Okay kittens, we’re officially at the halfway mark, for those of you keeping score. I’m not going to hide behind my Woobie today, since I didn’t even look this chapter over when I was cuting and pasting for the page. Y’all know the score by now, and y’all know I’ve GOT to be a way better writer than this by now. And, y’all know I’m not from the south, and really don’t say y’all.
Besides – and Pete is really thrilled to hear this, so Tori should enjoy it – I have a new shiny keeping parts of my brain occupied during the Penman Shipwreck. Now, that’s not to say I’m not writing ! I am writing. I took a stress-day off the other day, when I posted my Public Service announcement, but I’m back on that pony and kickin’ hard. I know Pete has 2.0 to keep him occasionally off track, and Tori has family too, and stress at work. So this Penman Shipwreck is turning out to be a much more level playing field than I had expected it would be.
Yeah, that’s right, I figured Pete to whup us both! But I think Ether stands a healthy chance. And so does my funky stone-aged keyboard project 😀
So, without further fuss – I bring you Chapter 10.
With his right arm tucked protectively against his injured side, Bryce eased his legs over the edge of the bed. A stabbing pain made him inhale sharply, but faded when he remained still for a few moments. He was a little dizzy even on the bed, and sweat threatened to bead up on his face as he sat there. God, why did it hurt more now than it had that night? Lise and Mac both told him he’d been in shock, and not feeling everything. So if that logic held up, the amount of pain he was in now should be a good indication he was getting better.
Bryce inhaled slowly and deeply, testing his injury. He’d been promised his freedom from med lab this morning, providing he was fit enough to make the short journey back to the shuttle. There was no way he was spending another night in this place. He hated med lab. He hated waking up in the white room with the lights in the ceiling and no color anywhere. And Five’s voice telling him he’d been in an accident.
No, not this time. This time he’d woken up to find Mac right there, keeping his word like always. He let the breath out gently and listened to the sounds his partner was making in the bathroom a few feet away. Lise had checked him out a few minutes ago, but the promise of going home had been due only to the fact that Mac had some medical training. Bryce was again grateful for his friend’s many talents.
One more night in this place and he was sure the nightmares would start all over again. He’d wake up not to Mac, but to Five’s ever-present voice, explaining to him why he was alone. Why no one else was there anymore. Why he had no memory of anyone, no thoughts of the people Five insisted were all dead. No evidence of anyone ever having been there. Nothing but a gash on his head, and a memory emptied of everything. Nothing. Not even . . .
“Mac?” If he stayed here–if he woke up in here one more time–it could happen again! He could forget all over again! “Mac?”
“Yeah, kid. What is it?”
Startled, Bryce looked up. His heart was pounding in his chest. “I–I need to use the bathroom. Are you almost done in there?”
Mac tossed aside the towel he was drying his hands with and stepped forward. “I’m done. Hang on, let me help you.” He reached out and took Bryce by the left arm, easing him off the bed.
“Can we go back to the shuttle soon?” He had to walk slowly to keep from reacting to the pain in his side. If Mac thought he wasn’t strong enough, he’d make him stay here.
“As soon as you’re ready.” Mac held Bryce’s arm until they reached the bathroom, then he stood in the doorway. “Just move real slowly, all right? I’m right here if you need anything.”
Bryce nodded, then moved the door enough to step behind it. There was no real need to close it, since they were the only ones in the lab at the moment. And if he left it open a few feet, he could use the knob to steady himself with. “I’m okay. I just want to go home.”
“Yeah, I hear that.” Mac remained close to the open door while he got dressed. “Listen, for the next week or so, I want you to stay inside.”
Bryce finished his business, then leaned on the counter in front of the sink to catch his breath.
“You need to rest for at least a week. No working on the plane or hiking up to the hot spring. Got it?”
“Yeah.” He gazed into the mirror and was slightly surprised at how pale he still looked. Maybe it was the lighting? Medical lighting made everyone look twice as sick as they really were. Or it was the t-shirt he was in. Wearing only boxers and a shirt to bed was his custom, but he hated white!
“I don’t want you to worry, but until we find Eckland, I don’t want you wandering off by yourself.”
Bryce turned on the tap and shoved his hands under the cool water. They were shaking. “I wasn’t by myself when he did it.” Suddenly he remembered something. He turned and pushed the door open quickly, then hissed at the stabbing pain that action caused. Mac threw him a stern look of reprimand and reached out to take his forearm. “Mac, what happened to Frank?”
“I told you to move slowly.”
He shook his head, ignoring the scolding. “What happened to Frank? Is he okay?”
“He’s fine.” Mac held Bryce’s arm and creased his eyebrows together, adding some small emphasis to his statement. “Eckland knocked him cold, that’s all. He woke up under one of his cabinets in a panic over what happened.”
Bryce let out a breath of relief, then tucked his arm back against his throbbing side and accepted the stern look. “Good.”
“He was with the rescue party, in fact.” Mac released his hold, then pointed at the still-running water. “You don’t remember that, do you?”
“No.” He turned back to the sink and put his hands under the stream again. There wasn’t much of anything he wanted to remember about that night. He nearly died, and Mac saved him. Everything else was forgettable.
“Well, Frank was there. Along with nearly everyone else.” Mac stepped away from the door for a moment, then returned, pulling a shirt down over his head. “Bryce, I didn’t really want to bring this up until you were feeling better . . .”
Bryce finished splashing water on his face and reached for a towel. He could see his friend’s face reflected in the mirror as he dried off.
“It’s about the shield. And Five.”
He froze, the face towel hanging down from a damp chin. Did he find out? Had Five spoken to him? “I–I was going to tell you.” Bryce let the towel fall to the counter and turned around, afraid to meet Mac’s gaze. He’d had no right to involve Five in Mac’s business, but he’d done it out of concern. Surely he had to realize that?
Mac raised a hand, stopping Bryce when he looked up. “It’s okay. He–it–told me what you did.”
