by Bill Bowler
part 1 of 2
Our host was gracious and hospitable. He welcomed us, made us comfortable, and tended to our needs. Our journey had been long and tiring but, after we had freshened up, we gathered in what served in his modest dwelling as a living room.
His other guest, a dark-eyed girl, looked at me expectantly. I had not met her before, but her resemblance to my old friend, if I could put it that way, was striking. It brought back to mind images from a past long gone, but never to be forgotten.
“Shall I tell you what I remember?” I asked.
“Please,” said the girl. “That’s why I’ve come.”
I leaned back into my chair and settled in. “It was many years ago, but seems like only yesterday. I remember him so clearly. I see him now as vividly as I see you here in this chamber. We were on Philemon, during the Reign of Trash. One night...”
* * *
...the wail of the intrusion alarm broke the uneventful boredom of existence at Alpha Base. Officer Hardy, bleary-eyed, stumbled into the control room and flipped on the satellite feed. A huge, filthy scow, from the Proxima system by looks of her, appeared on screen.
With a curse, Officer Hardy pulled up the schedule. The next drop wasn’t due for three cycles. Hardy swore again and ran a vehicle i.d. search on the trespasser while we watched the video feed.
The barge transfer module separated from the main scow, opened its bay doors and 500,000 tons of junk rained down to the planet’s surface, adding two feet to the height of Perfume Peak, the ten-mile high mountain of trash that dominated the central area of the dump site. The scow retrieved the empty barge module, fired its engines, and accelerated out of orbit. The blip moved across the radar screen, reached the edge and dropped off.
The vehicle i.d. search came back positive. The scow was owned by Galactic Solutions, Inc., an environmental maintenance firm operating out of the Proxima II colony.
Officer Hardy sat slumped at the command console, head down, staring at the screen. Dark bags hung under his bloodshot eyes and his skin had a sickly, pale yellowish tinge. He took a gulp of cold coffee, scratched his chin whiskers, and turned his eyes to the control panel gages.
Two LEDs, representing two beacons in the dump sector, were flashing red. The beacons had been knocked off line.
“I see it, Mom-E, I see it.”
Strictly speaking, I wasn’t anybody’s “mommy.” I’m a Motherboard Model-E android, “E” for emoticon. It’s common now, but I was the first unit equipped with the prototype of emotional expression. And I guess I am a “mommy,” after a fashion: the Model-E family of emoticon androids went into production using my template.
Emoticons mimicked emotional response as closely as memory and computing speed could approach it. Pride was modeled as optimization of system resources; joy as increased rate of computation; anger as a surge in power; grief as system-wide process slowdown; love as a tenfold increase of bandwidth connection.
“We’ve lost the signal, Mom-E.”
“Yes, sir, I see that.”
“We’re going to have to go out there.”
“I know, sir.”
The loss of signal from the beacons was alarming. They were part of a network that monitored the geo-stability of the dumpsite, which encompassed some 25,000 thousand square miles. The site, including Perfume Peak, was highly unstable and prone to shifting and settling, which resulted in avalanches or the sudden opening of deep crevices that had buried and swallowed whole villages of Philemoids and could threaten Alpha Base itself.
“That scow knocked out the beacons, Mom-E.”
“It would appear so, sir.”
“They’re going to have to pay for it.”
“Yes, sir. But, your report...”
“I know, I know,” Officer Hardy waved me off.
I didn’t need to remind him. Galactic Solutions could be held liable but regulations required the Base Officer’s report to be filed within 48 hours of the infraction.
“All right, Mom-E,” said Hardy. “Let’s get ready to go.”
“Can I come, too?” asked M-E2, Officer Hardy’s auxilliary support staff android. He was standing next to me, watching the screen. M-E2 was a Model-E, only one month old at that time. He was still spanking new and his database was empty.
M-E2 was always asking questions and getting in the way. Maybe his emoticon was glitching, but he was constantly pestering everyone, even now while Officer Hardy worked at the console dealing with the emergency. Gaps in information seemed to trigger M-E2’s processor, which was fast and new, and he soaked up new data like a sponge.
“Not this time, M-E2,” said Officer Hardy. “You stay here. I need you here at the control panel.”
“Please, Officer Hardy, you can run the panel by remote. Please take me with you. I can help.”
Hardy stood up from the console. He looked a mess. His hair was greasy and matted; his stained and wrinkled work shirt hung out and his overalls were smeared with grime.
“All right, all right,” he said. “You might come in handy. We’ll leave the systems here on auto.”
Hardy walked to a cabinet and took out his gear. With a grunt, he pulled a full armored body suit over his coveralls, strapped on two oxygen tanks, and pulled on his heavy boots.
“I won’t get in the way,” M-E2 said to me, his green eyes sparkling. “I can help. You’ll see. You’ll be glad I’m there.”
Officer Hardy picked up his helmet and work gloves, “OK M-E2, Mom-E, cut the chatter. Let’s go.”
