“OPS-3 do you read? OPS-3 do you read?"
I launched myself for the radio receiver, and jerked up the mouthpiece. I wiped away the film of sweat from my forehead before replying.
“Receiving.” My throat was tight with a lump the size of a golf ball.
“It’s good to hear your voice comrade.”
“You too. How are you doing?” Leaning towards the porthole, I stared out into the cold void, hoping to catch some glimpse of the Soyuz capsule somewhere out in the twinkling stars.
“All systems great. Amazing view of the Pacific right now.”
“Have you managed to reach ground control yet?”
“Comms are still down because of the solar flares, I guess. Should be back up in a couple of hours.”
“I hope so.” The lump in my throat was getting bigger, pressing against the wall of my windpipe. I swallowed, trying to make room for my next words. “I get worried up here on my own.”
“Only seven days to go now Boris, I’m sure you can last that long. I’ll see you then.”
“I can’t wait until you get here. Talk to you soon.” I put down the mouthpiece, and turned back to the porthole, pressing my eyes into the great blackness, to the divine curve of the Earth’s glowing horizon.
Without Flight Engineer Zholobov, the station seemed very empty indeed. It was a hundred cubic metres of beeping radios, flashing lights, and often blaring alarms, but silence slid beneath these thin distractions, an ever-present threat. Soon enough, I would tune out all the noises, and fall into a state of uncomfortable, clutching, reticence.
I sighed uncomfortably, suddenly extremely self-aware, and tore back from the porthole. Pulling myself through the stale air, I headed for the living area. The sliding door which lead to the cramped toilet compartment was half open, and it squealed as I pushed it into the closed position, the sudden noise making me cringe. The half-hearted chuckle that spilled from my lips was a force of habit; there was no-one else on the station to hear it.
I had no appetite for the generic meat in my food storage cupboard; truth be told, I hadn't eaten more than a packet of dried apricots, a couple of crackers, and some meat spread, in the last two days. If the people back on the ground knew how little I’d eaten, they would've had me on the Soyuz and heading for re-entry in the blink of an eye. If I hadn't been out of contact with them, I might have even considered telling them just to get off.
With no appetite, I decided to call it a day. It was then a simple matter of flicking off the main cabin lights, crawling into the restraints of my sleeping compartment, and praying that the station wouldn't fall apart while I was asleep.
It was warm. Uncomfortably warm. The fabric of the sleeping bag clung to my skin, slick with sweat. I fumbled with the zip, my fingers slipping on the cold metal. The air in the capsule was like tar, and I swam through it with an uncomfortable lethargy. The thermometer displayed the temperature of 19.8 ° C, exactly as it had the day before, and the day before that.
“That’s got to be a mistake.” I tapped the screen, as if that would somehow make it display change, but it just ended up leaving a sticky finger mark on the glowing green glass.
Either way, I needed a shower. I used the back of my forearm to clean off my forehead, and sighed. This could wait, it was probably just another sensor problem that I wouldn't be qualified to fix. The whole place was probably only ever one fault from depressurizing and spiraling back down to earth, as brittle as a feather.
The violent hissing of the shower, and the cold pressure of the shower sluiced away my deep rooted misgivings. I couldn't focus on my problems while I briskly rubbed my skin clean with the harsh soap bar. Once I was clean, and suitably refreshed, I turned the knob, and the last bubbles of water floated gently out of the nozzle. With the sound of rushing water gone, I became aware of the noises of the station again, in particular a muffled voice.
“Shit.” I banged my head on the shower cubicle roof as I attempted to spin myself round and climb out the door. It left a mark on the grey plastic. Not wanting to miss whoever was on the radio, I ignored the stinging pain, and pulled myself naked across the space station, toweling myself as I went.
“OPS-3 do you read? OPS-3 do you read?”
“Receiving Soyuz-21.” Breathlessly I muttered into the mouthpiece.
“I’d almost given up on you.”
“Sorry. I was showering.”
“Well, I’m glad I reached you. I was beginning to think we were alone up here comrade.”
“At least you’re not the only one on the Soyuz. I’m all alone out here on Salyut.”
“Ha, you are lucky my friend, Flight Engineer Rozhdestvensky is starting to drive me crazy.”
“Only six more days to go.”
“For you maybe. I have my whole mission to complete.”
I gave a sympathetic chuckle. I sympathised with Commander Zudov, I truly did. Ever since my partner Flight Engineer Zholobov had got himself a ticket home by accidently chopping off three of his fingers in the airlock door, Zudov had managed to keep my spirits up. He had managed to keep me working. He had managed to keep me hopeful. Zudov was a great man, he would be hailed as a hero back home when his mission was finished, I was sure.
“How are you doing, anyway?”
“It’s warm. It’s too warm up here. I’m not sure how it can be so hot inside, yet so cold outside.”
“Hot?” Zudov was audibly alarmed. “What’s your thermometer reading?”
“19.8 as always. It’s probably a sensor problem, don’t worry.”
“It’s fine Commander, honestly. I’m only slightly too hot, a couple of degrees maybe.”
“Well, you radio me straight away if it gets any hotter.”
“Don’t worry.” He would worry, I could tell by the sound of his voice.
“Well then, I must leave you. See you soon my friend.”
“Six days to go.” I confirmed, before clipping the mouthpiece back into position on the radio set.
The rest of the day was a constant battle against heat. Communication with the ground was still out because of the solar flares, so I attempted to remedy the problem myself by hand. That started with the simple task of running diagnostic programs on the central computer, but after that denied there was any problems whatsoever, I hit a brick wall.
My mind ran, dredging up hundreds of semi-rendered memories of endless technical documents and cosmonaut manuals. The black diagrams and minute labels all seemed to melt, twisting into impossible shapes, non-Euclidian planes that boggled my mind. I couldn't quite think in the straight lines required for a task like this at the moment; in the heat everything span or spiraled in and out in my mind’s eye. Concentration, it was safe to say, was not high.
In my head, I was back in Zholobov’s last day with me on the station. It was hotter than I remembered in the feverish flashback. Zholobov’s brow glistened as he climbed down, extending his massive frame out of the tiny airlock. He gave a relieved gasp, glad to be finally move his limbs without slamming them against the walls. I watched him from my seat by the main control console, my eyes aching from looking at the monochrome screen for several hours.
I called out something to him, not in control of my own actions or speech. Whatever it was, for it was muted in my memory, overshadowed by what came next, made him turn. As he did, he placed one hand on the metal rim of the airlock, to keep himself steady. Zholobov replied with a chuckle and an equally muted reply. His lips were blurred in my flashback, indeed, the entire man’s outline was slightly fuzzy in my memory, but the lack of clarity was most noticeable around his face. He was now just an out of focus photograph in the dark recesses of my cortexes.
We finished talking, and Zholobov reached up for the handle on the hatch. He turned back to face me, just as he pulled, and brought down the sharp blade of metal. It dropped onto his other fingers with a sickening-
The jarring blow shook me out of my recollection, jerking my head up into an upright position. I gasped for air, and my head instinctively turned to the scene of the accident. There was still a small blood smear down the side of the hatch. Had the noise of metal hitting metal that was still echoing in my ears been real, or was it just part of the memory? In my heat-addled state, it was hard to tell.