Bryce swallowed hard, searching those brilliant blue eyes for some kind of reading. He was never going to get the hang of interpreting this body language crap. It just baffled him completely. “I didn’t want to bother you with it unless he came up with something, which obviously he didn’t. Honest, Mac, I was just trying to help. Five can’t really do any harm, he’s just in that portable in my room, I swear. I would never let him into the complex, or the shuttle. He’s confined now, it’s not like before.”
“Just hold on.” Mac had to raise both hands in order to stop Bryce’s rantings. “I told you, it’s okay.” He paused, then lowered his hands. “I understand why you asked for his input, and I appreciate it. I do.”
Bryce’s eyebrows arched as he searched Mac’s face for the sign that should have indicated his thoughts. The man was so hard to read, until he came out and said something. “You do?”
“Sure. You wanted to help.” Mac turned and walked back to the chair where Bryce’s clothes were draped, picked up the pants and shirt, and carried them over. “Besides, there’s something you should know.”
Relieved, Bryce accepted the pants and slowly pulled them on, trying hard not to move too quickly. “What’s that?”
“The solution to the problem–the reason that shield held out as long as it did–was Five’s”
If he hadn’t been leaning against the door jamb, Bryce knew he would have fallen straight over. His face felt suddenly cold. “I don’t–I don’t understand.” He stared at his partner, disbelieving what he’d just heard. “How was it Five’s? How did you even find out? I don’t understand.”
Mac sighed deeply, then leaned on the end of the bed. “When I was looking for you, in the shuttle, Five told me what you’d done.”
Bryce swallowed hard. Numbly, he pulled the shirt over his arms, trying to buy some time to think. Five had spoken to Mac? He didn’t think Five would ever speak up around other people again, since they’d removed him. He hadn’t even wanted anyone to know he still had the machine, and Five seemed to think that was best. Now he was instigating conversations with Mac? And solving the shield problem? How long had he known the solution? But it hadn’t worked, not really.
“Mac, that shield failed.” The world was trying to spin around him again, but this time it wasn’t due to the stabbing pain in his side. Bryce could feel his heart rate pick up. So fast, he wondered if any blood was reaching his head. It certainly didn’t feel like it was.
“Now, hold on.” Mac was shaking his head. “There could be several reasons for that shield failing when it did.”
“How can you say that?” Bryce held the edge of the door for balance, staring back at his friend. “That thing collapsed!”
“Bryce, the shield failed at sunrise.” Mac got up and walked to him. “Maybe the generator wasn’t strong enough to manage the new settings.” He reached for the shirt still hanging off Bryce’s arms then helped pull it over his head and down.
“Or Five planned it to fail.” He tugged the shirt down, then winced when the action caused a shot of pain to course through his side.
“You don’t know that. We’d been using that shield generator for testing all week. It could have failed because of that, it could have failed because the new settings were causing too much of a draw..”
“Or it could have failed because Five planned it that way.” He shook his head.
“If he wanted to kill us, he would have rigged that thing to fail in the middle of the night. Or he wouldn’t have helped at all. It would have failed for sure then.”
“No.” Bryce shook his head. “This is what he does.” Mac didn’t understand. He hadn’t spent a lifetime playing Five’s games. “He’d plan that thing to fail at exactly the right moment. That’s just something he’d do.”
Mac stopped when they reached the beds and drew Bryce’s attention, looking him in the eyes with a puzzled expression. “I dunno. That sounds a little extreme even for a crazed AI.”
He knew his friend wouldn’t understand. Unless he’d lived with Five–been subjected to his unique brand of insanity–how could he? Bryce shook his head once, decisively. “He would. Trust me.” The only thing holding up their departure was his shoes, which he managed to slip into without bending or leaning over. “I can’t prove he did, but you can’t prove he didn’t, either.”
Mac sighed, then reached out again and took Bryce’s arm, leading him out of med lab. “No, I can’t. But you haven’t convinced me. Five would have had to manipulate the generator in order to be sure his settings would fail at the precise time. He didn’t have access to the shield, only the calculations.” They left med lab and started down the corridor, slowly making their way back home through the crowds of people hurrying about the business of the day. “There’s no way he could have been positive about the results, so that would have been a big risk on his part.”
“He had nothing to lose.”
“You’re wrong.” Mac reached out and palmed open the main door. “He had you to lose. I don’t think he would have risked that.”
Sunshine and fresh air hit Bryce in the face like a welcomed homecoming, cementing his release from that shelled prison and long, dark night of fear. “I was wrong to ask his help in the first place.” Mac didn’t understand what Five was like, or what it had really been like for him, alone with that machine, all this time. Or did he?
“I’m beginning to think I was wrong to bring this up right now.” They reached the shuttle door and Mac punched the key code into the lock.
“No, I’m sorry.” Bryce stopped in the doorway and shook his head. “I just–it’s not easy for me. Not anymore.” God he was tired all of a sudden! Why did he always get himself into these conversations when he wasn’t ready for them? There was just too much to learn now that he wasn’t alone. Mac stood at the top of the ramp, just outside the doorway Bryce was blocking, and looked him in the eye. But instead of the frustrated reprimand he was expecting, his friend’s expression was gentle.
“It’s not your fault, kid. I understand.”
Weariness tugged at Bryce’s mind like a lead weight, dragging him downstairs where a soft, warm bed awaited. “Yeah.” He knew full well no one understood, but he could appreciate Mac’s attempt.
“Listen,” Mac put a hand on Bryce’s arm and directed him toward the stairs, shutting the door behind them. “We can talk about this later. Whatever happened with the shield, it’s over now. I want you to get some rest.”
Bryce took the stairs slowly, then passed by the galley at the bottom. Almost immediately, his stomach reacted. “I’m starving.” Beside him, Mac chuckled, pointing to the couches.
“Well, you did sleep through a full day. Get comfortable, I’ll fix us some breakfast.”
Bryce eased himself down into the couch and turned sideways, resting his legs down the length of the seat. This position left him facing the galley, comfortably surrounded by pillows. Mac made coffee first, and handed Bryce a cup to hold off his growling stomach while breakfast was prepared. He savored the warm liquid, noting the mild taste of chocolate while watching his friend cook.
“Bryce, when Eckland grabbed you in the hangar, did you get a look at who was with him?”
