It was amazing to Devon the difference that five days could make. Eden Advance hadn't suffered through another snow or sleet storm in nearly a week. In fact the past few mornings, the crew awoke to a temperature that was ever-so-slightly warmer than the prior day. Even the snow had started to slowly melt away in sections which were fortunate enough to be graced with generous amounts of sunlight.
Many of the Edenites were convinced that this was an undeniable sign that a change in seasons was right around the corner. Even the less optimistic members of the group permitted themselves a bit of hope that the weather would eventually improve enough for them to finally vacate the BioDome which had held them against their will for eighty days and recommence their arduous trek to New Pacifica. That is, if they could find a pass out of the valley which could safely accommodate the vehicles.
John Danziger was also making a slow but steady improvement, for the most part. After Devon and Julia's discovery of the perilous lengths that he'd gone to in order to keep them all fed, the mechanic had very reluctantly resigned himself to the fact that his gruesome tactics would be modified in some way. Whether he liked it or not.
He also grudgingly submitted to Julia's examination which had indeed confirmed her initial diagnosis of anemia. Though getting the mechanic to open up regarding how he was feeling was like pulling teeth, he eventually confessed to suffering from a multitude of symptoms including extreme fatigue and loss of energy, headaches and occasional bouts of dizziness, lack of appetite, insomnia, and an inability to concentrate or to keep his volatile temper at bay.
Julia immediately began treatment in the hope that John's organs and immune system hadn't been irreparably compromised by his self-abuse. She concocted a supplement of iron and other vitamins to be injected twice each day which she personally administered to ensure that it was accomplished accurately and on schedule. The mechanic was also forced to report to the Med-tent each morning and submit to a one hour session of donning an oxygen mask which was essential to creating and recirculating new red blood cells into his impaired system.
John's name was completely removed from the guard duty roster until further notice and True watched over her father like a mother hen. The younger Danziger made certain that her Dad enjoyed at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, as per doctor's orders. Food was also crucial to John's recovery and he was required to eat two full meals each day. In fact, True would not allow him to leave the table until his plate was spotless. The little girl would have enjoyed their new reversal of parental roles much better, if she wasn't still so worried about him.
But just because John was down, it certainly didn't mean that he was out. As he returned to his former only mildly surly and acerbic self, he also returned as an active presence in the daily affairs of the camp. In fact, he absolutely insisted upon it. Devon was pleased by Danziger's change of attitude because it meant a welcome return to physical interaction with the other crewmembers; something that he'd been actively avoiding these past weeks.
Feeding Eden Advance was still at the forefront of Danziger's agenda and, until that dilemma was solved, he was emphatic that the remaining vials of his blood be traded with the Grendlers for more provisions. "Waste not, want not" was his general assertion and, as morbid as the idea had sounded to Devon, she had to admit that it made sense. Moreover, this would buy them some time until another solution could be found.
At Yale's suggestion, Bess was brought into the loop and it was decided that her expert bartering skills would be a welcome addition to John's for any and all future meetings with the Grendlers. Not only did this mean that Danziger would finally be in compliance with Devon's policy of no one leaving camp by themselves, Bess could visually monitor the mechanic to ensure that he wasn't pushing himself too hard or placing his still-fragile health at risk.
Bess' haggling ability was almost immediately put to the test and, the prior day, it had been time to replenish their dwindled food supply. The pair had first gathered up the filled canisters from the spider cave and then trudged the remaining distance to a large, open clearing surrounded on all sides by rolling hills.
"This is the spot," Danziger had said plainly as he'd unslung his knapsack from his shoulder.
Bess had eyed him curiously as she immediately pictured Danziger's first attempt at trading with the beings, an act which had been accomplished not very long after he'd accidentally killed one of their brethren. There would have been no way for Danziger to know how the creatures would react to his presence and they might not have been as forgiving as the dead Grendler's mate. If they had chosen to exact their vengeance upon him, there would have been little possibility of Danziger escaping with his life. It had been a huge chance for him to take and Bess wondered how much consideration the mechanic had given to his own safety in comparison to feeding the rest of Eden Advance. It had definitely given her cause for concern.
