SFWRITER.COM > Short Stories > "Above It All"
Above It All
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1996 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
First published in the anthology Dante's
edited by Peter Crowther and Edward E. Kramer (White Wolf, February 1996).
- Travellers in Darkness: The Souvenir Book of the World
Horror Convention 2007, edited by Stephen Jones, March 2007.
- Canadian Fiction Magazine, 1999.
- Winner of the CompuServe Science Fiction and Fantasy Forum's
Sixth Annual HOMer Award for Best Short Story of the Year.
Above It All
by Robert J. Sawyer
Rhymes with fear.
The words echoed in Colonel Paul Rackham's head as he floated in
Discovery's airlock, the bulky Manned Maneuvering Unit
clamped to his back. Air was being pumped out; cold vacuum was
forming around him.
Rhymes with fear.
He should have said no, should have let McGovern or one of the
others take the spacewalk instead. But Houston had suggested
that Rackham do it, and to demur he'd have needed to state a
Just a dead body, he told himself. Nothing to be afraid of.
There was a time when a military man couldn't have avoided seeing
death but Rackham had just been finishing high school during
Desert Storm. Sure, as a test pilot, he'd watched colleagues die
in crashes, but he'd never actually seen the bodies. And when
his mother passed on, she'd had a closed casket. His choice,
that, made without hesitation the moment the funeral director had
asked him his father, still in a nursing home, had been in no
condition to make the arrangements.
Rackham was wearing liquid-cooling long johns beneath his
spacesuit, tubes circulating water around him to remove excess
body heat. He shuddered, and the tubes moved in unison, like a
hundred serpents writhing.
He checked the barometer, saw that the lock's pressure had
dropped below 0.2 psi just a trace of atmosphere left. He
closed his eyes for a moment, trying to calm himself, then
reached out a gloved hand and turned the actuator that opened the
outer circular hatch. "I'm leaving the airlock," he said. He
was wearing the standard "Snoopy Ears" communications carrier,
which covered most of his head beneath the space helmet. Two
thin microphones protruded in front of his mouth.
"Copy that, Paul," said McGovern, up in the shuttle's cockpit.
Rackham pushed the left MMU armrest control forward. Puffs of
nitrogen propelled him out into the cargo bay. The long space
doors that normally formed the bay's roof were already open, and
overhead he saw Earth in all its blue-and-white glory. He
adjusted his pitch with his right hand control, then began rising
up. As soon as he'd cleared the top of the cargo bay, the
Russian space station Mir was visible, hanging a hundred
meters away, a giant metal crucifix. Rackham brought his hand up
to cross himself.
"I have Mir in sight," he said, fighting to keep his voice
calm. "I'm going over."
Rackham remembered when the station had gone up, twenty years ago
in 1986. He first saw its name in his hometown newspaper, the
Omaha World Herald. Mir, the Russian word for
peace as if peace had had anything to do with its being built.
Reagan had been hemorrhaging money into the Strategic Defense
Initiative back then. If the Cold War turned hot, the high
ground would be in orbit.
Even then, even in grade eight, Rackham had been dying to go into
space. No price was too much. "Whatever it takes," he'd told
Dave his sometimes friend, sometimes rival over lunch.
"One of these days, I'll be floating right by that damned
Mir. Give the Russians the finger." He'd pronounced
Mir as if it rhymed with sir.
Dave had looked at him for a moment, as if he were crazy. Then,
dismissing all of it except the way Paul had spoken, he smiled a
patronizing smile and said, "It's meer, actually. Rhymes
Rhymes with fear.
Paul's gaze was still fixed on the giant cross, spikes of
sunlight glinting off it. He shut his eyes and let the nitrogen
exhaust push against the small of his back, propelling him into
"I've got a scalpel," said the voice over the speaker at mission
control in Kaliningrad. "I'm going to do it."
Flight controller Dimitri Kovalevsky leaned into his mike.
"You're making a mistake, Yuri. You don't want to go through
with this." He glanced at the two large wall monitors. The one
showing Mir's orbital plot was normal; the other, which
usually showed the view inside the space station, was black.
