The Collector

Copyright © 2017
by Nathan M. Hurst

The evening chill was cool against his face as he looked out across the Himalayas, puffs of breath condensed forming a stream of white ethereal dancers which took flight and dissolved above his head. He watched as they twisted and turned in the thermals of his own body heat, playing for a moment he created a chuffing sound reminiscent of early steam trains. It made him smile. For a moment he was a kid again.

He had been standing on the balcony for the last half hour, contemplating the mission ahead, but mainly trying to calm himself before launch. The balcony was really nothing more than a fifteen by ten foot concrete platform cut into the rock face of the mountain supporting a guard rail to stop the more adventurous from getting too close to the edge and taking a fall. Above him was millions of tons of rock and ice, and within that was the latest launch facility which had now been his home for the last few months.

The half full mug of hot chocolate was long cold. He tipped the remains over the balcony and turned back towards the door, solid metal and secured with a large mechanical dead bold. Considering the high tech contained within the mountain complex, it made him wonder why a simple door wasn't better secured. He closed the door behind him with a clang of metal and headed back to the ready room. It was time to change.

Descending in the utility elevator down to the main concourse, he took a quick walk to the main lift lobby and called another elevator, this one would take him to the pre-flight level and the ready room deep inside the mountain.

“Jack. You ready?” It was Rob Beckett the flight commander. Rob had made for the same elevator, clearly on his way to the mission control centre which was a couple of levels above his destination. The lift arrived and they stepped inside. Each selecting their floor the doors closed and they felt the instant but slight negative g motion as they descended through the levels.

“Looking forward to it,” he replied with a broad smile. “I'll be ready in 30.” That got him a chuck on the shoulder.

“Excellent. I'll be on the comm.”

Having spent a couple of minutes small talking his way down to the mission control level, he spent the last few floors in silence. His thoughts running round and round pre-flight procedures, launch procedures, flight and navigation routines.

“Level 30,” stated the disembodied voice in the elevator. The doors opened.

Stepping out into the elevator lobby on that level always gave him a jolt of reality. Opposite the elevators was a floor to ceiling window which overlooked the atrium housing the launchpad. Called the 'launchpad' it was nothing more than a loading breach to a super-sized rail gun, but the structure took his breath away every time. It was a superb example of the very best engineering and design humanity could achieve, the pinnacle of their endeavour. And there in a cradle to the side of the mechanism was his ride, the Selenium Industries XRS-2, named Sabre, but more flippantly as the SOB, words cropped from the mission controller's recorded logs at the moment of the first drone test launch. The performance of the machine was in those trials had been expected, however, it was one thing to understand the theory, seeing the physical reality was something quite different.

He stood there for a long moment, taking in the scene. There were engineers and ground crew hard at work and scuttling around like ants in yellow clean suits. The whole atrium was a clean zone and sterile, as dust and bug free as could possibly be maintained, any contamination to the launch mechanism of the Sabre could cause issues in the electronics or control switching of the complex system. As the pilot, he was well aware of the many points of failure, the cascade of events which he had been drilled in, over and over. Each issue with its counter measure, its correctional procedure. Although, being honest he was very much of the opinion that if anything went wrong, even slightly, at the tolerances, forces and speeds which he would be operating, any small failure would escalate to be a catastrophic failure within a fraction of a second. All the training and drills in the world wouldn't prevent the inevitable.

For this mission, he was certainly the monkey in the cage. Along for the ride, up and down. On site to monitor systems and read outputs. The rest was all down to the machine. IANN was the Integrated Autopilot Neural Net, basically the ship AI. IANN had full control of systems, avionics, navigation and engine management, but he did have a big red button. Literally. Next to his left hand and the throttle control. An override in case of emergency, although as he had already considered, if an override was needed, it was likely to be far too late anyway. Boom.

Breaking his trance on the scene below he took the left tunnel and continued to the ready room.

Changing was an ordeal, a fussing team of engineers and technicians, all highly professional and thorough. Eric Simmons was the lead tech and always made sure he felt at ease.

“Just another day at the office, dude.” Dude? Who said that any more?

“Yeah,” he replied as someone started to fit his suit collar, a rigid section jutting out in front of his chin which would fix the upper helmet and contain the breather and comms among other tech. “How's the kid?”

