"Think about it, True-Girl, you can do it." Danziger assured his daughter patiently, squinting as a rustle of branches in the near by, solitary tree sent streaks of sunlight playing across his face. It was a mild day, and he was glad as he reclined on his elbows, sweating a bit as his daughter sat the foot of his hammock, distractedly guiding his right ankle in slow circles as she chewed her bottom lip.
"I'm no good at math." She decreed a bit over dramatically, casting a anguished glance at Yale, where he sat with Uly a few feet away, the small boy tapping his foot impatiently.
"I got the answer five minutes ago, Yale! Let me answer it!" He begged exasperatedly, squirming on his stool. He fought the urge to raise his hand, as he would have back in the Syndrome Ward classes Yale used to sometimes teach.
Back on the stations he was one of the smartest kids in his group, and here on G889, with True as his only competition, things were no different. Sure, she was good at some subjects like science and astronomy, but sometimes he wished it could be just he and Yale again, so he could give all the answers and not have to wait for slow-poke True Danziger to figure out the stuff he already knew.
"Ulysses, it's True's turn now, and I'm sure if you grant her some quiet she'll have the answer for us shortly."
"He's right Yale." The girl agreed sullenly. "I'll never understand it. I don't know why I need to know this stuff anyway." She wished he would just let Uly answer the damn question so she could stop feeling so stupid.
"Think I need a break, Sport." Danziger grunted, flopping on his back, surveying his crewmates lazily as they bustled about, packing up camp.
Everyone was excited to finally be moving on, leaving behind the barren landscape that Walman and Alonzo had ceremoniously and incongruously named 'Danziger Falls,' much to the mechanics infinite dismay. Devon had been no help, she and Julia had instantly agreed, through a fit of giggles, that it was a perfectly strange tribute for an equally strange man. Morgan had assured him that the mystique and bewilderment created by a stretch of desert with such a name would put it on the map as a popular vacation destination once the planet had been properly settled.
Trying to catch his breath, his mind absently repeating twenty point two, twenty point two, he caught a glimpse of Alonzo stowing a few cargo bins in the back of the 'Rail, and he decided that what his flummoxed daughter needed was a little practical application.
"Hey, True-Girl." He caught his daughter's attention, as she was inattentively trying to unbuckle the straps on his knee brace, staring into space in a mathematical haze.
"It's no use, Dad. I'm stumped." She sighed.
"Say I needed to reinforce the struts on the 'rail, all the way around as much as I could, and I had a big ol' can with eighty-one carbon bolts in it." Seeing where her father was going with this, she sighed again, but turned her gaze to the vehicle, examining the four dingy yellow struts.
"Okay. Eighty-one carbon bolts." She repeated morosely, and he stifled a smile. Sitting up to put an arm around her, his stiff and achy legs still out in front of him, he leaned in until his head was almost on her shoulder.
"I want you to spread em' out evenly, all along those four weight-bearing struts, but I want you to get as many bolts on there as possible, cause, y'know, Alonzo's gonna be crashing that thing over hills going about sixty clicks an hour, and we gotta keep flyboy safe." True chuckled a bit at this, and Yale nodded encouragingly, inwardly noting that True's academic performance had improved drastically since her father had been available to sit in on some lessons, offering his own brand of camouflaged praise and guidance.
"Well, those struts are like, what Dad, about five feet across?" The little girl asked, her fingers absently ticking as she counted in her mind.
"Just about that, True-Girl." Danziger grinned with satisfaction, unhinging the knee brace himself and easing it off with minimal discomfort.
These physical therapy sessions Julia had commissioned True to enforce were a pain in the ass, but they were sure working wonders. It'd been less than a week since the vaccine had been administered, and he was already managing to schlep his sorry ass here and there, with the aid of the larger brace on his left leg and a single crutch.
"So you could probably fit about…" She trailed off, mentally calculating with a renewed sense of purpose.
"Yale, that's cheating!" Uly huffed, certain, even though he knew nothing about bolts and struts, that Mr. Danziger was secretly giving True all the answers.
