I’ve been a little distracted, working on Ether and the Stoneage Keyboard project, which I’d like to add is coming along nicely. In fact, I hope to have a real finished, working sample to show off next week, as well as a blog specifically designed for that project and talk of rock tumbling/cutting/and such. It’s a Rockhounders tradition to pass on everything they’ve learned to anyone who might be curious, and since I’ve learned an amazing amount of stuff in just a few short years, I’m feeling the need to share so that others who might be curious and tempted might finally take the plunge and give in to their inner rock collector. I’m working on putting the new blog together, and it’ll just be for rock talk and funky keyboard experiments, so if that doesn’t float your pancake, no worries, I’m still here at this blog doing my usual blabla 😀
Anyone interested can find rock talk over at: Primordial Ink
Meanwhile, here’s Chapter 14. Posting this chapter by chapter is really taking a long time, but it does give me something to fill up Fridays with, and leaves me free to work on the current novel, so here ya go:
Bryce didn’t want to leave, but he knew he couldn’t stay here and watch them disturb things. Mac promised they wouldn’t, that they’d just record and scan, but Bryce was afraid. Mostly he was afraid of what was happening to him. Feelings were coming back, pictures in his head again with no explanation connected to them. He knew this place, or something about it. And it didn’t frighten him. But he didn’t know why!
Mac was up there now, telling Ben they were about to leave. He believed this mountain held more discoveries, and Bryce had to agree. As long as they were the ones finding these things, and calling in the troops afterward, he figured he could handle it. When Mac returned they quickly boarded the small plane and left, heading around the mountain grouping on the west side.
Bryce watched the map build as they flew around the base of the first mountain. He didn’t realize how intensely he was studying it until he nearly bit through his lower lip. The pain startled him out of his thoughts, but a quick rub of the injury relieved the throbbing.
“How about there, just below that cropping of trees?”
He looked out the windshield in the direction Mac was pointing, then looked back at the scans. “Um . . . Yeah, there’s an opening down below that ridge. Looks deep.”
“Great, let’s have a look.” Mac banked, then circled the immediate area looking for a good landing spot. “Fantastic, there’s a pool!”
Bryce laughed and shook his head, grateful for the familiarity. Trust Mac to find pleasure in something as simple as the prospect of a bath.
Which was exactly what he demanded, immediately after they secured the plane. As it was, the pool was another of Oblivion’s plentiful hot springs. Mac was in heaven. They swam for as long as the heat would allow, then found a shallow to sit in and relax. Big Ugly dominated the sky beside them, and Mac pondered the hidden possibilities the mountain grouping held inside its bowl.
“Think we’ll find a way inside?” Bryce didn’t like looking at the mountain, he felt as if it was trying to draw him closer, and he didn’t want to know why.
“I think there’s a good chance. It’s probably a dormant volcano, which is why there’s so many hot springs. After centuries, the volcano broke up and the land changed, turning what was one mountain into a group. ”
Bryce nodded, watching the pattern his hands made on the water’s surface. The sunlight reflected colors as the ripples scurried away. “I know that metal. The colors, I know them.”
“Do you remember how it’s done?” Mac asked quietly.
“I’m not sure.” He shook his head and started chewing on the formerly abused bottom lip. “I think . . .” Something was there, something his hands remembered doing. “You work the leaves with your fingers, and the color bleeds out, then you rub it in while forming the metal.” Bryce was staring at his hands, seeing them do something he couldn’t remember doing. He became aware of Mac now sitting beside him in the water. “And when you work it in right, it stays. The color stays. It–it becomes part of the metal.”
“Where do you get the color?”
Bryce shook his head, but his gaze remained fixed on his hands. Running two fingers over the palm of the other hand kept the flashes alive in his mind, but they still made little sense. “Leaves, flowers, herbs, the grass. Just things, things with the right color.”
“What colors are right?”
The question was a foolish one, how should he know? Bryce looked up, feeling a sudden rush of frustration. “I don’t . . . Not yellow! Never use yellow, it . . .” His eyebrows knit together sharply as he stared at Mac. Had that come from him? Confused, he looked back into the water, searching for more answers.
“Do you remember why? Why do you put color in the metal?”
Colors, flashing bright and brilliant as if screaming at him from inside his mind suddenly appeared before his eyes. The colors were screaming, demanding to be heard, but he didn’t understand what they were saying! Why couldn’t he understand what they were saying?!
“No!” With as much force as he could muster, Bryce pushed the water and its colors away and bolted out of the hot spring. He had the towel wrapped around his waist and a shirt in his hands before Mac made it that far.
He turned, arms raised in defense until his eyes met Mac’s. “I’m sorry! I don’t remember! I can’t remember!”
Mac was shaking his head. “It’s all right! You don’t have to remember.”
Bryce’s heart was calming down as the heat of his anger cooled rapidly. “I’m sorry. It shouldn’t be this hard. One second it feels like everything’s there, then I try to touch it and–and it goes away.”
“It’s all right. It’s in there. Don’t try to pull it out, Bryce. Let it come to you.”
Dejected, Bryce looked down and nodded once. “What if it doesn’t come?”
Mac shrugged almost imperceptibly and looked out over the landscape. “Then we don’t need it.”
He could deal with anything. Bryce was sure of that. And if he was just pretending, then . . . well then Bryce would have to deal with it. But for now, he was content to believe his friend capable of moving Big Ugly himself. He needed very much to believe that.
“Let’s go exploring, shall we?”
