Well, I posted my intelligent (or not) post at Castle Debacle so I figured I’d post Chapter 5 here today. The disclaimer dejoir would be to watch out for falling em dashes! I was in love with those things in my early, formative years. I also had this habit of writing dialog, then action, then dialog – as a way to avoid dialog tags – but while doing so I constantly broke a grammar rule of punctuation. It was becoming my own little trait, but it was hammered out of me with a large, heavy hammer-like thing by someone who was editing me – using hammers. But that didn’t break my love of the em dash, by golly! I try very hard to use it sparingly in my current writing, and I’m far more aware of it and the need (as well as lack of need) for the thing.
So, anyone wondering when “it” was going to happen – Here it is:
It was dark, with only the twinkling of distant stars outside the cockpit to remind him he was anywhere. But he wasn’t, really. He was nowhere and fading fast. Lights blinked on the console, reminding him there were only three hours of air left. A dial next to the life support unit declared his beacon was still active, but there was no response. There wasn’t anyone to respond. They were all dead. Bits of their ships floated by Mac’s view port now and again, clanging against his small fighter. At least the body had finally dislodged.
But the silence was deafening! If only he could hear the annoying static of the transport’s com unit, or fighter pilots ribbing each other on the way to battle. A status report from the onboard computer, anything.
Anything but this death of silence.
He reached up to rub his jaw, tired from clenching, but he knew even as he did that he wouldn’t feel the touch. Not with his suit helmet on. When his fingers did make contact, Mac’s eyes shot open with a start.
“Oh, man.” Relieved, he rolled over on the bed and forced his eyes to stay open, taking in the sight of his bedroom ceiling. Not the interior of his crippled ship. He hadn’t had that nightmare in some time, but at least it had ended quicker this morning.
Reluctantly, he sat up and stretched. The sound of running water was still a new one, but he recognized it as the shower. Bryce must have beaten him this time. Through the small view port beside the bed, Mac watched the sun finish its climb over blue mountains to shine fully against the shuttle’s right side. He wished there was a way to get these small windows to open, other than smashing them out completely. The glass and frame were built to withstand the rigors of space and anything that might slam into them and threaten the integrity of the ship, so hinging them to open was out of the question. Which was rather unnecessary, when he thought about it. If he needed fresh air, there was an entire planet full right outside. Since landing, his nights had been just as busy as his days, but tonight Mac planned to spend some time outside, watching the sun set below the valley.
That was something you didn’t see in space. He was fascinated by the colors a sky could give off when the sun rose or set, and had always promised himself — should he ever manage to spend his later years planet side — he’d spend as much time outside as possible, watching the sun set.
But right now, he wanted a shower. Noises in the hallway suggested the bathroom was free, so he got off the bed and stretched. The noises had moved down the short hall and into Bryce’s room when he reached the door. There were small puddles of water on the floor just outside the shower enclosure, and beads of moisture still running down one wall where a hand print showed vaguely above the towel rack. Back on his father’s station, waste like this would warrant an arrest.
Mac vowed never to take this luxury for granted as he stepped into the shower and cranked on the spray. Water smacked into his chest and he ducked down a bit to get his head wet before turning to reach for the soap stone. He was really growing to like the sensation of the smooth stone soaping his skin while bright blue water ran over him freely. Back on Io station, he knew Cass would be cursing the morning ritual, as she always had. There was a time difference he hadn’t bothered to calculate, so she very well could be sound asleep or off to work, but her voice rang clear in his memory. She hated the fine mist of a station or ship shower, even more than she hated the odorless soap mixed in the rationed spray. As often as she could save enough, she’d spend the money it took to have a real shower in the luxury hotels, constantly complaining in between sessions about the reasons for water rationing.
She’d had her chance to come.
Mac took his time, soaping up every inch of himself, watching the water rinse the lather down his legs where it would pool up around his feet for a moment before sliding down the drain. This was the closest thing to a normal morning he’d had since coming down here, six days ago. That first night in the basement hadn’t been a restful one after the argument he’d had with Lise and the others about Bryce’s memory loss. Then, no sooner had he put the shuttle together as a home, than his new friend became horribly sick. Mac had felt both guilty and strangely protective about Bryce being ill. Consequently, he’d only managed a few hours’ sleep off and on, and only the occasional shower when Bryce was deeply asleep. This was definitely the way he wanted his mornings to go from now on.
With the exception of the nightmare.
Once his skin was sufficiently clean, Mac worked on his short hair, then stood under the spray slightly bent forward so it hit him directly on the head. He had a tinge of headache working around the edges. Maybe breakfast would clear it up. They had another day of monitoring ahead of them, and Mac planned to have Bryce follow the land team, while he kept an eye on the plane as it scanned the next grid section. He could only imagine what was going through the younger man’s head, watching that flight, wondering if they were going to find any traces of the original colonists still alive.
Mac had wondered the same thing. It was hard to imagine all two hundred and forty-nine of them dying, with Bryce as the only survivor. But it was even harder to imagine someone else surviving, and leaving him alone this way. That kind of loneliness wasn’t a punishment he could fathom anyone being heartless enough to impose.
His shower reluctantly over, he dried off, then wrapped the towel around his waist. When he stepped out of the bathroom, the smell of coffee was instantly clear.
Mac glanced toward the galley and found Bryce working busily over the heating unit. “Good morning.”
“Breakfast is almost ready.” Bryce nodded toward the table.
“Smells great.” He inhaled again and detected the odor of fresh eggs. That was all the incentive needed to get him into his room and dressed quickly. When he came out again, he found the table set with coffee, a pinkish fruit juice, and eggs that had to be from a chicken.
“I hope you don’t mind eggs, it was all I could get. We’ll need to stock up.” Bryce set the last plate on the table then took his place opposite Mac.
“Yeah, this is great.” Mac’s headache demanded the coffee as a first course. “Are these chicken eggs, or something from here?”
“Chicken.” Bryce reached for his cup. “There’s a couple of flightless birds in the hills that have eggs you can eat, but the chickens are just behind the complex, easier to get to.”
Mac bit into a forkful of the scrambled eggs and found them mildly spiced with a flavor he couldn’t name. It was almost stimulating, like caffeine, but very mild in the stomach. A perfect breakfast food. “You let all the livestock run free, don’t you?”
Bryce nodded, sipping his coffee.
“Didn’t you have pens before? Corrals or barnyards to keep them close?”
“No. You can’t keep the livestock near the complex.”
That answer brought a curious look to Bryce’s face. Mac set his fork down and poured more coffee. “Why is that?”
“You just don’t.” Bryce looked away and shrugged, then played with his fork in the eggs for a second. “The cattle stay in the valley and the chickens have a cave around back. They don’t go far. Besides, since it was just me, I could use one cow for several months’ food. The fish are easy to catch, and the machines in the complex can render plants and grasses into food. Plenty of fruit and nuts grow around here.” He shrugged again and set the fork down.
Mac nodded and drank his coffee. He could see there was more to the answer than a simple lack of animal husbandry, but he wasn’t ready to push it. Not yet. The kid was still reeling from the unexpected invasion, the flu, and a new friend he knew little about.
“Listen, we’re going to be monitoring two groups today, upstairs. The land team will do a detailed search of that grid we watched them fly over yesterday, and the plane is going out over the next region.” Mac tried to keep eye contact with the younger man to gauge his reactions, but the kid kept nodding and looking away. “I thought I’d leave the ground crew in your hands. They’ve already got a good idea of what’s there, and what isn’t. If you can keep them on track, I’ll map out the flight crew.”
Bryce looked up, meeting his gaze with a spark of curiosity. “You want me to handle the ground search?”
Mac hitched one shoulder in a casual shrug. “You’re the best man for the job. And as it stands, you’re the only man for the job.” He grinned. “Besides, since you know this land better than anyone, I can trust you to keep them from sniffing some man-eating plant or reaching into a pool of poisonous goo.”
Bryce’s eyebrows knit together as he contemplated the idea. Slowly, he nodded. “Okay, I can do that.”
