The Starship SxS Trashcan Man drifted in low Earth orbit high above the Pacific, the ocean's rippled surface glinting eerily in the light of the full moon.

    The comm link blared. "Starbase Control to Trashy. Are you ready to deploy the scoop?"

    "Ready to deploy, Starbase," the skipper agreed.

    The skipper sat alone in the Starship's overly-compact control room, the co-pilot's chair next to him empty. One man was more than enough to risk on an experimental mission such as this.

    A large flat panel screen stretched across his lap, connected to his chair by a gimbaled arm. He manipulated the controls to slowly open the ship's expansive clamshell hull to the vacuum of space. He waited until the clamshell latch status changed from red to green.

    "Hatch open and latched," he reported. "Preparing to deploy the scoop mount."

    "Copy, Trashy."

    The skipper manipulated another control and watched the monitor intensely as a thick, ten-meter-long pole swung on its base hinge halfway to the perpendicular, pointing out into space above and ahead of the ship. Another indicator flipped from red to green.

    "Scoop mount extended and latched," he confirmed. "Preparing to extend the scoop mast."

    "Copy that."

    The skipper pressed a single virtual button and the mount began to extend itself telescopically, stretching dozens of meters beyond the nose of the Starship, and then halted. Another indicator glowed green.

    "Mast extended. About to open the scoop."

    "Everything's looking norminal from here, Trashy. Time to go for the gold."

    Again the skipper manipulated the controls. On the monitor he could see the end of the extended pole beginning to spread open like an inverted umbrella, forming an ever-widening cone that blotted out the stars ahead. When the walls of the cone reached a sixty degree angle, they stopped, forming an equilateral cone some fifty meters across. Another indicator flipped from red to green.

    "Scoop successfully expanded, Starbase," the skipper informed them, the relief obvious in his voice. "Rotating the scoop to point forward." One push of a button and the cone swiveled slowly to point in the same direction as the ship's nose. Its expanse barely eclipsed the frontal cross-section of the ship. "Rotation completed, Starbase."

    "Roger, Trashy. Now let's see how well our Mega Maid works."

    The skipper engaged a single main engine at its lowest stable thrust, and the Trashcan Man glided gingerly forward, its orbit rising in response to the increased acceleration. A second engine fired and gimbaled away from the Earth to offset the raised orbit. The net result was that the ship was pushed back into its original orbit, but moving slightly faster than what could be expected for that altitude, with the cone pointed straight ahead along the path of their orbit and shielding the ship. The skipper focused his attention on a counter and waited until it began dutifully ticking off each piece of space debris as it was gently collected within the cone, incrementing every minute or two, sometimes more slowly, other times considerably faster. Most of the chunks were reported as almost microscopic, but several of them massed several grams or more. None came close to stressing the cone's theoretical ten-ton capacity.

    "Starbase Control," he reported happily. "It's working! We're already picking up all sorts of space debris! They're in Trashy's orbital plane, but since they're traveling slightly slower, we're scooping them up!"

    "Congrats, Trashy! Looks like the eggheads were right. The collection part works!"

    "Yep!" He glanced at a gauge. "But it sure sucks up the fuel!"

    "That's why the Trashcan Man has all that extra tankage," came the reply. "It's a one-of-a-kind Starship."

    "That's for sure," the skipper agreed, then added, "Okay, let's complete a full orbit, collect what we can, then see if we can dump the load into the Pacific graveyard."

    "Happy hunting, Trashy!"

    For over an hour the counter kept rising, first into the dozens, then into the hundreds as more and more space debris gathered in the cone. As the ship came over the Pacific once again, the skipper shut down the main engines and reported, "Okay, Starbase, now let's see if we can empty the trash..."

    "Bring it on home, Trashy!"

    Using the attitude thrusters alone, the skipper rotated the ship to point the cone at the Pacific, coughed the aft thrusters briefly, then fired the bow thrusters to cancel the cough. Although he, personally, could see nothing on his visual monitor, his instruments noted how the collected particles were ejected from the cone and headed straight into a fiery, destructive re-entry over the Pacific. "Yesssss!" the skipper cheered aloud. "And the dump works too!"

    "Congrats again, Trashy! Let's shift to the second orbit and see what more we can get."

