Escape Pod 467: Trash
by Marie Vibbert
Nanlee was a woman with the sort of past that necessitated moving to a non-extradition treaty country, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t planned on enjoying her “retirement” on Luna Colony. She was Facilities Manager – a polite term for the boss of all janitors. Her staff jumped anxiously at her every glance, and waste was down nine percent since she had taken office. She was still important; the life of the colony depended on her work. No one bothered her. Which was fortunate, given how she used to deal with people who bothered her.
Luna Colony concerned itself with maintaining the Ungodly Huge Array on the dark side of the moon and serving as a weigh station between Earth’s inconvenient atmosphere and the rest of the universe. Nanlee concerned herself with minding her own business.
She was at her desk when the alarms started. A male voice recorded long ago grunted “Evacuate. Imminent danger of decompression. Evacuate.” No doubt he had thought he sounded important and tough. Nanlee sighed and locked her workstation.
Vince, her assistant, fell to a halt against the door as she was picking up her cane. “Boss! The station—”
“Yes, I heard. I do have two working ears. Probably a drill, but gather everyone to the garage.”
Vince’s hazel eyes just about vibrated, so wide open she could see the white all the way around the iris. “It isn’t a drill! This is ‘we could all die tonight’ bad news.”
Nanlee paused, half on her cane, half on the edge of the desk, pulling herself out of her chair. She fell back into the seat. She could feel her hot-tub calling to her. “Metaphorical death or literal?”
“Literal. Two tons of titanium on a crash-course with our dome.” He tapped her desk surface, hurriedly typing in his password and pulling a document, which he rotated with a flick of his hand to point at her.
It was an orbit decay projection. They always looked the same. “And this is too big for the dome to handle?”
“It’ll crack us like an egg!”
Vince sounded excited, almost gleeful, at the prospect. He was young.
“What the hell is it?”
“The last stage of a Saturn V rocket. Sucker’s been orbiting Luna for a hundred years. Maybe it got hit by some other debris, maybe it’s just decided now’s the time to land.”
Nanlee stopped herself from asking “Saturn what?” because Vince was looking at her like he’d just won the lottery. “Does Trey know about this?”
Trey was the mayor of the colony, Nanlee’s boss.
Vince rolled his eyes. “Of course Trey knows.” Like that was any less valid a question than asking her if she had heard the evacuation announcement. Nanlee wasn’t going to waste breath pointing it out. “He sent me to tell you we’ve got a little less than a day.”
“Well pack shit up!” She poked her cane against the wall behind her to get a little boost forward. “Get Percy and take the organic filters off-line. They won’t survive decompression. Also—“
“No. We’ve got a day to try and save the colony.”
Nanlee arched an eyebrow. “We?”
“Trey has put waste management on this. Everyone else is booking it.”
“Why the hell is this my jurisdiction?”
“Because,” he smiled ruefully, “it’s trash.”
With surprising strength, Nanlee pushed Vince out of her way and started down the corridor. She didn’t bother playing up her limp like she usually did – it never hurts to be underestimated. “Where is he? Where is Trey?”
“Uh… he’s gone. Central administration relocated before the alarm.”
“Damn.” Nanlee bounced upward as she struck the floor with her cane. Vince ducked as she whirled in place and started toward the equipment bays. “If we’re staying, our gear is staying. Don’t tell me that coward commandeered a single maintenance vehicle.”
“Uh…” Vince bit his lip and ran after Nanlee.
Every maintenance worker on call was soon gathered in Nanlee’s office, bent over the desk, which displayed all the intelligence they had so far. Janice, the garage head, still out of breath from locking down every remaining tractor, said, “So we shoot it down?”
“With what?” Vince said.
Nanlee called up the colony master plans. “Doesn’t the station have some emergency cannon or something?”
Old Percy, who’d worked on the colony since it was built, shook his head. “We had two guns, put in for just this sorta thing, but the ammo was all sold back in ’22 when the budget was tight. Plus the things ain’t been fired up in fifty years. Anyway, it wouldn’t work. Too much mass.”
Nanlee flicked through the inventory lists, looking for anything that could be used as a cannon, a slingshot. Why the hell had she never noticed the lack of firepower in this place? A part of her briefly considered plots to take over the colony. (No, too much work.) She wiped the inventory lists off the table. “Okay, can we catch it?”
