John Danziger stood alone in the old Council ship. All was silent except for the occasional beep from one of the life support systems. A multitude of small lights winked in time with the soft beeps casting strange shadows across his taut visage. Here alone he could allow his grief to show as he gazed at the face of the second woman in his life he was forced to abandon to a cryo-crypt.
He reached out his left hand and placed it against the glass. The image of the head-strong woman laying in a state of timeless grace burned into his eyes and seared his soul. Rigidly he stood his silent vigil, the frigid glass siphoning away his body heat. An icy numbness crept down his arm where it made its way into his heart. The coldness became a burning ache and still he stood unmoving, staring.
True stood watching her father worriedly. She moved across the small chamber to his side. Still he did not acknowledge her presence. Her eyes followed his locked gaze to Devon Adair. Her small hand stole into his right hand. Once more she tried to penetrate the befuddled trance that held him.
"Dad, Baines has finished putting up the perimeter guards around the ship. Everyone's ready to move out."
Danziger's hand tighten ever so slightly on his daughter's hand. Sluggishly his eyes slid from the image before him to the little girl next to him. The physical and emotional warmth flowing from her drove back the despair that sought to claim him. Removing his left hand from the glass, he reached down and scooped her up in a bear hug. True flung her arms around her father's neck and squeezed him back. She laid her cheek against his raspy one. Both of them now stared at the frozen leader of the Eden Project.
"Devon will be safe until we can come back for her, Dad. With the perimeter guards up no one will be able to hurt her or the ship. Julia will figure out a way to cure her."
Danziger turned his head and gave his child a loving kiss on her forehead. "I hope so, True-girl, I hope so." He then turned and walked out without another look. It was True who stared back wistfully over her father's shoulder as they exited the craft.
///My Dad was the Chief Mechanic to the Eden Project until we crashed on G889 and lost our leader, Devon Adair to some weird sickness that has something to do with the planet not wanting us. Julia says Eve is protecting us from the planet's rejection with the implants. Why Devon didn't have one, no one knows. Nobody likes the thought of depending on a computer that's already tried to kill you once. Besides who can say Eve will be able to protect us forever? Computers break down, develop glitches, and are susceptible to viruses. So it's important to all of us to find out why Devon was dying and find a way to reverse it.
Now that Dad's the leader he barely has any time for me, or Uly. Not that Uly would notice. He just sits and stares. Hardly talks, hardly eats. Julia says he's in shock. I use to feel jealous about Uly, but now that he doesn't have his own parent anymore I feel bad about all the mean things I ever said or did to him. I wish there was some way I could make everything right again.///
An exhausted Danziger sat down alone in front of the campfire and poured himself some stale coffee. He had stayed up long after the others had sought their sleeping bags to work on the Transrover's left wheel bearings. He didn't want to lose any daylight tomorrow. Along with Devon's job and kid, John had inherited her drive to push them to New Pacifica as quickly as possible. Julia stepped out of the med tent and rubbed her eyes wearily. Spotting John at the fire, she went over to join him. Danziger nodded in greeting. Took a sip of the hours old coffee and grimaced.
"Want some hot sludge?" He asked motioning towards the coffee pot.
Julia shook her head no as she sat down next to him. "What are you doing still up?"
"Fixing the transrover, and you?"
"Running some more tests on Devon's blood and tissue samples."
"Alonzo not keeping you company?"
"No, I sent him to bed early."
Danziger's eyebrows lifted ever so slightly. "Why? Was he misbehaving?"
"I want him to try to contact the Terrians to see if there's anything they could do or might know that could help me find out what's wrong with Devon."
Shaking his head in confusion, he leaned forward with knitted brows. "I thought he already tried that. Didn't they say that they couldn't do anything for adult humans? That's why they didn't heal Alonzo's legs."
Julia ran both her hands through her hair and recaptured the strands that had escaped and bound them back up in her ponytail. "I have to try *something*. I'm not getting anywhere with conventional medical means."
"Take it easy, Julia. Everyone knows you're trying your damnedest. It's only been 10 days since we put her in cold sleep, and only 6 days since we've been back on the road to New Pacifica. You'll find an the answer in time."
"No John, you don't understand. It's Uly."
"Yeah, he's real upset about his mother. That's understandable."
"It's more than that." She bent forward as if she feared being over heard and fixed him with a hard stare. "I may have to put him back in his immuno-suit."
"What?! Why?! Is he succumbing to whatever got Devon?"
Julia made a hushing motion at him before replying. "I think Uly is rejecting the planet in response to its rejection of his mother."
John reached up and rubbed the inner corners of his eyes with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. "How is that possible?"
"I don't know. But it isn't unheard of even back on the stations. There have been documented cases of people essentially willing themselves to die when medically they should have recovered."
"Wait a minute!" Danziger made a slashing motion with his hand. "He's nine years old. You trying to tell me he's suicidal ?"
"No, not suicidal. Just despondent to the point that his health is being effected."
"Damn. It's not like I don't have enough to worry about now." He jabbed himself in the chest with his thumb. "She entrusted her *son* to me. Are you sure about this?"
"That's why I didn't come to you sooner. I wanted to be certain, and now I am. Uly is relapsing back into his Syndrome condition." She hesitated before continuing. "We could lose him."
Tossing the half drunk coffee out of the now cold cup, Danziger stood up and gazed down at the doctor. Fatigue lines deeply etched in his face. "I appreciate you letting me know. Now go get some rest." He headed off to the tent he now shared with both children, feeling older with every step.
///"You promised to look out for her, John Danziger."///
Groggily Danziger opened his eyes and attempted to focus on the person standing beside his cot. "Huh?...Wha?...Shepard?" Reaching up he rubbed his face vigorously in an effort to clear his vision and his head. "What are you doing here? I must be dreaming."
///"Why did you abandon her?"///
"Hey! I didn't abandon her! That's the safest place for her right now. Without that cryo-crypt she would have died! The planet was rejecting her!"
The older man shook his head sadly as he gazed down at his younger rival. ///"You have the means to help her right under your noses. Why can you not see it? You saw my people. Did any of them look like they were being 'rejected'? I trusted in you to have the inner strength to do this. Now she is lost."///
"To do what?! If you know some way to help her, how about sharing it with me, huh?!"
Shepard turned to watch the sleeping Uly. ///"She will know when her son is gone. No cryo-crypt will be able to sustain her then."//
His eyes locked on to Danziger's.
///"Each day that you delay, you drive another nail into both their coffins. It is imperative that you act quickly."///
"Look pal..." Danziger struggled to get out of bed but his legs became entangled in his covers and he fell to the hard dirt floor.
He sat up and discovered he was no longer in the tent but outside. On a sandy desert plain with the sun glaring down white hot. Danziger sat there with his head in his hands and his elbows resting on his knees.
"Aw man, I shouldn't have drank that coffee."
Just then three Terrians exploded up from the earth showering him in sand. "JESUS!" He scrambled backwards on his haunches trying to widened the distance between himself and the natives. He sat starting gape-mouthed at the corpse-like beings for several heartbeats. He did not like or care much for Terrians. In fact they gave him the creeps.
"You guys must be looking for Alonzo. He's two tents down on your left."
They trilled at him softly and started to advance towards him. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back off!"
A hand slapped down on his shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. A *human* hand. Looking over his shoulder he saw Alonzo squatting down next to him wearing his ever handy smile.
"It's okay , John. They're with me. I brought them here."
"Yeah well, why did you and were the hell is *here*?"
"We're on the Dream Plane. The Terrians want to talk to you."
"About what?" He eyed them suspiciously.
"There's possibly a way for them to help Devon. They need your cooperation though."
"Cooperation for what? I won't object to anything they do to cure Devon. Tell them to go ahead."
Alonzo's smile was gone. He wore the most serious expression Danziger had ever seen on him. "John, this is very important. I want you to listen closely and not come to any rash fearful conclusions."
Slowly Danziger rose to his feet and faced the Terrians. Once again they began to trill at him but now Alonzo was there to translate so he could understand what they wanted to do.
Danziger erupted out of the cot shaking and swearing. This time he was awake in his own reality. He charged out of the tent bellowing a war-like cry. At the same time Alonzo flew out of his bed and in the rush to reach Danziger he knocked Julia to the floor. "Ow! Alonzo what's going on? What is Danziger yelling about?" Alonzo didn't reply as he leaped over her and dashed out the tent. Danziger caught sight of the pilot racing his way.
"Are you insane, Solace?!" He roared. "Did you honestly think I would ever agree to something as bizarre as that?!"
"John, calm down! You didn't let them finish. I told you you'd have to be willing to listen closely and not jump to any conclusions"
"What conclusions?! They spelled it out pretty plain in there.-Out there.- Where ever the hell we were!" He threw his hands up in disgust and paced up and down in front of his tent.
A wide eyed True stepped out of the tent while a solemn Uly watched through the open flap. "Dad? What's wrong?"
Danziger whirled around and hollered at his daughter. "Get back inside!"
True stared angrily at her father then stormed back into the tent biting down on her trembling lip so she wouldn't break down and cry in front of Uly.
Turning back to Alonzo, Danziger towered over him and jabbed him in the chest. "You tell them Solace that if they touch one hair on her head they're dead. Got it?!" As he bit out that last sentence he barreled back into the tent dropping the flap behind him leaving an exasperated Alonzo outside staring bleakly at the canvass barrier.
The next morning a gruff Danziger approached the group. "Why isn't everyone breaking camp? Come on! We're burning daylight here!?" No one moved or responded. Everyone looked uncomfortable. John Danziger was an easy going man, but no one relished the idea of butting heads with him. Except maybe Devon Adair and she wasn't here. Finally Yale stepped forward.
"John, Alonzo told us what happened last night. We should discuss it."
"There's nothing to discuss. She's *my* daughter. It's *my* decision. I decided no."
"But this affects all of us."
"What are you saying Morgan? That you'd sacrifice a little girl to save your scrawny neck? Didn't you already try that on the Roanoke?" He took one threatening step forward.
"No I, ah..I..." Morgan took two retreating steps back and ended up with Bess between himself and the angry mechanic.
The petite woman stepped forward and met Danziger's fury with her own. "That's unfair! That is not what Morgan meant! And he's apologized for launching the lifepod prematurely. He was scared that's all."
"Yeah well, apologies don't bring back the dead, Bess. If people had been able to escape in that pod, some wouldn't have died along with the others in the third pod from that chip virus. There'd be more survivors."
"You don't know that! Who knows what might have happened..."
"People, people!" Yale positioned himself between the bickering pair and placed a calming and restrictive hand on both their shoulders. "We are getting off the topic at hand." He then gave them both a minute to reign in their anger. "John, why won't you even consider it? You see that no harm came to Uly."
"Uly was sick. He was dying. There's *nothing* wrong with True. Those Diggers can't have her. And there *is* a risk, isn't there Julia?"
Julia nodded, crossed her arms and picked her words carefully. "Yes. True is older and just on the brink of adolescence. Terrians can 'bond' with human children but not human adults. True is in that limbo between childhood and adulthood. Apparently that is why the Terrians think it will work. If they can alter her genetic makeup sufficiently, I could manufacture a vaccine that would work on us adults without actually transforming us into Human/Terrian hybrids like Uly and Mary."
True and Uly sat against the med tent out of sight of the adults but close enough that the children were able to overhear the conversation. Two small heads disappeared around the corner of the tent and the children conversed in low whispers.
"You're right, Uly. All that commotion last night *was* about me."
"I know. I was there on the Dream Plane with them. Your father and Alonzo didn't see me and the Terrians didn't seem to care that I was there."
Playing with a small hole in the knee of her pant leg, True felt the sudden need to defend her father's actions. "It's not that my Dad doesn't want to help Devon...he's just scared of the Terrians that's all. So am I...a little."