Bryce nodded and they both returned to the plane for fresh clothes and some gear. He grabbed the sweatshirt Mac had given him months ago, a hand light, and the bioscanner, while his partner retrieved another light and the video recorder. The hike up to the opening was a short one, but after the hot soak and inner turmoil, Bryce found himself sweating when they reached it.
“Stick close to me this time.” Mac glanced at him before entering the large cavern.
Bryce shook his head and looked up at the rocks. “We won’t find anything in here.” He moved forward and entered the cave first. For an instant, he thought he saw an odd expression on Mac’s face, but in that same instant it was gone, so he proceeded.
The cave looked much like the first, large and dry with a sandy bottom and orange-brown walls. This one didn’t contain as many tunnels or holes, but it went further in before coming to a narrow halt. Bryce thoroughly scanned the rocks and each tunnel, finding no signs of life of a size they were concerned with. The rock walls and soft floor allowed for incredibly clear scans, which then translated into picture perfect, three dimensional maps for later reference. Two of the tunnels appeared to go deep, but when they adjusted for distance and increased the strength of the scans, dead ends were found. Mac was disappointed, Bryce could tell. He wanted the answers to be found right around the next rock, or just inside that next opening. When they weren’t, his face became just that much more serious, that much more tired. It made him wish again they could reach inside his head and pull out everything they wanted to know, but mentioning it again would be futile. Mac would refuse, he would get frustrated, and they’d both be right back here, searching empty caves and flying around a mountain that didn’t want them.
They completed the search of every open area they could walk, climb, or crawl into, and found nothing more than rock, sand, and a large worm-like animal Bryce had never seen before. By the time they exited the main cavern, Mac looked worn out.
“I’m sorry. Maybe tomorrow?” Bryce hoped his enthusiasm sounded genuine.
Mac smiled tiredly and draped an arm over the shorter man’s shoulders. “Yeah, maybe tomorrow.”
Dinner that night was a quick but hearty stew. Mac took another turn in the hot spring while Bryce cooked, then they ate in silence. He wanted to attribute the lack of conversation to simple physical exhaustion, but it was making him uncomfortable for the first time. Usually evenings spent in quiet company was a pleasure, since Mac didn’t require conversation at all times. It was still something Bryce wasn’t used to, and he tended more often than not to fall into silence at times like these. Only tonight, it didn’t feel right.
Twice he started to say something, to try and get his friend to open up. But each time he changed his mind and went back to his meal. If Mac was just tired, then talking for no reason wasn’t going to make him feel better. If he was angry at something, then he’d talk about it when he was ready.
“I’m sorry about yesterday, blowing up at those people like that.” Bryce rinsed out his bowl in the wash basin he’d set up and glanced at Mac. “I didn’t mean to scare anyone.”
“You had a valid concern. Maybe your method of delivery could have been different, but I don’t think you frightened them.” Mac seemed to think about something for a minute, then stood and brought his bowl over. “Is that the first time you’ve seen a graveyard? I know there isn’t one at the colony.”
Bryce shoved the bowl into the soapy water and shook his head. “No, there isn’t. I’ve heard about them, though. People bury their dead under the dirt.”
“Most cultures do, yes.”
He looked up and saw Mac chewing on the inside of his lip. “You’re trying to work this all out, aren’t you?”
Mac blinked and looked at him, then shrugged slightly. “Just thinking.”
“You’re trying to figure this all out, but you don’t have enough to go on.” Angrily, Bryce shoved a hand through his hair. “Dammit, I wish–I . . . ”
“Bryce, stop it,” Mac admonished. “We’re both working with what we have. You’re not holding anything back and I’m not coming up with anything useful. Not yet.” He sighed. “I’m sorry this is so frustrating for you, but it will work itself out.”
Bryce nodded, more to assure his friend that another bizarre mood swing wasn’t about to launch itself than any real assurance on his part. He knew he was being selfish again, angry at himself for not being able to remember and expecting Mac to solve the problem. At least he didn’t mean to be. He just wanted to be able to tell Mac everything he wanted to know, so he could know the truth. Whatever it was.
“Come on, let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow’s another day.”
“Yeah.” Bryce let himself be directed back to the plane. He was sure sleep would evade him, with his mind still spinning fruitlessly on its search for information that wasn’t there. Dreams plagued him the entire time, but none of them carried the gut-wrenching fear of his usual nightmares. These weren’t of black-winged death, but of silvery colors flashing at him in rows and sections and different groupings. He saw hands–his hands–working colors into the silver, choosing just the right blends and mixtures for the proper look. Avoiding yellow at all costs. None of the dreams gave him answers, though. They simply came and went, leaving behind a strangely familiar sensation and a feeling as close to resigned dread as anything he’d ever known.
The next morning they flew farther on, hugging the mountain range and scanning for more caves. This time the silence was pleasant as each man concentrated on the task at hand with complete scrutiny. The landscape below was changing as they circled the range. Huge green and brown trees were giving way to smaller, thinner ones with differently-shaped leaves. Soft rolling hills were shaping into ragged, rock covered plains forming layers up to the cliffs of the mountains themselves.
Mac made a pass at one dark area nestled against a cliff side, then pointed to another one above. “Maybe that one.”
“No! Back down there!” Bryce looked up from the scanner and pointed, looking through the windshield for the first time in hours. When Mac looked at him questioningly, he pointed to the scanner. “Look.” Clear for both men to see, in a wire framed display, was a tunnel plunging deeply into the heart of the mountain.
“I’ll be damned.” Mac banked the plane steeply, then returned to the area and hovered a moment. “See how far in you can get.”
