Disclaimer: I don't own Earth 2. But I'm busy writing new episodes just like it was mine, all mine. evil laughter

This is Episode 4 in my version of Season 2—read "Blast from the Past," "Bess's Adventures in Wonderland," and "The Lotus Eaters" before this one. Many thanks for the reviews! I am glad to know you're reading. Keep letting me know.

Chapter One

Walman VO: Day 164 on this godforsaken hunk of rock. At least we're bunked in a place that seems almost like civilization. Cameron keeps churning out great meals, the beds are soft, and I've almost got used to the hot water showers—almost.

Danz has got everybody is working on this whole mysterious sickness thing. Maybe they are making progress, maybe not. Most of it goes over my head.

I never had any med training during my military hitch. I was a grunt. On the Roanoke I was a grunt. Cargo stevedore, general maintenance flunky. Danz was a grunt too, but he always worked hard to get ahead so his kid could have a chance to be something else. I don't have any kids to work for. I figured when I died, the station brass could take my debt and shove it up their ass.

But now on this planet, everything's different. I'm not a grunt anymore. "You're a valued member of the team," Adair always told us crew. A valued member of HER team. Now I'm a valued member of Danziger's team. I wish I could say it was better with him in charge, and for a while it was. But Danz is weirding out on us. That glowing rock did something to him—changed him. Solace hasn't been himself since we landed, and I'd gotten used to that. But seeing Danz slide off into Weirdsville bothers me. Magus and Baines too, but I don't know if they'd admit it yet.

Terry Walman lay asleep in his bed, awake but unwilling to move from the soft depths of his pillow. So far, no one had said anything more about leaving the colony and he was certainly not going to bring it up. He figured they had it made.

The air conditioning unit made a soft hum as it blew newly filtered, perfect temperature, lightly scented air across his back and shoulders. The windowless room had begun to lighten a while ago as the computer generated false dawn, just like on the stations, even though there was a real dawn somewhere outside the walls.

The quarters he was sharing with Baines were spacious, downright palatial compared to the units he'd always rented back on the stations. This was the single biggest bed he'd ever slept on in his life and the most comfortable to boot.

He'd be perfectly happy to spend the rest of his days planted right in this spot. He could get a little planet outside when he wanted, then he could retreat back into the comforts of something better than any home he'd ever known.

He heard a knock, which he ignored, then the door to his room opened.

"Get up, Walman," Magus's voice interrupted his slumber.

"What for?" he replied, rolling over away from her voice.

"Danziger wants us to meet him in the ops center," she said.

"Let me guess, he wants the rover refitted—again," Walman complained tiredly.

"Word on the street from Danner is that we'll be going on a scout," Magus continued.

"A scout for what? A pass through the mountains? We're sitting on the edge of a huge open plain," Walman answered, pulling the covers around his ears.

Her reply made a chill run down his back. "Nope, she thinks we're going ZED hunting."

Roll opening credits.

At the word ZED, Walman rolled over to look at her. Sure enough, Magus was geared out for an expedition. "Why would we go hunting for a ZED?" he asked incredulously. "It's bad enough when they find us. There's no reason to go looking for trouble."

"Danner thinks trouble is on its way whether we like it or not," Magus said, slapping him lightly on the bare shoulder. He ignored the little buzz her touch gave him. They'd been together as a couple, so to speak, off and on since this whole adventure began, but he wasn't one to rush things and apparently she wasn't either.

So far, they had a good understanding—a quiet understanding but a good one. Nobody pushes, nobody runs. Interestingly, Julia had begun supplying all the men with suppressors—no questions asked—several months ago.

He figured she was covering for her and Solace, or maybe trying to set something up for Danz and Adair. That, he thought, was pretty damned hilarious. Adair would be better off with a Terrian than that cranky son of a bitch. Walman had learned a long time ago not to piss him off. Danz could assign you the most meaningless maintenance at the most unholy hours if pushed.

"Come on, Terry," Magus pushed at him again. "It'll be good to get out for a bit—it'll give us something fun to do."

"Are you packing a decent bedroll?" he asked, turning to look at her suggestively.

"Yep, three. You, me, and Mazatyl," she answered with a grin as his face fell.

"Why does the architect have to come?" Walman groaned.

"Mazatyl's becoming a decent footsoldier," Magus replied. "Cut him some slack. He's trying hard. And you're hardly trying. Get your lazy ass up and come on."

Walman groaned again and rolled out of bed and into the bathroom. A day or two on the trail and he would really appreciate the showers again, he thought, even more than he already did.

Several minutes later, Walman joined Magus and Mazatyl in the Ops Center of the compound. Danner sat before the communications terminal and Danziger leaned back against a nearby wall. Trust him to be standing while everyone else was seated, Walman thought. That meant he was about to impart something serious.

