This story originally appeared in Allegory magazine in November 2021
Driving through the gates to Starstuff headquarters, Darlene felt like she'd died and ascended to a higher plane. It looked exactly like the brochure pictures she'd hung all around her house.
Well, not exactly -- the brochure didn't show the landfill across the street or the used car dealership next door -- but if you ignored the surroundings, it was perfect. The archway soared above her, a rainbow of crayon-blue and yellow scattered with five-pointed stars. The building itself, the Mothership, was designed to look like an Ajrithian star cruiser, and its fins gleamed in the sun.
It was even more perfect than in her imagination. The shining embodiment of everything she'd worked so hard for.
The parking lot was surprisingly empty for a Tuesday morning, but Darlene took the spot marked "Sales Family VIP" like the invitation said to, then snapped some selfies with the Mothership in the background and sent them to her network. Seeing her here would inspire her girls back home, just like it had inspired her as a new recruit when her sponsor Tammy reached Nebula Level sales and got invited on this same VIP visit to meet the Founder. She liked to remind her girls that they could get where she was someday, if they kept dreaming big.
Their replies flooded back. They were so excited for her -- they could hardly believe this was happening! Well, Darlene could believe it. Like they taught you at the training seminars: if you believed in the product and believed in yourself, you really could do anything.
Last thing before going in, she texted a photo to her sister. Sandy wasn't the only one who made fun of Darlene since she signed up with Starstuff -- the ladies at church were always making back-handed compliments when she showed up with a new catalog, and she saw the neighbors talking behind their hands every time she unloaded a new shipment of product -- but Sandy was the one who kept hassling her about it, trying to talk her into quitting. She called Starstuff a pyramid scheme, no matter how many times Darlene explained that multi-level marketing was different and that a lot of people got rich off it. Sandy the mechanic didn't believe in anything she couldn't take apart with her own two hands, and treated Darlene like an idiot for believing in something bigger than herself.
Darlene mostly avoided her sister these days -- the first thing Tammy taught her was to remove doubt-creating influences from her life -- but she couldn't resist sending proof that she'd been right. That she'd finally, truly made it.
Inside, there were a few Ajrithians briskly moving boxes of product, but there was no one to greet her, and no one at the reception desk, either. She called out: "Hello? Can anyone give me directions?"
"Welcome to Starstuff, a project of the Health and Environment Department of the Ajrithian Empire," said a computerized voice. "Please state your request."
Well, that was better. "I'm Darlene Rawson, here to see the Founder, Jyornvir of Ajrithyr."
"Founder Jyornvir is available only by appointment."
"I've got an appointment."
"Unable to confirm. Please state an alternative request."
"But I've got an invitation!" She waved the sheet of ultra-plas, its gold-embossed lettering glinting under the overhead lights. "See? I'm Nebula Level now, and that means I get a meeting with the Founder. This is the date and time I was invited for, so here I am. And I'm not leaving until I meet him."
There was a pause, and the Starstuff theme song played over the speakers. Darlene tapped her foot, not in time with the music. "You'd think a Nebula Level salesperson could get a little respect around here."
"Invitation confirmed. Please follow the lighted floor tiles to the Founder's office."
"Now that's more like it. Thank you."
The interior of the Mothership felt more like a church than an office building, the way the glowing walls curled around to embrace her. A hum vibrated through her from the building itself, energizing and relaxing all at once. She followed the bright line on the floor, and apart from when she had to stand aside for Ajrithian employees rushing past with carts full of boxes, it was reverently quiet. It felt like journeying into the heart of something greater than herself.
Down the hallway came a voice she'd recognize anywhere, a clear tenor with an Ajrithian trill. Despite how much she'd prepared for this moment, despite how she'd told herself she'd keep her cool, rounding the corner to his office brought her to a hard stop. She'd seen that face a thousand times in training videos, with its pale blue skin and wise, dark eyes peering out from the deep facial skin-folds, but it was different seeing him in person.
"It's really you! You're... him! Founder Jyornvir!"
"Of course I am. Who are you?" He glanced past the holo-display on his desk and made eye contact with her. Eye contact! With her!
