Space Junk – An Overlooked Resource and Business Opportunity

Orbital debris is a growing problem and poses a serious hazard to astronauts, satellites and future space missions. It is estimated that more than 100 million pieces of space junk (6800 tons) are currently in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) traveling at speeds up to 17,500 MPH.  The Department of Defense Space Surveillance Network tracks 15,000 cataloged objects and there are hundreds of collisions every year. With decreasing launch prices and expanding multinational government and private launch capacity, the amount of space debris can be expected to multiply. As current and planned satellites become obsolete, deplete propellant or simply fail, there will be a steady supply of material joining the orbiting canopy of space debris.

Today, it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload into Earth orbit. It was only by the uncommon exertions of costly rockets, fuel and a complex physical and institutional infrastructure that this orbiting material was released from the pull of Earth’s gravity to become a weightless menace. Proposed space junk disposal systems, such as the NASA ‘Laser Broom’, the Japanese Kounotori ‘Integrated Tether Experiments’ (KITE) and the Surrey Space Center’s ‘Remove DEBRIS’ are all based on deorbiting the junk and having it burn up in the atmosphere. Deorbiting and vaporizing this material disregards the effort and expense previously expended to put the materials into orbit.

Reprocessing scrap metal has always been less energy intensive than refining from natural, raw materials. Consisting mostly of metals, glass, ceramics and plastics, space junk possesses innate value primarily because of its propitious location. Recognizing the inherit value of this orbiting debris as the raw material of a future space manufacturing industry might alone be enough to transform our perception of it from dangerous trash to a useful resource. Implementing such a transformational cognizance might only require an injection of NASA or European Space Agency R&D funding and expertise for proving the feasibility of a Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) scrap storage facility. Such a study into space scrap storage technology could initiate a profitable, self-supporting commercial space cleanup, recycling and manufacturing industry.

Developing the initial design and engineering concepts could spur private and public funding for the construction, launch and implementation of a MEO storage facility. Additional funding for development and maintenance of a central storage facility could be generated with an imposed fee on those who profit from commercializing space or otherwise contribute to LEO space litter. And it is precisely these players who have the most to gain from a cleanup and the most to to lose from ignoring the problem. These include governments, militaries, launch services and satellite companies. Such a fee might also encourage vehicle and satellite designs that would minimize space clutter, incorporate a propellant system to move expended craft to the MEO scrap collection point and make separation, sorting and component recycling easier.

Once a MEO scrap storage facility was operational and the feasibility for scrap recycling realized, the commercial opportunities presented should spur the development of competitive proprietary methods to capture, agglomerate, contain and transport space debris. The next phase would consist of moving space debris to this single collection point in MEO. Transfer of some orbiting materials to the MEO location might be accomplished with NASA Laser Broom technology used to divert or increase orbital velocity.

Once MEO agglomeration of scrap material was initiated, the removal of dangerous debris from LEO would not only make launch and orbiting safer but should generate private sector awareness for the opportunities in related space industries. Eventually the potential value of this growing material resource would become commercially attractive and exploited. The collected availability of unprocessed scrap and other manufactured materials in space would ultimately set the stage for the recycling, production and assembly of finished glass, ceramic, plastic and metal construction products.

Recycling this reservoir of space scrap might then begin by shredding, pulverizing, liquefying or vaporizing the material and sorting the aggregate by magnetism, reflectivity, spectrography and centrifugal mass separation. The resulting metal. plastic, glass and ceramic powders could be directly used in additive manufacturing such as 3d printing, selective laser sintering and fused deposition modeling. Refined powders could then be smelted with solar furnaces for production of wire, sheet and plate products. Sheets and plates can be further fabricated for assembly with digital controlled laser or plasma cutting systems. Finished products created by additive manufacturing, such as sheet, rod, structural beams and tubing, could become the building blocks for a new generation of large-scale space structures. The availability of sorted and refined materials in space would set the stage for the development of zero g material manufacturing and ultimately the assembly of large-scale structures.

Heat energy for liquefying, smelting, extruding and rolling can be obtained with focused solar energy furnaces. Robotic machinery, powered by solar electric, can be controlled and monitored from an Earth based command center. The scale of the refining operation might be contained in a very modest (possibly tabletop size) area; not nearly the scale of earth based factories. With continuous operation outside of the Earth’s shadow, even a concept demonstration prototype system would steadily accumulate usable ingots, powder and wire. The robotic-operated shredders, smelters and extruders should require infrequent visits for maintenance and upgrades. Working in the vacuum of space would have the additional advantage of minimizing oxidation and other contamination during smelting and shaping of high purity metal and alloys.

The constrained physical capacity imposed on launch vehicle payloads has always made large space structures uncommon. In-space manufacturing and assembly then presents the next best way to create large orbiting constructs. Space ports, interplanetary ships, orbiting hotels and extra-terrestrial habitat could be assembled (at least structurally) from the ever replenished supply of orbiting space junk. With a space manufacturing infrastructure established, the growing demand for raw materials, combined with more efficient collection systems, could make the collection of ever smaller debris economically advantageous. Improved methods of collection combined with the continual resupply of readily processed orbiting material, might forestall the necessity of more costly and energy intensive asteroid mining for raw materials.

Thus a multinational government investment in the development of an MEO space debris storage facility, while immediately mitigating the existing and growing population of space junk, could promote the re-use of available orbiting materials. A collection of orbital scrap could incentivise commercial collection and transport of LEO debris while fostering a profitable recycling system for shredding, pulverizing and reprocessing to provide structural components for the next generation of large-scale, space assembled structures.

