Danziger's prediction about needing to turn north to get around the canyon Rick and the others had run into ended up being accurate. They had to track back into the foothills again, and it took almost two days.
"It's a good thing we headed straight west once we got past the first canyon," Alonzo said over the gear. "This thing runs to the southeast. It looks like it's headed right into that other one. If we'd headed south, we'd have had to track all the way back up here anyway."
"How far down did you go?" Danziger said.
"Not far," Alonzo said.
"Well, we're angling south again, so that should shave some time off your trip back," Danziger said.
He may have said he hadn't gone far, but it took him awhile to get back. Danziger wondered if he'd done it to get some time away from Julia. She seemed to be pulling away from Alonzo again, much to everyone's disappointment.
That's probably why she's doing it, Danziger thought, glancing up at her in the cab of the 'rover. If she found out about the pool on her and Alonzo doing the deed, she'd put him on ice just to spite everyone. He smiled. Not that it'll matter—she fell for him ages ago, she just won't admit it to herself. Yet. He forced his attention back to what he'd been doing before he got distracted by Julia.
"Okay," Danziger said, holding the handgun in front of him as he walked alongside the Transrover. "The first thing you need to know is that you never, ever point one of these at anything you don't want to kill."
Uly's eyes went wide.
"I mean that," Danziger said. "There are a lot of ways a gun like this can go off without you meaning for it to, and if it's pointing at something you care about, you'll never forgive yourself. Am I clear?"
"Yes, sir," Uly said, and Tru stifled a snort of amusement behind him.
"Okay," Danziger said. "Now, here's the safety. As long as it's switched this way, it should be safe. But can you point it at anybody when it's on like that?"
Uly shook his head.
"Right," Danziger said. "Because it's pretty easy to accidentally switch it when you're handling it, or it could even be faulty. There was a guy in my unit to got shot in the foot because the handgun he was supposed to clean had a bad safety switch." That was complete bullshit, but he wanted to be sure Uly got the message. "Okay, so the next thing you need to know—"
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Devon said, coming around from the back side of the Transrover.
"Teaching Uly gun safety," Danziger said mildly.
"And you didn't think you needed to consult with me first?" she said, a dangerous edge to her voice.
Uh-oh, he thought, and Tru was giving him a look that said the very same thing.
"It's my fault, Mom," Uly piped up. "He was just teaching Tru, and I came over."
"Go find Yale," Devon said coldly. "You, too, Tru."
"But —" Tru began, but Devon stopped her with a look that could have frozen plasma. She followed Uly, looking back sympathetically at her father as she went.
"Look, Adair, it's a good idea to—"
"Shut it, Danziger," she said. "He's my son, and I will decide what is best for him. Am I clear?"
"Crystal," Danziger said, starting to get angry. "So can I teach your son gun safety?"
"Absolutely not," Devon said. "I don't want him anywhere near a gun."
Danziger shook his head. "That's a really bad call, Adair. Part of the reason I've been teaching Tru is that she's really curious about the guns. Better to teach them to be safe with them, and give them all the exposure they want so they don't sneak around—"
"Maybe your daughter might sneak around like that," Devon said acidly, "but my son knows better than to go against my rules."
"That's a low blow, Adair," Danziger said quietly.
Devon pursed her lips. "You're right," she conceded. "But I still don't want you talking to Uly about guns." She turned on her heel and stalked off after Uly.
Danziger watched her go, shaking his head and wondering if Tru could figure out a way to get around Adair's idiotic decision.
Valerie stood perched on the back of the ATV, cursing her luck. It had been three days since they'd broken camp after Julia and Bill had recovered enough to travel, but Melanie didn't want either of them out on scout yet.
Much to Valerie's dismay, having Bill out of the rotation again had the extremely unfortunate effect of pairing her with Morgan, and he'd insisted on driving.
And he was awful at it. He was constantly finding every rock and every pothole in their path, and Valerie felt like her teeth were going to jar loose at any moment. At first she'd tried to hint that he might want to find a smoother path, but that only seemed to make him more determined to rupture her spleen with his driving.
"Hold up," she called when she couldn't stand it anymore. "I want to take a look at that cleft over there. It looks like a possibility."
Morgan sighed and pulled the ATV to a stop. "You know, we could cover a lot more ground if you wouldn't keep stopping all the time," he said.
Valerie ignored him, clambering off the back of the ATV and using her monoculars to scan the hills in the distance. She took her time, covering every bit of the terrain.
"Well?" Morgan said impatiently.
"Hang on," Valerie said, and this time she wasn't just stalling. There was a cloud of dust rising from behind one of the hills. She hesitated, watching it for a few more seconds, then lowered the monoculars.
"What is it?" Morgan said.
Valerie pointed to the hills. "It looks like something's moving down there. Let's check it out."
"Check it out?" Morgan exclaimed. "If something's moving, we should be running away from it, not toward it!"
Valerie rolled her eyes. "Morgan, we're scouting. We're supposed to find out what's out there so the whole group doesn't blunder right into it. Now let's go."
Morgan muttered something under his breath as she climbed back onto the ATV, and Valerie occupied herself by imagining interesting ways to do away with the whiny bastard as they jolted away.
The trek into the foothills had made for a lot of scouting work, but it also provided a lot more game. The night before, Helen had been able to bag three tangaroos and a new creature they hadn't seen before. It looked like a six-legged giant rat, with a long tail that Julia suspected was prehensile. Amazingly, in spite of the off-putting appearance, the meat from the creature ended up being remarkably delicious.
After that discovery at breakfast, Devon insisted that she be the one to pick a name for the creature. "I'm not about to let somebody call it a ribeye rat or something."
"Ribeye rat it is," Danziger said, grinning.
Devon closed her eyes to a chorus of laughter, shaking her head. For the rest of the day, she'd had to put up with Uly running around her chanting, "Ribeye rat! Ribeye rat!" and giggling.
By mid-afternoon, Danziger wondered if it might be a good time to bring up gun safety training for Uly again. If Uly keeps that up, he thought, she may welcome the opportunity for him to get shot accidentally.
"Hey, Tru," Danziger said, heading over to where his daughter was trying to be inconspicuous.
"Shhh!" she said. "Yale will hear you!"
"Sorry," he said, lowering his voice. "Listen, I need your help."
"You want to keep teaching Uly about guns," she said knowingly.
