Strand in the Web

D. Thomas Minton

By the time Sandoval caught up with the poachers, the slaughter was nearly over.  As he approached under cover of an Andrussan feather fern, two poachers wielding mono-wire saws finished cutting off the last of the aerodon’s nine, man-sized tusks.  With a sickening snap of connective tissue, it dropped to the spongy moss.  A mountain of pink flesh convulsed, and ripples ran across the aerodon’s bulbous lift-sac like waves snapped across a collapsing canvas tent.  It emitted a plaintive whine that turned Sandoval’s stomach.  The poachers hadn’t even bothered to kill the great beast before butchering it.

Sandoval eased his neural tangler from its holster.  It felt flimsy in his hand.  He wanted something to bludgeon these men with, not the Reserve Authority’s standard-issue, non-lethal pacifier.

A third poacher unloaded an industrial bulkhead cutter from a nearby skimmer.  “Get’m loaded while I finish up.”  The cutter slung over his shoulder, he disappeared behind the quivering mass.

Sandoval adjusted the nasal cannula that supplied 02-enriched air.  He wiped away the droplets of cloud mist clinging to his goggle lenses.  It was now or never, while the poachers were distracted and separated.

He crept from his hiding place toward the two men muscling a tusk into the skimmer’s cargo bed.  His tangler discharged crackling arcs.  He left the poachers twitching on the ground, their nervous systems overloaded, and edged around the aerodon.  A few meters to Sandoval’s left, the island’s slick granite ended abruptly, plunging precipitously through the cloud mist to Andrussa’s surface, four thousand meters below.

Helium hissed from a harpoon puncture in the animal’s float bladder.  Otherwise it was quiet.

Cautiously he leaned out.  Where Sandoval had expected to find the poacher, he saw only the cutter lying in the waterlogged moss.

He mouthed a curse, but before he could do anything, the skimmer’s engines roared to life, and the craft lumbered over the top of the aerodon.  Its heat wash blew droplets from Sandoval’s hair and beard as it passed overhead and disappeared into the mist.

Sandoval’s energy drained away, leaving his body trembling.  He sat down a rock to collect himself.

He recognized this aerodon from the distinctive markings on its mantle tissue.  He had frequently sighted it drifting through the mist near his station.  An older male,; its ring of tusks beneath its lift-sac was one of the largest Sandoval had ever seen.

The aerodon whined again, a high pitched sound that constricted Sandoval’s throat.

He wished he had a way to end its suffering.

Sandoval holstered his tangler.  Maybe its death didn’t have to be needless.

One of the stunned poachers was already dead.  His cannula had been ripped free when he had fallen.  Sandoval pulled the other poacher’s cannula from his nostrils.  Within seconds the man started to wheeze.

“Can’t…breathe….”  The poacher tried to re-insert the tubes, but his overloaded nervous system would not respond.

“If I get answers, you get air.  Where’s your ship?”  In the three weeks he had been pursuing the poachers, Sandoval had been unable to locate their rendering ship in the Cloud Island Reserve’s three-dimensional maze of rock pillars and dense, scanner-blocking fog.

The poacher wheezed loudly as his skin began to tinge blue.

“Suit yourself.”  Sandoval ripped the man’s cannula free and threw it into the nearby vegetation.

The poacher clawed at his boot, but Sandoval shook him off and went back around the still quivering aerodon.  His nose crinkled at the metallic smell of blood pooling at the base of a deep incision in the aerodon’s mantle.  He pushed aside ragged folds of tissue until he located a glistening green mass an arm’s length inside the body cavity.  With his fingers, he ripped the connective sheath and removed the fist-sized organ.

Sandoval weighed it in his hand.  He could extract over a year’s worth of HeepA.

Carefully he slipped the green mass into an airtight pouch; then he sat quietly in the mist until the aerodon stopped moving.  With nothing more to do, he left the carcasses and headed back to the station.

