"Christ, Valerie!" Devon said, watching her take off her gear.
"What the hell was that!" Melanie snapped.
"Melanie, you heard him," Valerie said, looking almost as sick as Julia had. "They've been using her mother to get her to do what they want. If they found out she really was lying to them, how long do you think they'd keep her mother alive?"
"That was the only way I could think of to convince them that both Julia and her mother were still loyal to the Council," Valerie said. "And I think she caught on—that bit about doing her duty was perfect."
"Do you think he bought it?" Devon said, looking worried.
"I don't know," Valerie said. "I-I wasn't really watching him all that much."
Melanie's face changed. "Wait—that's what that whole thing about Harrison was about? Was Julia's mother really funding his research?"
"Not just his research," Devon said. "Tosh told you that, didn't she?"
Valerie nodded. "A couple of weeks ago."
"We had some anonymous donors funnel a boatload of money into the Eden Project in the last year—right after Harrison's lab explosion," Devon said. "Tosh was trying to find out who they were, and then all of a sudden, she stopped. And she wouldn't tell me why."
"You mean…Julia's mother?" Melanie said. "But…why? She's a Council member."
Valerie shrugged. "I have no idea. All Tosh told me is that's why Harrison fired Julia—because Julia's mother was worried that Julia being involved would bring too much attention from the Council. And it would have put her in danger, too," Valerie said.
"And that's why you suddenly stopped being so mean," Melanie said wonderingly. "But why did Tosh tell you? She wouldn't tell me anything."
Valerie frowned. "Because—"
"Because Valerie was engaged to Jamie Sinclair," Devon said, looking sadly at Valerie.
Melanie goggled at her, then turned back to Valerie. "But why didn't you say anything?"
Valerie looked at her like she was an idiot. "Right, I'm just going to say, 'Hey, Julia, I hated your guts because I thought you killed my fiancée, but now I know I was wrong, and by the way, your mom's great. I hope she's not dead.'"
"Actually, would that have been so bad?" Devon said, and Melanie nodded emphatically.
Valerie sighed. "Maybe not, but I was embarrassed about how I'd acted, and I couldn't figure out how to tell her. But I will tell her as soon as I find her. Can you find her on the gear?"
Melanie called up the locator on her tablet, but Julia's gear wasn't showing up. "She must have turned it off."
"Well, she can't be that far away," Devon said.
"Wait," Melanie said. "What was that you said about a signal, Valerie?"
Valerie shrugged. "A guess," she said. "It's standard for a Council encryption chip like that to have a locator. Most of the time it's pretty weak signal, so I'm betting your stuff wouldn't have picked it up, or at least not enough for you to recognize it. But if they had a satellite with a signal booster, they might have been able to track her with it. It's what I would have done."
"You mean, they've been tracking us through her?" Devon said, and then her face went white.
"Then maybe we can use it to find her," Melanie said, looking down at her tablet again. "What kind of signal is it?"
"Find her," Devon interrupted. "Find her fast." She jumped to her feet and ran out of the tent.
"What?" Valerie said. "Why—?" She stopped, her face going as white as Devon's had. "Oh, no."
Julia caught her foot on a rock and went skidding down the side of the ridge she'd been running along. She rolled several times, banging her knee painfully on a rock, before she came to a stop at the bottom.
She lay there for several seconds, trying to catch her breath, but the blind panic she'd felt in VR was still there, overwhelming her.
God, I've been leading them straight to us the whole time, she thought. What have I done? They'll find them, they'll kill them. All of them. Uly and Tru, Devon and Danziger, Melanie…Alonzo. Oh, god, and it's all my fault.
"No," she said out loud. "No. I won't let it happen." If I keep going, maybe I can lead them away. Maybe they're still far enough away from us. From them. She forced herself to her feet, though her legs felt rubbery.
She started off again, this time at a slightly slower pace, grateful that her hiding place away from the camp had been back to the east. At least I ran the right direction, she thought. And I can keep running. I have to. Until they find me.
"There it is!" Valerie said. "That has to be it!"
Melanie stared at the tablet. "Valerie, she's nearly a kilometer away. And heading east." She looked up at Valerie. "What is she doing? She didn't have to be that far away to avoid us catching her."
Valerie closed her eyes, shaking her head. "That's what Devon meant. She's running," she said. She opened her eyes, looked at Melanie, and stood up.
"Running?" Melanie said. "Where? Why?"
"I should have known. I tried to give her clues, but I couldn't risk being too clear," Valerie said. She put one hand over her mouth for a moment, then pulled it away, clearly coming to a decision. She grabbed her gear and put it on. "You need to keep track of that signal. I'm going after her. Come after us in one of the vehicles once they get back."
"But…they're all off scouting or hunting!" Melanie said, checking her gear locator. "What the—? Alonzo must have taken off in the ATV—he's off south, five klicks away."
"Get them the hell back here!" Valerie said, starting for the tent flap. She paused, looking back. "Tell Alonzo to hurry. I think we're going to need his help getting her to come back."
"Because I really don't think she's going to believe anything I tell her right now," Valerie said, and ducked out of the tent. She ran over to where Toshiko was standing guard.
"Valerie? What's wrong?" Toshiko said.
"I need your handgun and flashlight," Valerie said.
"There's no time!" Valerie said. "Just give them to me!"
Toshiko handed them over, wide-eyed.
"What's going on?" Todd said from his position by the Transrover.
Valerie ignored him. "Go find Melanie. She'll explain."
"Explain? Explain what?"
Valerie didn't answer. She just turned and ran east as fast as her legs would carry her.
"Danziger, Helen, Alonzo, how far out are you?" Devon was saying into her gear.
"We're about 4 k out," Helen said. "What's up?"
"Danziger?" Devon said.
