“It’s so quiet.”
“Generator’s out,” Sanders replied, tapping condensation from the temperature dial. The needle didn’t budge. “It’s going to get real cold, real soon.”
Jameson nodded, hugging his arms tight around his chest. “I can already feel it.”
“OK, suit up.”
“I hear that, Commander.”
The capsule filled with the sound of zips and seals locking into place as both men struggled into their full external suits.
Jameson resumed his position at the radio. “Houston, this is Soyuz-Zero-Eight. Do you copy, over?” Static crackled in the absence of a reply.
“Houston, this is Flight Engineer Martin Jameson on board Soyuz-Zero-Eight. Do you read, over?”
“We’d better conserve power; keep it to one radio check every ten minutes.”
Jameson pressed his helmet hard against the porthole to allow a viewing angle of the module’s exterior. “Antenna’s been hit.”
“They might still receive our signal, even if it’s disrupted. Any other damage out there you can see?”
“Be quicker to list what’s not busted, Commander.”
“OK, we have hull integrity; we can take it from there.”
“Batteries around half full, oxygen at twenty-five percent, CO2 in the blue but creeping.”
“Oxygen’s the priority then, it’ll be gone before the power. Give the radio another check.”
“Houston, do you copy? This is a Mayday message from the life-support module Soyuz-Zero-Eight. We have taken damage, over.”
“We’d better assume they can’t—”
“Damn it!” Jameson recoiled as sparks flew from the radio. “Jeez that sent a bolt through me.”
“Condensation damage. It’ll only get worse.”
“I think it’s done for already.” Jameson flicked switches on the console but got no response. “It’s fried.” He looked up to Sanders, who nodded his acknowledgement, his face neutral.
Without the static and whirring of the radio, they could hear the hull contracting against the sudden drop in interior temperature. It was a coffin, creaking and groaning with the weight of soil from above. “I’m not dead yet,” resolved Jameson.
“Damn right,” said Sanders. “Vitals?”
“Batteries under forty percent, oxygen at twenty, CO2 into orange. How’re things your side?”
“Controls are good, but we’re on fumes so essential manoeuvring only. Display is up but draining power, so switching to standby now.” Sanders turned dials and tapped instruments. “GPS sound, heat shield shows good but we’ll have to suck that one and see.”
“And everything else? Radar, external camera, gyroscope?”
“We have what we have. Let’s make it work till we can figure something out.”
Jameson blew hard through his cheeks, misting the interior of his visor. “Well one thing’s for sure,” he said, adopting his best John Wayne, “we’re burnin’ daylight.”
“Then we’d better drink our milk. Get me a re-entry vector.”
“Re-entry? Commander, we need gyro to—”
“We need a lot of things we don’t have the luxury of. Time to fashion some paddles and limp this canoe home.”
“I think you’re mixing your metaphors.” Jameson smiled, reaching for the checklist.
“Sue me. You’re the one doing the impressions.”
“I’m surprised you knew who it was. Have you heard my Sammy Davis Jr?”
“We’ve all heard your Sammy Davis Jr, although there was some debate in Control as to who it was.”
“You kidding? My karaoke’s legendary!”
“OK, back on point.” Sanders said, yawning to equalise the pressure in his ears. “What’s the vector?”
“Give me a minute.” Jameson struck through a mistake in his calculations and started again. “Feels like my head’s fogged up.”
“It’s the oxygen; we need to work fast.”
“I know what it is. Here, try this.”
“Try it? We need better than ‘try’; we’ve got one shot at this.”
“It’s good to go, Commander. Punch it.”
Sanders settled into the pilot seat and fixed his harness straps in place. Taking another look at the instrument displays, he tapped co-ordinates and instructions into his keypad and hovered over the button to initiate the commands. “We sure?”
“Is that ‘affirmative’?”
“Yeah, that’s affirmative, Commander.”
Sanders punched the button and the small correction rockets fired, nudging the module onto the requested course. “Stand by for ‘Go’.”
Jameson secured his own harness and held his breath. He nodded to Sanders, and in an instant was thrust back into his seat as the propulsion rocket fired. It lasted just over a second; their very lives would be saved—or not—on the back of his calculation and the time it took to say “Mississippi”.
“How’s it look?”
“Stand by.” Sanders scribbled onto a pad, looking from one dial to another. “We’re out.”
“What? We can’t be!”
“We’re too shallow; we’re going to bounce.”
Jameson gaped in reply; there was nothing he could say. If the vector was wrong, it was on his shoulders, and his alone. He supressed the urge to vomit; he had barely noticed until now the waves of nausea that had been steadily swelling. His brain felt like it was expanding, straining to escape the confines of his skull.
“Vitals?” Sanders demanded.
“What’s it matter now?”
“Vitals, Flight Engineer!”
“Hold on, I can’t …” Jameson blinked his eyes to clear his vision, leaning in close to the instrument panel. “Oxygen’s at six per cent. CO2—well, basically it’s red across the board. Looks like the traffic signals I get every morning outside Control.”
