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“Universal Print” by Fonda Lee

“Well, the coolant system is fucked.” Ray Cutter emerged from the underbelly of the starboat. He pulled off his grease-stained Universal Print Delivery & Service jacket and threw it into the dirt at his feet. “We’re not getting off the planet.”

Art Strung stared at the grounded vessel, then turned in a slow, disbelieving circle. The afternoon Thedesian sun beat down on the scrubby, arid landscape: dusty, rolling purple hills dotted with copses of bushy blackish-green trees, and in the distance, piled rock formations that made Art think of enormous heaps of animal dung.

I’m screwed, Strung decided. I am so going to be fired.

“We’ve got to call this in,” he said.

“No way.” Cutter kicked the side of the boat. “If we call in, we’re done for. They’re going to ask why we’re so far off course, and how the hell we ended up in the Thedesian system. No one is going to believe we jumped into it by accident when we’re supposed to be making a delivery to Phobos. They’ll search the ship and check our flight logs.”

“Yes, do tell.” Strung’s lip curled back. “How did we end up jumping into low orbit over Thedesia? Who the hell mixes up the coordinates for Tharsis with those for Thedesia? Huh?”

“It was an easy mistake! Anyone could have done it!”

Strung found a flat rock in the shade and sank down onto it. A small eight-limbed purple lizard scurried in front of his foot and under a nearby prickly plant, waving its feelers and chittering indignantly. He felt a tension headache coming on.

Cutter was pacing back and forth, purple dust puffing around his feet. “I’m not going to jail, man, not for this small time stuff. They’d lock us up with real smugglers, hardened space dogs. Those guys would eat us alive.” He shook his head, the usual slack insolence of his face replaced, for once, with actual worry. “We’d be better off staying on this remote rock forever.”

“This is all your fucking fault,” said Strung, because it was. Though, Strung admitted, he had been stupid enough to a) help his serially unemployed old school buddy get a job as a deliveryman at Universal Print in the first place and b) let him start with the little side trips that had inadvertently landed them both in the Thedesian desert.

“Okay,” Cutter said. He stopped pacing and ran a hand through his hair. “Okay. We get on the first transport back to the Terran system. When we get there, we tell them we got hijacked at our last stop and the thugs took off with all the cargo. We barely escaped with our lives.”

Strung glared at him. “How often do you think transports come out to Thedesia? I don’t think this planet even has a commercial spaceport. Who knows how long we could be out here.” Sweat trickled down the back of Strung’s neck and between his shoulder blades. He wondered if he could get a message to Renata to send help, but if she found out what he’d been up to, she’d kill him. Then she’d leave him. He hauled himself to his feet and stalked back to the starboat. “We need to find a mechanic. Then we burn the contraband, get the hell out, and hope U.P. buys the story that we got hopelessly lost, and fires us instead of pressing charges.”

Cutter stared after him. “Burn it? Are you out of your mind?”

Strung opened the back cargo hatch and hauled the cover off the first printer, the one supposedly on delivery to a Mr. D. Sing living in New Rio, Phobos. It was a brand-new, high-capacity UP3122X: gleaming and sleek, in a neutral eggshell color that would complement any home decor. Strung threw the door open, reached inside with both arms, and swept out a dozen black canisters. They tumbled out of the printer and across the threshold of the cargo hatch, spilling out onto the ground.

Cutter ran up with a howl of protest. “Do you know how much all that is worth?”

“I don’t care! Do you know how much trouble it’s gotten us into?”

Cutter fell to his knees and began collecting the fallen canisters like a child frantically gathering candy. “We’ll hide it. We’ll come back for it.” He swung his head from side to side, scanning the open wilderness for a suitable storage place. “Hey look!” He motioned with his chin toward the crest of the hill to the east. A plume of indigo dust was making its way down the slope toward them. Strung paused to squint at it. He could make out the shape of an approaching vehicle, bearing down fast.

A huge wheeled buggy ground to a halt in front of them, sending up a storm of grit. A man hopped out of the front seat. He gaped at them. Then his tanned face broke into a grin, and he let out a bark of laughter. Strung couldn’t blame him. They were probably the most ridiculous thing he’d ever seen: two Universal Print deliverymen, frozen wide-eyed amid the small pile of black canisters scattered behind their broken starboat, steaming in the desert.

