The junksters took over the redundant space station just at the turn of the year, and by August the area around it was littered with a sea of plastics and crumpled pieces of metal, whilst the inhospitable surface of the planetoid it orbited felt the first cooling fingers of terra-forming. All seemed to be going to plan, so the escort ship was diverted to another job, leaving the assorted humanoids and droids to fend for themselves.
It was late December when the Confederate Cruiser entered the system on a long patrol. It spotted the space station, its tethered cargo of space junk, and the hive of activity all around it, and the captain made a noise of disgust.
“Is this authorised?” he demanded of his number two.
After the briefest of pauses the high, precise voice of First Officer Mebwina replied. “Yes. Sir. It is.”
The captain sighed and stared in disgust at the hive of activity, but had nothing further to say except the two-word condemnation that followed the junksters from solar system to solar system.
“Space junk,” he spat.
When the cruiser swung back through the system six months later it was immediately apparent that something was wrong. The junk was still there and the surface of the planetoid showed evidences of the activities of the terra-formers, but there was nothing happening.
“Comms Officer, open a hailing channel,” the captain spoke briskly in order to camouflage a feeling of disquiet.
After about twenty minutes with no response from the junkster station, the captain called for cessation.
“Raise home planet, Comms Officer.”
The powers that be were thrilled to hear from a patrol cruiser captained by a time-server and crewed by second and third class citizens, but they did sit up and take notice when the situation was explained. The captain was ordered to leave a skeleton crew aboard the cruiser and take the rest of his people aboard the space station. It was, he was told crisply, imperative that he establish precisely what was going on.
The pilot droid finessed the ageing cruiser into orbit about fifty metres from the space station then put itself in resting mode. Two sturdy humanoids were issued blasters and put on guard while the other dozen or so crew members donned suits and glide packs and crossed the junkyard to the silent hulk that was the junksters’ station. Leaving one suited guard outside, the rest of the party made its way into the passenger airlock. The doors shushed closed behind them.
It seemed to be a very long time before anything happened, and the group was getting very, very nervous before the hiss of incoming air caused hands to drop from sidearms. When the hissing stopped, the inner door opened and the party found itself in a room big enough to swallow the cruiser whole. It was brightly lit, and, according to the captain’s gauges, full of clean, breathable air. He signalled ‘helmets off’ and once everyone was breathing station air the search began.
In the eerie quiet of the station the crew’s boots sounded very loud and most of them were fighting down the urge to creep. It didn’t get any more comfortable, and yet they found nothing frightening. The lowest deck was taken up with junkster machinery and hundreds of deactivated mining and terra-forming machines. The next level was workshops, and here they found row upon row of the primitive junkster droids similarly deactivated, but looking quite unharmed. Finally, back on the living level, things felt even more eerie. The few occupied rooms were tidy and looked as if they were just waiting for their occupants to return. Even the kitchen was spick and span, although one of the huge dishwashing machines still bore a load, and there was a bowl of scrubbed tubers on the worktop. The only thing there was no sign of was life.
Mebwina scowled at her gauges. “No life of any sort outside ourselves, Captain.”
The captain scratched the back of his neck. “Home planet isn’t going to be too pleased with us if the only answer we can come up with is that.”
Nobody replied, because there was nothing to say.
The sound of machinery starting up close by made every man jack of them jump, and Mebwina went so far as to emit an undignified squeak.
“Air scrubbers.” The oldest crewman put in succinctly. “We must have been in here long enough to use up some air.”
He smiled in a superior fashion before grabbing for his throat, while desperately trying to replace his helmet with his other hand. Within seconds, Mebwina’s gauges stopped bleeping and blipping and a tinny little voice piped up. ‘no life forms detected’ before it too fell silent.
Inside the cruiser, the pilot droid awoke and ambled over to the two guards. It pushed them into the airlock and closed the door before jettisoning them to join the rest of the garbage clustered around the space station. It made a slight tasking sound in the back of its throat as the bodies were smashed into pieces by the effects of sharp metal wastes and aggressive artificial gravity. The two spacesuited figures guarding the airlock could be seen to be fighting nausea. Vomit in a suit is unamusing. The droid smiled thinly and set an autopilot course for home planet before exiting the cruiser via the captain’s emergency pod. As the spaceship exited the system the droid felt itself swell with a new purpose as its will was joined with its brothers and sisters on the space station.
“Space Junk,” the voice in his head exulted. “Score one to the space junk.”