When We Get Home
I'd spent two hundred and ninety days in space, and never once looked forward to leaving. Don't get me wrong, my life on earth was good. I couldn't love my wife and son more, we traveled, had great friends. But there is no experience on earth that touches being above it. I'd never looked down with nostalgia or longing or desire, not for a moment. Not until the night the Texan got his head busted open.
The Texan's name was Rick, and he paid the Russians thirty-five million to fly him to the station. A space tourist. Alex was the pilot of the Soyuz that flew him up, and whatever Rick said to him in those two days they were locked in there together, it was enough for Alex. He never acknowledged Rick's existence again, avoided him on the ship—wouldn't even eat meals at the same time.
So Rick abused the other Russian guy on board, Sergey. Rick had one old joke—Russians were poor and backwards compared to Americans—and he told variations of it for two weeks. In Russia, I bet they'd put a family of four in these tiny little bunks. Good thing the bathroom's not outside, like in Russia. This rehydrated soup must be like Christmas dinner to you.
Sergey just laughed off the insults. Which the Texan saw as permission to get meaner and meaner. Sergey did a lot of laughing, those first two weeks.
The night it happened, I was the first one in the mess hall. I was pulling food out of the pantry when the blinds whirred closed behind me. We orbited the earth every hour and a half, thirty-two sunrises and sunsets a day, so our "night" was when the tiny windows closed for ten hours. Didn't really matter—every module had a huge monitor that showed the earth, and pretty soon everyone just looked at those, even when the windows were open.
The Twins were the next ones in. They couldn't have looked less alike—Will was a five foot four Asian guy, and Katarina was a six foot Russian woman—but they got the nickname because they spent every waking moment together. They either worked in the science module or argued about the work they'd done in the science module. In the five months they'd been up here together, they'd invented their own language—a mixture of Russian and English and scientific terms that no one else understood.
"I'm telling you, it's stabilizirovano."
"Net. Where is it, then?"
"Then it wasn't stable!"
I only asked them about what they were working on once. I got a lecture about spooky action at a distance and kvantovyj tunnelirovanie. Either they were about to make the scientific breakthrough of the millennium, or they'd wasted every moment of their lives.
The rest of the crew came in for dinner: the Texan, Sergey and Lara. Lara was a Russian biologist, and took her place next to me at the table. She hooked her leg around the foot of her stool to keep herself from floating away, and her thigh fell into place against mine and stayed there. I spent enough time in bars when I was flying for the Navy that I can tell in about five seconds whether or not a woman wants to sleep with me. With Lara, it didn't take that long.
"Evening, Commander," she said as she smiled and glanced at me out of the corners of her eyes.
"Now, you know I hate it when you call me that."
"I think secretly you might love it."
"How are your mice?"
"Hopeless. They bounce around in there like the pinballs."
The main experiment Lara was running was breeding mice in space. She'd been up here two months without one pregnancy. Animals adapt to weightlessness almost immediately—they eat, drink, sleep, move...apparently the one thing they can't do is screw. Not for lack of interest—but the act just sent them shooting in opposite directions.
We all pitched in to try to help her. Doctors of engineering and physics and biology and math, all designing and building harnesses for mice to fuck in. And still, nothing.
She dropped a hand down onto my leg, turned to look into my eyes. "I'm desperate, Commander. If I go home without some kind of conception to show off..."
"Again, I'm not sure that's how my wife wants me to go down in history."
The Twins spoke over each other: "It's for science, Mike." "Do you want all of this to be for ničto?"
Lara put her hand on her heart, batted her big brown eyes. "I promise that I will take absolutely no pleasure in the act. We will have to videotape it, however."
Everyone laughed—Lara winding me up was a nightly ritual.
"Honey, you wouldn't have to ask me twice." Every smile disappeared as the Texan turned things ugly. "I'll give you something to take home."
"That's enough." Two days until the shuttle showed up and I could send that asshole home.
Lara handled him with grace. "I think I will say no to your generous offer."
"Come on. I might even have a candy bar in my locker."
"Blue jeans." Sergey spoke for the first time that night.
"What'd you say?"
"You have your ignorant stereotypes wrong. You get an Asian girl to sleep with you with a chocolate bar. To get a Russian, you need a pair of blue jeans."
The Texan narrowed his eyes as he stared at Sergey. It was the first time Sergey had challenged him, and it set him back on his heels for a second. Just a second. "I don't know if I'd be bragging that your women would leave you for a goddamned pair of pants."
Sergey shrugged that shot off, asked a seeming non sequitur. "What's your name?"
"I just realized that I don't know your name. We all call you 'The Texan' behind your back, because you're a joke to us. You brought a cowboy hat to space. Why? To keep the sun out of your eyes when you're riding your horse?"
