“Garbage Men” by Andrew Hellard

Nuke Moon, by Tracy Dilorenzo
[Illustration: “Nuke Moon” © 2006 by Tracy Dilorenzo.]

Maxwell was in the middle of the first steak he had seen in almost a year when the communicator holstered at his waist began to beep. Maxwell sighed and closed the lid of his magnetized plate so the medium-rare ribeye wouldn’t float away, and answered the call. The mid-watch duty officer appeared on the device’s tiny screen.

“What can I do for you, Commander?” Maxwell said, idly using a fork to pry a piece of gristle from between two molars.

“Haystack has picked up a sizable object headed our way,” the officer said. Maxwell locked the fork into a slot on the table.

“How long?”

“We’ve got 372 minutes before it enters the exclusion zone. I’d say you should get a move on it.”

Maxwell passed his steak to the surprised maintenance tech sitting across the table and headed for the door. Eleven months off-planet had taught him to use the handholds lining the station’s walls with the agility of a hyper-adapted space monkey. The launch bay containing the only two Catfish class spacecraft in existence and their control apparatus was on the opposite end of the linked-globe structure that made up Platform Alpha.

Maxwell’s haste was due to two facts. One was that his pay was directly linked to the number of drone launches he coordinated. The second was that even more of his pay was linked to the number of orbital hazards that entered the exclusion zone surrounding Alpha and, more important, surrounding the platform’s leash. Alpha hung on the end of a sixty-thousand-mile carbon nanotube ribbon, stretching from space to a city-sized barge anchored off the coast of Ecuador. Robotic climbers moved along the ribbon constantly, ferrying materials and equipment from Earth to orbit. The space elevator had taken three years to build from a single, hair-thin string to a structure that could support a fourteen-ton payload. Three years and enough money to buy everyone on the planet a decent seafood dinner. Understandably, the consortium of governments that technically owned the entire enterprise, and the corporations that had made it a reality, took a dim view of anything punching a hole in that priceless lifeline. That was where Maxwell’s employers came in.

The contractor reached the sealed command facility overlooking Bay Twelve in under three minutes, but Amal beat him there anyway. Maxwell’s assistant was already strapped into the drone’s pilot chair when the powered door hissed shut.

“Looks like you’re riding shotgun again, boss,” Amal grinned, bright teeth contrasting sharply with his dark-brown skin.

“I’ll get you next time,” Maxwell grumbled while settling into the chair next to Amal. “I was in the middle of dinner.”

“Excuses, excuses. Last time you were sleeping. And the time before that you were in the bathroom,” Amal said.

“Next tour, I’m going to make sure that Lockheed gives me the authority to blow insubordinate team members out the airlock,” Maxwell shot back, as he scanned the pre-flight checklist running across one of his screens.

“Be careful what you wish for. From what I’m seen, there are a few people up here that wouldn’t mind blowing you out of an airlock.”

Maxwell shook his head in mock sorrow. “I’m afraid that the military mind just isn’t capable of appreciating the unique genius of Team Maxwell.”

“Pretty soon, they’re going to be failing to appreciate the unique genius of Team Amal, short-timer. You’ve got what, another two weeks?” Amal said.

“Ten days, and I’m headed groundside to pick up my fat check and go looking for the largest piece of seared dead cow in the Western Hemisphere.”

“And try out your ‘Would you girls like to see my astronaut tattoo?’ line in bars.”

“Of course.” Maxwell ended the banter by squinting at a blinking icon on his heads-up display. “We’re ready to go. Which one is it going to be: Ladybug or Calico?” Amal checked a Post-It note stuck to his chair.

“Ladybug. Calico went out last time.” Maxwell began powering up the drone’s systems.

“Do we have telemetry from Haystack?” he asked. Amal tapped the touch pad by his left hand.

