Authors: Andrew J. Morgan
Tags: #Science Fiction, #scifi
Andrew J. Morgan
Copyright © 2014 Andrew J. Morgan
First, there was nothing.
Then, a single stellar body
flickered in the night sky, and the nothingness ceased to be nothing.
It had arrived, silent and undetected.
It would change everything.
1 — We Have a Visitor
Hello TsUP, this is RS0ISS. Reporting unidentified vessel in our region, holding orbit approximately two hundred metres aft of our location. Please confirm.'
The heavy Russian accent, laden with radio static, fell silent.
Sitting at his desk — row three of five in the cavernous cylindrical room — Mission Control Capsule Communicator Aleksandar Dezhurov touched his lips against the stiff microphone of his headset and considered his response.
TsUP, hello. Negative copy on your last transmission, please repeat.'
through the three gigantic screens at the front of the room, scratching his head through his greying hair as he waited for the reply. A slow stream of letters and numbers rolled down a smaller screen at his desk, disappearing at the bottom as if being swept along by a digital tide.
The static hissed
in his ear.
'TsUP, there is an unidentified ve
ssel approximately two hundred metres aft of our orbit. It is maintaining distance. There are no obvious markings and the shape is unfamiliar to me. Can you verify?'
frowned. He was not aware of any other operations in the local vicinity of the International Space Station, national or otherwise, and the large screens confirmed this. He adjusted the headset as he always did when he became re-aware of its presence, picked up his pen and jotted a note down on his desk pad as he spoke.
'Copy RS0ISS. Will confirm
and verify unidentified vessel.' His emotionless tone broke as worry panged in his throat. 'Let me know if the situation changes, even slightly, okay, Mikhail?'
The nib of the p
en paused while his eyes searched their sockets, waiting for the cosmonaut's response.
Copy, Aleks. Don't you worry about us, we can handle ourselves. Out.'
nodded, as if to reassure himself. He'd hoped it was going to be a quiet morning. Apparently not.
* * *
Within a few hours, the NASA operatives working in tandem with the Russian Federal Space Agency had confirmed that they were unaware of any American orbital vehicles operating in close proximity to the International Space Station. After half a day, NASA's Washington headquarters clarified this statement, adding that there had been no request for permission to use that orbit by any private aerospace or military programs. They further added that there had been no reported incidents occurring between any of the thousands of satellites they currently monitored orbiting the Earth. The following day, the European Space Agency, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and Chinese National Space Administration denied involvement. As the days trailed on, the Indian Space Research Organisation and a number of other smaller agencies also denied knowledge of the unidentified vessel. It was a mystery to them all.
* * *
The cylindrical room, operated by a small crew a week ago, was now murmuring with the presence of over forty staff in its dimly-lit, theatre-like space, filling every desk with at least one — but in most cases two — people. The NASA presence had become twofold, and the hot twang of American accents punctured the languid hum emitted by its Russian hosts. The air conditioning worked hard, soaking away the heat from the additional bodies — and the screens they watched so intently — yet despite the startling increase in both active personnel and technology in the room, not a single screen, print-out or reading displayed any trace of the as-yet unidentified craft.
S0ISS, hello RS0ISS, TsUP,' Aleks called, adjusting his radio headset.
how are you doing?' came Mikhail's cheerful, slightly distorted reply. Mikhail's words were also being emitted through a speaker on Aleks' desk for the benefit of the Flight Director and NASA's representative Flight Coordinator, who both sat in silence next to him with their brows furrowed in concentration.
The unexpected arrival of the vessel had done nothing to
dampen the moods of the two cosmonauts and their astronaut guest for whom the ISS was currently home. Even without the Surgeon's report — compiled from the constant stream of health data being broadcast from the station by each of its inhabitants — it was easy to tell that the crew were in good spirits. They were professionals, the best of the best, and they were behaving like it.
e're good, thank you,' said Aleks, smiling, and he glanced across his shoulder to the Flight Director, who nodded to him. 'Down to business,' he continued. 'We have a no go on ground visibility of the unidentified vessel, require uplink to PC One for visual. Can you get a camera pointed at that thing for us?'
A few seconds passed while
the signal shot at the speed of light some two hundred and forty miles upwards to the waiting crew of the ISS. Normally the wait barely registered in Aleks' mind, but recently it seemed like minutes.
by TsUP. Preparing uplink to PC One, copy. No visuals from the ground? Interference?'
Something like that. Our telescopes won't produce an image at the azimuth of the unidentified vessel, only static. We're trying to figure it out.'
he faint hiss from the earpiece and speaker changed so imperceptibly that the Flight Director and his NASA minder didn't seem to notice. Aleks' ears pricked up, however, and he looked to his screen in anticipation. It blinked and flickered, and the list of numbers vanished. A saturated glow appeared and settled into a view of a white panel criss-crossed with cables and set with rows of buttons. The clean white lab-like scene drifted by, rolling away and down across the monitor in a lazy arc.
'Can we get this on the
big screen?' asked the NASA operative in a gruff, business-like voice, and Aleks prodded a button on his desk, which did exactly that. Others in the room looked up from their screens for a moment, before looking back and resuming their work.
The view on screen swayed, guided from behind by an unseen force that steered
it away from the wall and pointed it down a long, white tunnel that was punctuated by the occasional narrowing along its length. The camera re-focused and the detail became sharp.
I'm moving through the Lab to the aft of the ISS,' came Mikhail's disembodied voice, distant and hollow, as his hand reached forward into view and gripped a rail with the tips of his fingers. Giving himself a gentle tug, he projected weightlessly forward along the module, gliding past the racks of scientific equipment in the walls and ceiling.