Bryce made a few adjustments, feeling his partner’s tempered excitement. The wire frame stretched farther on, mapping walls, ceiling and floor as it probed deeper and deeper into the rock. “I can’t find the end.”
“I think we found our next target.”
It took nearly twenty minutes to find a place to land on the steep terrain. Mac had to perform what he called feats of antigravity in order to fit their craft on the ledge he’d chosen. When he finished, they were secured on solid rock and nestled underneath several widely branched trees. Almost invisible from the sky.
“That was incredible landing.” Bryce whistled appreciatively at the positioning.
Mac shrugged casually, then flashed a sideways, cocky grin. “Yeah, it was, wasn’t it?” He laughed and pointed upward. “Let’s go have a look.”
They packed more gear this time, slinging packs over their shoulders for the hard climb. Bryce brought two bottles of water and some dried beef so they could stay up above as long as possible before the sun started setting.
“Look at this.” Mac was the first to reach the opening, shining his powerful light into the tunnel. The light at the end was swallowed by the distance. “Can you get any farther now?”
Bryce had the bioscanner attached to his waist, and the mapping unit plugged into that. He swung them both up and aimed the unit into the tunnel. The wire frame appeared again, stretching on until it faded into nothing. “It’s beyond the range.” Bryce looked up at Mac. “Does that mean it goes all the way through?”
Mac’s eyes were sparkling in the dim light. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
“Wait a minute!” Suddenly alarmed, Bryce reached out and grabbed Mac’s arm. “We’re going through? Right now? What about . . .” He let his voice trail off, but nodded over his shoulder toward the late morning sun.
“Relax, I just want a look. We’ll head in and see how far it goes. Here.” Mac reached into his pocket and pulled out the small chronometer he carried. “The sun sets in another ten hours, right?” He glanced at the face of the illuminated timepiece, then handed it to Bryce. “We’ll walk no more than four, then have four to walk back. That gives us a nice two hour margin of error.”
Bryce inhaled deeply, gazing at the watch in his hand. There was no full moon, the bioscanner showed no life larger than an insect in the tunnel, and he was going to keep this thing in one hand at all times! “Okay. Lets go before I change my mind.”
Mac smiled and patted his back, then nodded down the tunnel and began leading the way.
It was wide enough to allow side by side travel, but Bryce preferred to position himself slightly behind and beside his taller partner. He kept the bioscanner working, so they wouldn’t be surprised by anything up ahead, but having Mac be the first to find anything they came across gave Bryce a sense of security. The farther they went, the more his need for that feeling deepened.
The tunnel was dry, like all the caves they’d seen so far, with a firm sandy floor and rough rock walls. Once they’d ventured far enough inside for the mouth to no longer be visible behind them, the full scope of the thing began to hit. Bryce could practically feel the mountain around and above him. A sense of being inside the belly of a massive ball of stone pressed against his mind. The thickness of the walls around him was so oppressive, it became easy to imagine the mountain itself was a living thing, with mass and substance. Not a creature in the usual sense, but Bryce felt certain something with this much presence deserved his respect.
They plodded onward, through the tunnel, while their lights bounced around rock walls and sandy ground. There were no signs of human life, but occasionally they were forced to step over some of the slower moving insects. Mac recorded them for Katherine, but they never slowed too much. He wanted to get as much distance covered as they could before the four hour limit was up. And that meant eating on foot. Bryce wasn’t hungry, but his constant nervousness had dried out his throat, so he carried his water bottle while Mac chewed the dried meat and searched the ground for clues.
“There aren’t any footprints.”
“No, but there are enough of these.” Mac stepped over another of the silvery shelled, twelve legged fungus eaters and pointed down. “They probably erased our footprints behind us already.
“Why do these things fascinate Katherine so much?” Bryce stepped over the creature with disgust, trying hard not to look at the ooze dripping out of its orifices.
“It’s her job.” Mac looked back at the bug, then kept walking. “Haven’t you asked Carol why she does what she does?”
“No.” Bryce glanced at the bioscanner and took another reading. “I don’t think she’s speaking to me anymore.” He nearly bumped into Mac when the taller man slowed and glanced over his shoulder.
Bryce shrugged and holstered the scanner. “That was her I yelled at the other day, in the graveyard.”
“Ah.” Mac nodded knowingly, then motioned for them to keep going.
Twice they stopped to take further readings, but each time the map faded toward the end. It was a phenomena they soon learned was caused by the tunnel taking a severe turn, putting their once straight path into a right angle, before jogging around to head in the proper direction again. Mac concluded the tunnel must be like the others, labyrinthing around through the mountains, only this one might actually be the one that got them in.
Bryce glanced at the chronometer. It had been four hours, time to return. He looked up and saw Mac pausing for a drink from his own water bottle. They’d have a margin of two hours, and the trip in so far had been uneventful. Nothing blocked their retreat, except the occasional fungus eater and a few twelve foot worms that scurried out of the way as quickly as they could. No full moon. There was no full moon. Nothing in the tunnel had proven dangerous, and the opposite end could be just a few miles more.
“How we doin’ on time?”
He put the chronometer into a pocket and nodded. “We’re fine. Let’s keep going.”
“As soon as the tunnel straightens out again, take another reading. We have to be getting close.” Mac motioned with his head and they continued on, working their way through a strange series of twists and turns. By the time they were back in the right direction, he stopped. “See if you can . . .”
Bryce looked up when his partner’s sentence trailed off. Mac was staring at the dirt, aiming his beam straight down at his foot. “What is it?”
“I hit something.” Mac reached down and dug his fingers through the sand. After a second, he pulled out a round, metallic object.
