Well, not literally, it’s not. Just the final chapter in this overly long story from a million years ago 🙂
And I can think of nothing terribly clever to say about it. I’ve been so deeply into writing Ether lately I haven’t given much thought to anything else outside of eating, sleeping, avoiding naps, and getting really seriously tired of the cold weather.
Although, while I do whine about it, it’s still nicer here than the midwesty bits where snow still falls. We have flowers coming up, and cherry trees blossoming, and the occasional bought of sunshine. So, um, here ya go – The Final Chapter.
Or, as we say here in the literary world, The End.
Bryce stared at Mac, still not sure how to process this latest information. He didn’t have much time, the shuttle was going to land any minute now on the top of the hill where everyone was gathered, anxiously waiting its arrival.
Everyone but him.
The perfect setup had been twelve short hours away. He and Mac would have been well on their way by now, speeding over the landscape heading for the coast and points beyond. The plane was packed, all the planning done. They just needed to wait out one last night, then he could leave this crowded complex and all of its attendant baggage and get away. Just him and Mac. Spend some quality time getting to know his friend better, getting to know his planet better. Even getting to know himself better.
But now, in the blink of an eye, instead of taking off away from the crowd he was standing among them, keeping Mac between him and everyone else who’d come to see the landing. He wanted to believe it was them making him uncomfortable. Or a combination of this crowd and the unexpected arrival of another ship bearing more colonists. But something was telling him that wasn’t it.
“Look, there it is!”
Someone shouted from behind the first line of spectators and all eyes searched the morning sky, finally seeing the same glint of sunlight off metal. Bryce was still watching Mac, and saw the unmistakable curve of a smile forming. He didn’t want to look up at the shuttle coming down for a landing a few yards away. He didn’t care about these new arrivals, or what new propulsion system brought them out here. All he wanted to do was tug on Mac’s sleeve and pull him back to the hangar where their plane waited. But he couldn’t. The pilot of this ship was an old friend Mac was all too obviously happy to see.
The shuttle landed quickly, with a modicum of dust billowing up underneath its landing gear. Bryce glanced at the ship and judged it to be older than the Aloft. Or at least more poorly cared for. There were dents along one side, and some black marks on the underbelly. When the dust settled, Ben stepped up alongside Mac.
“They may have made some changes while we were gone, but I see colonists are still using military leftovers.”
“Some things will never change, Ben.” Mac glanced at Bryce, grinning, then nodded toward the opening door. “Let’s go meet our guests, shall we?”
Bryce glanced at the ramp lowering down and said nothing as he fell into step slightly behind Mac. The rest of the crowd waited a distance from the ship as its engines powered down, while the three of them advanced to the bottom of the ramp. As soon as the door opened above, the small opening was filled with the body of a man twice the size of Mac, smiling down at them with a look of someone bearing fantastic gifts.
“By GOD, it’s good to breathe real air again!” The large man’s voice bellowed down, resonating with authority.
It was the man Bryce had watched Mac and Ben spend most of that night talking to on-screen as his ship eased into orbit around Oblivion, explaining to him and his surprisingly small contingent what life on this planet was like. The man who had constantly called Mac ‘old buddy’. He was walking down the ramp now, toward Mac, while behind him several other people tentatively disembarked.
“Bet you never thought you’d be seeing the likes of me again, eh Brennan?”
“Will!” Mac held out a hand that was grasped warmly. “I didn’t think you were the taxi driver type.”
Bryce took a half step back as the large man approached. The rest of the crowd around them were moving in to surround the other shuttle passengers now on the ground among them, talking excitedly about the surprise of their visit. The pilot’s answer to Mac’s gibe was a massive slap on the back and a loud laugh that startled him more than a little. He shot a glance at his partner, then moved slightly to his left, farther from the new arrivals.
“Major MacKrey, this is Bryce Keegan.” Mac smiled widely from the pilot to Bryce.
“Keegan? I don’t know the name.” The pilot shrugged, then made a move toward him with the huge hand coming around from the side.
Terrified at the prospect of finding himself on the receiving end of one of the large man’s greetings, Bryce quickly moved aside just enough to make the back-slap too much of a stretch. His gaze shot up to Mac in time to catch the odd sort of nod and half-twitch of one eye that was delivered to the pilot. Wordlessly, the large man let his hand drop and extended it for a polite shake, obviously understanding some coded explanation Mac had expressed.
“Call me Will.”
Bryce let himself relax and accepted the handshake, nodding once. “Bryce.”
“Good to meet you. Wow, I guess that eye color isn’t an optical illusion after all.” Will shook his head, looking into Bryce’s eyes for a moment. He let his hand drop then draped an arm over Mac’s shoulder. “What say you show me around this place while the techies unload their gear?”
