The Second Russian
by Ian MacAllen
THE coup began just after 1:00 p.m., local time, while we passed obliviously overhead. I was on my third sunrise. Five hours would elapse before I heard anything. There had been no tanks, only bank clerks who drained the President’s accounts. There were no warplanes or missiles, only television airwaves controlled with a flipped switch. There had been no assassins; the rebels simply took control of the president’s social media, his website, his email address. The whole thing ended before anyone could tweet it. By then, the president was as tame as a LOLcat, sanitized for t-shirts sold at Urban Outfitters.
I spent the morning changing a light bulb. They say even the ordinary is extraordinary in space, but mostly they mean everything requires exponentially more time to accomplish because you are weightless. The best way to appreciate gravity is for a critical bolt to drift away while you work. Forget to velcro your screwdriver to the toolkit? You’ll spend the next twenty minutes searching for it. Changing a light bulb requires a forty-seven-point checklist. Each step has been vetted by an engineer, a technician, an experienced astronaut. We spend weeks training for minor tasks. Four screws attach the light cover in place. Each one must be removed and safely stowed before moving on to the next. The cover slides off, and it too needs to be affixed someplace while replacing the bulbs. There are two, and both are swapped out at the same time to avoid the hassle of repeating the process in a week or two weeks or three when the second one fails. Return the cover. Screw it back together. Three hours later and I was ready for lunch. I was drifting in the galley when Andrey, my Russian counterpart, floated in from the communications control module.
“I have not spoken from Mission Control Center since the morning,” he said. It was rare to hear Andrey speak English.
My Russian was worse: “Is there a problem?” I asked, although I might also have said, “do you have a fancy hat?”
“I do not know,” he replied. He pushed off the wall and drifted out of the room before elaborating. We kept separate lives. He took orders from the Russian Space Agency. I took mine from Houston. I wondered if Andrey had finally decided to confide in me. I imagined him agonizing over the decision — “Should I tell the American about the communications problems?” — like it was a marital conflict he wanted to talk through with his coworker around the water cooler. I wanted us to have finally have bonded as shipmates. I worried Andrey disliked me. We should have shared a sense of camaraderie here, three hundred miles above the earth. We were not Americans and Russians. We were not divided by language and culture. We were humans here, united by our common origin, and our common detachment from the planet below. We were never quite chums. I suspected Andrey had not chosen today as the day for us to become friends. The problem was more serious than he wanted to admit.
I radioed Houston.
“Commander Walker, this is ground control, what can I do for you?” an unfamiliar voice asked. The call was unscheduled. Houston always wanted us to follow the schedule.
“This is Commander Walker. My Russian counterpart has reported a communication problem with Korolyov. Do you have any information on this?”
Even over the static I could hear the crew in Houston scrambling, shuffling papers, scratching heads, fiddling with slide rules, contemplating contingencies. Silence passed between us.
“We haven’t heard anything about that,” the response came from another unfamiliar voice followed by more silence.
“Could you find out?” I asked.
“We can look into that,” the voice said again. I could tell they knew nothing. They were contacting liaisons and checking sources and calling Washington and Langley and Moscow. I imagined the activity, a hundred little baldheads scurrying around, until finally someone said, “Please hold for Director Higgins.”
Now I was worried. Higgins only ever spoke to me when I fucked up. The last time the director patched in was my first month in space when a solar panel malfunctioned.
As I waited for Higgins, I lazily browsed the internet. The connection was slow but serviceable. The most ordinary part of the job was spending our down time mindlessly browsing the internet like any office worker. The top news story had what I was waiting for from Houston: Russian President Ousted! As I clicked on the link, Higgins decided to pick up his microphone.
“Robin, this is Higgins.” He had that bland voice of politicians and radio personalities. Sometimes I wondered if the reason he had the job was because of how he must have sounded on phone calls.
“Good afternoon director. Pleasure to hear from you.”
“Anyone else listening in on this? The Russians? Specialist Sato?”
“I’m the only one on the line,” I said, though my attention was with skimming the CNN article, …president has been neutralized by a silent and stealthy coup, claims a Kremlin source. A former FSB officer…
“We’ve heard rumors,” Higgins began. He spoke with a dry and pasty voice. “It’s possible there has been a regime change.”
“You mean the coup? I’m reading about it here on CNN,” I said.
“We are waiting for confirmation,” the director said.
“It says here, …a source inside the White House confirms that the Russian government has reached out to diplomats around the world.”
Higgins didn’t say anything.
“Will this be delaying the resupply ship?” I asked. We were expecting fresh supplies within the week. The Russians sent up equipment and food on their capsules. They provided the only link to earth since the retirement of the shuttle program.
