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.”
Earth sent its garbage, particularly its toxic waste, up the space elevator to a platform in low geostationary orbit. From that point of weightlessness, the stuff could easily be pushed further out into space, specifically to the San Deep station, where it had to be loaded into the massive junk crates.
Jerla and Tomner had been waiting in the tugboat queue for a week, watching boat after boat ahead of them link to full junks and pilot them away. Boredom had set in, and they were bickering. When the doorbell chimed, they both jumped to the microphone controls. She found the one in her tree before he found his on the cluttered desk.
“Bandicoot’s Wedge, here. Captain Jerla speaking.”
“Move in for your cargo, girl.” Jerla’s friend Didai spoke; a fellow couche, she held a supervisory position with the Sanitation Department. “Make it quick.”
“Let’s get it, Tomner!” Even through the electronic interface she sounded perky; a crate had never before made her so animated.
He fired rockets in turn to manipulate their tug into position over the gigantic crate: forward, sidereal left, sidereal right, left, left, forward.
Cameras under the boat showed spraypainted markings the garbagemen had left to delineate the halfway point of the junk. Once positioned over this center line, he flickered the button to fire the downward rocket…gentle, gentle, gentle…then a quick blast of the upward jet to slow the boat on its downward trajectory.
Like a butterfly landing on a flower, the tugboat touched the cargo without jarring it or the dock it was berthed to. Tomner prided himself on his piloting skills, one of the few things he actually felt confident doing.
“Nice work, boy” Jerla breathed.
“Thanks, boss.” He grinned. “That’s what I’m paid for!”
Tomner pressed the control that locked the clamps under the tugboat to secure the junk crate.
As captain, Jerla contacted the control tower. “We’re pregnant, Didai! Tell me when.”
“Gotcha, Jerly girl. You are clear for sailing.”
“Go ahead, Tomner.”
He pulsed the afterburners and two sidereal stabilizers to break the inertia of the boat and its massive cargo. In a world without up or down or sideways, gradual motion maintained control, but it was slow going. The boat began sliding out of the docking arms, dragging its load, easing past the guide lights one at a time in an even, slug-like motion. Once the tug had floated free of the depot, he turned it, aiming the rockets away from the facility. Tomner toggled the directional jets to keep them in one general area, until the traffic controller flashed them a green light.
Jerla gave the command, and Tomner pressed the launch button. After a short burst of fire, they would just coast across the inner planetary orbits. Eventually, Old Sol would grab the massive package, reeling it in, sucking it down his gravity well. From that point, the tug existed to ensure the cargo crate didn’t drift away or fall apart, but it was largely a helpless passenger coasting on the biggest freight elevator known to Earth.
The Wedge had crawled past Venus and was approaching Mercury. Down here, the doldrums set in with the radiation and the brightness, as the overwhelming vision of the sun roaring and spitting dominated the forward horizon like an angry mouth. Tomner usually could not tear his eyes away from the burn, and Jerla would have to force him to wear sunshields on his eyes; his mind would find pleasure in the blankness, the total erasure of thought and self. On this trip, the threat of losing his leg a second time pressed on him with a force greater than the sun’s mass. He sat on the floor, sun shades resting on his nose, staring at the wall. True, the observation port was over there, but he didn’t notice it. Instead of wrestling with the sun, he wrestled with the clock, waiting for the broadcast of doom. Under normal circumstances, he would remove the leg during downtime, power it off; but today, he left it strapped on and powered up, flexing, testing, admiring it. The digital readout counted away his last moments with this marvel of engineering: three hours, two hours, one hour, thirty minutes, twenty-nine minutes, twenty-eight, twenty-seven…
‘Why would you flip a man’s leg if it meant he couldn’t work to pay back the loan?” Tomner muttered to himself. “What kind of business model is that? They seem to think a leg is a luxury. Maybe that’s true; maybe I can live without it; maybe I don’t need two legs in zero gravity. Maybe we can hire somebody to do the grunt work, and I can settle into a supervisory role. I’m part owner of the Wedge, after all.’
The clock alarm sounded. His time was up, the end of the leg. Who knew when he could pay it back now, if ever.
But nothing happened.
“Oh, fadsnort! That was just the broadcast time. I forgot about the delay.”
“What are you talking about?” Jerla asked.
