International Space Station
The Cupola observatory module was attached at a berthing location in the floor. Astronauts often visited the Cupola during off-hours to gaze back at planet Earth while they orbited at 17,500 mph. Bob peered over the edge of the Earth-facing port, expecting a view like a glass bottom boat. Instead, he saw white-socked feet belonging to Rémy, a French astronaut from the European Space Agency. Bob didn’t want company but he didn’t want to be alone either.
Still holding his laptop and trailing headphones, Bob pulled on the Cupola’s handrails with his right hand and descended headlong. In a pressurized, zero-gravity environment, orientation didn’t matter; up-side-down didn’t feel any different from right-side-up. The Cupola was nearly nine feet in diameter but with tubes and consoles poking out of the sides. Two adult males could fit comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder but any more had to be nuts-to-butts, as the saying went.
Rémy turned to see Bob by his side, hugging his laptop like a teddy bear.
“So now you know why the Russians didn’t rotate out our Soyuz capsule,” Rémy said, making it a flat statement rather than a question.
Bob said nothing but he couldn’t hide his surprise.
“Unless you always take your laptop to the toilet.” Rémy added. “And if you do, I don’t want to know why.”
Rémy agreed with a bitter smile that seemed to say, To the last. The Frenchman looked back to the dome of windows and said, “I already spoke to the Director of the Guiana Space Centre. Marcel told me the situation.”
And it was grave. A Soyuz capsule, the only method of transport for ISS astronauts, remained docked to the station in case of emergency evacuation but each vehicle had a finite lifespan. The Russians were scheduled to change out capsules on a six-month rotation. For no reason given, the last capsule was never replaced with a new one. The astronauts had no escape. They also had no way to keep living. The European spaceport wasn’t going to launch a transfer vehicle with new supplies. All rockets, spacecraft and satellites were being repurposed for countermeasures to the comet threat. The ISS crew would be out of luck, and more importantly, oxygen.
“How many medals did they promise your widow?” Rémy asked.
Bob ignored the question.
“Should we tell Sergey?” he asked. “You know the Russians won’t.”
Rémy shrugged. He had one of those dimpled donut chins that was all the more noticeable in harsh, artificial lighting.
“Only if he wants to know,” Rémy said, “Peggy did.”
“You told Peggy?”
By which Bob meant, You told Peggy before you told me? But of course Rémy did. Peggy Whitson was his favorite. She was everyone’s favorite with her wide smile and Iowan decency. Peggy had broken the record for the most time spent in orbit by an American. When she and Bob watched a sunset together, the 16th and final sunset in their waking hours, Peggy whispered that she wanted to keep exploring right up to the day she died. Poor Peggy would get her wish.