Vince snapped his fingers. “A net! Or, or a giant airbag. We could use the mylar sheets from the farming dome?”
One of the groundskeepers shook his head. “This hunk of junk would go right through that. Besides, we only have twenty-two hours now…”
“…and nothing to spread the net on. You wanna build three, four towers in that time?”
“No, we don’t let it fall; we go to it.” Nanlee straightened, set her weight on her good leg and pointed with her cane. “Janice, get me our best maintenance pod that has a grappling hook. The rest of you thugs meet me in the launch bay. Vince, come with me.”
Vince gave her the same wary look he gave her when she referred to “eliminating the evidence.”
“Where are we going?”
“My place. I need to bring something.” Her cane punched the floor hard with each bound, pushing her off the floor again before her feet hit. Her hip was killing her.
There was one place on the station with a stockpile of weapons, at least.
Hand it to Vince that he didn’t even blink when she pulled out her personal sidearm and a crossbow. He did gawk at the harpoon gun as she laid it across his burdened arms. “And what were you going to fish for on the moon?”
“It has sentimental value. Bring it.”
“Twenty pound harpoon gun and she ships it to the moon for sentimental reasons,” Vince muttered under his breath as he followed Nanlee back down the corridor that led to the maintenance offices. All around them, the alarms were flashing and people hurrying.
Most of the small maintenance garage bay was packed with people being loaded onto all available moving equipment. Nanlee glared at them.
“We couldn’t stop them, boss,” Percy said, apologetically.
The staff was re-convened around a single repair vehicle. The head mechanic stood atop a wheel.
Janice ran a hand through her frizzy brown hair. “Look, we don’t got a ‘grappling hook’, par se. We got winches. Lots of winches. And, y’know, the skeeter has those legs that grab onto shit.” She jerked a thumb behind her at the vehicle in question: the Case 35CBX work platform, which everyone just called “the skeeter” because, well, it looked like a mosquito. “So I went ahead and secured a winch to the front of this one. Because, to be honest, boss? If we’re talking about saving our own asses, there’s no tractor I trust here like my skeeter.”
“The CBX it is. Who’s your best driver?”
Janice grimaced. “Seeing as how we’re saving our own asses…”
“Right. You’ll drive. Vinnie! We need math, so you’re coming. What’s this transport’s top speed, Jan?”
“Please don’t call me ‘Vinnie’,” Vince said, still weighed down with Nanlee’s weapons collection.
“Load those up,” Nanlee waved, and three people jumped forward to help Vince while Nanlee conferred with Janice about acceleration and turning radius.
“This isn’t going to work,” Vince said, checking figures on his pocket computer and comparing them to the skeeter’s dash.
Nanlee sat at the rear of the small cabin, on top of the box that held the rig’s one spacesuit, her cane before her like a regal scepter. “How far off are we?”
“Jan’s pushing the pedal to the metal, but our rendezvous point… we’re not going to have a lot of room for error, boss. And I don’t think we’ll have time to grab it. Looking at the skeeter’s mass verses the Saturn fuselage? It’s as likely to drag us with it.”
“We’ll shorten the distance by shooting it.” Nanlee patted the harpoon gun on her lap fondly. “Figure out what direction we want to force this bastard to go so it misses the colony.”
“Uh… look, no offense, but even your ‘sentimental attachment’ there doesn’t have the mass to alter a two-ton rocket’s course.”
“Right. Janice, take us that way.” She pointed out at the vast grey plain. “We’ll have thrust on our side. Engine thrust – energy in place of mass.”
“How much thrust? I don’t have this calculated.”
“Do as you’re told, Vinnie, and this will all go easy.”
Vince looked nauseous. A kid his age should have more optimism. Nanlee handed him her cane and turned her back to him.
The cab was only meant to hold two people – the driver and a maintenance worker, but it had a little extra room for tools or lunch or whatever you had to bring with you. There wasn’t a Vince-load of space while Nanlee put on the spacesuit. She had to shove him into Janet’s lap.
Nanlee crawled out the rear airlock – it was by necessity a small thing, designed to be crouched in rather than walked through. Her cane was secured in one of the many tool-loops on the walls of the cab. Her hip burned. The game leg always hated being in space. The low pressure, probably.