“My deadline. I forgot the broadcast delay. Gotta calculate it now.”
“From our current position, there’s a four point four minute time lapse from Earth to Mercury.”
“Oh, yeah?” Four more minutes with his leg. Was that better or worse than having it flipped off already? He reached out and reset the alarm, then settled back to staring. The sun glared at him through the portal. Maybe he would dump the leg with the rest of the trash. That would show them!
Now the sun ate his mind. Old Sol roared, he laughed, he gurned and mocked and snarled. Giant arms of flame reached out, beckoning Tomner to throw down the leg, to throw down his life. To ride the elevator of cargo straight down the gravity well and into purifying, forgiving, everlasting fire. If Jerla wanted the boat to return to the greedbags and their striving, pushing way of life, that was fine with him. He would just walk out that door and attach his tether to the crate, lock fingers in the mesh, and hang on for dear, sweet oblivion.
The alarm sounded a second time. Tomner stared at the clock in disbelief, then at his leg. The power light still glowed on his hip. He flexed the toes, the ankle, the calf, the knee. Everything worked. He stretched it again and again, as if waves of muscular contractions were washing over the appendage. In a way, it wasn’t fair. If you’re going to turn off a man’s leg, just do it and be done with it. Get the time right! Don’t keep me waiting!
He felt hot tears burn in his eyes as frustration overwhelmed him, flooding his mind with hope and anger and fear and grief. Mostly grief. He was always a victim of some outside force. This corporation or that corporation, then the union, then the government. The thin shell of the Wedge fighting radiation and heat and gravity, very much like this thin shell of a man fighting against forces as merciless as nature.
The leg kept moving. He stood, bending his knees, rising on his toes. He took one step and another, began pacing up and down the cabin, the magnets in his prosthetic foot and shoe clicking on the metal floor.
“What are you doing, Tomner?” Jerla called in electric tones. “You’re making so much noise!”
“They won’t turn off the leg! It’s typical, isn’t it? Tell a man they’ll do something and then leave him hanging!”
“Why are you so upset? Your leg is still on. The signal must have gotten blocked by radiation interference. This far down the well, the sun sends out all kinds of wave energy in every spectrum and frequency.”
“So that’s what Old Sol was trying to tell me!”
“What was the sun trying to tell you? Have you been staring out the portal again? I hope you were wearing your goggles!”
“Shuffle the goggles! Of course I was wearing them. You always miss the point.”
“The point is that the signal came, got garbled, and missed you and your leg. It’s over.”
“Are you serious? They may have missed this time, but they’ll try again, as soon as we’re in local space!”
“I doubt it. They think they turned it off. The signal was sent and logged, and your account frozen.”
“Do I still have to pay?”
“If we do, it will probably just reopen your account. Then they’ll observe that your leg is still operational.”
“Retrograde fire!” Tomner stepped around the cabin in a lopsided jig, bowing and clapping. “San Deep be praised! See, Jerla, it’s not just mumbo jumbo! I’ve been praying like gravity, and San Deep delivered the cargo!”
“Perhaps,” Jerla groaned. “Something like that.”
Tomner laughed. “You can’t admit it. But one day I’ll convince you. Then you’ll allow me to make a real altar in here, finally. That’s when the big magic will happen. No drift about that.”
Low, flat electronic static blurted out of Jerla’s speaker, the sound of a sigh. Her tree rustled as she shifted in her nest. “I’m going back to sleep. If you start sungazing again, be sure to wear your glasses.”
Tomner looked toward the sun, but his thoughts focused on San Deep, the great diety of cargo and salvage, revered by garbagemen for generations. Never before had he received such powerful evidence of the god’s existence and influence. The incident was a true miracle, and he now stared at his leg in awe. Like he was walking on a sacred relic, like it had been imbued with special strength and ability. He visualized himself running up the mountains of the moon, jumping as high as any tree in the arboretum, pushing massive junk loads with the slightest motion of his toes. The moon bike rolled into his thoughts now on two wheels, riderless but waiting to carry one who was worthy. Down below, in the crate, his bike waited, another gift of the great San Deep. Another miracle! Truly he was blessed.