“We’re linking up with their feed right now.” The Haystack Observatory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a contract to track every piece of space junk in low-Earth orbit. What had originally been the quixotic project of a few professors and graduate assistants became big business with the construction of the first space elevator. The sensors on Platform Alpha and a network of ground tracking stations fed information to Haystack. The observatory sifted the torrent of raw data into useful trajectory plots for every hunk of dead satellite, lost NASA rocket booster, and Chinese soda can outside the atmosphere. The results were fed directly into the system sitting in front of Maxwell and Amal.

Amal tapped a series of commands into his touch pad. A robotic arm attached to the series of tracks running along the bay’s ceiling came to life, and the external bay doors opened slowly. Whirring on nearly silent electric motors, the arm gently grasped the nearest drone at specially reinforced points and carried the craft towards the vacuum of space. With an unnecessary flourish, Amal entered a final command, and the arm stopped well short of its goal and hurled Ladybug out into the black. The drone spun end over end away from the platform until Amal expertly fired secondary pulsed-plasma thrusters to stabilize her flight path.

Maxwell chuckled. “Show-off.”

“I’ve been stuck on a space station for six months with no one but you and a bunch of stick-up-the-ass military types for company. I have to get my entertainment somewhere.”

“Speaking of which, I see that India managed to choke in the finals,” Maxwell said. “It was close, though. For a minute, I thought your boys had finally learned how to play soccer.”

Amal winced. “I was hoping you’d forgotten the game was last night.”

“Not a chance. Why do I suspect that you don’t have any cash on you?”

“How about an I.O.U.?” Amal smiled hopefully. Maxwell waved the offer off.

“You can just add it to the other ones, and that stack is getting pretty high. Never bet on the hometown boys. You should know that.”

Amal shrugged. “What can I say? I’m sentimental.”

Maxwell rechecked the calculations from Haystack as Amal maneuvered the drone away from the platform. Ladybug’s designers had chosen a pair of hybrid rocket engines as her main propulsion, eschewing more sophisticated designs in favor of simplicity and high thrust. The downside was a cone of spent reaction mass behind the spacecraft that could cut apart Platform Alpha and her precious ribbon like cold steel through a Thanksgiving turkey.

Working quickly, Maxwell finished feeding Haystack’s information into the panel’s processors. “I’ve got the crossover point and burn times calculated. Ready when you are.” At Maxwell’s command, Amal switched on the powerful rockets and Ladybug started to move. The threatening piece of scrap was hurtling through space at what was, relative to Earth, an incredible speed. Ladybug needed to accelerate out to a pre-determined point, switch end-over-end, decelerate, and then fire her engines again to reach a relative velocity of zero with her target, all without accidentally burning up in the atmosphere or hurtling off on a road-trip out of the galaxy. The g-forces involved were far beyond what any human could withstand, which was why Maxwell and Amal were back on Platform Alpha, sitting in comfortable chairs and trying not to fall asleep while Ladybug boosted towards her appointed rendezvous.

Amal put on a compact headset and listened to music while keeping half an eye on the status readouts on his viewscreens. Maxwell resisted the urge to fire up solitaire on his communicator and began to review the data from Haystack instead. After a glance at the summary, he lightly punched Amal on the shoulder. The other man took off his earphones and raised an eyebrow.

“Check out the mass the groundpounders estimated for this one.”

Amal squinted at the readout and whistled. “Are you sure this one isn’t on the list? You’d think that someone would remember losing a satellite that big.”

Maxwell shook his head. “I can run it through our systems, but if Haystack says it isn’t on the list, then it isn’t on the list.” Prior to the advent of the Space Elevator, putting objects into orbit involved bolting expensive and delicate satellites on top of chemically powered boosters with designs dating to the 1950s, and hoping for the best. Even if the satellite made it out of the atmosphere, the slightest malfunction resulted in a tiny and very expensive moon in low-Earth orbit. When Lockheed had won the contract to protect the elevator, the company had discreetly inquired whether anyone had anything currently in orbit that they would like to get back. Every object that Haystack tracked was now compared against that list. The finder’s fees that resulted from retrieving a satellite and loading it on an Earth-bound climber were considerable.

