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Containing a selection of published articles from various print media.

E-ON Chronicle: Garbage Man (fiction)

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“Wake up, honey…”

Sensual and oozing innuendo, a woman’s voice caressed the sleeping garbage man’s ear. Smacking his lips and cringing at the fetid taste of his morning breath, Zalman Krueger stirred groggily from his mess of a bed, and glanced wearily at his alarm clock, programmed to rouse him with the cooing voice of a Gallente holo-starlet. Just once, he mused, it would be nice to wake up next to a real woman.

Half-walking half-shambling, the stubble-faced Sebiestor navigated his cluttered habitat-cube, nearly tripping twice over dirty clothing strewn about the spartan domicile. It was little more than a box separated by flimsy partitions, the kind of accommodation favoured by ever-transient captains and migrant workers, no more than a hundred squares. The tall Krueger could barely stretch his arms without scraping the bulkhead that formed his ceiling. Arriving in the shoe-closet that the station landlord insisted was a kitchen, Krueger began rummaging through the sparse selection of frozen Re-Heatables© remaining in his desolate freezer.

“Ribs or fish… ribs or fish”, he muttered to himself.

In seconds, the meal was ready, and Krueger regaled it with a look of utter contempt. Two spoons’ worth of powdered yellow tuber, a pittance of flash-preserved vegetables that likely predated warp travel, and an unremarkable slab of meat floating in red sauce; the kind with the shape of ribs machine-pressed into the meat, perhaps in order to give it an appearance slightly less resembling a turd.

He chewed gingerly, rubbing his head and wondering why he had not died in his sleep. Death seemed the preferred alternative to another day of work. His was the lot of the carrion bird, the undertaker – Zalman Krueger was an interstellar salvage specialist.

A garbage man.

Every food chain needs its vultures. The Eve cluster was one such food chain. Here, prey outnumbered predator by a factor of ten, and the predators knew it. Each day brought with it the death of a thousand vessels, and an abrupt end to hundreds of thousands of lives. Pirates and mercenaries ambushed solitary vessels that strayed toward dangerous space lanes; entire alliance fleets collided with one another in wars that shook the very firmament – and there, faithfully, amidst the blazing wreckage, would be Zalman Krueger and his salvage drones.

His fingerprint sealed the door behind him. The biometric reader was archaic, and easily circumvented, noted Krueger un-easily. Most station quarters came with DNA readers on the locks, but clearly the master of this facility felt them an unnecessary expense. He shrugged, admitting to himself that there wasn’t much he owned worth stealing. Aside from the habitat-cube, his only worldly possessions were his ship, his bank account card, and the clothes on his back. It would be at least another month until this grim labour generated enough funds to upgrade his vessel to something proper.

As he made his way through the station’s concourse and toward the berths, he stopped to watch a five-minute broadcast of the Scope news channel. The Scope was, in a way, his lifeline; bearing news of promising conflicts sure to leave the void scattered with dozens of shattered shipwrecks. A travel advisory warning of pirate activity some dozen jumps away came as a welcome treat – there was a time when Krueger would have cursed himself for taking joy in the misfortune of others, but the part of him that cared had withered away long ago.

Rubbing the sleep from his tired eyes, he clambered through the bowels of his Probe-class frigate, pressing his slender body through walkways and access tubes seemingly constructed with midgets in mind. He came upon the capsule, that dread tomb of slime and polyalloys that enabled control of his vessel, and hesitated. Each time he entered it, each time the neural spike drove itself into the base of his skull, he would see a brief flash of memory, a momentary short-circuit of the brain revived to crystal clarity. Sometimes the memories were good, but Krueger had amassed a lion’s share of nightmares, and lately it was these that surfaced with increasing frequency.

Today would be no different. In the scant seconds between his sense of vision shutting down and being replaced with the omniscient mind’s-eye-view of camera drones, he beheld his first salvage run – his first bitter taste of reality in the Eve cluster. He recalled the glee with which he tractor-harpooned and hauled the fragments and modules from that devastated Megathron hulk in Kisogo. He recited in his mind the projected earnings for the five intact ion cannons, three current pumps, two pairs of intact capacitor consoles, the various lesser mechanisms and devices, and the huge chunks of armour plate now resting in his cargo hold. Then came the flood of dread as Krueger came to know for the first time – and again – that salvage was a dirty business.

