“How old it is it?”
Thurston peered out of the trawler’s window at the floating chunk of orbital debris, as he awaited an answer from the newest member of his crew.
“From this far out, it looks to be about…a hundred or so years,” Jiang said. “Largely intact.”
Thurston turned to her. “And no one else has claimed it yet? That’s unlikely.”
“What should I do, boss?” the pilot asked.
Thurston and his salvager crew were not forbidden from collecting debris of this size—or in this case, perhaps it would be more properly deemed an artifact. He had a good instinct for finding debris with the least among of wear and tear or damage. Debris that would require minimal repair before they could sell it, or even reuse it themselves. But it was expected that they would report any special finds, and let the experts take over. His job was to sweep the floor, not dig under it for hidden treasure.
But they were almost done sweeping for the day. And the potential treasure ahead of them was far from hidden.
“How fast it is going?” Thurston asked.
The pilot was already maneuvering to it. As Jiang was the newest person on Thurston’s team, the pilot, Duorsky, was the oldest. In seniority, if not in years. And he had anticipated Thurston’s interest in the object before them.
“I don’t think this one is reparable, Captain,” Jiang said as they moved closer. “I don’t even think it’s salvageable for parts. It’s too old. Raw materials only, I’d say.”
Thurston crossed his arms. “Works for me.”
“Or…” Jiang sat down beside Duorsky and powered up the capture arm. “…we could leave it intact and try to sell it to a museum.”
“What museum would take a piece of space junk like that?” Duorsky asked.
“The Aubergine? On Level Three.”
A blue overhead light suddenly started flashing and a mild tone sounded.
Jiang glanced back at Thurston. “Alert?”
He smiled. “Dinner in fifteen. Is that enough time for you two to get it aboard?”
“We’ll be a tad late,” Duorsky said. “Start without us.”
Thurston nodded, as he messaged the others to start dinner on time. He wasn’t needed, but he wanted to stay on the bridge and see the task through.
He kept an eye on the consoles.
And they glided toward the satellite.
“Robbie here has got salvager blood.” Thurston tilted his head to the woman sitting beside him at the dining table.
“Third-generation, madam,” Robbie said, with a nod to Jiang. Her name was Robertson, but everyone called her Robbie. Her father was “Rob” and her grandfather was “Bob.” She was an excursion specialist. One of only two on the ship. The other one, along with two other crew members, was on vacation. The trawler was operating with a skeleton crew for a few weeks.
Jiang too offered Robbie a nod of respect.
“Though that’ll be coming to an end soon enough,” Robbie said, raising a glass.
Duorsky gave single shake of his head and clinked his own glass to Robbie’s. “Speaking of,” he said. “Weird time to join the profession, if you don’t mind my saying, Commander.”
Jiang nodded as she finished chewing on a piece of barbecue chicken. She swallowed and wiped her mouth. “I’m not so much joining the profession as doing a long-term rotation. This is my second, actually. I was on a search-and-rescue transport before this. You guys have a top-of-the-line fabricator, by the way.” She glanced down at the chicken.
Robbie smiled. “We have the best mattresses and bedding too.”
“I appreciate a captain who invests in his crew,” Jiang said.
“So does his crew.” Duorsky raised his glass to Thurston as a round of chuckles followed from those at the table.
“So you got stuck with us, huh?” the voice of an entering crew member said.
Thurston tilted his head back and received the kiss on his forehead from the ship’s engineer. “I thought we would be late,” he scolded, as his wife sat down across from him.
“I would have started without all of you if it wasn’t our first meal with the esteemed commander,” Robbie said, tearing a piece of bread.
“What did you kids capture?” Madeleine asked, pulling a plate toward herself.
“Humanity’s past and our future,” Robbie said.
Duorsky almost spit out the water he’d sipped. He started laughing. “That should be the Station’s slogan for the new sweeper bots. I mean…who did they pay to come up with, ‘It worked for our grandparents. It’ll work for us’?”
