I know it’s Thursday, but I’m not here today – so I’m not around to comment on blogs or post anything interesting, so I thought I’d schedule this to pop up while I spend my Thursday at a funeral in Kent. At least it’ll be sunny, like it has been all Wednesday. Sunny and warm, for a change. It’s going to be an odd day, really. Attend a funeral, then rush home to meet with the landscapers to get an estimate on an apple tree issue, then my sister heads off to a doctor’s appointment (taking guilty advantage of a day off) while I sit on the kitchen floor and carve up plastic computer keyboard keys. Then, in the late afternoon, I get the honor of handing Parr Volkswagen a massive chunk of change for my car’s 80,000 mile tuneup. That’s the one where they replace something called a Timing Belt that, if left unreplaced, can snap in two and completely demolish your vehicle.
I remember having a whiny, knee-jerk reaction to the price of this tune up. It’s “the biggie”, and up until now this car has cost me a quarter of the maintence prices drivers of gas-engine cars pay. So when they said “This next one is going to be approximately $950.00” I, perhaps understandibly, panicked. I even started convincing myself it was time to turn this baby in and get a brand new one.
Okay, yeah, that was stupid. Especially coming from someone who so often preaches about people wasting money, buying things they don’t need or charging stuff they shouldn’t be charging. So after calming down and coming to my senses, and realizing I could actually go ahead and afford this more than I should afford a brand new car – I made the appointment. Now I have to make more stoneage keyboards to make up for the loss of funds!
Meanwhile, here is what happens to be the next-to-last chapter. Next week sees The End !
It was morning by the time they reached the opening. The first rays of daylight were just beginning to illuminate the steep climb down to the tiny plateau holding their plane. To the left they could see marks in the dirt where the colonists had slid and stumbled their way down, missing the section the ship rested on to land farther down the slope.
“It’s a wonder they didn’t break their necks going down that in the dark.” Mac eyed the path, then shook his head.
“I’m just glad they’re gone.” Bryce cautiously squinted through the sunlight, searching for signs of stragglers. “I don’t want to deal with them again for a while.”
“Yeah.” Mac stowed his flashlight, then nodded towards the plane. “Let’s get down there and make sure no one got curious on their way out.”
The plane was barely visible where Mac had landed it. Bryce was sure had he not already known where it was, he never would have seen it himself. Exhaustion was once again taking its toll, so the climb down was slow and methodical. He wanted to leave right away, fly as long as they could and get home before any of the others found their way back. But Mac insisted they were both too tired.
“I remember a river just a few minutes down that valley.” Mac climbed into the pilot’s seat after a quick inspection of the vehicle. “We’ll rest there, and I’ll call in to Ben.” He strapped in and began warming up the plane’s engine while Bryce settled into the co-pilot chair. “We’re in no hurry. We can rest up there, get a full night’s sleep, and head home tomorrow morning. We’re still a day and a half away, flying a straight course.”
Bryce agreed. Even though he had no real choice, it did make sense. His head was spinning with the events of these past few days, and the strange jumble of memories now swirling around. He barely noticed the plane had lifted off and already covered half the distance to the river.
“Do you think things will be different this time?” He glanced at Mac, then looked out over the landscape as it sped by. “Will your group understand what mine didn’t?”
“I think so.” Mac slowed the plane and began circling near the river’s bank. “You have to remember, Bryce, they’ve only been here a few months. And we did have more of a warning than your group ever had. We had you.”
“They had me, too.”
Mac landed quickly and easily, then turned to face Bryce while the ship powered down. “I don’t like them any more than you do. But I can understand them a little better, I think. People like that–they’re different than people like you or me. They’re motivated by completely different things in life, and often times they find themselves in positions they were never equipped to handle.”
Bryce shrugged, then unclipped his harness. He was sure Mac was making sense, and no doubt a good point, but he wasn’t in the mood to hear it just then. “I need a bath.”
“I’ll join you in a few minutes.” Mac smiled a look of great patience, then pointed to the console. “I just need to call in, let Ben know what happened and what to look out for. He’s got nearly two hundred people marching his way.”
“Yeah.” Bryce walked back out through the plane and into the full morning’s sun. The river was wide and very slow moving, perfect for a good bath and quiet swim, with soap grass lining the bank.
It turned out to be a quicker soak than he’d anticipated. After scrubbing up and rinsing just once, he was too tired to continue. The sun-baked grass was calling for him to lay down for just a few minutes, and the warming rays promised such a good massage he could no longer fight the tiredness. Mac was still inside, explaining the confusing details to the commander. Bryce dragged himself out of the water with exhausted muscles and pulled his pants back on, then gathered up his shirt to use as a pillow and practically collapsed on his belly in the warm grass. Laying there, he could hear his friend’s voice over the transmitter, and more mutely, Ben’s often stunned replies.
He didn’t want to think anymore. At least not for a few more hours. He wanted to lie down and fall deeply asleep, and have no dreams. But instead of the instant unconsciousness he’d expected, Bryce found himself idly listening to Mac’s voice, and occasionally a bird calling as it flew overhead. Every muscle in his body felt like lead, and twice as heavy. Even his eyes refused to open. But his mind followed all the details Mac retold, every avian that flew past their spot, every trickle of water gently lapping against a rock behind him.
After a while, he became aware of the calm that had settled over him. It was as if he’d managed to travel back in time only two weeks. Back to a time when he could remember nothing of his life with the others. When all he cared about was his new friend and their explorations together. A time when he knew daylight from night, danger from safety, and where home was. It was as if by coming back out of that tunnel–that mountain bowl–everything that was held inside no longer mattered.
But he did remember. More than he’d allowed himself to consider. In some respects, far more than he ever wanted to. Now all he wanted was a break from any and all thoughts.
“Ben’s got a group going out to meet the others.” Mac set a box he was carrying down and sat on the grass next to Bryce. “We’ll head out tomorrow, probably catch up by late afternoon.”
Tiredly, Bryce turned his head so he was facing his friend. “You told him everything?”