“No.” A shudder coursed up his spine with the memory, then he shook his head and swallowed, looking at Mac. “I saw them, but I didn’t recognize either of them.”
Mac sighed, stirring the contents of a pan. “Do you think you’d recognize them if you saw them again?”
Bryce thought back to the moment he saw Eckland hit Frank. There were two other figures there, wearing dark clothes. One of them seemed to have blond hair, but both of their faces were a blank. “I don’t know.”
“Did you even see them?”
“Yeah, I saw them.” Bryce shrugged. “I think they hang out with Eckland all the time, but I’ve never cared to know who they were.” He knew that to say most people looked alike to him would sound rude. Five had always taught him humans take great pride in their individuality, but with a few notable exceptions–Mac being the biggest–he simply couldn’t tell many of these people apart.
“All right, can you tell me what exactly happened?” Mac filled two plates with huge meat-filled omelets. “You remembered Eckland knocking Frank out. Then what?”
Bryce shifted in the couch and rested his cup on one leg. They hadn’t talked about this yet, and he wasn’t sure it would do any good to talk about it now. “When I saw him hit Frank, I came out to stop them and Rob hit me.” He shrugged. “The next thing I remember, I was . . .” He had to swallow hard to continue, forcing the words out. “I was outside, the sun was starting to set, and Eckland was leaving.” Mac handed him a plate that he took with shaking hands.
“Did you hear him talking to the others? Maybe he mentioned a name or something?” Mac sat on the next couch and set his plate on the low table in front of him.
“No.” Bryce lifted his fork and stabbed the omelet before the utensil could shake out of his grip. “What does it matter? If you catch Eckland, you’ll catch the others.” He’d rather imagine Rob and his partners dead, since they’d stayed out last night. If they weren’t dead now, they soon would be.
Mac inhaled deeply and sat back, setting his plate on the arm of the couch. “When he came back, we only found Rob in the plane. He either stopped before the complex and let his partners out, or they stayed behind somewhere else.” He shrugged and speared a section of omelet. “And he had help getting out of here. Which means we can assume his partners were back here in the complex all night.”
“But they’re gone now. They can’t come back without being seen, right? I mean, everyone here knows who they are.”
“True. As soon as they’re seen, they’ll be caught.”
“Then what? Will there be a trial or something?” Bryce finished his breakfast and leaned over slightly to set the plate down. The motion brought a sharp pain to his side that made him wince.
“That’s something we’ll have to figure out.” Mac stood and retrieved the plate.
“You need rest.”
“What about the trial?”
“They hired me to keep the peace.” Mac carried the dishes to the galley and ran some water. “Something I haven’t been very good at lately.”
Startled, Bryce looked up. “This wasn’t your…”
Mac stopped him with a raised hand. “Yes, it was. I got so caught up in that shield I let my guard down. Eckland’s been showing all the signs and I ignored them. I know, you were handling the situation. But that’s no excuse for my letting it continue.”
Bryce sighed and pressed into the cushions behind him. He knew Mac hadn’t taken Eckland or his pals seriously because their hatred had been directed at him, not some of the other colonists. That wasn’t his friend’s fault. No one took things too seriously when it concerned him. He knew that, and he was used to it. In fact, he was sure that was the way things had always been. Surely there was no fault in that? It just was.
“But since we knew eventually someone would be breaking their agreements, we’ll have to create a system to deal with those that do.” Mac shrugged and shoved a plate under the soapy water. “Attempted murder is a good place to start creating one.”
Bryce picked up a piece of his shirt and ran the hem through two fingers. It wasn’t the sweatshirt Mac had given him, but it was something to occupy his hands. “What if I hadn’t been here?” He looked up, then back down again.
“What do you mean?” Mac held the last plate under the dryer, then shoved it in the cupboard.
“I mean, when you came down. When all of you got here. If I hadn’t even been here, do you think Eckland or the others would have ever committed a crime?” He looked up again and found Mac staring at him, eyebrows creased.
“Bryce, if you hadn’t been here, a hell of a lot of us would have died when the creatures came that first night. God knows how many. Why are you– How can you think you’re the cause of Rob’s violent nature?”
Bryce shrugged and looked back at the hem of the shirt he was clutching. He should have known better than to expect anyone to understand.
“All right, you know what? You need to get some sleep.” Mac flipped the switch that would empty the sink, then came around the galley counter toward him.
“I’m just being realistic.” Where was the harm in that?
“You’re being fatalistic. Come on, I’ll give you a hand getting into bed.” Mac stood at the side of the couch, and reached down with one hand.
“No, I’m fine here.” Bryce shook his head. “I’m not tired.”
“You need to rest.”
“I can rest here.” He looked up and arched both eyebrows, pleading his case. “Really, I’m fine right here.” Mac stared over his head as he considered the request. Perhaps a change of subject would gain him some time. “What are you going to do?”
“I’ve got some work to do.” Mac gestured to the table at the other side of the room. “I need to go over those maps we made of the caves, and I wanted to study the geoscans Ben brought back from his trip out.”
“You’re not working on the shield, then?” Bryce tried not to hold his breath waiting for the answer.
“No.” Mac shook his head once, sharply. “Harry has the shield in the lab. I’d just as soon he worked on it right now.”
Bryce looked up, mentally releasing the breath he’d been trying not to hold. The look he found on his partner’s face suggested something he hadn’t even considered. “I thought–I figured you’d want to study the new settings, seeing as how you just saw it work and all.” The thought of even seeing that machine again gave Bryce a chill, but he figured with some effort, he could at least be in the same room with it again . . . maybe.
Mac pressed his lips into a frown and shook his head, looking just a little puzzled by the question. “I’m not in any hurry to work on that thing again. Not after what we just went through. I need a break right now.” He sighed, then nodded toward the table. “Okay, you get time out here for good behavior. But only a few hours.”
“Thanks.” Numbly, he nodded as his friend walked around the couch, but his confusion soon gave way to a strong sense of selfishness. All this time, he’d assumed that night of terror had happened to him. Mac had been the hero, he had been the victim. Only now was he beginning to see the truth.
