Epsilon-416 aka Planet Garbage
Classification: W (waste facility)
The human diaspora claimed Epsilon-416 more than two thousand years ago. The first settlers saw it as a potential farming planet. Geologists identified the flat, nutrient-rich orange soil as suitable for supporting plant-life, with a B+ rating. The atmosphere was breathable, with some minor adjustments, and the water supply was more than adequate, once treated.
Various names were chosen to make the small, drab planet seem more inviting as a destination for settlers — the galaxy was vast and human colonists were limited in number, and very much in demand.
Golden Amulet. Fertilum. Homestead. None of them stuck and it was always referred to by its astronomical designation, Epsilon-416, when it was referred to at all. E4, if you were in a hurry.
More settlers were eagerly expected but never arrived. There was nothing wrong with Epsilon-416, there were just better options in the area. At least six planets that offered everything E4 did, but in larger quantities and better quality. Prettier planets with richer biodiversity and better views. It was what people wanted. Not just bigger harvests, but a world they could enjoy living on, with something to do on the weekends.
E4 did have one major thing going for it, it was centrally located, making it within easy reach of all the other planets. A convenient spot for trade, if that was required (it wasn’t), and also a handy place to drop waste.
No one wanted to store their rubbish in landfills or in huge mountains of garbage. The more advanced materials could be recycled, but the process was prohibitively expensive for outer worlds, where resources were used to make money, not save money. It was cheaper to buy and replace than it was to repair or recycle.
The settlers of E4, who were barely able to scratch out a living, decided to turn their planet into the quadrant’s junkyard. Everything the other planets didn’t want, they could dump on E4, for a modest fee.
The planet was barely populated, a small rock with a lot of empty space. After only a few years of a paltry arable existence, E4 was repurposed into a giant rubbish tip. A very successful transformation, from a business standpoint.
It took less than a century for the entire planet to become swamped with other people’s refuse, earning it the nickname Planet Garbage. A name that stuck, although the locals preferred Epsilon-416, which they’d decided wasn’t so bad after all.
The money generated attracted people. Not the brightest and the best, but smart, enterprising people who could see there was a market to be exploited. And the trash just kept coming.
The approach to waste management was so successful, other quadrants followed suit, sometimes choosing to reclassify a planet as a waste facility without bothering to consult the inhabitants.
While the cost of recycling waste was high, there were still ways to make use of what other people had discarded. A lot of items weren’t even broken, just no longer fashionable. The economy of the galaxy was built on owning the latest and the most advanced technologies available, both from a functional and a status point of view. No one wanted to be the person with the outdated communications device or vehicle or anything else. Humanity’s need to keep up with the Joneses had not changed just because they’d learned how to travel to the stars.
Ubik had been born on E4, or possibly dropped off by a passing ship. He couldn’t remember his parents, although he was sure he had at least a mother. Probably. Somebody had fed him until he could do it himself, and then they had disappeared.
The first ten years of his life were spent running around the streets of Silon City, the biggest city on Epsilon-416, and the dirtiest. It was loud and brash and smelled terrible, but you could find food and water relatively easily, as long as you didn’t mind it being half-eaten or half-drunk.
The next ten, he spent developing his talent for electronics. He was a natural, and he had an endless supply of components to work with.
He had no school to go to, although he did find a teacher. Or the remains of one. You could find all sorts of things in a junkyard, even the soul recording of a dead woman. It wasn’t her actual soul contained inside the black cube, it was her knowledge and wisdom left for her children and their children — a database you could access by voice command and ask the dead what they had learned while they lived. A common enough device the deceased left behind for their loved ones.
She was nobody special, not a genius or a famous inventor, but she had been a very good engineer, and she had been able to answer most of Ubik’s technical questions, back when he needed answers. She had seemed quite pleased to be asked, even though that wasn’t technically possible.
He had no idea how old the recordings were. It could have been several generations down the line when her family decided they had nothing to learn from their past, and had consigned the bequeathed treasure trove of information to the trash heap of history. Or, to be more specific, Collection Zone E4-Jericho. Home, as Ubik called it.
Even if her knowledge was outdated and her homespun wisdom about the meaning of life cringeworthy, she had provided Ubik with far more than technical data.
Ubik lived in a bunker he’d built himself. Or maybe he’d found it and moved in, it was all a bit vague in his mind and he didn’t consider it very important in any case. The past was what you left behind, after all.
