friday chapter comes early today

I’m going out tonight. My sister’s office is having their holiday party at the Yacht Club, and they get to bring significant others – and insignificant others, as in my case 😀  So at the end of my work day today, I’m bringing in the change of clothes sitting in my car, changing, and headin’ out for some free booze.  I have Friday off again, which means I’ll be sleeping in and being generally lazy for the first part of the day (to be followed by writing feverishly on Ageless Sky while baking sugar cookies).

And it’s a good thing. I’ve been in a strange place, emotionally, for the last few days and it’s best I do nothing more than post a chapter and get drunk. It’s a familiar place, nothing dramatic, but I’ve learned to recognize it as unhealthy and see it as a time when I should keep my trap shut and busy myself.

So here’s Chapter 4, for anyone left still reading along. I’m not even going to apologize for the crap fest that is this novel anymore. Well, not today, anyway. How many times can you say “This was ten years ago, and it’s full of shit every writer should avoid” ?

I’ll probably say that at least five more times before this is done 🙂  So here’s Chapter 4, When the Stars Walk Backwards. Avoid sugary snacks for at least a day after reading this, and don’t go swimming for, say, 30 minutes.

There were shadows on the walls, moving around the room as if feeling for a doorway. He could see them. Jet black–the kind of black that sucks in the light and continues to hunt, hungry for more.

They must have crept in under the door. Five always locked the doors. Except for those times when– They were hungry! Moving along the walls, fingers of darkness feeling around for a way inside.

A light, he had to find a light! One bright enough so they couldn’t eat it and keep moving.

Bryce reached behind him and felt a wall, but it was the wrong wall. The lights were too far away, over by the hall, and the shadows were far too close, he’d never make it. What little light that came into the room slowly began to fade as the shadows crept closer. He was trapped! How had they gotten in? This hadn’t happened before, not like this.

Now they were sucking out the air as they pulled in the light, making the room hot. Bryce’s skin felt warm, and the air he pulled in was hot against the back of his throat.

“Five?” Where was he? Why wasn’t he turning on the lights and locking the shadows out like always? Five hadn’t answered him in such a long time. He had to reach the lights! But they were too far away, and he was growing tired. With effort, Bryce turned to face the entrance. He’d have to find the lights, if Five wasn’t going to help him. But they were so far away!

In a flash so bright it made him blink, the lights came on, shearing into the room like a knife that the shadows ran from with incredible speed. Bryce breathed a sigh of relief, but his throat still scratched with the heat of the air. He turned, searching the room for shadows, but found none.

This must be part of the dream. Five turned on the lights when he heard the nightmare begin, and now he was having a dream. It was the one where he wasn’t alone anymore, only this time it felt so much more real.

Slowly and with some reluctance, Bryce opened his eyes, blinking against the burning behind both eyelids. His throat was hot and scratchy, and his head pounded a little. He hadn’t felt like this in so long, he’d forgotten how uncomfortable it was. His vision cleared to reveal the stark white ceiling of the complex’s med lab. When he coughed to clear his throat, he heard movement beside him.

“Hey, how do you feel?”

It was Mac, sitting beside the bed. It had been him during the night, keeping the shadows at bay. He swallowed back the automatic response of ‘I’m fine’, which would have been a lie. “Hot and achy.”

Mac nodded. “You’ve got a nasty case of the flu, but you’ll be okay in a few days.” He glanced over his shoulder where a heavy white curtain separated them from the rest of the medical lab. “Lise wanted you to stay here overnight, till you got over the fever.”

Bryce nodded, swallowing again. The feeling in his throat seemed to ease up with every other swallow, but his entire body ached and burned, and his head was pounding. “I’ll be fine. Can we go?” He sat up slowly, hoping that curtain wasn’t going to pull back and reveal a room full of those people, all waiting for something from him. He remembered overhearing the argument Mac had.

The older man looked at him for a moment with a very tolerant expression, then handed him the blanket he’d been wrapped in that night. “Yeah, we can get you home now. Lise gave me some antibiotics for you.”

“And I’m only trusting him because he’s had medical training.” The curtain moved with a swish as Lise walked to the bed, pulling a diagnostic unit from her lab coat pocket.

Bryce glanced at Mac questioningly.

“Military medical training, nothing fancy.” Mac shrugged, wrapping the blanket around Bryce’s shoulders. “I’m better with blood than viruses.”

Lise scanned Bryce’s chest, then made him look into the unit for a reading. “You’re to get plenty of sleep and rest, young man. Drink lots of water. The protein-algae combination in the water here is incredible. It’s going to be a big help in patient nutrition.” She returned the unit to her pocket. “I’ve given the Captain here some pills for you to take, every four hours. And something else in case you feel nauseated.”

Bryce nodded at each sentence, anxious for her to reach the end so he could get out of the complex and away from these people. Almost as if he could read minds, Mac’s arms came around his shoulders and helped him off the exam bed.

“We’ll be fine, Doc.”

Willingly, if not a little weakly, Bryce let himself be led toward the exit.

“Oh, and Bryce, on behalf of all of us invaders,” Lise stopped at the door. “I want to apologize for exposing you like this.”

With a simple nod of his head, and a wave of Mac’s arm, they were off down the corridor and around the corner.

The rest was a blur. He wanted to thank Mac for having stayed with him there all night, for not leaving him alone with the other people. He was pretty sure he’d started to ask what time it was, to make sure the sun was up. But all he remembered was a hot feeling, something really scratchy in the back of his throat, and his knees aching. By the time the shivering started, he realized he was in bed, wrapped in warm blankets in a softly lit room.

“Mac?” Bryce blinked, then turned his head to the side and found his new friend standing beside the bed. That felt so strange, using a name. A real name, of a real person, right there. The concept, as well as the realization that it was the first time he’d called Mac by name, struck him as totally alien. It was as if his mind was suddenly exploding with a million questions and answering them all at the same instant. Even the sound of his own voice seemed full of fascination.

“Right here. Your fever spiked up again.”

Spending six hours contemplating the meaning behind a name wasn’t something you did while awake. Or had it been a few minutes? What was time, anyway? It had never really mattered before. Nothing had ever mattered before. Names had certainly never mattered before. No one had even bothered to name the plants or animals here on Oblivion. Or had they? He couldn’t remember. Even that didn’t matter. But Mac–that was someone’s name! Not something, like Five. Not some title, like doctor or captain. No, this was real. He couldn’t remember anyone’s name from before, and Five never mentioned any titles he should know. No family, no friends, no one.

Now he had a name he could call out, and it meant something. It meant trust, in a crowd of fear. It meant he wasn’t alone anymore. Perhaps nothing was in his control, but it just might turn out better this way.

Mac. Not a machine, or a half-conscious dream, but a name.

As Bryce became aware of where he was and what had just been spinning around in his head, he also became aware of someone else in the room with him. Cautiously, he opened his eyes. It was dark except for one small lamp on a table in the corner, next to a chair where Mac was sitting, reading one of the books. With a quiet sigh, Bryce closed his eyes again. The aching in his knees was gone, as was the awful pounding between his eyes. His skin no longer hurt, but his throat was still sore when he swallowed. There was a blanket he didn’t remember ever seeing before covering him up to his chest. He rolled slightly to his side, testing his joints for more of the fevered pain. When no discomfort ensued, he pulled the new blanket up and tucked it under his chin, then fell gratefully back into a more comfortable sleep.

