Another friday chapter

Okay, the disclaimer this week is the fact that I didn’t read over this one before putting it up here – it’s too embarassing. Yes yes, ten years ago – learning experience – grown as a writer. Aw hell, what can I say? I was a fan of my own self at the time, so sue me! Now I shall shuffle off and work on my notes for the Penman Shipwreck new novel Ether, which is a far cry better than this thing!

Chapter 8 this time, for those of you still playing along . . .

It was cold on the ridge. Bryce hadn’t noticed the wind while he stood on the edge, wondering why he couldn’t jump. But now that he’d decided to stay, temperature became important again. He was grateful for the sweatshirt Mac handed him, and for the way the fabric thickened and warmed in reaction to the cold. It was almost as comforting as the friendship that had saved him moments ago. There was nothing he could do to repay that, not yet anyway. All he could offer in return was his complete, devoted attention.

They sat against a large section of rock shielding them from the worst of the wind.

“It happened about two years ago, when I was on a mission.” Mac gazed out at the dark sky as he spoke, his bright blue eyes slightly unfocused. “We were as far out in space as man could get, practically speaking. Our squadron was sent to stop a supply ship smuggling weapons in from another sector.” He focused and shook his head, gazing at Bryce for a moment. “Anyway, to make a long story short, we failed. Miserably.”

Bryce swallowed, meeting Mac’s eyes. He felt he should say something, but he had no idea what.

“Each side launched fighters, we all met in the middle, and before I knew it, the fight was over.” Mac’s jaw clenched quickly and he looked away. “I remember a bright flash that used to be my frigate. Then there was another blast, brilliant orange, that was the enemy vessel.”

Bryce tried desperately to visualize the action. He had little to go on but stories he’d read and things Five had taught, but it was enough to give him a sudden chill.

Mac closed his eyes, then shook his head very slowly. “It took me a little while to realize I was the only one alive, from both sides of the fighting. My ship was damaged, both mother ships destroyed. And no one to call for help.”

A bird cried in the distance, then was joined by another. Moments later, a mass of teal and pink feathers flew overhead. Mac paused to watch them, and Bryce searched for something to say.

He couldn’t find a word.

“I assessed the damages, and calculated how long I had.” Mac swallowed and looked at the ground, then reached out and picked up a twig. “The communications were out. Emergency beacons destroyed. I had thirty-six hours of air, and just enough life support to maintain an interior temperature of sixty degrees.” He sighed and began to pluck at the twig. “I was rescued two minutes before the air would have run out. A routine intelligence sweep had miscalculated their direction, and found me by accident.” He tossed a chunk of bark toward the cliff edge. “That’s what the officials know.” Mac turned his head to look at Bryce. “It’s what went on in here,” he pointed to his head with the twig, “that I’ve never talked about.”

Bryce pulled his arms together, hugging himself against the cold, and let both hands become swallowed by the longer sleeves. This was the part where he knew he should interrupt, and assure his friend that any confession this personal wasn’t necessary. Only he couldn’t. He knew somehow that Mac needed to be able to tell him as badly as he needed to hear it.

“The worst part was the silence.” Mac tossed another chunk of bark. “My communications system was completely out. It wasn’t even throwing back static.” Another piece of bark flew through the air. “You can see things in space, watch a ship explode, see engines burning. But the only sound you hear is over the headsets, or just in your head. Out in space itself, there’s . . . nothing.” Another bit of bark was twisted from the twig. “There was nothing I could do to occupy myself. No survival procedures, no attempts to make contact with a passing ship, since there weren’t any. There was only nothing. All I could do was sit there, alone, and wait to die.”

Bryce looked away as a surge of emotion threatened to overcome him. He couldn’t help feeling surprised that this man who seemed so completely in charge could ever have been reduced to such a state of helplessness. When he looked back, he imagined he was seeing Mac even more clearly than a moment ago.

The twig in Mac’s hands was being mutilated. “My ship was spinning, just like the debris around me. Chunks of the other ships, bits and pieces of the frigate. Everything was just spinning around in space. With no planet close by, I had no frame of reference. There’s no up or down. But at one point, as things were clanging against the side of my ship, something . . . something caught on my left rocket.”

The twig suddenly snapped under the pressure and was tossed aside. Bryce swallowed, sensing the emotions Mac was holding in check.

“It was a buddy of mine. His ship–It must have broken apart without the fuel exploding.”

Bryce struggled to understand the implication. “You . . . you mean he was . . . ?”

Mac nodded, his jaw clenching. “He was outside. His suit was in shreds.” He shifted against the rock and looked out at the sky. “Space is no place for humans. It’s ice-cold and lifeless.” He paused, shaking his head. “You can hold you breath for maybe a minute, but once you exhale, it’s all over. There’s nothing to pull back in. But that’s only part of what kills you.” He looked down at his hands. “The human body is mostly water. And in space, water freezes immediately. He was frozen solid, and stuck against my ship, hooked there by a piece of his suit.”

“My God.”

Mac inhaled deeply and slowly, then turned to face Bryce. “I was trapped there, for another twenty hours. The only thing I feared was slowly losing my mind. That’s what it felt like the whole time. Like my sanity was slipping away with each passing minute.” He looked away again, gazing out at the clouds. “After I was rescued, I vowed never again to be alone. That’s when I met Cassie. I thought she was what I needed, she thought I was what she wanted. And it worked out for a while. Until I realized that wasn’t what I was looking for. She was sex, and that’s about it. There was no connection. Cassie’s idea of being there for someone was physical. But what I needed was a friend, someone I could count on.” He looked back at Bryce. “It doesn’t exactly compare to a lifetime alone, but in a small way, I do know how you feel. I know what it is to be alone, even in a room full of people.”

Bryce felt his face flush. Suddenly everything that had brought him to this cliff seemed selfish and immature. He’d wanted to end the pain of losing people, stop it before it could happen. Not once had he considered what Mac might have lost had he jumped.

“I’m sorry. I just . . . I’ve never had a friend I could trust before. I don’t even remember any at all. It’s just that, the thought of you–like the others–I couldn’t go through that.” He shook his head, feeling helpless and foolish. “I’ve been pretty selfish, I guess.”

“No, not selfish.” Mac turned a little so he was facing Bryce more. “You’ve been through hell. And here we are, making you go through it again, in reality and in memory. It’s not easy, but you can’t let it win.”

A clap of thunder in the distance startled another flock of birds into flight. Bryce saw the second flash of lightning several miles away.

“We both know what it’s like to be alone, and neither one of us wants to go through that again. That’s what this friendship is all about. I’ll look after you, you’ll look after me, and maybe together we can even protect the others from themselves.”

Bryce looked up and searched the bright blue eyes meeting his. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he felt hope. Finally he had something to give back.

“What do you say, kid? Deal?”

“Yeah, deal.”

Mac’s smile lit his eyes. “Good. Now, let’s get inside before we get rained on.” They stood, startled suddenly by another clap of thunder in the distance, growing louder. “Although . . . I’ve never actually been rained on before.”

Standing gave Bryce another view off the cliff, and another wave of the emotions that had brought him up there in the first place.

For so many years, all he’d ever wanted was one moment when he didn’t have to make the decision. So many times he’d dreamed of having someone he could lean on for support, or to just take over for one day. Part of him was still wary, still afraid that if he cared too much, it would be gone. But for right now he was willing to take that chance. There was a chance, now that he knew Mac needed him as much as he needed Mac, that their fears of being alone would cancel each other out. He’d never had a brother before, older or younger, but he realized it was never to late to give that a try.

