Julia was finally sleeping peacefully, lying next to Solace. There was no tension in her face, and Devon was both surprised and concerned, because she was fairly certain she’d never seen Julia look even close to this relaxed. And I thought I was wound tight, she thought.
“She looks a lot different when she’s sleeping, doesn’t she?” Solace said, echoing her thoughts.
“As far as I know, she hadn’t slept since before we crashed,” Melanie said, and it was clear to Devon she felt bad about not looking after Julia better. “I think it’s likely she hadn’t since we got out of coldsleep. And remember, she was one of the first out. That’s almost 60 hours.” Not to mention that they’ve been extremely stressful hours, Devon thought. Melanie shrugged. “I sedated her mainly because I was afraid she’d hurt herself or Danziger going after Martin. I’ll stand by my decision. And I’d be willing to bet, once she gets some rest, she’ll understand. She won’t be happy,” Melanie said, looking a little nervous, “but I think she’ll understand.”
“I hope you’re right,” Devon said, not entirely convinced.
“I think it was good that she went after Martin like that,” Solace said seriously. “She’s been bottling up everything—the stress of the crash, not to mention everything that went before it, then losing O’Neill, and finding out about Sawyer…” He shook his head. “It was only a matter of time before she blew. At least it was directed at somebody who really deserved it.”
“So what do we do about him?” Danziger said, nodding at Martin, who was sitting under a tree with Bess. He looked nervous.
Everyone was keeping their distance from him, but Devon wondered how long it would be till somebody else went after him. She had to admit, she almost wanted to herself. “We have to find a way to live with him,” Devon said finally. “Whatever he might have done, I don’t think Bess was responsible, and I’m not about to ask her to abandon him. And it’s not like we’re in a position to start throwing people out the metaphorical airlock. I’ve already spoken to everybody here about that except Julia, and you three,” she said, gesturing at Danziger, Bill and Helen.
Danziger looked disgusted, but he didn’t argue the point. “At least we know he can carry stuff, if he’s…motivated.” Devon hated to think what motivation Danziger meant. “He helped us cart all that stuff back from his pod. He might be useful. And his wife seems nice enough. God knows how she ended up with him, though.”
“We’ll need to clear the air,” Melanie said. “Otherwise, it’ll just fester till somebody does something worse than use harsh language.”
Devon nodded reluctantly. “It’ll have to wait till Julia’s awake,” she said, quietly, looking down at her sleeping form. “We need her buy-in on this more than anybody else’s—if she says she can accept him in the group, then we may have a chance of making this work.”
“And if she can’t?” Danziger said, and it sounded like he was almost hoping for that.
“We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Devon said, hoping that she wouldn’t have to answer that question. “How long will she be out?” she asked Melanie.
“I have no idea,” Melanie said. “The sedative should wear off in about four hours, judging from how it worked on Alonzo. But she needs a lot more than four hours of sleep. And we are bloody well going to let her wake up on her own.” She looked hard at each of them till they nodded. “Good.”
“In the meantime,” Devon said, “we need to make a few decisions. First, do we stay here? Or do we try to find the other escape pods and, hopefully, the supply pods?”
“I think we at least have to look around the area,” Danziger said. “I mean, we found Morgan’s pod within a day’s walk. It’s a good bet there are others nearby. I think we should send out a couple of teams to search.”
“I think it’s pretty much crucial that we try to find the supply pods,” Melanie said. “Julia was concerned about the medical supplies. If we don’t find those pods, we could run out of some fairly important stuff before the colony ship gets here.”
“Then I think it’s a given that we need to send out search teams. Would any of you be willing to take Martin with you?” Devon said carefully.
There was dead silence for a moment, and some of them looked sidelong at each other. “Aw, hell, I will,” Danziger said. “I’ve already had to put up with him whining for four hours. I think I can handle him. And I’m betting Helen or Bill would be okay with it, if we want to stick with teams of three.”
Devon sighed inwardly, relieved. It would save her a lot of headaches if she could keep Martin away from the others as much as possible till tempers cooled. “Okay, let’s plan on getting a systematic search started tomorrow morning. Until then, I think we need to set up a couple of the emergency shelters from the pod. We can start by getting one set up over Solace and Julia. For the time being, I think this is going to be home. I don’t think we want to try to do any large-scale traveling until we either find one of the supply pods with the vehicles or Solace’s leg heals.”
Solace looked glum. “Sorry, everybody,” he said.
“Don’t be,” Melanie said. “Feel free to blame Martin for it, though.” She grinned.
“I’ve never seen her like that,” Toshiko said, shaking her head as she sat by the fire. “I’ve worked with her for over a year, and she’s never lost control. Not once. Not even when Heiberg yelled at her for fifteen minutes straight.”
“I sure can’t blame her,” Rob said. “You all saw how hard she’s taking O’Neill’s death.”
“She has to feel bad about that,” Valerie said. “I mean, it was one of the cases of medical gear that hit him.”
“Come on, Valerie, that’s not her fault,” Helen said. “Hell, O’Neill’s the one who told Solace to pull the launch lever before the gear was stowed away.”
“I didn’t mean it was,” Valerie said defensively. “I’m just saying I’d feel responsible if it were me. That can’t be easy to deal with. Plus the fact that the Council tried to kill us all. I mean, think about it—her own mother signed off on killing her own daughter? It’s a wonder she didn’t snap sooner.”
“You don’t know that,” Toshiko said. “There are fifty people on the Council. Who knows what her mother knew?”
