“Burners” by Matt McHugh
Winner of the 2019 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award
Given in Partnership with the National Space Society
"So how'd that happen?"
From the cockpit of her runner, in orbit two-hundred kilometers over a blue-white swizzled Earth, Linda Ballard aimed her exterior cameras downward. She focused on Maureen's runner, drifting just a few meters below. The runner was a single-pilot spacecraft, shaped like a flattened diamond, resembling a kite—or some said a stingray, an image reinforced by the long, trailing tail. The two vehicles were identical, except Maureen's had a seventy-year-old Russian weather satellite the size of a minivan stuck to its nose.
"You know me," came Maureen's voice over Linda's headset. "Sometimes I have trouble letting go of the past."
Linda zoomed in. Runners were designed to push orbiting debris to re-entry burnup over the ocean, and had the equivalent of a bulldozer scoop on the front with manipulator claws to grip and release payloads. Maureen had opened her claws, but the defunct satellite refused to budge.
"Ah," said Linda. "I see your problem. Take a look at my video feed."
Linda panned along a solar panel strut extending from the satellite that had poked through the mesh of Maureen's scoop and wedged itself in the runner's body framework, between two spherical nitrogen tanks. It was behind the reach of the craft's manipulator claws—like trying to scratch your wrist with the fingers of the same hand.
"How's your propellant?"
"The port forward connector was ruptured," said Maureen. "The pressure release pushed me into a spin and I used a lot to stabilize."
"Do you have enough to get back to parking orbit?"
"Barely. But I have to get this thing off first."
"You let me worry about that," said Linda.
A green light winked on Linda's com panel as an alert chimed in her headset.
"This is Calypso orbital base," came the voice of operational director Mitch Coolidge. "Ladies, we are tracking you to hit the Kármán Line in eight minutes. Ground thinks it may be necessary to sacrifice Number Six."
"Come again, Base?" Linda asked. "You want to sacrifice what?"
"Runner Number Six."
She heard the sigh, then, "The Brad Pitt."
"Oh no! Not Brad!" shouted Linda. "We have to save Brad!"
"Ground is considering a plan to eject, unless you have any counter arguments."
"I remind Ground that Brad is worth twenty million dollars."
"I'd rather not have to ditch," said Maureen from the seemingly doomed Brad.
"Don't worry, Brad. The Chris Hemsworth will save you!" said Linda. "I'm going E.V.A. to cut loose the load."
Mitch's voice took on uncharacteristic panic. "That's negative, Number Two. I repeat negative. Suit prep is four minutes alone. That leaves you no margin. You keep your ass in Chris Hemsworth, Linda."
"My claw's too big. I can't reach the entanglement through the frame, but I can reach it with a hand cutter."
"That's negative. You stay in your vehicle."
"Fine," said Linda. "I'll melt it with the stinger."
"I'm going to get under Six, and jam my stinger against the tangled strut. When we start to hit atmosphere, the stinger will heat up. It's a dense alloy, the strut's thin aluminum. A thousand degrees will melt it. Well within runner tolerance."
Mitch's line went quiet, then, "Hold your position. Ground wants to confirm."
"Holding," replied Linda, as she began to nudge the thrusters to put her runner between the descent path of Six/Brad and the looming wall of Earth. It was a tricky maneuver, meticulous and foolhardy, calling to her mind visions of airshow wingwalkers and barnstormers. Oh, sure . . . being on a Burner crew sounded cool (Hero pilots saving the world from space junk!), but like a little kid who dreamed of driving a bulldozer, after a few hours on the job it was just moving dirt.
She raised the rear stinger—a five-meter copper-tungsten lance designed to radiate heat away from the ship's underside during atmosphere contact—and angled the point under the scoop of the Brad Pitt (naming the runners for classic movie stars had been her idea, a convention everyone but the Base director happily embraced). Watching the camera views and schematic overlays, she tapped out little pufts of thrust until the lance slid in, right to the knot of metal wedged in the body frame of the Brad.
"Damn. That was pretty," said Maureen's voice.
"You ain't seen nothin' yet, sweetheart," replied Linda. "Be sure to clamp on to my central supports with both your docking claws. We need to be a stable unit when the turbulence hits."
Mitch over the com: "Ground confirms your plan to melt the obstruction with the stinger. I'm sending through their trajectory with absolute no-return point." A red light indicated Mitch had switched to a private channel. "I know you're in position already, Linda. Do not fuck with that ditch-point, you hear me?"
"Yes, sir," she replied, not a touch of sarcasm.
Mitch went back on green light open channel. "All right, everyone hold on. The ride's going to get bumpy."
Linda and Maureen answered in simultaneous sing-song: "That's-what-she-said."
Linda watched the trajectory map on her main display. After a while, the image started to vibrate. Little tremors rose to her fingers through the controls as the ship shuddered against the thickening atmosphere.
Within a minute, the craft was bucking like she'd never felt.
Atmosphere skipping was a big part of training—runner pilots did it just for fun sometimes—but with another runner piggyback and four tons of satellite between them, this was very different. She was on the stabilizers constantly, checking the temperature and horizon displays moment by moment. On Earth, Linda Ballard had flown everything from stealth jets to ultralights, and even the smoothest little Cessna was more thrilling than the slow, weightless corkscrews of spaceflight. But now . . . now she felt like she was surfing down the flow of a volcano in a pair of out-of-control garbage trucks, terror and adrenaline sizzling in every nerve.