They made it back to the shuttle two minutes before the sky opened up. Mac stood in the open doorway watching the rain pound down around them. Most of the colonists were dashing inside, complaining loudly about the summer storm, but a few hardy souls stood on the lawn, laughing and enjoying the shower.

“Does this happen often?” Mac had to raise his voice slightly to be heard over the downpour.

“Now and again, right before summer really gets going.” Bryce shivered from the breeze coming in through the door so Mac closed it. “The winter storms are worse.”

Mac was smiling like someone who had just discovered a new reason to admire an old piece of art. “I’ve never been in a storm before. You can see them from orbit, but this is my first.”

Bryce laughed shortly, then turned to go downstairs. “Well, it sounds like it’s going to last all night.”

“Yeah, I’d better check up on Ben. Then I’ll get us some dinner. You need to take a shower, get warmed up. You got quite a chill up there on that ledge.”

Even with the sweatshirt trying to warm him, he knew Mac was right. Fearing another round of flu, Bryce didn’t hesitate to get into the shower. He stayed there, standing motionless under the hot spray until he felt thoroughly warmed. After soaping up to clean off the sweat of intense emotions, he stepped out of the shower and toweled off surrounded by steam. The chill of the wind was gone from his bones, but the new found sense of security remained.

Mac Brennan was something else. Twenty years of war, nearly dying alone in space, with his wingman practically frozen to the ship, as if waiting to take Mac with him . . . How could anyone survive that?

Not only had Mac survived it, he still remained in such complete control.

Bryce was sure, memory or not, he’d never known a man like this before. And he could well imagine, living a lifetime around strangers, he’d never meet another like him. He had such a strong sense of who he was and how to control his environment, and never seemed afraid. They were qualities to be admired. And with luck, in time, perhaps emulated in some way.

The sweatshirt was waiting for him where he’d left it, draped over the edge of the sink. With the storm raging on outside, and the heat from the shower rapidly dissipating, Bryce decided to put the warm shirt back on. He liked how the fabric knew what he needed, and changed with his body temperature. He even liked how the sleeves often fell down over his hands. But mostly he liked the name, emblazoned across the side of his chest. No longer was having a protector–a friend–just the dream of a lone survivor.

On his way out to the living area, everything Mac had said suddenly became clear. That day, the past weeks, all of it.

“Hey, dinner’s ready.” Mac set a plate on the table and waved Bryce over. “I cheated this time and let the processor do the work. But it’s hot and smells good.”

Bryce sat down while Mac returned to the galley for another plate. “You’re really something, you know that?” He laughed shortly and ran a finger around the rim of his plate, shaking his head as he marveled over the skill Mac had employed all this time.

“What’s that?”

“You,” Bryce continued, still looking at the plate. “All that talk about how I was a survivor. About how you admired that like it was some kind of skill you wished you had.” He looked up, watching Mac walk around the counter. “You know all about the guilt, the fear, and the nightmares. All this time, you knew exactly what I’ve been going through.”

Mac shrugged, set the plate down, then sat. “That’s right, I do. I also know the only way to deal with it is to have a good friend to help. But thirty-six hours hardly compares to ten years.”

Bryce hitched one shoulder in a shrug and reached for a fork. “Who helped you through it, Cassie?”

“No.” Mac shook his head and stabbed a chunk of meat. “I thought she could, but once I got to know her, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about it. I don’t think anyone can really help you if they haven’t been there themselves.”

“Yeah.”

They ate accompanied by the storm raging outside. Neither man spoke, even between the loud claps of thunder, and Bryce found it quietly comforting. It felt good to just be there, and not worry about what to say or what to do. There was still so much he didn’t understand, and so very much he wanted to ask. But right now he was content to know there was plenty of time for everything. By the time they’d finished dinner and cleaned up, the storm was directly above them. Too curious about the weather, Mac made a pot of coffee and took it up to the cockpit to watch the storm from the large windows. Bryce grabbed a cup and followed, settling into the co-pilot’s seat with both feet tucked under him. Just watching the rain pound down in sheets made him pull deeper inside the warm sweatshirt, against a chill that wasn’t there.

“Here, try this.” Mac reached for Bryce’s cup and dropped a chunk of something brown into the coffee. “The cooks were experimenting with chocolate the last time I was over there. It’s fantastic.”

Bryce looked at his cup dubiously. He’d never bothered with the confection himself, even though the complex processors could create. “In the coffee?”

“Try it.” Mac’s face was alight with joy.

So much so, Bryce felt compelled to like the concoction that brought such pleasure to his friend. Cautiously, he sipped the steaming beverage. The smell of it impressed him first, as the blending of deep, rich coffee mixed with sweet, heady chocolate. Then the taste, smooth and rich as it slid through his mouth and down his throat, lingering on his palate. Both flavors remained identifiable, yet combined to form a unique taste unlike anything he’d tried before.

“Not bad.” He couldn’t help smiling, more at his partner’s expression than his own appreciation of the new drink. “I could get used to this.”

Mac nodded as if any other answer would have been unheard of. “When I was a kid, back on my father’s station, I called this the breakfast of champions.”

“You drank this for breakfast?”

“Not when my father was around.” Mac sipped his coffee blend and glanced outside at the sudden flash of lightning. “Which wasn’t too often, really. He was a real health nut, taught me to eat only the freshest fruit, the highest grade vegetables. I had an exercise routine before I could even walk.”

“Did you know your mother?” Bryce held his cup with both hands, enjoying the warmth.

“Nah. She was just a woman my father contracted with for a son. He needed an heir, but he wasn’t the type to share anything with anyone else. I don’t even know if they met in person.” Mac took another drink during a round of thunder. “What about you?”

A flash, like the lightning outside, ran through Bryce’s mind. A woman, young and attractive, stood on the hill just outside the complex’s main building. The sun streamed through long, brown hair as she stood, waving. In one blink, the image vanished. “Um, no, not really.” He wondered why there was no emotion associated with the vision. “My mother was one of the first ones killed. I remember that. It was then that they assigned Five to raise all of us kids, to keep us out of the way.” He gazed into the coffee, but the vision wasn’t there either.

“Well, she was very attractive. I’ve seen her image in the files.” Mac leaned back in the pilot’s chair. “And she had to have been very intelligent to run an operation like this. I bet if she’d survived that first attack, she could have held the rest of them together.”

“Maybe.” Bryce finished his coffee, enjoying the last, unmelted portion of the chocolate as it slid slowly down his throat. He’d spent too many years wondering about maybes. They never got him anywhere.

The storm lasted another hour, so they sat and watched it rage on. The Aloft’s cockpit seats had been designed for comfort, and Bryce found his to be very easy to fold up into. Another round of chocolate flavored coffee had the interesting effect of calming him from the inside out, instead of the usual alert, energized feeling he expected. Mac explained it was a unique sensation brought on by the chocolate, and that it was quite false. While he might feel calm and relaxed and quite content, he’d no doubt find the opposite to be true should he wish to fall asleep any time soon. They cut themselves off after the second cup, and headed downstairs after the storm passed by.

Mac returned to his review of the diagrams Ben had given him, but Bryce still couldn’t face what they represented. He chose instead to finish his adjustments to the logic board he’d removed from the mapping table, sharing the large work space with his friend, but being careful not to let his eyes linger too long on what he was reviewing.

It didn’t work.

“They can get into that.” Bryce gave up. He couldn’t keep his eyes off the charts Mac was examining. As much as he hated to think about what they meant, he couldn’t let the older man be the only voice of reason when he took these back to the commander tomorrow.

“What about this.” Mac pulled out a sheet he’d stuffed under several others. “This shows a cage longer and taller, with three men and equipment inside.”