“Are you serious?” Valerie said.
“I heard she hadn’t spoken to her mother for years,” Helen said pointedly.
“It’s true,” Toshiko said. “Her mother didn’t want her working for Dr. Harrison on the Syndrome.” She shook her head. “I asked her about it once. All she said was that one of the reasons she’d signed on with the Eden Project was so she could get away from questions about her mother.”
“And here we are still talking about it,” Rob said. “Maybe we should stop.”
“Has anybody talked to any of the crew of the ship about what happened?” Toshiko asked. “This has to be difficult for them—they weren’t expecting to get shipwrecked.”
“They seem to be dealing with it okay,” Valerie said. “That guy Danziger acts like this is just one more dirty job he got stuck with by the powers that be.”
“Even so,” Toshiko said, “maybe we should talk about it.”
“Tosh, I know it’s hard for you to understand, but sometimes talking only makes things worse,” Valerie said, and amazingly, she didn’t say it sarcastically.
This tent is driving me crazy, Alonzo thought, staring up at the same spot on the canopy he’d been staring at for the last 12 hours. Oh come on, Solace, it isn’t just the tent driving you crazy. Heller hadn’t moved for the first six hours, and after that, she’d only rolled to her side. Unfortunately, that had given him a very good view of her face.
She wasn’t the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen—she had sort of non-descript shoulder-length light brown hair that had a tendency to fall in her face, which explained why she usually pulled it back. It might be the eyes, he thought, imagining the pale blue color, but there was something about her even when her eyes were closed. After he’d spent almost an hour studying her, he’d started to get nervous. He’d only gotten this hung up on a woman once before, and it hadn’t ended well. But he couldn’t seem to stop thinking about her.
Julia stirred, and Alonzo sat up, wincing as his leg shifted, and looked over at her. “Heller?” he whispered tentatively. It had been almost 14 hours since she’d been awake, and he’d been starting to worry, but he didn’t want to wake her if she was still asleep.
Julia opened her eyes and looked up at him, then frowned. “Please tell me I was dreaming,” she said, and she sounded like she was about to cry.
Alonzo swallowed, then decided she didn’t need serious at the moment. “Well, you were sleeping next to me,” he said, smiling winningly at her. “That’s kind of dreamy.”
She looked at him for a long time, then shook her head and looked away.
“Hey,” Melanie said, coming into the tent and seeing Julia awake. “I thought I heard something. How are you?”
“I think I’m going crazy,” Julia said, staring blindly at the wall of the tent, and for a moment Melanie was really worried, because she sounded serious.
“You’re not crazy, Heller,” Alonzo said, reaching over to touch her arm. “Just a little stressed out.”
“First, Alonzo was quoting Shakespeare, and then—” Julia said.
“Well, if you’re calling him Alonzo and he was quoting Shakespeare, I’m betting on that part being a dream. The rest, however…” Melanie said tentatively, though she was relieved Julia seemed able to joke.
“Hey, the Shakespeare part really happened,” Alonzo protested.
“Then—” Julia began, then clearly stopped herself from saying something.
“Yes,” Melanie said, “you really did say all those things to Morgan Martin.”
“I have to say, you were pretty creative, Heller,” Alonzo said. “I particularly liked the ‘filthy, stinking, bottom-feeding, blood-sucking’ part.”
Julia put her hand over her eyes. “I can’t believe I almost…” She stopped, took her hand away and looked hard up at Melanie. “You sedated me,” she said, though Melanie was relieved it didn’t sound like an accusation.
She nodded, bracing herself for Julia’s anger, but it didn’t happen.
Julia blushed, sat up, and looked back up at Melanie. “Thank you,” she said seriously. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded about hitting Martin, but I might have...” She looked worried. “Adair’s going to be so mad at me.”
Melanie smiled, noticing it was Devon she was most worried about, not Danziger. Or Martin. “Somehow I doubt that. Seriously, Julia, you didn’t say anything that the rest of us weren’t thinking. Maybe a little more eloquently than some,” she said, “but it’d be hard for any of us to hold it against you. No, the only thing Devon was at all concerned about was, well, how…out of control you got.”
Julia flushed again.
“Look, Heller…Julia,” Alonzo said, “about that.”
Julia turned to look over at him, surprised to hear him use her first name.
“You can’t let it get that bad again,” he said earnestly. “I know your type—you take your feelings, shove them in a closet and pretend they’re not there—but it’s not a good idea. They’re gonna come out, and it’s better not to wait so long the closet door hits somebody when it opens. I know you probably don’t want to talk to me, but you need to find somebody to talk to.”
Julia nodded. “I know,” she said, and for the second time in a matter of minutes, she found herself fighting back tears. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been told that.” Though I think this time I had more justification for losing it than I’ve ever had before, she thought, trying not to think about everything that had led up to her confrontation with Martin. I just can’t deal with that right now.
“As long as we’re in the soul-bearing mode,” Melanie said dryly, “we need to talk about your sleep habits, or lack thereof.”
Julia started to look slightly rebellious. “What was I supposed to do? I had to—”
“You get help,” Melanie interrupted. “There were a dozen people out there dying to help you, but they didn’t know what to do. You can’t take it all on yourself like that again. We have a lot of very smart, very capable people here. Use them.”
God, I wish I could, Julia thought sickly. What am I going to do?
