“Aachoo!” Valteri sneezed hard.
“Coming down with something eh?” Dickson laughed, but cringed away. “A case of the space flu may be.”
“I am not sure.” Valteri managed to say before another sneeze overtook him. “Aachoo!“
“Let me find something in the medkit.” Dickson suggested and floated away to root around in the stock of standard medicines.
“I don’t think I should do the space walk today.” Valteri sighed blowing his nose into a wad of paper. “Ugh!” He added looking at it.
“Yeah, we don’t want you to sneeze yourself away from the station now, would we!” Dickson laughed.
They were coming to the end of their rotation onboard the Gateway Station. The Soyuz P241 was expected anytime now, with their relief. They were orbiting on the other side of the moon now. With an orbit that was half as slow as the moon itself, it would be two days before they could radio home about any trouble.
“I think I should put myself into the isolation pod.” Valteri suggested.
Dickson nodded. “Yeah, go ahead.”
He could hear his colleague sneezing away as he headed off down the four-pod station to the isolation pod at the other end. Now, he would have to watch over this multi-billion dollar piece of equipment all by himself, for a while. He floated over to the Comm station.
What should I tell them? He wondered.
“Adjust vector 2.6“
“Negative align. Copy.”
“I can’t see the Red ‘X’!“
“Sorry boys, the tape came off again.”
“Hope we don’t crash into you then.“
Dickson felt the gentle bump of the P241 docking. He floated out of the Command Center and to the docking pod. The two relief astronauts were already in their Pressure Transfer Bay when he reached there. They made faces at each other and laughed as they waited for the barometer to register equal pressures on both sides.
“Welcome to the Gateway.” He grinned as he opened the hatch and let them in.
“Welcome back you mean.” Carlton grinned. It was his third time on the Gateway. He was also an International Space Station (ISS) veteran before it had been decommissioned.
“The ship’s all yours.” Dickson laughed and mocked a quick getaway into the P241.
“So, what’s the status of Valteri?” Xi asked. She was also a medical officer. “Has he gotten any more sick?”
“Yeah, he has a fever now. Very hot.”
“Let me go check up on him.” Xi said concerned. She floated away toward the isolation pod. “After that, I’ll be back to check up on you.” She called back to Dickson.
“So you have no idea what happened?” Xi grilled Dickson.
Dickson was aghast. “Honestly, I have no clue.” He repeated. “I haven’t gone there in about a day.”
“When was the last time you gave him his rations?” Carlton quizzed him. “You should have seen him then?”
“Yesterday night.” Dickson said embarrassed. “I had to prep for your arrival and do tasks normally done by two people. So I gave him enough to last him.”
“And he was fine then?”
“Fine and present!”
Carlton had been performing some calculations on a pad of paper. He looked up. “What was your spin before you de-gyro’ed?”
Dickson told him.
Carlton shook his head.
“What’s wrong?” Xi asked.
“I am guessing he would be somewhere around JWT now.”
“And well and truly dead.” He sighed.
They sat silently for a while shaking their heads in disbelief. When Xi had gone to check up on Valteri, she had been surprised to see that the Isolation Pod was missing. It was simply not there. There was no sign of it. In an emergency, the pod could be used as an escape vehicle and ejected. But it definitely could not be ejected from inside the pod or from anywhere in that capsule. One had to do that from the Command Center, which was manned by Dickson from the time Valteri put himself into isolation.
“Let’s go there and look around a bit?” Dickson suggested.
“What are you expecting to find?” Carlton asked.
Dickson floated away toward the rear of the station. Curious, but convinced that they would not find anything surprising, Carlton and Xi followed. When they arrived, Dickson was looking at the ejection window. It was a set of four titanium doors that slid away on command. They were tightly shut. There was no sign of any foul play on it or any form of damage.
“How about we go outside and take a look?” He suggested.
“The idea being…?” Xi wondered.
“A meteorite or something could have tapped it somewhere causing the door to open?”
“Okay, we will go and take a look.” Carlton suggested.
Xi and Carlton suited up and headed outside while Dickson went to watch the external cameras.
After a while, the two of them returned.
“Nothing.” Xi said, flatly. “What about the camera tapes?” She asked.
“The Gateway does not store more than a couple of hours worth. Some compressed footage is sent away to Control back on Earth.” Carlton shrugged.
