It was Brazil, he had to keep reminding himself. Variations of green and brown, and lakes, rivers, and far on the horizon, the indigo edge of the ocean pressed upon his eyes in sharp detail. He stared at it for hours at a time.
A red barrel slid past the window, smooth and big as a ship, blocking his view. Jerrel noted the numbers as they slowly slipped by: 7… 0… 5… 1… A. The 7 meant that it was from San Francisco, but he knew that already because it was red. Every barrel was at least half windowed, by law, unless it was a nuclear one. Black bags and plastic bottles were crushed against the windows that were smeared with black mold. This matched the stated contents of the manifest: trash. It traveled up the cord. A few seconds later it picked up speed and would be released when it reached geosynchronous orbit, in a few hours.
7051A content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.
The ISS zoomed above him, Jerrel barely glanced at it. It was as ordinary as the hand of a clock, marking every hour and a half. Marking every time he would kiss the picture of his daughter. This started as a tool to help him cope with being alone, but now if he missed the kiss because he didn’t notice the ISS, he panicked. Only kissing the picture 20, 30, 40 times would calm him down again. This concerned him, but he couldn’t stop.
The barrels came about every hour. He was to visually inspect the contents and confirm that they matched the manifest. This one was a Dallas White. These were less rusty than the reds; their barrels were newer because they had not been allowed to use the Vator until about a year ago. 4… 3… 8… C… 3. Liquid, unspecified type. Dallas won the right to keep the exact content of their barrels private, after years of failed negotiations, during which thousands of citizens died from the nuclear waste in the water supply. Finally, the North American Elevator Corp decided they needed Dallas as a customer more than they needed to know what was in their barrels.
438C3 content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.
It was hard to be vigilant, knowing that the barrels had already been checked three times further down the tube. Jerrel was not doing anything that a computer could not do, mostly. They used to not check at all, except on the loading dock, of course. Windows were required back then, but you could just pay the fine and send a solid barrel up no problem. That was before the Heist of ‘89, where five nuclear waste barrels came crashing back down to earth and it took countless billions to repair the elevator. So now, lots of checking. At the ten mile high station, every barrel was checked. At twenty they were checked again. Jerrel was at the third and last station, fifty miles up, and he was required to check twelve barrels in each 24 hour period.
A blue barrel came into view. New York. A nuclear one without windows. The counter embedded in the wall of the barrel showed high levels of radiation. Content confirmed.
Jerrel was doing a three week shift. The intention was that he would work for twelve hours and rest for twelve. There were five TVs permanently set to ‘ON’ for twelve hours per day to ensure this. Jerrel could neither change the channel nor the volume. Three were entertainment channels, one was the weather, the other was North American Elevator Corp’s station. At first he watched the NAEC station a lot. He was excited about his new job and wanted to learn all he could about the company. The station had a running ticker of barrel prices, speeds, trajectories and contents. Sometimes a person would talk about statistics like how many tons of nuclear waste and plastics had been removed from the Earth, or which city had removed the most waste per capita, or how NAEC’s performance compared with the other two elevators belonging to China (in Congo) and Australia (in Indonesia).
7051A trajectory 5.50:Delta:2300, according the computer. The magnetic satellite successfully deflected the barrel with opposing high field pulses to keep it away from the satellite rings, not to mention itself, and send it safely into dead, blank space.
Every night at ten p.m. he NAEC TV told him ‘Thank you and good night!’ and went black, but did not turn off like the other TVs did. Jerrel had tried to follow the designated routine for a while, but he could only sleep for two hours at a time. So after a few days of only two hours per night, he needed the freedom to nap. He cut the wires to four of the TVs. He didn’t touch the NAEC TV. The fact that it never turned off worried him.
The paycheck for this job was extraordinary. A year’s worth of salary down below, for three weeks of work. He had been on the waiting list for this job for two years, and now that he was here, he could not understand why it paid so much. It was true that he was not allowed to contact anyone on Earth by any means. There was not a keyboard in the entire station. It was hard being away from all human contact for three weeks, certainly, but not that hard. He was showing signs of being stressed, such as insomnia, losing weight and doing that kiss-the-picture thing, but it really wasn’t that bad.
The only people he could contact were the guys in the stations below, but that was only in case of emergency. He had access to top-secret company intelligence, and it needed to stay that way, is what they said, or else he would lose all salary. What that special intelligence possibly could be, Jerrel didn’t know. The contents and trajectories of all the barrels were broadcast to the world on the NAEC station.
