He flipped the switch and the primary oxygen systems whizzed back into life. He flipped another and the backups sputtered and stopped. The bimonthly maintenance had become so routine he hardly had to think about it anymore. He pushed off and floated through the corridor, past the pictures of those who had come before him.
There were the pictures of his own crew, 4 of them, all looking happy. They had just arrived at the International Space Station and everyone was excited to finally be out here. For him it had been the 3rd time in space, but for the rest it had been their first stay at this home away from home planet. There had been a giddy atmosphere that he'd been happy to join in on.
He grabbed a rung and swung himself around a corner, into the Tranquility module, where the Cupola was. It had been the view on Earth, but now it could hardly be called that. Earth was a quarter-sized red-gray circle in the distance, and it had been years since he'd been able to discern any detail in it. He hooked his feet into one of the rungs attached to the inside of the Cupola and just watched. He'd passed Mars' orbit a few months ago, but he hadn't seen Mars so far. According to his calculations, he never would. By the time Mars passed on this side of the sun, he'd be out of range.
He could turn off the thrusters, but he knew that there was always the chance of not being able to turn them on again. And if that happened, his acceleration would be gone forever. Mars would not be his way out.
The mission had gone perfectly, and then everything else had gone wrong. They had gotten word that something was terribly wrong at Yellowstone and that they were not going to bring back the Progress resupply craft at this time. Upon asking for further detail, they were told there wasn't much certain at that point and that they would contact them soon. Later that same day there was another message, saying that another Progress craft was in the process of being launched. That was the moment they knew things were far worse than they were being told.
The Yellowstone Caldera was about to blow. One of the biggest super volcanoes on Earth was showing the signs of an imminent eruption. By this time the news had hit the media, and they had been able to glean background information on what had been going on back on Earth. There had been an increase in earthquakes, including many surrounding the San Andreas Fault, and multiple smaller volcanoes had already erupted or were currently erupting.
Mission control stated that there was a pretty serious fear that there could be a chain effect once Yellowstone went, and they had been right. Once Yellowstone went, it seemed like every other volcano had received the signal and joined in.
3 days after the second Progress craft was launched, they had seen eruptions all around the world, plumes of ash covering the skies and mingling with and eventually replacing the white clouds they were used to seeing.
They had had to manually dock the second Progress craft and lost contact with mission control not long after. The last message they had received was an apology for not being able to do any more.
After that, they hadn't been able to re-establish contact with either mission control or any other endpoint since. Internet had stopped working as well, and by now they couldn't see any land, it was just ash clouds and intermittent explosions underneath.
He unhooked his feet and turned around. Remembering always made him feel lost, and he needed to keep his wits.
He was alone, after all, and if he lost it, everything would be lost.
Back in the corridor, he took a left and went straight forward, into and through Destiny. Then he turned right, into the Leeuwenhoek module. It had been the last module attached to the ISS, replacing the old Columbus module. It had been intended to be the final piece, before the clock started its count down to the ISS being decommissioned.
The first few days after losing contact with Earth, they had huddled, hardly speaking. They knew that they would not be able to return to Earth, and even if they had been able to, they would land in a place where there was unlikely to be a good future for them. The Progress craft were not meant for crew and they would not survive re-entry. They were stuck there, and there was no way out.
Until he had had a crazy idea. A legitimately crazy idea. They had two progress craft. They weren't pointed in the same direction, but they still had thrust left. They could burn one on the lowest thrust possible, stretching the fuel as long as they could, and if the first one ran out, they could rotate the ISS slowly using the ion thrusters, then use the second Progress to continue accelerating.
"What's the point?" someone had asked.
"Staying here won't do us any good, right? So why not try to get elsewhere?"
"And how would we land elsewhere? The ISS can't withstand gravity, let alone the impact of a landing," someone else had asked. It was a really good question.
"I don't know, maybe we choose a place with low gravity, try to get into orbit, slow down with the ion thrusters and we just make a crash landing, hoping for the best."
He had paused.
"I'm not saying it's a good idea or that it's definitely going to save us, but it's better than sitting here and slowly being pulled into Earth's atmosphere and burn up."
There had been a lengthy and heated discussion and he had not won out.
The Leeuwenhoek module had been intended to increase the mission duration significantly without needing constant resupplying of essential basics, leaving more place on the resupply ships for food. It had massive compressed oxygen tanks, able to support a crew of 4 for 2 years, and a near-perfect efficiency water recycling system.
So far it had lasted a crew of 1 for 5 years, but he had to admit he had the system set to near-hypoxia levels to stretch it out. He'd also had to re-use, well, bodily fluids of his former crew to keep the recycling system running. It was near-perfect, not perfectly perfect.
The first had gone only a few weeks in. Suicide. They had found him in his bunk, a belt wrapped tightly around his neck and a serene look in his eyes. He'd left a note, but all it said was that he couldn't imagine them holding on given the circumstances. He had wished them luck and peace.
And he'd been right. The second to go was a case of starvation. She'd just stopped eating completely and become emaciated as time continued. They hadn't noticed quickly enough, the suit and weightlessness hiding her shrinking figure. Afterwards they had cursed themselves for not paying enough attention to her face becoming thinner, something they could clearly see with photos from before and her now. Her heart had simply stopped beating in her sleep.
After she had died, he and his remaining crew mate had relatively quickly decided that his original plan had been better than nothing at all and they set it into motion. Setting the Progress aimed at Earth to thrust with 1% power, they filled their days reading, often re-reading books they'd already read, listening to music that held no surprises anymore and playing games they were sick of. In addition to that, there was the regular maintenance of the station that kept them somewhat sane.
They would share everything they had with one another, every single tale they could remember from their lives before. But it would always end up becoming the same conversation in the end. How their loved ones had died on Earth, whether they had suffered, did any of them survive? And inevitably, the depression would set in again, and conversations would stop, sometimes for weeks on end.
He had woken up one day, and had not found his crew mate anywhere. One of the EVA suits was missing, and there was a note stuck to the airlock door.
"Going back to Earth," it said.
He went into the Cupola and saw a white speck moving away from him. Minutes later a short flash and that was it. Suicide by re-entry.
And then he was alone. Perhaps the last human alive.
And the realization set in that the last conversation he'd ever have with a fellow human would quite possibly have been weeks before, and it had been a sad one.
That was years ago now, he thought as he pushed a button. Lights went on on the console and he pushed a second button. On the other side of the Leeuwenhoek, a flexible cover rolled up and a wall of glass containers became visible. he pushed off towards it.
Funny, he thought, he couldn't remember their names anymore.
The Leeuwenhoek was a science lab launched by the European Space Agency, not long after embryonic experiments were given the go-ahead by the European Federation. They had re-engineered the science experiments so they could make use of this landmark decision. The court had decided that, for the future of humanity, it was inexcusable not to do human experiments. It had been scientifically proven that certain areas of experimentation could save millions upon millions of lives. Both in curing diseases, stopping genetic defects and stimulating the possibility of growing embryos without needing a human for incubation.
Part of the intended goals had been to provide insight in how humanity would deal with off-world situations. Being born in space, growing up in low-gravity environments.
The embryos were growing well, he thought. He increased the temperature a little. If he could just find a way to land somewhere hospitable enough, maybe humanity wasn't over just yet.
Perhaps he'd one day be able to hold a conversation again.
But this time, one of hope.