• • •

For the next three hours, Sandoval’s skimmer slipped through the mist.  Periodically, islands of rock and olive green vegetation materialized like specters, and disappeared as quickly.  The C.I. had over a quarter million islands, although most were nothing more than slender granite spires.

Sandoval’s right hand started to tingle.  He flexed the fingers, but he knew it wouldn’t help.  Only a dose of HeepA would alleviate the pins-and-needles.  Thankfully, he was nearly at the station.

As he made his final approach, he saw another skimmer already on the roof-top landing circle.  Nearby, a man in a crisp, brown Reserve slicker wiped at his goggles as he looked upward.

Sandoval cursed and pulled up.  In his nine years in the C.I., he had never had a visitor, so why was a ranger on his roof now?

Sandoval circled around for another approach.  As he did, he carefully tucked the aerodon organ under his seat.

“Stay calm,” he told himself.

He settled the skimmer onto the edge of the landing circle.  Air hissed as the canopy unsealed and slid back.

The ranger in the slicker met him as he clambered out of the skimmer’s cab.  “I’m Ivan Boerstein from District H.Q,” he said.  “I’m here to help with your poaching problem.”

Sandoval knew the name, but not the man.  Boerstein was head ranger in charge of enforcement for the seven reserves scattered across the District’s five planetary systems.

Sandoval kept himself between Boerstein and the skimmer.  “I’ve got it under control.”

Boerstein arched an eyebrow.  “Seventeen butchered aerodons isn’t exactly under control.”

Sandoval’s face flushed hot.  He fought the urge to look away; people with things to hide shied away from eye contact.  Stay calm, he thought again.  “Fair enough,” he said.  “How can I help you, Mr. Boerstein?”

• • •

Once inside, Boerstein went directly to the desk in which Sandoval kept his syringes and vials of HeepA.  Sandoval reached for his tangler, but relaxed when all Boerstein did was study the map of the C.I. projected on the wall above it.

Boerstein slid the map view around with his hand, stopping to read Sandoval’s many annotations.  “Your observations are detailed.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t.”  Sandoval reached around and turned off the projection.

Boerstein’s brow crinkled.

“I’ve been in the field for several days; let’s talk while we eat.”

In the kitchen alcove, Sandoval activated the map projection on the small table.  His muscles relaxed when Boerstein sat down and began to study it.

“Lots of places to hide in two hundred thousand square kilometers….” Boerstein said absently.

Sandoval heated a box of broth and poured it over a tangle of rice noodles and nori strips.  He moved deliberately because now his left hand tingled.  It wasn’t serious yet, but he didn’t want to attract Boerstein’s attention by spilling anything.

He set a bowl at Boerstein’s elbow and then leaned against the counter, hoping he didn’t look as nervous as he felt.

“Show me where you found the latest carcass,” Boerstein said.  “We’ll start our search there.”

Sandoval paused in stuffing noodles into his mouth.  “We’ll start our search there?”

“You know the C.I. better than anyone, Mr. Sandoval.”

Sandoval couldn’t argue the point.  For the last nine years, he had patrolled the C.I. and protected its unique wildlife.  He knew the reserve better than any man alive, but that hadn’t enabled him to stop the killings.  He knew he needed help, but joining Boerstein in the field could prove…awkward.

“Is there a problem?”

Sandoval swallowed the lump in his throat.  He needed to pull it together before Boerstein began to suspect something.  “There’s no problem,” Sandoval said.

• • •

On the map, Sandoval showed Boerstein where he had found all of the poached animals and patiently answered his questions.  Eventually Boerstein fell quiet.

“While you process all this, I’m going to get cleaned up.”  Sandoval locked himself in the bathroom and turned on the shower.  From the cabinet, he retrieved a syringe and filled the cylinder with a dose of HeepA.  It glittered emerald green as he held it up and tapped out the air bubbles.

Sandoval’s mouth was dry.  More out of habit than need, he wiped the steam off the mirror so he could see what he was doing.

