Tomner lay in his cocoon of bedding, strapped vertically to the wall. His eyes had opened on a blob of moisture floating a few feet above his head. Something had energized it with a contradicting force, as it flowed and twisted around several loci. A liquid arm would extend on one side and then another, pulling in opposite directions before collapsing into their respective valleys, only to spit out more arms in hydra-like fashion. A rumble spread through the hull of the tugboat, the kind of vibration that could only be caused by firing the afterburners. Jerla must have activated them. It was a waste of fuel, very unlike her.
He scratched at his left thigh, working his fingernails down toward the amputation line. His prosthesis hung on the rack beside him, which compounded his sense of indecision. He had not yet committed to getting up, facing the day, until the leg was clamped on and powered up. Then he could do anything: run across a gymnasium, jump to pick an apple from a tree, ride a moon bike up a sim-mountain. Always riding. He would never get off, never let up…if he had a moon bike, and a sim-gym membership, and a day off. If he could afford a day off.
A doorbell sounded, followed by the words, “Mail call,” spoken in a tin-plated recording. Tomner felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.
“San Deep, please protect me and make me strong,” he recited, making the sign of the bull with his fist. “Against evil forces that do me wrong.”
After a few moments, a different computerized voice addressed him. “We received another message from the Better Body Corporation, Tomner. The bill is three months overdue, and they want back payment on your leg.” The message was made more grating by the erratic tone, as if the device was trying to enunciate each letter in the words separately. “This is their final notice. If we don’t pay, they will deactivate it.”
Tomner always felt irritable upon waking, but this information compounded his foul mood. “Dungeon fat! How can I get the money to pay their bills if they turn off my leg?”
In the corner, several large dragon trees grew in pots; their thin trunks crowding together at soil level, they rose to spread out three feet or more, giving their spearhead-shaped leaves room to capture as much light as possible. Now the foliage on one of the plants in the center vibrated as if it had become irritated, too. A pair of delicate hands gripped vertical branches and pushed them aside to make way for a small face, its fur splotched with white and gray, whiskers twitching on the pointed nose. Jerla belonged to the species rattus norvegicus, although she referred to this group as couches.
A blue helmet conformed to the shape of her skull. Delicate wires extended underneath this carapace, making surgically precise connections to the neurons controlling language cognition. With the device intact, Jerla could form her words in the electro-chemical signals of the synapses; the helmet amplified these sparks and projected them to the computer, where software converted them to oral speech, into a language understood by her companion.
It always seemed remarkable, Tomner thought, how articulate the creature could be, how intelligent, how commanding, given the vagaries of electrical linkage and software applications. Somewhere along their evolutionary line, rodentia had craved such a device to make known their perspicacity, their distinctiveness, their taste. For if anything, his companion had a refined sense of the quality of food—and beyond this, of any material good, including salvage. She made an ideal partner in an operation such as theirs.
“It is a Catch-22,” Jerla said. “That is what it is called. This indicates an ironic situation…”
“I know what that is. It bunches.”
“The deadline is in two weeks.”
“What? That’s impossible! I might as well drive straight into the sun with this load.”
“Jump into the sun yourself. Leave me to pilot the boat back to Luna.”
“You’ll starve without me around.”
Jerla gave this jibe an abrupt sniff, letting silence hang in the air for a moment. Then she spoke. “Why do you give up so soon? A couche never gives up.”
“Look where that’s gotten you.”
The rodent swayed in the branches of the tree, shaking its leaves. “Do you mock me?”
“Sorry. I’m just bunched. What a situation.”
“That’s the life of a freelancer for you.”
Tomner had no answer to that. “I guess I better go out and have a look at the junk while I still can. Maybe something we can salvage.” He opened a cramped metal locker, taking out pieces of a pressure suit at random and putting them on. Boots, tunic, gloves, overalls, cowl: each zip-sealed together as he went, forming a solid barrier against raw space, against the cold vacuum and radiation.
“Something small, and not smelly,” Jerla reminded him.
“I won’t know if it’s smelly when I’m out there, will I?”
“Why do you always manage to choose something smelly?”
“Maybe because your nose is too good.”
“Just choose wisely. Communicate with me before you bring it in.”
“You are mocking again. I might have to dock your pay.”
“That’s all I need.” He raised the helmet over his head, pausing to ask, “Anything else?”
Tomner zip-sealed the helmet to the cowl, completing the costume. Then he stamped to the airlock in the heavy mag-boots. He waved once and stepped through the door into a low, narrow chamber painted a grotesque yellow, since darkened with sooty smears; dull, weathered metal poked out in gray patches where the color had chipped away. In a moment, the chamber had sealed and depressurized; a panel light flashed in anticipation of the opening: “Brace for suction.”
“Brace for suction,” Tomner spoke the phrase aloud. “You tease.”
The portal dialed open, shutter blades fading into the wall, and his body flexed outward against the restraining straps.
After the initial depressurization, he flexed his mechanical foot against the wall to float out the door and eased himself down the port side of the tugboat by hand holds and magnetic boots. About twelve feet down, he reached the junction where their pilot boat clamped to the trash container, nothing more than a simple rectangular frame made of metal pipe covered with wire mesh. The cargo box reached down another 50 feet below the junction point, and it stretched fore and aft twice that length in each direction, every square foot of it stuffed with waste from Earth, two space stations, and Earth’s orbit. The tugboat rode the container like a bug might cling to an elevator, and very nearly just as helpless.
