We’re the only bin men on Earth to all have postgraduate education, thought Ben with a wry smile, as the mechanical grapple arm slowly connected with a particularly dangerous piece of debris, claws gently squeezing the offending item, holding it tight. When his father had threatened him as a boy that if his studies didn’t pick up, he’d end up handling rubbish for a living – well, goes to show just how wrong you could be…
There was one part of that sentence that wasn’t strictly true, of course, he thought with a smile. Not the part that you’d expect – they certainly weren’t the only dustbin men on earth to have degree level education. There were one or two others about, although they didn’t all work for the same firm – for the Firm, no less. They were usually some students working for a few extra beer tokens on the side, or the occasional university professor who’d really fallen on hard times. But this… this was one of the few bin jobs in the world that actually, genuinely required a top-level degree in physics, or to be an ex-fighter pilot with an IQ of 160 and the reflexes of a scalded cobra, like the Skipper. To be a man apart, to have the right stuff. No, the part of the sentence that was incorrect… well, they were the only bin men to not actually be on Earth; they watched the blue-green orb whizz below their feet at thousands of miles an hour as they hurtled around it in perpetual orbit. Africa lay stretched out below, the entire length of the Nile visible in one heartbeat; the deserts of the Sahara gleaming like a golden carpet, spread out as if only for him. A tinny female voice sounded in Ben’s ear, bringing him back to the here and now.
“Contact. We’ve got it.”
“Roger Carla. Ben and I are unhooking, stand by.”
The defunct satellite was held solid by the Clean Sweep’s rotating arm. Ben fired the small boosters on his EVA backpack, easing himself towards the satellite at one meter per second, two… A bit of reverse boost, and then he’d suddenly made contact, grabbing hold of a defunct antenna, with Jack joining him a fraction of a second later, the impact echoing through his thick gloves as he clutched the prize.
They clipped on their karabiners, securing themselves to the defunct satellite. The satellite – an old Chinese spy job? – was torn on one side, melted. It looked like it’d been hit with a laser of some type, cooking the delicate circuitry. The warped solar panels were twisted, as if in its final seconds it had been a beast writhing in agony in the heat. Ben and Jack spent three agonising hours going over the satellite inch-by-inch, testing circuits, assessing, analysing. Three slow, cumbersome hours revealed that there was simply nothing on it worth salvaging; it was little more than an orbital slag pile. Nothing but debris to be incinerated.
After their fruitless search, Jack and Ben applied a small impulse rocket to the near side of the satellite, close to where the arm gripped it, held in place with a polymer superglue which could react in a vacuum. It was a simple remote controlled device, very similar to a terrestrial fire extinguisher – the idea being that it would thrust the satellite towards earth, into a lower orbit, where it would quickly destabilise and burn up harmlessly. If there wasn’t anything worth salvaging, then it was quicker and easier to simply remove it from orbit entirely. Apply a bit of rearwards motion and Kepler would guarantee a brilliant fireworks display for the poor mortals still caught Earthbound. In the past thirteen years since the International Space Station had been torn in half by a wayward second stage booster from an old American ICBM, the Firm had slowly been removing the cloud of space debris which surrounded the planet, imperilling space flight. Their job was dull, dirty and dangerous. It wasn’t the heroics that everyone expected when you said you were an astronaut, the Dan-Dare like gung-ho of the Space Corps. Your job simply required you to make contact with an identified hazard, assess it, and remove it, then repeat it until the skies were clear. The problem was, of course, that the cloud of debris was ever growing. Ever since the first space war between the Americans and the Chinese twenty years ago had littered low Earth orbit with the debris of burnt out spy satellites, Geostationary orbit with shattered communications satellites… Space travel was even more dangerous than before, and it’d never exactly been a walk in the park. Even when the Firm put ships into space themselves, their booster rockets caused debris. It’s a big sky up here, thought Ben, but there’s more than enough debris for everybody… The warheads that had never come down on their intended targets, the radioactive fuels, the broken space fighters. The clouds of disintegrating satellites – well, they struck other satellites, those that had come through the war intact, and caused them to break up in turn too. Which caused more debris. The firm could actually deal with the smaller items, the paint flecks, the nuts, bolts, tiny shards of metal, far more easily than it could the larger pieces. The tiny items – well, the ‘spiders’ dealt with those, their great webs sweeping the sky clean. The three dozen space stations run by the Firm, which provided docking, rest and recuperation for the fleet of smaller ships like the Clean Sweep that dealt with the big pieces. The spiders swept the skies clear with their vast electro-magnetically