"Yeah," he said, feeling guilty already.
"And you don't want Devon to know about it," she continued.
"Yeah," he said, wishing his daughter weren't quite so clever.
"Bad idea, Dad," she said.
"Come on, Tru. This is important. He'll find out about guns one way or the other, and my way is—"
Tru shook her head violently. "That's not what I mean," she said. "I get why you want to do it, and you're right, but it's a really bad idea to go behind Devon's back."
"But she won't listen to me," he protested.
"And you think she'll listen to you once she finds out you lied to her?" Tru said.
"Dad, trust me, I know these things," Tru said, and Danziger almost laughed at her worldly-wise expression. "Do not screw things up between you and Devon. I know you like her."
"What?" Danziger said, shocked. "What makes—I'm not—she's just—"
Tru put up her hand. "Come on, it's obvious. But if you want to keep pretending, it's no skin off my nose. But please, Dad, even if you just want to keep a good working relationship with her, don't do this."
Danziger sputtered for a moment, then sighed. "Okay, fine," he said.
"Besides, there's a much better way to get what you want here," Tru said knowingly.
"What's that?" Danziger said.
"Ask Yale to help. Devon will do anything he tells her."
Danziger blinked. I'm an idiot, he thought. How the hell did I produce such a brilliant little girl?
Valerie glanced down as the ATV began vibrating horribly under her feet as they neared the crest of a hill. "Hold up, Morgan!" she said, but the ATV was already rolling backwards.
"What the hell?" Morgan said, stepping on the brake. "Isn't Danziger supposed to be doing maintenance on these things?" He set the emergency brake and climbed out of the seat.
"He does," Valerie said, climbing down and craning her head to look at the engine. It didn't look like anything was obviously wrong, but she was no mechanic. "But there's only so much you can do when people keep driving them over every obstacle on the planet."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Morgan said.
"Oh, was I not clear enough?" Valerie said. "You're a really crappy driver, Morgan."
"I am not!" Morgan protested. "It's not my fault the shock absorbers on this thing are so bad. Maybe they're faulty! Like whatever just broke!"
Valerie knelt down and looked underneath the ATV. It looked like something was hanging down, but she wasn't sure what it was supposed to look like. I should have Danziger give us basic maintenance training, she thought. All I'd have to do is tell everyone this story, and they'd be all over it. Anything to avoid being stuck with Morgan Martin in the middle of nowhere. "Hey, Danziger?" she said after tapping her gear.
"What?" Danziger snapped, and Valerie's eyebrows shot up. Wow, what bit him in the ass? she thought. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to yell."
"No worries," Valerie said. "We have a problem with the ATV."
"What problem?" he said.
"It won't go," Morgan said.
Valerie sighed. "It started vibrating really bad," she explained.
Danziger groaned. "Look underneath it," he said. He talked her through describing what she saw, and asked a few more questions, then sighed. "Yeah, sounds like the drive shaft went."
"That sounds bad," Morgan said.
"That's an understatement," Danziger said. "I can probably macgyver a replacement, or, better, repair it, but not out there. Sorry, but you're not going anywhere for a while. Let me call Rick and see how far out he and Rob are in the rail. I'll send them down to tow you back in."
"Wonderful," Valerie said under her breath after Danziger commed off. "I get to spend some extra quality time with one of my favorite people."
"I do not appreciate your sarcasm," Morgan said with dignity.
"Shut up, Morgan," she said. "You're giving me a headache."
After talking to Rick and Rob and setting them on course to pick up Valerie and Morgan, Danziger went looking for Yale.
Amazingly, Yale was very receptive to the idea. "It would be most prudent to train Ulysses in safety with firearms," he said. "He has been expressing a great deal of interest in them of late, and I should hate to see him injured when we could so easily avoid it."
"That's exactly what I thought," Danziger said. "But Devon doesn't want to hear it from me. So would you talk to her?"
"Certainly," Yale said.
"Just make sure you don't mention me when you do it," Danziger said, looking embarrassed.
Yale frowned. "I would be most uncomfortable with lying—"
"You don't have to lie to her," Danziger said quickly. "Just tell her that Uly's been asking about them, and that it would be better to get ahead of the problem. That's all true, isn't it? You're just not telling her all of the story."
Yale looked dubious, but finally agreed. Danziger grinned, walking back over to Tru and giving her a thumb's up. She grinned back, the "I told you so" oozing from her expression.
"God damn it, Morgan, if you don't stop that incessant tapping, they will never find your body," Valerie growled.
Morgan stopped the drum solo he'd been banging out on the ATV he was sitting in. "Sorry," he said. "It's just…drumming helps me relax."
"I don't give a damn if it gives you a —" Valerie broke off, wincing.
"What is it?" Morgan said nervously. "You're not getting sick, are you? Because I've been with you all day, and—"
"Shut UP!" Valerie snapped, suddenly furious. She winced again, putting both hands to her head. "God, I think my brain is liquefying."
"Liquefying?" Morgan said, his eyes wide. "You're kidding, ri—" He cut off in mid-word as a low, rumbling noise came from just over the hill. "What was that?"
Valerie didn't answer, holding her head tightly with both hands where she was sitting crosslegged near the top of the little hill. She slowly leaned forward, letting out a low whimper.
Morgan grabbed the monoculars from the ATV, scrambled out, and ran up next to Valerie. He dropped to all fours and crawled till he could see over the crest of the hill.
He didn't need the monoculars. There was a rail rolling at high speed toward him, but it was white. But...our rail is yellow. Did Danziger repaint it or something? "What the hell? Valerie, there's a—!" he said, and then saw the Terriers galloping after it. "Oh, god!" He ducked down, hoping they hadn't seen him.
"Make it stop," Valerie moaned.
There was a sound of gunshots, and Morgan hesitated, torn between the risk of poking his head up and the risk of not knowing how far away they were. He finally poked his head up, just in time to see one of the Terriers stumble and fall.
"Hey, Tosh, do you have a second?" Melanie said, trotting up to Toshiko by the Transrover.
"Of course," Toshiko said. "What did you need?"
Melanie looked slightly embarrassed. "Well, I was talking to Devon the other day, and she mentioned something about needing to get to know our people better, and it occurred to me that you might be just the person to talk to about that."
Toshiko looked confused. "You want me to talk to Devon?"