The Thedesian pointed to the starboat and said a bunch of words.

“Uh, we don’t speak Thedesian,” said Cutter.

“It’s German, you idiot,” Strung hissed.

The man pushed up the rim of his broad hat and adjusted the woven belt around his loose-fitting tan clothes. He pointed to the boat again and said in halting Standard, “You need fix.”

“Yes! Yes, need fix,” Strung agreed. “Can you help us?”

The man pointed from the boat back to the enormous dune buggy. “I take to town, yes?”

Cutter and Strung looked at each other. “Yes, that would be great,” said Strung.

The man tapped the middle of his left palm with a finger.

“We can pay.” Cutter took out his pay tag and held it up.

The Thedesian made a scornful face. “Real money only.”

Cutter looked to Strung in confusion. “What does he mean?”

“Ah, crap.” Strung glanced again at the Thedesian’s simple, woven clothes and callused hands. “I read about this. Thedesia is some kind of alternative lifestyle colony. The people here choose to live in traditional ways and don’t allow any Interstellar Age technology. I think they still use physical currency.”

“Physical currency?” Cutter frowned. “Like what? Pieces of gold?” He followed the Thedesian’s curious gaze and in a flash of inspiration, snatched up one of the black canisters and thrust it at the man. “How about that?”

The Thedesian unscrewed the lid and peered inside. He sniffed it. Then he smiled, closed the canister, and tucked it under an arm. Without another word, he got back into the buggy, pulled it in front of the delivery boat, and dragged out a pair of towing cables. He eyed the other canisters that Cutter and Strung hastily stuffed back into the ship’s cargo hold. “You sell?”

“No, no, we don’t sell,” Strung said.

“We’ll make an exception for you, of course,” Cutter amended quickly. Strung gave him an evil look.

They rode into town on the back seat of the buggy, towing the ship on its hover runners behind them. It was not a long trip, just enough time for Strung to have a good angry stew about how he’d gotten into this mess. It was not supposed to have been a big deal. Cutter knew this guy, who knew this guy, and all they had to do was take a little detour once in a while and pick up several canisters of the highest-grade Siryean white snuff, hide it inside the printers they were delivering, and take it through customs and inspection to a distributor on Tharsis for a little duty-free kickback. The printer had a tamper-proof activity log, but as long as they didn’t turn it on, no one would know they were using such an expensive piece of machinery as a container.

Strung had not liked it at first, just as he had not liked it when Cutter had tried his hand at breeding Andromedean fighting rats, or when he’d borrowed two paychecks worth of money to buy asteroid real estate derivatives that “couldn’t go down” but promptly had. Not to mention the time he’d conveniently skipped town and left Strung to explain why the rental car smelled like monkey piss. The exotic pet trade in Gliesian pygmy tamarins, it turned out, was not remotely worth the trouble.

Yes, he really should have known better this time. But Cutter had been persuasive. “It’s easy money, pickup and delivery only. No risk. No one at a huge company like U.P. will notice an extra jump here or there for ‘personal errands,’ and even if they did, no one cares. People do it all the time.”

“I’m coming up on three years at the company, Cutter,” Strung said. Being a deliveryman was far from stimulating, but it was easy, and it sure beat some of his previous jobs. “I don’t want to get fired over one of your stupid ideas.”

“Look, I set this whole thing up, but I’m going to split the money fifty-fifty with you. How about that?”

In the end, the money had been too tempting. Renata was always on his back about getting a bigger place, and a better printer. “You work at U.P. and they don’t even pay you enough to afford a decent model,” she griped. “That’s bullshit.” He agreed with her. With a stream of extra money earned on the side, plus the employee discount, he could get a brand new UP3122X. It was the revolutionary, fully programmable model, capable of printing in 546,455 material combinations, updated daily with all the latest apparel, accessories, household items, and edibles. It boasted unheard-of scan and replication accuracy, and could complete jobs in a fraction of the time taken by previous models. With a UP3122X, he could print Renata that hot new dress she wanted, the boots to go with it, new fixtures for the bathroom, and custom decals for his bike. When Strung had put on the jacket with the Universal Print logo and climbed into the delivery boat mere hours ago, he’d run a hand longingly down the side of the UP3122X and murmured, “I’m going to have one just like you soon.”

He cursed his stupidity.

