There were three of us on orbit when the whole thing started. Michael ("Mike") Lillenberg, U.S. Air Force
. Alisher ("Alice" despite being bearded and six foot one) Dubrov Kelensky, Russian Federal Space Agency. And me, Quentin ("Quint") Racz, Cal Tech mech E
via NASA. The ISS
was up to its usual tricks, including moaning fans, leaky zero-G toilets, oscillating humidity in the docking connector and a solar wing that was wavering between four and five degrees of arc in response to random station vibration, which was playing hob with our power budgets.
I was in the hamster wheel doing my daily mandated cardio when Alice came bounding through the hatch from Serenity/Node 3. The man bounded everywhere, even when he was using his hands to move around. In one hand he was waving a sheet of paper on which he'd scribbled some notes. "Quint! Is being fucked. All of us."
I looked over at him and removed my headphones. My iPod continued feeding a stream of mindless technopop to the air. "Why are we to be being fucked?"
He gave me a dirty look. "My English better than your Russian, fartknocker."
"I know, asswipe. What's the problem?"
"Look!" He thrust the sheet at me. I took it and frowned at the contents. It was a message from Houston regarding the Endeavor's upcoming resupply mission, due to dock in nine days.
"What about it?" I refrained from wiping sweat from my forehead with the flimsy and handed it back.
"You not see? Look again!" He poked at a spot with one hand repeatedly while holding out the pad. I took it again and squinted through his fairly awful handwriting.
"Crewmember...Dole...appendicitis...substitute...mission specialist already approved...Carynne Elezar." I looked up again, this time in horror. "Carynne?"
"Da! Is what I have been telling you. Carynne."
I let the stationary bike slow to a stop, holding my feet out from the pedals while I thought furiously. "Nine days."
"Nine days." Alice looked around us, gloomily. "Will be enough?"
I winced. "Going to have to be."
* * *
Two days later, the three of us met in the Unity module to check our progress. Mike looked like he wanted to cry. He was holding a large stack of glossy prints. "I'm almost done."
Alice patted his shoulder commiseratingly. "Mine is to be all in storage bin by now."
They both looked at me. "Yeah. I went over my area in the hab yesterday nite."
"Where'd you put yours?" Mike asked.
"Not telling," I said. We all laughed. "Okay, one more check - each of us rotate, check another area of the can, and we'll call it done."
So we did, meeting back in Unity fifteen minutes later shaking our heads.
"Okay." Alice said morosely. "All issue standard now."
I'd never seen so much plastic and aluminum in one place. Sighing, we went back to work.
* * *
The remaining week passed uneventfully, other than the occasional mournful complaint muttered idly among ourselves. Endeavor made dock, and we all trooped down to the PMA (Pressurized Mating Adapter, and yes, the jokes have all been made) and waited for the hatch to crack. When it did, there was the usual cheerful hello and welcome ceremony - the six members of her crew all gawked around like the tourists they were allowed to be for the fifteen minutes we all could spare, and then we all started moving bundles of supplies, equipment and trash between the station and the Orbiter.
Carynne Elezar was a looker. That was problem number one.
She caught me lugging two bales of plastic and paper waste into the hatch. "Hey, Doctor Racz..."
"Sorry. Quint." She smiled, and I quailed inside. It was such a nice smile. "I see we've got all the flags up here by the hatch."
"Yeah." We both floated and looked at the sprawl of flags that various crew had left attached 'over' the orbiter's docking hatch. "Hint of home and color."
"Well, that's what I wanted to ask you about," she said. "What's the protocol on decorating the hab?"
"Oh, we're all cool with that," I said. "I presume whatever you've got passed the sniff test?"
"Yeah." She looked faintly embarrassed, and I nodded. Having to submit all your personal effects to NASA to be sealed up in baggies and then sniffed mightily at intervals by a team of specially trained schnozzes in case your items produce rankness can be red face inducing. I don't think I've ever washed socks as hard as I did then. "Anyway, I've got a few family pics and the like..."
"Oh, of course, no problem. You're going to be on-orbit what, three months?" She nodded. "Sure. The sniff-safe duct tape is in locker 55L in the Hab, and there's NASA Scotch tape in there too."
"Thanks!" She bounced out. I covered my face for a second, then resumed hauling trash.
* * *
The Shuttle stay was as crowded as it usually was. You think you're going mad, cooped up in this madman's gerbil maze with two other guys - you find yourself yearning for new faces. Then they've been onstation maybe three days, and suddenly you find yourself longing for the relative quiet of the crew interval, with only three of you and no worrying about newbies' elbows or whose stomach wasn't used to the rations and the slightly strained socializing that comes from deliberately avoiding any insult offered or taken.
