"Gonna take a ride across the moon . . . Yuri and me . . ." Eltonovitch Johnovitvch

Space Junk
by David Wright ©2016

It was a beautiful August afternoon on the Cape, the sun glinting off the green Gulf of Mexico, the smell of smokies and Cajun chicken grilling on the BBQ, and Richard doing what he loved to do best, tinkering with expensive, high-tech machinery in his backyard. It was a gift from NASA, sort of, a casualty of the cancelled space station project. The 36-inch mirror was just kicking around the Cape for nearly a year until it finally found its way into Richard's suburban backyard. He could always return it, if anyone asked. But they probably wouldn't. Without the space station to attach it too, the multi-million-dollar telescope was just junk, space junk.

"There you go," Richard said after setting the tracking program. "Now you'll be able to watch my whole mission, assuming I stay on schedule."

Cody looked through the viewfinder and scrunched up his nose. "I don"t see anything."

"Richard laughed. "Of course not. I'm not up there yet."

Cody looked back at his father. "Dad," he said, his nose still scrunched up with painful curiosity, "are you still an Astronaut"?

Richard froze. Why would his son even ask a question like that? Of course he was still an Astronaut. He was going on a mission in two days. That's why he'd spent the last five hours setting up the telescope and showing Cody how it worked. So he could watch his father blast off into space. Who else did that but Astronauts? Cody seemed to sense a change in his father's mood and his words tumbled out in a hurry.

"Stu Jacobs went on the space plane last summer. He said they call the pilots Astronauts but they're not real Astronauts. His dad said you're not a real Astronaut unless you go to another planet like Mars, or at least the moon."

Richard didn't respond. Somehow the telescope didn't seem like such a good idea anymore.

"Did you go to Mars, dad"?

Richard shook his head slowly.

"Why not" Didn"t you want to"?

Richard opened his mouth and closed it again. He didn"t know how to answer. How do you tell an eleven-year-old boy that sometimes life just didn"t pay up the way it was supposed to" Sometimes the good guy didn't win. Sometimes the best man for the job didn't get the job, didn't even get a shot at it. There were egos, and politics, and a million other things that shouldn't matter, but did. And worst of all, sometimes dreams just didn't come true, no matter how long and how hard you worked for them. It wasn't fair. It was just life.

"Cody," he said after a moment, and then his voice became steely, "the next time you see that Stu kid, I want you to tell him something for me."


"Tell him," he began slowly, his barely suppressed anger putting a tremor in his voice, "tell him his father"s a twit and he can go to--"

Two days later, Richard sat in the cramped capsule of Orion 7 and viewed the blue-white curvature of the earth from 20 000 nautical miles up. The familiar voice of Jerold Mainard, Flight Control at the Cape, roared noisily in his earphones.

"Commencing re-orientation in T minus"?

"Ah, Jerry"? Richard interrupted. "Do you think you could skip the formalities" You're giving me a headache."

"Whatever, Dick. You're the boss."

Richard felt the thrusters engage and the view out the window rotated 180 degrees to the black void of outer space. Up until now, the mission had been completely routine. They'd tagged a dozen minor satellites and sent them gently on their way to burn up in the atmosphere without a hitch. It was simple, perhaps too simple. A trained monkey could have done it.

"Dad, are you still an Astronaut"? Cody"s words seemed to echo off the titanium confines of Richard's cockpit.

His work was important. Why couldn't Cody see that? In 1957, there were only two satellites in orbit around the earth, the moon and a little titanium sphere called Sputnik. A century later, there were more than 10 000. The list included everything from spent U.S. rocket boosters to abandoned Russian spy satellites. On earth, these objects were worth a fortune, if not for their historic value, at least as spare parts. But in orbit, they were just space junk.

And worse than that, they were dangerous junk. Space junk had a habit of leaking toxic waste, getting in the way of space shuttle traffic, or blowing up unexpectedly causing more space junk to cloud the already crowded orbiting zones. And then there was always the danger that some of the larger junk would make it back to earth as their orbits decayed. When the 20-ton Hubble Space Telescope fell to earth in 2030, the debris trail was 750 miles long, causing serious damage to crops, schools, churches and one poor Australian farmer's best milking cow. It was only a matter of time before somebody was going to get killed.

Richard's work saved lives!