"How will they know we're here?" Bess had finally asked.
Danziger had waved his hand toward the snowcapped landscape encircling them. "They can see us from just about anywhere around here. At least one of 'em will be along soon."
The words had barely left his lips when their attentions were drawn to a trio of Grendlers as they excitedly waddled down the hill toward them. Because the creatures had been accustomed to Danziger by himself, at first Bess' presence was met with fear and reluctance. But once she broke into her patented angelic smile and began to compliment the creatures on their rugged good looks and keen fashion sense, they quickly became putty in her hands.
After the Grendlers were placed at ease, Danziger had gotten down to business by first offering a filled canister in his left hand and then holding up a pomegranate he'd acquired from his last trade in his right.
"Blood... for fruit. Okay?" he'd conveyed, outstretching his arms toward the creatures to parade the items under their snouts. One of the Grendlers had lurched forward in an attempt to rip the canister from Danziger's grasp, but the mechanic quickly retracted both hands toward his chest.
"Nope, not yet. Bring back some fruit... and you'll get your blood."
It was if a starter pistol had gone off as all three Grendlers sprang into action and sprinted up the hill as fast as their hulking frames would permit.
John and Bess had patiently waited about an hour for the creatures' return. Realizing that they'd had a bit of time on their hands, Bess decided to approach the mechanic with an idea that had struck her like a bolt of lightning while they'd been in the main chamber of the spider cave. And to her delight, John was very receptive to her proposal. As a matter of fact, the two of them were still actively hammering out the particulars when the Grendlers returned, all three of them dragging cloth bags filled to the brim with ripened fruit.
It was then that Bess had stepped forward to take the initiative. And to Danziger's-- and especially to the Grendler's-- great surprise, she'd successfully renegotiated the transaction, raising the price of one blood canister to equal six pieces of fruit (or eight, if they were smaller in size). She'd figured that it couldn't hurt to try. It would also mean at least two extra day's worth of meals for Eden Advance. And it would enable the Edenites more time to fill their arsenal with a completely different bargaining chip for subsequent trades with the creatures.
Once their business had been completed, Bess couldn't help but let out a small chuckle when one of the Grendlers had produced a cluster of empty vials with an exuberant grunt, practically shoving them into John's hands for him to recycle for the next round of bartering. There was no way for the beings to know that, if and when there were future swaps between the two species, blood would no longer be an option.
Bess and John had hurried back to camp with their bounty and, more importantly, with a new plan of action. The two wasted no time and had called a meeting in the BioDome for all of the members of Eden Advance. They'd described the treasure trove of discarded and forgotten objects they'd seen lining the interior of the spider cave. Of course, in their current state, the items were considered nothing more than useless junk without value either to humans or to Grendlers. But Bess' idea entailed retrieving whatever inventory could be salvaged and transforming the worthless pieces of dulled metal into shiny trinkets which would potentially become the envy of every Grendler.
The group had collectively agreed that this was a wonderful idea. In fact, that very morning, Bess, Eben, Mazatl and Walman had arisen at the crack of dawn and had ventured on foot to the spider cave. Currently, they were in the midst of gathering several sack-loads of scraps which could eventually be converted into items to be bartered for food.
It was just before noon as Devon toured the outskirts of the campsite. As she reached the edge of the perimeter, she nodded hello toward a nearby Baines who was elbow deep in electrical equipment before she decided to take a detour toward the Danziger quarters. Devon figured that the mechanic might want to hear a status report on the scouting party after their latest update. Plus, she knew that John had just completed his final scheduled oxygen treatment and she wanted to check on him.