God, this feels good! she thought.
You basically piloted a runner flat on your back, prone in a padded cockpit on top of the craft, head to bow, feet to stern. You watched everything on wraparound displays fed by cameras and sensors. Not that it mattered in space, but Linda always wondered why the engineers chose that orientation. Until now. Now, as jolts of compression slammed her into the seat over and over, she was grateful for the position.
"Stinger at eight-hundred," she said, reading the temperature.
"Nothing yet," said Maureen, her voice shaking with more than turbulence.
"Ditch point in one-hundred and twenty seconds," said Mitch.
A titanic heave hit the Hemsworth and Linda felt her head snap back into the dense foam.
"This . . . is the part . . . where . . . I yell . . . yee-haw," she coughed out as her body rattled.
"This is when I wet myself," said Maureen.
"One-ten to ditch," said Mitch.
"Stinger at eleven-hundred."
"I can see it glowing," said Maureen. "But still nothing."
"Ditch in one-hundred seconds. Ninety-nine. Ninety-eight. Ninety-seven."
Fighting the pitch and yaw, Linda tickled the thirty-two thrust-nozzle keys like a ragtime pianist.
"Thirteen-hundred!" she yelled over the thunder of re-entry vibrating through the hull. "Now?"
"No! It's still caught. Wait! Yes! Yes! It's clear!"
"Go! Go! Go!"
The Chris Hemsworth bucked as four tons of satellite rolled onto it. Linda saw the Brad Pitt release and rocket up like a kite caught in a hurricane, outlined by its vapor trails against the black of space. Linda spread her fingers and slammed every forward thrust key, as if blaring a major chord on a cathedral organ, and her runner squirted out from between the satellite bulk and the dome of air. It skimmed over the thermosphere like a pebble on a pond then lifted with her up-thrusters until it once more sailed still and silent. Her rear cameras caught the moment the satellite below burst into molten chunks, leaving claw marks of flame slicing the sky.
"If you know anybody in Greenland," she said over the com, "Tell them to look Southwest for an awesome light show. Maureen, you okay?"
"Affirmative. I'm in a decent parking orbit, but I don't have enough propellant to get back to Base."
"I'm joining you in a minute. I've got plenty to help push."
"We're tracking your position," said Mitch's voice. "Prepping Number Three and Five to get you. You two just sit back. Betty Grable and Cary Grant will come and tow you home."
Back in the common room of the Calypso orbital base, Maureen and Linda dangled from toeholds as Mitch sat bungeed to his chair at the operations console.
"This is the part where I yell at you," he said.
"And I put on my sunglasses and pop my gum," said Linda. "If I had either."
"I remind you both of the priority. An equipment loss we can absorb," he said. "A casualty will get us shut down. I'm grateful to have neither. As it stands now, there's one runner with minor damage and all pilots intact, so good job, ladies."
"Don't forget four tons of Ruskie Nimbus successfully splashed into the North Atlantic," said Linda. "That's a million bucks a ton."
"Duly noted," replied Mitch. "And reflected in your bonuses."
"You up for a new job?"
"Born ready, chief."
"There's a Chinese geostationary that was never set right. It's on an eccentric that crosses a few lanes. The Chinese government offered double rate if it can be fixed."
"We've never done an orbital correction," said Maureen. "Do we have the fuel for that?"
"It's going to take three days to lift Calypso to a matching orbit. In that time, we're maxing all nitrogen compressors to get the runner tanks to eight-thousand."
"Eight-thousand P.S.I.!" cried Linda. "That's double normal pressure."
"Don't tell me you're going all safety manual on me now?"
"No, I'm just thinking how those suckers will move. Ooh, baby."
"It's not speed we need," explained Mitch. "It's power. That Chinese bogey is over ninety tons."
Maureen and Linda gasped.
"What the—! What is it?"
"They won't say."
"Is it military?"
"They won't say."
Mitch shrugged. "All I know is it's the biggest contract job we've been offered and Ground wants to take it, no questions asked."
"I thought the whole purpose of this enterprise was to clean up space junk," said Linda. "Not help Red China revive the Cold War glory days."
"I'll forgive that because I know you're an Air Force brat," replied Mitch. "But you're working for a private, internationally funded operation now. We don't take sides. We try to keep man-made meteorites from putting people in danger—and a ninety ton satellite on an unstable ellipse is plenty dangerous."
"Oh yeah. Especially if it's got nukes."
Despite a few more barbs, Linda failed to draw Mitch into an argument and she kicked off in something as close to a huff as her disposition allowed. She sailed through the habitat cylinder, a space about the size of a passenger jet fuselage—ringed with sleeping and storage compartments fairly resembling overhead luggage bins—and hooked a turn into a connector tube to the maintenance cylinder. It was identical in size and volume to the habitat, but vastly more cluttered, with mesh nets holding tools and equipment against every square inch. Gary, the lead engineer, was hooked to a console at one end of the cylinder.
"How bad is it?" she asked, gliding over to watch his remote camera inspection of the Brad Pitt.
"Not bad," he answered. He pointed to the screen. "The main issue is that sheared pressure coupling. That we need to fix. Otherwise, really, there's just some cosmetic damage. Hell of a trick you pulled off."
