I Am Brihaspati

 

The weld worms Aishwarya Das set the day before flared in brilliant violet arcs across the airlock frame, sealing the shuttle from the unfinished sheath of Brihaspati's lower core. They'd never be able to force her off now.

"What've you done?" Rajesh Kaur's face pressed against the thick digital glass as if he could push his way back onto the station, just like he bullied his way through everything. "This is nuts, Aishwarya."

"I know."

Tremors shook the padded rungs, dull thumps vibrating through her boots as Rajesh tried to free the door. The stench of ozone flowed like waves from the casing. "You won't be able to live here. It's not viable. It's not what Brihaspati was meant for."

"I know that too."

Whatever time she could steal in orbit was worth a lifetime on Earth's surface. She was free here. Her skillsuit gave her mobility for the first time since the accident, and she wouldn't give that up.

"You're a brilliant engineer. Are you going to throw that away?"

"I'm only useful up here. I'd be baggage on Earth." She still remembered the crowded streets of Mumbai, the jostling crowds, the competition for jobs, food, money. Without mobility, she'd be a beggar. "You of all people know what it's like."

They shared similar histories, comparable struggles out of poverty, each fighting and winning a spot in space. He knew she couldn't go back.

"Now what?" Rajesh stepped back from the screen, pressing his thick mustache between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. His compact features and brooding expression made his head look tiny in the digital glass.

"Now you go." She glanced away, up the hundred and twenty-meter tube forming Brihaspati's central core. "You have a space station to catch."

"We can compress our window, swing around to the airlock on the up-orbit tier. Meet us there, and we'll rendezvous with the ISP together." The pleading in his tone made her look back. "Come home with us. Nobody will speak of this."

She'd be crazy to stay. She knew it. Brihaspati was nothing more than a gigantic heap of scrap. Originally intended as a Jovian research station, the project had been overambitious, and funding had been pulled before the crew habitat could be completed or the massive thrusters installed. Now, it was just a mountain of metal waiting to be recycled.

"If you try the other airlock, I'll just fuse it." She placed a hand on the glass, the thin gold tracings on her glove reflecting against Rajesh's image. "I can't go back to being a prisoner in my own skin."

His expression sagged. They'd had this discussion many times in the two years since the crash that'd left her paralyzed. He couldn't win, and he knew it. Aishwarya smirked. The look in his eyes said it all. Rajesh wasn't a man who lost anything, especially not an argument.

"The CNSA is sending a ship. They'll be here in three days to take control of the project and begin salvage operations." He didn't ask her if she'd leave with the Chinese transport. He knew it'd be her only option by then. "Good luck."

The digital glass darkened. A jolt told her the shuttle had pulled the docking clamps, and she turned her back on the airlock.


Rings of bioluminescent paint glowed at three meter intervals along the cylinder's interior, stretching a hundred meters along the core. Aishwarya felt as if she were falling through a shrinking tunnel, like Alice down the rabbit hole, and she wondered if she'd made a mistake as she pulled herself along.

Rajesh was right. Brihaspati wouldn't work in the long run, not the way they'd left it. Only half of the outer shell had been assembled. The frame motors were still in containers, strapped to the down-orbit tier as ballast. The entire station circled too low, its orbit degrading and soon to become a hazard. She'd have no choice but to leave when the Chinese arrived.


A soft male voice squelched through her collar speakers. "Your orders were to vacate."

Startled, Aishwarya missed the rung. She crashed into the inner lining, leaving a bluish streak through the patina of oxidation.

"Why was this not done?"

"You scared the crap out of me!" She tried to get her breathing under control, her heartrate monitor shrieking at the spike.

"Why are you not on the shuttle?" The voice from mission control sounded bored, as if her fate meant next to nothing to him.

How could Aishwarya explain to a stranger she didn't want to feel like a pariah? She was functional here. Brihaspati's array powered the thin woven wires and servos of her skillsuit, giving her mobility without the pain and clumsy bulk of a traditional exosuit. It was a symbiotic relationship, and it'd taken her a year to perfect it. The suit made her whole, but it'd never work on the surface.