"No," Melanie said, looking oddly flustered. "I was wondering what you knew about Rob."
"Ohhhh," Toshiko said, smiling knowingly.
Melanie blushed. "Does he have any hobbies or interests?" she asked.
"I'd say you're at the top of his interest list," Toshiko said with a grin.
"Ha, ha," Melanie said. "I'm being serious here."
"Melanie, I don't have that kind of information. I just did the background checks, and I mainly looked at employment history and that sort of thing. About all I can tell you for certain is he doesn't have a hidden criminal past."
"Well, that's better than nothing," Melanie said. "Not that I was worried about that or anything." She got a thoughtful look. "Wait, you said employment history?"
"Yes," Toshiko said warily. "But that's confide—"
"What do you know about Julia getting fired by that Dr. Harrison, before his lab blew up?" Melanie continued as though Toshiko hadn't spoken at all.
Toshiko shook her head. "I can't tell you."
"But you do know," Melanie said, studying Toshiko's face. "Never mind. It's none of my business anyway." And I think I know where to go to find out, anyway, she thought.
Toshiko looked relieved. "But I'll see what I can find out about Rob, okay?" she said eagerly.
Melanie smiled. "Thanks, Tosh." She turned and headed back over to Julia. She was looking intently at her tablet again.
"How's it going?" Melanie said.
Julia looked up, and her expression was grim. "I have a problem," she said.
"What do you mean?"
Julia shook her head. "Remember how Valerie said the diaglove had a subroutine to set the reading to show zero when it picks up gasparanium?"
Melanie nodded, frowning.
"Why would there be a subroutine like that? I mean, somebody had to set it to do that—so the question is why?"
Melanie looked confused. "I have no idea."
"Somebody—" Julia broke off with a bitter laugh. "The Council," she said, "didn't want any doctors detecting gasparanium. This diaglove was manufactured six years ago, and that firmware was part of its original settings. The other two are exactly the same. And I'm fairly certain the lab scanner back on the stations would have had the same thing. Now why do you think the Council would be so intent on making sure nobody detected gasparanium?"
Melanie's eyes went wide.
"Jesus!" Morgan gasped, turned and grabbing Valerie. "Shhh!" he said desperately. "They'll hear you!" He started to put one hand over her mouth, but she didn't look like she was going to make another sound. She was sobbing, shaking, her eyes screwed shut.
"Valerie?" Morgan said, but she didn't respond. He looked around, wondering what he should do. Then he realized he hadn't brought the mag-pro with him from the ATV.
He carefully lowered his hand from Valerie's mouth, worried she'd cry out again, but all she did was take great, heaving breaths and then whimper, "Nononononono."
Morgan scrambled down to the ATV, grabbed the mag-pro, powered it up, and ran back up to her. She had crumpled to one side by the time he got back to her, and she was barely conscious, but there were tears streaming down her face. He crawled back up to the crest of the hill and peeked over.
The rail had apparently crashed. It was tipped on its side, the wheels still spinning. There was one man, dressed all in white, lying next to it, unmoving. Another man was running away, firing a handgun as he ran. Oh, god, Morgan thought. They're Council agents. The Council is here?
The Terriers seemed to be ignoring him. They were clustered around the fallen Terrier. Morgan put the monoculars up to look through them, and he watched as they knelt over the unmoving creature for several moments.
Morgan turned the monoculars to look for the other agent. He caught one last glimpse of him as he descended into some sort of ravine and disappeared.
"Come on," Morgan breathed as he swung the monoculars back to look at the Terriers. "Go get him! He's dangerous!"
One of the Terriers that was still standing turned and looked right at him. Morgan ducked down, rolling onto his back. "Oh, crap!" he whispered. "Oh, crap! I'm so dead!" You didn't hear me say that, he thought hard at it. I'm just a rock. A big, unimportant, non-dangerous rock. He waited for several seconds, then rolled back over and peeked over the hill again.
The Terriers were all still standing around the fallen one, but as he watched, four of them gently lifted it, turned and started walking slowly back the way they'd come, the others following in their wake.
Morgan sighed in relief. And then he heard the thundering of something galloping his way. Oh, no, he thought, and realized that one of the Terriers was coming towards him up the hill.
He ducked back down, looking at Valerie, but she was still almost catatonic, tears still streaming down her face. There was no way she was going to be able to use the mag-pro. He thought for a minute about trying to use it himself, but there was no way he'd be able to hit anything. Danziger had banned him from using them altogether after their first attempt at target practice. Crap! he thought again.
He set the mag-pro down, curled up in a ball, closed his eyes, and thought desperately, I'm a nice guy! I like Terriers! I don't want to hurt anyone! Please don't kill me! Please don't kill me! Please don't kill me!
He heard the galloping sound stop just above him, and he opened one eye. There was a Terrier standing over Valerie, looking down at her.
"Please don't kill her," Morgan breathed.
The Terrier glanced at him, its antennae-horns tilting towards him, then it knelt next to her, putting one hand to her head, the claw carefully lifted so it didn't touch her. She moaned, then sighed, and after several seconds, her eyes fluttered open. The Terrier patted her head gently, then stood up.
"Thank you," Valerie whispered.
The Terrier bowed, kneeling on its midlegs, then stood and galloped back over the hill.
Morgan sighed in relief.
"Morgan," Valerie said a moment later. "Are you okay?"
"Me?" he said, but his voice squeaked as he said it. He looked over at her. She looked like she'd been through hell, her face tear-streaked, and her eyes bloodshot. "What about you? What was that?"
She shook her head. "Really not okay," she said. "I…I felt it dying, Morgan. It—" She stopped, taking a deep, shaky breath. "It was so scared. I tried to—but I couldn't tell what was me, and what was it—and then—" She stopped again, closing her eyes.
"What did that other one do?" Morgan asked.
"I have no idea," Valerie said. "I think maybe it…pulled me out. I don't think I could have broken whatever connection I had with the one that was dying." She shuddered. "God—"
Morgan reached over and patted her shoulder awkwardly. "Hey, you're still here," he said. "Your brain isn't liquefied. We're both still alive, right? That's good?"
She looked sidelong at him and smiled lopsidedly. "Thanks," she said. "Yeah, that's good." She rubbed one hand over her face, then stood up, wavering a little.