“Just started college, she's all grown up and left home.”

“MIT?”

“Gonna be a tech, like her dad. So proud,” he said with grin.

Stepping out onto the launchpad he took a short buggy ride across to the ship. It was a two man craft if required, but for this flight he was on his own. As on your own as you could be with the hundreds of support staff and an AI in the next seat, but if you set that aside, he was on his own.

The ship’s airframe was a flat design reminding him of an old gladius with wings. A Roman sword, sharp and thrusting ready to lance its way into the upper atmosphere and out into low orbit. The canopy was up exposing the cockpit and AI housing, lights danced and flickered as the techs made her ready to fly. The canopy itself was solid hull, there was no need for observation glass as the skin was embedded with photoreceptive cells to give 360 degree vision from within his helmet display, his suit fully integrated with the ship. He could see the world outside and all the stars above as clearly as if the ship was invisible, the feeling it gave him was immense, like a god floating among creation.

Skipping off the buggy he took the steps up to the cockpit and slid into the seat letting the ground crew do their final checks and strap him in. Next the helmet was lowered and fixed with a slight twist, locking the bayonet fitting in place and activating the electronics. The ship around him became instantly transparent, graphics, icons and numbers momentarily flying around his vision until settled and meaningful. There was a tap on his helmet by a tech which resonated around his head for a second. Good to go. He gave a thumbs up. The canopy began to close and seal him inside. The boarding steps were withdrawn.

“Morning, Captain Gibson,” said a calm voice, young and androgynous.

“Hello IANN,” he replied. “Time to get this show on the road.”

“What show would that be, sir?”

“It's a figure of speech, IANN. It means, let's get started.”

“Yes, sir. Canopy locked and sealed, gangway disengaged and clear, cradle ready to deploy to launch position on your mark.”

“Okay, slide us into position.”

The ship started to moved sideways across the launchpad, the mouth-like opening of the launch tunnel a black maw before him.

“Navigation, control surfaces, power and thruster management online and green,” continued IANN.

“Disengage the umbilical,” he ordered.

“Umbilical disengaged.”

“Close the breach.”

The cradle lowered and the breach closed pushing them forward into the darkness of the launch tube. A sound like air escaping under pressure sounded and a sudden solid thud vibrated through the fuselage, sealing them in.

“Elan Control, this is Sabre requesting launch clearance.”

The recognisable voice of Beckett drawled easily in his ears, “Launch parameters are all green. Clearance granted. Have a good flight captain. Flight, proceed with the launch.”

Another voice cut in, this one more anonymous, female. The duty flight control officer. “Sabre, this is Flight. Launch in 5,” he relaxed into the seat making sure his back was straight, arms rested by his side and away from the controls, head up and eyes focused dead ahead.

“4,” he scanned his helmet display, all systems were behaving, there were no anomalous readings, nothing to abort the countdown.

“3,” the floodlights in the tunnel ahead went out and tracking guide lights appeared like stars dotting off into the distance, the stars converged to a central point where he and the ship would be propelled.

“2,” he let go of his breath, exhaling into the respirator, like a sniper before the shot.

“Rail engaged. Power to optimum output and holding. 1.”

There was no zero, just intense physical force. The guide lights formed a vertical cross of solid white light as he accelerated through the launch tube. Four g, like a kick to his back, but increasing moment by moment, five g, six g, crushing his ribs and compressing the remaining air from him. He sucked in short gulps of air to keep some oxygen in his system, to fight back the fading of his vision. He felt a sudden pinch in his upper arm, an adrenaline cocktail was administered by IANN as the AI monitored his bio-signs and kept him operational. His vision returned to clarity, seven g, eight g, nine g.

The world went from black to blue in an instant, he didn't even see the transition coming. The sky around him was clear, not a cloud, it was like looking through crystal. Below him the mountain range was already just an undulating white snow field, too far below to identify the violence of shear features and stabbing geography. Steering his eyes upwards towards his destination he could see the darkness encroaching.

“All systems looking good,” said the female voice interrupting his external observations for a moment and setting his eyes to the altimeter and airspeed. In the few moments since leaving the launch tube the Sabre had gained almost flight level 120, the acceleration had started to reduce, he was now back down to a mere six g. He was now at almost straight and level flight, but at that altitude the darkness of space above was tangible.

