when free is expensive

For the record, I don’t lease cars. I buy them. But just now I was listening to the radio and one of those commercials came on, where a dealership is telling you that you could lease one of their brand new cars for NO MONEY DOWN! Yes, that’s right, just sign on the dotted line and they’ll had you the keys. Then it’s just monthly payments for however many months you keep it.

Oh, but hang on, you’ll have to pay tax. And licensing. And dealer fees. And a few thousand more things. So your FREE lease agreement is going to be free, after you give them $2,640.00.

That makes about as much sense as finding a sweater on sale, from $100.00 to $60.00, buying it, and claiming you’ve just saved $40.00 ! No, you didn’t just save $40, you spent $60. And it’s probably a sweater you didn’t need, and wouldn’t have bought if you hadn’t seen this big red Sale sign. I once had this conversation with a clerk at The Body Shop:

“Did you know that if you spend another $15.00 on products today, you’ll save $5.00 on your entire purchase?”

“No, thank you.”

“But, you’re just buying Banana Conditioner. If you spend another $15.00 today, you’ll get $5.00 in savings on your whole purchase price.”

“I don’t want anything else, thanks.”

“Are you sure there isn’t something else you’d like? Some shampoo, or scented oils, or a loofa?”

“Listen, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but you’re asking me to spend another $10.00, and there’s nothing else I need today.”

“No, you misunderstood. If you spend another $15.00, you’ll get $5.00 off the whole price. That’s five dollars OFF your entire purchase.”

“Yes, but that means I’d be spending $10.00 more than I want. So instead of saving me five dollars, you’re asking me to spend ten more.”

The blank look on her face was a sad reminder that my property taxes paid for her education.

This next chapter, however is completely free, and worth every penny!

Chapter 19

Mac hooked the miner’s glove to his belt along with the forgotten shield, and half led, half carried Bryce off the plateau and down the ridge to the river. The sun had just cleared the mountains when they reached the bank.

“Let’s get some rest here. I’m all sweaty, I need a swim.” Mac kept his arm around Bryce’s shoulders until the younger man was safely sitting on the grass, stifling a huge yawn.

“Duffield’s men might head out after us when Eckland gets to them.”

Mac looked at the next rise blocking their view of the valley and caves beyond. “I don’t think he’ll bother. There’s only one way out. He knows that.” Mac pulled off his belt and let the glove and shield fall to the soft ground. “If he sends his men out he’d be less able to stop us from leaving if we managed to get past them.” He pulled off his shirt and let it fall next to the belt. “We’re safe enough here, get some sleep. I’m too wired.” The pants were next. He was so anxious for a good soak he nearly tripped pulling them off. “Man, so much happened so fast my head is spinning.”

“Welcome to my world.”

“Yeah.” Mac nodded toward the river. “Listen, get some rest. I’ll keep an eye out while I’m washing up.”

Bryce nodded, then almost reluctantly let himself lie back on the grass. He was asleep in seconds.

The river was a cold shock to his system. When Mac surfaced from his initial dive, the worst of the chill was just beginning to dissipate. Sunlight was already hitting that section of the valley, promising to raise the surface of the water back up to the temperature he’d remembered the other day. He swam several yards upstream, then back down again before finding a good spot to stand and clean up properly. Dried blood still caked the back of his hair, making his scalp itch.

Mac was hardly aware of what he was doing. His hands automatically went about the task of cleaning off twenty-four hours of sweat and blood while his mind tried hard to sift through everything that had happened. It was all so complex, and yet in a way, beautifully simple and pure. The gargoyles–or rather–Shavid-eye as they were called, had proven not only intelligent and gentle, but he suspected they were superior to human kind in many ways. Granted, they were ways which most people wouldn’t agree with. But the military man in him admired their sense of simplicity and order. If it didn’t communicate, it was food. If it was trainable, use it. But if it did have demonstrated intelligence, share knowledge with it freely.

And the language! Once he’d gotten the hang of finding the proper combination of syllables and sounds to mimic the colors and patterns they showed him, then put those sounds into newly formed words he could put to memory–the language was astounding! Mac’s mind was still reeling with the amount of information he’d absorbed throughout the night. Both Naya and Yanai delighted in showing their new student the words for everything they could find, and then some. He learned everything from grass to the moon, the articles of clothing he was wearing, the parts of both the human and Shavid-eye body. With each new word, his time spent finding the proper sounds to mirror the pattern and color decreased. And that in turn increased his teacher’s delight.

Mac was sure Katherine and the others would pick up on this new language quickly, once they learned the truth. In the months since he’d landed here, in all of his speculations about what had truly happened to the first colony, he’d never expected this. That first bloody encounter had set the stage for his own–and everyone else’s–assumption that they were dealing with an animal. Like the sharks of Earth’s seas or the tick worm that invaded Mars colony, he assumed these creatures were simply animals. Eating machines with no real emotion or creative thought processes to get in the way of survival and procreation.