“They’re scheduled to pull out in half an hour, and it’ll take the rover a good two hours to reach their starting point at the edge of that valley. I’ll show you how to work the mapping imager in the meantime so you’ll have a heads-up as to where they’re going and what they might run into.” Mac stood and took the plates into the galley, followed by Bryce. The kid had perked up considerably, and he hoped it was going to last. If he could keep his mind on what he had already seen, maybe he wouldn’t fret over the new grid section being explored. Then, if that proved free of survivors, they could move on to the next area. One thing Mac was sure of, if there were any survivors, he wanted a few words with them.
After the dishes got a quick wash, they went upstairs to get to work. Mac showed Bryce how to use the mapper inset in the table to create detailed cross sections of the terrain recorded by yesterday’s fly-by, then gave him some pointers about the capabilities of the large land rover that would be exploring the area.
“Give it a good look, you’ve still got over an hour before they get there. I want you to study the areas they’ll be driving through, keep an eye out for what they might run into, like blind canyons or sudden drop-offs.” Mac turned to go to his console in the cockpit, then stopped and looked back at Bryce. “They know you’re in charge. They’re to tell you every turn they make, and if it’s leading somewhere they shouldn’t go, you’re the last word. Got it?”
Bryce looked up and swallowed, then nodded. “Got it.” His attention returned immediately to the map.
Mac walked up to the refurbished cockpit, sat down behind the main terminal and typed in the necessary commands to power up their screens. He’d instructed the shuttle’s AI to work in written mode only, so it wouldn’t reply audibly to commands. After learning what they had about Five, both he and Ben felt it would be more appropriate to limit the functions of the new colony’s AI, including the section housed in the shuttle. Mac didn’t think Bryce needed to deal with another computer so soon. This one was a newer model, missing many of the functions the Adam series possessed. He wasn’t the only one who didn’t enjoy a computer telling him what to do and when to do it.
After checking in with the command room in the complex and both expedition parties, Mac called up the video and sat back, watching the final preparations. Behind him, Bryce was poring over the map being displayed in three dimensions on the table. It looked as if his plan might work, keeping the kid so occupied with his task, he wouldn’t fret so much about what the new grid section might or might not reveal.
And it did. For the next four hours, while Mac followed the progress of the second flight, Bryce kept a very close eye on the ground crew. There were a few times he had to suggest a break to get the younger man to move around a bit, his concentration was so single-minded. But after routing the team around a severe ledge and warning them not to touch some of the plants they had found, he seemed to be just as fascinated with the landscape as the explorers he was tracking.
Mac watched the next grid closely for any signs of life and stewed over the thought of survivors hiding out anywhere on the planet. His headache hadn’t dimmed any and showed no signs of leaving any time soon. In fact, as he strained to focus on the screen, it felt like a migraine building. God, he hadn’t had one of those in nearly a year.
By noon, he couldn’t take any more without a break and a pot of coffee. He was just about to suggest it when there was a knock on the door. Bryce nearly jumped out of his skin, but Mac calmly reached for a switch and brought up the faces of two men standing at the door: Ben, and Carl Jensen.
“Come on in.” He typed in the unlocking command and turned to watch the door slide open, then glanced at Bryce. “That’s Carl Jensen, he’s the head geologist. Nice guy, if you’re into rocks and metal.” He smiled, hoping his partner could recognize a completely harmless person when he met one. He already seemed adept at shying away from the bad ones.
“Brennan, hope you don’t mind. Hello, Bryce.” Ben smiled widely at both men, then gestured to Carl. “Carl here is beside himself about something, and we thought you could give us some insight.”
“It’s this metal.” Without waiting for a reply, or even a proper introduction, Carl stepped forward, holding out both hands. Mac glanced at Bryce, then nodded toward their visitors and stepped down to where they were. In Carl’s hands was a chunk of silver metal, very shiny, in a large, dirt-clod shape. “We found this in deposits around the base of those big, spoon-branch trees a few days ago, but I can’t figure it out.”
Mac motioned for everyone to go to the large table, now cleared of the maps, where they could examine Carl’s find. When he stopped, he felt Bryce standing beside him, careful to keep to his left while Ben and Carl were on his right.
“It looks like silver.” Mac shrugged. What he knew of metals was pretty basic, but it did look exactly like the metal the sculpture and Bryce’s jewelry were made of.
“Yes, yes, it is to a certain degree.” Carl set the piece on the table and stared at it as if he’d never seen it before. He ran a hand through his wildly disheveled hair and nodded. “The thing is, while it does have the same molecular structure of silver, there are a few other elements there we can’t identify.”
“It is. That’s what I was told, anyway. Just silver.” Bryce shrugged. “It’s not rare or anything.”
Mac took a chance and stepped to one side, examining the chunk. He was happy to see Bryce remain where he was, hopefully unafraid of their new visitor. Carl had nothing to do with the faction who had voted for a forced memory return of the sole survivor. If it wasn’t a rock or bit of metal, Carl didn’t much care what it did, or why. “What’s the problem, then?”
“We can’t find a melting point. Can’t cut it with any of our tools, even the diamond laser, without completely shattering it beyond use. But we’ve examined that sculpture outside and some of the artwork in the complex, and they’re made from this exact metal.” He looked at Bryce, eyebrows raised. “How do you make this stuff behave?”
“You have to use the tools if you want to shape it.” His answer was so matter-of-fact, Mac nearly chuckled. “I can show you, if you want.”
“Yes! By all means, please do.” Carl’s eyes lit up with the prospect.
Bryce glanced at Mac then gestured toward the stairs. “I’ll be right back.”
Mac nodded, then motioned for the two visitors to sit down. “Your timing is perfect, I was about to tell the expeditions to take a break.”
“They’re making good progress. We should have the entire first sweep done by the end of this week.” Ben sat down opposite Mac and Carl sat at the other side, still studying his rock. “How’s Bryce holding up? We’ve been watching the teams from the command room. He’s doing a good job keeping them from hurting themselves.”
“He’s fine.” Mac glanced at Carl and grinned. They could be discussing sex slaves for rent, and that man would remain completely oblivious, unless one of the women was made of an unusual metal. “I think every day we don’t find any sign of the first group, he’ll get calmer and calmer.”
“I can’t even imagine what this must be like for him.”
Mac was about to reply when he heard Bryce coming back up the stairs. He was carrying two small, odd-looking devices that he set on the table near the silver metal. After a quick glance at Mac, he sat down and reached for the chunk.
“I don’t know why, I just know how.”
“Yes, yes, that’s fine. Anything you could show me would help.” Carl nodded quickly, facing Bryce with eager anticipation. “I’ve never seen those tools before, how do they work?”
Bryce handed over the instruments and let Carl examine them closely. “Vibration. Sound waves, really high pitched. You set a frequency with this knob.”
While Mac and Ben looked on, Bryce demonstrated the instruments. To everyone’s amazement, he was able to take the unruly piece of silver and — using the tools — send varying frequencies of sound through the metal. Within minutes, he had shaped the rock into a perfectly rounded, and very shiny, ball of silver.
“Good God!” Carl held out both hands and accepted the metal, staring at it wide-eyed. “It looked almost liquid while you were working on it, like mercury, only more solid.”
Bryce looked at Mac and shrugged. “It’s not hard.”
Mac couldn’t help grinning, despite his own amazement at the trick he’d just witnessed. “I’m sure you have figured that out eventually, Carl.”
“There are more of these tools in the basement. I only kept the one set.” Bryce pointed to the tools he’d used to work the hard metal like pudding. “This is the metal we used for everything, sculpture, earrings, everything.”
“I can see why. This is fascinating.” Carl’s eyes never left the silver ball he was holding. “Can you teach me how you did that?”
“I’m sure he’d be willing, Carl.” Mac replied when the younger man looked at him as if asking permission. Carl was harmless, and wouldn’t want anything from Bryce except to learn everything he knew about the rocks and metals he found. Bryce seemed to have picked up on that. There were people in this group he could trust not to be so willing to sacrifice another man’s sanity for a few elusive answers. “How about some lunch?” Mac stood, rubbing his eyes. The headache was still there, pounding against the back of his forehead with some regularity.
“I think we could manage that, while these two talk silver smithing.” Ben got up and nodded toward the door. “There were some incredible smells coming from the kitchens when Carl and I headed over here.”