Melanie frowned, wondering if Julia was still paying attention—she still seemed a little unfocused. “Damn it, Julia, you were about this close to collapse,” she said, holding her fingers close together. “What if something else had happened, and you weren’t able to deal with it? You’re the only doctor we have, which means you have a responsibility to take care of yourself. Our lives depend on it,” she finished, feeling slightly foolish for sounding so dramatic, but the point seemed to have gotten through.
“Okay, you’re right,” Julia said, holding her hands up in surrender. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better.”
“You’ll do more than that,” Melanie said. “You’ll listen to us when we tell you stuff in the future, okay?”
Julia looked appraisingly at Melanie. “I promise I will listen to you,” she said pointedly.
“Hey, I gave you solid advice, Heller,” Alonzo said, so relieved to hear her make a joke, he decided to let her off the hook. “It’s not my fault you’re too blinded by my obvious charms to recognize it.”
Julia ignored him, standing up. “Please tell me there’s food outside, Melanie,” she said. “I’m starving.”
“Well, there are emergency rations,” Melanie said. “I’m not sure I’d call them food…”
“They’ll do,” Julia said, and ducked out of the tent.
Julia blinked in the sunshine, and then noticed that most of the group was sitting around the fireplace. And they were all looking at her. Oh, this is going to be awkward, she thought nervously, though she was relieved to see that neither Martin nor his wife were anywhere in sight.
Then Rick stood up, came over to her and shook her hand. “I owe you one, Dr. Heller,” he said. “If you hadn’t done it, I would have, and I might not have been as gentle as you were.”
“I know I wouldn’t,” Rob said, coming up and dragging Julia over to the fire. Melanie shot him a grateful look.
“Don’t,” Julia said, embarrassed beyond belief. “I never should have let it go that far.”
“No, you shouldn’t,” Devon said, coming up from the pod. “And I hope it won’t ever happen again,” she added gently.
“It won’t,” Julia said, wishing she could melt into the ground. Then she had a bad thought. “How long was I—how is Uly?”
Devon held up her hand. “He’s fine. Yale has been keeping an eye on him with Melanie’s help, and his O2 sats are back up.”
Julia sighed in relief. “I’m so sorry, Devon.”
“Hey, it’s all right,” Devon said, putting her hand on Julia’s shoulder. “Everybody’s fine, even Martin, so you can relax.”
“Where is Martin?” Julia said, turning to look for him. It was clear to Devon she was uncomfortable with the physical contact, so she let her go. “I really should apologize—”
“Like hell you should,” Helen cut in.
Julia held up her hand to stop her. “No, really, I feel pretty awful about it. I’m really not like that, at least not under normal circumstances.”
“Oh, like these are normal circumstances?” Rob said. “Actually, Dr. Heller, I think most of us let off some steam vicariously through you. I sure feel better.”
“Well, somebody else will have to do it for you next time,” Julia said. “And I think after you’ve seen me completely lose my cool, you could call me Julia. So, where’s Martin?”
“Sorry, Dr—Julia,” Rob said. “He went with Danziger and Bill to scout. We thought it’d be good for him to get away for a while.” He grinned. “The fact that he thought we were sending him out for them to dump him off a cliff was just a bonus.”
Danziger clambered up a steep slope and stopped at the top, looking out over an enormous distance. Their pod had crashed just to the northwest, and they’d headed for this ridge. They’d hiked all day, camped overnight, and started up the hill again in the morning, hoping the high ground would give them a good vantage point. And it sure did, Danziger thought, bringing up the monocular to scan the landscape in front of him.
“Wow,” Bill said. “I knew this place was big, but…”
“Ow!” Martin whimpered, sitting down on a rock and taking off one shoe. He didn’t seem at all interested in the view. “I think I’m getting a blister!”
Bill rolled his eyes and Danziger grinned sidelong at him, then went back to scanning the horizon.
“Anything?” Bill said.
“Not so—” Danziger began, then froze. “Wait, I got something. Check it out.” He handed Bill the monocular and pointed. “Down there, see where that big rock thing is? Just to the left of—”
“Yeah, baby!” Bill said. “That’s a supply pod!”
“Come on, Martin,” Danziger said, grabbing the monocular from Bill and hanging it back over his head.
“But I have—” Martin began, then stopped when he saw Danziger’s face. He shoved his shoe back on, muttering, “This has got to stop at some point. How long am I supposed to pay for one little mistake?”
Danziger turned, grabbed his shirt, and pulled him close. “Until you make up for O’Neill ending up in a shallow grave, you whiny bastard. Or until I let the Doc finish what she started. Now move.”
Martin’s face went white, but he followed Danziger and Bill down the ridge.
Melanie poked her head into the tent where Julia was scanning Alonzo’s leg. “Did you hear? Danziger found one of the supply pods!”
Julia’s head shot up. “Did they say which one?” she said. “What’s in it?”
Melanie shook her head. “They’re just on their way to it now. I’ll let you know when I hear something more.” She ducked back out.
“Please let it be Fifteen…or Twelve,” she breathed, looking back at the scans.
“What’s in those?” Alonzo said, curious.
“Twelve has four cases of the medical equipment,” she said absently. “But I’m really hoping for Fifteen. It has a synthlab, and it also has some of the hydroponics. And vehicles. Since you’d have to launch them in order, it had to be one of the last, so I figure it’s probably the one that landed closest to us. Seven would be as good—it has the other synthlab, but I don’t think it’s as likely.”
“You remember what’s in the supply pods?” Alonzo said, frowning. “There’s fifteen of them, each of them packed full of stuff to keep this project going for two years, and you remember what’s in them?”
