“I like the quiet,” she had said to Matt, a few hours and forever ago.
She had been thinking of supermarkets and highways, cell phones and car stereos, sirens and televisions and airplanes overhead. Compared to that, while she had floated out over the great swell of the Earth, the gaps between comm chatter had felt like a glimpse at true isolation. The white noise of her EMU circulating air, the rasp of her own breath, the faint hiss of her radio… what were those, held up against a decade spent in hospital basements, machinery roaring all around her and a cacophony of human hope and suffering above?
As the Canada Arm had lifted her away from Explorer’s cargo bay, up toward Hubble’s gleaming cylinder, she had looked down at oceans and hurricanes and mountains and felt her mind empty. The nausea had faded. The litany of worry and contingencies had quieted. For a moment, the crew and Houston alike had all been occupied with silent concerns. And she had felt alone. At peace.
Ryan had never spent much time outdoors. She had lived in cities and suburbs all of her life, thoroughly cocooned by civilization. She had never been one for camping, and her daughter had never had a chance at pestering her to try. She had never walked barefoot on grass that wasn’t mown and manicured. Never heard her own ears’ tinny screaming against the absence of sound. Until a week ago, nose pressed to a window of Explorer’s crew cabin, she had never seen the Milky Way.
She stood and faced green mountains, the lake and its soft waves behind her. Sand and reeds pushed up between her toes. A breeze plucked at her hair. Insects and frogs and birds called out to one another. The valley teemed with life and movement.
That pulsing, breathing, swimming, swaying shoreline was quieter than any place that Ryan had ever been.
As she had explained with the eloquence of practice many times in pre-flight interviews, Ryan was not a medical doctor. She was a medical engineer. She built machines that peered through living tissue and ferreted out its secrets. That her work had as much bearing on distant galaxies as it did on tumors was not surprising. She was in the business of precise observation of inaccessible things; the subject matter had always been one of convenience.
But Dr. Ryan Stone was also a scientist, and one that did not enjoy uncertainty. As a payload specialist, she had not come up through the Astronaut Corps, but she’d put in her six months of training; she had taken extensive notes during lectures; she had done all of the suggested reading.
As she’d sat in her seat on Explorer’s flight deck, face to the sky, countdown echoing around inside her helmet, she’d felt certain that she knew what to expect. This mission was going to try to kill her with inexorable indifference, but no more than any mission would. For an astronaut, every day was a step closer to dust.
In the end, she had only been in space for a week. Barely long enough for her neurovestibular system to reach peak levels of disoriented panic. Another few days, and the queasiness would have faded enough for medication to manage it. Her red blood cell mass would have decreased by ten or fifteen percent. Her body would have begun to retain fluid and electrolytes, particularly in her face; the hard lines of her cheekbones and the creases between her brow would have smoothed out and faded; she would have learned to speak with lips that felt stiff and clumsy. Their physical work on the Hubble completed, she would have been transferred to the Space Station for the remainder of her time in orbit, relinquishing her spot on Explorer to an astronaut bound for home. For the next six months, she would have exercised for two or three hours each day, taken enormous doses of Vitamin D, eaten a perfectly balanced diet, and still she would have grown frail. Without the perpetual struggle with gravity to keep it strong, her body would have metabolized its own bones, her muscles withering, her heart weak. She would have absorbed about fifty milli-Gy of radiation.
In the end, a week was all she would ever get. Space had made a spectacular effort to kill her, and had failed. It would never get another chance.
Ryan’s legs were shaky, from dehydration and hunger and shock and the tumultuous fall from a plateau of adrenaline. She walked up and down the red sand of the shore. She squinted at the mountains beneath the shade of her palm. Streaks of fire tore across the gaps between the clouds.
She wondered what was left up there.
CAPCOM had told her a rescue team was on its way.
Ryan would have preferred to meet them standing -- covered in mud and stiff with dried saltwater, but on her own feet. On her own terms. Dignified, even barefoot in her underwear. She had wanted to radiate calm and competence. She had wanted to be a professional.
She had spent hours choking and straining and spinning and colliding and weeping and mourning, and now that the urgency had faded she hurt. Her muscles hurt. Her bones hurt. Her head hurt. And she was tired.