“Great.” Mac turned to Bryce. “We’ll bring some food over. You two can hang out here. Okay?”
“Yeah.” The younger man nodded reassuringly, then turned back to the tools and began the lesson.
The sun was shining outside through a magnificently blue sky. Ben shielded his eyes from the brightness while they walked to the complex. “Do you think we’ll find anyone out there after all this time?”
Mac sighed heavily and reached for the building’s side door. “I don’t know, Ben. It’s hard to understand anyone leaving a man so isolated — and leaving all of this — to live out there.”
“Yes. But it’s just as hard to fathom so many people dying in such a short time.” He shook his head. “If only we could read the records.”
“No progress translating them, I take it?”
“Nothing. There’s a team working on it daily, but they’re not getting anywhere.”
They walked down the long corridor, following the smells of food that permeated that section of the complex with delicious temptation. Mac knew Bryce still had access to Five through his small portable computer, he’d seen the thing active just the other evening when he closed up the unit and put it on the chair. But that was Bryce’s business. They’d done what they could with the rebellious machine and gotten nowhere.
“I told them they might just as well give up.” Ben shrugged. “They’re all like hungry dogs with a bone when it comes to a puzzle.”
Mac laughed lightly. “Oh, and you’re not? You love a good mystery, Ben, that’s why you do what you do.” They entered the dining hall and found it only half full. Many of the group were eating outside, or at their various work stations, too absorbed in their discoveries to stop and eat in a social setting.
“Yes, I admit it freely.” Ben smiled and reached for a tray, then began to load it up with enough fruit to feed four while Mac did the same with the meats and breads. “I love a mystery about as much as you love a good, honest fight.”
Surprised, Mac stopped mid-load. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means Bryce — and the rest of us — are very lucky you came along.” Ben finished filling his tray and moved down to the beverage section.
Mac hurried to finish and join him, gathering up a few different selections he hadn’t tried yet. He knew Ben enough to wait for him to finish this train of thought and elaborate.
“You never lose sight of what’s important, Brennan, like so many of us do sometimes. Even I fell victim to the temptation of forcing Bryce to remember, regardless of the consequences to that young man.” He sighed and shook his head sadly. “Thank God you talked some sense back into us.”
“I’m not so sure I did.”
“Oh, you did. Not all of us, granted. But that’s why we’re lucky to have you around. You’re never swayed by public opinion, or the mood of a group. You have an uncanny ability to see things as either right or wrong, and stick to your convictions with impunity. I admire that. And I can tell Bryce has come to depend on it, whether he really knows it or not.”
Mac hefted his tray and followed the commander through the dining room. “He has no idea what Lise and the others were thinking, and I’d rather it stayed that way.”
“I’m sure he does in a way. Have you watched him closely? That kid never misses a move anyone makes. He’s a survivor, that one. And he’s taken to you like a scared cat hiding under the couch.”
“He was pretty overwhelmed by us. You can’t blame him for having some trouble adjusting.” Mac pushed the outside door open with his butt, letting Ben go through first.
“No, he can sense protection when he sees it. I’d be willing to lay odds he could see something brotherly to trust in you the day we came.”
Mac shook his head slowly, not sure if he could admit to thinking Ben was right or not. “Bryce hasn’t been around people in ten years, Ben. How could he know how to read a person so well, so quickly?”
“The same thing that kept you alive all this time: Instinct.”
They were at the shuttle door, and Mac had already typed in the opening code, so his reply had to wait. Inside, they found Bryce giving Carl an instruction as he worked the tools in what looked like a shimmering pool of silver.
“Would you look at this?” Mac set the tray down and scanned the table’s contents. Sections of thin silver chain, various small and large silver shapes, and a rather incongruous glob of shining metal. “This one must be yours, Carl.”
“This is fantastic! I can’t get over the qualities of this metal.” Carl kept working the piece in his hand, trying to shape it into something recognizable.
Ben was holding a length of the thin, chain-like silver. “I don’t understand, there’s no hook or end. Look at this,” he held it up for Mac to inspect. “It appears to be a solid, continuous circle.”
“Yes, that’s amazing, isn’t it?” Carl never even looked up. “You work the ends together, and when you finish, the metal solidifies again and leaves no evidence of ever having been broken.”
Mac looked at the chain around Bryce’s neck that held the silver symbol he wore. “Is that made the same way?”
Bryce nodded, then reached out to set the food around the table for everyone. He’d brought up plates and utensils and stacked them at the end of the table, away from all the metal bits. “Whoever made it kept it so short I can’t get it off.”
Surprised, Mac reached out and took hold of the chain circling Bryce’s neck. There was no clasp or hook anywhere. “So you can’t take this off?”
Bryce shook his head and reached for a bottle of dark purple fruit juice.
“This is going to take some practice, I can tell.” Carl held out his glob, shaped roughly in a pyramid. “You say there are more of these tools?”
“In the basement. At least, that’s where they were before.” Bryce sat down and picked at a small, round fruit, glancing from Carl to Mac and back again. “I remember at least five more sets in a case with some of the spare parts. I only kept this one set with me all the time.”
“Fascinating.” Carl shook his head slowly, but remembered to return the two instruments before reaching for his plate. He ate while staring at the metal, shaking his head now and again and muttering to himself.
“I’m impressed.” Mac set a piece of chain back down on the table and unscrewed the cap of a yellow drink that smelled wonderfully of citrus. “You must have perfected the talent.”
Bryce shrugged slightly and took a drink, but there was an unmistakable glint of satisfaction in his lavender eyes.
The rest of lunch consisted of a casual conversation about the silver, and other metals and gems easily found on Oblivion. Bryce was relaxed and slightly more open than Mac had seen before, speaking easily with Carl and not shying away from questions Ben asked. He was glad to see the kid feeling more comfortable, even if it was just with two other people. After their first few days, Mac had worried that Bryce was going to be afraid of Ben, who really wasn’t one of the bad guys. At least, not the Ben he’d gotten to know on the trip out here. Hopefully, both he and Lise had truly given up the idea of invading the younger man’s memories, as they said they had.
After lunch, Carl took his metal and headed off to find the other tools, and Ben followed suit, leaving Mac and Bryce to finish their day’s work with the exploration teams. Thankfully, the second flight revealed no signs of human habitation. Just miles and miles of trees, valleys, lakes and rivers. Oblivion was a beautiful planet, raw and unspoiled. Mac knew within his lifetime, it would stay that way. But eventually, the Bureau would take interest in it again, and there would be a resurgence in the need humans had for exploration and conquering. At least while he was alive, there would be plenty of open space, air, and water for showering.
And hot springs.
“How about a trip to that hot spring?” Mac stretched tired muscles and flipped off the monitors. His head was pounding and his back had a kink that needed some hot, bubbling, blue water to work it loose.
“What about them? They have to get back before dark.” Bryce motioned to the monitor he’d been watching the ground team on.
“They’ll stay out there, camping in the rover, so they can start out tomorrow without wasting time.”
Bryce stared at the blank screen, then looked at Mac, eyebrows creased. “They can’t stay out, it’s not safe.”
Mac stretched again, noting the look of apprehension in his face. “They’ll be fine. The rover’s secure.” He paused, watching Bryce slowly lose the look of fear. “Come on, I’m dying for a good soak.”
Bryce hesitated for a moment, then followed Mac downstairs where they gathered some towels and enough fruit to make a decent dinner. They weren’t alone in their search for a hot, relaxing bath, but once Bryce led the way up the rocky knoll, they found quiet solitude.
Mac stripped quickly and slid under the bubbling water with a deep sigh, easily finding a rock at just the right height he could sit on. With the water up to his neck, he leaned back and rested his head on the grassy shore gratefully. Bryce shed his clothes and eased himself in from the opposite side, getting comfortable with practiced speed.
“You did a good job today.” Mac closed his eyes, telling his muscles to relax under the hot massage. “Kept your eyes open, thought ahead. They’ve got you to thank for not ending up with a bad case of poisoning this afternoon.”
“Those plants were on the printout I gave them the first day. They’re scientists, they should have known better.”
Mac smiled, nodding a little. “Yes, they should.” He raised his head and opened his eyes, looking at Bryce. “They’re trained, but inexperienced. I think they get a little excited, finally being here and all.”
