Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Branson felt the rhythmic thrumming of the helio-copters long before he saw them, and instinctively he curled into a ball, pulling his hood over his head and pulling his hands up into his sleeves. There would be no heat trace when the copters passed by; no exposed flesh, and he wouldn’t breath for the minute or so they were overhead.

Behind him, tucked safely under the rocky overhang was the flyer he’d arrived in just a few hours ago, a polymer air-car stripped clean of everything non-essential, kitted out with a military grade chiller to keep the surface temperature equal to the ground below, and a powerful anti-mag drive that pushed against the iron rich crust of the planet to stay aloft and propel itself in any directly quickly and quietly. Trackless, traceless, for all intents non-existent.

That’s what the helio-copters were searching for now.

He closed his eyes and could hear as though he were back in those combat airframes the chatter of the gunners, amped up vision picking up the urine traces of the indigenous wildlife, the neon lines tracing days of animal traffic patterns across the sparse landscape. When they were fighting for this moss covered rocky shithole of a planet they would find their quarry by spotting the splatter patterns of the animals killed for food, work out how close and how many by the colour of the drying blood on the rocks. Now the gunners looked for other patterns on the ground, had other orders, other targets.

There was barely any disturbance on the ground as two aircraft crested the hill over the valley Branson crouched in, and he held his breath, willing his heartbeat to slow to almost a complete stop, and he waited.

There was a gentle tug at his sleeve as something left the ground and added its weight to the inside of the fabric. He felt crusty legs slowly pull a soft hairy body up between the back of his hand and the sleeve lining.

Stil he waited.

The copters slowly cruised the length of the valley, and Branson could smell the thick sweet smoke of the Granjee leaf that at least one of the gunners was smoking. He smiled despite himself. The narcotic effects of the plant had been the native’s best defense against the military intruders. The soldiers they were trying to kill, and that were trying to kill them became their best reluctant customers, many dying from overdoses, or being cut to ribbons as entire patrols ventured off on missions of bravado with all their senses torqued out of their control.

Branson learned an awful lot from the natives of this world.

As the copters cleared the ridge at the far end of the valley and dropped below the horizon, Branson allowed himself slow, easy breaths. When he could no longer sense the blades disrupting the air, he slowly peeled back the sleeve of his jacket, exposing the rock spider that had perched there for safety. Keeping that hand perfectly still, he slipped his k-bar from his thigh and gently slipped the blade between the spider and his skin, letting the creature readjust itself to the new perch before relocating it to a nearby plant. It would eat any smaller insect that might endanger his crop, and so as long as it didn’t bite him, they would remain friends. Survivors alike, adaptable.

Standing he checked again the woven camouflage netting he’d just repaired before he was disturbed. A razor beak, or maybe a tear wing had undoubtedly tried to land on it, leaving a large gash which he’d sown and repatched with moss and scrub.

Branson locked his hands behind his back and pulled against the stiffness of his shoulders until his spine cracked several satisfying times. Ahead of him stretched a deliberately stochastic pattern of Granjee plants, their long blue leaves curling in tight spirals around their trunks, reaching skyward toward the suns. The military trained him for combat, combat trained him for retirement.

Branson had learned an awful lot from the natives of this world.

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