"About six," he said.
"Fiveish," Alonzo said.
"How are your charges?" Devon said.
"Devon, what the hell is going on?" Danziger said.
"Just answer me, damn it!" Devon snapped.
"I'm at about twenty percent," Helen said.
"Fifteen for me," Danziger said. "It's been slow going over this—"
"All of you get the hell back here as fast as you can," Devon interrupted.
"Why?" Alonzo said. "What's wrong?"
"I'll explain when you get here!" Devon snapped. "Just move!"
Toshiko came up to Devon, looking frightened. "What is it? Where's Valerie going?"
"What?" Devon said. She slapped her gear. "Melanie, what's going on?"
"We got a signal," she said. "Valerie's going after her."
Julia very nearly ran off another cliff as the fading light from the long-past setting sun gave way to twilight. She'd still been running, though it was punctuated more and more by walking. Which is probably a good thing, she thought, staring at the steep drop before her. It must be the canyon Danziger mentioned the other day. I must have angled more to the south than I thought.
Which is perfect, she thought suddenly. If I follow the canyon down, if Brendan's men are on this side, it'll still lead them away from the Eden Project. But if they're on the other side, they'll have to go the long way around to catch me.
God, please let them still be on the other side, she thought. If they are, then maybe I can still make it all okay.
"Please," she whispered.
"Valerie," Melanie said into the gear as she walked towards Devon's tent. "How far are you?"
"Maybe…a klick. No, more," Valerie said, clearly breathing hard. "How long till you come after us?"
"At least ten minutes, maybe fifteen," Melanie said grimly. "They're all on their way, but that's the soonest you can expect. Sorry."
"It's…okay," Valerie said. "It's better than nothing. I'll just do my best to slow her down."
"How are you going to do that?"
"I can be really annoying…when I want to be," Valerie said. "If it comes to it, I'll just make her mad enough to argue with me."
"She's turning a little to the south," Melanie said, studying the tablet as she came to Devon's tent. "I think she's must have gotten to that canyon. I think she's following it to the southeast. If you head straight east till you get to it, then follow it down, you should catch her." She stopped, the pit of worry in her stomach deepening by the second. "Hurry, Valerie. She's out there without anything."
"I know," Valerie said. "I'll find her, Mel. I promise."
Valerie closed the channel and paused, leaning on her knees and breathing hard. Suck it up, she told herself sternly. You can do this.
Thank god I'm still in halfway decent shape, she thought, and winced as she remembered Jamie telling her she had a thing for six-pack abs.
She'd spent six months doing weight training and kickboxing with a professional trainer, only to have Jamie tell her she'd been kidding. The funniest thing about it was that she'd always thought she'd hate that kind of exercise, but she'd found out she enjoyed it.
And Jamie found out she really did have a thing for six-pack abs, she thought, but she wouldn't allow herself to feel the ache that normally followed such thoughts. I'll find her, Jamie, she thought. I'll find her, and she'll be okay.
Melanie spent several minutes explaining what was going on to Toshiko, and through the whole explanation, Devon had been increasingly agitated. "So Valerie went after her on her own," Melanie finished.
"I'm going to kill her," Devon said, shaking her head furiously.
"Look, Valerie's just worried about her, and she felt bad that—"
"I'm talking about Julia," Devon said.
"Oh, stop it!" Melanie snapped. "I think I have more right than anybody to feel betrayed, okay? But as stupid as she has been—and she has been galactically stupid—she has spent the last six weeks trying to keep us and her mother alive, and those were two mutually exclusive goals."
"Melanie," Toshiko said, "let me—"
"I don't care what she was trying to do," Devon said. "She should have told us!"
"What if she couldn't?" Toshiko said.
Both Melanie and Devon turned to her, frowning.
"Think about it—the Council never does anything without having a backup plan," Toshiko said. "Why on earth would they bank everything on Julia, who they knew wasn't going to help them willingly?"
"What are you saying?" Devon said.
"I'm saying, what if there's another spy?"
Julia stopped to rest for a moment, sitting on a rock near the edge of the cliff, trying to think through her options.
I never should have just taken off like that, she thought. I have no supplies, nothing to protect myself with, not even any water. I'll be lucky to last three days.
But even as she thought it, she knew it was pointless to worry about now. She'd done it, and now she had to live with it. Or die with it, as the case may be.
Even now, the panic that had sent her running was still pulsing inside her, telling her to get up, to keep running. But she was already tired. She knew she was pushing her body too far, too fast, too soon after having been so ill.
And now you need to think, she told herself. Running blindly isn't going to do them any good. You have to be smart about this.
The best option would be to find a way down to the bottom of the canyon, she thought suddenly. If they're close, they'll have a harder time catching me if I'm down there. And there'll be water at the bottom. She briefly considered turning back north, since it would be far more likely that there'd be a way to get down closer to the foothills. But she just couldn't risk it. Hopefully, there'll be another Terrier path down somewhere on this side, she thought.
And what about Brendan? she thought. Do I leave him thinking I've been killed, or do I go back in?
I have to go back in, she realized almost instantly. I can tell him I got away from them, but I'm following them. That way I have a better chance of him telling his men to follow my signal.
But not yet, she thought. Not when I'm still so close to the Eden Project. They might be angry enough to send someone after me, and that would be a disaster. And not just because it would put them in danger. She cringed at the thought of what they would say, of how they would look at her. Better to never see any of them again.
But she knew she had to, at least once. They have to know I'm not the only one. She braced herself, and pulled out her gear.
"Melanie?" Julia's voice came over the gear.
"Julia!" she said, and Devon's eyes went wide. She grabbed for her gear.
"Look, I know what you think—" Julia said.
