“Spotting the emergency panel, I quickly fumble with the catch, yanking it open. Its contents spill out onto the floor: oxygen breathers awaiting to be filled with oxygen that we don’t have, food and water rations, and some tools.”
The space base is visible through the lifepod window, but with both the engine and the life support system out of commission, it doesn’t matter how close we are to it. I knew we should have checked the pod before we set out from the USS Stronghold, but the damage to the ship was so extensive that we couldn’t have afforded another minute on board.
I turn to the harsh metal wall enclosing us, the wall that’s both keeping us alive and suffocating us at the same time. Spotting the emergency panel, I quickly fumble with the catch, yanking it open. Its contents spill out onto the floor: oxygen breathers awaiting to be filled with oxygen that we don’t have, food and water rations, and some tools.
The rations are useless; we’re not far from the base. But we’re still trapped, and we have less than half an hour of air. Anton steals the manual, opens it and frantically flips through, while I examine the breathers. It takes me a bit longer than it would have, since I can barely see — the pod is only lit by the floor lights, dull, bluish-white spheres that only just keep the darkness at bay.
“All the breathers seem to be working,” I say. Not that it matters. “Found anything in the manual?”
“Da. I have, actually,” Anton says. “This manual is very useful. It even has instructions in Russian. I think I have an idea.”
“Okay,” I say, sighing with relief. “What’s the plan?”
“Well,” he says, “I will need to connect two breathers to one oxygen tank. I think I can make a jump-start.”
“Of the engine?”
“Da.” His eyes are bright, with fear and determination and something else I can’t name. “The, ah, breathers will help recirculate the, um ….” He snaps his fingers, agitated, trying to find the English words to explain what he’s thinking before slumping his shoulders in defeat. “Is all in the manual, in Russian.” His cheeks redden. “May I have the breathers?”
“Okay. What else?”
“Um … I can set up the breathers and work the wires. Can you look outside for somewhere to dock?”
“Easy,” I announce, heading back over to the porthole. It’s misting up, and I have to rub a space with my hand to see out of it. For the first time, I notice that it’s getting warmer in the pod — oxygen depletion. I can practically feel the carbon dioxide building up, suffocating us. Sweat beads congeal at my temples, in my gloves, at the base of my neck, and I’m suddenly glad I decided to tie up my long hair before we left the ship. I press my nose to the glass, trying to spot a suitable place on the base to land. It’s growing as we get closer and closer, but something out of the corner of my eye calls to me: red lights, flashing on and off, outlining a perfect square near the top right corner of the window. The shuttle bay. It’s designed to open as soon as something comes close enough to its sensors, so if we can somehow maneuver close enough, we might be able to get in.
“Is the shuttle bay good?” I ask. Anton looks up from the exposed wires, and nods, brightening up.
“Da,” he says. “Thank you, Sujana. Shuttle bay is perfect. Can you find wire tools?”
“On it.” I kneel down at the pile on the floor, where the contents of the emergency panel had fallen. I sift through the breathers and useless rations until I find the sleek metal tools needed for handling the pod mechanisms. “Which one do you need?”
“Ah … it looks like a stick with two things at each end?”
“That’s not for wires; that’s for metal. Screws and bolts and stuff.”
“I need to open another panel,” he answers. “Please, Sujana. You trust me, da?”
“Of course. That’s a stupid question.”
“Then may I have the wrench?”
I slide it out from the pile of tools and hand it to him. “What exactly is it you’re doing again?” He’s on the Engineering track so this is his domain; my straight A’s in bioscience aren’t going to help me now.
“I cannot tell you now; I need to concentrate,” he says apologetically, tugging off his gloves so that he has more dexterity with his hands.
“Well, can’t I help?”
“There is no room. Two people cannot fit into the panel to fix it. I am very really sorry, Sujana,” he says sincerely.
I bite down my frustration and nod, one hand still on the pile of tools, watching him as he works. I can see the worried crease of his brow, the way he bites his bottom lip, and I know that he is only human and that this plan is about as liable as the next. Although I do trust him, there are still about a million things that could go wrong. Micrometeorites. More damaged pod mechanisms. The slightest typo in the manual. The wrong wires accidentally brushing together. My paranoia isn’t helped by the fact that I don’t know the plan, and I have half a mind to grab the manual and flip to the English section.
“Anton? You know what you’re doing, right?”
“Konechno. Of course I know. Life is on the line here.” He hesitates, then adds: “Besides, I cannot think of another idea. I am very sorry.”
“It’s fine. I don’t have anything yet either.” The frustration I’m feeling bleeds into my voice.
“That is okay,” he says. “I think we will be home soon.”