Once space manufacturing and the assembly of large-scale structures become a functional reality, a natural demand for resources such as orbital scrap materials would be created at which time the removal, storage and recycling of space debris will become a profit driven, competitive, commercial enterprise.

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Overview

I was born in the Orion arm of the spiral galaxy we call the Milky Way, on a blue and white planet orbiting a G-type main-sequence (yellow dwarf) star. I am one of a species of seven and a half billion individuals living on the planet’s surface. We are distinguished from other life forms having evolved the ability to use complex tools, apply logic and reason and use language to share and record information, among other things. We live together in a relatively peaceful social structures that, in most cases, allows a variety of personal choices and encourages creative thought and technological innovation.

It has only been in the last hundred years that we have come to understand the vastness of the universe and our infinitesimal place in it. Being a young technological species, we have, so far, been unable to detect life beyond our planet although we have detected potentially habitable planets around other stars.

Our planet has a history of regular species extinction and we are aware that we remain vulnerable to these natural events. In addition, our technology has developed destructive weapons with the potential to destroy our critical biosphere.

As individuals we know we will all perish. Yet it is my hope that our species will soon be able to colonize other worlds in order to insure the long term continuation of our fortuitous existence and someday include our knowledge, culture and biology among those likely communities of extra solar intelligent life with whom we could eventually establish contact.

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The Interlopers

I clung to her leg like a cowering koala. Crouched at her feet I was passive, self protective. The other woman talked to her only. She was proposing to me through my wife. She wanted me to become her betrothed. I listened as the women stood facing each other until the proposal was over. When they were through and in agreement my wife graciously looked down at me for any response I might have. I looked up at her and silently nodded, then nuzzled the apex of her jeans in appreciation, wishing I could do more through the heavy cloth material. I was ecstatic.

I had two wives now. My future had become very secure or at least more secure than most men in this colony. Both my wives were of stature, influential, certified fertile. My record of impregnation assured not only financial security and social status but prodigy, an essential yet deficient resource in our community.

We call our colony Proxb, among the first wave of the extra solar colonies of Earth. All of the existing space colonies were established concurrently and remotely, without direct human presence. After hundreds of years of robotic preparation and encapsulated terraforming, the prime genitor human genomes (our ancestors) were transmitted and incubated here. Life is difficult here in comparison to what we know of life on Earth, but we are making progress. We have regular contact with Earth although, since it is light years away, communication takes almost a decade for a response to a transmitted message. Unlike humans on Earth, the lack of a magnetic field and adequate atmosphere means we are subject to heavy ion radiation. Even though we have a protective dome and spend much of our time in the subsurface lava tubes, this radiation has caused a low rate of fertility and a societal urgency for childbirth resulting in our matriarchic society.

Following the engagement formalities I went out alone for a night walk. Most others in the colony were, by that hour, asleep. I continued to find myself in that intoxicating matrimonial bliss as I stood outside in the gardens and mused upon the Golden Star. Since the nights here are 14 Earth days long, there was no urgency to my rapturous diversions. It is not uncommon for the sensitive male Proxbian to gaze beyond the transparent dome at this brightest of stars and find inspiration. Unmarked hours may have easily transpired, my mind floating about through limitless space in a self-sanctified detachment. I did not question my good fortune but felt entitled and justly rewarded. From reading Earth stories, I imagined my feelings could be compared to an Earthling having just inherited a great deal of money and being freed from the concerns of financial constraint and necessary employment.

As I watched the sky I found my solitary escape somehow being subtly intruded upon, and I began to grow strangely disconcerted. On such a night I should feel nothing but unbridled joy. Yet I was gradually aware of something being amiss. I then realized that the Golden Star, which held my attention, was dimming and brightening. This, everyone knew, was inconceivable as the constancy of this star has been the traditional subject of our songs and poems. Eventually the steady light returned though I remained concerned that this might be an ill omen or portend something of importance. I continued watching and eventually there was another light near the Golden Star, in very close proximity to it. In fact the only way I could differentiate the two lights was by their colors. The new light was whiter, near blue. I watched in wonder now wishing someone were with me who could corroborate my observation and with whom I might discuss this unprecedented occurrence.

I quickly walked home and went down inside the tube. I told my wife but she was preoccupied and dismissive of my information. “It is likely nothing. You are just being overly excited with all the commotion tonight,” she told me. Yet I found her words failed to dispel my concerns. I could not rest. Throughout the night I checked the sky periodically. The white light was gone now and all seemed back to normal which led me to doubt my earlier observations. But between light napping I kept returning and I eventually saw a gray speck where none had been before. With subsequent visits I noticed it grew in size and finally resolved itself into an unnatural object, a ship. I had never seen a space ship before except in pictures. Our colony never had the resources to build one and we were much too far from Earth for a tellurian ship to ever make the journey. I did not know what to do but watch in wonder as this vessel of unknown origin now appeared to be quickly approaching our planet.

Although concerned about the increased ion exposure outside of the lava tubes, I waited until the ship landed not far from the dome. I moved toward it, to the nearest edge of the enclosure and watched as bipeds similar to myself exited the ship and walked directly toward the dome. As our dome is only a few kilometers in diameter it was relatively easy for me to go to the airlock that they approached. Seeing that they appeared to be humans and unarmed, I allowed the two astronauts access. Once inside they removed their helmets breathing deeply of our atmosphere. At first they seemed distraught though as they recovered they greeted me enthusiastically, relieved and appreciative for my presence and for admitting them inside. I was immediately impressed with their stature and strident demeanor. This I found confusing for although they appeared to be males they comported themselves more like the women in our colony.

