Helen crept forward through the tall grass, keeping her head down. She froze, listening, and heard a faint bleat just ahead. She grinned wolfishly and shouldered her rifle. She started forward again very slowly…
And there was a loud crash behind her. She whirled, and saw Bill face-down in the grass. “God damn it, Bill!” she whispered. “How the hell am I supposed to sneak up on anything if you keep making so much noise?!”
“Sorry,” Bill said, struggling to his feet. He seemed even more uncoordinated than usual, which was saying something. For such a good looking man, he’s awfully clumsy, Helen thought, annoyed.
She glared at him as he finally got upright, and he looked abashed. “Just stay there,” Helen whispered, and turned to move forward again, hoping he hadn’t completely frightened off the game. It was getting harder and harder to find the tangaroos as they got farther from the forest, and the hexadents had proven even more difficult to bag. I hope we find something else edible and huntable soon, she thought. And preferably easier to catch than these idiotic jumping beans. Otherwise, we could be in a world of hurt. The hexadent had certainly made a pleasant change, but it had barely made one meal for the camp, and that had been two days ago.
She crept forward, and the grass opened up into a wide clearing, with a muddy water hole in the middle of it. Helen froze, waiting and hoping to hear more bleating, but there wasn’t a sound. Hell! she thought.
“Anything?” Bill whispered barely audibly as he crept up next to her. He was being remarkably quiet for a change, but it was too little, too late.
“Not a god damn thing,” Helen said bitterly. “But we might as well stick around. This is about the likeliest spot to catch something. If you can keep quiet!”
“I’m really sorry,” Bill said, and Helen felt bad for being so hard on him. He looked really tired. It was his first trip out since he’d been shot, and Helen knew she’d been pushing him too hard. We’ve been at this for four hours with no luck, she thought. Maybe we should just head back. But the thought of returning to the camp with nothing to show for their efforts was more than her pride could bear. She knew that Julia was counting on her and Bill to add to the food supply—they really needed some alternate sources of protein, and not just because everybody was bored stiff by synthofu.
“Let’s give it another hour,” Helen said. “We’ll hang back in the grass a little, and hope that something shows up.” Bill looked relieved, and when they found a place to settle in, he almost collapsed to the ground.
“Are you okay?” Helen asked.
He nodded, breathing hard. “I’m just…a little tired, that’s all.”
“Oh, joy,” Melanie said, looking at the goo that Phoebe was dishing into her bowl. “It’s synthofu again! My favorite.”
“Hey, at least you used to like it,” Julia said, looking with dismay at her bowlful as they headed for one of the tables. “My mother had to doctor it with every sauce known to mankind to get me to eat it. The only thing that finally made it edible was when she served it with habanero sauce and pretzels. I’m amazed she tried so hard—” She looked almost sad for an instant.
“Pretzels?” Melanie said, baffled. “It’s salty enough already, isn’t it?”
“It’s the texture,” Julia said, looking slightly green as she sat. “It’s not so bad when it’s prepared so it’s still a little…firm. But this…?” She scooped up a spoonful. “It just makes me gag every time. I almost wish the hexadents would come back.”
“I have a feeling chomping on Valerie put them off humans,” Alonzo said, sitting down next to them. Melanie laughed, but Julia looked uncomfortable. “As for food,” Alonzo continued, “there are a lot of things I miss, but as long as we have coffee, I’m fine.”
“Yeah,” Julia said. “But we’re going to have to start rationing that—there wasn’t all that much in the stuff they brought back.”
“Maybe there’ll more in the second load,” Alonzo said.
Julia shook her head. “Devon said they brought all the food in the first load. I wish there’d been some—”
“Stop, please,” Melanie begged. “I’ve had this conversation three times in the last two days, and it’s just about to kill me. We have to talk about something else—anything else.”
“Okay,” Julia said, and turned to Solace. “So what kind of name is ‘Alonzo Solace,’ anyway? It sounds like some lame VR romance hero.”
Melanie nearly choked on her synthofu.
Alonzo looked sidelong at Julia. “Nice to know you think it’s romantic,” he said smoothly, leaning into her.
She glared at him. “Not even remotely,” she said, but she was fighting back a smile.
“So you like your sauces…hot?” he said, dragging out the “h” and leering at her.
“Oh, god, will you stop!” Julia said. “I’m close enough to hurling already.”
“Well, you know the old saying,” Alonzo said, and Melanie grinned and said it with him: “If she pukes on your shoes…”
Julia rolled her eyes. Trapped forever on a planet with two ten-year-olds, she thought. I should go sit with Tru and Uly—for some adult conversation.
“Hey, Doc!” Danziger said, poking his head into the mess tent. “We got a problem.”
Julia exchanged glances with Melanie, and sighed. “Well, at least I get to skip the synthofu,” she said, getting up.
“How long have you been feeling bad?” Julia asked Bill. He was sitting on her cot in the med tent, looking exhausted. Helen was hovering nearby, clearly worried.
Bill shook his head. “I’m not sure—I’ve had the headache for…maybe a day and a half? No, more like two days. I had it before I went to sleep night before last.”
Julia was running the diaglove over him. His temp was 37.9—slightly elevated, but not enough to call it a fever. Yet, the worrier in her thought. It was only a matter of time before we got some sort of crossover infection, no matter how good our immune enhancements are. Blood pressure was a little high, but he’d just gotten back from a six hour hike. She couldn’t see anything else obvious in the scan. “I’m going to need a blood sample,” she said, setting the diaglove. Bill nodded, and she pointed the glove’s index finger at his arm. There was a small whoosh, and she set the glove to analyze it.
“What other symptoms?” Julia asked.
“Come on, Bill, you’ve been tired,” Helen said.
He looked irritated. “I’ve been tired ever since I got shot,” he snapped.
“Yeah, and irritable, too,” Helen said pointedly.
He glared at her. “I have a pain in my neck,” he said to Julia. “And I’m not just talking about her. I thought I’d just slept on it wrong, but it hasn’t gone away.”
Julia looked concerned. That could be meningitis, she thought. Or the local equivalent. She set her glove to take a spinal fluid sample. “Turn to the side,” she told him. She put her finger to the back of his neck. “This may—” she triggered the sample “—hurt a little.”
“Ow!” he yelped.
“Don’t be such a baby,” Helen said.
“Listen, Helen,” Julia said. “I want you to stay in here with him for now. Who have you spent a lot of time with in the last three days?” she asked Bill.
“Everybody in camp,” he said. “It’s not like we have a lot of alone time here, y’know?”
“Who have you spent the most time with?” Julia persisted.
“My bunkmates,” he said. “And this insensitive Amazon.”
Julia nodded, and went outside. Devon and Danziger were waiting with Melanie. “What’s the word, Doc?” Danziger asked.
“I have no idea at this point—I need to do some more analysis,” Julia said evenly. “But I’m concerned that it could be contagious. I’m going to keep him and Helen in there for now. How soon will the supply pod team be back?”
