Rene Dardene, the COO of Rejenerate, Inc., heard a helicopter land on the roof above him. A successful meeting with his department heads was ending. Profits were up and work on the sky crane was going forward.
I hope the next appointment would go half as well, he thought. I have my doubts.
Andrew Campbell, Head of Operations, remained with him as requested. The two men left the conference room for Dardene’s office.
A few minutes later, Dardene’s clerk announced his visitors. Dr. Marielle Vos, of the European Space Agency and Brigadier General Gregory Holhauer, of the US Space Force, entered Dardene’s office. The parties exchanged introductions and pleasantries. Vos and Holhauer were offered refreshments. Both requested coffee. The meeting began.
General Holhauer fired the opening salvo. “We are here to get you to agree to stop plundering satellites.” Dardene looked perplexed. Vos was embarrassed.
“What do you mean, General? You want us to stop policing space junk?” Rene asked, trying to act surprised.
“That’s what I mean!” blustered the General.
“I would ask why. We don’t touch functioning craft. We are removing obsolete space junk from orbit. We recycle the components and prevent collisions with active satellites.”
“Because the satellites belong to the country who launched them. Your actions border on piracy!” Holhauer blustered.
“General, are you aware of maritime law?” Campbell queried.
“What does maritime law have to do with satellites?” the General replied.
“Piracy is defined under maritime law. If a ship is abandoned on the ocean, whoever finds it can claim salvage rights. The finder files a claim in an Admiralty Court to establish their right to the vessel. That’s not piracy,” Campbell explained.
“We are finding abandoned satellites and claiming salvage rights,” Campbell replied.
“Is that the reason for all your claims in various Admiralty Courts?” Dr. Vos queried.
“You are correct, ma’am,” Dardene replied. “There is no specific international law on salvage rights in space. We are applying well-established international maritime law. Claims under maritime law are far from piracy. Numerous Admiralty Courts, including the United States courts, have accepted and adjudicated our claims,” Dardene said in measured tones.
A wave of uneasy understanding washed over Ms. Vos. The General charged on.
“The courts lack authority in space,” the General asserted. “You must cease.”
“Have you spoken to your Justice Department? If there is no admiralty law in space, there can be no piracy. Treaties governing a nation’s actions in space exist. Consequently, courts do have authority, General,” Dardene retorted evenly.
Dardene and Campbell expected the discussion. Rejenerate was an international recycling company. Three years ago, Rejenerate had started recycling space junk. No one had noticed until now.
“If you will come with me, please? We have something to show you,” Campbell said.
The Rejenerate executives led their guests to a conference room. Shrouded items covered the conference table. Campbell removed a shroud revealing a pile of twisted metal and plastic.
“General, who put the stuff in front of us in orbit? You can examine the material if you like. There are gloves on the table.” Campbell said.
The General put on the gloves. He picked up several pieces of metal and plastic.
“Who launched the things you are holding, General?”
“Damned if I can tell,” the General snorted.
“We can’t either. The items are derelict. How is picking up this stuff bordering on piracy?” Campbell retorted.
The General was perplexed. “There must be some way to identify the launching nation.” the general replied with less force.
“There is no way to tell after over eighty years of launch failures, collisions, satellites dying, sunspots, and meteorite collisions. These items were wrapped around each other. Some of the metal was American. Some were French. Other components came from Brazil. No markings or serial numbers. Any of those nations might have launched the items. Or another nation bought components and launched them. Let’s move on.”
Campbell moved to the next pile. He removed the shroud covering a battered satellite with American markings.
Campbell explained, “You are looking at an American satellite launched in the early 1970s. The satellite was not functioning. We brought it back to Earth and filed an admiralty claim. After our claim succeeded, we contacted NASA and offered them the satellite. They declined. We have gone through the same process numerous times. We have dealt with your agency repeatedly, Dr. Vos. So why are you here?” Dardene queried.
“You were in contact with my agency?” Vos asked hesitantly.
“Multiple times. Do you want copies of our correspondence?” Dardene offered.
Dardene called his clerk and asked for copies of the correspondence.
While they waited for the documents. Dardene commented, “In all such cases, we offered to return the satellite. We ask for our cost to retrieve the satellite and ship it. To date, we have had no takers. I don’t remember Black Beard ever offering to return his loot. How are we pirates?”
