Honestly, it nearly skipped my mind. I’ve been so wrapped up in the Stoneage Keyboard – which I’ll be working diligently on this weekend and posting photos of my progress. So here’s chapter 13, such as it is. I was really in love with plot twists and turns, and I’m sure I still am, but for some reason tossing in left turns was a real pleasure for me in this story. That and shower scenes – I don’t know if there’s one in this chapter or not – and they’re basically a writer no-no according to the “rules”, but damn, they were fun to imagine while writing 😀
“Here, take this, too.”
Mac looked up, then accepted the small unit Ben handed him. “Visual communicator?”
“In case you find something interesting we should know about right away.”
He nodded and stuffed the palm-sized unit into the only empty pocket he had left, low on his left thigh. “Will do.”
Ben seemed to hesitate a moment, standing between Mac and the glaring mid-morning sun. “Listen, while you’re out there . . .”
“What’s eating you, Ben?” Mac secured the pocket with a quick tug on the zipper and looked at the commander. “Something’s on your mind, just come on out with it.” They were–in all practical sense of the word–alone. There was plenty of the usual hustle and bustle in the hangar, more so now that so many search teams were being organized and sent out, brought back in, regrouped, and sent out again. The entire colony had a mission now, aside from the simple act of survival. But there was no one within easy earshot.
“Things have changed now, obviously.” Ben sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Nothing is what it seemed to be here, since we came, but more so now. I just want you to be careful out there. Keep your eyes open, and keep in touch.”
Mac’s eyebrows knit together as he pondered the commander’s advice.
“You’re the one most likely to find anything, if indeed there’s anything to find. You’re better trained in this sort of thing, and now that we have proof of more survivors, I know you’ll be on this till they’re found.”
If this was some kind of pep talk, it was unnecessary. Daylight was wasting.
“I just want you to be careful, don’t take anything–or anyone–for granted.”
Suddenly it became crystal clear. Mac’s jaw spasmed for an instant, and he felt his eyes narrow at a man he’d considered reliable. “We’ll both be fine.” The only way he could keep from insulting the commander was to deliberately misinterpret his intent. By the look on the man’s face, Mac knew they both understood each other in that moment.
Ben straightened up, but wasn’t able to gain any height on Mac. “I have a colony to protect, Captain. That includes you.” He tugged at the bottom of his shirt in a reflex action. “Daily check-ins, plus an immediate report of any human life signs. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Mac stopped short of saluting, since they were no longer confined by the strict military code both men had left behind. The emotion that began to bubble up when Ben turned and left was quickly suppressed when he spotted Katherine dashing up the rise toward his plane.
“Oh good, you haven’t left yet.” The veterinarian was out of breath when she reached the far end of the hangar.
“Unfortunately, no.” Mac drawled, glancing back in the direction of the complex. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, first off, you can take care of yourself out there.”
“You too? What the hell is with everyone all of a sudden?”
Katherine leaned back, blinking in surprise. “Did I miss something? I just want you and Bryce to be careful, flying over new territory.”
Mac inhaled deeply and shook his head once. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean– Never mind. We’ll be careful.” He smiled to repair any insult and put his hands on her shoulders, looking down into soft brown eyes. “Wish you were coming?”
“I do, in fact. I’m dying to get a look at the rest of the native wildlife.” Katherine clutched Mac’s sides, grabbed his shirt, and shook him in mock frustration. “Which brings me to why I’m here seeing you off. I know you two will be busy, but I was hoping you could get me some tape on anything else you find. Fish, fowl, mammal, whatever! I’m dying for more comparisons so I can get this study of the gargoyles back on a scientific track.” She released his shirt and Mac removed his hands from her shoulders so she could pace around the area. “I need to learn more, and this tracking business has been a complete failure. If I could learn more about the native animals, maybe get a better idea of migratory habits of other prey, their breeding habits, interspecies relationships, anything! I need more information.”
Mac laughed and stuffed the new portable shield into the pack he’d been filling. “You scientists, you’re all alike.”
“Mmm.” Katherine grinned. “You’ll keep an eye out for me, then? Bring back some tapes?”
He glanced at the sky, making a show of his consideration. “I’ll do what I can.”
“Fantastic! I knew there was a reason I liked you.” With a quick kiss on his cheek, she turned and started back down the hill.
“Hey, Brennan. Where’s your partner?”
“I dunno, Frank. But I wish he’d get his ass up here so we could get going.”
The hangar chief laughed, then waved for the plane behind Mac’s to being rolling out to the pad. When it finished launching, he sauntered over and helped load gear. “I thought I was going to have to shoo him out of here last night, the kid was putting such an effort into going over this ship’s pre-flight, I was afraid he’d fall asleep under it.”
“He might as well have. When I got back from a meeting late he hadn’t made it past the couch.” Mac stowed the last of their gear and secured the locker door. “You have those maps for me?”
“Sure do.” Frank led the way back to his small office at the far end of the hangar, then produced a crystal data pen and inserted it into a wall unit. When the map was displayed, it rotated, then shifted into two dimensions at chest level.
“Perfect.” Mac gazed at the relief map, scanning the recorded edges where their flight plan would begin.
“Bryce got these all loaded up yesterday afternoon, first thing. This is the first of the mountains, here to the left.” Using a stylus to direct the map in mid-air, Frank explained the areas Mac and Bryce had already planned to check out. They both spoke out loud, detailing the daily flight plan and any possible deviations from it while the office voice recorders logged their discussion.
