the plott thickens!

I’m so excited about the Westminster Kennel Club Show coming up – for those of you who might not have realized what time of year it is, the Dog Show is Monday February 11th and Tuesday February 12th.  Set your DVR’s!!  I wouldn’t miss this for the world, never do.  And this year they’re bringing in FOUR new breeds that I’m really excited about.

For the Hound Group – we have the Plott.  These dogs are beautiful examples of working hound dogs. Intelligent, athletic, really beautiful dogs.

In the Working Group they’re bringing the Tibeten Mastif into the AKC.  These dogs look like a wild mix of Chow Chow and Husky.  I’m excited to be seeing them now for the first time.

In the Herding Group we have two new entries that I’m familiar with, and couldn’t be happier to see.  The Beauceron, a French breed with amazing lines and personality, and the Swedish Vallhund, a very very old breed that resembles a Corgi with German Shepard Dog markings. These dogs were bred by the Vikings, and they are really amazing – I had three clients with these dogs and you couldn’t ask for a nicer, more friendly and happy dog.   Like their Corgi cousins, they’re rough and tumble in a compact package.

Yes, I’m a cat owner. I don’t have dogs because I work all day and can’t bring them with me.  But I entered the Veterinary field because I love animals, all animals, and I grew up with dogs all around me.  So this his how I get my fix of all the breeds I don’t get to see every day anymore.  When I want to be reminded of exactly why I’m a cat owner, I visit my mother – two hours of let dog in, let dog out, let dog in, let dog out cure my desire to run out and get five for myself.

I watched the Eukanuba Show rerun last night, and one dog to look out for in the near future is Clio daughter of none other than 2006 Westminster Champion Rufus!  A drop-dead handsome Bull Terrier (my favorite breed) who’s daughter is really incredible.  

bullie.jpg Isn’t she beautiful?

Anyway – I’ll be glued to the USA network on Monday and Tuesday, and if anyone wants to wager on the Best in Show, I have a really good track record of picking winners! 😀

Oh, and here – Chapter 15

Chapter 15

Mac gave up pretending he was going to get more sleep and got up, careful not to make too much noise. His senses had gone into battle mode since his first waking up in the cave. Had he been more alert in the tunnels, they might have been able to avoid being surprised in the first place. He was still kicking himself for that. But now, at least, everything was working. His internal alarm had woken him every half hour to check their makeshift door, and his mind worked overtime to map out the caverns and tunnels he’d seen already, matching them with the dead ends and the tunnels they’d yet to walk through.

During “dinner”, Mac had been under the assumption the huge cavern was completely enclosed, but a quick glance at the right time proved that wasn’t the case. The gaping mouth was actually draped with a patchwork of dark cloth, matching the color of the rock walls, giving the illusion of security. Only the fact that the moon wasn’t anywhere near full kept him from pointing that out to Bryce. But what did these people do when the moon was full? Or had they actually found an area safe from the creatures?

But what of the people themselves? So far he hadn’t found a sane one among them. Or at least, not one who was willing to provide them with straight, simple answers. They acted as if they’d expected visitors, or as if they’d expected them. There was no surprise from them at seeing Bryce, aside from the few who had thought he was dead.

Yet none of them seemed willing to explain why.

Mac sighed and rubbed his face, then pushed the furs off his legs and swung them off the pallet. After putting his clothes back on, he walked quietly over to check his friend. Bryce was still asleep, but even in rest he looked tired. All that talk about being ready for the truth had been for Mac’s benefit. He knew full well the kid wasn’t ready, not for this. Hell, he wasn’t ready for this.

Whatever this really turned out to be.

He walked to where their gear had been placed. Thankfully, with the exception of his only weapon, they’d been allowed to keep everything else they were carrying. He picked up the scanner and the food that was left for them, then a piece of the fruit West had brought. After scanning both and testing for differences, he was able to find the reading for the sedative herb and log it into the unit for easy tracing later. It confirmed the food and water West had brought was clean, and free of any of the drug. But it couldn’t tell him why these people were eating so much of it.

After breakfasting on half of the leftover safe food, Mac tried to scan their immediate area for other life. He couldn’t get readings out of their small cave, probably due to the shield, but until Bryce was awake he was reluctant to turn off the barricade. They still had a small fire warming the cave from a center pit, and on closer inspection he realized it wasn’t burning wood, but rather several rocks soaked in some kind of oil or fat. There was no odor, and it seemed to burn continuously without altering strength. He’d noticed in several of the cave-rooms they passed the evening before a number of people had cooking implements set up over their fires, and one or two had been cooking. So the rooms acted as homes, with a central gathering place for those who felt inclined. Which meant the number he’d counted at dinner weren’t all of the colonists here.

Another inspection of their room revealed a nearly hidden section, behind more of the brown cloth used as curtains. It hid an area obviously used as a washroom of sorts, with a basin that could hold water and a carved seat that emptied down a channel where water could be heard in the distance. Quite an interesting setup, but a far cry from the shower he craved.

Mac sat back on his sleeping-pallet and pulled the medallion from a pocket. He’d counted himself lucky in finding that first, when he woke from the stun hit. It had been set on the rocks along with all of their other belongings, where Bryce could have found it before him.

He turned the silver piece over and over, letting the metal shimmer in the yellow firelight, and sighed heavily. Finding the medallion in the graveyard had been a shock. He’d meant to show it to Bryce that evening, but he hadn’t, and the proper timing escaped him. Now he was torn. If he brought it up now, it might just add to the kid’s confusion. And he’d have to confess having found it earlier. No one he’d seen so far wore one, or even anything similar. In fact, now that he thought about it . . . he hadn’t seen any evidence of this silver in use by anyone there. No cooking utensils, no jewelry. Nothing.

Bryce stirred, so Mac quickly pocketed the medallion and got up, walking to his bed as the younger man sat up.

“I can’t believe I slept.” Bryce blinked heavily and pulled himself to a sitting position. He ran a hand through his hair and shot a glance at their shielded doorway.

“You were exhausted.” At least he’d been able to afford his friend enough security to allow himself to sleep. “I found a bathroom, believe it or not. You have to walk right up to it before you can see the thing, it’s in a crevice. And,” he held out some of the water West had brought, then pointed to the fruit and bread. “I was able to scan for that herb. These are safe, so have some breakfast.”

Bryce nodded reluctantly and curled his legs up under him, sitting in a lotus position on the bed while Mac remained seated on the edge. He picked up a piece of fruit and fingered it, staring down at his hands. “Do you think we’re going to find out what happened from these people?”

Mac inhaled slowly, lining up his thoughts. “Well, we’ve already learned a lot. We know this is where your people went, and this is where they’ve been all this time. It’s no wonder we didn’t find any sign of them earlier. Should have done better scans from orbit before we landed.” He glanced around the cave. “We know they found a way to protect themselves from those creatures, we just don’t know exactly what brought them here in the first place.”

“Maybe they figured out those things only attacked the complex.” Bryce offered. “I mean, what if that’s it? What if they only attacked there because it was such an alien thing?”

“But they attacked the rovers, and us.”

“The rovers are alien too, so were the planes.” Bryce shrugged. “Maybe caves were the answer all along.”

“I’m not so sure it’s that simple. They were attacking the people, not the buildings.”

Bryce nodded, then ate some of the fruit.

“We know they left you behind thinking you were dead, and maybe that’s the only reason. Whatever accident gave you that memory loss and head injury, they may have assumed was fatal. Although that doesn’t excuse them from finding out for sure.”

“Why would they leave, though? If the caves aren’t safer than the complex, why leave the only safe haven they had?”

Mac sighed, contemplating the question. “There had to have been something at the complex that frightened them more than the creatures.”

“But there wasn’t anything there, besides me.”

Mac gave his friend a stern look. “I don’t care what happened, or what they think happened, nothing can be so bad that a large group of people would leave their only security because of one man.” He continued the look until Bryce nodded. “Thinking like that isn’t going to help either of us. There has to have been something else, something they were more afraid to stay with than be without.”

