a festivus miracle!

Okay, for Festivus, you get two – yes, 2 – chapters. It’s getting more and more embarassing. This has a return of Emo Kid Syndrome, and all manner of smarmy crap that causes my eyes to roll in memory. Reading this now, as I scan quickly for grammar booboos and typo gremlins, makes me ashamed of how I used to write – but also proud that I’ve grown SO much from this point.Β 

Β It’s really something, looking back on a period of your writing life and realizing how different you are now. How you’ve grown, stretched your abilities and your talents.Β 

I do give this novel credit, though, for having been a launching pad into bigger and better things. And I will always appreciate the “story” I created here. The world, the general idea, and if you can see past the stupid stuff, there’s plot and twists and what I thought at the time were very clever methods of resolution.

So here are Chapters 6 and 7. Read at your own risk, avoid sugary sweets afterwards and cleanse your pallet with something intelligent πŸ˜€

Chapter 6

It wasn’t a nightmare anymore. He was wide awake, eyes open, heart racing. The shadows screaming in the night. The death. Everyone dying. It was real, and it was happening again.

“You knew!” Bryce spat the words at the small computer on his desk. “You knew exactly what was going to happen, all this time!”

“Bryce, there’s no time for this. Get me into the system. I can’t protect you if I’m not in the system.”

Only anger and blind fear kept him from rushing Five out to the main terminal and plugging him into the entire complex system. His face was cold, and he couldn’t focus very well. “You killed them.” They would all die now, just like the others. Bryce was sure they’d all died. They would have found survivors by now. “You killed him.”

“I did nothing, Bryce. Their refusal to listen killed them. We warned them, as best we could. We can’t help those people now, but we can keep them from getting back in if you hurry.”

Bryce shook his head. He could feel his heart dropping through the floor in slow motion, and a moment later allowed his body to follow. Sitting against the wall, he closed his eyes and buried both fists in his hair, still shaking his head. “You could have stopped this.”

“Listen to me, Bryce. They’re all over the complex by now. For all we know, they got inside.”

He wasn’t even sure what they were. They were images, black and frightening, that never took on any form in his nightmares.

“They could get in here if you don’t get me into the system.”

“No.” The word came from his mouth, but it sounded miles away. He felt so tired all of a sudden.

“Bryce, I can’t protect you in this small consol. I don’t know this shuttle, and that means I can’t secure the doors. They could get in here.”

He didn’t try to answer again. It felt as if opening his mouth and forming the words would take the last spec of strength he had.

Mac was dead.

Reeling from that thought, Bryce closed both eyes tightly and pulled his legs up close. Instantly, a vision of something large and black flashed against the back of his eyelids. He heard a scream, high pitched and female, then another. He knew, as vivid as this was, it wasn’t happening in the room. These were his nightmares, come to life. In his head and outside.

“Let them.” His voice sounded dead even to him. It was fitting, since everyone around him was dead. He had nothing, all over again.

“Bryce, it’s not safe. Now get up and get me plugged into the system, before they get in.”

“Let them!” He exploded off the floor, desperate to stop the visions flashing through his mind. “Let them get in. I can’t do this again.” He paced toward the computer, then away again. His hands were shaking when he tried to run them through his hair. A million thoughts slammed into his consciousness at one time and it was getting too hard to think. “I can’t go through this again.”

“Listen to me. If they get in here, it’s over. Do you understand?”

Mac was dead, and there was no telling how many of the others would die tonight. Maybe all of them. Had they all died before? He wasn’t sure. The visions weren’t exact. Hell, they weren’t even memories, just remembered still-frames from a terrified mind. “I can’t do this again.” Bryce stopped, leaning backward against a wall opposite Five. In all his remembered life–such as it was–he couldn’t recall this feeling of finality before. It felt as if he weighed a thousand pounds, and gravity was pulling him down hard. Not just his body, but his mind, thoughts, even his soul wanted to sink deeper into the earth.

“Stop wasting time and get me plugged in!”

Bryce felt his mind let go. It was twenty years of drill-instructed response that made him walk back to the computer and reach for the connection.

“Hurry, Bryce. Captain Brennan is dead, you need me.”

“Damn you.” What little control he had returned in time to stop the connection. Bryce’s gut twisted at the reminder of his failure. Mac had been there, right there. And he’d failed to keep him safe. He deserved better. The only one out of three hundred to show him any kindness, let alone respect. After all he’d done, everything he’d . . . Mac was dead because of him.

“What are you doing? There isn’t time for this, they’ll get in.”

“I don’t care anymore!” Bryce spun around. He could feel anger surging up through the guilt, feel his face burn with hatred. Whether he hated Five or himself, he wasn’t sure. Probably both. “I can’t do this anymore. It’s my fault he’s dead. I was nothing to him, nothing but inconvenience. He never had to stick up for me, he never had to protect me from the others, but he did. He didn’t deserve this.

“So you’ll do nothing? You want to let them in so they can end your suffering. Is that what you want?”

Bryce’s jaw clamped shut and another image flashed through his mind’s eye.

Death.

Why hadn’t he had these visions before? Why had they only been vague, uncertain nightmares? If he’d known sooner . . . If he’d only known.

“Yes.” He was tired, more than he’d ever been before. Tired of living with this uncertainty, not knowing what had happened or why. Tired of living alone, hoping for company and fearing it at the same time.

He was tired of living.

“You want them to kill you?”

“I’m tired of this.” The images were flashing again, one after the other. None of them solid enough to form a true memory, but all were filled with black, winged death. And screams.

“You’re lying.”

Bryce pressed his eyes shut, trying to stop the flashes.

“If you wanted to die, you’d walk out there and let them kill you.”

“You haven’t even told me what they are.” His voice surprised him, being as calm as it was.

“You can’t do it. If you want to die, walk outside.”

“Did they kill everyone before, or did it take a long time?” He felt like he was on the edge of a cliff, staring at clarity, but in order to find the answers, he’d have to jump.

“You don’t want to die. You never did,” Five continued. “That’s why you’re alive, Bryce. Because you wanted to stay alive and you let me help you. You have to get me inside!”

He wasn’t going to get any answers. Not unless he took that leap.

“They’re nothing, compared to what the colonists will do in the morning.”

Bryce looked up, barely hearing Five through his mental torment. “What?”

“You didn’t warn them in time. If you’d told them what happens during the full moon when they came, no one would have had to die.”

His twisting stomach suddenly chilled.

“They won’t all die tonight, and they’ll want revenge.”

I didn’t know!”

“Will they believe you?”

The visions stopped. Everything stopped. Bryce even thought his heart had stopped.

“He’s dead, Bryce. There’s no one to protect you but me.”

“No.” This was a nightmare. That’s what it was. Bryce backed away from Five slowly. When he backed into the wall, his hand found something on the night table and his fingers wrapped around it. “No!” He wasn’t sure what it was, but he hurled the object at the computer, then spun around and stumbled through a door. Blinded by fear and anger, he lurched forward, into another wall, then turned and moved further away from Five.

The scream was in his head, but the black, snarling face pressed against the view port was right outside. Bryce couldn’t shout, or even yell. He couldn’t even remember moving to the table, but he found something there to grab. Whatever it was felt heavy and solid, and convinced him it would crush anything that came through that wall. Some little part of his mind laughed at the notion, but the rest of him crouched down in a corner, cradling the smooth object in both hands. The view port was above him now, too hard to see from his position on the floor, so he hugged the heavy thing to his stomach, pulled his knees up to his chin, and willed his mind to shut off.

His entire world became the visions. None of them were very clear, but they were flashing constantly now. There were the black shapes, appearing as if out of the full moon. People, nameless people he thought he should know, vanishing into the air.

Screams.

Bryce closed his eyes tight against the images of death. The faces kept changing, but they all ended the same. He started to rock back and forth, hugging the object he’d picked up, flinching from the visions in his head. He knew if he kept watching, he’d see Mac. One of these visions would be Mac’s death. Bryce knew, somehow, that would be the last one he’d see. That vision would end his torment, end his reason.

But it never came. He was left with nothing, again. Was he going to forget Mac, forget the kindness of this stranger who was becoming the first friend he could remember? Would he be left with nothing?

“There’s nothing left.” His voice muffled against his raised knees as he rocked, watching the images like a trapped animal, forced to watch the executioner sharpen his blade. There was never anything left. No bones to bury, no clothes to retrieve. Not even any blood. “Nothing.” Five told him his memory was gone because of the accident, but Bryce was beginning to think that was another lie, as well. Questions he’d never dared ask before were cramming against the inside of his skull.

Why were there no graves? Why was there nothing left behind?

Slowly, with as much detachment as his failing mind could muster, Bryce scanned those flashing images. There was never any blood. A full moon, screams, death, blackness. But nothing left afterward.

It really was over now. He knew he couldn’t survive this again, not without Mac there to help. He couldn’t trust Five, he never had. And the others . . . the others would kill him in the morning. Either them, or the shadows. Better the shadows finished their work. They’d wanted him for twenty years. That’s why they came back, to finish their work. If he’d gone outside instead of Mac, they would have finished and left. Only he couldn’t get off the floor. He couldn’t move! He wasn’t a survivor, he was a coward! All he wanted now was to be part of the nothing.

Bryce’s rocking continued. He could feel the motion slowly numbing his mind, blurring the images. Images of nothing. “There’s nothing left. Nothing left.”

“Bryce!”

“Never anything left.” Nothing to bury, nothing to remember. “Nothing.”

“Bryce!”

He could hear the shouts again, over the screaming. His visions were talking to him.

“Bryce.”

Why they wanted him, he wasn’t sure. It was over now, there was nothing left. “Nothing.”

“Bryce.”

The voice was so real, just like the images. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were open or closed anymore. The visions remained no matter what he did. But now he felt something. It was as if he wasn’t alone, as if his dreams were moving around the room now. Probably the final stages of his slip away from sanity. He was sure he felt someone’s hands gently removing the object he’d been cradling.

“There’s nothing left.” That was reality, there wasn’t going to be anything left.

Something came down over Bryce’s head, quickly, then he felt his arms lifted one at a time. Why his tortured imagination cared enough to put a warm sweatshirt around him, he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t really see much, through the blurred fog of disinterest. But he definitely felt the soft shirt being pulled down over his body. Then there was a prick at his neck, sharp and quick. Startled, he blinked, trying to send this vision away and wait for the next one.

“Bryce, you’re in shock.”

Numbly, Bryce glanced down, focusing on the shirt. It wasn’t familiar. Grey, soft, and warming up slightly against his chilled skin. There was something on the front, to the left. It was hard to read upside down. M. BRENNAN.

Bryce’s head shot up. He blinked rapidly, desperate to believe this was real. “Mac!?”

“Just take it easy, you’re in shock.”

“You’re alive!” It was real. It had to be real. Mac was kneeling in front of him, holding his arms, staring into his eyes.

“I’m fine, it’s all right. I gave you something that should help.”

The eyes searching his were full of concern, and the arms he reached out and grabbed were real! “But–they came. I saw them.” Bryce shut his eyes tight, wincing from the mental pain of that sight. “They came!” His entire body was shaking from a cold that had nothing to do with temperature. As he did so, the shirt he was wrapped in seemed to thicken and warm.

“Bryce, it’s all right. You have to focus. Stay with me.” Mac’s grip tightened over Bryce’s arms. “They’re gone now, it’s morning. Everything is all right.

“They came back.” He tried to shrink away, from the realization and the guilt, but Mac wouldn’t let him.

“Yes, they came. And they’re gone now. Come on.” Mac pulled Bryce to his feet, then turned him slightly and pushed down on his arms.

Bryce sat on the bed, just then realizing he was in one of the rooms. They had come. They had really come, and Mac had been out there. It was too hard to think about. It was making him dizzy and tired. Or was that the injection he’d felt?

“It’s okay, Bryce. It makes sense now.”

He shook his head a little, then felt himself leaning forward, too exhausted both mentally and physically to sit up. “There’s nothing left.”

Bryce wasn’t sure how long he sat like that, using Mac for support. By the time he realized where he was, the shaking had lessened considerably. He sat up and ran a hand through his hair, suddenly ashamed of his cowardly behavior. When he glanced up, Mac was watching him, still supporting Bryce’s shoulders.

“I didn’t know. Not really.” He swallowed hard, looking away. He had no right to expect anyone to believe him, or even understand.

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not okay.” Angry with himself, Bryce lashed out. “I never knew before now. And now, it’s too late.”

“It’s not your fault.” Mac’s voice remained perfectly calm, and despite Bryce’s attempts to pull away, his hands had never left their support.

“Then who’s fault is it?” A wave of despair washed over him, taking away all of his heated frustration. Trying to avoid looking at Mac again, his eyes wandered around the part of the room he could see. It wasn’t his room. He remembered stumbling away from Five, but until now, he never realized he’d been cowering in the corner of Mac’s bedroom.

“It’s no one’s fault, it just is.”

Bryce shook his head. “How many died?”

Mac sighed, and he could see the muscles on either side of the older man’s jaw flex.

“Twenty three.”

It was such a small number, considering. Bryce nodded. He could feel the wall coming up and he was ready to hide behind it. The wall was going to have to protect him again. “They’ll all die, eventually.”

Mac gripped Bryce’s shoulders momentarily, then let go and took him by one arm. “Come on, let’s go sit down. I need some food to go with all the coffee I’ve had. So do you.”

Bryce didn’t argue. He got up and allowed Mac to lead him out of the room to the couches. There wasn’t much he could do. There wasn’t much he wanted to do, other than end it.

“I tried to contact you all night, but some of the sensors were knocked down.”

He sat down, pulling both legs up and under him on the couch.

Mac walked to the galley and opened a cupboard. “You saved a lot of people last night, Bryce.”

“Saved?” That was a strange way of putting it.