"Wait," he said quickly. "Are you sure you should be standing up? You could pass out, or fall over. What if you hit your head? I barely know how to use the diaglove, and—"
"Come on," she said, starting to walk up and over the hill.
"I want to see what those Terriers were so mad about," she said, and her eyes widened as she saw what Morgan had already seen. "Oh, god—" she breathed. "That can't be our rail—Rick and Rob are still miles away!"
"It's not our rail," Morgan said.
Her head whipped around and she stared at him, wide-eyed. "Then whose rail is it?"
"The Council," Morgan said. "I'm pretty sure that dead guy there is a Council agent."
"Council!" She grabbed the mag-pro from the ground and took off at a run.
"Valerie!" Morgan stage-whispered after her. "Wait! There's more of them! Crap!" He hesitated for an instant, then sprinted after her.
Valerie came to a stop next to the dead agent. He was staring sightlessly up at the sky, a Terrier arrow sticking out of his chest. Valerie scanned the area around the tipped-over rail.
Morgan ran up next to her. "Damn it, there's another one, one the Terriers didn't get," he said. "He ran that way." He pointed off to the northeast.
Valerie edged around the rail to look that direction, but she couldn't see anything moving. "My bet is he's still running," she said. "Come on, help me tip this thing back over."
Morgan helped her, and between them they were able to get it back upright. Valerie started to climb in, then looked down at the ground. She had caught her foot on a little satchel that must have fallen out of the rail when it tipped over. She picked it up. Inside, there was a set of gear, with a VR chip stuck in it, and a tablet, along with a jacket and some odds and ends. She pulled out the tablet, powered it on, and frowned.
"What is it?" Morgan said.
"It's a tablet," she said absently, studying the screen.
"I can see that," Morgan said impatiently. He peeked over her shoulder at it, but the screen was just a mass of garbled symbols. "What's on it?"
"It's encrypted," she said. "But it looks like standard Council encryption. Give me a few hours, and I can hack it."
Morgan raised his eyebrows. "Council encryption is foolproof!"
Valerie gave him an amused look. "Yeah, that's what they all say," she said. "Come on, let's see if this thing still runs," she said, climbing into the rail.
"Wait a minute," Morgan said. "The Council's here."
"Yeah, it looks that way," Valerie said from the driver's seat. She smiled as the engine started without a hitch. "And we're at nearly fifty percent charge," she said. "This is great—we don't have to wait for Rick and Rob to come get us."
"Valerie, the Council is here. On this planet. With us."
"Yes, Morgan," she said. "I'm not thrilled about it either. But we need to get this rail back to our camp, and I need to find out what's on this tablet. So calm down and help me."
"Calm down?" he said incredulously. "These are the people who already tried to kill us once! And I'm betting that the crash was their fault, too! They're probably here to finish the job!"
"Yes," Valerie said. "You're probably right. So maybe being out here," she gestured at the landscape, "isn't as safe as being back in the camp."
Morgan looked around wildly. "Do you think there are more of them out here?"
"I'm certain of it," Valerie said.
Morgan actually whimpered.
"Come on," Valerie said, trying to sound reassuring. "Let's get this back to the ATV. You can start tying a tow line while I talk to Devon."
Morgan still hadn't moved.
"Morgan, come on!" she said. "The sooner you start moving, the sooner we'll be safe."
He was still frozen, wide-eyed.
"Morgan, we need to warn the camp. You don't want anything to happen to Bess, do you?"
That got through to him. He looked at her, finally seeing her again, and shook his head wildly.
"Okay, then," Valerie said. "Get in."
"Well, crap," Danziger said, closing the channel with Valerie. "There goes the neighborhood."
Devon looked over at him, shaking her head. "I should have known," she said. "The first viable planet for colonization, and I thought we could have it to ourselves. How could I have been so naïve?" She sighed. "It's such a big planet, though. Why can't they share?"
"You're asking that about the people that tried to blow up our ship?" Danziger said dryly. "I don't think they learned all that much in kindergarten, Adair."
"So what do we do?"
"Well, first, we have to tell everybody," he said. "But after that, I don't know. We don't know where they are, how many of them there are, how many might be looking for us…"
"I hope Valerie can really hack that tablet," Devon said. "That might answer a lot of those questions." She sighed, then tapped her gear. "Todd, we're stopping here. Melanie, could you gather everyone by the Transrover? I have some news."
"Why are we stopping?" Julia said, climbing down from the Transrover and coming up next to Devon. "We've still got hours of daylight left." The others were coming up as she spoke.
"Is everybody here?" Devon said, looking around and doing a quick headcount. "Okay, I have to tell you something, and it's going to scare you. I need you to stay quiet so I can get the whole story out, okay?" She looked around at the suddenly worried faces, took a breath and said, "The Council is here. On this planet." She went on to tell them Valerie's story.
"You think those agents were looking for us?" Todd said.
"It's a good bet they were," Danziger said.
"That's crazy!" Helen said. "God, they're like one of those bad guys from slasher VRs. We went twenty-two light-years to get away from them. What does it take to get them to leave us alone?"
"But—maybe they want to help us," Bess said.
"Bess, they tried to kill us—twice," Devon said patiently. "Yale was able to reconstruct the ship's logs from the crash from the escape pod. There was no question, we were hit by a man-made object."
"Seriously?" Phoebe said.
Alonzo nodded. "I figured that was it," he said. "We got hit at the worst possible spot on the ship."
"And now they want to finish the job," Hardy said, powering on his mag-pro. "Well, I say screw that. They want to kill us, they're going to have to work to do it."
"Damn right," Todd said.
"But we don't know anything about what we're up against," Melanie said nervously. "They could have hundreds of people here, for all we know!"
"Maybe, maybe not," Devon said. "Valerie found a tablet in the rail. It's encrypted, but she thinks she can break the encryption. If so, there may be some information in there we can use."
"Really?" Melanie said, then looked nervous. "Then…I might have some news that fits with this."
Devon frowned. "What news?"
"Right after the crash," Melanie said, "I started getting this weird signal. It was encrypted, which didn't make any sense, but it cut off, and then I got distracted by everything else. Then, a couple of days later, I picked it up again. I couldn't do anything with it because of the encryption, so I just set my tablet to record them whenever it picked them up."
Julia leaned against the Transrover, her legs suddenly weak.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Devon said, irritated.