The relief of being fever-free was so profound that Bryce fell into a deep, restful sleep. Until he felt the touch on his shoulder, gently shaking him awake. He opened his eyes and found Mac standing beside the bed, looking apologetic as he placed a glass of water on the small table.

“Sorry, doctor’s orders.” Mac held up two small, pink pills.

Bryce propped himself up on one elbow and reached for the tablets. “How long was I asleep?” He couldn’t remember taking these before, but then, he couldn’t remember much of anything.

“A few hours. You’ve been in and out all day, but I don’t imagine you remember.” Mac handed him the glass of water, waiting for him to finish so he could take it again.

The pills went down easily with a mouthful of water. Bryce handed back the glass, then sat up against the wall, pulling the unfamiliar blanket up over his stomach. “All day? I feel like I’ve been asleep for a week.” Mac reached out and put a hand over Bryce’s forehead. It was an action that should have scared him to death, but it was so quickly done, and so non-threatening, he had no time to flinch away. He swallowed back his surprise. “Have you been in here all this time?”

Mac moved his hand and reached for Bryce’s wrist, expertly taking his pulse. “Pretty much, yeah.” Apparently satisfied with what he found, he let go. “Are you hungry?”

The thought, as fleeting as it was, stirred other feelings. “No, but I have to go to the bathroom.” Acknowledging seemed to increase the urgency, making him fling the blanket away so he could swing his legs off the bed. Legs that wobbled a bit when his feet found the floor.

“Whoa, take it easy.” Mac reached out, taking hold of Bryce’s shoulders before he fell.

“Oh, man.” He swayed slightly, breathing deeply for a moment until his balance returned.

“Just take deep breaths and move slowly, all right?” Mac nodded toward the room. “And yell if you need help.”

“Right.” Grinning to hide his embarrassment, Bryce stepped inside and closed the door. The toilet was just inside and to the left, close to the wall he was using for support. After relieving himself, he walked slowly to the sink and splashed cold water over his face, washing off the sweat and staleness of the fever. When he straightened back up, he caught a reflection in the mirror. A pale version of himself, wearing a clean T-shirt and shorts. Just how sick had he been? If his lack of color and energy was any indication, pretty sick. Yet Mac hadn’t wanted to leave him in the complex with the doctor. Instead of farming him off to be sick and recuperate in the med lab, he’d brought him back here and stayed up nursing someone he barely new. That was either a testament to the man’s character, or a statement of his lack of trust when it came to the very people he’d brought here.

Or both.

Either way, he’d saved Bryce from the invasion yet again.

“Everything okay?”

Bryce swallowed and glanced toward the door, judging the distance versus his current state of wobbliness. “Yeah, I think so.” The door wasn’t too far, luckily, and he made the trip without incident.

“You should get back to bed.”

“I’m not really tired anymore.” Nevertheless, he allowed himself to be led back into the room. The bed had been changed, with fresh linen beckoning him to lie down for just a moment. “If you have things to do, I’ll be fine now.” He sat down, slowly and with some steadying help, then sighed at the cool feel of the clean sheets.

Mac gazed at him, then nodded his understanding. “I’ll leave you alone, then. But I’ll be just up there.” One finger pointed to the upper level. “I’ve got some unpacking to do, and the intercom unit is operational now.”

Bryce glanced at the wall next to his bed, seeing for the first time the small box in the wall with its three buttons.

“If you need anything, call me. All right?”

He was waiting for an answer. “Yeah, I will.” Man, that was something he was going to have to get used to! Five could be ignored, more or less. Usually, when he made a statement, it was more of a command, and a reply was never intended. This guy wasn’t Five.

It took nearly ten minutes after Mac went upstairs before Bryce’s strength returned in sufficient quantity to stand up again. When he did, it was only to find the small portable terminal he’d hidden in the bottom drawer of his smaller dresser, then return to the bed. The blanket he couldn’t identify had been folded up and draped over the foot of the mattress, looking nothing like the warm cocoon that had kept him safe all night long. With one hand, Bryce reached out and felt an edge of the thin material. It was metal gray, with an insignia of some sort now mostly hidden by the folds, and very thin. But to the touch, it felt warm and thick, confusing the eye with the contrast. Must be from one of Mac’s ships, or something from space. He’d never seen or felt anything quite like it before, and couldn’t help wondering if it would have had the opposite effect had he needed something light and cool that night. Intelligent material, perhaps?

More intelligent than Five, no doubt. He’d never really been exactly what Bryce needed at any given time.

“Where in the hell have you been?”

A throbbing between Bryce’s eyes accompanied the sound of Five’s metallic voice as he flipped on the computer. “I’ve been sick.” Why had he felt the need for this thing? Instinct had turned Five on, nothing more.

“Sick? You haven’t been sick since . . . It was them, wasn’t it?” Five’s voice chastised. “They brought germs you haven’t been around in years. I should have known.”

“Five, they didn’t do any of this on purpose.”

“Everything they’re doing is on purpose, Bryce. Never make that mistake. They can’t be trusted.”

Bryce swallowed, testing the back of his throat. It was hardly scratchy at all now. “Don’t talk to me about trust.” He glanced at the wall unit, suddenly afraid it was picking up his conversation. The lights were all dark.

Mac wasn’t Five.

“He told me what you did.”

“Never mind what he said. You have got to get me back inside! We haven’t got much time, Bryce. How long will you be safe with them in control?”

“Stop it!” He looked up again, then lowered his voice. “Tell me the truth, Five. Do you know what happened to the others?” Sounds from above told him his new roommate was still upstairs, busily going about his business.

“Have I ever lied to you?”

Do you know what happened to the others?”

“Bryce, have they been filling you with lies?”

Why was he bothering? He could simply shut the machine off and toss it. It couldn’t be much harder than cutting off his left foot. “Five, do you know?”

“I’ve shown you the data. I’ve shown you all of the records, pointed out where the damage was, given you full access to the entire bank. Everything that I know, you know.”

His headache was getting worse. “He said you have records that are encrypted. Why won’t you decode them?”

“He? Who is He?”

“Mac, Captain Brennan.”

“I see.” There was a pause while the monitor’s visual sensors kicked in. “Is that where you are now? What place is this? I don’t recognize this room.”

“It’s the shuttle they used, he turned it into living quarters and an office.” Bryce sighed. The pillow was beginning to call his name.

“And you’re here because . . .”

“You know damn well why I’m here. You saw what they were planning.”

“I saw Captain Brennan in that room, too.”

“He stopped them, Five. He’s not one of them. Not like that.” This conversation wasn’t getting him anywhere, but it felt familiar . . . comforting, in a twisted way.

“You’ve known him for five days. Correction: You’ve been on the same planet as he has for five days. Bryce, I can see your need for human companionship, but don’t forget what they want from you.”

“They’re not all the same, Five.”

“Do you trust them?”

“No, not all of them.” His energy was waning quickly.

“But you trust this Captain Brennan?”

“Yes, I think so.” Something upstairs fell to the floor with a clang that reverberated through the walls. Bryce was about to reach for the comm. unit when he heard footsteps, then something being pushed across the floor. “He’s given me no reason not to trust him.”

