Learning Experiences: Chapter 20

Disclaimer: The characters aren't mine. They're Amblin's and Universal's.

Rating: PG-13 (language, violence, adult themes)

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At the same time, Danziger was busy doting on his cherished vehicles. He slowly dislodged himself from under the console of the Transrover and let out a heavy sigh as he settled himself into the driver's seat. He tried to enter several codes into the control panel, but found that he was having trouble focusing on the tasks at hand. The mechanic couldn't believe how tired he still was, despite having snoozed most of the day. Whatever the Terrians had done to them to make them forget the past nine days, he hoped that the effects would wear off soon. It was bad enough that he was just as exhausted as when he came to that morning, not to mention that he was still feeling pretty weak. Worst of all, he'd suffered a couple of temporary spells of lightheadedness and had counted himself lucky that no one else had been around to witness the incidents.

I'm probably just coming down with one of those summer colds that Julia's always warning us about, John resolved in his mind. He made the conscious decision not to think about any other possibilities as to why he would suddenly be feeling less than his normal self.

Danziger rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands and tried to shake himself awake. He considered the idea of turning in for the night, but nixed it when he thought of the large number of chores that required his immediate and undivided attention. He knew that he'd feel personally responsible if something important hadn't been taken care of in a timely manner because he'd allowed himself to slack off in his obligations to the group. And, God forbid, any of the vehicles ever broke down due to his negligence. Danziger paused for a moment. He didn't even want to conceptualize such an awful predicament.

Just then, the passenger side door swung open, jostling John back to his senses. He didn't need to look up to know the identity of his visitor.

"Daniziger," she nodded coolly.

"Adair," he greeted as Devon climbed into the cab and offered him a cup of coffee.

John gazed at the mug oddly before taking it from her hands, a bit surprised that the leader would, not only seek out his company, but arrive bearing a peace offering.

"Thanks. I really needed that," he said gratefully after taking several strong gulps of the hot liquid.

Devon's eyes listlessly wandered around the car's interior. "Can't sleep either?" she evenly inquired.

Danziger set the now-empty cup on the flat ledge located behind the seats and lightly snorted. "Well, I did nap most of the day," he noted as he began typing a series of combinations into the vehicle's computer. He made sure to concentrate intently on what he was doing so Devon didn't realize how disoriented he truly was. "Things gotta get done."

Devon straightened up and looked over his shoulder to view the console. "Is there something wrong with the 'Rover?"

"Nope. Just getting a jump on programming tomorrow's route. I figure that everyone'll want to get out of here as early as possible in the morning," he informed her. "I also wanted to give the vehicles a quick once-over to make sure they're in okay shape for traveling. After all, they did sit around for more than a week."

Adair sank back into her seat, obviously disappointed by his answer. "Oh."

Danziger stopped and swerved his suspicious gaze toward her. "Why? What did you think I was doing?"

"I guess I thought that maybe you'd changed your mind and you were in here looking for clues," Devon replied.

Danziger furrowed his brows in disapproval.

"Oh, don't look at me like that," she spat defensively at the frown that had overtaken the mechanic's face. "I mean, how can you just let it all go without at least trying to find a few missing pieces to the puzzle? I don't know, something- anything that could help us to understand what happened to us?"

John exhaled sharply. He wasn't eager to be pulled into another needless debate with Devon. They'd had way too many of those since she'd been released from cold sleep and it was starting to get old. Instead, he shook his head and quietly started to gather his tools that were strewn across the floorboard and between the two seats.

Unfortunately, the mechanic's silence only fueled Devon's anger. She inwardly steamed that, not only was she unable to influence Danziger's point of view, she couldn't even get a rise out of him. And she definitely wasn't thrilled by the realization that, since she'd spurned his advances a few weeks earlier, he was becoming harder and harder to read... and to manage.

She continued in an antagonizing tone, "And to tell you the truth, I'm really surprised at your sudden change in attitude. The John Danziger that I know would never have bought into that ridiculous fairy tale that Alonzo tried selling us this evening."

Yeah well, maybe you don't know me as well as you thought, lady, Danziger bitterly mused to himself before relaying, "I never said that I believed Solace. Far from it, as a matter of fact. Every one of us knows that part, if not all of his story is a bald-faced lie."

He roughly grabbed a wrench next to her feet as his own irritation momentarily got the better of him. "Jesus, Devon, don't you think that I'm just as curious and worried about this as you are? I'm pissed as hell that some of us almost got killed and we don't even know the reason behind it."

He hopped out of the vehicle and expelled another deep breath to collect himself before turning to face her. "I may not trust the Diggers as far as I can throw 'em, but I trust Alonzo with my life. And if he says that we're better off not knowing, then I say that we consider ourselves lucky to be alive and move on. Plus, we have the assurance that the kids weren't involved. That's good enough for me."

