Author's Note: It's been one week since my last post! I was a little worried I wouldn't make it, but here you are. Once again, thank you so much for your generous reviews. It sounds like you're enjoying reading it as much as I am writing it. In case you're wondering, I do have a Tumblr account: CuriousWonderment. Some of you have found me there and graced me with wonderful messages. Thank you. For those of you wanting to send me a message-but don't have a ff.n account, Tumblr is another option. As for Chapter 6...I'm already speedily writing it. However, with Christmas coming up, I'm not sure I'll have it up within the week. I'll do my best, but no promises on this one...

The Howlers
Chapter 5
by: Theed

She saw him again.

Not even ten yards from the buried orange landing pod,
She saw him…
Pieces of him…
Scattered like falling stars carelessly flung
Across some irregular, peculiar galaxy.

A cluster here.
A constellation there.
Local groups everywhere.
Some still luminous.
Some still twinkling.
Many eclipsed.
Many variable.
All celestial.
All cosmic.

Drawn to the pieces of him…
His fading starshine…
His perishing incandescence…
His decaying radiance…

Long sailing the solar wind
Onto some nameless star trail.

But unlike stars,
These pieces…
These precious pieces…
These pieces of him…

Bled.

And stars don't bleed.

They die, of course, after
Burning, raving, raging their gentle light…
Burning, raving, raging their blinding sight…
Burning, raving, raging their blazing flight…

But not bleed.

And these pieces…
These pieces of him…

Bled.

Bled like dripping nebulas.
Bled like collapsing meteors.
Bled like decaying orbits.
Bled like the crying zodiac.

All because of
them.

She saw
them
too…

Saw their sinister afterglow.
Saw their angular distance.
Saw their apparent motion,
Their apparent magnitude.

And in the atmospheric scintillation,
She felt
them.

Bruised by their atomic weight.
Dizzy by their centripetal force.
Sick by their free falling gravity.
Crushed by their dark matter.

And heard
them.

Heard their howling…
Their howling…
Their endless,
relentless
howling


Brand jolted upright, her breaths escaping in erratic shudders. It was just a dream, she thought. Only a dream. They can't hurt you… You're inside… You're safe… She dropped her head into her cold palm and pressed it flat against her clammy skin. There she felt the echoing absence of throbbing pressure; her headache had finally tamed. About damn time. Now if only there were some pill that could eliminate her nightmares just as easily. She licked her lips and pushed loose strands of hair behind her ears. "CASE, what time is it?" she asked absently.

"CASE isn't here."

She tensed at the unexpected voice…and then a rush of memory flooded. "Oh, Cooper. Right." Brand searched for him in the shadows, but the blackness was thick and encompassing. She saw nothing in the void, but she could hear him—hear his calm, deep breaths, so peaceful compared with her own. Based on the sound, Brand guessed he was sitting somewhere just across the room…on one of the other sleeping pads, probably. Even though she couldn't see, just knowing he was there—as if he were guarding her, protecting her—was reassuring… and yet, strangely uncomfortable. She cleared her throat. "How long… How long have you been sitting there?"

"A while," he said. "Enough to know you don't sleep too well here."

Brand's stomach knotted. She ignored the comment and instead craned her neck until it popped. If he was trying to bait her, she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction. Besides, he'd have nightmares too if he'd seen… Well, she'd rather not think about it. It was bad enough she dreamt about it. "What time is it?"

"Don't know. Still dark out. But if I were to venture a guess, I don't think it's been more than two hours."

Only two hours… Although she'd adjusted to the planet's long nights, Brand still struggled through each and every one. Morning never did come too soon here. "Well, we have about nine more hours of darkness, then. Since we're close to the equator, nights and days run approximately twenty hours each on this planet, which takes some getting used to. But the CME should be over by morning. We just need to wait it out."

"Do they normally run that long?" Cooper asked.

