Excerpt: Renewal

“Lube your bit, Sterling.”

Sterling twitched and glared over his shoulder at Donovan’s leer. Combined with Donovan’s patchy moustache, gold-tipped teeth, and frequent innuendos, that leer made Sterling’s hackles rise. Donovan was either looking for a fight or a fuck, and Sterling didn’t have time for either. “My bit is lubed,” he snapped. “You got a problem? Go screw a tree.”

“I’d rather watch you screw a tree,” Donovan drawled. He folded his arms, borer dangling from one hand, thrust out a narrow hip, and gave every evidence of not moving. “You gotta lube that bit, though. Even I know you can’t fuck ’em dry.”

Sterling gave his borer one last, half-hearted twist, felt the wood splinter, and gave up. He jerked it out and rubbed the auger bit, finding it dry and sticky with sap. Carefully not looking at Donovan, he used a bit of mineral oil to wash the sap off, then applied the borer lube.

Yeah yeah, bay-bee-love-er,” Donovan sang, adopting an insultingly exaggerated Korean accent. “Rub it hard.”

“I swear to God,” Sterling growled at his angrily shaking hands. “If you don’t shut up, I’m gonna bore your eyeball.”

“I’ll show you where you can bore me—”

Roaring, Sterling whirled around, borer raised, only to discover Dr. Jelena Popović standing on an incline a little ways past Donovan. He froze and watched one eyebrow lift over her cool, wide-set eyes.

Donovan opened his mouth to make another remark then seemed to realize something was wrong. His jaw snapped shut and he pivoted.

“Er. Buenos dias, Doctor,” he said smoothly after an initial pause. “I thought I felt the sun on my shoulders. What brings you to our little neighbourhood?”

“The usual,” Jelena said, her slavic accent crisping the edges of her words. “Wondering what is taking so long. I want this section and the next finished by 1800, and the samples analyzed before you head out tomorrow morning.”

Donovan groaned and slumped exaggeratedly. “What’s the hurry? It’s a forest. It isn’t going anywhere.”

Jelena’s skin stretched over her pronounced cheekbones, forming a tight little smile. But she didn’t respond. Instead, her gaze went to Sterling in chill, cloaked speculation. He fought not to let his uneasiness show, forcing his features into blank nonchalance.

“Stop messing around, Boneta,” she finally said to Donovan. “And, Jin, lube your bit. You should know better.” That to Sterling, who rolled his eyes and smothered a curse.

Something beeped. Jelena’s head canted to the side and her eyes focused elsewhere, the classic mannerisms of someone linking in to an incoming call. Her throat and jaw moved slightly as she under-spoke to the person on the other end of the link. Without so much as a glance at her subordinates, she strode away, dead undergrowth and mulch crackling under her hiking boots.

Sterling’s uneasiness faded into envy. He’d wasted his youth fighting against the technology lapping up the human race, and in his adulthood wished he could go back and smack himself around for a while. Because he hadn’t picked one up when it was cheap and experimental, he’d have to work several more terrible jobs before he paid off his college debt and could afford a link implant.

He shook off his annoyance and occupied himself with applying another gob of lubricant. Jelena’s link was a strong reminder of why he was there and why he wanted to finish as quickly as possible.

“I hate to see her leave, but I love to watch her go,” Donovan murmured, staring after Jelena and Jelena’s long, tanned legs flashing in and out of the sunlight filtering through the canopy. He smirked at Sterling. “Keep up the good work, chingu. She comes by so often, it’s like she misses us.”

“We haven’t even started the next section,” Sterling grumbled. “Get out of here. You heard the doc. She’ll be pissed if we don’t make quota. Again.”

Donovan sighed. “Ah, I keep hoping she’ll let me pay penance on my knees.”

“I’m sure she will—digging up root rot with your bare hands.” Sterling turned, found a fresh piece of bark, and set to work boring into the beech tree.

To his relief—and surprise—Donovan chuckled and tromped off to their next assigned section, down into a nearby dip in the mountainous landscape.

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