He leaned forward in the cab and pointed his finger at her, telling her in a low but stern voice, "And it should be good enough for you."

Feeling that he'd made his opinion abundantly clear, he promptly took off toward the Dunerail situated about fifteen yards away. He assumed that Devon's response to him would involve more yelling and, quite possibly, spare tools being used as projectiles. And Danziger wasn't going to leave himself an open target for either.

Devon was about to shout an appropriate retort to his biting remark when John walked away before she was given the chance to reply. Not at all pleased by Danziger getting in the final word or by his continued resistance to her stance on the issue, she briefly contemplated throwing a nearby spanner at his retreating head. However, she decided against it after recognizing that hitting him wouldn't change his mind. Plus, she no longer had a clear shot at him.

What the hell is wrong with that man? He should be angrier than I am about this, she fumed as she exited the 'Rover and began to march toward the Dunerail. After all, John had obviously been affected by whatever job Eden Advance had performed for the Terrians. He was so tired that he'd slept the entire day in the back of the Dunerail. And even with the twin moons as her only source of light, Devon could see how pale he looked.

She reached Danziger's feet sticking out from under the 'Rail and paused as her gut twisted itself into a knot. The leader had been so consumed by her loss of control of the situation that she hadn't really considered the identities of the two injured crewmen beyond the worry that it had been her, Uly or Yale. Now for the first time, Devon wondered...

Danziger had been relieved when it had appeared that Devon wasn't going to follow him to the Dunerail to further continue their argument. However, just as he had wedged the upper half of his body under the vehicle's main frame, he'd heard her footsteps approach and halt directly next to where he was working.

The woman is incapable of allowing anyone else to have the last word, Danziger sourly thought. He involuntarily winced as he mentally prepared himself for the unwanted role of Devon's verbal punching bag. As a result, he was taken completely by surprise at the softness and sincerity in her voice as she spoke to him.

"It could have been you, you know," she whispered. "You may have almost died back there."

John quickly shuffled himself out from under the vehicle causing a haze of dust to migrate around him. He was eager to see if the look on Devon's face matched her words of concern. She couldn't possibly be worried about him, could she? As much as he tried to fight it, a small part of Danziger leapt for joy at the possibility that Devon would care about his well-being.

By the time he'd met her gaze, Devon had already rehardened her features, though she did give off the impression that she was a bit upset. Danziger felt the need to reassure her and calm any fears that may be buried beneath the surface.

"I guess it's possible. But if it was me, I'm fine now," he fibbed with a shrug, trying to appear nonchalant.

The leader seemed satisfied by his response. "Good," she said quietly as a smile briefly flickered across her face. She looked away, embarrassed that John had seen how deeply his welfare could affect her. That is, if she allowed it to.

She turned back toward him and met his penetrating gaze, neither of them saying anything to each other for several seconds. At last, Devon broke the awkward stillness. "So, um, I'd better get back before Uly misses me," she said, taking a few steps backward and nearly tripping over a Koba sized rock in the process.

"Don't stay up too late, John," she suggested. Despite her efforts to the contrary, the corners of her mouth arched upward and a full smile shone through. "Can't have you sleeping all of your days away."

Danziger lightly chortled in response. God, how he wished that they could have more moments like this. The uncomfortable stares and silences they used to share; the playful banter and one-upmanship. The way things used to be before she was taken ill and the ice-princess of the Stations had reemerged. John was pleased at the occasional opportunity to get a glimpse of the Devon that he used to know and still loved. The Devon Adair of the first six months of their journey had to be in that frame of hers somewhere.

"Hey, Adair," John impulsively called out to her after she'd turned around to head back toward her tent.

Devon stopped, but continued to face the opposite direction.

"I was glad to hear Alonzo say that you weren't one of them. You know, one of the two who were hurt."

The leader remained motionless for many moments before finally rotating her gaze back to him. Her expression and posturing reminded John of a marble statue. Hard, unyielding and cold.

"See you in the morning, Danziger," she said indifferently and walked away without another word.

"Yeah," John grunted, sadly recognizing that the Devon of the last three months had resurfaced, eclipsing the warm and caring woman that he'd dreamed of spending the rest of his life with. Maybe if he just gave her time.

_____

With each step that Devon took as she hurried back to her quarters, another brick was replaced in the self-imposed wall that she'd built to barricade John from her heart.

What am I thinking, she scolded herself. I don't want and I certainly don't need a man in my life. Especially a man who lacks the good sense to let me call the shots.

She raised the flap and was about to cross the threshold of her tent when she found herself pivoting back once more to watch Danziger as he dutifully inspected the undercarriage of the Dunerail. While she studied him, Devon felt a surge of emotion course through her body and couldn't help but acknowledge (if only to herself) that she was attracted to him.

