By Lisa Godfrees
Tank had a sixth sense about space junk. He could intuit the difference between a salvageable satellite and orbital debris, a useful skill ever since the collapse of the Sagan-Hawking interstellar gateway had induced collisions and made debris removal a prime concern for space travel. If only his spacey superpower could differentiate between potential girlfriends as easily as it did salvage, Tank wouldn’t be so darn lonesome.
Last night’s dating debacle churned through Tank’s mind as he clipped a beat-up Starlink satellite to his space-trawler’s maglocks. The onboard mainframe made quick work of calculating the speed and trajectory required to incinerate the object safely within Earth’s mesosphere.
Tank fired the ship’s drivers. When the trawler reached optimal speed, he released the maglocks and switched to reverse thrusters. The hunk of space rubbish continued on, drifting away from the front of his ship until it disintegrated. A fitting tribute to last night’s disastrous encounter…
The date had started well enough. Trina actually looked like her profile picture and had a figure that wouldn’t quit. She seemed to appreciate his choice of restaurant, too. The trendy Aitken’s Basin on the moon’s far side lived up to its hype as “2170’s most romantic destination.” It wasn’t until she asked him specifically what he did for a living that things went sideways.
“You’re a garbage man?” Her voice reverberated off the atmospheric shield serving as the restaurant’s ceiling and stilled the conversation around them.
“I’m an Orbital Management Engineer,” Tank repeated, “responsible for decluttering Earth’s thermosphere.”
Tank’s reply seemed to satisfy the surrounding patrons, who went back to their own discussions. But not Trina.
“Loser,” she’d said as she poured her helium-infused martini on him and stormed out, hips swaying like a model on a catwalk.
The thing was, Tank had money. Since OMEs were paid by the object, his ability to subconsciously maneuver to the next heap awaiting decluttering made his job several times more lucrative than his colleagues, who half-revered and half-hated him for his success. Lonely in life, lonely in love—that was Tank.
If only there were a way to change his luck.
Tank relaxed and let his mind wander until… There. A tug urged him away from Earth. He toggled the trawler’s drivers and reverse-thrusters on alternating sides until its nose pointed toward his mind-beacon.
His regular entourage of competitors—Tank thought of them as space pirates—trailed as he set out. No doubt they hoped he’d lead them to a major find, something for which a museum would pay a sultan’s fortune. If he could find one of the historic telescopes, girls like Trina wouldn’t dismiss him as worthless.
One by one, his followers dwindled as he passed several promising payloads. But Tank maintained his course until his interior claxon pounded with mind-splitting insistence. Something big was out here. What else would draw him to the edge of Earth’s exosphere?
Nothing showed on his viewfinder. No satellites, debris, or dispersed metal. Only another pirate approaching from the rear, attempting to snag Tank’s elusive trophy. Tank punched the release button on his console and deployed his debris net blind. He then unclipped his harness and drifted to the cargo bay, where he opened the retrieval bin.
But the itch in his mind told him something was here. He dug through the net. A corked bottle flung free and spun through the bay. And… was that a message inside?
What in the abyss? Either his intuition was on the fritz, or last night’s fiasco had fried his senses. Tank grabbed the green-tinged bottle and pushed back to the cockpit in time to watch his competitor snag—
The James Webb space telescope. Launched in 2020, the historical satellite had helped chart the path to interstellar space travel. Museums across the globe would go into a bidding war for it.
And he’d missed it. For a stupid chunk of glass. Tank flung the bottle.
I really am a garbage man.
The container rebounded off the bulkhead and twirled back to him, taunting. He wrenched out the stopper and, after a few minutes of frustration, freed the aluminized paper. Etched on the surface were the words:
Desperate Junker in Need,
Fan-freakin’-tastic. Tank crushed the note in his fist. He’d finally lost his marbles from too much time alone.
A hiss, like gas through a small aperture, ignited Tank’s adrenaline into overdrive. He searched for the source—leaks in space were deadly—but the sound emanated from the bottle. Vanilla-scented vapor sprayed from its neck, resolving into a female torso with arms akimbo and a pout on perfect lips.
“Hey, handsome,” she said. “You were supposed to rub the note, not destroy it.”
“Sorry.” Tank flattened the paper against his leg, then held it out to… “What are you?”
“A representative of DJiN.” She tossed glossy locks over her shoulders. “What is your need?”
Tank struggled to make sense of the situation. “You’re a genie? Here to grant three wishes?”
“I’m a DJiN,” she repeated, “here to grant one need with three refinements.”
One need… Lonely in life; lonely in love. “I need a companion.”
“Wait!” Tank didn’t want to end up with a Labrador or something. “A girlfriend… one who likes me for who I am.”
“That’s two of your three refinements. One left.”
What should the last be… Hot? Smart? Devoted? He felt the tug again, hard. This time toward her.
Who would send a bottled message into space except someone as solitary as he? Plus, she’d called him handsome.
“You,” Tank said. “If you’re willing.”
The bottle shrank, sucking away the miasma surrounding her, then disappeared with a ptink. The DJiN solidified into a woman with a high ponytail wearing OME coveralls.
“About time you sensed me.” She smirked. “The things a girl has to go through to get your attention.”
Tank’s sixth sense sighed. That space pirate might have gotten a famous space telescope, but he’d found the treasure.