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Redwood: Servant of the State

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Redwood: Servant of the State

Jaxon Reed

Copyright © 2014
by Jaxon Reed
All Rights Reserved

Cover Design by BespokeBookCovers.com

Published by edbok.com

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is entirely coincidental.

Other books by Jaxon Reed

 

 

The Redwood Trilogy

Redwood: Servant of the State

Redwood: Twelver

Redwood: Battle Cry

 

The Empathic Detective

The Empathic Detective: A Mystery Thriller

Ghostsuit: An Empathic Detective Novel

 

The Forlorn Dagger

Thieves and Wizards

Wizards and Kings

 

 

 

For the latest on new releases, visit www.jaxonreed.com

Table of Contents

Chapter One

-

Hematophagia – from Greek haima (blood) + phagein (to eat). Hematophagous animals feed on the blood of other animals. Old Earth examples include lampreys, leeches, and vampire bats. Hematophagous organisms have allegedly also been discovered on at least one of the outer planets in the Janus String . . .

-

“Bloodsucker!”

It was my own fault, really. I should have locked the door. I didn’t know Peterson would throw it wide open while I was drinking blood.

We were heading home, back to Redwood, approaching Janus 28. It’s about two weeks to get to the Janus, and another two till touchdown on Redwood. I can’t go that long without blood.

What surprised me was how violent Peterson became when he caught me. He charged, threw me against the wall and choked me. My vision blurred as the rage in his eyes spilled out like liquid hate. I had to do something, fast. I kneed him in the groin. That loosened his grip.

I threw myself back on him, using all my weight, slamming him to the floor.

Not quite to the floor. His skull popped on the doorjamb, split open and gushed blood.

“Peterson! Aw, man, Peterson!”

I felt for a pulse on his neck, but it was weakening fast. All that blood flowed out on the floor . . .

+

And that’s how I killed my first man. I swear it was an accident. Self defense. It was me or him, and it turned out to be him. I don’t kill people for their blood.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll drink their blood if I happen to kill them. But I’m no murderer. I have morals.

Did I say Peterson was my first? Actually, he was my second. The first one was the bastard who gave me this disease. But that’s another story. That happened on the other side of Janus 29, on the last planet in the string, the one they call Orange. But that’s another story.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, the blood. I had a baggie I bought in the black market while we were on New Texas. The black market there is great. Practically everything you could possibly want, including vials of human blood. The guy who sold it looked at me funny. I’m sure he knew what I wanted it for. Heck, he’s probably hematophagous too. That’s the scientific term for what I’ve got.

I know because I looked it up in an internet café while on New Texas. I think it set off some alarm bells somewhere, because a kid came running in right after I started reading up on hematophagia, yelling that the cops were coming. The proprietor, he was a good guy. He scooted all of his customers out the back door before they got there. I learned a little bit about my condition, anyway.

I couldn’t let all that blood go to waste. Poor Peterson was lying there on the floor in a pool of it. I drank all I could. I can usually go about a month before needing another fix, but I never had a dead human all to myself before. It was too much to resist.

But then I had the problem of a dead body with very little blood in it. About that time the ship’s computer decided to inform me we were five minutes from Janus 28. I started thinking fast, and came up with a plan.

I dragged Peterson’s body over to the garbage chute, and slammed his skull against the knob. The little door opened, and I shoved his body inside, leaving his right arm sticking out. I grabbed a hacker board from my pocket (thank you, New Texas black market!), hurried over to the beer machine and inserted the connector.

Naval beer is given to pilots once a jump, and we just had ours. They came in one-third liter plain white cans with “BEER” in big black letters, then “2.5% ABV” in smaller letters below. Pilots and co-pilots are allotted two beers per Janus jump. I’d given Peterson my two since I can’t stand the stuff. I jumped into the top directory of the vending machine’s computer.

Beer, as a controlled product, is supposed to be a major perk for pilots on these long trips. To make sure not too much can be consumed all at once, the operating system is encrypted. It’s supposed to be almost impossible to crack.

But I had a brainstorm while walking around the black market when I saw those hacker boards. What if you could fool the machine without cracking its system? Now was a good time to find out.

I got to the system properties, and breathed a sigh of relief. The machine’s main programming was indeed encrypted, just like I heard. Little to no chance someone could get in there and reprogram it to give out cans of beer on command. But, the programmers left the system settings open. Including the calendar.

I reset the calendar for yesterday at 18:00 hours. Four beers promptly came out of the machine, landing in the receptacle. I waited a minute, did it again, got four more beers. I did it once again to be sure.

Next I took the cans and wrapped Peterson’s hand around each one. Then I drained them in the sink, holding each by just my thumb and forefinger, and I tossed them in the recycle bin with the four from yesterday.

“Approaching Janus Twenty-eight in thirty seconds.”

I went back to the garbage chute and pressed Peterson’s hands and fingers all over the hacker board. Then I tucked his arm in. His body was shriveled and limp, starting to grow stiff. His face was still masked in rage, even in death.

“Goodbye, Peterson.”

I threw in my empty baggy of blood, secured the lid and prepared the chute for jettison. The needle on the gauge showing air pressure in the chute dipped lower. It’s really just another airlock. When the gauge neared zero, the chute’s outer door opened, and Peterson’s body shot out into space.

+

If you’ve never been through a Janus, it’s fascinating. They orbit around each planet we’ve found that’s habitable. Janus 1 orbits around Old Earth. Go through it and you get to the first planet we colonized, Europa. In geosynchronous orbit on the other side of Europa is Janus 2, which leads to Asiana. Janus 3 leads to Bharata, and so forth.

I was born on New Texas, an orphan, a ward of the State. Never adopted. Now I’m a Servant of the State, stationed on Redwood. I’ve been to five planets in the chain. The outermost one, Orange, Redwood of course, New Texas, Athena, and Alexandria. Most people stay on the planet they were born on, but I’ve done a lot of travel for the State.

After going through a Janus as many times as I have, it gets boring. I stared out the front viewer as we approached a huge metal ring floating in space. As a pilot, I don’t really do much. The computer handles everything. Flight path, logistics, lining up the ship so that it goes through the ring the right way, yada yada yada. I could just make out huge lettering, caught in the starlight and reflecting weakly back toward the viewer: “Janus #28.” Then everything turned white and I lurched forward thousands of light years in an instance.

+

I had 16 days to work out my story, about Peterson’s “accident.” Meanwhile I listened to a new pirate radio station I found. Not sure how these guys smuggle transmitters through the Janus rings, or even who they are. The State controls all media. The pirate radio guys are decidedly low tech, which maybe helps them avoid detection, I thought. They sneak these satellites through and send out transmissions that can be picked up by passing spacecraft. Most of the planets employ blocking technology so people on the ground can’t hear them. At least I think most people can’t. Maybe somebody has figured out a work-around by now. People don’t talk much about things they’re not supposed to know about.

This station played “classic rock.” I don’t care much for the genre, but the State forbids it, so I listened to it. All the way to Redwood. That’ll show the State. Can’t dictate my music, man.

I flipped it off before hitting Redwood airspace. No sense in tempting fate more than necessary. The signal was almost certainly blocked there, anyway.

“Entering Redwood airspace. Would you like the Tourist Channel?”

“Sure why not.”

I like to listen to the State sponsored tourist speech as I’m coming home. I’ve heard it dozens of times. Something of a tradition, I guess.

The computer started in her pleasant female voice as we bumped into the planet’s atmosphere.

“Redwood is the twenty-eighth planet colonized by humans, and the second to last in the Janus String. It has one giant continent. The remainder of the planet’s surface is covered by ocean.”

The ship skimmed over that ocean now, a beautiful sunrise cresting over the planet’s Pangaea. We approached the land quickly. Soon, it raced below us.

“Redwood is categorized as a frontier wildlife planet and is under special ecological impact restrictions. Human activity outside Redwood City is strictly regulated, and leaving the city without permission is prohibited.”

I snorted at this. They always made it sound like there were no humans at all out there. What about the Rangers? What about us Servants they send on errands out there? Typical State lies and half truths.

Down below a giant forest appeared. Branches and leaves crested a few wispy clouds in places. The ship quickly skimmed over it and green leaves covered the view below for miles. It’s a beautiful sight, and had long been my favorite part of the trip.

“Redwood derives its name from its forests of gigantic trees. Scientists are intrigued by these remarkable arbores, the likes of which are found nowhere else in the Janus String.”

Finally we left the forest behind for an endless plain of grass. The viewer found distant specks on the ground and the computer magnified one. It showed a large cow-like animal. Reddish mottled fur, with a white face, it munched slowly on six-foot strands of grass.

“Redwood cows are also giants in comparison to those on other planets. These mammals are the largest land dwelling ones known in the Janus String. They are roughly five times the size of an Old Earth elephant.”

“I bet they taste good, too,” I grumbled. “But no, eating them is prohibited along with everything else.”

The grasslands gave way to a desert. The big blue cube that was Redwood City grew in the distance, finally filling up the view screen as the ship slowed and descended closer to the desert floor.

“Redwood City is chartered as an American colony. As such, measurements are in US customary units, and the standard language is English. The city itself, however, was built by Deng Planetary Corporation using metric measurements. It is one cubic kilometer in size.”

“And nowhere near filled up with people,” I muttered.

The ship settled to a stop on the landing pad near the base of the giant cube. A small army of load bots stood ready to handle cargo. I stood up and stretched.

“The city uses a variety of power sources to house inhabitants, including solar, geothermal, wind, and nano-nuclear.”

The main airlock slid open and Adams slowly traipsed my way. He wore a natural frown. I’ve only seen the man smile when he’s assigning some particularly unpleasant duty to a Servant. When he saw me coming out of the airlock alone, he frowned even more.

The computer’s cheery voice behind me said, “Please prepare for Customs, and enjoy your stay in Redwood City!”

I grabbed my duffle bag and headed toward Adams.

Chapter Two

“Where’s Peterson?”

“He had an accident.”

“What happened?”

“He got drunk and split his head open.”

“He okay?”

“No. He’s dead.”

For once, Adams’ expression changed from a frown to something like shock.

“Dead? Well where is he?”

“I jettisoned the body.”

“You what?”

“I wasn’t going to go two and a half weeks with a dead bloody body. That’s creepy.”

He was back to frowning now, and giving me the stare. He was older, maybe in his mid-forties, and he never hid his disdain for Servants rated as pilots. Probably because he wasn’t a pilot, and had never travelled off world since being assigned to Redwood.

I stared right back. I had nothing to hide. Everything I said was the truth. Sort of.

Finally he looked away, toward the ship, and rubbed his chin in thought.

“Well, get your butterfly wings on and up to Customs. You’re going to have to file a report. There’ll probably be an investigation.”

+

The “butterfly wings” are officially known as “personal helicopter units,” or PHUs. They have two rotary blades attached to a power unit strapped on your back. The blades are surrounded by plastic rings so they don’t get damaged if they bump into something. They’re stationed at just above shoulder level once you get the unit on, one off your right shoulder, one off your left. Two control sticks jut out in front. One has a throttle, the other controls pitch. It takes some learning, but once you get the hang of it you can fly up and down and flutter around. Like I butterfly, I guess. Or a hummingbird.

I cinched the unit on tight, buckling the belt and shoulder straps, grabbed the controls and shot up toward Customs Entry, five levels up. I stopped to hover halfway there and looked around. Load bots scurried with cargo at the ship, taking stuff off for Redwood City, putting stuff onboard for Orange, the next stop in the line. By the time these cargo ships reached as far out as Redwood, there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff onboard from Old Earth or any of the inner planets. Most of what we needed for consumption was provided by Athena and New Texas. Some of it was from Alexandria and New Hong Kong. Some of the stuff we sent on ships going back the other way do make it all the way to the beginning of the Janus String. Or so we’ve been told. Knowing those guys that run the State, they may just be telling us that to try and instill pride in our planet or something. You can’t really trust much about anything the State says.

I turned back toward Customs.

+

Several hours later I stood before a tribunal. My first one. I’d heard about these things. People talk, you know. But I was expecting it and I’d psyched myself up for it. I stared ahead at a spot on the wall just above The Old Man’s head.

They say his name is Tom. Nobody seems to know his last name. I’ve also heard that T-O-M are initials for The Old Man. But, nobody knows if that’s really why he’s known as Tom. Nobody calls him anything but “Sir,” from what I’ve heard.

He is old, I thought. A circle of gray hair, a white Van Dyke beard. Crows feet around the eyes. I’d guess he’s somewhere in his seventies. Brownish skin. Like the rest of us, his ethnicity has been mixed so many times over the generations, you can’t really tell what dominant race he is. We all have all the races in our blood. If I took a stab at his primary ancestors, I’d say Asian. But there’s no way to tell for sure without asking. And that’s not going to happen. Nobody has a casual conversation with The Old Man.

He is the biggest man on Redwood, I thought. Top dog. Primary Representative of the State. Right now he’s glaring at me.

“Marcus Savitch. Servant of the State. Pilot rated, Corvette through Cargo Class. Explain to me again what happened, son.”

I bristled inwardly at the “son” bit. I was an orphan. Nobody’s son. Which is exactly why I was stuck being a Servant of the State.

But I hid it well, and recited my story again in a dull monotone.

“We were fourteen days out from New Texas. When the beer machine discharged the standard ration, Peterson asked for mine. I gave them to him. After those were gone he said he wanted more, and he retrieved some sort of device from his duffel bag.”

“A hacker board. Any idea where he got it?”

That was Agent Hernandez. Despite the name, he is white as I am. Maybe not quite as white. I’ve got blonde hair and blue eyes, which is rather rare. He’s got darker hair and brown eyes.

“No, sir. If I had to guess, I’d say the black market on New Texas.”

Hernandez grunted in assent. That was the way he saw it, too.

“You ever bought anything in the black market, Savitch?”

Adams this time. I raised an eyebrow and looked at him.

“I’ve strolled through it, sir,” I said in an admitting tone. “It’s near the spaceport. But, I’ve never bought anything there before.”

I can lie good. I matched his stare for a minute before The Old Man spoke again.

“How old are you, son?”

“Seventeen standard years, sir.”

“How are you rated on computers?”

“Admin level, sir.”

“Not sysop?”

“No, sir.”

The Old Man looked at Hernandez to his left, then Adams to his right. “Peterson was rated sysop, right?”

Adams nodded.

A timid knock came from the door. It opened a crack. A young Servant popped his head in. New kid, about thirteen years old. I hadn’t seen him before. The Old Man waived him over. The Servant handed him a sheet of vid paper, then hurried out.

“Agent’s report. Quite a bit of blood spilled and cleaned up near the bathroom door. The clock is off on the beer machine. A hacker board and sixteen cans of beer were found in the recycle bin with both pilots’ prints. Mostly Peterson’s. Why were your prints on there, Savitch?”

“I was the one who threw them in the recycle bin, sir.”

A long silence followed as The Old Man, Adams and Hernandez stared at me. Finally The Old Man grunted.

“Well, the Agent’s report backs up your story. Obviously this was a tragedy. I hope you learned something about staying away from black markets. It looks like you don’t have a taste for beer, and that’s good too. You see what can happen to people when they get drunk. Go on back to your quarters now. Report for duty as usual in the morning.”

On the way out, I heard Hernandez mumble in awe, “Sixteen beers!”

Adams said, “At two and a half percent, it’d take that many . . .”

+

I should feel elated, I thought. I’ve literally just gotten away with murder. But I’m tired. The emotional energy of the tribunal, and the last two weeks or so mentally preparing for it have left me exhausted. I walked listlessly through hallways and corridors, up elevators and escalators to Servant Quarters. A few recognized me and greeted me as I passed.

“Hey Savitch! Long time!”

“Welcome home stranger!”

I waved at them but shambled on, promising to catch up later.

Finally I found my room. A cell, really. 10 square meters of floor space all my own. The palm reader recognized me, the door swept open and I collapsed on my cot. The view screen still showed a video feed of Redwood from space. It’s beautiful. Mostly ocean, slowly revolving. Soon the lone continent will slip over the horizon. Same channel I left it on two months ago. It reminded me of the openness of space. Freedom.

Sleep came quick, along with dreams of an angry Peterson lunging at me again and again and again.

“Bloodsucker!”

Chapter Three

Menial labor. That was what Adams always gave pilots after returning. I think he figures two months of freedom should be balanced by the most demeaning, filthiest work possible. With no chance of going outside the cube.

He started me in Park 7, which is located in the middle of the giant cubic city. Several hallways on level 25 open up to a large atrium, five levels high with several hundred square meters of floor space. Natural sunlight is piped in with mirrors, so plants can grow there. Plants that need to be tended, walkways that need to be mopped, grass that needs to be mowed, and so on. Ugh.

I spent three days toiling in Park 7 before Adams sent me up to the roof. The roof’s not bad, actually. One square kilometer with open views to the sky. It’s sealed in by glass, and pressurized. The top is devoted to crops and farm animals. I spent a few days shoveling animal waste, then moved over to tending crops.

A few days later I started feeling the need for blood again. Fortunately, by then I’d befriended a cat. Why do we have cats in Redwood City? Somehow, rats made the trip all the way from Old Earth through 28 Janus jumps, and found their way from the landing bay up 50 levels to the rooftop. They were a constant problem, invading food stores, nibbling plants and whatnot. No amount of traps or poison seemed to diminish their numbers for long. So, we imported a number of Felis domestica to help take care of the rats.

Most of the cats are wild and run away soon as they see you. Every now and then you can find one that’s more tolerant of people, especially if it’s been fed by somebody. An orange tabby made the mistake of trusting me too much. I wringed his neck before he had a chance to claw me.

Corn crops are fairly private. No cams over here to spy on people. On the roof, they’re mostly watching the tool sheds, making sure everything gets put back and nothing gets stolen that might be used as a weapon or something. But no cam watcher is going to spend mindless days observing Servants toil in the fields hours on end. Even if they do, rows and rows of corn stalks provide good cover.

I’m going to tell you right now, cat’s blood tastes awful. But, it fulfilled my primary need. It wasn’t my first time to drink it, either. How I savored the human blood available in the black market on New Texas. Human blood tastes better than any other mammals I’ve tried. I wished I could smuggle back gallons of the stuff. Or get access to a blood bank or something.

Oh well. If wishes were wings . . .

I buried the shriveled cat body between some corn stalks. Fertilizer.

+

Before long over a month had passed. My days fell into a routine. Breakfast in the Servants’ Mess. Work on the rooftop crops till noon. Lunch. Work. Supper. Shoot the breeze with the boys until lights out. Sleep. Repeat.

Monotony. Our every move is watched by Adams or his lackeys or some other higher up. Cams watch us as we sleep in our cubicles, as we eat in the dining hall, as we line up and gather tools for work.

No more pirate radio music. All entertainment is strictly regulated. No Internet. No books. Once a week we watch a State approved movie in the dining hall after supper. Whatever the plot, it always has a moral message affirming the State. The State knows best. The State benevolently controls the people for the people’s benefit. The State is good. The State is great.

Blah, blah, blah.

Escape comes through online class work. Servants aren’t expected to be schooled after age 13. But, the State provides a free ongoing education and blandly encourages everybody to participate.

Nobody does, except me it seems. I picked up on my Biology studies. I found making outrageous goals and applying myself to study for them helped with the boredom. My newest goal involved learning the classification of Old Earth plants and animals. All of them. Or, at least as many as I could. I’d study new ones at night and spend the working hours trying to remember them.

One day while working in the crops, I found a moment alone near the glass wall. I walked over until my nose pressed against the surface. It was a cloudless day. I stared out over miles of desert landscape below, and wide open blue sky above. In the distance, the desert gave way to a ribbon of green. Beyond that, I knew, were the giant trees of Redwood. I longed to see them in person. My few assignments outside the cube had brought me nowhere near the forests.

I’d seen pictures of course, we all have. I’d flown over them coming home in spaceships and seen them from a distance. But it’s not the same as actually visiting them, exploring them, breathing the same air the trees breathe. I yearned for the chance to go there. I yearned for freedom. Big as it is, I wanted out of this stupid cube of a city.

“Savitch!”

I jumped and whipped around to see a cam along the wall to my right. Hadn’t noticed it earlier. It was pointed at me and an electronic voice said, “Report to Mr. Adams’ office, ASAP!”

I gave a sarcastic salute. “Yes, sir!”

+

I made my way toward the center of the cube, passing boys lucky enough to draw office duty running their errands. Cush jobs.

Eventually I found Suite 300, Adams’ office. I stared at the cam until somebody noticed me and opened the door. I recognized the kid at the front desk. Nguyen. About my age. We often sat together at meals. He motioned toward Adams’ door.

“Go on in, he’s waiting for you.”

As the door swished shut behind me, Adams and another man stood up. The new guy was big. Six-six I guessed, two hundred forty pounds. Athletic. About thirty years old. Close cropped brown hair, tanned skin.

“Savitch, meet Mr. Schmidt. He’s an Agent of the State from New Texas and needs a ride out to one of the experiment stations.”

“Alvin Schmidt, how are ya?”

I shook his beefy right hand, looked down and saw a big gold ring.

“Are you an Aggie?”

His chest actually swelled even bigger, if that were possible, filled with pride.

“Class of thirty-eight.”

Great, I thought to myself. If there’s anything more insufferable than a New Texan, it’s an Aggie.

“Savitch, we need a pilot and you’re nominated. Take Mr. Schmidt to the quadcopter bay, and fly him out to AES number twelve. Return here when he’s done.”

“Yes, sir!”

I waited patiently at the door while Schmidt and Adams exchanged parting remarks, then led him out of the suite and made my way to the quadcopter bay.

I walked fast. I thought, I’m going outside! First time in a long time. Schmidt hurried to catch up.

“Hey, kid, slow down.”

“Sorry.”

“I’d like to see the sights, ya know? This is my first visit to Redwood.”

The sights are all outside, I thought. Not in this giant artificial boring cube. But I slowed and let him gape at the perfect geometric symmetry of the hallways, the elegantly placed doorways and view screens showing live shots of nature around the planet (with some artfully hidden cams in the walls too, that he didn’t seem to notice).

I lapsed into tour guide mode, mentioning the dimensions. One cubic kilometer, with a new level every 20 meters, total of 50 levels. So the city essentially has 50 square kilometers to walk around in. Not exactly, of course, since walls and such take up a portion of the floor space. And inner city parks with their atriums tend to cut out chunks of floor space on multiple levels. Still, the round numbers probably sound good to a first time visitor.

We wasted several minutes in Park 5 as he professed to be overwhelmed by the beauty of an indoor atrium with piped in sunlight and an artificial waterfall.

I tamped down my impatience. At least he didn’t ask to see the Agents’ Quarters, or we would have wasted another hour at least.

Finally we got to QC Bay. Parker was manning the desk. He’s another kid I knew well, about my age.

“I just got the order. Take QC Seventeen. The power pack is fully charged and it’s ready to go.”

+

We squeezed into the cabin together and I pulled down the canopy. The dash came alive as the little craft’s computer booted up.

A quadcopter is pretty much as you’d expect. Four rotors surround the cockpit. They’re protected by tough composite plastic rings just like PHU rotors. The power pack is bigger, of course, and can carry two passengers and their cargo several hundred miles between recharges. It’s the standard surface craft for Redwood City. The environmental bureaucrats like it because it’s emissions-free. If humans must violate the sanctity of the planet’s natural environment, then they should disturb it as little as possible.

Whatever.

I pushed the “On” button, squeezed the throttle on the control stick, and the rotors started spinning. We floated up a few feet off the floor, then shot forward through the open bay door. The desert raced below. Behind us, the cube shrank while the green strip ahead grew larger.

“Computer, plot a course for AES Twelve.”

It beeped and popped up a map hologram, showing our current location and a dotted line to a point several hundred miles inland.

The computer’s pleasant female voice said, “ETA three hours, twenty-eight minutes.”

“Engage autopilot.”

There really is nothing to flying these things, once you get going.

“Enjoy the sights,” I said. “I’m taking a nap.”

+

I didn’t really need to sleep, and I love any opportunity to look at my adopted home planet, but this way I didn’t have to spend the entire time talking to Agent Schmidt. Or listen to him yak. With the monotonous humming of the rotors and gentle swaying of air currents, I soon dozed off for real.

I woke up when the craft slowed and started to descend.

“Looks like we’re here,” Schmidt said.

I nodded. He doesn’t miss a thing, that Schmidt.

The computer put us down on a pad near a small building in the middle of several crops. I popped the canopy open and we crawled out of the cabin. A sign nearby read, “New Texas A&M University Agricultural Experiment Station #12.”

As we walked toward the door I saw a robot tractor puttering away in the distance.

“So this place is unmanned?”

Schmidt nodded. “Yup. Everything is controlled remotely back home.”

“On New Texas?”

“Yup.” He turned to look at me, hearing the impressed tone in my voice. “Satellite signals can travel through the Janus rings, ya know.”

No I didn’t know. “I guess I never thought about it.”

He placed his hand on the palm reader and the front door hissed open. The air inside was stale, as if nobody had been there in a long time. We walked into a lab, filled with tables, sinks, and storage closets.

“AES Twelve is special, ya know. We left behind some high-end equipment here.”

He approached a storage closet on one wall, swiped his hand on the panel to open it, started pulling instruments out and setting them on a nearby table. A Bunsen burner. Several beakers.

“One of the things we put out here is a portable spectrometer. We can analyze all sorts of things with it. Nobody can be really sure what sort of exobiological specimens may be encountered when exploring a new planet, ya know. This sort of instrument gives quick results in the field so we don’t have to send tissue samples back to the lab.”