"You best dial this back down."
"Or what? You'll talk at me some more? Every person on this ship earned his way up here by being the best. You spent your father's money."
The Texan blinked at the mention of his father. Sergey'd gotten him where he lived.
"Yes, I know things about you. I guess it's a good thing your father had so much that you could lose half of it and still be rich enough to buy yourself into space."
"Your piece of shit country was happy enough to take it."
"If a piece of luggage wants to pay us a billion rubles to take it to space, we'll make the room."
"I said it before, you'd best dial this down."
"You think I'm afraid of you? You're a fat worthless joke, and everyone up here thinks so. I'm happy to be the first man to tell you to your face."
The Texan leaned across the table, swinging his fist at Sergey's head. Sergey calmly locked his legs around his stool and put his arm up. Since The Texan wasn't holding anything, all his blow did was send him spinning slowly backwards through the module.
This is the point I should have stepped in, but I was too busy laughing with everyone else. We'd all been waiting for this for a long time.
Being weightless isn't the same thing as being in water. The air has no resistance, so if you're moving, you keep moving until you hit something on the other side. Flapping your arms and kicking doesn't do any good, but that didn't stop the Texan from trying as he headed for the opposite wall.
Sergey couldn't have been enjoying himself more. "Come on, John Wayne. When we sent monkeys up, they figured out how to move around in an hour."
The Texan finally hit the pantry, gathered himself. He put his legs behind him and pushed off, rocketing towards Sergey headfirst. Everyone except him saw what was coming next—Sergey just leaned to one side as the Texan went sailing by, unable to correct his course, clawing at the air. He hit the bulkhead with a thud that we all felt.
It was too much. Sergey was pointing at the Texan and roaring, wiping tears out of his eyes. The Texan looked at Sergey with pure hate, knowing that there was no way he could get to him, even though they couldn't have been more than six feet apart.
And then the Texan spit. A huge gob that shot towards Sergey's face. Before he could react, it hit him dead on.
Immediate silence. The Texan smirked as Sergey used his sleeve to clean his cheek. When he finished, he reached up and grabbed a wrench that was velcroed to the wall. Unlike the Texan, Sergey was an expert at moving around the ship, and crossed the distance between them in a second.
He grabbed the Texan by the shirt with one hand, and raised and lowered the wrench on his skull so quickly that it was a blur. The Texan tried to raise his arms to protect himself, but the shots rained down, and pretty soon the Texan went limp.
Will and I pushed over as quickly as we could, but Sergey got in another dozen shots while we tried to wrestle him away. I wrapped my arms around his body from behind and pulled backwards. Will wrapped his hands around Sergey's arm that held the wrench.
"Let it go, Sergey! It's over! It's over!"
"I'm done." Sergey released the Texan. He, Will and I went tumbling backwards through the cabin. Katarina and Lara rushed over to the Texan to check on him.
Lara didn't like what she found. She sent Katarina to grab the first aid kit off the wall, then shouted at me: "Mike! My medical bag! In my locker!"
Before I let go of Sergey, I yelled at Will: "Hold him!"
"I said I'm done."
"Just hold him."
Will stayed on him while I shot into the next module where the bunks were. Each was a little alcove built into the wall with a curtain across, and a locker bolted down at our feet where our few personal possessions were stowed.
I ripped open Lara's locker and pawed through until I found a leather bag. I pulled it out, unzipped it, glanced inside to make sure I had the right thing.
I literally couldn't process what I saw inside—I stared at it, wondering what trick of the mind made me think there was a pistol in front of me. I pulled it out, checked the clip. It was a Russian Makarov, and it was loaded.
There was no reason to bring a gun up here. Forget that all we were was a handful of scientists—firing a bullet in here was like tossing a match into a pool of gasoline. One hit on a fuel tank and we were all dead in seconds, one crack in a hull and we were all dead in minutes, one navigation computer goes down and we're all dead in hours.
Lara's screams echoed from the next module. "Mike?!"
I stuffed the gun into my pocket when I noticed something else in the bag. A man's razor. I checked the locker, checked the bunk—the gun was Alex's, hidden in his shaving kit.
I closed up the locker and went to the next bunk, quickly found the bag I'd set out for in the first place.
I flew back into the module, and as I came in, a drop of water hit my eye. Stray liquid is dangerous on the station, since it can get in the electronics and short things out. And then I realized it wasn't water—it was blood. Little red drops floated through the air, filling up the room. It got in my eyes, my nose, my mouth, and the closer I got to the Texan, the worse it was.
I handed Lara her bag. Katrina was holding bandages against his skull; bandages that had already soaked through. "Is he..."
"He's alive. Get towels."
Once the Texan was bandaged, we tied him into his bunk so he wouldn't crash into the walls and get injured any worse. He was breathing, but that was it. No movement.
