As soon as the guards started passing around the Reformation Abroad Program brochures, I jumped on it. I had always wanted to travel into space when I was a kid, but such a privilege is typically reserved for trillionaire visionaries and Supreme Commandants. See it’s official business only unless you’re a crypto-kid with a hard-drive worth more than most planets’ GDP.
There was no doubt about one thing, it was my chance. I had no visitors, no one waiting for me on the outside. I’d been locked up for going on a decade at the time and let’s just say I was only getting into the first leg of my sentence. The court threw the entire code down on my case. Personally, I think they went a little overboard. But who am I to say?
To get accepted for Reformation Abroad you had to have good lungs, a stiff back, and a willingness to lose your life for the betterment of the Milky Way. Of these prerequisites, I possessed two and a half out of the three. The half was a matter of semantics really. I threw my name in, and low and behold two weeks later I was getting fitted for a pressure suit and trained on handling zero-G heavy machinery. They shipped me out within months alongside a crew of about 200 convicts, a few small security units, and a handful of pilots and overseers. All of us en route to the brink of a black hole called XTE-499. It’s nothing like the supermassive black holes you hear about, it’s more manageable they say. After being out here for nearly a year now I’ll tell you it’s still a force to be reckoned with. Me and the other cons spend every waking hour towing nuclear waste up to what the “experts” have deemed a safe distance, then we activate a tiny set of thrusters that fly the containment cars over the edge into… well into nothing, I guess.
I can see what they meant by the requirement to risk one’s life. The thought of getting pulled into 499’s tide haunts me. It’s already happened to one crew, we go out in teams of eight, two pilots, three interior handlers, and three exterior handlers. The roles rotate monthly. We had only been out here for a few weeks when one of the exterior handlers for a crew couldn’t get the hitch loose that connects the transport cab to the load. Failure to communicate left the entire unit getting dragged over the tideline when the thrusters were primed. We all watched from the bay loader as all eight of the poor fools on Disposal Team 2B slowly floated out of reach. Eight souls, the cargo craft, and the waste all right together into a pit of darkness. It was like they paused right in that final moment before we all blinked, and then they might as well have never been. Sucked out from this plain of existence right before our very eyes. Just…gone. Since then, I’ve always wondered if it hurt, if they felt anything at all in that last frozen second. Or if they felt anything afterward for that matter. The overseers told us to consider it another lesson in our training.
They didn’t even take any time off our sentence for signing on to be reformed abroad. Said it was simply additional service towards our debt to humanity. Obviously, that didn’t matter much to those of us who came. I’ve not asked my fellow cons, but I’m guessing their situation was as dire as my own. The only other prospect being to rot away in steel cell blocks, strung to the ground by gravity and the concrete overhead. Might as well see a darker side of the galaxy.
The brink of 499 is surprisingly loud considering we’re on the edge of deep space. Don’t get me wrong there are times when this place fits the cliché of deafening silence, but most of the time our main hub is bustling. Teams come and go in waves, but generally time doesn’t mean much to us out here except for when a shift begins and ends. The cargo craft create their own mechanical orchestra of groanings, but the biggest shock to me has been 499 itself. It chirps sometimes like a bird. It’s an unnatural noise that turned my stomach the first time I heard it. The hole pulses with an energy I couldn’t describe if I tried, if you ain’t been out on the tideline like one of our crew I don’t expect you to understand. The overseers assured us that 499 would only be making such noises if it were to collide with another nearby blackhole and if that were the case; we’d all be dead. All that really did was make me wonder if we’d even know if we were dead or if we'd be frozen like Team 2B in their last second on this side of time and space.
I lay in my bunk and try to pretend I’m out here on a voyage with greater purpose than sheer waste management. Reform. Not just reformation, but reformation abroad. The nature of our work out here forces the question of not only where all this waste ends up, but what if something were to come back out. They say it’s impossible, but I still wonder if one day the black hole might burp up a strip of aluminum siding from one of our containment crates or some lost remnants of 2B. All day long we send cargo sailing into the black pit of gravity, but not once has it sent something back. Not yet anyway. If anybody had a chance to see such an unlikely occurrence it’d be one of us. It’s got to fill up eventually, doesn’t it? My first month as a pilot instead of a handler I couldn’t shake the thought of driving straight in just to find out. By the end of the month, I didn’t think I could do that to the rest of my pitiful team. I’m guessing their sense of curiosity isn’t as strong as my own.