"Oh, you're just like in the trainings!" Well, a bit brusquer than in the official videos, but that was to be expected. He wasn't performing for her, and that gave her a sort of thrill. This was the real Jyornvir, who no one else got to meet. "It's such an honor, sir. I've worked so hard to get here."
"Oh, you. You're the seller. The newest... what, White Dwarf Level?"
He put on the smile he always used at Starstuff Family conferences, crossed the room, and shook her hand once. "Good job, well done, congratulations, et cetera, et cetera." He went right back to his desk, leaving Darlene standing there awkwardly. There were sounds of bustle behind her, people running down the hallway.
"What's going on today? Everyone seems awfully busy."
"Yes, moving day always is." He didn't look up this time.
Moving? That explained it, but moving where? She peeked into a box of jumbled products by the door. "Is that a cortical energinator?"
"It is, isn't it?" She picked it up, holding it reverently. "Never seen one up close before. I always hoped I'd get to the level where I could sell these. Just strap it on and your brain waves realign, right? Makes you as productive as three cups of coffee without the buzz or the crash."
He looked up at her now, his facial folds squishing together, the Ajrithian version of raised brows. "You memorized that from our catalog?"
"Oh, yes, I've memorized the whole thing."
"Well, that is... something." He shook his head, slowly, wonderingly. "Humans. This is why your world's been such a good market. Pity your planet's capacity to absorb useless things isn't so infinite."
"Take it, if you want." He waved at the energinator.
She gasped. "Are you sure? I'm not at the right level."
"As if that matters. Take it. Take the whole box."
"The whole box?" She dropped to her knees, rummaging through its contents. "There's some incredible stuff in here."
Jyornvir laughed. It wasn't a friendly sound, and Darlene was beginning to wonder if his niceness at the conferences wasn't mostly an act. It was still an honor to be in his presence, though. "Incredible? That junk? Mercy, no wonder your species has never left your solar system."
"It's not junk. This is some high level product..."
"Take it all, if you want! From here, and from the loading dock out back, anything we leave behind. Fill up your car with the stuff."
"Are you serious?" He couldn't be serious. Was this a joke? Could Founder Jyornvir be mocking her?
"It is, as humans say, your lucky day."
No. It was too much. She shouldn't question such a stroke of good fortune, she really shouldn't, but this was beyond luck, and it didn't feel like generosity either. "That's the second time you've talked about leaving. What do you mean? Where are you going?"
He checked his holo-display. "Not long now. Time for you to run along. You don't want to be aboard when we, ahem, close up shop."
"Close up...?" He made it sound like more than an office move. Then the more important word caught up with her. "Aboard?"
"I'll see you out, shall I?" He deposited the box of product in her arms, and she grabbed it instinctively. His hand on her shoulder, steering her toward the door, should have felt like a blessing from a saint, but instead it felt condescending, like when her ex told people how hard she worked for Starstuff, and it wasn't until months later that she realized he looked down on her for it. She was starting to rather dislike Jyornvir, and that set her fuming -- not at him, but at the unfairness that he wasn't what she'd expected him to be.
"Tell me what's going on here," she said, her legs pumping to keep up as he hauled her down the long hallway. "I'm Nebula Level. I have a right to know."
"If you haven't figured it out yet, it's not worth the breath it would take to enlighten you." He sighed, as if disappointed in her. Disappointed, when she'd done everything possible to advance in the Starstuff family. Every single thing that he himself had told her to do. "I'll say this much for humans: when we visit most primitive planets, we're lucky if they buy anything from us at all. But you! Humans not only bought, but you signed up to sell it for us! This pyramid scheme concept that your species is so fond of, it's brilliant, perhaps your most brilliant invention. We'll be using it on other planets, I assure you."
He held open an outside door and ushered her through. "Stand well back, or you'll get caught in the engine field," he said, and closed the door behind her.
He'd left her standing in a maze of Starstuff crates that made her own stock piled in her basement seem like nothing. Clutching her box to her chest, she stumbled away as the building began to roar and emanate a dry, billowing heat. Then the whole building -- no, the whole ship, the Mothership in more than name -- lifted from the concrete.
