Well, here’s chapter 9. The only thing I have to say today is – I didn’t read over this. I can’t let myself look at it, lest my retinas burn and my brain forget that my characters are so much MORE now. More interesting, more “manly” if you will, more independant.
Regardless of the age, the emotional scaring, whatever – this dude was over the top writerly speaking. I can appreciate the fact that those who read this 10 + years ago feel slighted, or confused, when the author speaks this way about her own creation – but I’m speaking as a writer who sees warts she ignored before. Or wasn’t even aware of. And frankly, at the time, I was being swayed by an editor who wanted more and more of this angst-ridden stuff that – in all honesty – makes my brain cringe now. I’m seeing weak dialog, overly-long situations and scenes, plenty of showing not telling.
As the creator, I do still love this piece. But as a writer, I can’t help but wince just a bit.
Mac sighed and leaned back in his chair, staring at the notes on the table in front of him. The answer was there somewhere. It had to be. The original concept they were working with could hold up against the vacuum of space for three hours. Why couldn’t they come up with a design that could withstand the rigors of physical attacks for more than four?
“What?” Mac looked up, startled out of his thoughts. Harry nodded at his hand and he looked down, turning the silver bear around with his fingers. “Oh, this.” He held up the metal and showed it off. “The kid made it with that silver metal he molds with sound.”
“Wow. I’ve seen Carl working with that stuff.” Harry examined the piece, then handed it back. “It’s good. I didn’t know Bryce had ever seen the big earth animals.”
“He hasn’t.” Mac fingered the smooth metal, letting his thumb run down the silver back.
“That kid’s got some talent.” Harry whistled and leaned back. “Must be strange for him, having people around again.”
Mac nodded and continued to finger the bear. He’d developed a habit of taking it out of his pocket and rubbing it like a worry stone whenever he was stuck on a problem.
“I don’t think I could have survived what he did, being alone for so long, you know? Even without memories to keep you company.” Harry shivered and shook his head. “With nothing but that crazy computer to talk to.”
“Yeah.” Mac sighed and returned his silver bear to the small pocket in the waistband of his pants. “He’s been through hell all right. But he came out the other side.”
“Right. Good to hear it, too. He’s quiet, that one, but damn if he isn’t borderline genius with mechanics.”
“That he is.” Mac laughed shortly, then picked up the latest version of their shield and stood. “Well, I’m calling it a day. We’ve got two hours before sunset, so don’t forget your checklist.”
“Right. I’m spending the night in my room. Maybe tomorrow I’ll watch the tracking group play with their toys, since ours has to wait another month.”
“Better safe and alive.” Mac hefted the device. “I’m taking this one with me, maybe being cooped up all night I can fidget with it.”
Mac carried the shield with him back through the corridors, stopping now and again to remind certain groups of workaholic scientists and project planners to go through their assigned checks. He’d worked with Ben two weeks ago, designing a plan to insure the safety of each member of their group during the phase of the moon. Each person had their assigned duties to check for locked doors, secured equipment, returned exploration groups and head counting. By the time he got to the shuttle, they had one hour to go.
“Hey, kid?” Mac shut the door behind him and set the lock. “Bryce?” Dinner should be ready soon, since his partner requested the duty as a distraction during the week ahead.
No smells were wafting up the staircase as Mac walked down. “Bryce?” After a quick walk through the living quarters and each bedroom, he checked the time. Forty-five minutes until dark. Nothing could be keeping Bryce from noticing the time.
Worry began to tug at the back of Mac’s mind. He went back upstairs and turned on the main computer in the cockpit, calling up a file he’d created to track his friend. That morning, he’d realized his partner had discovered the tiny device he’d secured to the back of the pendant. Bryce had never been one to touch or finger the necklace, but his actions that morning suggested Mac’s tiny breach of personal privacy had been found out. And, oddly enough, accepted without complaint. It was for his own mental health, to have a way to find the kid should he ever wander off again. That night had put a scare into Mac he didn’t want to have again.
He pulled up the file, activated the search, and watched as the map of the complex began to grow and shift.
“What the hell?” The red blip indicating the precise position of the small mechanical tracker showed bright, and stationary, fifty miles away.
“Ben, I need a plane readied, NOW!” Mac flipped on the speakers to the entire shuttle so he could dash downstairs and still communicate with the commander.
“Brennan? What’s going on? Listen, we have a plane missing. Someone saw…”
“Bryce is missing!” Mac ran to his room where he’d left the prototype shield. He had no choice. Four hours might be his lifetime.
“I don’t have time to explain! Bryce is outside, I know where, but I’ll have to fly there to get to him in time!” He hefted the shield and ran back toward the stairs. “Whoever took that missing plane took Bryce.”
“My God.” Ben’s voice seemed to indicate his understanding. “We’ll send all the planes out–”
“No! It’s too risky.” Mac took the stairs two at a time, nearly stumbling as they spiraled upward. “I’m taking the shield. Just have my plane ready, I’m coming out.”
“You’ve got it.”
Mac stopped long enough to pull a weapon from the closet.
Eckland. It had to have been Eckland.
His job as security just became deadly, now that the colony had its first attempted murder. He snaked one arm through the shield’s heavy carrying strap and shoved the gun into his waistband while he reached for the door.
It wouldn’t open.
“Dammit.” Mac slapped the controls again, but the door wouldn’t budge.
Startled, Mac spun around and drew the gun.
“You have to listen to me!”
“Five?” How in the hell?
“Your shield won’t work, you have to change the settings. NOW!”
“Open this door, dammit!” As it was, he’d barely make it there AT sunset!
“LISTEN TO ME!” Five’s voice rang through the shuttle, but seemed to be coming from everywhere. “You have to alter your settings for a combined output of zero-alpha-nine. Without that your shield will fail and he’ll be killed!”
Mac closed his eyes tightly for an instant, forcing his mind into battle calmness. “Unlock this door, Five. Bryce is outside!”
