I’ve just added this chapter from Satis to give you a chance to meet one of my main characters, Paige Cullan. Chapter Six is a flashback to when Cullan had a strange experience on her final shuttle mission and is the main reason why she was retired from NASA.
Four Years Earlier – September 10, 2008
Travelling at approximately seventeen thousand, five hundred miles per hour, the space shuttle Genesis completed its sixteenth orbit. Each revolution gradually steered the newest addition to the orbiter fleet closer to its destination two hundred and twenty-five statute miles above the Earth, the International Space Station. For Shuttle Commander John Ridgeway the last orbit couldn’t have come quicker, because waiting patiently aboard the ISS was his beloved girlfriend and mission specialist Hayley Bliss.
As the crew prepared for pre-docking procedures, Commander Ridgeway was at the stick. The forty-four-year-old commander had been a pilot for ten years before gaining his stripes. He’d dated Hayley for five years and couldn’t wait to see her as he carried on oblivious to anything else. Pilot Paige Cullan joined him at the controls. “How’s it going John?”
“Hmm…fine.” There was a hint of nervousness in his reply.
“Is anything wrong? You look like you’re on another planet.”
“Nice pun. Ain’t heard that one for a while.”
“Well you do. You’ve hardly said two words since launch.”
“I’m going to propose.”
“Of course to Hayley.” He paused, turned, and raised his eyebrows. “What d’you think?”
Cullan stayed silent, and fortunately for her, Houston communicated. “Signal check.”
“Copy that Houston – this conversation ain’t over Cullan.”
She suddenly wished she was on another planet after her commander’s reaction to her non-response. Hayley was a good friend. They both graduated together and Cullan wasn’t sure how she’d handle the proposal.
“ISS copies signal check Houston, over.” Flight Engineer Jack Chen aboard the ISS confirmed his signal check. Commander Ridgeway responded, “Genesis copies ISS signal check Houston, all is well, over.” After completing his checklist and co-ordinance settings he readied the orbiter for docking procedures. “Genesis, start RPM…three, two, one, mark.” Houston gave the order and Commander Ridgeway commenced with the orbital back flip or Rendezvous Pitch Manoeuvre.
“Genesis copies that Houston, we are ‘go’ for RPM, over,” Commander Ridgeway replied.
With a careful stick adjustment the one hundred tonne shuttle slowly started its three hundred and sixty degree back flip. “Houston; pitching one degree per second and twenty degrees to start of photos, over.”
“We copy Genesis Houston.” Jack Chen gave Genesis the thumbs up from the ISS command module’s porthole. “Looking good John,” he said as he watched the shuttle gracefully turn to show the undercarriage for the cameras.
“You can answer my question whenever you want Cullan, I can multi-task you know.”
“I know, but I don’t know how Hayley will take it. I do know she doesn’t like surprises.”
“Well I’m not going to burst through the airlock shoutin’ it from the rooftops.”
“We couldn’t be further from the rooftops than this John.”
Houston called in. “ISS, start photos, over.” Commander Ridgeway continued with the pitch manoeuvre. “Smile for the cameras,” he said with a wink. Cullan smirked at her commander. “Houston, we copy, start photos,” he continued.
“ISS copies that Houston.” With the formalities out of the way, ISS Mission Specialists Hayley Bliss and Terry Styles were ready with their four and eight hundred millimetre digital cameras. They spent the next ninety seconds taking imagery of the upper surfaces and underside of the shuttle to be down-linked on the Houston Ku-band network for analysis. System Engineers and Mission Management at Houston would then carefully assess any damage to the thermal tiles that would need attention before the orbiter left the ISS for Earth. Russian Cosmonaut Thomas Mascovin took video from another vantage point in an ISS module.
“End official photos.” Jack Chen completed the imagery procedure. “Nice work John.”
“Genesis copies ISS Houston. End of official photos, the rest you can put in the family album guys. Click away.”
“Shall I save some for the Genesis crew Houston?”
“We okay that Jack. We get the video though guys.”
Now just six hundred feet from the ISS and with payload doors open for docking, Commander Ridgeway delicately brought the shuttle into alignment with the ISS. “Are you all comfortable guys?”
