Issue #43, Honorable Mention #1

Samuel Finn is a retired emergency physician living in Seattle. He has published a medical thriller, Heartbeat, available online, and is currently writing a near-future sci-fi series titled The Hope. The first chapter was recently published by Embark Literary Journal. His story, “The Gyre”, was published by Dark Horses magazine. His story “Carbon” recently appeared in an anthology by JayHenge Publishing.

Junk Man

by Samuel Finn

What the hell is that thing anyway? Elias watches the odd oval shape on his screen. The zone-satellite vectored him to it, his twenty-third target this shift, maybe twenty-fourth, he’s lost count.

It’s his seventh month flying junk removal. He likes the ship, an Alpha 37. It’s faster even than the Solar S5 he flew during the war. He made two kills in that ship, knocked down a half dozen missiles and took out a few PDRK satellites. The war ended in a few weeks, shortest war ever. Two nukes ended it, city-killers that took out thirty million people. Stupid, tragic, what was the word, genocide? When it ended they wanted to promote him, bump him to Squadron Leader. He had nine years under his belt, three oak leaf clusters. But it meant flying a desk instead of a ship. So he transferred to junk patrol, Space Debris Removal Service. He could keep flying. Right now, though, he’s tired of the cramped cockpit, tired of staring into space and lassoing junk.

So what is that thing? He can’t get visual on it yet. It’s moving fast, way too fast for non-powered orbital dynamics. Maybe it’s just passing through, a rock, a meteor. How did the zone-sat even pick it up? Must be a mistake. He accelerates to catch it, still in daylight.

Specks of micro-junk flit by. The proximity guns lase a couple of them before they hit the ship, rosy beams that end in tiny flares. The target’s image grows on the screen. It must be powered somehow, to maintain that orbit at that speed. Doesn’t make sense. He sees its rough coppery surface. Two black bands circle one end, an odd pattern of openings decorates its nose. Angular ports, sensors maybe?

His Solar squadron buddies, they thought he was nuts to start flying junk. A few retired and bought aerocars to fly around the neighborhood, buzz the neighbors.

But Elias doesn’t have a neighborhood, or a house, or a family anymore. He likes to fly, it’s easy work, the pay’s good. From so high up he can ignore the leaden clouds, the degraded land, the dying forests. Down there the planet is turning into hell.

And what else is he going to do? It would be different if Chania had lived, if he could have found her. But he couldn’t, in that vast refugee camp in Niger where she disappeared. This thought is always there, underpinning the rest, setting the desolate stage for his own desolation.

Okay, time to focus. It looks like no junk he’s ever seen, no dead satellite, obviously not a booster. A weapon? He’s seen a lot of space weapons, hypersonics, platform lasers, MIRVs. He flew demolition for a while after the war, lasing lost missiles tumbling in orbit. Dangerous work, a couple guys got blown up. But nothing like this.

He pushes the Flight Control button on the com. “This is Alpha B9.”

“Go ahead B9,” a woman’s voice replies.

“Hello, Zina, I need an ID on this target I just got assigned.”

“Target ID, okay, hold one.”

Now he can see it, but still can’t tell its size. No spin, no tumble. That’s odd.

The com pings. “Alpha B9, go ahead.” A man’s voice, sounds like Josephson.

“Sir, I’m targeted at an odd looking object. I’m concerned it might be dangerous, possibly military origin.”

“Military origin, huh. You know we’ve got all those tracked.”

“Yes, sir, I know we think we’ve got them all tracked.”

“Okay, Alpha B9,” Josephson replies, his voice flat, non-committal. “Elias, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay, Lieutenant, let me look it up. Send me the targeting data.”

Elias brings up the designation and forwards it.

“Where are you, Elias?” Josephson asks.

“Zone 17, sir.”

“This’ll take a minute.”

“Yes, sir.” He knows Josephson, Captain Josephson, a civilian with a commission, not a pilot, a desk jockey.

He’s half a klik away from the target, and moving very fast. The proximity alarm beeps and maneuvering thrusters fire, a jolt to the left, something whizzes by, something small. On the aft-view screen a tumbling box disappears, a dead shoebox satellite come and gone, too big for the proximity guns. This speed is dangerous, sustained like this in a junk field.