“I know. And if you don’t alter your settings, when you get to him, you’ll both die.” Five lowered his tone almost menacingly. “Now do as I say. Change your shield settings to a combine output of zero-alpha-nine. The shield will withstand a full onslaught for twelve hours at those settings.”
Mac’s gut froze as his instincts kicked in. Instantly, the new settings made perfect, logical sense.
He swallowed once, weighing his options. There were none. “Zero-alpha-nine.” The settings were changed by simply typing in a few new coordinates. Now, to test them.
“Eckland’s returning,” Five announced. “If you don’t kill him, I will.” The door suddenly opened to warm, fresh air. “And Captain, if you don’t bring Bryce back alive, I’ll kill you, too.”
Mac stepped to the door, then paused. “If he dies from these new settings, I’ll kill you.” Without waiting for an answer, he ran to the hangar.
“The other plane’s landing, with Eckland!” Ben met Mac halfway, then ran with him. “I’ve got men detaining him.”
“Keep him locked up somewhere till I get back with Bryce, we’ll deal with him then.”
“Mac, you can’t go out there alone.”
“I can’t let anyone take the risk. I have this.” Mac gestured to the shield bouncing against his side.
“But it doesn’t work!”
They ran into the hangar just as Eckland was being pulled from the cockpit of his plane. Mac ran up to him and was instantly restrained by Ben.
“Where is he?!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Eckland shrugged, glancing at the two men holding his arms.
There was no time. Mac pulled one arm free and slammed his fist into Eckland’s nose. There was a satisfying cracking sound as knuckles snapped cartilage. “Keep him somewhere!” Mac pointed at one of the newly appointed guards, then turned and ran to his plane, already powered up and ready to go.
“Brennan, the shield!” Ben rushed after him.
“I have a new setting. Wish me luck.”
“How? Harry said…”
Mac turned from the cockpit door. “Five.” He climbed in and started buckling the straps.
“My God, Mac! You can’t trust that thing!”
“I think I can where Bryce is concerned.” Mac clutched the controls and nodded for Ben to step back. “I have to.” He was in the air before Ben could even form a reply.
The small plane reached maximum speed, screaming through the air to beat the sunset. Mac keyed in the exact coordinates where he’d seen Bryce’s blip, then pushed the engines into the red. There was no time to consider all the events taking place. Instinct and years of training had already kicked in and taken control. All he could do was catalog everything for future reference. Everything but the shield. If he couldn’t get to Bryce and get him into the safety of the plane in time, he’d be forced to use the untested device and its new settings. When turned on, the shield created an oblong bubble, five feet long and four feet high. The theory being one person–or two if need be–could crouch inside, making themselves as small in appearance as possible so as not to draw attention, and wait out any onslaught.
Of course that was all theory. Mac knew all too well what had happened to each shield during the field tests. After four hours of punishment, it collapsed completely. If Five’s new settings were incorrect, they’d be exposed with little chance of getting into the plane if they were surrounded. He didn’t know if the shield would hold up longer under minimal attacks any more than he knew if these creatures would ever stop an attack once started. There was no choice.
“Come on, come on!” Still ten miles away and the sun was sinking fast. Eight miles. Mac turned on the exterior lights and increased the brightness, aiming them straight ahead. Six miles. Stars were shimmering to life in the twilight sky. He brought the plane down low, flying just a few feet from the grass below. Four miles. Something moved through one of the light beams, flying past with such speed he couldn’t be sure what he saw. Two miles. Mac checked the strap around his shoulder, making sure the shield was there. One mile. He unhooked his flight harness and lowered his altitude, brushing the tall grass.
The plane’s belly struck a rock, then began to dig a trench in the ground. Mac ignited the braking thrusters and looked up in time to see a large, black mass smack into the cockpit windshield. The creature staring at him from the other side of the thin glass screamed, then launched itself away from the bright lights. Immediately, Mac flipped the canopy open, grabbed the plane’s first aid kit as an afterthought, and launched himself out.
Another screech, behind him. Mac spun around. Bryce was on the ground, ten yards away, beating one of the creatures with a heavy stick. Mac drew and fired, then ran toward his friend even before the blast hit the animal. The force of the impact knocked it away, but not out. With lightning speed, it was on its hind legs again, crouching for a spring.
Mac threw himself over Bryce, covering the smaller man with his own body. With one hand, he pulled off the shield and turned the unit on, praying he’d gotten it faced in the right direction. The creature sprang and Mac covered Bryce’s face and head with his arms, then tucked his head down.
At first, he thought the shield had collapsed. Something struck his side hard, then Bryce exploded underneath him.
“Bryce!” Mac grabbed his shoulders and tried to use his own body as both protection and restraint. He was only barely aware of the blue haze bubbled out around them.
“Let me go! They’re here!” Bryce’s eyes were wide with terror, his panic fueling attempts to get out from under Mac’s hold. “Let me go!”
“It’s all right!” Something slammed into the air next to Mac. An explosion of blue sparks lit the night, but nothing broke through. Another attack to his left was met with the same unyielding energy. Bryce’s shout was drown out by the angry scream of the creature outside their protective bubble. “They can’t get in, it’s all right!”
“Let me go!” Bryce brought his knee up again, trying to force Mac off in his panicked desperation to get away.
Mac had to adjust his grip to hold his friend on the ground. Even then, Bryce’s fear was a struggle to contain. Blood was seeping from somewhere, staining his shirt as he held on. “Bryce, listen to me! The shield is up!”
“No, it doesn’t work!”
“It is working, they can’t get in!”
“Let me go!”
“Listen to me!” Mac altered his grip, took Bryce’s wrists, and forced his arms to his chest, restraining him between the ground and his own body. “Listen to me.” Bryce continued to struggle, but he was losing strength, going into shock. Lavender eyes shimmered brightly with fear in the full moon light. “They can’t get in, the shield is working.”
Bryce shook his head, pulling against the hands holding him down. “It doesn’t work. You said it doesn’t work!”
“It does work, we fixed it!”
A black shape, large and heavy, moved no more than three feet away from the edge of their small protection. Mac looked up and saw the creature draw back, then lunge with full force.
