If you get a sailor drunk enough, one who has done his duty in the comm shack on dark and stormy nights, you'll hear him talk about them. He'll do so only after looking over his left shoulder, tossing back a tumbler of the hard stuff, and even then only in whispers, and he'll deny it the next day. Pilots, too; men experienced with the Victor Airways and the darkened passages between the clouds and the hard cold earth, who have put in their time looking out over burning instruments into the awesome dark of nature's fury or, worse, her sheer uncaring blankness.
The stories persist.
Sometimes it's a voice; sometimes a system mysteriously coming online, NAVCOMM waking up midflight. Sometimes a positional indicator will draw itself in glowing luminescent lines across the moving map, and a man or woman out at the mercy of the winds and water would do well to follow when it beckons. Lives have been saved by the airy breaths of phantom that drift down from above.
Once, they might have been called St. Elmo's Fire; lights dancing around the rigging to show sailors the way to safety - or to doom. Now they live inside computers and radios, moving ships and airplanes and dirigibles desperate (or not desperate enough) across the map, chess pieces of superstition and oncoming disaster.
I had heard of them from old-timers in bars, after that fateful last drink, before you pack it in and head home. I'd never seen one.
Not until Day Twenty-Six.
We were running shutdown checklists, the three of us, before an all-too-brief rest. Seema was reading off values from the lifesystem to Ground; I was putting the attitude control and RCS to bed, and Devon was checking over the last ten science task lists before we closed it down for a rare communal sleep cycle. The Station was medium-busy, with all of us moving from place to place with checklist pads glowing in our heads-up displays and trying not to bump each other too much. We were tired, but we had a right to be; it was Mission Day Twenty-Six, and we'd only had one experiment scrubbed due to equipment failure and two others saved due to Brilliant Improvisations and we were still only a day behind schedule. That meant lack of sleep.
I had settled into a station at Ops to finish up with Ground, and everything was closing down relatively smoothly. "Ground, this is Kat, confirm done with page Alpha Romeo Charlie Sierra Niner Seven Five."
"Confirm Sierra Niner Seven Five, Kat. One to go."
"Okay, Bud. Put down that damn beer I know you have. Starting page."
"Roger starting page. Man, this beer tastes good."
I snorted and checked the main control wheel velocity deltas again, read them off. Bud read them back. I was moving on to confirming that the Dump panel was locked down when something glittered to my right. "Wait one, Ground."
I moved over to the Tracking station. All its panels were dark; the Station's radar was shut down to avoid interfering with communications or experiments, and no personnel were outside. We were relying on ground to give us warning of any incoming debris during the checkout period; when we went down for rest period, a watchkeeping proximity radar would be left on alarm. The flicker had come from one of the panels on the tracking station, but nothing showed there now. "Never mind, Ground. Continuing."
"AM Dump panel locked, checked and set?"
"Roger, AM Dump panel locked, checked and-" the flicker happened again, longer this time. "Wait one, Ground, I have an intermittent indicator on Tracking."
"Kat, we show Tracking off and locked."
"Affirmative, that's the worry, I'm checking it now." I moved over to the Tracking panel again and checked the mode switches. All were firmly to OFF, with covers in place. Nope. But as I watched, the local display suddenly flickered amber, a target moving from the edge of the screen directly in towards the center - the Station - and vanishing in an apparent impact. I sucked in my breath, instinctively, but the display went dark again. Nothing else happened. "Damn it."
"Kat? What's up?"
"Bud, I have a transient malf on the Tracking display, it's showing-" The target relit at the edge of the screen, followed the same straight path across the display, and terminated at the Station's outer hull. I stopped talking and looked at it, hard.
"Ground, hold, tracking electrical fault." I clicked off the downlink and moved over to intercom. "Guys, get to Tracking please."
"What's up?" Devon answered immediately; he hadn't been on the Downlink, apparently. There were paired clicks which meant Seema had heard but was probably talking to Ground on a different channel.
"I don't know." The Tracking screen did its pantomime collision again. "But I don't like it."
"Coming." I could hear slight thumping noises amongst the continuous cacophony of the Station's systems as Devon worked his way into the Ops module. A few moments later he was hanging next to me. "What?"
I pointed silently at the tracking display. It was now repeating the 'collision' every few seconds. He looked at it for a few cycles.
"Is it malfed?" I shook my head, then pointed at the OFF mode knobs. He startled, visibly. "What the hell?"
"No idea. But it's been doing that same thing for a couple of minutes now." There was a slight jostling from behind us as Seema, the third crew member (and second woman, to the never-ending joshing of Devon from the macho hairychested NASA contingent groundside) poked her head over our joined shoulders.
We both pointed at the screen. She watched for a few seconds, and then Devon pointed at the mode switches. She, too, exclaimed in confusion.