“Probably the day after tomorrow. Tomorrow night at the earliest,” Devon said. “It’s slow going with the weight the Transrover’s pulling.”
Julia looked concerned. “I want you to stay in close contact with them. All four of them have probably been exposed to this. If any of them starts showing any symptoms at all, I need to know right away. Bill said his started with a headache and neck pain, then fever.”
Devon frowned. “How serious is it?”
Julia shook her head. “I don’t know yet, Devon. Just make sure that everybody stays clear of the med tent for now, just in case.”
“What about you?” Melanie said, but Julia had already turned to go back into the tent. Melanie looked like she was about to go in after her, but Devon grabbed her arm.
“Melanie, don’t,” she said. “If it is contagious, she’s already been exposed. You haven’t, at least not much. We can’t risk both of you.”
Valerie walked toward the med tent, but Melanie headed her off. “Sorry,” she said. “Bill’s come down with something, and Julia wants to keep him isolated.”
Valerie frowned. “Is it serious?”
“We don’t know yet,” Melanie said. “What did you need to see Julia about? Is it your arm?”
Valerie shook her head. “The arm’s fine. I was going to give this back to her,” she said, holding out a diaglove.
“What did you need that for?” Melanie said, perplexed.
Valerie shook her head. “I didn’t—Julia was concerned there was something wrong with it, so I took it to work on it.”
“Something wrong?” Melanie said uneasily. “Was there?”
Valerie nodded. “Not that it’s that big a deal,” she said. “All the main functions work just fine. But there’s a subroutine built into the firmware that sets the glove to show zero for gasparanium whenever a scan picks it up.”
Melanie’s eyebrows shot up. “Why on earth—?”
Valerie shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine,” she said. “But I think Julia might have an idea. Can you get it to her? Have her call me on gear if she wants to know more.”
“Sure,” Melanie said, taking the glove. “And thanks.”
“No problem,” Valerie said.
Melanie watched her go. And we’re back to the love side of the pendulum, she thought. I wish I knew what to make of you, Valerie Carter.
Julia ran another scan on Bill, who was sleeping in his bunk. Julia had decided he’d be just as well off in his own tent—it was close to the med tent, and they could use it for an isolation ward if necessary. His fever had risen another half a degree since he’d come in, and she was starting to get concerned. There was nothing in any of the scans that could account for his symptoms—no obvious pathogens beyond the garden variety bacteria found in everyone’s systems.
There were definitely indications of some sort of infection, though. His white blood cell count was elevated, and there were some odd compounds showing up in his bloodstream that could be waste products of some sort of pathogen. But so far, she just couldn’t find it.
Okay, he’s getting worse, she thought. So you need to at least treat the symptoms to try to buy some more time. She put together a cocktail of a fever reducer, immune booster, and painblock and injected him. Within fifteen minutes, his fever had dropped back to 38, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
Julia got up and went out of the tent. Melanie was sitting by the fire a few meters away. “Melanie,” she called, and Melanie jumped to her feet and ran over.
“What do you need? Give me something to do,” Melanie said.
“I need you to run a few scans—do yourself, Helen and a few others. I need something to compare Bill’s scans to so I can figure out what this is.”
“You got it, Jules,” Melanie said. “How’s he doing?”
“He’s stable,” Julia said, trying to sound unconcerned. “I’m pretty sure this isn’t an airborne pathogen. If it were, given the close contact we’re all in, we’d be seeing others showing symptoms by now. Especially since I had Bill on extra immune boosters after he got shot.”
“Do you think it’s related to that?” Melanie said.
Julia shrugged. “I have no way of knowing till I figure out what the pathogen is,” she said.
“Gotcha,” Melanie said. “I’ll get those scans to you in a few minutes.” She started off, then turned around. “By the way, Valerie brought this back,” she said, showing Julia the diaglove. “She said it works fine, but there’s…” She paused, trying to remember Valerie’s exact words. “There’s a subroutine in the firmware so when it reads gasparanium, it shows zero for it.”
Julia’s eyes went wide. “Really?” she said. “She’s sure?”
“You can call her on gear,” Melanie said. “But yeah, she seemed sure.”
Julia tapped her upper lip with her finger, lost in thought.
“What’s this all about?” Melanie said.
Julia looked up. “The Syndrome,” she said. “But it’ll have to wait. I need to focus on Bill right now. Get me those scans as soon as you can. Then I want you to monitor Bill for me. Be sure you keep gloves and mask on when you’re in there, just in case.” She turned and headed for the med tent.
“How are you guys doing?” Danziger said over the gear to Rick.
“So far, so good,” Rick said. “All four of us feel fine. We’re staying in the cab together, and Hardy and Todd are in the rail, and we’re talking regularly over our gear, so we’ll know if any of us starts to feel bad. We’re making decent progress getting back to you. The Transrover doesn’t show signs of overheating like you were worried about.”
“Don’t push it,” Danziger said. “The last thing we need is the Transrover breaking down. Besides, as long as you guys are fine, you’re probably better off where you are, at least till Julia figures out what’s making Bill sick.”
“How’s he doing?” Rick said.
“He’s not feeling great,” Devon said, “but Julia didn’t seem too concerned.” Yet, Devon thought worriedly.
“Well, at the rate we’re going, we should catch up to you by tomorrow night,” Rick said. “Unless you decide to try to move on.”
“No,” Devon said. “We’re staying put. Julia said she needs to have all her equipment set up to find out what’s causing this. And I’m not about to delay her just to make a few more kilometers.”
“Okay,” Rick said. “And maybe some of the stuff we’re bringing can help.”
“Hey, just getting some new clothes will help morale,” Devon said, smiling. “You guys keep your gear on, okay? I want regular reports on your condition.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Rick said.
Julia spent the rest of the night trying to isolate the pathogen, with no luck. Melanie kept her posted on Bill’s condition, scanning him every hour through the night. His temperature was climbing again, though at least the fever reducer was slowing it some. But by mid-morning, it was at 38.7, and Julia was starting to get really concerned.
“Hey, Julia,” Bess said, coming into the med tent. “How’s it going?”
Julia rubbed her forehead tiredly. Her head ached, but she knew that was likely from lack of sleep. “Not so good,” she said. “So far I can’t figure out what’s causing this.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Julia sighed. “Melanie could probably use a break,” she said. “She was up most of the night with Bill. Have her show you how to scan him.”
“Sure,” Bess said. “What about you? You look exhausted. Have you eaten anything?”
Julia blinked at her. “Um…no, not since…yesterday afternoon, I think.” That would definitely explain the headache, she thought.
“I’ll have Tru bring you something over,” Bess said. “And then you should get some sleep.”
Julia waved her hand dismissively. “I’m fine,” she said. “I just need to figure this out. Once I do, I’ll sleep. I promise.”
Bess frowned, but didn’t say anything more.