The small Thedesian town appeared as soon as they’d driven over the hill. It filled the valley on the other side, a quaint sprawl of small buildings straight out of a history museum. Smoke curled out of chimneys, and wheeled vehicles chugged down paved streets. As they drew closer, Strung saw that the homes were made of heavy materials – wood and brick – and as far as Strung could tell, everything in sight had been constructed, not printed. Making or changing anything here must be incredibly slow and difficult.

“Wow.” Cutter whistled. “Talk about untapped printer market.”

The Thedesian towed their boat right up to the outskirts of town and left them there. Before he went, he asked for another of the canisters, and in exchange, he counted out a handful of round metal disks into Cutter’s palm. “Real money,” the Thedesian said with a grin. “You buy food, drink, room, girls, eh? Then get ship fixed.”

Cutter held one of the engraved coins up to the sun. The cheap metal gleamed dully. “I’ll be damned.”

They walked into the first public building that smelled of food. At their entrance, the room quieted and half a dozen heads turned to stare. When he and Cutter sat down at the nearest unoccupied square wooden table, conversation resumed, but Strung could feel the many curious, flickering gazes directed their way. He glanced around cautiously. Everything looked heavy and worn. The chairs were scuffed, as if they’d been around for years, and some of the woven clothes on people’s backs bore stains or frayed edges, suggesting they’d been used many times. Dust motes swam through the shafts of sunlight streaming in from the small windows. A few folks met his wandering gaze and nodded politely before turning away. The Thedesians didn’t appear unfriendly; they just didn’t seem to get visitors very often.

When a young woman brought them two bowls of chunky stew, Cutter spread the handful of coins on the table. She chuckled, took three of them, and left. They watched her go; her curvy hips swayed as she walked, and her long dark hair cascaded in waves down to the middle of her back. Strung turned his attention reluctantly back to his bowl. Its rim was slightly chipped. He shook his head in amazement. These people reused nearly everything. They couldn’t just dematerialize and print new stuff whenever they wanted.

“How old do you think these bowls and spoons are?” he whispered to Cutter. His stomach turned slightly at the thought of eating off of them. “How many people have used them before?”

Cutter made a face, then shrugged. “They must wash them.” He dipped his spoon in and ate.

Strung followed suit hesitantly. To his surprise, the food tasted good. He kept eating, and refocused on the larger predicament. “Coolant systems are pretty simple, right? Someone in this town must know how to fix one.”

Cutter pushed the remaining coins around the surface of the table with a finger. He stared after the waitress with a slack expression. “What’s the big rush?” He took another bite, then pulled a black marker from a front pocket and started doodling. Cutter did this all the time; he could never keep his hands still. “This place doesn’t seem half bad. Kind of like an olden days theme park. It’s going to be a while before anyone notices we’re missing anyways.”

“Maybe we can get back before anyone does,” said Strung. He looked up, then nearly coughed out a mouthful of food. “I don’t think you can do that.”

“Do what?”

“Draw all over the table.”

It was too late. A gray-haired but immensely broad-shouldered man, who Strung surmised was the proprietor of the establishment, was standing beside their table, glaring down at them. His face was darkening to a curious shade of pink, and his jaw was working back and forth as if he was chewing something sticky and unpleasant. Strung hoped sincerely that the restaurant owner and the young woman who had served them were not related because Cutter had drawn a lewd exaggerated picture of the waitress’s bare ass. It filled up most of his side of the table. “Something the matter?” he asked.

The man unleashed what Strung suspected were choice German profanities.

“Hey, it’s just a table.” Cutter stood up and spread his hands in defense. “How was I supposed to remember you use the same shit for months?”

The restaurant owner’s expression suggested he was considering slamming Cutter’s head into the defaced furniture. After some profuse apologizing on Strung’s part, and the offer of most of the metal coins they possessed, the man was mollified into merely showing them out the door with a glower. Outside, Cutter snorted. “Can you believe that guy was upset about a stupid table, and instead of asking us to print him a new one, he takes a bunch of metal chips instead?”

