Greener Pastures

© 2024 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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Disclaimer: This story features sexual content and is intended for adults only.

Please note: this story is in-progress and will be updated regularly.

Cal pulled up at the crest of a hill, hitting the ignition button, the rumbling of the buggy’s engine petering out. He lifted his sunglasses, leaning out of the window on the driver’s side, his faded leather jacket creaking with the motion. There was no door and no glass. The little dune buggy was just large enough to seat two, little more than a metal frame with a hydrogen power plant crammed into the back, its four wheels equipped with chunky tires for all-terrain use. It was light, and it was fast – perfect for quick jaunts across the plains of Franklin.

The grasslands stretched to the horizon in every direction like a vast ocean of green, the way that the wind created flowing waves as it blew only furthering the comparison. It was broken up by the shadows of wispy cloud formations that drifted across the deep blue sky overhead, blocking the bright sunlight in places. Far in the distance, he could see mountains rising up, shrouded by the azure haze. Their white-tipped peaks shone like beacons, the melting snow feeding the rivers that snaked down their jagged faces to the prairies below. At point-eight Earth-standard gravity, the planet allowed for some incredible geological formations.

He reached for a pack that was strapped to the naked frame above the vehicle’s door, fishing out a pair of binoculars. When he held them up to his eyes, the auto-focus feature kicked in, the lenses whirring as they telescoped outward. After scanning the horizon for a few moments, he spotted a dark, shifting mass. It was ten-thousand head of Franklin longhorns, the individual animals slowly taking shape as his vision adjusted. The cattle stood over six feet at the shoulder and weighed in at almost two tons apiece, making them the largest of their kind in the settled colonies. It wasn’t just the mountains that benefited from the low gravity. The herd was grazing beside a shining river that wound its way through the plains, their heads lowered, their impressive horns so large that they looked downright unwieldy. The glint of metal caught his eye, and he lifted the binoculars higher, watching a trio of spotter drones circle high overhead. The little copters were there to keep an eye on the herd, staying out of audible range so as not to disturb them.

“Where are you?” he muttered to himself, turning his gaze away from them. “You picking anything up, Kevin?”

Cal turned in his seat to address the hound that was sitting in the passenger seat beside him, the beast licking its slavering chops between bouts of panting. Working dogs had been used to herd longhorns generations prior, but through Franklin’s unique environment and a little selective breeding, the cows had grown so large that the sight of a cattle dog no longer phased them. They hated Kevin, though.

Kevin had arrived on the colony as a pup, allegedly purchased from some off-world Rask trader before eventually ending up on Franklin. He was a Razorback – a species native to the arid deserts of Borealis that were commonly bred as war hounds by the world’s denizens. He was about four feet at the shoulder, not quite fully grown yet, his appearance somewhere between that of a hyena and a wild pig. His skull was already almost as long as Cal’s arm, a set of ivory teeth jutting from his sagging lips reminiscent of a boar’s tusks. His pointed ears swiveled as he listened for danger, his dog-like nose twitching, his flat tongue hanging out. Razorbacks had coarse, wiry fur in shades of tan and brown, and along their backs were the sharp quills from which they got their name. Just behind Kevin’s studded collar and between his shoulders rose a hump similar to those of camels, the way that the fat wobbled when Cal gave him an affectionate pat on the flank indicating that he was well fed.

The animal hopped out onto the grass to have a sniff around, the buggy bouncing on its suspension as his weight left it, his clawed paws leaving scratches on the scuffed leather upholstery. They were pack animals not unlike wolves, and they made great scent hounds, along with being formidable guard dogs. As fearsome as he might look, Kevin had been a breeze to train, and he had the personality of an oversized lapdog.

“They can’t have wandered far,” Cal added, hauling himself out of the vehicle. He reached for the long rifle that was strapped into the cargo bed above the engine, checking the safety briefly before slinging its strap over his shoulder. Keeping the barrel pointed at the ground, he rounded the blocky nose of the buggy and joined Kevin, watching the creature bury his nose in the grass. “The drones spotted them on thermals barely an hour ago.”

The hound wandered a few more feet, then lifted his head, his ears pricking up. A low growl emanated from deep within his barrel chest, and Cal took a knee in response, lifting the binoculars again. Maybe two kilometers out was another shape, his lenses zooming in and taking a few moments to focus, automatically stabilizing the image.

Sprawled in a heap on the grass like a pride of lions basking in the Savannah sun was a pack of six agellusuchus – commonly referred to by the locals as polecats. Franklin had developed its own complex ecosystem long before humans had ever looked up at the stars – it was what made the planet so ideal for ranching. Grasses had conquered the plains that spanned the temperate equator, and herbivores adapted to eat them eventually followed. While the livestock introduced by colonists had unfortunately displaced many of the native herbivore species, the predators that had evolved to prey on them didn’t much mind the change in diet. A longhorn was made of meat just the same, and they were large enough to bring one down.

Polecats bore only a passing resemblance to felines, being more similar to Earth’s ancient therapsids. They were primitive mammals that had diverged from a reptilian ancestor relatively recently, still sporting a body plan with a long, lizard-like tail and splayed toes. Instead of scales, they were covered in a coat of velvety fur with black and white patterning reminiscent of their namesake, the stripes helping to break up their silhouettes. While they had whiskers and wet noses like felines, they lacked visible ears entirely, and their elongated skulls still bore a resemblance to archeosaurs. When one of them opened its mouth to yawn, its impressive teeth were put on display, its incisors forming curving sabers designed to sever arteries.

At ten feet, they were a match for a tiger in size and mass, and their upright posture allowed them to gallop at surprising speeds. They would work as a group, isolating a cow from the herd and using their saber teeth to inflict deep lacerations, letting blood loss weaken their quarry before moving in for the killing bite.

Ranching and the displacement of their native food source brought them into frequent conflict with colonists, and a couple of hundred years of interactions hadn’t yet instilled any natural fear of humans in them.

“Good thing we’re downwind,” Cal said, lifting a radio from his belt. Kevin flicked a single ear in his direction as a hiss of static came through its speaker, then plopped down into the grass, keeping a watchful eye. “Homestead, this is Briggs. I have a visual on that pack of polecats the spotters picked up earlier. They’re hanging out maybe two klicks South of the herd. I count six big ones, over.”

“Roger that,” a crackling voice replied. “We’ll drive the cattle North and put some distance between us and them. Link up with the convoy whenever you’re ready. Over and out.”

Cal took one last look at the magnificent beasts, then returned his rifle to its place in the buggy, patting the metal roof to get Kevin’s attention. The hound turned his massive head, cocking it at his master expectantly.

“You want to go home and get a treat?” Cal asked.

Kevin rose to his feet and trotted back over to the car, hopping up into the passenger seat and making the vehicle sag under his weight. He waited obediently, his panting breath misting the windshield. Cal slid behind the wheel, hitting the ignition button again and reigniting the engine, the seat vibrating beneath him. There was an electric whir as he kicked it into gear, and they were soon rolling back down the hill, the wind that rushed in through the open frame of the vehicle blowing Kevin’s quills.

With the prairie open before him, Cal pressed down on the accelerator pedal, feeling a lurch as the buggy started to gain speed. There was a lot of power in that engine, and it was fueled entirely by hydrogen cells, which were more or less derived from plain old water. The giant springs on the buggy’s shocks bounced as they flew across the terrain, but it was a smooth ride, Kevin sticking his massive head out of the window to let his sagging lips and tongue flap about.

Cal knew that the convoy was to the East, so he kept an eye on the horizon, waiting for some sign of the ranchers. It wasn’t long before he got it, a whole squadron of bikes coming into view in the distance. As they drew closer, racing past him on their way towards the herd, he got a better look. Just like his buggy, the motorcycles were built with an industrial, almost military ruggedness that was reflected in their heavy frames and massive tires. Two of them were being ridden by ranchers clad in the usual tough denim and leather work clothes, their chassis laden with heavy saddlebags, while another four were unmanned. Instead of riders, they had angular enclosures that housed their electronics, a suite of cameras like the eyes of a spider reflecting the sunlight. The cows might not respond to dogs, but the bikes were a hell of a lot larger and louder, and they got the job done well enough.

With direction from the riders, the group of drone bikes veered off, heading South to drive the herd further up the river. They’d coordinate with the spotters to ensure that no stragglers got left behind to serve as dinner for the polecats. One of the men raised a hand to greet Cal as he blew past, and Cal returned the greeting with a honk of his horn.

Cal had been embedded with the ranchers for about a year as part of his work, and he had come to know them very well in that time. It was hard not to when everyone lived and worked together in such close proximity. Watching the bikes shrink away in his rearview mirror, he kept heading East, enjoying the sensation of the wind in his hair. Being able to go flat out with nothing to crash into for miles never ceased to be exhilarating.

After a few minutes, another shape rose up ahead of him, its silhouette standing out starkly against the blue backdrop. It might have been mistaken for a building from a distance, but when one drew closer, they would soon realize that it had wheels.

At the front was a massive tractor with a cab that was elevated some three meters off the ground, its slanted windows giving the driver a clear view of the path ahead, forming a wedge shape that culminated in a row of headlights atop the vehicle. The cab was shifted slightly to the right, with the rest of the space on the left taken up by a massive grille that served as an air intake to cool the engines. It rode high on its massive wheels, each one of them easily as tall as a man, made from a honeycomb mesh that eliminated the possibility of flats. It was only accessible from a set of retractable stairs that had to be dropped down to ground level.

Behind it, the tractor was pulling a pair of long, wide trailers. Each of them was comparable in size to a spacious prefab – the drop-and-go homes that were so popular on burgeoning colony planets and places where the infrastructure was still unreliable. They had everything a person needed to live comfortably, and these trailers were no different. As he drove past the lead truck, Cal could see the shining solar panels and the round satellite dishes on the roofs. The trailers were connected to the tractor – and to one another – by bundles of insulated cables and industrial hitching machinery. Tanks for fuel, water, and other necessities hung beneath them and bridged the gap between the two sets of six wheels. They seemed impossibly heavy, but the planet’s lenient gravity helped take a little of the load off. Everything on Franklin was just…bigger.

In many ways, it seemed more like an overland train than a truck, its sheer scale bringing to mind images of giant industrial machines that one might expect to encounter in a quarry or a spaceport. It wasn’t the only vehicle in the formation – some half dozen similar trucks trailed behind it, forming a loose convoy. In many ways, it was a mobile town, moving the ranching community and everything that they needed to do their jobs along with the herd. They could traverse thousands of kilometers, only needing to stop for resupply on occasion, crossing the planet in search of the most favorable grazing land for their cattle.

The trucks were all currently parked, having just launched the bike squadron, but they seemed to be gearing up to get moving again. People were stowing folding deck chairs and collapsing awnings that jutted from the sides of the hab trailers, packing away their coolers, a few pausing to wave to the buggy.

Cal passed the veterinary truck, which was responsible for managing the health of the herd, identifiable by its white livery and the green medical cross painted on its flank. They dealt with everything from injuries and births to vaccinations. One of its trailers was enclosed for surgeries, while the other was open to the air, fitted with squeeze chutes accessible via a ramp at the rear. One of the doctors was treating a pregnant cow, the hydraulic chute closing around its distended belly to keep it gently but securely in place so that it couldn’t thrash around. It wouldn’t be hard for such a large animal to crush a human handler otherwise.

Behind that was another hab truck, and further along was the carrier. Just like the portable hospital, this truck served as their mobile garage. One trailer was equipped with a skeletal frame and a hydraulic lift for servicing the more conventionally sized vehicles in the fleet, the enclosure fitted with stowage areas for tools and spare parts. There was also a long crane arm for recovering damaged vehicles – the outriggers that helped keep it stable extended onto the grass.

The second trailer had a three-tiered car carrier similar to something one might expect to see transporting vehicles to dealerships. This one was filled with scout buggies like the one Cal was driving, smaller pickups designed for supply runs, and other support and maintenance vehicles. The trailer was spacious enough to fit them eight deep and three wide, using a mechanism reminiscent of an automated parking garage to shuffle them around on sleds, bringing them down to the ramp when needed.

Cal made a wide turn and approached the trailer from the rear, driving up the ramp and onto one of the waiting sleds, shutting off his engine. His boots clunked against the metal grating as he hopped out, reaching into the back briefly to collect his rifle and a solitary rucksack. The rest of his gear could remain in the car. Accustomed to the process by now, Kevin hopped out of the passenger side, his claws clicking as he trotted along to follow his master.

They made their way back down the ramp and onto the grass, Cal taking a moment to enjoy the feeling of the breeze blowing through his hair. Just across from him was the control truck, its trailers laden with racks of stowed drones – both the airborne and motorcycle varieties. It had a hab module trailer that had been converted into a command center, a series of antennae and a slowly spinning radar dish mounted atop its roof.

He walked towards the hab that had been his home for these last months, marked with a large number three that was stenciled onto its side in faded white paint. Like the others, it had a long antenna array for communication, its small windows glinting in the sunlight. The person who shared the living space with him – roommate seemed too generous of a term – was outside loading some cargo into a stowage bin that hung below the drive train. She paused to wipe the sweat from her brow as Cal approached, turning to greet him. She had straw-blonde hair that was tied back in a bun to keep it out of her way, her cheeks freckled and tinted pink from the sun, her work coveralls stained with black oil. She was one of the engineers who maintained the fleet and all of its equipment.

“Darrel said you spotted six of those damned things?” she began. Cassie’s Franklin drawl would immediately place her as a local to anyone who heard it.

“Yeah, about two klicks out from the herd,” Cal replied, watching as Kevin bounded over to meet her. She beamed at the hound, reaching down to rub his sagging cheeks, baby-talking him as he licked her face affectionately. As ferocious as Kevin might look, he was a giant baby around people. “They said they wanted to drive the cattle North to keep clear of them.”

“Where there are a few, there are always more,” she sighed as she turned Kevin’s massive skull aside and gave him a shove to send him on his way. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another pack or two tracking our scent.”

“Not worried about some polecats, are you, Cass?” he asked with a grin.

“I’ll be a helluva lot happier once we get the herd back to the city,” she replied, planting her gloved hands on her hips. “Now, enough smart talk from you. Help me stow this gear before we cast off. You know Darrel hates it when we dawdle.”

“Alright, alright,” he conceded as he moved over to join her.

“How’s that buggy been treatin’ ya?” she asked as she passed him a crate. “Is the accelerator still sticky?”

“Nah, whatever magic you worked seems to have done the trick,” he grunted as he lifted it into the open bin.

“I guess this is gonna be your last cattle drive, then,” she mused. “You’re leavin’ us when we get back to civilization, right?”

“I guess so,” he replied as she handed him a heavy toolbox. “My job here is done. I’ve collected all the data I need, and the report is already written, so all I have to do now is hand it off to the government.”

“What’s your conclusion?” she asked, pausing to heft a cooler off the grass. “Are we treatin’ the local wildlife with enough respect, or are the feds gonna classify everythin’?”

“Local herbivore populations have actually been increasing since the government started creating preserves,” he began, happy to be talking about his area of expertise again. “I’ve recorded a lot more native fauna than the data suggested. I think that, as long as we keep it up, their populations should recover. They’ll never return to pre-colonial levels as long as the ranching industry exists, mind you, but they’ll be healthy and stable enough that we can stop fretting about them.”

“Should give the polecats something else to chew on, too,” Cassie added.

“I don’t think they’re all that discerning about where their meals come from, but yeah,” he replied as he flipped the stowage bin’s lid shut and secured it. “More abundant local fauna means fewer cattle ending up on the menu.”

“According to Darrel, we should hunt the bastards to extinction and damn the local wildlife,” she chuckled. She knew that it would get a rise out of Cal, grinning at him as he scowled.

