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“Great things are done when men and mountains meet.”

—William Blake

The next weekend was lovely. It was autumn, brisk and clear, which Kendra had always liked, and it was perfect for a camping excursion Rob had been urging her to accompany him on. She was a bit hesitant, not thrilled at the idea of sleeping in a tent outside, but had agreed. He promised to have her back in time for work. She noted that he didn’t promise sleep.

They took his other vehicle, a battered groundtruck that had badly scratched and faded panels, but whose turbine sounded brand new, and tossed in some gear from his warehouse. She asked if it was possible to get a rent discount, since she wasn’t using the substantial storage unit that came with the apartment.

“No,” he responded reasonably, “but you can rent it to someone else, can’t you?”

It had never occurred to her. Sublet it? Well, sure. Not on Earth, of course, but here . . .

They headed west into the mountains. The city ended quickly, commerce giving way to light industry giving way to a few wealthy houses on large lots, to scattered farms, to a quick rise in elevation. There was no autocontrol and no barricade on the edge of the road as they wound up through the trees, and she gripped the arms of the seat. She wondered why aircars weren’t more popular.

“Problem?” he asked.

“Scared,” she replied.

He nodded and slowed. “Better?”

“A little,” she replied, watching the tall pines and maples and local nuggetwood flash past. The air was clean and warm, the view across the seaside plain breathtaking and the dark hills romantic in their mystery. She’d never been into wilderness this untamed.

Shortly, they turned off onto a side road that was unfused dirt. It was narrower, and areas were gullied away by rain. Rob slowed further. They were no longer on the edge of the hill, so Kendra relaxed slightly. The trees thinned a bit and a grassy meadow opened up. It had been mowed recently and there was a fence at the edge of it. A sign detailed ownership, inspection dates and listed a contact number for emergencies. “Here we are,” Rob told her. He parked the truck to one side and jumped out.

“Oh, Rob, it’s beautiful!” she breathed. The east side tapered off onto the hillside and looked across the plain to the East Sea far beyond. There was the streak of a launching shuttle just visible from the starport. Then she noticed the silence. A few birds, the whispering of twigs and leaves and nothing else. It was eerie. It was very arousing. She grabbed him.

They threw a blanket to the ground and made love immediately. Kendra had had a fantasy of making love in the wilderness ever since she had first discovered her sexuality, and here was the chance. No distractions, no people. It was very erotic, and she orgasmed in a crashing series of waves. They lay still afterward, until a few Earth-born bugs began to get too inquisitive. They redressed and Rob explained the tent as he pitched it. She helped by handing over poles.

It was the same design the Vikings had used 1500 years before: a wedge over a framework of poles at every edge. No ropes, no fuss. Once pitched, they each grabbed a side and moved it to a flatter location. Rob tossed in an air mattress and pulled the tassel to inflate it, then added quilts. The truck contained a small fridge for food, a framework that unfolded as a toilet seat and a couple of chairs. He built and lit a small fire, a tough task in the even thinner atmosphere at this altitude, and dragged dead boughs from the forest to feed it. He showed Kendra how to chop wood with an axe and she gleefully got blisters and a splinter until she remembered the gloves he’d handed her.

They went on a short hike, Rob slinging a heavy rifle over his shoulder and handing her a much lighter one. She made him wait at the gate while she read the owners’ sign. Rob’s name was one of those listed. “Yours?” she asked, surprised.

“For now it’s a retreat that friends and I own. When the city expands more, we’ll build it as a campsite and rent it out. That will keep the scenery intact.”

“What about the land lower down?” she asked. “Once it’s built you won’t have a view.”

“Most of it is unsuitable for basic construction. That was one of our considerations. It would take expensive methods to construct anything, and we own quite a strip of it anyway. And if and when that type of stuff moves in, we’ll sell it as commercial property. Right now, we are paying a local to conduct weekly perimeter patrols in decent weather, just to maintain the claim. And it is registered with Public Records.”

They strolled around the western edge, gathering berries and a few edible plants as they walked. They took breaks for her benefit; the air was almost too thin and she yawned often. The trees whispered above them in the thin breeze and Iolight dappled the ground. She saw occasional animals, including Earth squirrels and the local rabbitlike bugs. The animals chittered back at them, curious but not terribly afraid. It was amazingly idyllic. “Give me your gun,” Rob interrupted.

