It all started on the third day of the mission. We had only been on the International Space Station that long when the anomaly pulled us in. Since then, the past has been altered, the present changed, and the future betrayed. And it is our fault.
There had been a strange fluctuation in both space and the stationís nuclear batteries, an anomaly we couldnít identify. The man in charge, Colonel John Mitchell, was more concerned with maintaining radio contact with the Earth as he was due to be interviewed by the BBC as we passed over Europe.
"This is the International Space Station calling the BBC; can you hear me, over?" Mitchell impatiently joggled the communication switch and glared at us. We were all floating in the zero gravity environment and trying not to laugh as the Colonel got ever more annoyed with the non-responsive communication relay. By íusí, I mean Laurent Maranne, engineer, Albrecht Bauer, engineer, Eugene Williams, pilot, and me, Sarah Phillips, the only woman on the crew, and the third engineer.
"What the hell is wrong with this com?" demanded Mitchell, his Texan accent becoming higher as anger peeked around the edges. Laurent shrugged, giving the simple manoeuvre a hint of insouciance even as he drifted at ninety degrees to his commander.
"What can I zay?" he asked. Iím sure Mitchell suspected, and not for the first time, that Laurent was deliberately emphasising his French accent to annoy his commanding officer. We all did it. Albrecht would become more German and I would become terribly stiff-upper-lip and English. Even Eugene, Mitchellís fellow American, joined in the fun, and would verge on being a slave caricature when we were all together. This infuriated the Colonel even more as he thought we were all borderline racist. Colonel Mitchell had suffered a humour bypass early in his life, as well as a double infusion of political correctness.
"Ze radio, it is not ze prior-etay," continued Laurent before a shriek of static interrupted the exchange. "Ah ha ha," beamed Laurent. "Ze radio, she iz working now for your interview."
"The interview is immaterial," lied Mitchell. "Itís the safety of the station I care about."
"On zat we agree, so I shall leave you to tork to the Bay Bay Say, and I shall continue to worry about ze strange behaviour of ze nuclear reactor."
"I vill remain," rumbled Albrecht, winking slyly at us. "I listen to esteemed commander interview on der wadio welay. Eugene, you also vish to listen to der commanderís wadio welay?"
"Yessah, ah surely do," grinned Eugene with a look of excessive enthusiasm on his face. "Ah jusí canít contain myself."
"Youíd all do better to investigate the fluctuations in the power relays," snarled Mitchell in suppressed rage. "I want a full report by twenty hundred."
"A full weport, jah," echoed Albrecht, snapping rigidly to attention despite being upside down.
"Ah, ze flurctu-ations, she is bad, no?" responded Laurent. "I shall need ze help in calibrating ze relays. Eugene, will you lend me an íand?"
"Ah would be flattered to serve," rejoined Eugene, who had been humming the tune to Olí Man River. "Yousa gonna help us, Missy?"
"I will endeavour to assist in whatever capacity I can in the successful and smooth running of the station," I replied in my best accent. We slid out, leaving the Colonel to say something rude behind us under his breath as the relay cleared and the BBC interviewer appeared on the screen.
As soon as we were out of earshot, we collapsed into giggles and our accents returned to normal - by which I mean we stopped verging on caricature.
"We really shouldnít," said Laurent, wiping a tear of laughter from his eye, "but I just canít resist."
"Iím afraid weíve got him all worked up before his big interview," I said as I anchored myself to a chair and began flipping switches and checking read-outs. I also activated the on-board communication system, and the colonelís voice boomed out of a speaker in the wall.
"It is a great responsibility, to be in charge of such an awe-inspiring space station, but I feel that we must never refuse any such responsibility."
"Are you proud to be in charge of the most advanced technological achievement ever created by the International Community?" asked the unctuous voice of the interviewer.
"Iím proud to be associated with such an enterprise," replied Mitchell, carefully not answering the question, a fact not lost on us.
"Iíll bet," sneered Eugene. "Heís always considered this job a consolation prize for not getting onto the Mars mission with NASA. The guy was always a jackass." His Californian accent was gruff but warm, revealing none of the stereotypical mockery he affected when in the commanderís presence.
"Accept what you have and make the best of it," observed Laurent as he frowned into a maintenance hatch.
"Spoken with true Gallic phlegm," I laughed. I loved the camaraderie we had, the four of us. We got on so well, as colleagues and friends.
"And how do you respond to the concerns that there is technology on board that could be used to create a weapon?" asked the interviewer. "The controversial laser array, as well as the portable laser emitters you have on board."
"The laser arrays are to beam encoded information into the depths of space in the hope of contacting alien life," declared Mitchell, solemnly. "The whole of human history is recorded in micro-pulses which can be sent out to the stars, testimony to the achievement and triumphs of the human spirit. It would take a great deal of effort to change the laser from a simple guidance and measuring system into a weapon."
"Oh, turn him off," grunted Albrecht in irritation as he tried to concentrate on the readings at his workstation.
"What of the strange anomaly that was recorded a day ago in your sector?" continued the voice of the BBC. "Does this concern you?"
"Given that the anomaly appeared and disappeared in an instant, before we could even register it fully on our instruments, I donít think we have anything to fear." I flipped the switch to cut the voice.
"If we had the chance to investigate it, we might know whether to fear it or not," muttered Eugene, who had been itching to take the mission shuttle, the Intrepid, out and explore the region of space in which the strange flicker had appeared. Mitchell, however, wouldnít permit it.
"Iíd like to know if the anomaly caused the problem with the generators," muttered Laurent. "I canít find any flaw, any problem, or any reason for their erratic power output. It doesnít make sense."
"But we have power, weíre not about to lose it?" asked Eugene in concern.
"I canít see any reason to worry at all," replied Laurent. Then the generators coughed and died. The room was plunged into darkness.
"Whatís happening, Laurent?" yelled Eugene in panic.
"I donít know," shouted Laurent in alarm. "This is impossible." As he spoke, the power came back on. We stared at each other as a series of alarms came from Albrechtís workstation. He swung back to the display and his face drained of colour as he looked at the readouts.
"There!" he shrieked. "Out there!"
We launched ourselves to the side port holes and stared in horror at the view directly outside the station. Between us and the Earth, the anomaly had reappeared. Reds, blues, and greens swirled like a whirlpool, twisting the black fabric of space. With a groan of tortured steel, the station lurched and began moving toward the anomaly.
"What is it?" yelled Eugene.
"I donít know, but weíre being pulled right into it," gasped Laurent in fear.
"What the hell is going on?" screamed Mitchell over the internal communicator relay.
"Weíre being pulled into the anomaly," shouted Albrecht into his communicator as he desperately tried to operate the stationís thrusters. "Nothing is responding." Once again the lights went out but this time the constant background hum of thousands of machines and components also cut out, leaving only the noise of tortured metal singing in the dark night.
"The oxygen plant," gasped Eugene. "I canít hear it." With a dull crunch, the power flooded back.
"Colonel," shouted Laurent into a wall communicator. "We keep losing power and we have no way of controlling the station."
"Recommendations?" demanded Mitchell.
"Evacuate," replied Laurent. "If we can get to the Intrepid, maybe we can escape the pull of that anomaly."
"Everyone to the shuttle bay," ordered Mitchell. "This is Evacuation Order Three. Move it, people!"