"All right, Zero, give me a moment," Danziger said. He made sure both his feet were planted firmly before taking a swig from his canteen. He didn't bother looking down because he didn't want to be reminded of how far he had to go.
Zero told him anyway. "Only eight meters, sir," the robot said pleasantly over his gear set.
Danziger swilled the water around his dry mouth, resting in the harness, and stared up the canyon wall at the bright blue sky beyond. Even at mid-morning, the heat was already building, and his body was drenched in sweat. Far overhead, a lone bird called out to the world. Its only answer was the wind.
"Twenty-two light years for this," he muttered, clipping the canteen back onto his belt. "Join up on a colony ship. Great pay, great opportunities, and a chance for travel. Sheesh."
"Sir?" Zero asked. "I'm not quite sure I caught that."
"Nothin', Zero," Danziger said, wrapping his hands around the cable and checking the straps for the thousandth time. "I didn't know I was that close. Let's go ahead and get this over with."
"Very well, sir," Zero said, and played out the cable again slowly.
"How are you doing, Danziger?" Devon asked over his gear set.
"Same as 30 seconds ago, the last time you asked," he answered, without breaking his concentration.
"Danziger, don't joke," she said.
He didn't reply. He just played his feet off the canyon wall and watched it go by, trying to stay sane on this insane world.
"Warning," Zero suddenly said. "A biped creature is approaching along the canyon floor from the northeast."
"Oh, great!" Danziger snapped, twisting his head around to see. He was only five meters from the bottom. Why now? He swiveled his gear out and said, "It's a Grendler. Can you guys see?"
"We see him, John," Yale said, putting a hand on Devon's shoulder as they both watched the view through their gear sets. She was trembling with worry and trying not to show it. Patience was the only strength which could help them now, Yale knew. The two of them stood beside Zero at the top of the canyon, monitoring John's descent. Everyone else was back at camp.
The Grendler shambled up the ravine, apparently alone. When it saw Danziger it jumped and grunted in shock. Danziger supposed he couldn't blame it. It wasn't every day you saw an alien hanging by a cable five meters off the ground. He and the Grendler locked eyes for several seconds in mutual fear, each wondering what the other would do.
Then the Grendler lowered its eyes to see what Danziger could possibly want down in its little canyon, and spotted the dark bundle lying amidst the rocks, directly beneath him.
Danziger saw the gleam come into the Grendler's eyes.
"Nono!" he called sharply. "Nononononononono you don't! Zero, lower away! Right now!"
The race was on. Zero lowered as fast as he safely could as Danziger frantically worked his feet down the wall. The Grendler let out a shriek of glee and scrambled over the rocks for the great package, the almighty whatever-it-was. He knew it must be something valuable. It was shiny, wasn't it?
Danziger couldn't honestly tell if he was going get there first or not. Everything seemed to go quickly and slowly at the same time. "Zero, get ready to reverse on my order!" he shouted.
The Grendler clawed over the rocks. Danziger leaned back in his harness as far as he could. With a shout of defiance he grabbed the package just as the Grendler was reaching for it and shouted, "Reverse!"
The ground dropped away suddenly, leaving the Grendler clawing at empty air and bemoaning its loss. Zero pulled Danziger up as quickly as he could and stopped when he was five meters above the Grendler, out of immediate danger.
"Argh!" Danziger yelled, clutching at his leg, his face grimaced in pain. His knee had banged sharply against the canyon wall during his sudden ascent. But he didn't let go of the bundle.
"Danziger!" Devon called. "Are you okay? What happened?"
Danziger gritted his teeth and concentrated on breathing, begging the universe to make Devon shut up and leave him in peace long enough for the fire in his leg to die down. What's more, that damned Grendler wouldn't stop wailing. It was acting as if it had just been robbed. Hell, Danziger thought, from its point of view, it probably had been.
"Danziger! Talk to me!"
"I'm fine!" he ground out. "I got it, I hurt my knee, and the more you yak at me the crankier I get!"
Devon just sighed and closed her eyes, not knowing whether to feel gratitude or irritation. All she and Yale had seen through their gear was a blur. All they'd heard was yelling. For all they knew, the Grendler had gotten ahold of Danziger and pulled him right out of the harness. Didn't she have the right to know what was happening without getting her head bitten off?
Stuff it down, Adair, she told herself. Now wasn't the time. Later, perhaps, but for now...she breathed deeply, irritated at having to admit it...yes, for now, she needed John Danziger on her side. And there wasn't much she could do about his attitude.
"I apologize for hurting your knee," Zero said. "As you know, it is against my programming to harm a human being. It is my duty to inform you that if you wish to file a complaint with the Cybernetic Relations agency, or if you wish to file an XUD140 form requesting the deactivation of this Zero unit, or if you wish to file an XUD150 form requesting an investigation into this incident, you may do so at any time, for a fifteen-credit fee."