Before he knew it, the sun was high overhead. Mac shook himself back into the here and now and got out of the river. He used his shirt to dry off with, then slipped back into his pants and sat on the warm grass next to his sleeping friend. They’d have to go back through the caverns to get out of this valley, and he really should be putting his mind to that task. But his thoughts were still too muddled with so many new discoveries.

Beside him, Bryce stirred and opened his eyes, squinting through the sun to find Mac. “Are we going back now?”

“No, not yet.” Mac settled back, leaning on his hands, and stretched long legs out in front of him. “We’ll stay out here for the day, then head back near sunset. Go back to sleep.”

“I let the others go. Did I tell you that?”

Mac blinked, meeting Bryce’s tired gaze. “No. What do you mean?”

“They cornered me at that tunnel entrance. I don’t even know how I got there, but they wouldn’t let me go until I opened it for them.”

“And?” Bryce’s statement had been so casually delivered, Mac could hardly comprehend the importance of what he was saying.

Bryce shrugged. “So I did. They left and got out of my way.”

“So they’re gone? That could be interesting.” His brain was too tired now to deal with that bit, so he filed it away for contemplation later. “At least you know where that tunnel is now. Once we get back, we can explain to the others how your language works. We could be on the brink of a whole new colony. A meeting of cultures, if you will.”

“Yeah.” Bryce shrugged again. He pressed his face into the grass and got comfortable again. “That’s what I thought the first time, too.”

“Right.” Mac sighed and looked out over the landscape. “Well, maybe this time they’ll listen.”

The sun was baking the last of the river’s chill from his bones, promising a warm late summer day. He knew, deep down, that his colony members would listen. As soon as they learned that the Shavid-eye were intelligent, and how to communicate with them, they would all jump at the chance. He was sure of it. How could they not? After all, they’d only been here a few months. The first colony had been plagued for years before one young boy figured out the answer. It was no wonder they’d all panicked and fled, faced with the thought that their worst nightmare could be their cultural equal.

Mac ran a hand over his short hair, then gently felt the bump on the back of his head. It was already shrinking, and the headache was completely gone. He really wanted to put the glove back on and practice what he’d learned, but to do that would wake Bryce. The kid had been through hell and back so many times lately, he wasn’t about to keep him from a few good hours of sleep.

The language was fascinating, and impossible to practice in your head. The glove had to translate the vibrations through the air and your own hand in order to form the shapes and colors. And one incorrect vowel sound or improperly enunciated tone could make the difference between ‘grass’ and ‘fruit’, as he quickly learned. Trying to repeat the word Naya had used instantly brought him an offering of dinner from one of the more bashful ones watching his learning attempts.

Mac sighed and glanced at the ridge again for any signs of visitors. There was too much to absorb in one night, and they did have more pressing matters to attend to. Duffield’s plan to violently force Bryce’s abilities back had worked. And for that Mac wanted to both kill the man, and thank him. But he was convinced killing would win out. To do that, he had to get back to the caverns, where Eckland had no doubt already run to spread the news. Which meant they’d be expected, and Duffield would know his plan worked. What he meant to do with that information was still to be seen.

But it was a sure bet Mac wouldn’t like it. So they’d make their own plans.

Bryce had found the tunnel. How or where was a mystery, but he had. Mac glanced down at the sleeping form. Everything was so matter-of-fact with him, so black and white. Mac truly admired that, especially in the face of the total chaos that had been Bryce’s life for so long. Condemned by virtue of his mother’s career choice to life on one single planet, orphaned almost immediately; subjected to nightly terror for month after month, year after year, watching members of his group dying horrific deaths–only to then find the answer that could have saved them all, and been abandoned because of it.

Those people had to pay for what they did. Duffield had to pay for what he did. But first things first. He wanted to get Bryce out of this valley and back home. Now that they knew the truth, they were in control. All they had to do was get past JD and the guards, get back to the ship and radio for Ben and the others. Then go home, regroup, and deal with it.

Mac closed his eyes and eased himself down to the grass. From the angle of the ground, he could quickly open one eye and see the ridge where any visitors would cross in plenty of time. He put his instincts on automatic and let his tired mind get some rest. In a few hours, he’d go find some fruit for a meal then work out a game plan with Bryce. But for now, the sun’s warmth was begging him to nap.

The colors were everywhere. He’d seen them before, all the time, but never really looked at them until now. Mac gazed out the view port to the stars beyond. All his life they’d been there, sparkling white against a cold, lifeless blackness. Only now he could see color all around him. The stars weren’t just white, but blue and purple. There were nebulas where he’d never known them before, shimmering with color that seemed alive. It was as if the color was talking to him. He strained against the seat restraints, pressing his face closer against the screen. Yes, the colors were speaking to him! Using some strange kind of language he couldn’t understand. It was as if space itself was speaking all around him. And he could hear it, too. A deep, rumbling kind of sound that changed with the colors.