“Since we got notice of how much time we had to transition the ship and crew to a different vocational classification,” Thurston explained to Jiang, “and especially once our re-training grant came through, we’ve been looking out for stuff like that satellite. Artifacts discovery and collection. Maybe restoration. The stuff that people know is out there. The stuff that no one wants to invest in fetching, but would be worth a decent price if we could get it to the Station.”
“Pardon my saying so, Captain,” Jiang said. “But aren’t the opportunities in that area far fewer and harder to come by? The more that human-led salvage is phased out, the more competition you’ll have from fellow former trawlers and their crews.”
“True, it won’t be as steady or reliable as our current job—“
“Unless we make a big score with some really rare find,” Duorsky said, his brows raised.
Thurston sighed. “—but it will pay the bills, for a good long while. Maybe even until the baby retires.” He looked pointedly at Duorsky.
Everyone but Jiang uttered a prolonged “awww” at Thurston’s prompt and threw wadded up napkins at Duorsky.
“Should we see what happens if we power it up?” Robbie asked.
Robbie, Thurston, Madeleine, and Jiang were standing in the trawler’s largest salvage bay. The external and internal sensors had taken various readings and measures of the old satellite and processed the data while the crew had dinner. The satellite was the size of a terrestrial bus and weighed several tons. It was being held in placed by a dozen of the bay’s strongest braces. By the composition and configuration of the parts, and reference to the ship’s database, the computer had concluded that it was a communications satellite from the late twenty-first century. As Jiang had guessed, it was over a century old.
Thurston crossed his arms and raised a brow. “What if it explodes? Should we be wearing protective gear? Pair of gloves at least.”
Madeleine already had on gloves. She ran a pocket sensor—one more sensitive even than the ship’s internal sensors over the outside of the satellite. “Sensors didn’t catch anything overtly dangerous. Any radiation had been mostly neutralized in the airlock.” She turned to Jiang. “This bay’s emergency doors malfunctioned once a few months ago, and opened a few seconds before they were supposed to after the airlock sealed.” She whispered the next part loudly. “We got it fixed, but he still doesn’t trust them.”
Jiang turned a sympathetic gaze toward Thurston. “I wouldn’t either if I were you.”
“This would have been state-of-the-art back in its day.” Robbie was gazing at the display of a nearby console, which was receiving all the data from Madeleine’s pocket sensor.
Thurston rubbed his chin. “Hmmm…aren’t they all?”
“Mads, does it look like someone salvaged the solar panels and left the sat?” Robbie asked. “Is this museum-worthy, Commander?”
Jiang peered at the satellite. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t actually have any expertise on these. I’d just seen one before. Recognized it.”
Madeleine lowered her sensor and shrugged. She swept her gaze over all of them. “I want to power it up.”
Thurston smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
The satellite was completely depleted of its power. They barely managed to adapt their ports and interfaces to fit. Even with their high-speed chargers, it would take the better part of a day.
So the crew found themselves at the dinner table again, with no new discoveries. Madeleine had run some serial numbers she’d found from cross-sectional scans through their database.
“Other than that it was a privately owned satellite,” she said, over a plate of fabricated burgers, “I didn’t find much. The corporation doesn’t exist anymore. They went defunct not too long before they shut down the satellite. They didn’t sell it to anyone, just registered it as ‘abandoned in place.’ That’s why the solar panels were fair game for whoever came along and got them, probably when Xiăo Mèimei Station was being built. They still use some of the super-old panels on the lower levels.”
“They still work?” Robbie asked, her eyes wide.
Duorsky elbowed Robbie in the side. “Maybe your gramps was the one who swiped those solar panels.”
Robbie elbowed back. “He wasn’t born yet, you doof.”
Madeleine dipped one of her chips in a puddle of ketchup. “Jiang, did you know that in the Station’s early years everyone salvaged?”
