Today's Reading

"Name's Charter. I'm not looking for trouble, Ranger. I'm here to experience the Pleistocene. It's the purest environment for mankind."

She groaned to herself. Charter was the default male name for Homo sapiens remotes. No wonder he was regurgitating that fat data stream. Somebody was controlling him from offworld, probably thousands of light-years away, using this proxy body to get their jollies in the ecosystem she'd sworn to protect. Out there, in the volume of galactic space claimed by the League, some people believed you weren't really human unless you'd experienced a Pleistocene environment on an Earthlike world. Hence the lure of her planet, Sask-E, whose fragrant forests some distant asswipe was currently smudging with uncontrolled carbon waste.

"All right, Charter. I'm not sure who you are or how you got here, but this is unoccupied land. It's not your habitat."

"Verdance is going to start selling it pretty soon. No harm done." Charter was starting to sound whiny, hinting at the personality of whoever controlled him.

"You need to biodegrade everything in this camp and get off this land right now."

"This ecosystem is my birthright." Charter planted his feet firmly next to the fire. He still held the spit with the hare's skinned, burned body in one hand. "It's the origin of all mankind, and everything we do now is shaped by it."

A cool arctic wind threaded through the forest, and fir tree branches gestured wildly overhead. But Destry felt sweaty, inside and out; she ran an arm across her forehead, smearing the dust on her face into a thin, gritty mud. Walking closer, she gave up the pretense of talking to Charter as if he were alive. Now she looked into the wide purple eyes of the expensive biotech toy and addressed the distant person controlling him. "Listen. You haven't identified yourself, and I don't know where you are coming from. But you put this remote here, and you damaged the forest. You're trespassing. You killed animals, which is a crime. You need to pack up your remote right now and get off Sask-E before I report you to Verdance."

She hoped the threat was enough. Charter's controller could be sued for what he'd done. The only thing preventing her from reporting him right now was the fact that she liked talking to Verdance security about as much as they liked dealing with unripe real estate. Sask-E was supposed to terraform itself for another thousand years before anyone had to worry about its existence.

Charter yanked some flesh off the hare and put it between his teeth, chewing awkwardly. "You know that man evolved to eat meat, don't you?"

It would have been hilarious to hear a completely fabricated Homo sapiens remote taunting her like that if it hadn't been so nauseating to watch. "I'll ask you again to move along. This planet is still under construction, and hunting could destabilize the local food web."

Charter shrugged. "Don't be dramatic. Why don't you and that mount leave me to enjoy my dinner?" He made the question sound like a command, as if he was used to ordering a lot of mute servants around. Destry frowned. How had he found this star system, anyway? Planets under development weren't listed on public maps, and there was no way he stumbled on it by chance. His controller must have access to Verdance's real estate databases, which would make him some kind of insider. Or a rich guy with a taste for Earthlike worlds who paid a tick to burrow quietly into Verdance's data systems. She fiddled with her holster, then walked her fingers back. There was a chance she could get in trouble for shooting this thing, even if he wasn't supposed to be here. If her boss was displeased, she might be grounded and forced to handle regulatory compliance garbage for years. The remote kept staring at her, chewing with his mouth open, while she weighed her options. She could take him out, and potentially get caught. She could report him, but he might do a lot of damage while she waited for Verdance security to act—if they acted at all. Either way, she'd be forced to spend decades rebalancing the local environment. No matter what she did, there would be trouble, so she might as well mitigate it.

She tried again, using her calmest voice. "Listen. This isn't a debate. You need to get off this land."

"No can do, Ranger Destry Thomas. Best be on your way. My compliments to you on the well-stocked forest, though. This meal is just like the ones our ancestors ate during Earth's Pleistocene." The remote stretched his lips in a badly executed attempt at a smile. "Here on the savannahs where our species was born, I can experience evolution firsthand. The only thing that would make it more authentic would be some nice moose jerky."

The anger rising through her chest finally found her tongue. "This is not a savanna, you pus-licker. It's boreal forest."

With one fluid motion, she slipped her gun from its holster, spun it up, and shot the remote between the eyes. Charter's data stream stuttered and stopped as he crumpled. Killing was always a last resort for an ERT ranger, but this controller was using his remote to threaten Whistle, and that could not stand. Destry signaled her friend and he trotted through prairie grass to the still-smoking fire. "We're going to be here for a while," she said.

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