But none of that meant anything to an eleven-year-old boy. His father wasn't an Astronaut because he didn't go to the moon or Mars. He wasn't an Astronaut because he didn't actually explore space. He just cleaned it up like some kind of glorified garbage man.

"I don't mean to bother you, Dick, but are you reading this"?

Richard scanned the radar and felt an immediate flush of embarrassment. He'd been daydreaming and almost missed it, something he never would have done ten years ago. very unprofessional, almost unforgivable.

"Yeah, I see it." It was a blip at 22 000 nautical miles, where no blip had been before, at least not for a long time.

Such a blip first appeared on radar in 1969, two months before the famous Apollo moon landing. The radar operator knew it had to be a glitch because, according to his instruments, the object was metallic, heavy and roughly the size of a school bus. Nevertheless, he dutifully recorded his observation in the extra-terrestrial body catalog where it was promptly forgotten.

Thirty years later, the object, now numbered ET body #6419, reappeared on NASA radar at roughly the same geosynchronous orbit, 22 000 nautical miles, but it was quite a bit larger than before. For a brief moment, at least, there appeared to be an ET body in orbit above the earth that was larger than a downtown high-rise apartment block. The image was only on the radar for a few seconds, but some people became alarmed, namely the U.S. military. Was this object a precursor to invasion? A cloaked satellite of this size would have grave potential. It could be an orbiting missile platform or a laser gun array of phenomenal power. And who made it? Russia? Japan? North Korea? Or worse? Did it belong to some Middle Eastern terrorist organization that had its wicked heart set on the total annihilation of the United States?

Who knew - it might even be alien.

Albeit, the hubbub died down quite a bit when the object failed to reappear for the next 50 years, but there were some people in high places with very long memories and they wanted definitive answers to this mystery. To Richard, it was even more ridiculous than collecting space junk. Now he was a ghost hunter chasing some phantom extra-terrestrial body - the Flying Dutchman of space.

"Do you have a visual"?


Radar malfunction. Radioactive anomaly. Nothing.

But then he saw it, a black void in the stars, enormous, like some primordial leviathan corpse drifting in the cold vacuum of space.

"It appears to be derelict. Some kind of ship. Wait a second. It's lighting up."

"It's what!" Jerry"s surprise exploded in Richard's headphones. A second later, his radio was nothing but static. He felt the needles dance over his skin as if his laser acupuncturist had suddenly gone crazy. He was facing the unknown, 22 000 miles from home and completely cut off. He hadn't felt this way in a long time. And he liked it.

"Dabro, comrade." A big voice boomed in Richard"s headphones, dwarfing the static. Richard shook himself. Was this Jerry"s idea of a joke"

"Welcome aboard," the voice said again.

An hour later, Richard was standing face to face with the strangest man he had ever seen. His name was Yuri Ivanovich Boolinov, a big man, with a wide chest and long graying hair that covered nearly every part of his face save for the black pinpricks that were his eyes and the wide, double-row of his yellow teeth. His English was good, but he spoke quickly and with such volume that after a few minutes, Richard was forced to interrupt.

"Wait a second, Yuri. What you"re saying is impossible"a ship of this size just floating out here since before the Apollo moon landing, and no one even noticing"?

Yuri shook his massive, hairy head. "No, no." He filled Richard's aluminum cup with another two fingers of vodka, completely ignoring Richard's protests to the contrary. "Only the first stage was launched at that time, a small living unit about the size of a school bus. The other units were launched later."

"And assembled in space"?

"I came in 2015 as part of a three-person replacement crew." Yuri burped loudly. "I'm so happy to see you. You must tell me everything about yourself. American, yes? You like jazz? I love jazz. It is America's single greatest contribution to the world, but I think maybe all the best jazz musicians are in my country now." Yuri pressed a button on an old portable tape recorder and the fiery trumpet of Louis Armstrong filled the cavernous, stainless steel control room. Richard hated jazz.

"You have a wife" Children"?

"Yes, but this ship. What is it for"? Richard yelled over Armstrong"s blaring trumpet. Yuri slammed his aluminum cup onto the aluminum table, spilling his precious vodka in thick, round globs. The trumpet warbled. For the first time since boarding the nearly derelict Soviet spacecraft, Richard began to suspect that Yuri might not be entirely sane. He decided a change of tactics was in order.

