Planet P-T02, also known as “Planet Trash,” was the second planet that orbited a large, unremarkable orange star in its habitable zone. It was also where every piece of electronic equipment in the quadrant went to die. From small cooking utensils, to huge intergalactic ships, any item broken beyond easy repair, or obsolete, was discarded.
Sure, it was not exactly legal, but companies found it cheaper just to ship it off on a junk hauler and dump it rather than spend the money recycling. Out of sight, and out of mind, they say, and so they did. And it is not as though there were environmental worries. Planet P-T02 was rare, within the habitable range for humans and, beside a few bacteria, lifeless. It was best known for its rocky, inhospitable terrain. Its bare peaks were scattered with a thin dust of snow, the only water available. Not even moss braved the parched earth. Upon discovery, the initial blush of excitement was replaced with disappointment then disinterest. There were few resources to exploit. The land was no good for farming or ranching. It was a silent, ocean-free, piece of rock. So despite its ideal location, it was abandoned for a time.
So a trash planet it became. Years upon centuries of garbage gave personality to the once barren scape, and a map could be laid out of its more striking features. There was Trash Man’s Gorge, Soot Canyon, and the Starship Mountain Ranges, among others. Piles of free copper, steel, gold, and aluminum became too attractive a prospect to pass up. A few intrepid, hearty, people began to colonize the dumpster and eek a life out of scavenging for metals and selling it on the black market. Old ships, fitted with solar panels, provided perfect living arrangements, along with the only food and shelter from its violent windstorms. Then others joined the scavengers. The isolation provided a safe haven for criminals, political dissenters, and racial separatists. The once lonely, lifeless planet now teemed with personality, divided up into different zones, each with thousands of different souls. Huge piles were set alight as the settlers divided the metals from plastics, filling the once clear skies with dark columns of smoke and choking the air with the smell of sulfur. These zones were jealously guarded and poaching –that is the taking of resources within another group’s territory - was met with swift punishment.
In that hostile and sparsely populated pile of garbage, a boy in his late teens dug through a particularly promising mound of transistors for the most coveted piece of scrap, organic memory chips. The Flats, where he encroached, belonged to the syndicate known as the Shakas, a rather nasty group of separatists founded by a ruthless man, Obi Shaka. He was a self-styled king was known for his impartial administration of the law. The boy was not a Shaka, and he did not have permission to scrounge around their territory. That made him poacher, pure and simple. By the law of the syndicate, he would be dead. But he didn’t care.
It was not quite noon. The Flats, being equatorial, were hot in the afternoon. It was almost impossible to go out and salvage after the sun’s zenith, since the metal would cook, not only becoming hot to the touch, but raising the surrounding temperature almost ten degrees.
It was a living hell for those who tried, which is why collecting was done in the wee hours of the morning and in the waning afternoon. No one was known to venture out of their home ships in afternoon. And so it was that the Flats presented one of the best opportunities for poaching, if you were willing to risk a heat stroke. At eighteen, Jason did not think that far ahead.
The sharp, piercing glare of the sun bounced from a thousand different points, biting his eyes. The air was stale and smelled of sulfur and cooked metal. His bare arms were moist with beads of sweat, but still he trudged on. To prepare for the swelter, he wore light, loose fitting clothing, glare-proof goggles, special heat resistant gloves, and a kerchief covering his nose and mouth to retain moisture. An ammo sleeve was slung across his back, carrying several canteens of water instead of ammunition.
Beside him hovered a salvage droid, whom he muted for stealth and his own sanity. He hated the beeps and squeaks it was preprogramed with and the various voice mods available were all creepy, either too robotic or life like. And it didn’t seem to him that a floating sphere would sound like either a sultry woman or a military commander.
Still, he named it Lena. And it had a personality, despite its silence. Or at least for Jason, loneliness made it easy to anthropomorphize its various functions. For one, it did not work very well in the heat. It became sluggish. Its scanners didn’t work as efficiently. And to Jason, it seemed to complain.
Jason was crouched beside it, trying to goad it for one more trip.
“Just another set of memory chips! We need the gold, Lena.”
Lena acted on the command, but it took a bit longer to process. The beam of light began to scan the exterior of the trash did not shine as brightly as it did in the beginning of their expedition. Jason took it as a sign of exhaustion.
“Oh well, you got me half a dozen chips, at least, that will be enough for today.”
As he gathered the salvaged chips, one of Lena’s warning lights began to blink ominously. Jason glanced up to where the signal light pointed: northeast.
There, he could see a black shadow slowly making its way toward him, its profile hazy in the heat.
“Sentries!” he gasped.
Caution was abandoned, as he gathered all his things, and dashed off to one of the nearby tunnels that fellow poachers had dug out many years ago.