“Yeah, well, Darrel isn’t in charge of wildlife conservation efforts. He’s in charge of driving trucks, and that’s where he belongs if you ask me.”

“For someone who gets so defensive, you sure do shoot a lot of polecats,” she said with a nod to the gun that was slung over his shoulder.

“There are plenty of those fuckers,” he grumbled. “With all the cows they eat, they’re the opposite of endangered. Just because I’m an ecologist, that doesn’t mean I can’t also shoot things that try to eat me. As long as you have the right permits – which you do – you can mow them down with machine guns for all I care.”

“You know,” Cassie began, looking him up and down with a smile. “When they told us that some wildlife consultant from the city was gonna be bunkin’ with us, I figured you’d be a real pain in the ass. I thought you’d cry about every dead polecat and give us the stink eye when we had cookouts, but you’ve pulled your weight. You’re alright, Briggs.”

“Your approval means everything to me, of course,” he replied sarcastically. She leaned in to give him a friendly punch on the shoulder, then gestured to the truck.

“C’mon now, before we have to be told twice.”

They climbed up the three-meter collapsible ladder that led to the entrance to the forward hab, Kevin bounding up behind them, leaping the steps three or four at a time. Once he was inside, Cassie hit a panel beside the door, and the steps folded flush against the chassis. The hound trotted over to his bed in the sleeping area, turning on the spot for a few moments before settling in. He reached for one of the beef bones that Cal had given him to chew and started to gnaw, the giant chunk of femur already pocked with scars from the razorback’s teeth. In some ways, Kevin had adapted even more quickly to the new routine than Cal had.

The interior of the hab was something akin to an RV or a camper, but the living space was comparable in volume to a shipping container. Just like a prefab, it had all of the amenities that the occupants needed to live comfortably. There were beds that folded flush against the walls, a small shower cubicle with a privacy screen, a kitchenette area with a little dining table and all of the appliances one might expect. The main difference was how everything had to be secured, all of the cupboards held shut with locks or straps, and every cup or plate secured with magnets. In many ways, it reminded him of long-haul voyages on spacecraft, where every little thing had to be bolted down or strapped behind cargo netting to prevent it from floating away if the AG plates failed. It was spacious and downright luxurious for what it was – he’d certainly endured far worse during previous expeditions.

With two people to a hab, and when the rather spacious sleepers above the cabs were taken into account, the convoy could comfortably carry about twenty people. Their entourage was a tad smaller at seventeen, but that was all they needed to get the job done.

Cassie hit the button on an intercom on the wall, letting her speak to the driver in the cab.

“Alright, Harry,” she began. “You can tell Darrel we’re all packed up.”

“Roger that,” a voice replied. “We’ll be underway soon.”

Cal and Cassie sat down in some nearby chairs that were positioned in front of a wall-mounted TV in what passed for the living room. The convoy didn’t exactly reach high speeds, and they didn’t make quick turns, so there wasn’t really any reason to strap in. They could go about their business as long as Harry didn’t brake suddenly.

He felt a lurch as the vehicle began to move, the massive hydrogen turbine engines that powered the huge trucks spinning to life and making the floor vibrate. They were similar to those used on UNN battle tanks, according to what Cal had overheard during mealtime.

“Nothing to do but put our feet up for a while,” Cassie said as she kicked off her leather work boots. Leather jackets, boots, upholstery, bags – it was a plentiful resource on Franklin.

***

 

They drove until nightfall, following the cattle as the drones herded them up the river, only stopping once they had crossed and the stars were out. Like a wagon fort of old, the seven trucks formed a closed ring to encircle their makeshift camp with a defensive wall, the golden light that filtered out through the windows and the open doors of the habs making it feel like a town square.

The ranchers had extended covered awnings from some of the trucks, bringing out coolers and folding chairs, setting them up around a large campfire that had been built at the center of the fort. They were grilling meat over the open flames and passing around cold beers, enjoying their last night on the plains before they returned to the city. Everyone was present save for a drone operator who was monitoring the herd, and one of the vets, who was still tending to the pregnant cow.

Cal was sitting between Cassie and Harry – their driver, while Darrel flipped steaks on a makeshift grill nearby. Darrel was an old hand and the de facto leader of their outfit, his face just as tanned and weatherbeaten as the ten-gallon hat that never seemed to leave his head. The rest of the employees were ringing the fire, sipping at their drinks and sharing stories as they watched the glowing embers float up into the night sky. At times like this, the crew almost felt like a big family, and it made Cal sad to have to leave them.

“The first batch is done,” Darrel declared, his gravelly voice carrying over the sound of the crackling fire. “Medium rare. Anyone who asks for well-done is getting left behind to explain their poor decision makin’ to the polecats.”

“I’ll take one,” Cal said, hopping out of his seat.

“Careful, kid,” Darrel warned as he slapped one of the dripping steaks onto a paper plate. “At this rate, I might actually start likin’ you before we have to cut you loose.”

Kevin sat down beside the grill, the hound’s eyes following the plate as Darrel handed it off to Cal, slobber dripping from his jaws. He gave Darrel a whine, the old rancher sparing him a sideways glance.

“Alright, alright,” he grumbled as he tossed one of the steaks to the grass. “Ain’t like we don’t have plenty to go around.”

Kevin lay down beside the fire and began to chew, wolfing the meat down in only a few bites before rolling onto his side and basking in the warmth of the flames. He’d even managed to get Darrel to soften up and start sneaking him table scraps – no wonder his hump was getting so fat.

“I’ll take one for Sawyer,” Harry declared, Darrel passing him a pair of plates. “He has to be working up an appetite watching those spotter cams.”

“Make sure he’s not on his damned phone again!” Darrel called after him. “The company pays him to watch cattle, not intranet videos!”

“I’ll remind him!” Harry chuckled as he walked over to the control trailer.

Cal sat back down in his chair and cracked open a fresh beer from the nearest cooler, feeling the cold liquid travel all the way down to his stomach. Kevin crept his way over and sat down beside his master, cocking his head as Cal began to cut off a piece of steak.

“It’s no use giving me puppy dog eyes,” Cal said, pausing to bring a juicy morsel of meat to his mouth. “You’ve had some already. And don’t go bothering anybody else. Stay, Kevin.”

Seeming to understand that the jig was up, the dog grumbled, lying down in the grass again next to the chairs.

“I think I’m gonna miss that dog more than I’ll miss you,” Cassie said as she gestured to the hound with her beer. “Sure you don’t want to leave him with us? It’d be a good life for him out here, you know. He’d have plenty of space to run around, important work to do, and all the beef he can eat.”

“It had crossed my mind,” Cal admitted as he watched the dog yawn, exposing those ivory tusks. “He’s a daddy’s boy, though. I think he’d pine for me. Besides, wherever the government sends me next, I’m sure he’ll do just fine. With all these new game preserves and wildlife reservations cropping up, there’s going to be a lot of work for consultants like myself.”

“That’s what you’d call yourself?” she continued, raising an eyebrow at him. “A consultant?”

“On paper, I’m a conservation biologist,” he said with an exaggerated flair.

“If you say so,” she said, smirking at him as she took a drink.

Kevin suddenly lifted his head, his ears pricked up the way they tended to do when something was amiss.

“What is it, Kev?” Cal asked as his brow began to furrow.

A moment later, the bellow of an animal in distress echoed across the campsite, Cal almost jumping out his seat in alarm. The murmur of conversations died down, everyone turning their heads in the direction of the veterinary truck.

“Sounds like Bessie’s calving!” Cassie said, leaning over to give Cal a nudge. “That there is what we in the business call bovine parturition. She picked a hell of a time for it, too. Girl can’t give us an evenin’ to ourselves.”

“Will you lazy assholes put down your beer cans and come help me with this?” one of the vets yelled from across the camp. “Better get some scrubs if you don’t want to spend the rest of the night smelling like placenta!”

Two of the medical staff hopped out of their seats and started to jog over to lend a hand, another loud bellow of pain filling the air.

“You want to go take a look?” Cassie joked, taking a wet bite out of her steak. “Or would it spoil your appetite?”

“I think I’ll sit this one out,” Cal muttered, reaching down to give Kevin a reassuring pat on the head. “Don’t worry, Kev – she’s in good hands. It’s nothing you need to worry about.”

The dog still seemed bothered, his ears flattening against his head as another cry rang out.

***

 

“Sounds like she might be havin’ a little trouble,” Cassie said, her tone suddenly less playful. “The birth shouldn’t be takin’ this long.”

It had been close to an hour and the cow was still in labor, its cries now conveying a palpable exhaustion. Cal hadn’t even known that an animal could sound so tired.

“What do you think is wrong?” he asked.

“Could be a malposition,” Cassie replied with a shrug. “The calf might have gotten itself turned around in there.”

“Think they can sort it out?”

“Oh, sure,” she said with a curt nod. “They know what they’re doin’. Worst case scenario, they’ll get her into the OR and intervene surgically.”

Kevin’s ears stood erect again, a low growl emanating from deep in his throat. The dog rose from his seat beside Cal’s chair, his posture low and his hackles raised, peering into the darkness beyond the fire’s reach.

“It’s alright, Kevin!” Cassie said in a soothing voice. “Should we take him back to the truck? It really seems to be botherin’ him.”

“No, this is something else,” Cal said as he stood and put his back to the fire. “Hey, Darrel? I think we should get the rifles…”

Shit,” Cassie hissed, hopping out of her chair. “Is it polecats? They can probably hear Bessie’s hollerin’ from halfway across the goddamned prairie.”

“How reliable is that dog’s nose?” Darrel asked, holding the iron prong that he’d been using to prod and turn the steaks like he was expecting to use it as a weapon.

“His sense of smell has saved my skin more than once,” Cal replied.

“Alright, people,” Darrel said as he raised his voice to get everyone’s attention. “This cookout is on hold until further notice. Sounds like we might have a pack of polecats sniffin’ around the camp, so go grab your guns and get some elevation on ‘em. I want all the angles covered!” He lifted the handheld radio from his belt and flicked it on, the device fizzing with static. “Sawyer – get another bird in the air. I want to know if anythin’ outside the perimeter so much as sneezes.”

The other ranchers within earshot had been listening to the exchange with concern, but on Darrel’s orders, they sprang into action and made for the trucks. Cal and Cassie jogged over to their hab, Kevin following close behind them, the quills on his back standing on end.

“The polecats have never gotten this close to the camp the whole time I’ve been embedded with you guys,” Cal panted as they reached the folding step ladder. “What do you usually do in these situations?”

“Doesn’t happen often,” Cassie replied as she climbed the steps two at a time, hurrying inside the trailer. “Usually, they’re too wary to come near the trucks. If they ever grow enough balls to start sniffin’ around, we just hole up and batten down the hatches until they realize there’s nothin’ to eat and lose interest. We can’t leave Bessie out to dry, though. We’ll lose her and the calf if we don’t defend the camp. Here,” she added as she tossed him his rifle, Cal snatching it out of the air. “Let’s see how many you can bag, mister conservationist.”

“What’s the plan?” he asked, checking the magazine. His weapon of choice was a caseless hunting rifle with a ten-round detachable magazine – ammunition favored by the Navy before the widespread adoption of EM weapons. The ammo was cheap and abundant on Franklin, thanks both to the local hunting culture and the well-funded PDF garrisons. At 130 grains, it would put down just about anything smaller than a Krell. “Seems to me a polecat could crawl right under one of these trailers. They’re elevated a good meter off the ground.”

“We go up on the roofs,” she replied, pulling her own weapon from a rack that was mounted on the far wall. It was a shotgun, and she tossed an open box of green shells onto a nearby table, starting to load them into the tubular magazine one by one with practiced speed. “It’s not like they can’t clamber up there if they’re motivated, but it’s a hell of a lot better than tryin’ to fight them on their terms.”

“What’s that?” he asked. “Buckshot?”

“Fuck no, these are lead slugs,” she scoffed as she chambered one of the shells with a one-handed pump. “This right here is the poor man’s XMR. I’m fixin’ to put ‘em down, not tickle ‘em.”

“Kevin, stay,” Cal commanded. The dog lowered his head and whined, his ears drooping. “Sorry, big guy, but you can’t climb ladders.”

Cassie hit another touch panel, and a narrow ladder unfolded from the ceiling, leading up to a hatch. She slung her shotgun over her shoulder and began to climb, opening up the hatch and hauling herself onto the roof of the hab. Cal spared Kevin one last glance, then followed her, emerging into the cool night air. To his right was the roaring campfire, and to his left was an expanse of darkness, the orange glow from the flames fading to create an isolated island of illumination on the prairie. There was no light pollution out here, the stars cold and stark against the sky.

More of the ranchers were emerging from the trailers, taking up position on the roofs looking out over the plain, shouldering their rifles as they scanned for movement. Cal heard the whir of rotors as a small spotter drone launched from the racks behind the control trailer, zipping up into the air high above them. He flipped on his radio, listening to the chatter on the open channel.

“What are you seein’, Sawyer?” Darrel asked. “Anythin’ on thermals?”

“Oh, I’m seeing them alright,” another voice replied. “We have two dozen signatures showing up on the FLIR. They’re big – probably a pack of females.”

“Where are they?”

“All around us, boss.”

Cal caught a flash of something passing by a pool of light that bled from the outward-facing windows, then aimed his rifle into the darkness, seeing a pair of reflective eyes peering back at him. There were more of them, the polecats prowling just beyond the light’s reach like jackals circling a dying animal. Another pained bellow rang out, the cow drawing them to her like moths to a flame.

“Protect the cow!” Darrel ordered. “They’ll go for her first!”

The report of a rifle carried across the plains, and like the starting gun in a race, it served as a signal that the battle had begun. Cassie fired her shotgun into the blackness, targeting a pair of shining eyes, a sound like the blended roar of a lion and the hiss of an alligator letting her know that she had found her mark.

One of the animals lunged for Cal, propelling itself up the side of the four-meter hab, its lizard-like claws scratching against the metal as they scrabbled for purchase. Like a cat batting at a bird, it reached out for him, Cal feeling that massive paw displace the air as he leaned just out of its reach. He caught only a flash of its fierce eyes and its saber teeth, their pale ivory glinting, before it receded back into the night as though sinking into a sea of ink.

More shots rang out from the trailers on the far side of the fort, joined by the cow’s distressed mooing, the noise doing nothing to ease her labor along. A few of the ranchers called out targets, and he heard Darrel shouting something, raising his voice in a futile attempt to be heard over the gunshots.

There was a flash of black and white fur as another of the creatures drew closer, the flickering light from the bonfire that made it beneath the trailer painting it in dim orange, the way that the shadows wavered keeping Cal’s mind from forming a clear picture. It was like some half-remembered creature from a nightmare, its jaws open unnaturally wide, its hungry eyes fixed on him.

He swung his weapon around and squeezed the trigger, the stock of the rifle rocking into his shoulder as it recoiled. There was another reptilian hiss of pain and alarm, and the creature withdrew with all the haste of someone pulling away from an open flame, its heavy footfalls thudding against the ground even in the forgiving gravity.

Cassie pumped her shotgun and fired off another round, a spent shell clattering to the roof at her feet, wisps of smoke rising from it as it rolled away. She let off a few more, clearly experienced with the weapon, switching targets as new polecats probed for openings. Almost like they were lunging at a wounded steer, they would leap in to take swipes, then retreat back into the gloom.

Another of them scaled the side of the hab, leaping with alarming ease, muscle rippling beneath its striped hide. It found purchase on the roof, holding on with its hooked claws, but Cassie was faster. She hit it in the flank with enough force that the creature was knocked clear off the trailer, crumpling like it had been hit with an invisible hammer, leaving only a splatter of dark blood in its wake.