Bryce leaned into the cushions supporting his back and sighed, looking up at the ceiling. It was easy to forget their home was really a ship. A space ship that had seen more of the galaxy than he could ever imagine. What he wouldn’t give to get a glimpse at half of what this ship had seen! To be free of this place, free of Oblivion and everything that came with it. Free to abandon the memories he couldn’t retrieve, without fear of losing himself with them. Mac talked of space like it was a place to avoid, something to pass through on your way from one place to another. His own memory of the journey here as a child was nothing more than images and faint recollections. If only he’d been raised somewhere else! If he’d lived on a station, or one of the moons, or even Earth, he would have lived such a completely different life.
Of course, he would have been in the war. In some capacity, he would have found himself living a twenty year war he’d previously been unaware of. And he wouldn’t have met Mac. They might even have been on opposite sides of the war. He could have found himself fighting a battle, maybe even launching a missile that might have hit a ship, killing everyone on board, including a fighter pilot by the name of Mac Brennan. And that name would have meant nothing to him. Or worse yet, he could have met Mac on a battlefield on some station somewhere, facing him in combat, being killed by him because some Bureau told them both they were enemies.
Great, daydream yourself right into battle just by staring at the ceiling.
With a sigh, he closed his eyes for a moment, pushing those thoughts out of his mind. When he opened them again, he was looking at the table where his partner sat, pouring over data sheets and landscape images. A glint of silver flashed in Mac’s hand. Bryce focused and saw the silver bear he’d molded and watched it twirl idly through his friend’s fingers. Mac’s attention was completely absorbed by the sheet he was studying, while his hand gently turned the amulet over and over.
Bryce reached up and felt the pendant resting against his chest. If he ran his finger very lightly over the back, he could feel the tiny transmitter secured there. He knew that was the only thing that had allowed Mac to find him in time that night, and he was again glad he’d decided not to argue the invasion. Now he knew what he had to do. But knowing was only half of it.
“Okay, I think it’s time you went to bed.”
“What?” Bryce looked up and suddenly became aware of his partner standing right beside the couch.
“You’ve been out here nearly four hours, and asleep for most of them.” Mac nodded down the hall. “I want you to get some decent sleep.”
He wanted to argue, but he couldn’t. The fatigue was overpowering. Slowly, with Mac’s assistance, Bryce managed to get off the couch. The wounds on his side were trying to heal, but the injury was still fresh enough to be very painful. He made a quick visit to the bathroom, eased himself into bed. By then, the pain was constant. Mac administered a dose of the sedative Lise prescribed and Bryce felt himself quickly began to relax.
“If you wake up and need anything, just call out, all right?” Mac pulled the blankets up to Bryce’s chest.
“Thanks.” He blinked and felt the sedative wash over his body, then opened his eyes again to make sure he’d actually said that. Mac was still there, smiling down at him. “Mac, about the other night, I–” Suddenly a massive yawn stopped his sentence.
“You’re welcome. Now go to sleep.”
Bryce sighed deeply, letting the waves of drug-induced sedation wash through him. After a few minutes, he rolled over to his right just enough to protect his injured side. He glanced at the dresser and realized Five was on, and had been all this time. His screen was glowing soft blue in the darkened room.
“I suppose you’ve been keeping an eye on things?” Bryce had to lick his lips and concentrate against the drug in order to speak. He was too tired to concern himself with any of the machine’s games, but he had to let Five know he was being watched, as well.
“I’ve been keeping track of you, as always.”
He nodded at the computer’s reply. The sedative was winning the battle quickly.
“You’re safe, Bryce. Nothing can hurt you here.”
“I know.” Bryce sighed once, then felt his mind let go completely and drifted into the warm comfort of sleep.
He awoke to a view of the ceiling, and a powerful aching in his side.
“Hey, you awake?” Mac pushed the door open enough to see through, then opened it further and stepped inside. “How are you feeling this morning?”
“I’m okay.” Bryce wrapped his left arm around his injury, then swung his legs around and over the edge of the bed, using that momentum to sit up. The pain that motion caused made him dizzy. “Man. Why does it hurt more now than it did that night?”
“You were in shock then.” Mac nodded toward the door and helped him stand. “The human body is an amazing thing. Just like the mind.”
With Mac’s help, Bryce managed to walk to the bathroom and gain some control over the dizzy spell as the pain eased into a deep throbbing.
“Take your time in there and I’ll get breakfast ready.”
“Thanks.” Bryce nodded his gratitude and pushed the door far enough closed for modesty without actually latching it shut. He really wanted a shower. It had been several days now, even though he’d been cleaned up in the med lab, but sonic cleansing had nothing to wipe away the long hours of fear. That kind of sweat required hot water and soap. Slowly, he eased the shirt up over his head, then tossed it aside and gazed at the mirror over the sink. Dark hairs were doing their best to roughen up his chin and cheeks, matching the color of disheveled hair strewn about his head. He didn’t even want to think about his breath.
As he gazed in the mirror, his eyes caught sight of the wounds in his side. He stared at the reflection, unwilling to look down at the marks themselves. Three thick lacerations running along his ribcage, the edges sealed and protected by a thin layer of transparent bandaging were a clear indicator the nightmare had been real. Instantly his mind flashed back into darkness. Bryce’s blood ran cold as the air was ripped from his lungs in a desperate gasp. He was outside! Alone, but not alone! It was over, but it had only just begun. The sun was gone, the full moon rising, and death stood in front of him, smiling.
The toothbrush Bryce was holding fell out of numbed fingers and hit the sink. Claws swiped the air before him, bright white against black, silky skin. He fell and found the branch. It was his only weapon, but it couldn’t stop the claws from tearing his flesh.
“Stop it!” Bryce clenched his jaw and forced his hands to grab the cold sides of the sink, breaking the memory’s hold on his conscious. He stared into the mirror, pulling his eyes away from the injury to stare back at his own gaze. “It’s over.” The terror of that night was too fresh, too real to even begin to think about. Any attempts at coherent recall shifted immediately into blind panic and a shocked, numb feeling.
