Garbage People

My son Jeff had to take a leak in the near-zero-gravity can, so I was the one flying us to Bertha the Black Hole at the time. 

This was not usual for us, as “Solution interns like Jeffrey are a valuable resource and need as much hands-on flight training as possible.” At least, that was what the berks in corporate spewed when I emailed to complain. 

So Jeff usually flew, and it was just as well; they changed the colour and size of the flight console buttons so often I had trouble remembering which knob did what. Another bump down, from Junk Pilot to…whatever I’d become. 

Sometimes, on my rare walks outside at night, I would pass the silent processions of Brotherhood of Odin monks. Some nights I fought not to heckle them, fought not to call their beloved goddess Freyja a dirty whore, knowing that their vow of silence would block them from defending her. Some nights I had to fight pretty hard. 

On other nights, though, I fought hard not to join them. 

The day The Solution to Climate Change was announced, 32 years ago now, was the third worst day of my life.

This “Solution” involved shooting rockets full of a proprietary gaseous mixture into space, where they sealed up the hole in the ozone layer like caulking around a leaky sink. At least, that’s how they explained it in the YouTube ads. 

I was an anxious grad student in Climatology the year before “The Solution” happened. Siobhan and I were dating, then. We went to every protest and climate march we heard about. Even got tear-gassed at one. I wept at David Attenborough nature documentaries, had nightmares about a global flood and daymares where water levels were slowly rising and emaciated polar bears resorted to eating each other, so rare were fish. 

In an effort to quell my ever-present panic, in my Master’s thesis I came up with a fix. My seminal work was entitled Treatment of the Problem of Cannibalistic, Starving Arctic Polar Bears by Use of Outer Space Technological Advancements. It proposed shooting rockets full of unnamed gases directly at the hole in the ozone layer, where it would be repaired. Caulking, sinks, etc.

I was recruited at a job fair for recent grads by a startup called Fix. 

“We’re looking to solve Earth’s biggest problems,” said a lanky blond guy whose name was probably Tyler. His companion, an older, balding man in blue robes, said nothing. Guy Who Was Probably Tyler saw me staring. 

“This is Bjørn ,” he said. “He’s our onboarding lawyer. He has taken a vow of silence as a monk of the Brotherhood of Odin.” 

As a kid I’d played with my Wiccan cousin’s Norse rune stones, so I nodded sympathetically and told them all about my Master’s thesis. 

The next week, in an exposed brick coworking space with soft jazz and fresh-bread smell pumped in overhead, I signed away the rights to my thesis (and my ability to work for anyone else) to Bjørn. To a Brotherhood of Odin monk. 

Fix soon became The Solution, Inc. Once they had my research, I was made an assistant, fetching coffee and scanning files. But the thing about a company that snowballed as quickly as The Solution did was that its technological capabilities snowballed, too. In a matter of two years they had their mitts in everything, from quantum computing to molecular biology. And, of course, space exploration. 

Once they’d figured out how to monetize spacetime,  I was made a Junk Pilot. The idea was simple: drive a spaceship out to a black hole and throw companies’ sensitive data inside until it was thoroughly spaghettified, not even numbers. Then, drive the junk haul spaceship back home, fill it up with hard drives again, and repeat. 

I named my black hole Bertha, after a cannon the Germans used during World War I. We were using her as a kind of weapon, after all. And I was about as powerful as one forlorn soldier of war. 

“I can take over driving, now, Dad, if you–” Jeff had come back from the bathroom. 

“No, I’m driving.” The whiny anger and bitterness in my voice startled me, so I softened it some. “You take a break. It’ll be hours before we reach Bertha.”

We had a motherlode of data to dump that day. A payday loan chain had gone under, leaving over 400 hard drives of 1,000 terabytes each. Not just clients’ names and credit card info, but chat logs, surveillance footage, the kind of incriminating digital junk you can only get rid of if you lob it into a black hole. Into Bertha’s yawning maw. 

The second-worst day of my life was when Jeff’s mother, my darling Siobhan, died. I say “died” because there was no grisly injury, no long-standing illness she nobly fought. She was a healthy woman of 46, and then I rolled over one January day in bed and found her clammy to my touch, staring straight at me like she’d seen some shit. Her heart had stopped, but she’d been awake for it. I think that was the worst part, knowing she’d felt herself go. Jeff was 11. 

The wake was loud and Irish and everyone drank too much, especially me because I couldn’t stand to be near her body. Somewhere –and this part is hazy–I bumbled my way outside. Jeff followed, tear tracks fresh and shining on his face. I’m an unknown quantity when drunk, and Siobhan’s wake was no different. I wove my way as purposefully as I could to the local Brotherhood of Odin temple, three streets away. 

“Dad, why don’t you come back to the wake? It’s freezing.” 

“Dad, where are you going?” 

“Dad, I promise to clean my room for three years if you tell me what’s up.” 

On and on like that Jeff went, needling me, pleading with me. But I didn’t answer. 

