I’ve been pondering again. It’s what we writers do, ya know.
I think it was Yoda who said “Always in motion, is the future. Difficult to see.” or something. Anyway, as far as we know it’s true – the future isn’t written in stone. So we can imagine it would be very difficult to actually time travel forward, rather than back, because you don’t know what’s out there, right?
I mean, look what he found in The Time Machine. Ick.
Okay, but what about our intreped Fred Flinstone? Let’s say, for funsies, he pops into that time machine and pushes the forward button instead. Barney, Wilma and Betty are standing in the basement enjoying the cheese and crackers while Fred travels three million years into the future. When the dust settles, he steps out and finds this interesting creature looking up at him. Mankind seems to have vanished, and this teddy bear with horns and teeth has just wandered into his time machine to take a wizz.
When he lifts his leg, he hits the RETURN button and “poof”, is taken back to Fred’s basement – while Fred’s left stranded in that future time with no ride home. Barney is mortified to find a teddy bear pissing in the time machine, and after Betty helps Wilma clean it up, Barney pushes it back in and sends it back ahead to return it to it’s home time. Only now time has changed, and the future that created this pissing teddy bear no longer exists.
What happened to Fred? And how do we explain this teddy bear with the weak bladder to a future that has never seen such a creature?
And while you ponder that, here’s chapter 16 or whatever.
Bryce woke shivering. The cave was eerily lit by the shimmering blue of the shield and the answering reflections from the newly exposed silver in the walls. It was impossible to tell what the time was, but he was sure it was early. Mac still slept quietly on the other sleeping-pallet, apparently warm under the thick, tan fur. But he was cold! Two attempts at curling up in a tighter ball failed to warm him, so Bryce gave up and got out of bed, hurrying to the pile of clothes at the far side of their cave.
He quietly dressed in the clothes he’d arrived in, pulling on pants, socks, then the sweatshirt with Mac’s name emblazoned on the front. Immediately the shirt reacted to his chill, and seemed to thicken and hug him until his skin reached a more comfortable temperature. When he was dressed he found Mac’s chronometer, then walked back to his pallet to remove the sleeping-pelt. With the dark animal fur wrapped around his shoulders, Bryce sat down near the fire, positioning himself between Mac’s bed and the flames, facing their shielded door.
A glance at the chronometer showed him how early it was: just four o’clock in the morning. He’d never been overly concerned with time, never having had a schedule to keep before. No calendar was necessary to remind Bryce when the next full moon would be, and in this case it was seven days from now. But this timepiece of Mac’s held some fascination. It had been places he could only imagine, traveling with Mac, and who knew where else before then. This simple piece of machinery had been all over the galaxy. It had seen battles in space, been to exotic regions of the universe, then traversed the stars to find its way with Mac to this very spot, nestled in Bryce’s left hand.
He found that fascinating.
Of course, it was just as stuck here on Oblivion as he was now. And it didn’t care that strange things were happening all around it. Bryce sighed and slipped the chronometer into one of his pockets, then glanced over his shoulder at Mac. He knew he could turn off the shield and save the charge, since his partner would wake immediately if something went wrong. But he couldn’t bring himself to get up. Finally warm, and not willing to wake his friend, Bryce chose to sit there and enjoy the peace inside his head.
He remembered last night’s antics as if he’d watched it all from the other room. The irrational confusion that filled his head with no logical reason, demanding he search for something with no clue as to what. Or why. It was so plain to see, he couldn’t even explain it to himself. But the answer was there, in the silver lining the cave’s walls. At least, part of the answer. Which really just raised more questions. The shield’s blue light reflecting from the newly bared spots was almost mesmerizing as it flickered and jumped with soundless activity. He had no answer for why the raw material reflected the yellow light of the fires, and the worked metal didn’t. But something in his mind was screaming the importance at him, and until he showed Mac, he knew he’d never rest. Now that he had, a small part of him felt satisfied, secure. Maybe now that he had another piece of the puzzle, his friend could solve the mystery and they could go home. He felt sure if he could show Mac enough, he’d figure it all out.
But that done, he still didn’t know why. Or how. Or what it all meant. For that matter, he didn’t understand Teacher, or Duffield, or any of these people. And he didn’t want to know. But he had to, even though he’d give anything for the chance to stop thinking for an hour or so.
And for something to tie his hair back with. It must have gotten longer without his noticing, as it often did. Long strands of black curls kept falling forward, obscuring his vision on either side. For the third time that morning, Bryce pushed the errant strands away by running one hand over the top of his head. Mac never had this problem. In fact, he kept his hair so short it was probably still regulation length. It was that short hair, along with the attitude and carriage of a soldier, that made Bryce feel so safe. Sometimes he wondered why the man kept his hair that short, but most times he appreciated the effect. People could see what kind of man he was, how dangerous he could be. He wondered if that look was something Mac had learned and developed, or if it was just him. Either way, he was thankful to be behind him, rather than the focus of that honed skill.
Movement beside Bryce caught his attention as Mac woke up, looking down at him.
“Nothing, I was just cold.” For an instant, Bryce feared his scattered thoughts had been out loud, waking his friend from a good night’s sleep. “Did I wake you?”
“No, no you didn’t.” Mac pushed himself to a sitting position and rubbed his eyes.
“I’m not tired anymore.”
Mac wrapped the fur around his shoulders, then joined Bryce on the dirt floor in front of the fire. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Bryce nodded, adjusting his own fur around his shoulders while Mac was getting comfortable beside him. “I’m sorry about last night.”
Mac met his gaze and smiled slightly. “Bryce, it’s–”
“No, really, it was a little crazy.” He shook his head, trying to make sense out of the strangeness in his head. “I just–it was like my hands knew what to look for, but my head didn’t have a clue. I had to let them look and hope I could catch up. It was . . .”
Bryce swallowed, then nodded. “Yeah, it was. It’s like everything I need to know is right there in front of me, but I can’t find the path to get to it.”
“We’ll find it, kid.” Mac hitched the blanket higher over one shoulder. “And if we don’t, then it wasn’t important.”
Bryce looked at his friend for a long time, scanning the bright blue eyes curiously. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course you can.” Mac turned slightly to face him.
“How come you’re always so understanding?”
Mac’s answer was a confused arch of his eyebrows.
“Well, you are. More than I could be, that’s for sure.” Bryce shrugged. “I mean, how much stranger could things get here? I should have all the answers, but I don’t. And every time I flip out, you just tell me it’s gonna be fine.”
Mac laughed and shook his head. “What would you rather I did?”
“I dunno. Yell, maybe? Get mad now and then?”
“What good would that do?” Their eyes met for a moment, and Mac smiled slightly. “Look, I wish I had all the answers right now, and I could explain everything to you and we could go home happy. But I don’t. Pushing you to find something that may or may not be there wouldn’t do either of us any good.”
Bryce shrugged, glancing at the fire. He almost wished it would, but being the brunt of this man’s anger wasn’t something he ever wanted to volunteer for.
Mac sighed heavily. “Bryce, if I could pack you up in that shuttle and fly us both off this planet, I’d do it in a heart beat. Let these whackos keep their little secrets and manipulative mind games. But I can’t. The best I can do is try and help you find what you lost, without losing you to it.”
Bryce looked up, and the glint of silver from the medallion lying against Mac’s chest caught his eye.
“I’m in uncharted territory here, buddy. I’m a soldier, not an investigator. And God knows I’m no psychologist. The only way I know how to chart the unknown is slowly and carefully.”
“Does that mean, when this is over and we’ve got it all figured out, you’re gonna get angry with me?”
Mac’s smile broke into laughter again. “Only if you deserve it.”
Bryce laughed shortly and nodded, looking again at the necklace. After a moment, he reached out and pressed the silver against Mac’s bare skin where it rested just below the hollow of his throat. The blue of their shielded door reflected off the shiny surface, and a scream of color blasted through his mind. Streaks of blue, purple, red and green exploded in front of him in rapid succession, each one screaming out a sound as it flew past. But the sound made no sense, there were no words. Just color, loud and mixed. He could feel it in his hands, feel the silver melting in his fingers, dripping to the ground in a rainbow of color.
You’ll kill us all!
They’re coming back!
Get indoors! Quickly, get everyone inside, they’re coming!
“Bryce, what is it?”
Colors ran past him in a blur of motion, people screamed and pushed, keeping him from the door.
He wanted to get outside!
They were coming and he was fighting to get out!
The hand that touched his arm brought Bryce back to reality with a snap. He blinked a few times, then focused again on the medallion he was still pressing against Mac’s chest.
“I–I saw something. I’m not sure what it was, but I saw something.”
“What? What did you see?”
“I don’t–I’m not sure.” A chill made Bryce pull his blanket around his shoulders more tightly. He turned to stare into the fire. “It’s like some kind of strange dream, where you remember images but you can’t find words to explain them.”