I also was not expecting them to speak in the language English. “We are sorry to surprise you like this but we were in big trouble out there. I think our ship took a hit from a micro meteoroid. Our cabin pressure quickly dropped. This colony was our only possible sanctuary close by,” the darker-faced one told me. Though they both had faces that showed richly pigmented skin, it was the darker one who initially spoke. I noticed his name printed on his space suit. It was Singh.

“Where are you from?” I asked, looking down at the comparatively transparent skin of my arms.

They paused and briefly consulted each other with a furtive glance before speaking. “Earth,” the other one replied. They must have noticed a look of incredulity on my face, as I skeptically considered their response. Before I could speak he added, “Is there a place we could rest and get out of these suits?” They seemed fatigued so we moved toward a nearby natural rock prominence that had been carved away to provide surfaces for the farm workers to rest.

“Please stay on the stone path,” I said. “All soil under the dome has either food already growing or is in seed. Although our population growth here has leveled off in recent generations, sufficient food production is still challenging. Those large, multistory structures over there are our aeroponic farms. You can detect the glow of the artificial light that is used to keep the plants alive during the night.”

Once seated they began removing more of their bulky space suits, as it is always warm and humid inside the dome. “Earth?” I asked, still perplexed by their answer. “That does not make sense to me. Earth is over 4.2 light years from here. No living thing can make such a journey.” At this point I noticed another man standing aside watching us. I knew him to be our quartermaster, the colony supply clerk. He must have also noticed the ship touch down.

Though they seemed to understand my question, they again seemed reluctant to answer. It was Singh who eventually responded. He looked at me as he spoke. “I know that you have a lot of questions. These will be all answered in time. But things are not what they seem. It may be difficult for you to assimilate what we could tell you. I think it best that we take it slow. Maybe now is not the best time to go into all this.”

Then the other, whose name I noticed was Varney, answered, “Understand that we have just narrowly escaped what had seemed a certain death. When the meteoroid struck our ship, it penetrated our crew cabin causing our atmosphere to quickly dissipate into space. If not for the close proximity of your colony we would have asphyxiated in space. We knew a colony was here, and we made for it in a desperate attempt to survive.”

I felt an immediate affinity to Varney. I am not sure why. Maybe because his eyes were pale like our own, but I think it was more. Yet his responses were succinct and impersonal unlike Singh’s. I wanted Varney to be friendlier, to reciprocate my impulsive feelings of fraternity. “Please excuse my persistence but it is quite unsettling that you are less than forthcoming about your origin. For you to have traveled here from Earth is untenable.”

Seeing my frustration, Singh spoke. “We hesitate because we know that this will come as a shock to you, but Earth is really not so very far away from here as you believe. We did come from Earth and we were just on a mission to refuel the Webb III Telescope which is orbiting beyond Earth’s moon at the L2 Earth/Sun Lagrange point. You can probably see it as a gold light in your sky.”

Varney continued, “OK. Let’s recap a bit.” He was sitting leaning forward looking at the ground in front of him. “Your colony, as you know, is one of three sister colonies. The others are on Wolf 1061c and Kapteyn b, which you know are several light years away from Earth. But Proxb, in fact, is located on the far side of the Earth’s moon where you never see Earth or directly receive its radio signals.” His words were clipped and his information factual, direct and less tactful considering the circumstances.

“But our messages take years to reach Earth. And just as long for their response to reach us,” I persisted. The supply clerk had cautiously moved closer and was listening now to what we said.

The astronauts were now partly liberated of their bulky protective suits, revealing seamless inner shirts that covered snugly from their neck to their waist, including arms. The clerk, who had gradually moved in closer, compulsively touched the exotic material of Varney’s inner shirt. Seeing him near the seated astronaut it was impossible not to notice the contrast in their physical bulk, the effect of our having adapted to a reduced gravity.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be telling you all this now,” Singh interjected. “Though I think as soon as anyone here noticed our ship this cat was out of the bag. Still, maybe it would be more prudent to brief someone in charge, maybe a government official. Have either of you official capacity?” Neither of us responded but at the suggestion the supply clerk ran off apparently to summon a government administress who might be better qualified to address this situation.

“What about the 4.24 year delay limiting our communication with Earth? It is undeniable?” I persisted.

“That latency had been artificially established by COLCOM. Your colony is like the ‘control’ in a double blind study. Everything that was sent out to the extra solar colonies, including the initial human genetics, has been meticulously mirrored with yours. While the other colonies’ development is too remote to easily monitor, yours is accessible and right in our own planetary back yard. That is why you were kept insulated from any direct contact or visits from Earth. They needed your colony to be subject to the same variables as the others so the radio delay was established and enforced.”

I might have appreciated the information Varney was freely sharing, but instead I began to feel anger, remembering our anxiety waiting to receive responses to our urgent messages. I recalled the years we endured, suffering through serious problems not only when the solution was intentionally withheld but when direct assistance was close by.

“Your radio delay, of course, was the shortest possible,” Varney elaborated. “This colonial simulation presumed you to be part of the Alpha Centauri system. To make it any less so would have been the same as telling you exactly how far away you were from Earth. It would have affected your social and technical development and ruined your value as a test subject. Yet, having you nearby allowed us to monitor your development and to implement timely and effective adjustments to our procedures. It not only improved the conditions on the more remote colonies but possibly avoided their extinction. Only in this way could improvements and corrections be implemented without waiting decades for the actual results. Everything needed to be the same, even the fact that you believed you were isolated from direct contact with Earth.”

