Best of Texas Book Award: Salvage by Larry Morris
May 3, 2018
A young pilot and the crusty owner of Salvage One find something in orbit they didn’t expect, and it leads them on an adventure to the moon.
Salvage by Larry Morris has received the Best in Texas Book Award for Hard Science Fiction Novel. The award is presented by the Texas Association of Authors.
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Space junk has gotten so bad that there are now private salvage companies that work on a contract basis with the government to collect and dispose of the debris. The companies have special, heavily shielded ships that can withstand impacts from small debris while they capture the larger stuff.
A young pilot and the crusty owner of Salvage One find something in orbit they didn’t expect, and it leads them on an adventure to the moon, then to another star system, and then as Earth’s only hope to stave off an invasion from a marauding race that roams the galaxy looking for planets to plunder.
Earth date Sunday, May 11, 2042, Space Port, Earth
“Sorry, I didn’t realize you were serious,” Atticus said as he climbed into the old pickup.
“I had a salvage run scheduled for this week for some time now, we may as well get you checked out today and get that over with. I assume you’re still in good standing at the spaceport?”
“I was as of last week,” Atticus said and grinned.
“Well, let’s see what you can do, flyboy.”
Cutter knew the back roads well between his house and the spaceport; he had driven them too many times. His old pickup seemed to miss all the potholes on its own, moving gently back and forth on the deserted highway. He hated small talk; he had always thought that it was the domain of idle minds. The trip to the spaceport was quiet except for one exchange.
“Can I ask you a question?” Atticus asked.
“Why is your cat named Buzz?”
Cutter was so shocked by the question, he almost ran off the road. He looked sideways at Atticus.
“You fly spaceships and you really don’t have any idea why I named him Buzz?”
“No, I really don’t.”
“Unbelievable, what are they teaching you kids nowadays? We’ll save that for another time,” Cutter said as he turned into the spaceport property.They pulled up to the security gate and stopped.
“Cutter, what the hell are you doing here today? You’re not scheduled until later this week.”
“I’m checking out a new pilot,” Cutter said as he looked over at Atticus.
“Atticus, is that you?” the gate attendant said, looking into the pickup.
“Yes, sir, it is.”
The attendant just looked at Cutter and waved them on through. They parked in the owners’ lot and took one of the little shuttles toward pad six.Cutter never really paid any attention to the outside of Salvage One when he drove up to it; it was what it was. But today he was a little embarrassed because it actually was an old ship. Everything nowadays flew with ion engines, so there weren’t big openings at the ass-end of the ship, or big fuel tanks. They all looked like a single, large cylinder with robotic arms, grappling hooks and other strange gear all over the outside.A few small windows at the top and maneuvering jets around the outer edge were the only things they all had in common. Salvage One was a little rustier than most; Cutter hadn’t really taken good care of the outside of the ship. Atticus didn’t seem to notice at all. He got out of the little shuttle and stood right in front of Salvage One with his hands on his hips and a big grin on his face.
“Man, would you look at her.”
“I’m afraid she’s not in very good shape on the outside.”
“Oh, no, sir,” Atticus said through his grin. “She’s just fine. I can’t wait to take her up.”
A little confused, Cutter took his elbow and guided him toward the gantry.
“This way, flyboy.”
They took the elevator the 22 stories to the top. At the top, Cutter opened the elevator door expecting to see at least one attendant stationed on the skirt between the gantry and Salvage One, but it was deserted. He guided Atticus into the small airlock and closed the door behind them.Once inside, he turned on the main power and the lights and air came on. It took a few seconds for the rest of the ship to come to life and he opened the inner airlock door. They stepped through into the cockpit and Cutter locked the outer airlock door and turned on the ion engine heaters. It would take a good 15 minutes for the engines to warm up, so he thought he’d use the time to make sure Atticus was in shape to fly.
As soon as they sat at the controls and Atticus had a chance to put his hands on the throttle, the roll, pitch and yaw controls and all the rest, he brightened up noticeably.
“Sir, it don’t matter in the least what she looks like on the outside, this looks like a fine set of controls,” Atticus said still running his hands over the consoles. The main radar and sensor arrays were directly in front of him, with main engine throttle to the left and thruster control to the right. The pilot’s seat, where Atticus was sitting, also had throttle and thruster control on either side for takeoff and landing.
“Is there much play in the controls?” he asked Cutter.
“No, they’re all very stable and respond to the lightest touch.”
“Do you want me to call it in, or will you?” Atticus asked without taking his eyes off the controls.
Cutter picked up one of the headsets and put it on over his ball cap, Atticus put one on his blond head and they both plugged in.
“Space One, come in, Space One. This is Salvage One.”
“Cutter, is that you?”
“Yeah, Billy, it’s me. We’re going up for a quick check flight, is there anyone else up today?”
“No, the entire pattern’s clear, Cutter. I hear you got a new pilot in there. Who is it?”
“Billy, this is Atticus Polk,” Atticus chimed in.
“Atticus? What are you doing in a check flight? Why, boy, you can fly rings around just about every pilot we got here.”
“It’s alright, Billy. I want to do this right, this is my first real pilot job.”
“Billy,” Cutter said. “Can you move the gantry away and release the station clamps?”
“You got it, Cutter.”
It didn’t matter who you were or how good a pilot you were, no one left space port without the approval of the tower. They were the only ones who could release the station clamps and move the gantry. Atticus and Cutter heard the gantry move and felt the clamps release. Just as the last clamp released, the control board went all green, the ion engines had warmed up.
“Gentlemen, it’s all yours,” Billy said from the tower. “Have a good flight.”
“Thank you tower,” Atticus said. “On our way to LEO.”