Julia looked up at him, and she looked like she was bracing for something. “Genetically enhanced memory,” she said quietly.
“Oh,” Alonzo said. “Well, that’s not the only thing they enhanced with you.”
“Will you stop it?” she said, glaring at him.
“All I meant was you seem to be a really good doctor,” Alonzo said, looking hurt.
Julia looked surprised, and then ashamed. “Sorry—I shouldn’t have assumed—”
“But now that you mention it, you do have really nice—”
“Don’t say it!” she snapped, standing up and grabbing her med kit. “Honestly, you are so—” She closed her eyes, took a breath, stormed out of the tent and almost ran over Bess Martin.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Bess said, “I should be watching where I’m going.”
Julia pulled up short, holding her med kit in front of her like a shield, wishing she’d had a chance to prepare herself for this. “No, don’t, it was entirely my fault,” she said. She took a breath and plunged onward. “Mrs. Martin, I’m so sorry. I meant to come and find you sooner, so I could—”
“For heaven’s sake, Mrs. Martin sounds so formal. Call me Bess,” she said with a winning smile, though it faded as she continued. “And actually, I came looking for you. I wanted to apologize.”
Julia blinked, frowning. “Why? I’m the one who nearly—”
“You had every reason to,” Bess said, looking ashamed. “What Morgan did was wrong, and it had terrible consequences, and I’m very, very sorry. I just wanted you to know that. I’ll do my best to make sure Morgan and I both work to make up for it. And if either one of us ever disappoints you again, you have my permission to deck us both.” She smiled again, turned and walked away, leaving Julia speechless in her wake.
“Will you look at that!” Bill said, grinning. The supply pod was intact, without even any scorching from the trip through the atmosphere.
“She’s a thing of beauty, all right,” Danziger said. “Let’s get her open.”
“Did you hear something?” Martin said, looking nervous.
Danziger ignored him, popping open the access panel and punching in the unlock code. There was a whoosh of air out of the main door, and then it folded out from the top, lowering like a drawbridge.
“Oh, baby, come to papa,” Danziger breathed, looking rapturously at the big wheeled machine inside.
“The Transrover!” Bill said. “Oh, we got lucky! Really, really lucky!”
“And an ATV,” Danziger said, running up the ramp. “Damn, you aren’t kidding, man! We’ve got wheels!”
“Uh, guys,” Martin said uneasily, hearing movement coming through the brush below the supply pod.
“One of the hydroponics cases!” Bill said, looking at the cases lining the walls around the vehicles. “And there’s medical stuff, too—Doctor Heller’s gonna flip—”
“Guys!” Martin yelped as he saw movement in the bushes. He ran up the ramp. “There’s something out there!”
“Danziger?” a man’s voice called, and Danziger whirled.
“Hardy!” he said, and ran down the ramp to wrap the man standing at the bottom in a bear hug. There were more people coming around the side of the supply pod, grinning happily. “Where’d you guys come from?”
“Our pod came down just south of here,” he said. “We got the supply pod signal and came looking.”
“Is this all of you?” Danziger said, looking around and counting.
“Yep,” Hardy said. “All ten of us. We figured it was better to stick together, and since our escape pod wasn’t broadcasting, we decided we’d better go looking instead of staying put. How about you?”
“We’ve got fifteen so far,” Danziger said. “Our pod, plus the one Martin here was in.” Hardy caught the weird tone in Danziger’s voice and noticed Martin trying to melt into the background.
“I have some bad news,” Hardy said. “I was getting my pod loaded, and saw the one next to us launch, but it was the one farthest to the stern, and I think the launch bay must have taken some damage. The pod got hung up part of the way out. I don’t think they made it.”
“Damn,” Danziger said. “Did they have a full load?”
“Yeah,” Hardy said grimly.
Danziger shook his head. “Well, our pod is about a day’s hike back thataway.” He pointed up the ridge. “We’ve got a man injured, so we’ve just been sending out scouts so far. I think we should use our escape pod as base camp, since it is broadcasting, and see if we can find the last pod from there. We can leave a message on the supply pod manifest with directions to our pod.”
“You aren’t gonna get this baby up there,” Hardy said, looking dubiously at the Transrover.
“Yeah, we’re gonna have to find another way around,” Danziger said. He tapped his gear. “Hey, Mel, you there?”
“Yes,” she said over the gear. “What do you have for me, Danziger?”
“Happy birthday, Mel! We’ve got vehicles, supplies, and one of the other escape pods with ten more of our people.”
“Wow! What the heck am I supposed to do for your birthday, then?” she said, and Danziger could hear the grin.
“You’ll think of something. Listen, we need to figure out an alternate route back. We’ve got the Transrover, and we’ll need it to get all these supplies back to the camp, but it won’t go the way we came.”
“Well, between what you’ve been telling me and what Helen and Rick found on their scout to the west, I think I have a pretty good fix on where we are,” Melanie said. “It looks like we’re in a cleft in some foothills at the base of these mountains to the north. I think if you head south about ten klicks, it’ll flatten out, and then you can swing around and come back north to us.”
“I sure hope you’re right, Mel,” Danziger sighed. “It’s gonna take us awhile to get everything loaded, and even longer to take the scenic route back. You’d better tell Adair.”
“Oh, fine, make me tell her,” Melanie huffed. “Like any of this is my fault!”
