by Roger Ley
Other stories by Roger Ley
Mary woke, floating tethered in her sleep sack. She felt more relaxed than she had for months, now that she’d been alone for a while. The latest Soyuz had brought supplies up and taken back the three other occupants of the International Space Station as they finished their mission. There’d been the usual cheery goodbyes undercut by the tense knowledge of the risks inherent in the drop to Earth, but the Soyuz design had gained a well-earned reputation for reliability during its fifty years of service.
“Best of luck, Tovarich, say Hello to Moscow for me.”
It would be several days before the next SpaceX 22 capsule brought up replacement astronauts. Mary’s mission would last another two months, and would break Peggy Whitson’s record for the longest space flight by a woman, in three weeks’ time.
Looking out of the window of her module, she noticed a change to the coastline of her beloved California. What looked like red and grey flowers were blossoming all along the coastal strip. She pushed her way out of her sack and drifted over to the comms console. “Hello, Houston, what’s happening in California?”
Mission Control called back almost instantly. ‘Hi, Mary, Estella here, we’re just getting reports of a big quake, centred on Santa Barbara. What can you see from up there?”
“I’m over flying it now, it looks serious.” The dust clouds were expanding. They must be enormous and moving fast if she could see the movement from two hundred and some miles up.
“Yes, I can see it on the live feed from your external cameras. Wow, that is big,” said Estella.
“It’s passing under me, I’m over the Gulf of California now. Keep me posted, Estella, Patrick and the boys are visiting his mother in San Francisco. Could you call him and let me know they’re okay?”
“Will do, Mary, I’ll get right onto it. Anything for the Sisterhood.”
The Station passed into darkness. It would take an hour and a half to complete its orbit, but her path would have moved one and a half thousand miles to the East. She wouldn’t be over Santa Barbara again for three days.
Needing to divert her attention from worries about her ‘boys,’ she spent some time on the exercise machines and then swallowed a meal, not really aware of which particular flavour of gloop the tube held. The Station was quieter than she’d ever known it, just the gentle sounds of pumps and fans, the creak of the structure as it heated and cooled.
The radio burst into life.
“Hi, Mary, it’s Estella. No news from Patrick, I’m afraid, but I’ll keep trying.”
“Copy that. What’s happening with the quake?”
“Things are not looking good, Mary, seems like the Cascadia subduction zone has got in on the act. The President has already declared a state of emergency in California. Looks like it’s the ‘Big One.’ We all knew it would happen eventually, but the reality is, kinda overwhelming.”
“Can you feed me one of the live TV news broadcasts?”
“I’m afraid there’s a problem with that, Mary.”
It must be bad, she thought, they don’t want to upset me. She went back to her solar observations and tried to concentrate on collating results.
She listened to the radio news broadcasts but it was only when she was passing over California again, three days later, that Mary could see the true extent of the disaster. The shape of the Pacific coastline from San Francisco to San Diego had altered, it was concave, not convex. The Gulf of California was open to the Ocean at both ends and the Baja peninsula was now a series of islands. She was horrified. There was a cloud of smoke and ash drifting east that obscured Arizona and New Mexico, somehow it reminded her of the TV images of the dust and smoke from 9/11, all those years ago.
And still there was no news from Patrick and the boys.
“They’ve decided to reschedule the next launch from Baikonur, Mary, you’ll be on your own for a while longer,” said Estella during her next transmission.
“How much longer?”
“No news at this time.” There was silence for a few seconds then, “Actually, Mary, I’ve just been told that we’re gonna hand over communications to our friends in Moscow. Things are getting a little disorganised here, what with the dust and general disruption. Apparently, Yellowstone is erupting. Things are falling apart, Hon. I’ll say goodbye for now and hand you over to Moscow Mission Control Centre. Sorry I couldn’t reach Patrick; I must have tried a hundred times. They’re shutting everything down here and sending us home. Good luck, Mary.” There was a break in Estella’s voice, “Houston out.”
“Hello, Houston, Estella, Estella?” There was only silence from the radio. “Hello, Korolyov, come in Korolyov.”
Apparently, no one had told Moscow MCC about the comms handover.
An hour and a half later she passed over the Yellowstone Caldera. The ash cloud covered Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Soon Dakota and Nebraska would be obscured. Mary began to search the radio frequencies. There were broadcasts in all languages, the ones she could understand were mainly calls for help. As the days passed, the ash and smoke cloud slowly encircled the globe, only the most northern and southern latitudes were partly free of it.
The Station sailed sedately on, subject only to the unvarying laws of celestial mechanics. Mary carried on with her mission for another two days before she admitted the pointlessness of it to herself. It had been a way of dealing with the shock and avoiding the realisation that she was truly on her own now. There would be no launch from Baikonur, there would be no resupply rockets. There was always the Soyuz crew return vehicle, of course, docked to the Russian module, but if she made her escape, what would she be returning to, and where would she land? It might be Mongolia and she’d never get back home from there.
It was time to do some stock taking.
There was a ton of food. She reckoned that if she lived frugally, the new supplies, still floating in the docking chamber, would probably last a year. Water was the limiting factor because it was used to generate oxygen as well as for drinking. After checking the tanks, she came to the conclusion that, with a little care, the supply would last about five months.
Over the next weeks the voices from the ground slowly disappeared. The last to go were from the Antipodes. They’d probably be using ancient, pedal-powered radios recalled into service on the sheep stations of the outback. Finally, there was just the hiss of static and the click of lightning from the vast storms roiling below her.
She mourned the loss of her family. She hadn’t been with them for almost a year, but she clung to a shred of hope that they were still alive, maybe in a Government shelter somewhere, hunkered down to wait out the ‘nuclear winter.’ Loneliness became her biggest problem, she wondered if she was the last human being alive. She hoped not. Perhaps the Scandinavians would be able to cope with the cold and dark and eventually re-populate the planet when the skies cleared. A peaceful Viking invasion this time.
She found the empty plastic bottle floating in the Russia Orbital Segment. ‘Ethyl Alcohol 99.99% use as solvent’ read the label. Just add water to bring it down to a less throat burning forty percent and it’s vodka by any other name, she thought. No wonder the guys were so cheerful when they left.
Floating in the darkened Cupola module at the top of the Station, lights low and surrounded by stars, her beloved Elgar played as she mixed a vodka OJ in a drinks bag. She sighed and looked at the paraphernalia floating around her: squeeze bags of orange juice, ‘vodka’ from the chemical stores, ampules of morphine and a needle from the meds locker, a length of rubber tubing from her lab for a tourniquet.
All a girl needed to party on her final orbit.