Laughter burst through the tiny speakers in Jameson’s helmet, so loud and sudden that it took him a moment to realise what it was. He looked up to see Sanders hugging his belly, and through the visor of his helmet he could see red cheeks offset by bluish lips, now sucking in deep breaths as he sought to recover. The colours seemed exaggerated, as if the contrast control were set too high, and Jameson turned to his instrument panel to find the dial to adjust it. “I can’t find it,” Jameson said.
“Find what?” Sanders asked, seeing Jameson gazing at the radio.
“Contrast; it’s too high.”
“Bump it,” Sanders suggested. Jameson complied, slamming his hand down onto the console. A kaleidoscope of lights illuminated as the radio powered up, and then one by one fell dark as it re-set. All except one; a red light blinked to signal an active transmission. And then they heard a voice.
“Soyuz-Zero-Eight, this is Houston. Soyuz-Zero-Eight, do you read, over?”
They both sat immobile, staring at the radio.
“Soyuz-Zero-Eight, we register a Mayday transmission on your frequency. Please acknowledge.”
Jameson scrambled to release his harness and grabbed for the transmitter. “Houston? Houston, this is Flight Engineer Martin Jameson aboard the Soyuz-Zero-Eight. We receive you, over.”
“What’s your status, Jameson?”
“Houston, thank God! We hit a debris field; vitals are all red and fuel is out.” His gaze flicked to Sanders and back. “And we’re off course for re-entry.”
“Understood. We’re tracking you, Soyuz-Zero-Eight. We have our best guys on the job; sit tight and we’ll get you home. Over and out.”
Jameson slumped back into his chair, exhaustion gripping him in the wake of relief. “They heard us, Commander. Thank the lord, they heard us.”
Sanders didn’t reply, instead sitting back with his eyes closed.
“How’re they going to get us down?” Jameson asked.
Sanders stirred. “They’re the boffins; I’m sure they’ll figure something out. Might be time for that song now, what do you think? Who is it you do, Sammy Jameson Jr?”
“Very funny, Commander. So, what if we do get out of this in one piece? You putting in for another mission or keeping your feet on the ground?”
“There isn’t much else I can do. I’ve thought about flying test or commercial, but I can’t imagine anything that compares to this.”
“What, floating aimlessly in a tin can hoping for a miracle?”
Jameson gazed through the porthole. “You got family down there?”
“Yeah, my wife, Linda, and our dog.” Sanders looked from Jameson to the ceiling, his brow creasing. “What the heck is it called? Jeez.”
Jameson smiled. “Well, seeing as you ask, yeah, I’ve got family down there too. My ex has the twins. I see them on weekends, and this Saturday they’re coming to watch their ol’ dad perform at the club, so we need to get back.” His visor barred him from rubbing a tear from his eye, so he turned his face away. In reality it was nothing like every weekend that he saw his boys, not with his schedule.
“Buster, my dog’s name.”
“Phew, put it in the log.”
“Soyuz-Zero-Eight, are you receiving, over?”
“We receive you, Houston. What’s the deal down there?”
“We’ve crunched the numbers. You don’t have enough fuel for another propulsion burst, but your last correction did put you bang on course for the ISS. You can dock there and refuel, and take on any equipment supplies you need for re-entry.”
“The ISS? But that’s in low orbit, surely we’re nowhere—”
“By our calculations, you are, Flight Engineer. So don’t panic, sit tight and relax. You’re fourteen minutes away from salvation, gentlemen.”
“I don’t know if we have fourteen minutes.” Sanders cut in, his breath shallow. “Oxygen’s critical.”
“Open the airlock then; get some fresh air.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Sanders replied. “Jameson, do the honours, would you? I can’t breathe.”
“The airlock? But won’t that … I don’t know. Is that a good idea?”
“It’ll be fine, Sammy. Take off your helmet and open the door. You need air for your performance; we can’t wait to hear it down here. Final call for Sammy Davis Jr.”
It made sense. His audience deserved his best, and he could hardly be expected to deliver that in these conditions. As he turned the wheel of the door’s seal he heard something—an alarm?—but it was distant, elsewhere; someone must have opened a fire exit for a smoke. It distracted him for only a moment before being lost in a formless mist of thoughts and memories. He struggled to focus on anything other than the elation and excitement that now rippled through his body like a drug, stronger than anything he’d experienced before. He looked for his boys in the crowd; they’d be there somewhere, watching and applauding with the rest.
The spotlights were in his eyes now, and he blinked hard to ease the pain that they caused, and then the picture turned black and white; fitting, he thought, for his routine. Sanders must have found the contrast control before he’d fallen asleep. “OK, stand by Houston; opening the airlock now.”
—Dan Forrester lives in England with the love of his life (his cat Eric), and his wife. He has had short stories published by Spinetinglers, Penny Shorts, and the National Association of Writers’ Groups in the UK, from whom he won an award in 2015.