Space was alive! All this time, the lifeless void that could suck the very breath from a man’s lungs in an instant was alive and trying to speak to him. Mac felt suddenly compelled to go out and communicate with the stars. He turned away from the view port and unhooked his safety harness. His wingman’s frozen body still clung to the outside of his ship, but maybe the stars hadn’t been speaking when he died. Perhaps they were trying to end this senseless war, stop the ravaging and needless death surrounding them. If he could only communicate with them, then maybe he’d understand.

Mac reached for the escape hatch and popped the lock.

“No!”

“What?” Bryce pushed himself off the ground with a start, eyes darting around, searching for the cause of such alarm.

“Oh, man.” Mac shook his head, then waved a hand in apology for the rude awakening. “Sorry, just a dream.”

Bryce nodded sleepily, then yawned and looked at the sky. “It’s late.”

“It’s still afternoon. We’ve got time.” Mac stretched both arms over his head, then reached for his shirt and pulled it over his head. The dream was quickly fading from memory as his stomach growled for attention. “I’m gonna get us some fruit.” He got up, then offered Bryce a hand to help him to his feet. “The water’s probably warmer now, if you want to get cleaned up.”

“That bad, huh?” Bryce smiled tiredly then shook his head. “Never mind, I could use a wash.”

Mac laughed, then headed downstream for the berry bushes growing near a huge boulder. After collecting several branches of large red berries, he gathered as many wedge fruit as he could carry from the nearby tree and walked back to their spot on the grass. Bryce was just coming back from the river, shirt in hand, ringing water from his long dark hair.

“Do you think those people headed back for the complex last night?” Bryce sat on the grass next to Mac and picked up a berry-laden branch.

“I suppose they would. They didn’t seem afraid to be outside at night if it wasn’t a full moon. Your Shavid-eye friends had them trained pretty well.” Mac bit into a wedge fruit and fingered the miner’s glove. “I get the feeling they’re smarter than we are in some respects.”

“Yeah.” Bryce picked at the berries, shaking his head.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t . . . It’s . . .” He fell silent and stared at the branch, obviously struggling with a thought. “I have a memory now of them, a very pleasant one. I can’t really bring back specifics or anything, but I get this general feeling of–I guess wonder–when I think of them.” Bryce looked up at Mac. “But I also have the other memories. The killing, the blood, the . . . eating.” He swallowed and shook his head. “I can’t seem to bring those two together. The Shavid-eye are my friends, my family, and yet I still feel the same terror if I try imagining myself outside at night.” He shrugged and picked at the branch with frustrated grabs. “I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s all right to feel confused right now.”

“No.” Bryce shook his head decisively then met Mac’s gaze again. “You don’t have a problem with it. You’ve seen them kill, and now you’ve talked with them. You’re not afraid of them at all now, and you have every reason to feel safe. I know they’ll never hurt me now. Now that I remember. But I’m still terrified of . . .”

“Of being alone again?”

Bryce let his gaze fall to the grass and nodded. “You could respect them as animals when you thought that’s all they were. Now you can admire them for their intelligence. And you have no trouble dealing with that change.”

“Listen, Bryce. You have to understand, no one can possibly say what is or isn’t right for you to think or feel. No one has ever been through what you have. They can’t hold you up to any standard of behavior any more than you can hold yourself up to one and make comparisons.” Mac paused, watching his friend’s expression for any hint he was really hearing what was being said. “You admire me for how I can cope with the change in how we view these creatures. That’s nothing compared to how you’ve coped with everything this planet, and these people, have thrown at you.”

The younger man stopped plucking at the berry branch and looked up, meeting Mac’s gaze.

“You made contact with an alien intelligence.” Mac leaned forward, emphasizing his point with a serious tone. “That’s no small thing. You’ve got a language here, a relationship, with creatures just as highly developed as we are, if not more so.”

He seemed to ponder that for a moment, then raised a shoulder in a half-shrug.

“It’s got to feel good to have those questions finally answered, at least.”

Bryce sighed and looked out over the landscape for a moment before answering. “It feels like I always knew.” He turned back to Mac. “I didn’t know, until now. But it feels like I always did.”

“Memories are funny that way.” Mac handed him a wedge fruit. “So, am I right in assuming that these,” He touched the medallion dangling from his neck. “Are the written language? And what we did all night, that was their spoken language?”

Bryce nodded, pulling a bit of wedge fruit skin away with his teeth. “Yeah, that’s right. In order to get the metal to hold color, you have to work various things into it. Just the oils, not really the actual plant or leaf or whatever you’re using.” He bit into the fruit and stared for a while at the medallion, seemingly lost in a thought.

“What you said back there, when you told them Eckland wasn’t “the one”. What was that about?” Mac picked up a berry branch and idly picked at the fruit, watching Bryce.