Julia sighed as she sorted through another page of inventory late the next morning. Danziger and his daughter had been thorough, which only made it worse. I don’t have half of the things I need, she thought grimly. God help us if we run into another emergency like O’Neill. She winced again at the memory and forced herself to turn back to the list.
As she paged down on the tablet, she had a horrible thought. This is one of the med kit tablets. Not the one from my lab. Did I—? She paged down wildly, scanning the list. Oh, no.
She turned and began rifling through the boxes of supplies. After several minutes of fruitless searching, she gave up. I don’t have any of the medical records, she thought. Not a single one. She groaned inwardly. She was sure they could reconstruct the important things, but it would take time. She’d have to interview everyone in the group, or at least the ones she hadn’t reviewed before the crash.
Julia began mentally listing everyone in the group and visualizing the records, then decided she needed to put together a medical database before she began trying to reconstruct anything. Maybe I can get Valerie Carter to help with that, she thought. She’s the primary tech support for Eden Advance. We could set up a form so Melanie could take medical histories. I could give her one of the med kit tablets—or better yet, maybe there’s a spare somewhere we could—
“Doctor Heller?” Bess said, poking her head into the med tent, “have you seen Tru?”
Julia looked up, shaking herself out of her reverie. “No, I haven’t. She’s not with Uly?”
Bess shook her head, looking worried. “Toshiko said she had been, but they were working on math, and—”
“—and Tru hates math,” Julia finished wryly. “Did you check with Mel? She seemed kind of interested in the comm gear.”
Bess nodded. “Mel hasn’t seen her in almost an hour. I was supposed to be looking after her, but she snuck off while I was working on cataloging the supplies.”
Julia frowned, then grabbed her comm gear and put it on. “Devon?” she said.
“Go ahead,” Devon said.
“Is Tru with you and Rob?”
“No,” Devon said, frowning. “Why?”
“We can’t seem to find her,” Julia said, hoping she hadn’t just gotten Tru into trouble for nothing.
“Oh, for—” Devon said. “Okay, Rob and I are on our way back. We’ll be there in ten. Keep looking for her in the camp.”
Julia sighed. “Let’s go,” she said to Bess.
They turned the camp upside down in the time it took Devon and Rob to get back, with no luck. “I’m going to kill her,” Julia said under her breath.
“Get in line,” Devon said. “Okay, so we’re going to do this in teams—nobody goes out alone,” she said briskly to the gathered group. “Rob, you and Tosh head up the ridge. Valerie, you and Rick head just to the west of that. Bess, you and Julia will head east. Mel and I will go south. Stay in constant contact over the gear. The moment you find her, let everyone know.”
“And try not to mention her name over the gear till you do find her,” Melanie put in. “The last thing we need is for Danziger to pick up on this and go ballistic.”
Julia set off toward the river with Bess trotting along beside her. “Okay,” Bess said. “If I were an eleven-year-old girl with a knack for getting into trouble, where would I hide?”
“She was pretty fascinated by the water,” Julia said. “Maybe she just followed the river downstream.”
“I do hope she didn’t cross it. The water’s cold,” Bess said.
Please don’t let her be as much a pain as her husband, Julia thought. This is a bad enough situation already. Then she felt bad for thinking it. To be fair, Bess was right about the water. Julia had finally washed the blood off her face and hair early that morning, and it had been shockingly, painfully cold. Which had felt to Julia like a tiny bit of penance.
They got to the river and Julia started along the bank, looking for footprints in the mud. There was a spot about thirty meters down where there were a couple of rocks sticking out of the river midway across. Those look close enough to jump to, Julia thought, especially for Tru. She shaded her eyes against the bright morning sun, trying to see if there were any footprints on the other side.
“Look here,” Bess said, pointing at the bank near the rocks. There was definitely a footprint.
“I guess we’re crossing,” Julia said, resigned. “Devon, it’s Julia. I think we might have something. It looks like she crossed the river over here.”
“Got it,” Devon said. “Everybody, turn east. We’ll circle around and pick you up from the north and south. Hopefully that’ll let us find her faster.”
“I don’t know if I can jump that far,” Bess said uneasily.
“It’s not so bad,” Julia said. She backed up to take a running start, hit the first rock, pushed off to the second, teetered for a moment on it, then leaped to the far bank. “See?”
Bess still looked nervous, but she followed Julia’s lead and made it across. “Well, that was exciting!” she said. “Which way do you think she went?”
Julia shook her head. “It doesn’t look like she followed the river either way, so let’s head straight east. Hopefully if she did turn, the others will pick her up.”
Bess nodded. “And we can take a look around while we go—I don’t think anybody has really scouted much over here yet,” she said and scrambled up the bank in front of Julia. Well, she’s certainly trying, Julia thought.
They walked through a field of grass, and Julia found herself wondering what else there might be in the field. They’d been very lucky so far given how little they knew about the planet’s fauna. There might be poisonous creatures, large predators, and even something innocuous could cause life-threatening damage. Stop it, she told herself. She’s fine—we just need to find her. And when we do, I’m going to let her have it for scaring us like this.
“Tru!” Bess called. “Where are you?”
There was no answer. I swear, Julia thought grimly, you’d better be in big trouble, or you’re going to be in big trouble.
“Tru!” she called. “Come on, Tru. Where are you?”
“I’m over here,” they heard faintly. “I could use a little help.”
Julia frowned, glancing at Bess. She started towards Tru’s voice. “Keep talking,” she called.
