Someone had taken charge of the crowd and organised them into a line. One person was being let into the docking bay for each one who departed.
Those waiting for their turn were a jumble of curious residents and professional traders, each jockeying for position, each looking to buy or barter as much fresh food as they could carry or afford.
The residents wanted to eat it there and then, but the traders were just as eager to resell their merchandise at a profit margin which would fall somewhere between healthy and outrageous.
The cargo transport Orion barely fit in the bay. It squatted before the great docking bay doors which led to the space dock entrance. The ship’s name was stencilled in huge white letters above the open cargo ramp and over the primary port and starboard engine housings.
Crew members were shifting items down the cargo ramp and onto the deck where they were being sold and claimed as fast as they could be removed from the ship.
Tila grumbled, “We can’t buy anything anyway. Why do we have to wait in line?” It seemed the slow minutes of steady shuffling had brought them no closer to the front of the line. It wasn’t just the wait that was getting on her nerves. Malachi’s enthusiasm was starting to grate.
“Because I want to see this ship for myself,” he said. “My dad said I should look at the ship now in case he decides to punish me by not letting me help him fix it.”
“That’s a punishment?” said Ellie.
“Punish you for what?” said Tila.
“Your birthday present,” said Malachi without turning around.
“If it’s so amazing why did it break down?” Ellie asked.
Malachi shrugged. “He doesn’t know. Maybe they just hadn’t bedded in the design yet. Could be anything.”
“How come older ships don’t break down here,” said Ellie.
“Ellie, the older ships don’t even come here because their crews know how dangerous this system is,” said Tila.
“If only that were true. You know most ships would avoid this system if they could, but until they can build new beacons for longer range jumps Celato is still the fastest route for most trade.
A thought occurred to Ellie. “Why is Theo punishing you? Tila’s the one who went to the Eclipse.”
“I’m the one who told her where it was. I was supposed to stop her from going, not help her find it.”
“Didn’t you tell him you couldn’t stop me even if you wanted to?” said Tila.
“No. Believe it or not I didn’t tell him that!”
“It might have helped,” she offered.
Eventually their long slow shuffle brought them to the threshold of the docking bay. The shouts of the traders haggling with the crew and arguing with each other were magnified by the cavernous space as echoes reverberated around the chamber.
Once through the bay doors Malachi started impatiently hopping in and out of the queue trying to see more of the ship’s design. He was the only person there looking up. Everyone else was intent on buying anything and everything they could before someone else beat them to it.
“Back in line,” warned one of the crew, wary that anyone from the Juggernaut would be taking an interest in his valuable ship. None of the crew wanted to be here, and they had no intention of making the best of this bad situation. They wanted out of here now. As far as they were concerned they needed to make what money they could before their stock was worthless and get their ship repaired and underway as soon as possible.
Besides, everyone knew you couldn’t trust the dispossessed. Orion’s crew knew full well that if you were stuck here it was because you deserved it. Of course, had they made this opinion public someone might well have pointed out to them that they too were stuck here, and might remain so if it weren’t for the help of the people they scorned.
But this was still the popular view shared by most of the Commonwealth, right up to the point where they had nowhere else to go.
Disappointed, Malachi took his place back in the queue and the shuffling continued. By the time they reached the front the ship’s crew had decided that rather than selling to the traders, they could sell direct, increase the prices and keep the difference. The upside was a wider range of produce. The downside was the price.
“How much for an orange?” Tila asked a crewman when her turn finally came.
He told her.
“What?!” said Tila.
“Come on!” said Malachi.
“Is that a lot?” said Ellie.
They looked at her.
“I don’t know! I’ve never had one!” she explained.
“We still have enough for one,” said Malachi.
“It’s the last one,” said the crewman. “You want it or not?”
“Fine!” said Tila. “We’ll take it.”
Malachi paid, Tila grumbled and Ellie bit her lip in anticipation as they moved to one side of the crowd and left the docking bay.
Behind them the crewman tossed the empty container aside and pulled out another box full of oranges.
“Dirt-dwellers think they can do what they like!” said Malachi.
“You were a dirt-dweller once,” Ellie said.
“But I never overcharged for an orange. One orange!” He continued grumbling as they returned to the market.
They paused between two stalls. Tila cradled the fruit in her hands, rediscovering the smooth rippled texture of the skin. She offered it to Ellie.