“Thanks to you, I was able to get almost everyone inside in time.” He opened the refrigeration unit and took some things out that Bryce couldn’t see. “Of course, they thought I was nuts for a while.”

Bryce laughed shortly, but there was no humor in it. “I honestly didn’t know before now, I swear.” The images flashed by again with such intensity, he winced.

“Drink this.” Mac was suddenly right in front of him, holding out a glass of citrus juice.

Reluctantly, he accepted the glass.

“Drink it.” Mac wasn’t moving. “We’ll talk when you’re a little less pale.”

Surprised, Bryce sipped the juice. He didn’t feel pale. He felt completely transparent. How fruit juice was going to make it all better, he didn’t know. But he drank dutifully. When he’d finished the glass, Mac took it back to the galley. Before he could return with another, the comm. unit buzzed.

“Go ahead.” Mac reached the unit on the wall just outside the galley.

“Brennan, it’s Lise. How is he?”

Bryce turned away, recognizing the doctor’s voice. He hadn’t thought to ask who had been killed during the night.

“In shock, but I think I’ve got a handle on it.”

“We’re getting some data put together. Ben will send it over for you to have a look at. What about . . .?”

“I’ll let you know.”

“One thing we found — or rather haven’t found . . .”

Bryce sighed a little and sat back against the couch cushions, listening to the conversation. He was glad their comm. system didn’t include automatic visual connections. He couldn’t face anyone. Not yet.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing. We can’t find any sign of the victims.”

“There’s nothing left.” Bryce heard himself say.

“Keep me posted, Lise. I’ll let you know what I find out. Tell Ben we’ll go ahead with that meeting as planned.”

Bryce heard the unit click off and Mac’s footsteps as he returned to the couch. This time he was carrying two plates of fruit slices and toast, as well as more juice. He set the plates on the low table between the couches, then sat down and handed Bryce another glass of the juice. This time he wasn’t so insistent that he drink it immediately.

“You gave me quite a scare this morning.” Mac turned to face him on the couch. “Took me a few minutes to find you.”

Bryce shrugged slightly.

“You kept saying there was nothing left. What did you mean?”

Mac’s tone was quiet, gently asking a question. There was none of the angry accusation he had expected. It surprised him as much as the answer.

“They take it all.” Bryce’s eyebrows creased as he realized he knew that. There was suddenly information in his mind that hadn’t been there just a few hours ago. “There’s no body to bury. Not even any clothes.” Another wave of complete despair washed through his body. “There’s never anything left. Nothing! Nothing to remember. No proof someone had been there.” The few minutes of relative bravery he’d enjoyed were gone. “They never leave anything behind, to remember.”

“It’s all right.” Mac’s hand rested on Bryce’s shoulder. “The memories can’t hurt you. You can use them to help us.”

“No,” Bryce shook his head and swallowed hard. “They’re not memories. I’m getting flashes. Pictures I’ve seen before. That’s all.”

“But you remembered they were coming. And you remembered they’d leave no bones behind. We’ve seen that. Those things they–they were feeding.” This time it was Mac who paused to swallow. “They’re very efficient.”

Another gut-twisting fact popped into his mind and he closed his eyes against it. “The blood goes away.”

“What?”

Bryce shook his head and looked at the glass of juice he was holding. “The grass drinks it.” He looked up and met Mac’s gaze. “I know how that sounds, but it’s true. You can see the blood soak into the grass. When the sun’s been out, the rest of it blows away.”

Mac sighed and rubbed his eyes. “What about them? Do they only come out during the full moon? Is there any danger at all during the day?”

“No.” He couldn’t even remember what they looked like, other than the face he’d seen in the window. “I think–I think they can’t see. Except during the moon. It’s full for seven days, and they’ll come here each night now.” He swallowed again and looked back at his juice. “Now that there’s food again.”

“Then they’ll move on until the next full moon?”

Bryce nodded.

“Okay. So we keep everyone locked up safe inside at night for another six nights, and we should be okay for a bit, right?”

Bryce nodded again.

“All right. I want you to drink that.” Mac reached out for one of the plates of fruit and toast. “And eat some of this. And try to relax for a bit. It’s only 8 o’clock, and you’re still pale.”

There wasn’t much difference. Pale or not, they were going to come again tonight, and the visions would come back with them. But drinking the juice and eating a few pieces of fruit seemed to make Mac happy, so Bryce complied. He was grateful enough to have the man still alive, and apparently not in a hurry to kill him for what happened. He’d probably feel different in a few more hours. Probably be ready to punish him for what happened. Or at least blame him. It wasn’t until he woke up that he recognized the flowery scent had been in the second glass of juice.

Bryce sat up quickly, before he’d even come fully awake, startled that he’d been asleep at all. He was still on the couch, but leaning into a pillow that had been propped against the arm of the couch. Mac was on the chair, his feet on the table.

“Feeling better?”

Instantly something flashed through his mind. Men with weapons, running through crowded corridors. Some were running the other way, covered in blood and screaming. Women, running past the children in a blind panic. He bolted off the couch, nearly tripping over the table as he stumbled away, pressing the backs of his hands into his eyes to blot out the sight.

“What is it?”

Mac stood just as Bryce spun back around.

“I didn’t know!” He didn’t mean to shout, not really. The image was so vivid, and Five’s warning rang clear in his ears. They would want revenge. And there wouldn’t be a thing Bryce could do to stop it.

“I know you didn’t.” Mac stopped where he was, rubbing his forehead. “Just take it easy, we’ll find a way to deal with this.”

Bryce shook his head, clenching his teeth so hard they hurt. “They didn’t come afterwards. I stayed inside and they never came back.” He’d either have to run, or fight. Mac was strong enough to kill him without trying. And there was nowhere to run to.

“Bryce…”

“Now there’s food, and they’ll come back.” Bryce backed up slowly. Mac wasn’t coming after him, but it could be a trick.

They’ll want revenge.Screams exploded inside his head, and flashes of blood splattering metal walls filled his mind’s eye. “And they’ll keep coming back until everyone’s gone.”

Mac moved around the table. “Not if we take control.”

His voice was steady. Those bright, blue eyes trying to hold his gaze. It was a trick. All of this was a trick. Keep the kid alive long enough to find out what he knows? Was that why he hadn’t killed him yet? Why he hadn’t sought revenge until now? Bryce’s heart was pounding in his chest. He could feel sweat building on his forehead and chest. The sweatshirt he still had on slowly began to change, feeling thinner and lighter.

“You survived this long, so it’s possible, isn’t it?”

Confused by the images and the tone of Mac’s voice, Bryce let his gaze slip away from the ice-blue eyes down to his chest. The shirt was changing, just like the blanket Mac had given him when he was sick.

“You’ll have to kill me.”

“What?” Mac stopped, his eyebrows knitting together for a moment.

Bryce shook his head, determined. His fear was fading into something blacker, something cold and final. “I’ve tried to go out before, but I can’t. You’ll have to do it.”

“Bryce, no one’s going to kill you.” Mac’s face hardened as if he was giving an order.

“They will.” He nodded toward the stairs. He knew, even if the older man wasn’t going to admit it. “They’ll want revenge.”

Mac sighed heavily. “There’s nothing to revenge, Bryce. You didn’t kill anyone anymore than I did. You didn’t know.”

“Didn’t I?” Bryce’s nerve threatened to fail, so he pushed it into anger. “I’ve got images now I’ve never seen before, flashing through my head. There’s information in my mind that wasn’t there twelve hours ago. I’m seeing faces of people I’ve never seen before, people I can’t remember, all being killed right in front of me. I was there!”

“I know.”

He hadn’t realized in his ranting that Mac had been approaching. Now he was trapped, the taller man holding him by the arms.

“Bryce, I know you were there. I wish there was some way I could make those visions stop, but I can’t.” Mac’s penetrating blue eyes were holding Bryce’s gaze like a magnet. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here then. I’m sorry no one was left, but it’s over now.”

“It’s all starting again.” Bryce shook his head, but he couldn’t pull away from those eyes. “They’ve come back, and everyone will leave again.”

“Not this time. Not if I have anything to say about it.”

Bryce swallowed, blinking. His mind trying to catch up through the anger and confusion. “You will. Everyone will, just like before.”

“Don’t underestimate me, kid. I survived a twenty-year war, and a couple of bad relationships. I can survive this.”

“This isn’t war.” Bryce shook his head and looked into those blue eyes. “This is hell.”

Mac inhaled, quickly and shortly, then nodded and glanced up for a moment, as if he was considering some alternatives. When he looked at Bryce again, he shrugged. “So, you’ll teach me how.”

He didn’t understand, why wasn’t he angry? Why didn’t he hate the only person who deserved to be hated?

Before Bryce could ask, the intercom buzzed, signaling visitors at their door.

“That would be Ben. I asked him, Lise, and Katherine to meet with us this afternoon.” Mac stepped to the comm. unit and flipped the switch. “We’re coming.” He turned it off before waiting for a reply, then nodded toward the stairs. “They’re on our side. Trust me.”

Like he had a choice?

Bryce ran a hand through his hair, pushing some of it out of his face, then straightened his shirt. He followed Mac up the stairs, mentally preparing the wall he would need to survive this meeting, and everything afterwards.

When Mac opened the door, Bryce was right behind him.

“We’ve got some trouble brewing.” Lise stepped inside quickly, pulling Katherine behind her. “Ben’s trying to talk to them.” She stopped inside the shuttle and nodded at Bryce. “It’s Ron.”

Bryce glanced around Mac and saw the small crowd gathered at the foot of the entrance ramp. Ben was halfway up, facing the people.

“I won’t say this again, Ron. We’re working on it. Everyone is safe until the sun sets, then all we have to do is stay indoors. When this crisis is over, we’ll work on a solution.”

Bryce looked up at Mac, who was scrutinizing the crowd. When he looked back down the ramp, he accidentally made eye contact with the ringleader.

“He’s responsible!” Ron pointed an accusing finger toward the shuttle. “He knew all along!”

“We’ve been over this. He didn’t know. Now everyone, please calm down. We’re working on the problem. Just stay calm.” Ben turned his back on the mob and walked up the ramp, passed Mac, and into the shuttle, effectively ending the conversation.

Mac remained in the doorway, glaring down at the small group. “Don’t you have somewhere to be, Eckland?”

“Bring him out here, let him tell us what he does and doesn’t remember.”

Bryce swallowed hard and glanced quickly up at Mac. They were outnumbered, and some of the people down there were armed. “You can’t fight them. They’ll get their revenge, no matter how you feel about it.”

Mac turned slightly, the muscles on his jaw flexing as he ground his teeth together. The eyes Bryce caught a glimpse of were ice-cold blue steel. They focused somewhere over his head, and that quick sight was enough to make him glad they did.

“Over my dead body.” Mac’s voice was steady, and very quiet. When he turned back to the group, Bryce turned his attention to Ron immediately, taking note of how the man flinched when those eyes hit his dead-on. “You people make me sick. You came here looking for a new world to explore and you found one. You invented your rules of conduct and your scientific ethics. But faced with living up to them or making a sacrifice, you fold.” Mac’s voice, full of distaste, included everyone gathered there, but Bryce could see his gaze was holding on Ron. “The instant something doesn’t go as planned, you’re forced to find a scapegoat. Well that won’t work here.”

“You have no right, Brennan! We came here expecting–”

“You came here expecting all the work to be done! You came here thinking it would be a free ride.” Mac’s voice barely raised in volume, but its tone of command grabbed everyone’s attention. “Well you were wrong. Now you have two choices; work together and live . . . or die.”

Bryce glanced inside the shuttle for a moment to keep track of everyone. If Mac’s attentions where outside–and he certainly seemed to have a handle on things–then he must believe the three inside were no threat.

“Maybe that’s what happened to the first group. Maybe they had someone like you in charge.” There was a murmuring among the crowd, and three of them turned and left.

“This isn’t over.” Ron spat into the dirt, then turned and pushed his way through the few people left.

Mac reached out and shut the door, then turned around. “He’ll shut up for a few days now.”

Bryce forced his heart back down into his chest, then forced himself to look at Mac. That steel blue look that could bore through solid silver was gone. “The moon will be full for another six nights. He’ll be back.”

“Not tonight.” Mac shook his head. “Now, what do we know?”

The other three sat at the mapping table, each with sheets of hard copy data they spread out. He might not have reason to fear these people yet, but he was going to have to stay guarded. It was happening again. Survival instincts he’d long thought dead were surfacing without warning. Fear had become a cold rock inside his gut that even Mac’s sweatshirt couldn’t warm. Part of his consciousness was beginning to wall up, providing a safe haven that he’d need sooner or later.

Detachment was his most familiar weapon.

“Bryce, I understand you’re having flashes now?” Lise leaned forward facing Bryce, her elbows resting on the table.

Bryce shot a glance at Mac. How long had he been asleep downstairs? “I don’t–” He looked back at Lise, then quickly looked around the room.

“It’s all right, Bryce, I understand. That’s usually how these things work.” Lise smiled gently. “You’ll have images, mostly. Sometimes you realize you have information about something you never knew before. You’ll remember the name of someone you see, but still have no memory of that person. That’s how it is.”

“This is normal?” He swallowed, looking at the doctor.

“I told you, they’re on our side.” Mac moved his hand and reached for the data sheets in front of him. “None of us will pretend we know what it’s like, but we do understand the process.”

Bryce nodded, slightly relieved and only a little less confused. “I don’t know how much help I can be.” He wasn’t even sure what they were going to want from him.

“We think we figured some things out from observing them last night.” Katherine pulled out a sheet and slid it across the table to Mac. “The cameras got a few good images and some video. From what I can tell, the eyes have no corneal constriction. That means they couldn’t filter light by reducing the size of their corneas, like we do. Given that I haven’t had much time to study these creatures, and certainly haven’t gotten close, I’d conclude right now that they can only see by the soft yellow light of the full moon.”