Having reached the level of the cargo, Tomner attached the tether from his suit’s pulley to a swiveling metal ring on the tug.
“Bless me, San Deep, with an effortless shift, and grace my unworthy self with your gifts.”
“The prayer doesn’t help, you know.”
Tomner ignored her. “Forgive her, San Deep, her disbelief is not disrespect.”
“Yes it is.” She had no respect for his faith in the cargo god whose name appeared in huge letters on a sign at the sanitation depot. The humans’ ignorance of their own language always appalled her.
“Don’t jinx it, Jerla. I need this salvage too bad.”
“Sorry. Just be careful.”
Now he rappelled down the side of the mesh container, investigating the contents as carefully as he could under the helmet’s dim, shaking spotlight. Barrels of nuclear waste comprised a good portion of the contents. Orbital debris, such as expired satellites and rocket engines, was also classified as hazardous; all of these materials had been isolated at the far ends of the container. His suit screened out some radiation, but Tomner avoided those areas to limit his exposure. Although the company discouraged salvaging, it couldn’t prevent it once a tug was out in space, and the windfall provided extra profit and supplies which kept the freelance pilot boats in business.
On this trip, much stuff seemed to have been enclosed in nondescript corrugated cardboard or black plastic. He reached in with a knife to slit the bags, pulling the material aside to scan the contents. He saw junk and more junk: broken metal and ceramic, dead hard drives, dysfunctional machines beyond repair, plastic sacks that once held nutritional liquids, like vitamins, edible semisolids, juice, and alcohol. Covering a span about the width of his outstretched arms, Tomner made it to the vertical end of the container without success. He recalled the tether with the push of a button, kneeling to reattach it at the new edge, then started along the bottom.
The young man lost track of the distance he had traveled to the fore, but the search had become tedious an hour or two ago. Then a square corner reflected his headlamp. Ninety degree angles were unusual in salvage work. This one had a nice tight covering of black plastic and had been pushed up against the mesh. Tomner measured it visually—roughly three by two feet, possibly three feet deep as well. His knife sliced the plastic, and he saw writing on the white carton beneath; he struggled for a moment, but the letters were familiar to him: C-H-E-E-S-E, then C-R-A-C-K…Unopened cartons of cheese crackers!
“Good eatin’!” he whooped.
“What have you got, Tomner?” Jerla asked.
“You won’t believe this, Captain. I think San Deep sent you a personal message. It’s cheese crackers. A whole flat of ‘em! Fresh air, sister! I know this brand, too. They just changed the packaging, and this is the old design. And guess what? They still have a year of shelf life!” Now he pieced out the rest of the writing to impress her. “Track the flavors here. C-H-E-D…Cheddar. Uh, Parm. Ess. Ann. Parmesan. This one’s white cheddar. Yeah! And bll-you? What’s that? And here’s nack-ohs. I see, gotta be nacho. Just brand new!”
“Great score, boy! Can you cut ‘em out?”
“Should be easy. They’re right by the mesh. San Deep couldn’t make it easier.”
“Can you bring ‘em in by yourself?”
“I got this, captain! Can’t wait to get my snack on!”
“No, if they’re minty like that, we’ve got to save them for sale.”
“Aww! No fair!”
“Just bring them up safely now, boy.”
His wire cutters clipped out one side and then another. On the third side, his light hit a little round radio marker. Just like they were supposed to find this salvage. Even San Deep wouldn’t be so obvious. Tomner puzzled on it for a moment. He even checked his catalog, but the cargo wasn’t on his list of previous finds.
He shrugged. No matter. Cargo was cargo. He finished clipping the wire and wrestled the container loose. It came out smooth, too smooth, like they were being tempted and tested.
He wrapped the flat in tape and got a tether on the package, which allowed it to float a safe distance from his belt. He’d anchor them up top and retrieve them on the way back.
After three more hours, he had covered the length of the boat and no more. Now halfway down the starboard side, below the tug’s rear rockets, his light flashed over an arc of rubber, catching his eye. He focused the beam on a distinctive knobby surface—tread pattern, width, the meatiness of the object, told him it had to be one thing only: the front tire of a moon bike.
“San Deep be praised!”
“What do you see, Tomner?” Jerla asked. Her voice had a sweetness to it, a gentleness, that would have seemed unusual if his mind wasn’t so focused on his discovery.
“A moon bike! Its tire, at least.”
Two photographs flashed on her computer screen, depicting the tire from different angles.
“It must be flat.”
“It looks inflated to me.”
“What could you do with a single tire, assuming you could retrieve it? Which looks impossible.”
He studied the junk pile. “I couldn’t get it from here,” he admitted. “Not with a little hole. It’s too impacted.”
“Better forget about it.” For once, Jerla sounded kind.
“Yeah.” Just in case, he tagged it with a homing marker and cataloged it. “Anyway, I’m coming back now. Too tired to go on. Bringing back a few things. And your crackers.”
“Good. Be careful. We’ll have a snack when you get home.”