"Uly, mind your manners!" The tutor warned gravely as he leaned closer to the boy.
Gingerly bending his knee until his shoeless foot was resting on the hammock behind his daughter, Danziger glanced in the boy's direction, not so much insulted as he was surprised at the unexpected burst of Adair. Like mother, like son he mused, brushing a lock of hair behind True's ear tenderly as she squinted at the Dunerail like a gunslinger. He gave Yale an easy smile when the older man sent him an apologetic look.
"You were fortunate to grow up with your own tutor, Uly, but we must remember that True has never had the opportunity to attend school." Yale reprimanded the boy quietly, slightly mortified by his outburst.
Danziger tried his best to look as though he wasn't listening.
"You are very fortunate, and you are also a very good student, but just think of how much True has learned in her own way! Think of what a good teacher Mr. Danziger has been, that True can study alongside you in your advanced classes and earn the same marks that you do."
Thoroughly embarrassed, Uly stared at the ground shamefully, which made Danziger distinctly uncomfortable. Yale had paid him a great compliment, but he was by no means a teacher. He just tended to look at life a little differently than most Drones. Education wasn't something to resent, some unreachable Level Three luxury. It was something you could earn for yourself, if you could learn to see the opportunities presented to you through the layers of Station grease and Council bullshit.
"Hey, pal, you're next, okay? The next question that stumps you, I'll try and give you a hint." Danziger promised the young boy, and he nodded sheepishly as True leapt from the hammock, sending it swaying drunkenly.
"Twenty!! You can fit twenty carbon bolts on each strut, but your gonna have some left over." Uly looked a bit surprised, but still happy that True had finally gotten the question right. He figured Mr. Danziger was a pretty good teacher after all. He was good at everything.
"Oh yeah?" Danziger asked curiously as True retook her post happily and gently grasped her fathers leg, methodically straightening and bending his knee carefully.
"Two. And a half. But you have to round up, Dad, so it's technically three, I guess. There are about three carbon bolts left over, Yale." She informed him casually, as though the tutor had been the one to ask for the vehicle specifications in the first place.
"Correct, True! Eighty-one divided by four equals twenty, with a remainder of two point five." The cyborg nodded, pleased at his student, and marked the right answer in the examination database he kept in his logs.
True beamed at her father, temporarily disappearing behind his knee before appearing again, glowing with a renewed sense of confidence.
"Atta girl!" Danziger whispered lovingly as he concentrated on his exercises, winking at his daughter before leaning back to bask in the sunlight of the absolutely perfect day.
Closing his eyes, Danziger allowed his attention to drift away from rudimentary math and was instantly assaulted by the sounds of camp. His friends we all in good spirits, chattering away. He could hear Magus and Walman bantering over by the Dunerail, each one complaining about the others driving, and who should be first behind the wheel. Prompting a playfully biting interjection from Mazatl regarding Magus' recent driving record. He smiled a bit as he hear the woman laugh in response, thankful that she'd finally learned to take the accident in stride.
Morgan and Bess were arguing over something, too far away for him to make out the particulars, but he could tell from the calm, dulcet tones of Bess' speech that Martin was no doubt over-reacting to whatever was causing the fuss.
"…very sweet thing to do…" He heard Bess reassure her husband clearly, realizing without opening his eyes that the pair was getting closer.
"…was me! Don't tell him it was me, Bess! Are you trying to get me killed!" Martin's voice dropped a bit as the approached, and John couldn't help but grin as he wondered what in God's name that man was up to now.
"How ya feelin', Danziger?" Bess inquired as the couple approached the hammock. Martin had fallen silent, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
He opened his eyes to take them in, catching sight of his daughter peripherally, poring over some equation in what was clearly a race. Bess on the other hand was sauntering slowly, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. Her husband, trailing a few steps behind, more closely resembled the canary.
