Devon couldn't make herself slow down.
Despite the fact that her legs quivered and her lungs felt blistered raw with every harsh gulp of desert air, she suffered from terminal inertia. Step after endless step her swollen feet screamed as she demanded another, the pack she towed got heavier, and yet she remained convinced that she and John would make it. The group would send rescue, she was sure...and, despite their desperate situation, Devon believed they would survive to tell the tale.
Danziger, true to fashion, believed otherwise. He'd made that clear miles back, still he was drudging along, trailing further and further behind her like a weary puppy dog, deliriously obedient as she forced him past his limits. Now and then he stumbled, and the sound of him crumpling forced Devon to pause her forward motion; to get him back on his feet with trembling arms and the volatile confidence he found so offensive.
She knew John was fairing far worse than she was. Even before his fall and his subsequently exhausting climb, she'd realized he'd gone twice as long without water as herself. When he'd tried to call camp on her broken Gear the smallest part of her, the crackling ember of pragmatism that Danziger himself had been stoking all afternoon, had finally burst quietly into flame. He'd kindled it with both his constant opposition and his annoying habit of being right, but beneath his sour attitude was a fierce acuity for survival, for overcoming the unpredictable with common sense and a technical mind. Every time he mumbled something that made no sense, Devon was faced with the irony of their countless follies. Every time he faltered it was with misplaced anger that she roughly pulled him up again, slapping him awake and berating him with her furious optimism until she could see in his dazed expression that he wanted to believe her, and he somehow found the strength to continue on.
Danziger had tried to warn her.
He'd tried gently, he'd tried bluntly, but Devon had brushed him off at every turn. She'd been so sure she was right, sure they would make it, sure that the intent behind Danziger's constant distemper outweighed the actual validity of his opinions. She'd demeaned him, and he'd just taken it. He'd followed her from blunder after blunder, cursing under his breath but always there to back her up with belligerent allegiance. The fact that he was still following her now seemed impossibly cruel, yet his pernacious loyalty was the very thing that drove Devon forward.
This time she was going to be right. Now, when it mattered most. So she struggled on, driven in equal parts by the need to get John home and the promise of proving him wrong. Everything depended on it.
She glanced backwards just in time to see Danziger drop his pack, and she watched with concern as he swayed on his feet a moment, studying his empty hand with confusion.
Danziger startled, as if roused from sleep. Besieged by dizziness, it took Devon a few moments to reverse her direction and take hold of his arm, unsure as to whether she was steadying him or herself.
"Let me get it, okay? I can carry it for awhile."
"S'numb," John rasped, holding up his hand with an innocence that reminded Devon of Uly, oddly perplexed by his first scraped palm, not very long ago. Danziger shook his curls in disbelief at his crippled muscle control. "Like before."
Devon's stomach clenched hard at the sight of him. Suddenly couldn't stand any of this...not when it had been only days since Danziger had been quarantined, knocking at death's door, and hours since Julia had cleared him for duty. He'd lost two of his crew, his friends. He'd been through a lot in such a short time, they all had, and none of these people were even supposed to be here. Sure they'd voted, an attempt on Danziger's part to boost the group's spirits, but she had the supplies, she had a doctor...what choice had there been for them? Least of all for the man with the little girl; the man that, as she'd learned up on the ridge, still felt himself indentured to her.
Devon took the offending hand firmly in her own, squeezing with what little she could muster as she forced his gaze.
"Let's go, Danziger," she paused, clearing the tightness in her throat, "we gotta walk."
Danziger's expression crumpled, somewhere between incredulity and anguish, and the corner of his cracked lips began to bleed.
"I'm done...it's over." His footing faltered, and Devon held tighter, catching his elbow. Even at the sight of his distress she resisted the urge to tug him forward.
It was time, again, to bolster the reserves and demand morale, but where her deeper well of optimism pooled she found anger instead. A primal sensation, a hatred towards any and all that stood in her way, forced Devon to take pause- lest she unleash it on the man who's refusal to quit had gotten her this far.
It terrified her that he was giving up now.
"We're gonna make it, Danziger, just a little bit further...they're going to send help, we can-"
"Adair, please," he stammered, leaning more weight against her. "I can't..."
"You can, John, and you will!" The desperation in her tone frightened Devon, though Danziger seemed to be past the ability to detect such nuances. In fact, from his hazy expression she couldn't be sure he was hearing her at all. "C'mon, here we go, okay? One foot in front of the other."
Once again swept away by drunken capitulation, Danziger did his best to adhere to Devon's directions, his head bobbing as she coached him through the first few steps. Finally, his autopilot response kicked in and he was trudging along of his own volition.
She studied him from the corner of her eye. Julia's repeated warnings of the effects of dehydration seemed to ricochet around her pounding skull to the tempo of John's labored breathing. A muscle in his jaw spasmed, ticking in her line of vision as he tried and failed to swallow. One of these times, if she pushed him much further, he would fall and stay down. Devon would be forced to choose between waiting with him for death to come or the prospect of returning on her own and trying to explain it to his daughter.
"How much further?" Danziger bleated hoarsely. His question startled Devon out of her reverie, and she realized that she was fading fast herself. The cadence of their footfalls granted a luxurious hypnosis, a total concentration that threatened to deafen all distractions. She needed to be sharp.
"We're almost there," Devon coughed, her voice sticking in her swollen throat. "We're gonna make it."
Danziger's head bobbed again, and he lurched forward, his leaden feet catching on the terrain. Miraculously, he righted himself and Devon pushed herself to catch up as he took advantage of the sudden propulsion.
When she did, he was mumbling, but his broken whisper was unintelligible.