"They wouldn't hurt you True. It's not their way."
True stopped enlarging the hole at her knee and began to draw swirls and lines in the dirt with her index finger. Picking up a handful of the earth, she watched it sift through her fingers. "What's it like? To be buried." She finally asked. Uly shifted on his knees and mimicked her actions with the soil.
"It's scary at first. You don't expect to be able to breath, but you can. You can even see...in a way." Uly squinted his eyes a bit as he attempted to remember that night. "It's warm. Kinda like when you were a baby and your mom would hold you."
True wiped her dirty hand on the front of her t-shirt. "My mom never got the chance to hold me." Peeking around the corner to check on the adults, True saw that they were still in deep discussion. Turning back to Uly she nibbled on her lower lip before finally asking her next question. "Could you find the Terrians you saw on the Dream Plane last night?"
"Sure. They aren't far from here. Why?"
"What if I went to the Terrians and let them do to me what they did to you? It would be all settled and done, then Dad would have to let Julia try to make a vaccine."
"You'd do that?"
"Yeah. If it would help Devon and everyone else. Plus Dad would have more time for me if Devon were back to lead the group."
Uly stood up and held out his hand to True. "We better go now before they come looking for us." True took his hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. They both checked on the adults one more time. Satisfied that they wouldn't be seen leaving or missed immediately, they scampered off into the hills.
The talk of Terrian gene manipulation drew the normally tacit Cameron into the discussion. "Why can't the Terrians alter adult human DNA, Julia?"
Relieved for the excuse to tear herself from Danziger's combative gaze, she turned and addressed the colonist eagerly. Even switching into her usual 'lecture mode' as Alonzo fondly called it. "I'm not sure exactly how Terrian science works. It doesn't even fit our concept of science. It's far more organic than ours, to the point it appears more like magic than technology. But I would imagine it's for the same reasons as ours. Gene manipulation is easier the younger the subject is. Take me for example." Julia betrayed just how comfortable she had become with the group when she next spoke of her own manipulated DNA without any hesitation. "Everything from my occupation, my sex, my eye color, to even my teeth was decided before I was even conceived. It's easier to create a human than it is to modify one."
"And if the Terrians are unable to alter True's DNA?" He asked as his eyes shifted briefly from her to Danziger.
Taking a deep breath, Julia answered Cameron but held Danziger's gaze the entire time. "If for some reason the gene manipulation is unsuccessful and I'm unable to reverse any damage done to it, her chances of surviving are slim to none."
A slight twitch of one eye was the only reaction to cross Danziger's otherwise impassive face. "Still want to 'discuss' it, Morgan?" Without waiting for a reply, Danziger turned on his heel and stalked off towards the Transrover. "Let me know when you all have finished and are ready to get going." He shot back over his shoulder.
The group watched Danziger's retreating back with sympathy. This was a choice none of them would make if True were their child. A contrite Bess turned back to Julia and asked the next obvious question. "Why risk True? Since Uly is already part Terrian, why not just wait for him to reach adolescence and use his DNA then? What's the rush?"
Julia cleared her throat and shifted uncomfortably. "Boys don't mature as quickly as girls do. They don't generally reach adolescence until they're about 15 years old. That's six years from now. We don't know what might happen to those of us that remain once the colony ship arrives." Here she stopped to take a deep breath before continuing. "Besides, I doubt if Uly will survive that long."
Her announcement was greeted with astonished faces followed by exclamations of shock and demands for clarification. Once the clamor had died down, she shared with them what she had the night before with Danziger. The news brought the group to a painful silence. The miracle of Uly's cure was the only good thing to come out of the doomed mission so far. In a way the mischievous boy had become the camp's mascot. A living reminder of what hope, faith, and determination can achieve. Most of them had never looked upon a dead body before this mission. None of them wanted to have to dig a tiny grave.
Fighting down the emotional turmoil that the news of Uly's condition stirred in his own heart, Yale summarized the situation. "So if we don't' risk True, we lose Uly. If we do risk her, we could lose both of them." Julia nodded and was forced to blink rapidly to keep the tears in her eyes from falling.
Baines gazed over his shoulder at the big man who was taking his frustration out on the various containers of supplies that he tossed into the back of the Transrover. "Man, this has got to be killing Danz. He really loves those kids."
"Julia, could you create some computer simulations of DNA manipulation in a child of True's age and study the feasibility of it? Maybe even come up with a contingency plan if it failed. Anything that could increase the children's odds of survival." Julia nodded in agreement and headed back to her med tent to start. The others went their separate ways to begin the now familiar task of breaking camp.
True sat beside a wheezing Uly and gazed at him helplessly. They had come about a half a kilometer and this was the fourth time they were forced to stop and rest. Now True was sorry that they hadn't tried to sneak the ATV out of camp. She scanned the sagebrush dotted hills and relaxed when she couldn't see the camp. That meant they weren't visible to the camp either. Enough hills and gullies sheltered them from the others.
"You okay? I can go back for Julia if you need her." True's expression betrayed how she felt about this idea. Being read the "riot act" as her dad liked to call it had become a near daily ritual. Also the thought of spending the rest of the trip to New Pacifica locked in the Transrover didn't appeal to her one whit. And she was certain that was what would happen if she were forced to return to camp now.
The pale faced boy turned his fatigue-weary eyes on her. He lifted his chin defiantly and shook his head. "No, I'll make it. I'm not an invalid yet."
"Well, maybe we should try to find some shade to sit under while we rest. I wish we'd thought to bring a canteen with us." As True walked around in search of shade, the ground opened up before her and sprouted a Terrian. Startled she screamed as she landed on her butt.
Danziger looked up from the map he and Yale were studying. He rubbed his stubbled chin in irritation. This was one of the more unpleasant duties he inherited from Devon. Looking around at the slow progress of the camp breaking, he shuffled his feet restlessly. He should be helping break down the tents and loading the Transrover, not playing connect the dots with a compass and ruler. Maybe he could delegate this task to Alonzo. There couldn't be that much difference between a star chart and a land relief map.
Suddenly he whipped to attention and cocked his head as if listening for something. Yale looked up from the map and swore he saw him sniffing the air like a canine. "Where are the kids?" Danziger demanded.
Rising from the table, Yale adopted Danziger's concerned stance. "Come to think of it, I haven't seen them all morning."
Danziger took several steps until he was roughly in the center of what remained of the camp. Squinting his eyes, he scanned the area intently. When they didn't give him the results he wanted, he cupped his hands around his mouth and holler for the children in his booming voice. "TRUE! ULY! Front and center! NOW!"
The rest of the group stopped what they were doing and looked around for the errant pair. Danziger stood there a few moments more with his hands on his hips and a deep scowl on his face. Yale walked up behind him. "I can't locate them on gear."
Without a glance or reply, he headed for the Dunerail with long purposeful strides. Calmly he began to assemble provisions. He checked his canteen, his gear, and by the time he hefted the magpro, Alonzo had joined him.
Alonzo eyed the blase manner in which Danziger worked. "Where are you going?"
"To find the kids." He replied calmly as he secured the large gun next to the driver's seat.
Alonzo placed his hand on his shoulder in a friendly gesture. "John, the Terrians didn't take them. They wouldn't have."
Danziger shook off the pilot's hand and turned on him. All pretense of calm dropped. "How do you know for sure?" He asked through clenched teeth. "They just took Uly the first time. Remember?"
Visualizing the situation if Danziger met up with any Terrians in his present state of mind, he held up his hand in front of the larger man but did not touch him again. "Okay, but I'm going with you."
At that moment a Terrian emerged on the other side of the rail. Startled, Danziger made a grab for the gun, but Alonzo was quicker. He planted his palm against Danziger's chest and held him and the gun at arms length from one another."He won't hurt you." Each word was stressed and accompanied with Alonzo's dark eyed stare.
Breathing harshly, Danziger eyed the gun. "Yeah well, I wish they'd stopped doing that." He peered at the alien out of the corner of his eye. "What does it want?"
Alonzo turned and spoke to the Terrian, making sure that the gun was well out of Danziger's long reach. "Apparently the kids took off on their own and went to the Terrians. True's demanding that they alter her DNA. They know how you feel about them, John. You have to agree to this."
"Why is my agreement so important? They have True. Why?"
"Like you said. They took Uly and Mary. Nobody was given a say in it. Mary's parents died because of it. Devon really didn't have a choice if she wanted her son to live. If they can convince you to entrust her to them, they feel they will have accomplished something."
"Where are the kids?" He asked quietly.
"John, they know others are coming. And that more will come after those. You don't want to endanger your child. She's all you have. This planet is literally their mother. They don't want to endanger her. They know what we did to the Earth. They're terrified that we'll do the same thing here. The planet dies without them, they die without the planet. It's not like they can escape out into space like humans did. If they can establish a bond with at least some the humans, and if they can be accepted by the others then Terrians and Humans can peacefully coexist."
Danziger stood starting at the Terrian. It was an unusual sensation. Partly because it was so alien to himself, and partly because he was forced to look up at it. It was one of the rare times in his adult life that he actually felt small. With brows furrowed and jaw clenched tight, he shook his head emphatically.
"I'm a mechanic, not a diplomat. I can't just hand my kid over to a bunch of aliens that we know nearly nothing about then put my faith in them and God and hope that everything works out. No. I'm sorry. You're asking too much. If it was me, then all right. Fine. No problem. Not True."
The Terrian bowed his head. If he didn't understand Danziger's words, he understood his expression and tone of voice. Before he descended back into the earth he trilled once more at Alonzo, then disappeared. Glumly Alonzo climbed into the rail behind the steering wheel. "Come on. I know where they are."
Julia came running to the rail with her med kit bouncing on her shoulder. "I'm going too. Uly's condition may have deteriorated." She climbed into the back behind Alonzo.
Danziger stood glaring down at the top of Alonzo's head. His hands curling and uncurling at his sides as he briefly considered giving in to the desire to yank him out of the driver's seat by his collar. Instead he walked around the vehicle, careful to not step on the spot where the Terrian had been. Not that he worried he would fall in, the earth seemed to pack back down firmly once the Terrians had passed through it. Guess he was just nervous about being dragged under like he'd seen Gaal being dragged down. Folding his big frame into the passenger's seat, he instructed the others to continue with breaking camp. When he got the kids back he didn't feel like hanging around this place. Alonzo put the rail in gear and sped off over the hills.
The dune rail bounced over the sagebrush covered hills dodging rocks and crevices. Alonzo appeared to be totally focused on keeping the bucking vehicle under control. When in fact, since the Terrian had implanted such a clear vision of the path that he could have navigated it blindfolded. No, what the pilot was racking his brains over was how to handle Danziger once they reached their destination. Danz was usually pretty level-headed but he still didn't trust the Terrians completely. That, plus when it came to what he perceived as a threat, especially to the kids, he could be a real ball buster.
The pilot grinned at the thought of John's reaction when True started to show an interest in boys. Shaking his head he offered up a silent prayer to that first unlucky fella. The image of a young pimply-faced boy shaking in his boots as he stood in the shadow of the towering bulk of John Danziger, staring up and unable to do nothing more than stutter out "yes sir" after "yes sir" in response to each order barked out at him brought a burst of throaty laughter from Alonzo. Feeling Danziger's fierce gaze boring into him, Lonz coughed, straighten up in his seat and pretended to concentrate on the terrain once more.
He felt Julia's warm breath against his ear as she leaned forward and whispered to him.
"Are you all right?"
Looking over his shoulder into her concerned and perplex-twinged blue gaze, he flashed her his ever ready smile and graced her with a wink to boot. Before he could dazzle her with his wit, Julia looked up and pointed to his left.
"There they are!"
Up ahead was the start of a rocky ridge. At the entrance to what must be a Terrian cave sat True and Uly with three Terrians standing guard over them. Their spears planted in the ground as they silently watch the approaching dune rail.