It rose weightily, like a city-sized cruise ship straining to pull away from a dock, then began to glide forward, gaining momentum and speed. The wind of it mussed up her hair, then faded as the ship took to the sky. Darlene couldn't tear her gaze away until it was just a pinprick of light and her eyes watered from straining after it. Then she looked around her.
They'd left behind a whole warehouse's worth of Starstuff product: stacked boxes, some leaking or dented, massive mouldering crates for the larger products, Ajrithian cars with wheels missing, even a spaceship, a scaled-down version of the Mothership, with rust behind its peeling paint.
It should have been a treasure trove of riches, all free and hers for the taking... except that Jyornvir's words echoed in her head, pulsing with the rhythm of the Mothership's great engines: junk, junk, it's all junk.
He'd said it off-hand, and she'd thought he was being rude, but looking at the abandoned lot that used to be Starstuff headquarters, it was hard not to see it. They'd left what they didn't want, like when her neighbors moved out and left their ratty old couch and broken TV on the sidewalk with a "free" sign.
They'd left behind their junk.
That couldn't be, though. Starstuff products were high-level Ajrithian technology. Jyornvir had always said it was too advanced for Earth's scientists to understand, and that anyone who called their products a scam or blamed their results on the placebo effect was limited by a small mind. It couldn't be junk, because that would mean Sandy was right, that everything she sold, and everything she'd done with her life, was worthless.
She grabbed the energinator, strapped it to her forehead, and waited for it to bring clarity to her thoughts like the catalog said. If Starstuff was telling the truth, the energinator would help her make sense of why this was happening. She waited.
And eventually she had to admit it wasn't working.
It was junk. Her whole life was junk.
"Calm down, Darlene," Tammy said, squeezing Darlene's shoulders. "Be reasonable. I'm sure this isn't what it looks like."
"It is, Tammy. They lied to us."
It had taken hours for Darlene to work up the nerve to call her network, and a day beyond that for them to get to headquarters (well, former headquarters) here in Middle-of-Nowhere, Indiana. It was long enough for Darlene to take a good look around the wasteland of abandoned Starstuff, at first instinctively taking inventory as if it really were a windfall she could profit from, then wandering the maze of crates until she went numb. Long enough for her to try starting up the spaceship three times, getting no more than a mechanical wheezing. Long enough for her to admit that she'd been lied to, and that she'd lied to others in turn.
It wasn't long enough to stop feeling mortified as a cat in a bathtub, but by the time the others arrived, she knew what they had to do.
She'd thought the hard part would be explaining it to the network below her, the six ladies she'd recruited with the same lies that reeled her in. It was her fault their homes were full of Ajrithian garbage, after all. But it was Tammy, her sponsor, the woman who recruited her, who had the hardest time of it.
"It's a practical joke. It has to be." Tammy scooped a handful of wow-beads from a crate, letting them fall through her fingers. They were supposed to promote healthful energies if you surrounded yourself with them -- folks bought bathtubs-full of wow-beads and took naps in them -- but now that Darlene really looked, they were obviously just gobs of colored plastic.
Just like her sister said.
"It's all junk," said Carmen, the first seller Darlene recruited. "Basura. How did we never see it?"
"What a scheme," said Norma, the oldest woman in their network, shaking her head. "Bad enough they stuck us with their garbage, but they made us pay for it."
"Worse than that, we sold it for them," said Darlene. "It's twisted, but I've poked around since they left, and everything I've found says they never were a technology company. From the start, they were a garbage disposal company."
"We can still sell it," said Tammy, a desperate edge to her voice. She closed her fist around the beads. "Nobody else knows. There's still a demand for Starstuff, and now we've got the world's entire supply. We can make a killing."
"Really?" said Darlene. "You'd really lie to your customers, now that you know the truth?"
"People have always sold each other snake oil and empty promises. I can sell people anything, but I can't pay the rent with a house full of unsold product." Tammy slammed her hands on the crate and wailed. "What else can I do?"
Darlene knew how she felt. They'd both believed Jyornvir could make them into shining stars, and the betrayal stank worse than any sort of garbage.
"We made a mistake, but it's not our fault. They worked darned hard to fool us," she said, resting a hand on Tammy's shoulder. "But we fooled other people for them, and that's not right. We've got to make it right."
"How?" Norma asked. Her eyes were red and puffy. "They're gone. There's nothing we can do."