The thermometer was still reading 19.8.
I shook myself out of the odd stupor, which sent hundreds of tiny sweat droplets floating across the cabin. The armpits of my top were damp, as was all down by back and crotch area. The temperature must be rising.
There it was again. Despite the heat, the sound sent chills down my spine. In any case, I knew it was just space junk or the metal expanding, but it was unsettling enough for me to give the capsule a nervous once over before returning to my previous train of thought.
“Soyuz-21 do you read?” I picked up the radio microphone, still distracted by the glare of the main console, where the display still read 19.8 ° C.
“Any contact with ground yet Commander? I need to get a fix on this thermostat problem.”
“Negative Boris, still nothing. Is it getting worse?”
“I can cope, but if it persists for two or three days-” I trailed off, putting down the receiver to wipe my forehead again. I could just see my reflection in the edge of the porthole, and he looked very sweaty indeed. White salt crystals stuck to my forearm in the rapidly drying sweat.
“Well, we’ll keep trying. It’ll be fixed in a couple of hours more, I’m sure of it.”
“I hope so, or I’ll have to take another shower.”
“You’re still getting a reading of 19.8?” Zudov’s voice carried a note of apprehension in it, even over the airwaves.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be back in contact with the ground soon, and they’ll know what to do.”
“I’m sure it’s just a sensor problem, something minor like that.”
“Speak to you soon my friend, and drink plenty of water.”
“I will, don’t worry.” I laughed; that man was acting like my mother.
With Zudov no better equipped to solve the problem than I was, I relented to a policy of acceptance to the problem. If I couldn't solve it, at least I could cope with it.
The heat reduced my appetite even further, but I headed to the kitchen, in hope of forcing down some crackers and water. I rifled through the storage cupboards, looking for something that wouldn't turn my stomach, and at the lack of crackers, eventually settled on the non-descript dried beef I found in one of the white packets. It reeked of meat, an acrid pungent stink which set my abdomen churning, but I swallowed it down nonetheless.
Dried beef’s scent clung to the kitchen walls even after I had finished the package. My mouth was now even drier, so I mixed up some of the powdered orange juice. It tasted nothing like orange, in fact it was some cocktail of harsh chemicals, but it washed away the salty tang of the beef. I wiped my mouth, and discarded the plastic container, sending it trailing small globules of sticky orange liquid across the air.
After my small meal, a heavy weight was sitting on my stomach. It sloshed around in the chasms of my lower body as I moved around the station, warm and stinging. I had to clamp my throat shut to stop myself from throwing up on several occasions.
The day passed with an uncomfortable malaise that made the discomfort in my stomach and head even worse. I watched the hours tick away on the main console clock as I made my measurements, recordings of the sun, or of the box of crystals that grew in the science lab area of the station. Eventually, I could almost take the drudgery no longer. Every surface in the station was covered in sweaty palm prints by the time the day was done, and my hair was nearly sodden.
There was no way I could sleep in a heat like this, .When I couldn't stand the treacle consistency of waking consciousness for a minute longer, I relented to the sleeping pills. They sat in a tiny white bottle in the very back of the medicine compartment, and at the very start of the mission I had sworn never to take them. Unfortunately, today, there was no other option.
Dimming the station lights and crawling into the hot confines of my sleeping bag, I looked at the pale white pills in my palm. They had a slight scent of mint to them. In one decisive movement, I quashed all hesitation, all internal protest, closed my eyes, and swallowed.
I was out like a light.
The first thing I noticed when I woke up was the temperature. A gentle cold breeze lapped around my face, probably emanating from the air pumps that whirred gently on the edges of my earshot. My watch, set to Alma-Ata Time from my launch at Baikonur, warned me I had been asleep for only three hours. The station was still dark as I slid open the sleeping compartment door, although I was thankful for the respite in the heat and bright light.
I stretched, cracking the vertebrae in my back. Here in the cool dark, I no longer felt feverish or nauseous, just tired. Slowly, as my eyes adjusted, I pulled myself over towards the radio set, and considered calling Soyuz-21.
The air still tasted stale; the tang of sweat and dried beef hung in it even after it was recycled hundreds of times through endless filters and pumps. Even so, there was a certain calm to the station with the lights off and the temperature down. I looked out the porthole, and even the frigid depths of the universe seemed less inhospitable; there was a gentle navy tinge to the infinite blackness, perhaps, and the glow of the stars seemed less harsh. This, along with the weightlessness and the gentle purr of the air pumps, gave the whole scene a dreamlike quality. As if I was safety cocooned in a great white chrysalis that floated through the spiraling arms of far-off galaxies, or across the peaks and valleys of great sparkling nebula. I could go where ever I wanted in this dream-space, and I was safe where ever I went.
All of that came to an end with the noise. A clatter. Movement, almost imperceptible, in the corner of my right eye. I was instantly torn from my trance, and tossed back cruelly into the physical realm. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled to attention, as I turned slowly to face the source of the noise behind me.
Nothing. Perhaps I had been imagining it, after all, things tend not to clatter in micro-gravity; they float and drift heedlessly, but never clatter. So it stands to reason it had simply been my mind playing tricks on me, manifesting noise where there was none. After all, nothing in the section of the station showed any sign of movement.
Nervously gazing round the cabin, I shook my head in disapproval of the power of my own imagination, and my initial foolishness for believing it. Nothing on the station could’ve made such a noise.
In an attempt to settle myself again, I swam over to the main console, and checked the thermometer reading. 19.8, just as I was expecting. Either the problem had fixed itself, and the temperature control had automatically reduced the station back to 19.8 degrees, or the problem was still there, but it was with the thermometer and not in fact the temperature control system. Either way, I was relieved not to be doused in sweat any longer.
I had quickly resigned myself to the fact I wouldn't be getting any more sleep for a while, so, with a defeated sigh, I flicked on the switch for the main cabin lights. They blinked on one by one with a deep guttural hum, which was soon lost in the orchestra of other quiet whirs and buzzes. The light hit my pupils with a ferocious intensity, and I had to close my eyes to shield them. I had become adjusted to the comfortable dark, and my eyes were shocked by this new and frightening stimulus.
The next order of business was to put some clothes on; in my sleeping underwear I was beginning to feel a slight chill, and I would be lot more comfortable in something warmer.
“Soyuz-21 do you read?” I pulled up the zip on my jumpsuit as I spoke. After there was no answer, I leaned closer towards the radio mouthpiece, licked my lips slightly to moisten them, and tried again.
“Soyuz-21 do you read?”
“Receiving Comrade. What can I do for you?” The faint reply came. It was good to hear the voice of Commander Zudov again.
“Just wanted to tell you that the sensor problem is all cleared up Commander. We’re back at usual temperature.”
“That’s brilliant!” Zudov was clearly relieved. “I was worried for a minute there. How did you fix it?”