Bryce shook his head. “I’ve been wondering that for ten years, and I can’t figure it out.”

Mac could, but it still didn’t make a lot of sense, considering. Maybe Bryce couldn’t bring himself to shut Five down, but he knew how to. Surely someone in the group would have killed the machine if they were afraid of it.

“I can’t believe they’d leave because of Five.” Bryce echoed Mac’s thoughts. “There are so many of them, they could have turned him off and still ran the place.”

“Has to be something else.” Mac shook his head then patted Bryce’s knee and nodded toward the curtained room. “There’s some water in there. Get yourself cleaned up and we’ll see if we can find some answers today.”

Bryce nodded and moved out from under the sleeping-fur, then found the makeshift washroom. “Is this natural, do you think?”

“The caves? I’m not sure.” Mac glanced at the walls around them. There were marks here and there, but nothing like he’d seen before. “I don’t remember seeing any heavy duty boring machines on your group’s manifest. At least, not the kind they’d need to hollow out this much rock.” He reached out and touched the smooth stone. “They could have just gotten incredibly lucky, considering the layout here. Maybe this was a few odd groupings that were joined together by just knocking out a wall or two here and there.” While his partner washed up, he decided it was time to turn off their “door” before the shield was too drained of power to use again. After the blue haze vanished back inside the machine, he checked the charge. It was only down by two percent.

Bryce came out from behind the curtain still drying his face on a small cloth. He hesitated a moment when he noticed the unshielded door, then continued back to sit on his sleeping pallet.

“This thing held up better than I expected.” Mac returned the unit to the rock with the rest of their belongings and picked up the scanner again.

“Is there any way we can put it back up while we’re gone?” Bryce nodded toward their gear.

“No, not without leaving the unit outside the door, so we could turn it off. I don’t think anyone’s going to steal this stuff. They had plenty of opportunity when they brought us in here.” Mac aimed the scanner out the door, but got little reading beyond the entrance. “Damn. I thought the shield was the problem.”

Bryce stood and walked over to look at the display. “That’s the same thing it was doing in the tunnel.” He shrugged and pulled damp hair from his face, twisting it into a temporary ponytail that began to untwist almost immediately. “I think it’s the metal.”

Mac looked back at the scanner, then creased both eyebrows. “Which metal?”

“This.” Bryce reached out behind Mac and brushed his palm against the rock wall. After a moment’s rubbing, a slight silver shimmer became evident in the stone.

“What?” Mac stood and turned around, looking closer at the section. “Is this the same silver?”

Bryce nodded.

“And it’s all through the rocks here?”

“The whole mountain. It’s everywhere. I saw it in the tunnel.”

Mac scanned the wall, receiving the same static image as before. “It’s blocking the signal. The scans are bouncing off the silver. We can only read in a straight path, like the tunnel.” Puzzled, he looked around their room again, peering intently at the walls and ceiling. When he was greeted with only signs of dirt and stone, he looked back at Bryce. “Can you see the metal in the rock?”

Now it was the younger man’s turn to look puzzled. He shook his head slowly, then looked around with an expression of confused concentration.

“Bryce, can you see the silver?” Mac was growing concerned with his friend’s sudden silence. He reached out and gently placed a hand on Bryce’s arm.

“I–I knew it was there.” Bryce turned suddenly and stared into Mac’s eyes, searching for something. “I can’t–I don’t see it, not the silver. I just–I knew what to look for.”

Mac nodded. “That makes sense.” He tried to be reassuring, to calm that look of confusion. “You’ve been using it so much, you have an instinct for finding it.”

Bryce glanced down, then met Mac’s gaze more calmly and nodded.

“But . . .” Mac pointed to the bared silver. “If it’s everywhere, why don’t they use it? I haven’t seen anyone using this metal here. No bowls, tools, jewelry. Nothing.”

Bryce shrugged and shook his head, not having any answers.

“Well, let’s go meet this JD person. Maybe he can give us an answer.” The look that flashed through his friend’s eyes didn’t go unnoticed. Nor did Bryce’s sudden hesitation. “What is it?”

“I don’t . . .” Bryce’s gaze fell to the floor.

“Are you remembering something?” Mac stepped closer, trying to get him to look up. When he did, he shook his head and ran a hand over his dark hair.

“No, not really.”

“What do you mean, not really? Is there something you want to talk about?”

“No, there’s nothing there.” Bryce shook his head, perhaps a little too quickly. “I keep thinking I should suddenly remember something about them.” His nod included everything outside their small room. “They’re my people, after all. Seeing them again should have sparked something, shouldn’t it?”

Mac inhaled slowly, considering his reply. “I thought it might. And it still could, in time.” He paused, knowing nothing he could say was going to make the kid happy, either way. “To be honest, I have no idea.”

Bryce nodded, accepting the answer.

“Listen, if you do remember anything, even if you don’t understand it, you can tell me. Right?”

“Yeah, I will.”

Mac held his gaze for a moment, then nodded toward the corridor. “Okay, come on.”

He led the way out and turned left, mentally reviewing his own memory of the maze of tunnels and connections. Almost immediately after leaving the security of their small room, Bryce fell into step directly behind him, using his presence as a barrier. It was security, he knew, and it served both of them the same. Knowing Bryce was using him as a physical shield against the strangers and the fear they represented made Mac feel all the more protective of him.

It was like having a timid parrot on his shoulder. One he had to guard against theft.

The path up to the top level where he’d found the guards was relatively easy to traverse. A slow but steady incline, three switchbacks, and one short tunnel that gave the impression of backtracking several yards before opening back up. They passed Teacher’s hallway without incident this time, and found the entrance unguarded.

Mac paused, looking back at his friend. “You okay?”

Bryce replied with a quick nod and a flex of clenched jaw muscles.

Not very reassuring. “Just relax. Nothing’s going to happen while I’m around.”

“Just don’t leave me alone with these people.”

“Not a chance.” Mac stepped forward and parted the curtain draping over the cave’s entrance, holding it for Bryce as well.

The two men stepped into a large, almost perfectly rounded room. The high ceiling was draped in more curtains, hanging down in billowing cascades of color. They were a far cry from the drab, dirt-brown of the curtains and blankets seen around the rest of the cavern. In fact, the entire room seemed draped, pillowed and swathed in color. There were furnishings strewn about in various groupings, some carved from wood, some fashioned out of stone, and piles of cushions and pillows strategically placed.

The center of the room held a large, carved table several feet from the ground, with overly stuffed and heavily decorated pillows set about for seating. Candles lined the walls, while several small to medium sized fires, burning the same oil soaked stones, lit and heated the space.

Mac took everything in instantly as he quickly scanned the room for its occupant. Almost the same time he saw the movement behind a purple curtain.

“Greetings.” The cloth parted in billowing puffs, discharging a man dressed in white robes adorned with blue and purple sashes. “I was about to send for you.” A hand extended, then waved toward the center of the room, inviting the visitors to enter. “We should have spoken last night, but I had business to attend to. Please, do come in.” The smile that filled a face not much older than Bryce’s served only to light perfectly whitened teeth.

Mac stepped forward three paces, keenly aware of the scrutiny the robed man was training on Bryce. This was the enemy. It was written all over his face, and shining in the lavender-green eyes. It was war all over again, only much more subtle than the crude slash-and-burn of space battles. He could feel it in his blood, in the instincts that raised the hairs on the back of his neck as he watched their “host” approach. Something deep inside Mac tingled with anticipation as the old familiar feelings came rushing back. He almost had to fight back a smile. In one instant, the two men had sized each other up, and no doubt this man already felt himself the victor.

That would be his first mistake.

The man paused near a small table that held a pitcher and several clay cups. “Can I offer you a drink? Have you had breakfast yet? There’s usually always something being cooked down below.”

