We Deserve a Soft Landing, Love
Genre: wlw sci-fi
Summary: An astronaut on the International Space Station gets a transmission from a girl on a dying ship.
They talk as the radiation increases.
Content Warning: death
Astronauts really weren’t supposed to be alone. Not at the space station, it wasn’t made to run that way, three permanent residence were assigned at all times, and they were rarely alone.
But mistakes happen. A gash the size of her forearm down his side, red perfectly round droplets hanging in the air like ping-pong balls in suspended animation. A face as ashen as the grave and yelling. They never yelled.
Sarah Reyes was chosen for her composed personality, composed in theory, less so in practice. She watched her coworker burst open and heard NASA ringing in her ear: what do you even do with a dead body in space?
But he wasn’t gone yet.
They pressed a template they never had before: cрочный спуск, the Soyuz computer sprang to life, emergency.
NASA kept ringing in her ears. Some young women named Janet was talking to her now and she was talking back.
Rod wasn’t going to make the journey if he went back alone. His eyes were barely open and red blooming droplets still swam around the room like liquid party balloons, Sarah never liked the word helpless.
She looked to Nikolai and told him to ‘get the fuck down there,’ someone needed to take the CRV shuttle down with him. Nikolai’s heavy-lidded eyes studied her, he pursed his lips, and she said it once more in Russian and then again in English.
They secured Rod’s bandage a second time, his fever-warm face a distant star on the horizon. She grabbed onto his hand and told them ‘to get the fuck down there.’
They pressed cрочный спуск, the shuttle launched down with Kazakhstan readying down below, God, they had to be ready.
And she was alone.
Astronauts were not supposed to be alone.
The quiet was as engulfing as the urgency had been before, Janet had apparently gone to take a break and they were on the sun side of the planet. Sarah started counting. It would take them 3.5 minutes to get back to earth. It would take three days for a shuttle to come back to the station. It would take three hours for the shuttle to be attached to the docking port.
It would take some undisclosed amount of time for them to sort out the politics down below. Astronaut’s don’t just burst open. And Sarah was alone.
She continued as normal, there was nothing else to do, she had at the very least three days to herself, and there was cleaning to do. Maintenance, communication. It turned into four days.
She was talking to a young man named Ted on the telecom now and she was sort of starting to hate young men named Ted at that moment. Politics were messier than space and no one was even set up to relieve her yet. NASA was in some sort of limbo and Russia wasn’t talking. Sarah was alone.
It was the sixth day when the shuttle finally launched, a crew of three, Sarah had already forgotten their names, but she would have months to memorize them anyway.
She had turned off the intercom for that day, but didn’t notice the static until later when it started echoing off the hallways like a ghost. Though, Sarah didn’t believe in ghosts. No self-respecting scientist believed in ghosts.
They were on the planet side of the sun, dark, alone, dumping heat back into the square hallways through the vents.
Sarah heard the first hush of static in her sleep, strapped down and frowning deeply as she screwed her eyes shut. It felt like she was getting tinnitus. For a moment she refused to wake up, she had to keep her schedule, or else what the fuck else was she going to have up there.
The static breathed again, and her thoughts broke off and on in starts. Finally, she sat up, after all, they don’t know what to do with dead bodies in space. She ripped her sleeping mask off and cocked her head to the side.
She squirmed out of her restraints and floated to the side of the room, “It’s probably just Yulia messing with the frequencies planet side,” She muttered to herself mostly just to hear her own raw voice in the dark, “Just Yulia…”
She pulled herself up and out and floated over to the communication bay while passing the wide yawning emptiness of the station. It could technically suit ten people, the size of a five-person house, but apparently, earth was still arguing. Two more days.
She sighed and followed the noise; she really wasn’t in the mood for any system malfunctions. She tapped on the screen of the newly installed video chat. It sprang to life with the headquarters of NASA asking who she would like to get a hold of today.
Sarah blinked. But no one had been hailing her.
She looked around and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. None of the devices in the room were lighting up or winking at her. None of them were making any sounds at all. She scratched the back of her hand and accepted the fact that the noise really wasn’t coming from the central communication room.