Linda was hanging from a toehold above his console, her face parallel to his but inverted—something the crew had come to call "spidermanning." Gary looked at her but his expression betrayed no surprise. In a place with zero gravity and zero privacy, people learned to ignore one another's oddities, including whether or not they were upside-down.
"So did you hear about the Chinese thing?" she asked.
"I heard there's a job to correct a Chinese satellite. What else is there to it?"
"Nothing specific. I was just wondering, before we get there, if you could fit me with some special equipment.
"What kind of equipment?"
Linda shrugged, wondering if the gesture had any impact when upside-down. "Nothing much. Optical spectrometer. Contact metallurgic ultrasound. Geiger counter."
Gary narrowed his eyes. "What are you looking for?"
"I just want to know what we're dealing with before we start shoving it around."
"I assume you don't want me to mention anything to Mitch."
"He's a busy guy," said Linda. "No need to bother him with every little detail."
"Uh-huh," said Gary, his voice trailing skeptically.
After twenty minutes of careful nudging, the Calypso was a perfect shadow of the Chinese satellite, following a few hundred meters behind its East-West vector. Linda watched on the common room screen as drone cameras circled the object, revealing a surprisingly elongated side view. It reminded Linda of the cardboard delivery box for long-stem roses.
"Is this where you say 'I have a bad feeling about this'?" asked Maureen.
Linda grunted. "What do you say that is?"
"Radio telescope. Monsoon tracking. Pirate porn broadcasting. Take your pick."
"Determined to spread your bad feeling around, aren't you?" said Maureen.
"I don't trust it. The Chinese haven't said a word about its equipment or function."
"They don't have to. By I.S.A. agreement, all they have to document is tonnage and path. We've been launching classified satellites for eighty years, since at least the Sixties. Lord knows what damn-the-treaties weaponry we've snuck up."
"Doesn't mean I want anyone else to get away with it."
"What are you suggesting?"
"For the moment, nothing but a little fact-finding," said Linda.
"And if you find something you don't like?" asked Maureen.
"We'll disarm that nuke when we get there."
Runners Two and Three—Chris Hemsworth and Betty Grable—slowly skimmed the length of the Chinese mystery box. The two craft moved in perfect opposing sync, mirror images above and below, snapping high-res images as they inched along at ten-centimeters-per-second. Linda watched the surface of the satellite roll by like a glacial landscape.
"Number Two, you're getting close," said Mitch over the com. "Back off a bit."
"Right, chief," replied Linda. She tapped a thruster. The Chris Hemsworth lowered its nose toward the satellite.
"Number Two, I need you to stay at least two meters from the surface—whoa! Did you just bump it?"
"Oops, sorry, chief," said Linda. "I confused up and down for a moment."
"Linda, back off! Get to two meters."
She tickled the thrusters and Chris Hemsworth widened the gap.
"That's better," said Mitch. "Okay, Two and Three, when you reach the end, I want you to do one-eighties and retrace your path in the opposite direction. Re-angling your front cameras to thirty-degrees and set your infrareds to—what the . . .! Linda! Did you just bump again?"
"Wow, I am really off today. Sorry about that, chief."
Mitch's voice went cold.
"Finish your sweep and get back to Base."
Back in the common room, Mitch hovered by the big screen and pulled up images of the satellite overlaid with grids and vectors.
"The plan is to have three runners clamp on to these support beams and begin a synchronized series of thrusts. Short bursts to start, then after we get course confirmation, we'll go to a steady push. We've allowed for forty minutes of sustained thrust. After that, the three runners will detach and return for refueling, and the other three will deploy and lock on. Then they refuel and the originals resume. We should have the orbit corrected within six cycles."
"How are we going to refuel if we keep pushing away from Base like that?"
"Base will advance to a rendezvous point each time," said Mitch. "We're going to lead, and you're going to catch up to us."
Murmurs went through the assembled crew.
"If we're using all that propellant for the runners, how will there be enough to push Base ahead?"
"We've been authorized to use the solid rocket boosters," answered Mitch.
Now a wave of indignation erupted.
"Those are supposed to be for emergencies!"
"If they're depleted, that leaves us drifting."
"What about the slag?"
Mitch waved the objections down patiently.
"We've worked out a plan with Ground for minimal consumption," he said. "And we'll keep an emergency reserve."
"I thought we were supposed to avoid putting waste in orbit," said Maureen. "Isn't that why we use pressurized nitrogen only? Solid rockets disperse particles."
"That's true," replied Mitch. "But it's the only way we can move something as massive as Calypso and still have enough nitrogen for the runners. Yes, there will be some ash and slag from the burn, but Ground has determined that it will pose essentially zero threat at this higher orbit. We're going to start with the first phase in about twelve hours, so everyone get some rest and look over your assignments."
The small group began to break up, grumbling solo or muttering in pairs as they drifted along the habitat. When Linda turned to go, Mitch called her back.
"Yes, sir?" she said, with a smile.
Mitch leaned close and whispered, "What are you playing at?"
"Whatever do you mean, sir?"
"Cut the act, Linda. I know you placed something on the satellite. What is it?"
"Just a little research. I'll let you know if anything comes up."
She continued to smile as she watched Mitch's face tighten, tension around the eyes, stiffness in the jaw. She thought she heard a tiny growl as he turned back to his console. Linda tucked into a half-gainer and nudged off, spreading her arms wide before hugging herself close, like a spinning skater, to pull a barrel roll just for fun.