“Why don’t you see what you can pick up using Ladybug’s suite?” Maxwell said. Amal nodded in agreement. He sent a series of commands to the drone, and in the distance, Ladybug’s advanced sensors came to life and focused on the approaching object. She quickly returned a detailed radar map of the target’s surface, which Maxwell used to scan the list of known satellites.

“No match,” Maxwell said.

“I guess we get to wait. Ladybug will be in camera range in another twenty minutes,” Amal said.

“Try to keep the lens on it while you decelerate. I don’t like not knowing what we’re dealing with.” Maxwell occupied his time by running through Calico’s checklist, on the remote possibility that they would require the second drone’s services. Amal nudged him a few minutes later.

“Check it out.” Amal put the stream from the drone’s camera on the largest screen. The dead satellite had an irregular, ovoid-shaped body and a matched pair of jutting, rectangular solar panels. Explaining both the satellite’s malfunction and slow, wobbling rotation, half of one panel was missing, torn away in some long-ago accident. No markings were visible on the machine’s smooth alloy skin, and it’s only significant feature was a regular crease that bisected the entire main body. Maxwell pointed his index finger at the screen.

“Do those look like maneuvering jets to you?” Amal paused the recording and ran it back to get a closer look.

“I don’t know what else they could be,” he said. “I’m going to admit it. I have absolutely no idea what that thing is.”

“I don’t either.” Maxwell said. “It’s a little on the big side to run into the atmosphere, but I think we can get the angle right to make sure it burns completely.”

Amal scratched his chin thoughtfully. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. It’s going to take some time to make the calculations, and with our closing velocity, we’re going to be cutting it close. I don’t want Ladybug to run out of reaction mass in mid-capture.”

Maxwell looked doubtful. “You want to bring it in here? That’s a pretty dicey maneuver.”

“I know. But do you really want to chance spreading debris that size over Chicago or Delhi?”

Maxwell shrugged. “Chicago? No. Delhi? Would anyone notice?”

Amal laughed. “There you go again, you colonizing white devil.”

Maxwell bit his lip and ran a few numbers through the panel. Amal drummed fingertips against his armrest until Maxwell said, “Do you really think this is a good idea?”

“No. But you want to get a closer look as much as I do.”

Maxwell rubbed at the corner of one eye. “We’re going to have to get permission for this one. It’s your idea. You get to make the call.”

Amal shook his head again. “There you go again. Oppressing the brown man.” Amal’s sorrowful words were betrayed by the eager glint in his eye. The duty officer immediately elected to kick the decision upstairs, setting off a chain of com calls that ended with Platform Alpha’s newly woken commander telling Amal that as long as no one dented his space station, he didn’t give a damn what they did with the orphaned satellite. Maxwell chose to take this as explicit permission.

Three hours and one tricky recovery sequence later, Ladybug was back in her berth with the object of all the furor sitting next to her. Maxwell pressurized the launch bay and followed Amal down to get a better look. The satellite was about two-thirds as long as one of the drones, and in even worse condition than they had thought from the long-range video. Its surface was pocked from micrometeorite collisions, and scorch marks along the bottom told a mute tale of a botched launch. The contractors undertook a slow circumnavigation of their discovery, which only confirmed what they already knew. There were no markings of any kind on the outside of the satellite. Maxwell was familiar with the construction techniques of most modern space programs, and this particular item fit none of them.

Almost an hour later, Amal gently pushed away and came to a rest against a nearby wall. “I’d say we’re back where we started.”

Maxwell nodded, holding onto a handhold welded to Ladybug’s hull. “I can’t even guess what it was supposed to do. It’s got no external camera, so it’s not a photoreconnaissance bird. It did have fairly major antenna at one point,” Maxwell pointed to a broken spar stabbing out from the satellite, an evident casualty of the same impact that had destroyed the solar panel. “But even so, there isn’t nearly enough gear on it for any serious communications purpose.”

