Planet Shura Dva seems to be deliberately resisting and sabotaging the terraforming work of the Orion Engineers. A local workers’ leader claims to be able to “feel” the planet’s anger… but the Engineers think he’s really a terrorist leader secretly orchestrating the attacks. And when Carolyn Kestral and the crew of the Mary arrive on Shura Dva to help out a friend in need… they discover that the planet itself may not allow them to leave!
Preview: Chapter 1
The Engineer meteorologists had predicted green that morning.
That is, they had expected a strong greenish tint to the perpetually-clouded skies over Shura Dva, a side-effect of the chemical compounds that had been seeded in the troposphere to provide some protection against U-V rays. However, the sky was clearly gray rather than green, which meant a moisture front had rolled in unexpectedly in the past few hours. Despite the best Engineer predictions, it looked like the valley would see plenty of rain that morning. Already, light drops fell sporadically on the plain, providing a slight chill to the air, though not enough to be too bothersome.
Bradley Mobort was not particularly bothered by the rain. As Chief of Security for the ninth district, he had been assigned to Shura Dva long enough to have endured far worse, making a light sprinkle pretty enjoyable, all things considered. He was somewhat less enthused about the reason he was out of his office and getting rained on: He had been ordered by FPRG Engineer-General Leonard Dow to meet him at Seth’s Promontory; and he had been ordered to bring someone with him. That someone was seated next to Mobort in the land roller, bouncing in his seat over the uneven terrain just as Mobort was, and seeming much less concerned about the trip than Mobort. This, despite the fact that the other man was effectively in Mobort’s custody.
Mobort’s passenger had the characteristic ruddy complexion and brown hair of a Cargan, the race that had been contracted to work on Shura Dva to get the terraforming work back on time. This particular Cargan was, in fact, a work team leader who supervised a major faction of Cargan workers in the local area. Mobort had seen his work documentation: He had only been on Shura a few months; up until recently, his performance had been positively scored and noted, and he had been respected by his Engineer managers; but that had changed, of course, when the terraforming work had recently begun to collapse.
Not for the first time, Mobort looked over to his passenger between dodgy maneuvers to avoid boulders and sharp ridges, as if he could manage to divine some truth from his face alone. Mobort knew all about the many Orion security professionals who prided themselves on being able to recognize deceit in a person’s face. He himself had never been one of them, and so he had always relied on the truth of data rather than intuition during his professional career… and it had always worked well for him in the past. But as this particular instance seemed to deny him that truthful data, he wished fervently that he occasionally had the ability to get the truth through more informal means.
As if his passenger had somehow picked Mobort’s thoughts out of the ether, he turned his head away from calmly regarding the passing scenery, and regarded Mobort silently. The Cargan’s face was intelligent, maybe a bit impatient, but otherwise impassive. His eyes were intense, and they radiated self-confidence in the way they refused to flinch from Mobort’s gaze. They also burned with a passion that Mobort knew he would not want to have to extinguish in any man. Mobort may not have been the best at determining a person’s thoughts through his face, but he could tell that the Cargan was keeping something close to his chest.
The two men held their gaze just long enough for Mobort to momentarily lose track of his position on the rough-hewn path they liked to refer to as a road, causing the roller to glance off a rock the size of a small bear and drop into a rather large pothole. Mobort snapped his attention back to what he was doing, and with a barely-audible curse, wrenched the wheel to get the roller back on track. Once he was back in control, he glanced briefly back at his passenger, who had barely looked away as he had fought the roller back onto the road. Mobort knew that, at that moment, he was the one who was showing weakness, not his passenger. In an attempt to hide his disgust with himself, more than anything else, he muttered, “Almost there,” and thereafter kept his eyes on the road.
In short time, the roller rounded a bend and came within sight of Seth’s Promontory. It was a particularly jutting outcrop of rock, at the lip of a valley that had been shaped in order to accept a lake at the edge of one of the many fast-growth forests blanketing fully forty percent of the northern hemisphere. From the promontory, an individual could see for kilometers. And ahead of them, a land roller similar but smaller than Mobort’s was parked, and two people stood at the edge of the promontory. One of them turned and looked back at Mobort’s approach. The other continued to look out into the valley. Mobort brought the roller to a stop, and opened the door. He glanced at his passenger and said, “Come on.”
In response, his passenger said, “The seat’s comfortable.”