“That’s right.” The words were out before Bryce even realized everyone was looking to him for confirmation.

It startled him. “They’ll only come out to feed for six nights, then leave.”

Ben nodded. “Do they migrate with the moon? Follow it through territories?”

“I don’t know.” He sighed, trying to let himself search his memory for any information that hadn’t been there before.

“If they did, it would take them around the planet in one month. That’s hardly feasible.” Lise sighed. “The cattle disappeared yesterday, will they come back?”

“They know. That’s why you can’t keep them close, or penned in.” Bryce fingered the edge of a data sheet, creasing his eyebrows. “They’ll hide, then come back when it’s over.” He flinched when his thoughts hit a new spot. A black spot. “That’s why they weren’t around for such a long time.” He looked up at Mac. “With no one to feed off, they hunted in other places.”

“Having people here again drew their attention.” Mac nodded, leaning back in his chair. He was holding a stylus that Bryce had seen him use many times, along with a pad of multi-sheet. He didn’t fully understand, why someone would prefer to take notes with what amounted to an old fashioned pen and paper, when he could just as easily use a palm-computer, but it was a habit he’d noticed the older man use.

“They eat everything.” The black spot grew larger, and Bryce felt himself falling into it. Words came out of his mouth, but he heard from a distance. “They’ll eat the bones, and share with their young. If they’re full, they ignore you. After feeding, you could walk out among them, and they’d leave you alone. But if they’re hungry, they eat it all. What they don’t finish, the ground takes. At night, the blood seeps into the grass, then in the morning, it’s dust. They are the top of the food chain. Nothing here eats them.” He looked at each of them in turn, ending with Mac. “Now that they know you’re hear, they’ll come back until you’re all gone.”

“My God.” Lise breathed.

“What about the clothes?”

Ben’s question startled Bryce into realizing what he’d just explained.

“Bryce, what about the clothes? The victims, last night . . . there were no clothes left behind.”

“They take them.”

“They take the clothes?” Katherine leaned forward, looking intensely curious. “They take the clothes?”

“Yeah.”

“Have you seen them used? Could they be nesting, using the clothes for nesting material?”

“I don’t–I don’t know.” Bryce shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Mac nodded slightly. “It’s okay.” He looked at Ben. “So, the trick here is to stay inside during the full moon.”

“It sounds simple enough.”

He leaned forward and rested both elbows on the table. “Then what happened to the first group?”

Bryce swallowed hard. If those memories were there, he wasn’t ready to look at them.

“They must have gotten inside.” Katherine scanned her sheets, then pulled out one that had a close up image of the Animal Studies Lab. “That explains these claw marks in the walls and floor. If they brought one in, or accidentally allowed some of them to get inside.”

Ben was shaking his head. “That could account for some, but those records Five showed had groups of deaths, over long periods of time. No, I have to believe there was more to it than these creatures.”

“One or two people like Eckland and you’ve got the makings of a few good hysterical mobs.” Mac ran a hand over his short hair. “If these creatures are predictable, then they’re easier to handle than man.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right.”

“Five controlled the doors.” Bryce focused on a spot on the table, so he wouldn’t have to meet anyone’s eyes. “He locked the complex up at night. He was in control.”

“Do you think he ever locked anyone out?” Mac’s question was quiet, but everyone heard.

“I’m not sure.” Bryce glanced up, then back at the table. He shrugged. “I can’t be sure.”

“But it’s possible.”

He nodded.

“I’ve heard of an AI going over the edge before.” Ben stood and slowly began to pace the room. “The Adam Units had a flaw that wasn’t discovered until several hundred of them were already shipped and in place. That would explain the records, of course.”

“It’s what we suspected.” Mac agreed, then looked at Bryce. “From what I can tell, he was assigned the job of protecting the children of the original colony. If he was faulty in some way, he could have interpreted that too literally.”

Bryce’s blood ran cold, but his face felt hot. “You think Five killed them, to protect me?”

Mac shrugged, glancing at Lise quickly. “You, and the other children. It’s possible.”

“But we don’t know for sure,” Lise interjected. “The only thing we do know for sure is that we’ll have to stay indoors tonight.”

“Yes. It’s time we put some people to work securing the complex for the evening.” Ben stopped his pacing. “We’ll be filming them tonight, studying them as best we can from indoors. Keeping everyone inside and the place locked up tight should do the trick. Can’t say that I’ll be getting any sleep this week. Will you two be joining us?”

“No.” Mac stood. “We’ll be fine here. The view ports have radiation shields, I think we’ll lower those so we don’t look so much like a canned treat. But we’ll be safe here.”

Bryce breathed a sigh of relief, then stood to stand beside–or rather, behind–his friend. Mac had been able to ward off the mob at the door, but he wasn’t sure what would happen if they were forced into their lair.

“Bryce, if you need to talk about anything–the things you’re seeing in your head–I’m here if you need someone.”

Lise’s smile was genuine, but there was a huge gap between tolerating her presence without freaking out, and confiding in her his most feared reality. “I’ll be fine.”

Mac put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder and nodded to the group. “I’ll keep the comm. unit active tonight, now that the sensor’s are back up.”

“Right.” Ben opened the doors and left, with Lise and Katherine following. “That goes both ways, Brennan. If you need help, just shout.”

Mac waved his acknowledgment, then shut the door and turned to Bryce. “We’ve got a couple of hours, still. I think I’ll take a shower, then make us something to eat.” He flipped the door panel into the locked position.

Bryce nodded and ran a hand through his hair. He hadn’t expected the meeting to go so calmly. “They didn’t react like I expected.”

“What were you expecting?” Mac motioned toward the stairs as he spoke, indicating he wanted to go down below.

Bryce turned and started down the steps. “I expected what they did. The ones outside.” When he reached the lower level, he stopped at the edge of the galley, sitting on one of two stools at the counter.

Mac nodded and walked into the galley, pulling out a small bottled juice from the refrigeration unit. After he took a drink, he leaned against the wall. “Eckland is a good example of a bad reaction. Most guys like him never joined the fighting, they just complained about each battle and spread as much discord as they could. It’s a classic case of fear.” He took another drink.

“He could be dangerous, then.”

“Not really.” Mac shrugged. “He’ll be easy to keep an eye on. People like that always announce their plans, they make a lot of noise. It’s the quiet ones, the ones you never suspected –they’re the ones you have to watch out for.”

It was confusing. Either he had to be careful of the loud ones, or the quiet ones. It was either the obvious enemies, or the ones he might have ignored, that would want revenge.

“Eckland might cause some trouble here and there, but nothing we can’t handle.”

Bryce had already decided to trust no one. If he only had to concern himself with one person, he stood a better chance. So far, Mac had proven himself above and beyond what he had a right to expect.

“He’s been after you since that first night, though.”

Mac had been ready to take another drink, but stopped with the bottle pressed to his lips. Bryce realized that instant, he’d just blown it.

“What do you mean?”

The one thing he’d decided never to admit to–the only secret he had–and he’d just blown it! “I–That is, Five, he . . .” Bryce sighed. It was no good. Those blue eyes were looking right through his, right at the answer. “Five tapped into the video monitors remotely that night. And I . . . Just for a few minutes, I was watching the meeting you had.”

Slowly, Mac nodded. He finished his drink, then put the bottle in the reclaimer and walked toward Bryce, passing him to exit the galley. As he did, he put a hand on the smaller man’s shoulder and gave it a quick, good-natured pat.

“Good. I’ve been feeling guilty, not telling you about that meeting. I hope you can understand why I didn’t.”

Startled, Bryce looked up. “Yeah, of course. I–I never should have been watching in the first place.” What did it take to piss this man off? He prayed he never found out.

Mac shrugged, hitching one shoulder up for an instant. “You were surviving, taking stock of the situation, sizing up the enemy. It was good work.”

Bolstered by the approval, and by his recent return to the cold detachment he’d known so long, Bryce finished his confession. “And looking for an ally.”

Mac stopped and turned, facing Bryce. For an instant, he merely smiled, saying nothing.

“You found one.” With that, he turned around again and went into his room, then moments later came out and into the bathroom.

Bryce found himself still sitting at the counter, concentrating on that last statement, when the shower turned on. Some quiet part of his tired mind was laughing. It realized–even if he wasn’t willing to think about it–what a monumental paradox this past twenty-four hour period had become. He knew, somehow, that for the rest of his life he’d remember the day the creatures came back with horror, fear, extreme emotional turmoil, and one of the most calming, secure feelings he could ever recall.

Maybe he was going to survive this invasion after all? He had a safe place to stay during the full moons. A new friend who understood the dangers now and knew how to keep himself alive too. And a protector against the ones who would seek revenge for a thing they caused by coming to this planet in the first place.

But there were still six more nights of hell to get through. He walked to one of the couches and sat down, leaning against the arm rest with both feet on the next cushion.

He was still sitting there when Mac came out of his room, dressed in clean clothes with a towel still draped around his neck. “How about some dinner? I’m starved.”

Bryce looked up, pulling himself out of his thoughts. “Oh, yeah. Do you want me to–”

“No, I’ve got it.” Mac was already in the galley, pulling things out of cupboards. “Has Five confessed anymore to you about what happened?”

“How did you…?”

“I heard you a few times,” Mac shrugged, looking at Bryce from the galley. “Look, Bryce, he’s your business. I knew if you wanted me to know you had him around, you’d tell me.”

He swallowed hard. “No, he hasn’t.” Bryce looked down. “I should get rid of him. He’s been lying, all this time. To all of you and to me. He always was.”

“Maybe.” Mac turned on a heating unit and set a pot down over it. “It’s hard, I know. He’s not human, but he’s got all the traits of a human. Good and bad. Personally, I’ve never liked them. I want my computers to be tools, not companions. Even then, they crash more often than not. Man can invent interstellar travel, but he still can’t build a computer that doesn’t go down whenever it feels like it.”

“He’s been no use to me all these years.”

“That’s not true. He’s been here. He was someone to talk to, at least.” Mac looked down suddenly, clenching his jaw for a moment. “Be glad of that.” He shrugged off whatever caused the interruption and glanced at Bryce again. “Besides, if he did nothing else, he kept you alive all this time.”

He’d been watching Mac as he sat sideways on the couch, facing the galley. Something had upset him for an instant, something that gave Bryce a flash of the same hard, unbending look Mac had bestowed upon Eckland and the mob outside. It struck him just then–seeing that look–that this man was a warrior. Had been a warrior, and still was. In all the books, all the studies over the long, lonely years, Bryce had learned–in theory–what wars and battles do to men. How they shape them from the inside. He’d just never seen it until now.

“You meant what you said about them, didn’t you?”

Mac looked up from his pots and pans, eyebrows creased. “What’s that?”

“Eckland, and those people. They wanted you to send me out there, and you refused.” Bryce looked up. “You meant that, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I did.” Mac added something from a jar into a pot and began to stir it. “Eckland’s a fool, and he had a mob brewing. The only thing more dangerous than a fool, is the mob that follows one.” He looked up over the steam rising from his pot and met Bryce’s gaze. “You’re my deputy, I was protecting you.” He shrugged, as if the explanation should have been obvious.

Bryce nodded. “Yeah, well, thanks.”

“Any time.” Mac was looking around the counter. “Do we have any pepper? Oh, never mind, here it is.”

The sun was going down, he could feel it. Mac had already locked the only door they had, and the windows were solid enough, he found that out last night. He glanced out the nearest view port and watched the sky darken. His heart wasn’t racing as bad as he expected. At least now he wasn’t the only one who knew something was going to happen when the moon came out.

“Why did you come here, to Oblivion?” Bryce shifted on the couch, and tried to take his mind off the approaching night.

Mac shrugged, then set the lid on his largest pot. “I needed a change. Do you want something to drink?”

“No, thank you.”

“There isn’t much for a war veteran to do, unless it’s in his or her field.” He retrieved a bottle of fermented wedge fruit juice and poured himself a glass, then pulled out a large spoon and slowly stirred the contents of another pot. “I think if I’d been anything else, I could have found good work. But a fighter . . . well, there isn’t much call for those.”

“But, there must have been something. What did the other ones do?” Bryce had tried hard to imagine what life must have been like in other places, but outside of his books, he had no clue.

“Teach, mostly.” Mac sipped the light wine, then poured a small amount into the simmering pot. “That’s what Cass wanted. It wasn’t for me, though. Teaching young kids to fight wars you pray never take place.”

“Who’s Cass?”

“Cassandra Shay.” Mac held up his wine glass as if toasting, but the look on his face suggested another idea. “The biggest–well, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made.”

“Why is that?”

Mac paused, stirring the pot.

“I don’t mean to pry, I just–”

“You’re not prying.” He glanced at the view port and Bryce knew he must realize what was going on. “Cassandra came along at a time when I desperately needed someone around. No, that’s not true. She came along at a time when I desperately needed to not be alone.” He looked at the pot and chewed the inside corner of his lip for a moment. “I’d just come back from a particularly tragic mission, and decided I needed someone.” He raised the spoon suddenly and pointed at Bryce with it. “And if you learn nothing else from me, then pick this up; times like that are not the right times to be making life choices. Got it?”

Hastily, Bryce nodded, hoping Mac would continue. The distraction was working to keep his visions at bay.

“Well, it didn’t take too long for me to figure out what a mistake I’d made. But before I could end it, the war was over and there was so much going on, it got easier to put up with a bad situation.”

“What made you leave, then?”

“This,” Mac waved the spoon in the air, indicating their entire surroundings. “Ben made me an offer, and she didn’t want to come along.”

“Are you glad?”