charged nets, seventy miles across on the larger stations, glinting like great sails; the station nestled at the centre like the arachnids which gave them their name. The nets were gently sprung in sections to survive the harshest of impacts, woven with impossible amounts of artificially crafted spider’s silk to provide the toughest nets known to humanity; the most ambitious engineering project in history. The smaller ships, nearly an hundred of them, each with their crew of three would patrol the orbits for months on end, their crew being confined to three small compartments throughout; sleeping, living and mission, working sixteen hour shifts, never stopping, waiting for that trip to a spider and maybe that shuttle ride home. Despite the number of ships – or possibly because of – they could only clear the smallest fraction of sky, but the objective wasn’t to completely clear the orbits – just to make them manageable. The spiders would stop the nuts, bolts, paint flecks, shrapnel, but it was the big pieces that were the root of the problem. The difficult ones. The satellites, the nuclear warheads, the wreckage. The occasional void – torn bodies, frozen, lifeless in shattered, broken spacesuits. Tough as the webs were, a big piece would tear through like a bullet through custard; they were what called for the firm’s elite, the grapplers. Men and women like Jack, Ben and Carla would tackle the larger debris, fling them from orbit, clearing the skies. The pay was high. So was the mortality rate. Kessler syndrome, the point at which the creation of debris through collisions sets off a chain reaction of further collisions, had already been surpassed. Low earth orbit was essentially unusable and a serious barrier to further space flight to the higher orbits and to the rest of the solar system. Until the orbit was cleared, humanity was stuck on Earth. The grapplers, thousands of them, fought day and night, for years on end, to clear the skies, their bodies wasted, atrophied by the low gravity. There were occasional stops in one of the spider’s centripetal docks giving a welcome illusion of low gravity, but these were few and far between. Some had spent so long in space they could never return.
“Hello Carla, this is Ben – Ready to make the drop. Better inform the surface.” The arm released the satellite, allowing it to drift ten meters away from their small ship, hanging as if pinned to the sky. They – the satellite, the astronauts, the Clean Sweep – were, in fact, falling at thousands of miles an hour towards the earth’s surface, but the curvature of the earth fell away just as fast as they gained on it. Relative to them, however, the satellite had a speed of merely a few meters an hour, as Carla’s feather light touch released it with the most minimal of impulse.
“Ready. Most likely impact in the South Pacific. Light ‘em up.”
Ben flipped back the safety catch on his left control panel and armed the radio link to the small retro rocket that they had attached to the defunct satellite.
“Standby. Firing at manoeuvre impulse… Now” The small nozzle twisted as he manipulated the small joystick on his control panel, as small puffs of gas shifted the bulk of the satellite so that the retro rocket faced opposite to the direction they were falling in… suddenly, everything was in place.
“Ben, this is Jack… You secure?” Ben tugged at the pair of karabiners that held him to two different strong points on the body of the ship before giving two thumbs up.
“Clipped on, ready to go.”
“Ben, this is Carla – Mission control confirms, skies below are clear at altitude. When you’re ready.”
“Roger Skipper, Main thrust. Firing, now, now, now.”
Silently, the main rocket fired and as far as they were concerned, the satellite shot away from them at terrific speed. Ben felt the blast of the gasses catch him with tiny pinpricks of sound as he dangled at the end of his short safety cables. This was what he was paid for, more than nearly anybody else on Earth; to guide the payload through remote control, not something that could be done through a narrow spaceship window. You needed to be outside, with a full field of view in case something went wrong and rapid corrections needed to be made. Not this time though… The decrepit spy satellite shot away from them straight and true, its orbital velocity decreasing every second, bringing it to the point where the Earth’s gravity could reclaim it, reducing the cloud of debris one piece at a time. Over the horizon before them, the sun was rising rapidly, bathing them in red, orange, then bright yellow light, its heat suddenly radiant. As he was bathed in the harsh radiation, Ben felt his suit automatically compensate by cutting the heating elements, the visor tinting on reflex. In the distance, still visible through the vacuum of space, the satellite was now a distant speck as the rocket exhausted its fuel. Suddenly, it began to glow red, orange, yellow, as the sun’s rays shone upon for the last time at its new altitude; it didn’t stop with the sun’s yellow-white glow as it grew brighter, glowing a brilliant incandescent white as the atmosphere began to reclaim it. The satellite began to tumble far below them, twisting and breaking apart, a million glowing, streaking pinpricks. The artificial meteor showers on Earth were now a regular occurrence; several displays a day as the Firm cleared the skies. Jack’s voice came over the intercom from the airlock.