“And you’ve known him for five days. You’ve known me all your life, Bryce.”

“Your point being?” He was definitely getting too tired to continue this argument, seeing as how he wasn’t getting his answers.

“None of my files were encrypted, Bryce. There was damage, yes. But nothing was hidden. If they say it was, they’re lying.”

A chill coursed over Bryce’s spine, making him long for the warmth of that blanket. Only this time it wasn’t the fever giving him the sensation, it was the tone of Five’s voice. “So who am I supposed to believe? You? Them?”

“Who kept you alive for all these years?”

Bryce inhaled deeply, closing his eyes. The backs of his lids were still hot and a little itchy.

“Who knows what to do when the Tracker spins?”

The chill shot through him again. His jaw clenched and his eyes shot wide open. “Stop this!” Bryce pushed the computer across the bed with what little energy he had left, then ran a shaking hand over his hair while he forced back the fear. “You’re preying on old superstitions that you instilled!” Effective even to this day.

“Superstition isn’t why you’re alone, Bryce. And I’m why you’re alive! But I can’t keep you safe if I’m not in the system.”

“I’m safe enough here.” He looked up, listening to the sound of Mac moving around upstairs.

“For now.” The tone of Five’s voice brought Bryce’s attention back to the small computer at the foot of his bed. “But what about a few weeks from now? What about when they decide they want those answers, and they don’t want to wait any longer?”

“I don’t have any answers. And Mac said–”

“Mac said! How can you believe someone you hardly know? Bryce, he could be using you, just like the others. For all you know, they realized their plan wouldn’t work, so they sent this Brennan person to get close to you.”

Bryce shook his head slowly and deliberately, trying not to aggravate the growing headache. “He wouldn’t do that.”

“You don’t know, Bryce.”

“No, he wouldn’t.” He couldn’t, not after all he’d done already. “He had no reason to stop them before. And when I was sick, he — I heard him arguing again with some of them about it. He didn’t do that for my benefit.” He couldn’t have. “There was no way he could have known we were listening that night. You don’t stick up for a total stranger against everyone you know, if you don’t mean it.”

“Bryce, you’re ignoring the most important question.”

He swallowed, staring at the small screen. “Which is?”

“Why? Why would he?”

Exhaustion swept over him like a wave from the hot spring on a windy day. This had been a mistake. He’d thought he needed to talk to Five, but he was wrong. He wasn’t ready. “I don’t know why.” Bryce reached for the computer and felt around the back for the power control. “Yet.” As quickly as the screen went dark, Bryce fell back against the pillow and into a deep, exhausted sleep.

When the lights flicked on, he could tell he was in trouble. The corridor stretched on forever one moment, then became a maze of twists and turns the next. Everywhere Bryce looked, another hallway appeared, curving around yet another corner and leading to another dead end. He was running, but the corridors were moving with him, keeping him from gaining any ground no matter what direction he turned. Then the lights flicked off, and he froze in place, terrified of the shadows he knew must be there.

Ahead of him, a light came on in the distance, and he heard Five’s voice calling him to run toward it. But when he started to move, the light flicked off. Startled, he stopped, then saw the other light down to his right. Mac called out from a distance, urging him to hurry into the light, so he ran as fast as he could. Before he reached the end, the light flickered and went out. Five’s voice called from his right, commanding him to hurry, then went silent.

In that sudden quiet, he heard footsteps. Hundreds of them, marching down the corridor toward him. Bryce’s heart raced as he heard the shadows walking to him. Another light came on in a room just ahead. Without waiting to hear who was calling him, he ran to it, dashing through the door and into the well-lit room just as the footsteps reached the entry. He slammed the door shut against them and turned, scanning the room. Mac was standing there, next to a computer terminal.

“I told you not to trust them.” Five’s voice rang out clearly from the machine. “You let them turn me off, Bryce. Now you’ll know what that feels like.”

As if in slow motion, he heard the distinctive ‘click’ as Five turned off the lighting controls, sending the room into shadow. Just before the darkness claimed him, he caught a glimpse of Mac, lunging for the switch on the wall.

“I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Bryce’s eyes shot open with a start, immediately searching the room for lights. They were already on, but dimly in respect of the sleeping occupant of the room. Or rather, formerly sleeping. “No, it’s all right.” Now that his heart was slowing back down to normal! “What time is it?”

“Almost 8:00.”

Mac set something down on the chair in the corner and Bryce suddenly recognized his computer. He must have tossed Five onto the floor, but had he shut the thing down?

“Are you hungry? I made some soup that should be pretty mild on your system.” Mac was standing near the bed, seemingly unconcerned with the presence of the computer he’d just placed on the chair.

“Um, yeah, I think I could eat a little.” Compared to the past several hours, he felt almost good.

“Do you want it in here?”

“No, I’m okay.” Slowly and deliberately, Bryce moved the blanket aside and swung both legs out from under the cover, testing them for sturdiness. “Just let me get some clothes on.”

“Okay, I’ll go fix up a bowl.”

He found some clean shorts and a pair of loose fitting sweat pants, then changed his T-shirt and was pleasantly surprised to find his legs holding up through it all. They weren’t quite as steady after a trip to the bathroom, but they did manage to get him all the way to the galley and the table where two places were set. He was sweating a little by the time he sat down.

“I hope I didn’t keep you awake, banging around up there all day.” Mac carried a large, delicious-smelling pot to the table.

“No, I was too tired to hear much of anything.” What was that smell? He leaned closer, sniffing the steam, then heard his stomach applaud what was to come. Blushing at his body’s declaration of hunger, he nodded toward the pot. “What’s this?”

Mac grinned and his bright blue eyes sparkled with obvious pride. “One of my own inventions. It’s a fish stew, toned down tonight in deference to your weakened system. White meat, with several vegetables, and a hearty broth brimming with protein.” He dipped a large spoon into the pot and began to fill Bryce’s bowl. “When you’re sick, it’s nice and mild and easy on the stomach.” He stopped when the bowl was nearly full, then began to fill his own. “But when you’re not, you add a few spices and seasoning, and you’ve got a great meal.”

Mild it may be, but the smells reaching Bryce’s nose were just the thing he needed to get him feeling more human again. Instinct told him to proceed with caution, so he let the first spoonful slide down slowly, then waited for his stomach’s reaction. As he’d hoped, it was a resounding call for more. “This is fantastic.” The fish he recognized, and all of the vegetables were familiar, but the combination was something he’d never tasted before. “Even if it is a mild version.”

“When you’re feeling better, we’ll try it a little more spiced up.” Mac smiled as he reached for his spoon. “There’s a lot of things I’ve always wanted to try, but never had the chance. Cooking is a new hobby for me, really. Never got to do much when I was in the service.”

“What was that like? The war, I mean.” Bryce filled his spoon again but ignored his stomach’s demand that he hurry. “I’ve read about wars.”

Mac sighed, looking off into the distance for a moment, then he shook himself and sank his spoon back into his soup bowl with some force. “Lots of killing, lots of politics, lots of…” His voice trailed off and he looked at Bryce. “I’m sorry, that was an honest question. I didn’t mean to be short.”

“No, it’s really none of my business.” What was he doing, prying into the man’s private life? It was clear by the look on Mac’s face that the war hadn’t been something he’d want to brag about. He swallowed another spoonful of soup.