Halfway through the second week’s itinerary, Mac felt a strange tingling sensation in his earlobe that grew in intensity quickly. He reached up, touching the metal loop hanging there, but just as instantly as it had begun, the silver stopped vibrating. He hid his perplexity with a question regarding the plane’s altitude limits and felt the loop with two fingers. Frank’s answer was ignored, but a movement out of the corner of Mac’s eye wasn’t. Bryce had just entered the hangar, and without a moment’s hesitation near the plane, was marching straight toward the office as if he . . .
Of course! Mac turned his attention back to the map while Frank continued. He’d nearly forgotten about that hidden aspect of the silver metal his earring was shaped from. This was the first time the kid had used his little trick, and he probably even carried the instrument with him. Mac had to be at a computer in order to launch the file he used to track the device planted on Bryce’s necklace. But he could use a small, handheld unit whenever he wanted to find out where Mac–or at least that bit of silver–was. Handy little trick, but it clued the wearer in whenever the seeker was looking.
“‘Bout time you woke up.” Mac admonished his friend when Bryce joined them. “We’re all set.”
“Why didn’t you wake me?” Bryce looked questioningly at Mac after a brief nod of hello to the hangar chief.
Mac physically turned his partner around so they could exit the office and walk to the plane. “If my getting up, taking a long shower, making and eating breakfast didn’t wake you, I wasn’t about to.”
“You’re no good to me if you’re gonna fall asleep halfway out today, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.” He climbed into the cockpit behind Bryce and strapped in. After receiving clearance, they lifted off.
The entire first day was spent in virtual silence as they sped toward the mountain now officially known as Big Ugly. With the exception of idle directional comments or questions, and one or two stops for bathroom breaks and some lunch, the day passed in a quiet calm that Mac relished. Unlike most of the people Mac had been saddled with in the past, Bryce never seemed to mind the quiet. He didn’t take it as being ignored, and never tried to force a conversation that neither of them wanted to have. It was probably due to the years of being alone, with no one to talk to.
Whatever it was, it was a welcome change from Cassie! She never failed to interpret Mac’s silence as anger, or some kind of unspoken insult. Just when a nice quiet stillness would settle over the house, she’d insist they discuss something, no matter how inane a topic she picked. And if he refused to engage in the conversation, she flew into one of her moods. Mac knew it stemmed from some kind of insecurity, but he never could get her out of it.
Now why on earth am I thinking about her? It was close to a year now since he’d left. She’d probably found a new companion even before his long trip here had ended. He hadn’t thought about her in a long time, but now his mind brought her in so clearly, he could almost hear her voice. Puzzled, Mac shook off the thoughts and checked the time. In another hour they’d stop for the night. The moon was out of phase, but he knew Bryce would be inside the plane and locked up tight before the sun finished setting, so they’d have to land and get dinner cooked before then.
He scanned the landscape speeding by underneath them in a blur of blues, greens and purples. There was a waterfall ahead, so he veered a little to the left in order to get a nice view when they passed.
“Look at that. It’s beautiful.” The water seemed to leap over the top of the rocks with careless abandon, hurling toward the pool below, where it slammed through the surface in a misty cloud of light blue.
“Yeah.” Bryce glanced at the spectacle, then looked back down at the map he’d been studying.
Mac chuckled softly and shook his head, but didn’t bother to comment. Someday he, too, would probably take all of this for granted. But he hoped not. Back on the ships, water was so strictly recycled, he never dreamed he’d ever be surrounded by so much. And there it was again, vivid thoughts of his past. Not just memories, but sharp, clear images. It was almost as if he was trying hard to recall something, but he didn’t have a clue what it was. Or why it would be important.
They flew on for another forty-five minutes, then found a good level spot near a stream and Mac called an end to their day. The water wasn’t deep enough for a swim, but after they retrieved what was needed for cooking, it provided a good bath. Mac never passed up the opportunity to immerse himself in water!
During dinner, they spoke of the mountain shadowing them, and where best to begin looking. Bryce kept up his side of the discussion well, but Mac could see his underlying nervousness.
“We may not find anything at all.” Mac stirred the fire and glanced at his partner, who was fidgeting with a twig.
“I know.” Bryce nodded, then looked up and smiled with completely faked enthusiasm. “But we might find something, too. The sooner the better, right?”
Mac nodded and pursed his lips in thought. “Are you hoping we do?”
“Sure, of course.” Bryce shrugged and tossed his twig into the fire. “Better to get everything out in the open sooner rather than later. I’d be glad if we did. Yeah, we could get everything back to normal sooner if we did.”
“You’re faking it, aren’t you?” Mac dropped his stirring stick into the flames and eyed his friend. “For my sake, right?”
“Yep,” Bryce admitted bluntly. He shrugged, “Listen, it’s the only way I’m gonna get through this with anything left of my sanity. This is for you, that’s all. Something you want to find, and I’m helping you out. That’s what friends do, right?”
Mac smiled a little. “Right.” If Bryce needed that to hold onto, he wasn’t going to argue.
They began packing up the dinner gear and dousing the fire before the sun could completely set. Mac watched his friend securing their supplies. He’d been holding up well, all things considered, after they got past the initial shock and fear. It took some doing, but Mac was able to convince the others that Bryce no longer needed so many watchful eyes following him around all the time. Eckland wasn’t likely to come back, and in all likelihood was dead. Their scrutiny, though well meant, only served to add to the younger man’s paranoia at the time.
Mac laughed quietly to himself and kicked out the embers of the fire. Bryce was certainly an interesting character. One minute a shy, almost subdued individual, happy to work quietly by his side and enjoy the company. The next, a thundering mass of confusion and repressed anger looking for an outlet. It reminded Mac of a small creature he’d once heard about . . . something back on Earth that he’d read in a paper during school . . . what was it? The fire was out, and the sun gone, so Mac joined his partner in the cramped plane. Even with the moon at half full, neither man pretended to want to sleep outside. What was that animal? Like a well trained team, both of them managed to set out their sleeping sacks and get into positions comfortably within the crowded confines of the well supplied plane. Mac waited for Bryce to get situated, then he got comfortable on his back and stared up at the ceiling, preparing his mind and body for sleep. What was that animal? Damn, it was going to drive him crazy!