“Bad…idea,” Tru called tentatively. There was a long pause, and Julia reached the treeline with Bess close behind. “I don’t think it…likes noise.”
It? Julia thought with a sinking feeling, trying to see into the trees. The sun filtering through the leaves made it hard to pick out any details, but she thought she saw a flash of movement.
“Bess,” she said quietly. “Hang back a little.”
“Wait, Dr. Heller, I don’t think that’s—”
“It’s Julia,” she said. “And Tru is in trouble. I’d rather have a backup plan. Just keep your eyes open and be ready to run. Okay?”
Bess’s eyes went wide, as if she was taking Julia’s command literally, and she nodded. Julia started forward into the trees, trying not to make noise. After about ten meters, she glanced back. Bess had followed her a little way in. “Be careful!” she whispered.
Julia nodded, and turned back. “Tru?” she called.
“Over…here,” she called. The first word was loud, the second trailed off to nothing.
Julia headed for it, trying to see through the dense forest.
She saw the creature first. It about four feet high, maybe a little more—certainly taller than Tru. It seemed to be mostly body, though it was hard to tell with the undergrowth. But its legs seemed small for its height. At first she thought it was four-legged, but after a moment she realized it had a strange set of forelegs—or arms—she couldn’t tell which. It looked furry, but it was hard to tell what color, with the way the sunlight filtering through the leaves dappled it. Mostly brown, Julia thought.
“Tru?” she said, and the creature turned to look at her. It had almost iridescent eyes set high on an oddly flattened head that sat on an elongated neck. It skittered backwards when it saw her, then took a couple of tentative steps forward. As she studied it, she saw its eyes blink, and the eyelids closed by sweeping in from the sides. And if I needed a reminder that we’re on an alien planet, you certainly do the trick.
“Here,” Tru said, and Julia finally saw her. She’d wedged herself into a small cleft in a rock face about three meters to the left of the creature, at one edge of a wide clearing in the trees.
Julia began edging her way towards Tru, trying to be as non-threatening as possible. The creature made a strange bleating noise as she got close to Tru, and Julia froze. “Are you okay?” she whispered.
“I’m fine,” Tru whispered. “But it won’t let me out of here.”
“Julia?” Bess called quietly. The creature made the odd noise again, and Julia finally realized its mouth—or what she thought was a mouth—was partway down the neck. It just gets weirder and weirder, she thought, but reminded herself, Alien planet, remember? If this is as weird as it gets, we’ll be in great shape.
Julia switched on her gear. “Stay quiet, Bess,” she whispered. “Don’t come any closer. Just talk to me over the gear, okay?”
“Julia?” Devon said. “What’s going on?”
“I found Tru. But we’ve got company,” Julia whispered.
“We’re on our way,” Devon said.
“Wait,” Julia said quietly. “When you get here, keep your distance. I don’t want it to panic and hurt…anybody before I can get us clear.”
“Okay,” Devon said, and she sounded reluctant. “Be careful, Julia. I mean it.”
Julia left the gear on, figuring Devon would feel better if she knew what was going on. “Okay, Tru,” she whispered. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Did you hear where Bess was?”
“Yes,” Tru whispered. Julia kept her eyes on the creature, but out of the corner of her eye she could see Tru’s eyes were wide with fear.
“Good. I’m going to try to get in front of you. Once I do, I want you to move very slowly out of there. Head for Bess, okay?”
“What about you?” Tru said.
“I’ll be right behind you,” Julia said, hoping fervently that was what would happen. She began edging her way in front of Tru. The creature skittered towards her a few feet, then stopped when she froze. Its eyes almost glowed when it stopped in a pool of sunlight. Julia started moving forward again very slowly, and managed to get between it and Tru before it moved again—two feet closer. It was now no more than two meters away. It was starting to look bigger all the time.
“Okay, Tru,” she whispered. “Bess, when Tru gets to you, head for the meadow and get across the river. Don’t wait for me.”
Bess didn’t answer, but Julia didn’t have time to say it again. As Tru started to move, the creature moved sideways, looking like it was trying to keep her in the cleft. Julia moved with it, her heart pounding. “Keep going, Tru,” she said under her breath. “Get behind that tree and then run like hell. Got it?”
“Got it,” Tru said, and seconds later, Julia heard her break into a run.
The creature jumped about six feet to the side all at once, and Julia was afraid it was going to go for Tru. “Hey!” she shouted, and waved her arms at it. It swung its rear legs around, turning to face her again, and it bleated again.
“That’s it, stay right here,” she said conversationally. “Bess, how are we doing?”
“She’s here,” Bess said. “I’m sending her to the meadow. Where are you?”
“Go with her, Bess,” Julia said quietly, starting to edge her way toward the tree Tru had gotten behind. “I’m on my way.”
“You don’t sound like you’re on your way,” Bess said, and she sounded annoyed.
“Just go—” Julia said, and that’s when things got exciting. The creature jumped straight towards her, almost six feet in the air, and Julia dove back and to her right, trying to get behind the tree. The creature landed about two feet in front of where she’d been standing, and swung around to face her as she scrambled to her feet behind the tree.
“Woah!” Julia gasped. Aren’t you athletic? she thought. It bleated at her, then skittered sideways again, and Julia shifted to keep the tree between them.
“Julia?” Devon said over the gear. “Are you okay?”
“So far, so good,” Julia said, and almost laughed. “It’s almost like it’s playing with me.”
“Well, don’t have too much fun,” Devon said dryly. “I want my doctor in one piece, okay?”