There was a spotlight on one of the nearby trucks, and someone turned it on, its pale glow illuminating Cal’s side of the fort as it swept across the prairie. It revealed a couple of dead or dying polecats that were lying limp on the ground, then fixed on a live one, the alien exposing its saber teeth in a snarl as it blinked against the bright beam. Cal took it down with two shots to the body, and it dropped, dead before its head had even hit the grass.

Cal caught something out of the corner of his eye, aiming down a moment too late, a serpentine tail covered in fur disappearing beneath the trailer.

“They’re going under!” he warned. He wheeled around, his boots pounding on the roof as he hurried to the other side. Within the makeshift compound, the beast was framed by the campfire, casting its feline body into silhouette. It stayed low to the ground, shoulder blades tenting its shining hide, stalking the cow. She was still trapped in her cattle chute, her watery eyes wide as they reflected the dancing flames, her long horns slamming against the metal frame in a bid to free herself.

The polecat prepared to pounce, its body like a coiled spring, but Cal’s trigger finger was quicker. He dumped the rest of his magazine into it, sending it toppling to the ground, the flailing creature knocking over one of the folding chairs in its death throes.

A few more shots joined the chorus, then the noise ceased, Cassie letting off one last shell as a polecat fled at the edge of the spotlight’s reach. Cal lowered his weapon, hearing the pack call to each other in the distance, chattering and whooping like hyenas.

“Yeah, you’d better run!” Cassie yelled at the top of her lungs. She began to laugh, more exhilarated than scared, Cal soon joining her as the two shared a relieved glance.

“Well, that was one hell of a sendoff,” he chuckled as he flipped the safety back on. “I guess Franklin had to have the last word. Couldn’t just let me observe a cattle drive in peace.”

“You’ve been with us for nearly a year without incident, so of course your last night has to be the most eventful one,” she said as she patted his back with her free hand.

“Everyone alright?” Darrel yelled. There was a chorus of replies – it sounded like everyone had come out unscathed. “Sawyer – where are the polecats?”

“Scattered, boss,” Cal heard the operator reply over the radio. “We killed most of ‘em. The rest are booking it like the Devil is on their heels. You’re all clear.”

There was another loud bellow, snapping them back to the present. The cow was still in labor. Cal and Cassie climbed down a ladder that was bolted to the outside of the hab, dropping onto the ground and hurrying over to the vet’s trailer. A few of the other ranchers were standing around, watching the exhausted cow as she stood in her chute, the machine keeping her upright in spite of her obvious lethargy. She could barely hold her head up now. Cal couldn’t see much of what was happening in the firelight, and he was grateful for it, but the vet was elbow-deep in Bessie.

“I think I got it!” the vet declared, heaving as she pulled something out of the cow. There was an awful sound of liquid splattering against metal, followed by a thud, then a cry that was distinctly higher-pitched. The ranchers began to cheer, raising their rifles above their heads, Darrel lifting his hat in a rare display of jubilation. Cassie put her fingers in her mouth, letting out an ear-splitting whistle, then gave Cal another slap on the back that drove the air from his lungs.

“It’s a boy!” the vet announced, eliciting another round of celebratory hollering.

As the crowd quietened down and began to return to their business, Cassie led Cal closer to get a look. The vet was talking with Darrel, rubbing the calf’s flank as though trying to stimulate it, the bewildered baby still taking its first halting breaths. There was cow fluid all over the diamond plate that made up the bed of the trailer, and neither the vet nor the baby were faring much better in that regard.

“Is the mother gonna be alright?” Darrel asked, his rifle leaning on his shoulder as he hovered near one of the massive wheels.

“She’s going to need some time to rest, and I’d like to get some fluids in her,” the vet replied as she shook some of the slime off her glove. “She should be able to return to the herd soon. The calf is in great condition, considering how difficult the labor was. I thought we were going to have to do a C-sec for a little while there. It’s not all that uncommon for first-time mothers.”

“He needs a name,” Cassie said, giving Cal a nudge. “Let’s call him Calvin.”

“I thought you were going to ask me to pick a name,” Cal sighed.

“Well, we’re gonna need a way to remember you when you’re gone,” she replied with a grin. “C’mon,” she added, gesturing to the polecat that he had shot inside the compound. “Let’s go take a look at your kill.”

It was lying motionless beside the fire, a couple of chairs and one of the coolers knocked aside, the silver beer cans shining in the grass. A few of the ranchers were crowded around the carcass, reaching down to touch its fur and prodding it with their rifles as though wanting to make sure it was really dead.

“These aren’t bad shots,” Cassie mused, kneeling beside the animal and inspecting the bullet wounds in its flank. “Two rounds – straight through the heart and lungs. Unless you did that by accident, because polecat organs ain’t where they’re supposed to be, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on this one.”

He watched as she reached for its head, gripping one of its saber teeth in her hand. It was the size of a large banana, and one dreaded to think what kind of damage such a bite would do to a person.

“One thing you might not know about polecat teeth,” Cassie began, grunting as she started to twist and wrench at it. “They’re actually designed to come out at the root. They often get torn when they’re wrestlin’ with prey – or each other – and they just grow right back like sharks.” She succeeded in breaking it loose, then handed it to him, the root still covered in red connective tissue. “Here – a keepsake. Better than any shit you’d get at a gift shop in the city, right?”

He held the tooth in his hand, rubbing his thumb along its serrated edge.

“We’d better go let Kevin out,” she added, brushing herself off as she rose to her feet. “He’s gotta be restless.”

“Let’s keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn’t make a meal of this thing,” Cal added as he gave the body a tap with the toe of his boot. “He’s had enough table scraps for one night.”

 

***

Cal rode in the spacious cab beside Henry, glancing over the control panels to watch the city rise up ahead of them through the slanted windshield. As they neared its borders, the grassy plains had gradually given way to fields of crops tended by fleets of massive automated tractors and harvesters. Franklin wasn’t only the UN’s primary exporter of beef, but its breadbasket too, the neat squares and circles of golden wheat and corn seeming to extend from horizon to horizon. The trucks drove down the wide roads between them, warehouses and towering silos starting to break up the flat terrain.

Now, he could see the silver thread of the tether rising high into the sky, fading into the haze. It was a space elevator that reached into high orbit – one of many that had been built on the planet. Franklin exported teratons of food per year, sending the produce all over UN space and helping to feed the tens of billions of humans that populated it. Few planets were so ideal for farming. There were airless moons, frozen tundras, and blazing deserts where people still needed three square meals.

At the base of the great tether was the city, spreading out from the skeletal framework of the anchor, its footprint extending far across the surrounding plains like a living slime mold of glass and metal. It had grown outwards in rough concentric circles, the mile-high spires of the skyscrapers near the elevator jutting up towards the clouds, gradually tapering into squat suburbs at the outskirts of the urban sprawl. There were two dozen such cities ringing the equator, many of which had begun as simple company towns and corporate outposts. Over the generations, they had grown into thriving metropolises, collectively housing over a billion people. In addition to food production, Franklin was known for manufacturing agricultural and industrial machinery, and even weapon systems for the UNN. It was far from the rural backwater that some offworlders assumed it to be.

The settlements and homesteads that were scattered between the cities were usually fortified with high walls and automated defenses to protect them from the local fauna. Many such towns cropped up along the roads and cattle routes that linked the larger population centers, providing services to truckers or simply farming their own land. The city didn’t need such defenses, as the polecats tended to stay away from densely populated areas, and the local PDF could handle them easily enough. A few packs of wandering predators were nothing compared to the Betelgeusian invasions they had trained for.

The convoy had already driven a portion of the herd to a processing plant for slaughter, and the rest would be moved further West to new pastures. Before then, the trucks needed maintenance and a chance to replenish their supplies, while their crews needed some downtime prior to the next drive. Ranchers like Darrel’s team spent the majority of the year out in the field, only returning for a few days at a time.

A few tractors and civilian cars passed them on the opposite side of the dirt road, the smaller vehicles absolutely dwarfed by the procession of titanic trucks. Only when they began to leave the corn fields behind them did the road transition to rough tarmac, civilization sprouting up all around them, the plains giving way to an expansive industrial park. There were large warehouses in this district, garages suitable for servicing the oversized machinery, and train depots where goods were transported between the cities.

The company that employed the convoy ran a truck depot nearby, and Harry turned off the main road, heading for a cluster of large structures. Everything was so indistinct to Cal, no warehouse or garage easy to distinguish from its neighbors, the maze of carbcrete and steel extending in every direction. The tether kept him oriented, the impossibly long strand shining in the sunlight like a lighthouse, cargo cars in the shape of tapered pods running up and down its length as they ferried goods to orbit.

They approached a long building lined with shutter doors, their proportions blown up in scale to match the trucks, the panels lifting automatically as the vehicles approached. Cal craned his neck to get a look at his surroundings as Harry drove into the shadowy interior, parking inside a purpose-built bay that cradled the tractor and its trailers. Cal could see the rest of the fleet sliding to a stop to his right, along with a few idle vehicles that were already being worked on. As the shutters slid closed to seal them in, and his eyes began to adjust to the artificial light, he saw that the interior of the building resembled a garage. There were shelves running floor to ceiling stocked with spare parts and tools, scissor lifts, and bulky forklifts designed to carry heavy loads. One of the tires on these trucks was big enough to crush a man, and he could only guess at the scale of things like the engine components. An axle was probably the length and width of a tree trunk.

Harry shut off the engine and they began to climb out of the cab, Cal following the driver down the extended ladder. He hopped to the floor, the sound of power tools and machinery echoing through the cavernous building, the scent of fumes and coolant on the air. It was such a jarring contrast to the unblemished nature that he had enjoyed during the cattle drive.

He circled around the trailer and made his way into the hab, finding Cassie crouched over Kevin, scratching the dog’s belly as he lay on the floor. His legs were lifted, his long tongue lolling from his mouth contentedly.

“Getting one last cuddle in?” Cal chuckled.

“I’m gonna miss you, big man,” she said, putting on a baby voice as she scratched the panting hound beneath his chin. “Maybe I’ll pick up a puppy while I’m in town. Just for company on the road.”

“I suppose you’re heading off now,” Harry added as he climbed inside. “Will we be seeing you again?”

“Yeah, it’s time for me to report in,” Cal said as he began to collect his belongings. He’d already packed, and he traveled light, his stuff fitting into a rucksack and a duffel bag. “I doubt our paths will cross again, but you guys have my info if you want to catch up sometime. I’m only a video call away.”

“Alright,” Cassie sighed, scrunching up her face as Kevin licked her cheek. “Better get goin’ before I decide to hold up Briggs and steal you for myself.”

“I think the rest of the crew would like to see you off,” Harry said, waving for the pair to follow.

They left the truck and joined up with the others in the garage outside. The ranchers shook his hand and bid him a safe journey as Kevin wandered between them in search of pets, loving the attention. Darrel was having a conversation with a mechanic wearing stained coveralls and a yellow hard hat, but he soon made his way back over to take Cal’s hand in his calloused grip.

“Take care of yerself, kid,” he began. “If you ever want to stop writin’ reports for the feds and do some real work, you know where to find us.”

“I might take you up on that one day,” he replied. “Thanks for having me along.”

“Don’t be a stranger,” Cassie added, giving him a punch on the arm.

He reached down to hook up Kevin’s leash, then waved goodbye to the ranchers, heading out of the garage and into the warm midday sun.

***

 

Cal made his way deeper into the city, his industrial surroundings giving way to more familiar architecture, the buildings growing taller the further he went. It was such a stark change, going from an endless expanse of open plains to having sheer walls of glass rising up to either side of him like a canyon. He left the road, proceeding along pedestrian walkways that crisscrossed above it, the occasional small park or plaza suspended above the vehicles that passed below. When he crossed above a railway track, he had an opportunity to see one of the huge transport trains barreling through the city on its way to the tether. It was three stories tall and almost as wide, the empty trailers that followed behind it seeming to go on forever. Just like everything else on the planet, the trains were oversized and overengineered, just the sound of it enough to shake the support pillars.

Cal’s leather and denim garb wasn’t unusual, but his choice of companion was, and he got some looks from the other pedestrians. Most people gave him a wide berth as he passed, others stopping to stare at the exotic animal, unsure of what to make of it. Kevin was larger than any Earth dog, and his fearsome appearance made him intimidating to everyone except young children. To them, he was nothing more than a giant teddy bear, and he was all too happy to play the part when the opportunity arose. It was hard to believe that the Rask had bred these hounds for war.

He didn’t even need a map – he just had to follow the tether to reach the administrative district where the federal offices were located. He eventually reached a wide plaza with an ornate fountain in the middle depicting some important historical figure, a few squat local trees cultivated in planters lining its edges. The government building was on the far side, Franklin and UN flags billowing in the breeze just outside its glass atrium. On his way, he was stopped by a pair of PDF troopers clad in camouflaged body armor, the visors on their helmets open to show their faces. They were carrying XMRs – cutting edge EM weapons that were easily identifiable by the signature copper coils that lined the barrels beneath their heat shrouds. They were more for show than for any practical purpose in a place like this.

The Navy didn’t have the manpower to garrison troops across all of human space simultaneously, so local defense was handled primarily by the Planetary Defense Forces and various civilian militias that could be called up in times of need. It depended on the culture of the colony in question, but in a lot of places, the PDF also filled the role of police and peacekeepers.

“Sorry, sir,” one the men began as he raised a hand to stop Cal. “I’m gonna need to see your permits before I can let you enter Federal property.”

“No worries,” Cal said, handing the trooper his phone. “This isn’t my first rodeo.”

“Firearms license checks out, and you’re licensed to own…whatever that is,” he added warily with a nod to Kevin. “Go right ahead, sir.”

Cal passed the two men and entered the atrium of the building through a glass door, finding himself in a lobby lined with pillars of the blue-green marble that was so prevalent on the planet, the floor paved with polished granite. Hanging from the pillars were more oversized flags, tracing the history of the colony from its first founders all the way to the present day. There was a tattered flag of the old United States from Earth that must be a few hundred years old, along with several from specific states the colonists had hailed from. Another marked company holdings from the early Expansion period, he saw a Franklin flag with stars representing each city that had joined the federation, and there was a UN flag from the unification. He could also see the UNN banner – the Navy’s crest depicting the cross of Earth with a stylized nautical star, a sword and an anchor crossed behind it.

As he greeted the receptionist with a wave – the woman staring at Kevin in bewilderment from behind her desk – he walked past the rows of marble busts that lined the room. Like the statue outside, they depicted revered figures from the colony’s history. Some were founding fathers, including the man from which the colony derived its name, and others were more recent. It was all very Greco-Roman, reminiscent of the architectural styles of old America, itself an imitation of the great empires that had preceded it.

Cal had always found it a little tacky. Franklin’s story was one of rugged individuals braving the wilds – homesteaders and ranchers conquering a frontier filled with alien dangers, light-years from any real form of government. The first outposts had been company towns driven by profit, not glittering halls filled with marble busts and preening politicians.

At the end of the lobby was an elevator, and he rode it up, pulling out his phone to double-check his appointment as he waited for the doors to open again. His next stop was a similarly lavish waiting room, and he took a seat in one of the padded leather chairs, Kevin lying down at his feet. The secretary greeted him from behind her desk, pausing to watch the dog curiously before resuming her work.

After a few minutes, she spoke up, lifting her eyes from her display.

“Mister Briggs? The minister will see you now.”

“Kevin, stay,” he commanded as he rose to his feet. He shrugged off his rifle and left it leaning against the chair, the hound waiting obediently. “Don’t worry – he’s a good dog,” he added as he walked over to the door.

Beyond it was an office with a carved wooden desk that looked to be worth more than Cal made in a year, a brass eagle perched on its surface. The minister was wearing a neat suit, looking up from a computer display as Cal entered, framed by a large window that looked out over the city. He was a man in the later years of middle age, his features softened by his privileged position, his thinning hair still clinging stubbornly to life.