Amal gestured at a poorly aligned body panel. “I will say one thing. That piece was never installed by an American or Japanese technician. Quality control would have had a fit.”

Maxwell gave a disgusted grunt. “I’m stumped, so here’s what’s going to happen next. I’m going to go back to my room, take a shower, and eat the last can of gumbo from my care package. Then I’m going to go to sleep. If the answer doesn’t come to me in a dream, I’m going to run this thing a few thousand miles down the ribbon and slingshot it into the sun.”

Amal smiled thinly. “You’re the boss, but I’m going to borrow some equipment and open her up.”

Maxwell waved dismissively. “You’re off the clock. Do whatever you want, but come next shift, this bay needs to be clear.” Maxwell started for the nearest hatch. Behind him, Amal was already on his communicator, trading favors with the head maintenance tech for the loan of some power tools. Once outside the launch bay, Maxwell hesitated. Heaving a sigh, he leaned back inside and snapped a quick picture with the camera built into his communicator. This simple task complete, he headed towards the quarters he shared with Amal, trying to crowd curiosity out of his mind with the bribe of a sponge bath followed by spicy food.

The gumbo was excellent, even if Maxwell did have to suck it through a straw so that he didn’t have pieces of shrimp floating in his room for the next week and a half. After dinner, he strapped into his bunk and tried to sleep. He gave up after five minutes and crawled hand-over-hand to the terminal set into a small desk next to the bed. One of Maxwell’s friends from college, a quirky little man by the name of Rick Jamison, occupied the newly endowed chair of Orbital Technology at the University of Michigan. Rick owed Maxwell an immense number of favors, dating back to an undergraduate prank gone bad that ended with Maxwell dragging his near-comatose friend from a burning sorority house. With this incident firmly in mind, Maxwell banged out a short email to Rick and attached the image of the satellite stored on his communicator. Confident that he had demonstrated due diligence to the satisfaction of his contract, Maxwell went back to bed and dreamed of chasing a gigantic, glowing beach ball up and down the reddish sands of Mars.

Seven hours later, the lights in Maxwell’s quarters began to blink on and off to signal that his shift would begin in two hours. He groaned and would have rolled over if the restraints he used to keep his sleeping body from wandering all over the cabin would have allowed it. Maxwell soon surrendered to the inevitable and got out of bed. As he dressed, he noticed that Amal’s neatly made-up bunk had not been disturbed. Maxwell was unsurprised at the depth of the other man’s inquisitiveness. Amal’s slightly obsessive nature was part of the reason Lockheed had selected him for the elevator assignment. It made him an excellent drone pilot, if also somewhat prone to lay double or nothing on the L.A. Lakers covering the spread.

Maxwell swung by the cafeteria for some processed eggs before heading down to the gym. Despite a regular workout regimen, Maxwell had lost a great deal of muscle mass during his tour off-planet and he wanted to keep the pain of relearning to walk in gravity to a minimum. Still, his trip to the exercise facilities had an ulterior motive. There were few places on the crowded platform where a man could sit and think without being disturbed. One of those places was a stationary bicycle, provided that the man in question wore headphones and studiously avoided eye contact. Maxwell worked different shifts from most of the station’s crew, so the gym was largely empty. He settled on his favorite bike and started pedaling. The hulking mass of steel and plastic in his launch bay weighed on Maxwell’s mind. Despite his earlier announcement to Amal, Maxwell had little desire to destroy such an unusual object without study. On the other hand, the launch bay did need to be clear in case of emergencies, and there was no other place on the station to store the satellite.

Maxwell had only just broken a sweat when his communicator’s message indicator beeped. He opened the device without breaking his pedaling rhythm, and his interest rose considerably when he saw that the email was from Jamison. The message itself was terse.