Close enough now he scans the target. The screen gives a schematic. It’s 18.6 meters long, diameter 3.7 meters, estimated mass 1,250 kilograms, no radiation. The material readout just says “unknown”. How is he going to snag it if it’s not magnetic?

The com pings. “Lieutenant Elias.” Josephson again.

“Yes, sir.”

“Your target was recently acquired, unknown source, no origin signature.”

“Unknown source?” Elias says. “We don’t know anything about it?”

“Correct. So it’s not a weapon or a bomb. Very unlikely to be dangerous,” Josephson says in a reassuring voice. “Just random debris we never picked up before. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

Random debris, huh? It doesn’t look like random debris.

Probably Chinese,” Josephson says. “Or maybe from India. They frequently launch sats and don’t notify us. But it’s dead, no EM signaling for a week, so you may as well scrap it.”

“Yes, sir,” Elias says. “My scan can’t identify its material. Not sure my mag cable will attach.”

“Well, do what you can up there, Lieutenant. You’re shift’s almost over, isn’t it?” He sounds dismissive, done with the conversation.

“Yes, sir. Out.” Elias sighs. Okay, one pass and that’s it. No EM for a week, so it’s not talking to anyone. He slows to get a stern view, nothing, then speeds up again on the other side. Nothing.

He sidles within range and deploys the smart cable, eighty-five meters of stabilized carbon fiber, thick as his arm, maneuverable, with four magnetic feet.

Up close the thing looks even stranger, its surface an oddly patterned roughness, nothing protruding, no antennae, no sensors. And no random movement, no spin, no tumble.

All right, here goes nothin’. He steers the cable out, its four round feet reaching. He edges closer to allow for slack. He activates the magnets and selects one foot on the joystick selector. He steers it to make contact. This is routine, right? You’re just a routine piece of junk, right? Don’t blow up on me.

The disk makes contact, attaches, its light goes to green on the console. Okay, it’s magnetic. He steers each foot into position and four green lights wink at him.

Okay, baby, whatever you are you’re mine now.

Suddenly he’s in darkness, crossing the terminator line as the sun disappears behind him. It’s always sudden in space, no sunset, like clicking a switch and it’s dark.

But the thing’s not dark. The openings at the front of the thing are glowing. What the fuck! It’s lit? The angular windows shine with a cold white light. He couldn’t see it in the sunlight.

There’s lights on in that thing. It’s not dead. What the hell am I supposed to do now? It sure as hell ain’t junk. Time to detach and get the hell outa here.

His proximity alarm beeps. A cluster of micros, the guns fire, a couple fragments ding off his ship. At a glance the thing cruises through, fragments bouncing off. Not a scratch.

The com comes to life with a series of low tones he has never heard before.

Again the proximity alarm, this time with maneuvering thrusters. They pull the cable tight but the thing doesn’t budge, speeds on, its trajectory unaffected. Something big flashes into sight, lit by the thing’s bow lights. A booster, shit. In an instant it streaks in front of him and explodes against the thing, no flash, just a blast of metal fragments. They rain upon his ship, rattling against the hull and windshield. He waits for the hull breech alarm, reaching for his helmet. Nothing, thank God.

The thing shows no damage, not even a mark. Its course is unchanged. It was hit by a booster, many times its mass, but no damage, didn’t even knock it off course. How does that happen?

Time to go. He switches off the mags and angles away. The cable stretches taut and he’s pulled back to the thing’s trajectory. Wait, it didn’t detach. He sees three feet are loose but one is still attached. What the hell! He activates the mag switch again, on for a few seconds then off. Three console lights show red but one stays green.

It’s stuck, must have been that damn booster. I can’t detach, what the fuck! His heart starts to pound. He brings up the cable settings, hands shaking as he types. He stares at the screen, nothing about nondetachment. Okay, now what?

More tones on the com, some kind of gibberish. What am I hearing? Is someone talking to me, some language? Is there someone on board that thing?