    "Copy that, Starbase!"

    The trial run of the SxS Trashcan Man continued, one orbit after another, collecting debris that had been aloft since the dawn of the space age. Some of the chunks were quite large, two of them almost a meter across. The scoop obediently snagged them all and ultimately sent them packing back to the home planet. Although the amount of debris in orbit was immense, starting this day it would become more and more less so. But the toll the task took on the ship's fuel supply was enormous. It wasn't many orbits before he had to shut down the engines to await refueling. Mere hours later, the tanker arrived.

    "Starship Trashcan Man," came the call. "Prepare for refueling."

    "Trashy ready for refueling maneuver," the skipper reported.

    With that, the SxS Dracula sidled up cautiously, stern-to-stern, behind the Trashcan Man, and the two Starships linked fuel tanks. The Trashy gently fired four opposing bow thrusters, and fuel slowly sloshed from the Drac into Trashy's nearly-empty tanks. Refueling did not take long, and soon the ship was ready to complete yet another tranche of clean-up orbits.

    All in a day's work, the skipper assured himself contentedly as he watched the tanker depart.

         *     *     *

    The success of the ship's inaugural run easily convinced the brass on Earth to extend its mission first to one week, then to two, then to a month. Not that the skipper minded. Since the trip was originally billed as an experimental mission, he was receiving not only a captain's pay, but also a sizeable hazardous-duty bonus. The kicker would continue to appear in his paycheck until he finally touched down on Earth once again; and given how non-hazardous the mission had turned out to be, the skipper was in no hurry to see it end. Financial reasons aside, for the first time in spaceflight history there was a proven method for dramatically reducing the amount of space debris in orbit around the Earth, finally addressing the impending, disastrous Kessler Syndrome which threatened to render several orbital slots unusable. But like Sisyphus, it appeared more and more that both ship and skipper were destined to labor at hauling junk for the rest of time, because again and again the ship's mission was extended.

    And so the days passed one by one, and life aboard the Starship Trashcan Man settled into a comfortable routine as its task progressed, pausing every now and again for refueling and resupply. But six weeks into its extended mission, the routine was interrupted by an unanticipated refueling request. The skipper found it odd they'd want to refuel now, when several orbits' worth of fuel still remained in the ship's oversized tanks. Equally unusual, they also planned to resupply his consumables once the refueling completed. It was clear to him that his extended mission was about to become even more extended. Not that he'd mind; he was already well on his way to becoming a rich man from this one flight, and every minute he stayed aloft only made him that much richer.

    With the latest fueling complete, the tanker Doctor Morbius maneuvered alongside the Trashy in the same orbit, airlock to airlock, leaving the two huge ships not five meters apart. A circular tube, two-meters across, extended itself from the tanker's airlock and snaked its way to the adjoining Starship. With a muted metallic clang, the tube affixed itself around the Trashy's airlock.

    The skipper watched the dance from within the confines of the control room, but upon hearing the clang, he unfastened his harness and drifted out of the control room, across the narrow corridor outside it, and into the cargo airlock opposite the control room. As he entered the airlock, the harsh red light over its outside door morphed into an equally harsh yellow. Gauges on the airlock wall showed pressure swiftly rising within the attached tube, and soon the yellow light settled into a soothing green. The skipper operated the controls to open the outer hatch, and as it slid open, he felt the telltale popping of his ears as the pressure between the two ships equalized. Fully opened, the hatch revealed a man in company uniform, the epaulet of a quartermaster on his left breast.

    "Welcome aboard," the skipper greeted, but his curiosity quickly edged aside any niceties. "So what's with the early resupply? Trying to fatten me up for the kill?"

    "Beats the hell outta me," the quartermaster replied. "All I know is that the crew of the Steve Zodiac isn't too happy about having to wait for my next trip."

    "And why refuel now? I still have lots of fuel left."

    The quartermaster shrugged. "Same answer."

    The skipper joined in the shrug. "Okay, okay. Let's get this scow loaded and you can go fetch the Zodiac their dinner."

    The two spacemen were joined by several crew members from the Morbius and together they made swift work of transferring the consumables.

    "Bon appétit!" the quartermaster called over his shoulder as the Trashy's airlock closed behind him. Moments later, the tube retracted and the Morbius drifted away.

