“Houston, we have a problem.” Grace stared at the monitor as Ricardo tried to communicate with NASA. “Houston?” Anyone?”
“How does he do that?” Grace wondered. “How does he keep calm in the face of disaster?” Her voice rose half an octave and cracked a little when she gave him an update.
“Houston has a bigger problem, Ricardo.” Three or four mushroom clouds blended together where Houston used to be as they passed over in the ISS. There were more ominous clouds sprouting up all over the hemisphere, just as there had been in on the other side of the planet when that’s where their orbital path took them.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a home to return to, Grace. And I was so looking forward to a hero’s welcome, with a big parade. After quarantine, of course.” Ricardo was almost smiling.
“You’re writing off our planet pretty easily there, Ricardo.”
“Look at the bright side, Grace. We’re the lucky ones. The ISS is our home now, not just our home away from home.”
Grace looked at Ricardo, eyes glistening, frowning. “I think you’re right,” she agreed in a tremulous voice.
“Smile, Grace. Now you can feel good about sleeping with me. I am the last man on Earth.”
Grace ignored Ricardo’s jibe and looked at the monitor again, the green and blue sphere that used to be Earth now covered in billowing mushroom clouds. Beautiful, but deadly roiling masses of orange and rust colors.
“OK, technically I’m not on Earth,” Ricardo admitted. His eyes glowed and he smiled broadly when Grace turned back to face him with an intense look and a grin of her own.
“I know what we can do.”
“So do I, Grace, Believe me, so do I.”
“No, not that. We have a docked shuttle. I think I can rig her to be powered by electricity, fed from our solar panels. Then we can regain mobility.” Someone in Houston had miscalculated.The fuel load in the shuttle she brought up to relieve Ricardo was almost gone by the time she docked.
“How does she do that?” Ricardo wondered. “How does she keep see the solution where others only see the problem?” He decided to wait until her solution proved itself before pointing out that they had nowhere to go. Except for space, the final frontier.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“How’s it going?” Ricardo’s voice echoed in Grace’s helmet. She was finishing up her modifications on the shuttle. She ignored the question, focusing on applying the correct torque to the last bolt.
“Hello? Is this thing on? Tap, tap, tap.” Ricardo didn’t sound frustrated or panicky; he was just attempting humor. “One of his better qualities,” Grace thought. “Humor, no matter what.”
“I just finished,” she radioed back.
“Great! Let’s give it a test burn.”
“Not yet! Let me get back inside first, and double-check the schematics.” Grace sounded panicky, not funny. She wished, just once, she could share Ricardo’s ability to laugh in the face of adversity.
“Oh, all right, spoilsport.” Ricardo couldn’t hide the smile in his voice, even when he tried to sound upset. Grace checked the tension on her tether, floated around the shuttle to look everything over, then proceeded back to the ISS hatch using a hand-over-hand method to pull herself along. She opened the outer hatch, floated just inside, unclipped the EVA tether and pulled it into the airlock, then closed the outer hatch.
Punching the button for cleansing, she allowed the high-powered jets of neutralizing powder to spray her all over. They were one of the latest additions to the ISS. Somebody at Space-E, a copycat company wishing to model their success after Space-X, watched the entire Alien series again and decided anyone entering the station should be sprayed down in case they were carrying any alien spore on their suits. It took five years to develop a nanotechnological bio-spray, in a talcum powder form, that would allegedly neutralize any foreign objects attached to an astronaut's suit.
“As if,” Grace thought, while she spun in place. “Without knowing what sort of alien otherness might be encountered in space, there was little chance that some new technology would be able to neutralize it.” Of course, Ricardo joked about how the spray would neuter astronauts, disallowing procreation to spawn untrained space travelers. She did enjoy the spinning sensation, though, and the suit material was always nice and clean after the spray down.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“I think she’ll work.” Grace looked up from her hastily drawn blueprints. “The power-to-weight ratio looks good to me.”
“We can fire them up,” Ricardo agreed. “But do you think they’ll be powerful enough to move the shuttle, AND the attached ISS?”
“Of course not,” Grace answered. “This will just be a test of power to the electric thrusters. Then we’ll need to transfer enough solar panels to the shuttle, mount them strategically, do another test, move to the shuttle, detach, and then we can fly away.”
“Come fly away, fly away with me.”
“He can joke, but he definitely can’t sing,” Grace thought. But she appreciated his efforts to make light of the situation, to bring humor, and his definite interest in her. So she smiled, and kept comments about his singing voice to herself.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“OK Captain, where should we go now?” asked Grace. They were in the shuttle, solar panels attached, thruster power more than adequate, and ready to decouple from the ISS.
“Oh Captain, my Captain,” Ricardo tried to sing. “I think you should be the Captain, Grace. After all, you designed and rigged this shuttle.”
“Since I’m the Captain now, thank you very much, I think we should plot a slingshot course around the son, keeping our solar panels charged up. On the other side of the sun, we depart that trajectory and head for deep space.”
“Aye, Aye, Captain. I’ll be plotting the said course. Argh. And I think I’ll be plottin’ something else, once we’re on autopilot.”
“Plot well, Ricardo, plot well. After all, you’re now the First Mate.” Ricardo blushed, looking flustered and surprised. It was Grace’s turn to laugh.
“You’re not the last man on Earth, Ricky. And I’m not the last woman on Earth, either. We’re the first couple in the million mile high club. Or at least we will be.”