Bryce glanced at the drawing and shook his head. “No, this is all wrong.” He reached out and pointed to the bars. “They’re making these cages out of the silver from here. That won’t work. They can melt it.”

“What?” Mac set the sheet down, staring at Bryce. “You mean like you do? They can reduce it to liquid?”

“Yes. That’s how . . .” Bryce let his voice trail off as he realized what he was saying. It was the strangest sensation, having information in his head that hadn’t been there seconds ago. Information he knew all along, but never knew he knew. He swallowed, then continued. “They make a sound, deep inside, that we can’t hear. That’s how the others learned how to work the metal. If you made a cage out of it, they’d simply reach right inside.”

Mac leaned back in his chair and dragged both hands over his face with a sigh. “Well, that takes care of these proposals.”

“I don’t know why they can’t just leave them alone.” Bryce stared at the thin plastic sheets strewn about the table. “If you stay inside when they’re out, you’re safe. It’s that simple.”

“For most of us, yes, it is. But these people are scientists. Pushing the limits of discovery and curiosity is what they do. Hell, it’s what they are.”

Bryce shook his head and stood, putting the forgotten logic board aside for the night. He didn’t want to think about what these scientists were going to do in another three weeks. But there was little he could do about it.

“Well, I’m turning in.”

“Yeah, I think that coffee’s worn off now.”

“Wait till you try it in milk.” Mac grinned, pushing his chair back.

“What?” Bryce’s eyebrows furrowed in disgust. “Are you kidding? You mix them together too?”

“Yeah, it’s great! You’ll have to try it. Guaranteed to take the chill off any morning.”

Bryce tried to imagine the flavor that would be created by combining milk and chocolate, but the thought threatened to sour his stomach.

“Hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.” Mac reached out and gave Bryce’s shoulder a good natured slap.

“We’ll see.” Bryce went to his room, trying to bring back the memory of that evening’s coffee treat to clear his mental palate. “Milk and chocolate.” It was disgusting! Of course, the idea of coffee and the sweetener hadn’t been one he would have tried on his own. But milk?

His fears that the incident of the day would bring back the nightmares turned out to be unfounded. Before he had the chance to roll over a second time, it was morning. He hurried through his morning routine when he realized Mac was still asleep, finishing with his shower, and got breakfast started in time to greet his friend when he had finished his own washing up. During the meal, Bryce agreed to help explain, as rationally and logically as he could, why the ideas of outside observation would not work as planned. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stop them from trying other things, but now that Bryce had Mac’s assurance that he’d keep himself safe, his own emotional investment was significantly reduced.

They found the planners huddled together in one large lab, busily poring over their own and each other’s notes on various subjects. Despite the apparent self absorption of every man in the room, Mac and Bryce’s arrival did not go unnoticed.

“Brennan, fantastic, I’ve been waiting for you.” A tall man, close to Mac’s age, stood and waved them over, then hastily made room for them among the scattered data sheets and models. Quickly, a hand was offered. “Bryce, we haven’t had the chance to meet. I’m Harry, Harry Franklin.”

Bryce accepted the hand, and was rewarded with a warm handshake.

“I was really hoping we could get your input on this.” Harry waved to the seats opposite his, then sat down.

“I don’t think you’re going to like what he has to say, Harry.” Mac pulled out a chair and sat, then looked at Bryce.

“No? Well, listen, they were just first drafts, anyway.” Harry shook his head and planted both elbows on the desk, watching Bryce expectantly.

“It’s the metal.” Bryce sat, glancing over at Mac. He wanted to add how insane the entire idea was, but he refrained. These were Mac’s people, after all. If they wanted to kill themselves doing foolish things, the least he could do was be polite.

“It can hold this shape, can’t it? Carl led us to believe that…”

“No, they can reach right through.”

Harry’s face blanched white. “They can . . . You mean, those things can just reach through it? I–I don’t . . .” He turned to Mac.

“They can manipulate the metal just like Bryce and Carl do,” Mac supplied. “They make some kind of sound, apparently. Melts the silver like pudding.”

Harry swallowed. “Okay. Well, those are out, then. What do you two suggest?”

Mac sighed and sat back. “I think the best approach to studying is remote. Place cameras and sensors around the complex, something you can maneuver more freely than the ones already in place. For right now at least, you’re going to have to treat this as a hostile environment. No different than if you were trying to study a predator under water, or in the sulfur beds of Ganymede. Until you know more about the habits and reactions of the animal in question, I don’t think anyone should be put at risk trying to get a first hand, up close look.”

Bryce nodded, listening to his friend. If anyone stood a chance of drilling some sense into these people, he should.

Harry held up a hand, then frantically searched through the data sheets. “I’m glad you brought that up. I’ve been working on a tracking system, for tagging. The first step in any new animal research is learning their migratory and feeding habits.” He found the sheet he was looking for and held it out.

“How do you plan to attach this thing?” Mac reached for the sheet, looking dubiously at the image there.

“Well, that we haven’t worked out yet.”

“Oh good, now we’re talking.” Katherine interrupted the conversation with a smile for each of them. “I’ll need to gather as much information as I can before we can work up logical game plans for further study.” Without an invitation, she sat down next to Bryce, then reached out and began sifting through the files.

The four of them talked through the morning, hardly even breaking for lunch. Bryce didn’t have to say much–a fact he greatly enjoyed–but he was able to convey several key points about the dangers inherent in getting too close to the creatures they had long since dubbed “gargoyles.”

By late afternoon, Bryce had managed to end the idea of catching one, or allowing anyone to personally observe them from the inside of a cage. He considered that a victory.

“Okay, Harry, you have tracking plans and remote sensors.” Mac leaned back in his chair, cradling a cup of coffee in both hands. “What thought have you put into personal security?”

Bryce looked up, startled.

“Well, I have a vague idea that needs work. Basically it involves a version of the survival helmets you spacers used. You know the ones designed to get passengers to an air lock during an explosive venting.”

“What are you talking about?” Was he crazy? Survival meant staying inside at night. How hard was that?

“On board ships and stations, everyone had an escape plan, in case of a hull breach.” Mac faced Bryce, explaining. “These helmets were a face piece, basically, that used a static energy field to hold in a certain amount of air. Usually just enough to get you to a survival buoy. They were strong enough to take some nasty hits by debris.” Mac turned to Harry. “And you think you could make one large enough to repel one of those things during an attack?”

“Wait, Mac, you said . . .” Bryce had to swallow a lump of fear. “You said no one would go out with those things.”

“Not intentionally.” Mac set his coffee down and sat forward. “At least not any time soon. But we’ll need some security. No matter how careful we are, someone’s bound to get caught outside. Or trapped somewhere. We’ll need plans to insure their safety as well.”

Bryce looked down, chewing the corner of his lip, then nodded his concession. “Yeah.”

“Unless he’d rather see us all die, like the others.”

The voice approaching from behind sent a chill down Bryce’s spine. Every muscle in his body tensed with Eckland’s approach. Slowly, with great determination, Bryce looked up at Mac. His friend was standing now, facing Bryce but looking at the new arrival. There was blue ice where his eyes should have been, and a firm, dangerous set to his jaw.

“Did you have something to contribute, Eckland?”

“As a member of this colony group, I have an interest in our safety.” Eckland stopped a few feet behind Bryce. “I’d like to know what your friend here has to contribute, after all these weeks of convenient silence.”

“He has experience, Rob,” Katherine interjected. “And a damn good instinct.”

Bryce kept his eyes on Mac, refusing to face his accuser.

“Instinct? What about nerve, huh? Has he got what it takes when it counts?”