“They wanted to know if he was the one who left me, back then. They can’t tell people apart very well.”

Mac nodded. He couldn’t help compare that trait to one his friend exhibited. “What would they have done if you’d said he was?”

Bryce shrugged. “Killed him, I suppose. But I don’t understand why he was out here with you.”

The younger man’s casual attitude was no longer surprising in regards to Eckland’s life or death. But Mac still vowed justice when they returned to their version of civilization. “Just a convenient way for Duffield to be rid of him, I’m sure. That whole murder set up was designed to split us up one way or the other, but he needed both of us alive for this to work. Eckland just got used, that’s all.”

“And I played right into his hands, didn’t I?”

“No.” Mac shook his head and discarded the berries. “You did everything right. If it happened to be the same thing Duffield wanted, that’s his problem. We’re not giving him what he ultimately wants, and that’s you. Or rather, what you can do.”

“If he thinks I’m going to teach him how to talk to them, he’s wrong.” Bryce tossed the wedge fruit rind away with some force. “Just because I remembered how doesn’t change anything.”

“No, it doesn’t. But I don’t think he bargained on you letting his people out of this valley, either. Now he probably figures he can gather them back soon enough, since there’s a full moon only a couple of nights away. Still, that had to alter his plans slightly. If nothing else, it bought us some distraction.” Mac contemplated the layout of the caverns in his mind’s eye. “Did they all leave? Every one of them?”

Bryce shook his head slowly. “No, not all of them. Some were still wandering around when I got outside. I think they didn’t all want to leave.”

“Good. So he’s got some sheep to deal with, still.”

“How does that help us.”

“Knowledge helps us.” Mac stood and wiped dirt from his pants, then looked down at his friend. “The more we know, the better prepared we’ll be.”

“What are we going to do?” Bryce looked up, eyebrows creased with concern. “He’s got armed guards, and there’s only one way in.”

Mac reached a hand down and pulled Bryce to his feet. “I’ve counted five guards, all total. How about you?”

“I suppose.” Bryce pulled his shirt on, then picked up the glove and secured it to his belt. “Then there’s JD and Eckland.”

“We’ve got friends, too.” Mac put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder, then steered him toward the shallow section of the river where they could cross more easily. “If I did it right, I’ve asked our Shavid-eye friends to come to the caverns tonight.”

Bryce paused for a second, looking up at Mac. “Why?”

“Well, I was going to introduce them to their pets. Let the colonists know that they could, if they chose, communicate and learn from each other. But, since you’ve let them out, and we’ve got Duffield to deal with, we just might need a little help convincing him to let us leave.”

Mac kept their pace slow and easy, making sure their return trip used up what was left of the daylight. He put the glove back on and practiced the words he’d learned with Bryce’s help, then learned a few more on the way. Some of the pronunciations came back to the younger man quickly and easily, where others took time. Bryce seemed able to remember color patterns in conjunction with the proper item more readily than the syllables required to produce them.

“You said they live for thousands of years, didn’t you?” Mac removed the glove and rubbed his sweating right hand.

“Yeah. I’m not sure exactly how long, but I think they do live about a thousand or so.” Bryce accepted the glove and started to hook it to his belt.

“I want you to put that on when we get inside. Just keep it ready, okay?”

“Are we going in now?”

“We’re going to take this head on, partner. Stick with me, and we have nothing to be afraid of.”

“No worries there.”

Mac glanced at the darkening sky, then looked ahead at the cavern entrance several yards away. From below, they could see shadows moving in the orange light of JD’s rooms. “Yellow light doesn’t really keep them away, does it? They just don’t see yellow.”

“It’s like darkness to them.” Bryce slid his right hand into the glove and fingered the glob of silver in his left. “They can’t see the color, so they can’t see by its light, either.”

“Good.” Mac stepped forward, approaching the side entrance with confidence.

“You know how to do that, don’t you?” Bryce hurried to keep up, staying slightly behind Mac as they got closer to the caves. “You can just reach into my head and make me remember stuff just by asking a question.”

Mac grinned down at his friend but didn’t stop their approach. “It’s more the other way around.” Before Bryce could question his reply, Mac pushed the curtain aside and led the way straight back in to the caverns.

The main floor was nothing like the meeting place they’d seen before. Tables and pillows littered the floor where fires burned in their pits heating empty pots. Voices echoed through the huge chamber as people scattering about, making frightful sounds and dropping items off high ledges in their scurry to gather belongings. Stragglers who either stayed late out of fear, or wanted to pillage what their former cave-mates had left behind. A woman, wild-eyed and disheveled, ran past them, both arms laden with goods. She didn’t pause or take note of either man in her dash for an empty pot half buried in the dirt.

