Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction
Rigel slipped through the forest understory as if it were a mine field. The Rez reminded him of a teenage sex artist he knew back in the Steel City of Kort: beautiful, mysterious, but deadly to those who let their guard down. Rigel knew better. His head swiveled at every chirp and chitter, vigilant amber eyes darting to track each rustle of foliage, snap of twig, crackle of dried leaves. The Rez was a dangerous place. It had swallowed more poachers than anyone could count in its verdant maw. He didn't intend to become another ghost haunting a cemetery marked by trees instead of gravestones. His dead mother's voice echoed in his head: "Careful, Gel. Remember what I taught you. Respect the Rez, tread lightly... and live to tell the tale."
The mongrel mix of hardwoods and conifers gradually gave way to an orderly stand of pines, a bark-girded parade of soldiers standing at attention, awaiting Rigel's inspection. Yes! This was what he'd come for, despite the risks. He inhaled, savoring the scent of pine needles mingled with the sweet, seductive aroma of something else. He spotted a branch drooping under the weight of its bounty. He moved closer, hypnotized. Half a dozen swollen cones hung below the branch, attached to flexible twigs. They looked like regular pine cones injected with a needle and filled with liquid like balloons about to burst. He plucked one from its stem, picked the scales from its bloated side, exposing the succulent flesh of the fruit hidden underneath the protective armor. He took a bite. Sweet lavender juice dribbled from his chin. Ambrosia! So much better than the hydroponic fruits and vegetables grown in the Steel Cities' vertical gardens, or the bland, vat-grown meats generated layer upon layer in Steel City protein factories.
One of these held enough nutrients to keep him alive for days. A dozen, sold on the black market, would pay his living expenses for a month.
He slipped the pack from his back and began pulling ripe pine-apples from the nearest trees, arranging them meticulously in the pack's main storage compartment. When he'd filled the pouch to bulging, he sealed it and pressed the button to evacuate its air, preserving his precious cargo for the return trip to Kort. I'm rich.
Or so he thought, until iron fingers gripped his collar bone. The hand turned him, slowly, until he stared into the grim, weathered face of a Ranger.
"You're trespassing on the sovereign lands of the Resurrection Trust, maiaginini. I'm taking you into custody, along with the contraband you've harvested. Hand me the pack and come with me. Don't make it worse."
Rigel appraised the tall, wiry man with sharp, somber eyes and decided discretion was the better part of valor. He surrendered his backpack — reluctantly — and fell into step beside the Ranger, hoping he'd get a chance to a make a break for freedom later. The trees crowded closer, pitiless spectators gathered to witness a public execution....