"Why don't you turn on your cameras and let us see you?"
The speaker crackled with static. "You know as well as I do that
the cameras can't be turned off. That's our way, isn't it?
Still even after the reforms cameras with no off switches."
"He's probably put bags or gloves over the lenses," said
Metchnikoff, the engineer seated at the console next to
"It's not worth it, Yuri," said Kovalevsky into the mike, while
nodding acknowledgment at Metchnikoff. "You want to come on
home? Climb into the Soyuz and come on down. I've got a
team here working on the re-entry parameters."
"Nyet," said Yuri. "It won't let me leave."
"What won't let you leave?"
"I've got a knife," repeated Yuri, ignoring Kovalevsky's
question. "I'm going to do it."
Kovalevsky slammed the mike's off switch. "Dammit, I'm no expert
on this. Where's that bloody psychologist?"
"She's on her way," said Pasternak, the scrawny orbital-dynamics
officer. "Another fifteen minutes, tops."
Kovalevsky opened the mike again. "Yuri, are you still there?"
"They took the food," said the voice over the radio, sounding
even farther away than he really was, "right out of my mouth."
Kovalevsky exhaled noisily. It had been an international
embarrassment the first time it had happened. Back in 1994, an
unmanned Progress rocket had been launched to bring food
up to the two cosmonauts then aboard Mir. But when it
docked with the station, those cosmonauts had found its cargo
hold empty looted by ground-support technicians desperate to
feed their own starving families. The same thing had happened
again just a few weeks ago. This time the thieves had been even
more clever they'd replaced the stolen food with sacks full of
dirt to avoid any difference in the rocket's pre-launch weight.
"We got food to you eventually," said Kovalevsky.
"Oh, yes," said Yuri. "We reached in, grabbed the food back
just like we always do."
"I know things haven't been going well," said Kovalevsky, "but
"I'm all alone up here," said Yuri. He was quiet for a time, but
then he lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Except I discover
I'm not alone."
Kovalevsky tried to dissuade the cosmonaut from his delusion.
"That's right, Yuri we're here. We're always here for you.
Look down, and you'll see us."
"No," said Yuri. "No I've done enough of that. It's time.
I'm going to do it."
Kovalevsky covered the mike and spoke desperately. "What do I
say to him? Suggestions? Anyone? Dammit, what do I say?"
"I'm doing it," said Yuri's voice. There was a grunting sound.
"A stream of red globules . . . floating in the air. Red that
was our color, wasn't it? What did the Americans call us? The
Red Menace. Better dead than Red . . . But they're no better,
really. They wanted it just as badly."
Kovalevsky leaned forward. "Apply pressure to the cut, Yuri. We
can still save you. Come on, Yuri you don't want to
Up ahead, Mir was growing to fill Rackham's view. The
vertical shaft of the crucifix consisted of the Soyuz that
had brought Yuri to the space station sixteen months ago, the
multiport docking adapter, the core habitat, and the Kvant-1
science module, with a green Progress cargo transport
docked to its aft end.
The two arms of the cross stuck out of the docking adapter. To
the left was the Kvant-2 biological research center, which
contained the EVA airlock through which Rackham would enter. To
the right was the Kristall space-production lab. Kristall had a
docking port that a properly equipped American shuttle could hook
up to but Discovery wasn't properly equipped; the
Mir adapter collar was housed aboard Atlantis,
which wasn't scheduled to fly again for three months.
Rackham's heart continued to race. He wanted to swing around,
return to the shuttle. Perhaps he could claim nausea. That was
reason enough to abort an EVA; vomiting into a space helmet in
zero-g was a sure way to choke to death.
But he couldn't go back. He'd fought to get up here, clawed,
competed, cheated, left his parents behind in that nursing home.
He'd never married, never had kids, never found time for anything
but this. He couldn't turn around not now, not here.
Rackham had to fly around to the Kvant-2's backside to reach the
EVA hatch. Doing so gave him a clear view of Discovery.
He saw it from the rear, its three large and two small engine
cones looking back at him like a spider's cluster of eyes.
