Ian and I were working on the irrigation units on the north wall when we saw the trader pass overhead. Just the contrail of re-entry, but we knew it meant they would be landing soon. We left the pump half-disassembled and headed down and across the Gash. We knew the rest of the town would be heading for the pad as well. It would be several days before things returned to their routine so no one would be paying attention to the lower water pressure for a while.
The lifts were already up so we had to take the Thousand Steps to the top of the south rim and by the time we finished the climb the trader had already settled onto the flat expanse of compacted dirt that served as our starport, though the only real way to distinguish it from the rest of the plain was the array of antenna and sensor domes surrounding it. Most of the population was already there, watching as the automs brought the scheduled cargoes out of the hold and carried them to the lifts that would lower them to the valley floor.
Then came the market goods, the things that everyone had come to see and trade for. I watched the crowd as they moved among the tables the trader’s crew had put out. We mostly had items of glass to trade; when you live on a world of sand your manufacturing options are limited. The crew took what we had, carefully packing it away as our people chose implements of wood and metal and clothing of spun cloth in exchange. Data chips were exchanged as well, as always information was the most precious commodity of all.
Ian and I had not brought anything with us to trade. Instead, we were there to talk to the captain. We finally spotted her, moving among the crowd, advising her crew and exchanging the occasional pleasantry with one of our people. Ian pushed his way through the crowd towards her.
When we caught up with her she was looking over a set of goblets that Jeryome had spun. She was carefully examining them, selecting individuals from the set and carefully placing them in a padded container being held by the utility autom that was following her. Jeryome seemed pleased with the way the transaction was going and gave us a nod of recognition before turning his attention back to the captain.
As they talked I thought of the incongruity of it all. The realities of manufacture and travel make it so that there is really no need to ship basic commodities like minerals or food between the stars. Pretty much everything can be mined, grown or fabricated locally in any system that humans have settled. Exotic chemicals or processes can be replicated and recreated locally. After all, there are only so many ways that matter can be assembled and we have had the ability to do so at will for a long time. Even a tiny world such as ours only needed the occasional shipment of parts to keep itself running.
What we did need were uniques. One-off, created items that resulted from human creativity and ingenuity. Yes, any item that a human can create could be replicated thousands of times over but there was special status in having a Unique; from having the template from which the others were made.
It is the way of human nature. Automs could flawlessly replicate a meal, but the same meal cooked by a human, even imperfectly, will always be perceived by others as superior. It was why Ian and I had been repairing the north irrigation unit ourselves. Automs could easily do it faster than we could but no one would ever think it worked as well.
I looked at the captain. She appeared to be well into her second century but still had all of her vitality and intellect. She was dressed in a tan jumpsuit like the rest of her crew with only the blue captain’s star embroidered on the sleeve indicating her rank. As I watched, she finished making her selections, thanked Jeryome, entered a few notes on her datapad then turned to face us. She tilted her head slightly, probably noticing that neither of us were carrying anything for trade, but stepped forward in greeting.
“I’m Dalyen, the captain of the ‘Skirting the Edges of Infinity’. Morning greetings to you both. How can I help you?”
I hesitated but Ian spoke. “Captain Dalyen, I… I mean we…”, he gestured towards me, “We want to join your crew.”
Dalyen smiled tolerantly. “Oh really?” She shook her head. “And what makes you think I’m looking for crewmembers?”
Ian paused, somewhat taken aback. “Well… are you?” he asked finally.
The captain crossed her arms and cocked her head to one side, considering Ian then me. “It depends on who is applying.” she said finally. “But answer something for me first. You don’t know me. I doubt you even know anything about me. But you come up to me and the first thing you ask is to join me. So tell me. Why?”
Ian frowned. “We’re techs.” he said, gesturing towards me again. “I assume you can always use another tech.”
Dalyen shook her head. “That wasn’t what I asked. I’m not asking why I should be interested in you, I’m asking why you want to join me.”
Ian waved his arms around, indicating the sandy plain, the Gash, the mountains in the far distance. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Another shake of her head. “Apparently not, since I’m asking.”
Ian sighed and shook his own head. “Look at this place!” he said. “Sand, rocks and not much else. And no one interested in anything except living in the bottom of a hole in the ground. Why would I want to stay here?”
Dalyen smiled tolerantly. “I understand the Gash is a good place to be during sandstorms. And this desert is hardly your entire planet. I’m sure there’s a lot more varied terrain than this.”
“But it’s no more exciting than this.” said Ian. “Yeah, there are a few dozen outposts around the planet but nothing happens at them either.”
The captain shook her head. “I’m not sure why you’re talking to me if you’re looking for ‘excitement’. Excitement is something I try to avoid. I like stability myself.”
Ian looked frustrated. “But surely you go places that are more interesting than this!”
Dalyen shrugged. “Interesting to who? I’m sure someone from Freya would be happy here given that the temperatures are well above freezing. Nova Seattle’s people would be stunned at a place where it isn’t raining or storming all the time. And Polynesians wouldn’t know what to do on a world with more dry land than ocean.” She made a gesture encompassing the desert around her. “I’ve been to most of the known worlds and most of them are hardly different from what you have here; there are only so many planets we can live on and they aren’t that different when you come down to it.”
She shook her head. “If you want ‘excitement’ I suggest you contact Survey. Or maybe the Patrol. I’m not what you’re looking for.”
Ian stood silent for a moment. “So you aren’t hiring then?”
“I didn’t say that. I always have room for the right kind of person. But you aren’t it.” Ian stood stunned and she turned to look at me. “What about you? Are you looking for ‘excitement’ too?”
I looked back at her and considered the jumpsuit she was wearing again. It fit her perfectly, obviously custom-tailored and not fabricated. I looked at the datapad she still held and the matching earpiece, both black glass and chrome and again obviously custom made. Then I glanced at the items she had selected from us in trade and carefully packed on the autom still waiting patiently behind her.
“I want to learn.” I said. “I want to learn what people want and what they don’t. How to decide what is important to them and what isn’t. And how much to pay them for what they don’t want and how much they will pay me for what they do. I want to learn how to make as much money as I can travelling from world to world so that someday I can have my own ship and my own crew and that I will be the one deciding who I want to travel with me and who I don’t. And I think that the best way to learn that is from you.”
Dalyen regarded me for a moment then extended her hand. “Welcome aboard the Edge.”