Soon she was hanging off the rear service platform, her harpoon gun raised. The deadly chunk of metal was just a glint, a speck slightly larger than a star, as they approached it. It looked so still.
Space does a lot to teach you to trust math over your own mind.
It was hard, lining up her eye with the sight when she had a bulky helmet on her head, but Nanlee felt the old calm spreading through her tired joints. Man, it felt good to be able to shoot your problems.
The space-race relic turned under her eye, presenting a broad side. She pressed the trigger.
She felt the jerk in her arms, but it wasn’t the same without the sound. Still she smiled as the harpoon sailed, huge and beautiful. She kept her eye to the magnifying scope. The harpoon looked needle-thin as it bounced harmlessly off the rocket. Nanlee threw the harpoon gun at her target. It spun away, then jerked taut on the winch line she’d attached to it. She hauled it in like a fish, tore it off and let it drift away.
Vince pressed his face to the window at the rear of the skeeter. Over the radio his voice crackled. “Sentimental value?”
“Shut up and put the crossbow in the airlock.”
Nanlee tapped her fingers – fat and noiseless – on the sides of the airlock door while she watched Vince place the crossbow in it and start the cycle. How much time did they have left? Best not to dwell on it. Only think of the job.
“I told you it wouldn’t work,” Vince said. She ignored him.
She turned over the crossbow, nearly fumbling it out of her hands because of the thick gloves and its lack of weight.
Nanlee laid the grapple on top of the crossbow bolt and tied the two together with the winch rope. It felt like tying fire hose with chopsticks. The cable was fatter than both the bolt and the grapple. Nanlee hoped that in space, everything being weightless and all, the size wouldn’t matter and reflex would trump all.
The crossbow fired, silently of course. She had to look down to confirm the prod was straight. The winch rope swayed in sine waves after the bolt. Nanlee kept her eyes on the target, waiting, waiting… the rope waved erratically, the grapple hook glinted as it hit and flew off the top of the fuselage. Nanlee hurriedly tugged the rope. The head of the grapple bobbed accordingly, hit and bounced again, hit and bounced, and veered off, clear of the target. “Shit!”
Nanlee hit the switch to retract the winch. “Never mind. Nothing’s changed. That was just supposed to buy us more time. Jan, it’s all you now. Get these feet on the target.”
“Will do,” said Jan. “About eighteen minutes to rendezvous.”
“You coming in?” asked Vince.
“No. We need someone out here anyway to spot.”
“Jan can do that with the camera. You don’t have to do this.”
Nanlee heard the unspoken plea – you’re old and beat up. She snorted. “I’m fine.”
Nanlee checked her safety-tether once more and unhooked her boots from the platform. Immediately her legs wanted to go up.
Stupid legs. Well, she didn’t have to worry about them, now. She hand-walked down the rungs welded to the CBX’s hull down to one big, gangly foot. There she held on, watching as the fuselage chunk got bigger.
In space, everything seems far away until it’s rushing at you full speed – lack of scenery to compare against. So Nanlee didn’t trust her eyes, she trusted Janice’s calculations. When Janice started counting out the last minute, Nanlee brought her good leg up in front of her. She felt the vibration when the skeeter hit the Saturn. Then she swung down, good leg landing hard on the ancient hull. It bucked up against her like a live thing, vibrating. Skeeter’s toes flexed like eager baby hands. “There’s a good hole two feet up. Seven o’clock.”
The skeeter wasn’t designed to be fast, but it was designed to move in all directions, its jets gamboling like googly eyes on top and bottom.
“Five degrees more to starboard. No, overshot… make that four… good… almost there. Flex now, you got it!”
There was a satisfying groan as the skeeter latched on and two hurtling objects became one. “Now punch it, all you’ve got!”
“Boss, you coming in?”
“Not on your life.”
Nanlee let go with one hand, letting herself sail free, looking over the hull beneath her, marked with letters and numbers still, in a quaint hand streaked with age. Tons of titanium and they just threw it away. Those were amazing times, when humanity could just… waste. A dizzying concept to someone who kept struggling to close the gap on a tiny percentage of lost material.
The moon was swelling beneath them, the colony just a lacy little doily in the center of its crater. Barely a freaking tenth of a percent of the moon’s surface, and this hunk of junk had to choose to land on it!