“Not at this time, but be prepared,” Higgins said through a sigh.
We both knew missing the launch window would delay the resupply by at least a month. The station’s orbit shifted, and we needed to sync with the launch pad. I couldn’t help but think of Sergei Krikalev. He had been operating the MIR station at the fall of the Soviet Union. Between budget cuts and ineptitude, he spent almost a year circling the earth alone. He had gone up a communist, and returned to earth a free market capitalist.
“Despite the potential for the delay, we are to proceed as normal,” Higgins said.
We ended the conversation and I spent the afternoon upgrading our guidance computer software.
Each night, the station crew ate dinner together, a ritual communal moment instituted during the station’s first mission. Space is lonely. The communal meal was so ingrained in us that even the second Russian, the one who did not exist, would emerge from his module. Igor lived in isolation deep inside the Russian capsule. The population of the station is officially three: Andrey, Sato, and me. Igor does not exist.
I first met Igor the night I arrived at the station. Sato and I arrived together replacing two NASA engineers. I was taking the place of specialist Cho, a chemist who had spent most of her time on the station becoming a YouTube celebrity with a series of videos she titled Girl In Space. Houston loved Girl In Space thinking it a public relations success that would earn them more Congressional allocations.
At dinner that first night, the old crew and the new crew gathered in the station’s mess for a farewell banquet of thermal stabilized meatloaf and rehydrated mashed potatoes. I was counting out packets of juice when I realized there was an extra person aboard.
“Do not be alarmed,” Igor said in English, and then, in Russian, I am not really here.
I had only used my Russian in Houston’s language lab up until then and the words sounded awkward to my untrained ear.
“My colleague says he is not real,” Andrey answered. “Do not be alarmed. I see him, too.” Andrey laughed at his own joke. Now that I consider it, my failure to laugh at his joke might be what I owe our icy relationship to. His smile faded. “Two of you,” he said pointing to me and Sato, “two of us.” Andrey pointed at himself and Igor.
After the banquet, when Cho, the pilot, and the French linguist were boarding the Soyuz capsule to return to earth, Cho pulled me aside. She had spent a year on the station already. “Everyone pretends Igor doesn’t exist. But he comes out at meal times and occasionally I see him on the exercise equipment. It’s easier to just play along than ask too many questions. They hate questions.”
“Is he a spy?”
“Of course. And don’t be a fool, the CIA sends them up, too. If it’s not you, it’s Sato,” Cho said, glancing across the station to the scientist. He was so gangly I couldn’t imagine him passing a CIA field test. I decided a YouTube celebrity probably didn’t know what she was talking about even if she did have a Ph.D. in chemistry. We sealed the hatch and watched the Soyuz capsule drift away, disappearing on the horizon as it descended into the atmosphere. From then on, I pretended I did not see Igor.
On the first night of the coup, Igor was not at dinner.
“Where is Igor?” I asked in Russian, or maybe I said, “Igor is a hairy dog.”
“He is not hungry tonight,” Andrey replied.
Sato said nothing.
“So are we going to talk about what is happening down on earth?” I asked.
Andrey was eating his fruit cup. He said nothing.
Sato squeezed cheese onto his spoon.
At last, in Russian, Andrey said: “Nothing has officially happened.” Then, “But if you want to gossip about what maybe is happening, we can, like they do on television. XOXO, Gossip Girl.”
“Everything on the internet says you have a new government.”
“Governments come and go. In Russia, government elects you,” Andrey joked. I was amazed at his grasp of English, well hidden in our months together.
Sato ate his pears.
“We are being told the resupply will be late.”
“You worry too much,” Andrey said.
“We should have started the clock by now,” I said.
“If they launch, we will see them coming,” Andrey said.
“Does Igor know anything?”
“Igor who?” Andrey said in Russian. He finished his fruit cup before returning to the Russian module.
The next morning, I was reviewing the task spreadsheet sent up from Houston and sipping on my warm packet of coffee when Sato slid through the hatch from the biology lab. “We have a problem,” he said. My first thought was that Tsukuba had better information than Houston or the Russians were giving us.
“Some of the frogs have escaped,” he said.
“Frogs? I thought you were working with tadpoles.”
Sato looked at me as though I were an idiot.
“Yes, I understand that tadpoles become frogs,” I said. “I didn’t realize your tadpoles were becoming frogs.”
“We wanted to find out the effects of a new steroid on development in a weightless environment. The good news is that they develop more quickly than we anticipated.”
“Forty? Maybe fifty?”
“How do you not know?”
“I don’t know how many survived.”