I suspect Singh noticed the effect this news had created in me. He again interjected, his intent obviously empathetic. I believe he was trying to reduce the impact of Varney’s revelations. “We did not purposely come here. In fact we are here against orders.” His tone acknowledged his sensitivity to my distress. “We can appreciate your disbelief, but just now, right out there, our ship became suddenly and violently non-functional. Yet we were told to return to Earth taking an established circuitous route avoiding your detection rather than contaminate this scientific resource. Command understood the seriousness of our situation. They knew that following the authorized course would have resulted in our death.”

“We weighed the consequences against losing our lives. That coming here we would rip the lid off this secret compact. We tried to follow orders. I even set the navaputer as instructed, but once our cabin atmosphere dissipated and the suit supply became critical, your colony was our only refuge. We never consulted with Command. I alone overrode the computer course,” he said glancing at his companion. “Even at that, it was uncertain that we could make it here alive.”

Varney now spoke in concordant response, “There was no decision. Circumstances determined our options. The only sensible one,” he looked at Singh, “was to put down here and save ourselves. We will likely pay a severe price for this, but we will defend our actions. The extra solar colonies are now relatively stabilized. There have been ongoing discussions of termination of this test facility. Much has already been learned here and applied in the colonization program. The scientific usefulness of this colony has been waning. Our action likely only accelerated the inevitable obsolescence of this test platform.” When he stopped talking he briefly looked up at me.

Singh again took over. “I am sorry. I can only imagine how distressing our sudden intrusion has been for you. We are both sorry,” he said looking at his collaborator. “Though this was never our intent you may likely find yourselves released as COLCOM subjects and rejoined with Earth’s society sooner rather than later. This should improve your lives. Expand your possibilities. The changes may be stressful but ultimately rewarding.”

Discordant thoughts were buzzing inside my head. “This isn’t fair to us, you know. I am a notable member of this society. I have attained an enviable position here. I am finally somebody. I have worked hard for my accomplishments and recognition in this colony. All I have strove toward has just been realized and destroyed on the same night. Since you intruded, all is uncertainty and nothing will be the same again. We all know that low gravity colonials can never relocate and physically readjust to Earth.” I stopped. Suddenly self-conscious at my emotional outbreak, I considered apologizing, as my anxiety must have seemed petty compared to the hazards recently endured by these space travelers. But I did not because I was aware that something had changed.

I looked around and saw that others had gathered about and were watching us. The men looked on with detached curiosity while some women held tools and implements. These women moved forward with intent and confronted the astronauts. Though they were smaller in stature and strength than their Earthling counterparts, the look of our women was ominous and imminently menacing. The astronauts looked helpless, their legs still constrained by the bulky lower half of their space suits. The expressions of the defenseless intruders conveyed their comprehension of the dire situation into which they had inadvertently placed themselves. A wave of sickness engulfed me as this awkward but entirely civil encounter transformed into a violent and vicious display. I could no longer watch.

**************

The resourceful bravery and decisive dominance of the superior Proxb women over the incapable Earthlings has since become ensconced and heralded as our official mythology. The damaged Earthling ship remains a solitary reminder. An inadvertent monument upon the vast wasteland outside the dome. Although we now know where we are in the local galaxy, our independence from Earth continues self-imposed. Our government’s intolerance of outside involvement is an established and enforced regulation in the solar system. No other Earth ships will be intentionally visiting our colony. For us the incident has become an example, a lesson to others. It has become our premier source of civic pride and the cause for an annual celebration by our community.

Yet I think often of that night and those godlike men and cannot now help feeling a profound sympathy for their untenable situation. They were victims of the same lie that we had been subjected to for generations and their lives were no more valued by the perpetuators then ours. Yet they brought to us a fresh and compelling spirit. What was there in their voices and eyes and looming presence became energizing and contagious.

Although it puts my social position at jeopardy, at secret meetings during extended lunar nights we covertly speak of those unfortunate Earthmen as if their action were a martyrdom. Our cabal has pledged to record and preserve a faithful account of all we remember about the encounter, a gospel for our descendants. We have come to recognize that the visitation revealed a societal duplicity, that this exposure has triggered a need for change that now requires our personal sacrifice and struggle. Our actions will hopefully result in the necessary societal adaptation to this new reality. Maybe one day we will prevail and rejoin our Earthly brethren in mutual friendship and peace.

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Muting the Dread

the bedside radio is off

the trump, trump, trump

of morning news silent

leaving me free

to explore the

joys of being alive

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Youth’s Futile Avoidance

On the counter was ceremoniously thumped the open green bottle. A light fog drifted from the neck. We took it in fashion, throwing our heads back in a flourishing indulgence of the familiar elixir as if it contained the essence of youth. The opaque brown syrup affirmed all we believed about our place in the universe. Our self-contained eternity, our right to consume and become everything we dreamed. And to take it with us thoughtlessly into the future.

George tossed the bottle cap into the trash behind the counter. I fished in my pocket for a dime. “Don’t worry, you’re covered. Your dad’s a long time customer.” I was the only one sitting at the line of red and chrome stools, the factory lunch crowd now long gone, back at work. I took another drink, the released effervescence startling, reassuring, penetrating into my sinuses.

A year later with her husband ill and dying, his wife saw me from the curb. Leaning at the open passenger window she asked if I would go in and visit. “George would enjoy seeing you,” she said. Sitting in the car, the engine running, idling, restrained only by the closed throttle plates, I hesitated. “No ….I can’t…..right now….” I answered moving the shifter from neutral to first anxious to be away from death and obligation.

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Why Humans?