“No, thank you.” Mac eyed the man calmly, waiting for the game to play out.

“Ah, where are my manners? My name is Joe–”

“Duffield.”

Both men turned to look at Bryce. Mac kept silent and made certain there was nothing of surprise showing on his face as he calmly turned back to face the robed man.

“But you can call me JD,” Duffield finished, nodding at Mac. He turned again toward Bryce. “I’m surprised. Your expatriate, Mr. Eckland, told me you had lost all memory of life before the accident.”

Bryce didn’t reply.

“It’s true,” Mac offered. “When we arrived, Bryce had no memory of the colony, or where you had gone.” He glanced around the room, then let his gaze fall coldly back on its owner. “Obviously, you had all come here.”

JD smiled and dipped his head slightly. “I can see where there could be some confusion. Of course, everyone assumed Bryce was dead.” He raised a hand to his chest. “I must take some of the blame there, admittedly.” He turned to face Mac, ignoring Bryce completely now. “You see, after the accident, I was the one who took Bryce to the Med Lab. By all accounts, I assure you, he was dead.”

“Why did you leave?!”

Bryce’s shout startled JD, but it was the look in his eyes that caught Mac off guard. His friend had taken a half-step forward, bringing himself even beside Mac. His posture was nothing short of defiance, but there was pure rage in his eyes. Mac schooled his own features into a calm mask to support this sudden turn of events.

“To save our people!” JD’s shout was held in check, and he quickly changed his tone. “You really don’t remember, do you?”

Bryce had no reply, so Mac cleared his throat. “Look, I’m sure we could go on like this for days, but we didn’t come here to play guessing games.”

“Then why did you come?” JD’s robes swirled around him as he turned and stepped again to the small table, pouring himself a drink. “We didn’t send for you. Why are you here, if not to join us?”

“My name is Brennan. Captain Mac Brennan. I piloted the second colony group here several months ago.” Mac kept an eye on JD as the man walked slowly around the table. Bryce stood motionless beside him, doing the same. “I brought three hundred colonists out here to join your team.”

“You’re twenty years too late.” JD waved a hand around the room. “There is no team to join. Only this humble group of inhabitants, etching out a life on a lonely planet.”

Mac’s jaw clenched in frustration, but he forced it to relax. Playing this man’s game was one thing, but falling into any of his traps was another. “You were trained scientists. At least, the adults at the time were. I’m sure Eckland told you why the group was delayed.”

“Yes. War.” JD set his cup down, then motioned for them to step closer to the curtained wall. “Trained scientists may have come here twenty odd years ago, Captain.” He reached up and pulled a long cord, parting the curtain when Mac and Bryce approached. “But skilled survivalists remain.”

The parting of the curtain startled Bryce, who took a step closer to Mac. Seeing the wall for the huge open window that it was didn’t surprise Mac nearly as much as the scene outside.

They were quite high up, looking out over a valley surrounded by huge, snow-capped mountains. From the inside of the grouping, Mac couldn’t tell which of the mountain range they called Big Ugly housed them. Below, they saw a landscape green and fertile, several rivers and lakes dotting the valley. As Mac’s eyes adjusted to the bright morning sunlight, he could make out orchards and crops, then farther on he found cattle and other grazing groups of penned animals. People scurried around, picking fruit and harvesting greens. Directly below them he could make out a wide tunnel, presumably leading into the caverns they occupied.

“As you can see, we’ve accomplished what our founders intended. We colonized Oblivion while the rest of you were busy fighting your war.”

Mac found himself looking at a society. A farming community with flourishing crops, large herds of various animals, and prospering with children and all the aspects of a growing colony. But what he saw was a large group of trained, skilled and intelligent individuals who had abandoned a young man and left him without a trace of themselves or a second thought to his fate.

He turned to face JD again. “You still haven’t answered the question. Why did you leave the complex?”

“It’s not that simple, Captain.” JD backed away two steps, then turned and moved to the center of the room before turning back again. “Life is very complicated. And life here, doubly so. Before I can begin to explain something you may never understand, you need to have more information.”

“I’m not getting much information at all so far.” Mac could feel his tension level increase, partly due to the stress he saw building on his friend’s face as they struggled to play Duffield’s game.

“Then let me help you.” JD again extended his arm, this time toward the doorway. “I’ll give you the grand tour, let you see how we live here, what we do. Perhaps then, the other answers will make more sense to you?”

“Let’s hope so.” Mac glanced at Bryce. His partner was glaring at their host with pure hatred, but his posture suggested the young man who was afraid of strangers. Mac wanted to just fold him up, stuff him in a pocket, and pull him back out again after he’d found all the answers and made it all better.

But he couldn’t.

They followed Duffield back out to the walkway, then through the maze of tunnels and switchbacks that led to the main cavern below. There were fewer looks sent their way this time, as most of the inhabitants were busily rushing about with purpose and tools. The cavern itself was brightly lit by sunlight streaming in through the huge curtain that was pulled back and tied with large ropes.

Mac glanced at his friend, then put a hand on his back to keep him moving forward. “It’s morning, we’re fine.” Of course now he knew that during the night that wall had been an illusion. Maybe that was how it was done? Illusion, smoke and mirrors? It fit in with the theme here.

“How do you keep yourselves safe at night, when the moon is full?”

JD smiled up at the curtain, then shot Mac a quick glance. “You’ll soon learn we are safe here, Captain. Mr. Eckland told me you’re aware of Oblivion’s main predator.”

“People died again. You could have prevented that if you’d been there.” Bryce’s voice was low but easily heard by the two men as they all exited the open cavern mouth.

“You were there,” JD’s reply was barely civil. “Oh, but you forgot them too, didn’t you?”

Mac had just decided pummeling the answers out of this man might be the easier way to get things done, when he saw the two guards from the previous night approach, hand combat weapons strapped to their belts. Without a word from their leader, the two men fell into step behind the trio as they continued out of the cave.

“As you can see, these mountains provide the perfect shelter. We have mild climates down here in the bowl, fertile ground, plenty of variety. To the west, we grow several crops that form the basis of our food groups. Beyond those are the fruit orchards.” JD led them on a gentle path around various wooden structures and holding areas where workers scurried about grinding, baking, steaming and soaking all manner of things. “We have cattle, from earth, as well as a few native herbivores and ground-dwelling fowl. Two lakes farther north are fed right off the snow melt, and we’ve had incredible success with our hatcheries.” JD’s voice was full of pride, but couched with conceit as he continued the tour.

Mac did his best to hold on to what little patience he still had, and kept a close eye on his friend, as well as their guards. He recognized one of them as part of the team who had shot them both in the tunnels, and they no doubt were along for the tour to maintain their leader’s safety.

The only thing more dangerous than a madman was the man protecting one.

The sun was warm and bright, and the mountain range seemed larger than he’d expected, with the bowl set much lower. If only their planes could navigate the ridges, they could have flown in, and more easily flown out again.

A glance back in the direction they’d come revealed the caverns behind them. The cliff face they resided in was nearly straight for several yards, then began craggily jutting up and out, stretching completely up to the snow layer above. Mac quickly scanned the area, barely listening to their tour guide. He’d assumed the tunnel he and Bryce had found came out into the caverns somewhere, but during their exploration so far, he’d seen no evidence of it. Obviously guarded for some reason, he would expect to find it blocked or barricaded in some way. If the goal was to keep the occupants inside. If they wished to prevent visitors, the entrance should have been concealed or closed.

It occurred to him then that the tunnel could be anywhere. He had no way of knowing just how long he and Bryce were unconscious. A blast from one of those guns could put a man down for ten seconds, or ten hours, depending on the charge and the skill of the handler.

Their tunnel out of this place could be anywhere.

“As you can see, we live very well and comfortably here. And safe. We’ve successfully colonized Oblivion, and have a thriving community.” JD ended the tour on the top of a slight rise, affording a view of the orchards and herds beyond.

