Beckwith looked up. Zhirov couldn't mean twenty. Twenty meant that the Progress was accelerating—precisely what it wasn't supposed to do, precisely what no incoming vessel was ever supposed to do at this close range when it was heading for the huge, slow, barely maneuverable station.
"Repeat please, station," Moscow requested.
"Yes," Zhirov said. "Twenty."
Beckwith stopped what she was doing. Zhirov spoke again.
"Twenty-three," he said flatly, and then, "Twenty-eight."
"Go to manual override, station," Moscow called.
"Copy, override," Zhirov answered. Beckwith waited to hear Zhirov say that the override had worked, that the speed had been braked. But Zhirov did not say that.
What he said instead—flatly, tonelessly—was: "Moscow, we have no hand."
That was the call Beckwith had dreaded. "No hand" was a term of Zhirov's own devising. It was the one he first used during pre-flight training when the simulation supervisors threw him just this scenario—a Progress vehicle speeding toward the station, its onboard computer, backup systems, manual control, and every other intended fail-safe having in fact failed. A commander without a hand on his ship was a commander in the worst kind of trouble.
Beckwith sprang toward the end of the Zarya lab that led to the docking module, then doubled back—her open vial of meningitis still in her hand and the sample tray floating where she'd left it. She forced the top back on the vial, banged it back into place in the tray, pivoted toward the freezer, and clumsily slid the tray inside, slamming the door too hard, then slamming it again when it failed to catch. Then she kicked herself off a bulkhead, shot toward the lab exit, and dove down into the open hatch of the Pirs, which was just below her.
When she entered, Zhirov and Lebedev had their backs to her, facing the module's instrument panel and the small windows that looked down toward the planet. Through the windows, Beckwith could see the dark shape of the Progress approaching against the white of the clouds. It was just three kilometers away now, or a little under two miles, and big enough for her almost to make out its shape, though at that distance, the twenty-three-foot-long multiton vessel still looked relatively harmless. The view on the monitors in front of Lebedev and Zhirov told a different story. One showed the Progress as seen from a camera on the far larger station; the other showed the station as seen from the Progress. On the screen, the station resembled nothing so much as a vast butterfly, its two giant solar arrays forming the butterfly's wings, dwarfing the chain of fifteen linked modules between them that made up its body. The Progress was closing on it like an angry wasp.
"Vasily," Beckwith said, announcing her presence.
Zhirov, his hand on the useless control stick and his eyes fixed on the screens, nodded without turning.
"Target is accelerating, Moscow," he said levelly. "We are at thirty."
Beckwith did some hurried calculating and swallowed hard at what the numbers told her: Thirty meters per second meant that the Progress was up to sixty-seven miles per hour. An impact, if one was to occur, would now take place in just three minutes. Lebedev, as if following her ciphering, confirmed it three seconds later.
"One hundred seventy-seven seconds," he read out. The images on the twin screens grew bigger.
"Station, recycle please," Moscow called up, ordering Zhirov to, effectively, reboot the guidance system by switching it off and then back on again.
"Recycle," Zhirov commanded Lebedev, who flicked the appropriate switches in front of him off and then on. Zhirov tried his control handle—and the images on the screen continued to grow.
"No hand, Moscow," Zhirov said.
"Recycle again please," Moscow said.
Lebedev complied and Zhirov tried the controls.
"No hand, Moscow," he said.
"Again, station," Moscow ordered. Again Lebedev tried.
"Moscow-we-have-no-hand!" Zhirov said in an impatient staccato. "We will evade." He then turned back to Beckwith. "Walli, thrusters," he ordered.