Bryce shrugged, dismissing that notion as nothing to be excited about. “Will we be watching them all the time? That other group in the complex is still recording what they do.”
“Yes, they are. We can ease up on the scrutiny in a few days.” Mac adjusted his position, sliding his butt slightly backwards on the smooth rock supporting him. “I wanted to get a feel for how things were going, get them settled into their own routines and test the equipment. In a few days, we can let the remote sensors record most of the data.” He sighed and reached up to massage his neck. There was no denying the fact that this headache was trying to become a migraine. If he could just get more relaxed, he stood a chance of nipping it in the bud.
He worked on that for the next hour, soaking in the bubbling blue water, occasionally cooling off in the waterfall. They ate the fruit they’d brought for dinner and listened to the sounds of other bathers from the larger hot spring in the valley below. By the time they decided to head back down, Mac felt completely relaxed. Except for the pounding behind his eyes.
A few yards behind the shuttle was a soft patch of thick, lavender grass scented with small, white flowers. The sun was about to sink below the horizon, and when Mac glanced around, he was treated to a rainbow of blues and lavenders in the sky, promising to change with each passing moment.
“I’m gonna hang out here a bit and watch the sun set.” Mac turned to look at the setting sun. This kind of sight was a rare treat for a space-bred man.
“You can’t. It’ll be dark.” Bryce stopped beside him and shook his head. “It’s not safe.”
“Why?” Mac looked at the younger man.
Bryce shook his head again and Mac could see fear in his eyes. “It’s not safe after dark, you can’t stay out here.”
“Why isn’t it safe, Bryce?” The look that flashed over the younger man’s face should have kept him from pressing the question, but Mac continued. “Is there something that comes out at night here?”
It lasted an instant, but it was plain as day, screaming out from behind those lavender eyes. Without a word, Bryce turned to dash down the rise. Quicker than that, Mac grabbed his arm. When he spun around, terror changed to something else.
“No! It’s not safe, that’s all!”
Bryce tried to pull away, but Mac held fast, stepped closer and took hold of his arms with both hands. “Just tell me what it is. Why isn’t it safe outside at night?” He kept his voice calm, trying not to frighten the kid any more than he was. “What is it?”
“I — I don’t . . . ” Bryce shook his head and looked down, then away. “I don’t know.” His eyes suddenly met Mac’s, trying desperately to convey a million things he apparently couldn’t voice. “I don’t know. It just is.”
Damn that computer. “Is it something Five told you? Have you ever seen anything?”“I don’t know!” He shook his head more violently, looking down. “It’s not safe. I don’t know why — He said — Please!”
Mac released his hold. Whether imagined or not, Bryce honestly felt there was danger. He couldn’t force reason on him without knowing what had happened to cause this. “There’s no record of any nocturnal predators. No poisonous plants blooming at night, no deadly insects. Nothing. Could this be something Five cooked up to frighten you as a child?”
Bryce couldn’t meet Mac’s gaze. He looked like he was waging a war of his own inside his head, and losing fast. “I can’t.” Slowly, he stepped away, shaking his head again. “I don’t know why, I just can’t!”
Before Mac could reply, Bryce turned and ran for the shuttle. “Dammit.” He watched the younger man reach the ship and go inside, then turned back to see the last sliver of sun vanish beyond the horizon. Rational or not, he shouldn’t have let the kid get that scared. He should have picked a better time — like daylight — to confront him about this fear. “And damn that computer.”
Mac watched the sky change color, but his mind couldn’t fully appreciate what his eyes were taking in. It was possible, and highly likely knowing what he did about Bryce’s computer, that the thing had instilled some unfounded fear in him to keep him dependent and close by. There was no telling what Five had done to Bryce all those years, what kind of fears and lies he’d filled the kid’s head with. Whatever it was, or might be, it was real enough to him.
With a heavy sigh, Mac watched a few stars come out, then walked back to the shuttle. He secured the upper section and walked downstairs, his head pounding with every step. Bryce was in the chair he’d brought over, shaped from one of the spoon-branches of the large trees. He fit completely inside the thing, with his legs curled up under him. Almost as if the branch had grown for that specific purpose.
“I’m sorry, Bryce. I didn’t mean to upset you out there.” Mac sank into one of the couches, facing him. He could see Bryce’s jaw clench for a moment as he looked down, rubbing the back of one hand with the thumb of the other.
“You were probably right.” He shrugged and looked up. “It’s just some stupid, childish superstition or something.”
Mac shook his head. “No, it’s not stupid. Nothing that real to you can be stupid. Superstition? Yeah, maybe. I can tell you one thing, I didn’t see anything out there to fear. And that sunset was incredible.” At least the part he’d paid attention to. Mac stood and stretched, feeling the tension building in the back of his neck that signaled the inevitable approach of the migraine. “I’m gonna turn in. I’ll see you in the morning.”
It wouldn’t be, not with the headache from hell building. Mac managed a few hours of sleep on and off, but by sunrise he couldn’t fake it any longer. It was time to admit to the misery he was in, and wait for it to fade away. His shower was quick, just enough to get clean and washed. There was no aura blurring his vision, but a few dizzy spells made dressing a challenge. By the time he came out of his bedroom and managed to reach the kitchen table, his head was throbbing.
Bryce set a pot of coffee on the table. “Are you okay?”
“I will be, in about eight hours.” Mac reached for the coffee, hoping some of the stimulant would take the worst of the edge off.
“Oh God, you’re not getting that flu, are you?”
He shook his head slowly so as not to aggravate the pain. “No, it’s just a headache. A migraine, to be exact. I’ll be fine.” His hands were shaking too much to get a decent cup of coffee poured.
“Here.” Bryce reached out quickly and took the cup, then poured coffee into it and set it down.
Mac nodded his thanks, but Bryce had already left. A few seconds later, the lights were dimmed, and footsteps could be heard softly climbing the stairs. Well, at least the kid understood a migraine needed darkness and quiet. Maybe he had them, too? God, his head was pounding! It was as if someone had his brain in a vise and was turning the screw slowly, squeezing the sides of his head inexorably toward the center, where he knew it would implode.
And at this point, that would be a good thing.
He had no concept of how much time had passed since getting out of bed, or how much time he’d been suffering. Time no longer held meaning, only the pain in his head confirmed that he was alive, and in hell. There were sounds. Faint, quiet ones coming from a few yards away it seemed. And then there was a smell. Yes, definitely a smell, coming from the galley.
Slowly and deliberately, Mac turned his head far enough to see the galley. He realized he was still sitting at the table, cradling his head in both hands. From there he could see Bryce pouring something into a cup. When he returned the pot to the counter, he dipped a cloth into it, then wrung it out.
Mac closed his eyes for a moment and swallowed, trying to muster enough energy to ask what he was up to. Before he could compose a single thought, the sweet smell was right under his nose.
“Sip that, slowly. It’s not too hot.”
“What’s this?” Mac moved one hand from his forehead and lifted the cup, sniffing the steam. The liquid was bright yellow, and smelled heavily of flowers.
Before Mac could taste the cup’s contents, he felt a warm compress being pressed gently over the back of his neck.
“Just sip it.”
Slightly stunned by the spread of warmth over his neck and head, Mac brought the cup to his lips and sipped. The smell of flowers intensified as he pulled the liquid into his mouth. It was the perfect temperature, and tasted just sweet enough, without upsetting an uneasy stomach.
“That’s not bad.” Mac leaned forward a bit, letting the warm compress cover his entire neck. Small, soothing fingers of heat from the dampness crawled up his scalp. He took another sip and closed both eyes. Something was happening within his tortured skull. The vise grip seemed to slip ever so slightly. Another sip, and a wave of relief washed through his brain.
“Oh, man!” He took a deep breath, then another sip of tea. Unmistakable tendrils were snaking through his palate and into his head, immediately releasing the pain as they moved farther upward. The feeling of relaxation that washed through his head was overwhelming. Mac sighed deeply, then sat up straighter, moving his head slowly from side to side.
Bryce removed the compress. “Is it better?”
