THE VISITOR - A Science Fiction Story by Tony Harmsworth

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What a ride!

Strapped into a made-to-measure seat, moulded to my body, in an instant its support was needless. The same harness now restrained me, holding me tightly to prevent me floating away, but the view captivated me more effectively than the seat’s restraining belts ever could. I was unable to divert my gaze from the small circular window.

As if a switch had been thrown, silence descended upon the three of us. We were in freefall at last and the onerous roar of the Soyuz’ rockets ceased as their burden achieved balance with the force of gravity.

I became aware of some Russian chatter and the crackle of the communication system, but was more concerned with the falling sensation. My inner-ears told me I was on a roller-coaster careering earthwards. The perceived plunge overwhelmed my senses and I fought a personal battle with dizziness and nausea. How could I work with, or even tolerate such a feeling for seven whole months?

I fixed my gaze on the beauty of the view. Earth’s curvature was hardly unexpected, yet seeing it first hand was awe-inspiring. I found the vista stunning – the land verdant and fertile, surrounded by sea of the most vibrant and azure blue, all visible through pristine swirls of clouds. The surrounding jet-black of space threw our unique haven of life into stark relief.

‘Вы все в порядке, Ева?’

I snapped out of my trance. Yuri, our bullish, shaven-headed commander in the seat next to mine, had asked if I was okay, ‘Yes. Да.’

I eased his concern over my quietness by telling him it was the view which had stunned me into silence. He laughed, ‘It is to amaze the first time, Eva. Enjoy.’

I was drawn back to the pageant of scenery which drifted past my eyes. I remembered my first plane ride to Tenerife as a ten-year-old and the magic of puncturing the clouds before thrilling to seeing them beneath me. But this – this was on a whole new scale. The only known refuge of life in the universe was stretched out beneath me. My time on the International Space Station promised to change me forever.

More Russian radio dialogue between Roscosmos and the ship. Russian was an essential part of our training, but my fluency was hard-won. I have no affinity for languages. At thirteen, my fail in French and a disastrous nine percent in German saw me confined to the science labs. Fondness for mathematics morphed into fascination, and university beckoned with the promise of astronomy and space.

Yuri Bulgakov switched to his thickly accented English again, ‘Hello ISS. Soyuz MS-87 here. Over.’

Africa moved into the wings as the Sahara took centre stage through my window. This vast scorched expanse of cloudless desert was in turn being displaced by the Mediterranean. I listened to the communications but the view seduced me absolutely. I could no more turn my gaze from the porthole than I could slow my racing heart. My queasy stomach made me wish weight might return, but there would be only spasmodic weight now until I returned home for Christmas.

The radio sprang into life, ‘That you, Yuri? Mike here. How’re you guys doing?’

‘Hi Mike. Yes, me again. Bringing professionalism to helpless American spacemen who have no spaceship!’

A chuckle emanated from the speakers. The smiling dough-faced Russian told me it was normal to wind the Americans up about the demise of their shuttle. Even their new low-Earth launch vehicle was still undergoing tests two years after its promised 2025 launch. Space travel had become the domain of Roscosmos and a few commercial operators.

‘About to change orbit. See you in a few hours.’

‘How did Eve and Zinaida enjoy blast-off?’

‘They still glued to windows, of course. We soon have to winkle them out of seats, I think.’

‘You got my hot dogs with you?’

‘I help you eat them soon.’

‘I’ve waited a month for more to come. Keep your thieving hands off them.’

‘Just look for my ten percent. Called free trade, Americans no understand?’

Mike laughed, ‘Extortion more like.’

‘How you say sticks and stones … ?’

‘Okay, we’ll see.’

‘Roger that. Speak soon.’

‘He hot dog mad,’ Yuri said to Zinaida and me. ‘Always hot dogs eating.’

I laughed. I remembered Mike taking us out to a hot dog stand for an evening meal in Houston during training. We thought we were going to a restaurant. Instead we stood in the street, drank beers and ate giant dogs with overflowing relish.

Yuri depressed a couple of buttons, switched back to Russian and told Roscosmos he was in contact with the ISS.

Roscosmos acknowledged his message as a cloud-streaked Russia passed across my field of view. I tried and failed to pinpoint the location of Korolyov Mission Control in the scene below, the broken cloud cover defeating me. Further east, the shroud of night and clearer skies was fast approaching.