After rapping lightly on the tent fabric, Devon was verbally welcomed in by True. As the leader entered and allowed the tarp to fall behind her, she took a few much needed seconds to allow her eyes to adjust to the darker setting. Once achieved, she glanced at True as she carefully folded both Danzigers' laundry before zeroing in on a motionless John who was stretched out on a neighboring cot, his socked feet dangling over the edge of the too-small bedframe.
True could easily sense Devon's concern as her focus remained riveted in John's direction.
"Don't worry, Dad's okay," the little girl informed her in a hushed tone. "The oxygen always makes him feel dizzy."
"I'm just restin' my eyes," Danziger groggily croaked out from the opposite side of the enclosure, his eyes still closed.
Devon immediately felt guilty for the intrusion. "I didn't mean to wake you," she whispered as she started to retreat toward the exit. "I'll come back later."
Danziger slowly forced himself upward until he was seated in bed. "Nah, you didn't wake me," he insisted, rubbing tiredly at his eyes with his thumb and index finger while waiting for the mild vertigo sensation to subside. "Somethin' you needed?"
Devon attempted to sound casual, but there was plenty of apprehension in her tone. "I just wanted to see how you were doing. And I, uh, thought you might be interested in the scout's progress."
John's gaze lingered on Devon for a few moments in obvious contemplation before finally turning to True who was fussily trying to smooth out the wrinkles on one of John's more loudly patterned shirts.
"You can fold that stuff later, Sport," he relayed in his best fatherly voice. "Tell you what: I'm sure Bess and the others'll be back soon, so why don't you and Uly get a table set up in the Dome for 'em. Grab a couple of wire brushes and cutting tools from the rear compartment of the Rover. There should be some old rags for buffing the metal, too."
After thinking about it a bit more, he added, "And some of that junk is sure to be rusted, so ask Cameron to squeeze the juice out of a few pieces of fruit. Rubbin' citric acid on it will help scrub it clean. Or at least a lot cleaner than it was before. If that doesn't work, when Walman gets back, tell him to grab that jar of gel that I've been usin' on the undercarriage of the vehicles."
His voice took on a slightly more stern tone. "And don't go near that stuff, ya' hear me? In fact, remind Walman that he needs to wear gloves while workin' with it 'cause it'll eat right through your skin."
"Mm-kay," True obliged, wasting no time as she set aside the crumpled laundry and bounded out the door. Of course, she fully understood that her Dad's suggestion was meant to get her to leave their tent in order for him to speak privately with Devon. But the little girl didn't mind too much; especially since it meant that she'd get to help rest of the group do something important. Plus, she was really looking forward to learning how to make Grendler jewelry.
Once it was just the two adults, Danziger asked, "So how are they doin'?"
Devon was so busy organizing her thoughts that she was befuddled by the question. "Who?"
John looked at her oddly. "The scouting party," he reminded her, wondering why on earth he was having to explain himself. Wasn't that why she was there?
After appearing momentarily flustered and more than slightly embarrassed, Devon quickly regained her bearings. "Oh, they're doing great. Even better than expected," she answered. "Mazatl said that they haven't seen a Grendler all morning and they've collected about two duffel-bags full of odds and ends. If all goes well, they should be back in an hour or so."
She lifted her chin confidently. "I think that this is going to work."
Danziger was clearly less enthused. "Let's hope so."
Because if it doesn't work and we run out of rations, I'm going right back to trading blood for fruit and there's not a single person here who will be able to stop me, he inwardly proclaimed.
The procurement of food still seemed to be a rather touchy subject between them, so John decided that it would be best to switch topics. However, he couldn't resist pushing the envelope just a little.
"So I see that you got Baines back workin' on the perimeter monitors," he noted with a hint of sarcasm. "Is that for keepin' intruders out or crew members in?"
Devon removed her coat and made her way over to True's vacant cot. She placed the garment across the discarded laundry and seated herself next to it.
"A little of both, I guess," she shrugged, deceptively neutral.
