Read ISS Online

Authors: L Valder Mains,Laurie Mains

ISS

 

ISS

Chapter One

December 2023

 

Eloy Arizona, fifty miles south of Phoenix

 

Jack was frustrated. He spent hours memorizing code and practicing aiming the laser and now the time had come to act and he wasn’t sure he could go through with it. He was afraid, deeply afraid. His rational side told him he was being silly, nothing bad was going to happen, but fear spoke louder than reason. It had a way of shouting down common-sense and convincing him the worst thing possible was about to happen. Climbing in the dark, his mind occupied by this, he missed a step and barked his shin. Stumbling he threw his arms out to keep from falling and the telescope flew from his grip. It was blind luck he snagged it against the wall with his knee before it could fall to the floor below.

Eyes tearing, breathing raggedly, softly cursing, he tried to rub his shin but found there was no room in the narrow attic stairwell to reach down with his pockets full of stuff and the telescope in his hands. There was nothing to do but continue up. He reached the top step and opening the door hobbled onto the landing trying to ignore the pain in his shin as he began to thread his way towards the skylight. The sun had set hours earlier but it was still sickeningly hot inside the cramped space the air dense and barely breathable after a full day of desert sun. He could smell, almost taste, last years dose of
Festive Pine
on the plastic Christmas tree roasting in the corner. The room was redolent with the chemical stink of faux pine and plastic tree and heavy dust, he was pretty sure if he had to breathe the toxic mixture much longer he would puke. His stomach clenched thinking about it and he briefly considered which direction to toss. The feeling passed.

Sweat stung his eyes as he moved through the tilting stacks of cardboard boxes, past dusky outlines of forgotten furniture, to reach the cleared space below the skylight. He stood beneath it peering up. The streaky glass made it difficult, no, impossible to see if anything was outside. Standing motionless in the shallow cast of thin starlight he held his breath and listened hard staring up unblinking at the dark beyond until his neck hurt. He did not see anything. He did not hear anything. His stomach churned again, this time from anxiety, the acid etching dread into mucous membranes; it felt like his whole body was trying to convince him to turn around and head back to the safety of his room.

Untucking his tee-shirt he used Yoda’s upside-down image to wipe sweat from his face.
‘Do or do not, there is no try.’

“What the hell.” he spoke aloud, angry with himself for being such a chicken shit. Gathering his courage he reached out and brushed his fingertips along the bottom edge of the skylight searching for the cool metal of the latch. He found it and peering up through the streaked glass hesitated; he did not hear or see anything but his dread of the imagined horrors beyond was more compelling than the clear reality of his senses. He waited, stalling, uncertain what to do as a fat drop of sweat trickled down between his rigid shoulder blades adding to his discomfort. It was the need to breathe that forced him to act; his head, throbbing, felt like it would come apart at any moment and his lungs burned from the struggle not to inhale the caustic air. Steeling himself he unlocked the clasp and pushed the skylight open to the night.

It had been easy coming up in daylight carrying the things he needed for tonight but now, alone, facing the darkness, he was terrified. He waited for what he was certain would be his end, breathless, unable to look upon the horror that would leap in, he closed his eyes.

He waited. Nothing happened. Cold dry air fell in from above cooling his face easing his fears. He drank deeply of this gift, grateful for the crisp tonic and grateful too that nothing but air had come in from the night. Without taking his eyes from the opening he reached out and searched the stacked boxes beside him for the garden stake. He found it and used it to jam the skylight open; he did not want a gust of wind to come along and slam it shut behind him. He nudged the kitchen step-stool into position below the opening and cautiously stepped onto the first rung. He stood on tiptoes popping his head up just high enough and long enough to scan the roof in both directions. The roof was clear.

He let go of the breath he’d been holding and, grabbing the telescope, scrambled up the steps and out onto the roof. The scope in one hand, and balancing with the other outstretched, he circus-walked to the top stopping to peer over the ridge checking the downslope on the far side. It was clear.

So far so good, he thought. Placing one foot on either side of the peak he shuffled old-man-style to the far end of the house where he sat on the cold shingles. He kept back from the gable end, straddling the ridge with legs splayed for balance, he was afraid of being spotted from below. It was uncomfortable, he felt exposed, perched like a sweaty gargoyle on the ridge, the prickly grit of asphalt shingles digging into his damp palms. He worried the scratchy sounds his shoes made could be heard below. He had been alone for a long time and the sound of his footsteps on the tiles seemed unnaturally loud to his ears.

He consciously tried to relax, took a deep breath, and gazed up at the vast desert sky. It was clear, cold, and lit with countless stars. It was bright after the inky darkness of the house and, looking at the Milky Way towering overhead, he took comfort in its familiar shape.
‘Billions and billions’
he murmured. Checking his watch he realized it was time to get ready. He laid the telescope down on the shingles holding it in place with his knee so it would not slide off when he leaned back to take the laser from his pocket. He slid the laser tube inside the metal clamp he glued to the scope in preparation for tonight and used a tiny screwdriver to draw the clamp tight, securing it to the scope.

Last August he found a Maker site online which featured an interesting hack for lasers. It claimed to boost the output power by a factor of ten, curious, he ordered the materials on-line and made the modifications. With the new circuitry and larger power supply the laser became surprisingly powerful in short bursts but tended to overheat with continuous use. The enhanced light beam was very intense, he discovered how intense when it set his bedroom curtain on fire. That was the reason he put the laser away and forgot about it until tonight; and now that increased power made it perfect for what he was planning.