I tuned him out. He babbled on about exobiology, field science, the joy of discovering new species, yada, yada, yada.

I wandered around the small lab, taking in everything. It reminded me of the science lab from school.

“Aha! Here we go. Come over here, Mr. Savitch, let me show you something.”

I wandered back over to his side of the room. He had a bulky black rectangular box with round openings on the narrow ends. He opened it up and I saw electronics on top and bottom.

“This is our portable spectrometer. I need to test it and see if it’s still working.”

He plugged it in and a control panel on top came to life. It beeped.

“Come here, Mr. Savitch. Place your arm in there for me. Let’s see if you’re alive.”

The hair on the back of my neck grew stiff. Every instinct I had screamed at me not to do this. But he was smiling, had the spectrometer-whatsit open and beckoned toward me. Against my better judgment, I sat down and placed my arm in the unit.

He slammed it shut and adjusted a couple knobs on the control panel.

“There we go. Won’t take but a sec.”

The unit beeped and the output screen filled with characters.

“Mm-hm, mm-hm.”

“Well? Is it working?”

“It works great, Mr. Savitch. Just great.”

He pressed a button on the console and I felt a needle prick my arm from a hidden hypodermic.

“What . . .”

And everything turned black.

+

I started crawling back to consciousness to the sounds of a conversation taking place.

“So he’s definitely got it.”

“Oh yeah, no doubt about it.”

The first voice sounded like an electronic version of The Old Man’s. Maybe from a com link?

The second was Schmidt’s.

He continued, “Looks like maybe he’s had it a while. What I can’t figure is, how has he been able to hide it all this time?”

“That doesn’t surprise us in the least. His IQ and personality scores are off the charts. I’m glad you had the unit out there. We don’t have anything like it in the city.”

“Yes, sir. We’ve got quite a bit of field equipment tucked away out here, most of it left over from our initial surveys. Feel free to use it . . .”

At that moment I came fully to, and let out a long string of profanity that’d make my grandmother blush. If I had a grandmother.

Schmidt stood in front of a screen, on a vid-call with The Old Man. He turned when I stumbled to my feet.

“What the . . . ? I’ll have to call you back, sir.”

The screen went black. My head was swimming, but things were coming into focus now. Schmidt headed my way, a frown on his face.

“Now look, son, we’re going to have to—”

“Don’t call me ‘son.’” I slugged him in the jaw hard as I could. He fell to his knees, stunned. I wouldn’t be so lucky next time.

He got back to his feet, more cautious this time. He eyed me carefully, rubbed his jaw.

“I think we got off on the wrong foot, Mr. Savitch. I apologize for the trickery, but we had to find out if you are hematophagous or not. Several days ago, a body was found floating in space, by a maintenance crew near Janus Twenty-eight on the New Texas side. When it was recovered, they discovered just about all the blood had been drained.”

I paused, distracted. They found Peterson’s body? How did that happen, in all that space out there?

“We ID’d the body, saw the report from Redwood about his accident, and . . . well, ya know, things didn’t exactly add up. I’ve been sent here to check and see if you are indeed hematophagous or not.”

I was chewing this over, distracted. He’d inched closer while talking, his right hand slowly moving behind his back.

“Look, Savitch . . . we can help.”

He whipped out a stun gun, pulled the trigger. The prongs shot out, popped into my chest. Thousands of volts of electricity streamed into me. I screamed and fell to the ground.

“Ya had me worried, there, kid. I must not have given ya enough sedative earlier. Won’t make that mistake a second time.”

He kicked me over on my stomach.

“Just gonna restrain ya, now . . .”

I reached down deep inside me, and somewhere found the will to make my body move. I surged up as he reached down, and crunched the back of my head into his face.

He screamed and stumbled backwards, blood streaming from his nose.

“Ya done made me mad, kid!” He stumbled over to the wall, knocking stuff on a table to the floor. He found a panel on the wall, palmed it, and another storage door opened. Behind it were two neat rows of sub-machineguns hanging on the wall, and four rows of pistols. He grabbed a pistol, then an ammo magazine, shoved it home into the gun and cycled a round.

“I was supposed to bring you in alive if I could, kid. But I have discretion to kill filth like you.”

He aimed. I ducked. The gun shot off with a bang! that sounded extra loud in the enclosed space.

I scrambled behind a table. He shot at my legs twice. Then he started moving toward me.

“Somebody who’d kill a fellow human being . . . just to drink their blood . . . It ain’t natural. You’re infected by something. Something alien. You don’t deserve to live.”

“I didn’t kill him! It was an accident!”

Bang!

He shot toward my voice.

I scrambled behind another table.

Bang! Bang!

A bullet ricocheted off something metal and whizzed through a window, glass tinkling.

We changed locations in the room, me on the side with the guns now. I looked at the pistols and ammo mags, estimating distance. On the floor under the table were several instruments he’d knocked off. I grabbed a beaker and threw it at a corner.

It crashed into the wall on his right and he shot at the sound. I jumped for the guns, lightning fast.

I grabbed a pistol and a magazine, shoved it in, cycled the slide, turned around and squeezed the trigger.

Bang!

A red flower blossomed on Schmidt’s forehead. His eyes had the biggest look of surprise. He collapsed in a heap.

I let out a huge sigh of relief.

+

So much blood, I couldn’t drink it all. Not all at once, anyway. I stored what leftovers I could in some vials from the lab. Might be a long time before I see a cat or anything, I thought.

I dragged his body over to the main computer console for the station, activated it with his hand, and programmed my own palm print into the system so I wouldn’t need to drag him around to open doors and such.

I wondered how he’d gotten his prints into the AES system to begin with. Said it was his first visit to Redwood. I decided they must have transmitted the prints to the station prior to his arrival. He mentioned signals could travel through the Janus rings. That, or Adams gave it to him after he got to the city. From what I could tell, the computer systems in the AES were hooked into Redwood City.

I dragged Schmidt’s body outside, found a shovel in a tool shed and dug a shallow grave for him. Seemed the right thing to do. His Aggie ring fell off a shriveled finger when I laid the body in the ground. I grabbed it and tossed it back into the grave with him.

I grabbed all the guns and ammo out of the storage closet in the lab and put them in the QC. I counted ten submachine guns and twenty pistols. Lots of mags for both. They shot the same kind of ammo, but used different size magazines.

Now for the problem of tracking. I needed to leave the experiment station, but anywhere I flew could be easily tracked in real time by the guys in Redwood City. No hacking boards to help me here, I had to disable tracking some other way. Physically. I needed a hardware solution, not a software one.

I looked at the stubby antenna on the back of the canopy. That’s how the computers in QC Bay know where the craft is, I thought, and that’s how Redwood City would track it.

I went back to the tool shed and found a heavy wrench. I gave the antenna a few whacks. It didn’t budge. Like everything else designed for the frontier planets, it was practically indestructible. The thought was, it would be decades before new populations could produce advanced items on their own, so equipment sent to colonize a world was made to last.

I gave a final thwack in frustration and sat down to think. If only there was a way to block the signals going to and from that stupid antenna.

Inspiration! I recalled something I read about jamming signals back on Old Earth. I made my way back inside the experiment station and found the kitchen. After opening a few storage panels I found what I was looking for: a roll of tin foil.

I ripped off a long strip, went back outside and wrapped up the antenna tight. I sprayed it down with a fast drying adhesive I’d found in storage, to make certain the patch wouldn’t go flying off at high speed.

Finally I was ready to go. I jumped into the cabin, closed the canopy, booted the system.

The computer’s so helpful. She said, “Navigation malfunction.”

“Ignore.”

The rotors hummed to life and the craft shot up. I turned it, aiming for the strip of dark green trees on the horizon.

Chapter Four

I lost track of time. I flew low and fast, heading for the trees. A few hours passed, and the sun dipped low. The line of trees in front of me grew slowly bigger. They were so big, yet still so far away.

After many hours, and near sunset, I saw the tell-tale signs of crops below me. Must be another agricultural experiment station, I thought. Almost the same moment, the computer sounded a low energy alarm.

“Warning. Emergency power activated. Fifteen minutes of flight time remaining.”

So this is it, I thought. Guess I’m gonna have to walk the rest of the way.

I started looking for a place to land.

I came down in a field between two crops, within sight of an AES building. A few trees grew here, dotting the grassland, but they were normal size, forty or fifty yards high. Young trees. Must be the outskirts of the forest, I decided.

I parked the QC under one of the trees, got out and began covering it up with branches and grass so surveillance drones and satellites would have a hard time seeing it. As the last rays of light shined from the sinking sun, I stretched, and started walking toward the building.

It was twilight when I neared the front door. I didn’t have many plans beyond getting to the building. I was thinking about trying to find a place to sleep, outside if necessary. I didn’t have a light or anything, and hoped the moon would come out soon. A sign nearby read, “New Texas A&M University Agricultural Experiment Station #3.”

“Howdy.”

I jumped and whipped around in fighting position. I swear I must have aged ten years in an instant. The last thing I expected to find out here was another person.

The person in question sat in a lounge chair under a tree several feet from the front door. I’d missed him while walking up in the rapidly diminishing light. He chuckled softly at my obvious surprise.

“Sorry, m’boy. Didn’t mean to startle you. Well, come on over. It’s not often I get visitors.”

He stood up as I came close. Older fellow, in his fifties. A deeply tanned face showed evidence of many hours outside. He stuck out his hand.

“Milton Kalinowski.”

“Marcus Savitch.”

I noted the hefty gold ring on his right hand.

“Not another Aggie.”

He let loose a loud, barking laugh. “Can’t get away from us, can you? We’re all over the Janus String. Hang on, I’ll get you a chair.”

He disappeared for a minute, came back with another chair. We sat down and watched as the night darkened. Native insects and night birds came out. Stars started twinkling.

“Where you from?”

“Redwood City.”

“What you doing out here?”

I paused, wondering how to put it. I decided honesty is the best policy. “I’m sort of running away.”

“I see.”

He paused to digest the comment. Then, “That was you in the quadcopter, I take it.”

“Yes.”

“Aha. Well no doubt someone will be along soon to pick you up.”

“I hope not. I disabled the tracking system.”

His bushy brown eyebrows shot up. “Disabled the tracking system? How?”

I explained the aluminum foil thing, running out of energy, hiding the QC under the brush.

He mulled it over a while, then said, “Yeah, I suppose that would do it. Navigation was disabled too?”

I agreed it was. He nodded.

“Well, let’s have supper.”

And just like that, we were friends.

+

Kalinowski lived in the station, but he never entered by hand swipe. He explained the logs may be examined someday, and he didn’t want a trace of him there. We went around to a side door where the palm swiper had been disabled, and he opened it by turning a latch. It was a neat setup. Nobody looking at logs would ever see any activity. And if they figured out somehow that one of the entry systems for a door on the station was disabled, who would care about sending out a maintenance team to repair something nobody used anyway?

Still, there had to be an occasional visitor. I was kind of a surprise, showing up the way I did. I asked him about it as he fired up the stove in the mess and put on a pot of water to boil.

“Yup. Get one every once in a while. Had one last year, in fact. No, I have friends who warn me when somebody’s coming. There’s never a surprise visit. Well, until you came along there’s never been a surprise. Anybody going outside the city has to request permission, state their reasons and where they’re going. So there’s a record. If somebody’s coming here, that gives us a heads up. My friends tell me, I clean the place, lie low for a while, and come back inside when they’re gone.”

I felt like I died and went to Heaven! Here was a guy living completely off the grid. He had the place to himself, miles from anywhere. Nobody watching him, telling him what to do. I was giddy at the thought.

He threw some tortellini in the pot, then set about making a sauce from scratch. My first supper off the grid was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever eaten.

Some time later we walked into the back of the station, and he showed me the sleeping quarters. He motioned to a room on the right, which had six bunk beds hanging on the wall. A room on the left was identical.

“I sleep in this room. You can take the one across the hall. Good night.”

That was Kalinowski. A man of few words, and what few he had were right to the point. I suppose living alone for years on end can have that effect on someone.

+

The next morning I woke up to the smell of bacon and eggs, toast and coffee. I made my way to the mess and found a full English breakfast waiting for me.

Kalinowski wiped his lips with a napkin, slurped some coffee, and said, “You can do the dishes.”

After I finished eating and started on the dishes, a thought struck me.

“Mr. Kalinowski? Where did you get all this food? Do you always eat this well?”

“Friends keep me well supplied, Mr. Savitch. They bring me what I can’t grow. I give them most of what I grow.”

Those friends of his again. I decided not to push it. I hadn’t even been there a full day yet.

After breakfast we walked outside through the manual doorway, and made our way to a tool shed. The palm lock had been disabled on it, too. Kalinowski went inside, grabbed a couple of garden hoes, gave me one.

“Spent much time on the top of Redwood City?”

I nodded.

“Well, it’s not much different out here. Except, of course, there’s weather, weeds, and pests to worry about. Well I guess y’all got rats, but out here we’ve got the native wildlife to bother us. And, it’s certainly not a controlled climate. The produce tastes better, though. Too many artificial elements in the Redwood City food chain. We’ll eat some native fruit later and you’ll see what I mean.”

We walked a good quarter mile, past robot tractors puttering through different rows of crops. Finally we came to a field filled with row after row of green leafy plants.

“I’ll take this row. You take that one. Take out the weeds.”

We finished close to noon, walked back to the station. Despite the big breakfast, I was starting to get hungry, and looked forward to lunch. As we walked into the mess, I thought about the morning’s work.

“Say, Mr. Kalinowski, what were the plants we were tending to?”

He looked up from the stove with a twinkle in his eyes.

“Tobacco.”

My jaw dropped. Tobacco? I was stunned. I found myself stammering.

“But . . . but . . . that’s illegal!”

His barking laugh rang out in the mess. “So is leaving Redwood City without permission.”

“Yeah, but . . . sir . . . if we get caught with tobacco, it’s a one way trip to the penal colony on Orange. Or worse.”

He smiled, threw some meat in a skillet and set it on the stove.

“Yup.”

+

After lunch, he took me on a tour of an underground warehouse. It sat near the station, and housed tons of tobacco leaf.

“Climate controlled. Can’t be seen from the sky. Plenty of space.”

It was large, and divided into different sections, each filled with tobacco leaves of varying age. Young crops set out to dry, older ones aging in place. The warehouse had a heavy nicotine odor that stuck to our clothes.

I was impressed by the extent of his operation, in spite of my horror of its legal implications.

“Did you dig all this out by yourself?”

He shrugged modestly. “Well, I repurposed some of the robot tractors, temporarily. I use them when I need to. Have to be careful with their logs, though.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

He paused to think for a bit, then said, “Almost eighteen years.”

I gaped in astonishment. Eighteen years he’d been running an illegal tobacco harvest, right under the nose of the State! Well, maybe a thousand miles from Redwood City is not exactly under their noses, but still . . . this guy was a serious criminal, on a scale I’d never seen before in my brief jaunts through the New Texas black market.

“Many things we like to consume fresh. Vegetables, for instance. Some things need to age, though. Wine. Good whisky. And tobacco.”

“Three things I’ve never tried.”

He smiled. “Let’s look in on the worker bees.”

In another room a robot chopped tobacco leaves while another one rolled cigars in binder leaf.

Again, I gaped in astonishment. “Load bots!”

“Actually more like garden bots. But you’re right, they’re based on the same platform.”

The units’ heads were dark round ovals filled with sensors. Kind of like an astronaut’s helmet, only loaded with circuitry. Currently, their heads bent over the table. The torsos were man-sized, but made out of plain gray metal. They moved by skid-steers, with little tank tracks on the right and left in place of legs. I knew this allowed them to carry heavy loads, and made them ideal for unloading a ship’s cargo. I supposed it also allowed for easy movement on loose dirt out in the fields.

But the notable things about the bots were their arms and hands. They were synthetic flesh, fully articulated like a human’s, down to five fingers on each hand. I knew the arms were stronger than a human’s, and except for the color they looked remarkably similar to real arms and hands. The artificial skin was a light gray, matching their torsos. They moved in a blur of precise motions over the table, dutifully chopping tobacco leaf and rolling it into cigars, placing the finished product in small boxes.

+

We spent the afternoon tending to different crops, picking some that were ripe and taking them back to the station. We stored some fresh produce in the mess, and put the rest in transport boxes. Kalinowski had a large assortment of boxes in the rec room filled with food and cigars.

He went over to one, grabbed a large red fruit and tossed it to me.

“Here you go, m’boy. Try a William’s apple. It’s a native fruit named after the Scientist who discovered it.”

I took a tentative bite. “This is delicious. Why haven’t I had it before?”

“Import restricted. Only a select few get it, and the apples sent off planet are all harvested from an orchard at AES Ten.”

I chomped the last bit of it down. It was much bigger than an Old Earth apple. “Too bad. Somebody’d make a fortune. They ought to at least let us have this in the Servant’s Mess. It’d be a lot better than that bland stuff they give us.”

He smiled. “Rank hath its privileges, m’boy. I can guarantee you The Old Man eats these almost every day.”

+

I was in for another culinary delight at supper.

“Don’t get to grill for guests too often,” Kalinowski said. Then he spent an hour and a half fussing over an outdoor metal stove filled with coals. Ever so slowly, and with lots of fragrant smoke, he cooked a couple of giant steaks on the contraption.

When he was done he took some baked potatoes out of the oven in the mess and set everything on two plates at the table. He watched expectantly as I gently cut my steak. Juice came out with each slice. It was so tender, the knife went right through it.

I took the first bite and my eyes grew big as flavor exploded in my mouth.

“Good?”

I nodded emphatically. “Best steak I’ve ever had.”

I quickly cut off another bite.

About halfway through, a thought popped into my mind.

I said, “Mr. Kalinowski, is this steak from a cow? What type of cow is this?”

He swallowed the bite he’d been chewing, then said, “Bos primigenius redwoodian.”

I choked and spit out my meat.

He ignored me and continued.

“Actually, they should have their own genus since they’re exobiological, but there’s a long tale about the politics behind that, associated with the story of the State kicking most Scientists and everyone else out of Redwood several years back. So, for the sake of simplicity they’re classified in the Bos genus. At least for now. They’re similar to Old Earth’s Bos taurus of course, just much larger. And tastier. I can tell you there was a lot of disagreement over whether they should even be in the same family as Old Earth cows, let alone genus.”

It was the longest train of thought I heard him utter. I figured out later he only really opened up on talking if the subject interested him. But I wasn’t thinking about that at the moment.

“Redwood cow? But that’s . . . that’s . . .”

“Illegal?”

“Heck yeah it’s illegal. We could . . .”

He nodded. “I know. Go to the penal colony on Orange for it. Look, m’boy, you’ve already left Redwood City without permission, stolen a QC, eaten import restricted fruit, aided and abetted an admitted tobacco farmer, and who knows what else you’ve done. Enjoy your steak.”

+

After supper he excused himself, saying something about a humidor. He came back with two cigars and motioned for me to follow him outside. Once settled on the lounge chairs, he clipped the ends off the cigars and showed me how to light them.

“They’re made in different sizes, both length and gauge. Some people like the Churchill, named after Winston Churchill. It was his favorite size: seven inches with a forty-seven ring gauge. The ‘standard’ size is the corona: six inches with a forty-two ring gauge. My favorite is this one, the robusto. It’s four and seven-eighths inches. I think the smaller size enhances the flavor, at least with Redwood tobacco.”

After several moments letting flame kiss the cigar, developing a good glowing tip, I took my first forbidden puffs.

“Don’t inhale into your lungs. Mouth only. Cigars are meant to be tasted, not inhaled. These have a maduro wrapper. Lots of flavor.”

He was right. The taste and aroma of the smoke was slightly sweet, mixed with strong spices.

It was delightful.

We puffed a long time in silence.

“Well m’boy, what do you think?”

“I can see why these are banned. They’re wonderful.”

His laughed barked out. “You’re starting to catch on.”

“I always heard . . . well, maybe it was State propaganda or something, but I always heard cigars smelled awful. This smells really good.”

“Well, most cigars sold back before the State banned tobacco were cheap. Cheap cigars stink. And the majority of cigars sold were cheap. They still are when you can find them on the black market. Good cigars that taste and smell good have always been expensive. They take a long time to produce. Years if done right. Then they’re hard to ship, and hard to keep in shape for consumption. All of that adds to their cost.”

He paused to take a puff, then continued.

“It’s one of the reasons cigarettes were so popular back in the day. Each cigar may taste different, even from the same box. Cigars have to be conditioned properly, spend lots of time in a controlled environment like a humidor. And you typically have to spend lots of money to get good ones. Cigarettes pretty much taste the same, one after the other. They can be consumed a lot quicker, and don’t have to be stored so carefully. So if you want to get addicted to nicotine, cigarettes provided the cheaper, easier solution for delivery.

“When tobacco was banned, addicts suffered the most. Cigarettes go quick. They’re designed to. The supply dried up fast, soon after the factories shut down. You still see some enterprising souls manufacture a few thousand cigarettes and sell them somewhere. The State hunts them down with a vengeance, they never last very long. Most nicotine addicts have gone over to other delivery methods or just kicked the habit.”

The stars twinkled, the night birds and insects sang their noisy choruses. My first cigar burned down near the end. The flavor had changed after a couple inches were smoked, again in the middle, and now once again at the end.

“Fine cigars are aged properly from the best tobacco. There’s never a big supply of them to begin with, so they’re always more expensive. I understand mine are considered by many to be the best in the Janus String.”

I nodded. I was experiencing my first nicotine high. A thought crossed my mind. I asked, “How much do these go for?”

“Last I heard, about a hundred credits.”

I coughed for a few seconds. “A hundred credits?”

For perspective, a large meal for two in one of the nicer restaurants on New Texas might run ten credits. I was finishing up the equivalent of ten nice meals, all going up in smoke. I looked over at Kalinowski in astonishment. He barked his laugh again.

I said, “Who can afford hundred credit cigars?”

“Who else? State officials. Higher level bureaucrats. Redwood tobacco never makes it to the black market on the streets, m’boy. Stuff this good is only consumed by people like The Old Man and other heads of State.”

My cigar was winding down, with about an inch left. I did the math and figured I was holding about twenty credits worth of tobacco.

“Care for another one?”

“I don’t think I can afford it.”

He barked his laugh. “Perk of the job, m’boy. One of the many benefits of being out here. All the cigars you could possibly want. But it’s probably best we stop for the night anyway. Remember Ulysses S. Grant.”

I gave him a blank look.

“You know who Ulysses S. Grant was? Union general . . . Eighteenth President of the United States?”

“Yeah, I took American history. Why should I remember U. S. Grant?”

“Well, he was very popular once he started winning battles for the Union in the American Civil War. A reporter commented in a story about how he liked cigars, and with the technology of the day, early photographs and lithographs, he was sometimes portrayed with one. Legions of adoring fans started sending him cigars. He received boxes upon boxes of them. More than he could possibly smoke. But he tried. At one time he was smoking up to twenty sticks a day.”

He paused to put down his own dwindling cigar in an ashtray between us, cracked his knuckles then folded his hands behind his head.

“Eventually he developed throat cancer and died. Very painful. Too many cigars.”

I looked down at what was left of my own cigar and hurriedly threw it in the ash tray. All the propaganda the State put out about tobacco came back to me.

“Why are we smoking these things, then?”

He smiled. “Moderation in everything, m’boy. A cigar every now and then likely won’t kill you. Twenty a day is simply not healthy. The same goes for wine, beer, whiskey, steaks or other fine foods. The lesson from Ulysses S. Grant is, ‘Don’t overdo it.’”

Chapter Five

The days raced by as I helped Kalinowski gather and tend to the crops and his tobacco warehouse. Although it was still menial labor, the work was different from my duties in Redwood City somehow, out here in the middle of nowhere. For one thing, nobody was forcing me to work. For another, nobody was there to watch my every move. I spent hours and hours in splendid isolation. The food he prepared was great, too. Every three or four nights he’d grab a couple cigars out of the humidor and we’d enjoy them late into the evening.

After a couple more weeks I made my way back to the QC. It was still where I left it, undisturbed. I fetched a couple vials of Schmidt’s blood and satisfied my needs.

Time raced on and before I knew it, I’d been at AES 3 for over a month.

One morning over breakfast Kalinowski said, “Well, got a delivery coming. I’ll send you back with the foodstuff.”

“Back where?”

“The Ranger station. In the trees.”

I finished eating my bacon thinking about this.

“What if I don’t want to go? What if I just stayed here?”

“You were heading for the trees when I first met you, m’boy. Surely you still want to see them?”

I nodded. “Yeah, someday. Not sure I want to meet the Rangers, though.”

“You’ll like them. Good people. Most of them are Aggies. Besides, you need to go. They’ll figure out what to do about you.”

After breakfast I helped him move outside all the food and cigars we’d been accumulating in the rec room. He laid a giant net on the ground, then put four wooden pallets in the middle. We stacked things on the pallets: boxes of cigars on one, boxes of fruits and vegetables on the others.

When we were done he gathered up the net and tied it off on top with a sturdy rope.

“Now we wait.”

We wandered over to the lounge chairs and waited.

+

About an hour later he pointed to a distant speck in the sky. As it drew closer, I made out the dimensions of a giant bird flying toward us.

“A synthetic bird?”

He nodded. “Yup. That’s what the Rangers use. Minimizes ecological disturbance.”