He cycled through the space station's airlock. The main lights
were dark inside the biology module, but some violet-white
fluorescents were on over a bed of plants. Shoots were growing
in strange circular patterns in the microgravity. Rackham
disengaged the Manned Maneuvering Unit and left it floating near
the airlock, like a small refrigerator with arms. Just as the
Russians had promised, a large pressure bag was clipped to the
wall next to Yuri's own empty spacesuit. Rackham wouldn't be
able to get the body, now undoubtedly stiff with rigor mortis,
into the suit, but it would fit easily into the pressure bag,
used for emergency equipment transfers.
Mir's interior was like everything in the Russian space
program rough, metallic, ramshackle, looking more like a
Victorian steamworks than space-age technology. Heart thundering
in his ears, he pushed his way down Kvant-2's long axis toward
the central docking adapter to which all the other parts of the
station were attached.
Countless small objects floated around the cabin. He reached out
with his gloved hand and swept a few up in his palm. They were
six or seven millimeters across and wrinkled like dried peas.
But their color was a dark rusty brown.
Droplets of dried blood. Jesus Christ. Rackham let go of
them, but they continued to float in midair in front of him. He
used the back of his glove to flick them away, and continued on
deeper into the station.
"Discovery, this is Houston."
"Rackham here, Houston. Go ahead."
"We ah have an errand for you to run."
Rackham chuckled. "Your wish is our command, Houston."
"We've had a request from the Russians. They, ah, ask that you
swing by Mir for a pickup."
Rackham turned to his right and looked at McGovern, the pilot.
McGovern was already consulting a computer display. He gave
Rackham a thumbs-up signal.
"Can do," said Rackham into his mike. "What sort of pick up?"
"It's a body."
"Say again, Houston."
"A body. A dead body."
"My God. Was there an accident?"
"No accident, Discovery. Yuri Vereshchagin has killed
"Killed . . ."
"That's right. The Russians can't afford to send another manned
mission up to get him." A pause. "Yuri was one of us. Let's
bring him back where he belongs."
Rackham squeezed through the docking adapter and made a right
turn, heading down into Mir's core habitat. It was dark
except for a few glowing LEDs, a shaft of earthlight coming in
through one window, and one of sunlight coming in through the
other. Rackham found the light switch and turned it on. The
interior lit up, revealing beige cylindrical walls. Looking down
the module's thirteen-meter length, he could see the main control
console, with two strap-in chairs in front of it, storage
lockers, the exercise bicycle, the dining table, the closet-like
sleeping compartments, and, at the far end, the round door
leading into Kvant-1, where Yuri's body was supposedly floating.
He pushed off the wall and headed down the chamber. It widened
out near the eating table. He noticed that the ceiling there had
writing on it. Rackham looked at the cameras, one fore, one aft,
both covered over with spacesuit gloves, and realized that even
if they were uncovered, that part of the ceiling was perpetually
out of their view. Each person who had visited the station had
apparently written his or her name there in bold Magic Marker
strokes: Romanenko, Leveykin, Viktorenko, Krikalev, dozens more.
Foreign astronauts names' appeared, too, in Chinese characters,
and Arabic, and English.
But Yuri Vereshchagin's name was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the
custom was to sign off just before leaving the station. Rackham
easily found the Magic Marker, held in place on the bulkhead with
Velcro. His Cyrillic wasn't very good he had to carefully
copy certain letters from the samples already on the walls but
he soon had Vereshchagin's name printed neatly across the
Rackham thought about writing his own name, too. He touched the
marker to the curving metal, but stopped, pulling the pen back,
leaving only a black dot where it had made contact.
Vereshchagin's name should be here a reminder that he
had existed. Rackham remembered all the old photographs that
came to light after the fall of the Soviet Union: the original
versions, before those who had fallen out of favor had been
airbrushed out. Surely no cosmonaut would ever remove
Vereshchagin's name, but there was no need to remind those who
might come later that an American had stopped by to bring his
The dried spheres of blood were more numerous in here. They
bounced off Rackham's faceplate with little pinging sounds as he
continued down the core module through the circular hatch into
Yuri's body was indeed there, floating in a semi-fetal position.