“I did. That was when you had to go through special training just to live on the Station.” She winked. “Not everyone who’s Earth-born is ignorant of the Station’s history.”
“And it didn’t have a fraction of the shielding it does today,” Thurston said. “Hell, even the trawler’s capture arms have more shielding on them now than the Station did back then. That’s why it looks so gnarly from the outside.”
“Just a piece of junk itself, good camouflage in case any hostile aliens were to arrive,” Duorsky said.
Robbie narrowed her eyes. “I always thought of it as a kiwi fruit.”
“You know, like how a kiwi isn’t much to look at on the outside. I mean it kind of blends in compared to the brightly colored skins of say, a honeycrisp apple or a bee-bottom orange.” She grinned and nodded. “Yeah, but then you cut it open, and inside, the kiwi is gorgeous, and sweet, and the center bursts out like a supernova.”
“You’ve given this a lot of thought.”
The notification came early the next morning. Only Duorsky was still awake. He was monitoring the auto-pilot until Thurston, who was serving as back-up pilot in the absence of the vacationing crew members, relieved him.
The satellite was fully charged. They could attempt to either transmit any information it had stored in its memory banks to their database, or attempt to remove the banks and interface with them physically.
Thurston wanted to be there when they made the attempt, so Robbie, Jiang, and Madeleine spent the morning and early afternoon running diagnostics, monitoring the status of power regulation, impatiently waiting for Thurston, and playing a game of hoops at the far end of the bay.
But that meant that by the time Thurston made his way down to the bay, they were ready to press a button and see if there were any treasures inside of that chest. Duorsky wanted to join them, so they indulged in a near-stop and patched basic helm controls to the salvage bay. He came down half an hour after they started salvaging the information on the satellite.
“Any scandalous corporate secrets?” Duorsky asked as he sauntered down the steps.
“Emails,” Thurston said, monitoring the console where the data was being sent.
“Letters used to be called ’emails’ back then,” Robbie explained.
“Because all mail wasn’t electronic, you doof.”
Duorsky’s eyes grew wide. “What…paper! Was everyone rich back then?”
Robbie shook her head. “An entire planet full of Level-Fivers.”
“Well,” Jiang said, “they weren’t as concerned about preserving ecosystems or sustaining their way of life. So…paper, paper everywhere.”
“Wow, so it was just a party.”
Robbie twisted her mouth in distaste. “Hardly. I’d rather be a scrapper now then a richie living back then. Half the best vacation spots on Earth used to be warzones.”
“Speaking of…any of those letters say when the end of times will be?”
Robbie lifted an unused data pad and pointed to its blank screen. “Yeah, it says here, ‘When Marvin Duorsky doth lift a finger to aid his fellows in their goodly works, then shall ye know the end times are cometh.’”
Thurston, his gaze still fixed on the console screen, chuckled.
At first, they had their computer catalog and file the information contained in the memory banks: electronic letters, audio mail, digital documents and records. But given the age of the satellite, and the fact that the company that once owned it was long defunct, the crew could not help but to feel justified in indulging their curiosity just a bit, especially after their analysis of the satellite’s functions yielded an important insight into its last moments before shutdown.
“It never transmitted,” Madeleine said.
Thurston crossed his arms. “So all the people sending something in those last moments, their messages never got through?”
“They were warned. And from what we can gather, the messages sent in those last moments are a fraction of the business the satellite typically did when it was fully operational. So all of these people should have known.”
“And all of the info would have still existed in the device of origin, and most was probably re-transmitted by the senders through an alternate satellite, so…probably not a big deal,” Jiang added.
“But what if we find something important that didn’t get sent through?” Madeleine asked.
Thurston narrowed his eyes. “Do you mean something that might have drastically changed the course of history?”
“Yikes, that would be worth something, wouldn’t it, boss?”
Thurston glanced between the members of his crew. “I’ll allow it,” he said.
They read the letters, some full of drama, some full of steam, some wrought with misery and suffering, others brimming with joy. Some letters short and others several paragraphs long. Many for business, but many more for personal.