I look out again at the base, the hunk of manufactured metal that I have called my home for the past nineteen years, and suddenly it seems too small, too constricting. Figures. I should never have tried to leave. What was I thinking, getting on the cheapest flight to Earth? I knew the price was too good to be true. I’ve never been anywhere else, not even to any of the terraformed colonies — my only home is manufactured. I’ve lived my life surrounded by metal, breathing in recirculated air and eating packaged food, and the one time I try to escape, the ship breaks down completely. There is nothing natural about my life except for my view of the stars outside.
Earth. I’m suddenly struck by awful nostalgia. I feel like a small child, crying to my mother that I want to go back home, except I can’t go back home because I was never there. I’m already going home, to the base, the only place in the galaxy that I have ever known, and yet this feeling of loss consumes my entire being. It’s a strange thing, this homesickness — a homesickness for a home which I have never had.
“Can you tell me about Earth?”
Anton’s face breaks into a huge smile. “Konechno. Of course I can, solntse. There are so many places to go and people to meet and it is all so different, but it is the same planet and we are all human beings. Before we moved here, we travelled a lot on Earth, so I have been all over, and it is lovely. They have cities that sometimes seem as big as the base, and there are so many different people to meet and buildings to go to, and especially at night it is amazing because there are so many lights. There are little villages that are built into mountains, and there are cities in the middle of the red, red desert, where you think no life could possibly exist, and there are big green and yellow fields of plants with little wooden houses in the middle. There are cute little towns that are so small and cozy, with little buildings and little parks. There are towns built near these red and green trees that seem to be so huge that they touch the sky, as big as mountains. And the mountains are wonderful, too — some of them are covered in snow, and others are covered in grass, and either way they look so peaceful. And the oceans — some of the beaches have the nicest yellow sand that is so soft and warm between your toes, and the water is so blue, bluer than the sky almost. And then sometimes there are coral reefs beneath the surface with fish, and they are the most amazing colors you will ever see. And the best part is when the sun rises or goes down, it looks like it’s setting the whole sky on fire.”
“I’ve never seen the sunset,” I say mournfully. My world is lit by fluorescent lights that flicker on and off like clockwork. “What’s the sun like?”
“Krasivaya,” he answers. “Beautiful. The most beautiful thing in the universe. It is big and warm and bright and you know it is always there, making the clouds and the bad days go away. It gives life to everything and everyone it touches. And sometimes when the nights are starless and cloudy and too dark and cold and not beautiful at all, you know that the sun will come and make the day bright and beautiful again. And it does — it always does. It never leaves forever — it is always coming back, and it lights up the entire world.”
“Do you miss it?”
Anton’s smile softens. “Nyet. I have another sun now.”
I can feel my cheeks get hot, and stand up to peer out the porthole again. It’s getting steadily stuffier, and there is more condensation on the glass. “How are the wires coming?”
“They are coming,” he says, burying himself in the panel again.
“Just tell me if you need anything,” I say, suddenly aware of how stiff I am. I reach my arms up to stretch, but my hands bump the ceiling of the pod almost immediately. While I’m not claustrophobic, the size is beginning to bother me. I need to get out. I need to get out of this deathtrap and back to the base, but then what? When I think about it, the base is just an enlarged version of the pod, another deathtrap that just so happens to be bigger. Even the air seems to be pressing in on me. Already the breaths I am taking seem to be stuffier, less air and more CO2.
“I’m going to go,” I say out loud.
“To travel,” I clarify. “As soon as we get back. I’m taking the next ship back to Earth.” Even as I say it, the plan sharpens into perspective, as if I’ve been looking at it through a blurry microscope and have only just switched lenses. “Do you think we can get our money back? Or we could save up for a better flight. One way or another, I’m going to Earth. And then I want to go to the ISS. Not the museum piece from the 21st century, the new one; the one that’s actually being used now. And then I want to go to the lunar colonies on Jupiter. And then I want to go to Alpha Centauri system and visit the lunar colonies there, and then I want to go to Space Base 12, because it’s right near two of the biggest colonial planets in the galaxy and I want to go to them, too. And then I want to keep going.”
“I did not know you wanted to travel all over.”
“Oh yes,” I say, determination and enthusiasm making my voice louder than usual. “I don’t want to stay stuck here. I’m going all over the galaxy.” I’m already planning out how to tell this to my parents, what supplies I will take, what routes I will go. I’m over eighteen, which means that by the law I am an adult, and as long as I have proper identification and travel passes, nobody can stop me. I know that there are more things I have to consider — the effects of being a base baby going to Earth for the first time, for one — but they seem insignificant at the moment. I don’t know why it took me so long to look beyond the base. The one barrier between me and a trip to Earth vanished the day of my eighteenth birthday. And then, after I get done with Earth, there are the stars ….
“What about your mother and father?”
“If they want to come,” I say slowly, “they can. But that’s a big if.”
“I understand,” Anton says gently. “May I have pliers?”