Bryce saw it too. He broke Mac’s hold and surged away, pushing into Mac and slamming them both against the opposite side of the shield. It held against their struggle, sparking blue fire on the outside that lit up the creature still trying to claw its way through to them.
Mac was pressed against the wall of their five foot tall bubble, with Bryce desperately trying to push through him. “Bryce, it’s all right!” He could feel the energy begin to burn his back where he was straining the shield’s forces. Their enclosure was too small for much maneuvering. All he could do was wrap his arms around his friend and wrestle him to the ground. The blood staining his shirt was coming from a wound on Bryce’s right side, still oozing red in a steady flow. Mac blocked his view of the creature. It was three feet from them, staring into the shield it couldn’t break through. He felt Bryce begin to shake underneath him. “It’s all right. The shield works. We’re safe.”
Bryce shook his head, unable to speak. His eyes locked on to Mac’s and he swallowed hard, unable to control the shaking.
“Now listen to me.” He held his friend’s gaze and lowered his voice, trying desperately to calm him down. “We fixed the shield today, it works. We’re safe here.” Bryce shook under his grip but didn’t struggle again. “Now, you’re hurt and I need to check you out, okay?” Mac waited, but Bryce only stared back, still shaking. “Are you listening? You’re going to be okay. I need to check you out.” He was falling deeply into a state of shock, but Mac wasn’t convinced he wouldn’t explode off the ground again the second he eased his grip. “Can you lie still?”
Bryce closed his eyes so tightly, tears streamed down the outside corners. He nodded quickly, but Mac wasn’t too convinced.
“Trust me, they can’t get in, I promise.” He held on to Bryce’s arms until he got another nod. “Okay.” Mac released his grip slowly, then reached for the first aid kit, glad it had fallen inside the shielded area. “All you have to do is lie still.” Mac started opening Bryce’s shirt while he had the chance. “You can do that.” His partner winced when the material was pulled away from the gashes carved into his right side. “Easy, take it easy. Just breathe.” Mac inspected the wound. Three deep gashes ran over the ribs, but the marks had stopped short of piercing a lung. He checked everywhere else quickly, before Bryce could realize the kind of pain he was in. There were no other injuries. “Okay, just take it easy.” Mac reached for the first aid kit and glanced around the area. “You’re gonna be fine.” He pulled out bandages and tape, then one vial of pain killer, hoping to get the bleeding stopped and get the kid drugged up before he had time to panic again.
“I know. Just hang in there, kid.” Mac wrapped the wound tightly, then pressed the hypo against Bryce’s neck. He had only three vials. One dose would keep Bryce relatively comfortable for two hours. Two doses would keep him asleep for three. They had nine hours till sunrise.
“What is that?”
“It’s for the pain.” Mac set the hypo back into the kit.
“Will it put me out?” His voice was desperate.
Mac shook his head once. “No. There isn’t enough.”
He swallowed and closed both eyes for a moment. “We’re not going to make it.”
“We’re okay.” Mac’s jaw clenched tightly. In the small area under the shield, he was forced to lean close to his friend, arms at either side to block his view. “Listen to me, we’re okay. The shield is working just fine.”
“It doesn’t work!” Panic shot through the younger man again and he pulled Mac closer in his attempt to get himself off the ground.
“This one does!” Mac insisted, clutching Bryce’s arms. “We found the right settings today, after you’d left. It’s okay. It’s working. We’re fine.” He pressed down gently but firmly on his friend’s shoulders and tried to hold his gaze. In the bright light of the moon he checked both pupils, then reached up to one of the hands holding his shirt and checked his partner’s pulse. His heart was racing.
“No.” Bryce shook his head. “We can’t stay out here.”
“Bryce, it’s okay. We’ll be okay.” Mac had given him just enough of the drug to take the edge off, and hopefully keep him calm and quiet. “Just look at me. Keep breathing. We’re safe.”
“No, they’ll get in.” Bryce closed his eyes tightly, then adjusted his grip on Mac’s shirt. “They’ll get in.”
“If they do, they’ll have to go through me first.” Mac looked over Bryce’s head. Through the shield he could see three black bodies a few yards away, dark eyes staring back at him. He looked around at the shield keeping them safe in its cramped bubble. Shimmering translucent blue energy waves flowed around them in an uneven pattern, shifting the focus and frequency every second. Maybe it was a bad idea to make these things transparent.
Bryce’s shaking subsided slightly as the pain killer took effect. It wouldn’t be enough to put him to sleep, but it should keep the pain at a tolerable level, and keep him from falling any deeper into shock.
“They’re out there.”
Mac looked around quickly, but Bryce’s eyes had been closed. “We’re fine.”
“They’re still out there. They won’t give up.”
“Bryce, listen to me.” Mac rested his hand on his friend’s forehead and looked him in the eyes. “They can’t get into rooms or doors, remember? You told me that. So it makes sense that once they failed getting in here, they’d stop.” If they only had four hours on this shield, that might be the only hope they had.
Bryce shook his head but didn’t reply.
“We’re both survivors, remember?” Mac shifted a little, trying to find room for his legs in their cramped quarters. Bryce was short enough to comfortably lie down, but there wasn’t room for either of them to stand. “All we have to do is sit here and wait. When the sun comes up, we’ll go home.”
“There’ll be nothing left.”
“It’s all right.” He couldn’t lean against the shield for very long without burning his back. “It’s all right.” Bryce’s face was cold with shock, and his shivering had returned full force. “Close your eyes. Just rest.” One quick glance showed him none of the creatures in the direction they were facing. He had to keep Bryce calm.
“Don’t let them in.” Bryce sighed, as his body continued to shiver.
“I won’t let them in. Trust me. Just close your eyes and rest.”