This did not deter the three men on the sentry vessel, which was hovering very quickly in his direction. The leader was Obi Shaka. He was a black man in his middle years. A fierce, angular face was etched with lines along his eyes that spoke of worry, anger, and squinting. He looked to his lieutenant.
“Will, you said that our sentry drones picked up a man here.”
“Yes, they did. He went though one of the tunnels,” Will replied.
He was stocky and short, dark, and unaccustomed to having his authority questioned.
A third man, the nephew of the leader looked down at the sensors and shook his head. Lo was barely in his twenties and still eager to prove himself.
“Was he alone?” Obi asked.
Lo nodded. “We haven’t seen any sign of Maddie anywhere.”
“He’s disappeared from the sensors,” Will announced.
“That’s fine, we know where he’s going. We will meet him when the Rat decides to surface.”
Meanwhile, Jason was running through the tunnel as fast as he could go. He knew from experience that Lena had scrambled nearby signals, rendering him invisible. Now he had to worry about escape.
A tributary veered off to his right, going down through the trash. Large, iron beams kept the tenuous tunnel from collapsing. The light did not penetrate that far from the surface, so the tunnel was as dark and quite cool. Metal walls were lined with dim, LED lights whose power sources still hummed despite their derelict existence.
After a few minutes, he stopped abruptly. There, in the shadows, someone stood, waiting. He approached with caution.
“Who are you? Show yourself.”
A girl stepped into the cool blue light. He recognized her as someone from the Shakas. She wore black slacks and loose black tank top. Her pretty face was framed with a mane of thick, but loose curly hair. He noticed that she was of a tone between the Shakas and himself. He didn’t know who she was or what she wanted, but at that moment, she was an enemy by association.
“What do you want?”
A slight forward step and she hesitated, unsure on how to continue.
“I heard from daddy that there’s a Tunnel Rat. They think you’re trying to revive one of the old ships.“
Jason gave her a mocking grin and held up his hands.
“So what do you want me to do? Surrender?”
She paused before replying, as though weighing her words carefully.
“Do you have the ship?”
He lowered his hands and gave her an appraising glance.
“Maybe, how much is it worth to you if I do?”
She hesitated for a moment and then held out her hand. On her palm were five, fat, glowing worms. They were genetically engineered memory devices, and all of them were individually worth more than the chips he’d found that day.
“It took me several months to collect these,” she whispered. “I’ve been feeding them in secret. I want to go with you. You’ll get one when we get to the ship and the rest when I see space.”
He gave her a dismissive shrug.
“What makes you think I won’t kill you and take them anyway?”
Jason was bluffing, of course, but he had to play the part. These lands were dangerous.
“I’ll cut you if you do!”
As if to emphasize her point, she pointed to a very large knife wedged in her boot.
He nodded, still playing it cool, like he was expecting her to say something like that. Truthfully, he was a little intimidated. He was unarmed. “Can you fly?”
She flushed with embarrassment and shook her head.
“Ok, well, I guess that is good. So your daddy’s out there looking for me?”
“Yes, he is. They’re angry. You’ve managed to elude us for months,” she said, admiration creeping to the edges of her voice despite herself. She grinned. “No poacher has ever lived this long.”
“Come then,” he said.
He continued down the tunnel.
“What’s your name, anyway?”
“How did you know I would be here?”
“I’ve been following you. I wanted to see the ship.”
“Stalker,” he teased. She flushed slightly. “Now, follow me home…”
“No!” she interrupted. “No, daddy will definitely be there, along with his goons. ”
He gave her a self-effacing smile.
“That is the ship.”
Obi and his cohorts arrived at Jason’s pad. It was an unimpressive outpost comprised of a derelict ship, a few bits of new trash strewn about, mostly papers and some organic material, and a self-folding chair with a missing leg. Some meters to the right stood a small waste compressor, which by the smell, they surmised it was not working at full efficiency.
Will wrinkled his nose and waved his hand around.
“So you think he’s coming this way?”
“He has nowhere else to go, Will,” Obi replied. “That ship he’s fixing to steal can’t be too far away. Our sensors should pick up when he surfaces. As soon as he does, he’s dead.”
Lo started to paw at his rifle with anticipation.
Jason and Maddie surfaced from their tunnel and peeked above a metal strewn ridge.
“They’re they are,” Maddie whispered.
“Just as you said, they are waiting,” Jason said. “If they knew where I was, then why didn’t they attack?”
“They wanted to catch you in the act of poaching. They aren’t about to just kill you in your sleep. It would be dishonorable.”
Jason gave her a sideways glance. “Now, I just have to figure out how to get past them.”
He frowned. They were brandishing nasty looking laser rifles.
“I have an idea,” Maddie said. “They have hearing and sight enhancement implants. It has a weakness, though. If your drone…”
“Lena,” Jason interrupted.