Hmm, perhaps a compromise might be in order. Maybe, just maybe, it wouldn't be so bad if I were to take him on as an occasional lover, she contemplated.

Devon grinned slyly at the thought. It would certainly be one of her more challenging ventures, that was for sure. Of course, there would be limitations and Danziger would need to understand that there could never be any permanent arrangements between them. It would have to stay a physical relationship with no strings attached, pure and simple. After all, her first priority should and would always be setting up and running the colony of New Pacifica.

She entered her quarters and gave a sleeping Uly a quick kiss on the forehead before excitedly climbing into her own cot across the room. She remained wide awake as she began to run tactical scenarios in her mind on how to get Danziger to agree to such a relationship.

_____

Now that Devon had left him alone, Danziger could get some work done. He repositioned himself beneath the 'Rail and began to examine its components. And he wasn't pleased with what he saw. It looked as though the part he'd retrofitted to replace the crystal fuse that Gaal had stolen months before was almost completely rusted through.

Jeez, just what I needed, he inwardly scoffed. What the hell am I gonna do when it gives out?

Danziger's mind spun as he mentally inventoried the extra parts that he could piece together to create a new fuse, but came up empty. Dammit, there had to be something that he could do. There was no way in hell that he was leaving a vehicle behind. Not without a fight, anyway. If he could just keep the Dunerail running until they stumbled across another cargo pod that contained mechanical supplies. That is, if the Grendlers hadn't pillaged it first and made worthless trinkets out of everything.

Wait a minute, John thought, maybe I'm going about this all wrong. Suppose the Grendlers had already raided the pods and confiscated Eden Project's property. That could mean that there's a brand new crystal fuse, or at least something close to it that he could modify, laying in wait in a nearby warren. More than that, it was entirely possible that the Grendlers had located cargo pods thousands of miles away and then utilized the spider tunnels to transport the stolen provisions back to their dens, some of which had to be along the Advancers traveling route.

Danziger's initial instinct was to organize search parties to locate and raid the Grendler stashes to take back what was rightfully theirs to begin with. However, he quickly changed his mind for two very important reasons. First, recklessly charging in to ransack the beast's homes could be dangerous, if not violent. And enough blood had already been spilled since Eden Project had arrived planetside. John briefly closed his eyes in shame as he thought of the Grendler who had accidentally died at his hands. He wasn't going to let that happen, again.

Secondly, he and the other members of the group were going to be stuck on G889 for at least another fifteen months until the Jamestown arrived. Hell, some of them were going to be living out the rest of their lives in New Pacifica. Therefore, perhaps he should examine ways to reclaim their goods that didn't involve upsetting the locals.

Maybe it was time to start trading- really trading- with the Grendlers to get what they needed. And not just for spare parts either. The Grendlers had access to food, clothing, medical equipment... maybe even more vehicles. And, at this point, Eden Advance needed anything and everything they could get their hands on.

Danziger had recognized that the group's morale had been down during the past month or two. The brutally hot weather coupled with infighting among the crew had really damaged everyone's ability to work as a unit. John knew that he was guilty of it too, although he did his best to stay out of the line of fire. Replenishing their supplies with the aid of the Grendlers could really help in raising the group's spirits. Danziger knew from firsthand experience the positive effect a full stomach and a new pair of shoes can have on a person.

He removed himself from the 'Rail's undercarriage and attempted to ignore the wave of dizziness that momentarily rendered him incapable of sitting up on his own. He rested against the frame of the vehicle and cursed himself for letting a simple cold-bug get the better of him. Once his symptoms subsided, he concentrated on fleshing out the details of turning his idea into a worthwhile project that could benefit everyone.

Almost immediately, Danziger knew that he wasn't going to be able to do this on his own. He would definitely require some help, maybe even a partner. Somebody for him to bounce his ideas off of and who, hopefully, could provide some insight of his or her own. It would need to be someone who was intelligent, resourceful and had an in-depth knowledge of Eden Advance's supplies. Somebody who he could trust and would be willing to work with him as a team.

One person was instantly propelled to the forefront of John's mind: Bess Martin. Not only did she have all of the qualities Danziger was looking for, she already possessed extensive bartering skills that she'd learned while growing up on Earth. She'd also been the first of the Edenites to take the initiative and trade with a Grendler.

And she was tough, too. Danziger had been duly impressed by her performance that evening at the campfire. Not only did she stand up to Devon, she'd rallied the other colonists into deciding against a search for answers about those missing days. She'd even voted against Morgan for the second time in a row. Yep, John decided confidently, Bess was the obvious and most practical choice for the job.