He had almost forgotten when it happened, that ships often come with crews. Still innocent, he eagerly bounded toward the cargo hold to inspect his plunder; fully expecting a haul of pristine modules ready for the market only to come face to face with the purest of horrors that interstellar warfare had to offer. The bodies were everywhere. Some welded inside their turret stations by immense heat, others torn open by explosive out-gassing, others still no bigger than children. He would spend three sordid days working away at his bounty with a pressure-washer, his nose plugged with tissues in a desperate attempt to ward off the stench of cooked, rotting flesh. The stench clung to everything. He broke many times, unable to continue and retreating to his quarters to drown himself in liquor, refusing to face the cemetery within his cargo hold. The meager Kredits he earned for the salvage came at too high a price.

Whether motivated by guilt or a mild psychotic break, he had spent the next week digging up crew manifests from the Megathron’s salvaged computers. It felt wrong to leave them there, with no names to go with their dead faces. Painstakingly he identified each ruined carcass, each scorched skeleton, and decided to send word to the relatives of the dead. For the most part, the families of that unfortunate battleship’s crew did not appreciate being informed of their loved ones’ death by a garbage man, and he abandoned the effort soon after.

His vision – his ship’s vision – returned to him in a flash of brilliant light. The spindly Probe frigate unsteadily emerged from its station berth, rocking slightly side-to-side. His autopilot already set for the hostile depths of the Heimatar region, Krueger tried to purge the echoes of memory still lingering in his mind like the sticky miasma of death in his cargo hold. Since that fateful day he had made a point to become more detached, more callous toward his chosen profession. He even went to the length of installing automated pressure-washers in the hold. That way, the dead would have no faces, no names.

In a half hour’s time, the journey’s final stargate whirled to life and spat him out into carnage. His eyes went wide as he beheld a graveyard of still-flickering starship skeletons. Most were frigates, most split in two or broken into splinters – farther from the gate lay the motionless form of a mark-one Badger hauler, its IFF beacon broadcasting the call sign “Trade Runner”, and its command section missing entirely. With a thought, he loosed his salvage drones, and trained his Probe’s scanners upon wreck after wreck, poking about the war-zone like a grave robber of old. His drones flitted among the wreckages, bright sparks flaring from their welder-arms as they detached anything their primitive artificial intelligence deemed valuable. He allowed himself a small measure of satisfaction as he heard the dull clang of heavy metal objects being deposited in his hold. Frigates were the best of pickings, he mused – not many crew aboard those.

His mind focused entirely on guiding two of his drones as they surgically excised an autocannon turret from what looked to be half of a Rifter, Krueger could hardly be blamed for failing to notice a distant shimmer of light. A hundred klicks away, appearing as little more than a faraway dot, the mammoth Apocalypse class battleship came into being as it dropped its cloak. Only the scream of his shipboard AI would rouse him from his preoccupation, but by then it was far too late. The dot became a point of light. Six brilliant columns of that golden light bridged the expanse between Krueger’s flimsy Probe and the pirate battleship, crushing the frigate almost instantaneously. The blast and subsequent impact was so jarring that the garbage man’s brain nearly reset itself. It took but a moment for him to come to his senses, and he quickly realized a ship no longer surrounded him, but a two-meter-long egg shaped tomb and an expanding cloud of debris. He willed the capsule to flee, but the marauder was already firing his second salvo.

Zalman Krueger ceased to exist.

What little remained of his spindly Probe, soon came to join the myriad wrecks tilting and twinkling in starlight. Had he renewed his clone contracts, Krueger might have remarked upon the irony of a garbage man’s resting place being among garbage. As a man he was gone now, replaced by an amnesiac cretin spilling forth from a clone vat some light years away. As fate would have it, even his final resting place would not remain undisturbed for long. Some hours later, the stargate flared again, disgorging a Wreathe-class cargo tug.

The first mate of the Wreathe beheld the graveyard before him, as seen from the porthole of the antiquated hauler’s mess hall. “Looks like good salvage out there”, he cheerfully exclaimed to his fellow crew. “Let’s grab a bite and get to work! You guys want ribs or fish?”

This article originally appeared in E-ON Magazine.

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Written by tomczerniawski

March 14, 2010 at 1:34 pm

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