"Right as rain, Bess." He assured her, sitting up hurriedly. He wasn't at full strength yet, but that didn't mean he was gonna lounge around while the other colonists did all the work. He scrambled to reach his shoes, which had toppled from the cargo net in True's burst of mathematical epiphany, but before he could ease himself up Morgan had already scooped them up and quickly deposited them at his feet.
"Thanks, man." The mechanic acknowledged softly, straining to get the shoe on his useless left foot, held frustratingly rigid by the slim, fiberglass brace that Cameron had fitted for him. He was immensely relieved that neither Martin attempted to lend him a hand. This was going to be part of his routine from now on, and the sooner he became adept at it, the sooner he could start ignoring the damn thing all together.
Starting at mid thigh and extending down to support his ankle, the brace was light and unobtrusive enough to be worn all the time, yet still allow Danziger to move around basically unencumbered. Because the knee was held in a locked position to allow him to support weight on the leg, he'd discovered with a healthy dose of chagrin that walking with an awkward, lumbering gait seemed unavoidable.
Devon and True assured him it was a small price to pay, and that when the strength in his right leg was back to normal, it would hardly be noticeable. That was all well and good, but he'd shuffled around camp on his crutches his first few days out of bed red-faced with pent up frustration and more than a little embarrassment.
"Morgan and I were wondering--"
"Bess!" The bureaucrat hissed, raising his eyebrows meaningfully. The Earth-Res gave her husband an exasperated look before turning back to John with a patient smile. Danziger did his best to hide his amusement.
"That is, I was wondering where you were planning on riding this morning? I was thinking that it might be kind of squished in the cab of the Transrover, and you should probably keep that leg elevated when you can." She paused a moment, staring at her husband expectantly. He was intently studying the arid dirt at his feet. John finished with his shoelace without ceremony. His double knot lacked finesse, but it would hold the damn boot on well enough. Besides, he could have True-Girl untangle it for him later, when he wasn't on such public display.
"Something you wanted to say, Martin?" He asked, doing his best to keep his tone light and non-combatant. Despite Bess' constant visits and help with True during his recovery, Danziger had yet to succeed in getting her husband to say three words to him. He'd made several stilted attempts at conversation over the past week, but it seemed that Morgan was determined to avoid him at all costs, as though invisibility was the only way to stay in John's good graces.
Danziger didn't like it. If they were ever going to get off on the right foot, he would prefer to that Martin didn't look like he was about to wet his pants every time the two of them occupied the same room.
"You know, I'm not gonna bite you, Morgan. In fact, at the speed I'm moving, I couldn't even give much of a chase." He grimaced, synching the synth-leather brace on his right knee tightly.
Morgan finally met his eyes, rubbing his arm unconsciously a bit before beginning, as if to remind himself exactly where he stood with John Danziger.
"Well, I don't want to bother you, I mean, you're a busy man, and Bess has a way of always knocking knees…" He panicked, his eyes drawn to the newly laced-up brace with a pang of realization. "Heh! I mean, I love her to death and she means well, but she has a habit of being underfoot--Oh, wow. Okay, I'm going to stop talking now." He turned to his wife, his hands wind milling frantically. "Do you see what happens when I open my mouth, Bess! This is why I didn't want to say anything--"
"Martin, it's alright." Danziger chuckled, wondering if standing would put the man at ease or just intimidate him further.
"Honey, calm down. Why don't you just tell John what we came here to say, and then we can go help the others finish packing up, okay?" He looked at her agape for a moment, until she rested her hand on his arm, whispering with an indulgent smile, "It's okay, Morgan, Be positive, remember?"
Clearing his throat, Morgan turned back to the seated mechanic, smiling falsely as though a distant holovid director had just yelled 'action!' for a new take. Danziger returned the smile warmly, almost feeling guilty at the bureaucrat's discomfort in his presence.