Before he knew what he was doing, or what he was about to say, Bryce turned and faced Eckland. “I’ve been outside, with them. I can tell you what they feel like. What they smell like. I can still hear the sound human bones make when they eat them. Can you?” The words had come out in a stream, from a place so deep inside, Bryce knew he never could have found it again. But they hit home. Eckland’s face paled. “Let’s see how long you live here.”

The hand that touched Bryce’s shoulder was felt too late, he’d already made the move forward, the momentum of his pounding heart carrying him through the door and out of the complex. He could only hope Mac’s touch was a show of support, and not a reprimand. Had he not been terrified by his own words, he would liked to have found out right then.

Bryce aimed for the shuttle and made it inside without being stopped by scolding voices from behind. He could imagine what Mac was saying right now, if indeed that touch had been his show of support. It was almost worth going back, just to see his friend in action again. Those steel-blue eyes had been a shock the first time he witnessed their use, and he was glad again they weren’t directed at him. But going back now wouldn’t gain him anything.

He’d stormed out and he’d have to stay out for now.

He went downstairs to wait, and found himself in his room, staring at the small computer resting on the dresser. It had been weeks now since his last encounter with Five. Several times, he’d had to stop himself from turning the thing back on, just to see if it worked. He knew it would. Nothing could kill Five. And somehow, Bryce was sure, Five was aware of what was happening around him, even when turned off.

“You know, don’t you?” Bryce spoke to the inactive machine, not willing to turn it on. “You’ve always known.”

Before he could make up his mind whether to turn the computer on or shove it through the trash reclaimer, he heard Mac coming downstairs.

“You put Eckland in his place like a pro, kid.” Mac was smiling with admiration as he walked into the galley. “You had us all speechless for a minute.”

Bryce stepped closer to the counters, wondering where to start. “I dunno where that came from.”

Mac pulled a bottle of water from the cold storage unit and pinched the cap open, then faced Bryce. “Don’t be sorry. You stood up for yourself better than most. I was impressed.” He took a long drink.

“Impressed?”

He swallowed, then dragged a hand across his mouth and nodded. “We all were. You don’t know Eckland like we do. He’s a coward. All piss and wind.” Mac waved the bottle in the air. “After you left, he couldn’t find a single thing to say. Harry asked if he wanted to volunteer to test one of the cages, and he took off in a huff.”

Bryce knew he should allow himself to feel a little proud, if not for having dealt with the bully so well, then at least for having impressed Mac. But all he felt was confused and a little disoriented.

Mac shrugged. “You did good. What do you say we reward ourselves with a visit to the hot springs?”

“Yeah, sure.” Bryce nodded and reached up to finger his necklace.

“Harry said to thank you for your input, by the way. You left before he could tell you how much help you’d been.”

“Great.” There was something tugging at the back of his mind, but he wasn’t sure if he should even try to catch it. “I still think it’s all a waste of time, though.”

They spent an hour in the hot water, relaxing and discussing Harry’s tracking ideas. Bryce had to conclude that passive study of the creatures was for the most part harmless and informative. He just didn’t care to be any more informed than he already was. He knew they came, and he knew how to avoid them. What more was needed?

By dinner, the conversation moved back to their camping adventure and the caves they’d found. Mac had learned of Ben’s detainment during last night’s storm inside the larger of the many caves they’d mapped. As it turned out, the commander was so impressed with the region and the caves, he’d extended his unplanned sleep-over and wasn’t expected back for another three days. Bryce went to sleep that night feeling good about his victory.

Unfortunately, that victory had come at a cost.

* * * *

His eyes were closed tightly against the brightness of the full moon, and the terror holding him in place.

He was outside!

Something brushed against his arm, soft, warm, and silky smooth. Against his wishes, both eyes opened. It was there, right next to him, still eating its meal. Bones snapped between heavy jaws, crunching in the silence of the night.

Bryce stood frozen in place, unable to move, not even sure he was breathing. There was another sound, mixed in with the crushing and chewing, that grew louder as the meal was consumed. Huge, black eyes met his, and for a moment, the meal was forgotten. Terror kept him from fleeing the animal’s gaze, but terror also threatened to stop his heart in his chest. When the creature moved, he screamed.

“Bryce!”

A light came on suddenly just as Bryce jumped up to a sitting position. The instant he realized it was a nightmare, it was over. Mac had rushed into the room and was standing in front of the bed, blinking against the light.

Bryce clamped his jaw shut and turned on the bed, leaning back into the wall. He pulled both feet up and planted them close, bringing his knees up.

“Are you all right?” Mac rubbed his eyes, trying hard to look awake.

“Yeah.” Damn Eckland, this was all his fault! He rested his elbows on both knees and buried his face roughly into his hands, trying to press the vision out of his head. Sweat was beading up on his neck and back, and his hands were shaking.

Mac sighed. “Another nightmare?”

Bryce nodded, then moved his hands enough to glance over. He was angry, and ashamed. The nightmares had been absent for nearly a week, now they were back in terrifyingly clear force. He ran both hands through his hair, trying to smooth down the sweat. “I’m sorry.”

Mac shook his head. “There’s nothing to apologize for. Is this about what you said to Eckland?”

“Yeah.” He dropped his hands into his lap and swallowed, then met his friend’s gaze. There was no sign of irritation, or impatience at having just been pulled out of a good night’s sleep.

“Are you ready to talk about it?”

Bryce considered the offer while smoothing down the t-shirt he’d been sleeping in. “I guess.”

“Come on,” Mac nodded toward the door. “I’ll fix us something warm to drink and you can tell me about it.”

He sighed, then slid off the bed.

“Sit down and get comfortable, this will just take a second.”

Bryce sat on the couch that faced the galley and pulled his legs up under him, then wrapped one arm around a side cushion. He didn’t ask what Mac was making as he allowed the nightmare back into his thoughts. In a few minutes, his friend was seated on the other couch. There was a mug of warm liquid in his hands, but he was staring at the floor.

“It was a long time ago. I was a kid, something like seven or eight.” He gripped the cup and tried to shift his gaze, but he felt fixed on a point near the coffee table leg. “There’s a door in the basement that’s been broken forever. It won’t lock, but it shuts. Five couldn’t control it, so they stacked huge crates up against it and forgot it was there. Only us kids knew. And we knew how to get to it by going through the crates.” He looked up, suddenly freed from the coffee table leg, and looked at Mac. Those bright, blue eyes held his for a moment, completely focused on what he was saying. “It was a dare, you know? At night, you’d see who could go through the door, and how far out they’d go, before they got scared.” Bryce stopped and swallowed hard, then noticed the drink in his hands. Without identifying it, he sipped the warm liquid. “One night, this kid–he was two years older than me and a real bully–he says he’s gonna go through the door and all the way to the tree.” As if slapped, Bryce looked at the liquid in his cup. “What the hell is this?”

“It’s warm milk with chocolate. It’s perfect for the nerves.”

Dubious, he sniffed the contents, then sipped it again. Just like the first swallow, this one went down smooth and easy. The comforting flavor of warm milk, combined gently with the sweet, delicate taste of chocolate. He decided against spitting it out.

“So, he went outside?” Mac asked quietly.

“We all did.” Bryce nodded, then rested the cup on one knee. “Me, Tim, and this guy–I can’t remember his name.” That was odd. He felt he should know the name, now that he remembered the incident. “He went out, and got Tim to follow. Then . . . then I did, too.” Fear knotted in his gut. “We were at the tree, ten yards from the door. Then this jerk, he ran back inside and shut the door.” Bryce felt his face go white, and his eyes lose focus. “Tim and I were side by side, at the tree, terrified. I turned to say something to him, to get him to run with me back to the building, only when I–I turned and . . .” He swallowed back a lump that threatened to choke him completely. “He was– He just wasn’t there anymore.” Bryce’s jaw clenched painfully as he shook his head in anger. “One minute he was there, then he just wasn’t! I never even heard anything. No movement, no shout. Nothing.”