    The skipper floated back in to the control room to find the comm link annunciator flashing on his control panel. Someone was hailing the ship. He bucked into his seat, opened the channel, and the audio came to loud life. "Trashcan Man, this is Starbase Control. Stand by to receive a top-priority transmission."

    The skipper frowned. "Top priority" always seemed to mean some engineering brass wanted to talk to him about some detail of his operation. In the weeks since the first successful scooping orbit, they were always asking him to try this or that to expand the scoop's envelope of operations. I wonder what waste of time they have for me today? He hoped it wasn't another news telecast. He was no Toastmaster, and had never learned the joy in public speaking.

    Purposefully keeping the disdain from coloring his voice, he replied simply, "Standing by."

    "Stand by for the President," came the rejoinder.

    The skipper smirked. President of what, the Glee Club? But the thought immediately vaporized as he recognized the familiar voice of the President of the United States.

    "Starship Trashcan Man, we have a problem," intoned the President, the paraphrase adding an ominous edge to the greeting.

    The skipper was still recovering from the shock of realization that this was the President, and had no ready reply. No Glee Club here!

    The President continued. "I've just received word that NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab is reporting a new potentially hazardous asteroid, and its current track implies it is likely coming close to Earth. VERY close to Earth. JPL believes there's a high probability it's going to hit."

    The skipper sat speechless. There were too many successive shocks for him to absorb, let alone fashion a coherent reply.

    "Hello? Do you read me, Trashcan Man?"

    The stunned skipper finally managed to pull himself together enough to reply, "I read you sir." The mental gears in the spacer's head belatedly unjammed themselves and began to turn as he automatically assessed the situation. "An asteroid, you say? How big is it?"

    "Wel-l-l-l," the President began slowly. "We're not too sure. They tell me it's likely a C-type asteroid and its surface is covered in some kind of soot that makes it hard to judge."

    "So if we don't know its size, I assume we don't know its composition either?"

    "You assume correctly, sir. Even calling it a C-type is still half conjecture, and that only based on its coloration."

    "C-type...," he mused aloud as the wheels continued to turn. "Probably rocky, then." Seconds passed in thought and an obvious question surfaced. "Why didn't we see it until now?

    "Aside from the soot situation, they missed seeing it sooner because it's coming at us from alongside the sun."

    "And it's going to hit?" He felt silly naming it.

    The president's voice became deadly serious. "Yes. It's going to hit. And of all the people of Earth, only you are in a position to stop it." He paused a brief moment to let his words sink in.

    "Yeah, right." The skipper tossed the President's words aside with an unseen flip of a hand and added testily, "And just how am I supposed to stop it? I'm in orbit around the Earth, you know."

    "True. But nevertheless, you are the only one who can stop it. Let me turn the mike over to Starbase Control. They'll brief you on what needs to be done."

    The skipper was about to argue, but thoughts of that paycheck kicker ended all arguments. Instead, he replied enthusiastically, "You can count on me, sir!"

     "I knew we could. Thank you, sir. And good luck!"

    Dollar signs floated in front of the skipper's eyes. "Thank you, sir."

    "No, no," the President intoned gravely, "If this succeeds, it's the entire Earth who will be thanking you, sir."

         *     *     *

    Venus loomed large on the monitors, and every instrument aboard the SxS Trashcan Man was focused on it. The gravity assist maneuver was dipping the ship deep into the planet's gravity well, so deep that amorphous wisps of its atmosphere tickled the ship's sensors. Although this was not the first time a Starship had visited the Evening Star, scientists of the Earth weren't going to let this opportunity slip past them, no matter how critical the ship's mission may be. Every sensor the ship possessed was fixated on the fleeting planetscape below.

    The skipper sat in awe as the alien world streaked beneath him, unbelievably fast, its hellish surface seemingly a movie set for Dante's Inferno. He glanced at his velocity: over thirty thousand kilometers per hour! The gravity assist he had received from a tight lunar flyby had already made the Trashcan Man the fastest Starship in history. Falling toward the sun only added to that enormous vector. And now, with the Venusian whiplash well underway, the Trashy was about to smash its own record.