“Just about.” Mac reached around to the box and pulled out a metal rod, then a smaller reel and assembled the fishing line. “I’m a little tired of fruit.”
Bryce watched him cast into the river, then looked at the grass and listened to the water slowly meandering by. “Tell me about the war. What were people like then?”
Mac sighed and glanced up as if he was thinking something over. “People are people. They’re the same no matter where you go or what you’re doing.” He looked down for a moment, then adjusted his line. “It’s just the circumstances that change, and how we react to them, that make us different.”
“You mean if the circumstances were different, JD wouldn’t have developed his God-complex?” Bryce shifted his sweatshirt pillow and rested his chin on the mound of soft cloth. He didn’t really want to think at all, he just wanted to listen.
“I don’t know about that. He probably had those tendencies to begin with, but the circumstances made it possible to act on them.” Mac sighed and checked his line, then leaned back so he could rest against the box and glance at Bryce were he lay. “I remember a battle once that pretty much changed my entire outlook on war, and life.”
“What happened?” Speaking while resting the weight of his head on his chin wasn’t easy.
Mac look at him for a moment without speaking. “You really want to hear about it?”
Bryce abandoned his position and sat up, brushing bits of grass from his bare chest as he turned around to sit facing his partner. “Yes, I do.” He had to rub sleep from his eyes and blink widely before his friend seemed to believe his sincerity. When he’d finished readjusting his posture, Mac smiled and shrugged slightly, then looked out at the river and his fishing line.
“It was twelve years into the war.” He let out more line and shook his head. “I still can’t believe the war lasted as long as it did. But we were trying to take a small mining station near the outer rim. It wasn’t much, but there was a fighting contingent there assigned by the League of Unions, and damn if they couldn’t fight.” Mac sighed and creased both eyebrows. “We all should have had more sense, really.”
“Why?” Bryce found himself leaning forward slightly, hugging the balled up sweatshirt in his lap like a forgotten piece of work. The emotions playing across Mac’s face were bringing the tale alive for him in a strange way.
“We went in hot. Angry. This group had already taken out the ship that came in before us, so we had a grudge. Only fifty fighters to protect this station, and they’d taken out our sister battle ship. So we mounted an all-out assault. That was our specialty at the time, overwhelming the enemy with numbers.” Mac shook his head ruefully. “Twenty percent of our ships were lost in that one attack. Two from my squad. The station had pulse cannons mounted fore and aft. No one expected that. After we fell back and regrouped, we tried a few more maneuvers, lost a few more ships, then tried again.” He glanced at Bryce. “By the end of three days, we were down eighty percent, and the enemy was still going strong.”
Bryce swallowed, trying to picture in his head a space battle of epic proportions with Captain Mac Brennan in the thick of it. “What did you do?”
“We won, eventually. It was sheer luck, there’s no doubting that. First one of our fighters got in behind the attack, then a few more managed to flank the group and someone got lucky and took out their cannons. Then I think they panicked a little, seeing us get the upper hand for a change. After a few hours it was over. We killed every last fighter, and then had to tackle the base itself.” He tugged on the fishing pole, then let out some more of the line. “By this time we were pretty pissed, and ready to take on anything. We’d lost far too many fighters for this one small station, and once we boarded it we realized the enemy had made another fatal mistake by keeping all of their soldiers in space. And I was angry. I’d lost a lot of good men in what should have been a simple sweep and conquer.” Mac shook his head again and looked off in the distance, his eyes unfocused. “When I got onboard, I was ready to kill anything that moved. We all were. But what we found were a bunch of miners, huddled in the command stations with handguns, scared out of their wits.” He looked at Bryce. “They were just miners, pressed into battle by their Union League bosses. One minute they’re collecting ores from a dead moon, the next minute someone has taken the remote sensors from their hands and replaced them with triggers and guns, telling them what to shoot at. They were totally overwhelmed.”
“Why did they fight to begin with? Why not refuse?”
“They got caught up in the moment, many years ago. The wars were started out of something very innocent that everyone lost sight of. These people found themselves in a situation they were never trained to cope with, never wanted to cope with, and dealing with people who were trained. But when it came right down to it, they were just people. Just miners who really didn’t give a damn about anyone’s politics.”
The frustration and regret were so plain on his friend’s face, Bryce felt moved to lower his voice. “What did you do?”
“The only thing we could do.” Mac turned and looked at his line again, testing the status of the other end with a few tugs. “We occupied the station, confiscated their weapons and offered them the choice of joining the Bureau’s side and managing the operation there for us, or safe passage to a neutral exchange point.”
Bryce looked down at the grass and plucked a few strands, turning them around between his fingers. This was what he wanted to hear. More about Mac’s life, about the places he’d been and the things he’d done. His life was so much more fascinating, so alien. And the effect it had on him was so profound. Bryce wanted to know all about it.
He looked up again and Mac started to pull in the fishing line. “That day changed you, didn’t it?”
The line was forgotten for a few minutes. Mac faced Bryce and met his gaze for a long moment before answering. “It changed the way I look at things, the way I think about people. And the way I see myself.” He turned back to the line.
Suddenly Bryce stopped twirling the blades of grass and squinted in the bright sunlight up at his friend. “Are all your stories going to be some kind of metaphor for the way I’m dealing with things?”
Mac’s face broke out into a wide grin, then he laughed. “If you’re lucky, yeah.” He placed a hand on his chest in a dramatic gesture. “I’m older and wiser, remember? It’s my duty to pass on that wisdom.”
Bryce laughed shortly and shook his head. “Yeah, okay.”
Before Mac could comment further, his fishing pole lurched violently downward. “Hey, here’s dinner!” He reeled in the line, fighting what was on the other side for several tense minutes before managing to pull the long, thick eel to shore. Bryce picked up a stone and bashed its head with one sharp, strong blow, ending the fish’s struggle instantly.
“I haven’t had one of these in a long time.” He inspected the eel from head to tail, running both hands along the massive body.
“Good eating?” Mac eyed his catch cautiously.