“I was just a kid when it started, sixteen years old and fresh into the academy.”

Bryce glanced up and found Mac’s expression one of casual recollection now. He was almost afraid to say anything, for fear he’d say the wrong thing. Directing conversations wasn’t something he had any experience in. Just having conversations wasn’t something he had any experience in. But the tone of Mac’s voice invited him to try. “Why did you join the military that young? Or is that young, for that kind of thing?”

Mac reached for a slice of the thick bread he’d brought out from the galley, tore a corner off, and shrugged. “Not really. It was a very restless time for a lot of people. Earth was overcrowded, the stations were all running out of room for the workers who needed to live in space. Ergo was filling up; since the planet was mostly desert, it had a relatively small area suitable for habitation.” He dipped the bread into his soup. “Everyone wanted something other than what they had. It was part of the reason the war started.”

Bryce reached for a slice of the bread after considering the state of his stomach. The soup was sitting very well, and the idea of soaking the soft crust in the fish broth was more than he could resist. “I thought there was only one government? That’s what Five taught me.”

“There was.” Mac finished chewing his bread and tore off another corner. “A group of different unions started making noise about wanting more jurisdiction. The asteroid belt miners wanted control over the freight companies, the freight companies wanted power over the distributor unions. The planet-born groups wanted to charge the stations for orbiting rights, religious groups wanted first dibs on any new planets found.” He shrugged again and dunked the bread into the broth. “It got crazy. Before anyone knew it, everyone was at war and the Bureau had ignored it too long to stop it from building.”

“But, if everyone was at war, how could anyone win?” Bryce stuffed a soup-soaked bread chunk into his mouth and barely caught the juices that tried to run over his chin.

“When I started at the academy, it was just a lot of in-fighting. Murder, sabotage, stuff like that. The Bureau was ignoring it because that was the time this planet had been discovered. They had their hands full trying to decide if they should authorize colonization, and how best to handle it.” He dipped another piece of bread into the bowl. “By the time they looked around at what was happening, right around the time I started pilot training, most of the unions and factions had grouped together. For the next five years, it was more like four wars, all wrapped into one.”

“And the Bureau did nothing?” What little he’d been taught about the ruling government hadn’t included allowing mass killings and riots.

“They started in with politics, trying to get everyone to work things out. When that didn’t work, they went in with force.” Mac sighed, then pushed his empty bowl aside and propped both elbows on the table, looking at Bryce. “By the time they tried to take control, the unions had all grouped together. Someone somewhere had come to the conclusion that the Bureau, and politics in general, was the source of all the evils of the universe.”

“But unions are political, aren’t they?” He’d never known one, but the definitions he learned certainly left that impression.

“That’s part of the irony.” Mac shook his head, then rubbed his eyes tiredly. “It took another fifteen years before everyone got that through their thick skulls. By then, so many people had died on all sides, they’d solved all of their original problems. The stations now have room to spare, Earth has land for sale again. Even Ergo looks like a vacation paradise with so few inhabitants.”

Bryce could practically hear Five’s distrusting voice, echoing through his thoughts. “So then, why did three-hundred come?”

Mac looked up as he was reaching for the empty bowls.

“You can’t populate a planet very quickly with only three hundred colonists. So why did they come?”

He stacked the bowls and shoved both spoons into the top one. “These people are scientists. Colony-trained scientists. Who knows why they do what they do?” He carried the dishes into the galley and continued to speak over his shoulder toward the table. “I know Ben had been slated to come out here with the original second group. So were Lise and a few of the others. That group was supposed to be two-thousand.” He returned to the table and picked up the serving bowl. “The war put all of that on hold, but it didn’t erase their desire to come out here. And the others . . . this is what they do. There’s really no other explanation.”

Bryce pushed his hair out of his face as he watched Mac in the galley. He wanted this conversation to last forever, it being one of the first he could recall, but he was getting tired.

“This planet could have been covered in green slime and smelled like spent fuel batteries, and they’d still have come out here just to see it.” Mac returned from the galley and stood next to the table. “Anything else you want to know can wait till tomorrow.”

With a sigh, Bryce looked up and nodded. “Yeah, I guess I’m kinda tired.”

“That’s an understatement. Lise is going to want to check you out tomorrow. She’s called over here several times to ask how you were doing.”

Bryce just nodded in reply. He was too tired to even think about tomorrow, let alone what he was going to do if he had to visit the complex again and be surrounded by those people again. Willingly, he allowed himself to be shepherded back to his room, sparing a quick glance at the computer still resting in the chair where Mac had set it.

“Your pills are on the table, and if you need anything, just call out, okay?”

Bryce sat on the edge of the bed. “Listen, I want to thank you for—you know, this and everything.”

Mac stood at the door and smiled, nodding. “You’ll be fine now.”

“No, I mean really, thanks.” He had to find some way to pay this guy back, but he didn’t even seem to understand what his help had meant. How could he, when he still had no idea that Bryce knew what the others had been planning? “For letting me stay here. I don’t think I could have made it over there. You know, with them.” In fact, he knew he couldn’t have.

“You’re welcome. Now get some sleep.” Smiling, with nothing more than tolerance reflected in his face, Mac backed out of the room and closed the door behind him.

Forcing all thoughts of what the next day might bring, Bryce fell back onto the bed and pushed off his pants, then wearily pulled both legs up and under the thin blanket. As soon as he pulled it up to his chin, he felt the cloth begin to thicken and grow warmer, until it reached the perfect temperature for his body in the room. He dreaded having to give this blanket up, but tomorrow, when he was deemed well, he was sure Mac would want it back.

The only proof he had of having slept that night was waking up the next morning to the sound of the shower. Bryce rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling, listening to the sounds of someone else. It was strange, but oddly comforting to be able to hear the familiar sounds of morning when he was still lying motionless on the bed. Funny how he was adapting to the presence of one other person, when the two hundred and ninety-nine a few yards away were too difficult to think about. But then, it was only one so far who had shown he could be trusted, and at least four out of the others had proven potentially hostile.

Reluctantly, Bryce sat up and folded the borrowed blanket down to the foot of the bed. Five was still there, on the chair in the corner, and he had to fight off the instinct to rush over and turn the machine on. He wasn’t used to Five being off, and had to keep reminding himself not to call out to it. Then there was the small matter of telling Mac he still had access to the thing. He knew the longer he waited to mention it, the worse it was going to look for him. But then, if he never needed to mention it . . . After all, they said Five had nothing they could extract.

No, that wasn’t exactly true.

Bryce sighed and rubbed his eyes, then got off the bed and found some clean clothes. Just when he thought he was making some progress, he realized he still had some major hurdles that didn’t look anywhere near clearing. At least Five could be put off for a little while longer. Right now, he had to worry about how foolish he was going to sound, asking Mac to come with him to visit the doctor. He could go alone, he was a grown man after all. But he was just one man, against two hundred and ninety-nine. No, he had to ask. Or just avoid the entire issue.

“Hey, how are you feeling this morning?” Mac stepped out of the bathroom, wrapped in a large towel and smiling. His shower had lasted at least ten minutes.

“Better.” In fact, he felt so much better he was pretty sure he could just skip the exam altogether.

