An essay by Emin Luke, as provided by Liz Hufford
Art by Leigh Legler
When I got a call to report immediately to Kessler’s office, I knew something was up.
Luvy had already arrived and watched as Kessler paced the room. “Well, men, er, team, there’s been a change of plans. You’re taking CS up tomorrow.”
Luvy and I looked at each other. The scheduled ClearSpace launch was months distant. I couldn’t count the protocols that would be broken if it happened tomorrow.
“Something’s come up,” Kessler said, pointing his finger.
I sometimes wonder if my father would be proud of me. I’m never sure. He would love the ship but perhaps not its mission. In truth, the apple did not fall far from the tree.
My dad drove a garbage truck for the city. Once, after career day at school, I announced at dinner that I wanted to be a sanitation engineer just like him. He finished chewing his meatloaf, wiped his mouth, and addressed me. “Nothing sanitary about it, son. I’m a garbage man. I’ll accept trash man or refuse man, but I’m no engineer.” Then he waved his fork at me. “You could be an engineer.”
Dad moved with the times. When building codes required the ultimate home composter, the city quit hiring. “I’m the last of a breed,” he’d say, thumping his chest. When homeowners on his route began to retrofit the composters, dad still had recycling. When the EPA demanded decomposable food containers, he retired “to make way for the younger guys.” But he’d sit on the porch on the rare recycling days when the big truck would rumble down the street with interludes of breaking glass and clanging metal.
“See that,” Kessler said, pointing to the computer screen. We’d been monitoring space junk since the 70s–rocket stages, spent satellites, even an astronaut’s glove. Thousands of objects exceeded two hundred pounds, but this one was huge.
Luvy tilted her head to the side. “Something’s not right.”
“Exactly,” Kessler said.
“It looks complete,” I offered.
“Like a pod,” Luvy said.
“I’ve projected the shape against every substantial piece we’ve ever found. No matches.”
“And it just appeared?” I asked.
“UOO. Too big for any retrieval system except CS,” Luvy concluded.
As a young man, I’d been involved in the design of Octopi. They rode the backs of satellite missiles, disengaged, and then found their prey powered by ion engines we controlled from the ground. When the object was tentacled, the same engine would drag it out of orbit so it would fall to earth, burning up in the process. But no octopus could handle anything this large.
“Wouldn’t the laser cannon be a better bet?” I asked, knowing there were at least five in the world, three acknowledged by their respective countries.
“Not diplomatically,” Kessler said. “After Russia ‘mistakenly’ took out that major Chinese satellite, the tri-spacions unofficially agreed to a temporary ban. We’re working on improving aim.”
“And there’s the other thing,” Luvy muttered.
“Right,” Mr. Kessler said. “The possibility of starting Intergalactic War I.”
We were talking about the elephant in the room. Sure, we had an M.O. for that kind of thing, but none of us actually believed we’d use it.
Kessler looked back at the computer screen. “If a paint chip at 17,500 miles per hour can blow a hole through a spacecraft, you can imagine what that could do.”
“And if it collides with other space junk and breaks into a bajillion pieces,” Luvy said. “Well, we’d sure have job security.”
It was clear to me, weather permitting, we were going up tomorrow.
So what am I now, Dad? I have a Systems Engineering degree from the Naval Academy and a PhD in aeronautic engineering from MIT. Sure, I could have stayed on the ground and designed, but I’d flown jets in the Navy. When I was offered the job, I didn’t hesitate. I still wanted to drive the big rumbling truck.
Dad said he’d found a body once. Well, his on-foot man did. Called the police before they compacted. I can think of only one thing worse.
ClearSpace launched without incident on the only single-objective mission we’d ever made. Normally we retrieve 5-10 large objects. I always enjoy the earthquake of takeoff, the thundering like a mega truck. When we got into LEO, Luvy kneaded her temples a little, but I knew she’d soon be sunny side up. She and I have worked together for years. We can engage in interesting conversations, but we can also be comfortably silent. We were quiet this trip, but nothing was comfortable. We were in nearly constant contact with base. If anything happened to us, Earth would have as much info as we’d been able to provide.
