A short story set in the Tears of the Stars universe.

Short Story - 'Cleanup'

“Gene.”

Never had his name, preceded by a beep, sounded more unpleasant than now. The only things he had heard in a long while were the sound of his own breathing, the quiet buzz of air circulation fans, and music on low volume from the helmet speakers to pass the time.

“You asleep back there?”
Gene had considered it. The fleet actually encouraged taking naps in quiet times.
Then again, I’m usually not in a pressure suit tethered to the open bay of a cargo shuttle.

“I wish I was.” he snapped. Seven hours out here, going from one debris field to another and manipulating wreckage with a robotic arm had taken its toll. He looked up and found Earth shining down on him – light gradually brightening as they went over the night line towards the day side of the world. A glance at the monitor at his side confirmed the position. “What’s up Miguel?”

“Next piece ahead. Currently matching orbits. Looks hefty, might need to grab and push.”
Gene grunted. That’s what they had been doing since the Kessari fleet had been wrecked over Earth: flying from one piece of debris to the next, deliberately deorbiting smaller pieces to let them burn up in Earths’ atmosphere, and push those too large to safely do so into safer orbits. And possibly salvage still-intact Kessari technology.

“Human? Or Kessari?”
He still shuddered at their last stop two hours before which had turned out to be a half-destroyed fighter. The cockpit had been torn open and the unlucky pilots’ pressure suit ripped apart. Two weeks exposed to the vacuum of space had been enough to dry out the body, leaving behind only an alternately freeze-dried and sun-cooked body, the mere thought of which made him gag.

“Looks Kessari. Large enough to have come from one of the Sledgehammers, as far as I can tell.”

“You always say that.”

“Shut up. Trajectory looks good. Preparing attitude adjustment.”

Gene immediately grabbed the handrail to his right despite the fact that had had strapped himself into one of the two cargo bay seats near the airlock. He looked up as Earth apparently was set in motion. A small metallic piece came into view, between the shuttle and Earth. Gene needed a second to realize that this was the very distant and very human-built combat vessel Avatar on a lower orbit than themselves. But the Avatar wasn’t their destination right now.

The rotation continued until Earth was nearly completely out of view. He however spotted a metallic glint in the distance, slowly gaining on the shuttlecraft, from his point of view from nearly directly overhead. Gene zoomed in the camera his pilot had trained on it. It looked quite bulky indeed, but luckily rotated very slowly. Catching it wouldn’t be much of a problem.

“Capcon, closing in on the next piece.”
The control station on the Avatar briefly acknowledged the report, but didn’t bother following up.

“Eighty meters.” Miguel called out the distance. Gene started to free himself from the harness. The tried and true method for them was to stop the shuttle at twenty meters out and let inertia carry Gene towards the target, as far as the tether would allow.

“Forty meters. Thirty.” At twenty-five meters the pilot briefly engaged the engines to match speed with the wreck, slowing down relative to it. Gene continued on his old trajectory towards the looming piece of metal until the tether stretched. He quickly activated the reaction thrusters on the suit to bring himself to a relative stop as well.

“What’re we looking at?” the pilot asked, as he couldn’t see the entirety of the scene from his vantage point. Gene took a closer look at the slowly-rotating mass in front of him, barely ten meters away now. The whole thing was about the same size of their cargo shuttle.
No way we’re going to deorbit that.

“Far too big for grav pull only.” he said after a second. With smaller pieces it might have been enough to just engage the shuttles’ engines for a bit, causing the artificial gravity field of their wake to alter the targets’ course enough to have the desired effect. Not this time. We have to play tugboat in space, volume 219.

He waited for a full rotation to pass. He took note of any outcroppings and peculiar details which might challenge his approach to grab the piece, first to stop the rotation, then to move it into a safer orbit.

“Looks like some piece of outer hull. Thick plating. Some melting, some bullet holes. Don’t think it came from the biggest one.”
One more rotation passed.

“Interesting. There seems to be some sort of mostly intact box. Big hatch on the inside, assuming the plating was the outside.”
“Why would a machine cruiser need hatches?” Miguel sounded confused. Gene suddenly felt uneasy.
“Missile magazine?” he asked.
“Maybe. How big is the hatch?” the pilot asked for clarification.

“Uh.” he said, waiting for it to rotate into view again. “Eight by three meters, I’d say? Hard to tell. I don’t see any kind of feed mechanism though.”
“Hmmm.”

“Want to clear this with Capcon before proceeding?” Gene asked, suddenly being far more alert than at any time in the past seven hours. Hopefully this is nothing.

“Salvage two-five, Capcon. Scans of the object are clear. Go ahead with orbit stabilization.”
The professional voice interrupting the shuttle crew was a reminder that, cleanup operation or no, the people coordinating things still had their eyes and ears on the situation.

“Acknowledged, Capcon.” Gene replied, slightly startled by the sudden reappearance of their mission control center. “Miguel, send me the arm.”
The long, sturdy robotic arm mounted in the cargo bay began its slow upward motion towards Gene and the wreck.

“Taking control.” he said once the shuttle – and the arm – had approached close enough. His helmet confirmed the handover by displaying a small camera feed from the arm in the lower left part of his visor. He gently tried opening and closing his hand. The grabbing claw at the tip of the arm immediately responded by mimicking this motion.

