Raymund Eich

Azureseas: Cantrell’s War

Ebook

…then he learned the truth about the planet’s “animals.”

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Description

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Azureseas

A world of sandy beaches under a yellow-orange sun. Human developers could turn it into the next great tourist world of the Consortia… except for its large, dangerous native animals.

Ross Cantrell joined the animal control mission on Azureseas to earn the money he needed to marry and start a life together with his girlfriend. Dirty work, but necessary to keep people safe. Like plinking tree cats back home.

Then Ross discovers the truth about the planet’s “animals.”

Cantrell’s War

His former plans no longer matter. Against high-tech soldiers, illicit brain-hackers, and the billionaires backing them both, he puts everything at risk. Money. Love. Even his own life.

All to do the right thing for humans and aliens alike.

Sample of “Azureseas: Cantrell’s War”

1

Ross Cantrell stood with the ocean before him and the cluster of huts on the beach behind him. He didn’t look back.

The boxy deployment boat squatted in waist-high water twenty meters out. He could see a slice of the men at the front corner turrets through the machine gun slits. The ocean was so clear and the orange-yellow sun so bright he could see beach sand heaped up where the front end had pushed in.

Prow. The word sneaked into the top of his mind like an infiltrator passing barbed wire and sensor drones. The front end of a seagoing boat was called the prow.

He shook his head, like a cow back home twitching its tail to shake off a fly. No need for fancy words.

The line of human soldiers splashed into water warm as a bathtub and the shade of blue that gave the planet the name Azureseas. For a reason he couldn’t fathom, Cantrell sounded it out in his mind. A-zhoor-sees. To avoid any discharge of the boat’s reactive armor, they followed a looping path to the boat’s open ramp at the back. Cantrell sucked protein goo from the straw inside his helmet and trudged along. He got deeper and the water seemed to make his legs heavier inside the boots and the shin plates of his battle armor. Little blue crawly things burrowed away from his feet.

He tried not to step on them. They didn’t threaten people so why not leave them alone?

He didn’t look back at the cluster of huts. He didn’t need to. From behind came the smells of fire and smoke. Just like being around the burn pile in a field just cleared of brush back home. There was another smell, like roasted meat, but different. Something fruity in its smell too, like a banana or that yellow thing like a banana his buddy Armando talked about from his homeworld. Plant- something?

This time, the defenses in Cantrell’s brain kept the word from reaching him.

Whatever the word was, funny how a creature looking like a cross between a dinosaur and a six-legged chicken could smell like both meat and a piece of fruit.

Cantrell shrugged shoulders bearing his slung rifle and thirty-kilo pack. His platoon had been given its orders. The creatures in the village—

He blacked out for a second or two. His legs carried on without him, brought him another sloshy step toward the extraction boat. Fear followed for a moment, but just a moment. The civilian contractors at the island base told them blackouts were normal, a side effect of hypno training and the trauma care nanobots deployed in their bloodstreams. Nothing permanent. They’d go away after their tour of duty on Azureseas.

The creatures were a threat to human visitors to this planet. He’d been told that but couldn’t remember where. They’d built the cluster of huts from palm-like fronds and bark by instinct. Like beavers and dams. Burning the huts and killing the creatures was pest control. Just like plinking tree cats threatening the chicken coop, back home.

And he’d get the same hug and kiss from Nanette when he got back.

And maybe this time, as a man and a soldier, she might give him a little more.

But he wasn’t home yet. He trudged on through the water. The boat’s engines idled. The gunner at the front right corner kept his medium machine gun trained on the beach but turned most of his attention to the line of soldiers. A thumbs-up. Over the radio, he said, “Good hunting?”

A murmur of agreement and good cheer. “Tree cats,” Cantrell said.

In front of Cantrell, Armando laughed. Ravi said all boastful, “No, more like neo—!”

An explosion on the shore. The gunner jerked his head up. All the soldiers in the water twisted around. Cantrell’s rifle ended up in his hands without him noticing how.

No creature stirred on the low dunes fifty meters behind the beach. Flames still devoured what was left of the rounded huts. Now, where the biggest hut had stood in the middle of the cluster lay a hole clouded by a lot of white smoke. Little pieces of leaves and bark floated in the hot air of the fires. The smoke spread quickly, like a fog. It hid the sensor drones watching the perimeter. It reached over the beach and the shallow water.

Cantrell sniffed with his mouth open. His helmet allowed some of the smoky air in so the air must be free of toxins.

He remembered his dad grilling hamburgers over charred wood. And for a moment he thought his suit’s waste management system leaked, because he picked up the smells of rotten eggs and pee.

He relaxed. Amazing the six-legged dinosaur chickens could combine saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur in the right proportions, by inst—

Another blackout. He couldn’t tell how long, but short enough that nobody in line moved.

A voice as young as any soldier’s spoke over the platoon’s radio net. Lieutenant Liebrandt. “Sensors pick up evidence of an accidental explosion… of…. Proceed with remount.”

The soldiers swung back to face the boat. Not in unison, because they weren’t robots, they were free men. Cantrell turned only when the man in front of him took his next step toward the boat.

As he turned, a little piece of something drifted down, no longer held up by the cooler air near the boat. An air current made it hover for a moment about half a meter in front of his face.

Cantrell reached up and grabbed it and took a step toward the boat, all in one motion.

He glanced at the thing in his palm.

A piece of bark. Dried and crinkly. Blackened edges where it had burned a little. Markings on it a darker shade of the yellow of the berries growing on their island base that gave men diarrhea if they broke standing orders and ate them.

He looked closer. The stroke of the markings reminded him of fingerpaintings made by his baby brother in kindergarten. But what was—

Cantrell saw it. The head and upper body of a dinosaur chicken. One front paw raised. Crude lines but he could see it. Wise eyes, like an old dog wanting to herd with its master once more. Face upturned. Long and pointy ears perked. It reached up for something. Not toward a thing. Toward….

God?

But he only held a picture of an animal. A picture made by instinct by another animal.

Animals couldn’t know God—

Even after the next blackout ended, his thoughts stayed fuzzy. Getting too hot in his suit? He sipped water through the straw and told his battlesuit to run a self-check on its climate control system.

Despite the blackout, his grip held tight on the piece of dried bark.

The line of soldiers passed the reactive armor’s keep-out zone and turned to the boat’s open ramp. Lieutenant Liebrandt and Sergeant Ronaldson stood on the three-meter slab of alloy, near the remount ladder flipped down and over the side. Incoming ripples of water pushed thin puddles onto the ramp and against the officer and NCO’s boots. Sarge held in one thick gloved hand a can about the size of a thirty-round magazine with a funnel on top pointing sideways.

“Dammit.” A muffled voice, not over the radio. From the second man in line ahead of Cantrell. The heads-up display in Cantrell’s helmet labeled the squat figure with wide shoulders as Vasquez. Cruel and crude. Cantrell avoided him when he could.

Why did Vasquez swear?

Cantrell peered around Armando. Vasquez moved his left hand behind his back. He held something tapered. Fifteen centimeters long, streaked yellow and green, jagged on the wide edge. The jagged edge oozed red.

The animal life here used iron in its blood, just like Earth life.

Vasquez had taken a trophy. An ear of a dinosaur chicken. Against regs.

