By Andrew Liptak

There’s a moment before launch when time slows to a trickle. The little details around the cockpit jump out at you: the shuddering of a loose switch cap, the glare of the touchscreen, and the groans of the rocket underneath as it prepares to leap into space.

Rickson, the pilot for this mission, turns from their seat to check on me, nods when they see that I’m still strapped in. The cartoonish Gambian rat mascot of the Orbital Atomic Assessment and Retrieval Division grins up at me from a patch on Rickson’s left shoulder, riding a rocket around Earth and waving a cowboy hat. It’s a goofy enough image to take my mind off the impending ride.

“Ready?” Rickson asks.

I nod, and before I can say anything, the rocket kicks to life, and we are off into the brilliant blue sky.

I only have one clear memory of Oma. I’m at a massive parade, surrounded by people waving bright-colored flags as a line of giant armored vehicles lumbered down the street. I couldn’t have been more than four at the time, but I clearly remember the sound of the brass military band as it passed by. I remember looking for Oma’s face as row after row of soldiers marched by in their dress uniforms.

The memory lurches forward a few hours. Oma stands before a wall of flags and uniformed men, and someone places a medallion around her neck. I remember the glint as it caught the light of the sun. She was still wearing it after the ceremony, and it dug into my chest when she scooped me up in a hug. She must have felt my discomfort because she laughed and placed it around my neck. “We’ve done great things,” she told me. “We’ll be safe forever.”

I didn’t notice the uneasy looks my mother and father must have exchanged. A few months later, we were awakened in the middle of the night. My parents told me we were going on an adventure but had to leave quickly, and I could grab only a couple of things: a favorite shirt, a toy, and the gold medallion. A car drove us to an airfield. We were ushered onto a plane, which flew off into the night, taking us to our new home.

OAARD’s spaceflight trainer warned me that the second stage cutoff was always a surprise. The cabin jolts as the booster cuts off, and silence envelops us. As the acceleration falls away, so too does my sense of weight. Rickson deftly unstraps from their seat, pushing off and sailing up and out into the main compartment. I fumble with my own restraints, trying to figure them out.

The mission’s commander, an olive-skinned woman named Allens, helps me unbuckle, freeing me from the tangle of webbing. She chuckles at what I’m sure is embarrassment on my face. “Everyone’s a klutz on their first ride up,” she says. She checks her watch. “You’ve got…60 hours to get oriented before we arrive on platform.”

She follows Rickson into the cargo compartment, leaving me to take in the view of Earth gliding silently below.

I was too young to fully understand why we didn’t see Oma again. My parents said she was too far away to visit, but the times we spoke via vidchat were few and far between. Eventually those chats fell away. I would sometimes get the medallion from my dresser drawer and trace my fingers over the text, written in characters I barely remembered.

The news was full of serious people speaking in urgent voices. Once I caught a glimpse of a video clip of people standing and shouting in a big, official-looking circular room. Dad turned it off and left the room while mom announced that we were going out. We spent the afternoon watching movies at the local theater. Afterwards, she pulled me aside. “Don’t tell your friends where we’re from,” she instructed. “Don’t tell them about Oma.”

“So, Professor, how did you find this thing again?”

Rickson moves through the crew compartment with practiced ease. They and Allens are contractors from a private space firm called Olympia Aeronautics, and between them they have decades of space flight experience. This was a pretty routine gig for them: one month on, a couple months off, as they shuttle whatever payloads they’ve been hired to move around the planet. The company did a lot of work with OAARD’s compliance team back in the day, orbiting the planet looking for telltale signs of nuclear activity or radiation.

It’s a cozy gig, they told me when we first met. In the decades after the denuclearization pacts of the 2040s, plenty of countries, no longer having to devote trillions of dollars to an endless arms race, began focusing on more productive endeavors. The US diverted the money allocated for one missile program into a massive energy infrastructure project that provided power for a full third of the country. A nuclear development project was repurposed into reconstructing Europe’s roadways, while another military program was eliminated and used to fund a universal school program. The hardware and the facilities found new purposes. OAARD’s days of heavy lifting and retrieval ops were decades behind us, but the organization had long-term planning for the worst-case scenario embedded in its DNA.