Every day for the last twenty years he had injected a half cc of HeepA into his spinal column.  He had tried synthetic drugs, including numerous HeepA analogs, but none of them had proven effective in mitigating the neurodegenerative symptoms associated with his late on-set Bennington’s disorder.

Unfortunately, when appropriately hydroxylated and diluted, HeepA produced a potent euphoric.  Ecko had become the illicit recreational drug of choice fifteen years ago, and, as the population of Andrussan aerodons had declined, HeepA in its pure form had become nearly impossible to obtain.

Without it, Sandoval’s condition was fatal.

Gradually the tingling in his fingertips faded and the warmth returned.

For the last nine years Sandoval had carefully harvested enough HeepA to keep his condition in check.  He had personally killed only two animals, and both of those early in his tenure in the Reserve.  Since then, he had managed to collect glands from aerodon carcasses.  Regardless, if the Reserve Authority ever learned about his activities or his condition, they would terminate him, figuratively and literally.  Yet, at the rate the poachers were slaughtering the last flotilla, aerodons would soon be extinct, and he would follow soon after.

Sandoval pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to ease his blossoming headache.  The survival of the aerodon–his survival–was at stake.  All his efforts to stop the poaching had yielded only more butchered carcasses.  He needed help, but at what cost?

• • •

They arrived at the aerodon carcass at first light.  Boerstein dictated notes into a button logger on his collar while he meticulously photographed the dead poachers, the severed tusks, the bulkhead cutter, and the aerodon.  At first Sandoval tried to explain what had happened, but Boerstein seemed not to notice him.  Eventually, Sandoval gave up, and followed a few steps behind, uncertain what else to do.  He began to wonder why he was there.

When Boerstein finally began to examine the incision in the aerodon’s mantle tissue, Sandoval’s mouth went dry.  Surely he couldn’t be connected to the missing gland.

“The third poacher got away with the green gland?”

Sandoval jumped at the sound of Boerstein’s voice.  “I couldn’t stop him,” he said quickly.

Boerstein grunted and turned back to photographing the incision.

Sandoval wondered what the grunt meant.  Did Boerstein believe him?  He tried to recall the exact question, wondering if he had missed something, but failed.

“Are you ready to hunt the hunters, Mr. Sandoval?”  From the skimmer, Boerstein retrieved a half-meter long metal wand.  “Every vehicle leaves behind a distinctive mixture of volatile compounds and trace metals,” he said.  “This chem-sniffer can detect trace concentrations.”  He dragged the wand across the broad leaves of an Andrussan fanplant that had been flattened beneath the poacher’s skimmer.  “Let the hunt begin,” he said, grinning.

They flew east to the next island.  While Boerstein searched for a signal, Sandoval wandered among a stand of slender-stalked aobabs.  Their three-meter tall trunks glistened in the morning light as symbiotic ciliated lifeforms captured droplets and extracted trace metals and nitrates, which were shared via thread-like hyphae that penetrated the aobab’s fibrous dermal layer.  The C.I.’s unique aeolian montane ecosystem seemed built upon an intricate web of symbiotic relationships.  Without them, Sandoval was convinced everything would collapse.

After about twenty minutes, Boerstein called him back to the skimmer.  “We’re on the right trail,” he said, climbing in.

They continued on from island to island.  Boerstein would spend twenty minutes wanding vegetation, and if he found a signature, Sandoval would plot it on their map.  By noon, they had acquired a consistent easterly trajectory and increased their pace by skipping islands.

As the day wore on, Sandoval’s body began to ache.  It was too early for the HeepA to be wearing off, so he assumed it was stress-induced.  Sandoval’s tightly wound muscles simply would not relax.  He had seen no obvious indication that Boerstein suspected anything, but Boerstein had earned distinction as the district’s top ranger the last two years.  He had to be good at what he did, which was capture people like Sandoval.

Boerstein stowed his equipment and surveyed the darkening mist.  “We should stop here for the night.”

They pitched a pressure tent and activated the O2 enricher.  After a few minutes, the oxygen partial pressure had risen enough that the two men shed their cannulas.

