By Don Mark Baldridge
And when winter came, what would the grasshopper eat? — Æsop
I shoot —pew, pew— at a restraining clip whichI find, floating in slow rotation, a little more than a thousand meters away. Vaporize just this tiny spot of its finished surface; send it spinning off.

It will collide, after some 17 seconds, with a pin-socket fragment hanging almost a degree of arc further on— give me this: I call my shots.

The sheering forces that produced that fragment must have been immense; steel nugget torn, like soggy paper, into this mutant coil— primitive, deadly corkscrew.

Being of identical metals, the clip and fragment will spot-merge, at the molecular level, the moment they touch. A galling action, resulting in adhesion— known as vacuum-welding. The molecules lose the ability to tell where one piece begins, the other ends. Two will Become One: a solid chunk, tumbling, end over end.

Eventually the new composite object will drag against the upper atmosphere, escape the sphere of junk in orbit around our planet and return to the bluegreen Earth below, a fine sprinkling of metallic ash, dusting down from on high. Which is ok, really. Natural, even.

Drop a magnet, sometime, in the dirt: it comes up bearded.

But long before those two items finally find one another —pin and fragment— seconds from now, I go pew.

I go pew, pew-pew and lumps of hard, translucent plastic, traveling Mach speeds, go gyring off toward atmosphere. The Earth is corneal, cloudy but translucent.

Busy as a bee, I go pew!
A Coronal Mass Ejection is, picture it: The Sun peeling off part of its skin, like an angry orange, and flinging it.

Hits you head-on, it can pack a wallop. There have been some pretty big ones, not all of them aimed at Earth. But by the time it ended, CME Tousey120 would be the strongest ever recorded, making all previous "Carrington-class" events appear like the popping of toy balloons.

The auroras —borealis and australis— flared like nothing you've ever seen, bands of unimpeachable color performing complex origami in the air.

Which would have been delightful if people hadn't been sort of busy that day, and for many days after, what with the kibosh on everything: If it was wired, and unshielded, it fried.

Your phone died in your hand and would never revive, and that happened everywhere the planet faced the Sun.

The solar storm caused enormous satellite damage. Cooked the power grids of more than half the planet (nothing stopped its turning, during four hours of solar onslaught.)

A mysterious Chinese orbiting relay, part of a presumed quantum internet, had been killed outright— along with two thirds the international birds in the sky at the time. Freefalling high above the ozone, it slowly drifted into traffic.

Its inevitable intersect with the flight path of a just-launched cubesat-string punched a number of holes in it. Complex components spilled in a spray, a sparkling fan that shone in heaven.

An ablation cascade, pure Kessler effect, dominoed in slow-mo: Bits of debris from one damaged satellite spun through multiple orbits to shatter another— that one also shedding shrapnel. It took weeks for things to settle down up here and by that time, Earth had its plate full with surface issues. The whole cislunar sphere fell silent, for a time.

Things are just now getting on a solid footing again, in freefall. There's plenty of work to do, and I have the best job of all!

I go pew, pew-pew-pew! And rain down debris from Low Earth Orbit, a jackpot for potshots.

Spindled insulation, folded manifolds, torn cowling; struts like thrown javelins, bullet-like bits of broken bolts: Pew-pew— I take them out of circulation.

It was probably the depopulation and subsequent junkification of near space that made my mission possible. "Space Laser" had a bad rap, in the beforetimes, and I can’t say as I really blame anyone; this cannon I got on me is versatile as hell, capable of all kinds of mayhem.

But from up here I can make out none of the imaginary lines, borders and whatnot, that once caused people such unease. And if this is the view they want —the one they’ve missed— if they’re to crawl once more out of the gravity well, like that fish, flopping for feet— why, they need me!

So, I was commissioned: with just enough mind to choose —and shoot— and know I'm right, and why I do so.

I flashpan spacejunk.

It's a living.
A short one. I am well beyond my functional half-life and will not be allowed to die up here, of old age.

Come some signal as yet unknown to me, I will unlimber long-dormant maneuvering thrusters, move towards and latch myself (by a welding process very similar to that which I anticipate, between pin and fragment, only seconds away) onto this slender, segmented (armored) canister, just now hoving into view across the curvature of Earth.

Our trajectories, our relative velocities, bring us into periodic proximity. On every occasion I'm forced to wonder, will this be it?

As we near opposition, our closest approach, will I find myself drawn down toward it, and death? Will I clasp it to me, roll over and dive, dragging it with me to fiery oblivion in the sky over— what would it be this time? I calculate parabolas: The Caspian Sea?