"You will board the salvage assessor's craft when it arrives. You will continue with them until you reach the International Space Platform where you'll turn yourself over to the Indian liaison there. Transport to the surface has been arranged on a Russian drop tanker two days later. These orders are not negotiable. Are they understood?"

She sighed. She'd known this was coming.

"What if I don't leave?" She spoke casually, as if refusing a drink at a party, but she trembled inside. "What if I say no?"

She pulled herself into the prep room of the upper tier airlock, affixing her helmet while waiting for a response. She'd spent nights going over the salvage laws, and she had a surprise for them.


"Brihaspati, this is Satish Dhawan Space Center. Do you copy?" The voice sounded different, much calmer, and more authoritarian.

"Copy." Aishwarya keyed the airlock, and the hatch slid aside. She steadied herself, afraid this might not work.

"Director Roddam Sharma here. It's three in the morning, and..."

"With all respects, director, you should be in bed."

"Yes, well... I was, but it seems we have a bit of a problem."

"I'm sorry to hear that." Aishwarya climbed to the outer corner of the airlock. Maybe she shouldn't antagonize the director, but she was tired of being treated like a child.

She took a deep breath, waiting for the right moment to jump. Her timing needed to be precise. Her skillsuit would power down the moment she exited the station, and she'd be at the mercy of her spacesuit's programming.

She hadn't been outside the station since her accident two years earlier. One of the solar grid assemblies had picked up too much speed relative to the restraining arm, and Aishwarya made the rooky mistake of getting between them to try and dampen the grid's momentum. The impact force was enough to smash her spine. She'd spent two months in Brihaspati's medical ward learning to breathe without the aid of machines, and three more fighting to keep from being sent home.

They told Aishwarya she'd never hold a tool again. They said she'd never walk, but the worst news had come when she'd received her orders to return to Earth. An engineer unable to do her job was just fifty-four kilograms of dead weight.

So she'd started to work. She'd designed an exosuit based on current technology, but scaled down, primed for an orbital environment and fueled by the station's power grid. She'd only wanted mobility back, but she'd gotten so much more.


"As a member of the ISRO, your actions are subject to command approval. You mustn't disobey." Director Sharma had a deep voice, and his low even tone was hypnotic. "We each have a job to do, and everyone must follow their orders."

"I quit."

"Excuse me?" His tone changed. It didn't sound as if he were speaking to a child anymore.

"I quit." Her heart pounded so loud she was surprised it didn't set off her sensors. "I'll be fired the moment I set foot on Earth anyway, so I quit."

"You are essential space personnel." She could hear mumbling in the background. The director wasn't alone. "You can't resign."

"I just did."

Silence, as if he'd dropped communications. Aishwarya bit her lip. She needed them to escalate this. If they didn't, her plan wouldn't work. She counted the seconds. Her next move depended on the ISROs reaction.

"Your actions are illegal on a national level, astronaut." It wasn't the director. It was the first voice, the rude operations chief who'd tried to order her around earlier. "This is treason."  

Aishwarya exhaled, tension blowing out like steam. They'd given her an opening.

"I renounce my national privilege. I don't want to be part of your country." She checked her suit, making sure she'd engaged the autopilot.

"Then you will vacate our space platform immediately."

"Understood."

She leapt, holding her breath as she arced over Brihaspati's unfinished upper torus. Earth loomed like a gigantic glowing puzzle above her, its continents and oceans serrated by Brihaspati's latticework of graphene bars and solar power curtains. The soft whisper of her skillsuit servos faded, draining sensation from her limbs until she was left with nothing but a profound sense of loss.

"ISRO control. My spacesuit is transmitting orbital location data. I am officially away from Brihaspati, and the station has been released for salvage."

"Acknowledged..." The voice sounded leery. They knew she was up to something, but they weren't sure what. She felt hurt nobody ever asked where she was going, or how she'd survive.