"No, Julia, you've—"
"Shut up and listen!" Julia snapped. "There's a file. On my tablet. It's addressed to you. Just open it. You'll know what to do."
"Julia, wait, don't—" but she'd already powered down her gear. "Damn it!"
"How long until Helen gets here?" Devon asked.
"At least ten minutes," Melanie said, and nodded. "There's time." She scrambled to her feet, and set off for the med tent at a run, with Toshiko and Devon following behind.
It was easy to find the file, but watching the VR Julia had recorded was quite another matter.
"If you're watching this, then something must have happened to me. If so, there are some things you need to know. I—" Her voice broke, and she stopped and swallowed, then clearly tried to regain control. She smiled faintly. "You're going to be really mad at me, Melanie. I screwed up. But this is me trying to fix it, okay? So just listen."
The moons were starting to rise, peeking up over the horizon on the far side of the canyon. Valerie had made it to the canyon edge a few minutes earlier, but there was no sign of Julia. Well, at least it doesn't look like she's thrown herself off the edge, she thought, looking down at the river far below. As awful as the thought was, it had been worrying her.
She turned south, jogging at a steady pace, which was much easier now that there was more light. The flashlight had helped her a lot, and she knew it had to have helped her gain ground on Julia. There's no way she could have gone very fast in the dark without the flashlight.
But she worried now that the moons were providing this much illumination that Julia would be able to pick up her pace.
Maybe not, Valerie thought. She's still getting over being so sick. Maybe she'll have to rest. She felt bad for hoping that was the case.
I'll go another five minutes and then check with Melanie to see how close I am, she thought. She pushed herself to go faster, knowing the chances of Julia running into something dangerous were greater the longer she was out there by herself.
For once, let her stay out of trouble, Valerie thought. Please.
"Melanie, whatever you do, you can't go south," Julia was saying in VR. "They'll find you if you get anywhere near their base. You need to go west, cross the mountains and then turn south for New Pacifica." She took a breath. "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you this myself. You deserved better than that from me. But I—well, it really doesn't matter now. Just…do what I told you, and stay safe." She smiled, blinking hard. "I'm glad I got the chance to know you."
Devon sat silent for a long time after the message ended. Julia had told them everything, from her first encounter in VR with—what was his name? Devon thought. Brian? No, Brendan—all the way up through the encounter with the Terriers. She must have recorded it after she'd been so sick.
Devon straightened up. "That's what she meant," she said suddenly, making Melanie jump. "When she was delirious, Tru said she'd been having the same nightmare, that the Council was after us. And she made me promise I'd keep going west." She shook her head. "She was trying to tell me then." She sighed. "I can't believe I didn't see it."
"She fooled us all, Devon," Melanie said. "I can't imagine what must have been going through her mind that day after the concussion. No wonder she looked so awful. She must have thought she'd have to tell you then."
"And instead I handed her an excuse on a silver platter," Devon said, shaking her head.
"But what do we do about the spy?" Toshiko said. "I mean, that's why she was so scared to tell anyone. But now, how do we know who we can trust?"
"Maybe Julia will be able to—"
"Devon, it's Helen," she said over the gear. "We're rolling into camp now. Does somebody want to come out here and tell me why we had to break land-speed records getting back here?"
At least I warned them, Julia thought, tucking her gear into her jacket. And maybe Melanie might be willing—
She broke off the thought. Walk away, she thought. Walk away and don't look back. You'll never see her again, so you can tell yourself she'd forgive you all you want. You might even convince yourself to believe it.
She stood up, wishing she could afford to take longer to let her legs recover, but she was still too close to the camp for her to feel safe. Safe, she thought and almost laughed. Like you're ever going to feel safe again.
Julia's head shot up, and she saw Valerie jogging towards her along the cliff's edge only fifty meters away. She backed away, turning to run, and stumbled as one foot caught on something. She went down to one knee, and started to her feet.
"No, wait!" Valerie said. "Don't run!"
Julia ignored her, heading for a low jumble of rocks just to the south. Maybe I can lose her, Julia thought wildly, half-expecting to get shot before she could make it.
"Please, Julia!" she heard Valerie yell behind her. "It's not…I'm not here to hurt you!"
Julia made it to the rocks, but Valerie was close behind her. Too close. And I'm too tired.
"Damn it, Julia!" Valerie said, gaining ground. "I'm tired…of running! Just stop! Let me explain!"
"Explain?" Julia said, turning to face her with her back to the rocks, breathing hard. "What are you talking about?"
Valerie stopped a few meters away, leaning heavily on her knees with both hands, breathing hard. "Thank you," she said. "God, running sucks. Weightlifting…way better."
"What do you need to explain?" Julia said. "Because what you said in VR was pretty clear."
"No," Valerie said, shaking her head and looking up at Julia. She stood up straight, still breathing hard. "No, apparently it wasn't. Look, I was trying to help."
"Help?" Julia said, almost laughing. "Yelling at me was supposed to help?"
"I know all about what you've been doing," Valerie said. "That part was true—I know all of it. You've been lying to them, from the beginning."
Julia reared back, bumping into the jagged rocks behind her. "What? But—?"
"We used the dead agent's encryption chip," Valerie said as if it were obvious. "Melanie and I watched the recordings she'd been making. Well, the first two, anyway. I'm sure the others will make for interesting viewing, too."
Julia blinked. "But—"
"Let me finish," Valerie said, holding up one hand. "I know why you ran. And it's not just because you have the chip with you. I understand you, better than you think. And you need to know one thing: we can forgive you. All of us."
For a moment, Valerie thought she'd convinced her. Her expression softened, and she looked almost hopeful. But then it was like a cloud passed over the moon, and her eyes darkened again. "No," she said, shaking her head. "I've lied too many times."