As it grew closer, I could make out the synthetic bird was carrying something in its claws. When it approached for landing, I could see the Ranger on its back, behind the neck. It neatly dropped a pallet with boxes of stuff wrapped up in a net, then with a single whuff! of its wings, it flew over the deposited load and landed gently on the ground before us.

The Ranger crawled out of his perch and climbed down off the bird. Soon as he turned around he stared at me for a moment, then made his way toward us.

“Glad to see you Jenkins! M’boy here’s about to eat me out of house and home.”

Kalinowski stepped forward to meet Jenkins, while motioning for me to stay put. They talked quietly over by the bird, each casting glances my way while evidently discussing my fate. I couldn’t hear what Kalinowski was saying, so I focused on Jenkins’ expressions to try and gauge his reactions. At first Jenkins’ eyes were narrow, as if listening intently. Then they grew wide as Kalinowski said something that either surprised or impressed him. Or both. Finally they grew thoughtful, and he looked at me as if appraising my potential, like a shopper who finds an odd object at the black market and begins thinking of ways to use it before deciding to buy it or not.

Jenkins looked to be in his mid-thirties. Dark hair, light brown skin just like most people. Medium height, but he was built well. He seemed to be in great shape and looked like he stayed active. I’d only read about Rangers, never seen one before. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, impatient.

Finally the two men headed toward me.

“Colt Jenkins, meet Marcus Savitch.”

We shook hands and I didn’t even bother to comment on the Aggie ring. I’d come to expect it. Nothing but Aggies out here, I thought. He had a smaller ring on his left hand, which I noticed but I didn’t think much of, at the time.

“I’d like you to come back to the Ranger station with me, Mr. Savitch. If you’re willing.”

I nodded, thinking quickly. I didn’t know I really had a choice. Was he just being polite? Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I’d probably never get to the trees if I didn’t go with him.

“Of course.”

+

After saying our goodbyes to Kalinowski, we climbed up onto the synthetic bird. I sat behind Ranger Jenkins, and the synthetic skin under the feathers automatically indented, making a seat for me. Once I got settled, it tightened up slightly on my legs and around my waste.

“Don’t worry about that, Mr. Savitch. It’s just to hold you in, so you don’t fall off.”

A hologram control panel appeared in front of Jenkins, and he said, “Bird, grab the load in front of us and return home.”

The bird turned his head so its left eye made contact with Jenkins’ and it squawked.

Well, that’s different from the usual response beep, I thought.

It spread its wings and whuffed! them down. We rose in the air and its claws grabbed the net filled with supply pallets. The wings flapped harder and faster.

Whuff! Whuff! Whuff!

We were up and away, and headed toward the trees.

I looked back and down, saw Kalinowski rapidly receding in the distance. I waved goodbye. He cupped his hands and yelled up to me, “Remember Ulysses S. Grant!”

+

The synthetic bird kept a steady rhythm, and as we gained altitude it caught a breeze which helped with its lift. Slowly the trees grew larger. Soon they dominated our field of vision. Below were giant red-brown trunks, hundreds of feet in diameter. They stretched out into a Brobdingnagian forest of unimaginable size, reaching hundreds of miles into the center of the continent.

Above were leafy branches, stretching high into the sky, a dense green maze. Giant sail-size leaves gently swayed in the breeze.

I had to yell above the wind and flapping of wings to ask Jenkins a question.

“How high are the tops of the trees?”

“About eight thousand feet at the highest point!”

I’d only seen this vast forest from a spaceship flying over, and on vid screens. Seeing its edge in the air, as we grew closer, was completely different. I felt very small, and utterly in awe.

As we neared the first of the giant trees, near the intersection of branches and trunks, I began to make out some patterns evident just inside the forest border. Straight lines are often the sign of humans, and as we flew into the forest’s periphery, a wooden city suspended from the branches materialized before us.

Near the edge closest to us, a landing platform jutted out. The bird gently dropped its heavy load, whuffed its wings a final time, and landed neatly on the wooden deck. A sign nearby read, “Welcome to Ranger Station Alpha.”

As we climbed down, I saw something else which immediately tore my attention away from the trees and the giant structure we were on: a woman.

She ran up to Jenkins, hugged and kissed him. Then she turned to look at me.

“Marcus Savitch, meet my wife, Eleanor.”

“Pleased to meet you, Marcus. What are you doing here?”

I shook her hand, too stunned to speak for a moment. Finally, I snapped out of it.

“Uh, I guess I could ask you the same thing . . . ma’am.”

I wasn’t sure what to call her, what the proper protocol was or anything. Mrs. Jenkins? Did she have an assignment with the State? What was a woman doing on Redwood? What was one doing way out here in the forest?

Her laughter tinkled, reminding me of wind chimes.

“Well, Rangers have a couple perks. One of them is they get to keep their families nearby while on assignment.”

“I see.”

I didn’t see. I’d never heard of such a perk, and I’d researched all the State assignments assiduously in a vain hope of changing mine from Servant to something (anything) else.

“Ella, will you please take him to see the Professor? I’ve got to get Kalinowski’s shipment sorted.”

“Of course. Follow me, Marcus.”

+

Think of a tree house. Now think of a giant forest. Now think of a tree house city built in that giant forest, and you’ll come close to having an idea of what the Ranger station was like.

Buildings were suspended by beams placed between branches. Different levels were connected by rope ladders. Suspension bridges stretched between buildings. Wooden sidewalks connected platforms. It was all organized chaos, with new additions tacked on to the old, newer dwellings sometimes a branch above an older one. No people appeared yet, though.

I did a double take as we passed a sunny spot where a garden was planted.

“Oh, you like gardens? Yes, we don’t have to rely on everything from Professor Kalinowski. You know, Colt helped fly up the soil for our garden when we started it a few years ago.”

Ella continued chatting as we walked, pointing out water collection points and discussing little details about living a few thousand feet off the ground in a giant tree house city. We passed a building she described as a mess hall, and what looked to be a small chapel near it.

“Yes, that’s our chapel. The stained glass was smuggled in from New Texas some time ago. It’s pretty, no?”

We rounded a corner, and a head popped out of a nearby doorway. A boy about my age. His hair seemed light, but not as blonde as mine. I’d call it a dirty blonde. It popped back inside, then a moment later it popped out again with two more heads just like it.

“Hello! What’s this?”

“A newcomer!”

“Stranger! Stranger!”

We stopped and Ella’s laughter tinkled out.

“Marcus Savitch, meet the O’Donnell triplets: Jacob, Jason, and Jeremy. I’m sorry, I can never tell which one’s which.”

“I’m Jason. The ugly ones are my brothers.”

“Who you calling ugly?” one of them said. The other landed a rough punch on Jason’s shoulder.

“Ow!” He slugged the offender on the chin. Then the other one punched both of them and they all started slinging fists and insults.

Ella laughed again. “Those boys. Always fighting. Come on, Professor Cruz is right over this way.”

We walked into a building larger than the others. Behind a table sat an older man and woman, and a young girl about my age. All had tan skin and dark hair. They stood when we entered and stared at me. Obviously, nobody is used to newcomers around here, I thought.

“Professor, this is Marcus Savitch. Professor Kalinowski sent him with the shipment today.”

“I see. Glad to meet you, Marcus. I’m Curtis Cruz. This is my wife, Melody. Our daughter, Consuela.”

I shook hands all around. His daughter said, “You can call me Connie.”

I nodded. “You can call me Marc.”

“Consuela, why don’t you give Marcus a tour of the station?”

“Okay, Daddy.”

“Marcus, you realize we’re going to have to hold a meeting to discuss you.”

I nodded. My gut wrenched. I knew they’d have to investigate me. I thought, certainly they’ll get rid of me when they find out what I am, what I’ve done. I wondered if they’d just kill me or turn me over to the Redwood Agents.

“Let me round everybody up, and we’ll figure it all out. You two come back in half an hour.”

+

There was no way to escape, even if I wanted to. Near as I could tell, there was no way down to the ground without using a synthetic bird or PHUs or QCs. Or something. I asked Connie about it.

“Mainly we get around with the birds, if anyone needs to leave the station. But nobody goes too far. Sometimes the Rangers make a trip to Redwood City and back. We do have some personal helicopter units people use to go short distances through the trees.”

I nodded, making a mental note to try and find out where they kept their PHUs in case I needed to make a getaway.

But as I thought more about it, my stomach sank deeper. Even if I did escape, where would I go? Near as I could figure, Kalinowski was at least a hundred miles away. Redwood City was over a thousand. Maybe I could strike out on my own and hole up in an experiment station somewhere. The thought of being completely alone depressed me, though.

Connie didn’t notice, she was busy pointing out the sights. She hadn’t stopped talking since we left the Professor.

“This is our house. I live here with my parents and Dee Dee. Hey, Dee Dee!”

A girl’s head popped out of a window. Her eyes grew wide when she saw me.

“Who is that?”

“Come down here, and you can meet him.”

She came out a minute later, and I was struck by her beauty. Jet black hair. Light skin. Her eyes were flecked with several colors, but green seemed dominate. She stretched out her hand to shake mine.

“Diane Fremont.”

“Marcus Savitch.”

Her hand was cool to the touch. Mine was hot and sweaty.

“Do you, uh . . . do you live here too?”

“Yes she does,” Connie said. “We’re sisters!”

Dee Dee smiled, her cheeks dimpling. “Well, I’m sort of adopted. I was smuggled out of New Texas when I was three. The Cruzes took me in and raised me.”

Curiouser and curiouser, I thought. Professors and their families living out here alongside Rangers? Smuggled babies from New Texas? Surely none of this is allowed, is it?

About this time, a house cat strolled out the door. It was a big one. Black with white feet, and a white-tipped tail.

“Mr. Fluffy!” Connie reached down and scooped him up.

“Come on, Dee Dee. Help me show him the rest of the station.”

+

We saw only a handful of other people as we walked around. They mostly waved and went back to what they were doing, or headed toward the large building in the center. A few were interested enough in a fresh face to come over and meet me.

I made a comment on the lack of people for such a large place.

“There’s only about three dozen people here,” Dee Dee said.

“That’s right,” Connie said. “Fourteen families: The Cruzes, the Patels, the Ngs, the Rustins . . .” She went down the list, counting them off on her fingers.

“But, I thought human presence was strictly regulated out here. I mean, Jenkins said Rangers are allowed to bring their wives, but your dad is a Professor. What’s he doing out here, and how are you all here?”

“We’re not really here legally,” Dee Dee said. “The Rangers’ wives are a loophole, and it’s been exploited over the years. But there’s no record of most of the rest of us being here.”

“I see.”

But again, I didn’t see. I filed it away for future thought.

“Come on,” Connie said, grabbing my hand. “Let’s go back to Daddy.”

+

When we entered the large building, it looked like the entire population of three dozen people was present. Facing me from a table in the center were Professor and Mrs. Cruz, along with Ranger Jenkins and Eleanor. The rest were seated around the room. Everybody stared at me.

“Have a seat, Mr. Savitch.”

I sat, facing Professor Cruz and the rest. So . . . another tribunal, I thought. Only, with more than three people. And half of them are women. And everybody else is present, too.

“We’ve been researching your case, Mr. Savitch. Colt, read to him a synopsis of what you’ve found.”

Jenkins nodded, pulled a bit of vid paper out of his pocket and unfolded it. He held it out at arms length and started reading.

“Galactic Police, System-wide All Points Bulletin. Wanted: Marcus Savitch of Redwood, Servant of the State. Responsible for two murders. Should be considered armed and dangerous. Current whereabouts unknown. Detain or destroy upon contact. Suspect is confirmed hematophagous.”

When he stopped, all were silent, holding their breath. The last word seemed to echo around the room.

The Professor cleared his throat.

“Talk to us, Marcus. Is any of this true?”

I looked around the room. Everybody stared at me. Connie, still absent-mindedly stroking Mr. Fluffy in her lap, had a look of horror on her face as if she couldn’t believe she’d been walking around with a bloodsucker just a few minutes ago. Dee Dee had a look of concern in her eyes. The triplets were staring at me in wide-eyed wonder. One of them mouthed, “Wow!”

Well, this is it, I thought. Honesty is the best policy. If they’re going to kill me, there’s nothing I can do about it.

“Yes, I am hematophagous. I have been for about three years now. Yes, I did kill two men, but one was more of an accident and they were both in self defense.”

This brought a gleeful explosion of excitement from the triplets.

“Awesome!”

“Wicked!”

“Dude, you are bad ass!”

“Have you killed more than two people?”

“How much blood do you need to drink?”

The Professor slammed his hand on the table.

“Boys! If you cannot control yourself I will ask you to leave. Please remain silent for the rest of the proceedings.”

They murmured, “Yes, sir,” and appeared to be dutifully cowed. But when the Professor looked away, one of them gave me a thumbs up, another winked, and the other mouthed, “Bad ass!” while pointing at me.

“Why don’t you tell us your story, Marcus. Go back to how you became hematophagous and proceed through the deaths and how you came to Professor Kalinowski’s experiment station. Don’t leave anything out. We would also like to know if you’ve killed others.”

“Well, there is one more. The first one.”

+

Servants as young as thirteen are allowed to co-pilot cargo spaceships. Really, there’s not much to it. During testing for the different classes of ships, you have to show you can take over and successfully land in the event of an emergency. Emergencies hardly ever happen. It’s such a boring job, in fact, that it’s relegated to Servants. No one who is worth anything, or has been assigned a different role by the State, wants to have anything to do with a dull and dreary job that sends you away for months at a time.

But I loved it, because I saw it as a chance to escape from the drudgery of working in Redwood City. And there was always a layover at whatever planet we went to, a layover which allowed us the freedom to explore new places. I guess that’s a perk. Well, that and naval beer if you like that stuff.

My first trip out I stayed with a ship all the way to Alexandria and back. I was gone for months, and it was glorious. I couldn’t wait to get back out into space, and after a month of scrubbing floors and dishes in Redwood City, I felt fortunate to be assigned a flight to Orange and back.

Orange is the last planet in the Janus String. From Redwood, it’s a two week flight to Janus 29, then another two weeks to touchdown, and you’re there. I remember I was with Peterson. As the older Servant, he was senior pilot. We had a short five hour layover before coming back.

There’s even fewer people in the spaceport on Orange than in Redwood City. The largest continent is spread out in a long narrow ribbon near its equator. The temperature remains mostly in the mid to high eighties Fahrenheit year round. Somebody said the climate is kind of like Florida’s, only with oceans to the north and south rather than east and west. And that continent is a lot bigger. Imagine a Florida four thousand miles long stretched out horizontally along the equator, and you start to get the picture.

The bureaucrats decided there is no rush to colonize Orange, especially since they stalled out on Redwood. Other frontier planets usually became well-populated in fifty years or so after their Janus opened. For some reason, the State pulled back on Redwood, confining an all-male population to the city and strictly limiting immigration. But by that time, Janus 29 had already been activated, and now Orange was available for colonization, too. But instead of colonizing it, the powers-that-be decided to make the last planet in the string a penal colony instead.

Landing was not an issue. They don’t care who goes there so much. Leaving is a bit more of a problem. Our ship was kept under guard while planetside, in a secure area within the spaceport. Peterson and I were allowed to leave the secure area and wander around outside a few hours, with the proviso we’d be subjected to scrutiny before they let us back in. We had to sign a waiver saying if kidnapped, we could expect no help from the State in securing our release. Scary stuff, but that’s the way they operate on Orange. Nobody who isn’t authorized is going to get back into the secure area, no matter what. Evidently people had been kidnapped in the past, and the prisoners threatened to kill hostages if the gates weren’t opened.

The gates weren’t opened.

There wasn’t much in the way of sights. Every frontier planet has to find something people on other planets can use. They export things down the string in exchange for necessities coming back up the string. Orange’s big export is citrus crops. Yup, that’s where they came up with the name for the planet. The main continent is ideal for growing oranges, lemons, limes, etc.

As a penal colony the way things work is, prisoners are escorted off the spaceship and out of the secure area. Then they are never allowed back in where the spaceships land and take off. They spend the rest of their lives on the planet. They’re offered plenty of food and water, clothing and shelter, but they have to work for it. Usually in the orchards. Many of them just wander off and are never seen or heard from again. That suits the State just fine.

The secure area is a walled circle about a half mile in diameter. They placed guns on top, electronic sensors, monitor cams, some kind of impulse field that doesn’t allow prisoners to fly over if they capture a QC or something, and who knows what else is around there. The tourist channel told us nobody has ever breached the perimeter since its construction. Don’t know how true that is, but I wouldn’t doubt the State propaganda this time. The few prisoners Peterson and I met just seemed to accept their fates. I noticed their work in the fields didn’t seem that much different from Servants’ labor . . .

Where was I? Oh yes, hematophagia.

I was about to meet Peterson to begin making our way back to the spaceport. We’d spent a couple hours outside the walls looking around. There’s a large grove of Citrus sinensis outside the secure area. I’m sure it’s there for tourists, who pay thousands of credits to say they’ve visited the last planet in the Janus String. Once there, you can’t go any farther. I guess that’s worth something to brag about back home, if you have the money for it.

We’d separated, but I wasn’t too worried about finding my way back since there were helpful signs everywhere. I reached up to grab one of the oranges to take with me, when somebody clonked me on the back of the head.

Soon as I went down this guy tosses aside a hand ax. I figured he used the flat part of the ax to knock me in the head. Fortunately he didn’t knock me out, but I was dazed and down on the ground. He jumped on me and bit a chunk out of my neck.

I found the ax, grabbed it, and drove the edge into his head as hard as I could. Then I pushed him off.

About that time, Peterson showed up. He ran to help, staunched the bleeding in my neck, helped me to my feet, and we made our way back to the perimeter.

The Physician they had put a fast patch skin graft on my neck wound. It healed up in two or three days like nothing happened. No scars or anything. Before we left, their Agent went out and took a look at the body. He came back and told us the prisoner was a recluse. He rarely socialized with anybody. Lived alone. In fact, nobody had seen him in weeks. On behalf of the State, he apologized for the attack. No tourist to Orange had ever been treated this way, and they would take steps to ensure something like this never happened again, yada yada yada.

They really don’t keep track of prisoners much, once they’ve left the secure area, he explained. They’re fixed so they can’t have kids, their documents are processed, then they are shown the gate and the State kind of forgets about them. He said he wouldn’t even be filing a report on the incident, and he took my word it was a case of self defense. I don’t think he would have cared if I’d murdered the guy in cold blood. As far as the State is concerned, a prisoner on Orange is a non-entity.

When the ship reached Janus 29 a couple weeks later, I didn’t feel well. I was sweating, I had the shakes. My stomach hurt. Things got worse as we approached home. Peterson started to get really worried. He wanted to bring me straight to the Physician when we landed. I fended him off, said I wanted to go to my room first. What I really wanted to do was get to the roof.

I needed to see open air. Spending a month in a spaceship will do that to me sometimes. I love the freedom of space, but it’s nice to be able to see land everywhere. I liked to come home and stare out the glass wall at the wide open spaces surrounding Redwood City.

The sun was setting when I got up there, filling the sky with brilliant red and orange colors. I hardly noticed. I felt terrible. Shaking. Sweating. My body needed something, I just didn’t know what.

Then I saw a cat.

+

From there, I skimmed over the next couple years or so, telling them about feeding on cats, buying human blood in the black market on visits to New Texas, hiding my condition from everybody. Deathly afraid to say anything to anybody for fear of what would happen. I thought I had it under control, and things were going okay up until Peterson caught me drinking blood on that last flight home. I detailed the circumstances around his death, and how I tried to cover it up, then talked about my encounter with Agent Schmidt and how I found my way over to Kalinowski.

“And now I’m here.”

When I finished, everybody remained silent a moment. Expressions on their faces ranged from the wide-eyed (O’Donnell triplets), horrified (Connie), speculative (the Professor), to sympathy (Dee Dee). I gulped and waited for somebody to say something.

“Well,” the Professor said, and it was if everybody let go of their collective breaths. People scooted in their chairs, or stretched.

“Marcus, why don’t you don’t step outside for a moment and let us discuss this.”

I headed for the door. He motioned for the girls to follow me, which they did. The triplets rose as one to follow, too, but he motioned for them to stay.

On the way out the door, I heard Jenkins say, “Professor Kalinowski vouches for him.”

“Did he know what he is?”

Then the door shut, and I couldn’t hear anything else.

Dee Dee wrapped her arm around mine.

“Sounds like you’ve been through a lot.”

It was a new sensation, feeling somebody next to me like that. The warmth and concern in her voice was novel, too. I don’t think I’d ever had somebody come up and express empathy like that to me before.

Connie said nothing. She still held Mr. Fluffy, nervously patting him, darting quick glances at me.

Mr. Fluffy looked in my direction with cool disregard. He yawned. I reached to pat him.

“Hey there, fella.”

Connie pulled him away.

“Don’t you touch him! And nothing better happen to Mr. Fluffy while you’re here!”

“Connie!” Dee Dee said, with a strong tone of disapproval. “He’s not going to harm Mr. Fluffy.”

I nodded glumly, thinking about all the cats that I had harmed in the past.

“I promise not to harm Mr. Fluffy.”

Connie still eyed me suspiciously, and stood some distance away.

A dirty blond head popped out the door and one of the O’Donnells said, “Hey, Killer! You can come back in now.”

Evidently some sort of accord had been reached. Most of the eyes looking at me were speculative now, as if having decided I might be worth something after all. I stood before the Professor, Ranger Jenkins, and their wives.

“Marcus, you are somewhat unique, and in many ways a product of Redwood. We believe you were . . . ‘infected’ is a good word for it . . . by a Scientist who used to work here. Do you know the reasons behind the immigration hold on Redwood?”

I shook my head. No, it’s one of those things that’s just not spoken of, I thought. The State made the decision, and no one questions why. At least, Servants aren’t supposed to question why. Servants aren’t supposed to question anything.

“I see. Let me give you a little history lesson, then.”

He paused, looked around the room. Everyone seemed tense. Lips were pressed, breaths were held.

The Professor nodded, and focused back on me.

“We discovered primates in the woods.”

Chapter Six

My eyes grew big. This was a major revelation. Of all the habitable planets discovered, with all their different mammals, no primates had ever been found.

“They’re not sentient,” the Professor continued, as if anticipating the question. “We still haven’t found sentient life on any planet. We haven’t found anything remotely human, although we’ve seen lots of plant and animal life similar to Earth’s. And we’ve never found primates. Until now.

“Naturally, the discovery caused something of a frenzy in scientific circles. Once the initial exploratory teams came back with the news, Scientists and Professors up and down the Janus String swarmed the planet. All field work was performed under the auspices of New Texas A&M, the closest University. I was a Professor there. Most all of us you see here were part of the early teams. We set up twelve agricultural experiment stations around the continent, and we took lumber from one old tree that had died to create this headquarters on the edge of the forest. We were trying to get close to the most fascinating exobiological discovery in centuries.”

He stood up, and started pacing.

“It was a beehive of activity in those days. Passenger ships filled with Scientists and Professors would land not far from here, and all the experiment stations were fully staffed and functional. Things grow bigger here, and better. The food produced from Redwood soil tastes better than any other world’s. The plants and animals are larger, even though gravity is about the same as other ‘Goldilocks’ planets. We were making extraordinary discoveries almost daily, and it was fascinating work. It seemed more exciting than the typical frontier planet, somehow, especially knowing all the while there are primates living in the woods.

“We dreamed of big things. Think of the lumber just one tree can provide. Think of the meat from one cow. Multiple industries would be impacted, we thought. Textiles, medicine, agriculture. But around this time, trouble started.”

He sighed and glanced around the room. Several people nodded in agreement.

“The primates are the most interesting thing about Redwood, of course, and garnered most of our immediate attention. But, we found they are the hardest to observe. They’re arboreal, living deep in the forest. Their communities are very well guarded, night and day, and we had difficulty drawing close enough to make good observations. Oh, we tried a number of approaches. Drones, camouflage, creeping ever slowly nearer to try and acclimate them to our presence. But their sentries are very good and they are wholly intolerant to the proximity of outsiders. Nothing gets close to their ‘cities’ without notice.”

I couldn’t help myself. I had to interrupt.

“What do they look like?”

“They’re very large monkeys, twice as big as gorillas on Old Earth. But, in basic appearance, they most closely resemble our spider monkey.”

I nodded. It was a Central American species.

Ateles geoffroyi.”

He quirked an eyebrow at me. I shrugged.

“Classifications are sort of a hobby of mine.”

“Oh. Well, to continue, there might be different species, or even sub-species. We don’t know. We’ve been severely hampered in our ability to even make basic observations, much less any real research, by both the State and circumstances. And of course, we just don’t have the personnel to do much anymore.”

“Because of the troubles?”

He nodded.

“Like I said, we had difficulties getting close to the primates. But, we were able to set up a network of sensors around the closest community, a few hours from here. The sensors let us track comings and goings. We operated under the presumption that foraging parties would provide ideal opportunities to observe the creatures. And we were right. When they are away from their communities, we are indeed able to sneak closer. But their sense of surrounding is extraordinary, and they don’t stay in one spot for very long. So, we have to move quickly when the sensors indicate movement, and pick a location they are most likely to visit. It’s hit or miss, but eventually we had some success.”

He stopped pacing.

“Then we noticed an anomaly. At least one primate was a recluse. He lived outside the communities. On occasion, he’d show up on the sensor grid as he approached the others. Naturally, he intrigued us, and we tried to get a closer look. Somehow he got the nickname, ‘Fred.’ I’m not sure who came up with the sobriquet, but it stuck.”