“Ah, Mister Briggs,” he began as he gestured to a chair opposite him. “Please take a seat.”

“I have your report ready, minister,” Cal replied as he sat down. He pulled up his phone and swiped the screen, sending the file to the minister’s console. “I think you’ll find it very encouraging. Pretty much every metric that I was asked to measure ended up beyond our projections. If you wanted a glowing endorsement of your ecological policies, here it is. In brief, native populations are starting to bounce back much more quickly than the data suggested. The preserves are showing encouraging progress, and I saw nothing to indicate that local ranchers and homesteaders aren’t abiding by environmental regulations.”

“Very good, very good,” the minister muttered as he glanced over the data briefly. “Hopefully, this will stop the senators from yapping about our budget allocation. Some of those old coots don’t seem to understand that it takes more than a single financial quarter for an ecosystem to recover.”

“I have to ask,” Cal continued, prompting the man to look up from his display. “I could have sent you the report over the air, and you could have wired me my consultancy fee without any need for a face-to-face. Why did you ask me to come in person?”

“I’m glad you asked,” he replied with a smile. “Now that your assignment for my office is complete, I’ve received a rather interesting request. It came straight down from our counterparts in the UN, actually. The United Academy of Sciences has been asking after you.”

“Really?” Cal asked, cocking an eyebrow. “What does the UAS want with me?”

“They’ve been searching for a candidate to take on a survey job. I’ll send you the data, but to summarize – it’s a mission to a mostly uncharted planet filled with dangerous fauna that needs to be cataloged and evaluated so that the new colony can minimize its ecological impact. They need someone with a background in exobiology and conservation, but who knows how to handle a rifle.”

“Well, I do fit that description,” Cal conceded as he raised his phone to read the message. “How dangerous are they talking? I’m not going to Kerguela…”

“Epsilon Eridani Four,” the minister replied.

“Can’t say I’m familiar with it.”

“Neither was I, but from a cursory glance, it appears to be a jungle world liberated from the Bugs in 2620. It’s barely been touched for the last seven years, because it was largely unsuitable for human habitation, but some of our Coalition allies have begun an earnest attempt to civilize it. You can be a hard man to find, and I suppose they traced your last known whereabouts to me.”

“Seeking an ecological consultant…all expenses covered…generous pay,” Cal muttered as he briefly scanned the offer. “A little too generous if you ask me.”

“Well, they put in the effort to find you,” the minister added. “They clearly have their hearts set on Calvin Briggs. I doubt that there are many candidates with your background, and even fewer who aren’t off chasing rainbow spiders or teaching African elephants to paint, or whatever it is you people do when I’m not keeping track of you.”

“It feels like they could have messaged me directly,” Cal said, giving the man a skeptical look.

“I may have implied that you would be unreachable until our contract had concluded,” the minister replied with a smug smile. “Couldn’t have you distracted from your work.”

“Naturally,” Cal grumbled.

“You’re a freelancer – you don’t work for me,” the minister continued as he leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. “You’re free to do as you please, of course. I just wanted to pass it on as a courtesy. If you want my advice, though…take the job. With what they’re offering, you could come back to Franklin in a yacht.”

“It must be dangerous, or they’d be paying me the way you do,” Cal joked.

“I am but a humble public servant,” the minister laughed, the motion making his portly frame shake beneath his expensive suit. “As I said – lots of ado about budgets and funding.”

“Fortunately, the animals are more important to me than the money.”

“If we could afford to pay every man what he deserved, we’d be bankrupt in a day,” the minister chuckled. “You’ve done a lot of good for Franklin, Mister Briggs,” he continued in a more earnest tone. “Few people besides me will ever really be in a position to appreciate it. Thanks to your efforts, we’re a little closer to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the colony. Perhaps this job offer is the Universe recognizing that.”

“If the Universe wants to cut me a check, who am I to refuse?” Cal replied as he stood up.

The minister reached across the table to offer his hand, and Cal shook it.

“You should spend some time in town while you think it over,” the minister said. “Restock your supplies – relax a little.”

“And inject some of my consultancy fee back into the local economy,” Cal added.

“Couldn’t hurt.”

They said their goodbyes, and Cal returned to the waiting room, picking up his rifle and whistling for Kevin to follow him.

***

 

“What’s your educated opinion, Kev?” Cal asked. He pulled a piece of beef out of his sandwich and tossed it to the dog, Kevin wolfing it down in a few bites. “It’s a lot of money, and it’s a chance to tread some truly untouched ground. Who knows what we might find out there. It’s dangerous, though. They wouldn’t be offering such a good contract if it was going to be a walk in the park.”

They were sitting in one of the elevated parks that was suspended above the train tracks, eating some fast food from a street vendor. Cal relaxed back into the metal bench, lifting his head to watch a passenger car race its way up the tether high above, gradually building speed. At this distance, he could see the way that it hugged the cable, the tiny windows giving him some sense of its scale.

The dog tilted his head, watching expectantly as Cal took a bite of the sandwich.

“We could stay on Franklin, but it’s just more of the same. Besides, I feel like the feds have a pretty good handle on the situation now. We should probably go somewhere we can actually make a difference. A whole planet that’s just a jungle…think about what might be hiding in there.”

He tossed the hound another piece of meat, Kevin’s jaws snapping as he snatched it out of the air.

“You’re right, Kevin,” Cal said with a nod. “It’s too good of an opportunity to pass up. It’ll be quite the journey, though. You can’t exactly get out and stretch your legs when you’re on a spaceship. I don’t want you going stir crazy.”

The dog whined, and Cal fed him the last bite of his sandwich.

“Alright, alright,” Cal conceded. “You’re the boss. I’ll let them know that we accept.”

He took some time to type a reply on his phone, then sent it off. They would need accommodation and food for Kevin during the journey to Epsilon Eridani, or no sale. Franklin was located in the Tau Boötis star system, a hair over fifty light-years from Earth. According to the travel itinerary, EE-4 was approximately sixty light-years from Franklin. That was about five months of travel time as the liner flew – not anything to scoff at. He could ask them for a Courser, and with what they were offering to pay, they might actually agree to charter one. Coursers were much smaller ships optimized for speed over comfort. Still, it would only shave a couple of months off the journey, and spending twelve weeks cooped up in a Courser’s bay seemed like a less desirable prospect than spending twenty weeks riding in luxury. Maybe he should treat it like an all-expenses-paid vacation – a free cruise.

“You’ll probably want a little more room to move around,” he said, reaching down to scratch Kevin behind the ear. “Maybe a liner will have some open spaces where you can run around and play fetch. I bet they have facilities for pets. They’d have to, right? Nobody wants to leave their dog in a kennel for half a year.”

 

***

 

The consultancy fee came through that evening, and Cal spent a couple of days in a hotel in the city while he waited to hear back from the UAS. As he had expected, they agreed to his terms, and they had reserved him suitable accommodations on a cruise liner. It wasn’t going directly to Epsilon, as there was nothing on the burgeoning colony planet that would interest tourists, but it would bring him close enough that he could take a chartered Courser from one of the stops along the way. The UAS were really pulling out all the stops to get him to EE-4, and as much as he appreciated them making the journey as convenient as possible, it was setting off alarm bells. What exactly was he walking into?

When the time came to leave, he took his rucksack and his duffel, then led Kevin out of the hotel. Cal had left Franklin before. His conservation work had taken him to Earth, where he had spent a few years working in the African Union, but he had spent the majority of his life living on the colony. It sounded like this trip was going to be even longer than that, and he wasn’t sure when he’d be back. Travel across inhabited space was neither quick nor very convenient.

He enjoyed the towering spires and blue skies of Franklin for the last time as he made his way to the space elevator, the pedestrian traffic on the elevated walkways growing denser as he neared. There were spaceports for more awkward cargo that couldn’t be transported by tether, but the vast majority of people and goods ran up and down the elevators.

At the base of the orbital structure was the anchor – the giant building that secured it to the planet. It was a skeletal cage made from exposed beams and weighty machinery, enclosing the black strand of the tether like an industrial set of ribs, the pillar-like supports that flanked it extending deep below ground. Its height and footprint were large enough that it made even the surrounding skyscrapers look like popsicle sticks in comparison. It doubled as a terminal and a depot, Cal watching one of the oversized Franklin trains disappear into its complex web of structural supports, barely the scale of a toy in comparison. There were a few maglev rails leading out of it like fine ribbons, exiting from different stories and trailing away into the city.

Cal entered at street level, emerging into the main terminal. The arched roof was all glass, letting the warm Franklin sunlight filter through and giving visitors an admirable view of the anchor rising up above their heads. Ahead of him was a large concourse filled with stores and restaurants to service weary travelers, the higher floors accessible via escalators. After spending the better part of a year on the prairie with barely twenty people for company, it was a little jarring to see such large crowds, throngs of travelers crowding the walkways and hurrying to catch their next transfer.

He felt his chest tighten a little as he was boxed in, but the crowd soon parted, the presence of his razorback companion encouraging them to give him a wide berth. He wound his way through the maze-like terminal until he reached the right boarding area, stopping at a security checkpoint and baggage check. It was manned by more PDF troopers, and one of them stepped forward to ask for his passes and permits.

“Are you licensed to take that thing with you?” the man asked, checking the information on Cal’s phone as he glanced at Kevin.

“Don’t worry, he has his good boy certificate,” Cal replied. “He’s professionally trained, and he graduated from obedience school. He’s rated as a working dog, and he’s allowed to travel on public transport.”

“Seems to check out,” the trooper mused. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to check your rifle, along with any ammunition or volatile compounds that you might be carrying. We can’t let you have those during the ascent.”

“No problem,” Cal replied as he tossed his duffel bag and his rifle onto a nearby conveyor.

He was waved forward, an employee monitoring a data readout as he passed through a scanner, then he was on his way. He stopped briefly at one of the stores to buy some sandwiches for himself and Kevin, waiting on one of the padded benches as he watched the boarding area slowly fill with people. The boarding areas formed a donut shape ringing the tether, the curving inner wall covered with a glass window that allowed the occupants to look out over the inside of the anchor. It looked to Cal like a space station that hadn’t quite finished construction, the way that it was open to the air letting shafts of light spill through. On the far side, past the enclosed bays where the cars docked, he could see the window on the opposite side of the structure. It was little more than a thin sliver due to the distance.

The cars that climbed the tether might look small from the ground, but they had the capacity of an SSTO, able to carry hundreds of passengers at a time. The cargo crawlers were even larger, Cal watching one of them rise up into view beyond the window, ferrying goods from the loading bays on the lower levels. It was vaguely pill-shaped with tapered ends to reduce atmospheric friction, the noses covered in hexagonal heat tiles. It was large enough to carry dozens of the containers ferried here on the trains.

When enough people had arrived, the doors to the boarding platform opened, the staff members letting them filter through. They gave Kevin some odd looks, but Cal had already been through the security checkpoint, so they didn’t make any comments.

Much like the cargo crawlers, the car was shaped like a streamlined tube with tapered ends, its white fuselage covered in rows of small windows. On Earth, space elevators were generally separated by their intended use case, either into passenger or cargo variants. That wasn’t the case on Franklin. Here, they all rode the same tether, using magnetic levitation to cling to the meters-wide strand of carbon nanotubes. Instead of a single crawler riding the tether at a time, multiple cars could pass one another. Depending on the period the tether was built, its budget, and the environmental conditions it was expected to contend with, their design could vary greatly between planets. There was no one size that fit all, and a tether on Mars would be very different from one on Hades.

The travelers mounted ramps to reach the doors, Cal following into one of the tiered passenger compartments. It was a little like riding in an aircraft that was turned on its nose, the rows of seats facing out towards the windows, giving the occupants a view outside. The cabins were spacious with lots of room for people to walk around, and there were floors with restaurants where people could order food or snacks, as the journey up to the station could take hours.

Once everyone was seated, a stewardess gave them a warning over the intercom, then the car began to rise. Cal watched the structural beams of the anchor flash past beyond the windows, acceleration pressing him into his padded seat, the tops of the skyscrapers giving way to clouds. Only when the curvature of the planet was visible did the seatbelt sign flicker off, and he was able to wander over to the porthole-sized windows to get a closer look.

Far below, he could see Franklin stretching out to fill the horizon, its vast expanses of green landmass shrouded in blankets of cloud. He could even spot one of the planet’s mountain ranges, the jagged peaks casting shadows across the plains beneath them, the rivers and lakes sparkling. Franklin’s largest oceans were more akin to inland seas – most of the world’s surface was covered in a single supercontinent.

He was distracted as a young child wearing dinosaur overalls came running up to him, the boy’s mother not far behind. She reached out to snatch the toddler’s arm before he could get too close to Kevin, the dog turning his head in quiet bemusement. The woman began to apologize, but Cal preempted her.

“It’s alright,” he said, reaching down to give Kevin a pat on the head. “He’s quite safe – they wouldn’t allow him to be here if he wasn’t. He’s very tolerant of children.”

“We wouldn’t want to bother you,” she began, still seeming somewhat wary. Kevin was so large that his skull was probably about the same mass as her son.

“It’s no bother at all, really,” Cal replied. “Your kid could hang off his ear and it wouldn’t hurt him.”

Still seeming a little unsure, the woman guided her son closer, keeping a grip on him to ensure that she could pull him back if the hound decided to make a meal of him. The kid had no fear, his eyes bright as he approached the strange animal, a tiny hand extended. He began to pet Kevin’s flank, running his fingers through the coarse fur. Kevin wasn’t troubled, keeping still as he watched his new admirer with one lazy eye, dedicating a single ear to the task.

“Good boy, Kevin,” Cal said as he rubbed the hound’s head.

“Big dog!” the kid exclaimed, overcome with wonder.

“What, uh…what is it?” his mother asked, trying not to sound rude.

“The breed is called a Rask Razborback,” Cal explained as the kid gave Kevin an enthusiastic pat. “It’s a species native to Borealis. They’re raised as…working dogs,” he added, careful not to tell her that they were bred primarily for war.

 

***

At the end of the long ride, the tether station came into view above the car, Cal having to crane his neck less and less to see it as they drew closer. The station was hooked to the far end of the cable, acting as a very literal counterbalance to keep it taut. The main hull was a vertical tube, like a mile-high skyscraper suspended in space, the tether connecting to another skeletal anchor structure at its lowest point. Circling the central pillar were half a dozen tiered habitats shaped like flat disks, and above those, Cal could see the docking area. There were cage-like berths that jutted out from a central point like an industrial flower, ready to receive the giant jump freighters that ferried cargo between systems. He could see a couple of them already docked.

The ships had a bulky hab section and cockpit at the front, the engine and reactor section at the rear separated by a long gantry like the arm of a crane where the cargo containers were attached. When they were unloaded, it made them look like a giant cotton swab or a dumbbell. There were other, smaller civilian ships, along with shuttles and short range transports that crowded the space around the station like a swarm of gnats.

The car slid into a bay that was similar to the one they had departed from, the passengers filing out onto another boarding platform. A few of the travelers proceeded to baggage claim, but Cal’s luggage would be transferred to the liner. Not everyone shared Franklin’s views on weapons, and he wasn’t going to be allowed to have his rifle during the voyage – not that he needed it. This was technically the safest he’d been in a year.

He emerged onto one of the disk-shaped habs, finding himself in a kind of concourse. The rear wall was lined with stores, restaurants, and hotels, while the wall ahead was taken up by a tall window that followed the curve of the structure. He walked across the carpeted floor, moving through the crowds of visitors, and peered outside. From this height, the planet was the size of an exercise ball, like a green marble suspended in the velvet blackness of space.