“Communication equipment, you said?” Mac glanced over his shoulder at the shuttle. Some of the crowd had moved inside and were assisting the newcomers in moving large crates out onto the grass.
“Comm structures, new telemetry equipment, engine parts. Everything they thought you’d need and then some.”
Bryce looked up at Mac. “They?”
“The Bureau.” Will replied. “Don’t worry, kid. They’re restructuring these days. I doubt you’ll have any more visitors coming unannounced.”
“It’s not just us, Will.” Mac began walking toward the complex and his friend fell in step beside him. “This planet is occupied.”
“Right, those creatures you talked about last night?” Will whistled through his teeth then nodded back toward Ben and the others. “Well, that’s for them to work out.”
Bryce followed, staying on the opposite side of Mac.
“Tell you what, you give me a tour and some lunch while they unload that thing, and I’ll return the favor with a tour of my ship and that new drive engine.”
“You’ve got a deal.” Mac smiled widely and glanced down at Bryce. “Welcome to Oblivion, Major.”
Bryce followed along, spending the rest of that morning in Mac’s shadow. Even to the point of resisting several attempts on his friend’s part to bring him into the conversation. He wasn’t at all sure this large pilot who went around slapping people on the back as a way of saying hello was someone he wanted to get to know at all. Yet this man knew intimate details of Mac’s life. Things Bryce hadn’t heard before. Details that were mentioned in an off-handed manner, as if everyone knew the stories as well as he did.
Twice he had to reprimand himself for his thoughts. These people had come, after all, bringing the news of a new propulsion system and great advances in science and culture that had taken place since the end of the war. Bryce listened quietly as Will explained, in muddled detail, how the Bureau had declassified secret tests of a new engine, bringing the information to the attention of scientists who had new theories and ideas that worked out the glitches the war department hadn’t been able to overcome. The concept of being able to leave this planet was something Bryce wasn’t ready to digest.
The Lexicon had in fact made the trip to Oblivion in six weeks, as opposed to the six month trip Mac–and Bryce years ago–had endured. Space exploration was now a wide open field, and anyone with a ship was jumping at the chance to find new worlds and explore regions of space that had been out of feasible bounds before.
“You left five months too soon, Mac. This stuff is taking off, so to speak. Now that all the military scientific experiments are declassified, people are scrambling to retrofit their engines and be the first to find that perfect planet!”
“They’re too late.”
“Well, sure, they’ll hear about you now.”
Bryce didn’t like that idea, either. More people. Information meant more people. His idea for exploring Oblivion, for he and Mac to be the first ones to cross the ocean, were fading fast. Of course, any new colonies would have the Shavid-eye to deal with. This was, as Mac reminded the others, their planet. The Shavid-eye were the owners of Oblivion, and would have final say in any further occupation. Providing they cared. It was hard to get them interested in the doings of humans now that they’d become bored with the idea.
He’d become bored with these people long before that. And now there were more. And there was Will.
Bryce breathed a sigh of relief when a tour of the hot springs meant only the large public area that everyone else shared. And a brief visit to their shuttle home was restricted to the upper level. He felt guilty about that thought, knowing this man was a friend of Mac’s and obviously an old one at that. But they did have an unspoken policy about visitors going below.
He followed the pair of them, listening to every word Will said, and every word Mac seemed not to say. He’d never seen his friend around someone like this before, someone who knew his past and could relate in such an uncanny way. It was unnerving. It made him want to distrust the Major for some reason, but he couldn’t figure out why. Obviously Mac trusted him. That should be good enough to at least win him a little respect.
Lunch was in the complex dining room with a packed and highly excited crowd. Every instinct Bryce had screamed at him to get the hell out of there, but the idea of leaving Mac and Will alone to talk old times and new technology wasn’t acceptable. So he managed a seat next to his friend at the end of a table with a wall against his other side. Mac looked at him curiously, expecting his usual departure. When Bryce settled himself into the seat, the others tried hard to maintain some personal space in the crowded room.
“It’s incredible, Mac.” Will waved a fork at them from the opposite side of the table, glancing at Bryce to include him in the conversation. “I had no idea the Bureau was working on this, but when they went public, it took off like a comet. They’re still making improvements, but to cross this kind of space in weeks instead of months is fantastic in itself.”
“The Bureau’s IA probably has a few more tricks up their secretive sleeves that they won’t make public.” Mac lifted his coffee cup. “But this is a start.”
Bryce shifted slightly so he could lean against the wall and have a better view of his friend while the men spoke.
