The Devil’s Playground

Winged saber-toothed T-Rex. Those were the words that finally convinced Colton to join his old service buddy, Matteo, on a trip to Mars. They were also the reason he’d probably die there.

Darwin, colloquially known as Darwin’s Playground, or simply the Playground, was a large crater in the Argyre quad, and was home to more than 30 bioengineering laboratories. The Playground accounted for a fifth of all annual patent applications across the settled worlds, ranging from prosthetics to aquaculture, biocomputers, algae fuels, and biomimetic super materials. But what it was really known for was Apex Reserve in the Southern Highlands a hundred kilometers to the east. Apex was a free-roam zoo for the genetic mashups that came out of Darwin, and a high-profile distraction from whatever else the Playground was working on.

Regardless, that’s what Colton expected from his trip: a few days of camping at an expensive zoo. But Matteo had something else in mind. Trophy hunting.

The legalese in the permits was indecipherable and was so long it had to be bound like a book. The release of liability waivers include video attestations. He thought it was a lot of hype, part of the experience they were selling.

Then people started dying.

Mars had something of a lawless reputation, but that was mostly cultural, part of the rugged frontier history. But Apex was truly left to the governance of chaos. The things that roamed here were not the products of nature. Nature knew better. They may have been created in a lab in Darwin’s Playground, but Apex was the playground of the devil.

Colton lay still in the red mud, surrounded on all sides by kilometers of rustling tall grasses. The beating of massive leathery wings was accompanied by a deep roar that reverberated in his bones, and something close by shrieked in reply. He crawled ahead under the cover of the hellish banter, knowing only that if he went far enough in any direction he’d eventually reach a boundary wall. A shot rang out in the distance and unseen creatures scurried. Colton shuffled forward and tried to make himself as small as he felt.

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