He could feel the younger man’s heart beating fast, but the shivering seemed to be lessening. He let his hand pause on the side of Bryce’s face, feeling the cold of shock still evident on his skin. “It’s okay.” His struggling was over for now, and the wound had finally stopped bleeding. If he could keep the kid calm and still, they stood a chance. If the shield held. Mac looked up and searched the area, scanning the moonlit night. There were four large, black bodies sitting to their left, about five yards away. Two more were farther back, to his right. There was no telling how many were behind them. But since the last attack, none of the creatures had so much as stepped closer to their bubble.
Bryce shuddered and drew his legs up. “It’s cold.”
“We’ll warm up.” Mac stretched his longer legs out to either side of Bryce. “The shield should hold our body heat. You’re just in shock, you’ll get warm.”
They sat that way for two hours. Bryce drifted in and out of consciousness, never really falling asleep. The creatures outside shifted and moved around, but never left. No more attempts had been made on the shield, but Mac would have felt better if they’d given up and flown away. He wanted to get Bryce to the plane, get him back to the complex and into Lise’s care as quickly as possible. But even if their audience left, they’d had several yards to cover to reach safety. He’d seen the gargoyles cover half that distance in a heartbeat. There’d be no way to get Bryce that far, that fast.
Mac shifted and tried to work out a kink in his shoulder without disturbing his friend. The shivering had stopped only a few minutes ago, but his skin no longer felt cold and damp from shock. Now he’d have to worry about fever. It took some doing, but Mac managed to get one arm free to inspect the bandages. As he moved Bryce’s shirt away, the younger man moaned softly and opened his eyes.
“It hurts.” Bryce winced and tried to pull away, clutching Mac’s arm.
“I know.” He reached around for the first aid kit and found another dose of pain killer.
“How long has it been?”
Mac filled the hypo with one hand, still supporting his friend with the other. “The sun will be up soon. Just relax.” He pressed the tip against Bryce’s neck and thumbed the injector. “You’re doing fine.”
“Are they still out there?”
“Yes.” He put the hypo away and felt Bryce’s forehead. “They haven’t tried again. I told you they’d give up.”
Bryce shook his head weakly. “I’m not going to make it.”
“Yes you are! Nothing’s changed. I won’t let them get in, trust me.” He felt helpless. Bryce was facing his worst nightmare and he couldn’t make it go away.
“You won’t leave me alone?” Bryce’s voice was quiet, muffled by the pain killer.
“Never. Just rest. The sun will be up soon.”
Time was passing slowly. He didn’t have a chronometer, but the movement of the stars above them was painfully slow. Bryce had drifted into an uneasy sleep as they sat together in their energy bubble. As the time passed, the creatures moved about. Some of them flew off, others joined the party. Mac found himself watching them with an almost detached fascination. If it weren’t for the brightness of the moon, he was convinced the animals would be virtually invisible. They were so black, even their eyes had no whiteness. The males were huge and heavily muscled, and the females more compactly built, almost delicate, with a difference in color tone that bordered on deep purple. At least Mac assumed that difference was due to their sex, and not age. As many as he could see from where he sat, there were none he could honestly think of as juveniles.
They came and went almost silently, with sudden, massive leaps into the air. Sometimes arriving with others, sometimes bringing a kill. Mac was beginning to feel like a display. No more attempts were being made to breach their shield, and there was no sign of aggressive behavior. It was as if they’d accepted this new phenomena as pure entertainment.
A commotion to their left drew Mac’s attention just in time to see the largest of the creatures land a few yards away, depositing the carcass of a cow on the ground. As he watched, four of the smaller females joined the hunter and began eating the catch. The male shared his find almost politely, ripping large chunks of flesh from the cow and handing them to each female in turn. Once they all had a piece, they sat together and ate.
Mac had very little knowledge of wild creatures, carnivorous or otherwise, but this was like nothing he’d ever imagined. These animals not only had an eerie resemblance to humans in the physical sense, but their mannerisms and habits seemed to suggest formation of a polite society. He shifted slightly, trying to relieve some pressure on his left ankle. In his arms, he felt Bryce stiffen suddenly.
“It’s okay.” Mac looked down and saw Bryce’s gaze lock on to the feeding taking place beside them. He was beginning to shake again in terror. “They haven’t even tried to attack. We’re just a curiosity.”
Bryce tried to move away from what he saw. “How much longer?”
“Not long.” Mac had to hold his ground, having no room to move. “I’ve been watching them watch us. I think there’s a lot more to these animals than we might have thought.”
“They’re animals. Just doing what animals do to survive.”
Bryce looked up sharply, eyebrows creased. “They killed everyone. How can you say that?”
Mac reached up to feel his friend’s forehead. He was warm, but not too fevered. “They don’t think any more of humans than they do of that cow over there. We’re the ones putting value on our lives over others.”
“Talk about something else.” Bryce winced, holding his side. “Please. Tell me what it was like living in a station.”
Mac sighed, shifting his ankle again. “What would you like to know?”
Bryce was shaking again slightly. They had about four more hours to go, and only one injection left. If he could keep his friend calm and quiet, and keep his own mind off the duration of Five’s new settings, they just might make it through this night.
He shrugged. “I was born on a mining station in orbit around Jupiter.”
Bryce nodded and closed his eyes, then swallowed. “What was it like as a kid?”
“As a kid?” Mac looked up, seeing past the creatures staring back at them. “I guess it was pretty normal.”
“What’s normal like?” Bryce kept his eyes closed.
“Yeah, I guess that’s a relative term, huh? Well, normal for me was school, some friends, someplace to call home. My father commissioned for a son to take over his business when he died. That’s what I was destined for, I suppose. He built that mining company from scratch with only a handful of investors and some used equipment. By the time he was forty, he had this huge station, over a hundred workers, buyers from all over the galaxy, and no one to pass it on to.”
“But you didn’t stay?”
Bryce opened his eyes, but avoided looking anywhere around them. “Why? If that was so normal?”
“Because it wasn’t who I was.” Mac shrugged, wondering if his friend could even comprehend passing up a life as dull and uneventful as that. “I resented having my life planned from the start. I resented having been born for that purpose. And, I suppose, I fell victim to all the books I’d read about adventures and traveling and the romance of the military.”