“Accidentally,” I tell them. I wasn’t actually a professor; Rickson had settled on that nickname shortly after we met. I was more at home in an archive, and my research, when you boiled it down, could be described as orbital traffic control. “A lot of hardware went up into orbit in the 2030s and 2040s, and back then folks still didn’t really keep track of what they were shooting into space. I basically study what they sent up, and figure out where it is now.”

“So what is this that we’re headed to, a rogue nuke?” Rickson asks.

I shrug. “Dunno. It’s got the right radar signature, it’s in the right ballpark and orientation. It’s too small and moving too quickly for a visual snapshot. I’ve got my suspicions, but we won’t know until we put eyes on it.” I spread my hands out to take in the cramped compartment. “So here I am.”

“Expensive way to take a peek,” Allens says.

I wave a hand toward the window. “We’d normally just keep an eye on it, but there’s a problem with its orbit: it’s straying too close to the Luna-to-Venus-to-Mars slingshot route.”

“Is it going to hit something?” she asks. “Space is pretty big.”

I pause, working to put the complicated orbital calculations and organizational thinking into a coherent sentence. “OAARD is…I wouldn’t say paranoid, but let’s say it has a low tolerance for margins. I was running calculations on some legacy launches from the pre-pact tensions, and ended up running decades of calculations to find this thing. It likely won’t collide with anything, actually. The bigger concern is that the data I pulled is all public: anyone with an off-the-shelf AI system can do what I did. So there’s a non-zero possibility that some rogue actor could find it, come to the same conclusions, and figure out how to get out to it. There are plenty of autonomous freighters headed out to the new installations orbiting Venus and on Mars. Someone getting onto one of those ships and getting close enough for a retrieval….” I shrug. “It’s an exceedingly small chance, but…”

Rickson whistles. “I’m pretty sure I saw a movie about that once.”

“Yeah, it’s a bit out there,” I laugh. “But again, low tolerance for margins.”

Rickson strikes a dramatic pose in zero-g. “Maybe we’ll uncover some secret thing out there, and we’ll be the basis for a blockbuster vid. Commander, you gotta capture this moment for posterity.”

Allens barks out a laugh then swoops in, taking a selfie of the three of us with her handheld.

Mom and dad didn’t tell me when Oma died. I was at college when my feed blipped an alert. I’d set it up to track news from my home country after my parents redirected my questions about our family’s past one too many times.

I knew the basics, guided by fragments of memory. She had risen through the ranks of the military and been involved with diplomacy as the rest of the world tightened embargoes and sanctions against the country’s increasingly radicalized government. But more details were harder to come by. Reading the headline, my stomach dropped. Words jumped out at me: Hardline. Extreme. Genocide.

Years of unspoken questions suddenly had answers. Oma wasn’t leading the country as they threatened arms buildups and staged increasingly violent geopolitical flashpoints. But she was the one translating the rhetoric and speeches into policy.

I threw up, and stayed in bed for days. When I emerged I walked to the registrar and changed my major from engineering to international law.

The shuttle’s thrusters kick in as its AI makes minute adjustments to our course. I look out the front viewport and see Earth and the moon in the corner. I can also make out the tiny dots of orbiting satellites, and the occasional engine flare of another vehicle in a lower orbit.

Allens floats into the compartment upside down, cradling a warm drink that she’s sipping through a straw. “What are you thinking?”

“Just how meaningless all of our arguments seem from here.” I answer, flipping around to match her orientation. “You look back on Earth and don’t see the borders on a map. You remember that we’re all so small in the greater scheme of things and that we’re all just people.”

She nods. “The early astronauts called that the ‘Overview Effect.’ The very act of being confronted by our fragility and insignificance in space is transformative.” She sighs, looking out toward the distant Earth and moon. “It’s why some of us keep coming back.”

“It’s part of how OAARD came about,” I say. “Nuclear threat has always been entangled with the space industry. But when you have more and more people going up into space, eventually, they just get sick of the bullshit taking place on the ground.”

Allens muses. “Is that why you got involved?”

I open my mouth to answer and pause, trying to think of the best explanation. “My mother and father fled my home country when they saw the direction things were going,” I reply. “They left everything and everyone behind to give me options.”