And it did. The entire night, Mac’s body tried to sleep, but his dreams insisted on actively seeking out a name he wasn’t even sure he’d ever known. By morning, he felt mentally drained. Bryce got up first, so Mac forced his mind clear of all thoughts and tried to get a few minutes more sleep while his partner made breakfast. Listening to the various animals outside the open door was both soothing, and irritating. They reminded him of his promise to Katherine, and that nagging voice of responsibility he hated so much forced him up and dressed, and searching for the recorders.
“Where are you going?” Bryce looked up from the small fire he was starting, but made no move to join his partner.
“I’m just gonna stretch my legs, and get some video for Katherine.” Mac stretched, then scratched his head, running a hand down over his face to try and wake himself up more. “There’s nothing poisonous or anything crawling around out here in the morning, is there?”
Bryce shook his head and went back to his fire. “Not that I know of. Breakfast in twenty minutes.”
“Yeah.” With a yawn, Mac acknowledged the statement and tiredly stumbled in the direction of something moving in the low growing grasses. Small enough to seem harmless, the creature looked up at him with large, round eyes, and yawned. “You and me both, fella.” Mac pointed the recorder at the small animal and began to get Katherine’s visual information. “You and me both.”
As it was, during the time he had, Mac managed to find a wide variety of furred, feathered, and slimy, ooze-covered animals to record. More than one of which greeted him with yawns of disinterest. “Interesting place you have here.” He tossed the recorder onto a rolled up blanket, then reached down to the fire for the coffee. “I can’t believe the range of color the animals have. I’d swear that thing with the silvery sort of metallic fuzz actually changed color a few times while I was recording it.”
“Was it about a foot off the ground, on ten sort of spiny legs?”
“Yeah.” Mac sniffed the coffee appreciatively and took a sip. “At least it didn’t bite me in the ass when I turned to leave.”
Bryce chuckled. “You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?”
“Nope.” He easily caught the oval, hard shelled fruit Bryce tossed at him, then grinned. “Those fish sure were good eating, though.”
“So are those fuzzy ten legged spiny things. But they’re hell to catch. Did you try to reach out and touch it?”
“I’m not that stupid.” At least not twice. “Why?”
“If you stand there watching them, they don’t care about you. I’ve even had them jump on my lap. But reach out to touch one, and they spring into the air so damn high, you can’t even follow where they land.” Bryce shook his head in wonder. “One minute they’re cute and fine and curious, the next minute BAM! They’re gone.”
Mac bit into the fruit to crack the shell, then started peeling it off. Suddenly, it hit him. “Tasmanian Devil!”
“Excuse me?” Bryce looked up, then around them, confused.
“That’s it! Damn, that thing was haunting me all night long!” Mac felt so triumphant, he forgot how little sleep he’d gotten because of it. The look on his partner’s face was priceless. “I got this thing stuck in my head last night, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what these animals were called.” He shrugged and tried to pass it off without having to explain why he wanted to know the name of the animal Bryce so reminded him of.
“Okay.” Bryce turned back to his breakfast and lowered his voice. “And they think I’m crazy.”
His partner’s wary delivery made Mac laugh again. They finished breakfast and packed up, heading straight for the base of Big Ugly. Bryce’s anxiety level picked up slightly as they approached the mountain, so Mac kept him busy searching the area for a good place to land.
Big Ugly was actually a group of mountains, arranged in an almost perfect circle, but with no clear pass or ridge low enough to fly up and over. The atmosphere flyers the colony brought were limited in altitude and air pressure, and while the mountains could be flown around, they could not be viewed from above. The planet’s original exploration probe’s revealed a large lake inside the bowl formed by the mountains, as well as low valleys, wide plains and a plethora of caves, tunnels and canyons. It would take a week to circumnavigate the entire grouping, and until they could find a way up and over, the interior sections would remain unexplored.
But the caverns and caves were what Mac wanted to check out. He knew, as did Bryce, the best chance of surviving a week of dangerous nights would be in a shelter as secure as a cave, providing the entrance could be closed or secured. But they also knew, or at least assumed, that the caves were the most logical place for the creatures themselves to live. They had to be somewhere during the day, somewhere they could shelter from the orange light of the sun and wait for the softer light of the full moon.
By mid afternoon, Bryce pointed out a plateau near the largest of the caverns they had been able to scan, and Mac landed in a sheltered area unfortunately devoid of lakes or rivers. Before securing the plane, he let Bryce do a complete life-signs signature on the area.
“Looks clear.” He tilted the panel so Mac could view the results. “None of them, anyway.”
“Great, let’s get settled.” Mac unclipped his safety harness and gave Bryce’s shoulder a pat as he stood. “I’d love to get a peek at that cavern first, see what’s what before dinner.”
“You really are anxious, aren’t you?” Bryce followed him out of the plane and nodded toward the huge cave entrance visible several yards away.
“I’m sure we won’t find any colony people here. It’s too open, and there’s certainly no sign of human life.” He glanced around the plateau, then looked at his friend. “Listen, if you want to unpack the plane and get a camp set up, I can check this one out myself.” He turned to the rock wall before them. “It’s nothing more than a big wide hollow, but there might be tunnels branching out further inside. I just want a quick look around.”
“No, I’ll come.” Bryce reached up and pushed some hair out of his face, staring past Mac at the cave’s entrance. “The scans showed nothing big is living in there, anyway.”
