So I had it in my head this was going to be the last chapter today. I haven’t been paying close attention, but I knew in the old heady days of no-idea-what-I-was-doing, my chapters ran really really long. Thinking today was The End, I went out and Googled the proper lyrics to The Doors tune: The End – and damn if they’re not completely whacked.
But then I realized, Chapter 21 isn’t the last one, so it was all moot anyway. Here’s the Second To Last chapter, then. And I can’t think of a Doors tune to match that – so consider yourselves lucky 😀
Mac leaned back on the couch with a deep, contented sigh and rested the nearly empty glass on one knee. Two beers, a delicious steak dinner, and glass of fermented edge-berries were beginning to take over, making him warm and very content.
“They’ll be here by tomorrow, won’t they?” Bryce set the last of the dishes on the drying vent and walked out to the seating area.
“Probably by late morning.” Mac eyed his partner as he approached the couch, then got comfortable in the thick cushions. “Ben’s in charge now. We’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“I don’t even want to think about them.” Bryce yawned, then scooted back and rested further down on the couch. “I’m as close to drunk as I’ve ever been. Will you tell me about what your life was like back on the station, now?”
Mac laughed shortly, then shook his head and set the wine glass down. He wanted to ask what was causing this sudden interest in his life, but the reasons were pretty plain. “It’s more boring than you imagine, I’m sure. It was just a childhood, nothing special.”
Bryce yawned again, covering his mouth with one hand. “Anything that wasn’t here was special. At least to me.”
“And that’s exactly what I used to say, back on the station.” Mac watched his partner’s face as his eyelids slid farther down. “Listen, you’re asleep already. And I’m pretty wiped out myself. Too much wine, I think.” Mac sighed again and forced himself to his feet, then reached down and offered Bryce a hand. “Let’s get some sleep. Things are gonna be pretty hectic around here for a few days or so. As soon as things settle down, we’ll have all the time in the world to be bored by stories of my childhood.”
Reluctantly, Bryce accepted the hand off the couch, then yawned again without attempting to cover it. “Promise?”
“Yes. Now use the bathroom so I can get in there. I wanna take a shower before I go to bed.”
He watched his friend stumble into the bathroom, then he went upstairs to secure the door and the upper level for the night. Outside the sun was just sinking below the horizon, and already a full moon had begun its climb into the early evening sky. Mac watched the scene for a few minutes, recalling the Shavid-eye’s promise not to hunt near the complex this week. Amazing creatures. Highly intelligent, polite, even bashful. Yet the sight of the moon creeping into the sky still sent a shiver down his spine.
Mac shook off the feeling and secured the door, then shut off the lights on his way to the now empty bathroom. He stripped off his clothes and set them on the counter, then gathered up Bryce’s discarded items from the corner on the floor and added them to his pile. After sanitizing his teeth and rinsing out the aftertaste of wine, he stepped into the shower and cranked on the water.
Bryce’s recent questioning about his past was bringing it all back. Mac stood under the spray as it slammed into his head, recalling his father’s stingy attitude toward fresh water usage. The man owned an entire space mining station, ran a prosperous operation that employed thousands, and still demanded strict conservation of the most basic necessities. Mac had learned to understand and even appreciate the water rationing of the military ships and stations, where space and resources were limited by time and population. But the more he learned about the requirements and availability of such items, the more he understood how greed and fear had been his father’s motivators, not paternal wisdom and ecological awareness.
Irritated by those thoughts, Mac suddenly realized he’d been scrubbing his short hair so hard the shower stall was filled with foamy soap lather. “Damn you, old man.” He forced his head back under the spray and felt the tingle of stimulated skin being hit by water under pressure. It never changed. No matter how old he grew, or how far away he traveled, his father still had a power over him he couldn’t seem to conquer. What was it he kept telling Bryce? The past can’t hurt you.
“But it does reserve the right to piss you off now and again.”
Mac shut off the water and waited until most of the soap foam slid from his legs before grabbing a towel and drying off. He stuffed his and Bryce’s clothes into the cleaning chute, then added his now damp towel and walked to the bedroom. The book he’d been reading waited patiently on the nightstand, but the wine and beer of that evening were winning. Mac found he barely had the energy to climb into bed before the tug of sleep began pulling him downward.
The children were everywhere, running past him in a blur of motion and laughter. Mac stood in the hallway, watching them rush past, but when he turned to join them in their hurry to the gardens, something tugged at his shoulder.
He turned and looked up, into the eyes of his father.
“You have studies. Get to them.” In slow motion, his father turned to watch the last of the children turn the far corner of the corridor. He looked back down at Mac and released his hold. “Play is a waste of valuable time.”
Mac said nothing as his father walked away. The sound of the other children was fading away as they entered the large garden wing three doors down. He’d been in the garden many times, but only to learn how the hydroponics functioned and practice setting the solar panels for optimum output at peak hours during the rotation of planet, sun and station.
When he turned back to watch his father walk away, he was no longer in the hallway. Surrounding him now were rows and rows of escape pods, secured and waiting for any emergency. Facing him was Pod #8. His pod. Assigned to him when he reached the age of twelve, for evacuation in the event of any hull compromise or other imminent danger. It was his fort. The only place he could go to be alone, and the one place he wasn’t allowed to play in.
Once, when he was much younger, a boy was playing in one of the pods and accidentally jettisoned himself straight out of the station. Only the pod malfunctioned, and the hatch never closed. Mac was there when they retrieved the boy’s body, frozen solid in an expression of complete surprise. He stood in the doorway as they wheeled the body away, and watched the parents cry and wail as their loss became clear.
It was incredible.
Mac launched himself from the bed and was halfway through the door into Bryce’s room before he became consciously aware of what he was doing. “What is it?”