“Why didn’t you move the complex here, then, if this bowl is as safe as you say?” Mac glanced around the area, but he couldn’t see any of the other mountain foot-holds from where they were, let alone any sign of a tunnel or cave.

“The complex has nothing we needed. We took what we wanted, and left the rest.”

“There’s equipment there, tools. Items you could have used to build safer dwellings, vehicles. Scientific equipment.”

JD shook his head, smiling slightly. “We took what we wanted. You forget, Captain, by the time we were able to move here, most of our original founding members were dead.” JD’s eyes flashed darkly, but he held Mac’s gaze, never once looking at Bryce. “Our scientists, our technicians, all dead. We didn’t have the luxury of learning their trades as we grew up here, since the first attack came a scant week after our landing. Our leader–” this time his gaze did shoot to Bryce for an instant. “–was killed in that first attack, along with our other three top experts. After that, it was a crap shoot. Every month, more deaths. Within the first year, we were so reduced in number that survival had become the focus of the colony. Progress was limited to living beyond the next full moon.”

“Some of your scientists survived, I’ve seen them.”

“Yes. Teacher is our oldest. He was our head physician.” JD’s jaw clenched for a moment and he turned to gaze out over the landscape. “You can imagine what life here did to advance his career. He’s our teacher now, poor man. What’s left of him. He teaches our children the laws, and everything else they need to know.” He turned back to face them. “He’ll teach you our rules. And anything else you might want to know, eventually.”

“Eventually? You mean like you are?” Mac felt the frustration enter his voice, and he let it show this time.

“All in good time, Captain. As I said, you’ll need all of the facts, in order to truly understand.” JD motioned to the guards. “These two can show you where Teacher is, if you can’t find the way back.”

“I think we can find what we need.” Mac tilted his head and managed just enough height over Duffield to give the impression of looking down. It had the desired effect, sending a flash of anger through the man’s eyes. An instant later, he adjusted his own posture but failed to match Mac’s. “We’ll just look around, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course, help yourselves.” JD’s smile was accompanied by a nod of his head. “Once you see how we live, you’ll understand why you’ll have to stay.”

Before Mac could reply, JD turned in a swirl of robes and walked away, immediately flanked by his guards.

“Mac–”

“Don’t worry, kid. We’re not staying any longer than we have to.” Mac put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder and turned to face him. “I know this isn’t easy. I’d like to punch this jerk myself, but we’re into something deep here. I don’t expect you to understand it all, but we have to be very careful.”

Bryce was looking up, matching Mac’s gaze. The difference in their height had never bothered the younger man, even though he had to tilt his head up to look into his eyes. “We’re prisoners here, aren’t we? Everyone is.”

“I think so. He definitely rules by dominance, and if he isn’t drugging these people with that herb to keep them compliant, then they must be doing it to help themselves cope.” He glanced around quickly, trying to find some of the workers. “I’d like to scan these crops, see if the herb is being added in the soil or during cooking.”

“West said he found food, didn’t he?”

“Yes, in the orchards. And water. There’s a spring of some kind under that mountain, providing the water we can hear down below. There’s also a river just a few yards away from the entrance.” He looked back down at Bryce. “Listen, we’re safe enough here as long as we can keep ourselves from eating anything they cook, and don’t break any of their rules. Whatever they are. And however they’ve done it, they seem to be safe from the creatures here. We will be too, if they are.”

“I don’t want to be safe here, Mac. I want to get out of here!”

“I know, I know. We will. But until we can figure this all out, we might not be able to go home.” He paused, taking a deep breath. None of this was helping the kid, he knew. “I don’t know where the tunnel is that we came in through. We could be miles away from it, or it could be right inside that cavern somewhere. Obviously they guard the thing, unless it was a fluke that got us caught. If it was as easy as walking out, West could have left.”

“So we’re trapped?”

Mac shook his head. “Not trapped. You’re never trapped as long as a way out exists. And we have two ways out of here. The tunnel when we’re ready, or a rescue from the colony when we’re late getting back. Either way, we’ll get home.”

“What about them?” Bryce nodded toward a small group of people plucking fruit from a bush nearby.

Something must have clicked, if he was considering other people now. “We’ll have to see what’s going on first. If they want out, we’ll get them out.”

“But what if the others want in? Mac, what if this place is safe? The colony should move here if it is.”

“We’ll see.” He turned and began walking back toward the caverns. “Let’s get the scanner and check this food out. Then I want to explore this area. If we can’t scan inside the caves, maybe we can map out this valley.”

When they returned to the caverns, Mac had no trouble retracing their route back to the room they were housed in. He wanted to ask Bryce if he’d managed to memorize the layout yet, but that might imply he’d have to navigate the cavern alone at some point. Mac knew the young man wasn’t ready to entertain that idea yet, so he let it go.

Bryce retrieved the scanner and clipped it to his belt while Mac found their water bottles, now empty, and slid each one into a pocket. When he turned to leave, they found a young woman standing in the doorway, smiling at them, with bundles of cloth in both hands.

“You’ll need these soon.” She held out the offering and her smile widened when Mac accepted it. “Fresh clothes. We have a laundry below, where the hot spring leaks up.”

“Thank you.”

“Have they shown you the baths yet? They’re down there too.” Her gaze flicked to Bryce, then returned to Mac. “When you want your clothes done, you just leave them down there. They take turns, mostly the children.”

“We will, thank you.” Mac set the clothes on his sleeping-pallet with another nod of gratitude.

“No one will steal them. No one steals anything here. It’s the law.”

“What’s your name?”

Bryce’s question drew a blinking stare from the girl, as if she’d forgotten the other man was there. “Oh, I’m Rhia.” She smiled again, having regained her composure. “I knew you once.” With that, the girl turned and vanished down the corridor.

“Everyone knew me once.” Bryce ran a hand through his hair and shook his head.

Mac had watched the short exchange from the back of their cave. He glanced down at the bundle Rhia brought them and fingered the soft, pale cream colored cloth. The shirts were made of some kind of natural fiber, very soft and pliable. The pants were animal skin, brown and smooth as butter. They were all newly fashioned and smelled nicely of leather and soap.

“She’s about your age, I think.”

“No, I don’t remember her.” Bryce turned, answering a question that hadn’t been asked. His eyes were ablaze with frustrated anger, but cooled instantly. “I don’t know, maybe I will later. I just–”

“It’s a lot all at once,” Mac supplied. “Let’s go look around.” He put a hand on Bryce’s back to guide him through the door, and felt the minute adjustment at his touch in the shirt his friend was wearing. The BSE Rainier on the back was ever so slightly faded, but the name and rank on the front still read clear. Mac was glad his friend had chosen that shirt before they left on their tunnel excursion. It had kept his body temperature up during the time they were unconscious, saving him from the serious case of shock Mac had seen so often in other victims. And–he willingly admitted–considering the circumstances they were in, he liked having his name emblazoned across his young friend’s shirt.

These people weren’t Bryce’s people any longer.

They explored the valley first, since it was approaching noon and Mac was hungry. After testing all of the fruit and most of the crops, they found no trace of the sedative herb. It had to be added during cooking, or possibly at the table as a spice. But the question still remained as to why.

Bryce dug up some roots Mac had never seen before, then showed him how to peel away the outer layer and find the fibrous tuber inside. That and several of the round, purple cone fruits he liked made a hearty lunch, washed down with fresh water from a gentle creek that irrigated the field. They mapped out the valley as far as they were able, finding nothing more dramatic than the cattle and miles of fertile, rich soil.

While facing the caverns, they were able to scan each entrance, but the signal began to bounce once inside, deflected by the silver in the stone. “I don’t understand why they don’t use the metal here.” Mac glanced at the readings while Bryce held the machine. “They used it before, didn’t they?”

Bryce nodded, then swallowed the last bite of cone fruit he’d been sucking on. “I do remember that, for some reason. They built the Tracker when I was a kid. And I learned how to do it a long time ago.”