Julia turned back to her tablet. I’m on a new planet, with completely new life forms. It could be anything causing this, she thought sickly. How the hell am I supposed to find it? “Stop it,” she told herself out loud. Just eliminate all the possibilities you do know how to find first. Then look for anything out of the ordinary.
Okay, she thought, you’ve eliminated standard bacterial and viral infections. Next on the list, prions. They’re unlikely to cause these kinds of symptoms, but maybe some new form of protein misfolding--or at least what we’d call misfolding--could manifest this way. Maybe.
Tru came in a few minutes later with a bowlful of synthofu. “Thanks,” Julia said, and made herself choke it down before she went back to work, knowing she’d be able to think more clearly if she did.
“Can I help?” Tru said, looking interestedly at Julia’s tablet.
Julia shook her head. “But it’d be good to have you on call,” she said, trying to think of some way for Tru to be useful. I know I’d want something to do if I were her. “In case Melanie needs something. Can you just stay close to Bill’s tent for me?”
“Sure,” Tru said.
“And check in on Helen,” Julia said, remembering her as Tru started for the tent flap. “Tell Bess to stop in and scan her for me, and make sure she’s getting plenty of rest.”
Tru nodded and left.
Two hours later, Julia had eliminated prions, and was back to square one. Now what? she thought. Maybe there’s some clue in those weird compounds showing up, she thought. If they are waste products, maybe there’s a way to deduce the source.
Dimethyl sulfide, she thought, then dismissed it as too common. Maybe the exoenzymes? She rubbed her eyes, then started running another series of tests.
“How’s he doing?” Bess said, coming in to give Melanie a break.
Melanie looked worried. “His temp is up again,” she said. “He’s approaching 40. That’s bad. His headache was a lot worse earlier, so I gave him a painblock, but I don’t know how much that will help.”
“We have some of those cooling packs, don’t we?” Bess said.
Melanie looked confused.
“You know, for keeping stuff cold when you don’t have power,” Bess said.
“I don’t know,” Melanie said. “Why?”
“Couldn’t we use those to help cool him down?”
Melanie looked thoughtful, then smiled. “That’s a really good idea,” she said. “I’ll go see what I can find. Thanks, Bess.” She headed for the mess tent.
Phoebe was working on dinner. “What can I do for you, Mel?”
Melanie explained what she was looking for, and Phoebe nodded. “We’ve got a bunch of them. I’ve been keeping them in the portable freezer in case we lost the generator. How many do you need?”
“Just a couple for now,” Melanie said. “We’ll have to rotate them, I guess. How long do they stay cold?”
“A couple of hours, depending on how hot the surrounding temperatures are,” Phoebe said. “Be careful with them—they’re pretty cold. I’d probably keep a cloth or something around them so you don’t give him frostbite.”
Melanie was carrying them back to Bill’s tent when Devon stopped her.
“He’s worse,” Melanie said before she could say anything, “but Julia’s going to figure it out soon. It’ll be okay.”
“Am I that predictable?” Devon said.
“No, it’s just everybody’s asking the same questions,” Melanie said. “Listen, I’ll let you know if anything changes, one way or the other.”
Devon nodded. “Thanks, Melanie. And if there’s anything we can do…”
“I have plenty of help,” Melanie said. “Bess has been great, and Tru’s helping out, too.”
“Good,” Devon said. “Just remember, there are a lot of us sitting around with nothing to do but worry. Don’t hesitate to ask for anything, okay?”
“You got it,” Melanie said, and headed back to Bill’s tent.
Bess was right—the cold packs did seem to help. They at least were able to stabilize Bill’s temperature at 39.5 for most of the evening. But as it got later, Melanie noticed that he seemed to be wheezing a little, almost like Uly used to breathe. She scanned him again, and frowned. There was fluid building up in his lungs. And his temp was back up to 40.
“Tru?” she called, and Tru stuck her head in the tent almost instantly. Melanie smiled at her. “Could you go get Julia for me?” she said. “Tell her Bill’s having trouble breathing.”
Tru nodded and ran for the med tent. “Julia?” Tru said tentatively. The doctor was sitting with her head cradled on one arm on her table. “Um…Julia?” Tru came forward and touched her shoulder.
Julia sat bolt upright. She turned to look at Tru, blinking. “What? What is it?”
She looked odd to Tru, but she couldn’t figure out what it was. “I’m sorry,” Tru said. “But Melanie was asking for you. She’s worried that Bill’s breathing isn’t right.”
Julia nodded. She turned and looked at her tablet, frowned, and then looked back at Tru, but it seemed to Tru more like she was looking through her. She rubbed the back of her neck, wincing.
“Julia, are you okay?” Tru said.
Julia nodded. “I’m just…I fell asleep,” she said. “I’m sorry. I should have been working.” She stood up and grabbed her diaglove off the table. She headed for the tent flap, but she couldn’t seem to get it open. Tru reached around and pulled it back for her and she headed for the isolation tent.
Tru trotted along behind her, trying to figure out what it was that bothered her about Julia’s behavior. It wasn’t just that she was tired—Tru had seen her tired before. There’s more to it than that, she thought worriedly. If she’s really that scared…
Julia went into the isolation tent and Melanie looked up, relieved to see her. “He seems worse. It’s like he’s having trouble breathing.”
Julia nodded, leaning over Bill and scanning him with the diaglove. His O2 sats were down, so much they were getting dangerously close to Uly’s old levels. Pneumonia, she thought. But it had to be secondary, caused by the pathogen—everyone in the Eden Project had gotten full spectrum antivirals against every known form of pneumococcus. Fluid buildup in the lungs, she thought. How do you treat that? She tried to remember, but even though she knew the answer, she couldn’t seem to find it.
Melanie looked worriedly at her. “Julia?”
I have to figure out how to deal with the pathogen. That’s all I can do, Julia thought, standing up straight. “Get him on oxygen,” told Melanie.
“But…” Melanie said, clearly hoping for something more.
“Melanie, I have to get back to the pathogen,” Julia said. “It won’t do me any good to try to treat the symptoms when the cause is running rampant through his system. And I have to find it before—” She broke off, leaving the “before anybody else gets it” unsaid.
Melanie bit her lip, then nodded. “Okay,” she said. “But what do I do—”
“Just do what you can to keep him stable,” Julia said. “I’m working as fast as I can.”
She turned away from Melanie as she said the last part, but Tru caught the guilty look that flashed across her face as she said it. She headed for the tent flap again, and Tru worried for a moment that she was going to have trouble with this one, but she did fine. She headed back to the med tent, and Tru followed her back.
Julia stepped inside the tent, went over to her table, sat down with her elbows on the table and put her head in her hands. There has to be a way to isolate the pathogen that’s causing this, she thought. But what? You’ve tried everything—it’s just not there.
“Can I help?” Tru said.
Julia looked up, surprised. She hadn’t realized Tru had followed her back in. “Um…” Julia said, and frowned. She couldn’t seem to think of anything to say.
“Maybe you could use some coffee?” Tru said.
Julia nodded. “Coffee would be good,” she said. “Thanks.”