"Whatcha say?" The air brushing across her vocal chords felt as though it was riddled with shards of glass, but she needed to hear his response. Into the night they'd traveled mostly in companionable silence, but now Devon sought John's voice like a lifeline. It wasn't lost on her how many times this very day she's wished him mute. Or how, at each caustic syllable, her teeth had clenched with choler as she suffered the barbs of his honesty. Now she craved the opposite. A talking Danziger was a walking Danziger, and each stride took them closer to rescue.
"True," he rasped in reply, his eyes trained on the ground, "she's thirsty." Devon weighed his statement, unsure of how to reply. Danziger tipped his chin, meeting her eyes for a moment. "She's so...so thirsty."
She considered his lucidity, gravely aware that despite the condenser, there scout certainly hadn't yielded the the natural resources they were counting on. True probably was thirsty. Uly, too...though she suspected that Danziger's devastating need for hydration had amplified his parental concern.
"She's got water, John. She's safe at camp, she'll be okay." Danziger's pace was flagging again.
"It's no good, though," he grunted, and Devon willed herself to slow enough for him to catch up. "S'all salt."
There was no doubt in Devon's mind, as she studied his gaunt cheeks in the moonlight, that this would be the last leg of Danziger's journey. Even in the darkness, his eyes glowed with fever heat
"The water at camp?" Frightened by his confusion, Devon nevertheless continued the conversation. Three more steps and he was lagging behind again.
"Not camp," he grumbled breathily, "New Pacifica."
"Oh." She feinted, brushing off his delirium, suddenly certain that forcing him onward was making matters worse,. She couldn't stop, they couldn't stop, or it would be the end of them both. Yet, at the eerie mirth of Danziger's low chuckle, Devon couldn't delude herself any longer that pressing forward wouldn't render the same result.
"They say," he wheezed, pausing for long seconds before continuing to speak, "you're s'posed to tell your kid that if they get lost, they should stay in one place."
A small smile graced Devon's features. She remembered the parental advice well, not that she'd ever had occasion- with Uly so sick- to worry about such things. She herself, as a child, hadn't had the luxury of independence, not with Yale's constant supervision. Devon caught herself wondering John had ever had such a fright and shuttered. Of course he had, and she'd been there to see it. She'd just been blinded by concern for her son. She hadn't thought about it then, the fact that- despite his best efforts- True had gotten herself lost. It must have killed him, to know she'd gone willingly. Devon shook herself, abandoning such thoughts.
"We're not lost, John. We're heading in the right direction."
Again he chuffed, this time with a hint of derision and, for a split second, Devon forgot their perilous circumstances and wondered what she'd said that he found so damn funny.
"Yeah, well...we ain't found, either."
Devon found a little laugh bubbling up at Danziger's observation. Two sides of a buffalo nickel, both just as antiquated and phoney as the other. They were such a sorry, indignant pair.
She thought of Uly, at his excitement Broderick's gift. Even before he'd been fully healed, she'd seen more energy and vigor in him here, on G889, that she ever had when he'd been cooped up in a state-of-the-art stasis unit. She suspected the sudden appearance of True in his life had more than a little to do with it. Danziger's little girl had more than enough energy for them both.
"How old is True?"
It was a benign question, with an answer Devon felt guilty for not already knowing, but just the mention of his daughter's name perked Danziger up a bit.
"Ten...well, 'leven, I guess...about a month ago."
Again, Devon found herself embarrassed. She'd had no idea True had celebrated a birthday since they'd crashed. It saddened her that the girl had spent her special day working and walking and sweating, the same as any other. It saddened her, too, to realize that, in her short life, True had probably spent every birthday doing some variation of the three.
"Hell," Danziger huffed, oblivious to her compunction, "guess that makes her thirty-three."
Devon's foot caught on a bramble, and the instant before she hit the ground Danziger's paw snatched her up by the scruff of her shirt. It nearly toppled them both, but she was able to restore her balance and steady John as well. He studied her wordlessly for a moment before reclaiming his pack, winding the strap around his wrist. After another brief, silent contemplation he forcibly took a step, than another, trusting her to follow suit.
His eyes had spoken volumes, things he'd finally decided were better left unsaid, and so Devon struggled for small talk. Banalities seemed to be about all Danziger could handle, right about now.
"If we're going by station time," she quipped finally, oblivious to the labored beats of their conversational flow, "I guess that makes me about ready to retire."
Danziger barked with the same off-kilter amusement.
"If we're goin' by station time, then I should be dead by now."
His response would have been upsetting, both in past and present tense, had it not been for his lop-sided grin to take the sting away. Devon was aware of the short life expectancy for immigrant workers, particularly men, though John seemed to be relishing the obvious irony of such statistics now.
"Nobody's dying," she reminded him softly, repeating her earlier decree. It sounded preposterous, even to her own ears.
It wasn't optimism anymore, it was denial. People would die. People had died, And this whole time Danziger hadn't been faulting her for this fact, just insistent that she acknowledge the cost that would be paid along the way. She wasn't fooling Danziger anymore than she'd fooled the Stations with her unscheduled launch, and certainly no more than she'd fooled her son as he watched his friends succumbing one by one to the Syndrome. Still, what little John had he always gave. He fixed what he could, He lifted as much as he could carry. He made it so that most of the group, Morgan Martin aside, could focus on what they had instead of what they needed.
Still listening for his footsteps, Devon wondered how Danziger could push so hard, living his life with a fatalistic streak a mile wide and the debt of his family name crushing any hope for more. She wondered how he had managed to turn every obstacle into virtue of his own.
"She's a good girl," John whispered reverently, and the thin sound traveled in the arid stillness. It answered all of her questions.
Unheeded, Devon found her pace quickening again, putting a bit more distance between herself and the heartbreak behind her. Her eyes burned, but there was nothing left for tears.