Damn, Valerie thought. "Okay, you've lied. That's bad, believe me, I get it. And god knows, Melanie's pissed off at you about that. So am I. But we'll get over it."
"Get over it?" Julia said incredulously. "Valerie, you shouldn't get over it. What I did was wrong. Too wrong to just get over."
"So, what then, you just leave?" Valerie said. "How do you think she'd feel about that? What about Devon? Or Tru? What about Alonzo?"
Julia looked sick. "They'll be fine," she said, but it sounded like she was trying to convince herself. "They're better off—"
"Don't you dare say that!" Valerie said harshly. "Don't you dare!"
Julia stopped, looking shocked.
"I wanted to hate you," Valerie said, knowing now what she needed to say. "When I got onto the advance ship, and you were there, it was like the universe was punishing me for something. Because you were there, and she wasn't."
"She—?" Julia said.
"I wanted so badly just to throw you out an airlock. Or off a cliff. Or under the Transrover. I had any number of scenarios worked out in my head." She shook her head. "But Tosh kept telling me that I should give you a chance, that I didn't understand you. She wouldn't tell me anything specific until I pushed her. She'd done more than the usual background checks. You know how thorough she is. And apparently Devon was really reluctant to hire you, even after Jim Harrison said you walked on water."
"He thought the world of you, you know," Valerie said gently.
"No," Julia said bitterly, looking away. "I didn't know."
"Tosh told me why he fired you," Valerie said, and Julia's head shot up. "It had nothing to do with you—well, not directly, anyway. It was your mother."
Julia's expression changed, and Valerie realized it had been hopeful, but now it was resigned. "Of course it was," she said.
"No, not like that," Valerie said. "You knew Harrison was losing his grant funding—the Council was putting pressure on anybody that was donating. So he was ready to shut down the lab entirely. And then your mother showed up and offered to keep the funding coming."
"Wait—so what you said in VR, that was—" Julia said, her face a kaleidoscope of feelings.
"I said that because it was at least partly true, and it was the one thing I could do to try to help her," Valerie said. "She deserves it. She was only trying to protect Harrison and his work. She told him as long as you were working for him, the risk was too great that the Council would make the connection between you and her. That's why he fired you. I guess she told him he needed to convince you that it was for your own good, but he didn't trust himself to be able to lie well enough. So that's why he did it by comm message, the idiot. Jamie was so mad."
"J-Jamie?" Julia said.
"We had dinner that night—our fourth date, actually, and yet another reason I had to not like you. Jamie spent the whole dinner ranting about how stupid Harrison was and how unfair it was—"
"Wait," Julia broke in. "You were Jamie's…" She faltered.
"Fiancée," Valerie finished for her. "Yes."
"Oh," Julia said, and the one word spoke volumes of understanding.
"Jamie wasn't exactly good at sharing. She liked you, but she had such a hard time getting to the point where she could trust people. It was a cast-iron bitch to get her to go out with me. Nobody believed me when I told them she was the one who proposed."
Julia stared at her for a long moment, then nodded slightly. "I'd heard she was engaged. I…I had no idea..."
"So you can understand my…behavior…towards you, right?" Valerie said.
"I'm not sure I would have been as restrained," Julia said quietly. "For what it's worth, I'd've given anything to have been the one in the lab instead of her."
Valerie laughed bitterly. "See, that's just the problem. Every time I thought about how much I just wanted to kill you, you'd turn around and do something that was just like her." She smiled crookedly. "If it had been you in the lab, she'd be saying exactly the same thing. Did you know Harrison called you his twins?"
"No," Julia whispered.
"Trust me, it wasn't because you looked all that much alike." She looked at Julia for a long moment. "Though you do sort of have her eyes."
"Don't," Julia said, shaking her head. "I know what you're trying to do, but it won't work. I won't—"
"No, just listen," Valerie said. "You're all ready to go off and leave behind a whole bunch of people who care about you. And I'm trying to tell you that you'll be making a much bigger mistake than anything you've done so far. They all care about you."
"But I don't—"
"What? Don't deserve it? Bullshit. And they're not better off without you, damn it! I know that's the kind of crap you tell yourself to justify walking away—I've seen it before. Jamie spent almost a year trying to convince me she wasn't fit to shine my shoes. And there isn't anything—anything—I wouldn't do to have her back screwing up my life again. I miss her. I miss her every minute I'm still alive and she's not—every second—" She stopped, blinking back tears. "Don't do that to them."
"But I have to," Julia said desperately. "It's the only way to keep them safe."
"No, it isn't," Valerie said insistently. "I can think of a dozen ways we could throw them off our scent. No," she continued, stepping closer to Julia, "you're leaving because you're scared. Not of the Council, not of tramping through the wilderness with animals ready to eat you, not of dying. You're scared of caring."
"No," Julia said.
"Yes," Valerie said relentlessly. "You're just like your mother, you know. She didn't hold you at arms length because she didn't care about you. She did it because she cared so much, and it scared her. You spent your whole life trying to be different, and you're just like her."
"Stop it," Julia said, her jaw clenched.
"You're such a coward," Valerie said, knowing she was pushing Julia. I have to, she thought. It's the only way to get through to her. "You're going to do to us what she did to you. And I will not let you pretend it's because you're some kind of heroic martyr—"
"Shut up," Julia whispered.
"—when you're nothing but a scared little girl. Damn it, Julia, it's time for you to grow the f—"
Melanie was afraid it would be another ten-minute round of explanations once they went out to meet Helen, but it wasn't. Devon just marched up to the ATV, ordered her and Bill out of it, climbed in and turned to look at Melanie.
"Well?" she said.
"Oh," Melanie said. "Wait! Let me go grab a med kit!" She sprinted for the med tent.