More gibberish. It sounds like a machine voice, harsh, no inflection. What language is that, Chinese? Then more gibberish, but different. Is it trying a different language? Is that Russian, maybe German? I don’t know fuckin’ languages.

“Speak English if you want to talk,” Elias says to himself. Doesn’t the com have translation? He brings up its settings. Translation, damn, I’ve never used it before. I can’t find it.

Again the tones, then what sounds like maybe Spanish, or Italian. An Italian satellite, right. I don’t think so. He starts to laugh, a pressured laugh. I need to detach.

Okay, he presses the talk button. “English,” he says, almost shouting. “Speak English to me.” And why can’t I fuckin’ detach from you. I’m not liking this.

He accelerates, swinging forward on the arc of the taut cable. He tries to see into the front windows of the thing, but there is only sterile white light. He switches on his searchlight and aims it at the stuck cable foot. It looks distorted, damaged by that crash with the booster. But why won’t it release? He activates the release button again but there is no change.

“English language,” the voice comes to him. “What is your purpose?”

He stares at the com. Definitely a machine voice, a primitive, simple voice.

What to say? “Um, who are you?” he says finally.

Silence, then more tones, varying a bit. But no reply.

“What country are you from? Are you Chinese?”

“What is your purpose?” it says again.

Back to that, huh. “I have no purpose. Will you detach my cable?”

“What cable is,” the thing answers.

Great, what cable is. He’s getting scared. How can I get away from this thing?

My purpose is to clear space junk out of the sky,” Elias says. What’s it going to make of that. “What’s your purpose?” He laughs again, more panicked than before.

“What junk is?” the thing says.

“What is your purpose?” Elias asks.

“My purpose is to learn of your planet.”

Seriously? This is a joke, right? This is not an alien ship, right?

Okay, cool,” Elias says. “So where you from?”

“What is from?”

“Sorry, where is your home?” I can’t believe I’m saying this. Gotta be a joke, or something.

Only silence.

“Okay, how about a name? Do you have a name?”

“I have no name. My classification is ffrronnng. This sound is foreign to you.”

“Yup, foreign,” Elias says, more than foreign. “Not sure I caught that. Can you say it again?”


A pause till Elias understands. “Say it again.”


“Got it, okay frong. And how about your home?”

“What is home?”

“What is your place of origin,” Elias manages. “Your planet.”

“Planet of origin is far away. Not say.”

That figures. Am I really talking to a fuckin’ alien? Can’t be. Whatever this is it’s just trying to scare me away. Should I record this? No one’s going to believe me.

He sits in silence, being pulled along at eight kliks per second, a dangerous speed. Wait, I can release the cable at this end. There’s a cable release procedure. What the fuck.

He fumbles about the control console, turns on the cabin lights. Okay, where is it? There’s an overhead row of toggle switches he’s never touched. Which one is it? What’s the procedure?

He types “cable release procedure.”


Okay, how about “detach cable.”

A schematic of the mag controls appears, with instructions how to turn off the magnets.

Damn it. Can I lase the cable? With a proximity gun? I can’t aim the damn things. They aim themselves.

The ship’s motion changes. He is pressed to one side in his harness. What the hell? Outside the stars begin to spin, Earth rises overhead.

He’s being pulled by the cable, by that thing, in a wide circle. He starts flipping the toggles. I gotta release that damn cable.

An alarm beeps, a light blinks overhead. “Okay, what are you doing?” he calls to the thing, voice strained, mouth dry.

The motion increases, the spin accelerates. He’s getting vertigo. He closes his eyes. “What are you doing!” he yells at the com. “Let me go!” He tries other switches but nothing works.

Cable release, where is it? He reaches below the console, feels for more controls. The vertigo worsens. At a glance the stars are whizzing by. Nausea begins, he is lightheaded.

He fumbles with the com. “Flight control,” he calls. “Zina, respond. This is Elias…”

There’s a flash in the dark outside and, passing out, he feels his course straighten as he is flung at the stars.


The dream wakes him, the Chania dream. He’s dreamt it many times. The camp in Niger, he stumbles about, calling her name, asking for her but no one speaks English. The heat, the stench, the fear of finding her, of not finding her.