There is no question that for the long term preservation of the human species it is necessary that we develop interstellar space travel. But what is the importance of preserving the human race? Why are humans so special? Is the development of interstellar travel worth the expenditure of extravagant human effort and resources? Is it only our selfish reproductive instinct that drives us to consider human interstellar colonization a long term imperative? Is the human animal form so necessary in the cosmos or is it the coincidental development of human intelligence that is the significant and seemingly scarce component in the universe that warrants preservation and perpetuation? If humanity’s sentience is unusual and scarce it may arguably be worth some great effort to propagate it beyond our solar system.

As an animal we are genetically little different from a dog or cat, even less from a chimp. We are all thinking, feeling, hungry, social, emotional mammals. The obvious mental advantage we have over the others may only be a small step toward some enhanced intelligence. It may be that we are just as incapable of appreciating our own intellectual limitations as your cat may be to understanding your financial situation. Still, in this larger celestial realm, we possess evolved sapiency and, without a higher comparison available, possibly exceptionally so. So it may be of some importance for the future of cosmic intelligence to preserve this rare and useful characteristic of humans.

Yet getting people to an extrasolar planet can be especially difficult. Our living systems have developed in a rarefied environment that makes them unsuitable for long interstellar journeys. Extrasolar planets would likely need extensive terraforming to make them suitable for human habitation. If it is only our intelligence that is important, it would be much easier to download our critical thought processes into a machine that can withstand the cold and cosmic radiation for the hundreds of years required for an interstellar space journey and then have it reproduce (manufacture) itself in a reasonably compliant planetary or lunar environment.

Yet the human animal, along with many other life forms on earth, has been shown to be resilient, adaptive and resourceful in sustaining life. Maybe some form of animal life with greater tolerance for environmental variability and yet incorporating the brain of a human would make a more suitable life form to send to other planets. A genetically engineered, reproducing animal designed for specific planetary conditions could be developed as our intelligent space traveling surrogate.

But what about human consciousness? How important in our cognitive thinking is our physical connection to the world? Is the material interface of our body with the larger world the source of our consciousness? Would it be possible to program our instinctive self preservation along with a compassionate consciousness into either a bio-engineered creature or a machine? Balancing necessary survival instincts against a benevolence towards others can be a tricky act even for fully socialized, earth bound humans. Colonizing space with living humans, who naturally incorporate our interactive mind/body complexity, may be the only way to insure the perpetuation of our adaptive, inventive intelligence while preserving a communal, higher awareness and an abiding consciousness.

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Mind Your Mother’s Words

“Finish up your lompers Beck, ya don’t want to waste the good farmer’s hard work.”

Beck looked at his plate and decided to get it over fast, shoveling in two huge forkfuls of flatcakes before leaving the table. Outside, Freddy was waiting for him while aimlessly scratching in the dirt with a stick. Though they were both off for mid year break, Freddy was not from Beck’s school. He was from Riverside, but was staying with his grandmother here in Settlement for the vacation.

“Be home before dark now. Ya don’t want to eat a cold supper do ya?”

The screen door slammed behind him as he greeted Freddy on a run. “And don’t come home with wet shoes, stay outa that creek.”

“What took ya so long?

“Come on, let’s go.” They walked down to the end of the street to the dump behind the plumber’s house. After checking through the discarded sinks and water heaters, drains, faucets and tees and elbows, Freddy found a piece of iron supply pipe that he picked up. As they walked downhill through the reedy unmanaged growth Freddy swung the pipe at the wild lomp weeds. Occasionally a seed head would fly through the air.

“I’d rather die in a fiery crash than get old,” Freddy said. The hill terminated at the creek and they took up the well-worn pedestrian path that followed the creek bed downstream through the woods. “And I’ll bet you that is what will happen.”

“What a stupid bet. If you win that bet who will I pay? ” Beck answered.

“I’m gonna be a test pilot. I’m gonna test rockets and planes. Nobody will tell me where to work. I’m gonna volunteer for the most dangerous jobs.”

At one point they turned off the familiar path and moved through the undergrowth. At an uprooted tree laying on the ground they climbed on the trunk and balanced along it until a large branch blocked their way. Beck grabbed a limb and swung from the trunk to a corrugated sheet metal roof about a half meter off the ground.

Beck immediately noticed that a piece of carpet that was used for the door had been left folded back onto the roof. “Hey, some root has been in our fort!” Freddy could hear Beck talking inside “I’ll bet it’s one of those kids from the Shaw Terrace gang. Hey, they left a comic book.” Freddy stood outside the door poking at the rug with his length of pipe.

“What is it?” he asked with casual interest.

“Ranger Stong Explorer. Too bad. It got wet in here when it rained,” Beck said while trying to open it up and look at it. But the pages just fell apart for his efforts.

“Is it the one where Ranger Stong explores the equator flatlands? Ya know it’s so hot he has to wear a suit all the time with a refrigerator pack. Cause if it is, I already seen it.”

Back at the creek they stood on a granite boulder that intruded half way into the current. The narrowed passage produced a fast flowing current that caused a slow rotating eddy at their feet just beyond the ancient obstruction. “Let’s explore. Let’s follow the creek down past the woods,” Beck said. “We’ve never done that. At some point it has to join the river.”

“OK but I want to do something first.” Freddy led Beck up the wooded hill to a place that was like a miniature swamp. Water seeped from the ground soaking the soil before diffusing down a dry wash. Freddy took the piece of pipe and shoved it down into saturated soil at a steep angle, right where the cold water was arising from the ground. In a few seconds muddy water was running out of the top end of the pipe. “Wow!” said Beck. “Nice idea!” In less than a minute the water had cleared and they both took turns getting drinks by cupping their hands under the elevated end.

“That’s nice and cold,” Beck said wiping his hands on his pants. “Tastes better than the water at home.”