“It’s not cheap. Refitting a ship the size of the Lexicon took a quarter million credits. If I hadn’t inherited that ship, I never could have afforded the additions.”
Mac’s reply was a knowing nod before taking a drink.
“This was my first job as a paid transporter, as a matter of fact. Soon as they unload their equipment, I’m off to my next client.”
Bryce was watching Mac, and his heart couldn’t help skipping a beat when the pilot mentioned leaving. He had to be thinking it. How could he not be thinking it? Yet there was no sudden change in Mac’s expression, no furrowed brow or look of contemplation at the prospect of leaving.
“That’s progress.” Mac shrugged. “At least you’ve found a niche.” He finished his coffee and leaned back, draping one arm over the back of Bryce’s chair. “How about a tour of this ship of yours?”
“Hey Marcus! You finished unloading the shuttle yet?!”
Will’s bellow to a man on the other side of the room caused Bryce to cringe. If his own silence was unusual, it went unnoticed. The man was large, loud, and liked to knock the wind out of everyone he greeted. How had he gotten so close to Mac?
The shouted reply was barely heard over the room’s din, but Will seemed pleased with what he picked up. He turned back to Mac and grinned. “Let’s go.”
Although his invitation obviously included Bryce, Mac wrapped an arm around the younger man’s shoulders. “Come on, this might be interesting.”
He didn’t want to go, but he didn’t want to miss this either. Another chance to go into space wasn’t as important as being there if and when Mac began to contemplate the obvious.
The shuttle was different than the Aloft, larger and more complex. Bryce was oddly relieved to find they were the only three going back up to the Lexicon, and equally happy when Mac spent the trip showing him the differences between the displays and controls. Will devoted his complete attention to piloting the vessel, so Mac ignored him and played flight instructor. When he realized the pilot was paying them no heed, Bryce let himself enjoy the lesson. By the time they reached the massive ship silently orbiting his planet, he felt reasonably confident he could handle the shuttle in an emergency.
When the docking maneuver was over, Will’s personality took control of the room again. This time he was the one giving the tour. Bryce tried to take up his usual position in the background, but before he could step back, Mac’s arm was around his shoulders, holding him there as they walked through the wide passageways.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard where you’d gone.” Will opened a door and the three of them entered a large, echoing storage area. There were yellow marks on the floor, pointing them in the direction of the engine room.
“I needed a change.” Mac’s reply hinted at the finality of his choice.
“Well, I can’t say as I blame you there. I very nearly joined up myself, just to get away. But this colony stuff just isn’t me. What about you, kid? How’d you get into this profession?”
Bryce was mortified when he realized he’d just been directly addressed. Before he could figure out how to reply, Mac came easily to his rescue.
“He didn’t. Bryce here was a kid when his mother came here. He’s from the first group.”
“Ah. That explains the eye color then? I’ve been wondering.”
“It’s the water. You stay here for a few years, and this place affects you pretty permanently.”
“Well, here she is.” Will opened a door and motioned for Mac and Bryce to precede him into the large room. “I call her Big Bertha.”
The massive, complex machinery facing them meant nothing to Bryce on a technical level. He could tell it was an engine, and a highly sophisticated one judging by the number of displays and controls on the floor they entered. The machine itself took up several levels, yet the noise wasn’t above a mild hum.
“Singularity?” Mac whistled appreciatively as he stepped up to the main bank of controls.
“Something like it, yeah.” Will scratched his head and shrugged. “Tell you the truth, I don’t know too many details. I just know how to make it work, and what to kick when it doesn’t.”
Bryce walked up to the panels and started scanning the indicators and displays. They were similar to the ones set into the rear panel of the Aloft, direct controls for engine and propulsion units. More complex than anything he’d seen before, and larger by far than their shuttle engine, but after a long look, they didn’t seem as complicated as he’d expected.
“If you’d just waited a little while, Mac, you could have shuttled these eggheads out to this planet and been gone before they started unpacking.”
A sudden chill shook Bryce from head to toe. He shot a glance at Mac, waiting for his reply with dread and a dry throat.
Mac shrugged, still studying the controls. “Times change, Will. People don’t.” Casually he straightened up and looked at another display. “I don’t regret my decision, why should you?”
Bryce looked quickly up at Will and tried hard not to smile with smug satisfaction. Before he could be seen, he turned back to the controls.
“Well, the future’s wide open.”
Mac ignored the remark. “So do you have the specs for this baby, or did you just toss the instructions the day they installed it?”
“No, I have the file somewhere.” Will shrugged, then smiled widely. “No need for instructions if you know where to kick. Why?”