Danziger temporarily pushed aside his concerns about the dilapidating vehicles and the improvement of Grendler relations and replaced them with thoughts of the charming Earth-res. A warm smile crept across his face. He didn't know Bess all that well because their duties to the group were different and, as a result, they had very little interaction with each other. However, over time, John had come to understand that the woman was clearly a force to be reckoned with. She was goodhearted, strong-willed and a helluva lot smarter than she was usually given credit for.

He'd certainly changed his opinion of Bess since they'd been introduced to each other a few days after the crash. John wasn't proud to admit that, at first, he'd misjudged her, casually dismissing her as nothing more than an extension of her self-serving husband. He continually underestimated her abilities along with the true value of her contributions to the group. Instead, both he and Devon had most often relegated her to the trivial and thankless role as the baby-sitter of their children.

Boy, had he ever been wrong. John didn't know what he would have done without Bess' assistance after Devon had been placed in cryo-sleep and he was suddenly and unpreparedly left in charge of Eden Advance. She'd been an amazing help to him when it came to supervising the inventory, seeing that the kids were taken care of and countless other responsibilities that had slipped his notice. And when she'd realized how distraught he was over Devon's illness and being forced to continue the journey without her, Bess had come to him as a friend, offering comfort and to be a private audience for him to voice his feelings of grief. Of course, he'd turned her down, but he'd appreciated the effort anyway.

Danziger sighed as he realized that he'd never really thanked her for her steadfast support and for getting him through one of the toughest times of his life. Maybe he would express his gratitude when he approached her about working together on his plan to open trading channels with the Grendlers.

Although Bess' tendency to meddle in other people's affairs did put him off a bit, Danziger had trouble thinking of any negative personality traits that he could attribute to her. It wasn't until he'd gathered his strength and lumbered to his feet that John remembered the quality that, without a doubt, he would classify as Bess' greatest flaw as a human being: She had terrible taste in husbands.

__________

Julia's eyes were shut, but a peaceful slumber eluded her. Try as she might to avoid thinking about it, her worried mind persistently wandered to the circumstances, known and unknown, of the past nine days. Over and over again, she reviewed her final memories of falling asleep curled up next to Alonzo on their second night in the valley, only to awake with a splitting headache in front of the Transrover more than a week later.

It also hadn't escaped her notice that several items had disappeared from her medical stock when she'd checked it earlier in the evening. Curiously, it seemed to be mostly hyposprays of cardiac enhancers and nutritional supplements. To her, this heavily implied that the colonists who had been placed in danger had not sustained physical injuries such as lacerations or contusions. Instead, it led her to believe that their inflicted trauma had been an illness which perhaps had resulted in some type of coronary distress. The sickest may also have been too weak to eat solid food, or possibly even been comatose.

Additionally, though her inventory logs had obviously been faked to read that nothing was amiss, there was one glaring mistake in the revised calculations. Julia was surprised to find that a single dose of beta- blockers remained unaccounted for. She wondered if the inaccuracy had been intentionally left as a clue or was nothing more than an oversight made during their mad rush to delete any potentially harmful data. There was also the possibility that one of the injured parties had been administered the medication after the log had been altered and there simply hadn't been time to adjust the count.

Further adding to Julia's confusion was her realization that there were also several injections of sedaderms absent from her supplies. She had no idea what might have occurred as to require their use, but some of the possibilities made her nervous.

At the campfire, Julia had trusted Alonzo enough to vote against launching a probe into finding out the truth. However, a small part of her was now reconsidering her decision. Although she had completely recovered from the discomfort she'd suffered from when she'd regained consciousness that morning, a few of the crew members had remained tired, most especially Danziger. She couldn't deny her concern that perhaps he and the others might still be suffering the ill-effects of whatever the Terrians had subjected them to.

The doctor sighed to herself and opened her eyes. She needed some answers, or at least further affirmation from Alonzo that the Terrians had truly restored her friends to their full health. She rolled over in her cot and was startled to find herself alone. She quickly rose from her bed to search for her missing lover, throwing on an outer shirt and shoving her feet into her unlaced boots in one fluent motion.

Not long after she'd exited her dwelling, Julia's attention was drawn to a familiar shadow projected along the canvas wall of the meal tent a few yards away. She followed its form until she came upon a brooding Alonzo who was peering toward the opposite end of camp. He was tilting his weight forward and resting his elbows on a chest-high pile of stacked boxes which almost completely obscured him from view.

She joined the pilot at his side and leaned against the crates, their shoulders and arms touching.

"I didn't hear you leave," she said to him quietly.