Of course, Devon had already surmised that John would take the reinitiation of Baines' pet project as a personal swipe against his independent nature and personal freedom. However, the mechanic had yet to discover the presence of the small transmitter in his jacket which divulged his location at all times. And certainly no one in camp was going to tell him, including his own daughter. After all, with John's unique ability to find trouble and to continually place himself in dangerous situations, everyone understood that it was all but a foregone conclusion that the device would be needed at some point in the future.
And God help them all if and when Danziger actually found the transmitter and realized that the group had been keeping tabs on him. They'd cross that dynamite-loaded bridge when they came to it.
Though Devon had seen Danziger several times these past few days in groups consisting of three or more people, she'd yet to sit down and speak with him in a one-on-one setting. As such, she took the much desired opportunity to examine him a bit more closely.
Even under the cloak of semi-darkness and several day's worth of beard growth, Danziger appeared to be physically healthier. He was much less pale and he'd thankfully gained back some of the diminished weight. Though the mechanic's arms were covered by his shirt sleeves, based upon the faded scrape on his forehead, Devon assumed that the rest of his exterior wounds were nearly healed as well. However, despite her relief that most of the deeply etched lines in John's face had receded, there was no masking her disappointment that the mechanic's eyes remained dull and nearly lifeless.
Devon paused a moment, more than slightly confused as to why Danziger's emotional health had become so important to her. She quickly set those thoughts aside, surmising that the depth of her feelings regarding this and similar issues pertaining to the mechanic were best left to be further examined at a later time.
In the meantime, she wasn't sure what she could do or say to return his once-piercing gaze to its former splendor. But she knew that she had to try.
And she started by pointing out the obvious. "You know, you've had some pretty close calls these past few months."
There was a pause before Danziger mildly shrugged. "Yeah."
He exuded a heavy sigh. Like Devon, he was well-aware that they hadn't spoken privately for a few days, and he figured that she'd been saving up what she'd deemed to be his more recent various missteps. As a result, he grudgingly prepared himself for another lecture. But that wasn't what he got.
"There were more than a few times when I honestly thought that I'd never see you again," she expressed honestly. "And that frightened me, probably more than you know."
John's face briefly flashed his surprise and his interest was definitely piqued while Devon struggled to verbalize her anxiety.
"It scares me to think about the risks you've taken and continue to take. It makes me wonder if you consider yourself expendable," she elaborated. "Or it's like you've got some crazy idea that your life is somehow worth less than the rest of us. And if that's so, you couldn't be more wrong."
She arched forward to rest her elbows across her knees to reinforce her point. "I've come to depend on you, John. I'm not all that sure that I can do this without you."
The leader shook her head, adding, "And when we get to New Pacifica, I'm going to be counting on you even more."
Danziger's intense concentration faltered a bit at her last comment.
Jeez, no matter what the subject, it always comes back to New Pacifica, doesn't it? Leave it to Devon to continue her relentless fixation on two years from now, instead of dealing with what our lives will be like in two days or two weeks or even two months, he couldn't help but grumble to himself.
Meanwhile, Devon hadn't noticed Danziger's flinch, nor the brief tightening of his jaw. She was much too focused on getting out what she'd needed to say before she lost her nerve or train of thought. Or before the conversation disintegrated into another argument.
"So I'm asking you for the group's sake... for your daughter's sake..."
There was a long pause as Devon contemplated whether or not to finish the sentence as she'd originally intended. Wearing her heart out on her sleeve wasn't easy for her.
"...for my sake. Please take care of yourself. And please try harder to stick around."
She furthered, "Besides, if something ever happens to me, it's going to be up to you to lead the group. You'll be the one in charge of getting everyone to New Pacifica. You'll also be responsible for getting the colony ready in time for the Jamestown's arrival. And you'll need to raise my son."
That elicited a definite reaction from Danziger's side of the room.
"Nothin's gonna happen to you, Devon," he exclaimed, shaking his head incredulously. In his mind, the notion that something could befall her while he was still alive and able to protect her was ridiculous. She should really know better by now.