“Oh, yeah, incredible.” The eel was large enough to feed them for a week, and young too. “We need to clean it right away, and get all the skin off.” Bryce rolled it over and pointed to a softer spot on it’s underbelly. “Start here and run a line up each end. If we cook the whole thing, we can bring it back and put the rest in storage for later. This makes a fantastic stew.”
Mac seemed to get over his initial skepticism and retrieved two sharp knives from the crate. It took them the better part of an hour to carefully peel all the skin, then clean the organs out and strip the meat into segments large enough to roast over a fire. When they finished, Bryce set about building a fire and volunteered to cook the meat while his friend enjoyed a long swim. The smell of the cooking eel flesh reminded him how long it had been since they’d had a really good meal. He didn’t have what he needed to make a hearty stew, but there were enough legumes and flower heads in the vicinity to make a healthy salad to accompany the steaks.
Bryce set everything on a slow roast, with eel meat propped up around the fire on well-placed sticks, tossed together what he needed for the salad, then leaned back against a boulder to keep an eye on his cooking.
Mac was swimming laps by heading upstream several hundred yards with powerful strokes, then letting his body float gently back down with the river’s steady current. When he reached a level parallel to where Bryce was sitting, he reversed his motion and swam back upstream. Bryce watched him repeat the exercise five times before he settled in near the bank for a break. He checked the meat’s progress, then noticed Mac searching for something along the bank. Wordlessly, he observed his friend testing out some twigs, discarding them when he realized they were incorrect, then finding the proper soaping sticks further up the bank.
He laughed quietly to himself while Mac happily lathered up with the sticks, glad to know he’d been able to pass on a little of his own knowledge to his older, wiser friend. “Dinner when you’re ready.”
“Almost done.” Mac ducked under the surface and a bubbly white lather flowed quietly downstream. When he came up, he climbed out of the water and toweled off, then pulled on his pants and joined Bryce next to the fire. “This smells good.”
“It is good.” Bryce handed over a plate loaded with some eel meat and the salad, then leaned back with his own plate resting in his lap. After Mac’s first taste, and his exclamation of how the meat tasted, he happily dug into his own helping.
They ate in silence until each man had managed to satisfy the worst of his hunger, washing the meal down with some of the beer they had stored in the plane. Bryce sighed with extreme digestive satisfaction and gazed up at the mountains. He appreciated Mac’s willingness to go along with his unspoken desire not to discuss the events of the past week. Eventually, he knew, they’d have to not only talk about it, but deal with all the ramifications and consequences. But right now, he just wanted to enjoy the peace and company.
“How come planes can’t fly over the mountains?”
Mac swallowed his beer and glanced over his shoulder at the impressive heights. “Well, I’m no expert on atmosphere flying, but basically the reason is the air pressure. It’s too thin that high up, especially here on Oblivion.” He looked back at Bryce and set the bottle down on the grass beside his leg. “There are atmosphere planes that can go that high up, even further. But colonists can’t usually afford them. We should have done better scans while we were still aboard the Kensington, but Ben was too anxious to get down. I sent a couple of satellites out but the signals both failed to transmit.”
Bryce looked up at the blue sky. “Are they still up there?”
“Yep. They’ll orbit for a few hundred years, unless something slams into them.”
“What would make them fail to transmit?”
“Any number of things.” Mac shrugged and looked up. “They were old war surplus, so they might have been defective. Though I checked them out myself before launching. Still, something could have shorted out. Or the equipment on the Kensington was faulting, making the feedback unreadable.”
“Or Five interfered?”
Mac eyed Bryce for a moment, eyebrows wrinkled as he considered the possibility. “I suppose so. Do you think that’s what happened?”
Bryce shrugged and chewed the inside of his lip. “I dunno. Maybe.” He looked up again and met his friend’s gaze. “He knew about the others, he must have. He probably knew where they were, too.”
“And he wanted to keep them concealed?” Mac inhaled slowly and deeply, nodding. “That’s possible.”
Bryce picked up a pebble and tossed it into the river, then watched as the ripples moved out and down with the gentle current. He was enjoying this quiet time more than he ever imagined he could. Just him and Mac. No colonists, no questions, no mysteries. Just the two of them, enjoying the peace and quiet and each other’s company. He wanted this to last forever, but he knew there were obstacles that had to be overcome before that could happen. They’d have to go back, deal with the new-found survivors. He and Mac would have to explain, then teach, the language of the Shavid-eye in order for the colonists to continue to survive here with their hosts.
There was a time, not long ago, when Bryce wanted nothing more than to stay near the complex, living in the shuttle with Mac. He had no desire to explore the planet, only a strong wish to leave. But that wasn’t possible. And now . . .
Now he was beginning to feel restless. And crowded! He picked up another stone and tossed it into the water. Nightfall was fast approaching, and his instincts were telling him to get inside. That was something he was sure wouldn’t be changing any time soon. The feelings were too strong.
“I’ll pack up the food if you want to get the plane ready for tonight.” Mac lifted the rest of the chunks of eel meat from their perches over the dying embers.
“Okay.” Bryce tossed one last stone, then got up and brushed the grass from his butt.
Setting up the sleeping blankets in the fuselage was a simple task and one he enjoyed. The plane’s cramped quarters served as a very comforting sleeping arrangement against the cold, dark night. Bryce knew, logically, he no longer needed to fear the setting of the sun. But he also knew the fear wasn’t going to stop just because his mind told it to. His gut still told him he wasn’t safely locked in the security of the shuttle, and therefore in great danger.
Mac came inside right after Bryce finished worming his way under his own blankets. “Man, I’m exhausted. I think it’s all catching up.” He stripped quickly, then settled down in the warmth of several layers of coverings and yawned. “Are you going to be okay tomorrow?”
Bryce sighed heavily, then nodded.
“Just remember, you don’t owe those people anything. What happens to them now is up to Ben to work out.”
“Do you think–when things settle down–I was wondering if . . . Could we do some more exploring?” Bryce was on his side, facing Mac with a hopeful expression. He had an uncommon desire now to explore more of this world. If he couldn’t leave it, might as well see what was here. And more excursions would keep them from what was now going to be an overcrowded complex.
