When Cleve and I reach the river, I’m momentarily taken by yet another new creature. The closest Earth equivalent I can think of is a jellyfish. It moves like the butterfly we saw earlier and shimmers similarly, but since it’s actually underwater it’s even harder to pick out. There’s also a pulsing indigo glow rippling through it. Excited, I turn to Cleve to point it out to him. His eyes linger on mine longer than I expect, as if I’m the strange creature here, but then he looks down into the water and watches it head downstream. I start a new drawing in my sketchbook, eager to capture this before forgetting the details.
We wait for a while, sometimes catching sight of the repo crew as they wend their way along. Before they get too close, I initiate a conversation with Cleve about how the hill we just came down is a bust. Any of this overheard by Morgan’s men will provide an explanation for the tracks that go up and then come back down behind us. There’ll be no reason for them to go investigate those.
“Whoa! Who are you?” the team leader calls when he finally notices the two of us.
Cleve shifts, his rifle cradled in his arms, but not held ready. “Who are you?” he calls back with just as much authority. I wasn’t sure how well he’d take to this deception, but that’s the perfect response.
“We’re with the Morgan Repossession Team. This area’s marked for—”
I laugh. “There’s no need to say Morgan,” I tell him, recalling Corazon’s chiding. “Everything here’s Morgan. We’re with Prospecting.”
Cleve snorts. “Yeah, you sound like a planetfaller.”
“Look, where I’m from, everyone says Morgan, okay?” the man shoots back.
I wave the joke aside. “I suppose you can never say Morgan enough,” I allow. “We’re with Morgan Prospecting.”
“Well, hold up there. We’ve got a couple questions for you,” he says. His tone is pretty even; I think we’re starting from a good place. He and his underlings continue to close the distance, and we let them. They’re lightly armed, just pistols, no rifles; this isn’t a military force. The weapons and holsters are all the same, suggesting that they are company-issued. Everyone wears a ball cap—the uncool kind with a foam front and mesh back. Those say Morgan Repo. Their pants and boots are all mismatched, so probably personally owned, but the polo shirts are company-branded. The guy in charge even has a name badge, which says Yushi.
When the repossession squad gets close enough, I take control of the conversation before their team lead can. “Are you fellows looking for dropped gear? Did you lose something?” I can see it throws him off a bit. He’s probably not used to people being helpful. Or maybe he’s not used to people confidently looking him in the face when speaking with him. I imagine most people he talks to are afraid of him to some degree.
“Finally! Somebody who respects the rules!” Yushi says appreciatively. “Yes, we’re here to reacquire some equipment that somebody… I’m going to go ahead and say stole. Absconded with, is perhaps the right term.” It sounds like he took the loss personally. It makes me wonder what the price of failure is in this recovery. I do my best to look shocked and dismayed that such a crime would happen under a Morgan dome. Yushi’s on top of his investigation, though, handling it professionally. He gives me a thorough description of the perpetrator, including the inventory list of all the equipment Corazon took. Apparently she’s also hacked off her braids since abandoning her antifungal post.
Cleve shifts again, taking a position a bit ahead of me, scowl on his face as usual. He doesn’t say anything, but his body language is a warning that he’s here to protect me. It’s pretty subtle and paints him in the bad cop light, which just highlights further how friendly I am. It’s efficient and useful, which is starting to not surprise me coming from him.
Yushi’s underlings lose some of their swagger. One of them even heads into the forest on the opposite side of the river to investigate some possible movement. “Think I might’ve heard something,” he claims. “I’d better go check it out.” I think Cleve might’ve scared him. Or maybe his rifle did. I find myself wondering how much resistance people usually put up to these repo squads.
I pull the cartridge of fungicide spray out of my satchel and hold it up for Yushi to see. Then I lie to his face, describing where we definitely did not find this and giving him a lead on where Corazon definitely is not. I lay it on pretty thick, thanking him for the work that his squad is doing. “It’s so great that you’re willing to come out into this sticky mess to get the job done. I just spent all morning hiking through this stuff; I know how hard it is to leave the comfort of the dome.”
Yushi steps up, happy to receive the cartridge from me. “I really appreciate your help. Not just compliance, but actual help. You were really trekking through some xenofungus!” As if he’s doing me a favor, he reaches out and brushes the xenofungus off my lapel. “Thanks very much,” he tells me again as he stashes the cartridge. Then he holds out his hand. “You can call me Yushi.”
We shake. “I’m Mariah Thorne,” I tell him in turn. I don’t think twice about giving my real name. What does it matter? I’m here and I’m alive. This is a fabulous place. That’s what’s important to me. Maybe they’ll check later and find out that nobody with my name works for Morgan Prospecting, but so what if they do? We’ll be long gone by then.
Yushi gives me a friendly clap on the shoulder. “You’re going to do great work, I know it,” he says, in a far better mood now than when he first hailed us. “Hey, if you two ever want to join the repo squad, there’s definitely bonuses.” He pulls out a flyer and I accept it gratefully, happy to have one more clue about how this world works. It’s similar to the fungus removal one I found earlier, but this organization has a minimum required credit rating.
Yushi’s missing squadmate returns, reporting no luck. “Must’ve just been a wolf beetle cub,” he says.
“Oh, yeah, keep an eye out for those,” I warn Yushi. “We ran into a nest of them yesterday.” In my mind, they’re still dangerous animals, regardless of what Corazon said. Her opinion seems widespread, though, since Yushi gives me a questioning look. I quickly explain, “A few missteps,” and he is satisfied with that. I’m relieved I didn’t give us away as newly awoken planetfallers just when everything was working out smoothly. I’d love to pump Yushi for more information on life in the domes, but I don’t see a way to do that without compromising us.
I let the repo squad go with no prying, but I listen to their conversation as they head off. It doesn’t sound like they’re paid very well, even if they are a step above some other positions in Morgan Industries. One of them complains that he’s still clawing his way out of debt, though he feels lucky to have landed this job. “You know, sometimes I think about self-exile. Yup, give it all up, see if I can make it on my own,” he says.
“Sure, if you want to do that,” one of the others says. “You got to pay off your debts first, though.”
“No quitter talk from me,” Yushi says. “I have what it takes. One day I’m going to make it to the Exec Board.”
With what I hear here and what Corazon said earlier, I’m beginning to grasp the economics of life under Morgan’s roof. Perpetual debt cycles, social standing tied to credit, indentured servitude for most. So much for Chiron being an improvement over Earth.