“It’s perfect!” The gripping pain that had held him since yesterday had vanished without a trace, leaving behind the most relaxing feeling he’d ever known. “I don’t know what that was, or how it worked, but I feel fantastic.” Mac stood, smiling. “I’ve never been able to get any of the other migraine cures to work before.” He took a step forward, around the chair, then swayed as the floor moved in waves beneath him.
“Wait, I forgot.” Bryce reached out and took hold of Mac’s arm. “This tea makes you want to sleep for a few hours.”
“Whoa.” Mac reached out to steady himself on the back of the chair. “I guess so.”
“Come on.” Bryce gave a gentle tug and walked toward the bedrooms.
“No, I’ll be fine. Just give me a few minutes on the couch.” Mac leaned into his guide, directing him to the couches.
“You’ll be asleep.”
“I’ll be fine. Just a few minutes.” Somehow he managed to get there. At least, it felt like the couch. Cushions beneath him, and a few against his left side. Yeah, it had to be the couch. Mac closed his eyes and sighed deeply, relishing the relief after such a long migraine. Something light and slightly warm wrapped over, then around him. It felt like a fog, lifting him off the couch and letting his mind float in uninterrupted peace. Faint sounds reached his ears and kept him anchored to reality, but just barely.
Mac allowed himself to enjoy the drifting while it lasted, but when he felt his body returning to the couch, he willed himself awake. It took a few moments to shake off the effects, but he felt well-rested and completely free from the migraine that had tortured him for so long. He was on one of the couches, as he’d suspected, with the blanket he’d given Bryce tucked around him. That had been the soft fog. He unwrapped himself, then folded the ship-blanket and stood slowly, happy to find no lingering dizziness from the tea. One quick glance at the chronometer told him he’d slept for three hours.
He quickly returned the blanket to Bryce’s bed, then glanced around the living quarters. There was no sign of his roommate anywhere, but muffled voices were wafting down the stairwell. Mac went to the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face to wipe away the last of the sedative effects, then went upstairs. What he found surprised him a little.
Carl Jensen, tools in hand, was again attempting to manipulate more of the silver metal while Bryce looked on closely, giving pointers. When he realized Mac was there, he jumped up, looking very concerned.
“How do you feel? You only slept a couple of hours.”
Bryce stepped around the table but Mac waved him off. “I feel great, don’t worry. I may have only slept three hours, but it felt like eight.” He pointed to the metal shapes on the table, and to Carl, who hadn’t so much as looked up. “What’s all this?”
“Oh, Carl wanted some more help.” Bryce ran a hand through his long hair and shrugged, then pointed to the cockpit. “I’ve got the ground crew on a solid path, and the third flight team is mapping their grid. I made maps of yesterday’s flight, and they said they have another ground team prepping to go north tomorrow.” He pointed to Carl again. “We were just taking lunch.”
“Great work.” Mac smiled as a feeling of pride washed over him. He’d only shown Bryce what to do yesterday, and already he’d taken the initiative to handle things while he was incapacitated. Not only handle it, but handle it all. Mac sat down at the table to examine Carl’s work. “Not bad, Jensen. You’re learning.”
“Bryce here is a good teacher.” Carl beamed as he held out what was unmistakably a replica of god-knew-what. “I’m getting better, believe it or not.”
“I believe it.” Mac laughed lightly, examining the shiny glob.
“Are you hungry?” Bryce nodded toward the stairs. “I brought in some stores this morning, I can fix lunch.”
“Yeah, I could eat.” Mac watched him go down below, then turned back to the silver bits. Several of them were in perfect shapes, intertwining knots of intricate patterns, rings, earrings, chains, and a reproduction of the spoon-branch trees. “These must be his?”
“Yes, he’s quite good. Still can’t get him to tell me who made that thing out in the courtyard, or how. Have you noticed it moves independent of the wind? And the pattern of its movement changes daily.”
Mac nodded, setting down one of the medallions he’d been looking at. “He told me it tracks the phase of the moon.” But he still hadn’t found out why, or why that was such a disturbing subject.
“Hmm, that makes sense I suppose. Not sure why one would want to do that.” Carl set down his silver glob and rubbed his chin, scratching a day’s growth of beard that was poking out in the same haphazard pattern as the hair on his head. “Although that moon does have an effect on the planet. Much more dramatic than Earth, or Ergo. This moon is huge. Probably does a number on the tides, and possibly the moods of the inhabitants.” He shrugged. “That’s just what we’ll want, eh? Everyone going nuts for one week each month.”
“You think the original colonists put that up so they’d remember not to take anything seriously during the full moon?” That might explain a few things, though not in a pleasant way.
Carl shrugged, then picked up his silver and began to work it again.
Mac shook his head, then checked the monitors. Bryce had been busy, keeping an eye on the ground team as well as a new flight crew, making maps of the previous flight, even setting all of the equipment to automatically report any abnormalities. He scanned the flight data and found that no sign of past inhabitants had been seen. At least nothing had happened while he was asleep.
Nothing other than Carl’s visit. Mac was glad to see the preoccupied geologist had earned some acceptance with Bryce. Not only acceptance, but assistance. And lunch. They ate together, discussing his growing familiarity with the complicated metal-working tools he’d found in the basement, then Carl gathered his things and left while Mac and Bryce got back to the business of exploration management.
The next week passed very pleasantly. Mac quickly realized he and his new partner had fallen into an easy rhythm of working together, much the same way he and a few small teams had worked together during the war. Once in a great while he’d find himself assigned to a ship whose crew worked like a well oiled fighter. A group which he could blend into and command with an almost psychic clarity. Inevitably, a member of the team would be lost in battle, and replaced by another. Sometimes several at a time. They’d find the new combination a struggle for many months, until each found a new niche and the rhythm was born again.
That was one lesson Mac had learned early in life. No matter what was happening, it would change. Every high would be followed by a low, which in turn was followed by another high. The only variation on that theme was the depth and height. It had taught him a valuable lesson about not sweating the lows, but seeing them as the precursor to the next high that they were. It also helped him greatly appreciate — and never take for granted — the highs.
This was definitely a high. The kid was a sponge, learning anything Mac was willing to teach him with complete, quick comprehension. And he learned quite a bit about Oblivion’s little details, as Bryce showed him the various ingredients he’d used in the sedative tea, as well as other herbs and edibles native to the planet. Bryce began to come out of his shell bit by bit, and allowed visitors to come more and more without feeling the need to hide behind Mac. Now and again–depending on the number and individuals involved–he noticed Bryce would vanish when they were approached or visited. Even those times they entered the complex for meetings or just to have a look around, Bryce would disappear without a trace, then reappear when the person he’d been hiding from, or the crowd itself, dispersed.
Mac never questioned that habit, he just started making note of who Bryce didn’t want to be near, and how many was his limit for a crowd. At least it wasn’t as baffling as his fear of being out after dark. That one, Mac decided, would take a while to get over. Each night Mac chose to watch the sun go down, Bryce would take off into the shuttle, shutting the doors. In all his evenings outside, and in his discussion with the other colonists who enjoyed the night air, he could find nothing at all to fear in the dark. But each night when he came back inside, he’d find his young friend agitated and anxious, either sitting in that spoon-shaped chair of his, or pacing in his room.
When he was in there, Mac would hear voices that stopped when he approached. He knew Bryce was talking to Five, and part of him wanted to stop it. Most of Bryce’s fears were based on the warped superstitions and childhood fears that a disturbed AI unit had instilled in a frightened young boy’s head. Those fears had most likely been perpetuated and increased during Bryce’s adult life, when his only companion was the very computer responsible for instilling them. But it wasn’t Mac’s place to destroy Five. If the kid needed that last thread of his old life now and again, it wasn’t his to take away. A better tactic would be to keep Bryce from feeling he needed that connection.
And he was making good progress. The colony adopted the popular habit of working four days and taking two off, but most of the scientists found themselves spending free time continuing their work. They claimed it was more relaxing than anything they could imagine. Mac and Bryce made a daily habit of visiting their hot spring after dinner and talking over the day, or more often simply enjoying the bubbling hot water massage the planet so willingly provided. Some of the colonists were beginning to discuss spreading out, setting up semi-permanent camps in the areas already mapped out in order to further their range. Mac quickly found any discussions on that subject greatly agitated Bryce, to the point of him vanishing until hours after the topic — and the people doing the talking — were long gone.