"What happens if we turn the damn thing on?" asked Devon.
"I don't know. It's not per procedure, it'll foul up the experimental protocols if we do it at full Tracking power or before sleep period."
Seema looked at her chrono. "It's sleep period in four minutes. I say we switch it over to alerting mode at that point."
Devon looked at me. "You're command."
"Shit." I sighed. "Okay, are the checklists finished?"
"Mine isn't. I have to talk to Bud." I clicked back. "Bud, this is Katya. I need to postpone the remainder of the page for a deviation."
"Talk to me."
"We're getting, um, anomalous behavior-" Seema gave me a thumbs up -"from the Tracking display panel when in 'OFF' mode. We want to power it up to Alert at the beginning of designation Sleep period as per experimental protocols and observe it."
"Okay, let me get with GNC and CAPCOM." There was a silence of maybe thirty seconds, then he came back on. "Kat, you are GO to go active on tracking at zero one one five zulu, your discretion."
"I copy go for active track at zero one one five zulu, thank you Ground." I looked at the others. They nodded. Seema held up a finger, looked at her chrono, paused for a bit, then brought it down and looked at me. I flipped the mode switch to TRK.
The display lit, showing the two deployed experimental instrument packs and various bits of the Station's anatomy in close proximity, along with a couple of small bits of debris that we knew as old friends - a bolt, two pieces of tubing and a Twinkie wrapper. Don't ask.
After a few seconds, the phantom target swept in from vaguely up-orbit, scythed down across the screen, and terminated precisely at the join between the Hab module and the Docking port. Then it did it again.
"Shit." Devon was pointing, with a shaking hand. I followed his hand, looked at the display's time hack.
As we watched, the cycle began again, and the display's time indicator blipped back to 01:24:01Z.
Then the cycle happened again.
Seema looked at her wrist. "It's 01:17."
I didn't hesitate. "Devon, bring up RCS, now. Seema, unlock the damn Progress capsule and kick it loose, sealed, if this goes really bad, we're going to need it."
They stared at me for a second. I lost it and yelled. "MOVE IT, DAMN IT!"
They scrambled away, Devon towards the Attitude Control and Reaction Control System board, and Seema towards the Docking Connector. I tried to still my shaking hands and clicked back to the Downlink. "Ground, this is Kat, over."
"Roger, Kat, this is Bud-" I cut him off, serious NASA etiquette breach.
"No time, Bud. Stand by for emergency uncontrolled vector change, collision avoidance. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday."
There was a few seconds of silence. Then a voice came back, still Bud but, blessedly, gone into that flat roboticism that professional aerospace types get when it's all gone pear-shaped. "Roger your Mayday, ISS, this is Ground, acknowledging unplanned vector change for collision avoidance. We are standing by to track delta-V and inbound targets; stand by for sitrep."
Thank God for training.
Well, I'm telling the story, so obviously, it all worked out all right in the end. Seema got the Progress loose, and Devon and I got enough thrusters to fire in time to move us about fifteen meters. Then we were struggling with the damn reaction control wheels, trying to absorb the crazy set of vectors we'd just dumped into the explosion of tinkertoys that is the ISS without the thing bending any of its seams, and as a result we almost missed the event itself, but at 01:24:02Z, Ground let loose with a shout that almost took my ears off.
"HOLY MOTHER OF CHRIST, KAT-"
-I looked out a port, startled, in time to see a flicker of light move from the station to the com relay some three klicks up-orbit, there was a brief wave of what looked like silver, and then there was a loud thump, like someone had slapped the entire station with a wet towel, and all the work we'd managed to do with the RCS got flipped into a cocked hat and we had to start all over again.
* * *
Some hours later, when we'd had time to damp most of the egregious vibrations down, we got hold of the outside observation cams and slowed the footage down as far as we could. Most of it was useless, but one of the docking cams had a single frame which showed a streak moving across it, silvery, with a nimbus around it. Ground looked at it, decided it was a 'fast-moving ferrous meteoroid' already partially vaporized from a prior skim across the atmosphere. We'd been slapped by that gas layer around it, and they said that we'd been unbelievably unlucky that it had come that close and unbelievably lucky that we'd moved, because it would have taken the docking connector (as Dirty Harry would say) clean off.
Bud was babbling with relief on the Downlink. "Kat, it's good you guys had the Tracking radar up and saw that thing coming in, because we never got a glimpse of it, I mean, we saw it way too late."
We all looked at each other, and nodded. "Yeah, Bud, a good thing."
None of us ever spoke about the incident to anyone else. I never even told the other two about the flicker of light leaving the station before the near miss. But every once in a while, I think about the stories those sailors and pilots tell, about how they almost bought it but something brought them home, and I know I have a story of my own. I even know where my personal guardian lives.