All crew members were ordered to their compartments as the first rocket burn began. The acceleration was subtle—barely five percent of one G—but it felt surreal to Linda to experience any sense of weight in the habitat. She lifted her hand and, bizarrely, it wanted to fall back down. At first, she thought it might be an imaginary sensation, but a symphony of tiny plinks from forgotten loose objects tumbling along the habit cylinder confirmed the reality. When the all-clear sounded, Linda double-checked by placing a pen mid-air and watched as it hung motionless. She unlatched her compartment and rolled out.
In the movies, people in space always moved in slow-motion like they were underwater. In reality, a seasoned crew at zero-G zipped around, weaving through each other like waiters in a busy restaurant. Linda glided to a monitor station to join a group watching data from the first wave of runners, left behind with the satellite some five degrees along the orbital arc. As each successive thrust test rolled by without incident, pilots began to drift away from the non-events while engineers remained transfixed.
Bored, Linda returned to her compartment. She skimmed through the assignment protocols on her tablet, until she got bored with those as well, then fiddled half-heartedly with a crossword puzzle. At an Air Force base, being on call was every bit as tedious, but somehow still felt important, necessary. Here, waiting around to drive a truck for money, sometimes it seemed . . . well, kind of like seventeen-across: T A W D R Y. Or maybe twelve-down: I N A N E. Even the romance of space wore thin after a few months stuck in a 747, showering twice a week with a spray bottle.
She was dozing when the alert to prep for her wave came. In the maintenance cylinder, her spacesuit was mounted by the runner hatches like a magician's assistant sawed in half and split at the waist. She tucked into a cannonball and backed into the belly gap, then blossomed into a jumping jack, her arms and legs filling the suit above and below, as the belt ring closed and locked. As she pulled free of the suit mounts, she called to Gary.
"Still analyzing," he answered, not glancing from his monitor.
"Hurry it up, would you."
"If that's what you're into," she said, then jackknifed into the docking tube of Chris Hemsworth.
The hour-long trip to the satellite was more tedium, with Phil Bledsoe—pilot of the John Wayne—appointing himself entertainment director and monopolizing ship-to-ship com with an essay on why Doctor Who was the greatest science-fiction show of all time precisely because the science made no sense ("That way, unburdened by realism, they're free to explore ideas in their purest form!"). Philosophically, Linda was opposed to all manner of gender stereotyping, but, jeez, men did love their crackpot theories.
Bucking an Earthbound trend, four of the six runner pilots were female. As a rule, women tended to be more susceptible to motion-sickness than men but, in a biological quirk that baffled the flight surgeons, Linda was among a tiny contrarian percentage of women who simply did not experience it. At all. You could put Linda Ballard in a three-axis centrifuge and she could do trigonometry while eating tempura. As a child, she reported kids to the school nurse for getting dizzy on the playground spinner. She was well into her teens before she accepted that vertigo wasn't a contagious disease, and a second-year cadet before reluctantly conceding it wasn't a moral weakness.
That anomalous advantage bolstered something she'd been told throughout her life: that she was exceptional. Not merely in lineage, descended from generations of military aviators, but also innate talent. Gifts, such as her ironclad constitution, were not to be squandered—as her father reminded her ad nauseam—and she was obliged to reach her highest potential. Linda decided that meant she was destined for space. So she graduated the Academy, completed her required service, and resigned her commission at the first private sector offer to slip the surly bonds of Earth. The favored daughter ran away with the space circus, to the obvious but unspoken dismay of Lieutenant Colonel Gregory T. Ballard.
Upon reaching the satellite, the alignment and latching maneuvers were mildly challenging, but as soon as the runners were attached, the tedium resumed. The thrust sequences were remotely automated, so the pilots were obliged to lock their controls and twiddle their thumbs until it was time to head back to Base. As Linda emerged from her space suit, drifting in the fetal position from its split midriff, Gary tugged her ankle and said,
"It's a satellite killer," said Gary.
He floated before the common room monitor, pointing to series of grainy black-and-white images, as the entire Calypso crew hung in formation before him.
"What am I looking at?" asked Mitch, all grumbly skepticism.
"That's a structural ultrasound," said Linda. "Taken by a pair of transceivers I placed during my recon pass."
"It was the only non-invasive way to get a look at the interior," continued Gary. "It takes a while to interpret the data—and I know it doesn't look like much—but I'm pretty confident in the results. Three-quarters of the object consists of tubes filled with layers of honeycombed metallic chaff. The back of each tube is packed with some kind of dense gel. There's no radiation, so it's not nuclear material, but it's certainly a high-energy combustible. The openings point West, straight into the Eastward direction of anything tracking the Earth's rotation."
"This is designed for one purpose" said Linda. "To fire a wall of shrapnel into the path of oncoming satellites. Millions of particles, each the size of a toenail clipping, moving at the equivalent of fifteen kilometers a second. At that speed even a few hits will shred any object, creating a cone of debris that helps take out the next. Over and over. Until there's a man-made Saturn ring of rubble around the Earth."
"This single device," said Gary, "Could destroy dozens of imaging and communications satellites in twenty-four hours. It's an information age doomsday weapon."
