Today's Reading

Whistle couldn't reply aloud to her—his mouth was built to a perfect Pleistocene moose template—but he could text. The sender in his brain reached out to network with hers, skipping across the radio spectrum, looking for a way to be heard; when he found it, he typed: Looks bad, Destry.

The moose had a limited vocabulary, but it got the job done. He was right: she'd turned a shit situation into a slurry of blood-flecked diarrhea. Stretching up a hand, she rubbed the warm, furry hide of his neck. "You can graze if you want. You'll want to have lots of energy for the trip back."

Whistle turned to press his fat muzzle into her gray-black hair, exhaling a blast of warm air. During their months on patrol in this vast, continent-spanning forest, Destry's usual stubble had grown long enough to tickle her ears. Whistle felt genuine affection for his partner, but this sudden urge to nuzzle was definitely enhanced by the sight of an abundant carpet of pinecones a few meters beyond the campsite. They were his favorite food.

Meanwhile, Destry had to start the long, grisly process of sinking all this carbon. She retrieved a few tools from Whistle's saddlebags: an axe, a tin of metabolizers, a sheet of carbon-capture membrane folded into a tight square. Tramping around the campsite, she saw no obvious ejector pods or shuttles nearby. Charter might have hiked in from a distant landing site, though his pale skin suggested recent decanting. What if somebody at Verdance spotted the vessel by satellite feed and started asking questions? Or another ranger picked up what had happened from the sensor network? She needed to find his ship and erase what she'd done. Whistle munched contentedly as she deleted the last few minutes from the forest around her. Then she issued a ticket to the ERT bug tracker: I found a trespasser's campsite in the boreal forest. Composting it now. Can somebody please check satellite footage at these coordinates to see whether there's a vessel in the area?

They would get her message in the next hour or two. Probably. As long as it found a relatively uninterrupted path through the tall grass, routing through sensors that were mostly intended for monitoring air and soil conditions. The important thing was that she'd left some receipts. Now, if the ship was found, she could plead ignorance about its payload. Which—what exactly was that payload? Obviously Charter's controller was some kind of rich dilettante, hopped up on environmental determinism. He didn't even recognize that the planet was closer to a Devonian Period Earth, 350 million years before his beloved Pleistocene. Sure, the food web was post-Cretaceous, full of mammals and angiosperms alongside the more ancient birds, insects, and conifers. But there were still a lot of synapsids running around, looking like giant, furry lizard-otters with sails on their backs. As the ERT's top network analyst for ecosystems, she had to call it like she saw it. This was hardly a perfect reproduction of Earth when it was a million years younger.

The reason none of these inconsistencies mattered to Verdance was that oxygen levels were holding steady at the required 21 percent, thanks mostly to the thick layer of trees Destry and her cohort planted—millions of them, all across Sask-E. Over the centuries their roots burrowed deep into the planet's two megacontinents, Maskwa and Tooth, breaking up the sterile rock and accelerating the weathering process that drew down carbon. As long as the carbon cycle was unperturbed, they could proceed on schedule and stabilize all the interlocking environmental systems. Any extra load on a freshly built ecosystem like the boreal forest might set them back centuries.

And now some joyrider from who knows where thought he could chew through their labor like he was entitled to it. Because of some pixelated idea about how Paleolithic humans lived. Glancing at the hare's mutilated body and the skins stretched nearby, Destry winced. He'd taken so much life from an ecosystem he supposedly loved.

Carefully burying the firepit in loose soil and leaves, she dragged the remote inside the cabin, arranging the animal remains next to him. She clambered up the high, peaked roof to survey the damage. He'd built the whole structure from trees that the planet desperately needed to maintain its atmosphere. Destry whacked at the wood with an axe, kicking chunks of it down to the floor inside. Soon most of the roof lay in shredded lumps next to Charter's bedroll and rucksack, and it was relatively easy to yank the wall posts out of their shallow holes in the ground. The racket brought gravelly commentary from ravens overhead, and a few curious squirrels and foxes poked their heads out of the brush.

As the sun sank, Whistle left off his crunching and headed back to the wreckage that Destry was arranging in a careful pile over the now-dismantled cabin floor. The moose sent: Should we sleep here?

Destry glanced at the dimming sky, where the gas giant Sask-D emerged as a bright pinprick next to the rising pear-shaped moon that orbited Sask-E. "I'm almost done," she said. "I think we can make it back to camp tonight." She cracked the tin of metabolizers open with a screwdriver and sprinkled wheat-colored husks packed with microbes over the splintered wood, skins, and Charter's body. It began to decompose almost before she could unfurl the filter membrane with a snap of her wrists, settling it over the whole mess like a transparent funeral shroud. Some carbon would escape, of course, but the filter would capture about 80 percent. By the time the full moon returned, this invader's campsite would be nothing but a rich humus beneath a layer of pine needles.

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