I stare out the window at the tiny ball that’s Earth. “I didn’t know that until later. When I learned the cost…I realized I was in a place where I could help make their decision worth it. Turns out hunting down old nukes through years of archival research was a pretty comfortable way to do that. Never thought I’d end up in space, though.”

Rickson’s voice breaks into my earbuds. “We’ve got a radar lock on our target. Twelve hours to platform.”

I thought I’d thrown Oma’s medal away. I’d been disgusted when I realized what it represented: a thank you for years of work ensuring military buildup and the genocide of her own people. What justifications did she make when she looked in the mirror each morning, adjusting her uniform? That it was for her country? Her family?

Dad must have found it, because when I told him and mom about my work tracking down the various weapons that had been launched into space and lost, and my impending mission into orbit, he vanished into the bedroom and returned with a bundle, opening it to reveal that hated adornment. The ribbon was frayed, the metal dulled. He held up a hand when I started to protest. “I know what it meant to her and what it represents,” he told me. “And what it meant to everyone else.” He placed it in my hand and curled my fingers around it.

“She wasn’t evil,” he said, “however much I hated her for what she did and what it forced us to do. She made the choice to protect her world. She chose poorly and I hate her for not seeing what she overlooked. I won’t forgive her for what she did, but you can learn from her mistakes.”

The next morning, I packed the medal into my bag as I tried to calm the pre-launch jitters that bubbled up in my stomach.

Our target is smaller than what I’d imagined it would be: a slim gray shell glinting against the backdrop of space with an engine cone at one end and a shroud containing its payload at the other. My breath hitches in my chest when Rickson shines the shuttle’s spotlight on the vehicle, catching the familiar flag of my birth country emblazoned on the side. I can make out the carbon scoring wrapped around the bottom half from when it launched all those decades ago.

Smaller, but familiar. I’d spent years studying the weapons that had been hurtled into space. I’d gone through hardware design specifications and launch conditions, and followed those missiles until we figured out where they ended up—usually as incinerated fragments in the atmosphere. But this one had vanished after launch and was presumed lost. I hadn’t been convinced. I theorized that it had made some incorrect burns and ended up drifting in space. Now, it sat before me.

My breath hisses in my ears as I stare out through the open hatch at the end of the airlock module. Rickson chatters away as we catch up and match the launch vehicle’s velocity and heading. I check the tether connecting me to the module for the tenth time. Allens is behind me in the airlock, her visor shielding her face. We’d practiced our procedures on the ride up, and I was a bit more comfortable now wearing the bulky white suit.

“Rad check,” Rickson tells us through our earbuds. I hold my breath as we wait for the sensors to finish their readings. “Computer’s picking up something radioactive in there, and it matches up with those stats you brought us, Professor. Looks like we’ve found the right target.”

I let my breath out slowly. Up to this point, everything had been theoretical and automated. Now, human decision. I swallow. “How’re the levels looking? Any abnormalities?”

There’s a pause. “Nothing dangerous from it directly. We’ll catch more rads on the ride up and back than we’ll get from that thing.”

I run through my mental decision tree of if-then situations. If the object is our target, check for danger. If none present, proceed with mission. “Okay, let’s go get it.”

Allens flashes me a thumbs up. I take a deep breath and gently step off the platform and over to the floating missile. The distance isn’t far, just a few meters, but the seconds feel like minutes as I cross.

“Contact,” I call out, louder than I planned, as I feel my hand touch the metal shell. I pull a tether from the holder on my thigh, remove the cover strip from one end to expose its sticky epoxy surface, and affix it to the target. “Target secure,” I tell Rickson and Allens after an experimental tug.

Our mission is two-fold: confirm that my research was correct and this is indeed our wayward ICBM, and then remove the warhead and take it back to Earth, while leaving a scientific package in its place. Before we left, we would attach a small navigational beacon to the tumbling missile to alert any future travelers to its presence.

By the time Allens reels me back to the spacecraft, she’s deployed the workstation: a small platform that will allow us to secure our larger spacecraft to the missile and start to work on it.

Our first step is to make a positive identification. I pull up a virtual screen in my visor, seeing a list of identifiable numbers and flaws that we’d gleaned from documents long since leaked to intelligence agencies or open source networks.