Devon decided to turn his words around on him. "Okay, then promise me that nothing will happen to you either. Promise me that you'll take better care of yourself and that you'll do everything possible to be here to watch True grow up to become the confident and optimistic woman that you once told me that you wanted her to be," she urged. "Promise me that we'll all get through this together."
Danziger remained silent as he grappled to give her an answer that she'd find acceptable. He didn't wish to lie to her, but he also didn't make promises; especially ones which there was no guarantee that he could keep.
After several seconds of stillness and when it became clear that Danziger wasn't going to respond, Devon again attempted to gain some reassurance from him.
"Look, I know that things seem pretty bleak right now. We've suffered one bad break after another and you've been forced to make some very difficult decisions that I wouldn't wish on anyone."
As Devon spoke the words, her mind experienced a series of flashes of John's face at various times since they'd arrived at the BioDome: His fear and horror at having to shoot Katrina in order to save her life. His pain at hearing True excitedly share that she'd again dreamed of her Mother. His confusion and vulnerability at learning that his body had been overtaken by the essence of the ancient frozen Terrian and of the damage he'd inadvertently caused. His revulsion at Julia's revelation that the Grendler he'd killed was likely exhibiting threatening behavior because she'd been attempting to protect her eggs. His tear-filled eyes as he'd desperately pleaded "me for her" while begging the dead Grendler's mate to spare True's life and to kill him instead to even the score. His unshakable determination as he'd held the knife against his already scarred skin, ready to sacrifice his own blood in order to keep them alive.
"But it doesn't do you any good to keep second guessing yourself. And you have to stop punishing yourself for situations that were beyond your control," she asserted in her most persuasive tone. "You once told me 'what's done is done.' Well, those words also apply to you. We can't change the past. We can only learn what we can from it and move forward. You need to forgive yourself and to remember that every one of us here supports you."
Devon did her best to decipher the extremely subtle nuances of Danziger's expression as she spoke. As usual, he making it as difficult as possible for her to read him, but at least he seemed interested and she sincerely hoped that her words were having a positive effect on him.
To that end, she added, "All of us rely on you, John, probably more than we should. But you have to let yourself rely on us every once in a while, too. You need to remember that we're all in this together. That's what being a part of a group is all about."
She further assured, "And things will get better."
John knifed both hands through his unruly curls, shaking his head. "You really believe that, don't you?" he posed, amazed and more than slightly annoyed by her continual take-no-prisoners idealism. It was wearing thin.
"Of course I do," she insisted resolutely. "One day soon, we'll all be in New Pacifica and our first winter here in the BioDome will be nothing but a distant memory."
At this point, there was no missing the mechanic's discomfort at her words, nor was there anything subtle about the continued shaking of his head or his shifting uncomfortably while she spoke. Still, Devon remained undaunted.
"I wish that there was some way that I could make you see this opportunity-- this gift-- that we've all been given. It's true that things haven't been easy for us since we arrived here. But G889...this planet..." She emitted a wistful sigh. "Uly and the two hundred forty-eight Syndrome children aren't the only ones who are getting a second chance at life. This is a fresh start for every single one of us."
She went on to add, "The slate has been wiped clean, John. It no longer matters who we were on the Stations. It only matters who we are now. And who we can be."
Yeah, if we don't starve to death first, was the first thing to pop into Danziger's mind. However, deep down, he did sort of appreciate that Devon was trying to cheer him up. And there were occasional moments like these when he wished that he could see the world as she did. The view was certainly much better than the one that he was used to. However, growing up in the Quadrant, he'd learned early on that only the wealthiest of families could afford for their children to wear rose-colored glasses. And as far as John was concerned, no matter how different his current circumstances were, optimism was a luxury that he would never be able to afford.
Devon's considered John's continued silence to be rather disconcerting. She hoped that her words were getting through to him, but he didn't seem to believe what she was telling him. How could she make the mechanic understand that things weren't as bad as he believed them to be?