"It's a shotgun," said Linda. "And we're helping the Chinese point it at our heads."
Mitch spoke through the tense silence. "Assuming everything you've said is true, what do you want to do about it?"
"Burn it," said Linda.
"That's what we're supposed to do, right? Remove hazards from orbit? Let's push this thing to the bottom of the Pacific."
"That's Chinese government property," said Mitch. "We're not authorized to do anything but nudge it. Even your peeking under the hood is an act of trespassing."
"An indiscriminate weapon like this violates all sorts of international agreements," said Gary. "It should not exist."
"Are you actually agreeing we should splash this?" asked Mitch.
"Yes!" blurted Linda.
"No," said Gary, then teetered his hand equivocally. "Not quite. But we could neutralize it. There's only a few ways it could receive a command to fire. Radio. Laser or optical signal. Autonomous computer control. We could disable those systems, make it deaf, dumb, and blind."
"That's not good enough," snarled Linda.
"It's the most efficient way."
"It's the coward's way!"
"Enough," said Mitch. "Nobody does anything until I confer with Ground. Gary, I need your data."
"You got it."
"And the rest of you: I need your silence. Don't gossip about this with anyone planetside. I could suspend communication privileges with a word. But I won't." He stared down Linda. "I'm trusting you to not do anything stupid."
Linda lay rigid, arms folded, hovering in her compartment like a grumpy mummy levitating in an oversized sarcophagus. She had abandoned her crossword puzzle, but was trying decide on the proper word for her mood. Sulking? Stewing? Brooding? None seemed right. She considered inventing one.
Moping furiously. Furioping? No.
Cogitating and fuming. Fumitating. Better, but still not right.
There was tap on her wall. She rolled up the privacy screen and Maureen sidled in next to her.
"Move over," she said.
Linda readjusted. "People will talk."
"Like they haven't speculated about that already." Maureen elbowed around in the tight space and held up a tablet before Linda's face.
"My account," she said.
Linda took the tablet and scanned down a column of numbers until her eyes popped on a six-digit figure.
"Transfer routed through the People's Bank of China within the last hour," said Maureen. "Personal incentive payments set to clear in thirty days, conditional on successful orbital correction. Engineering crew got over two-hundred thousand each. Pilots got half a million. I can only guess what directors got."
"And a whole lot of it. Anyway, the word is we're going ahead with the correction."
"It's a bribe," said Linda. "A bribe from a foreign government."
"See, it's only called that if you're a public official. In the private sector, it's just called 'money.'"
"Ex-military," said Maureen. "Just like me, though I was a lowly transport pilot. I don't have your warrior caste pedigree or Colorado Springs bona fides."
Linda shook her head. "I won't accept it. Are you actually going to?"
"The bigger question is are you going to let anyone accept it."
"I have some friends in the D.O.D. that would love to know about this."
"I hope they're good friends," Maureen said. "Because you may lose a few here."
"I don't do this to make friends."
Maureen slid up Linda's privacy screen and nudged off. "Well, mission accomplished, then."
Now Linda needed a new word, one that mixed outrage and righteousness. Rightrage. Perfect. It was in a spirit of percolating rightrage she seized her tablet and began drumming out a message to the Department of Defense, Strategic Space Division.
Mitch's voice echoed through the habitat. He drew out the name, making it sound to Linda like Fred Flintstone pounding on a door.
Linda rolled out of her compartment.
From all sides, like meerkats in a wraparound savanna, heads poked out of compartments.
"You had no right," Mitch said, his voice calm and cold once more.
Now Linda began to heat up. She pushed off and torpedoed toward Mitch's station.
"I had no right?" she bellowed. "You put us all—the whole world!—in a compromised position. And for what? Money!"
Mitch pushed off and streamed straight at Linda. They each grabbed a rubbery handhold and bounced to a stop before colliding.
"You think this is Top Gun?" he yelled. "You think you're the badass maverick sticking it to the stuffed shirts? This is the real world, Linda. Grow up."
"So I can join the big boys' sellout club? Fuck you, Mitch!"
"Ms. Ballard, you are, as they say, relieved of duty."
"Get real, Mitch. You need me."
"No." He shook his head. "No, I really don't. Anything we need you for can be done better with automation at this point, and without the hotshot nonsense. Pilots are a contingency plan. Congratulations. You've finally made yourself more trouble than you're worth."
Linda held out her wrists. "So, time to clap me in irons, is it?"
"In a manner of speaking," answered Mitch. He raised his voice slightly. "Calypso data systems, this is Mitchell Selwyn Coolidge, Base Director. Executive command: suspend personal and operational logins for flight specialist Linda G. Ballard."
"Command acknowledged," replied a disembodied voice. "Linda G. Ballard, logins suspended."
"We'll have you Earthbound in a week or so," said Mitch as he drifted back to his console.
Slinking back to her compartment just didn't seem right, so Linda took the flight-of-shame through the habitat and tucked herself in the rear observation room by the rose window. It was her favorite place on Calypso, usually filled with surreal vistas of Earthscapes rolling by like abstract paintings. But now, at high orbit and angled ass-end to space, all it showed was blackness, the cabin lights too bright to let her eyes even find the Milky Way. She crouched by the window, brood-sulk-shame-fuming. After a while, Gary cruised in and bobbed beside her.
"Hey," he said.