Her HUD flashed an overlay of Brihaspati's shell across her visor, and her frame motors engaged. She swung out over the station and down beneath the unfinished shock plate. Pitted from exposure, the plate eclipsed the Earth, leaving her totally alone, her breathing the only sound.

In the silence, she wondered if she'd done the right thing.


Her suit completed its programmed circuit, spiraling down-orbit and away from the station. A chill ran down Aishwarya's spine, lost somewhere behind her ribcage as she fought to keep from hyperventilating. She hadn't been outside Brihaspati in a long time. The station sat like a mismatched dumbbell against the Earth, unfinished but still impressive in the reflected sunlight. It had become so much more than a job to her. It was home.

"For the official record... I am taking possession, per salvage articles of the Orbital Assembly, of abandoned material at these coordinates." She transmitted Brihaspati's position, and then held her breath.

Control didn't respond. They knew she'd be recording everything.

"I'll take your silence as assent, ISRO." Her motors flared. She headed back in, autopilot rotating her across the torus and toward the up-orbit airlock.

"Astronaut Das, those articles you've so earnestly quoted were not meant for you." The man with the snotty voice finally spoke. A video window splashed across the corner of her visor's HUD, and she was face to face with a young man with small eyes and a sour expression that matched his distemper. "Those laws were set down with the anticipation only nations would be in possession of the resources needed to accomplish complex salvage operations in space, and--"

"Your shortcomings are not my fault." Aishwarya sneered at the little man. "The law is the law."

When the first Orbital Assembly had drawn up the rules on space salvage more than a decade earlier, they'd assumed no national space program would try to claim significant assets without a contract. It'd be considered a hostile act, and there were other laws covering aggression in orbit. Aishwarya had no such constraint. She didn't for a moment think she could keep the station. The Orbital Assembly would just attach an addendum to close the loophole, but for now Brihaspati technically belonged to her.


Her spacesuit hit the curve of the inner shell. Her head slammed the rim of her visor. A wave of nausea engulfed her, and she screamed. Crimson alerts mushroomed across her HUD. Autopilot tried to correct, but she tumbled as she drifted across the outer ring of Brihaspati, helpless, her frantic breaths spilling between clenched teeth.

"No, no, no..." She closed her eyes. Her skin tingled, her face flush. Her suit thrusters cut out. She drifted, hope fading as momentum drew her across the crenelated solar umbrellas.

The sun appeared. Her visor polarized as she rotated past the tip of the solar arrays and struck a spur of carbon tubing. Without power to her skillsuit, her body might as well be frozen. With no way to maneuver, she was already dead.

She should have let Rajesh talk her onto the shuttle. It had been too big of a risk to try and stay, and now she'd lost everything.

"ISRO." Tears beaded her eyes, wicked away by microfiber strips. Her voice faltered. She tried to get it under control before continuing. She didn't want them to gloat. She didn't want that to be the last thing she heard.

"Aishwarya, do you copy?" A video window popped onto her HUD. Rajesh stared at her, a curl to his thick mustache that dragged his lips into a frown. He hadn't been happy about leaving her behind. He must be livid over what she'd done since. "We need to talk."

"No lectures, please. Not now."

"If not now, when?" His gaze flickered as if he were paying attention to something out of frame.

"Rajesh, I can't..." Her spacesuit completed its leisurely drift, sliding into the main tier's exposed framework. She faced the dark carbon mesh, unable even to see the stars.

A soft slushing interrupted her dismal self-pity. Sensation tingled at the tips of her fingers, power trickling through her skillsuit from a patch of the station's inner mesh. It was the most beautiful sound she'd ever heard. Her left arm twitched. She lifted her hand, her glove flexing, and she grabbed the station's frame.

"What are you doing to my command, young lady?"

"It's not yours anymore." She panted as she spoke, trying to regain her composure. She struggled through the forest of carbon rods. Power surged through the inner sheath, and she hugged the silvered mesh as she picked her way toward the airlock.

