The Garbage Man

by Tatyana Dobreva

Dear Astra,

I am sending this letter to you, as well as the Script collection of tales from those whose lives I ended, because I have tagged myself for destruction. The tales are a burden that I have imposed on myself, and I initially thought it unjust to pass them on to anyone, especially you. I raised you and was fortunate to witness your transition into a position of influence. I told you I was a terraform engineer and that your mother passed on our voyage. I think you always had a sense that everything I told you was a lie. I believe you let me lie to you to keep me safe from reliving my past. You grew up and left me to pursue your ambitions. Your departure was one of the few moments in my life that I felt the impact of time. I did not admit these truths to you then because I craved a life blind to the consequences of my past--hence this cowardly letter.

Some referred to me as the most sophisticated assassin of all time. A man whose trail of blood disappeared into the shadows, yet no compliments shield me sufficiently from seeing the truth. I was a garbage man. I threw away others’ problems into black holes. I speculate that those compliments and glorifications were made to boost my ego and make me complacent in executing others’ dirty work.  

One hot summer night in my childhood, a few kids from my village and I were playing a game of hide-and-seek. I ran into the nearby woods, guarded by tall, green pine trees, looking for an ideal hiding spot. As I went through the forest and emerged onto a lakeshore, I witnessed something reminiscent of a dream. I was not well educated, but I knew well enough that water should not flow up toward the sky. Yet, there in the middle of the lake was a column of water twisting upward in a spiral. Overwhelmed with a feeling of curiosity, I swam towards it. As I approached it, I had to expend less and less energy to move. A whirlpool pulled me towards itself. I let it.

After I entered the column of twisting water, I felt a sort of a pop. After decompressing from travelling through a narrow passage, I felt like I was born again. I found myself in the same body but on the streets of an alien city. Flying carriages without horses propelled their way throughout the sky. Transparent cathedrals filled with moving images towered above me and surrounded flat streets through which wagons sped.  Later, I came to understand that the alien city was in fact a human one and that I was a ‘straggler’--a living side effect of illegal time-traveling. I was lucky that I popped when I did. Not long before my arrival, time stragglers were put down. However, a recent time law reform gave me an option: be put down or silently execute the duties of the Cosmic Council for the rest of my days. I made the choice to stay alive because I felt that whatever the universe had to offer had to be greater than whatever freedom I would take to my grave.

The Cosmic Council tasked me with disposing of anything that caused significant risk of instability or erasure of intelligent existence into a black hole. Usually, these were dangerous inventions like nearly-infinite energy sources; machines that wielded dark energy to carve out islands in space-time; and computers built from star systems. The council informed me that proper execution of their detailed orders was crucial, that thousands of years had been spent getting human civilization to unprecedented advancement. The thought of it all disappearing as a result of someone’s reckless mistake or malice terrified them deeply. My task gave me a sense of purpose. 

I felt like a wizard in my new role. Initially, I avoided learning the inner workings of the black hole disposal technology because I so enjoyed the feeling of wielding superpowers. I eventually yielded to my curiosity and found an eccentric engineer to explain it to me, though most of it went over my head. The explanation went something like this: “Using the ephemerally stable particles called Arceons, we are able to temporarily entrap objects between other dimensions. These Arceons unglue objects from the gravitational fabric of our universe for a brief moment and hide them in other universes superimposed with our own.” To this day, I deeply appreciate how my transportation into the future has let me experience the impact of generational knowledge building.

  The operational procedure I had to follow for removing objects from existence was as follows: using my ship, I created phenomena called "snip points" around the object to discard. These snip points, when activated, leverage Arceon fields to hold the object between the other dimensions temporarily. My ship used an “Arceon magnet” that allowed me to displace the objects wrapped in Arceon fields towards the blackhole once I was close enough to it. The way I saw it was that the Arceon fields were the garbage bag and my ship was the hand used to toss that bag into the trash bin. After the snip points were deactivated, the objects reappeared into the universe and were immediately swallowed by the blackhole. 

 I experienced a sense of dissonance at holding the lowly title of “disposal technician” while erasing chunks of the universe. The ship design prevented me from knowing what was inside the disposal bag, which caused me to feel a conflicting mix of relief and paranoia. In my first few runs, I wondered what would happen if the garbage bag were to tear--how would its contents disturb the fabric of space? Could new forms of life evolve millions of years later coalescing from the spilled components? 