Alonzo didn't acknowledge her with the exception of a mild nod. Julia arched her head around to carefully study his features and was a bit taken aback. There was a deep crease in his brow and she briefly considered reaching out to smooth the skin with her fingers. Moreover, his posturing was rigid and his jaw was tightly clenched. There was also a look of deep sadness in his eyes as he gazed out into the darkness as if something weighed very heavily on his heart. Julia could clearly see that the events of the past week, whatever they had been, had had a life-changing effect on him. The carefree pilot whom she'd fallen in love with months before was almost completely gone. In his place was a man who looked as though he felt every bit of his one hundred and ten years of age.

"Did you have a Terrian dream tonight?" she asked, her attempt to sound casual failing miserably.

"No," Solace bitterly muttered, still not veering his eyes. "I think I've had enough of those to last me awhile."

Their conversation was interrupted by a shuffling sound emanating from the other end of the campsite where Eden Project's three vehicles were parked. Julia and Alonzo watched in silence as Danziger staggered to the standing position next to the Dunerail and dusted himself off. Not knowing that he was being observed, John didn't attempt to hide his fatigued state while he wearily replaced the tools in his nearly worn-out belt. He barely lifted his feet as he slowly dragged himself back to his tent, kicking up small clouds of dirt in the process.

After the mechanic vanished from their view, Julia turned her head back toward Solace and took a deep breath. "It's him, isn't it? John was the one who almost didn't make it."

Alonzo refused to answer, essentially confirming that she'd hit the nail right on the head. She let several seconds pass before apprehensively disclosing, "Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I've been thinking a lot about what happened today. My first memory of this morning is waking up and seeing you staring at the ATV. That's where Danziger was. You looked so frightened, like you weren't sure if he was alive."

A bleak expression overtook Solace's face as she spoke, further validating that her assertions were correct.

She continued, "I've also been reviewing your explanation, specifically what you said and who you said it to. You were very precise with your words, especially when it came to which pronouns you used. I know that you gave us clues about which of us had been hurt and, more importantly, which of us hadn't been. You cleared yourself, me, the children and Devon. And I'm pretty sure that you cleared Morgan, too. You were also careful to divulge information that would mean certain things to certain people."

Julia laced her fingers through his as she relayed, "I'm not sure who the second person is but, based upon what you've told us, it would make sense that Danziger was one of the victims. My guess is that the Terrians told us that there was some risk involved in whatever they needed us to do for them. John's been the protector of our group since the first day we arrived on this planet. I can see him stepping forward and volunteering for anything potentially dangerous in order to keep the rest of us safe."

Alonzo pulled his hand from her grasp and looked away. The physician reached out and gently touched his cheek before easing his gaze back to her.

"I'm not asking you for any specifics or even for confirmation of anything that I just said," she said sincerely. "But what I do need to hear from you is that everyone is out of harms way. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if Danziger or any of the others were injured and I did nothing to help them."

Solace nervously began shifting his feet. After witnessing Danziger's continued haggard appearance, Alonzo had already concluded that it would be necessary to alert Julia to certain aspects of the mechanic's medical status. The critical decision currently facing the pilot was exactly how much to give away without potentially worsening the situation.

He solemnly revealed, "John should get most of his strength back in a few days as long as he takes it easy. But to be honest with you, I don't know if he'll ever be completely back to his old self, again. There's probably been some permanent damage to his heart." He shook his head in dismay while Julia's eyes noticeably widened in worry. "We'd hoped that it wouldn't be too serious and that he'd be able to go back to leading a normal life. But that was before this morning when he-" He halted his words, quickly determining that the details of John's collapse should, at least for the time being, remain concealed.

"Let's just say that now I'm not so sure," he finished.

"'Lonz, what happened to him?" Julia posed in a troubled voice. Her mind raced as she rapidly analyzed what she knew and tried to come up with a plausible explanation. "Did he develop some type of an infection, maybe as a result from being exposed to a toxic substance? When I diagnosed his condition, did I used the term cardiomyopathy?"

"I'm not gonna play twenty questions with you about this," he snapped back in an atypical display of huffiness. "I can't tell you."

"I'm sorry," Julia expressed, immediately regretting that she'd pushed the issue. "I wasn't trying to pressure you into revealing things that I'm not supposed to hear. I'm just worried about him, that's all." She sighed before earnestly declaring, "John is more than our friend. He's like a member of our family."

"I know," Alonzo agreed, recalling the similar statement he'd made about Bess and John the previous day. His tone softened, although it still had a somber edge to it. "At this point, Danziger seems to be in pretty good shape, all things considered, and I really don't think that he's in any immediate danger. But we'll watch him carefully just to be sure, all right? And if he takes a turn for the worse and you need to be filled in on some of the background information about his health, so be it." He recaptured her hand, relaying, "Either way, we have to continue to keep this to ourselves, okay?"

Julia nodded her approval before asking, "Do you think John knows that it's him?"

