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With Greater Awareness
Alice supposed that most of the wilderness fruit pickers she rode in the transport with had never met a ranger. It was a new division of soldier that was based in Haven Shore, and it represented a cooperative training effort between the new Haven Shore Council, the Sunspire, and the Triton. The rangers would eventually be an elite unit that could take action or give direction in any field. They would be sent out on their own to explore the land, learn what scanners couldn’t, and make decisions independently. That was the dream, but all the rangers were new, still in training, and Haven Shore needed something to trade. The rangers, along with pilots and experts on their roster, were outsourced help that served that role half the time. The other half of the time, they worked with soldiers to accomplish tasks set out by Haven Shore, like hunting down the remaining framework troops and systems. There had been successes. Thousands of people had been rescued from wrecks long after everyone had lost hope, and framework soldiers had become a rarity.
The legend of the rangers was already growing, and even though Alice was only part time in the service, she had the ranger skull logo on her dark green vacsuit that used the designation of RANGER as the death head’s teeth. Ringing the top of the skull were the words: EXPLORATION, LEADERSHIP, ENFORCEMENT. The only part of the rangers’ promise that intimidated her was leadership. She was far more comfortable with the other logo she bore on her chest. Another silver skull with the word WARLORD written beneath it marked her as a crewmember on her father’s ship. There would be no marked intention above the skull, and that somehow made it more interesting to Alice. No one knew what that ship was for, exactly, and many didn’t want to.
The fruit pickers and perimeter scouts took two three-hour shifts per day, and there were hundreds of them. Alice had never taken a ride into the deep jungle on one of their transports – none of the rangers did, as far as she knew. There were only a few wrecks in the vast jungles that were left untouched by the events of the battle for Port Rush. Not many survived those landings, and they were easy to map from above, so there was no need for rangers to venture in.
The perimeter scouts were a different story. They moved ahead of the pickers, making sure that the big cats, curious monkeys, predator birds, and other wildlife were frightened off. They chose where the pickers would work, set up base camps, and reported on interesting finds in the jungle. The antigravity truck that shuttled personnel into the jungle down a temporarily placed road between giant tree trunks and heavy vines carried well over thirty of them at a pace that seemed meandering.
Alice almost regretted not keeping her vacsuit’s hood up when she boarded the back of the antigravity truck. Young pickers and their parents smiled at her and whispered to each other. Some of the scouts made a point of ignoring her, perhaps having been rejected by the rangers, while a couple of others closer to her age regarded her with surprise. She didn’t know how to talk to these people, having spent so much time away from Haven Shore either working on the Warlord or ranging across Tamber.
The well-worn passenger bay at the back of the truck jostled and one of the scouts sat down beside her. She was around Alice’s age, had green and yellow hair, and wore a reflective orange vacsuit like the other scouts. “Is there trouble ahead?” Alice’s security system projected the young woman’s name and details into her eye. She was Joslyn Bulmer, and was promoted from picker to scout three weeks ago.
The scout carried the scent of their surroundings with her, sweet and earthy, as though her vacsuit had been through the thick many times. “I’m pretty sure I’m going further in, and what I’m after isn’t armed.”
“Animal, vegetable, or machine?” asked a young Nafalli who wore bright yellow markers instead of a full vacsuit. His dark brown and grey striped fur was matted here and there, but mostly clean – impressive considering his job. “We’ve found a few interesting things in here.”
All eyes were on her; these were only some of the things that everyone in the transport was wondering. If she were running her mission with Haven Shore’s knowledge, she would have been able to use one of their rebuilt skids, and she wouldn’t have to answer any of their questions. Alice didn’t know how much to tell them, but knew hesitating too long would probably make them worried. “I’m chasing after a lost bot.”
“Does it think it’s a picker or something?” asked the Nafalli, to the mirth of a few riders.
“It’s just confused,” Alice replied when things died down.
“Do you think they’ll still need us when they get the bots working?” asked Joslyn.
Alice didn’t know what to say; she hadn’t thought much about the people she hitched a ride with, or what they’d be doing if their job were mechanised.
“I earned my apartment with this job,” she said. “My first. I was just a kid before, never earned anything myself,” Joslyn said proudly.
A serious air settled in around Alice, and she couldn’t help but think of the desperate need Haven Shore, the Triton, Warlord, and all the other ships had for precision workers. Bots were the go-to for that kind of work, and she couldn’t imagine many of them getting assigned to something like picking fruit, when humans, Nafalli, and a few other rarer races were picking tons a day. If the feedback on Crewcast was to be believed, they didn’t mind the work, either. “I really don’t know, but I wouldn’t replace you,” Alice said.
“Diplomatic answer,” said the Nafalli with a chuff. “She’ll be off-world soon, Jos. Won’t even think of us when she’s on the Warlord.”
“Leave her alone,” Joslyn replied. “She’s a ranger; they rescue people.”
“You feed people,” Alice said without thinking. That attracted more than a few smiles. If the conversation was to pick up after that, Alice would never know. The antigravity truck came to a stop as they arrived at a mid-tree station.
The platform surrounding the tree was made of stiffened cloth, and it hosted dozens of tents. This was where pickers who wanted more shifts and less travel stayed. Other trucks were pulling up, and a load shuttle was rising up into the trees, its cargo hold most likely filled with fruit. Alice had tried to get signed onto one as a passenger, but they were off-limits – too busy to multitask.
Everyone disembarked in a practiced fashion. As Alice waited for all of them to pass her so she could get off last, one grizzled man with slicked-back hair and a broad face put his hand on her shoulder. It was so large that his fingers reached the bottom of her shoulder blade. “You give ‘em hell for us when you get out there on the Warlord, girl. We’ll keep you fed, you keep the war going.”
He didn’t wait for her reply; she didn’t have anything to say, anyway. As she stepped out of the transport and checked her tracker for the android, she tried to ignore everything she’d seen. Thousands of people were living vastly different lifestyles in and around Haven Shore, and somehow she thought she had answers about their future.
Alice was making her way down a tree that was two metres across using the drop lines that had been affixed there when she realized how many new questions she’d found during the short ride.
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