Boerstein heated a box of soup and poured it into two mugs.  He handed one to Sandoval.  “What made you volunteer for the C.I.?  This is a long way from Besel.”

Sandoval wasn’t in the mood to swap life stories.  As tired as he was, he feared he might let something slip.  He hoped a non-committal shrug would be enough to restore the silence.

Boerstein continued to watch him.  “This isn’t exactly a prime stop on the career path,” he said.

“I like the quiet.”  Sandoval hoped he didn’t sound evasive.

Prior to joining the Reserve, Sandoval had worked in an illegal lab on Besel synthesizing Ecko.  That had allowed him to skim enough HeepA to stay alive, at least until the syndicate boss learned of his activities.  It had taken every favor he had accumulated to get off Besel alive, but with his small stash of HeepA, he wouldn’t have stayed that way for long.  Fortunately, the Reserve had been hiring, and the remote C.I. was an unpopular duty assignment.  An application that omitted mention of his condition and a review process that lacked rigor had resulted in a job offer.

Boerstein cradled his mug in his hands and breathed the steam.  “I need something more than mist and more mist.”

Sandoval remembered thinking the same thing when he had first arrived.  His first years had been difficult, and he had thought more than once that death would have been better choice.  Over the years, the C.I. had gradually revealed its beauty.

It was too easy to misjudge the place.

Sandoval frowned.  If only Boerstein could see….

He watched Boerstein finish his mug of soup.  The man’s face still glowered red from the bite of cold mist.  His shoulders slumped with fatigue.

If anyone could appreciate this place, it was Boerstein.

Sandoval lowered his mug.  “I want to show you something,” he said.

• • •

They hopped by skimmer to the next island.  From there, Sandoval led Boerstein through the cold moon-glow to the island’s edge.  There, a wall of cloud tumbled upward, sparkling like glitter.

“A thermal vent on the planet surface creates this upwelling,” Sandoval said.  “The shimmers are crystallized carbon, nitrates, and trace minerals from a lower altitude.”

To their left, a wide slab of granite projected into the mist.  Without hesitation, Sandoval climbed out to the end.  The up-draft blew droplets from his hair and snapped past his ears.

Boerstein inched out behind him but stayed away from the edge.

Sandoval pointed into the bluish mist.

Boerstein’s eyebrows pinched together.  “What is it?”

A dark form shifted and flowed through the currents like a conjuror’s handkerchief.  The shadow grew darker as it coalesced into something substantial.  The aerodon was easily twenty-five meters across, with a skirt of shimmering tusks ringing the base of an enormous balloon-like sac.  Beneath it, a half-a-dozen frilled appendages danced in the sparkling mist.

Boerstein’s eyes widened.  He dropped to the rock as the behemoth sailed a few meters overhead and vanished into the mist.

Sandoval laughed.  This was the first place he had ever seen a living aerodon.  Even after nine years, the exhilaration of seeing one hadn’t faded.

“They feed on the detritus blown up from below, like Earth whales on krill.  I’ve found dozens of these upwellings in the reserve, and on any give evening, aerodon ride the thermals.”

“I’ve not heard of this behavior.”

“Few have.”  Sandoval intended to keep it that way.

A second aerodon grew larger as it rose from below.  It spun slowly like a top, its frilled appendages weaving intricate patterns in the mist.

As it crested the granite outcropping and floated overhead, something angular and square caught Sandoval’s eye.  Attached to a tusk was a metal box, but before Sandoval could get a good look at it, the aerodon turned back into the mist.

Sandoval blinked, not sure what he had seen.  “Did you–“

Boerstein nodded.  “That looked like a transmitter.”

Sandoval’s gut tightened.  “A Judas goat.”

“That only works with social animals.  Aerodon aren’t social.”

“For the most part, they aren’t.”  In his time in the C.I., Sandoval had learned much about aerodon ecology.  At first, his interest had been fueled only by his need for a steady supply of HeepA.  Eventually it developed into biophilia.

