Humans are messy and tricky. While I was thinking about artificial intelligence working aboard a space salvage station I realized that there would be some unlabeled parts. This was even before the story about John Young smuggling a corned beef sandwich on board a Gemini-3 launch. When systems can’t identify things, people are going to get the job. Below is a story about a junk sorter from the Off Earth Series world.
Before the first orbital war there were tens of thousands of pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth. Expended satellites were parked in a geo-stationary orbit where they wouldn’t affect modern, functional satellites. Smaller decommissioned satellites were de-orbited to mostly burn up in the atmosphere though in some cases their mass survived and plummeted into one of the oceans. It wasn’t a great system and many people believe it was the true cause of the first orbital war. A piece of Chinese space debris collided with a United States based space tourist station. One hundred and four customers died and an equal number of staff perished when exposed to the void of space.
When the orbital war was finished the every day amenities people on Earth were accustomed to were gone. No satellite communications, no global positioning and limited weather forecasting. There was so much debris orbiting the planet and so little information available that any space launch was considered a suicide mission.
Then Kai Nazca returned.
Flying the rock now known as Lagrange-4 back from deep space was remarkable enough. But when he saw the mess preventing him from returning to his planet his next idea was pure brilliance. Using old radio wave technology he was able to communicate with the early ruling body that was to become the Planetary Operating Alliance (POA). In exchange for cleaning up the debris circling the Earth he was granted exclusive rights to the stationary orbit of Lagrange-4 in perpetuity and passable to his heirs, as well as complete ownership of anything he was able to recover for a ten year period.
The ten year period for ownership ended long ago. Now they were required to purchase any debris from the owners before it could be salvaged. While every component of a ship launched into space was logged and labeled, humans were less precise. Tourists, laborers and stowaway’s all brought personal affects with them. When a vessel failed and the escape pods were used, plenty of unlabeled items were left behind, eventually needing salvage.
Artificial Intelligence and bots were great at processing individual labeled items. They were terrible at processing unlabeled items or products that were assembled from multiple-labled items. A.I. Would routinely label complex systems as something simple based on the component on it’s surface.
When A.I. And bots fail, humans get involved. That’s how Kurt Plaque ended up in the massive salvage bay of Lagrange-4 parsing through a motley collection of jewelry. The value of gold, platinum and silver dropped dramatically after it was discovered in abundance in several asteroid mines. Here in space there was a market for handmade Earth goods. A gold necklace with a locket made on Earth was worth more than it’s weight in gold.
Sifting through tangled jewelry to find complete pieces or parts that could be used to assemble a complete piece was exhausting. Kurt placed his hands on the small of his back and leaned into a deep stretch. Only three hours left on this shift and then he would have two shifts off.
Barring any major mistakes, another four-hundred-eleven shifts and Kurt would have the money he needed to pay off his debts and be free to return to Earth’s surface.
A squid like salvage ship, known as a Cthulhu ship, floated through the field separating the vacuum of space from the pressurized environment of the salvage bay. From the tips of it’s eight arms to the tail of it’s body the ship was over 200 feet long. It fit in the salvage bay with ease. This, being the largest pressurized void in the solar system.
As the vessel came to rest, supported by it’s two tentacles in front and a tail stand in the rear, Kurt saw the craft wrapped securely in it’s arms.
It was an old ship, likely from the beginning of the orbital wars. Several of the old countries leaders insisted that war would not break out in space and sent tourist ships into orbit as a show of confidence. None of the politicians boarded those ships and it was later revealed that they were assuming a loss and looking to leverage the tragedy as a war cry.
This vessel appeared to be in tact, a rarity.
Kurt watched, mesmerized as the ship was lowered to the deck and the salvage bots moved in to begin sorting. When the hunk of metal and plastic moved, an object blurred past the window.
From this distance it looked like a human hand. The scanning process used by the salvage bots was sure to kill a human.
“Stop!” Kurt cried out and started running towards the scene.
He was not authorized to stop the salvage bots so they were not tuned to his voice. If there was any hope of stopping them he would need to put himself in danger and hope their safety override kicked in.