"He probably suspects it, yeah," he shrugged. "But I doubt that he'll say anything or go out of his way to investigate the matter. He knows what could happen to him if he finds out the truth. Plus, he wouldn't want to take the chance of hurting the other person involved."

"But what about that other person?" the doctor questioned pensively. "Shouldn't we be keeping our eyes on him- or her, too?"

"The other one doesn't look any worse for the wear," he responded, inwardly thankful that Bess seemed to have landed on her feet and fully regained her emotional and physical health. "As long as everything stays buried, there should be a complete recovery."

"And if anyone else in the group figures out either of their identities?"

Alonzo thought of Morgan and Devon, the only two who'd voted in favor of launching an investigation and the only two who could conceivably continue the hunt for damaging evidence.

"If they do, I can almost guarantee that they'll keep the news to themselves. They'd have to know that coming forward would only end up hurting people they care about."

He grabbed Julia's other hand and gave both sets of fingers a squeeze. "And, while were on the subject, there's something that I need you to do. I want you to promise me that you won't give Danziger or anyone else any medical treatment for at least a month unless it's an emergency. That means no weekly physicals, no blood pressure checks and absolutely, positively no alpha scans. I don't want you even taking their temperatures unless their very survival is at risk."

He further tightened his grip and looked deeply into her eyes, silently begging her to comply with his request. "Will you give me your word that you'll do this?"

Julia could see by the pilot's grave expression that it was crucial that she followed his instructions to the letter. Although she wasn't thrilled by the idea of taking an extended leave of absence from her profession, she was confident that Alonzo knew what he was doing and had the crew's best interest at heart. Furthermore, she didn't want to inadvertently stumble upon medical knowledge that could end up destroying the lives of her friends. The decision was not a difficult one to make.

"I promise," she consented. "Unless there's a critical situation, it looks like I'm unemployed for the next month or so."

Solace let out a relief-filled breath as he released her hands. "Good. Thank you."

Although his anxiety seemed to be eased by Julia's acquiescence, a look of unhappiness lingered in his eyes, prompting the doctor to comment, "I'm worried about you, 'Lonz. You've been changed by this experience, too, haven't you?"

His expression grew darker. "For one thing, I'm not sure that I can ever completely trust the Terrians again," he told her honestly. "I know that they didn't intend to hurt anyone, but that doesn't mean that I can just wipe the slate clean. I have to live with the memories of what Danziger and the others went through."

Solace shook his head before lifting his saddened gaze skyward. His voice began to quiver as he recounted, "God, Querida, it was awful. I couldn't stop it. I-I tried, but there was nothing I could do. I saw everything. There was so much suffering. So much pain-" He let the words trail off, too overcome with emotion to continue.

It nearly broke Julia's heart to see her lover in such despair. Tears filled both of their eyes as she welcomed him into her comforting arms. Alonzo rested his head on her shoulder and she held him close while gently kneading the tension-riddled muscles in his back.

After a time, Solace softly revealed, "I made two promises these last two days, both involving protection. One was made to all of you when we decided to leave the valley and the other was made specifically to John." He pulled back his head in order to meet Julia's eyes and solemnly expressed, "I intend to keep both of these commitments, whatever the cost."

Although Julia was confused (and more than a little bit disturbed) by Alonzo's cryptic statements, as long as she had his assurance that everyone was safe, the details of what happened to the members of Eden Advance no longer interested her.

She leaned in and lovingly kissed his cheek. "You can always trust me, Alonzo. Your secrets are, and will always be, safe with me." She wrapped her arms around him and whispered into his ear, "And I'll help you keep those promises of yours any way that I can."

Alonzo hugged her tightly, absorbing the warmth and support that radiated from her body. When they finally parted, Julia silently began to lead him back to their shared quarters.

God, he was tired. The stress from the past days and of what would be expected of him in the coming months was a bit overwhelming for him. Regardless of whether or not the crew remembered it, Solace had taken on the essential job of guardian for the Eden Project. And he swore to himself that he would watch over them carefully. He would safeguard them from the Terrians, should the creatures ever break their promise and attempt to test the group, again. He would also protect the Edenites from themselves, preventing them from bringing to light any details that could spell trouble for Bess and John- the two people who, unbeknownst to everyone but him, were responsible for humanity being granted a second chance on G889.

Alonzo would look after all of them. Because he'd witnessed the majority of the Terrian's Dreamscape experiment, he'd been provided a front row seat to the innermost thoughts of many of the members of Eden Advance. He'd had unlimited access to information that was private, if not extremely delicate in nature. He'd seen their lifetime of memories. He'd been given a bird's-eye view to their deepest desires and their darkest fears. He'd learned the details of how several of his crewmates really felt about each other, no matter how hard they tried to conceal the emotions from themselves and one another. For a few of them, he'd seen the line that could be crossed that would cause them to break apart into pieces. In other words, Alonzo had found out things that he wasn't supposed to know. At this point, he probably knew some of his traveling companions better than they knew themselves.