And wrong, too. A man may kill an animal when he has to, but he shouldn’t gloat about it.

The line stopped at the foot of the ladder. The first soldier, Ravi, went up. Sarge moved the can with the funnel up and down. Liebrandt pulled back his shoulders in trying to strike an authoritative pose.

Sarge nodded and moved the funnel-can away. “Clear to remount,” Liebrandt announced over the platoon network. Ravi went into the boat’s shadowed hold.

The line moved slowly. Men up and down grumbled. Cantrell said nothing. Yes, his feet ached after hours of soldiering while humping a pack, but after discharge and return to New Ozark, there wouldn’t be any white sand beaches, warm oceans, and salty air. Without thinking, he swayed side-to-side in rhythm with the gentle waves.

He glanced back at the shore. If you ignored the dwindling fires and stench from the huts, you could imagine a resort hotel or a leisure condo on the sand under the deep blue sky. Maybe he could take Nanette on vacation to a world like this, someday.

The line advanced. Only five men ahead of Cantrell now. In front of Armando, Vasquez groped with his right hand for a zipper on his pack. One of the small pockets near the bottom. Vasquez yanked the zipper and shoved the dinosaur chicken’s ear into the pocket.

Cantrell’s stomach soured. The piece of bark in his hand. Was it a trophy too? No, but….

He stayed aware, but his mind seized up, like gears of an unoiled machine.

Throw it away—

—I got a pocket too—

Though he wobbled, light-headed, Cantrell’s free hand mirrored Vasquez’ actions. Zip open. Shove in the piece of bark. Zip closed.

He hunched forward and sucked tepid water and protein goo around hard breaths.

“C’mon up, Vasquez,” Sarge said.

The ladder clanged under the soldier’s boots. Vasquez waited on the open ramp with a who-me-officer? pose.

Sarge pressed a button on the funnel-can. A fan whirred, barely audible to Cantrell. Sarge moved the funnel-can around Vasquez. He stopped when the funnel faced the zipped-up pocket hiding the dinosaur chicken’s ear. The sniffer beeped, loud enough for Cantrell to hear over the slosh of water and the crackle of the dwindling fires on the shore.

“What’s that?” Vasquez asked like he didn’t know.

Lt. Liebrandt puffed up his voice. “The sniffer detects circulatory fluid of an indigenous life form in your pack.”

“I don’t know what all those big words mean,” Vasquez said in accented Standard. He had to be grinning inside his helmet.

Sarge loomed closer to Vasquez. “Play dumb with me and you will regret it. Toss out the trophy,” Sarge said. “And God help you it better be only an ear.”

Vasquez stood taller for a moment, until his shoulders hunched and his hands groped for the zipper pocket. He showed the dinosaur chicken ear to Sarge. “You mean this? I didn’t know there was a reg against it.”

Sarge’s voice grew deeper. “Toss. It.”

Vasquez shrugged. He flicked his wrist and the ear went spinning into deeper water behind the boat. Maybe some little blue crawly things would lay eggs on it.

Vasquez made his way to a seat inside the boat. Armando went up next. The sniffer found Armando was clean. Of course it would. He’s a good soldier.

One gloved hand on the ladder’s railing, Cantrell hesitated. The piece of bark seemed to weigh down his pack.

Are you a good soldier?

His sweat suddenly sour in his nostrils, Cantrell trudged up the ladder. Sarge worked the sniffer around. The funnel paused near the pocket… and moved on.

“Clean,” Sarge said.

Lt. Liebrandt transmitted an interior view of his helmet to the augmented reality rig in Cantrell’s suit. Cantrell could see the officer’s face, smooth but for a mole on his jawline near his chin. “Good job today, soldier,” the lieutenant said.

“Thank you, sir,” said Cantrell, certain his guilt came through in his tone.

But apparently it didn’t. The augmented reality view of Lt. Liebrandt’s face vanished. The lieutenant turned his head to the man at the base of the ladder and said, “Next.”

Cantrell trudged into the boat. Two aisles of seats, like the departure lounge at the space elevator station on New Ozark. But less comfortable.

He mounted his rifle in the storage locker, then found a seat next to Armando and slipped off his pack. The piece of bark in its pocket seemed to double the pack’s weight. The pack raced down his shoulders and thudded on the deck.

He slumped into his seat and pulled the pack under. Clearing the aisle. Really, hiding the piece of bark.

Armando lolled his head back. Cantrell knew his squadmate well enough to know Armando didn’t want to talk.

Gratitude trickled through Cantrell. He didn’t want to talk either.

Cantrell frowned. A thought lumbered through a mental fog. What’s the big deal about a piece of bark? Is there something on it?

Another lumbering thought. Of course not… but hide it anyway.

He pushed up the visor on his helmet and stared at the far bulkhead. Two hours, forty klicks, across the deep blue sea back to the island base. Most men dozed. A few talked in low and tired tones. Vasquez grumbled to one of his buddies, words inaudible, anger at the lieutenant and Sarge plain in his tone.

Cantrell dozed, or blacked out, or just let his thoughts wander. He and most of the others jolted upright in their seats when the boat’s motors whined higher and the boat slewed about. Backing up to dock. The whine of the motors dropped to normal but got an echo. The walls and high ceiling of the pen.

The boat stopped. The ramp eased down with a whish of pneumatics and clomped on the concrete dock. The pen’s interior was shadowy except for the orangey brightness of an open man-sized door in the corner.

The sunlight tugged on Cantrell like a magnet. But first…

Sarge and Lt. Liebrandt stepped onto the dock and waited under spotlights mounted high up, where the pen’s ceiling met the walls. They waited with four civilians, three men and a woman, clad in cargo pants under white lab coats. The lab coats had blue logos on them. A line ran side-to-side from a brain. Some words, maybe made up or maybe from some dead language.

One of the men, though the shortest of the three, was obviously the leader from the body language of the other civilians and the lieutenant. Stitching on his lab coat named him Dr. Fitzhugh. He cracked his knuckles and turned green eyes cool as a menthol vape on the solders.

Cantrell swallowed thickly and lined up with the other men of the platoon. They filed to the storage locker for their rifles, then out of the boat, past Liebrandt, Sarge, and the civilians. The civilian contractors sometimes did inspections after missions and this must be one. Sarge waved men through. “Come on, back to your racks. Hustle! I want off this boat too.”

Lt. Liebrandt and green-eyed Dr. Fitzhugh said nothing. Maybe it wasn’t an inspection after all?

“Vasquez,” the lieutenant said. “Step aside and wait.”

Vasquez glowered for a moment, but when he turned to Fitzhugh he dropped his eyes and slumped his broad shoulders. He shuffled out of the way as the line filed past.

“Armando.”

Arched eyebrows arched even higher. Armando bobbed his pointy chin. “Me? Why?”

“Random check,” said Dr. Fitzhugh in a brisk voice. “You know it won’t hurt.”

They all knew the inspections didn’t hurt, but nobody liked them. Armando’s face fell. He took a step aside.

Cantrell clamped his jaws together. They’re going to pull me out next. But he manned up and slapped Armando on the shoulder. “See you back at the rack.”

Armando nodded. Cantrell went forward. He just knew the lieutenant would call his name… but this time the lieutenant didn’t even make eye contact as he went by.