“Okay.” Mac reached back in the plane for his pack and pulled out a light and Katherine’s recorder. “Let’s go.”
He led the way, with Bryce shadowing his left side. The cave mouth was wide, at least a hundred meters long and twenty meters high, opening up to a huge, high-ceilinged cavern. It was a dry cave, completely lacking in stalagmites or the typical echo of dripping water. Mac whistled appreciatively at its size, then flicked on his light and scanned the walls. They were bright orange, but pot-marked in many places with holes and entrances.
“Looks like we found a honey-comb.”
“What’s that?” Bryce nearly bumped into Mac when he stopped to scan the walls, then sheepishly smiled an apology.
“Something full of holes.” Mac directed his light to one of the darker regions. “This opening has more tunnels, probably leading to caves and other tunnels.” He stepped forward and peered at the closest opening. “You know, if these mountains really are riddled with holes like this, we just might find one to lead us all the way through.”
“Oh man,” Bryce shook his head and backed up a few steps. “You can’t, Mac.”
“Bryce, I’m not rushing into them right this minute. But that is what we’re here to do.” He lowered the light and looked at his friend. The kid was pursing his lips and shaking his head, apparently arguing with some inner voice. “You said you’d be okay with this.”
Slowly, Bryce stopped shaking his head and took a deep breath. “Just . . . slowly. Okay? We were just gonna check this one out now, right? Then scan the others before we go in?”
Bryce seemed to relax, so Mac aimed the light around again, then pointed to a large indentation in the rock wall to his left. “Why don’t you look around over there. Just see if there are any more openings in that direction, and how many. I’ll check this other side. Don’t worry,” Mac held up a hand to forestall the question he knew would follow. “I’m not going into any of them, and neither are you. Not yet.”
“Right.” Bryce hesitated, then walked to the side of the cave and rounded a slight corner. His section was still well lit by the sun shining through the cave’s wide mouth, so Mac kept the light and walked farther back.
The cavern seemed topless in spots, where the ceiling was so high his small light couldn’t find the rock above. There was no way this cave could be secured, but the fact that it had so many tunnels and side caves made it a very good candidate for clues. If this cave couldn’t be sealed, but it did in fact lead–by way of a network of other tunnels and caves–to an area that could be secured, they might very well have found their missing colonists. Or, at the least, a second home for the ones they already had. Exploring these caves could take weeks, or even months. Mac considered calling the complex and having Ben send out a larger team, but then changed his mind. No sense in calling out the troops if each cave turned out to be a tiny dead end. He and Bryce were scheduled for a two week exploration anyway, might as well get done what they could and go from there.
“Find anything interesting?” Mac made his way back out to the center of the cavern and let his voice echo toward the left side. “Bryce?” He glanced out at the daylight streaming in and wondered if his partner had gone back out to set up camp. “Kid?” Mac reached the side of the cave and found the corner Bryce had gone around. It led to a side section of the cavern, separated by several huge boulders that made up the corner wall. “Bryce?”
Standing in a pool of sunlight Bryce stood stock-still. He was staring at something Mac couldn’t see, something that had his eyes open wide, his jaw clamped shut tight, and his entire body shaking.
“Bryce!” Mac hurried to his side, but got no reaction from the terrified young man. Quickly, he turned to see what was in the room with them, and felt his own heart skip a beat. “Oh my God.” The cave bubbled out before them with a much lower ceiling than the main room, with a fine grain sandy bottom and an almost perfectly flat floor. As a cave, it was marginally interesting, but it was what they found on the sandy ground that had both men speechless.
Skeletons. In perfect rows, lined up head to toe. There were hundreds of them, each with approximately a foot of space between them. At first glance, they looked human, but Mac quickly noted the differences. He turned on the light and scanned the room, stunned by the numbers and placement. It took a minute for him to shake off his initial shock and remember his nearly catatonic partner.
“Bryce.” He turned and blocked the younger man’s view with his body, clutching Bryce’s shoulders. “Look at me.” Blinking, Bryce refocused and seemed to see Mac for the first time. “They’re skeletons, and they’re not human. There’s nothing alive here, we’re okay.” He stared into his friend’s lavender eyes, looking for some sign he was coming out of his shock. “You with me? It’s okay.”
Slowly, Bryce nodded, but said nothing.
“I’m going to have a look around. Stay here.”
Bryce nodded again, then took a step backward so he could lean against a boulder.
“Just stay here, you’ll be fine.” Mac waited until his friend sat on the rock and blinked a few times, then he turned back to the spectacle before him.
If the skeletons weren’t surprising enough, everything else Mac found certainly was. Each specimen was lying beside an assortment of objects he could only assume were put there on purpose. They all seemed to have a section of cloth beside their heads, dried flowers and herbs in a hollowed out dimple of sand, at least one or two sticks shaped like spoons, and placed in the center of the skull bone, a flat piece of the silver metal Bryce used. Each one had the same assortment of items in various degrees and amounts, but each had the exact same piece of silver resting on the skull bone. Mac reached out and picked one up, turning it over in his hand. When he shone the light straight on it, it looked like normal silver. But if the light hit the metal at an angle, definite colors could be seen. Various shades of blues, purples, greens and reds.
Mac glanced back to where his partner was sitting. “Are you okay?”
Bryce nodded quickly, just once, but said nothing. He was sitting down now, on the ground, with his back against the rock. Both legs were pulled up and his arms wrapped around them. He couldn’t seem to stop staring, but Mac could see his gaze at least moved around the scene now, instead of blankly frozen in place.
