What is True?
I awaken slowly, looking about the cabin, trying to place myself. Where am I, when am I? Oh yes, most important of all, what am I? For all the years I lived I thought I knew. Now I'm finding myself less sure every time I wake up. I suppose I knew it would take time to adjust, for it all to sink in. Of course I was also sure I was the one who was different. I was the one who would carry on, casually, missing not a beat or mourning my loss. I lied, and I lied big! I find myself utterly lost, desperately confused, searching inside for... What? Meaning? Purpose? Direction? Clarity??? Hope! Deep down inside I knew I would, I've know it all along. Facing a future that could last, what, a thousand years, ten thousand? That's probably why I went to such elaborate lengths to hide the uncomfortable truth from myself.
Denial and Isolation, well the denial passed quickly enough. The deed is done and there's no going back. The funeral helped put that beast to bed. Isolation, six months alone in a cabin the size of a comfortable old style motor home is pretty isolated i guess. Let's call it a fortunate coincidence I was already scheduled to launch eight days after, umm, well after it happened. Anger, well that comes and goes. It was my choice, the physical and monetary costs of keeping an old body in tip top shape can be taxing, shall we say. I keep thinking if I'd gotten this trip just a year sooner, I might have made a different choice. On the other hand, it would have cost everything I was planning on making and in thirty years, I'd be right back in the same spot. Bargaining? Well that's the bargain right there isn't it? Spend a small fortune every few decades to enjoy a month of drug suppressed convulsions and agony as protein nanos rebuild you from the inside out or, let it all go. Take that last inevitable step and go full virtual. Depression! Ah my old friend, so good to see you again, I'm making tea will you have some? Acceptance... I don't have much choice do I? It's a little late to change my mind now!
Don't misconstrue, I'm glad for the opportunity. I'm also very glad I was there when it happened. The rituals and the presence of friends and family were a great comfort. Still when all's said and done I have to admit that being dead has really sucked the life out of me. It's an old joke that I used to find quite funny once. I also realize I've come to take comfort in rituals myself. The hollow splashing as I void a bladder which no longer requires it. The gentle tug of a razor on skin no longer there, the sting of too hot water in the shower and the soft folds of steam in the cold morning air. It's not the stimulation of the caffeine I crave, but the smell and sound of the brew and the warmth of the mug in my hands. That first sip, too hot on my lips but so satisfying and reassuring on my tongue. It all combines to push the reality of now away long enough to orient myself to another day.
For all my attempt at lofty philosophy, could it be the meaning of life is as simple as work and coffee? Somehow I am sure I have a higher purpose in all of this, but for now it would have to do!
"Screens on! Sensors on!" Long pause and sigh... "Comms on" I keyed the mic, time to go to work.
"Orbit control zone 3, Catcher in the Sky is on station". "Copy Catcher, sending orbit data and target recommendations". My data screen brightened as elements began scrolling. "I have it control, thanks!" "OZ-3, is that Rachel on comm?" "That's affirmative, hi Ger and good morning!" There were twenty or so legitimate targets, mostly of the nut and bolt variety. "Ger, we're showing a debris field trailing and high on your prime target, looks like it took an impact in the last few years. Lots of little stuff and a pretty good tumble going on there." "I was just looking at that OZ, I want to come in high, sweep up as much as I can then back into the booster." If I tilted the sail just a bit I could grab most of them without losing any distance on my real target. I had been chasing down a seventy-five year old Russian second stage booster. "Stand by Catcher... That's an approved plan Ger, you are cleared in, contact with secondaries in 2 hours 23 minutes, primary contact plus 6 hours 7 minutes. In about nine hours you should be a wealthy man, Ger! How about a date?" "I'll have to clear that with my wife Rachel how about I just buy you a drink next time we're both down?" It was going to be a while before I could spend my presumptive fortune in any event. This was a clear case of a mouse wrestling an elephant.
It was my third trip as a scrapper. The last two I had learned the ropes and paid my dues coming back home with about six hundred kilos of assorted bits and pieces of hazardous space junk from each trip. Everything from nylon webbing and paint chips to a lost socket from a wrench that brought a nice price as an antique at the auction house. While the plastic and paint had no scrap value I do collect a bounty just for cleaning them up. The real cash value is in the steel, copper, titanium, aluminium, etc. that makes up the bulk of dangerous debris left over from the space boom of the past one hundred and fifty years. Not insignificant traces of gold, silver, and platinum also spice up the haul. Still the launch costs are not insignificant. It took a lot of time to collect enough junk to turn a small profit, and with all said and done it was still just an honest wage for honest work. The booster was twenty two hundred kilograms. This was a payday that would set me up nicely.
Catcher had launched from the rail gun on Hilo massed at three hundred kilos. Originally a four hundred millimeter projectile it now resembled a carbon nano-tube steel wool pad twelve hundred meters across. The little scraps and bits I encountered simply stuck where they hit and gradually got passed down to the center of my little vessel. The booster was a whole different animal! It was tumbling end over end and rotating slightly on an inclined axis. That didn't bother me much, as soon as I snagged it the rest would plop into the dull grey nest of nano-tubes like a bowling ball into kilometer deep pile of feathers. For all it's apparent size however, I still massed at about the same 300 kilos I launched at plus the scrap mass I'd collected already. My ship would instantly take on the boosters rotational energy which was going to take some doing to get under control. I carried no propellant all maneuvers were done by adjusting the reflectivity and angle of my outer surface to serve as a light sail. What until now had been a fairly nimble little space craft was about to become less a bumble bee and more a whale.
It would take the next four months to kill the spin, elongate the orbit, and let the nanos crunch the booster into bite sized pieces, sorted, separated, and stored for de-orbit. The intense heat of re-entry once deflected away by heat shields and ceramic tiles would be absorbed. Redirected and focused, used to reduce my cargo to processed ingots ready for delivery on landing. During my decent into the thickening atmosphere, the prehensile nano-tubes would fold and coil into an efficient lifting body allowing me to glide gently onto the runway at Taos. That's when six months of chasing low orbit space junk around turned into a pay stub. I wouldn't go so far as to call it "wealthy", but it was going to be a very good payday!