"For the record, I agree with you. This is too dangerous a thing to leave unchecked."
"What can we do about it?"
"Do you know the Chinese gave us access to the attitude jets?"
Linda looked up, lifting her chin from her knees.
"It's not enough thrust to move it," continued Gary. "But enough to turn it. Like you said, it's a shotgun. We can point the barrel at the ground. If we aim that thing planetside, were it ever fired, all those little metal shards would burn up in spectacular uselessness."
"What do you need me to do?"
"I need to get to Mitch's console to mirror his access on mine so I can use the thrust controls."
"Leave it to me," said Linda. "I'll get him away from it."
Gary shook his head. "Linda, I have great confidence in your abilities in all areas but one. Subtlety. He can't know what's going on. He can override anything by voice command."
"So we gag him."
"Again, there's your problem with the whole subtlety thing. All I need is a few minutes where everyone's attention is—"
Gary was interrupted by an alert tone and an edgy digital voice summoning the crew to the common room. They found Mitch in his console chair rotated toward the habitat.
"The assignment's been scrubbed," he said. "There seems to be something of a diplomatic crisis brewing below and we've been ordered to cease and desist."
"We're not finished the correction," said Gary. "That satellite's still eccentric."
Mitch looked sheepish. "The Chinese have said they will, uh, complete the operation themselves with an unmanned rocket."
"If they can correct the orbit with an unmanned rocket, why haven't they done it already?"
"They didn't exactly say the rocket was to correct the orbit."
Silence hung among the drifting bodies as a realization gradually congealed.
"Right now," continued Mitch, "There's only a few sketchy ultrasounds and unofficial speculation on what that object actually is. It seems Beijing would prefer to avoid giving any foreign government the chance to confirm the existence of a treaty-violating space weapon."
"Are you saying they're going to destroy it?"
"We have reports of a launch from the Wenchang Center just a few minutes ago. We've been given less than six hours to, um, as they say, clear the area."
Panic rippled through the group.
"We can't move to a new orbit that quickly!"
"Our rockets are at sixty-percent! This would leave us nothing."
"If they destroy that, think of the debris it creates!"
"Look, we've been ordered to move," said Mitch. "I don't like it either but my hands are tied. There's nothing we can do."
"We can do what Gary wanted," said Linda. "We can disable any means that weapon has to get a firing signal. Leave it derelict in space."
"I can't authorize that," answered Mitch. "I am legally accountable to an international conglomerate and obliged to follow their directives. I told you, my hands are tied."
"I'm with Linda on this," said Gary. "They're putting us in danger. I don't know how far we can get in six hours compared to the fragmentation radius of whatever they're sending up. And they'll be creating orbital pollution for generations. That's exactly what I signed on to prevent."
"Look, from my console, I can lock out every runner or drone launch. That's my job."
"This isn't a job anymore! This is an act of international aggression. You can't sit this out!"
"I told you, my hands are tied. I just have to reach out and touch that console to shut you down. To keep me from fulfilling my legal obligations, you'd have physically restrain me. Say, with a cargo net."
Again, silence hung over the group until someone said, "Oh."
Within a minute, Mitch was webbed to his chair, his arms pinned to his side by an elastic mesh ratcheted tight.
"Calypso data systems," Mitch called out. "Please note that at zero-eight-fifty-three, relative habitat time, I was inhibited from performing my duties as director by several unidentified crew members."
"Your situation is noted, Director Coolidge."
"Did he just log a mutiny?" Maureen asked Linda.
"I think this is where I say, 'Argh, matey.'"
"I remind you we're a private operation," said Gary, tapping commands onto Mitch's console. "So I believe the correct term is 'hostile takeover.' I'm going to need volunteers to go E.V.A. for some creative cable-snipping."
"Avast there, ye Hung-Dong Frigate! Prepare to be castrated!"
Mitch shook his head and sighed.
Linda watched as Gary pointed the business end of the Chinese shotgun perpendicular to the great disk of Earth. Once the position was stable, runner pilots lifted engineers up and down the length of the satellite as they severed fiber-optic lines and gold-shielded copper wires. They blinded photoreceptors and performed lobotomies on processor brains. In the end, the elongated box seemed to hang sadly over the blue planet, like a withered branch dangling over a pond.
"So that's it?" asked Linda.
"Dead as the proverbial doornail," replied Gary.
"What about the launch from Wenchang?"
"I don't have access to tracking data from Ground," answered Gary. "Only Mitch does."
"Oh yeah," said Linda. "I forgot about him."
"Well, well," said Mitch. "Me and my bladder were wondering when you'd come back."
"Do you know if the Chinese are still on target?" asked Gary.
"I've seen a bunch of notices come up on my console," he answered, nodding, "But I can't reach to open them."
"I'll get you loose," said Linda.
"Hold on," said Mitch. "Are you two saying you've already sabotaged the property of a sovereign nation and there's nothing I can do to reverse that?"
"In the bag," answered Gary.
"Calypso data systems. Please note that at ten-twenty-seven, Director Coolidge was able to disentangle himself from restraints placed erroneously upon him by unidentified crew members."
"Noted, Director Coolidge."
Mitch snaked an arm along his body and out near the neckline of the mesh. He pulled the remnant of it easily to his waist, freeing the other arm.
"Friggin' elastic," he said. "We also have indestructible carbon-fiber nets, you know."
