Search and Rescue
By Bruce Davis
The call came in about an hour into the midwatch. We hadn't had much action that tour -- just one or two missions, and those were walkovers. We were getting kind of stir-crazy by then, two months into what looked to be a very long six. So when the scramble came through from the Eastern Australian tracking station, we were pretty eager for any kind of action.
The Aussies were just relaying, you understand. They'd picked up a Mayday broadcasting on the Nav Beacon sideband. ESRB matched a commercial salvage outfit operating out of L-4, sweeping stable orbits for metals and salvageable components. There's not much money in that these days, but back then, ten or twelve years ago, you could still make enough to justify some low-budget salvage tugs and a few two-man sweeps. Anyway, the Aussies contacted the parent company and they allowed as how, Yes, one of their sweeper craft was a bit overdue and, No, they hadn't had any contact with it for several hours. Well, No, they had no backup plans in case one of their operators got himself in a pickle (this was a really low-budget operation), but surely if they were in trouble they'd have radioed the salvage tug. At that point the Aussies did the right thing and called us.
Back then we operated out of a series of orbital substations, small eight-man affairs, no spin, no booze, no women; six months on, six off. We had two grapple ships and one emergency reentry van per substation. Crews rotated between stations, mix and match, with each tour commanded by a different OIC (Officer In Charge), usually a Senior Chief, but once in a while we drew a nugget Ensign on his way up or down. Search and Rescue Command was a great way for a rising young star to launch his career. On the other hand it was also a great way to screw up and disappear into a ground station, never to space again except as a passenger.
We had a pretty good crew that tour. I had just made Chief and it was my first tour in a grapple ship command seat. My second was a sharp second class named Jensen who had just finished SAR school but had over eight years total space time in frigates and ASW patrol. We had drawn a Nugget as OIC but even he was OK. More on the ball than the average academy wonderboy and a Masters rating in small craft besides -- definitely on the way up.
Jensen and I were Alert 5 when the scramble came in from the Aussies. We suited up in the ready room while Nugget coordinated tracking and ESRB relay through SAR Command at L-4. They were having a hard time getting a fix on the emergency beacon, so we even had time for a halfway complete preflight before launch. Finally Nugget got a reasonable orbital profile on the sweeper as well as a status update from the Aussies, who had managed to raise the sweep operator before he passed out of range. Nugget downloaded the orbital data into our nav computer and we strapped in. The orbital profile was good; the status update was not. No longer a simple Mayday (I've got a problem I can't handle, please help) but a Code Red (life or death, panic button, Get Me Outta Here).
We punched out within five minutes of the scramble -- everything cool and nominal, orbital profile in the hopper and rescue gear locked on. We felt good. Hell, we WERE good.
Even in a Code Red, we couldn't cheat orbital physics. A hard lesson, that. SAR training emphasizes rapid response, think fast and make good decisions on the spot. Waiting around for the scramble or sitting in your fancy SAR suit waiting for the grapple to match orbits with your target took a special kind of patience.
As I said, the orbital profile was a good one. The computer took us through a series of low-G burns designed to match orbits with the sweep and catch them in minimum time with maximum fuel economy. The autopilot light blinked twice, signaling the end of ACM activity for a while and we settled down for a stern chase. Our ETI (estimated time to intercept) was 90 minutes, not bad in this business. Jensen pulled out his chess board and parked it between the seats, switching it on. I'm not much of a chess player but Jensen was a real fanatic. I had to have a lot of augment help from the board's memory to give him any kind of match, but what the hell, it passed the time.
We played for about an hour before the autopilot chimed, signaling the start of some course-correction burns to fine-tune our approach. Jensen froze the game and whistled up SAR Command for a tracking update. Neither SARC nor the Aussies had been able to raise the sweep operator since the initial Code Red. SARC thought that maybe his transmitter had gone down or he'd lost power. His Emergency Ships Recognition Beacon was still squawking, but those self-contained units are practically indestructible. ESRB track put us about 1,500 klicks out and closing fast. The grapple gyrated through a series of rapid burns and the autopilot blinked again.
I took over manual control and Jensen switched on the ESRB homer and the search radar. According to the homer, we were within 20 klicks. Jensen tried whistling them up on the radio, repeating his hail on all commercial freaks, but got no response. I pitched the nose around until the search radar got a solid lock and the computer plotted an intercept course. All I had to do was follow the plot on the heads-up display and keep my eyes peeled so we didn't head-on into our target. Jensen spotted them first and pointed, not saying anything. I looked where he was pointing and wished I had stayed in the rack that morning.
The sweep was in a rotational spin -- not so bad. Tethered to it by ten meters of grapple cable and spinning around it was a black cylinder almost as large as the sweep. The two targets were pinwheeling at about one revolution every four seconds -- bad. Bound to the cylinder by a tangle of umbilical tether was a figure in an old-style milspec hardsuit -- very, very bad.