“I’m gonna contact Ben and show him what we found.” Mac walked back to where his partner sat and retrieved the visual unit from his pants pocket. Without even thinking, he handed the silver disk to Bryce so he could dial up the unit. Just as the communicator found the complex’s signal and sparked to life, he realized what he’d done. Bryce was holding the metal, staring at it in apparent fascination, not the horror Mac expected. Before he could apologize or retrieve the item, Ben’s face appeared on the screen.
“Brennan, what have you found?”
“You’re not going to believe this, Ben.”
* * * * *
Mac glanced down at the multitude of faces he could see on his small screen, each pushing for room so they could see what he had to show them. Slowly, he walked around the chamber with the communicator pointed outward, his light shining out in front to better illuminate the scene.
“Any chance our lost colonists did this?” Ben’s voice echoed slightly off the rock walls as it emanated from the communicator.
“Doubtful.” Lise replied. “Mac, can you get closer on the artifacts?”
Mac obliged by kneeling beside one of the skeletons. “At first I thought these metal plates were in the skulls, but they’re really just resting on top.”
“Like grave markers?”
“That was my thought.” Mac reached out for the thin metal wafer and held it closer to the screen. “This color you can pick up seems to have been embedded in the metal. At least, I don’t think it’s random.”
“Hard to say.”
Mac wasn’t sure whose voice that was, but when he glanced at the screen he saw so many people there he didn’t even try to guess. “Ben, are you bringing a team out here?”
“The plane’s being readied as we speak. Lise, Katherine and I. The others will come out in a rover with equipment, but that will take a week’s travel time.”
“All right. Bryce and I will stay here, see what we can find and record. You should reach us by tomorrow evening, if you fly straight out.” Mac stood and turned the camera back to himself.
“We’re on our way.” Ben’s comment finally cleared the curious faces watching, as they moved out of the way.
“Mac,” Lise stepped forward, glancing around as if to find Bryce near by. “How’s Bryce handling this?”
Mac glanced in his partner’s direction. The younger man was still sitting on the ground, his back against a boulder, but the look of shock had been replaced by a deep expression of puzzlement. The silver disk, still in one hand, was being fingered absently while he looked around the room. “He’s doing fine, actually. It was a shock at first, for both of us. But he’s fine now.”
“Good. But keep an eye on him, will you? I’m afraid of what these shocks are going to do. Too many more revelations, and those repressed memories might snap what’s left of his psyche closed tight.”
“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.” Mac terminated the call, then looked back at Bryce. “I’m gonna get some more samples. Why don’t you head out and get a fire started. We’ll want to eat before sunset.”
Bryce blinked, then looked at Mac, eyebrows creased. “What? Oh, right. Okay.” He stood, still fingering the metal disk, glanced once more around the chamber, and left.
Mac sighed, watching him go. His reactions were a little puzzling, but they could be attributed to shock and surprise. Actually, Mac was relieved to see him handling this strange discovery so well. Perhaps, knowing this room represented hundreds of dead gargoyles, he felt more relief than fear. But if that was the case, it probably meant Bryce hadn’t made the other, more upsetting connection.
“These are definitely headstones.” Mac palmed the metal he’d shown Ben and the others on the vidcam, then glanced out at the spectacle. Headstones, personal items placed with each body. The skeletons arranged in a recumbent position, all with forearms crossed over chest bones. Each had a cloth, other bits and pieces of wood, stone and metal of various shapes, small arrangements of dried flowers and herbs. If humans didn’t do this, it meant something more profound than Bryce was ready to handle.
Mac wandered around the cave for a while longer, taking film of various specimens and different angles. He stopped at one rather large skeleton, kneeling for a closer look, and felt something hard under his knee. He shut off the recorder and packed it away, then reached down to the sand and felt around, assuming he’d knelt on a rock. When his fingers hit something smooth and solid, he pulled it out.
Mac looked at what he’d found. It was more of the silver metal, buried shallowly beside the head of the large skull. What it meant, he wasn’t sure. A piece that fit easily into his palm, intricately shaped and shining silver.
A perfect match for Bryce’s necklace.
“Another piece to the puzzle?” He looked around at the skeletons. “Or another puzzle entirely?” With a sigh, Mac slipped the metal into a pocket, took one last look at the cave, then turned off his light and walked back out to the plane.
Bryce had been busy, setting up a camp and fixing dinner in the short time Mac had sent him out of the cavern. They had an hour left of sunlight, and already the younger man had dinner ready, the heavier gear removed from the plane, and inside, their bedrolls laid out. Mac wasn’t at all sure how his friend was handling this new discovery, but in all outward appearances he seemed fine.
Bryce glanced up from the fire. “Dinner’s ready.”
“Great.” Mac found their container of fresh water and washed up, then sat by the fire and dished up a bowl of the stew. He wanted to gauge Bryce’s reactions before they got much farther along. By tomorrow afternoon, they would no longer be alone here, and anything the kid was feeling would be tenfold around the others. He sat back against a rock, facing his partner, but before he could say anything, Bryce looked up.
“You don’t think humans did this, do you?”
A little startled, Mac blinked, then shook his head. “No, I don’t. It’s possible, of course. But I don’t think so.” He watched his friend absorb that answer with creased eyebrows and a slow nod. Not the shaking, shocked reaction he’d expected. Was there going to be an explosion, or a complete collapse inward? Did he understand the implications?
“It’s a graveyard.” The statement was delivered as if Bryce was speaking to himself.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Animals don’t do that.”
Mac inhaled slowly, watching Bryce closely. “No, they don’t.”
Bryce nodded and began eating.
“You’ve never seen anything like this before?” Mac’s question was answered only with a shake of his head. “Have you ever seen one of their skeletons before?”