"Well, I just wanted to let you know that I've loaded our tent and other things onto a carry-pack, so there's plenty of room in the back of the Transrover, if you wanted to, you know, spread out a bit. Bess and I thought it might be good to have a place to catch a quick nap. Not that I don't think you're up for a bit of travel, but--"
Danziger did stand then, cutting off Morgan's hasty backtracking before he could dig himself any deeper.
"I appreciate that, Martin, I really do. But I don't want you lugging a tent around on your back all day on account of me. I'll make do." Morgan looked perplexed, as though he hadn't counted on Danziger turning him down.
"John, maybe it's a good idea for you have a place to rest." Bess reminded him, glancing sideways at her husband before continuing on, trying not to sound too much like a mother hen. "Why don't we just set it up with a bed roll, and then later in the day, if your feeling a bit claustrophobic in the cab, you can--"
"I'm not riding in the Transrover, Bess." Danziger informed her gently, shifting his weight and taking a few stilted steps to retrieve his single crutch from it's resting place against the hammock support. "But maybe later I'll take you up on that offer, okay? We'll see how the morning travel goes, it's gonna be a long day."
Raising his hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun, he gazed off in the direction they would soon be headed in, his expression unreadable.
"Danziger, if Devon finds out your planning on riding in the Dunerail she's not gonna like it. You hardly fit in that tiny seat to begin with!" Bess reminded him, silently noting that Devon had already assigned Magus and Walman to the Rail earlier at breakfast. John just smiled and nodded.
She knew that starting out on the proverbial road again wouldn't be easy for John, but she had been hoping that he would at least consent to taking it easy for the first few days. He'd made a remarkable recovery, but it was no big secret that he wasn't quite up to par.
"Then I guess it's a good thing I'm not gonna be riding in the Dunerail." He responded slyly, hitching his crutch up under his arm. "I thought I'd walk, for a while."
"Yale! Kids! We're about ready to get moving!" Devon called out, approaching quickly from the remains of the Med Tent. Even as she spoke, Danziger had begun unstaking the support poles supporting the hammock, and with a muttered, "Gimme a hand, Martin?" Morgan had earnestly begun helping him slowly coil the cargo netting around the poles. Bess, still speechless, looked from her husband and her friend to Devon, and then quickly back a the Dunerail, before bracing herself for impact.
"You ready to get outta this spot, Danziger?" Devon asked teasingly, wordlessly handing John a mug full of water and one of his endless small white pills. He grinned back, dry swallowing the tablet before downing a quick sip of water.
"Oh man, you have no idea, Adair." He laughed, wiping his mouth hastily with the back of his hand and returning the mug. "It may have it's nice spots, but Danziger Falls will not be missed." He joked, turning to clap Morgan on the back. Bess smirked as her husband tried his best not to look alarmed. "It's all yours, pal! Build an amusement park and luxury units if you want to, but I will not be back."
A true smile lighting his face, Morgan nodded agreeably. "I can see it now! Right over there we can build a Transcoaster, with a huge sign that says, "Please do not stand when the ride is in motion."
Danziger erupted into a huge peal of laughter, Bess and Devon not far behind, and with a sigh he absently wrapped his free arm around Devon's shoulders. Bess loved seeing the two of them being more or less open with each other, though their argumentative dynamic hadn't changed a bit. She glanced again at the Dunerail, just in time to see Yale climbing aboard to ride in the backseat, the remaining seat filled with cargo. This was going to be bad.
With a final survey of the deconstructed camp site, Devon looked up into Danziger's face warmly, a small frown of concern at the corners of her mouth. "You sure you're ready?"
Danziger nodded, scanning for True who was running back from stowing the last of their gear in the rack on the 'Rover with Uly in tow. "Positive. Let's move out." He gave her a quick peck on the crown of her head, so lightening quick and natural that Bess would have missed it if she hadn't been watching their exchange so closely, and without another word he was off, clumsily headed to meet his daughter.
Devon watched him go, a myriad of emotions playing across her face. Morgan cleared his throat softly, suddenly aware that he wanted to be far from the scene when Devon caught wind of Danziger's latest ploy to run himself into the ground.
