by M. T. Reiten
Illustrated by Dominic Harman
Neela peered through the composite window but saw nothing more than glittering specks of debris in the shared orbit. Rocky the Drone had stopped responding after entering the gathering cloud of blasted satellite and interceptor missile—a high velocity junkyard. Neela felt relatively safe inside the armored cylinder that she had nicknamed the “Trashcan,” although during her sleep cycle, each and every ping from debris impacts still jolted her awake, expectant of the hull breach alarm that hadn’t come yet. She knew she could never pick out Rocky from the debris in the faint bluish glow of Earth below with unaided eyes. But she stared into the bleak distance after him anyway.
She remembered how the night sky after the war had been glittering brilliance that no natural meteor shower could match. As a child, Neela had peered up from the outskirts of Columbo when the fighting closed in, knowing even the sky was closed off to escape. The remnants of the first war in orbit rendered it impassible. A whirling mass of shrapnel more effective than a razor wire tornado kept her trapped on the surface of Earth.
The Moon would eventually clear away the Kessler Syndrome cloud, but humanity didn’t have eons to wait at the bottom of the gravity well. However, ten years and Earth’s atmosphere had taken care of the most dangerous, extremely elliptical orbital debris. Those who had started the war now paid for others to clean up their mess. Neela had been one of the first volunteers.
Alone on the command and observation deck, Neela had her knees tucked around the perch by the view port. Beneath her were the crew quarters that could house six, though there were only two on station now. That’s where Marko had velcroed himself into his sleep sack. The workshop and power banks occupied the lowest level. The bottom of the Trashcan sheltered rectennas that picked up the microwave beams to provide power and always pointed toward Earth six hundred kilometers away. At least the Kessler Syndrome couldn’t block their power source. The constant orientation provided a clear up and down for the crew. Solar panels, while more effective, wouldn’t survive more than three orbits before being perforated to uselessness. Someday, peaceful satellites would return. And with them maybe a permanent Moonbase or the promised manned mission to Mars.
Neela issued a second recall order to Rocky and waited. The drone was inspecting a butterfly net that showed sudden signs of wear. The net—one of many Neela tended in her orbital sector—extended like a massive numeral 8 with the upper lobe projecting into a higher, slower orbit and the bottom into lower, faster orbit, collecting smaller debris with mismatched velocities. Random punctures were common. Multiple strands had snapped in a tight area on the upper lobe, which made Neela think of a manufacturing defect. Or sabotage.
She opened another window on her display and pulled down the “weather report.” Radar returns analyzed by the birdbrain AIs predicted nothing on an imminent collision path. The biomimetic systems were fast and had accurately warned them before previous minor impacts. She’d have an hour of low hazard worktime outside the Trashcan. Eccentric orbits produced killer impacts, streaking in from out of nowhere, just skimming the atmosphere in a sparkly flash, to go far away and turn around for another random pass. Those gave Neela nightmares. Orbits were easily calculable, but that assumed the initial conditions were known. Explosions and kinetic debris were chaotic, so everyone was left with guesses that improved as more trajectory points were collected. But there were so many bits left, it was nearly impossible to know if you were tracking the same bit during its next pass around Earth. And if there was an impact with nearby orbital junk, two or more new projectiles entered the equations. So the deorbiting laser was constantly on standby in the top turret, ready to nudge streakers away. Even so, the thick armor of the Trashcan had pits and scars from micro-strikes that the AIs missed.
The rational, cautious part of Neela wished their mission could be run from groundside, down where the microwave transmitters and massive powerplants were safe. The AIs up here were good, modeled on natural intelligences, but they were only effective when things proceeded normally. Instinct was no replacement for general intelligence when the situation turned to shit. The lack of relay satellites made it too difficult to maintain communications with the semiautonomous drones from the ground. Now, with Rocky misbehaving, Neela knew why the Kessler crews got paid the big bucks. Well, sorta big bucks.
“Marko, I need to EVA!” She listened for his groan of reply.
Marko, the resident grouch, claimed food-poisoning. His last care package had smelled like necrotic athlete’s foot, but he insisted the homemade cheese was an ancient Croatian delicacy. The previous two supply capsules hadn’t made it through, so there was no telling how long the cheese had sat on the launch pad.
“Firing the kettle!” Neela sent bursts of steam out of rocket nozzles to nudge the Trashcan toward the last location of Rocky and the unraveling butterfly net. A crystallizing puff expanded beyond the aft view port, a brilliant white in the sunlight, but only for a moment as the water rose to plasma temperature, and the cloud dissipated. Something that hadn’t been properly secured banged on a lower deck. She relayed her change in trajectory to the ground and to the satellite hunter crew high up toward geosync.