He wakes up sweating, out of breath, in a bed, pale green walls, antiseptic odor. He lies still, waiting for his mind to reassemble, memory to return. He glances about, a hospital bed, controls on the rail, valves on the wall, a window with dirty gray sky beyond.

The dream, he hates the dream, because it awakens him with the ebbing feeling of hope, with terrible sadness as that hope is extinguished. She disappeared in that camp, while he was off flying. A nurse, she volunteered for some UN agency, to work in a refugee camp. She was excited to go, tired of the old hospital routine. They’d talked about getting pregnant, but no one gets pregnant anymore. No one wants to bring children into this failing world. So she tried refugee work. He didn’t like the idea, but he was rarely home. War loomed.

The memories weigh upon him. She simply disappeared, melted away in that vast camp. They called him, another nurse called and told him. He traveled there, took leave, to find her. To Niger, a long trip to a failing state, a failing continent. He questioned the staff, but no one knew what happened. They had admired her, loved her, but had turned away from the loss of her by the time he arrived. Surrounded by the sick, dying and dead, they had only so much energy for grieving.

So he searched for months, trudged the dusty paths of the endless hot camp, endless tents and endless people, starving children, skeletal dogs, rats, horrid smells. It was a dangerous place, desperate people pushed to violence. They fought over the water; there were riots around the food trucks.

He learned some words in French—some of them spoke French—and Arabic. Mainly they just stared. The children answered, wanted to help. He handed out photos of her, dozens of copies. He offered rewards until he realized the foolishness of it. They would tell him anything for a dollar.

The mass graves, deep trenches bulldozed and filled with hundreds of bodies, brought by the truckload and simply dumped. He couldn’t bring himself to search there. They wouldn’t let him anyway; the diseases.

It all rushes back, until he consciously veers his thoughts away, stuffs them back in that box in his mind and puts that box away. It gets a little easier each time and he feels guilty that it does. This is why he hates the dream.

He moves in the bed, sits up. Am I hurt? Just a headache, a serious headache, but everything works, arms, legs. He lies back down, head throbbing.

How’d I get here? He searches his memory, the sequence of events slowly reassembles itself, but then stops short. That thing, how’d I get away from that thing? Did it really talk to me?

A nurse walks in, a man in pale green scrubs. “Oh, Lieutenant, you’re awake? That’s very good. How do you feel?”

“Got a pretty bad headache.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll bet you do.” The man helps him stand and walk about. His head pounds.

“How’d I get here?” Elias asks.

“I’m not exactly sure, sir. I just came on duty. But there’s someone here to see you. She looks official. She can probably answer your questions.”

“Can I get something for this headache?”

“Sure thing. Let’s get you back in bed first and I’ll get you something.”

He stares at the ceiling, then finds the button to raise himself up. A woman here to see me, an official? What’s he going to tell her, that he found an alien ship, talked to an alien? She’ll think he’s nuts, that he doesn’t know what he’s saying.

He thinks again of Chania; what would she say about his alien. He almost smiles at the thought, but then not, that emptiness roars back.

“Lieutenant Elias? May I come in?” She wears the navy blue of Alliance Space Command, short dark hair, regulation cut, and a token smile. She sets a shoulder bag down on a chair. From her movements it contains something heavy, clearly not a purse.

“How are you feeling?” she says. “You weren’t injured, were you?”

“Pretty bad headache, ma’am,” Elias says. “Otherwise I’m okay. Don’t remember much though.”

“I am Commander Loftus from Space Command.” She steps to his bedside and offers a firm, dry hand. “We are very interested in what happened to you yesterday. May I ask you some questions?”

“Yes, ma’am. But can you tell me how I got here, back to base? I don’t remember any of it.”

“Of course. What I’m told is that after your encounter with that object in space you became unconscious and lost control of your ship. They tracked your ship heading off into space, out of low orbit. So traffic control switched your ship to remote piloting and one of the drone pilots at the base took over and flew you back. You were still unconscious when you landed. You were dragging about twenty meters of cable, but the pilot landed your ship without incident and no apparent damage, although they’re still going over it. The cable was cut.”

“The mag cable was cut?”