"Yes. Yes, of course," he answered softly, taking a measured sip of the rancid, clear liquid in his cup. "One son, 11 years old, nearly 12. In fact, he's watching me right now."

"Watching you"? Yuri"s black pinprick eyes widened to the size of shriveled grapes.

"Through his telescope."

Yuri's surprised expression relaxed into a warm smile, exposing the full depravity of his big, yellow teeth. "He must be so proud of you."

Richard shrugged.

"All fathers are heroes to their sons." Yuri was still smiling. He finished his vodka in one last gulp and turned off the tape recorder. "Perhaps you would like a tour of my vessel."

Richard stood up abruptly and in the micro-gravity of the Soviet-era vessel almost put himself through the low, aluminum ceiling.

"Yes, I'd like that very much," he said eagerly.

Boolinov's ship was called the Black Wanderer, or Chorenee Sputnik in Russian, an enormous craft at least twice the size of the recently scrapped International Space Station. Richard had a tough time keeping up with his burly Russian guide who dragged himself over catwalks and through transport tubes with apparent ease, rattling off the sites of interest "agridome, lichenursery, astrolab" without the briefest word of explanation.

"Where are the others"?

"Others"? Yuri queried oddly without stopping his descent into the engine room.

"You said you were part of a three-man replacement crew."

"Three-person," he corrected loudly. "We were to test the viability of human reproduction in space. I was chosen for my extreme virility." He pounded his chest proudly.

"And the two other . . ." Richard searched for the right word. ". . . participants"?

"They left."

"How long ago was that"?

Yuri turned a corner and for a moment was lost from view. Richard hurried after him. It wasn't that he was scared. Astronauts don't get scared, as a rule, only concerned. Richard was concerned about the ship, about Yuri and although there was no sign of weapons or dangerous materials on board, Richard was so concerned that the hair had begun to stand up on the back of his neck and his palms were sweating. He needed to know what this was all about, and he needed to know soon. He slipped awkwardly around the corner and his jaw dropped.

"Ah ha," Yuri declared triumphantly. "I can see by your expression that you are impressed. You wanted to know the purpose of this vessel and this is it."

Richard could hardly believe his eyes. Before him were the largest nuclear engines he had ever seen, possibly weighing over 40 000 tons. It seemed inconceivable that they could have transported them into space, and without the international space community ever knowing about it.

"While you Americans were busy putting footprints on the moon," Yuri explained proudly, "my nation set its sights on a far loftier goal the conquest and eventual colonization of Mars. Work began immediately on the Black Wanderer. Flights from Baikonur Cosmodrome ran around the clock transporting the initial building materials the aluminum graphite skin, the plutonium, the metallurgical shops and then assembly teams were sent up three at a time. And now, the magnificent project, this very pinnacle of human achievement, is finally nearing completion."

"But this is completely illegal," Richard blurted out suddenly, forgetting himself. "The use of nuclear energy in space was forbidden by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, a treaty which your country signed willingly."

"Come now, friend. NASA has been contemplating this course of action for decades. We just put feet to our words."

"I will have to report this Cape Com." Richard turned, but found his path abruptly blocked by Yuri's burly chest.

"I"m afraid I can't let you do that." Yuri smiled warmly. "As I told you before, my radio is down. I haven't received any communication from Mother Russia in over three years."

"The radio worked just fine on my ship until . . ."

Yuri scratched the greasy white hairs on the back of his neck. "Yeah, about that. I"m afraid I can't allow you to return to your ship either. It wouldn't be safe. There's been a bit of an accident aboard the Orion 7, or at least there will be."

Richard burst suddenly forward, knocking the large Russian up against the safety railing. The micro-gravity seemed to exaggerate every movement. He'd actually struck Yuri harder than he'd anticipated and now he was sprawling awkwardly over the catwalk. He scrambled to his feet and began dragging himself desperately down the guide rope in the general direction of the docking tube where he'd first entered the massive ship over an hour ago. Behind him, he could hear Yuri"s laughter echoing through the engine room.

This was insane. Richard wondered if he shouldn't just abandon the Orion 7 and make his way back to the control room. Somebody had to shut this thing down. But after a few turns down the narrow, dust-caked corridors, he realized he might not have either option. He was completely lost.