She looked over at the rust-bucket spaceship, baking in the midwestern sun, and she smiled. "We do like they taught us."
"They taught us...to sell?" asked Carmen.
"Yeah, but most of all, they taught us to recruit people. To hold each other responsible, to push each other, to be ambitious together." She reached for Carmen's hand. The others came closer, adding their hands one by one. All but Tammy, who hugged her arms around herself. Darlene waved her closer, but Tammy shook her head. Well, that was a shame.
With a deep breath, she focused on her down-line, the women who depended on her. "You ladies are the most important thing Starstuff gave me. Let's show them what we can do. We're going to take out the garbage."
"What do we do?"
"Talk to your own networks. Get back all the unsold product, and bring it here. Tell your customers what we're planning, too, and that you'll take away their junk for free. You can use my van, and Carmen's van, and any other trucks folks will lend us. Get as much junk as you can and meet back here. And while you're doing that..." A pick-up truck rumbled through the gates and pulled to a stop, taking up three spaces in the empty lot. She was here early. Darlene wasn't ready for this, but didn't have much choice. "I got some crow to eat, ladies, and it's not going to be pretty, so wish me luck."
No, it wasn't pretty. Sandy stepped down from the driver's seat with her toolbox and a truckload of I-told-you-so.
"Say it again," Sandy demanded.
"That how you say hello, these days?"
"So was I, with everything I told you on the phone." Admitting it over the phone had been humiliating enough.
"Sure, but say it again, and this time look me in the eyes." When Darlene groped for words, she said, "Do you want my help or not?"
"Fine." Darlene sighed, but she'd keep saying it if she had to. She'd say it over and over until Sandy believed her. "You were right, I was wrong. You're smart and I'm a dummy and I should have listened to you. You happy? Should I get on my knees?"
"No, no." Sandy laughed and grabbed her in a bear hug. "I'm giving you crap, but seriously, I'm glad you finally saw through their bullshit. I missed my sister."
Darlene hugged her back, good and tight, and let out a long breath. "I regret it. For lots of reasons, but mostly I regret losing you."
"You've got me back, if you want me. Now, what makes you think I know how to fix a spaceship?"
"Have you ever met a car you couldn't fix?" Darlene waved toward the abandoned ship. Every spot of rust and chipped paint showed up in the bright mid-day sun. "How hard can it be?"
Sandy raised her eyebrows. "You've got no idea. I'll take a look, but only because I've always wanted to take one of these things apart. No promises."
They all went to work. Darlene's ladies knew their stuff, and within a few days, the former Starstuff team filled the parking lot with a mountain of junk. Carmen estimated it was about a quarter of everything Starstuff had dumped on Earth -- not a perfect fix, but more than enough to make an impression.
Norma had organized an army of former sellers to weave together thousands of star-bands (the perfect way to regulate your body temperature and reduce food cravings, except they were actually plain old rubber bands) into a massive net. A cosmic garbage bag, Norma called it, big enough to hold all the Starstuff.
But they still needed a way to move it.
"Sandy?" Darlene called. "Not to rush you, but the ladies can't wait around much longer. Whether this works or not, we've got to go find new jobs. We've all got bills to pay."
Muffled curses came from the cockpit. "Darned thing should be working, best I can tell, but it's not. I'm going to try starting it up again. See if anything happens?"
Darlene waited. No, there was nothing, except...
"I think I hear something? Like a scraping noise, from over here."
Sandy hopped down and pressed her ear to the belly of the ship where Darlene pointed. Her eyes popped wide, and her mouth did flips from excited to annoyed, landing on a frown. "Oh, don't even tell me it's..."
"What? What is it?"
She popped open an access panel and stuck in a flashlight, followed by her head. "Phew! Yeah, of course it would be -- gah!"
She leapt backward. A small furry mass vaulted off her shoulder and hit Darlene in the face with its tail, leaving her spitting out fur. The critter perched on top of the access hatch, squeaking accusations at them.
Darlene laughed. "That was the problem? A squirrel?"
"Whole family of them." Sandy was examining the compartment with her flashlight again. "Chewed through a bunch of wires. I bet if I patch those up, the ship will fly." She raised her brows at Darlene. "But I'm not touching it until someone deals with our visitors."