Tru dashed out of the tent.
Julia watched her go, then stared at the swinging tent flap for a moment. I can’t do it, she thought, despairing. I’m not going to figure it out in time.
She shook herself. “You have to,” she said aloud, and turned back to her tablet. You have to—there’s no one else.
Tru skidded into the mess tent. She grabbed the jug they’d been using for coffee from the table and looked in it. There was a dark sludge at the bottom that looked barely drinkable.
“Hey, kiddo, what’s up?” Danziger said, following her in.
“I need coffee,” she said.
“You hate coffee,” he said, confused.
“Not for me,” she said witheringly. “For Julia.”
“Oh,” he said. “Okay. Here.” He grabbed a metal pot and filled it with water from the big plastic container. He set it on the little heating element and turned it on. “It’ll be a couple of minutes,” he said. “How strong do you think she needs it?”
“How strong do you need it in the morning?” Tru said.
Danziger raised his eyebrows. “That bad, huh?”
“Worse,” she said.
“Okay,” he said. “One batch of Danziger’s Special Thermonuclear Coffee, coming up.”
God, my head hurts, Julia thought, staring blindly at her tablet. Of course it does, she thought. You’ve been at this for how long without sleep? Ever since the concussion, it hurts if you get too tired—you’re supposed to take better care of yourself. You promised Melanie.
But I did sleep, she thought vaguely. I fell asleep on the table. She looked at the tablet chronometer. For over an hour. She frowned. Oh, no…
She grabbed her diaglove and ran a scan. 39.6. I have a fever, she thought. A fever. But…I can’t—the pathogen can’t spread through normal contact, or we’d have all sorts of people down with it. And I haven’t touched any of his fluids directly.
It’s from some other source, she thought, and had a moment of panic. If we get any more people down with this, I can’t treat them. Not and try to find a cure at the same time. Melanie is already exhausted.
“What is it?” she said out loud. “It has to be something Bill and I have in common. Something we ate, or…” She shook her head. Think about incubation period, she told herself. You’re coming down with it three days after he first started showing symptoms. Three days. But—
It could have taken longer for him, she thought. I had him on immune boosters because of the injury from the Terriers. It could have been waiting in his system till the boosters wore off. And then she knew the answer. The Terriers—the stuff they found on my neck when I fell, it was from the Terrier who grabbed me. And I had a scratch on my neck. It could have been on the arrow they shot him with, too. That’s twelve days for him, and seven for me…it makes sense.
She felt an enormous sense of relief. Thank god, she thought. It’s not going to turn into an epidemic.
A lot of good that does you and Bill, another part of her said.
“All right,” she said aloud. “So now I just have to work faster.” She grabbed a hypospray and dosed herself with the same cocktail she’d been giving Bill.
“Here’s your hot coffee,” Tru said, coming in, and Julia jumped, startled. “Sorry,” Tru said, handing her the mug.
“It’s okay,” Julia said absently. “Thanks.” She took a sip from the mug, still staring at her tablet. “Jesus!” she gasped. “What did you make this with—battery acid?”
“I figured you needed it strong, so I had my dad make it,” Tru said, looking dismayed. “Did he make it too strong?”
Julia smiled at her. “No,” she said, “no, it’s fine. It just took me by surprise, that’s—”
She stopped and got an odd look, and Tru frowned. “What is it?” she said, but Julia held up a hand to stop her.
“A bacteriophage,” Julia said to herself. “Or this world’s equivalent. And the stuff I’ve been seeing is just its waste products. Which could explain the pneumonia, too.” She whirled to her tablet and brought up the scans she’d taken of Bill’s blood. “Come on, you sneaky little bastard,” she murmured. “Where are you?”
Tru stood quietly, trying to decide if she should leave, but something told her she needed to keep an eye on Julia.
“Come on,” Julia breathed. “I know you’re in there.” She tapped in a command, and waited for the tablet to process. “Damn it!” She shook her head, staring at the tablet. “It has to be a phage, it’s the only thing that makes sense.” She thought of something and turned to Tru. “Go tell Melanie I need another sample of Bill’s spinal fluid. Hurry!”
Tru ran for the tent flap. As soon as she’d gone, Julia grabbed her diaglove. “Spinal fluid sample,” she said, and reached back to place the index finger of the glove on her neck. She winced as the glove took the sample, then ran it through the scan. “Download scan to tablet.”
And there you are, she thought. It was so obvious now that she knew where to look, and what to look for—this planet’s version of a virus, but one that hid inside common, normally benign bacteria and used them to produce copies of itself. And if you’re hiding in Bill’s sample, I’ll know for sure.
“How is he?” Helen asked Bess, who was sitting with mask and gloves on at Bill’s side in the isolation tent.
“You’re not supposed to be in here without gloves and a mask,” Bess said uneasily.
Helen waved her hand dismissively. “I was with Bill pretty much non-stop for the last three days. If he’s contagious, I’m gonna get it whether I’m in here or not. How is he?”
“Come on, Helen, you know the rules,” Melanie said from behind her. “I’ll tell you outside.”
Helen gritted her teeth in frustration, but followed Melanie outside. “So?” she said.
“He’s holding his own,” Melanie said reassuringly. “His temp is pretty high, which has me worried, but Julia’s trying to find out what’s causing this.”
“What if she can’t?” Helen said. “We’re on a completely new planet. What if it’s something she can’t fix?”
Melanie put her hand on Helen’s arm. “You know how smart she is, Helen. She’ll figure it out.”
“Melanie!” Tru called, running up carrying a diaglove. “Julia said to get her a sample of Bill’s spinal fluid.”
“See!” Melanie said, taking the glove and then turning to grin at Helen. “I told you she’d do it!”
Tru came skidding back in, carrying Melanie’s diaglove. “Thanks,” Julia said, handing her the one she’d been using. “Take this back to her and tell her to monitor him for brain swelling.” After Tru left, she downloaded Bill’s scan results into the tablet, and they were identical to her own. She smiled fiercely. “All right, you son of a bitch, now I know what you are. All I have to do is find a way to kill you.”
She shivered. She reached over and grabbed her jacket and threw it over her shoulders. She started the tablet running tests of every possible treatment she could think of, and hoped she could find the answer in time.
Tru came back in a little later and found Julia hunched intently over her tablet. Tru started to say something, then decided she’d better not interrupt. I’ll just stay here and if she needs something, I’ll be here.
Two hours later, Julia was getting more and more worried. Nothing seemed to have any effect at all, except for some of the more extreme treatments she could think of, all of which would probably cause brain damage.
She turned around on her stool, rubbing the back of her neck gingerly. Tru was lying on her cot, asleep, and Julia had no idea when she’d come back in. She took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said to herself quietly. “Start from the beginning. You’re on another planet, so the stuff you brought with you is pretty much guaranteed to be useless. What did people do back before antibiotics?”
