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Garbage People

by Scott Wolstencroft 2 months ago in Short Story / Sci Fi / Horror
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Cleaning up the planet

Garbage People
Photo by Javier Miranda on Unsplash

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. I’ve been preoccupied with that recently. It keeps me up at night. I’ve had dreams, nightmares in which I’m floating among the stars, stranded. I call for help, but even the most violent, gut-wrenching scream I can dredge up from the core of my being is inaudible; it doesn’t occur at all because there is no sound in open space. Rockets blast by, their engines firing everything they’ve got, but it’s a silent scene, like a movie on mute. Then, a great explosion, a star or maybe a planet, but every crack, bang, and boom from the burst is also made null in the void. At that point, I awaken, terrified of soundless cries and silent destruction. I’m haunted by this dream, and I know why. I’ve never been into space. My brain is panicking as I sleep because that is about to change.

This goddamned place. Garbage and people. That’s all we have. Too many damn people creating too much trash. We’ve decimated natural resources and anything that was once beautiful. It’s almost impossible to believe there were better times. There must have been, but all I have ever read or seen tells me people have been destroying the planet since day one of recorded history, so we have the whole of humanity to thank for this hellscape. By the time we began to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, we had already gone too far. That was more than a century ago. The heat, pollution, displacement, disease, and death were all preventable and, for a time, even reversible, yet every generation remained idle. Even when they tried to do better, their aim and convictions were lazy. An entire civilization resigned to slow universal suicide because it couldn’t be inconvenienced enough to care. It seems our planetary culture of reckless disposal was destined to apply to our own lives. That’s why I can’t wait to leave.

In recent years, there have been feeble attempts to address the overpopulation crisis—offspring limits, tax breaks for small families, no-cost terminations, no-questions-asked assisted suicide—the sum of which was a barely noticeable dent. Even worse were the measures designed to reduce planetary waste, as every ton of trash removed from the land or ocean was replaced almost instantly. Efforts dwindled, and apathy spread. The experts told us it would lead to unrest, along with the eventual collapse of the species.

Enter Hadley Oscar Exton, winner of the Global Refuse Initiative Challenge. Fifteen years ago, this kid discovered that hyper-compounded garbage treated with some chemical could be a long-lasting energy source. It could be anything—plastics, aluminum, dead batteries, old shoes. And not only did this teenage hotshot with a hydraulic press make the little pellets of trash, but he also invented a way to burn them without toxic emissions. The seventeen-year-old who started an energy revolution was now the world’s richest person. Wonder Boy’s inventions would not only serve every home and industry in the world but usher in countless new advances for humanity. 

The new fuel was found to be ideal for high-speed spacecraft. Suddenly we were going further than we had ever gone and faster than ever thought possible. The explorations yielded incredible new discoveries, but none more significant than a neighboring solar system with two planets deemed suitable for human habitation. There was breathable air, clean water in abundance, and fertile soil. From inevitable self-inflicted extinction, we quickly found ourselves on the cusp of interstellar colonization. 

Within the year, a multinational effort constructed scores of high-capacity transports for the first group to experience the most significant discovery of our time. Criminals. High-risk, violent offenders or those sentenced to life or death became residents of Poena, the smaller of the two planets. It was the first international, off-world penal colony. Other prisoners could elect to serve their time there as well, which was a wildly popular option, and soon the nations of the world all but emptied their prisons. 

An international committee christened the larger planet Hestia. It was like Earth, or rather, it was everything Earth was supposed to be. Images showed a lush paradise with rolling hills, waterfalls, and spectacular coastlines. Collaborating nations took only a year to prepare the first settlement with homes, farmlands, and utility infrastructure, using continuous supply shipments and the inmates next door. Hestia, was touted as the answer to an overcrowded Earth. I didn’t believe I would ever live to see it. 