“Nice. Where’re we going next?”
* * * * *
The next object that turned up on their orbit two days later had a mass of about eighty kilograms, the ship’s radar indicating dimensions of about one meter fifty in length. Before they even got within visual range, all three of them knew what it was going to be. Hundreds of bodies had found their resting place in orbit after the last war. Ben suited up in the airlock. They normally only sent one person out to deal with the bodies; with an EVA pack it was a perfectly manageable chore. No need to risk two astronauts on a spacewalk. Bodies were… well, they were different from your average space junk. The bodies were the only thing they ever pushed into a high orbit. The boosters had sufficient thrust to place the average human body far away from earth, and sometimes to escape earth’s gravitational pull forever. It was completely against the rules, of course. There was only so much salvage they could recover and that didn’t include graveyard detail. They were supposed to remove all debris. All. But then… it was one advantage for having ex-astronauts on the board of directors. What right minded astronaut would want to lie in Earth’s dusty, dirty soil, when they could wander the stars forever, their bodies preserved by the void? It was immortality of a sort, and a blind eye was turned to the bending of the rules.
Ben left the airlock, the overpowering silence of hard vacuum suffocating him. He gently boosted towards the spinning body, falling at the same velocity as him, suspended in space a hundred meters away. It took precision and skill to close with such a small object, something he prided himself in – with a minimum of wasted air, manoeuvring to the point where he could grab hold of the dead astronaut. The suit design marked him out to be an American. No obvious signs of damage, no tears, punctures, the EVA pack seemed intact… He turned the dead man over, pulling himself round with the same movement. He clipped on his karabiner as he did so, trying not to look through the visor at the inevitable, frozen, pain wracked face. This, was something he failed to do. Only… well, for starts, he was not a he. A soft young female face met him, eyes closed, peaceful, as if sleeping. She’d clearly been adrift, a survivor of a disaster, with no hope of rescue, slowly succumbing to oxygen starvation, drifting to sleep, never to wake. Ben stared, unblinking, at her calm, peaceful face for a full minute. She had short, red hair, with freckles lightly scattered across on her cheeks and forehead. Frost lined the inside of her suit, around the edges of her visor. She looked very young to be an astronaut. She was short, that much he could tell by the size of her suit, and likely quite thin too. The nametag on her suit read Lt M. Forbes. Ben really didn’t know what to do. Normally bodies were dealt with quickly, cleanly, unflinchingly. But this girl – he wanted to wake her, to tell her it was all okay, that they’d saved her. Nonsense, of course. She’d been dead for twenty years. Jack’s voice crackled to life in his ear.
“Ben? You’re being rather quiet. You got anything?”
Ben looked at the calm, peaceful face, and suddenly realised that he didn’t want her disturbed in her eternal sleep. He didn’t want their mawkish sentimentality or sympathy for her, she deserved privacy in death. He keyed his radio, and without understanding why…
“No, nothing. Some dead Chinese guy. Pretty horrible, not pleasant. I’m getting rid of him.” He looked at her unchanging, incorruptibly beautiful face. He made sure that he’d turned the radio off… for some unfathomable reason, as he began to work on attaching the rocket pack, he heard his own voice speak to her, if only to drown out the overpowering silence.
“Hi. I’m Ben” With no other sound but the gentle hiss of oxygen, his voice was impossibly, cringingly loud in the confines of his helmet. Needless to say, she said nothing back. He persevered as he attached the booster rocket, unable to look at her face as he did so.
“Sorry about all this, you know. Disturbing you.”
Her eyes remained lightly shut. He kept on talking to himself as he worked, mostly for the distraction so that he didn’t have to look at her haunting face again.
