“Nothing like starting the day with a stroll, ey, Powell?”
“We’re still on Baikonur time, Davis. It’s lunchtime for us. Also, please take this installation seriously.”
“We’re increasing our Wi-Fi range, Powell. Lighten up. Look at that view! Wow,” Davis whispered the last word in awe.
“Go back into the station if you’re going to fool around.” Powell pulled herself across the JEM Exposed Facility with her relay line carabiner following behind, hooked onto the rails. Behind her, the sun was setting on the East Coast back on Earth. The illuminated green of springtime in the North hemisphere and the blue of the oceans were reflecting on the front of Davis’ helmet as he watched.
“You sure you can handle this on your own?” he asked distractedly.
“Like you said, I’m just expanding our Wi-Fi range. Go back inside. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
“Well, if you say so,” Davis replied, pulling himself back towards the airlock. Soon he was around the corner, speaking to Jones over the radio on the inside.
“Oh, hey, Powell. One more thing before I go in.”
“Happy Earth Day.”
Powell stilled her hands. Oh, yeah. It was Earth Day. She turned, pushing off the station with one hand, the other gripping the rail, and looked at the Earth.
“Same to you,” she replied. Admittedly, it was quite the view. She understood that not many would be able to look at the Earth through a visor on the International Space Station instead of through a video feed. But she was outside to do a task, not be distracted by the continents waking up with the first light of day. She continued working on the wires.
She was unsure how much time passed as she worked; no more than an hour, surely. The radio feed began to crackle.
“Hello? ISS? Do you read me?”
The feed turned to static.
“Hello?” she tried again. “Houston, Houston, do you read?” If Davis was hearing her, he’d get a kick out of her attempt at humor. But the static continued, which didn’t signify that the crew inside were hearing her either.
She knew the drill: get back inside, the task could be finished later. The radio crackled again.
A click, then a voice responded, “Hello!”
Powell blinked. That voice didn’t sound like anyone inside. She’d spent three weeks with them so far and she was sure she’d recognize any of their voices, even through a radio feed. “Hi?”
Was she on a different feed? Did she somehow connect to someone’s radio back on Earth?
“I’m American astronaut Jenny Powell on the International Space Station. Who am I talking to? Where are you speaking from?”
“Look to your left.”
Powell pivoted to look. A person was clutching a railing a few feet from her. In a spacesuit she had never seen the likes of before. The person waved with their free hand.
Powell couldn’t think of a better response than to wave back and return the greeting. The stranger’s visor was reflective, making it impossible for her to see who (or what) was inside. It was a leaner designed spacesuit, white like past Earth spacesuits before they switched to the gray Z-2 models. It lacked the large life-support system that her own suit had attached to her back but it also had antennae, one on each side of the helmet, that gave it a retro look. There was no flag insignia on the front to indicate nationality.
The stranger’s free hand pointed to the Earth.
“You live there, right?”
“Yes,” she answered numbly. This couldn’t be happening.
“Looks nice. Haven’t been, myself. I like colder climates. No offense.”
“None taken,” she breathed a laugh. “Um, where… where are you from?”
“Nowhere, really. But you’re from there. That’s so much more interesting. What’s your favorite spot?”
“On your planet.”
“Well, I was raised on Hawaii—you can kind of see the Hawaiian islands over there—” she vaguely pointed with her hand, “so I suppose you could call it my favorite spot. I lived there until I was 18 and left for college. I think I’ll go back to visit once I return.”
“What is it like to live surrounded by water?”
“It’s great. The weather’s always mild because of the sea breeze. And you can go swim whenever you want—what’s funny?”
The stranger’s chuckle could be heard over the radio. “Sorry, sorry. It’s just so funny to me that you jump into a big body of water for fun. Continue.”
“As I was saying, it’s convenient. Having the water right there. And you can get fresh seaweed! My mom used to go down to the shore at low tide with the other Japanese housewives and pick up the seaweed that washed ashore. It’d be in our miso soup by dinnertime,” her voice trailed off. Powell turned to look at the archipelago, just barely visible. “Yeah, I’ll go back home and see mom when I land back on Earth.”
“It sounds perfect.”
“Not exactly. There’s so much garbage. I hated visiting my aunt on the South side of the island because the beaches there were swamped with it. There’s a current that surrounds the islands, it’s called the North Pacific Gyre, and it carries all this garbage from different shores. And then it’ll cough it back up every now and then on our beaches.” She huffed a breath in frustration. “The view’s better from up here, you can’t see all the debris. It just looks like a big, blue marble, the Earth.”
“You shouldn’t run out on your planet.”
Powell took a moment to absorb those words. Then she struggled to turn back to him in a fitting manner to show her indignation without looking awkward squirming in the way that zero-gravity created. It almost worked. She grabbed her rail and with one hand over the other moved closer to the stranger.
“I am not running away. I joined NASA because I want to help my planet.”
“You just said you preferred the view up here.”
“Because then I can see it without the trash. I don’t have to think about it for a moment.”
“I’m not avoiding it!” She was in front of the stranger. Even if she couldn’t see a face behind the visor, she could most definitely give the stranger her strongest glare through her own clear helmet visor. “I am studying glacial retreat. I see it from up here! We’re trying to get this information to everyone back home. I am not here to avoid the problems on Earth. I am here to confront them! I am here because I love my home!”
The stranger was silent. Powell almost felt their gazes connect. It was so quiet between them she could swear she heard the stranger’s breathing through the radio.
“I wish we had tried to be like that. Sooner. Than when we did. When we started to worry, it was too late. We ruined our home. We had to leave.”
Powell felt her glare break into something softer.
“I’m glad you care about your home,” the stranger continued. “There’s still something to be done, right? You can help your planet?”
“Yes,” Powell breathed. “Yes,” she repeated louder. “It will take all of us and—and a lot of work but we can still do something.”
“Will you? Will all of you step up to the task? We didn’t on my planet,” the stranger reached out a hand, pointer finger out. “How do you know—”
He tapped her visor. The edges of Powell’s vision began to cloud.
“—that you won’t end up like me?”
Everything went dark.
When Powell reopened her eyes, it was waking up to the sound of Davis’ voice in her ear. Her vision refocused: she was in her spacesuit, her tether was the only thing keeping her from drifting away from the ISS. She pulled herself closer to the station’s surface.
“I’m here,” she responded to the frantic voices from the station.
“The radio went out. Did anything happen out there to cause it?” Davis asked with forced calm.
“I think,” she paused to catch her breath, the air felt thin inside her helmet. “I think something is wrong with my suit. I’m coming back in.”
She moved slowly along the station towards the airlock where someone (probably Davis) was coming out to help her back inside. As she turned around the corner of the station, she took one last look at Earth’s surface. The sun was setting over the Midwest. It was midday in Hawaii.
Yes, she thought, we’ll all step up. We’ll do it. It’s our home.
She climbed away from the corner, letting the Big Blue Marble disappear from view.