She handed it over immediately and silently, wondering what was wrong. “Mine’s too big for this,” he said as he sighted and fired. The rifle popped and twitched and there was a sound of something crashing through the branches. He went forward at a run and she hurried to catch up.

He’d shot a rabbit-sized animal off a tree limb and it curled in death on the leafy ground. She felt queasy. “What’s that?” she asked, knowing part of the answer already.

“A scrambler, and dinner. I brought other stuff if you don’t want any.”

“Thanks,” she acknowledged. No, she would not be eating scrambler.

After smelling it roast on the fire, she agreed to try some. It was utterly delicious, rubbed with local herbs and crisped on the outside. She drank some wine, then a bit more, and had a few bites. Then some more wine and a few more bites of meat. She knew she’d have a philosophical war with herself later, but for now she tabled it. Her ears were roaring.

As dusk grew, the city began to light up, along with the few ships large enough to be seen from here. The cityscape turned into a long, twinkling curve below, tapering off in an arm to the north where the road led to Delph’, curving northeast around the bay, and cut off on the south in a broad arc that was the delta of the Drifting River. Rob dragged out a pair of binoculars and pointed out where they must live. It was at the edge of the glare of downtown, and she nodded.

The fire died down to embers, leaving a rich smoky taste to the air. He guided her back from it and, after their eyes adjusted, he pointed out the constellations, many of them the same as on Earth, but much easier to see through the clear air without city glare. It was stunning. Thousands of stars and the Milky Way were clearly visible, as opposed to tens within an inhabited area on Earth or mere hundreds in such preserved “wilds” as the Boundary Waters. And there was the Sun, he pointed out to her. It was a barely visible pinpoint near Sirius.

When they finally went to bed, she clung to him. For the first time in her life, she felt really insignificant. Not even space travel had brought that home to her before.

The next morning was shivery cold, the altitude and clear, thin air conspiring to drop the apparent temperature. She huddled under the quilts, struggled into clothes and then dared to rise. Rob began packing gear.

A mist rolled slowly down the meadow’s gentle slope and tumbled over the hill. It wafted below in ghostly fingers, occasionally tearing into the sky as something below warmed in the hazy Iolight cutting across in front. The long turn of seasons here led to an amazing spectrum of colors in the dual plant kingdoms, and the light through the leaves threw colored shadows across the hoary grass. She wished for a camera, then realized no picture could ever capture this moment. Rob came and stood next to her, hand on her shoulder, and said nothing. As the gray tendrils thinned, he squeezed and pulled, urging her to the vehicle.

She had forgotten how cold she was and gratefully soaked in the cab’s heat, cupping the proffered mug of chocolate in both hands. They bumped along the rutted path to the road, Rob keeping the speed down to avoid spills.

They headed further west, over the mountains. The range barely topped three thousand meters and was quite old geologically speaking. The road got straighter as the basaltic tops smoothed out to domes, trees giving way to scrub. They were suddenly over the divide and facing the central plains. Kendra gasped.

Woods. Trees. As far as the eye could see, nothing but trees. Millions of hectares of them. No sight like it had been seen anywhere on Earth for five hundred years, and not in “civilized” areas for at least a hundred more. She quivered inside, overcome with emotion, and uttered not a word. Her exhaled breath made an almost inaudible “ohhhhhhhh!”

She finally remembered to breathe in.

“Now,” Rob cut into her thoughts, “Why would anyone who’s seen this ever want to live anywhere else?”

“I don’t,” she replied very quietly, tears blurring her vision. With crystal clarity, she realized the pain she’d been feeling was that of rejection from her old home. Nothing now could pry her from her new home, Grainne.

She wondered why sights like this weren’t better advertised? Surely there would be more tourist traffic and better trade? Then she realized that that very traffic would destroy the beauty that brought people. The Freeholders kept it quiet, not as selfishness, but as a personal work of art to be shared with those who would seek it out or could best appreciate it. She vaguely was aware that the investment to start such a tourist trade would be huge—facilities and infrastructure would have to be built.

The unfolding vista knocked such thoughts from her mind. She forgot her fear of the winding road and stared silently for long segs.

Halfway down the far side, Rob turned off the road onto another packed dirt trail. This was a plateau, not a meadow and there was a trickling stream feeding a small pond. It had been dammed deliberately for the small cabin nearby. “Inside tonight,” he promised her.

“Is this yours, too?” she asked.

“Partly,” he admitted. “We have to do some upkeep as our share.”