Sarah turned around in meaningless circles and then left a message to the NASA night crew that there was a possible technical issue on the ISS. Two days before any crew was set to land, Sarah groaned, and it was just her.
She took deep breaths and pushed herself off toward what she could only assume was the source.
She cringed as she crossed the "unity" room into the Russian side of the station, empty as a ghost town and twice as unnerving. But Sarah didn’t believe in ghosts.
“Ah!” She clutched at her own heart as something, a voice something, echoed off the halls. She took a deep rasping breath and turned in every which direction.
Ssh, hello? It came again.
Sarah’s mouth hung open and she found herself outside of a room that had been used as an old communication hub. It was a relic from a time back when they had separate ones instead of a “bubble of trust” in the center of the station.
Sarah cocked her head to the side and stared. One of the old radios that was attached to the wall and ingrained in the system was making a soft but distinct buzz. It was grey and had a panel of buttons and a microphone attached to a round speaker. Most of the old pre-2025 devices had been removed or repurposed but this one was intact and felt like she was reaching backward in time itself.
She frowned at it and she knew she should go report this. Houston would want to know one of the 2000 models was acting up.
Sarah reached forward and her finger hovered in midair over the panel and her eyes glued to the intercom. There was something, a voice-something, bubbling underneath the static.
And of course, she did believe in aliens.
Sarah pressed down on a feedback button and wet her lips, she leaned down toward the speaker, “Is someone there?”
Sarah held her breath and watched the blinking red light of the transmitter in the dark center of the room. It had been repurposed several years ago to be another storage and business room.
She blinked, waited a full minute, and suddenly felt a little silly- she should really be sleeping right now. Or reporting it. She watched the flickering red light and counted.
Sixty seconds, 180 seconds, three minutes, Sarah was about to take her finger off the feedback button when something responded back with a clear audible articulation.
“Oh, thank God,” Sarah’s mouth fell open. It was a woman. She quickly bent over to reply, but the voice kept going, “Can you hear me? Is someone there? I am Lotte De Vos of the Argus, Landing Mission One, ESA. Can you hear me?”
Sarah gasped, “Oh my god-”
Lotte kept speaking quickly, “We have been pushed out off route and…Can anyone hear me?”
“Yes!” Sarah returned as soon as she found her voice again, perhaps yelling into the speaker a little too loudly, “We thought, I, are you safe? We thought the Argus was lost, what’s your status?”
Sarah did the math in her head, it would take four to five minutes for radio waves to transmit between Earth’s orbit and the Argus. The Jupiter moon’s mission.
“I can’t see our location, but I think I am stranded near the atmosphere of Jupiter, repeat I can see the troposphere…I don’t know where I am.”
“Argus,” Sarah rushed to speak, hoping they could balance out their conversation, “I am Sarah Reyes of the International Space Station, NASA, I can hear you loud and clear. What’s your status?”
She waited. Counting, sixty seconds, two minutes, three minutes, God, she needed to tell someone about this. But she heard the sharp intake of breath on the other end.
“ISS?” Sarah exhaled as the woman responded, “Thank God, okay, this is Lotte De Vos, reporting again from the Argus. The…the life support system is sustaining itself it looks like but none of the ram’s are responding, I think we’re disconnected from the rockets.”
“Miss De Vos,” Sarah hunched over, “What is the status of the crew? How much oxygen do you have left? What…what happened?” She remembered reading about the Argus a week ago. About the radio silence on the other end of one of the most ambitious human-manned missions into their solar system.
One minute. Two minutes. Three. Four.
“I,” She heard the other astronaut falter, “I have the full amount of oxygen left that we carried with us for the return journey.” She paused and a hitch of static filled the air, “The crew is incapacitated.” The voice said flatly and without inflection, “We were hit with an unexpected projectile and pulled into Jupiter’s orbit, we didn’t calculate the full effect of the mass of planet on our ship it seems,” She chuckled and it was one of the most surprising sounds Sarah had ever heard, “I guess we are still making scientific discoveries.”