Outside. Orangey rays of afternoon sun were no match for the cold sweat on his cheeks and nape.

Get rid of that pic—spots swam in his vision—piece of bark. But where? Leave it on the ground, even toss it in a waste hopper, and someone would notice. Brass and more civilians would come down. The investigation would make an inspection look easy.

Cantrell trudged toward the armorer’s warehouse. He shuffled through the line, handing over his rifle, setting down his pack so that a civilian tech could extract him from his battlesuit. In his undershorts and T-shirt in the air conditioning, he shivered even after he pulled on his fatigues and pushed his arms through the straps on his pack.

On his way to the soldier’s dormitory, he felt like an enemy lurked amid the maintenance garages and the training sheds, preparing an ambush.

He made it to the wide three-story building and trudged up to the room he shared with Armando. Two twin beds on plastic frames. Afternoon light made an angled geometry-class shape halfway down his bed. Shelves with a few mementos from home, a paper-thin display showing a video loop of Armando’s family, a handwritten card from Nanette.

Even the card seemed oppressive. He clomped forward on the plastic-tile floor—

—Ouch—

At least his boots kept his toe from stubbing badly on his trunk.

For the first time in hours, Cantrell felt like he could wriggle out of his anxiety. He shrugged off his pack and kneeled at the foot of his bed. He pulled his trunk all the way out from under, then shifted it and his position as if getting more comfortable. But really, to happen to block the view from the hidden camera in the corner.

He pressed his thumb to the biometric lock. The trunk lid popped up an inch. Cantrell yanked it up the rest of the way. A jumbled mess greeted him. Civilian clothes, toiletries kit, a trucker hat with the family farm’s logo. Further down, a printed Bible pressed on him by Nanette’s mother the last time he’d seen her.

With trembling hands, Cantrell pulled the piece of bark out of his pack. He glanced at it and spots again swam in his eyes. Color leached out of his peripheral vision.

What was it about the piece of bark that brought a risk of blackout? He tried to look at it full on, but a blind spot formed in the middle of his sight and turned the piece of bark into a blur.

Was the piece of bark marked in some way?

Why couldn’t he remember?

Hurriedly, he shoved the piece of bark toward the bottom of his locker, under the Bible, and snapped shut the lid. A thud as the magnetic lock resealed. The scrape of the trunk against plastic tile. The creak of his bed under his rump, his back. The warmth of sunlight across his bare forearm, abdomen, and hand….

…Warmth on his cheeks. A bright orange glow through his eyelids. Cantrell opened his eyes and squinted against sunlight on his face.

His mouth tasted cottony. How long had he napped? And one hell of a weird dream, about, about, what was it about? And the mission earlier today…?

Cantrell sat up. Alone in the narrow room. Despite the late afternoon warmth, he shivered. Get out of here and join the rest of the platoon in the rec hall. He’d earned it. Today he’d been a good soldier. Today they all had been.

2

Ross Cantrell strode up the jetway toward the concourse. His feet sprung on the spongy surface. Yes, his backpack massed only ten kilos, much less than the pack he’d humped on Azureseas. But the main reason he strode with easy steps and a grin cracked open the sides of his mouth lay in an inner pocket of his baggy blue cargo pants, zipped up and secure.

For a moment, his mood dipped. Something else, something secured in a zip pocket. But what? He hadn’t worn these pants since before he’d left home, almost two years ago.

Another step. A quick shake of his head. Whatever that something else might have been couldn’t be as important as what was in that pocket now. He touched the thin, rigid case through the fabric of his pants. His grin returned.

He rounded the last corner, went from spongy jetway to the carpeted concourse. His grin widened into a toothy smile even before he heard them shout, “Ross!”

He jogged forward to the group of five. He swept up his parents in a both arms. His dad, Big Jim, squeezed Ross back harder. The older man’s beard scratched his cheek. Mom sobbed tears of joy against his chest. He held them a long time. After Dad slapped him on the backpack, Ross broke away. He extended his hand to the Bauers, Nanette’s father and mother.

“Welcome back,” her father said. His crows’-feet deepened around his eyes and his goatee turned into a scrutinizing pointer. His voice boomed amid the chatter of conversations and the whistle of a cappuccino frother up the concourse. “Looks like Ground & Suborbital turned you into a man.”

“I enlisted with Planetside Security,” Ross said, and Mr. Bauer’s narrowing eyes told him it didn’t matter at all which of the Consortia’s ground combat companies he’d served in. “…and I’m definitely a better man for it.”

Mrs. Bauer smiled up at him with her baggy eyes. She wore a dress over her trim form and Ross wondered if she’d just been or was just about to go to church. “You look quite handsome,” she said. “The Lord kept a guardian angel watching you.”

His soldiering days blurred in his memory, like looking out a window in a heavy rain. Ross certainly couldn’t remember any touch of the divine while he’d been on Azureseas, but the best answer when Mrs. Bauer said something like that was, “I’m sure He did, ma’am.”

“You read that Bible I gave you?”

Ross’ mood dipped for a moment and he didn’t know why. Maybe because he was about to lie to Mrs. Bauer. He jammed his smile in place. “Every day.”

The Bauers each took a half-step back. That was all the opening Ross needed. His grin widened as he pivoted to Nanette. Blond hair in a ponytail to her shoulder. A smile of straight and gleaming teeth. Blue eyes, wide and bright and dripping tears.

He gripped her upper arms and pulled her close. They kissed. Her tears trickled down his cheeks and into the corners of his mouth.

“I missed you so much,” Ross murmured into her lips.

She wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “Me too.”

“I love you so much.”

“Me too.”

His heart swelled. He almost did it right there, but it wasn’t time yet. Instead he said, “I’m never going away again.”

She stepped out of his embrace. “Good.” The word broke up into half a chuckle and half a sob. Her smile widened and her tears flowed faster.

Dad cleared his throat. “We’re going to take you out for dinner, son. Here in Taney Creek, before we head home.”

“I’d like that,” Ross said. Maybe he’d get a chance to talk privately with Mr. Bauer before dessert.

The chance came much sooner than that. Twenty meters up the concourse, with the scent of ground espresso buoyant in their noses, Bauer said, “Get you a cup, Ross?”

“Thank you, sir…. Let me help you carry.”

After Bauer ordered himself a cappuccino and Ross, an americano black as space near a jump point, and the two of them waited near the counter for the articulated robot arm to deposit their drinks, Ross blurted out the words. “Sir, I’d like your permission to marry Nanette.”

Crow’s feet wrinkled. “You would.”

“Sir, you said it yourself, my service made me more of a man. I saved almost every penny they paid me, it’s enough to buy some ranchland when Bioseeding opens up the next territory—”

Almost every penny?”

“I bought a ring.” Ross moved his hip closer to the counter, further out of sight of Nanette and the others waiting in the concourse. He patted the pocket and said, “Red diamond. From Ophir. It’s got a nanochip with proof it’s natural.” Ross gave Bauer a hopeful look.

“Do you have a guilty conscience about something?”

Ross blinked, but then stood taller. “I would know if I did, and I don’t.”

The older man said nothing. The robot arm whirred and set down their drinks. Bauer reached for his and paused with the cup near his mouth. “I approve.”

A block of ice melted inside Ross. “Thank you, sir.”