Still no closer to a plan, Alonzo brought the rail to a gently rolling stop about a dozen meters from the children and the Terrians.
"Well Solace," he thought to himself "you always did your best maneuvering by the seat of your pants. Why change now?"
As the rail glided to a stop, Danziger and Alonzo both grabbed the magpro.
"You don't need the gun."
He met Danziger's stare and held it. He felt the mechanic tense as he prepared to yank the gun from its bracket and Al's restraining grasp.
"You don't go in with all your jets blasting when you've got gravity on your side. Otherwise you end up a greasely spot at the bottom of a big hole."
Letting go of the gun, Danziger got out of the rail.
"You're starting to sound like a fortune cookie, Solace." He grumbled.
True and Uly sat watching tensely. They both knew how protective True's dad was and they feared for the Terrians more than whatever punishment awaited them for running off.
"You kids get down here, now."
True jumped up and helped Uly to his feet. Noticing the rough time the boy was having climbing down the hill, Danziger strode forward, scooped up Uly and herded his disobedient daughter towards the rail. He set Uly down in the seat next to Julia, who immediately began to take readings and ministering to the him. Danz climbed back into the passenger seat and motioned for True to sit in his lap.
True scrambled in the rail and grabbed a hold of the bar in front of her even though her father held her securely by her waist. Relieved to have avoided an ugly confrontation, Alonzo threw the rail into gear and headed back to camp.
After a few minutes, True got up enough gumption to turn around and face her dad.
"Am I grounded?" She asked hesitantly, unsure of his mood.
"You are more than grounded, missy."
"What's more than grounded?"
"I don't know, but when I figure it out, that's you."
Danziger then drew his daughter close to his chest softening the harshness of his retort. True burrowed into his arms and silently decided that whatever "more than grounded" ended up being, she would find a way out of it.
They returned to the packed up camp in silence. Danziger left the kids in the dune rail with Alonzo and he headed for the Transrover. Now that he knew they were safe, he was caught up in the vortex of anger, fear, and relief. He needed some space to get over those feelings so he would not be tempted to snap at them. The lack of sleep the night before, the tension of this morning, and the monotony of the trail this afternoon began to take its toll on him.
"HEY! Watch it!"
Danziger snapped to attention at the shout and saw that he'd nearly run over Magus. Rubbing his stubbled face, he waved an apology to her. Seeing Yale marching towards the Transrover, he stopped the vehicle. Yale climbed up into the cab and regarded the exhausted mechanic/surrogate leader.
"You look terrible, John."
Danziger looked at the only person on this planet other than Devon Adair who would have the nerve to confront him head on and smiled blearily at him.
"Keep talking like that and you can get out and walk again."
"I have a better idea. Why don't I drive and you go take a nap in back?"
"Yeah, I am a bit punchy."
Danziger stopped the vehicle and climbed in the back. He found a semi-comfortable spot amongst the folded tents and other articles. Before getting too settled he hollered out to Yale.
"Keep an eye on True for me, okay?"
"Not to worry, John. We're all keeping an eye on her."
Danziger shifted around a bit. He doubted he would do more than doze since he had so much on his mind. But between the warm sunshine beating gently down on him and the slight swaying of the Transrover, he was quickly lulled into a deep slumber. Yale smiled at the reverberating tones of Danziger's snores.
The howling wind woke Danziger. He was laying on his side half buried under tossed bundles and parcels. When he opened his eyes, they were pelted with stinging sand. Sand was everywhere. Flying through the air like miniature missiles, piling on the stuff stored in the back of the Transrover and most annoyingly, inside his clothes. He pulled his jacket off and wrapped it around his head for protection. He couldn't believe this storm came up so suddenly that no one thought to wake him. Where was everyone? Squinting and trying to see the best he could in the dark, swirling clouds of grit, he saw that the front end of the Rover was buried in a sand dune and the cab was nearly full of the stuff. How long has this storm been blowing? He climbed out the back of the Rover and felt his way around the vehicle to the left front side.
"Yale?!" He looked about for signs of the rail and any of the others. "Alonzo!! Walman!!"
He couldn't see more than a meter in front of him, so he had no idea if there was any shelter nearby where the others might have gone. Walking out into the this maelstrom would be suicide so Danziger decided to stick close to the Rover. Grasping the door, he yanked it open and stepped back as sand poured out of the cab even as more was being frantically blown in by the storm. Danziger didn't want to think what all this sand was doing to the workings of the Transrover. Another day shot fixing it. Hell, another week! His foot bumped something under the sand. It didn't feel like a rock. Kneeling down, he reach into the sand and felt around. His hand closed on something metallic. With a sickening feeling, he pulled his hand back and began to scoop out the sand as best he could. His efforts revealed a metal hand. Yale's cybernetic hand.
"Yale!! Can you hear me?!!"
Danziger dug frantically but no matter how hard he dug, the storm tossed more sand. It was even starting to bury him. Giving up on digging, he grabbed Yale's hand and attempted to pull him out. Danziger leaned back on his haunches and pulled with all his might. Only to fall backwards with Yale's arm grasped firmly in his hands. Half blinded by the sand and deafened by the roar of the wind, Danziger stumbled back to the spot where Yale's arm had come from. With a rising sense of trepidation, he began to dig once more with greater determination. He most likely wasn't going to like what he found, but he had to know. This time his hand found something smooth but definitely not metal. Drawing it forth from the sand, Danziger gazed at a bleached white skull with a cybernetic eye mount still in its left socket. Danziger dropped the skull in shock and stumbled back away from the Rover. He stood in the middle of the raging hell about him and howled along with it.
His roar of challenge and anguish was swept up and swallowed by the greater fury that surrounded him. Danziger sank to his knees in defeat and allowed the storm to pummel his body. What had happened? Had the others escaped or were there more bones to be discovered beneath the sand? Pushing down the confusion and grief that roiled in his mind, he tried to approach this rationally. The last thing he remembered before the storm was climbing into the back of the Rover to take a nap. There was no way that Yale's remains could have been stripped to bones in a couple of hours. How long had he been asleep??
"It's a dream..just a dream." he croaked in relief. "All I have to do is wake up."
"Not so fast my friend. We need to speak first."
Startled to find himself suddenly not alone, Danziger peered through the sandstorm for the source of the voice. A black clad figure stood before him. The black cloak flapped about the man like broken bird's wings. At first Danziger thought of Gaal. But though his companion was no less dead than Gaal, he was far less sinister.
The whirlwind caught Danziger's shout and scattered the words about along with the sand. He could barely hear himself above the storm. How had he heard Shepard? A hand appeared in a silent offer of aid. Danziger sat in the rapidly accumulating sand and stared at that hand for several heartbeats. He was now certain that this was a dream, yet he didn't relish the idea of touching a dead man. A dead man who didn't have the common sense to lie down and stay dead. This planet was a regular horror vid. Like that old Earth classic that had been converted to VR he'd snuck in to see when he was a kid. The vision of the dead coming back to life had made him thankful that there were no cemeteries on the Stations. There death was a destination, here it was a side trip.
Finally stuffing all of his juvenile fears back into their respective mental closets, he reached out for Shepard's hand. At the first touch of flesh to flesh(?), the storm lessened. No, Danziger corrected himself as Shepard helped him to his feet. Not lessened, but pulled back. Looking around he saw that the storm still raged and howled about a meter all around them. It was as if they stood within an invisible bubble or the eye of a hurricane. All was calm and quiet inside, while hell reigned outside.
"How'd you do that?"
"In our dreams we are truly gods, yet most of us are content to play victim."
Danziger shook his head sending sand flying in all directions. He longed to find a creek to jump into and be rid of the sand.
"Yeah, well, if I'm god here, what are you doing here? You're not in my top ten of dream subjects, ya know."
"I never said this was your dream."
Danziger looked up from his futile task of trying to shake the sand from the inside of his clothes.
"Yours then? I didn't think the dead dreamed."
"Oh, dreams are about all the dead have, and memories. But this is not my dream. This is the planet's dream. Though nightmare is more appropriate. Driven by all the consciousnesses that ever have and ever will dwell upon it. This is the Dream Plane."
"It looks...different. Where are the Terrians?"
Shepard swept his arms out in an all encompassing gesture.
"They're all around us. Can't you hear them?"
Looking around Danziger began to feel his skin crawl, and it had nothing to do with sandy clothes.
"All I hear is the wind..."
"This "storm" is the collective soul of all the Terrians who were murdered and unable to unite with their mother planet because it too was dead."
As he spoke, the screeching wind became a wail of endless misery. An otherworldly chorus of voices where bitterness and confusion merged with pain demanding to know "why?" It wasn't just an aimless cry. Danziger knew he was the object of its accusation. Instinctively he took a step back but being surrounded by the storm there was no place to retreat to so he stood his ground. Shepard allowed the mechanic a moment to come to grips with the idea of a living storm of souls. Coming from a mundane world of nuts and bolts, this head-on collision with the metaphysical realm would take some getting use to.
"Murdered? By who?"
"Do I really need to answer that?" Shepard sighed.
"Alright, then why? The Council knows that the planet dies without the Terrians and vice versa."
"It always comes down to a question of power. They realized that they would never be able to control the Terrians. So it was decided to strip the planet of all available resources then move on. If the Terrians attempted to interfere, they were to be eliminated. After all, this wasn't the only known planet with potential for colonization. Just the closest."
That Danziger could believe of the Council. Dispassionate brutality was their specialty. The Council members were ZEDs without the armor.
"What about Eden Project?"
"200 families makes a handy labor force. Those that weren't worked to death were executed when the planet was finally abandoned. All the syndrome children died within the first year. The Terrians never healed another child after Uly."
"What happened here? I found Yale's remains over by the Transrover."
Shepard turned towards the Transrover and stood quietly for a moment. "A surprise ZED attack. Reilly had managed to contact 6 of them that weren't in blackout zones and directed them to your coordinates. An experienced military squadron couldn't survive an onslaught of 6 ZEDs. What chance did a band of poorly armed and trained castaways have? Though they tried. Caught out in the open, you and some of the men tried to engage the ZEDs while the others made a desperate run for the cover of the ridge over there. Because of their conditioning the ZEDs were drawn to the armed and larger males rather than those who were fleeing. But in the end it all proved futile."
Danziger tried to shut out the vision of the attack that flashed in his mind as Shepard described it. He could close his eyelids but the mind's eye never blinks.
"So everyone's dead."
"Everyone but her." This time it was Shepard's turn to choke on his words. "She lays there waiting for a rescue that will never come. Separated from me until the nuclear generators finally fail and release her to eternity. All because of your pig headedness."
Anger made Danziger's eyes flash open at the accusation.
"I'm sick of you blaming me for Devon's predicament! We don't know what's wrong with her or how to heal her! I'm not sacrificing my daughter because some dead lunatic in my dreams is telling me to! Why should I believe any of this?!"
"You're right of course. The end might never happen this way. There are many paths up the mountain."
Shepard stepped up to Danziger until they were boot tip to boot tip and shook his index finger in cadence with his following words. "But remember they all have the same summit as their goal. If you don't want all this to end in total tragedy, you need to pick *another* mountain. In order to do that, you need to free Devon from her icy bondage. Even then you all might fail, but to leave things as they are is a guaranteed death sentence."
Grabbing Danziger's hand, Shepard placed something in his up turned palm.
"Maybe this will help you to decide when you wake up."
The Transrover hit a rut in the ground and the resulting jolt bounced Danziger from his sleep. It took him a moment to gain his bearings. Blinking several times to clear his hazy vision, he looked down at his tightly clashed right hand. Opening it, he allowed the sand he held to fall through his fingers into his lap. Pulling himself up, he leaned over the left side of the Rover's cab and banged on the door and motioned for Yale to stop the vehicle. He then called out to the group loudly and clearly.