Then I saw a frog. It was the size of a dime and bright green. It floated through the module moving its legs attempting to swim through air. I watched as it floated passed us, its movements having no effect on its trajectory. I scooped it up with my hand, felt it bounce off the inside of my palms. I cupped both hands trying not to crush it.
“Get me something to put this in,” I said. Sato floated back into the laboratory.
I felt the frog press against my hand attempting to jump or swim or understand what was happening to it. It was unable to affix itself. I exhaled a deep breath into my cupped hands. The squirming slowed. I exhaled again. Without gravity, even the air molecules stand still. The carbon dioxide saturated the frog’s lungs. I had killed it.
Sato appeared with a bag we used for refuse.
Andrey had an enormous head. It was massive. I had heard a rumor the Russians custom built a helmet for him. Sometimes I would watch him working and wonder what kind of thoughts he produced in his giant head. Was he smarter for it, or was it simply bigger, an eyesore? In Russia, giant head grows you.
“Any word yet from ground control?” I asked.
Andrey was exercising on the bike. The machine wasn’t so much a bike as it was a set of pedals attached to a resistance block. There was no seat. Without gravity, the seat was moot.
“Officially I cannot tell you one way or another. There is protocol when contact is lost. My protocol says I cannot tell you if we do not have contact. And the protocol says that should we lose contact with Korolyov for more than six hours, I should follow that protocol. So, all I may say on this is that we are following protocol.”
“That sounds like a long way of saying no.”
“I would not eat all of the chocolate pudding cake just yet,” he said.
The chocolate pudding cake was our favorite dessert in the mess hall. There were never enough.
I was relying on the internet to keep me updated on what was happening in Moscow. The news had devolved into speculation. The Russian president was sick with the flu. The Russian president was staging his own counter-coup. The Russian president was in league with the lizard people who control the earth. I clicked around in my usual sources and found only a new meme, a photo of the Russian president shirtless and riding a horse, only someone had photoshopped a dragon in the horse’s place. The caption read, “If it’s a coup, why do I still have my dragon?” There were other variations with the president riding ever more ridiculous objects. My favorite was of him on an Italian moped.
That evening, when I radioed to Houston, Higgins answered.
“We have confirmed that the Russian president remains in office, although how much power he still wields is a matter of debate,” Higgins began. He was an excellent bureaucrat known for his detail-oriented briefings. “Power has possibly transferred to a cabal of FSB agents and business leaders,” Higgins was saying. I was looking at the memes. There was one where the president was riding a giant rainbow and another with him straddling a missile like in Dr. Strangelove. Each had captions. Some were funnier than others. “…and at this point in time it seems that the new government is looking to use the space program as a political bargaining chip to extract aid packages from us. Delaying the launch of the resupply…” There was another image with the president on a My Little Pony cartoon, and another with him riding a gecko. “…So at this time we have some concerns with timing a new resupply vessel…” and then he was sitting on a red tricycle, and then he was riding a T-Rex. “…Commander Walker? Commander?”
“Yes, I’m here.”
“As I was saying: though we don’t anticipate this becoming an issue for quite some time, you should be prepared in case of shortages, to launch the spare Soyuz capsule and return to earth. It’s always possible for a protracted negotiation period without supplies.”
“The Soyuz capsule only seats three,” I said. There was a long pause where Higgins said nothing and I was waiting for his response. “What about the second Russian?”
“You are to evacuate before your oxygen supply expires. All three crew members,” Higgins said.
“The station has ninety days of oxygen. The rations will last that long if you conserve them.”
Then Higgins turned me over to a junior specialist to go over the following day’s schedule. We had another day of routine maintenance, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Igor. He was more than the second Russian. I had eaten a hundred and eighteen meals with him so far. Even if the Soyuz escape pod was only a hypothetical contingency, the possibility of leaving Igor behind left me uncomfortable.
We still had twenty-four hours before the resupply ship would have to launch. Houston and Korolyov were not talking. Korolyov was not talking with us. Houston was talking, but not telling me anything useful. There was always the possibility they are sending the ship anyway. I am an optimist so I ate the last chocolate pudding cake packet for breakfast.
“I hope that was good,” Andrey said. He had a way of floating up behind people when they least expected it. I suppose we all did.
“Your people are holding us hostage. Your government is using this station as a point of negotiation,” I said.
“My people would never do such a thing, but some people’s government might.” I could not tell if he was being coy.
“If the resupply does not come in three months, my instructions are to abandon ship in the Soyuz capsule before the environmental systems shutdown.”
“We are in agreement,” Andrey said.
“But what about Igor?” I asked.
“Who?” Andrey said, a smile broadly filling his face. “I find some of your frogs this morning.”
“More of them?”