It was a relief when Endeavor undocked, waved goodbye, and then slid off up-orbit towards her re-entry window. The four of us looked at each other in the PMA and then nodded and all went about our business.
Carynne had adjusted fast to the incessant noise onboard the can. The fans, pumps, motors and air currents made the whole station roughly as noisy as a large boiler room at all times. We had noise-cancelling headsets on orbit, but if you didn't learn to tune it out, you'd go bats. Luckily she looked like one of the naturals, not developing the telltale hunch and tensed jaw of the sonophobe. She took her ritual hazing without complaint, hid a raw egg in Mike's sleepsack when he was a little too familiar with her panties and the message corkboard, and generally settled right in. We all breathed a sigh of thanks.
It only took her two days after the egg incident to corner me in a remote area of Soyuztown. "Quint?"
"Sup?" I was juggling two breaker modules, trying to decide which of them was giving off the smell of magic smoke, without contaminating the air in the can.
"Why don't you guys have anything on your walls? Did I make some kind of newbie mistake putting up my pictures?"
Whoops. "No! No no no, not at all. Your nephew is really awesome, makes the whole area sunnier." (This was true; the kid was perhaps five, and had one of those grins that was infectious even through a Kodachrome.)
"Oh...we'd been cleaning the station before you guys got there, and we never put our stuff back up when we finished wiping it down."
"Ah." She didn't look completely convinced, but accepted it. I waited for her to get out of sight, reseated one of the breaker blocks at random (hey, if it was the bad one, I'd find out soon enough anyway) and moved over to the stores inventory at the hatch. I logged on to the stupid little unit and brought up TinCan.
WALLS TOO EMPTY SHE NOTICES. -Q
We used TinCan to talk to each other when distributed around the station. Intercoms were no good, it was too damn loud. The official Station chat app was called 'StarBridge' or some such stupid propaganda name. It was written by a committee in Baikonur and Palo Alto and looked like IN SOVIET RUSSIA, AIM MESSAGES YOU!
Naturally, the second crew had included a CS maintenance guy, and he'd whipped up a sub-rosa chat app that was much faster, much easier to use, worked with our Bluetooth crew modules, and best of all wasn't logged anywhere ground could read it. We were pretty sure Ground didn't know it was there, and each successive crew had kept the secret. Unless there was a full crew handoff, tradition was to let newbies find it before explaining how to use it, and we were pretty sure Carynne hadn't had time to poke around on the pathetic OrbitNet yet.
There was a brief pause. Then, FORGOT PUTTING OUT SNAPSHOT OF BASSET HOUND. -A
Another pause. Then, laboriously typed because Mike hated computers, WILL GET DAUGHTER PICS OUT. WHAT STORY? -M
I typed TOLD HER CLEANING AND NOT PUT BACK. -Q
The guys signed off with the NASA/RFSA equivalent of kthxbye and I moved back towards the hab, trying to look nonchalant. The other two met me there. Without a word, we all rummaged in our lockers, pulled out the various pictures of family and friends and taped them back up over our bunks. Carynne looked at each of us funny that evening during Snack, but didn't say anything, so neither did we.
The next day, I was cleaning the Hab alone, when I noticed that one of Alice's pictures of his basset (no, really. It was a pretty cute basset, too, mournful look, pigeon-toed, ears dragging the concrete and everything) had come loose on one side and was flapping gently in the vent breeze. I moved over to tape it back - you wouldn't believe how something as innocuous as a moving bit of paper can drive cooped-up people to complete irrationality - and froze.
The back of the picture was intermittently swinging into view. On it was the current champion of the Miss Atom nuclear power beauty contest from Russia (Not kidding. Look it up) and, well, no, she wasn't wearing much of anything. In fact, she was making it very clear that she expected the cameraman to get excellent shots of some very private bits of her, and the scribble across the corner had a lipstick print and Alice's name written in permanent marker.
I hurriedly taped it down, good and hard, and finished cleaning the hab. It was all I could do to avoid whistling innocently.
The next Lunch, I had trouble not looking at Carynne and asking myself if she had seen it. She certainly wasn't acting any different.
I know, I know, you're thinking 'what's the big deal?' Well, let me tell you, being locked up with three other people in a space the size of an average studio apartment with enough machines to rebuild the Titanic, it doesn't matter how innocuous it sounds. If it pisses someone off, you're all in deep shit. So I watched Carynne, sweet young Carynne, moving amongst us perverted old farts for a couple of days, but she offered no hint she'd seen it.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
* * *
Two days later, I pulled myself out of my sleep sack, ignoring the other three snoring around me, and made my way to the head. While doing my business, I yawned massively and stared idly at the overhead.