The clerk appeared with two thick envelopes sparing Holhauer an answer. She handed one to Vos, the other to Holhauer.
“Those are copies you can take with you. Let’s move on to our last example,” Campbell said. He pulled the sheet off the final stack. On the table was a battered metal object. The object was once probably about the size of a beach ball. It was scarred and deformed.
“We found this with no operational systems and no distinctive markings. We X-rayed it and found nothing to identify the launching nation. We have no idea which nation put this in space. How could we tell, General?”
Much of the General’s spunk had dissipated. “I don’t have an answer, Mr. Campbell.”
“We didn’t either. Let’s return to my office where we can talk more comfortably,” Dardene suggested.
Once they were all seated. Dardene restarted the conversation. “We recycle what we find. What we take is obsolete and not operational. Many people think our actions are commendable. I must ask again, why did you come?”
Mr. Dardene’s guests fidgeted. He continued, “A trip to our South Pacific headquarters is no small undertaking. Ms.Vos, you traveled about twenty-three hours, and General, you traveled about eighteen hours.” Dardene said.
“I came because I didn’t believe the reports of your retrieving satellites. I needed to see proof,” Ms. Vos replied.
“Commendable, coming here yourself but your explanation isn’t sufficient. Would you please answer my question?” Dardene asked.Holhauer and Vos exchanged glances.
“I guess I’d better put my cards on the table,” the General conceded. “We know Rejenerate is a privately held recycling company originally chartered in Grand Cayman. You began by recycling the trash building up in the Pacific. Initially, your factories were on ships. You had success. You built a headquarters and recycling complex on oversized drilling platforms around an unclaimed chain of atolls. Am I right so far?”
“Reasonably close, General. Please, continue,” Dardene replied in even tones.
“You branched out to retrieve satellites. You have not contracted with any space company or government for launching or retrieving vehicles. We don’t understand how you can do it. You can’t be launching rockets off these platforms without destroying them. Several space and intelligence agencies have failed to deduce a reasonable answer. We came hoping to find out,” the General finished sheepishly.
“You could have asked our representatives. I will give you a brief overview. I am surprised you haven’t figured it out,” Campbell began. “We use a mix of old and new technologies. Everyone has read science fiction and thinks rockets launch vertically. Has either one of you heard of the X-15?”
“I believe I might have,” Holhauer began tentatively. “Wasn’t it an experimental American aircraft?”
“You are correct, sir. X-15s flew suborbital missions in the 1960s. The X-15 launched from a B-52. We use a similar approach. To date, we use multiple blimp drones to lift our vehicles. The vehicles are unmanned, saving the weight of life support systems. Once we reach the desired altitude, the blimps drop the vehicle. The vehicle falls clear of the blimps and lights its engine.”
“Our system consists of two vehicle types: scouts and retrieval containers,” Campbell continued. “Scouts are placed in orbit from retrieval containers. The scouts are small and work in packs. They are dispatched to a location to search for derelict satellites. When enough items are found and marked, a retrieval container arrives. The scouts refuel from the container and fill it with derelict items. The container returns to Earth. Our recovery fleet retrieves the container” Campbell explained.
“Can we see your vehicles?” Vos asked.
“No. Our design is proprietary. Your presence underscores the value of our technology,” Campbell replied.
“Is there value in space junk?” Vos asked.
“It’s not all junk,” Dardene said. “The electronics are old and worthless. Most satellites contain gold, silver, or other rare metals. The metals are very profitable.”
General Holhauer acted like his backbone had grown back and was about to launch a fusillade.
Dardene stopped him. “General, before you make threats, you overlooked something. We have observer status at the UN. Our platforms cover a greater area than Monaco. We granted employees dual citizenship giving a substantial population. Do you want to threaten a sovereign entity?”
General Holhauer wasn’t expecting Dardene’s comment. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“Are there any other questions I can answer?” Dardene asked quietly. Both his guests shook their heads no.
“You are welcome to spend the night. We have suites prepared for you. Our CEO will be delighted if you join him for dinner.” Dardene offered.
Vos and Holhauer conferred briefly and declined. Campbell ordered the helicopter to be readied. In about half-hour, Dardene and Campbell saw their guests on their flight.