Cal hung around for a while, exploring the duty-free stores and buying a little booze for the trip, stopping to people-watch as he shared another sandwich with Kevin. The schedule was pretty tight, so it wasn’t long before he was taking an elevator up to the docks at the station’s top level. Inside the boarding area, he could stand by the windows and admire the ships while he waited. He could see more of the cargo freighters. One of them was loaded up with colorful shipping containers, a few small tugs pushing it out of its berth. There was also a UNN frigate, identifiable by its angular, arrowhead-shaped hull that was painted with an onyx coating and Navy blue livery. The liner stuck out like a sore thumb next to the more industrial ships, its white paint job reflecting the unfiltered sunlight like a beacon.

Its shape was somewhat reminiscent of an oceangoing cruise ship – likely by design – with flowing, organic lines that culminated in a knife-like prow. It even had livery that emulated a waterline, the coloration on its belly a subtle ocean gray. The hull was peppered with portholes and larger observation windows, a couple of bubble-shaped glass domes adorning the flat upper decks of the ship. Rising above it all was a tall conning tower with a bridge situated on top. It certainly looked luxurious.

The staff announced that boarding would commence, and Cal joined a queue of people as they were led along an extensible gantry that jutted out from the station, mating to the liner. It looked like the ship could house thousands of guests, so this likely wasn’t its first stop, as there were only a few hundred here.

The corridors of the cruise liner were much more spacious and luxuriant than what he was used to, the floor carpeted over and all of the water lines and insulated power cables that he was accustomed to seeing hidden behind wall panels. It even smelled good – there wasn’t that lingering scent of staleness that usually accompanied recycled air. After connecting to the ship’s local network and checking a map of the massive vessel, he found his way to his cabin, finding a suite that was even nicer and more spacious than the dirtside hotel that he had left that morning. Quite a feat for a spaceship. He had a large king-sized bed, and just as promised, Kevin had his own little doggy bed and a supply of disposable floor pads for his bathroom needs.

Once Kevin was settled in, Cal took a little time to explore the ship. It seemed to have every amenity he could imagine, from spas and buffets to a massive concert hall and an Olympic swimming pool. Beneath the domes that he’d seen on the roof were sizable gardens and parks where the guests could go for a stroll and get a view of the sky beyond the glass. It was almost like being outside, and it would certainly help to stave off claustrophobia. He’d be able to take Kevin on walks so he didn’t have to spend too much time cooped up.

It wasn’t long before the ship was underway, leaving the station behind it. Once it had reached a safe distance, the jump warning lights bathed the corridors in red, signaling the guests to proceed to the nearest safety harness. Cal returned to his cabin and made sure that Kevin was secure before taking his own precautions. He had a harness for the dog with a leather bit to prevent him from biting his tongue, Kevin pulling his head away and grumbling as the uncomfortable contraption was strapped to his head.

“I know, buddy,” Cal said in an apologetic voice. “It sucks, but it’s better than getting hurt. You were a puppy the last time you did a jump, and your teeth are a hell of a lot sharper now.”

Cal unrolled a blanket and wrapped it around the hound, bundling him up like a burrito. It was about as safe as he could make him. As the lights began to pulse, signaling an impending jump, Cal quickly strapped himself into a nearby chair and slid a plastic bit into his mouth. He felt the little hairs on his arms start to rise as though static electricity was washing over him, then everything went black.

 

***

 

Cal awoke with a pulsing headache, his vision blurry. He tried to rise from his seat, then realized that he was strapped in, fumbling blindly with the clasp. It took him a few more moments to figure out where he was, glancing around the passenger compartment of the Courser as his eyes adjusted to its cold lighting. It was a far cry from the luxuriant accommodations he’d enjoyed back on the liner. The deck was made up of exposed metal grating, the walls were covered in cargo netting, and bundles of cables snaked their way along the ceiling. He spat out his plastic bit, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and taking in a breath that tasted like metal.

He heard a whine, then hurried over to where Kevin was bundled up in his blanket on the floor, helping to free him. When he stripped the harness off the dog’s head, Kevin shook it, rising to his feet unsteadily.

“It’s alright, Kev,” Cal said as he gave the hound a reassuring cuddle. “That was the last jump you’ll have to do. At least for a good while, anyway.”

He stood and looked around, taking in the cramped bay. The liner had made berth at a station along its route, where Cal had transferred to a chartered Courser. Epsilon was only a single jump away on the far smaller and leaner ship, but it wasn’t exactly a comfortable ride.

“I already miss the spa,” he grumbled, fetching his bags and his rifle from their place beside his seat. “I hope the liner didn’t make me soft. Good thing they had a nice gym, right?”

Kevin cocked his head at his master, Cal giving him a shrug.

“The shuttle should be arriving shortly to take you down to the surface,” the pilot said, his voice coming through an unseen intercom. “Please collect your belongings and be ready to board.”

When it was time to leave, a precarious umbilical extended from the Courser’s airlock, what seemed to be a plastic tarp the only thing protecting him from the vacuum of space. He led Kevin across the bridge, feeling the metal panels vibrate beneath his feet. At the far end was another airlock that led onto a shuttle, a hiss of air filling the little compartment as it pressurized. As the inner door opened, he turned to see the umbilical retracting back into the hull of the Courser through the narrow porthole, the needle-shaped vessel already starting to pull away.

The bay of the shuttle was even smaller than the Courser’s, the padded crash couches that lined the walls only numerous enough to seat maybe a dozen people, the bulkheads above them covered in cargo netting. There was a ramp at the rear, and to the front of the craft was a cockpit sectioned off by a door. It was currently open, giving him a view of an elevated seat surrounded by consoles, a bubble-like cockpit looking out at the field of stars beyond. The pilot was wearing a flight helmet with an opaque visor, turning to give him a thumbs-up, his voice coming through tinny speakers.

“Welcome aboard, Mister Briggs. If you’d like to take a seat, I’ll be taking you dirtside. You’ll want to strap in. As for your companion…uh…”

“He’ll be alright,” Cal replied, stowing his bags and slotting his rifle into a nearby rack. Was this a Navy shuttle – maybe military surplus? “He’s steadier on his feet than we are.”

He did as the pilot asked, strapping into one of the seats and ordering Kevin to sit, leaning forward to get a view out of the cockpit windows. The pilot began to tap at the controls with one hand, a flight stick clutched in the other, the ship lurching as they started their descent. As the nose turned to face the planet, Cal was finally given his first real look at his destination.

From a distance, it didn’t look all that different from Franklin, covered in green landmasses shrouded in white clouds. The closer they got, the more differences began to jump out at him. The system’s star was a little more orange than Tau Boötis but not much dimmer, its light reflecting off the clouds to give them an evening hue. The greens were richer, and as he made out more detail, he saw that it was all jungle. Giant rivers snaked through it, appearing as cracks or maybe veins from orbit, widening in places to form long lakes. Just like home, there seemed to be little to no tectonic activity, a single contiguous continent dominating the world.

There were no visible moons, but on their way down, Cal spotted something odd. It looked like a piece of orbital debris, floating in a high orbit, his heart skipping a beat as he saw the unmistakable texture of Betelgeusian chitin. It was some kind of space station, blended from meat and metal – a technology that only the Bugs could fashion. It resembled the abdomen of an insect, but scaled up to maybe a quarter mile in height, glinting metal jutting between the organic plates in places. Around its midsection was a metal ring – maybe some kind of docking area or weapons platform.

“What is that?” he asked warily. “It looks Betelgeusian.”

“It is!” the pilot replied, keeping his eyes on his instruments. “That’s a Bug orbital defense platform. Don’t worry – they’ve been inactive going on eight years now. Their orbits will decay, and they’ll burn up eventually. When the Shiroyama took the planet back in 2620, they launched assault teams to take out the control stations on the ground ahead of the main invasion force. I don’t think they ever even bothered boarding the stations after the fact. The critters didn’t have any way to get supplies or fight back, so they let ‘em rot. The Marines used to call ‘em roach motels.”

“That’s morbid,” Cal replied with a grimace. “Betelgeusians can go into a state of hibernation on long voyages. There could still be some alive aboard those platforms.”

“Well, they’re not botherin’ us,” the pilot replied. “Atmospheric friction is going to solve the problem one way or another. It’s only in the last couple of years that there’s been any interest in the planet, so nobody was in any special hurry to clear ‘em out.”

The shuttle began to shake as it entered the atmosphere, bright orange flames licking at the nose beyond the cockpit window, but they were soon soaring over the jungles. There was no way to get a look down from the bay, but the pilot didn’t seem to mind Cal poking his head into the cockpit to get a better view.

The horizon was just green tree tops in every direction, their scale hard to pin down with no familiar geological features or structures for reference. From this height, they could be a mile tall for all he knew. Far from being flat, the terrain was rugged and mountainous, jutting hills and standing pillars formed by erosion creating a jagged horizon. No wonder nobody had been interested in colonizing the planet – the task seemed downright impossible in this kind of terrain. Everything was shrouded in a pervasive mist that hung low over the jungle, seeming to seep through the canopy almost like dry ice, flowing in slow-motion rivers. Here and there, a few larger trees protruded, the giant specimens rising above their smaller counterparts. As the shuttle coasted a mere couple of hundred meters above the trees, it disturbed a flock of birds, Cal whipping his head around just a moment too late to get a good look at them. He could already feel excitement welling in his chest. There was so much to discover here.

They coasted over the jungle until they came to a large clearing in the canopy. It seemed artificial to Cal, and his suspicions were confirmed as they passed above it. A landing area had been cleared, and there were several pads large enough for shuttles and small transports surrounded by white prefabs, a single comms antenna mounted on a long pole rising above the trees. A few of the pads were already occupied by other craft. It was hardly a burgeoning colony – more like a solitary outpost. It didn’t look like it could house more than a couple of dozen people at a time.

The shuttle circled around to shed some excess speed, then transitioned to vertical flight mode and began to descend. Its landing gear bounced as it touched down on one of the pads, the thrum of the engines petering out.

“You’re expected, so just head straight across to the building with the big antenna,” the pilot said as he turned around in his seat.

“Thanks for the ride,” Cal replied as he picked up his gear. The troop ramp began to lower, and as soon as he stepped out onto the pad, the humidity hit him like a wall. The air was so thick and soupy that he felt like he could swim across the courtyard rather than walk. The gravity wasn’t noticeably different from the AG field on the shuttle, so it must be within a pretty tight range of Earth-standard.

He walked out from beneath the tail of the shuttle, making his way down a set of steps, Kevin following behind him. Despite the heat, the dog seemed perfectly happy, bounding along for a few feet before dropping his nose to the dirt to sniff around intently. This was the first time he’d been outside in half a year, if one didn’t count the parks on the liner. This place was full of new smells and open spaces to explore.

Cal took a moment to take in his surroundings, glancing at the trees at the edge of the clearing. They were tall – some that he could see easily skirting sixty or seventy meters. They had twisted, gnarled trunks that formed a dense wall, something akin to vines and other parasitic plants snaking their way between them, the bark colonized by thick carpets of mosses. Their roots branched out to form wide networks, smaller shrubs and ferns sprouting up around them wherever there was space. There were no grasses, leaving the jungle floor relatively bare save for mud and fallen leaves. The mist was ever present, wafting between the trunks and forming drifting pools on the ground.

The other ships sitting on the landing pads were an even stranger sight. There was another UNN dropship that was recognizable, with its stubby wings and angular hull, but the other two were unfamiliar. One of them looked more like an archaic spaceplane, sporting a delta wing design and a belly covered in heat tiles, the rounded nose decorated with strange colored panels. It was decorated with ocean camouflage that seemed out of place on a spacecraft.

Another was clearly of Bug design, just like the defense platform. It looked like a madman had somehow mashed a cricket and a spaceship together, creating some awkward blending of the two, his eyes struggling to make sense of where the machinery ended and the flesh began.

From a distance, it had the silhouette of a grasshopper or a beetle, its six legs serving as landing gear to lift its rotund abdomen off the ground. The longer he looked, the more features that didn’t belong jumped out at him. There were maneuvering thrusters mounted in ball sockets that ran down the length of its body – or maybe its hull would be a better term – camera lenses that glittered like compound eyes peering out from its armored carapace. It had a distinct head with jutting sensor arrays that bore an uncanny resemblance to insect antennae, and there were a pair of clearly mechanical weapons mounted below its chin. It seemed that this was a vehicle to be piloted and not a creature in its own right. Its coloration was orange with black stripes that formed organic patterns, but someone had added prominent blue livery and a big UNN logo almost as an afterthought. Could it be captured tech?

He proceeded to the building with the antenna after waiting for Kevin to pee on a shrub, finding a small cluster of interconnected prefab buildings. They had started life with clean, white paint, but their short time in the jungle had already tarnished them with streaks of moisture and a few enterprising patches of damp moss. They were about the size of shipping containers – same as the hab trailer he’d lived in during his stay with the ranchers – and they were lifted off the muddy ground on outriggers. There were a few more little clusters of buildings in the clearing, all of them joined by thick, insulated cables that were raised off the jungle floor, but this one seemed the largest.

The sliding door opened as he was mounting the metal steps, a woman in a tight-fitting white environment suit greeting him. She looked to be in her mid thirties, her hair cut short, the logo on her chest that of the UAS.

“Mister Briggs,” she began, extending a hand in greeting. When he took it, she helped him up the rest of the way, stepping back once he was inside the prefab. “I’m glad to finally meet you! I trust that your journey was a pleasant one?”

“A cruise ship is certainly more pleasant than a Courser,” he replied.

“You can call me Helen,” she continued, gesturing to the logo on her suit. “I’m one of the UAS staff who are assigned to this research outpost. They told us that we’d be getting a new arrival today.”

“Nice to meet you,” Cal replied with a polite nod. “You can call me Cal – most people do. Short for Calvin. So, that’s what this place is?” he added as he glanced past her. The prefab certainly looked like a lab, filled with scientific equipment and flickering holographic displays. “I wondered why we were landing in the middle of nowhere. Where’s the main colony?”

“Oh, it’s nearby,” she replied evasively. “For now, let’s get you settled in. We have a prefab ready for you – it will be your living quarters during your stay. It should have all of the amenities that you need, but if there’s anything missing, don’t hesitate to ask. If you’re not too exhausted from the trip, I’d be happy to give you a tour of the facility.”

Her eyes moved to the door, and she yelped, all of the color draining from her face. Cal spun around to see Kevin standing halfway up the steps, sticking his head through the doorway.

“Damn, sorry!” Cal began as he tried to calm the woman. “That’s just Kevin – he’s my dog. He’s very friendly.”

“A…dog?” she asked as she eyed the animal warily, placing a hand over her racing heart. “Goodness, I thought for a moment that some native animal had made it past the perimeter fence.”

“I assumed you’d seen him follow me over,” Cal added apologetically.

“No, I just heard the shuttle land,” she replied with a relieved chuckle. “If I’m not mistaken, that’s an archeox, am I right? A Rask Razorback?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Cal replied.

“No need to look so surprised,” she added with a grin. “I am an exobiologist, after all.”

“I think you’re the first person I’ve met who had any clue what he was.”

“They’re native to the desert regions of Borealis, aren’t they?” she asked. “How did you come by one?”

“Kevin was actually brought to Franklin by a trader as a puppy,” he explained. “The guy said he got him from a Rask merchant, but I don’t really know any more than that. Wherever he came from, it won’t have been legal, so I bought him with the intention of turning him over to a sanctuary. Turns out, razorbacks make pretty great pets and reliable working dogs, so I trained him and got him licensed. Now, he’s my sidekick.”

“I’m sure him being an adorable puppy had nothing to do with that decision,” Helen said with a knowing smile. “Why on Earth did you name him Kevin?”

“Seemed funny to give him a really mundane name,” Cal replied with a shrug. He patted his thigh, encouraging the hound to climb the steps. “C’mere, Kev. Say hello to the nice scientist.”