“Strange.” Mac shook his head and looked back up at the cavern’s main entrance.

“What here isn’t strange?”

“Good point.” He pointed to the caves. “Let’s go inside and have a better look around.”

The lower level Rhia spoke of was directly below the main cavern, down a steep walkway with steps carved out of the stone. It led around in a semi-circle until it reached the bottom, depositing the two men on the far side of a steam-filled cave. Lit by only candles, fires and oil lamps, the basement stretched on deeper than the cavern above, with a much lower ceiling. In the center of the room was a bubbling hot spring, glowing lavender and blue from some kind of fungal mineral growth clinging to its sides. Snaking out in three directions from the main pool were several man-made channels leading to other pools, which in turn fed others in patterns around the entire cave. Three of the smallest pools were being used to launder various cloth items, while another was soaking and steaming cooking pots.

Mac wandered around the room with Bryce close at hand, inspecting the setup. It was well done; spreading the heat out from the central pool effectively heated the floor of the room above them. Farther in the back, two rooms were separated by large, heavy curtains. Outside the rooms were carved the universal symbols, identifying them as men’s and women’s showers. That was a blessing, if they were going to be here much longer. Not exactly the private shower he preferred back home, but he wasn’t going to complain too much.

The shower used steam from the heated water to force it up through a tube, then rained it down over the occupants of the large, smoothly carved room. Oil lamps around the walls defied the spray of water and burned brightly through the steam. Bryce wasn’t too impressed, but the curtain did allow for privacy, and it appeared as if that time of day was a good time to be down here, since they hadn’t found anyone yet.

Towels were folded and lined the walls outside both rooms, with a pile near the far corner for wet ones to be deposited. It took a little convincing, but Mac was beginning to feel the need for a fresh change of clothes and a good, hot shower. They returned to their room and retrieved the clothes Rhia brought. Mac emptied his pockets and placed the silver medallion carefully under the furs of his sleeping-pallet, then they went back down to the still-deserted basement and got cleaned up. Bryce was reluctant to trade in his shirt for the new one after their showers.

“She said no one steals here. So far, we haven’t had anything taken.”

After some consideration, Bryce set his sweatshirt down with the other clothes in need of washing, and pulled the new shirt over his head. The scars on his side were visible even in the dim light of the cave. They were barely healed, so hadn’t faded at all, but the shirt covered them well. In fact, it was quite long. Pale cream cloth, as soft as leather, fell nearly to his knees, contrasting the dark brown of the animal skin pants. The color and size made Bryce look smaller somehow, swallowed up in the cloth and suede.

“What now?” He looked up, having reluctantly accepted how the new clothes looked.

Mac finished pulling his own new shirt down and tossed his other one to the pile. “I want to find Teacher. He’s supposed to tell us the laws here, maybe we can get something out of him today.” He smoothed down the shirt, surprised the clothes fit so well. The shirt was loose enough not to be binding, and surprisingly warm for its lightness.

The climb back up to the level Teacher’s room was on afforded them several glimpses of the main cavern, with its huge curtain pulled back. Bryce made it a point not to look, and switched sides so that Mac was between him and the view. How they managed to secure this cavern during the full moon was still one of many mysteries he intended to solve. It was possible that the height of the mountains and the fact that they were inside a bowl as secure as any ancient Earth castle might be keeping the gargoyles from finding a way inside. But that didn’t seem likely. If the creatures were cave dwellers themselves, it stood to reason at some point they would have found a way inside this area through the same–or other tunnels–as he and Bryce had. Simply camouflaging the openings shouldn’t work against animals with the level of intelligence he’d seen displayed. Mac was sure they had showed signs of politeness and society that night he and his partner spent trapped under the shield.

But what of these caves? Animals who couldn’t tolerate sunlight, and came out only during the bright white light of a full moon, must surely live in caves or underground. The burial site was inside a cave much like this one, and relatively close by, providing they were still near the same mountain they’d entered yesterday morning. The burial cave alone led to even more mysteries as yet unsolved, including Bryce’s behavior.

Mac sighed. There were too many fragments demanding answers, and each time he sought out the truth, instead of uncovering fact, he ran into more shadowy brick walls. He had to try and clear his mind, and open it to what he could find. Maybe it really would clear itself up when he’d seen more. Maybe the answers were right here in front of him, and he was trying too hard to see them.

Maybe I should just find Eckland and haul his ass back to the colony, to hell with the rest of them.“Ah, they said you’d be coming soon.” Teacher startled Mac out of his thoughts when he stepped into the corridor. “You’ll join me for the evening meal. I was bringing in fresh water, for cooking.” The old man waved with one free hand, motioning them to enter his short hallway. In the other hand he held a large pitcher, sloshing water over the lip when he moved.

“I don’t think–”

“No, no, nothing to fear,” Teacher interrupted, holding back the curtain so they could enter his room. “We’re eating fresh tonight. I’m supposed to instruct you. I need a clear head when I instruct newcomers.”

So they knew they were eating a drug with their food.

Mac nodded for Bryce to enter the room, then followed. “Why don’t you want a clear head all the time?”

Teacher brought the water to his main fire and poured some into a large pot hanging over the flames. Inside the pot, large chunks of vegetables and a dark meat were stewing. “I like to eat in my room. Some days the crowd downstairs is nice, but I’m the teacher. They never let me sit in peace. Too many questions.”

And apparently very few answers.

“Please, sit. I have wine.” Teacher pointed to the large pillows near the fire, then stood and retrieved a small container and three metal cups from a shelf.

Mac walked to the pillows but remained standing, accepting the cup of dark red wine. He sniffed it carefully, then decided not to risk it. He watched Teacher turn to Bryce and saw a strange look of hopeful pleading cross the man’s face before he held out the cup. Bryce shook his head once, and Teacher’s face flashed some disappointment before he turned back and set the container and unwanted cup on a small table nearby.

“Please, make yourself at home.” The offer was directed at Bryce, then Teacher turned to Mac and sat down, facing him. “We’ll be alone here. No one comes up when I’m teaching, not even JD.”

Bryce again declined to sit at Teacher’s fire, and instead began to look around the room.

Mac sat, setting his cup on the ground beside him. “How long has JD been your leader?”

“Our leader?” Teacher’s gaze became vacant for an instant. “Since we came, I suppose.”

“Came? Here, to the caves?” Mac glanced up when Bryce moved away and started walking toward the back of the cave. Teacher’s room was filled with all manner of things, some crudely fashioned out of raw, natural materials, others obviously machine made, probably from the complex. Bryce began examining the contents of one shelf.

“Yes, here. It feels like forever, but it hasn’t been.” Teacher shrugged and stirred the pot. “How many forever’s can there be?” He glanced up at Bryce. “Please, feel free to touch anything you like.” He turned back to Mac. “I’d like him to feel comfortable here. Do you think he ever could?”

Mac studied Teacher for a moment. The hopeful look was on his face again, and there was regret in his lavender eyes. A strong feeling of pity filled Mac as he looked at the man who had once been a trained colony physician, a man of high education and skill. How had that person become the erratic, evasive man sitting there now? Could insanity be an after-effect of life on this planet, and not a result of ingesting the herb overly much? But Bryce . . .

“I don’t know if he could be comfortable here.” He wanted to berate this man for the actions of his group, but he decided against it. For whatever reason, he was beginning to feel sorry for Teacher, as well. “That might depend on what you can tell us.”

Teacher nodded slowly, again stirring his pot of stew. “The laws are simple here. I’ll tell you them, first. While we eat.”

He filled three large bowls with the stew, then brought out a plate of breads and cheese. Bryce returned to Mac’s side and without a word pulled out the scanner he’d secured to his waist under the tunic. A quick scan of the meal proved it was free of the sedative. Mac glanced at Teacher when his partner began the scan, and found the older man simply nodding in approval.