“Good. Lise wants to see you this morning, then you and I have a meeting with Ben.” Mac ran a hand over hair so short it hardly looked wet, then started for his room while Bryce stepped into the bathroom.

He should have asked then. Mac was happy from his shower, he seemed to be in a good mood. Instead, Bryce stepped into the bathroom and shut the door, deciding against that timing. After all, he didn’t know Mac was in a good mood. Just because he was smiling didn’t really mean that much. Five was right in some respects, he’d only just met this guy, really. And his ability to judge anyone was amateur at best. Maybe after breakfast.

Bryce had every intention of making breakfast, but the fact that he’d been second up, and still weak enough to move a bit slowly, negated that. When he came out of his room, dressed and mentally preparing to ask for an escort, breakfast was already on the table. They ate fruit and toast and spoke pleasantly of how their new home/office was coming together. By the time Mac was pouring the last cup of coffee, Bryce had decided his mood was good. He was pretty sure.

“You said we had a meeting with the Commander?” It never hurt to approach from the side, a trick he often used with Five. Of course, to no avail, but it was at least a conversational tactic he knew. Probably the only one.

“He’s got a group ready to scout the area and he wants your input.” Mac cleared the table but left their coffee. “We’ll be mapping out what they find, and keeping a record of each group and where they go, for security reasons. But, since this is the first foray out, we’ll monitor it from the complex with Ben. That way, we can coordinate the procedures with him.”

A cold chill ran down Bryce’s spine. “Scout?” That meant search, didn’t it? Suddenly the thought of a visit to the complex was a little more than he was ready for.

Mac stopped next to the table meeting Bryce’s gaze as he looked up. “As long as we’re monitoring their progress, you’ll be the first to know if they find anything.”

His voice was quiet, obviously trying to sound reassuring, only Bryce didn’t feel very reassured. He felt terrified, and suspect, and . . . He nodded anyway, then glanced at his cup. “You’ll be there today?”

“I’ll be right there with you.”

He nodded again, wondering if he was going to sound like a fool, or just a child. “Could you . . . would you mind, since you’ll be over there . . . ” Bryce sighed heavily and spoke to his coffee. “Could we stop at the med lab on the way?” There, maybe that was good enough? He looked up, raising both eyebrows casually.

“You want me there while Lise checks you out?”

Mac’s eyes held a sparkle of understanding that Bryce had only dared hope for. In his relief, he could manage just a nod in reply.

“No problem. Are you ready?”

“Yeah.” Hastily, in case Mac suddenly changed his mind, Bryce carried his coffee cup to the galley and rinsed it out, then followed the older man up the stairs. He was surprised at how organized the upper level looked, compared to the last time he’d been up there. His comments drew a satisfied smile from Mac, and a quick tour of the office space.

In the center of the area stood a large table with two computer terminals built into the table itself, flanked on either side by rows of switches and controls that could call up three dimensional maps and display them either flat or topographical. Banks of monitors along one wall would track the progress of all exploration and scouting expeditions, while the cockpit controls monitored all communications and movement around the complex itself. Those units were mirrored down below in the living quarters, but the more complicated equipment remained upstairs. The rest of the upper level was divided up into storage space and a conference area with some comfortable chairs and several tables. It was an incredible improvement over the boxes and floor brackets that he remembered.

But it was nothing compared to the changes he found outside.

“How long was I sick?” Bryce stopped halfway down the ramp and looked past Mac.

“Three days. Quite a change, isn’t it?” Mac turned to look at him, then held up a hand and motioned for Bryce to follow him down the ramp. “Come on, I’ll walk you through it all.”

Numbly, Bryce followed, staying close. The complex grounds, once quiet and pastoral, were buzzing with activity. Boxes of machinery and equipment he couldn’t readily identify were stacked up next to a huge, multi-wheeled vehicle that appeared large enough to accommodate around twenty passengers, plus all the equipment strewn around nearby. There were three more vehicles identical to this one still under construction, all fully equipped and built for heavy duty exploration. Bryce nervously declined an invitation to inspect the interior of the first land cruiser and had to concentrate on keeping his breathing at a normal level each time a new group of apparent well-wishers approached to inquire as to his health. Some even went so far as to apologize for the spread of fresh germs.

Mac continued his tour, undaunted by the waves of people busily going about their business all around them. How many more ways these people could find to turn his world upside down, he wasn’t sure.

“And this one is ours.” Mac stopped suddenly in front of a strange looking vehicle with two large, wide wings jutting out from either side.

Stopping just short of ramming into the larger man’s back, Bryce looked up and noticed the planes for the first time. He scanned the area quickly, realizing then they had passed five other such vehicles, larger in size but identical in shape as the one they now faced. They all appeared to be in various stages of completion.

“Ours? What do you mean?”

Somewhere in the hangar, a piece of equipment fell and a man cursed his clumsiness. Bryce’s heart leapt into his throat.

He recovered quickly and prayed the action had gone unnoticed. It was bad enough he’d been the man’s shadow ever since they left the shuttle.

“Yeah, ours.” Mac glanced at him, then pointed to the plane. “It’s in my contract. Old pilots never die, you know.” He was smiling, but in an odd way, as if remembering a lost love.

“That can’t leave the planet, can it?” It didn’t look sturdy enough to even leave the hangar.

“No, afraid not. But, it can get me into the air, and get us around whenever we feel the need.” Mac patted the side of the vessel with obvious affection. “Atmosphere flying is a world apart from space flight. You can’t feel the movement of your ship in space, can’t hear the wind whip past. Hell, you can’t even hear your engines.” He shook his head and walked back to one wing, eyeing it from tip to base. “Still, it’s flying. The colonists will use the other five for exploring and mapping. We get sole use of this one for as long as the battery holds out, which should be about seventy-five years, give or take.”

Bryce swallowed, glancing around the hangar. One vehicle at the far end appeared to be fully assembled, and even had people coming and going in and out of it.

“The main thing to remember in atmosphere ships is your orientation.” Mac returned, gazing in the direction Bryce had been looking. “Can’t fly upside down.”

While he watched, the plane on the end began to move forward. He could just make out three men on a smaller machine, pulling the large vehicle out of the hangar. “Once you’re upside down, you have to turn upside down again to make it right.” That was what they were going to use for today’s scouting, he realized.

“What’s that?” Mac’s voice was quiet, right beside him.

“How many times do you have to turn upside down, before things are right again?” There was a twisting in the pit of his stomach that had nothing to do with his recent flu.

“I think we’d better get you checked out.”

Before Bryce could react, Mac’s hand was on his shoulder, guiding him toward the complex. He had to force down the nervous reaction that made him want to pull away from the touch. Mac seemed to sense how confused he’d been feeling.

His nerves didn’t hold up as well with Lise.

“I’m sorry, Bryce, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“It’s all right, I’m just used to Five running the automatic diagnostic unit, not a person. I knew what it was going to do.” Bryce glanced apologetically at Mac, who had consented to remain in the lab while the doctor performed her exam. He was never going to get used to this. Even with Mac there, he felt uneasy around this woman. Couple that with the totally alien sensation of someone’s hands touching him, and he was sure his nerves were going to fail soon.

“All done.” Lise backed up a few steps and put her portable unit on the counter. “I’d venture to say you’ve recovered nicely, Bryce. You’re immune system is in top condition.”

“Thank you.” Quickly, he fastened his shirt and scooted off the exam table, looking up at Mac.