But instead of considering this unprecedented insight into the workings of their minds to be a liability, Solace was determined to use this unique knowledge to his advantage. Now that Alonzo understood how many of the Edenites think, it could very likely help him to decide the best approach when it comes to keeping them safe in the future.

And very importantly, Alonzo was now aware of the depth of Mazatl's depression over Eben's heartbreaking death three months before. He would make sure that the crewman's despondency wasn't allowed to progress to the point that it had on the Dreamplane. Alonzo resolved that he would reach out to his friend and see if he could be of help. Maybe Solace could make a few innocent comments to Bess and get her to talk with him. After all, not only was she was good at that sort of thing, the pilot also recalled her many Dreamscape prayers asking God for forgiveness for Mazatl and for his acceptance into Heaven despite having committed the mortal sin of suicide.

Alonzo sighed to himself. As awful as the past week and a half was, there could be a silver lining just beyond the black clouds. The Terrian's might have just provided Solace with the information that enabled him to save Mazatl's life.

Alonzo and Julia continued to be lost within their own thoughts and no words were spoken between them as the entered their tent and climbed into bed. As she curled her limbs around him, Solace gazed devotedly at the woman who'd brought so much happiness into his life. He was gratified to hear her offer of complete and unquestioning future cooperation. Hopefully, aside from keeping tabs on Danziger's recuperation, it wouldn't be needed. With any luck, the other Edenites would be able to put this unfortunate experience behind them. Given a little time, the calamity of the last nine days would eventually become nothing more than a distant memory... or non-memory, as the case may be.

Alonzo smiled as he closed his eyes and drifted off into a tranquil sleep. He was looking forward to things getting back to normal.

__________



EPILOGUE

Nine months later, almost to the day, the members of Eden Project welcomed the birth of their very first baby. He was a beautiful little boy born to an elated Bess and Morgan Martin. He had wispy brown hair and light blue eyes and was the spitting image of Bess with the notable exception of an unusually strong jaw that didn't seem to match either parent. Despite being slightly larger in size than the average newborn, Julia joyously pronounced him to be in perfect health.

They named the child Adam John- 'Adam' after Bess' youngest brother whom she'd more or less raised after her mother's untimely death. The middle name 'John' was bestowed in honor of his equally proud godfather, John Danziger. Of course, at first Morgan wasn't thrilled about his son carrying the name of his sworn adversary, but Bess hadn't really given him a choice in the matter. She was quick to point out the incredible help that the mechanic had been to them since she'd announced her pregnancy. And Morgan was grudgingly forced to concede that Danziger had been happy to share with him his wealth of knowledge when it came to raising a baby. John had even secretly built Bess a rocking chair exactly like the one she'd described to him based on a dream she'd had. He'd been almost bashful about the gift when he'd finally presented it to her just days before her due date.

When it came to choosing a godmother for Adam, Morgan had originally considered asking Devon, thinking that there might be certain benefits to having the chief administrator of the colony as a pseudo-relative. However, Bess wouldn't hear of such a thing, reminding Morgan of how little interest Devon had taken in the Martin's pregnancy beyond how it would affect the leader's own schedule for constructing New Pacifica in time for the arrival of the Jamestown. Moreover, should something horrible befall her and Morgan, Bess certainly wasn't going to entrust the raising of her son to a woman whom she could barely stand to be in the same room with. Bess furthered that when Magus and Walman had recently announced their own impending parenthood, Devon had had the nerve to look disappointed and didn't offer them a single word of congratulation.

Bess had also stressed to her husband the importance that both godparents possess the ability to get along with one another. And everyone knew that Devon and John had barely exchanged two civil words since they'd had that massive blowup back when Bess was still in the midst of her first trimester. When John had eventually confided in Bess regarding what had transpired between Devon and himself, the Earth-res didn't blame him for not wanting anything to do with the leader. Bess remembered the pain in John's eyes when he'd recounted Devon's indecent proposal suggesting that they begin a secret affair. Devon had also made sure to tack on the crushing reminder that, no matter what emotions Danziger harbored for her, she would never return his love and their relationship would never be permitted to progress beyond the feelings of physical gratification. Needless to say, her offer had been soundly and bitterly rejected by John and the two had barely spoken since.