“Preparing skip engines,” he commanded.

“Engines set,” IANN responded in a functional tone.

“Skip engines, go.” His command was enacted by IANN immediately and the g's began to climb again for the final push out of the atmosphere into low orbit. His helmet display had taken him a while to get used to, the 360 degree visibility it gave him within his own field of view was almost overwhelming at times, but right now it gave him a perfect view of the plasma trail forcing him the last miles into orbit. The plume a bright white light tinged at the edge as it decayed by a purple blue.

Vibration began to cease as the ship overcame the dragging, grasping claws of the atmosphere. Gravity too began to ebb, the engines cut out. A slight high pitched whistle replaced the thunder and roar of the air and engines as his ears adjusted to the sudden and complete silence. Crossing the transition point released him from the pull of gravity and his senses began to swim, his stomach lurching as his insides adjusted to the release. It took him a few seconds, his cognitive brain overriding his sensory impulses, his senses not knowing which way was up. Up no longer existed.

The ship fluttered for a moment. An unexpected vibration running the length of the craft.

“What was that?” he asked IANN.

“Unknown external disturbance. Scanning.”

From his position he began to do the same, a visual inspection of the Sabre's exterior. He found nothing. Whatever had hit them was either too small or had not caused sufficient damage to be observable.

“Identified. Hull puncture,” a square red icon outlined a section of the ship aft of the cockpit, port side. As he watched a tiny stream of gas began to escape, making the observation easier but suddenly more worrying. “Life support, oxygen tank four breached and venting. Isolating.”

He pressed the comm, “Elan control this is Sabre. We have a hull and life support breach to oxygen tank four. Attempting to isolate. Over.”

“Sabre, this is Elan. Copy that. Hull and life support breach. Are other systems affected? We are getting no reading. Over.”

“Negative Elan. All other systems are green. Over.”

There was a long pause. The brains on the ground were working it through. The voice of Beckett cut in, “Sabre, this is Elan Actual. Recommend you continue to mission schedule. Damage is minor. Ship is well within operational parameters. Over.”

If you say so, he thought, watching the last of the air escape tank 4, the trail of gas now leaving simply a small hole which he couldn't see. The red icon the only visible identifier to the problem. “Roger that, Elan. Continuing with mission schedule. Coming up on first target in 3 minutes. Out.”

He switched over to the targeting computer and the preloaded targets appeared in his view, this time triangular green icons, each tracked with a numerical identifier and underneath the distance, point to point.

“IANN, ready the first missile.”

A whir of servos sounded though the fuselage and a clunk locked the weapon array in place as it moved from its internal housing to sit externally.

“Missile array deployed,” stated IANN.

Watching the numbers counting down he double checked the missile guidance and tracking, all good. A single tone alert sounded, target was locked.

“Tango one. Fox one,” he said to no one in particular. Monitoring and logging would have his actions recorded for later scrutiny. A solid punching sound indicated the release of the missile, moment later a white light sparkled its way towards the first satellite.

Iris C223 was an old communications satellite launched by a private enterprise late in the twenty-first century. It had worked its life through and more, but it had been unlucky enough to be clipped by a small meteorite some years before which had knocked it out of its useful orbit and disabled its control receiver. Instant space junk. The missile now speeding it's way towards it would bind with it and punch it into a trajectory to end it's days. A curving track for the sun.

“Elan this is Sabre. Tango one tagged and ready for disposal. Over.”

“Sabre, Elan. Roger. Binding confirmed. We'll take if from here. Out.”

Talon 2 was more tricky. A new satellite struck by orbital debris, but at such a angle that the force of impact had set it tumbling. Thrusters had fired to correct the situation, but that had only compounded the problem and accelerated the spin as one of the thrusters misfired. The result was a body in orbit which was slowly ripping itself apart, shedding parts and components risking damage to other nearby satellites as it did so. Being a smaller satellite, the decision had been made to knock it into a descending orbit. It would simply burn up on re-entry.

