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Opportunity Knocks

Seen from far enough away, our Sun has rings now. They’re quite beautiful, in their own cold way; they’re broad and bright and when the light catches them just right they sparkle like crushed diamonds. They follow the orbits of the planets we inhabit and they are composed of our discarded tools, our broken machines, our frozen shit and piss and corpses. They are the debris of humanity, floating gently in space.

#

Sebban Texis Cale was 15 Mars-years old, and he had hit rock bottom. He had lost most of his value cycles in the big virtual-economies crash, and the slow bleed of everyday expenses took the rest. He’d had to sell off his rotothopter, his collection of antique Nintendo cartridges, and as many augments as he could be without and survive. His sharemates left him; he lost his job at the greenwashing plant after one too many hard nights soaked in the haze of cannabis liquor, and had to kill his pet squid and eat it one day when the pantry was bare and the cold wind was blowing over the Utopia Plains. He traded his quonset for an efficiency tank, then traded that for a free room in the share-alike commune. The share-alikes tried hard to help him, as was their way; but by then he was spending too much time hazed out and couldn’t do the work they required of him, so they apologetically handed him a few hundred value cycles and a week’s worth of nutrition packs and showed him the door.

Mars is not kind to the homeless. Being poor there is practically a crime, and justice swift and sure. When there’s nowhere left to go on Mars, you better get off.

Within the day he was on the state-sponsored shuttle bus to Phobos. Mars wanted him gone as much as he wanted to leave.

#

On the planet-side of Mars, there are billions on billions of people, feeding and breeding like rats in a warren. All the corpocrats really want is to be rid of them, one way or another; if the companies can’t extract enough value from them, they’re worthless. The share-alikes and the gift-givers and the government ground-breaking plantations do their best to save who they can, but there are limits to what a few scattered charters can manage. In the end, the vast bulk of them are left to quietly starve, and the barren soil of Mars is made ever more fertile with their ground-up, composted remains.

Out in the orbs, there’s precious little room to be had, and even less food, water, or air. Nevertheless, a place is generally found for those that need it. There’s always work to be done in the orbs, even for those so hazed out or blissed in or amped up or broken down that they can barely tell left from right. Out there in the orbs, the logic of Malthus gives way to that of Bentham; it’s always share-and-share-alike out in the orbs, but not in the way of the twee little planet-side communes with their charters and councils and behavioural norms. Nobody really wants to live in the orbs; but they are necessary, and they draw people to them who are willing do what’s necessary. They are not lawless, but their laws are simple and harsh. Thieves, rapists, murderers, saboteurs, and false witnesses face the cold justice of the void. Everyone else gets by.

Cale worked his way from one orb to the next, doing whatever jobs came to hand. Drugs were hard to come by and held dear in the orbs, and without a steady supply he managed to regain a little equilibrium. He left each station with a little more to his name than he’d come with. Eventually, he managed to make it all the way to Earth Orbital; he traded the enjoyment of his body for a one-way trip frozen in the cargo hold of a rust-bucket ore hauler, following a half-brained notion of touching down on Venus eventually. Venus was a paradise, they said; anyone could start a new life there – stead a farm, build a factory, hell, found your own charter colony where you made the rules and said who came and who did what. Food was so cheap as to be practically free, they said, and the vast terraformed fields would grow all the hops and cannabis a man could ever need.

If he’d only headed the other way, he sometimes thought to himself later, out to the belt or to Jupiter and Saturn, he could have really made something of himself. He could have struck it rich on titanium or deuterium, become captain of a million-ton water barge; maybe got out to the freezing freeholds of Neptune where anything goes. When he got to Earth Orbital, he found that his information was out of date and badly distorted. Venus, it seemed, had decided it didn’t want to end up like Mars – or, heavens forbid, like Earth. It was now limiting immigration to those with special skills or unique augmentations.

#

Sebban Texis Cale was running out of options.