She walked back to the shore and eased herself down onto the sand.
The buzzing took some time to distinguish itself from the insect chorus around her. By the time Ryan had picked it out, the sound was loud and close and unmistakably engineered.
A gray shape melted out of the afternoon haze. Ryan watched as it resolved into a little quadcopter, four propellers around a squat body and spindly legs. It drew a sine wave down the length of the valley, hovering no more than a hundred feet above the reeds and water. When it reached her little patch of red sand, it slowed and stopped. Something on its undercarriage flashed in the sunlight. She lay back on the ground, her arms crossed behind her head, and the two of them regarded each other.
The buzzing shifted in pitch. Her visitor descended, settling itself on the shore well above the tideline. Its plastic body was completely unmarked. No flags. No text.
For a minute or so, Ryan waited to see if it would do anything else. She wasn’t sure what she expected -- a tiny speaker broadcasting instructions? A note tied to one of its legs? A panel that would open to reveal a medal? A cyanide pill? A very small sandwich?
It remained still and silent. Eventually, Ryan conceded to its perfect mechanical patience.
She groaned as she rose up onto her feet again. She had pulled a muscle in her back, and now the others were cramping in sympathy. The trembling of her legs had worsened. She wished she had something to lean on. Or a chair. Or pants.
The drone had come from the northwest. The truck came from the east. It trundled into view from between two hills and bounced toward her over the rocky coastline. A Humvee, she thought, or something like it. Matt would have known.
A large antenna had been haphazardly strapped onto the roof.
There were two people in the truck: a driver and one passenger. They were both dressed in fatigues, but their uniforms were different. The driver looked East Asian. The passenger was dark skinned, and a woman. For the first time since she’d landed, Ryan wondered where she was. She was too tired to feel anything but distant curiosity.
The truck stopped about ten feet away. The woman jumped out and ran toward her. Still seated, the man held a radio up to his mouth and said something that Ryan couldn’t hear.
“M’am, my name is Private Bergen,” the woman said. “Do you require medical attention?”
Ryan licked her lips. They felt very dry. She realized she hadn’t drunk any water in seven or eight hours. Longer? No one wants to pee during an EVA. “I’m fine,” she said.
“Can you tell me your name?”
“Stone. Doctor Ryan Stone.”
If Bergen recognized her, she gave no sign. “Doctor Stone, there was a crash very close to here a few hours ago. Did you see it?”
“Yes,” said Ryan.
The man had gotten out of the truck. Now he stood beside Private Bergen, his expression serious. “Where is the capsule?” he asked in crisp accented English.
Ryan pointed to the lake behind her. “There was a fire in the cabin,” she said. “I had to open the hatch.”
The man wrote something on a small pad of paper. Bergen frowned. “Doctor Stone, are you saying you were on board?”
Bergen looked at the clipboard in her hand, flipped a page, looked back up at Ryan. “Doctor Ryan Stone.”
“Explorer.” Ryan swallowed. “Yes.”
“How did you gain access to the Shenzhou?” the man asked.
Ryan stared at him.
“Private Tan and I have been sent to bring you back to camp for debriefing,” said Bergen. “You’ll be staying with us until we can find you a ride home. Do you understand?”
“Can you walk?”
They sat her in the back seat of the truck with a bottle of water and a protein bar, a scratchy wool blanket draped over her lap. She watched as they packed up the little drone and stowed it in the trunk. The radio hissed between muffled fragments of a language she couldn’t understand. She drank all of the water and immediately regretted it. The truck felt like it was rocking beneath her.
When Bergen took her seat, she unfolded a yellowing topographic map and pulled on a pair of headphones. “I’m not getting a good signal from the transmitter,” she said. “We’ll have to cross the hills again first.”
A bulky satellite phone lay on the seat beside Ryan. Its screen was dark. No one reached for it.
In those first few hours, Ryan was told very little of substance. But the questions she was asked and the poorly-hidden murmuring around her described the general shape of things.
No one was sure what had happened, or why the damage was so catastrophic. The Russian debris field had been tens of thousands of miles below geosynchronous orbit. The leading theory was an ill-considered attack of opportunity on a military satellite -- from the Chinese or the Americans or the Russians, depending on whose whispers you were listening to.