The Brotherhood temple was a house, an ordinary yellow house with four bedrooms at most, cheerful amber light flooding the snowbanks from a pair of enormous upstairs windows. A cluster of monks crowded around in the snow drifts, wearing those blue robes that reminded me so much of Frosh week togas. Outside, in January. Suddenly my drunken brain absorbed what was happening: they were accepting a new convert. He was saying the Vow of Silence. 

Jeff and I edged closer to the yellow house, until I could hear what the new monk was saying: 

“And I vow to keep the faith in all things, and as a symbol of this faith I shall turn a silent mouth to the world that does not love and believe in the Norse path…” 

Maybe it was grief or maybe it was Jameson, but I pounced. 

“You tight-lipped trash!” I bellowed. I ran forward and tried to rip off the new supplicant’s blue robe in the already frigid night. “You cowards! Don’t you know she’s gone? Gone! You need to be part of the world. You don’t understand pain…” I bawled as I tugged half-heartedly at the soon-to-be monk’s blue Frosh toga. Jeff had his arm around me and with the other arm gently pulled me back, back. 

He frog-marched me home and fixed me a nest on the couch, because in my own cheap-flannel bed upstairs all I could think about were Siobhan’s staring eyes, her last few possible minutes of pain. 

Since I was driving us to Bertha at the time, Jeff had his hands free. He drummed on the front console of the passenger’s seat, rat-a-tat-pat. The kid never could keep still when he was agitated. 

“Something on your mind?” I asked him pointedly. Jeff didn’t answer at once. “School?” I guessed unhelpfully. He was in his second year of Engineering at a half-decent university.“Or Marianne? How’s that going?”

Jeff sighed a beleaguered sigh and, thank God, stopped tapping. “Her name’s Marisol,” he said, “and we broke up last month.” 

“Oh,” I said, pretending to concentrate extra hard on a nearby star cluster. “Right.” 

“But it is about school,” said Jeff finally. “Well, sort of. I was wondering…well…do you think I could put in my name to be a full Junk Pilot? Like, not just an intern?”

“What? Fly your own ship?” 

“Yeah,” said Jeff, trying to sound casual, but I could hear the sliver of hopeful desperation in his voice. 

It was like my ears shut off. 

“We’re just glorified garbage people, Jeff. There’s no glamour in it, hauling people’s blackmail around. And anyway…what does this have to do with school?” 

“Well, the next Junk Pilot test flights are next month…and then there isn’t another one scheduled until two years from now.”

“So what, you’d drop out?” How livid Siobhan would be. When I first broke the news about Fix taking over my research,  she wielded that garlic press like each clove had done her a great personal wrong. And now they wanted her son’s education? 

I bit all of this back. “We–we can talk about this later, son.”

“You only call me ‘son’ when we’re about to have a fight.”

“Yes,” I said, “I do. But we can’t have it right now. Look. We’re almost at Bertha. Let’s go.”

Jeff unbuckled himself from his seat and float-swam to the rear of the ship, where 400,000  terabytes of the payday loan company’s fleecing and bilking lay waiting. I drove us the safest practical distance away from Bertha and angled the ship toward what we called her “mouth”, her centre. Jeff began placing pallets of hard drives onto a conveyor belt I’d rigged up in one of my now-rare moments of brilliance. The conveyor belt prevented the manual labour of us lugging out each hard drive one by one. Instead, it fed  them up to a small hatch in the side of the ship, which was surrounded by a powerful force field. The hatch would open and nothing that wasn’t shaped exactly like a hard drive could make it through. 

About eighty hard drives in, a particularly bulky one got stuck. Jeff paddled over to the open hatch, tried to push the hard drive past the blockage, and failed. 

“Dad!” he yelled, “we need to enact the Auto-Force Protocol.” 

“Right you are,” I said, racking my brain. The Auto-Force Protocol was simple, in theory: if a piece of debris got stuck in the forcefield, you pressed the Auto-Force button and the forcefield cleared itself of the thing that was stuck. In my training, this button had been square and blue. I found a square, blue button on the console and pressed it. 

There was a violent whoosh from behind me, a scream. I craned my neck. 

“Fixed, Jeff?” I called back. But Jeff wasn’t there. I pressed the square blue button again. 

And a gaping, forcefield-free hole in the side of the ship sealed itself. 

Out the window, I saw a tiny human figure like a ragdoll, buffeted to and fro by brute-force interstellar winds. It spiraled slowly into Bertha’s mouth like a bug being flushed down the drain, glug, glug. Then, there was nothing. The figure was gone. 

Now I have revealed before my brethren and the Norse Gods of Old the three worst things I have ever had to endure, as is their Will. I shall don blue raiment and venerate Odin, God of Wisdom and God of War, and Freyja, Goddess of Fertility and Goddess of Death. And I vow to keep the faith in all things, and as a symbol of this faith I shall turn a silent mouth to the world that does not love and believe in the Norse path, so that all shall know me as a silent man and an honest brother. For a man who does not speak does not lie. All these things I vow solemnly and inviolably. Now, my silence begins.