Mobort glared at him, more in frustration than in anger. “You be good, Gostine. Don’t make me have to handcuff you. Now, get on out.”
The Cargan regarded Mobort for a moment, but did not seem inclined to argue. He opened the door and climbed out of the roller. They both approached the edge of the rock, Mobort adjusting his gait and angle to keep the Cargan ahead of him.
As they approached, the man who had turned at their approach took a step forward. Leonard Dow was the ninth district’s local Engineer-General, the one who had called him up here and ordered him to bring Gostine. Not requested… ordered, in no uncertain terms. Dow was a nice enough man in his own element, but when pushed, he became a holy terror to work for… and this was undoubtedly one of those times.
Dow leveled an arm at the Cargan, and snapped, “Why don’t you have Gostine in handcuffs?”
“Because,” Mobort replied without hesitation, “he hasn’t done anything to merit them. Yet,” he added, exchanging glances with Gostine, who responded by raising his eyebrows and giving him a “see what I mean?” look.
“You told me to bring him here,” Mobort went on, “so here we are. What did you want us to see?”
Dow glared down at Gostine with barely-concealed ire, before he snapped around and barked, “Bedaye!”
The man who had been staring down into the valley swiveled his head about to take them all in. Mobort recognized him, as he recognized most of the local Engineer experts and leaders in his district… Ebert Bedaye was a Master Protoculturalist, and one of the FPRG’s shining stars. He was tall and lanky, quietly intelligent, and not as prone to rage as Dow. However, right now even Bedaye looked upset, and that was saying something. He swept his hand forward, and said, “Come and see.”
Mobort followed Dow to the edge of the rock, making sure to stay between Dow and Gostine. At that moment, he would not have wanted to bet that Dow wouldn’t have thrown Gostine off the rock, if he had half the chance. The three of them joined Bedaye at the edge, and the lanky protoculturalist pointed into the valley. The lake, to their left, was large enough to actually have its own wave action, courtesy of some large asteroids that had been slotted into orbit above the planet for gravitational perturbation. The forest, to their right, was already thick with trees, some of them reaching almost fifty meters tall already. Mobort, not being a terraformer, tended to quietly marvel at the things the Engineers could do in such short time-spans, including growing forests like this where there hadn’t been so much as a microbe a few-score years before. If Dow hadn’t been standing there, glaring down at them, he probably would have smiled.
Instead, he looked at Gostine to see his reaction to the view. Gostine merely nodded, though his stern expression did not hint at what he was nodding about… possibly to acknowledge that there was, indeed, a body of water next to a forest.
Mobort himself was not sure what he was supposed to be looking at, and he was about to ask, when it occurred to him that the forest did not seem particularly… bright. He cocked his head a bit, as he tried to remember what the new-growth forests generally looked like on Shura. Yes, they were usually greener than that, weren’t they?
At that moment, Bedaye asked outright, “You can see it, can’t you?”
Gostine did not reply. Mobort went out on a limb and said, “That forest doesn’t look too healthy from here.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Bedaye replied, and Mobort thought he could detect an uncharacteristic hint of acid in his voice. “The entire forest is dying. At this rate, I’ll give it two more months.”
“The entire forest?” Mobort repeated, even before the magnitude of the statement had sunk in… and when it did, his eyes popped. “But that’s—”
“That’s hundreds of thousands of square kilometers,” Dow rapped, “and signs that it may be in the other forests, too!”
Dow started to say something else, directed at Gostine, but Mobort cut him off by quickly asking Bedaye, “What’s causing it?”
“An upward influx of iron from the water table, apparently,” Bedaye replied clinically. “It’s soaking into the root systems, and choking off the other nutrients in the soil. It’s already triggered a mid-stage autumnal cycle, prompting an early leaf-drop… but the roots aren’t going to get any more nutrients out of that soil, and they won’t be able to survive long without food from either ground or sun—”
“Did you hear that?” Dow interrupted. “We’re going to lose the forests. All of them.” He leveled an arm at Gostine. “And it’s his doing!” he bellowed, loud enough for the accusation to bounce off the valley floor and echo back to them.
Mobort looked at Gostine, who returned his gaze with a look that clearly questioned Dow’s sanity. At that moment, Mobort was not inclined to argue the point. He turned back to Dow and, waiting for the echo to die off, responded with, “Really. And can either of you tell me how Mr. Gostine accomplished the imminent death of an entire forest?” He looked at Bedaye questioningly.