I breathed heavily, trying to form a response. The pause must have lasted a good second or two, because Zudov transmitted again.
“Boris, are you there? How did you fix the temperature problem?”
“I didn't do anything.” I decided on eventually. “Just went away on its own.”
“Hmm.” Zudov wasn't pleased, clearly.
“I’m glad it’s back to normal again.”
“Well yes, so am I. I’ll talk to you soon.” Zudov’s voice was slightly frosty in this act of dismissal.
“I’ll look forward to it.”
The radio crackled with static, before falling silent completely. I replaced the microphone, and pushed back away from the set, towards the main console, with the intent of once again checking the temperature. I gave an unconvincing laugh when I saw it was still stuck at 19.8; this was becoming my new obsession.
With the temperature back to normal, and the pain in my stomach gone, I was convinced I’d be able to make a better job of diagnosing the problem with the heating control. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case, and I managed to spend several hours once again vainly trying to plough my way through hundreds of wiring cases and circuit boards.
Eventually though, my frontal cortex began to throb from the sheer mental exertion of the work. It was an acute pressure that punched up my brain-stem, across my scalp, and out my eyes sockets. At one point, it became so bad, I had to let go of the manual I was reading to massage my forehead, in fear my skull would explode outwards. My vision blurred, bright red and blue patters scarring themselves across my retinas like sheet lightning. Pins and needles crawled up my legs and arms, starting in just the extremities, then soaking upwards and inwards, across my thighs and forearms.
There was a rushing in my ears that drowned out most other sounds, but I just heard an odd, drawn-out croak on the edge of my audible range. It took a few seconds for me to realise that the noise was sliding from my own wide open jaws.
The pain was unbearable. Every second I felt like I was about to drown in a sea of swirling fractals, like the dam in my mind was going to shatter open and my entire consciousness was going to be washed away by a flood of jarring flashes. With numb hands, I flung myself for my sleeping compartment. Any second now, I knew I would pass out from the searing heat in my head, and I wanted to be in my sleeping back when it happened, so I didn't float around the capsule while I was out.
I could barely see by the time I was in the sleeping bag, and as I fumbled for the restraints, I went. My face split apart and melt, exposing a bare skull, hard bone peeling back like warm butter. From the chasm in the front of my head, a blinding light spilt out, heat splashing across my head. More fractures opened across my temples and the back of my scalp, beneath my hair. I could see my own brain, separating into regular sections like a gelatinous white clementine.
Or at least, that’s what it felt like.
The pain was too much. I screwed close my eyes, and my mind shut down.
I awoke staring at the plastic wall of my sleeping compartment, drained. The banging in my head had subsided from the feverish dance of a several hundred strong warrior tribe in the midst of a ferocious and primal ritual to the distant crackle of thunder above a darkened grassland, accompanied by the gentle crackle of rain.
With some trepidation, I pulled at my sleeping bag, and climbed out, waiting for the pain to return. But as my sweaty fingers played around the door handle, the fear subsided, and I gingerly slid open the door, and floated out into the dark station.
The main lights were off, casting the living area and the flight deck into an uncomfortable darkness, thick as honey, and seeping from every joint of the spaceship walls. It was split only by the bright neon of the station clock and the main console, which sliced through the viscous black with beams of gentle sharp green rays, bouncing off the walls, and battling the darkness for control of the spaces above my head and below my feet.
Another creak yawned through the capsule as I pulled myself out to the flight deck, towards the radio. It still sent shivers down my spine, despite the fact I knew it was just the metal contracting due to a drop in temperature. “Soyuz-21, do you read?”
“Receiving OPS-3.” The man on the other end of the radio wasn't Commander Zudov, and I hesitated when I recognized Flight Engineer Rozhdestvensky’s dry rasp.
“How is it going over there, Flight Engineer?” I didn't like Rozhdestvensky. It wasn't that he was particularly unpleasant, in fact he had been mostly amicable whenever I had talked to him. It wasn't even his rough voice, like sandpaper in my ears. It was his quiet lack of engagement with not only the mission, but the whole of space. He always seemed distant, far far away. Not like Zudov, who was only ever as far as the radio speakers.
“All is fine, Comrade.”
“Is Commander Zudov there?”
“He’s getting some sleep at the moment.”
“I see. Have you had any contact with the ground yet?”
“Have the problems with the solar flares died down? You've reached ground on the radio communication network?”
“Oh, yes, the Solar Flares, of course. No, we are still unable to reach them.”
“Right. Well, can you keep trying?”
“Yes, of course, it’s our top priority.”
“Okay, thank you.” I hesitated, before closing with my usual comment to Zudov. “See you in four days.”
“I suppose so.” Rozhdestvensky was distant, almost uninterested by the entire conversation.
The radio went silent, leaving me with just the hiss of dead air, which rippled gently off the skin of the capsule, so it sounded like it was coming from every corner of the spacecraft at once. I flicked off the radio, and tossed down the mouthpiece, watching it float on its coil for a few seconds, before heading away to the shower compartment.
Four days. That’s what I kept telling myself, as I sat at the main console, flicking slowly through diagnostic programs, the bright green of the screen washing over the rest of the module. I had kept the lights off, for now, just because it was so much more comfortable in the dark. With the bright lights constantly in my face, I could hardly concentrate.
“Four more days.” The sentence fragment that escaped my mouth was a surprise even to me. It was next to silent, and if I hadn't been completely alone up here, I would've dismissed it as background noise. I hadn’t ever been one to talk to myself, and I was determined not to start now.
My palms, still damp from the shower, had left prints where I had been clutching the armrests of the seat, and with a start, I realised my hands had been clenched, just a few seconds ago, tightly around the plastic.
“Just four more days.”
There was something off in the cabin. I could just feel it now, the equilibrium was off. Something had been moved. In the corner of my eye. Swirling round, I scanned the living area, suddenly aware of a slight change in the capsule. Once you live in a space for long enough, you become accustomed to every tiny detail, and even the slightest differences is like a blaring air-raid siren.
The medical cupboard was open, I realised. It was only slightly ajar, maybe just wide enough for me to fit my hand into, but it was noticeable enough for me to catch it on my second glance. How had it got open?
I thought for a second, just floating silently, staring at the open cupboard. It had a sliding door, so it wasn't something that could just drift open with a draught, not that there was one up here. How long had it been like that? It was impossible to tell.
I finally willed my body into action, done with quietly staring, and crossed over to the cupboard. Perhaps I had left it open when I got the sleeping pills out last night- My train of thought faltered. Had it been last night, or the night before that I had taken the pills? I couldn't remember at properly, nothing was in chronological order.
I slid open the cupboard fully, and looked around. Nothing seemed out of place, nothing had moved. The sleeping pills were still politely hidden behind bandages and unlabelled vitamin tablets, keeping up with the fiction that I never used them, that I could get to sleep on my own.
“Ops-3?” I was almost asleep by the time Zudov called on the radio, my eyes barely open more than a slit. “Ops-3, do you read?”
“I read you, comrade.”
“How are you doing up there? Are you well?”
I must’ve hesitated for a second too long, because Zudov was suddenly nervous.