“They come together the night after the full moon,” Sandoval said.  “If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a lekking behavior.”

“You’ve seen this.”

“Several times.  Always at the same place.”  Sandoval’s mouth was dry.  “The full moon is tonight.”

“We need to be there,” Boerstein said.  “How far is this gathering place?”

“If we leave at first light, we’ll be there tomorrow afternoon.”

• • •

Sandoval lay awake in the pressure tent.  Upon returning, his body had warmed up, but the tingling in his right hand had not subsided.  He needed another dose of HeepA.

The syringe in his cold suit pocket pressed against his thigh as he lay in the moon-glow, but Boerstein dozed fitfully only a half meter away.

Sandoval tucked his fingers into his armpits.  He couldn’t risk it.  Not yet.

• • •

Over the course of the day, the tingling spread to Sandoval’s left hand and foot, and . Hhandling the skimmer became challenging.  To make matters worse, Boerstein had been energized by the encounter last night and wanted to learn more about the C.I. and the aerodons.  Sandoval found it increasingly difficult to respond, and gradually his answers grew shorter and, he suspected, less coherent.

“I’m just on edge,” Sandoval said after one of his responses drew a questionable look.

The gathering place was a kilometer wide area ringed by granite columns and scrub-topped islands.  The columns funneled an easterly wind into a vortex that drew down cold air, flash freezing the mist into fine snow.

The skimmer shuddered in the buffeting wind as they circled one of the perimeter islands.  Sandoval’s landing sent a painful blow up his spine.  He exhaled heavily.

Boerstein’s grip on the edge of his seat eased and his fingers turned pink again as blood flowed back into the tips.

“The aerodon will enter over us,” Sandoval said as he powered down the skimmer’s systems.

Boerstein squinted through the ice storm at the stunted vegetation.  “At least this will provide cover,” he said.

“Are you always this optimistic?  Every day you see the worst of humanity.”

Boerstein started to reply, but stopped.  He licked cold-chapped lips.  “I also see its best,” he said.  “The people who care, but, for whatever reason, can’t get it done.  I do more than just catch criminals; I help those who need it.”

Ordinarily Sandoval would have mocked such an over-inflated hero-ego, but something in the way Boerstein’s brow pinched together suggested his personal conviction had come with a price.  His sincerity was genuine.

“Are you okay?”  Boerstein watched Sandoval rubbing his hands together.

Sandoval tucked his fingers into his armpits.  “Just cold,” he said, turning away and pretending to look out the skimmer window.  “So, do you have a plan?”

“When they realize they’ve hit the mother lode, I expect they’ll bring in their rendering ship to facilitate harvesting.  I’ve got a shoulder EMP cannon in the back capable of damaging a moderate-size ship at five hundred meters.  Unfortunately its fuel cell is only good for three shots, so they need to count.”

Sandoval shook his head, not sure if he’d heard Boerstein correctly.

Boerstein began checking his cold suit and O2 enricher.  “We just need to stay quiet until the ship comes in.  Then a few well-placed shots….  Nothing but cleanup after that.”

“Are you sure about this?”

“We don’t exactly have time to call in reinforcements.”  Boerstein inserted his nasal cannula and took an experimental breath.

Sandoval’s stomach hurt.  This idea was crazy.  Before he could protest, Boerstein cracked the canopy and stumbled out of the skimmer.  The wind-driven sleet stung Sandoval’s cheeks, and his exposed face went numb.

From the rear storage compartment, Boerstein unloaded the EMP cannon, a bulky cylinder tipped with a parabolic reflector and fitted with a curved shoulder stock.  He handed a holstered pistol to Sandoval.  “In case they’re out of tangler range,” he yelled above the wind.  “We’re only going to get one chance.”

They hunkered down behind a granite boulder, out of the wind and sleet.  Warmth seeped back into Sandoval’s body, but the numbness in his limbs remained.  In the dying light, the amber snow swirled around his head.  Everything seemed surreal.

