Raymund Eich

Azureseas: Cantrell’s War (paperback)


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

“☆☆☆☆☆ A true masterpiece.” —Audible reader
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…then he learns the truth about the planet’s “animals.”

Ross Cantrell joins the animal control mission on Azureseas to earn the money he needs to start married life with his girlfriend.

The tourist corporations pay well. The psych technicians keep his brain focused. Neutralizing the large, dangerous native lifeforms is dirty work, but necessary to keep people safe. Like plinking tree cats back home.

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

He knows what he must do. Go back to the planet and help the intelligent natives get the compensation they deserve. Even if it costs all the money he saved. Even if it costs him his girlfriend.

Even if it costs him his life.

Back on Azureseas, xenophobic soldiers patrol the lush countryside. Ruthless psych hackers improve their brainwashing techniques. On distant Earth, corrupt billionaires pull the strings.

And Ross must forge an alliance with natives convinced he’s their enemy…

Sample of “Azureseas: Cantrell’s War”


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….


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.


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—


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.


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.”


“Since when? Creamer, sugar?”


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.”


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