Natural remedies, she thought suddenly. Things like tree bark extracts—that’s how they came up with acetylsalicylic acid. But we have over fifty samples already, and that’s a fraction of the plant life on this planet. It could take forever to find anything that could work!
“Do you have any other options?” she said aloud, and thought for a long moment. “Right. Plant samples it is.” She started testing the samples she and Helen had already analyzed, looking for anything that might have an effect on the phage.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Alonzo said, coming into the tent just before dawn. Julia was sitting at her table, staring at her tablet intently. She had her jacket on, even though it was warm inside the tent. Tru was asleep on the cot. “Heller?” he repeated, coming over to her. She didn’t show any sign of having heard him.
“Come on, damn it,” she said under her breath. “Work this time.”
“Heller?” he said, touching her shoulder. His fingers brushed the skin on her neck, and it was frighteningly warm, like she’d been standing by a fire for too long. “Jesus, Heller, you’re hot!”
She looked up at him, smiling crookedly, and there were dark circles under her eyes, the skin around them pale. “You pick the weirdest times, Solace,” she said, and her voice sounded lower than normal, and almost raw.
“No,” he said, flushing, “I mean—”
She turned back to her tablet. “I know what you mean,” she said, waving her hand. “I have work to do.”
“Alonzo?” Tru said, sleepily.
“Tru, go get Melanie and bring her back here, now!” Alonzo said.
Tru’s eyes went wide, and she scrambled to her feet and was out of the tent in a flash.
“Heller, you need to lie down,” Alonzo said. “You’re s—”
“I know what I am!” she snapped. “God, don’t you think I know that?” She took a shaky breath. “But I don’t have time. I have to find the answer.” She shivered and pulled the jacket tighter around her.
“It’s here,” she said, shaking the tablet. “I have it, all I have to do is isolate it. I just need a little more…” She rubbed her forehead, and reached for the hypospray.
“Wait,” Alonzo said, grabbing it away from her before she could use it. “What have you been giving yourself?”
She turned to look at him. “I know what I’m doing, Alonzo.”
Melanie came in, followed by Tru. “What is it?” Melanie said, frowning.
“Julia has it—she’s burning up,” Alonzo said. “And she’s been dosing herself with this.”
Melanie looked at the vial in the hypospray. “My god, Julia, you could have killed yourself!”
“What is it?” Alonzo said.
“It’s just a stimulant,” Julia said. “It’s been helping me think. Look, I’m fine. I isolated the pathogen, and I’m trying to find…some sort of treatment. I had an idea—I know I’m close. I just—” She stopped, rubbing her temple with one hand.
“How long ago was your last dose of this?” Melanie asked, waving the hypospray at her.
Julia frowned. “Um…”
Melanie looked like she wanted to hit her. “How can somebody so smart be so abysmally stupid!” She ran her diaglove over Julia, and her face went white. “You’re over 40!”
“It’s okay,” Julia said. “I’ve been giving myself the same treatment I gave Bill. It’s been helping some.”
“Helping?” Melanie said, horrified. “Julia, you are running a dangerously high temperature, in spite of fever reducing meds! And those stimulants you’ve been taking have your blood pressure through the roof. I swear, you are the worst patient in history!”
“Don’t yell at me, Melanie,” Julia said in a small voice. “I’ll lie down in a minute, I promise. I just need to run one more test.”
“But what if you’ve exposed someone else?” Melanie said. “Tru’s been in here most of the night. You should be in isolation.”
Julia shook her head. “It doesn’t spread that way—I got it from the Terrier, when it scratched my neck. And Bill got it from…from…” She trailed off, trying to remember. It was important, the thing she had to remember. It was important. She shook her head. “You have to stop talking to me,” she said. “I need to think.” She looked back at her tablet, but somehow the symbols on it didn’t make sense. She blinked, trying to bring them into focus, but it didn’t help. “Melanie, I need you to tell me what this says,” she said. “Can you read Latin?”
“Latin?” Melanie said, taking the tablet from her. It was showing the results of a lab test of some sort. A plant sample, it looked like, and— “Julia, are you testing local plants on the pathogen?”
Julia nodded, and she swayed slightly on her camp stool.
“That’s brilliant,” Melanie breathed. “But…there are so many possibilities. How many have you done?”
Julia blinked. “Um…I’m not sure—thirty-two, I think? No, thirty-three. This is thirty-three, and it—” She winced. “Why is it so loud in here?” she said.
“Loud?” Melanie said. She glanced worriedly at Alonzo.
“Julia, you really need to lie down,” he said. “Come on, the cot’s right over here.” He tried to take her arm, but she pulled away.
“No,” she said. “You don’t understand, I have to finish it. Doctor Harrison is waiting. I was supposed to have it done already.” She looked around. “Where is it?”
“It’s right here, Julia,” Melanie said, her tone suddenly gentle, showing her the tablet. “I’m going to finish it for you, okay? So you can rest.”
Julia shook her head. “That’s cheating. I have to finish it myself.” She looked confused. “This isn’t my lab.” She stood up. “I have to go to my lab. It’s quiet there.”
Melanie nodded. “Okay, Julia. Alonzo and I will take you there.” She looked at Alonzo. “Bill’s tent,” she whispered. He nodded, and took Julia’s arm. “Tru, can you help with the tent?” Melanie said.
Tru ran for the tent flap and pulled it back.
“Okay, let’s go, Heller,” Alonzo said, guiding her out of the tent.
“It’s dark,” Julia said. “Why aren’t the lights on?”
“Jesus, Melanie,” Alonzo said, holding Julia steady as they walked slowly toward the isolation tent. “How bad is it?”
“Bad,” Melanie said grimly, holding Julia’s other arm.
“No, wait,” Julia said, and she stopped short. “I’m supposed to report in. I’m late.”
“You can report in soon,” Melanie said, pointing toward the tent. “You did really well, Julia. You’re almost there.”
“But he’s going to be mad at me,” she said, and then looked at Alonzo seriously. “I don’t feel very good,” she said, and her knees buckled.
Alonzo caught her, scooped her up, and carried her the rest of the way to the isolation tent. Melanie held the flap for him, and he laid her on Rob’s bunk. Only the gentle rise and fall of her breathing gave any indication she was even alive.
“Oh, no,” Bess said, looking over, her eyes looking unnaturally large over her mask. “She has it, too?”
Melanie nodded. She ran the diaglove over her. “She does have the immune booster and fever reducer in her system still,” she said. “There’s not a lot more I can do at this point. Tru, can you keep a cold pack on her?”
“Sure,” Tru said.
“And Bess, I’m pretty sure it’s safe to go without the mask now. Julia seemed convinced it was spread through contact with Terrier fluids,” Melanie said.
Bess pulled down the mask. “Good, this thing is uncomfortable.”
Melanie turned to go.
“What are you going to do?” Alonzo said.
“I’m going to figure out what Julia was working on and see how close she was,” Melanie said grimly. And hope it was close enough I can finish what she started. She ducked out of the tent.
