so nice 😀
Well, and I’m bored, sitting here waiting for the repair man “between 8am and noon” to fix my hot water tank. Gah, since Sunday morning it’s been like camping here in my own house, having to boil water to wash in. Never underestimate the luxury of hot running water.
So, while I make tea and wash the dishes with the boiling water, here’s Chapter 17
Mac sighed and opened his eyes. With heat from the fires, he’d grown quite warm. At least the kid’s chill had finally subsided. He’d been worried for a time. The shock of that evening’s discovery in Duffield’s room hit hard.
So hard, Mac had come close to asking Teacher to stay. The man had been a doctor, after all. Still was, by all rights. But something about that man bothered Mac. The way Teacher looked at Bryce, almost paternally, set all the hairs on the back of his neck straight up. The man wasn’t the kid’s father, and he’d abandoned him just as quickly as all the others. He had no right to make such presumptions. None of them did.
It was early still, he could sense it. Probably hours before sunrise. He gazed at the shimmering blue shield protecting them from unwanted intrusion. The curtain on the other side was open, pulled back against the rock wall. He stared at the corridor beyond the blue energy wall. After Teacher left, he was sure he’d closed the curtain. No matter, really. If some of the colonists saw the shield, there wasn’t anything they could do about it. If they’d wanted to steal it, they would have by now.
Still, he was sure he’d closed the curtain.
Mac glanced down at Bryce, still sleeping, then from the corner of one eye noticed a change in the lighting. He looked up, trying to locate the source of the change. In the hallway, another light flickered, then went out. Someone was putting out the candles lining the corridor outside their cave. Puzzled, Mac continued to watch the area grow darker. The blue of the shield intensified in color against the black background. Whoever was coming wasn’t going to get inside.
Slowly, shadows formed a shape.
The face gazing back at him was familiar, as far as nightmares go. The body, huge and black, filled the entire entryway as the creature stood on its hind legs with wings extended. Large, white teeth scraped against the blue shield once, sending a shower of sparks over its massive black head. After one attempt, the gargoyle stopped biting at the energy wall and stood there, staring in at them.
Mac could feel his heart racing in his chest. Sweat beaded up on his forehead and back. He knew the shield would hold as it had before. But how had it found them? JD said they were all safe inside. The orange lights, the fires and candles, they’d . . .
They’d been put out. Someone had put out the lights in their hallway. Was there a trail of darkness, leading in from outside? Had someone beckoned this animal in to kill the newcomers?
The dark creature cocked its head to one side, staring in at them calmly. Mac stared back at it, curious despite the danger. As long as Bryce didn’t wake up, and the shield held, they were safe. The creature watched his every move with equal interest. Mac stepped aside, slowly moving around the fire. Then he stopped, staring at the yellow flames. Why hadn’t this light bothered the animal? How was it the creatures could be kept at bay with the use of a light source painful to their eyes, and yet this one was staring in at the flames with no apparent difficulty?
Mac looked up again, narrowing his eyes toward the blue shield. The animal had gone, soundlessly, in the few seconds he’d been staring at the fire. Puzzled, he walked to the doorway and peered through the blue energy wall. It was nowhere to be seen, and the candles were lit again, illuminating the tunnels. He turned back, shaking his head.
It was there, sitting on the bed looking down at Bryce. Mac froze in place. His feet felt as if they’d become part of the rock floor. When he opened his mouth to shout, nothing came out.
Helpless, he watched as the animal reached a large, clawed hand down toward Bryce who still slept quietly in the blankets. Mac couldn’t even close his eyes, dreading the sight he feared would come. But the claw didn’t tear into his friend. The creature wasn’t ripping his flesh apart or even moving forward to eat its prey. Instead, it touched Bryce’s hair, gently pushing it from his face.
With concentrated effort, Mac managed to move one hand. But instead of reaching for Bryce, he reached up to feel for the medallion around his neck. It wasn’t there. Panicked, he looked at the ground and found the silver in the dirt, the leather string broken. Immediately he looked up again and saw the black gargoyle grimace at him with shimmering white teeth. It roared, extending both wings, then leapt from the sleeping-pallet straight at Mac’s throat.
“I said I’m hot.”
Startled and sweating, Mac shot a glance around the room. A dream? Nightmare, more like it. He was still sitting down. There was no creature in their room, no black death lunging for his unprotected throat. The curtain still hid their shield and covered the doorway.
“Are you okay?” Bryce pushed himself up, shrugging one of the furs off his shoulders.
“Yeah.” Mac nodded and straightened up, running a hand over his sweat-covered face. “I got a little warm there, too.” He shrugged off the last vestiges of nightmare, then looked more closely at Bryce. “How do you feel?”
“Tired.” Bryce sighed, pushing hair from his face. “But I’m warm now. Thanks.”
“Get out of those clothes so you don’t catch a real chill, then get some more sleep. It’s still early.”
Groggily, Bryce stood and shrugged out of his clothes, tossing them aside, then wrapped one of the furs around himself and curled up on the bed. “Are you going back to sleep?”
“Yeah, probably in a bit.” Mac moved some of the pillows out of the way and traded them for a few that hadn’t been compressed by his weight. He glanced at Bryce and found eyes fighting to stay open. “Get some rest.”
Bryce nodded, but his eyes remained half open, watching Mac. “You saw them, didn’t you?”
Kneeling on some pillows brought him almost eye level with his partner. “Yes, I did.” His jaw clenched for an instant, remembering the sight of several black bodies flying around the valley, dark silhouettes against the early night sky. “Don’t think about it, just get some sleep.” He tossed the other fur on the empty bed. “We’re safe in here.”
Bryce nodded and adjusted the blanket over his shoulders. “West never came.”
Before Mac could answer, Bryce fell asleep. With a sigh, he turned back to the fire and arranged a few more pillows to get comfortable on. He’d already slept several hours, and sunrise should be–Mac picked up the pants Bryce had discarded and searched the pockets for his chronometer–in two more hours. With that much time, he’d be better off keeping their shield up. The low hum and soft blue glow probably kept Bryce sleeping soundly, and the kid needed to feel as safe as he could for as long as possible. Finding the tunnel that led them into this mess wasn’t going to be easy, if travel through it was forbidden. And so far they hadn’t seen any sign of it. If they hoped to get out of here in one piece–with or without any of the people here–they had some careful planning ahead.