"Now listen up, people! We're heading back!"
Danziger shared his "dream" with Yale and Julia on the trip back to the Terrian cave they had tracked the children to that morning. To be certain that it wasn't a just a dream, Alonzo had gone to the Dream Plane himself to hear what the Terrians had to say. He confirmed that they too had been experiencing dreams of genocide and that somehow Devon played an integral part in preventing this Armageddon. That was why they had approached the group about True. So they knew that Danziger had somehow managed to get to the Dream Plane on his own or was brought there somehow by Shepard, and that his dream wasn't just an invention of his guilt and worries. He had been given a glimpse of one possible terrible future. Devon was crucial to the prevention of that outcome. How no one was certain.
Exactly why Devon did not have an implant had been haunting everyone though it had remained a silent question that until now, no one had wanted to be the first to utter. Even Julia, the daughter of a highly placed Council member bore an implant. Apparently the Council didn't even trust their own. Yale emphatically denied that Devon was in anyway involved with the Council. In fact, prior to her parents death and the birth of her son, she had been quite vocal in matters of reformation on the Stations. If not caught up in the grief of losing her parents and searching for a way to prevent her child's impending death, she would have been a major thorn in the side of the Council. Even more than she ended up being when she had pushed for the Eden Project.
Perhaps that was the key there. Devon Adair was one of the few people who had the money, the power, and the chutzpah to take on the Council and successfully lead a coup. Being from one of the founding families of the Stations, she would be quite capable of rallying support from the other political families. Such a challenge could shake the Council's power, if not topple it completely. In Devon Adair, the Terrians would have a powerful advocate and the Council a serious problem.
"Now you know you don't have to do this, True-girl."
Danziger knelt down on one knee and quietly reassured his child as he held her small hands in his giant ones. They had arrived at the Terrian cave just as night was falling. Morgan had whined about walking in circles but had quickly shut up upon seeing Danziger's glare. The three Terrians from this morning were there at the entrance waiting for them. The group had finished setting up a temporary camp and stood a respectful distance from father and daughter so they could have some privacy.
"We can always try another way. Julia hasn't finished all her tests yet."
True nodded that she understood she wasn't obligated to do this.
"I wanna help Devon, Dad. Besides, Uly says it isn't that bad." Leaning towards him until their foreheads met, she whispered conspiratorially. "I can't let him think I'm a sissy."
Despite his own concerns and doubts, Danziger had to smile at his child's bravado. She was such a formidable child who would grow up to be an unstoppable woman. Alonzo quietly came up to them.
"John, it's time."
Looking over up at the pilot he asked once more if he could accompany True. Alonzo shook his head no.
"The Terrians said just True."
Sighing, Danziger rubbed True's hands and kissed them.
"Okay baby, it's time for you to go. Remember, if you change your mind or get scared, holler and I'll come get you."
Danziger stood as True headed towards the Terrians. The group silently watched as she entered the cave with two of the Terrians. Walking between them she looked so tiny. One Terrian remained. Whether to stand vigil with the humans or to guard the cave entrance was unknown.
"You tell them..."
His voice choked with emotion and eyes full of unshed tears, Danziger clamped his massive hand on Alonzo's shoulder in a vise-like grip. Alonzo hissed in pain but managed to keep standing although his knees were shaking with the effort.
"You tell them that if anything happens to her, I'll kill them."
Alonzo gazed up at the mechanic's face. It was twisted in love and anguish as he watched his only child disappear into the cave with the Terrians. He reached up and squeezed the hand on his shoulder trying to be reassuring.
"They know, John. They know."
Realizing that he was inflicting pain on his friend, Danziger quickly loosened his hold on Alonzo's shoulder and muttered an apology.
"That's alright, man. Let's go sit by the fire and grab a cup of Joe while we wait. This will take a while."
Staring at the entrance as if he could make True appear by sheer will, he finally nodded and headed back to the make-shift camp. Al watched him shuffle down the slight incline. Defeat radiated from every pore. He already thinks he's lost her, he thought to himself. He glanced back over his shoulder at the impassive Terrian once more before following Danziger.
True and the two Terrians walked in single file with one Terrian leading the way and the other bringing up the rear. Being sandwiched between the two towering aliens carrying spears panicked her a bit. Was she still a volunteer, or a prisoner now? What if she changed her mind, would they let her go? She remembered Yale talking about cultural differences once. Where she might feel like a prisoner being lead to a cell, they might be trying to show her respect. Or they might not be doing anything but walking.
As they made their way deeper into the cave, she noticed that the Terrians adjusted their gait to match hers. Which she was thankful for. Looking at their long legs, she doubted she would have been able to keep up without jogging. Her dad always did the same thing. He never made her run either. After making several turns down many different corridors, she doubted she would ever find her way back alone. Maybe that's why they had her in the middle. So she wouldn't get lost.
Finally the passageway opened up into a large chamber. It glowed in the soft steady light of the sunstones. The walls were lined with notched out spaces where the Terrians slept. To her left was a pit similar to the one she'd heard described by both Uly and Yale. A thick white fog drifted up from it. The loamy smell of fresh turned earth filled the air. Her Terrian escort now stood on either side of her. They appeared to be waiting. Soon nearly a dozen more Terrians entered the chamber. They formed a circle around her and regarded her silently.
They trilled back and forth amongst themselves, possibly discussing her. True pulled the cuffs of her long sleeves over her hands and nervously twisted the edges in her fingers. She wished there was another human present. That would have made her feel better. Suddenly the Terrians stopped talking. Whatever they had been discussing, they had reached a decision. One of them stepped into the circle and stood before her. She thought it might be the one that had lead the way to the chamber, but she wasn't sure. It was still hard to distinguish one Terrian from another. Did all humans look alike to them?
The circle opened and the Terrian motioned towards the pit. True walked to it's edge and tried to see through the mist that wafted up from it. Unable to see a thing, her active imagination conjured up several monstrous creatures as possible inhabitants. Her right hand came up to her mouth and she energetically set to gnawing on her thumbnail. The Terrian came up beside her and then did an extraordinary thing for a Terrian. He offered her his hand. She stared up at the huge being and then removed her thumb from her mouth and gingerly placed her hand in his. Expecting it to feel dry and rough, she was surprised to find it was warm and springy like dense moss. It definitely didn't feel like a human hand but it didn't feel gross either.
Holding her hand, the Terrian began to descend into the pit. True took a few steps and soon found herself ankle deep in a thick soupy mixture. Not made of mud but sand. It felt like a warm bath. There was an unseen rock staircase that lead down into the pit. She was fine until the stuff was up to her chest. Now human instinct took over and she feared drowning. She stood on a hidden step and froze, unable to continue. The Terrian let go of her hand and walked on until he disappeared under the muck. Before she could wonder if she had failed some test, she felt the Terrian's massive hands close around her ankles. Instead of opting for a scream, True sucked in a deep breath, closed her eyes and grabbed her nose just before she was yanked under by the Terrian.
After aimlessly picking at a meal that no one other than Morgan ate, Danziger retired to the perimeter of the camp. He sat on one of the rocks that the planet was decorated with. He turned up the collar of his jacket to keep the night air off his neck. Even though the long awaited spring had arrived, the evenings in this arid plain were still cool. He hoped True was warm enough. She'd gone in the cave wearing only a long sleeved light fibre shirt. Closing his eyes, an imagine of his daughter appeared in his mind then slowly it faded and turned into her mother. What would Elle say to him? Would she rail against him for allowing their child to make this decision? Or would she smile, take his hand and argue with him over who True inherited her stubbornness from?
With his elbows resting on his knees, he cupped his forehead in his palms and silently prayed. He'd started doing a lot more praying since the crash. He didn't do it that often back on the Stations. It wasn't from a lack of faith, he'd just got tired of being ignored. The day Elle died he learned that prayers weren't always answered the way you hoped for. Sometimes you had to accept a compromise. He'd lost the woman he loved, but in return he gained a child. When he'd held that tiny baby for the first time, the grief began to fade and love once more filled his heart. He didn't want to think how he would have managed alone. True had been his salvation. Now he was terrified of the compromise he might be forced to accept this time, and whether he had the strength to bear it.
"Ahem...Am I disturbing you?"
Danziger opened his eyes but didn't move. This was not the sign he was hoping for. He wasn't in the mood for company--especially Morgan Martin's. Brushing his hair from his face as he sat up, he gave Morgan his harshest glare. The eerie play of light from the twin moons hanging high in the night sky only added to the intensity of his features.
"As a matter of fact, you are."
The gruff tone he used was usually sufficient in sending Morgan scurrying for Bess' protection.
Morgan turned to make good his retreat, but Bess stood in the outer perimeter of the glow cast by the campfire watching. She shooed him back. Morgan motioned towards Danziger, shrugged and took another step towards his wife. Bess shook her head and pointed emphatically at Danziger. Spreading his arms wide in a beseeching manner, Morgan gave Bess his best helplessly pitiful look. Unmoved, she planted her hands on her hips and shot Morgan a stern look. Her petite foot stomped the sandy soil. Realizing he'd lost the pantomime argument, he turned resolutely back to Danziger who had been oblivious to the silently feuding couple.
Morgan brushed down the front of his battered jacket out of nervous habit. It desperately was in need of a good washing and pressing. Then it would be fit for the incinerator. He considered other options for approaching the surly mechanic. This was difficult since normally Morgan's goal was to avoid John Danziger not engage him in chit chat. He was certain that if not for Bess' presence, an "accident" would have befallen him shortly after rejoining the group. Clearing his throat several times and shifting antsily from foot to foot, Morgan made another attempt at conversation.
"Boy, cold night, huh?"
He tried to form a smile, but it came out more like a twitch. Even that disappeared when Danziger looked up. Eyes darted anxiously about in every direction except into that laser hot stare, Morgan frantically tried to figure out what was wrong with his last comment. He had read that the weather was always considered a safe neutral topic when humans lived on Earth. Knowing that retreat was impossible with Bess waiting to pounce on him, he took a deep breath and decided to try an unusual tactic--the truth.
Leaning forward as far as he dared so Bess' sharp ears wouldn't pick up his words, Morgan hoped that Danziger wouldn't just reach out and grab him by the throat.
"Look, um, Bess thinks you shouldn't be alone at a time like this, see. She thinks you need someone to confide in."
Danziger didn't speak or lessen the intensity of his stare. Giving a twittery chuckle, Morgan continued.
"And, ur, ah, she's got it in her head that that someone is me."
Danziger snorted, either in amusement or disgust. Reaching the point where he didn't care what happened next, Morgan meet Danziger's hard stare with one of his own and went for broke.
"Yeah, she's naive like that. Thinks this would be a good opportunity for you and me to bond and build a friendship. --So how about cutting me some slack, okay?"
In spite of his acrimonious feelings for Morgan, Danziger caught himself starting to smile. Maybe a mouse can become a man. Especially when there's someone like Bess prodding him on he thought as he glanced towards the camp where the young woman stood watching.
"Okay, sit down but keep your trap shut." He grumbled.
Moving to sit on an adjacent rock, Morgan muttered under his breath.
"Gee thanks, don't do me any favors."
True was confused. A moment ago she was being pulled under warm soupy sand by an otherwise friendly Terrian. Now she stood in the middle of a desert that stretched out as far as she could see. "Whoa..." She uttered softly as she turned around in circles surveying the vast granular sea. Was *this* the Dream Plane? Something felt wrong. She stopped her rotation when she realized what was bothering her. It had been night when she went into the Terrian Cave. Now it was daytime. High noon she figured looking down at the ground. She wasn't casting a shadow. Even for high noon the light looked funny. It was very bright yet it wasn't hot like that other desert they'd crossed. Shading her eyes with her hand, she scanned the sky above with a squinted gaze. No sun to be seen. The light just came from everywhere at once.