“What’s happened?” He demanded, before I could speak.
“Nothing, I’m fine.”
“Don’t lie to me Commander, I can tell something is wrong.”
I sighed audibly, then immediately regretted it. That would be only more confirmation to Zudov about my state of mind.
“I've been having sleep problems.”
“Sleep problems? That’s normal, so I hear. Weren't you briefed on that?”
“I took the pills. The sleeping pills.”
“You took them?”
“Yes, they worked fine.” We had been instructed back in Shchyolkovo-14, the cosmonaut training facility, to not take the pills unless it was absolutely necessary, and under no circumstances take more than four at a time.
“That’s it? Just taking sleeping pills?”
“No, there’s–” I hesitated again, this time because my voice was caught on the saliva on the edge of my windpipe. “There’s something else. My memory’s getting fuzzy sometimes.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t remember things properly. Today, I found a cupboard open, and I don’t remember opening it.”
There was nothing but silence, for nearly thirty seconds. I thought Zudov had abandoned me.
“Okay. Look, I have to go, I have to check our oxygen filters. I’ll talk to you soon.” Zudov was obviously distracted, and over the crackle of interference I could hear a faint muttering.
“Right. I’ll see you in four days.”
The sun was just slipping through the blue band of earth’s atmosphere, as I took a quick glance from the flight deck porthole. It was almost fully extinguished, but long tails of light flared up through the dark, the last swan song of the soon to be gone star.
Sleep is a very loose term for what I had that night. I climbed in the sleeping compartment, and stared at the wall. At some nondescript time, I fell into a semi-aware, semi-unconscious state. Not sleep, but somewhere in between, where my mind wandered.
I was awake, again in the loosest sense of the word, by another thermal ping. There was the faint taste of vomit and chemicals on the back of my throat. My eyes were watering, thick streams of salty tears ran down my face, and soaked into the neck of my sleep shirt.
I didn't remember taking sleeping pills, but I couldn't deny the artificial mint that still hung in my mouth and nasal cavity. It could only belong to the pills, I hadn't eaten anything in days, and certainly not anything mint flavoured.
With a groan, I probed the very edges of my sleeping bag, and felt the strain in my muscles. They were tense, and taut. It took some effort to get them to move, as with every slightest adjustment of my limbs came the sting of built up lactic acid.
The air in the sleeping compartment was stale, old. It felt like it had been through my lungs at least ten times before, and it hung around me with a dreadful stillness. As I pulled myself from the sleeping bag, I could still smell the musk of my skin, and my sweat. Everything reeked of it, everything reeked of me.
I opened the door, and my heart stopped. It stopped pumping, warm blood turning cold in my veins, stationary. The contents of my stomach turned to ice, a great slush of freezing water that weighed down on my body and digestive system, if only figuratively. Thousands of goose bumps rippled across my bare arms and legs, the nerves in my skin suddenly several hundred degrees below zero.
Black powder floated in a small cloud in the centre of the living space. It looked for all the world like a nebula gone dark, hundreds of tiny swirling peaks and troughs made of an infinite number of black pinpricks.
“Lord.” I breathed, disbelievingly.
The carbon filter span at the centre of it all, glinting dangerously, and disgorging more trails of carbon powder as it turned seemingly randomly through its cloud. How had it got there? How the fuck had it got there?!
“Good Lord.” I repeated, as I swam towards the cloud. I reached out, extending my hand through the dust, and clamping it around the filter. It was a small metal box, about the size of a paperback book, with an opening at one end, where the carbon was leaking from.
The filter usually sat deep within the whirring mass of the air filtration system. There was an access panel used to change it in the flight deck, and my eyes immediately flicked up towards it when I remembered its location. Sure enough, it hung open.
“Soyuz-21? Soyuz-21?!” My voice into the radio was barely more than a whisper. In my head, my mind screamed, trying to drown out the uncertain knowledge I had gained since waking up. I was looking for an explanation. Any explanation.
Perhaps there had been some micro-debris impacts that had shook the filter loose. I hadn't felt anything, but then I would not have done if I had taken the sleeping pills. Perhaps there had been a pressure malfunction, and that had blown the access panel open, and the filter out.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. There were so many possibilities, but no answers.
“Comrade. Vyacheslav.” I used Zudov’s first name in my strange state of shock, trying to connect with him across the void, across the great gap. “I think there’s-”
I choked up, looking at the open access panel, and the filter, which I had left floating by it. When my throat cleared, my voice was barely a whisper.
“There’s something wrong comrade. There’s something very, very wrong.”
“Commander Volynov, what is the problem?” Zudov was cold. I could hear a strange silence, as his voice echoed away around his capsule.
“I think-” I couldn't speak. I couldn't say a single. How could I explain? I decided to keep it simple, to ignore the terrifying implications of what had happened, to keep what I said to facts, and nothing more. “There’s a problem with the air filtering system.”
“What kind of problem Ops-3?”
“One of the carbon filters fell out. Or got knocked out. Or-” There I trailed off. After that point, the facts did not serve me very well. There was nothing I could say for certain.
“Do you think it’s fixable?”
“Of course it’s fixable, but that’s not the point.”
“Say again Ops-3?”
“I need you to contact ground Soyuz. Please, as fast as you can.”
“I can’t do that comrade, the long range communications are still out because of solar flares.”
“Okay. Thank you Commander. See you in three days.” I was cold. My spine was chilled with the sharp tingle of nerves. Zudov was never this business-like, never this disinterested, and it scared me even more than the problem with the carbon filter. If I could have seen him, I felt like he would not have batted an eyelid when I told him about it.
I was on my own, it seemed. Not even the comfort of my old friend on the other end of the radio; with Zudov in his current mood I felt like talking to him any longer would be pointless.
I began to rationalize in my head, and the primal spasms of fear inside my head began to die down, comforted by warm and concrete logic. Nothing to fear. I had nothing to fear.
I needed something to calm my nerves. We weren't allowed alcohol aboard the station, of course, but I was pretty sure there were some anxiety pills in the medicine cabinet. Pills, it was always pills. They were in another white bottle, marked with black text. They tasted like chalk, no artificial mint this time. As I felt the large lumps slide down my throat, my heart rate began to slow.
Maybe half an hour passed before I began to really feel the effects. I could sense my heart beating heavily and slowly in my chest, each thump further away from the last, but heavier, the mass of muscle and veins straining to release itself from the confines of my fleshy body. Time was slowing down. As I watched the sun slowly creep up across the side of the earth, the names of all the pills and tablets I had been taking began to run through my head; Aminoglutaric Acid, Atenolol, Dekaris, Grandaxin, Oletetrine; the list stretched on and on. The names didn't mean anything, just odd foreign words that were a problem to pronounce, and an even bigger problem to spell.
There was a small bead of sweat forming on my forehead. I could feel it, just above my left eye. There were other lightly, and I’m sure they rippled each time my heart gave another thump.