And he had some thinking to do. The silver, the colors, even the method of Bryce’s abandonment–if not the reason–were beginning to fall into place, even though some of them it didn’t make a lot of sense. It was too hard to understand how so many people could follow one madman and leave one of their own behind alone. Mac could never forgive any of these people for that. But they hadn’t committed any particular crime that he knew of. Except Duffield. He was just as guilty of leaving Bryce to die as Eckland had been. And even by his own admission had been the cause of the injury in the first place.
Bryce was right, it would be helpful to have access to Five now. If for no other reason than to see how it explained these survivors.
Mac sighed and ran a hand over his face, glancing at his friend. It was hard to tell how these new revelations were affecting him, aside from his predictable reaction when he realized the creatures didn’t require a full moon to see by. That had been a shock to Mac as well. All those times he’d spent outside at night, enjoying the sunset, trying to acclimate Bryce to the dark and the night sky when the moon was out of phase. All those times, assuming they were safe outside.
But they had been. No one had ever been attacked on those nights. Only when the moon was full did the animals feed. So, if they were out every night, chances were they’d gotten curious and spent time watching the colonists. If they had curiosity. It certainly seemed to him that night under the shield that they were very curious animals. Intelligent enough to maintain a graveyard, with the language skills required to create headstones. Yet animal enough to treat the humans they’d been watching as cattle when the full moon made them hungry.
It was no wonder Bryce maintained his fear of the animals. That emotion must have been stronger than the memory of communicating with them. Perhaps he’d only just begun to be successful when Duffield staged his mutiny? Even so, if what they were saying and Bryce was remembering was true, then he’d managed something humans had been hoping to accomplish for centuries. And he couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old at the time.
Bryce was right. It was a lot to take in all at once.
Mac checked the time again, then got up and walked to the shield. The charge was down almost ten percent, so he opted to shut it off. He put the machine away, then walked back to the door and pushed the curtain aside for a glance down the corridor. Just as he turned to step back inside, he caught movement at the far end.
“How is he?” Teacher greeted Mac with a worried expression.
“Sleeping.” Mac remained in the doorway, blocking the man’s view. “It’s a bit early.”
Teacher nodded, wringing both hands in front of his robes. “Yes, yes. My apologies. But I came to ask you if you found it?”
Teacher rubbed his forehead tiredly. “Unfortunately we’re all clear-headed now. I’ve suggested to everyone we wake ourselves up, now that he’s here. But the effects are long lasting.” He sighed and shook his head, looking at Mac again. “I did leave you a map, though, didn’t I? It’s hard to think through the headache of sobriety.”
“That was you?” Mac’s eyebrows creased momentarily as he mentally switched gears. He’d just assumed it had been West, but the map hadn’t been signed. Why had he thought that? “Come inside, just don’t wake him up.” He stepped aside and let Teacher enter the cave. Bryce still slept soundly, burrowed under a sleeping-pelt. Mac waved to a stack of pillows farthest away from the sleeping man, near the fire. He kept his voice low. “We found the map, and the meeting place on the plateau.”
Teacher nodded several times, quickly. His gaze wandered to Bryce’s sleeping form, then settled on Mac. “He knew what it was? I didn’t know if he would.”
“He’s never been here before, has he?”
“No. As far as I’m aware, he had no idea JD had found this place. Bryce never strayed far. There was so much to keep his interest all around him as it was.”
Mac repositioned himself on the pillows, leaning forward slightly. Maybe he was finally going to get some answers? If he understood clear-headed to mean these people were no longer taking the sedative in everything they ate, maybe they’d start making some sense.
“Why did you all follow that madman and leave Bryce behind?”
Teacher’s gaze darted to the fire. He stared at the flames and sighed deeply. “I used to play it all over in my head, asking that same question.” He looked up again. “Bryce was born color blind. Was that in his records?”
The question surprised him. “No, I don’t think so.” Mac tried to recall the colonist’s records he’d read on the journey. “That’s a rare condition.”
“Yes. So rare, we hardly test for it anymore.” Teacher looked again at Bryce and shook his head. “His mother was brilliant. But not in a practical sense. She was a good woman, and perfect for the job of Colony Chief. I think as a mother, though, she took much for granted.”
Mac tried to suppress his irritation. As interested in Bryce’s life as he was, he didn’t think this man was the best source of such personal information. “He can obviously see color now.”
“He can, yes.” Teacher’s attention returned to Mac. “Less than a year after our arrival, we noticed his eye color changing. With his mother dead, the colony as a group was responsible for raising him, as we were with all of the children. But no one noticed the difference until well into the change. I quickly realized it was a simple alteration in the rods and cones, and Bryce never mentioned any differences in his vision. It was Five who discovered the boy was seeing color because of the changes. The rest of us took years to change, and there was no effect on our sight.”
Teacher nodded. “Something none of us knew until later. His mother added a program to Five’s operating systems on the trip out here. Always thinking ahead, she encoded special files, making sure her son was looked after. Five was predisposed to keeping tabs on Bryce, and monitoring his whereabouts.” He sighed, and his eyes seemed to lose focus in reflection. “She realized her own attention was too thinly spread, and thought to give herself maternal peace of mind by giving the computer some of the basic responsibilities she had no time for.”
Mac ground his teeth together, imagining the good intentions of a worried parent. “What does that have to do with you all leaving him behind?”
“Bryce’s new discovery of color was a wonder to a young boy who’d previously known only black and white.” Teacher looked up again, meeting Mac’s gaze. “I don’t think he understood it at first. He thought color was a physical thing, not simply an attribute. Because of that, he perceives colors differently than you or I. Or anyone else for that matter. To Bryce, color has meaning, holds its own physical state. It’s not simply part of a thing or its description, but a thing unto itself. For the next two years, I notice his fascination with it. He sees it in far more vivid detail than we do.” Teacher suddenly raised a hand to his lower lip and gazed at the wall for a moment, thinking. “There’s a fruit here, or there used to be. I doubt you’ve seen it, but it’s the same color blue as the leaves of the tree it grows on.”