“I’ve never seen a dead one before.” Bryce answered without looking up from his plate.
Mac was perplexed by the younger man’s responses, and his seemingly calm reaction after the initial shock of finding the room. It wasn’t a good sign, but he decided to let things ride for the time being. Something might be brewing in that damaged memory that needed a little breathing room to come out.
“When they come, are we staying here or moving on?”
“We’ll stay here for a day or two, then see how things shape up.”
Bryce nodded, then finished his meal in silence.
After dinner, Mac cleaned up and packed away their cooking equipment. The sun was setting, turning the sky an incredible shade of purple and blue. The moon, already visible on the horizon, was hardly even half. He glanced toward the dwindling fire and found Bryce sitting near the flames, turning something silver over and over in his hand. It was the plate he’d taken from one of the skulls, and reminded Mac of the silver medallion safely hidden in his pocket. What it could mean, he wasn’t sure. But he intended to search around the sand near the other remains in the morning, before Ben and the others came. If these things were buried beside other skeletons, and Lise or Katherine discovered one before he had a chance to prepare his friend . . . he didn’t even want to think about the reaction it could cause.
Mac finished cleaning up, then glanced at the burgeoning night sky. Stars were poking through the canopy of violet, and several of the night dwelling insects were beginning to sound off. He picked up a small container of water and turned to go kill the embers before turning in. When he looked up, the sight of Bryce still sitting there, gazing at the silver in his hand nearly made him drop the water.
“Hey, you ready for bed? We’ve got a busy day ahead.” Mac walked as casually as he could toward the fire, hoping his remark wasn’t going to startle Bryce into panic when he realized night was upon them.
“Yeah, sure.” Bryce didn’t even look up. Still looking at the metal in his hand, he stood and walked slowly back to the plane.
What’s going on inside that head now? Mac quickly doused the fire and kicked the embers around. This wasn’t a good sign. It couldn’t be. His little Tasmanian devil was throwing a curve ball. Once inside the plane, they fell into a quick routine of undressing and getting situated. Even with some of the larger gear now outside, the plane wasn’t the most spacious of sleeping areas. When the moon rose a bit more, its light shone through the cockpit, lighting up the fuselage. Bryce slept with his back to the cockpit, while Mac slept facing it, so he wasn’t as bothered by the sight of the half sized moon that would only be visible for another hour.
Mac got situated, but Bryce remained sitting up, still examining the same bit of silver.
He decided to do some exploring. “Do you think those colors are natural?”
“No.” Bryce shook his head and held the silver so that the moonlight hit it at an angle. “They’re embedded.”
He couldn’t help noticing the serious expression of contemplation on the younger man’s face as he watched the light bounce off the surface of the silver. “How can you be sure?”
“I know. I did this once, a long time ago, I think. I can’t remember how I did it, but you can die the silver when you make it.” Bryce never took his eyes from the silver as he spoke. “No two will ever be alike.”
Mac chewed the inside of his cheek, considering where to go with this. “Are you remembering anything else?”
It wasn’t a very reassuring answer. Mac adjusted his position a little. “Do you remember who made your necklace?”
Bryce looked up as if he suddenly remembered he wasn’t the only one in the room. After a pause, he shook his head. “No, I don’t remember.”
Mac decided then to let it wait. “Better get some sleep.”
Bryce nodded and finally put the silver down, then backed up so he could lie down. The moon had moved far enough up to decrease the light shining in on them.
“You were wrong, you know.”
Bryce rolled over and pulled the blanket to his shoulder. “You said they did what they did because they were just animals. You were wrong.”
Nothing Mac could say would have pierced the silence. Nor would it sooth the sudden, inexplicable pang that shot through his chest for one instant. It was the pain of innocence lost.
But whose, he wasn’t sure.
The next morning brought more of the strange silence. Bryce constantly examined the silver plate while making breakfast, saying little. This time the quiet stillness felt wrong to Mac, but he decided the best way to navigate this one was to watch, and wait. His friend didn’t appear angry or aloof, but his attention was completely devoted to the metal. Mac hurried through breakfast. His partner’s silence was becoming unnerving.
“I’m gonna head back up there. Ben and the others will be here in a few hours.” Mac gathered some things he’d need in the dark cave and began filling his pockets. When one hand touched the medallion still there, he cringed inside. “You can stay down here if you like.”
“No.” Bryce stood and quickly moved to Mac’s side. “I’m coming with you.”
Mac looked up, meeting his friend’s gaze. There was an urgency there he couldn’t account for. “Okay. Do me a favor, then. If you’re going to help, carry this.” He handed over Katherine’s recorder and Bryce accepted it willingly. “Let’s go then.”
He led the way, and this time they bypassed the main cavern completely, heading straight for the side room. The morning sun was in front of them, so the cave was darker than it had been last night. Mac sent Bryce around the perimeter to set up lights, and fought off the worry of what was to come. If the kid happened to dig up another medallion matching his own . . .
“That’s good, right there.” Sometimes the best battle strategy was to march straight in and take what came. Mac set about taking note of the objects next to each skeleton. He walked up and down each row, looking at the various bits of silver, cloth and wood. Now and again, he knelt down and ran his fingers through the sand next to the skulls, looking for any more signs of buried medallions or other artifacts. After finding nothing on twelve tries, he had to entertain the possibility that the necklace was a fluke. Perhaps dropped there by some other human, investigating this same find? Mac decided that might be a good explanation, and perhaps a good way to lead into showing last night’s find to Bryce. He glanced up and looked around the room. His friend had been walking up and down the rows himself, apparently recording each skeleton. Mac found him several rows down and to his right, but what he saw stopped the question in his throat.