Mac glanced up to Duffield’s level. There were no guards outside the door. He headed to the nearest walkway leading up, keeping both eyes and ears on full alert. In the distance, authoritative shouts echoed down a hallway, ordering unseen people back to their rooms. Five guards. Probably at least two of them had been sent on round-up patrol, possibly even down the tunnel and out. There was at least one up and to their left, shouting orders that apparently went unheeded. Erring on the side of caution, Mac judged there to be at least three still up there with Duffield.

“Okay, we have a choice to make.” Mac paused, looking down at his partner. “We end this guy’s god complex once and for all. Or we head for the tunnel and leave him here.”

Bryce shook his head once, decisively. “He tried to kill you. If we leave him here, he could do it again.”

Mac inhaled slowly and glanced over Bryce’s shoulder for a moment. He’d come here to make a new life. To help the colonists set up a new corner of civilization. In doing that, he brought the justice all of humanity had agreed to live by, and he was sworn to uphold. “Listen, as much as I’d love to. . .” He sighed again and met Bryce’s gaze. “We have to bring him back. Back to the complex and the others. They’ll have to decide what happens.”

“Eckland, or JD?”

“Both.” Mac searched his partner’s lavender eyes. It occurred to him then, oddly, that the color was looking more and more normal in a familiar way. “Are you okay with that? Do you understand why?”

Bryce glanced down, then shrugged slightly and nodded. “Whatever we have to do. As long as they can’t hurt you again, I don’t care what happens.”

Mac took that as acceptance, then turned back toward their intended goal. “Let’s go then.”

A few yards from the unguarded entrance, Eckland’s voice could be heard bouncing from the walls inside as he argued with JD.

“It won’t work, dammit! I’m telling you, they know him! They remembered him from before!”

“Shut up, you spineless fool! I haven’t come all this way to fail. Obviously my plan worked. Now I just have to get the little devil to show me how it’s done. Then I can get my sheep back.”

Mac stopped at the entrance and shot a glance through a small opening in the wall ahead. “It’s sunset. We’ll have help the instant you need it. I hope.”

“Don’t worry, I think you’re right.” Bryce put the solid glob of silver into his right hand and held it out of sight. He nodded to Mac, then followed him inside.

“I don’t think your friend here can be trusted anymore, do you, Eckland?” Mac scanned the room quickly as they walked in. Two guards stood beside Duffield, stun guns in hand. The only other occupants were the two men who caused it all.

“Ah yes, the prodigal returns.” Duffield turned to face them and smiled a smile that seemed to suck all emotion from his face. With a swirl of robes, he took several steps to the center of the room, then waved a hand for the guards to flank him. “Clearly my little experiment was a success?”

Mac glanced at Bryce, but his friend remained silent, staring back at JD.

“Oh come, come now. You should be thanking me for bringing your mind back.” Duffield shook his head in mock reprimand, then looked at Mac. “And I just bet he taught you a few tricks, seeing as how you were out all night.”

Mac lowered his eyelid slightly and managed to look down at the man. “You’re not going to win this time, Duffield.”

“He did.” Eckland stepped forward, nodding frantically. He wiped a shaking hand over his sweaty forehead, then pointed a finger at Mac. “That brat taught him how to do it. Something about that glove. He knows, he can tell you.”

Duffield stared at Mac, then sighed deeply and glanced up at the ceiling. Slowly, he let his breath out, then turned to look at Eckland. “But you were there, too. And yet you can’t seem to tell me anything.”

“I was tied up, you fool! If you hadn’t double crossed me in the first place, I might have been able to track them on the way back. It was a little hard to pay attention when I was part of the bait!”

“You bore me, Eckland.” Duffield reached into his robes and pulled out a stun weapon.

Before Mac realized what his intentions were, the blast was already being fired. Instead of the blue haze of a stun charge, the weapon fired the deep orange of a maximum setting. Eckland’s scream was cut short as the energy blast tore through his body, throwing him against the far wall. The man was dead before he slid to the floor.

“I wonder how he ever made colonist.”

Mac’s jaw was clenched so tightly it hurt. Beside him, Bryce had tensed but hadn’t moved so much as an inch away. “If that’s your way of convincing us we should help you out, you’re going to have to try harder.”

Duffield smiled, then put the gun back under his robes and raised both arms. “Now, gentlemen. There’s no need for any further violence. That man simply had to be killed. He was a danger to us all.”

The guards busied themselves hauling Eckland’s remains out of view, then quickly returned to stand on either side of JD while he poured three glasses of a dark red liquid from a jug on the room’s central table. Behind him were the windows, uncurtained against a night sky. Duffield looked up and took note of Mac’s gaze.

“Yes, the night sky is a thing to behold, isn’t it?” He turned and looked at the view for a moment. “This valley has some of the best scenery. I think I should like to keep this place as my home. We can move the rest of them back here, and make room for your group.” White light from a nearly full moon streamed in, bathing them all in a soft glow.

“I don’t think they’re looking for a change in living quarters, but thanks anyway.” Mac casually spared a glance behind them and found no other guards. “Where are your people, anyway?”