“I have seen it.”
Teacher nodded, happy to have his point understood. “Then you’ve seen how hard it is to find? The blue blends so perfectly. Bryce can see them as plainly as if they were bright yellow against a black sky.” He smiled almost sadly. “They used to recruit him to harvest that fruit constantly. That’s why it became so rare, you know. He could spot them from quite far away. He can tell by looking if a fruit is ripe or overly grown. He can even see multiple colors where you and I would see only one. And when it came to working that silver, he took to the talent immediately. He could see colors in the metal, or so he claimed.”
“Yes, he’s very clever that way.” Mac felt himself growing impatient. “But that doesn’t answer the question.”
“It came to him one night, in a burst of excitement. I remember. He was in my office, fixing the bioscanner. The boy was around fifteen or sixteen years old and it just came to him offhandedly. Years of fervent study, generations of scientists hoping for the chance to make such a discovery, and this boy figures it out staring at a piece of silver with flashing colored lights.”
Mac fought the urge to reach down Teacher’s throat and pull out the answer. He didn’t want Bryce to wake up.
Teacher inhaled slowly and deeply. A determined resolution crossed his face and he looked at the fire. “Bryce wasn’t able to explain it all, he had no words for the language he’d figured out. But watching those creatures every night–seeing them touch the silver metal with their claws and making the colors appear–he just knew. Somehow. Between him and that damned computer, they came up with a language.” He held out his hands, empty, and looked at them. “That boy could take the metal, work colors into it while it was soft, and make the patterns move with that miner’s glove he used. He did it as easily as you or I type commands on a keyboard.” Teacher lowered his hands and shook his head slowly. “Some of us wanted to believe he could do it, could communicate with the creatures. But the others . . . The others were too afraid by then.”
“Did he do it?” Mac knew the answer before he asked the question, but for once, he wanted to hear one of these people confess it.
Teacher nodded. “He said he’d figured out how they were trying to communicate with us all this time. Trying to make US understand. They’d melt those cages they were using to study them in a blur of color, using just their claws, then assume the occupants didn’t understand and they would attack. One night, months after he started working on his language, he simply walked outside . . . right up to one of them . . . and started ‘talking’.”
It was like pulling teeth in slow motion, with no anesthetic.
“Three of those creatures gathered around him, so from the monitors we couldn’t see what they were doing. But they sat there until close to sunrise.” Teacher looked up at Mac, eyebrows pulled together. “He communicated with them.” It was as if the man still didn’t believe what he’d seen. “That boy marched outside, and communicated with them. He did it every night after that, and begged us to join him, to learn the language. They were intelligent. Sentient life. Something mankind has dreamed of finding for hundreds of years.”
“Then why did you leave?” Mac had to force the calm in his voice. “Why didn’t you learn?”
Teacher sighed and shook his head again. “We didn’t understand. By then, the fear and paranoia were too much. Each time one of us was outside during the full moon, even after Bryce had established his language with the animals, they’d attack and kill. Even after he’d communicated with them, they still used us as food, attacking anything outside during their feeding hours.” He stopped suddenly, swallowing several times. “Even . . . even when he went out with them.”
“What do you mean?”
“One night, Bryce was outside during the full moon. He was talking with the big one, the one that made him the necklace. They were sitting there, doing whatever it was they did to communicate, and one of the other boys walked outside. He was a little older than Bryce, and had been orphaned a year before. But he wanted to see them. He wanted– He just wanted to touch one, I think. But he . . . The animal saw him coming, and for a minute or two it sat there, watching the young boy walk toward him. It was holding something shiny in one clawed hand that seemed to change color. The boy didn’t react to it, he just kept coming. Then he– It–It lunged into the air, screaming like they do. Bryce shouted for the boy to go back inside, but he didn’t. He . . . It was over so quickly.”
Mac’s jaw clamped down tightly, almost painfully. “What happened then?”
Teacher looked shaken. “Bryce tried to warn everyone to stay inside if they weren’t going to communicate. Something about these animals changed if you weren’t connecting with them. This boy didn’t listen. And JD used that as the leverage he needed.”
“To build his empire.”
“Yes. Only he didn’t count on Five. His directive to maintain the colony and all the inhabitants was overridden by the programming Bryce’s mother had encoded. Five’s prime directive was now protecting Bryce, from everyone. JD tried to kill him, I couldn’t stop that. They fought. Bryce was hurt, badly. We all thought he’d been killed. But there wasn’t time to sort things out. Five locked the doors open, and the moon was in its full stage. Some of them tried to break the door locks, others tried to destroy Five, but there wasn’t time. So, we left.” Teacher closed his eyes for a moment. “It was a panic. A mass exodus. JD had already found this place, so we all came here. Five had perceived us all a threat, not just JD. And, seeing as how we all willingly followed the man like sheep, I can’t blame it.”
“So you came here, and stayed. No one tried to go back? No one attempted to make contact with Bryce again? You just stayed here and started drugging yourselves to ease the guilt?”
“I’m not a proud man, Captain. Nor a brave one.” Teacher met Mac’s gaze squarely. “A man like you wouldn’t understand. We were frightened. Foolish. We ran from a young man’s discovery because we couldn’t comprehend it. We ran from the terror of having to reconcile the most violent kind of death we’d ever seen with creatures who could be our alien intellectual equal. We ran from the very thing we’d traveled billions of light years to find because it behaved in a manner so frightening to us.” He shrugged. “And we’ve been paying the price for our sin daily.”
Mac wanted to wring this man’s neck. He wanted to jump to his feet, shout the man into submission, beat the living daylights out of each and every member of the colony. He wanted to march them all outside during the next full moon, set them down under a failing shield generator, and let the animals come. Let them try and numb away a full night of terror. With great restraint, he focused all of his frustration into his jaw muscles and the thick part of his forearms. It was all he could do just to keep their conversation quiet enough not to wake Bryce. This wasn’t the kind of information he wanted JD revealing during their next meeting. Later, maybe outside somewhere quiet, he’d go over all this with his friend.