Cal reached into his pocket and fished out a treat, passing it to Helen, the dog planting his butt on the floor obediently as he watched it change hands. The ritual of meeting a new person and getting a treat was well ingrained by now.

“Hold your hand flat for him,” Cal advised as Helen reached down towards the animal. Kevin took the treat from her with an exaggerated gentleness, crunching the little morsel of biscuit in his teeth.

“Can I pet him?” she asked. Cal replied with a nod, so she reached for Kevin’s head, giving it a tentative rub. “Wow, the fur is so coarse and wiry. The hump is incredible – that’s how they store fat and water for periods of scarcity?”

“That’s right, yeah. Get him behind the ear. There you go – he likes that.”

“I wasn’t expecting to be doing this today,” Helen laughed as she stood up straight again. “I hope you have a lot of those treats, because everyone on the base is going to want to meet him.”

“He makes a pretty good icebreaker.”

“Well, let me show you around,” Helen said.

***

 

Helen gave Cal a tour of the facility, showing him the various prefabs and their uses. The UAS had a pretty nice setup on the surface, with labs for studying samples taken from the local ecosystem and equipment stores to support expeditions. They didn’t have very much computing power on site, but the antenna gave them a real-time link to a Pythia-class survey vessel that was loitering in orbit, which they could use as a remote server for processing and storing large amounts of data. They could also use the ship as a satellite to collect information with its suite of sensors.

The staff were just as friendly as Helen, and they were eager to meet Kevin. There were maybe twenty people working in the outpost, from botanists to geologists, and it was nice to be in a more academic environment after spending so much time with the ranchers. Now, Cal was the intrepid explorer rather than being the clueless rookie. The introductions were short, as most people were busy working, but he was able to meet everybody.

Helen led him outside to inspect the perimeter, showing him the fence at the edge of the forest.

“This is the security fence,” she said, gesturing to the twenty-foot structure. “It’s electrified, but only on the outside layer, so you shouldn’t have to worry about Kevin getting shocked.”

“Why does it have to be so tall?” Cal asked warily. “What exactly have you encountered out here?”

“Epsilon Eridani may be a relatively young star, but the ecosystem on EE-4 is booming,” she began. “We’re only just starting to scratch the surface, but biodiversity is extremely high, and there are already very clearly defined ecological niches. We haven’t seen any yet, but scouts have reported ambush predators as large as jaguars that understandably have no fear of humans.”

“They were pretty vague about that when they sent me the contract,” Cal said, turning to look up at the fence. “Glad I bought some firepower.”

“As I understand it, you’re going out there?” Helen asked. “You’re some kind of ranger?”

“I studied ecology and exobiology, and most of my work involves advising management agencies and making sure companies are following the rules,” he explained. “My job is basically to go out there and make an assessment about the state of the planet’s ecology and whether it’s being impacted by human activity, then help whoever’s in charge come up with a game plan. I’m also a pretty good shot, so I can be a little more…direct in my investigations.”

“A conservationist and a hunter,” she mused, looking him up and down. “Odd combination.”

“Don’t worry – I’m very picky about what I shoot.”

“I suppose Kevin helps with that,” she said with a nod to the dog. He was sniffing around the base of the fence.

“Yeah, his senses are a lot better than mine,” Cal confirmed with a nod. “He generally knows that something is amiss long before I do. He’s also a razorback, so if you put his back against a wall, he’s gonna fight until both him and his attacker are a bloody mess.”

“Glad he’s friendly,” Helen replied.

“Fortunately, we’ve never had to put that to the test yet, and I’d rather it stayed that way.”

“Well, you won’t be going out there alone,” she continued. “The UAS has assigned you a guide and a sherpa.”

“Really?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “Are they on the base?”

“No, they’re from the colony,” she replied. “You’ll probably be meeting them tomorrow. I’ll let them know that you’ve arrived.”

“This mysterious colony that I still haven’t seen yet,” he added skeptically.

“I don’t want to spoil the surprise,” she said with a smirk. “Come on – I’ll show you to your quarters.”

Cal paused as they passed by the landing pads, gesturing to the strange, insectoid ship.

“So, what is that thing?” he asked. “Is it captured Bug tech, like the defense platforms I saw on my way down?”

“No, that’s Jarilan,” she replied.

“There are Jarilans here?” he asked, Helen smiling at his surprise.

“They seem to be everywhere these days. Didn’t you have any on Franklin?”

“Can’t say that we did. I’ve heard about them, but I’ve never seen one in the flesh.”

“They’re fascinating creatures,” she replied as they admired the odd craft. “They’re completely artificial organisms – chimeras of human and alien DNA, but talking to one is just like having a conversation with any other coworker. After a while, you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s not just a human in a Halloween costume.”

“It’s not really the purpose of my visit, but I’d love to see any papers you have on them,” he added. “Just to sate my curiosity.”

“A little light reading before bed?” she joked.

“What about that other ship?” he asked, nodding to the spaceplane.

“Valbarans,” she replied.

“Makes sense. If you want green tech, they’re generally the people to ask. I’d love to get assigned to Valbara,” he added with a wistful sigh. “The megafauna there are something to see. Unfortunately for me, they have the whole harmony with nature thing down to a tee, so there’s not much demand for offworld conservationists. Maybe I can take a vacation with the bundle the UAS is paying me – see the Teth’rak.”

They continued on, Helen showing Cal to his prefab. It was very similar to his trailer back on Franklin, with spartan furnishings enough to serve his basic needs. There was a little shower, a kitchen area, a bed, and a living room.

“If you need food, it’s in the storage fabs,” Helen explained. “There aren’t any convenience stores out here, so just take what you need. Resupply from the colony isn’t much of an issue. Power comes from a portable fusion plant, so go wild, and we’re not in any danger of running out of water in this environment. We actually had to shut down some of the condensers because they were overloading.”

“Free meals and unlimited hot showers,” Cal mused. “Maybe this place isn’t such a downgrade from the liner after all. Not that I expect I’ll be spending all that much time here.”

“Rest up for tomorrow,” Helen said, turning to the door. “It’s good to have you onboard, Calvin.”

***

 

Cal was eating a breakfast of protein bars when he heard a buzz at the door. Kevin lifted his head, his ears pricking up.

“Stay, Kev,” Cal said as he rose from his seat. He walked over to the door and opened the sliding panel with the touch of a button, looking out at the compound in confusion. There was nobody there.

Someone cleared their throat, and he looked down to see something standing halfway up the steps. He recoiled in surprise, the sight of colorful chitin setting off alarm bells, but he soon remembered what Helen had said the evening prior.

“Hi!” the Jarilan chimed, lifting one of her four hands in a cheerful greeting. “You must be Mister Briggs. My name is Poppy – I’m your sherpa.”

“H-hi,” he replied hesitantly, struggling to stop himself from staring. She was scarcely four feet tall, an ornate, beetle-like horn that branched up from her forehead raising her height a few inches more. The first thing that leaped out at him was her coloration – the insect carapace that covered her body shining with a beautiful red iridescence, shifting hue like oil floating atop water. Next were her bright blue eyes, large and expressive, distinctly mammalian. Instead of hair, she had a set of four long, feathery antennae that came down from her head like braids. They resembled those of a moth, white in color, shimmering in the sunlight like frayed optical cables.

Her figure was distinctly feminine, with wide hips and stocky thighs, her upper pair of arms far bulkier than the more delicate lower pair. The upper had a trio of shovel-like digits, while the lower were slim and dexterous. Her whole body was covered in layers of intersecting plates, but there was pink, waxy flesh visible between the joints in places. It was hard to tell if she was wearing any clothes, and he had no idea if her kind even had any modesty to preserve. At the ends of her digitigrade legs were two-toed feet that more resembled the hooves of a deer.

Around her collar was a thick ruff of fur like some kind of Victorian-era noblewoman, seemingly made from the same material as her antennae, and the same fur was present on the joints of her wrists and ankles.

“Never seen a Jarrie before, huh?” she asked as she planted her lower pair of hands on her cocked hips. “Don’t worry – we come with a zero genocide guarantee, or your money back.”

Just watching her talk was mesmerizing, the individual plates that made up her face moving to approximate human speech and facial expressions. It was the same kind of mimicry one might expect to see on a leaf insect or a praying mantis, but designed to emulate humans. Her grasp of English was flawless, the inflections perfectly natural, her accent even carrying a tinge of British.

“Sorry – I really haven’t,” he replied sheepishly. “You’re…fascinating. A true chimera.”

Chimera?” she asked, cocking her head. “That’s a much cooler sounding term than half-breed or hybrid. I’ll take it.”

“I should invite you in,” Cal said.

“You should!” she confirmed.

Snapping out of his stupor, he stood aside and gestured for her to enter, the little alien waddling past him. She paused, her eyes widening when she noticed Kevin. The dog was sitting in his bed, a little more alert at the sight of this new creature, his gaze fixed on her intently.

“Uh…is that a good dog?” she stammered.

“Kevin,” Cal chimed, getting the hound’s attention. “This a friend. Come get a treat.”

Kevin slunk over as Cal fished a biscuit out of his pocket and handed it down to the Jarilan.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” she whispered.

“Feed him, and keep your palm flat,” Cal replied.

She held out an upper hand gingerly, the massive razorback dwarfing the diminutive alien. He was so large in comparison to her that she could probably have ridden him like a pony. Still a little wary of her but enticed by the treat, Kevin gently took it from her and began to crunch.

“You can pet him now,” Cal advised.

“Do I want to pet him?” she scoffed, grimacing at the saliva the dog had left on her shell.

“That’s the established procedure.”

Poppy took a step closer and gave the dog a pat on the shoulder, seeming to relax a little.

“He’s not very soft,” she mused. “Either this is the ugliest labrador I’ve ever seen, or it’s some kind of alien.”

“Kevin is a Rask Razorback,” Cal explained. “His species is native to Borealis.”

“That’s going to be an interesting conversation,” Poppy snickered.

“What do you mean by that?”

“All in good time,” she replied, stepping away from the dog. “Right, tell me what you need carrying, and I’ll take you to the colony.”

“Carrying?” he repeated, glancing down at her. “Is that what you meant by sherpa? No offense, but you look a little small to be carrying my equipment.”

“Okay,” she muttered, walking over to his kitchen table. “Sit down.”

“Huh?”

“Come over here and sit in this chair,” she insisted, tapping its backrest with her hand.

Bemused, he did as she suggested, returning to his seat. Before he could ask what she was doing, he felt his stomach lurch, the little Jarilan gripping the edges of the chair with her stout upper arms and lifting him off the floor. Cal lurched, holding on for dear life as she set him back down with the ease that he might pick up a book, her face plates arranging into a smirk when he turned his head to look at her.

“Satisfied?” she asked smugly.

“Gear is over there,” he mumbled, pointing to the bags that were waiting on the couch.

Poppy put on his rucksack and hefted his duffel bag under one of her large upper arms, hauling his long rifle over her shoulder like she was carrying a ladder. The weapon was easily as long as she was tall. He wanted to tell her that he could carry his own equipment, but she seemed so determined, marching back out of his prefab. Cal shared a glance with Kevin, then followed her, the dog trailing after him.

“So, where are we going?” he asked as he hurried to catch up with her.

“The colony,” she replied. “You can’t start your first day of work without your scout, can you?”

“Right, they told me I’d have a scout and a sherpa,” he mused as they crossed the compound. “I couldn’t see any signs of habitation when I was flying in, and I doubt the colony is on the other side of the planet. What’s the deal with that?”

“Why ask when you’ll find out for yourself soon enough?” she replied, stopping at the gate. She hit a touch panel, and the barrier swung outward with a mechanical whir, revealing a dirt track that led deeper into the misty jungle. Cal patted his thigh – a signal for Kevin to stay close.

“Maybe I should take the gun,” he suggested as he glanced out at the trees warily.

“I came here by myself,” Poppy replied, starting to make her way down the track. “It’s quite safe.”

“The giant electrified fence would suggest otherwise,” Cal muttered as he followed after her.

Even with the little track to help guide him, he already felt lost. The massive trees towered over him, forming a dense canopy that blotted out the sky, a few shafts of sunlight making it through here and there to leave dappled pools on the muddy ground. If the trees hadn’t been dense enough, the mist further limited visibility such that he could scarcely see fifty feet in any direction. Everything was wet – the ground, the furry moss that covered the tree trunks, the dripping leaves above his head. Even the air was damp. He was a little concerned about Kevin – razorbacks were evolved for arid climates – but the dog seemed perfectly content sniffing around at the edges of the footpath for now. It wasn’t paved, and it seemed to be a product of simple foot traffic, the pervasive ferns already trying to reclaim it.

These were not ferns, of course. Rather, they were some form of alien flora that had evolved to fill a similar ecological niche, the subtle differences more apparent when one looked closely. Instead of straight fronds, they had an odd fractal pattern that branched out from the stem, almost like a snowflake. As much as he wanted to stop and look, Poppy could maintain quite the pace despite her short legs.

They didn’t travel far along the path before they came to a mound of earth. It looked like a giant mole had excavated it, and for all he knew, that could be the case. There was a hole on the near side, and it was covered over with a door that looked like it had been fashioned from resin, its surface warped and uneven. When Poppy approached, it slid open, exposing a dark tunnel that led deep beneath the ground. He paused, apprehensive, Kevin stopping to sit beside him with a whine.

“I would have thought you’d approve,” Poppy said, pausing to look back at him. “This way, we don’t have to clear out any trees or disturb the surface to build paths and roads.”

“You’re telling me that most of the colony is underground?” Cal asked, the realization finally dawning on him. “That’s why I couldn’t see anything from the air?”

“Some of it,” she replied, making her way into the opening.

Cal didn’t have much choice other than to follow, so he hurried after her, descending into the dark as the door closed behind him. He was plunged into the pitch blackness of a cave, but only for a moment, a row of overhead lights turning on as though responding to their presence. They were not electric, but rather made from some kind of luminescent moss that clung to the arched ceiling, casting a soft and pale glow on the tunnel walls. Like the door, the walls were covered over with a kind of resin, like clear glue or paste had been spread across them before hardening into a crust. The floor was simple dirt, the tunnel wide enough that maybe four or five people could have stood shoulder-to-shoulder inside it.

“This way,” Poppy chimed, her voice echoing off the walls.

Cal followed her, the slant of the earthen floor letting him know that he was traveling deeper. At least the heat and humidity were lessened down here. In fact, it was downright pleasant, as though there was an air conditioner running.

Their path soon intersected with an even larger tunnel, opening up into a passageway that looked spacious enough for a truck to drive through. There was a panel on the wall, and Poppy tapped at it with a dexterous lower hand, the mundane electronics standing out starkly against the alien surroundings.

“What are we waiting for?” he asked as they stood around.

“Our ride,” she explained.

A minute later, he heard the sound of an engine echoing down the tunnel, and a completely normal pickup truck pulled up beside the intersection. It was no different from the ones he had seen back on Franklin, and it would have been at home in any city street. He even recognized the brand. There was a Jarilan in the driver’s seat – taller and lankier than Poppy, her shell tinged green. Keeping two hands on the wheel, she leaned out of the driver’s side window, giving them a wave with a third.

“Hey, guys. Where are you headed?”

“J-625,” Poppy replied.

“Hop in!”

Poppy opened the rear door on the near side and tossed Cal’s gear inside, then climbed in. Bewildered, Cal stared for a moment, then made his way around to the back of the vehicle. He guided Kevin into the bed, the hound jumping up and lying down as he had been trained, then Cal joined his sherpa in the back seat.