“It’s okay, I sent them out the airlock,” he said, laughing. He pushed off toward the commode. He was constantly tempting me with the absence of information.
I woke to an alarm. I was strapped into my sleeping bag, a precaution to keep me in place. My nose filled with the faint hint of something burning. Not a fire. Not actual smoke. It is a reminder that something is not right, like hair left too long under a dryer. I pulled the velcro straps off my legs and floated toward the odor.
Andrey was already in the control room when I arrived. “What is the problem?” I ask, but definitely might have said, “I like your stockings.”
“Alarm coming from environmental system,” he said frantically pushing buttons. “Short circuit maybe.”
“Why is the backup not functioning?” I ask. There are redundancies. There are redundancies of the redundancies.
Andrey pulled out paper schematics of the station and unfurled several of the rolled sheets until he found the one he wanted. “Here,” he says, pointing to a section in the American-built environmental module, “there is a short circuit in the environmental systems.”
Sato appeared in the module. “That’s not an environmental alarm. That’s the low oxygen alarm. The environmental system is operating. It’s just not sending us more oxygen,” he said.
“If the system is still operating, the redundancy won’t know to kick on,” I said.
“Manual override,” Andrey replied. “We have to unplug the faulty motherboard, to fool the system. To make it know it is not working.” Andrey ran his finger along the schematics to the environmental systems. “It’s outside.”
We knew that meant one of us would need to leave the safety of the station. Spacewalks are rehearsed on earth in a massive diving tank no less than five times. Every procedure is practiced, tested, retested. But if the environmental system isn’t pushing more oxygen into the capsule, we’d only have thirty minutes of air remaining, give or take, depending on whether Houston calculated our oxygen levels for three people or four. Even unofficial persons breathe.
I looked at the space suits. We had a four hundred-point-checklist we followed when suiting up. I had at most fifteen minutes to climb into the suit before everyone on the station began to feel dizzy.
Sato prepared the portable atmosphere system while I pulled on pieces of the suit I could handle by myself. On earth, the suit weighed more than a hundred and fifty kilos. Here it weighed nothing. Andrey double-checked my seals as I twisted the tubes into their sockets, twisted the gloves on, checked the pressure gauge.
“I need the toolkit,” I said, before Sato pushed the helmet over my head. It weighed forty kilos on earth. Even weightless, the helmet was still large and Sato bumped into the toolkit knocking it open. The tools came loose, spilling out in a slow fountain of metal. Andrey grabbed at them, pushing them back into the kit.
“All good,” he said. The phrase is no more reassuring in Russian. There is a truth that goes unsaid in either language: if I get outside and the tool I need is missing, they are all dead. I am dead, too. Sato patted down the suit, tapping each of the connections along the way as if confirming they were tight, and then they positioned me in the airlock. I was sealed in and they began to suck the air out.
As the door to the outside opened, I noticed a frog had come along for the ride. In the first crack of space, the last of the atmosphere inside the airlock escaped, sucking the frog out. I watched the body as it fell away from the station.
My departure from the station bought the remaining occupants extra time but they still needed to seek shelter in the Soyuz capsule in less than ten minutes.
Moving along the station is a slow process. I was tethered to the structure, but between each module, I had to attach a new carabiner to the next section before detaching from the previous. To be disconnected from the station entirely left open the possibility of drifting away.
“How much time?” I asked over the radio.
“Six minutes,” Andrey said. “Six minutes,” he repeated.
“We are using too much oxygen,” Sato said over the radio.
I unclipped the carabiner without attaching it to the next module. I held onto the station with both hands — I moved faster without the burden of hooking on to each module, but when I reached the panel I was left with a choice: let go of the station completely just long enough to attach the carabiner or work with only one hand.
When the media reported the fall of Skylab in 1979, the news anchors kept saying, “falling to earth.” But everything in orbit is falling, always. A stable orbit is simply one that delays the fiery crash long enough to be useful. What the anchors meant was “falling to earth uncontrollably.” I released both hands at the same time and began to manipulate the clip.
I felt myself drifting away as I reached up with the carabiner. Newton’s third law: For every action, an equal and opposite reaction. The hook clipped to the station and suddenly we were one again. I pried the panel off the side of the station. Having no way of holding onto it, the panel floated away on its own, following Skylab and the body of the frog. Inside I found the silicon board darkened and charred, the plastic melted and fused together. I couldn’t disconnect the cable. If I was to set off the redundant system, the whole circuit board would have to be pulled out.
The board was screwed to the frame. Three million screws on the station and they come in just two sizes, big and small. Of course, this component used small ones. I fumbled with the screwdriver. I looked down. Saw ocean, clouds, the faint outline of Africa. One last twist and the screw fell away. I pulled out the circuit board and pushed it away from the station, more trash to burn in the atmosphere.