“Do you have your satellite? Where is your telecom? We can-”
The delay continued to confuse their conversation, “-it’s acting like a black hole, we tried to fix the rockets to propel us back to the base on Io but there wasn’t enough power, everyone else,” The young women took a deep breath, “They tried to get back to it without the ship. Some of our jets were still working for the suits.”
“Oh my God,” Sarah whispered.
“It didn’t work.”
Sarah waited, making sure Lotte was finished and the full four to five minutes had passed so Lotte could get Sarah’s message.
She heard another laugh on the other side, “We really need a better system than this. How about we say ‘over’ when we’re done talking?” Sarah’s shoulder’s tensed. The woman sounded so young. “Anyway, to answer your question, our telecom was damaged when the projectile thrust us off course, I just recently jury-rigged this device in order to be picked up on low frequencies.” Sarah nodded and Lotte took an audible breath, “Over.”
Sarah pressed her forehead up against the cool metal of the side-paneling; she cleared her throat, “Lotte,” she said quietly, “Do you need me to contact anyone?” It had taken that crew six years to get to Jupiter’s moons. “Over.”
Sarah squeezed her eyes shut.
She heard the next notes like a deflating balloon, “So you’ve figured it out too?” She said with a controlled tremor to her voice, “Well… I have a few people I would like to message if you could write it down. Over."
Sarah floated to the side of the makeshift storage room and found a pen and paper. She wrote down the woman’s mother’s name, her college professor’s email, and her ex-lover’s phone number.
“Do you want me too,” Sarah cringed, “uh, write down messages for them? For me to say to them. Over.”
She waited, she heard a sigh when the four minutes passed, “Just tell my mom I love her. That sort of thing. Tell the professor I wouldn’t be here without her, I mean, not here, in space, in a bad way, shit, actually don’t tell her that. Tell her that her intro classes are still making freshman wet themselves and I love it.” Sarah laughed.
“And the last one?” Sarah asked as she waited for Lotte to come back to her.
Lotte gave a snort, “Flip her off for me. Maybe subtly infer she’s been skipping arm day and is looking a little noodly. That would make my night. Over.”
Sarah chuckled deeply and it was hard for her to take it all in, she should be writing more down. She should be writing it all down. “You know,” Thoughts ran through Sarah’s head like a speeding stop-and-go traffic jam, “Are the rockets really not working? Because a simple continued jury-rig of the thrusters back to the navigation might, hmm, help.”
The response took longer than usual, “Don’t do this me.” Came the hushed reply, “I’ve tried, Sarah, don’t you think I’ve tried? Whoever you are, from wherever. Don’t do it.”
“Sarah Reyes.” She repeated slowly, blinking into the dark. “I’m from Minneapolis.”
Lotte hummed, “Oh…I’m from Belgium. Ghent. Nice to meet you.”
Sarah’s insides felt like they were turning all over the place, “I’ve been to Belgium, it’s very beautiful.”
“Not underwater yet?” The other girl joked, slightly off time due to the time lapse.
“They’re trying their best,” Sarah said with a sniff, “And they never invented a statute called ‘the Twinkie Law,’ so they did better than my city.”
She heard a strange groan from the other end of the line which made Sarah sit up straight, “I would honestly give anything right now for a twinkie. Anything.”
Sarah ended up laughing, “Alright, top ten food goos and then worst goos, go.”
Lotte made a choking sound, “Nooo, Sarah Reyes, all I want right now is some ripe cherries, a medium rare steak, fuck it, a rare steak, and ten twinkie’s, one for every finger. No goo.”
Sarah was snickering, “Well I want a nice hamburger and maybe a salad with ranch dressing. Kleenexes. Running water.” She smiled to herself, “And a proper toilet.”
The silver sound of a laugh came back from the other end, “Wrong answer! The whole reason I went to space was for suction toilets.”
“Oh no, no, no, come. On.” She said emphatically.