“That’s all right, don’t try to explain them, just try and describe what you saw.”
He sighed and pushed away the hair that fell in front of his eyes, then looked up. “There were colors, lots of them, flashing in different patterns. Like–like they meant something.” He shook his head and glanced around the room. “I don’t know what. I can’t even see what the colors are on, or where they’re from.”
“That’s okay. What else?”
“I think–I hear people screaming, shouting that ‘they’re coming’, and everyone’s running.”
“The creatures, maybe?”
Bryce looked up and met Mac’s gaze. “I think so. But I’m running to the door. Like I want to go outside. That can’t be real. It has to be something else.”
Mac began chewing the inside of one cheek, contemplating what he had said.
“It can’t mean that. These people, they’re shouting for everyone to get inside. But I– There’s also a voice saying that I’ll kill them all.” Bryce’s gaze fell to the ground, then sought out the yellow flames of their fire. “It can’t mean that.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t mean what it seems to.” Mac shook his head slightly. “But it does mean you’re trying to remember something.” He reached up and fingered the silver around his neck, unable to see it himself. “There’s something here, too. A reason why this metal doesn’t reflect the yellow of the firelight, while the metal in the walls does.”
Bryce laughed shortly. “Well, if you figure it out, let me know.” He pushed back more hair that had fallen into his face, then looked up suddenly at Mac and pointed to the medallion. “I want to get a permanent chain on that thing.” The tie from those curtains would never hold up to a sudden tug, and if someone here found it and thought it was new, they might make him take it off. Though why the silver was forbidden was beyond him.
Mac looked at him, fingering the necklace. “We can do that when we get home, if it’s important.”
“It is.” Now he was supposed to know why. But he didn’t. All he knew was that medallion belonged to Mac, and he had to make damn sure it was never lost!
“Bryce, I found this in the graveyard, remember?”
“Yeah, you said that.”
Mac continued to hold his gaze with a slight look of concern. “It was buried beside one of the skeletons, and I took it with me.”
He paused, but Bryce wasn’t sure what the problem was. “I know.”
“That doesn’t bother you? That I took this from the graveyard?”
“How is it different?”
That was a good question. Bryce’s eyebrows knit in confusion. He knew, but he didn’t know. In fact, he could show Mac why–why what?
“What time is it?” Before Mac could reply, Bryce remembered the chronometer was in his pocket. He pulled it out quickly, hoping there was still time. “Sunrise is in a half hour, we have to hurry.”
Bryce scrambled to his feet and shrugged off the blanket. “Outside. If we hurry, the sun won’t be up yet.”
Mac got to his feet quickly and tossed his blanket aside. “Hurry for what?” He began to pull on the clean clothes, not waiting for the answer.
“I don’t know till we get there.” Bryce smiled apologetically. It was last night all over again. The consuming need to find something that he wouldn’t recognize until he did.
If he did.
He knew the moon wasn’t full, and sunrise was very soon, so they’d be fine. But they had to hurry.
“Okay, let’s go see what we see, then.” Mac was dressed for the most part, with pants and shoes on. His shirt was in one hand and he motioned to their door with the other. “Flip off the shield and toss it here.”
Bryce complied, gently lobbing the small unit to Mac so it could be put with the second one under their new clothes. He led the way out into the main walkway, then paused, waiting for his friend to take point. “We just have to get outside, away from these lights.”
Mac didn’t hesitate, and took the main path leading down to the huge open cavern on the lower level, pulling his shirt on while they walked. They passed no one on the way, and noticed almost every cave entrance they passed was curtained, the occupants probably still asleep. The large curtain in the main room was pulled closed, but there was a smaller flap on the far corner that blew gently in the early morning breeze.
“I think I might know where you’re going with this.” Mac pushed aside the curtain and stepped outside first.
“Good, ’cause I haven’t got a clue.” Bryce paused for an instant, suddenly realizing what he was doing. A hard swallow and a hand on Mac’s arm, and he was out the ‘door’ and standing under the stars. “Oh God.”
“It’s okay, the moon’s not full.” Mac turned so he could take Bryce by the arm and gently pulled him a few steps away from the entrance so the curtain could flop back. All orange lights from the fires and candles inside vanished behind the heavy cloth.
Suddenly an urgent, pressing feeling shouted inside Bryce’s head. He didn’t stop to try and understand it. With both hands, he forced the top of Mac’s shirt open, exposing the medallion to the darkness. Whatever he was looking for, it just wasn’t right. Without an explanation he didn’t even have, Bryce pushed Mac sideways, then three steps farther to the left, following along so he didn’t have to take his hands away from the silver.
Mac complied without argument or question, stepping where Bryce pushed. After another adjustment, a shaft of white moonlight hit the medallion from the side, reflecting back softly.
“There!” Bryce felt triumphant and confused at the same time. He pointed at the silver and looked up into Mac’s eyes. “It’s there!” But Mac couldn’t see it, not with the strap so short.
“Hold still. I can see it in yours.”
“You can see the colors?” A wave of relief washed over him. He stood still, staring at Mac’s necklace. Reflected in the white moonlight was a myriad of color. It was part of the silver, and yet not a true part, bouncing from the surface as if dancing there. Hues of purple, violet, teal and blue that were invisible in normal lighting came alive with the slight gleam of the white light from the moon. Bryce knew his own was doing the same, providing the light hit it just so. His held different colors, he knew that as well. Now maybe Mac could figure out why.
A few minutes later, the light changed as the sky began to pale with the rising sun. As quickly as they had appeared, the colors vanished, leaving only the bright shine of silver.
Bryce looked at Mac, eyebrows raised. “You saw that?”
Slowly, his friend nodded. “Come on, I want to check something.” Mac put his hand on Bryce’s back and ushered him back inside the cavern.
“Why didn’t you see it before? In mine?” Bryce let the older man lead the way back up through the maze of walkways and tunnels to their room.
“I think because you’ve never gone outside at night before. At least, not often enough. When you do stay around very long, your necklace is under your shirt.” Mac held their curtain aside so Bryce could enter the room. “Those plates in the graveyard are the same. We could only see the color when I aimed the flashlight beam at them sideways.”
“What are we doing?”
Mac rummaged through their stacked belongings until he found what he wanted, then held up the small hand light. “I want to find a dark spot, somewhere in here were the candles don’t reach. Then I want you to find me some of the silver in the wall.”
Bryce nodded and followed Mac once again out of the room. He wasn’t sure where this was going, but his job seemed simple enough. He could use something simple right now.
They had to venture nearly all the way down to the basement before they found a slight alcove in complete darkness. Mac aimed his light around the rock wall until Bryce located a section that held some of the metal. A bit of rubbing revealed the silver, so he wiped until a good patch was free of dirt, then stepped aside.
“Look at this.” Mac moved over slightly so Bryce could see what he’d found. With the white beam of the flashlight hitting the silver at a angle, it was plain to see.
“Right.” Mac moved the light to Bryce’s medallion, then aimed it at his own. “Now look here.”
The colors were even more pronounced in the pitch-black of the alcove.
Bryce swallowed, nodding. “Okay, so what does it mean?”
Mac shut off the light and stepped back into the candle-lit corridor, shaking his head. “I have no idea. But it’s something.” He ran a hand over his short hair and pocketed the light. “Come on, let’s get some breakfast.”
Breakfast? How could he think of breakfast at a time like this? They’d just made a monumental discovery of . . . of . . . They’d just found out that . . .
“Yeah, I could eat.”
Mac led the way back out through the main cavern, where people were beginning to mill about, then outside and to their left where they followed a short path to a creek and fruit trees. They breakfasted on wedge fruit and fresh water in silence, each thinking over the morning’s strange events. Bryce hoped Mac was coming up with better thoughts than the ones plaguing him.
“What do we do now?” He tossed aside a rind and wiped both hands on the grass.
“I’m in the mood for a swim.”
“What?” Bryce looked up, squinting against the early morning sun. “A swim?” Was he losing it? They had things to figure out, a tunnel to find. They had to get done whatever it was Mac hoped to accomplish here and get home, and he wanted a swim?
“We’ve seen that valley and the orchards.” Mac stood and looked to the west. “And beyond that is the pastureland.” He turned and pointed north. “I got a good scan of that section yesterday, up to the foothills. Outside those silver-filled caves the scanner reaches quite a distance.”
Bryce stood and shielded his eyes, looking toward the mountains Mac was pointed at. Suddenly it dawned on him. “And you didn’t find the tunnel there?”
Mac shook his head. “This ridge is blocking the east section, so we’ll have to hike around it to see what’s over there.” He began walking back toward the cavern entrance. “I’ve had about as much of these lunatics as I can stand for a bit, so I thought we’d go for a stroll.”