“The metal chips are worth more to them than the table, you moron. And thanks to you, we have barely any left.” Strung rolled the few remaining coins in his hand and hoped it would be enough to buy a way off the planet. He had had enough of this place already. He did not like the scruffiness of it, or the purple dust, and he was sick of being around Cutter. “I’ll look around and try to find a mechanic. You go back to the ship and get rid of the dope. I don’t care how you do it. Burn it, bury it, give it away, hide it in a tree, I don’t give a damn. Just make sure it’s gone by the time I get back. We can still solve this mess and get out of here before we get into any deeper shit.”

Cutter said, “I have a better idea.”

“Oh no,” said Strung. He recognized the shifty, excited twitch in Cutter’s shoulders, the lopsided, cajoling smile. “No.”

“Aw, come on. You’re not even going to hear me out? It’s a really good idea this time.” Cutter bounced on the balls of his feet, winked as if to say, Who are you kidding, you do want to know, I know you do. “What are you so knotted up over all of a sudden? Are you really that anxious to get back to your girl, because it can’t be the excitement of our jobs that you’re dying to get back to. You can’t turn all lame on me now, man.”

Strung stabbed a finger at Cutter’s chest. “I don’t care what crazy idea you have cooked up in your head right now, I am not interested in hearing it. You are the reason we are on this wacky planet that time forgot, and if we end up stuck here, or get fired, or thrown in jail, or Renata kicks me out, I am going to beat the piss out of you.” He made his face as hard as he could. He’d never been able to make Cutter take his warnings seriously, and that truth made him want to grab his friend around the throat and shake violently. Cutter would only laugh, like he used to after their childhood fights. He was much bigger than Strung, always had been, and he would lie there, rolling around and laughing, while Strung whaled on him, and then he would get up, brush them both off and continue right on doing whatever it was they were going to do anyways, as if overcoming Strung’s protests, objections, or tantrums was all part of the fun. Which it was – had been – until now.

“I mean it, Cutter,” Strung said. “I’ll meet you back at the ship.”

***

Cutter was not at the starboat when Strung returned three Standard hours later.

The good news was that there was no sign of the black canisters full of Siryean white snuff. The cargo hatch was open. The UP3122X stood gleaming in the sunlight, its door cracked slightly open.

“Dammit.” Strung shielded his eyes and squinted at the nearest line of brick houses. After half a dozen broken and pantomimed street conversations, he’d finally managed to find a mechanic who agreed to come out to take a look at the boat. She was a short, well built, unsmiling woman with blackened fingernails, who sighed a lot but spoke passable Standard. She dropped her bag of tools with a clunk, pursed thin lips, and heaved out a weary breath before opening the starboat’s engine hatch and poking around in what Strung hoped was a productive way.

A glint of metal in the dirt caught Strung’s eye. He bent down and picked it up. It was a Thedesian coin, like the ones that had purchased their meal and placated the angry restaurateur a few hours earlier. A short distance away, another glint of metal: another coin. In short order, he found three more, leading away from the ship, as if someone had dropped them in haste.

“Oh no,” said Strung, feeling his stomach descend through his body. He opened the UP3122X printer. The sides of the printer were warm, and a burnt metallic smell laced the interior of the starboat’s cargo hold and stung his nostrils. The control panel was flashing a completion message. SCAN AND PRINT JOB COMPLETE.

It takes a UP3122X printer twenty Standard seconds to print a small metal disk. According to the printer’s finished job queue, scanning the initial model, then printing four hundred Thedesian coins had taken one hundred and forty minutes, plus an additional seven minutes to print a nylon bag large enough to carry all the canisters and the coins together.

Strung wondered what you could buy on Thedesia for that much white snuff and cash.

Then he considered, without optimism, his prospects for continued employment after a Mr. D. Sing complained to Universal Print about the activity log of his supposedly new UP3122X.

The mechanic crawled back out from under the engine hatch and wiped her hands on a black-stained rag. “Done. Should work now.” She slammed the hatch shut and looked at Strung expectantly.

He dropped all of the remaining coins into her hand. “If it’s not enough, my friend–” he paused, “former friend – will pay the rest.” He climbed into the starboat’s cockpit. “He’ll be easy to find in town – he’s not going anywhere for a while.

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About the Author

Fonda Lee is the author of Zeroboxer, a novel being published by Flux/Llewellyn in April 2015. A recovering corporate strategist, when she is not writing, she can be found training in kung fu or searching out tasty breakfasts. Born and raised in Canada, Fonda now lives in Portland, Oregon. You can find Fonda at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.

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