They were hurtling head-long for the ground, metal straining as Janice taxed the skeeter’s powers to pull the projectile south. But for all the sensation she felt, Nanlee could be standing still.
She was so glad she’d retired here.
Her radio crackled. “We’re not going to make it.”
“What do you mean?” Nanlee turned around to glare at the two faces inside the skeeter.
“We still don’t have enough mass. We’re not changing its course enough. I told you.” Vince’s voice was starting to grate on her. “Why do bosses always think they know better? This is physics. I’m not making this up.”
“Disengage. We’ll pick up mass.”
Vince sighed. “We have ten hours until impact, and we need to change the course higher or we have to change it MORE.”
“Your point being?”
“We have one hour to move this five degrees, and it’ll take half of that to fly back to the surface. The closer we get to impact, the more mass we need. If we take too long it will end up more than the skeeter can carry.”
“So quit stalling,” Nanlee snapped. “Janice, get us to the boulder beds.”
The only sensible source of ready mass was a pile of discarded material from the digging out of the colony itself. There was a downhill side of the colony, a bit of old crater-edge that it sat near, and that was where most stone waste was deposited. Nanlee stayed on the skeeter’s leg, watching the moon fill her vision, eyeing the shadows for a good-size chunk.
“This is better, anyway,” Nanlee said. “Skeeter’s designed to haul these rocks.”
“I’m thinking we need at least a ton of mass,” Vince said. “In lunar basalt, that’ll be something about the same size we are.”
“Good. Easy to estimate.”
“I don’t know if we have the fuel,” said Jan.
“Didn’t you fuel all the way up before we left?”
“Yes. But we spent five minutes at full throttle trying to move that rocket!”
There wasn’t a lot of time to shop around. Nanlee pointed to a lump on the ground as their shadow grew below them. “That one.”
Again, she guided the coupling. This time there was less of a shake on impact, more dust rising. The trip back up to the rocket was nowhere near as adventure-cheerful as the previous one. It was just work, now. Work being done a second time, even. The worst kind.
“One more problem,” Jan said. “The skeeter don’t exactly have a throwing arm. I mean, I can let go…”
“We’ll ram it. Rock-side down.”
“Then you’d better get back in here.”
Nanlee snorted. Still, when Jan started a countdown, she climbed up to the platform, but only because the boulder was blocking her view from the leg-strut. She looked back at Vince’s worried, sweating face and smiled, locking herself in.
The view wasn’t good there, too. She twisted around. “Jan? What direction am I looki—“
Either Janice had been off by a second, or Nanlee blacked out on “one”. Suddenly they were spinning. The moon flashed by in gasps. Nanlee yanked back and forth on her tethers like a balloon in a storm. Bile rose at the back of her throat. “Janice, you idiot, we’re crashing!”
There was no response for a long time. Nanlee tried to fight to get around, but then she puked. A slurry of orange and yellow slid across her vision. Slowly, their spin became a wobble, and the moon established itself on one side of them.
“We’re… yeah, this is going to be rough,” Janice’s voice sounded queasy. “I disengaged after impact but we used up most of the fuel was had left. I… we’re going down now. I’m landing her where she lands.”
“Vinnie, are we clear?” There was no response. Nanlee hit the airlock window. “Vince!”
“The rocket will miss the colony,” he said. “I think. I… dude, I don’t know. I don’t… I don’t know if we’ll survive the crash. We’re not slowing down. Look, you want to do calculations while spinning?”
“Jan, aim those jets at the ground!”
“No I hadn’t thought of that, actually. I just thought we’d go ahead and crash.” Janice said.
The horizon wobbled frantically as the skeeter struggled for position. Nanlee could only see an oblong swatch of view framed by sick. She felt her lunch rising up her gullet again and closed her eyes.
“Everyone hold on,” Janice said, sounding surprisingly calm, moments before the impact.
The first jolt came from below, so Janice had managed to get their legs under them, but then the ground was sailing merrily in front of Nanlee’s eyes, and her stomach felt the gravity just fine.
Another jolt. Stars swirled, and the ground was coming up again. They were scraping along the ground now. At least they’d stopped rolling. Nanlee undid her tethers. She misjudged the distance and smacked the ground — on her bad hip, naturally. She felt something crunch and struggled to maintain consciousness. But she was, to her own shock, alive. “Jan? Vince?”