“Dammit!” Bryce was sitting up in bed, the blankets thrown to the floor, sweating and shaking his head.
“Nightmare?” Mac stood beside the bed, blinking.
Mac shook his head, then sat on the end of the bed and ran a hand over his short hair. “It’s okay, you woke me out of one myself.” He glanced at the view port, but it was completely covered. “It’s a full moon tonight.”
“I know.” Bryce pushed long strands of hair from his face and shook his head slowly from side to side. “It was them again.”
“No,” Bryce looked Mac in the eyes with a quick flash of anger that vanished almost immediately. “It was them. Those creatures that came in the darkness, pulling people apart in seconds. Then there was blood, and then nothing. Nothing left where someone had been.”
Mac blinked again, then caught up to what his friend was saying.
As if understanding his momentary confusion, Bryce explained. “I can’t put them together. I just can’t. And I don’t want to.”
“It’s all right.” Mac put a hand on Bryce’s leg and forced back a yawn. “Give it time.”
Bryce opened his mouth to speak, then changed his mind and nodded. “I’m sorry I woke you. What were you dreaming about?”
“Me? Oh, just something that happened a long time ago.” Mac twisted his neck from side to side to relieve a slight kink, then shrugged. “I’ll tell you about it tomorrow, I’m tired.”
“You’re fine now?”
“I’m fine, it was just . . . the usual. Good night.”
Mac paused a moment, then sighed and got up. “Good night.” He went back to bed and forced his mind into an old relaxation mantra he’d learned at the academy, designed to free the mind of any particular thoughts. It usually helped the night before a big exam, and often cured the common nightmare of arriving at flight training naked the morning of a drill.
It worked on old childhood memories, too.
But nothing worked against the day ahead. Mac, at least, was prepared for the onslaught and confusion of two-hundred or so refugees. When they stepped out of the shuttle that morning and saw the multiple additions to the complex, the hordes of people rushing about making last minute adjustments to the prefabricated dwellings and preparing to receive their original colony members back into the fold, Mac expected his partner to vanish completely from sight.
Instead, the younger man recovered from an initial surge of shock and uneasiness, and neatly tucked himself in beside, and slightly behind, Mac’s taller frame like a shy fledgling. There was no pulling away whenever someone approached, but Bryce made it perfectly clear to anyone willing to understand that things hadn’t changed.
They spotted Katherine leading a small group in a language lesson. “Katherine, would you let me know when Ben gets here? He and I have some security issues to work out now that we have a larger group.”
He nodded in the general direction of the hangar. “Come on, we’ve got a plane that needs cleaning and maintenance.”
Bryce’s reaction was a cheerful–if not possibly over-exuberant–nod of his head as he followed Mac.
They spent the better part of the morning cleaning the plane, then enjoyed a quiet lunch in the chief’s office discussing how well the vehicle handled and how easily Bryce picked up piloting.
“I think it could handle long term exploration just fine.”
Mac knew the innocent look his partner had plastered on his face hid a new-found and very strong desire to get away from the complex. “Yes, it probably would.” He leaned back, balancing the chair he was sitting in on its rear legs, and shot Frank a quick wink. “Of course, you’d have to be able to maintain it, and perform any repairs. If it had any problems too far out, we’d be stranded for some time.”
“I could do that.” Bryce nodded willingly. “We could get Five to show us scans from those satellites so I could make thorough maps.”
“You know, it would be pretty cool to see what else this planet has to offer.” Frank hefted his coffee cup in a salute to the younger man’s suggestion. “I wonder if those Shavi-whatsis’s have even been all around their own place? Or is this the only area they live?”
Mac glanced at Bryce, who simply shrugged in reply and said nothing. “We’ll have to ask them, I suppose.” He finished his own coffee and set the cup down, lowering his chair with a muffled thud. Before he could suggest a lube of the manifold gaskets, the office intercom buzzed to life.
“Hey Frank, it’s Katherine. Is Mac in there, by chance?”
“Oh, perfect. Ben’s just coming in now. I told him you wanted a meeting.”
“Thanks, I’ll be right there.” The unit clicked off, and Mac turned to Bryce.
Before he could speak, his friend stood and brushed crumbs from his shirt. “I want to give the plane a good lube, then the bearings need alignment. That landing you did on the ledge put the brakes under some strain.”
Mac smiled and accepted his friend’s unspoken plea for a reprieve without argument. He pointed one finger at Bryce’s chest. “Don’t forget to test the tension in the couplings when you’re finished.”
“Right. I will.”
“Frank, thanks for the lunch.” Mac nodded to the hangar chief, then slapped Bryce on the back, propelling him gently from the office and toward their parked vehicle. After giving his partner a slight shove in the proper direction, he veered off and left the garage.
The view from the rise of the hangar bay was almost startling. Mac could see over the complex’s roof to the valley behind the buildings and the mass of people walking up from that direction. He paused, watching the scene, as robe-clad refugees approached their colony contemporaries. The meeting was hesitant, at first. A large group of Ben’s people began to move forward in greeting, then seemed to stop and stare as the refugees ceased their forward movement and gazed ahead at the greeters and buildings. Several minutes passed, each group merely staring at the other, unmoving. Finally, three colonists broke free of the stalemate and marched forward, hands extended. Mac couldn’t see individual faces from where he stood, but from the body language and robes, he assumed Teacher was one of the refugees who struggled free of the pack to accept the welcome.
“I’ve got to admit, I have mixed feelings about this whole thing.”
Mac turned and looked at Frank, surprised the hangar chief had been standing so close. He sighed and shot a glance back toward Bryce. From deep inside the hangar, there was no chance the kid could see any of what was taking place.
“I haven’t met any of these people yet, and already I’m mad at them.” Frank slapped a gloved hand against his trousers, sending up a cloud of dust. “Not just for what they did to the kid, but mind you, that’s bad enough.”