“It’s all right. This happened years ago, it’s only a memory.”

Bryce closed his eyes tightly, trying to get some control back. When he thought he could trust his voice again, he continued. “I was so scared, I couldn’t move. Something touched me, and I thought it was Tim, but when I looked, it was one of them. It had just landed, right beside me, and was . . . it was . . .” A wave of nausea struck, then washed over and was gone. Bryce glared at the floor as if it was causing this nightmare to return. “It was eating him.” He turned to Mac, eyes burning with unshed tears. “I was frozen in place right there, watching it. I couldn’t move. I just stood there and watched.” Bryce searched Mac’s eyes for the blame that should be there, the shame of knowing someone who could do such a thing.

“It’s not your fault.” Mac’s voice was calm and quiet, and as gentle as the chocolate milk. “You were a kid, doing something kids do. You didn’t force anyone out there with you. And it could just as easily have been you.”

Bryce shook his head. He must not understand what happened. How could he? “I stood there and watched it eat my friend!”

“What else could you have done?”

The question startled him.

“You said your friend was gone in an instant, so you couldn’t have saved him. Running anywhere probably would have caused the animal to chase you, too. There’s nothing you could have done.”

Bryce shook his head, but couldn’t find an argument. “We shouldn’t have gone out there.”

“Bryce, you were eight years old. I don’t know any kid who hasn’t done stupid things and been damn lucky to survive them at that age. If you’re feeling guilty, stop it. It was hell, and one hell of a memory, and I’m sorry for that. I wish . . .” Mac stopped himself and bit the inside of his cheek for a second, then shook his head. “Do you remember how you got back inside?”

“Someone came to the door, an adult, and I think I ran inside. They don’t bother you when they’re eating. And they . . . they purr.”

“They what?”

“That’s what Five called it. This sound they make when they’re eating. I heard it that night. It was purring.”

“What do you think of the milk?”

Bryce laughed shortly, grateful for the change in subject. “Pretty sneaky. What if I’d hated it?”

“I knew you wouldn’t. I’ve never met anyone who hated chocolate in milk.”

He sipped the drink again, and found himself already used to the flavor. It was making him drowsy, despite his fear the nightmare would return. It was a familiar feeling. “Did you put something else in here?” Bryce let Mac take the cup from his hands as a wave of exhaustion swept over him.

“The chocolate masks the flavor of that flower pretty well, doesn’t it?” Mac set the cup down, then took Bryce firmly by the arms and helped him to his feet.

“You can’t drug me every time I have a nightmare, you know.” Bryce let himself enjoy the drifting feeling. He wanted to put up some kind of front, to at least appear offended at such a liberty. But he was too grateful for it to try.

“Maybe not.” Mac set Bryce down on the bed. “But until we can stop the nightmares, it’s a start.”

He nodded his thanks, or at least he intended to. Whether he had or not, he wasn’t really sure.

By morning, the vividness of last night’s nightmare had faded into a less painful memory. Bryce was first up, and making breakfast by the time Mac came out of his room, dressed and showered. They spent that day working again with Harry and his design team. Ben had returned from his tour of the caves and was brought up to date, agreeing with the need to err on the side of caution. Still, both Harry and Mac seemed determined to go ahead with their plan of using some kind of energy field as a safety net, some kind of covering that could protect someone caught outside. Bryce found the idea a complete waste of time, but the mechanics behind the instrument were somewhat intriguing.

During the next week, teams worked on several projects designed to attach tracking devices onto the creatures during their next visit, while Mac and Harry devoted themselves to what they’d dubbed their Safety Shield. Bryce helped as he was able, watching and learning when he had nothing to add. Occasionally, Eckland’s approach would encourage him to find reasons to leave the labs and help somewhere else. Since their confrontation, Bryce found the engineer quick to anger and easily provoked. Twice, in the hallways, he’d been forced to duck into rooms just to avoid the man. It was easier than causing a scene that could embarrass, or even endanger, anyone else.

They had two weeks before the next full moon, and already tests were being conducted to judge the strength of the shield. Bryce watched with amusement as an elaborate testing platform was constructed and put to use, slamming large, heavily weighted balls and metal poles into the blue, shimmering cone over and over again. Each time, much to Mac’s disappointment, the shield would fail after only twenty minutes of punishment. As humorous as the display was, Bryce found it hard to witness such frustration. During the fifth design attempt, he sat a short distance from the proving ground with the energy calculations, pouring over them for the hundredth time. There was something missing, something that was keeping the shield from working, but he couldn’t figure it out.

Unable to bear Mac’s disappointment in yet another failed attempt, Bryce gathered his notes and sneaked away. Back in the shuttle, he scurried downstairs, hurrying himself to keep from changing his mind. The computer in his room was half covered by a shirt, and hadn’t been turned on in weeks, but he had to try. He’d been scolded by the thing most of his life, it was no big deal.

“Five, I need your help.” Bryce swallowed, staring at the screen as it glowed to life. The moving image of colors that he’d always known as Five appeared before him, undamaged by the rough treatment of their last encounter.

“I know.”

“What do you mean, you know?” No scolding, just mind games. Fine.

“I’ve been watching.”

Damn. “I won’t even ask you how.”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you, to keep you safe.”

Bryce felt his face flush with anger, but he suppressed it. If there was a way for Five to monitor everything, he knew there was nothing to be done about it. At least he was only capable of watching. As long as no one ever put him back in the system, then he couldn’t regain control.

“I need you to look these over.” Bryce began typing out the formulas Mac was using in his shield construction. “If you’ve been watching, then you know what this is for.”

“Yes. And I know it hasn’t been working.” Five accepted the data as quickly as Bryce could type it in. “It’s foolish.”

“I know. But I want it to work.” He finished the last calculation and ran a hand through his hair to clear his eyes. “If it makes them feel more secure, what’s the harm?”

“The only security is–”

“I know. The only security is your security.” Bryce gazed at the ceiling and began to wonder if he’d done the right thing. There wasn’t anything Five could do, really, to ruin anything now. He was isolated, even if he’d found some way to monitor things. He knew Five was never really shut off, even when the monitors were dead. No one else ever believed him, but he knew. Even now, if he tried to sabotage the calculations, the design would prove itself in testing.

“There’s something you need to see.”

Bryce looked back at the screen. “What are you doing?”

“I’ve been watching him, this Eckland. I don’t trust him and I don’t like him.”

“That makes two of us.” He watched as the screen moved around the complex, then settled in one of the restrooms in the east section. Eckland was at the urinal, his back to the camera lens, speaking to someone Bryce didn’t know.

Five upped the volume, and the two men’s voices came through clearly.

“He never should have gotten this close. His influence will prove dangerous, you mark my words.”

“I hear ya. I just can’t understand why someone like Brennan would take him on like that.” The man Bryce didn’t know finished his business and walked to the sink. “I mean, from day one, he latched on to that kid, and for what? I know he’s not bent that way. At least on the way here he wasn’t. Made time with a few of the ladies, from what I heard.”

Eckland joined him, their backs still to the camera. “No, it’s not that. I don’t know what it is, but we’re gonna have to keep him from causing any more of our deaths.”

“Turn it off.” Bryce turned away from the screen, shaking his head. The man was determined to be trouble, no matter what.