They went into the tape archives anyway. Though the archives held a little over four hours worth of footage, all they could see was nothing. The Pod had already been gone.
Dickson sat glumly in the debriefing room at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. The investigators had dug up five days worth of footage from the Gateway and deduced that since a day before his mysterious disappearance, Valteria had not moved. Even the rations that Dickson had been leaving for him had been untouched.
“Did you not notice that the rations had been lying there untouched?”
Dickson shook his head. He had been so busy pulling double duties on the Gateway that it seems simple things like that had gone unnoticed.
“When was the last time you spoke with Commander Valteri?”
“I was leaving him the rations on the night before P241 arrived.” He stated flatly. That is what he believed. “I asked him if he needed anything else.”
“And what did Commander Valteri say?”
“And you didn’t think anything of that?”
“I assumed he was asleep.” He said.
“When was the last time you took his vitals?”
“A few hours before that. I remember he had been too hot to touch.”
An investigator scribbled something onto a pad. “Did you take his temperature? With a thermometer?”
Dickson shook his head.
“I guess I was too busy.”
With a sigh, the investigators wrapped up their interrogation.
“Please wait here Commander.” They said and left the room.
It was a full hour before he saw another face. This time, it was Mission Commander, Lawley.
“See here, eh?” He said, entering the room with a lit cigar. He offered one to Dickson, who shook his head. “A fine doozy this is.”
“I have no choice.” Lawley said flatly, sitting at the table across. “I think you understand.”
Dickson looked at his commanding officer’s face.
“You are grounded. Suspended. Go home.” He said and left.
“I…” Dickson began and shut his mouth. There was nothing he could say. Nothing he could do to make things better.
Back in space, the Gateway was experiencing problems.
“That’s another system gone offline.” Carlton groaned. “At this rate, this is going to be one helluva costly bucket of metal and wires floating around.”
“What is going on?” Xi wondered.
Over the past three days a lot of their systems had gone offline. Thankfully, these had been non-vital systems. They still had navigation, communication and life-support systems active.
“It won’t be long before we lose them as well.” Xi had pointed out. “We need to put some measures in place…”
“We don’t exactly have an evacuation plan out of this.” Carlton reminded her. “There is no way we can jettison and return to Earth in case of an emergency. And the next Soyuz isn’t due for another three months.”
“What if we use the tail module?”
Carlton wondered if that would work. “A dollar for your thoughts…”
“Well, each of these modules are capsules in their own right. They have their own rockets…”
“What about fuel?”
“Can’t we refuel the pod using the main engines fuel?”
“I suppose that could work. Except, I think those valves are one-way.”
The Gateway was assembled in space. Each capsule was built separately, by different participating nations. They were launched separately. Each of them reached the ISS and was assembled there by the ISS astronauts. When each capsule arrives, its fuel is fed into the Gateway’s main propulsion fuel reserves. However, like Carlton pointed out, the valves that controlled that flow only allowed fuel from the pod to the main tanks and not vice-versa.
“What do we have on board that we can use to reroute?” She asked.
With identical thoughts in their minds, they headed off to the engineering bay where the equipment they would need was stowed. They found all manner of space-tools and smaller sprockets and knick-knacks.
“Maybe we can re-purpose some of the hand rails into pipes.” Xi thought. “They are essentially hollow tubing.”
“Great idea. Let’s head out and find out.”
They suited up and grabbed a few wrenches and bags they would need and headed out of the station.
“That’s a lot of hand-rails!” Xi exclaimed when they saw the sides of the vehicle.
It was true. There were dozens of holding rails and other brackets that were lined up to act like a ladder.
Carlton was examining the pipes that hooked up the individual capsules to the main engines. “Would you look at this?” He called.
Xi floated over. “Good news, I hope?”
“Some.” He grinned through the suit as he pointed to an external toggle valve that could be reversed.
“We have found some older footage that we find… strange.” Was all Lawley had told him on the phone.
Dickson wondered what it could be as he held up his badge to the officers at the gates as he drove into Ames. What was so strange?
When he arrived, Angela met him at the check-in desk and walked him to the debriefing room. She was beautiful. He had known her since their training days. Unfortunately she had a few minor conditions that prevented her from being selected as a space-faring astronaut. After a couple of months of moping around, battling minor alcoholism and some excellent peer support, she had joined the Ames center. She now worked on the Mars missions. Dickson and Angela had had a small fling in those early days. But life had taken them separate now.