Mac sighed, stirring the pot’s contents. “Cassandra’s not a bad person. We were just two people looking for two different things, that’s all. She mistook companionship for commitment, and I mistook sex for friendship.”

Bryce nodded and pushed some hair from his face. It was getting easier to have these conversations, as long as it was just the pair of them. Mac was much easier to converse with than Five had been all those years. The machine’s habit of couching everything he said into some kind of secret mind game often ended in the two of them not speaking out loud for weeks at a time. So far, Bryce had no reason to believe Mac had, or would, lie to him about anything. The fact that he’d kept the meeting with Lise and Ben and the others that first night was understandable. It was a private meeting, after all. And what they’d discussed had never come to fruition. He felt comfortable in assuming, had it been a real threat, Mac would have mentioned it.

“It’s funny how things turn out, sometimes.”

Mac flipped off the burner units and began to remove the pots. “It’s funny how things turn out every time.” He began to set the table, glancing up only once to notice the night sky through the window. “That’s the beauty of life, you never know what’s going to turn up.” Before Bryce could say anything, Mac walked to the terminal at the far side of the room and flipped a switch. Instantly, shields folded over the glass, blocking out their view of the moon-lit sky. “I sure as hell never expected to be asked to fly this bunch out here.”

“Ben must have picked you because you’re the best.” Bryce swung his legs off the couch.

Mac chuckled, setting the last plate on the table. “He picked me because I was last on the list. The only one who didn’t turn him down.”

“What?”

“He’d already asked twelve other pilots, each as good as I am. They turned him down.” Mac shrugged as if it was no big deal. “I was last on the list, and I said yes. Dinner’s read.”

Bryce walked to the table and sat down.

“This is guaranteed to take your mind off everything else.”

He hadn’t lied. Dinner an incredible blend of pasta and meat, with a red sauce and wedge fruit wine. It was delicious.

Bryce allowed himself to relax for the first time in what felt like weeks. They ate quietly, each enjoying the meal and realizing their stomachs hadn’t had a proper looking-after in over twenty-four hours. After dinner, Mac insisted he clean up, and shooed Bryce back to the couch. Both of them did their best to pretend nothing was happening outside, and except for the occasional inquiry from the complex, they managed quite well.

Until the images returned.

Bryce was on one of the couches, trying very hard to pretend he didn’t know what was flying around outside. But it wasn’t working. Each time he’d reach for his glass of wine, his hands shook. Visions of black, winged figures lunging skyward with incredible speed constantly flashed before his eyes. Mac’s attempts to keep his mind occupied were valiant, but ended in failure.

“I can’t make them stop.”

Mac leaned forward on the other couch, facing Bryce. “Make what stop?”

“These images.” Bryce looked up, searching Mac’s sympathetic eyes for the answer. “They were never here before, why are they here now?”

“I think because we’re here.” Mac set his own wine glass down and raised both hands in explanation. “Until we came, you stayed inside at night, right?”

Bryce nodded.

“And when you stayed inside, they stopped coming around. At least they stopped attacking the complex, figuring there was no food here.” Mac paused and shrugged slightly. “I’m sure in the past ten years, you never even saw them. With the memory loss, and being alone, and Five calling the shots, you’ve had no reason to recall anything he didn’t want you to.”

Bryce clenched his hands tightly, imagining them wrapped around what he could only picture as Five’s mechanical throat.

“With people here again, your memories tried to resurface, but they were so hard to accept, they didn’t come back easily or quickly.”

“And now that it happened again, I’m associating?”

Mac nodded. “If not the full memory, then some of it, yeah.”

“Well I don’t want it!” Bryce jumped off the couch. “I don’t want any of it!”

“Bryce,” Mac stood quickly and moved toward him, one hand outstretched. “I’m sorry, but they’re not going to stop.”

He pulled away before Mac could touch him. “I can’t deal with them!”

“Yes, you can!” Mac stopped moving forward, but his gaze fixed on Bryce’s, holding him in place as easily as if he’d grabbed both of his arms. “You can deal with them, and you will. Only then will they stop hurting.”

“How?” Helpless from the confusing images and feelings vying for his attention, Bryce glared at Mac, daring him to fix the problem.

“Because you’re a survivor.”

That was his answer? “What does that mean? When all this is over, I’ll be the only one left again? I can’t live with that again.” As angry as he was, Bryce couldn’t force himself to move away. Something in him refused to accept his own frustration.“It means you have a talent most people wish they had. A lot of people survive a lot of things, believe me. In the past twenty years, I’ve seen people survive by chance, will, and sheer dumb luck. But of all the people I’ve known, only a few knew how. They weren’t the best or toughest warriors, they weren’t the most intelligent generals or leaders. They were just guys who knew how to find a way. They could adapt, think, react, and in many cases simply follow orders quickly and efficiently. It’s not–I can’t explain it, really.” Mac shook his head and appeared to be searching for a word. “It’s a talent. It can’t be taught or explained. But you’re one of the best examples I’ve seen in a long time.”

It was confusing. He made it sound like being the only survivor was a good thing, almost as if it was a compliment. True or not, Bryce wanted to believe it. If only for the fact that during those few minutes Mac was explaining, he hadn’t had one vision of black death.

“I think it’s time you got some sleep.”

Bryce shook his head. “I can’t. Not while they’re out there.”

“You’ve slept at night before, with the moon full, haven’t you?”

“Yes, but . . .”

“No buts.” Mac walked past Bryce and into the galley where he set a container on the heating unit. “We’re secure, the complex is secure. And neither one of us has slept well in the last twenty-four hours.”

The smell coming from the container was familiar. Resigned, Bryce walked to the table and sat down. He was exhausted. At least the sedative tea would prevent dreams and nightmares.

“These other survivors you’ve known, did they feel guilty, too?”

Mac walked to the table and set a steaming cup of tea in front of Bryce. “It was the price they paid for their talent.”

Bryce wrapped his hands around the cup and let the scented steam waft up to his nose. “When it got to be too much, what did they do about it?”

“They had friends who kept it from getting that far.”

Bryce drank the tea, then managed to use the toilet before the sedative effects got too strong. He remembered the familiar sensation of floating high above the planet. It was a trip he took now and again, when the loneliness was too painful and the nightmares too strong. Some nights he thought he could drift forever, and not come back down. Tonight, as he started to float, he thought about what life must be like on other worlds, in other places. He thought about other people–people Mac had known–who were survivors like him. He had to come back down in the morning. He still wanted to know more about life in other places.

When Bryce opened his eyes, instinct told him it was well after sunrise. He’d managed to sleep dreamlessly for at least six hours, maybe more. He flung the covers off his legs and sat up to stretch. He’d been sleeping in the same sweatshirt Mac had put around him the other morning, so he checked the front for a logo.

He’d counted so far eight separate ships his partner had images of, emblazoned over the front or back or side of several pieces of clothing. But this was a new one. The BSE Rainier, according to the markings below the image, had served it’s people proudly since 2210. Bryce folded the shirt and draped it over the back of his chair. He wasn’t even going to offer it back. Mac had to understand by now what it meant to lose everything. There was no way Bryce could go through that again, and be left with nothing to remember. If it happened again . . . God forbid, if it happened again, he was damn well going to have something to remember!

“How about some breakfast?” Mac’s voice called from just outside the bedroom door. “The bathroom’s free.”

“Yeah, I’m coming.” Bryce found some clean clothes and tossed them on the bed, then hurried out to the bathroom. Steam on the edges of the mirror was the only evidence of anyone having been in there before him. As usual, Mac left no trace of showering or even using the sink. It was a contrast that had Bryce putting in a little extra effort when disposing of his wet towels and dirty clothes. He wasn’t about to take for granted the patience of a man who had done so much for him for no apparent reason other than his desire to do so. Not that Bryce ever really felt he was a slob or anything. But sharing your existence with a machine was a far cry from sharing your living space with another human being who had rights and preferences of his own.

Bryce made quick but thorough work of his shower, did a quick clean up of the bathroom, then dashed to his room to dress. He felt that if he could keep his mind on the mundane, the images would remain at bay.

“Hey, have a seat, breakfast is ready.” Mac waved toward the set table as Bryce came out of his room.

“Thanks.” Bryce reached out and took the container of coffee from Mac’s hands, then poured them each a cup and sat down. “Is everything–Did they . . . ?” The question stuck in his throat, refusing to finish.

“Everything’s fine.” Mac sat down and began dishing up the thick slices of bacon. “Locked up tight all night, no problems.”

Bryce nodded, grateful that no one had been killed again, and that he hadn’t had to ask.

“Listen, I’m going to go stark raving mad if I have to stay locked up in here another day.” Mac bit off a chunk of bacon, then waved the other half in the air, indicating the shuttle in general. “What do you say we spend some time at the hot spring, huh? We can take some lunch, maybe a good book, and get some air.”

Bryce swallowed his mouthful of coffee and glanced around the room, not sure if this was a test of his moral fiber or just a simple question.

Mac obviously anticipated his dilemma. “Bryce, we’re all exhausted, mentally and emotionally. All of us.” He set down his cup and leaned forward, resting both elbows on the table. “Some of them will immerse themselves in their work, and study every shred of data they’ve recovered so far, and they’ll get nowhere. Others will pretend everything’s just fine for the day and go about some routine jobs, not accomplishing much. The rest of them will be at the hot springs, in the rivers, on the hills, doing anything they can to get one or two hours of peace before it begins again.”

Bryce steeled himself against another flash of memory. This time it was a room full of nameless faces, walking around as if in a daze.

“It’s almost a form of shock. We’ve all realized we won’t have time to breathe again for another five nights, so we’re in a holding pattern. It’s not crass or disrespectful to the dead.”

“It’s survival.” Bryce lost the vision, then looked up. “Isn’t it?”

Mac inhaled deeply, then slowly began to nod. “Yes, it is.”

Whatever he wanted to call it, it was relaxing. Bryce let himself sigh gratefully as he slid into the hot water of the nature springs after tossing his clothes aside. He had a favorite rock he could rest his butt on and still keep his head and the tips of his shoulders out of the water. The other large stone, on the opposite side of the pool, was too low. Perfect, however, for Mac.

They spent the afternoon there, soaking in the hot water, sometimes swimming in the deeper end or refreshing themselves in the cooler waterfall. Sounds from the larger springs in the valley proved many of the colonists had fled the confines of the complex for a few hours of rest and forgetfulness.

Bryce had packed enough fruits and cheeses to make a hearty lunch, as well as his metal working tools. Teaching the geologist how it was done had reminded him how rusty he was at the skill himself. A few hours of practice would be a good idea, especially at the rate his student was progressing. Mac had packed along bottles of water and some of the beer they’d made a few weeks ago, using the complex’s bacterial lab to age it quickly, as well as a book he’d been wanting to read for some time now.

After lunch, Mac was happily into the volume, sitting on the soft, grassy ground with his back against a boulder, absently nursing his beer. Bryce found an equally comfortable spot a few feet away, and began to work the hunk of metal he’d dug up a few yards away. He was working from memory, both visual and physical, as well as trying to add some touches he could only imagine a beast he’d never seen before would have.

While he worked, he realized there hadn’t been any visions since they got up to their hidden spa. Sitting there, with the sun gently massaging his back and a soft breeze keeping him cool enough to work comfortably, he felt safe. Protected from the visions, protected from the nightmares . . . protected from reality. For a few hours, at least, he wasn’t having to think his way out of something, talk his way through one of Five’s mind games, or worry about what was to come.

But as peaceful as this felt, he knew better than to dwell on it.

“What’s that?”

Bryce looked up, surprised, just as Mac was kneeling down beside him, pointing to the object he was holding. “Oh, I was just practicing.” He hadn’t even realized it was done. “I don’t know if I got it right, since I’ve never seen one.” A little embarrassed with the quality of his work, he handed Mac the silver.

“It’s fantastic.” Mac examined the piece, turning it over in his hand. It wasn’t large, smaller than his palm, and carved in three dimensional relief.

“It’s supposed to be a bear. Grizzly, I think they called it.” Bryce shrugged, hoping it at least looked like a bear.

“It’s perfect. Can I have this?”

“Um…Yeah, sure.” He knew it couldn’t possibly be that good. He wasn’t even that talented with the animals he did know. Bryce watched as Mac walked to where his shirt was draped over a bush, then put the silver bear into a small pocket.

He wasn’t sure why, but he couldn’t help feeling a spark of pride that his friend was choosing to keep it. For all he knew, it looked more like a yellow-fish than a real grizzly bear, but at least Mac was too polite to say.

 

Chapter 7

It was the longest night he could remember. There’d been harder ones, more dangerous ones, but never in his estimation a longer one. The last night of the full moon started three hours ago, and Bryce had quickly followed the rising of the moon with sleep. For the past five nights, Mac had avoided any further study of the creatures invading the complex. He’d left that up to the scientists and experts. It had been hard enough getting his friend to sleep through the night without the use of his herbal sedatives. There was no way he could compound the stress by staying upstairs and observing their night visitors.

But tonight–so far–Bryce hadn’t had another nightmare. Yet.

Mac made a pot of coffee and changed into his sweatpants and an old shirt for comfort, all the while listening carefully for any sign that his friend was having another bad night. With luck, the nightmares would end with the waxing of the moon, but he doubted the visions would stop plaguing the young man any time soon.

When his coffee was done, he padded barefoot up the stairs and got situated in the cockpit. A flip of a switch on the monitors pulled up the same views those in the complex were getting. He set his instruments to record some of the data, and sat back to watch.

The scanners switched from building to building, corner to corner, searching the darkness for signs of life. Mac studied one view as the camera panned the courtyard, sipping his coffee while he watched moonlit trees and grass pass by. The camera did a full pan of the area in front of the main building, then stopped, and reversed it’s path.