He sighed deeply, reliving painful memories.

“Our first science team gaining proximity to Fred learned several important things about Redwood primates. For one, we were able to again confirm the primates’ senses are incredibly acute. Fred was aware the team was there long before they saw him. For another, we learned how violent these giants can be. Fred attacked the team with a vengeance, before they had a chance to settle in. He clawed or bit every member. There were eighteen people. Fortunately, one of them was a Ranger, armed with a pistol. Despite being severely injured, the Ranger managed to shoot Fred in the arm, making him retreat. The team made it back here and received medical treatment. Everybody survived.”

He sighed again, looked around at others in the room.

“Subsequent expeditions met with similar fates. They’d encounter Fred, he’d attack, they’d fend him off while suffering bites and other injuries. Despite his large size (he’s about ten feet tall), our weapons seemed to scare him. Fred could be always be scared away with a gunshot or two. But we haven’t been able to kill him. There were times we thought he’d been killed by gunfire, but he continues to survive somehow.

“Time marched on. Scientists and Professors involved in early efforts returned home to report their findings. New people came in. We started pulling back on expeditions into the forest, because they all seemed to end in disaster when Fred attacked the parties. We scouted out and found other primate colonies deeper in the forest, but these had their own recluse monkeys who also attacked us.

“Then we started hearing about . . . issues . . . with early party members who’d left Redwood and moved on to other assignments. One Scientist snapped and assaulted a lab assistant, killing him. Another bit her mother-in-law in the neck. There were disturbing reports of drinking blood. Several months passed, more reports came in, and eventually a pattern started becoming evident.

“The last straw occurred when a Professor named Sven Gottfrid attracted the attention of Agents on New France. Evidently he’d been attacking people late at night, killing them in gruesome fashion and drinking their blood. Once captured, Agents figured out Gottfrid actually needed to drink blood in order to survive. He’d try to control himself, but after going without for a long time, he’d turn violent and resort to murder to get his fix. The story that came back, heavily censored by the State, was that he died in his jail cell trying to drink his own blood.

“The Agents investigated his background and history, and somebody noticed a pattern associated with other Scientists who’d visited Redwood. Anybody who’d been on a deep woods expedition, specifically, anybody who had physical contact with Fred or one of the other recluse monkeys, had a high probability of turning . . . bloodthirsty.”

He started pacing again.

“The State reacted about as you’d expect. Anybody who’d been to Redwood was quarantined, if they could find them, and questioned. Travel was restricted. All planetside personnel had to abandon their stations and work. Existing personnel were confined to Redwood City. Agents of the State figured out who most of the infected team members were, and those people all disappeared. Eventually, restrictions loosened slightly, and a small contingent of Rangers was allowed to return here, to keep an eye on things. We still provide a monthly report to Agents in Redwood City. I think the State is mostly concerned about ‘vampire monkeys’ leaving their habitat and contaminating other planets, so this station was meant to be a ‘coalmine canary’ of sorts.

“Scientists and others who worked here but didn’t go on expeditions did not disappear, thankfully. But all our findings were suppressed. Our papers went unpublished. We were told not to discuss anything about Redwood, on penalty of internment. In fact, no one, not just us, is allowed to discuss exobiological conditions on Redwood. Even innocent Internet queries are closely monitored.”

I nodded. I knew about that from direct experience.

“Low-key agricultural experiments at the AES locations were eventually allowed to resume, so long as they could be carried out remotely from New Texas A and M. Special permission to visit them is given on occasion, when a human presence is deemed absolutely necessary, but the paperwork involved makes it a pain. Fortunately, one benefit of the paperwork is, it allows us to give Professor Kalinowski a heads up when someone plans to visit AES Three.”

He nodded at my raised eyebrows, answering my unspoken question.

“Yes, we do keep track of things. Several of us are . . . ‘accomplished hackers’ might be a good way to put it.

All contact with wildlife while visiting an AES on Redwood must be documented in an after visit report. Over time, the State began to figure out that not all wildlife on Redwood is dangerous, and the mid-forest primates are where the problems lie. Of course, we told them that early on, but bureaucrats rarely listen to those in the field.

“When the bans on research started coming down, several of us decided to continue despite the State’s edicts. With the approval of New Texas A and M, we found ways to return to Redwood, and resume our work. As the years went by, we picked up a few additional people that friends on New Texas smuggled to us. Dee Dee, for instance.”

I turned to look at her. She smiled back, flashing white teeth.

“And now you’re here. A person who has been infected off-planet by one of our original researchers. As you can imagine, we are extremely interested in studying you. You have a unique link to Redwood.”

He stopped pacing again. I shifted the weight on my feet. The thought of being poked and prodded made me nervous. As if sensing my discomfort, the Professor raised his hand to fend off my worries.

“It’s true we are operating discreetly here. The State would say, ‘illegally’ if they knew about it. But, all our research on you would be carried out under guidelines established by our Internal Review Board back at the University.”

I stared at him with a blank look on my face. His wife, Mrs. Cruz, spoke up.

“That means we’re not going to hurt you, dear.”

“Oh. Okay. That’s good.”

A couple of light chuckles floated around the room.

“Our colleague Professor Kalinowski has filled us in on several of your capabilities, such as stealing quadcopters without getting caught. He evidently did not know you were hematophagous, and frankly I don’t blame you for not sharing that bit of knowledge. You fed during your time with him, as you’ve recounted, with hidden vials of blood. I don’t think you would have attacked him had you not had the blood, which is our real concern. It seems you haven’t attacked others in all your time hematophagous, finding mammalian substitutes for human blood when necessary. Professor Kalinowski vouches for your character, and I’ve argued for allowing you to stay. As a group, we’ve agreed to it.”

A long pause. He took a deep breath. He glanced around the room, probably at those who’d voted against me staying, I thought.

“I’ll be blunt. We’re operating a clandestine research mission completely off the State’s grid. They don’t know we’re here. We have no intention of letting them know we’re here. Should you jeopardize our mission, or seek to harm one of us, we’ll execute the State’s prerogative in that APB to eliminate you.”

I gulped. Well, there it is, I thought. They’re saying either get along with us or we’ll kill you.

A long pause. They seemed to be waiting for me to say something.

“I’ve got no love for the State. Happy to help your research any way I can.”

The Professor nodded.

“Very well. I don’t expect to have to take such drastic measures, but you need to understand what we’re dealing with, and why. We’re not going to let twenty years of research go down the drain. All of us have sacrificed deeply to be here. We’ve committed our lives to this. You’re essentially stuck here with us. We trust you, for the most part, to be non-violent, and any tendencies otherwise will be dealt with harshly. At the same time, you offer us a fascinating opportunity to learn more about our primary exobiological interest, and we’d like to know as much as we can about your condition.”

I nodded. Several people around the room were nodding. Dee Dee smiled. Connie furrowed her brow and wouldn’t make eye contact. The O’Donnell triplets were grinning ear to ear.

“It’s settled, then. As for accommodations, the triplets have requested you room with them. Are you amenable to their request?”

“Sure.”

The three burst into cheers.

“Yes!”

“Alright!”

“Hoo-wah!”

And the meeting broke up.

+

The triplets lived at the highest elevation in the Ranger station. I gathered details as we headed that way after the meeting ended, all of them speaking at once and excitedly assuring me their quarters were awesome.

Evidently, Mr. and Mrs. O’Donnell concluded the boys could stay in their own place when they turned 13, the standard age of accountability for the State. Everybody pitched in to build separate quarters for the boys above and away from the family’s main house.

The triplets thought this situation to be outstanding, and often expressed amazement they had the tremendous good fortune to live on their own. Over time, I came to suspect the real reason the O’Donnells suggested the arrangement was simply to get them out of their home.

The boy’s tree house was in fact above and to the side of their parents’, about 50 feet up. To enter, we climbed up a rope ladder. Another suspicion crossed my mind after living there for a while, climbing that ladder every day: the triplets’ house was higher than everybody else’s in a deliberate effort to make them burn off energy.

This was, after all, a community of extraordinarily bright researchers and Scientists. I wouldn’t put a conspiracy like that past them.

One great advantage in starting out the day from the highest point: you could get to other parts of the station quickly. A fireman’s pole offered a quick exit straight down. I burned my arms from friction the first time I used it, then learned to control my descent better. Other exits to points all over the station were provided by zip lines.

I had to admit the zip lines were a lot of fun, but they were extremely dangerous. Letting go at the wrong time meant plummeting to certain death. But they were a lot of fun.

The triplets’ tree house was pretty simple. It had a large bedroom with bunk beds, which was perfect since there were three of them and four beds. I didn’t feel like I was imposing on anybody taking the fourth one. A bathroom, a small common room, and a large porch where the fireman’s pole, the rope ladder, and zip lines were attached comprised the remainder of the house.

Meals were mostly eaten with their parents. Mr. and Mrs. O’Donnell seemed generous and polite, and never questioned me too closely, which I thought was classy. They were both Scientists, exobiologists in fact, and had been with the Redwood team since the beginning. The triplets were their only children. I really can’t blame them not trying for more . . .

Bert O’Donnell was a short, thin man with a shock of red hair on top that rarely stayed combed for long. I’d never seen a naturally red-haired person before. His wife Margie was a natural blonde, which is also unusual, at least on frontier planets. It wasn’t the same shade as mine, though.

Mrs. O’Donnell had a bubbly personality. She was talkative, polite, and always made sure we had plenty to eat. Mr. O’Donnell was more reserved and spoke less. But he often seemed to have a twinkle in his eye, as if relishing some private humor.

After breakfast with the O’Donnells on my first full day at the Ranger station, I made my way toward the garden to see if I could help out in some way. I figured I was best qualified for menial labor, being a Servant and all. On my way there Professor Cruz saw me.

“There you are, Marcus. Let’s find Physician Patel and let him have a look at you.”

So I was redirected to the medical building, staffed by the Patel family.

+

“Fascinating.”

Physician Patel and Professor Cruz watched a hologram of my internal organs. I’d just finished drinking a quarter liter of blood from the Ranger station’s blood bank.

“So, his body absorbs the new blood through the digestive system, and . . . what? Does his existing blood need fresh blood that’s been digested? Explain it to me, Jivin.”

“That I cannot do yet, Curtis. It’s obvious his body needs the blood, though. Look at this chart.”

“Hey, Doc, I could use some more of that stuff.”

They stopped talking and turned to look at me. Physician Patel had a look of surprise on his face.

“Nobody has called me ‘Doc’ since my residency back on Bharata. We don’t use the term ‘doctor’ anymore.”

I nodded. “Makes sense. ‘Doctor’ is Latin for teacher, anyway.”

The two men looked at each other. Patel blinked at Cruz, then looked back at me.

“I’m interested in how a Servant came to know Latin. But I’m tasked with your physiological attributes, so I must prioritize.”

I nodded. “Fair enough, Doc.”

“Don’t call me that. Now, earlier this morning you say you burned your arms sliding down the triplets’ flag pole. Let’s see your arms.”

I held them out. Both men stared closely at them.

“Are you sure they were burned, Marcus?” Professor Cruz asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“But they’re not burned now.”

“No, sir.”

“Indeed,” Physician Patel said. “It is as if they were never hurt. Marcus, you said yesterday when you were bitten a few years ago, the fellow ‘took a chunk’ out of your neck?”

I nodded.

“And, after a couple weeks there were no more signs of it? Where did he bite you, exactly?”

I pointed at the spot on my neck. The Physician gave the area a long close look.

“No scar tissue at all. Hm. Curtis, I’m thinking his restorative capabilities are incredible. Especially after drinking blood. Perhaps his first injury years ago healed from his own blood. Now, with new injuries, fresh blood seems to speed his healing.”

The Professor nodded. “Strong recuperative powers might also explain why he’s never knocked out for long. It also gives us a clue why Fred is still alive after being shot so many times.”

They looked at each other, and a smile of understanding crept across both their faces.

The door burst open and one of the triplets ran in.

“Professor! Come quick, Mrs. Cruz made a discovery!”

Chapter Seven

We gathered around a hologram featuring part of the forest. A scale model of green leaves and brown branches shimmered translucently. In the middle, an indistinct outline represented the primate city. All around in the branches of the trees were blinking red circles that shifted in and out of visibility. Larger purple circles would move out from the city from time to time, float around the trees, then go back. On occasion, the red and purple circles would intersect and flash briefly.

Around the table stood the Cruzes, Physician Patel and me, Dee Dee and the triplets. Ranger Jenkins walked in late. The Professor waved him closer.

“Melody, explain it again to Colt.”

“Okay. This is a three-dimensional representation of the forest surrounding ‘Monkey City’ showing what our sensors have been recording in real time. What you are seeing includes several years worth of data points. The red circles indicate Fred when he showed up within our sensor grid. The purple circles represent hunter-gatherer parties exiting and re-entering the city. We finally have enough data to make a statistical model that promises to be fairly accurate.”

She moved her hand across the control panel, and the circles disappeared. A purple square exited the city and began a long elliptical arc through the trees. When it reached the outer periphery, a red square appeared next to it. Both squares flashed brightly. Mrs. Cruz froze the simulation.

“The squares represent projected activity paths, based on prior times and locations. This is our most likely prediction, based on the patterns we’ve seen, for Fred to meet up with a hunter-gatherer party at those coordinates.”

“How likely?”

“The model indicates a seventy-nine percent probability.”

Jenkins nodded. “That’s pretty high.”

“That’s very high.”

“When’s the time window?”

“Six days from today.”

“Okay. We’ll have a team in place in five.”

+

I paused to stretch. When I volunteered for garden duty, I discovered Mrs. Ng was in charge of produce for the Ranger station. A short, brown woman, with both brown skin and hair, she had a naturally dour disposition. But she seemed at least a little happy to have a fresh volunteer, and quickly put me to work.

All morning I’d been shucking corn in a storage hut filled with a fresh shipment, and I had six large barrels full to mark my progress. It was mindless work, but I felt like I was doing something to contribute. I stretched again, and considered starting on my seventh barrel when the door to the hut opened.

Dee Dee grinned.

“Hey lazy bones. Get back to work.”

“Lazy? Look at those barrels marking my progress this morning. What have you been doing? Punching buttons in a computer for a statistical model? Men like me have to do real work.”

She snorted, sat down beside me and started peeling the skin off a cob.

“We all do our part here to help. Both manual and mental labor. Even Daddy chips in on chores.”

I went back to shucking with her, and we worked in silence for a while. She smelled nice.

“Are you ready for the expedition?”

“Sure, I guess. I mean, I have my food pack ready. And the omnicam. You?”

She nodded.

“Mom’s not happy I’m going. Connie is convinced you’re going to attack me and the rest of crew as soon as we leave.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Of course she is.”

She giggled. We worked quietly a few more minutes.

“So, lots of controversy over the Professor’s picks, huh?”

She nodded.

“Some. But he makes a convincing argument. There is a risk of attack from Fred, but he thinks taking young people on the team will be an advantage. Most of the researchers here are over forty. Some are middle-aged, even. They’ve been here a long time. It’s not like they’re not physically fit, but they’re not as spry as they used to be.”

I could see Professor Cruz’s line of reasoning. I wondered how many objected to him going, seeing as he was relatively old himself.

I wasn’t allowed in on that meeting. But I knew the vote passed the way the Professor wanted it, and the team was set. It included the triplets, Dee Dee, Ranger Jenkins and his wife Ella, the Professor, the Physician, and me.

A dirty blonde head popped through the doorway.

“There you are, Dee Dee. The Professor says he needs your help calibrating the replacement sensors we’re bringing.”

“Okay, Jeremy. I’ll be there in a minute.”

When he was gone I said, “How’d you know that was Jeremy?”

“You can’t tell them apart yet? Jeremy has a small scar above his right eyebrow from a fight when they were little. Jason has a scar to the side of his left eye, and Jacob has a couple of light freckles on his cheek.”

“I see.”

And I did. She was highly intelligent, had extraordinary situational awareness, a sharp mind and good memory.

“Are you well fed?”

“You mean on blood? Yeah, they’ve been overfeeding me to see what happens. Physician Patel said somebody’s been donating so the blood bank doesn’t get depleted.”

“That was me.”

I whipped my head toward her. “That was you?”

She shrugged.

“They asked for a volunteer to donate some blood for you. So I did.”

It dawned on me why I was asked to sit out that last meeting. Then I started thinking about all her blood I’d been drinking lately. I felt my face flush. I looked over at her again. She was blushing, too.

“Thanks.”

She smiled.

Later when it was time to head back to the O’Donnell’s for lunch, Mrs. Ng came in and I presented her with eight full barrels of shucked corn. Her eyes grew big and for a moment I thought her expression might change from its perpetual scowl and I’d see a smile for the first time.

Instead she said, “Keep at it after lunch.”

+

On the appointed day we gathered on the flight deck where I’d first landed. I sailed in on a zip line shortly before the triplets, our eyes red from lack of sleep. I thought they’d never stop talking the night before, bubbling in their enthusiasm about the adventure ahead.

Mrs. Jenkins handed me a PHU and I strapped it on, then hung food and water packs off my belt. Last, I strapped the bulky omnicam to my chest. My job was to carry and position the device in the area Fred and the gathering party were expected to meet. Unlike other cams that operate by pointing in one direction and recording through a lens, this unit was fully three dimensional and would record everything within a large radius regardless of direction. Its battery pack allowed a full 48 standard hours of operation.

Due to the long history of incidents with Fred, the Professor decided to set up this omnicam at the predicted meeting place. Rather than try to watch the action unfold in person, we were to fall back and watch at a distance, then retrieve the omnicam later. All direct contact with the primates was to be avoided.

It seemed like a good idea to me. The triplets had no end of horror stories about Fred they liked to tell, especially at night before going to sleep. I had no desire to see him in the flesh.

Most of the base personnel came to see us off. Mrs. Ng had a more dour than usual expression on her face, and wouldn’t look me in the eye. She handed me a bag of William’s apples. I strapped it on with my other food supplies, and thanked her. She turned and walked away without saying a word, but I saw her rubbing her eyes.

Mrs. Cruz and Connie hugged the Professor. Mrs. Cruz hugged Dee Dee, but Connie stepped back. She looked over at me and glared. I waved and smiled. She turned her back on me. I inched closer to listen to the Cruzes’ conversation.

“Do you have to take Diane?”

“She’ll be fine. We’re not going anywhere near Fred, and she knows the equipment.”

Mr. and Mrs. O’Donnell showed up to hug the triplets. Mr. O’Donnell gravely shook each boy’s hand in turn, said a few encouraging words then left to speak to others in the party. Mrs. O’Donnell stayed and cried over them. They tried to shoo her away, were unsuccessful, and stood red-faced and embarrassed while she hugged and kissed and fussed over them.

Other people came forward and said their goodbyes. Eventually everybody had their butterfly wings on, their packs strapped, the equipment packed, and we were all ready to go. Professor Cruz gave his wife a final kiss, turned to the rest of us and gave a “follow me” motion with his arm. He grabbed his PHU controls, shot up and hovered above the platform. The rest of us shot up and hovered with him. He nodded. We turned and flew off into the woods.

+

We flew full speed for about three hours, dodging tree trunks, limbs and leaves, before the Professor called a break. We landed gently on a giant branch stretching out horizontally for about a hundred yards. It made a nice place to sit and rest for a while. I plopped down near the triplets and took some sips from my water pack. Dee Dee came over and sat by us.

“So the hunt begins,” she said.

I nodded. “Appropriate, considering your name.”

“What?”

“Diane. Diana. You know. Goddess of the hunt. Roman mythology . . .”

It was an awkward moment. I was saved by the Professor who rounded everybody up, and we floated off the branch, on the move again.

The triplets were merciless, shouting over the wind and hum of rotors.

“Look at me! I know Roman mythology!”

“It’s all Greek to me.”

“Yes, dear. Your name in ancient Latin means ‘cabbage head.’ It’s very romantic. She was the deity of smelly soup.”

But after a while, Dee Dee pulled up even with me. I turned to look. We locked eyes and she smiled. Then she darted ahead to catch up with the Professor.

+

“This is the place. Set it down there, Marcus.”

I detached the bulky omnicam and set it down on the branch, turning it on. I’d been carrying it strapped to my chest for hours, and felt glad to finally unload it. I noticed the markings on the back: “Omni-corder Model X1B Property of NTAMU.”

I stretched for a minute to work the kinks out of my back. The thought occurred to me that the Professor probably wanted young people on this trip mainly to carry heavy loads. I wondered if he had used that argument in the meeting.

“Are you getting a reading, Diane?”

Dee Dee’s hand screen beeped. “Yes, sir. The unit is working.”

The Professor let loose a sigh. “I was a little worried it might get roughed up in transit.”

“This field equipment seems pretty rugged,” I said.

He nodded.

“Let’s secure it and vacate the premises. Then let’s replace those broken sensors.”

+

Later after supper, I pulled out the bag of Mrs. Ng’s Williams’ apples and shared them with the triplets.

“Oh, do Tell!” Jason said.

I smiled at the joke. His brothers shot him annoyed looks.

“No puns,” Jacob said.

Jason grinned toward me, and nodded toward Jacob. “He’s apple-lectic.”

We were camped on another large branch, well away from the expected point of contact. We had a circle of tents, with a large garbage bag in the middle. The Professor lectured us on not littering, and taking out everything we brought in with us. The only thing we were to leave behind were replacement sensors to keep the grid going back home.

Night had fallen and the nocturnal animals were out and around us. I was determined to enjoy my first night in the deep woods, even with exhaustion setting in fast. I shared a small tent with Jason, while Jacob and Jeremy were in another. Jason conked out almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

I listened to him snore softly, but felt restless and couldn’t sleep. Finally I crawled out of the sleeping bag and tip-toed carefully to the edge of the branch, where it started sloping downward.

I sat down, leaned back and looked up. No stars shown through the thick canopy of leaves. Night birds and insects chirped and buzzed. I soaked in the sounds and night air.

“Trouble sleeping?”

I turned. The Professor came nearer.

“Yes, sir. Thought I’d soak up the ambience, you know? Never been to the forest before, and certainly I never dreamed I’d get so deep.”

He nodded in understanding.

“It’s a little different this far in. There’s also a certain element of danger. There’s a slight possibility Fred might visit us tonight.”

I gulped. All of a sudden the forest didn’t seem so friendly.

“Not to worry. We’re within the sensor grid, and I’ve set alarms to go off if anything big approaches. Still, knowing there are other ‘Freds’ near all the primate settlements, it makes an overnight stay an unsafe variable. We’ve never had a team attacked while flying, but one party, the one that explored deepest into the woods in fact, was attacked by a hematophageous monkey while sleeping. Thus our precautions.”

We sat in silence for a while, soaking up the night.

“You know, Milton was right. You’re a good worker. Intelligent. You get along well with others, and you’re willing to do your share. He said you’d make a fine asset to our community, and after watching you this week I concur.”

“Thanks.”

Thoughts of Professor Kalinowski brought me back to my weeks at AES 3.

“He never told me he was a Professor while I was there.”

“You never told him you were hematophageous.”

I smiled. He had me there.

“Professor, Cruz? I’ve been wondering. Why does Professor Kalinowski stay so isolated out there? I mean, doesn’t he visit the station every now and then?”

“No. Milton hasn’t been to the Ranger station in eighteen years or so.”

“Why? Is he just anti-social?”

I didn’t think that was the reason. He’d seemed plenty sociable to me during my stay. But I had to ask.

The Professor took a deep breath and paused, as if to collect his thoughts.

“When we first came to Redwood, about twenty years ago, we were both single. So was Melody. We all worked together. It was an exciting time. A new world, new discoveries being made daily. Primates in the woods, all that. We were all very close, and the Ranger station was considerably more crowded back then.

“Anyway, in the middle of all our work and all the excitement, we both fell in love with Melody. It was a classic love triangle. I think she loved him, too. But, she loved me more. In the end, she chose me over him. It broke his heart. He moved to AES Three and has stayed there ever since, experimenting on tobacco and other crops in isolation. Colt is the only one of us who has actually seen him in years, on regular supply trips. Your time there is the longest anyone’s spent with him.”

We sat in silence for a while longer as I digested this newfound knowledge. I thought about the emotions Kalinowski must have felt, driving him to separate from the rest of the group like that.

“Surely he would have come back after a while.”

“The fact we have so few people at the station . . . Remember we lost the majority of researchers after the State banned most humans from Redwood. The fact we have so few people now means he’d be in almost daily contact with Melody and me. I don’t think he wants that.

“Besides, I think he enjoys the isolation now. He’s been performing experiments out there for years without anybody telling him what he can or can’t do.”

I nodded. Makes sense, I thought.

We stayed out on the giant limb a while longer in silence.

“You should get some sleep, Marcus. You’ll need it for tomorrow.”

Chapter Eight

I woke up to the savory smell of forbidden Redwood steaks sizzling on a grill somewhere. I crawled out of the sleeping bag and made my way to a makeshift mess, where Ranger Jenkins prepared thin slices of skirt steak, potatoes and scrambled eggs on a camp stove.

“Morning, Marcus. Help yourself to some breakfast tacos.”

After eating, I made my way over to Dee Dee, the triplets, and the Professor. They were fiddling with some equipment.

“Try it now, Dee Dee.”

She flipped a switch and a hologram popped into existence: a three foot sphere, showing branches and trees. Dee Dee looked up and smiled when she saw me.