"Tosh will explain everything to you," Devon said to Helen. "As soon as Danziger and Alonzo get back, send them after us quick as you can. I don't like going out there without backup."
"I don't like you going out there at all," Helen said, frowning. "The moons aren't up very far yet, and the ATV charge is down to twenty percent. It's going to be hard to see where you're going once it really starts to get dark, and you could end up stranded out there."
"It's a chance we have to take," Devon said. "Come on, Melanie!" she shouted.
Melanie scampered out of the med tent and over to the ATV. She clambered on the back. "Okay!" she said. "Let's go!"
Valerie didn't even see it coming. One moment she was talking, and the next she was lying on the ground, her cheek throbbing and her eye already starting to swell. "Ow," she said, wincing. She looked up to find Julia standing over her in the pale moonlight, rubbing her right hand absently, looking horrified. "That's a hell of a right hook you've got."
Julia backed away, getting dangerously close to the cliff's edge. "I'm sorry," she said. "I—"
Valerie waved away her apology. "I knew what I was doing," she said. "It's so easy to push your buttons. Julia, don't you get it? You are just like your mother. Because there's no way you would have worked so hard to protect her if she hadn't proven herself worthy of being loved. And you have, too."
"I…" Julia faltered.
"Come back with me," Valerie said. "It'll be okay. I promise."
"Why are you doing this?" Julia whispered. "Why can't you just let me go?"
Valerie looked at her and smiled sadly. "Because you're so much like Jamie it hurts."
Julia's breath caught in a sob. She turned around and looked out at the rising moons for a long moment, and Valerie held her breath, wondering if she'd said too much.
"I'm not her," Julia said in a small voice. "I can't be that—"
"I'm not asking you to be," Valerie said quickly, even though there was a part of her that wanted it so badly. "I wouldn't do that to you." Please, don't go.
But when Julia finally turned around, she looked defeated. "Melanie's going to yell at me."
Valerie let out her breath in a sigh of relief. "Does that mean I got through to you?"
"I didn't think you were giving me a choice," Julia said dryly.
Valerie smiled. "I wasn't. How do you think I got Jamie? I fight dirty." She looked at Julia for a long moment. "Tell me something. That first time you went in, your mother said something about her rules. What was that about?"
Julia sighed. "When I was small, she made me memorize a set of rules I was supposed to follow. The most basic rule was never trust anybody but yourself. The next one was, if she ever rubbed her eye with her middle finger, it meant I had to watch what I said, because the Council was listening. It took me a second to realize what she meant—Brendan was right there, so obviously they were listening. But then I figured it out. She meant there was somebody in the Eden Project."
"Somebody—you mean another spy?"
Julia nodded. "That's the main reason I couldn't tell anyone. I didn't know who I could trust."
Valerie nodded. "Well, now you know. There's me, there's Melanie and there's Devon. And that's just for starters. We'll figure out the rest. So where's the encryption chip?"
Julia stared back at her for a moment, then fished it out of her pocket.
Valerie took it from her hand, turned to look out over the edge of the cliff, then cocked her arm and flung it out into the chasm.
"No—!" Julia gasped and half-raised her hand to reach after it. It glinted for an instant in the moonlight, then disappeared into the dark canyon.
"Relax. Those things float, and there's a river at the bottom of that cliff, remember? That was number one on my list of alternative plans. Mainly because it was the easiest." She reached up to tap her gear. "Hey, M—" Her voice cut off with a strangled gasp, and Julia turned to see her falling into a crumpled heap. And there was a man in a Council agent's white uniform standing over her, a tech-glove on his left hand.
"Hello, Dr. Heller," he said, smiling. "I've been looking all over for you."
"OW!" Melanie yelled, ripping off her headgear.
"What is it?" Devon said, turning to look up at her from the front seat of the ATV. "What's wrong?"
"I just got some nasty feedback over the comm," Melanie said, wincing. She hesitantly put her gear back on and tapped at it. "Valerie?" There was nothing, not even the beep of the directional. "Oh, crap."
"I've lost Valerie's signal," she said.
"You mean she shut it off?" Devon said.
"I don't think so," Melanie said uneasily. She tapped her gear again. "Alonzo!" she said. "Where are you?"
"About 2 klicks behind you," he said. "Danziger and Helen are in the rail right behind me. Why?"
"I need you to get over here, fast," Melanie said.
"Helen gave me the condensed version of what's going on," Alonzo said. "Is Julia okay?"
"I don't know," Melanie said. "But I have a bad feeling that Valerie's in trouble. And knowing Julia, she's probably in the middle of it." Melanie glanced down at Devon. "The last location I got on Valerie's signal was that way, and she'd been stationary for a few minutes. It's not far—not quite half a klick."
Devon nodded and floored the ATV.
I swear, Julia, if you're not okay, I'll never, ever forgive you, Melanie thought, holding onto the ATV rollbar as they bounced wildly over the rocky landscape.
Julia knelt and lifted Valerie's head. Her eyes were open, but she looked dazed, like she couldn't focus on anything. "Valerie?" she said.
"Don't worry about her, she'll be fine," the agent said. He sidled around Valerie so his back was to the cliff. He was holding a handgun in his right hand and was pointing it at Julia.
"What did you do?" Julia said angrily, looking up at the agent.
The agent waved his hand with the tech-glove. "This thing is very handy for subduing criminals. One jolt from this, and they get very compliant."
"Electric shock?" Julia said. "That's dangerous! You could have stopped her heart!" She turned back to Valerie and felt for her pulse. It was there, a little erratic, but strong.
"It happens occasionally," the agent said dismissively. "Which is why I didn't use it on you. My superiors were very clear that I was to bring you back safely." His eyes narrowed. "I have a feeling they're going to be a little less interested in your well-being once I tell them what I know."