A noise drew her attention back downward. Blinking to clear the dancing kaleidoscope of spots from her vision, it took a few seconds before she could focus on the source of the noise. Winding intricate figure eights between her legs and voicing the occasional meow was a cat. With long gray fur, white paws, and golden eyes, it was an exact replica of the cat she'd dreamed most recently about on the long cold sleep to this planet. That cat in fact was patterned after the first cat she'd seen in a VR program on the Stations. ....VR.....Suddenly suspicious, she reached up and felt around her head and eyes. When she didn't encounter the familiar feel of VR gear, and when the connection didn't break or skip, she was satisfied that in some way this was real. More real than VR anyway.
She looked back down and watched the cat sit down and start to preen itself. "Hey, kitty." She greeted softly not wanting to frighten it away. The cat stopped its primping and looked up at her expectantly. True smiled then knelt down and opened her arms. The cat obediently leaped into them and settled down into a comfortable ball. True petted and scratched behind its ears till it began to purr loudly and its eyes shrank to mere slits of contentment. Mesmerized by the feel of the cat's silky fur and the vibrations its purring produced against her body, she sank down to the sand and lavioused attention on the small animal. The hows and whys of the situation forgotten as well as the missing Terrian.
"Are you always so kind to new friends?"
The deep softly accented male voice startled True. Giving a little jump and stifling her scream to a squeak, she held the cat close to her chest. Both she and the cat looked up at the intruder and gauged his threat potential. True immediately recognized the convict Shepard though now he wasn't wearing an eye patch and look of serenity soften his once harsh features. She'd heard her father mention seeing Shepard in his dreams so she wasn't too surprised to see him here and was only a little scared. Not really sure what to say to a ghost, she muttered a "hi".
"May I join you?" He asked and flashed her a friendly smile.
"I guess." She answered not too enthusiastically.
Shepard folded his frame into a cross-legged position sitting directly across from her. "You're a very brave young lady."
"I'm a member of the group." She asserted lifting her chin slightly. "I'm just doing my part." Then lowering her eyes she added softly. "I owe Devon. She never abandoned my dad. Not once."
"I know. Devon's very fond of your father. I was worried that that affection had been misplaced."
True's wary gaze harden to flint at the slur towards her father. "Hey! My dad never welshed on nobody!" True scrambled to her feet and stomped off into the wasteland. Ghost or no ghost, she refused to hang around anyone who would bad mouth a great guy like her dad.
"Please don't go." Shepard called out after her. "I apologize profusely. I meant no disrespect. The doubt was only in my mind, not a reflection on your father's integrity."
True stopped and turned around. She regarded him with a hard stare and a matching frown. Finally deciding that he was sincere with his apology and figuring she didn't really have anyplace else to go, she came back and plopped down in the sand. After a short uncomfortable silence, she asked him if this was the Dream Plane. Shepard nodded and asked her what she thought of it.
She surveyed the sandy infinite hills around them pensively. "It's kinda boring." She finally ventured. "Except for the cat." She added hastily. Afraid it might disappear into thin air if she appeared ungrateful.
Shepard chuckled. "And what did you expect it to be like?"
True shrugged. Already growing weary with the conversation. "Where'd that Terrian guy go?" She asked instead.
Shepard pointed his index finger at the cat in her arms and gave it a wink. True's hand paused in mid-pet and looked at it warily."I didn't know they could change."
"Well, they can't. Not for real anyway." He said to put her at ease. "But here a lot more is possible than out there. They thought you would be more comfortable with, say a cat then a Terrian. That's all."
The cat/terrian batted impatiently at True's arm. Obeying the silent command, she automatically resumed petting it. "I thought they were going to change me. When does that start?"
"Oh, they already started. The Dream Plane is the heart of the planet. See, physically you're still in the Terrian pit. It's only your soul or spirit that is here."
True converted the metaphysical implications into the only comparable concept she knew of. "So it *is* kinda like VR." Her heart beated a little faster at the thought of still being under all that sand. Logic dictated that she should be suffocating. Even she grasped that. Could this all be an oxygen deprived hallucination? Nervously she pulled her bottom lip between her teeth.
Sensing her apprehension, Shepard reached out and patted her knee reassuringly. "You will be fine." He insisted. "You just need to stay here awhile and let the planet get to know you. Give some of it a chance to soak into you. That way it will become familiar with you and recognize you as one of its own. Then it wouldn't try to reject you."
"Okay. That's easy. For how long?" Her concern now about boredom instead of suffocation.
"A few hours." He held up his hand in a stopping motion before she could air the whine that was perched on her lips. "Now don't frown! That's why I'm here. To save you from your ennui."
True had no idea what "anwee" was but it sounded boring. Shepard smile and made a flourish with his left hand. A small red ball appeared between his thumb and forefinger. "How'd you do that!" She laughed. "Magic!" He responded and then swept the sand between then with his right hand revealing a harden surface just below it. "Have you ever played jacks?" He inquired. "No? Katrina was quite fond of it. I shall teach you, alright?" True nodded and scooched a little closer. She decided that as weird as it might sound, the dead Shepard was a lot less scarier than the live one had been.
Danziger and Morgan had sat in a surprisingly amicable silence throughout the long vigil. Morgan wasn't too bad when he wasn't yammering Danziger concluded. A prickling at his neck that had nothing to do with the cool night air caused him to look up. There at the entrance of the cave stood the sentential Terrian and the two others who had taken True inside. One of them now held her limp body in his arms. Danziger sprang to his feet and charged up the hill. Morgan called down to the camp before he too hurried up to the awaiting Terrians.
When Danziger reached the Terrians, the one holding True immediately offered her to him. Danziger cradled the sand encrusted girl in his arms. They'd buried her! He knew that part of the process would have entailed immersion into the earth, but to be confronted with the sight of his child caked in grime was heart stopping. He sank to his knees and hastily worked to wipe her face clear of the gooey stuff.
"Come on baby, breath for me. Breath for daddy." When True didn't respond to his hoarse plea, Danziger shook her by the shoulder. "Come on True! Don't do this to me sweetheart. Don't leave me!" Oblivious to the numerous eyes that watched his frantic actions, Danziger started to administer CPR. Determinately he attempted to give life to his child a second time.
Julia elbowed her way past several horrified crew members. She was stunned by the sight of the inert child and the desperate man as well. The group released their collectively held breath as the sound of a choked cough followed by deep wheezing gasps greeted their ears. Danziger gathered True up in his arms and rocked her back and forth.
"That's it sweetie. Keep breathing. Deep breaths. Everything's alright." He babbled on for her benefit and his own. He opened his tightly closed eyes when he felt something being draped around True's shoulders.
"She should be kept warm." Morgan muttered as he tucked his coat around her.
Released from her immobility, Julia rushed to Danziger's side. "John? We need to take her back to camp so I can examine her. Okay?" Julia anxiously gazed into the man's distraught face. Hopefully her words made it through his emotion swamped brain to some rational part that remained. Slowly he focused on her and nodded that he understood. "I'll carry her." He croaked. Julia rubbed his shoulders in a comforting gesture. "Let's take her to the med tent."
Julia and Morgan helped Danziger to his feet. They were followed back to camp by the others until only Alonzo, Mazatl and the Terrians remained. One of the Terrians trilled at Alonzo. He exchanged respectful head bows with them and then they turned as one and disappeared into their dark abode. Alonzo turned around and was surprised to find that Matzl had remained behind. He walked down to join him.
"What did they say?" Mazatl inquired.
Stopping and gazing at the deserted cave entrance, Alonzo replied quietly. "They said that they have done all they could. The rest is up to us now."
Physician's voice log recording:
//It's been 3 days since True Danziger came out of the Terrian cave. While she shows no outward evidence of the genetic changes made to her DNA, the cellular test results are irrefutable. The changes to her DNA are more subtle than Uly's but definitely less dramatic than my own catastrophic experiment. The Terrians seem to understand human physiology far better than we understand Terrian. I refer to changes, but in fact, her original DNA structure remains intact and has not been altered at all. The 8th and the 22nd chromosome shows an additional cell structure added to them. This additional structure appears to be benign and inactive. It is too early to tell if they will remain so. The closest human analogy I can compare them with is that they appear to be cellular "flags" that we use in human genetics.
After piecing together Danziger's and True's conversations with Shepard and some of my own observations, I feel confident enough to hazard a theory on what these cell structures do. I believe that this planet is a living organism. The Gaia theory has been around for over 250 years. Only G889 takes it beyond any human's imagination or experience. I will stop short of saying that this planet is sentient, but it is at least aware of itself and its surrounding on an amoeba like level. Humans or any other non-native entities would be viewed as hostile and the planet would react in kind. Just like our bodies produce antibodies to fend off attacking viruses and bacteria. These flag cells may act as identifying tags which allow the planet's defenses to be fooled into thinking the individual is a natural part of the planet. Essentially, the Terrians have inoculated True.
Shepard's group was taken in by the Terrians that first winter. Close proximity to the Terrians may have afforded them some protection. This may explain why they are frighten to venture above ground much. Those who left probably grew ill the farther and longer they stayed away. They may not have understood why, but they definitely could surmise that they were safe only with the Terrians close at hand. Even Gaal likely was protected by the prolonged exposure with the Terrians that he held captive. And of course, any individual who has an implant is protected by Eve so long as she continues to remain functioning and does not disrupt transmissions. There may even be a few who's own immunity system is strong enough to fend off the planet's attacks. Though I find that difficult to imagine.
With regards to the implants. I now know why Devon didn't have one. It is my belief that she *did* have an implant when we first arrived here. After only 3 days, True's implant has ceased functioning and her body is in the process of absorbing it. Uly's implant is also missing. Something in the Terrian DNA must direct the human immune system to attack it. Since Uly was Devon's child and spent the most time with her even sleeping with her at times, I've concluded that exposure to Uly had caused Devon's implant to break down and be absorbed. Only since Uly isn't fully Terrian, he couldn't offer her total protection from the assaulting antigens of the planet.
I did not check each person individually after Elizabeth's death. I merely assumed that everyone had one since we all recovered, except Devon. Uly's illness must have been an empathic response to his mother's illness. Just as now his immune system is attempting to reject the planet for harming his mother. Very sloppy work, I know. Dr. Vasquez would give me a severe dressing down if he were here. I have no excuse for my incompetence. I only hope I haven't cost Devon her life.//
"Being kind of hard on yourself, aren't you?" Alonzo asked as he leaned casually against the frame of the med tent.
Julia pulled off her gear and racked agitated fingers through her already disheveled hair. "I should have caught that." She replied brusquely.
Refusing to look in his direction, she pushed herself away from the lab table and arbitrarily began to rearrange the various slides and vials that littered its surface. Alonzo could tell by her demeanor that she'd closed herself off. He hated it when she tried to hide the warm, caring, vital woman she really was in that cold clinical shell the Council had custom built for her.
"So you missed something." He stated.
Ignoring him, she continued berating herself. "How could I have been so careless? So unprofessional? So..so..."
"Human?" He volunteered when she seemed to be at a loss for adjectives.
Alonzo sauntered forward and placed his hands on her rigid shoulders. When her body didn't relax and accept the comfort he tried to give her, his own temper flared briefly. He couldn't stand it when she acted as if he had no affect on her. Emotions can't be flipped off and on like a lumalight. He slide his hands down her arms and pulled her tense body against his. He refused to allow her to drive him away. Leaning down he planted a soft kiss on her neck and whispered gently in her ear.
"You made a mistake..."