Mission specialist Brad Harper and payload specialist Paul Miller carefully viewed their monitors at the back of the flight deck. Payload specialist Anne Boyer busied herself at various controls and readouts on the mid-deck section just below the flight deck. After they gave their okay’s they continued with their vital checks and re-checks. Commander Ridgeway, with Cullan at his side, handled the docking manoeuvre.
“So Cullan, when’s someone gonna make an honest woman outta you?”
“Don’t they have to date and get to know you before they propose?”
“What about that guy I hear you’ve been seeing?”
“That’s a guy’s name?”
“Matt Donner, John, and we haven’t spoken for a while.”
“Anyway, what’s with the surname reference? Even you don’t like your handle Cullan.”
“I was named after my grandmother. It kinda makes me feel old.”
“Oh, that’s just ‘cause I like to poke fun at his girly name.”
“No romance then?”
“No, no romance.”
“Well I’m gonna do it!”
“I can see the romantic irony attached to it John. What the hell. You go for it.”
The shuttle motioned towards the ISS’ docking port. The South Atlantic Ocean made a perfect backdrop as the station crew watched from the Russian segment of the ISS. Commander Ridgeway attempted the final approach.
“One hundred and seventy feet Jack,” he relayed over to the ISS. Unusual sound waves came back from the ISS.
“I’ll check the signal.”
“Yeah, at the double Cullan, I don’t like the sound of that static so close to docking.” Cullan pushed herself out of her chair and guided herself to the switching columns while her commander relayed the message again – nothing came back.
“UHF is okay,” Cullan reported.
“Try the S-band.” Miller slid over to help. Cullan had her eyes on the monitor in front of her. She looked concerned. “Both tracking and data relay satellites are showing strong signals. Better call it over John.”
“Houston this is Genesis, we’ve lost contact with the ISS, over.” Nothing came back from Houston. Commander Ridgway tried another link to the ISS. “Jack, we are now seventy-five feet from docking, do you read me? Over.” Again there was no reply from the ISS. An alarm sounded. “John, we’re off v-bar!”
“I’ve got perfect alignment.”
“Wait…it’s not us, it’s the station. Abort, abort!” Through all the commotion the ISS remained silent.
“I can’t; we’re being pulled in we’re…” The shuttle slammed into the ISS. It shunted violently. The crew just managed to keep their positions. Cullan braced herself for another collision. Debris propelled past the flight deck’s front window panels. Cullan followed its path up and over the upper observation ports. From the rear window panels overlooking the payload bay section, Harper saw one of the ISS’ truss structures twist and buckle. It swung slowly toward the shuttle. “There’s more coming our way!” he shouted out to the others.
Cullan moved towards Commander Ridgeway. “Everyone secure yourselves down,” he ordered. “Come on Cullan, hurry it up,” he shouted as he adjusted his headset. He struggled to hold the shuttle’s controls as he tried to resume communications. “Houston we have collided with the ISS, she is not responding. Do you read me?” Cullan flung herself into her pilot’s chair. The truss teasingly skimmed over the payload bay. It looked like it would sail clear, but as the crew gave a sigh of relief, a loose module from the ISS bounced off the shuttle’s nose. The aft section of the shuttle rose a few degrees. They braced themselves. The shuttle’s vertical tail took the blow! The shuttle suddenly jerked back. Commander Ridgeway gritted his teeth and wedged his feet hard into the foot-well. He lurched forward with Cullan beside him. Commander Ridgeway hit and engaged the automatic stabilising thrusters. The force of the collision hindered Cullan’s attempts to strap herself into her seat. Flying debris smashed against her head as she grappled with her belt fasteners. Alarms wailed all around them.
Pinned back to a monitor column, Harper was being lashed by loose wiring. In his attempt to fend off the onslaught, it tangled around his arms leaving him hanging precariously in the path of flying shards of dismantled machinery. Miller supported Boyer who’d been thrown up the mid-deck ladder intersection onto the flight deck. Their faces contorted in the struggle to stable themselves.