Opening the door to his locker, fluorescent light sparkled on the small altar he had assembled there. Tomner folded his hands under his chin and bowed three times. In a reverent whisper he recited:
“Master San Deep, great, awesome, kind and true,
your blessing honors me and makes me new;
standing in your light I will never fear
the dark of the universe when it’s near.”
Tomner chanted for such a long time his mouth felt dry when he finally sat down again. Sipping on sweetened water, a vision of the bike came to him, sent by the god himself. There he was, cutting a large square of mesh at the side of the container. As if on its own magical power, the bike pushed its way out, scattering junk to the solar wind. The machine paused in space, waiting for its new master to mount. And then in his vision, his face radiant, sweetwater drooling from his slack lips, Tomner floated onto the wide seat and began to pedal through the aether on San Deep’s chosen path, rolling to the Free Store in the sky.
Seven years ago, give or take a few months, Tomner lost his left leg in an industrial accident. He worked directly for the JunkTech Company, on contract to the Sanitation Department. For the first six hour shift of the day, his crew built crates from pipe sections and hardware cloth, tethering them to the loading platform to float until needed. They got a two hour break for a meal, siesta and oxy-tank refill. Then it was another six hours in free space, loading junk into the crates. The objects they manipulated may not have had weight, but by the end of each day, their mass had exhausted his muscles, even though the crew could use aero-flits to push barrels of toxic waste and other large materials around. Sometimes, those materials took on spin, energized by some equal and opposite force, that sent them wandering as if they had minds of their own. Then the garbagemen chased them down with their suit-jets; that was the quickest way to overtake, tackle, stop, reverse, and return the stray item.
That day, it happened to be a deactivated satellite, one of those clunky, prickly things leftover from the twentieth-century, its discs and plates and arms cracked and sagging, gold foil peeling, barrel-shaped hull pitted and degraded and imbedded with space dust. The monstrosity had flipped off the aero-cart, almost as if one of its own jets had found a shred of residual power and fired at random. Five garbagemen went after it, Tomner one of the first, and it took their combined strength to wrestle the thing under control; all their jets were needed to shift the mass toward the crate.
Tomner had gotten on the opposite side to help brake the satellite after they pushed it past the mesh wall. The flow was smooth, without any yaw or roll, and he was just whispering thanks for that to San Deep, when a jet on one side of his suit sputtered—possibly clogged, possibly an electrical fault—causing his body to slip under and around the metal barrel. His fellows couldn’t have known about the jet failure, couldn’t have known that the junk wouldn’t brake as intended.
Using his hands, Tomner gripped the satellite and flipped himself around, scrambling to get free as it closed on him. In one way he was fortunate: his head, then his torso got clear of the wreckage. But his left leg had not cleared, and the lower jaw of the metal monster bit his thigh against the upper jaw of a rocket exhaust manifold.
Silence at first, no pain, no fear. He imagined he must have escaped the trap. When he couldn’t move forward, outward, despite pushing the jets to maximum power, he knew something had gone wrong. Like a clumsy, stupid, slow rabbit, he had gotten caught. Shame hit before the pain, but when the sharp, hot bite rushed up from below his waist, it struck like a meteor smashing into a minor moon, jarring his mind, jarring his body, jarring his sense of self completely outside the physical envelope and tearing him away from reality. Whether he screamed, or cried; whether he begged for help or life, he could not say. To save him from his own burning, collapsing body, his mind turned off, shutting out the universe for a time unknown.
Tomner woke in a white bed in a white room. His mind seemed white, and fuzzy, and strange. His body had been draped in a white smock. A white liquid—no, it was actually clear—flowed down a tube into his arm. Sheets of white paper lay in a neat stack on the bedside table.
He picked up the documents; his eyes blurred on the black type glaring from the pure whiteness. But he made out numbers and names, tables stacked with columns of data; as the symbols tumbled down into little hatch marked shadows at the bottom of the page, his fingers released the white paper to the floor.
Later, a delegation came to visit, wearing solemn faces and gray suits, two men and a woman: a union representative, a hospital financial aid, and an insurance adjuster. Together they went over the paperwork, each bearing a different facet of the bad news. His doctors had told him about the amputation. They had recommended a state-of-the-art prosthesis: powered, computerized, better than flesh and bone. The suits shoveled reality over his head, buried him in figures, contracts, coverage rules. Basically, his insurance, as provided by the union, covered the amputation and aftercare, but not a mechanical replacement of the caliber his doctors had suggested. The union’s attorneys had arranged a settlement from the company, which they characterized as generous. In reality, it gave him enough to make a down payment on the new leg, with some leftover to invest in a business that would help him pay off the rest.