“Okay,” Julia said, and reached carefully down to grab a stick near her foot. She was about to throw it at the creature, hoping to scare it off, when it reared back on its backmost legs, bleating wildly.
And Julia heard a throaty growl from above and behind her.
It took Danziger and his group well into the night to load the Transrover and the trailer with the supplies from the pod. Amazingly, almost everything fit. They only had to carry a few cases by hand. They set out early the next morning, hoping to make it back to the pod before the sun went down and they lost power for the solar vehicles.
Danziger was relieved. He knew they’d been in a bad spot, with limited rations, and no real way to determine what might be safe to eat or drink in the area. But it looked to him like they had quite a bit of medical gear, and with the vehicles, they could scout a lot farther for the other supply pods.
He walked along behind the ATV, which was loaded to the gills with boxes. The folks from the other escape pod were all in good shape, though they’d had some adventures getting here. They had an encounter with some sort of weird creature with big teeth. Which made Danziger glad for the other big find from the pod—they now had six mag-pro rifles and four handguns with plenty of ammunition. He patted the one in his hands lovingly. Now we have a chance here, he thought. If something big comes at us, now we can shoot back.
“Danziger!” Bill called from the front of their convoy. “We’ve got company!”
Julia turned her head very carefully and looked up. There was a very different creature standing on top of the rock outcropping Tru had wedged herself in. It wasn’t very big, but it had powerful looking front legs that were tipped with nasty looking claws. It was hexapedal like the little creature, but it was clearly a carnivore. It growled again, and Julia saw long, sharp teeth in a head topped with a bizarre spiky crest.
“What was that?” Bess said over the gear.
“Julia?” Devon said. “Julia!”
Julia could hear the sound of Devon running through brush over the gear, but she didn’t answer, and she didn’t take her eyes off the carnivore. For several seconds, she didn’t even breathe. At least it’s not looking at me, she thought, getting ready to run. She heard the other creature bleat wildly, and then heard a crashing sound. All at once the carnivore had launched itself off the rocks into the clearing where the small creature had disappeared.
Julia didn’t wait to see it go. She turned and ran full tilt through the forest, whispering at Bess over the gear between breaths, “Run! Bess, go!” She saw the meadow ahead of her and put on a burst of speed when she saw Bess running for the river with Tru just ahead of her. Bess turned to look back at her. “Don’t…stop!” Julia shouted, waving her on.
She was halfway across the meadow when she caught one foot on something and went sprawling. “Julia!” Tru yelled.
Julia scrambled to her feet, half-expecting to feel sharp claws in her back at any moment, but she didn’t allow herself to look back. She started forward again, and didn’t let up speed even as she got to the river. She jumped all the way to the far rock, launched herself off that, landed sprawling on all fours on the far bank, and skidded to a stop at Bess’s feet. She looked back, but there was nothing coming across the meadow.
“What the hell happened?” Bess said, helping her to her feet.
“Julia?” Devon said over the gear. “Where are you?”
“Back on…our side…of the river,” Julia panted. “With Tru and Bess. Get everybody on this side if…they aren’t already. There’s a nasty-looking animal over there.”
“The thing that had me cornered?” Tru said, frowning. “I wouldn’t exactly call it nasty-looking—more goofy.”
Julia shook her head, leaning over with her hands on her knees, still trying to catch her breath. “No, the thing that has that for breakfast.”
Tru’s eyes went wide.
Devon came into view downstream, running full-tilt with Melanie at her heels. “Are you all right?” Devon said breathlessly, skidding to a stop.
Julia nodded, though she noticed that the left knee of her pants was torn, and there was a little blood showing on her knee in the hole.
“What happened?” Melanie said.
“We met some of the locals,” Julia said. She described them both, with Tru adding details about the first creature.
“It looked like somebody dropped it on its head when it was a baby,” she said, grinning excitedly now that the danger was past.
Devon gave Tru a fierce look. “Tru—”
“I know,” Tru said quickly. “I messed up. I shouldn’t have gone so far out. I’m really sorry, Julia,” she said earnestly. “I was just so bored in camp. I didn’t even think about animals being out there.”
“There are a lot of things we haven’t thought of,” Julia said seriously. “Devon, we need to talk to everyone about this. None of us has any experience being outdoors. There are way too many dangers out here that we don’t know how to handle.”
“We got lucky today,” Devon said, nodding. “Come on, I want to talk to you about that. Mel, could you and Bess take Tru back to camp and help her get cleaned up?”
Melanie shot Julia an “uh-oh” look, then followed Bess, who was dragging a very reluctant Tru back to camp.
“So,” Devon said. “You want to talk to me about what happened out there?”
“Look, Tru really does feel—” Julia began, but Devon shook her head.
“That’s not what I mean. What was that ‘don’t wait for me’ thing all about?”
Julia was taken aback by the question. “I—well, I wanted to be sure Tru and Bess were safe,” she said, suddenly realizing that she had become the one who was getting chewed out instead of Tru.
“And your own safety? What about that?” Devon said, clearly irritated with her.
“Well, at the time I said that, I didn’t think I was in any grave danger,” Julia said defensively. “Believe me, once I saw teeth, my safety was pretty high on my priority list.”
“Damn it, Julia, it needs to be high all the time!” Devon snapped.
Julia looked shocked.
Devon ran her hand through her hair. “Look, it’s not just that you’re our only doctor, though obviously that’s important.” She held up her hand to stop Julia from jumping in. “No, let me finish. It’s more than that. Julia, can you imagine how hard it would be for this group to lose anyone, anyone at all, so soon after O’Neill?”