"You can't get away with it. You know that?" His tone dripped with disapproval.

Her first thought was to say something sarcastic, but they'd been friends. It'd been Rajesh who'd stuck by her after the accident when they wanted to ship her back to Earth. "I know."

"Then why?"

Aishwarya wanted to shrug. It was such a simple way to express uncertainty, but it was as impractical in microgravity as it'd been impossible with her paralysis. Instead, she just glanced away from the camera. "I had to do something."

"It's certainly admirable."

"But..." Something in his eyes made her feel he had more to say. Aishwarya could feel it. She wondered what his plans really were.

He smiled, a thin upturning of the lips under his thick mustache. "They're going nuts downstairs. What you've done is all over the news, and some pretty important people are in hot water over this."

"I'm just looking out for myself." It was impossible to explain the freedom Brihaspati allowed her. He wouldn't understand the helplessness of dependence, or her fierce desire to protect that freedom. "I need this."

"You have it." An awkward silence hung between them, a gulf larger than the thousands of kilometers separating Brihaspati from the International Space Platform.

"But you think I can't keep it?"

"I know you can't." He stared at her as if he could make her see his point of view by sheer force of will. "You know it too."

"You're coming back, aren't you?"

"Looks that way." At least he didn't deny it.

"Do I have a choice?"

"No." He frowned into the camera. "Feel lucky it's me, and not a team of Marines."

"Yea, lucky..." She closed the video, concentrating on her crawl across the inner skin of Brihaspati.


"Hello, my beautiful friend. Is it true?"

"I suppose it is." Aishwarya stared at Bete Reis's plump face and friendly brown eyes. "They told you, didn't they, and they want you to talk me out of it?"

"Of course." Bete laughed, a sincere chuckle. "When the ISRO discovered my presence in orbit, they immediately tried to recruit me."

The two had met a few years earlier on the International Space Platform, before Aishwarya had ever heard of Brihaspati. Bete had been a hotshot shuttle jockey, full of stories, overflowing with life. They'd become instant friends, and it was because of Bete that Aishwarya had pursued a career on Brihaspati.

"It's like a soap opera up here." Aishwarya flipped to match the video's orientation. She'd taken possession of Brihaspati's command chamber, moving her supplies up from the crew quarters further along the torus.

"My mission, as a favor from my government to yours, is to sweet talk some sense into you." Bete moved a little closer to the camera, her eyes reflecting pinpoints of blue light from her instrument panel. "Is such a thing possible?"

Aishwarya smiled. "You tell me."

"I think not, no." Bete shook her head, her body bobbing. "So what will you do?"

"Brihaspati's my home now." Aishwarya pulled herself into the command chair, wrapping a wide geckopad sash across her torso and mounting her skillsuit connection to an attached input. "I'll stay here, live on my own, and try to make a go of it."

"She can do that?" A male voice chirped in the background, hidden from her video feed. "Could we?" 

"Quiet down." Bete turned. A skinny astronaut in a pale blue flight suit drifted into view, a friendly smile on his slender features. He waved.

"Are you serious? Live up here? No restraints? No agenda?"

Aishwarya's recognition software picked him up, tagging the name Paulo Anjos below his bobbing silhouette. "I'm going to try."

"Need help?"

"Don't be hasty." Bete pushed Paulo away from the camera, chuckling as his legs somersaulted from view. "And don't you try and recruit my flight crew."

Aishwarya smiled at her friend's joke, but it'd given her an idea. Brihaspati was huge. It had been designed to house dozens of scientists and technicians during the long journey to Jupiter. It was certainly big enough to hold a few crazy astronauts.

"I have something insane I want to run by you, but I want to wait until I see you in person." Aishwarya tried to keep the excitement from her voice.

"We're on our way. ETA is about a day and a half." Bete passed her hand over the camera, hesitating. "Hang in there, my friend."