“I’m with you.” Bryce nodded vigorously.
“And, if we happen to find a nice lake, or hot spring even, I wouldn’t be adverse to a good soak.”
Bryce laughed, grateful for the simple reminder of better things, no matter how small. Although to Mac–who seemed to love the water more than anything else on Oblivion–a good soak wasn’t any small thing. But before they could go, they had to get a few things. And that meant going back up through the caves to their room.
He hated walking around inside when the people were out and about. They always looked at him with their lavender eyes, as if they expected him to say something. Some of them looked afraid, others curious or confused, as if they didn’t believe he was who he was. Bryce tried hard not to look at them very long, afraid he might remember someone, and afraid he wouldn’t. The instant they entered the cavern, he fell in step behind Mac, melting as if he was his shadow. From there, he could watch the people walk by without feeling affected by them. As if he was watching from high above it all, with detached disinterest.
Bryce stopped at their door, peering inside the room. It was filled with large, soft pillows and thick, heavy blankets, arranged in a semi-circle around their fire much like the seating in Teacher’s cave. Mac walked inside and pointed to another pile of fabric, then turned to Bryce.
“Looks like we have a good fairy or something.”
Mac turned. “Ah, it’s an ancient myth about–”
“No, that.” Bryce pointed to a folded piece of cloth on Mac’s pillow, held in place by a small rock.
“Oh.” Mac walked to the bed and picked up the cloth. “It’s a map.”
The cloth was actually a tanned animal hide, with a crude map written out in black. It came with a note.
“It’s West.” Mac tilted the skin toward the firelight. “‘There’s something you have to see, before you’ll understand.'”
Bryce reached out and took a corner of the map, gazing at the lines drawn there. “See what? Understand what?”
“I guess we’ll have to go find out.” Mac folded up the hide and shoved it into one of the pockets on his pant leg.
“Wait, we can’t trust that guy.” Bryce stared, blinking, when Mac turned to gather up the scanner and a water bottle.
“I don’t. But we were heading east anyway.” He handed Bryce the scanner, then clipped the water bottle to his belt. “West is afraid of these people, remember? He wants us to help him get out of here. That means we can use him.”
Bryce shook his head and stared down at the scanner in his hands.
“I didn’t say trust him, just use him.” Mac put a hand on his shoulder and Bryce looked up. “Okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” He secured the scanner to his belt and gave their redecorated room another glance. “If they think this is going to make me feel like nesting, they’re wrong.”
Mac laughed. “I don’t think we have to worry about that. You’ve got a nest already. And the sooner we get this place figured out, the sooner we can get back to it.”
Bryce nodded his agreement and followed his friend back out into the walkway, then blended into his side as best he could for the walk back down and out.
From the cavern below, they could see two guards once again posted outside JD’s cave on the higher level. No one stopped them, or questioned their direction as they left the caves and walked out into the morning sunlight. Five men were hauling back the main curtain and Mac commented on the elaborate system of weights and pulleys required to handle such a task. Bryce still didn’t understand how a simple curtain of cloth and leather could protect anyone during the full moon, but he didn’t plan on hanging around long enough to find out. They had six days. He could survive one night inside the plane when they got out of the tunnel, if he had to. The flight back to their shuttle home would take a few days anyway, so the plane was a likely shelter, unless they could leave as early as tomorrow.
Somehow he doubted that would happen.
The mountain-rimmed bowl housing the valley provided protection from severe weather, and served as a guardian against too much rain and over-flooding. Several rivers fed the land from melting snow, then seemed to drain away through the mountains themselves, and probably out the other side as the multiple waterfalls and rivers he and Mac had seen while flying around the outside of the range. A hot spring in the caves was a good indication of more natural hot water elsewhere, and a perfect source of minerals for the fertile ground around them.
And it was fertile ground. Bryce found nuts and berries that were rare and difficult to locate back home, growing in abundance here. Three more herds of cattle, and more than a few flocks of a huge, ground dwelling game bird he was fond of eating were seen before they even reached the ridge.
The rock itself was like a huge spine, growing out of the mountain beside them and stretching nearly all the way across the valley. But it was an easy climb to the top, and a gentle slope downward. Before they headed for the opposite side, Mac had Bryce scan the land in front of them, concentrating on the rocky foothills with the hope of finding the tunnel they’d come through.
But there was nothing.
“Wait. Look, there.” Bryce let the scanner fall against his hip when he spotted the tree.
“What am I looking at?”
“Oh man, I can’t believe it.” He waved a hand but had already started running to the tree, trying hard to spot the ripe fruit before he was even close enough to reach one. “I haven’t had these in years!”
“Oh good, more fruit.” Mac came to a stop a few paces from the tree, shaking his head.
Bryce turned back and grinned at his friend’s sarcasm. “You don’t know what you’ve missed, Mac. These star fruit are rare!” He looked up at the branches, spotting the best fruit several branches above his head. “Give me a boost.” With one foot in Mac’s cupped hands, Bryce launched up to the lowest branch, then pulled himself up and onto the strong limb, using that as the next rung in his ladder to lunch. “Don’t let them hit the ground, or they’ll burst open.”
Three more branches and he was within reach of the delicacies. Five-pointed stars of brilliant blue the size of his fist, hanging by thick vines that wrapped around the host tree. Star fruit were a parasite to the tree they clung to, eventually killing it with their sheer numbers. But the vines grew so slowly, if you feasted on them too often, you were waiting years for more to develop. He hadn’t had one in too long.
Reaching out carefully, he pulled two from their vine, then positioned himself on his branch and looked down, finding Mac right below him. “Here, catch.” One at a time, he let the fruits fall into his partner’s waiting hands. “I’ll get more.” It was tempting to take off his shirt and load it full of the fruit, but he refrained and settled for another four before climbing back down.
“Special, are they?” Mac glanced down at the pile of blue fruit he’d laid–per instructions–very carefully on the ground.
“Yeah, you’ll see.” Bryce picked up three of the star fruit and cradled them in his arms, then looked at Mac. “Where do you want to eat? I saw a river at the bottom of this ridge.”
Mac grinned and shook his head, then picked up his share of lunch and motioned with his head. “Okay, come on.”
They found an easy route to the other side of the ridge, then hiked the short distance to a good-sized river Bryce had seen from his perch in the tree. Several yards farther down was a waterfall that tiered down the mountain, ending in a wide pool that fed the river. Mac found a comfortable patch of grass in the shade and filled their water bottle, then washed his hands in the river while Bryce cleaned off their lunch. With that done, he set about showing Mac how to pinch off the tip of one star leg, suck out the slightly sweet, vitamin-packed juices, then how to carefully peel back the skin to enjoy the thick meat inside.
It had been so long, he’d nearly forgotten just how good the fruit was. Not overly sweet, not at all sour. The meat thick enough to be chewed and soft enough to dig out of the rind with your teeth. The flavor was mild and entirely satisfying, and more filling that he remembered. Another reason he’d stopped with three apiece, though he didn’t realize it at the time.
“My God, why are these so rare?” Mac licked the last morsel from the third fruit in his hand and stared at the now-pale blue skin. “That was fantastic!”
Bryce smiled broadly, glad to know his friend appreciated his favorite fruit. “They grow on those vines, but they grow incredibly slowly. If you pick all you find, it takes years for more to grow and mature.”
“Yeah. I can’t believe these lasted. Unless those people never come up here?” Bryce glanced back up at the ridge where the tree was growing in the sun. If there was one, surely there’d be more around the valley?
“I don’t know. I was staring at that tree while you were up there, and I couldn’t see the fruit till you grabbed one.” Mac tossed the rind aside and took a long drink of water, then handed the bottle to Bryce. “The underside of the leaves are almost the same color as those fruit. You’ve got a good eye.” He accepted the return of their water bottle. “That doesn’t mean anyone else does.”
“Good. More for us, then. Maybe if we brought back some seeds, we could work with them back home, get them to grow near the shuttle.”
Mac nodded slowly, looking around the area. “Yeah. But we tell everyone else they’re poisonous. Deal?”
Bryce grinned. “Deal!”
“Good.” Mac sighed and laid back. With both hands behind his head he looked up at the early afternoon sky. “I need a few minutes to digest.”
“Can I look at that map again?” Mac replied with a nod, so Bryce reached out and unzipped the pocket he’d seen his partner put the hide in, then sat back and spread the crudely drawn map out over his lap.
The ridge was easy to identify, and the river where they rested right now. Farther on were some markings he took to represent trees and a large stretch of flat grassland, but off to the side, hugging the mountain beside them, was something he couldn’t quite figure out. It appeared as if the ground got rocky, and steeper, then flattened into a plateau that blended into the mountain wall. There was a check mark on the plateau, and a circle around it, marking it as something they were suppose to notice. After that, the bowl ended butt-up against the rest of the mountain range as it came around and enclosed the entire valley from the opposite side.