    Unsurprisingly, as quickly as the planet had approached, it retreated even more quickly thanks to the ship's gravitationally-enhanced velocity. The skipper held no doubt, but out of duty he had to check: Of course the ship was dead on course for the killer asteroid. The entire mission had been pre-programmed before he left Earth, and had needed no tweaking since then, even in light of any uncertainties that may have been introduced during the lunar slingshot.

    With the Venusian flyby complete, it would still take weeks for the ship's orbit to intersect that of the asteroid, and there was little to do in the meantime but wait. The skipper smiled without mirth. Yep. It's time for that hallmark of space travel: the waiting.

         *     *     *

    In the weeks since the Trashcan Man left Earth orbit, scientists were able to confirm the asteroid's C-type and rocky composition, as well as its target—definitely the Earth! But the exact location of impact was still an open question. Predictions were that it would make planetfall somewhere in the northern hemisphere within a five-thousand-mile-wide oval stretching from Chicago to Moscow. The fate of millions was quite literally in the skipper's hands.

    Unsurprisingly, once again the navigational computers had done their job well. Numerous bursts of the ship's attitude thrusters had aligned the ship's trajectory precisely along the orbital path of the asteroid, ultimately positioning it squarely between the black rock and Earth, its nose pointed at the bogie. A few short bursts from one of the three vacuum Raptors provided sufficient delta-v to slowly begin closing the distance between the two.

    At first the asteroid was only visible using the ship's powerful sensors, but as the days passed it continued to loom larger and larger until it was close enough for him to measure its size exactly—99 meters in mean diameter!—and to estimate its weight—ten billion kilograms! Added to that was one more disturbing fact: the huge space rock was slowly tumbling end over end, like some celestial tank tread inexorably bearing down to crush the Earth. It would not be easy to catch. Fortunately for Trashcan Man's mission, the asteroid's simple rotation placed its axis in a fixed position with a stable north and south pole.

    It was toward one of the poles that the skipper guided the Starship. At first it hovered overhead, its nose pointed at the rock; but repeated tiny bursts from the attitude thrusters imparted a spin to the ship, rotating it around its center of mass. Feeble gravity returned to the ship's control room slowly at first, then greater and greater as the ship spun faster and faster, pulling the skipper sideways toward the nearest wall. He rotated his chair ninety degrees to meet the artificial gravity vector head on, letting it push him deeper and deeper into his seat. Soon, the spin of the ship matched that of the asteroid. But spinning though the ship was, from the skipper's vantage he sat immobile above the asteroid's surface.

    This is it... the skipper warned himself as he nosed the ship forward toward the gigantic, rotating rock. The ship shuddered slightly as the scoop's cone made contact with the asteroid's surface, then silence followed as it gently bounced off the surface. Repeated bursts from the attitudinal thrusters brought the scoop in contact again and again, bouncing less and less with each attempt. Finally, the thrusters were able to hold the scoop flush against the rocky surface.

    Step two... the skipper thought, as he armed the main engines. This would be the touchiest portion of the diversion maneuver. Too much thrust would snap the scoop like a popsicle stick, while too little would not divert the asteroid sufficiently. The eggheads on Earth suggested a precise maximum amount of thrust the scoop mount would tolerate—a painfully low amount—and the skipper prayed their guess would be correct. There were few sensors on the mast, leaving the skipper in the dark regarding exactly how much pressure was stressing the mast.

    He fired one of the vacuum-rated main engines, then a second, then a third, exerting their strength in unison to the tumbling rock. As predicted—and hoped for!—the mast held. Now there was nothing to do except to burn all of his methalox propellant to impart the maximum amount of boost to adjust the rock's orbit enough to miss the Earth. He'd worry about refueling once he reached Earth orbit—assuming he did. There were many risks still ahead, the most prominent being decelerating the hurtling spacecraft. Fortunately, the return path had also been pre-programmed before he left Earth. But when it came to celestial mechanics, one could never be too sure.

    CRACK! A sharp report echoed through the metal of the ship as it lurched forward toward the asteroid, the unexpected thrust shoving him sideways toward the ship's stern. Red telltales flashed on his control screen: The mast had snapped! He immediately cut the engines and fired the retro rockets, but it was too late. A deep, rumbling shudder rocked the ship as its nose impacted the asteroid, followed by silence as it bounced off.