The sweep had found an old spysat, nuclear-powered and high on mass. Spysats were a good find for a two-man sweeper. Most still had salvageable plutonium in their cores, and some of the optics were valuable, plus the shielding around the minireactor made them high on the mass-to-volume scale, and in free fall any mass is salvage. Only problem was, big sats like this could mass almost as much as a two-man sweep. Most of the sweeps carried portable reaction bottles they could stick to large salvage with endobond to augment the sweep's thrusters.
As near as we could figure, Frick and Frack here had grappled the sat and were trying to bond the reaction bottles to its hull. Frick went out onto the sat while Frack was programming the remote fire controls. Either one of the bottles was defective (not a bad bet here) or the computer burped and fired one prematurely sending the sweeper into a spin and throwing the spysat to the end of the grapple cable. Frick must have been taken by surprise or he would have stayed with the sweep.
Jensen tried the commercial freaks on the radio again but only got an earful of static. We were only about 100 meters away by now and could see some movement by Frack in the cockpit. Frick was limp as a rag. Jensen had an inspiration and closed his helmet, keying his suit radio and running through the short-range suit freaks. On the third try he got them. Frack wasn't much help. No, he didn't know what had gone wrong, but he knew he was in deep kim-chee. The sweep's onboard computer was fried, no plot, no burn control for the engine or thrusters, and no reboot disk. (LOW-budget was the word for this outfit). They had outgassed most of their air when they went EVA, expecting to boost quickly up to the salvage tug. They were on suit reserves only. Now we understood the Code Red; given the time to track them and spiral down to them, they must have been sucking dust from the bottom of their tanks by the time Jensen hailed them. Frack was down to less than 50psi! Frick out on the sat was probably lower since he'd been working harder in that hardsuit.
Usual SOP for a spin rescue was to match spin with the target, grapple and use thrusters and engine controls to stop the spin. Any tethered or rotating salvage was simply cut loose. Angular momentum would carry it clear. Frick presented us with a dilemma. Hard to cut a man loose on a tangential vector to deep space.
We decided to try to crank the spysat in with a traction winch and compensate for the increasing rate of spin with the gyros and thrusters -- shortening the lever arm would speed up the sweeps rotation, but we figured we could handle it.
Jensen worried about Frack's air supply, so he broke a couple of oxygen packs out of the supply locker. Frick would have to do the best he could until we could reel him in. Cardinal rule in SAR: Never put yourself or your crew at undue risk. Riding that spaghetti cable out to the spysat was definitely undue risk.
We outgassed the cabin and Jensen popped his hatch. He crawled across the magnetic couplers to the sweep, pausing just long enough to drop an oxygen pack with Frack in the cockpit before heading outboard toward the cable. He hooked the traction winch to the cable and started it up. So far, so good. Which means disaster is just around the corner.
The winch started smoothly, then began to shimmy as the worn cable bound up in the housing. Jensen reached out to stop the winch and unfoul the cable, but he was too late. The frayed cable parted with a twanging vibration I felt clear through the magnetic couplers. That's when Jensen stepped up and made himself a hero and almost made himself dead.
Even before the cable parted, Jensen had been moving forward. The end of the cable snapped out of the winch housing and followed the spysat out on the tangent. Jensen kept moving, firing his suit's reaction jets and reaching for the end of the cable. He knew he had no chance of catching the spysat. Its angular momentum was too high. But he might just catch the cable and hang on. He boosted forward and caught the bitter end just as it left the winch housing, then he was jerked away like a rag doll.
The sweep bucked as the sat broke loose and began to pitch wildly. By the time I got it stabilized and stopped the spin, Jensen and the spysat were out of sight. I punched up his suit freak and could hear heavy breathing, so I knew he was still alive. Just as I got the spin stopped, Jensen's EPIRB lit up on the squawker and the computer was ticking out the intercept course. One orbit and a couple of 0.5-G burns - say about three hours. An SAR suit has air and supplies for two days, so Jensen was in no immediate trouble. I hoped Frick would fare half as well. Jensen still had the second oxygen pack, and one of the adapters in his leg pouch should fit the old military hardsuit if he could reach Frick.
I had buttoned Frack down in the cockpit and we started our first burn when Jensen called. He had managed to climb the cable hand-over-hand and was linked to Frick on the spysat. Frick was in bad shape. His suit heater had failed and his core temp was down to 34 degrees C, respiration 10, pulse 30. He'd been sucking dry tanks for about five minutes and the cold probably protected his brain and kept him from being a Brussels sprout. Jensen was blowing hot, superoxygenated air into his suit but couldn't do much more until we could wrestle him into the grapple ship and out of the hardsuit.
By the time I caught them three and a half hours later, Frick was awake but out of his head. Hypoxia makes the brain swell like a toad and his wasn't working too well. Jensen was cool like it was just another day in the box for him. I knew better the second he cracked his suit seals. He'd broken a cardinal SAR rule and probably deserved a captain's mast if not a court martial. I put him in for a medal instead. I know, I know, he acted like a cowboy, a real bonehead move. But it scared the shit out of him, literally. And anyone who can look that cool after more than three hours in a sealed suit with that smell deserves a medal.
Story copyright © 1998 Bruce C. Davis <email@example.com>
Illustrations copyright © 1998 Duncan Long <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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