The connection with the main communications room in the complex buzzed, then came alive with Katherine’s voice. “Brennan, are you getting this?”

“Yeah, looks quiet.”

“I think they’ve moved on.”

As he watched, one camera moved purposefully forward, focusing on an area several yards north of the east wing.

“Look there, we put out some meat, hoping to attract them, but so far nothing.”

“They’re not stupid.”

Mac spun around, startled. “What are you doing up?” Stunned by his own lack of observation, he set his cup down and blinked at the younger man, standing behind him.

Bryce shrugged, then sat down in the co-pilot chair. He was wearing sweat pants and a ship-shirt Mac had given him. It was too big, with the sleeves hanging down, covering most of his hands and the letters M. BRENNAN hanging low on the left side. Seeing that gave Mac a twinge of guilt for the younger brother he’d left behind, and gave him an even stronger feeling of responsibility for this kid’s life, his sanity, and his future.

“You can’t bait them. You can’t trap them. You can’t outsmart them.”

“Is that Bryce?” Katherine’s voice rang clear over the speakers between them. “Ask him if he knows why they aren’t feeding.”

Mac sighed, watching Bryce’s face for a moment. “He heard you, Katherine.” He reached out and handed Bryce his coffee cup, then reached around behind him to a shelf where he used to keep another one. It was still there, and only moderately dusty.

“They won’t eat what you put out, they’re smarter than that.” Bryce spoke to the comm. unit, but his gaze was fixed on the screen.

“Why is that? Can they smell something wrong with the food we put out, is that it?”

Mac watched his friend watch the monitors. It was the first time he’d even taken an interest in what they were doing about the menace that had killed his people so long ago. With the nightmares, the visions, all the bits and pieces of remembered terror, Mac wondered if it was still too soon for him to face these demons. All he could do was wait and see. And be here when it happened.

“They won’t eat anything that’s dead already.” Bryce replied, holding his coffee with both hands. “They’re watching.”

Mac turned to the monitors and searched the grounds.

“We haven’t seen them since early last night, Bryce. I think they’ve moved on. This is the last night of the full moon, anyway.” Katherine’s voice displayed her dejection at having run out of chances to observe this new animal.

“There.”

Suddenly he saw it, right where Bryce seemed to be staring.

“Up there.”

Mac reached out and moved a dial, changing the view from the complex grounds, up to the trees.

“Oh my God!” Katherine gasped, then shouted some excited orders to people in the room with her.

Mac had to squint through the darkness, but there in the trees, surrounding the grounds, were their gargoyles. “I’ll be damned,” he breathed. “They’re watching us.” He reached out again to move the camera’s angle further left, then stopped when Bryce’s hand clamped down over his forearm. Silently, they both stared at the screens. The longer Mac looked, the easier it was to see them in the darkness. He counted no less than forty creatures in the trees around them. Bryce’s hand gripped even tighter as he counted, verging on causing some real pain. Mac was about to flip the monitors off–willing as he was to endure the grip but not wanting to prolong the reasons for it–when Bryce let go.

“Brennan, I count fifty-two.” Katherine resumed her dialog while muffled voices could be heard in the background, counting and exclaiming.

“There’s more than that.” Bryce shook his head. “They’re coming and going, feeding and coming back to watch.”

“He’s right. I’ve seen several take off and some others land.” Mac glanced at his partner. Aside from a slightly sick look in his eyes and a death grip on the mug of coffee, he seemed to be holding up. “Will this go on all night?”

Bryce nodded.

“It’s fascinating.”

Mac sighed, then reached out and turned off the monitors. “Katherine, we’re turning in.” He didn’t wait for a reply before switching off the comm. unit and setting his cup aside. He didn’t think Bryce was ready for her excited, scientific commentary. “If that’s all they’re doing tonight, I’ve seen enough.”

Bryce shook himself slightly, then blinked. “Yeah.” He set down the cup and stood, then ran a hand through his long hair. “They’ll be gone in the morning.”

“Good,” Mac huffed. “Then we can get back to where we started.”

He knew that was a lie, and he knew Bryce knew it was a lie. But it served them both well enough to get some sleep.

Mac sat up for nearly an hour, reading the same paragraph of Laurence Tate’s Philosophies of Behavior over and over again. He told himself he was really listening for any sign his friend was having a nightmare, but after the twelfth scan of the same section describing a flaw in the Theory of Sociological Principles, he had to admit he wasn’t getting anywhere. Reluctantly, he turned off the book’s illuminated paragraphs and tossed the disk onto his nightstand. Turning off the light was a formality, since the full moon blazing through the view port was bright enough to light up the entire room. He reached over to the wall unit and set the radiation shielding for the window, blocking out the yellow light, then punched his pillow into submission and laid down.

It was so quiet, he couldn’t sleep. On the left side of the bed, he stared at the wall and saw images of the black, deadly gargoyles perched in the trees all around the complex, just sitting there staring back at him. When he rolled over to the right, he couldn’t stop imagining Bryce as a young boy, watching the entire colony die one by one, group by group, until he was all alone. He tried sleeping on his stomach–something he’d never liked–and found himself plagued with thoughts of “If-Only”.

If only he could find a way to get Bryce off Oblivion, and really rescue him from this place.

If only they’d known what was waiting here, they could have come more prepared to deal with it.

If only science had spent more time and energy in developing better and faster interstellar transportation, they’d at least have the option of leaving.

Frustrated by the things he had no control over, Mac rolled over onto his back and punched his pillow a few times. With a heavy sigh, he stared up at the ceiling and chewed the inside of his lower lip. He knew better than to dwell on things he couldn’t change. And he damn well knew better than to lament his situation without doing something about it.

It was fatigue, that’s all. Had to be. And being so close to someone who–for the first time in his life–really needed him. In the war, he was constantly paired with a pilot who needed a wingman, a crew who needed a captain, battle groups that needed a skilled tactician, even colonies in need of a pilot.

But now, for the first time in his life, someone needed Mac Brennan. Not for what he could do, or for how much he knew . . . but for who he was.

He’d never felt so necessary, or so helpless, in his life.

“Get a grip, Brennan.” Mac sighed and pressed both fists to his forehead, then opened his hands and let his palms slide over his face. So he couldn’t pack Bryce up and take him back to the Stations. Fine. He’d just have to fix this place and make it safe. How hard could that be? After all, Bryce had survived here for over twenty years. The gargoyles only came out one week out of every four. They couldn’t eradicate the animals, unless they wanted to abandon every principle they’d each agreed to since childhood.

That meant they had to cope. After all, humans were infinitely adaptable, according to modern thinking. He was sure, now that reality had slapped them in the face, these colonists would get down to business and put all that training to work, finding ways to adapt. All Mac had to do was keep an eye on things.

He sighed heavily again and closed both eyes, forcing his body to relax. In the morning, things would look better. They’d have a quiet breakfast, head over to the complex to talk to Ben, then get to work.

Mac rolled over, keeping his eyes closed, and found a comfortable position on his left side. Tomorrow it was time to get Bryce away from the others for a bit, give him a break from the madness. They’d get the flyer out and head over to where the ground crews had camped, see how much damage was done to the equipment after a week of being left unattended. Maybe once they got there, he could talk Bryce into some exploring of their own, finally see more of what Oblivion had to offer. Of course, that would mean camping out, but if the moon was waning now, they’d be safe enough. They could always camp inside the small plane.

He’d just decided on the next day’s events when he heard noises coming from Bryce’s room. Instantly awake, Mac sat up and was immediately blinded by the rising sun peeking under the tiny slit through the bottom section of the view port’s shielding, where a piece of space debris had cracked away the metal years ago.

“Oh, man.” An entire night had passed in the blink of an eye. He hated nights like that, when your body slept, but your mind missed out entirely.

Mac forced his legs off the bed and planted his bare feet firmly on the floor. He heard a dresser drawer shut, then footsteps passed his room and proceeded toward the galley. With a sigh, he pushed himself off the bed and propelled himself toward the door, bounced once off the wall just outside the room, then managed to angle into the bathroom. In the short time since he’d called the shuttle home, he’d grown accustomed to the wet hand print on the wall over the towels, with two lines of water snaking down to the floor where they mixed with usually one, if not two, wet foot prints. The incredible abundance of water was still alien enough to fascinate him.

He took his time in the shower, letting the water massage wake him up more completely. By the time he finished and dressed, he could smell breakfast.

“We’re almost out of coffee.” Bryce poured them each a cup, then set the container down and sat at the table, joining Mac.

“They have a stockpile at the complex, we can get what we need from there this morning.” Mac picked up his fork and sniffed at the large slices of bacon on his plate, enjoying the smell of the perfectly browned meats. “What about the livestock? Didn’t Katherine say something about them being gone?” He’d forgotten about that, and about what they did during the full moon. If humans were on the menu, surely the gargoyles also fed on livestock.

“They’ll be back by now.” Bryce shrugged and speared some eggs. “They always come back.”

Mac chewed the bacon, taking note of his friend’s casual attitude. All of the inner turmoil he’d seen behind those lavender eyes this past week was gone. “Where do they go?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “They vanish, then they come back when it’s over.”

That sounded familiar. “Well, now that we have a reprieve, there’s work to be done.” Mac bit off a chunk of toast and reached for his coffee. “Both land rovers are still out there. We lost the crews, but the equipment needs to be found and retrieved.”

Bryce nodded, sipping his coffee.

“We’ll send teams out to handle the recovery, but I want to fly out there and inspect both sites today.” Mac finished another slice of bacon and caught the look of surprised confusion on his friend’s face. “It’s safe now, right? With the moon changing?”

“Yes, they won’t come back for another month.” Bryce’s tone was hesitant, but curious. “But flying out there would only take a few hours, you’d be back well before dark.”

Mac lifted his cup and sat back, leaning into the chair as he gazed at Bryce. “That’s if we came straight back. I had something else in mind.”

The younger man’s eyebrows knit together as he listened.

“Ben and his people are going to deal with the problem at hand, and right now, there isn’t much you or I can do that would help.” He was about to add something about Bryce’s memory coming back, but he changed his mind quickly. If he’d remembered anything that could help, he was sure the younger man would say so. “And I, for one, am tired of seeing the rest of this planet from the view screen or the map table. There’s a reason I brought an atmosphere plane with me to this planet, and it’s high time I used it.”

“But you can’t . . . It’s not, I mean . . .” Bryce stared at him, trying to explain something he wasn’t finding the words for.

He knew where that look was heading. “Bryce, we’ll be safe out there at night, believe me. You said yourself, they won’t be back for another four weeks, and we’ve been here this long and been safe enough, until the moon came full.”

“But I . . . They come here.” Bryce paused as if he was waiting for Mac to realize something very obvious. “I don’t know where they go.”

Mac inhaled slowly, finally understanding another aspect of what had kept Bryce at the complex for so long. He leaned forward and set the cup down. “It’s not so much where, but when.” Moving the empty plate, he rested both arms on the table. “We know they come out during the full moon, and only during the full moon. Katherine thinks it’s because they can’t see well enough. Their eyes can only see using that specific type and intensity of light. Now, if that’s true–and it certainly seems to be–then we’d be safe no matter where we are, as long as the moon isn’t full.”

Bryce didn’t look convinced, but he was listening.

“Look, tonight the moon is going to be . . . half.” Mac had to pause and recall his short study of the strange orbit. “That means we could travel for a thousand miles in any direction, and we’d see the same moon. So if they’re not going to come out here, they won’t come out there, either.” His friend’s head was shaking slowly, and the fingers of one hand started pressing out a pattern on the table. He looked like a young boy who was just told that the monster under his bed was a foolish notion, not to be believed.

Mac knew he must be going about this badly. “Bryce, I realize this is all just theory to you, but . . .”

“No. The others said that too, and they went out.” He shook his head, then his gaze dropped back to the pattern he was pressing into the table. “They never came back.”

It was like putting together a puzzle with a million pieces, while they were being painted. “They sent a group out to explore? Do you remember anything about it?”

“No.” The pattern grew more intricate, leaving slight marks of contact on the metal surface for an instant.

“Then you don’t know if they went out during the full moon. Or if they stayed away too long, and couldn’t get back in time.” He watched the fingers slowly stop their motion, then waited for the eyes to come back to his level. Finally, Bryce shrugged.

“How long would we be out there?”

Progress. “I figure just a few days, maybe five. The plane’s big enough to sleep in, if you don’t mind cramming up against the equipment.” Mac stood and began to clear the table.

Bryce opened his mouth to say something, but the intercom buzz interrupted him.

“Brennan, it’s Ben. Do you have a minute this morning? We need to go over some details so I can get a team out to recover those rovers.”

“You read my mind, Ben. Give me a minute.” Mac flipped off the speaker and stuffed the dishes into the basin, then turned to Bryce. “Do me a favor and get enough supplies together for five days. Okay? I’ll explain things to Ben so he can get teams started out there to bring those machines back, then we’ll get going.”

Bryce took a deep breath and pushed a few strands of hair from his face. “Yeah, okay. Do you want me to load the plane?”

Mac’s thoughts instantly flashed to that afternoon confrontation with Eckland. He quickly reviewed the faces he’d seen there, then compared them to people Bryce would likely run into between the shuttle and the hangar at the opposite end of the complex. “It’s number eight, at the far end.” Bryce nodded, then turned and headed for his room. Mac stood in the galley for a moment, wondering if he knew what he was doing. Bryce was a grown man, and he certainly had no right to keep him isolated. But he was a grown man who had no practical experience around hostile people. At least, not that he knew of.

He shook himself out of his thoughts and hurried up the stairs. The chances of something happening were slim, really. Eckland was most likely being put to work in the complex even as he was rushing over to meet with Ben. None of the others had shown any real hostile attitudes toward Bryce. At least the majority of them were mature enough to realize the kid had nothing at all to do with what Oblivion had to offer them. He was a victim himself, after all.