    Scanning the ship status, it was clear that the collision had done its worst: the ship's nose was crushed. Neither of the bow flaps responded to commands, and one of the header tanks was slowly spewing methane into the void, its asymmetric thrust complicating the ship's inadvertent retreat. The spinning ship slowly pirouetted away from the asteroid, the severed cone drifting in the opposite direction.

    Ignoring the lost cone, the skipper's first priority was to regain control of the ship. The maneuver was not an easy one, given that several of the bow thrusters were out of commission; and the leaking methane was imparting its own complications. Opening the relief valve on the methane tank instantly emptied its contents into space, thereby negating the leak's unwelcome thrust, and he was soon able to regain control and hover alongside the spinning asteroid.

    Better let Earth know the bad news! He reached to open the comm channel, but his hand stopped when he saw its status glowing an unwelcome red. Huh! Comm's out? Firing up the diagnostics app, it took scant seconds for it to report the comm system was indeed dead. The collision with the asteroid must've knocked something out of kilter!

    On the chance that the diagnostic app itself was out of kilter, he activated the comm channel. "Starship Trashcan Man to Starbase Control. Trashy to Starbase. Do you read me?" With that, he sat back to wait. Given his position in the solar system relative to Earth, it would be several minutes until they received his signal—assuming they could!—then the same duration for a return message. There's that waiting again, he bemoaned to himself.

    The minutes passed. Five minutes passed with no reply, as expected. Ten minutes passed; not so good. At twenty minutes, the skipper took a deep breath and exhaled noisily. Well, it looks like I'm on my own! He watched the spinning asteroid on his monitor a moment and set his jaw. All in a day's work? he joked to himself wryly as he reached for the controls. Once again, he maneuvered the damaged Trashan Man back over the asteroid's pole and matched spin rates. Slowly he edged the ship forward until he felt the scraping of rock on metal. Let's try this again, he resolved as he again activated the first engine. He studied the monitor intensely, watching for signs of additional buckling of the ship's nose, but it held itself stable against the asteroid. The forward superstructure of all Starships was heavily reinforced to be able to bear the aerodynamic load on the flaps during landings, and that reinforcement would definitely pay a hefty dividend now. He ignited a second engine, then a third, matching the same level of thrust that had been applied to the now-missing scoop. There being no obvious signs of trouble, nervously he maintained the thrust.

    With all three engines boosting simultaneously, it did not take long to exhaust the ship's immense fuel supply. The skipper safed the engines and sat back to admire his handiwork. He had done what he could. Either it was enough of a diversion or it wasn't. Earth would figure that out soon enough. He manipulated the controls cautiously, and the attitude thrusters slowly disengaged the damaged nose from the asteroid and removed the ship's spin. Moments later, the Trashy sat alongside the asteroid, apparently hovering over its pole while the rock rotated beneath it.

    His mission complete, the skipper paused to take stock of his situation: The ship was damaged, and since he had no control of the forward flaps, it was clearly incapable of landing on Earth. Even had the flaps remained operational, with the breached methane header tank he had no fuel for landing in any case. That left on-orbit rescue as his only option. Although the control thrusters remained operational, a number of them were out of action as well, and their fuel supply was not endless. His comm channel was down, leaving him unable to get advice or even apprise Earth of his situation. He was left entirely to his own devices.

    Fortunately, consumables were not an issue. When the Dracula resupplied his ship before he left Earth orbit, the quartermaster had provided him with enough food and breathable air to last for many months. And even if his air supply ran low, there was still oxygen in the header tank that he could route into the pressurized living space, if it proved necessary. Crippled though it was, the Starship Trashcan Man still possessed enough basic functionality to at least attempt regaining Earth orbit and wait for rescue.

    The skipper began to test out various scenarios to reach that orbit, starting with the pre-programmed course defined before he left Earth. But with several thrusters out of commission and no fuel in the header tanks, the solution had to be recalculated. Fortunately, the ship was already headed directly for Earth, and that simplified the problem greatly. The real trick would be to somehow shed its enormous velocity. Even if there were a full fuel load to feed the engines, the ship could not possibly carry enough to slow it to Earth's orbital velocity. But a reversal of the same techniques used to give the Trashy its enormous velocity could also be used to cancel it. Rather than swinging around behind a planet to increase his velocity relative to the sun, passing ahead of the planet could reduce that velocity by using the angular momentum of the planet as a gravity brake to slow the ship.