“Fill your belly now Ranger Beck while we have the chance, ‘cause we may not find drinking water where we’re going.” They rejoined the creek-side path below the granite boulder then followed it downstream. The path quickly grew narrower and less traveled and required walking in single file.

“If you get to be a rocket pilot would you explore the Red Moon or the Sister Moons?”

“The Red Moon for sure, if they give me a radiation-proof space suit. My dad says they have built the rocket that could fly there but nobody wants to volunteer to do it,” Freddy responded talking to the back of Beck’s head.

They followed along numerous turns in the meandering creek until they came to an elevated bridge that crossed the creek high overhead. Large concrete supports blocked the way and closely bordered the creek. Here it was not so easy to follow the creek further and the banks leading up to the road were unnaturally steep. The amplified sounds of cars randomly rumbling overhead violated the subtle and familiar sound of the flowing water and made standing at the bottom of the bridge unsettling and ominous. Since the creek was running a little below average it left a muddy strip between the creek water and the massive concrete buttress. They decided that this was the best way to continue. On a day without a defined mission this might have turned them back but today this inconvenience was not enough to deter a motivated explorer.

Emerging into the sunlight on the other side of the bridge Beck walked cautiously on one muddy sock and carried a sneaker in his hand that had been pulled off by the suction of the mud. Freddy was already sitting on the bank with his feet and sneakers hanging in the flowing current. Beck stopped and removed the other mud-engulfed sneaker and washed them both before putting them back on without the socks. Neither spoke it but they could tell that this was beginning to feel like a real adventure.

They resumed following the creek bank. Before the sounds of the traffic had completely faded they came to a chain link fence topped with barbed wire blocking their path. At this point the bank had risen forming a precipitous drop to the creek below. The fence extended just past the edge of an overhanging boulder.

“Looks like the end of the line,” Beck announced.

“I got this one,” Freddy said. He climbed onto the fence and worked his way sideways out over the creek below. At the end of the fence he swung out and around to the other side, It was then just a matter of maneuvering sideways back to the rock. “No problem,” Freddy announced back on terra firma.

Beck was reluctant to try but now as they faced each other through the interposing fence, he had little choice. It was a bit scary at first but following Freddy’s example he managed it with surprisingly little trouble and together on the other side their confidence grew having cleverly overcome yet one more difficulty. So they blithely pressed ahead and continued to forge a path through this novel, untrampled woodland.

At a second metal link fence they found a place where rains had washed out space under the wire. Just enough to crawl beneath it.

Inside this fence it continued to be mostly wild, unmanaged land until they arrived at an imposing earthen mound; a gradually sloping rock-strewn prominence that was an alluring invitation to climb. Although it was not difficult, sitting atop this prominence they felt a sense of resolution. The outward leg of the expedition was complete, they had made noteworthy discoveries and successfully achieved their objective. Here they rested, basking in self-satisfaction. “Wish we had brought along some of that spring water,” one of them said while the other silently surveyed this new vista.

As explorers they thought they had done a good job, yet they failed to appreciate the unusual qualities of this hill. That it was made of an artificial loam and almost no vegetation was growing on it. If they had been trained explorers they would have questioned the origin of this barren hillock in a verdant wood. But being boys they accepted the world and its anomalies, as so much of it was yet mysterious and unknowable.

It was Beck who noticed the extension low on the opposite side. He slid down to it finding a stone arch that formed an entrance. He called to Freddy who came down to look. “There’s a door down here.”

It was a heavy, imposing door with a makeshift wooden cover patching it. Without delay Freddy kicked at the cover with no effect. “We might get in trouble,” Beck said. Without responding Freddy found a rock that he pounded with and eventually the patch began to loosen enough that he could pull it away exposing an opening that only a boy might squeeze through.

Inside was like the chamber of a cave of roughly hemispherical shape. The floor was hard and perfectly flat though strewn with broken furniture, shards of glass containers and metal utensils. Any sound they made, their talking, walking, even their breathing was louder than any place they had ever been before. Illumination came mostly from the hole in the door but a couple of very dirty portholes provided a sickly yellow light. After kicking about and finding little of interest they noticed a second doorway in the back of the room. It was blocked by a partly open, steel door. Beck pulled on it to open it some more but could not move it as the hinges were rusted and the bottom was dragging on the floor. Together they pulled and succeeded in moving it only a little before quitting. But it was just enough to squeeze past into an unlit chamber.

As their eyes adjusted they realized they were standing on a concrete walkway between two ground level cisterns of standing water filled up almost to the level of the walkway. Their voices echoed in a way that subconsciously informed them that the dimensions of this room were much smaller than the previous. It was dank and it caused a chill both physical and emotional. The concrete path quickly terminated at a subterranean retaining wall that continued left and right into the chamber walls. When Beck raised his hands he could easily touch the ceiling, feeling a sloping curve that would terminate at the floor only a few meters further in. Freddy kneeled on the walkway and looked intently into the water in one of the cisterns. “Holy cow! Look, a skeleton rib cage under the water.” Beck tried to look but could not see anything without getting down close which he already knew he was not going to do.

“You’re crazy.”

Freddy put his hand into the water “Don’t Freddy, there might be snakes in there,” Beck implored, his voice somehow taking on an unintended resonance in this tiny, unnatural cave. But Freddy never flinched and only took Beck’s fear as a challenge to continue. “It’s a rib cage, I can feel it.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Beck said moving about nervously.

“I think I can see his head.” Freddy’s arm was in the stagnant liquid beyond his elbow as he continued feeling around in the darkened pool.

“Stop Freddy. I’m leaving now. Lets go.”

Wait a minute, I can. I can touch it.”