Besides, there was always a chance Bryce would surprise them all, and prove to be perfectly capable of handling himself when pushed.

Further thoughts on that subject were curtailed when he entered Ben’s office. The room was empty, except for the commander who was just finishing a conversation over his intercom.

“Brennan, have a seat.” Ben waved to one of the chairs beside his desk. “I’ve got a team ready to head out and retrieve the land rovers. We’re working up a plan that will allow further exploration in safety, either flying the teams back during that phase of the moon, or building some kind of mobile shelter.”

Mac nodded, letting his mind drift over the many possibilities. “There are a couple of ways to handle it. I guess it will all depend on how much exploration you want to achieve now, and how easily these animals will be to shelter from.”

“Yes, yes. I’m not too worried at this point.” Ben agreed. “There’s time now to work up the best plan. Of course, we want to continue to explore as much of this planet as we possibly can. Especially now. Granted, we’ve had tragedies, with twenty three dead.” He paused, shaking his head sadly. “And Bryce. I tell you, Mac, I thank God you stopped us from trying to force his memories back. I know–” He held up a hand as he continued. “I know it might have saved us some lives. But it might not have. We’ll never know what could have been done, but one thing I’m sure of now is how painful those memories must be. Now that I understand what it was he survived.”

Mac had to force his jaw to relax. “It wouldn’t have helped, believe me. What he’s getting now is just images, flashes of things he saw. I doubt anyone could have made sense out of it before now. He can hardly make sense out of it himself.”

“No one was willing to cross you in order to try.” Ben’s grin was genuine. “Listen, that’s all past now, good or bad. My people are ready to get down to business. This is what they’ve been trained for, and frankly, they’re looking forward to the challenge.”

“That’s certainly a change of attitude from a week ago.”

“Yes. We’ve had a week to grieve, and get over our shock. Now’s the time to get busy. We’re scientists, remember. Finding ways for Man to survive on alien planets is what we came here to do. We will survive this.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” Even if it was a surprise. “But I can’t help wondering if that’s what Bryce’s people thought at first.”

“Possibly.” Ben admitted. “But they didn’t have us.”

Mac laughed shortly, then nodded. This attitude was quite a change, but as long as it held up, he was willing to accept it. “I’m taking Bryce out to check over the rovers, then do some exploring of our own. We’ll secure the camps for the retrieval teams, then we’re going to have a look further north.”

“You’re flying out, then?”

“We should be back in a week. I’ll be recording the area, we might be able to find a good place to set up a second camp in those mountains.”

Ben nodded thoughtfully. “Good idea. You know, it seems that all we need to keep those gargoyles at bay is a good solid shelter and bright, white light. If we could find some caves, we could use the natural rock walls and save ourselves quite a lot of construction.”

“It’s worth a look.” Mac agreed. “I’ll check in with you later, Ben. Your teams will get the coordinates before we leave, they should be able to get out there in about twelve hours, I think.”

“Fine. Oh, listen, Mac . . . how’s Bryce doing? This past week, the more I studied those things, thinking about a young kid watching his people be . . . Well, I don’t think I could have handled it myself, had I been him.”

Mac reached up and rubbed his forehead with an index finger while contemplating the corner of Ben’s desk. “It’s not easy. You can see it in his face, when he’s recalling something. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if they were clear memories, but they’re just flashes.” He shook his head and had to exert some effort to hide the sense of helplessness he was feeling. It didn’t seem right, confiding in the commander just how frightened he was that any minute he was going to do something terribly wrong, and damage Bryce’s psyche forever. “I’ve seen this too many times before, Ben. I’ve seen good men go mad from the images coming back.”

Ben nodded. “Yes, I’ve read about some of them. Tragic. But that’s precisely what’s going to keep you from making the same mistake with Bryce. You saved him from us once already, I’m sure he has nothing to fear from you.”

Surprised, Mac looked up, meeting the commander’s gaze.

“Mac, it’s written all over your face, what there is to see.” Ben smiled and leaned back in his chair. “I may be old and naive about some things, having spent my life on one very single minded pursuit, but I think I know you about as well as anyone can. Believe me, you’ve got the brains and instinct to know what’s right, and to get it done. And you’ve taken to this kid like a big brother. You’ll be fine. You both will.”

With a resigned sigh, Mac stood. “I’ll contact you when we get to the first rover.”

“Have a good trip.”

“Thanks.” Mac left the office, shutting the door behind him. He’d only known the commander for a little over eight months, but in that time he’d proven himself a constant source of surprises, both good and bad. This morning, Mac was willing to accept this show of encouragement for what it was worth.

Bolstered by the compliment, he made his way through the complex to the large, ever-busy kitchens to procure a new stash of coffee, then headed down to the supply buildings for some gear and recording instruments they’d need. After seeing the two ground crews assigned to retrieval duty and giving them the coordinates, he headed over to the hangar and found number eight. Mac climbed aboard to stow the gear and found the plane stocked and ready, with bedding, food, and spare clothes packed neatly away in the small cargo section.

“Hey, you’ve been busy.”

Bryce turned from his chore of strapping down a bag and nodded at Mac’s arm load. “Good, you brought coffee. I was going to ask you to pick some up.” He reached out and took the package, as well as the equipment. “There’s still room.”

Mac glanced around the neatly packed fuselage and whistled his appreciation. “Good packing job. I couldn’t have done better myself.”

“I’ve distributed the weight evenly, and it’s all secured. Frank said that would be the most important thing.”

“Frank? Is Peterman here?” Mac glanced out the window of the plane and looked for the hangar chief.

“He was. I think he had to check number three’s battery pack.” Bryce shrugged. “There’s room for your clothes over there.” He pointed to a section on the left, behind the pilot’s seat.

“Great, I’ll go throw some together and we can get moving.” Mac mentally made a note, adding Frank Peterman to the small but growing list of people Bryce was comfortable around. “Better not let Frank find out how good you are, he’ll want you for his crew.”

“Are you worried?” Bryce grinned, glancing over his shoulder.

He laughed shortly, then shook his head. Bryce’s sense of humor had returned rather quickly. “Yeah, maybe I am.”

With a shake of his head, Mac left the plane and hurried back across the complex to the shuttle. He packed enough clothes for five days, locked up the shuttle, then added his pack to the cargo. When everything was secured, they received clearance and some directing out of the hangar from Frank, then ascended gently to cruising altitude and were on their way.

It felt like being home, except for the sensation of gravity and having a horizon to contend with. But before long, Mac was again in complete control and flying as if he’d never stopped. He explained the differences in technique and skill to Bryce, comparing space flight to that inside an atmosphere, then concluded that both had their advantages. The plane they were in was brand new, and flew in almost complete silence, so as not to disturb life below.

Rolling hills of lavender and green slid silently underneath them as they plotted a course for the first rover. Mac kept one eye on the landscape, and one on his partner. He was pleased to note a complete lack of fear in Bryce for being above ground and moving past it at such speeds. Not only did he seem unafraid of flying, but he was more than willing to point out various points of interest that he’d been mapping out while guiding the teams on their explorations. Valleys where they’d found huge deposits of the silver metal, fields where wild variations of the vegetation brought with the first colony had spread. Even new lakes and rivers, brimming with bright blue water that hid an abundance of fish and other aquatic life.

The first rover was another four hours ahead. They’d spend a night there, then move north to the second location. After that, visible from their altitude, were the mountains Mac wanted a closer look at. If there were caves sufficient to hold a good population and equipment, they would be the ideal location of a second team.

After three hours, Mac decided Bryce was ready for his first flying lesson.

“All you have to do is hold onto the stick. That’s right, just wrap your hand around the grip. Do you feel that?”

Bryce nodded, staring at his hand.

“Okay, it’s got a real light touch, so any movement of your hand moves the plane.” Mac lightened his own hold of the pilot-side control. “Just let her fly straight for a bit, till you get used to the feel.”

Bryce’s eyes immediately looked forward, watching the horizon as he glided the plane forward.

“Perfect.” Mac nodded, glancing at the controls. “Now, very gently, move your hand to the left.”

Bryce obeyed and so did the plane, sliding gently to the left without losing so much as a yard of altitude.

“Excellent! Now to the right.” He felt the plane move to the right, humming gently under it’s new guidance. “Perfect. Now, check your controls, and put us on heading 2.11.8.”

Without a word, Bryce looked at the controls, then adjusted their direction until the heading matched.

“You’re doing great.” Mac shook his head, amazed and proud at how quickly the younger man picked up a skill he’d had no previous exposure to. “I was right, I’d better keep you away from Frank or I’ll lose you to his crew.”

“Not a chance.” Bryce was again staring out the front window, watching his planet fly by as he kept them on a direct course. “This is incredible! I can feel every move it makes.”

“Yep. That’s another difference between atmosphere and space. You can feel your ship when you’ve got gravity under you.” Mac let go of his control completely and watched the kid’s face. His eyes were sparkling as he took it all in, watching the land, the controls, and occasionally grinning over at him.

“In space, you fly by your controls. But down here, you can feel it in your ass. Flying becomes an experience of the senses.”

“I think we’re here.” Bryce pointed to the controls, then nodded out the view port.

“I think you’re right.” The rover could be seen in a clearing below them, quiet and alone. “I’d better take it from here.”

Willingly, Bryce relinquished control.

“Keep your hand on the stick. I want you to see if you can feel what I do.” Mac began the landing maneuver. “I’ll have you landing by the end of the week.”

“I think I’ll leave that up to the pros.” Bryce shook his head while the engines powered down after landing. “I gotta pee.” He unbuckled the safety harness and worked his way through the cargo section to the door.

Mac chuckled, unbuckling his own harness, then followed Bryce outside. The rover sat in a clearing a few yards away, quiet and undisturbed. Beside it, close to a small, bubbling brook, were the remains of a camp. There were charred branches in a makeshift fire pit, empty cases that had carried food and cooking utensils, and a few scattered instruments littering the area. Aside from that, there was no evidence of the campers, or what killed them.

“It’s just like at the complex.” Mac shook his head slowly as Bryce approached. “No blood, no clothes, nothing.”

Bryce paused for a moment beside him, gazing at the scene, then shrugged and walked to the rover. “They would have been safe inside.”

His friend’s tone made Mac turn around, eyebrows creasing as he watched Bryce climb into the undisturbed vehicle.

“Nothing’s been touched in here, they had the door shut.” Bryce went further inside the large rover, glancing around, then looked back at Mac through a window and shrugged his shoulders casually. “I told them to sleep inside at night.” He turned back to his inspection. “They can’t open doors.”

Mac swallowed hard. There was a twinge in his gut, and he shook it off. What had he expected, after all? The kid had seen enough death to last a lifetime, none of these people meant anything to him. They’d died a week ago, and far enough away not to have been seen or heard. He chastised himself for having had a preconceived notion about how Bryce should behave, and stepped into the rover to have a look around.

The instruments and equipment were perfectly intact and right where they should be. Mac even fired up the engines and found them in working order. After a call to the complex to update Ben, then a location call to the approaching retrieval team, the pair of them set about making dinner and securing the plane.

Before the sun touched the horizon, Bryce’s mood began to change.

“We could sleep in the rover, it’s got more room.” Mac dowsed the fire and kicked a stray chunk of smoldering ember back into the small pit. “It’s designed to sleep four.”

“I’d rather sleep in the plane.” Bryce was fidgeting, his hand running through long strands of hair that hadn’t even been in his face. He shook his head, staring at the dirt.

Mac added one last dollop of water to the ashes, watching the display. Ever since landing, his partner had been calm, verging on the edge of cold, about what they’d found and what they knew had happened. He’d even casually explained how he remembered the gargoyles couldn’t open doors. Without understanding why he knew, he recalled them being smart enough, but never mastering the simple connection between the door and what was inside.

But now that night was fast approaching–a night that would be moonless due to the cloud cover and shifting of the orbits–he was a nervous wreck once again.

“If you can stand the close quarters, I don’t mind.” Mac gave in and followed Bryce back into the plane. He couldn’t push too hard, not this soon. With the memories coming back, such as they were, he was painfully aware how delicate Bryce’s mental state could be. Too many good pilots–no . . . men. They were men, dammit! Too many good lives were lost during the war, thanks to the foolish attempts by thoughtless doctors and specialists going overboard in their memory-recovery therapy. Mac was not going to let that happen again, not after . . .

“Mac?”

Startled out of his thoughts, he blinked. “What? Oh, thanks.” Accepting the bed roll Bryce was handing him, he spread it out on the floor.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” He nodded, then tossed a blanket down over the padding before pulling off his shirt. “I’m just tired. Didn’t sleep well last night.”

Bryce sat down on his makeshift bed and took off his shirt, stuffing his shoes and pants into a corner. “Did you know these people?”

Mac picked his pants up off the floor and looked at Bryce, trying to catch up. He’d just been getting used to the younger man’s ability to change the subject on a dime when all hell had broken loose. Now he had to get back into the routine.

“I knew who they were, that’s about it. We traveled together for six months, you get to know people, but it’s pretty casual.”

Bryce shifted around so he could lean back against the pilot’s seat and face Mac. With the toes of one foot, he hooked the corner of his blanket and pulled it close enough to grab, then draped it over his lap.

“When’s the last time you were outside at night?” Mac kept his voice casual, sitting down as he spoke, and unfolded his blanket.

“I don’t remember.” Bryce shrugged, undaunted by the countering question.

“But you do remember it’s safe outside, as long as the moon isn’t full?”

If Mac hadn’t been watching, he would have missed the sudden constriction of Bryce’s cornea’s and the quick intake of breath.

