Two cat-sized drones hovered down on eight rotors to land on Whistle's right and left antlers. They had smooth X-shaped bodies with sensors spread like freckles along each axis, and they were small enough to use conventional flight rather than gravity mesh. "Long time no see," they said in unison. "The city misses every aeronaut." Though they had two bodies, Hellfire&Crisp shared a consciousness; it was therefore hard to say whether the drones were a plural or singular they.
Whistle snorted and sent a public text: Hi there. Good to be back.
The drones took off again, ignoring Destry. Whistle had a social life that he didn't tell her about, and she didn't ask. It was one of many non-verbal agreements they had that made their working relationship deeply amicable and pleasing.
Their first stop was the ERT barn where the moose lived with other mounts. At its wide door, Destry relieved him of her saddle before giving him a rubdown in the spots he couldn't reach.
"Have a good night, pal," Destry said. He nudged her with his nose.
The ERT domo for hominins was at the end of a dirt path bordered by night-blooming primroses and mint whose mingled scents sweetened the air. She had to duck through an arch in a whimsically pruned hedge whose contours were determined annually by the rangers in training. Right now, it was supposed to evoke the undulating body of a swimming placoderm—an homage to the Devonian armored fish who still roamed the seas. Ahead lay the domo, its wide, three-story bulk packed with dorms, lounges, and the main dining hall. It was one of the few buildings on Sask-E built with wood, carefully culled from nearby spruce and fir populations to promote a diversity of new growth. Its creamy outer walls were treated with a transparent polymer to protect it from weathering, and the high, rounded roof was wattle and daub. Double doors opened as Destry's face came into range, and she walked down the yellow-lit throat of the hallway with its colorful murals, handprints, and informational posters.
No matter how many centuries she lived here, returning to this domo always filled Destry with a sense of accomplishment. She was an Environmental Rescue Team ranger, and her home here was proof.
Still, her position wasn't solid. Destry recalled what that pus-sucker had said through the lips of his remote: It was strange to find an ERT ranger on a private planet like this one. Most of the planet's hominin population were workers made from standard templates, decanted and controlled by Verdance—technicians, engineers, and farmers who lived in La Ronge but spent most of the year dispatched to remote construction sites. There was no ambiguity in the law when it came to those workers; Verdance could use them however it wanted. But the ERT was a profoundly public institution, with campuses on nearly every League world. They couldn't technically be owned by Verdance, or anyone. Destry wasn't sure what kind of twisted, legal logic her boss, Ronnie, had deployed to establish an ERT campus here. The ancient order of environmental engineers and first responders traced their lineage all the way back to the Farm Revolutions that ended the Anthropocene on Earth, and started the calendar system people still used today. According to old Handbook lore, the Trickster Squad—Sky, Beaver, Muskrat, and Wasakeejack—founded the Environmental Rescue Team 59,006 years ago. That's when the legendary heroes saved the world from apocalyptic floods by inventing a new form of agriculture. The Great Bargain, they called it. A way to open communication with other life forms in order to manage the land more democratically. The ERT started with domesticated animals—ungulates, birds, small mammals, model organisms like rats—and over the millennia since, rangers had invited more species into the Great Bargain as their opinions became necessary for land management.
Ronnie had decided that the ERT should be involved in her terraforming project, and so she built one. Apparently the Verdance VP was a true believer in the Great Bargain, but she also wanted to make money on colonization. She couldn't resolve this contradiction, so the Sask-E ERT ran like a moose with overgrown hooves. They had access to a planetwide network of sensor data—as well as the ERT Handbook, with its stories about ecosystem management. But the company's ban on offworld comms effectively shut them off from other ERT communities. As far as Destry could tell, no one knew about the rangers here in La Ronge. That was convenient for Ronnie. She could appease her ancestors by respecting ERT traditions, but also please the executives at Verdance by keeping everything and everyone on Sask-E privately owned.
A thick aroma of fried onion in the domo promised leftovers, and Destry sped up with anticipation. The dining hall was the biggest room on this floor, occupying the entire west side of the building. When she poked her head inside, the place was empty and mostly unlit except for one area where half a dozen junior rangers were eating a late meal together. Thankfully, there was still a heaping tray of pierogies and pickled mustard greens on the grab table. Loading her plate, Destry sank gratefully into her favorite corner chair and reveled in the luxury of eating food made by someone else. The dumplings were still warm, and she'd scored a few stuffed with spicy lentils as well as potato and curried carrot. But there were always surprises, especially at late dinner. Destry smeared fried onion on what she thought was a potato pierogi, only to discover it was sweet cheese, and was therefore making a terrible face when her best friend, Nil, appeared in the doorway and yelped her name.
"Destry! You're back! Any news from the forest?"
She swallowed with difficulty, stood, and gestured for him to join her. "Everything is in balance," she said, evoking the time-honored greeting to avoid mentioning all the out-of-balance shit she'd seen. The two embraced before sitting in companionable silence at the table together.
This excerpt ends on page 14 of the hardcover edition.
Monday, April 3rd, we begin the book Across The Sand by Hugh Howey.