“I know it’s hard to imagine, Frank, but Bryce is a better man for having been left behind.” Mac shook his head slowly, watching the two groups now mixing more freely as the refugees worked their way up to the complex’s courtyard. “I can’t imagine what kind of person he’d be if they’d taken him along.”
“Maybe you’re right, all things considered.” Frank gave one final shake of his head and turned away. “But I reserve the right not to like them one little bit.”
Mac laughed shortly as the chief walked away, then began a slow walk down to find the commander. Sometimes he hated being the voice of reason. Sometimes he even hated the fact that reason had a voice. When your gut was telling you hatred and anger were the best roads to take, and your head insisted civility and understanding were the better routes, that voice was often the only thing separating you from the very thing you hated. It was the only thing that had kept him from killing Eckland and Duffield with his bare hands. Yet to have done so would have lowered him to their level.
But he, too, reserved the right to dislike these people.
With some reluctance, Mac walked down to the complex and waded through the crowds to the main entrance, then excused his way down the corridors until he finally reached Ben’s office. Inside, gratefully, he found only the commander.
“Ben, how’d it go last night?” Mac helped himself to a comfortable chair opposite the commander’s desk.
“Strange, actually.” Ben leaned forward, resting both elbows on the simulated wood. “I assured everyone we were safe this one time, but the minute that full moon came up, it got pretty eerie. We had shields arranged as a make-shift dome, but those refugees went completely silent, all night long.” He shook his head and suppressed a slight shudder. “Not one word was spoken from moon rise to sun rise. They didn’t even whisper to each other, that I could tell.”
“They’re a strange lot.” Mac swallowed back the rest of the comment he wanted to make and pressed on. “And now we have to deal with them.”
“Yes, well, Lise is interviewing that Teacher person. He was the colony physician, but then you know that already.” Ben rubbed his forehead and sighed heavily.
“Look, Ben, I’m not going to try and interfere with how you handle this. These colonists are your people. I don’t even think they’re going to be much of a security problem, now that Duffield and Eckland are both gone.”
“About that . . . We’ve heard different accounts of just what happened back there. But, if I understand it right, these people vacated before it all happened.”
“Duffield killed Eckland. They were trying to outsmart each other.” Mac met Ben’s gaze straight on. “Duffield was killed after that. It was all pretty quick, there was nothing anyone could have done.”
Ben leaned back in his chair. “There’s nothing I need to concern myself with, then?”
“Nothing.” Mac forced his jaw not to clench too tightly, a common reaction to civilians trying to second-guess battlefield techniques. “What we need to concern ourselves with are the Shavid-eye. This is their planet, Ben. Your people are trained for this, but no colony has ever been face to face with it before.”
“I know, I know.” He nodded several times and drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair. “Right now Bryce is our leading authority on that matter.”
Mac immediately jumped to his friend’s rescue. “He’s already told everyone what he knows, Ben. He’s not holding anything back. Both Lise and Katherine learned the basics of the language, and I think Katherine’s already teaching what she’s learned.” He wasn’t about to let them put Bryce back into center stage.
“He’s remembered nothing more?” Ben’s eyebrows raised hopefully.
“Nothing pertaining to the colony.”
“Yes, well, as you say, my people have been trained for this. I’m sure once the initial shock wears off, they’ll realize what we have here and the sheer scientific joy of it all will return.”
Mac refrained from commenting about the ‘scientific joy’ shown thus far. “As far as planetary security goes, Ben, at this stage it couldn’t be more simple. If anyone is unable, or unwilling, to communicate with the Shavid-eye on their terms during their feeding moon, they must remain indoors. Bryce’s group didn’t seem willing to accept that restriction.”
Ben’s eyebrows creased in thought as he seemed to contemplate the edge of his desk. “You say these creatures are pretty intelligent?”
“Very.” Mac nodded once, firmly. “They have intelligence, humor, a sense of honor.” He swallowed, recalling Joe Duffield’s last seconds. “And vengeance. They associate intelligence with communication, and seemed to delight in teaching me their language. And they’re very patient.” Oddly enough, he found himself reluctant to share any specifics of that night. It had been a profoundly moving, and personal, experience. “At any rate, this planet belongs to them. They appear willing enough to share, but your people are going to have to accept it. No matter how odd the Shavid-eye might seem.”
“Oh I know. Believe me, we’re prepared, once the shock wears off. Katherine seems to have adapted already.” Ben took a deep breath, then stood, pushing his chair away. “I’ll arrange for a gathering tonight, just before sunset when things have calmed down a bit. I’d like you to go over the facts with everyone, just briefly if you don’t mind. They know you’ve been there, and they respect you as planet security.”
Mac wasn’t sure everyone there did, but that was his position, after all. He stood and walked to the door. “I’ll give it my best. But as soon as things settle down some, I’d like to do more exploring, see what’s out there.”
“Yes, of course. That would be a good idea.”
Mac paused at the door, watching Ben. His tone suggested some undercurrent he should inquire about, but his body language seemed to be in conflict. “I’ll talk to the group tonight, and help everyone settle in, but the rest is in your hands.”
“We can handle it, never fear.”
A quick nod was the only agreement Mac offered before leaving the office. The corridors were crammed with bodies, all talking and explaining so many things at the same time, it was impossible to follow any conversation as he pushed his way gently but firmly through the masses. Several groups he passed he could identify now only by the color of their eyes, as more of the refugees were trading in their robes for the more traditional colonial clothing. In a few years, all the newcomers would have the same shade of lavender that would forever mark them as residents of Oblivion. If Lise was correct, his lighter blue would change more quickly than most, giving him much the same alien appearance as Bryce. It was a quality he’d grown quite used to in the younger man, but seeing so many other people marked the same way was somewhat bothersome.
