Three hours later, Thompson was keying in the last of the data for the altitude change. Normally, it would be simply a call down to ground control, with both sides confirming current and intended altitude, then the burns would be keyed in by mission control. The ISS would control the firing and duration, with mission control doing monitor duty in case of the ISS computers malfunctioning, which had happened twice before to Thompson’s knowledge. The systems on the station, while robust and triply redundant, were slow by the technology’s standard, having been placed by Russia in the late 1990’s. The systems had been upgraded once, but the trouble was that the backup systems were not modular, but integrated to save weight.
Thus while the primary system had been upgraded, the backups were twenty years older, and much slower. A short or long burn could create troubles by inducing an unwanted rotation to the station, or push the station too high and possibly shift the orbit into a more dangerous position closer to orbiting junk such as discarded bossters, or dead satellites, or debris from any number of launches. The ‘sky’ above earth is jam-packed with floating debris, all of it traveling tens of thousands of kilometers per second in velocity. A two ton booster colliding at speed would turn the ISS into confetti. The altitude had to be extremely precise. And Vyhovsky is saying we need to gain altitude. Our last reading was five weeks ago, and if the drift is correct, we need another five kilometers of altitude to stay out of the atmosphere. Higher and we get to dodge space junk.
Thompson chuckled ruefully, then startled as a shadow cut the brightness in the room. He looked up at Salila Shukla, who was looked at him with a frightened gaze. “May I stay here with you, Mr. David? I don’t want to be alone right now”, she said, her eyes gazing back at the hatchway she’d floated in through. Thompson’s eyes followed her gaze, and thought he saw the last bit of a shadow flit away from the edge of the hatchway. He looked back to Salila. “What’s going on? Is one of us starting to give you trouble, Ms Shukla?” Salila looked down along her body, one hand hanging onto the overhead handhold. Her eyes blinked tears, which beaded on her skin without gravity to draw them down her cheeks.
She looked back at the hatch then gently grabbed Thompson’s arm, pulling herself close. Thompson’s head reeled. Even after the weeks together, or because of it, she smelled exotic, feminine, and he felt his body respond. Awkwardly he shifted his seat, as she leaned in to whisper, “It’s Mr. Ingers. He keeps following me from room to room when I’m awake, and he is in the galley every time I want food. I think…no he is, stalking me.” Her brown eyes seemed to swallow him whole when he glanced up into them. His heart started to race,a nd he swallowed drily.
“Umm, M-Ms Salila…Ms Shukla…could you, please, let go of my arm?” Her hand jerked away as if she set it on a hot coal. Her eyes registered hurt as she believed him to be rejecting her. Thompson kept his voice quiet, and swivled his head to glance at all the entrances before turning back to Salila. “It’s not, you”, Thompson hatlingly told her. “It is but it isn’t.” he pinched his nose then ran a hand through his hair. “It’s you’re beautiful, and you’re the only woman here. Us guys, we can’t turn off what we are any more than you can.” He looked towards the near hatch once more, searching for any tell-tale signs of eavesdroppers.
“Koll lost his wife and child. We’ve all lost something, and don’t know what we’re going to do. For some of us, we need that comfort. We need something to focus on to keep us sane.” He looked over at Salila, knowing he was rambling. He wondered if his words were for Ingers, or himself. She was close, warm, and her scent filled him. His face felt flushed as he gazed at her, noting in a detached way that her eyes were wide with alarm, like a frightened deer. And like a deer she trembled, fearful of moving too fast that it might alert the predator. Thompson closed his eyes and breathed deep, and slow, working at slwoing his heart rate, and getting his libido under control. Why not do it with her? Why not? Who’d stop you, we all want to have her. It’s the proverbial last woman alive with five men. How would anyone object? NO! I’m not that, I’m not that! I AM NOT A RAPIST! I AM NOT! He bit his tongue, shocking himself out of the internal argument. He gazed over to Salila, who had drifted back away, near the hatch.
“I’m “, sorry he wanted to say, but ended up saying, “here.” He smiled as he swallowed some blood from his bleeding tongue. “I’m here, and we’ll figure something out”, he said encouragingly. Salila seemed more alarmed with his calm rationality that she had when he was fighting his own urges. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. I Think we’re all on edge, and I have no clue how we can deal with it.” He thought some more. “You and Roels seem to be close. Stick with him. I keep an eye out too. We’ll do our best to see no one forces anything on you.” He felt her gaze soften at the mention of Roels, and knew she’d chosen him. I hope we get down before this all comes to a head. With Ingers following her everywhere, it could be real trouble if he starts something. How do we handle a situation like that? What do we do? Put him back to sleep? We have some drugs, but the only one who’s checked out as a physician is Kim. Maybe I should talk to him about this.
He nodded to Salila and started for the far hatch, pushing himself in the weightless atmosphere away from the frightened woman. His mind was still trying to get him to turn back, but for now his own will was stonger than the temptation. He floated out the far end, then turned to push down the hall towards Kim’s cubicle. At the corner, a sudden mass moved into him. He grunted at the impact, then again as he smacked into the wall behind him. He looked up into Ingers eyes, who was looking blankly at him. “Hey Koll, sorry about that, I didn’t se you in the mirror. What happened? Everything okay?” He looked at Koll from a distance of a few inches. Ingers blanks stare slowly returned to the gentle smile he usually wore. “David, it’s my fault, I wasn’t watching where I was going.”