“Oh, they seem to have taken a bit of a walk, thanks to him.” JD’s eyes sparkled with something close to pure hatred when he looked at Bryce. “But I’ve got some men helping them find their way back even as we speak.”

That answered his question about the other guards. For as devious as Duffield was, he really wasn’t all that smart. “And now, I suppose, you expect Bryce to teach you how he communicates with them. Out of the kindness of his heart, I imagine?”

“That would be nice.” JD set his cup down. “However, I’m sure that’s asking too much. And you, Captain, being a military man I don’t expect you to give up anything you’ve learned just because I ask.”

Mac tensed.

JD pulled his gun from under the white robes, then looked at Bryce questioningly. “How about it? An exchange of information, or do I kill him?”

It was soundless. So much so, Mac had to take another look before he believed what he saw. In the instant it had taken him to blink and ready his muscles for a fast lunge, three large black figures had appeared through the windows behind JD and the guards. All three Shavid-eye now stood directly behind each man, still undetected in their stealth. Mac felt as if he was dreaming.

“It’s your choice.” JD raised the weapon.

Bryce raised his right hand, palm up, and turned on the glove. Mac turned his head in time to see the silver liquefy, then turned back to watch the movement of the room’s unnoticed occupants.

JD’s eyes lit with surprise, but he powered up the gun at the same time.

“Eklay va-nya.”

Bryce’s words elicited brilliant hues of blue and orange that ran in a quick striped pattern over the silver twice before fading away. Everything afterward happened so fast, only Mac’s battle-trained eye caught any of it.

The instant Bryce’s words covered the silver for the second time, the Shavid-eye made their move. Two of them grabbed the guards and lifted them up and out the windows before they could even cry out. Duffield turned when he realized what was happening, then tried to back away but tripped on his long robes and fell hard to the ground.

Mac felt an instinct to rush forward and stop what he knew was about to happen, but it was too late.

“No!” JD’s cry was followed by a blast from his gun, but even the orange charge bounced harmlessly from the tough hide of the creature approaching him. “Stop this! I’m the ruler here!” He frantically tried to back away, but his robes made each movement of his legs a useless effort. Before Duffield could cry out again, the Shavid-eye in front of him reached down with massive clawed hands and pulled him to his feet, then off the ground. With a massive roar and one twist of a giant hand, the animal snapped JD’s neck then tossed the limp body to the ground.

Mac looked up and found the windows now crowded with Shavid-eye. The sight was frightening, but he felt calm in an eerie way. Two of them had blooded claws, and they held back while several others launched themselves on top of Duffield’s body. Their intentions were clear enough to turn Mac’s stomach. He looked away, then found himself staring at his friend.

Bryce was only two feet away. The glove on his right hand still hummed but no colors tinted the silver. His gaze was fixed on the scene playing out before him. Mac blinked, not sure if he was really seeing what he thought he was. He moved so he could look Bryce more easily in the eye without saying a word. His partner was calm, almost dispassionate, watching Duffield’s death–and now his dismemberment–with complete detachment. There was no more reaction on his face than if he’d been watching the grass grow taller.

It was all over so fast, Mac felt a tinge of the fear he’d experienced under the shield that long, horrific night. The Shavid-eye made quick work of it.

“Bryce.” The younger man’s gaze appeared to be glazed over now, as if in shock, but he still seemed calmly detached. Mac put a hand on his shoulder. He was aware of eyes watching them, and gentle purring sounds. And something almost alien in his friend’s gaze.

Slowly, Bryce turned and looked up. “He was the one.”

Mac glanced at the red spot staining the dirt floor. A sudden chill ran up his spine, tingling the hairs on the back of his neck. “This isn’t exactly how I wanted things to go.”

“He was going to kill you.”

“Yeah.” Mac inhaled deeply and slowly, then looked at the Shavid-eye who were watching them. “Yes, he was. I didn’t think he’d kill Eckland, they were so much alike.”

“Can we go home now?”

Mac looked back down, meeting Bryce’s lavender-eyed gaze. The detachment was gone, as was that odd alien look of hate. Looking up at him now was the same hopeful, trusting expression he’d come to know so well. Before he could answer, a large black body filled the window.

Yanai crossed the room, glancing at the red stain. He had to squint through the odd orange light, and Mac realized the moonlight that had been bathing them was moving out of view. When he was a few steps away, Yanai stopped and sat on his large haunches, then held out a ball of silver and growled.

The colors moved slowly, in deference to his newly learned abilities, Mac assumed, but some of the words were instantly familiar.

“I think I caught some of that. Food, days, and . . . talk?” Mac looked at Bryce.

“He said they feed in another moon.” The younger man nodded. “They’ll do that all through the week, while the moon is full. Then they’ll come and see us there.” He looked up at Mac. “I think he means they’ll come to the complex to see us after they’ve fed.”

Yanai hummed again and held the silver out for them to watch.

