August 21; 11:02 a.m. Station Time
Walli Beckwith had no way of knowing that she probably had just under an hour to live. If she had known, she likely could have calculated exactly how much under an hour it was. By now she understood well‑nigh all there was to know about how a spacecraft at a particular distance with a particular mass moving at a particular speed behaves, so she could also understand precisely when the one coming at her would arrive and what it would do when it hit. But the spacecraft was, at the moment, keeping all that a secret from Beckwith, as well as from the other two crew members aboard the International Space Station. If a mindless machine with no one aboard could be said to be acting with devious intent, this one was—and its intent was to kill them all. The machine that was threatening to end the crew’s lives would also make a mess of an experiment Beckwith was conducting, one that she’d rather looked forward to completing but now probably never would, what with death all at once on the day’s menu of events. For most of the morning, she had been working in the station’s Zarya, or Sunrise, laboratory—one of the five modules the Russians had contributed to the football‑field‑size, fifteen‑module station. Lost in the experiment, she jumped when a voice suddenly called out to her over the station’s intercom system for a routine status check. Most communications aboard the station were conducted publicly, over speakers and microphones arrayed throughout the modules, sparing the crew from having to wear headsets all day.
“Are you all right back there, Walli?” the voice, belonging to the station commander, Vasily Zhirov, called in Russian‑accented English.
“All good,” she answered.
“You didn’t catch the shit bug?”
“Not yet,” Beckwith said with a laugh.“A moment later, Beckwith was aware of only three things: a bang first; a hard, violent lurch to starboard next; and a sudden, knifing pain in her ears.”
Zhirov’s English was better than Beckwith’s Russian, so that was how they typically communicated. Still, he chose his moments to speak in Russian, and for “shit bug,” which was how he always referred to the E. coli intestinal bacteria that was used in the lab studies, he used “dermóvaya zaraza.” In either language, the term was one of the many ways Zhirov had of waving off the science that was conducted aboard the station, which, as far as he could see, was busywork compared to the more challenging business of simply keeping the huge ship flying. When the experiment involved salmonella, Zhirov called it kurínaya bolézn, or chicken sickness, and any studies involving the five mice aboard the station were krysinie ígri, or rat games.
The station had been shorthanded for the past two weeks, ever since the last three‑person crew had returned to Earth to make way for the next. The newcomers would be arriving in ten days, filling out the crew manifest to the more typical six. Before they arrived, the station needed to be resupplied. An unmanned Progress cargo vehicle had been launched from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan two days ago and was scheduled to arrive and dock with the station at just after 11:00 this morning, station time, which was pegged to Greenwich Mean Time.
Docking a Progress had its perils. Without a pilot aboard, it relied on a computer to execute the delicate pas de deux of approaching and linking up with the station. But computers were imperfect, and for that reason, Zhirov and Lebedev, the two Russians aboard, who presumably had a better understanding of the Progress than the one American, would be in the nearby Pirs, or Pier, module, a downward‑facing pod barely half the length of the school‑bus‑size Zarya.
Beckwith had little doubt that the likes of those two would bring off the docking without incident. Lebedev was a first‑time cosmonaut and a quiet sort, but over the course of the last two years of training together, she’d come to see him as the best pure engineer she’d ever met. People liked to say that he could take the entire Russian portion of the space station apart in his head, redesign it, and put it back together better than it had been before. That had seemed like nothing more than the kind of hyperbolic praise ladled out to promising rookies until Beckwith saw Lebedev do just that—staring at a busted evaporator or a broken‑down air scrubber, regarding it this way and that, then finally nodding once as he sorted out exactly what it needed and fixing it within minutes.
Zhirov was another order of exceptional altogether. He’d been to space five times before, putting together 780 days off the planet as of this morning’s count. He’d already made it clear he was aiming for a full thousand, and at this point, he would need just one more flight after the current one to get there. It was all but certain he would, what with the press attention it would garner. The Russians were already working on a publicity campaign for what they would call the “Zolotáya Tysyacha,” or the “Golden Thousand.”
Beckwith was proud of her own 153 days in space, accumulated over the course of a two‑week space shuttle mission early in her NASA career, a three‑month space station rotation three years ago, and the seven weeks she’d spent aboard the station on this rotation. But they felt like little more than a long weekend compared to Zhirov’s total. She was thus delighted to have been assigned a full six months this time around.
“Target at forty‑five, closing at twenty‑six,” Lebedev called to Moscow Mission Control. They spoke in Russian, but it was pilots’ Russian, and in that, at least, Beckwith was fluent. During the docking, it would be Zhirov’s job to monitor the approach data as it changed, Lebedev’s job to announce it to the ground.
“Copy your forty‑five and twenty‑six,” Moscow answered.
The speed then slowed to twenty‑two meters per second, then twenty, then eighteen, and then just fifteen. And then it did something it very much was not supposed to do, which is to say it did nothing at all.