They listened to some of the audio messages. Voices from the past with messages for each other. No thought at all, no suspicion, that other ears would listen. Not spies from their own time. But a rapt crew of regular folks, just like most of them. The messages were little different from any that might be sent in the present day.
Madeleine made Thurston listen to one audio message in particular, from one lover to another. The sender referenced some terrible fight he and his lover had, and how if his lover still believed their love was strong enough to endure, then they should meet at the place where they both first declared that love.
“He must have known that it was possible the message wouldn’t get through,” Thurston said.
“Of course he knew. That was part of the equation. If something happened and his lover didn’t get the message, then that was a ‘sign’ that it wasn’t meant to be.”
“Imagine that. Somebody risking that a computer glitch would decide the rest of their life.”
Thurston had sent a similar challenge to Madeleine after they’d gotten engaged and had the worst fight they had ever had. She hadn’t shown up where and when he’d asked. If she had been any other woman, he would have said “good riddance” and walked away. But with Madeleine, he actually felt his heart shatter. He was still wondering what he should do when she wrote to him with the same challenge he’d set for her, confusing him. His anger had dissipated by then, and rather than blaming her for toying with him, he showed up where and when she had requested. And he asked her simply if she had gotten his message. She hadn’t. He still remembered how wide and glistening her eyes turned in that moment. She embraced him then, gripping him with far more strength than he’d expected.
They wondered what happened to the lovers, hoping that the message got through somehow, or even if it didn’t, that they sorted it out.
Robbie contacted her friend at the Central Archives. When she sat down at the breakfast table the next morning, she was smiling.
“She found them,” Robbie said. “Their graves actually. Side by side. They passed away within a year of each other, a happily married couple.”
“So much for computer glitches,” Madeleine said, raising a hand toward Thurston to accept his high-five.
“Okay, here’s proof that I’m not just reading the trashy ones,” Duorsky said.
Thurston, Robbie, and Duorsky were eating a late lunch, while Madeleine showed Jiang how the small debris nets worked.
The letter was from a young man to his father, awkwardly expressing how much it meant to him that he had such a father, and how he was going to miss his father, and was sorry that he didn’t have the guts to say those things out loud.
Again, they searched for the people involved in the letter—with the help of Robbie’s friend at the Central Archives. And that story had a bittersweet end. The young man in the letter had been saying goodbye because he was among the third wave of migrants up to the Station. In those days it was practically a one-way trip. When the man was middle-aged, he flew back down to Earth at great expense to be at his father’s funeral. He gave the eulogy, and he spoke of the stuck letter, and how his great regret was in not resending it then, or any time after. So he read the letter in its entirety at the funeral.
“We’ve got all of the intact information and are now attempting to salvage some corrupted and incomplete stuff,” Madeleine said at a team meeting on the bridge a few days later. “There’s minimal damage to the satellite’s memory banks, from wear and tear.”
“Maybe we can stop reading now,” Duorsky said, glancing around. If they’d stuck to reading the letters, he might have been all right. But following up on the people behind the messages, finding out about their fates, how the rest of their lives had turned out, was starting to affect him. “We can’t do anything to help these people,” he said. “They’re all dead. We’re just…stirring stuff up. What if their troubled spirits are still around?”
“I’d like to trouble a spirit,” Robbie said. “How about that huge bottle of whiskey that Duorsky is trying to hide in his cubby?”
“We’ll be back home in about a week,” Thurston said. “We can keep reading until then to see if we find anything mind-boggling, then turn it over.”
“We may not be able to prove the authenticity of these messages anyway,” Madeleine said. “Except maybe the audio recordings and anything handwritten that was scanned and sent up. Those can be tested.”
Thurston glanced at Jiang. “I guess we’re going with the ‘raw materials’ option after all.”
“You don’t think anyone will be mad at us, right boss?” Duorsky asked. “For ruining an artifact.”