With the board removed, the redundant system should have turned on. “Is there oxygen?” I said into the radio. There was no response. “Andrey? Sato? Come in.” Had I taken too long? Were they dead, and by extension, was I too to die? Had they escaped to earth in the Soyuz capsule?
“Roger that Commander, we have oxygen. Repeat, we have air.”
I shimmied my way back to the station taking my time with each and every clip. I looked down again as we passed over Brazil.
I removed my helmet inside the station. Smelled the acrid stench of ozone, the stink of space. For some people, this tasted like metal. For others, it tasted bitter. I tasted sour with a hint of cherry.
“Congratulations on an excellent walk,” Sato complimented, handing me a pouch of water. I was exhausted.
“Na Zdorovie!” Andrey said, raising a pouch of water.
“Na Zdorovie,” I said, exhausted. I was sweating still, which meant droplets of water were breaking loose and flying through the cabin.
Where is Igor, I wondered, where is the second Russian? I have not seen him in two days.
“Andrey, where is Igor? He should drink with us. He should celebrate our success.”
“Igor does not need to celebrate,” Andrey said.
“Come on, we’re all in this one together,” I said.
“Do not ask about things you do not want to know,” Andrey said. “Igor is normal now — fine, I mean. Igor is fine.”
“Igor!” I called out loudly. Come and join us! I call out in Russian thinking him more likely to respond. No answer.
“Andrey, where is Igor?” I said again.
Andrey says nothing, but turns as if to leave the cabin.
I turn to Sato.
“I stayed in the control room to assist you on the radio,” Sato says unprompted, answering a question I did not ask.
“Did you kill Igor?” I called out to Andrey.
“How could I kill a man who was never here?” Andrey asked. His English was clear. I had no answer for him. I remembered what Cho told me on my first day: Do not ask questions. If Andrey wanted to disavow Igor’s presence, who was I to question him? One less human on the station meant all of our supplies would last that much longer. “You will not need to think about Igor again,” he added to clarify.
“Da. Okay,” I said in a strange imitation of Andrey. He said the phrase many times when he spoke to his family over the radio.
“Also, we will need to discharge the refuse early this week. It is full.”
“So that’s how it is then, just float him off into space?” I said.
“Your froggies. Too many dead frogs,” Andrey said before pushing off the wall and floating away into the depths of the station.
When I returned to my sleeping bag, I found a frog stuck inside, and accidentally crushed it. There was some sticky bit of dried blood and guts clinging to the fabric. Cleaning it would be impossible. There was no blotting a wet paper towel over anything in space. Water sticks to itself. I would sleep against the body of the dead frog until the end of my mission.
Andrey woke me a second time that night. “Come, quickly,” he said, pulling the velcro straps off my legs. They floated free while I rubbed my eyes. The sun was rising again but I had only been asleep for an hour or so. I followed Andrey down to the communications center.
“They are calling for you,” Andrey said.
“Good morning Commander Walker!” a cheery voice boomed over the radio. It was Houston, but the voice was too young to be Higgins. “Baikonur reports successful launch of Soyuz MS-24 with anticipated convergence on your location in six hours. Korolyov reports all conditions normal.”
“Great news,” I responded, “we’ll begin pre-docking procedures immediately.” I signed off and headed to the piloting computer. The system was automated, but we needed to rotate the station seven degrees over the next several hours to better position ourselves to receive the Soyuz capsule. Andrey was floating beside the computer.
“I want to say that they are sending me back. I am returning to earth on the capsule.” he said.
“But you have another six months on the schedule.”
“In Russia, schedule sets you,” he smiled. I wondered maybe if he didn’t understand English as well as I thought he had. “It is not your fault. I can say only that there is protocol. Even now in free Russia, we do not have choices.”
“There are always choices.”
“Perhaps that is a benefit of America to believe that there are choices. Now, I must prepare for the Soyuz,” he smiled again before sliding through the portal to his sleeping compartment.
Later that day, I wrote a report to submit to Houston regarding the environmental system. There will be training for a spacewalk. They will replace the electronic components, the panel, the screws, the cables. They will fix the problems. There will be checklists. But there will be no choices. I finished the report before the arrival of the Soyuz supply ship. It was only three pages long. When I read it over, I deleted Igor.
About the author
Ian MacAllen’s fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Joyland Magazine, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and elsewhere; his nonfiction has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Negatives, Electric Literature, Fiction Advocate, and elsewhere. He is the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @ianmacallen, and lives in Brooklyn.