“I’d love for Bryce to have a look at them.” Mac nodded to his friend. “He’s smarter than you are, Major. I’m betting he could figure this out top to bottom without having to kick anything.”
Bryce felt his face begin to burn with the unexpected compliment. He looked at Mac and shrugged, then realized he was soon going to be labeled a mute if he didn’t start speaking up. “I’ve never seen this kind of engine before.”
“That shouldn’t stop you.” Mac grinned then turned to Will. “This kid soaks up information like a thirsty weed. He picked up atmosphere flying faster than I did.”
Will nodded his approval. “Well, I’ll copy the file for you then.”
Thankfully, the discomfort of the situation ended there. Will finished their tour and brought them back down with a promise of dinner and a copy of the engine’s spec file. Bryce would have been happier with just the spec file, but to his grateful surprise, Mac arranged dinner outside the shuttle. Most of the complex members were still rushing around, setting up new and exciting equipment, discussing the news from home and contemplating the changes they would have to adapt to. Several tables had been set up outside, with ample space between them for more comfortable outdoor dining. Mac and Will absconded with an entire table and dragged it to the side of the shuttle in the shade while Bryce volunteered to fetch drinks from the galley.
The instant Bryce went below, he felt a massive sense of relief wash over him.
“Is it that bad?” Five’s voice reached into the bathroom with minimal amplification.
“I feel numb.” He stepped to the sink and splashed cold water over his face while answering. “Why now? They said transportation could advance some day. Why now?” Why the day before he was going to get away from the crowds, just him and Mac? “You said this Major whatshisname was in your database?”
“He’s listed as a pilot in the reserves. Activated for the war, obviously. I do wish I had current information.”
“You probably will soon. They brought some equipment.” Bryce turned off the water and stood leaning over the sink staring unseeing into the mirror.
“Communications, yes. It appears the method at this time is launching probes that send a burst of compressed data from outside the atmosphere. Interesting technology. We’re still too far distant for the instant communication enjoyed by most ships and stations.”
Bryce sighed heavily. He wanted to erase this entire day, make this Will person vanish. Somehow he felt if the pilot had been anyone else, anyone, he wouldn’t quite mind the news as much. But why that was, he had no idea. “There’s something about this I don’t like.”
“I’m keeping an eye on things, especially this Major MacKrey.”
He glanced at the wall in the general direction of Five’s display as it sat on the dresser in his bedroom. They’d gone around about these things before, and Five knew full well Bryce didn’t approve of his spying. Yet, he’d never actually disapproved of it. Not in so many words.
Resigned to the night that lay ahead, Bryce finished cleaning up and retrieved five bottles of the beer Mac preferred, then walked back up to join them for dinner. He had to force himself to appear interested in the conversation, and managed to ask a few questions, bolstered by Mac’s smile of approval with each one. Will listened politely, and answered every question as fully and completely as he seemed able, giving Bryce some small feelings of guilt for his strange distrust of the man. But after the meal, the conversation switched to what the pilot termed ‘the good old days of war.’
He wanted to learn more about Mac. That was half the reason he’d been looking forward to their exploration trip. The man was a mystery and filled with complexities he was anxious to begin unraveling. So why hearing about Mac’s past from this large, loud man aggravated him so much was confusing. But it was real. Bryce’s irritation was growing with every remembered story, every mutual experience, and each shared look or knowing smile that seemed to convey entire concepts without using a single word.
Will raised his nearly empty beer bottle in a salute. “Mac, you should think of me as a sign from heaven. Now you’re not landlocked, buddy. The universe awaits your return.”
Something inside Bryce snapped. He felt it almost physically, deep inside his head. Before he could rationalize his motivations, or even care, he was up and gone, halfway into the woods beyond the shuttle before he knew which direction he’d taken.
Branches were slapping his face and chest until he found the slight trail going up the rise. Trees loomed above his head, staring down at him with curious looks as if scolding his childish behavior. He didn’t care. The trees could all go to hell. So could the complex, the people there, this new ship, it’s pilot. Everyone could just go to hell and leave him alone! He was used to that. Even Mac was probably going to leave him now. Anger surged in a red rush to his face, spurring him deeper into the woods.
Twelve hours away from escaping the crowds, the entire world crashed down again. Why did he even bother making plans? What right did he have to assume life would reach some kind of normal stage, anyway? And what was Mac going to do? He had every right to pack up and leave, and the perfect opportunity handed to him on a nostalgic platter.
He could easily return to his old life, his old friends, people who knew him well. Back there he was a war hero, he had history with those people, family. What did he have here?