“All crimes here are punished by death, which is one reason we have no crime.” Teacher offered both men cups of water with their meal, and Bryce sat for the first time, next to Mac, while Teacher remained on the opposite side of the fire.

“Isn’t that harsh?” Mac sniffed at the stew, recognizing it as a recipe Bryce used.

“Yes, and it works. Theft, murder, fighting, even accusing another of a crime with no proof, all are punished by death. We haven’t had a crime here since . . . Well the new man, one of the three, he did break our law.”

“New man?”

“Yes, he came with the other two. I never did learn his name.”

“West and Eckland?”

Teacher nodded. “Those two I know. I taught them the laws. But the other man wasn’t here long enough.”

“What did he do?” Mac recalled West’s plea the night before to be rescued from this place.

“He tried to enter the tunnel.” Teacher shrugged. “The tunnel is forbidden.”

Mac felt Bryce tense up beside him, so he tried to remain casual. “The tunnel leading in to this place? Why is it forbidden?”

“The tunnel leading out,” Teacher corrected. “It’s forbidden, that’s all. The tunnel and the outside are too dangerous. Man can’t survive out there for more than a month. When the moon is full . . .” He shook his head once with finality. “Man cannot survive out there.”

“I have.” Bryce set his bowl down and stared at Teacher. “I’ve lived out there for ten years. His people are out there now, living.”

Teacher shook his head. “I would expect you to live. I would expect nothing less.” He reached into the pot for more stew and filled his bowl. “The tunnels are forbidden.”

Mac tried another topic. “I’ve noticed you don’t use the metal in these rocks, like you did back at the complex. Why is that?”

“It is forbidden.” Teacher waved the stew spoon around the room, pointing to the walls of his cave. “The silver is dangerous! We tried to test it, but it has properties that are still unknown.”

“But you used it at the complex, I’ve seen the work.”

“That was before we knew!” The spoon was returned to the pot with a thick splash. “It took years to realize how dangerous it was. The small amounts–earrings–those seemed to be all right. Yours won’t be taken from you, it’s too difficult without the tool. But using the metal here is forbidden. It’s for our own safety.”

“We found no danger in it. The silver you used at the complex is still in place, and there hasn’t been any indication of–”

“It’s dangerous.” Teacher’s tone was final. He looked at Mac’s ear, then shook his head. “You can keep that, it’s very small. We don’t have the tool to remove it.” He looked at Bryce, but the medallion the younger man wore was hidden under his new shirt. “You can keep your earrings as well. No one will try to take them.”

Bryce made no mention of his necklace. He shook his head and stood again, resuming his exploration of the room’s contents.

“His mother was brilliant, you know.”

Mac turned back to Teacher. “She led the colony, isn’t that right?”

Teacher’s face broke into a wide smile, full of pride. “She was our Chief Operator. Brilliant woman. She was the backbone of the expedition, got it approved, funded, everything.” He shook his head sadly and his smile faded. “She was killed during the first attack.”

Bryce hadn’t even turned around at the mention of his mother. He continued to examine the odds and ends in Teacher’s room, occasionally picking up an object for closer, intense study.

“How do you keep safe here? Don’t the creatures come during the full moon?”

“We’re safe here.”

Mac leaned forward, trying to keep himself in a conversational tone. “But how? How are you safe here, with no doors or wall to cover the entrance?”

“We’ve studied them. For years, we studied the animals.” Teacher took a swallow of his wine and gazed into the fire. “We’re scientists, after all. They’re just native creatures, like any other. It took time, but we studied them and learned. Now, we’re safe.”

“What did you learn? My people would be very interested in what you know about the animals. They’re scientists too.”

Teacher pursed his lips in thought. “Do you think they’d like to learn? I could teach them, it’s what I do now.”

“Yes, they would. You could come back with us, and teach them what you’ve learned.”

“I’d like that.” Teacher looked up at Mac, then his eyebrows creased. “But, the tunnels are forbidden. Your people would have to come here.”

“What if the tunnels weren’t forbidden? Would you leave, come back with us?”

The man’s eyes sparkled for a moment and he glanced up at Bryce, then back to Mac. “But, they are forbidden. And the complex is dangerous, it’s why we left. This is the only safe place.”

Mac shook his head. He felt like he was handling a piece of fragile glass, but he was keenly aware of what this place was doing to the eggshell walking around the room. Cassandra would never have believed him capable of this kind of careful juggling. “Bryce has always lived at the complex, and we live there now with my people. We’re perfectly safe. But we’d like to learn what you did about the animals, and about this place. They’d very much like to meet you.”

“I’d like that.” Teacher shot a look around the room, locating Bryce who was at the far corner, closely examining an oddly shaped box. He turned quickly back to Mac and leaned closer, lowering his voice. “Does he truly remember nothing?”

Mac’s jaw clenched and he had to force it to relax. “No, nothing. Not yet, anyway.”

“Then take him away from here!” Teacher’s voice was an urgent whisper, but he couldn’t see Bryce approaching them from behind. “Take him away before he can remember!”

“Why?”

Teacher was startled to his feet, and Mac followed suit, eying his partner.

“Why take me away before I can remember?” Bryce’s eyes were flashing with anger, and Teacher backed up a step, moving closer to Mac. “Why won’t you tell me what made you leave?”

“Bryce, take it easy.” The kid couldn’t see how mentally fragile the old man was, probably because he was so close to emotionally breaking apart, himself.

Teacher straightened up slightly, regaining some composure. “The universe rarely grants second chances.” His voice was calm again, all sense of urgency gone. “What is it the children say when they’re playing a game? Do-over. Yes, they call it a do-over.” He shook his head. “The universe doesn’t grant do-overs often, Bryce. Your memory loss is a blessing! Our inability to forget is our curse.” He turned suddenly and put a hand on Mac’s arm. “Make him understand. You’re his bravery, you can make him understand.”

“Understand what?” Mac found himself looking down into terrified eyes, as Teacher glanced from him to Bryce and back again.

“Leave this place if you can. Keep him the way he is, and make him understand it was never his fault!” Teacher released Mac’s arm and moved away from both men. “It was never your fault. That’s all you need to remember.” He waved toward the door. “Leave me now! We can talk another time, if you’re still here.”

Bryce took a step forward, then stopped, staring at Mac.

“Leave me now!” Teacher shouted at them both, then quickly walked to the back of his room.

“Come on.” Mac sighed heavily and took Bryce by the arm, guiding him out of Teacher’s cave.

“What did he mean?”

“I don’t know.” He continued down the short tunnel to the main walkway and glanced up toward JD’s entrance. The guards were again in place, and armed, so they continued back the way they’d come. “He’s mad, Bryce. I thought we were going to get some clarity for a minute, but he could be too far gone.”

They returned to their room and found a huge, brown cloth curtain hanging from the outside as a makeshift door. Inside, someone had delivered several bundles containing more blankets, cooking utensils, a frame for hanging a large, heavy pot over the fire, bowls and cups, and their cleaned, folded clothes.

“Someone wants us to feel at home.” Mac inspected the curtain. “This hangs outside. At least we can put the shield up on the inside, and no one will see it.”

Bryce walked straight to his sleeping pallet and sat down. “I don’t understand this place, or these people. Why can’t they just explain it?”

“I know, it’s not easy.” Mac investigated the other new items in the room. “If JD isn’t drugging them, they at least understand the effects of that herb, and for some reason willingly eat it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.” Mac sat on the pallet and shook his head.

Bryce had pulled himself up completely onto his pallet, with both legs tucked up under him as he stared into the fire.

“What kinds of things did you find when you were looking around in there? Anything interesting?”

Bryce shook his head slowly, still staring at the flames.

“I noticed some things looked pretty modern, probably from the complex. Others looked like they were hand made. I can’t fathom a doctor leaving all of his equipment behind, especially if he’s the only one they have.” The younger man had no comment. Mac sighed and rubbed his short hair. He was beginning to feel in over his head, and was starting to wish Lise was here. “Listen, I want to go out and get some fresh water from the river just outside. Will you be okay staying here?”