Obviously West wanted Mac to go to the plateau, and see what was there. And just as obviously, Mac was doing it. But the fact that it was one of Eckland’s men doing the suggesting gave Bryce a decidedly uneasy feeling. Still, he was sure Mac knew what he was doing. West hadn’t been in the war, he was just another colonist.
Bryce sighed and folded up the map, then returned it to the pocket on Mac’s left thigh and lay back on the grass, closing his eyes for a few minutes. The star fruit digested easily, but the great satisfaction of having found the delicacy lingered in his stomach like a warm, sleepy feeling. After a few minutes of listening to birds calling over head, he felt himself begin to drift into a nap.
The scream that brought him back to reality wasn’t human.
“Did you hear that?!” Bryce sat straight up then scrambled to his feet, looking around quickly to locate the source.
Mac was on his feet seconds behind his partner. “What? What did you hear?”
“I heard– I–” There was nothing around them but birds, trees and water. “I heard something.” He stopped looking around and gazed up at Mac. “It was something I know.” What was it? He’d heard that sound before, many times. What was it?
“Animal? Human? What did it sound like?” Mac had been looking around, but shrugged when he, too, found nothing to be alarmed about.
He knit his eyebrows in concentration, trying to recall the sound. It was fading already, as if perhaps he’d dreamed it from the start. Then it happened again.
Bryce looked up instantly. By the look on his friend’s face, the sound hadn’t been his imagination.
Mac looked around again, searching for the source of the high-pitched, vibrating sound. It stopped seconds after it had begun, leaving no echoing trace. After a moment, he looked at the ground. “It sounded far away, like maybe it was being carried through the rock or something.”
Bryce looked at the ground near their feet, then glanced around the immediate area. “Carried from where?”
“I don’t know.” Mac shook his head, then nodded in the direction they had intended to travel. “But I’d guess that way.”
Of course. Bryce swallowed and looked up. “I don’t suppose . . .” He raised both eyebrows and let his voice trail off.
“Would you rather stay here? It’s broad daylight, you should be fine.”
He could. If he said he wanted to, Mac would let him stay behind and wait. There was no accusing stare of condemnation in those blue eyes. “No, I–I’ll come with you.” He knew that sound from somewhere! “I don’t think it’s an animal. I just can’t think what it is.”
Mac smiled and glanced over Bryce’s shoulder past the river. “Well, let’s go find out then.”
They refilled the water bottle, then followed the river until they found a narrow, shallow section they could cross. Ahead of them sloped a slight rise of dirt and rock that formed the base of a larger, steeper hill. According to the map they’d been given, the plateau should be visible on the other side of the smaller rise, hidden now by the steeper section of rock. Flowing off the rock to the side was a small waterfall feeding the river. The water plummeted several hundred yards to a small ledge, then flowed more gently over several feet of rock, then fell again in a moderate shower to a pool, then bled off into the river. Mac gave the pool a quick examination, judging it perfect for a swim on their return trip.
“The first thing I’m doing when we get back is hitting those hot springs.” They started up the rise, picking their way over loose rocks and sliding dirt.
Bryce laughed shortly, shaking his head. “I don’t care if you spend all day in there, I’ll just be happy to get back.” He tested a rock for stability, then stepped over it. “I never thought I’d say this, but I wish I had access to Five here.”
Mac glanced over his shoulder, then continued to the top of the hill and turned to give Bryce a hand over the ridge. “Do you think he’d be helpful now?”
“I dunno. Maybe now that he can’t deny these people are alive, he’d explain why.”
“Why he lied to you?”
Bryce paused at the top of the hill and swatted some dust from his pants. It was easier to consider how dirty he’d gotten climbing up then accept the strange, twisting sensation in his gut. Puzzled, he met Mac’s gaze. “He was protecting me.”
Mac’s eyes opened a bit wider, then narrowed as he considered what he’d said.
The surprise at hearing a voice in front of them nearly knocked Bryce off the hill. Mac spun around, and in doing so stepped slightly to one side, allowing Bryce a better view of Rob Eckland standing on a boulder, looking down at them both.
“You must be getting some of that scrambled memory back after all.” Something moved in the shadow of the rock, and West stepped out into the light. “That is, if you ever really lost it in the first place.”
“I thought I smelled something on the climb up.”
Mac’s posture altered slightly and Bryce felt as if he was standing against a rock that was fully prepared to lash out at anything that approached. He gazed up at the man staring down at them and waited.
“Would you like to come down here and die, or shall I come up there and kill you?”
Even in the bright yellow light of the afternoon sun, the flash of fear in Eckland’s eyes was obvious.
“Now now, Brennan. I do know Teacher explained the laws here.” Eckland shifted on his boulder but didn’t jump down. “Poor man. He was their physician, you know.” He shook his head and lifted his shoulders in a sad shrug. “Still, after what they went through, you can hardly blame some of these people for taking the medicated route. Especially a doctor who had to watch so many people die such horrible deaths.”
“Don’t try and kill him, Captain.” West stepped forward, a look of pleading anxiety on his face. “Believe me, they’ll punish you.”
“Yes, they will.” Now Eckland stepped forward and dropped down to the ground. He stayed near the boulder, keeping several yards between himself and Mac. “I’ve explained to JD how you might find it within yourself to murder me, so he’s keeping an eye out. If I don’t return this evening, he’s going to assume you did. Both you and the brat would be punished.”
Bryce spared a quick glance at Mac and saw the incredible tension in his partner’s jaw line. Every muscle in his body was on alert, and what little he could see of those soft blue eyes had turned to burning ice. Yet as angry as he was, he wasn’t shaking or red-faced like other people did when Bryce had seen them get angry. Mac was a weapon, aimed and primed and ready, and in complete control.
“So tell me, did you find this place before or after you tried to kill Bryce?”
The calmness in Mac’s voice, coupled with the effect Bryce knew those steel-blue eyes were having, caused West to swallow convulsively, and Eckland’s face flushed for a brief moment.
“That hardly matters now. What does matter–”
“He found it two weeks before.” West blurted, his eyes darting back and forth between the two men. Sweat was beading up on his forehead and lip, but he let his momentum carry the explanation forward. “The three of us, we were out on patrol. Rob he–he spots this girl hiding in a cave. She was obviously from before.” West pointed to Bryce. “She had his eyes and strange clothes.”
“You found evidence of survivors and kept it to yourself?” Mac’s gaze bored holes into Eckland, forcing him to look away momentarily.
“He talked to her,” West continued. “We all did. She said it was her job to keep watch on the complex, and report back once every month to these people here. They were too afraid to come out.” He glanced at Bryce and swallowed hard. “They were afraid of him.”
“Why?” Mac turned his attention on West.
Bryce moved his body just enough to bring his left shoulder behind Mac’s right arm. His heart was pounding in his chest, and a twisting fear was building in his gut with each sentence the frightened man uttered. They’d known all along he was alive. At least some of them did.
“She said–she brought us here, to meet Duffield. I don’t know what they said, he and Rob, but when we were sent out we– If we killed Bryce, then they were going to make him a ruler here.” West’s hands began to shake and he stepped closer to them, away from Eckland. “It was his idea, to gain power or something. If he killed the kid, they’d bring the others to this valley and give him authority over them. That Duffield guy, he was going to give Eckland some sort of governorship.”
“Only I failed, thanks to you.” Eckland held out both hands and forced a smile. “So I had to high-tail it out of there and try another plan.”
“What’s your plan, Eckland? You gonna take over the planet and rule as king or something? Is this the kind of life you came looking for? Ruling over a group of half-drugged, burned out scientists who can’t even tell you their names with a straight answer? Killing anyone who doesn’t go along?”
“Brennan, your vision is too simplistic. This group already has a leader. And he’s been doing quite well for a very long time. I admire him. You wouldn’t believe what he had to go through to get where he is today.”
“Joe Duffield is a madman. He’s using force, intimidation, drugs, imprisonment.” Mac shook his head once. “Figures you’d find something to admire in that.”
“Ah, but he’s very clever. You just haven’t heard the whole story yet.”
Bryce swallowed, forcing moisture down a throat parched by fear. His heart was pounding so badly he thought it would start moving his shirt soon. Part of him wanted Mac to let himself loose and tear Eckland’s head off his shoulders with bare hands. But another part just wanted them to leave, go home, let these people keep their little world and their cryptic secrets all to themselves. Maybe they could collapse that tunnel and never let them out of this bowl.
“So enlighten me.” Mac’s tone took on a strong hint of boredom, but it had the proper affect.