Suddenly something Teacher said stood out in Mac’s mind. “Did you say one of those creatures made the necklace he wears?”
Teacher nodded. “One night he was out there for hours, then he came back inside with this medallion around his neck. I saw the next night that the big one, the one he first spoke with, was wearing one too. It was identical to Bryce’s, but he never talked about it. That was just a week before we. . . A week before we left.”
“The animal wore one too?” Mac tried to recall the times he’d seen the creatures, to see if he remembered any of them wearing jewelry. He couldn’t.
“Yes. I’ve seen some of them do that. Silver around the neck or waist. Not many of them do, though. I believe it has something to do with rank. At least, it seems logical.”
So, that explained what happened to Bryce. “Why do you all stay here? You must have realized how insane Duffield is long before now. Any number of you could have left whenever you wanted, gone back to the colony. Even if you assumed Bryce was dead, you could have reasoned with Five, or shut him off given enough time.”
Teacher sighed deeply. “It was all too complicated by then. JD has people in power here, people he uses to keep the rest of us in line. He guards the tunnel, and that is the only way out. Unless you can fly over those mountains. And them. He . . . We were studying the creatures here, to a certain degree.” He paused, licking his lips for a moment. “At least, we thought we were. When we realized they lived here–that we hadn’t found a safe haven after all–everything became quite clear.”
“They’re studying you, aren’t they?”
The fact that Mac had guessed the obvious seemed no surprise to the older man. He nodded, shrugging slightly. “We feed them. We supply a variety of cattle and fowl during the full moon. We stay inside when they’re feeding and never try to enter their lairs.” He looked up, meeting Mac’s gaze, unblinking. “We tell ourselves it’s us who have tamed them. And we take the herb to soften the blow. But reality is what it is, Captain. We’re their shepherds. We tend their cattle, breed their livestock, maintain the populations of both fish and fowl. We’ve been . . . domesticated.”
“Who guards the tunnel?”
“Duffield’s men by day, and some of the creatures at night. At least, that’s what we’ve been told. We’re quite properly penned in here.”
“You make great pets.” Mac shook his head, remembering the old line one of his CO’s often recited whenever the conversation swayed toward colonizing alien worlds. “How does Duffield stay in power? Does he speak with the creatures?”
“No. He likes us to think he does. To some degree, I believe they know him as the dominant member of our “pack”, but nothing more. They’ve managed to put up a door, in front of the tunnel entrance, that only his guards can open during the daylight hours. You’d need their transmitter since the opening mechanism is on the inside of the tunnel. But then there are hundreds of miles of open space to cross before you reached the complex. They’d fetch us all back during the night.”
“So you don’t even try?” Mac’s disgust wasn’t something he could hide any longer. The mass cowardice here made him sick. “You expect Bryce to . . . To what–to save you all?”
Teacher looked up, glancing at the sleeping man again. A look of hope flashed in his lavender eyes, but he shook his head slowly from side to side. “No.” The old man gathered his robes and stood, turning toward the doorway. “No, I don’t suppose we have any right to expect that.”
“No, you don’t.” Mac moved to follow Teacher to the door. “But that’s not up to you. Or me.”
The man turned his head, looking back at Mac as if to say something, then nodded sadly and left in a swirl of cloth that vanished quickly down the candle-lit corridor.
Mac stood there watching him leave. He knew he should feel sorry for the old physician, but he couldn’t really muster the emotion. Anyone weak-minded enough to be led like cattle deserved to be treated like them. With a sigh, Mac turned back into the cave. He looked up and found Bryce sitting on his sleeping-pallet, one fur wrapped around his shoulders.
“How long have you been awake?” Mac walked back inside. His hand reached up to finger the medallion around his neck, subconsciously making sure it was still there. The younger man didn’t answer. “You heard it all, didn’t you?” He’d feared the kid might be awake all the while, but he hadn’t had the chance to make sure.
Bryce swallowed, looking down toward the fire. His reply was a slight shrug of both shoulders. The bed was wide enough for him to fold both legs up and lean back against the rock wall, which was where he stayed, wrapped loosely in the sleeping-fur.
Mac felt a twinge of anger tug at the muscles in his jaw. He never would have let Teacher go on like that if he’d known Bryce might be listening. “You need some breakfast. I think I can get something put together from all these supplies here.” He waited until he was given a nod, then moved to the stack of grains and jars of prepared foods stacked in the corner. “I think I can get a pretty good meal out of this.” Mac glanced back at his friend, still sitting on the bed staring into the fire.
Bryce never missed a trick, awake or asleep. If his conversation with Teacher just set the kid back into hiding, he’d never forgive himself the mistake. Maybe he just needed some time to digest it all?
Mac busied himself with the supplies and cooking props he had to assemble over the fire. Bryce seemed to watch him with interest, giving him some hope that his friend hadn’t walled off completely.
“I guess I was wrong about Five.” Mac added water to his mixture of grains and cereals, then found a long spoon he could stir the porridge with. “At least, a little wrong. He still has some explaining to do.” He got settled on a pillow opposite Bryce, keeping an eye on his friend while maintaining a casual monologue. “You know, that night Eckland took you, Five helped me find you.” He glanced up and saw Bryce shifting his position, watching him at the fire. “He even threatened me, if I failed to bring you back alive.”
Bryce blinked, creasing his eyebrows for a moment, but said nothing.
“When we get back, I’ll start teaching you some hand-to-hand techniques. Not because I expect you to need them, but I don’t want to get too lazy myself. It’s a good way to keep in shape. I’d hate to lose my edge after all these years.” Mac stirred the pot’s contents, then found a few spices in their supply stack and added three to the breakfast. Bryce was quiet, but alert. Something Mac took as a good sign. He’d been given a lot to absorb in a short time. His whole world was turning upside down and sideways almost every hour since they found this place. It wasn’t something Mac would expect to be easy. He just wished he knew better how to help.