“Never seen one of those before!” the driver said, turning to look back at him. She was tall enough that her feathery antennae poked out through the open sunroof – maybe seven feet, if he had to guess. Where Poppy was short and stocky with a low center of gravity, this woman was slender and willowy, her movements graceful. “Where’s he from?”

“Er, he’s from Borealis,” Cal replied. “He’s a Rask Razorback.”

“Alright, strap in,” the driver said as she used one of her lower limbs to grip the stick. “Safety first.”

Cal buckled up, glancing down at Poppy in confusion.

“No need to reinvent the wheel,” she explained before he had a chance to ask. “Maybe we’ll install some kind of elaborate rail system in the future, but cars are plentiful, and they work just fine.”

The vehicle began its smooth acceleration, and they were soon driving down the tunnel at maybe fifty klicks, the headlights helping to illuminate the path ahead.

“I’m guessing your Endo is new to the neighborhood?” the driver asked as her antennae whipped in the wind. She was making conversation like a taxi driver.

“Fresh off the shuttle,” Poppy replied.

“Excuse me, but what the hell is going on?” Cal demanded as he glanced between the two women. “Is this the colony?”

“Well, my name is Astrid,” the driver began as she placed a free hand on her chest plate. “I’m your pilot today. Well, your driver.”

“Astrid?” he asked.

“Short for Astridia,” she explained.

Astridia velutina, like the succulent plant?” he pressed.

“Hey, you must be a botanist!” she chuckled as they rounded a bend in the tunnel. “We’re all named after plants, flowers, and birds. It’s Dad’s way of helping us find our own identities.”

“Dad?” he muttered, looking to Poppy in confusion.

“What you’re looking at here is the tunnel network that links different parts of the colony together,” Astrid continued. “Now, the humans didn’t want to colonize the surface because the trees and mountains made it a bitch to deal with, but luckily for them, we can build all of our infrastructure underground.”

“There are factories, foundries, mines – even farms,” Poppy added. “We’re perfectly suited to living in places where the surface is too challenging to develop.”

“You have factories and farms down here?” Cal asked in disbelief.

Almost as if to answer his question, a second pair of headlights appeared ahead of them. It was a truck pulling a large trailer, the tunnel just wide enough to allow the two vehicles to pass. Cal turned his head to track it, watching it diminish behind them.

“This is how our Betelgeusian ancestors have always lived,” Astrid confirmed. “We don’t invite that side of the family over to cookouts anymore,” she added, eliciting a laugh from Poppy.

“How big is the hive?” Cal asked.

“We have about ten thousand Jarilans living here now,” Poppy replied. “The network covers a few square kilometers, but we’re still expanding and making room for new colonists.”

“There’s no Queen here, so we’re slowly shipping people in,” Astrid clarified. “There are plenty of aliens, too, but I’m sure you’ll meet them soon enough.”

He looked out of the window as they raced down the tunnel, seeing junctions and branching pathways that must lead deeper into the hive. This gently curving passage felt like a kind of ring road that probably linked a lot of the more important areas together. Maybe he just wasn’t used to Jarilans yet, but it was a little unnerving to think how many of them were living here just out of sight, almost completely undetectable. They passed a couple more trucks, as well as another pickup going in the opposite direction, its bed loaded with Jarilans who had the same build as Poppy. Each one of them was a different color, and each horn was unique in its shape.

“So, what brings you to these parts?” Astrid began. “You don’t seem like the science types we usually get around here, and the dog is certainly a talking point.”

“To make a long story short, I’m here to perform an ecological survey on behalf of the UAS,” he explained as they rounded another bend. “I’m supposed to determine what kind of impact you guys are having on the ecosystem and write a report about my findings.”

“How are we doing so far?” Astrid asked, smiling at him in the rearview mirror. Like Poppy, her face was made up of an arrangement of plates that moved to emulate human expressions. Maybe he was already getting used to it, but she didn’t seem all that uncanny anymore.

“Right now? I couldn’t even tell you guys were here.”

“I’ve been assigned to carry his stuff,” Poppy added, puffing out her chest proudly.

“I love that about Workers,” Astrid giggled. “You always take pride in everything you do.”

They pulled up at another nondescript tunnel exit, Cal wondering how the aliens could even tell where they were with no signs. Poppy hopped out and began to collect Cal’s gear, while Astrid leaned over the back of her seat to talk to him.

“This is your stop, friend. Don’t be a stranger, now. Maybe come hang out in the hive when your assignment is done – we’re always short on Endos.”

“Yeah, I might do that,” he replied as he opened the passenger door. “Thanks for the ride, Astrid.”

“My pleasure,” she replied with a wink.

Cal circled around the back of the truck and whistled for Kevin to jump down, the pair following Poppy into the smaller side tunnel.

“How did you do that?” she asked, glancing up at him as she juggled his rifle.

“What?” he replied.

“That thing with your mouth.”

“It’s a whistle,” he replied, repeating the sound. “You have to kind of curl your tongue and blow, like this.”

“Dang, I don’t have a tongue,” she sighed.

“Hey, what did Astrid mean when she called me an Endo?” he added as he matched pace with her.

“Endo is our word for people with skeletons,” she explained.

“Oh, like endoskeleton? Makes sense. Would that make you an Exo?”

“I suppose,” she replied.

They followed the tunnel up to its mouth, another resin door opening to a wall of hot, humid air. It was like stepping off the shuttle all over again. Blinking his eyes against the sunlight, Cal looked around, finding himself once more in a completely nondescript patch of trees. There wasn’t even a footpath now, just a small clearing to accommodate the hive entrance.

“Where’s this?” Cal asked.

“Another part of the colony,” Poppy explained, setting off in a seemingly random direction. “The village is this way.”

Rather than ask her what village she was talking about, he began to follow her, winding between the trees. The terrain was rough and the going wasn’t easy, every jutting root threatening to twist his ankles, and every fern concealing a rock or a hazard. He couldn’t see any sign of a path, and there were no markers, but he noticed that Kevin was sniffing around intently. His sensitive nose was pressed to the ground, and he was hurrying along like he was tracking something.

“What does Kevin smell that I don’t?” Cal asked suspiciously.

“One of the ways we get around is using pheromones,” Poppy replied as she hopped deftly over a root. “We can leave trails that form paths and convey information – even emotions. It’s how our ancestors navigated inside their hives.”

“Like ants following a trail to find food,” Cal mused. “I suppose my nose isn’t sensitive enough to smell it?”

“Humans can pick them up, but not always consciously,” she replied as she rounded a mossy tree trunk. “To you, a very strong pheromone might manifest more as a suggestion – a feeling transmitted from one person to another. If a Jarilan is afraid, her pheromones might make you uneasy. If she’s hungry, you might start feeling a little peckish too.”

“And that works because you’re part human?”

“Exactly,” she chimed. “Humans produce pheromones, but only in imperceptible quantities, and they’re mostly vestigial. Our antennae are sensitive enough to detect them, and the ones that we produce are powerful enough that they even have a limited effect on humans.”

“In a way, it’s like you’re an empath,” Cal continued as he followed her through the dense undergrowth. “You can pick up on emotional cues from humans that are completely involuntary and invisible to us. What am I feeling right now?”

“Right now?” she asked, stopping to look back at him. “Right now, you smell like you’re hiking through a hot, humid jungle. Your emotion is sweaty.”

“Very funny,” he muttered.

As they made their way through the forest without any destination in sight, Kevin suddenly stopped. Like a Pointer, he froze in place, his ears standing up and his eyes fixing on the trees ahead.

“What is it, Kev?” Cal asked as he followed the hound’s gaze. His brow furrowed, and he gestured for Poppy to return. “Gimme my rifle, Poppy.”

“You don’t need it,” she replied. “It’s only-”

“Give me the rifle,” he insisted, his tone no longer playful.

She did as he asked, taking a few steps closer and handing him the weapon. He quickly unzipped its fabric carrying case and checked the magazine, flipping off the safety before pulling it tight against his shoulder.

“Hey, don’t point that thing at anyone!” Poppy warned. “It’s just our scout!”

Kevin bounded over to the base of a nearby tree, starting to sniff around its roots intently, then he lifted his nose to the canopy. The dog put his front paws on its moss-covered trunk like he was trying to chase a squirrel, a deep, resonating growl filling the air as he honed in on something high in the shadowy branches above. There was movement – the sound of shuffling leaves, then something heavy dropped down onto the ground a short distance away from them.

It landed almost silently despite its obvious size, crouching like a gargoyle to absorb the impact, barely disturbing the carpet of ferns that surrounded it. Slowly, it began to rise. It grew taller than a man as Cal watched, seven – maybe eight feet, a long cloak fashioned from leaves hanging from its broad shoulders to conceal its figure. Beneath it, he could only make out indistinct shapes, like its body was melting into shadow. Its features were obscured beneath a cowl, only a pair of green eyes that shimmered in the light peering out fiercely from beneath its dark confines, a low growl like the snarl of a cougar emanating from somewhere within.

From under the cloak, the unmistakable barrel of a rifle emerged, Cal training his own weapon on the figure in response. Kevin’s hackles were raised and his quills were erect, his tusks bared as he snarled and snapped. Cal whistled for him, and his training kicked in, the dog hurrying back to his master’s side to take up a defensive posture.

“That’ll do, Kev,” Cal said as he kept his sights trained on the stranger. “Identify yourself!” he ordered.

Poppy hurried to put herself between the two, raising an arm towards each of them, forcing them to lower their weapons.

“Jeez, will you two calm the hell down?” she demanded as she glanced between them. “There’s no war on EE-4!”

Cal lifted his finger off the trigger and held the rifle in an idle position, Kevin still growling and licking his chops. The strange figure did the same, the weapon slinking back beneath their cloak. Now that he could get a better look, the garment was made from some kind of woven netting, the individual leaves sewn onto it to create camouflage. It looked like the kind of thing he might have used to cover a hunting blind. Judging by their stature, he guessed that the stranger must be Borealan.

“Briggs, this is our scout,” Poppy said as she allowed herself a brief sigh of relief. “Her name is Murzka – she knows the lay of the land far better than you or I. Murzka, this is Briggs. He’s the human scientist that you were assigned to guide.”

“Why does he have that,” she hissed, her piercing eyes fixed on Kevin. She had an odd, rolling accent, trilling her Rs like a purring cat. Her voice was deep and husky, though still distinctly feminine, perhaps indicative of her size. “I know well the scent of Rask.”

“It’s just his dog,” Poppy explained. “He’s called Kevin – he’s friendly.”

“Friendly?” she sneered. “You would not say such things had you seen a pack of them tear a warrior limb from limb as I have.”

“Are we going to have a problem?” Cal demanded, narrowing his eyes at the newcomer. “I figure you’re probably an Araxie, right? You fought a war with the Rask.”

Wars,” she huffed. “Not singular.”

“Well, there are no Rask here,” Poppy insisted. “Can we please stop posturing now and get on with our work? I swear, it’s always stupid dominance games with you aliens. Yes, yes, we’re all very impressed and intimidated. Stop acting like children, or I’ll take your toys away.”

Cal stooped to pick up the rifle’s carrying case and returned it to Poppy, but he kept the rifle slung over his shoulder, switching the safety back on. He reached down to give Kevin a pat, but the dog was still baring his teeth at the Araxie, keeping an eye on her warily.

“You should really give him a treat,” Cal began, addressing the towering alien. “That’s how he gets introduced to new people.”

The Araxie reached up to pull back her hood, shaking out a mess of cropped, raven hair and revealing her face for the first time. She was coated in a fine, velvety layer of black fur that glistened with moisture in the humid air, so thin that the individual hairs were imperceptible. If not for her coat’s luster, it might have been hard to pick out any details or contours at all. The same was true of her full lips and her feline nose, their shine highlighting them against her fur. Her facial structure was familiar, almost resembling a human from some angles, with a defined jawline and high cheekbones. There was only the suggestion of a feline muzzle, and her skull was as large as a tiger’s. Her ears were round like those of a bear or a lion, pricking up and swiveling to track sounds in the same way Kevin’s did. Those eyes were what gave him pause – as green as emeralds, reflecting the sunlight.

“Follow me,” she said, ignoring his suggestion. “I will lead you to the village.”

She turned and began to march ahead of them, striding through the jungle, her padded paws barely making a sound even as they trod over decaying leaves. That camouflaged cloak was still wrapped around her, but he could tell from her loping gait that she had digitigrade legs, and he could see her long tail peeking out beneath it.

As an exobiologist, he had briefly studied Borealans. Their species came from the same planet Kevin did. They were large, fearsome creatures often used as shock troopers and rangers by the UNN, and their physiology varied greatly depending on which isolated region they hailed from. Some were chubby and covered in thick fur to stay warm in Arctic conditions, while others were lean and almost hairless, adapted to live in the hot equatorial regions. The Araxie were relative newcomers to the Galactic stage, and he didn’t know much about them. At a glance, Murzka was far lighter than her counterparts, weighing maybe four hundred pounds instead of five or six. There was something graceful about the way that she moved, flowing through the forest like a river, able to find the quickest and quietest path intuitively.

“What the hell is her deal?” Cal asked, whispering to Poppy once Murzka had gained a little distance on them.

“The Araxie don’t like the Rask very much, and you have a Rask dog,” she explained. “She’s probably a little mad that you saw her before she was ready to reveal herself, too. They like to be sneaky – it’s kind of their thing.”

“I don’t care how sneaky she is,” Cal scoffed. “Nobody hides from Kevin’s nose.”

“He wouldn’t bite her, would he?” Poppy asked as she spared the hound an apprehensive glance. “He was a little scary back there.”

“No, he would never bite anyone unless I expressly told him to,” Cal replied. “He’s not actually trained to bite humanoids at all – he’s only used to dealing with other animals. I think it would only be a problem if she made any sudden, aggressive moves near me or you.”

“Me?” Poppy asked, looking up at Cal.

“Yeah. You gave him a treat. From now on, if any Eridanian animals roll up on you, he’s going to make them wish they’d never been cataloged. We’ll be scraping our samples off the trees.”

“Okay,” she chimed, seeming pleased by the grisly visual.

The scout led them through the trees, following a path that only Cal was unable to see. Perhaps, like Poppy, her sense of smell was sharp enough to pick up the trail. They eventually arrived at another clearing, the canopy here a little sparser, giving him a clearer view of the blue sky. There were still trees, but they were old and tall, muscling out the newer growth to leave larger gaps between them. The smaller trees formed a kind of wall of vegetation that created a rough circle. That mist was still present, but it seemed to cling to the outskirts of the area, never leaving the dense treeline. The clearing was fairly large – maybe the size of a football field. Other than that, he saw nothing of note.

Kevin could sense something, however. His eyes were turned up, his ears standing at attention, the animal picking up something that Cal couldn’t.

“The hound must remain here,” Murzka said, refusing to go any further as she turned to look back at him.

“Alright, alright,” Cal sighed. “Kevin – stay.”

The dog whined, then lay down obediently, his tongue lolling as he panted.

They walked out into the clearing proper, Cal looking around for anything out of the ordinary.

“What exactly are we doing here?” he asked.

“Look closely,” Poppy advised, giving him a knowing smile.

Now that he thought about it, there were strange mounds between the spreading roots of the large trees – what he might have overlooked as simple fallen leaves and detritus. They were more uniform than that, forming little clusters like soap bubbles, interwoven with the gnarled roots. As he approached the nearest one, its artificial nature became more apparent. The fallen leaves and branches had been placed strategically, just like the leaves on the cloak worn by the scout. Some of it was natural growth – the furry mosses and creeping vines allowed to colonize the buildings. This was a form of camouflage. He lifted his gaze, glancing around the clearing to see around a dozen such structures.

“This is a village,” he marveled.

“See – you’re not that dense,” Poppy giggled. “This is an Araxie settlement – one of many that surround the hive. They have a fairly large population of colonists already. I think three thousand was the last headcount, and they ship in more regularly.”