The lock tone sounded, the missile released. Tracking it visually for a moment he then switched to the telemetry data. Being a fast rotating body, his normal grappling missile would likely bounce off before any binding was made. The missile divided connected by a cable, effectively a fast moving bolas. Moments later the target was intercepted, the rotating satellite caught the wire and wound in the missile heads. As designed, the heads then bound securely to the target. A green icon flashed in his helmet display.

“Elan, Sabre,” the mission was progressing nicely, chat getting more relaxed. “Tango two, tagged. Over.”

“Roger. Confirmed.”

“Moving to Tango three.”

“Copy that, Sabre. Out.”

The final target was a relic. A cold war piece, upgraded a couple of times over the years, a new comms panel here, an new solar panel there. Fundamentally, it was as nuclear launch platform, everyone knew it, everyone stayed quiet. No need alarm the populous. But retiring a satellite of that size was fraught with danger, the last thing you wanted was a runaway nuclear detonation starting the cascade effect everyone was working to avoid. The last missile he had prepped was a soft touch. The SLow Approach Binder or SLAB as it was referred to, sat in the tube. He was about to give the launch command.

“Captain Gibson, I am detecting an anomaly,” interrupted IANN.

“What kind of anomaly?”

“I'm detecting life signs.”

The shock was evident in his voice. “That's impossible,” he replied, almost dismissively. “Run the check again.”

A couple of seconds past, but the answer was clearly the same. He ran over the results of the scan himself, there was definitely bio-matter on board the satellite, but further detail was unavailable, the scan unable to obtain any real definition.

Again he switched the comm, “Elan, this is Sabre. Over.”

“Sabre, this is Elan. Go ahead. Over.”

“Elan, we have an anomaly reported in the final target. Break. Tango three is reporting signs of life. Over.”

There was a long pause. The target was now visible as a large star on his horizon, getting bigger by the moment. The opportunity to launch the SLAB was gone. He thought he'd prompt Elan’s response with an idea of his own.

“Elan, this is Sabre. SLAB window has closed. Going to make a manual approach and investigate. Over.”

That got their attention. Becket was straight on the comm.

“Negative, Sabre. Resume course and begin re-entry.”

“Elan, Sabre. They may need our assistance. I'm not getting any comms or chatter. We should investigate. Over.”

“Sabre, we're not seeing an active distress beacon.”

“Elan, Sabre. We need to investigate. If they are in trouble now, we won't be back this way for several weeks. It's now or never, and never may be too late if they do need help.”

He'd caught them. Beckett couldn't back out of that. His own curiosity had won out.

“Sabre, this is Elan. Okay. Approach with caution. The first sign of trouble I want you out of there. Over.”

“Roger that. Sabre, out.”

“Okay, IANN. Let's see what this is all about.”

He fired the retro thrusters and began slowing the Sabre and manoeuvring towards the satellite. The large star became a large bright white ball with wings. Finally, definition and scale started to give him more information. The satellite was a huge cylinder with vast solar sails and what looked like golf balls stuck in ordered rows around the end furthest from the planet. Long lance like probes jabbed like accusing fingers at the world below. Mid way along the body it bulged, a section broad enough to contain a docking station and possibly command and control habitat. Lettering was stencilled to the side, Damocles.

“IANN, connect with the docking computer and orient the ship for approach.”

“Connection refused,” said IANN.

“I guess that was expected.”

He took manual control. Gentle thruster firing brought the Sabre neatly alongside. A huge circular icon appeared above his head indicating the location of the docking seal which would allow him to safely open the canopy and climb into the satellite interior. The Sabre nudged ever closer, the docking lugs located and locked, the air seal was made secure. With a ping the red seal indicator circling him in his display turned green.

Flicking a switch the canopy cracked and vented a short hiss of atmosphere. Holding for a moment his shielding from the vacuum of space slid across him and to his rear revealing the grey metallic external door of the satellite airlock. Red lettering stamped across it highlighting the danger before him, a skull and crossbones in a red triangle beneath it.

“Nice,” he said to himself. “IANN, be primed to leave in a hurry.”

“Yes, sir.” He didn’t hear the answer, his concentration momentarily elsewhere. He was already detaching the helmet from its umbilical connection to the ship.