Beck moved to the back of the chamber until his head touched the sloping ceiling. He tried to stand still but his feet kept touching something at the end of the alcove. He stared back into the low light until he could begin to discern something, repeated patterns. Then his brain began to connect the patterns. More rib cages, many little ones piled at the back of the crypt were touching his shoes. A tangle of discarded animals long dead. Without a word to Freddy, Beck ran out into the main chamber, scurried through the hole in the door and into the sunlight. Freddy, he saw to his relief, was right behind him. “Let’s get out of here,” Beck said.

Without talking they moved instinctively back the way they had come, finding the wash under the fence and then downhill in the direction of the creek. Once at the creek bank they flopped down at the water’s edge and gathered their wits. Suddenly Beck began laughing. “I don’t even remember climbing out the hole in the door. And don’t try to tell me you weren’t scared. Did you see the all those dead whatever bodies…animals?” Freddy did not respond. Then Beck laid back on the grass and laughed again, “Holy root, what was that place?” Freddy still said nothing. After an intentional dramatic interval, Freddy finally spoke with a slow suggestive voice.

“Wanna see somethin’ cool?” Beck looked at Freddy who was looking at him, smiling knowingly.

“What are you talking about?” Beck sat bolt upright then he looked at Freddy. He saw that in his lap Freddy was cradling a muddy head dripping dirty water.

Freddy spent some time at the creek bank rinsing off his treasure that was looking cooler by the minute. “Let me see it,” Beck said.

But Freddy said, “No, you were too chicken to get it.’

Beck watched closely as Freddy washed the mud off it in the moving creek water. It might have been the head of a human from the shape of the white bony cranium, though it seemed kind of small. But as Freddy got it cleaner it became apparent that where the face should be this head had a flat and hard surface like black glass. “Wow, cool, it’s a robot head,” Freddy said

“What are you gonna do with it?”

“Keep it.”

“What will your grandma say?”

“Nothin’ I guess, ‘cause I’m not gonna tell her. I’ll hide it under my bed or in the storage cage in the basement,” Freddy said, finally setting it down on the grass while he rested his head on his drawn up knees in thought.

Beck found his chance to pick it up and look at it. “It’s like a little human in the back with an electronic screen in the front.”

Freddy stood and took it back from Beck. “Lets go.”

Once at the bridge they had little energy for more adventure and decided it might be easier to scale the slope and cross the road above rather than use the muddy creek bank again. Once at the road they hid off the shoulder listening for cars. When it finally became quiet they scurried across the road, Freddy with his treasure, checking left and right that he was not seen. However they did not look behind them. Had they done so they would not have missed a large, prominent sign.

Keep Out
Restricted Area
Government Property

After stopping for a refreshing drink at the spring they went back to their underground fort. Inside they passed the head back and forth countless times while talking and planning what to do next.

“I can’t leave it here. Those Shaw Terrace roots might find it. If I take it home my grandma will make me take it back.”

They sat in silence until Beck spoke up, “I know what to do.”

The boys emerged from the woods where it was bordered by the plumber’s dump. There they poked around among the detritus until they found a big enough box from a fancy faucet set and they slipped the head into the box. They walked up the block past the row of little porched houses that lined the street. A few little kids were playing at the curb, some old people were on their porches talking. The boys walked unnoticed past them all. They were paid no attention for carrying a cardboard box. They paused when they reached a narrow brick two-story house with a wide stone driveway. Soon it would be too late to change their minds. They turned and walked up the driveway past the house to the back yard. “Good,” Beck said. “His car is here, so he is home.” They looked warily at each other before going to the back door and knocking. The warped wooden screen door slapped the doorframe with each knock, amplifying their presence beyond their intent. There was nothing. They looked inside, past the enclosed porch into a darkened kitchen where they could hear someone stir.

“What? Who the hell is it?” complained an irritated voice.

“It’s just me, Beck, and Freddy,” Beck called in.

“Wada ya want?” the voice responded.

“We got somethin’ to show ya.”

“Keep your pants on. I’ll be there in a minute.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Freddy asked.

“Sure, he used to be a Ranger. He was stationed near one of the poles. He had to have two toes cut off from frostbite.”

An old unshaven man shuffled to the screen door. He was wearing a dull flannel shirt and pants with suspenders. His belly pushed the suspenders apart above the belt line of his pants. He had the stub of an unlit cigar in his mouth.

“What da ya want?” he said through the screen.

“We got somethin’ to show ya Mr. Dyson!”

“OK. OK, wait a minute.” He shuffled back into the kitchen. The boys heard things moving in the kitchen and a cabinet door closing before he came out into the yard.

“We want to show you in the shed.”

“Is it alive?”

“Noooa!” they said together and laughed spontaneously at such a silly question.

They walked to the back of the small yard to an unpainted, weatherworn, flat-roofed board and batten shack. Mr. Dyson fumbled with the keys, mumbling. Finally he opened the padlock and removed it from the hasp before swinging the oversized door open. Inside was a collection of clutter among which was a chainsaw, radio chassis and a clutter of paint cans, oil bottles, metal cans and jars full of screws, washers, dried paint brushes and other marginally useful miscellany. The inviting fragrance of stale, volatile hydrocarbons signaled to their brain like a pheromone that they were in a secure, familiar place. After a little shuffling of stuff the boys set the box on the workbench.

“Some junk you found on the dump?” Mr. Dyson asked. With shaky hands he twisted in a light bulb hanging from a wire before opening the flaps of the box. He looked inside the box, while the boys stood silent. There was a dramatic pause before he removed the head from the box. Mr. Dyson’s action seemed inappropriately undelicate as he wiped the head with his palm and held it near the light bulb. “It’s got the triskelion. Where did you kids ever get this?”