"Better go hitch up that pack." He mumbled, his long legs furiously striding in the opposite direction.
Bess turned to study Devon again. Though she was weary of playing tattle tale, she was even more worried about her friend's well-being, and about possibly heading an explosive argument between the two leaders off at the pass.
"Um, Devon? I'm not sure if this is something John was planning to tell you or not, but--"
"Obstinate, isn't he?" Devon smiled, by way of an answer. Slightly taken aback, Bess waved absently at the Dunerail as it sped past, off to scout the way. "Julia and I discussed it with him last night, and while we're fairly certain he's gonna change his mind pretty fast, we decided to let him start the day on foot."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Bess asked timidly, still not used to voicing her opinion too forcefully, or the fact that once she did, Devon and the other's actually took it seriously. "I know Danziger thinks he has to push himself, but he must understand by now that no one in the group thinks…"
Devon sighed, and Bess cut herself short, worried she's said too much.
"You know, Bess, I think this doesn't have anything to do with the group, for once." She smiled a little, watching Uly run to the ATV to retrieve his Terrian staff, eager to emulate John in any way he could. "I think this may be a matter of self-preservation more than anything else. The way he looks at it, he walked into this place, and he's gonna walk out. I don't think any of us have the right to deny him that."
"Not that it isn't completely insane." Julia chimed in, coming up behind them with a grin on her face. "But then, I can only heal one part of him at a time. I say we give it a week before I start in on the delusions of grandeur." No one was more thankful the doctor to be leaving the events of the recent past here where they belonged, in this stretch of barren desert soon to be fading into the distance.
"The kids will keep him company and help set a slower pace, and I figure with all the time we've spent sitting around, everyone could use a slow day to ease back into traveling." Both Bess and Julia couldn't help but scoff a bit at the leader's suddenly lenient attitude. It seemed that if any of them had any gripes or concerns to voice, now would be a good time to capitalize on her temporary time-out to dote on Danziger.
"What?" Devon asked them both with mock offense, studying their conspiratorial glances.
"I'm fighting the urge to scan you for a fever as we speak." Julia replied seriously, and Bess grinned.
"Mark my words, tomorrow John will be safely riding somewhere he can rest and I'll be pushing everyone twice as far. But for now, I'm willing to indulge him. Just this once. It won't happen again."
When neither woman seemed the least bit convinced, she blushed a bit out of self-consciousness and decided to change the topic.
"Did you and True work out your code?" She asked the doctor, and Morgan shuffled over with an absolutely tremendous pack on his shoulders.
"Yes, we did. At the very mention of changing her name to "Julia-Girl," I will be ready to swoop in and insist as John's doctor that he take a break from walking. Hopefully, he'll be too bushed to put up much of a fight."
"Why isn't everyone screaming?" Morgan asked, already a bit out of breath. As Alonzo started up the Transrover and began creeping forward, the small group fell into a comfortable pace, heading towards the rest of the walkers, bringing up the rear.
Slightly ahead of the 'Rover, Danziger was keeping a steady, if not lopsided gait straight into the sun, handing True the sunglasses off his head as the two kids scampered beside him, Uly unconsciously using his walking-staff as a makeshift crutch of his own.
"Danziger's walking this morning, Morgan. He already ran it by Julia, and she says it's okay, for a little while." Bess leaned over and impulsively kissed her husband on the cheek, pleased he'd finally found the courage to attempt reconciliation with John. The mechanic may be able to hold a grudge, but he couldn't be helped to forgive with Morgan avoiding him at every turn. It seemed the two men had finally come to a long-awaited truce.
"Well, he's insane." The lawyer declared simply.
"That was never under debate." Julia reminded him, catching him by his arm he stumbled a bit.
"So, since he's up there playing 'leader of the pack,' what do you say I get rid of this tent--"
"Morgan." Bess intoned softly, and he shook his head in disgust.
"I know. I know, Bess! Jeez, I'm going up there with the rest of the walking wounded!" He mumbled with feigned offense, lengthening his stride to easily catch up with John and the kids.