Gene slowly moved the arm left and right, watching as the arm followed his every motion. Together with the arm-mounted camera he could simply grab anything as if he was reaching for it with his own hand.

Ten seconds later the objects’ rotation brought Genes’ target into view: a large, sturdy plate, bent out of shape by giant forces, now forming a perfect grabbing point to stop the rotation.

“Miguel, roll three point five left.” Gene ordered, now once more calm and collected. The pilot simply did as asked. Perfect. he thought. The ledge slowly closed in on the robotic arm. Gene pulled back his own arm slowly as to slow the impact a bit. The robotic arm followed suit. Seconds later it made contact with the object, and Gene closed his fist to clamp down on the object.

“Clampdown.” he announced. He briefly held his breath, waiting whether the clamp would hold or if they had to try again. A small jolt went through the arm, and consequently through the shuttle as the inertia of the vastly more massive piece of debris pulled the human craft with its rotation.

“Looks good, Gene.” Miguel said after a few seconds. “Stopping rotation.”
It didn’t take long to notice the rotation slowing down. Gene observed the clamp – it seemed to be under quite a bit of strain, but holding up well. He breathed a sigh of relief. Now accelerating it to a safe orbit would be a simple formality.

“Salvage two-five, emergency abort! Dump and burn.” Capcons’ voice suddenly sounded from his helmet speakers again.
What?

Miguel certainly didn’t waste time questioning orders and unclamped the debris, pulling in the arm at an incredible pace. Genes’ training kicked in and activated the retract function of the tether, pulling him closer to the cargo bay. The shuttle boosted away from the wreckage in a straight line, leaving it behind. Gene could only see a brief flash and some additional debris floating into his field of view.

“What the fuck.”

“Lion Lead, Six, Seven, we have new bogies. Five, make that seven, blackrocks, engage and destroy.”

“Seven blackrocks. I see them. Longbow, Amazon.”

“Miguel?!”
“Can’t talk. Drones. Escaping.”

It took a few seconds for Gene to process what was happening. Apparently they had stirred up some dormant Kessari combat drones, which now automatically lashed out at anything they didn’t have stored as ‘friendly’. This thought was confirmed when a green flash violently dissipated in the shield field surrounding the shuttle.

At least Miguel had the presence of mind to bring those to full strength.

“Checkers, Hailstorm. Turn to Avatar. We’re coming. Twenty secs.” Gene was gripped by dread. It was one thing to fly a fighter and engage Kessari drones when one had weapons to shoot back with, it was wholly another flying a comparatively clunky shuttle – let alone being strapped to the back of it without the ability to do anything.

“Hailstorm, can’t get a missile lock. Shuttles’ too close.”
“Damn. The old-fashioned way, then.”

Miguel started some evasive action, but the shuttle was far less nimble than any fighter, or the Kessari drones which didn’t have to bother with the well-being of squishy occupants. Occasionally green pulses flashed past the shuttle, sometimes coming close enough to bleed some energy into the shield.
Under different circumstances he would’ve considered the light show pretty, but unfortunately the circumstances weren’t.

“Longbow, break left… now.” Hailstorms voice sounded over the comm. Gene still couldn’t see anything happening from his vantage point of the open bay doors. Another roll by Miguel brought a small battle scene into view.

Two drones repeatedly fired upon a fighter bearing down on them, weaving in and out of the oncoming fire and taking potshots at the incoming drones. As quickly as they approached each other, as quickly they had passed. The human fighter rushed past the shuttle in less than ten meters distance, giving Gene a prime view of the squadron logo painted onto its wing – the blue lion with its fiery mane.

“Two behind me.”
“Got one.” Amazon coldly announced a second later. A shape rushed across Genes’ field of vision before exploding into a spectacular fireball a bit further along the path.

“And the other one. Scratch three.”
“You’re on a roll, Amazon.” Miguel finally decided to speak again.

Suddenly Gene noticed one of the drones coming in from above.
“Miguel, boost! Incoming!”

Too little, too late. The drone opened fire and hit the shuttle. The first two pulses were absorbed by the shield, but the third punched through and hit the hull somewhere, jerking the craft into a brief roll. He saw some glowing debris falling away from the general area of the left wing. Hopefully not too bad.

“Lost port ensquare.”
So much for that. That’s going to limit the choices of which directions to take.

“Down to one.” Hailstorm announced. “It’s going for the shuttle!”
Gene closed the eyes. He hadn’t imagined going out this way. Not by stirring dormant drones.

“Bloody hell, Longbow, where are you?”

“On it.”

Gene opened his eyes again. Green and amber pulses flashed fast the shuttle from ‘below’.
Suddenly the pulses ceased and something violently hit the bottom side of the shuttle, with a stream of debris rushing past on both sides.

“That was cutting it close, Longbow.”

“The little bugger was twitchy. Couldn’t risk hitting poor Checkers.”

“Hey, I’m here, too, you know!” Gene yelled. Longbow laughed.

“Complaining about a front row seat, are we Archer?”

“As long as I’m taken on a ride, yes.” he grumbled.

“Capcon, Hailstorm. Screens are clear. Seven blackrocks out, and one slightly banged up shuttle.”

“Acknowledged, Lion Lead. Bring everyone home.”

©2016, Mathias Rehnman