He turned on the water and held his shaky hands under the spout, staring down at the stream as it poured out. Mac was probably able to analyze everything they’d been through that night, running it all back through his mind in minute detail. Bryce was barely able to accept the reality of what he’d been through. He just wanted desperately to build a wall up around the experience and never peer over the top of it again.
Mac was alive, he was alive. They were alive. That’s all that mattered. The karmic debt he owed his friend was going to take a few lifetimes to repay, but he’d gladly work toward that goal as long as he was able.
With a heavy sigh to push the last of the memory from his mind’s eye, Bryce splashed the warm water over his face a few times, brushed his teeth, then stripped off his underwear and stepped into the shower. He had to keep the spray from hitting directly over the wounds, but the sealing bandage covering them prevented moisture from doing any damage. With his back to the water, Bryce stood still and let the steaming spray pound the back of his shoulders, massaging out the stiffness from sleeping in one position all night. It felt so good, he could have stayed there all morning, but the growling of an empty stomach refused to be ignored.
Reluctantly, he turned off the shower and toweled off, then wrapped the towel around his waist and carried his discarded clothes back to the bedroom. Getting dressed was more difficult than he thought. The pants came on easily enough, and it was warm enough to forgo socks, but the first three attempts to pull the shirt over his head were met with stabbing pains each time he raised his right arm. He thought about trying another shirt, but they all went on the same way.
“Great.” Bryce sighed and stared down at the shirt draped over both forearms. There was no other way, unless he wanted to go shirtless. “Hey, Ma–” Mac’s sudden appearance in the doorway startled the request right out of him.
“Right here. You need some help, kid?” Mac walked straight over and took hold of the offending shirt, lifting it up Bryce’s arms so he could hold the opening level with the shorter man’s head.
Bryce ducked into the shirt, then pulled it down over his chest and back. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Mac helped straighten the shirt down then grinned. “It’s amazing what you can’t do sometimes. Lise sent over some pain killers if you need them.”
“No, I’m okay.” The last thing he wanted was to sleep for a week. “As long as I don’t move around too much.”
“No chance of that while I have anything to say about it. Come on, breakfast is ready.”
“Great, I’m starved.” Bryce followed his partner out to the table as enthusiastically as he could manage. Smells greeted him on the way and his stomach sent back a loud, somewhat embarrassing response. “Sorry.”
“Why? You slept through dinner yesterday. Eat up.” Mac poured the coffee, then sat down in the opposite chair. “You must have slept well last night, I didn’t hear a thing.”
Bryce shook his head and had to speak around a thick slice of bacon. “There weren’t any nightmares.”
“No,” he shook his head again and reached for the coffee to wash down the meat. When he’d finished, he looked up. “It’s strange. After . . . I mean, it must have been the sedative.” He stabbed his fork into another thick slice of bacon and tried hard not to think about that night as he spoke. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking it.” The bacon hovered on the end of his fork as he hastened to qualify his remark. “I just–it surprised me, that’s all.”
Mac nodded over the rim of his cup. “I think we’ll all sleep better once Eckland and his group are caught.”
Bryce chewed the meat and considered the possibility of his attackers surviving away from the complex this week. He couldn’t really fathom it, but they had taken a plane. The small aircraft would provide adequate protection in time of need. “So, there’s been no sign of him?”
“Not yet.” Mac set the cup down and stabbed a chunk of fruit. “It’s just a matter of time.”
They finished their breakfast with a discussion of the summer heat, such as it was. Bryce commented on the sleeveless shirt his partner was wearing, made of the same material as the blankets and the shirt he’d been given that fateful night. The ship depicted on the back of this tank-top was a huge frigate known as the Expedition. When he inquired about the ship, Mac explained its long history of service, and the year he’d spent stationed onboard as a newly commissioned fighter pilot.
Mac insisted Bryce remain where he was while he cleaned up after their meal. Willingly, Bryce sat back and helped himself to a second cup of coffee.
“What about the one on the back of the other shirt, the Rainier?” He still didn’t want to refer to it as his shirt, for fear his friend would remember the loan and want it back.
“Ah yeah, the Rainier.” Mac stacked the plates and carried them to the galley sink. “It was a great assignment when it first came out of the shipyards. Brand new, really state of the art. I was lucky enough to draw a posting on her that first year.” He smiled with the memory as water filled the sink. “It put in two good solid years of performance and was heading into its third, when suddenly it just started falling apart.”
“Falling apart?” Bryce’s eyebrows creased as he tried to imagine the great space vessel. “How does a ship fall apart?”
Mac dunked both hands into the soapy blue water. “It was slow, at first. Things started to malfunction, systems stopped working right for no reason. Then the onboard computers began to fail one by one, doing things they were never designed to do. Just a few months into its third year of service, it wasn’t the same ship that had come out of those shipyards.” He shrugged. “They had to decommission it, finally. It’s a museum now, docked in Earth’s orbit as a monument to what a great ship it had been.”
“That’s too bad.” Bryce was beginning to see why Mac didn’t want that shirt back.
“Hey, it’s not all bad. During its time, as short as it was, that ship performed some pretty incredible missions. I don’t know anyone who served on her who doesn’t look back at that ship with pride.”
Quickly changing his mind again about the shirt’s worth, Bryce asked about some of the other ships he’d seen on various items in Mac’s possession. He was treated to nearly a half hour of war history before his partner called an end to the activity, insisting Bryce rest. With a promise of inactivity and book reading, he was allowed to remain on the couch while Mac again worked at the table, studying the maps and taking the occasional call from the complex to discuss various issues Bryce took no interest in.
By lunch, his ability to move around unaided and even lift his own plate with minimum discomfort gained Bryce a place at the worktable opposite Mac. He enjoyed their setup at the wide workbench, and the ease with which he could work on his own projects while sharing a space with his friend. As unconscious as it was, their ability to share tools without asking and work long hours in each other’s company was something Bryce found himself pondering on occasion.
It helped give him something to focus on while he softened some of the silver he’d gathered. He only needed a small piece, but it was exacting work. Not to mention a long shot. The idea that he could get Mac to agree . . . when the man was so military in his appearance. Of course, he wasn’t exactly militant, as Bryce understood the word. Nor was he particularly compulsive, like Five. Anyway, all he had to do was ask. Explain the reasons, and ask. Simple enough. But that meant there had to be a reason. Which there was, but just how good of a reason was it, considering?