“What we all really need is at least one beer each.” Sarah snorted and Lotte bemoaned, “A margarita, two loggers, some vodka, good vodka, the kind the Russians would give to their moms.” Lotte lamented and Sarah shook her head.
“Why did you go to space then?” She asked fondly to the other end, “It’s the last dry county in humanities jurisdiction Dutch girl.”
Lotte huffed another laugh on the other end, “We’re getting personal now? Well, you first, why are you in space hurtling above the earth developing poor bone mass?”
Sarah let herself float up a little higher and used the next minute to think about her answer, she leaned toward the speaker, “Height.”
The five minutes passed and all that came back was a confused, “What?”
“I gain two and a half inches every time I come up here. Eventually, I figure I’ll hit five feet.”
A loud guffaw came back, “Taller! Of course, but what is that in human measurements?”
Sarah rolled her eyes, “Old habits. 6.3 centimeters and 1.5 meters, happy?”
“Woof,” Lotte barked back cheerily, “They really do bring them in smaller each year. Over.”
Sarah exhaled dramatically, “Back to you then Miss Lotte. How tall are you? And, I don’t know, what’s your favorite, hmm, tea?”
Two minutes, three, four.
“Tea? Boring. Do you know how close Jupiter’s atmosphere is to me right now? Ask me about my childhood nightmares and favorite sex position.” Sarah opened her mouth to respond with a dismissive sniff, but Lotte added quietly at the end, “…it’s mint by the way. Peppermint.”
Sarah smiled and she squeezed her eyes shut for a full minute, “Well, my childhood nightmare was Santa having literal claws and strangling me.” Sarah said good-humoredly as she drummed her fingers on her leg and counted the seconds.
“Is that your favorite position as well?”
“Lotte,” She said with a warning tone and considered turning back around toward the communication hub. The next five minutes left her contemplating if it was a crank call- Houston did have some annoying interns.
“Strangling is perfectly natural, no need to be ashamed. I did it to my barbie dolls and everything.”
Sarah rolled her eyes, “They really do send them up crazier each year.”
Lotte laughed and it was a strained sound with a tin undertone. Sarah pursed her lips together, “Sarah?” Lotte said, barely audible over the static this time.
“Yeah?” She waited.
“Can you see earth?”
Sarah’s shoulders slumped over and she nodded meaninglessly before taking her finger off the feedback button and floating back over to the observatory. Two hours had passed.
She looked out over a deep brown storm cloud over China, a few glowing tendrils of cities and roads, and the textured darkness of the earth side of the sun. She went back to the transmitter, “We’re over the Bahama’s. It’s blue right now, very, very blue.”
She heard the softest of sounds over the radio, “My haul is made of titanium.” Lotte said carefully, “But I’m not sure if the radio waves will be disturbed by the planet’s magnetic field.”
“Oh.” Sarah said back, squeezing her eyes shut, knowing Lotte was still talking.
“And then the radiation will begin anyway,” Lotte made something that was almost a laugh, “remember those numbers okay? Tell my mom. You know. Tell my teacher I wasn’t going to make it without her, but not in this way. And tell Karen to, you know, fuck off.”
“Wait,” Sarah said breathlessly.
“I’m about to be sucked into the atmosphere, wait a little for me, k? We can see if this mess of a radio might hold up. Just wait a little. Then go tell the world I went out fighting. Fighting aliens or a space octopus, tell them that there are definitely space octopuses and the Argus went down swinging.”
“Okay,” Sarah rasped, holding the button down until the tip of her finger bleached white. “Okay!” She racked her brain for what to say, what eulogy’s people ended with or final lasting sentiments that maybe meant something, “I’ll eat some twinkies for you. Ten. One for each finger.”
Sarah waited. Two minutes. Three minutes. Five. Sarah was shaking, this isn’t what she expected when she woke up that morning. The station orbited into the sun side of the planet. What was she even going to tell Houston? How do you start that report?
Sarah rubbed her stinging eyes, “I’ll put them on my fingers too. Eat them in some Dutch coffee shop and kick your ex in the shins.” She pushed her palms into her eye sockets, “Oh God, oh my God.”