“Here, breakfast is ready.” He dished up two bowls, found spoons, then carried them both to the bed. Mac sat, holding one bowl out. “You haven’t had a decent meal since lunch yesterday. Eat.”
Bryce brought one hand out from under his blanket and accepted the bowl, then shrugged his other arm free to hold it while he ate.
Breakfast was a continuation of the silence of their morning. Bryce ate the porridge, but declined a refill when Mac took the empty bowl. He set the dishes in a bucket for washing later, then moved the pot from the fire. When he stood up, movement at the door caught his eye.
The guard from last night stood in the doorway, holding the curtain back. “JD requests your company.”
Mac approached, staring the man down. “We’re not in the mood today.”
“I said we’re not in the mood!” Mac lowered his eyelids and gave the guard his best stare of commanding reprimand. It had the desired effect. The guard swallowed convulsively and took a half-step back. “You can tell your boss we’re spending the day alone.” Before the guard could reply, Mac reached out and pulled the curtain out of his hand, shoving it back in place. He was rewarded by the sound of footsteps leaving the area quickly. “It’s time we played this game by our rules.” For a moment, he considered putting the shield back up, to insure their privacy. But he decided against it. They might need the things soon for their escape. Best not to waste the charges.
Bryce shifted again, leaning forward, and ran a hand over his head to push some dark curls away from his face. It was the most animation Mac had seen from him in more than two hours. He walked back to the bed and knelt down in front, resting a hand on one of his friend’s knees.
“Talk to me, kid. We’re in this together, remember?” Lavender eyes blinked, then their gaze lowered to meet his. Bryce reached a hand out and held the medallion hanging from Mac’s neck.
“It’s about friendship.” He spoke quietly, almost to himself, but directed at Mac.
“This silver? Is that what the colors mean?”
Bryce nodded. “I want to make a chain for it, so it doesn’t come off.”
Mac smiled slightly, glad to have his friend back again. “We can do that. You have the tool now, you could use some of this silver in the walls, right?” He reached around the back of his neck and untied the string of leather, then let Bryce take the medallion while he got off the floor and sat beside him on the bed. If he could get the younger man active, he’d be more likely to work through whatever he was struggling with out loud. He hoped. “What does it say, exactly?”
The silver piece was turned over and over in Bryce’s hand as he looked at it, absorbed in thought. “Not exact. Abstract.” He looked up, meeting Mac’s gaze. “The language, it’s abstract.”
Mac nodded. “That makes sense, I suppose. So what does this one mean?”
Bryce looked at the medal again. “A new family. He and I.” He held up the silver. “This means he’s responsible for me. As my protector, and teacher.” Bryce reached a hand up and touched his necklace. “This means I belong in that family. That I’m protected. That I belong.” With both hands, Bryce brought the two medallions together. Where his rested on his neck, he couldn’t see either one, but with both hands he could manipulate them together, one over the other, until they were where he wanted them to be. When he finished, Mac could see how they fit together as one, melding into each other as if they were one solid piece of silver, with slight markings where the patterns fit together. “This means a family. The kind you chose, not the kind you’re born into.”
“That creature made that for you, the big one?”
Bryce pulled the silver pieces apart again and looked at Mac’s, nodding. “He must have died. They buried this with him.”
“Then I should have left it there. I’m sorry I took it. We could return it on the way home.”
“No.” Bryce looked up sharply. “No, it’s yours. This didn’t mean that I was his family, it meant he was mine. It belongs to you now. It shows them who you are. Please, you have to wear this.”
Mac inhaled deeply and slowly. He could feel the inner smile building and didn’t try to hide it. “I’d be honored.” Bryce visibly relaxed, then looked around for something. “You need this?” Mac reached down and retrieved the metal-working glove Teacher had given him.
He watched as his friend slipped on the unit, then pushed aside one of the blankets hanging over the rock walls till he found a silver spot he’d rubbed clean the other night. With the flip of a switch, the glove began a delicate vibration. Fascinated, Mac watched Bryce literally stick his hand into the wall, the silver liquefying as it went. When his hand was in the wall nearly to his palm, he twisted his wrist and pulled back, retrieving a pure, shining glob of silver that he held out, examining.
“That’s some trick.” Mac watched Bryce flip off the control and the silver started to harden again into an oddly shaped blob of metal. “Do you use this glove when you’re making the colors, too?”
Bryce nodded, not looking up. He ran the fingers of his other hand over the silver, then suddenly pushed that hand through his hair, shaking his head. “I don’t know! I can’t sort it all out.”
“Bryce, it’s all right.” Mac put both hands on the younger man’s shoulders. “You’re doing fine, just relax. It’s coming back to you, isn’t it?”
“It’s like– I feel like–” He looked up, eyes filled with emotion. “Every time I turn around, there’s something there I didn’t know before. Something I didn’t remember, sitting there like it’s been around forever. Only I couldn’t find it.” He sighed with complete frustration. “I feel like a stranger inside my own head.”
“I wish I could tell you I knew how you felt, but I can’t.” Mac kept his hands on Bryce’s shoulders, supporting him physically–and emotionally–he hoped. “All I can do is be here to help.”
“Just tell me this is all going to be all right.” Bryce looked up again. “Tell me that and I’ll believe you.”
The eyes meeting his were so filled with faith and trust, it moved Mac deeply. It was a commitment that went far beyond his experience commanding troops and fighting battles. He smiled and gave Bryce’s shoulders a gentle squeeze. “This is all going to be all right. I promise.”
His friend accepted that completely, then looked back at the silver in his hand. Mac watched him work the glob of metal easily and quickly into a string of silver that he secured around the medallion on one side. With an end done, he wrapped the chain around Mac’s neck, positioning the piece just below the hollow of his throat. It took only a few seconds to secure the other end, making a permanent chain that matched Bryce’s.
“There’s only one problem.” Bryce removed his glove and looked at the medallion resting on Mac’s chest. “If this is right, then it didn’t stop them from trying to kill me that night.”