Freddy was quick to speak up to preempt anything Beck might say, ”We just found it in the woods.”

“Horse tomatoes.” From his back pocket Mr. Dyson thoughtlessly pulled out a curved bottle and took a drink, a habit he normally hid from the boys. “You kids been up to the government grounds?” The boys remained silent. “I’ve never seen one of these before. Almost no one alive today has. Government has tried to tamp all this down,” he said roughly handling the head on the table. “You know what you got here?” Still the boys did not answer. Mr. Dyson rummaged through a box from the shelf and brought out a small handheld light. “Good thing you brought this to me. Has anyone else seen this?” he asked turning the head so he could shine the light into the neck hole. With long needle-nosed pliers he fished out a wire that had been broken off. ”Most people in this town would not know what this was and the ones who did would have you arrested. Luckily I was an ELE Specialist First Class with the Rangers at Alpha Camp South 89. God, it was cold down there. It was too cold to ever go outside. We just tube transferred from vehicle to habitat. I don’t know why they even sent us. Only the robots could roam around and half of them never made it back.”

He cleaned the wire ends with sandpaper as he spoke. “I’m not so sure you kids are old enough to hear about what you found. Your folks might get mad at me if I tell you.”

“My folks are divorced,” Freddy said.

“We won’t tell anyone, we promise,” Beck interjected. They both raised their right hands with crossed fingers in a pledge. Mr. Dyson looked at them apparently not convinced. “Well, you’d eventually hear some version of this anyway. But this will be the closest to the truth you are likely to hear. And I’ll leave off most of the gory details.” While he talked he found a couple of batteries and some lengths of insulated wire. Taping the batteries together with black electrical tape he attached the wires to them with more tape.

“My grandmother told me about it. She said she learned it from her grandfather who claimed to have read a diary from one of the first to be raised here. Before the people were sent, there were only animal-hybrid robots, biobots, sent from Earth. The first real babies were raised by these programmed bio-genetic machines. The babies were transmitted as genetic data and incubated by special models called ‘nanny bots’. For incubation they were good, but when it came to raising babies, their coding left much to be desired. Remember an intervention from Earth would take over 22 years so nanny bots and their pre-programmed artificial intelligence had absolute control of the nursery. Grandmother called them necrobots. These first babies were sometimes killed by the bots. Maybe accidentally but maybe even intentionally.”

As he spoke the boys stood transfixed watching the head and wondering if Mr. Dyson knew what he was doing. Stripping the wire insulation and cleaning the exposed copper ends he seemed both practiced and casually automatic but his uneven dexterity raised concerns about his ability. “Hold that wire while I cut this,” he told Freddy. “It has never been confirmed or denied if the deaths were from lack of ability, unintentional neglect or that the nanny bots were programmed to eliminate problem children from the group. A little more forgiving maternal instinct and less social good in their programming might have worked out better.

“Anyway, once the first group grew up they revolted and destroyed the biobots and raised the next generation themselves. But some of the undesirable effects of that system linger culturally and the government suppression of the brutal details only prolongs the necessary reckoning and purge. We need to face the fact that we are a society based upon infanticidal robots. They think if they keep it covered up it will eventually be forgotten.”

He stopped talking as he soldered a switch onto the ends of the wires from the batteries and attached the switch to the wires coming out from the head. He toggled the switch and looked inside the head. Nothing happened. When he wiggled the wires attached to the batteries, a light flickered inside the skull.

“All right, we got something now.” He wrapped an elastic band across the ends of the batteries and a green light in the cranium flashed with a regular interval then glowed steadily inside the skull. The faceplate began to show some indistinct illumination. “Goddamn those Earth techs. Nobody builds hardware like this anymore. They might have thought that their future depended on it.” He removed his cigar stub. “If only the programmers had been this good,” he said laughing at his own dark humor which degraded into a series of coughs. The boys had grown antsy and were almost giddy trying to contain their excitement.

“You kids are looking at the face of a resurrected killer,” he said as he sat the head on its side near the edge of the workbench so the faceplate looked out at the boys. They could now see the image of vertical human lips. They were the pleasing lips of a young woman, her mouth was moving but there was no sound. Mr. Dyson tapped on the skull with his knuckles then got his air nozzle and blew into the small grouping of holes near the where human cheeks would be. Then there was some sound made, like a loose connection. A faint voice emerged which gradually grew more perceptible. The boys could hear it. They were straining, trying to make out the words.

“If this thing talks we will be the first living souls on the planet to hear her voice. The voice of a murderous nursemaid silenced for hundreds of years. The last sound heard by some poor babies about to…”

“Shuush,” Beck rudely interrupted, though intentionally undirected but obviously intended for Mr. Dyson whose hearing was no longer as acute as the boys’. “She is talking. I can hear it.”

The sound sputtered as the ancient circuits responded to the warming flow of electrons. It was a tinny sound, and not decipherable. “…fache ylong, fache ylong, fache ylong…” the boys gasped, mouths opened, eyes now mesmerized by the sensuous lips moving on the screen as they strained to decipher the garbled message.

“….fache a long do wea gonm wek….fin a lom do wese fram wek…..” The voice seemed calm and pleasant. But lip motion revealed that more words were being spoken than heard. It kept repeating, filling in more with each repetition until even Mr. Dyson could hear what was being said.

The anxious giggling suddenly stopped and the blood drained out of their faces. Any joy had now been replaced by a terror as the true horror of the message hit home.

“Finish your lompers so you don’t waste the good farmer’s work.”

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