Commander Ridgeway reached for the radio headset as it spun from his grasp. The zero gravity held it in reach. He grabbed it and called again… “Jack, Houston do you read me? Over.” It was silent until something strange came back over the intercom that took everyone by surprise:
“Copy that Genesis, good job John, ISS is running final seal checks and pressurisation before boarding, over.”
“Copy that Houston. Prepare for boarding on your mark.”
“Yeah John we’ve got someone eagerly waiting to say hello, over.”
As the automatic thrusters gradually righted the crippled shuttle, Cullan wriggled from her partially secured seat belts, her head was bleeding slightly. She pulled her flight cap from a pocket under her seat and put it on to cover the wound.
“You okay Cullan?” her commander asked.
“Yeah…but what the fuck just happened?”
“Did you hear that?” Boyer added.
“Yeah,” Harper replied, “but can someone help me get out of this?” He tried to untangle himself from the loom of wiring wrapped around his body. Boyer made her way over to him. The radio began to hiss and crackle again. Then more voices came back:
“Well I’ll be a son-of-a-gun Houston; John just proposed to Hayley and…”
The broadcast ended abruptly as darkness once again found them. They shuddered as another solar panel collided with the shuttle. This time it slammed into the open payload bay. Some of the ISS’ cylindrical sections started to fracture and fall away from each other. Commander Ridgeway caught a glimpse of Hayley from the front window panels as the shuttle started to roll again – she looked back at him. She fell from view as the ISS disappeared under the shuttle’s undercarriage. He tracked back grabbing hold of whatever he could to help him glide to the rear flight deck window panels. He watched in desperation as multiple explosions erupted through the station’s intersections. The ISS started to break up before his eyes. “Hayley no, please no.” He fell to his knees. “Not my baby…” He bowed his head and cried into his hands.
“Oh John, I’m so sorry.” Cullan threw her arms around her commander. More debris hit the shuttle clattering into the front window panels. They started to craze. The rest of the crew writhed backwards into a minefield of airborne debris. A metal panel flipped off its mounting and spun towards Cullan and her commander. They rolled away from its path. It hit the floor then spun outward – Boyer screamed. Cullan looked up. “Oh no!” she cried. Harper’s body was slumped back against the monitor column. The panel had sliced his neck open. Blood flowed from his wound. It began to disperse into the cabin. Harper convulsed in shock. “We need to cover that wound guys,” Cullan shouted. “He’ll bleed out in seconds if we don’t.” But they couldn’t get to him. They all knew it was a lost cause. He lost consciousness. “We still need to cover that wound guys.” Cullan knew that with the absence of gravity, Harper’s blood would be everywhere in a matter of minutes. Only the knotted electrical wiring that strangled his body prevented him from catapulting into the others. They braced themselves for more collisions, but they did not come. The crew could only watch as Harper hung like a fish in a trawler’s net.
Cullan and Boyer managed to get to him with some bandages. Cullan checked for a pulse. “He’s gone,” she sighed. Boyer wrapped a bandage around his neck until the blood stopped flowing.
As the shuttle gradually stabilised, a shower of sparks ignited Harper’s uniform; his flesh began to burn. Commander Ridgeway appeared with a fire extinguisher and sprayed the body. More equipment started to spark and ignite. Cullan grabbed another extinguisher.
The fires were out but the shuttle was dead. They gently guided Harper into his sleeping compartment and covered him over. His blood hovering around the cabin was a grim reminder of his demise. Commander Ridgeway went straight to his chair. He rested his head in his hands. His hair was drenched with sweat. It clung to his frowning forehead and tangled around his fingers. They were all drained of energy, bloodied and confused. Cullan somehow found the strength of mind to appreciate the dangerous situation they were all in. They all looked lost and alone.
“We need to get into our suits John,” Cullan said as she comforted her commander. “The cabin could depressurize any second.” He looked back at her as the rest of the crew gathered around. She looked at him with a tear in her eye. The shuttle creaked as the metal carcass started to show signs of collapse. “She’s gone Cullan. My baby’s gone.”
“I know…but we need to get into our suits, we need you John.”
“It doesn’t look too good now does it?”
“We just need to stay alive for as long as possible.”
“What the hell came over the ship’s comm?”
“I don’t know.”