His skin was as white as candle wax, bled dry. He'd obviously
rotated slowly as his opened wrist had emptied out there was a
ring of dark brown blood stains all around the circumference of
the science module. Many pieces of equipment also had blood
splatters on them where drops had impacted before they'd
desiccated. Rackham could taste his lunch at the back of his
throat. He desperately fought it down.
And yet he couldn't take his eyes off Yuri. A corpse, a body
without a soul in it. It was mesmerizing, terrifying, revolting.
The very face of death.
He'd met Yuri once, in passing, years ago at an IAU conference in
Montreal. Rackham had never known anyone before who had
committed suicide. How could Yuri have killed himself? Sure,
his country was in ruins. But billions of of rubles had
been spent building this station and getting him up here. Didn't
he understand how special that made him? How, quite literally,
he was above it all?
As he drifted closer, Rackham saw that Yuri's eyes were open.
The pupils were dilated to their maximum extent, and a pale gray
film had spread over the orbs. Rackham thought that the decent
thing to do would be to reach over and close the eyes. His
gloves had textured rubber fingertips, to allow as much feedback
as possible without compromising his suit's thermal insulation,
but even if he could work up the nerve, he didn't trust them for
something as delicate as moving eyelids.
His breathing was growing calmer. He was facing death facing
it directly. He regretted now not having seen his mother one
last time, and
There was something here. Something else, inside Kvant-1 with
him. He grabbed hold of a projection from the bulkhead and
wheeled around. He couldn't see it. Couldn't hear any sound
conducted through the helmet of his suit. But he felt its
presence, knew it was there.
There was no way to get out; Kvant-1's rear docking port was
blocked by the Progress ferry, and the exit to the core
module was blocked by the invisible presence.
Get a grip on yourself, Rackham thought. There's
nothing here. But there was. He could feel it. "What do
you want?" he said, a quaver in his tones.
"Say again, Paul." McGovern's voice, over the headset.
Rackham reached down, switched his suit radio from VOX to OFF.
"What do you want?" he said again.
There was no answer. He waved his arms, batting around hundreds
of dried drops of blood. They flew all over the cabin except
for an area, up ahead, the size of a man. In that area, they
deflected before reaching the walls. Something was there
something unseen. Paul's stomach contracted. He felt panic
about to overtake him, when
A hand on his shoulder, barely detectable through the bulky suit.
His heart jumped, and he swung around. He'd been floating
backwards, moving away from the unseen presence, and had bumped
into the corpse. He stopped dead revolted by the prospect of
touching the body again, terrified of moving in the other
direction toward whatever was up ahead.
But he had to get out somebody else could come back for Yuri.
He'd find some way to explain it all later, but for now he had to
escape. He grabbed hold of a handle on the wall and pushed off
the bulkhead, trying to fly past the presence up ahead. He made
it through into the core module. But something cold as space
reached out and stopped him directly in front of the small window
that looked down on the planet.
Look below, said a voice in Rackham's head. What do
He looked outside, saw the planet of his birth. "Africa."
Millions of children starving to death.
Rackham moved his head left and right. "Not my fault."
The view changed, faster than any orbital mechanics would allow.
Look below, said the voice again. What do you see?
A billion people living without freedom.
"Nothing I can do."
Again, the world spun. Look below.
"The west coast of America. There's San Francisco."
The plague is everywhere, but nowhere is it worse than
"Someday they'll find a cure."
What else do you see?
The inner city. Slums. Poverty. They haven't abandoned
hope, those who live there . . . Hope has abandoned them.
"They can get out. They just need help."
Whose help? Where will the money come from?
"I don't know."
Don't you? Look below.
Look. Your eyes have been closed too long. Open them. What
do you see?
"Russia. Ah, now Russia! Free! We defeated the Evil Empire.
We defeated the Communist menace."
The people are starving.
"But they're free."
They have nothing to eat. Twice now they've taken food
destined for this station.