“Is that . . .?” Bryce had to swallow against a suddenly dry throat as he stared at the portable light in his partner’s hand.
Bryce changed his focus and saw Mac’s face. His jaw had clamped down so hard, even the vague light from his own small unit showed the rippled muscles in his face.
“Not with B.S.E. Kensington stamped in it.” Mac held out the light. “It’s Eckland.”
“Mac!” Bryce’s shock caused him to miss a beat, and his partner got ahead of him, running down the tunnel. “Wait!” He let the scanner slam against his waist and dashed after his friend.
“If he’s alive, I’m not leaving here without him!” Mac called over his shoulder.
Bryce kept running. His heart pounded with each step, fueled by apprehension and the sudden surprise. Eckland was the last person he expected to find, and the shift in focus was hard to follow, especially at this pace.
Mac finally came to a halt when the tunnel made another turn and branched into several directions. He had a hand up, stopping Bryce behind him. “Get a scan of–”
Before he could finish the sentence, something flashed to their left. Bryce heard Mac’s shout, then felt his partner slam into him. Before he could comprehend what was happening, the entire mountain came crashing down.
* * * * *
Orange spots flashed painfully before his eyes. Bryce reached up to shield them, then realized they were still closed. A hand touched his face, moving to his forehead. Someone must have pulled the mountain off him. But what about . . .
“Mac.” The mountain hadn’t moved, it was sitting right on top of his head!
“Take it easy, kid.”
Bryce opened his eyes, blinking back against the painful throbbing in his head. He was lying down, on some kind of bed, with Mac sitting beside him looking down with concern and fatigue in his eyes. “Wha . . . ?” He sat up, or at least, he tried. An action he thought would bring him to a sitting position ended with him leaning over Mac’s lap, trying very hard not to be sick.
“Slowly! It’ll wear off, but you have to move slowly.” Mac held him for a moment, then eased him up to a sitting position, all the while keeping hold of his shoulders.
“What hit us?” Bryce held his head, trying to push the pain out.
“Pulse guns.” They were seated on a heavily blanketed stone bed. “Look at me.” He searched Bryce’s eyes, then nodded satisfaction with what he found. “Short burst of energy, hits you like–”
“Like the mountain came down?” The sharp pains were turning into a strong, deep pounding.
“Yeah, like that.” Mac’s hand moved up to Bryce’s head. “Is it wearing off?”
“I think so.” He nearly moved his head in affirmation, but realized in time how painful that motion would be. “Where are we?”
“I’m not sure.” Mac turned and nodded toward an opening. “But we’re not locked in.”
Bryce looked up, then around, seeing their surroundings for the first time. They were in room–a small hollow of a cave–with a fire burning in a pit in the center, two fur-blanketed beds, several large boulders with candles and dishes sitting on them, and a wide mouthed opening that seemed to serve as a doorway without a door. “Eckland did this?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Mac pointed around the room. “It’s been here too long, and that door leads out to more caves and tunnels.”
“You looked?” Suddenly the realization that they had been moved out of the tunnel and taken somewhere, by an unknown assailant, was kicking in. What if he’d woken up alone? How long had they been there, and what was going to happen if they couldn’t leave? Eckland wanted them both dead, why weren’t they already?
“I haven’t been farther than the door, I was waiting for you to recover.” Mac stood and pointed to a low, flat rock. “All of our stuff is here, with the exception of my sidearm. They emptied our pockets but only took the weapon.”
“They?” Bryce slowly eased his feet off the sleeping-pallet and sat on the edge of the stone, waiting for a rush of nausea to pass.
“Has to be more than one. I can hear voices in the distance.” Mac pointed to a pair of wooden carved bowls. “They left fruit, and water, so they don’t mean to kill us right away. But the water is laced with that sedative herb. I’m not sure if that’s meant as medicine, or a drug.”
More than one. The others were alive after all? Then they were here. And in control. “Mac, what do we do now? Why did they attack us? Where are they?” He could no longer chalk up that woman with lavender eyes as an imagined nightmare.
“We’re going to find all that out soon enough.” Mac returned and reached down, helping Bryce to his feet. “How do you feel?”
“I’m okay.” The nausea had passed, thankfully without incident, and the pain in his head was reduced to a nasty headache.
“Whatever we find, Bryce, we have to be careful. Until we know what we’re dealing with.”
He swallowed hard and nodded. They left the room and entered a tunnel hallway, nearly identical to the one that had led them inside the mountain, but wider. Voices could be heard in the distance, echoing as if through a vast chamber. Mac turned left, toward a glowing orange light, and began walking cautiously ahead. After a few yards, their hallway opened up, and Bryce’s world fell apart.
They were standing on a balcony overlooking a cavern so massive in scope and riddled with levels, rooms and tunnels, it would take weeks to map out completely. Below them in the center of the main level was a group of large fires, glowing orange and yellow and full of life. Surrounding the fires were many women, ranging widely in age, each going about a cooking chore, laughing and talking amongst themselves. The entire cavern was strewn here and there with the usual accouterments of human life and living. Blankets hanging on lines, food being prepared in large quantities, children scurrying about and men shouting at them to slow their pace.
Bryce felt numb inside, as if his brain had stopped functioning completely. There were at least fifty people here, maybe more. And on the other balconies and ledges they could see ringing the cavern, people came and went, entering and exiting various tunnel corridors and smaller caves. There were people here, a society. Living and breathing and eating and sleeping. His people! It felt as if his mind was closing off, refusing to accept this information. Slowly, Bryce shook his head and backed away from the sight. He was vaguely aware of Mac turning to face him, but his eyes wouldn’t focus.