"Really," Julia said coldly. "And what do you think you know?"
"That you're at least a hundred klicks farther west than you said you were, that you're headed west, not south, and that you have motorized vehicles," the agent said. "All of which tells me that you weren't really all that interested in being found."
Then you haven't been in contact with Brendan recently, Julia thought, breathing an inward sigh of relief. Maybe I can still pull this off. She glanced down at Valerie, who was starting to look a little more focused. Julia lowered Valerie's head to the ground, squeezed her shoulder briefly, and stood up to face the Council agent.
Julia studied him for a moment. His uniform was a mess, with a ragged tear at the right shoulder, and she could see blood through the rent. There was a bruise along the side of his face, old enough it was starting to turn interesting colors. And he wasn't wearing headgear. This is the agent Valerie and Morgan saw, Julia thought.
"Well, there's certainly a reason you're the one taking orders instead of giving them," Julia said dismissively. "We're farther west than I said because we found the vehicles. And you clearly haven't been in touch with the base recently, or you would have known that I updated our position for Brendan."
"Really," the agent said skeptically, his eyes narrowed.
"Really," Julia said coldly. "And the reason I'm out here is because I got caught trying to check in." And how much of our conversation did you overhear? she wondered.
"Then why did you just let her pitch your encryption chip off that cliff?" the agent said angrily, gesturing at Valerie with the tech-gloved hand.
"Oh, come on, do you really think I'd give that up?" Julia said. "That was a collection of VR mysteries I lifted from Morgan Martin's tent."
The agent's eyes lit up. "Then you still have your encryption chip?"
And you're just desperate to get it, aren't you? Julia thought, kicking herself for not anticipating that. "Of course," she said.
"Hand it over," he said. "Along with your gear."
"So you can tell Brendan your ridiculously misinterpreted version of events?" Julia said. "I don't think so."
"Hand it over," the agent repeated. "Or I'll use this glove on you."
"And risk damaging the chip or the gear?" Julia said, shaking her head. "That would be just as stupid as I'd expect from you." She took a careful step backwards.
"Then I'll shoot her," the agent said, stepping around Valerie to follow her, then turning to point the gun at Valerie. "You seemed awfully concerned about her well-being."
"Do you know how close we are to the camp?" Julia said, trying hard to keep a neutral expression on her face. "You fire that gun, and they'll be on top of us in minutes." She took another step backwards.
"If you don't stop right now, I'll take that risk," the agent said, pointing the gun at her again and taking a step closer to her.
Julia forced herself not to look at Valerie, who was now slightly behind the agent. How long will that shock keep her down? Julia wondered. However long it might be, she had to stall. It was clear the agent wasn't going to let her get a chance to overpower him, even if she thought she could manage it. He was at least six inches taller than her, and powerfully built. But maybe if Valerie—
There was a sound from behind her, and Julia turned to see the ATV rolling up the hill towards her with Devon driving and Melanie perched on the back. Before she could say anything, the Council agent had his left hand clamped around her neck, pulling her tight against him. She grabbed wildly at the hand with the gun, shoving it to the side as he fired.
Devon slammed on the brakes and grabbed for the mag-pro at her side. She flipped it on, aiming it towards him. She climbed carefully out of the ATV, keeping the mag-pro leveled at him.
Melanie scrambled down to stand behind the ATV, trying to decide if she should stay there or move out and provide another target. She couldn't decide, so she split the difference. She edged around the ATV and moved up behind Devon. She glanced over at Valerie, who was lying half on her side, looking like she was trying to get up, but she seemed to be having trouble. "Valerie?" Melanie called.
The agent turned, yanking Julia with him, so he could keep an eye on Valerie.
"Shoot him!" Julia said, still struggling to keep the gun hand at bay.
"Let her go and step away," Devon said, moving slowly up the hill towards them.
"Devon, sh—" Julia began, but the agent locked his hand tighter around her throat and she couldn't get more out. She pulled at his hand with her left hand, but couldn't loosen his grasp. Her face started to go red.
"Let her go," Devon repeated, aiming the mag-pro at his head, trying to look more confident in her aim than she felt.
"She's right, Devon. S-shoot him," Valerie said, her voice oddly ragged.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said, pulling Julia backwards with him and glancing back over his shoulder as he did. "We're awfully close to the edge. Even if you did hit me instead of her, there's a good chance we'll both go over."
"Better that than let you leave with her," Melanie said defiantly. That earned her a grateful look from Julia. God, don't be glad I said that, Melanie thought sickly. Come on, Alonzo. We need you.
"We're going to back away now," the agent said, ignoring her as Julia took a rasping breath. "I'm perfectly willing to shoot any of you if you try to stop me." He ripped his hand free of Julia's clearly weakening grasp and pointed the handgun menacingly at Devon.
"Are you serious?" Melanie said. "How many bad crime VRs have you watched?"
"Melanie," Devon said under her breath. "Shut up."
"This isn't VR, smartass," the agent said. "And even if it were, I'm the good guy." He started edging his way along the cliff's edge to the south, Julia shuffling unsteadily backwards in his grasp, both her hands now pulling at the hand grasping her throat.
Devon took a step forward.
"Damn it, Devon, shoot him!" Valerie said.
"Don't!" the agent said, and Julia made a strangled noise, her eyes rolled back for a moment, and both of her hands fell. Melanie could see her hands were shaking. "I can control this glove with one hand. You do not want to see what a full power shock will do to her. Just ask her," he added, nodding over at Valerie.
"Devon, if you let him go, he'll kill her, and then he'll make sure they kill all of us," Valerie pleaded.