“Thanks, Doc.” Mac smiled, then nodded toward the exit. “We’ve got an appointment with Ben, if you don’t need us anymore?”

“No, everything’s fine with him. How do you feel?”

Puzzled, Bryce glanced at Lise, then Mac. It hadn’t even occurred to him that his new partner could have caught the virus, too.

“I feel fine.” Mac shrugged. “Never did get the flu all that often. Come on.” Without another thought, he pushed open the door and ushered Bryce into the hall.

“Are you sure you’re not going to get this?” Bryce fumbled with the last button on his shirt as they walked down the hallway.

“Like I said, I don’t get sick often. Never really have.” Mac pointed down an adjacent corridor they needed to take. “Besides, I would have gotten it by now, judging by how sick you were.”

Bryce wanted to believe him, and he had no reason not to, so he said nothing. He felt bad enough, owing so much to this man since the day they met. Giving him a horrendous case of the flu would have added quite a load to his already hefty feeling of debt. A few yards down the corridor, they entered a large office bustling with people all paying close attention to the various knobs, dials and screens on the rows of monitoring equipment Bryce had never seen before. The once spacious room felt cluttered now with bodies and machines. It was a room he used to dress out the cattle in, but that probably wasn’t the right thing to mention.

He paused at the doorway, trying to gather enough nerve to walk into the room.

“Oh, Mac, perfect timing.” The commander noticed their entrance from across the room and waved them over. “Bryce, you’re just the man I wanted to talk to.”

He had to swallow hard and take a deep breath to move forward. Even then, it took Mac’s hand on the small of his back giving a gentle push to get him all the way to where Ben was standing. Behind him, Bryce could see a large view screen currently displaying the view from just inside the cockpit of a flyer, presumably the one he’d seen being moved out of the hangar.

“I wanted to ask you about this map.” He indicated a large, flat map on a table to his left, then walked around to the other side of it and leaned down.

Bryce stepped up to the table and looked at the rendition of the complex and the area immediately surrounding it. The majority of the map was still blank, and just looking at it made his hands begin to sweat.

“I was hoping you could fill us in a little more.” The commander swept an arm over the paper, indicating the blank areas. “This map only seems to cover about a hundred square miles in any given direction.”

“That’s all there is.” Bryce glanced up at the commander. “I mean, that’s as far as they recorded.”

“That isn’t very much ground to have covered.” The commander frowned, staring down at the map. “According to this date, they accomplished this much in the first two weeks. Didn’t anyone record the rest?”

Bryce shrugged. “If there are other maps, I’ve never seen them.”

“Well, what about your own travels? You must have gone beyond this valley at some point.”

The sudden shudder that gripped him was quickly suppressed. He pointed to the west section of the map. “This is where the cows usually are. They rarely venture past that river. To the north, past those hills, is the ocean. South is a forest, I don’t know how big it is. And east is the mountains.” What more did they expect him to know? He glanced at Mac again. “It’s not safe out there after dark, and everything I needed was here.”

Mac smiled slightly, then looked at the commander. “Ben, it’s a little hard to map out an entire planet when you’re alone.”

“Yes, yes of course.” The commander sighed, then shrugged. “Well, that just leaves more for us to discover, eh?” He looked at Bryce. “How much of the ocean have you seen?”

“I’ve been to the shore and couldn’t see the other side. Five said it was an ocean, from the orbital photos he had, so I believed him.”

“Hmm, yes. We have those as well, but it’s the details we’ll want now. So, Brennan, what direction do you suggest?”

The use of Mac’s surname surprised Bryce for a second. He thought back quickly and realized everyone there addressed him that way, even though they used the name in a familiar manner. Yet Mac used their given names, even the commander’s. So far he hadn’t suggested that Bryce do likewise. It was just one more wall in his line of defense, putting him in Mac’s corner. And something else he could claim as proof against what Five had suggested.

“Well, there’s nothing we need to see over the ocean right away, and that forest will have to be walked through.” Mac placed a finger on the map and moved it to the west section. “I’d suggest heading down this valley and seeing what’s beyond it. The mountains can be next, but for now I’d stick to the easier terrain. Give these pilots some time to get used to the area before sending them over there.”

“Good point.” The commander smiled widely, glancing at Bryce. “Well, let’s get going, then.”

Bryce looked up quickly as the room got suddenly busier. “What are they going to do?” He kept his voice low, but it was hardly necessary. Everyone was talking and flipping switches, telling other people what to do and getting their own instructions straight.

“That plane we saw is going to take a recon group out over the valley, then around in a grid pattern to map out the area.” He pointed to the large screen behind the commander. “We’ll watch from here, and see exactly what they see, when they see it.”

Bryce had to swallow against a suddenly dry throat. “What do you think they’ll see?” His voice wasn’t much more than a whisper, but he was still close enough to Mac to make little difference.

“That’s what we’re here to find out.” Mac’s voice was equally quiet, almost as if he understood the stress Bryce was feeling. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.”

Bryce decided against running from the room as he saw — along with the rest of the room’s occupants — the plane lift straight up and turn to point to the west. He knew what they’d find down in the valley, since that was where the cattle seemed to feel safest. Past the popular grazing area, he was just as much in the dark as they were. But he couldn’t help feeling he had more to lose.

As the plane moved slowly west, scanning the valley and the cattle below, Bryce lost all sense of time. Curiosity and nervous anticipation fought for control of his thoughts while he watched the landscape change. The commander had taken a seat in front of the large screen, and Mac had somehow gotten them closer, giving the pair of them a better view. Now and then, he would realize he was trying to back up, and he’d force himself to relax, but as the view from the screen ventured past the grasslands and into new territory, Bryce’s attention stayed on the monitor.

He didn’t know how long he was in that position, eyes fixed on the screen while fighting the urge to run out, but somewhere along the line he discovered a mug of coffee in his hands. When he sipped it, the temperature told him it hadn’t been there long. Something moved beside him and he spared a quick glance at Mac’s hand, finding a similar cup steaming there. The plane’s occupants were sending back a detailed report of what their scanners were confirming, and he heard a few results now and again, confirming much of what they could all see with their own eyes. The Commander–Ben, as he kept insisting Bryce call him–was thrilled with the abundance of fresh water streams flowing through the grasslands and valleys, most of which were relatively flat and the perfect spots to plan future construction. The scouting party was performing a grid-style expedition, Mac explained, and were flying out, over, then back in sections. After today’s trip, the large land vehicle would be sent out to do a ground exploration of what the plane had recorded. That trip would take weeks, sending a group of twenty scientists on a very detailed analysis and sampling expedition, while the plane moved on to do another grid in another direction, preparing yet another land group. Their job would be to monitor the progress and status of all the explorers, keep an eye out for trouble, and coordinate any rescue or assistance they might require.

Bryce was sure too much of this nervous anticipation was going to kill him. He couldn’t expect anyone to understand, perhaps not even Mac. They needed to explore their new world, but he’d already seen all he wanted to see. Whatever, or whoever, might be out there, had chosen to have nothing to do with him in the last ten years, so he couldn’t fathom needing to have anything to do with them. If the others were there, somewhere, he’d be forced to accept the truth.

