In Which: Dallas discovers an odd object.
“Hey, Dallas! Come have a look at this.”
Dallas turned and squinted at Martine. On the nearly airless plains, the line between Lena’s brightness and the stardusted black of open space was crisp and painful, and the backlighting always fucked with Dallas’s eyes. Eye surgery might help, but that took money; and scavengers, even as experienced as Dallas, never made much money. The dealers made the money, and Dallas didn’t understand why more didn’t take their hoard and escape. After the failure of the Great Terraformer Experiment, they should have been leaving Yakutsk in droves.
Dallas wouldn’t leave. Dallas preferred Yakutsk without diffuse sunshine, orbiting Lena with nothing but its thin atmosphere and meager gravity. Dallas had spent thirty years in the domes, and had childhood memories filled with jet-black days clomping across the dusty surface of the moon in weighted boots, finding discarded shipyard parts and the occasional trash—or wreckage—from passing freighters, starships, and even Syndicate raiders, and collecting it like gold. When the terraformers had been activated a year ago, Yakutsk had become alien, and any pleasure Dallas had felt scavenging the surface had dissolved. It seemed so wasteful, forcing a perfectly reasonable moon into a role it had not been born to play. Domes were efficient. Domes took nothing they did not need. Domes made sense.
So many people had been frightened and angry the month before when the terraformers had failed, and they’d had to move back into the old covered cities. The days had grown jet-black and familiar again, and Dallas had been relieved.
The object Martine was looking at was also silhouetted by the big gas giant, and getting close enough to see would require Dallas to drop a large, ungainly fragment of cargo hull. Freighter wreckage was almost always profitable, if mundane; Jamyung, the trader who paid them most promptly, always said he wanted the unusual, but Jamyung bought more standard parts than anything else. Dallas had built an entire career off of spotting the ordinary and scavenging quickly, bringing in three times the salvage of other scavengers and making twice the money. Breaking down this chunk was going to take time, and the afternoon was wearing on. Taking a few moments to placate Martine might cut the day’s payoff by quite a bit.
Martine was new. Dallas remembered what it was like to be new, and the sting of realizing you really were in it on your own.
The fragment dropped back to the moon’s surface, sinking gently in the low gravity to hit the dusty exterior with a quiet thump. Shuffling in weighted boots, Dallas crept up next to her to look at what she held in her hands.
It was cuboid, about fourteen by fourteen by three centimeters, and entirely unadorned. In the verdant light of the gas giant it was difficult to be clear on the color, but Dallas’s unreliable eyes cast it as more or less gray. What kind of reaction was Martine expecting?
“It’s a box,” Dallas said.
Martine shook her head, disagreeing. Up close, Dallas could see the flash of excitement in her eyes. “It has no seams,” she said. “None, Dallas. It’s solid.”
“Why would someone machine a random box? Besides, Dallas—feel it. It’s warm.”
“Can’t feel anything through the suit.” And if it’s warm, it’s probably radioactive, you damn fool. But Dallas ran a scan—no ionizing radiation, only thermal. And sure enough, the thing’s surface temperature was nearly 37 degrees. Body temperature. Out here in the near-vacuum of Yakutsk’s frigid, terraformless night. “Must be something inside.”
Martine was grinning. “How much do you think he’ll give me for it?”
“Jamyung?” Dallas scoffed. “Not fucking enough. He’ll tell you it’s shit, worth nothing.”
“Then I’ll keep it.”
A vague uneasiness crept up Dallas’s spine. “No, Martine. Get rid of it. Or just drop it. Leave it out here.” That seemed wrong as well, but it felt important to get Martine away from the thing. Dallas clomped back to the hull fragment and wrenched a chunk of polished alloy off of it, extending it toward her. “Take this. He’ll give you good money for this. It’ll keep you in retsina for a week.”
Of course she wasn’t listening. She was tucking the box into her pocket. Dallas shrugged and took the fragment back. “Suit yourself.” But Dallas fought a wave of amorphous dread, and no matter how superstitious it seemed, one thought persisted: That thing shouldn’t be coming back into the dome with us. It shouldn’t be near people at all.
A few hours later they took the surface crawler, heavy with the day’s haul, back to the dome. Martine was chatty, talking about dinner and the game tournament starting at their pub this weekend. She seemed cheerful, almost manic, and Dallas couldn’t stop feeling uneasy. She was herself, only . . . odd.
Jamyung will buy the box, Dallas thought determinedly. We can go off and have dinner and tomorrow everything will be the same.
But as it turned out, Dallas’s first instinct had been right. “What the fuck is that?” Jamyung asked dismissively, and only Dallas saw the curiosity in the trader’s eyes.
“Don’t know,” Martine said. Dallas had tried to teach her, but she was fucking awful at playing it cool.
“Fifty,” Jamyung said.
Even Martine was outraged at that. “Come on! The thing’s hot. It’s got a power source, at least.”
Jamyung picked up the box and turned it over in his hand. Dallas could see it better, here inside the dome: it was still that nondescript gray, but it had slightly rounded corners and edges, as if it were designed to be held. Something about the proportions gave it a strange sort of grace. Uncharmed, Jamyung tossed it back to Martine. “If it’s a power source, it’s a fucking weak one.” He paused. “Fifty-five.”
“Sixty,” Martine said, just as Dallas said “Eighty.”
Jamyung pinned Dallas with a look. “You guys unionizing on me?”
One for one. All the scavengers were taught that. You started teaming up, you lost all your business fast. But Dallas had to say something. “You know it’s different.”
“Different is useless.” But then Jamyung sighed, and Dallas thought something in the trader might have softened a little. “All right. Seventy. But that’s it, Martine. No more arguing, or you get shit.”
Martine kept her hand outstretched as Jamyung counted out seventy in hard currency into her palm. She set the box back down on the trader’s desk and waved at Dallas. “See you at the pub,” she said, and ran off.
Jamyung had picked up the box again and was turning it over in his hands. He noticed Dallas almost as an afterthought. “You need to stop doing that,” Jamyung said. “She’s good enough without your help.”
“You were ripping her off,” Dallas pointed out.
Jamyung tossed the box on his desk and opened a drawer, pulling out Dallas’s payment. “Sixty was a decent price.”
“Eighty was better.”
Jamyung snorted. “You’re too smart to be a scavenger, Dallas. You should be on my end.”
Dallas wouldn’t have Jamyung’s job for all the currency in that desk. “I like it out there.”
Jamyung shook his head and handed over the money. “Uninhabitable and freezing, except when we’re facing the sun, and then your env suit will melt right into your skin unless you’ve got one of the fancy ones the military are hoarding.”
“Maybe they’ll get the terraformers working again.”
Jamyung shot him a jaundiced look. “You think anybody’s going through all that again, you’re a damn fool. The surface is done. You should come in here and work for me.”
It wasn’t the first time Jamyung had offered, and it wouldn’t be the last time Dallas would refuse. “Bird in the hand,” Dallas said, and took the money.
“Suit yourself,” Jamyung said. “Go beat Martine at whatever bullshit game she’s hauled off the stream this week. And fuck, Dallas, stop telling her what her shit is worth. She learns on her own or she’s no good to me.”
“Okay.” Dallas turned to the door, then stopped. “What are you going to do with it?”
Jamyung’s eyebrows shot up. “What do you care?” And then his expression grew cunning. “You got a buyer?”
“Nope. Just curious.” Dallas lifted a hand. “See you tomorrow.”
But all the way to the pub, currency clanking and waiting to be spent, Dallas thought about that box lying on Jamyung’s desk, and couldn’t shake the feeling that, defunct terraformers or not, the days on Yakutsk were never going to be familiar again.