As was navigating the crowded complex. Mac found the nearest exit and squeezed through it, back into the open air of early afternoon. The additional buildings were still being worked on, but had already taken shape well enough to house the new arrivals during completion. Luckily, they were at the opposite end of the current complex from the shuttle. Unfortunately, that put them uncomfortably close to the hangar and vehicles.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Mac managed to return to his plane and partner without any tag-alongs.
Bryce looked up from under the plane where he lay on his back, grease covering the majority of chin and forehead. “Almost done.”
Mac chuckled at the sight of the exuberant, filthy face smiling back up at him. “You get first dibs on the shower. I’ll be right back, I need to talk to Frank for a second.”
“Okay.” Bryce ignored the comment about his appearance and happily returned to his task.
“Frank, listen, I don’t want to sound paranoid or anything, but . . .”
“I’ve got the hangar wired with motion sensors, and every vehicle has a voice control lock active before nightfall.”
“You’re one step ahead of me.” Mac smiled, relieved that the hangar chief had anticipated his request, and hadn’t thought ill of him for the precaution.
“Can’t be too careful. ‘Least wise, not till we get to know these people.” Frank hitched one shoulder and shrugged off the security measures. “And I, for one, intend to keep myself neatly locked away at night, just like before. I’m just a mechanic, not one of those alien relations types.”
“I hear that.” Mac ran a hand over his short hair, already anticipating the evening’s lecture. “Take it easy.”
When he returned to the plane, Bryce was securing the access panels. “It didn’t really need the lubrication, but I did it anyway. I figure we can go longer with it being done, than if I put it off.” He stowed the tools and wiped dirty hands on the bottom half of his shirt, then brushed some errant strands of hair away from his face. The motion caused yet another smear of dark lubricant to be deposited on his face.
Mac suppressed a laugh and nodded toward their home. “Come on, grease monkey. Time to get cleaned up and think about dinner.”
“Did you want to go to the hot spring?”
They started walking down the path that would lead around behind the complex, where fewer crowds were milling. “No, I don’t have much time. I promised Ben I’d speak to the gathering tonight. Just to go over some things, no big deal.” He glanced at his partner, fleetingly wondering if Bryce had applied the dirt to his face on purpose as a camouflage for the walk through the crowds. “You don’t have to be there if you don’t want to.”
“What are you going to say?”
Mac shrugged. “Ben’s going to make a speech or something, then introduce a few people. Let them know who’s in charge of what.”
“And you’re security, right?” Bryce glanced up at him as they walked, lavender eyes sparkling through a black-smeared face. “So they’ll know there can’t be another Duffield or Eckland taking over.”
“Eckland was one of my group, remember?” Mac reached up and typed in the code for their front door, glancing quickly down at his friend.
“That was different.” Bryce waved a hand in the air, dismissing the man completely, then stepped inside.
“Oh?” Mac followed him inside, then down the stairs. “And exactly how is that different?”
“He didn’t know the truth.” Bryce continued toward the bathroom, peeling off his shirt as he walked. His comment had to wait while the cloth temporarily blocked his face. “JD did. And now everyone else does, too. And they can’t hide from it anymore.” The shirt was tossed inside the door of Bryce’s bedroom, followed by pants, shoes and shorts. “So it’s different now.” He stepped into the bathroom, and moments later steam began wafting through the half-open door.
“Maybe some things are different now.” Mac walked into Bryce’s room and retrieved the soiled clothes, stuffing them into the refresher chute. It was too early to worry about dinner, so he made some coffee and walked back upstairs. From the monitors in the cockpit, he could scan every inch of the complex’s exterior. He got comfortable in the pilot’s chair and started flipping through each view, watching the activity.
Teacher was no longer clad in long robes, but currently sported the standard issue cream and white coverall of the medical personnel. He was sitting on a bench several yards away from the newest structure, conversing intently with Lise and two of her assistants. Mac moved the camera and scanned the new building. It appeared finished from the outside, but he knew from overheard conversations that the interior still required several day’s work.
Bryce’s idea of leaving the colony for extended periods of time, using the excuse of exploration, was looking better and better every day. Mac hadn’t come all the way out here just to live in a cramped, heavily populated square mile. They could use the plane for long-term trips, since the batteries could regenerate overnight and they would only be limited by the amount of supplies they could carry. It was too bad the shuttle wasn’t fit for more atmosphere flight. He sighed and glanced down at the instrument panel of the sturdy workhorse that was now his home. In space, she handled like a bird. But in the atmosphere, he was reminded of his first flight instructor’s interpretation: Flying in atmosphere with a space-born ship is like dancing with a cow.
Well, Mac had to admit he’d never danced with a cow, and didn’t intend to. But he knew when and where to use the appropriate vehicle.
“Hey, the shower’s free if you wanted it.”
Mac looked up as Bryce sat down in the co-pilot’s seat. His hair was still soaking wet and sticking to his shoulders and neck, but most of the water was caught by a towel draped around his back. A few errant drops ran happily down a bare chest to be soaked up by the sweatpants, the only clothing Bryce had bothered to put on.
“No, I’m fine. I was just checking the place out.” He flipped another switch and changed their view from the building to the center of the complex’s courtyard. Shimmering brightly in the late afternoon sunlight, the Tracker’s many arms swung in perfect synchronization. “How did Five talk to them when you weren’t there? Has he said?”
“No.” Bryce shook his head, then pulled the towel up to rub more of the dampness out of his hair. “He hasn’t said, but I haven’t asked, either.”