“It was all his doing.” Eckland pointed a finger at Bryce. “After the first attacks, after so many of their people died, they were beginning to get a handle on things. Like Ben and his little scientist seem to think they’re doing now. Only with this first group, that kid brought it all down on top of them.”
The twisting in Bryce’s gut grew stronger. He could feel his hands begin to shake. As if in response, Mac turned just enough toward him to prevent Eckland from having any clear shot.
“He started trying to communicate with those creatures. Duffield said the kid invented some kind of communication method, and even invited one of those things inside.”
“No! That’s not true.” Bryce blinked and had to fight off an incredible sense of dizziness suddenly. It wasn’t true. Eckland was lying, that was it. JD must have let one of them inside, it was the kind of thing he’d do. No, Five always locked the doors. No one could override that.
“Don’t remember that part yet?”
“Get to the point!” Mac’s voice managed a level of controlled anger that made West jump.
“Listen, Brennan, it wasn’t me who convinced those people the creatures were harmless. It wasn’t me who went outside and communicated with the animals that killed my own people.” Eckland’s gaze shot to Bryce. “It wasn’t me who threatened to get the rest of these people killed by his actions!”
“Enough!” Mac lunged forward and Bryce held his breath.
“No, they’ll kill you for it!” West intervened, stepping between Mac and Eckland. “Believe me, that’s what happened to Burns!”
Bryce couldn’t move. Everything that was happening echoed through his head like thunder. He wanted Mac to kill the man, but he wanted everything gone. Every word Eckland had said, everything he’d done or seen or thought. He wanted Mac to erase him completely.
West was still desperately insistent. “I’ll tell you everything, I swear. If you’ll promise to get me out of this place I’ll tell you everything! But if you kill him, they’ll find out!”
Mac stood still, facing Eckland who in turn shot glances back and forth between them all. Bryce knew he should do something, but compared to the soldier defending him, there wasn’t much he could offer by way of help. After a moment of silence, West stepped back.
“The punishment for murder is death, right?” Mac’s eyes never left Eckland.
“That’s right. And they’re expecting me back soon.”
Bryce saw Mac nod once, then turn slightly sideways as if he was reconsidering his actions.
“But I don’t see anyone a round to say we’ve been fighting.”
“There’s no one–”
Mac finished Eckland’s sentence for him with a fist to his jaw.
It had taken everyone by surprise, but a second later Bryce realized the trick. It had been enough of a surprise to give Mac a decided advantage. Eckland had barely recovered from the punch when Mac sent another fist into his face, followed by a quick punch to the gut. Eckland stumbled backwards and West moved to intervene.
“Leave him alone!” Bryce let anger quell the fear he’d been filled with. He rushed forward and blocked West’s access to the two men fighting. He was a good six inches shorter than the man, and more slightly built, but he knew he could fight dirty if he had to. Whatever fighting dirty really amounted to. It occurred to Bryce–fleetingly–that he’d never been in a physical fight before in his life. Well, not one he could recall. But West didn’t have to know that.
West replied with raised hands and took two steps back.
Bryce turned in time to see Eckland spin around and catch Mac’s jaw with the back of his hand, using the momentum of his turn to snap Mac’s head to the side. He recovered immediately and returned the favor, followed by another blow to Eckland’s body. Bryce kept his eyes on his partner, ready to jump in the moment he was needed. Not that he could have done much more than hinder Eckland’s movements for a moment, but if Mac needed that, he was ready.
Suddenly there was a glint of sunlight on silver. Something flashed in Eckland’s hand. Mac jumped back, dodging the knife blade with less than an inch to spare. Bryce knew instantly then what fighting dirty meant. He rushed forward as Eckland pulled back to stab again, slamming into the man from behind. When he hit the ground, he let go and rolled quickly away, nearly sending himself back down the steep hill he’d just climbed up. Another flash of silver passed his face as the knife flew through the air and tumbled down the rocks. Bryce looked up and saw Mac’s leg ending its swing, his foot having slammed into Eckland’s weapon hand. He brought the foot back again and hit Eckland in the forehead.
“Stop this! They’ll kill us all!” West dashed forward and blocked Eckland from Mac. “Please, just leave him!”
“Out of the way! He’s coming back to the complex with us!” Mac stepped forward and Bryce scrambled to his feet.
Eckland stood and took several steps back, wiping the blood from his face. “We’ll finish this another time, Captain. I’m not ready to throw everything away just yet.”
Mac surged forward but Bryce jumped ahead in time to grab his arm. “Let them go! I don’t want him that bad. It’s not worth it.”
“Listen to your little friend, Captain.” Eckland continued to step away, backing up toward the slope. “They’ll kill you if I don’t arrive back at the caves alive.”
Bryce held Mac’s arm with both hands. He could feel the strength his partner possessed, and he knew with no effort at all, Mac could slip out of his grasp and do whatever he wanted. But he stayed put, wiping some blood from the corner of his mouth.
“I’ll tell you everything I know, tonight.” West whispered. He turned quickly and followed Eckland down the hill.
“You would have killed him.” Bryce looked up at his partner, meeting eyes that were no longer dangerously angry.
“Only if he made me. He’s coming back to face a trial.” Mac wiped his lip again then looked at his hand.
“You’re bleeding.” Bryce blinked, surprised at the sight of blood on his friend’s lip and near one eye. He grabbed the water bottle from Mac’s hip, then quickly glanced around the area until he found the velvet leaf he wanted. “They deserve him here.” He retrieved one of the broad, soft leaves and doused it with water. “Maybe we should leave them both.” With the damp leaf sufficiently rolled up in one hand, Bryce dabbed at the cut over Mac’s eye.
“I want him tried, convicted, and punished by the people who brought him out here.” Mac winced slightly and raised a hand. “I’m okay.”
“This will stop the bleeding, hold still.” Bryce moved the leaf around in his hand and dabbed at the corner of Mac’s mouth. “It’ll keep any infection away, too.”
“That little stunt of yours could have gotten you killed.”
Bryce shrugged, ready to accept whatever scolding might come his way. “He had a knife.”
“Yeah, and if he’d known how to use it–”
“He didn’t.” Bryce added more water to the leaf and reached up for Mac’s eye again, but he took hold of his wrist, gently keeping his hand away from the cut.
“He could have.” Mac met Bryce’s gaze, but his reprimand was gently delivered.
“You took care of it.” He looked at the cut again, then accepted Mac’s dismissal of his nursing now that the blood had stopped coming out. “Now what do we do?”
Mac sighed, then let go of Bryce’s wrist and looked over his shoulder. “I still want to see what’s over there. When we get back, we’ll find out what West has to tell us and go from there.”
Bryce nodded and recapped the water bottle. “Here, put this on your knuckles, just in case.” He handed Mac the wet leaf.
“Thanks.” They started off again, rounding the last of the boulders blocking the landscape ahead. “Don’t you want Eckland brought back? Punished for what he did?”
“I don’t care.” Bryce shrugged, then picked his way around some loose rocks, bumping into Mac for a second until he found solid ground again when they reached the grass. “I just want him gone. Dead, left here, whatever. Just gone.”
“Well, you’re a better man than I am.”
“What?” Bryce stopped dead in his tracks, looking up at his partner incredulously.
Mac shrugged and gazed over Bryce’s shoulder. “I want him punished.”
“Look at that.”
Bryce looked up and realized Mac was pointing to something behind him. When he turned to see what it was, they heard the sound again, louder than before. “That’s it!”
It was huge, towering over the valley from its perch on top of the plateau. Made of silver, the multi-armed structure shone brightly in the afternoon sun. After his initial shock, Bryce found himself strangely curious to see the thing close up. He followed Mac as they picked their way up a relatively easy path that switch-backed to the top of the plateau.
“My God.” Bryce stood at the edge, staring at their find.
The structure looked like a giant sculpture, with five wide arms extending many stories above, arching toward each other to form a sort of roof. Each arm was at least fifty feet wide and several feet thick, extending from the base at the edges far enough apart to create a room the size of the complex courtyard. Made entirely of the silver metal, it was smooth and oddly warm to the touch, but held no markings or identification.
“This was making that sound?” Mac stepped into the “room” and looked around at the underside of the arms.
“Watch.” Bryce found a small rock, then joined his friend. His elation at having remembered this trick kept his complete and utter terror of their discovery at bay. When Mac looked down, he dropped the rock onto the silver floor. The sound that ensued was felt more than heard as the vibration coursed through the floor and up each arm. “The big red birds feed by dropping nuts on rocks to break the shells.” Bryce pointed to a bird watching them from a boulder several feet away. “They must hit this thing with them sometimes.”
Mac nodded, then began walking around, looking at the structure and touching the metal.