Alonzo looked back at Julia, and hesitated, then decided there was nothing he could do to help Melanie. He pulled up a stool and sat down next to Julia, holding her hand.
Tru held a cold pack to her head, looking at Alonzo. “She’ll be okay, Alonzo.” She turned back to look down at Julia. She looked like she was dreaming. She was frowning, and her lips moved now and then.
“I can’t,” Julia said faintly, and Tru leaned forward.
“Julia?” she said.
“No,” Julia said again, sounding agitated. “No, I won’t tell—”
Tru glanced over at Alonzo and frowned.
“The canyon,” Julia said, and her eyes fluttered open for a moment, but she wasn’t looking at Tru. “South.”
Her eyes closed, and she was quiet for several minutes. Tru switched out the cold pack, hoping the colder one would help, but when Julia opened her eyes again, she still seemed disoriented. She looked around, finally focusing on Alonzo’s hand holding hers. She looked up at him. “They’re coming, Alonzo,” she said. “The Council. You have to get out of here before they come.”
“It’s okay, Julia,” Alonzo said, unsure of what else to say. “The Council can’t get to us here. They’re light years away.”
Julia shook her head vehemently. “No, they aren’t! They’re here,” she said. “They’ll be coming soon.”
“I won’t let anything happen to you,” Alonzo said. “Don’t worry. Just rest, Julia.”
She didn’t look reassured, but the conversation seemed to have taken too much energy. She subsided back into an uneasy sleep. But she held tightly to Alonzo’s hand.
Rick and Rob rolled in a few hours later with the heavily loaded Transrover and Hardy and Todd in the rail right behind them. All four were still healthy, and Melanie was deeply relieved to hear it. At least I only have two people dying, she thought, hunched over Julia’s tablet.
“What have you got, Melanie?” Devon said, coming into the med tent.
“Damn it!” Melanie said, running one hand through her hair. “Devon, I don’t know what to do! She found something in this plant, but she was trying to isolate what it was that worked, and she hadn’t been able to do that yet. I’ve gotten that much from her notes and the tests in her tablet, but—”
“Mel, there has to be something,” Devon said.
Melanie looked at her, despairing. “Devon, I’m not a doctor. I don’t even know where to start! They’re going to—” She broke off, brushing hard at her eyes with the back of her hand. She turned back to Julia’s tablet. “I’ll keep trying,” she whispered.
“Look, maybe Julia can still help,” Devon said.
Melanie shook her head. “You didn’t hear her, Devon—she’s delirious. The little bit she’s said hasn’t made any sense at all.”
Devon sighed. “And there isn’t anything you can do to bring her fever down?”
“I’ve already tried everything I know,” Melanie said, and she sounded so hopeless Devon couldn’t bear to keep pushing her.
“Okay,” she said. “You keep doing whatever you can to finish what she was working on.” Then something occurred to her. “Maybe Helen might have some ideas, too.”
Melanie looked surprised. “Helen! I hadn’t even thought of that—of course!” She’d gotten so used to thinking of Helen as their scout and hunter that she’d totally forgotten her whole purpose in the Eden Project had been as a botanist.
“I’ll go find her,” Devon said, standing and putting her hand on Melanie’s shoulder. “Hang in there, Melanie. I’ll let you know if I get anything from Julia.”
Devon found Helen sitting with Rick by the fire. She looked more tired than Devon could remember seeing her. “Any news?” she said, looking up hopefully.
Devon shook her head grimly. “Melanie’s about at the end of her rope. Listen, Helen, Julia was working on some sort of local plant—there was something in it that seemed to inhibit the…whatever it is that’s causing the sickness.”
“A plant?” Helen said, perking up. “Why didn’t she tell me?!”
“That’s exactly what I was hoping you’d say,” Devon said, relieved. “Mel’s in the med tent working on it. Can you give her a hand?”
“Are you kidding? I’d give my left arm to have something to do that could help!” She jumped up and ran for the med tent.
Devon watched her go, feeling hopeful for the first time since Julia had collapsed. She turned and headed for the isolation tent.
Tru and Alonzo were sitting by Julia. Tru was holding a cold pack to Julia’s head and looking worried. Bess was doing the same for Bill, who looked even worse than he had when they’d brought Julia in. Julia looked like she was sleeping, but as Devon came in, she frowned and murmured something.
“How’s she doing?” she asked Tru.
Tru blinked back tears. “She’s really scared,” she said. “She keeps having the same nightmare. The Council’s coming to get us.”
The Council? Devon thought. “Why don’t you get some rest, Tru? We’ll take over for a while,” Devon said.
“I’m not tired,” Tru said, not lying very effectively.
That’s a first, Devon thought. “Humor me,” she said. “You can come back in two hours if you can’t get to sleep, okay?”
Tru looked rebellious, but finally relented. “Two hours,” she said, getting up and heading for the tent flap.
Devon took her chair and leaned forward. Alonzo held Julia’s hand in both of his, looking worried. Devon turned the cold pack over—it was barely cool where it had been pressed against Julia’s head. “Julia,” she said quietly. “Can you hear me?”
Julia turned her head slightly toward Devon on the pillow, but her eyes didn’t open. She was still frowning.
“Julia?” Devon tried again. “Come on, I need to talk to you.”
“You have to go,” Julia said, her voice barely audible. Her eyes fluttered open, and she looked like she was trying to focus on Devon.
“It’s okay,” Devon said. “I just need to ask you something.”
“No,” Julia said, shaking her head weakly. “You can’t stay here. It isn’t safe.”
“Don’t worry, Julia, you figured out that the pathogen can’t spread from human to human from normal contact, remember?”
“No!” Julia insisted, and she was agitated. “You don’t understand. You have to leave. It’s all my fault!” She closed her eyes, and a tear ran down her temple.
“But you can fix it, Julia,” Devon said, hoping this might be a way to get her to help. “You just have to help me.” Julia frowned, and looked up at Devon, but Devon wasn’t sure she was really seeing her. “Julia, do you know who I am?”
“You’re Devon Adair,” she said, clearly and with a hint of annoyance. Alonzo laughed shakily.
Devon smiled. “Good, that’s good. Listen, Julia, you were working on something—Bill got sick, remember? And you found a plant that you thought could help him.”
“Bill?” she said. She looked confused, then blinked, and for an instant she looked like she understood. “The plant—there’s something…” She trailed off, shivering, and her eyes started to close.
“Julia, I know you’re tired, but we need your help,” Devon said desperately. “There’s something in the plant. We followed your notes, but we don’t know how to use it. What does Melanie need to do?”
Julia forced her eyes open, but she shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said, and she sounded like Melanie had. “It’s there, but I don’t—I couldn’t—” She shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, it’s okay,” Devon said, and she patted her shoulder, feeling awful for making her do this. “You’ve done your best. It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not,” Julia said insistently. “I messed up—I should have told you. I should have said something the moment I knew, but I was so stupid! I thought I could do it by myself.”