Mac nodded and didn’t press the issue. As strange as it seemed, he knew that to Bryce, Five was more of a parent than an irritating AI unit. The thing had raised him, far longer than his mother’s influence lasted, and had seen the young man well through childhood and solidly into his adult life. Whether Bryce knew it or not, Mac understood that his partner’s attitudes and dealings with the machine were more akin to overbearing parent/rebellious child. Odd as it was, he had to respect it.
“Listen, why don’t you see what kind of maps you can make from the satellite images? I’m going to be busy for a few days, maybe a week or two, just till things settle down here.” Mac set his coffee on the console and eyed his friend. “I know it’s not easy, with them here now. But I was thinking, when this all blows over and they get into learning the language and everything, we could head out.”
“Go exploring?” Bryce’s eyes lit up, sparkling almost purple with hope.
“Yeah, exploring.” Mac smiled back, then nodded. “I have a feeling in a month or so, they’ll all be comfortably back into scientific mode. With the Shavid-eye basically in charge, and Ben’s people fulfilling their cultural dreams, so to speak, we’ll never be missed.”
“I’ll get started right away.” Without another word, Bryce practically launched out of the co-pilot’s seat and propelled himself toward the stairs.
Mac laughed as he turned back to the monitors. His friend’s enthusiasm should, by all rights, exhaust him. But instead, he found it strangely invigorating.
The scans and observations occupied his time until smells of fish stew wafted from the galley below.
“I can start collecting an overview of the satellite images tonight.” Bryce sopped up the last of the juices from his bowl with a chunk of thick bread. He’d keenly avoided any mention of the newcomers outside, or the meeting Ben had planned for that evening. “It’ll take a while to sort through all the data and make usable maps.”
“Good, that should keep you busy for a bit.” Mac leaned back in his chair, comfortably full and slightly drowsy. He knew Bryce was looking for a reason not to go to the gathering outside. Not that he needed any more reason than simply the desire not to go. “I’ll leave it to you to pick the best direction and route.” The expression that answered him was one of surprise and seriousness. “Well, I’d better get out there and see what’s what.” He pushed himself out of the chair, reluctant to disrupt the drowsiness of a full stomach. “Don’t wait up, this might take a while.” Bryce rewarded him with a quick nod and mumbled assurances that he took as relief for not being asked to come outside.
In fact, it was a chore he was beginning to wish he could skip altogether. Gathered in the center of the complex’s main courtyard were a good three hundred people, some still wearing the robes from the caverns, but most now dressed alike in typical colonist garb. At the head of the group stood a makeshift stage where Ben, Lise, Katherine and a couple of engineers milled about, engaging each other in deep conversation. Mac headed straight for the stage, then took the seat Lise waved him to as Ben cleared his throat and began to address the crowd.
Sitting at the far end of the line of section heads, Mac scanned the group while Ben brought everyone up to date on their situation and schooled everyone on the new buildings and plans for future expansion. From his vantage point, he could see well into the mass of individuals, easily picking out members of Bryce’s group. Most of them listened with eager expressions, seemingly ready and willing to rejoin society and the goals they’d brought to Oblivion. Others looked shell-shocked from the change of location and new arrivals surrounding them. Of the faces Mac could see, none appeared anxious or what he would have considered potentially threatening. Most of the population was either gathered here, or watching from various vantage points around the buildings. He knew the others were seeing and hearing Ben’s speech on the monitors inside.
With luck–and God knew he was due some–these colonists, both new and old, would settle happily into their chosen fields now that they had the Shavid-eye to learn from and study. Now that they understood. Now, perhaps, they’d settle into the single-minded scientists he’d come to know.
During Ben’s explanations, the sun set and the early glow of a full moon began edging its way over the distant mountains. Several eyes darted up and around, but those who still felt nervous outdoors were reassured by others who felt bolstered after one night under a full moon already. Those willing to accept the promise of one week of peace hurried to calm the fears of the less convinced.
“And finally, though I trust his professional services won’t be needed often, our head of Planetary Security is Mac Brennan.” Ben turned slightly and held out a hand, indicating Mac should stand and say something profound.
“I’m only Colony Security.” Mac stood and drew slightly confused glances at his correction. “The Shavid-eye are in charge of the planet, so they’ll have the final say regarding anything we do here. The laws we have can only govern us. Anything else is subject to their justice.” His comment received a round of nods and approving murmurs as the scientists agreed with the notion. It was hardly new, or original, and in fact was something Mac had first read in the agreement he’d signed, qualifying him for the job he currently held.
With his small contribution finished, and in fact the general need for the gathering ended, Mac excused himself before the crowds could begin wandering around, blocking any clear paths. When he returned to the shuttle, the moon had already risen full and white above the complex. He keyed the door panel, then secured it for the night behind him.
“There’s not enough room for all of them.”
Mac looked up, startled to find Bryce sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. He walked up to the cockpit and noticed the monitor had been set to the camera to the left of the courtyard. “They’ll have to spread out soon. After we’ve had a chance to get to know our hosts better, I think.” He leaned back against the bulkhead that separated the cockpit from the rest of the shuttle’s upper level, amused that his partner had been watching his little announcement. “Do you think the Shavid-eye will mind having humans living in more than one sector?”
Bryce shrugged and flipped off the monitor. “I don’t know.” He stood and turned around so he could rest against the edge of the console.
“Are there more of them than the five clans living here?”
Mac’s question was met with a blank stare that morphed slowly into a vacant, thoughtful gaze. “I don’t know.” His eyebrows creased with puzzlement. “I’m not sure if I wasn’t curious, or I just don’t remember.”
Mac laughed shortly, then nodded toward the stairs, indicating his desire to go down below. “You were curious enough when it counted. I think we can worry about the rest ourselves.”