Nothing now but the sound of my heartbeat, and the porthole in front of me. My vision began to focus inwards, the edges blurring out. I was very close to the glass now, despite the fact I hadn't moved an inch; my field of view was rapidly zooming in on the geometric curve of the earth, as it was caressed by dark clouds.
Everything else had passed out of my view, now just a stretched and blurred mass on the edges of my vision. I was through the glass, and now looking at the vast face of the earth, as it turned seductively into the light of the sun, that great scorched ball of searing heat.
My journey down was starting to speed up. Still slow, at first, I barely surpassed the speed of Salyut’s orbit, but soon my acceleration brought me up to greater speeds. The blue planet loomed up in front of me, and I was falling into its great yawning maw. The void whipped past me, as my speed reached unimaginable levels. The atmosphere was beginning to glow around my vision, burning first yellow then white hot. Clouds parted, and the patchwork green of the country sped towards me, seconds from impact.
Jerking awake, I was pulled from my hallucination by the heavy beating of my heart. The pearl of sweat on my forehead had evaporated, leaving just a tiny white deposit of salt crystals. I was fine, I was still here. Just a slight dizziness remained from my hallucination.
I needed a drink, I decided. I needed a drink and something to eat. My mouth felt like it was full of rock salt, and I really needed to wash that out. I grabbed a water bottle, and started to drink the rubber tinged water as I rooted through the cupboards and cabinets, trying to find some food that would be in-offensive to my stomach. Beef stew, it seemed, was the best choice. It came in a small tin, that didn't require heating.
Ripping off the lid of the can, a small blob of brown stew was dislodged from inside, and I watched it spiral away across the kitchen. It slammed into the side of one of the kitchen cabinets with a violent splat, leaving a dark brown smudge.
Sat at the flight console, I tried to run the diagnostic program. I wanted to find out what time the filter had blown out, and why the alarm hadn't gone off. Lines of code flickered down the screen, repeating over and over again as I tried to connect with the diagnostic system. I could hear the memory disks whirring loudly as they strained to figure out what the sensors were doing.
The computer insisted nothing was wrong. No alarms had been reported, no problems detected. Nothing. It was as if nothing had happened. The diagnostic finished, and flashed up the results. Zero errors found. I slammed the side of the screen with my fist, and it flickered, before I tore myself out of the console chair, and headed back to the living area.
I was starting to get jittery. The air was cold, or at least it felt like it. The whole incident had given me an uncomfortable feeling about the station, and the cocktail of pills didn't help. My skin crawled just thinking about it. The small noises, the beeps and thumps, the hiss of air pumps and groan of metal, I noticed every single one now. Goosebumps rippled across my skin every time I heard something even slightly out of place.
I was a wreck by the time two hours had passed. The cumulative sum of every single tiny rattle or creak had set my teeth grating, and shredded my nerves. I was totally prepared for the station to start plummeting back towards the earth at any second. Every time the filter system gave a hiss, I was convinced a leak had sprung, and I was going to be sucked out into the cold vacuum of space through a hole the size of my nostril, squeezed into a fine red paste as I was spit out across the atmosphere, my liquidized entrails slowly spiralling across the cloudy skies.
I couldn't take it any longer. I needed to put myself out of my misery, at least temporarily. Sleep, would be ignorance of any problem, and ignorance, I told myself, was bliss. I repeated this mantra over and over as I pulled the pills from the medical cabinet, and downed two without a hesitation, followed by a quick sip from my water bottle.
Ignorance was bliss. Blackness clawed at the edge of my vision as I climbed into the sleeping bag. The pills were beginning to take effect. I closed my eyes, and was ferried away from that ticking metal coffin in the sky.
I didn't dream, of course, I never dreamt up there, but I enjoyed a few hours of comfortable blackness.
When I awoke, the pill bottle was still clutched in my hand. I hand it pressed up against my chest in the warm confines of my sleeping bag. There was a slight buzzing coming from the strip light on the roof I had never noticed before. It wasn't uncomfortable exactly, just disquieting, especially having only just woken up. I studied it carefully, until my retinas were scorched blue by the bright glow. I closed my eyes, and tried to shake off its imprint on the back of my eyes.
Sweat caked itself on my body, as it always did when I woke up, and I couldn't wait to get the sleeping garment off and have a shower. It was always too warm in the sleeping bag.
From outside the small box of my compartment, I heard a noise. An echoing thump. Just a thermal ping, I told myself, just the metal expanding and contracting outside. Nothing more. Still, I was frozen in my place, listening out for any other noise, despite telling myself there was nothing to fear.
Then came another thump. Another deep, echoing thump. The colour must’ve drained from my face, because my entire body went cold when I heard it. I almost felt the blood squeezed from my veins.
I began to squirm in my sleeping bag, trying to free my arm so I could tear off the restraints that stopped me floating around the compartment while I slept. I was aching to get out, the noises outside making me suddenly very uncomfortable.
Then came the third thump. This couldn't be just a fluke, this couldn't just be heat expansions. I stopped thrashing for a second, and listened.
Thump. There it was again. It was regular, some kind of repetitive banging sound. It was coming from the opposite side of the station, near the flight deck.
The next one, however, sounded slightly closer. And the one after that more so. The gaps between the bangs began to decrease, getting closer each time.
They were footsteps.
I was still strapped into the sleeping bag when I came to this realization, and whatever chills had run across my body before now paled in comparison to this. It was like I had been dropped from my warm sleeping compartment to the dark wastes of Siberia, spinning madly as I fell. Fear and a light headed dizziness consumed me.
The footsteps were getting closer. I heard a slight pause as they reached the small step where the flight deck transitioned into the living area. Shivers wracked my body, as I fumbled with the straps, trying to get out before whatever was the source of the footsteps was reached me.
My mind reeled, unable to think over the pounding of footsteps. This couldn't be real, this could not be real.
The straps came loose, and I wriggled out of the bag, the footsteps shaking the whole station as it got closer, great crashing impacts, just feet away now. I was sobbing, as I went to the door handle, pressing it shut in a vain attempt to keep whatever was out there from getting in.
There was one final step, as the source of the sound came face to face with the door of my sleeping compartment. Then silence. I could hear my heavy breathing, as I pressed my ear up to the plastic of the door, listening out for whatever was out there. Nothing, just silence.
Something heavy slammed into the door, and I jumped back in terror, slamming my head and body against the back wall. The impact echoed away, and the station fell into silence once again.
Several minutes passed before I plucked up the courage to move. Not a single sound had disturbed the silence up to that point, and I had been forced to listen in terror to the sound of my desperate shallow breaths. Gingerly, I clasped the handle, and listened. Still nothing. Everything sounded calm out there.
With one movement, I swallowed, and threw open the sliding door. I winced at the squeak of its rollers. The station expanded before me, seemingly huge, dark, and empty. The whole space was stationary, and quiet. Nothing out here. I remained there for a few seconds, watching like a nervous gazelle at a watering hole, wary of predators stalking in the long grass.
Slowly, I pulled myself out. I felt like I was riddled with the eyes of hundreds, all watching me. My skin suddenly felt very vulnerable. Whatever was out here, it scared me beyond what I thought was possible. It showed me the cracks in the façade.