How many poachers were they facing?  Certainly more than the two of them could handle, even with surprise on their side.  Were they armed?  So many unknowns…too many things could go wrong.

As it darkened, the pit in Sandoval’s stomach deepened.  This was a stupid idea, he thought.  They were going to get killed.

Gradually, the mist began to glow blue as the unseen moon rose.  Boerstein’s breathing had settled into a deep rhythm.

At such close range, it would be easy for Sandoval to shoot him.  A story about Boerstein’s valiant death and his tumble into the abyss would satisfy headquarters.  The thought surprised him, but it was a simple solution.

Slowly he drew his tangler, but the weapon turned in his numb hand and dropped to the ground.  He cursed the pins-and-needles stabbing his elbow.

“Did you hear that?”  Boerstein rolled to his knees and peered over the boulder.

Two skimmers shot overhead, barely visible in the driving snow.  Startled, Sandoval ducked.

“They’re down,” Boerstein said.  “Two skimmers, six men.”  In the faint moon-glow, his face was shadowy and grim.  “They need you,” he said, extending his hand toward Sandoval.

At that moment, the first aerodon arrived, a dark shape in the grey mist.  Three skimmers darted across the sky, circling and spotlighting it, herding toward the island.

Sandoval reached for Boerstein’s hand and with the man’s help scrambled to his feet.  He braced his weapon on the boulder, but Boerstein covered the end with his glove.  The move nearly knocked the weapon from Sandoval’s hand.

“Not yet.”

A harpoon gun cracked.  Sandoval flinched.

The circling aerodon tried to turn away, but was struck in its float bladder by the harpoon.

The poachers cheered.

“They’ll kill it.”

“If they get away, more than that one will die.”

Another harpoon gun cracked.  The aerodon squealed.  Its tentacles whipped the air.

The poachers attached the line to a skimmer-mounted winch and began to reel the aerodon in like a bloated fish.

A second aerodon floated through the spotlights.  Then a third.  Skimmers darted overhead, ensuring the animals stayed close while the poachers scrambled to reload the harpoons.

The cannons cracked over the howl of the wind.

“They’re going to slaughter them.”

Boerstein brow crinkled.  He scanned the mist.  “Where are you?”

The harpoon cannon fired again, striking flesh and drawing forth another cheer from the poachers.

Sandoval had a clear shot at the poacher manning one of the harpoon cannons, but his hands trembled violently.  He tried to tighten his grip, but the weapon would not sit steady.  He felt helpless and betrayed.  “Do something.”

The sky lit up as if the sun had gone nova, overloading Sandoval’s retinas.  It seemed to take forever for his vision to clear, but when it did, a wide disc, rimmed with lights, hung in the mist like a phosphorescent sea creature.  Two massive engine cones mounted on opposite edges of the disc held the ship in position just off the cloud island.

Sandoval heard a high-pitched whine and a delicate pop as Boerstein discharged the EMP cannon.  As the weapon recharged, he adjusted his aim.  He pulled the trigger again.

“I need to get closer.”  Boerstein darted forward in a crouching run.  About twenty meters from the boulder, he dropped to a knee and steadied the cannon on his shoulder.

Sandoval heard nothing, but the ship’s spotlights went out and one of the engine cones went dark.  The ship listed to the side.  Hot exhaust from the other engine blasted through the poachers on the ground and knocked Boerstein from his feet.  Sandoval’s goggles flew off his face.  The hot wash burned his cheeks and eyelids.

The ship’s disc caught the wind, driving its edge downward.  The engine wash lifted away from the island as the ship dropped suddenly.  As it fell, it struck the granite edge of the island, shearing metal in a shower of sparks.  The ground shook, and Sandoval thought the entire island might crumble.

Caught in the down-drafting vortex, the ship buckled, its hull whining as it folded and tore.  It tumbled into the abyss, venting gases and flame that lit the mist sunset gold.

Sandoval pulled himself back up onto the boulder.  The heat from the engine wash had melted the ice, which was quickly refreezing into a glassy skin.  He blinked at the ice crystals in his eyes.