"No," she admitted, "but better to wait a little longer than risk damaged equipment." She hesitated, then added, "Or howlers."

Brand wondered if the comment would get a rise out of him, but if it did, Cooper gave no indication. Instead of pursuing the topic, he asked, "How're you feeling?"

"Better," she said, pulling the scratchy blanket around her. The desert planet's nighttime temperatures plummeted near freezing, and with all of the bunker's electronics disabled—including the heating—it was getting a little chilly inside. Brand shivered.

"So, these headaches, they happen often, huh?"

"Every now and then, ever since I landed here. I've been trying to tolerate them as much as possible considering the meds are in limited supply, but after a while, they just become unbearable. They're brought on by pressure changes and stress, and both seem to be fairly common lately."

"I can't imagine why," he said dryly, then added, "And I bet dehydration is another factor." She heard shuffling, and then a set of footsteps drew near. Despite the absolutely darkness, Brand could sense Cooper standing directly in front of her, mere inches away. "Hold out your hand," he said.

Brand did, wondering if his solid form would stop her reach…but all she touched was the empty, icy air. Within moments, she felt Cooper's fingers find hers, and he carefully turned and opened them, placing a familiar weighted foil laminate pouch inside her palm. She smiled in recognition, quickly found the attached straw, and took a few sips of water. "Thanks," she said. Normally, she wouldn't allow for such a luxury, but given the circumstances… She took another sip. "Did you get settled in?"

"Mm-hm. Well, showering in the dark was an adventure, especially since the water wasn't heated—and thanks for warning me, by the way. But I made due."

She wished he could see her eyes roll. "Yeah, you definitely have to get creative here. NASA doesn't teach you half of what you really need to know. I suppose that's why they like recruiting adaptive problem-solvers."

"You got that right." Cooper cleared his throat. "Hey, mind if I just sit…?"

Brand shifted along the sleeping pad. "Not at all."

He slid easily next to her until his shoulder bumped hers. It felt good just sitting and talking with someone again. How she had taken such a small luxury for granted... "So tell me about your last few months. What've you been doing all this time?" he asked.

"Oh, just setting up base camp. Preparing my lab. Collecting data. Naïvely sending out hopeful transmissions back to Earth." She took a long sip from the pouch. "Resources are presently in limited supply, so I've been working mostly on sustainability. Can't incubate the fertilized eggs before that's taken care of. It's hard enough raising kids when you have everything you need, let alone when you don't."

Cooper chuckled. "Amen. And when you say 'sustainability', you mean..."

She began recalling her internal list. "Sourcing various necessities, such as food, water, power—"

"And by 'food sourcing' you mean 'farming'," he said.

"And hunting and gathering. Food sourcing is one aspect of sustainability, yes. But there's also—"

Cooper blew a low whistle. "We came all the way out here… to another planet… to another solar system… to another galaxy… all the way across the universe… just to farm."

She sucked on the straw. "What did you expect? There aren't exactly grocery stores around here. Besides, the first settlers of any colony are usually farmers."

"Oh, I'm not criticizing. Just appreciating the irony." He paused, letting the comfortable silence linger a bit. The warmth of him just sitting with her felt nice. Then, he tapped her arm. "You know, to be honest, I expected to find you in the cryo-pod waiting things out. I was afraid I'd have to wake you up like we did Dr. Mann."

Brand finished the last of the water and set the empty packet aside. "Wait in the cryo-pod? Why would I do that? I mean, sure, it makes sense in theory, but for me, there wasn't anything or anyone to wait for. I let go of such hope back when you detached from The Endurance. I'd lost so much out here... Every member of our team…nearly a century of time…and as far as I knew, all the people of Earth… I wasn't planning on any backup or rescue mission, Cooper. No one was coming to save or help me. I didn't have the luxury of playing sleeping beauty."