Bryce was kneeling beside the largest specimen in the row, the one Mac had removed the silver plate from. He was touching the skull with two fingers, running them slowly over the forehead and down the side to the chin. Mac sat back on his feet and watched quietly. After a moment, Bryce reached into his shirt and brought out the silver metal plate. He looked at it, then at the skull, then very gently replaced the object exactly where it had been found. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings, and his audience, as Mac looked on. When the metal was back on the animal’s skull, Bryce again touched it with gentle fingers.
Mac swallowed and watched the spectacle. Something was going on here, something Bryce might not even be aware of. But what it was and how he should deal with it, he wasn’t at all sure. Before he got the chance to decide, they weren’t alone any longer.
The arriving plane landed beside theirs, and the occupants wasted no time disembarking. The sound of their landing brought Bryce back to his feet, and he quickly fell into step behind Mac as he walked to the mouth of the cavern.
“Ben, we’re up here.” Mac turned slightly to glance at Bryce standing beside him. Now that company had arrived, the younger man appeared to be right back to his normal self, shadowing Mac and keeping quiet.
“Brennan, Bryce, my God, what a find!” Ben was the first one there, followed closely by Lise, Katherine, and two other assistants Mac couldn’t recall the names of.
“You can say that again.” Mac stepped aside slightly and let the new arrivals see the cave in all its glory. He hadn’t found another medallion buried anywhere, and felt relatively confident he could shrug this one off as a discard from years ago. He hoped.
Lise whistled appreciatively at the sight of the skeletons in the cave. “Incredible.”
“They do have intelligence!” Katherine’s triumphant exclamation was followed by a quick glance at Bryce, then to Mac. The look of apology on her face couldn’t hold up against her amazement and surprise. “I mean, that’s my theory. We haven’t got the facts yet, of course.”
Mac shook his head and gave her a look he hoped she could interpret. It was time to let the chips fall where they may and pick them up again, maybe this time putting them away in order. “This certainly raises more questions.”
“We’re going to have to set up a base camp here, Mac. I have two teams on their way in rovers, so it’ll take them a week to arrive. We can set up some kind of protective shielding around the vehicles, use them as shelter at night.” Ben looked out over the cave floor and shook his head. “This could be the find of the century. Definitely the most important thing we could have discovered.”
“Or we could be completely wrong here. Let’s not jump ahead too far.” Lise cautioned. “This still could be the work of humans. Maybe our missing people displaying their victories? I think we need to go about this slowly and with our heads.”
“I agree.” Mac motioned for them all to proceed farther inside, then glanced back at Bryce. His friend was right beside him, eyebrows creased, with a very set jaw. “Come on, let’s go inside.”
There was a long silence for the first several minutes as the full impact of the cave’s contents hit each of the new comers. As they recovered, each one moved about with great care not to step on or disturb anything, trying to get closer looks around the room. Mac followed along behind Ben, pointing out the objects next to each skeleton and showing him the similarities. He stopped once to look for Bryce, and found him perched on a large boulder against the far side of the cave, near the center, watching everyone with intense concentration.
So intense, it sent a shiver down Mac’s spine.
Ben set off down another row, and Mac came up to Lise. “Can you tell the causes of death?”
“Yes, as soon as I can get them all scanned. At least, I hope so. This is the first time we’ve been this close to one of these creatures, Mac. Alive or dead, I’ve never had samples to work with before. I’ll have to build a DNA database, study the composition. Katherine will probably know more than I do about them, but this is a fantastic start.”
Mac nodded and looked at Bryce again. The shiver returned, and he suddenly knew why.
“He looks like a stone sentinel himself, doesn’t he?”
Lise’s description made Mac swallow hard. “He was fine before you came. You know how he is with people around.”
“Is he fine, Mac?” Lise looked up from the skeleton she was scanning, then stood and glanced again at Bryce. “How’s he handling this?”
Mac inhaled slowly and deeply. “I’m not sure anymore.” He looked at Lise. “I think there’s still an element of shock at work here, but earlier . . .” He paused, calculating the risks. “These silver plates, I took one from the big one over there yesterday, and all night long Bryce was examining it. Then today, he puts it back where it came from with an almost . . .”
“I dunno.” Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” Mac looked at Lise. “He put it back with . . . with reverence. I mean–I–I’m not sure that’s the right word.”
“Well, what is?”
Mac’s jaw clenched, then relaxed. “He was touching the skull, in this real gentle way. Then he put the silver plate back right where it had been. And all this time he’s looking at the thing as if . . .”
“As if he felt something for it?” Lise supplied.
Mac shrugged. “I don’t know . . . maybe.” He sighed and looked at the skeleton they were standing beside. “It’s nothing like I expected from him in a place like this.” He stopped short of mentioning how Bryce stayed outside after sunset for the first time in months, seemingly unconcerned.
“I think it might be because they’re dead.” Lise glanced once more around the room. “We know how terrified he is of these creatures, and rightfully so. Maybe . . . Maybe seeing so many of them dead, knowing they can die, maybe that’s affecting him deeply but in a different way? A more positive one.”
“Positive?” Mac questioned her choice of words.
“Well, it has to be having a deep impact. It might be just the thing to bring out some of that memory of his.”
Mac nodded, then sighed again. “Maybe.”
Lise and Mac looked up as one, startled by Bryce’s shout.
“No! Stop this!” Bryce had launched from his perch and was running toward one of Katherine’s assistants. “You can’t do this!”
“Bryce!” Mac leapt over a row of skeletons to join his partner. The young girl holding the artifact was looking to Katherine for support against the angry young man shouting at her.
“Tell them they can’t do this! It isn’t right!” Bryce turned to Mac, his eyes blazing with anger.
