s just call it fate. Most people don’t have a lot of control over most things in their lives. That’s just the way it is.”
He wasn’t sure of anything, but he didn’t let himself pause. He nodded yes. Saying yes is the key to life.
She hit a red button, then a release. The airlock filled in seconds, the hatch opened. He helped her out the tight opening. “You should know,” she said, “this wasn’t suicide. There was a 92% chance if I left at depressurization I’d land in one piece. 77% chance I’d land on land under a good chute.”
“We’ll have to find better odds,” he told her, now lighter. “Another time.”
“Besides,” he added, “with what you’ve started, time is meaningless anyway. Astronauts traveling decades, in stasis, aging months during Space Shots that last years. From now on, space may be the place to be to make history.”
In fact, a few years later she’d be off, on a multi-decade flight. He’d leave soon after, on a shorter trip, six years each way. He’d return. It was a way to put off aging, so he wouldn’t be as old when she got back, if she got back.
There was no record of that trip of hers. So maybe she got back to her original time somehow and didn’t know it. Or to some other time, some other world.
If not, he’d remember her like this. Brilliant, brave and with a sadness as deep as space. The woman who almost fell to Earth.