“Whatcha workin’ on?”
Bryce looked up, startled out of his concentration. “Oh, ah, just keeping my hand in.” He glanced at the shape in his hand, then pushed it back into a round glob with his thumb. “I like to try more complex things, you know, to keep good at it.”
Mac laughed shortly and reached for his nearly empty cup. “I don’t think there’s any doubt you’re good at it.”
Bryce shrugged and swallowed his next sentence. He wasn’t ready to try his luck just yet. He watched his partner walk to the galley and start another pot of coffee, then turned his attention back to the metal in his hands. Working the silver had never felt like a skill. It was just something he knew how to do, and it passed the time. Watching Carl learn how to manipulate the tools had given Bryce an appreciation for his familiarity with the craft, but he knew anyone could do what he did with a little practice. The trick of it was another matter entirely.
When Mac returned, he’d filled his own cup and a second one that he deposited beside Bryce before returning to his seat and another two hours of quiet study. As sunset grew near, the silver earring had been created, shaped, melted out of form, and re-created a dozen times, as its maker changed his mind over and over again.
Twice, Bryce found the tiny bit of jewelry to be perfectly shaped, small and unobtrusive, thin enough not to be overtly noticed, but thick enough to appeal to the tastes of most men. He thought. Then he’d spot Mac admiring the piece and chicken out completely, pushing the shiny silver out of whack. By the time dinner was ready, he was quite convinced of his foolishness. While they ate, he fingered the thrice-completed earring and listened to Mac’s conclusions about the landscape in the immediate north. When the dishes had been cleared, and another call from Ben dealt with, he knew he had to try.
“So, are you going to tell me what’s been eating at you all day, or do I have to try and guess?” Mac had ended the call and was leaning against the table, looking down at Bryce.
“I, um . . . ” Bryce looked up and sighed, hoping he could at least give enough credence to his attempt as the tradition warranted. Such as it was. “This is going to sound pretty stupid, I’m sure.”
Mac shrugged. “Try me.”
The silver earring in his hand caught a flash from the overhead lights. “There was this tradition, sort of, from when I was a kid. I remembered it the other day, kinda, and I–look, this is really lame to someone who hasn’t been here for . . . well I mean you have, but . . .” Bryce inhaled again, as deeply as his injured side would allow, and plowed forward. “I remember someone thought this would boost moral or something, that’s what Five said. When a person saved someone’s life, from them, the others would hold this big ceremony the next morning, in honor of the bravery, see. And, well, during this thing, they had this tradition where the person who’d been saved, he’d–or she–would make an earring with this silver, and pierce the ear of the person–or people–who’d saved his or her life.” He was talking too fast, he knew. Dry throat, racing heart, fear of rejection. It was, as Five would say, a classic reaction. Only Mac wasn’t mocking him. Well, not yet. He was just standing there, with a sort of half smile on his face, waiting for the ramblings to conclude.
“Okay, so they did this as a way of paying respect to the person who saved them, you know? Kind of a thank you, so the whole colony would know how brave this person was, and how grateful the guy who was saved felt.” He took a breath and looked at the silver in his hands. “So, anyway, I was kinda hoping, if you don’t think you’d mind–but I’d understand if you did, I mean, it’s not like this is your tradition or you even know what the hell I’m talking about, or care–but I wanted to . . . I mean . . .” Bryce grimaced at the sound of his own hesitancy. While he paused, Mac reached out and took the earring from his hand.
“So, you wanted to pierce my ear with this?” He gazed at the small bit of jewelry, turning it around in his fingers as the silver caught the light. “As a way to show your gratitude for what I did?”
Bryce swallowed hard and nodded, waiting for the rejection.
Mac’s lips pursed in thoughtfulness, then slowly he nodded. “Okay.”
“Really?” Bryce looked up, startled by the answer. “Um, great, let me . . .” He took the earring and stood as quickly as he could, then pointed to the work table. “I need to sharpen the end.”
“Yes, please do.” Mac followed, then took a seat at the table, watching Bryce. “Is this why you have two earrings?”
“Um, no. I don’t think so.” Bryce shrugged one shoulder as he carefully worked one end of the small earring into a very thin, surgically sharp edge.
“You don’t think so?”
“I don’t remember, exactly. I think I just made them myself.” He tested the edge on the tip of one finger and judged it sharp enough. Afraid Mac was going to change his mind any second, he wanted to get this done. “I just need to get it through, then work the ends together.” He reached out, then hesitated, waiting for Mac to turn his head. “It’s sterile. The metal always sterilizes when it’s melted.”
Mac nodded, smiling a little, then turned his head, allowing Bryce to take the lobe of his left ear in his hand. “You’ve done this before, right?”
“Nope.” Bryce lined up the end, then pushed it through in one swift motion. Quickly, he grabbed his tool and worked the ends together, creating a complete circle. The sharpening had gone so well, there wasn’t any bleeding. “Done.”
“What do you mean, no?” Mac reached up and fingered the new earring, staring at Bryce. “I thought you had?”
“I said I didn’t remember, but I thought I’d done my own.” Bryce let a grin tug at the corners of his mouth. Mac’s eyebrows were creased in a mock expression of alarm.
“How does it look?”
“Go see for yourself.”
Mac stood and walked to the bathroom, but Bryce stayed behind, waiting at the worktable. He’d kept the silver ring small enough to hopefully not cause any real alarm in the military man.
“Not bad.” Mac came out of the bathroom still fingering the silver in his ear. “I gotta hand it to you, that didn’t hurt one bit.”
Bryce breathed a sigh of relief, then smiled. “I don’t think you’ll be allergic or anything. But if you are, we can melt the middle and get it out.”
Mac pressed his lips together and shook his head. “It’ll be fine. Now, I think you should call it a day.”
“Yeah.” Bryce agreed, then took another look at the silver earring and smiled. He had done a pretty good job. “Good night.”