“Dammit!” Bryce slammed a fist into the truck of a tree and stopped his forward motion. He stared at the bark, trying to force thoughts of betrayal into the forefront of his mind. If he could focus on them, and be angry with the notion of his world crashing down again, then those nagging accusations further back in his thoughts could be silenced. The thoughts that were telling him how childish he’d just acted. The ones telling him what a fool he was being. Those thoughts had to go, but they refused.
After a few minutes of tree-staring, Bryce’s heartbeat and breathing returned to a normal, if not slightly irritated, level. He turned around and leaned back against the tree, closing his eyes. A light breeze cooled cheeks warmed by the sudden exercise. Standing there, eyes closed, leaning on the tree, everything Mac had ever said scolded his consciousness. All those times he’d probed his friend’s motives and resolve, and every time he stood by his decisions and desire to be right where he was. There was just something about this Will person he couldn’t warm up to, though. He didn’t trust him, for some reason. Yet Mac did. And he hadn’t once suggested Bryce leave them alone. In fact, he’d gone out of his way to make sure Bryce was included in every conversation.
“What an idiot.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
Bryce jumped several inches. He hadn’t heard Mac approach.
“What’s up?” Mac stepped up to the tree Bryce was leaning on and rested a hand on the trunk. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” Bryce ran a hand through his hair and shrugged. “Just a little crowded back there, you know?” He wasn’t going to buy that.
Mac inhaled slowly, looking up at the tree. “I know a lot has happened in the past twelve hours. It’s hard to take everything in all at once.” He looked back down at Bryce. “Will can be a little hard to get used to, but he means well.”
That name brought another flush of anger to Bryce’s cheeks. “So, are you going to go back with him?”
The irrational thoughts that spurred Bryce out into the woods were trying to resurface. He pushed away from the tree and took several steps forward, then turned and glared back at Mac, ready to accuse him of things he’d only imagined his friend doing. “You can leave now. That’s what he came out here for, to bring you back. He’s just here to remind you how great it was and get you to go with him, back there. Back where you can come and go as you please, travel from planet to planet. Back where you know so many people and they know you.” He was being stupid. The little voice in the back of his mind was screaming at him to shut up, but he couldn’t hear it over his own frustrated shouting. Unwilling to stop and get a grip, Bryce added angry hand gestures and a bit of pacing to his tirade. “This is all just a little too convenient, don’t you think? Just when we were ready to leave, this ship pops in with a new drive engine and suddenly the universe is wide open again.”
Mac hadn’t said a word, hadn’t even tried to interrupt. He stood quietly next to the tree, watching the younger man pacing and shouting and gesturing. And now, adding to his younger friend’s confusion, he was beginning to laugh.
The word stopped Bryce’s outburst in its tracks. He stood facing Mac, eyebrows knitting together, trying to comprehend what had just been said. “What?”
Mac laughed again and shook his head, then smiled. “You’re jealous.”
Bryce opened his mouth to retaliate, but no words would form. Jealous? He tried again, still nothing. Finally he gave up and spun around, angrily waving his arms. “This is ridiculous.” But something wouldn’t let him storm away. Instead, he stepped to a large boulder and sat, shaking his head.
After a moment, Mac joined him on the massive rock. For a few minutes, neither man said a word. Bryce wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say, or what he was supposed to think. He couldn’t really think much at all, his head was spinning.
“I’m flattered, really. But there’s nothing to be jealous of.”
Bryce laughed shortly, then pushed off the rock and took a step forward. When he was opposite Mac, he turned around and sat on the ground, leaning back against a stump. “Flattered? I just made a fool of myself in front of your friend.”
“I told him you were crazy.”
Bryce’s gaze shot up, horrified, until he saw the slow smile grinning back at him.
Mac leaned forward and rested his elbows on both knees. “Listen, Bryce, I know this must be a little strange for you. You don’t have a good frame of reference to understand, but friendship comes on many levels. And yes, Will is an old friend. We share a lot of history. There are a lot of people out there that I call friend, people that I share a past with.”
Bryce sighed and picked up a twig, idly picking at it while Mac spoke.
“But believe it or not, they’re really nothing more to me than former co-pilots or old service buddies.” Mac paused, watching Bryce in the fading light. “People I’ve known and have something in common with. I’m not about to leave everything I have just to go see them again.”
“But you could, now.” Bryce tossed his twig and stared up at Mac.
“Yes, I could. But I wouldn’t even consider leaving without taking you with me.” Mac shook his head. “Haven’t you heard a thing I’ve said over these past months? I came here on purpose, no regrets. Even with everything that’s happened since then, I have no regrets.” He shrugged, “Sure, I’ve considered what I would do if this opportunity ever presented itself. But I’ve only considered leaving with the idea of showing you everything you’ve missed.”