    Upon modeling his first solution, he quickly discovered that a direct approach to Earth would never do. It would sling himself and his ship far past the new Martian settlements in much less time than the typical seven-month transit—and Mars would not be there to meet him when he zipped past its orbit. But by first aiming to swing ahead of the Earth's moon instead, such a course would not only slow the ship dramatically, a judicious choice of entry and exit angles would also sling him directly from the moon to the Earth. And should his velocity upon arrival still be too great to maintain Earth orbit, the same trick could be repeated by swinging back out to the moon, then back to Earth again, until he finally achieved a reasonable orbital velocity around one or the other and be ripe for rescue—assuming he didn't crash into some other spacecraft along the way, especially in the crowded cislunar space.

    In theory, the plan was a good one; but putting that theory into practice was the real rub. Like all Starship pilots, he was skilled in celestial mechanics and the mathematical tools used to manipulate them. But those skills were somewhat rusty—especially when it came to retrograde slingshot techniques—and his trip out had been orchestrated by the navigators on Earth. For the return journey, he would be forced to rely on his own skills.

    He smiled wryly. At least this time the fate of the Earth isn't in the balance!

         *     *     *

    As the days passed, it slowly became apparent that the ship and asteroid were drifting apart. According to the skipper's calculations, the asteroid was on course to miss the Earth, but only barely. It would swoop past the home planet well within the orbit of the moon, but far enough away to leave the geostationary assets intact. Doubtless he was being acclaimed a hero on Earth, having saved the planet from Armageddon, but now he had to be a hero to himself.

    He used the attitude thrusters to place himself on what he believed to be the optimal approach to the moon to gain the greatest amount of deceleration while still putting him on track for the Earth. As with his trip out, his lunar orbit would bring him only miles above the surface, and definitely present a clear menace to navigation. And his missing thrusters would only complicate that flyby if he had to maneuver at the last minute.

    As the crucial day approached, the moon seemed to grow noticeably larger even as he watched; no surprise, given the ship's enormous velocity. It was only natural that the skipper would be apprehensive, even nervous, as the rendezvous approached, but the final minutes became nothing short of sheer terror. It appeared to him as if the ship were plummeting to impact the cratered surface at an incredibly high velocity. With a swiftness that snatched his breath away, the moonscape swooshed beneath him as the Trashcan Man made its closest approach. More than once he was forced to close his eyes to the incredible view on his monitors, lest his terror overcome him and taunt him into doing something stupid. Never in his entire career as a spaceman had he been so close to panicking.

    The transit took barely a few moments, but it seemed like hours before the moon finally fell away behind him. With the immediate threat removed, the skipper regained enough presence of mind to realize he was sweating profusely, and that his hands gripped the chair's armrests with an unbreakable death grip. Slowly he regained control of himself, and with a deep breath turned to the controls to verify his position and velocity vector.

    "Dammit!" he cursed aloud. He was off course. Not by much, but off course for sure. Some perturbation in the moon's gravity field must have fouled his calculations, no doubt, leaving his exit angle a smidgen too low. The ship was still headed for an Earth orbit, but an extremely eccentric one. Extrapolating the detailed mechanics of his new heading, his heart fell when he realized the orbit would not be a stable one. He'd pass around the Earth three and a half times before impacting the surface somewhere near the North Pole.

    Grasping at his last straw, he modeled an orbital adjustment that would utilize all of his remaining attitude thruster fuel, but it would be insufficient to ward off the impending impact. At best, it would only allow him to choose his impact point on the Earth's surface.

    Who am I mad at? he joked darkly.

         *     *     *

    The skipper sat in his chair, a gray funk dulling his senses to the beauty of the home planet sweeping only a few thousand miles beneath him. His odd orbit would carry him out to an apogee almost a hundred thousand miles from the planet before swinging back in for another swift close encounter several hundred miles closer to its surface than the last. Thus it would continue for another six random passes above the planet until the seventh drove him directly into it. At least the skipper had been able to expend the last of his thruster fuel to aim the ship for the South Pacific graveyard where he had recently played the trashman. It seemed only fitting that the ship should follow the debris he had collected, and his targeted remote planetfall would minimize any impact to the human ecology of the planet—although he surmised quite a few fish were about to have a terrible day.