“Like the knights?”
Bryce glanced up. “I read an old book once, when I was a kid. It talked about some ancient men called knights who left everything they had to find their purpose.” He shrugged. “I don’t remember anything more about them.”
Mac moved his head around, trying to relieve a kink in his neck. “I don’t know about knights, but I did know my father. I think I knew more about him than he ever did about me. Such as there was. Enough to know I never wanted to become him.”
“I used to dream about living in space.” Bryce winced and reached a hand to his side. “I’ve always wanted to be among the stars.”
“Space is no place to live.” Mac reached around behind him for the first aid kit. “There’s no air, no heat, no life.” He drew up the last injection, then got his friend’s attention so he could reach the young man’s neck with the hypo. “This is the last one. Sunrise isn’t far off, I want you to try and get some rest.” He thumbed the injector and Bryce inhaled sharply, then relaxed and nodded. “It’s a great place to visit, though. I’d love to show you around sometime.”
Bryce swallowed and laid back on the ground. “Would you leave, if you could?”
Mac shrugged, quickly inspecting the bandages. “It’s hard to say, since we made a one way trip here.”
“I know. But if you could, would you?”
There hadn’t been any more bleeding. Mac checked Bryce’s pulse, then felt his forehead. “We’ve talked about this before. But, hypothetically speaking, if there was a ship tomorrow to get on, maybe.” He paused, searching the eyes looking up at him. “If I showed you everything there was, every place you can go, maybe I could convince you this is as good a home as any.”
“I doubt it.” Bryce let his eyes close. “But you could try.”
“Yeah. I could try.” Mac stretched his legs as far as he could in their cramped space, then took another look at the animals surrounding them. The cow was nothing more than a large, moist, red area on the grass, and two of the smaller females were rolling in it, covering their dark hides in blood. When they finished, the male began licking them both clean. The other creatures appeared unconcerned with their spectacle and were going about their own business, grooming themselves and each other.
Mac got as comfortable as he could manage next to Bryce by folding himself around the shorter man, then rested his head on his folded arm. Another two hours till sunrise. It was beginning to look like they were going to make it. Until the dream woke him.
It was the same nightmare as before, only this time, Mac swore he heard his dead comrade scratching at the outside of his ship. He heard the sound again and was instantly awake, blinking from the blue haze of their energy bubble. Mac took a deep breath, then froze. Not four inches from his face was another, black and huge, staring back at him at nearly ground level. Slowly, he turned and looked into large black eyes framed by velvety black fur. It was the large male, from the beef dinner earlier. It was sitting right next to them, leaning down so that its face was even with Mac’s. One clawed finger gently running down the length of the energy wall.
Beside him, Bryce exploded off the ground.
“Bryce!” Mac was knocked aside, slamming into the shield as the younger man pushed away.
The creature answered his shouts with a scream, then beat the energy wall with both huge fists.
Bryce scrambled awkwardly to the far end of their bubble before Mac could get his legs around and under him.
“It’s getting in!”
“No, it isn’t!”
The animal followed Bryce to the other end, still screaming and pounding it’s fists against the shield. The energy wall hissed and spat, protesting the abuse from both outside and in.
“Bryce, stop!” Mac wrestled his friend to the ground, careful of the wound that was again bleeding. “He’s not getting in!”
“No! He won’t! Now calm down! Listen to me!” Mac had to pin Bryce’s arms to his sides to keep him from hurting himself further. “The shield won’t buckle.”
Bryce glared up at him, lavender eyes filled with anger and fear. “You don’t know that!”
“Yes I do! It’s lasted this long, Bryce. There’s no reason to think it will fail now.”
Beside them, the large black figure stood, looming over their shell with wings fully extended. Mac wasn’t sure if it was the gargoyle screaming, or Bryce, or if all three of them had just shouted in fear. His own heart stopped for several beats as the world slowed to a crawl. Bryce had again come off the ground, breaking free of Mac’s hold. The creature enfolded them with its size, covering their bubble completely and turning a moon-filled night into blackness. Mac wrapped both arms around Bryce, fully prepared for the teeth and claws to rip through his flesh before it could touch his friend. When that didn’t happen, he risked another glance up.
White teeth larger than any he’d seen before were scraping against the shield, heedless of the blue sparks and hissing energy showering up from the abuse. It was trying to bite through the wall as if it were an egg shell.
Mac swallowed back his fear and risked a glance at the shield generator. He couldn’t see the dials from where he was, but he could hear the hum of energy alter its pitch. Oh God! It was buckling! He’d failed. After all he’d done, everything he’d sworn to do to keep this kid and himself safe. Twenty years of war, thousands of missions, hundreds of ships destroyed, and he’d failed to keep just one man alive.
The hum changed again and sparks came down onto Mac’s back and shoulders. He bent forward, covering Bryce’s head with his shoulders. The smaller man folded up even more, pulling his legs up and hiding as completely as he could under the protection. Sparks were everywhere now, raining blue down around them. Mac had to decide if he would die fighting or shielding Bryce. He couldn’t do both.
“Bryce, take this!” Mac pulled the gun from his belt and tried to force it into one of Bryce’s hands. Neither one would unclench itself from his shirt. “Take it! You might make it to the plane!”
“No!” Bryce shook his head violently.
“You have to!” Mac forced one hand from his shirt, then pried the fingers open and shoved the gun into his hand.
Another shower of blue sparks rained down around them and the generator gasped and sparked. Suddenly Bryce took the gun in both hands and began turning the barrel around. Before Mac could stop him, their shield exploded in a flash of blue. He grabbed the gun with one hand and threw himself over his friend, covering him completely. There was no way to turn and fire without exposing Bryce.
It was over.
Huge, clawed hands grabbed Mac’s shoulders, and something large and soft pressed into his back. There was a scream, loud and terrifying, inches from his ear. Then nothing.
In his experiences during the war, Mac had been led to believe death would be painful. Especially if that death was due to being eaten alive by a giant living gargoyle. So if there hadn’t been any pain, maybe he wasn’t dead after all? The shaking body underneath him proved it.
