Jerry had been excited about traveling from the created moon out behind Titan, where his family had lived since his great-grandmother had been a baby. He’d never been away from there, not even outside the atmospheric dome to visit Titan or one of the floating cities high in Saturn’s atmosphere. To have been hired on at Europa Incorporated was a dream come true.
Perry, the younger twin, didn’t work but spent his days carefully tending to their great-grandmother, since their parents, grandparents, and other family elders worked many hours to pay for their shared and tight quarters.
Keep on eavesdroppin and you’ll find yourself booted out an airlock without a helmet was Perry’s favorite thing to say to his brother’s face whenever Jerry shared workplace gossip. Behind his back, Perry was proud to tell anyone who’d listen that his brother was a digger for EI. And on the Moon, at that.
Except when Jerry had shared what he’d heard this last time, Perry had picked at a hair in his imaginary beard and asked, ‘What are you gonna do?’ because Jerry had given him that look.
Jerry didn’t know, until later, but he kept the fullness of his revelation to himself. The plan was too awful, too exciting, too horrible to share. Even with Perry.
Here’s what Jerry told his brother:
‘It had been an ordinary day and I was walking down to the mess hall for lunch,’ Jerry began. ‘I got to the door to the hall that led to the mess. Before I stepped through, I heard the two guys talking.’
Perry inched closer. ‘What were they sayin?’
Jerry leaned forward. ‘Those dirt diggers are something else, the one said.
‘The second one chuckled, you know, low in his throat and said, EI has them right where they want them. Get them to break up these junk planets, build the colonies and created worlds. That’s some dangerous work for the pennies we give ‘em as hazard pay.
‘So, the first one snorts and says, Well telling them they’ve got the aptitude for the work and targeting those poor saps who have no chance of scientific charting, exploration, or flight school is the way to keep a steady workforce. What they make here is beans, but they’d never know it. They’ll work here until they die of something dreadful. Hey – know what I heard at the updated meeting last week?’.
Perry moved closer to Jerry. ‘What did he hear?’
‘Well.’ Jerry looked around to see who was listening, even though they were alone in the room. ‘They started talking so low, I thought they could hear me breathing inside that doorway.’
‘Were you scared?’
‘I don’t know, I guess. More nervous about getting caught.’
Perry sat back, crossed his arms. ‘That’s why I say what I say about evesdroppin!’
‘Shut up.’ Jerry rolled his eyes. ‘Do you wanna hear the story or not?’
Perry flapped his hand, motioning for Jerry to keep talking.
‘So he says, They tested some of the dirt and figured out that they can’t really salvage Earth’s Moon. They aren’t recycling anything. Those guys out there, breaking it all down, are just making trash. EI is dumping it into a white dwarf on the far side of the solar system. Remember that health check they did last month? They’ll be doing them regularly on the diggers. I heard the suit rebreathers aren’t keeping out the fine particulates and so they are all breathing in some ancient, unknown carcinogens or something.
‘Then the second one asks, What about the scrubbers here in the building? Are we okay? To which the first one answers, Oh, yeah. Nothing to worry about. You know they keep us from harm’s way.’ Jerry sat back then and crossed his arms, mirroring his brother.
A beat, then two. Perry exploded. ‘So? What then?’
‘The two men walked away, chatting about the menu in the executive lunchroom. I just stood against the wall, shaking.’ What he wouldn’t, couldn’t describe to Perry was that his insides had felt like they were burning up, that the anger had run like lightning up and down his frame. In that moment, he had realized that the company he’d wanted to stay with for the rest of his life, that he had desired to advance in and maybe make management, wasn’t investing in him.
It was using him.
Perry blinked, opened his mouth, closed it again, tugged on the non-beard. ‘Jerry.’
‘Don’t do anything stupid. And don’t forget to bring something back for Gigi’s birthday, yeah?’
And that was it: they didn’t talk about it anymore, opting instead to discuss the party that had been planned for their great-grandmother’s special day. Later, Jerry had packed his travel bags and went back to work at the end of his leave, just like always. It was as if nothing had changed. Almost.
Back at his assigned demolition installation on the Moon, Jerry gritted his teeth, forcing the sweat to remain in his flesh. He had calculated, plotted, since getting back from leave. He’d figured out sizes, measurements, weights, where to stash the goods, how to cover so he wouldn’t get caught at the return checkpoint. He had a plan.
Sam, his rover driver, had been suspicious when Jerry had stopped coming to prep quarters to change his clothes. ‘What, you shy all of a sudden?’ she asked again, just as she had done every day for the last week.
Jerry had been doing dry runs, practicing the plan. It required him to avoid the others at the start of their duty shifts and after break times. But today was the last day. It was time for the real thing. He ducked his head as the color flowed into his face instead of his stomach, his groin, as it usually did when Sam took that tone. ‘Nah. I ain’t been feelin so good,’ he’d lied. He’d never felt better, more in control.