Bryce felt his face flush slightly. He felt like an idiot, assuming Mac would abandon everything he’d promised. He wasn’t that kind of person, and thinking that was an insult. “I just . . . We were about to . . . I mean–”
“You got jealous.” Mac smiled again. “You don’t know what that feels like, do you?”
Bryce rolled his eyes, unwilling to admit he wasn’t at all sure.
“Trust me, ” Mac stood. “You have nothing to worry about. I may have plenty of friends, but I’ve never had a little brother before.”
“What about what he said? We really could leave, couldn’t we?”
Mac turned Bryce around and started them both down the trail back toward the complex. “It’s something to think about, but not tonight. I’m beat.”
Bryce acquiesced and walked back to the shuttle. Will was outside, discussing something with Ben who waved to Mac as they passed.
“Go ahead, I’m going down.” Bryce started up the ramp and nodded toward the men.
“Yes.” He felt like a child, but Mac’s question was appreciated. The sun was vanishing quickly, and though the moon wasn’t full tonight, he wasn’t interested in hanging around outside. Once inside the shuttle, he headed straight for the shower, letting the pounding hot water beat out the evening’s confusion.
Jealousy. So that’s what it felt like? He didn’t think he’d ever known that feeling before. It was about as alien as the idea of leaving Oblivion, for all the fantasizing he’d done about it. Now that it was possible, did he want to? Or more importantly, did Mac want to? The idea of exploring the ocean and islands down the coast seemed pale in comparison.
Bryce ended his shower and went to his room to study the specs of Will’s engine. He inserted the data crystal into Five, pulled on some clean shorts, and sat on the bed.
“Interesting.” Five brought up a diagram, then began pointing out certain areas of the engine. “Singularity. Ah, but slightly different, you see here? It seems they, more or less, pull on a string wave as opposed to entering any singularity.”
“Is that like bending space?” Bryce studied the diagram and tried to recall an old lesson from years ago.
“More like pulling space, really.” Five switched screens and another diagram popped up. “It’s often been theorized. It would appear they’ve actually accomplished it.”
Bryce studied the specs, curling his legs up under him on the bed as Five flipped through sheets and sheets of displayed data. He grasped the concept behind the physics just enough to accept what it could do, then delved into the mechanics of the engine itself. The design was surprisingly simple, with room for improvement if he understood the system correctly. After several hours of study and much deliberation between him and the AI, Bryce decided to call it a night.
He glanced around the room and found his miner’s glove on the desk just outside the door. Yawning, Bryce contemplated fetching it, then changed his mind. “Where’s Mac?”
“Still outside, just at the table. He’s with Major MacKrey discussing politics.”
Bryce forced himself off the bed and stumbled into the bathroom. Suddenly Five’s words hit home. “How do you know what they’re discussing?” He grabbed a towel for his face and walked back to the room, staring at Five. “There aren’t any external microphones on this shuttle.”
Five replied with one of his famous silent stretches. After a long moment, he closed down the engine displays. “Would you like to hear what they’re saying?”
“You haven’t answered my question.” Bryce tossed the towel to the floor and got into bed. He was really too exhausted for these games.
Five’s speaker seemed to suffer a short burst of static, then instantly two voices could be heard, as clearly as if they were in the room. Mac and Will.
“It wasn’t that easy. You don’t go through something he went through and not come out without a different view of things.”
“Yeah, I don’t suppose you do. So, you’re telling me that kid invented this language with the silver stuff?”
Bryce sat up. He opened his mouth to reprimand Five for his eavesdropping, but no words came out. The computer wouldn’t take orders any more than a parent would obey a child. And some small part of him suddenly wanted to listen to this conversation.
“He didn’t so much invent it as discover it.” Mac’s voice was clear over the speaker, as if Five was actually sitting right next to his face with a microphone. “He’s quick, Will. It’s incredible what he can pick up and how fast. I almost wish I could have had him with me back in the Academy. If that wish didn’t mean he’d have gone to war, too.”
“Can he handle himself?”
“He’s not a soldier.” Mac’s reply sounded curt. “I wouldn’t wish that on him. But he’s been through just about the same here. No, he’s different. He’s smart, resourceful, and has a very unique view of life.”
Bryce’s face flushed with some guilt, listening in like this. Slowly, he lowered himself back down on the pillow and allowed Five to continue the broadcast, telling himself he was just going to fall asleep and no longer listen.
“You sound like you’ve adopted him. The little brother you always wanted?”
There was a pause, so quiet, Bryce thought Five had stopped eavesdropping.