The cause was a mystery, but the effect was perfectly clear. The TDRSS -- the system of satellites that relayed signals between ground and orbit -- had gone down early in the timeline of events. It had taken them almost a quarter hour to realize why the signal had been lost, and more time still to switch over to some version of the old ground-based STDN. But many of those space-to-ground stations had since been decommissioned, and most were within the borders of other countries, and the engineers who’d built them had long since retired or died. As Ryan had sat waiting for rescue on the beach, they’d only just cobbled a network together, its coverage full of holes and its existence negotiated through panicked crackling phone calls.
By then, there had been nothing left in orbit talk to. Only shrapnel and a handful of corpses.
The crews of the ISS and Tiangong had landed safely, but their re-entry was where the official timeline ended. No one else had seen what Ryan had seen. No one else knew what she knew.
Sole survivor of Explorer’s destruction; sole witness to all that had followed.
They debriefed her in a large conference room. A flat-screen television hung at one end, with a small camera mounted on top of it and microphones set out along the table.
The television was not turned on. The camera was ignored. She was handed a cordless phone, then left alone in the room. No one at camp had the clearance to listen to what she had to say.
For the next several hours she spoke with an anonymous crowd of men whom she was not introduced to. The Americans, carried through cables from DC to California to Guam to the continent, sounded like shadows of themselves. Like ghosts. The Chinese were clearer, but their questions were all translated by the same young woman, and the dissonance almost made Ryan laugh.
She expected them to laugh. She hadn’t slept, but she had eaten, and she had calmed down enough to hear herself with some degree of remove. She knew how her story sounded.
But they had seen the Shenzhou land. They had watched as waves of debris burst into flame above them. In the nighttime half of the world, they had looked up with their telescopes at the holes in the sky where space stations and shuttles and satellites should have been.
She was Doctor Ryan Stone of STS-157, scheduled to join Expedition 50 aboard the ISS. She had been photographed and fingerprinted and interviewed and verified. At the beginning of the communications blackout, she had been fixed to the end of a Canada Arm. Hours later, she had swum out of a Chinese capsule on the bottom of a saltwater lake.
They asked her what had happened. They asked her what she had seen. There were gaps in her recollection, from lack of oxygen and tumbling chaos and sharp blows to the head and the impossible enormity of grief and terror. But she described what she remembered in as much detail as she could bear.
She spoke for hours, until her voice shriveled and faded to a whisper.
No one laughed.
All private transpacific aircraft had been grounded indefinitely. All freighters not already at sea were being held at port. Land-based Area Control Centers could manage with only radar and radios, but few commercial pilots were trained to navigate without GPS; oceanic air traffic control and navigation depended on it entirely.
She heard rumors that panicking governments had closed their borders; that planes violating their airspace were fired upon.
She heard soldiers whispering over coffee about units left to fend for themselves in the desert, navigating by the sun and stars, their calls for help relayed by civilian volunteers over what remained of the Military Auxiliary Radio System.
She was told that she would stay at camp until a military transport could be arranged. They explained there was no protocol for this. They asked her to be patient.
A week passed before anyone from NASA could reach her.
Private Bergen -- whom Ryan liked very much, and who had made a point of staying close by -- brought her to the conference room again. “It’s Administrator Carroll,” Bergen said.
Ryan remembered her: Hannah Carroll, Associate Administrator of Human Exploration and Operations. They had met several times in Houston. Carroll had made a point of working closely with the Astronaut Corps, and with more temporary payload specialists like Ryan. “We’re all part of the NASA family,” she had said, often and sincerely. She wrote personal notes in all her Christmas cards.
“The call will be monitored,” said Bergen, her tone sympathetic. “Take your time.”
Bergen left, and Ryan picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Ryan.” The name came out like a sigh. “It is you. I almost didn’t believe it.”
“That’s understandable,” said Ryan.
“I read the report. I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine.”
“I’m fine,” said Ryan. “I’ll be fine.”
“We’re all so glad to hear you’re safe. We were so scared for you.”