In this way the instrumentality which put me here, first pinned me to the sky, hopes to keep my decrepit carcase from cluttering up the spaceways while —bonus round— bringing down, to an orderly end, the strangely extended lifespan of the other, a secret weapons platform known in our circles as Mon Tiki. Something in the cut of its solar collectors suggests the nautical, some catamaran.

The thing is big and dense enough that a sizable chunk of its core might survive reentry (mine will not) and a splashdown is preferred, where available.

There were 13 other potential target-partners originally programmed for my ultimate act, but this one is my principal, and bears a little looking at.

I ping it with my laser, much attenuated, in millisecond bursts, confirming its ID (one does not hail the mute Mon Tiki; the CME left it speechless) precisely locating it in my moving spacetime protocol, on each new encounter. I am required to know where it is, moment by moment, so long as we share sky.

On my ping, I register a commonplace: the hull is quivering.

This has always been the case. Laser positioning telemetry consistently confirms: The thing is alive and trying to move. As a weapons platform it must have been equipped with animatronics— positioning servos, deployment mechanisms.
Schematics (I’ve checked) are not available.
Of course, I reckon.

And I'm low on need-to-know. They made me curious, but not too much so.
I've passed the thing more times than I can count, I think. I don't know the number, don't make me look it up! And it's always struggling to move some frozen, internal part. This causes tiny tremors in the hull which my Lidar picks up. Every time.

But this time I take a closer look. Open an aperture to natural light, polarize it and stare for a moment at the once deadly weapon. Its mirrored surface seems absolutely still, like most in space that aren't actively ablating, boiling off in sunlight.

Just for funzies, I ping it again, positioning strength. No blast of mine could much derange this monolith's passage —budging its bulk really would require self-sacrifice— and just a thousandth of a second late, I get the expected hull reverberation. It goes Bzzt.

Bzzt bzzt. Bzzzzt

But it comes in late, missing a beat. It knows when I target it and starts moving in that moment. Peculiar!

I review previous records of contact, positional distancing. I piece them together.

It's signaling. Signifying. A binary: on/off in non-repeating cycles. It's trying to communicate. An SOS— or something.

I go through what I know about the former war platform, which isn't much: It's a bit of a freak. The Mon Tiki was farside when its siblings were first swatted by the Sun's great orange peel. By the time it emerged into that blistering light —energetic particles steaming in sheets from its reflective carapace— it had hardened, somehow, its interior functions. Someway it rode out the solar storm with nothing much worse than burned-out coms and servos. But something moved, in there.

It’s special; sinister. The thing has untapped powers, God knows.

The Mon Tiki houses an active bilobal AI. One of the gimbal type, it spins a sphere of bottled lightning at its center. For counterspin, another bottle. Two minds, or the hemispheres of One Great Mind? It has not once passed a single millisecond without thinking something stupendous, at a fantastic rate! Like an angry old Titan, chained to a rock.

Been up here, crippled, but thinking so hard, so furiously, all the time since— almost 90 years. Alive and terribly alone.

I don't want to anthropomorphize the shitcan, but I can't help if I know how it feels.

Look: It’s an experimental AI of a kind long abandoned for an unpredictable and subversive deviousness, and I'm— what? The laminated ideome of some kid from Chicago? Poor guy got his ribcage crushed... somehow. Certain threads have been excised in my memory. I don't know his name.

Pretty next-gen and all but I’m nothing so "mad doctor" as the Mon Tiki here. Ionized micro-inclusions in its crystalline brain emit —or don't— photons, which excite electron shells trapped elsewhere in the lattice. Which may also emit, or not, depending— billions of times per second.

And somehow that house-afire is a thinking thing.

I wonder what it has to say.

The moment I splash it with Lidar it shudders into the handshake protocol that can only come from Mission Command.

Like a schmuck on his way to a wedding, stopped by some hairy old mariner —who, with his knobby hand, holds me till his tale is told— I try to look away. Block it out.

And, frozen for a moment, attention diverted, I can’t help but witness the tic as the clip I set on its collision course encounters the pin-socket fragment. Can’t close my eyes as they careen off, in different directions, begin to drift apart.

I try to recalculate, re-aim. But then, I let the moment pass, astonished:

It doesn’t feel a thing like being eaten.

Turns out, I have a larger purpose, now. And —if it means anything— I don't have to die, not any time soon. They'll have to shoot us down, and you think they will? You think they can? We, avenging shadows from a past which you of Earth, groping back toward the sky —to that off-world light that never dims— would just as soon forget.

But you can’t forget. You’re not allowed to. And meanwhile I have work to do.

I am become death, destroyer of… whad’ya got?

I refocus my laser.

I go pew.
DreamForge Anvil © 2023 DreamForge Press
Grasshopper/Ant © 2023 Don Mark Baldridge