“Holding at fifteen,” Lebedev said. Three seconds passed.
“Holding at fifteen,” Lebedev repeated.
“Copy your fifteen,” Moscow said. Even through the air‑to‑ground static, Beckwith could hear that the voice from Moscow had tightened. Several seconds elapsed with only the communications hiss playing through the station’s intercom.
“And now twenty,” Zhirov said, taking over Lebedev’s callout role.
His tone was hard, almost a snap.
Beckwith looked up. Zhirov couldn’t mean twenty. Twenty meant that the Progress was accelerating—precisely what it wasn’t supposed to do, precisely what no incoming vessel was ever supposed to do at this close range when it was heading for the huge, slow, barely maneuverable station.
“Repeat please, station,” Moscow requested. “Yes,” Zhirov said. “Twenty.”
Beckwith stopped what she was doing. Zhirov spoke again. “Twenty‑three,” he said flatly, and then, “Twenty‑eight.” “Go to manual override, station,” Moscow called.
“Copy, override,” Zhirov answered. Beckwith waited to hear Zhirov say that the override had worked, that the speed had been braked. But Zhirov did not say that.
What he said instead—flatly, tonelessly—was: “Moscow, we have no hand.”
That was the call Beckwith had dreaded. “No hand” was a term of Zhirov’s own devising. It was the one he first used during pre‑flight training when the simulation supervisors threw him just this scenario—a Progress vehicle speeding toward the station, its onboard computer, backup systems, manual control, and every other intended fail‑safe having in fact failed. A commander without a hand on his ship was a commander in the worst kind of trouble.
Beckwith sprang toward the end of the Zarya lab that led to the docking module, then doubled back—her open vial of meningitis still in her hand and the sample tray floating where she’d left it. She forced the top back on the vial, banged it back into place in the tray, pivoted toward the freezer, and clumsily slid the tray inside, slamming the door too hard, then slamming it again when it failed to catch. Then she kicked herself off a bulkhead, shot toward the lab exit, and dove down into the open hatch of the Pirs, which was just below her.
When she entered, Zhirov and Lebedev had their backs to her, facing the module’s instrument panel and the small windows that looked down toward the planet. The Progress was closing in on it like an angry wasp.
“Vasily,” Beckwith said, announcing her presence.
Zhirov, his hand on the useless control stick and his eyes fixed on the screens, nodded without turning.
“Target is accelerating, Moscow,” he said levelly. “We are at thirty.” Beckwith did some hurried calculating and swallowed hard at what the numbers told her: Thirty meters per second meant that the Progress was up to sixty‑seven miles per hour. An impact, if one was to occur, would now take place in just three minutes. Lebedev, as if following her ciphering, confirmed it three seconds later.
“One hundred seventy‑seven seconds,” he read out. The images on the twin screens grew bigger.
“Station, recycle please,” Moscow called up, ordering Zhirov to, effectively, reboot the guidance system by switching it off and then back on again.
“Recycle,” Zhirov commanded Lebedev, who flicked the appropriate switches in front of him off and then on. Zhirov tried his control handle—and the images on the screen continued to grow.
“No hand, Moscow,” Zhirov said. “Recycle again please,” Moscow said.
Lebedev complied and Zhirov tried the controls. “No hand, Moscow,” he said.
“Again, station,” Moscow ordered. Again Lebedev tried. “Moscow‑we‑have‑no‑hand!” Zhirov said in an impatient staccato.
“We will evade.” He then turned back to Beckwith. “Walli, thrusters,” he ordered.
“Copy, Vasily,” she said, then flew from the docking module and made a sharp turn into a larger adjacent module the Russians called the Zvezda, or Star, where the station’s thrusters were controlled. She threw the breakers that powered the system and feathered the control handle to determine if it was engaged. Thrusters made no noise in space, but within the ship, the power of their exhaust vibrated through the walls and was very much audible.
“Engaged, Vasily,” she said grimly through the open intercom system.
“Pitch up and yaw starboard,” Zhirov ordered, telling Beckwith, effectively, to raise and bank the station.
“One hundred and thirty seconds,” Lebedev said.
“Roger,” Beckwith said and obeyed, but her stomach turned over at the particular evasive maneuver Zhirov had ordered; it was an acknowledgment that a collision was unavoidable. The station turned lazily and could not easily get out of harm’s way in time. Instead, the pitch and yaw would simply reposition it, putting one of the great solar wings in the path of the Progress and avoiding damage to any of the modules that made up the main body of the butterfly, which could lead to a lethal depressurization. Zhirov was trading a mortal wound for a flesh wound. The station lurched upward and to the right.
“Ninety seconds,” Lebedev said. “Walli, more!” Zhirov called.
Beckwith jerked the thruster handle again; the little jets outside whooshed in a higher, more urgent register. The station struggled up and away.