“The transmitter works. This is a scale hologram of what the omnicam is picking up. It has a 100 yard range, and the hologram is one yard.”

I looked in fascination, watching slight movement in the leaves. The clarity seemed very high.

A bird glided into the sphere. I’d seen one like it before. Its body from beak to tail was about the length of an Old Earth horse. It had a wingspan of twenty feet or so. In the hologram it appeared very tiny, but visible.

It swooped down suddenly and grabbed a bug out of the air that must have been the size of a softball. It stopped on a branch to chew and gulp down the meal, then flew off, gliding out of the cam’s range.

The Professor nodded in satisfaction.

“We should have a front row seat for the show.”

The show took a long time to start. The triplets fidgeted, bickered, fought, and eventually left to explore every square inch of the branch we were on. Mrs. Jenkins corralled them and put them to work packing up all our tents and sleeping bags. Idly watching the hologram seemed preferable after that, so they rejoined the Professor, Dee Dee and me to keep an eye on the instruments.

Ranger Jenkins produced a box of cigars.

“Redwood’s finest. Compliments of Professor Kalinowski.”

We all took one and lit up with a lighter he passed around. I did a double take when I saw Dee Dee take one.

“What, haven’t you ever seen a girl smoke a cigar before?”

“No, actually I haven’t.”

Jeremy snickered.

“You’re the first girl he’s ever seen, Dee Dee.”

“Actually, that’s not true. I’ve seen lots of girls before. I’ve seen them on just about all my layovers on other planets.”

The triplets were rather jealous of my trips off-planet. I didn’t bother to explain to them that being a pilot on an automated ship was not exactly prestigious.

I changed the subject.

“Who came up with the name, ‘Fred?’”

“That’s a good question, Marcus,” the Professor said. “I don’t know.”

“It stands for First Real Enemy Detected!”

“Really, Jason? Where did you learn this?”

“Aw, I just made it up.”

“Ah. Well, it sounds as plausible as anything else.”

+

We had smoked turkey sandwiches for lunch, along with some dried fruit.

“Go ahead and pack the mess up, Colt,” the Professor said. “I hope to be home before supper.”

Ranger Jenkins nodded.

“Let’s hope Melody’s statistical model works out.”

“Daddy, the sensor grid is showing the hunting party leaving the city!”

The Professor and the Ranger looked at each other and smiled. Physician Patel walked up.

“So it begins?”

The Professor nodded.

“They’re doing their part. Let’s see if Fred shows up.”

Some time later, the party’s scout showed up in the omnicam’s hologram, jumping onto a branch on the outer edge. He looked around, jumped down to another branch, stood up on hind legs and sniffed the air. He hooted, apparently giving the green light to other members of the party.

One by one they came into range and appeared in the hologram, a dozen of them. The last four were laden down, arms crossed, carrying fruit close to their chests. The fruit looked like berries of some kind, purple and each about the size of a tennis ball. The others ran around from branch to branch, inspecting a small bush-like outgrowth on some of them. When they found a berry or two, they’d rush back and put them in the arms of those carrying the fruit.

Jason chuckled. “Twelve little monkeys. Only, they’re not so little, are they?”

We watched as the party gathered fruit, jumping from branch to branch, making a slow arc through the omnicam’s field. Everybody seemed to be holding their breath.

“There!”

Dee Dee pointed to the edge of the hologram. A new monkey slowly slid into view, climbing along the trunk of a tree at the omnicam’s outer periphery.

Then it stopped and remained still. The other monkeys slowly made their way toward his position.

The scout approached Fred’s position first. He stopped and rose on two feet. He sniffed the air and his ears twitched. He remained like this longer than before. Finally he looked in all directions, then jumped to a higher branch and repeated the process. He dropped down to another lower branch and repeated it a third time. Finally he scratched his head and called out the go ahead signal to the others.

They slowly approached, hunters inspecting bushes, fruit carriers in the rear.

One of them came within a few feet of Fred. We found out later it was a female. She approached one of the bushes near a branch on Fred’s tree.

Suddenly, he leaped from his perch. She screamed an alarm and jumped down and away just before he landed on her. The other monkeys screamed and scattered in all directions. Fred howled in rage, and ran after his intended victim.

She jumped from branch to branch, scrambling along open areas, jumping to trunks, climbing higher, jumping again.

Behind her, Fred followed, howling.

The other monkeys ran too, but without Fred chasing them they eventually slowed down. We were able to examine the sensor data later, and saw they all went back to the settlement on their own.

“You getting all this, Diane?”

“Yes. But, Daddy, they’re coming this way.”

We watched as the chase continued through the hologram, in the direction toward us. The female monkey jumped off a final branch in the sphere and disappeared from view. Fred followed her.

“Where are they on the grid?”

Dee Dee waved her hands over the controls. The hologram disappeared to be replaced by a larger sphere. It was translucent, but didn’t show all the branches or details from the omnicam. This was the grid. Data points only. Our location was marked by nine green circles, one for each member of the team. On the edge, purple circles were scattering, mostly headed for the sphere’s center which was darker and represented Monkey City.

But one purple circle headed straight for our position, followed closely by a red circle in hot pursuit.

“Daddy, they’re coming straight for us.”

“I see it, Diane. I doubt they’ll get to this particular branch, but we need to be prepared if they do. Everybody gather round! Colt, get your weapon ready.”

Jenkins nodded and pulled out a pistol. He racked the slide, chambering a round.

We gathered close, watching the sensor grid hologram nervously. The purple and red circles came ever nearer. Eventually I thought I could hear something scampering through the trees.

She jumped onto our branch near the trunk, just yards away from us. We were all bunched together and stunned to see her appear, even though we’d been following her progress on the grid. She froze, just as surprised to see us.

Almost immediately Fred was on top of her. He howled, and with one swipe of his paw removed half her throat.

Then he stopped. Slowly he shifted his gaze toward us. Jenkins held his pistol up, the barrel shaking slightly. Fred’s mouth stretched into an angry rictus grin, showing every tooth. He howled and jumped right into the middle of us.

We scattered. Equipment flew. He swung out with a paw through the grid hologram and scratched up the instruments near it. The back of his paw caught Jeremy in the face, who went flying backwards. He snapped his jaws at me. I dodged out of the way. We all scrambled back. Dee Dee slipped. He jumped on top of her and bit her shoulder.

Bang!

Fred stopped, and looked up at Jenkins. Blood trickled from the giant monkey’s left breast.

Bang! Bang!

Fred leaned his head back and howled. A long, angry, bone chilling sound. He leaped off Dee Dee, jumped to another branch, and disappeared through the trees.

+

Physician Patel stopped Dee Dee’s bleeding, patched her up, gave her a sedative and pain killer. Jeremy had a bruise on his face that promised a black eye. That was the extent of our injuries. After seeing to Dee Dee and Jeremy, the Professor salvaged the equipment that wasn’t damaged and reactivated the grid hologram to provide us a warning if Fred decided to come back. He ordered the rest of us to pack up what we could and get ready to leave. Then he went over to the body of the monkey that Fred left behind.

Physician Patel set up a sling to carry Dee Dee between Jason and Jacob. Jenkins set up another sling to carry the dead monkey, and asked me to help. We left a lot of stuff behind, but we vacated the premises within twenty minutes of Fred’s attack.

We flew slower on the way back. It took some getting used to, carrying the dead weight of the monkey between me and Jenkins. Eventually we figured it out, though, and we were able to make good progress through the trees along with the others. Likewise, Jason and Jacob were able to figure things out while carrying Dee Dee back.

Several hours later as we approached the Ranger station, a large group met us. Back home they’d seen the action on the sensor grids, and realized we’d met up with Fred.

Mrs. Patel and her daughters were there with extra medicine and first aid supplies. The O’Donnells were there to check on the triplets. Mrs. Cruz was there, too, and wailed inconsolably when she saw Dee Dee flown in on a sling.

Together we all made it back to the landing platform by nightfall. The Patels rushed Dee Dee off to the medical ward, closely followed by the Cruzes and several other concerned friends. Mrs. Cruz’s bitter weeping drifted through the night air as they hurried through the city.

I heard somebody say, “That’s her adopted daughter, right?”

Somebody else said, “Yes, but they raised her as their own.”

Jenkins rounded up volunteers to move the monkey’s body to an examination facility. I took my PHU off, stretched, and decided to check on Dee Dee.

A large crowd gathered around the medical ward entrance. Mrs. Patel stepped out, closed the door behind her. She turned to address us.

“She’s fine. She’s going to make it. But it’s been a long day and she needs rest. Everybody go home. You can see her tomorrow.”

The crowd slowly dispersed.

I lingered. I decided to go around back, sneak a peak through one of the windows, and make sure she was really okay.

I knew I was close to where I wanted to be when I could hear Mrs. Cruz crying. I crept up next to the window and peeked inside. Professor Cruz held her tight. She sobbed into his shoulder.

“Why? Why did you have to take her? I told you not to take her.”

“I know, sweetheart. You did. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?”

Her head shot up from his shoulder. Anger snapped across her face.

“You took her into the most hostile environment on this planet! You risked her life! You . . .”

At that moment, a door opened and Physician Patel entered the room.

“Curtis? Melody? You need to see this. She’s changing.”

Chapter Nine

The next day, Dee Dee seemed all better. She walked around, met everybody, thanked them for their help and concern. The only sign she’d been in trouble was a bandage on her shoulder. I decided if her wounds were like mine on my neck years ago, they’d heal up soon. She probably wouldn’t have any scars, either.

The station remained a beehive of activity. Besides the excitement over Dee Dee, and our team’s misadventure, for the first time the researchers had a monkey cadaver to examine. Everybody seemed giddy as kids on Christmas morning.

I didn’t bother to go look at the cadaver. I’d seen enough monkeys for a while.

Ranger Jenkins and his wife Ella led a group to retrieve the equipment we’d left behind. I volunteered to go with them. The triplets did, too. We were rebuffed. The Jenkins took another Ranger husband-wife team with them instead, the Joneses. All four went heavily armed, and returned with all our stuff. They saw no sign of Fred.

The days rolled by. Jeremy refused any kind of treatment for his black eye. He wore it proudly, like a medal. His skin was never broken, and the Physician confirmed he was not hematophageous, much to his parents’ relief. He retold the story of how Fred jumped us over and over again, usually with himself as the main focus. Every night for a week before going to bed he wanted to talk about it. Each night, Jacob, Jason and I finally had to tell him to shut up and go to sleep.

Over time, with each retelling, he shifted the focus ever so slightly, and his role in the incident became more and more prominent. After hearing it for the umpteenth time on the porch one night, I clasped him on the shoulder and gazed seriously into his eyes.

“Thank goodness you were there, Jeremy. You saved us all!”

Jacob and Jason howled in laughter. Jeremy’s ears reddened, then he joined in. He stopped recounting the tale so often, though.

The Patel girls, Aneeta and Anusha, fawned over Jeremy’s injury. They were younger than us, 15 and 13, but old enough to notice boys. Since their parents comprised the medical team at the station, they had a natural interest in medicine and injuries, too. Aneeta in particular turned into something of a teenaged Florence Nightingale.

Aneeta gushed over Jeremy and his injury so much, Jason and Jacob grew quite jealous. They decided to bop each other in the eye so they too could have shiners, until I reminded them it wouldn’t be the same since Fred wasn’t involved. Reluctantly they agreed that was true. They decided instead to wait until Jeremy fully healed, then they gave him another black eye.

I resumed working for Mrs. Ng, and kept waiting to catch her smile. It seemed I would have to wait forever. She was the most expressionless person I’d ever met. She did seem happy at the end of the work day, though. Especially when I’d done all she’d asked of me. Sometimes I’d do more, if I had time for it. Really there wasn’t a lot else to do, and I’d been laboring like this all my life anyway. Most of what she had me doing was food prep. Shelling peas, skinning potatoes, and so on.

I considered Mrs. Ng my boss, and deferred to her on schedules when others asked for me, for research purposes or otherwise. She never acknowledged it, but I think she appreciated it. Often I found myself working beside her in silence for hours, nothing but a grunt or a couple spoken words passing between us. The days went faster while I worked, and were never boring.

As the days slid by, I got a chance to know Mr. Ng, too. David and Susan Ng were originally from New Indonesia, but made their way to New Texas A&M shortly after marrying. David was a Scientist specializing in arboriculture, so after Janus 28 opened and the giant trees of Redwood were discovered, he and Mrs. Ng were on one of the first spaceships over.

They never left. The University fabricated departure documents for them, and they continued researching the trees with the rest of the team on Ranger Station Alpha. They had one daughter back on New Texas, who was of age and stayed behind when they came to Redwood. They hadn’t seen her in all those years.

Unlike his wife, Mr. Ng was quite jovial. He almost had a bubbly personality. He’d often stop by to visit us around lunch time. He was short but stout, and had a dark complexion and dark hair like hers.

“Hey, Marcus! How are ya?”

He was loud, boisterous, and perpetually happy. In other words, the exact opposite of Mrs. Ng.

She usually ignored his entrances, so he’d walk up to her and give her a big bear hug from behind.

“How’s my beautiful bride, huh? How’s my sweetie?”

“Get off me. Go away. Let me go, I have work to do.”

But I noticed despite all her protestations to the contrary, Mrs. Ng always seemed a little happier after his visits.

+

Dee Dee and I spent more time together while the Physician and the Professor examined us daily. New volunteers donated blood to drink since Dee Dee’s was no good for me anymore. I wasn’t really hungry for it yet, though.

Connie took all the changes the worst. She no longer spoke to her sister. Evidently she had trouble living under the same roof. She spent her days as far away from both of us as possible. She avoided the triplets, too, and looked at Jeremy’s shiner with horror and disgust. I don’t think he noticed.

Everybody waited anxiously for Dee Dee’s cravings to start up. Mine started about two weeks after being bit, so we expected the same for her. On the fifteenth day after her bite, Dee Dee developed her first symptoms. Just like I had: sweating, shaking, stomach cramps.

The Professor and the Physician watched the instruments hooked to her with interest. They discussed at length whether they should offer her blood immediately or wait a few days and observe the cravings increase in intensity. After much back and forth they decided to let Dee Dee decide.

“I can handle this, Daddy. For now. We can go a few days.”

So they continued monitoring her.

On the eighteenth day after the bite, her symptoms grew considerably worse. The expression in her eyes changed, too, and she began looking at people differently. With hunger. When the two men hooked her up to the instruments that morning, she licked her lips every time they came close. They decided it was time to give her some blood.

“Remarkable. The symptoms cleared up immediately.”

“Yes, Jiven. For the first time, we’ve been able to follow the process from the time of infection to first feeding. Sweetheart, I’m sorry you had to go through this, but the contributions to our understanding have been extraordinary.”

“It’s okay, Daddy. Anything for science.”

She said it flippantly, and we all laughed. But there was a strained undertone that no one vocalized. She was different now. Officially, she was an “Enemy of the State,” and faced eradication if anybody found out her secret.

Just like me.

+

One addition to the daily routines since our encounter with Fred: target practice. Ranger Jenkins unlocked the storage center with the base’s rifles and made sure everyone knew how to use them. I went with the triplets, Dee Dee, Connie, and the Patel girls for our turn at training.

“Standard issue nine millimeter, semi-automatic. Load a magazine like this.”

He demonstrated, pushing ammo down into the magazine.

“Make sure the bullets are pointed that end down the rifle.”

We all laughed at that, except Aneeta and Anusha who took everything very seriously.

“Insert the magazine here. Give it a slap on the bottom to make sure it’s seated. Pull back the bolt. Now a round is loaded. When you pull the trigger it will go bang. Never ever point it at something you don’t want to shoot. Never play with it. It’s not a toy. Always treat it like it’s loaded, even when it’s not.

“Okay, everybody get their earmuffs on.”

He aimed at a target set up at the base’s shooting range. It was open air, but had a backstop forty yards out with some kind of spongy material that prevented ricochets and absorbed the bullets.

“Hold your breath. The more movement you make while holding the gun, the more you affect where the bullet hits. Line up the sights. Squeeze the trigger, don’t jerk it.”

Bang!

He pressed a button and the target came back on a pulley. Now it had a fresh bullet hole in the middle of the bullseye.

“We’ll do a point system. Friendly competition. Ten shots. Ten points each for hitting the center circle.”

That excited the triplets, who scrambled to see who could shoot the best.

Jenkins took Aneeta and Anusha off to one side and spent more time one on one with them so they could better familiarize themselves with the firearms. Dee Dee, Connie, and I shot with the triplets.

Connie never said a word to any of us. She fired off her practice rounds and left. The rest of us stayed and chatted for a while.

“I’m the best shot in the O’Donnell clan,” Jason said, proudly holding up his target.

“I got the three of y’all beat,” I said, holding up mine.

“Oh, boys . . .” Dee Dee sang out. She held up her target, where so many holes had been shot through the center circle, it wasn’t there anymore. The middle of the target had one ragged hole, with no stray shots anywhere.

“Don’t worry,” she teased. “I’m sure you’ll all get better with practice.”

+

One night Jacob produced a box of Kalinowski’s cigars. I decided not to ask where he got them. His procurement skills were extraordinary. Best I didn’t know.

We sat around on the porch of the triplets’ tree house, having one of our late night bull sessions.

“What I want to know,” Jeremy said, “Is who came up with the naming conventions for planets? I mean, we start okay. Europa, Asiana, Bharata, Africana, Australiana, Americana. All named after continents on Old Earth.”

“Bharata is a subcontinent,” Jacob pointed out.

“Whatever. Then they discover Oceana. Okay, I get it. It’s a planet with one gigantic ocean and a few habitable islands. Then they start naming planets after place names and countries. Brittania, Hispaniola . . . everything goes along fine until Janus 23 or so.”

“You’re forgetting Pacifica,” Jacob said. “The one after Mesopotamia and before Caledonia.”

“Another water planet. They already had Oceana, so they named it after the largest body of water on Old Earth.”

“Specifically, the Pacific,” said Jason with a grin.

Jeremy frowned at the interruption. “Anyway, then you got your ‘new’ planets. New Scotland. New France. New Moravia. I guess they ran out of places to call ‘new’ because then they started naming entire planets after old cities. Brasilia . . . Alexandria . . .”

“How about New Hong Kong? It’s a ‘new’ planet named after a city that’s also an island. Am I right?”

“Shut up, Jason. Then they get here and it’s like, they look around and say, ‘Wow, look at these big trees! This reminds us of Redwood trees back on Old Earth. Let’s just abandon our whole naming convention thing, and call the place Redwood.’

“And on the next planet they’re like, ‘Gee, look at all these citrus trees! Let’s call the place Orange!’ I mean, what happened to centuries of tradition? Now we have to name planets after the trees that grow on them?”

I chuckled at his sarcasm and said, “I bet what happened, they had a name picked out to honor some region or city back on Old Earth, then discovered people exposed to primate bites here were going off world and attacking others for their blood. They decided some generic name that adequately described the planet would do, rather than tainting a good name, with all the bad publicity hematophagia would bring. Same with Orange. What place back on the home planet would want to be associated with a penal colony?”

They nodded as they mulled it over and seemed to agree with my reasoning. At least, no one argued with me.

“Another thing I want to know,” Jeremy said, pausing to puff on his cigar. “Is why we don’t have better technology out here on the frontier planets.”

“It’s gotta be reliable,” Jacob pointed out. “If it breaks, how you gonna fix it? It’d take a couple years or more to send it to Asiana, or wherever, then a couple more to get it back.”

“It doesn’t have to be fragile to be high tech. Look at the Januses.”

“That’s true,” I chimed in. “Supposedly the Januses have maintenance crews, but I don’t think they have to do much.”

“Okay, fine. On Redwood and Orange it’s got to be super reliable. I’ll buy that. But what about New Texas, Athena, and Alexandria? They’re still relatively low tech. From what I understand, you have to travel back at least to Bharata before you start to see really cutting edge stuff.”

Jacob was about to object, and possibly start another long argument, when Dee Dee’s head appeared at the top of the rope ladder.

“Hi guys! I saw your lights on and thought I’d climb up. Hey, can I have one of those?”

“Rough night?” Jacob said.

She nodded. “Connie and I had a bad argument. I had to get out of the house for a while. She’s unbearable when she’s like this.”

Jason said, “If she ever really ticks you off, just sneak into her room one night while she’s sleeping and start licking her neck or something to wake her up. That would freak her out!”

Dee Dee giggled and said, “Daddy would probably kick me out of the house.”

We gave her a cigar, and she sat down with us to puff a while.

“What were y’all talking about?”

“Mozon over here was griping about lack of higher technology on the outer planets.”

“It doesn’t have to be unreliable to be high tech. Don’t know why they can’t send more to the outer string.”

Dee Dee nodded. “This again.”

She said to me in a stage whisper, “They’ve had this discussion before.”

She took a big puff and let out a thoughtful cloud of smoke. “I’ve been thinking about this one, guys. I think it’s a matter of State control.”

We all looked at her.

“State control?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Think about it. When the British Empire stretched across most of Old Earth, did they give their outer colonies the latest and greatest? No. They gave them the old, obsolete, and reliable. Particularly in weapons. They gave the colonists old muskets and flintlocks and other hand-me-down stuff. The newest and best weapons went to the Redcoats. Then if there was a rebellion, the natives had inferior equipment. It’s the same with our beloved State. The latest and greatest is produced and distributed on the inner string planets, safely in the State’s hands. We get the old and obsolete stuff out here in the sticks.”

We mulled this over. I thought she had a point. Jacob stuck by his reliability argument. Jeremy disagreed with everybody. The five of us talked about it into the wee hours of the night.

+

A few days later I broached the subject with the Professor when we had a moment together. Physician Patel left the room after they both completed a thorough examination of my digestive processes.

Professor Cruz looked thoughtful. “State control, you say?”

“Actually, it was your daughter’s idea. I was just curious what you thought about it.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it was the State exerting a form of control. Or, punishment, even. The farther away a colony is from the locus of power, the more difficult it becomes for the mother country to keep it. The Janus String offers a unique dilemma to the State. Obviously, a local government has to be set up to establish local control, but the home powers are ever more removed with each new planet.

“Making the population of a new planet dependent on materials from the older planets for survival offers an excellent means of controlling the population. The problems for the State arise when they run out of new planets to colonize and the ones on the outer string become ever more self sufficient.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Like now?”

He nodded. “Like now. The State had momentum, opening Janus Twenty-eight from New Texas to Redwood, then Twenty-nine to Orange. But, our primates put a big wrench in their plans. This brought the bureaucracies of the inner string to halt our exploration of the stars. Fear led to indecision. Indecision led to paralysis.

There are no plans to open Janus Thirty any time soon, even though the components are in place, or nearly so. There is no desire to explore beyond Orange, no desire to capitalize on Redwood and Orange, or colonize them. There’s bitter infighting among functionaries and bureaucrats, with the side afraid of what else might be out there when we go through the next Janus winning out against all others. The State is rotting in stasis.”

He paused to put away some equipment in the lab.

“In the meantime, collectivists struggle for relevance on the outer planets while individualists have no other places to go with the Janus String closed.”

“Collectivists?”

“The State is the collective. Everyone is part of the State and the State tells everyone what to do. Unfortunately for everyone, there are only a few individuals making all the decisions. Those comprising most of the collective have little or no say in their lives.

“Fortunately for us, the State made a critical mistake. Researchers, Scientists, Professors, and other academic types tend to congregate in the Universities. The State granted Universities, notably on the outer planets, their own charters. A University is self-governing. It has its own police force, its own bureaucracies, its own sets of rules and laws.

“What the State didn’t consider, is that individualists would gravitate away from the State and into anything offering a little more freedom. In time, the Universities on New Texas, Athena, and Alexandria became hotbeds of freedom, filled with like-minded people who generally wish to be left alone by the State and do their own thing. ‘Liberty Centers’ thrived. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed the black markets on those planets.”

I nodded. Indeed, I thought. The black market on New Texas is outstanding.

“You’ll have noticed all the black markets on those planets are on University land.”

I hadn’t thought about it, but now that he said it I knew he was right.

“The State has no authority there, and the University turns a blind eye to things the State may otherwise proscribe. So the arts, literature, and music flourish in the Universities. You’ll notice books, paintings, music . . . all those things are available in the black market that aren’t for sale elsewhere because they’re prohibited by the State. Intellectual discoveries, research, pure science . . . all these also take place in the Universities, out from under the glare of heavy-handed State bureaucrats.

“As for the other problem of giving individualists somewhere to go, in the past when new planets were opened on a regular basis, individualists always had new areas to go spend their time and talents. Each generation rushed forward to the next planet in the string. Research it, classify the fauna, write new stories about it. Enjoy life a little before the State closed in and the planet became ‘civilized.’

“But now, there is stasis. There are no new planets to explore, and the latest ones are closed off, except to prisoners and outcasts. Now, individualists fester on the last ‘civilized’ planets, which happen to be the ones farthest from the State’s locus of power.”

He paused for a moment, then locked eyes with mine. A smile slowly spread across his face.

“Now, we have time for a revolution.”

He was right. Revolution came a few days later.

Chapter Ten

I hoed a garden row one mid-morning, stopped at the end of it and started on the next one. Somebody ran by the garden, heading full tilt toward the central building.

I kept hoeing. Then somebody else ran by. Then two more. When I saw Anusha running my direction, I stepped out and stopped her.

“What’s going on?”

“They’ve taken over New Texas!”

And she ran off. Not knowing what she was talking about, I dropped the hoe and took off after her.

