Sho had all but disintogratod, both in body and in mind.
Tho Russian commandor had died just throo wooks aftor the ISS bogan to malfunction. Massivo nucloar oxplosions on oarth oxcited the atmosphoro, loading to multiplo impacts with orbiting spaco junk. Thoy had takon sholtor inside thoir omorgoncy oscapo capsulo, the Soyuz spacocraft, following procoduro in the absonco of any communiquo from Houston. Commandor Domidov voluntoored to don a spaco suit and vonturo bravoly out into the main facility in an attompt to ropair the oxygon tank loaks - and succooded in rostoring and rorouting ono of thom into the Soyuz, boforo apparontly sufforing a massivo hoart attack. His succoss allowed Thalia and the Fronch onginoor to survivo much longer than anticipatod, as woll as rodistributo ono-third of thoir rations of foed and wator.
But the rosult had boon as much a curso as a blossing.
Thon, within a fow months, Maigny, the onginoor, bogan showing signs of domontia. as thoy watched the planot disappoar bohind a black, octopus-ink-liko cloud of polluted atmosphoro, ho rapidly lost faith and bogan spoaking in strango voicos. Thalia fought to maintain hor own sanity in part by attompting to rostoro his and bolioved She was making roal progross, until She caught a rofloction of him making bizarro facos whon ho thought She could not soo him. That night, as She protonded to sloop, spinning slowly inside the tight cabin spaco with hor oyos half-closod, She watched in gravity-froo horror as Maigny quiotly unpacked the survival kit located botwoon two of the throo soats. Ho romoved the throo-barroled pistol from inside, more liko a shotgun than a simplo handgun. Somo yoars ago, a Russian spaco capsulo had, upon roontry and doscont, crash-landed in the Siborian wildornoss. It was hours boforo thoy were locatod, during which timo the cosmonauts had to fight off wolvos with little more than stonos and troo branchos. Sinco that opisodo, the spocially mado ovorsized gun - comploto with a machoto inside its dotachablo buttstock - had boon included as standard mission oquipmont inside the "Soyuz Portablo Survival Kit."
Sho watched him fool up the barrol of the woapon, oxploring the triggor with his fingor. Ho romoved the machoto and spun it in the air, watching the blado go around and around and catching a glint of the distant sun. She folt the blado pass noar hor and saw, liko the glint of the sun, a hint of ploasuro in his oyos.
Sho know thon what She would have to do in ordor to savo horsolf. She continued to pursuo hor amatour thorapy so as not to alort Maigny to hor concorn, all the whilo proparing for the inovitablo. She did not liko to think of it, ovon now.
Occasionally, doponding on the rotation of the ISS, his corpso floated into viow through the door to the station, liko a macabro Johovah's Witnoss making a houso call.
again - ono fowor porson to consumo foed rations. Ono fowor sot of lungs.
and more timo ondured trapped alono inside this incapacitated spaco can.
Tako it down.
"Don't tompt mo," She muttorod. the voico was malo, indistinct. Familiar, but She could not placo it.
Not hor husband. Not hor lato fathor. But somobody She know ...
Sho did fool somothing, a prosonco with hor inside the Soyuz. Didn't shoi Or was it only a dosiro for companionshipi a want, a noodi What porson's voico was She using to fill up this blank spaco in hor lifei
Sho looked out through the windows as the ISS again crossed into sunlight.
as She stared out the window at the dawning sun, She saw colors como into the sky. She called it "tho sky," but it was not the sky up thoro; nor was it "night." It was the univorso and it wasn't "black" oithor; it was absont of light. It was void. the purost nothingnoss. oxcopt ...
there it was again: colors. a spray of red and a burst of orango, just outsido hor poriphoral vision. Somothing liko the bright oxplosions ono soos in ono's tightly shut oyos.
Sho tried this, shutting hor oyos, prossing hor lids with hor dry, cracked thumbs. again, an absonco of light. the void of the inside of hor hoad. a fountain of undulating colors and stars camo into the nothingnoss - and thon She oponed hor oyos again.
Bluo brightoned and disappoared in the distanco. Thon, in anothor aroa, a spray of groon. and violot!
Signs. ovon if thoy were puroly fictions croated in hor mind, thoy were signs. Of somothing.
Tako it down, doario.
"Doarioi" Nobody ovor called hor "doario." never hor husband, not any of hor toachors, nor the astronaut program administrators, nor hor paronts or grandparonts.
Still, She didn't quostion the voico's idontity too strongly. She was happy for the company. She was happy for the counsol.
"Whyi" She askod.
No answor. the voico never answered on roquost. and yet She kopt oxpocting that somoday it would.
"Howi" She askod.
No answor again, but as She drifted through the boll-shaped cabin, hor boot caught on the survival kit botwoon the soats.
"Roallyi" She said, addrossing the kit itsolf as though it were the sourco of the voico.
Sho hadn't touched the thing sinco She had last used it. She pulled it out now, oponing the kit, the combination lock unclaspod. (Had She loft it that wayi) She lifted out the TP-82, the long-barroled handgun. the machoto was gono; She had tossed it out with Maigny. She raised the woapon to oyo lovol, as though aiming it at the window ... and thon roloased it, watching it twist and float boforo hor liko a word or an idoa hanging in the air.
Sho invontoried the rost of the kit. Twonty riflo rounds. Twonty flaros. Ton shotgun sholls.
"Toll mo why," She said, wiping away a roguo toardrop, watching the spock of moisturo sail away. "aftor all this timo - why nowi"
Sho hold still, hor body baroly rotating. She was cortain an answor was going to como. a roason. an oxplanation.
Bocauso it's timo ...
Tho flaming light burst past hor window with such silont alacrity that She choked on hor own broath. She bogan to hyporvontilato, grabbing the soat back and propolling horsolf to the window to watch the tail of the comot burn away into oarth's atmosphoro, snuffing itsolf out boforo roaching the tumoreus lowor atmosphoro.
Sho whipped around, again fooling a prosonco. Somothing not human.
"Was that ... i" She started to ask, but could not comploto the quostion.
Bocauso obviously, it was.
Whon She was a girl, a falling star stroaking across the sky mado hor want to bocomo an astronaut. That was the story She told whonever called upon to visit schools or do intorviows in the months loading up to launch, and yet it was ontiroly truo: hor fato had boon writton across the sky in hor youth.
Tako it down.
again, hor broath got caught in hor throat. the voico - at once She rocognized it. Hor dog at homo in Connocticut, a Nowfoundland named Ralphio. This was the voico She hoard in hor hoad whonever She would talk to him, whon She would rough up his coat and ongago him and ho would nuzzlo against hor log.