Acting like he'd bitten her, she jerked free of his embrace and stared coldly at him. "I wasn't bred to make mistakes." She said flatly. Turning her attention back to the table, she picked up a hypodermic gun. Looking around as if unsure what she meant to do with it, she carefully placed it back down in the exact spot she had gotten it from. Alonzo watched her jittery movements. She hadn't acted this on edge since injecting herself with Terrian DNA. She needed to bend or else she'd break.
"Go ahead." He urged.
Looking over her shoulder she shot him a puzzled look. "What?"
He nodded towards the discarded hypodermic gun. "Go ahead and throw it. You'll feel better."
"Are you crazy? I'm not going to throw a valuable piece of medical equipment. It's not like I can run down to the dispensary and get a new one!" Her anger finally began peeking around the edges of her placid mask. "I'm not a child, Alonzo. I don't indulge in temper tantrums!"
"Have you ever?" He asked her softly.
Brought up short by the serious tone of his question, she nervously tucked a fly away strand of hair behind her ear before answering. "No. Such tendencies were culled from my genetic makeup before fertilization even occurred."
Letting his anger have free reign, he grabbed her by the upper arms and shook her. "Dammit Julia! Stop talking about yourself like you were a lab rat! I've seen you naked."
She tried to yank herself free of his grasp but he wouldn't release her. "What the hell does *that* have to do with this?!" She yelled. All pretense of calm dropped.
Satisfied at his success of getting an emotional response out of her, Alonzo soften his tone. "I didn't mean unclothed. I meant I've seen you vulnerable. You've shown me the woman you keep hidden behind that mask you wear. Believe me, I couldn't feel anything for an android."
Trying to make him understand, she pleaded with him. "Alonzo, I can't deny what I am."
"No you can't. You can't deny your *humanity*, Julia. Part of being human is we screw up occasionally."
She shook her head as if trying to clear it. "Alonzo, I..."
"*Say* it Julia. I-made-a-mistake."
She tried not to look into his intense stare but her eyes kept being drawn back into their mahogany depths. What if he were right? Could she be just as human as the rest, not a genetic freak? He certainly believed so. Or was he merely justifying his male ego? She *was* different, but was she better?
Walman strolled into the tent with the others trailing behind. It was time for the briefing Julia had promised them on True's condition and the lab results. The sight of Alonzo holding Julia by the elbows and the look of Julia on the verge of tears, caused the amicable young fellow to frown.
"Everything okay, Julia?"
This time Alonzo let her go when she slowly pulled free of him. Taking a deep shaky breath, she turned to face the inquisitive stares.
"Fine. I'm fine." Crossing her arms and giving Alonzo a warm look, she added. "It seems I made a mistake though."
Julia finished her report on her findings and theories on Terrian DNA, the planet, it's reaction to alien presences, and possibly why Devon appeared to not have an implant. A stunned silence followed her dissertation as the group tried to come to grips with this new perspective. Yale was the first to break the quiet. Leaning forward in his seat, he fixed Julia with the look a professor gives a pupil he is quizzing.
"So what you're saying is the planet is a living system and reacts to us like our bodies would to a bacterial or viral invasion?"
Julia nodded and then added, " True's Terrian altered DNA acts as a mask and should fool the planet into thinking we are Terrians or any other indigenous life form."
Yale sat back in his chair. "Amazing." Then he pensively tapped his index finger against his lips. "Not only is this planet teeming with life...it *is* life."
Morgan was unable to share in Yale's scholarly appreciation and he gave voice to his unease. "Well, I'm not so sure I like the idea of a living planet. Kind of creepy. It seems so...unnatural." Several wide-eyed people nodded their agreement.
"So Julia, how would you classify a volcanic eruption? A belch or a fart?"
The nervous tension in the group immediately dissipated as Walman's offhanded remark elicited chuckles and guffaws. Baines and Cameron thumped Walman's back amicably while Mangus and Denner shook their heads and rolled their eyes heavenward in silent appeal for freedom from sophomoric male toilet humor. Slightly pink in the face, Julia shrugged her shoulders as she picked up a hypodermic gun and pulled her hair away exposing the nape of her neck.
"What are you doing?" Alonzo asked sharply as he grabbed her arm and stopped her.
Julia was a little surprised by his testiness. "We need to test an adult subject to see if it will be effective before Devon is revived."
Morgan coughed nervously. "Is that such a good idea?" He sputtered. "Remember what happened the last time you tried that."
Julia turned a deeper red at the reminder of her past Council connections. It seemed like a life time ago but she was still uncomfortable talking about it.
"Yes Julia, I must agree with Morgan." Yale interjected. "Though for different reasons." He added as he gave Morgan a disapproving stare before turning back to face the young woman. "You are our only doctor. If something goes wrong with you, we would not be able to help you. Someone else should take the injection."
Danziger moved forward with a sober expression on his face. "True's my daughter. I'm not going anywhere without her. If it turns out she can't ever leave then neither am I."
Julia tried to extract her wrist from Alonzo's firm yet gentle grip as she addressed Danziger over her shoulder. "That's precisely why you wouldn't make a good test subject. You're genetically related to her. The injection might not cause any derogatory effects in you but someone else not genetically linked to her, like Devon, could suffer severe, irreparable side effects, even death."
Danziger nodded in understanding and looked at the others. They were a group now, even if they weren't all friends all the time. There was no way he could order someone to risk his or her life, or future. That was just asking too much.
"Then I'll take it. I've always been pretty lucky. Managed to beat the odds with cold sleep dementia."
Julia met Alonzo's casual expression with a stunned one of her own. He was offering to stay! Or to die, the detached clinical part of her whispered to the young womanly part. Once again, Yale came to her rescue when she found herself at a loss for words.
"Alonzo, you heard Julia." He reminded gently. " She's uncertain of the depth of the potential link with the planet. You might not be able to leave if you take that injection. Are you prepared for that?"
Alonzo answered Yale, but never took his eyes off of Julia's as he spoke. "I can think of worse places to be stuck." His fingers lightly stroked the fingers of her hand that held the hypo. His statement gave Julia the push she needed to find her voice.
"You *have* to be certain. I won't have you resenting me in the future because of an unthought out decision based on the premise that you could be stranded 'in worse places.'" Her angry retort took him by surprise so she was easily able to yank her hand free of his. "Who knows what might happen? What if we decide there is no future for us? What if something happens to me?"
Alonzo's brown eyes filled with hurt and confusion. He took a step towards her and tried to address her in a hushed voice meant only for her ears. "Julia...."
"No, I will take the injection."
The entire group gaped in shock as Mazatl stood and made his declaration. He was bombarded with stunned looks and inquiries.
"I have learned these past months that the Terrians and my people have much in common." The quiet man stated softly. "My ancestors lived in harmony with the Earth. Treated it with the respect due to a mother. We too lived in Dream Time." Turning to Alonzo he added, "I confess I have been jealous of you. Why did they not chose me?" Alonzo shook his head in mute helplessness. Mazatl took a deep breath and continued. "If things degrade here and the Terrians and the Council end up at war, I know which side I will be on. Coming from a culture that was invaded and destroyed by a people seeking a 'new world' myself, my conscience would not allow me to do otherwise. It would be an insult to the memory and spirits of my ancestors."
Julia walked over to Mazatl and motioned for him to sit in a nearby chair. She laid her hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. "You're certain?" She asked one last time. He nodded and she pressed the hypoderm to his neck.
Excerpt from Yale's voice log:
No negative effects have been detected in either True or Mazatl. Julia is still concerned about possible long term consequences but for Uly's sake and group moral, we feel that Devon would want us to try. So Julia, Alonzo, and Danziger have taken the rail and gone back to the Council ship to revive Devon. Uly is unhappy because he was not allowed to go along but we must be prepared for failure and I do not think it is right for the boy to witness the loss of his mother a second time. I pray for their safety and success.
"Warning. Perimeter guards active. Stay clear. Warning..."
Danziger stood before the derelict ship amazed that he was here so soon after leaving. In a way it had felt like a final goodbye. He spoke the release code into the mouthpiece of his gear. The idle hum of the lasers made a slight whine as they powered down and the warning message ceased. Quietly the trio walked up and entered the ship. It was exactly as they had left it.
The softly illuminated interior had them speaking in hushed church whispers. Danziger and Alonzo moved to separate stations to bring the main power online and to start the resuscitation program. Julia stood before the cryo-unit that contained Devon Adair. Frost had formed on the outside of the glass door nearly concealing the woman from view. Reverently she removed Uly's Terrian staff from the door. She ran her hand along the tattered strips of rags tied to it silently appealing to anyone who might be listening. Then she turned and introduced the genetic material into the pharmaceutical component attached to Devon's sleep unit. She would have preferred injecting Devon with it after the revival process but given her deteriorated condition, Julia doubted she would survive the process without any immediate help. Hopefully, the DNA would not be corrupted or compromised by the crynotic drugs already in Devon's system. Intensely she watched as Devon's vital statistics scrolled across the monitor next to the sleep unit.
"Make sure you don't go over a half a degree per five minute cycle. I don't want a big jump in her core temperature to shock her system."
She pulled her sleeve down over her hand and wiped the condensation from the outside of the cryo-chamber. Somehow being able to see Devon was more reassuring than the far more informative readouts.
Danziger looked up from the systems control panel and frowned. "That's nearly a twelve hour reanimation period. Aren't you being too cautious?"
Not taking his eyes off the power system monitor Alonzo answered for her. "You're worried about cryo-dementia."
Julia nodded in response even though he wasn't looking at her. "A total bodily systems shutdown is not the optimum conditions to be put into a hibernation state. The body's stressed enough. Bring her up too quickly and she could go into cardiac arrest."
"Yeah, but if you bring her up too slowly you risk putting her in a coma." Alonzo replied softly.
Julia started to ask how he knew so much about cryo-resuscitation when it dawned on her. If she'd spent over three fourths of her life in cryo-stasis, *she'd* want to be aware of all the risks involved herself.
"So she could come out of there either a raving lunatic or a vegetable?" Danziger grumbled. "Great. If I'd known sleep jumping was so dangerous I wouldn't have brought True. The docs on the Stations made it sound so S.O.P."
Julia sought to assure him. "Cryo-sleep is the safest, most economical way to transport people over vast distances of space. Like any other mode of travel, there are some inherent risks."
Pushing aside the ugly images dancing in his head, Danziger took his usual pragmatic approach to the situation at hand. "Well, we'll all go bug-eyed staring at these monitors for twelve hours straight. I'll see if I can jack my gear into all of of them. That way, one person can monitor all three on their gear. Each of us can take a turn while the other two rest."
Several hours later, Julia sat next to Devon's sleep unit watching the three systems' readouts rotate in her gear eyepiece. So far everything was going fine. The final cycle was getting ready to start now. Perhaps she was being over cautious but she had no desire to make anymore "mistakes". At least not medical ones. Danizger sat in a chair leaning back against the wall pretending to sleep. Alonzo was outside trying to contact the camp. Apparently the blackout zones could shift their boundaries unexpectedly. That would give the colonists communication headaches in the future when they spread out over the planet.
Suddenly an insistent beeping went off in Julia's ear piece and the control panel lights flashed in a frantic pattern. Julia popped up and tossed her gear aside and rechecked the panel beside the unit.
"Okay guys! It's getting ready to open up! I'm going to need help getting her out."
Alonzo hurried in from outside but Danziger was already standing in front of Devon's sleep unit. Impatiently he waited for the glass door to slide open. He reached in and lifted the unconscious woman in his arms. Even through his jacket, Danziger could feel the cold radiating from her. The feel of her cold cheek against his neck caused him to shiver and instinctively pull her closer in an attempt to give her some of his warmth. He had to keep telling himself there was no fear of hypothermia. The various chemicals in her body acted as antifreeze preventing her from becoming frozen solid. Though her extremities felt frigid, her core temperature was nearly normal. It would take a few more minutes for her reheated blood to reach every part of her body. Resisting the urge to keep her in his arms, he walked the few steps to the exam bed and carefully laid her down.