Bedaye, understanding his look, replied, “All I know is, planetary iron that seemed to be locked in the ground well below the water table, has somehow begun to seep into the table, percolate upward through the ground, and into the root systems. I don’t know how that happens, short of geologic activity that should have killed everyone within—”
Mobort held up a hand to stop him. “So you can’t prove Gostine had anything to do with it?”
“His terrorist cohorts have found some way to poison the groundwater!” Dow snapped, taking a menacing step toward Gostine. Mobort stepped quickly between them, casting a threatening eye at Dow that he knew was probably not wise, but professionally speaking was the least he had to do. Then he turned to Gostine. The Cargan, who had continued to look at the forest beyond, even when Dow was bellowing at him, finally turned to look at Mobort.
The two of them regarded each other silently for a moment. Then Gostine cocked his head and asked, “Do you honestly believe I would poison a forest, on a world my people hope to inhabit?”
“Fat chance!” Dow spat, but a hand from Mobort silenced him.
Mobort looked again at Gostine, taking a moment to properly form his question. “Cargans are well-known for having a peculiar affinity to this planet. So: What do you think is causing the death of that forest?”
Gostine looked at the forest, while Bedaye and Dow looked at him. Mobort waited, too, half-expecting some incredible pronunciation, some strange insight that no non-Cargan could guess at. Gostine’s response did not disappoint… at least, it was certainly incredible.
“I believe,” Gostine said, “That the planet does not want you to change it.”
Dow immediately erupted with a string of curses that would have embarrassed a Lokian or given a Bederrick a heart attack. When he was through, he lunged outright at Gostine, but Mobort had seen it coming, and blocked him again. Dow responded with an almost feral growl, before roaring, “I declare all Cargans on Shura Dva to be under official suspicion of terrorist sabotage of this project, and I want all Cargans put under 24-hour surveillance, on my authority as Engineer-General… starting with him!”
Mobort, for his part, was finally starting to get enough of this nonsense. He physically shoved Dow backwards, almost into Bedaye, and stood his ground when the Engineer looked inclined to rush him again. “You know I don’t have the resources or the manpower to do that,” he said calmly.
“Well, you’d better figure out where you’re going to get it!” Dow replied hotly. “I am sick of these job overruns and setbacks, mumbo-jumbo excuses, and this Cargan terrorism that seems to completely stymie the best Orion security has to offer—” and he cast a significant eye at Mobort when he said that “—and I am going to see to it that he, and if necessary, you, will burn in Hell before I let this project collapse! Do you understand me?”
“And do you understand,” Mobort replied coolly, “that if you continue to make unwarranted accusations, and try to goad me into false arrests, I will be bound to report you to the Orion Planetary Authority. So I suggest you keep yourself bottled, and find some proof before you try to have someone arrested. I’ll also remind you,” Mobort ground out, “that you are not above arrest yourself, Engineer-General.” Which was technically true, although Mobort had no doubt that he could no more manage to do it, and make it last, than he could personally alter the rotation of the planet. Still, it made for a good just-credible-enough threat.
Dow was so enraged that he was turning red in the face. Obviously, Mobort’s retaliation had had the intended effect. He started to growl back something in response, but Mobort had already turned on his heel, and faced Gostine. “I’ll take you back into town, now.”
“Thank you, Chief,” Gostine said simply, and allowed Mobort to escort him back to the roller.
Behind them, Dow had recovered his voice. “I want him arrested!”
“Not without proof,” Mobort shot back, as he and Gostine climbed back into the roller.
“He’s a terrorist leader!”
“And you,” Mobort retorted, “are dangerously close to being bound for false accusation and slander!” He swung the roller about, and started back for town.
Once they were out of sight of the promontory, Gostine smirked, and said, “Excitable, aren’t they?”
“Shut up,” Mobort snapped, and unexpectedly brought the roller to a fast halt. He turned on Gostine and leveled a finger at him. “Dow may be a royal asshole, but he has enough clout to have you, me, and your entire workforce for breakfast… even if we didn’t do anything wrong! So don’t push me, and don’t push him.” He narrowed his eyes at Gostine. “And if I find out you are involved in terrorist activities, I’ll take you to Hell personally, and light the match myself.”
Then Mobort got the roller moving again, and they spent the rest of the drive back to town in silence.