“You’ve dealt with his kind before, Bryce. Just don’t forget how they operate.”

A memory tugged at his thoughts, but he let it go. “Yeah. I know how to be careful.” Bryce pointed at the screen. “What about the shield?”

“It will take some time. I need to go over other data, compare the structures with known sources.”

“But, you’ll do it?” He couldn’t help feeling surprised, and a little skeptical. After all, this was Five.

“As you say, no harm done if it makes them feel more secure.”

Slowly, Bryce nodded. “Thanks, Five.”

“Now, do me a favor and stay away from that man!”

“No problem there.” He moved the computer farther back on the dresser, making sure Five wasn’t going to get knocked to the floor now that he was cooperating.

“He’s gone out to where they’re testing these things. You should avoid going back right now.”

“Fine, I’ll go for a walk in the opposite direction.” He paused at the door, watching the machine, then shook his head slightly and left.

It was a sunny afternoon, not too hot, with a northerly breeze blowing off the mountains. Bryce avoided the entire scene at the testing site and headed off through the woods. He knew he had every right to be there, helping Mac and Harry with the tests, whether Eckland was around or not. He also knew the tension created by the pair of them being close would only serve to complicate what was going to be another disappointing test result. Mac deserved a break, and if the shield wasn’t going to cooperate, at least he could prevent adding to the stress.

There was fruit growing along the trail Bryce took, so he helped himself. Mac would be eating in the lab again, with the design team, pouring over the results and trying to find the missing link in their calculations. With luck, he’d never notice Bryce was missing. Often, toward the end of their day, he’d wander over to the hangar and take a lesson from Frank, learning all he could about the engine of Mac’s plane. It made for a nice distraction, hanging out with people only interested in their machines. Frank’s philosophy was a simple one: Stay alive, and keep it working. He was no more interested in tracking, tagging, or catching a creature than he was in sprouting horns. Bryce found him more than willing to ramble on and on about gears, fuel mixes and fine tuning an engine.

His wandering thoughts and the winding trail led Bryce to a ridge with a breathtaking view of the south plains. It was a site he rarely bothered to enjoy, but it never ceased to amaze him when he did. Land, stretching on for miles and miles. Land that held anything his imagination could conceive or his nightmares conjure up. Countless nights he’d lain awake as a child, dreaming of what lay beyond the edge of the world. Many nights that had started out tamely ended with demons winging their way over the valley. But not tonight.

They had another week and a half till the full moon’s return. Bryce found a comfortable rock to perch on and watched the land change colors with the tiring sun. With Mac’s help, and a little new-found common sense, he’d been able to stay out later and later at night. Once he even lasted long enough to see some stars come out. It wasn’t something he was proud of, considering how calmly and easily everyone else handled the coming darkness.

But tonight, it was going to be different. He’d spoken to Five, even asked for his help, and received it. That alone was worthy of celebration. If he could manage a few hours in the dark, without completely freaking out, Mac would have something to feel good about. He deserved it, even if it wasn’t going to last long.

Bryce watched the sun touch the plains and begin to sink. He calculated his return trip, based on a casual walk and an all out panicked dash. If he wanted to return with anything near dignity, he could start now, and make it in a few minutes after complete and utter terror set in. This wasn’t going well. The sun was still technically out, with plenty of light left to see by. But there was no safety net. And no open shuttle door waiting for his hurried entrance a mere dash behind him. No, he’d done enough for one day!

Twilight was spreading out over the darkening sky, making his heart pound faster as he walked back down the trail. At least he’d tried this time to stay out alone for a bit, proving to his subconscious that there really wasn’t anything to fear. At least that’s what Mac said these experiments were doing for him, reprogramming his fears or something like that. Better that he should work on reprogramming the flight recorder, while sitting comfortably back at home, doors locked, with Mac on the couch reading his books. Yes, that was a good idea. Just walk quickly straight back home where he could work on real projects that he could touch and hold and see results instead of this ethereal Zen crap about reworking his innermost demons and bringing them to light and . . . what was that sound . . . ?

“Shit!”

“Bryce! Where have you been?”

His heart stopped, pressed up against his palate somewhere. Bryce had to swallow three times to work it back down in the direction of his chest. “Damn, you scared me.”

“You?” Mac had grabbed Bryce by the arms when they slammed into each other on a blind turn in the trail. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you, where the hell have you been? It’s late.”

Bryce nodded, then shrugged. “Right here. What’s the problem?” He hadn’t heard any alarms coming from the complex, and despite his mounting uneasiness with the darkness surrounding them, he did know it wasn’t a full moon.

“The problem is you taking off like this and never telling me where you are. You’re always back before sunset.” Mac looked sternly down at him. “I looked everywhere for you.”

Puzzled, Bryce looked up, then gestured around them. “There aren’t many places to go around here. What’s the big deal? You didn’t need me for the tests so I took a walk, end of story.” And end of sunlight. Bryce glanced at the sky and saw more stars than he’d ever seen before. More than he ever cared to see. He moved to continue his walk home, but Mac stood his ground.

“The big deal is I turned around and found Eckland and his pals hanging out where you’d been, then I couldn’t find you anywhere.”

“I thought avoiding them was a good idea. They’re not my people, I don’t have to invest any time where they’re concerned, so I left.” Like he wanted to leave right now. Again, Bryce stepped forward, assuming this subject was closed, only this time Mac reached out and stopped him.

“Hang on. I just spent the better part of two hours searching this place for you, and that’s all you can say?”

“I told you, they’re not my people.” Bryce felt anger surge up to mix with his mounting anxiety.

“No, they’re not your people. I am.” Mac released Bryce’s arm and pointed to his own chest. “I was worried about you. I checked the hangar, the labs, even the hot spring, once I found you weren’t in the shuttle.”

Bryce looked down quickly, hoping Mac hadn’t seen Five in his room.

“Look, I know you’re a little new at this, but where I come from, it’s customary to let your friends or family know if you’re about to take off, or at least warn them that something’s up, so they don’t worry.”

Bryce laughed shortly, shaking his head, but his retort refused to come out. Mac waited, silently watching him. Of course, he was right. Maybe he hadn’t been thinking at the time, but his friend was right. This whole concept was a new one, and somewhat uncomfortable, when he stopped to think about it. Even a little restricting.

“Five wasn’t this demanding. I left, you found me, now let’s go back.”

Mac was a stone wall, insurmountable and completely impassable. “Did Five ever give a damn about you?”

“He kept me alive!” Bryce’s anger flared, but he didn’t understand what was motivating him to insist on a fight he didn’t want to have.

Mac’s voice never rose, but the intensity grow much stronger. “He kept you dependent.”

“Isn’t that what you’re doing?” The words came out before he even knew he’d formed them. Bryce felt his entire face flush red with emotion.

“Is that what you think? That I’m just trading places with that computer, keeping you in line using different methods?”

Bryce swallowed, but he couldn’t answer. He knew if he did, the blue eyes would become lasers and cut his own eyes out with their intensity.

“Listen, if that’s what you think, then we have to talk about it. That is not what I’m in this for.”

“What are you in this for?”

Mac’s jaw clamped shut, setting the muscles to either side of his face in motion. Bryce looked up, blinking in the starlight, regretting every word he was saying, and still wanting to hear the answers.

“I’m in this for the friendship, Bryce. For your friendship.”

Bryce closed his eyes tightly, nearly forcing tears through the lids as he shook his head. “I’m sorry.” His voice was quiet, and he couldn’t even come close to meeting Mac’s gaze. “It’s just–I–I’m not used to . . . There was never anyone to care before.”