Bauer jutted out his goateed chin. “Don’t make me regret it.”

“I won’t, sir.”

For the first time Ross could ever remember, the corners of Bauer’s mouth turned up and he patted Ross on the shoulder. “Now let’s treat our returning soldier to the dinner he deserves.”

The best restaurant in town jutted out from a bluff overlooking the small river that gave Taney Creek its name. They sat at a table upstairs, where the windows gave views of thousands of houses. On the roofs, ink-black solar panel arrays soaked up the yellow rays of Beta Can. Ten miles away, a tiny dot of a plane leaving the airport climbed over green fields and pastures, then banked in front of the End-O’-The-Biosphere Mountains. Deep green forest blanketed the reddish-brown foothills. Thick clouds masked the upper slopes below the glittering diamond peaks.

Azureseas might be prettier, but New Ozark was home.

After the robotic cart wheeled up with beers, glasses of wine, and Mrs. Bauer’s iced tea, Big Jim asked from across the table, “What was it like out there, son?”

Ross lacked interest in talking about his security stint, not when the woman he loved sat next to him and smiled at him like she wanted him to be happy more than anything else. Nanette angled her head and laid her hand on his forearm. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Ross said. “There’s some old line, soldiering is 99% boredom.”

Bauer’s voice carried from the far end. His tone hinted at stories he’d never told. “And 1% terror.”

Ross looked down, with an aw-shucks look on his face. “It was a little scary at times. The—” He enunciated the word the officers used. “—in-di-ge-nes could fling rocks, really fast—”

“Like David with his sling,” Mrs. Bauer said.

Ross’ head suddenly ached. He rubbed his forehead. “Like that, yes ma’am.”

Mom’s voice was tight with retroactive hope. “You were never in much danger?”

“No. It was like plinking tree cats.”

“Tree cats.” Big Jim’s voice rumbled. When Dad used that tone, he grabbed the steering yoke of the conversation. “The eco department people still won’t admit they fouled up when they made those critters. They’re making us gather data on habitat invasion and attacks on livestock….”

Tension eased from Ross. His soldiering experiences blurred together when he tried to think about them, and he talked as much about them as he cared to. It felt good to hear older men from his community talking about the challenges facing them. And facing him, now. Tree cats might menace farms and ranches in the new, more arid lands opened up towards the briny sea. He lifted a hoppy beer toward his mouth and savored the aroma for a moment.

Ross glanced at Nanette. His heart thumped and he smiled around his sip.

After they finished their steaks and potatoes, and ordered two slices of pie, one tiramisu, and six forks, Ross cleared his throat and glanced at Bauer. The older man’s eyes narrowed. He nodded once.

Ross quietly unzipped the pants pocket with the ring, then cleared his throat more loudly. Conversation faded. Five faces turned to him. “Everyone, there’s something I want to say.” He turned to Nanette. “Before I enlisted, I thought I loved you. Two years later, I know I love you.”

He pushed back his chair and lowered himself to one knee. He pulled out the ring case from his pocket. Her mouth opened wide and her blue eyes glinted and the thousands of show-me-dollars he’d spent on the ring seemed the greatest bargain ever. “Will you marry me?”

Nanette gasped, then said, “Yes, oh yes,” before tears ran down her smiling cheeks. She put on the red diamond ring from Ophir, then they kissed, longer and more deeply even than they had in the airport.

The older people spoke, to Ross, to one another. He barely heard. His mother and hers wanted to admire the ring and Nanette held out her hand to show them. He barely saw. The slice of apple pie for Nanette and him came, a la Canadian, and he barely tasted the slice of cheddar cheese on top. He only had eyes for his girlfriend. His fiancée. The only woman he’d ever love for the rest of his life.

Some time later, after their fathers split the check, Big Jim held out a hand to keep Ross and Nanette from standing to go. A wise look came to his face. “Your mother and I, and the Bauers, are going to get hotel rooms here in town tonight. You and Nanette can take our truck and head home.”

Bauer and his wife held hands. “Nanette, Ross,” he said, “it’s important that the two of you prayerfully reflect on the commitment you’re making, to make sure it’s in line with God’s will.” Mrs. Bauer nodded, like a fine lady in a costume drama might nod over tea. From where she couldn’t see, Bauer winked at Ross.

Nanette squeezed Ross’ hand. With a proper voice, she said, “Thank you, Dad, Mom.”

They stood then and filed for the door. Ross took one last glance out the window, toward the distant iron hills and the surmounting diamond mountains covered over by water and life. Nanette excused herself and took her purse to the ladies’ room. Waiting for her in the front lobby, Big Jim shook Ross’ hand, said, “I’m proud of you,” then leaned closer and whispered, “I messaged Tommy and Ellie to sleepover at the Evans’ house tonight.”

Ross’ face grew warm. Big Jim grinned. “Thanks, Dad.”

“Got to give you peace and quiet to be prayerful.” Big Jim slapped Ross on the back. Nanette returned from the ladies’ room with a smile for Ross. The party filed out and parted ways in the parking lot.

A minute later, after the air conditioning took the edge off the long afternoon heat inside Dad’s pickup, Nanette said from next to him on the bench seat at the rear of the cabin, “I cannot believe my dad got my mother to agree to this.”

“She’s a good woman and she believed him.”

“She can’t be that naive. Can she?” Nanette squirmed a little on her seat.

“You okay?” Ross asked. “If you’re having second thoughts, we don’t have to do it tonight. I know I want to do it with you the rest of my life—”

She touched his lips with a manicured finger. “No second thoughts.”

“I brought home some prophylactics,” he blurted. The pickup made a right turn, toward the two-lane highway leading out of Taney Creek toward home. “The service handed them out.” Cheeks suddenly hot, he said, “I never used—”

“I got a prescription. I thought you might propose, so I called a tele-doc in New Springfield—” The planet’s capital and largest city, at the foot of the space elevator and a thousand miles from small-town gossip. “—and lied that I was already engaged. It came in the mail. I put it in before we left the restaurant—”

His turn to stop her from talking with a touch to her lips. With his mouth, in the deepest kiss yet. His body yearned for much more. From the way she leaned into him, it seemed like she yearned for more, too. But not here, in a pickup truck on a public road. It would be too cheap.

Desire glowed inside Ross for the next hour. The two-lane road, purple-black and whisper-quiet under the truck’s tires, followed the creek south out of the town. Farms, ranches, fenced-off sections of wilderness with Department of Ecoengineering signs on eight-foot high chain link. Bald knobs of gray basalt showed through on high spots of the terrain, and made the work of human hands seem thinly rooted on this world. To take his mind off his urges, he talked about the ranch they would buy, the house they would build. The roots they would grow deeper into New Ozark.

Forty miles out, the truck turned left, away from the creek. Nanette talked about the children they would have, and how soon she wanted them. She squeezed his hand then, and said, with her head angled away from him and a coy smile on her lips, “But not tonight.”

Their home town, Saddlepoint, nestled on a small plateau between two high hills fifteen miles from the creek. Nothing much had changed since he’d left. Not that he had eyes for anything but Nanette. So close. Just six miles on asphalt, then the truck slowed for the driveway to his parent’s ranch. The truck rumbled over the cattle guard, a pit crossed by three-inch pipes about three inches apart. Through the seat, tonight he felt the bumpy pipes more than ever before.