Chasing squirrels was not what Darlene expected to be doing as a Nebula Level seller, but she managed it with the help of Norma's over-enthusiastic Pomeranian. As for the mess they'd left behind, the less said about that the better, but she dealt with that, too.
It took a few more hours of Sandy banging around inside the ship and cursing, but at last she announced: "Okay, I think I got it. Say a prayer, ladies."
This time, the little ship roared to life, then hovered off the ground. Darlene let out a whoop. Carmen cheered and started dancing with Norma.
"It's a piece of junk, but it'll get us there," Sandy called down.
"It's our piece of junk. It'll do fine," Darlene said.
"So you're really going to do this?" Tammy stood behind them, cradling a box piled high with Starstuff, a lost look on her face. "You're going to throw all this away?"
Darlene went over to her. "It's already thrown away, Tammy. I wish you could let go of it."
"I... No, I can't. It's still good product..."
"It's not. You know it's not. You taught me to be strong and persistent, Tammy, you taught me to never give up, and I'm grateful for it, but are you really going to keep doing their work after they proved that they don't care about us?" She squeezed Tammy's shoulder, forcing her mentor to meet her eyes. "Come with us. Show them how you feel."
With slow, reluctant steps, Tammy moved toward the mountain of junk. For a second, Darlene thought she was going to take more of it, but instead she threw her box high up onto the pile. "All right. I'll come."
The ship was small, with only enough room for four. They picked Darlene, Tammy, and Carmen for the crew, plus Sandy as their engineer. When everything was ready, with the junk in its net and tied to the ship's cargo clamps, they fired up the engines and lifted away, watching the Earth get big and then very small behind them, so much smaller than the trailing net of junk.
It was something to see, that little ball of blue. One last thing Jyornvir had done for her, even if he never meant to.
The little ship knew how to navigate to its home, and a few days later those same windows showed them a smoggy city of a world, all tall buildings and concrete and factories. There were no forests to see, and the few spots of green stood small and alone, islands in an ocean of grime. It explained a few things about why the Ajrithians needed Earth as a landfill, but it didn't make Darlene feel any pity for them.
They pulled up the local version of the internet and found a directory. Darlene had been worried about this part, but for once they were in luck: there was only one Jyornvir on Ajrithyr, and now they knew where he lived.
"Take us there," Darlene said, "and call him."
Jyornvir's face appeared on the ship's screen.
"What is -- you! How are you here, Human?" His facial folds fluttered.
"Thanks for the ship," Darlene said. "It's real nice. You left some of your stuff behind, though."
"The products you purchased from Starstuff are legally yours now. Your planet's problem."
"I don't agree. None of it works the way you promised, so we're here to return it." She waved to Carmen, who lowered the ship down until they hovered a hundred feet in the air. No surprise that Jyornvir was rich: his house was huge and shiny-white, roofed by a glass dome. Even better, he lived in one of those rare green spots, so he had a yard, acres of pristine green turf with no trash in sight.
"Return it? You can't return it!"
"A refund would be nice, but I know you won't do that, so we're happy just to send all this back where it belongs."
"Well, good luck getting a permit for that. You can't just --"
"Jyornvir? Look up."
He glanced upward, and his facial folds roiled.
"No! Absolutely not! Waste disposal on Ajrithyr is restricted by --"
"That's your problem, not ours," said Darlene. "Cut it loose, Sandy."
There was a creaking noise, and the cargo clamps released. The humongous net of trash came apart as it fell, cascading down over the dome and spreading in a wave around the house, bits of brightly colored junk bouncing away across the grass.
"But... but..." Jyornvir's jaw worked as he turned, around and around, looking out windows that now showed only piles of trash. "This isn't how it works! Where do you expect me to put it all?"
"I don't really care, as long as it's not on Earth. Enjoy your stuff, Jyornvir."
Darlene turned to her sister, who was grinning ear to ear, looking proud as anything. Looking proud of her, and that made Darlene feel prouder than the day she made her first sale, even prouder than when she earned her Nebula ranking. "Sis, set a course for home."
They flew up and away, leaving Starstuff and its garbage behind them.