Chapter 1: What We Throw Away
Garbology: the study of a culture by looking at what they’ve thrown away.
What they’ve deemed no longer important.
For archeologists studying the people of Old Earth garbology means sifting through thousands of miles of plastics and odd bobbles that never really disappeared in the millions of years it took humans to build the city that stretched in space from one star to the next.
In that city, safe behind the glass-thin bubbles they call home, humans continue to build, to create and, as always, throw out.
Materials from nearby planets and asteroids are imported, used, and then dropped unceremoniously onto vehicle floors, into bins under sinks, or dumpsters behind apartment complexes where, as far as most citizens are concerned, it disappears.
Of course it doesn’t really disappear, and few know this better than the haulers tasked with transporting the waste out of Center City, then out of the first ring of planets, then the second, and eventually to the outer ring where it can rot, or sit, waiting for the development of a new society who will look back on the trinkets and odd bobbles of the past, and wonder.
For now, however, the only thing Captain Jewel Blackwell was wondering about trash was how forty extra pallets if it, boxed and wrapped in plastic, had gotten into her ship’s warehouse.
“Why would you package trash in boxes?”
There was no reply from the two mildly-surprised workers left in the warehouse with her.
“It belongs on the train.” Jewel added in utter disbelief.
“And you said it was trash?” She clarified irritably.
“Trash.” Harvest, the taller of the two employees, insisted holding out his communication device where a spread of green hued holographic information shot out in a semicircle. “an the papers said do load it ondo the ship.” He fought around his ‘t’s’, but Jewel knew his outer planet accent didn’t affect his ability to read, so without seeing the paperwork she believed him. Still she followed along as his calloused finger pointed out the pertinent information and there, among the lists and blinking information, was the order to load the pallets into the ship’s cargo hold instead of out the back with the rest of the trash. She looked up and could see quite clearly the words “Special Discards” stamped in large red letters on the side of each plastic-wrapped pallet.
“Huh.” She mused. If it wasn’t the warehouse staff’s mistake it was a company mistake, which meant phone calls and paperwork and conversations with not only the landfill workers but the local government on the planet they were now orbiting.
No one had bothered telling her about this oddity. Everyone had assumed the paperwork was in order until about twelve minutes ago. She stared up at the racks and racks of boxes, hands on her hips as Harvest and the second warehouse worker shot each other meaningful looks behind her back.
Jewel took a deep breath, trying not to choke. The warehouse, as always, smelled overwhelmingly of trash; A soupy mix of wet cardboard and rotting food that, no matter how long you inhaled it in, would still catch you off guard for the first couple of seconds. She was hoping for a whiff of rust and engine fuel. If she could just find that scent she would be all right. It was her beloved scent of ships and flying. Surely that would calm down her rising stress.
“We could just drop it out the airlock and pretend like we lost it.” The female worker suggested dryly cutting into Jewel’s musings.
“Don’t you have something to do- a bag to pack or something?” Jewel asked. When the woman only stared back at her she added, “go to the forklift?” in a voice that sounded stunningly like her mother making her children go to their rooms. Jewel felt as if she were beginning to fray around the edges but the woman didn’t mind the order, she was ex-military. Instead she merely shrugged and started for the door.
“What is this mess?” Jewel asked the one remaining crewmember. Harvest put his hands on his hips thoughtfully, smiled, but didn’t answer. He knew a rhetorical question when he heard one.
“We’re gonna have to drop it off on this planet.” She sighed in resignation.
“They’re not going to like it.”
Jewel glanced over her shoulder at him. He wore an almost cheeky smile under the much move obvious agreeable one. “I gotta look into a few things back in my office before we leave. Can you finish up here?”
Harvest “yupped” good-naturedly as she turned and headed out the same door she had just sent Cole out.
The top problem on Jewel’s list that morning had been figuring out how much of the trash floating in the tractor beam behind the ship could be hauled to the planet’s surface by the small forklift-ship now that the primary grabbers were shot. At noon she realized there was a stack of forms that needed updated by the planet’s Solid Waste District, and now at only two in the afternoon the special discards situation was pushing everything else onto the backburner.