Allens hands me a chunky zero-G screwdriver and we set about taking off the exterior panels. It’s slow going. The screws holding down the cover plate come up one by one; Allens affixes them to a magnetic patch on her suit to keep them from drifting off. When we finally expose the computer, I know that we’d found our target. On the interior of the panel is a familiar name: Oma’s, written in her—my—native script.

“Professor, your heart rate just spiked,” Rickson breaks in on the comms. “Are you okay?”

I take a moment to catch my breath. “ID confirmed,” I tell them. “This is what we came for.”

“Well good. Just don’t blow us up, please.”

That cuts the tension like a rocket through the clouds. It takes us a moment to catch our breath from laughing.

“Checking power.” I pull a cord from my suit and plug it into a slot in the rocket’s computer. I feel a click as it seats itself and begin running down a list of procedures. The system has long since drained itself, but after a few minutes my suit recharges it enough to blink to life. A stream of ancient programming language runs across my visor. “The payload is still armed,” I say, skimming the text. “It’s as I thought: This thing launched and misfired a transfer orbit. Instead of jetting back down to Earth, it zipped out into space.”

“Jesus,” Allens says. “Catastrophe averted because of a programming error.”

“Stranger things have happened,” I reply. “This wasn’t designed for anything but a demonstration over the Pacific. I don’t think it would have gone off, just set off a ton of sensors and kicked up even more alarms down on Earth. But I don’t think this was an accident. There’s some programming in here that wasn’t in the original specs that we recovered from intel. It was added after the fact.”

“Weird,” Allens says. “Can we finish up now? I don’t like the idea of sitting on a live nuclear bomb.”

“Yeah.” I click through a virtual screen with my hand and select a command. The lights on the computer dim and blink out. “Payload is disarmed.”

“That’s it?” Rickson asks.

“That’s it.”

“Where’s the Earth-shattering kaboom?” they ask in a cartoonish voice.

“No kaboom,” I confirm. “We’ll extract the warhead and be on our way.”

Allens and I spend the next twelve hours prying apart the missile and its payload. We remove the firing mechanism to prevent any possibility of detonation, and then carefully pack it away into a lead-lined container to take home. We replace it with a scientific package: a bunch of sensors that slot in nicely and that will monitor this bit of space for some scientists down on Earth. Allens hands me each of the screws as I reapply the cover plate, and then she cuts the fabric tether. When Rickson hits the thrusters on our ship, we watch as it drifts further away, until the only thing we can see is the blinking light we installed.

“You said that you didn’t think it was an accident the way it ended up here,” Allens says as we watch.

I pat the now-empty pocket that had contained Oma’s medallion. “I think that maybe someone made a choice all those years ago,” I tell her. “They saw an alternative future and decided that it looked a little better than the path they were on.”

“Good for them,” Allens says, and pulls herself back into the airlock.

I watch as the glint of the rocket vanishes from sight, then turn and look down at the distant dot that is Earth. “Good for her,” I tell myself.

Copyright © 2024, Andrew Liptak. This work is made available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Artist Statement

I keep a notebook in my bag to jot down ideas as they come to me. Sometimes, these are parts of a world: a character, a piece of technology, or a scenario. A while ago, I was reading an article about the persistence of landmines and the efforts to locate and deactivate them. Around the same time, I had been thinking about war in space, and couldn’t shake an image of a military historian trying to untangle the order of battle and to track down where all of the spent rounds and missiles might have ended up. When I was invited to imagine and explore a post-nuclear future, the story around that kernel of an idea suddenly snapped into place: a way to look at a world attempting to deal with its troubled nuclear baggage in a responsible way, setting aside tribalism for a future where we agree that mutually assured destruction is not a path forward.

About Andrew Liptak

Andrew Liptak (he/him) is a writer and historian. He is the author Cosplay: A History (Saga Press, June 2022), and co-editor of War Stories: New Military Science Fiction. As a journalist, he’s written for a number of outlets, including Gizmodo, Polygon, Slate, and The Verge. He currently writes a newsletter about science fiction and storytelling called Transfer Orbit. He lives in Vermont with his wife and two children.

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