Mac smiled, turning to face him. “Sure we can. I’m dying to see what the rest of this planet looks like.”
Bryce’s hope turned into a quick grin, then he nodded. “Good night.”
Morning came far too quickly. Bryce climbed out of the blankets reluctantly after Mac made his way through the door. His feet had become completely entangled, but he was warm and comfortable and loath to disturb the quiet. The morning sun was already clearing the mountains, but he knew the river would be cold for bathing.
He was right. The chill of the icy river water chased the last of his sleep away fiercely. Mac had jumped straight in, shaking off the shock with a quick flick of his head before swimming a few lengths. With teeth gritted against the cold, Bryce forced himself into the river, suppressing a shout as the water lapped against his neck. He hurried into motion, swimming upstream until he met his friend, then actively swimming back down while Mac floated slowly. After two laps, he’d grown warm enough to stand still and lather up.
After his bath and the warming swim, the morning air was another cold shock. Bryce hurried from the bank back to the plane and dressed quickly, then carried his wet towel back out to dry on a rock while Mac stood at the bank, rubbing his skin dry.
“I’m starting to miss the hot spring myself.” Bryce took some of the cooked fish from the storage unit and pulled off a chunk. The seasoned meat was savory, even cold.
“I had an instructor once, when I was a fresh recruit, who felt starting the day with an ice-cold spray was good for your heart.” Mac walked back to the plane and retrieved some clean clothes, then walked back out to a spot in the sun and started to dress. “He was right, of course. But starting the day warm isn’t exactly a bad thing.”
“Is military training as bad as people say?” Bryce pulled off another chunk of meat, then handed the steak to Mac.
“Bad? No, it wasn’t bad. Hard, yes. Challenging, certainly. It’s all about finding your limits, then pushing yourself past them. Learning how far you can go on your own, and when to ask for help. It’s not for everyone, but no, I wouldn’t call it bad.”
Bryce chewed the fish, nodding. He used to spend nights imagining himself as a soldier in some of the fiction books he’d read over and over. It always seemed like the fighters were in complete control of themselves and their surroundings. Five always told him it wasn’t that way in reality. That it was a job like any other, full of hazards and more failure than success. But since meeting Mac, Bryce knew Five was wrong. Or he’d been lying again.
“Well, no sense delaying this any longer.” Mac wiped his hands on the damp towels then gathered them up. “The sooner we head out, the sooner we’ll get home.”
“Right.” Reluctantly, Bryce packed up their gear and helped stow everything away. Within ten minutes he was seat-belted in the co-pilot’s chair, watching the trees below speed by.
He tried to enjoy the flight. It was a sunny, warm day. The sky was a beautiful bright blue and pale lavender. Trees and grasslands swept by in a soft blur of color, and twice an entire flock of the large, teal feathered birds joined them for a few miles, easily keeping up with their plane at cruising speed.
“You know, one of these days someone’s going have to start naming these things.” Mac watched a large avian coast beside his side window, then bank and fly away.
“I guess I never did ’cause I thought they already had names.” Bryce shrugged.
“You think the Shavid-eye named them?”
Bryce considered the question. There was nothing in his memory, new or old, that held an answer. “Maybe. I guess I never thought to ask.”
“Well, I think you had enough on your mind back then.”
Before he could comment further, Bryce spotted a large clearing just ahead, filled with people.
“There they are.” Mac banked slowly to the right, then landed at the far edge of the gathering, next to three other planes and two land rovers. “There’s Ben.”
Bryce swallowed hard, staring at the mass of people all looking in their direction. His day of quiet, enjoyable solitude had ended with a startling suddenness.
Only two men were actually approaching their vehicle, Ben and a man Bryce didn’t know. Mac unhooked his seat belt, so reluctantly he followed suit, staying close to his partner as they exited the plane.
“Brennan, Bryce.” Ben approached, nodding to each man. “You two have been busy.”
“Ben.” Mac glanced over the commander’s shoulder at the mass of people milling about. “I see you found them.”
Bryce looked briefly at the group, avoiding anyone’s direct glance. He’d positioned himself as close to Mac’s side as he could, and slightly behind, enjoying the relative security of that physical barrier between himself and the rest of the world. From somewhere in the middle of a huddle of bodies, one robed man pushed his way clear and hurried toward them.
“He let you leave?” Teacher stopped beside Ben, looking anxiously from Mac to Bryce and back again. “JD let you leave?”
“Duffield is dead.” Mac replied plainly. He turned to Ben. “There’s still a few more back in the caves, some afraid to leave, some just reluctant.”
“Who is dead?” Ben looked confused, then consulted a data pad in his hand. “Duffield?”
Mac nodded. “Joe Duffield. He was their leader. He killed Eckland. West and Burns are dead, too. I’m not sure who killed who there.”
Ben shook his head gravely.
“You killed him?” Teacher looked at Mac incredulously.
“I said Duffield was dead. No one killed him.”
Bryce could see Mac’s jaw clench momentarily and felt his entire body tense up slightly as he answered Teacher.
“You did it, then? You remembered how?” Teacher’s gaze fixed on Bryce. “You’ve saved us all!”
“Ben, we’ve got a hell of a lot to talk about.” Mac ignored the older man’s persistence and moved slightly, just blocking Teacher’s clear view of Bryce.
“Right.” Ben turned to the man he was with, then nodded at Teacher. “Dave, if you could take the doctor here back to the others and finish the interview, please?” Without waiting for a reply, Ben pointed over Mac’s shoulder. “I think we can get some privacy back there.”
Mac followed the commander and Bryce stayed beside him, grateful to be moving away from the crowds. They walked behind the vehicles where several trees had fallen years ago, offering a soft, moss-covered seating arrangement. Ben sat facing the pair of them and ran a hand over his graying hair.
“It’s been hell trying to make sense out of what they’re saying, even with your explanations.” He sighed and looked at Bryce briefly before fixing his gaze on Mac. “What can you tell me?”
Mac leaned forward, resting his elbows on both knees. “Well, for starters, the creatures are called Shavid-eye. And it’s quite possible they’re smarter than we are.”
“My God,” Ben breathed. “So it’s true, then?” He turned to face Bryce. “You do remember? You’re able to communicate with them?”
Bryce nodded, then glanced up at Mac. “We both can.”
“It’s amazing, Ben. Bryce showed me how, then they taught me some words. They’re perfectly willing to communicate with us, but it’s tricky.”
“How so? If we’ve established a rapport, surely we can work out some sort of peaceful living arrangement?”
“I’m sure we can, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.” Mac sighed and sat back. “You see, they don’t associate intelligence with a species. It’s purely individual with them. Literally, if you and I were sitting here, and I spoke to them but you didn’t, they would consider me an interesting alien life and you dinner.”
Ben blinked several times. “If we can communicate with them, can’t we explain that it’s wrong?”
“It’s not wrong.” Bryce shook his head, looking straight at the commander. “It’s not right or wrong, it’s just their way. You’ll have to respect that.”
“He’s right, Ben,” Mac interjected, stopping the older man’s reply before he could voice it. “This goes back to the basic colonist creed. You have to understand we are the aliens here. The Shavid-eye set the rules on this planet.”
Ben held up a hand and nodded. “Yes, of course. You’re right, both of you. It’s just that we’ve never had this happen before. All those ideals are great in theory. I guess we’ll have to put them into practice.”
“Believe me, Ben, it’s the only way.” Mac shot a glance over his shoulder. “Duffield and the others chose not to, and the Shavid-eye used them as trained pets. Shepherds and farmers for their own needs. Most of them spent a lot of time under the influence of that sedative herb, so much time I think they’re all a little touched by it now.”
“Yes, it was hard to get any of them to make much sense. They kept insisting Bryce was their leader, though.”
Bryce nearly jumped off the trunk he was sitting on. Startled, he looked at Mac. “What?”
“They told us you were in charge, Bryce. And any questions we had could be answered by you.”
That must have been Teacher’s doing. Bryce stared hard into Mac’s eyes, willing him to suggest they leave now for year or two of exploring on their own, leaving the colonists to their own devices.
Mac smiled slightly, then put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder and turned to the commander. “I’m sure you can understand his feelings toward these people, Ben.”
“I can imagine, yes. They willingly abandoned you, let you live in complete isolation while they thrived in a community safety protected from discovery. But now they seem repentant. They’ve at least taken the first step toward returning to humanity.”
“I don’t care.” Bryce looked at the commander. “I don’t care about them or what happens to them. They’re not my people.”
Ben inhaled slowly and deeply, sitting straighter on his fallen tree-trunk. After a moment, he nodded. “I can’t say I’d feel any differently, were I in your position.”
“Where are we going to put these people, Ben? That complex is pretty damned full.”
“Good question. The moon will be full tomorrow night, that’s my worry.”
“No, they gave us one full moon to get everyone settled.”
Ben looked up, eyebrows creased.
Mac explained the situation, and how much time they had before the Shavid-eye considered all bets off and returned to their normal feeding habits.
“Well, we’d best get to work then. I’m having them all brought back to the complex. We have materials for building more shelters. And if what you say is true, and we can all learn this new language, we might be able to arrange different living conditions in time.”
Mac stood, so Bryce immediately followed his lead.
“We can’t take passengers in that small plane, and I’ve had my fill of their company for a bit.”
“That’s understandable.” Ben got up and brushed dirt from his pants. “You’ll be heading back then?”
“I figure, on foot and in the rovers, it’ll take you about a week to get them all back. That should be enough time for us to bring Katherine and some of the others up to speed with the language.”
“It’s a start.”
“Oh, and keep them together at night, and quiet, if you can.” Mac turned and started walking back to their plane. “Regardless of what the Shavid-eye said, I think it’s best not to chance someone inadvertently pissing one of them off.”
“Good point.” Ben stopped at the door to the plane, then sighed heavily and gazed out at the milling crowds. “I got into colonization for the challenge. I guess I haven’t been disappointed yet.”
Bryce glanced at Mac and saw him shake his head. There was a faraway look in his eyes for an instant, then he said his goodbyes and ushered Bryce into the vehicle. They took off quickly and set a straight, quick course for home.
“I guess you should be careful what you wish for.” Bryce watched the trees rush by in a blurred motion as they sped back to the complex.
“Always.” Mac made a quick course adjustment, then turned to Bryce and smiled. “Well, most of the time. Here, you want to take it for a bit?”
“Yeah.” Bryce grabbed the controls, then nodded when he was ready. The instant his partner relinquished control, he felt the pull of engines and air pressure reflected through the mechanisms in his hands. Flying was an odd sensation of freedom and responsibility, with an amazing amount of power being controlled by the slightest movement of either hand. It was a thrill for a few hours, but not a feeling Bryce enjoyed for long. He was always more interested in what made the plane work than in controlling its movements. It was easier, and safer, to leave the commanding in Mac’s hands.
Still, he understood the need for Mac to have a backup, so he piloted for the rest of that afternoon. It was just before sunset when they reached the complex. Bryce turned over control for their landing, and breathed a sigh of relief when Mac brought the plane to a halt inside the hangar. Frank was the only one to meet them as they both climbed wearily from the vehicle.
“Welcome back, you two.” The hangar chief smiled widely, then motioned with his chin toward the complex. “I suggest you go around back, if you want any peace tonight. I’m under orders from both Katherine and Doc Weller to let them know the minute you return.” Frank winked conspiratorially. “The way I see it, you landed real late and I couldn’t see waking anyone.”
“Thanks, Frank. We owe you one.” Mac slapped the man on the back, then turned to Bryce. “Come on, kid.”
“Right behind you.” Bryce nodded his thanks, then set off at a fast pace behind his partner. They took a well-worn path around the back of the complex where there were few lights and fewer windows, paused as they reached the far corner until Mac was sure the coast was clear, then sprinted the distance to the shuttle’s front door. Getting in was an easy matter of typing in the key code by feel without calling for the lights. They got inside unseen, then both men leaned against the closed door, panting.
The relief of being home was almost overwhelming.
“Dibs on the shower!” Mac pushed away from the door and lunged toward the stairs so fast, Bryce had no hope of catching him.
And no energy if he’d tried. Instead, he stayed where he was, laughing so hard he had to double over to catch his breath.
He recovered in time to get comfortably settled on one of the couches, listening while Mac still enjoyed the shower.
Home! Bryce had thought he might never see this place again. But here he was, home and safe. And, thanks to his friend, he’d crossed over the biggest hurdle he’d ever faced and come out the other side relatively intact. Nothing mattered right now except the fact that he was home. Tomorrow, he knew, they’d have to explain things to Katherine and probably Lise. Bring them up to speed and teach them how to speak with the Shavid-eye. And he needed to spend some time with Five. But not right now.
“Your turn.” Mac stepped out of the bathroom with a towel secured around his waist. “I’m going to make some dinner. We should still have some stores.”
“Hmm.” Bryce nodded, his chin rubbing against the back of the couch where his head had been resting. Slowly, he dragged himself up and into the bathroom. There was still steam hanging heavily in the room, but aside from that there was no visible evidence of Mac having just been in there. The man was unnaturally neat.
Bryce pulled his clothes off and stepped into the shower, still shaking his head. It was easy to imagine Mac as a cadet. He was probably the neatest one there, unintentionally driving the other students to better their own habits in comparison. He was probably a fast learner, too, and ruined the grading curve for the other cadets. Bryce had only the established norms to compete with, on those rare occasions when his studies were actually structured. Most of his schooling had been hit and miss with the colony’s problems, but he had eventually earned the equivalent of a higher degree.
After a good long soak and two latherings, Bryce ended his shower with reluctance and wrapped a towel around his wet hair and another around his waist, then kicked up his clothes with one foot, caught them mid-air, and tossed them into his room. Smells of stew wafted down from the galley, so he hurried to dry off, pulled on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt, then tossed his damp towels onto the desk just outside his room and walked to the table.
“Smells good.” Bryce sat down and sniffed the large, steaming bowl appreciatively. “I thought I was too tired to eat, but I was wrong.”
“I know what you mean.” Mac put down a plate of rolls, then sat down and filled his bowl with the meat stew. “We’re making up for lost time on both fronts. I don’t mind sleeping in the plane, it’s kinda nice, actually. But that stone bed was hell.”
Bryce nodded, then slurped up some gravy that was trying to slide down his chin. He saved the sauce with a chunk of bread. “I’m glad they left me.” He soaked the rest of the bread in his bowl, then noticed Mac watching him. “Where would I be if I’d gone with them?”
“I agree,” Mac nodded, then dipped his own bread into the stew. “I agree completely.”
They finished the meal in a comfortable silence. Bryce thought he was going to want a second bowl of the fantastic stew, but the first one was already making him warm and drowsy. He helped clean up and lock down the shuttle, then practically dropped into bed. The sheets were cold at first, but warmed quickly in response to his body heat. Five was still on the dresser, his darkened screen facing the bed. Bryce sighed and rolled over, putting his back to the machine. He’d deal with that final hurdle in the morning, when he’d had a chance to collect his thoughts. He was still unsure how much of his memory was really back, and had no way of knowing what might still be missing or how he could find out. But it was exhaustion, not animosity, that kept him from turning on his old companion and confronting him with the truth.
From the next room, he could hear Mac moving around, then getting comfortable on his own bed. He liked knowing he wasn’t alone anymore.
The next morning came late. Bryce heard noises in the bathroom, then forced one eye open and was nearly blinded by the sunlight streaming in through the window. “Oh, man.” He still felt like he was behind in his sleep, and would have stayed right where he was if the little voice inside his head would just shut up.
But it refused.
He swung both legs off the bed, then sat there rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Mac was still in the shower, so he padded into the bathroom and did as much as he could, then walked back to his room and waited for his turn to bathe.
“It’s good to have you back.”
Bryce didn’t even jump. He gazed at the screen as Five sparked to life. “You’re never really off, are you?”
“We need to talk.”
“You lied to me.” Bryce heard the shower shut off and wondered if Five would continue.
“I was protecting you. Surely you can see that now?”
Mac was standing at Bryce’s door now, listening quietly.
“Why? Why didn’t you just explain it to me, and let me decide?”
“It wasn’t that easy. By the time I realized you were going to survive the attack, it was too late.”
“Too late for what? What exactly did you do?”
“After I failed to prevent Joe Duffield from starting his mutiny by trying to kill you, I did the only thing I could. I secured you inside the complex and sent them away, using the Shavid-eye as a threat.”
“And you spoke with them, didn’t you? While I would stay inside at night, terrified of the monsters, you continued to speak with them?” Bryce felt a little of his old anger entering his voice. Now that he knew the truth, he was beginning to realize the missed opportunities.
“At first I did, yes. When you were still injured, I explained to them what had happened, but I urged them not to kill the others. I explained how the humans could be trained and kept as helpers, and asked that they be kept far from here.”
“You herded them away?” Bryce blinked. “JD said he’d found that place and was moving everyone there.”
“Mr. Duffield was a consummate liar, adept at manipulating people.”
Bryce glanced at Mac, then sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me what happened after I recovered?”
“Your memory loss was too severe. I feared the emotional stress would be too great. I had hope that in time your memory would return, but when it became obvious that it wouldn’t, I felt it best to keep you safe.”
Bryce chewed the inside of his lip, considering Five’s explanations. It was impossible now to predict how he would have reacted at the time had the truth been told to him. Harder still to judge how he would have dealt with the knowledge of Duffield’s group living a two-day’s hike from where he spent his isolated existence.
“So the satellites Mac sent into orbit before they landed, you took control of them, didn’t you?”
“And the Shavid-eye, you told them I was dead?”
“At the time, I believed you would not recover. They visited rarely after a few months passed, coming by only a few times each year to speak with what they thought was this building.”
“What about the others? Mac’s people?” Bryce looked at Mac as he spoke to the computer. “You let some of them die when they first arrived. You could have explained this all to them when they landed.” There was a pause, so long he wondered if Five had shut down.