    The Earth fell quickly astern as he headed for the first apogee of his unstable orbit, but the skipper was beyond caring. It was only a matter of hours now, and there was nothing left to be done. He had done his best—and had saved the Earth! That's not so bad a legacy, he reassured himself. Probably erect a statue of me at the front entrance to Starba—

    The thought cut off immediately at the sound of metal scraping on metal somewhere in an unguessable direction. But his dark mood only left him without curiosity beyond a simple thought. Probably just a loose piece of scrap, he told himself.

    Again, he heard the muted clang of metal on metal, but this time he sat up to listen closer. What the heck is— Again the thought was immediately cut off, not by a sound reaching his ears, but rather by a change of air pressure. His spacer instincts immediately recognized it for what it was: Somehow, another ship had docked with the Trashy and opened the airlock. The equalization of pressure at such a time could always be felt inside the ear. Now he could hear the tread of heavy footsteps growing louder as they headed in his direction. The hatch on the control room's airlock swung open to reveal a space-suited figure standing in its doorway.

    "Quick! We have to get out of here! We only have a minute where we can continue to match orbits with you!"

    "What? What?" he stammered.

    "Move, man, MOVE!" the suited figure yelled.

    The skipper needed no further encouragement. He turned to open the locker behind his chair to fetch his pressure suit.

    "No! No time! Just follow me!" his rescuer yelled while beating a hasty retreat. "Fly! There's only seconds left before we'll be forced to undock!"

    Fortunately, the cargo airlock was located right across the narrow passageway from the control room's airlock, and the two plunged into it. As they did, the soft green light over its hatchway changed to a glaring yellow.

    "Faster! The tube's coming undone!"

    The two clawed their way along the leaking tube, the suited figure in the lead, their forward motion hindered by their scrambling through the zero gravity. Already it was becoming difficult for the skipper to breathe. The pressure was easily down to a few tenths of an atmosphere, and the skipper's lungs were laboring as if he were on top of Mount Everest.

    The suited person reached the airlock first, grabbed on to a handhold, and turned to face the skipper. "Faster! It'll blow any second now!"

    The skipper was right behind. He reached out his bare hand and grasped the extended, suited hand. It pulled him into the airlock, spinning him around in the process and leaving him facing outward.

    With that, the tube let go from its moorings on their airlock and drifted away, still extending from the side of the Trashcan Man like a severed section of intestine: puffy, randomly curved, and standing stiff. The Trashy itself was already visibly accelerating forward.

    Inside the still-open airlock, the skipper floated in total, complete, and utter hard vacuum, his lungs empty, but eyes and thoughts still functioning. Without the distortion invariably added by atmosphere, without the attenuating blur introduced by the so-called transparency of a window, without any shield, filter, or barrier, the naked beauty of the cosmos revealed itself to him and left the skipper far, far beyond awe. The cold, sharp, clear-beyond-clear color of the stars, the black-on-black invisibility of the space between, the sheer, infinite immensity of the scene that lay before him moved him deep inside; a religious experience like none other. The ache in his heart at its beauty brought tears to his eyes—which immediately froze over and blurred the astounding scene. He blinked once to clear his view, but on closing, his eyelids immediately froze shut. The loss of the incredible vision broke his heart with a sense of loss far beyond any he had ever felt before.

    Oh, please! he pleaded silently to himself. Please! To see that indescribable universe once again! Just for one more second! He would have burst into tears, had he been capable of crying, when unexpectedly, with the banality of the ordinary, he opened his eyes. But the indescribable beauty of the universe was gone. It had been replaced by the plain steel face of the airlock hatch. Warm air flowed around him, washing away the coldest chill he had ever felt in his entire life. Now, with his tear ducts unobstructed by the ice of vacuum, the skipper did burst into tears, blubbering like a young child whose dog had just died, his face scrunched up in naked hurt that could find no consolation.