The pickup let them out at the front door, into the golden light of late afternoon. A glance told him his parents hadn’t yet built the second floor or the new master bedroom suite they’d always talked about. Other than that, he didn’t care what might have changed.

The front door recognized him and opened. He glimpsed in the sunroom his trunk, deep green plastic with Cantrell, J.R. and the Planetside Security logo printed on it. But other than that, he had tunnel vision. He led Nanette by the hand, down the hall, past the quiet and empty rooms of his younger siblings and toward his.

Closed blinds cast diffuse light across his narrow bed. Their lips met in wet kisses tasting of seared beef. Their hands tugged at clothing, their own or each other’s. Ross lost track.

After their clothes lay in a heap, he gazed into her blue eyes. “Ready for this?”

She met his gaze. “More than anything.” She tugged on his hand and took a step toward his bed.

Afterward, as they lay together, still breathing heavily, she gave him a wry smile.

“It wasn’t good?”

“I heard a girl’s first time usually isn’t.”

“Funny. It was great for me.”

She quirked her mouth, then punched his upper arm with the side of her knuckles.

Ross grinned back. “Hey, maybe your next time will be better.”

An hour later, it was.

Full dark had settled by now. They daydreamed aloud in giddy afterglow about their future life together as they drifted off to sleep.

Ross woke when the first rays of dawn lightened the sky. The first time since he’d debarked at the top of the space elevator that he’d slept through all the longer New Ozark night. He lay there, Nanette’s body snug against him, and felt more at home than he ever had in years.

She woke then. Despite the dim light her smile glowed. “I love you, Ross Cantrell.”

Like a valve opened, a warm feeling poured out of his chest and down to his toes and fingers. His ardor rose, undimmed by their couplings the night before.

“I love you.” He kissed her, and quickly discovered her ardor flowed in complement with his.

Afterward, with more light in the sky and more color in his room, the bull bellowed in its pen. Ross sighed. “It’s been good to taste the perks of married life, but we’ve got to do the duties of it too.”

She gave him a kiss. “Take care of the chores. I’ll cook up breakfast.”

He found old clothes from his closet. Baggy and a little short, but they fit well enough. He went to his dad’s office. A bank of dark monitors lined one wall. He gave voice commands and the controller tucked away in the cabinet set the monitors aglow. Camera feeds of the cattle grazing in the south field. The high-def images brought up the smells of bovine hide and manure. Biotelemetry from the herd. Charts of spot and futures prices from the stockyard in Taney Creek. Ross checked the water tanks and pumps, the automatic feeder dispensing grain for the penned bull, and the other systems checking the systems that checked those things.

Which wasn’t enough. He went into the kitchen. Bacon sizzled on cast iron and the oven’s cooling fan whirred. He stole up behind Nanette and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I’m going to check the livestock in person.”

She turned at that, a quizzical look on her face. But then her blue-eyed gaze darted over his expression and she nodded. “Food’ll be ready in fifteen.”

He kissed her, then went to the mud room for rubberized boots.

The morning had a cool edge, but from the clear sky and the first rays of sunlight on his face, Ross knew it would warm up quickly. At the chicken coop, the spring closure of the door twanged like an untuned guitar. The smell of feathers and chicken dung permeated the rough wooden walls but the chickens were gone. Did Dad talk about that at dinner last night?

Ross grinned. He’d had other things on his mind.

At the barn and checked on the bull, which eyed him insolently while its jaws mashed grain pellets. Out the back of the barn and along the outside of the barbed wire fencing in the bull’s pen, he came to the south field. The gate opened for him. He walked onto grass hummocked by hooves after the last rain. Cows and calves perked up their heads and watched him.

Ross watched them back. He couldn’t remember all the things his dad said you should look for, but he looked for the things he did remember. And one of the calves limped, with the tatters of a biodegradable bandage on its back left foot. A tree cat attack.

Ross’ head jerked up. He checked the clump of maples and oaks growing downslope, near the gully. The only movement came from birds and squirrels.

Home didn’t mean his challenges were over. It just meant he faced different ones, now.

Back in the house, Nanette ladled cream gravy over steaming plates of bacon and biscuits. “Your folks sold off their last chickens a couple of months ago.”

Ross crossed the kitchen and gave her a kiss. A glance out the window and his eyes crinkled. He couldn’t see the chicken coop from this side of the house. “How did you know I checked out the coop?”

“Heard the spring scritching when you opened the door,” she said with a smile.

“I knew you had sharp hearing—”

“Especially when I’m listening for you.” An apologetic look filled Nanette’s face. “You didn’t tell me what you wanted to drink with breakfast.”

“Coffee.”

“Since when? Creamer, sugar?”

“Black.”

Her eyebrows jumped. She bustled into the kitchen and returned in a moment with two hot mugs. The red diamond on her finger sparkled in the warm glow of the ceiling panels.

They sat, and ate. Everything tasted good. Everything felt good. Maybe not every day with Nanette would feel this good, but remembering moments like this would help them get through the days when their marriage would get some rust on it.

After breakfast, she cleared the dishes and refilled their coffee. “I’d like us to go to the sunroom.”

“Sure.” Ross put on a lazy grin. “We don’t have to do it in the bedroom every time.”

She grinned for a moment, but quickly grew serious. “I gave you my body, even though it was a little scary, because I love you and I trust you and I knew it would bring us closer. I’d like you to do something that might be a little scary for you but would bring us closer too.”

Ross set down his mug with a clunk on the table’s tile top. He took her hand in both his, rested his thumbs on the ring. “I’ve already done things for you more scary than anything in the house.”

“I want to go through your trunk with you.”

He felt light-headed for a moment. He pulled a hand away from her to steady himself on the tabletop. “No reason to do that.”

Nanette reached for his hand. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to judge. Whatever might be in there, whatever you did or didn’t do on Azureseas, I’m going to love you, Ross Cantrell, come hell or high water.”

Her touch seemed foreign, as if he wore an invisible glove. “Judge? There’s nothing in there I feel bad about.” His legs swayed like saplings in a breeze. “There’s nothing in there worth looking at.”

Her eyes crinkled. “Let me look at nothing worth looking at. With you.”

Dark spots drifted at the edges of his vision. He took shallow breaths. The crinkle left her blue eyes. Her gaze became a lifeline, reminded him of man-overboard recovery practice during training on Azureseas.

A deep inhalation, scented by conditioned air and her presence. The spots faded out and full color returned to his peripheral vision. He took her hand and squeezed gently. “With you.”

“Are you okay?”

“Travel, gravity changes, it all just caught up with me for a second. I’m okay now.”

They took their coffee mugs to the sunroom. On their second steps in, the hardwood floor squeaked in the same spot it always did. Light slanted through the south-facing windows and glinted off the trophies and prizes earned by Ross and his siblings and crowded into the display case by his mother. The couch and chairs still matched. The tan plaid pattern might come back in style someday.

His trunk, rigid lines, deep green, plastic, squatted next to the couch like an interloper. Nothing worth looking at? He couldn’t even remember what was in it. Empty it out, keep what was worth keeping, then throw the rest of the contents and the trunk too in the recycling hopper.

They sat on the couch together. The cushion sagged under their weight and rippled like a gentle sea when he dragged the trunk around to the front of the couch. At the touch of his thumb, the biometric lock popped open.