“Your database is current,” Jiang assured, telling Duorsky what he already knew. “The computer would have flagged the satellite as ‘possible artifact,’ if there was even a remote chance it had any value beyond the raw materials.”
“Maybe not. When was the last time a survey team came around that sector?” Duorsky looked down at his crossed arms and flinched at a reflection from a button on his sleeve. “This is what I get for poking around in other people’s business.”
Thurston pointed at him. “That’s what you get for not getting enough sleep. I’ll take a double shift at the helm tonight. No arguments.”
“Well, even if we give up the satellite, we’ll still have the messages,” Madeleine said. “We can keep searching. Maybe at some point, we’ll find some loose ends and find a way to put some spirits to rest.” She nodded to Duorsky, who closed his eyes and bowed to her.
Madeleine stood before them and exhaled a breath. “I thought it would be best if you all heard this together.”
She’d gathered them all in the bridge again, having woken Duorsky from a deep sleep, pulled Jiang and Robbie from a late night meal, and worried Thurston into sitting up straight in his chair when he spotted her expression as she walked onto the bridge.
“I found this less than an hour ago,” she said. “I’ve played it a few times. It’s different from the others.” She looked at Thurston. “This one was not meant to be transmitted back down to Earth.”
“What do you mean? Who’s it for?”
“It’s for us.”
The others exchanged glances as she started the recording. There was silence for a few seconds, then a man’s voice.
If you’re…listening to this, you may or may not know what happened. If you don’t know, then all is well. You won’t ever know. And I’m certainly not going to ruin your day, your mood, your…I don’t know, outlook?—by telling you about something that happened long ago, maybe long before you were even born. I imagine it will take a long, long time for someone to come up here and find this message. Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. If you live in a world where it doesn’t matter…I’m happy for you.
I’m the one who was in charge of shutting down Core 925. That’s the satellite you found this message on. My complete information is at the end of this message. Suffice it to say, it was my fault. I was not brave enough to answer to the charges then. But if you found this message, and if you can do me this kindness, please give this message to the authority who enforces the laws in your time.
“Mads,” Robbie said. “I take it you didn’t find any reference to what this man is talking about.”
Madeleine shook her head. “I didn’t look for any references or anything. I…” She sighed and looked at Duorsky. “I got spooked. I was alone in the bay, with just the console lights on.”
“It would have only taken me one listen to go running around the ship to get everyone,” Duorsky said.
Thurston took a deep breath. “Okay, first things first. Let’s see if we can figure out what event or incident he’s referencing and why he’s being so coy about it. Madeleine and Jiang, you two get on that. Robbie, find out if this guy has any living descendants who might have to bear the consequences of whatever he did. If he doesn’t, then the decision is easy. We report him as he’s asked.”
“And if he does?” Madeleine asked.
“Then we really need to know what he’s talking about, so we can decide what to do about it.”
“Maybe we should let it be,” Duorsky said.
“I’m inclined to agree, boss,” Robbie said. “This guy obviously did something terrible, and is asking for a favor afterwards. We don’t owe him anything.”
“He said if we don’t know than we won’t ever know,” Jiang said. “What does that sound like to you, Captain? Because it sounds like a cover-up to me.”
“There’s our history-changing message,” Madeleine said. “We should have been careful what we wished for.”
Thurston raised his hands. “This man is long-dead. The corporation is long-defunct. Whatever happened and yes, whatever was being covered up, this man may be right about it not mattering anymore. Not everything that happens in the past needs to be marked and remembered forevermore.”
Duorsky rubbed his arms as if he were cold. “What if that’s why the satellite isn’t marked an ‘artifact’? What if someone is still trying to cover up whatever that guy is talking about? Or what if we turn it in to the authorities and they don’t believe that we don’t know anything? What if they think this guy actually did leave details that we’re hiding?”
Thurston frowned. “For what reason?”
“Blackmail? I don’t know.”