"Commander Hawker," Yuri"s voice echoed over the speakers. "I am monitoring your progress by ship-wide camera. The Wanderer can be confusing sometimes. Take a right at the next intersection, and then two lefts. I have something to show you."

Richard hesitated, but what choice did he have? Boolinov was watching his every move and it was his ship. Like a trapped animal, Richard followed the corridor around the final left and saw the Orion 7 resting peacefully outside the observation window. The crazy Russian had taken him directly back to his own ship.

D'tente, perhaps?

There was a bright flash and a moment later the Orion 7 was little more than a metallic debris field. Richard felt a rage fill him. Boolinov wasn"t just crazy he was dangerous. Richard reached up and yanked the cable camera from the bulkhead as hard as he could. With some satisfaction, he saw several tiny swivel cameras shatter onto the floor a dozen yards down the corridor.

"Now, now, Commander. That"s no way to treat your new home." Yuri"s voice seemed genuinely upset. "I'm sorry about your ship, but now you and I are in the same boat, so to speak. We are committed to the grand enterprise. Together we will make history and path the way for all mankind. It's better this way."

Richard didn't answer. He had seconds to act. Leaping over the safety rail, he descended the two stories at a gentle 0.1 g force, landing softly in the docking bay. The docking tube was completely destroyed, but the heavy bay doors had protected the docking bay from the vacuum of space. Now if he could only get the bay doors to open.

"Commander, where are you"?

Apparently the bay cameras had been cut off as well. That was something in his favor. Richard bounded across the bay to the hangar dock where two space suits hung on metal racks. They were retro in style, probably manufactured in the late seventies or eighties, with large, kettledrum helmets, bulky oxygen packs and thick, shiny Kevlar skins. There were name tags on the front of each suit. Yuri"s name was on the bigger suit and the name Maria Korolev on the other. Richard had never trained in anything so old, but he had a general idea how they worked. He just hoped the pressure seals were still good. He slipped carefully into Yuri's suit it smelled of musk and vodka and attached the helmet. The oxygen was stale but breathable. Apparently Yuri was still making EVA's in this old relic.

"I hope you aren't planning something foolish, Commander."

Richard hit the bay door release. It opened with a whine revealing the narrow airlock Richard had used to enter the Black Wanderer just over an hour ago. Richard waded awkwardly into the airlock, carrying his spare oxygen tank in his left hand. He would have enough oxygen for two hours. After that . . .

He just hoped it was enough time.

"Commander, be reasonable. We should talk about this like"?

The airlock door closed behind him. Richard heard a disturbing whistle of escaping air and then the outer doors opened. The light was blinding, even through the tinted glass of his helmet. He had forgotten about the sun. If he couldn't make it to the dark side of the ship, his suit would heat up and fry him with radiation long before his oxygen ran out. Richard shielded his eyes and reached for the handholds that ran the length of the ship like little dimples on the skin of a whale. His spare oxygen tank floated at the end of its connecting tube behind him. By the time he reached the sharp terminator between light and dark, he was sweating profusely and puffing for air.

"There you are, Commander." Yuri"s voice blared loudly in Richard"s helmet. "I lost you for a few minutes. But now that you've had yourself a peaceful stroll on the outside of my ship, perhaps I can convince you to come back inside."

Richard watched as the trim lights suddenly ran down the length of the fuselage and smoke billowed from the massive nuclear engine at the far end. He felt the ship vibrating up through his arms and wondered how long he could hold on.

"After all, you can"t remain out there for our whole journey to Mars. It wouldn't be safe, or comfortable. It takes a whole year to fly to Mars, even at the speeds we'll be traveling."

"He'll kill us both," Richard mumbled under his breath.

"No, Commander. You misunderstand me. I do not intend to kill anyone."

So Yuri could hear him through the helmet"s microphone. Richard's mind began to work again. Maybe there was still a chance to reason with him.

"Okay, Yuri. You win. Just let me get back inside." Richard turned back into the glare of the sun and reached for another handhold, purposely choosing a more roundabout route back.

"Don"t take too long, Commander. We"re at T-minus thirty minutes, and I'm afraid I can't stop the countdown once it's started. Nuclear engines can be so finicky that way."

Thirty minutes! Richard dived recklessly from handhold to handhold, his path taking him father and farther from the airlock.