Alex had been across the station when it happened. He came back into the mess hall to find Sergey in a chair, his hands tied behind his back, and the rest of us vacuuming blood out of the air and mopping it off the walls. "What the hell happened in here?"
"Sergey took a wrench to—what are you doing over there?"
Alex was behind Sergey, untying him. "Who tied you?"
"I did, and don't undo him." Alex kept working on the knots. I crossed the room, put my arm on his arm. "I said leave him until we figure this out."
"Who are you to tell me what to do?"
"He put a man in a coma. And he's going to stay in the fucking chair until we sort this out."
"You don't make the orders here."
"Yes, I do."
Alex got the ropes free and straightened up, going toe to toe with me. "I count four Russians and three Americans, and it doesn't sound like one of those Americans will be voting any time soon."
Sergey stood up from the chair, took his place next to Alex, staring at me. My odds were shit, but after seeing the Texan, I knew my only chance was to hit first and not stop.
"Enough!" Katarina pulled out two towels, threw them at Alex and Sergey. "Let's clean this blood before we make some more, yes?"
We told Mission Control there'd been an accident. The only ship we had attached to the station was the Soyuz, and we couldn't send the Texan back on it because you need both people conscious in case something goes wrong. A Space Shuttle was taking off in six hours, it would be here in two days, and that's how we were getting him home.
I was one of the first people in my bunk that night, and heard the Russians moving around for an hour. Sergey whispered to Alex, then they both left the module to talk in private. They came back; Katarina grabbed Alex, and they disappeared together. I lay there, Alex's pistol in my right hand. The same gun I'd thought would be suicide to use an hour ago, I was now gripping, safety off.
Finally everyone settled down, and I was just drifting off when I heard Lara's voice, close: "Mike?"
I slipped the gun into a pocket on the wall as she climbed in. "Are you okay?"
"I'm scared. Things are wrong."
"What's going on?"
"I don't know. I just...It's not like this up here. You know?"
She wrapped her arms around my body and pressed every inch of herself into me. I put a hand on her back to comfort her, and her vulnerability made me feel it for the first time. I was too far from earth. I missed my wife and son and needed to get home to them. I was getting on that shuttle in two days and going home, abandoning my post, and never coming back to space again.
"Guys? Something happened. Mike!"
A female voice woke me up—it had to be Katarina, since Lara was still next to me. "Stay here," I whispered to her as I started out. I paused, reached back and grabbed the gun, hid it under my shirt. Her eyes went wide and I told her "I'll explain later."
Out in the capsule, Katarina was at Will's bunk, curtain pulled open, shaking him gently, calling his name. I was the first one to her, but Alex and Sergey were right behind me.
"He was breathing different. That's crazy but I know it so well, yes? Now I can't wake him. Lara? Lara!"
Everyone glanced at Lara's bunk. Finally she came out of mine without commenting on it and pushed herself to Will's side. As she checked his pulse, Sergey and Alex exchanged a look that I wouldn't describe as pleased.
Something caught Alex's attention on the monitor. The sun was out and the Eastern Seaboard was lit up below us. He pointed to the edge of the screen: "Bird's up."
Everyone turned—something was streaking through the sky under us, leaving a massive contrail. Katarina guessed "Shuttle?"
I glanced at my watch. "Four hours early and in the wrong direction."
Sergey got closer to the monitor, trying to make out detail. "It's no jet. Way too fast."
Alex pointed to the screen again. Multiple launches. Five, ten, fifteen...I lost count. All streaking towards America from over the Atlantic.
Sergey was the first one to spot the launches heading in the opposite direction, from land out to sea. Soon the sky was filled with what we prayed weren't missiles but what other explanation was there really...
And then the first one hit Washington. The space station's only a couple of hundred miles in the air, so the mushroom cloud was huge, blooming under us like a terrible flower. Then another and another, multiple strikes in D.C., over into Alexandria, down at the Norfolk Naval base, and at the top of the screen we saw the first hit New York.
And still more came. Waves coming in, waves going out.
I felt a hand in mine. Lara had left Will to watch. I managed to ask, "How is he?"
She shook her head. "He's barely breathing. Poison? I don't know."
I slipped on the headset for the radio. "Mission Control, this is Mike Spencer on the International Space Station, standing by. ISS is here, standing by. Over."
There was nothing. No response, no static, not even a click. Not a hint that anyone or anything still existed to hear my voice.
I'd spent two hundred and ninety days in space. I'd counted them and written about them and photographed them, trying to separate and hold on to each one, knowing that some day they'd come to an end. As I watched the missiles streak towards Mississippi, where Tess was making breakfast and yelling at Jack to stop hitting the snooze alarm, I realized I'd counted the wrong days.