“I can reach out to my terrestrial contacts,” Jiang offered. “See what they can learn about this company and its last days.”
So they searched, and they researched.
But it was just as the man on the recording said. They could find nothing. Thurston hadn’t wanted to risk alerting anyone else to what they’d found, but he finally decided to have Robbie reach out again to that friend at the Central Archives, with the name of man on the recording.
Everyone was worried, but also determined and still curious.
But the Central Archives provided no illumination.
Jiang’s terrestrial contacts found nothing about the company’s last days or even its last year that suggested any kind of scandal or tragedy. There was nothing.
At last, they reached Xiăo Mèimei Station. At last, they reached home.
Thurston had taken a vote. And to his surprise and relief, everyone agreed on their course of action.
He turned the satellite in for raw materials reclamation. He turned the database records over to the archivists.
And he took the recording of the man who shut down Core 925 to the Station authorities.
“You’re supposed to jump over the rabbit, not on its head,” Robbie said, grabbing the controls from Duorsky. “Why would you jump on its head? You’d kill it.”
Duorsky grabbed the controls back. “You can’t kill anything in this game. It’ll just get squished and pop right back up. But it’s part of this code that unlocks something.”
“What does it unlock?”
Thurston let the conversation fade into the background as his wristband fluttered with a notification alert. He was sitting in what once used to be their smallest salvage bay, but was now a recreation and relaxation room for the crew. He was still getting over a cold, but was tired of being sequestered in his quarters. He’d come down to the rec room with a canteen of honey lemon tea, hoping to just sit and watch his crew enjoy themselves.
The notification was marked “private.”
“So much for relaxation,” Thurston said to himself as he rose and took the transport lift back to the upper deck. He didn’t have the energy to make it back to his quarters, so he kicked a couple of crew members out of a meeting room and took the call there.
“Jerry,” he said, surprised to see a colleague he hadn’t seen in several months. He braced himself. “It’s about that satellite.”
He didn’t say it as a question. The man he was speaking to was the very one he’d turned the recording in to. The recording that Thurston feared might hold dangers for his crew whether or not they turned it in. But at least if they did turn it in, it would be on public record. There was some protection in that.
Jerry beamed. “It is, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. There were a lot people involved. Anyway, I wanted to call you personally to thank and congratulate you and your crew.”
Thurston blinked. “Do colds make people delirious? Or is it only flu?”
Thurston didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud. He shook his head. “Nothing, I’m…a bit under the weather.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I hope this call helps.”
“I’m not sure I understand…why the thanks and congratulations?”
“His posthumous confession, well, it’s helped close a cold case.”
Thurston set his tea down. “What was the case? Can you tell us anything about what happened? Jerry, did I put my crew in danger by turning it in?”
“What? Danger? How do you mean?”
“Whatever that man was talking about sounded…well it sounded like something monstrous happened. Something, obviously unspeakable. Because…he couldn’t speak to it. He seemed to not want to corrupt whoever found the message with the knowledge of what happened, of what he’d done. And it was hidden or maybe covered up. I was afraid it would put us in danger, from someone who still had a stake in keeping things under wraps. Maybe they would think we knew something we weren’t supposed to know. Even though we didn’t. We honestly only found that recording.”
“Of course you did. That’s all that’s on the satellite. And your crew’s contacts don’t have the highest clearance.”
“I do trust you Jerry, but…it’s my crew.”
“Look, I can’t say anything now. I can’t even say if I know anything or don’t know anything. But I can say this. If you’re really curious about what happened, you can follow up in twelve years. It’ll all become public record then.”
“Think you can keep yourself occupied that long?”
“I think I can manage,” Thurston said. Despite the blockages in his nostrils, he breathed a bit easier.
Jerry chuckled. “Think you’ll stay away from the next satellite you meet?”
“Probably not. Sweeper bots be damned. I will still be out there, my friend. Once a salvager, always a salvager.”
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel