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3-day weekend!  Yay 🙂  Okay, here are the promised two chapters, since I’m in a good mood, it’s Friday, and it’s also a 3-day weekend and who doesn’t love those?  I didn’t look these over, since my brain is fully engulfed in Ether right now – and I’m going to beat Pete and Tori in the Penman Shipwreck.

And by the end of the weekend I’ll have light in my bedroom again 😀

Chapter 11

Mac sighed deeply and pushed his toes into the sand. Smells of dinner were beginning to reach his nose and his stomach was trying to respond, but the sounds were muffled against the sand. They’d just spent the last two hours in the lake, swimming, relaxing and just plain exhausting themselves. It was Bryce’s turn to cook dinner, so Mac took advantage of the time. He’d donned pants to keep the finely grained sand from going where it wasn’t wanted, then wormed his way into a comfortable position on the beach, enjoying the sun-massage on his bare back and arms.

It had been a long five days, searching for signs of Eckland and his group. Mac’s first hunch–that the group had made a run for the caves in the west–had proven wrong. So they kept looking. There were three other teams flying searches, each with their own pre-determined area and method. Mac had suggested one team fly the full distance of daylight, taking into account the stamina of the plane Eckland had stolen and the time he’d left, in case his plan was to get far enough away to preclude any search attempts until the moon’s phase altered. That team had reached their distance, and was still running a search pattern to cover the entire diameter of their grid. Two other teams had gone off to do a detailed search, much like Mac and Bryce were performing, but had so far reported no signs.

The trip had accomplished little, except a further mapping of the regions around the complex, showing them more of Oblivion for future use. Mac quickly discovered all of his previous attempts to ease Bryce outdoors during the night had been erased by that one night of sheer and utter terror under their blue shield. It wasn’t at all surprising, really. That night had come close to curing Mac of even wanting to watch his favored sunsets again. He couldn’t blame the kid for flat out refusing to venture outside even when there was no moon. But, to his credit, he managed being in the plane at night with perfect ease. As long as the door was locked, the windows shielded, and Mac was inside, Bryce was happy. As for suggestions in locating Eckland, Bryce was little help. He couldn’t fathom anyone leaving the safety of the complex and not returning before nightfall, so he preferred to believe Eckland and the others were dead. And he knew if the men ever returned to the complex, he was safe now and they’d be punished, end of story. As complicated as Bryce’s life was, he seemed to prefer thinking of it in very simple terms.

Sometimes the younger man’s level of faith in him made Mac uneasy. Bryce would look up, with those large, lavender eyes, absorbing everything he said, not always understanding, but so damned trusting! It was unnerving and soul warming at the same time. His trust and faith gave Mac the exact sense of purpose he’d always wanted out of life, but he’d never realized how important that purpose would be. How full of responsibility it was. Or, how rewarding.

“You’ve got another ten minutes,” Bryce called from the fire.

“Thanks,” Mac mumbled. He shifted his face to the other side and brushed the sand off his newly exposed cheek. They’d be back at the complex tomorrow, to meet with Ben and discuss their options. But right now was a time for rest and relaxation. And it felt good! Heat from the sun sent waves up and down his bare back, massaging the muscles below. His skin had darkened to a golden color he enjoyed very much, far more than the spacer’s tan of planned UV exposure. This color spoke of health and vigor, and life the way it was intended. The way Bryce had always known.

“Dinner’s up.”

Reluctantly, even with his stomach urging haste, Mac rose from his sandy bed. Their fire pit was situated conveniently near several flat, smooth boulders that were perfect for sitting on. Bryce used one stone as a table, and had the meal spread out between them. Succulent pink fish meat, surrounded by an incredible variety of legumes, nuts, and fruits, each prepared in a different way. Mac’s nap was quickly forgotten.

“This is fantastic.”

“Thanks.” Bryce took a rock opposite Mac and they began eating.

Since they considered these times as respites from society, such as it was, both men preferred to abandon utensils whenever their meal allowed. Such was the case with this one. The meat of this particular fish tended to be thick and firm, and could easily be enjoyed with the hands. The fruits, even when steamed, held their shape perfectly, allowing them to be picked up by the fingers. And the legumes Bryce often harvested around certain bushes and trees became firm when roasted, and crunched delightfully.

After satisfying his initial hunger, Mac leaned back and glanced around at the sunny, almost pastoral scene around them. “It’s beautiful here.”

Bryce looked up and shrugged. “I suppose.”

“You know, partner, you’re just too cynical.” Mac looked at his friend and shook his head, then waved an arm to indicated their surroundings. “This planet really is incredibly beautiful. You’re surrounded by nature in a way most people only dream of, and you take it all for granted.”

“Maybe I just know this place better than most.”

“Listen, all things considered, Oblivion is a place I don’t mind at all calling home.”

Bryce met his gaze with creased eyebrows. “But if you’d known exactly what to expect here before you came, you never would have taken that job.”

Mac thought for a moment, watching his friend’s face. He was looking up with those big round eyes, so lavender they seemed as alien as anything Mac had ever seen. “I can honestly say, taking into consideration everything I’ve seen and done here, that I’d do it all again given half the chance.”

The surprised expression meeting that statement quickly morphed into thoughtfulness. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Yep.” Mac smiled, then reached out for another helping of fish. “Besides, where else could I find food like this, and someone to cook it for me?”

Bryce laughed shortly and shook his head. “Okay, I won’t challenge that statement.”

“Good.” Mac chewed the meat slowly, letting every spice and flavor linger on his tongue as long as possible. He was getting better at identifying the ingredients without having to watch the young man prepare the meal, and enjoyed experimenting on his own with Oblivion’s multitude of natural resources. “You know, this is one thing I can’t say I’d have done if I was alone for ten years.”

Bryce looked up and cocked his head to one side. “What’s that?”

“This.” Mac held up a piece of fish. “I mean, I like to cook when I have the chance, and I can’t say I could ever get tired of the way things taste. But honestly, I think if I was alone for ten years cooking only for myself, I’d get pretty lazy about it.” He tossed the meat down, having eaten all he could for the moment. It was rare for them to talk directly about Bryce’s time alone, but he felt the relaxed mood might break some of the ice he occasionally ran into.

“I did.” Bryce picked at some berries in front of him and shrugged. “There were times I’d eat the same thing for weeks. Then I’d just get tired of it all of a sudden.” He popped three berries into his mouth and glanced around, squinting at the sunlight. “Five would insist I vary my diet, and he’d dig up some old recipe in his files and get me to try it out. After that, I’d get into this kick where I wanted to cook real meals and eat new things. Suddenly cooking and experimenting was a new and exciting hobby.” He looked down at the remains of their dinner. “Then, after a month of that, I’d get bored again, or depressed, and go right back into a rut.”

Mac watched his friend’s body language through the explanation, cataloging Bryce’s movements and gestures along with his words. Building a database on this young man was a challenge he often felt he wasn’t up to. Bryce was such a contradiction in so many ways, and predictable in so many others. Emotionally well-aged and innocent at the same time.

“You’re not alone there.” Mac reached out for a container of water, then three of the succulent green berries that he crushed and dropped into the liquid. Immediately, his water became bright yellow and tasted sweetly of fruit. “I remember going through times on the ships when military chow was fine, day in and day out. Then one day I’d just sorta snap, and crave something–anything–with flavor. After a few weeks of preparing my own meals, I’d be tired of the work and fall right back into the security of routine.”

“What would you have done if you were me?”

The question startled Mac mid-drink and he nearly spilled water down his chest. “What?”

“I know it’s a stupid question, I was just curious.”

“No,” Mac hastened to clarify his clumsiness. “It’s not a stupid question. Just a hard one to answer.” He set the water down and tried to think of one. When he looked up, he was met with lavender eyes and a searching expression. “I don’t think anyone could answer that truthfully, Bryce. What you went through–being alone for so long–that’s not something anyone can honestly predict their reaction to. Unless you’re faced with a situation, you can only guess your response.”

Bryce shrugged, maintaining eye contact. “So, if you had been alone for ten years, what do you think you would have done?”

Gone completely and unequivocally insane. “Well, for starters, probably gone a little crazy.” Mac smiled, trying hard to make light of his answer. Bryce seemed to take it in stride, not even flinching in response. “I guess . . . I suppose . . . I would have found things to keep me busy. Worked on projects, hobbies maybe. Kept the equipment working, maybe tried to build things to keep myself occupied.” He’d pondered this before, many times, and never had come up with what he thought was a real answer. “Honestly, I have absolutely no idea.”

Bryce nodded, then began to clean up their leftovers.

“That wasn’t the answer you were looking for, was it?”

“Yeah, sure.” Bryce piled the fruits into a container and sealed it, then shook his head. “No, it wasn’t.” He looked up, eyebrows creased in worry. “I wanted–I just need to know–I dunno.” He shook his head again and reached for the rest of the fish.

Mac stopped him with a hand on his arm. “What? What is it you wanted to know?”

It took nearly a minute for Bryce to look up. “Sometimes, I need to know if I did it right.”

Confused, Mac maintained his grip. “Did what right?”

Bryce pursed his lips and his gaze seemed to focus inward where a struggle was obviously taking place. Finally, he sighed and looked up again. “I don’t have anything to go by. There’s no rule book to tell me if I was suppose to do something and didn’t.” He hitched one shoulder in a shrug. “Was there something I should have done? Something I shouldn’t have done? Maybe I was suppose to build a ship, or a better communication device, or some kind of probe I could have launched into space, warning people away. Or maybe I should have explored the planet, found a better place to live or started something somewhere I–”

“Bryce, stop it . . .” Mac waited until he made eye contact. “There’s nothing you could have done to save the world, understand?” Large round eyes met his, but weren’t convinced. “You were just one man, dealing with mysteries you didn’t understand, and didn’t even know were there. If anyone failed to do something, it was Five. But he knew what was going on, and he knew the only thing you could do was stay alive.”

Bryce still didn’t look convinced, but he nodded. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Don’t guess. It’s true. Hell, even if I was here, alone, and knew what this place was all about, I couldn’t have done any better.” Finally, he got the look of failure wiped off Bryce’s face and replaced it with more of that wide-eyed disbelief he found so amusing. “Believe it.”

Bryce looked down at the container he was putting the fish into, then finally nodded. “Do we have time for another swim?”

Mac smiled and glanced at the sun’s level. “Yeah, I think so.” He nodded toward the water. “I’ll race you out to that rock.”

They swam until they were exhausted again, leaving just enough time to towel off and dress before the sun touched the horizon. Bryce was first in the plane, as usual, but Mac didn’t linger long. It had only taken one night outside under the shield to arrest the younger man’s built-up bravery. One night to remind him of a lifetime of terror. That one night had been enough to stick in Mac’s mind so vividly, the setting of the sun brought back every moment of it in a heartbeat. He tried to watch the night sky color and fade, then blacken into a star filled canopy, but before long, images of fangs and claws and death as black as night flashed into his mind so sharply, it nearly took his breath away. If that was all it took to instill these kinds of flashes, he couldn’t imagine what took place inside his friend’s mind every night.

Mac shook off a chill that shot up his spine and hurried into the plane before the first stars came out. Bryce had a routine developed, getting their blankets and bedrolls into place in a way that allowed maximum room in the cramped space. Tonight started out as average as usual, with Bryce curled up on his side, facing the wall of the plane, Mac on his back, staring up at the ceiling. He preferred to ease himself into sleep, letting his mind go over the events of the day while his body relaxed in the stages of yoga he was trained in.

Only tonight he wasn’t interested in the day’s events. He didn’t care to ponder the landscape they’d explored or the person they were hunting. Tonight, he couldn’t get Bryce’s question out of his mind. ‘What would you have done if you were me?’ It was so hard to fathom, in all honesty. What would he have done? It seemed impossible even to think of every ramification. To be the only living human. Only that computer to converse with, and it was damn near insane. No one to trust, no one to care! He wanted to believe he could still find purpose in life, a reason to get out of bed every day, a reason to continue. But would he? Would anyone? No hope of rescue, unable to venture out of the complex after dark, and never really knowing why.

But Bryce had. He’d done all of that–found a reason to live–against all odds. He either had the most unique mind-set of anyone Mac knew, or Five played a larger role than anyone realized.

Mac sighed quietly and pressed his eyes closed. These thoughts were getting him nowhere. There was no way he could experience what Bryce had. No one could unless they’d lived it. Even his stint in that crippled ship, as horrific as it had seemed, didn’t compare. He’d been waiting to die, not facing a lifetime alone. No. It was doing him no good dwelling on either of their pasts. Besides, they both had plenty of future left to worry about.

The next day was a beautiful one. Blue sky, soft, puffy clouds of white with the slightest hint of purple in them. Both men bathed in the lake, enjoying a good swim in the early morning sun, then broke their fast with the leftovers from dinner before packing up the plane to head back to the complex. Mac let Bryce take the controls even before he started up the engine. Their trip had been a lesson in flight that was ready to end in a solo journey, with the exception of Mac as a passenger. Even though the younger man’s interest in the vehicle was mostly mechanical, he admitted learning how to fly the thing from start to finish would be an asset to his understanding of the craft.

And Mac enjoyed being the passenger now and again. The times he’d been in a vessel this small and not been the pilot, he could count on one hand. But his partner caught on so quickly, and handled the plane with such confidence, Mac had no qualms about it.

“That’s it, perfect.” Mac glanced out the window as the landscape fell away, then began to move past. “Can you feel the jets move from beneath you to behind the ship?”

Bryce nodded while he concentrated on the controls.

“You don’t get that kind of seat-of-the-pants sensation in space.”

“Which do you prefer?” He looked ahead, then set their altitude just above tree level.

Mac considered the question for a moment. “Well, in space you can’t feel the motion. Flying in an atmosphere gives you more of a sense of flying, in the conventional language. And that’s new for me, so I’m enjoying it.” He glanced at the settings Bryce dialed in, then nodded to himself at his partner’s precision. “But, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss space.”

Bryce turned to him, concern shading his expression. “You miss it?” He shook his head. “It’s not right.”

“What’s that?” Mac turned in his passenger seat and took note of his friend’s frustrated body language.

“Being stuck here. It’s not right. Especially for someone like you.” Bryce’s brow creased angrily into a look of disgust. “To be stuck here, with no choices. It’s just not right. You should be able to leave if you wanted to. I mean, you’ve been everywhere. How can you simply give all that up and get stuck in one place?” He glanced at Mac, then looked back out the windshield, watching where they were going.

Mac laughed shortly. “Listen, no one dragged me out here. Unlike you, I had a choice. And believe it or not, I gave it some thought. I know what I left behind, and missing that is natural.”

Bryce’s face softened a little bit, but he said nothing.

“Why don’t you take a sweep over that valley, we haven’t scanned that section yet.” Mac nodded to their left and Bryce eased the plane into a gentle banking turn. “You know, you always miss what you can’t have. Granted, for you that takes on a whole new meaning. But trust me, Bryce, if you were out there on some station or even Earth, at your age you’d still be longing for something new, something you thought was out of your reach. It’s natural. I only wish you could experience that so you’d understand.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Bryce flipped on the recorders as they flew over the valley, and both men scanned the area for any signs of a downed or partially hidden plane.

“Nothing.” Mac examined the grid display. “This valley should follow around that mountain pretty nicely. Let’s stay in it, then round it out and head back to the complex from that angle.” His partner looked at the marks, then nodded and held them on a steady course. His mood was still dark, Mac could see that and he hated it. Trying to explain to someone their dreams were valid but ultimately futile wasn’t an easy thing. He didn’t want their pleasant day to end on a downward slide. “There’s always a chance, someday, science will figure out a better method of travel. Maybe I’ll be able to take you on that tour after all.”

Bryce seemed to consider the possibility, then turned to Mac. “Do you think that could happen?”

“Hell, who knows? It’s needed, that kind of travel. If they can just keep from going to war, maybe mankind can get something done.”

With a sigh, the younger man seemed to accept that possibility.

The rest of their flight was uneventful. The valley they followed was beautiful, and loaded with fruit bearing trees and a patch of cattle Bryce had been previously unaware of, but no stolen plane or fugitive group was spotted. They finished their search and returned to the complex in the afternoon. Bryce landed smoothly, but insisted Mac steer the craft into the hangar, a ground maneuver that could be tricky when the huge building was bustling with activity.

“Will we be going out again?” Bryce unhooked his seat belt after he relinquished the controls.

“We’ll have to give it some thought.” None of the other teams had found any sign of Eckland or his men either. Mac wasn’t about to give up, but he wasn’t sure how much of their lives he should allow to be ruined by the actions of a madman. Bryce needed stability, and security, but justice demanded attention as well. This wasn’t a decision he was going to make for them.

“I don’t see the point.”

Mac brought the plane to a halt in its assigned position, then turned to face his friend.

“I mean, I enjoyed this. It’s good in a way, to finally see more of this planet, I guess. And I liked getting away from the complex.” Bryce shrugged and toyed with the strap of his safety harness. “But I don’t see the point in looking for them. Either they’re dead, or they will be. Or they’ll come back here and be seen.”

Mac sighed and looked outside, watching the hangar personnel scurry about. After a minute, he turned and looked at Bryce. “Are you sure about that?” The younger man’s gaze met his with wide, lavender eyes. “He could very well be alive, and he could come back. In fact, I can’t fathom them all not coming back.”

Bryce shrugged. “If they come back, they’ll be caught. If they don’t, they’ll die out there. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me.”

Mac chewed the inside of his lip and studied the cockpit controls. Bryce’s world was a simple one; if he was safe that meant it was okay. Who was he to argue that kind of logic? “I’m going to keep one team on patrol, but it doesn’t have to be us.” Mac unhooked his safety harness. “Eckland tried to murder you, nearly killed us both, and stole a plane belonging to this colony. I want him found.” He stood and looked down at his friend who was still in the pilot’s seat, quietly listening. “But that doesn’t mean we have to waste our lives looking.” He nodded toward the back of the plane. “Come on, let’s get this thing unpacked so we can give it some maintenance before dinner.”

“Okay.”

They unpacked their gear, then headed back to the hangar in good spirits, to give their vehicle a scheduled go-over in order to insure peak performance for as many years as they could. It was here that Bryce’s knowledge excelled, in the deconstruction, cleaning, adjusting, and ultimate reconstruction of just about every moving part there was. Mac enjoyed being the assistant, watching his friend dive into the project with the kind of complete concentration he used to experience back in flight training.

“Ah, Brennan, there you are. I’ve got something new on this shield to show you.”

Mac handed Bryce the clamp, then looked up. “Harry, what’s up?” Instinctively, he moved his leg to one side, making it easier for his partner to wiggle out from under the plane and vanish somewhere further inside the hanger without more than a nod to the engineer.

“Damn, I wish he wouldn’t do that.” Harry sighed deeply and watched Bryce hurry away.

Mac glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to the new arrival. “Don’t take it personally, Harry. It’s not you, it’s the subject matter.” Harry creased his eyebrows and waited for an explanation. “Look, if you’d just walked up here, said hello, and wanted to talk about–oh, I don’t know–engine parts, or the seasons, anything but that damn shield, or those creatures, then he wouldn’t have taken off like that.”

Harry looked skeptical. “You’re serious?”

“Yes.” Mac picked up a towel and wiped some of the black lubricant from his hands. “Haven’t you figured it out yet?”

“Well . . . no, I guess not.”

“Then try it out next time.” He tossed the towel aside. “You may find this hard to believe, Harry, but Bryce actually respects you.”

“Come on, Mac, the kid hardly hangs around when I’m nearby. I’m lucky to get a hello from him when we pass in the corridors.” Harry shook his head and pushed red hair from his face. “I don’t know what it is. I mean, I like the kid, he’s got spunk. Hell, he’s got guts! I’d like to be considered a friend, at least not an enemy.”

Mac had to hold back a chuckle so as not to offend the confused man. It took some skill, figuring out Bryce Keegan, he just never realized he might be one of only a few who could. “Harry, I’m going to explain the facts of life to you–or rather–the facts of Bryce.” He couldn’t help the grin that tugged at the left corner of his mouth. “The fact that the kid knows your name, and can pick your face out of a crowd, means he’s taken some interest in you as a human being. That’s no small matter. I can count the people who’ve made the cut on one hand.”

Harry cocked his head to one side, but didn’t offer an interruption.

“Believe me, it’s strange, but true. Bryce only recognizes certain individuals. The rest of them all look alike, or so he says. Now, he can’t tolerate talking about those creatures, or anything to do with them . . .”

“Well, who could blame him?”

“Including that shield.”

A light seemed to go on inside. “Damn, of course.” Harry nodded, then shook his head, then smacked the back of his hand against his forehead. “What a jerk! I’ve been driving myself nuts trying to figure out what I’d done to make him afraid of me, or hate me . . . when all along, it’s not me he’s avoiding so often, but what I keep representing.”

“Give the man a prize.” Mac let his grin blossom fully.

“So, as long as I’m standing here, talking to you about the shield, he’s gonna stay over there and avoid me?”

Mac glanced back inside the hangar, then shook his head. “Don’t worry, he’s with Frank. One of the other elite members of Bryce’s list. Those two can talk happily about mechanics for hours.” He turned back to Harry and arched his eyebrows. “So, you were saying?”

“What? Oh, right! I’ve been working on a new design.” From his pocket, Harry produced a handheld display unit, then called up a diagram. “While you were gone, I tested out those settings, the ones that kept you two alive out there . . . well, they work. Especially when you use a generator that doesn’t have a leaking charger.”

Startled, Mac looked up. “What?”

Harry nodded, suddenly very somber. “Yes. I took apart that shield generator bit by bit, and found it. That’s why it gave out when it did. It was sheer damn luck that kept it going that long.”

Mac inhaled slowly and deeply, then nodded for Harry to continue.

“Well, anyway, now that we know what works, and what doesn’t, I had an idea for something more mobile.”

Harry explained, through his diagrams and figures, a plan he’d concocted for a smaller, more portable shield. One that could be belted on and afford the wearer enough mobility to get to safety if under imminent attack.

“I thought about this when I saw how close you and Bryce were to your plane.” Harry closed down his computer display and pocketed the unit, glancing back into the hangar for a moment. “If you could have moved, you both could have gotten to the ship and back here. But I’ve seen enough tape on those things, they’re just too fast to make a run unprotected.”

Mac nodded slowly, considering the design. “What about integrity? The creatures can knock a man off his feet with very little effort. I’m assuming mobility is due to an opening at the feet?”

“Yes, it is. But that opening would seal up instantly if the edges lost contact with the ground for more than two seconds. At least, that’s the theory.”

“Could work.”

“Well, it’ll keep me busy for a while. What about you two? Any luck finding Eckland and his gang?”

“No. Not yet.”

“You don’t think he’ll come back here, do you?”

Mac inhaled deeply and straightened to his full height to relieve some strain on his back. He thought a lot of things about Eckland, few of which were humane. “If he does, I’ll be ready for him.”

Harry nodded and seemed to want to say something else, but changed his mind. “Listen, you don’t have to worry about anyone getting the drop on Bryce again, trust me. Everyone has pretty much adopted the kid since that attack. I doubt anyone could pull that again.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary.” Mac felt his jaw stiffen, and the reaction startled him. “Bryce and I can handle Eckland when we find him.” He didn’t like the idea of everyone keeping an eye on his friend. If Bryce caught wind of something unusual, there was no telling how it would affect him, knowing so many eyes were following his every move. No, this wasn’t a good idea. Well meant, but not a good idea.

“I’m quite sure you can, I just hope you do, and soon.” Harry heaved a heavy sigh then jerked a thumb toward the main buildings. “Well, I’ve got work to do. Just wanted to show you these designs, to give you a heads up.”