He tapped his console, flipped through a series of screens.
"Yep. Three-stage rocket, with the first two spent. Ground predicts they'll execute a single Hohmann ellipse, then when they hit apogee the second time, they'll fire the third stage and lift the payload to our position.
"How can they achieve orbit with only one transfer loop?" asked Gary.
"They're not trying to achieve orbit," replied Mitch. "Only impact. They're whipping a rock from a sling straight up to hit a passing bird. We now have less than four hours to get clear."
"Can we do it?"
"Ground's plotted the detonation point and cone of debris. If we maintain our altitude and shadow the satellite's current path by enough margin, we should be okay. But, ironically, this may create too much orbital junk for us to stay in business safely. This may be the end of the Burners. For now, we need to batten down and strap in for an emergency repositioning."
"There's another way," said Linda. "Intercept."
"Intercept with . . . what?"
"A runner," said Linda. "Right now, the Chinese are looping around Earth, picking up speed. I can match the orbit. I'll use planetary gravity to accelerate, like a bicycle going downhill to catch up to a car, and rendezvous with the missile at perigee as it makes its closet turn around Earth."
"This is a missile targeting high orbit," said Gary. "It's going its fastest at perigee. That makes you a bicycle trying to catch up to a Formula One car. There's not enough downhill."
"So give me a booster rocket."
Mitch and Gary exchanged a look.
"Assuming that's even possible," said Mitch. "How, exactly, do you intend to intercept?"
Linda held out her forearm, clasped it midpoint with the fingers of her other hand.
"The manipulators on the front scoop of the runner," she answered. "That's exactly what they're designed to do: grab on to a cylinder."
"Not when that cylinder is a live missile with an unfired chemical booster engine transiting low Earth orbit at seven kilometers per second."
"That just makes it more interesting."
Mitch turned to Gary. "Could you even attach a rocket to a runner?"
Gary looked up, his eyes focused on nothing as he traced his fingers in the air. "Maybe. Calypso's emergency boosters are designed to slide out in one piece, like a battery from a flashlight. If we pull an engine and have a runner grab it—the front scoop's definitely the strongest part of a runner—we can unbolt the scoop, strip the heat shield, then spot-weld the scoop-engine to the belly frame—"
Mitch interrupted. "You kids take this outside. Right now, I'm sending everyone instructions to prep for an emergency repositioning. You have an hour until we start to move."
Gary, in full spacesuit with two other engineers, secured a socket wrench then eased out what looked like a giant tin can from a tube the size of sewer pipe.
"Okay, here comes the engine. When it's clear of the cowling, I want you to belly up so we can drill into your shield and figure out where to put the welds."
"I've got a better idea," said Linda from her cockpit.
The Chris Hemsworth twisted like a three-storey windmill until the open maw of her scoop and manipulators gaped at the engine cylinder.
"What are you doing?" demanded Gary.
"Like hell I'm letting you put holes in my heat shield," said Linda. She squeezed her fingers and the maw bit down on the rocket. "You said yourself the scoop's the strongest part of a runner. So I'm going to hold on with mine."
Gary sputtered. "But . . . but you'll be sideways when the rocket fires!"
"It's space. There's no up, down, or sideways. No air resistance. Get with the program, Gary."
"I . . . um . . . I. . . ."
"I'm with Linda on this," said Maureen over the com. "It saves time. Avoids modification. But it will be hard to control. It's going to want to spiral—or worse, pinwheel. You're going to have push against it, compensate moment by moment. You ready for that?"
"Just you watch me, lady."
"That's the spirit," said Maureen. "You should see yourself right now. You look like a cartoon Chihuahua carrying a stick of dynamite. I vote we rename your runner."
"To what?" asked Linda.
"Wile E. Coyote. Super Genius."
"Oh, I like the sound of that. Linda G. Ballard. Soop-per. Jeen-yus."
When Chris Hemsworth was in position, Calypso triggered the rocket burn. The solid fuel had been premeasured to bring the runner to the missile's velocity and arc, but it was up to Linda to keep it on course. The sideways acceleration didn't bother Linda's impervious inner ear a jot, but it did her neck muscles no good. Keeping the whole assembly from spiraling took a lot more effort than she let on, her heart thundering as she calmly reported each moment-by-moment adjustment in her best Lauren Bacall/Chuck Yeager voice. But Linda knew Base and Ground both remotely monitored every force she experienced, every counterthrust she made.
And you're all in total awe of me right about now!
Within the hour, the Hemsworth-Coyote began to turn in the sling of gravity, coming to line of sight with the Chinese missile on its final Earthbound loop. Linda spat out the Calypso's engine—commending it to a fiery funeral over the Indian Ocean—and opened her manipulators wide. South Pacific islands reeled by at twenty times the speed of sound as she caressed her thrusters, nudging the scoop-mouth closer and closer until at last, it closed on the missile body. Now the Chihuahua had bitten onto a torpedo.
"Push it down, Linda!" she heard Gary's voice over the headset. "Burn it!"
"I don't think so," she replied. "I'm moving way too fast. I have no idea where it will land. I'm not going down in history for dropping a commie boom-stick on the planet."
"Linda, you have to get rid of it." said Maureen.
"The third stage is still live," said Mitch. "If they ignite, it could blow up in your face. You need to let go."