“Yes,” she says, now hefting her bag and moving the chair by his bed. “What happened to you was unusual.” Sitting down she gives him another tiny smile, but avoids eye contact. “What do you remember about what happened yesterday, Lieutenant?”

He shakes his head, the movement reminding him of his headache. “I don’t remember much, gotta say.”

The nurse walks in with a small paper cup. “Here’s a couple Tylenol, sir. Should help with that headache.”

“Lieutenant?” the woman says when he’s swallowed the pills.

“Yes, ma’am. Well, I was vectored to this object. It was unusual looking and going fast. I had to speed up to catch it.”

“Were you able to catch it?” she says.

“Yes. I called down to Flight Control for an ID. That was when I talked to Captain Josephson.”

“Can you describe it?” she says.

He takes a breath. How much should he tell her? His head pounds, it’s hard to think clearly. “Yes, ma’am. It was kind of oval shaped and had a copper color. No antenna or sensors that I could see.” And no tumble, but he doesn’t say that. Would she know what that means?

“And what did Captain Josephson tell you?”

“He said it was a recent acquisition, no origin signature.”

“What did you think about that,” she asks.


“Did that concern you that there was no information about it.”

“Yes, Ma’am, but I was able to tag it,” he says.

“Tag it?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I wasn’t sure if my cable feet would latch on. But they did, which meant it was magnetic.”

“So you were able to attach your cable, so then what happened?”

So then the damn cable got stuck and the thing started talking to me, but he’s not going there.

“Well, Ma’am, that’s about the last thing I remember.”

She stares at him, her expression hardening, the color rising in her face. “Are you sure, Lieutenant? This could be very important?”

She continues questioning him, her voice calm, more fake smiles. She is practiced at interrogation. He feels like a mouse dodging a cat. He gives her a few more meaningless details. Nothing about aliens, he’s not going there. Is that where she wants to go? Does she suspect, does she know?

Finally she opens her bag and pulls out a piece of the thick woven cable. “This is the end of your magnet cable, what was still attached to your ship when you landed.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She holds it out for him to inspect. “This end is where the ground crew cut it off.” The thousands of carbon filaments show their neat bundled arrangement. Woven among them are electric wires, sheathed in various colors.

“This end is where it parted.” She shows him the other end, a smooth silvery dome, the filaments neatly fused together.

“Touch it,” she says, holding it out to him.

It seems an odd gesture, but he runs a finger over its cool flawless surface.

“Do you have any idea how this might have happened, Lieutenant?”

In truth he doesn’t. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but I don’t. Maybe it’ll come back to me later, but I have no idea. Looks a little odd though, like it melted and fused together. Maintenance guys might have a better idea.”

She sighs, watching him. “I wish they did. This is a mystery. No one knows how this cable could have parted like this. It takes an extremely high temperature to melt these fibers and fuse them together in such a way.”

“Yes, ma’am, I wish I could be more helpful.” Is he in trouble here? What do they know? She wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t important to Space Command. Do they suspect an alien ship, the first contact ever with anything alien? The first concrete evidence?

But she hasn’t mentioned it, even hinted at it. Well, he’s damned if he’s going to open that door, a lowly junk pilot. Better to play dumb.

He reads disappointment on her face, maybe anger. Rising she says, “Well, Lieutenant, the doctors think you had a high-g blackout.” She replaces the cable into her bag. “It’s equivalent to a concussion and such a memory loss is not unusual. They say sometimes those memories return. It is extremely important that you let Captain Josephson know if anything further comes back to you.”

“You could send one of the other pilots after that thing. Maybe they could get more information about it.”

“It’s gone,” she says. “It disappeared.”


“We can’t find it.”

He leans back, pondering her words. The thing talked to him, said it was here to “learn of your planet,” in its harsh machine voice.

At the door she pauses, with yet another strained smile. “Lieutenant, I hope you’re not holding anything back about this incident. We are not holding you at fault here, not anticipating any disciplinary measures. We’re happy you returned safely. But this incident is quite unusual.” She pats the shoulder bag. “The way this cable was cut is hard to explain. Any assistance you could give us would be welcome. I hope your recovery is rapid.”