“Thanks. I’ll check in with you later on, see how it’s coming.” Mac nodded as Harry took his leave, then turned to face Bryce, figuring his partner would be no more than a few feet away. He was right. “Hey, you all finished?” Trust the kid to know exactly when Harry would be leaving. No wonder the engineer got the wrong impression.

“Yeah, we’re done here. I just want to lock it all down.” Bryce moved past Mac and knelt down under the belly of the plane and began closing the utility hatches.

“Good. I need a long hot soak.”

Bryce finished with the equipment and stood up. He’d just opened his mouth to say something when his attention focused suddenly behind Mac. “I think you’re going to have company.”

Mac turned to see Katherine walking toward them, smiling happily. “Apparently everyone knows we’re back.” If this traffic kept up, by the time they were left alone it would be too dark for a trip to the hot springs.

“I don’t think this is business.”

The tone in his partner’s voice caught Mac’s attention, and the look accompanying it doubled the suspicious impression he had, but before he could inquire, they were no longer alone.

“Mac, I’d heard you two got back. Any sign?” Katherine smiled at the two of them, but still managed a look of concern.

“No, not yet.” Mac turned to her, but tossed a sideways glance at his partner. “What brings you up here?” Bryce hadn’t vanished, so he must not think the veterinarian was going to talk about the gargoyles.

“Oh, I was just thinking about a hike out to that hot spring lake for a nice soak before dinner. Would you two care to join me?”

Mac’s eyelids lowered, but he knew she couldn’t have read his mind, or heard their conversation from the bottom of the rise. “Actually, I–”

“You two go ahead.” Bryce nodded in the general direction of the large, usually crowded lake in the far distance. “I’m gonna take a shower and download those maps we made.”

“Are you sure you won’t join us, Bryce?” Katherine wrapped her arms around one of Mac’s. “There’s hardly anyone down there this afternoon.”

“No, thanks.”

“Hang on.” Mac reached out to stop his friend from leaving. He knew full well Bryce wouldn’t go to the large pool even if Katherine wasn’t tagging along. And he knew what the woman was getting around to asking, and he felt like agreeing. But he’d never compromise his friend’s feelings or security for a quick physical detour, no matter how mutually consented it was.

“I don’t mind skipping the hot springs.”

“That’s not the point. I don’t want you left alone right now, what are you going to do?” Mac pulled away from Katherine so he could take a step closer to Bryce. Understanding what he wanted she casually stepped farther away so they could have a private conversation.

“I’m going to take a long shower, then download the maps.” Bryce shrugged, lowering his voice unnecessarily. “Maybe we missed something. I dunno, I just want to go over them more closely, get better detail on some areas.”

“Listen to me, I want you to lock the door behind you and stay put until I get back. Eckland could come back any time, or one of his pals.” Mac searched his friend’s face for a sign of compliance. “We don’t know if anyone else might be part of this little group he had going.”

“I know. I will.” Bryce swallowed and nodded. “I’ll be fine. I’m just going home and staying there.”

Mac sighed. “I know you will. We won’t be long.”

“You’ll be back for dinner?”

“Yes.”

The grin that spread over Bryce’s face told Mac he knew full well they wouldn’t be going near the hot springs, but how he knew was another matter. And one that was going to have to wait. Before he could question it, Bryce looked at Katherine, waved his goodbye, and was off.

“So, we can skip the hike to the water?”

On the long flight to Oblivion, Mac and Katherine had discovered a mutual interest that served multiple purposes. Having both come from relationships that ended when their decision to leave known space began–Mac from a misguided sense of need that ended long before they made their goodbyes, and Katherine from a short-term contract that wasn’t renewed–they found a purely physical rendezvous on a semi-regular basis to be mutually enjoyable. Since landing, they’d only had two other occasions to enjoy each other’s company, but found even that lessened schedule convenient and agreeable.

“Must be our age.” Katherine looked in the mirror above the sink in her bathroom and made eye contact through the reflection. “Everything works, but we don’t feel the need to put it into use as often as before.”

Mac laughed shortly and ran a hand over his short hair. He was still sitting in her bed, his back propped against the wall, facing the bathroom. “Yeah, but when you do take it all for a spin, it’s nice to know everything still runs.”

Katherine burst into laughter and pulled a light robe over her shoulders. “Listen to us. I remember when I was younger I thought sex was so fantastic, I entered into my first contract when I was eighteen.” She walked out of the bathroom and crossed to her dresser. “Of course, it was a six week contract, with a seventeen year old.”

“Youth is wasted on the young.” Mac sighed and moved the blanket off his legs, then got up and walked to his clothes. He’d only been with Katherine for an hour, so there was still plenty of daylight left. If he delayed dinner, he might still have time for a trip to the hot springs. But he’d prefer a quiet trip with his friend up to their own private pool.

“What about Bryce? How does he feel about it?”

Mac stopped what he was doing and stared at the shirt he had halfway pulled up both arms. “What?” He pulled the shirt over his head to cover his momentary drift.

“I said, how does Bryce feels about sexual relationships, does he take them seriously?”

“I think he’s got enough to worry about right now, he doesn’t need any more complications.” He reached for the socks he’d tossed on the floor earlier and sat down to pull them on. There were a lot of things he and Katherine could talk about comfortably, but someone else’s sex life–especially a friend’s–wasn’t something he felt comfortable discussing.

“Good, ’cause I know Carol doesn’t take anything very seriously. At least not permanently.”

Mac stopped pulling the sock on and looked up, eyebrows furrowing. “Carol?”

Katherine was brushing her hair, so her nod was sideways. “Yeah, didn’t you know? Of course, it was only a couple of times, from what she said. And certainly not after this incident. But apparently Bryce knows full well what to do and how to do it. I’d actually wondered if he had any experience, but that’s not really something you ask a young man in his circumstances.”

“When did this happen?” The socks forgotten, Mac stood and walked to the dressing table were Katherine was sitting. Before she could reply, he held up both hands. “Just the facts, all right? I don’t need to know every little detail you women talk about when we’re not around, okay?”

“Chicken.” Katherine grinned, then set her brush down. “Listen, just so you don’t think ill of us females, Carol only told me because we’ve been working together on this tracking project and she wanted my opinion. She’s been asking Bryce about the native birds here, trying to compile a record of them, and she said he seemed quite willing to talk about them. She’s not the type to go around gossiping about her sex life, or anyone else’s, for that matter.”

Mac shook his head, unable to hide the small amount of disgust he was feeling at the thought of several women gossiping about–well, about what women gossip about when they’ve been with a man. It wasn’t in Mac’s nature to be overly curious about another person’s private moments. But after what Eckland pulled, he couldn’t be too careful when it came to his friend’s security. Truth be told, he didn’t like the idea of someone else knowing something this intimate about the kid, when he hadn’t known about it himself.

“Anyway, from what I understand, a couple of times Bryce and Carol got together while you were putting in long hours on those shield tests. According to her, it was very casual. Not like he was looking for a relationship or anything. He wouldn’t even talk about much, personal stuff and the like.”

Carol was the right age, very near Bryce’s. And she was one of the few he tolerated being around when Mac wasn’t close by. If he stopped long enough to think about it, the whole thing made some sense. “Listen, I don’t know Carol very well, but if she–”

“Don’t worry.” Katherine stood and put a hand on Mac’s arm for a moment. “She and I had a long talk. She’s very sensitive to his situation, and his reactions to other people. Carol assures me she’s done nothing to give Bryce the wrong impression, and was very careful not to ask him about anything that happened before. Frankly, I think that’s why they hit it off well enough. She’s one of very few people who can accept what we found when we came here, and doesn’t demand any kind of explanation.”

Mac nodded. “Well, I guess it’s their business. I just don’t want him hurt.” He returned to the forgotten socks and sat on the edge of the bed to pull them on. “It’s not easy sometimes, knowing what’s best for him. And it’s not always my decision to make. He’s a grown man, in most respects.”

“And a young boy in others.” Katherine tossed her hair brush down and picked up a pillow from the floor. “He’s in good hands, Mac. He couldn’t have hoped for a better friend, protector, and big brother than you.”

Finished with the socks, Mac looked up. “I’d feel a lot better if Eckland wasn’t out there somewhere.”

“You’ll find him. Or what’s left of him.” Katherine set the pillow on the bed, then looked at Mac as if suddenly seeing something for the first time. With one finger, she reached up and touched her own earlobe. “This is new, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.” Mac finished putting his shoes on and stood. “Thanks for the distraction, it was just what I needed.”

“Anytime, you know that.” Katherine continued to look at the earring, obviously waiting for further explanation.

“I’ll see you later.” Mac smiled and left, grinning to himself at her puzzled expression. She hadn’t been the first to notice the sparkle of silver hanging from his ear. With hair as short as his, anything new was quickly spotted. It even took him by surprise, now and again, when he’d catch a glint of sunlight off metal looking into a mirror or at his reflection in water. But so far, if they’d wondered where it came from and why, no one had asked until now. It had been a simple enough question, so Mac had provided a simple answer. The complete explanation wasn’t something he wanted to share with everyone else. He liked having a constant reminder of the unexpected friendship he found. But it represented so much more than just Bryce’s gratitude. Whether that tradition was real, or something the kid had invented that afternoon to provide the excuse he needed, didn’t matter.

What did matter right now, was the little discovery that Bryce hadn’t shared. Carol. It wasn’t his business really. As long as the young man wasn’t in any danger, he certainly had the right to spend time with someone he found enjoyable. But that had been before Eckland’s attempt on his life. Now . . . well now it was another matter entirely. Leaving Bryce alone in the shuttle was as much risk as Mac was willing to take right now.

But, at least he could stop wondering if he should try and have the talk with his friend. Unless the kid needed advice. Would he know to ask? Would he even know if he needed to ask? Did he enjoy Carol enough to want to spend more quality time with her, or was this all simply physical, like his occasional relationship with the colony veterinarian? And how had Bryce figured that out? Not that it had ever been a secret. Mac simply wanted to avoid any complications that would have led–well–right where he was now.

His thoughts brought him to the shuttle door, and he was pleased to find it locked. After keying in the code and taking a deep breath, Mac entered their home. Bryce was upstairs, sitting at the large table with the mapping unit on. In front of him, in surreal 3-D, was an image of the canyon they’d flown through on their third day out.

“Hey, kid.” Mac shut the door and hit the locking key, then wandered toward the table as the map moved along their flight path. “Finding anything?”

“No.” Bryce shook his head, looking up from the map. “Not yet.” He flipped off the display. “Are you hungry?”

“Yeah, I could eat.” Mac nodded, then started down the stairs, all thoughts of a trip to the hot springs lost during his mental preoccupations along the way.

Bryce hurried down the stairs behind him, then went into the galley while Mac continued out to the living area. “I still don’t understand it.”

“What’s that?”

“Why he’d leave.”

Mac got comfortable in the chair that faced the galley and ran a hand over his short hair. “He panicked. He’d tried to commit murder, got caught, and panicked.”

Bryce was shaking his head as he cut a large chunk of red meat into smaller bits. “But there’s no where to run here. He can’t survive out there. None of them can. He had to have known that.”

“Sometimes that doesn’t matter. When a man panics, he’s not thinking clearly.”

“So why haven’t they come back?” He set the bits of meat into a pan and turned on the heating unit. “If they survived outside, they were lucky. It can’t last long.”

“I know what you’re thinking, Bryce. But until we find that plane, or some evidence, we can’t be sure they’re dead.” Mac stood and walked to the galley to retrieve a bottle of their recently successful fermentation attempts. He opened one for himself, then another he placed on the counter for his partner. If he was going to bring up the subject of Carol during dinner, he figured it might be easier if they each had a head start. “And I’m not going to give up until I do have that proof, or have Eckland back here to stand trial.”

“Is that what you’d do on one of those stations?”