“Jack was telling Houston that I proposed to Hayley after I came through the airlock. How’s that possible?”
“Let’s worry about that later. We need to get out of the ship.”
“Out of the ship!” Boyer blasted. “Have you seen the crap that’s flying around out there?”
“Better out there than in here I say,” Miller replied. “So, what’s the grand plan Cullan?”
“Anne get the straining wires from the cabin hold, we need to strap ourselves together once we’re out of the air-lock.” Cullan’s mind was in overdrive. Commander Ridgeway just sat motionless in his chair. “John what do you want us to do?” Boyer asked deliberately ignoring Cullan’s orders. Miller knelt and checked on him. “He’s out of it Anne.”
“Look, we’ll have to go out one at a time then secure ourselves down inside the payload bay. It’s the safest place to wait. If we have to leave the bay, I’ll pull you out with the MMU and we wait.” Cullan pointed to the Man Manoeuvring Unit strapped down in the payload bay. “See it still looks intact.”
“Yeah looks!” Boyer gestured negatively. “That’s crazy talk it won’t carry all of us.”
“You need to stay calm Anne,” Miller advised her.
“How do you know we won’t run out of oxygen before any help comes? If any help comes,” Boyer argued.
“They’ll come for us, we just have to hold on and stick together.” Cullan suddenly felt it was time to pull rank. “Until John pulls himself together I’m in charge, and no one stays behind. We’ll conduct a structural check while we’re out there. If the ship shows any sign that it’s gonna break up, we’ll leave the bay. If it’s safe we go back in, if it’s bad at least we’re all together, outside.” Cullan tried to calm Boyer down and make her see sense. “Houston must know what’s happened to us by now and have already sent something out to help us or they may have contacted the Russians to see if they can help us. So we need to stay alive for as long as possible.” Even Cullan knew it was unthinkable that NASA would have the time to attempt a rescue before the oxygen ran out. The Russians getting to them was at best, a long-shot.
“She’s right Anne,” Miller said holding out his hand to her; Boyer duly took it. “Come on let’s do this!” Cullan rallied. The enthusiasm was there but they all knew it was bad; even Cullan.
“I’m scared Paul.”
“We all are Anne.” Miller looked at Boyer with defeat in his eyes.
“I’m in!” Commander Ridgeway rose to his feet.
“You okay John?” Cullan asked him.
“Just needed some time to say goodbye to my girl is all.” He turned and addressed his crew. “And In memory of all those who’ve perished today, we owe it to them that we brave the harshness of this situation and live to tell our people what the hell happened up here. So I don’t wanna hear anymore whining from anyone, at least until we place our feet down on God’s green earth that is.” He smiled the widest of smiles. All he needed was a nice fat Cuban cigar to roll around his mouth to seal the deal. It roused the crew but Cullan could see inside his soul. She knew how he felt about his own loss. He’d lost Hayley and she wondered if he’d really lost the will to live too.
Hissing oxygen tanks expelling their gasses and misfiring thrusters gradually quietened as the last of the suit checks were completed by Commander Ridgeway.
“Your turn John,” Cullan said with a smile.
“Now I know you know me all too well Paige, so you all know I ain’t too bothered if you just turn the other cheek on these here checks, now don’t you?”
“Come on John, we all need you to be positive. Your speech…”
“Was the biggest load of horse-shit you’ll ever likely to hear coming out of this old dog’s mouth. Come to think of it, it’s gonna be the biggest load of horse-shit you’ll ever hear from anyone, ever…‘cause we’re all gonna die up here, you know that don’t you?” His expression lines were barely visible through the shade inside his helmet.
“That’s the spirit.” She gave her commander a comedy fist and a wink. “I’ll go out first and prepare the MMU.”
One by one the crew climbed out of the air-lock and gathered inside the payload bay. The hostile void of space wasn’t made any safer as thermal tiles detached by the dozen off the shuttle’s fuselage and littered the space above them.
“We’re never gonna make it if we go out there Paul,” the crackling hollow audio from Boyer echoed into Miller’s ears.
“See that Anne?” he gestured towards home.
“Yeah, hard to believe I’m never gonna see my family again,” she replied.