The next several weeks passed with very little to worry about at all. Both men fell into something of a routine, helping out with the settling in of the refugees and communicating with the Shavid-eye. Their hosts had returned the first night after their feeding moon, and were met by Ben, Lise, Katherine, Mac and Bryce. Introductions were made by the younger man, then quickly met with excitement by the twelve Shavid-eye who had come down into the complex’s main courtyard. Ben and Katherine took to the language rather quickly, while the rest of the group stayed safely indoors, watching–and with luck–learning.
Mac learned quite a lot more during those first two weeks as well. He quickly became more fluent in the language, practicing what he knew and what he thought he knew with Bryce in their late afternoon visits to the hot spring. The younger man, while still willing to converse with Yanai and Naya at times, was even more willing to leave them to their new-found friends and stay inside working on his maps. Mac noticed, rather quickly, that while members of his original group were close by, or conversing with Mac in any way, Bryce remained a permanent fixture at his side, saying nothing but staying close. But when members of Mac’s group got too close, aside from those few he had a tolerance for, he’d vanish for the rest of the day. It was a distinction that actually surprised him, as did his lack of interaction with the Shavid-eye now that they had others to talk with.
The colonists slowly grew more accustomed to their new roles as cultural representatives of the human race, and took to learning the alien communication skills with grace. Slowly, more and more learned not only the language basics, but how to conquer their instincts and meet face to face with the animals they’d quickly come to fear. The Shavid-eye proved very curious, but at the same time quite disinterested in what the humans were doing. After the first three weeks, they visited less frequently, choosing instead to limit their contact once more to the group that had a grasp of the language.
When the next full moon came, Mac spent the day reiterating the importance of the Shavid-eye’s most basic creed.
“I know we’ve established a dialog, and some of you feel you’ve made great strides in communication.” Mac sighed, looking at everyone in the main dining room. “But tonight starts their feeding moon again. If you’re not able or willing to communicate, you must stay indoors.” He aimed his gaze at Katherine for emphasis, trying to curb her recent bout of overconfidence. “If one of them drops from the sky with a kill in both claws, right in front of you, and screams, you’re less likely to hold out that silver and ask how his dinner is. Most of us, no matter what our intentions, would drop what we were holding and run for our lives.” He afforded her one more moment, then looked around the silent room. “Believe me, you wouldn’t get very far.”
“He’s right.” Teacher nodded from the corner table and many heads turned toward him. The old man had gained back some small measure of respect, and had returned to his role of physician, assisting Lise whenever needed. Much of the older population still turned to him for guidance, and Mac was quietly grateful his advice tended to err toward caution. “I’ve seen it happen. Bryce warned us all, many times. These Shavid-eye don’t think they way we do, they’re not human.”
“No, they’re not.” Mac felt it was time to take over the conversation and bring it to a close. “They’re Shavid-eye. To expect any type of human reaction from them is pure folly.”
“Yes, thank you for the reminder, Captain.” Ben stood, then waved around the room with one arm extended. “I strongly recommend you all just stay indoors at night, until this full moon passes. No harm in that.”
Murmurs of agreement began building up around the dining hall, so Mac took his leave. Bryce had made it through dinner in the crowded room, but toward the end, when a speech about the moon and its dangers became imminent, he made a neat and almost imperceptible exit through a side door.
Mac found his friend curled up on one of the couches back in their shuttle. “I was thinking, since everyone’s settled in well enough, we should start planning our next expedition right after this full moon.” The look on Bryce’s face spoke volumes.
“Yes!” He practically sprang from the couch and ran to the desk just outside his bedroom door. When he dashed back, he held several data disks. “I thought we could maybe go down the coast, along the ocean.” Bryce flopped back down on the couch next to Mac, sitting sideways so he could present the disks. With a flip of one switch, the first disk lit up and playback began. “About three days down the coast, this chain of islands starts, and runs all the way to the next continent. We can island-hop, they’re only about four to six hour flights apart from each other.”
Mac eyed the playback, taking note of the distances marked very precisely and accurately on the bottom edge of the scan. He couldn’t have laid out a more detailed course himself. “That’s as good a direction as any. Let me see these.”
While Bryce watched with the hopeful expression of a student presenting an all-important exam to his teacher, Mac viewed the details of each disk his friend had compiled. Out of the five he’d made, taking into consideration what they had already seen, the terrain of the continent they were on, wind patterns and one semi-active volcano, there was no doubt in Mac’s mind that Bryce had picked the optimal direction for their first new adventure.
“These are really well put together. I’m impressed.” Mac flipped off the last disk and set it with the others on the coffee table.
“Really?” Bryce’s eyebrows creased, more in doubt than humble query. “So, we could leave next week?”
“Tell you what,” Mac stood and started for the bathroom so he could get cleaned up before the short tornado had his turn. “You get the hard copies printed out, and get these maps logged into the ship, then copy Frank on our trip details, and we can leave the morning after the last moon.” Bryce’s exclamation of acceptance could be heard over the running water in the sink.
That night Mac heard no nightmares from his friend’s room while he went over the maps again. Impressed was a mild word. Bryce’s scans were crystal clear, unusual in an orbital survey unless the operator was highly skilled. Every inch of the trip was marked off with flight times, solar battery expenditures, recharge times, the works. He’d even worked out an improved storage method for the food and gear they would need to bring, as well as what tools they would require for hunting fresh game. Two fishing rods, plus spare reels were included on the roster, as well as directions for repairing broken lines. Included in the planned items for their trip was one small tent.
Where or how he’d learned such accuracy, Mac wasn’t sure. Perhaps Five had been helping out. There were times when he heard them conversing in Bryce’s room, but that never lasted long. His friend’s attitude toward the machine was still wary and for that he was grateful. Even if its main purpose was to protect the younger man, Five still had enough malfunctioning logic to be hazardous, to say the least. But, as strange as it seemed, that AI had raised Bryce and kept him alive all those years. In an odd sense, it was the only parent the kid had ever really known.