Officer Hardy was Chief Sanitation Engineer at Alpha Base on Philemon. Philemon was, at that time, the planet where colonists in the Alpha Centauri system dumped their trash, everything from decommissioned rockets and junk vehicles of every description, to storage tanks, waste solids and chemicals, sludge, debris, batteries, broken computers, refrigerators and scrap robots.
Much of this trash contained poisonous concentrations of cadmium, lead, mercury, lithium, and other heavy metals and radioactive waste. None of the colonized planets in the system would take it. As it piled up on Philemon, the toxins leached throughout the layer of surface trash, and the smoke from smoldering subsurface fires poisoned the atmosphere.
Officer Hardy, M-E2 and I left the control room through the airlock and walked to the base garage.
“Do you want me to drive?” asked M-E2. “I know the way.”
“I want you to be quiet,” said Hardy.
Only one of our surface vehicles was currently in working condition: an ancient, beat-up hovertruck, which looked like it was overdue for the junk heap itself.
The hovertruck was not the right vehicle for this job. The airstream from its jets tended to dislodge the loose surface trash, making the truck difficult to maneuver. As the grade of the slope grew steeper on the approach to the beacon placement on Perfume Peak, the hovertruck would become inoperable.
The halftrack was safer, more secure in the loose, shifting layer of trash. But the halftrack tread had ripped in two on a job three cycles ago and was in for repairs, which had been postponed while we waited for delivery of the replacement tread and spare parts.
After a couple of tries, Hardy got the hovertruck engine started. We pulled out of the garage and left base heading north towards the downed beacons.
Officer Hardy scowled and muttered to himself as he guided the truck over the rough surface of trash and junk.
“I’ll get her in as close as I can.”
“The closer, the better, sir.”
“We’ll have to walk the last leg.”
“I wish we could have used the VTOL surveyor,” Hardy muttered half to himself.
“Not in this weather, sir,” said M-E2 from the back seat. “Visibility is zero above five hundred feet.”
He was right. The sky above us was overcast and a thick, toxic fog was descending.
Hardy checked his oxygen. The gauge showed green, 90% — 18 hours at normal respiration. It was five hours from Alpha Base to the damaged beacons, another five back.
As we skimmed towards the sector, the yellow blotch of Alpha Centauri A shone dully through the gray overcast. Ahead of us, on the horizon, the summit of Perfume Peak was draped in fog. We began to see large numbers of Philemoids working the surface of the dump, scavenging through the trash.
Philemon had once been rich in natural resources, and the temperate continental regions had been covered with a form of photosynthetic vegetation, which oxygenated the atmosphere. But, once discovered and colonized, the planet had been extensively mined for the abundant metals and minerals, which lay near the surface.
Within 500 years, the terrain was leveled, the surface defoliated, and, once the mineral resources had been extracted, the colonists moved on. Philemon, now a flat, barren, desert planet, was converted to a trash receiving facility.
By this time, most of the Philemon’s surface had been coated with a twenty-mile thick layer of junk. New mountains were growing, mountains of trash, some reaching a height of ten miles and more above the surface, higher than the natural mountains, which had been leveled.
Conditions on Philemon had changed as a result of the defoliation and the trash accumulation. The atmosphere now contained high levels of toxic gasses emitted from the smoldering crust — ammonia, chlorine, arsine, and bromine, in highest concentration near the central dump sectors. Some of these gasses were so corrosive, they were toxic to androids, as well as humans, and we had to limit our exposure to short periods or risk permanent damage.
Oxygen persisted in the poisoned atmosphere after the vegetation had been stripped. The source of this post-defoliation oxygen was a mystery and would have made an interesting object for scientific study, but no studies were funded, none conducted, and science abandoned Philemon to fate.
The alien life forms native to Philemon, had thinned and died out when the vegetation had been removed. Only one species adapted. The Philemoids, as they were called, were immune to the toxins and lived on the trash heaps. Large, sightless, slow moving globular creatures with rows of motor and grasping cillia, with a particular internal organ which derived energy from light, and who communicated by transmitting and receiving electromagnetic waves through long, flexible proboscis-antennae, these humble creatures had once labored for the colonists in the abandoned mines, directing miners to the veins of iron ore, copper and bauxite.
With the colonists long departed, and no surviving predators, the Philemoids multiplied and now great numbers of them eked out a meager existence as trash scavengers. They scoured the dumps and hunted through the mountains of refuse to recover and separate out the scrap metal, the computer chips, the nuts and bolts, the glass and circuits, any pieces or parts still usable or recyclable in any way, and established a primitive economy trading and reselling these recovered parts back to the colonists in the neighboring systems.
The Philemoids built their nests on and around the dump sites out of scavenged parts, using vehicle doors and computer screens to build walls, motherboards for roof shingles, robot legs for support posts, even robot eyes for wall decorations.
The Philemoids shared the planet with one other species, an alien collective organism that looked like a flock of birds and behaved like a swarm of flies. This organism was non-native to Philemon and had been introduced inadvertently to one of the trash dumps by some contaminated garbage ship from a remote system.