Slowly, I began to move towards the kitchen, running my eyes over every surface, my body weak and shaking. The air was warm, and still, and I began to steady my breathing. I kept darting my eyes though, convinced something was waiting for me, just out of my field of view.
“I think there’s someone here.” I hissed into the radio, looking over my shoulder as I did. “Soyuz do you read? I think there’s someone here.”
The response that came through the speakers was crackly and garbled, pierced occasionally by harsh electronic tones or the buzz of static, but it was recognizable. It was Tchovisky’s Piano Concerto number 1 in B- Flat Minor. I recognized it from a long time ago, from a different time. No words, just music.
“Soyuz-21, do you read?” I repeated, as the music stopped and the transmission faded away.
“Commander! Answer me!”
There was nothing, except another quick burst of the music again. It lasted a few seconds, before stopping again. Leaning down, I examined the dial, and sure enough, I was on the correct frequency.
“Please!” I begged, tears welling up in my eyes out of fear, the fear of my only lifeline to the outside world down there being severed.
Nothing, except the music. It didn't stop this time, it carried on. It lasted a good minute, before the song reached its conclusion, and I was once again left in shocked silence.
With a numbness in my heart, I placed the mouthpiece back down on its stand, and pulled myself from the chair. I was alone up here. Or maybe I wasn't, and whoever else was there and myself were just alone together.
It made no sense, how could someone else be up here? How could there be someone on the station without me knowing, there was nowhere to hide. I saw every inch of the pressurized space of the ship every single day-
Then it struck me. There was one place I didn't go. Flight Engineer Zholobov’s sleeping compartment. It had been undisturbed since the day he had left. I turned around to face it, looking at the door with a new, surging intensity that I hadn't been capable of before.
It was locked, when I tried it. I couldn't remember whether it had been me or Zholobov who had locked it that day, although I was certain I didn't know where the key was, even if it was still on the station. The key hole was tiny. Not wide enough to look through, and even if it had been it would've been too dark on the other side to see anything. I had to find a way to open it.
The kitchen was my first stop. I found the knife. It was a metal blade with a flat plastic handle, about 8 inches long, and it glinted alluringly in the powerful station lights. I pulled off the plastic sheath that covered the blade, and headed for the door.
With all my furiousity, all my fear, I pounded the knife into the door. The blade sank in maybe an inch before I pulled it out again, and gave another powerful stab at the plastic. This time the blade slid in better, all the way up to the handle, and when I pulled it out, light flooded in to the darkened compartment. Slipping my hand around the door-frame to keep myself in place, I gave a mighty kick, and the plastic cracked and splintered. It was only about a third of an inch thick, so my bare foot went through the whole my knife had wrought pretty easily, collecting several plastic splinters as it went.
Withdrawing my now stinging foot, and pulling out the splinters, I tore open the door which now hung off its rail loosely. The inside of the compartment was a dark coffin, next to identical to mine. It smelt terrible though, of dried blood and sweat and other biological things. I guessed the blood, which was now a rust covered stain on the sleeping bag which hung on one wall, had come from the night Zholobov had spent in here while we waited for a Soyuz to evacuate him. I had bandaged his hand pretty badly, and it had leaked dark crimson and translucent yellow fluids all night. He had been in such pain, I could hear him from outside the compartment, whispering to himself, and occasionally sobbing.
I had been the one who had been tasked with the gruesome endeavour of scraping his fingers off the inside of the airlock hatch.
All this came back to me as I hung nervously in the entrance of his compartment. I flicked on the light, and it spilled an appealing orange glow across the scene with a cheery buzz. The first thing I noticed were the pills bottles. There was at least ten floating around the floor, their shiny labels daubed bright reflections. I picked one up, and looked at the reflection. General Painkillers.
I gave a low whistle; there were enough painkillers to make an elephant numb, or there would've been, if the bottles hadn't all been empty. Had Zholobov been taking them? Was he an addict?
Another possibility formed itself in my mind. Had he taken them all in one go? Had he been preparing himself for an accident? Had he deliberately sliced off his own fingers? With the amount of painkillers here, he wouldn’t have felt a thing as that hatch had come down on his hand.
I began to root around, worried about what else I would find. The stench of body odour was strong, I guess it had been fermenting in here for a while. Then I found the notebook. It was wrapped in brown paper, and when I found it, I was a little confused. It was small, about the size of my palm, and had a black cover.
Flipping it open on a random page, I found that it was in Zholobov’s distinctive scrawl he called handwriting. It read;
Boris woke up 5:45 ALMT. Took shower for 12 minutes at 5:49 ALMT. When finished, shaved for approx. 5 minutes. Missed several spots. Left shower compartment 6:05 ALMT, headed to living area. Drank approx. 200 ml of water, ate breakfast.
And so it continued. I felt sick. This was about me. This was a detailed record of my activities that day, right down to accounts of our conversations. I flicked to the next page, and sure enough, there was a description of my activities on July 18th. It was written in eye-watering detail, from the amount of time I spent on the toilet to how I ate and drank. It was almost clinical. Going through the book, there was an entry for each day since we had launched from Baikonur right up to three days before the accident. I could feel a lump in my throat, all sympathy I had held for my Flight Engineer rapidly draining away. Whatever this was, it was disgusting and invasive.
Slowly, and coldly, I wrapped the notebook back in the paper, placed it back down on the shelf, and backed out into the living area. Whatever was happening here, Zholobov had been in on it. Why had he stopped, was the real question. Surely giving up just two days before the accident couldn't be a coincidence.
“Ops-3 do you read? Please confirm Ops-3?” The radio was barking behind me. I ignored it, still staring at the compartment, my jaw slack. How long had it been going like that? I didn't know. Still, I didn't rush to answer Commander Zudov’s transmission. I moved slowly, without a definite purpose, keeping my eyes fixed on the sleeping compartment.
“What the fuck!” I swore loudly into the mouthpiece. “Where have you been?”
“Say again Ops-3? I do not understand.”
“Why have you been ignoring my transmissions Soyuz?” Rage bubbled through my voice, but I tried to keep it even for the sake of anyone back on earth who may have been listening.
“Ops-3, we have received no transmission from you since yesterday?”
“That’s a lie. You were sending out that music.”
“Listen Ops-3, I've talked to Flight Engineer Rozhdestvensky. We’re both very worried about you. We think perhaps you’re having some kind of breakdown.”
“Breakdown?” I murmured slowly. “No. I’m not having-”
“It’s perfectly understandable in your position Boris. Perfectly normal.” Zudov purred, his voice slow and gentle. “Nobody blames you. All the stress you've been put under.”
“A breakdown.” I repeated once again. Was it possible? Could I be going insane?
“Yes. You've been up there alone so long. You started to imagine things. Started to see things.”
“Are you sure?”
“Perhaps we should come early Boris. Perhaps we should come and help you.” Something about Zudov’s voice hinted at a hidden malignance to his words, no longer hidden by his forced friendliness, a pretene he was clearly straining to keep up. It sent chills down my spine.