The bunker was a pocket of air under a field of garbage in Zone E4-J, a convergence of support structures that had fallen against each other that prevented the space from collapsing. There were properly built structures on Epsilon-416 — cities and towns with shops, schools, places to eat and have fun — but you needed money to live in a real building, or a family. Ubik had neither.
He did have the best alarm clock in the galaxy, though. Every morning at 6 AM standard time, a freighter would arrive from Darragut-492, also known as Eden, and fire its stabilisers over Ubik’s abode before opening its bay doors and dropping several hundred tons of trash from about 200 metres up.
Ubik’s home was moderately secure. Years of hammering from above had compacted and fixed his walls and roof in place. The occasional item might come loose and fall on him, but that was why he was always up and under his bed as soon as he heard his morning alarm.
His bed was a panel from an S-class space liner, made of lithogen, a very tough and very expensive metal. When new. Once it fell off a decommissioned ship, it was just junk.
It was made to withstand solar storms, so a falling toaster wouldn’t do much damage. There were no sheets or pillows and no mattress. Ubik slept on the panel when he was tired, used it as a table when he was working, and hid under it when the ships came to dump their cargo. It was a basic piece of metal, but it served a variety of uses, which was what Ubik preferred in all his equipment. Multi-purpose.
The whine of the stabilisers woke Ubik from his dreamless slumber. Without having to think, he rolled off the panel and slid under it.
He grabbed the soul cube, which he kept under his bed, and swiped it on. “Morning, Grandma.”
She wasn’t his Grandma, but she was somebody’s and it was what she answered to.
“Morning, my dear. Nice to see you up so early.”
He always got up at this time, and it was what she always said. She wasn’t really talking to him, she was just responding to his voice-activation from one of a set of preloaded generic answers. He turned the cube off to conserve power. He had a lot of electronics buried in here with him, and it all cost juice to run. Grandma didn’t have anything to teach him about electronics anymore, but it was still nice to greet her every morning. He had known her longer than anyone else in his life.
The sound of falling debris lasted about twenty standard minutes. The ship had been directed to unload close to his part of the junkyard this morning. The walls shook and groaned.
Ubik had slept for two hours, which was about normal for him. He didn’t like to be unconscious for any longer than absolutely necessary. He had alarms and sensors set up to warn him of drones or humans in close proximity, but they sometimes failed. He was at his most vulnerable when he was asleep.
The floor trembled and the pulsing intensity told him there were some particularly large items being delivered for his inspection today. Probably vehicles of some kind, which weren’t particularly useful to him as transportation — he had nowhere to go — but they often contained fuel cells which he always needed. He took slow breaths in and out and centred himself the way Grandma had taught him, settling into the darkness.
If you could control your breathing, you could control your mind, and the rest of the body would follow.
Grandma had been quite a strong believer in ancient philosophies and arts when she’d been alive. A student of the way was how she referred to herself. He had never been able to figure out what that meant, and there was apparently no explanation in her database, but he had learned that if he followed her instructions, he could get away with two hours of sleep a night.
Today was Threeday, he vaguely remembered. That meant the ship evacuating its bowels overhead was the Merlin Vance, an old battlecruiser refitted to perform junkyard deliveries. Not a very illustrious end to a distinguished career defending the quadrant, but better to make deliveries to a junkyard than end up in one.
Did they leave old spaceships floating in space or was there a planet somewhere where they dumped the ships they no longer had any use for? That would be a place he would like to visit. The pickings would be rich for sure.
Ubik’s bunker was deep underground with numerous exits so there was always a way out if the falling rubbish caused a collapse of a tunnel or two. The ships were directed to different parts of the junkyard to drop their cargo, so the chance his den would take repeated hits wasn’t very high. It was a manageable situation.
Once the heavy rain stopped and the engines kicked into vertical shift, Ubik crawled out from under his protective bed-table-shield and got his goggles and his high-beam detector from a metal chest covered in dents.
The detector had come from a frigate class ship, designed to inspect debris fields to make sure they weren’t hiding mines or other electronic devices. Ubik had stripped it down and turned it into a handheld device, which reduced its range by around 5000 km, but the accuracy remained dead-on. Perfect for scanning a field of junk for salvageable items.
Ubik turned on the lamp attached to his goggles and shone the light into a tunnel to check for signs of collapse. There didn’t seem to be any obstructions. He dived in head-first, off to start the morning’s work. He would be the first out there, but he wouldn’t be alone for long.