“You’ll be home in a few days,” said Carroll. “The president wants to meet you.”
“There’s going to be a ceremony, but we’ll keep it short. You won’t even have to speak if you don’t want to.”
“That happened a few days ago. The administration decided it couldn’t wait.”
“You’ll be presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal,” said Carroll. “I insisted they do it all at once. You’ve been through enough.”
“I don’t understand,” said Ryan. All she’d done was survive. Ceremonies and medals were for heroes. Explorers. Great artists and humanitarians. She was none of those things. Her work on the Hubble had been destroyed. She hadn’t saved anyone -- anything -- but herself.
“You were the last American citizen in orbit,” said Carroll. “The last human to-“
The line went abruptly silent.
For a moment, Ryan thought the connection must have been lost. It had happened more than once before, and transpacific calls were the worst of all.
She heard a small, soft sound over the static of their connection. She realized Carroll was weeping.
She had assumed her fame would burn bright and fade. So much had happened; so much was gone; so much had changed and crumbled and broken. Farmers who had come to rely on detailed weather reports now lost their crops to mismanagement; hurricanes swept in over the coasts without warning; whole industries were thrust into sudden irrelevance; rural communities that had bled their young people for decades already now quietly evaporated to nothing, their isolation made unbearable without high-speed internet and cable television. Ryan kept up with the news, when she could bear to. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would think of her; how anyone could have the energy to care about a woman they didn’t even know, and who had done nothing for them.
The world’s reply filled her inbox every morning. People -- many people, thousands of strangers who wrote and spoke to her like they were old friends -- had taken taken her into some deep, unquestioning corner of their hearts.
Ryan didn’t want to punish anyone for this. She knew grief and hurt and longing. But she had given her speeches, and accepted her honors, and made her appearances on television and in schools. She was tired -- of crowds, of security escorts, of the sound of her own voice, of feeling idle and useless despite so much time on the road.
Without work to tie her to any one place, the road had taken over her life.
Almost a year after her fall from the sky, as she sat on the porch of her parent’s new cottage overlooking Lake Charlevoix, she decided she was ready to stop.
She tugged on connections she had so far ignored, fished stacks of business cards and emails scribbled on bits of paper out of the bottom of her purse, called unlisted phone numbers and replied to long-neglected correspondence.
The call from Administrator Williams came a few weeks before the anniversary. Ryan was in the kitchen with her mother. She’d been trying to make a pie.
“Dr. Stone,” said Williams. “Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. I hope you weren’t calling to cancel, we’re all looking forward to seeing you.”
“No, I’ll be there.” Ryan held the phone between her ear and shoulder as she wiped flour from her hands. “I wondered if I could come a little early.”
“Of course. Just let us know when to expect you, we’ll set you up with a place to stay.”
“Actually…” Ryan took the phone in her hand again, mouthed an apology to her mother, and pushed open the door to the back patio. “I wanted to ask about a job.”
The night was chilly, and Ryan pulled the neck of her cardigan closed as she sat down on a plastic deck chair. “The Kessler Project,” she said. “Is that still happening?”
Williams paused. “I’m sorry, Dr. Stone, I can’t really discuss that on the phone.”
“I know. I know that, but…” The chair creaked as she leaned back and tilted her head to the sky. The stars were bright and steady. “I want to help. Whatever you need.”
"Doctor, I hope you don't feel obligated to-"
"No. No, this is what I want."
When Williams spoke again, Ryan could hear the smile in her voice. "We'll talk when you're back in Houston, Doctor."
Ryan smiled, too. “We’ll fix this,” she said.
Ryan stayed on the deck for some time after that, watching the Moon slide across the sky. She could make a real difference with this, she knew. She could give them the eyes to see what lay in wait; to find and map and catalog the trillions of fragments that barricaded them from the stars.
She could help them forge a path.
Ryan flew to Houston the next day.
She'd planned to drive, had chosen her route and bought new maps and packed accordingly. But in the end she left her car behind.
They had found her an apartment close to the Space Center. They would pick her up at the airport. She could take a shuttle to work, if she wanted. Or walk, if she didn't mind the stares of commuters on NASA Parkway.
She had driven enough, she decided.
Now she had work to do.