“Well you’re going to have to get used to it, because now there is someone to care.” When Bryce looked up, he found Mac’s gaze penetrating, but nowhere near the ice he’d used on Eckland. “That’s what friendship is about”

“I’m just new with all this. I guess I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t feel there was anything to worry about, so I didn’t think you would.”

Mac nodded, then rested a hand on Bryce’s shoulder. “Now I know I’ve been a little preoccupied with this project, and Eckland’s been getting in your face lately. But you’ve been handling him just fine. If you’d have told me he was becoming a problem, I could . . .”

“No.” Bryce held up a hand, then ran it through his hair. This conversation wasn’t completely blocking out the fact that he was outside, in the dark! But it wasn’t one he could dash away from and pick up again when Mac caught up back inside. “He’s not a problem, I just wanted to get away for a bit.” Thoughts of being angry over restrictions and scoldings were fading quickly. “Then when I got out here, I thought I could try staying out after sunset alone for once, see how that went.”

Mac smiled, raising one eyebrow questioningly. “I noticed that. You’re still outside, and it’s pretty dark. How do you feel?”

“Terrified.” Actually, he was sure he was frozen in place. “Can we go home now?”

“Yeah.” Mac sighed, then turned back to the trail. “Let’s go home.”

Bryce expected nightmares that night, and he wasn’t disappointed. But at least they were quick and a little less vivid than usual, keeping him from waking up in a sweat with Mac barreling into his room to make sure he was okay.

In one dream, he was certain something was grabbing him around the neck, then sitting on his chest, watching him. It was the strangest sensation, one that lingered even after waking. The strangest part was the fact that it hadn’t frightened him. Just what it was, he didn’t know. But he pondered the memory for a week.

Mac’s shield tests continued to fail halfway through their analysis, but neither he nor Harry were willing to give up. They were both convinced it was a simple problem of miscalculating the proper settings, so they continued to try. They had the commander’s blessing, and more often than not, his assistance as well. Bryce made a point of staying nearby during the tests, even when Eckland was around. When the man got overly hostile, Bryce would find a reason to return to the shuttle, where he could discuss the shield problems with Five. He hadn’t mentioned to Mac that Five was working on the project, and they both felt it would serve better if he kept it that way. If a solution could be found, the others may or may not be willing to try it if they knew where the data came from. So far Five hadn’t had any luck either.

Bryce’s attempts to stay out with Mac after sunset stopped the closer they got to the moon’s new cycle. The closer the new phase came, the more anxious he felt at sunset. And his nightmares grew more intense.

Two nights prior to the creatures return, after yet another failed shield attempt, Bryce found himself unable to sleep. There were nightmares waiting, he was sure. Dreams of what had happened long ago, brought on by what was to come. Mac had spent the day frustrated and preoccupied with his failures, angered by what he was sure had to be a simple missing figure or untried setting.

In fact the whole complex seemed quiet that night. Bryce avoided his room completely and set about working on a broken altimeter the hangar crew had asked him to work on. It was busy work, he knew. The other day, he’d found Frank talking to Mac and overheard him asking for a project that might keep his anxiety prone partner occupied during the long week to come. When the hangar chief handed over the equipment and begged some assistance, Bryce accepted willingly and without regret. He knew full well his mind would require as much distraction as he could find when they came out again.

But right now, he couldn’t find the log file. Bryce set down the diagnostic tool he was using and looked around the workbench. Mac’s diagrams and calculations were strewn about, mostly taking up only his side, but his use of manual writing tools instead of the palm sized digital pads amounted to clutter at times.

Bryce lifted a few of the notepads, worn thin with the over-application of the erasure charge, but couldn’t find what he was looking for. Resigned to the fact that they weren’t there, he slid off his stool and padded barefoot up the stairs. Another copy of the log could be downloaded easier than he could scour the entire shuttle for it.

Upstairs, everything was dark with the exception of a few lights from the cockpit controls. Bryce both loved and hated this time of night, when everyone was inside, out of view. Mac asleep downstairs, and only the lights of the computers to look at. He enjoyed the peace all that quiet brought him, knowing now he was no longer alone, that there was someone he could honestly call a friend right downstairs. He also hated the flashes of memory it brought, of times when he prayed for madness, and feared it was already upon him.

Shaking off the sensations, Bryce called up the correct file and began to download the log. It was dark outside, so he turned his back on the view and watched the lights on the console blink and flash. One light caught his attention as having nothing to do with his download. Curious, he sat in the pilot’s seat and investigated what appeared to be a diagram of the complex, with a small red dot blinking quietly to the left of center.

“What is this?” Bryce powered up the rest of the display, then realized it was a file Mac had been working on, and hadn’t closed out. Immediately, he reached up to shut it down, not wanting to pry. But his curiosity got the better of him. After some quick study, he figured out he could zoom in on the blip and get a better idea what it was. At first, he saw the shuttle, with the blip inside. Then another focus brought a more detailed sketch of the ship, with the blip still inside. “What the hell?” It was a tracker. But, Mac wasn’t working on the trackers, only the shield.

Bryce scanned the cockpit for a portable tracing unit. If Mac wasn’t working on the trackers, then someone had planted something inside. He found a unit on the mapping tables, flipped it on, then slowly began to walk the length of the shuttle’s upstairs section, searching for the source of the blip. He’d find it first, then alert his friend. For all he knew, it could be a listening device as well, monitoring everything they did and said. But why? And where did they . . .

Confused, Bryce stopped dead center in the room. The blip hadn’t moved since he’d started. It still showed no less than two feet from the tracer, but it remained two feet from the tracer no matter where . . .

He dropped the instrument and grabbed the pendant dangling from his neck. The chain was too short to allow him to see the metal, but he felt the tiny bump on the back of the smooth silver the second time he tried.

“Damn!” Bryce grabbed the discarded tracer and turned it on, then pointed it at his necklace. It announced happily that it had finally located the tracking device. Damn him! He rushed back to the cockpit and called up the file, reviewing the notes Mac hadn’t bothered to password protect. How dare he do this! And how had he? Unless he was the nightmare that time?

Furious, Bryce scanned the notes for access files, planning his verbal assault. It was one thing to worry, and he’d given in to that argument. But this! This was . . . this . . . it . . . . It was only accessible to Mac. Triple password protected. At least it would have been, if Mac had shut the program down before going to bed. Bryce scanned the file again, noting for the first time the name Mac had given the program. The Bryce-Device. Is that supposed to be funny? Suddenly fearful of someone getting into it while he stood there, he closed the file, then spun around and leaned against the console, fingering the necklace and the tiny bump on the back.

“Of all the . . .” Nerve? Rudeness? Worry?

He was angry, and had every right to be. Never had someone invaded his privacy like this, monitored his movements, kept track of where he was. Never had . . . well, except Five. He tolerated that for more than twenty years, and the machine was following orders, at least in the beginning. What was Mac following?

Bryce inhaled deeply, allowing the last of his anger out unvoiced. Mac was motivated by nothing more than concern. To argue privacy in the face of that would be just about the stupidest thing he could do right now.

Resigned, he turned off the lights, went downstairs, stored the equipment and very quietly got washed up and into bed. The fingers of one hand found the necklace and the small tracking device attached. No, he couldn’t argue this small invasion of privacy. Not when it afforded him such a sense of protection.

The next morning, during breakfast, Bryce had to stop himself repeatedly from fingering the necklace. “You’re not going to try it again today, are you?” Mac was watching him over the rim of his coffee cup, so he let go of the metal and picked up his fork, stabbing into a slice of fruit.