“There are a few other people waiting.” She whispered as she opened the bulky sound-proof doors to the conference room.
He took a deep breath and went in.
“Commander Dickson.” Lawley greeted him from his chair at the head of the table. “Have a seat.”
Someone signaled the projection assistant to play the video. The lights dimmed and they all saw footage of the Isolation Pod in the Gateway. At the beginning, they could see Commander Valteri moving around his pod, occasionally exiting to eat and drink or use the toilet. Then, half-way through the video, he stopped moving. He had fallen asleep and then never woke up.
A hush fell over the audience.
“Is that when he died?” Dickson asked in a whisper.
Lawley put a finger to his lips and motioned him to be quiet.
The video continued, the timestamps jumping forward a few hours at a time. They saw to their collective horror that slowly, the pod started to disappear in place. As if it was being slowly dissolved.
A mask of terror gripped Dickson’s face.
In the final frames of the video, they saw Dickson enter with food, water and medicines and leave them on the table. As he entered, the position of his head showed that he had never looked in the direction where the Isolation Pod had been. He left the items on a table and left the compartment.
“So…” Lawley said as the lights brightened.
Dickson was aghast. Something had eaten Valteri alive and the entire Isolation Pod, he had no idea that it had!
“I…” Dickson stammered. “I have no idea what to say.”
“Now,” Lawley interjected. “Interestingly, the Engineering team has come up with another worrying aspect.”
Zakir from the Engineering team stood up. The projection assistant pulled up a PowerPoint presentation onto the screen.
“This is the sequence required to eject the pod.” He said.
Momentarily, they could see a sequence of controls being changed on the control panel in the Command Center of the Gateway.
“Now, this is the sequence required to prep for arrival and depressurize the arrival bay when a new Soyuz capsule docks at the station.”
Another sequence of controls played out.
“Do you notice anything?” Zakir asked the puzzled crowd.
It took a moment for Dickson to eject himself from the previous shock and register what Zakir was showing them.
“Oh my God!” He cried.
“Yes.” Zakir continued, without waiting for Dickson to explain his exclamation. “Almost exactly identical, except for three switches.”
The presentation highlighted the three he was talking about.
“If you add these three, then the Arrival sequence turns into an Ejection sequence.” He finished.
“There is, unfortunately, nothing we can do about that.” Lawley sighed. “We would have to rewire the systems on the Gateway and reprogram its computers.”
“Of course,” Zakir said with a wan smile. “There is no Isolation Pod anymore on the Gateway.”
That was true. There was only one and it was now gone.
“We were planning to send a replacement pod in the next rotation.” Akira from Mission piped up. She consulted her notes and explained. “That would be Mission P250, we guess.”
The discussion changed direction into a dissection of whether you could put an Isolation Pod in a Soyuz capsule that was designed to basically function as a short-trip “space boat”.
Lawley motioned Dickson to join him and left the room. Dickson followed. Lawley stopped outside the door and waited for the other man to shut the doors behind him.
“So, you are off the hook.” He said, lighting his cigar. “I expect to see you back in Mission Control tomorrow.”
“What about Valteri…” He mumbled.
“We have no idea what happened. Some of the more paranoid suggest that it was some form of a space bug that ate the Pod.”
“If they are right, that bug could still be on the Gateway.”
“By all measurements.” Lawley nodded.
“Shouldn’t we warn the Gateway, then?”
“And tell them what?” Lawley asked incredulously. “Hey, you may have a space bug that is eating your ship?”
“I mean.. What would you do, if you had been up there and you got that call? Would you take it seriously?”
Dickson nodded and walked away thoughtfully.
The depressurization alarms where blaring away.
Warning! Depressurization in Capsule 3! Imminent loss of Life Support!
Carlton and Xi were working as fast as they could to close the doors and restore pressure. The doors had not been used since the capsule had originally docked with the Gateway during the integration process.
Warning! Depressurization in Capsule 3! Imminent loss of Life Support!
Critical Warning! Oxygen levels at thirty percent and falling!
The hinges were never meant to be used again, especially after such a long time in the cold of space. At last, they got it closed.