“Bryce?” Mac raised his head, then blinked violently against the brightness of sunrise. They were alive! They’d made it! “Bryce!” He looked down and found his friend pale and shaking, still holding his shirt in a desperate attempt to keep Mac close. “It’s all right, the sun’s up.” Mac reached up and held Bryce’s face, trying to penetrate eyes dulled by terror. “Bryce, it’s over. We’re alive.” The skin under his hands was ice cold and damp with shock. “Oh God. Bryce, listen to me, we’re okay. It’s over. Look.” Mac pulled away enough to show their surroundings, bright with the rising sun and completely vacant of animal life. When he looked back, Bryce was shaking his head.
“Don’t leave me.”
“I won’t. It’s over now. Just relax. We’ll get you back home.” He could still feel the impressions of clawed hands on his shoulders. What had happened during those seconds, he wasn’t sure. But the sun was up and the creature was gone.
“Don’t leave me.”
“Bryce, it’s okay. I just need to get you to the plane.” Mac reached down and tried to scoop his partner up, but he didn’t budge. His body was wracked with shivering and his head shook from side to side.
“It’s okay. I’m right here.” He continued the motions, desperately trying to calm him down. There were blankets in the plane, and he needed to confirm a rescue was on its way. “Bryce, listen to me. I need to run to the plane, just for a second.” There was no way to get the kid to his feet in this condition. “I’m not leaving, understand? It’s okay.” He pried the hands from his shirt then held Bryce’s chin, making the younger man look him in the eyes. “I’ll be right here.”
Mac couldn’t afford to wait. He hurried off the ground, then stumbled to the plane on legs cramped from the long night. The cockpit door was still open, and the inside of the plane was damp with morning dew. He crashed through the opening, cursing his tired muscles, found the emergency blankets and portable radio, then dashed back to where Bryce still lay, shaking.
“It’s all right now.” Mac quickly bundled him into the blankets, wrapping him completely from shoulders to toes, then radioed for help, confirming their position to the rescue teams already in the air. “They’re on the way.” He set the radio aside, then pulled Bryce’s shoulders off the ground and cradled him again in his lap, hugging him for warmth against the cold morning air.
“Don’t leave me.”
“I’m right here. It’s all right now.”
Their rescue was almost overwhelming. Every plane the colony had showed up filled with volunteers armed with every weapon they could find. Mac refused to give up his hold on Bryce, so they were bustled into the largest of the flyers and secured on a wide, padded couch. The three who vacated were crammed into his plane to fly the machine back to the complex. Lise gave them each a quick glance, then immediately sedated Bryce for the ride back.
In the safety of the medical ward of the complex, Mac washed up while the doctor cleaned and stitched his friend’s injuries.
“Thank God for that shield.” Ben handed Mac a towel, then leaned against the door jamb in the adjacent room Mac was using to clean up in. “Five was right, then?”
Mac sighed deeply and shook his head. “I’m not so sure.” He pulled the warm cloth over his face one more time, then worked his hands dry. “It gave out at the end.”
“What?” Ben stood straight, eyebrows creasing. “How?”
“It was one of those creatures. The biggest one I’ve seen yet, in fact.” Mac tossed the towel and walked out of the small bathroom. He glanced across the room where Bryce lay sleeping, then turned back to Ben, making sure he kept his voice low. “They attacked at first, a few times. Then most of the night they just sat and watched us. There was no strain on the shield. But then that big one decided to get a closer look.” He couldn’t help the shudder that ran down his spine with the recent memory. “It was right there,” Mac held a hand in front of his face as a demonstration. “Right there. Just staring at us both. And for a minute I was staring back at it. Then Bryce saw it.”
“I can’t even imagine what that must have been like.”
“No, you can’t. I was there and I can’t even sort out the details yet.” He ran a hand through short, damp hair and shook his head again, looking at the sleeping figure of his friend. “Bryce exploded. I thought he was going to burst right through from the inside. I think he would have, if I hadn’t been able to stop him.”
“But if this one got through, why didn’t it kill you both?”
Mac shrugged. “It was too late. It was there, literally ON our shield. Trying to eat through the top. I–we heard the generator start to fluctuate, then sparks were flying everywhere. Inside and out. There wasn’t time to do anything. I covered Bryce with my body, heard the shield completely give up, then I felt something grab me and then…” He shrugged, still unable to believe what had happened. “Then nothing. When I looked up again, the sun was rising and they were all gone.”
Ben shook his head in disbelief, then glanced toward Bryce. “That must have been a living hell.”
“You have no idea.”
“So, the settings Five gave you didn’t work after all?”
Mac inhaled deeply and considered the question. “I’m not so sure anymore. They worked up to a point. But then so did the other tests.”
“Yes, but those gave out rather quickly. And that was due to the load put on them.”
“I don’t know.” Mac chewed the inside of his cheek.
“You don’t suppose Five intended for it to fail right at sunrise, do you?”
He shook his head slowly. “I don’t think he could have. I suppose– It could be that the shield gave out just because the generator wasn’t fully charged.” It could also be true the shuttle door had really just jammed shut for a few minutes, but Mac wasn’t ready to discuss that with anyone yet. The things he hadn’t been able to think about earlier were now asking for permission to be worked out. “I have more questions than answers right now, and I’m too exhausted to think of any of them.”
“Of course. You should get some rest.” Ben gave Mac’s shoulder a pat, then nodded toward Bryce. “I expect you’ll be staying in here until he’s cleared to leave?”
“Yes.” Mac rubbed tired eyes and nodded. “Maybe we can kill two birds with one stone tonight. Test another shield generator and put Eckland under it?”
“Oh, that’s right.” Ben lowered his gaze. “They didn’t have a chance to tell you.”
Mac felt his jaw clench instinctively in reaction to Ben’s tone of voice. “Tell me what?”
“This morning, when we all left to fetch you two back. He overpowered his guards and took that old plane we were going to use for spare parts.” Ben shrugged apologetically. “We’re scientists, Brennan, not jailers. Our people didn’t know what happened until it was too late. Besides, he had friends. Two other men were seen flying out with him.”