Good evening. Our top story: Applications are now open for the Hestia Resettlement Program. To promote interstellar relocation, those selected will receive one of many international grants. The program is available to individuals and entire families. Use the keywords Hestia Resettlement for more information and to apply. In other news… 

Millions of entries came from the United States alone—students wishing to study the new world, retirees looking for a new adventure, and those just running away from something. I was a simple change-seeker. My life was going nowhere, I had no one of importance in my life, and I was fed up with my surroundings. I applied but without expectation. After all, I had no extraordinary skills to offer unless the new planet needed a burned-out bookkeeper. Naturally, when notified of my acceptance, I was convinced it was an error, but I wasn’t complaining. Get me out of here. 

On departure day, having disposed of nearly all my belongings, I woke up on the floor. Despite the nightmares, I felt a relief I had never known. It was as though I was being transferred from Hell to Heaven. After packing, I gave the sad, empty apartment one last look, expecting some sentimentality to find its way to me, but no. I had no last-minute qualms about leaving it behind. No more water shortages or smoggy skies. No more sweltering heat, dust storms, or fighting with shoppers for food. Leaving Earth was my only chance for some personal peace. 

Welcome to the Persephone Spaceport. As you exit the tram, please watch your step. Have a nice flight, and good luck to you! 

Around every corner, announcements played, directing you to your transport. Though several were departing within the hour, the terminal was not crowded. I stepped up to the counter and thought, what’ll you bet they lose my luggage? To go all the way to a new planet with nothing to wear. The attendant began to load my suitcase onto the cargo conveyor when I stopped him.

“You don’t need to see my ticket?” I was used to airport protocols. 

“Only one destination,” he replied.

A security checkpoint was nothing more than an old-fashioned, rudimentary metal detector arch. Everyone breezed through, which I found unusual, but no one else seemed concerned.  

As you approach the gates, be advised that onboard restrooms will not be available until the transport achieves full gravitational compensation. Restrooms are located throughout the terminal. Have a nice flight, and good luck to you! 

I took the announcement’s advice and then strolled around, waiting for my gate to admit passengers. It was a strange place. There were mismatched carpets and folding chairs, and the paint job was nowhere near professional. There were no vendors of any kind and no windows. It looked like everything in the port had been done on the cheap. You would think they could have a better environment for your last moments on Earth, but that’s humanity for you. Spare every possible expense. 

The gate attendant was not making eye contact. I pulled up my code, held out my wrist, and ran it through the scanner before being guided into one of the several shipways, each leading to a different level. I could hardly believe this day had come, and as I walked, a smile came to my face. Around me, many others did the same, but there were a few shedding tears. To leave all you’ve ever known and start from nothing on a planet no one knew about a few years earlier is no small feat.

As you board the ship, please choose your seat quickly, remembering that this transport is at capacity. Have a nice flight, and good luck to you! 

Other than the photos that had been made public, I had yet to see what would take me to my new home. I stepped on board to a jaw-dropping sea of seats, made even more impressive when I remembered it was only one of several levels. The overall capacity must be in the thousands. 

It would not be a pleasure cruise; there were no comforts to be found at all. It was a patchwork of red, blue, and gray seats in long rows with tiny aisles. The upholstery looked worn, and in spots, the carpet was threadbare. There were no windows, only monitors embedded into the walls, each bearing the word Hestia moving back and forth across the screen. Settlers never have it easy, but if I had known what it would be like, I might have prepared myself for the discomfort.

I didn’t want to be entirely surrounded by people, so I made my way to the front of the cabin, where the rows narrowed to just two seats on either side of an aisle. I placed my carry-on in the secure compartment under the seat and fastened my harness as the masses quietly and respectfully filed into the seats behind me. A well-dressed, balding, and liver-spotted old man sat beside me.

“Don’t worry,” he assured me, “ I’m not one of those who will talk your ear off.”

“Well, I’m sure I’ll be glad for the company at some point in the journey.” I tested my seat to ensure it reclined and suggested to the old man that he do the same.

The video monitors lit up with an image of our destination, and a woman wearing a military uniform entered the screen.

Welcome aboard Persephone 12, one of many civilian exoplanetary transports in the Hestia Project fleet. Hello, I’m Captain Piper. As you watch this, we’re busy making final preparations for liftoff. You and 6,000 others on four cabin levels are traveling to a planet just like Earth--only twice as big. No need to worry about overcrowding anymore. In fact, we hope our ever-expanding fleet will help more than one billion relocate to their new home in our first year. 