What Sam and the others couldn’t know was that Jerry was naked inside his suit. It was the only way he could smuggle his planned booty off the surface. He tried not to fidget as he sat in the rover: the extra space between his flesh and the material of the suit made him want to wiggle back and forth. He was nervous and the sweat ran down his sides in rivulets. Wiggling helped wipe it away.
‘What’s wrong with you?’
Jerry blinked, realized he had been wiggling. Sam had seen him. ‘So, I musta picked up a bug when I was home last. I’m sweatin like a hog in heat.’ He had mastered a few phrases from old movies and liked to toss them into the conversation, even though no one cared.
Sam pretended to ignore the answer and instead of laughing like she wanted to, she snorted. ‘I can’t afford to get sick, so stay away from me,’ she replied, hoping he wouldn’t.
But she could afford it: Sam wasn’t like the other diggers, in several ways. First, she wasn’t human but a water-breather from a tiny colony, hidden in Neptune’s nearest ring. Jerry was in love with her, jealous of her. She chose salvage work to spite her economically advantaged family.
Sam was Jerry’s partner in the field. They spent a lot of time together and when he couldn’t share secrets with Perry, Jerry shared them with Sam. But he hadn’t told her that he too had chosen salvage, instead of working as a field excavator back home. He had a choice where Perry had none, his elders had none. What he made working as a digger for EI was better than any job back home for citizens of Jerry’s class. He was contributing to his family and reducing the financial strain. A lot. His choice was not one of spite since his family had been poor for generations. His choice was one of survival. A choice that enabled Jerry’s family to fight starvation. Or extinction.
The day the plan was set in motion was like any other. He and Sam had landed the rover and Jerry was digging. The canned air of their suits was enough to keep them alive but wasn’t nutrient-rich enough for more than basic communication from the person outside, so the coms were off. Jerry was watching his laser shovel do its thing. He pretended he was digging a new manhole in the streets of New York City. Out of all the cities in the galaxy that he’d been taught about in school, there was something magical about New York City for Jerry. As the shovel burrowed into the sandy-rocky Moon dirt, Jerry burbled his lips and bumped his shoulders up and down to imitate what he couldn’t hear or feel but pretended was the rattle of a jackhammer. He’d moved just several feet to the right to start a new demo hole when he saw the flagpole, a tatter of fabric laying against it. He looked down and saw several footprints, at which point he stopped, called Sam, and asked to be patched-in to HQ. The EI duty supervisor relayed the message to someone far up the chain of command and in seconds the message was relayed back: scan it, cover it, collect it, deliver it.
When he had arrived back at the rover, Sam fired questions. ‘Everything all right? Why didn’t you call me to send the truck to pick up the demo? Why did you need me to patch you to HQ?’.
Although he was inside the rover, Jerry hadn’t turned on coms. He read her lips, held up a finger, flipped the coms switch, and answered, ‘Can’t talk. Gotta grab some stuff. I’ll drive the truck to get the demo.’ Before she could interrogate him further, he turned the coms back off, went to the supply closet, pulled out his recovery bag and slung it across his back, and hopped back out to the surface. He imagined Sam, cussing him out as she opened the hatch and released the truck. Jerry touched his joysticks, maneuvered the Terrain Retrieval Unit Combine, the planet grinder they all just called ‘the truck’, out of the rover bay, and activated its jets. While he hadn’t quite gotten the hang of flying rovers, his expertise at playing video games had come in handy for guiding trucks.
He moved as fast as he and the truck could go and once back at the site, put the truck to work. After setting coordinates, the machine collected all the debris his laser shovel had dug up, ground it into fine powder, and packed it into bricks for storage. Or as he now knew, for star garbage.
Jerry mapped out a wide field to the left of the first hole, put the laser shovel on auto, and set the truck to follow. He returned to the flagpole, the scene of his soon-to-be act of defiance, and began doing what he’d been told. He took video, still photo, and measurements, then pitched a secure tent over everything. He called in to Sam. ‘Looks like I’ll be back in time for break.’
She sounded salty. ‘Whatever. I’m taking off in ten like always, with or without you and the truck.’
Long before EI had demolished Mercury, Venus, and Earth and used the debris as foundation for the solar shield, various colonies, and several constructed planetoids, citizens from across the galaxy had traipsed all over the Moon. Vacationing on the natural satellite that circled the once-home of full-blood humans had been a thing. However, just like everywhere else, the resorts were soon out of code compliance, the hot spots became less than lukewarm, and soon crater exploration excursions to the Moon were replaced by ski excursions to Arrokoth, out on the edge of the Kuiper Belt.