I slide back over to the pile of tools and hand him the one in question. “Spasibo,” he says, the dim lights casting odd shadows on his face. “Thank you. We will be home soon.”
“May I ask you a personal question?”
“You said you travelled a lot, right?”
“I’ve known you for four years, but I’ve never really known exactly … how many homes have you had?”
Anton looks up and blinks at me, considering my question. “Do you mean how many places I have lived before or do you mean how many homes I have had? Because they are different answers. I was born in Moscow and stayed there until I was seven, and then Pyotr was old enough to travel so we traveled. We never stayed in one place for very long though; I think the four years here on the base is the longest I have ever stayed since Moscow.” He turns back to the panel and pokes his head in. I watch his shoulders move as he works, still talking. “That is why I wanted to go back for a visit – my grandparents are still there.”
“But where else have you been?” I am impatient to hear what he has to say.
“We went to China first, somewhere in the countryside but it was close to Shanghai, and we stayed there for almost a year. Then went to Kathmandu, which is in Nepal, and we stayed there for a few months, near the mountains. Then we went to Agra, which is amazing. If you are ever in India to visit the places your parents grew up, you should sometime visit Agra, even if it is only for a few days.”
“I’ll definitely keep that in mind.”
“Da. And then where … ah!” His voice, previously muffled by the panel, becomes clearer as he sticks his head out. There’s a spot of grease on his nose that I’m itching to wipe away. “And then when I was ten we went all the way to Egypt. Was a long journey, but Egypt is fantastic. And then the next year we visited both Turkey and Greece, and then when I was twelve we went to Switzerland, and then France. And then we went to Spain before we went to the United States. And then when we were in the United States, my parents heard about the space base, and now I am here. So, if you are counting places, then….” He casts around the pod as he does the tally in his head, as if our tiny little world has the answers. “Dvenadtsat,” he finally announces. “Twelve.”
All I can do is stare.
“But that is only places I have lived. With homes ….” He trails off. “Is different, I think,” he says at last. “Is not just about the location. It is also about the memories you make, and the people you make them with. Wherever that takes you. So, if you are judging by that definition, then really … two. One with my family: Mama, Papa, Pyotr. And one here. With Selene and Zachariah and Omar. With you.”
The intensity of his gaze makes my face warm as he continues. “So once you have left the base and you are travelling, I think it is important to keep that in mind. A home can be a place, or it can be a person, and sometimes it can be a combination of the two. It can be your family, or it can be someone else that you have met, or it can be both. It can be where you grew up or where you live now or somewhere in between. But I think the main thing is, it has to be something that you know you will always be able to go back to.”
“Come with me,” I blurt out before I can stop myself.
“On my travels,” I clarify. I know the idea is preposterous; more than that, it’s selfish — I can’t just ask him to drop everything and abandon his family just so he can follow me. But I can’t imagine going without him. “I’d like you to come. Please?”
Anton smiles. “Of course, solntse. Of course I will come with you.”
There’s a sudden clunking noise from the panel, and Anton jerks around. “Done,” he announces. “Here.” He reaches in and takes out the breathers. The oxygen tank on one of them has been disconnected; instead, both breathers are hooked up to the single canister, which in turn is hooked up to a single blue wire that trails from the panel. “Here is the thing — life support is damaged, but not all of it. It is the siphoner that is not working. That means that the air cannot be filtered and made breathing again.”
“Da.” He reddens. “The air cannot be made breathable again. But the thing is that the main circulation system is still working.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, it means that the air pump still works.”
“Yes, but what does that mean? What’s the pump do for us? Layman’s terms.”
“Who is Layman?”
I make a mental note to explain it to him later. “Just … explain it to me like I’m five. I’m a lab intern, not an engineer.”
Anton nods. “Da. Well, the air circulation system, um, circulates the air into the siphoner, which cleans it and sends it back out to be breathed. Since the siphoner is destroyed, the air is just being pumped around in circles, not being cleaned or re-filled or anything.”
“The pump that moves the air still works.” He holds up the oxygen masks. “This blue wire is connected to that pump. I disconnected it from the siphoner and to the canister. And this” — he points to a green wire inside the panel — “controls the speed of the circulatory system, and keeps the pod at an even pressure. When it is cut, the circulation system will go out of control, and it will take all the pod’s air and push it into the pump. And the pump will fill the canister with the air, so we can breathe properly, since the siphoner on the breather works fine.” He hands me one of the masks, still attached to the canister. “The drop in pressure will also activate the emergency engine mechanism, which we can use to steer back to shuttle bay.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“Yes, Sujana,” he says. “I am absolutely sure.”
“Okay.” I take a deep breath, steeling my nerves as I slip the breather over my head. “Then are we ready to go?”
Anton nods, one hand tugging the mask over his face and one hand on the wire cutters. “Ready to go.”