“I’m going to send you another email in about ten minutes. Read it somewhere private.” Maxwell’s heart jumped. He hurriedly dismounted, and paused only to towel off the bike seat before navigating Platform Alpha’s cramped passageways back to his quarters. Exactly ten minutes after he received the first email, the communicator beeped again. Maxwell shed his workout clothes, got into his bunk and opened the new message. Generally, Jamison started his communications to Maxwell with an obscene Internet joke or amusing picture. This time he got straight to the heart of the matter.

“Max, my boy, part of me really wants to know where you found that thing, but the other part knows better than to ask. I did some quiet checking with the information you sent me, and it didn’t take me long to end up in the classified section of the university database. What you have is a Russian satellite, all right, but not just any Russian space toaster. That thing is a genuine Soviet Union-era relic. Most of what we know about the program that produced it came from a defector in the late Eighties. This guy claimed that his boss, a real mad-scientist type named Stepankov, had actually managed to create a workable X-Ray laser. Now, Teller and his boys tried and failed to do exactly that for Reagan’s SDI program, so the scientist types on the payroll told the CIA that the defector was blowing smoke up their skirts. I don’t know what happened to him, but a few months later a Kazakh janitor hightailed it out of one of the Russian launch facilities in his country, and brought a whole bunch of pictures with him. One of the shots is of a brand-new satellite that’s a dead ringer for the one you just dumped onto my hard drive. Some CIA bureaucrat put two and two together and wrote up a report, but right around then the wall came down, and suddenly the USA and Russia were the best of friends. So, my educated guess is that you’ve got the prototype of a Soviet orbital ICBM defense satellite on your hands.”

Maxwell sighed heavily and wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead before continuing with the email. “I know you probably just felt a great swell of relief. I haven’t told you the bad news yet. Remember when I said about X-Ray lasers? Well, let me tell you how one of those bad boys works. The executive summary is the X-Ray photons in a collection of glass rods are bombarded with a shit-load of gamma-ray photons, causing the rods to spontaneously emit a really freaking powerful laser. Clever idea, huh? The next pertinent point is that in this particular application, those gamma-ray photons come from a nuclear explosion. That’s right. This is a single-use weapon, with the shot propelled along by a twenty-kiloton blast.” Maxwell’s hands started to shake. “That last bit of data is why I’m currently deleting all references to this conversation off my network. I suggest you do the same if you can. From that picture, it looks like that satellite is sitting in a bay on Platform Alpha. If you’re not in custody right now, I’m also going to guess that no one else knows that you’ve got it. From a certain point of view, that satellite is the property of the Russian government. From another point of view, you are personally responsible for bringing a Soviet nuclear bomb onto the space elevator that is making our government’s beloved Mission to Mars possible. You can do the math. Call me when you get back to Earth, and we’ll swap stories.”

Maxwell deleted the email and threw on his company-issued jumpsuit. Visions of Amal’s clumsy autopsy detonating the bomb warred with even more graphic visions of federal prison time for endangering government property. He elected to risk a call to his assistant, if only to tell him to stop cutting. Amal had a block on all incoming transmissions, so Maxwell cursed at his assistant’s voicemail and started towards the launch bay. As the legacy of a misspent youth, Amal had an advanced degree in nuclear engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology. That made it unlikely the man was going to do anything to endanger the station. With a bit of luck, the two of them could have one of the drones haul the satellite out into space and mail it fourth-class to the Horsehead Nebula with no one in a position of authority the wiser.

Maxwell made it to the bay in near-record time. The light above the hatch glowed green, signaling that there was air pressure inside. Maxwell tapped at the keypad set to one side and cursed again. Amal had placed an administrative lock on the bay, generally only used when they were in the middle of expelling or retrieving a drone. Maxwell only hesitated for an instant before tapping in his override code. The hatch hissed open and Maxwell floated inside. The black satellite was where Maxwell had left it, strapped down in the middle of the bay. Amal was nowhere in sight. Maxwell pushed off the wall and glided over to the spacecraft, grasping onto the mangled solar panel. He clambered over the top and looked down.