They breathed a sigh of relief. Suddenly, all of Capsule 4 had disappeared from existence. Just like that. Capsule 3 ended in the emptiness of space. Where had it gone?
Carlton and Xi looked at each other.
“I didn’t do it.” They told each other in almost perfect unison and then laughed nervously.
Communications with Mission Control, Restored.
Carlton immediately got on to the Comms channel.
“Mission. This is Gateway.” He called.
It took three minutes before he heard back.
“Gateway, Mission. We copy.”
“Capsule Three is gone. I repeat, Capsule Three is Bye-Bye.”
There was a moment of awkward silence on the radio.
“Err.. Gateway, say again your last. We copy ‘Capsule Three is gone’.” The communications officer in the Mission Control room back at the Goddard Flight Center said. “What do you mean it is gone?”
“It is just gone. It was there before. Not any more. Just like Commander Valteri and the Isolation Pod.”
There was a moment of silence again.
“Commander Carlton,” Came Lawley’s voice. “We would like you to immediately use the S247 and return home. I repeat, use S247 and return to home. Immediately.”
Carlton and Xi looked at one another. That meant they were essentially abandoning the Gateway Station.
“We copy, Mission.” Carlton replied and switched off comms.
Quickly, they collected important equipment and personal effects and headed into the Soyuz Capsule 247 that had brought their supplies a day before. It was to be returned today with trash from the station, but it will now carry the two astronauts home.
As they strapped into the seat belts located on the now empty sides of the craft, they wondered if the ‘space bug’ had got into the systems of this capsule. And if so, would they last until the ship had safely crashed into the Pacific Ocean?
“Too late now.” Xi shrugged.
This variant of the Soyuz Capsule had no controls of its own. It was meant to be a cargo vessel and had limited life support ability as well. That’s why the two of them were suited up. So if something went wrong, they were truly in trouble. It would be piloted remotely from Mission Control.
“Mission Control, we are go.” Carlton spoke over the radio.
“Copy. Brace yourselves for de-docking and transit to Earth.”
Momentarily, they felt the engines kick in and the ship de-docked from the Gateway Station. The ship began to slowly move away from the Gateway Station that had been their home for the past three months. Both of them craned their necks to peer out of the port hole behind them to look at the orbiter that was now rapidly receding in the distance.
“My God!” Carlton whistled. “Do you see that?”
“More than half of it is gone.” Xi replied sadly. “I think we got out in the nick of time.”
“Mission?” Carlton called over the radio to report it.
“Mission Control, this is S247R. Come in.”
“What the hell !” Carlton cried. “Is it us or them?”
“The ship is still working, so may be it is just the Comms?”
“I hope so!”
For the next few minutes, nothing bad happened.
Then suddenly, the domed structure in the front of the capsule that held the portholes and the heat-shielding started to melt away. Giant patches of space, filled their view.
“I hope we have enough momentum to be able to glide in.”
“We won’t survive re-entry.” Carlton said. “Not with that gone.”
Around them, the vehicle began to disappear. The rear was gone too, with their engines. What was left was a small panel of the side walls where they were strapped in. Behind them, the luggage they had brought over from the Gateway were left floating in space.
Finally, it was just them. Set free from the binding straps, they were tumbling away. Xi had had the good sense to link them both at the hip using the tether cable and hook system they used for spacewalks and other EVAs. So at least they had each other for company.
“We don’t have enough oxygen to last us the trip.” Xi gasped.
“Best we stay quiet and breathe as little as possible then.” Carlton whispered. “Control your breathing and don’t panic.”
Xi calculated in her head that they were still tumbling at quite a rate of knots toward the Earth. Because of the absence of friction to slow them down, they had retained the momentum of the capsule at the time the engines had disappeared. They should be able to make it all the way there.
Carlton was looking back toward the moon. He was looking at the rapidly disappearing form of the Gateway Station. Then he saw a flash and it was gone. The orbiter had exploded around the moon. It was gone.
“Did you see that?” He turned to Xi.
Xi was staring at her legs.
Carlton looked down to see.
They weren’t there anymore.
He looked up.
Xi’s eyes were filled with terror. She started to breathe rapidly.
“Look at me.” He cried. “Look at me!”
“You are disappearing too!” She screamed.