Right around the time Jerry was old enough for a job visa, EI had quickly purchased the Moon. Government leaders of all species involved in maintaining the historical designation paperwork for what was thought to be an antique and useless rock were paid off. EI then began advertising for diggers and rover drivers to help demolish it. Drivers made a little less than diggers because their jobs were safer. They were better protected from flying debris and radiation, while diggers were in the line of fire all the time. Jerry signed on immediately as a digger for what he saw as the greater benefits: hazard pay for every day on-surface, training on light and heavy demolition equipment, a week’s paid leave every three weeks, four weeks sick pay a year, medical coverage for his family members.
What Sam couldn’t know in the moment was that Jerry had located the Apollo 11 site. His reward for the discovery was that he had been designated by HQ to retrieve the remnants of the astronaut landing. What made the find so special and nothing short of a miracle was that the Apollo 11 site hadn’t been looted like all the others. HQ realized that. So did Jerry.
They didn’t talk on the return to the barracks. As soon as the rover was secure back at installation, Sam stalked off without a word. Jerry dashed away, put his suit, still slick with sweat, in a cleaning bay, grabbed another. Before taking a quick shower, he fed the photos, videos, and measurements he’d taken of the footprints, pole, and flag remnant into his rigged in-cabin replicator. Once finished, he put the copied versions in his recovery bag, purged the information from the replicator just like Perry had shown him. The weight of the fake items matched that of his usual in-suit gear: undershirt, underwear, and flannels. At first, he’d worried he’d freeze to death inside his suit without the garments, but adrenaline kept him warm, and the guise of illness was made plausible by his bouts of shivering. He finished with just enough time for a light snack before break was over. Sam didn’t talk on the flight back either.
Near the job site, Sam gently touched the rover down on the Moon surface. Jerry stood, waddled to the door, gave a thumbs up, and waited for Sam’s nod that always accompanied the sound of the airlock. She didn’t nod. However, when the airlock light turned green, he hopped out into the work zone. Once it closed behind him, Jerry went to the target, the prize: he was retrieving the last fragment of American flag from the first lunar walk, as well as the remaining footprints that he had discovered earlier in their shift.
Europa Incorporated’s salvage of the inner celestial bodies was happening many centuries after Apollo 11’s mission. It was almost laughable to Jerry, thinking about how much fanfare a little jaunt across the Moon had garnered back then. Now, space travel was less than mundane. Back then, Earthers thought they were the only citizens in space, that their rock was the only one to support life. What the ancients of the 1960’s and 1970’s couldn’t have known was that in the handful of decades to come, their planet would be uninhabitable, that their descendants would be forced to take flight into the unknown darkness of space and take up life elsewhere, that they would finally encounter the hundreds of species from thousands of worlds in the galaxy, and eventually, they would rank as an endangered species. Full-blood humans like Jerry and his family were losing something like twenty percent of their numbers every five years, which kept them technically listed as endangered.
Thanks to inter-species marriages, blended human citizens were everywhere. Jerry often wondered if Sam would ever sleep with him and what the occasion would be like. It was how he kept himself entertained while working: many an EI digger had gone mad on the surface of one planet or another, succumbing to the insanity of the silence and canned oxygen. To avoid that fate, Jerry would dream about him and Sam, nestled and watching television together. He sometimes laughed aloud but couldn’t hear it, just felt the skin pull back from his teeth as he imagined saying to Sam, Wanna make a blended baby with me? I am a full-blood human, you’re a full-blood Neptunian. It would be magic. And it always ended the same way: Sam would kiss him then, and they would make that blended baby, right there on a living room couch.
But there was no time for dreams. Jerry ducked behind a rise in the terrain and was out of Sam’s line of sight from the rover cockpit. All she had were his life sign readings. He strode quickly to the tent he’d erected earlier that covered the flagpole assembly, the footprints – Armstrong’s or Aldrin’s, it didn’t matter now – and the flag remnant.
Jerry headed to the shovel and truck, both still doing their work. He turned on his helmet lights and entered the tent. Wouldn’t that be something if I did all this, just to step all over the astronaut footprints, Jerry thought.
As kids, Jerry and Perry would sneak out and wander into the town’s forbidden sector, where they’d learned all sorts of tricks. Jerry had learned how to lie and be stealthy, while Perry had caught on quick in the tech scheme field: although he was too fragile for traditional work, wasn’t even able to sit at a computer for long, he used his prowess with a keyboard to keep a disaggregated and untraceable funding stream of cash. Jerry had gotten Perry to write him a code to override a few inconsequential EI systems, like the replicators.
‘Why do you want to do that?’ Perry had asked, his eyebrow up in suspicion.
Jerry smiled, revealing his teeth to cover the partial lie. ‘Midnight raid. We don’t get after-hours rations and sometimes I’m hungry.’ Jerry wasn’t just the older twin. He was the greedier one at chow every night as well, so Perry didn’t hesitate.
