by Robert Lowell Russell
The hundred meter wide ball of garbage dangled on the diamond-filament cable. A climber pod propelled the pile to the distant Tsiolkovsky anchor, orbiting Earth. Another heap was just breaking through the planet's atmosphere, while others, farther on their journey, formed a 65,000-kilometer necklace of beads, gleaming with reflected sunlight.
"High level of biologics on this one." Cameron studied his ship's scan. "Close to the surface, too. We'll be eating well tonight, little buddy."
Gem rubbed her face against Cameron's hand. The gray-haired man scratched under the her chin. He was about to fire a claim buoy into the junk when a marker from another vessel streaked by.
"Son of a b—"
The cat's ears perked, and she looked to a jar filled with old coins.
"—bear," finished the old man.
The cat tilted her head.
"What? It doesn't count if I don't say it."
"Fine." Cameron fished a random coin from his pocket and dropped it into the jar.
The other vessel was already settling on the rubbish. The RV-sized craft was half again the mass of Cameron's tug and appeared new. Scans indicated a sharp drop in the trash-ball's velocity. He shook his head.
"You came in too hot," he broadcasted to the rival vessel before shifting his attention to the next ball of trash in line.
Balancing himself on the garbage heap, Cameron dug his sticky-boots into its surface and gave the hose in his hands a sharp tug.
Meow, came Gem's voice in his helmet.
For the hundredth time, Cameron regretted teaching the cat to work the ship's comms, but he knew the animal liked to hear his voice.
"Just a clogged line," he told her.
He'd spent an hour carving a hole into the filament mesh binding the ball and another hour tunneling through the junk. Now, he pushed a suction hose into a buried mass of biologics. Once the ship's processors finished turning the carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and other elements into food, he wasn't supposed to be able to taste whatever the material had once been, but everyone knew that was....
He tallied another coin for the jar.
Sometimes he found interesting trinkets or old coins, but today he'd found, well, garbage. What he and the other scavengers couldn't harvest from the refuse would be slung around the moon and sent on its way to Mars or Europa, or wherever factory bots could recycle the materials into something useful.
He and Gem didn't need much for themselves. Just steady meals and each other's company.
He glanced toward the looming Tsiolkovsky anchor, now only two hours distant. Quitting time. Wouldn't do to be caught--
A flash of light and an eruption of refuse on the adjacent garbage ball turned Cameron's stomach cold. Even before the mayday came blaring over his comm, he was running toward his ship.
Cameron couldn't tell if the drifting, suited figure was alive or dead. Relief washed over him once he got the woman's helmet off onboard his ship and saw her slow, ragged breathing. She was young, with dark skin.
Meow. Gem butted the woman with her head. The woman's eyes fluttered open.
"Burned half my blasted fuel to save you," said Cameron. "You'll be paying me back for that."
Meow. Gem disapproved of his tone.
"Couldn't save your fancy new ship," he said. "Maybe they'll sling it back to you in a few years."
She stared at him, then her eyes went wide. "TOMÁS!"
Gem's tail turned as fat as a feather duster.
"Calm down, lady. My name's not—"
"My boy!" The woman pointed to the ship's display. It showed her vessel still grappled to her claim as it accelerated toward the moon.
"Son of a bear." Cameron strapped himself into his seat.
"What's your name, lady?"
"Better hold on to something, Sofi."
He lit the engines.
Cameron wove his ship around the debris field trailing the garbage balls as they began their curve toward the moon.
He kept a careful eye on his ship's fuel gauge and the velocity of the junk heap he pursued. He shook his head. A vessel with a full tank on a heavy burn might make it back home. Not his ship.
"Sofi," he said to the woman. "Could you stick my cat in the carrier under my bunk? Watch it though. She won't go easy."
"The gray box with the dials?"
"That's the one."
"She's already inside it."
Cameron smiled. "Of course she is."
Looking around his ship, he sighed. It was filled with odds and ends
from over the years. "Just a bunch of junk." He patted his ship's dashboard. "You too, if we're being honest."
A loud bang rattled the ship, and it bucked in space.
"Oh, don't you start. You know I don't mean it." He patted his ship again. "Just a little farther."
The ball of trash he pursued filled the display.
Onboard Sofia's ship the woman had wrapped her eight-year-old son in a hug. Cameron took a seat in the new vessel's cockpit.
"Look, Jiminy, it's a real boy," he said to Gem, now out of her carrier.
He waved one last goodbye to his vessel, dutifully clamped to the junk pile. "Maybe the bots will slap some new paint on you and send you back home to me. Never know."
They blasted away from the trash heap.
Finished with exploring her new surroundings, Gem settled into his lap.
"Nice ship you got here, Sofi," said Cameron over his shoulder, "but we'll need to make a few changes."
The cat used her claws to soften his leg, and he winced.
"First, we'll need to find a jar."
About the Author
Robert Lowell Russell grew in up Austin and now lives with his family in Ohio. He once aspired to be a history professor but found writing about the real world too constraining. Rob has had more than thirty stories published and likes to write about all sorts of things, frequently including action and humor in his work. Not satisfied with writing stories of questionable content for adults, he's also working on a series of middle school books incorporating his love of mad scientists and not-so-super-heroes.
This story originally appeared at Untied Shoelaces of the Mind (now on hiatus).
More by the Author
"Operation Round Orange" - Saturday Evening Post Online
"The Flittiest Catch" - Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show
"Scents of Life" - Daily Science Fiction
"Here There Be Monsters?" - Stupefying Stories Showcase
"If She Pushes the Button, Turn to Page 116" - Daily Science Fiction
World's Shortest Author Interview
You could either be frozen for future revival or immediately reanimated after death. Which do you choose and why? Are you a zombie afterwards? Do you live in the body of a pigeon? Why do you keep calling me Charles?
I would choose to be frozen for future revival rather than become one of the undead. I'm afraid if I was a zombie I'd never be able to catch anyone to eat their brains, because I'm not exactly in great shape now and I don't see me getting any faster when I have all my squishy bits rotting off. I'd like to wake up in the future and see all the cool new stuff, then get a sporty new robot body and break things in a fit of time-displaced angst. And I'm not calling you Charles, Charles. Why do you keep asking me that?
What's your favorite imaginary color?
About the Artist
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology. He does most of the Space Squid cover designs.