It was late one night, after one of those conversations, that Mac’s understanding of a lot of things clarified violently.
“We’ll work up a list of what materials we need to set up that camp in the morning.”
Ben stood and stretched and Mac followed suit. “How many are you going to send?”
“Just ten I think, to start. Let them set up some of the shelters and get a feel for the area.” He glanced around the room as everyone dispersed. “I wish Bryce had been here, I’ve wanted to discuss that valley with him for some time now. Katherine tells me the cattle disappeared this morning, and she wanted to know if they have an alternate grazing area they may have moved on to. Where is he?”
Mac sighed, then raised one shoulder in a shrug. “Probably home. Or he will be before dark. I don’t know why, Ben, but the subject of sending people out to establish other camps really gets to him.” That was understating the effect, but Mac didn’t want to give Ben details he didn’t need.
“Well, he’s come out of his shell quite a bit in these past two weeks. But as Lise keeps telling me, that young man still has some extreme trauma he’s got to work through.”
“Yeah.” Mac glanced out the single window of the room. “Look at that thing,” he nodded out the window to the courtyard. “How long has it been doing that?”
Ben glanced in the direction Mac was looking. The Tracker was visible from where they stood, the various hands of the object now spinning in a strange, symmetrical fashion. “Since I got up this morning. And it’s humming, too. They tell me it tracks the moon, and we’re due for our first full view tonight.” He grinned. “The slightly unusual orbit this one has gives that sudden appearance of the full phase from the three-quarter. Probably why they thought tracking its schedule would be an interesting art form. It’s going to be a magnificent sight. I’ve never been on a planet where there’s a moon that large. I fancy it to be a bit romantic.”
Mac laughed shortly, still looking at the spinning Tracker. “I suppose we should keep an eye out for odd behavior, then?”
“Ah, yes.” Ben laughed, nodding dramatically. “Yes, I suppose the moon can have an effect on people’s moods, eh? With luck, it will be a positive effect.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” Mac forced his gaze from the view and patted the commander on the shoulder, leaving the room.
It was nearly dark, which meant Bryce would be home from wherever he’d run off to. It had been just about four weeks since they landed on Oblivion, and already they’d made great progress against the obstacles encountered when they landed. Bryce had gone from suspected survivor to a valuable — if somewhat shy — source of planetary information the colonists had learned to tap. At least the ones he could tolerate the company of. Ben was one of the blessed few Bryce could tolerate, as long as Mac was with him. As was Lise.
“Brennan, there you are.” Lise altered her trajectory to intercept Mac on his way to the shuttle. “I was looking for you earlier.”
“I’ve been in meetings this afternoon.” Mac stopped at the base of the ramp. “What’s up?”
Lise pointed behind her without looking. “I wanted to ask Bryce about that thing. Have you seen it today?”
“The Tracker? Yes, I have.” Mac nodded toward the shuttle door. “I don’t think he’ll want to talk about it. I haven’t been able to get much from him about it.”
“Hmm. I know it’s tracking the full moon, but there’s something strange going on, and it’s beginning to worry me.”
“Well, this might sound far-fetched, but I’ve been studying what the original colony left behind. There isn’t much, artwork mostly, but it all has the moon as a central theme. So I did some studying. You know there are theories about the moon’s effect on planet dwelling individuals in almost every culture and every generation. The full moon affects moods, sending some people into bizarrely irrational states, causing accidents, even making normal citizens act like lunatics.” She laughed lightly. “In fact, that’s where the term comes from.”
“And you think the effects from this larger moon are going to be more dramatic, is that it?”
“Somewhat. What I was thinking — and I hope I’m wrong — but what if some of the earlier colonists were affected by this moon? And I mean affected to the point of creating a — well, a cult of sorts. There are reports of modern groups suddenly creating deities to worship and attribute all manner of omnipotence. Colony-trained individuals aren’t immune to wild notions or fringe behavior.”
Mac took a deep breath and glanced over her head at the small, bright crescent brimming over the horizon. “And you think the first colony got a little overboard with their moon worshiping, and somehow . . . what, sacrificed themselves?”
Lise sighed and shook her head. “I know, it sounds ridiculous. At least right now it does. But if I could talk to Bryce, perhaps mention the subject?”
“No.” Mac shook his head. “Not tonight. He’s been pretty upset about something these past two days. I’m not sure what yet, but I hope to find out.” He reached for the door keypad
Lise nodded. “Maybe tomorrow, if the two of you have some time?”
“I’ll let you know.” They glanced at the horizon as the bright, yellow light slowly began to illuminate the area. “This is going to be something.” Lise waved and walked back toward the complex, staring at the rising moon as she walked.
“Yeah, something.” Mac opened the door and went inside. The terror-filled lavender eyes greeting him with desperation took him totally by surprise.
“You have to stay inside! You can’t go out again tonight!” Bryce clutched the front of Mac’s shirt with a death grip, pulling him farther into the shuttle. “It’s happening again!”
“Whoa, hold on.” Concerned by the unusual display, Mac took hold of his friend’s shoulders. “What’s happening again?”
Bryce’s eyebrows creased and he looked down for an instant, shaking his head once. “I don’t — I don’t know. I just — you can’t go out there! Please, don’t go out there!”
The terror in his voice was matched only by the panic in his eyes. It was plain to see that whatever was wrong had been upsetting him for several hours now. “Bryce, calm down.” Mac brought his voice down a few levels, trying to use the tone to ease his partner’s fear. “What’s wrong? Why don’t you want me outside tonight?” His only reply was a desperate shake of Bryce’s head and a view of dark hair as he looked at the floor. “Is it the full moon?” The younger man’s hands began to shake.
“I don’t know! I can’t remember!”
“Then how do you–?”
“They’re all dead!” Instantly, Bryce pushed away from him, backing quickly into the corner near the stairs. Anger flashed in his eyes, blazing through the redness. “They’ll die outside! Everyone! It’s going to happen again!”
Mac’s heart began to race slightly. His concern for the young man far outweighed his inability to understand the problem. “Why will they die, Bryce? What is happening again?”
“Please, don’t go out there!” Bryce pressed into the corner, eyes darting from Mac to the door and back again. “I don’t know why — I just know!”
“Okay, I understand.” Mac approached Bryce slowly, voice calm. Whether real or imagined, something had him completely terrified. “You’re remembering feelings, but not details, right?” Bryce nodded, but his eyes were pleading. “Is it the moon? There’s something about the full moon that’s going to be harmful?”
“They’ll die.” Bryce’s voice changed. The full-on terror altered into an unmistakable, bone chilling sense of inevitability. “They’ll all die outside.”
It sent a stab of ice through Mac’s stomach. He swallowed. “Are they safe inside the buildings?” Whatever this was — if it really was the moon — it was rising as they spoke.
Bryce could only nod in response.
“All right. I’ll get everyone inside.”
“NO!” Instantly his terror returned. Bryce grabbed Mac’s arms, pleading. “No! You can’t go out there! Please, don’t go out there!”
“Bryce,” Mac reached out and took hold of his arms. “There are people out there. If you say they’re in danger, I have to get them inside.”
“You can’t!” Bryce’s hands gripped tighter.
“Listen to me!” Mac matched his intensity while trying not to hurt him. “If you can’t help me understand what’s happening, then I have to go out there and do what I can.” He paused, searching his friend’s face.
Bryce’s eyes met his, full of absolute fear and helpless confusion. “I can’t.”
Mac nodded quickly, then pulled Bryce’s hands from his arms gently but firmly. “It’s not your fault, Bryce. Just stay here.”
“I have to. I’ll be all right.” Mac hurried to the weapons closet near the door and retrieved a small Repeller, checking to make sure it was fully charged. “You stay here, lock the door and go downstairs.” He turned to make sure his order was heard, but Bryce was nowhere to be found. Quickly flipping on the com unit, he heard the kid’s bedroom door slam shut. He flipped off the unit and reached for the door, pausing to take a deep breath. “You’ll be all right.”
If this was nothing, the worst that would happen would be some embarrassment. Fine. He could deal with that.