“He’s the little brother my father always refused to let me have.”
Bryce’s eyes shot open. “Five, shut it off.”
“But don’t you want to–”
“Shut it off.” These were things Bryce wanted to know, but, somehow, he didn’t want to hear them. “You’re recording, aren’t you?”
“Bryce, my primary function is to–”
“Never mind.” He rolled over with a swift movement, pulling the covers up to his chest. “Good night.” It was no use trying to order Five to do, or not do, anything. That machine did what it wanted, and always had. Knowing it did what it did thanks to some strange interpretation of orders his own mother had placed deep within its core did little to excuse the behavior.
But Bryce excused it.
He had every intention of mulling things over while slowly drifting off to sleep, but no sooner had he closed his eyes than he heard Mac in the shower. Sunlight was streaming in through the porthole, declaring a new day.
“Good morning.” When he entered the bathroom, Mac was just out of the shower, wrapping a towel around his waist.
“Hey. I hope I didn’t wake you coming in late last night.”
“No, you didn’t.” He yawned, waving a hand in apology. “I don’t think anything could have.”
“Yeah, that was quite a day yesterday.”
“Where’s your friend?” Bryce felt pretty certain Will hadn’t been invited downstairs at all. He’d probably gone back to his ship or something.
“He’s working out a deal with some of the colonists.” Mac gave Bryce’s shoulder a pat as he walked through the door and into his bedroom. “He offered to take anyone back who wants a ride. Trying to earn some Good Samaritan points for his new business, I think.”
“Some of the colonists?” Bryce hadn’t even considered any of them might want to leave.
“Not too many, I don’t think. Most of them did come out here on purpose, after all. Just like I did. I think the ones wanting to go back are from your group.”
Bryce turned on the sink and stared blankly at the running water. “Would he take us?”
Mac stepped back into the doorway, buttoning his shirt. “If we asked him, yes.”
Bryce nodded, still looking at the water. He looked up into the mirror at his friend’s reflection. “Are we going to ask him?”
“We can.” Mac walked into the bathroom and sat down on the closed lid of the toilet, gazing at Bryce. “I’m going to leave that up to you. Have you given it much thought?”
Bryce shrugged, then splashed his face with cold water. “A little.” He lied.
“Listen,” Mac leaned forward. “We do have that option. This shuttle was designed for long trips, that’s why it’s built this way. Now that it’s possible, we could take it back to the shipyards and have the new engine installed.”
Another wave of cold water was needed, then Bryce found a towel and turned to face his friend.
“One advantage to that is the fact that whatever we do, it’s not permanent. We can come back here anytime we want.”
To leave Oblivion had been a dream for so long, it hardly seemed possible. Bryce dried his face, then rubbed the towel between his hands slowly, trying to think of every option that needed to be considered. “This is the only place I’ve ever known. I wouldn’t know what to do anywhere else.”
Mac shrugged. “We don’t have to do anything. Or we could do anything we want. Will started his own business, so could we. Or after we refit this shuttle, we could come back here and live life like we’d planned. Now that all of space is more open to exploration, I doubt Oblivion will be over crowded any time soon. Besides, the Shavid-eye have the last word about what goes on here.”
“You’d really do that?” Bryce tossed the towel aside. “You’d go back to everything you had, then leave it again?”
“In a heartbeat.” Mac stood. “I’ve seen the galaxy. Been there, done that, as they say. I know what’s out there and what isn’t, and it took coming all the way out here to find what I needed. But you,” he stabbed a finger at Bryce’s chest, “haven’t seen any of that yet. You have every right to see it all and have your own chance to get bored with it. I’m more than willing to show you around.”
The idea that anyone could get bored with freedom was an odd one. Still, he did realize leaving here meant being around people, many more people than he had ever been near before. At least they would be other people. He would have the advantage of having no one know who he was, aside from his friend.
“You’d miss the water. And the hot spring.”
Mac grinned, then laughed shortly and shook his head. “I’d live. Besides, we could always come back for a good long soak now and again.”
Bryce nodded. The idea was beginning to feel right.
“What about the Shavid-eye? Would they mind you leaving?”
“No.” He shook his head emphatically, unwilling to consider problems now. “Now that everything’s back to what they think normal is, they’re happy. They wouldn’t miss me.”
Mac looked thoughtful for a moment, then agreed. “I’ll talk to Will about a ride, then. We’ll have to get this thing powered up, and unload anything Ben needs. Then stock up the galley, gather up anything else we can’t live without, and get this bathroom refitted for recycling.” He slapped the door and began leaving the room. “We’ve got work to do.”
“Wait a minute, what about the cost? Your friend said it took more credits than he’d had to refit that ship.”