“You look like a girl I used to know. Florence, she was called. Flo for short. The likeness, it’s quite uncanny. You look just like she did.” They fell through the sky together towards the ever receding horizon, The ashen wasteland of the American east coast far below them, shooting towards Europe, the Atlantic glinting like an enormous sapphire in the sun, white clouds streaked on the high winds. He held the booster in place as he waited for the adhesive to do its work, continuing to talk nonsense to her to distract himself from what he was doing.
“Not a bad place for a first date, is it? Nice view.” He laughed, nervously, before feeling ashamed for doing so. He sighed, and looked at her peaceful face.
“Anyway… You’re older than me, you know. I know you’re quite well preserved, but you’re still older. Plus, long distance and all that. And the whole ‘Dead’ thing. It’d never work between us.” The booster finally secured to his satisfaction, he looked her in the face again for a full fifteen seconds, before unclipping himself, giving her a slight push away.
“I’m sorry about all this. Goodbye.” He manouvered and thrust away from her, back towards the Clean Sweep. A light touch here, making contact with the ship with the slightest of impacts. He attached himself to two of the secure points that ran the length and breadth of the ship, ensuring he had a clear view. Odd, but he’d normally have taken pleasure in such a perfect contact… He clicked his radio back on. “Skipper? Ben. Ready to go here, no premanouver required. I’m clipped in.” Forbes, whatever the “M” stood for – Melissa? Mary? Melanie? Michelle? – She wasn’t one of the hulking marines of the space corps. She had so little mass; she’d keep on going, far beyond Earth’s grasp. Once she’d escaped, she would wander though space forever, possibly being lucky enough to escape the solar system altogether one day.
“Roger, fire when ready.”
Ben tested the connection on the remote primer, before he thumbed back the safety switch. His thumb hovered over the button, for a moment, watching her drift. He closed his eyes and pressed the ignition switch on the joystick. To his relief, he didn’t have to guide her. He watched her disappear, gaining velocity in a few short heartbeats, rising higher and higher against the backdrop of the stars away from earth towards her final resting place. He watched her go, deep in thought. The view that you must get as you fell away from earth… her booster rocket stopped firing, but she kept on going, Newtonian physics flinging her far away from the blue – green marble on which she was born. Even after her rocket had burnt out, he watched her go for several minutes. She would find peace amongst the stars that she had never found in life.
“You ok?” Carla’s voice cut through the overpowering silence. Ben started, aware of how long he had been silent.
“Yeah. I, erm… just a stuck karabiner. Nothing serious. Got it sorted now.” He lied, still watching the distant white speck, before easily detaching himself from the two hardpoints. “I’m on my way back in now. Unhooking.”
* * * * *
The airlock closed behind him soundlessly, the air slowly venting into the chamber. He had about five minutes before the pressure reached the point at which he could breathe safely, which gave him plenty of time to think. He’d removed dozens of bodies into high orbit before, but none like that. They were usually frozen, unprotected bodies thrown clear of their ships as they’d exploded, lives cut short in an instant on being exposed to hard vacuum, dying painful but mercifully swift deaths. Bodies seared by lasers or rent apart by high velocity debris. To come across someone who was simply suited up, peaceful… well, it just didn’t happen. And certainly no one as beautiful as her. It was as if she’d been serenely watching the world turn on its axis below her, carrying on regardless despite humanity. With air now flooding back into the chamber, Ben placed his cumbersome outer gloves to float in the air in front of him, before removing the seals that kept his helmet airtight. A few minute’s work in the cramped airlock before he had removed the rest of his suit and EVA pack, neatly stored away and strapped down. He opened the inner airlock and floated through to the living compartment to see Carla waiting for him, floating in the tiny galley. Her long blonde hair was tied back neatly, her glamorous limbs resting freely in the zero gravity. What everybody always noticed about her first, however, was that whilst the right hand side of her face was classically beautiful, like an exquisite china doll’s, the left was a mess of scar tissue with a black patch over her left eye. She’s been quite badly burnt when the fighter jet she’d been flying had been shot down a few years ago, before she’d joined the Firm. She’d refused cosmetic surgery, retorting that it would be nice to know how people treated her for who she was, not for her looks. She had a reputation amongst the Firm’s captains for being unorthodox, brilliant; she’d quite literally written the book on space refuse disposal. Ben liked her because she was unafraid to speak her mind and would stick up for her crew.