“The Commander and Cullan are right. We’re all gonna get there. All our families are expecting us and I don’t wanna disappoint them.”
A hand suddenly appeared and clung to the rim of the shuttle’s docking port. “On the double guys, we gotta get out of here, she’s not gonna hold together for much longer,” Commander Ridgeway ordered as he drifted into view. A few short blasts of gas from the Man Manoeuvring Unit gently brought Cullan to the crew. “All hands guys.”
Commander Ridgeway threaded the straining wire through a staple on his belt and fastened it to himself. Miller hooked his end to the MMU. With another few short blasts of gas, Cullan followed by Miller, Boyer and then their commander, drifted slowly away from the shuttle. All that was left was to say goodbye to Harper. As he lay sealed in his sleeping bay, the crew saluted him.
“Hey, that’s my tool bag,” a surprised Miller let out. Debris from the shuttle and ISS accompanied the crew as they drifted further and further from the shuttle.
“Keep it quiet. Hand signals only,” his commander’s stern voice echoed inside Miller’s helmet. Oxygen was a commodity that couldn’t be taken for granted. Still, Miller watched as his tool bag floated by. He wanted to reach out for it. He remembered his last EVA; a repair to a satellite. He watched his kit as it drifted out of sight. Cullan was with him on that mission too. Was that two years ago, he thought. Yeah, she came over and leant a hand to finish that job before we headed home. He wished he was in his sleeping compartment dreaming, but he wasn’t.
As gravity took more of a hold on the situation they were in, Cullan watched as what remained of the ISS spun towards Earth. It was touch and go what would run out first, oxygen or time. In reality it was death by suffocation or death by incineration. A quarter of their oxygen had already been used. When she weighed up the two options, a burn-up on re-entry would get it over and done with – the thought of suffocation sucked!
Commander Ridgeway clutched at his side. He was sure it was still there. With all that went down on the shuttle he’d lost track of the engagement ring he’d so wished was with Hayley. It’s gotta be here. I can’t have lost it. For a moment he saw her smiling face looking up at him. The last time they made love. ‘I love you baby,’ he heard himself say to her in a moment of pure contentedness. ‘I love you too my handsome man,’ she purred back at him. It was the night she headed off to be with her ISS crew members. The next time he saw her she had that look of dread as the ISS fell away from him. Now she was at one with the universe.
A brace inside the payload bay broke free.
“John,” Cullan shouted, “look!”
One by one the remaining braces failed and the belly of the shuttle caved in. Oxygen tanks suddenly ruptured and exploded, then the fuel tanks. Another explosion finally sealed the fate of the shuttle then just as quick, the airless void of space extinguished the fire. A lethal shower of metal debris hurtled toward them. The force of the blast hit them first!
Boyer looked at the frosty blue craze of the Pacific Ocean. She knew exactly where home was for her. Fully leathered up, she lost herself riding her Ducati full throttle down an empty freeway. She’d throw a wheelie but for a baying crowd. She was single and free to go anywhere; do anything. She was cute on one of the guys at the bike club. As she wished, he raced up beside her. If I look over at him would he blow me a kiss? She looked but he was frantically trying to communicate with her. He lifted his visor, she lifted hers. He shouted. What’s he saying? “I can’t hear you,” she shouted back. They hit 120mph and showed no signs of throttling back. He pointed at her waist. She looked down and saw a tear in her leathers. She looked back up at the empty freeway. There was a sharp corner ahead. Where’d that come from? She turned to her riding companion – he’d gone! She tried to ease off on the throttle, but she just went faster and faster. No! The sharp bend appeared in front of her. Her visor broke off her helmet. She could feel the air, hear the wind and see the sky.
He begged and begged but within fifteen seconds Boyer was unconscious. The rest of the crew pulled on the straining wire. Commander Ridgeway clung to her shoulders and stared straight at her. He stared through the iced condensation building up inside her helmet, he didn’t recognise her anymore. It would’ve been an agonising death if she’d been conscious; he looked away. If it had been a routine space-walk, there might’ve been time to cover the tear and get her back to the shuttle. Although unlikely, it would have at least been a chance. Cullan eased her way toward her commander.