But what was the truth? And what would Mac think of him if they learned that the disappearance of the colonists had been his fault? And if it was his fault, how long would it be before these people did the same? Bryce felt sickeningly torn between wanting to find someone, so he could ask them what happened, and wanting to have it proven that he was, indeed, alone.

Neither option was pleasant. If he was as alone as he’d always believed, then the others, all two hundred and fifty of them, had died, and only he had survived. If he wasn’t alone, then they had in fact left him, and avoided giving any hint of their existence for at least ten years.

And if some were alive, then how many were there? He did have lists of deaths from Five. People whose names meant nothing to him, except one. The woman Five said had been his mother was in the list of the very first deaths. Bryce had been six years old, and his memory of her was as blank as his memory of everyone else. He’d always felt sorry for her having died so soon into her new life here, but at least she hadn’t left him. Maybe the others hadn’t either?

Sometime during the endless vigil, lunch was brought into the room. No one really paid much attention aside from grabbing fruits and sandwiches to eat in front of their monitors and maps. Bryce had just vaguely registered the smell of food when he felt Mac’s hand on his shoulder. He turned and looked up.

“Let’s take a break, come on.” Mac gestured toward a table in the far corner of the room.

He nodded, then spared the screen one more glance before following Mac to where the food was waiting. The table wasn’t being used, since the others were too busy to pay much attention to their food, so they took advantage and commandeered the end near the wall to sit down and eat.

“How you holdin’ up?” Mac’s voice was low enough to be heard only by Bryce, even though they were being ignored by the excited scientists in the room.

“I’m fine.” It was a lie, and he was pretty sure Mac knew it, but it was the easiest thing to say right now.

He nodded, apparently accepting that answer for now. “Just a few more hours, and they’ll be finished for the night.”

They ate in silence, watching and listening to the excitement bubbling up in the room. Now and then, progress reports and results were sent out of the room so the good news could be spread around the colony. Maps were being created and printed out at regular intervals, while a team of four men poured over them and marked areas they wanted to study later.

Bryce discovered his hands were shaking a couple of times and tried to hide it by running them through his hair, but it was a temporary distraction. He was grateful for Mac’s presence, and his almost psychic sense of understanding. None of them had been crowding Bryce or grilling him on the landscape they were discovering, but he was sure he’d have been unable to stay in that room if Mac hadn’t been right there with him the entire time. He hated to think what would have happened if someone else had piloted these people out here. Would they have gone to such lengths to protect him from their own invasion? Would any one of these people have taken the steps Mac had taken to help a young, scared, sole survivor adapt?

Bryce’s attention was still nervously drawn to the monitors. So drawn, he was the first to realize the scouting party had just completed their grid search, six hours after starting.

When it was over, he couldn’t get out of that room fast enough. But Mac and Ben were discussing the best route for the land vehicle to take in the morning, and which grid section the flight crew should map out next. He was so relieved and confused by what they had and hadn’t found, he needed some time alone to think.

Bryce had to clear his throat before he was able to speak over the many conversations going on in the room. “Do you need me for anything more?”

Mac straightened up from his exam of a map. “I’ll be done in a few minutes.”

He nodded quickly. “I just need some air. I’ll see you outside, okay?”

“Sure.” Mac’s eyes held his for a moment, then smiled slightly. “We can go over this stuff tonight.”

After so long in the darkened room, staring at the monitors and feeling the heat of so many people, the fresh air hit Bryce like a slap in the face. His heart was racing a little as he hurried away from the complex, so he broke into a run going up the hill, passing the shuttle and continuing up a tall rise till he reached the top. The opposite side of the hill fell away quickly, opening up a full view of the valley below. It was the same valley the plane had started out over, now it was filled with grazing cattle.

With a heavy sigh, Bryce sat on the ground and rested his head in both hands, rubbing his forehead. He was relieved that they hadn’t found anything, and terrified that tomorrow, or the next day, they would. But he was disappointed at the same time. If they had found the others, there would at least be answers. Bad news just might be better than a blank memory. Unless it made this group leave him too.

His head was spinning so badly, he might as well still have the flu. “Just stop thinking.”

“Sometimes that’s good advice.”

Bryce nearly jumped out of his skin. He hadn’t heard anyone approach, but he knew that shouldn’t surprise him, in the state he was in. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.” He gazed out over the valley.

“You don’t have to do that again. From now on, we’ll monitor what they do from our own equipment.” Mac sat beside him on the dirt and looked down at the cows grazing far below them.

That was some small consolation. At least, if they found something, he’d have a head start if he had to run, or hide. “I don’t know how to handle these people. I’m not sure I ever will.” Bryce looked down at the dirt and found a twig. He picked it up and began to run the smooth, flat surface back and forth between his palms. “I thought this would be so different. I mean, I didn’t really believe it would ever happen, you know?” He glanced at Mac, fleetingly wondering if anyone could really know. The look in the older man’s eyes suggested that, somehow, he could. Encouraged by the silent agreement, he continued. “But when I did think about it, it wasn’t like this.”

“Our dreams rarely take on the little details.” Mac gazed out over the valley and shrugged a little. “When I was a kid I used to imagine what it would be like to go to the military academy. Then, when I got there, I realized I hadn’t dreamed the details. How hard it would be, how complicated flying was. Let alone what a war would really be like. But you get through it.”

“How?” Bryce stopped playing with his twig and looked at Mac.

“By taking it apart and figuring it all out.” Mac met his gaze. “Take people, for example. You’ll never find a more dangerous adversary than a large group of people. But if you break them down, take them on in small groups or one at a time, you can handle them.”

Bryce shook his head. “I don’t even know where to start.”

Mac sighed a little and leaned back, supporting his weight with one hand behind him while he gestured with the other. “You just need to understand what motivates a man. Once you know that, you can predict his reactions to any given situation about ninety percent of the time. Take Ben, for example. He’s motivated by curiosity. The simple need to see and learn things drives everything he does. Coming here, exploring the planet. Anything that gets in his way and threatens that ability to learn will upset him, until he finds a way around it.” He paused and waited for Bryce to nod his understanding. “Now Lise, she’s pretty easy to explain, too. She has a strong desire to fix things. Anything that isn’t in perfect condition will drive her crazy until she can find a way to repair it. And if she can’t fix something, it hits her pretty hard.”

Was that her reason for wanting to force him to remember, because she thought he was broken?

“The ones you want to watch out for are the people motivated by greed. I don’t mean currency, that’s a greed you can predict with complete accuracy.” He shrugged a little. “Besides, that’s not something we have to worry about here. The greed you wanna watch out for is the kind that makes a man–or woman for that matter–think they have to have anything worth having. And have it first. It’s a greed of ego.”

Bryce’s eyebrows creased as he looked out at the valley for a moment. “What do you mean? Like physical things, discoveries, that kind of greed?”

Mac nodded. “Physical, theoretical, anything that can be possessed, like having your name on a new invention, or making an important discovery. Trust me, there are more than a few of them here driven by that kind of greed. They become dangerous when something threatens their ability to be the first one, the only one, and the best one.”

All of these motivations sounded like something this group could use to blame Bryce for any given situation.

“Now, this is simplifying things a little bit.” Mac’s teaching continued. “Some people are more complicated than that, some aren’t. You’ll get to know the ins and outs in time.”