Aishwarya turned from the camera and accessed the traffic logs for current orbital missions. There were sixteen manned projects circling Earth, representing nine countries. She sent a transcript of her situation to each, asking for assistance. Politics would keep most away, but politics might also gain her a few allies.


To Aishwarya's surprise, a proximity warning sounded less than six hours later. A gentle thud told her she had company.

"Allo?" It was the European Orbital Science Team. They'd received her message, and had played with their altitude vector to match Brihaspati's orbit. She hadn't really expected such an immediate response to her communication.

She welcomed the three slender men as the slid through the airlock, and was rewarded with friendly, large-toothed smiles. Then they all started talking at once, one in French, the others German.

She held out her hands. "Wait. I don't understand."

The nearest man laughed as if she'd told a joke. He slapped his bald forehead, floating backwards as he brought his helmet microphone to his lips.

"It is good to meet the woman who claims her own world." He grinned as the translator whispered his words. The other two nodded, bobbing in place.

"I didn't have a choice. I..."

Aishwarya hadn't anticipated becoming a celebrity, and she wasn't sure she was ready for the attention.

"Good. Good..." The closest man pulled himself forward. He was shorter than the others, and the corners of his eyes crinkled as he leaned in and tapped something against her right ear. Surprised, she jerked back, spinning into the padded wall. He reached to steady her. His breath smelled of cloves.

"Recording? Yes? Okay?" He pointed to his own ear, and then to the others. Aishwarya hadn't noticed the button cameras.

"Sure, I guess." She smiled, although it made her feel self-conscious. This wasn't a publicity stunt.


Aishwarya met the Brazilian shuttle at the up-orbit airlock adjacent to the station's completed hydroponics segment. Hydroponics was the only finished piece of Brihaspati. She'd done most of the work herself, and was proud of what it had become, but she wished they'd been able to complete the whole station.

Paulo Anjos burst through the airlock first, bouncing as he caught a rung near Aishwarya's feet. He had the wiry athletic build of a professional soccer player, but looked too young to be crewing a shuttle. She laughed.

"This will let you go wherever you want." Aishwarya tapped a yellow lozenge against his wrist. The coin-shaped sticker contained access codes to the completed segments of Brihaspati. "Explore."

He took off, careening around the curve of the habitat like a ten-year-old heading to recess. Bete glided into the compartment after he'd gone. Aishwarya caught her by the hands, squeezing the older woman's fingers in a friendly embrace. "It's so good to see you in the flesh, my friend."

"I wish it were under better circumstances."

She guided Bete around the quilted hallway and into a wide compartment filled with crates and plastic-wrapped containers. The muted sounds of laughter bounced from the unfinished ceiling, and the pungent smell of coffee filled the air.

"So, I'm not your first?"

"European Space Agency." Aishwarya waved at the three astronauts who'd taken it upon themselves to unpack a section of the dining hall. They were noisy, and they seemed to be everywhere at once, but it was good to hear life on the station again. It had been nothing but gloom in the months leading up to the shutdown.

"I see."

"They're recording everything I do." Aishwarya tapped the button camera on her ear. Bete frowned, but nodded at the device. "They think I'm some kind of celebrity."

"You are. Nobody's tried anything this crazy before."

"Stupid, you mean." Aishwarya stopped beside a curved section of wall. The material appeared bluish in the sharp LED lighting.

"Enough putting yourself down." Bete brushed her fingers against Aishwarya's cheek, her hand warm and dry. She smelled of roses. "How will you fix this jam you've gotten yourself into?"

"You gave me the idea." Aishwarya swiped her hand across the hull. "Here, I want to show you something."

A video frame appeared, expanding to show Brihaspati out of scale with the Earth. Lines in primary colors extended from the station like the legs of a spider, predicting orbital arcs. Several orbits crossed Brihaspati.