438C3 trajectory 2.31:Alpha:2692. Another safe ejection.
Jerrel was heading to the rack for a nap when the turd alarm went off.
Those fucking SF barrels. The SF people mixed the exterior paint with repulsion mag powder to make them extra fast, was the thinking. What really happened was they all got stuck to each other and came up the pipe in long lines like a turd. This had never actually been a problem, though if there was too much constipation it could destabilize the Vator, so he was required to observe and report. So far, the long turds always broke up and found their random trajectories just like all the other barrels.
This turd was mostly trash. Flies buzzed around the windows, craving the light of his station. It was a short ride, only about ten hours from the bottom, so there was usually enough air for living things to breathe.
7… 5… 1… N… 6. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.
7… R… 2… 0… 2. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.
7… 3… 4… 6… P. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.
He couldn’t see very far down the elevator, all the equipment was in the way, but the alarm said there were five more to go. Jerrel completed the report and went to take his overdue nap.
There was a high incidence of suicide (jumpers) in the Vator worker ranks, but while Jerrel was anxious, he was not inclined to end his life. Jerrel actually found it quite satisfying to see all the trash and nuclear waste leave the Earth. The Earth was a much cleaner and safer place than it was a hundred years before. The ocean was clean now.
A red one. This one was labeled trash. Green leaves and thousands of monarch butterflies were plastered against the windows, some of them still struggling to fan their wings. His book reader fell from his hands as pressed his face against the viewport. He nailed the image capture button several times as nausea welled in his gut.
Content… confirmed. Take that back. Unconfirmed. Jerrel left this one alone. He was grateful that he was not required to verify every barrel. Cutting down trees was illegal according to international law. Trees were not even cut down if they endangered a house. That’s what Disaster Insurance was for. So this meant that the two stations down below confirmed the content of this barrel and allowed it to proceed. If they didn’t see a reason to detain it then he didn’t feel like he could. It was on their conscience, but it did not help his anxiety. He reached for the picture of Jeena.
The next red one came and it was the same. The next five were all the same. How many trees can fit in a barrel? Fifteen? Twenty? How many thousands of crushed butterflies? The guys down below must have received a hefty bribe, or been extorted. But why hadn’t he been approached? Maybe they expected him to let this one go without need of any of that. His hands shook.
A Dallas White came next and Jerrel relaxed a little and heaved a sigh. Only real trash and waste. This trash looked like shredded paper and plastic sand.
“Thank you and good night!” the NAEC TV said.
Jerrel wasn’t sleepy at all, so he read his book, trying to forget about the butterflies. After a while he noticed that no barrels had come. He looked it up– it had been two hours. That was unusual, but not necessarily a problem. Two hours later, there were still no barrels. The barrels usually came every hour, 24 hours per day. It was possible that there was extreme constipation down below. He had a suit in case of a ‘loss in cabin pressure,’ and a parachute. He would not be rescued from space. That much was made very clear in his contract.
He tried calling Station 20.
“Station 20, do you copy? What’s going on down there? It’s been four hours since I’ve seen a barrel,” Jerrel said.
After a few seconds, “Station 20, do you copy?”
Nothing. They were supposed to be asleep after all.
He put on his suit and grabbed the mag gun. The gun was strong enough to push a barrel off the Vator, in case the mag sat malfunctioned. He wasn’t sure how it could help him, but it felt good to have something powerful in his hands.
Then the barrels started to come again, one after the other.
Red barrel, sewage.
White barrel, trash.
Blue barrel, bodies.
They were dead. Usually dead bodies were wrapped in black gauze. It wasn’t so uncommon. People liked the idea of going out into space after they died, and paid nicely for the privilege. Or else they paid nothing because they were so poor. They all ended up the same, wrapped in black gauze and packed tight into a glorified trash can.
But these bodies were not wrapped. Why weren’t they wrapped? Jerrel breathed very fast and dropped the mag gun.
Red barrel, bodies.
The bodies were all brown-skinned and dark-haired. Really packed in there, faces mushed up against the windows.
White barrel, bodies.
Jerrel was shaking all over. He wished he had gone to bed, as instructed. A bead of sweat stung his eye. He took off his helmet.
Blue barrel, bodies.
“Station 10? Anybody copy?”
Red barrel, bodies. They were smaller, it seemed, only because of the refraction of the windows.
“STATION 20. DO YOU COPY.”
There was a staticky response.
“Station 20, say again?”
“Shut Up,” was the barely audible whisper-yell.