"I'm sorry, Devon," Melanie said. "But I thought we were alone here, so it didn't seem that important. I figured it was maybe a probe the Council had sent as part of the viability study. But now…"
"As soon as Valerie gets back, I want you to get with her," Devon said. "Breaking the encryption on the tablet is the first priority, and after that, those recordings."
"Got it," Melanie said.
"Julia," Devon said, turning to look at the doctor. Her face was ashen. "Julia, are you okay?"
"What?" she said, looking up at Devon.
"You're not feeling bad again, are you?" Devon looked hard at her. "Come on, sit down. You look awful."
"No," Julia said finally, waving her off. "No, I'm okay. It's just—"
"I know," Devon said. "This is hard to take in. But when Valerie gets back, I want you to check her out. She sounded like something awful when she was describing what she felt from the Terrier. I want to make sure she's okay."
Devon looked hard at Julia again, frowning. "You were still planning to ride on the Transrover the rest of the way today, right?" she said.
"Devon, I'm okay, really," Julia protested.
"No argument. And Mel, keep an eye on her," Devon said. "We still have a way to go yet today."
"It's not so bad," Danziger said. "There's a spot about four klicks from here that I think might be a good spot to make camp for the night. Rick and Rob found it before they headed south to get Valerie. They're on their way back to it now."
"Good," Devon said. "Does it have good cover?"
Danziger grinned. "Oh, yeah. That's why we picked it. From here on out, we're planning our camp sites for defensibility. I don't want to be caught out in the open if the Council shows up."
"You really think they're coming after us?" Toshiko said in a small voice.
"I have to operate on that assumption," Devon said. "I really hope not, Tosh, but when it comes to the Council, I've learned not to rely on hope."
They got the camp set up while Valerie and Morgan were still an hour out. "Sorry," Valerie said to Devon over the gear. "Towing the ATV is slowing us down. But I've already made some progress hacking the tablet. I should be able to get it done soon."
"Good," Devon said. "So do you think you can use the same hack on Melanie's recordings?"
"I don't think I'll have to," she said. "It looks like there's a VR encryption chip in this guy's gear. I'm betting it'll work on those. But even if it doesn't, if it's another standard Council encryption and if I have to start from scratch, it shouldn't take too long."
"And still no sign of that other agent you saw?"
"Not so far," Valerie said. "I'm really hoping the Terriers came back and finished him off."
"Well, hurry back. I don't like you being out there on your own," Devon said.
"Oh, but Devon, I have Morgan to protect me," Valerie said sweetly.
"Very funny," Devon heard Morgan say.
Julia stared at her tablet, but she wasn't seeing it any more. I'm running out of time, she thought. Once Melanie and Valerie break the encryption, they'll know. I have to tell them first.
It's already too late, another part of her thought desolately. I should have told Devon after I fell. I had the chance, and I blew it.
She shook herself. It might be too late to salvage her own situation, but it wasn't too late for the Eden Project. I have to talk to Brendan one more time, she thought. I have to find out as much as I can from him, and then I'll go to Devon.
But it was going to be even more difficult now than it ever had been to get out of camp. Danziger had chosen his spot well. They were in a natural fort, with high rocks all around, and he'd stationed sentries on several of the rocks. There were plenty of ways to get through the rocks, but nearly all of them were under watch.
And she couldn't risk it till Valerie got back, anyway.
In the meantime, I need to figure out what I'm going to say.
Valerie swore as they rolled into the camp.
"What?" Morgan said, pulling to a stop.
"It's this damned tablet," she said.
"I thought you said you could hack it," Morgan said smugly.
Valerie glared at him. "I can. I already did. But there's a trip code. Without the password, if I try to read any of the files, it's set to wipe the whole tablet."
Devon ran up. "Are you okay?"
Valerie nodded. "But I need my tablet. I was able to hack this, but I may not be able to save all the files on it." She climbed out of the Council rail. "Where's Melanie?"
"Here," Melanie said, coming up with her own tablet.
"Give me your tablet," Valerie said. She took it from Melanie, tapped on the Council tablet for a moment, then looked at Melanie's. "These are the files you were talking about?"
"Good," Valerie said. "Come on, let's go to my tent. We'll try downloading these files first, and then see if the chip works."
"Hold it right there," Devon said. "I want you to get checked out first."
"I said I was fine," Valerie protested.
"You may be fine," Devon said. "But I want confirmation from Julia before you do anything else."
Valerie sighed, but headed for the med tent.
Julia poked her head out just as Valerie walked up to it. "Oh, good," she said. "I thought I heard you. Come on in."
"There's nothing wrong with me," Valerie said. "I feel fine."
"She nearly passed out," Morgan said, following them in. "And one of the Terriers actually touched her, so you probably should make sure she doesn't have that disease you got."
"Shut up, Morgan," Valerie said.
"Hey, you were a mess," Morgan said. "I thought you were having a seizure or something."
Julia ignored them both. She ran her diaglove over Valerie, frowning as she studied the scan.
"What is it?" Morgan asked, worried.
"She's fine," Julia said. "But there are some really interesting readings from her brain."
"She has a pretty weird brain," Melanie said.
Valerie rolled her eyes. "Interesting how? Like a I'm-going-to-die-a-slow-painful-death interesting, or a gee-this-is-a-pretty-fractal-pattern interesting? And please don't use doctor-speak. I'm allergic."
Julia smiled wanly at her. "More of a you're-going-to-be-just-fine-but-this-is-fascinating-data kind of interesting. I need more time to study this. It might help me understand how they communicate."
"So can I go now?" Valerie said impatiently.
Julia nodded, but there was a weird expression on her face. "Before you do, I wanted to thank you."
"For what?" Valerie said, surprised.
"What you found on the diaglove," she said. "About gasparanium. It confirmed a theory I had."
Valerie looked intently at her. "You know what causes the Syndrome."
Julia nodded. "And I know why the Council is after us, too." She glanced over at Melanie, who nodded back at her.
"Hey, Heller?" Alonzo said, lifting the tent flap. "Oh, sorry," he said, seeing the crowd of people.
"No problem," Valerie said quickly. "We were just leaving, weren't we?"
"Yes, leaving," Melanie said. "Come on, Morgan."
"But I wanted to—" He stopped with a yelp as Melanie grabbed his earlobe between two fingers and dragged him past Alonzo out of the tent.