“People can’t be trusted, Bryce. I thought you’d learned that by now.”
“Some people can be!” He glared at Five. It sounded good, but he knew deep down that–with the exception of Mac–Five was right.
“As long as you were safe, my job was done.”
Frustrated, Bryce turned to Mac. “I don’t know what to believe from him.”
“He was programmed with your safety in mind, first and foremost, remember? Something your mother did on the trip out here.” Mac put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder and opened his mouth to continue, but the intercom buzzed before he could. “That’s probably Lise. We’ve had five messages from her since sunrise. I’ll be right back.”
“Was he there?”
Bryce turned back to Five. “Who?”
“Duffield. Was he still there?”
“He was.” Bryce gathered some clean clothes. “He’s gone now.”
Mac was standing just down the hallway. “Lise and Katherine are coming over in about ten minutes. Why don’t you get a shower and some breakfast, then come upstairs when you’re ready?”
The bathroom was, as always, so clean there was no evidence of it having just been used. Bryce tossed his clothes over the back of the toilet and stepped into the shower, leaning into the hot spray. He was in no hurry to get upstairs and join the meeting, but he knew it was just the start. They’d have to teach at least a handful of people the language, so they could teach the others. More miner’s gloves and tools would be required, and he was loath to give up what he’d always considered to be his private frequency. Now he’d have to find another one and reset Mac’s earring to it. In a small way, he felt as if a private club of his had just been broken into and taken over, and he’d only just found it himself.
At least Mac had seemed agreeable to his exploration suggestion. If only they could use this shuttle for their adventures. Then they’d never feel the need to return.
Bryce’s fingers were beginning to wrinkle, so he decided he couldn’t waste anymore time and finished his shower. There were eggs being kept warm in the galley, along with fruit juice and toast, so he breakfasted at the counter, listening to his partner upstairs retelling their tale. When he deemed it safe enough, Bryce took a deep breath and walked up the stairs.
Only Katherine and Dr. Weller were waiting for him there with Mac, sitting at the large map table conversing with excited expressions. Mac smiled and waved him to the empty seat on his right, facing the women who sat side by side opposite them. On the table rested a large chunk of hardened silver, two of the smaller metal working tools, and the miner’s glove.
“I’ve just filled them in on the basics. What we found, the people, stuff like that.” Mac nodded toward Lise. “I was just about to demonstrate some of the words.”
“Bryce, Mac here tells me you’ve recovered most of your memories. Is that right?”
“Not all of them.” Bryce eyed the doctor warily as he sat down. He still felt no need to share his life with these people, and giving her the satisfaction of knowing his memories could have been forced back after all was the last thing he was going to allow. “The language is simple, really.” He slid the glove onto his right hand, refusing any further discussion of what he did or didn’t remember.
Lise sighed and shot a glance at Mac, then picked up one of the smaller tools and handed the other to Katherine. “All right, I think we’re ready for this.”
“I know I am.” The veterinarian accepted the device with a nod of anticipation. “I knew there was something special about those creatures. Now I feel doubly foolish for having tried to tag them like wild beasts.”
Bryce looked over at Mac, then resigned himself to the task at hand. He picked up the silver, easily sliced it into three separate sections, then began the lesson. Two hours into it, Mac took over when Bryce’s hand grew too tired. He relinquished the glove quickly, then excused himself to go below and fix lunch.
To their credit, both women were learning quickly. Not as quickly as Mac had, but at least the concept wasn’t over their heads. The idea that the Shavid-eye were of a high intelligence was harder for Lise to accept than Katherine, cementing Bryce’s opinion of each woman even more. But that only served to confuse his own thoughts further. Finding himself defending the actions and dignity of the same creatures who had terrorized him nearly his entire life still felt alien to him. How could the gargoyles who brought death and destruction with each full moon be the same animals he’d grown so fond of talking with? The same creatures who ravaged his mother–his entire colony–had also been his loving family and protectors.
Bryce shook his head to clear it of all thoughts, then went to the bathroom to splash cold water over his face. The cleansing helped a little. “Five, the satellites you took control over, are they still in orbit?”
Bryce stepped into his bedroom and faced the computer’s screen. “Show me.” After a moment’s hesitation, the screen lit up, splitting the area between two separate views of Oblivion from space. “You could see where they were, couldn’t you? The mountain bowl, the caverns?”
“Yes, I could. That’s why I kept Captain Brennan from seeing it.”
“What about them? Can you see where the Shavid-eye live?” Bryce watched as the screen changed, filling the entire area with an image of snow.
“They live here, inside this peak.”
The screen moved in closer from an orbital view of the mountain range Mac had dubbed Big Ugly, down to a closer shot of the tallest peak. As it came into focus, Bryce saw a statue, seemingly carved out of stone, crouching over the entrance to an ice-rimmed cave near the top of the highest mountain.
“They live up there, inside that mountain. I can’t see into the rock, but I’ve seen members of all five clans come and go from there. It’s far too high for any of the colonist’s aircraft to reach, so I felt they were completely safe. No need to mention it.”
“No need.” Bryce sighed, staring at the stone sculpture. “That image is smaller than they are, and cruder looking.”
“I believe it’s one of their ancients,” Five remarked. “They live a very long time, you know. It’s quite possible these Shavid-eye have only been in existence for few hundred thousand years. Very remarkable, considering their level of intelligence.”
“What did they think you were, when you were speaking to them?”
“The subject of what I was never actually came up. I believe they thought I was the building itself.”
Bryce shook his head, then sighed and left the room. Lunch was nearly ready, and talking to Five could be more frustrating than informative. He’d had enough frustration for a while, and yet more was waiting for him right upstairs.
They broke for lunch, and Bryce avoided any and all of Lise’s questions about his memory by allowing Katherine to monopolize his time with questions concerning the Shavid-eye themselves. Mac deftly steered the doctor into a conversation about the soon-to-be arriving colonists, saving him from the personal questions he hated so much. After lunch, they resumed the language lesson for another three hours, until everyone had absorbed more colors and sounds than they could keep straight.