Mac reached up and felt the silver. “I know, I was thinking about that too.” He thought back to that horrific night, and the events leading up to it. “Yours is almost always covered by your shirt, isn’t it? And you were with strangers that night. Then under the shield, and that’s hard enough to see through.” He fought off the chill that memory brought back. The sight of Bryce, torn and bleeding. No hope of rescue until sunrise. “Besides, after ten years of not seeing you, they might have thought you were dead, too.”
“But Five, he–” Bryce shook his head and shrugged out of his blanket altogether. “Five knew the language, too. And if he knew I was speaking with them, why did he keep me inside at night? Why did he make me believe they were so dangerous? And why didn’t he speak with them after the others left? Why keep me from returning to it?”
“I don’t know.” Mac sighed. “That’s something we’ll have to ask him when we get back.”
“But they are dangerous. They’ve killed your people, too.” Bryce got off the bed and walked to his pile of clothes, shaking his head. “All of the pieces aren’t there yet.”
“Don’t worry about a few pieces. Look how much you’ve gotten back as it is.”
Bryce started pulling on clean clothes, the native selection matching what Mac had on that morning. “What do we do next?”
Mac stood. “I want to find West. He knows where the tunnel is, and what we’ll need to get through it. If we can’t find him, we get Teacher to tell us. If it’s guarded by JD’s men during the day, we can get out. Better that, than at night, considering.”
“Considering the fact that they’re out every night?” Bryce pulled a long, cream colored shirt down over his head. Like the other shirts given to them by the residents, this one seemed overly large, draping down halfway to his knees. “They’ve been out there all this time.” He looked up, meeting Mac’s gaze with one of confused apprehension. “Were they just watching us? Why did they hide?”
“I don’t know.” Mac picked up Bryce’s metal-working glove and handed it to him to put with their other equipment under some blankets. “Just keep in mind, all that time we were safe. Maybe they weren’t around. Maybe they only hang out here when it isn’t feeding time. We never saw them before, outside.” He watched Bryce nod slowly, considering the facts. “Remember, this is JD’s own little world here. And he’s just as deluded as the rest of them. What happens here, doesn’t necessarily happen out there.”
“Why can’t the truth ever just stand alone? Why does it always have to be someone’s version of what’s real?”
Mac laughed shortly as they walked out of the cave. “The truth does stand alone. But finding it, that’s another story.” They pushed past the curtain and headed down the candle-lit corridor in search of West. “I know one truth no one can dispute.”
“What’s that?” Bryce seemed comfortable enough walking beside Mac this time, instead of behind him.
“That you’ve made a breakthrough discovery in communication. You’ve managed to do something science has failed at for centuries.” Mac caught the look Bryce shot him and laughed quietly inside. Sometimes the simplest compliment could really throw the kid for a loop. “They’re going to have to rethink their definition of intelligent life and sentient beings, after this. Not to mention signs of communication and alternate languages.”
Bryce laughed shortly. “You’re forgetting one thing. No, two things.”
“First, if I was successful, I can’t seem to do it anymore. Second, the entire world IS us. No one else will ever know what we’ve done here on Oblivion.”
Mac stopped, turning to face Bryce. “You were successful. And you can still do it. It’s coming to you.” He moved his hand and gave his friend’s shoulder a hard squeeze to emphasize his conviction. “And we didn’t do anything, this was all you, kid.” He turned to proceed down the hallway but Bryce stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“No, you’re wrong.” He pulled Mac back around to face him and met his gaze with seriousness. “I may have done something years ago, but I lost it. It wasn’t doing anyone any good if I couldn’t remember. Especially me.”
“No, I’m serious. If it hadn’t been for you, none of this would be any use to anyone. I wouldn’t have remembered. Those people would have forced me to bring it back and it wouldn’t have worked. Like you said, it had to come or not come. And when it did, you believed me. You let it happen, no matter how confusing or crazy it–or I–got.” He shook his head. “If it weren’t for you, I’d still be some crazed lunatic hiding in the basement. Or worse.”
“All right.” Mac stopped it there. “I don’t believe you, but all right. If you want me to share the credit, I’ll stand beside you and wave. How’s that?”
Bryce nodded, apparently content with the situation. “Good.” He turned and they began walking through the corridors again. “Not that it matters to anyone else, but good.”
“In the end, we’re the only ones that matter.”
They continued down toward the main cavern, looking for West. As soon as other members of the group began filling the corridors and caves, Bryce took his position beside and slightly behind Mac.
“Do you think the tunnel is around here somewhere? In these caves?” Bryce leaned closer even though no one was near enough to hear his questions.
“It stands to reason.” Mac stopped on a level just above the main cavern where he could scan the people milling about. “If they use guards during the day, and let the gargoyles watch it at night, or just use these people’s fear to do the trick, they wouldn’t be far from here. They’d have to basically change guards quick enough to keep anyone from making a break during sunset, and still get themselves inside before dark.” He looked down at the colonists, searching for West. “Do you remember what he looks like?”
Beside him, Bryce shrugged.
Mac laughed shortly and shook his head. “You don’t, do you?”
“He doesn’t mean anything to me.”
That was the kid’s answer to just about everyone. It was amazing how he could so easily erase someone’s face from his mind. Anyone who didn’t matter, simply didn’t matter!
Mac heard footsteps approach from their right and felt Bryce press into his side as a woman stepped up to them, smiling. Mac turned to face the visitor, allowing his partner to move to get a few steps farther back. She looked harmless. A slightly built woman in her mid to late forties, long dark hair with streaks of gray hung down thickly over bony shoulders. When she smiled, the gap between two front teeth drew attention.
“Do you remember me, Bryce? I’m Tara. I taught you the plants and herbs here. Remember?” She glanced at Mac. “I was the botanist . . . before.” Her gaze fell back on Bryce and she reached a hand out, aiming for his chest.
Bryce pulled back quickly, avoiding the touch he so despised from other people. His quick movement brought a startled reaction from the woman, and the hand hesitated, hovering between the two of them.
Confused, she looked at her hand as if it alone had caused fear. When she looked at Bryce again, she seemed puzzled. “I was the botanist. I taught you about the plants here. I taught you how to use the herbs, how to brew the tea.”
