Chapter One

Second Sighting

Raze saw her again, the “dryad”. He thought she was just fond imagination. He’d heard the silly stories of old Barth, the hoof trimmer, but he didn’t believe a word. Now it was him hallucinating.

Mornings were harshly heavy on Gershon 6. Raze was often out in the dusky air an hour before dawn in the dense atmosphere to hook up the Twill bison to the milking machines. The tainted air smelled of sulfur when he first arrived on this backwater planet a standard year ago, but he didn’t notice it anymore. He no longer used the filtering nose pieces in the mornings, either. It was hard to strain the wet morning air through the filter, anyway.

This morning was cold and wet, so Raze kept his nose inside of his bison wool jacket as he almost swam through the fog to milking house 17, about 110 meters from the bunkhouse.

That’s when he saw her. He was too old for faerie stories. He knew there had to be a logical explanation. But there she was wearing a curious expression, looking at him from between milking houses 15 and 16, a wide alley of about ten meters across and fifty long.

Raze stopped short, mid-stride, and lowered his jacket until his bare chin could feel the cold. They were both staring, as if seeing a wild animal. It seemed like a long moment, but it ended suddenly. She turned and, in one long, gentle stride, she was out of view behind house 15 and back into the Tanglewood that was only a dozen meters away.

The Tanglewood was a dangerous place. He’d heard the stories, drummed into him since before he arrived. New arrivals on Gershon 6 would venture into the dense and gnarled tree vines of the Tanglewood and never seen again. Or found, half starved and half crazed, by mercenary search parties who would charge exorbitant fees for retrieving people out of the tight and tangled vegetation.

Raze snapped back to himself, a damp chill gnawing at his face, and tucked his chin back into his jacket. He had forgotten he was carrying a heavy battery in his left hand, but the cramp in his shoulder reminded him of it. He hurried the short distance to the door labeled MH17 and scanned his wristband to gain entry, dropping the battery on the damp floor.

“You were almost late, Jamison!”, snapped the Night Carer who he was there to relieve.

Her name was Jil Jong, but everyone called her Queenie. She was gruff and bossy to Raze, addressing him by his surname, even though she’d only been there a month longer than him. There was no difference in rank among the short-term farm hands, they were all second-level students from the agricultural college on the third moon of Gershon 4. They all had to spend 1.5 standard years working with livestock or cropping. But Queenie seemed to get the best assignments, like Night Carer, where the hardest part of her job was staying awake.

“But I wasn’t late, and I brought the battery you forgot last night,” Raze replied as he struggled out of his damp jacket.

“Be quiet, farm boy. I don’t need your lip. I’m tired enough without your tedious backtalk.” With that, Queenie disappeared out of the door and slammed it shut for good measure.

Raze was glad to be alone, but irked that she left without installing the backup battery he’d lugged out here for her. Maintenance was night-shift work. He had plenty to keep him busy. All he wanted to do was to sit down and draw a picture of the strange girl he saw between the milking houses. But he had a hundred twill cows to connect in this house and 80 in MH18 before he could sit down for a few minutes. Chances were he’d forget the nuances of her form before he recorded it.

He didn’t dare take the time to do it now, did he? No, everything is auto recorded, so the Husbandman would see any tardiness in the log. But, he could start and then stop a few minutes, as if he’d found a malfunctioning unit that he had to swap out. Yes, that should work.

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