“Trial?” Mac sat back down with his beer in hand. “Yes. On a station, on Earth, everywhere. We all have the same laws, no matter where we live. The same laws, the same procedures, and the same punishments. No one can plead ignorance.”

Bryce nodded, stirring the meat as he listened. “So, if he were here, and there was a trial, what would happen?”

The answer had to wait until Mac swallowed the beer. He shrugged and leaned back in the chair. “Ben would appoint a jury, since he’s the commander. And he’d stand as judge. Eckland would be given a chance to explain his actions, and if he was found guilty–which we know he would be–the jury would decide on his punishment.”

Bryce seemed to consider the explanation while he stirred. “And the other people, his friends, would they have trials too?”

“Yep, same as him. The jury would decide if their punishment should be the same, because they were there and went along, or lesser if they didn’t actually take part in it. It would be up to the majority.”

“So, if they were all punished, what would you do? There’s no prison here. No place to put them.”

Mac sighed, staring at the dark orange liquid in the bottle he was holding. “That’s something we still have to figure out.” It was a tricky thing, the law. Technically, they were free as a colony to create their own rules, laws and punishments. But traditionally, colonies and stations upheld the Bureau’s standards for justice. And eventually, even Oblivion would become mainstream and thought of as just another planet within Bureau jurisdiction. Whenever that time came, the laws would be subject to standardization. Mac had hoped they wouldn’t be faced with the need for such governing for many years to come.

“What do they do with criminals where you came from?” Bryce set the pot he was stirring to simmer and began to set the table.

“Depends on the crime. Anything non-violent in the physical sense earns a trip to one of three orbitals in a stationary around Jupiter. But anything involving violence against another human being, or murder, they get sent farther down.” Mac twirled the bottle between his fingers and recalled images of the penal stations he’d seen on the news once. “Jupiter is mostly gas, you know. So they have this station set up that just pretty much hovers there in that thick gassy soup. Those criminals get set up inside, and typically spend around ten years. All but murder.” He paused, wondering for the hundredth time what they were going to do when they caught their fugitives. “Murder is the only life sentence you can get. They’re sent all the way down, on the planet’s surface. It’s a huge complex, practically built underground–what ground there is–and so heavily shielded, you can’t even get audio signals out. Nothing leaves.” Mac suppressed a shudder at the thought of the prison and what it held.

“How do the guards come and go. Or do they?”

“They’re aren’t any. The station is completely automated, and the prisoners pretty much rule themselves. The only assurance is the fact that once they’re down there, they can’t get out.” He stood and stretched, then carried his empty bottle to the galley. “You send the prisoner down in a robot capsule, and hope the station’s automatic guidance brings them down, then they’re forgotten. Food and supplies are dropped in twice a month, but no landings. Anyone who wanted to go down to check the place out would never be able to lift off. It’s a one-way trip.”

“Like here.”

“No, nothing like here. Here you can walk around, breathe fresh air, live a life or even have a relationship.” Mac retrieved another bottle from the refrigeration unit and leaned against the counter, watching Bryce set out cutlery. He’d just given himself the perfect opportunity to bring up the one issue he’d been avoiding. Now, to do it.

“I suppose.”

Mac cleared his throat. “I understand you and Carol have spent some time together?”

Bryce looked up, then shrugged casually. “I guess.” He walked back to the galley and his stewing pot. “It’s nothing serious, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“No, I’m not wondering.” Mac set his bottle on the counter. “Listen, you know Katherine and I didn’t exactly go down to the hot springs, right?”

“Yeah, I figured that.”

“She just happened to mention seeing you and Carol together a few times.” He couldn’t exactly admit he’d heard anything directly from the veterinarian, without admitting what that meant.

“Ah.” Bryce nodded and pulled the pot away from the heat and turned the unit off. “I wasn’t hiding anything from you, you know. I just didn’t think–”

“No, don’t misunderstand what I’m getting at.” Mac took a deep breath and held up his hands, hoping to pause the world for a moment. “What you do or don’t do with Carol, or anyone else for that matter, is your business. I just wanted . . . I mean I thought I’d–I want you to know I’m here. You know, if you ever want to talk about it–or anything. If you need any advice or just need to talk.” Did he really sound as stupid as he felt?

Bryce hefted the large pot from the counter, then stood there, looking at it. After a moment, he looked up. “Thanks.” He motioned with the pot, then carried it out to the table and set it down in between their place settings.

“Any time.”

“No, really.” Bryce stood behind his chair and pushed some hair from his face. “I mean thanks for everything–for this–since you came here.”

Mac had his chair pulled out but he stopped before sitting down. “What do you mean?”

Bryce shrugged and sat down, shaking his head a little in an attempt to lighten things up. “Everything. If you hadn’t been here, I don’t think I would have survived this whole thing. I never would have adjusted to people being here–not that I have, really, but I can tolerate them now.”

“Well, some of them.” Mac’s correction brought a smile from the younger man.

“Okay, some of them. But this thing with Carol, it’s not serious.” Bryce reached out and began ladling the thick stew into their bowls. “I mean, she’s nice, and she doesn’t pry. But it’s just physical. That’s all sex is, isn’t it?”

“That all depends on who you’re with, kid.” Mac lifted his spoon and stared into the bowl, remembering his own disillusionments over the years. “If it’s with someone you love–someone you want to build a real relationship with, then it’s something completely different.” He looked at his partner. “Otherwise, it’s just sex.”

Bryce nodded, then shoved his spoon deep into the bowl. “That’s all this is, then.”

They spent dinner casually discussing the pros and cons, pitfalls and joys of relationships, and much to Mac’s relief, never strayed too far into the details. As much as he wanted to be there if Bryce needed him, he also didn’t want to develop a foothold where he wasn’t wanted. It was a fine line to walk–being there without forcing anything–but by the time dinner was over, he felt pretty confident he’d walked it safely.

The next few weeks passed without incident, and without any sign of their fugitives. When the next full moon was approaching, Mac called off all active searches but maintained a colony-wide warrant. Anyone on a routine exploration or recreational jaunt was to keep an eye out for anything that might indicate someone living outside the group, or signs of the missing plane. He and Bryce spent long hours creating detailed maps of the regions they’d flown over during their search, recreating their week long trip with incredible clarity. The other search teams also brought back maps of their journeys, and Mac hoped processing the data from them as well would give them a much better idea of where Eckland might have gone. Ben was thrilled just to finally see more of the planet, and came over often to examine the maps and contemplate future excursions. The talk of the colony seemed to be focused on new attempts at tracking the creatures and learning more about them as a species. Talk that Mac tried hard to keep his partner clear of. But when the full moon arrived, Bryce’s nightmares returned.

Mac heard the shout and came instantly awake. He was on his feet and halfway through the door before he even cleared his eyes. By the time he got to Bryce’s room, his friend’s look of fear had already been replaced with one of complete and utter frustration.

“Dammit.” Bryce was sitting on the bed, blankets strewn everywhere, with his back against a wall. He braced bare toes on the edge of the bed and shoved both hands into his hair.

“You okay?” Mac stood near the bed and blinked widely to adjust to the light he’d flipped on automatically.

Bryce didn’t reply. He just pushed his hands through the dark curls to the back of his head and stared angrily at his feet. After a minute, he nodded. “Sorry I woke you.”

“That’s all right.” The light no longer burned his eyes, so Mac ran a hand over them and sighed, feeling himself come more fully awake. His body never cared what time it was, if he told it to wake up and react, it always did. It was his mind that often took a few minutes to catch up. “Do you want to get up for a bit, maybe try some tea or warm milk?”

“This is stupid!” Bryce shook his head and looked up, his eyes dark and angry. “I never used to have nightmares. Not even when the moon was full.”

“Come on.” Mac reached out and motioned for Bryce to get off the bed. There was no way the kid was going to get back to sleep in this condition. He needed to talk, maybe resort to the herbal sedative. Right now, warm milk with chocolate sounded pretty good.

Reluctantly, Bryce moved off the bed and followed Mac out to the galley where he sat at the counter, opposite the cooking area. It was just after midnight, and the creatures were out in full force. Lately they seemed to hang around near the main complex for a few hours, then when nothing offered itself up as good hunting, they would slowly move off to parts unknown, not to return again until the next night. Mac made it a point never to discuss Katherine’s tracking experiments, and so far every attempt made to get a gargoyle to swallow, pick up, step in–or in any way take with them–one of many trackers, had failed. But the attempts and trials tended to bring some of the larger creatures closer to the buildings, where their calls and claws could pierce the quiet of the night.

“Did you hear them again tonight?” Mac set a pot on the heater and poured in the milk, then added a generous amount of chocolate and–when Bryce wasn’t looking–a small amount of the sedative.

“No, it’s not them. Not this time.” Bryce propped both elbows on the counter and leaned his forehead into both hands for support.

“What is it this time?” Mac watched the younger man while he stirred the warming milk.

“I don’t–I’m not sure, exactly.” He shook his head and looked down. “It’s not them, but I keep seeing someone. Two people. I think I should know them, but I don’t.”

“Eckland’s men?”

“No, people from before.” Bryce looked up.

Mac flipped off the heat and poured their milk. He hoped he’d added enough of the herb to counteract the confusion evident in his friend’s eyes. They’d both be drinking it, but he could fight the effects if he had to. “What is it you see in this dream?”

Bryce sighed heavily and looked at the counter, then began to draw shapes with a finger on the smooth surface. “Nothing, really,” he shrugged. “I see the complex the way it was before you came, empty and quiet. Then I see these two people, and I know them, but I can’t remember why. I can’t remember names or anything. It’s like a feeling, more than a memory.”

Mac carried the cups around the counter, then sat down beside Bryce who continued to trace a pattern with one finger. “Then what happens?”

“I walk toward them and they turn away, then walk through the doors. They leave, but I can’t follow them.”

“Why can’t you follow them through the door?”

“It’s night. When they go out, the doors lock behind them and won’t open. Then I hear screams and I–” Bryce stopped himself, then quickly reached for the cup in front of him and held it.

“Do they ever say anything, or try to move toward you?”

“No.” He took another drink, then set the cup down at stared into it. “No, they just leave. And it’s always at night, then the doors lock behind them and I can’t follow. And when they go I– It’s like I’m alone again. This feeling hits me so hard, like I’m being physically struck in the chest. I think that’s what’s making me wake up.”

“I’m sorry.” Mac paused until Bryce met his gaze. “I wish I could make them stop, these nightmares. And I know it doesn’t help to know they’re perfectly natural. Having these feelings, and having random thoughts generate strange dreams you can’t control.” He felt so helpless at times like these. Bryce nodded and arched his eyebrows in a shrug of resignation. “If it’ll help, I’m sure Lise would be happy to talk to you about them.”

“No.” Bryce shook his head once, then looked back at his cup. “I’m fine. I can just talk to you about them, can’t I? She can’t help me.”

Mac smiled slightly and gave the kid’s shoulder a gentle pat. “Of course you can talk to me. I just wish I could help you better.”

“You help me just fine.” Bryce finished his drugged milk and pushed the cup to the other side of the counter. “I think I just needed to know I’m not crazy or something.”

“Crazy?” Mac laughed shortly and shook his head. “Bryce, if having nightmares means a person’s crazy, then there’s no hope for any of us. Keeping them to yourself and letting them take control, that’s when you get crazy. Okay?” Bryce nodded, then yawned sleepily. “Yeah, let’s get you back to your room before you fall asleep here.”

The next day marked the end of that full moon cycle, so Mac and Bryce celebrated with a morning at the hot spring. It was a colony rest day, so nearly everyone who could took the time for a soak in the large pool below the cliffs. Voices drifted up on the breeze in the quiet morning air while laughter occasionally echoed off the rock walls surrounding their private retreat. Mac situated himself around some rocks, securing his position enough so he could drift off in an almost meditative sleep.

After an hour, the summer sun was high enough to make further soaking far too hot. Mac finished off their trip with a shower in the cooler waterfall while Bryce gathered several handfuls of the roots needed to brew the local beer he’d grown quite fond of.