“What’s wrong?” Mac reached out a hand, but didn’t try to grab the younger man. His anger was plain for anyone to see, even in cave’s the low light.
“They’re moving things! They’ll disturb this place! They can’t do that!” Bryce’s shouts were directed around the room, but his gaze only met Mac’s.
“They’re studying these finds, Bryce.”
“They’re disturbing this place!” Bryce turned angrily toward Katherine. “You can’t do this, they belong here!”
“Bryce!” Mac stepped closer and this time took hold of Bryce’s arm. “They’re not disturbing anything.”
“Yes they are! This is a graveyard! You can’t invade this place, it’s sacred!”
“Bryce, we’re not going to ruin anything, I promise you.” Lise stepped closer. “We’re all scientists here. We know about sacred places and we have respect for that.”
Bryce looked at Mac with fire in his eyes.
“They’re only going to record what they find, and scan everything. They don’t have to remove anything to do that.” Mac saw his friend’s eyes soften just slightly, but his expression remained angry.
“Trust me, please, Bryce.” Katherine pulled her assistant aside and stepped closer. “We’ve learned a lot over the centuries about disturbing things. All we want to do is get a record of everything there is. Anything we move will be recorded and replaced exactly as it was found, I promise.”
Bryce stared at Mac as if he was trying to see through his eyes. “Promise me.”
“I promise. They know what they’re doing. Nothing will be taken.” Mac let Bryce pull out of his grasp. The younger man nodded once, glanced back at the others, then turned and walked quickly out of the cave.
“Where did that come from?” Katherine stepped closer to Mac and glanced at Lise while the others returned to their scans quietly.
“I don’t know.”
“He’s never seen a graveyard before, how does he know how sacred they are?”
Mac turned to Lise, then shook his head. “Just be sure not to remove anything, okay?” They both nodded, then he turned and left, trying hard not to think about the medallion in his pocket.
He found Bryce and took him on a forced hike through the nearby woods, talking about anything and everything that had nothing to do with that cave. A hope of finding a nice lake or river to have a swim in didn’t pan out, so Mac settled for trying to exhaust himself and his friend with the long walk. Bryce didn’t seem overly upset, but Mac had to maintain the conversation to keep him from falling into a brooding silence. When they were both sufficiently tired, they returned and set about making dinner for everyone.
Ben and the others remained in the cave until the sun began slipping down, so Mac retrieved them and brought them down for the meal. Thankfully, the group was also quite tired from the excitement of the day, and conversation was limited to the question of sleeping arrangements. Since the moon was far from being full again, Katherine and her assistants volunteered to sleep in the relative shelter of the plane’s underbelly, while Ben and Lise chose the inside of the craft. Mac made no attempt himself to sleep outside, even though in his head he knew it was perfectly safe, so he and Bryce again retired to their sleeping bags on the floor of their plane.
“I think tomorrow we should move on.” Mac settled down, looking up at the ceiling. “There’s still a lot of mountain to check out, and by the looks of this cave I think we stand a good chance of finding some more. Maybe even one that leads into that bowl.”
“Okay.” Bryce was sitting up again, but this time looking at hands that held nothing more than a piece of his blanket.
Mac looked at him for a moment. “Are you okay?”
Slowly, Bryce shook his head, but he didn’t look up.
“Something you want to talk about?” Mac kept his voice quiet, but he knew no one outside could hear them.
Bryce continued to stare at the blanket he was picking at. “All of the answers are inside my head, aren’t they?”
Mac sat up and leaned against a crate, watching his friend. “Some of them are. Maybe not all of them.”
“Why don’t you go in and get them, then?” Bryce looked up, his eyes full of puzzlement. “If it’s all there, why not go get it?”
“It’s not that easy, Bryce. You know that.” Mac paused, searching the young man’s eyes. “We’ve talked about this before, about how dangerous it could be.”
“That was when I didn’t want it.” Bryce glanced back at his hands, then looked up again. “What if I want it now?”
Mac sighed. “Do you?”
Bryce shrugged and his gaze again fell to the blanket.
“Bryce, it’s not that easy.” Mac spoke gently, trying to be honest for both their sakes. “Even if you want the memories to come back, they can still hurt you. Not so much emotionally, but subconsciously. I’ve seen it happen. And even then, it’s not something just anyone can do. Lise has a little experience in the matter, but that’s all.” He leaned forward. “I’ve seen what can happen to a man even when he wanted it done and had experts doing it. Trust me, it’s better that you don’t.”
“The memories, they’re coming back.”
Mac blinked. “You’re remembering something?”
Bryce nodded at the blanket. “But they don’t make sense.” He looked up. “I want it to make sense. I want this all over with, so we can get back to some kind of life. I want–I want you to know.”
“You want me to know what?”
“Everything.” Bryce shrugged, then looked up. His lavender eyes were full of confusion and pleading. “I want you to know what happened, what kind of person I am. What made all of this happen.”
“Bryce, I already know a lot of that. I know what kind of person you are, the rest is inconsequential. It’ll come out in time.”
Bryce looked around their cramped sleeping area as if he was searching the walls for something. “I know those plates. The metal with the colors, I know them. I’ve touched them before, I’ve made them before. I know what they are, but I–I can’t remember.” His gaze fell back to the blanket in failure. “I know what they are, but I can’t remember.”
“You will, in time.”
“What if I don’t?”
Mac felt so helpless, it hurt. “You will. Just give it time.” Bryce nodded, then scooted back and lay down. “We’ll move on tomorrow, and see what else this mountain is hiding. All right?”
“Promise me they won’t take anything away from here while we’re gone.”
“I promise.” Mac laid back down and stared at the stars visible through the cockpit windshield. “I won’t let them take anything away.”