How could there be a human inside this vessel? It had to be over fifty years old.
There was a story on the news a while back that said people were resurrecting old launch platforms and sending leftover antique ships into orbit. They had some misguided nostalgia for the way space travel used to work.
Strapping yourself into a flimsy cocoon of plastic and aluminum and sitting on top of a barely controlled explosion of liquid propellant was not romantic, it was borderline suicidal. Not to mention putting yourself in orbit in a craft that could make minor adjustments to attitude and orbit without the ability to change direction was simply foolish.
“Human risk! Halt your action!” Kurt yelled in the direction of the salvage bots.
They did not stop. It must be that there was no signs of life in the ship they were inspecting. Could he have been wrong about seeing the hand?
One strategy during the orbital war was to shield human vital signs from automated ships. This allowed a human attack force to sneak up on a military bot and disable it without an altercation. Military bots were eventually given permission to destroy unmanned vessels and this practice was abandoned but perhaps that was the reason this ship hadn’t previously been launched.
“Human risk! Human risk!” Kurt stood under the salvage bot and waved his arms.
Action halted. Kurt bent and placed his hands on his knees. A bead of sweat formed at the tip of his nose and dropped to the ground.
“Who are you? This is not your space, get the hell out of here and report to the bay manager.” A voice came across a loud speaker.
“I think there’s a human in that ship. I saw an arm go past the window.” Kurt spoke up to the underside of the salvage bot.
“There are no vital signs coming from that ship. If there was a human on board they were dead before we retrieved it.” The voice answered immediately.
“May I open the hatch and retrieve the body?” Kurt did not want to debate his notion of an antique launch from Earth and old shielding technology.
“You have five minutes.” The voice answered.
Kurt ran the few steps needed to reach there ship. He found a foot hold and climbed up until he could reach the hatch, The ship was twisted in such a way that he could get up enough to look through the window before opening the door. It didn’t matter, he was committed to retrieving whatever was inside.
His fingers found the release mechanism and the door hissed when the seal was broken. The fact that it was pressurized was a good sign for life.
Seconds later the door swung open and Kurt reached up to grab the handle an pull himself inside. Even though gravity here was two thirds of Earths he struggled to lift his own weight. When his eyes finally made it up over the lip of the door he saw a huddled mass in the bottom of the craft.
A quick scan of the cabin revealed no blood or human tissue of any kind, another good sign.
Once his body was through the door, Kurt turned to sit on the edge and let his feet dangle out into the salvage bay.
“Hey my name is Kurt and I’m going to get you out of this old ship.” He called down to the shape on the floor.
There was no response.
Kurt lowered himself towards the body and spread his legs on either side of the chest.
“I’m going to wrap my arms around you. On three I’m going to lift. If your able to help I would appreciate it.” Kurt wasn’t sure if he was talking to the body or himself.
Reaching around the body Kurt took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His gloves touched and he laced his fingers together.
“One, two, three-“ Kurt lifted.
The mass below him weighed almost nothing. It rose up easily, so easily and quickly that he lost his balance and fell backwards.
Landing on a wall of the small ship Kurt lifted his arms to brace for the body about to fall on top of him. Instead it slowly rotated before landing on top go him. As the smiling face of the mannequin revealed itself Kurt pushed the shoulders back and read the front of the t-shirt it was wearing.
“Personal space craft ownership is within reach. Don’t be a dummy, buy today!”
What a waste. A perfectly good launch vehicle sent into orbit with nothing but a dummy on board.
But it wasn’t the dummy’s fault. Kurt pushed the full sized doll out through the hatch and followed behind.
Down on the deck the dummy skidded easily along the surface until they were both out from under the salvage bots.
“Resume operations.” Kurt spoke to the bot.
He wasn’t authorized to restart any bots, but he also wasn’t exactly sure how he was supposed to tell them that he and the dummy were both out and safe.
Back at his station Kurt propped the dummy on the floor against the wall and went back to work.
“We need to give you a name.” He spoke over his shoulder.
At least he would have a little company for the next four-hundred-eleven shifts.
Off Earth short stories
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