“You know, our processor needs some adjustments.” Bryce stuffed the roots into the pack they’d brought up then slung it over one shoulder.

“Is that why the last batch had a purple streak on the top?” Mac pulled on his pants and shoes, then picked up his shirt and stuffed it into the bag his partner was holding. “I wondered what that was.”

“Yeah, it’s not converting all the sugars.” Bryce resettled the bag and started down the trail that led back to their home. “At least, that’s what I think it’s doing. I know how to fix it.”

“Good.” Mac reached out and snagged a leaf from a tree they passed, then twirled the violet foliage around by the stem. “I don’t mind all the colors around here, and I’m getting used to a beer that’s dark orange instead of amber or brown, but you add that violet streak on the top and it’s downright hard to drink.”

“Brown?” Bryce raised his eyebrows and made a face. “You drink something that’s brown?”

“It’s all what you’re used to, kid.” Mac reached out and smacked his friend on the back of the head good-naturedly.

“Yeah, well, just wait till you’ve been here ten years. At least then I won’t be the only one with normal eye color.”

Mac laughed at Bryce’s assessment of a ‘normal’ eye color, then pointed to the complex. “Do you need anything from over there? I have to find that set of geomarkers I left in the basement.”

“No, I don’t need anything.”

Mac pulled his shirt out of the bag Bryce was carrying and put it on. “Okay, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

He’d left a few crates of miscellaneous tools and parts in the huge basement, where he’d been assured they’d stay undisturbed. Once they learned the gargoyles didn’t bother equipment unless they accidentally bumped into it, more and more tools were being left in outside storage areas, leaving the basement relatively neat and organized, with plenty of room to store the lesser-used items. Much to his surprise, he found the room just as tidy as he’d been told. It was a far cry from the crammed maze he’d slept in that first night, when he tried to do his best to offer some protection to a frightened, lone survivor.

What he found now were crates lined up in rows, all nicely labeled and far enough apart to allow easy access. Of course, the crate he wanted was at the far end, on the bottom of a large stack. Halfway through his search, Mac heard movement from the next row of boxes.

“Is someone here?” Instantly the sound stopped. Mac froze, listening now with alert suspicion. Before he could speak again he heard a frantic whisper, then muffled footsteps. They were coming from the opposite side of the huge, black crate he was standing beside. As quietly as he could, Mac stepped closer to the corner and peered around.

Looking in the opposite direction was a woman, dressed in heavily patched clothes, with long dark hair tied up with cloth strips. She turned quickly and stared at Mac, eyes wide with fear. Before he could say a word, his head exploded in pain and the floor rushed up to meet him.

The next thing Mac saw was Bryce’s anxious face.

“He’s awake.”

Bryce’s face moved out of his line of vision and was replaced by Lise’s.

“Just hang on a second, Mac. Let me get one more reading.”

Mac groaned as his head began to throb. “What happened?”

“You got blindsided, apparently.” Lise set a cold metal bar against his forehead, then looked at the instrument in her hand. “Just a slight concussion, thank goodness.”

“Did you see who it was?”

“No.” Mac reached up to rub his forehead and realized he was still on the floor in the basement. He blinked and was able to focus on the room, and his partner kneeling anxiously by his side. “I’m fine.”

“Should we get him to med lab?”

Ben’s voice came from behind, and Mac looked around to see who else might be nearby. He was still on the floor of the basement, Bryce kneeling beside him, with Lise and Ben to his left.

“No, he’ll be fine if he takes it easy.” Lise reached out and assisted Bryce in giving Mac a hand sitting up. “Slowly. You’re going to have a nasty headache for day or two.”

“I’m okay.” Mac reached around, gently searching for the sore spot at the base of his skull. “How long was I out?”

“You were unconscious when I found you,” Bryce put a hand on Mac’s arm and looked anxiously at him. “Then after I called for help, you were starting to wake up.”

Mac nodded, rubbing his head. His friend looked worse than he usually did after a bad nightmare. “I’m okay.” He glanced up at Lise and Ben and tried not to imagine what would have happened if he wasn’t.

“What happened? I mean, obviously you were attacked, but by who?” Ben looked from Mac to Bryce. “Is Eckland back?”

“No.” Mac shook his head. “I didn’t see who hit me, but there were two of them down here. I got a look at one.” The image of that woman’s face was burned into his mind, as well as the implications.

“Who was it?”

Mac put a hand on Bryce’s knee and smiled at his friend reassuringly, then turned to Ben. “I didn’t recognize her, but she’s not one of ours.”

Lise shook her head. “What do you mean, not one of ours?”

Mac sighed and looked at Bryce, gripping the knee he was still holding. “She had lavender eyes.”

 

 

Chapter 12

The world had stopped spinning and now sat frozen in place inside Bryce’s gut. But the ice didn’t stay there. It was moving, up to his face, down through his legs. His hands were shaking with the cold. And all the while, Lise, Ben and Mac continued to speak as if they still had air. Bryce was sure all the oxygen had been sucked out with his friend’s last sentence. It was like he was at the end of a very long dark tunnel, cold and unable to breathe. He could hear them talking about how carefully they’d have to proceed, if they hoped to find this lavender-eyed woman and her accomplice without frightening them away, or alerting the other colonists just yet.

He heard it all from very far away.

But they were just words. They couldn’t touch the ice in his stomach, or the burning cold spreading through his face. The words couldn’t hold him in place when his fear kicked in. Only the hand still holding his knee kept him from running away.

Bryce suddenly became aware of eyes staring at him, and Mac’s hand gripping more firmly. He took his friend by the arm and helped him to his feet, staring at a point near the floor and praying he’d wake up soon from this nightmare. “We should get you home.” Mac had been hit on the head, they should go home. Go back to the shuttle, lock the doors, launch that damn thing into space and never come back!

“No, I’m fine. There’s no telling where these two are by now. They could be around the complex, or long gone.” Mac put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder, but turned to look at Ben. “We need to keep this quiet, at least for now. You and Lise can spot a stranger quickly. I think you two should split up. Bryce and I will stick together.”

“The fewer people who know about this right now, the better.” Ben took Lise by the arm and ushered her back toward the stairs. “We’ll recruit a few people we can trust not to spread rumors.”

“Just remember, whoever they are, they didn’t announce themselves to us. They’ll probably scare easily.”

Bryce’s gaze remained fixed on the floor during their exchange, and was beginning to blur with the intensity. This wasn’t happening. When he realized Ben and Lise had walked away, he looked up at Mac and took a step backwards. “You’re wrong.”

“Bryce . . .”

“No! You’re wrong. You were hit on the head, from behind. How could you have seen someone’s eyes? You can’t tell me you saw a woman with lavender eyes! It’s not possible!” He pulled away when Mac reached out for his arm. “No! I was alone!”

“Kid, listen to me.” Mac stopped trying to come closer. “We’ll sort this out. Trust me. But right now we have to try and find them.”

Bryce felt his anger building. It was the only defense he knew. He glared at Mac, knowing full well the color of his own eyes made a pale comparison to the expressive blue of his friend’s. It had taken his eyes nine years to change to the odd mixture they were now. Nine years of living, breathing, eating and drinking Oblivion. Mac and his people had landed only a few short months ago.

“I need your help, Bryce. I think you’ll be able to pick these two out of a crowd, whether you recognize them or not.” Mac gestured toward the basement stairs. “We need to find them before they disappear again.”

“You don’t understand! They can’t be from before.” Bryce paced to a corner then was forced to turn back when he realized he’d walked into a dead end of crates. He spun around and smacked a crate with one fist in anger. “I was alone!”

“That’s why we have to find them.” Mac stepped closer and reached out in entreaty, but made no more move to take Bryce by the arm. “I need your help. Just calm down, you’re going to have to trust me. We’ll find the answers.”

He looked up, meeting Mac’s gaze. The ice-blue took some of the heat from his own raging glare, but the fear and coldness remained. “I was alone.”

“I believe you.”

Bryce searched his friend’s eyes, wishing again that he could read expressions. He’d brought all the fears to light in one simple sentence. I believe you. But would anyone else? He doubted it.

“Come on. Stick with me, and we’ll see if we can find some answers.” Mac’s hand remained outstretched.

“You were wrong.” Bryce steeled himself against the accusing faces waiting for him above.

“Then help prove it.”

Reluctantly, Bryce walked forward. Everything was upside down now. The past ten years, these last few months, everything.

They reached the door at the top of the steps and walked out into a moderately busy corridor. The accusing glances and threatening gestures he’d expected didn’t happen, but he knew they would. As soon as word spread that other survivors had been found, they’d all change. Maybe they’d even think of Eckland and his partners as the heroes?

“Come on, let’s try the kitchens.” Mac gripped Bryce’s elbow and steered him down the left corridor. “I think they were scavenging, so they might hit the kitchens during the lull in activity.”

Bryce tried hard not to look at anyone as they walked toward the huge kitchen area. What the hell was he going to do if he found someone from before? Everything he knew was wrong. Now the answers he’d longed for terrified him more than the creatures that plagued the night.

“Keep your eyes open.”

“They all look the same.” Bryce swallowed and glanced at a group they were passing. Why didn’t anyone believe him? None of these people meant a thing to him, so telling them apart was almost impossible. How Mac could distinguish between so many individuals was beyond him.

“Just look at their eyes.” Mac nodded casually at the group as they walked by. “And their clothes. This woman’s clothes looked like they’d been heavily patched.”

Bryce shook his head. “You were wrong. It’s dark downstairs.”

“Humor me.”

Mac pushed the large swinging doors open and led the way into the main kitchen. The room was mostly deserted, with three cooks at the far side sharing a joke while they stirred various steaming pots. A few people who had missed the main lunch serving were at the cutting blocks, making their own sandwiches and discussing a project. Mac nodded at everyone and moved toward the storage rooms in the back.

“I think they’re the reason you had that nightmare.” They reached the back of the kitchens and started down a short hallway into the main storage room. “I think you caught a glimpse of them at some point, and it triggered the dream.”

“I didn’t see anyone.” Bryce pushed open the storage room door and flipped on the lights. It was a huge room, filled with supplies, with a sizeable freezer at one end and a large rolling door at the other, for moving freshly butchered carcasses to the cutting area.

“Not consciously, no.”

“Not at all.” Bryce moved away from Mac, then pointed down the corridor of crates he intended to walk through. His partner nodded and moved to the next isle. He should have known this new life he’d found wouldn’t last. It was only a matter of time before Mac stopped believing him, or trusting him. Better that he should break it off now, and find a safe place. But where? The complex was the only home he’d known. And Five the only . . .

“Hey, you, hang on!”

Bryce looked up when he heard Mac’s shout. He’d worked his way to the far side, near the rolling door, when suddenly someone pushed by him. The door rolled open quickly and the female figure reached it before her pursuer. Bryce stopped no more than three feet from her.

Mac was still three isles away, and pushing his way around a container. “Stop her!”

The woman turned quickly and faced Bryce. Their eyes met and he froze in place, unwilling to believe what he saw. In the next instant, she vanished through the door, rolling it together just as quickly behind her while Bryce made no move to stop her.

“Bryce, that was her!” Mac reached the controls and started the door back open, but they had to wait until it finished the first command, closing completely before moving apart again. Mac squeezed through the door and dashed out into the sunlight after his prize. “Come on!”

Bryce turned and ran. His heart was pounding with such force he expected it to burst from his chest. The complex swept by in a blur as he ran through the hallways and out the side exit. He’d intended to run as far away as possible, but some twisted instinct drew him back to the shuttle. At least it had a door he could lock. But he wouldn’t be safe there. He’d be trapped.

He’d always been trapped.

“Five!” Anger was burning in his face when he reached the lower level. “Damn you, answer me!”

“Bryce, what is it?” The calm, mechanical voice was a stark contrast to the sweating, panting young man bursting into the bedroom.

“You lied!” Bryce held on to the dresser for support as he stared at the computer.