Picking up the scope he adjusted the tripod putting its rubber feet securely on either side of the peak. Holding it steady while sighting along the outer edge of the barrel he loosened and adjusted the position of the laser. He needed to operate the laser’s switch while looking through the eyepiece. Aiming the fifteen inch telescope with one hand was difficult enough without the additional task of repeatedly pulling the trigger. He spent the last two days practicing and had become, if not great, at least proficient at doing both. Attaching the gang of nine volt batteries to the wire clip he let the elastic wrapped bundle dangle freely below the scope. The bundle was too large to fit inside the housing but, wrapped as they were and held firmly by the wires, he was not concerned about it falling off.

Removing the dust caps from the ends of the scope he put his eye to the eyepiece and aimed at the mural on the side of Thomas Jefferson High School. The school gymnasium sat on a rise three blocks north and by starlight he could just make out the shape of the two rearing stallions that framed the school crest. He touched the switch. The laser fired and he noted where the light touched the building and, being careful not to move anything, he looked through the scope and fired again. This time he saw the green dot at the extreme top right of his field of vision just above the right stallion’s ear.

He knew roughly how far out of alignment the laser was and using the screwdriver to loosen the improvised mount he twisted the housing to where he thought it needed to be then retightened it. Looking through the scope he fired once more, this time the beam was dialled in nicely, hitting the center of the school crest a little above dead center on the crosshairs of the scope. He needed to know where the beam of light would hit, there was no room for error, he would be shooting at an object traveling seventeen thousand kilometers per hour.

Everything was ready all he had to do was wait. He checked his watch again to see how long it would be; he knew within a minute or so when it would appear over the Rainiers’ roof across the street and two doors down. It would start to resolve somewhere between their red brick chimney and the darker outline of the acacia tree beside the garage. The location varied a little each time but with the chart he made it was easy to calculate where it would appear on any particular pass.

He was stiff from cold, he hated being outside and vulnerable in the dark balanced awkwardly on the roof, the peak hurt his butt and he shivered as sweat evaporated from the thin material of his tee shirt. As he watched the sky over her house he thought about Mrs. Rainier. He liked her, she was fun. She was short and wore big hair to make herself taller but always wore the same crappy worn-out flip-flops which seemed to defeat the effort. The cold night reminded him of playing with Jimmy in their pool and how afterwards she would wrap them in towels as their teeth chattered and feed them one-bite-brownies.

Mrs. Rainier was nice and thinking about her made him feel good until he began to wonder where she was now. He did not see her or Jimmy when he checked their house. He knew it was possible he’d seen her while searching in town and had not recognized her. Thinking about Mrs. Rainier made him happy until his mind began to wander and then he could not stop himself, he thought about the lady in the soccer field.

 

This time the shiver that ran through him was not from the cold it was from the memory of what happened to her. Fighting to push the images from his mind he began to hum the theme music from Event Horizon Zero the last Star Trek movie. Experience had taught him sad thoughts were almost impossible to stop once they began and he could not afford to lose his focus now.

It was ten long minutes before he saw the first telltale shimmer in the sky. He continued to hum the theme as he picked up the scope and searched the sky over Mrs. Rainer’s house. He found it three feet to the left of the black vertical outline of her chimney. He held the scope to his eye and, focusing it, the image sharpened offering greater detail as it approached Eloy. He tracked it as well as he could attempting to keep the laser aimed at the section where he reasoned the crew was most likely to see it.

He continued to track as it came towards him and when he was happy with his aim he clicked the power switch and the laser shot its beam of brilliant light into the sky. He transmitted slowly, partly because that was as fast as he could do it, but also to give the laser time to recover between bursts. He used Morse code copied from the encyclopedia Britannica to slowly, painstakingly, flash a series of dots and dashes at the speeding object. The message he sent was;

Dot dash
dot R

Dash dash dot U

Dash dash dash O

Dash dot dash K

Dot dot dash dash dot dot ?

He continued repeating the sequence while tracking the spacecraft but his hand cramped after the third complete send and he had to stop. He shook it vigorously to relieve the pain and watched for a response. Searching back and forth over its length he did not see any sign that his signal had been received. His disappointment grew as he slowly traveled the length of the spacecraft once again with the telescope, nothing. The International Space Station looked like a misshapen insect dead and adrift in space; there were no lights or response of any kind.

He sighed and was about to put his finger on the switch to begin again when something big crashed in the garden directly below him. He froze. The muscles in his arms locked and his heart raced. He had trouble putting the scope down and he let it swing freely on its tripod as he groped for the knife attached to his belt. Drawing it from its sheath he held the tiny blade defiantly up to the darkness. Too terrified to lean forward and look over the edge he told himself that he would not see anything in the dark anyway. Waiting, rigid with fear and barley able to move, he listened for the sounds of movement below as his imagination conjured up monsters climbing up to get to him.

He listened but all he could hear was the intense throbbing of his own pale heart. He watched as his outstretched hand jerked wildly, jangled by the hit of adrenaline, he carved jagged fearful holes into the empty darkness. There were no more sounds from below, the night was as cold and silent as it had been moments before. He drew the first whole breath in what felt like minutes and tried to relax his death grip on the knife. His knuckles ached when he released the tension and he needed to use his other hand to peel his last two fingers from the handle. He squeezed it hard enough to leave deep painful impressions on his palm.

‘It was a cat,’
he told himself,’ just a cat.’

He nodded his head up and down wanting it to be true but his gut knew that was no cat. He tried not to visualize what horror might be down there and whatever it was he was hoping it would not try to get inside the house. Mentally he checked every door and window over and over. When he began he was certain all were locked but then doubt crept in. He wondered about the back door, did he remember to lock it? Doubt urged him to go and check but the fear of what he might find inside the house stopped him, his mind locked in a loop of indecision, and he was lost.

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