Another afternoon, Tomner awoke in a thick haze of painkillers from fevered dreams. A set of ravening tungsten steel jaws snarled and snapped at him, eating his body piece by desiccated, splintering piece, as if he had been carved from a log of driftwood. Another suit stood at the foot of his bed, mouthing words that came at him like houseflies, buzzing in and out, darting and refusing to stay still. An introduction, a business proposal, a chance to start again, to pay off his gleaming miracle of a leg.
A small creature stood on its hind legs, sniffing at him from the vantage point of a kind of pedestal. He met Jerla for the first time. She wore the blue helmet and spoke to him in her tinny voice, like a cartoon rat.
Tugboat, salvage, partners, the elevator to the sun. These few words penetrated the fog as if beamed by a lighthouse. He grasped at the lifeline, signed a contract, bought a share, they said, in her business. From then on, he was no longer a garbageman; he worked on the other side of the cargo crate, as a tugboat pilot, guiding trash barges to solar incineration, drawing secret salvage in double armfuls as fast as San Deep could deliver.
Carefree, happy days spread before him, but also days of boredom and bickering with this little pipsqueak that called herself “captain” and took all the decisions. It didn’t matter. For the first time in his life, Tomner felt like a free man.
The navigational computer on Bandicoot’s Wedge warned them when they had reached the drop zone, down the well past Mercury. A sweet spot just out of Old Sol’s gravitational reach, it also kept them outside the fiercest radiation.
“If you want to check that bike,” Jerla said, “now’s the time to do it.”
“You don’t gamble with luck!” Tomner squealed. His enthusiasm always amused her, and she smiled in a way he couldn’t interpret. He sealed up his suit, took up his tools, and made for the airlock.
“I hope it’s more than a tire, Tomner,” Jerla said, and for the first time, the man wondered about the kindness in her voice.
“San Deep wouldn’t play me up like that! No, ma’am. I’m sure it’s a full moon bike, especially now that he gave me back my leg for real.”
Jerla almost sighed again, but she constrained herself. Tomner closed the portal, and the depressurization signal sounded a moment later.
Outside, looking upon the vastness of open space, Tomner felt his power and energy and hope spread out to infinity. His god had embraced him; now nothing could go wrong. Tethered to the tugboat, the man activated the electronic positioning device and located the bike’s marker on the screen. Old Sol pressed on him, reminding him of the time limit. Now he clambered down the crate, careful not to snag his gloves, his boots, his line. His helmet light found the beacon, and then that distinctive rubber arc. Clippers out, he snipped away the top section of the mesh about three feet to each side of the tire. Then he went down the same distance along the verticals to the left and right of that central point. A six foot square was a standard cut for removing a good sized piece of salvage like the bike or the cracker flat. While folding down the mesh along the bottom edge, he inspected the contents, looking for that keystone piece of junk that might free the rest. Nothing presented itself, so he grabbed the first item he saw, just an old air blower. This he pushed away from the crate, where it drifted out into the gravity well. He didn’t watch it fall.
One piece followed another, but no single piece broke the inertia of the others. He tried jostling the junk, hoping to energize it in a way that would set it all tumbling through the hole. It looked like he would have to proceed one at a time until he reached the treasure, his goal, his bike.
“Newton’s Law!” Tomner swore, using the garbageman’s curse to refresh himself. Time was running out; soon they’d have to dump the crate, jump off the elevator, and fight their way back up the well to base.
And then it broke loose. He had been pulling stuff out so quickly, flinging it behind him to clear it away, that he couldn’t be sure which one had been the key. No matter, now it came tumbling, the pieces jostling each other and passing energy along the line in an avalanche of material. The junk poured out in such a rush it knocked the man aside and threatened to hold him in its fall to incineration. Flailing and somersaulting, out of control, Tomner fell away from the boat. The tether caught and held him in an undertow of garbage and scrap, and then something severed the cable.