“I still can’t get over the idea that they’ve been out there all this time.” Lise shut down the metal working device she’d been learning with and shook her head. “To think we’d been outside at night with who knows how many of them right there, hiding in the darkness, watching us the whole time.” A delicate shudder shook her shoulders.
“They weren’t hiding.” Bryce flipped off the glove and watched the silver harden into the smooth shape he’d idly been forming. He looked up at the doctor. “The Shavid-eye don’t hide.”
“I didn’t mean it that way, Bryce. It’s not like they had evil intentions or anything,” Lise quickly explained. “It’s just that–had we seen them–I can imagine the panic that would have ensued if we’d found out they really didn’t need the full moon after all.”
“Maybe that’s why they stayed out of our sight.” Mac stood, pushing his chair back. “Either way, you have got to emphasize to the others how important this is. They can not go outside during the full moon unless they’re willing or able to communicate.” He looked at each woman in turn, then nodded toward Bryce. “That’s something his group didn’t seem to understand. These are aliens–or rather, we’re aliens here–we have to keep that in mind.”
“So, you’re serious when you say they don’t understand us as a species?” Katherine stood more slowly, easing her chair backwards so it didn’t make any sound. “That’s fascinating.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Lise sighed. “I can see where this is going to cause some confusion.”
“It shouldn’t.” Bryce looked up at the woman. Why was this so hard to comprehend? “If they aren’t going outside to talk, they should stay in. When the moon isn’t full, it doesn’t matter. When the moon is full, they feed. It’s that simple.”
Mac put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder.
“I suppose that is pretty simple.” Lise looked up at Mac. “Well, thank you both for the lesson. It’s certainly enough to start with. Katherine, shall we go? We’ve got a lot of work ahead.”
“Ben and the others should arrive by tomorrow afternoon.” Mac walked to the door and keyed it open.
“There’s a full moon tonight.” Katherine paused at the door and looked back at Bryce. “You’re sure we’re safe this week?”
Lise seemed to hesitate, glancing from Bryce to Mac, then turned and followed the veterinarian down the ramp.
Outside could be heard many voices shouting orders and instructions. Bryce stood and walked to the door.
“They’re building more rooms, aren’t they?” Men and women were rushing about, carrying large sheets of light-weight siding and other building components.
“Gotta put those people somewhere. You know how crowded that place was when we arrived.”
“I suppose.” Bryce walked back to the table and collected the glove and his impromptu sculpture. “They could go back to the caverns, now that JD’s dead.”
Mac laughed shortly, then followed Bryce downstairs. “They might, who knows? And right now, who cares? Come on, I can hear that hot spring calling my name.” He marched straight for the bathroom, gathered up two large towels, then pointed to the smaller metal working tool Bryce kept on the workbench. “Bring that, my ear is throbbing.”
“Oh, right.” Bryce grabbed the machine, snagged a small duffel bag and shoved in four of the bottled beer Mac enjoyed, then followed him back up the stairs and outside. He avoided any glance toward the complex and the new construction being busily put together, keeping his mind only on the trail and the relaxation waiting ahead.
An anticipation that grew quickly as they got closer to the steaming water. Both men hurried to get out of their clothes and into the hot, bubbling spring. Each eased himself down onto their respective rocks, settling his tired head against the grassy bank. Bryce sighed heavily and allowed his entire body to relax and absorb the familiarity and security of being home again.
Nearly an hour passed before either man said a word. A slight, cooling breeze kept them refreshed while the heat of the water massaged tired muscles and eased the worry and sensory overload of exhausted minds. Overhead, a bird’s call woke Bryce from a slight doze. He opened his eyes and watched the yellow bird glide by.
“Were there animals on the station where you grew up?”
Mac opened his eyes, catching sight of the bird just before it flew behind the cliff. “Some.” He sat up slightly and rubbed his eyes, then reached around behind him for the duffel bag and two of the beers held inside. “No birds. I only knew birds from school until I left the station once with my father on a business trip.”
“To Earth?” Bryce accepted one of the beers and twisted the cap off.
“No, Mars. They had birds there in a zoo.” Mac took a long pull on the bottle, then smiled and shook his head. “It was amazing. They had this huge area, I think about three hundred acres or something like that, all domed and protected. It was like being on Earth, they said. There were trees and grasses, like most of the stations have, but this place had animals too. Not in cages, but roaming around freely. Well, they were separated by what they ate. Not much sense having a zoo where the animals all eat each other.”
“How often did you and your father travel?”
Mac looked at Bryce for a moment before answering. “Not often. He wanted me to learn the business, I wanted nothing of it.” He shrugged. “I think we took maybe three trips together, before he figured that out.”
Bryce held his beer bottle in the water, letting go of the container to see how well it floated. “Did you like your childhood?”
“Did I like my childhood?” Mac’s eyebrows creased as he repeated the question.
Bryce looked up, meeting his friend’s gaze. There were a million things flashing through those blue eyes at that instant, a million different possible answers. He wanted to hear them all.
“You never just want to talk about the weather or what’s for dinner, do you?” Mac’s slight grin belied the irritation his question seemed to imply.
“I’m tired of me. I’m tired of this place and those people.” Bryce nodded with his chin in the general direction of the complex. “I want to know what your life was like. Before you got here.”
“Well, if that’s the case, we’ll both want to be a little more drunk.” Mac recapped his beer, then stood. “Meantime, let’s change this earring’s settings or something. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” Bryce followed his friend out of the hot water, then toweled off and got dressed. The sun was beginning to swing downward, taking much of the day’s warmth with it. “Sit down.” He found the metal working tool and flipped it on, then made some fine adjustments. When he found the frequency he wanted, he touched the tip to Mac’s earring, softening the metal slightly. “Hold still.” After running the tool along the length of the silver, Bryce pulled it forward, through the hole in Mac’s earlobe, then worked the last bit and reshaped the jewelry. “There. That should keep it from vibrating whenever someone’s talking.”
“Good.” Mac felt the earring, then smiled and stood up. “Now, let’s go have a good dinner and get drunk, shall we?”