Earth's boreal forests didn't work like this; they had sandy soils that would take months to decompose this waste. But Earth was thousands of light-years away. Here on Sask-E, in the far north of the megacontinent Maskwa, the ERT cultivated a tropical microbiome in the forest floor because it was a better carbon sink. On the surface, Sask-E could pass for Pleistocene Earth. But if you actually bothered to squash its soils through a sequencer, you'd know in a second that it was actually a crazy quilt of ecosystems borrowed from half a billion years of Earth evolution—and life on hundreds of other worlds, too.
Not that Destry would ever travel through a wormhole to see Earth or those other worlds firsthand. Verdance didn't allow their workers outside the atmospheric envelope of Sask-E, and blocked their access to offworld comms too. The company liked to keep its workforce focused on terraforming, which was their right. Ronnie Drake, the company's VP of special projects, loved to point out during one of her sudden, inconvenient project oversight meetings that Verdance had paid to build this planet, including its biological labor force. Everything here—other than rocks, water, and the magnetic field—was part of Verdance's proprietary ecosystem development kit. And that meant every life form was legally the company's property, including Destry and Whistle.
The filter looked steamy now. Water droplets ran across its underside, leaving long, sooty tracks behind. Whistle nudged her and she looked into his long, quizzical face, its contours as familiar to her as the positions of the constellations overhead. Verdance wouldn't classify him as a person, but Destry was pretty sure he understood this ecosystem as well as she did.
"Ready to go?" she asked him.
He sent: Hop on.
She climbed into the saddle, wrapping herself in wool blankets and strapping down with canvas belts as Whistle trotted out of the trees. Night had fallen, but the moon illuminated fields of shivering grasses that edged the forest. Her goggles picked out the glowing heat signatures of small mammals on the prowl for seeds. As the shadows played havoc with their morphology, Destry and Whistle appeared to merge into one animal, muscular and dappled in silver. The illusion became more profound when Destry leaned into Whistle's neck, wrapping arms around his warmth, and whispered: "Let's fly."
The moose launched into a bumpy canter, accelerated to a gallop, then jumped into the air as if he were leaping over a fallen log. His back muscles bunched and relaxed as the ground veered away from them. Soon they were hundreds of meters over the prairie, watching a pack of coyotes far below, yapping their way through the dusk. Destry's legs prickled slightly from the gravity mesh adjusting under Whistle's hide, but then they leveled out. Overhead, the Milky Way tumbled down the center of the sky in an uncontrolled deluge of stars.
Home is a bargain with nature.
—Environmental Rescue Team Handbook
Glancing at the position of the sun in the west, Destry calculated that they had a good chance of making it home in time for dinner leftovers. After she and Whistle had composted Charter, they'd spent another two weeks in the field because an ERT geographer replied to her bug ticket with coordinates for the remote's space vessel. The stench of decomposing metal alloys still stung in her nostrils.
Whistle had flown all day, almost 720 klicks from the mineral-rich mush that was once an atmosphere entry pod. Destry would need to return for more readings in a few months, but for now it seemed the ecosystem held its precarious balance.
A few tiny ranger stations dotted the grassland, throwing symmetrical shadows from peaked roofs. She sent a greeting to each as they passed.
Ranger Destry Thomas returning. Hello!
Hello, Destry! Ranger Squab Marshelder here. Welcome back.
It went on like that for many klicks as the sun sank, though Destry spent slightly more time talking to some rangers than others, depending on how much she liked them.
At last they could see the compacted dirt road to La Ronge below, illuminated by long-wavelength visible spectrum lamps whose deep red glow didn't attenuate the sky's darkness overhead. Whistle descended gradually before landing at a full gallop, slowing to a walk before the urban ecosystem embraced them. La Ronge's skyline was dominated by apartments stacked in slowly twisting spirals, each floor angled a slightly different direction so that everyone's rooms could capture sunlight. Most of the densely packed city, however, was only a few stories tall. Market squares and courtyards were edged by barns and domos, long, rectangular public buildings with arched roofs covered in mosses, clover, and shallow-root herbs. She dismounted and walked alongside Whistle as they turned a corner and followed the main road downtown. Gardens were everywhere, sprouting in tufts from wall pockets or sprawling for blocks alongside streets busy with pedestrians, bikes, and trucks.
They crossed a low bridge over a stream ruddy with city lights, and Destry felt a twinge as she watched a family of hares drinking at its edge. At least the small mammals were safe here. Destry and Whistle followed the road north toward the ERT campus, where each had a bed. Paper lanterns strung overhead illuminated the broad sidewalk where a few evening shoppers considered the day's remaining wares: bruised fruits and vegetables, a slightly burned loaf of bread.