Excerpt: The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz - Tor/Forge Blog


Excerpt: The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

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The Terraformers by Annalee NewitzFrom science fiction visionary Annalee Newitz comes The Terraformers, a sweeping, uplifting, and illuminating exploration of the future.

Destry’s life is dedicated to terraforming Sask-E. As part of the Environmental Rescue Team, she cares for the planet and its burgeoning eco-systems as her parents and their parents did before her.

But the bright, clean future they’re building comes under threat when Destry discovers a city full of people that shouldn’t exist, hidden inside a massive volcano.

As she uncovers more about their past, Destry begins to question the mission she’s devoted her life to, and must make a choice that will reverberate through Sask-E’s future for generations to come.

A science fiction epic for our times and a love letter to our future, The Terraformers will take you on a journey spanning thousands of years and exploring the triumphs, strife, and hope that find us wherever we make our home.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz, on sale 1/31/2023.



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.

Two cat-sized drones hovered down on eight rotors to land on Whistle’s right and left antlers. They had smooth X-shaped bodies with sensors spread like freckles along each axis, and they were small enough to use conventional flight rather than gravity mesh. “Long time no see,” they said in unison. “The city misses every aeronaut.” Though they had two bodies, Hellfire&Crisp shared a consciousness; it was therefore hard to say whether the drones were a plural or singular they.

Whistle snorted and sent a public text: Hi there. Good to be back.

The drones took off again, ignoring Destry. Whistle had a social life that he didn’t tell her about, and she didn’t ask. It was one of many nonverbal agreements they had that made their working relationship deeply amicable and pleasing.

Their first stop was the ERT barn where the moose lived with other mounts. At its wide door, Destry relieved him of her saddle before giving him a rubdown in the spots he couldn’t reach.

“Have a good night, pal,” Destry said. He nudged her with his nose. You too.

The ERT domo for hominins was at the end of a dirt path bordered by night-blooming primroses and mint whose mingled scents sweetened the air. She had to duck through an arch in a whimsically pruned hedge whose contours were determined annually by the rangers in training. Right now, it was supposed to evoke the undulating body of a swimming placoderm—an homage to the Devonian armored fish who still roamed the seas. Ahead lay the domo, its wide, three-story bulk packed with dorms, lounges, and the main dining hall. It was one of the few buildings on Sask-E built with wood, carefully culled from nearby spruce and fir populations to promote a diversity of new growth. Its creamy outer walls were treated with a transparent polymer to protect it from weathering, and the high, rounded roof was wattle and daub. Double doors opened as Destry’s face came into range, and she walked down the yellow-lit throat of the hallway with its colorful murals, handprints, and informational posters.

No matter how many centuries she lived here, returning to this domo always filled Destry with a sense of accomplishment. She was an Environmental Rescue Team ranger, and her home here was proof.

Still, her position wasn’t solid. Destry recalled what that pus-sucker had said through the lips of his remote: It was strange to find an ERT ranger on a private planet like this one. Most of the planet’s hominin population were workers made from standard templates, decanted and controlled by Verdance—technicians, engineers, and farmers who lived in La Ronge but spent most of the year dispatched to remote construction sites. There was no ambiguity in the law when it came to those workers; Verdance could use them however it wanted. But the ERT was a profoundly public institution, with campuses on nearly every League world. They couldn’t technically be owned by Verdance, or anyone. Destry wasn’t sure what kind of twisted, legal logic her boss, Ronnie, had deployed to establish an ERT campus here. The ancient order of environmental engineers and first responders traced their lineage all the way back to the Farm Revolutions that ended the Anthropocene on Earth, and started the calendar system people still used today. According to old Handbook lore, the Trickster Squad—Sky, Beaver, Muskrat, and Wasakeejack—founded the Environmental Rescue Team 59,006 years ago. That’s when the legendary heroes saved the world from apocalyptic floods by inventing a new form of agriculture. The Great Bargain, they called it. A way to open communication with other life forms in order to manage the land more democratically. The ERT started with domesticated animals—ungulates, birds, small mammals, model organisms like rats—and over the millennia since, rangers had invited more species into the Great Bargain as their opinions became necessary for land management.

Ronnie had decided that the ERT should be involved in her terraforming project, and so she built one. Apparently the Verdance VP was a true believer in the Great Bargain, but she also wanted to make money on colonization. She couldn’t resolve this contradiction, so the Sask-E ERT ran like a moose with overgrown hooves. They had access to a planetwide network of sensor data—as well as the ERT Handbook, with its stories about ecosystem management. But the company’s ban on offworld comms effectively shut them off from other ERT communities. As far as Destry could tell, no one knew about the rangers here in La Ronge. That was convenient for Ronnie. She could appease her ancestors by respecting ERT traditions, but also please the executives at Verdance by keeping everything and everyone on Sask-E privately owned.