Mac rushed down the ramp and headed for the building’s side door. There were people milling about outside, the usual crowd of star gazers and romantics, as well as a few hangar workers. If he ran around warning each of them in turn, he’d be out there half the night. The only sure way to get the message across was to use the PA and get everyone inside in a hurry. Just what that message was, he hadn’t figured out yet.
“Lise! I need your help.” Mac found the doctor just inside the complex, slowly walking down the same corridor he was trying to run through.
Startled, she stopped mid-stride. “What’s the matter? Why are you armed?”
“I can’t explain it right now, there’s no time.” He grabbed her arm and began to run down the hall, pulling her along. “We have to get everyone inside. Now!”
“Inside? Why? What’s the matter?” To her credit, Lise ran alongside, keeping up even with her questions.
“I don’t know, not exactly. Bryce is having some kind of flashback or something.” They reached the main communications office and found it empty for the night.
“What is it? Do you need me to go talk to him?”
“I need you to help me get everyone inside.” Mac handed her a microphone and dialed her unit to call out to the two ground crews, several miles out. “There’s something happening with the full moon tonight. He says everyone outside will die.”
“What? Die? Brennan, I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I, but there’s time for that later.” He grabbed a mike and turned on the speaker, cranking up the volume. “Attention! Everyone, this is an emergency. All personnel report to the complex immediately. All personnel, report inside the complex immediately!”
“What’s this about?” Ben rushed into the room, looking from Lise to Mac. Rob Eckland followed behind him.
“He says Bryce is remembering something. We have to get everyone inside.”
Mac repeated his announcement twice more, then turned to Ben. “I don’t know, Ben. All I know is Bryce is convinced that anyone outside during this full moon is going to be killed.”
“And you believe him?” Rob snorted. “Based on what? Did he tell you why they’d die? Or how?”
“Based on him, Eckland.” Mac shot a fierce glance at Rob and had the satisfaction of seeing the man visibly flinch away from it. “I know terror when I see it.” He turned back to Ben. “Look, I don’t know what it is, Bryce couldn’t remember anything but the fear, and the certainty that anyone outside tonight was going to die. That’s enough for me.”
“Well, it isn’t for me.” Rob regained his attitude and shook his head.
“Brennan, do you believe we’re in danger?”
“Yes, Ben, I do. And if you could have seen Bryce’s face a few minutes ago, you’d believe it too.”
“And just where is he?” Rob raised his chin, trying to appear taller than his five-foot eleven.
Mac ignored the insinuation. “Look, we’ve got three hundred lives at risk here! I don’t know what’s happening any more than you do, but I’m not willing to sit back and take a chance with innocent lives! If this is nothing, then no harm done. I’ll apologize to everyone personally.” He glared at Rob, then turned to Ben and Lise, taking note of the small crowd now gathered outside the room. “You wanted answers to what happened to the first group. Well your answer just might be about to clear those mountains.”
Lise turned immediately to the com unit and began calling the ground crews. Mac returned to his announcement and was joined by several technicians who had entered the room during the exchange. He handed his task over to one of them, then turned back to Ben.
“Where did they stow the weapons?”
“Down here.” Ben motioned over his shoulder, then led the way down the corridor.
Mac grabbed several men on the way, ordering them to follow. A commotion was building in the hallways as people came out of their rooms and in from the outdoors, wanting to know what was happening. They reached a small storage closet and Ben pulled a set of keys from his shirt, shoving one of the cards into the door.
“They’re not fully charged.” It was the first thing Mac noticed when he pulled out a weapon.
“We haven’t needed them in nearly four weeks, I guess no one checked.” Ben began to hand out the small weapons.
“They’ll have to do.”
Mac turned to face the man who had asked, trying to recall his name. Brian something. “I don’t know. But I have a feeling we’re about to find out.”
“You think whatever killed the first group is back?”
“We don’t know for a fact the first group all died.” Ben handed out the last weapon, then shut the cabinet.
Mac pulled his own weapon from his belt and checked the charge again out of habit. It felt familiar in his hand, even though his one-on-one combat had been pretty minimal. Some things you never forgot. And some things you wished you could.
His group now armed, Mac motioned for them to follow him down the main corridor to the front doors. People filled the hallways now, confused and curious.
They barely heard the screams over the voices of the milling crowd. Within seconds, the group became a terrified mob.
In a wave, they pressed back away from the door toward Mac and his impromptu militia. One or two screaming voices were joined by several more. Mac didn’t even try to shout above them. He motioned for his group to continue toward the door, pushing through the chaos. When he got closer, he saw several of the screamers rushing in from outside, some covered in blood, others helping the injured.
Whatever Bryce had feared, it was real.
“Get inside!” Mac ordered. “Get them inside!” He reached the door after what seemed like hours, urging those he could still see outside to hurry up. His order was barely heard over the screaming.
“Oh my GOD! It’s got her!”
“I can’t see them! I can’t see them!”
Mac burst through the doors, followed by three of the men he’d armed. Immediately he crouched down outside the entryway, scanning the moonlit darkness. Three people were running down the hill, past the Tracker, desperate stragglers trying to get indoors. Mac saw shapes on the ground. Bloody, unmoving shapes. Then something brushed past his head.
“There!” Brian shouted beside him, pointing to the left.
Mac spun, gun raised. His trigger finger and eye worked as one, identifying the body as non-human and firing in the same instant. Something black and large fell from the sky, then turned to face him. Mac’s blood ran cold as an eerily human face screeched at him. Large, black eyes glared in his direction, the body framed by huge, jet-black wings, while a deadly set of teeth displayed an angry hiss.
He raised his weapon again and took careful aim, but before he could fire, the blue energy pellet of another weapon seared the air past him, hitting the creature in the chest. It screeched again, this time looking at Brian. Faster than either of them could have imagined, it leapt into the air, vanishing against the dark night sky.
Mac searched the air quickly, motioning for the three straggling runners to hurry inside. “Do you see anyone else out here?!”
“No!” Someone shouted from Brian’s other side.
“Get inside!” He continued scanning the sky, ground, and courtyard area for signs of survivors. “These weapons aren’t doing any good!” They weren’t charged enough to do any damage. His own might have inflicted some harm, but his first shot had been slightly up and to the left, bouncing off — whatever the hell that was.
Someone hadn’t listened, or heard. Mac saw movement on the other side of the building, and a gun fired, hitting something large and black dead-on. He saw the flash of teeth and heard a bone-chilling screech just before he was knocked to the ground.
“Get back!” Brian reached out for someone but Mac couldn’t see around him.
He was on his feet in less than two seconds, just in time to see one of his armed men vanish skyward, screaming.
“Get inside, NOW!” He shoved Brian and another man through the doors, then backed up, desperately searching the sky for something to shoot. Before he could even find the man he’d just lost, several hands pulled him inside, slamming the double doors in front of him.
“Brennan! There were three of them coming up beside you.” Ben let go of Mac’s shirt and pointed to the closed doors. “My God, what are they?!”
“Is everyone inside?” Mac shoved his gun into his belt and started pushing through the terrified crowd still clogging the corridors.
“Secure these buildings! I want all the doors locked, every window secured! No one goes outside or even looks out a vent until I say so!” His orders effectively parted the mob enough to allow him an unimpeded trek back to the main communication center. Lise was no longer inside, but several technicians were. “Bring on all the lights and get the cameras working. I want to see what the hell’s out there.”
“I can’t raise the mobile units,” someone declared.
“Keep trying.” Mac wiped sweat from his forehead and stopped in front of the main monitor. “Get the lights on in the hangar, too.”
“Frank, send someone around to make sure everyone stays calm.” Ben motioned to one of the technicians. “It looks like we’re secure inside, make sure they know that. I don’t want any more panic than we already have.”
Mac took a deep breath and watched the monitors come on, one by one. Ben and the technicians crowded around them, scanning the darkness outside for signs of movement. “Get some recordings, if you can.” Mac stepped to the side and dialed a communicator to the shuttle. “Bryce, can you hear me? Bryce?” He glanced at a monitor that had a view of the roof of the building. “Look at that.”