He gathered his tools and put them away, then used the bathroom before going into his room to change. The pain in his side had been reduce to a dull throbbing that was finally easier to manage. Undressing was much easier, but Bryce chose to sleep without his customary t-shirt in the warm, summer night. Before getting into bed, he rummaged through the top drawer of his desk, looking for the monitor he was sure he’d put there.
“That was clever.”
Bryce glanced up at Five, then went back to his searching. “I didn’t do it for you.”
“Of course not.”
Which was precisely why he wanted that monitor. It had to be here somewhere.
“I’m sure he’d never have gone for it any other way.”
Naturally it was in the last drawer he looked in. Bryce pulled out the small device and flipped it on, grateful to find it still worked perfectly. There was no way he was going to use Five for this, and the machine knew it.
“What do you know about what Mac would go for?” Bryce was learning to recognize the jealousy in Five’s tone. It wasn’t something he’d ever noticed before, but then, there had never been any reason to.
“Did it work?”
He adjusted the sensor readings, then watched as the display focused tighter, showing a grid of twenty feet in a radius with him as the center. No more than ten feet away, blinking a soft green, was his target.
“Yep.” Bryce flipped the machine off quickly, before Five could have any chance of somehow figuring out the frequency he’d used. He knew, given half a chance, Five would find out everything. Before he could ask another question, Bryce flipped off the lights and climbed into bed. It had worked, all right. Just knowing Mac had accepted his reasons and allowed the piercing gave him a real sense of relief and added security. If he found out someday, and didn’t like it, well . . . he’d just have to deal with it when it happened. In the meantime, they had plenty of other things worry about.
The next four days passed relatively calmly. Bryce wasn’t allowed to leave the shuttle while his wound was still painful enough to keep him moving slowly, so all of Mac’s meetings were held in the shuttle’s upper level. Twice Ben came by to discuss the still-missing Eckland, and to name–by way of elimination–his three accomplices. Travis, Clayton and Haines. All three were unfamiliar names, and even after being shown images of the three men, Bryce couldn’t tell if they had been the men he’d seen or not. He’d been forced to admit that most people looked alike to him, with a few exceptions that hastily added Ben and the other two men in the room at the time.
Ben couldn’t understand Bryce’s inability to recognize people he’d met, but to his relief, Mac managed to provide the commander a long, rather technical explanation that either appeased or confused him. Either way, he accepted it.
Harry visited several times to discuss the shield’s new settings, asking for detailed descriptions of that night that Bryce was unwilling to provide. For those visits, he remained downstairs and tried to pretend he didn’t know what was being talked about upstairs.
The fact that Eckland and the plane he’d taken hadn’t been found yet was another topic actively discussed. In a meeting that included Ben, Lise, Frank, Carl and a few other team leaders, Mac requested they fit all vehicles with better tracking devices. Ones that could not be disabled with the communications equipment onboard. Bryce listened with interest, but refrained from making what he knew would be the most obvious suggestion.
“Well, now that the full moon is finished for another month, we can get some search parties farther out there.” Frank shook his head and sighed. “Though as far as I’m concerned, we’re only looking for that plane. We’ll need those spare parts eventually.”
Bryce looked from Frank to Mac and caught the quick but subtle agreement in his partner’s eyes before they shifted to a brooding anger.
“If Eckland or any of his men are alive, I want justice.”
“Brennan’s right.” Ben nodded. “We can’t let this crime go unpunished. As colonists, we stand for something that’s supposed to be above this type of cruel violence.”
“Unfortunately, people are people, Ben.” Lise put a hand on the commanders arm and shook her head. “No matter how many centuries pass, no matter how hard we try, you’ll never get clear of our potential for violence.”
“I’ll settle for just getting it under control.” Mac looked at everyone in the room. “I think Bryce and I would like to join in the search.”
Surprised, Bryce looked up but said nothing. He was always uncomfortable when he was being talked about, but his seat beside Mac and slightly set back from the table gave him a good vantage point without having to meet many eyes.
“Are we entirely certain those other three are with Rob? I mean, no one actually saw them take off that morning.”
“But we haven’t seen them since, either.” Ben answered the doctor with a shrug. “That’s one reason we were able to ID them, they’re the only three unaccounted for.”
Bryce managed to look at the table in time to miss the questioning looks from Lise and Ben. He’d already tried, several times, to explain why he failed to take notice of ninety percent of the faces he’d seen since they all invaded his domain.
“I can give you a list of the grids the search parties have scheduled. You two can just let us know where you look, so we can avoid doubling you over and wasting time.”
“Thanks, Frank. We’ll head out in a couple of days. I’d like to get each plane and rover fitted with a new tracking device, as a back up, before any of them head out this month.”
“Right, I’ve got engineering working on that. Maybe something along the lines of what Katherine’s team developed to track one of the creatures?”
“Did anything ever come of their attempts?”
“Three failures and one failed unit, but they’re perfecting the idea as we speak.”
Bryce listened to the conversations that carried on through the afternoon, but didn’t take part in any except when asked a question. There wasn’t anything he could offer by way of advice, and when the topics shifted to tagging or tracking one of the creatures, he usually excused himself to bring up more drinks or food from down below. Mac never seemed perturbed by his disappearances, since they never involved leaving the shuttle, and always seemed to know when he’d have to move to the side in order to let Bryce out of their seating arrangement.
There hadn’t been a single mention about Mac’s new earring, but Bryce was sure he’d caught people looking at it during the meetings. Whether they’d inquired about it when Bryce wasn’t there, he didn’t know. But so far, his friend hadn’t mentioned regretting the addition.
Two days after the big meeting, Mac decided Bryce’s injuries were healed enough for their plane trip, providing Lise felt the same. They visited the doctor first thing in the morning and got the all-clear, then dropped by the hangar to get the maps from Frank and request their plane be readied.
Mac accepted the maps from the hangar chief. “Any luck with the tracking devices?”
“As a matter of fact, Carl’s here.” Frank grinned broadly at Mac, then Bryce. “He’s made a fantastic discovery that he thinks will . . . Well, here, he can tell you.”