“You nervous?” the old man asked, tapping his fingers on the armrest.

“Not in the least. You?”

“Heh. I’m too old to be nervous.”    

Here are a few things to keep in mind as we liftoff. This craft uses a hyper-propulsion engine, making our journey last approximately three days. We’ll leave the ground just like an inner-atmospheric aircraft, but the real fun begins when our engine ignites midair. You’ll feel quite a tug as we leave Earth’s gravity. Remember to store all belongings properly so they don’t float away. But in no time, our gravitational compensation system will activate, and you’ll feel like yourself again. I’ll be back to let you know when we reach our optimal speed, at which point you may remove your harness and move about the cabin. Restrooms will be available at that time, as will food and beverage service. We also have a recreation cabin so you can walk around and do some stretching. Your muscles will thank you for it.

“They make it sound so great,” the old man said, studying our surroundings. “And yet it all looks kind of shoddy, am I right?”

“I’m sure it all comes down to money.”

One last thing. These video monitors will show you what’s happening outside the spacecraft when not in use for announcements. You can watch as we depart Earth for its newest colony, Hestia.

“Good riddance.”

The old man chuckled. 

Well, it looks like we’re all aboard and ready for liftoff. Now sit back and relax. And good luck to you! 

“You know, I think I’ve been wished good luck about a dozen times today. Do you suppose that’s an omen of some sort?”

The old man responded with a shrug. 

The cabin remained at a nervous hush as we broke through the sky. It was thrilling to feel the might of the Earth trying to pull the ship back, as though pleading with us not to leave. I watched the monitor as the gray skies turned black. Suddenly, there was Earth--massive but steadily shrinking on the screen. It was not the inspirational view I had seen in old photographs. Our blue marble looked peaked and not so blue. The visible land masses wore next to no green, and the waters were blotched black where once cities were submerged. It was a devastating sight. We killed it. Though the planet itself may not die, continuing to circle the sun for a billion years, it would do so with the effects of a terrible affliction from which it would not quickly recover. At once, I felt a pang of guilt. No individual is responsible for the Earth’s ruination, but we’re all guilty. Together, whether consciously or not, we are the destroyers. What will happen to all those who choose to stay? Those waters will never be cleaned, and the lands will never be reforested. I shook my head and watched as the planet vanished in the black distance. One day, to all the thousands on our transport and the future billions, it will become just a memory—a past home cursed, whose fate we abandon in favor of our comfort. There was nothing noble in fleeing our destruction. My entire heart wept. Earth never deserved us. 

Soon, two other transports appeared on our exterior view screens. So many emigrants in a trio of massive ships, and not one of us knew how fair Hestia would welcome us. We were all en route to the unknown, my thousands of companions and I, sharing in a historic endeavor. If anything was reassuring, it was to know we weren’t alone. 

Now, the long journey. I decided to reserve my sleeping pills for later and shut my eyes to see if I could drift off on my own. The old man was already out. 

I’m not sure how long I slept before my nightmare roused me. The passengers still wore their harnesses, so I hadn’t slept through any announcements. I glanced at the monitor, noticing that only one of the other transports was visible. Adrenaline had kept me going that day, but now that we were on our way, I felt intense exhaustion. Nightmares or not, I wriggled deeper into my seat and drifted off once more.  

I was awakened by a subtle commotion among a group of passengers. The gravity had stabilized, and many were searching for restrooms or at least a crew member who could help. Someone said they must be in another cabin, but no passage to the other levels could be found. The old man seated next to me was awake and staring at the video monitor. He leaned in and spoke softly. 

“This isn’t right.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Young man, have you seen that other transport?”

“Sure, a little.”

“Really look at it. Anything strike you as odd?”

“Well, we can only see the one transport now. The other must be out of camera range.”

“But look closely at the one you can see. Do you see a cockpit?”

“I guess not. So?” I looked at him for an answer, but he was silent for a long while before responding.

“I’m sorry. Never mind. I don’t know what I’m talking about. Old age sometimes gets the best of me.”