Bryce nodded, then slowly brought his attention from the fire. “I can stay here.”

“You’re sure?” Mac stood and retrieved the water bottles. There was a bowl of fresh water near their fire, but he could smell the sedative heavily infused in it. “You can set up the shield if you want. I won’t be gone long.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Bryce seemed to be confident, and coherent, so Mac accepted it. “I don’t think anyone will bother you, just keep that curtain closed. They all seem pretty–polite–here. A little nuts, but polite.” Mac hesitated a moment longer, then picked up the containers and left, pulling the curtain over the cave mouth.

The trip down to the main cavern was quick, since most of the occupants were down below, cleaning up after their evening meal. Mac paused when he reached the bottom, looking at the giant curtain that was again covering the entrance. He couldn’t fathom that alone keeping the creatures out at night. Maybe they really didn’t come in to this mountain retreat? Either way, they had another week and a half to find out. He followed a well-worn path near the far edge of the cave and found it led to a separate section of the curtain that was still open, leading out into the early twilight.

The river was a short walk down a trail to the right. Mac filled the water bottles quickly, passing only two other people outside on his return trip. He wanted to stop them and see if they would be more willing to talk, but he wanted to hurry back to. He’d promised never to leave Bryce alone, and after their talk with Teacher, he felt more protective than ever. The man was insane, but there was something of truth–or desperation–that made Mac rethink his first impression. Whatever was going on here, it had affected everyone deeply. There could be more victims here than villains.

God knew there were more than enough mysteries to go around.

Mac made his way back up to their level, now passing several people on their ways to and from other caves. No one stopped him, aside from having to pause now and again on narrow sections to allow someone to pass. He was greeted with smiles and nods for the most part, and the occasional stare. His were the only ‘normal’ colored eyes, and he could sense that drew some small bit of attention.

As he approached their room, he listened for the hum of the shield. Instead of that, he heard a frustrated voice. Bryce’s voice. Mac hurried to the curtain and pulled it aside, pausing for an instant in case the shield was active after all. It wasn’t, but the young man inside certainly was.

“Bryce?”

“It’s not right.”

Mac stopped just inside the cave. Bryce was facing a wall, rubbing frantically at the rock. Several other sections of wall around the room had been rubbed bare, exposing the silver metal to the yellow light of the fire.

“It’s not right.” Bryce continued to rub until more of the silver was showing. He shook his head sharply, then moved to another section of rock.

“What’s not right? Bryce what are you doing?” Concerned, Mac set the water bottles down and walked up to his friend.

Bryce shook his head again, then ran a dirt-covered hand through his hair, staring at the walls. “It isn’t right. It should be here, but it isn’t.”

A twist of fear knotted Mac’s gut and he had to swallow hard against it. He lowered his voice and gently placed a hand on Bryce’s shoulder, hoping to bring him back. “Bryce, talk to me. What isn’t right? What are you looking for? Maybe I can help you.”

Bryce glanced at him, but immediately turned back to the wall and began scraping at the rock again. “It should be here.”

Mac looked at the hands rubbing the dirt away from the stone, slowly exposing more of the silver. They were covered in dirt, and blood. Oh God, don’t let me lose him to this! “What? What should be here, kid?”

“The answer!” Bryce turned suddenly, flashing angry eyes at Mac. “It’s right here! Why can’t I see it?”

Mac took the opportunity and grabbed Bryce’s hands before he could return to his frantic task. The anger in his lavender eyes flashed again, then cooled rapidly and began to slide into a vacant glaze. “Bryce, if the answer is here, we’ll find it. Let me help you.” His friend stopped trying to return to the rock, so he led him back to the sleeping-pallet. A gentle tug on the younger man’s arms got him to sit down. Mac was able to examine the bleeding hands. “If you could tell me what it is you’re looking for in these walls, I can help you find it.”

“It isn’t right.”

Mac retrieved one of the water bottles and uncorked it with his teeth. “You’re remembering something. Tell me what it is. It doesn’t matter if nothing’s making sense, just talk to me.” He had to keep him talking, keep him mentally there.

Bryce shook his head slowly, gazing at the exposed metal in the rock walls.

Mac never felt more keenly aware of his own inexperience. He was no doctor! How in the hell was he supposed to guide Bryce through this and have him come out the other side sane? What if he . . . No, you don’t go into a battle then freak out halfway. This was no less than a battle for Bryce’s sanity, and Mac hadn’t refused a battle yet. He found some clean cloth in the newly acquired offerings, soaked one end with the fresh water, and began gently cleaning away the dirt and blood.

“Bryce, look at me.” It took a moment, but the younger man seemed to finally focus on him. “Talk to me.”

Bryce swallowed, holding Mac’s gaze with a puzzled expression finally replacing the anger. “I don’t–I’m not sure what it is.”

“That’s okay, just tell me what you think.”

“It’s not words, not really.” He shook his head and looked up, shrugging. “I keep hearing a voice–a woman’s voice–in my head.”

“What is she saying?”

“I– She keeps telling me it’s my fault.” Bryce stopped and swallowed again, unable to meet Mac’s gaze. “She says JD will save them, and I was wrong.”

“She’s from before? Something you remember?” His partner nodded. Mac poured more water onto the cloth and got the palm of Bryce’s right hand clean, exposing several scrapes and a purple bruise forming. “Is that all she says? She doesn’t tell you why?”

“No. Nothing else. I don’t– Her voice, it’s not familiar. I don’t think I’ve heard her here.”

Mac nodded, working on the other hand now as gently as he could. He had to keep the kid talking, keep him from folding up into himself where he might wall out the world and remain. “JD is an interesting character. I don’t trust him much. But you remembered his name.” He carefully washed the dirt from a scrape over the knuckles on Bryce’s left hand, watching his face for any reaction.

“When I look at him . . .” Bryce paused, his eyebrows creased in concentration. “It’s like– I feel like I’m coming up against a blank wall, in my head. I don’t know where his name came from, it was just there suddenly.”

“What about Teacher? He was the physician at the colony. His room is full of some interesting things, some of them look pretty modern.” Bryce’s hands–once clean–weren’t badly injured, but they were bruising quickly.

“I suppose.”

Mac decided against bandaging the scrapes. He put the water bottle away and got up, then sat down beside his friend. “You were doing a lot of looking around in there. Find anything interesting?”

Bryce shrugged, looking at his hands. “Not really.” He looked up suddenly, staring into Mac’s eyes. “He didn’t have any.”

“Any what?”

“Why would they forbid it? There’s nothing harmful about the silver. Is there?”

Mac swallowed, sensing they were back to the start of the issue. “I don’t know. It could be a lot of things. I don’t think it’s dangerous, no. We’ve seen no evidence of that, in its natural form or after it’s worked.”

“Then why? Why can’t they use it here?” Bryce was searching Mac’s eyes for the answer.

“Some things are pretty complicated for very simple reasons.” Mac took a deep breath, praying he could handle this correctly. “In this case, this Joe Duffield is obviously in charge. He must have used force, or manipulation, to get into the position of power he has now. Most people doing that use others to help them get there. They manipulate, using fear or deceit.” He paused, wondering how much of this Bryce was understanding. “To do that, they create laws under the guise of safety. I’m sure he convinced them this silver in its manipulated form was somehow harmful, then made it a law, punishable by death, to use it. Why, I don’t know.”

Bryce seemed to be absorbing the information, trying to understand it. His eyes were unfocused and his gaze wandered back to the walls.

“What are you looking for?”

“I don’t know.” He reached out and touched a patch of exposed silver, stroking it gently this time.

Mac closed his eyes for a second. There was something here, something that was haunting Bryce, and he couldn’t find it.

“It’s not here in words.” Bryce continued to touch the metal, but he looked back at Mac. “I feel something–something about this. But I don’t know what it is.” He looked at the silver again. “Something in here isn’t right. The color is wrong.”