“Have you ever smelled an orange? Try it. Scratch the skin. It’s okay, it’s tough, you won’t damage the inside.”
Ellie’s face lit up. “Oh, wow!”
“It’s even better inside,” Tila promised. She cut into the skin by running her thumbnail across the surface and savoured the fine citrus spray she released. Then, taking care not to damage the soft white-veined flesh of the fruit, Tila peeled back the skin and extracted the segments inside.
“Are you ready?” asked Tila as she shared out the pieces. “It’s been years since I had one of these.”
“On three?” said Malachi. Tila held up three fingers to start a countdown. On one they each took a bite and shared a happy sigh.
Tila sat down in their little alcove and leaned against one of the stalls as she savoured her treat.
The stalls either side of them were almost buried beneath piles of scrap metal, pipework and cables. It looked like someone had torn apart some huge machine and left the pieces where they fell.
Malachi poked around for anything he thought might be useful while Ellie settled herself beside Tila.
Ellie ate her portion delicately, one piece at a time.
Tila wolfed hers down, then checked the stallholder was looking the other way. “Is he looking for new tech?” she asked Ellie as she surreptitiously wiped her fingers on the cloth draped over the table.
“You mean old tech,” said Ellie.
“What’s new in this place?” said Malachi. He had finished his segments too and was using both hands to look for buried treasure. He seemed fascinated by everything on offer but as far as Ellie and Tila were concerned it was still only junk.
Ellie delicately sucked orange juice from her fingertips. She hated getting her hands sticky. “I don’t know what you expect to find,” she said to Malachi. “Nothing that old is going to work anyway.”
“What if I told you that I was looking for something for your racer?”
“Oh, then please carry on!”
“Anyway, Tila’s staff is old and works fine,” Malachi replied without looking up. “It’s paleotech for sure.”
“So you keep saying, but we don’t know if it’s paleotech,” said Tila, dismissing his opinion with a wave of her hand. “We don’t even know what it’s made of.”
“All the more reason,” Malachi said as if this were obvious. “You have to admit that it checks all the right boxes.” He counted off fingers. “One, we don’t know where it comes from. Two, we don’t know what it’s made of and three, we don’t know what it’s for or how it works. Uh, four. So it must predate the war.”
“So how do you know it works properly if you don’t know what it does?” said Ellie.
“I know how it works, and I know it’s a weapon. And I know without it I wouldn’t be here now,” Tila said. “I don’t need to know any more than that.”
“Maybe you should find out what it’s worth,” urged Ellie. “Then we can buy our way out of here.”
“I’m not selling it. Ever. We’ve come a long way together. It’s worth too much to me.”
“But how much is it worth to me?” Ellie said with a grin.
There was a cough behind them. “Excuse me, ladies, did one of you mention paleotech?” His eyes darted to the short staff on Tila’s back, evidence enough he had overheard their conversation.
“It’s not for sale,” Tila said quickly.
“Oh, I understand! Really, I do. But items like this don’t pass through here every day. Could I at least look at it? Maybe I can tell you what it’s worth?”
“It’s not for sale, there’s no point. I don’t care what it’s worth,” repeated Tila.
“You don’t care what it’s worth?” He sounded appalled at the idea. “But it could be ancient tech, before we lost contact with Earth. It could even be from Earth! How can you not want to know?”
“Because none of that matters to me. I don’t care where it came from, or how old it might be. It’s mine now.”
“It’s not for sale, and no, you can’t touch it.” Tila said firmly to stop him leading the conversation where she knew it was going. “And stop romanticising everything, you too, Malachi. It was barely a hundred years ago we lost contact with Earth. It’s hardly ancient technology.”
He grumbled something, realised there was no profit to be made and vanished behind his stall, muttering to himself. A few seconds later he reappeared with a broom. This time he was brusque and demanding. “You can’t sit there.”
The girls looked up into a scowl that resembled a face.
“You can’t sit there. You have to move,” he repeated.
“We’re not in the way,” protested Ellie.
“You can’t sit there. This is my space for my trade. Clear off. You want to sit there you can rent the space.”
Ellie tried again. “We weren’t in the way a moment ago. We’re not stopping anyone. Tila?”
“Come on, Ellie. Not today. I’m trying to be less confrontational, remember?”
They gathered their things. Malachi reluctantly tore himself away from the parts on offer. Tila held her staff close to her body to ward off curious hands. Ellie continued to grumble, and together they dived back into the fast-flowing waters of the market.