Mac had to force his jaw to relax. After a moment, he nodded. “We’ll get him when he comes back. It’s a full moon week, there’s no place for him to go.”
“Yes, of course. He’s not going anywhere.” Ben nodded. “I, however, should be. I’ll leave you to get some rest. Perhaps tomorrow we can get Harry to work out those new settings and test another shield.”
“Right.” Mac watched Ben leave, then sighed heavily. He was exhausted, but it went beyond tired. It was the kind of complete drain that kept you from sleeping, even if you tried. Which he had no intention of doing. Not yet. Bryce would be coming out of the anesthetic any minute now, with no conscious understanding that he was safe. Eckland might be gone for now, but he had friends. And there was no telling how many.
He pulled a comfortable chair up close to the bed Bryce was sleeping in, turned it around to face the young man and got situated. Watching him sleep, Mac was struck by how young he looked.
Young, alone, and afraid.
“Not anymore.” Every memory of those hours was burned in his mind, and adrenaline still coursed through his blood. Mac was sure there would be new nightmares now to replace the old one. But that was fitting. He had a new life to replace the old one. A new battle to replace the old war. And a new friend to replace the emptiness he hadn’t been aware of before.
A weariness dragged at the corners of Mac’s mind. He rubbed both eyes tiredly and tried to make sense of things. Eckland couldn’t get far in that old plane. It was from the original colony, with dead batteries and several missing parts. Even Bryce had been using it for spare bits and pieces here and there. He was surprised it even flew, but it had. How far it would go was another matter entirely. And with the full moon only just begun, it wasn’t likely Eckland or his escapees would stay away from the safety of the complex for long. They’d catch him the instant he flew back. And after their rescue a few short hours ago, Mac felt confident he wasn’t going to be the only one keeping an eye on Bryce’s safety anymore.
Then there was Five.
Had he somehow locked the shuttle door, or had it just stuck? He’d had trouble opening it once before, when sand had blown into the gear drive. How could the computer have gotten access to the door panel? Unless Bryce had hooked Five up to their shuttle system, giving him access to everything? No, Mac shook his head and blinked away a heavy blanket of exhaustion creeping over his eyes. No, Bryce wouldn’t do that. Even if he felt he still needed that thing, he would never plug him into the shuttle’s system without Mac’s approval.
Which left the question of how. If he had gotten in, and locked that door, how had he done it? And then there were his shield adjustments. Something Bryce had discussed with him? Or was it something Five had discovered when he got into their system? Providing he had gotten into the system. His settings had been correct, and allowed them the protection they’d needed, but it failed in the last moments. Coincidence? Time limits? Or the end of a power drain over long periods of time on a tired generator?
The questions are just as confusing as the answers.
“Mac?” Bryce swallowed, eyes still closed. He turned his head toward Mac and blinked.
“Hey, kid.” Mac leaned forward quickly, smiling in relief when lavender eyes opened.
Instantly he was up, panic-stricken eyes searching for a way out that was no longer needed.
“No, it’s okay!” Mac grabbed Bryce’s shoulders and pressed him gently but firmly back down on the bed. “It’s okay, we safe now.”
Bryce resisted, shaking his head, but he was too weak to fight the stronger arms holding him down. “No, we’re–they–wha …where are we?” Confused, he stared up into Mac’s eyes.
“We’re in the med lab.” Mac leaned aside slightly so his partner could see their surroundings. “It’s over, we’re fine. Everything’s all right now. Just lie back, relax.”
“I–I thought . . .”
“It’s okay.” Mac continued to smile until he saw his friend relax back against the pillows. He was shaking again slightly as he glanced around the room. “Are you warm enough?” Without waiting for an answer, Mac walked to the next bed and removed a blanket folded at the foot, then draped it over Bryce and brought it up to his shoulders. “It’s the shock. You’ll warm up soon.”
“I was so scared.” Bryce took the top of the blanket and grabbed a handful. “I thought–I thought we were dead.” His gaze rested on the blanket for an instant, then moved again as if he expected his surroundings to change if he didn’t keep an eye on them.
“So was I.” Mac ignored the chair and sat on the edge of the bed. “That’s something I never want to go through again.”
Bryce shook his head. His face was a torrent of emotions and exhaustion. “No, you weren’t scared. You saved my life.”
Mac sighed quietly. He had been terrified, but there hadn’t been time to indulge the fear. Just as terrified as his friend, he was sure. But that wasn’t what Bryce wanted to hear right now, even if he really knew it to be true.
“It’s over now. You need some rest. Lise got your wounds sealed, but you’ll have to lie still for twenty-four hours in order to get the edges set.”
Bryce nodded, then shivered again. “Will you stay here?”
“Yeah, I’ll stay here.” Mac smiled. He looked up and caught Lise’s eye as she came into the large room. “Lise needs to check you out. I’ll be right over there.”
“What about Eckland?”
Mac’s jaw clenched automatically and he had to force himself to relax. They hadn’t even talked about how this all started. “He got away.” There was a flicker of fear in Bryce’s eyes, mixed with the exhaustion of sustained terror. “At sunrise, nearly everyone here came out to rescue us. Well, as many as could fit into everything that flew.” Mac smiled at the surprised reaction he saw. “These people are scientists, as Ben so rightly put it. They’re not jailers. Eckland had help and they made a break. Don’t worry. They won’t last long out there. We’ll find him.”
Bryce looked down at his blanket, then let his fist-full go and smoothed it out. He sighed, then looked up and nodded. “When you do, can you put him outside in one of those things for a night?”
Mac laughed shortly and rested a hand on Bryce’s head momentarily. “Don’t think I haven’t considered it.”