Alonzo rolled his eyes. "Subtle, isn't she?"
"Did you need something, Solace?" Julia said, staring at her tablet. "I-I'm kind of busy."
Alonzo frowned. "Solace?" he said. "I thought we'd gotten past that, Julia."
"I really need to look at this data," she said, still not looking up at him. "Whatever you need, can it wait?"
"Is this about the Council being here? 'Cause if you think that changes anything between us, it doesn't," Alonzo said, leaning forward to try to get her to look at him. "I know you, and I know you had nothing to do with this. So does everybody else."
"You don't know me," Julia said harshly. "You don't have a clue about me, so stop."
"Get out!" she snapped, looking up at him, her eyes flashing.
"What did I do?" he asked quietly. "Whatever it was, I'm sorry."
Julia bowed her head over her tablet again. "Please, Alonzo," she said quietly. "I just need you to go away."
Alonzo looked at her for a long moment, then nodded. "Fine," he said. "But don't think you've gotten rid of me that easy, Heller." He turned on his heel and left the tent.
Julia looked up at the tent flap, and brushed angrily at a tear spilling down one cheek.
Valerie led the way into her tent. Toshiko wasn't there. She must be on sentry duty, Valerie thought. She headed for her bunk and pulled her tablet out from underneath it. She pulled up her backup utility and set it to back up the Council tablet.
"So what now?" Melanie said.
"Now I see if this works," she said. "There isn't really a way around this—which is exactly why they do it this way. If somebody hacks the encryption, this prevents them from reading the files. But if I can get a backup going, I might be able to snag at least a few of the files before it erases everything."
"What about the encryption on the VR files? Will that chip work?"
Valerie shrugged. "As soon as I get this going, we try it out. But my bet is it'll work—I doubt they were all that worried about security here. It's not like there was anybody out there to hack their stuff till we got here."
"I suppose," Melanie said. "But maybe we should get Devon first, before we start watching."
"Let's see what we have first." Valerie started the backup and watched as the file counter ticked up past 50, then stopped. The Council tablet went dead. "Well, there we go. At least I got fifty some odd files. Let's see what we got." She pulled up the file listing. There were several map files. She picked the first one and opened it. It was a map of the area just south of the Donut Hole, and it looked like a geological survey, with markings that might have indicated mineral deposits.
But that wasn't what caught her eye. It was the marker at the center of the map.
"Well," Melanie said. "Now we know where they are. Does it say how big their camp is?"
Valerie shook her head. "Not here, anyway. Let's see what else is on here."
Julia finished typing up her notes on the Syndrome and her gasparanium theory and sighed. She saved the file onto her tablet under the name "For Devon."
She opened another file and typed, "Alonzo," and stopped, blinking hard. Then she closed the file without saving it. She set the tablet gently on her lab table.
Time to go, she thought, grabbing her gear and her chip. She shimmied underneath the back of her tent. She looked around carefully to make sure no one had seen her, then started making her way carefully out of the camp, keeping an eye on the sentries as she went.
It took her nearly twenty minutes of maneuvering to get far enough away that she felt she could safely go into VR. She looked around, making as certain as she could that her spot was safe. She was wedged into a cleft between two rocks, facing the camp. At least that way if something does come toward me, there's a chance the sentries will see it.
She took a deep breath, running through her plan one more time in her mind, and put on her gear.
"Holy cow," Melanie said. "Over a hundred of them?" She stared at the personnel files they'd found.
"Hey, that's actually pretty reassuring," Valerie said. "I'd been expecting a lot more. And look at the job descriptions. There aren't really that many full agents on their roster. We won't be going up against all that many of their trained soldier-types."
"I guess," Melanie said. "But they still outnumber us three to one. And they've been here for a long time, and they have all sorts of supplies."
"Come on, Mel," Valerie said, waving her hand airily. "They've already tried to kill us twice and screwed it up both times. I'd put my money on us."
"I hope you're right," Melanie said uneasily.
"I wonder what these markers mean," Valerie said, pointing to some symbols next to some of the personnel files.
"Beats me," Melanie said, looking at them closely. "Is that everything you got?"
Valerie nodded glumly. "Sorry, but they really did a number on that tablet."
"Hey, I'm thrilled we got that much. Devon will be, too." She glanced at her own tablet. "So…do we go ahead and see what's on these before we talk to her?"
Valerie grinned. "Absolutely! I'd much rather go to her with a rundown on where the rest of the agents looking for us are. Chances are that's what those are—those agents reporting in. If we can figure out where they are, then we have a much better chance of staying the hell away from them."
Melanie called up the first file and saved it to her VR chip, plugged it in, took the encryption chip from Valerie and plugged it into her gear. "You ready?" she said, and Valerie put on her gear and nodded. Melanie synced their gear, and started the VR.
The world dissolved into the standard blue-lit platform of VR. Julia was standing just in front of her, facing to Melanie's right. Melanie gasped.
"Uh…hello?" Julia said quietly. She looked exhausted, dark circles under her eyes. As Melanie watched her, she even swayed slightly.
"Julia?" Melanie heard Valerie say next to her. "What the hell?"
"Shhh!" Melanie hissed. "Just watch!" But she was thinking exactly the same thing Valerie was. What the hell is Julia doing in an encrypted VR file?
There was a flare of light in front of Julia, then a column of static that coalesced into a young man Melanie didn't recognize. Julia looked surprised and she took a half step backwards.
"Well, this is a pleasant surprise," the man said, smiling brightly. "I'm so glad to see you're all right, Dr. Heller."
Julia's expression shut down like an airlock door. "I'm more than a bit surprised myself," she said slowly. "I thought we were the only people on G-889."
The man nodded. "About a year before the Eden Project set its launch date, the Council determined that it would be prudent to have a backup plan for your group," he said. "Now it looks like that was a very lucky decision. And even luckier that we went ahead with the deployment of the satellite relaying your signal. I'm Brendan Riley. And I've heard a great deal about you." He glanced to one side, like someone was talking to him outside of VR. "I have someone here who is going to be very pleased to see you."
There was another flare of light next to him, and a woman appeared.
And there was no mistaking the resemblance, even before Julia said, "Hello, mother."
"Holy crap," Valerie breathed. "Is that—?"