“Those people didn’t make this, did they?” His demonstration over, Bryce was beginning to feel the impact of what they were looking at. He swallowed hard, then forced his feet to move so he could at least stand closer to Mac, who was enjoying the exploration with no sign of wanting to leave quickly.
“I don’t think so, no.” Mac touched one of the arms and looked up at the towering metal. “It’s not natural. Which means it was worked the way you do.”
“Those little tools can’t handle something on this scale. It took months to build the Tracker.” Bryce didn’t want to look closely at anything, but he couldn’t keep his gaze from darting from Mac to the silver now and again.
“I don’t think this was built with those instruments.”
“They can manipulate the metal.”
“I know. You said they can make it liquefy with a touch of their claws, right?” Mac’s voice was soft, as if he wanted to avoid an echo that wasn’t there. “Do you think they could build this?”
Bryce couldn’t focus on anything. He could feel his mind wanting to slip away, to find someplace safe and very, very far from here. The things Eckland had said, the things no one would say, now this. It was all adding up to something he really didn’t want to consider any longer. He wasn’t curious anymore.
“Bryce?” Mac stopped and turned to face him.
“Yes, they could.” Bryce nodded but kept his gaze focused on Mac’s knee, hoping he wasn’t going to remember anything that might get him left there. Suddenly he looked up. “If they can build something like this, that means they have intelligence, doesn’t it? They respect their dead, bury belongings with them. They even give them grave markers, with their names and family history on them.” It took Bryce a moment to notice the change in Mac’s expression. “What?”
“You said they give them grave markers, with names and a family history.”
Bryce nodded, trying to figure out what had Mac suddenly looking concerned.
“How do you know that? How do you know that’s what those plates are?”
“It says right on the–” Bryce blinked, suddenly realizing what he’d said. He shook his head slowly, trying to search inside his head for more details. Why hadn’t he explained that before? Had he just now remembered? He felt dizzy.
“The plates have their names and history written on them. It’s for remembering. It’s for–” A shot of ice filled Bryce’s gut, sending a shiver up his spine. “This is a meeting place!”
“What is? This place?” Mac put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder.
“Yes.” He nodded, glancing around quickly. “All five clans. They must all live here, in this valley!” Only his paralyzing confusion and Mac’s hand kept him from running headlong down that plateau. “They must be able to fly over the mountains! Or they come out through the tunnel.”
Mac took a deep breath and looked up for a moment. “Bryce, if they all lived in this bowl, even flying straight, when the moon was full it would take them at least a day to reach the complex from here. Maybe some of them live here, but–”
“No, they all do.” Bryce shook his head. He knew he was right, even if it didn’t make any sense. He knew it! “I don’t know how or why, but I know this is true! It’s there, in my mind. Something– I don’t know, I just understand it’s true.”
“Okay, take it easy.” Mac put his other hand on Bryce’s other shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. “I believe you.”
Bryce looked up, surprised. “You do?”
Mac laughed shortly and nodded. “Yes, I do. I don’t quite understand it, but I believe you.” He nodded toward the other side of the silver structure. “Can I finish looking around before we leave?”
A nod was all Bryce could manage. He followed, numbly trying to figure out just how long he’d had these memories and where they had come from. “I thought it would come back differently, if it did.”
“What, your memories?” Mac reached out and touched the silver arm they passed. “I think it’s usually pretty quiet. You just suddenly have the information again.”
“But that means I could have it all back, I just don’t know it.” Bryce shook his head. He didn’t like this at all. Not one bit.
“No, I don’t think so. Can you tell me why JD brought the others here?”
He looked up, considering Mac’s question. “No.” There was nothing there.
“See, it’s not all back. I think certain things are triggering something. Maybe the parts that meant the most to you, or you were more involved in personally.”
“I don’t get it.”
“But you are.” Mac stopped his inspection and looked down at Bryce. “You are getting it. You just have to remember that your truth–and what they want you to believe–might be two completely different things.”
Bryce studied his friend’s eyes for a minute. Of all the people he might have run into–had any of them taken him on the way this man had–he was sure he couldn’t have found a wiser, more tolerant person than Mac Brennan. “Can we go have that swim now? I wanna get back well before that sun goes down.” Thoughts of nightfall were tearing at his nerves.
Mac smiled, then agreed. “Okay, let’s go get cleaned up. Maybe we can get some more of that fruit?”
As beautiful as the silver artifact was, Bryce refused to look back at it as they walked back down the trail, around the rise, down the hill and back to the river. He didn’t even want to think, but for some reason he couldn’t shut his mind off. Mac suggested they shower in the waterfall to rid themselves of the dust and dirt, so Bryce located some soap twigs and showed his friend how they worked just like the soap stones, only a little rougher at the ends. They stripped and used the spray of sun-warmed water to clean off.
“He said I was communicating with them.” Bryce rubbed a twig against his arm until it lathered up. “He said I brought those things inside.”
“Eckland’s a vengeful madman, Bryce. In most respects he’s no different than Duffield. They’re supposed to test for these kinds of psychological tendencies before admitting anyone into colonization training. Sometimes a few lunatics get through.” Mac leaned into the waterfall and let the foam wash down his chest and legs.
“But he made it sound like communicating with those animals was the cause of everything.”
“You did figure out how to communicate, didn’t you?”
Bryce shrugged. “I guess.” Did it really matter now, if he couldn’t do it anymore?
“It’s the silver, isn’t it?” Mac continued to stand under the water. “The colors you put in, they stand for words, or ideas, right?”
“How did you–”
“No, I’m guessing,” Mac corrected. “Between what you’ve been remembering, and what we’ve seen, it seems logical. I think you figured out some kind of language, probably based on color, that you could embed into the silver. This color is so subtle, you can only see it under white light. But that makes sense too, seeing as how the creatures only come out during the full white light of the moon.”
It was like reading one of the novels back at the complex. Bryce was struggling to figure out a plot he had written himself. Trying hard to keep up with Mac, who seemed to follow the path easily enough.
“Maybe. But I obviously failed, then. If I tried to communicate with them, I must have failed.”
“No, I don’t think you did.”
Bryce shook his head. It was beginning to hurt, and he didn’t think there was room inside for another thought, let alone another one of these revelations. He leaned back and let the water rinse his back.
“You could have taken Eckland any time, couldn’t you?”
“If I had to.” He lifted a hand and pointed a finger at Bryce. “Which is why I don’t want you pulling one of those stunts again. If he’d been quicker, he could easily have stabbed you when you hit the ground.”
“Didn’t I do it right?”
“You did– That’s not the point here.” Mac shook his head. “Look, I know perfectly well you’re very capable of taking care of yourself. But an actual fight takes skill and practice.”
“So, you’ll teach me?” Bryce tried to hold Mac’s gaze. He had no idea how to manipulate anyone, and he didn’t think he ever could if he did, but his friend’s face was showing signs of an internal struggle.
Mac sighed deeply, then shook his head and looked away. After a silence so long Bryce began to worry, he finally turned and looked down. “First thing you have to learn is never to drop your guard.”
He was too used to Mac grabbing his arm to emphasize a point, to realize he was being tossed into the pool of water below. After breaking the surface with a heavy splash, he swam up in time to see Mac laughing.
“Okay, I deserved that.” Bryce admitted, smiling.
“Yes, you did.” Mac turned and swam the length of the pool, stopping just before the water entered the river at a shallow point.
They both swam until they were too tired to continue, then rested on the bank long enough to air dry in the sun. After a quick rest, they hiked back to the top of the ridge and Bryce climbed the tree again to retrieve enough fruit for their journey back to the caves. He wasn’t aware of how relaxed he’d become until they rounded the last bend and could see the caverns and people again. Those last few hours of physical exercise had consumed his complete attention, affording his tired mind and nerves the rest they badly needed.
But now they were back.
Thankfully, Mac made no attempts to stop anywhere or speak with anyone. He led the way straight back up to their cave where they found even more new items spread around the room. It was beginning to look less and less like a cave, and more like a brightly colored, many-pillowed residence.
“This is ridiculous.” Bryce ignored the piles of blankets, cloth, clothes and pillows. He walked straight to his sleeping-pallet and sat down, unhooking the scanner from his belt. “Why do they keep doing this? Are we supposed to thank them or something?”
Mac shook his head and looked up, opening his mouth to answer. Before he could, Teacher suddenly appeared in their doorway, smiling at them both.
“It’s their way. They’re making offerings.”
Bryce glared at the old man. He was so not in the mood right now. “I thought they were afraid of me?”
“They’re hoping you’ll forgive them, that’s all.” Teacher shrugged, then pulled a small box from under his robes. “I need you to have this.”
Mac stepped forward, blocking Teacher’s full view of Bryce, and took the box. “What is it?”
“It’s for him.” Teacher pointed at Bryce but looked at Mac. “He’ll need it soon. Just don’t let them find out.”