Again she reached out for Bryce, but this time he stepped away. “No. No, I don’t remember you.”
Disappointed, she looked at Mac again. “He doesn’t remember me?”
Mac sighed, then cocked his head to the side and shrugged slightly. “I’m sorry, there’s a lot he doesn’t recall. And probably never will.”
Tara looked from Mac to Bryce, then back again. “Will he be leaving? Going back to the complex?”
Mac glanced at Bryce. “Yes, we’ll be leaving soon.”
“That’s why we stopped, so we’d be ready.” She turned to Bryce but let her hand fall to her side. “We’ve stopped dulling the pain. You’ll take us back, won’t you?”
Bryce shot Mac a look, swallowing hard. He refused to address Tara. “She might know where the tunnel is.”
Mac looked at the woman. “Do you?”
Tara nodded, then something behind them both caught her eye and caused her to gasp slightly. “I can’t say.” She turned and hurried away without a look back.
“Let me guess,” Mac turned to face the owner of the footsteps he’d heard coming up from behind. “Duffield wants to see us.”
The guard stepped aside and pointed up a carved alley. “He has to see you both, right away.” One hand moved to the man’s belt and revealed the same style of stun weapon that had dropped Mac and Bryce in the tunnels. “I’m not to take no for an answer.”
Beside him, Bryce tensed.
“I suppose we could spare a few minutes.” Mac put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, then led the way back up to Duffield’s level. He refused to rush, and paused several times when they reached a more open area so he could scan around for West. Twice he asked passers-by if they’d seen the man, but no one had. Everyone they passed seemed quickly intimidated by the escort walking behind them. Mac glanced over his shoulder once to see if the man was giving them any threatening glances or passing remarks, but it seemed as if his mere presence set these people off. Or the fact that he was armed, and no one else carried weapons.
Either way, Mac was on full alert. He maintained as casual an attitude as he could. Beside him, Bryce appeared to be picking up on his clues, and kept calm but wary. They both entered JD’s rooms without hesitation while the guard stopped at the door. Mac quickly assessed what he found inside. To the far left, Duffield was pacing with frustrated swirls of his white robes, while Eckland and another armed guard stood next to a slab near the opposite wall. On the slab he saw a heavy blanket, covering what was unmistakably a body, presumably human. Teacher stood quietly in a corner, looking worried.
“There he is!” Eckland was the first to take notice of the new arrivals. He pointed and took a step forward, but the guard put a hand on his shoulder and hauled him immediately back.
Mac looked at him with narrowed eyes, then turned to Duffield. “What’s this all about?”
JD had stopped pacing and stood glaring at Eckland. He turned to Mac and shot Bryce a quick glance. “We have a slight problem, gentlemen.” At a wave of his hand, the guard standing with Eckland moved to the slab and pulled a corner back.
It wasn’t surprising to see West lying there, stiff in death. Mac inhaled slowly and deeply, collecting his thoughts, but Bryce said nothing. “Looks like the wrong man died.” Mac looked at Eckland. “Was it a fair fight, or did you just stab him in the back?”
Eckland shook his head, looking at JD. “I told you he’d accuse me.”
“As you have accused him.” Duffield gestured angrily, pointing at him with a shaking finger.
“That’s ridiculous.” Bryce stared at JD, completely ignoring Eckland’s presence. “Mac isn’t a murderer, but Eckland is. You should know that well enough.”
JD’s face burned red for an instant and Mac mentally applauded Bryce’s comment.
“The problem we have is one man’s death, and two suspects.” JD’s voice showed his lack of control. His attempts to sound casual resulted in a shaking tone. “The last time Mr. West was seen alive was yesterday morning, at breakfast in the main gallery.”
He crossed the room but stayed several paces from everyone, pushing at his long robes with one arm so they would billow out behind him. Mac found the effect very comical.
“He was found dead early this morning, with a knife in his back.”
“Found by who?” Mac easily injected the proper amount of indifference in his own voice with complete success. It was obvious where Duffield was heading with this.
“Found by our esteemed Mr. Eckland.” JD drawled, glancing at Mac. “Which is suspicious enough as it is.”
Mac casually glanced at Bryce, hoping his partner was going to be able to stay calm. Bryce returned the look with intense apprehension in his eyes, but his body language–while still pressed close to Mac–remained quiet.
“Neither of us has any weapons, you saw to that.” Mac nodded toward Eckland. “I’ve witnessed him in one attempted murder already. And you hired him yourself for that. I’d say it’s a fair guess he’s your man.”
JD’s face burned red again and he paced a few feet to regain some composure. “I can see Mr. Eckland is capable of many things, lying being only one.” He stopped next to his guard. “There’s only one sure way to find out which of you is guilty.”
Mac tensed, his jaw muscles tightening. He hadn’t wanted an all-out fight, not here. Just finding the tunnel and getting out of here was going to be hard enough. Being pressed into a battle on Duffield’s terms–or Eckland’s–was something he’d hoped to avoid. Bryce might not be ready to react, even if his actions at the river had been right. They hadn’t had time to work on fighting strategies. A fact he was going to rectify first thing after they got home.
“I’m placing you both under arrest. Not Bryce, since I don’t think he’s capable of managing something like this on his own.” JD shot Bryce a look of pure contempt. “He’s not even half the man he was.”
“Wait a minute here!” Eckland stepped forward but was again restrained by the guard. “You never said anything about arresting me!”
It happened too quickly. Eckland’s outburst distracted Mac for the split second the other guard had required to come in behind them. The same man who had escorted them inside reached out to push Bryce away from Mac. The instant his hand touched the younger man’s shoulder, Bryce shied back then pushed forward, knocking the armed man off balance.
Mac was in mid-turn, reaching for the weapon, when it discharged, hitting Bryce in the chest. He went down instantly, stunned unconscious from the energy blast even before he hit the ground. Mac’s body responded to the sudden change in direction immediately. He caught his friend a few feet from the ground and went down with him.
“No!” JD rushed to the guard. “I told you not to hurt him!”