Carl appeared suddenly from around a stack of boxes, wearing a grin as wide as Frank’s and holding up a small instrument and a bit of the silver metal. “Captain! Perfect timing! I was just testing out this theory and by God, it worked!”
Bryce glanced at the sensor in Carl’s hand and swallowed hard. Of course. It made perfect sense, after all. But . . .
“What?” Mac raised both eyebrows at the looks of both men. “What is it you’ve found?”
“This.” Proudly, Carl held out the silver he’d shaped into a small square.
Mac grinned and looked at Bryce, then back at Carl. “Yeah, what about it?”
“I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner. It’s going to help a great deal, if Katherine and the others ever get to a point where they can tag those creatures. It won’t take up any batteries, you see. In essence, unlimited energy. At least for our needs.” Carl looked back at the silver he was holding. “Incredible. Truly incredible. And when you think about it, so obvious I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out.”
Bryce swallowed again and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The way Carl was babbling, there was a good chance Mac wouldn’t figure this out. His partner looked to him for help interpreting the geologist’s rambling, so he shrugged in reply.
“Well, it’s not too obvious to me, Carl. What exactly are you talking about?”
“Start from the beginning, man. You’ve got them completely confused.” Frank grinned as he tried to help, barely suppressing a laugh at the man’s enthusiasm.
“Oh, yes, of course. Right, right, right. Well, you see, as you know, this metal is worked using sound waves of various intense frequencies.”
“Yes.” Mac agreed.
“I was pondering what you said, about needing to track our equipment. And I kept coming back to this. I didn’t know why, at first. There was something there trying to make sense, but I wasn’t getting it.”
“Neither am I.”
Carl continued, unhindered by Mac’s comment. “It’s the frequency, you see. Each time you use this tool, the one Bryce here taught me how to manage, you use a specific frequency to change the quality of the metal. Each time you work it, you alter the settings as you go, depending on what position or shape you’re attempting to achieve.”
Bryce inhaled deeply, bracing himself for what he knew now was inevitable.
“So I got to thinking, if this metal is shaped with sound, maybe it has a memory. You know, all solid objects resonate at a certain frequency, and if you know the proper levels, you can literally disintegrate something by bombarding it with that frequency. Of course, destroying it wasn’t the object here, but I did a little experimenting, and voila!” Carl held up the silver square again proudly. “If you keep an accurate record, to the letter, of the frequencies you use to shape a particular piece of this metal, you can then use the variable seismology sensors to trace the exact location of that metal to within three feet!”
Bryce swallowed compulsively and focused somewhere around Carl’s middle shirt button.
“Say that again? You can trace this metal?”
“If you’ve kept accurate records of the frequencies you used to shape it–keeping in mind this record will vary from piece to piece–then yes. From what I’ve learned, if you’re off by one degree either way, you’ll never find it. But that adds a strong level of identity, knowing that no two pieces will be exact, or will respond to the frequency chain you’re searching for.”
Bryce had to force himself not to reach up and finger the necklace resting against his chest. He hadn’t meant for Mac to find out like this, and certainly not in the company of others. The fact that his partner wasn’t looking at him assured Bryce he’d figured it all out.
“That’s fantastic, Carl. How long would it take you to fit all of the vehicles with one of these?”
“Oh, not long at all. I could have it done in a few hours, actually. I happen to have a pile of these waiting, just in case my theory worked.” Carl’s smile never wavered. “Who knows what else this metal can do?”
Bryce looked up out of habit and caught Mac’s gaze. His face was, as usual, completely unreadable.
An instant after their eyes met, Mac’s shifted to a point over the top of Bryce’s head. “Come on, kid. Let’s get some things packed.”
“You’ll be out for a few days, then?”
Mac nodded to Frank, then started back toward the shuttle.
Bryce waved his own acknowledgment to both men then followed his friend. They walked around the complex, instead of going through the buildings. Mac said nothing so Bryce remained quiet, and a half a step back. His heart was pounding just a little as he thought about the potential reactions waiting for him when they got to the shuttle. Of course, he had a good argument. After all, Mac had tagged him with a tracking device first, and without his consent. It was only fair, after all. Sure, there might be some difference between securing a device to the back of a necklace as opposed to actually piercing someone’s ear with it. But the man didn’t wear jewelry! He had just as much right to want to keep track of his partner, didn’t he? That night of terror, after Eckland had left him to die, made Bryce never want to be farther than shouting distance from the only person able to protect him. Mac was the only one, after all, who really gave a damn. And he’d only done this because he gave a damn. That had to count for something.
Bryce was so deep in concentration, he barely noticed the older man had stopped at the top of the shuttle’s ramp. He stopped just short of running into Mac, then looked up. Those eyes were scanning something over his head again. With a sigh, Bryce waited.
Mac continued to look out over the landscape. “So. Keeping track of me, are you?”
Bryce swallowed, squinting in the sun. “I ah . . . Yeah.” He took the matter-of-fact approach as a last resort. “Yes, I knew about it.” Silence. Nothing. Mac stood there, gazing out over his head, and just nodded. Slowly, his face changed expression. As Bryce looked up from his spot lower down on the ramp, he could have sworn he saw something. Then the bright blue eyes met his.
“Okay.” Mac turned and thumbed the door pad, then walked into the shuttle, leaving his partner gaping behind him.
Bryce started out of his stupor and hurried to catch up. Okay? He followed Mac into the shuttle and headed for the stairs. Okay. His heart settled quickly out of its heavy thumping as his partner’s acceptance registered. So they were even now, sort of. Each keeping track of the other in his own way. Each assuring themselves they would never be separated in a time of need again. Both assured the comfort of knowing where the other was when they weren’t side by side.
Bryce reached the bottom of the stairs and found Mac in the kitchen.
“I figure we’ll stay out five days this trip, so pack what you need. I’ll get the food squared away.”
“Okay. Are you going to want the chart recorder this time?”
“Yeah, but I’ll get that. It’s heavy.” Mac straightened up from the drawer he’d been peering into and held out a finger of warning. “Just remember, you’re still on light duty. I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
Bryce grinned at the jab, then nodded. “Yes, sir.”