She’s replacing a panel, hands ungainly in stiff gloves, intent on each twist of metal as she screws it out of its hole. This is how she was trained: to see only the metal glinting in her helmet’s light, to ignore the massive hull of the space station over which she floats, and the infinite space beyond.
At the edge of her vision something intrudes, and she glances up: there’s Krasnov working on the solar array, head slanted down, legs suspended at an impossible angle, but it wasn’t him that caught her eye—behind him earth’s rising up like a colossal balloon. Queasiness stirs in her belly, and she swallows against it. Out here, your sense of your own existence can become unmoored—by your colleague dangling upside down, by your planet hanging overhead.
She should look away, but she doesn’t. Against the desolate monochrome of space, earth’s radiant: the Pacific’s a heart-breaking blue, North America’s decked out in greens and browns. Down there, impossibly far away, her tender husband, their toddling baby girl, their backyard with the swing-set and peonies, and in that instant her body understands: she’s two hundred and fifty miles up. Fear spikes through her and she grabs hold of a truss, as though she might fall, as though she isn’t already falling with the space station in its infinitesimally slow descent around earth.
Through her headset, Krasnov: “Everything A-OK?” His accent makes the words sing.
She says, “Sure, I’m good,” but her voice is tight.
Distance has shrunken him to toy size, his suit bright against the shadow of the array. “You look?”
“It’s quite the sight.”
“Sure, rasslab́sia.” She laughs, and he does too.
When things go wrong—Rasslab́sia! When you freak out—Rasslab́sia! Relax.
Chill. Take it easy.
He gives a stiff wave then slips into the array’s shadow. It’s like watching him vanish into a pool of dark water. She looks away and repositions herself over the panel.
Six more screws. Only six. She slows her breathing, focusses.
Up here, time’s accelerated. Forty-five minutes after the sun comes blasting over the earth’s rim, it dips away. By the time she looks up again, night is eating its way across west Africa, across a storm coiled over the Atlantic, and the world vanishes.
Soon darkness is pouring over the space station, too. First one module winks out, then the next. Moments later the panel’s gone, and her outstretched arm. Where it was, there’s nothing. She flexes her hand. No resistance of glove against fingers, no sensation of muscles moving under skin. In front of her—nothing. When she turns—nothing, and panic flares up her throat. No gleam from her helmet light, no shimmer from long-dead Brightwell “Rasslab́sia” 3
stars, only this absence of everything that ever was and ever will be. This is what it means for time not to have begun, for the universe not to exist, for panic to be pointless, and how easy it is to let go. Rasslab́sia, Rasslab́sia, Rasslab́sia.
Gerri Brightwell is a British writer who lives in Alaska with her husband, fantasy writer Ian C. Esslemont, and their three sons. She is the author of the novels Dead of Winter (Salt, 2016), The Dark Lantern (Crown, 2008), and Cold Country (Duckworth, 2003). Her short work has appeared in many venues including The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Copper Nickel, Redivider, and BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.