In front of him nothing moved.  One of the skimmers lay on its canopy.  Its spotlight now cut a harsh white line across the landscape.  For the moment, the C.I. was as quiet.

Sandoval saw movement out of the corner of his eye.  Dragging his left leg behind him, Boerstein pulled himself toward the upside-down skimmer.  One of the poachers, who must have been shielded from the fiery explosion by the other skimmer, popped up and surveyed the area.  When he saw Boerstein, he dropped down, out of sight.

Boerstein arrived at the skimmer and propped himself against it.  He rubbed his injured leg.

The poacher crept across the open space between the skimmers.  He held a pistol.

Boerstein appeared unaware of the approaching danger.

His tangler gone, Sandoval drew the pistol Boerstein had given him.  He had a clear shot at the poacher, provided he could steady the weapon.  He tightened his grip, but the muzzle trembled.  His back ached as if someone had kicked him in the kidneys.

He looked at the fingers he could no longer feel.  Even if he made it through this, he realized it was all over.  He would not be able to hide his condition from Boerstein, and the Reserve Authority would remove him from the C.I.  He wondered how long he would live using the inferior HeepA analogs.

Sandoval eased his finger off the trigger.  If he did nothing, the poacher would solve his problem.  He could then inject his HeepA and escape in the skimmer.  The remaining poacher was not a significant threat.

Overhead, an aerodon floated through the spotlight.  Still tethered by its harpoon, it traced a gentle arc back into the darkness.

Sandoval wondered what he would do the next time poachers came to the C.I.  He had not been able to stop them.  Boerstein had saved the aerodons.  Would his replacement be willing to fight for those who could not fight for themselves?

Sandoval bore down on the weapon and, propped against the rock, managed to steady the barrel.  Sandoval grimaced against the stab of pins-and-needles in his arms and legs.  It was now or never.  He squeezed the trigger and the weapon jerked against his hand, but he held it steady.

The poacher spun and dropped.

Sandoval’s legs buckled and he fell onto his back.  He lay stunned.  With each breath, his ribs ached.  He fumbled at his cold-suit pocket, but his fingers couldn’t work the zipper.  He collapsed back and lay still.

An aerodon floated across his vision, its body ringed by rainbow halos from the ice in Sandoval’s eyelashes.  Sandoval smiled.

His view of the sky was eclipsed by Boerstein’s face.  Blood flowed from a cut that vanished into the hairline above his right eye.  The right shoulder of his cold-suit hung in tatters.  “Your syringe, where is it?”

Sandoval blinked at the ice.  Had he heard Boerstein correctly over the wind?  “How….”

“It all adds up,” Boerstein said.  “The muscle twitches, the aerodons, Besel.  Yet I wasn’t sure until just now.  Your syringe, Mr. Sandoval.”

Sandoval looked in the direction of his cold-suit pocket.  Boerstein removed the syringe.  Backlit by the spotlights, the cylinder of HeepA glowed like an emerald.

Boerstein rolled Sandoval onto his side and gently pushed his head forward to separate the cervical vertebrae.

A pinch at the base of Sandoval’s neck was followed by warmth washing across his shoulders and up into his head.  Then he was on his back again, looking up into Boerstein’s face.

“You are a rare species, Mr. Sandoval.  To live, they must die, yet you are willing to give your life for them.  What you were willing to do, and not do, to protect these animals speaks volumes.  You are an important part of this place.  It needs you as much as you need it.  I can’t think of a better person to do this job.”

Sandoval flexed his tingling fingers.  The nerves burned as feeling returned.  He grimaced.

Overhead the harpooned aerodons continued to trace graceful circles through the snow.  As soon as he could, Sandoval would set them free.



D. Thomas Minton

D. Thomas Minton tells people he lives with his wife and daughter in a grass hut on the beach of a tropical Pacific Island, but only some of that is true. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Daily Science Fiction. His idle ramblings hold court at and would appreciate your visit.

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