Inside the tent, Jerry worked quickly. He opened his recovery bag and pulled out the replicas along with the other supplies he needed: one long opaque storage pack, one clear storage pack, two black storage packs marked Personal, and four EI-designed preservation lids, one of which was an old model that still had a company label on the lid. He carefully covered three of the footprints with unlabeled lids. He’d rigged the tech in the labeled one, just he’d done to his cabin replicator, and covered the footprint closest to the flag, the one identified in all the history videos as Armstrong’s.
He activated all the units, watched as they dug out each print, then turned on the cryogenic sprayers. He packed three lids in the recovery bag, deactivated the fourth, and gently took out the alleged Armstrong footprint. He put it in a black storage pack and sealed it, purged the information from the preservation lid, put the replicated footprint inside, turned on the cryo-sprayer again, then packed the marked lid with the rest.
His process for the tattered flag remnant was similar: he recovered the ragged scrap from the flagpole, put it in the other black storage bag, turned on the cryo-sprayer. Next, he put the replicated flag piece in the last clear storage bag and turned on the sprayer again. He gently teased the brittle flagpole from the dirt, placed it in the opaque bag, turned on the sprayer. Once done, he packed the storage packs and stopped to think. I cryo-sprayed the replicated footprint versions once, so there was spray in the lids, meaning I had to spray them once out here, so everything was sprayed twice. I cryo-sprayed the pole twice. I cryo-sprayed the replicated flag piece once before, once now. I cryo-sprayed the real flag piece twice, just to be safe. That’s my story if they ask me why the double-spray: These are special artifacts, I wanted to be safe.
He couldn’t wait to show everything to Perry. He glanced around and tried to not look desperate, excited, afraid as he took down the tent, picked up the bagged flagpole, carefully slung his recovery bag on his back, and returned to the truck to secure everything and get back to the rover. Along with a moon rock that he was legally allowed to take home, his gift would be the centerpiece of the celebration for their great-grandmother’s two hundredth birthday.
EI had scheduled them to finish Moon demolition within the week. Jerry looked up and toward the horizon, imagining his great-grandmother’s voice: Why, when I was a young girl, there were these photos in our schoolbooks. Pictures taken of the Earth from the Moon. When you’re up there, can you see it, son? Can you see the Earth?
He couldn’t tell her that even the husk was now gone. When he’d first started working for EI, a sliver of the outer planetary shell had remained. It had been hard to see because the debris crawlers were working overtime to remove the trash, satellites, and other unsalvageable junk that floated out there. He couldn’t break it to her that the place her mom had grown up on was completely gone, having had its core sucked out and put to what EI called ‘better use’ as fuel for all the created spaces they were building.
He tried not to rush as he steered the truck back to the rover, stowed it, and got himself inside. Sam glanced at him, said nothing, and once he had strapped in, took off without a word. He watched her as the sweat ran down his sides and realized they had nothing in common, that he didn’t love her after all.
They landed and finally, Sam spoke. ‘You seem to have a lot of secrets you don’t want to share, so I’ll leave you to it.’
‘Yeah,’ he answered. ‘Go on ahead. I need to unpack all this and boogie it over to Admin anyway.’ He turned his back on her hurt expression, didn’t hear her walk off.
He took the salvage readings from the truck and typed up the daily report, packed a trolley with the storage sacks, preservation lids, and his sacks marked Personal, then headed to security.
‘What’s with the two Personal sacks?’ the guard asked.
Jerry knew the guy, knew it was the usual question. He gave the usual answer. ‘Long days out there behind the truck, so I take part of my rations with me to snack on as I have time.’
‘How do you do that, out on the surface?’
Jerry shrugged. ‘For in the rover. We got air in there. Anyway,’ Jerry touched one of the bags. ‘No time today. I have to get these lids and other sacks to Admin. Big find, you know.’
The guard’s expression asked What is it, but he kept the thought to himself. He handed over two Exception stickers and waved Jerry through. ‘Better not keep ‘em waitin then.’
Jerry took the Personal sacks to his cabin, knowing that the Exception stickers meant they wouldn’t be inspected when he left for home. He took the lids and other items to Admin. The supervisors, including the two he’d overheard talking, were impressed. They congratulated him, took photos, put them in the company newsletter. They eventually put the Apollo 11 items on display, had fake versions for sale in the employee gift shop.
Jerry made it home for Gigi’s birthday and just as he thought, his gift of the flag remnant, footprint, and rock were the talk of the evening. He sat with his great-grandmother that night and told her lies about seeing Earth on the horizon, then went to his room to watch the final demolition of the Moon on the internal EI video feed. As the debris haulers carted away the last bits of dust, Jerry submitted his resignation letter to EI, applied for a new job as a field excavator, and never shared the secret of what the gift really was. Not even with Perry.
I found and corrected a couple typos that I missed when I submitted this story, but other than that, it\’s as it was when it got rejected.