“Sure,” she agreed.

He parked in front and began unlocking sliding covers over the windows and doors. “To prevent vandalism?” she asked.

“Huh? Nah. Don’t want storms or swinging branches to break any windows.”

It was cool inside, lit indirectly through the trees and windows. Rob lit a fire inside a stove and pointed to a list of chores.

They spent the morning gathering and chopping firewood, clearing brush from around the road and cabin with machetes, sweeping and doing some touch-up painting. The cabin was built of wood, making Kendra feel like a pioneer in the old American West.

She shrugged and agreed to leftover scrambler, salted and spiced, and they mixed a salad of items brought along. There was crusty bread, cheese and beer. They stretched out for a short nap after the exertion of the morning and Kendra awoke to Rob attempting to make love to her. She feigned sleep a bit longer, then let her legs fall open for him. Finally, unable to restrain herself, she burst out laughing. He joined her.

The cabin had a composting toilet inside and minimal running water filtered from the stream. The best part about modern society was that they could have solar receivers and a small generator on the stream; no long buried or strung cables to disturb the landscape were necessary.

“I’m going to take a walk,” she announced. “Want to come with?”

“No, I’m going to tidy up,” he said. “I’ll catch up shortly. Make sure you take your rifle,” he added.

“Okay,” she agreed, grabbing it from the rack as she opened the door. It was warm and sunny now and no jacket was needed. She stepped down, closed the door and stood, inhaling the clean air and listening, eyes closed. She opened them and strode off across the plateau.

It was pretty. The trees could be seen to sway gently and a lone cloud scudded across, seeming to be just out of reach. She examined the granite of an outcropping, similar to but different from Earth granites, and handled a piece in curiosity. There was a rustle to her left that didn’t register for a moment, then triggered some unconscious reflex.

She turned, startled. A fluidly graceful form sprang out of the bushes, bounded off the grassy edge of the clearing and leapt again. She realized its direction, groped for her rifle and swung it, shaking.

She automatically followed the steps Rob had drilled into her; point, squeeze, point again, squeeze. Four shots coughed out of the muzzle, recoil shoving at her shoulder. There was an agonized roar and the creature’s next bound ended with a tangible thump! on the ground in front of her. She stood, shaking and stared at the long-legged beast sprawled on the grass. Bloody froth oozed from its nostrils.

“I’m behind you,” Rob advised, gently reaching around her to grasp her weapon and lead her back a few steps. Drawing his pistol, he walked wide around the animal and fired a round just behind its ear. It twitched once.

“What the hell is that?” she demanded, shaking again.

“That was a ripper. Now dead. Well shot, lady,” he said, holstering his own gun.

She glanced at the weapon still in her hand, reached down and returned it to its slung position. Her shakes continued. “What?” she asked, not tracking properly.

“It was going to have you for lunch. You were quicker,” Rob explained.

“A bare victory for human intelligence,” she said with a sickly smile, trying to relax.

“I didn’t say smarter, just quicker,” he returned. “Never think of these bastards as stupid.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, nodding vigorously.

Adrenaline from the ripper attack kept her awake the entire way home. The rolled-up skin in the truck bed didn’t reassure her. She’d declined to watch the skinning process and felt queasy about it. The remains had been left for scavengers, except for one large steak. “Pretty rank tasting, but not something you get every day,” Rob had said.

Pretty as it was, Freehold was no Utopia. Utopia didn’t have bloodthirsty predators that hadn’t had millions of years to learn to fear hominids.

She didn’t even notice the fast drive down the mountains, in the dusk, that would have terrified her two days before. She helped Rob unload in a daze, got back in and was silent as he drove to Marta’s. Once inside, she showered at length, luxuriating in modern equipment and safety, then crawled into bed. Rob was already asleep.

She stirred from a bad dream as Marta snuggled in behind her.

“Hi, love,” Marta greeted her, kissing her thoroughly. “Is that a ripper skin in my other freezer?”

“Uh, yes. It jumped me this afternoon,” she agreed, muzzy-headed.

“Well done! Can we use it as a rug in front of the fireplace? Please? Cash? Barter? Two hours of scorching sex?” Marta teased her.

“Sure, I guess. I hadn’t thought about it.” She was back asleep before Marta could continue her seduction. She barely was aware of a soft, frustrated curse and didn’t hear or feel Marta shifting to get comfortable against her back.

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