"This is everything circling Earth with the potential to intersect our orbit. There's a Russian heavy boost ferry, an American X-Shuttle, and an Iranian science canister. The Iranians are half an orbit away. I think they're just looking to extend their mission time, but I'll take what I can." She tweaked the simulation. A number of lines vanished, leaving three glowing blue streamers, and a single dotted line in red. "I've already offered them the up-orbit tier for as long as they want."

"The red line, what's that?" Bete slid her finger over the animation.

"The salvage assessors." Aishwarya collapsed the frame, dreading the confrontation. She could feel it in the tightness of her neck, the heaviness of her body even under her skillsuit.

"Will you be ready?"

"All I've got is a loophole in the law, and nothing to back it up." Aishwarya used her fingers to climb the arching wall, plucking two foil packets of wine from overhead storage.

"You're smart, my friend. You'll think of something." Bete took one of the packets.

Aishwarya wished she felt as confident.


The Iranian craft looked like a baseball bat, its wide cylinder tapered at one end and capped with a heavy drive ball. Aishwarya felt it dock, a faint shimmy as her video switched to an interior view of the up-orbit airlock.

"Welcome to Brihaspati, gentlemen." She pulled a maintenance pack from a storage slot beside the monitor. She'd have to do something about the down-orbit airlock now that all three bays of the upper docking area were occupied. "I've provided access to many parts of the station for your convenience."

"We are in your debt." A dark man with a neatly trimmed beard and small shiny eyes tugged his helmet off and smiled into the pickup.

Another man glided into view. "As for access... I already have one of my own."

A chill ran through Aishwarya as Rajesh removed his helmet and glared into the camera. He seemed taller, more imposing than she remembered.

"Commander, I didn't expect you so soon."

Aishwarya had been hoping for more time, expecting Rajesh to arrive with the salvage vessel. It was just like him to put her off guard like this.

"I hitched a ride." He ran a hand through his short hair.

She'd gone over her arguments a hundred times. Brihaspati was technically hers. She held all the power, but why did she feel as if it were her first day on the job. An empty pit opened in her stomach at the thought of the coming confrontation.

"I'm on my way to repair the lower tier airlock." She lifted the maintenance pack, waving it in front of the camera like a shield. "I'll meet you in hydroponics when I'm done."

She didn't know how long he'd let her avoid him. Fixing her earlier sabotage wouldn't take very long, and she couldn't hide forever. He knew Brihaspati as well as she did.

"Don't bother. I'll meet you at the airlock." He switched off the video before she could reply.


To her surprise, Rajesh didn't try to bully her the moment he entered the main shaft. Instead, he watched quietly as she unpacked the mushroom-shaped seam ripper and began to work. She could feel him staring. It made the twelve-meter tube seem cramped and confining, but it was better than arguing.

"Why are you doing this?" His voice was a whisper in her headphones, heavy with undertones of disappointment. "If you'd come to me, I would have tried to help. Now..."

She placed the seam slug into the recessed channel separating the airlock hatch and its containing ring. The gelatinous robot oozed across the casing, undoing her earlier sabotage. Its interior glowed emerald bright, like a trapped undersea creature, as it slithered around the airlock frame melting the clumped metal welds. Rajesh clung to the padded rung nearby, his spacesuit like a statue beside her.

"I thought I could extend my time in orbit by a few weeks." She turned away, afraid to look him in the eyes. "We both know my options are limited by skillsuit technology. I was looking at a ticket Earthside no matter what."

"The ISP could've worked something out, I'm sure of it." His voice grew louder.

"My skillsuit's unique to this station. I designed it as part of Brihaspati, light and flexible because it draws its life from the station. Without it, I'm a stone with feet."

"You're afraid." He drifted closer. "Don't let fear own you. Don't let what happened dictate your future, Aishwarya. Be brave enough to take the next step--"

"The next step lands me on Earth." She interrupted, getting angry. He knew there wasn't anything in orbit for her. "Once I'm down, I'm done. And you know it."

"That's not necessarily true."

"Only here. This station and I are one unit. I can't function without it, and it wouldn't exist without me. Like it or not, I am Brihaspati."