A great gash had been sliced into the side of the satellite with the heavy-duty acetylene torch bound to an attachment point in the floor. An equipment chest sat next to the torch, and various hand tools hovered about in blatant violation of zero-gee protocol. Unrecognizable pieces of scrap and long-dead bits of technology floated around the bay, torn from the bowels of the derelict. The contractor climbed down and tethered his safety harness to a convenient hook. Maxwell had expected to find Amal somewhere in the room, but the compartment was empty. His first instinct was to find his assistant, but Maxwell instead gave in to curiosity. Amal had cut a wide circle into the machine’s skin large enough to admit a man. Paused for a moment, Maxwell stuck his head inside. The cavity was dark, so Maxwell fumbled for the flashlight in one of his hip pockets and clicked it on.

The center of the satellite was hollow. Along the rim of the open space were dozens of long, transparent rods. The broken glass scattered around the bottom testified to Amal’s less than surgical technique. An oblong block of steel and plastic was cradled in the very center of the satellite by long, gray cylinders. Wires ran into and out of the complicated device, and bright red messages in Cyrillic were stenciled on the outside, as was the universal yellow and black sign for radiation.

“Holy shit,” Maxwell muttered. What had elicited this vulgarity was the condition of the bomb. It had been cut open as well, although the much cleaner scorch lines bespoke a level of care not shown to the outside hull. Inside the bomb was a tangle of wires, all of which had been neatly cut and moved aside. The wires had once embraced an object about the size of an overlarge basketball. There was no sign of the missing orb that had once been the missile-killer’s heart. Maxwell pulled his head back into the open air and breathed deeply, trying to slow his pounding heart. He remembered enough from a long-ago briefing to know that there was now around eight kilograms of plutonium loose on Platform Alpha. He was also afraid that he knew where it was. Maxwell unclipped his communicator and called the command center.

“This is Maxwell. I need Amal, and he’s not answering his com. Can you page him for me?” The youngish petty officer manning the communications console took a second to check the schedules before replying.

“I’m sorry, sir, but Mr. Pradesh contacted me about an hour ago and said that he had a family emergency back on Earth. I believe he’s going to catch the next passenger crawler back down the ribbon. He didn’t tell you about it?”

“No, he didn’t.” Maxwell tried to keep panic out of his voice. “It must have slipped his mind. When is that crawler leaving?”

“At 0715.” Maxwell ended the call and checked the time. He had a little over fifteen minutes before the crawler started the journey Earthward. Every person that that boarded a crawler had a personal effects allocation of fifty kilograms. Even with the inevitable radiation shielding, that allocation meant that Amal’s burden wouldn’t trip any red flags in the automation that ran the robots.

The last round of cost-cutting had done away with security checks on the platform for Earth-bound travelers. The assumption was that anything worth stealing on Platform Alpha would be reported stolen long before the crawler reached Earth. It would be easy enough to call groundside and have Amal picked up when he arrived, but that would require telling the station authorities how the man came into possession of several million dollars worth of fissionable material. Maxwell vacillated briefly and stopped only to stick a heavy wrench into one cargo pocket before leaving the bay. The crawlers were completely automated, so there was no one at the door to check boarding passes. Maxwell suspected that he wouldn’t have any trouble getting on board. What would happen after that was a matter for speculation.