There was a picture there. It was luridly colored, the size of a sheet of A4, and was of a hard, bronzed beach boy sitting on a bench idly massaging a huge, rampant wang.
I think I choked. I know I wobbled enough that it took me five minutes to clean out the john. I moved back into the Hab and looked at my sleeping crewmates. None had moved.
Well what. The. Fuck.
I tore down the poster and looked at it. No hint of its origin; it could have been pulled off any internet newsgroup or website of the past five years. It was printed out by what looked like a color laser printer.
And damn, that guy had a huge donger.
I hastily crumpled the thing up, and then realized my mistake. There's nowhere to permanently get rid of anything in the Can, unless you can eat it - and we were all being monitored heavily enough that if I started chowing on typing paper, if that ink wasn't totally harmless I was sure to blip something. Couldn't burn it. Couldn't toss it out.
I eventually settled for soaking it, tearing it into tiny pieces and flushing it through the zero-G head. Then swore for ten minutes, realizing that any of the little pieces that had struck the Solid Waste Separator were likely stuck there, and visible, so I had to clean the damn blades, and then clean my hands again.
But I got back to bed without anyone else waking up.
* * *
A day after that, I was asleep when I heard a loud coughing. I woke up and saw Alice holding a squeezie of water, with a lovely spray pattern across the opposite bulkhead. He was staring at something I couldn't see because he was blocking, but I had an uneasy feeling, so I got out of the sack and looked.
It was a black guy, maybe sixty years of age, and a latino kid of around twenty, and boy, they looked happy.
"You.." Alice pointed at it, then at me, then produced an almost comical expression of confusion.
"Wasn't me." I said grimly. "I found one yesterday in the john."
"Well can only be Carynne!"
"Can you prove that?"
"Yeah, and if we bring this up, and we're wrong or even if we're right, she squawks at ground about the sausage party making her uncomfortable and we're fucking done."
"You don't think she would..."
"I don't know."
He nodded after a moment. "What to do?"
I pulled down the picture and showed him how to shred it into the toilet. I let him figure out about the blades, and slipped out while he was cursing in Russian.
* * *
We did ask Mike, naturally. But he had no idea what we were talking about, and we didn't have any to show him. "Quint, how did she get it aboard? You know nobody manages to get it on the damn Shuttles." This was true. NASA was such a legendary pain in the ass that the Russians in Baikonur Cosmodrome made a steady living shipping all the little necessities of life up to the Can. We'd all gotten ours there. But there hadn't been any Russian capsules up since Alice's predecessor and his flightmate had gone back down the well two months before.
"I don't know how she got it here. Maybe she's printing it out on orbit?"
Alice shook his head. "I check logs. No imagery transferred up. Also, we don't have color laser, and NASA-approved inkjet color all shitty, not like that."
"Goddammit, I don't know. We'll just have to wait."
So we did.
* * *
The next day, we found a picture of a sheep and a strapping lad affixed to the food locker door. Mike spluttered when he saw it, and ripped it off the wall before shredding it into tiny pieces and stuffing them into his empty food container. (I thought ruefully of how much better a solution that was than my adventure in plumbing.) "Where the hell..."
"We don't know, man. Chill."
Alice patted him commiseratingly on the shoulder.
I looked at them both. "We're going to have to talk to her."
"What?" They both looked shocked.
"You heard me. How long can we go on like this before we go bananas?"
There was a glum silence.
"Okay. Alice, talk to her."
"Me! Nyet, you pig-faced-"
"No. No no no no no no no-"
"Okay, okay, I got it. Assholes." So I slouched off towards the Europa module, where Carynne was busily being remote hands for some highly excited German students.
I waited until she'd signed off. "Hey, Carynne."
"Hi Quint!" She stowed the experiment module and turned to me. "What's up?"
She cocked her head, inquiringly, looking puzzled. I privately gave her an Oscar, but continued manfully. "See, before you got here, we cleaned up the station."
"Yes, you said. After being here a week or so, I see why." She ran a finger across the nearest bulkhead, looked at the end of it and rubbed it on her thumb. "Is it always like this?"
"No, once one of the Brits smuggled up a cigar, and disabled the smoke detector. That's why it's slightly yellow in Zvezda."
"Oh! I'd wondered why it was sort of stale."
"Yeah...um, wait, you distracted me."
I ran a hand through my thinning hair. "See, we took all our pictures down."
"And didn't put them up."
"Quint, what's wrong? I know all this, you told me."