“What are you talking about? Why are you so agitated, what’s going on?”

“You know what’s going on! You always know what’s going on!”

“Bryce–”

“They’re alive! The people from before, they’re alive! You told me I was alone!” Bryce glared at Five, daring him to lie again. His entire life was a lie. Everything he’d known, or thought he’d known. What did he have left?

“Bryce, you were alone. I’ve told you time and again–”

“You’ve been lying to me all this time.” Unbelievable! He still wouldn’t come clean with the truth, even now. Someone made a big mistake when they created these things, giving them a personality, making them just like people.

People lie.

“Mac found someone. I saw her. She had my eyes, Five! She had lavender eyes!”

“It’s medically impossible for a colonist’s eyes to change color in less than 9 years.”

“I saw her. She’s not one of them, she’s from before.” Bryce knew if he let go of the dresser, his hands would start shaking. He could feel it in his legs, the fear and adrenaline that threatened to buckle his knees. Had he locked the door when he came in? Not that it would matter, Mac could still get inside. Did he catch the woman? Were they all gathered around her right now outside, finding out what really happened? Learning a truth Bryce didn’t know?

“You were alone, Bryce. There were no other people from before.”

“Stop this! Just tell me the truth, for once in your artificial life!”

“According to my files–”

“Did you lock them out?” Bryce ignored Five’s attempt to answer. Blood was roaring through his ears, pounding with every beat of his heart. “Is that what happened? You locked them all out, hoping they’d die? Did you run them off?”

“Bryce–”

“Why did you keep me here?”

“Bryce, you’re rambling. If you would calm down, you might see how impossible this is. You were alone.”

“Enough!” Nearly blinded by his own irrational anger, Bryce lifted the computer in one hand and hurled it across the room. The small unit slammed into the wall beside the door, less than an inch from Mac’s face. With a new focus, his anger switched gears, but threatened to falter from exhaustion. “He lied!” Bryce pointed an accusing finger at the two large chunks on the floor that sparked now and again with freed energy. “All this time–about everything–he lied!” He looked up, meeting Mac’s gaze, unsure if he should be afraid or not. “I was alone!” Mac had to believe him! The blue eyes holding his so steadily were filled with compassion–unless he was reading them wrong. In a rush, all the anger and fear washed through Bryce, leaving him tired and shaking. His voice lost all of its former volume. “I was alone.”

Without a word, Mac stepped over the broken computer. “I believe you.”

For a moment–one brief moment–Bryce let himself believe that. So many years of his life had been spent praying for the time when he could lean on someone, trust someone to be there. But now, even his dreams were upside down.

“Did you catch her?”

“No. She must know this place as well as you do.” Mac sighed. “You saw her, didn’t you? You saw her eyes?”

The fear came back like a rocket launch. “I didn’t know about her!” Was this how it would be now? Was Mac going to pretend, like the others, in order to trick him into revealing facts he didn’t have? “I was alone here!”

“Take it easy.” Mac made a move to touch Bryce’s arm, but stopped halfway and changed the reach to a gesture of assurance. “I said I believed you, kid. Nothing’s changed that. But obviously there are other survivors.”

Bryce clenched his jaw and ran a hand through his hair. He didn’t know what to do! He couldn’t think anymore.

“Listen to me, partner, no one doubts you were alone all that time. Not me, not Ben, not Lise. They don’t even know you like I do, and neither of them doubt what you’ve told us.”

“You’ll be the only ones.”

“Don’t discount so many people so quickly, Bryce. You might not know many of them, but they all know you. And with the exception of Eckland, I haven’t heard anyone say they didn’t believe you.”

Bryce shook his head, but he couldn’t meet Mac’s gaze.

“We know Five lied. We know you were alone here for ten years. Now there’s a chance to find out why.”

“Maybe I don’t want to find out why.” He’d meant to shout, use the momentum to push past Mac and get out of the room, but all the wind was gone from his sails.

Mac took a step closer. “That’s understandable.”

“No it isn’t.” Bryce closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, steeling himself for uncertainty. When he opened them again, he focused on the center of Mac’s chest. “Everything I’ve known for the past ten years–what amounts to my lifetime, really–was all wrong.”

“Not wrong. Just incomplete.”

“What do we do now?”

Mac sighed and glanced over Bryce’s head. “I think we’ve lost these two for now. We don’t even know how long they’ve been here.” He looked down again. “When your first assault fails, you fall back and regroup. It’s time we brought Ben and Lise over here and discussed our options.”

Options? As if they had any.

“I’m going to call a meeting upstairs. We’ll need your input. Can you handle that?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Of course you do.”

That answer startled him, but the eyes meeting his were unwavering. Bryce hurried to amend his response. “Y–Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

Mac smiled and gave Bryce’s shoulder a pat. “It’ll take a few minutes to get them over here. Just come up when you’re ready.”

He nodded and Mac left the room, stepping over the remains of Five without a comment. When he’d left, Bryce bent down and collected the pieces of the computer. He knew Five wasn’t destroyed, just the portable he’d been talking through. The program that was Five existed on a tiny titanium disc inside the desk unit situated in the office space just outside the bedroom. Bryce carried the useless machine out to the recyclers in the galley and tossed it in, listening to the hum of the grinders as they reduced the computer to metallic dust. He idly wondered if he ever could destroy Five. Physically, it was possible. Even titanium program cards could be melted with some of the acids the recyclers used. But he owed Five his life.

Or did he?

Still shaking from spent anger, Bryce made his way to the bathroom to splash cold water over his face and neck, washing the fear off. There were voices upstairs now, more than just Ben and Lise. There was nothing he could do, no where to run and no way to survive if he did. But even that was wrong, since he knew now that people had run, and had survived.

Resigned to the inevitable, Bryce made his way up the stairs. His hands were still shaking, and his knees threatened to buckle halfway up, but he continued. Sitting around the table, looking seriously confused, were not only Lise and Ben, but also Katherine and a man Bryce didn’t know. He was introduced as Mark Evans, head of Exploration and Development. He and the veterinarian had been quickly, and apparently on the sly, brought up to speed and recruited to search the immediate area, but so far Mac was the only newcomer to set eyes on the lavender-eyed visitor.

“I think we can draw quite a few conclusions from her behavior.” Lise leaned forward, elbows on the table, and glanced at Bryce for a brief moment as he sat down. “Mac was hit from behind, while this woman was in full view. So we’re dealing with two people, and I think we should assume that the second one–male or female–is also from the original group.”

“That should be a safe assumption,” Ben agreed.

“We can also assume they were scavenging, searching for survival equipment, clothing, food, whatever they thought they could find.”

“Her clothes were in bad shape, heavily patched.”

Lise nodded at Mac. “Another reason to believe she and her companion have been living in the wilderness somewhere for a long time. Here at the complex, Bryce had the garment equipment and it’s been in full working order all this time.”

Bryce dared a glance around the table, trying hard to read their expressions. He’d expected something closer to a lynch mob, and wondered if Mac would protect him or join in.

“The problem is, we don’t know how long they’ve been here.” Katherine folded her arms in front of her chest and leaned back in the chair. “In this crowd, with everyone going about their own business, it would be easy to overlook someone wearing shabby clothing. They could easily have found other clothes, and hidden themselves among us for weeks. But why keep their presence secret? I mean, obviously they’re from the original colony, right? They have to know who we are. We’re human, at least, speaking English. How old was this woman?”

Mac shrugged. “I’d say maybe mid thirties. I just wish I’d seen the other one, or at least managed to talk to one of them.”

“They must be terrified.”

“They could be some kind of advanced scout,” Evans put in, looking around at everyone questioningly. “I mean, we’re so late getting here. Obviously there are more survivors, and they’ve been living somewhere hidden. Maybe they just recently realized the complex is occupied again and they need to figure out just who and what we are before they risk coming out of hiding.”

Bryce noticed everyone’s nods ended with a glance at him, but he refused to acknowledge them. It could be a trap. They had to be wondering how much of this news was really news to him. He knew he’d have to watch every word he said, and be on guard for deception.

“Of course, that doesn’t explain why they weren’t living here in the complex all along. Seems the only safe place, considering.”

That was it. That was the look he expected to see. The one Evans was pretending not to direct his way. It had to be what everyone was thinking.

“No, it doesn’t. But there are a lot of things that aren’t explained easily around here.” Ben pointed at Mac. “I want these people found. What’s your best guess as to going about that?”

“First, we’ll need to let everyone in on this.”

Bryce’s head shot up as if someone had burst through the door. Did he really want more people convinced of his presumed deceit? With more than two hundred people in the colony, it was a sure bet there would be a few more Ecklands around to start trouble.

“I agree. We don’t keep secrets here.”

What was that supposed to mean?

“Yes. If everyone knows, it would be nearly impossible for someone to hide among us undetected. But they have to understand, we’re dealing with damaged personalities here. We don’t know if there are more, or if these two somehow survived alone, much like Bryce did. They could be just as wild as he was confused.” Lise glanced at Bryce with a look something close to apologetic.

“Any comments?”

Mac’s question was quietly delivered, but Bryce suddenly found all eyes on him, waiting for a reply. He swallowed hard and desperately attempted a curious look. “I’ve told you, there’s no safe place outside the complex. But I was alone here for ten years. Where they came from, I don’t know. It’s just not possible.” Mac sighed and chewed the inside of his lip, and Bryce knew immediately that had been the wrong answer. But he didn’t have a clue what the right one was.

“Well, these are the facts: they’re from the original colony, since Mac has confirmed the color of the woman’s eyes, and Lise assures me this change cannot possibly take place earlier than nine years’ time. We know they found a safe place to live, since obviously they’ve survived at least ten years away from this complex. But they’re close enough to have realized we were here, or they saw one of our exploration teams.”

“Which could put them almost anywhere.” Evans shook his head. “Ben, the only place I can possibly see someone setting up a safe haven would be in a cave of some kind. Something with an easily sealable entrance, large enough to house–we don’t know how many–and secure enough during that damned full moon to keep those things out.”

“So far we haven’t found any caves that fit the bill.” Mac gestured toward Bryce. “We mapped out huge sections of the cliff and cave areas around those foothills, but everything has a wide open mouth. No way to block one of those off easily.”

Bryce listened to the debates and speculations, keeping one eye on each of the speakers, and one on Mac. He felt like an outsider all over again, distrusted and suspect. Only now, he had nowhere to hide, and he might not have anyone to champion his cause any longer. Not to mention the fact that his world was still spinning upside down. After an hour, he let his mind blur off their conversations and sent his thoughts backwards, trying hard to look at things he’d avoided thinking of in the past. The flashes of memory that had been triggered when Mac’s people first came had tapered off after the creatures returned. It was as if his subconscious had something to say, something very important that he couldn’t put into words. Then, when the truth was revealed, he no longer required them. They’d faded away, replaced by recurring nightmares during the full moons that had plagued him since childhood. Only it was a childhood he had no memory of.

Five used to prod him to remember things, asking him questions about his first time walking this path or that one. But that hadn’t lasted very long, after little results came of it. But when had it started? What was his first memory? Was it waking in the med lab, with the lights and Five’s voice? Or was there something before that?

“I almost hate to bring this up.” Evans leaned forward and looked from Bryce to Mac. “But there’s still a chance you were wrong, isn’t there? You were hit from behind, after all. And no one else has seen this woman’s eyes to really confirm it.”

Bryce shook his head once, sharply, stopping Mac’s reply. “He’s not the only one. I saw her too, in the kitchens.” He swallowed, realizing what he was committing himself to when a quick back door had just been presented. “I was three feet away from her.” He glanced quickly at Mac. “She’s from before.”

“Did you recognize her at all?”

“No, Bryce doesn’t know who she is.” Mac sat up straighter and looked at Ben. “We’ve probably lost her tonight, but just in case, you’d better keep an eye out.”

“Agreed. And I think it’s time we told everyone else.” Ben stood, then leaned forward, hands pressed onto the table. “We’ll call a general meeting tonight, get all of the department heads together, and fill them in. They can spread the word to their staff tomorrow.”