"He usually isn't this much work." Bess reminded the others, sheepishly. "He's trying really hard to get on Danziger's good side, but old habits die hard."
Julia chuckled under her breath, but Devon nodded towards the two men in agreement.
"You know, Bess, he's really been a big help. And John has told me more than once that he really appreciates how hard he's trying." The two walked on in silence for a moment, watching the darkened silhouettes of the men, chatting as though they'd been friends for life, albeit rather stiffly.
Julia kept her eyes trained steadily on Danziger, watching for any signs of difficulty, but he seemed to be keeping pace will minimal effort. She had no doubt that crutch would be gone in a matter of days.
"Who knows?" Devon continued, thinking out loud. "Maybe Morgan will be able to draw Danziger out of his shell a bit. He's always been kind of quiet."
"You have got to be kidding me!" Julia guffawed loudly, taking her eyes off her patient in order to glance at Devon incredulously.
"Well, I mean, when he isn't barking out commands like a drill sergeant. He's actually quite laconic." She informed them matter-of-factly, as though she had suddenly, with this shift in their relationship, become the authority on all things John Danziger.
Bess had her doubts. "Now Devon, no would like Morgan and John to be friends more than me, but I'll be the first one to admit that they don't have very much in common."
From up ahead a bark of laughter could be heard, and they paused again, seeing True parading behind Morgan, pretending to be holding up the pack. Uly was jumping up and down like a veritable puppy, and John-- the source of the laughter-- didn't look in the least like a man who required concentration to put one foot in front of the other.
"Do it, Dad! We wanna hear!" True screamed shrilly, loud enough to be heard clearly from the back of the caravan.
"Oh I don't know, Bess. You might be surprised." Devon continued pensively. " I think maybe Morgan and John have more in common than we think. It's just a matter of them getting to know one another."
Up ahead, Uly began wiggling in a silly sort of dance, and True abandoned her station behind Morgan's pack to join him, waving her hands in the air. From under the drone of the Transrover, protesting a little louder than usual after it's weeks of neglect, the sound of male voices could be heard, strangely boisterous in the relative quiet static of the convoy.
"Helter Skelter in a summer swelter, the birds flew off with a fallout shelter, eight miles high and fallin' FAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAST!" Both men broke off laughing, True and Uly cheering as the both spun around and crashed into each other unceremoniously. "It landed foul in the grass…um,wait, it goes…"
Morgan and Danziger continued to stumble through the song, each one a bit off-key at times, but as the women watched in amazement the two would-be foes trudged along with their crutches and heavy-laden packs, resembling more a troop of drunken gypsies than two men who couldn't stand the sight of each other a few weeks before.
Devon couldn't stop smiling, relieved to be on the move again, to be whole, a tighter group than she'd ever imagined the disparate members of Eden Advance could ever be. Whatever lay ahead of them on the way to New Pacifica, she knew they would face it head on. She'd never felt more confident that she'd done the right thing, leaving the stations for G889. It was frightening at times, and there were still many uncertainties that she could neither predict or control, but through the countless cosmic ironies thrust upon her she'd come to realize one thing, the most important thing of all.
This planet was her home, her true home. And these people were her true friends, the only ones she'd ever need. And perhaps, the greatest surprise of all was that John Danziger, the lumbering giant with the crazy hair singing at the top of his lungs in the sunlight, loved her every ounce as much as she loved him. And she had never known she'd had that much love to give.
"Okay, ready? Key change! Bye, bye Miss American Pie, drove the Chevy--"
" -- to the levee but the levee was dry, and good old boy's were drinking whiskey and
"-- singin' this'll be the day that I die!"
Bess and Julia were laughing like teenagers as the watched the men wailing like sailors, but Devon found herself a bit overcome. Trekking along in the blazing sunlight, a gentle wind sweeping her hair in her eyes, she closed them in contentment, humming along under her breath.
"This'll be the day that I die."