These swarming organisms, “black clouds.” which looked for all the world like some giant, undulating, speckled, flying amoeba, thrived on Philemon, where conditions suited them perfectly. The swarms were capable of ingesting a wide variety of materials, such as fabric, metal and plastic, as were found in abundance in the trash heaps of Philemon.
The swarms were an annoyance to humans and Philemoids, a pest that had to be kept from eating the paint off vehicles, weakening structures, and eating holes in the Alpha Base buildings and Philemoid nests.
But the black clouds were a menace to androids, which the swarms apparently considered something of a delicacy. The black clouds voraciously consumed plasto-derm, circuits, wiring, and minute metal and plastic parts, and were capable of incapacitating and destroying an android in short order.
We had traveled four hours, making good progress up the slope. About two miles from the downed beacons, the airflow from the hovertruck dislodged a loosely packed section of surface trash and a sinkhole opened up, large enough to swallow the truck.
We tipped down sharply on our right side, teetering on the brink, as tons of loose trash — refrigerators, vehicle chassis, computer monitors, keyboards, machine parts — gave way from underneath us and careened into the hole.
Officer Hardy spun the wheel and veered sharply left. The old hovertruck rattled and groaned, but inched its way up and away from the edge of the gaping hole. Hardy maneuvered the truck to a more solid area, brought her down next to a round hillock of trash, and turned off the engines,
“We go the rest of the way on foot, folks.”
We disembarked and, as a safety precaution, hooked ourselves together with a line of cable. I took “point,” with Officer Hardy in the middle and M-E2 bringing up the rear. It was slow going as we trudged ankle deep through the loose, shifting mounds of trash.
The now red sun of Alpha Centauri A was setting behind Perfume Peak and the orange disc of Alpha Centauri B was rising in the east, like a harvest moon viewed from Earth, haloed by the clouds and fog. By my calculations, the damaged beacons were 1.5 miles north of our current position and we continued moving up the slope in that direction.
As we rounded a dune of particle trash, ball bearings, nuts and bolts, I picked up an electromagnetic signal.
“You feel that?” radioed Hardy.
“Me, too,” radioed M-E2 from behind.
“It’s a distress signal, a Philemoid in trouble.” I said. “The source is one half mile east.”
“Roger that,” said Hardy.
He stood for a moment. There was very little time. We had to reach the beacons on foot, document the damage, walk back to the truck and then return to base and file the report. It would be very unpleasant if Officer Hardy missed the deadline. There would be a lot of finger pointing and scapegoating. He checked his oxygen gage: yellow, 15 hours left in the tanks, maybe just enough for a quick detour.
“My achin’ back,” he growled, and turned east.
Still hooked together, we made our way slowly through the loose surface trash. The signal was growing weaker even as we moved towards it. The Philemoid’s life was ebbing away.
I took a step, and sunk up to my knee in goo. Loose junk and garbage were floating on a brown swamp of brackish sludge seeping through to the surface from an underground lake of oil and tar, bubbling to our left. I pulled my leg from the muck and backed out.
We circled around the bog. It took two hours, but eventually we reached the signal source, a large Philemoid lying helplessly in a pool of its own fluids. The bent and rusted remains of a small container rocket had fallen from a heap of trash onto the creature, pinning it to the ground. One of the rocket tailfins had punctured the Philemoid’s leathery skin. It was unable to free itself and leaking protoplasm badly.
“Gimme a hand with this,” Officer Hardy unhooked himself and turned towards us. M-E2 and I began to lift the rocket frame off the creature.
“Easy, easy. Not so rough! Pull it straight out and up. Don’t tear it.”
We pulled the fin carefully out of the injured Philemoid, and placed the rocket frame down to the side. Hardy patched the wound with a bandage from his medkit. Designed for human use, the bandage did not adhere well to the cilliated surface of the Philemoid, but it did at least temporarily close the hole and staunch the flow. The Philemoid had lost a lot of fluid. It had noticeably shrunk in size; its leathery skin hung loose in folds and its electromagnetic signal was barely readable.
Hardy checked his oxygen supply. Red, two-thirds down. He uttered an oath and looked at the dying Philemoid. It was six feet in diameter, difficult to move. M-E2 and I could lift it together but it would be slow going on foot. Hardy shook his head.
“I’ll get the truck!” said M-E2.
Hardy kicked the surface and his boot dislodged a spray of cans and small parts.
“I can do it!” M-E2 pleaded.
Hardy pursed his lips and scowled.
“OK. We’ll have to chance it. M-E2, get the truck and bring it here. But go slow and watch out for sinkholes. If we don’t get this ’moid to a nest fast, he’s not going to make it.”
M-E2 started off towards the truck, which was parked up the slope on the far side of the sludge bog. We could not see the vehicle, but we could see the jutting pile of scrap that was next to where we had parked it.
M-E2 skirted the swamp carefully, step by step, ankle deep in the loose layer of trash. Small metal and plastic parts and pieces came loose and clattered down the slope past where we stood with the injured Philemoid. When M-E2 was just a dot across the swamp on the upper slope, we received an urgent radio transmission,
“Officer Hardy, there’s a problem.”
Copyright © 2007 by Bill Bowler