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Cantor waited until Hazzez finished checking the airlock before asking about the Frumies.

Hazzez flashed a crooked grin revealing the eclectic range of micro-implants in his teeth. “Why do you want to know about the Frumies?”

Cantor shrugged. “Sarge said not to give them anything under any circumstances. Zilch. Nada. Why? Seems kind of overkill. On Haliburton 4, we were encouraged to give the locals our extra supplies. It was considered good practice. Keep the locals friendly.”

“Yeah, on Haliburton worlds that works. They’re in the mainstream of the Arm. Easy access worlds. But, we’re on the Fringe. Vanuata is a completely different situation,” Hazzez explained with unaccustomed patience. “How much do you know about earth history?”

“Routine stuff. I leveled up on schedule through my emancipation.”

“World wars?”

“I know the basics. You gotta have that to get through Corp training.”

“So, what do you remember about World War II?” Hazzez quizzed.

Cantor fiddled with the wrist connection on his pressure suit. “That the one the USA started with China? The first woman President trying to look tough. Started over North Korea, Iran and their nukes.”

Hazzez shook his head. “That was III. Germany and Japan started II. Hitler. Hirohito.” Hazzez paused. “What’s really important is that a large part of World War II was fought in the South Pacific on a series of islands. Archipelagos. Not all that different from planets on the Fringe.” He waved a gloved hand towards one of the small hexagonal portholes in the door of the airlock.

“You see, Private No-Class Cantor, two hundred years ago, those tiny islands in the South Pacific were as isolated and hard to reach as these fringe worlds. Those tropical islands were generally hospitable, as are the Fringe worlds, but the locals can be unpredictable. Like the Frumies.”

“Are they hostile?”

“Not a bit.”

“What then?” Cantor pressed.

“They’ve got an interesting belief system.”

“Are they religious fanatics?”

“No more than you are for wearing a Saint Christopher medal.” Hazzez poked at Cantor’s chest with his gloved hand.

Even the slight pressure made Cantor feel the silver medallion against his skin. Hazzez and the other soldiers had ribbed him because he never took it off. “You know that’s for my mom. She thinks it’ll keep me safe while I’m away.”

“Exactly,” Hazzez clicked his teeth over the com-link. He tapped at the transparent metal of the porthole to what lay beyond. “You see Vanuatu out there? Imagine you’re a local. You have no clue about a larger universe. Galaxies. Other worlds. Just like those natives in the South Pacific had any idea of other continents. Then one day planes and ships start arriving. Strange creatures. Strange equipment. Your world is turned upside down, but maybe in a good way. You like all the things these strange creatures bring. They have powerful tools that make your work easier. You don’t speak the strange creatures’ language—but one word sticks. The word the aliens use a lot when unloading their amazing vessels.”

Behind his faceplate, Hazzez’s green eyes brightened for a moment and then came a thick and delicious whisper. “Cargo.”

“Yeah. I get that,” Cantor said, stepping back from the airlock door unimpressed. “Natives. They like things. That’s what cargo is. Things. So, why can’t we share some with the Frumies?”

His eyes still ablaze, Hazzez cracked his crooked grin once more. “Better to show than tell.”

Staring up at the huge structure, Cantor agreed that Hazzez had been right. Sarge, too. Showing made more sense than telling. He stood near the center of the red, high-cliffed canyon walls. The canyon ran along the equator of Vanuatu, but it was not a warm place. Without his pressure suit, Cantor would’ve frozen to death a few minutes after his body gave up trying to get enough oxygen from the planet’s thin atmosphere.

Cantor had had to walk past murmuring klatches of Frumies gathered on the arid plain of the canyon floor. Within moments of their landers touching down, the heavily pelted bi-pedal creatures had emerged en mass from an extensive network of caves and tunnels on either side of the canyon.

Not one of the squat simianesque Frumies had directly approached him, though he knew Sarge and some of the other security commanders had met with emissaries of the shaggy creatures upon arrival.

As soon as they’d secured perimeters around the landers and assembled the heavy treaded ground transport, Hazzez had hailed him over the com-link. “You ready for your lesson on cargo and the Frumies?”

They tractored almost an hour up the canyon before they’d reached the structure. Immediately, Cantor became transfixed by the stone edifice. Hazzez let him stare for a few minutes before he commented. “You gotta hand it to the Frumies, they know how to work with stone.”

“Why’d they do it?” Cantor asked. “It must’ve taken decades. Is it a religious site?” Cantor asked, quite conscious of the Saint Christopher medal hanging from his neck. It seemed heavier.

“They did it for cargo,” Hazzez replied.

“But it’s made of stone,” Cantor retorted, knowing full well the rhetorical failure of his reply, and not caring. Before him stood a two hundred foot high stone replica of a much outdated landing craft. The details were stunning, down to the entry scarring on the lower thrusters to the delicate sensor arrays near the pinnacle of the craft. All deftly carved and recreated in stone.

Then there were the support structures. The complex infrastructure deployed from a lander on any planetary resource mission. Solar vaults, com towers, crew quarters, vehicles and command center had all been painstakingly chiseled in Vanuatu red stone. And all reverently maintained, swept and wiped down by the Frumies.

Cantor tried to grasp it. “Do they think we’re gods or something?”

“No, not gods, just givers,” Hazzez answered. “Vanuatu was last visited almost twenty years ago on a routine mission. The Frumies liked our cargo. They wanted us back. This is the way the Frumies thought they could bring us back—or at least our cargo.”

“By building stone replicas?” Cantor sounded lost.

Hazzez clicked into lecture mode. “Here’s the upshot, the Frumies confused cause and effect. Two decades ago, our spaceship and infrastructure brought the cargo, so when we left, the Frumies thought if they replicated the ship and infrastructure, the cargo would come again.

“Circular reasoning. Completely futile. It’s what happens when you cherry-pick evidence to support an outcome you want. You only get a mirage. This one just happens to be made of stone.”

“What a waste,” Cantor said. “Impressive, but a colossal waste of time.”

Hazzez chuckled. “I dunno, Cantor. We came back. We brought more cargo.”

“But not because of this,” Cantor gestured toward the monolithic structure towering above them.

“Well, then what brought us back?” Hazzez challenged him.

“I dunno,” Cantor mused. “Trade. Greed. Exploitation. Take your pick.”

Hazzez’s grin flashed behind his faceplate. “Well, then we’re not that much different than the Frumies, are we, Private Cantor?”

Cantor gazed back up at the massive stone rocket ship and felt a strangely familiar weight growing around his neck.

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