Bryce was limp in Mac’s arms, but the pulse under his probing fingers was steady. Mac felt his mind snap fully and completely into soldier mode. A battle-calm settled over him as he lowered his friend gently to the soft dirt floor. When he looked up at the guard, the man visibly flinched, gulping convulsively.
“That was a mistake.” Mac got to his feet without taking his eyes from the man he was going to attack. He heard the footsteps behind him and ducked instinctively left. A bolt of energy seared past his right arm. The man who fired stared disbelievingly at the wall his blast slammed into. Mac moved to club the weapon from his outstretched hand, but he never made contact.
Pain throbbing sharply behind his left ear brought Mac slowly back to consciousness. He remembered enough not to open his eyes immediately, but he felt lucky to even remember that through the pain. One by one, his other senses came back online through the haze. He was lying on his back, on something hard and cold. There didn’t seem to be any other pain, but the knifing in his head was bad enough. Sounds of someone else nearby came next to his awareness. It wasn’t Bryce, he knew that. Whoever it was stayed far enough away for distance to mute the sound of his breathing. Okay. Gravity, atmosphere, pain. You’re alive.
Mac slowly reached a hand up to his forehead where it could hold the scattered remains of his brain in place while he sat up. Bryce had been hit, he knew that. Forcibly, he opened his eyes and rolled off the slab of stone he was lying on and tried to search the area before he could even focus.
“He’s not here.”
Eckland’s voice bounced to Mac off solid rock walls. He blinked twice, then looked around again when he could see more clearly. They were in a high-ceilinged cave lit by candles and three oil burning torches strapped to the walls. The doorway was narrow, so small Mac would have to turn sideways to get through it. But there’d be no getting through the solid, silver slab covering the exit. Bryce was nowhere to be found.
“Where is he?” Mac glared at Eckland, using the pounding in his head as a focus. The hand holding his head together moved to the back and felt the lump and dried blood coating his short hair. Unbelievable! Blindsided by a group of colonists.
“I don’t know. They threw me in here with you. I think Teacher has him.”
The only thing keeping Mac from lunging off the stone slab and pulling Eckland’s brain through one eye was the pounding in his own head. He knew if he tried to get up too quickly, he’d end up face down in the dirt, probably unconscious again.
“We’ve both been set up, Brennan.”
Mac stared at the man, incredulous. “We?” He stood slowly, gritting his teeth against the throbbing pain. Bryce could be waking up by now, he had to get out of here and find him. “You killed West, didn’t you?”
“He tricked me. I should have seen it coming.” Eckland shook his head but remained sitting on the stone pallet opposite Mac. “It was brilliant, in a devious way. I should have seen it.”
Mac walked to the slab of silver blocking the doorway. Obviously working the silver wasn’t forbidden for someone. Probably Duffield himself. Of course the rules wouldn’t apply to the ruler, would they? “He must have one of the tools here. A big one.” He touched the slab, then let his fingers feel the edges for a hinge or mechanism. Any quick movement drew a sharp knife of pain through the back of his skull.
“It’s no use. They won’t let us out till the moon’s nearly full.” Eckland sighed and sat back, watching Mac. “You know, I’m surprised your friend didn’t try to kill me himself the other day.”
The silver door was solid, and seemed to melt into the rock walls on either side of the entryway. Mac turned and glanced around their small room. “Bryce doesn’t care if you die or not.” He moved along the wall, studying the rock and glancing up. It seemed as if fresh air was wafting down from above, but he couldn’t see an opening. “Don’t mistake that for forgiveness, Eckland. He just doesn’t care. Living alone for ten years put things into a perspective for Bryce that you could never hope to understand. Personally, I’d like to see you dead.”
“You may get your wish, if they get me first.”
Mac shot him a look. “This was your doing.”
Eckland pointed to his own chest, staring at the silver medallion hanging from Mac’s neck. “You’ve gone native, haven’t you?”
“I came here to help build new lives, not destroy them.” Mac turned back to his examination of the wall, trying hard to force the pain in his head to level off so he could manage it. “It’s better to join the natives than to betray them.”
Applause, slow and deliberate, reverberated off the rock walls. “It must kill you, being a soldier and all.” Eckland stood and brushed the dust from his butt. “Some war hero. A group of scientists and engineers got the better of you so easily.”
It was the last straw. Mac spun around, catching the man off guard, and took two handfuls of shirt. Before Eckland could react, he’d been slammed into the rock wall, losing his breath with a stunned grunt. Mac pressed his face close and felt his body push past the pain, coming to full readiness. With his own eyes inches from his enemy, he glared at a face breaking into a sudden, fearful sweat. His voice remained deadly calm.
“You listen to me, Eckland. I’ve had it with you and your schemes, plots, attempted murders and secret agendas! If I didn’t think it might jeopardize Bryce’s safety, I’d snap your neck right here and now!” Mac pressed the man harder against the wall and felt him try to squirm away without success. “But as it stands, I have to let you live. So you’re gonna start explaining everything, in plain English. Everything that’s going on here and the part you’re playing! Or I’m gonna kick your lily ass right through that solid door and find out for myself!” Eckland squirmed again and Mac shoved his fists harder into the man’s chest, pinning him against the rocks. “And if anything happens to Bryce because of you, there won’t be enough pieces left to identify your remains.” With one last shove, he released Eckland and had the satisfaction of watching him stumble on some rocks trying to regain his balance.
“It’s not about me, it’s about him!” Eckland found his footing and moved aside, nervously tugging at his shirt. “They’re doing this to lure him out. They need his help.”
“For what?” Mac glared, speaking through clenched teeth. The pain in his head threatened unconsciousness if he moved again, but he forced it back.
Eckland backed away further, looking like a frightened animal in a cage. “Duffield needs him. He needs his help to dominate the rest of this world.”
“He has to show him how it’s done. How to talk to those animals. JD has been trying to figure out what Bryce did, and how, so he can communicate with the creatures, control them.”
“Bryce wouldn’t do that.” The pain required some attention, so Mac brought a hand up to rub his forehead, trying to distract himself from it.
“No, not for Duffield, he wouldn’t.” Eckland had reached the far wall and could back up no further. “But he will for you.”