“I wish we could have had a chance to speak with her today.” Lise stood, followed by Katherine and Evans. “We have got to remember to proceed carefully here. These people, however many there are, must be terrified.”

Bryce noticed the look she directed at him at the end of her sentence, but he couldn’t interpret it. There was no time to ponder the matter while everyone started leaving. Ben commented on the lateness of the afternoon, so he made quick excuses to go downstairs and get dinner started. His head was still spinning from information overload, and his confrontation with Five. That damned machine had all the answers, he was sure of it. So why the secrets? Why keep that from him, or from the others? What could he possibly have hoped to gain from that, and where did a machine get off hoping for anything?

“That’s a good question.”

Mac’s statement startled him so badly he nearly dropped the steak he was flipping over. “I didn’t realize that was out loud, sorry.”

Mac shrugged and reached out for a handful of the chopped fungus pods waiting to be added to the pan. “It’s still a valid question. And you’re right, it doesn’t make sense.”

“I don’t want to talk about it right now.” He turned up the heating unit and dumped the pods in for a fast sauté. “I don’t even want to think. I just want to eat dinner.”

“I’ll set the table.”

Bryce glanced up, then returned his attention to the food. He only wished he could stop thinking for a while. In fact, he wasn’t really able to think, but his mind wasn’t able to rest, either. It kept flipping from one image to the next, unwilling to hold a thought long enough to make sense out of it. But everything kept coming back to the main question: Why?

They ate in virtual silence. Bryce was too busy concentrating on the steak once he discovered that slowed down the confusion. He didn’t notice much of what Mac was doing, other than the fact that he was still beside him, eating, and occasionally looking at him. That alone was enough to throw off his concentration so that he’d have to take a bite of dinner and chew it long enough to provide a distraction.

He felt uncomfortable being there for the first time since . . . well, since his first time there. Everything was upside down and backwards now, what if this changed too? What would he do if he wasn’t safe here? What would become of him now that he had nowhere else to go?

“Are you through with that plate, or do you want to stare a hole through it?”

“What?” Bryce looked up and found Mac standing next to him, holding out a hand for the empty plate. “Oh.” He handed it over almost reluctantly.

“Tomorrow morning I want to go over those maps you made of our last trip out, see if we missed anything.”

Here it comes, the doubting. “I didn’t miss anything, those maps are accurate.”

“I never said they weren’t accurate. But there has to be something out there, some kind of evidence of where these people lived.”

Bryce stood, maybe a little too quickly. He felt every nerve in his body tense up, and his teeth clamped down hard. “Why don’t you just come right out and say it?”

Mac looked up from the sink, eyebrows creased. “What?”

“You think I’m hiding something, don’t you? You all do. You think I’ve known all along, and I’ve kept it from you.”

“Known what? Bryce, what are you talking about?”

“It doesn’t make sense, does it? That Five would keep secrets from you. That he would erase crucial information. That he would withhold the facts until those creatures came back, with no warning. That he would convince you all I was the only one, only to have more show up and prove that wrong?”

“Bryce–”

“No, it doesn’t make sense! No computer would do that! So it must be me, right? It’s what you’re all thinking.”

“Listen to me, right now!” Mac glared angrily at Bryce from the other side of the counter, pointing a finger at him. “I’ve told you, several times, that I believe you. I’ve told you I’m on your side, haven’t I?”

“How can I believe anything anymore? Everything’s upside down!” Bryce watched Mac’s eyes for danger signs. Those, he could recognize. If the eyes turned to ice and stopped meeting his, he knew he’d be in serious peril. This man could tear him apart, but he’d be damned if he was going down without a fight.

“Would you just calm down!” Mac’s jaw tightened, and his eyelids lowered in genuine anger. “What do I have to do to make you believe I’m your friend, huh? Because I thought I’d done that already. Friends trust each other, no matter what anyone else says, does, thinks or feels! Friends don’t change their minds because something new comes along, or leave when the going gets rough.” The towel he was holding suddenly smacked against the counter where it lay, limp and lifeless. “Now, if I haven’t proven that to you yet, then you just tell me what more I have to do.”

Bryce swallowed hard, completely unsure of what to do. His heart was racing–pounding in his throat–his hands were sweating. He was scared, but he wasn’t sure what of.

“Just tell me what more I have to do to make you understand that I’m your friend, that I trust you, and I’ll do it. Obviously you don’t understand that yet, ’cause I’ve told you time and again that I believe you, but you keep coming back in my face waiting for me to–I dunno–betray you or something. So, just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it. In the meantime, I’ll be at the complex, helping Ben explain things.”

Before he could say a word, Mac turned and left.

Bryce watched him go up the stairs, then heard the whoosh as the door opened and closed, then nothing. Nothing but the raging of blood through his ears. He was so angry he didn’t know what to do. He wanted to rage, but there was no one there to direct his fury toward. He was alone, again.

But dammit, he didn’t want to be! What was he thinking? Mac had never done anything to make him afraid, yet there he was including his only friend in his own brand of paranoia. The man who rescued him when he was overwhelmed, took him in when he needed a refuge from the sudden invasion, and risked his own life against the night creatures.

“What do I do now?” Bryce asked the empty room. His heart was pounding heavy in his chest, but his feet were lead. Mac went to the complex, he couldn’t follow. Not there. Not tonight. He needed . . . he wanted to be alone. For the first time in his life, he wanted to be alone. With a heavy thump, Bryce folded into the chair he’d so long ago carved from the swooping branches of one of the large trees around the complex. The sides of the long back of the spoon-shaped seat molded around, enveloping him in a comforting familiarity. By pulling up his feet, he could curl into the chair and pretend the world had vanished.

Only he didn’t want it to vanish. He wanted to erase the entire day, and start over again. Even if he had to include Mac’s discovery. Of all the ways he could have handled the situation, he’d certainly chosen the wrong one. Panic and fear. He was supposed to be getting past that. Mac had been helping him get past that, and what had he done? Panicked. Faced with the possible answer to every question he’d ever had, he ran from it like a frightened child. Mac had done everything he could to protect him then, too. Short of lying about the woman completely.

But now what? He had no right to those doubts, not where Mac was concerned. Yet time and time again, in his selfish sense of paranoia, he’d lumped his friend right in there with all the nameless, unrecognizable people he feared. Now what was he going to do? Apologize, naturally. But how? Would Mac accept it? Had he really gone too far this time? Did Mac have a tolerance level that–once breached–never returned to things the way they’d been?

Bryce sat in the chair, brooding and trying to imagine the proper way a person apologized for such acts of doubt. He’d never done this before, not in his remembered life, at least. Of course, he never had a friend like this before, either, so it was all untried territory. Surely Mac would understand that, and make some allowances? Yes or no, he had to try. Mac was his only hope here now. The only protector he had, or was likely to ever have. No matter how he went about it, he had to apologize. He had to make Mac understand that he didn’t doubt, didn’t mistrust him. There wasn’t anything more Mac had to do to prove his friendship, how could there be?

A sudden noise from the bathroom startled Bryce out of his thoughts. For a split second, he was sure someone had broken through the door upstairs, then he realized he’d been asleep. Legs that had fallen asleep bunched up in the chair refused to move quickly. He stumbled out of the seat in time to see Mac’s back as he went into his bedroom.

Damn! Not only had he fallen asleep, he’d been that way long enough for Mac to return and get ready for bed! His friend must have come down, found him sleeping comfortably in that chair, and left him there. Great. What did that say for his desire to apologize? It must have looked like he was totally unconcerned!

Bryce walked to his room, wincing against the sharp tingling as the circulation returned to his legs and feet. Mac’s door was shut, so there was no easy way to enter into a conversation. He went into his room and ran a hand through his hair, then sat on his bed, wondering what to do. He couldn’t wait too long, that was the one thing he was sure of. The longer he waited, the less sincere his apology would sound. At least, that’s the way he’d always felt when Five bothered to apologize.

But this time it was him doing the apologizing. Bryce stood and began to pace his room, thinking of what to say and worrying about Mac’s reaction.

“Just go in there and get it over with.” Bryce chewed his bottom lip and made another pass around the room. What was the worst that could happen? “Oh man.” That wasn’t something he wanted to consider. But that’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? Mac wouldn’t kick him out. He wasn’t that kind of person. Mac was honorable, patient beyond anything Bryce could imagine, and he was his friend.

Bryce stopped at the door and took a deep breath. The light was still on, so Mac was most likely reading in bed. Before he could change his mind, he slid the door open and walked through, heading straight for a chair situated against the far wall facing the bed. His determination carried him to the chair, then abandoned him as soon as he sat down. Mac was in bed, sitting up with a pillow padding the wall he leaned against. The book he’d been reading now rested on his leg as he gazed at Bryce, obviously waiting for an explanation for the unannounced invasion.

His nerve now gone, Bryce sat in the chair, lips pursed, and stared at his hands. “You were right, I’m sorry.” He spoke quietly and prayed he could get it all out. “There isn’t anything you have to do. I had no right to doubt you after all this time.” Risking a glance up, he found Mac listening quietly, all the ice was gone from his eyes. Bolstered by the silence, Bryce continued. “I’ve never had anyone I could trust before, so I didn’t realize it until now. I didn’t–I didn’t realize trust was a choice.” He swallowed and looked up, finally able to look Mac in the eyes. “There was something about you right from the start, something that made me feel safe. And over the weeks, you’ve done nothing but prove that. And I didn’t mean–when I said those things, I never meant to mistrust you. I just–I wasn’t thinking and I got scared. But I chose to trust you then, and I know it was the right choice.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry you got mad tonight, it was my fault.”

Mac picked up the book and shut down the reader, then set the unit on the table beside his bed. “Bryce, I wasn’t mad, just frustrated.”

“I know, I know. I was confused. I still am, really. I mean . . .” Bryce could feel the fear swelling back up, but this time he knew where his anchor was. “I don’t know what to think.”

“I can understand that. So can a lot of people.” Mac shifted against the pillow he was leaning on and brought his legs up so he could rest both elbows on his knees. “Eckland was an exception, not the rule. All the people I talked to tonight were concerned about how you were handling this, and what it meant about the last ten years of your life. They want answers too, kid.”

“But I don’t know if I do.” Bryce shook his head. “I don’t know what the truth is anymore.”

“Bryce, nothing that happened in the past can hurt you.” Mac’s eyebrows creased with seriousness. “We know now you aren’t the only survivor, but we also know you were alone here for ten years. I for one want to know why.”

Bryce nodded and took a deep breath. “I’m not sure I do.” He glanced down and shrugged.

“Listen to me, there’s nothing in the past you need to be afraid of. Nothing we find out is going to change the way things are for us right now.”

“How can you be sure?” It was his biggest fear. What if they found out it had been his fault? What would happen to their friendship then?

“I know you.” Mac held his gaze with blue eyes that never wavered. “And I know me. And I know that no matter what we learn, if we learn anything, it won’t change the person you are today.”

“Even if that person made you mad today?”

“Bryce, that’s what it’s all about. Friends can get frustrated with each other, even a little exasperated. It doesn’t change anything.”

It was time to come clean. “I think–I think what I was doing . . . I was afraid you might leave, so I was trying to push you away.”

“I know.” Mac shook his head a little. “You might as well know, you can push all you want, I’m not going anywhere.”

A wave of emotion passed through Bryce. “Can we find them again?”

Mac inhaled deeply and ran a hand over his short hair. “Probably not here. We need to find out where they came from, where they’ve been living all this time. And how many are out there.”

Bryce nodded. “So . . . what do we do now?” He looked up and saw a slight smile tug at the corner of Mac’s mouth. This time the expression was all too clear, and it warmed the last of the uncertainty from his mind.