Bryce nodded, gazing at his twig. “What about me?” He turned and looked at Mac, squinting slightly from the evening sun. “What do you think motivates me?” Surely a man with his experience had him figured out already.

Mac inhaled deeply and looked up at the sky for a moment. When he found what he was looking for, he looked at Bryce. “You’re motivated by survival.”

“Survival?” Did that mean he was a coward? Bryce swallowed and looked away, feeling an uncertainty wash over him.

“It’s more complicated than that, but basically, yeah.” Mac sat forward again and leaned on a raised knee. “It’s an admirable quality, believe me. You’ve managed to stay alive, against all odds, surviving whatever happened to you and the others. You did that not only physically, but emotionally. That’s not such an easy thing. That takes more than a little innate skill.”

Bryce clenched his jaw and controlled the urge to bolt. “How is surviving admirable, when everyone I ever knew didn’t?”

Mac sighed heavily and leaned closer. His voice took on an even calmer tone. “Because you kept a promise. You were the only one who did.”

Confused, Bryce looked up, all thoughts of dashing down the hill forgotten. “Promise? What promise?”

Mac shifted a little and changed his pose, gesturing with a hand as he spoke. “When your group came out here, they made a promise of sorts to build this complex and wait for the second group. It was their job, and yours, to create a stable platform for colonization. Whether you can consciously remember that or not, you made a promise to keep this complex active and wait for the second group.”

“But I never really believed you’d be coming, after all that time.”

“Not consciously, no. But somewhere deep inside, you knew you had to keep a promise to stay here and wait. Now, I don’t know what happened to the others, and we might never find out. But after all that time, after everything you’ve been through, you stayed. You survived, you kept the complex operational, and believe it or not, you remained a hell of a lot saner than anyone I know could have. Myself included.”

Bryce shook his head. There was no way he could picture himself being stronger at anything than this man who fought in a war for twenty-odd years, but his head was pounding too hard to think about it. Those few days of being sick were beginning to look like a vacation from all this input. “And you? What motivates you?”

Mac shrugged a little and gazed somewhere over Bryce’s head. “I guess if you had to put a name to it, I’d say justice. I don’t like to see anyone taking advantage of a bad situation. Sometimes those greedy, curious types like to stack the deck in their favor, and I don’t think that’s right.”

“So you fix it?”

“I help it fix itself.”

Bryce swallowed, feeling suddenly brave and curious. “Is that why you’re doing this?”

“Doing what?” Mac’s gaze met his.

Bryce’s bravery faltered, but he pressed on. “Is that why I’m here? Why you’re helping me with all of this? Because you think I need help?”

Mac laughed slightly and shook his head. “That’s an awfully simple way of putting it.” He smiled very tolerantly and rubbed his short hair with one hand. “Let’s just say, you looked like someone who could use a big brother, and I never had the chance to be that for anyone before.”

Bryce let his twig fall to the ground and pushed some hair from his eyes, trying to bring himself to look Mac in the eyes again.

“Like I told you in the shuttle the other day, you needed help, I needed a deputy.” He paused and Bryce finally met his gaze. “I was afraid they were going to overwhelm you and use that to their advantage, so I stepped in. After that, it was pure selfishness. You’ve got an understanding of this planet that I can use to my own advantage. You’ve got technical know-how, skills, you learn fast. I couldn’t ask for a better deputy, and since I need one to do this job, it seemed like the best idea for both of us.”

He paused and Bryce tried to catch up. There were too many more questions this answer raised than he had time to ask, or even think about, right then. He only wished he understood enough about body language and conversations to pick up on the things he thought he should already know. But he was pretty sure this was a good answer. Either way, he felt willing to accept it for now.

“You looked like you needed a friend. And I know I did.” This time it was Mac who looked away, watching a leaf blow across the dirt beside them. “Don’t let the presence of other people fool you. Some of them are as alone in a crowd, as you were two weeks ago.”

Bryce considered that for a moment, watching the wind blow the top of the tall grass in the pasture. He was definitely going to have to start paying more attention to what was going on around him now, just as soon as he caught up to it all. All this new information, the people, their personalities, how to keep from freaking out when someone approached him or asked a question. It was all going to take a concerted effort on his part. But if Mac was right, then he was going to survive even this. And if the best way to survive it was taking it all bit by bit, he’d start with this person who kept insisting he was going to make it. If he could understand Mac more, perhaps he could understand how he was expected to get through this new invasion.

“I’m starved.” Mac suddenly slapped his legs and stood up, looking up at the darkening sky. “We still have some of that fish stew left.”

“Yeah.” Bryce stood slowly, then tossed his twig down the steep drop off. They had to get inside anyway, it was going to be dark all too soon.

They walked back down the hill at a sedate pace, enjoying the fresh air as a nice change from that small, overcrowded observation room. A few hundred yards from their shuttle home, the complex courtyard was visible. Bryce had to blink against a sudden flash of light as the slowly setting sun caught a corner of the Tracker. When he could see clearly again, he noticed Mac looking at the statue while they walked.

“It’s moving in a different pattern now.”

Bryce felt his face wash over with a sudden fear that he couldn’t name.

“Your computer called that a Tracker. What exactly does it track?”

Mac’s voice was calm with simple curiosity, but the chills running over Bryce’s body didn’t stop. “The moon. It tracks the phase of the moon.” His heart was racing, and his palms began to sweat instantly. They needed to get inside before Mac asked anything more that he wouldn’t be able to explain. There was no way he could explain a stupid superstition. A childhood fear, probably instilled by overbearing adults and perpetuated by Five to keep the children in line. Mac wasn’t going to understand the terror that kept Bryce in after dark and had no name or explanation.

It just was.

“It’s pretty ingenious.”

Thankfully, that was Mac’s only comment on the subject. They went inside and enjoyed leftover stew for dinner, then Bryce was shown the procedures they would use tomorrow to follow the progress of the second air-recon team and the first ground group. The two separate monitoring stations were in what had been the cockpit of the Aloft, one in the pilot’s section and one off to the side, where the long-range navigation had been. Back in the main section, built into the large table taking up most of the center area, maps could be generated in both hard copy and three-dimensional projection for closer scrutiny. Mac loaded in the data from the area explored today, and brought it up on the table.

Bryce found it much easier to look at now that he knew it hadn’t held any secrets. Of course, it had been in the valley. The ground was mostly flat there, and grassy with forested areas. Not a safe haven for people living outside the complex. No, he was pretty sure if there were to be any discoveries, they’d be found in the mountains.

That night, after three hours of a more relaxed examination of the maps, Bryce turned in for some much needed sleep. His world had been turned upside down, several times, he’d had a bad case of the flu after at least ten years of good health, and now these new people were exploring areas he’d been afraid to enter. All in one week. Perhaps Mac was right, and he really would survive this.

Bryce sat on the edge of the bed and yawned. He needed to talk to Five about all that happened today, both to tell him what they were doing, and show him how wrong he’d been about Mac. He needed to find out if the computer had any more data on the landscape that he hadn’t shared before, any clues or opinions about where any of the others might have gone. He yawned again and lay down for a moment, trying to calm his thoughts for a few minutes. He needed to confess to Mac the fact that he still had Five, in case he wanted to try talking to it. But more than any of that, he needed sleep.

The nightmares kept him from it.

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5 thoughts on “friday chapter comes early today

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