“No, no. Please. What are you suggesting?”

He sighed, sat back, and looked straight ahead, dazed. “They can’t find a crew because there is no crew.”

“So this is some sort of auto-piloted flight to Hestia?” Another long silence.

“Just now, I don’t believe there is a Hestia.”

“Of course there is. If not, then where are we going?”

“I don’t know. If I had to guess, I’d say when we burn through our fuel, we’ll just float off to join the uncharted cosmos.”

“That’s preposterous,” I scoffed. I looked at the old man, who shrugged, looking remarkably at peace with his suggestion. “How did you get such an idea?”

“You can only see one transport because the other went off in a different direction. Or it lost its propulsion. I studied the screen for a long time while you slept. And then I started looking around here. I was in the service. This ship is a poorly crafted assemblage of decommissioned aircraft, ocean vessels, and even land vehicles. I mean, look at the wall panels and the seats. Look at the lights. Some of those monitors are older than you are.”

“Okay, but repurposing things is part of the Hestia Project, right? Cleaning up the planet.”

“Well, they certainly seem to be cleaning. Fuel made from refuse, transports made of dismantled ships, and, of course...” He looked into my eyes and spoke with an overwhelming solemnity. “Excess population.”

My thoughts raced through how the Hestia Project came to be, and I watched the faces of travelers searching for a crew. Panic pulsed through my entire body, and I began to tremble.

“I can’t accept your theory. They wouldn’t launch people into deep space just to let them perish. If they wanted to get rid of people, they could have done it on Earth.”

“No, they couldn’t. Not in the numbers they’re talking about. Much cleaner this way.”

“Why are you so calm?” My heart was racing.

“I’m eighty-seven. I’m going to die soon regardless. At least I will have gone into the heavens.”

I began to mumble, rambling through all the reasons I could think of to discredit the old man’s belief. It was his hand on my arm that halted my whispered tirade.

“Listen, things could get pretty ugly up here when everyone starts to figure it out. I have an extra pill if you want it. You know, to end it. Before it gets too bad.”

His words confused me until I focused on his face and its somber expression.

“To end my life? How did you get that?”

“These days? Are you kidding? Anyway, I’ll just place this here, and you can decide if you want to use it.” He put a blue tablet on the arm of my seat. “I’m sorry for you. I really am. You still had half of your life to live. Unfortunately, we, and more to come, all trusted the same system that allowed the destruction we were hoping to escape. I wish you peace.” 

I sat staring at the tablet as he made himself comfortable for his last sleep. Finally, I picked it up and held it tightly before dropping it into my pocket. Some of the murmurs in the cabin were becoming open discussions; others enflamed debates. The panic was beginning to spread. The monitors began to blink and flash with scattered images that had been seen before, spitting static and bits of garbled announcements. 

Welcome… all aboard the Persepho-… Captain Piper… you and 6,000… just like… twice… No need to worry about... one billion…luck to you! 

I held my head with both hands and furiously drummed my fingers into my hair until it hurt. My nightmare came back to me in my awakened state. Buried alive, that’s what we were, in a cold, blacker-than-black grave. A pilotless missile into a vast vacuum. No direction and no possible salvation. The distant stars, once a wonder, were now evil eyes, waiting to see us perish. No, I thought, as tears began to drop from my eyes. I’ll not suffer surrounded by suffering. I could hear desperate agony and angry rage building in the cabin, shouting and wailing. It would soon become violent, of course. What happens then? I’m leaving on my terms. I held the end-of-life tablet and looked at the old man who had already expired. I remembered a bottle of water I had in my carry-on. As I reached for it, the tablet fell from my hand. I dropped to my knees and watched as it rolled toward a small opening in the floor of the ragtag rocket. It disappeared, falling through to who knows where. My shriek of terror was instant and violent, drawing out all I had left, but it was lost amid the commotion of the cabin. No one could hear me. No one would ever hear any of us again. Not in space. 

Short StorySci FiHorror

About the author

Scott Wolstencroft

Scott Wolstencroft is a former arts administrator who writes short stories, poetry, and plays. He resides in New York City.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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