It would mean a longer conversation with the landfill workers on the planet below. They didn’t like taking materials they didn’t know how to deal with and she didn’t want to have to explain the proper disposal techniques for industrial waste or batteries or whatever was packed away in the boxes below. The trash she wanted to drop was the household ball of ick floating in a train like procession behind her ship. That stuff was relatively easy to deal with. Drop it and leave without the long-winded diplomacy.
Jewel grumbled internally as she slipped through the warehouse doors and out into the main body of the ship. She veered left up a rickety set of wire stairs that lead to her office that neatly overlooked the warehouse. The room was small and rusty, but functional.
It also wasn’t empty.
“Holy tapdancing Godiva.” Jewel cursed and almost stormed backward out of her office the second she entered, but caught herself swallowed her momentary freight and spun back around to face the man sitting firmly in her desk chair. “Get out of my chair.”
Brock Johnson studied her from the busted grey office chair. Of the 11 people residing on her ship, she had only ever bumped heads with one person, and it was the Government’s Environmental Regulation’s Officer. He moved with them from landfill to landfill, checking off boxes on a long list of regulations and laws. He was a stickler for order, health, and safety both in his job and on the ship.
Though he was of average height and average build, any sense Jewel had that he was “average” had disappeared the second she heard his imposing voice on her first day. The direct clarity of it alone must have added six inches in every direction. But that wasn’t what drew her attention- and fury- to him today. Jewel’s eyes drifted swiftly to the crisp white envelope sitting cruelly between two of his brown fingers, and her heart immediately sank. The envelope could not bring good tidings; anything someone took the time to print out and replicate onto her ship on clean white paper was not going to bring good tidings.
“Funny piece of mail showed up today.” Brock noted, still sitting resolutely in her chair. His thick roped dreads were pulled back in pink hair tie and his pale purple button-down look pressed. He was in business mode.
Jewel internally kicked herself for not moving the one mail replicator out of his office. She swallowed back her worry and replied smoothly, “I see.”
“You know what this is?”
“Dull question, idiot.” Jewel thought, but bit her tongue before the rude comment could sneak between her lips. The address with the tiny symbol of Center City Waste Solutions stamped in the corner told her this was the letter that would finally tell her she was fired. Very fired! Very what-the-hell-do-you-mean-you-flew-our-ship-through-the-Kennedy-Asteroid-Cluster fired. She could feel something like a vice constricting around her heart as Brock flicked the envelope over in his hands. Over and over, and over, until she answered, “An envelope.” If she wasn’t letting herself be rude she could at least be sarcastic.
Brock’s eyes betrayed mild annoyance, but that was typical.
Jewel collected herself, “I’m fired?” she hazarded a guess with as little emotion in her voice as she could manage considering her stomach had started a panicked race around the rest of her organs.
Brock feigned disinterest, “Almost.” He paused long enough to let Jewel squirm then explained, “Based on the e-mail I received earlier today I would assume this is another warning letter. Likely a level two probation for your flying and more importantly for the drop off in Galvanston where you, and I quote, “told the local government their city looked like the city planning work of a impaired five year old.” Jewel cringed, surprised that the sweet old man in charge of the landfill on Galvanston had heard the snarky side-comment. “Have you no tact?” Brock upbraided, his frustration finally bubbling over.
Jewel didn’t have to put up with this. Brock shouldn’t have brought this information to her just to see her squirm and he had no right to rebuke her in her own office, “Why should I, you don’t?” She spat. “For instance, you’re still sitting in my chair.”
Brock lunged to his feet, half in response to Jewel’s tone and half to make his next point twice as clear, “Do you know what a pain it is that this ship goes through captains faster than it goes through air purifiers?”
Now that Brock was out of her seat she felt less of a desire to chuck him through the glass window and into the warehouse below. “Perhaps there’s a reason for that.” She pointed out. Brock had been renting office space on the c-class long enough to see four captains come and go.