Releasing his harness, he floated free of his position and aligning himself, pushed gently to the satellite airlock. There was no lock to the outer door, simply a lever which slid easily to unlock the outer hatch. It surprised him how easily it worked after what must have been a lifetime in orbit. The door swung inward, he slipped inside and closed the door behind him then locked it again.

As he entered the airlock lights flickered on around him. One panel failed and remained dark. Air started to cycle into the space. Looking to the internal airlock he found a keypad.

“IANN, do we have a key code for this door?”

“Checking,” came the reply. Didn’t sound promising. Usually, IANN had an instant reply. If he had to go searching, the answer was likely to be no.

A six digit number flashed up into this his helmet display. Today looked to be a lucky day.

“Thanks.”

He punched the number in and the inner airlock door clicked open. He pushed it the rest of the way to reveal a dark habitat interior, a few red, yellow and white lights punctuated the black and fluctuated in sequence. Stepping through the doorway the light behind him cast shadows around the interior. He located a command console and worked the screen with his gloved fist to remove the layer of condensed ice crystals across its surface. Scrolling his way through lists he finally found the lighting control. Lights began to flick on around him, making him blink as his eyes adjusted.

Checking his suits environmental controls and external readings he determined the atmosphere safe to breath. He released the visor to his helmet and tentatively lifted it to take his first breath aboard the vessel. It smelt stale and a little metallic, but it was breathable.

The search shouldn’t take long. The habitat space was only a matter of thirty or so cubic meters. The room he was in was sparse, and from his orientation there was a hatch leading up through the cylinder of the satellite body and another heading down, Earthwards. A random decision took him down. He pushed across the space between the terminal and the door to the lower section of the satellite, there was no security to the bulkhead door, with a pull of the door lever the door released easily and he headed through.

The sight which confronted him as he floated through the bulkhead door took a moment to register, but once it had his body recoiled in terror. With nothing to grab or cling onto he could only brace himself and collide with the horror before him. Wires and tubes of fluid suspended a human head and torso in the centre of the room. Arms and legs were missing but cabling attached itself and wound a course to panels in the floor and ceiling. The head hung, a visor across its features with more cabling extrapolated from the rear cortex to an archaic control panel in the far wall, the skin was grey and glistened, a frosted surface.

He pushed back from the hideous sight and found himself spinning and crashing into a wall. He put out an arm and grasped anything to secure himself. An internal pipe conduit became his anchor point. Turning back slowly, building the courage to look upon the sight again, he opened his eyes and viewed the scene at a glance, as if to look at it indirectly would shield him from the true reality of what he was witness to. Could his own people really do this? Nothing about this was humane or legal. How had this happened? Questions began to flood his mind.

Was it alive? The Sabre had picked up life signs, but this guy, naked and grey as ash, seemed far from anything resembling living.

As the thought crossed his mind the control panel on the far wall behind the figure started to chatter, noise like modulating static filled the room then suddenly stopped. His breathing stopped with it. He had a sense of impending dread about the next few moments. He checked the door. It was open and about four metres away. He felt his heart racing in his chest. About to make a move for the door he realised it was closing. In his head he reached for the door to jam it, but he was too far away, his body knew it and he stayed frozen to the spot. The room plunged into red light and a distant alarm could be heard from the next room.

Trapped, his mind raced wildly. He finally let go of his anchor and leapt for the door, judging it badly and overshooting. In the panic he again threw out an arm and this time caught the door handle at an acute angle, pulling himself in close. Sweat now stinging his eyes he tried to lever the door open. It stuck fast. A noise burst from his throat, the frustration and the realisation he wasn’t going anywhere causing him to cry out.

A voice crackled in his ear, it was Becket, demanding, insisting he contact him. “… respond. Sabre, this is Elan. Respond, dammit!”

Something made him freeze. With both hands on the door lever he slowly peered back over his shoulder. Staring back and looking straight at him was the eyeless visor and grim expression of the being wired to the machine.

“Beckett,” he forced himself to speak. There was no response.

The form in the machine opened it mouth as if to speak, nothing came out but a dry, rasping sound, aggressive and animalistic. A single tone sounded through the room and a display started a clock from 100. The numbers descended fast. Violent shockwaves tore through the satellite as its full payload triggered.

Momentarily, a star shone in the sky brighter than the sun.