"Yeah, well, it may be a little out of character for me, but in this case I'm going to rely on the kindness of strangers. Besides, there's only one surefire way to get rid of this safely."
"Escape velocity. Just before I pass the geocentric ellipse focus, I'll be going fast enough—with the added thrust of my eight-thousand P.S.I. hot rod—to push this thing to the moon. But I need to hang on until I'm sure it's beyond orbital return. Seriously, did you think I'd pass up the chance for heroic self-sacrifice? No way, José."
There was an eruption in her headset—voices she knew from Calypso, voices she didn't from Ground—all clashing in protest.
"This is when one of you confesses your secret love for me," said Linda over the chaos. "I know who I want it to be. You'll just have to work it out."
She cut off her com. Further conversation could serve no purpose.
The missile-cum-runner contraption swung past Earth and curved toward open space. In about forty minutes, Linda Ballard and the folks at Chinese mission control would have a decision to make.
"Where is she?" asked Gary.
Mitch pointed to a tracking dot on his console.
"She went beyond the insertion ellipse four minutes ago," he said.
"Can she get back?" asked Maureen.
"She used most of her propellant for the acceleration," said Mitch. "Ground calculates she's past no-return."
"We have to try. What about remote automation?"
"She disabled it," said Mitch. "I should not have made that crack about pilots as a contingency plan. Besides, she doesn't have the thrust to reverse course."
"Are you saying she's gone?" asked Gary.
Mitch looked away, said nothing. Gary repeated the question, struggling with the words.
"Are . . . you saying . . . she's gone?"
"I . . . I'm . . ."
"Oh no. Damn it. No."
"Guys, what's that mean?" asked Maureen, pointing to Mitch's console.
The three watched a series of vector lines readjust over Linda's tracking dot, tangents on a shifting arc.
"Is she changing direction?" asked Gary.
"It appears so," replied Mitch. "The monitoring systems are showing significant acceleration."
"You said she was out of propellant?"
"She has some," said Mitch. "But nowhere near enough to be doing that."
"Then where's she getting all that thrust?"
"More important," said Maureen. "Where she's going?"
Mitch tapped his console, swiped a series of commands, and overlaid a trajectory.
"If she keeps accelerating," he said. "She'll return to orbit."
"Are you kidding?"
"It's a crazy wide orbit, but—yes—she's on a path for reinsertion."
"I have no idea," said Mitch. "But—even more important—how do we intercept her?"
"Calypso base, this is Linda Ballard," said Linda as she reactivated her com. "Please respond, Calypso. This is Linda Ballard."
"Linda? Jesus! Is that you?" said Mitch's voice.
"Right on both accounts," she replied. "Since He is, after all, my copilot. Do you folks know where the heck I am?"
"That's affirmative. We are tracking you on a wide return orbit. But . . . how . . . how did you manage to . . . .?"
"The third stage, of course."
"The third stage of that missile was never fired," she said. "When it was clear I had on a hold on their firecracker, the Chinese, very thoughtfully, chose not to melt my face. After my big push, they had to realize they couldn't possibly put it back on course. So, hoping they'd get the message, I turned it around and pointed it the way I wanted to go. And, again very thoughtfully, rather than let me drift to the Kuiper belt, they finally fired the stage to bring me home. Or, more or less in the neighborhood."
"Are you saying you hung on to a high orbit booster during ignition?" asked Maureen's voice.
"I did indeed," said Linda.
"And you kept it stable? It didn't spiral?"
"I did and it did, with a little help from me. As any quarterback will tell you, putting on a spiral creates stability. And, believe you me, yee-haw doesn't even begin to cut it."
"Linda!" said Gary's voice. "You're on way too wide an orbit! We won't be able to get anywhere near you."
"Well, my air scrubbers and reserve batteries should last about sixty hours. With the triple back ups, you've got a week to figure out how to grab me."
"We're already conferring with Ground on options," said Mitch. "Sit tight, and we'll work something out."
"Roger that, chief. Oh, and I still have a hold on that spent third stage, with the original payload. I bet Beijing would pay handsomely for its discrete return. A whole new potential business model for us."
"We'll take it under advisement."
"I'll expect a bonus, of course," said Linda.
"We'll it take out of the six million in incentive payments the Chinese rescinded from our personal accounts."
"Fine. Be that way."
"One more thing," said Maureen. "Which one of us do you think is in love with you?"
"This is the part where I say, 'What's that, Base? You're starting to break up.'"
Copyright © 2019 Matt McHugh
Matt McHugh, the winner of the 2019 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award for “Burners,” was born in suburban Pennsylvania, attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and after a few years as a Manhattanite, now calls New Jersey home. Find his website here. The National Space Society and Baen Books applaud the role that science fiction plays in advancing real science and have teamed up to sponsor this short fiction contest in memory of Jim Baen. The contest occurs annually and looks for stories that demonstrate the positive aspects of space exploration and discovery. Over the years, the contest has developed an international character. In addition to the United States, entrants have hailed from Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Argentina, Algeria, Spain, and Morocco. "Moon bases, Mars colonies, orbital habitats, space elevators, asteroid mining, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, realistic spacecraft, heroics, sacrifice, adventure—that's what we're looking for," says Contest Administrator William Ledbetter. "And once again we believe we've found writers, and an ultimate winner, who deliver just that." Find more information on the JBM here.