Something changed in Julia's eyes, and then everything happened at once. Valerie gasped, "Julia, no!" Julia suddenly sagged in the agent's grasp, and for an instant, he lost his balance. Then she shoved backwards hard, sending them both towards the edge. The gun in the agent's hand went off. Devon gave a yelp and fell backwards, the mag-pro tumbling to the ground. Melanie tried to catch her as she fell, but they both ended up on the ground.
And when Melanie looked up, Julia and the agent were gone.
"Oh, god," Melanie said, unable to take in what she'd just seen.
Devon was unleashing a stream of profanity Melanie never would have expected could come from her mouth, breathing shallowly between every word. Melanie could feel her shaking.
Valerie had made it to her hands and knees and was staring at the spot where Julia had just been.
Melanie closed her eyes for an instant, and then shook herself. She lowered Devon as gently as she could to the ground and looked to see how bad it was. The bullet had hit her right arm just above the elbow, and there was blood streaming down her arm, soaking through her shirt sleeve.
"Valerie," Melanie called. "I need your help." She was amazed at how calm her voice sounded.
Valerie didn't answer.
"Valerie, come on! I need you!" she snapped, and Valerie turned to look at her. "Help me—put pressure on this while I go get the med kit."
Valerie blinked and then nodded. She scrambled clumsily over and put her hand over the wound. Devon's stream of profanity was punctuated by one last word and for a moment she subsided into gasping. It didn't last long, though. Even as Melanie ran for the ATV, Devon was looking hard at Valerie, who stared resolutely down at the hand she had clamped over Devon's bleeding arm.
"Wh-where's Julia?" Devon managed to get out through gritted teeth.
Valerie caught her breath for an instant, but didn't answer.
"Valerie?" Devon said in a ragged voice.
"Stop talking, Devon," Melanie said, skidding to a stop next to her and dumping the med kit to the ground. She yanked the diaglove out and began scanning Devon's arm. "It's not as bad as it looks, and not nearly as bad as it must feel," she said, smiling weakly at Devon.
That earned her another unexpectedly foul word from Devon. "I don't care how bad it is! Where the hell is Julia?" she said furiously.
Melanie smiled at her again, grabbed a hypo and shot it into Devon's neck.
"N—" Devon managed to get out before her eyes slid shut.
"I can only deal with so much right now," Melanie said very quietly and began working on Devon's arm.
Valerie didn't say a word the whole time Melanie worked on Devon. Melanie finally finished wrapping a bandage strapping the arm to Devon's chest and then sat back on her heels.
She looked up as she heard a sound, and started to reach for the mag-pro, then relaxed as she saw a flash of a familiar yellow coming through the trees down the hill. Danziger pulled the rail up next to the ATV, and before he and Helen could climb out, Alonzo pulled up in his ATV. He was out and running towards them before he'd even come to a stop.
"What happened?" Alonzo said. "Where's—?" He stopped cold as he saw the look on Melanie's face. "No."
"Devon?" Danziger said, running up. "What the hell?"
"She's—" Melanie began and her voice broke. She swallowed. "Devon's going to be fine, John. She got shot, but she'll be okay."
"Shot!" Danziger began, kneeling beside Devon and putting one hand to her hair. Then he shook himself and looked harder at Melanie. "What about you?" he said with a remarkable gentleness.
"Pretty far from okay," Melanie said, but even then the tears didn't start.
"Valerie?" Helen said.
Valerie looked up at her, but didn't say anything.
"She's had a nasty electrical shock," Melanie said. "I want to keep an eye on her to make sure there aren't any after effects."
"Electrical shock?" Danziger said, confused. "How?"
"Council agent," Valerie said. "He's dead now." She got to her feet and walked slowly over to the cliff's edge, looking unsteady enough that Helen followed her and grabbed her arm.
It was a good thing. As she got to the edge and looked down, her knees buckled. Helen managed to keep her from pitching over the edge, lowering her carefully to her knees, and nearly went over herself when she realized what Valerie had seen.
"Valerie?" Julia said. She was about three meters below, lying precariously on her back on a narrow ledge and looking dazed. Her left leg was dangling over the edge, but she didn't seem aware of that.
"Julia!" Alonzo said, landing on his knees next to Valerie and looking overjoyed. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm…not sure," Julia said thickly, and her voice sounded raw. "I can't…feel much."
"Enjoy it while you can," Valerie said slowly, breathing hard. "It's gonna hurt when the feeling comes back."
Danziger ran up next to Helen. "Woah, don't move, Doc," he said as she looked like she was trying to get up. "It's a long way down."
Julia turned her head slightly, saw the vast expanse of nothing next to her and looked back up, her eyes wide. "Thanks," she said weakly.
Melanie came up, looking even more dazed than Julia.
"What the hell happened?" Alonzo said. "And what's with the electrical shock?"
"The agent had a tech-glove," Valerie said with a slightly wild-eyed look. "A really sadistic one. He hit me with a shock, we had a little standoff, and then Julia did her superhero impression."
"Don't feel very super," Julia said. She was covered in dust, and there was a nasty scratch on one cheek oozing blood.
"How else did you survive that fall?" Valerie said. "God, Julia, I was sure you were dead. I'm pretty sure the agent is." She was careful not to look at the tiny, decidedly motionless white figure lying at the river's edge far below.
"I don't know," Julia said. "I was pretty sure I was dead…and then I was lying here with everything tingling. He—he must have shocked me when I tried to knock him over, but then…" She trailed off and swallowed hard. "I guess I got lucky."
Valerie began to laugh, and then couldn't seem to stop. Melanie was looking at her like she'd lost her mind, and that just made it worse. Valerie rolled onto her back and lay there giggling helplessly.
"Was there only the one agent?" Danziger said uneasily.
"God, I hope so," Julia said with feeling.