    "What is it?" his suited companion cried, all concern. "What is it? Are you hurt?" She opened the inner airlock door and pulled the skipper in tow; the two floated inside the rescue ship. Several crewmembers floated in a cluster around the airlock, and their voices penetrated the skipper's consciousness.

    "Thank God she got him!"

    "He's saved!"

    "Just in the nick of time!"

    "He must be hurt! Look at him crying!"

    "Get the nurse!"

    Their words of concern brought the skipper back to his senses. Some of his tears had shaken free and floated around his head, twinkling in the lights of the corridor, sparkling like grotesque, mocking imitations of the indescribable starscape he had experienced not a moment ago. He looked from one concerned face to the next, his jaw still hanging slack from his grief, and finally managed to pull himself together. Seconds passed in silence as he grasped intellectually the here-and-now of his situation, but his emotions were sharply divided between the joy of still being alive and the heartbreak of losing that perfect vision of the universe.

    As the crew of the rescue ship continued to float silently around him, he felt it incumbent upon himself to say something—anything! But he was torn between thanking them for saving his life and damning them for stealing that life's greatest joy. He compromised by saying nothing.

    "Come on," someone said. Let's get him to sick bay."

    The skipper let himself be towed away. It didn't really matter anymore. After what he had seen, what he had experienced, nothing really mattered. Nothing except what he had seen, what he had experienced, and, most importantly, what it truly meant.

         *     *     *

    The trip home was uneventful, and two days later the skipper found himself back on Earth being wheeled into a hospital. He was looking forward to getting back his gravity legs after having spent so many months in space. It always took time to re-acclimate, but he knew from experience it would happen sooner or later. There's that hallmark of waiting again! he reminded himself. Even though I'm back on the ground.

    As it turned out, it wasn't only the skipper who had been rescued; the Trashcan Man had been saved as well. Salvage teams employed the same orbital trick that was used to rescue the skipper: intersecting its orbit at apogee. By carefully crafting an orbit whose apogee coincided precisely with the Trashy's, any rescuer would have a brief amount of time where the velocities of the two ships almost exactly matched. But such opportunities were brief and fleeting. Yet their brevity didn't stop the salvagers from matching orbits on one side of the planet and transferring a few tons of propellant, then matching orbits again on the other side of the planet to transfer a skeleton crew to stabilize its orbit. The end result was that within the day, the SxS Trashcan Man drifted lazily in a standard Earth orbit, awaiting the repair crew.

    During his convalescence, the skipper learned that Starbase Control had been preparing for his arrival from the moment the Trashcan Man had drifted apart from the killer asteroid. They had plotted his course precisely, saw where the skipper had made his navigational mistake during the lunar flyby, and positioned the salvage ships accordingly. So when the Trashcan Man arrived in the home system, there were rescuers already on orbit waiting to meet it at every apogee.

    Some criticized the salvage effort as being needlessly risky and exorbitantly expensive. But the Starship series had never lost a ship, nor had a fatality ever occurred, and the impetus was great to maintain that winning streak. Honor was at stake here, not to mention smart marketing. Regardless of how much effort and expense it may require, rescuing both man and machine had always been a foregone conclusion.

    All this, the skipper silently absorbed. He accepted without comment their multi-million-dollar charity that had saved his life. He accepted the fact that they had named the passing asteroid in tribute to his ship, and not to him. The tabloids had labeled it, "The Trash-teroid". He even accepted the fact that there was no statue of him erected at the entrance to Starbase. Apparently, the entire episode was a non-event, as far as Earth was concerned. The impending disaster had been downplayed as a training exercise, so no one knew that Armageddon had been on its way; no one knew that he had saved the Earth.

    To the skipper, none of it really mattered anymore anyway. All that mattered is that others must be awakened, as he had been awakened. Without a doubt, he would need to use his newfound wealth to charter his own space flights. Others would need to stand in the airlock, as he had, and open its hatch. Others would have to see what he had seen, experience what he had experienced. Then others would also understand what truly matters. Then he and his woke would take the necessary steps to change the world. That change wouldn't happen overnight, but he was convinced it would surely happen.

    He sighed resignedly, but tempered it with a small smile. There's that waiting again!


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Ken Krawchuk

Background Marscape courtesy of NASA & JPL-Caltech
(C) 2021 Amendment Sixteen Limited