“Four? What was that other word?”

“Legs. He said they eat four legs only, until the next feeding moon.” Bryce shook his head slightly. “I can’t believe I remember so many words again.”

“What does he mean? They’re only going to eat four legged animals this week? Does he know the colonists are out there, then?”

“I think so.” Bryce held up the silver in his gloved hand. “Sheva inu com . . . ah, comuru. That’s right. Sheva inu comuru.”

Yanai smiled widely, showing a mouth full of dangerous teeth, then let the silver harden and fall to the floor. He reached out and rested his massive hand on Bryce’s head for a moment, then repeated the action with Mac. When he was finished, he turned and purred to the others, then followed them out of the windows in a soundless whoosh of wings and air.

“I told him we would try to teach.” Bryce flipped off the glove and slid it from his hand. “I think they’re going to keep their people away from the complex for one full moon’s time, so we can talk to the colonists.”

Mac sighed deeply, trying to let everything that had happened settle in his mind. It felt as if they’d just fought a battle that had constantly shifting borders. But they’d won. He reached down and retrieved one of the stun guns from near his feet and pocketed the weapon.

“Let’s get out of here.” After one last glance at what used to be Joe Duffield, Mac draped an arm around Bryce’s shoulders and led him back out to the walkway. They walked back to the cave they’d been using and started gathering up what they’d come with. Mac exchanged the pants he was wearing for his own while Bryce used a section of one curtain to fashion a simple pouch to secure the glove to his belt. There was still fresh fruit and water stacked with the other foodstuffs and offerings, so Mac packed several fruits and a chunk of heavy cheese. He’d rather they took the time for a real meal, since they hadn’t eaten very well for the last several days, but he could sense Bryce’s desire to leave.

“Can you find this tunnel again?” Mac checked his pockets, making sure he had everything he needed.

“I think if we follow the tracks, I’ll recognize it when we get there.” Bryce smiled sheepishly. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Mac laughed shortly. “No, I don’t suppose you were. Let’s get out of here.”

The path to their exit tunnel was easy to find after all. Dozens of colonists dashing to freedom had left a seriously worn path in the soft dirt, leading up and back into the mountain.

“I was tracking your earring, but I didn’t know how to get to where you were in this maze.” Bryce waved a hand around them as they followed the trail. “I don’t know how I ended up right where they wanted me, they couldn’t have planned it.”

“No, I’m sure it was coincidence.” Mac glanced behind them. There were still colonists in the caverns, some refusing to leave, others still arguing the merits of leaving. Duffield’s guards were nowhere to be seen, and probably no longer a threat once they figured out their leader was dead. “I knew you were all right when this thing started to vibrate.” He touched the metal hoop in his ear then shook his head. “I tell ya, last night with all that talking, my ear was numb.”

“Oh, right.” Bryce glance up apologetically. “It’s on the same frequency. I could change that, I suppose.”

“Can you still locate it if you do?”

“Yeah. I can just alter the pitch one degree, that’s easy enough.”

“Good. I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of communicating going on. I’d kinda like to feel my ear.” They rounded a corner and Bryce pointed to the small opening. Mac led the way into the chamber, stopping to examine the huge silver door, now propped open with several heavy rocks.

“I got my hand through it, then found the mechanism. It opened right away and they all started pouring out.”

Mac looked at the large lock that had held the tunnel door closed. “Remote control. That’s how Duffield and his men could open it from this side.” He glanced at the glove secured at Bryce’s waist. “You put your hand through?”

The younger man nodded, then shrugged nonchalantly.

“Right.” Mac pulled the flashlight from his pocket and turned it on, shining the bright white beam through the darkness. “I don’t see anyone. They’re probably halfway down that valley by now, heading back.” He stepped over one of the door-jamming boulders and Bryce moved up to walk beside him. He was holding the scanner to see how far ahead they could go before the first of many turns and twists. “Either that or they’re bunched up at the other end waiting for sunrise.”

“I thought they weren’t afraid of the Shavid-eye when they weren’t feeding?”

“Yeah, but you noticed they stayed inside at night anyway, didn’t you?”

Mac put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder and they started the long trek through the tunnel. They walked for nearly an hour before the first bend, then slowed their pace enough to snack on the fruit they’d brought while walking. The dirt floor had been trampled by fleeing colonists, and the rock walls held smudge marks and the occasional spot of silver where bodies had pushed and shoved through narrow sections. Bits and pieces of cloth, the occasional eating utensil, and more than one shoe littered the ground as evidence of the mass exodus.

Every time a section of silver had been rubbed clear of dirt, it sparkled and shimmered with the faintest rays of Mac’s white flashlight. At his request, Bryce donned the glove and scooped out a chunk of silver to work on the words he’d learned the night before and teach him a few more as they came back to memory. His partner was surprised at some of the words he could recall, and angered by the ones he couldn’t.