Numbness ran up and down her legs and she floated away from the feedback button. She was still glad she didn’t believe in ghosts- she really didn’t need this one.
She turned back to exit the room and float to somewhere far away and cold and curl up for a little bit.
Shhh–What’s up loser?!
Sarah jumped and turned around instantaneously, “Lotte?!” She jammed her finger on the transmission button.
“Can you hear me? I can’t see out my window right now, but the magnetism might not be messing with my radio as much as I thought. More discoveries for science, yay. Have them name a cockroach after me or something. Unless, of course, you can’t hear me and this is just, you know, the death chasm I’m speaking into-”
“I can hear you!” Sarah yelled as her finger cramped on the switch, the red light flared like a fog horn. “I can hear you, it’s still working!” She didn’t know why she was excited; this girl was entering into one of the most radioactive places in the solar system, Sarah kept her eyes on the speaker.
A tired exhale answered, “You waited after all.”
Sarah bit her lip, “Yeah. I waited.”
The four minutes felt excruciating, “I figure I have around forty-five minutes… Anyway, if you’re curious, it is incredibly hot. If I didn’t have any decency left I would be naked right now.”
Sarah sniffed, “No one can see you, you know. And I imagine it’s burning up.”
The next transmission was garbled, but she could still make it out, “Dying in the void of space is one thing, dying in the void of space butt-naked is another.”
Sarah couldn’t get herself to laugh this time, but she tried, “Well, I’ll tell everyone you were wearing a full suit of armor. Pearls. Evening gloves. The octopus didn’t stand a chance.”
Lotte made a soft sound, “That’s really all I ask, heels too, I miss heels. I felt tall, like one of those small dogs on top of tables? Or the fact you enjoy getting 5 centimeters taller in space?”
Sarah made an exasperated noise, “I don’t suppose you mock all the people you share last words with.”
Lotte gave a soft chuckle, “Just you darling.” A long pause followed and Sarah didn’t move to fill it; Lotte took her time with another slow hissing breath, “Tell me about something.”
Sarah blinked, “I have a collection of coins from the Ottoman empire.”
“Okay,” Lotte sounded faint, “Who was your first crush? Besides 16th century Sultans or something I mean. What was your first book? What's your favorite kiss? Come on,” Lotte snickered weakly, “I’m dying here.”
Sarah’s skin felt too tight, itching in the dark, “My crush was Martina Rodriquez. Fifth grade, she punched me in the face once after I told her that her that her nose was crooked. I learned to read when I was three so I don’t really remember the books, accelerated learning and all that. I learned to speak in full sentences when I was six. My first kiss was,” Sarah sighed, “Don’t laugh okay? In my college’s chemistry lab, age 23.” She said all of it quickly with pained breaths, time was measured in fours and fives.
A laugh came back from the other side of the universe anyway, “Chemistry lab? God, you’re the one giving astronauts a nerdy name.”
“And it’s cute. You sound cute. I’m sure you’re very smart too, can probably name way too many numbers of pi.” She could, “I guess I was like that too…Why I’m up here.” Lotte trailed off.
“Why are you up here?” Seven minutes passed.
“I saw Cassiopeia one night… my grandpa told me they hung her upside down in the night sky to punish her. I fell in love,” Sarah clenched her jaw tight, “I guess you could say that’s how it happened. Love or whatever.”
“Lotte-” Sarah put her face next to the speaker.
“You know, I always thought this is what I wanted to do.” Lotte was faltering, “And it is.” She repeated with a slight hysteria and frantic-edge to her words, “I think it was always what I wanted to do. Always.” There came a pause and Sarah heard a strangled retching noise on the other side.
“Lotte!” She yelled into the intercom, “Lotte, are alright?”
It took a very long time before she got a response and then she was back to waiting, “Yeah,” A voice finally said hoarsely, “Just…puking. You know, when you get to see food goo all over again? That feeling.” Lotte sounded like she was trying to laugh, “Sarah?”