"You know this is madness, Yuri. The Soviet Union is defunct. Russia has problems of her own. She can't afford a multi-billion dollar space program anymore. They left you out here without supplies, without a replacement crew. You have to give it up. Let me help you. We can send a signal to Cape Com."

"There's no radio."

"We don"t need a radio. We can use the trim lights and send a message by Morse code, an S.O.S."

"No, no, Commander. Again you misunderstand me. It wasn't they who abandoned me. It was I who abandoned them."

Richard wasn't listening. His ruse had worked. Despite the sun's radiation and the bulkiness of his ancient space suit, he managed to make it to the laser platform. He began scaling the ladder, and then he saw it another space suit. Was Yuri out here chasing him? But that was impossible. There wasn't time. And Yuri was still blathering in his helmet speaker.

"I was the one who destroyed the radio. I was the one who finished the final assembly on the nuclear engines. Moscow wanted to scrap the whole project before anyone found out, to send it drifting towards the sun, nearly a century of national industry only to be burned up in the sun. It was madness."

Richard continued cautiously up the ladder towards the inert space suit. He could see now that the suit"s tether was snagged against the base of the laser. Locking his feet in the rungs of the ladder, Richard reached out and pulled the helmet towards him. The sight nearly made him vomit.

"So I, General Yuri Ivanovich Boolinov, will become the first man to Mars. And you, C

Commander, will join me."

"And what about Natasha"?


"Yes, Natasha Komarov"? Richard asked bitterly, reading the name off the old, corroded space suit. "And Maria Korolev"? Richard added, remembering the name on the suit in the docking bay.

"Ah, what a shame!" Yuri's sadness seemed remarkably sincere over the helmet speaker. "They could have been my queens in a new world. But, alas, they chose oblivion. I hope you will not make the same mistake."

"Oh, you can count on that." Richard climbed to the top of the laser platform and pried open the manual control box. The instructions were in Russian and caked over with nearly a century of grime, but Richard had little trouble deciphering them. As with much of Russian space technology, it had been stolen from top-secret American designs. Richard found the manual override and punched it. The laser surged to life, cutting a long red scar into the fuselage.

"What are you doing"? Yuri screamed madly into Richard's helmet.

"Sorry about that. It"s been a while since basic training." Richard guided the laser until it lined up with the bridge of the Black Wanderer silhouetted majestically in front of a full moon. "Dasvidania, comrade."

He fired, and the bridge imploded dramatically. The voice in his helmet was finally silenced. He had no time to gloat over his victory, however, as the ship rumbled beneath him. It was moving, en route to Mars perhaps, but it would never make it and neither would Richard. He thought of Cody back home. Would he ever know what his father had done? Would he even care? Before he could think of an answer, the fuselage depressurized along the fault line, and Richard's body was propelled violently into the blackness of space.

What seemed like only seconds later, a voice was calling to him in the distance. He opened his eyes slowly.

"Where am I"?

"You"re aboard the Orion 8. We launched a rescue mission right after we lost contact, but we were lucky to find you out here"the proverbial needle in a haystack. Where"s your ship"?

"Yuri shot it with a laser."

"Shot it? Who's Yuri"? Jerry looked worried. "Give him more oxygen. He's hallucinating." An oxygen mask came into view. Richard shook his head.

"No, I'm okay." He sat up and rubbed his head. "How did you guys find me, anyway"?

"There was a massive explosion. Maybe a comet or something."

"The Black Wanderer." Richard nodded.


"Never mind. Go on."

"And so we just headed straight for it. By the time we got there, there was nothing, and then you crossed the moon."

"Crossed the moon"?

"It was amazing, really. NASA lost you completely, but some kid with a telescope in his backyard said you crossed the moon. So we triangulated the coordinates, and sure enough, there you were. We thought we were too late, actually. Good thing you had the extra air tank and this space suit." Jerry looked at the name tag on the suit as if for the first time. "Yuri Boolinov" Who's that"?


x x x

Hard sci-fi is always welcome at Anotherealm. This one more than many others is a fine example of the genre. It graces our electrons this month and I hope for more from author David Wright in the future before he hits the best-seller lists. Our BBS awaits your comments. - GM <"php ini_set("include_path",".:/home/interex/public_html/includes"); include("storyfoot.php"); ">