Once the copter was airborne, Andrew commented, “That wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”
“It was too easy. They could have saved days with a video conference. Touching space junk isn’t a good enough reason. We need to brief Jason,” Rene replied.
Dardene and Campbell entered the office of Jason Ottoson, Rejenerate’s CEO. They summarized their meeting with Vos and Holhauer. They also reported that the scans of the pair’s luggage had revealed nothing extraordinary.
“What would you suggest we do next?” Ottoson began.
“We should push the development of the sky crane forward. The sky crane can launch more containers and may be able to catch a retrieval container inflight. We would be less vulnerable to someone’s navy showing up in our retrieval zone,” Dardene suggested.
“I am not taking the option off the table. But I don’t want to rely on untested technology. You mentioned the retrieval force. Ours is still three rebuilt destroyers?” Jason asked.
“Yes, sir. We abandoned our effort to get a submarine. The problem was the armament. Torpedoes are not plentiful. We may be stuck with surface ships if we want a larger fleet.” Campbell reported.
“How sure are we of the loyalty of the crews?” Ottoson asked.
“Our crews are a collection of competent international rejects. We should be good if they are well paid, well treated, and not badly outgunned. Each ship has a special armaments section staffed by our people. The captains think it’s just electronic warfare. They have no clue what it can do,” Campbell responded.
“I suggest we enlarge the recovery force and start recovering some containers away from our base,” Rene suggested.
“Why?” Ottoson asked.
“A diversion. We plop down a relatively valueless container next to us. At the same time, we drop a valuable container hundreds of miles away. If the ship picking up the container looks like a normal supply run, it may not get much attention,” Dardene said.
“Reasonable idea,” Ottoson responded. Turning to Campbell, he said, “Get me a cost estimate to double our fleet. I need a time estimate, not just cost.”
He continued, “Gentlemen, let’s talk about the unthinkable, the destruction and evacuation of our platforms. We planned for the eventuality. We have added more platforms. More people work for us. I need to know the hardware and procedures in place. I also want our people to refresh themselves on the procedures.”
Dardene and Campbell were both shocked. “Surely you aren’t suggesting …” Dardene began.
Ottoson cut him off. “I am not planning to go anywhere. We don’t know whom our visitors work for. I want to be ready for anything. We may have gotten complacent and sloppy. Report any drone activity to me. I expect drones to start making more appearances. Do not electronically shield our platforms.”
Dardene and Campbell were relieved. Talk about detailed assignments followed. Normal operations were to continue. The sky crane program accelerated.
General Holhauer stood in front of Lieutenant General Henry Zugfahren’s desk. General Zugfahren was the US Space Force’s Chief of Intelligence. While General Holhauer waited, General Zugfahren paged through Holhauer’s report.
“Have a seat, General”, Zugfahren said.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I have been through your report. It looks like you went halfway around the world for a cup of coffee. What happened?”
“Sir, that is pretty accurate. I haven’t figured out the reason for my trip. My orders said I was to demand that Rejenerate stop grabbing satellites. I made the demand. They brushed me off. Why we sent anyone is a mystery to me. Sir, do you know the reason for the trip?”
“General, I understand your confusion. Your orders were poorly drawn. We need to learn about their launch technology. We could care less about the space junk,” General Zugfahren replied.
“Was their comment about using blimps to launch space vehicles news, sir? Sounds preposterous to me.”
“Holhauer, you did confirm what we suspected. Let me fill you in. We keep a count of items in orbit. The count is not exact. For months, the number of items dropped significantly. We started to pay attention when we got a report from the International Space Station of a vehicle beginning re-entry. The report included pictures of retrorockets firing. No one we knew of was planning to bring anything back to Earth. We picked up the item on the radar over Australia. It was headed north of Samoa. We thought it was going to open the ocean. We asked the Navy what was around the coordinates where we thought the vehicle would land. After several days, they sent us these.”
General Zugfahren handed General Holhauer an envelope marked SECRET. The envelope held aerial photographs of the Rejenerate complex. Holhauer was amazed.
“Sir, these are old pictures. I know their complex is bigger than this.”