The man sighed, flung the envelope down onto her overburdened desk and rubbed the side of his temple with one hand. “Everyone has to fill out an evaluation for you now.” He told her wearily.
Jewel tugged the bottom of her polo shirt nervously, hoping Brock didn’t notice the tick, then tried to blow off the unspoken threat, “You don’t have a say in my hiring, or firing, you’re only renting a room on my ship.” More than that Jewel knew the company grudgingly liked her; the shipments she had made, usually two in the time it would take another captain to make one delighted them. Well it delighted them until they found out her speed was at the expense of taking shortcuts, flying through dangerous or illegal space, burning the engines just a little too high, or “hiring” a few extra people to load and unload trash. It was all what the company had called “reckless” during her last employment meeting. “We have protocols for a reason!” they had insisted. She had fidgeted, and nodded, and a day later, with the controls of the ship under her well-practiced hands and the siren call of space before her, she had flown straight into an asteroid field to get to Cana that much quicker.
“I’ve been on this ship for ten years” Brock reminded, “I’ve seen captains come and go but none have been as reckless, and utterly foolish as you.”
“I’m reckless?” Jewel scoffed. “What ‘dangerous’ thing have I actually done? Just because some idiot fell asleep at the wheel and crashed a passenger ship into an asteroid, all the sudden it’s ‘dangerous’ and ‘illegal’ to drive through asteroid fields. Do you know how hard it is to hit something in the vastness off spa-?”
“There are passengers on this ship!”
“I know!” Jewel’s voice was loud enough to stop everything in the room, just for a moment. She took a breath and said as calmly as she could manage, “You fill out a bad report on me every quarter, everyone else fills out a good one, how will this time be any different?” Despite her confident words, worry was fogging her thoughts. She wasn’t sure she could feel her legs anymore.
“Because this time there will actually be consequences! Your boss and the company are finally listening to me. You’ve spent years ignoring protocols, laws, basic human decency and common sense.” He didn’t sound upset, just tired of her. “You screw up today and it’s over. It has to be over.”
Jewel used every bit of her internal strength to hold Brock’s level stare. “I’ll do the best I can on Athens then.” She said in a low voice, taking on his challenge.
Brock broke the stare, “That would be wise.” He agreed. “From my understanding your flight license is on the line because of all the marks on your record. You lose that and you’ll be...” Brock’s dark blue eyes searched, looking for the threat, “back in your prissy little suburb to live the rest of your life married to whatever idiot your parents can convince to marry you.” Jewel forced herself not to cringe, not because he was trying to be insensitive about her family, but because the thought of losing her flight license was unbearable. It froze her insides. Brock plunged back in, “You’re a feckless captain and a pain in the ass pilot, but I don’t want to have to deal with the next goddamn idiot the company dredges up, so get it together.”
“Don’t be crude.” Jewel sneered.
Across the room Brock stepped away from her desk with a weary sigh. Jewel watched as he came out from behind the desk, then began a determined walk toward the door. With an outstretched arm Jewel stopped him in his tracks. “By the way, my parent’s ‘idiot’s’ name is Derek, and do not ever use profanity in my office again.”
Brock paused, then replied in a low voice, “Captain Blackwell, this isn’t personal. I don’t want you to get thrown out, but I’m trying to get my work done in a safe environment and that’s a difficult task on a ship that’s literally filled with trash.”
“Filled with trash? Sounds personal.” She slowly lowered her arm and Brock stalked by leaving Jewel standing, stunned by her own doorway.
There is a horror inherent in garbology. In the end it tells only the stories of objects humans believed they no longer needed, the things they purposefully discounted, considered defective or deemed unsalvageable.
Any garbologist could tell you about a long gone culture that loved rubber ducks and glass bottles. A good garbologist may be able to construct a theory that people had plastic ducks because they were worshiped, and bottles because they held some sweet nectar, but a great garbologist will be able to tell you that any culture willing throw out large quantities of rubber ducks and glass was a culture that had so much of both that the extras, the slightly different, the slightly damaged or defective ones, lost their value altogether.