He tried opening his eyes wider, but that didn’t help. His gaze was fixed somewhere near the ground and he couldn’t raise it. “There’s your answer.” Ten years of solitude and isolation were pressing down on him, adding to the throbbing in his head. “All that time I was alone . . . they’ve been here.” He shook his head again and felt Mac’s hands on his arms. Suddenly his eyes focused and he looked up. “Why?” Anger was trying to build up through the confusion. “I want to know why!”
“Bryce . . .”
“Why, Mac? Why was I alone?”
“Take it easy, we’re going to find out. I need you to . . .” Mac’s sentence trailed off and his gaze moved from Bryce’s face to somewhere behind him.
Bryce spun around and took a half-step closer to his friend, blinking.
Facing them on the sandy ledge was a child–a girl–looking up at them with a big smile and a dirt-stained face.
“Hello.” Mac answered her without moving forward.
“You’re new here.” She pointed to Mac, not even glancing at Bryce.
“We’re from the complex.”
Suddenly the girl erupted into a scream, turned around and ran quickly away, still screaming at the highest pitch Bryce had ever heard. Alarmed, both men looked around for signs of trouble. Several people below looked up, saw them standing there, then seemed to shrug acknowledgment and returned to their tasks. Bryce’s heart had leapt into his throat and he had to swallow hard to get it back down.
“You frightened her.”
They spun again, this time in the opposite direction. Now facing them was a woman, around Mac’s age, dressed in brown ragged clothes. Lavender eyes peered at them from behind dirty blonde hair.
“She’ll have nightmares tonight, for sure.” The woman pointed in the direction the young child had run.
“I’m sorry, we didn’t mean to scare her.” Mac glanced at Bryce, then back to the woman.
“Ooh, you have pretty eyes!”
“What’s your name?” Bryce stared at the woman, his eyes narrowing with concentration. Aside from her eye color, he had no feeling that he should know her. The pain in his head was nothing now to the twisting knots in his stomach.
The woman glanced at him and shrugged. “Sylia.” Suddenly she stared into his eyes and her own brow furrowed. “You’re him, aren’t you?”
Bryce felt a chill grip his body. “Who?”
Slowly, Sylia reached out and pressed three fingers against Bryce’s chest. When she touched him, he heard her sudden intake of breath and the hand pulled back quickly.
“You are real!” With awe, she looked at Bryce, then Mac, then back again. Suddenly she shook her head. “No, you can’t be. I’m still sleeping.” That announcement seemed to fix everything. With a satisfied smile, she turned and walked away.
Bryce was dizzy.
“If you ever need something to go by, that is what crazy looks like.” Mac stepped around and faced Bryce. “Listen, we’re going to have to be very careful here. I don’t know what’s going on, but until we can figure this out, we’ll have to go slowly. Understand?”
“No.” Bryce shook his head and focused on the center of Mac’s chest. He needed a reference point for reality, or what little there was left of it. He just wanted to melt into the rock wall and let Mac go find all the answers, then come get him on the way home. He didn’t even want to know what the answers were anymore. The only thing keeping him from willing himself into the rock was his need to stay as close to his partner as possible. “No, I don’t understand any of it.”
“Just stick with me, kid. I’ll take care of us, okay?”
That he understood. Bryce managed one quick nod, then moved into step beside Mac, keeping his partner between himself and the open area below. They followed the ledge around the bowl, snaking in and out of tunnels as they made their way to the lower level. On the way, they passed several small caves like the one they’d woken up in, each filled with beds, small fires and personal items. It was a city, a stone carved version of the complex, with a huge center area apparently for eating and working, and smaller caves and hollows for personal space. Bryce could feel his hands start to shake. He was determined not to stray more than a foot from his only protection. He fully expected, any second now, someone to grab him from out of nowhere. Someone he should know but didn’t. All of these people were his people, with the exception of the children. He had no memory of children. But then, he had very little memory of anything.They rounded a corner and found themselves at the far edge of the open common area, facing a huge communal kitchen. In the center of the room was a low table heavily laden with plates of steaming meats, fresh fruits and several other dishes and platters. Bryce stepped closer to Mac, hiding partially behind him as they scanned the scene. He was afraid of recognizing anyone, and afraid he wouldn’t. Several people milling about glanced at them, but none were impressed by the presence of these two strangers.“Be careful, Bryce. I don’t like the looks of this.”
Bryce looked up, about to inform his partner how unnecessary that suggestion was, but before he could speak, they were approached from behind by a man with green eyes.
“Don’t eat the food.”
Mac spun around. “West!” He took a step forward. “I should have known you’d be a part of this. Where’s Eckland?”
West looked like a frightened animal. His eyes were wide, and held an element of madness Bryce had never seen before.
The man pointed toward the open room, his voice a desperate whisper. “Eckland’s with their leader somewhere. Burns is dead. They’re mad, Brennan! You’ve got to help me get out of here! These people are mad!”
“Help you?” Mac was incredulous, but also kept his voice lowered. “You tried to kill us, then stole a plane and broke Eckland out.”
“I know, I know, and I’m sorry.” West glanced from Mac to Bryce and back again. “It was crazy, I admit it. Please, you gotta help me! Take me back. I’ll stand trial, I’ll do whatever you want, just get me out of here!”
If this madman thought these people were crazy . . .
Mac glanced at Bryce, then glared back at West. “Why don’t you just leave?”
