The majesty of space was somewhat lost on you when you are responsible for the solar systems garbage disposal, thought Len Patterson of the Astronomical Item Inspection and Removal Unit. He looked out from his cramped cockpit at Saturn a million kilometres away, floating just within the orbit of its largest moon, Titan, with a surly disinterest. Sure Saturn with its rings might be pleasant enough to look at for your average tourist when they got those rare chances to see the sights of the solar system, but when you were forced to look at it every day from the confines of a space faring rubbish truck it quickly became an eyesore. As he keyed in the command to extend his boat’s 10-kilometre-wide molecularly charged net he once again pined over Neptune. He had only ever made it out to the solar systems furthest planet once (though he had been out to as far as its orbit several times) during his 30 years on the job but it had stayed with him ever since. A huge blue marble was how he thought of it, the kind of blue that just seemed to warm you down to your soul, flecked here and there were hints of white or black belying the fastest winds in the solar system. But from the safety of his cockpit all they did was add dashes of character to a superb backdrop, like the masterstrokes of an artist painting on God’s canvas. He smiled just thinking about it. Saturn evoked none of the same romance in him. As a fresh eyed newbie when he first came on the job he’d definitely found Saturn and its rings impressive, but never really beautiful. Now 3 decades later the rings were uninspiring and the planet itself he had started to describe as resembling a mud milkshake.
He sighed as he waited for the net to fully extend so he could set about cleaning up someone else’s mess once again, wishing he could go back to Neptune, live out there even. But only the very rich and very eccentric had residences that far out. Saturn orbits the Sun at a distance of about 9 AU, whereas Neptune orbits at about 30 AU. To be able to get out to 4.5 billion kilometres from the Sun took some serious financial backing. The mere 1.4 billion kilometre distance from the Sun of Saturn was a lot more manageable. So Len went where the work was. Pleasure cruises, scientists (both amateur and professional), and even teenage joyriders all made it out to Saturn for varying reasons every day and all of them (even, he always said, the scientists who should know better) were dumping their rubbish out into the cosmos. Anyone who could afford the fuel and comforts to get out to Neptune could afford someone better than an old space mucker like Len to clean up after themselves.
Everyday people were dumping half eaten food, used up fuel cells, piss and shit without a care in the universe. Most of them just thought it wasn’t like on Earth or Mars, they weren’t polluting an ecosystem, and besides they thought, space is huge, what could the harm be? Well the passengers on the cruise liner Celestial Course found out what the harm was when the ship passed through a shower of celestial garbage leaving it looking like an 8-kilometre-long sieve with 4,000 souls lost. Since then space dumping was of course illegal, but licensed ships dumped just enough so that no one would notice, but enough so that they didn’t have to pay out as much on waste reclamation when they berthed in a federation port. Unlicensed voyages just dumped the lot. And that’s where Len Patterson and his colleagues came in.
True the job wasn’t all space garbage removal. Every now and then he got to inspect a comet or an asteroid that found its way into the solar system and see if it was of any interest to the big boys back on Earth and Mars. Every now and then as well stray probes or satellites proved themselves a nuisance to space travel and Len had to pull them in. A lot of them were from the early days of the space age that had been made redundant by later models and forgotten about and pushed out of their orbits one way or another. One of the more interesting ones Len had brought in he later found out had been broadcasting its signal out into the cosmos for nearly a century. When he asked what it had been broadcasting for all that time the Federal scientist he’d handed it over to went a shade redder than the Martian surface and replied that if they had seen the videos it was transmitting then aliens would have a pretty good idea about human physiology. Another incident that broke up the banality of his job was the time he was sent to inspect an object which just showed up as a blip on some federal scientist’s observations. What it turned out to be was an empty boat, floating in space that was coated in some material which confused the scanners federal scientists and law enforcement used. After Len had handed it over to the cops their inspection found that it was actually a key piece of evidence in a highly publicised murder case. Len was proud that he had been involved in this but it always irked him that the guy who had gone down for the murder because of him finding this mystery boat happened to be a Space Racer Len had quite a lot of money on in the Solar Cup.
Even so that didn’t change the nature of his job. 1 or 2 moments of excitement in a year didn’t really make up for the rest of the days like today. He sat there for an hour waiting for his net to extend. When that had happened he programmed into his boat’s computer the course he would take to sweep up all the rubbish and alerted Saturn Prime to all the space buoys he’d need moved out of the way of his net. He then began his sweep of the 100 cubic kilometres of space where the rubbish had spread, catching every little bit in his vast net. The net in question was not really a net but a massive sail, the only holes in it were measurable only on the molecular scale, and it also worked as one for Len’s boat only here it was the Sun’s energy pushing it along, not wind that Earth’s old sea faring ships had used. This allowed Len to shut of his chemically fuelled engines and save fuel. So Len Patterson spent another dull day, drifting alone in space, collecting someone else’s rubbish.
Too many hours later the job was finally done. Len was able to begin the agonisingly slow process of drawing in the net and it’s not so precious catch. The rubbish was squeezed into a compactor in the rear of Len’s boat and he was able to turn his engines on again and head back to base. This was also a long drawn out process as the extra mass he had taken on (nearly a tonne he saw) restricted the speed he could travel at. Eventually though he made it back to federal station he was based at orbiting Titan. He deposited the waste he had picked up and secured his boat in the dock. Then at long last he was able to get out of his cramped cock pit to stretch his legs and breathe air that was recycled slightly better.