“Do you think it is what I think it is?” Luvy asked.
I shrugged my shoulders. I knew what she thought.
I nodded. “Massively scared, and just as excited.”
“Gotcha,” Luvy said. “Whatever happens, we’re history.”
“I wish you’d put that a different way.”
Luvy actually chuckled.
As we neared the object, she made the initial observation to ground crew.
“It’s a craft, all right, nearly intact.”
Then came the order we’d never heard before. “Run the alien script.” Kessler himself was on the mike. “Just as a precaution,” he added.
We ran all the tests with negative results.
“Permission to approach?” I asked.
“Granted, approach with caution. You have control, but we have your back.”
We slowly circled in. Luvy spoke first. “Well the science fiction guys had it right. Looks a lot like an escape pod from Star Wars.”
“Any recognizable markings?” Kessler asked.
“Markings, yes. Recognizable, no. I’ve scanned them into the computer. No possible match with known languages.”
“Huh …” Kessler said and paused.
I don’t know that I’d ever heard him use that expression.
“Are you able to see inside the vehicle?” he continued.
“There’s a windshield. But it’s been blasted by space sand. Hard to see through.”
“Can you get closer?”
I drew ClearSpace near. We got quiet again, and Kessler hollered at us. “Guys, what are you seeing?”
Luvy gulped. “Well, the crazy people who got abducted by aliens got it right too. Two humanoids. Small, slender, blue-gray in color. Eyes and nostrils bigger, mouth smaller.”
“Is there movement?”
“No,” Luvy said.
“Life signs, as we know them, are also negative,” I added.
“Let’s hold and live feed. Give all the scientists some idea what we’re dealing with.”
So we hung. From time to time, base asked for a different angle or to clarify an observation. Twenty-four hours later, we got the tug order. It was the biggest thing we’d ever hauled, and this time we had a specific location in the graveyard. Of course, we’d seen ALL before, even practiced docking. But this time, the Alien Life Lab was itself coming to life. Lights were going on all over. Space or no space, I swear I heard it humming.
The scientists who staffed it would soon be joined by countless others. For now, they stood on the bridge watching our arrival. I looked at their faces and thought that’s what my expression must look like.
I think of you, Dad, on the rare occasion I need to back up the ship, especially with a transfer vehicle attached. “Garbage man, one of the top ten most dangerous professions. And we take out a fair number of civilians each year too.”
I carefully maneuvered into the INERT dock, on the opposite end of the craft from the LIVE dock. As far as we knew, we were making the right call. As far as we knew.
I released the pod into dock and pulled away as the triple doors shut. The ALL crew remained at the bridge to wave as we passed.
Dad always said the landfill reminded him of the moon, slow-moving vehicles crawling over a dusty, bumpy surface. But then he’d lean back in his chair and add, “Or a cat covering its crap.” What would he think of this place?
We headed back to Earth, Luv and I contemplating longer-than-usual decontamination, quarantine, and debriefing.
“I’m glad they weren’t alive, I guess,” Luvy said.
“Me too.” But I couldn’t help but think of resurrection plants and tardigrades. Of what we didn’t know.
“Someday it might be different,” she continued, “First live contact.”
I nodded. “Hopefully we’ll know more then. Develop different strategies.”
So what am I today, Dad? Engineer? Pilot? Trashman? Pallbearer? I sometimes wonder if my father would be proud of me.
Inspired by his father to greatness, Emin Luke lives an extraordinary life. Still he questions roads not taken, in the past and in the future.
Liz Hufford is a lapsed people-pleaser and a competitive reader. She has on occasion doodled Yoda and created otherworldly ceramics. In 2017, she finalled in the Roswell Award for Short Science Fiction. Some previously published stories were reprinted in best-of-the-year anthologies. Her sundry work history includes (but is not limited to) stints as an editorial cartoonist, an oral historian, and a professor. Her sometime passions include tennis, miniatures, and travel. Her favorite new word and practice is fika.
Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“Trash Landing” is © 2019 Liz Hufford
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Leigh Legler