A thick aroma of fried onion in the domo promised leftovers, and Destry sped up with anticipation. The dining hall was the biggest room on this floor, occupying the entire west side of the building. When she poked her head inside, the place was empty and mostly unlit except for one area where half a dozen junior rangers were eating a late meal together. Thankfully, there was still a heaping tray of pierogies and pickled mustard greens on the grab table. Loading her plate, Destry sank gratefully into her favorite corner chair and reveled in the luxury of eating food made by someone else. The dumplings were still warm, and she’d scored a few stuffed with spicy lentils as well as potato and curried carrot. But there were always surprises, especially at late dinner. Destry smeared fried onion on what she thought was a potato pierogi, only to discover it was sweet cheese, and was therefore making a terrible face when her best friend, Nil, appeared in the doorway and yelped her name.

“Destry! You’re back! Any news from the forest?”

She swallowed with difficulty, stood, and gestured for him to join her. “Everything is in balance,” she said, evoking the time-honored greeting to avoid mentioning all the out-of-balance shit she’d seen. The two embraced before sitting in companionable silence at the table together.

When they were young, she and Nil were sometimes mistaken for each other. Both had thick black hair, shaggy and straight, which always hung in their eyes. Working in the sun, their skin tanned to a dark brown, and they bulked up with muscles rather than growing lean like their colleagues. Now, almost four hundred years later, it was easy to tell them apart. Destry’s hair was a salt-and-pepper fuzz sticking up around her face, while Nil’s was still long and black. Destry’s work outside kept her face tan and her arms thick with muscle, while Nil’s lab work had lightened his skin and given him a small, soft belly. Only their matching eyes remained unchanged: they were the bright, clear blue of shallow coastal waters. When they were lucky enough to be in the same place at the same time, they were inseparable. Even when she was sick of humans, Destry could tolerate Nil.

Gulping a pile of pickled greens to wash the weird flavor out of her mouth, Destry gripped his shoulder warmly. “What’s been happening down here in the city, my friend?”

“Everything’s in balance,” he replied noncommittally. “I was just checking the bug tracker and it looks like one of the big lava tubes at Spider Mountain collapsed. There’s been some seismic activity so it could be an eruption coming. I was thinking of getting off my lazy ass and doing some fieldwork down there.” He paused and looked hopefully at her. “Want to come?”

Because Sask-E had no plate tectonics, volcanoes rarely erupted out of nowhere: they oozed magma for millions of years in the same locations, creating massive, cone-shaped mountains. The two friends had dealt a lot with these formations, though for different reasons. Destry investigated breakdowns in local ecosystems from toxins expelled during eruptions, and Nil tapped lava flows to create volcanic soils for forests he was irrigating. His offer was tempting. Still, she had been looking forward to sleeping in her own bed for a while after three months in the bush, especially after that disturbing encounter with the remote. And if she was being honest, the tropical ecosystems near Spider Mountain weren’t her favorite. She’d always preferred the prairies.

“I don’t know, Nil. I’m pretty exhausted.”

He looked mildly put out, then concerned. “Did something happen out there? I saw your bug report about the space vessel, but I didn’t read it.”

Destry repositioned one of the lentil pierogis on her plate, carefully piling it with onion and mustard greens. She chewed for a while as Nil waited patiently. It was another reason why they remained friends; he was willing to wait through her hard-edged silences.

“I didn’t report this, but I had to kill a remote. A default male Homo sapiens.” She forked the last bite of dinner into her mouth. “He was murdering small mammals and eating them. Never seen anything like it. I don’t mind saying it was downright spooky.”

Nil looked disturbed. “I think a whole slew of crackpots are going to start coming to Sasky now. Verdance just opened up bidding for plots.” Like everyone in La Ronge, he blurred the syllables in the planet’s name together, and Sask-E became Sasky.

The Verdance announcement was news to Destry, but it did explain how the remote had found his way here. Verdance was probably spraying everyone in League space and beyond with ads for their latest artisanal terraforming creation, ten thousand years in the making. The real estate developer was known for indie projects like Sasky, which was ripening into one of the few known Earthlike worlds in the League—and that made it an enticing outlier among the thousands of habitable planets that speculators were terraforming at any given time.

Verdance was really leaning into its whole “Earth rebooted” marketing pitch, too. Anyone who bought property on Sasky would be required to live here in a Homo sapiens body, which was packaged with the real estate. That meant settling here was very expensive, which seemed to make buyers salivate.

Destry frowned at the thought of more people sending their remotes to poison the biosphere before it was open to the public.

Nil put a hand on her arm. “Did the remote say why he was here?”

“He was a Pleistocene fanatic. Said the land was his birthright as a human, along with some other determinist feculence.”

Nil rolled his eyes and sighed. “I have a feeling our jobs are about to get a lot more annoying.”

Destry pushed back from the table. “I need to get to bed. Let’s meet for breakfast?”