“The color?” Mac looked more closely at the silver in the rock beside him. “Bryce, it’s silver. It looks normal to me. What do you think it should look like?”

“Like it does in my hands.” Bryce’s glance suggested Mac should have known that already.

Quickly, Mac mentally reviewed the contents of their pockets as he’d found them on the rocks the other night. Bryce had his silver-working tool with him, but he’d left in it the plane. He looked back at his partner. “What does it look like in your hands? How is it different?”

Bryce pulled his hand from the wall and stared at his own open palm. He looked up again and shrugged, helplessly.

“Does it look like this?” Mac reached out and pulled the medallion from under Bryce’s shirt. The younger man couldn’t actually see his own necklace, since the chain was too short. Gritting his teeth against his deception, Mac moved from the sleeping-pallet and swiftly retrieved the medallion he’d hidden under the furs of his own bed. He had no excuse for withholding the discovery, but it was time he owned up to the consequences. “Does it look like this?” Swallowing back the last of his hesitation, Mac offered up the metal.

Bryce looked at the silver and blinked, then slowly reached out and picked it up with one hand, turning it over slowly. “Where is this from?”

Mac’s heart skipped a beat as he prepared to face his deception. He’d had Bryce’s best interests at heart. “I found it at the burial site, near one of the skeletons.” He waited for a reaction, but the younger man was too intent on the metal in his hand. “I meant to show it to you that night, and see what you thought.”

The silver in Bryce’s hand had consumed his complete attention. He was moving it back and forth, tilting it now and then, and staring with intensity.

“Bryce.” Mac was sure this silence meant more harm than good. He would have preferred a good scolding for having withheld such a vital discovery. “What is it, kid?” Mac put a hand on Bryce’s arm, trying to get his attention.

When he did look up, his eyebrows were creased, and his lavender eyes filled with confusion. “You see?” He held up the medallion, pressing it against an exposed bit of shiny silver on the wall, then stared at Mac.

“What?” Equally confused, Mac looked at the medallion. He didn’t see. He didn’t understand any of it. The silver Bryce was holding up to the wall was exactly the same as that in the wall itself, aside from the shape and size. “I don’t see anything.” If he’d known what to say, he would have happily lied just then.

Bryce shook his head and continued to hold the medallion up. “It’s there. Can’t you see it?”

The look in his friend’s eyes gave Mac a stabbing pain in his chest. If something was there, he had to find it, for Bryce’s sake. Determined to sit there all night, he looked at the silver again, trying to clear his mind of his own perceptions.

The medallion bore the same shape as Bryce’s, with silver legs twisting and intertwining with no beginning and no end. The silver itself seemed in a perpetual state of shine, and barely held a fingerprint to mar its surface. In the walls, the metal had also attained a good polish from Bryce’s rubbing and dusting. Where the rock and dirt had been wiped clean, the walls reflected back the yellow light of the fire and candles. Streaks and globs of yellow flowed and merged and shined back from every exposed surface, with the potential of doubling the lighting in the cave if the entire surface was exposed.

Except on the surface of the medallion Bryce was holding.

“Wait, I see . . .” Mac reached out and took the medal, then held it up to the fire light. After confirming his discovery, he looked again at the walls. The flames were reflecting from every point of silver, except the medallion in his hand. Another glance showed Bryce’s necklace acting the same way, shimmering silver with no trace of the glowing yellow fire. “But, why?”

Bryce sighed deeply and pulled his legs up, hugging his arms around them. “You see it, don’t you?”

“The silver isn’t reflecting the yellow firelight, not these pieces.” Mac looked at the medallion in his hand again. “But why?”

Bryce shook his head, then rested his chin on his knees.

“You said–back at the lake, you said never to use yellow when putting color into the silver.” Mac rubbed the medallion with his thumb, gazing at it. “But you don’t know why?”

Without warning, Bryce exploded from the pallet and rushed to the other side of the cave, where their new supplies were. “You have to put it on!”

Startled, Mac got up and hurried to him. “Put what on? What’s wrong?”

Bryce shook his head angrily, then turned to the curtain. He reached out and grabbed hold of the leather strap used to tie the cloth back with. After breaking off a section, he turned and pulled the medallion from Mac’s grasp. Within seconds, he had the leather fashioned into a rough necklace, snaking through the top portion of the silver. When he was done with one side, he reached around Mac’s neck, then secured the other side without a word.

“You have to keep this!” Bryce pushed the metal down under Mac’s shirt, where it would be hidden from view. “Promise me!”

“I will, I promise.” The day’s strange turn of events were getting stranger still. “Bryce, listen to me. . . I think you should get some rest.” Mac took his friend by the arms and led him, unresisting, back to the bed. The younger man looked exhausted, and these Tasmanian mood swings were taking their toll, on both men. “We’ve got a lot to think about, we should both get some sleep, okay?” Bryce willingly pulled off his shirt and pants and practically melted under the sleeping-furs without a word. “I’ll set the shield up on this side of the curtain, we’ll be fine in here.”

Mac found the shield right where he’d left it, then closed up their new curtain and reset the blue energy field. He was aware of Bryce’s gaze on him until the shield was activated, then the young man sighed quietly and closed his eyes. He was also keenly aware of the silver medallion resting against his chest. The metal was warm, not cold as would have thought. His finding the piece buried in the sand next to a gargoyle body in an alien burial ground hadn’t even bothered Bryce one bit. Nor had the fact that Mac found it days ago, and had kept it hidden. The only importance it held, and its new source of mystery, was its inability to reflect yellow light.

But right now, the only mystery he could ponder was his partner’s insistence that he wear the medallion. It wasn’t worth arguing, or questioning. At least, not now. Not when he was more concerned with Bryce’s mental well being.

Mac undressed and slipped under his own sleeping-furs. He felt lost, and more than a little bit out of his sphere of knowledge. He could be helping Bryce right into a complete emotional breakdown without knowing it. He had no business playing big-brother to someone this emotionally damaged.

Then again, someone had to.

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4 thoughts on “the plott thickens!

  1. I think we had a discussion on bull terriers last year at AW. To me, handsome and bull terrier don’t go together. I love nearly all dogs, but there are a few breeds that I just don’t care for. Those are one of those.

    Anyway, I do need to DVR this. I’ve watched it every year for as long as I can remember, since we’ve had cable and however long it’s been aired. I enjoyed Joe Garagiola. I think they canned him though. I thought he added an element of the everyday to it, instead of the insiders talking about dogs.

    Just what we need, another French breed in the competition. Pfft!

    But I like the Vallhund. Spitz-type dogs are my favorites.

  2. I’ve always had a love of the breeds most people turn their noses up at. The Bull Terrier, the Staffordshires, the Bulldogs, the Boxers, I’ll even kiss a French Bulldog on the face, and I have 😀

  3. I like bulldogs and boxers and we were even considering a French Bulldog (or Boston Terrier) because my son thought they were cool. (We ended up getting a Jack Russell mix to satisfy his desire for a small dog. What? A dalmatian is a lapdog! He lays his head in my lap all the time.) It is really only the Bull Terrier with his funky shaped head that bothers me.

    But, to be honest, my favorite breeds are, as I said, the spitz, and any dog that is really sleek looking. Dalmatians, dobermanns, weinmeraners (sic), greyhounds and the like. Well, and I love Irish Setters. Heck, most Irish breeds, German breeds, English breeds, and… I think I’m back to everything but that bull and staffordshire terriers and the foo-foo French breeds and the little yappy dogs.

    And I hate peeks. Mostly because we had one when I was a baby and that thing growled whenever I came near it. Only dog in my entire life that wouldn’t warm up to me.

  4. I love Bull Terriers! Rufus has such a wonderful personality. I don’t like Peke’s either. I’m partial to hounds. I just love the big goofy faces and droopy ears.

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