Yale and Devon looked at Zero. Danziger hung in his harness with his eyes closed, getting his breathing back under control. "No one's deactivating anyone, Zero," he finally said. "It wasn't your fault. You did good. Now just pull me back up."
"Yes, sir," Zero said. He reeled the cable back in.
The cries of the Grendler followed Danziger all the way up and out of the canyon.
As they drove back to camp in the dunerail, all Devon could feel was a few waves of relief in her ocean of worry. The bundle sat safely on her lap, and she clutched it tightly. She couldn't stop herself from calling Julia every five minutes to see how Uly was doing.
She found it awkward sitting next to Danziger. Finally, when they were almost back, she turned to him. "Thank you," she said. "You went through a lot back there for my son."
"Well," Danziger shrugged it off. "You know...kids will be kids. Ask me someday about the time True almost crashed a 250-ton freighter with a rubber band and Farley Cube toy when I wasn't looking."
Devon stared at him for a moment, and she almost smiled. "Are you joking?"
Danziger just gave her wry look from the corner of his eye. "What do you think?"
She didn't know how to answer that.
When they pulled into camp, she didn't even wait for the rail to come to a halt. She rushed into the med tent with the bundle, unraveling it as she ran. She crouched next to Julia and together they started putting Ulysses into the immuno-suit.
Danziger watched her go with a grimace, then calmly got himself some water.
"I don't get it," Walman said. "These Terrian things, they healed him, right? I mean, I don't understand it, but that's what Julia and Devon said. And now he's sick again."
"Well, I don't understand it, either," Danziger said. "But we've only been here three weeks. Maybe the Terrians only healed him for a little while. Maybe they just lied to us. Maybe they didn't heal him at all."
"You don't sound too worried about it," Walman said.
Danziger shrugged. "I'm worried about a lot of things," he answered. "But there's not much I can do about any of it right now." He walked off, slowly sipping his water.
Halfway through dressing Uly in the immuno-suit, Julia paused to calibrate one of the servos which had been damaged slightly. As she worked, Devon leaned close to her son, and Ulysses knew that she was not happy.
Devon struggled to find the words. "Why?" she finally whispered, trying not to cry with the sheer frustration of it all. "Why did you do it?"
"I thought it was what you wanted me to do."
"I never wanted you to do any such thing!" Devon snapped.
"You told me we have a space problem!" Uly said defensively. "You said we didn't have a place to put my immuno-suit! You told me that it was mine, and I needed to take care of it, and that I needed to find a place to put it. Those were your exact words. So I found a place to put it!"
"Throwing it into a canyon was not what I had in mind!"
"But that's where I wanted it to go! I thought you were telling me to get rid of it!"
Devon sighed and lowered her head. She remembered the excitement Ulysses had had when she had told him to find a place to put his immuno-suit. He had grinned with absolute glee and exclaimed, "I can do that!"
Well, he'd done it, all right.
She really, really should have asked him what his intentions were.
"I'm sorry, Mom," he whispered guiltily. "I really thought you were telling me that we couldn't keep it any more. I thought you were telling me to throw it away."
She breathed deeply and looked up at him again. He was sorry. She could see it in his eyes, and he was hurting because he knew he'd disappointed her. It had been the honest mistake of a child, the tiniest of misunderstandings, but one which had almost cost him his life. With his health deteriorating and the Terrians not contacting them, his immuno-suit was all they had to fall back on. And he'd thrown away the suit because he believed in the Terrians so much.
As for herself? She was frightened out of her mind. She knew she'd made a promise, and she didn't want to admit the existence of the cold, gnawing fear that at any hour, at any minute, the Terrians would contact them and tell her what she needed to do to keep her son alive. The only thing she didn't know was whether she hoped she was right or wrong. What promise had she made? she wondered. And when would it come due?
Uly looked at her. Julia concentrated on the suit, pretending not to be there for the moment.
"You really enjoyed throwing it away, didn't you?" Devon asked softly.
"It was the best thing I ever did. I don't know why you wanted it back!"
She grasped his hand. "We'll throw it away for real someday. But for now, I need you back in it, okay? And when you get a chance, I want you thank Mr. Danziger for getting it for you. He went through a lot."
Uly nodded. Devon and Julia finished putting the suit on, except for the headpiece, which needed to be assembled. As Julia spent a few moments attaching the pieces together, Devon led Uly outside and sat him on a crate, knowing that being up and about in the sunshine would do much more for his morale than lying on a cot.
Over by the TransRover, Danziger and Alonzo began talking earnestly. As Devon wondered what was up, Julia came out with the assembled headpiece. She and Devon began strapping it on, but Uly said, "Why do I need the suit again? I feel fine!"
Devon could only stand up and ask, "Why is he regressing like this?"
Julia never got a chance to answer. "Adair," Danziger said, motioning her over. She joined him. "Alonzo heard from the Terrians again."
Devon's heart beat a little faster. She'd known this would happen. She'd known it!
Okay, Adair, she thought. Promises, promises. Here we go.