“Now, we get some sleep.” Mac nodded toward the chronometer on the wall. “In the morning, we start poring over those maps we made with a fine-toothed comb. Ben is sending teams out to cover the areas we haven’t recorded yet, and we’re going to take a look at the terrain with a better trained eye, now that we know for a fact there’s something to find.” He reached around behind him and settled the pillow down. “We’re going to find the answers. Even if it’s just you and I doing the looking.”

“I’d prefer it that way.” Bryce stood. “I really am sorry, Mac. You said you believed me, I had no reason to doubt you.”

“No, you didn’t. Now get some sleep.” Mac smiled and gave Bryce’s arm a pat when he walked to the door. “We’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

“Right.” Bryce slid the door open and went back to his room. He used the bathroom and got into bed. That was as close as he got to actually sleeping. Apologizing to Mac had been easier than he expected, which in turn made him feel like an idiot. Of course he was going to be forgiving, that was the kind of person Mac was.

It was also the kind of person Bryce wanted to be.

But the rest was still in chaos. His mind refused to settle on one thought, or make sense of the ones he had. By the time he managed to find a focal point and begin relaxing, it was time to get up. Mac was already in the bathroom when he realized there was sun shining through the room. If he got up now, he could start breakfast and have it ready by the time his friend was dressed. Or, if he waited his turn in the bathroom, he might get a few more minutes of sleep. Within seconds, Bryce began drifting off, only to be jolted awake by a rush of adrenaline.

“Damn, I hate when that happens.” All thoughts of sleep were gone, so he pushed his legs out from under the blankets and resigned himself to the new day.

After breakfast, Mac left to oversee the organization of several reconnaissance teams, leaving Bryce to set up the first of many maps for study. He made a large carafe of coffee, and set up a plate with meats and cheese, so he could stay on the upper level the entire day without having to break for lunch. The map table was large enough to display a ten square mile section in great detail, or zoom in to reveal every blade of grass individually. Bryce first studied an overview of the area surrounding the complex, trying to decide in some logical manner which direction would be more likely to produce the very thing he still refused to believe existed.

“What was it you always told me, Five? There are no safe havens outside the complex.” All those years, he imagined climbing this or that rise and finding people farming or camping, unaware that he and he alone had been left behind. Of course, that was just one of his many daydreams. Now they’d all been shattered, just as his reality had. Fine. He’d deal with it, since there was nothing else to do. He’d find these survivors, for Mac if nothing else, then they’d all get their answers.

There was only one area they could discount completely, and that was the massive ocean to the east. As far as the eye could see, there were no islands and no far shore. The only logical shelter was a cave, but it would have to be one whose opening could be secured at night. The landscape was riddled with mountains, hills and rocks, nearly all of which had caves or caverns. To the north, south, and even west were plenty of possibilities.

“Just pick one.” Bryce called up the first map in order, and began a slow process of intense study, square mile by square mile.

“You’re going to go blind, kid.”

Bryce looked up when Mac came through the door, then realized he had a kink in his neck. “I’ve been looking for caves in the north, it’s the only place I can imagine anyone living.” He massaged the side of his neck and pointed at the map hovering in vivid 3-D.

“I agree.” Mac pulled out a chair beside him and sat, glancing at the map. “A cave or series of caves that could be secured at night. But we don’t know how large or how small.” With a sigh, he stood and pointed to the lunch platter Bryce hadn’t even touched yet. “You want something to drink with lunch? I’m going downstairs for a minute.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

When Mac returned, they ate lunch and talked about the possibilities in the northern mountains, then returned to the detailed study Bryce had started. Much to his surprise, and delight, his partner didn’t request a review of the landscape already examined that morning. So they began where he’d left off, scanning the details until their eyes dried with the concentration. Twice, Mac forced their retreat downstairs for refreshment. They spent the rest of the evening scanning the northern section and discussing each potential shelter they found. All of which either had too large an opening to possibly secure, or too many entrances scattered about the cliffs. And no sign of any life in or around them.

The next few days passed in much the same manner. Mac would spend the morning hours at the complex, discussing the progress of the search teams and coordinating the next excursions, then he would join Bryce’s studies, with new maps and information from the other groups performing much the same task. Each time Mac left, Bryce remained behind, setting up the new map segments and beginning the scrutiny. He preferred being alone, away from the watching eyes that seemed to follow every move he made outside. It was an irritation he finally confessed on the third evening.

“I don’t know, but it started before this, sometime just after . . . just after that night, outside.” The memory of that night still gave Bryce a chill.

Mac inhaled sharply, then shook his head as if he’d just recalled something of grave importance. “You say people are watching you? Sometimes following you on your walks?”

“Yes. And don’t say I’m imagining it, either.”

“I won’t. Because you’re right, they are.” Mac’s jaw clamped down hard, flexing the muscles to either side of his face. “And I know just how to stop it.”

Bryce never asked what his friend meant, or what he’d done, but from that evening on, he noticed a distinct drop in the number of eyes following his every move. Mac persuaded him to take a few hours away from their studies and retreat to their hot spring for a much needed rest and mental regrouping. It was just the ticket. Steaming water enveloped him to the neck as he situated himself on the rock he knew so well. Mac found the shorter rock to his liking, the one that set Bryce’s chin well under the surface when he tried it.

The heat provided a soothing massage to muscles stiff from long hours of concentration. But Bryce found his thoughts still straying to the maps. “A cave is the only answer, isn’t it?”

Mac stretched and leaned his head back against the grassy bank. “It’s the only one that makes sense so far. Unless we find something new farther on.”

“But what? I mean, you can’t secure a valley or canyon. Unless they built something, some kind of structure.”

“If they have, we’ll find it.” Mac sat back up and looked at Bryce. “The ship’s manifest listed three planes and two land cruisers, and when we landed here we found only the one old plane, the one Eckland stole that day.”

“I never knew what happened to them, but then, I never knew a lot of things.” Bryce glanced at the steaming water and traced a pattern of ripples. “If they left in those, and used them as shelters, they could have traveled for months, years even. They could be anywhere on the planet.”

“We’ve got all the time in the world to find them.”

“But that would also limit the number of them, wouldn’t it?”

Mac nodded. “I’d guess, even crowding them together, they could fit around thirty.”

“I don’t know.” Bryce pushed the ripples away, then watched them bounce off Mac’s chest and travel around the pool. “I’m still having a hard time imagining them living out there, let alone traveling very far to do it. I don’t care what lies Five raised me on, those creatures aren’t one of them. They come every night during the full moon. You’ve seen that.”

“Yes, I’ve seen that.” Mac leaned back again and looked up at the afternoon sky. “I think their ability to leave the security of this complex depends on the reason for their leaving.”

The heat of the water and security of the company prevented the chill from spreading very far through Bryce’s spine. “I know. I try not to think too much about that.” They’d discussed this before, and Mac was keen on his knowing their friendship was secure, no matter what the truth turned out to be.

Bryce sat back and let the water sooth his stiff neck. They spent nearly an hour resting in the water, then picked some fresh fruits on the walk home to make into a salad. The summer heat kept both their appetites small, even though the shuttle’s interior temperature was well regulated. Mac chopped up enough fruit to make a healthy meal, then talked Bryce into eating outside in the shade cast by their ship’s shadow.

“We should take a better look at the north slope of that mountain from last night. There were so many shadows there, it would be easy to miss something.”

Mac handed a plate over, then joined Bryce on the soft grass. “That mountain is part of a small group, too huge to fly over. We should get a better scan of them all if we can.”

“Why can’t we fly over them?”

“These planes can’t get that kind of altitude, especially in the thin air and high turbulence around mountains like that.”

Bryce shook his head. “Then they couldn’t have, either.”

“Probably not. But I think you’re right, there’s a lot of potential around those mountains. We’ll give them a second look, and see about sending a group around the other side.”

“Why can’t we go?”

Mac looked up and popped a chunk of brown fruit in his mouth, eyebrows raised in a question. When he finished chewing, he shrugged. “There’s no reason at all. With the new moon coming up in two days, we’ll have to wait. But we can finish the maps we have while we wait.”

“Good.” Bryce nodded. “I feel like we need to get out and start physically looking or something.”

“You know, I’m proud of the way you’re handling this.”

Surprised, Bryce looked up.

“I’m serious. I know this isn’t easy, but you’re not running from it anymore.”

“Don’t be so quick to give me credit.” Bryce bit off the tip of an edgefruit. “I’m not doing this for me. I want to find them because you want it.” He shook his head and tossed the rest of the fruit back down to his plate. “Believe me, that’s the only way I’m getting through this. You want to talk to these people, so I’m helping you find them. Anything else, I’ll have to deal with when it comes.”

Mac laughed, then reached out and ruffled Bryce’s hair. “Fair enough, kid. Fair enough.”

They spent the rest of that evening examining the detail of the west face of the mountain Mac named Big Ugly, trying to see into the shadowed areas all around the base. Bryce managed to get good detail out of the maps, but it brought them to a point so small in area, it took the better part of the night to cover one square mile.

“Bryce, come on, it’s after midnight.”

“What?” Bryce looked up, blinking against the room’s lights. He’d spent so long staring at the map, he couldn’t refocus quickly. “I wanted to finish this section tonight.”

“You’ve been getting intimate with the same square foot for twenty minutes.” Mac reached out and flipped off the table, dissolving the relief map like a molecular landslide. “You’re so tired, you could be staring at a sign that said ‘We’re here’ and you’d miss it. Come on, it’ll be there in the morning.”

“All right.”

“You get extra points for staying power.” Mac led him to the bathroom, then propelled him inside. “But you’ll do me no good if you go blind staring at the same patch of shade all night. So get some sleep.”

Bryce agreed even more once he’d washed the exhaustion from his face and brushed his teeth. The promise of sleep could no longer be ignored. Somehow, he managed to get out of his clothes and into the bed before he succumbed.

The next day was the start of a new full moon, with the tracker’s arms spinning in unison and the complex’s inhabitants preparing for the night’s onslaught. Taking a break from the maps to help secure the area was a welcome relief, instead of the eerie dread it usually was. Bryce was pleased to note he no longer seemed to have an audience wherever he went, and even managed to take a walk through the trees to a favored meditation spot without the feeling of being followed. Whatever Mac had done, it worked.

Having a focus helped the week pass easier, and the exhaustion every night kept the nightmares at bay. Three times, Bryce found himself being forced away from the maps late at night, with Mac insisting he get some rest. Once, Bryce did wake with a start in the dark hours, unable to recall the dream that had caused it. When he got up to use the bathroom, he saw light pouring down the stairs.

“I thought you said these things could wait till morning.” Bryce reached the top of the stairs and looked at Mac through sleep-blurred eyes.

“I know, I know. I just couldn’t sleep.” Mac flipped off the map and stretched. “This stuff haunts you in your sleep.”

“You too?” Bryce leaned against the table, propping his butt on the edge.

“I don’t like mysteries.”

“I thought you did.”

Mac shook his head then stood up. “I like a mystery I can solve.”

“But you can, now.” Bryce pushed away from the table and they went back downstairs. “I mean, you and I both saw her. As much as I didn’t want to believe it, it’s true. There are survivors, and we’ll find them.”

“You’re right, we’ll find them.” Mac pushed him toward his own bedroom. “Maybe tomorrow. Good night.”

“Good night.” Bryce’s return to sleep was almost immediate, and filled with a very satisfying dream. The first one he’d had in a very long time.

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7 thoughts on “tgif

  1. It’s good that you want to beat us. It’s good for our reach to exceed our grasp, or else what is Heaven for? 😛

  2. I am definitely the loser in this competition. With the work schedule of mine, there’s no way in Hades that I’m winning. Oh, well. One competition will not fall around holidays or the beginning of the year. Some time. Working in accounting and having something in January just don’t mesh at all.

  3. I think we’ve both lost to Kristine “look at me I like to write things,” but she’s probably cheating. Probably copying Harry Potter books down word-for-word, an’ then she’ll bribe Lori into saying it’s original. But you might still beat me, Tori. January’s been a lousy month for me too. I haven’t gotten near as much work done as I should have.

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