He left the room only after assurances from the younger man that he could survive a few minutes in the doctor’s company. A good natured teasing from Lise helped speed him toward the dining rooms for some coffee. What was intended as a quick trip for some much needed caffeine turned into an exercise in fielding questions from concerned colony members who had been unable to attend the massive rescue that morning. Mac tried to condense the story into bits and pieces they could all talk about later, assuring everyone that Bryce would indeed recover completely from his injuries, and that they would be doing everything in their power to secure Eckland once again. When he finally returned to the med lab, he was so wired from the commotion he hadn’t needed the coffee. Sleep was something he wasn’t comfortable with just yet. Until he had his partner safe in the shuttle, where the only way in or out could be secured, he wasn’t going to get any real sleep.
“Lise, how is he?”
The doctor stuffed her diagnostic kit into a pocket and smiled. “He’ll be fine in a few weeks. At least physically. The wounds were deep, but from what I can tell there’s no poison involved in the creature’s bite, or claw, or whatever that was exactly. Bryce hasn’t been able to tell me.”
Mac creased his eyebrows and shrugged. He’d assumed they were claw marks, but then, he hadn’t even considered poison. “He’s still shaking.”
“Do you blame him?” Lise kept her voice quiet as she glanced back over her shoulder at her patient.
“No. I’m surprised I’m not shaking myself.” He could still feel the clawed hands clutching his shoulders, but the only marks left by the giant beast were slight bruises. “I want to take him home tomorrow. I think it will be safer there.”
Lise nodded. “I agree. He can rest there as easily as here. And I’m sure being in more comfortable surroundings will help him.”
Mac sighed heavily and stretched his neck to ease a kink in the muscles.
“You should get some sleep yourself.” Lise nodded toward the bed behind her. “I had the bed next to his made up. Figured you’d be staying here. Bryce is mildly sedated, so he’s going to be in and out. Mostly out, I expect.” She smiled and rested a hand on Mac’s arm. “At least try and catch a few winks now and again.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I mean it, Brennan,” Lise scolded. “As long as he can wake up and see you, he’ll be fine.” Mac raised an eyebrow at her remark and she smiled. “You’re his protection. It’s a common method of coping with situations that are too stressful to handle alone. And God knows he’s had enough of those since we came here.”
“Yeah.” He touched her arm in thanks, then walked back to his comfortable chair. Bryce was asleep, with a monitor cuff secured around his right upper arm, feeding a mild anesthetic into his veins whenever needed.
Convinced the younger man was comfortable and not likely to wake up any time soon, Mac settled into the chair and pulled a blanket over his legs. Lise had left the room and there were no other patients in that section of the med lab. Mac knew he could sleep just as easily in that chair, and still be able to wake up should Bryce stir or have a nightmare. Which he did.
Three times in the next four hours, Bryce’s sleep was interrupted by nightmares that Mac woke him out of. By the third time, he asked to be allowed to sit up, hoping to avoid sleep for a while. Mac obliged, setting the bed up a bit so his partner could sit and talk to him. Several times Mac had to shoo away the groups of well wishers threatening to overwhelm Bryce with their numbers. Even his welcomed visitors were too much for the young man. Just when Mac decided to call an end to the visitors, night had drawn near enough to occupy everyone’s time. Bryce began to fidget again, knowing what was to come outside.
“Is he still out there?”
“Eckland?” Mac adjusted the bed his partner was on, lowering it down to the sleeping position. “He must be. They would have seen him come back.”
Bryce nodded, pressing his head into the pillow with a sigh that made him wince slightly. “But he’ll have to.”
“Eventually. Don’t worry about him. After what he tried, with the whole complex keeping an eye out, he’d have to be invisible to get back into the complex.”
“Yeah?” He sat on the edge of the bed and suppressed a yawn.
Bryce reached out and fingered the blanket. “You saved my life out there.”
Mac put a hand on his partner’s leg and smiled.
“No, I mean it.” Bryce looked up and sniffled. “I really freaked out. I could have killed both of us.”
“You didn’t freak out, kid.”
Bryce shook his head. “Yes, I did.”
“You acted perfectly normal in the situation.”
“In the situation?” Bryce’s eyebrows creased and he laughed shortly. “That’s one situation I don’t ever want to be in again.”
Mac sighed. “Listen, Bryce. You have nothing to be upset about.” He held his partner’s gaze, looking into emotions that could easily have been his a few years ago. “You held up better under those circumstances than anyone else could have. I mean it.” He gripped Bryce’s knee to make him understand he was being serious. “Bryce, when you look at a situation, you have to judge it based on your own experiences, not anyone else’s.”
Bryce shook his head. His lower lip pushed out slightly in denial. “You weren’t trying to claw your way out of that shell.”
“No. No, I wasn’t. Thanks to you, I didn’t have time for that.” Mac paused, waiting for his friend to look up again. “But that time in my ship, when I was alone out there waiting to die, with my wingman frozen to the cockpit . . . ” He had to swallow hard to force the memory down. “Back then, I had nothing but time.” Bryce met his gaze. “And no one there to help me.”
Slowly, almost reluctantly, the younger man nodded his consent.
“I think it’s time for you to get some sleep.” Mac examined the monitor cuff and depressed a button, injecting a dose of analgesic strong enough to keep his friend asleep for several hours. The gentle hiss of spray was followed by a green light and dosage record. “Okay?”
Bryce nodded again and sighed deeply, pressing his head into the pillow. “Will you stay in here?”
“I’ll be right here, in the next bed.”
“Mac.” Bryce swallowed, blinking eyes heavy with encroaching sedation.
“Yeah? What is it?”
The battle to keep his eyes open raged on, but Bryce was losing. “Thank you.”
Mac smiled, watching the younger man fight to stay awake. “You’re welcome, partner. Get some sleep.”
Bryce’s battle ended with a slight nod and a sigh as sleep finally overcame him. Mac moved to the next bed and sat down, stretching. He kicked off both shoes, slid out of his pants and tossed his shirt over the back of the chair, then reached up to dim the main lights. As he did, a glint of silver caught his eye. Bryce’s necklace reflected the overhead lights off its shiny surface, where the metal peeked through the fingers draped over it in a sleeping embrace.
“Good dreams, kid.”