“You are right, General. The Navy had to scramble to find these. A photo-reconnaissance expert found Rejenerate’s logo on a building. A lot of sleuthing followed. Your trip was part of the sleuthing. You and Vos are the first two persons who don’t work for Rejenerate to visit the complex.”
“Your trip wasn’t a total waste. The Rejenerate people were close-lipped. They helped explain this,” Zugfahren handed Holhauer another SECRET envelope. Holhauer extracted a picture.
“Puzzled?” Zugfahren asked.
“Yes, sir,” Holhauer responded.
The picture showed five Rejenerate platforms forming the letter X. In the junction was a rocket lying on its side. A blimp filled each of the other four platforms. Cables ran from the blimps to the rocket.
“The picture shows a space vehicle about to launch. The comment about blimps helped us figure it out. We need to understand their technology. Any ideas?”
“I did not see any defensive positions. Could we ask the Navy to make a show of force? Just talking off the top of my head, sir.”
“Negative. They have UN observer status. If the Navy shows up, people will be screaming at the UN. Did they show you their recovery fleet?”
Zugfahren gave Holhauer a third SECRET envelope. Holhauer pulled out another picture showing three destroyers, fully armed.
“That is their recovery fleet. It’s another old picture. It could be bigger,” General Zugfahren commented.
“How did they do that?” asked a shocked Holhauer.
“How they did it doesn’t matter. On the whole, well done, General Holhauer. You won’t repeat anything we discussed without my permission. Understood?”
“Thank you, sir. Yes, sir. Has Vos’s agency done anything?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Is there anything else, sir?”
“No. Thank you. Dismissed.”.
General Holhauer stood, saluted, and left. General Zugfahren had a problem.
The month after Holhauer and Vos’s visit was busy on the Rejenerate platforms. Dardene and Campbell were meeting with Ottoson in his office.
“We have had a hectic month. I called this meeting to be sure we are on the same page. Andrew, why don’t you start?” Ottoson began.
“Yes, your Lordship,” Campbell replied.
Ottoson cut him off. “Enough with the nobility jokes. I know I have been the Governor-General of Rejenerate since the UN granted us observer status. The nobility jokes are not just old. They are stale and rancid. Now proceed.”
“Right, Governor,” smirked Andrew. “We escalated the development of the sky crane. About a week after Holhauer left, drones began overflying our platforms regularly. We finished building the sky crane but did not want to test it.”
“We have charted the orbits of the active spy satellites as a precaution. We also have reconditioned old spy satellites with our technology. We want to orbit them.”
“Why did you build spy satellites?” Jason asked.
“Another precaution,” Andrew replied. “We will use them to give warning of air or naval forces approaching.”
“We notified the UN. We claim the 200 miles around us as territorial waters and our airspace is closed except for rotary wing emergency landings. We hired air traffic controllers. We hope the drones will back off. We added a fourth destroyer to the recovery fleet,” Rene reported.
“We have identified a batch of satellites we want to retrieve and items we want to orbit,” Campbell added. “Our changed state does not mean we ignore normal operations. What next?”
“This last month, we had been reacting. We need to take the initiative. We need to let our opponents think they fooled us. I suggest we launch a retrieval container using the blimps. We launch when the spy satellites about to go over the horizon. Dusk or dawn are preferred to give poor light. Hopefully, they will think they scored a coup and leave us alone. We launch our satellites and replace some of theirs. We have a batch of items for the next shuttle to take home. We need to get extracted material in orbit for shipment home. Our satellites will seem to replace existing ones and become invisible.” Ottoson replied.
He continued. “We are starting regular helicopter flights to Samoa. They pick up fresh fruit, alcoholic beverages, or anything else. We should have a different destroyer visit New Zealand or Australia every couple of months. I want to show our flag. Do we have a flag and passports?”
Rene answered, “Since Public Relations became the Foreign Ministry, they are dazed. As Premier, I will get them cracking.”
“Andrew, as Defense Minister, what is the state of our defenses?” Ottoson queried.
“The humans generally are enamored with lasers. We think we can do more with our focused sound batteries. We can down aircraft easily. We can’t hold out indefinitely against a naval flotilla. We could make their lives miserable for a while. I would suggest some ‘fighter’ drones just to give the air forces something to think about, Governor,” Andrew replied with an awful cockney accent.
