When in doubt, don’t kill anyone.
—Environmental Rescue Team Handbook
Destry could smell the smoke long before she saw its improbable source. There was some kind of person—possibly Homo sapiens—tending a fire at the edge of the boreal forest. She squinted, trying to make out details from half a klick away. The person’s skin was so pale she guessed it had hardly met real sunlight, which meant they were definitely not a stray worker from one of the construction camps. When the intruder crouched next to the flames, she caught a glimpse of red beard merging into a tangle of hair. In their hands, a hare was speared and cooking on an expensive alloy spit. The sight was horrifying, and Destry flinched back reflexively.
“Let’s stop,” she whispered to her mount, a thick-barreled moose with red-brown fur and a crown of antlers spreading from his forehead like a pair of massive, cupped hands. He flicked an ear in acknowledgement as she slid off his back and into his long shadow. Sinking down on one knee, Destry pressed her bare fingers into the soil, spreading them wide, establishing a high-bandwidth connection with the local ecosystem.
Thousands of sensors welcomed her into the planet’s network, their collective perceptions knitting together from shards of cached memory, fragments of recorded sensation and perception. In this state, she too was a sensor, processing data through her eyes, nose, tongue, skin, and ears. What she perceived she shared with the ecosystem. She could feel the sensors collaboratively reviewing the scene from her perspective, learning that she wanted to know more about the mammal at the edge of the forest. It was like her body had become the land. Her awareness stretched forward, racing through root systems and over insects, tasting acid levels in the soil. The person’s feet on the ground registered as pressure on her back, and she smelled redox reactions in the fire. Each sensor’s evaluation joined the swelling chorus in her ears as the tiny machines voted on what their data points might mean: polymer, hair, carnivore, unprocessed excrement, dead trees, carbon cycle perturbation, predator, metal, fur, synthetic microbiome. As Destry’s data surged across the field and into the forest, the sensors could see what she did, and their analysis coalesced into a strong probability: Homo sapiens in the region for eight days, causally linked to tree loss, small mammal loss, excrement buildup, complex toxins.
But there was no data emanating from the person, save for a persistent encrypted stream aimed at an orbital satellite. Out here in the bush, she didn’t have the tools to analyze it. All she had were implants that made sensors recognize her as one of their own. She was the only ranger built this way; all her colleagues back home had to use bulky access devices if they wanted to ask a flower about its nitrogen uptake.
Disconnecting from the ecosystem, Destry unfolded her muscular frame and ambled into talking range with the intruder. Her cropped gray-black hair was matted with sweat, and a trickle found its way through the road dust on her cheek, revealing a streak of deeply tanned skin. Wind pricked a few tears from her blue eyes. She kept her hands visible. Basic protocol in the Environmental Rescue Team was to approach in peace, no weapons drawn, aiming to help.
“Hey stranger!” she called after a few minutes. “I’m ERT Ranger Destry Thomas! D’you know you’re on unoccupied land?”
The person looked up, their flat, blank face twitching into an awkward grin. Definitely Homo sapiens. They stood, technical jumper gleaming dull gray in the late afternoon sun. Now that she was closer, Destry could see a small cabin tucked into the trees, next to a collapsible trellis where a few pelts were stretched. Mink, hare, beaver. A flicker of outrage licked the inside of her ribs, but she kept it in check. No point in getting flustered.
“Who are you? What are you doing on this land?”
The person’s mouth worked as if they hadn’t spoken for a while. “G-good evening, ERT Ranger Destry Thomas. Don’t think I’ve ever seen Environmental Rescue on a private planet.”
Destry ignored his comment and ran her hands through the waist-high grass, connecting to the sensors that dusted each blade. Whatever was happening inside the person’s encrypted stream, it was getting thicker. Data poured down furiously and shot back up again.
She stopped a couple of meters away from the fire. “What’s your name, stranger?” One hand was free, and the other settled lightly on her holstered gun, slung low over her right hip.
“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?”
Copyright © 2023 by Annalee Newitz