“It’s not that easy.” West shook his head, then nodded toward the dining area. When Mac and Bryce glanced that way, they saw everyone in the huge room moving toward the tables, preparing to eat. “They put something in the food here, it’ll put you to sleep until you get adjusted to it. I think they use it to keep everyone docile.”
Bryce looked up at his partner. “What do we do?”
“You can get fresh fruit in the orchards outside, and there’s water in a cave down below.” West moved forward, but walked around them in the direction of the large table. “Welcome to Oblivion, Captain.”
They turned and Bryce felt Mac move to stop West, but he pulled his friend back. People were watching them now, people with lavender eyes and strange expressions on their faces. The low table seemed to hold everyone, and branched off in several places. He estimated sixty people sitting there, all talking and passing food around. Four of the closest to them looked up and smiled, then several moved aside and made room for West, who sat down but didn’t reach for any of the food. A man older than Mac waved to them, then patted some pillows on the floor, making a place for the two of them.
“Come, sit.” The man smiled and nodded at the food. “This will be your place now.”
Bryce wanted to turn and run, but Mac pulled him to the table and they sat on the pillows piled up on the sand. He stared straight ahead, trying not to look at anyone for fear he’d recognize them. But the fear he wouldn’t was stronger. They were at one of the ends of several connected tables, so Bryce had Mac between him and the nearest of the strangers, then an open shot to bolt if he felt the urge.
“Can you tell me how we got here?” Mac spoke very casually, as if he wanted to engage the older man in simple conversation to pass the time. “My friend and I were just walking in one of the tunnels, then woke up here.”
“Yes, yes.” The old man nodded, reaching for a slab of meat. “You were in the tunnels. It’s forbidden to be in the tunnels.” He spoke matter-of-factly, then handed them the plate of meat.
Mac glanced at the plate, then handed it along with a quick shake of his head. Bryce could smell the sedative herb even without getting closer to the food. It was in everything, as if they used it for spicing.
“We’re not from here, we didn’t know about the tunnel.”
“No, I wouldn’t think so. No one is from here.”
Bryce felt a chill grab his shoulders, then the answering warmth from the sweatshirt as the cloth reacted to his body temperature. God bless whatever fate made him put that shirt on when they left the plane. He risked a quick look around while Mac spoke to the mad old man. Now and again someone looked in their direction, but they seemed to take little notice of the newcomers. He kept himself from staring too long at any one person, but so far none of them were sparking any memories.
“Is there someone in charge here?”
“Yes, there is.” The old man leaned closer. “He doesn’t eat with us, he lives up there.”
Both Mac and Bryce turned to see where the old man was pointing. It was to a ledge, nearly at the top of the cave, where light could be seen coming from another cave room.
“I’d like to meet him, will he come down, do you think?”
“Likely.” The old man wiped a hand on his shirt and held it out for Mac to shake. “Name’s Bellas.”
Mac accepted the hand. “I’m Mac, this is–”
“I know that one.”
Bryce stared at the man sitting beside Mac. “How?” He kept his partner between him and the stranger, but used that as his source of what little courage he could muster. “How do you know me?”
Bellas shrugged and reached for more meat. “Everyone does. Though some think you’re not real.” A wide smile crossed his face and he stabbed a finger at his chest. “But I know better. I know you’re real. It’s them that ain’t!” The finger moved in a sweeping gesture to include the entire room.
Mac glanced at Bryce and shook his head, a gesture he took as caution. The old man was happily munching on some taper roots, waiting for more questions.
“How long have you all lived here?” Mac nodded around the room, including everyone.
Bellas shrugged. “Forever, it seems. We’re not from here. No one’s from here. But you can’t leave, the tunnels are forbidden.”
Another shiver ran down Bryce’s spine. What if they were trapped here? What if his inability to remember anything brought Mac here to be trapped? Someone would find them, they had to. Yes, Ben would. He’d come looking for Mac, see the plane and . . . But the plane was hidden, wasn’t it? Snugged tightly under that tree on the ledge. No, Ben and the others, they’d come looking for Mac.
“Where are you from, then, if not here? How did you come to be here?” Mac’s questions were beginning to circle the old man’s insanity.
“We followed. Not much to that, is there? We followed, and now we’re here.” Bellas suddenly waved a hand. “You’re here now, you’ll know. I’m tired of this game. Perhaps we can play again tomorrow?”
Mac sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Yes, tomorrow.”
Bellas grinned happily, then picked up his plate and stood, walking away in the direction of several others who seemed finished with their meal.
Bryce tugged Mac’s shirt, leaning closer. “What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to find someone with some real answers.” Mac stood and reached down to help Bryce to his feet. Dinner was over, even West had walked off somewhere. “Let’s see if we can’t find the person in charge.” He nodded over Bryce’s shoulder, to the fire-lit cave above.
Bryce sighed and pushed some strands of dark hair from his face, then rubbed tired eyes. “Mac, I don’t understand this.”
“I know, neither do I yet. We’re dealing with various levels of insanity here, I think. Probably brought on or perpetuated by eating that sedative with every meal.” Mac glanced back at the table, then around the room at the people milling about. “I’d guess long term exposure to that herb causes some form of dependency or mental apathy.”
“I want to go home.” He was ready to concede defeat here and leave, let Ben send some team in to talk to these people, find out the truth. They could write up a report and he’d read it sometime, maybe. Memory loss had some advantages, and he’d just been getting used to it.
“I want to find out what the hell’s going on.” Mac looked down. “I want to find out what kind of people can do what they did. Bryce, these people seem to be here against their will. We need to get to the bottom of all this once and for all. You with me buddy?”
He knew that would be Mac’s answer, knowing the kind of man he was. But damn, he wanted to go home!