“We’re done. I’ve had my fill of your jokes,” intoned Ottoson regally.
General Zugfahren smiled as he paged through the report he had received. He summoned General Holhauer. Holhauer reported a few minutes later.
“At ease, General. Have a seat,” Zugfahren began cheerfully. “I think we tricked the people at Rejenerate. Look at these pictures.”
Holhauer took a sheaf of pictures from Zugfahren. The images showed a space vehicle launching from a sling connected to four blimps. Additional photos showed the return of the vehicle. The retrieval pictures looked like something from Project Mercury.
“When we withdrew the drone overflights, they thought we lost interest. They launched a vehicle! We got them!” Zugfahren proclaimed triumphantly. “Care for a drink? Your visit played a big part in this!”
Holhauer accepted the glass of scotch. The generals drank to their success.
“I think they took our bait,” Ottoson proclaimed to Dardene and Campbell. “The drones have completely disappeared since our last launch and recovery. Our spy satellites have picked up nothing, including drones. Proceed with testing the sky crane. We can hope they will spend a lot of resources on the dead-end sling method. Most countries have not researched lighter than air crafts in over a century. Since we made our lifting craft look like their blimp idea, they will probably go down a blind alley. Even with our technology, we can barely get the blimps to work. Congratulations to both of you!”
Campbell and Dardene accepted their chief’s praise.
“Let’s get going on testing the sky crane,” Ottoson continued enthusiastically.
“Jason, shouldn’t you be working with our successors? Our tours here are about up. We want to go home,” said Dardene.
“You’re missing a great opportunity. You could extend your tour for a while,” Jason offered.
“We appreciate that. We extended our tours once before. This blue sky and green plants get grating after a while. We want to go home where things are the proper colors. The trip home is over fifty parsecs long, we want to get started,” Campbell said.
“I understand. Get me a plan for your transition and then get going,” Ottoson said in a fatherly tone.
After they left Ottoson’s office, Rene turned to Andrew. “It looks like we are leaving as winners! Could I offer you a drink? I got a new batch of nectar in the last shipment.”
Campbell accepted. They went to Dardene’s apartment. Once inside, Dardene locked the door. He went to the bar, unlocked a cabinet, and produced a bottle of reddish-brown liquid that looked like expired ketchup. Rene filled two glasses with the foaming liquid. While Dardene was busy, Campbell removed his coat, tie, and shirt. Another pair of arms appeared from his armpits.
“It always feels good to get out of that harness, even for a while,” Campbell said with a sigh. “I must get used to using my ancillary arms. When I first got here, I kept trying to use them. I bet I am going to be clumsy.”
“I think I will get comfortable, too,” Rene said, unfastening his tie. “In some ways, it’s good our physiology is close to humans. It makes our work easier. The only problem is female humans’ physiology is different from our mates. I would like to have them here.”
“To our mates!” said Andrew raising his glass. Rene joined him.
“There will be adjustments when we get home. There will be a bunch of new slang to decode. I hope I can make myself understood.” Campbell remarked.
“Me too. Since we are celebrating, let me offer you another rarity.” Rene unlocked a cabinet in the kitchen. He extracted a blue and green loaf a human would mistake for a mold colony.
When Andrew saw it, his eyes lit up. “A protorian loaf? How is that possible?”
“My mate sent it with the nectar,” Rene replied as he cut two thick slices. “I was saving this for the next holiday. But since we are leaving soon, let’s enjoy it.”
“I hate to bring up business,” Rene added apologetically. “How do you think this will play out here?” Andrew asked.
“What the company does probably won’t change but volumes will increase. Our operation is just mining. We discovered that humans discard items we consider valuable. The bales of plastic bottles generate the revenue for maintaining our station. Other valuable things come from satellites. Our commissions have made us rich,” Rene said.
“Since the humans know about our satellite salvage operations, we don’t have to be so cloak and dagger. The retrieval containers are shuttles to our freighters. Using our stealth technology, we coordinate more flights. Volumes may increase, but what we do probably won’t change that much.” Rene concluded.
Rene refilled their glasses and relocked the cabinet. He raised his glass, “To going home and everything that’s waiting there!”
They drank, dreaming of what awaited them.