By Andrew Dunn
A round box. It’s got a medusa’s bundle of rainbow-coloured cables snaking down from one side. On another a silver socket surrounds copper-coloured pins. It’s big as a soccer ball and about as heavy. If you asked me, I wouldn’t have given a dollar for it, but I’m the wrong person to ask. I just find them and take my cut when I sell them.
“Cowboy.” The Director General of Tharsis-3 is leaning back, studying the object on the plexiglass table between us, in what passes for plush on Mars — a plastic chair with enough padding to cradle his sagging flab. “This is a most exquisite piece. Do you know what it is?”
Time to play dumb.
There are a lot of finders on Mars. A novice will use their real name. The good ones? We go by nicknames like Cowboy, Stiletto, or the Knife. The best? We know when to zip lips and let the buyer prattle on. I could’ve filled in the holes in the DG’s story about a control unit off a South Korean probe that landed on Mars before either of us were born. If I did, he’d have poured another round of godawful synthetic bourbon — I had a source that could get me the real thing — while he schemed to lowball me on the price.
“Korea Aerospace Research Institute pieces from that era are in vogue,” the buyer said before taking a deep swallow of bourbon.
I took a drink and countered, “Rightly so. Period KARI engineering is like a window into, what do they call it?”
“Pre-human Martian exploration. That’s what bothers me with a piece like this. Am I buying what will become passé?”
It all becomes passé.
I’ve sat across from buyers in identical parlours — Martian architecture has barely evolved beyond the utilitarian, but for extra padding in seats for the elites — and the conversation never changes. Today’s vogue inevitably becomes tomorrow’s ordinary as finders bring different artefacts back.
“My daughter,” the buyer continues, “she’s a delightful woman. Pre-med at University of Melbourne. My doing really. She wanted to study literature but I insisted upon pre-med. I think a piece like this might make a fine peace offering so to speak.”
The DG is a liar, but I call his turn of phrase witty, even if it’s passé.
A novice will try and sell landing gear to a buyer they haven’t researched. A good finder will take the same chance, with something fancier, and will come away shy of breaking even. The best? Before I ever sat down across from the ashen faced DG of Tharsis-3, I studied him online the way scientists scoured sensor data. The DG had a daughter sure — but she wasn’t pre-med in Australia, she was fronting a punk band in Paris.
“Camille is lovely,” I said, “but we’d agree, it would be inappropriate for me to weigh in on what you’d like to do with this piece.”
“A piece that feels abnormally light,” The DG replied. “This equipment ought weigh at least four kilograms. This is light as a feather.”
“Four kegs on Earth. Consider Martian gravity.”
The DG leaned in close. “Should we make an incision in one of the cables to make sure…”
I cut him off. “That would ruin its value.”
The DG took a deep swallow of bourbon and sank back into his seat. “What if there is no value in this piece at all?”
“The value,” I countered, “is along one side of the box. Check it out.”
I love when they do as they are told.
Novice finders never think ahead to serial numbers. The good ones won’t sell a piece unless they can find some hint of a serial number etched in its metal or carbon fibre. The best finders, when they find an artefact, might spend months ensuring its authenticity even if the serial number is long gone.
“That’s right,” I said. “As a connoisseur you understand that the serial number is as good as a birthmark, and that solar radiation burns serial numbers off so many artefacts. But this one is intact. You can take that serial number, run it in databases, and prove that this piece is authentic and yours alone, if we have a sale.”
The DG considered my words, the object between us, and then decided, “Ten grand. Non-negotiable.”
“Twelve,” the DG offered, “and I’ll add the other three as a bonus if you can get me another one. Twenty-seven total.”
Me? I’m the worst finder.
Getting him another would be easy. When I wasn’t hiking red soil in search of artefacts, I was running a 3D print shop in Tharsis-Main. I could print replicas of anything I found, bilk buyers, and keep the real deal for myself. It would work as long as a buyer never actually checked a piece’s serial number in databases. I gave everything I printed as best a serial number as I could approximate. Did my serials match originals? I wouldn’t have a wagered a bottle of real Earth bourbon on it.
“Deal.” The DG decided.
I’ll walk away from the DG twelve grand the better for giving him a fake. He’ll never know unless he keys in the serial number and heaven knows what databases will return. When he does, I’ll be hiking red dirt in search of my next quarry, and I’ll scan it and print copies I’ll sell for whatever I can get. And I’ll never tell anyone where my original finds are hidden.
About the Author
Andrew writes science-fiction and fantasy from the state of Maryland (US), often drawing ideas from jogs through forest trails at sunrise.
His work has previously appeared in AntipodeanSF, 365 Tomorrows, Daily Science Fiction, Penumbric Speculative Fiction, and in MetaStellar as reprints and MetaStellar’s anthology — his work has also short-listed in several writing contests.
Andrew welcomes reader feedback at <