Danziger seemed to come to some sort of decision. "Okay, you just hang on for a sec, Doc," Danziger called down to Julia. "There's some biocord in the rail," he said to Helen, who nodded and took off running. "We'll have you up here in a minute."
"Valerie?" Julia called after a few moments. "Are you okay?"
"Oh, she's fine," Alonzo said, sounding annoyed. Valerie seemed to be winding down, and now she just looked exhausted. "She's just having a moment. How much can you feel now?"
"I'm still pretty tingly. And my head hurts," Julia said. "I don't think I ever want to do this again."
That finally seemed to break through the fog in Melanie's head. She rolled her eyes heavenward. "I swear to god, Julia Heller, if you ever do any of this again, an electrical shock is going to be the least of your worries!"
Valerie rolled back onto her hands and knees and looked over the edge at Julia.
"I told you she'd yell at me," Julia said when she saw Valerie's face.
"I'm just glad you're here to be yelled at," Valerie said, and started to giggle again.
"This isn't funny," Melanie said with a dangerous edge to her voice, but both Valerie and Julia were too far gone to notice it.
"It's a little funny. Incongruity is one of the cornerstones of good comedy," Julia said, and she started laughing, too, but with a giddy edge to it. "Valerie's glad I'm not dead. Everybody else is mad at me. And I'm really not all that good with heights."
"So why do you keep throwing yourself off of cliffs?" Alonzo exclaimed, starting to understand Melanie's hostility. They're acting like it's all a big joke!
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Julia said, smiling crookedly at Valerie, and that sent Valerie into nearly hysterical giggles again.
"What's with her?" Helen said, running up with the biocord.
"Crazy," Melanie said coldly. "Completely nuts. Both of them." She stood up. "I'm going to go take care of Devon."
Alonzo frowned, watching her as she walked away.
He glanced at Danziger, who shrugged. "I'm not gonna try to figure it out till I get the whole story," Danziger said, tossing the biocord over the edge to Julia. "Can you tie that around you? Be careful, you're really close to the edge."
Julia swallowed hard and closed her eyes. "Please don't remind me," she said. "Give me a minute. I'm not sure I want to try moving just yet."
"Ha!" Helen said. "You just don't want to come up here and deal with Melanie."
"Absolutely," Julia said emphatically. "I've done more than my share of stupid things already. Now I'm playing it safe."
It took several minutes before Julia felt like she could manage to get the biocord around her safely, and another several before Helen and Danziger were able to pull her back up. Julia had helped some, but her legs were still pretty shaky.
When she reached the top, Julia fell forward onto her hands, breathing heavily. "Where's Devon?" she said.
"Over there," Valerie said. "She'll be okay—she took a bullet in the arm, and Melanie sedated her when…" She stopped and swallowed hard.
"She got shot?" Julia stood up unsteadily, and Alonzo grabbed her by both arms and looked hard at her. "Let me go, Alonzo," she said. "I need to go check on Devon."
"You need to let Melanie look at you, too," Alonzo said, wanting desperately to put his arms around her, but he knew better than to try to stop her when she was in doctor mode. He led her over to where Devon was lying peacefully with her arm bound against her. There was a tiny spot of blood starting to show through the bandage.
Melanie didn't look up when Julia knelt down next to Devon. "Can I have the diaglove?" Julia said.
Melanie handed it over without a word, and Alonzo frowned. This isn't like Mel at all, he thought. He glanced over at Danziger, who was coming up with one hand still holding Valerie steady.
"Do you think there are any other agents around?" Danziger asked Valerie.
She shook her head. "I don't think so. At least not close. Otherwise he'd have just stalled us instead of trying to get away on his own. And he wanted Julia's gear, so I'm betting he hasn't been in contact with anyone else since the Terrier attack."
Danziger didn't look convinced. He tapped his gear. "Tosh?" he said. "I want you to warn everybody in the camp. There are probably more Council agents in the area." Helen picked up Devon's mag-pro and started scanning the area to the north.
Julia finished her scan and looked up at Melanie, who was still looking down at Devon. "Nice work, Mel," she said, taking off the diaglove and handing it back to Melanie. "But you really need to stop sedating people because it's conv—"
Melanie swatted it away. "Don't you dare act like everything's okay!" she snapped. She stood up and backed away. "It's not okay! It's not!"
Oh, boy, Alonzo thought. It was only a matter of time before she blew. And I don't blame her a bit. "Easy, Mel," he said against his better judgment, reaching for her.
"I thought she was dead," she said, pulling away from his outstretched arm. "I watched her go off that cliff and I thought she was dead!"
"Melanie," Julia said, standing and stepping carefully around Devon. She held out her hands placatingly. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"
"Sorry?" Melanie said incredulously. "You're sorry?" She stepped close to Julia and poked her finger at her. Julia's eyes went wide, and she took an involuntary step backwards, looking over at Alonzo appealingly, but Melanie was just barreling onward, and Alonzo seemed perfectly willing to let her. "You do not get to be sorry! Sorry doesn't even begin to cover this! Sorry is for things like…like…taking the last tomato or…or…"
Julia reached up, hesitated, then tentatively put her hands on Melanie's arms. "Melanie, please," Julia said earnestly. "I'm sorry."
Melanie let out a breath she must have been holding and blinked hard. "Damn it, Jules, don't you get it?" she said softly, and started to cry.
Julia looked dismayed and pulled her into a hug. "I'm trying to, Melanie," she said. "I really am. But…this…I—I don't know…"
Alonzo looked over at Valerie, unsure of what to say.
"The hardest part of learning how to care about other people is learning how to let yourself be cared about," Valerie said softly.
Julia glanced at her in surprise.
Valerie smiled. "Something Jim Harrison told me once. He knew what he was talking about."