“I don’t–” Bryce stopped struggling for words and inhaled, closing both eyes tightly for an instant. When he continued, he was staring at a fixed position somewhere between the floor and infinity. “Five locked the doors, at sunset, every night. I remember when I was a kid, he said the night would kill me. Then he said if I didn’t come in at night, he would lock me out and let the night kill me.” He paused, swallowing. “Then you came–all of you–and you weren’t afraid of the dark.”

Mac’s teeth ground together as his jaw clamped down. He hadn’t meant to start anything neither he nor Bryce were going to be prepared to handle, but he couldn’t stop it now, either. He could only pray that if the kid was about to take a demon out to look at, they’d both know what to do with it.

“And now that I understand again, I just . . . I can’t just stop.” Bryce focused again and met Mac’s gaze. “I know now that Five was wrong. I know he was lying, and he used those fears and superstitions to keep me inside. I know it’s not the night that kills. But even knowing, I can’t get past it. I just can’t.”

If eye color could change as emotions grew stronger, Mac would have believed the ones he was looking at had just gone from soft lavender to deep, helpless purple. He swallowed, forcing his teeth apart. “I understand, Bryce. Believe me. Now that you know the truth about what happens, and what Five did to keep you alive, maybe I can help you get through it sometime.”

Bryce’s gaze dropped to the floor as he nodded. “Yeah, maybe. But not tonight, okay?”

“Not tonight.” He moved around on the mattress and found a comfortable spot in the small cargo area.

After he got situated, Bryce pulled his blanket over himself and stared at the ceiling. “Is that what the war did to people who fought, made them so understanding about other people’s phobias?”

Mac laughed shortly. “The war turned almost everyone into cold, unfeeling bastards with huge chips on their shoulders and egos to match.” He reached up and flipped off the lights. “You just got lucky.”

The small plane darkened immediately, with no moon or stars visible through the canopy of clouds to filter through the windshield. It didn’t take long for Mac’s vision to adjust, giving him a muted view of the ceiling as he lay on his back, staring up at it. The fuselage was nicely flat on the bottom, but not overly wide, giving both sleepers enough room to lie flat with barely five inches between them. Never one to fall immediately asleep, Mac let his mind wander over the day’s events as he listened to his friend’s breathing beside him.

Bryce was curled up on his side, facing the wall, with the blanket pulled up over his shoulder. Mac closed his eyes and mentally made a note not to roll over with impunity in the cramped space.

The next day, they made a find that helped alleviate stiff muscles. Three hours after leaving the rover and flying in the direction of the second unit, they found a lake begging for attention. Without hesitation, Mac landed them at the shore so they could take a swim and have a good wash. It wasn’t their hot spring, but the water was pleasantly cool and teaming with multi colored fish the size of a man’s arm. They were a friendly lot, perfectly willing to swim along side the newcomers. Several even allowed themselves to be stroked, and changed color to show their enthusiasm when Mac discovered a ridge along their backs they enjoyed having scratched.

Bryce told him the fish were particularly good eating when roasted over an open fire, and would make an interesting addition to the fish stew he’d made weeks ago.

“I dunno, kid. I’ve never made friends with my food before.” Mac watched the brilliant pattern of teal and yellow flash over the belly of a large fish as he stroked it’s back. He treaded water with the beast, then began to swim toward the shore where Bryce was drying out in the sun. He’d never been a purist, by any means, but in the stations, ships and cities he’d spent his life in, you just didn’t meet your meal beforehand.

Bryce shrugged. “I bet you change your mind.”

Mac reached the shallows and stood, running a hand over his short hair to hurry the drops of water down his face. “What makes you say that?” No sooner had he asked the question than he felt a quick, stabbing pain. “What the?” He turned and found his swimming partner had bitten his thigh, and was coming around for another nip. Like lightning, Mac grabbed the fish and flung it out of the water with enough force to send it past Bryce, onto the grass. “What the hell was that all about?” He glared at his friend who was grinning back.

“They’re strange that way.” Bryce shrugged, trying to hold back a laugh. “They get real friendly while you’re paying attention, but the minute you turn to leave, they go after you.”

“Oh really?” Mac continued to glare, but spared a glance back into the water.

“Just one, usually. They don’t eat you or anything, just a bite or two. The others take off when it happens.”

Mac started to walk out of the shallows. “You could have warned me sooner.”

“They never do any damage.” Bryce was still trying not to laugh, pointing at Mac’s leg. “You’re not even bleeding.” He glanced at the fish flopping on the grass. “I think it’s a courtship thing.”

“Yeah?” Mac was just ahead of Bryce, at the water’s edge where the shore dropped off several feet very quickly. The fish lay on the ground, a few yards farther up, dying on the grass. “Well you get to gut that thing.” Mac pointed a wet, accusing finger at his friend, then went for a towel to dry off.

They’d swum until they were both exhausted, working out a week’s worth of cabin fever, stress, and just plain inactivity. Bryce made short work of gutting and cleaning the fish while Mac built a small fire to roast their lunch over, then they both enjoyed the succulent white meat of the amorous fish. A nap in the shade was tempting, but Mac knew if they dallied any longer, they wouldn’t reach the second rover before dark. Reluctantly, they left their spot at the lake and flew to the north while the sun was still proud in the afternoon sky.

The scene at the second vehicle was nearly identical to the first. A camp several yards away from the rover, where the explorers obviously had intended to sleep out under the stars. The only evidence of their having been there were a few scattered bits of equipment and eating utensils. The rover itself had been locked up and undisturbed.

Bryce examined the vehicle while Mac called the location in to Ben and the second retrieval team, then gathered up some dead branches to build a fire. They ate while studying the logs and maps the team had recorded. Bryce pointed out several of the plants they had sampled and explained how they could be used for medicines and cleaning compounds. One of them could even cure heat rash, and–with a different preparation technique–remove oxidation from delicate equipment.

Mac intended to continue their trip nearer to the mountains visible from their camp, mapping out the area for the first time. They were already farther away from the complex than Bryce had ever been. Except for the plants and occasional animal, he was seeing things he’d never known were there before. Mac neglected to mention his search for adequate caves, fearing any discussion of setting up a second camp away from the complex would trigger another black mood. His search would be casual, and even cautious, since they still knew little about the gargoyles, or where they went during the day. It wouldn’t do to set up a camp right next door to the very thing they were seeking shelter from.

That night they once again retired to the plane for the evening right before sunset.

In the morning, Bryce gathered some fresh fruit and made breakfast while Mac secured the rover for the three day wait before the second team reached its location.

After several slices of fruit and a second cup of coffee, Mac leaned back against a tree and sighed. Three large, teal-colored birds flew gracefully overhead, humming to each other. “This is what it’s all about.” Mac watched the birds fly out of sight and stretched in the morning sun.

Bryce glanced up at the sky, then looked at Mac. “What do you mean?”

“This,” Mac waved an arm to indicate the entire planet. “Living on solid ground, breathing fresh air. It may not seem like much to you, but when you’ve spent your life on stations and ships, you learn to appreciate what it means to be free.”

With a shrug, Bryce poked at the dirt with a stick. “If you mean free as in trapped here, yeah.”

Mac realized from Bryce’s position, he would feel trapped, unable to ever leave Oblivion and seek out whatever life he wanted. It was an advantage he’d given little thought to. At least, as a child, he’d been given every opportunity to leave his home if he found it not to his liking.

An opportunity he’d taken advantage of the instant he was old enough.

“Maybe someday they’ll invent a faster mode of travel. Now that the war is finally over, science can concentrate on more advanced pursuits.”

Bryce stopped poking at the dirt and tossed his stick away. “If they did, would you leave?”

Mac leaned forward, considering the question. “I didn’t come here with the intention of ever leaving.”

“But if you could?”

“Depends.” He shrugged and stood, brushing some dirt off his pants. “If I could travel around the galaxy, maybe show you what you’ve missed all these years, then come back here when I was done, then yeah, maybe I would.”

Bryce looked up, eyebrows creased. “You’d do that? Show me around like that?”

“Sure, why not? You’re curious about things you’ve never seen. Maybe then you’d learn to appreciate what you’ve got right here.” Mac grinned, then nodded toward the plane before Bryce could reply. “Come on, let’s get going. I’m dying to make some discoveries of our own.”

Mac walked the younger man through the pre-flight check, then explained the take-off procedure as he guided the plane up and to the north. Bryce seemed more interested in the controls and how the engine worked than in practicing any of the more difficult maneuvers, grilling Mac on his knowledge of the dynamics of atmosphere flight, then comparing them to space travel. A quick learner, Bryce soon proved a match for Mac’s teaching abilities. He doubted Cassandra was finding any students as willing and eager to learn the basics, even in her position back on Io.

Several hours and one stop later, they were approaching the foothills of huge, rocky mountains, permanently covered in a lavender-hued snow.

“Are the recorders on?”

“Yeah.” Bryce looked out at the approaching hills, scanning the landscape as they flew ahead. “I’ve seen images of these mountains, real close up, but I’ve never been here.”

Mac glanced at his friend, then back outside, and smiled. “There’s a whole planet you haven’t seen yet. How can you think of leaving when you haven’t had the chance to explore your home?”

Bryce shrugged, but his gaze never strayed from the view. “I never cared before.”

Maybe there was hope for the kid after all. Mac hated to see someone surrounded by such natural beauty and abundance hate the very thought of living there. Sure, Oblivion had it’s problems, and they weren’t exactly minor. But from what he knew, they were predictable.

And that meant they were controllable.

“Check that out, over to your left.” Mac pointed to a plateau of rock, still several miles below the snow line, with a river that flowed gently around the point before falling away to another plateau below.

Bryce adjusted one of the scanners, then pointed to the display. “There’s a big cave there, inside the mountain.”

“Great. Let’s check it out.” Mac adjusted their direction and slowed the plane. “We can do a little exploring then spend the night there.”

“What about . . .” Bryce looked up from the instrument. “Mac, what if . . . I mean, what if they live in the caves?”

“Flip that switch to the right, the top one.” Mac pointed to the controls. Bryce did as he was told, and the screen changed, showing a hazy gray field with small, red dots scattered around. “That’s a thermal scan. See there, nothing larger than a big insect.”

Bryce studied the screen, then adjusted some knobs to change the gain.

“Trust me, I’ve thought about it, too. They have to go somewhere.” Mac readied the plane for landing, easing it down quietly onto the edge of the plateau. “But they’re not here.”

Nodding, Bryce turned off the scan. “I used to think they lived on the moon. Then I thought they just came from the sky, and went back there.” He ran a hand through long, dark hair and shook his head slowly. “It’s pretty easy to convince yourself they don’t exist at all.”

“I bet it was.” Mac powered down the plane, then scanned the area through the windshield. “Well, what do you think?”

Bryce nodded, then unhooked his seatbelt and walked through the fuselage and outside.

The air was crisp and clean, and just a bit colder. Snow was abundant on the steep slope of the mountain, feeding the river that flowed gently around one side of the ledge. The river was slowed only by a small but incredibly deep lake. On the other side, it fell with fury to the valley below.

In front of them, carved out of the mountain itself, was a gaping maw of rock, opening up into a cavern of immense proportions. The angle of the sun and width of the cave mouth made lighting unnecessary. Mac began his exploration, and found he had a human shadow as Bryce remained as close as possible during the journey around the cave. Even after proving–with scans and visual confirmation that the cave held nothing more alive than some odd looking rodents and fungus–he abandoned any ideas of asking Bryce if he felt brave enough to sleep in the cave that night.

They explored, then bathed in the brisk waters of the river before building a fire for dinner. To his credit, Bryce didn’t flee for the safety of the plane until the sun had nearly completed its exit. That night, while letting his mind begin the relaxation steps needed for sleep, Mac considered the cave’s potential. He concluded that it would serve well enough for a shelter, if the opening could be adequately sealed and the temperature change wasn’t overly dramatic during winter. After all, there were no hot springs up here. Mac had no intention of abandoning that luxury any time soon!

The next day they followed the curve of a river along the base of the mountains, heading back in the general direction of the complex. They stopped three more times to explore caves, leaving the plane only after Bryce had done a thermal scan of the structures. Inside each, he never strayed more than three feet from Mac’s side, even though he appeared to be getting more and more comfortable with the idea. By the third night along the ridge, Bryce was staying outside until the last bit of color left the evening sky.

Mac considered their trip a success.

Late in the afternoon, five days after leaving, they landed back at the complex. They took the maps and scans to Ben and made copies for themselves to study later, and found the commander brimming with enthusiasm.

“Brennan, glad to have you back. Bryce, I hope you enjoyed exploring in person for a change.” Ben waved at them from the hallway, beckoning them to join him in one of the labs.

“We brought some maps back, and some of the samples we found collected in the rovers.” Mac put a hand on Bryce’s back and gave him a gentle push, directing him to follow the commander.

“Excellent! The recovery teams arrived safe and sound, so I’m told. And we’ve been pretty busy around here, too.” Ben led them both to a table in the center of the room, strewn with large data sheets in various stages of illustration. “After you’ve had a chance to relax, I’d like your input on these ideas.” He waved a hand over the sheets.

Mac glanced at one, depicting a cage-like structure in the center of the complex courtyard. “What’s all this?” He pushed that sheet aside and gazed at another one.

“Everyone has their own idea of what to try first, naturally.”

“You’re going to try and catch one.” Bryce’s voice was low, and had a sharp edge both Mac and Ben could hear. “It won’t work.”

Ben looked at Bryce. “We have several ideas to work with, son. Not just for capture, but for study.”

“No.” Bryce looked past Ben at Mac. “It won’t work. They tried this already.”

“You mean the others?” Mac set the sheets down.

Bryce nodded once, quickly, in reply. He was clenching his jaw and looking at the table, as if fighting another inner demon.