Brand wasn't sure what she expected Cooper to say, but she didn't expect him to stay so quiet for so long. At first, she thought he was going to placate her—taking the time to calculate a measured, carefully reasoned response, something to both validate and yet correct her thinking, as he so often tended to do. But as the minutes passed, his silence only grew more awkward and uncertain. Brand began squirming, searching for something to fill the void. "Anyway, your turn. What about you?" she quickly asked. "What happened after you fell through Gargantua? Tell me your story."

At first, she thought Cooper must have fallen asleep because what was first an awkward stillness stretched into a burdensome reserve, full of strained suspense. She contemplated nudging him, but considering he might actually be exhausted from interstellar travel, Brand resisted. But then she heard his lips part, and he finally said, "Well, there's not much to tell. I went through and then came back. Now I'm here. End of story."

She narrowed her eyes, despite the fact that Cooper couldn't see them. "I feel like you left out a few details there."

"Well, most of it's pretty unbelievable anyway—"

She shook her head. "You mean more unbelievable than general relativity, disruptions in space-time, and interstellar travel? Come on, Cooper. Humor me."

"No, I suppose not," he conceded. "But it is kind of a long story—"

She nudged him and giggled. "Do you have someplace you need to be? Because I sure as hell don't."

"Brand—"

"Come on, Cooper. Tell me what happened."

His voice became unexpectedly tense, and she could tell he was making an effort not to lose his temper. "Does it really matter? I mean, I'm here, aren't I? The rest ain't important." His words fell on her like soft prickles of ice.

Now Brand's voice began to rise. "Not important? The hows and whys of you getting here aren't important?"

"No."

She repositioned herself on the sleeping pad to face him, even though she still saw nothing but the black emptiness. "Cooper, let me explain something to you. I've been living here alone with no one but CASE for company, and he's so laconic that some days, I have better conversations with the coffee maker. Indulge me. I haven't had a real conversation in months…and I'm guessing you haven't either." But the silence continued on. Though Cooper sat beside her, he was truly galaxies away. "Oh, come on. Are you seriously going to—"

"Ever think that maybe I just don't want to talk about it?"

"Weren't you the one who said we should learn to talk?"

"Yeah, and when not to, isn't that right?" he spat.

Brand swallowed hard. "Look, you know what, if you don't want to tell me the whole story, then fine. Don't." She could no longer keep the agitation and annoyance out of her voice. "I'm just trying to understand what could possibly be so motivating for you to come all the way out here…alone. I'm guessing that someone on Earth survived in order for you to make it back here. But why they'd send you and not someone else…or a whole team of people…experts to help with colonization…is beyond me. And why you'd even agree to go is something I just can't work out. Sometimes, it's difficult believing you're even here at all. Not if Murph or Tom are still around, which is slim given the time slippage, I realize. But even if they aren't, you must still have family—grandkids or great-grandkids. I can't imagine you'd give them up so easily."

"Who says I did?" he breathed. In that moment, he sounded like a ghost of the man she used to know.

"Cooper, I know you," she said softly. "You might have a bit of a cowboy in you, but family is everything. It's what grounds you, what motivates you. You wouldn't leave your family just for the chance at having one last adventure, not out here, and especially not under such dire and dismal circumstances."

Her words hung in the air like drifting snowflakes, quietly falling into steadily rising mounds, and then he finally said, "Not even for you?"

Brand stopped, and selected her next words with care. "You're being impetuous."

"Am I, Amelia?" he asked.

Cooper had to be joking. He couldn't have possibly come all this way just for her. Her. He'd known her barely a year, if she cut out all the time they'd spent in cryo-sleep, not to mention his recent lengthy absence. Or maybe she was just reading into things…a by-product of being too emotional. Even still, Brand wasn't sure what Cooper had meant, and truthfully, she wasn't sure she wanted to know.

Cooper continued, his voice slow, as if reluctant…hesitant. "Look, I came back to be with you. So you wouldn't be alone. Isn't that enough reason?"

She blew a deep breath. "Not for you, Cooper. No. It isn't."