Venus was right out. You couldn’t even step foot in their orbital stations now without a migration pass. Mercury, where real fortunes were being made on the Array these days, wasn’t even an option; he couldn’t possibly afford the advanced augments it took to be able to survive the heat of the swollen sun. Luna was a hive of corpocratic drones; his references were most certainly not up to snuff for a position in Marketing or Accounts Receivable. The captain of that tramp hauler had offered him passage back to Phobos, leering and licking her space-bitten lips; but to what point? The orbs were living purgatory; he could hardly expect better there than to slowly fall apart from lack of senescence treatment, packed into a sardine can with all the other dead-enders and petty criminals and assorted trash that Mars cast off, eating their own shit and drinking their own piss for whatever time their telomeres had left in them. As for the Belt and beyond, his successively clearer mind knew it was a fantasy. All the good asteroids were locked up by the big mining unions, and the chance of finding anything of real value in the leftover dross was negligible. Jupiter space was dominated by the Ganymede Borganization, and Cale was rather fond of his identity, pathetic as it might be. The water mines and barges were a family business, run by exactingly bred hereditary eugenic clans. The next generation ship bound for Centauri wasn’t due to depart for another decade or so. And Jah love alone knew what they got up to on the anarchist freeholds out in the cold, black ass-end of the solar system, or what he would have to do to survive there.

And he really couldn’t stay on the Earth Orbital, playground of the richest of the rich. He was surrounded by luxury here, mountains of wealth he couldn’t touch; and already he was starting to hear the siren song of warm, green liquor again. He could almost taste the rich smoky haze that would blot all his troubles away for an hour or three or five. It was available practically everywhere here, one of the very few things on Earth Orbital that came cheap. He was starting to feel almost desperate enough to try and find a way down to the planet, where the Naturists would be happy to at least give him a clean death.

Then he found his salvation.

It was on sale in a used shuttle bay run by a jacked-up third-sex podling in one of the seedier parts of the back-end roll; where the servant class came for their groceries and other contraband, and the playboys and playgirls and playhijras came to play with fire. It was buried in the back, as if ashamed of itself, behind battered luxury yachts and refurbished mail boats and obsolescent government moonjumpers sold for a song; but Cale was drawn to it, as if by a magnet, as if by fate. The instant he saw it he knew that this was the last chance he’d been looking for; he knew it in his bones.

It was about as rudimentary as a space ship could get; a one-man plastanium canister, barely more than a gussied-up escape pod. It was rigged with a basic life-cycle system, a quad of tiny but adequate chem thrusters, an anachronistically powerful sensor system, and a slapped-on toroid cargo hold of almost ten times its own tonnage. The shuttle dealer, its stochastics intuiting a potential sale, was more than happy to tell Cale all about it. It was an almost abandoned ship class known as a ring picker. The idea, said the dealer, its four arms twitching as it manipulated the torrent of commercial data streaming past its contacs, was to take it out on trips around the debris ring that generations of human habitation in space had left in the planet’s wake, sorting whatever might be salvageable out of the tonnes upon tonnes of floating garbage. Not a glamorous life, no, nor even a particularly dignified one, the dealer said, its emotional modelling algorithms perfectly attuned to its mark’s desperate yearning. But for a man who knew how to take advantage of arbitrage, yes, who knew how to sift the gold from the dross… with no man your master, just you and the stars and the treasures in other men’s trash…

The name painted inexpertly across the canister’s battered hull was Opportunity Knocks.

Cale gave the hijra every last value cycle he had as a down payment, and took his new home out into the ring within the hour.

#

At first, Cale saw his ring picker as a stepping stone to bigger, better things. He could build up a little nest egg, he thought, and invest it in something stable like wellstone futures or prediction mutuals; then maybe think about training as a terrafarmer or getting some second-hand Mercurial extreme-temp augments. A few trips around the ring quickly showed him otherwise. There was a reason the pickers had gone out of style and were now washing up in such questionable surroundings as Honest Asbel’s Carnival of Orbital Transit. A dozen generations of human waste had been well and truly picked over; and there wasn’t much of value left. The best and biggest hauls, the museum-quality pieces and still-working technology, had all been found, picked, hauled in, and sold. He’d come along far too late to make his fortune in the ring. What little salvage he was able to bring in each trip was barely enough to cover the cost of refueling, topping up the water and yeast tanks, and servicing his debt.