Mac glanced back at Bryce, then looked down at the box in his hand. When he looked up again, both men realized Teacher was gone.
“What is it?” Bryce waited until Mac had stepped into the walkway, making sure Teacher was really gone before he got up and approached his partner.
“I don’t know.” Mac handed over the box. It was carved hardwood, ornately painted and held shut with a gold and leather clasp.
Bryce looked at it, then decided there was no reason why he should remember it. He did recall seeing it in Teacher’s room, though. Cautiously, he unclasped the lock and lifted the lid. Inside, nestled carefully in a soft black foam, was one of the metal working tools from the complex.
“This used to be mine.” Bryce let the box fall to one of the many pillows on the floor as he pulled out the unit. It was larger than the ones he’d been using, and actually fit around his hand like a glove with gears. “I know this . . . It used to be my favorite one.” He looked up at Mac, eyebrows creased. “They took it?”
“Looks that way.” Mac glanced at the machine on Bryce’s right hand. “This one’s different than the others.”
Bryce nodded. “It can handle larger pieces. Nothing like that thing we found today, but things like the Tracker.” He turned his hand around, enjoying the familiar feel and weight. “This one can trace the metal, too. Like the scanner. And it’s easier to use. I missed this!” He hadn’t remembered having it before, until he opened that box. Now he knew what it was he’d been missing all this time. It had taken months to relearn the metal-working technique using the smaller tools, and he never understood why it was so hard.
“These things are taboo here.” Mac walked back to the beds and sat down, emptying his pockets. “I can’t believe after all this time Teacher suddenly thinks he’ll be caught with it. He must have wanted you to have it for a reason.”
“Why?” Bryce gently slipped the tool from his hand and set it on his bed. It wasn’t very delicate, and didn’t need the box. But for mobility, he’d want to wrap it in something easier to carry.
“I think . . .” Mac pushed himself back on the sleeping-pallet and leaned against the curtain that now hid the rock wall. “I’m still guessing here, but I think they’re hoping you can save them.”
“What?” Incredulous, Bryce stared at his friend. Had Eckland hit Mac in the head harder than he first thought?
Mac raised both hands. “Just hear me out. It makes sense, considering.”
Bryce moved the tool and sat down, facing his partner.
“Okay, hypothetically speaking. What if you had found a way to communicate with those creatures? What if you were trying to speak to them, but the general sense of fear around the colony had already grown too strong? It’s easy to get a group of people worked up into a frenzy when faced with something like that. You saw how it nearly happened with my group right after the first attack.”
Bryce continued to stare at Mac, completely ignorant of where he was going with this. Surely he was grasping.
“That kind of fear is also the perfect opportunity for someone like Joe Duffield to take control. If he convinced everyone that your ideas of communicating with the creatures would end up getting them all killed, he could easily sway them into following him as their only hope of survival. Like Eckland attempted with the new colony.”
Bryce shook his head. “Even if that could be true–which it can’t be–why would they leave the complex? I mean, why come here when they could have just killed me–or whatever–and been perfectly safe?” Mac had to see the many flaws in his logic.
“I haven’t figured that part out yet.” Mac shrugged. “But the rest of it, I’m pretty convinced of.”
“Based on what?” Bryce leaned forward and pulled his legs up on the bed, crossing them so he could rest both elbows on his thighs.
Mac sat up and turned more to face him. “You knew what those metal plates were on each skeleton, even if you weren’t consciously aware of it at the time. You knew this silver held some kind of clue, and that clue was the colors in the worked metal and reflecting in the raw. These people treat you like some kind of icon they’re both afraid of and desperate to be accepted by.”
Bryce shook his head, but continued to listen to Mac’s theories. Any second now, West would come in and tell them everything, like he promised. Then they’d know.
“These people aren’t allowed to use the silver, probably because you’d figured out how to communicate with it, or use it somehow. JD most likely used his fear of that discovery and turned it into a danger to be avoided at all costs. Punishable by death.”
“But that doesn’t make sense. If you’re right, and the silver can somehow be used to talk to those things, then why would they ban it?”
“Because someone might be successful. Hell, I’d be willing to bet you were successful. And that would ruin JD’s little empire.”
Bryce laughed shortly. It was incredible. Like a novel, only with a very twisted, mistaken plot.
“And, based on you.” Mac paused, waiting until Bryce met his gaze. “You’re smart, kid. Smart enough to have figured out how to communicate with an alien race bent on eating everything that moves.”
It was too hard to comprehend. Bryce stood and paced the room a few feet. “If I’m so smart, how come I failed? How come I can’t remember anything?”
“You didn’t fail, you were outgunned.” Mac stood. “And then Five kept this all from you.”
“To protect me?” Bryce stopped his pacing and looked at Mac. It was something he’d thought before, deep down inside. Something he couldn’t fathom the reason for, so he’d assumed it was wrong.
“Probably. In his own twisted, mechanical way, he thought he was protecting you by lying.” Mac shrugged. “The people here exhibit a behavior common to that of other groups I’ve read about. Groups who shunned society to follow a cult leader, then found that leader out to be a fake.”
“JD’s a fake? Now that part I understand.” Bryce smiled, trying to lighten the strange situation. “But I still don’t understand why they came here, and left me there?”
Mac shrugged, but before he could reply, they saw a shadow move in the doorway.
“JD has requested you join him for dinner.”
Both Mac and Bryce stared at the man looking in at them, one of Duffield’s guards.
“Thanks, we’ll consider it.” Mac started to turn away.
“I’m here to show you the way.” The guard stepped sideways and pointed down the walkway. “In case you’ve forgotten.”
“What do we do?” Bryce looked at his partner.
“Get some answers.” Mac nodded to the guard.
The guard waited patiently, not looking at them again. Bryce sighed, then retrieved the scanner. If either of them were actually going to eat anything, he was testing it all first. After securing the scanner to his belt, he reluctantly followed Mac to out of their cave, following the guard.
They reached JD’s room and the guard left them standing alone in the center of the brightly decorated cave. Bryce looked around the room, noticing the complete lack of silver anywhere. The utensils and cookware were ceramic, the furniture either pillows or carved wood.
“What are you going to ask him?” Bryce watched Mac as he looked around the room.
“Everything.” Mac turned to face Bryce, then looked up as someone entered the room from a side tunnel.
“Ah, you’ve arrived.” JD entered carrying a tray filled with fruit. “Please, sit, make yourselves comfortable.” He set the tray down on a long, low table lined with large pillows, then waved a hand at the two on the opposite side. “I understand you’ve had a look around our valley.”
Bryce swallowed hard to moisten a suddenly dry throat. His blood had turned to ice the instant Duffield entered the room, but now it was beginning to thaw toward disgust. Mac moved to the table, so he followed, unbelting the scanner. He ran the unit over all of the food laid out on the table.
“Ah, you don’t trust me?” Duffield grinned, then sat down and poured a dark red liquid from a jug into three cups.
“Should I?” Bryce put the scanner away and nodded to Mac, but refused to sit down.
JD shook his head, laughing. “No, I don’t suppose you should.” He handed a cup to Mac, who took a seat facing him. “But you, Captain, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t.”
“And still no reason why I should.” Mac accepted the cup, then set it down without tasting the contents.
“Good battle strategy, I suppose.” JD raised his glass, then looked up at Bryce. “Aren’t you going to join us?”
Bryce didn’t comment. He looked at Mac, then walked past the table to the wide, uncurtained windows carved out of the rock. From that height, he could see the valley below in all its fertile glory. The sun hadn’t set yet, so he willed his mind to block out what was going to happen when it did.
“He eats when he’s hungry.”
“I take that to mean he eats when the company he’s with is acceptable?”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“Well, Captain, do help yourself. I’m sure his scans have proven it all.”
Bryce listened to the men, but kept his eyes on the valley, watching the shadows play on the mountains. There was a peacefulness here, a gentle quality. But he couldn’t help thinking it hid something sinister.
“I’ve seen your people, your valley, your crops and cattle. You obviously live a quiet, fruitful life here.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“But one thing I don’t understand.”
“Why do your people chose to drug themselves?”
“Well, there’s no accounting for tastes, is there? I certainly don’t encourage it in the least, but some of them do like to recreate now and again. Drugs have always been a problem in societies, haven’t they?”
“They’re usually a sign of a deeper problem.”
“Oh? Here, try this wedge fruit, it’s superb. I wasn’t aware you’d been to other colonies on other worlds. Tell me, how many worlds have been colonized while we’ve been isolated here?”
“None other than this. We were at war for twenty years.”
“Yes, war. That would be a sign of a deeper problem, wouldn’t it?”