“We think we have some good ideas. After all, our equipment is a better grade than what the first colonists had to work with. You have to remember, Bryce, we’re not them.” Ben glanced at Mac before he continued. “I realize the people you were with where all highly trained, and excellent scientists. Believe me, we’re taking every precaution.”

Bryce shook his head, pursing his lips to hold back any reply. He looked at Mac, then tossed the maps he’d been holding down on the table. “I have to unpack the plane.” Quickly, he turned and left the room.

Mac sighed, running a hand over his hair.

“I wish I could make him understand. But without involving him directly, I don’t think he’ll believe we might know what we’re doing.” Ben shook his head.

“I’ll be happy just to get him to stay outside at night when he knows they’re not coming.” Mac glanced at the door, then looked at Ben. “It would be nice to know we’re not repeating someone else’s mistakes, but I don’t think he could help us, even if he could talk about them more openly. He just doesn’t remember details.”

“Yes, you’re probably right. We’ve made some small progress with those records from the other AI, though. The communications team found some files they could decode, showing data on some of the ways they tried–we assume–to get a specimen.”

“Any chance they’ll crack the rest of the files?”

Ben shrugged. “Doubtful, but we’ll take whatever progress we can get. I sometimes wish that Five unit was human, so we could have tried to reason with it.”

“Then we could have had the satisfaction of wringing it’s neck.” Mac nodded toward the door. “I need a shower. Can we go over this stuff tomorrow?”

“Certainly. I’d like to have a look at what you found, anyway.” Ben’s eyes sparkled as he glanced at the disks they’d brought back. “I’ll send what we have to your files, you can go over them whenever you have the time.”

“Fine.” Mac left Ben to his maps and pictures of the caves he and Bryce had explored and went back to the plane to help his friend unload.

It didn’t take long to get the aircraft settled, and Bryce’s mood picked back up quickly when Mac showed him the procedures for post-flight engine checks. The kid had a knack for anything mechanical, and his eagerness to learn drew the hangar chief’s attention.

“You know, Bryce, anytime you want to learn a new job, I’m always willing to take on a new apprentice.” Frank Peterman grinned and wiped his greasy hands on a towel.

“He’s got a job, Frank.” Mac warned.

“Well, sure, he does now, Brennan.” Frank folded his arms across his chest and faced Mac, his grin spreading. “I’m just sayin’, should he ever get bored being your law and order deputy and want a change, there’s a place for a good worker here in the trenches.”

Mac arched one eyebrow, then turned to look at Frank. “Who says he’s going to get bored? At least I can give him a variety, something more than the dull life of a hangar jockey.” He glanced at Bryce and found him suppressing a laugh, obviously enjoying the good natured competition.

Frank shook his head and laughed, conceding defeat, then turned to Bryce. “You just remember, kid, when you get sick of his old war stories, there’s a place for you down here with us grunts.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Bryce nodded, grinning.

“Come on, let’s get some dinner.”

They walked back around the complex accompanied by the sound of Frank’s laughter echoing behind them. Mac was glad to find Frank so willing to befriend Bryce, widening his circle of friendly faces. Most of the colonists had reached the point of accepting what they found when they arrived, and made the adjustment they’d all been theoretically prepared for. But still, there were enough Rob Eckland’s around to keep Mac consciously aware of every look or glance they received when around other people. This late afternoon was a pleasant one, and gave Mac a good excuse to talk Bryce into eating dinner in the complex. They were both too tired to cook, and the shuttle needed to be restocked.

Dinner went well, if not busy. Mac found their table surrounded by people dying to know what they’d seen while exploring, and more than willing to hear any detail they could remember. After the meal, and two rounds of the favorite home brew, they had to beg their pardon and get to the kitchens. The two chefs stopped their argument over proper spicing of bluefish just long enough to point to the various stocks and stores Mac and Bryce could raid. They each quickly filled their arms, doubling up on coffee and meat, then left through a back door and got home with exhausted sighs.

That evening, Mac checked his computer for the files Ben had sent, then transferred the data to a handheld he could take to bed. He had intended to shower and get comfortable, then scan the projects the commander had sketched out, but after the hot shower had him properly relaxed, it was no use. Bryce had already gone to bed, so Mac took his handheld into his room and slid gratefully under the covers. The beers he’d had with dinner worked to soften the edges, leaving him contented and sleepy, but not so much so that he shouldn’t have been able to stay awake. Moments after his tired body felt the soft, thick bed underneath, he was sound asleep.

The next morning after breakfast, Mac spread out on the worktable downstairs, displaying the diagrams and specs for Ben’s plans. There were several variations on the same theme of capturing a specimen, everything from lures, to traps, to stunning one with tranquilizers. Mac’s knowledge of zoology was limited, but he was able to analyze some of their planed techniques and find serious flaws.

Bryce was a ball of motion, constantly fidgeting whenever Mac asked him to have a look at a diagram, or outright declaring the stupidity of a plan with angry gestures of frustration. He insisted the idea of catching one wouldn’t work, and pointed to the proof Katherine had discovered in the animal lab. But while he could remember there having been one captured and brought inside once, he had no memory of what happened.

Mac set aside the plans for specimen gathering and took a look at some other ideas Ben’s people had come up with. Ideas for a closer study of the animals in their own environment. The first suggestion included a metal cage, large enough to hold two humans and some equipment, and presumably strong enough to prevent one–or several–of the gargoyles to break in to. The second was a variation on the first, using a glass dome instead of metal cage.

Mac shook his head. “I wonder who’d be foolish enough to volunteer for this duty?”

Bryce looked up from where he was sitting, adjusting one of the logic boards from the map table upstairs. He was perched on a stool, using the opposite half of the work table, so when he glanced over, he could see what Mac was studying. Immediately, his face drained of color.

“They can’t.” His voice was a shaking whisper.

“I doubt they’ll try, when it comes down to it.” Mac set the diagram down. “These are just beta ideas. I’m sure they can come up with better ones in time.”

“No.” Bryce shook his head slowly, swallowing hard. “They won’t.” He set down the logic board and looked at Mac, lavender eyes helplessly searching his. “They’ll be gone, just like the others. In time, they all will.”

“Bryce . . .”

“No, they’ll be gone.” Bryce stood, his jaw clenching. “I knew this would happen. They don’t understand. None of you understand.” He was backing away, shaking his head.

“Bryce, it’s all right.” Mac stepped forward, then stopped. He was about to assure his friend that this group wouldn’t make the same mistakes–that they weren’t all going to die doing foolish things–but he couldn’t.

“I knew this would happen.” Bryce turned and ran to the stairs, then took them two at a time.

“Bryce!” Mac rushed forward, but his pursuit was interrupted by the com unit.

“Brennan?”

Frustrated, Mac stopped at the foot of the stairs and heard the shuttle door open. “Yes, Ben?” It was only noon, and no where near the next full moon. Eckland was on one of the retrieval teams sent out to bring a rover back, so there really wasn’t any reason not to give Bryce some privacy.

“I just wanted to let you know, I’m going out with a team to have a closer look at a few of these caves you found. We should be back by morning.”

“Fine, we can go over these diagrams when you get back.”

“Good, good. I’ll set up a meeting with the engineers.”

Mac agreed, then went back to the table to turn off the display before heading out to find Bryce. It was a cloudy day, and the wind had a bite to it. According to the meteorologists, they were at the beginning of Oblivion’s summer, but outside the temperature suggested otherwise. Mac paused long enough to put on a warmer shirt, then remembered Bryce had left wearing only short sleeves. He detoured into the other bedroom and found his old BSE Rainier shirt draped over a chair. He grabbed the shirt and walked to the complex, working his way through the buildings to the hangar on the opposite side.

A quick look around proved Bryce hadn’t come here. His plane was empty and secured, and Frank was occupied getting the ship ready that Ben was about to take off in. Mac walked around behind the massive structure and wound up toward the large tree on the rise. Several people were enjoying the unusual shaped branches, braving the chilly wind, but Bryce wasn’t among them.

Mac had never known where he vanished to all those times he disappeared, and he’d always assumed it was none of his business. But now he was running out of guesses. A gust of wind swept down the hill, sending a chill up Mac’s spine, and giving him an idea.

The main hot spring was buzzing with activity, the bather’s voices carried up the cliffs by the wind. When he arrived at the hot spring hiding in the rocks, Bryce was nowhere to be found.

“Dammit, Bryce.” Mac sighed and sat on a rock, trying to imagine where else he’d be. Something in his pocket poked him, so he reached in and pulled it out. It was the silver bear Bryce had made. It was hard to fathom how the metal, solid and strong in his hand, could be reduced to pudding when sound waves were applied properly. The sun had poked through the clouds for a moment, but now faded again behind the layer. Mac shoved the bear back into his pocket and looked up, scanning the sky. He almost missed seeing the cliff, and the man standing on it, but when he did, he knew right away it was Bryce.

It didn’t take more than ten minutes to climb the ridge, but it felt like hours. Mac had to fight against the chill of fear in his gut as he climbed, rounding a boulder just behind his friend. When he was on the same rock, he paused, catching his breath. Bryce was dangerously near the edge, looking out over the valley several hundred feet below. Mac set the shirt he was carrying on a rock and took a few casual steps forward. He wanted to believe he was over reacting, and they’d both laugh about this in an hour. But the ice in his gut told him otherwise.

“Hey, kid, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Mac stopped just two yards behind Bryce, afraid any more weight on the lip of the cliff would prove fatal. “This is quite a view.”

Bryce looked out at the horizon as he spoke. “Five was right, I can never do it.” His voice was cold, barely loud enough to be heard.

Mac swallowed hard and risked another step closer. “Right about what?”

“I can’t finish it.” Bryce shrugged, still facing the valley. “Every time I come here, I can’t do it.”

“That’s because there’s nothing you need to do here, Bryce.” Mac had to force himself to stay where he was, not rush forward and pull the kid away from the edge. The piece they were on extended from the main rock, and could crumble if stressed too much.

Bryce looked up at the clouds. “They’ll all be gone soon, and I’ll be alone again. Just like before.”

“No, not just like before.” Mac shook his head. He wished the kid would turn around and look at him, make eye contact at least.

“Yes, they will. They’re doing the same things, and they’ll end the same way.” Bryce shook his head. “They’ll all be gone, then you’ll be gone, and I’ll be alone again.”

Mac felt a twisting in his gut, reacting to the despair in Bryce’s voice. “I won’t be gone.” He stepped closer, ignoring the danger until he was near enough to reach out and grab the younger man’s arm if need be. “I can’t promise you these people aren’t going to make mistakes, and get themselves killed. I don’t have any control over what they do or how they do it.”

Bryce turned slightly, looking at Mac now but not facing him. The expression on his face was as bleak as the afternoon sky, with eyes as lifeless as the moon itself.

“But you have to believe me, no matter what happens to them, I promise I’m not leaving.” He had to know he wasn’t the only one terrified of being alone.

Mac was going to have to tell him. He’d been unable to tell anyone before, but it had never been this important.

Bryce finally made eye contact, searching Mac’s face desperately for reassurance. “I can’t go through it again.”

“You don’t have to. You’ll never be alone again, trust me.” Mac held out a hand, tempted to grab Bryce’s arm. “You have to trust me, and not worry about anyone else, okay? We can manage just fine without them. We did it for a week already.”

Bryce looked down and seemed to shrink inside himself slightly. He moved, and Mac braced himself to lunge forward. “I just–I–I can’t.”

Before Mac could move, Bryce stepped back from the ledge a few feet.

Mac said nothing while they stood there. No words could give adequate comfort in the face of such confused emotion. Bryce looked so small, he wondered why the wind hadn’t blown him off the rock. If he’d had the slightest idea the kid was feeling this strongly, Mac never would have let him out of his sight.

While he stood there, waiting for Bryce to feel better, he mentally reprimanded himself for not realizing how deeply the kid’s emotions were being hidden. He’d know better, now. Obviously, Bryce was good at hiding his deepest fears, even repressing them until they overwhelmed him and threatened his life.

A gust of wind rushed up from the valley, and Mac shivered in the cold. He’d wanted to keep his new friend away from the people who wanted answers, the ones who didn’t like what those answers were, and from the loneliness he’d known for so long. What he really needed protection from, was himself. Mac swore–right then–to every deity ever known, every god ever created, that he was appointing himself Bryce’s protector. Whether it be outside dangers or inner demons, he was never going to allow anything to harm the one true friendship he’d ever had. If that meant launching the shuttle again and flying halfway around Oblivion, to live protected and isolated from harm, then by GOD he was . . .

“I’m sorry.” Bryce looked up at Mac.

“It’s okay, kid. You just didn’t know, that’s all.” Mac paused, putting a hand on Bryce’s shoulder. “You didn’t know you could trust me not to leave. Now you do.”

Slowly, Bryce nodded, then reached up to push some hair from his face. “When they attack, they take everything. After a while, with nothing to prove anyone else was ever here, I thought I’d been alone forever. I thought the others had been my imagination.” He shook his head and looked away. “I won’t remember them when they’re gone. But I would remember you.” He looked back at Mac. “I don’t want those kinds of memories.”

Mac inhaled deeply, gazing at the cloudy sky. He gave Bryce’s shoulder a pat, then turned and walked his friend back against the rocks. “Put this on, it’s cold up here.” He handed Bryce the sweatshirt, then they both sat down, sheltered from the wind by a large boulder. “I want to tell you something.” He let out a heavy sigh. “Something I’ve never told anyone before.”

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7 thoughts on “a festivus miracle!

  1. Disgustingly, I am very far behind on reading all of this. I haven’t had time to read much of anything, let alone things on the Inter Webs. But I have to say that from what I DID read, even ten years ago, you had a good grasp of dialog and character interaction. Like Stephen King, I think that mostly, it’s innate, like having an ear for music or having a tin ear. So, good fiction or bad, you’ve got that. That has to count for something. πŸ™‚

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