“How’d it go?”
“Hey Skipper. All right, I suppose. Pretty standard.” He was a dreadful liar, and they both knew it. She knew better not to press and to Ben’s relief she changed the subject.
“Yeah, I could do with a bit of scoff. What’ve we got?”
“How does Menu J strike you?”
“Had it yesterday. We got any Menu R left?”
“Erm… yeah, a few. Hang on.” She rummaged in the back of one of the galley’s storage compartments before retrieving the self heating silvered packets that provided the highlight of the day, subdivided into flavour pouches. They were actually pretty good, some of them. Others were best used for ballasting the ship. They cracked the heating elements and tore off the corners, idly squeezing out the occasional blob of lunch as they spoke, watching it float in the zero gravity before gulping it down.
“Where’s Jack?” asked Ben, though a full mouth.
“He turned in shortly after you went EVA. Said he wasn’t feeling well.” There was a moment of silence, as Ben marshalled his thoughts before speaking again. It was a difficult subject to broach.
“Carla… You’ve seen plenty of… well… bodies, haven’t you?” There was a pause, possibly half a heartbeat too long.
“More than a few, yeah.” She grimaced at the memory. “Back in the second English civil war. Lost a few friends, amongst other things.” She unconsciously touched her eyepatch. “A few friends, here and there, lost in the air war. Sometimes you knew they were dead – you’d watch their aircraft go down, or when there was an airstrike against your airbase. You know, messy stuff. And sometimes you’d be in the furball, see them get hit, bang out, parachute open, but they’d never get back. Sometimes four of you would fly through cloud and only three would come out. You’d never know what happened. They were easier to deal with, but also worse – you never had a body to mourn over. You know, no grave, just a coffin filled with sand. Not that we had time for that back then, of course. But yeah, occasionally, when you were on the receiving end of an airstrike – Yes, plenty of bodies. More than I want to see again.”
“People you didn’t know though. Did any of them… I don’t know, affect you more than others?”
“The girl you found?”
“How did you…?”
“You’re a dreadful liar, you know that?” Carla smiled at him.
* * * * *
Ben tied himself into bed, ignoring the close proximity of Jack’s snoring figure. He opened his small stowage compartment – his one bit of truly personal space – and opened an old notebook, fishing out a small, folded photo from the back, before placing it to float in the air in front of him. A redheaded girl smiled back. The photo was old, creased, dogeared, and well loved. It slowly drifted in the air conditioning as he stared at her. How long had it been now? Five, six years? This was his third tour since then, so it must be something like that. He’d not seen her since the day the photo had been taken. He opened the notebook and began to write.
Until orbit is cleared, humanity’s stuck on Earth, with no elbow room. The war was nearly been the end of civilization; it took the neutral countries decades to bring the world back to the level it had been at. China and the USA still lay in ruins. Humanity survived the third world war, but we won’t survive a fourth. With space to expand into, there won’t be a isn’t as great a risk of war. Space is infinite, with room enough for humanity’s expansionist tendencies, even if we’re only limited to the solar system. Without me Without us, The grapplers, humanity is doomed to repeat its mistakes. What I’m we’re doing is noble, necessary, vital.
He paused for a moment, before continuing.
So why do I feel like I should be down there, and not up here? When I’m down there, all I want to be up here. There’s nothing for me down there. Not without her.
There was another pause, before he snapped the book shut in frustration, stuffing the photo to the back, pulling the straps tight to go to sleep.