"Julia!" the woman said, and for an instant she looked frightened.
God, Melanie thought, what could scare a full Council member?
"She survived the crash after all," Brendan said. "Isn't that a lovely surprise, Miriam?"
"Are you all right?" Miriam said, looking concerned. "You look exhausted."
"I'm fine," Julia said, but she looked unsteady. "Where are you?"
"Just south of the—"
"I was about to ask you the very same thing," Brendan said, cutting her off. "I'd love to send my men to provide assistance."
Julia hesitated for an instant. "I-I don't know yet," she said. "We've been doing triage on the injuries, and I haven't heard whether they've determined our location yet."
"That is your first priority," Brendan said. "As soon as you have coordinates, you will report back to me, is that clear?"
Julia stiffened. "And if I…can't?" she said, and Melanie knew in an instant she'd initially started to say 'won't.'
Brendan glanced sidelong at Miriam, and Melanie knew exactly what he was implying. Dear god, she thought. Clearly, Julia had reached the same conclusion. The color drained from her face, making the dark shadows under her eyes even more stark. "I'm sure you'll find a way," Brendan said, a cold look in his eyes. "You're a resourceful woman. Now tell me, how many of you survived the crash?"
"I don't know," Julia said. "We only have the one escape pod so far."
"That is your next priority. I need to know exactly how many of you there are, who they are, and what supplies you have access to," Brendan said briskly. "In order to determine how best to help you, of course. How about injuries? You said you were doing triage. How serious are they?"
"One—" Julia began, but her voice broke. She took a breath. "One dead so far," she continued, and Melanie ached again for her. "The pilot has multiple fractures in his leg, and he hadn't had the boneheal vaccine, so he won't be moving any time soon."
"That's excellent," Brendan said. Julia looked for an instant like she wanted to hit him. She even took a half-step forward. "I'm sorry," Brendan said quickly, though he didn't really sound all that sorry to Melanie. "I didn't mean to take pleasure in anyone's pain. I simply meant that it will be easier to find you if you're not moving. Is your escape pod beacon working?"
"I-I don't know," Julia said.
"Find out," Brendan snapped. "I cannot emphasize this strongly enough, Doctor. If you do not give me the information I need, I can't be held responsible for what happens to you…or those you care about."
Julia's expression hardened even more, and Melanie wished she could reach out and slap Brendan.
"Keep yourself safe, Julia," Miriam said suddenly with the faintest emphasis on the second word, and she reached up to rub the inside corner of her eye with one finger. "Remember my rules." But even as she said it, her image flared brightly and then disappeared.
Julia frowned, then looked like she'd figured something out. Something awful.
What rules? Melanie thought. What did she mean?
"I'm sorry," Brendan said. "Your mother had urgent business elsewhere. Now…where were we? Oh, yes, I think it would be best if you kept this conversation to yourself for the time being. There are those in your little group who might not be receptive to Council assistance. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly," Julia said with a brittle edge to her voice, and Melanie looked at her hard. She recognized that look—it was the look she'd had on her face the first time she saw Morgan Martin after the crash. Julia reached up, and the VR disappeared around them.
Melanie slowly pulled off her gear.
"Jesus," Valerie said. "She's been talking to them from the beginning. All those times she left the camp on her own, that's what she was doing." She sounded furious. "She wasn't talking to the Terriers at all."
"That bastard," Melanie said. "He's been using her mother against her." And then she remembered when this recording had to have happened. "That's why she was so angry when she saw Morgan—remember all the things she said about the Council? She'd just had this conversation when she saw him." She shook her head.
"All this time, she's been lying to us," Valerie said as if she hadn't even heard Melanie.
Melanie tapped her gear. "Devon, get over to Valerie's tent. Right now."
"Did you get into the recordings?" Devon said.
"Yeah, and you're really gonna want to see this," Melanie said and closed the channel.
"I can't believe this," Valerie said.
"Shut up, Valerie!" Melanie said. "Don't you get it?"
"Get what? That she sold us out?"
"You really need to calm down," Melanie said steadily.
"Calm down?" Valerie said.
"Valerie, I need you to think through what you just saw," Melanie said. "Don't you see what he was doing?"
"What is it?" Devon said, coming into the tent.
"Watch this," Melanie said, and after Devon had put on her gear, she played the recording again. This time, Melanie watched Julia's mother, and she had some idea of what she'd been trying to tell Julia before she disappeared.
"Then when Julia told me she was talking to the Terriers," Devon said, pulling off her VR gear, "that was—"
"A bald-faced lie," Valerie said.
"You understand what's going on here, though, don't you, Devon?" Melanie said.
"Is there more?" Devon said.
Melanie nodded. "We only watched the one so far." She loaded the next recording as fast as her fingers could move. "Come on," she said, shoving the gear into place on her head. "Here's the next one."
Julia appeared in front of her again. She looked a lot better than she had in the first one, but her expression was so controlled it was almost frightening.
"Brendan," she called.
He coalesced in front of her. "Julia! What do you have for me?"
Julia's chin tilted up slightly. "A location," she said. "Using New Pacifica as the prime meridian, we're somewhere near 70 degrees north and 130 degrees east."
Wait, what? Melanie thought, looking hard at Julia. That's not—
"Jesus, she actually told them where we were?" Valerie exclaimed.
"That's excellent!" Brendan said, beaming. "I'm afraid you'll still be on your own for a while—that's quite a distance for my men to travel, but it shouldn't be more than three weeks—"
Melanie felt her tablet vibrate. She shut down the VR. The tablet showed that another signal was being picked up. Right now. Of course, Melanie thought. She must have known we'd figure it out, and she's making one last contact. But what is she trying to do?
Devon was staring at where Julia had just been, frowning.
"You shutting that down isn't going to protect her. She told them where we were! I can't believe—!" Valerie said, furious.
"No," Melanie said, tapping on the tablet to make sure it was recording. "No, you don't understand. That wasn't right."
"Damned straight that wasn't right," Valerie said angrily.
"No," Melanie said. "That's not what I mean. The coordinates she gave him—that wasn't where we were. She gave him the wrong coordinates." She grabbed her gear and began setting something up on the VR.
"The wrong—?" Valerie said. She looked back to where she'd just seen Julia. "But…" she said. "Damn. I was doing it again, wasn't I? Then she was trying—"
"To protect us? I think so," Devon said. "But why didn't she just tell us? We could have helped her!"