He and Nanette looked inside.

Ross let out a breath.

T-shirts, a lightweight jacket, blue jeans. “We got to wear civilian clothes sometimes.”

She playfully arched an eyebrow. “Was there a house of ill repute on base?”

Warmth flushed Ross’ neck, cheeks, and earlobes. “I went in there once, with my buddies, but I never left the lobby. I swear to God.”

“I believe you.”

“They knew their trade, but I could see through their sweet voices. I wanted to save my money. And myself. For you.”

Nanette eyed him for a moment, then nodded as if he’d passed a lie-detector test. She gave him a kiss, loving, not lustful, then turned her attention back to the trunk. “Hey!” She grabbed a trucker hat with the Cantrell Ranch logo and pulled down over her blond locks. “I’m going to be a Cantrell, I should advertise.”

Ross grabbed the brim of the trucker hat and twisted it side-to-side. “No.”

“A girl can look country if she wants.”

“Hell yes. The problem is, the hat’s for Big Jim Cantrell’s ranch. You’re going to advertise Ross and Nanette Cantrell’s.”

She dropped the hat to the couch next to her. She teased out her hair with her fingertips, then kissed him again. Lust sparked, but after the exertions of last night and earlier this morning, he was out of kindling.

Ross pulled out a bag of toiletries and tossed it into the recycling hopper. He reached into the trunk and pulled out the Bible given to him by Mrs. Bauer. “We’re going to tell your mom I read a couple of chapters every day.”

“I tell her the same thing.” She winked. “Though there is a lot of wisdom. Better to marry than to be consumed by lust.”

“Even better would be both,” Ross said.

She laughed like bubbly music. He shared a chuckle, then sat back and sipped coffee around a smile. He was with the woman he loved in a place he wanted to be.

Nanette reached deep into the trunk for something. “I didn’t know you drew.”

“Draw? I don’t.”

“One of your buddies, then. He’s pretty good. Is this a creature from Azureseas?”

She held out to him a crinkly tan piece of some tree’s scaly bark. Black marks scorched the edges, as if from fire. More black marks showed. Not from fire. From charcoal, maybe. Lines by an inhuman hand, showing a creature—

Creature? Like hell.

An intelligent alien life form, pricking its long slender ears and raising one front paw toward the same God he and Nanette prayed to….

“Ross. Ross!” Nanette’s voice, laden with more fear than he ever wanted to hear in it.

He opened his eyes. His body felt like a suit of old clothes, ill-fitting and wrinkled. He squinted around the room, confused. The blackouts were supposed to stop after leaving Azureseas—

He jolted upright.

“Are you okay? You had me so worried.”

He nodded absently. His gaze locked onto the picture of the dinosaur chicken. The intelligent, worshipping, dinosaur chicken. He took it from her loose grip and cradled it in his palms.

“They messed with our minds.”

“Ross, I don’t understand.”

Dr. Fitzhugh, the short one who cracked his knuckles and pierced you with his green eyes. “They messed with our minds to make us think the dinosaur chickens were just dumb animals. As if animals could build huts or make gunpowder by instinct.”

“You mean….” Nanette squinted at the drawing on the piece of palm-like bark. “The dinosaur chickens are intelligent? But who would want to make you think they weren’t? And why?”

“Why? So we could hunt them and kill them. Like good soldiers. Just following orders.”

The picture felt heavy in his hands. He couldn’t unsee it. The dinosaur chicken was the third intelligent life form in the room.

His heart felt heavy in his chest.

The dinosaur chicken would follow him and Nanette everywhere for the rest of his life.

He shivered, suddenly cold all over. Except for a warmth spread across his crotch. A residue of making love with Nanette? Guilt lashed him, that he’d taken a dry run at bringing new life into the universe while the dinosaur chicken in the picture lay dead on a beach, smelling of burned plantains—

No. Not from sex. The warmth in his crotch? He’d wet himself.

“I need to clean up,” he said.

“Oh? Oh. Don’t feel bad. It happens sometimes when people faint.”

Ross gripped the arm of the couch and pulled himself up. He teetered for a moment before letting go.

“I can help you—”

“I’ll make it, honeypie.”

He did. Through the house, to his room for new clothes, to the bathroom to wash up. He took the picture of the dinosaur chicken with him. When he needed to use both hands, he laid the picture down. On his rumpled bed, on the back corner of the bathroom counter where water wouldn’t splash on it.

Even when he turned away from the picture, he felt the dinosaur chicken’s presence.

By the time he pulled a yellow T-shirt with the logo of his high school’s ultimate flying disc team over his head, he knew what he had to do. A last splash of water on his cheeks. A last dab of an embroidered hand towel on his face.

Nanette sat on the couch, her hands fidgeting in her lap and worry in her blue eyes. She looked up at him and the worry didn’t go away.

Ross sat next to her. His heart pounded as he took her left hand in his right. The red diamond glinted in the morning light. “You can keep the ring.”

She looked puzzled, then her mouth fell open. “What?”

H held up the piece of palm-like bark and turned the picture of the dinosaur chicken to her. “I did wrong. I’ve got to set it right.”

Her mouth worked. Her eyes glistened. “How?”

“I’ll go to Azureseas. I’ll go to the dinosaur chickens and help them fight back.”

Tears flooded from her eyes. She groped for a tighter grip on his hand. “Ross, how can that work? Don’t the dinosaur chickens hate people now? And how can you fight back when people have more armor and better guns? You’d be a traitor to the human race and you’ll get killed for nothing.”

He held the picture closer to her eyes. “Not nothing.”

Nanette’s gaze darted around, avoiding the picture. Until she couldn’t. She stared at it then. Sniffling, crying, her shoulders hunched, her mouth tight. “It’s sad, I know. The rich and powerful used you, like they’ve always used us. But you can’t solve all the problems in the universe. You can’t solve all the problems of the dinosaur chickens.” She tugged down on his forearm. He lowered the picture.

“Stay with me. I love you, and I don’t care what you might have done, especially when the rich and powerful made it so you didn’t know what you were doing. Let’s just build our lives together.”

Her words tugged at him. He could see a new ranch, a new house, new life with her hair and his eyes, for decades and decades to come…. and with the ghost of the dinosaur chicken haunting him every step. Even though the ghost would ignore him as it permanently reached out for God to help it and its people.

“If I don’t try to make it right,” Ross said, “I won’t be worth a damn. I won’t be a man you’d want to live with.” And as true as the words were, as much as he loved her, it mattered even more that he wouldn’t want to live with himself. “I’ve got to do this.”

She pulled away from him. Her tears still dripped, but a cold fire burned in her eyes. “Then go,” she said. “And hell yes I’ll keep your goddamn ring.”

3

The workers on Azureseas lived in a town of lumpy plastic buildings grown near the maintenance sheds and the nanoassembleries, ten miles inland. No cool breezes there. No views of the vast blue ocean that gave the planet its name. Just flat terrain and clouds of native insects the workers called sandflies. They didn’t bite or sting. Most of the native life’s proteins and carbs and DNA were mirror images of Earth life’s. But they still landed and crawled on exposed skin for ticklish and itchy seconds before buzzing away.