“Station 10, do you copy?”
No response. White barrel, bodies. A sweaty, wide-eyed face was looking out the window.
Jerrel threw up. His whole body was quivering.
Blue barrel, bodies. Small bodies.
Red barrel, bodies. Unwrapped. Brown.
“They are letting them through. Or they don’t know. But they know. They know and told me to shut up. They are letting them through.”
White barrel. A crying face. Hand banging on the window.
Blue barrel. Screaming.
Jerrel screamed with her.
Jerrel shook his head.
White. They would not stop coming.
Jerrel roared. He snatched the picture of his daughter out of the window and tore it into tiny pieces and ate them, shivering all over. He put his helmet back on and hooked the mag gun to his belt. Then he opened the airlock and heard the hiss of depressurization. He climbed onto the ladder outside the door. His magnetic gloves and boots helped him hold on and not slip. He climbed around the station, headed toward the elevator.
Barrels were stacked on the elevator as far down as he could see. It was at least twenty or thirty, but it could be more. Why didn’t the turd alarm go off?
Jerrel clanged onto the service catwalk on the Vator. A blue barrel was going by, they were all dead. He climbed down the catwalk. A red barrel had a living girl at the window. She banged on the window when he saw her. She sailed past slowly. Jerrel let out one sob and kept climbing down.
This is why he was paid so much. This. This.
The white one had a mother and child pressed against the window.
“Jeena, Jeena baby. I love you,” Jerrel said.
The fact that Jeena wouldn’t know what he did is what tortured him. But maybe. There was a slim chance he would survive. Maybe.
He unhooked the mag gun and pointed it at the nearest mag loop.
He popped the white barrel off the elevator with his gun, before he could look inside. It was designed to release away from the direction the Earth was turning, so there was no chance of the barrel hitting the elevator. But the barrel would eventually hit the ground. No one would survive, but at least they would be back on Earth. At least someone would know.
Jerrel popped off ten more barrels in succession. He looked inside a white barrel. Still dead bodies. He was breathing hard and crying. The barrels he had released were floating behind and appeared to slowly fall toward Earth.
He reversed the mag gun to attract and aimed it up, at a barrel far above. He wasn’t sure of the range of this thing. It didn’t seem to be working, so he climbed up for a while, as fast as he could. But he was hardly faster than the barrels. He hooked his legs on the catwalk and dangled himself inside the chute and pointed the gun up. Tears were in his eyes, it was hard to see. It seemed the barrel had stop moving perhaps. He kept pulling the trigger, trying to pull the barrel toward him. He held the trigger down. The barrel was definitely coming toward him. Faster now, it came. Faster. He ducked out of the way just before the barrel came through, he put his gun back on repel and pushed it down.
The barrel hit the barrels below at perhaps twenty miles per hour. The whole Vator shuddered and creaked, but seemed to retain stability. Jerrel climbed into the chute and let himself free fall down, it was faster than climbing down. Once his magnetic boots caught an edge and held him fast, his body slammed into the chute and broke off again. His elbow felt broken, but at least his helmet was solid. He jumped into free fall again, and when he got close to the barrels he tried to use the gun to repel himself a little. He banged backward into the chute and the track dug into his back, but he was alright.
The barrels were moving up again. A Red was on top. He looked inside. Dead. He looked down and barrels still clung to the Vator as far as he could see.
He did it again. Popped ten or so barrels off the Vator and brought the barrel above down. This time the Vator creaked longer and wobbled. He used the gun to keep the barrels down. Now he could see the wobble, not only feel it. It was getting worse. The joy of it eviscerated him. Would it be enough?
He popped off many more barrels, hoping to imbalance the Vator further. He picked a Red to shoot upward as fast as it could go. Creaking and groaning continued. He popped and shot many more times until in slow motion the whole chute bowed and curved like a ribbon. Barrels began popping off spontaneously.
Jerrel let go and let himself fall, tears streaming down his face. The elevator seem to fall away from him, then it tore apart and went whipping down toward Earth, the top portion dangling for a moment, then swinging out toward space. Jerrel sobbed. He looked down at the lakes and rivers, the blues, greens and browns. The square patches of agriculture. The fingers of clouds caressing it all, the mist that hung over the Amazon. The barrels of people in the distance, falling with him.
The edges of sky enveloped him, the deep blue cold and indifferent to what passed through it. Nevertheless, it was beautiful. He wondered if he would ever see Jeena again. It was possible his parachute would work. It was possible.