She thought about the rising temperature outside and determined that, perhaps if Danziger was directly exposed to their warmer and brighter surroundings, he could finally make the conclusion that their situation was improving on his own, without her help.
To that end, she suggested, "You know, I heard Bess talking about taking the 'Rail to look for a pass tomorrow morning. Maybe you should go, too."
Devon purposely omitted the detail that Morgan was also joining her, for fear that the mechanic would nix the idea outright out of possible guilt over causing the liaison's back injury. Or perhaps Danziger would brush off the opportunity because he simply didn't like to be around the man. Either way, Devon wasn't taking a chance.
John shrugged noncommittally. "Maybe," he replied. "I'll think about it."
The corners of Devon's mouth arched to form a half-smile. Although she didn't consider their conversation to be a resounding success, the fact that John hadn't flatly refused to participate in the day-scout was as good as a yes to the leader. And not only had they managed to refrain from raising their voices at one another, Devon was more than satisfied by the knowledge that the two of them had been able to end their exchange on a high note.
Devon rose to her feet and slipped her arms into the sleeves of her coat. "Well, I know you're supposed to be resting right now, so I won't keep you. But if you'd like, I can let you know when everyone gets back from the cave."
Realizing that their discussion was over, John readjusted his makeshift pillow and slowly shimmied back to the horizontal position in bed. "Yeah, okay. Thanks."
Devon opened her mouth to say something else, but noticed that John's eyes were already shut and he was as still as a statue. As his raspy snores almost immediately began to reverberate throughout the room, Devon acknowledged that anything else that she needed to tell the exhausted mechanic would simply have to wait.
As she quietly exited the tent, her gaze veered skyward and her eyes sought out the sun as it edged its way from behind a cluster of dark clouds. She remained stationary, basking in the small but meaningful amount of heat that it generated.
Though Danziger was still clearly not out of the woods yet regarding his health, Devon fully believed that he was well on his way toward a full physical and emotional recovery. And she and the other members of Eden Advance would be with him for every step of the way.
She rationalized that the next day's scout would be a good experience for him because he'd be outside of the camp's perimeters in a controlled setting that had nothing to do with foraging or with the many pressures that continually weighed upon his psyche.
Of course, though everyone fully understood that locating a pass out of the valley was a top priority, much of the terrain was still covered in snow and remained inaccessible to the colonists. In truth, no one really expected to find a traversable path for another few weeks. But in the meantime, the Edenites were glad to finally have the ability to combat their cabin fever after being trapped indoors for much of the past several months by venturing out to examine the surrounding territory. And if they were fortunate enough to discover a route out of the mountain range that looked promising, all the better.
However, Devon remained a bit concerned that Morgan's presence on the scout would cause John undue stress or hostility. She briefly toyed with adding her own name to the short expedition to help mediate any possible difficulties. But she quickly decided to remain behind when she realized that, as much as Danziger and she argued, she was also a source of potential conflict.
So instead Devon decided that she would ask Alonzo to accompany the team and to assist Bess as a calming force between the two clashing personalities. Devon also concluded that it would be best for the foursome to concentrate their efforts on sections of the canyon which had been most affected by the warmer weather, in order for Danziger to observe entire areas of melted snow. It was important that Danziger be exposed to as much evidence as possible to prove that their situation was indeed improving.
Devon couldn't help but be worried about Danziger's well-being, but she was gratified that the groundwork was already being laid for the mechanic to at last be able to move beyond the harrowing experiences he'd endured over the past months by creating new, more positive memories.
And Devon had no doubt whatsoever that the crew of Eden Advance would continue to support one another and would meet any and all challenges head-on as they reembarked toward New Pacifica. In fact, after Commander O'Neill's senseless death during the first days of their journey, Devon had made a promise to herself that no one else in their group would be lost. They would all get through this together.
And one day John Danziger would realize what Devon had known all along; that there was a better life for all of them just beyond the horizon.
She was absolutely certain of it.