Julia slipped on her diagnostic glove. She ran her hand down Devon's body stopping at various key areas to assess the readings. She felt better being able to treat Devon with her own equipment rather than the antiquated ship's monitors.
"How's she doing?" Danziger asked as he hovered over Julia's shoulder.
"He pulse and respiration are well within normal." Julia frowned then tapped anxiously at the controls on the wrist of the glove. "Oh no....her alpha waves have stopped rising."
"She's in a coma?" Alonzo asked worriedly.
"Not yet. But if her alphas start to drop..."
"Can't you give her something? A stimulant?" Danziger asked his face tense.
"I'm trying to *clear* her system of chemicals, not add more." Julia responded irritably. "I don't want to risk rendering the antigen ineffectual."
"Yeah, but if she slips into a coma that'll make that argument a moot point." Alonzo insisted.
Julia chewed on her lower lip debating her next move. Finally she pulled out the hypoderm and loaded it with the mildest stimulant she had. It was the equivalent of a cup of very strong espresso. She hesitated a moment and then injected Devon. Any signs of change were watched for on her glove. Devon's pulse and blood pressure jumped up in response to the stimulant but her alpha waves remained the same. Frustrated, Julia reached out with her gloveless hand and gave Devon's cheek a firm slap.
"Devon?! Can you hear me?!"
Danziger grasped Julia by the shoulders and gently moved her aside. "Here, let me try something." He muttered. The burly man laid a hand on either side of the unconscious woman and leaned forward until his nose nearly touched hers. Julia had the faint impression that he was going to kiss Devon. Instead, he yelled.
"Adair! Wake up!" He barked. "It's been 19 days and we've haven't even gone 10 klicks! Alonzo's teaching Uly how to play poker and pick up women in bars! Half the group wants to give up and settle in a nearby valley!" He paused to gauge the effect, if any, his words had on her. Then he turned his head and leaned even closer until his lips brushed her ear and her hair tickled his nose. Then in his deep gravelly voice he played his ace. "Hey Adair." He growled. "I'm not wearing my gear. I'm *never* going to wear it again and there's nothing you can do about it lying flat on your back."
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Alonzo couldn't help but laugh at Danziger's tactics. If that didn't get a rise out of her, they might as well bury her now. Julia was about to ask them both if they'd lost their minds when Devon turned her head and her eyelids fluttered briefly.
Devon's mouth and throat muscles worked to form words but her tongue felt swollen and her mouth was so very dry. Her eyes finally focused on the rugged face that was mere centimeters from hers. Her brows drew together in vexation.
"What do you mean, 'you've only gone 10 klicks?!'" She demanded hoarsely.
Danziger didn't reply. He just grinned. "Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty."
Julia edged him aside and quickly took several readings. Devon grabbed Julia's glove forcing the woman to meet her gaze.
"Where's Uly?" Her motherly instinct coming to the fore.
"Devon, he's back at camp. Just let me make sure you're stabilized and we'll tell you everything, okay?"
Devon released Julia and looked at the other two. Here were three faces she'd thought to never see again. Who was she kidding? She never thought to see any faces ever again. Had this planet performed another miracle? Maybe they should consider naming the planet Serendipity she thought woozily. She found herself smiling at the thought.
Devon sat in the front passenger seat of the rail with her knees tucked up under her chin. Valiantly she tried to keep her teeth from chattering madly. Even with the others' jackets draped over her, she still shivered uncontrollably. She knew that the sensation was more psychological that physiological, but that didn't change the fact that she felt like a living snowman. Julia kept leaning forward from the back to check her vitals about every five minutes it seemed like. Devon herself was unconcerned. Just as before when she sensed that her death was close at hand, she now somehow knew that the danger had passed. All that she cared about now was getting back to her son and holding him once more. She tried to make sense of the jumbled story the three had tried to tell her all at once. Somehow Shepard had taken a hand in her rescue. Quietly she offered up a prayer of thanks to him. The other person she had to thank was True. Looking over at John in the moonlite night, she pulled her wind-tossed hair from her face.
"I can't believe you allowed True to take such a chance."
"I didn't. She insisted. I was dead set against it." Came his clipped answer.
"I'm sorry to say, I wouldn't have risked Uly for your sake, John even if he had insisted." She said this honestly hoping he could tell she didn't hold his parental concern against him.
"If you had," Danziger grumbled, "I would have taken you over my knee and beaten some sense into you."
Deciding to join the conversation, Alonzo lead forward between the two front seats. "So Devon, I guess this makes you a Danziger now, huh?" Alonzo smiled like a Cheshire cat when both John and Devon looked at him incredulously and hollered simultaneously, "What?!"
"Well, True's got your genes, and now Devon's got True's genes in her." He continued pointing first at Danziger.and then at Devon. "That makes you guys related, right?"
"I don't think so..." Devon replied weakly, the color draining from her face.
Ignoring Danziger's darkly threatening glare, Alonzo leaned back in his seat and folded his arms across his chest and turned his boyish smile towards Julia. "What *would* their genetic relationship be, Julia? Father-daughter? Brother-sister? ...Kissing cousins?"
Julia glanced at the older couple in front of her. Devon looked torn between fainting and jumping out of the moving rail. She was more concerned with Danziger's frame of mind. He looked ready to climb back here and separate Alonzo's head from his shoulders with his bare hands.
"No...no." She insisted. "Genetically they aren't related. Except for the Terrian flag chromosomes, True's altered DNA is inert. Only Devon's would be passed on to any offspring."
Relief and an awkward silence permeated the couple up front as they both turned back to face the front. Julia nudged Alonzo with her elbow and then inclined her head towards his. "Why must you torment them?" She scowled softly.
"Cause it's fun!" He laughingly replied loud enough for the others to hear.
Danziger pressed hard on the accelerator sending the rail racing through the night as he cataloged new uses for his favorite #9 wrench.
The sun was just cresting the hills on the right of the narrow rift that ran through these scraggy foothills leading back to camp. After periodic attempts to hail the others had failed, they decided to simply surprise everyone when they arrived. Devon watched the pinks and golds of the dawn blend with the blue of the sky and white of the clouds. It was so beautiful. How could people live all their lives without experiencing such an event? Some of the others preferred sunsets, but she was partial to sunrises. Sunsets were endings. Sunrises were beginnings. They heralded a fresh new day full of promise. She couldn't wait till they reached New Pacifica. Until they set up the colony. Until she could share the sunrise with all the other Syndrome children and their parents. To see hope shine in their faces once more.
Unable to contain this incredible feeling surging through her, Devon grabbed the dash of the rail and stood up startling the others.
"Adair! What the hell are you doing?! Sit down before you fall!" Danziger bellowed as he reached up and grabbed her by the belt in case she did fall.
Devon beamed down at him. "I don't want to sit down!" She hollered back laughing. "I want to stand up and shout! I want to do silly irresponsible things! I want the wind in my hair!" She laughed again as she tossed her wildly flailing auburn hair out of her eyes.
Worriedly Julia sat forward and tugged on Devon jacket. "Devon please sit down! I think you're having a toxic reaction to the altered DNA. That's why you're having these feelings of euphoria!"
"No she's not!" Alonzo said as he too stood up hooking his arm around the roll bar. "Life's pretty sweet after a dance with death, eh Devon?!" He shouted over the roar of the wind and flashed her an ebullient smile. "Go ahead! Let the whole world know that Devon Adair's alive and kicking!" He tilted back his head and let loose with a cowboy-like whoop. Devon laughed and let out one of her own. Danziger and Julia exchanged we-are-the-last-sane-people-on-earth looks and then grinned in spite of themselves.
Apparently the planet didn't like such racket just after dawn because the earth in front of them jumped up and rained down on them in big clods of dirt and shattered rocks. Danziger just avoided a gaping hole that had opened up in front of the rail. He brought the vehicle to a semi-controlled skidding stop. Devon and Alonzo had dropped down to their seats when the dirt first started to pelt them.
"What was that?!" Danziger coughed as he brushed debris from his hair and face.
"Don't stop!" Alonzo shouted. "That was a mortar blast!"
Danziger trounced down on the accelerator and raced for the cover of a nearby rock formation. A second later there was another hole right where he'd stopped the rail a moment before.
"It's coming from the camp's direction." Julia noted detachedly as if being shot at was becoming part of the daily routine.
"Who'd be shooting at us from camp?" Devon asked, trying to peer around the rocks.
"Morgan." Danziger snarled. "He's probably on watch."
"Nay, he'd have shot his foot off first before he'd figure out the grenade launcher." Alonzo replied bringing the jumpers to his eyes and scanning the surrounding hills. "Besides, I doubt if Yale would trust him with it."
Grabbing the magpro, Danziger hopped out of the rail and started a creeping forward advance.
"John, where are you going?!" Devon demanded.
Reminding himself he was *really* glad that Devon was back with them, he took a deep breath then turned around to address her. "I"m going up around that bend to have a look at the camp and maybe figure out what's going on."
"I don't think that's necessary, John." Alonzo drawled. His tone covering the worry he felt. "It's not Morgan taking pot shots at us." He lowered the jumpers revealing deadly serious eyes. "It's a ZED."
Danziger snatched the jumpers from the pilot's grasp and frantically scanned the hills hoping Alonzo had imagined what he'd seen. Finally he caught sight of a lone ZED. It faced his direction and its dead eyes bored through the jumper's lenses into Danziger's soul. It was unafraid. It was always unafraid. It knew that it was out of magpro range and didn't care if it was spotted. Danziger watched as that ZED was joined by another. The mechanic felt like he'd just stepped out of an airlock without a suit on.
"DAMN!" He turned angry eyes on Devon. "Your dead lover lied to me."
"Shepard is not my lover." Devon hissed. "What's wrong?"
"Well, he still lied. He said if True were altered by the Terrians and you were revived, it would change things. 'Pick another mountain he said!'" Came the snarling reply.
"You're not making any sense." Devon snapped at him while Alonzo and Julia exchanged looks of dread.
Reigning in his anger at Shepard's betrayal, Danziger soften his voice. "I didn't tell you everything I saw in that last dream, Devon. I didn't think it would be necessary." He paused remembering what he'd seen. "Shepard said that the camp would be attacked by six ZEDs."
"Six?!" She gasped. "We barely survived an attack by one!"
"Devon, the group didn't survive in the dream." He whispered.
A wild horror filled look crept across Devon's face as the meaning of his words sunk in. Giving a hoarse choking cry that sounded like "Uly," she tried to run towards the camp. Danziger caught her around the waist and tossed her not too gently into the backseat of the rail.
"You're staying put, Adair!" He hollered at her shaking his index finger in her face. "We just got you back."
"My son is out there!" She yelled back as she pulled herself out of the rail and tried to rush him, but he easily blocked her with his massive frame. Catching her by the upper arm with his free hand, he gave her a shake.
"You are not the only parent on this planet, Devon." He told her tersely. For a split second his hard features melted and reflected her own dread and fear.
"True..." She whispered falteringly.
Danziger nodded and once more his face grew hard. "You give orders real good. Why don't you try taking them for once?" He paused to give her a chance to snap back at him. When she didn't he continued. "We need to find out what condition the others are in and locate those other four ZEDs."
Devon stared into his eyes for nearly a full minute. Then she reached out for Danziger's coat and pulled out the gear set that was stuffed in the pocket. Setting it on her head, she turned on just the audio and tried to keep her voice from quavering as she spoke.
"Adair to Camp. Please respond."
After a pause it crackled to life and Denner's scared and surprised voice sounded in her ear. "Devon?! Where are you?"