Bryce managed a weak nod.
“Come on. Let’s see if we can figure this maze out and find our way up there.” Mac pointed to the room above, then put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder and started walking toward a promising looking opening at the far end of the cavern.
The tunnels snaked around the edges of the cavern, and at several points plunged deeper into the mountain, leading off into other branches and maze-like trails. They were well lit by oil-filled lamps and candles, some hanging from odd-looking holders and candelabras, while others just sat on small rocks jutting out from the walls. Bryce followed Mac closely, trying not to look around too much. Now and then someone would pass them with a strange nod or expression, but more often than not, they were ignored. Each time someone approached or came near, Bryce tried to avoid eye contact. He needed to recognize these people, but he was afraid to at the same time.
After several wrong turns and dead ends, Mac finally figured out the maze and found the proper path leading to the top.
Bryce couldn’t understand how casually they were taking it. It was as if they’d been expecting new arrivals. As if they’d been expecting him.
They finally reached the upper level and found themselves in a straight line path looking toward the opening they’d seen from below. Mac nodded silently and Bryce looked up, seeing the same thing.
“Looks like it.”
The cave mouth had two sentries, each holding some kind of weapon. Bryce assumed they were the same things Mac and he had been hit with in the tunnel. “What do we do?”
“Introduce ourselves,” Mac answered wryly. He stepped forward, passing a side tunnel, then stopped suddenly when a hand reached out and touched his arm.
Bryce nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Don’t bother tonight, gentlemen.”
Mac turned to face the owner of the hand that stopped him. He glanced back at Bryce, then looked at the man. He was older, possibly Ben’s age, wearing robes that dragged the dirt floor. His face wore the fragments of a snow white beard, contrasting his lavender eyes and tanned skin dramatically. The old man looked at Bryce, and a strange, almost sad smile crossed his face.
“We were looking for the man in charge.” Mac nodded toward the guarded entrance. “I understand he’s in there.”
The old man nodded. “Yes, he is. But when the guards are out, no one gets in. You should try again tomorrow.” He waved at them both, gesturing them into his tunnel. “Come, talk with me. I have no guards.”
Mac looked at Bryce again, then seemed to be weighing their choices. After a moment, he nodded and followed the man down the path with one last glance at their missed goal. “My name is Brennan. Mac Brennan. And this is–”
“Yes.” Their guide interrupted, then stopped at an entrance and motioned for them to go first. He smiled kindly, then nodded at Bryce. “This is the one.”
Bryce didn’t want to go in. He didn’t want to talk to any more of these people who knew him, didn’t want to hear any more of their cryptic remarks or confusing statements. But the anchor he was attached to was going in, so he had to follow.
They entered a rather large cave, glowing orange and soft with the light of a fire and several candles. The old man pointed to the fire and stacks of animal pelts, obviously used for seating, then made himself comfortable on one, smiling up at them. Mac moved to the pelt closest, but Bryce declined sitting. He was too shaky to sit still, and too afraid to look closely at this man. His raging emotions and confusion were also wearing him out, and the mere act of sitting down could finish him off for the night. It was easier to move slowly around the strangely furnished room and look at things, anything.
“They call me Teacher.” The old man smiled, calmly watching Bryce move around the room. He turned to Mac. “I used to have a name, Jenkins actually. But that was before.” He waved a hand in the air, dismissing the notion. “Now, I’m Teacher.”
Bryce glanced at the man during a sudden–brief–moment of bravery, and scanned his face for something recognizable. Failing, he looked at Mac and found his partner watching him quietly.
“And you’re Bryce.”
Startled, Bryce looked at him again. “You know me?” It was a stupid question, he knew.
“Of course!” Teacher looked incredulous. “Everyone does.” He turned to Mac. “But you’re new.”
“I’m from the complex.” Mac offered.
Teacher shook his head. “No, you’re not. You haven’t been here long enough to be from there. You’re from out there.” He pointed to the cave’s ceiling. “Earth?”
Was this man sane? If he was, he was the first one they’d met so far who might have what Bryce didn’t want: answers.“Not Earth, no. I’m from a station, personally.” Mac leaned forward slightly. “I’m part of the second colony. We arrived several months ago, looking for you. Bryce was the only one there.”Teacher nodded knowingly. “Yes, yes he was. He was supposed to be dead, you know.” He glanced at Bryce, then pointed a finger at him. “They told us you had died. But I never really believed it.”
Bryce could only blink back at the man.
“Who told you that?”
Teacher looked back at Mac. “He did. Our infamous leader. Bryce knows that. Ask him.”
“No.” Mac shook his head, looking like he was going to loose his patience soon. “Bryce can’t remember.”
The old man looked confused.
“Bryce was injured, ten years ago. He can’t remember anything.”
Teacher stared at Bryce. “Is that true?”
He could only nod at first, glancing from Teacher to Mac and back again quickly. His throat was painfully dry, and required several swallows before he could form any words. “Yes, it is. I–I don’t remember anything, any of you.” He shrugged apologetically and looked to Mac for help.
Teacher was shaking his head, looking down. “Nothing?”
Mac looked at Bryce as a strange silence filled the small room. After a moment, he cleared his throat and got the old man’s attention again. “He was alone there, for ten years, thinking all of you were dead.”
“Yes, I imagine he would.” Teacher looked up again. “Just as well you should.”
Frustrated, Mac shook his head. “Listen, this is getting tiresome. We came here looking for answers. Why did you all leave the complex? If you knew we were there, why didn’t you come back? Why leave Bryce behind, alone?” His voice rose with each question, making Bryce fidget nervously as his gaze darted back and forth between the two men.