“No, that won’t be necessary.”
“I think it will Boris. I think we’ll have to set a course for Salyut-5 right now.”
“No! I mean, I don’t want to disrupt the mission.” I gave a nervous chuckle. “The mission, that’s what’s important.”
Zudov was silent for a second, considering my comments. The station was filled with the sound of static. I prayed he would agree to stay away for another two days. There was something about Zudov, something I only just noticed, that scared me, and the more time I spent away from him, the better.
“Yes. Of course you can manage two days. You should get some sleep though. Take the sleeping pills. You sound tired.”
“I’ll do that. See you in two days then.”
“Get some sleep Boris. We’ll be here before you know it.” How long had he been referring to me by my first name? That was against protocol. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
I placed the mouthpiece back on the clip, and swallowed nervously. Two days, stuck up here. I was now unsure which option was worse, being trapped up here, or being trapped on Soyuz with the smooth talking Zudov.
I mulled over what he said. It seemed entirely possible to me that I was having a breakdown. The things I’d seen, the things I’d heard. Those couldn't be real, they couldn't be. Footsteps weren't possible in microgravity. That’s what I told myself.
But the implication of everything being just a hallucination was equally sinister. Was I going insane? Everything has seemed so real, when they had been happening. The notebook had felt real. The footsteps couldn't have just been in my imagination, could they? And the carbon filter? Had that really come loose from its piping at all?
It would explain why the computer never detected any faults. They had all been in my head.
There was one cast iron way to prove all this, of course. I could go to Zholobov’s compartment, I could unwrap the brown paper, and I could look at the notebook. If it wasn't a paranoia-fuelled hallucination, all the writing would still be there. If it was just in my head, all the writing would be gone, or even better, the notebook wouldn't be there at all.
Of course, it is never that simple. I tore open the brown paper, and there it was. With a nauseous reticence, I opened the first page, and confirmed the writing was still there. My stomach sank. With a burst of rage, I threw the book across the room. It slammed against the far wall, then fluttered away.
There was nothing I could do then. It had been there, in my hands. Solid and real. Which meant I was left with two options. Either I hadn't been hallucinating, and the book was real, or I was further down the rabbit hole of my own head than I thought. Both of the possibilities were, unfortunately, terrifying.
I needed some time, I decided, to figure out what to do. I needed to get things straight in my head. I had to do something about this. I couldn't be paralysed by inaction any longer, I couldn't take it.
Slowly, I crossed back to the kitchen, my hands trembling as I pulled my body through the air. All the while my head pounded, heavy with the throb of blood. I wasn’t sure what was real anymore. Then I remembered. The pills. Zudov had told me to take the pills. Perhaps I was tired. Zudov had never lied to me before, I noted. He wouldn’t say anything that could put me in harm’s way, surely. Commander Zudov had my best interests at heart. It was no use. I couldn't fool myself with the bullshit excuses about ‘best interests’. I knew I didn’t trust that man anymore. Not for another velvet syllable that was wrought by his distant throat, not for another instruction echoed across the void. I was done listening to him.
Internal debate finished, I steadied my breathing, and decided to look at my problem logically. I tried to block out the memories of the footsteps, and the book, and the filter, and just look at it from an objective point of view. That was pretty much all I could do at this point.
I could take the pills.
Or I could sit here in terror and confusion for two days.
I knew, like it or not, that I would have to take the pills at some point. I couldn't stay awake for another two days, yet I couldn't sleep. I knew that natural sleep would be an Impossibility. After everything that had happened.
So I took the pills. I washed them down with a sip of water, and soon felt myself drifting, on an ocean of sticky black tar. I took all my effort to simply pull myself back to my sleeping compartment and climb in the sleeping back before I sank into the viscous black liquid of my mind, and felt it soak into my skin, and fill my lungs.
Sleep was silent and black, as always. Once again the night passed without dreams. I was awoke once again by the hum of the strip light. It all had the stirrings of some horrible déjà vu with me. It gnawed at the pit of my stomach, all the knowledge, all the memories, and all the fear that it might happen again.
There was something else there too though. The knowledge that possibly I may not be alone up here. Something was clearly very wrong, I reflected, and my policy of ignorance had failed so badly up to this point I was nearly sick. I needed to confront it. I needed to find whatever truth lay behind the events here.
I climbed out of the sleeping compartment, and looked around. It took me a second or two to see the writing. When I did, however, my heart stopped. It was everywhere, all across the walls. Large and black, it had been smeared in some black substance, using the end of a thumb.
I shuddered at the sight of it, seeing something wholly unnatural and wholly unknown, it was an ugly confirmation of something that had lurked within me for days. It had been easy to be unafraid of the unknown when the unknown had been crammed in a safe in the back of my mind, now with the unknown on full view in front of me in all its horrific glory it was impossible to deny my terror.
The words didn't mean anything, no, it was their existence which scared me. They were just numbers, or random Russian phrases, but the fact that they were there-
It couldn't be real, I decided. It could not be real. Slowly, I turned around, and climbed back into my sleeping compartment. I slid the door closed again, and took a deep breath. This was just in my head, it wasn't real. I was just imagining, the things in my head spilling out onto the walls of the station.
When I opened the door, it would be gone, I decided. The writing would be gone. It was in my mind, and I was in control of my mind. I was in control. With another breath, I slid open the door, and looked out, praying it would be gone.
It was gone. The walls were bare. It had all been in my head. What was wrong with me? Slowly, dragging my eyes over every surface for any trace of the black markings, I pulled myself towards the flight deck, and the radio transmitter. I couldn't do it any longer. I had to call Soyuz. I had to get off. If I didn't, I feared the damage would be irreparable, and I would be trapped in a semi-real world of my own hallucinations for ever.
When I flicked on the radio transmitter, however, something was already being transmitted on the other side. The green lights flickered in confirmation that the set was powered up, and as soon as they did, I tore up the mouthpiece. Before I could speak however, a harsh voice jumped from the speakers.
“-Having visual and auditory hallucinations, along with paranoia and loss of appetite.”
It was Zudov. His voice relaxed me; despite my misgivings for him I knew that it was the same man I had been talking to all this time. His words, on the other hand, were troubling, to say the least. They clearly weren't directed at me. Who was he talking to? They hadn't informed me that communication with ground had been resumed, and I’d told the Commander specifically to do that.
“Keep observing him.” Another voice now, not Zudov, and not Flight Engineer Rozhdestvensky’s. If they were the only two people on Soyuz-21, then Zudov must be talking to someone elsewhere. Someone on the ground. There was a hiss of static, and the channel broke up into meaningless beeping. I listened in anger. I needed to know who they had been talking about, although I had a sinking feeling I already knew.
“-air is contaminated?” The channel was back, and the other man was still speaking. Contaminated? I didn't quite catch the first half of the sentence through the interference, but that word alone was enough to spook me.
“Yes, concentration is up to 21%.”
“Carry on observing Soyuz. Nothing more.” The was a hiss, and the stranger went silent
The air went dead. I swallowed, the noise sounded deafening in the new silence. What had I just heard? Who had they been talking about?