* * * * *
There were very few ways to remove a satellite from orbit safely, but thousands of ways to do it wrong. The old American inertia-kill satellite was caught solid by Carla’s expert grasp. Ben and Jack fell towards it in the same manner that they’d done hundreds of times before, arresting their decent, clipping on, searching, finding nothing, returning. They were on their way back to the ship, booster set up, ready to go. It happened very quickly. One of the three fingers of the grapple seemed to snap, buckling, doubling back. The remaining two fingers kept their grip, but exactly like someone snapping their fingers, they whipped past each other, impelling the satellite with a sudden, streaking sideways motion. As the satellite pinwheeled towards the ship Jack was caught by one of the defunct solar panels and swatted away. Carla’s scream came over the intercom, and was cut short as the satellite smashed into the ship – not nearly fast enough to tear the ship in half, but sufficient to pierce through the thin outer skin. Oxygen began to vent into space in great white clouds, rapidly dispersing. The ship lurched, rolling and spinning. Ben lost his grip of the ship as he felt a large piece of debris strike his EVA pack, and he began to fall, unchecked, into his own orbit, gently spinning head over tail away from the ship. He tried to manoeuvre, to correct his spin; it took him a moment to realise that his commands weren’t being obeyed by his shattered pack. His field of view was slowly rotating, with Ben unable to do anything about it. The drifting, shattered ship was moving down, out of his field of view, the thin shell of earth’s atmosphere coming in above him, before – was that Mexico? Definitely Mexico – He tried his controls again, but to no avail. His dials informed him of a near complete failure of his life support systems. Above him – well, before him, really – he could just about pick out the Panama Canal, hundreds of miles above him – or below him, he wasn’t prepared to argue semantics – shooting below at thousands of miles an hour. Now the Earth slowly moving below him, the shell of the atmosphere passing behind his heels… There… above him, probably about five miles distant by now, a distant white speck – Jack.
“Hello, Jack, This is Ben. Radio check, radio check, radio check, can you hear me? Over.” There was an agonizing wait. Ben tried again, without much hope. Eventually, a weak, crackly reply came.
“Christ. Hi Ben. You’re still alive, I take it… I can’t see you. Did you get back to the ship?”
“Nah, I can’t make it. My EVA pack’s had it, I can’t manoeuvre… My life support’s shot too. I can’t make it back to the ship, I’m in co-orbit about five miles below you.”
“Hang on… Erm…” There was a moments’ silence before Jack came back on the air, his radio crackling weakly. ”Yeah, I’ve got you. Did you see what happened to Carla?”
“I saw the Sweep take the full brunt of the satellite, looked like a pretty catastrophic oxygen leak to me. She’ll probably be alright though, if she got her helmet sealed in time, and if she can last until one of the spiders get to her. How’re you?”
“I’m ok, I’ve still got all systems, but a bit of a fuel leak…” There was a long silence as Ben took in the implications.
“You can’t get to me and get back to the ship all in one, you mean.” There was silence in lieu of a response. Ben knew what it meant. “Get back to Carla. You both might be able to make it, but I’m gone. I’m on my way up and out. Too much in the way of velocity, you’ll never catch up”
“Ben, I’m… I’m sorry. Really. I’m sorry…”
“Don’t worry about it. Nothing you can do. Goodbye, I suppose…”
“Goodbye…” The radio went dead. Ben slowly realised that the oddest thing was happening to him. He was okay with his current predicament, almost cheerful. He opened a hailing channel again.
“Really. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be… I’ll be fine. Cheerio.” he said in an upbeat tone, with a slow smile coming across his face. There was a pause as they both tumbled through space, the earth spread below them, pristine. He was no longer part of the debris solution, rather, he was now part of the problem. Ben came over the intercom again, with words that would be picked up by the Firm’s ground control stations, and would mistakenly come, in later years, to stand for the stoicism and black humour that defined the grapplers. The open mike hissed and crackled in Ben’s ears for a few seconds, before his last words were relayed to the world below, interspersed with his irrational laughter.
“Well, this is just great.”
The hiss and crackle in his ears died as his batteries gave up on him. The cool air flowing across his face slowed and then stopped, the only sound but his own heartbeat gone. Calmness. Despite himself, Ben smiled, before he clutched his sides and laughed soundlessly, only for himself to hear, tumbling through the void, away from Earth, towards his own inevitable death. He thought of the freckled girl he was now going to join, calmly drifting through high orbit forever, together. The Earth spun into view again, the Atlantic far below.
They were nothing but debris.
I wrote this back in about 2011ish; it’s one of my favourites. Feedback (especially constructive criticism!) is encouraged and welcomed. If you enjoyed it, please feel free to share it, but please play fair – don’t do it for financial gain without cutting me in, link back to my website and credit the author if you do so! Thanks for reading!
All written material copyright The Lost Astronomer, Feb 2017. Photo credits: (NASA)