Nil nodded and they walked to the hallway together, mounting the worn ceramic stairs to the sleeping quarters. On the first landing, they paused. Destry was on the third floor, and Nil was on the second. He embraced her goodnight and whispered in her ear. “Shall I join you?”

She felt the familiar pull toward him low in her belly. It had been awhile. Part of her craved what he offered, but a bigger part was bone-tired. Destry kissed Nil’s warm lips and hugged him harder.

“Another time, my friend.” She ran her hands up his arms and stepped back to appreciate the sweetness of his familiar face. “It’s good to see you, though.”

He grinned easily. “Good to see you too, my friend.”

Destry mounted the stairs and plodded past a dozen darkened doors to the one that glowed a soft green, anticipating her arrival. Inside, she barely glanced at the walls, where ivy cascaded out of pockets near the ceiling, parting around a few square cubbies crowded with framed pictures and favored mementos. It was only when Destry peeled off her clothes and dove between the clean covers that she realized her skin was still gritty with dirt, charcoal, and who knows what else from the composted space vessel. Washing would have to wait, just like Nil’s comforts. For now, sleeping alone in her tiny personal space with its window full of night was the greatest pleasure she could imagine.

That’s when her external comms pad hooted loudly. It was a sound she heard only when somebody was calling directly from Verdance. Ronnie. Groaning, she rolled over and waved on the light, muscles and mind aching.

She didn’t even have a chance to accept the call. Ronnie’s access was high enough that she could pipe her face into any room, any time. A crisp hologram of the VP’s head and shoulders now hovered at the foot of the bed. Her hair was a pale, iridescent blue, perfectly layered to cascade across the shoulders of her emerald jacket. Her brown skin was richly moisturized, almost dewy, as if she’d recently had a tissue reconstruction. Though proud of her traditional Earth values, Ronnie was Homo diversus, a catchall subspecies name for hundreds of customized hominin builds. Her fashionable forehead sloped back steeply, and her skull was elongated into an elegant egg shape. Gills gleamed on either side of her throat like jewels.

“I’m sorry if you were sleeping.”

Destry ran a hand over her eyes and shrugged off the fake apology. “What can I do for you?”

“I see you filed a bug report about a vessel but failed to mention that you killed the remote who piloted it.”

So much for covering her tracks up there in the boreal forest. “He was trespassing, killing trees and animals. If I’d left him there, he would have set back development of that forest by years. I asked him to leave three times before I shot him. You can see the footage for yourself.”

“Don’t treat this lightly, Destry. I have client relationships on the line here.”

Something about her condescending tone reminded Destry of early training, when she and the other recently decanted ERT rangers watched an old video of Ronnie talking about Earth terroir. Using her sweetest and most nurturing voice, the Verdance VP explained that only Homo sapiens could truly nurture the terroir of Earthlike ecosystems, which is why Destry and her H. sapiens cohorts were so important. They would turn Sask-E into an Earth-away-from-Earth, a special world that honored humanity’s origins. Back then, when Destry was still under the protection of her mother and father, she thought Ronnie was the wisest person in the galaxy. In the centuries since, her feelings for the VP had curdled into wrathful disgust. Not that she could ever show Ronnie anything other than calm obedience. That’s what she needed to muster if she was going to make it through this conversation intact.

“I’m confused,” Destry said as nonconfrontationally as possible. “That remote wasn’t on official business. It was unmarked, with a generic name.”

“That remote was sent by Lem Rackleworth’s son.” Ronnie gritted her teeth in a smile. “He is an investor in our parent company, and his son

Devin is interested in buying some land on Sask-E.”

“I asked him to identify himself and he refused.”

“I saw the remote’s logs. You shot within a few minutes of encountering him.”

Destry was shocked fully awake. Ronnie was combing through her investors’ son’s logs now? That was a new level of aggressive micromanagement. Ronnie continued. “His remote was very expensive, and Lem is threatening us with a lawsuit. You’re a good ranger, Destry. A good investigator. But if I can’t work this out with Lem, there is nothing I can do to intercede for you. Do you understand?” Her words hung in the air, deliberately vague. Acid crept its way up Destry’s throat from her stomach. An extremely belligerent investor might get her kicked out of the ERT. She’d lose what little power she had to shape the environment on this planet.

Destry looked into the photons animating Ronnie’s face, searching for pores in her shiny skin. She thought about her parents, who were no longer around to reassure her that Ronnie was far away and couldn’t do any harm. Besides, that had been a lie. Ronnie was always around, turning minor infractions into catastrophes. Destry forced herself to sit up straighter. “I understand, Ronnie. Thanks for letting me know.”

And then the hologram was gone, Ronnie’s threat adding ambient stress to the uncomfortable reminder that she wasn’t ever entirely alone. Shaking with more than exhaustion, Destry lay down and waved off the lights. Even the weight of foreboding couldn’t keep her awake. Outside, the northern constellations crawled across the sky, obliviously waiting for someone from a distant star to claim them as property.

Copyright © 2022 from Annalee Newtiz

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