Ross Cantrell quickly learned the routine when off shift. He wore a bandana around his neck and pulled it over his mouth when a thousand buzzes sounded nearby and got louder. The sap of a bush with coiled, dark green leaves made a sandfly repellent. It worked, but made his arms sticky. By the end of the day dust covered his arms like cornmeal breading on catfish.

One of the more enterprising workers chopped and parboiled the leaves and sold a more effective, and less sticky, repellent extract for a tidy profit. Management turned a blind eye. If it made the workers more productive, and didn’t use any nanoassembler time, they didn’t care.

The nanoassembleries made a much better sandfly repellent. They even made portable dispensing drums that synthesized the repellent from sunlight and processed garbage. But Ross and the other workers only deployed the repellent drums along the shore, at the construction sites. Outside the glass lobbies of two-story condo complexes and high-rise beachfront hotels. Near the tables and chairs of sidewalk cafés. At the driving range tee boxes and around the practice green of the golf course. Every place with a transponder beacon pinging out the name Mammoth Construction LLC.

No tourists strolled the beaches, yet. Only a few advance-team employees from the hotel and entertainment companies scurried around the sites, scowling into midair at checklists displayed by their augmented reality contact lenses. For Ross, it was like working in full-scale architectural models.

You leave for eight months and everything changes.

His first weeks back on Azureseas, he’d looked for the site of the village where the proof the dinosaur chickens were intelligent had fallen into his hands. No luck. Planetside Security, his former employer, must have scraped the ground of charred huts and dinosaur chicken remains. High-powered nano could break up the mirror image proteins and rebuild them into molecules Earth life could use. A disposal of remains more thorough than any crematory could manage. And any other traces that might have survived would have been plowed under by the construction equipment that built the empty hotels and restaurants and shops.

There were days, early on, when Ross wanted to shout at the advance teams. Grab the young women hotel clerks by the upper arms of their navy blue skirt suits, slap the effeminate male restaurateurs and shopkeepers across their exfoliated faces. Intelligent beings lived here. We killed a lot and drove off the rest so your corporate masters could get richer. You should be ashamed.

He held back. The ethnic cleansing wasn’t their fault. And more important, he couldn’t do anything if he blew his cover.

Planetside Security had traded its base on the nearby island for one five miles inland, on the road to worker town. A fake ID identifying him as Stuart Havlicek from New Prague, the capital and only major city on Masaryk; a retro-nano-viral-vector treatment to disguise the bits of his DNA used for forensics; more nano to change his retina, his fingerprints, and his facial bone structure; all fooled Planetside’s automated sensors. Well worth the large chunk of his enlistment bonus he’d spent on them, even though he sometimes woke up with phantom pain shooting through his cheeks and eye sockets. But all that work wouldn’t fool a suspicious person accessing Planetside’s records and finding there a photo of Ross Cantrell.

Instead, he worked by day and he planned by night. He hadn’t seen a dinosaur chicken anywhere near worker town. From time to time, armored personnel carriers—wheeled, boxy like his old deployment boat, but lacking mounted guns—rolled up the road and set off cross-country to the north, raising clouds of dust visible for miles. Ross angled an ear that direction but never heard gunfire. Making the rounds like a cop or a night watchman? Or combat operations out of earshot? Ten or twelve miles.

A chance meeting at a bar in worker town confirmed what he suspected. A solitary Planetside soldier, out of uniform and into his third bomber of beer, perked up when Ross offered to buy him his fourth. Five steps to the ordering kiosk. Thirty seconds for the robot arms to deliver a beer for the soldier and a radler—beer cut with a lemon-lime soda—for Ross. He carried the tall glasses back to the table and sat.

The soldier adjusted his off-duty baseball cap over his sandy blond buzz cut, then extended a tattooed arm for the beer. Inside Ross lodged a nugget of hate. Unlike the employees of the hotels and shops, the soldier had taken part in the ethnic cleansing…

…and judging by his chewed nails and the haunted look lurking around the corners of his eyes as he gulped beer, the soldier did his foul duty as unknowingly as Ross had.

Ross drank his sweet, diluted beer. “They didn’t tell me there’d be a war on when I signed the work contract, or I would’ve asked for higher pay.”

The soldier scrunched up his face. “It’s not a war. Pest control. We’re keeping big native animal life away from the new hotels on the beach.”

“I didn’t know they were a problem.”

“You’re welcome.” The soldier gave an inebriated grin. “Really not much to it. We drive up and down the dirt track along the fence, mostly. We’ll go out one of the gates if we see dinosaur chickens nearby to scare them off. We don’t even have to shoot any anymore. They’re learn….”

The soldier’s eyes turned glassy. His mouth went slack.

Ross thumped his glass gently on the table. “Hey, man. You okay?”

The soldier blinked groggy eyes. “My bad. Happens sometimes. Trace molecules in the air mixing with the med nano they pumped into us. The civilians say the blackouts go away after you leave.” The soldier paused with the glass near his mouth. “You don’t get them, do you?”

The cold green eyes of Dr. Fitzhugh came to his mind’s eye. Ross suppressed a shudder. “Nah. They wouldn’t make this a tourist planet if everyone got them, would they?”

“On vacation and you blackout? Hell, that would be fun, wouldn’t it?” The soldier emptied his drink. His smile faded as he set down the glass.

Ross kept him talking. A fifth beer loosened his tongue even further. Twice daily patrols. Double fences, both with razor wire pointing out, twelve miles north. Cameras and microphones every ten meters. Gates big enough to drive an armored personnel carrier through, every four miles.

Hundreds of miles of terrain beyond, where sandy plain gave way to rolling hills.

Where thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of dinosaur chickens needed help to form an army and reclaim their rights.

Ross gathered more intel and swiped survival items to add to the pack locked in his personal luggage during the next weeks. He always kept an eye out for the men he’d known from his stint with Planetside. Lt. Liebrandt. Or Vasquez. Vasquez seemed like the guy who’d renew his contract for the chance to shoot more guns and kill more things.

Old faces turned out to be no problem. Instead, a new arrival to worker town disrupted his planning.

He met the guy in the chow hall. Young, Ross’ age, give or take a couple of years. A nose as squashed as a bad boxer’s dominated the guy’s broad face as he swiveled his head, up at the glass dome and from side to side at the ordering kiosks and serving stations. The guy’s pallor showed a lot of recent time spent in ships and space elevators.

Had rumors about the dinosaur chickens spread off Azureseas? Only one way to find out. Ross went over with a tray of vat-grown chicken breast and fried hydroponic okra, and a hi-new-guy smile.

A pop-up into Ross’s augmented reality contact lenses, showing data pinged out by the new guy’s nametag, made Ross stutter-step. Jan Cech, New Prague, Masaryk.

The stutter-step swung Cech’s gaze to Ross. Half a second later, Cech’s blue eyes widened. In a smooth voice, he said over the echoing clatter of conversations and utensils on plates, “Ahoy! Yak say maa tay?”

The air suddenly tasted dry. Software in the wearable dangling on a chain round Ross’ neck needed two seconds to feed the translation to his earbuds. Hello! How are you? At least it caught up with Cech’s next words almost in real time. “What, are you German?”

Ross blinked and put on an awkward smile. “Sorry. Gets noisy in here, and I haven’t heard the language in a long time.” His mind raced over the info packet he’d memorized from the identity engineer. “I grew up in the Americanek neighborhood.”