"I read about that. Terrible, unthinkable. Like committing
To take food from the mouths of the hungry. It is like
committing murder, isn't it?
"Yes. No. No, wait that's not what I meant."
Isn't it? The people need food.
"No. The space program provides jobs. And don't forget the
spinoffs advanced plastics and pharmaceuticals and . . .
and . . ."
"Yes, and "
And dehydrated ice cream.
"No, important stuff. Medical equipment. And all kinds of new
That's why you go into space, then? To make life better on
"Yes. Yes. Exactly."
"No. No, dammit, I won't."
Yuri looked below.
"Yuri was a cosmonaut a Russian. Maybe maybe Russia
shouldn't be spending all this money on space. But I'm an
American. My country is rich."
Los Angeles, said the voice that wasn't a voice. San
Francisco. And don't forget New York. Slums, plague, a populace
at war with itself.
Rackham felt his gloved fists clenching. He ground his teeth.
He closed his eyes, tried to think. Any price, he'd said and
now it was time to pay. For the good of everyone, he said but
the road was always paved with good intentions.
Starvation. Enslavement. Poverty. War.
He couldn't go back to Discovery he had no choice in
the matter. It wouldn't let him leave. But he'd be damned if
he'd end up like Yuri, bait for yet another spacefarer.
He slipped into the control station just below the entrance
portal that led from the docking adapter. He looked at the
cameras fore and aft, the bulky white gloves covering them like
beckoning hands. An ending, yes and with the coffin closed.
He scanned the controls, consulted the onboard computer, made his
preparations. He couldn't see the entity, couldn't see its grin
but he knew they both were there.
" in the hell, Paul?" McGovern's voice, as Rackham turned his
suit radio back on. "Why are you firing the ACS jets?"
"It it must be a malfunction," Rackham said, his finger still
firmly on the red activation switch.
"Then get out of there. Get out before the delta-V gets too
high. We can still pick you up if you get out now."
"I can't get out," said Rackham. "The the way to the EVA
airlock is blocked."
"Then get into the Soyuz and cast off. God's sake, man,
you're accelerating down toward the atmosphere."
"I I don't know how to fly a Soyuz."
"We'll get Kaliningrad to talk you through the separation
"No no, that won't work."
"Sure it will. We can bring the Soyuz descent capsule
into our cargo bay, if need be but hurry, man, hurry!"
"What do you mean, 'Goodbye'? Jesus Christ, Paul "
Rackham's brow was slick with sweat. "Goodbye."
The temperature continued to rise. Rackham reached down and
undogged his helmet, the abrupt increase in air pressure hurting
his ears. He lifted the great fishbowl off his head, letting it
fly across the cabin. He then took off the Snoopy-eared headset
array. It undulated up and away, a fabric bat in the shaft of
earthlight, ending up pinned by acceleration to the ceiling.
Paint started peeling off the walls, and the plastic piping had a
soft, unfocused look to it. The air was so hot it hurt to
breathe. Yuri's body was heating up, too. The smell from that
direction was overpowering.
Rackham was close to one of the circular windows. Earth had
swollen hugely beneath him. He couldn't make out the geography
for all the clouds was that China or Africa, America or Russia
below? It was all a blur. And all the same.
An orange glow began licking at the port as paint on the
station's hull burned up in the mesosphere. The water in the
reticulum of tubes running over his body soon began to boil.
Flames were everywhere now. Atmospheric turbulence was tearing
the station apart. The winglike solar panels flapped away,
crisping into nothingness. Rackham felt his own flesh
The roar from outside the station was like a billion screams.
Screams of the starving. Screams of the poor. Screams of the
shackled. Through the port, he saw the Kristall module sheer
clean off the docking adapter and go tumbling away.
Look below, the voice had said. Look below.
And he had.
Into space, at any price.
Into space above it all.
The station disintegrated around him, metal shimmering and
tearing away. Soon nothing was left except the flames. And they
• The End •
If you enjoyed this short story by Hugo and Nebula Award-winning
science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, how about giving one of his
bestselling novels a try? The opening chapters of each of them are
right here at
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