Instead, True Danziger was absolutely thrilled to be honored with the title of godmother to little Adam. Although Morgan thought that it was slightly unorthodox for a father and daughter to be chosen as godparents, he wasn't adverse to Bess' choice. Over the past few months, he'd noticed his wife's maternal instincts blossom as she and True had become much closer. Sometimes she'd fuss over the girl as if she were her very own child. Morgan didn't see the harm in it, especially since True had never really had a mother figure in her life. And besides that, having a kid hanging around would be good practice for Bess, at least until their own baby arrived. Bess had even enlisted her help in scrounging up pieces of silverware, scrap metal and anything else shiny that could be transformed into oversized jewelry to swap with the Grendlers. They'd spend hours talking and laughing and the topics could range from discussing their possible future plans on G889, to sharing secrets with each other, to their worries over John's recent decline in health.

When it came to True's father, it was clear that Bess had also taken it upon herself to make sure that he didn't push himself too hard. It hadn't been too long after they'd started working together on their Grendler project that Bess had noticed that Danziger wasn't feeling well. She'd had several one-sided talks with the stubborn man before she'd finally gotten him to admit to the symptoms he'd been suffering from and attempting to hide for weeks. Bess had insisted on accompanying him to the med-tent when he'd approached Julia to identify the source of his illness.

They were shocked by the diagnosis. According to the physician, Danziger's heart had been worn down, most likely by a combination of factors including the damage inflicted by the ZED bullet, the malfunction of his bio-stat implant and his occupation by both the ancient Terrian spirit and the spring pollen. When Bess pressed as to why he was sick now after several months of good health, Julia suggested that Danziger might have been exposed to a toxic substance during one of his many recent solo- scouts searching for Grendler caves. In any event, his experiences had culminated in some minor kidney distress along with the more serious development of an arrhythmia in his heart. Therefore, until the colony ship arrived and he could be fitted with a pacemaker, Danziger was restricted to light duty which included no manual labor and riding in the vehicles instead of walking.

Coincidentally, about a month or so after Bess had learned that she was with child, Julia had detected a mild increase in Bess' blood pressure (no doubt a side effect of her pregnancy, the doctor assured) and had been given similar orders barring her from all strenuous activity. Often she and John would stay back at camp with the children while the rest of the crew scouted for food or to look for the best traveling route.

Bess understood how much it hurt Danziger to be left behind. She knew the pressure that he'd always put on himself when it came to his responsibilities to the group. Though the Edenites still looked to him as a leader, John felt as if he'd failed them by becoming too weak to perform the majority of his duties. Bess witnessed his private struggles with fatigue and vertigo along with his hatred of the fact that he was dependent upon the hypos that Julia had synthesized to keep him from deteriorating further. She also watched Danziger try to dam his feelings for Devon as he came to terms with the knowledge that the two would never have a future together.

Bess resolved that she would try to take John's mind off of the unhappier parts of his life by keeping him as busy as his health would allow. They pored themselves into their campaign to barter with the Grendlers and successfully traded with them for a number of needed supplies including clothing and food (although, to their mild dismay, the majority of their bounty ended up being crates of dreaded Spirolina packets). Bess and Danziger joined forces on other projects, too, and usually made sure to include True and Uly in their activities. Mazatl was also a frequent recruit for their various enterprises after Bess had been alerted as to how depressed the crewman had recently become.

Even when they weren't working, Bess and John started spending more and more time with one another. She shared with him her viewpoints along with many of her stories about growing up on Earth. Slowly but surely, she began to draw Danziger out of his shell and he reluctantly started relaying the details of his own background. As time passed and their friendship grew, the pair was surprised to realize how much they had in common with each other.



As for the Terrians, they began to take a more active role in their relationship with the Eden Project. Uly and Alonzo were no longer the only crew members summoned to the Dreamplane. Several (but not all) of the other Edenites were also beckoned to the alternate dimension at one time or another during their voyage. Although it took some practice learning to understand the creatures, it was clear that they wanted to help. Once when the group was running low on food and there were no Grendlers to trade with, the Terrians contacted them and provided the location of edible roots that were buried nearby. When the weather grew colder and Eden Advance worried that they would be forced to ride out the winter bunkered in one spot, the beings presented Alonzo with an alternative. The pilot's mind was implanted with a detailed course of travel including a route where the snow was shallow enough for people and the vehicles to navigate. The Terrians also communicated the positions of sunstone filled caves along their path for the crew to rest in and remain protected from the elements at night.

It was during the final leg of their journey that Denner was transported to the Dreamscape and supplied with the location of Cargo Pod #7 which was positioned only a few miles from where they were camped. When the Edenites arrived at the site, they were astounded to find that, aside from a damaged beacon, the pod had somehow managed to remain completely intact with its contents left untouched by the planet's inhabitants. Now, not only did they have cartload after cartload of prefabricated housing units, the group had three brand new Transrovers and four Dunerails to haul their treasures the rest of the short distance to New Pacifica.



In other words, it looked as though the pieces were finally falling into place for the close-knit family known as Eden Advance.

THE END