He reached the designated cargo loading bay with plenty of time to spare. After cautiously glancing inside to make sure that Amal was already inside the robot, Maxwell waited until seconds before the crawler was due to leave. At 0715 exactly the depressurization warning alarm erupted. Maxwell swung around the open hatch and launched his body at the rapidly disappearing space between the crawler’s sliding doors. Reflexes honed by months in freefall served him well, and he neatly slid into the passenger compartment just as airlock sealed behind him. Maxwell felt a swell of pride at this display of skill, until he realized that he had failed to account for both Newton’s Third Law and the lack of padding on the interior of the climber. He slammed into the far wall and felt something crack in his left shoulder. The impact spun Maxwell backwards in a sickening spin and, winded from the crash, he was unable to right his body until someone took a hold of his foot and gently guided him to a bench. Amal strapped a restraint harness around Maxwell and leaned forward to say,

“Look down.” Still dazed, Maxwell did as he was bid and drew a sharp breath at the sight of a pocket plasma welder pressed against his sternum. “That was a nice piece of flying there, but I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish.” Amal’s tone was light and conversational. Maxwell had recovered enough to scan the small, circular compartment. There were no other passengers occupying the simple steel benches that lined the walls, and the small viewscreen opposite of Maxwell showed Platform Alpha receding in the distance. An insistent, stabbing pain spread out from Maxwell’s left clavicle and the arm on that side of his body didn’t seem to be taking instructions at the moment. With considerable effort, Maxwell gathered his thoughts and nodded towards the large, hazardous materials container secured by cargo webbing below the opposite bench.

“I think you may have inadvertently removed something from the station.”

The corner of Amal’s mouth twitched. “I see. And what is it that you think that I inadvertently removed?”

“It’s hard to say for sure, but if I had to guess, I would say that if you discarded the packaging, it would weigh about eight kilograms.”

Amal sat back, but kept the welder pressed against Maxwell’s side. “I would say closer to ten than to eight, but you’re probably on the right track. Let’s say for argument’s sake that I did in fact, take something off the station that I shouldn’t have. Why are you here to retrieve it yourself? Couldn’t you have called Oceanic One and had them pick it up for you?”

Maxwell forgot about his collarbone and tried to shrug. Amal waited patiently until Maxwell stopped writhing in pain. “I suppose I could have done that, but then I would have to explain to everyone involved exactly what that object is.”

“And you would really prefer to deal with the issue in-house. I see.”

“I don’t think either our employers or our military hosts need to become involved in this minor administrative matter.”

“I can see your point. You have a problem, and I have a problem.” Amal removed the welder’s muzzle from Maxwell’s side, but didn’t put the device away. “I doubt you’d be here if you didn’t have a solution in mind.”

“I do have a few ideas,” Maxwell said. “If I understand your problem correctly, even if you do get off of Oceanic One with your rather valuable package intact, you still have to find a buyer. And even if you do find a buyer, you’ll have to avoid having the aforementioned buyer slit your throat and dump you in a gutter.”

“And your problem is that if you have to retrieve the package by involving anyone not in this room, then your freedom of movement is likely to be severely curtailed for, say, the next eighteen to twenty-four months,” Amal finished the thought.

Maxwell smiled coldly and said, “Exactly. Here’s my proposal. You need a buyer. I happen to have access to both a small discretionary fund and a not-so-small tour-completion bonus.”

Amal scratched behind his ear with the welder’s handle. “That is an interesting idea. Throw me a ballpark figure.”

“I could do five-hundred thousand.”

Amal snorted.

“I could get five-hundred K without leaving Oceanic One. I need at least two million to make it worth my while.”

“I may be able to do seven-fifty.”

“I’ve seen the company’s bonus scale. You’ve probably got that much in your spare-change drawer.”

“Fine. A million and a quarter, but I’ll have make a few calls.”

“Done. You’d better hope your broker answers the phone.” Maxwell’s broker was at lunch, but did answer his phone. The man’s irritation at the interruption evaporated when he realized the scale of the commissions involved. Once everything was set into motion, Maxwell put his communicator away. Amal had settled into the seat next to Maxwell. Gravity was slowly reasserting its heavy grasp, so the entire compartment rotated so that they were facing away from Earth. The unaccustomed gravity made talking difficult, but Maxwell tried anyway.