Devon's eyes closed briefly as relief washed through her at the sound of a familiar voice. "We're about an eighth of a kilometer from camp. Right around the bend to the Northeast. Is anyone injured?"
There was a pause followed by the sound of a hand covering the mouth piece. Devon could tell that a hurried garbled discussion was taking place.
"Denner? Is everyone okay?" Devon demanded more firmly this time.
"Yeah, Devon. As far as we know. When the ZEDs started firing we scattered and got pinned down in several groups. Not all of us had gear on." The younger woman hesitantly explained.
Devon glanced at Danziger as if accusing him of being a bad influence on the others. "Denner, is Yale with you? Let me talk to him."
The sound of Magus' voice filled Devon's ear instead of Denner's this time. "Devon...the kids are the ones without their gear. Yale and Mazatl went out to look for them. Walman and Baines have been trying to draw the ZEDs' fire to keep them from locating the kids."
Devon pulled the gear off her head and pressed a trembling hand to her mouth as she fought for composure. She laid her hand on Danziger's arm. "Our children are out there--alone." Her voice cracked on the last word. Danziger wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her against him. He wasn't certain if he were trying to comfort Devon or trying to be comforted himself. A faint "Devon?" could be heard coming from the gear she still clutched in her right hand. Julia pulled on her own gear and continued to talk with Denner and Magus.
Danziger, Devon and Julia cautiously worked their way along the hilly ridge towards camp. After successfully arguing that he was a better driver than Danziger and that Danziger was better with the magpro, Alonzo was going to attempt to race into camp on the rail. With only himself and no passengers or cargo to slow him down, he felt he could evade the ZEDs' mortar shots. Besides, if he wasn't visibly armed, they may not pay any attention to him at all. Julia hated the idea but relented when she realized that the longer they hung around the more likely a ZED would stumble upon them all. So the foursome broke up and hoped that they would all be reunited shortly.
"We're lost." A petulant Uly stated as he sat down on a rock.
"Oh, so it's my fault that ZED started shooting, huh?" True fired back.
"No, but it was your idea to go looking for kobas without our gear so the others couldn't find us. If we had our gear we'd be able to track our way back to camp." He wheezed accusingly.
Ignoring his tone, True scanned the unfamiliar territory. "I know which way it is now. We need to head that way." She pointed off to her left.
"Who made you boss? Besides, that's the way we just came from."
True scrambled for a way to save face. "Exactly, we need to retrace our steps and before you know it, we'll be back at camp." She smiled at Uly who only frowned and shook his head. "I'm the boss because I'm the oldest. I say we go that way." She added trying to mimic her father's no nonsense tone.
"That's stupid. Your dad is older than my mom but she's the boss."
"That's because she's rich and has a big mouth."
"Hey! I don't talk bad about your dad!"
Uly turned away from her and folded his arms across his chest and bowed his head. True bit her lip and thought a word that her dad would be surprised that she knew. She knelt down and hugged Uly.
"Uly, I'm sorry. I'm the one with the big mouth. I say stupid things sometimes. Let's rest here a while and then we'll both decide the best way to go."
Uly lifted his head and smiled at her. "Okay."
A dark shadow of of a man with a gun fell across the ground in front of them.
Alonzo had given the other three a head start to make sure they were all right. When he lost sight of them in the hilly terrain, he climbed into the rail and revved it. "Okay, baby. Time for some fancy maneuvering."
Danziger, Devon and Julia were in sight of the camp and working their way down the scraggly hills scrambling madly from cover to cover. The sound of the rail racing below them drew Julia's attention. Solace was weaving the rail in figure eights and circles. Coming to abrupt halts only to whip around in reverse and head towards camp backwards at full throttle. This made him a harder target to hit and also kicked up a screen of concealing dust.
One patient ZED fired a shot. Alonzo managed to avoid a direct hit but the rail flipped and rolled several times as a result. The rail landed on its side with the inert pilot laying dumped on the ground beside it.
"Get up." Julia's whisper a cross between a prayer and an order.
She watched as the ZED methodically made its way down the opposite hillside towards Alonzo. Danziger had been keeping hold of Devon's arm with one hand. She was the one he was worried about bolting. So when Julia sprinted down the hill towards the wrecked rail, all he could do was yell for her to stop. He hollered for Baines to try to distract the ZED from Julia. At the same time Magus was shouting something about the kids.
The ZED watched her and leisurely raised his gun. Between the pounding of her heart and the harsh gasps of her lungs, Julia heard Reilly's voice in her head. 'You will die running, Citizen.' "Yes, you bastard." Julia answered the phantom voice. "I'll die running, but not away. No more running away."
Both children tensed and froze at the sight of the hulking shadow. The ZED had found them!
"There you two are. Come on, everyone is worried sick, especially Devon and John."
Both children sighed with relief and then jumped up excitedly.
"Mazatl! We're so glad it's you! We thought you were a ZED!"
"They're back?! With my mom?! Where is she?!"
"Where's my dad?!"
Mazatl held his finger up to his lips in a silencing gesture. "We have to speak and move very quietly. The ZEDs are still out there. Your parents are back and are fine from what I hear. So let's head back now, okay?"
The children nodded mutely but their eyes and smiles shouted for them. Mazatl softly spoke into his gear letting the other know he'd found the children. Suddenly he cried out in pain and was slammed to the ground. Rolling over onto his back he clutched at his thigh where a worm bullet was slowly and inexorably making its way deeper into his flesh. Instinctively he grasped his thigh just above the wound and pressed down trying to stop the bullet's advance. That only caused the bullet to burrow harder inflicting more pain so Mazatl released his leg hissing in pain.
"Run. That way." He ordered the children.
The ZED stepped from the cover of the boulders and blocked True's and Uly's escape route. The ZED gave Mazatl a perfunctory visual exam and after taking his magpro, deemed him no longer a threat. Then he turned his cold dead eyes on the two children who stood transfixed by fear and concern for their friend. It approached them and studied them dispassionately.
"Subject: male child approximately nine earth years old. Fits downloaded description." He intoned as if making notes into a gear set. "Your name is Ulysses Adair?" Uly nodded mutely. "You will come with me."
Then he regarded True. "Subject: female pre-adolesent approximately twelve earth years old. No standing orders in regards to other children found with Eden Advance. Standard orders will be implemented. Upon acquisition of Ulysses Adair all other members of Eden Advance are to be liquidated."
"No...she's just a little girl." Mazatl pleaded uselessly.
Danziger appeared from the east and gave a bestial roar and fired repeatedly at the ZED hoping to get it to turn on him so his child could escape. Unperturbed by the magpro shells slamming into his armored body, he lifted the muzzle of his gun. True watch as the red laser sight traveled up her body and stopped at her chest. She was paralyzed with fear. She couldn't run. She couldn't scream. She knew with a certainty that no twelve year old should have that she was moments from her own death.
"Come on True. Let's get out of here." She heard Uly's voice and felt his hand grab hers. Only instead of being pulled in a horizontal direction, she felt herself being pulled down. Both children disappeared into the ground.
The ZED and the two men were stunned. The ZED recovered first and pointed his gun at Mazatl. "Where did they go?"
"I don't know." He answered honestly.
The ZED knelt down on one knee by the spot where the children had stood seconds ago. "You know I could pulverize your bones and roll you up into a ball while keeping you alive the whole time." He informed Mazatl calmly.
"Yes, and I still wouldn't be able to tell you where they are."
The ZED slammed its hand down into the dirt as if it could reach down and retrieve the children. Like a surreal magic trick, the ZED's arm resurfaced with a Terrian's head clasped in its hand. The ZED was thrown backwards by the force of the emerging Terrian who was quickly joined by a second one.
Once more the ZED addressed his phantom master. "Contact made with alien native. Request instructions as to prioritization of objectives. Does detaining of alien native supersede capture of alien/human hybrid child?"
If the ZED ever received a reply, it's unknown. For the two Terrians crossed their staffs in a gesture that both Danziger and Mazatl were familiar with to know to cover their eyes. A blinding flash and a sound like a clap of thunder filled the air. When Danziger and Mazatl looked back, the ZED and the Terrians were gone.
Julia managed to reach Alonzo thanks to Baines' selfless act. Not being armed herself, the ZED turned its attention from her to Baines.
"Julia get out of here." The battered man ordered as he shoved her away from him. He painfully pulled himself upright while fumbling for his sidearm.
"I'm not leaving you. You're injured." She answered in her matter of fact voice.
"Oh? Is that your professional diagnosis?" He snapped brushing the blood running from a head gash wound out of his left eye. Try as he might, his eyes refused to cooperate and focus correctly. He kept seeing two Julias. Which under different circumstances may not have been an unpleasant thing. Right now though it meant they were screwed if he couldn't aim his gun. Course shooting at a ZED was the ultimate exercise in futility, but he'd hoped to get Julia to safety before being killed.
"Jeeze, you are a dream patiant, aren't you?" She retorted as she grabbed him by the elbow and started to lead him to cover.
Like with the ZED that Danziger and Mazatl had encountered, two Terrians erupted from the earth here. Another flash and boom like lightening and thunder, and this ZED was gone as well.
Devon had been following Danziger's yells of fury and gun fire. She reached the clearing just after the Terrians had gone.
"Where are the children?" She demanded of the two men.
"I don't know, Devon. I think the Terrians yanked them under to safety when the ZED tried to shot True." Danziger answered feeling drained as the adrenaline slowly filtered out of his system. "Mazatl's been shot. We have to get him to Julia ASAP. Help me with him. Then I'll come back and try to find the kids."
A short time later an explosion echoed off the hills when Walman tossed the worm bullet far a field after Julia had successfully extracted it from Mazatl. No sign of True or Uly could be found. Alonzo's head injury prevented him from reaching the Dream Plane and communicating with the Terrians.
"Where can they be?" Devon asked for the umpteenth time as she paced restlessly outside the med tent.
"Devon if you don't calm down, I'm going to have to sedate you. Your body shouldn't be exposed to this much stress so soon. It could effect your recovery."
Devon's fear and anger found a target in the blonde doctor. "My recovery means *nothing* without my son! Do you hear me?! I don't care what happens to me! I want my son back now!"
Yale can up to Devon and wrapped her in a fatherly embrace. "Devon...Devon" he chanted as he gently rocked her. Yale's calm voice and soothing touch reduced the tough redhead to a sobbing child.
"Hey guys! Look who I've found!" Bess' chirppy voice sang out.
Devon whipped her head around and saw the young brunette herding two smiling dirty youngsters into camp.
"Oh thank God!" She cried as she rushed forward and embraced both children. "I'd thought we'd lost you two!"
Uly joyfully melted into his mother's arms. True was more accustomed to the harder and bigger frame of her father but she didn't find the softer womanly embrace untasteful.
Danziger stood and watched Devon hug and fuss over the two kids. He was both jealous and touched that she would lavish such love and attention on his child as well as her own. In the end, he was content to watch the family scene being played out before him. True and Uly were safe and Devon was back where she belonged that was all that mattered. That and the fact that Shepard hadn't lied to him. The Terrians considered them allies now, so he was going to have to get over this aversion he felt for them. They have proven more friendly and honest than his own fellow humans here.
Excerpt from True's voice diary:
We're back on the road to New Pacific with Devon back as our leader once more. Yale says now we can look forward knowing that we don't leave our hearts behind. We'll reach the shore of Trumbell Bay in a few weeks. I can't wait to see the ocean. The one dad described to me sounded awesome.
I don't know why Uly and I didn't tell the others that the Terrians didn't pull us down to safety. They'd made up their minds that that was what had happened and it just seemed easier to go along with it than try to tell what happened. Especially when we aren't even sure what happened. Neither Uly or me have been able to repeat it. Maybe it was just a one shot deal since we were so scared and all. Anyway, it's kind of fun sharing a secret. Uly's not so bad--for a boy.