“Thrusting,” Beckwith said. “Copy,” Zhirov acknowledged.
“Seventy‑five seconds,” Lebedev announced.
Moscow, helpless to do anything at all, remained silent.
For the next thirty seconds, the crew worked wordlessly, Beckwith driving the station, needing no more instruction from Zhirov to know that every degree she moved the huge vessel was a degree less damage the onrushing Progress might do. Suddenly, however, she felt a hand on her shoulder and she looked around. It was Zhirov.
“I will do this,” he said. “You get in the spacecraft.”
Before Beckwith could respond, Lebedev called out, “Forty‑five seconds.”
Beckwith fired herself toward the module exit. “Get in the spacecraft” was the station’s agreed‑upon command for “Abandon ship.” It was the last command, the all‑is‑lost command, the command Beck‑ with had trained to respond to but had never really thought she would hear—least of all on a flight commanded by Zhirov.
“Twenty seconds!” she heard Lebedev call through the rising sound of the thrusters outside.
That was followed by “Fifteen seconds.” Then, “Nine seconds.” And then, as the station bucked upward one more time, a final “Four seconds!”
A moment later, Beckwith was aware of only three things: a bang first; a hard, violent lurch to starboard next; and a sudden, knifing pain in her ears. She clapped her hands over both sides of her head and doubled forward, rocking in pain. She stayed like that for what was surely just seconds but felt like much more. Then she held still, steadied her breathing, and through her hands covering her ears could faintly hear the station’s emergency Klaxon sounding everywhere. That cleared her mind and steadied her thinking—and the circumstances fell into place.
The Klaxon sound was the collision alert. The starboard swerve meant a portside hit. And the lightning bolt of pain meant the hull of one of the modules had been breached and the station was depressurizing. Still, while the circumstances were worse than they ought to be, they were better than they might have been.
If the breach had been a fatal one, Beckwith would have been deafened first as her eardrums ruptured and dead directly after as the station’s atmosphere exploded completely away. As she was neither— yet—she knew she had things to do. She crawled out of the Soyuz, batting aside storage bags, flight plans, and other drifting items that had been knocked loose by the collision, and exited the upward‑ facing Poisk module—closing the hatch behind her to prevent any further depressurization. She pushed off quickly to the downward‑facing Pirs module, where Lebedev was and the impact had likely been. She immediately collided with Zhirov, emerging from the Zvezda module.
“Walli!” Zhirov exclaimed. He took Beckwith by the shoulders and then by her head, turning it this way and that. He came away with blood on his hands from her slowly leaking wound. He wiped it on the leg of his pants.
“Your ears,” Zhirov said, his voice sounding muffled. “You can hear?”
“Some,” Beckwith answered.
“The same,” Zhirov said. The depressurization had caused the air in their inner ears to expand painfully and grow trapped there, stopping just short of causing them deafness—for now. Zhirov looked toward the Pirs module, where Lebedev was. Both of them dove for the open hatch and stopped cold at what they saw: Lebedev was floating in mid‑module, unconscious, blood running from his right ear. They lunged toward him and grabbed him, and Zhirov began shaking him and slapping his face.
Lebedev’s face was pale and his lips were blue. Beckwith lifted one of his eyelids with her thumb. The white of the eye was shot through with the deep red of burst blood vessels. This was how a man who was dead of vacuum asphyxiation looked. Beckwith turned to Zhirov and then quickly turned back as Lebedev stirred.
“Yulian, Yulian!” Zhirov shouted, louder this time. It was his implacable calm in moments of crisis that had set him on his path to his Golden Thousand, but at the moment, there was little of it in evidence. Lebedev muttered something and his eyelids fluttered open; he turned away from the fluorescent lights directly in front of him. He could see, and, from one ear at least, he apparently could hear.
“Yulian!” Zhirov shouted again, this time in joy, and grabbed Lebedev in a clumsy hug.
Through Beckwith’s own clogged ears, she heard both the ongoing sound of the Klaxon and a high whistle along with it. She turned in the direction of the whistle and saw a small mound of debris—papers, packing material, a pair of jumpsuits, and more—wadded up against a misshapen portion of the bulkhead. This, she knew, was where the Progress had hit. The hull had ruptured, the air had begun to rush out, and any loose detritus in the module had then streamed toward the hole and, in effect, stopped it up. Their lives had been saved by junk. But the whistling was the sound of air still slowly escaping. Beckwith grabbed Zhirov by the shoulder, then pointed to what she’d seen.
“Out,” she said. “Let’s go. Now.”
The lucky patch would hold only so long.
Zhirov led the way to the larger Zvezda module and threw a switch on the instrument panel, shutting off the alarm. In the silence, a low, steady roar continued inside Beckwith’s head, the result of her dam‑ aged ears.