“The money will be in your account by the time we land. I’m going to take this entire incident as your resignation letter.”

Amal laughed. “Don’t be like that, boss. You should know I’m not going to be using that cash to buy gold-plated toilets or anything. I’ve got debts.”

“How much are you in for?” Maxwell said.

“Enough that this little payday may just save my neck,” Amal said.

“Sounds like you’ve been laying bets with the wrong people.”

“That’s the problem with the globalized economy. You can get in hock to Albanian gangsters without getting anywhere near Albania. What can I say? I just can’t stay away from the ponies. And cricket. And college basketball. And those rocket races they run out in New Mexico.”

With a disgusted grunt, Maxwell ended the exchange by taking a nap. He was awakened a few minutes before they arrived by a confirmation message from his broker. He gave Amal a thumbs-up. Amal placed a short call to his bank, and smiled broadly when his account manager read back his current balance. Shortly thereafter, the crawler came to a halt on the giant floating dock that made up Oceanic One. Maxwell’s limbs felt as though they were lined with lead. Amal had spent fewer months in orbit than Maxwell, and it showed by how quickly he was up and out of his seat. Maxwell retrieved the wrench from his pocket and struggled up to stand between Amal and the container holding the plutonium. Amal chucked and shook his head.

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t take any chances,” Maxwell said, gripping the wrench tightly.

Ciao, boss. I don’t think I’m going to see you around.”

“You’d better hope not,” Maxwell said, praying that the other man didn’t notice the gravity-induced tremor in his legs.

A company tech opened the airlock and said, “Everyone off. This guy’s headed back up in ten minutes.” Amal scooted out the open door so quickly that the tech had to leap aside. When Maxwell showed no signs of following, the tech gave Maxwell’s wrench a questioning glance and said, “Are you coming?”

Maxwell shook his head. “No, I was just along for the ride. I’m going back up.”

“Suit yourself.” The tech began to walk away, but said over his shoulder, “You do have a few minutes. Why don’t you come out and take a look around? I’ll bet you haven’t seen the ocean in a while.” The sea-salt laced air was a shock to Maxwell’s system after long months of sterile, scrubbed oxygen. Platform Alpha was kept at a steady sixty-two degrees Fahrenheit, so the sunlight beaming from a cloudless sky was pleasantly warm. Maxwell staggered to the nearest railing and leaned on it. He stared out across the blue-green waters and made a final phone call. His agent answered on the fourth ring.

“It’s Maxwell. I’m going to need you to renegotiate another tour for me.”

“What? I thought you were chomping at the bit to get Earth-side.”

Maxwell rubbed his aching shoulder. “Let’s just say that I had a bad run of luck at the track.” *

About the Author: Andrew Hellard is a freelance writer living and working in Central Ohio. His short fiction has appeared in Combat Magazine and is scheduled to run this summer in Nth Degree and Nth-Zine.
(c) 2006 Andrew Hellard ahellard@gmail.com
Web site: http://www.assaultmonkey.com 

About the Artist: Tracy Dilorenzo went to Shelley Park College of Art and Design in England and has lived in Europe and the United States. She specialises in oil painting, chalk pastel, and the encaustic art. She had her own business in England doing mural painting. Most of her work is commissioned, with a focus on portraits of people and animals in chalk and on landscapes in oils.
Tracy taught herself the encaustic art three years ago. Space scenes are very popular in England, and she hopes to have some on display at the DragonCon show in Atlanta this year. She also teaches the technique as an evening class.
(c) 2006 Tracy Dilorenzo tracydilorenzo@hotmail.com

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One Comment on ““Garbage Men” by Andrew Hellard”

  1. modelmaker64 Says:

    This is a very entertaining story. I like how it is a near future possibilty with some poor guy doing his job and getting caught up in a mess not of his own making. I hope to see more of Mr. Hellards work in the future.


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