Cech nodded as if that explained his fumbling with the language, then squinted one eye at him. “You look familiar. You play on the Americanek junior football club? I was on the New Karlin club and we played you guys a bunch.”

“I didn’t play sports in high school,” Ross said. Which might have been a bad answer, from the way Cech’s squint turned into a confused look.

Ross went on despite his thudding heart. “We can swap stories later. You look hungry now.” He pointed out the food stations around the chow hall, told Cech to avoid the meat loaf, and pointed to a table with half a dozen guys Ross kind of knew. When Cech joined the group, Ross introduced him, then said as little as possible as the conversation turned to liquor and sports. Ross gobbled down his food and left as soon as his plate was bare.

For the next two weeks, he avoided Cech when he could. And got one-eyed squints when he couldn’t. If Cech got suspicious, the construction company—or, worse, Planetside—might notice and investigate.

Earlier than he’d planned, on a night lit by the Milky Way and Azureseas’ small gray potato-shaped moon, he set out. Before leaving his single room, he took off his augmented reality contact lenses and earbuds. He slipped his wearable from around his neck and dropped it in the trashcan. His backpack weighed down his shoulders and reminded him of his soldiering days as he slipped down the hall and out of the building.

It would look really odd if someone noticed him walking around worker town with a backpack, but most people slept through the white noise of air conditioning. He avoided the gambling hall and bars on the east side. He avoided the security cameras, too, when he could. When he couldn’t, he pulled a wide-brimmed gray hat he’d never worn before on-planet lower over his eyes, lifted a sandfly bandana higher over his nose and his earlobes, and twisted his gait.

Soon he left worker town behind him. Parallel to but about fifty meters from the dirt track Planetside’s AFVs, armored fighting vehicles, used, he crossed a terrain of native grasses thinly rooted in sandy soil. Thick air blanketed him. Sweat trickled down his neck and flooded his armpits. His work boots found good purchase but the pack slowed him. When he paused for swigs of water, he checked the sky for the lumpy moon. Always lower in the sky than he’d hoped.

Walk faster, Cantrell.

A thin line of predawn edged the eastern horizon by the time Ross reached the first of two fences. A brief pang struck him. It had been this time of day when he’d made love with Nanette for the last time.

He paused and set his shoulders. A man’s got to do what he’s got to do.

Right now, that meant crossing the double line of fences. Ten feet tall with strands of normal barbed wire—still sharp enough to draw blood—spaced about a foot apart. The razor wire was on top, coiled like a picture of DNA and angled out, ready to slash the veins of any dinosaur chicken trying to climb over. Atop every third pole, and under a square meter of solar panels, a turret housing a camera and a microphone panned across the view to the north.

Ross turned his head in the opposite direction. Small native animals rustled amid tufted grass. A sandfly swarm buzzed. A faint smudge of light on the southern horizon came from worker town. No rumble of an AFV’s motor came to his ears, no dust from wheels obscured his view.

He sluffed out a breath. He had an hour or more, not ten minutes or less.

He dropped his backpack to the ground and opened it up. He dug out the radio frequency jammer and the wire cutters, then put the pack on again.

He turned on the jammer and shoved it into a pocket of his shorts. He tried opening the pocket flap’s hook-and-loop fabric quietly, but the ripping sound still seemed to carry for hundreds of yards.

If he’d planned right, it wouldn’t matter. The cameras and microphones might pick him up, but the jammer would block them from reporting his next actions to the Planetside base.

Planetside hadn’t bothered with a wired backup line. Which meant its brass on Azureseas was either lazy, or also believed with its enlistees that the dinosaur chickens were just dumb animals in need of pest control.

Ross filed that thought, then turned to the fence with his wire cutters.

Snick. One strand of tense wire recoiled with a sprang. Another snick. Another sprang. From atop the poles came whirring sounds. The cameras had noticed him now.

His gut clenched, but he kept working. No turning back, now. Four more quick cuts gave him a hole he walked through.

The two fences were farther apart than an armored fighting vehicle’s turning radius. The stars and faint moonlight cast the gray shadows of vehicle tracks across his path.

Ross went straight ahead. Sandy ruts slumped under his boots. A camera and microphone turret stopped whirring. It was locked on the back of his head like a handgun’s laser sight.

He let out a tight breath. Whether it saw him now or not, Planetside Security would figure out soon enough that Stuart Havlicek had deserted from the human occupation of Azureseas. It wouldn’t matter, if he could reach the dinosaur chickens in time.

His wire cutters opened the second fence as easily as the first.

He stepped through, took one deep breath, and started jogging.

Ross didn’t pick a destination, at first. Just trying to put distance between him and Planetside. He jogged up and down low swells in the ground, sand dunes held in place by thick cover of native grasses. His pack weighed him down and his boots weren’t meant for jogging. Soon he breathed heavily and sweat stuck his clothes to his skin. After five minutes he glanced backward from the top of a swell. The sandy path between the fences showed as a thin line in the grayscale light.

He slowed to a walk and untied his bandana. While he caught his breath, he studied the terrain ahead. The swells in the ground became low hills, which two or three miles ahead rose into three higher hills, two to the west, his left, and one to the east. From maps he’d glanced at, the three hills were the tips of ridge lines extending southward like a giant’s fingers. Enough light spilled over the eastern horizon to show the fuzz of tree-sized foliage covering the hills’ slopes.

High ground for defense, a forest for concealment and food supplies. The dinosaur chickens must live up in the hills.

Drying sweat on his arms made him shiver. Which hills? The drunken soldier had been vague about Planetside’s operations north of the double fence.

Planetside would track him starting with the line he’d followed jogging away from the cameras, right? But then they would expect him to veer off that line when he was out of camera view. Which meant he should go fairly straight. That meant the hill farthest to the west was out.

He made his decision and nodded to himself. The middle hill, slightly west of north from where he walked. He jogged that way, staying in dips in the ground wherever he could to lower the chance a camera at the double fence might see him. He jogged past thicker clumps of grasses. Little animals scurried away from his boots.

The orange-yellow sun rose quickly, filling the terrain with dark greens. During one walking break, while he munched an energy bar, he took a closer look at the native plant life. The leaves were a darker green than he expected from the terrestrial plantings along the shore. The slender, coiling blades of one native grass turned almost black at the tips. Insect-like creatures buzzed and hopped, but the plants had no flowers for the native insects to pollinate.

This was a place, just like his family’s farm on New Ozark. Embedded in the minds of the dinosaur chickens same as the farm was embedded in his. It belonged to them.

He cinched the straps of his backpack tighter, and jogged again.

The landscape changed as he neared the middle hill. The canopies of trees fanned out a foot or two above his head. The trees had pale yellow trunks, scabbed and mottled like some kind of skin disease. Some scientist could tell him why the trunks weren’t made of wood, but simpler to think of them that way. A sandpaper texture when he ran his fingertips over a trunk confirmed it.

Steeper slopes in the rolling plain showed eroded limestone layered like a birthday cake had slumped over while cooling. Water seeped from the limestone and made a patch of ground soggy.

Ross went around the damp patch. Don’t leave footprints if you can help

“”

Additional information

Format

Ebook

Writer

Raymund Eich

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