“JD led us here, so here is where we are.”
Teacher’s words echoed through Bryce’s head like lightening. A face appeared in his mind, blurred and dark. He heard another voice, feminine and close. “JD was right. He can save us. You’re insane, Bryce! You’ll kill us all if we stay.” The words, the face, the feelings were making his head spin.
“If he is blessed with no memory, better for him.”
Bryce felt stunned by the flash in his mind, and Teacher’s words. In some eerie slow motion, he saw Mac reach out angrily and grab the old man’s arm.
“Listen, I don’t know what the hell’s going on here–”
“Mac, no!” Bryce stepped forward, fueled by an almost out-of-body sensation. “Leave him, let’s go.” He wanted out of here, now!
“Bryce–” Mac protested, but stood.
“Please!” Bryce clutched his partner’s sleeve and pulled him away from the fire.
Mac’s blue eyes flashed, then he turned to stare back down at Teacher.
“We can talk tomorrow.” Teacher waved them on.
Reluctantly, Mac nodded toward the cave’s entrance. He put a hand on Bryce’s elbow and led them out, back to the walkway. One glance up the path confirmed the continued presence of the guards.
“Please, Mac!” Bryce begged him to forget that room, at least for now. That voice in his head kept repeating, getting louder and more frightening with each minute. His heart was pounding so hard it felt as if it might burst through his chest.
Somehow, through a blurred fog and the echoed voice in his head, Bryce found himself back in the room he’d woken in. He was sitting on the sleeping-pallet, staring down at the sand, wondering idly how Mac had managed to find their way back. JD was right! The voice was haunting him. You’ll kill us all.
Mac was right. He really wasn’t ready for the truth, was he?
“Bryce, don’t close down on me.”
Numbly, he looked up. Mac was kneeling in front of him, eye level. “Are they sane? Or am I crazy?”
“No, you’re not crazy.” Mac’s voice was soft, but his tone urgent. “What would that say of me, huh?”
“But these people . . .” They were his people.
“There’s something going on here. They’ve been ingesting that sedative for God knows how long, or why.” He paused, gazing into Bryce’s eyes. “We’ll find the truth.”
Bryce shook his head. “I don’t think I want to know anymore.”
Before Mac could reply, a shadow moved in the hallway, then West appeared, looking in at them.
“I brought some fruit, and bread. I get this before they add that herb. And water.” West held out a bundle, wrapped in dark cloth. When no one moved toward him, he set the offerings down. “You have to get me out of here, Brennan.”
Mac stood, eyes blazing cold blue. “Get you out of here? You’re lucky I don’t kill you right here!”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you!” West held up both hands and backed up a step. “They have a very–unique–way of punishing crimes here.”
Mac stopped a few feet from West, grinding his teeth together. “I’m too tired to deal with you right now. Get out of my sight till I decide what to do with you.”
West looked at Bryce, then turned and left quickly. Mac retrieved the food and water and carried it back, sitting beside him on the pallet.
“I’m not hungry.” Bryce wanted to crawl inside himself and shut the world off. Just turn it all off.
“Drink this.” Mac held out a container of water. When Bryce shook his head, he put it in his hands. “You’re dehydrated. Drink!”
Bryce sighed, then took a drink. His hands were shaking. After a few more swallows, Mac let him set the cup down.
“Get some rest. I’m gonna lock the door.” Mac rested a hand on Bryce’s shoulder for a moment.
“What? How?” There was no door. He watched his partner stand and walk to where their gear had been placed.
“I packed those two shields, and they left them both here with us.” Mac picked up the small belt unit. “I think I can alter one.”
Bryce fuzzily remembered the shields, but ever since that night, he’d paid very little attention to the updates.
“Try to rest.”
Reacting was automatic. He knew there would be no sleep, not for a long time. But he made the effort, lying on the heavily padded sleeping-pallet and pulling the furs over his shoulders. From his position, he could watch everything Mac was doing.
First, he set the shield on a rock and opened the panel. After some fidgeting with the controls, Mac carried the unit to the entrance and set it on one side at the floor, resting against the rock. With a glance back at Bryce, he flipped the switch. In a blue flash, a wall of energy flew up from the shield, stretching out and up. Within seconds, the cave entrance was sealed in sparking blue.
“There.” Mac nodded in satisfaction, then walked to the other sleeping pallet and sat down, looking at Bryce. “That’ll keep out any visitors.”
Bryce pressed his head deeper into the furs making a pillow and stared blankly at his partner. He could feel his thoughts slowing down as he willed all memory to fade. Mac undressed to his shorts, then lay down.
“We’ll be safe in here. Try to rest.”
“I’m scared, Mac.”
“I want to go home.”
Mac sighed, watching Bryce from the other bed. “I’ll get us out of here, I promise. But I want to find out what’s going on first. These people might need our help to get out too.” He paused and Bryce gave him a half-hearted nod. “Listen . . . whatever happened, whatever the truth is, it won’t change anything that already is. It won’t change you and me.”
Bryce managed to focus on his friend’s eyes, fighting the encroaching numbness.
“What kind of friend would that make me?”
It was what he needed to hear, and the look in those bright blue eyes confirmed it. Bryce closed his eyes for a moment, hanging on to those words. He meant to open his eyes again, but the lids were suddenly very heavy. “When you find those answers, then can we go home?”
“I’ll take you home, kid. I promise.”
Bryce nodded, moving his head against the furs. The sleep he thought he’d never find enveloped him in a soft warmth, carrying him gently into rest.