He made a noise, and then shifted position to put himself behind her again. He seemed to be waiting for something. It made her nervous.

She palmed one of the smaller weld worms from the pack, holding it loosely in the gloved fingers of her left hand. "Let's cut the crap, Rajesh. Why are you really here?"

Getting back to Brihaspati couldn't have been easy. Control wouldn't have sent him just to continue old arguments. There must be more to it.

He chuckled. "Always so blunt."

"Practical."

"ISRO thought I could talk you into leaving voluntarily." He moved closer, his shadow looming over her as she extracted the slug and cycled the lock open.

"They thought wrong."

"I know." He sighed. The tension in his voice made her turn.

He launched at her.

She dived, her suit bouncing off the hatch. She spun, and he grabbed her. She kicked, and he forced her back against the controls. The lock cycled. She grabbed his arms as the outer hatch blew, ejecting them both.

Rajesh rolled, breaking her grip. Aishwarya, frantic, ignited the weld worm. She jabbed it at his helmet, but he twisted. It struck the edge of his torso plate. The worm burned through the outer coating of her sleeve, exposing layers of protective Nylar resin, fusing her to Rajesh's spacesuit.

They tumbled, Brihaspati spinning from view. Her skillsuit cut out. Her body stilled, leaving her helpless.

"I don't want to hurt you." He panted, his visor touching hers."

Aishwarya watched his dark eyes, concentrating on his face and not the spinning of their bodies. Her breath hissed in ragged gasps through clenched teeth. He'd betrayed her, but there was no anger in his gaze. Only sadness.

"It's over."

"I could've made something here if you'd given me a chance..." She wanted to scream. She wanted to lash out, but she couldn't move. He'd taken more than the station from her.

"Not here, not like this." His face appeared pale, stubbornness written into his features and colored by his HUD LEDs.

"Throwing me overboard isn't going to accomplish anything." She felt utterly helpless, a rag doll strapped to a madman. What would he do with her now?

"Unoccupied, the station reverts to its original owners. The Chinese can dock and take possession. I've already alerted them."

He didn't smile. He didn't look away when she stared into his dark eyes, so close but so very distant.

"It doesn't have to end like this."

"I wish you were right..."

"Hey, still here! Still on board." Bete's voice broke through Aishwarya's labored breathing. The button camera. They could see and hear everything. "You going to throw me off too?"

"This is an internal action on sovereign property, Brazilian commander. I suggest you vacate this station." Rajesh's mustache twitched as he exhaled. He'd forgotten about the others.

"Go to hell!" Bete yelled into her microphone, and Aishwarya cringed. "Because now I am Brihaspati."

Rajesh swore. His visor's HUD reflected an image of the Chinese shuttle, its forward jets flaring to halt its incoming trajectory. They were holding back, waiting to see if he could get a handle on the situation.

"Count me in." The young astronaut who'd been so excited to be allowed to run free through the station squeaked through Aishwarya's speakers. "Anjos here in hydroponics. You've got fresh lettuce, and ginger, and... I think I'll stick around."

"As will we." The smooth translated voice of the European astronaut chimed in.

Aishwarya wanted to cry. She'd felt alone for so long, stranded because of her body, abandoned like the station she'd tried to protect. It had been like a weight, crushing her in despair. Now, no matter what happened, she could endure.

"Unknown astronaut..." Rajesh started to speak, but anger and confusion choked his words. He was outnumbered, and he knew it.

"Greetings, former base commander. The Omid will make no attempt to leave." The Iranian module, Aishwarya had almost forgotten about them herself. "We occupy the up-orbital tier, and we are also Brihaspati."

"Saale! Is there anyone in orbit who isn't on this station?"

"Yes, us..." She smiled, tears in her eyes. The look on his face was priceless.

He sighed. His frame motors hissed, and he aligned his spacesuit to the station's airlock. "They're going to fire me for this, but I give up. You're too stubborn for me."

She laughed. "I told you. I am Brihaspati."