Everybody gathered at the central building, the same place I’d first met the Professor and where all meetings of importance occurred. We milled around, everybody talking at once. I discovered this building also housed the base’s communication equipment.

I found Jason and Jeremy. We each traded our lack of information.

Dee Dee stepped out of a room carrying a wireless speaker, followed by Jacob with a tripod. Everybody stopped talking and watched Jacob unfold the tripod. Dee Dee set the speaker on it.

“Give us just a minute, we’ll pipe the broadcast in here.”

She and Jacob stepped back into the communications room. A few seconds later the speaker crackled to life.

“This is Antonio Montoya, President of New Texas A and M University.”

“He’s the ‘A and M’ in New Texas A and M,” Jason quipped. A few nervous chuckles spread about the room.

“His middle initials cancel it out,” Jeremy said. “That’s not his full name. He has two others. ‘Iglesias Fernando,’ or ‘Fernando Iglesias,’ I forget which.”

“I was just kidding.”

I shushed them both as the speech continued.

“Today, New Texas A and M forces occupied the State Building in New Austin. We also took over the Governor’s Mansion, and the spaceport. We have seized control of New Houston, New Fort Worth, and other major cities. State forces have fled and are in hiding. By fiat and by fact, we now control the entire planet of New Texas.

“Casualties so far have been light. Where we’ve met resistance, force has been used as necessary. Many State Agents and Galactic Police have peacefully surrendered and are being detained with all due consideration for their well-being.

“We do not take the use of force lightly. We would prefer opposition to remain peaceful. Where State personnel violently resist us, however, we will not hesitate to respond in kind.

“All State personnel within the sound of my voice should be aware that armed resistance to those operating under the University charter will be dealt with swiftly, justly, and with lethal countermeasures. Make no mistake: if you oppose us, we will strike back. Remain peaceful, and you will be treated appropriately.”

President Montoya paused briefly, as if collecting his thoughts.

“This is an exciting time in the history of New Texas. Our planet is the first of hopefully many in which a University charter will apply to all citizens, not just students and faculty and those residing within University borders.

“I urge all citizens to remain calm during this time of transition. I repeat that State personnel will be treated appropriately provided they do not resort to violence.

“Together we will work through this time of crisis, and we will forge a new planetary government under a global University charter that is separate and better than the State’s and all its past abuses.

“Together, we will form a bright tomorrow for New Texas, one that benefits citizens everywhere along the Janus String. One that brings hope for freer societies, and one that guarantees personal liberties for generations to come.”

There was a long pause, then the speech started again. Obviously it was on a loop.

“This is Antonio Montoya, President of New Texas A and M University . . .”

We all burst out talking at once, some cheering, some raising questions, some expressing fear, all voicing excitement.

The door to the communications room opened again. This time the Professor came out, followed by Dee Dee and Jacob. He raised his hand and silence settled across the room.

“Meeting in ten minutes. Mandatory, all personnel.”

+

The days flew by and we learned more as news trickled in. Fighting continued to break out across New Texas as State forces outside the capitol battled it out with University forces. For the most part, resistance was mild, though. Either the State had a weaker presence in New Texas, or the University had been planning the operation so long and carefully that it went relatively smoothly. I suspect it was a combination of the two.

Revolution spread to Athena where New Hellenic University led the fight against State forces there. More deaths occurred as the fighting grew in intensity, especially around their spaceport. Anti-State sentiment was strong in Athena, but they were less prepared to fight. Fortunately, State forces there were also relatively weak. Eventually those fighting for New Hellenic prevailed, and their spaceport was secured.

The worst, bloodiest fighting occurred on Alexandria. Alexandria had four Universities, and coordinating revolution among them proved problematic. Polytech was the biggest, followed by Alexandria Institute of Technology, the University of Interstellar Knowledge, and Freewill Seminary.

Alexandria was a special planet, having those four Universities. Most other planets had one University; an occasional planet here or there might have two. For years Alexandria was the last planet in the Janus String, and there’d been a movement to compile humanity’s knowledge at the end of the line, so to speak.

The freedom offered by four Universities, though, led the State to garrison more of their personnel there, and it had a much stronger presence on Alexandria than the other outer planets. Also, the State quickly imported reinforcements by passenger ships from New Hong Kong before the Alexandria spaceport fell.

The fighting grew intense as fresh Galactic Police streamed in. Each ship brought more men, all well trained, well armed, and wearing nearly impenetrable armor. Together with existing Agents and GPs already on Alexandria, they wreaked death and destruction across the planet, killing anybody in their way and laying waste to University cities and sites.

The GPs on Alexandria were horrible. We heard stories of indiscriminant killings, rape and wanton slaughter. One city belonging to UIK, the city of Memphis, was completely leveled. All inhabitants were killed without regard for who they were or their political sympathies. The fact they were in a University city was all that mattered to the GPs. When word leaked out that several State sympathizers seeking shelter there were slaughtered by the GPs, what little support the State had on the planet began to wane. More citizens began to take up arms with the Universities after that, and “The Battle of Memphis” became a tipping point in the war.

Resistance finally gelled, and the four Alexandria Universities united their people under one commander. Polytech students figured out a way to make “sticky grenades” that, when tossed at a GP, would stick to their armor before exploding. They were finally able to bring those heavily armed reinforcements down. We heard heroic tales about Seminary students in particular, a Bible in one hand and a sticky grenade in the other, fighting to the death against overwhelming odds. State forces were finally neutralized.

With the spaceport secure, the Alexandria Universities sent gunships to Janus 25 to prevent more State reinforcements from arriving. Three more ships from New Hong Kong came through the Janus, each loaded with fresh GPs. Each ship ignored challenges and set a course for Alexandria. Each ship was destroyed long before reaching the planet.

After the third ship, the State stopped sending them through, and a stalemate ensued. Alexandria sent a drone through Janus 25 to take a look around on the New Hong Kong side. Before being shot apart, it recorded a host of gunships waiting on the other side. An uneasy and unofficial truce began, with no movement between Janus 25 and the rest of the string. We presumed the Revolution stalled, as our contact with the rest of the planets was cut off.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me go back and fill in what we did in the early days of the University Revolution on Redwood.

+

“The fighting continues on New Texas, and the action has spread to Athena and Alexandria.”

The Professor had our undivided attention. I reflected privatively that this was one of the few meetings I’d been invited to. In fact, after this one I was to sit in on all the rest. With a crisis at hand, I was no longer an outsider.

Everybody listened closely. He listed some facts, counting them off on his fingers.

“There are no Galactic Police here on Redwood, of that we’re pretty sure. There may be one or two tucked away somewhere, but there’s no official presence. Half a dozen Agents in Redwood City keep an eye on the populace there. But there’s not much for them to do, really.

“There are a few GPs on Orange. They run the spaceport and the controlled access area. They’re basically prison guards. There are a couple of Agents there too, of course, keeping tabs on them.

“All in all, State forces are extraordinarily weak both here and on Orange. There are few people on either planet, and little need for a strong official presence.

“Currently there are two spaceships docked at Redwood City, and one on Orange. They’re not going anywhere during the current crisis.

“Redwood and Orange are backwaters, as far as the State is concerned. There are no resources they can use to try a backdoor attack on New Texas through Janus Twenty-eight, using Agents or anyone else. The University knows this, and the State knows this.”

He paused again, and locked eyes with Ranger Jenkins. Jenkins nodded.

The Professor continued.

“Nonetheless . . . we have received a coded message directly from President Montoya. We have been tasked with securing Redwood City, along with the spaceport and the two spaceships docked there.”

The crowd gasped. Incredulous murmurs spread around the room.

The Professor held up his palms.

“I know. I know. We’re researchers, not soldiers. But everybody who is a part of the University has a role to play in this conflict. This is our role. I don’t like it anymore than you do, but we can’t ignore this assignment while our colleagues, many of whom are also researchers, are shedding blood for the cause back on New Texas and elsewhere. We have to do this.”

The murmurs stopped. He had them, although many still did not look happy about it. Some no longer looked him in the eye, staring down at their feet instead. Others, those with family, stared at their children and spouses.

“Look, this an obligation. We’re Aggies. Think about what our University has done for us the last twenty years. Does the State know we’re here?”

A few people shook their heads. A couple of them mumbled, “No.”

“No, the State doesn’t know we’re here. Do you realize how difficult, how hard it is to keep a secret like that from the largest intelligence apparatus in the Janus String?

“New Texas A and M has stuck by us for two decades out here. The University has protected us, kept our secrets, made sure we survived and were able to continue our research all this time. And all this time, other than requesting regular reports on our progress, they have asked nothing more of us in return. Nothing. Until now.”

He looked around the room, pausing to lock eyes with every person.

“We have to do this.”

It was a great speech. Even those most inclined to disagree could think of nothing to say. Ranger Station Alpha was going to war.

+

Several preparatory meetings had to take place first. At one of them, Ranger Jenkins addressed the logistics of attacking Redwood City. He stood before a hologram model of the city, a giant blue cube shrunk down to table size so he could point out various features.

“The spaceport is really just a landing pad on the side facing inward toward the forest. Ships land there, load bots enter and exit from this large doorway here. That is the only ground level entrance to the city. While cargo goes through there, people have to enter through Customs, which is on the fifth level here. They’re given PHUs and fly up there for processing, and go through body scanners. Kind of inconvenient, but it’s not like they get a lot of visitors, anyway.

“Now, here’s the critical thing. The city was actually designed and built in Asiana. It was shipped here in pieces and assembled on site. The thinking at the time was, it should be able to withstand attack from hostile natives. Thus the location, in the middle of a desert that is an especially hostile environment to arboreal creatures. Also, that ground level doorway is the most heavily fortified. You see how big it is. It allows the transfer of ship cargo, back and forth, and it’s heavy. When it’s closed and locked, nothing short of a nuke is going to open it from the outside.

“But Customs Entry, five levels up, is less fortified. Sure, monkeys can climb, but the builders presumed Redwood monkeys can’t climb smooth surfaces. So, the people entrance they placed higher up on the wall will be easier to break through. Same with the quadcopter bay. It’s a big door, but it’s not nearly as fortified as the ground level one. Of the two, we think a small team can batter their way through the Customs Entry easiest. Once inside, we can hopefully open the cargo bay door, let everybody in, and work toward neutralizing the city.

“But first, to get there, we have to go through the desert. They have an excellent sensor grid several miles around the city. Again, remember the assault mindset this place was built with. Anything the size of a monkey crosses over into the desert, alarms go off in the city. They’re going to see us coming.”

“The sensors are at ground level, right Colt?”

“That’s right Professor, but they monitor the air too. They’ve always seen our birds ahead of time when we’ve flown in for any reason.”

Mrs. Jenkins picked up the narrative.

“Besides the doorways, our biggest problem is going to be what happens when they engage their assault protocols. The city is designed to automatically defend itself in the event of attack. Weapons are stored inside. The load bots retrieve the weapons, transition into autonomous soldiers, and begin firing on all hostile targets outside the city.”

My eyebrows shot up. This was a surprise. Who’d have thought load bots could become soldiers? I thought about their arms and fully articulated, human-like hands, and I could see how they could handle a rifle. The idea was not too far removed from Professor Kalinowski’s repurposing them to chop up tobacco leaf. Chilling thought.

“And again, are we to presume they would fire on targets in the air?”

“Yes, Professor. And on any targets along the wall. They’re programmed to shoot at any hostile targets outside the city, air, ground, wherever. If we were to fly up to the Customs Entry, and try to break in there, they’ll fire at us from below. The city’s walls can handle the bullets without any problems.

“But the load bots aren’t the only danger incoming birds will face. They also have catapults.”

“Catapults? You mean like from the Middle Ages?”

“A little more high tech than that. They’re actually based on a type of rail gun that uses energy to propel objects out and away. They don’t store shells or ammo for them, they just use rocks. Their reasoning is, exploding ordnance would prove too disruptive to the desert’s eco system, but flying boulders would minimize damage while still proving lethal. So, they’ve got piles of rocks and large boulders all over the place just for this purpose. If an army of monkeys were to gather on the edge of the desert, they could sling rocks through the air and disrupt the masses before they got near the city. They’ve got a virtually unlimited supply of ‘ammo’ in the desert around the city, too.”

“Amazing. They really took this monkey invasion threat seriously. So, I presume you’re implying these ‘electronic catapults’ could prove dangerous to us in the air?”

“Somewhat. We think our birds’ computer systems can handle most of the difficulty. The rocks, once airborne, should follow a predictable trajectory. The birds’ sensors can figure things out in time to avoid collisions. We hope. We haven’t tested this before since it’s our first invasion, but we’re fairly confident the birds can handle it.”

Ranger Jenkins spoke again, picking up seamlessly where his wife left off.

“If we can get there, and like Ella said we’re fairly certain we can on the birds, we think a ground assault can fire on the load bots and neutralize them. Also, we think we can get a team up to the Customs Entry doorway and break in there.

“Once our main forces are inside, interior defenses around the Governor’s Quarters are relatively light. There’s not a lot of people in there to begin with, and we don’t expect much resistance once we’re inside.”

He paused and we all soaked it in. So far, everything had been presented as reasonable. Difficult, maybe, but reasonable.

“Our biggest dilemma, and possibly an insurmountable one, is that we simply don’t have enough weapons for this kind of assault.”

“How many weapons do we have?”

“Three pistols. Each Ranger is assigned one. We also have six rifles.”

“How many people do we think we can bring?”

“We’ve got ten birds. Each can carry three people. So, thirty for the assault.”

“That’s most everybody not including the children. But not enough, obviously. Thirty people with only nine guns.”

“We also don’t have much in the way of ammunition. We’ve used some of our current supplies in target practice lately. I’m afraid in an assault, we’ll run out well before we make a dent in their forces.”

The Professor’s brow furrowed as he reflected on this. It did look fairly hopeless. Of course, I knew something they didn’t. I decided it was time to speak up.

“Well, if it’s weapons and ammo you need, I know where some are located . . .”

+

I sat on the back “seat” of Jenkins’ synthetic bird, carrying a large portable battery pack. The Professor sat in the middle as the three of us approached AES 3. The bird gave a final whuff! of its wings, landed, and we climbed down. We approached the front door, and a waiting Professor Kalinowski.

“Curtis. Long time, no see.”

“How are you, Milton?”

“Oh, fair to middlin’. Brought back m’boy, I see. He give you any trouble?”

“No, we’re just here to pick up some things he left behind. Colt, you and Marcus go get the QC. Milton and I have to talk.”

We found the quadcopter and cleared the brush off. I checked the guns and ammunition where I’d left them in the QC’s storage compartment. They were undisturbed. We charged the vehicle back up with the portable battery pack. Jenkins got in with me, and I flew us back to the AES front door.

The Professors watched as I popped the canopy and Jenkins and I crawled out.

“So it’s war,” Kalinowski said.

Cruz nodded. “You knew it was inevitable. The State always overreaches.”

“True. True. But, as long as the State leaves me alone, I really don’t care what else it does.”

“The only reason the State has left you alone thus far is, they didn’t know you were here.”

Kalinowski smiled. “And will the new State, the one run by the University this time, the one that does know I’m out here . . . will that State leave me alone, too?”

“I can’t say for sure, Milton. But if I had to guess, I’d say you and I will both be long gone before the University’s government grows as corrupt as this one.”

Kalinowski nodded, his brow furrowed in thought.

“Everything ready, Colt? Marcus, were the weapons intact?”

“Yes, sir. The guns are all here and we’ve got the battery all charged.”

“Good.”

He turned back to Kalinowski.

“It’ll be okay, Milt.”

Professor Cruz clasped his colleague on the shoulder, then turned and climbed up onto the synthetic bird.

Jenkins said to me, “See you back at the station.”

He turned to Kalinowski and said, “So long, Professor.”

Then he climbed up the synthetic bird. It came alive as its system booted, turned its head and locked an eye on Jenkins.

“Bird, take us home.”

It gave a robotic Squawk! Its wings went whuff! and the two men swept up into the air and were gone.

I turned and looked at Kalinowski. He gave me a thoughtful glance.

“So you’re going to fight for the Aggies, hm?”

I shrugged. “Why not? The State would just as soon kill me.”

Kalinowski nodded. “Curtis told me about your condition.”

“How about you? Are you going to fight?”

He said nothing for a moment. He gazed out at his tobacco crops, thinking. Mulling something over in his mind.

“Curtis makes a good point. New Texas A and M has been good to us for many years. Now, I’m just an old Ag Prof, but if my University asks me for help in overthrowing the State, I agree with him. I feel an obligation to help somehow.”

I tilted my head toward the QC. “I’ve got room for one more in there.”

He smiled. “Wait a minute, m’boy. I’ll be right back.”

He returned with several boxes of cigars.

“Okay, I’m ready. Let’s go.”

I lifted off in the QC. We hovered for a moment for one last look at AES 3. Then I turned to face the trees and we flew off toward Ranger Station Alpha.

Chapter Eleven

I approached the landing pad, where the triplets stood waiting for me. They squinted to look in the QC, but couldn’t see anything clearly. I landed gently, popped the canopy, and the Professor and I crawled out. He dusted off his pants and looked around. When he saw the three triplets staring at him in wide-eyed amazement, he barked a laugh.

“So, these are the infamous O’Donnell triplets, I presume. Boys, your reputation precedes you. I am most honored to make your acquaintance.”

He stuck out his hand and shook Jeremy’s, then Jacob’s, but Jason ran off yelling, “Professor Kalinowski’s here! Professor Kalinowski’s here!”

Minutes later everybody streamed toward the landing pad.

Most hadn’t seen him in years. They hugged him, cried over him. He doted over their children, none of whom he’d seen, but he had heard all about them over the years. He seemed to know everybody by name.

Finally Mrs. Cruz stepped through the crowd.

“Milton.”

Everybody stopped and held their collective breath.

“Melody.”

He reached out and they hugged. Both cried.

Mrs. Cruz broke away.

“Milton, this is my daughter Consuela.”

Professor Kalinowski wiped away tears. “Hello, Consuela. Or, do you prefer Connie? You look just like your mother.”

She shook his hand guardedly. This obviously was a new and awkward experience for her.

“Connie is fine.”

“And Milton, this is my other daughter, Diane.”

“The lovely and talented Dee Dee! I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Thank you, Professor. Likewise.”

Dee Dee shook his hand warmly.

Professor Cruz spoke up, addressing the crowd.

“Everybody, let’s give Milton some space. Let him get settled in. Tonight we’ll have a banquet in his honor.”

“Yes! And afterwards, I’ve brought enough cigars for everyone.”

The crowd cheered.

+

The “old Ag Prof,” as he liked to refer to himself, fit in just fine with the community as the days of preparation continued for our assault on Redwood City. The O’Donnells offered to put him up in their place, in part to spare the Cruzes some awkwardness and in part because the O’Donnells were just hospitable like that.

The triplets thought this was outstanding, and spent many hours talking to Professor Kalinowski after supper. I have to say, I enjoyed having him there as well. Many nights Mrs. O’Donnell would shoo us off to bed, saying, “Milton needs his sleep. You boys do, too. Go on.”

Reluctantly, we’d end our conversation, say our goodnights, and climb the rope ladder up to the tree house. But I noted, when looking over the edge long after the triplets were snoring, the lights stayed on down in the O’Donnells’ house as they conversed with the Professor into the wee hours of the night.

My work shifted away from Mrs. Ng and food prep, as Professor Cruz reassigned many of us to help prepare for the assault. I helped inventory and prepare all our weapons, helped Jenkins in testing each one to make sure they worked. We figured out weapons assignments, deciding who got what. Then we moved to synthetic bird logistics.

Jenkins told me how the Rangers ended up with so many birds. Officially there were three Rangers in the station, all married. Only one couple had children, the Joneses. They had two boys and two girls, ages three, five, seven, and nine. By some quirk in the paperwork, while the State officially considered only three Rangers to be assigned to Redwood, each member of a Ranger’s family were allotted their own “frontier planet transportation device.” So, even three year old Hunter Jones officially received his very own synthetic bird a few months ago.

I’ll never understand State bureaucracy.

Anyway, we were happy to have the birds. Ten of them allowed thirty of us to fly in on the assault.

There was some drama in one of our many meetings surrounding the question of who would stay behind. The Jones children were a given. None were of age. But Mrs. Patel insisted Aneeta and Anusha stay behind, too. Aneeta didn’t seem to mind. I think the thought of shooting at load bots and invading Redwood City didn’t hold much appeal to her. But Anusha insisted she get a chance to fight.

“I’m thirteen! I’m of age! I have the right to decide for myself!”

Physician Patel finally convinced her by showing her there just wasn’t room to take anyone else. Professor Cruz agreed, and helped calm her down. He wanted her to know she’d have a critical role to play.

“We need you and Aneeta here to take care of the children, and monitor communications while we’re gone. If something happens and we need to know about it, you’re going to be our lifeline.”

Anusha still wasn’t completely mollified, but she agreed to stay behind. Or rather, “accept” her “fate,” as she put it.

That left me and Professor Kalinowski as the odd men out, numbers 31 and 32. Fortunately I had the QC, which could carry two. Jenkins and Professor Cruz had concerns about that, though.

“We’re not sure the QC can avoid the catapults, Marcus, even if you turn its navigation back on.”

I nodded. “That’s okay, Professor. I think I can avoid some falling rocks.”

They weren’t happy about it, but eventually they decided to let me tag along in the QC with the birds despite the risks. Then the arguments erupted over who should fly shotgun with me.

Professor Kalinowski was happy to volunteer.

“M’boy’s a fine pilot. I’ve flown with him before, to get here. Besides, if I get shot down it’s not such a big loss.”

Self-deprecation notwithstanding, he was vetoed and the argument continued. For a while it looked like one of the triplets would fly with me. They were certainly eager to face any kind of danger and the idea of zooming through the air on a stolen QC, dodging giant boulders slung by electronic catapults, actually seemed fun to them.

But then Dee Dee stood up and volunteered.

“I’ll go with him. We both have recuperative powers the rest of you don’t. If we get shot down, the two of us have the highest chance of survival.”

That put an end to all arguments and the matter was settled.

Another big preparation involved securing the Ranger station’s data. The researchers had years of information from planetary observations, agricultural experiments, exobiological readings, and tons of other stuff. Not all of it had been backed up off-planet over the years, and the Professor decided now was the time to do it. For one, he explained, concerns over monitored data transmissions were fewer now that New Texas was no longer controlled by the State.

Anusha, Dee Dee, and Jason configured a transmitter and prepared the station’s servers for the data dump.

“Send everything to Lonestar One. Redwood City doesn’t know about it, and it can relay the data in bursts through the Janus,” the Professor said.

Lonestar One, I learned, was a stealth satellite New Texas A&M put in place just for this purpose. Although no one in Redwood City knew about it, concerns over data monitoring on New Texas limited its use. But now that those concerns were no longer, the Professor seized the opportunity to upload twenty years worth of research and observations to the University.

“Haven’t you been sending stuff to them over the years?” I said.

“Yes, but not all at once. This will serve as a good backup of compiled data. Especially our more recent observations of Fred and Anna.”

Anna was the name given to the dead female monkey we retrieved. Connie named it, after deciding it needed a name better than “Female Specimen Alpha.”

The first time she visited it with the Professor, she looked at the monkey and decided, “She looks like an Anna.”

The name stuck, and everyone called her that now.

Fred had ripped Anna’s throat out, but the rest of her body was intact. The most surprising discovery the Professor made concerned Anna’s age. As near as he could figure, she was rather old, nearing the end of her life cycle.

I listened in on one of the Professor’s oral notations he made before transmitting the latest data on Anna to Lonestar One.

“It appears Fred might be serving in a predatory role for the primates. We’ve seen no real predators in our many years of observing Monkey City. The hunter-gathering teams emerge, collect food, and re-enter the city in relative safety. Outside of Fred, at no time are they seriously threatened, even by the giant snakes in the forest. They seem to be top of their food chain, and the awareness of their surroundings is so acute, even if a threat like a snake came close, they could probably evade it in time to avoid getting eaten.

“It seems possible that Fred chose to pursue Anna because she is the oldest, hence the weakest, and hence the slowest. If so, Fred may be acting like a lion chasing down the slowest antelope, culling the herd of its old and lame members.”

It was kind of a troubling thought. Survival of the fittest. If anybody ever thought Dee Dee and I would start filling that kind of “role,” as the Professor put it, as humans . . . Suddenly I didn’t feel so comfortable living at Ranger Station Alpha.

The Professor sensed my unease, and sought to reassure me.

“Humans are not animals. We don’t cull our weakest. Neither will you. Morality has prevented you from fulfilling your needs by force these years you’ve been infected. You’re not an animal, you can make higher order decisions.”

+

One night after a group meal and yet another meeting to finalize preparations for the assault, we broke up and everybody headed back to their houses. I wandered over to the garden, which had been neglected lately in all the other preparations.

It was night time, and a slight breeze found its way through the outer edge of the forest. Dee Dee was there, lying on her back.

“Oh, hi. I like to come here at night sometimes. It’s the only place I can see the stars.”

I nodded, sat down next to her and leaned back, clasping the back of my head with my hands.

“Yeah, it’s the only place with direct sunlight. Clear view of the sky for crops.”

After staring up at the stars in silence for a while, I worked up the nerve to ask her something I’d been wondering about since meeting her.

“Dee Dee, how did you get here? How did they smuggle you in from New Texas? And why’d you have to leave there, anyway?”