"Damn it, we can figure that out later!" Melanie said. "She's in there right now talking to them!"
"Can you get us in without them knowing?" Devon asked.
"I can," Melanie said. "Just give me a second."
"Brendan," Julia called.
"Julia," Brendan said, dissolving into view. "I was afraid we'd lost you."
"Not yet," Julia said. "Listen, I don't have much time. Are you in contact with your men?"
Brendan frowned. "They have regular check-in times," he said. "Why?"
"I think one of your teams isn't going to be checking in," she said.
His eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"One of our scouts saw a dunerail with Council markings, carrying two Council agents. They watched them get attacked by a group of Terriers. At least one of the agents was killed."
Brendan's eyes went wide. "They were sent out in groups of three," he said, then looked like he regretted having said it. He glanced to the side and nodded sharply. "I have my people checking on it."
"Where are your other teams?" Julia said.
"Where are you?" Brendan replied.
"Damn it, Brendan, I can lead your men straight to the Eden Project, but I need to find your men first," she snapped. "I need to know now, because I'm going to have to get out. Soon."
"What do you mean? Why?"
"Because our scouts found one of your tablets, and they think they can break the encryption," Julia said. "Is my name in that tablet?"
Brendan frowned. "It's very unlikely they'll be able to get anything useful out of our tablets," he said. "Council encryption is very—"
"Very unlikely isn't going to cut it, Brendan," Julia said. "Are they going to find my name in there?"
Brendan pursed his lips. "If they managed to recover any of the files, then I suppose it's possible—"
"Then I have to get out of here," Julia cut in. "If they figure it out, then I'm dead. I'm not going to take that gamble. I want out. Where the hell are your men?"
"Come on," Devon pleaded as Melanie tapped away at her gear. "Hurry, Mel!"
"I'm in," she said, slapping on her gear. "Sync up, and let's go."
Valerie quickly shoved on her gear as Devon flipped her eyepiece into place.
"Where the hell are your men?" Julia was saying.
"How do I know you're not just doing this to get me to give away their locations?" Brendan said reasonably. "Your reliability has been in question for some time."
"Because now it's my life on the line," Julia said. "You don't know these people. They'd kill me if they found out."
"Don't you think you're overreacting?" Brendan said. "Devon Adair never struck me as the vengeful type."
"She is when it comes to her son," Julia said.
"Even so, I don't think you have anything to worry about. Council encryption is very secure."
"You don't know Valerie Carter," Julia said grimly.
"Carter is with you?" Brendan said sharply. "You never said that before. Who else is part of your little band that you haven't told me about?"
Melanie saw a flicker of fear in Julia's eyes.
"Shit," Valerie said under her breath. "Melanie, send me in."
"What?" Devon said. "Why?"
"What are you going to do, Valerie?" Melanie asked.
"Just do it!" Valerie snapped. "Trust me!"
"Didn't I?" Julia said, her heart pounding. "I'd swear I did." Damn it! I screwed it up again! she thought. The first rule of lying is keep it simple. Don't say too much. How could I have been so stupid? She started to say something else, but before she could continue, someone else began to coalesce into VR.
Julia turned to look, and her heart sank. "You lying, two-faced bitch!" Valerie shouted.
Julia recoiled from her, glancing sidelong at Brendan, then bowed her head, thinking fast. It's perfect, she thought. It's exactly what I need to make him think they're angry with me, that I really have been helping them. And then maybe he won't hurt her. But that meant she couldn't deny the accusation. And for a moment, she wasn't sure she could do that.
"All those times everyone made excuses for you, and you were throwing us to the wolves!" Valerie continued, waving her hand at Brendan. "I told them we couldn't trust you! Once a Council flunkie, always a Council flunkie!"
Julia steeled herself, looked up and tried to give Valerie the disdainful look her mother had always been so good at using. "I've only done my duty," she said, her voice brittle like dried leaves in her effort to keep it steady.
"Your duty?" Valerie spat. "Was it your duty to blow up the lab, too? That was you, wasn't it!"
Julia hadn't been expecting that, and her resolve faltered. "What? No, I wou—" Julia began, unable to keep silent, but Valerie was having none of it.
"Stop lying! It's over, don't you get it? It was over the minute I hacked the encryption, you just didn't know it." She turned to look at Brendan with disgust. "And as for you and your gang that couldn't shoot straight, you might as well give it up. The bomb didn't work, whatever the hell it was you shot our ship with didn't work—"
"I'd say they worked quite well," Brendan said. "How many of you actually survived the crash? Fifteen?"
Valerie smiled savagely. "Fifteen is enough," she said. "And if you think for one second you're going to be able to stop us, think again. We figured it out. Now that your little stooge isn't broadcasting her beacon, you'll never find us. Until we come and kick your sorry ass back to the stations!"
"Don't be so sure, Ms. Carter," Brendan said. "We don't need much to pick up your trail. Dr. Heller's signal got us close enough."
"Signal?" Julia said, the color draining from her face. "What signal?"
"Oh, come on, like you didn't know?" Valerie said derisively. "That little chip of yours isn't going to lead them anywhere once we smash it."
Julia looked away, breathing raggedly, shaking her head. "No," she whispered. "No, it can't be—"
"God, you just can't stop, can you? Just like your mother—you're incapable of telling the truth. All that money she funneled into Harrison's research, and all the time she was setting him up."
Harrison? Julia thought, her mind spinning. What money? What is she talking about?
"Telling him to fire you because you would bring too much attention to the project, that was a nice touch. Though considering what I've heard about her, I'm surprised she didn't just let you blow up along with Harrison and Jamie."
Julia stared at her, shaking her head.
"Well, maybe I can't get her," Valerie went on, "but I can bloody well make you suffer for it. You can give up hoping for rescue—it isn't going to happen."
"Ms. Carter, I wouldn't make any threats—" Brendan started to say.
"Our people are on their way to you right now," Valerie said, ignoring him completely, her focus entirely on Julia now, and the look on her face was oddly calm. "And when they get there, they'll make sure you pay f—"
Julia ripped off her gear, turning around to face the camp, her heart racing, expecting to see them coming for her, but there was nothing between her and the lights of the camp. She stood for a moment, breathing hard, then switched off her gear, turned and ran for her life.