The ship lurched and I gripped my armrest fiercely. Anxiety fought with nausea for my attention until I realised Zinaida Sobolevskaya, a more rotund version of myself and the third crew member in the seat next to Yuri, had fired the rocket to raise our orbit to the next level. I had weight again for a short while. It was a reminder to pay closer attention to their Russian chatter.

At this stage in my mission, which was to find and eliminate low-Earth-orbit space junk, I was merely a passenger. That would soon change, but for now it was Yuri and Zinaida who were commander and pilot, but even they surrendered their authority to the precision of on-board computers for most control functions.

A succession of thrusts caused more disturbing movements of my internal organs to compensate for the vectors being applied to the ship. I was relieved to find that my nausea was settling, thank goodness.

‘ISS. We have aligned. On course. It is excellent trajectory. Copy?’

‘Looking good Yuri.’

Another burn pressed me back into my seat. I was expecting this one. It was a vital short side-burn to take the Soyuz out of the ISS’s plane to prevent a collision if the retro jets failed.

‘Side burn complete,’ confirmed Yuri, his piercing blue eyes flashing at me with the excitement of the launch achieving its orbit. I think he got a thrill from seeing my enjoyment of the view.

‘Copy that,’ said Mike.

I peered anew at the night side of Earth and the amber-tinted necklaces of sparkling jewels illustrating the nocturnal ebb and flow of mankind. The spangled clusters were towns and cities along rivers and highways beneath. Celestial jewellery.

‘KURS locked on,’ said Yuri, confirming a positive lock on the ISS. Now the approach was automatic.

‘Copy that.’

‘Rotational burn complete.’

‘Copy that.’

‘Docking probe unlocked. He is extended.’

‘Copy that.’

Now we faced a long slow approach taking an hour or so. I was grateful to have more time to indulge myself with the view.

‘Eva, look at here. You can see station,’ Yuri said, pointing at his main screen upon which a tiny bright spot sat at the centre of a pair of dotted cross wires.

I gave it a glance, but was almost immediately drawn back to the view of the sun breaking over the curvature of the planet. Amazing. Sixteen sunrises each day.

The Soyuz approached the gigantic, spidery framework of the International Space Station. Some of the structure was visible through my porthole. Yuri pulled out the manual docking controls from his console, in case of emergency. If anything were to go wrong with the automatic system, he would take over and dock us as if playing a sophisticated video game. I’d watched him doing this endlessly in simulation and even did it myself several times in case I was the only conscious crew member after some NASA simulated disaster. The ISS now filled his view screen.

A series of burns changed our attitude to align the Soyuz with the docking port.

‘Thirty metres.’

‘Copy that.’

The docking hatch on the station grew larger until it filled the screen. The whole ship shook and stilled.

‘Have contact,’ he said.

‘Copy that, Yuri.’

There was a further push from behind, plus a judder. The docking probe mated with the matching hole in the hatch and the clasps gripped its shaft, acting out a bizarre mechanical copulation.

We faced an hour of sealing procedures to ensure all the clamps were properly tightened. Yuri monitored the process from the upper module of the Soyuz. Finally, the hatch was pulled away from before us. There was a slight equalising of pressure, my ears popped and Yuri asked, ‘Permission to come aboard, sir!’

‘Permission granted,’ Mike Wilson’s American accent sounded much more human now it no longer passed through the electronics of the communication system.

Zinaida waved me through before her. Grabbing my small pouch of personal items, I pulled myself into the Soyuz orbital module and there was Mike’s familiar ebony-skinned face on the other side of the constricted access hatchway.

‘Welcome to the ISS, Eve,’ Mike offered a hand and pulled on me to help me through into the docking module.

Floating behind our host, I could see the strangely graceful, barrage-balloon figure of Dr. Brian Gregory of Caltech.

‘Lovely to see you again, Brian. Great place to meet up,’ I said.

‘Yes, Eve, a better venue than the Caltech coffee shop,’ he laughed, ‘but no Danish pastries,’ and we embraced briefly.

Brian turned and followed Mike’s lanky legs as he moved through the space station. I did my best to keep up, while Zinaida trailed us all.

I couldn’t believe I was here, aboard the ISS at last. It had taken more than a decade. Five years of dreaming and hoping, four years of hard work and another two years of detailed planning and intensive training.

The painful decibels of sirens rudely interrupted my reminiscing. What the hell? Alarms and flashing lights surrounded us.

Mike shouted, ‘Quick, follow me!’

Within a few seconds, several of us were pulling ourselves rapidly through the cramped passageways of the ISS. This alarm meant we were under attack and the enemy was invisible.

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