There was a moment of static.
“Vince isn’t waking up.” Janice’s voice was wet with tears. “I… I don’t know… we’re about a mile south of the colony, ma’am. We’re losing pressure in here.”
Nanlee wriggled around, feeling her legs, her arms, the damn tether tangled around her. “Right. I’ll go get help.” She was completely blind, now, vomit stinging her eyes and sticking her lashes together. She tried to stand and her left leg crumpled like yarn. Damn that CIA bastard that broke it. She balled a fist and hit the dusty ground in frustration.
Anger made it take precious seconds longer than necessary to disengage the safety tether. She blinked and squinted until she saw something through the puree of meals past. Her eyes burned, but she still had a splotch of clear helmet, near the top and to the right. She had to keep her head at a hard angle to get gasps of vision. Something was venting a white plume – one of the research corridors flung out from the edge of the main dome, maybe.
Crawling in one-six gee was a graceless affair, hopping on three legs like a wounded jumping beetle. Each time she landed, red flashed before her eyes, but there was no way to cross the space and not jump.
She didn’t know how much time Janice or Vince had.
If Vince was still in a state where time mattered.
She tried to guess how many bounces she’d have to survive before she reached the service airlock, a white circle against the dome’s solar-cell black. She kept her eyes on it and counted.
Each flash of red was getting longer. Her breath was wheezing in her ears. All she could think was: don’t have a stroke! Not now!
The white circle split and the hemispheres parted. She almost fell where she was, her working limbs turning to water with relief. Someone saw, and was coming for them. She forced herself to keep going. Bounce, red, blink, bounce…
She counted forty-four bounces, all told, before she passed out.
She awoke chilled, and reached down, pulling up a cotton sheet. Tape crinkled against her wrist, holding an IV in place. Nanlee laughed. “We must be good. You’re wasting time fixing me up.”
A nurse rushed to her side. “Easy. Don’t sit up, you’re doing fine.”
Nanlee pushed the nurse away and found the controls to raise the bed. Trey was standing at the foot of it, a vacuum suit on over his usual black suit. “You did good, Nanlee. We’re all proud of what you and your team accomplished.”
“They’re fine. You did my administration a great service, all three of you.”
“Saved your ass, you mean.”
Trey ducked his head. “Oh boy, that’s the truth. And you had better believe we’re going to find the funds to fix up our object defense. Once we get the damage under control. It was… this could have been so much worse.”
“The guns that don’t work?”
“Hell, Trey. Get the U.S. on the horn. It was their hunk of junk – aren’t they responsible? Couldn’t we sue?”
Trey got a very uncomfortable look on his face.
“Boss? What is it?”
“The metal is U.S. property. They’re claiming salvage rights.”
Nanlee blinked, slowly. “What are they sending to claim it? A military ship? I hope its one of the P-90 Space Planes.”
“I didn’t ask. I’m afraid to ask why it matters?”
Nanlee’s smile was dagger-sharp. “Because after I hit it with a rock, it’ll be trash.”
The nurse grabbed Nanlee’s shoulder, stopping her from rising. Trey waved him off. “Nan, hon, let’s back up a step.”
“I’ve always wanted a fourth-generation encryption cube. I’ll be sure to hit the ship from the aft. They want to come claim that, too, they’ll find I can play this game as long as they can.”
“How about we call the U.S. back, and I have you there for the negotiation?”
Nanlee chewed her lip. It did sound like less work. “You should have had me there to start with.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Don’t… don’t get up and do anything until I come back.”
Nanlee enjoyed few things as much as a properly afraid superior officer. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and looked for her cane. “And fix those guns,” she said.
About the Author
Marie Vibbert is a web developer from Cleveland, Ohio with over 15 professional short story sales. Her work has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, Apex, Lightspeed, and many other places. She played for the Cleveland Fusion Women’s Tackle Football team and her favorite ice cream is Mitchell’s Toasted Hazelnut.
About the Narrator
Tatiana Grey is a critically acclaimed actress of stage, screen, and the audio booth. She has been nominated for dozens of fancy awards but hasn’t won a single damned thing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. See more about Tatiana at www.tatianagrey.com.