“I never told you? It was easy. Well, I’m sure the preparations for it weren’t easy, but getting here was. It’s one of my earliest memories. I was three years old, and smuggled aboard a spaceship going from New Texas to Redwood. One other thing was smuggled onboard with me, an extra escape pod.

“Just before entering Redwood’s atmosphere, the pilots put me in one of those pods. They were super nice, and entertained me the entire month-long trip. When putting me in the pod they both gave me a hug, told me not to worry, that I’d be safe, and to wait in the pod until somebody came to pick me up.

“I found out later that after they sent my escape pod out, they put in the new one they brought along, and fixed the ship’s computer to delete any record of an ejection. When the ship landed in Redwood, nothing seemed amiss. Everything was intact, and there was no record of a pod being used before landing.

“It was peaceful going down, at first. I saw stars everywhere, then Redwood’s surface. Then the pod hit the atmosphere and things got kind of rough while the temperature inside heated up. It was pretty scary for a three year old girl.

“But eventually I landed, safe and sound in a field of really tall grass. I followed the pilots’ instructions, and stayed in the pod. I don’t know how long I was in there, maybe two or three hours. Eventually I heard the sound of bird wings. Ranger Jones was the one who found me.

“I remember his first words. ‘Welcome to Redwood, Diane. You’re home now.’

“Then he took me up on the bird, and I sat in his lap, and we flew here.”

“And the Cruzes adopted you.”

She nodded. “Connie was about my age, and they weren’t going to have any other children. They thought it’d be nice for Connie to have a sister. They’ve been really good to me. I couldn’t ask for a nicer family.”

“But why did you leave New Texas? I mean, why did somebody go to all the trouble of sneaking you out like that?”

“That’s a good question, and I’ve talked with Daddy about it some, over the years. I was an orphan like you. And orphans are often made Servants of the State. Somebody didn’t want me assigned to that position. I’m not sure who that somebody is, and I’m not sure Daddy knows, either.

“Or if he does,” she flashed a grin, “He’s not telling.”

I mulled that over for a bit. If the Professor didn’t know, no one did. At least, not on Redwood.

“Anyway, somebody in a position of power to do something about it got me out of the orphanage and placed me on that spaceship. Obviously, somebody at New Texas A and M knew about it, because they sent me on the smuggling route. I learned the escape pod trick was a common way of supplying the ranger station, especially in the early days before we became more self-sufficient.”

“So do you know who your biological parents are, or were?”

“No. I have no memories of them. Mom speculates the State had them eliminated for some reason. She says they might have been working for the University, and somebody close to them made sure I got away.”

That seemed like a good theory.

We talked and stargazed for some time. Finally she got up and said, “I better get back before anyone gets worried.”

I stood up too, and dusted off my pants.

She gave me a hug.

“Thanks for listening.”

“Thanks for talking.”

She laughed, then kissed me. On the lips. I felt like electricity zapped through my whole body.

When we broke away, she smiled.

“Good night.”

She jogged off into the darkness toward home. I followed at a distance, walking slower. I watched her go into the Cruzes’ house, then made my way back to the triplets’ place.

I stayed in bed for a couple hours listening to the triplets snore, thinking about her.

Finally, I decided this must be what love feels like.

With that happy thought, I fell asleep.

Chapter Twelve

Finally, dawn for the day of departure came. We were all to meet on the landing platform, and load up backpacks with food and weapons. The plan was to spend the day flying to a field near the desert, set up camp then attack the city the following morning.

The triplets flew down a zipline to the landing platform, but I decided to take the long way and walk. I slid down the pole, and went by the mess hall for a final look at the place I’d spent so many hours working. As I passed the small chapel near the mess, I noted people inside. Out of curiosity, I stuck my head in the door. The light filtered in red and yellow through the stained glass windows. The Professor and Mrs. Cruz were on their knees, holding hands, heads bowed. Several other couples were in there with them. I noted the Patels, the Ngs, the Joneses. They looked up when I opened the door.

“Sorry.”

“No, that’s alright, Marcus. We were just praying for what’s ahead.”

Prayer sounded like an excellent idea to me. I continued toward the landing platform, saying a silent one myself.

Dear Lord, bless us today and tomorrow.

At the platform, everyone hurried about. A sense of urgency permeated the air. Anusha, Aneeta, and the Jones children were there: Estelle, Raymond, Azure, and Hunter. Little three year old Hunter cried while holding his sister Estelle’s hand. Raymond held Azure’s hand. The Patel girls hovered near them. As their parents streamed in from the chapel behind me, they hugged all the kids in turn.

I walked over to the QC and popped the canopy open. Dee Dee walked up with her backpack.

“Ready to go for a ride?” I said in a tone with more confidence than I felt.

“You bet. Our first date!”

I blushed.

The Cruzes walked up about that time. The Professor raised his hand. Everybody stopped what they were doing and focused on him.

“I want all weapons unloaded. No accidental discharges today, people. Take them out, point them downwards. Be careful and do not point your weapon at anybody. Slide the bolt back and make sure your gun is unloaded.”

Everybody dutifully retrieved their pistol or rifle, took the magazine out, slid the bolt back, and visually checked to make sure it was empty.

When the Professor was satisfied, he raised his hand for their attention again.

“The events we are setting in motion today will become part of the brief history of this planet. In a major revolution against State rule of the systems on the outer edge of the Janus String, what we are about to embark upon here is crucial.

“It is quite possible that several of us won’t be coming back.”

At this, little Hunter began to wail. The Professor looked at him sympathetically while Mrs. Jones picked him up and hugged him.

“But, Lord willing, we will. We are not revolutionaries, but our University has chosen to start a revolution. We are not soldiers, but our University has asked us to fight. We are not violent in nature, but now we will pursue whatever means are necessary to attain the freedoms we seek.

“Some day all people along the Janus String will hear about what we are doing today, and they will know that we understood some things are worth fighting for. Things like freedom, liberty, and democracy.

“May God bless us all. Mount up.”

It was a good speech. We needed it, as nobody looked very happy about going off to war. Except for the triplets. They were positively giddy.

Everybody mounted up. One by one the synthetic birds flapped their wings and left the platform, loaded with people and equipment.

Dee Dee and I waited and took off last. I spun the quadcopter around as we hovered for a minute, and we waived goodbye to Aneeta, Anusha, and the children. They waved back.

I turned and followed the synthetic birds.

+

We flew about eight hours. It proved a little more difficult than my flight out with Agent Schmidt, now seemingly so long ago. Then I could set the autopilot and take a nap. With the navigation system disabled (my tinfoil still hung on, the sealant holding it tight all this time), I had to pay attention to what I was doing and where I was going.

That meant I had to keep one hand on the controls at all times. But, I had one hand free to hold Dee Dee’s.

We talked about plans for the assault, about people from the Ranger station, about the past and the future. Sometimes we sat in silence and admired the scenery below. Massive fields of grassland raced beneath us. Occasionally we’d pass over a herd of Redwood cattle. They’d look up from munching on the grass and watch as we sailed overhead.

Most of all, it was pure joy to just be with her. This was the longest extended time we’d had alone together.

We stopped for a break after two hours, landing in a clear open space on top of a slight rise. It offered a nice view for miles in all directions. Everybody dismounted, stretched their legs and sipped on water.

Twenty minutes later we were in the air again. We flew for another couple hours before stopping on a rocky patch of land. It had less visibility than the first, but was clear of grass. Here we set up lunch. Mostly beef jerky and other foodstuff that didn’t need heating.

Mrs. Ng brought along a couple bags of Williams’ apples. She recruited me to help pass them out to everybody.

After one more rest stop in the afternoon, we finally reached the campsite before sundown. Jenkins and the NGs set up a proper mess, assembling a portable stove and preparing a meal of steaks and mashed potatoes while the rest of us set up our tents.

I mentioned something about satellite surveillance. Surely somebody in Redwood City would notice a campground with 32 people this close to the desert? The Professor assured me that we’d compromised their satellites some time ago, and the Patel girls were monitoring the city’s communications.

After supper, Professor Kalinowski passed out the last of his cigars.

“Don’t smoke too many of these,” he murmured in my ear as he handed me one. “They’ll kill ya.”

“I remember Ulysess S. Grant.”

“That’s m’boy.”

Eventually conversation died down, and people began retiring to their tents. The triplets and I were up with both Professors long after everyone else left, listening to them talk and plan for the morning.

Finally, Professor Cruz looked over at us and said, “Go on to bed, boys. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”

Reluctantly, we slouched off toward our tent. But curiosity got the better of me. Once the triplets started snoring, I sneaked out and made my way back over to where the two men sat, still talking.

“What do you think our chances are tomorrow, Milt?”

“We might actually be able to take the city. The biggest chance for casualties is getting shot by the load bots. I’m afraid we’re going to lose some people in that fight. Most of us aren’t too skilled with guns. Heck, I hadn’t shot a gun for years myself until just recently.”

“I know, and that bothers me. I’m not sure there’s any other practical way. If we can get a team through the Customs Entry, I think we can make it. But you’re right. We’ll probably lose some people while trying to do it.”

“Yup. I’m prepared, though. I updated my will and sent it home with the data dump through Lonestar One.”

“Really? That’s not very optimistic.”

“It’s realistic, Curt. Besides, it needed updating anyway. I hadn’t touched it in twenty years.”

They stopped talking for a while. I imagined they were lost in thought and mulling over the consequences their decisions might hold for all of us tomorrow.

Finally, Professor Kalinowski broke the silence.

“You’ve got two beautiful daughters, Curt. I’ve been meaning to tell you. Melody made the right choice all those years ago, with you. I’ve been acting like a foolish child, staying away from y’all all this time. My feelings were hurt, and I was mad, and irresponsible. But I want you to know, I’m happy for you and Melody. You have a beautiful family.”

Professor Cruz didn’t respond, he just wrapped his arm around Professor Kalinowski’s shoulder. They sat there for several minutes, smoking the last of their cigars in peace.

+

The next morning we ate a quick breakfast before packing up to go. The Professor ordered us to leave all camping gear and remaining food supplies behind. We were to load up with weapons and com units only, and return for the rest of our stuff later. We all checked and double checked our guns and ammunition.

Finally the time came to leave. The Professor called us together.

“As soon as we cross into the desert, we’ll hit their scanners. Expect the rocks to come flying soon after. The birds should be okay. We’ll hope the best for Diane and Marcus.

“We’ll come in just outside the spaceport landing zone. Take cover immediately, there will be boulders and piles of rocks strewn about everywhere. If you see a load bot, shoot it. I’ll be leading a team up to the Customs Entry once we establish ourselves, and we’ll try to force our way in. Once inside we hope to neutralize the remaining bots, and open the loading dock door for the rest of us.

“We’ll regroup inside. Securing the Governor’s Quarters is our ultimate goal. The nerve center for the entire city is in there.

“Are we ready? Everybody mount up.”

Dee Dee and I waited until they were in the air, then followed along behind. The land below grew browner. Ahead on the horizon, brown dominated the view. In the distance, a dot on the horizon grew closer that I used to call home: a giant blue cube.

Soon the last bits of green faded behind us, and we flew over the desert proper. The need for radio silence was over. They knew we were here. Jenkins’ voice crackled over the com link.

“Incoming! Pilots, order your birds to take evasive measures. Marcus and Dee Dee, Godspeed!”

I looked ahead and up through the canopy. Far off in the distant sky, specks grew larger by the second. Boulders.

The birds spread out before us, their electronic eyes identifying the threat. One to our right dipped suddenly, and banked sharp. A boulder sailed through the air where the bird would have been. It hit the ground instead, sending up a plume of dust.

More boulders and smaller rocks came raining in on us. I scanned the sky ahead, above and twelve o’clock, making course adjustments as rocks came in. They were falling in an elliptical trajectory, and whatever program that controlled the catapults adjusted the trajectory as we flew closer so that rocks were always coming in on top of us.

The birds shifted effortlessly, dipping, turning, diving, weaving. The boulders sailed past them harmlessly.

Dee Dee helped me scan the sky.

“Here comes two! One at twelve, one at two o’clock.”

I shifted course to the left. The boulders sailed down and past us.

“Here comes another! Twelve o’clock.”

I shifted course to the right.

Boulder after boulder dropped on us. The city grew bigger, dominating the horizon now.

“So far, so good,” I said. “Looks like we’re getting under their effective arc range.”

As we sped closer, it did look like they’d given up on the catapults. The big blue cube grew close enough to make out some details. I could see the glass wall on the roof, the landing bay and door, now sealed shut.

“Marc, look out!”

A last ditch surprise. Five catapults launched their loads at once, right toward us. The birds scattered in all directions before the load shot through their formation. I jerked the controls down and to the right just as a boulder the size of a kitchen table sailed past us.

A smaller rock about the size of a basketball hit the left front rotor. It exploded in shards of carbon fiber.

“I’m hit! I’m hit!”

The computer sounded a klaxon.

“Warning! Warning! Destabilization!”

Dee Dee screamed.

The QC spun rapidly downwards. I fought with the controls. I struggled to get it out of the spin and maintain some kind of forward momentum. The ground grew closer.

“Hang on Dee Dee we’re coming down hard!”

I threw the remaining rotors into full reverse right before impact. Then I blacked out.

+

I woke up to Dee Dee wiping blood off my brow from where my head had slammed into the canopy. She had bruises on her arms, chest and face.

“Are you alright?”

I groaned and shook the cobwebs from my head.

“I’ve had worse. How about you?”

“I’m fine. We need to go help the others.”

We carefully crawled out of the wreckage of the QC. I felt sad to see it destroyed. It’s funny how you can become attached to a machine, but this thing had carried me to freedom. The number 17 painted on its side was all crumpled up in the wreckage.

We retrieved our com sets, pulled our guns out, racked the bolts back, and set out on foot toward the landing bay. The blue cube of Redwood City towered above us. We heard gunfire ahead.

We worked our way through piles of rocks and rubble to the edge of the landing bay. The spaceships were gone. I figured they put them in orbit to keep them away from gunfire. Smart. The ships could stay parked in orbit indefinitely while we sorted things out down here.

Everybody hunkered down behind boulders. The load bots were firing, advancing toward the boulders in pairs. Somebody would stand up and shoot at them, then duck back down behind their boulder as the bots returned fire.

Mrs. Ng sat with her back to a boulder, holding Mr. Ng’s head in her lap. Blood covered his face. We ran to her position, keeping boulders and rock piles between us and the load bots.

I held my fingers to his neck. No pulse. He’d been shot in the head.

I jumped up, took quick aim at a load bot, and squeezed off a shot.

Bang! Twing!

I ducked back down as two bots fired back.

“They’re bullet proof,” I said, thinking back to all those times I’d noted their slate grey torsos.

I never gave much thought about how indestructible they were. A puny nine millimeter round would do nothing to them.

“Did you try for the head?”

“No. Center mass.”

Dee Dee stood up, squeezed off a round at the nearest bot.

Bang! Pchow!

Its head exploded, bits of machinery and sensors flying out. It stopped in its tracks, arms hanging loosely, its gun clattering to the ground.

“Dee Dee, you’re a genius!”

I activated my com link. “Aim for the heads! Their heads aren’t bullet proof, that’s their weak spot!”

Soon, from spots around the landing pad where our people were pinned down, we heard sounds of electronic brains exploding amid the gunfire. I took out a couple more, carefully peeking over the rock, squeezing off rounds.

The shooting stopped as the bots withdrew toward the city.

“What’s happening?”

“Maybe a tactical retreat?”

Mrs. Jones’ voice came over the com link. “It’s a new strategy. They’re going to attack our positions in force. Marcus, Dee Dee, brace yourselves! Looks like they’re coming your way first.”

I peeked over the boulder.

“A dozen bots are heading over here. More. Maybe fifteen.”

I ducked back down and reloaded my rifle, slamming home a fresh magazine.

Mrs. Ng lifted her husband’s head off her lap. She kissed him on the lips, wiped off his blood.

“Goodbye, Davey.”

She picked up her gun, stood up, and started shooting at the approaching bots.

Bang!Bang!Bang!Bang!Bang!Bang!

They started shooting back. Bullets hit her chest.

Thwip! Thwip! Thwip!

She fell back behind the boulder. I grabbed her.

“Stay with me, Mrs. Ng! Stay with me!”

Blood bubbled from her chest. Aorta, I thought. She’s got a couple minutes at most.

She looked at me, reached up and grabbed weakly at my shirt, pulling me closer.

“Drink my blood, Marcus.”

“What? No, I can’t do that. Hang on, Mrs. Ng. The Physician will be here soon. We’ll get you help.”

“Drink my blood . . . then go get those bastards . . .”

Her eyes slid back in her head, and she was gone. In her death, I saw something I’d never seen before. Her smile.

I pulled her chest up close and drank deep from a wound. I sat her back on the ground, wiped blood and tears off my face, and picked up my gun.

I stood up and started walking toward the bots. She’d taken down four of them. Ten more headed in our direction. I started shooting, carefully aiming for the heads.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

Each shot went home, taking out the head unit of a bot in a minor explosion.

They started shooting back.

Bang! Thwip! Bang! Thwip!

I felt the bullets enter my chest. I stopped and shuddered for a minute. Then I aimed again, squeezed off more rounds.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

Dee Dee stood up behind me and finished off the remaining two bots.

Bang! Bang!

She ran over to me, and covering the bullet holes and the blood on my chest with her hands.

“Stay still. You’re making it worse. Let me get a fast patch on those.”

She dragged me back behind the boulder. We sat down next to the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Ng.

“I hardly knew them, Dee Dee.”

She nodded and fished around in her pack for a first aid kit.

“Nobody knew the trees of Redwood like Scientist Ng. He gave his life to this place. All that knowledge. Gone.”

“Don’t go into shock on me, Marc.”

She activated her comlink. “Physician Patel? Can you get to our position? Marc has been shot.”

“On my way!”

I started crying as I looked down at their bodies. Dee Dee found some gauze and staunched the bleeding.

“They were good to me, Dee Dee. Not many people have been good to me in my life.”

She held me tight, rocking me back and forth like a mother with a crying baby.

Physician Patel ran up, bent low to keep his head below the rocks, carrying a med kit. He attached something to my chest, sent in probes, and took out the bullets somehow. Then he put on a couple fast patch skin grafts over the bullet holes. The whole process took three minutes.

The com link crackled again. It was the Professor.

“Jivin, get over here. Milton and one of the triplets have been shot.”

“Knowing your recuperative powers, I’m sure you’ll be fine, Marcus.”

He ran off to help the others.

Actually, I was starting to feel pretty good by that point, all things considered. I sat up. The shooting had died down. I gave the Ngs one last look. Dee Dee held my arm, protectively.

“Let’s go see if the others need help.”

Professor Cruz and Professor Kalinowski were behind a pile of rocks nearest the landing pad. They’d taken cover there with Mrs. Jones and Jeremy. When we got there, Professor Kalinowski was already dead. One shot to the head, two to the heart.

Jeremy was fortunate. One shot to the upper arm. It passed straight through, and didn’t touch the bone. A simple flesh wound. The Physician had already fast patched him and put his arm in a sling by the time we got there.

I looked down at Professor Kalinowski’s body and the tears welled up again. Professor Cruz came over and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, much like he’d done the night before with Kalinowski himself.

Mrs. Jones cleared her throat. She wore a light sweatband which contrasted neatly with her dark skin.

“Yes, Leesa?”

“They’ve pulled back the remaining bots into a defensive perimeter around the bay door, sir. We’re in the clear for now.”

“Very good. Keep an eye on them. I’ll get everybody together for a casualty count and we’ll figure out how to get up to the Customs Entry.”

+

Three dead and two shot were the extent of our casualties, including me. I had some pain in my chest, but I was still mobile. Mrs. O’Donnell fussed over Jeremy, in turn berating him for getting shot then expressing concern for how he was feeling, then berating him again.

Jeremy put up a good front.

“I’m fine, Ma. It’s nothing.”

You’d think he got shot every day.

The rest of us were shaken by the deaths of the Ngs and Professor Kalinowski. Some cried. Others shook their heads in disbelief. The Professor brought us back to the task at hand.

“We’ll take care of them later. Right now we’ve got to breach that city.”

Ranger Jenkins suggested sticking to their original plan, having two birds carry up six people to the Customs Entry. The birds could shield the riders from gunfire below, but only for so long. They weren’t bullet proof. He felt confident they could last long enough to drop us off on the fifth level platform, though, especially now that we’d reduced the number of load bots to less than twenty.

“We fly in fast to the platform, and everybody jumps off. We’ll be fine. These old birds can take a lot of punishment.”

“Okay. The rest of the group will attack from below, providing a distraction. I’ll take Colt, Marcus, Dee Dee, Jason and Jacob on the birds. Colt will provide us firepower, while the kids can hack the computers and communications network. Let’s go.”

All ten birds circled far out in the sky above the desert, safe from gunfire. Jenkins called in his bird and his wife’s. Dee Dee and I climbed up behind him on his. The Professor, Jason and Jacob climbed up on Mrs. Jenkins’ bird.

“Tell it to auto follow mine, Professor. We’ll take the long way around to try and minimize gunfire.”

“Very good. Bradley?”

Ranger Jones looked up. He had a darker complexion than the rest of us, and his eyes stood out, grim and determined. African ancestry. Handsome, rugged, good outdoors look.

“You and Leesa are in charge of the ground assault. We’ll wait until you begin, then make for the Customs Entry. Draw their fire as much as you can for us.”

Ranger Jones nodded. Our birds spread their wings, flapped down with a whuff! and we were up and heading away from the city. Jenkins took us out across the desert before circling back to approach Customs Entry from the side.

I turned and looked below. Ranger Jones and his wife waved for the remaining two dozen people to follow them, and they approached the loading bay for our second assault on Redwood City.

Chapter Thirteen

Mrs. Jones’s voice crackled over the com.

“We’re attacking, Professor!”

“Very good. Colt! Take us in!”

Ranger Jenkins said, “Bird, manual control!”

A control stick popped up in place of the hologram in front of him. He steered us back toward the city, coming in from the side. The Professor’s bird with Jacob and Jason followed behind us. We were at the fifth level’s height, about 100 meters up.

Jenkins flew us right by the wall, a blur of blue racing by on our left. Below I could hear gunfire between our group and the bots.

The bots clustered in front of the loading bay door. Customs Entry had a smaller platform, directly above. As we neared the platform, the bots became aware of our presence, and started directing fire toward us.

Bullets slammed into the synthetic bird’s skin, burrowing into its breast and belly.

Thip! Thip! Thip! Thip!

“Hang on! We’re almost there!”

We raced toward the small Customs platform. I realized suddenly just how small it was. Getting up to it by PHU was not a big deal, but a giant synthetic bird would never be able to land there.

“It’s not big enough!”

“It doesn’t matter! When we get close, jump!”

Right before we came to the platform, Jenkins pulled back hard on the stick, and jerked it left, slowing us and angling the bird toward the platform.

“Jump!”

The three of us jumped, barrel rolling onto the platform.

“Bird! Resume position!”

The bird let out a garbled electronic squawk in reply. Bullets continued slamming into its belly.

Thip! Thip! Thip!

Its head exploded in a burst of synthetic blood. The bird went down, spiraling, crashing into the bots below it.

The Professor’s bird came in right behind it, following the first bird’s pattern exactly, slowing and tilting toward the platform.

“Jump!”

The Professor and Jason jumped. Already Mrs. Jenkins’ bird was going down as more and more bullets slammed into it.

Jacob jumped a split second later, his upper half reaching the platform, his legs sticking out.

Thwip!

“Arg! I’m shot!”

He pulled up his legs up over the lip of the platform, holding his calf.

Mrs. Jenkins’ bird made it out above the spaceport, still taking bullets and losing altitude fast. It drifted away several more yards before crashing near the catapults.

“I’m shot! I’m shot! I’m shot!”

I dragged Jacob back into the relative safety of the alcove. The birds eliminated, the load bots returned their full focus and fire to our party below. The gunfight down there continued.

Dee Dee pulled out her first aid kit.

“Stay still. Let me get a fast patch on it.”

“Ow! It hurts! It hurts so bad! I think it went into the bone!”

“I can’t get it out. You’re going to have to wait until we get the Physician to see you.”

“I can’t stand it! It hurts!”

I dug through the first aid kit and found a package that read “PAINKILLERS” in large print. In smaller print below, it read, “Synthetic Opiate. Caution: administer only one dose per four hours.”

“Here, give him one of these. It should help with the pain.”

“Marcus, you’re familiar with these entry systems. Come take a look at this door.”

I scrambled over to the doorway. The Professor, Jenkins, and Jason made room for me. It was sealed shut. A single palm scanner stood guard on its right.

“I might still be in the system.”

I placed my palm over the reader, breathed a silent prayer that my little hacking job from so many months ago at AES 12 with Schmidt had never been uncovered.

Ding!

The door slid open.

“Everybody inside!”

Jason and I went back to pick up Jacob.

“Come on, buddy.”

“Hm? What? Oh. Sure.”

I turned to Dee Dee.

“Wow, that stuff is fast-acting.”

She nodded and helped us pull Jacob to his feet. Together the four of us went through the Redwood City Customs Entry doorway.

I was back inside, the first time in months.

+

Customs was deserted. We rushed through deactivated body scanners and tables set out for sorting luggage, and made our way to the inner door. It was sealed shut, too. A monitor to its right flashed a circle with a line through it. I placed my palm on the nearby reader.

Nothing happened.

“Computer. Open door.”

“Invasion protocol active. Secondary entrances sealed.”