Bryce sighed and shook his head slightly, not wanting to turn around to see JD. He hated that man more with every word he said, every truth he avoided. Only Mac could handle this mess, he was sure. If left alone, he’d either kill Duffield with his bare hands, or jump from this ledge. Either way, he was glad to have his friend in charge.
“I still don’t understand why you left the colony. Why leave all the complex had to offer, for these caves?”
Bryce turned then, looking at Mac with a puzzled expression. All he saw of JD was the man’s back, and he had to stop imagining claws digging into that white robe.
“It’s as simple as that. We came here to study those creatures. We’ve made breakthroughs actually, by being here, where they live.”
A chill ran up Bryce’s spine, but he held himself in check. He’d already told Mac the five clans met at the silver monument. How he knew, he didn’t know.
“We’ve learned how they behave, how they think. We’ve discovered, through years of study and observation, their eating habits, mating habits, lifestyles. We know how to avoid being injured by them, we can even train them in some respects.”
Bryce watched Mac’s reactions, marveling in the way he took it all in without the display of shock or horror that he was feeling.
“Why here? And why leave all of your equipment back at the complex? Don’t you need that to take accurate, scientific measurements?”
JD laughed, shaking his head. “When you’re studying something that fits into the conventional ideals, then conventional methods will work, yes. But they didn’t apply here. Not to this place.”
“Why did you leave me behind? Why does everyone here think I was dead?!” Bryce couldn’t hold it in any longer. He stormed forward, but stepped around the table to stand behind Mac, facing JD. “You tried to kill me, didn’t you? You tried to kill me and left me there, thinking you’d won!”
“I had to save our people!” JD burst to his feet, tossing his cup aside. “You and that damned computer of yours were going to get us all killed!”
Mac was on his feet seconds before Duffield. “Just calm down!” He raised a hand toward JD. “Is that true?”
JD cleared his throat and tugged at his robes, trying to regain some composure. Two of his guards had rushed the doorway, but he waved them back out. After a moment, he looked at Mac again, avoiding Bryce’s gaze. “Keegan here wanted to make peace. Can you imagine that? Make peace with an animal.” He laughed shortly and shook his head once. “Those creatures killed most of our people. Slaughtered them like cattle. They ate every last piece of every man, woman, or child they could reach.”
Bryce felt his blood begin to boil.
“Because of his damned eyes!” JD pointed a finger at Bryce and his face flushed red. “Because of some insane revelation, he decides he’s going to make peace!”
His heart was pounding in his chest again, so strongly he couldn’t imagine Mac not hearing it.
“We had a fight, I admit. It was the night we’d–they’d–decided I was right. They were making an exodus as quickly as they could. I tried to talk him into coming, but he refused.” JD shrugged. “We fought, and Bryce went down.”
“So you left him there to die?” Mac’s voice was ice cold, and it cooled some of the fire in Bryce’s gut.
“I left him in the med lab. I knew if he had any kind of chance, Five would save him.”
“Why did you leave?” It surprised Bryce to find his voice was under control.
“You want the truth?” JD huffed, eyebrows raised. “Five locked us out.”
“That’s right. That damn machine accused me of mutiny, locked all of the doors in the open position, and said when the moon came out he was going to call in the creatures.”
It made no sense.
And it made perfect sense. Pieces of the puzzle were starting to organize themselves, snapping into place.
“You can’t even remember that, can you?” JD glared at Bryce. “You and Five concocted that whole language you figured out, and he was going to call them inside, knowing they’d kill every last one of us. Unless we stayed, and I confessed to attacking you.”
“And you couldn’t very well do that, could you?” Mac glared back. “That would have ruined your empire.”
JD straightened up, adjusting his collar. His eyelids narrowed as he looked at both men. “We thrive here. We’ve studied these creatures and learned how to live with and around them. I’d say that’s quite a bit of progress.” A slow smile crept over his face and he turned, walking to the windows. “I gather, from what Eckland has told me, and Bryce’s lack of recall, that you don’t know as much about our fellow inhabitants.”
“We’re learning. My people have survived since the first full moon and we’re doing quite well, actually.”
JD turned. “Full moon? I see.” He motioned for them to join him near the balcony. “So, you don’t realize the full moon is only necessary for feeding?”
Bryce froze. What other horrors did his memory continue to hide?
Mac put a hand on his shoulder momentarily, motioning for him to stay where he was. He gladly obeyed.
“It took us only a few weeks to figure it out.” JD turned back to the window while Mac walked up to join him. “Of course, we’re safe here. Perfectly safe. That’s another thing we learned quickly. If you stay inside, with the orange lights of fires and candles, and they have plenty of food to eat, you’re perfectly safe inside.”
Bryce watched Mac reach a window and look out. He felt completely frozen in place.
“They feed during the full moon. And it takes them that long to wander over to where the complex is, which is why we only saw them during that time. All other nights, they simply aren’t hungry, so they don’t bother anyone.”
A chill swept over him as he stood there. He knew what Mac was seeing. They were out there, all around the valley. They came out every night, all the time. You’d never see them unless they were hungry, but they were always there, watching.
“No.” His voice was a million yards away, quiet even to his own ears.
Mac spun away from the window and JD began to laugh.
“There’s much you don’t know, Captain. Much he’ll never tell you.”
Bryce wanted to wait until Mac was beside him, but the ice holding his feet to the floor finally broke free, and he bolted out of the room, pushed past the guards, and ran as quickly as he could away from the laughter, away from the terror inside his head.
Mac was right behind him, close enough to trip on his heels, so he kept running, following the path he prayed was the right one. These caves and tunnels were a maze, and he’d only seen them from beside his friend.
“Left!” Mac’s direction came at a fork, and Bryce obeyed instantly.
Before he realized it, they were both back in their room.
That’s when the shivering began.
“I want to go home!” Bryce paced to the fire, then around it to grab a shield just as Mac reached for one. “I want to go home!”
“We’ll be fine, hang on. I’ll get the shield up, go stand by the fire.” Mac pushed him toward the warmth of the flames while he checked the dials on their shield.
Bryce moved closer to the fire, but it didn’t feel warm at all. Even the sweatshirt wasn’t warming him. The very blood in his veins had turned to ice. He’d never felt cold like this before, not even that night under the shield.
“I can’t get warm.” His teeth chattered around the sentence awkwardly.
Bryce looked up instantly and found Teacher standing in the doorway. Mac hadn’t turned on the shield yet. He couldn’t take this anymore! Couldn’t they see he just wanted to go home? It didn’t matter what he’d done before, or what they were doing now. He didn’t care!
“Nothing, we’re fine.” Mac set the shield down, but couldn’t turn it on with Teacher standing in the doorway. He moved to Bryce, then past him to the sleeping-pallet where he grabbed one of the furs. “Bryce, put this on. Sit down.”
He did as he was told, staring at the fire to will it warmer. Mac stepped behind him and he heard another fur being pulled from the bed.
“He’s in shock.” Teacher rushed over, and before Bryce could pull away, laid a hand on his forehead.
“He’ll be fine.” Mac’s hand came around from behind him and pushed Teacher’s away. “He just needs rest.”
Teacher stood, shaking his head. “Damn him!” He paced to the doorway, then back again. “I was afraid this would happen. I’d hoped–but I had no right to.”
Bryce had watched the old man pace their room, hoping he was leaving. He couldn’t get warm, and he was starting to feel more detached. Another weight came around his shoulders as Mac added his sleeping-fur to the one already around him.
“Please, you have to believe none of us ever wanted this.”
“Nevertheless, what’s done is done.” Mac stood, facing Teacher, and Bryce hoped he was going to toss the old man out.
“Yes. But what’s done can still be repaired.” Teacher moved to the door finally, then looked at Mac. “Keep him warm. Get him to eat if you can, warm broth. But keep him warm.” He looked down at Bryce. “You are safe in here, that I can assure you. They’ve been domesticated.”
With that, the old man left and Mac pulled their curtain over the doorway, then turned on the shield. After checking that the blue energy touched the entryway, sealing them in, he returned to the fire and sat close.
Bryce couldn’t stop shivering. “What did he mean, domesticated?” His words chattered out. It was a wonder he couldn’t see his breath steaming up, but then he realized he was the only one who was cold.
Mac pulled several pillows closer, bracing them behind him against the sleeping-pallet. “Just rest. We’ll find that tunnel tomorrow and get the hell out of here.”
Bryce burrowed under the furs willingly. With his face pressed up against the blankets covering him from head to toe, the worst of the chill began to dull and fade. A sudden exhaustion came over him then, and he closed his eyes.
“What did he mean, they’ve been domesticated?” His words no longer chattered out, but were somewhat muffled against the blankets.
“I think he meant these people. I think they’re domesticated.”
Bryce contemplated that as he drifted into sleep. It was an odd thing to say.
Yet, it made perfect sense.