“No, there’s no point. Harry and I are going to try out a few changes in the settings, then run a few simulations on the lab computers. But there won’t be enough time before tonight.” Mac set his cup down, then picked up his empty plate and carried it to the galley.

Bryce finished his fruit quickly, then brought his dishes to the sink. “No one’s going to try anything, are they?”

“Not this time, no.” Mac turned around and leaned against the counter. “The tracking devices are ready, but they don’t have a clear method of attaching one yet, so Ben’s ordered a week of observation and filming.”

Bryce sighed his relief.

“Listen, I can’t promise these people won’t do something foolish sometime. But I can promise you, I’m going to do everything in my power to keep them from killing themselves with curiosity.” Mac grinned. “Or from killing me.”

“Good.” He nodded, reaching up again to finger the small nub on the back of his pendant. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Yes.” Mac pushed himself away from the counter and walked toward the stairs. “You can help me by taking today off.”

“What?” Bryce turned to follow his partner, eyebrows creased in confusion. “What do you mean, take today off?”

Mac turned and laughed shortly. “That’s right, you’ve never actually thought of anything as work before, have you?” He shook his head. “I want you to relax. This isn’t exactly your favorite week of the month starting tonight, and I don’t want you exhausting yourself with stress.”

Bryce swallowed, looking down. “You mean you don’t want me freaking out again?” He looked up and met his partner’s gaze. “I’m fine, really.”

“I know you’re fine.” Mac held up a hand. “But you know how the flashes came back then. I just want you relaxing today, that’s all. We’ll both be locked up nice and secure well before sunset. Everyone’s going to be safe and sound this time, I promise. You’ve been working hard for weeks, Harry and I appreciate your support on this. I know it’s not something you care for.”

“No, I don’t mind. I don’t think it’s a good idea, but I want to see it work anyway. It will work.”

Mac nodded. “Yeah, it will. Just as soon as we figure out what we’re doing wrong.” He turned to the stairs again. “Just take it easy today, all right?”

“You’ll finish before it gets late?” Bryce stood at the base of the stairs, watching Mac climb up.

“Two hours before sunset, I promise.” Mac stopped and looked down. “Listen, if you need me for anything, you know where I’ll be.”

Bryce nodded gratefully, then reached up and fingered the necklace again before he knew he was doing it.

Mac paused a moment on the steps, then smiled and continued up and out.

Grimacing at his action, Bryce let go of the pendant. He’d never been prone to fingering it before. The older man was going to figure out what he knew if he kept that up. During the night, Bryce thought about telling his partner he’d found the tracking device, but he changed his mind. If he confronted Mac about the device, he’d have to come clean about his own secrets, as well.

“Take the day off.” Bryce shook his head and picked up the altimeter he’d been working on the night before. He’d never taken a day off before. He wasn’t even sure what that meant. He had projects, and things he helped Mac with. There was the matter of day to day living, food gathering and preparation, equipment repair and maintenance. But nothing he thought of as a job. But, if Mac wanted him to relax, then he’d do it in the hangar.

Bryce spent the morning working on the altimeter in Frank’s shop. None of the planes or vehicles were allowed out, since the full moon was that night. All exploration teams had been brought back via plane that morning, and preparations were underway all around the complex to secure every piece of equipment and set up all of the recording devices they could. At noon, he stopped working and joined Mac and Harry in the lab for lunch. The room was bustling with activity, but as soon as he sat down with the pair, it was easy to tune out the comings and goings all around them.

Both men were convinced they were close to a breakthrough on their design, but Mac felt almost reluctant to try it again. He wanted his own time off from the many disappointing attempts already tried. After some heated debate with Harry, Mac changed the subject and inquired as to Bryce’s time off. He wasn’t overly impressed with the choice of leisure activity, but even he concluded relaxation was relative.

Even as Bryce was getting up to return to the hangar, the conversation returned to their new calculations. Happy to be away from the noise, he went to Mac’s plane and began a diagnostic check. The inside of the small, two-man flyer had become one of his many favorite getaways, where he could find some peace and solitude without having to go very far. A diagnostic check would take two hours, giving him plenty of time to get back home and get dinner started before sunset. It was a good day, so far, with no flashes haunting him. In fact, he hadn’t had a memory image in days.

“Don’t knock it.” Bryce muttered to himself. He’d just finished the diagnostic check when something outside the cockpit caught his eye. It was Eckland, and two of his buddies Bryce didn’t know the names of. He set down his equipment and watched the trio, waiting for them to leave before he exited the plane. A confrontation with them this afternoon wasn’t something he cared to engage in.

Frank walked up to the plane Eckland was standing beside and started talking. From inside the cockpit, Bryce couldn’t hear what they were saying, but judging by the hangar chief’s angry gestures, he wasn’t happy with the subject. A moment later, Eckland walked around the plane, out of Bryce’s view. As he did so, one of his companions struck Frank square in the jaw, the blow sending him crashing to the ground.

“Damn him.” Bryce climbed out of the pilot’s seat and hurried through the cargo section.

If Eckland wanted a fight, he deserved a more balanced one.

“There you are.”

Bryce reached the open door and looked up. His eyes met Eckland’s an instant before Eckland’s fist met his chin. The last thing Bryce remembered was the ground rushing up to hit him in the face.

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4 thoughts on “Another friday chapter

  1. “Embarassing” ? “…this thing” ? I wish writers wouldn’t put disclaimers like this up, dear writer. You see, I loved it ten years ago and I *still* love this universe. I thought it was wonderfully written waaay back when and I *still* believe that to be so. Your disclaimer has me feeling as if I haven’t grown up. 😉

  2. MaDonna – when a writer is “apologizing” for past writings, it’s not that we’re sorry we wrote the story, or that we feel the tale itself is sub-par. On the contrary, When The Stars Walk Backwards holds a special spot in my heart and in my mind. It’s a good story, a complex and detailed world and I’m quite proud of myself for having come up with many of the twists, turns and invented universe.

    However – as a writer I’m constantly improving, learning the craft, and in doing so I can look back on something written 10 years ago and see all the flaws. Writing flaws, such as having enough em dashes to feed an army. Dream sequences which are literary faux paus, and a character with over-the-top angst (a common trait with a newbie writer). You’re seeing a story you’ve enjoyed, as I did. But I’m seeing sentence structure that weakens at times, dialog that goes a bit overboard here and there, and times when I was clearly in love with my own words.

    I liken it to my mother, a quilter and quilting instructor. When she puts together a new quilt, myself and others find nothing but beauty in it. But she sees all the flaws. Spots where her sewing wasn’t tight, or her pattern shifted slightly. When she shows these quilts to other professionals, she feels compelled to point out the flaws, so they’ll be aware that she’s aware of them.

    It’s difficult to explain, but even well published authors look back on earlier work with a bit of a twinge. We love our children, but we can’t help notice the pimples 😀

  3. You know, I can’t say I’ve written a lot, but I’ve studied writing quite a bit. It’s my nature to study something extensively before plunging into it. But, through all the flaws, there’s a dang good story in there. The crucial bits are there. I see the places that make you cringe, and that’s fine. But nothing will ever be perfect, no matter how many years you’ve been doing it. I think that as you get older and more experienced, you learn to let go better.

    Honestly, I keep thinking you should rewrite it a more reasonable length (not that length bothers me in particular) and contact Holly Lisle. I know at one point she was looking for more writers for her One More Word Press. There a handful of e-books on her store page in addition to all her nonfiction for writers. She rewrote one of her own books and put it on there. With the efforts she’s making, a previously published book may not be a no.

    But, I still love this story. It’s good! Remember that you are a good storyteller.

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