“Good hunting,” came the calm, vaguely mocking reply from the satellite hunter. Those Kessler crews had the sexy job, grabbing large derelict satellites and earning salvage percentages from their prizes. Large objects created massive quantities of new fragments when impacted. The risks were higher, so some of their ego was earned, but Neela hated how they looked down on her, sweeping up the low orbit scraps.
Neela unhooked from the knee perch and pushed toward the hatch down. She glided over the storage bins and racks that covered every available surface in the standard gray, beige, and black. She tucked through and launched toward the lower deck.
Behind his partially opened privacy screen, Marko the Grouch hung in his blue sleep sack. Only his head poked out. Wispy black hair plastered with sweat to his wrinkled forehead. A gray tinge to his normally sallow coloring and the tube of a shop vac resting in arm’s-reach let her know that he might not be faking it this time to avoid his shift.
His eyes rolled open. “Where are you going?”
“Rocky isn’t responding. There’s a tear in the butterfly net. We may start losing aggregate if the net fails. That’s a month’s work lost if we don’t fix it pronto.” Neela tucked and rolled as she swooped past and into the maintenance deck.
Bobo, the other semi-functional octopedal drone, was strapped to the bench where Marko had been troubleshooting it. The bulbous head held the attitude jets, radar sensors, and power cells. The eight actuated-chain arms, surprisingly deft when powered up, now floated like metal hair-plaits under water. Bobo had lost control over five of his limbs after a fragment impact. The general trash-gathering drones were the most sophisticated tech they had on the Trashcan. That also meant they broke down often, and with limited spare parts and delays in resupply capsules, they got salvaged to keep at least one drone running. The octopus-based AIs pushed the limits of neural hardware and were the most expensive equipment on the station. Neela thought of Rocky, who liked to play catch with her when she went out on an EVA and would follow her out of curiosity if he wasn’t given a task.
Marko thrust his head through the hatch above her. Reluctantly, he asked, “What do you want me to do?”
“I should go,” he offered without enthusiasm. “I’m roboticist.”
“And have you puke in your helmet? Then we’ll both be stuck outside in a rescue situation.” Neela wrestled her suit from the locker and stripped down. She squeezed into the dynamic pressure fabric, situated the plumbing, and pulled the helmet and life-support pack closed around her. It sealed and wrapped her firmly neck to toes. She clipped on the armored torso and groin pieces, but would need unencumbered arms and legs around debris. Auto-tourniquets were on all limbs should she get hit by a streaker. She tried not to think about it.
“I’ve got less than one hour of low hazard worktime,” Neela said as she tested her comms to Marko’s earpiece.
“Roger.” Marko drifted out of sight to the command deck.
Neela cycled through the airlock and pulled herself prone into the cramped armored sled. Screens of the exterior view lit up in her helmet. She spoke coordinates to the near butterfly net, and the arrowhead-shaped sled maneuvered away from the power rectennas and the safety of the Trashcan. Even though she could have jetted the three hundred meters to the net on her suit thrusters, she wanted as much extra life support and protection as possible. Streakers, unexploded ordnance, residual volatiles in damaged rocket motors, high potential static fields, depleted uranium, x-ray exposure, gammas, equipment failure, and bad luck were all stacked against her. Her stomach trembled, and her thighs went weak, but she pushed on.
Neela wondered if she would be a war casualty if killed. All the bits whizzing about were bullets and shrapnel still flying from the war after all. She recalled that they said you never saw the bullet that had your name on it. But that was crap. How to ask a corpse if they had seen their particular bullet?
The upper lobe of the butterfly net spread above her with the Earth below. The gossamer threads, developed during the now-abandoned space elevator days, glowed a faint blue. Electric discharges from built-up static fields that drew in fragments of destroyed satellites. The butterfly net generated its own power passing through the Earth’s magnetic field and used that to maintain a rigid structure. As she grew closer, the aggregate debris collected on and near the net became visible on low magnification. Somewhere in that mess was Rocky, who had been diligently gathering smaller fragments with his actuated-chain arms before falling silent. Then she saw the tear, a round dark spot among the faint remains of satellites and missiles.
“I see the hole.” Unraveling net loomed above her, close to a perfect plane in infinite space. The butterfly net picked up the co-orbiting pieces, the low hanging fruit of orbital junk, but every bit of space trash could create more fragments in a chain reaction if struck. Neela thought of her work like thinning out the forest to prevent a major forest fire. Not sexy, but important.