Now he flew free, in a highly unstable spin that pushed his mind into a blur of vertigo backed by the burning orb of the sun wheeling below, with shadows of junk swarming before it. As cargo jostled and rammed him, he fired his suit jets to slow the yawing and rolling and pitching of his body. He stabilized for a moment, and in that few seconds, he saw the moon bike tumble through the opening, flipping in space. Together, man and bike shared the bewildering scrum and acrobatics of the cascade, two more pieces of junk in a wave of unwanted material pouring from the garbage barge.
Tomner remembered Jerla’s words, her criticism that he gave up too soon. Not this time. Experimenting with his jets, he managed to get himself moving in one direction and then reorient. He located the bike in the river of materials pouring down the well and went after it. Grabbing hold of the frame, he began to flip with it, then stabilized himself again.
This was his moment. Pulling himself onto the seat, gripping the handle bars, his boots found the pedals, got them rotating. With loose, flowing cargo bouncing around them, man and bike floated together in open space.
“Jerla! Captain! I’ve got it! I got the bike!”
“Be careful, boy! You’re falling too far!”
Old Sol rose up from below, a giant flaming maw that shrieked and groaned, reaching for its prey with enormous, arcing arms of pure fire. That mouth, that monster did not just eat its victims, it annihilated them, it decimated them; they burned in a way that nothing could burn anywhere else but in a sun.
The jets breathed out, sending streams of pressurized air to bat aside the arms of the sun, and in slow motion the man began to move, carrying his bike along. Tomner pedaled faster, as if this effort added to the force of the jets, as if he could ride out of danger on this magical steed, this blessed gift from the great San Deep. The bike or the jets or both carried him away from the sun, away from the stream of junk cargo falling into the jaws of burning, collapsing, fusing gas, and back toward the safety of his home.
“Jerla! Drop the crate!” Tomner screamed. “Drop the crate! Old Sol wants bones to crack, but he can’t have mine!” And he laughed and laughed as he pedaled up the well toward the tug.
Jerla watched Tomner on the video monitor, the sharp light in her round black eyes softening. It had taken extra fuel costs to rush the boat this close to the sun, to conceal his leg in radio interference when the flip signal came. While he had ignored the bills for his prosthesis, she had marked the dates on the calendar. Neither of them had the money to pay off that leg, so this was the only way to clear the bill.
She had spent all her savings on the down payment for the medical device; Didai said she was too soft-hearted. In a clandestine arrangement with the adoption agency, she had put up a “disability settlement” that convinced Tomner to sign the contract. While he thought he was using his own money to join her crew, the money had gone to New Body. The sanitation company had provided nothing, took no responsibility for the employee or his accident, and had terminated his contract once he was disabled. The union insurance had paid his basic care, and nothing more. Without income or profession, the man became a ward of the state, eligible for adoption. Tomner didn’t know, he couldn’t know—it was forbidden for him to know—his true socioeconomic status.
As soon as she had acquired a companion to assist with the salvage work, the market had dwindled; rules had tightened for claiming and trading the windfalls from junk cargo. Without the work, keeping an adult male human entertained and busy had gotten more difficult. It seemed too good to be true when Didai saw that a moon bike had been dumped in the junk pile; she had alerted Jerla and arranged to have it inserted in their cargo container. One couche will groom another couche, but not without a price. Jerla owed her friend some serious cargo—the containers of cheese crackers were part of the smuggling deal.
Sometimes you have to indulge a pet, Jerla thought to herself, with a sense of proud satisfaction as she watched his capering. ‘He looks so happy out there on the bike.’
Maybe one day she would be able to buy him the sim-gym membership he dreamed of, so he’d have some actual moon rocks to ride it on. The human’s space jaunt was cute to watch. But a real ride, on real terrain—with his strong, agile body exposed, hair blowing in the wind, eagerness shining on his face, in his eyes—that would be adorable.
A multi-media artist living near Washington, DC, Jeff Bagato produces poetry and prose as well as electronic music, and glitch video. Some of his poetry has appeared in Empty Mirror, Futures Trading, Otoliths, Gold Wake Live, River River, and Zoomoozophone Review. His published books include Savage Magic (poetry), Spells of Coming Day (poetry), The Toothpick Fairy (fiction), and Computing Angels (fiction). A blog about his writing and publishing efforts can be found at http://jeffbagato.wordpress.com.