Before Cutter could tell him that they had a perfectly good autopilot for takeoffs and landings, Atticus was lifting Salvage One off the pad manually for entry into low-Earth orbit. Cutter noticed that while he had been talking to the tower, Atticus had already strapped himself in and tilted the big, cushioned chair to the horizontal position. Cutter quickly moved his seat orientation and strapped himself in. He anxiously watched all the gauges with one eye and Atticus with the other.
Cutter had never seen anything like it in all his flying experience. Atticus had one hand on the main engine throttle at the left of his seat and the other covering the cluster of roll, pitch and yaw controls on his right. By the time they were 50 feet in the air, he had their sensitivity down pat and it was smooth sailing from then on. The ion engines would gradually lift the craft up to low-Earth orbit and the gravity assist dampening field allowed it to happen with minimal G-forces. Their delivery of power was slow and smooth with plenty of thrust to boost the large, heavy craft out of the atmosphere.
“You do know, don’t you, that we have a perfectly good autopilot that we usually use for takeoffs and landings?”
“Yes, I saw it on the other panel,” Atticus pointed to the autopilot. “I just prefer to do it the old-fashioned way. I hope that’s okay with you?”
“I guess I’ll get used to it.”
“LEO attained,” Atticus said into the radio. “Space One, Space One, we are in low-Earth orbit. We’ll let you know when we start our descent.”Atticus turned to Cutter. “What did you want me to do?”
As soon as the main engines cut off, Cutter felt the weightlessness of low-Earth orbit; no matter how many times he did this, he never got used to it. He reoriented his chair upright, but remained strapped in.
“Use the maneuvering thrusters to do one orbit and avoid anything in your path. Just like we would on a salvage run.”
Atticus returned his chair to its upright position and turned on the radar and the sensor array. The main controls, along with radar and sensors, were now directly in front of him. He slid his right hand over to the thruster panel and began the orbit slowly and deliberately.
After the slow ascent, he increased the speed of Salvage One to a little over 17,000 miles an hour, the velocity the earlier explorers had to deal with to even attain low-Earth orbit.
He operated the sensor panel with his left hand, using a combination of old-fashioned radar and the newer sensor array. Cutter had seen good pilots fly an avoidance drill before, but not like this. Atticus almost sensed the debris in front of him or coming at him on a strange vector. At a little over 17,000 miles an hour, it took about an hour and a half for a full orbit. It also meant that anything coming at you in the opposite direction at the same speed or higher would be really hard to avoid.
He moved the big ship smoothly around a single orbit without anything touching it. Quite a feat in low-Earth orbit. Up higher it would have been easier, there was less junk, but down here, it was a veritable mine field. The ship could handle hits of a certain size, but nothing hit it. Absolutely nothing.
He stopped the run almost at the precise point he had started from.
“Okay, now what?”
“I think that’ll do for now, you can fly, that’s for sure. Let’s sit and talk for a few minutes.” Cutter unstrapped and leaned back in his chair.
“Yes, Sir.” Atticus said. He put the autopilot on station-keeping and turned his chair to face Cutter. The sensors and long-range radar would alert them of anything coming at them in time to move out of the way.
“What do you want to do?” Cutter asked.
“I want to fly.”
“No, I don’t mean today, I mean five years from now. Or 10 years from now? Don’t you have a plan?”
Atticus fidgeted in his seat. “I guess I never really thought about it that way. This was all I ever wanted to do.”
“With your skill and natural ability, there’s more you could be doing than just flying salvage or freight. Ships leave every month for the colony on Mars. And out from there, there are always hops to Ceres in the belt, that’s the latest colony mission.”
“I knew we had a base on Mars but nothing beyond that. I guess I never thought that far ahead. I always thought that all I should be doing was getting better at what I already knew how to do.”
“I think you’ve got that down pat, I’ve never seen anyone fly like you and I’ve been in this business almost 40 years.”
“The salvage business?”
“No, the flying business.” Cutter strapped back in. “Let’s get back to the space port and get this flight logged in. We can talk more about this later.”
Atticus used the automatic pilot to land the big craft back at the space port and Cutter walked him through all the paperwork they had to do to finalize a flight. The kid took to it like a duck to water. He had been filing the paperwork for the Saturn Two for the past six months and this wasn’t that much different.
“You got a place to stay?” Cutter asked as they took the little shuttle back to the parking lot.
“Yes, I have a small place in town.”
“Okay, let’s get you back to your car. Just be back here at the spaceport Tuesday, no later than 7:15, and we’ll do this for real.”
Once they were back at Cutter’s gate, he watched the tall, lanky, young blond pilot amble over to his small car and drive off. He thought to himself that this might be the best thing for his business over the next five years after all.
Back at the house, Cutter noticed the mail still on the dining room table from earlier. He sat down at the table and went through it. Mostly junk with one exception. His salvage license had been renewed for another five years. This might be his last renewal. He was pushing 60 and getting tired of chasing junk. He used to tell everyone he would ultimately become one of the rusted relics strewn around his property. Old farm equipment, older cars and trucks that still held an aesthetic quality, and metal yard art from one of his favorite and long-ago deceased artists dotted the one acre he lived on. His house was on the back third of the property with a long, winding driveway from his front gate. The front two-thirds were home to one of the biggest collections of rusted relics he knew of. He had been offered a small fortune for the bulk of the collection several times and one of these days he just might take advantage of the offers and retire. But for now, at least for the next five years, he would chase junk.
Cutter sat in his favorite chair and leaned it back to a reclining position. Buzz took that as a cue to jump up on Cutter’s chest and curl up for a nap. Cutter fell asleep with the little cat resting his head on Cutter’s hand.
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