“John, we need to cut her loose, I’m sorry.”
“That seems to be the word of the day today Cullan.”
“I know, but we have to think of the others…the weight, we’re getting closer to the atmosphere and the fuel in this thing’s not gonna last much longer.”
He looked down at Boyer’s torn suit. “Why couldn’t it have been me?”
“It was just her time John. There’s nothing we could’ve done to avoid it.”
“Well when’s it gonna be my time, eh Paige?”
“You’ll know when. We all do in the end.”
The crew took turns and gave Boyer a hug. They all pulled a salute to another fallen friend. Commander Ridgeway unfastened Boyer’s belt and pulled it away. Her arms flailed as if she was waving farewell to them. They watched humbly as she slowly drifted away.
Out of the corner of her eye Cullan noticed something. “Guys; what’s that?”
“Is that a shuttle?” Miller asked.
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s definitely not one of ours.” Cullan watched as it came closer. “What the fuck is that thing?”
Their communication link started to crackle. “John.” Cullan disappeared into the shadow of the craft. The straining wire loosened and then Miller disappeared. Commander Ridgeway took a deep breath…
“This one’s coming round doctor,” his faint voice broke the void of darkness. “Shall I put her out again?” The voice was clearer now.
“Where am I?” Cullan croaked.
“No, another dose could kill her,” a second voice said. She forced her eyes open. They were sore and crusted from deep sleep. The glare from the light made her squint. She tried to shield her eyes with her hands but her arms wouldn’t move. She took a deep breath inhaling as much air as her lungs could take, it was fresh and clean. She tried to turn her head but it wouldn’t budge. Her eyes gradually adjusted. She was facing the ceiling. She glanced down at her feet – a desk with a monitor on it. She glanced right – nothing, just a wall. She glanced left – some plastic cases stacked on a table. She noticed a round darkened port in the wall. Was she still in space? She heard footsteps coming from behind her. “Who’s there?” her tone was stern but jaded.
Two men in white surgical suits, one young and the other much older came into view; they didn’t reply. “She shouldn’t have come to. This one has a strong mind.” The old man came closer. Face to face he prised her right eye open and shone a bright light over it – it watered.
“What the fuck is going on? She tried to impede his examination by wriggling her head as best she could. “Who the fuck are you?” she raged.
“Calm down.” His blank expressionless face looked ghostly. Cullan tried again to lash out with her hands, but she was laying in some kind of moulded metal slab. Hardened, it held her down without any restraints; all she could move was her eyes. The man now had an impatient look on his wrinkled face, he huffed at her. “Stop struggling. We mean you no harm.” He moved over to examine her left eye. “What the fuck is going on? Get me the fuck outta here,” she growled and screeched in frustration.
“You weren’t supposed to be conscious during the test Miss Cullan. My name is Tavlock. I’m a doctor at this facility…Oh,” he gestured towards his assistant, “and this is…” He clicked his fingers and pointed in his assistant’s direction.
“Daresh, sir,” he informed.
“Yes Daresh, not that you’ll remember us when you leave our care young lady.”
“You call this care? I’m being held down on a fucking metal slab.” She again wrestled without success.
Daresh moved to an instrument panel out of view behind Cullan’s head. He ran his finger up a touch screen monitor. Cullan felt a tightness envelop her body. Through gritted teeth she screeched as a series of shocks passed into her lumber area; the pulse almost forced her eyes from her sockets, but fortunately for her, she lost consciousness.
“How are her vital signs coping with the stress?” Tavlock asked. Daresh glanced down at her readings.
“As they were on the shuttle doctor – erratic.”
“I don’t understand what happened up there. All the members of the crew including the ISS had adrenalin readings going off the charts but not one of them showed any visual signs of stress.”
“It is a weird one doctor. Could the Adan have affected all of them at once?”
“The crew of the ISS are not test subjects, so the answer to that question is no… Has the Adan completely fused with the pineal gland?”
“Like a glove sir. It hasn’t been compromised in any way by whatever happened up there.”
“Well,” Tavlock chirped happily, “it looks like we have another candidate for Refinement then.” He looked down at Cullan. “Good luck young lady.”
END OF SAMPLE
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