Rolling the camera to the right as he reached for another handrail, Mikhail's broadcast glimpsed the rigid humanoid stature of the
experimental R2 GM robotic astronaut, capturing for a second the svelte bronze head mounted to the folded white legless body.
'Passing through into Node
tension in Mission Control was building. The cursory glances at the big screen from the other operators became hard, unblinking stares, all waiting for their first visual of the mysterious object.
As Mikhail dived through the square
hatch that separated the US LAB from the Node One module, the light dimmed up ahead, and he pushed upwards to squeeze into the mouth of the Pressure Mating Adaptor between the US modules and the Russian ones. PMA One was unlit, and its narrowing walls — which formed a cone towards the tight exit at the end of its short length — were completely ringed with soft white cargo transfer bags, held down with stretched bungee cords. A black-and-yellow sign above the entrance jokingly warned of a 17,500mph speed limit.
FGB,' he said, naming the Russian module as he floated through it. The space inside was a lot narrower than the Lab, and instead of the mess of wires and cables and equipment, the FGB was bare, save for the evenly spaced handrails and the neatly stacked supply containers and water drums that part-filled the cavity from the floor upwards. A pair of running shoes, attached with Velcro to the wall between two handrails, trailed a lace out in front of him, only moving as he brushed by it and through to the last module.
a stocky, balding man was pedalling on a compact exercise bike. Padded bungees held him down onto the saddle, and he pedalled with his eyes shut, gripping the handlebars tight and puffing his cheeks in and out. The sides of his navy blue polo shirt were dark with sweat, even seeping into the sleeves, framing the stitched American flag with a dark border.
Before entering the Service Module, the camera took a sudden and disorientating dive downwards, pirouetting round into the Multipurpose Laboratory Module.
'I'm just dropping into the MLM,' Mikhail informed them, 'there's a better view from the docking port down here.'
Deftly he sailed down thr
ough the module, passing more cables and equipment until he negotiated his way into the ball-like docking station. He span as he entered, sticking his socked feet into view and slowing himself down with a controlled flex of his knees. Flipping the camera round, he pointed the lens at himself, and a dark-haired man with skin wrinkled beyond his years stared into the lens. His age would be hard for anyone to guess, as his features were still small and well defined like those of someone in their early thirties, but the ravages of long exposure to the sun had hardened and darkened his cheeks and forehead all the way up to his receding hairline. His eyes twinkled with excitement.
'You're in for a treat
, Moscow,' he said, a hint of a grin tickling the corners of his mouth, 'it's hard to make out, but it's there.'
He raised his eyebrows before spinning the camera round and offering it up to the small aft window. At first, the camera struggled to adjust to the bright light of the glowing Indian Ocean, but it
s innards realigned with a whirr and the white flecks of clouds became distinct. The ocean below blossomed into a rich, velvety blue, and grew bigger as the camera motor whirred again and the lens pulled the distance towards it. Then the camera angled upwards and away from Earth, the view tracking along into the black depths of the universe. The darkness only filled the large screen at Mission Control for a brief moment before breaking down into vibrating lines of static.
'What's going on?'
the Flight Director demanded, gesturing at the square pool of fuzzy nonsense. Aleks was working on the problem, fingers clacking at his keyboard, an intense concentration dominating his being as he stared unblinking at his secondary desk monitor.
'It's not us, Lev,' he shrugged
, turning to the Flight Director, 'we're receiving the signal from the ISS just fine. The problem is occurring at the broadcast end. We're seeing exactly what Mikhail is sending.'
'Tell him,' Lev said,
folding his arms. The NASA operative said nothing, but made a note on his touchpad.
cleared his throat and turned on his mic. 'RS0ISS, TsUP. We have a loss of picture on your downlink, please diagnose and adjust.'
wondering if the sound on the feed was also down. His finger hovered over the broadcast button as he readied himself to advise an abort on the PC One feed, but the static washed away and a view of the station's interior flooded back in again.
'TsUP, the camera is fun
ctional with no obvious faults,' said Mikhail. 'I've adjusted the broadcast channels, please advise.'
An unexpected wave of relief
surprised Aleks as it untightened his shoulders, and even Lev breathed an audible sigh. 'RS0ISS, we have AOS. You're looking good.'
s he spoke, he watched the screen as the camera panned back up to that same spot in space and broke down into static again. 'Negative, negative,' Aleks said, his heart sinking, 'loss of signal, loss of signal. Abort PC One and resume Ku Band audio connection.'
With the push of a
button, the static disappeared from both his and the main screen. He arched his neck back, shut his eyes and rubbed his face as he waited for Mikhail. He didn't care if Lev or the NASA guy were watching. His palm, or his forehead, or perhaps even both, were hot and clammy with sweat, and his shirt collar was stuck to his neck.
'TsUP, RS0ISS, radio check,' Mikhail said
S0ISS, read you loud and clear.'
'Loud and clear, TsUP.
'RS0ISS, can you g
ive us a verbal on the unidentified vessel,' Aleks asked. He bit at his pen as he waited.
opy, TsUP. The vessel is, uh, hard to describe because it's hard to see. It's there all right, but its shape is difficult to determine because I can't see that it has any definite edges. It doesn't seem to reflect the sunlight at all, except to catch it occasionally along its smooth surfaces.'
Mikhail paused, giving
Aleks the chance to write down what he was hearing.
Aleks said when he had finished scrawling in an almost hieroglyphic shorthand.