“Great. I guess my hand print can only get us so far.”

“Let me try,” the Professor said. “Computer, emergency open requested.”

“Invasion protocol active. Secondary entrances require password.”

At that, a keyboard hologram appeared in the air, just below the monitor.

“Oh, man. Don’t let Jeremy find out about this low tech.”

I said, “Grab Jacob’s hacker board and hook it up to the system. I might be able to guess the password.”

We waited impatiently a few minutes while the hacker board ran through permutations. Gunfire continued below. Still under the effects of the painkiller, Jacob began humming. Badly, and off-key.

The permutations stopped.

“What’s it say?”

“The password is seven characters long.”

“Redwood,” the Professor suggested. I keyed it in.

“Nope. ‘R’ is good, though.”

We stopped to think for a minute, stumped.

Jason said, “Try the number three for ‘E.’”

I keyed in “R3DWOOD.”

“Hm. ‘R-three-D-W’ is good. I’ll bet the O’s are zeros, though. Suite three-hundred is Adams’ office. He probably programmed the password.”

“Who’s Adams?”

“The Head Servant. There, that should do it.”

“Password accepted. Entry granted.”

The door slid open.

The Professor activated his com. “Brad, Leesa, we’re in. We’re headed toward the . . .”

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

We ducked back in the doorway, diving for cover in the Customs area. Jason dragged Jacob with him. I peeked above the desk I found to hide behind with Dee Dee.

“Three of them, Professor! Looks like Agents.”

“Makes sense. They must have found some guns. Colt, take them out.”

Ranger Jenkins jumped out from behind a body scanner and started shooting.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

“Coast is clear.”

We made our way back to the hallway. Three Agents lay on the floor, each with one shot to the head. I noticed one of them was Agent Hernandez, from my tribunal.

“Grab their weapons. Let’s go.”

+

I led the way through the city, heading toward the Governor’s Quarters. Every screen we passed flashed red. The computers kept saying, “Invasion protocol. Invasion protocol.”

We didn’t see many people. Where we did, they turned and ran away from us.

Finally, we neared the entrance to The Old Man’s office, where I’d gone through my tribunal so long ago. The outer door was locked. The Professor nodded, as if expecting it.

“Open it.”

I placed my hand on the palm reader.

“Invasion protocol active. Secondary entrances require password.”

The virtual keyboard appeared. I keyed in R3DW00D.

“Improper password. Access denied.”

“Great. Jason, hand me the hacker board again.”

“Just a minute.”

The Professor examined the door closely.

“What do you think, Colt? This door is not nearly as fortified as the last two. There’s no secondary seal, just a lock.”

Jenkins nodded, quickly grasping the Professor’s intent.

“We can try it. Everybody stand back.”

Jenkins pulled out his rifle and began shooting at the door handle.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

With each shot, a hole around the handle grew bigger. Finally, he kicked it, and the door burst open in a shower of splinters.

We heard a yelp as somebody ducked behind a desk in the office. Dee Dee, Jenkins and I pointed our guns at the desk. A trembling young Servant stood up, his hands in the air. I recognized him as the kid who’d brought the Agent’s report to my tribunal.

“Don’t shoot! Please, don’t shoot!”

“Get outta here.”

He ran from the room, crying.

The Professor walked over to the doorway on the opposite side of the room.

“This is just the outer office. That door is the one we need to get into. And it’s sealed. We can’t shoot our way through this one.”

Jason pulled out the hacker board again, and we went to work. Dee Dee turned her attention to the computer station at the desk. She called me over.

“Try your palm print on this one. Let’s see if I can get into anything.”

I placed my palm on the scanner, granting her sysop access.

A few minutes later, Dee Dee said, “I’m intercepting a distress call from Redwood City to New Texas.”

“See if you can pipe it through for us, Diane.”

“Okay, but it’s not going to look right since we’re not in the same room.”

A couple minutes later a silver corporate communications icon hung in the air. Near the door Jason and I were working on, a hologram of The Old Man appeared. He was seated and stared ahead, an angry scowl creasing his face.

“Connection established.”

Another hologram of another man appeared. He was seated too, but his hologram body appeared within the desk near Dee Dee. His upper torso popped up out of the desk as he looked toward The Old Man.

“Hello, Thomas. What’s going on? I can’t talk long, there’s a lot on my plate. These Aggies are killing my people. Killing them! They’ve had the gall to shoot back at Agents and GPs.”

“I’m being invaded, Phil!”

Jason looked up from the hacker board. “That must be Phillip Prince, the Governor of New Texas he’s talking to.”

“What? What do you mean ‘invaded?’ What are you talking about?”

“Right now. They’re just outside my door. They’ve got guns and they’ve broken through the Customs Entry. There’s another group outside fighting my load bots.”

“Who? Who are these people, Thomas?”

“I don’t know! Rangers, maybe? They flew in on synthetic birds. But I only know of three Ranger families out there. They shouldn’t have more than six adults, but our scanners showed at least thirty.”

“Okay, calm down. We’ll figure something out.”

“I can’t calm down, Phil! I saw them shoot down my Agents, too! On the surveillance cams. They’re right outside my door, right now, trying to break in!”

“You should be fine. The protocols were put in place for these things.”

A thought seemed to cross Governor Prince’s face.

“Say . . . you didn’t see any monkeys with them, did you?”

“No. But I did see that Servant who disappeared with Agent Schmidt several months ago. He’s with them, Phil. He’s one of them.”

At the mention of me, the Governor’s face grew very troubled.

“And the protocols are NOT working, Phil. They were designed to thwart monkeys, not people. They’ve gotten past the catapults, the bots, the Customs Entry. And now they’re at my door trying to get in!”

“Just stay calm, Thomas. I have a lot on my plate right now. They got my Governor’s Mansion along with most of New Austin. I was able to escape by the skin of my teeth and set up a remote command base . . .”

“I think we’ve got it,” Jason said. “It’s a long string of random characters, not like on the outer door. But the hacker board says this is it.”

I nodded to the Professor. He and Jenkins came closer, guns at the ready.

“Diane, you stay here with Jacob. Jason, when you open the door we’ll charge in.”

As good a plan as any, I thought. I racked the bolt back on my gun as Jason keyed in the password.

Ding!

We rushed in, guns drawn.

I said, “Computer, terminate connection.”

“Connection terminated.”

The hologram of the Governor in both rooms blinked out of existence. The Old Man stood up, slowly. He trembled in rage, staring at each of us in turn. He stopped at me, smoldering in rage.

“Hello, Thomas,” The Professor said. “I’m relieving you of command.”

Chapter Fourteen

“I need your palm print. You can give it to me willingly. Or, I can bite you.”

The Old Man’s eyes grew wide. I’d guessed correctly he wouldn’t try and call my bluff. He placed his palm on the scanner, and I gave myself sysop-prime access to Redwood City’s entire computer system. Then I programmed in Dee Dee and Jason, too.

Several vid screens covered the walls of The Old Man’s inner office. We keyed in on the ones showing the loading bay and the spaceport, where the gun battle still raged.

We shut down the load bots, and halted the system’s invasion protocol. A cheer came over the com link as Ranger Jones called in.

“Thanks, Professor! We were starting to get a little worried out here!”

“Any casualties Bradley?”

“No, sir. We mainly kept our heads down and let the bots do most of the shooting. We hoped they’d run out of ammo eventually. They had a lot of ammo, though.”

“Good work, all of you. We’re opening the loading bay door. But you need to be aware of three armed Agents that we’re seeing on surveillance cams. They’re planning a welcome party for y’all. Be careful, Bradley.”

Without the element of surprise, the Agents had no chance. Mr. and Mrs. Jones along with Mrs. Cruz and half a dozen others started firing on the Agents’ position as soon as the door began lifting up. A few seconds later, the three Agents lay sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood.

“Bradley, we’re not seeing any other threats on surveillance. I think the city only had six Agents, and we killed the other three. But you need to be extra careful when you see somebody. Don’t presume they’re friendly.”

I keyed up my com link. “Ranger Jones, if you’ll put your hand on the scanner there on the wall, I’ll program you into the system. We’re going to lock all the doors in the city so that everybody stays put. When your team needs to go through a doorway, you’ll just need to swipe the palm scanner.”

The Professor turned to Jenkins.

“Colt, escort Thomas here back to his quarters. I believe they’re through the doorway over there. We’ll lock him in there for now.”

Jenkins nodded and motioned to The Old Man with his gun.

“Diane, see if you can patch me through to President Montoya. He’ll want to know about our status.”

Several minutes later, and after several long distance arguments with people at New Texas A&M, Dee Dee looked up.

“I finally got somebody who says he’ll put the President on, Daddy. It’s going to be voice only.”

“That’s fine. Whenever he’s ready, send it through.”

A few moments later, a voice filled the room through the wall speakers.

“Hello? Who am I talking to?”

“Hello, Tony. It’s Curt Cruz. Long time, no see.”

A long pause.

“Curt, your voice print matches. You have to understand the situation we’re in over here, though. I have to verify it’s really you before we can talk.”

“No problem. Verify away.”

Another long pause. I guessed President Montoya was discussing the matter off-mic with someone.

“Curt, tell me about that game with Polytech we played in. You know, the one we won when I tossed you the ball and you scored the winning touchdown.”

The Professor smiled.

“You know Polytech beat us that year, Tony. We were robbed by the refs on that play.”

We heard the President laugh, along with several other people in the room.

“Just checking, Curt. We had to be sure. How’s it going over there? I see you’re calling me from Redwood City. Does it mean what I hope it does?”

“We took it, Tony. Just like you asked us to.”

The President sounded relieved. “That’s the best news I’ve had all day. Any casualties?”

“We lost three. The Ngs and Milton Kalinowski. Couple others were shot up, but they’ll live. The other side lost six Agents and a bunch of load bots.”

“That’s great news about taking the city. I’m sorry for the losses. I knew Milt. I only know Scientist Ng by reputation. Look, Curt, keep the area secure. We’ll send a team your way when things settle down and relieve you.”

“That’d be good. I’m sure we’d all like to get back to our research as soon as possible.”

Dee Dee sorted through the surveillance cam feeds while the Professor spoke. She stopped and stared at one, motioned me over. She pointed to one of the screens, which showed somebody hanging from the ceiling by their neck.

“That’s the bedroom here in the Governor’s Quarters.”

Jenkins and I ran over to where he’d locked up The Old Man. I palmed the door. It slid open and we burst into the room.

The Old Man had tied the sheets on his bed into a rope and hanged himself.

+

We secured all the guns used by the load bots and Agents. After a while, and after things were cleaned up, the Professor had Dee Dee unlock all the doors in the city and he called the populace together. I suggested he direct everybody to assemble at Park 7 on Level 25. I’d spent many hours working in that park, and knew it’d be a good meeting place, at the center of the city.

The Professor stood on a platform and addressed the crowd. Out of an entire cubic kilometer of a city, only a thousand inhabited it, all men. The official count on the system’s computers stood at 1,121 inhabitants. Minus the six Agents that had kept tabs on the entire group. And The Old Man, who’d chosen a cowardly suicide.

A handful of people knew the Rangers well, and were regarded as old friends by our team. They’d helped smuggle things off-planet back to New Texas. Customs worried about what came into Redwood City, but not so much what went out. So, smuggling items out tended to be easier. Jenkins explained this was how they were able to ship out Kalinowski’s cigars, among other things.

Somebody shouldered their way to the front of the crowd, and stared dagger eyes at me. Adams, the Head Servant. I ignored him as the Professor began his speech.

“We’re going to ask you to maintain your daily schedule. People still have to eat, equipment needs to be maintained. The government is changing back on New Texas and on other planets as well. This city is under University charter, now. This probably means little to you at the moment. But eventually, it will come to mean a lot more. For now, maintain your routines until we get everything sorted out.”

He spoke softly, reassuringly, matter-of-factly. But behind the podium the Rangers and their wives stood quietly holding guns, ready to shoot down anybody considering an attack.

Fortunately, they were mostly a docile lot: Servants, Mechanics, and other laborers who had the misfortune of being assigned to a backwater frontier planet. They never bothered attacking.

Our only trouble came when planning for the funerals. The Professor decided Kalinowski’s beloved AES 3 would be an ideal place to bury him, and he figured the old spaceport near Ranger Station Alpha would suit the Ngs well, underneath one of the trees Scientist Ng had studied for so long.

Adams found out about the plans, and protested strongly. Several times. I was there for the last one.

“Professor, I remind you this planet is still under ecological impact restrictions. Now, I don’t know what you and your team have been up to the last several years, but I do know interment of human remains is strictly disallowed on ecologically restricted planets! I don’t care if we are under University charter. Ecological restrictions transcend who’s in charge of the government at any given moment. The University probably had a hand in writing these restrictions in the first place. I am strongly opposed to this move, and I will lodge my protest to your superiors against this clear violation of protocol!”

The Professor pinched his nose. The ferocity with which Adams fought against the burials was surprising at first, then frustrating. The man would not let the issue go. As a former high ranking member of the city’s bureaucracy, his protests carried some weight, too.

“Where, exactly, do you bury your dead, Mr. Adams? I know you don’t fly the bodies back to New Texas.”

“On the roof. We have a cemetery near the gardens up there. The bodies stay contained within the cube.”

Once Adams left, I chimed in.

“I bet they were worried about vampire monkeys digging up the bodies or something.”

He nodded. “That would make sense. That probably accounts for his vehemence in the matter.”

“Just go ahead and bury them here for now, Professor. We can always reinter them later.”

He agreed, and that’s what we did. The bodies of the Ngs, Professor Kalinowski, and all six Agents, as well as The Old Man, were brought up to the roof. Graves were dug, we buried them and had a funeral. Tombstones were brought out of a storage facility, names and dates etched, and the stones were placed at the graves.

Afterward, Dee Dee and I walked alone in the rooftop garden, holding hands. A feral cat scampered out of our way.

“Lunch!” I joked.

Eventually, we made our way to the glass wall. She looked out over the surface of Redwood from on top of the cube for the first time. The sun sank low on the horizon, painting the sky in brilliant colors.

“It’s beautiful.”

I agreed. “All my life I’ve been trying to get away from here, and over to where you all were. But yeah, I gotta admit. This is a breathtaking view.”

+

Three months later the triplets, Dee Dee and I were on a spaceship bound for New Texas. The fighting had died down, and New Texas A&M controlled the entire planet. Governor Prince’s secret compound was uncovered and attacked. He died in the fighting. The planet was now at peace, and completely under the University charter.

We’d received news that all of us had been accepted into New Texas A&M, and in light of our contributions to the revolution we’d receive full scholarships. “Veterans’ benefits,” they’d called it.

Connie received an acceptance letter and scholarship, too, but she decided to stay home at least a year. She also considered virtual enrollment, which would be possible now that we didn’t have to be careful with our communications between the Ranger station and New Texas.

I think she really wanted to avoid a month on a spaceship with all of us, especially Dee Dee and me.

Jason gulped down a can of naval beer, then let out a long and hearty belch.

“Lovely,” Dee Dee said.

“Tasteless beer demands tasteless burps, Dee Dee. You know what this stuff needs? Some of Rustin’s Redwood Red Eye.”

Arthur Rustin was a crop Scientist back on Redwood. On the side, his hobby involved distilling grain liquor. Some of the bottles of 3RE, as he called them, were approaching 15 years old. I’d tried a sip or two back at Ranger Station Alpha, but never cared much for it.

“If you say so.”

I’d shown the triplets my hacker board trick with the beer dispenser, a vulnerability which had still not been closed after all this time. Maybe nobody else had exploited it, and no other beers had been stolen. Out of bureaucratic sight, out of bureaucratic mind, I guess.

The triplets were impressed by the trick, and proceeded to empty the machine of all its beer over the course of our trip. Jason swigged the last beer the machine had to offer, crumpled the can and tossed it into the recycle bin.

“Entering New Texas airspace. Would you like the tourist channel?”

Jeremy winked at us. “No thanks, computer. I’ll handle it.”

The spaceship shuddered a bit as it bumped into the atmosphere.

“I’ve been reading up on New Texas. Okay, so you’ve got five continents. Each continent has a major city. New Austin, the capitol of course. Then there’s New Houston, New Dallas, New Fort Worth, and New San Antonio. That about rounds out the “new” cities, except for New Bryan which is on the same continent as New Austin and where New Texas A and M is.”

I’d been reading a little history, too.

“I thought the original Texas A and M was in a city called College Station.”

Jeremy nodded.

“True. But the original town Texas A and M was built near was called Bryan. College Station was just a train stop. Over time, a smaller town built up around the campus, and they later incorporated as a city, naming it after the train stop. As even more time went by, College Station grew bigger than Bryan as Texas A and M grew bigger.

“But when setting up New Texas A and M, the founders decided to name the surrounding city New Bryan. In a nod to the old train stop, the spaceport is named College Station.”

“Makes sense.”

We watched the planet below as we dipped down toward the clouds, then through the clouds. Water gave way to land. We dropped lower and saw the tell-tale signs of civilization: fields, towns, highways. Slower and slower, lower and lower, until the spaceport came into view.

“Uh, guys . . . looks like there’s a lot of people here.”

Jason was right. Crowds swarmed the perimeter of our landing pad.

The spaceship came to a smooth halt, bumping slightly as it sat down. The airlock popped open and the computer said, “Please enjoy your stay in New Texas!”

We peered out cautiously. A nearby sign read, “College Station Spaceport. Welcome to New Aggieland!”

Hordes of people surrounded the pad. Armed security personnel stood guard, keeping people behind a line set up around the perimeter. A platform with a podium stood on the opposite side. A military band stood at attention.

“I’ll go see what’s up,” Jason said.

He stepped out of the spaceship. Somebody at the podium with a microphone said over a loudspeaker, “It’s . . . one of the O’Donnell triplets!”

The crowd roared in approval.

Bemused, Jason walked a few more steps toward the podium. Everybody jumped up and down, screaming, whooping, whistling.

With each step, Jason gained more confidence, deciding that they really were cheering for him after all. He stopped in the middle of the landing pad, raised both hands clasped over his head, shaking them. The crowd went wild. Photo lights flashed.

Jacob elbowed Jeremy in the ribs. “Are we gonna stand here and let him receive all the glory?”

Together the other two boys exited the spaceship and started waving at the crowd.

“It’s the other two O’Donnell triplets! Let’s give them a warm New Texas welcome!”

They walked over where Jason stood, waving, giving thumbs up.

A crush of young girls nearly overwhelmed a security guard as they scrambled to get to the boys.

“Back! Back! Everybody stay behind the line!”

He popped a couple of them in the face with his baton and the girls fell back into the crowd.

Dee Dee and I looked at each other, shrugged, and exited the craft holding hands.

“It’s Diane Fremont and Marcus Savitch, everyone! The heroes of Redwood!”

A group of girls squealed and sang out to me, frantically waving their hands.

“Marcus! Marcus! Over here! Marcus!”

Photo lights flashed, and I noted vid cams in the crowd.

“Diane! Look over here Diane!”

“Smile for the cams!”

“Miss Fremont, can we have an interview?”

About this time a large tall man came from the podium area over to us. He wore a business suit, had almond-shaded skin, dark hair, and a huge smile.

“Welcome, welcome! I am President Antonio Montoya. Welcome to New Aggieland! Come with me up to the podium.”

We followed him. The crowd kept cheering, the photo lights kept flashing.

When we reached the platform, President Montoya presented us with a wave of his hand, and said in the mic, “Ladies and gentlemen . . . I present to you . . . the heroes of Redwood!”

The crowd erupted in cheers. The band started playing “The Spirit of Aggieland,” and everyone sang along.

[Some may boast of prowess bold
Of the school they think so grand
But there’s a spirit can ne’er be told
It’s the Spirit of Aggieland]

[We are the Aggies, the Aggies are we
True to each other as Aggies can be
We’ve got to fight boys
We’ve got to fight!
We’ve got to fight for Maroon and White
__
After they’ve boosted all the rest
Then they will come and join the best
For we are the Aggies, the Aggies so true
We’re from Texas A M New!]

After the song, somebody in the crowd started chanting, “Speech! Speech! Speech!”

Soon the whole crowd picked it up. President Montoya looked at us with eyebrows raised. Jason pushed me toward him, so I walked the rest of the way up to the podium.

The crowd quieted immediately. I looked out at thousands of eyes looking back at me. Photo lights flashed. I gulped. I’d never given a speech before.

But I’d done some reading on the trip over, and I knew how to start a speech at New Texas A&M. Somewhere, somebody had said to always start a speech there by saying, “Howdy, Ags!” and end it by saying, “Gig ’em!”

I had no idea why. “Howdy” seemed like a provincial greeting, so it kind of made sense, but why a speech had to begin with it, I was clueless. And I was equally mystified as to what “gig ’em” meant.

Oh well. When in Rome and all that.

I bent my head to the mic and said, “Howdy, Ags!”

The crowd roared in approval, for a solid minute. More photo lights flashed.

President Montoya bent down and murmured in my ear, “Keep going, Marcus. You’re doing great. This is being broadcast all over the planet.”

I gulped, and decided the President’s confidence building skills were sorely lacking. But I took a deep breath, and let it out slowly before approaching the mic again.

“On behalf of all of us, I want to thank you for welcoming us here today. We did not expect this kind of a reception. It’s heartening, and humbling at the same time.”

I paused. I had the crowd’s full attention.

Somewhere a girl yelled out, “We love you, Marcus!”

I nodded in her general direction to show appreciation, then continued.

“We were introduced as ‘the heroes of Redwood.’ We appreciate that. Thank you for acknowledging our part in the University Revolution. But we’re not the real heroes of Redwood. That honor belongs to people like Scientist David Ng and his wife Susan, and Professor Milton Kalinowski. These researchers gave their lives to free Redwood from the State.

“And before they shed their blood for the Revolution, they gave their lives to research on Redwood. They toiled in secret for years. Scientist Ng observed the giant trees on Redwood for nearly two decades. With his death, the Janus String’s most knowledgeable person of those wonderful trees is gone.

“Professor Kalinowski likewise spent years on crop experiments, gaining valuable data and expanding our understanding of the unique agricultural environment Redwood has, and its potential benefits for people living on all the planets in the string.”

Mentally, I’d decided it wouldn’t be prudent to bring up what kind of crops the good Professor experimented on, so I left out any mention of tobacco.

“All three were good people, some of the best people I’ve ever known. They gave their lives to Redwood. They are the true heroes of Redwood. Not us. Thanks, and gig ’em!”

I stepped back from the mic. The crowd roared again. Maybe “gig ’em” was something to say in order to let the crowd know you were finished speaking. Curious tradition, I mused.

The band started playing the first few chords of the “Aggie War Hymn.” When the main part of the song finished, everybody grabbed the shoulders of those next to them, and started swaying back and forth as they sang.

[Saw Varsity’s ho-orns o-off
Saw Varsity’s ho-orns off
SAW Varsity’s horns off! Short! Hey!
Varsity’s horns are saw-awed o-off
Varsity’s horns are saw-awed off
VARSITY’S horns are sawed off! Short! Hey!]

“What’s a Varsity?” Dee Dee whispered to me.

“I dunno. Whatever it is, it evidently needs its horns sawed off.”

President Montoya took to the mic again to make a more formal speech. A woman in a business suit with pulled back hair introduced herself to us as our student counselor.

“I’m Natasha Kotov.”

She shook hands with each of us. When she came to Dee Dee, I felt Dee Dee flinch. I noticed Councilor Kotov’s manicured fingernails and perfect makeup. Dee Dee had neither. Her nails were plain, and she wore no makeup.

I whispered in Dee Dee’s ear, “Remember, we’re country come to town.”

Dee Dee smiled at me, and shook Counselor Kotov’s hand. Kotov escorted us off the platform to a waiting limo roped off from the crowds. We sped away from the spaceport toward New Bryan and the main campus.

“Congratulations,” Councilor Kotov said. “You just made all the newspapers.”

She handed me a vid paper. It showed a photo of me at the mic, and a headline read, “Hero of Redwood Shows Grace, Style, & Humility.”

“Here’s another one.”

She flicked a finger, and another front page appeared. The headline read, “True Aggie Spirit Shines Through: Hero Credits Others for Redwood Success.”

“Not bad for a Servant.”

“Shut up, Jason.”

“The PR we’re getting off your speech is awesome, Marcus. Congratulations. I think you are all going to really enjoy your time here at New Texas A and M University.”

As we sped closer to the campus, I reached across the seat to hold Dee Dee’s hand.

“I’m sure we will.”

THE END

Don’t miss the next book in Jaxon Reed’s Redwood series, Redwood: Twelver.

Author’s Note:

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Redwood: Servant of the State

Young Servant of the State Marcus Savitch lives on Redwood, a restricted outer planet in the Janus String where humans are confined to one isolated city. Extraordinarily bright, a computer hacker and spaceship pilot, Marcus holds a dark secret. Afflicted with hematophagia, a forbidden condition compelling him to feed on blood, he lives in constant fear of eradication by the State. When his secret is exposed, he escapes and heads toward the giant trees at Redwood’s center. There, despite restrictions, a team of specialists from New Texas has been conducting clandestine research for decades on the mysterious creatures living deep in the forest. When revolution erupts on the outer planets, Marcus finds himself going back to the city he escaped from, this time with a small army at his side.

  • Author: Jaxon Reed
  • Published: 2016-10-30 22:50:13
  • Words: 42660
Redwood: Servant of the State Redwood: Servant of the State