“Julia, it’s okay,” Devon said. “I understand—it’s okay. Melanie and Helen will figure it out. Your notes really helped. It’ll be all right.”
“No!” Julia said, raising her head and looking at Devon, her eyes blazing. “Devon, you have to go!” Her head fell back against the pillow. “They were always going to kill her anyway. I should have known better.” She shook her head weakly, and she squeezed her eyes shut. Another tear leaked out.
“Shh,” Devon said, wondering what she was talking about now. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
Her eyes opened again. “Devon, please, you have to promise me,” she said, her voice strong and clear, and she pulled her hand free from Alonzo and clutched Devon’s arm with surprising strength. “Promise me you’ll leave.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Devon said. “You’re going to be fine—we all will.”
“Stop arguing with me!” Julia said raising her head slightly and shaking Devon’s arm. “This is important! You have to keep going west.”
Devon frowned. West? “We’re going to, Julia. I promise.”
And that seemed to be enough for her. She sagged back against the pillow, looking relieved. Her eyes fluttered shut, but she was still frowning. A moment later she forced her eyes open and looked up at Devon. “I’m sorry,” she said, barely audibly, “I’m so sorry. I should have tried harder. I should have…” Her eyes slid shut again, and this time her face relaxed.
“Just sleep,” Devon said, her voice shaking, and she pulled the blanket up over Julia’s shoulders. “It’ll be okay.” God, Melanie, please make it be okay, she thought.
“Maybe we’re going about this all wrong,” Helen said, leaning over the table and reading the results of the latest test.
“Of course we are,” Melanie said tiredly. “Otherwise we’d have figured it out by now.”
“No,” Helen said, shaking her head. “Look, we know there’s something in this plant that kills this bug, right? I mean, all the tests we’ve run show that—the only problem we have is we don’t know what it is about the plant that’s doing it.”
Melanie looked at her, too tired to even ask where she was headed with this.
“Who says we need to know?” Helen said.
Melanie frowned. “What do you mean?”
“We don’t have time to isolate whatever it is. Let’s just dose them with the whole thing—just get a sample of the sap from the plant, inject it in them and see what happens,” she said.
Melanie shook her head. “It’s too risky—we have no idea what the effect will be—”
“But we know exactly what the effect of the pathogen will be!” Helen snapped. “Bill is dying, Melanie,” she said, sounding desperate. “And Julia will follow, you know it. We’re going to lose both of them.”
Melanie looked down at the tablet helplessly. “But how much do we give them? And how—intravenously?”
“Okay,” Helen said, “the tests Julia did show that a milliliter of the plant sap should kill the pathogen in about five times that amount of spinal fluid, right?”
Melanie nodded, and then looked like she understood. “So we extrapolate,” she said, then looked nervous. “And we inject it into the spinal fluid.”
“You’re sure about this?” Alonzo said, watching Melanie and Helen getting ready to inject Bill and Julia. Neither of them had moved in the last hour, and Bill had taken on an almost gray look.
Melanie glared at him. “No, Alonzo, I’m not! But unless you have any better ideas—”
“Sorry, Mel,” Alonzo said. “I’m—it’s just—”
“It’s okay, ‘Zo,” she said tiredly. “We’re all wrung out. But this is all I’ve got. We have to try it.”
“Do it,” Devon said, nodding at them.
Melanie glanced over at Helen, who smiled a watery smile at her, and then turned and put the hypospray to the back of Bill’s neck and injected it. Melanie watched, half-expecting something to happen on the spot, and then slapped herself mentally. She took a breath, then turned and tilted Julia’s unresisting head to the side, brushed her hair away from her neck, and gave her the injection.
Apparently Alonzo was expecting something to happen immediately, too, because it seemed like he was holding his breath. “Look, ‘Zo, nothing’s going to happen for a while. It took something like ten minutes for the stuff to have an effect in the lab, and that was on a tiny sample,” Melanie said. She looked over at Devon. “Why don’t you both go get something to eat? It’s been—what? fourteen hours?—since you had anything.”
Devon glanced over at Alonzo, and knew he wanted to stay as much as she did, but she knew Melanie and Helen’s nerves had to be on edge. The last thing they need is us hovering over them. “We’ll bring you two something in a bit. Come on, Alonzo. Let’s go.”
Alonzo looked like he was ready to protest, but stopped when Devon put her hand on his arm. He followed her out of the tent. They headed over to the mess tent, and found Danziger inside. “Hey,” he said. “What’s the word?”
Devon held up her hands, shrugging. “They’ve come up with a treatment, but we have no idea if it’ll work.”
“It’ll work,” Alonzo said, his jaw clenched. “It has to.”
Devon nodded, and Danziger handed her a bowl of the synthofu they’d been eating for the last four days. “Yeah, it has to,” Danziger said. “We’ve gotta get Helen back out there—I completely suck at hunting, and I’m about ready to shoot myself if I have to eat this stuff for one more day.”
“I might just be willing to see how you taste,” Devon said wryly. “Hey, how’s Tru? Did she get to sleep?”
Danziger grinned. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “She was out like a light once I finally got her to lie down. Which took some doing. But she’s dead to the world now.”
“Good,” Devon said, and took a bite of the synthofu and made a face. “Listen, I’m going to go check in on Uly. You,” she said to Alonzo, “stay here. Don’t go making Melanie and Helen nervous hanging over them, okay?”
Alonzo nodded, and sat down at one of the tables. Devon looked at him hard for a moment. “Jeez, Devon, okay!” he said, looking up at her. “I’ll stay here.”
Devon smiled at him, then left.
“You want some coffee?” Danziger said, and almost laughed at the face Alonzo made. “What? You don’t like my coffee?”
“I wouldn’t exactly call that stuff you make coffee,” Alonzo said. “Besides, I’ve had I don’t know how many cups already. I’m wound so tight, I think I’d explode if I had another one.”
“Yeah,” Danziger said, and he walked over and put his hand on Alonzo’s shoulder. “Listen, man, she’s gonna be okay.”
Alonzo nodded sharply, but didn’t say anything.
“Room service,” Danziger said almost an hour later, shouldering his way into Bill’s tent. “Anybody here need some hot, mushy, fake soy-product?”
Helen barely glanced at him from where she sat leaning over Bill, then she turned her eyes back to study the diaglove readouts.
“Oh, come on, it’s not that bad,” Danziger said, coming over to wave it at her. “You’ve gotta eat something—both of you,” he said, looking over at Melanie.
She nodded tiredly, and took the bowl he handed to her.
“How are they?” he said quietly.
“No change,” Melanie said. “I guess I should be glad they’re not getting any worse.” She looked like she was near tears.
“Helen?” Danziger said gruffly, turning back to her and holding out the bowl.
“Wait,” she said, and there was a breathless tone to her voice that made Melanie look up sharply. Helen was holding the diaglove over Bill’s chest and staring at it intently.
“What is it?” Melanie said, getting up and coming over.
“His temp went down—half a degree,” Helen said and very unexpectedly burst into tears. Melanie set down her bowl and wrapped her arms around Helen.