Mac shook his head. “For a ship this size, it’s less than a fraction of Will’s. Besides, I’ve got enough credits to cover the whole thing. When you retire from the military, you still have an income. Being out here, I’ve had no need for it.”
“So, even though you permanently left society, they’re still paying into your account?”
“One of the perks of working for the government.” Mac winked. “And I got a bonus for shuttling colonists on a one way trip. Go figure.”
There was no time to figure that, or much of anything, during the next three days. Mac’s pilot friend had agreed, quite excitedly, to allow them to bring the Aloft into the Lexicon’s holding bay for a ride back. All in all, seventy-three colonists had decided to take the offer and return, all of them from Bryce’s original group. It was something he tried hard not to think about while he worked side by side with his friend, putting the Aloft back into shuttle-shape.
Bryce had first unloaded the plane, feeling a slight twinge of regret for what he was giving up. But the prospect of leaving this world, with Mac, quickly filled him with anticipation. Their journey together across Oblivion’s oceans and islands had simply been replaced with a journey through the stars, exploring things Bryce had never seen or known, just the two of them. He already knew how to be alone in a crowd, and if he had to, he could avoid the other hitchhikers by staying inside the shuttle during the six week trip. Of course, that would probably gain him the reputation he was already achieving among Will’s crew of being a vanishing mute.
No, he wasn’t going to give anyone reason to think twice about him. This was his chance to be anyone he wanted to be, among people who didn’t know who he was, or what he’d done. As soon as they were free of the others.
Bryce ignored the list of travelers as he’d ignored them before, and concentrated on preparations. The bathroom had to be put back in order, for recycling and conservation. Will assured Mac that due to the faster turn-around times in travel, more and more people felt it less and less necessary to conserve so drastically. More water was carried, and the ability to stop more frequently for supplies promised to make space travel more of a comfort than endurance. Bryce filled the galley stores with fruit and a healthy variety of meats and fish while Mac recharged the batteries and downloaded the maps they’d made for Ben and the others.
By the end of the week, they were both looking forward to the adventure. While Mac said his goodbyes, Bryce neatly avoided the complex, taking the trail halfway to their hot spring just as the sun set below the horizon. He had his own goodbyes to make, and even as he caught sight of Naya swooping down beside him, he knew his goodbyes would be temporary.
With one segment of silver in his right hand, and one he handed to her, he made his explanations.
We’re leaving this place, for a little while. Bryce spoke the words that had become so familiar to his mouth he hardly gave them thought.
You and him? Naya spoke at her normal speed, knowing Bryce could now keep up well.
Yes. We are leaving in the ship together.
It is good that you will be together. Never be alone again. It is not good to be alone.
We will come back, I know that now.
This is your home. And he is your friend. This is his home too.
The others, there might be more coming. More who want to talk with you, to learn from you. Those people have never seen other creatures like you.
They will be curious?
Yes, they will be curious. But they . . . I don’t know how many will come. It may be too many.
Naya seemed to sigh gently, then shook her head. We will decide their numbers. This is your home, you will return with your friend. We will talk again then.
With that, she set down her glob of silver and embraced Bryce warmly. He returned the gesture as best as he could, wrapping his arms around the massive body. After a quick look deep into his eyes, she purred and launched into the night sky, vanishing quickly in the dark.
“Until then.” Bryce stuffed the silver into a pocket, then as an afterthought, gathered a good amount of the metal on his trip back. Six weeks was still a long time to be surrounded by people he didn’t want to speak with again. If he was going to hide out in the shuttle, he might as well have something to do.
“Hey you ready to go?” Mac stood in the doorway of the shuttle, smiling down as Bryce approached.
“I spoke with Naya.”
“Good.” He stepped aside so Bryce could enter the ship, then shut the door behind them both. “What did she say?”
“She said goodbye.” He removed the glove and shoved it into the pack he’d filled with silver. “She thinks we’ll be back. Says this is our home.”
Mac nodded. “I think she’s right.”
“I’ve never thought of this as my home before.” Bryce set the pack down and ran a hand through his long hair, contemplating her words.
“Home isn’t where you’re born, or where you currently live, necessarily. Home is where you find comfort, peace. It’s where you return to after you’ve been away.”
Bryce looked up and held Mac’s gaze for a long moment, searching his bright blue eyes. Eyes that hadn’t had time to change color. They were so clear, so honest. He wondered what his own eyes looked like. “Then this is home. Not Oblivion. This.” He pointed to the deck.
Mac smiled a slow, broad smile, then draped an arm over Bryce’s shoulders. “Then let’s take home and go see the universe.”