The federal base Len Patterson called home for 6 months a year was nothing special: a cluster of rooms for employees to sleep in, a bigger room to eat in, a gym to keep muscle mass healthy (which the slightly below Earth normal gravity of the base couldn’t), a medical facility, a hangar, and a much larger section for waste and air recycling. All this patronisingly bright plastic and metal was home for Len Patterson and about 100 others with similarly dull jobs for rotating 6 month shifts of the year. For the other 6 months Len called another box just on the edge of New York home. He would be back there in about a month. He would’ve looked forward to it but at the moment 30 more days of this weighed too heavy on him. As soon as he got back to his bunk he didn’t waste a moment before running away to sleep. At least in his dreams he could go to Neptune.
Len got up at what the clock on the wall told him was 6am, but you could never have told that from the one note artificial light of the base or the feeble light from the Sun from this far away. He headed to the mess hall where he could eat all the synthetic food mass regulations would allow the dispenser to give him. After that he headed to his boat where the computer would have been sent his jobs for the day. He wondered just how much rubbish there was to clear up today before he realised this was not a removal job but an inspection one. During the night a cluster of objects had entered the solar system, probably a comet and its tail, and Saturn and its moons were the closest to them of all the federation’s outposts. His job was primarily to gain a visual impression of whatever it was and then, if it seemed pertinent and could be safely done to capture a sample for further analysis. For Len this would at least be something different for a couple of weeks, and most importantly, would put Saturn far behind him.
He had to wait a few more hours to depart as his boat was fitted with an additional fuel tank for the long trip but he soon disembarked from the base. Once he was a short distance from it he began programming in a course to intercept the objects and also to sedate him until then. Space and fuel were a premium at any time in his compact boat and there was no room for all the food and other necessities he would need for the 20-day round trip it would take to get to the objects, and then return. The boat could manage itself without him and by putting himself into an artificial sleep he would need almost no added resources. If it all went to plan he would awake a short while before the interception and then, once he had what he needed, would go back into stasis until he returned to Saturn. If anything did go wrong, he would be prematurely woken. As his boat began to move off his eyes began to close, replacing the blackness of space with the blackness of sleep. Just before he went under his last thought was that at least he wasn’t facing Saturn.
The 10-day journey passed without incident and Len began to wake up just at the time he had planned. It always took him a couple of minutes to regain his composure when he woke from one of these artificial sleeps. It could be quite disconcerting to wake to find yourself alone, seemingly adrift in space. Soon though with the aid of his computer he remembered where he was and what his mission was. The target cluster of objects was still some distance off; it would take him an hour to get to them. For the moment they were a jumble of dots lost against the black backdrop of space. He only knew they were there because his computer told him so. It seemed like an immensely long wait but very soon Len knew exactly what the cluster of objects were that had entered the Solar System. They grew from imperceptible dots to clearly discernible ones. Soon Len could see the make-up of the cluster with one object clearly much larger than the rest, and much larger than Len’s boat. There were a couple of other large pieces too and then a number of much smaller fragments. After a while these formless anomalies began to take shape and acquire detail as Len and they moved closer together. His computer also began to show a better picture of them. At first he thought the shaping must be a weird quirk of the universe, the random damage to comets which had given these ones a seemingly un-random form, no more than a trick of his brain trying to impart order onto chaos. As they got closer though it became clear that he was wrong. The trick of his brain was no trick at all, but a brilliant, a colossal truth.
Len had a good imagination. It came in handy when so much of your time was spent alone with hours upon hours of gazing at unchanging vacuum. Right now his imagination was working overtime. He imagined the far off place the objects had come from, the terrific force that had mangled and wrenched them apart. He imagined the journey they had taken of light years and eons to come to his corner of the universe. But most prominent in his imagination was his attempt to fathom the fearsome intelligence which had constructed the titanic space ship he saw that was hurtling through his solar system, and he imagined its enemy which had destroyed it, sending its burned out husk to Len Patterson.
It was clear that most of what would have made this alien ship’s starboard side had been blown off, possibly to wind up in a completely different system on the other side of the galaxy. In its exposed hull Len could see deck after deck of rooms, the purpose of which he could only dream of. He manoeuvred his boat round to the port side which was slightly better off but had still suffered extensive damage with scorch marks and blast holes covering much of it. The destruction of this vessel must have been spectacular to have seen, and terrifying to have been in. Even with so much of its body missing the ship was nearly the size of Phobos, beyond anything Humanity had even thought of constructing. Len flying round it making his examination was like a fly zipping around an elephant’s carcass. It wasn’t just the size of it though that was impressive. To have been travelling at the speed it was through the vacuum of space from some distant star it must have been propelled on this trajectory millions of years ago. Before humanity had learned to speak or even come down from the trees, perhaps when the dinosaurs still walked the Earth, these creatures had created what Len and his race could only dream of. What had they been able to come up with since then? Len also wondered about the conflict which caused this great machine’s destruction. Had its creators been conquerors or the conquered?
Len couldn’t help but spend just a few more hours looking over the great ship, but he had done all he could and he had a job to do. After a few a minutes he was able to get a connection with his base back at Titan to tell them just what he had found. Incredulous as they were they had to believe him when his video recording of the ship came through. Soon they had passed the information further on and Len was told a section of the federation fleet would bring the wreck in. His job was done, what would happen next with the discovery would be someone else’s. Secrets of the ship would be revealed, the extent of what it was capable of doing would be found out and change the course of Human history. For years long after Len Patterson finished his job forever and become a part of history the great ship would help Humanity unlock potentialities that they before could only dream of until one day they would meet the creators of the ship and find out some of the universes most terrifying wonders. But that was all for the future. For now, Len was content to plot his course back to his base at Titan where he was sure another job would be waiting for him to begin.