“…Lena,” she continued, “can create a sharp burst of light and sound, it will overwhelm them just long enough for us to go in the ship.”
“A flash bang,” Jason said.
“That shouldn’t be a problem.”
He turned to Lena and issued a command. Immediately the spherical drone rose up and sped to the three sentries.
As soon as Obi noticed it, the drone created a large flash bang. Will threw up in his mouth, while Lo and Obi covered their years and shut their eyes, trying to stop the ringing.
“NOW!” Jason yelled.
They sped to the ship. It was not a large ship, only several meters across, with enough ship and cargo space for four people. But it had power to escape the planet’s gravity, and ample reserve fuel to reach the nearest system. Panting, from the run and excitement, they entered the ship from the opened back hatch, closing it as they stumbled inside. The small cargo hold and been converted to living quarters, with a makeshift kitchenette, a hammock, and a workbench. To the side were several large trunks filled with various metals and other salvageable refuse.
He hurried to the cockpit, which was filled with trash and leftovers. One clear swipe and it was all dumped on the floor.
“You are a pig,” Maddie said with disgust.
Jason grinned as he took off his goggles and began to cut on the ship. A few commands and it blinked on.
“It works,” Maddie marveled. The dirty surroundings were quickly forgotten.
“Maybe,” Jason murmured.
“What!? You mean you weren’t kidding when you said it maybe worked?!”
That is when a sharp bang from the side of their ship reminded them of their pursuers.
“OH no! They’ve recovered,” Maddie began to fret. “What will we do?”
Jason shrugged. “I don’t know. But this isn’t good. The ship won’t start and I need some time. Maybe you can buy me some.”
Maddie looked out of the cockpit window and saw a very angry father glaring at her, rifle in hand. Her cousin, Lo, was equally annoyed, but less authoritative as he kicked the ship’s side. As for Will, the less she thought of him, the better.
“You better not be doing what I think you’re doing,” Obi yelled.
She could hear him clearly from behind the large window.
“Why shouldn’t I? There is nothing back there for me! Everyone treats me like dirt because I’m the daughter of a Pale Witch.”
Jason recognized the slur used to mean someone who lived in the northern reaches of Planet Trash, usually on the Mountains of Kitchen Appliances. They were known for their unusual violet eyes.
“Your father won’t stay mad,” Will said in a more placid tone. “Besides, once we cut into the hull there won’t be much of the ship left.”
That is when Maddie noticed that Lo was preparing to do just that with his laser rifle.
“Oh no!” she gasped. “I didn’t think it would take this long for you to get this piece of junk off the ground. Now they’ll kill you for sure; I’ll be stuck here!”
He glanced up at her, and for the first time she noticed that his eyes were hazel, like hers.
“Shut up and do something, then. Lena and I are going to need some time to fix this thing.”
The sphere hovered about him, and she noticed its light blazing, dancing in a rhythmic pulse.
There she sat, watching them both, as she contemplated her fate. The prospect of being dragged back to the life she was trying to escape, the abuse, insults and nasty looks was unthinkable. Once again she would have to endure the lack of respect and the unwanted attention. The escape she worked so hard to attain now slipping through her fingers. It tasted bitter.
Then her face hardened with determination as she unsheathed her knife.
Never again, she thought.
He did not look her way as she got up and headed to the cargo bay.
“Hurry up, we’re almost done.”
She gave him a curt nod.
“Open the side door.”
He pressed a button and a side hatch began to open exactly where Lo was operating the rifle. The beam had almost pierced the hull. Then the door began to open.
“Stop, Lo,” Obi commanded. “She’s seen reason.”
Lo stopped and waited, thinking she had surrendered.
“I don’t like this,” Will whispered over to Obi. “I don’t think she’ll go back that easily. Besides, the ship is still gearing up.”
Obi dismissed his concerns with a wave of his hands. “Don’t worry, you’ll get your woman and whatever she used to bribe that poaching Tunnel Rat.”
The side hatch opened enough to reveal Maddie, standing with a knife to her side. In a flash she threw it at Lo, aiming for his chest. It hit the mark. Lo fell back and was silenced forever, shock at the betrayal frozen upon his face.
“NO!” Obi angrily thundered and shot at Maddie with his rifle. But it was too late. At that moment the ship finally started up. The shield materialized. Although not strong enough to withstand a direct attack from a battle ship, it was strong enough to deflect a simple energy ray. His shot ricocheted and hit Will on the leg. He fell with a cry, clasping the wound.
As the ship rose and the hatch closed around the vengeful princess, Obi focused on his daughter’s hazel, accusing eyes.
“You are making a mistake! He doesn’t care about you! He will betray you! As much as you deserve,” he spat.
“You never cared about me before, father,” she called back as the hatch shut and banished that world forever.