“Who was this first kiss?” Lotte asked quietly before sniffing, “Was she cuter than me? I hope not… And then, what’s, what’s your favorite tea?”
Sarah squeezed her free hand closed, balling it up into a painful fist and digging her nails in, “No. She was a Ph.D. student and thought that Potato Poots was a good pet name. She…” Sarah snorted, “Wasn’t cuter than you, promise. My, my, favorite tea is Black tea. I used to drink it with my aunts.”
Two minutes. Three minutes. Six.
“Potato Poots? Take that back, that is a wonderful pet name and now I’m going to date this girl that was your first kiss,” Sarah chuckled, “Black tea is a good choice. The closest one to coffee. My brother owns a coffee shop,” Lotte was talking quickly now, “Visit him too. Tell him…I’m sorry. I’m sorry we fought so much, God, for everything.”
“Yes, yes, I mean-”
“Tell all of them I loved them. Dammit, even Karen, tell her to get her shit together. None of this…none of anything else. Nothing else matters.”
Sarah sighed and her entire body was shaking, “I can do that, yes. Lotte, we won’t forget.”
“That I died naked in the void of space?” Lotte returned back after seven minutes, “Because that’s a thing now.”
“Naked, fighting an octopus, right?” Sarah said with her face straining into a smile.
“Yeah.” Lotte was panting on the other end now, but her voice came through. “Who was your first love, Sarah?”
Sarah felt her mouth go dry, she hadn’t drunk anything in hours. Houston would be furious. “I’ve never been in love.” She whispered back, “I just wanted to do…this.” She flinched at the wording.
Lotte took eight minutes to respond, “Yeah?” She said breathlessly, “Well. Do that for me, k? Being in love is nice. It’s like this, except no one is riding into the next layer of Jupiter’s helium.”
Sarah gave a weak smile, “It’s like this?”
“It’s like this.” Wheezing, “Go do that for me.”
“How’re you feeling?” Sarah tried to get her to keep talking and Lotte told her that she threw up again. Sarah could hear audible strained audible breathing through the speaker, she was gasping.
“We weren’t really over the Bahama’s, were we?”
Sarah frowned and she looked toward where the window would be, “It was dark out, yeah. But the cities were bright. Like stars, we always liked stars, right? People like us.”
“People like us collect Ottoman coins and cover their hands in twinkie’s Sarah.”
She smiled, “Good. I hear that’s what being in love is like.”
Lotte coughed, a deep gurgling sound that filled the air, “Sounds dumb.”
Sarah could hear her fading out, “Lotte? Lotte how’re you-”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck-” A sob shook the speaker.
“FUCK, I don’t want to die.”
“Wait, wait, no, it’s going to be okay.”
“Quick, tell me something nice to say, something good, God, GOD, I wish I had been good. I wish had been better.”
“Wait! Wait, no.”
“Sarah,” She could hear the crying now, the silver wet tremor in her voice, “Sarah I can’t see anything. It’s so hot, oh my god, I can’t do this, SARAH-”
Sarah screamed back into the mic, “I’m here! I’m here! Wait!”
No sound came back from the other side, Sarah’s eyes went wide, and she counted up to a thousand. She couldn’t feel her teeth.
“One thousand and four, one thousand and five, Lotte? Lotte De Vos, can you hear me?” Five minutes. Ten minutes.
Sarah curled up into herself and pulled on her hair, her other finger still on the transmission button and the room bathed in the one red light, “Lotte," She blared, "Lotte.” It was a wretched, animalistic scream, but it wasn’t for the radio, it wasn’t for her.
She wished she believed in ghosts.
Sarah Reyes went back to earth within the fortnight. She told them she wasn't feeling well. She told them about the Argus. They told her to take some time off, she told them she wasn't coming back.
Sarah went to Belgium, she gave a very nice older woman a hug, she got a lifetime’s promise of free coffee, and she looked at painting after painting done by people she realized were now dead. She smiled at the nice young woman across the street that sold flowers and she didn't say hi, but she did wave this time. It was a place to start. Lotte would have wanted something like that.