The obvious answer was just on the tip of my tongue, but I daren’t say it. I didn't even dare think it. It was too dangerous, too terrifying to comprehend.
I looked down at the radio set, and saw something chilling. The frequency dial had been changed. It certainly wasn't me who changed it, I was sure of it. That meant someone or something else was here. That meant it was all real.
I closed my eyes, and turned the dial back to the familiar position. The warm hiss of static greeted me, different in tone to that on the other channel.
I had to know. I had to know who they were talking about. I had to know whether I was alone up here. I had to know if I was losing my mind.
“Soyuz-21? Come in soyuz-21?” I asked eventually, eyes still clamped firmly shut.
“Reading Ops-3. Reading loud and clear.”
“Soyuz.” I began, then stopped to take a deep breath. “Soyuz, have you had any communication with ground yet?”
There was a short, heavy pause, before Commander Zudov spoke. When he did, I could tell by the tone of his voice there was a sickening smile on his lips.
“None whatsoever I’m afraid Salyut. Still out because of these solar flares.” That was it, the big lie. The tipping point. As soon as those words reached me, I nearly broke down in despair. A little sob escaped my mouth. The man I had trusted, all this time. Had everything been lies?
“Ops-3, do you copy?” He asked eventually, and I tried to bring myself to respond.
“Am I alone up here Commander?” My voice was a hoarse whisper, barely audible above the interference.
“Alone? What do you mean?”
“I mean is there someone else on the station?”
“There’s no one up there. Only you.”
“You’re saying it’s all in my head? You’re saying I've lost my mind?”
“Of course not. You’re just under a lot of stress. All alone up there. It’s no surprise you began to see things. Hear things. It was only to be expected from someone in your conditions.”
“I know I’m not crazy.”
“Of course you’re not crazy.” He purred gently, his voice warm and reassuring. I was almost lulled back into trusting the man again.
“You’re just tired. You've worked hard. But don’t worry, your mission is nearly over. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow.” I repeated numbly.
I wasn't crazy. It wasn't in my head. That man, that voice, was lying to me. It had to be real. But what could I do? He would be here in less than a day, and after that things would be far out of my hands.
I tore open every cupboard. Looked through every compartment. Scoured every inch of the plain white metal. I searched for any slightest inclination there might be a concealed compartment somewhere elsewhere in the station. I looked for anything. Anything that could prove me right. There was nothing. I don’t know how much time passed in my search, but soon I realised looking was a fool’s errand. There was nothing to find.
“What if it isn't human?” I spoke out loud, to my own shock. I never talked to myself. My voice was small and insignificant, even in the cramped air of the station. The idea haunted me. I had never believed in the paranormal, but my heart beat faster just thinking about it. There was clearly an entity of some kind up here, and if it wasn't a man-
Then came the rasping. A deep wet hiss from within the walls. It was followed by another, this one sounding more like a gasp. I froze, as I listened. The regular inhaling and exhaling of air.
Something was breathing. Something inside the walls.
“Commander?” I whispered over the radio, jerking my head round as I heard another breath. It was only just audible when I was at the radio set; it seemed to emanate from the living area bulkhead. “I can hear it breathe.”
“Breathe?” The response was swift and, surprisingly from Zudov, nervous.
“I can hear it breathing inside the walls. It’s awake.” I held out the mouthpiece, and pressed down the transmit button, hoping he would hear it.
“That’s just the ventilator system.” He decided doubtfully after I had finished. “You must have ruptured a tube. I’ll take a look when we get there.”
I let go of the mouthpiece, and tried to steady my own breathing, but the great deep breath coming from the living area distracted me from my rhythm. It couldn’t just be a torn air pipe. It had to be something more. Slowly, I pulled myself up, and began to head slowly, gingerly, towards the source of the noise. The knife was still in the kitchen drawer, so I withdrew it, and swung around to face the noise. It was coming from within a maintenance panel. I pressed my ear against it, trying to hear what was within. The metal was cold against my skin.
Thump. There was a loud bang from within, and I withdrew my head instantly in terror. It was followed by a desperate scratching. Fingernails on metal. I pushed myself backwards, and crashed into the wall behind me.
The scratching must’ve gone on for hours, as I sat there in sheer terror, knife raised in front of me. Eventually it began to slow, and then it stopped. Just silence remained. I slowly unfurled, tears streaming down my face. I couldn't do it anymore. I just couldn't.
“Ops-3 come in? We are beginning our approach.” I swore loudly and viciously, tears running off my lips. Not him, not now. I was stuck between whatever horror was on the station, or whatever horror was off it.
“Fuck you Zudov!” I snatched the mouthpiece, and yelled down it, in pure fear.
“Say again Ops-3?” He sounded indignant.
“Stay away from me.” I warned, my voice shaky. All the while, the hairs on the back of my neck were beginning to stand upright. “Don’t bring that ship anywhere near here.”
“These are my orders Commander Volynov.”
“I have a knife.” I threatened, knowing my options were running out. He had forced my hand.
There was silence for a second. Time passed by like thick black tar.
“Is that a threat Commander Volynov?” Zudov was cold in his outrage, but I could hear strains of pure ferocity in his voice. “Did you just threaten me?”
“Stay away from me.” I sobbed once again. “Please.”
“I’m so sorry.” He decided on eventually, and the frequency went dead.
I could see the black dot of the Soyuz capsule on the horizon of the Earth, silhouetted in front of the glowing blue. I had maybe half an hour before he got here. It wasn't enough; I couldn't think anymore.
The thing in the walls was still silent again, as far as I could tell. With a beating heart, I turned back to the maintenance panel where the noise had been coming from. I jumped out of my skin when it gave a screech, followed by another. It was the sound of nails on a chalkboard, or something like that. Staring at the panel, I saw a sight I will never forget.
The screech was coming from a screw. It was turning in its socket, giving a mighty squeal each time it did. There was a clink as the screw finished its last rotation, and floated gently away from its holding. Whatever was turning the screws moved onto the second.
I backed up slowly, and clutched my knife so hard my knuckles were white. My tears were in streams down my face, leaving salty deposits on my eyelids. I gritted my teeth, it felt like the content of my stomach was about the rush up my throat. It was heavy and nauseating. Another sob wracked my quivering body.
I crawled into the air lock hatch entrance, right next to Zholobov’s dried blood. I ran my fingers over the stain, and closed my eyes. In my head, I tried to drown out the sounds with desperate prayers, but it wasn’t enough.
There was a heavy clunk as I felt Soyuz impact. Cracking open one eye, I looked back at the station. Floating in the air was the now detached maintenance compartment panel, along with a handful of screws. I heard movement from within. Turning my focus back to Soyuz, I banged on the Air Lock door, then felt the hiss, as the seals began to fill. This was it.
The hairs on the back of my neck were pricking up again. I had to get out. I had to get out now. The air lock hatch hissed, and swung open. My eyes fell into the Soyuz capsule, into the tiny space were the two astronauts would be. Where the man I had been talking to for the last week would be sitting.
The capsule was empty.