One day, a distraction slipped me out of my routine. I made a snip in the wrong place. Upon reporting my error, I was informed that the snip caused me to accidentally wrap a small colony of sentient beings in the garbage bag and wipe it out of existence. I had played out this scenario many times in my head, hoping that it would motivate utmost care in the execution of my job, yet it happened. The sense of numbness that quickly displaced the terror of my mistake was far more palpable than any emotion I had played out in my mind. 

 

The wrongfully wiped sentient beings were known as Halzenar. I had destroyed only one of their bases. Curiously, the cosmic council never reprimanded me for wiping out a sentient colony. But shortly after my accident, Halzenar representatives tracked me down. They were an orphaned species; their creators had been deemed too vile by the Cosmic Council and destroyed. They had been spared by a narrow margin vote, and outcast to the inhospitable zones of space where I had accidentally cast my disposal net. The Halzenar offered to allow me to work for them to compensate for my error, in exchange for protection from the consequences of the Cosmic Council if I chose to join them. 

I felt that I was a pawn in their war against the council, yet the promise of slightly more freedom and information had an irresistible appeal. Moreover, I felt a connection to the Halzenar. Like myself, they had been torn from their homes, tossed into the unknown, and forced to survive. I felt their fervor to exist and their exhaustion from having to constantly validate themselves. This stirred a deep sense of regret in me, as if I had blindly disposed of my own kind.

The first thing the Halzenar had me do was help them set up their own version of the garbage disposal system for purposes of defense. I felt uncomfortable helping the Halzenar enter the business of deciding what gets to exist, but most of my clean-up duties involved discarding automated weapons of destruction sent to keep the Halzenar numbers down. Later, they asked me to dispose of sentient beings working with the Cosmic Council who were deploying these weapons. As time went on, their definition of defense became looser, and the scale of destruction the Halzenar asked of me matched that which I had been doing for the Council. First sentients, then towns, then whole planets. But the job of being a garbage man had taken on a new meaning for me. I was no longer prevented from seeing what was disposed of. The trash that I carried for disposal had faces, voices, and I could see them wriggling for their survival. 

Once the thrill of my freedom waned, my conscience began to emerge from its slumber. I found a way to converse with those being tagged for discard. Most of the time, I could understand very little  of their language, for the languages of the cosmos spanned every conceivable method of communication, from light, to speech, to chemistry. Following unsuccessful attempts at communication using gestures and pointing, I learned about a device called Script, which can record almost any language used by the united Cosmic Civilization Network and translate it. I handed Script to those being discarded and tried my best to ask them to share their stories before their erasure. I felt their stories were important, and I made it my mission to be the curator of that information.

Among the discards, and to my surprise, I met you. Like myself, you were a time straggler. You were very young, about seven years old. All you could tell me at the time was that you were part of a secret operation and that you were participating in an exciting experiment. You were malnourished and nearly blind--as if something was eating away at you. I had trouble believing whether you knew what was going on. Your existence was a blip of time! I chose to keep you alive because I thought I understood you. Because you were like me. A human time straggler. But in doing so, I violated my sense of impartial judgement. Or perhaps I violated the delusion that I was an impartial man. By making a judgement to save you, I betrayed all those who I had not. 

It became clear to me that I could no longer continue my job as a garbage man--a developing sense of morality precluded me. I amicably broke off ties with the Halzenar; it worked out in my favour that they saw me as a feeble-minded tool ready for retirement. You know the story from here. I kept my head low and dedicated myself to raising you. In the existential reflections of my final years, I realized that I am a man incapable of acting on information, yet always striving for more of it. I regret failing to involve myself in the conflicts of others sooner. I regret not grabbing the reins and instead jetting for the safest option. I regret seeking concealment behind a veil of purpose and duty. The Script tales I pass on to you along with this letter contain the words of those which I have discarded. They disclose their values, their unfulfilled dreams, their stories, their goodbyes. Races of sentient species fighting to survive, while attempting to see beauty and meaning in it all. Had I laid my eyes upon these stories, I would have never chosen to be a garbage man. I hope you see in this a way to live--fearless and aware.

Yours, 

Grestel