Melanie looked over at Danziger. “You should go tell Devon and Alonzo,” she said.
Danziger nodded, grinning at her. He set Helen’s bowl down next to Melanie’s and reached out and squeezed Melanie’s shoulder. “You did good, Mel. You both did. Thanks.”
It took Alonzo less than a second to bolt for the isolation tent when Danziger told him. Now all we have to do is get the Doc to loosen up and those two might have a chance, he thought, and was immeasurably glad that they would.
“Is everything okay?” Bess said coming up, looking nervously after Alonzo. “Is—?”
“It’s great, Bess,” Danziger said. “It looks like they found something that works.”
“Oh, that’s—” She stopped, took a breath, and then beamed at him. “That’s wonderful!”
“You wanna go tell the others? A bunch of them are in the mess tent,” he said. “I’m gonna try to find Adair.”
“She’s in with Uly,” Bess said over her shoulder as she started for the mess tent. “I saw her go in a while ago.”
“Thanks,” he said, and headed over to her tent. “Adair?” he said from the tent flap. He pulled the flap aside when there wasn’t a response.
She’d fallen asleep sitting on the ground next to Uly, her head cradled on her arm on the edge of his cot.
“Hey, Adair,” he said quietly, trying not to wake Uly. She didn’t move. He walked over and shook her shoulder gently.
She bolted upright and looked up at him, and he could see that she thought he was there to give her bad news. He knelt down next to her, keeping his hand on her shoulder. “Easy—it’s okay. It’s working—Bill’s temp has gone down.”
She grabbed hold of the cot to steady herself, the relief was so overwhelming. She took a second, not realizing that Danziger was still holding her shoulder, then got unsteadily to her feet. “And Julia?” she said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I came as soon as Helen said Bill was better.”
Her face clouded. “What if—?” she started to say, then broke off.
“Don’t even go there, Adair,” Danziger said, grabbing her shoulders and shaking her gently. “She’s going to be fine.”
Devon nodded, then swallowed, trying to get control of herself. God, the last thing I want to do is break down in front of Danziger, she thought. And then his arms were around her and he was holding her tight. “It’s okay,” he said into her hair. “They’re going to be okay.”
“I think she’s waking up,” someone said. “Julia?”
No, I’m not waking up. I’m still too tired, she thought. She turned her face away from whoever it was that was talking to her.
“C’mon, Julia, just—”
“Alonzo, she needs to rest. Just let her sleep,” Melanie said somewhere nearby.
Wait, Julia thought. He’s calling me Julia? He never does that. Unless— “What happened?” she said, opening her eyes. She turned her head and Alonzo was leaning over her, looking relieved. He was holding her hand tightly.
“Damn it, Alonzo,” Melanie said. She leaned into view over his shoulder. “He’s an idiot—go back to sleep.”
“I was sick,” Julia said, frowning, trying to remember.
“Yeah,” Alonzo said. “Really sick.”
“Which is why,” Melanie said, swatting Alonzo’s head, “I want you to go back to sleep. You are not out of the woods yet.”
“Bill,” Julia said suddenly, and looked like she was trying to sit up.
Alonzo put his free hand on her shoulder, holding her still. “Stop, you’re not supposed to—”
“Julia, Bill is fine,” Melanie said emphatically. “He’s fine.”
“But how—?” Julia said.
“You did it,” Helen said, smiling at her from the foot of the cot. “It was your idea to look at local plant samples. We just took your work and ran with it.” She reached down and patted Julia’s leg. “Thanks, Julia. I owe you another one.”
Julia shook her head. “I didn’t—”
“Yes, you did,” Melanie said. “But we’re not going to argue about it now. Go back to sleep. Now! Don’t make me sedate you, okay? You have made it abundantly clear that you won’t take care of yourself, so I won’t hesitate to do it.”
“She’s really mad at you,” Alonzo said, grinning at her. “I’d do what she says if I were you.”
“Okay,” Julia said, and closed her eyes.
“Well, it’s about time,” Melanie said.
It was two days before Melanie would allow them to get on the road again, despite Julia’s constant insistence that they’d be fine. By then, both Bill and Julia were significantly better. Bill was still having trouble breathing, but between Melanie and Julia, they were able to get him stable enough to move.
Julia seemed almost stir-crazy till they started moving again, but she still got tired fast. Melanie nearly had a fit when she came into the med tent to find she had fallen asleep at her table working on isolating the element in the plant that had worked.
She was still sleeping a lot once they got moving, which complicated things. Alonzo ended up trading places with Danziger and letting him scout in the ATV, while Alonzo took the rail and Julia sat beside him.
Alonzo ignored the knowing looks he got from just about everyone in the group on the first day when Julia fell asleep with her head on his shoulder. She didn’t even wake up when he shifted his arm to put it around her shoulders. She just nestled into the hollow of his shoulder and put her hand on his chest. When Devon finally called a halt, she was still out. Alonzo looked down at her, hating to wake her.
“You stay there,” Danziger said quietly, coming up. “We’ll set up her tent, and then we can get her up.”
“Thanks, man,” Alonzo said quietly.
“You owe me,” Danziger said, grinning.
“They’re so adorable, I may vomit,” Helen said a few minutes later to Bill, who’d just woken up himself.
“Shut up,” Bill said, his voice still raw from coughing. “I think it’s nice.”
“You’re such a mush,” Helen said, helping him get down from the transrover and head toward his tent, which Rob and Rick had already gotten set up.
“It’s why you like me,” Bill said, grinning at her.
She glared at him. “Who says I like you?”
“Come on, Melanie said you cried over me,” he said, smirking.
“I did no such thing!” Helen protested. “Besides, I was tired. And relieved for both of you.”
“Uh-huh,” Bill said dryly.
“You shut up, mister, or you can find your own way to your tent,” Helen said warningly, but she helped him into his tent anyway.
A little later, Danziger came over and nodded at Alonzo. “It’s all set up. You want a hand?”
“Nah, I got it,” Alonzo said, ignoring Danziger’s grin. “Hey, Heller. Wake up, kid. We’re here.”
Julia blinked, raising her head and looking around. “Already?” she said thickly, and apparently unaware that her hand was still on Alonzo’s chest.
“Yep,” Alonzo said.
“Oh,” she said, and then she realized where she was, and sat up fast. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—” she said, clearly embarrassed.
“No problem, Heller. You can drool on my shoulder any time.”
“Oh, god, I didn’t—?” she said, blushing deeply.
“I’m kidding,” Alonzo said, grinning at her. “Come on, let’s go to bed.” Her eyes went wide, and Alonzo tried not to laugh out loud. “You pick the weirdest times, Heller. Me in my bed, you in yours.”
“I’m telling you, Adair,” Danziger said, watching the two from where he was helping Devon set up her tent. “Six months is a sure thing—I should’ve gone for four.”
“Don’t jinx it, Danziger,” Devon said. “This is one bet I really want to lose.”