That day they run him through some tests, cognitive testing they call it. Simple tests, some almost silly, going up and down stairs with his eyes closed, spelling words backwards, picking up little weights and saying which is heavier. He struggles at times. It surprises him. They reassure him he’ll recover, but it will take time.

Time means six months off the flight line, and twice a week therapy, cognitive recruitment they call it.


So there he stands, on the sidewalk outside the hospital, squinting in the glare, back in the crazy panhandle heat, hot and humid, maybe 110 degrees. He sweats beneath a face mask, handed to him as he left. He hates the damn things, but everyone wears them now. And the pills, anti-virals, a bottle of them accompanied the mask. So many strange viruses have emerged, you’re never safe. Everyone takes them daily, but they don’t always work.

The mask can’t keep out the stench from the beach. He’d forgotten about it in the hospital, but now it slaps him in the face. Piles of rotting fish litter the shore. They’ve given up clearing the stuff away. More of it washes up every day.

Sweating, he moves to the minimal shade of the shuttle stop. His head still aches. Six months, damn, his service contract ends in four. Will he re-up, sign up for another year? He shakes his head. Maybe he’s done flying. The thought slowly sinks in. There isn’t much point to it anymore, clearing the junk, and flying is the only reason he’s been tolerating this place, without Chania. So now what?

People walk by in body suits, the latest thing. They’re called enviro-suits. They look like full-body wetsuits with little backpacks that circulate coolant. In men’s and women’s colors, some with hoods, goggles, full facemasks for total isolation, and of course they synch with your phone.

He finds a seat on the nearly empty shuttle, a couple enviro-suit zombies sit in the back, no driver, the bus on autopilot. At least it’s air conditioned.

A feeling of gloom descends upon him, loneliness, aimlessness. One of the therapists warned him of it, part of the black-out thing, she said. Did he have support people at home, she asked. A wife, girlfriend, family, close friends? He’d shrugged her off. Sure, he had friends, he told her. He’d be fine.

But he can’t think of anyone he wants to talk to, hasn’t reached out much since he returned from Niger.

What about that ship? He steers his thoughts away from himself. He’s become good at it lately. That ship, it did talk to him. He remembers that. Was it really alien? He still has doubts. Was that what that Loftus woman from Space Command was looking for, with that fused cable end? Aliens? Did they suspect it?

That booster crashed into it, exploded against it, but didn’t leave a scratch. Nothing human-made could have withstood that. Was his mind playing tricks? No, it was real.

His apartment has a little porch, five floors up, high enough to see the ocean. He finds a beer in his nearly empty fridge and sits down, ignoring the heat. At least the sun is behind the building.

An alien ship, seriously? Why? What would aliens want with this dying planet? Maybe they want to eat us. Maybe they want slaves. Lotta slaves here, but they better get ‘em quick. A couple billion have already died off.

The oily surface of the sea, two blocks away, reflects rainbows of color as the swells catch the sun. Six months, damn, I don’t want to hang around here for six months, grounded, in this little apartment, in the heat and the smell and nothing to do. I don’t even have a TV.

Chania had grown somber in the months before she left for Niger, withdrawn. She hated the state of things, the constant worry about getting sick, the isolation. She hated the “space suits” they all wore in the hospital, all the time. With helmets, air filtration units, speakers to talk to the patients.

She was a nurse, but he was the only person she ever actually touched, ever talked to without at least a mask. She envied him his flying, his escape.

He smells it before he sees it, the smoke blowing up from the south, the daily grey cloud of smoke, the Everglades burning. It’s been burning for months. Who would have thought that huge swamp could burn, but it does. And they can’t put it out, they gave up trying to put it out, the fleet of fan boats pumping slimy water into the treetops. They gave up and evacuated everyone months ago, all those crazies who lived down there. But the animals couldn’t evacuate, the birds and fish and who knows what.

They’d vacationed there once, a couple years ago. She loved the birds, egrets, herons—he doesn’t know birds. She left before it started burning, before the clouds of acrid smoke. It doesn’t even smell like wood smoke, more like garbage burning. She would have hated it.

But she’s not here, and he still is.

Copyright 2024 by Samuel Finn