"Itsbecausetheywereallporn." I said it really quickly and flushed anyway.
"Porn." I forced myself to say it. "They were all porn. All of them."
She looked at me and then burst out laughing. "Oh, my God. You guys are so completely stiff! I haven't seen anyone this embarrassed about a porn stash since my Mormon roommate-"
I cut her off, despite being vaguely curious about Mormon tastes. "Look, it's serious. There's a problem."
"Okay, I'll bite. It's a problem you guys don't have your skinpics?" She was leaning against one bulkhead with her shoulders, her feet floating. She looked like she was trying hard to contain a giggle.
"Yes! Yes, it is. Because, well, it's really noisy, right? And it's totally functional up here. And without, you know, visual aids, it's hard to...to..."
She dissolved into hilarity. I stood there, face burning, and waited her out. When she'd calmed down, she said in a tone of sympathetic understanding that made me grit my teeth, "Quint, I don't care what's on the walls. If you guys want dedicated hours in the module when I'm not there, just say so."
I blew out a breath. Relief was uppermost in my mind. "Um, maybe. Yeah, that might be best."
She said, straight faced, "You're not my type."
"Good! I mean, that makes things easier." I wiped my forehead, which had somehow gotten sweaty. "Look, we have one question."
"How did you get those damn pictures on board?"
"I didn't," she said. Then she smiled sweetly and pushed off for another neighborhood of the Can. I floated there for a second, stupid look on my face, doing furious calculations in my head. Then I stiffened (no, my spine, idiot) and stared openmouthed at the wall.
"Son of a bitch."
Following which, I went back to the empty hab, pulled out a picture of a figure skater I'd always liked wearing a pair of skates and a smile, and taped it carefully over Carynne's bunk.
Then I went to dinner.
When I came back, the picture was gone. I nodded.
"Quint?" Alice caught up to me on the bike again. "How did conversation go?"
"Fine." I stopped the bike. "She says she's okay with photos or whatever and we can hang a tie on the hab if we need to."
Alice let out a gusty breath of relief. "Thank Goddard. Have been having trouble getting shorts on."
I gave him the fishy eye, but he looked back. I shrugged and finished my bike interval.
* * *
That night, before turning in, I searched the hab when everyone was away. I found what I expected.
When they showed up, I was holding the figure skater picture and a picture of a twenty-year-old wrestler, his shorts inconveniently around his ankles. The other three squeezed into the hab and looked at me, then at the pictures, then at each other. Mike started in, saying "What the fuck are you doing?"
Alice was staring at me. Carynne was looking at me in curiosity. I waved the pics at them. "I'm clearing the damn air."
"I found this-" I waved the figure skater- "in a personal locker. I also found this other one in a personal locker."
Alice turned to Carynne. "Must tell me how you bring on Shuttle. I can make money just telling others your method."
Carynne looked at me, confused. I shook my head. "Nope. Nice try, Alice."
He turned to me. "What?"
"Well, the figure skater's mine. I left it taped...well, somewhere. But I found it in Carynne's locker." We all looked at her, and she colored slightly.
"I said you weren't my type." She looked only slightly flushed. Alice looked at her again, a light of new fantasies dawning in his Russian head, and she slapped him without much malice, just to make the point, and laughed.
I took the picture of the wrestler. "Mike, it's okay, man."
He was looking at his feet. "I just didn't want to have to tell you."
"Jesus, Mike, we thought we were doing you a favor trading pictures of cheesecake. How come you didn't just own up?"
"Because we're stuck in this damn can! What if one of you was a 'phobe?" He turned to me, irritated. I backed off.
"Yeah, okay, I can see that."
Alice was looking back and forth between me and Mike. "You mean...those pictures..."
Mike cut him off. "She didn't bring 'em, I did."
We all looked at each other for about half a minute.
Then I ostentatiously went over to Mike's locker and opened it, riffled through his stack and removed seven or eight of the pussy pics I'd loaned him. "Then I want my ladies back."
Carynne neatly intercepted me and snatched (har) the stack out of my hand. "Mine!"
We looked at each other again, and then laughed.
* * *
All of us were scheduled on Atlantis at the end of the interval. We left the entire Hab module papered with a mixed selection of all our collections. Carynne, the minxy bitch, even left five pictures of herself naked in zero-G, just to wig out the incoming crew. Mike left his whole collection scattered in among the rest of the pictures, and we knew that everyone would assume they were Carynne's, which given 'don't ask don't tell' seemed a good idea.
Every Valentine's day, I get three emails. One from Russia, one from a mil.net address, and one from a gmail account. I'll let you figure out the attachments.