Mac blinked, tired eyes blurring from long use, and read the list again. The tent was still there, not some figment of his imagination. Well, what do you know? Of course, bringing one and using one were two different things. Bryce still had nightmares on occasion, and spent very little time with the Shavid-eye at night. Mac wondered aloud at that one evening, but his friend’s reply was a simple shrug. “Now that they know I’m alive, everything is better. Time is different for them. If I don’t see them for three months, they hardly notice.”
And indeed, they didn’t seem overly concerned about anything. They would get curious, then bored, then curious again. Some nights they had something to say, other nights they were interested in learning or teaching, but more often than not they wouldn’t visit anyone, leaving their human intruders bewildered at their lack of interest.
When the manifest blurred again, Mac shut off his bedroom light and slid down under the covers, happy to call it a night.
The week passed quickly, with Bryce fully occupied preparing the maps and plane, and Mac working out some details with Ben and the two teams set for another sample-taking expedition of their own. He was glad to hear they were heading in the opposite direction, even though they were taking ground vehicles and covering far less ground. Mac found himself quite excited by the prospect of discovering something new and untouched by human presence. And he was looking forward to getting away from the crowds again as much as Bryce was.
Frank approved Bryce’s flight plans wholeheartedly, and marveled at his ability to pack their plane with such perfection.
“He’d be damn handy to have on a long space voyage, I’d say.” Frank slapped Mac on the back as they finished inspecting Bryce’s handiwork.
“Better than any quarter-master I’ve worked with.” Mac had to catch his breath after the good natured slam sent most of the air exploding from his lungs. He was glad the hangar chief had learned early on never to try that move with Bryce. While he enjoyed the privilege of being the only other person the young man would spend time with away from Mac, he would probably never achieve the status that allowed for physical contact.
“Well, I’ve got to finish stuffing those land rovers before dark. Full moon’s over after tonight, thank goodness.”
Mac nodded, then looked around for his friend. “How about a quick trip to the hot spring?”
Bryce grinned widely as he came out of the plane. “Gonna try and get your fill for a while?”
“Damn straight.” He started walking back to the shuttle to retrieve towels and a snack. “I don’t suppose you found any signs of steaming pools along our route?”
“No, but the climate is warmer along the coastline, especially once we reach the island chain.”
Mac sighed deeply. “Ah, well. I suppose long swims in the surf will have to do.”
He gathered two towels and the disk showing their route while Bryce stuffed a snack and some other items into a pouch, then they made the trek up the rocks to their private hot spring. Mac wasted no time in shedding clothes, and slid under the steaming surface in his usual spot, exhaling slowly as the bubbling water lapped up against his neck.
“Oh, this is the life.”
Bryce laughed, then splashed into the water and found the rock he preferred as a seat. “I read somewhere that on the stations and living domes some people have things like this in their private quarters.”
“Hmm.” Mac leaned back and rested his head on the bank. “They’re called Tubs.” He allowed both arms to float freely and secured his toes around the smaller stones at the bottom of the spring. “I’ve seen them in hotels, too. Pretty expensive if you’re off-planet. I used to ask my father for one about once a year. He always refused.”
“What was that like? Having a father, I mean?”
Mac opened one eye and looked at Bryce. He had a hundred smart remarks, all ready made and derogatory. His feelings, and memories, about his father all revolved around hate. But Bryce didn’t have any reference point to help him understand the sardonic humor. And very simply, he was curious. “It’s hard to explain.” He sat up slightly. “There were other children there, conventional children, who had both parents with them for the majority of their lives. I used to envy them, but at the same time I couldn’t comprehend what that felt like.”
“Yeah, I think I know what you mean.” Bryce nodded, idly swirling a finger around on the surface of the water. “I remember having a mother, but not much else.” He shrugged. “I don’t even have feelings about her. She died, and that’s terrible, but it doesn’t mean much more to me.” He looked up and met Mac’s gaze. “I just can’t figure out what having a parent there all the while you’re growing up would have been like.”
Mac laughed shortly. “Yeah, neither can I. He wasn’t around all that much, then I left to join the academy.” A bird cried as it flew overhead, then dove down suddenly to land on a rock a few yards away, staring at the bathers with curiosity. “I’d always wanted a sibling when I was growing up. And he always refused.” As he watched the bird watching them, it squawked loudly, then launched back into the air and flew calmly away. “The day I left, he posted the advertisement for an heir contract. For my replacement.”
Bryce silently watched him for a long moment, then slid back so he could rest his head on the bank and gaze up at the late afternoon sky. “In the end, all you have is yourself.”
“No.” Mac leaned back as well, closing his eyes. “In the end, all you have are your friends.”
They spent a long time silently soaking, then took turns cooling off in the waterfall and had a snack of fruits and beer, all that was left in their shuttle’s galley stores. When they returned from their new adventure, they would restock their odd little home and rest up, preparing for a new trip. After dinner, Mac slid back into the hot spring, desperate to get his fill of the luxury before they left it behind again. Bryce had already reached his limit, so he donned his clothes and sat on the bank, behind Mac, and went over the details of the journey again, quoting every kilometer mark, and proving to his friend that he could pack and unpack their plane blindfolded.
“Do you think we’ll ever make it all the way around?” Bryce set the disk down.
“The planet?” Mac shrugged. “I’m sure we will eventually. We’ve got all the time in the world, remember?”
Mac felt himself becoming drowsy. The heat, and the prospect of leaving their crowded neighborhood to embark on the exploration and discovery he’d hoped to find here all combined into a warm, settled feeling that was hard to fight.
