Torn from On High


Copyright © 2014, S F Chapman. All Rights Reserved.


1. Dreg's Scamp


“There it friggin' is!” Nate Briggs scowled.


Far below him was the derelict hulk that he'd been sent out to recover.


Clad in an ancient and ill-fitting spacesuit, he dangled precariously upside down at around a hundred and twenty kilometers above the northwestern Pacific in the open cockpit of the beat-up little salvage runabout that long ago had been scornfully dubbed Dreg's Scamp.


At the ragged and turbulent boundary between the thin outer atmosphere of the Earth and space, buffeted relentlessly by ionized oxygen atoms, the house-sized object glowed with a faint pinkish hue.


At least a dozen times a day for many years, Captain Takahashi had dispatched Nate from the mother ship, now thirty kilometers higher up in a much safer orbit, to wrangle and retrieve marginally valuable space debris before it plunged into the thicker atmosphere below and burned up.


The Captain had made millions over the years in the risky business of space junk recovery; Nate, of course, had made nothing. Serfs were rarely paid.


“Come on, Nate! I don't friggin' have all day,” the Captain harangued him over the radio. “Pick up the pace. Time is money!”


“Yes sir, I'm working on it,” Nate meekly replied.


This particular bit of scrap metal, which Nate guessed was probably a three hundred year-old rocket booster from the late 21st century, was going to be an especially difficult snatch. “I won't be able to use the dragline, I don't see anything that the hook could snag.”


“Use the bridle, you moron!”


Nate winced; the bridle was a huge, cup-shaped steel net that could be tugged behind the little salvage craft by long cables. It worked quite well when recovering large, well-behaved objects in much higher orbits, but at the fringe of the atmosphere the giant net might catch the thermosphere and act like a braking parachute. He and the rickety runabout would be pulled inexorably downward to a fiery demise.


“Alright;” Nate sighed, “I'm deploying the bridle.”


He pulled himself out of the tight cockpit, stood cautiously on the open deck of the runabout and cast off the heavy net. The bridle wafted and fluttered slightly as it unfurled. With his safety cable firmly clamped to the railing, Nate straightened up to watch the progress of the drifting net.


“What the hell?” At the far edge of his peripheral vision, a curious pulsing purple glow caught his attention.


Nate cringed in agony.


Several vertebrate in his neck briefly sizzled and sputtered under the narrow intense beam of high-energy neutrons before they shattered and severed his spinal cord.


He was paralyzed!


The spacesuit air leak alarm squealed and the self-sealing membrane slowly contracted.


Nate cursed to himself.


He’d been saved from a quick and merciful death by the automatic safety system only to undoubtedly suffer a much more gruesome fate.


He could barely breathe and certainly couldn't speak.


“NATE! Get it friggin' together and haul that crap back up here!” The Captain was obviously unaware of his predicament.


The falling bridle caught the edge of the booster and the cables drew taut. The added drag and mass of the net jerked the rocket and the trailing runabout downward. Nate was flung limply from the little vessel. Still tethered to the Scamp by the safety line, he bobbed face down like a buoy in rough seas.


Below him, the jumble of ensnared debris was rapidly falling out of orbit.


He watched impassively for several minutes as he was dragged steadily towards the cloud-dappled ocean below.


Nate lost consciousness just as the outer layer of the spacesuit burned away in the angry and abrasive atmosphere.


Two minutes later, he was dead.




Copyright © 2014, S F Chapman. All Rights Reserved.


Torn From On High is now available worldwide in paperback and as a Kindle eBook.