"Glad you could finally join us, Walman," Danziger began, an evil sweetness to his voice. "Danner turned up something on the big dish." He turned to her, "Fill us in."

Danner tapped at the terminal input and a string of communications code began to roll across. "These are communications from somewhere in orbit down to our general area," she began. "However, they aren't directed to this dish. Decoding them has been a problem—according to Yale, they seem to be an ops procedure change for a soldier—most likely a ZED."

"Best guesses?" Danziger asked the group.

"Riley's contacting a ZED with a procedure change?" Magus asked. "The last ZED's job was to torture and kill us one by one for information on the planet. What more could Riley want?"

"That's the big question," Danziger replied. "What does he want? We've got to lay some perimeter alerts at enough distance to let us know if this ZED is getting within firing range. The last thing we want to do is be pinned down in this compound with no cover while he's taking us out one by one."

"How close does he seem to be based on Riley's transmissions?" Mazatyl asked.

"We think maybe five miles out in a northerly direction," Danner responded. "That's the best I can guess from triangulation. If we can catch the ZED's acknowledgment signal, we can pinpoint it even more clearly."

"Suggestions?" Danziger asked.

"Let's get out there and take him out before he gets close enough to take us out," Walman ventured. "I hate long waits."

"I agree," said Magus. "It's a huge risk, but maybe we can take him by surprise."

"You guys are nuts," Danner interjected. "A ZED can hear the vibrations of your footsteps. He can sense any kind of technology or weaponry a mile off. How can you even think of sneaking up on him?"

"We did it before," Walman replied. "It's just going to take a little planning."

"And a lot of guts," Magus added.

When the entire group--less the children, who were safely ensconced in the vid room--gathered to hear the plan after breakfast, Morgan added his own sentiment to the idea. "It's going to take a lot of stupidity," he blurted. "It's a suicide mission."

"Besides," Cameron commented, "which of us actually has enough experience in this kind of operation to do something like this? None of us is qualified to take on a ZED!"

"Danz, Magus, Yale, and I have all seen military service in the infantry," Walman began. "Baines and Solace don't count because they did theirs in orbit flying us grunts around."

"I resent that remark," Alonzo spoke up. "I did my time on the ground too. We all did. Count me in."

"But not Baines. His medic training is needed here," Danziger interjected. "Whatever is up with the ZED, we've still got to keep working on cracking this mystery illness before--" He broke off, everyone aware of the thought in his mind. True would be the first, then Alonzo according to the repeated warnings they'd gotten from the planet.

Danziger moved on. "Yale needs to stay here with Morgan and keep working on decoding the operating system for those biostat implants. Julia thinks that understanding them is the next step to understanding this illness."

"Danner keeps tracking the signal from orbit and watches for the reply from the ZED. She can triangulate it and let the hunters know where to find him," Danziger finished.

"So me, Magus, Mazatyl, and Solace are on the hunt," Walman concluded.

"And me," Bess's sweet voice added.

"Absolutely not," came identical replies from both Morgan and Danziger.

"I know you guys have military training and I know you've all been out hunting Grendler stashes and small game," Bess commented reasonably. "But I have the strong feeling that out of everybody in this room, I am the only one who has actually stalked and killed anything dangerous."

"Bess," Morgan's horrified voice began, "what have you stalked and killed?"

"Feral pigs and wild dogs," she answered as she picked at some fruit left from breakfast.

"Pigs and dogs are not ZEDs," Morgan replied. "Why did you hunt pigs anyway?"

"A four hundred pound feral pig can destroy a garden in a matter of minutes," Bess answered. "Plus, they can be very dangerous when cornered and they eat anything. They were a terrible nuisance back home. We'd hunt them down if they got to be too much of a problem."

"Did you eat them?" Cameron found himself asking, a slight sick feeling in his stomach.

"No, the meat was generally too contaminated to risk it," Bess replied. "Like I said, they'd eat anything."

"So Bess will be joining us," Magus concluded.

"No," Morgan and Danziger said in unison again.

To everyone's interest, instead of debating Morgan over the issue, Bess turned to Danziger instead. "John, I think you know that I have skills that can help us out there," she said. "I need to go."

Danziger looked down at her and seemed to fight some inner battle. At last he gave in. "All right, but you stay in touch with us," he turned to face the rest of the group. "You all stay in touch. One person on gear with jumpers at enough distance to see the others and report. The rest of you can't use gear because the ZED will pick it up the electromagnetic field it gives off." He grimaced at the memory of the last ZED he'd run into crunching his gear practically into dust.

"Bess, I really don't think you should do this," Morgan began, pulling at her arm.

"I know what I'm doing, Morgan honey," Bess replied firmly. "None of this research is stuff I can help much with and I do know something about hunting. I'll be fine." She gave him a sunny smile. "Trust me."