“Moscow, station,” he said. There was no response.
“Moscow, station,” he repeated. The air‑to‑ground loop emitted a loud crackle.
“Station, Moscow,” came the call. “Station, Moscow. Confirm your status please.”
“Moscow, station,” Zhirov answered. “Impact with vessel. Pirs hull is breached, station is stable. Crew is four‑two‑four.”
Beckwith looked at him, struck by the phrasing. Zhirov was an old‑school cosmonaut—deeply mindful of the Soviet traditions—and he was speaking old‑school code. Ever since the earliest Soyuz landings, recovery crews would open the hatch and call out the status of the crew members on a one‑to‑five rating. Five meant healthy and well. Four meant some injuries. Three and two meant serious injuries. One was the code that a crew member had died. Only once in history had a one been heard—in 1971, when Soyuz 11 depressurized during reentry and a grim recovery officer had opened the hatch after the spacecraft made an otherwise perfect landing, then turned and reported hoarsely: “One‑one‑one.”
“Station, prepare spacecraft for return,” came the command from Moscow. “Stand by for entry time and coordinates.”
“Understood, Moscow,” Zhirov said. Lebedev closed his eyes, and Beckwith slumped. Her ears would recover within a couple of days— she was certain of it. So would Zhirov’s. But the ground could not be as certain, and in any event, Lebedev was fit only for a hospital—as quickly as possible. Zhirov ticked his head in the direction of the Poisk, where the Soyuz lifeboat was docked. Beckwith swam toward the module hatch and opened it up, and then Zhirov and Lebedev followed.
“Shut it down, Vasily?” she asked.
“Shut it down, Walli,” he responded, then hailed the ground. “Moscow, station,” he said. “Proceeding with evac power‑down.”
“Copy, station,” Moscow responded.
Beckwith kicked off for the station’s American segment. The evacuation power‑down was the final step before a crew abandoned ship. It required that the lights, air scrubbers, water recyclers, and other life‑support equipment be shut off in order to save power. It also called for every hatch on every module to be closed and sealed, preventing a stationwide depressurization in the event of a collision with a meteor or another piece of flying ordnance. The station had already been clobbered once today. Another hit could be the end of it.
“Walli!” Zhirov called. “Time is short.”
“Copy!” she answered.
The station was secure, and less than ten minutes after she’d left the docking module, she returned. Zhirov had by now powered down the Russian end of the station and was waiting for her. He and Beckwith both moved toward the open hatch of the Soyuz, and Beckwith stopped, offering a nod to the commander and gesturing for him to enter first. Zhirov floated inside and buckled into the center seat.
At that moment, Lebedev caught his breath and grabbed his injured ear. A fresh trickle of blood ran down his face. Zhirov turned Lebedev’s head, examined his ear, and gave his crewmate a reassuring pat on the knee.
“Soon, Yulian,” he said. “We will have you in a hospital soon.”
He turned to Beckwith and gestured at her to hurry. Beckwith complied and dove in. She sealed the station’s hatch so that it wouldn’t depressurize when the spacecraft undocked, then sealed the Soyuz’s own hatch. She settled into her seat and buckled her restraint har‑ nesses. The Soyuz felt comparatively roomy without the crew’s bulky suits, reminding Beckwith of the hours she’d spent in the simulator on the ground.
She sat for a moment with the thought of the ground—the feel of soil, the smell of the air, the return to gravity, all so much earlier than she had planned. Then, despite herself, she thought of other things that the ground held—the things at a particular spot that could easily be seen when the station flew by at a particular point in its orbits. She dismissed that image, but it swam right back. She tried again, but it returned again, so she decided to let it stay where it was, turning it this way and that, considering its various angles and implications. The sorrow she had felt just moments ago at the idea of having to bid farewell to the station had been misplaced—a little trick her mind had played to keep her from embracing what she knew she had to do. She had already contemplated it well; she just wished she didn’t have to do it so soon. But she couldn’t control the timing; she could control only the doing, and she knew what that doing called for.
Wordlessly, then, she punched open her seat restraints, floated back up, opened the Soyuz hatch and then the module hatch, and drifted back into the station. Zhirov, who had been trading coordinates and entry angles with the ground, looked up with a start.
“Walli!” he said. “What are you doing?”
“I have something to tend to, Vasily.”
“It can keep.”
“It can’t keep.”
“What is it, then?”
“I left the bathtub running.”
“Ne shutítye!” Zhirov snapped. No jokes.
“Ne shutítye, Vasily,” Beckwith responded seriously. “Ne shutítye, but I am not leaving.”
“What do you mean, you’re ‘not leaving’?”
“I’m not leaving.”
“You cannot stay.”
“You must come home.”
Beckwith shook her head no. “I won’t come home.”
“Walli . . .”
“No.” She stopped and chose her words. “I would prefer not to,” she said.