“Dust” by Daniel José Older
Earth will be destroyed in a matter of hours if the asteroid doesn’t change course. It’s been a year since the Triumvirate assigned Jax to Chief Engineer of a team whose station resides on the asteroid itself and it wasn’t long before they found out what he is igniting disrespect and harassment from the crew. Jax’s ability may be their only chance to stop the asteroid but someone there has other plans.
About the Author
Daniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series from Penguin’s Roc Books and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic, 2015), a New York Times Notable Book of 2015, which was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature, the Andre Norton Award, the Locus, the Mythopoeic Award, the International Latino Book Award, and named one of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Person Should Read. He co-edited the Locus and World Fantasy nominated anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. His short stories and essays have appeared in the Guardian, NPR, Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, and the anthologies The Fire This Time and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond, among others. Daniel has guest edited at Fireside Fiction, Catapult, Crossed Genres, and Fantasy Magazine, and served as a judge for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean Literature, and the PEN American Award. He has taught at St. Johns University, Voices at VONA, Boricua College, and Rikers Island among other sites. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at http://danieljoseolder.net/, on youtube and @djolder on twitter.
The story begins as Jax lays awake in the quarters and listening to Arkex, the man beside him, snore. Jax is the chief engineer of a mission from Triumvirate to steer an asteroid from its pull towards Earth (which is information we gather little by little throughout the story). It will make contact in a matter of hours. The story is set on the asteroid where red dust coats everything outside the airtight station where the engineers work. Jax seems to have a telekinetic relationship with the asteroid which he personifies as female, repeating “swerve” to himself in hopes he can change its path.
Jax is genderless, his lower anatomy switching from male to female. The academy had done tests and studies, but its passed that now. The workers just sneer at him or make jokes, but most of them have slept with him out of curiosity, men or women. Most recently, Arkex, who came to his room the night before. “I scowled, took the fullness of him: a tight shirt, once white, now dust red, and those big yellow shield pants, all laden with pouches and rope. Skin red like mine.” He’s a man with Arkex, but a woman the next morning when he wonders “if he’d grasp my womanbody with the same savage tenderness. Would he be too gentle? Not interested at all?” Arkex is asleep when he leaves.
Jax is in a shabby bar, Rustvine, drinking Vanguard shots, avoided by the other workers whom he calls “dustfuckers.” During conversation between him and the awkward man with a handlebar mustache, Dravish, who arrived that morning from a ship, we understand “no one lives on Earth anymore.” We are in a facility where Jax has banned firearms. “There’s enough firepower and political intrigue focused on this one hurling rock to destroy several galaxies, so I instituted a strict no firearms policy from the get-go.”
Hierophant seems to be the political leader, and his daughter, Maya, arrived on the same ship. Maya enters the bar. “The ornate silver machinery of the Triumvirate halos her; beneath it, a gilded faceguard catches the ill orange glow of the Rustvine’s security lights. Elaborate leather belts crisscross her chest and another wraps around her waist.” She sits by Jax as he lights a cigarette. As they talk, we sense a history between them. The banter is platonic with underlying flirtations. They were students at the academy, both good at combat. He starts to tell her how he thinks he can sway the asteroid away when the bar crowd goes quiet just before a fight breaks out. There is a group that want Jax dead, hired by the Chemical Barons who are thwarting the mission. He and Maya take them on, Dravish is stabbed. The one woman, Zan, orders them on Jax, but just before they attack, Maya shoots her with a jag piston and the others hide away. Jax realizes what’s happening as they escape, thinking “I’ve never stopped loving this woman.”
They go to the quarters, down the corridor to Jax’s room to get his codex and send a message to Maya’s people. They hear their attackers shouting from a distance, but Maya doesn’t have enough shots left. In his room, the codex is gone, and Jax figures out Arkex is working for the Barons and took the codex. Caught if they leave the room, they head into the air ducts where Jax lights his Garafuna and smokes casually which drives Maya crazy. He says the hangar is right below them, the Barons will check it, and then he’ll put Maya on her ship.
Waiting in silence, Jax’s inner dialogue lets us know how strong his feelings are for Maya, that they’d been intimate, and he describes in detail the hypothetical of it happening there. He hears the breathing of the asteroid as he does at night, and smiles while he imagines Maya, and as they reach that climax he thinks “swerve.” There is a judder and odd sound from the asteroid, and when he opens his eyes, Maya’s piston is on him. Her job had been to gather information from him, of which he gave too much. The Triumviate ended the mission long ago, they’ve been given up on, so she’s actually there to get him on the ship with her and get him out of there, and threatening him is the only way, but he knows what has already happened. He leads her out and people are celebrating. In the ship, he finds Arkex with the codex who is crying with joy and a message from the Triumvirate tells Jax that the asteroid changed paths and the mission is complete, but there will always be others.
By rendering a complex interiority of a most interesting person, Older takes some irrefutable truisms and makes them look fresh through the one constant characteristic of life, its unpredictability. As he oscillates between objective ugliness to capture life on an asteroid and a pitch-perfect lyricism to capture a special love story, he reminds us which forces are the most powerful, even when it comes to life in the distant future in space.