“That must be a lot of little settlements,” Cal marveled.

“They like to spread out where they can,” she explained. “Makes them harder to find.”

“The hive being hidden from orbit was a coincidence, but this seems very intentional,” he continued with a frown. “Why do they feel the need to hide? This wouldn’t protect them from the local fauna.”

“It’s just their way,” Poppy replied, using her upper arms to shrug. “I wouldn’t worry about protection. Take a look,” she added, nodding to the canopy.

It took him a few moments, even with Poppy pointing it out, but he spotted a structure high in the trees. It was maybe a hundred feet off the forest floor, the wooden platform suspended from the thick trunk. Like the domes, it was hidden beneath a layer of natural growth and artificial camouflage, making it difficult to spot if one wasn’t looking for it. It was a blind, or maybe some kind of sentry post, the implication being that there were probably more armed scouts keeping vigil.

“That’s one hell of a treehouse,” Cal muttered. “Wish I’d had one of those as a kid.”

“Wherever you go in Araxie territory, it’s safe to assume that there are hidden eyes keeping watch,” Poppy continued. “Never assume that you’re alone out here.”

“This is a Coalition colony,” Cal added. “I’m not seeing any infrastructure. Surely they don’t live in straw huts?”

“I’m sure Murzka will give us a closer look,” Poppy said, turning to the towering scout expectantly. “It’s part of his job to assess the colony, after all.”

“Very well,” Murzka grumbled, her cloak flaring out as she whipped around. “Come.”

She led them through the settlement, following a winding path between the trees, Cal taking in the strange structures as he passed by them. They were all domed, like igloos covered in leaves, and they all seemed a little too squat for someone as tall as Murzka. There were no windows, but he could pick out the occasional door protected by an awning of branches.

He wanted to ask where all of the villagers were, but everything that he had learned about the Araxie so far suggested they were probably keeping out of sight somewhere nearby. Were they always this wary, or was it just because of Kevin?

They approached one of the buildings, Murzka reaching beneath the fronds of the leaves that covered it, a clawed hand coated in dark fur emerging from within her cloak. She hit some kind of hidden panel, and there was the unmistakable whir of electric motors, a door sliding open. Like pushing through a bead curtain, she moved the carpet of hanging ferns aside, opening the way for them. Poppy waddled inside, and Cal followed after her, ducking below Murzka’s long arm. This was the closest that he had gotten to her yet, and he glanced up to meet her gaze, her eyes burning like green fire in the gloom.

What he emerged into was not the rustic wooden hut that he had been expecting, but a modern abode. On the inside, the curving walls and domed ceiling were clearly made from some variety of carbcrete – a tough building material with an off-white hue. Far from being squat, there were oversized steps leading down to a carpeted floor, the structure recessed into the ground by three or four feet. Only the top half of the dome had been visible from ground level, and the structure was far larger than it had first appeared. There was an electric light at the apex of the ceiling, casting a warm glow on the home below.

The windowless walls were covered with hanging racks and shelves that held all manner of small sundries and alien tools – many seemingly fashioned by hand. He could see knives and hatchets with leather-wrapped handles, as well as others whose purposes were less obvious. There were what looked like medieval crossbows, along with more of the camouflaged cloaks like the one Murzka wore, leather satchels and belts dangling from iron hooks.

On the floor were several wooden chests to provide more storage space, along with five cots that were spaced out around the circumference of the circular room. They almost looked like hammocks to Cal, made from a netting not unlike their cloaks that was strung from a wooden frame to lift them a short distance off the ground.

He could see no kitchen and no bathroom – no utilities, save for at the center of the floor. The carpet gave way to a ring of flat stones, and sitting upon them was some kind of stovetop. It was modern – clearly electric. Was it some contemporary interpretation of a fire pit? There were a couple of heating elements where the occupants could presumably cook, and coming out of the floor was a faucet that fed into a shallow, bowl-shaped sink. It looked like a drinking fountain to him. There were a few cups and utensils nearby, but there didn’t seem to be much dedicated space for storing them. Perhaps the Araxie did most of their cooking and bathing elsewhere, and these dwellings were not meant as much more than a place to sleep and store one’s belongings.

“What do we have here?” he marveled.

“It’s a Valbaran design,” Poppy explained. “They tell me that it uses a lot of construction techniques and materials favored on their homeworld. The domed shape is very energy efficient when it comes to heating, and it just so happens that the Araxie like to build their huts in a similar shape. There are a few more modern amenities, but the Araxie don’t ask for many comforts. They prefer to live largely as they did in their home territory.”

“That explains the ship I saw,” Cal mused. “There must be some Valbaran architects scurrying around somewhere. Where are the power and utilities coming from?” he asked. “I didn’t see any lines outside.”

“We ran them below ground,” the Worker explained proudly. “All of the houses are connected via a utility tunnel network. Makes it a lot easier to install new systems and perform maintenance, and we don’t have to worry about the jungle or the terrain complicating matters. Power and water are both linked to the hive. I think you’ll agree that our environmental impact is rather minimal.”

As Cal hopped down the steps, he noted that it was tangibly cooler and drier than outside, and there was a breeze despite the lack of windows. They must have some kind of air conditioning system. When he reached the carpet, he buckled, almost falling over as his very body suddenly grew heavier. It felt like his clothes had just become waterlogged, or someone had filled his pockets with rocks.

Poppy was there to steady him with a shovel-like hand, her low center of gravity giving her remarkable balance, her antennae noticeably drooping now.

“Could have warned me about the AG field,” he grunted, standing up straighter. “Fuck me, is this Borealis-standard?”

“One-point-three, by your metric,” Poppy confirmed. “The gravity on EE-4 is quite a bit lower than on the Araxie homeworld, so it helps keep them healthy. The low gravity can have a negative effect on bone density, muscle growth, and even the immune system.”

“Like the Martians,” Cal mused. “They have to take medications for that. I have to give Kevin supplements for the same reason.”

“Our doctor caste is currently developing therapies that will hopefully eliminate that issue,” Poppy added.

“Yeah, I noticed that the changes in gravity don’t seem to bother you very much.”

“Our ancestors were literally engineered to conquer other worlds,” she replied. “There may be ways that we can help Endo bodies to adapt in the way that ours do. Maybe…trigger hormonal or metabolic changes. I don’t know – I’m not that kind of doctor. I do know that the body is capable of building more muscle, denser bones, and boosting the immune system. It just needs to receive the correct signals.”

“What kind of doctor are you, then?” Cal asked suspiciously.

“Jarilan mechanics have to deal with a lot of meat,” she replied, smirking as he grimaced.

“Could you fix me if I broke down?”

“Depends,” she asked, looking him up and down. “Are you made of meat?”

“It appears so.”

“This is the home of my pack,” Murzka interjected, finally chiming in as she stood at the top of the steps. “Their duties compel them to be elsewhere.”

“You have…a lovely home,” he replied, not sure how else to respond. “What’s with all the crossbows?”

“A traditional Araxie weapon,” she explained, seeming more annoyed by his ignorance than excited for the opportunity to share her culture.

“I noticed that you favor an XMR,” he added, remembering the telltale barrel that he had seen emerge from beneath her cloak. “Any special reason, or is it just personal preference?”

“We have no need for silence here,” she replied. Even her voice was quiet – understated. She almost spoke in a whisper, yet her size gave each word a palpable power. “For hunting, we use the bows. For defense, we want to be loud. Gunshots frighten the local predators.”

“Can I take a look?” he asked.

Murzka drew back one half of her long cloak, throwing it over her shoulder to reveal the rifle, holding it by the barrel like it was a spear. It didn’t look any larger in her furry hands than Cal’s rifle did in his, but it was easily six feet long, the receiver and grip scaled up to accommodate her. The barrel was covered in a heat shroud with empty rails for attachments, but he could see the copper coils peeking out through the gaps, the muzzle device on the end shaped like a coffee can. It wasn’t a silencer – there was no silencing an XMR without turning down the voltage. It was a device that stopped the slug from turning the air to plasma and creating an arc flash when it left the barrel. He was surprised to see that there was no high-magnification scope. Murzka seemed to favor a small reflex sight, but in conditions like these, she probably couldn’t see far enough to shoot at those ranges anyway. Like her cloak, the weapon was wrapped in a mesh netting that was covered in leaves.

As well as revealing her rifle, she revealed herself for the first time. He could see that her whole body was coated in that same midnight-black, velvet fur, clinging to her figure so tightly that it looked like she was wearing a body glove. Her silky coat reflected the light, picking out the contours of her taut, wiry muscles. She was lean and athletic, shaped by the harsh gravity in which he was now standing, her stout thighs alone probably packing as much muscle as his entire body. The way that her coat shone made her look a little like a racehorse to him, thin enough that he could even pick out small veins. She conveyed that same sense of barely restrained power, like a compressed spring waiting for release.

Her hips were wider than his shoulders, tapering into a powerful core, the wet reflections on her fur picking out a prominent six-pack. A pair of brown leather shorts with crude stitching clung to her snugly, the belt that she wore laden with small satchels and pouches. Her chest was modest for her stature, adding to that swimmer’s physique, wrapped tightly in a sling top made from the same tanned leather. There was a bandoleer of railgun slugs strapped across her shoulder, and tied around one thigh was a large Bowie knife that looked more like a machete to Cal. There was also a pair of goggles hanging around her neck, their lenses dark and tinted.

“That’s some nice kit,” Cal said. “Where did you get it?”

“A gift from the Jarilans,” Murzka replied.

“We have a license to manufacture them for the colony,” Poppy added proudly. “I was actually going to say that the rifle you brought with you uses ammunition that we don’t readily have on hand. We can make tungsten alloy slugs for days, though. We already have enough of a stockpile to fight a hive fleet for several months.”

“I didn’t really expect to be getting into any prolonged firefights with the local fauna,” Cal continued. “I brought about as much ammunition as I’ll realistically need. Ideally, I won’t even have to use that.”

“We should probably get going,” Poppy added with a nod to the impatient Murzka. “You should definitely tour the village, though, Cal. We’ll come back this evening after the sun has set.”

“Why’s that?” he asked.

“The Araxie are nocturnal,” she replied. “Most of them are asleep right now.”

“Ah, that explains it,” Cal mused. “I assumed they were hiding.”

“This is one of the few cases where that assumption is wrong,” Poppy chuckled.

They headed back outside, Cal very literally feeling the pounds drop off him as he walked back up the stairs. There was a spring in his step now, and he felt like he was floating, his inner ear having to recalibrate itself to keep him balanced.

It was no wonder that Murzka was so light on her feet – she only weighed around sixty percent of what her body was designed to contend with on EE-4.

“Okay,” Poppy began, clapping her lower pair of hands together. “You have your sherpa, and you have your scout. What’s next? What does the job of conservationist-for-hire actually entail?”

“The first thing I want to do is get out into the jungle and have a look around – take some samples and get a feel for the area.”

“So, a glorified hiking trip?” Poppy asked.

“At first, yeah,” he conceded. “Once I have a better idea of what I’m dealing with, we can organize a longer expedition and take out more equipment. I need to get a good distance from the settlement to see what the status quo is. So far, your ecological impact seems very minimal, but I’d still like to take a look around and establish a baseline that I can compare with the UAS’s findings.”

“We could have a shuttle fly you to the other side of the planet if you wanted,” Poppy suggested as they made their way back through the village.

“No, I’d like to explore,” he replied. “I’m sure the UAS will have some topographical maps and survey data that I can use to plan a route. Our scout probably knows the area far better than they do, too,” he added as he glanced up at Murzka. “If you’ve been hunting, you’ve probably been studying the behavior of local animals, and your input would be invaluable.”

“My people are still learning about this new place,” she replied as she strode along a few paces ahead of him. “It is much like our home in many ways, yet so different in others. Your peoples take to space like birds take to the sky, but this is the first time the Araxie have made a home around another star. We have cast our arrow far.”

“You seem to be doing a fine job,” Cal replied.

“I will teach you what I know, providing that you are attentive,” she said with a glance back at him.

They reached the edge of the village where Kevin was still waiting obediently, Cal whistling for him to return. The dog bounded over happily but gave Murzka a wide berth, still unsure whether she was his friend or not.

“You should really give him a treat,” Cal advised as he patted Kevin’s flank.

She wrinkled her flat nose at the dog, then turned to the forest, ignoring his statement.

“If you wish to learn what I know, then follow,” she said as she headed out into the mist.

***

 

“You should keep your beast close,” Murzka said as she stalked through the forest, her round ears twitching and swiveling at every distant sound. “I still say that you should have left it at your camp. It may frighten away the prey.”

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” Cal replied, keeping his rifle handy as he trudged through the dense undergrowth some distance behind her. She tended to stay at the limits of his vision, the mist making her appear even more ghostly and ethereal than she had before. “Nor is it Kevin’s. He’s been trained as a working dog since he was a puppy, and he’s been around a lot of very dangerous animals. I don’t suppose you know what a polecat is?”

“No,” she muttered, her eyes scanning the trees.

“Well, it’s a very dangerous predator. You’ll have to take my word for it.”

Poppy was following just behind him, doing a remarkable job of keeping pace despite her legs being half the length of Murzka’s. She never seemed to tire, just waddling along happily with his gear clutched in her arms and his pack hanging from her back.

“You sure you don’t want me to carry some of that?” Cal asked, glancing over his shoulder at her. “The backpack, at least?”

“Nope,” she replied, leaping over a jutting root without breaking stride. “I’m the sherpa – I carry the stuff.”

“Alright,” he mumbled, giving her a shrug. Murzka almost seemed annoyed by her assignment, but Poppy was full of enthusiasm, taking her job very seriously. Maybe it was a more desirable task than digging tunnels or servicing machinery, or whatever it was that Workers did in a hive. As much as he was looking forward to seeing the Araxie in their village, he wanted to explore the hive, too. In many ways, it was an even more alien environment than the jungle.

As he walked along, he noticed that there were patches of moss missing from some of the trees. It was so prevalent that any places where the bark showed through was noteworthy. He paused to examine one of them more closely, seeing score marks on the wood beneath. It was as though something had scraped it away.

Murzka leapt into the air with deceptive ease, using her hooked claws for purchase as she scaled a nearby trunk, biting into the wood. Like a spider monkey, she climbed her way up into the canopy high above them, leaping to another branch to get a better view, crouching as she surveyed the path ahead. She really did seem to be in her element here, and it still blew his mind that she was capable of similar feats of athleticism in forty percent higher gravity than this.

Kevin dropped his stance suddenly, as he had been trained to do when he detected something, his ears rising.

“What is it, Kev?” Cal whispered as he took a knee in the ferns beside the dog.

“Should I stop?” Poppy asked. Cal put a finger to his lips, and she quieted down, crouching as he had. Before he knew it, Murzka had descended, landing so silently that he hadn’t even noticed until she was standing next to him again.

“Prey ahead,” she murmured softly. “Do you wish to observe, or to take the kill?”

“I only want to observe,” he replied.

“Follow,” she said, starting to creep forward.

Cal did as she asked, remaining at a crouch, watching his step so as not to snap any twigs. Fortunately, the ground was so soft and the detritus so wet that there was no danger of crunching dry leaves underfoot. Kevin’s pads made him almost as silent as Murzka, but Poppy was a little clumsier, the bags that she was carrying shifting around.

They approached a gap between two trees, and Cal gestured wordlessly for Kevin to stay, the dog keeping still. Murzka pointed into a clearing ahead of them with a clawed finger, and Cal followed it to see a shape on the far side of a patch of ferns, maybe fifty feet away.

There was a creature there, standing upright with its forelimbs leaning against a tree. It was moving its head, scraping at the moss, suggesting that it was responsible for the missing patches that he had been seeing.