As the sled approached, Neela spotted a larger than typical object among the sparse debris cloud. Nestled near the hole in the net was a satellite, a compact dodecahedral chassis about the size of a truck, with little visible damage. She wondered for a moment why the radar returns hadn’t picked out a body that large or why Rocky hadn’t alerted them back on the Trashcan when it got swept up. It gave very low back reflection when she checked, a signature similar to much smaller orbital junk. Stealth technology.
“Got a big catch,” Neela said. “Military hardware if I had to guess.”
“Low orbit? Ground surveillance?” Marko chortled over the radio. “How intact?”
“Money is made off salvage.” He cleared his phlegmy throat. “Perhaps us for a change!”
“Don’t count your percentage yet. Rocky disappearing and this wreckage might be related.” The onboard spectrometer returned signatures of explosives as well as free carbon and other reaction gasses. Definitely had been a high value target.
“Do not go out,” Marko advised.
“I have to go out,” Neela replied. “The last drone. Remember?”
Marko mumbled in gloomy agreement. “Be safe.”
Neela wriggled from the aft end of the sled and suddenly found herself outside. After clipping her tether, she instinctively oriented her feet toward the bright blue and white of Earth below with the terminator sliding away from her. In an hour and fifteen minutes, the Sun would disappear behind the Earth again, and she’d be in relative darkness. An hour and a quarter of daylight. She pulled herself along the exterior rungs on the sled toward the shadowy satellite and the frayed gap in the butterfly net. “What’s the weather like?”
“Thirty minutes low hazard. Hour ten daylight.”
Neela could have pulled that info up herself, but she wanted to keep him focused on the current task. She also needed to hear Marko’s grumpy, yet reassuring voice. The low hazard time had dropped, so an inbound threat had been resolved out of the cloud of radar returns. She would have to move quickly to make it back to the Trashcan. She braced herself on the nose of the sled and pushed off. Her attitude thrusters nudged her the last fifty meters toward the dark side of the derelict. She keyed the palm controls and eased to a relative stop away from the satellite that now loomed over her.
Up close in the faint Earthshine she saw jagged circular holes in its surface. Each about ten centimeters across, with burn marks and splashes of once molten metal radiating from the edges. Primary target in the war then, not collateral damage, rendered inert after being ripped apart by never-ending shrapnel from other destroyed satellites. Neela eased closer. They’d found similarly blasted remains, on a smaller scale, before. But she had to check.
She took several deep breaths. Neela was always afraid she would find a dead body or dismembered parts in the wreckage. She imagined dusty smears of desiccated blood. Even though she had a hermetically sealed helmet and space suit between her and her grisly imaginings, it felt more immediate than looking through camera mounted on a drone. She held her breath.
She peered through the nearest hole and saw nothing except fried electronics, shredded cables, and broken mounting racks. And a much larger jagged hole glinting in sunlight on the opposite side. “Not much salvage left.”
“Twenty minutes low hazard.” Marko sounded disappointed. But he always sounded disappointed.
A shattered green circuit board floated near her. On impulse, Neela grabbed it and braced herself on the satellite. She tossed the orbital trash toward the butterfly net, away from the tear, where Rocky could gather it up.
Where was Rocky? He still didn’t answer. There should have been a chirp of acknowledgement from him at least. Neela visually scanned the nearby net, concentrating on the frayed edges. He had been approaching the breach when he dropped comms, so unless he had kept going in radio silence, Rocky should be near here. This was also where he collected his aggregate from the drifting and captured wreckage.
As she moved around the derelict, Neela thought she saw Rocky’s curled appendages, but it turned out to be a mushroomed end of a boost cannister. She made her way to the sunlit, net-facing side of the large satellite.
Rocky floated amid jagged pieces of smaller debris, all drifting in relative stillness. His actuated-chain tentacles were clasped tight together straight out from his bulbous head making him look like a metallic raindrop. He was inert. But strangely it seemed like smoky lensed goggles were placed over the main sensor array in what she had thought of as his face. He’d sometimes collect bits of shiny junk to play with later. Neela approached him and sent another prompt to Rocky only a few meters away. Maybe his internal power lost charge? His positioning jets vented of reaction gas?
Then Rocky moved ever so slightly. One tentacle curled out toward Neela, hesitant and achingly slow.
“So you’re still alive?” Neela reached out a gloved hand toward him, to pat his pressure sensors and reassure him. “Come on guy, let’s get you out of here—”
“Don’t!” Marko commanded.
Neela froze. “Don’t what?”
“What is strange?” Marko asked, suspicion slowing his voice. “I see nothing strange on camera.”
Copyright © 2021. Dangerous Orbit by M. T. Reiten