‘This is Major Tom calling Houston. Come in Houston! Are you there Houston?’
Nothing but stony silence greeted him. Tom sighed and flipped the radio channel to the European Space Agency (ESA) in Toulouse, France. He did not expect any reply from there either, but still went ahead with his ritual
‘Major Tom Jones from the International Space Station to ESA! Anybody there?’
As expected, radio silence was what he got. It had been three weeks since the unexpectedly large solar flare related debacle. The ISS was rocked by the afterwinds of the heavy solar winds that hammered Earth. The on-board Charged Particle Directional Spectrometer (CPDS) had measured previously unheard levels of radiation. Tom didn’t want to think the effect of such radiation on Earth.
Tom had been dismantling the Kibo robotic arm when the solar winds had hit. Despite trying his best to scurry inside, he’d been struck by stray cosmic debris that had been propelled at tremendous velocity. Luckily his heavy duty spacesuit had saved his life. Even then, Tom had suffered multiple lacerations.
But the ISS had taken the worst of hits. The electrical system had failed along with the auxiliary lighting system. Luckily the life support systems worked just fine, the ISS had nearly three years’ worth of chemicals for the oxygen production system.
Dejectedly, Tom proceeded with the rest of his morning ritual – he tried in vain to establish contact with the Russian Mission Control Centre (MCC) at Korolyov, the Japanese MCC at Tsukuba and the Canadian MCC at Quebec. He was more or less convinced that the cosmic radiation and the solar flare had wiped out most life on Earth.
Tom sighed and replaced the headset. Stumbling in the dark he made his way to the galley. He cursed his luck. His name was about to go into the history books as the last person ever to visit the ISS. The ISS was being discarded in favour of a spanking new Space Station that was being commissioned. Tom’s job was to retrieve all the data storage devices from the American part of the ISS. The Russians and Japanese had already discarded their parts of the ISS. In fact, the Russian half and the Japanese Kibo laboratory were just empty shells now.
Tom felt a tingling sensation as he ate his frugal fare of beef jerky and goulash with bread and washed them down with multiple cups of sugarless tea. Food was another concern for him. As his was supposed to be the last mission ever to ISS, he’d packed only few weeks’ worth of rations. The food stock in the ISS was only leftovers from previous missions and contained only random items that one wouldn’t even dream of combining together as a meal.
He ambled around aimlessly along the Tranquility node of the ISS. He felt stabbing pains in his ribs and knees. He knew he was experiencing bone loss and muscle atrophy. He had to get the hell out of the ISS on priority. He knew the Chinese Space Station, Tiangong and the brand new Russian Space Station, OPSEK were only few hours away. But he was unable to move as there was no power in the ISS that would enable him to launch the solitary Soyuz capsule left behind.
Tom started his daily quota of exercises. He started with some basic stretches and proceeded with squats. He remembered teaching his seven year old son to do squats and push ups. His son! His wife! His family! He’d been so bogged down with his predicament that he had forgotten about his family. He broke down with wracking sobs as he mourned them. He mourned for all the lives that were lost, he mourned for his planet.
He’d been stumbling along aimlessly for hours when he saw a sudden flash of light. It lasted only for a couple of seconds, but it was the most welcome sight he’d had in weeks. He ran his hands on the module walls and discovered that he’d somehow wandered into the discarded Leonardo cargo bay in the Russian part of the ISS. With a renewed hope, he started searching for things he might use to survive a little longer.
And he hit the jackpot.
He found hundreds of sealed packets of borscht, mashed potatoes, nuts and dried beef. For the second time that afternoon, Tom wept like a child. For entirely different reasons though. He fumbled in his pockets and retrieved his Dictaphone.
‘Major Tom Jones Log no: 38. After three weeks in the cosmic darkness, I saw a brief flash of light. Was it a sign? Is there still hope for me in this ocean of vast nothingness? I’m like Robinson Crusoe and the ISS is my Mas a Tierra. I cried twice today – first for my dead family and others on Earth and second because I found a cache of food. Am I so selfish? Is my survival that crucial? My belief is renewed. I can survive for few more years with the provisions available. But, do I want to? I’m all alone in this Universe. I don’t know! I guess I have to face each day as it comes. From tomorrow, my sole mission is to find a way to get the electrical systems to function again. It will take few weeks in this darkness. But time is one thing I have now. A new day, a new dawn!’
Tom clicked the Dictaphone off and stumbled his way back to his sleeping quarters.
Meanwhile, at the NASA MCC at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Mission Leader Mackenzie Runnels wiped the tears from her eyes. She sighed and turned towards Mission Commander General Nathan Burns
‘Sir! It’s painful to watch. Can’t we do anything?’
General Burns cleared his throat, ‘What the heck has happened to him, Runnels?’
‘Major Tom Jones has been rendered deaf and blind because of the exposure, Sir! But he believes that all life forms on Earth is dead and the darkness is because of power failure in the ISS.’
‘Why the hell would he think that?’
‘I guess Major Jones has suffered tissue damage in his brain due to the heightened radiation levels. He must be suffering hallucinations and reduced brain processing capacity.’
General Burns looked thoughtful, ‘But, what about the light? Jones mentioned that he saw a flash of light. Is his eyesight returning?’
Mackenzie shook her head in the negative, ‘It’s just an aftereffect of the solar flares, Sir. Sometimes, when the eyes are exposed to very bright flares the brain captures an image of it which gets replayed on the cornea.’
‘So, Jones is done, right?’
‘In all probability he has a high chance of having developed cancerous cells as well,’ Mackenzie pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘If we can get him back soon, we have a shot.’
General Burns had a sombre look on his countenance, ‘Runnels, I think you do know that the rescue mission is a non-starter. We don’t have the shuttle, or the budget. Even if we have both, the docking port is not operable at the ISS.’
‘Sir, but the Russians or the Chinese…’
General Burns snorted, ‘Do you think that our President would agree to this? In your dreams.’
Mackenzie’s voice choked, ‘What then, Sir?’
‘The poor man gets to decide how long he wants to live. I regret whatever has happened and I definitely will pray for Jones,’ General Burns declared solemnly. ‘Guess we need to break the news to the family, Runnels.’
Mackenzie looked at the video feed from inside the ISS. Tom hummed to himself as he groped for his sleeping bag.