By then, however, he no longer cared. Sebban Texis Cale had found paradise. The ring was enormous, its total mass rivaling Luna, and almost anything imaginable could be found there provided that nobody really wanted it. There was always just a little more junk out there to be picked; some bit of burned-out booster rocket or plasma casing or circuit block that could be reused, repurposed, melted down for scrap. He cut down on supplies by sucking in ancient, frozen biosolids best left undescribed and dumping them into the tanks whenever his life cycle meters started to redline. The profits were just enough for him to start buying a bottle or two of cannabis liquor whenever he was in port. Neither steerage, maintenance, nor retrieval generally required his active attention. He was free to spend the majority of his time drifting through the ring, hazed out just enough to blot the memories away.

He got to know the rest of the few pickers still operating, a society of lost and broken loners with nowhere lower to fall. They had a community, of sorts; a social code based mainly on having mutual respect enough never to pick the same vein at the same time. They were a taciturn lot, but once they got to know his transponder frequency they opened up and made him one of their own. They would swap stories on the far side of Earth’s orbit, long meandering broadcasts on ancient radionics arrays; hard luck stories a lot like his own, lies and tall tales about their exploits back in the real world, legends of ancient Earth and of the first folks to colonize the solar system. He once assisted another picker in distress, shaking off the cannabis haze just long enough to lock holds and drain half his water. After that the pickers even started treating him with a little respect.

It couldn’t last; of course he knew it couldn’t, though he tried long and hard not to let himself admit it. Every trip around the ring, the pickings got slimmer and slimmer. The rest of the ring pickers started departing one by one, dead or sold out or just disappeared off into the endless night somewhere. The ones who were left fell to fighting, and grew jealous and wary; one particularly grizzled hand had been murdered, so it was whispered through the ether, over a megagram of crumbling heat shields – his pod ripped open by plastanium claws and left to decompress while the killer went his merry way. Every trip, Sebban Texis Cale swore to himself, would be the last. He would sell Opportunity Knocks to the scrap yard along with the trash in its hold, and… do something with the money. Something. And again and again he ended up going back out to pick the ring over one last time.

The end, when it came, was sudden and sharp. He hadn’t been listening to the radio chatter, lost in the warm soft haze; hadn’t heard the rumours jumping from one picker to another, or had just dismissed them as another attempt to warn him off the shrinking veins and thought no more about it. But this time, not a single other picker was left out there to greet him as he drifted gently along the strands of mostly ice and the things encased within, scanning desperately for some chunk of metal or crystal or ceramic or something, anything, that would serve to pay the bills. He’d made it just about halfway around the ring, and had barely filled a tenth of his cavernous hold, when his radar pinged off the new ship.

It was massive, big enough to swallow Opportunity Knocks and a hundred like her. At the front was a massive ramscoop, a field of magnetic force radiating out for miles on miles, gently shepherding each and every bit of debris in front of it down into a vast sucking maw. Its name was Last Chance, and it was registered to Omnicor Hypercorp, the leader in waste reclamation. Had he been lucid enough to keep up with the newsfeeds, Cale might have spotted the minor item announcing its commissioning, and explaining its purpose: to scrape up the last remains of the trash rings colonial humanity had left behind, magnanimously cleaning up this menace to orbital navigation, before heading out into the Oort cloud to establish a competitor to the Saturn water run.

In a panic, he fired up the radio and desperately harangued the pilot of the Last Chance. This is my livelihood, he begged them. This is all I have. By what right do you come out here and scoop it all up and take it away, you who have never known cold or hunger or loss? You puppets of the corpocrats who sit like kings at the top of this dunghill of an existence, why could you not just leave well enough alone? You have ruined everything!

After long seconds, the reply came: Your trajectory is interfering with our salvage operation. Alter your flight path or it will be altered – for your own safety.

He refused; fired his boosters directly toward the ramship’s squalid orifice, in the faint hope that his body and ship might jam up the sorting mechanisms within. Of course, he had no such luck; the designers, in their offices in the Lunar warrens far away, had planned for every contingency. A beam of magnetic force caught his picker and flung him carelessly out of the way. The Last Chance continued on its course, sucking up the last dregs of the ring as it went, and left Sebban Texis Cale floating gently through clean, empty space as his life cycle meters fell slowly into the red.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Fiction, Sci Fi

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