Something black moved beside the sensors on the roof, stepping into the moonlight. It was big, probably as tall as Mac if it stood upright, but the shape of the hind legs suggested that would be an unnatural position. In fact, its entire shape was human enough to give everyone watching a chill. There were wings, large ones, extending up over the animal’s head, with a sharp claw at the tip. It turned and nearly faced the camera, showing off a human-like face with incredibly large, round, very black eyes.
“My God.” Ben leaned closer to the monitor. “Bryce’s demons, I presume?”
Mac’s jaw clenched as he examined the creature. Its skin appeared silky smooth, so black it nearly absorbed the light. A heavily muscled torso supported it easily, assisted by very strong legs that ended in sharp, fully extended claws matching those on the ends of each finger. With one incredibly fast leap, the animal vaulted into the air and was out of camera range before anyone could gasp.
“It’s knocked down some of the sensors.” Mac forced his jaw to relax and turned his attention back to the terminal in front of him. He couldn’t contact the shuttle, but he could scan it for heat traces. “Get Katherine up here to have a look at those things.” It took some adjusting, but when he scanned his home, he found a source of heat indicative of a human, in the lower section of the shuttle, right where Bryce’s room was. Mac breathed a sigh of relief, then turned back to the group. “Any idea how many we lost?”
“Twenty-six.” Lise stepped into the room, looking exhausted. “I’ve got three injured in med lab, they’ll be fine.” She shook her head sadly. “No one else made it inside.”
“I saw more than three wounded coming in.” Mac’s eyebrows creased as he mentally recalled his push through the corridors. There had been many more than just three, he was sure.
Lise shook her head. “There are quite a few in shock, about twelve needed medication to calm down. They were covered in blood, but not their own.”
Mac swallowed, trying to moisten a dry throat. So many things were beginning to make sense. Horrible, gut twisting sense. He turned back to the monitor and took control of a mobile light, scanning the courtyard. Black shapes moved around the area, some flying, some sitting on the ground. He could sense several people behind him, watching the monitor, as he zoomed the camera closer to one of the creatures.
“Oh my God!” a woman exclaimed, then made a muffled sound as if she was going to be sick, echoing his own momentary revulsion. “It — It’s eating them!”
Mac’s jaw clenched again and he forced himself to relax enough to look over his shoulder, catching Ben’s eye. “I think we’ve just answered some pretty big questions.”
Ben stepped closer. “The original colony?”
“I think so.”
“That would explain things.” He looked at the monitor again and swallowed hard. “They’re feeding. We’re just food to these things.”
“Having people back in these buildings again probably attracted them.” Lise joined them, looking at the creature on the monitor with a forced clinical detachment. “They’re certainly efficient. No wonder there weren’t any graves.”
“Do you think they only come out during the full moon, for some reason?”
Ben’s question sparked a thought. Mac reached over to a control, then moved one of the outside lights closer to the creature, turning the beam quickly so that it shined directly into its eyes. Immediately, the animal screeched and vaulted into the air. Seconds later, the light went out, having been smashed from the side by two other beasts.
“Extreme light sensitivity. That would explain the large eyes.” Katherine nodded, having entered the room in time to watch Mac’s experiment. “They have the look of those old statues that guarded castles in ancient Europe, don’t you think? Oh, what were they called?”
“You mean gargoyles?” Lise pondered for a moment.
“Yes. Gargoyles,” Katherine agreed. “Only they were fantasy. These little fellows are very, very real.”
“And very deadly.” Mac sighed. He knew it was a long shot, but he’d hoped the colony veterinarian would have recognized these animals and known instantly how to control them. Of course that was ridiculous.
“I’d have to get a closer look at one, but from what I can tell, they have an incredibly thick, tough hide. I saw a blast hit one with no effect.”
“It wasn’t a full charge.”
“Yes, Mac, but your weapon was. All you managed to do was knock one out of the air.”
“It wasn’t a clean hit, Ben. But I agree with Katherine, they’re pretty tough.”
“But sensitive to light, right?” Lise glanced from Ben to Katherine. “So they’ll be gone when the sun comes up?”
“I would assume they can only see by the light of the full moon. It would explain why we haven’t seen them before.”
“It explains a lot of things. Like why the original colonists built something to track the moon’s phase. Why there are no graves. Why the locks were all on timers, shutting this place down at sunset.” Ben shook his head. “My God.”
Mac sighed, rubbing his eyes. It explained the kid’s fears well enough. “No wonder Bryce couldn’t remember what happened.”
“I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a little boy, watching this.” Lise leaned against the console. “We had some warning, at least. Thanks to him. His group must have been caught completely off-guard.”
“Warning? You call twenty-six dead a warning?!” Rob stormed into the room, glaring at Lise. “He knew! All this time, he knew!”
“Eckland, calm down!” Ben commanded.
“He didn’t know anything.” Mac kept his voice quiet, almost cold. “He had fears that even he didn’t understand, with no memory or evidence to explain them.”
“And you believe that?”
Mac glared at Rob. He forced his jaw down hard, allowing the muscles on either side to bulge and move as he ground his teeth together minutely. He’d learned a long time ago that maneuver could set his opponent on guard, along with the pause the action provided. Without comment, he turned to face Ben. “We’re going to have to keep everyone inside at night, until we can work up some kind of defense.”
“We can’t kill them.” Katherine interjected. “No more than is necessary for defense.”
“Wait a minute!” Rob stepped closer, interrupting. “That kid caused twenty-six deaths tonight.”
“That kid,” Mac said, turning to look at Rob, “saved two hundred and seventy-four people tonight. You wanted answers, now you have them.” He pointed at the monitors, still showing dark shapes moving around the grounds. “Let’s see you live through that for twenty years. I’m curious as to how well you’d deal with it.”
“Rob, you’ve seen the reports. Memory loss, compounded by that. It’s no wonder Bryce couldn’t recall anything. Trying to force that trauma back on him . . . My God, when I think about what we nearly did that first night . . .” Lise shook her head.
“Katherine, how much can you learn by watching those creatures?” Mac changed the subject. He knew any further discussion with Rob would bring him close to decking the guy, and if he didn’t concentrate on something immediate . . . The revelation of what kind of life Bryce had endured was too intense to think about right now. His respect and brotherly concern for the young man had grown immensely in the span of a heartbeat.
“Quite a bit, but eventually I’ll have to get closer.”
“Not until we know more.” Mac sat against the console and watched Rob storm from the room, pushing through the small group listening to the community leaders discuss tonight’s horror.
“Well, we have nothing else to do tonight, that’s for sure.” Ben turned back to the monitor and sighed.
“Yeah.” Mac forced his jaw to relax, then closed his eyes for a moment.
They were stuck.
Sometime during the night, chairs were brought in, and cups of hot coffee were handed out. Every monitor in the complex scanned the area constantly, watching the movements outside, while rumors and vague theories spread through the colony like wildfire. Inside the com station, Mac made a habit of checking the shuttle’s heat source every half hour, still unable to make audio contact until the sensors could be repaired.
Mac ordered Brian to set up the weapons to charge up to full, then assigned him the duty permanently. There were no more outbursts from Rob or anyone else on the subject. Several people murmured now and again about how even they would have willingly repressed memories such as the horrors they’d just witnessed. Twice, Mac had to force back the urge to dash through the night, back to the shuttle, and see for himself if Bryce was all right. He felt guilty, and needed to apologize as much as he needed to reassure himself.
“You know something?” Mac looked up during a quiet moment when he and Katherine were the only two seated near the monitor. “As much as I hate to admit it, I have to thank that damned AI of his.”
“That Five unit? Thank it for what? From what I understand, it’s the reason there were no records.”
Rubbing his forehead with the fingers of his right hand, Mac nodded. “Yeah, it is.” He sighed and reached down to pick up his coffee cup. “But it also kept him alive for twenty years. Who would have thought a conniving, deceitful, totally out of control Artificial Intelligence Unit could use fear and intimidation to keep its own sole companion alive?”
“You mean, Five kept Bryce alive, so IT wouldn’t be left alone?”
Mac shrugged and Katherine sat back, pursing her lips thoughtfully.
“Right now, I don’t care how or why Five did what he did. I’m just grateful.”
“So am I.” Mac sighed deeply, then finished his coffee. So am I.