Finally, after countless hours of tracing, detective work, and questionable food from interstellar rest stops, her journey came to an end here, at a ball of rubbish in the middle of space.
Ellie refused to see this as a metaphor for anything.
“Well, that’s that,” said the driver, with an abruptness that grated against her remaining nerve. “Looks like we ended up at a junkball.”
So they had. The ship’s light illuminated the trash moon before them as it lethargically turned in place. Angled shadows played across its surface, cast by the remnants of things that had once been. Towers of irregular shape and structure jutted into the void, fading into and out of view as they traversed the circle of light.
“Can’t say I’m surprised,” the driver went on, doing his best to fill the silence that had suddenly blossomed in his cockpit. “I mean, it was what, ten years old?”
She’d chosen Bryce to accompany her on this journey not because she needed a driver, or a ship, or really any sort of help, but because, in a lapse of judgement, she thought she could do with moral support. It was a decision she started regretting immediately, and by now that regret had compacted into a stratum of resentment.
Bryce didn’t get it, but she’d never dared to bring that up, especially not now. Especially since it was perfectly possible that he had been right all along, and the very thought of that left a scorch mark across the twisted mass of her stomach.
“Yeah,” she said, because what more was there to say?
Junkballs were the final resting place of anything too large or too cumbersome to be disposed of by normal means. The argument for them went something like this: there was a lot of space, and in fact there was more of it getting made all the time, and by all accounts, the more there was, the faster it got made, so what was the harm in shoving some of humanity’s waste into the celestial closet?
Not willy-nilly, of course; to do so would be space-littering, and the environmentalists wouldn’t have it. Black holes were too dangerous and too rare to use, and throwing trash into stars just felt disrespectful, somehow. So instead, some smart people got together and devised a scheme for “gravitation-assisted waste collectors.” They became humanity’s first artificial planets, seeded by an iron core and grown through a process of carefully crashing stuff into it.
Each one served as a graveyard of ships, orbital stations, and satellites that had outlived their usefulness. They turned silently in space, illuminated only by the red beacons sticking out from each axis, whose sole purpose was to prevent wayward ships from adding to the mass sooner than anticipated. Apart from their rotation, and the occasional avalanche from some metallic skeleton crumbling under the stresses at last, they were very still and deadly quiet. They only moved at all because it was expensive to keep things stationary in space, as Bryce’s ship now was, thrusters gently pulsing against the gravitational pull below.
Ellie realized that her companion had actually shut up for a minute. For all his impertinence, he did seem to sense that she needed a moment.
She reached into her pocket, the one on the inside of her flight jacket, and produced a small black rectangle. It was scratched and some of the writing had chipped off. She turned it over and over in her hand.
“I’ve never seen you like this,” said Bryce, having guessed what she was contemplating. “It’s so... childish.”
“Maybe,” said Ellie. “But you have to remember, it was a very long time ago. I was different then.”
“And you’re different now. C’mon, Ellie. You know this is silly. You’ve done a lot since then, gone into business for yourself, and done real well I might add – I still don’t know how you did it.”
“Yeah, I did. But I did those things because I never, ever wanted to have to make a choice like that again.” She closed her fist around the key. “I always thought I’d make it back to her.”
“You have! Look, here we are. She’s right there, outside my windshield,” he said. “I mean, you can’t have expected anything else, right?”
Her silence answered the question. “My god,” Bryce chuckled. “You actually thought you could–”
“I guess I did,” said Ellie, a note of defiance in her voice. “Or at least, some part of me did. All these years... I’d never admit it to myself. I guess I’m only doing it now because there’s no time left to keep lying.”
She gazed out at her journey’s end. It was, mercifully, a distracting thing to look at. Almost menacing, in a way. A sharp-eyed observer could trace the outlines of derelict shuttles, starskippers, and space docks, each half-preserved, half-shattered on impact where they coalesced with the rest of the junk. Each one was shining and new once; each the realization of a dream. And all of them were abandoned now, confined to the silent graveyard, separated from their owners by an ever-widening gap of time and space.
“Maybe people don’t change,” she said. “Not really. Maybe they layer, like rings in a tree.” She turned to face him for the first time since their arrival. “Just because you only see the surface doesn’t mean the rest isn’t in there somewhere.”
Bryce shrugged. “Well, I s’pose she’s in there, too,” he said, gesturing out at the scrap heap. “But I can tell you that she ain’t ever coming out again. And maybe that’s for the best. Some things ain’t ever meant to be dug up.”
Ellie sank back into the copilot’s seat. “Sometimes I get jealous of you, you know? You have a rule for everything. Life must be so simple for you.”
“Now hold on,” he said, waggling a finger in the air. “I dunno if life’s simple, but this right here, is. You had a ship, you sold it to someone else, then that guy sold it again, and then the guy he sold it to sold it again, and now it’s here. You think it’d be here if it still worked?”
“Well, there’s no harm in trying, is there?”
“I s’pose not.”
“Then let me try.”
Bryce puffed some air through his lips. “Alright then.”
Arm outstretched, Ellie levelled her key at the windshield.
The click flashed its way through the nerves of her fingertips and up, up into the crevasses of her mind, sparking a deluge of the times she’d felt it before, the days and nights and cities and mountains and celebrations and adventures and lonely bar crawls that lasted into the morning hours. The times she listened in anticipation for the clonk that marked the engine’s start and watched the headlights flicker into life. Even on the occasions when the ship had stood silent and dark long enough to rattle her, the clonk always came, and the lights always shone. She had always been loyal to her, and now she was back, at last, to return the favor.
She was never meant to be this: a meaningless sacrifice to a historical record that no one would ever care enough to revisit. She had too much spirit to be confined to this fate. This wasn’t the end, surely. Ellie watched to see if she could spot the telltale wink of a headlight through the wreck.
Bryce’s voice arrived from a million miles away. “So? Did that help you?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know,” said Ellie. “But before, when you said you didn’t know how I’ve accomplished what I have? Well, okay, maybe I don’t know either. But I’ll tell you this much. Everything I am, everything I’ve made, it always started with a wish at some point. A silly, childish wish. So here I am again, wishing.” And to make the point, she pressed the key again and again, manically, waving it back and forth as she did so.
Her companion said nothing as she leaned forward, eyes glued to the windshield, hunting for a glimmer in the dark. Once it became apparent that she’d accept no less than a full rotation, Bryce defocused his eyes as he willed videos from his media implant. Finally, she said: “Okay. We can go.”
“Okay,” said Bryce, snapping back to reality. “We’re going.” His hands flew to the ship’s yoke as though magnetized.
And so they went.
The trash heap they left behind returned to the darkness. If anyone could have braved the vacuum to press their ear against its cold, mangled steel, they might have heard the faintest noise reverberating through the junk: a tinny, distorted, yet still distinctive clonk.