“You didn’t tell me it was so late.” Mac turned and got out of the water as casually as he could manage. Bryce was still seated on the grass, clutching the pack he’d brought. Even after leaving Duffield’s caverns, after what they’d learned and done, the younger man still greeted every sunset with paralyzing fear. As Mac pulled his pants on, the moon rose slowly over the distant mountains.
“It’s okay.” Bryce swallowed hard, opening the pack with shaking hands. Before Mac could inquire, he pulled out the miner’s glove and slid his right hand easily into the machine. When his hand went back into the pack, he retrieved a smaller vibration unit and two globs of the silver metal. He handed the smaller unit and some silver to Mac. “I wanted to tell them we were leaving.”
After he pulled his shirt on, Mac accepted the tool and metal from nervous hands. Bryce’s fear was still quite evident on his face and in his voice, but he was obviously trying hard to overcome it. Maybe they’d be able to use that tent after all?
“Good idea.” He’d just palmed the silver when the massive black shape practically fell from the sky to stand a mere three feet from them both, staring at them with large, round eyes. Bryce very nearly jumped off their cliff hideaway, but recovered instantly, pressing closer to Mac as he held out his hand.
Slowly, and with incredible grace for a creature her size, Naya approached, one hand extended. She touched Bryce’s medallion, then looked at Mac and reached out to touch his.
“Best dog tags I’ve ever been issued.” Mac spoke softly, even though he knew nothing he could do would ever startle the Shavid-eye matriarch.
“Never mind.” He held out the silver in his hand and searched memory for the most recent language lesson. “Lay-nyir.”
Naya smiled and accepted the offer to use Mac’s metal for speaking. Since he still wore the medallion, and had just spoken to her, she wouldn’t mistake him for dinner.
“I’ll let you two go ahead. I still need the practice.” Mac nodded to Bryce, then sat on a boulder, prepared to watch.
Bryce swallowed hard again, then held his hand out while Naya squatted on her muscled haunches facing him. “Ma-teeya ni. Grev iainee toqua-tow.”
Naya purred her response in a flash of quick orange and green.
“Whoa, I didn’t catch that.” Mac blinked at the speed of the patterns.
“I told her that my friend and I were leaving tomorrow. And she asked if we would be together.” He turned back to Naya. “Predum voy. Ma-teeya ni hah evac, eyya-Oh.”
Again her reply was far too rapid for Mac to catch more than one word. “Ship?” He glanced at Bryce. Even in the moonlight, he could see his friend’s face had grown pale. “What is it?”
“Ha-vey oolon?” He directed his voice toward Mac. “She asked if we were leaving on the new ship. I asked her what ship?”
Naya turned and pointed over her shoulder, up toward the dark night sky.
Mac stood suddenly. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing straight up. Sparkling at them from still several thousand miles out, was the unmistakable false star-light of a manmade object.
“Oh my God.” Bryce stared in the direction she was pointing. “A ship.”
Naya repeated her question, startling both men.
“No, not that ship.” Bryce hurried to use the correct words and Naya replied. “She said for us to stay together on our trip.” He looked at Mac, eyebrows creased with some mild confusion. “She’s hungry now, wants us to come back when we’re done leaving.”
“Come on.” Mac turned to retrieve his pack and nearly jumped out of his own skin at the rapid departure of their friend. She vaulted into the air and quickly vanished into the dark sky. “That ship’s nearly in orbit.”
Bryce seemed frozen in place, then shook himself free and slid his miner’s glove into the bag, hefting it over one shoulder. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I.” Mac led the way, carefully, down their rocky trail. The light of a waning moon was bright enough to illuminate their path, but the incline was still treacherous. When they reached level ground, he broke into an easy run, making sure Bryce was able to stay at his side. “It can’t be another colony ship. There wasn’t another one scheduled, no one was interested.”
“They would have left six months ago. It’s been almost a year since you left to come here.”
“A colony ship would have been hailing the complex from the outer rim. That would have been days ago.” Unless, somehow, Five had managed to regain access to the complex’s communications section? Mac shook off that thought and kept running. A colony ship? It couldn’t be. No, there hadn’t been enough interested people when Ben was recruiting. Things couldn’t have changed that much in eleven months. Could they? It certainly wasn’t an orbiting satellite, those circumnavigated the planet. This light was heading straight in.
As they approached the complex, it was clear no one else was aware of the approaching vessel. Mac glanced at Bryce and his friend nodded his silent understanding. He slowed their pace to a calm walk and entered the buildings from a rear door, grateful for the easy way his partner could pick up on his intentions. He would have been an asset during the war.
When they rounded the corner just outside the communications room, an excited technician nearly barreled into them.
“We’re being hailed!” The short, somewhat portly man stared up at Mac, wide-eyed. “A ship! We’re being hailed!”
“Calm down.” Mac grabbed the man’s arms, more to keep from being smacked in the face for a third time with the sheet of data plastic. “It’s just a ship hailing the complex, not Galactic War III. Go find Ben. Calmly!” He shooed the willing man in the proper direction, then motioned for Bryce to follow him into the Comm room.
The monitors showed nothing more than the black of space, and a vague shape approaching. Speakers to either side of the unit sparked to life.
“Beta colony, this is the BSE Lexicon. Anybody home?”
Mac quickly adjusted the controls and the screen image filled with static.
“I know you’re down there. Beta colony, this is the BSE Lexicon. I’ve come a long way out here just to say hello.”
The voice was familiar! Frustrated with the screen, Mac gave the monitor a slap. Instantly a face appeared. It was a man, mid forties, with military short hair and sharp green eyes. Behind him were several other faces, all smiling with gleeful anticipation. There was only one face in the group that he knew.
“Brennan?” That face leaned farther forward, grinning ear to ear. “Long time no see, old buddy! I’ve come quite a distance looking for you.”