“It’s not all there!” Bryce tossed the chunk of silver away in a burst of frustrated anger. “I feel like I’m being punished now, teased with partial thoughts!”

“Hey, hang on.” Mac stopped and pulled Bryce to a standstill. They’d been walking through the darkness for three hours now, and had another few to go by his estimation. “You’re lucky you’ve gotten this much back. It really is amazing, and unusual. I’ve known men who never got half as much as you have, even with therapy.”

Bryce sighed heavily and looked down, shaking his head. “I hate him for bringing it back to me this way. I hate them for being alive!” One arm swung out in a sweeping gesture, fist clenched with nothing to strike. “I hate all the lies and deceit and insanity that caused all of this!”

“You need a break.” Mac put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder, then pushed him gently but firmly to the ground where they could sit and rest. “So do I. You’ll get past this. We’ll get home and let Ben and the others deal with these people. We’ll teach them about the Shavid-eye and the language, show them how it’s done, then sit back and enjoy life.” His answer was a quiet sigh and a nod of the younger man’s head. “Game over, Bryce. Mystery solved. The bad guys are gone.” Mac watched him, waiting for an acknowledgment.

Bryce leaned against the rock wall, then slowly looked up and nodded tiredly. “It doesn’t change anything.” He flipped off the glove and removed it, sliding it back into the pouch. “I’d still leave this planet in a heartbeat. And I still can’t bring the two together. The Shavid-eye and the terror that came every night. I never will. ”

Mac leaned back, pressing his back into the support of the stone wall, and sighed. Every now and again, he got another rare look inside the kid’s head from a different angle. Just when he thought he could imagine what Bryce’s view point must be, he’d get another look and have to wonder about his past notions. He hadn’t yet found anything he didn’t like, and doubted he ever would. Tonight’s turn of events had happened too fast to be stopped, and he’d made a crucial mistake in thinking JD wouldn’t force his hand so quickly. Killing him to force Bryce into helping was a given. If he’d been successful, there was no telling what the young man would have done alone there. But Mac hadn’t thought Duffield would play that card so early in the game.

No, Bryce acted on instinct, and saved both their lives. In the end, justice was served. And the Shavid-eye had their own justice to mete out. It was obvious to him from speaking with Yanai and Naya that they harbored anger toward the ‘animals’ who had taken Bryce away from them. They’d probably domesticated the same animals unknowingly, since it seemed apparent they couldn’t tell one human from another without some form of identification.

“I’ll just be happy to get back to that hot spring.” Mac sighed again, wistfully. “Say, you don’t suppose that multi-legged colorful thing I was photographing back at that river was trying to communicate, do you?”

Bryce looked up, eyebrows creased. “You mean the one that shimmers and leaps so quick?” He paused, considering the question. “I dunno, maybe.”

“There could be other intelligent life here. Have you ever asked the Shavid-eye about other sentient life? If their language is based on color patterns, who knows what else here has been trying to communicate.”

“You mean something I might have eaten?” Bryce shook his head sharply, then scrambled to his feet. “No, uh-huh. No. That would mean that we were no better than . . . No.”

“Whoa, hang on.” Mac hurried to stand up and grab his friend by the arm before he could start hurrying down the tunnel. “I wasn’t serious, kid. I was just contemplating possibilities.”

Bryce spun around, still shaking his head. He looked a little sick. “No! If something was trying to talk to me, and I was using it as food because I didn’t understand, then . . .” A sudden realization stopped him in his tracks. He closed both eyes tightly. After a few breaths, he looked up. “You’re good, you know that?”

Mac smiled down at the tired face looking at him. “That’s nothing you didn’t already understand. You just hadn’t accepted it yet.”

Bryce laughed shortly, then pushed some hair away from his forehead with a sweep of one hand. “You know what I like about you?”

“What’s that?”

“You’re everything I want to be.”

“I didn’t know you wanted to be tall and good looking.” Mac laughed at the changing expression on his friend’s face, then started walking down the path again.

“Here,” Bryce pulled the flashlight from Mac’s hand, then shoved the miner’s glove at him. “Practice.”

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3 thoughts on “when free is expensive

  1. Buy More! Buy More! BUY MORE!

    That’s that we always here. We need more stuff. It’s only worth to spend the $10 if it’s something you are going to use anyway.

  2. I think that, these days, Kristine is either totally on my side about the world, or she’s trying to provoke me into ranting about the state of the world. I can’t decide.

    Car dealerships are wonky places. New or used: wonky. But then, I don’t drive and never have, and am quite happy in that state of mind. And as for the spending-to-save…it’s absurd. Utterly nutters. It’s the “I can’t afford NOT to buy” mentality.

  3. Oh man, whenever I hear a commercial say “You can’t afford NOT to buy this!” I yell at the television (or radio) “YES I CAN! In fact, I can more afford NOT to spend my money on that, than I could in spending it! It’s basic economics, you flipping moron!”

    Gah!

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