Julia’s face fell. Her lips tightened, and she gave a sharp nod after a moment. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry’s not good enough, Doctor,” Devon said relentlessly. “I need to know that every person in this group is going to take their own safety seriously.” She paused, seeing a rebellious look in Julia’s eyes, and decided to take a different tack. “I’m sorry, but…god, Julia, you scared the hell out of me!”
The rebellious look disappeared in an instant. “I really didn’t mean to, Devon. It’s just—it all happened so fast.”
Devon nodded. “It’s all right, I understand. I just want to be sure you understand that you don’t have anything to prove to any of us, least of all me. No more taking stupid risks, okay?”
“No stupid risks,” Julia said, and Devon smiled.
“Okay, let’s see about getting that knee fixed,” Devon said, putting her hand on Julia’s shoulder, and they started back to the camp together.
And now I know how to motivate you, Devon thought, relieved. Guilt works wonders. And it looks like the same thing works on Tru, she added mentally, watching Tru run up to Julia as they got to the med tent. I wonder if Danziger knows that, she thought, and almost laughed at the idea of tough guy Danziger trying to play the guilt card.
Danziger! she thought suddenly. They need to know about these creatures. “Danziger!” she said into the gear, switching to long-range. “Come in!”
“Hey, good timing, Adair! I was just about to call you,” Danziger said.
“I need to tell you something,” Devon said before he could start in. “We ran into some creatures here.”
“Creatures?” he said, and there was a pause, and someone in the background said something. “Big teeth and claws?”
“Yeah, and six legs,” Devon said. “One of them almost attacked…Julia.” Devon kicked herself for almost saying “Tru.” That’s the last thing he needs to hear.
“Jeez!” Danziger said. “Is she okay?”
“Yes, we’re all fine, but I want you to be careful out there. Don’t let anybody go away from your camp alone,” she said.
“Well, that’s going to be a lot easier now,” he said, and she could hear the grin. “We’re bringing back another pod-full. Ten more of our people showed up this morning.”
“Ten more!” Devon gasped. “Thank god! That means there’s only one more pod unaccounted—”
“Yeah,” Danziger said, and this time she could tell the grin was gone. “That’s the bad news. It looks like this is gonna be it, Adair.”
“But—what about the other—?”
“One of the mechs in this pod saw another one get hit just as they launched,” Danziger said. “He’s pretty sure they vented atmosphere. So that’s two that didn’t make it, and both of them with full loads.”
Only 36 of 60, she thought sickly, trying hard not to think of who they must have lost, then reminded herself of O’Neill. 35. But at least we’re all going to be together now. “How soon do you think you’ll be back?”
“Probably sometime after noon tomorrow,” he said. “If the sun’s out. We’re having a little trouble keeping the batteries charged. We have to carry a couple of extra people on the ATVs—there were some injuries in the group that showed up this morning.”
“I’ll let Julia know,” Devon said. “Thanks, Danziger. Adair, out.” She headed for the med tent.
Julia was inside, sitting on a supply box with her foot propped up on another one. Tru and Bess were hovering over her as Melanie helped clean up her knee. Julia looked up at Devon and gave her a chagrined smile. “You definitely have my word I’ll be more careful,” she said. “This is my only pair of pants, after all.” She pulled at the now-gaping hole in the knee.
“I’ll bet that stings,” Devon said, looking over Melanie’s shoulder at the skinned knee.
“Oh, Melanie’s making sure that it does,” Julia said dryly. Melanie smiled sweetly at her and made a point of pouring some extra disinfectant on the gauze she was using. Julia winced as she swiped at the knee again.
“She should,” Bess said, glaring at her. “Do you have any idea how scared I was, standing there wondering if you were getting eaten?”
“I’d’ve been pretty vocal about that,” Julia said.
Bess swatted her arm. “This isn’t funny, Julia!” Bess said, then looked surprised at what she’d done. “I’m sorry, but…I was really scared!”
“I know, I’m sorry,” Julia said contritely.
“It’s not her fault,” Tru protested. “I was the one who got us into this.”
Score another two for guilt, Devon thought. “Ease up on her, Bess,” she said, taking pity on the doctor. “I already read her the riot act anyway. Besides, I have news.”
“Danziger?” Melanie said, looking eagerly up at her. “Did he find more of our people?
“More like they found him,” Devon said. “We have another ten coming in, with a couple of injuries.”
“How serious?” Julia said, suddenly all business. She brushed Melanie away and took her foot off the stool.
“I don’t know,” Devon said, “but I don’t think any are life-threatening. And they won’t be back till tomorrow anyway.”
“That just leaves one more pod!” Melanie said happily.
Devon shook her head. “One of the mechs told Danziger he saw one of the pods get hit. He’s pretty sure they vented atmosphere. I think we can assume they didn’t make it.”
Julia went pale. “Only thirty-five of us,” she said, echoing Devon’s earlier thoughts.
“At least we have that many,” Devon said. “And, best of all, now we can get started for New Pacifica.”
Julia looked up, surprised, and then looked vastly relieved.
“I didn’t realize you were so eager to get going,” Devon said.
Julia blinked, then shook her head. “No, I—it’s just that it’ll be a lot easier to keep this one,” she poked at Tru, “entertained if we’re on the road.”
“Hey!” Tru protested.
“Don’t give her that innocent look,” Bess said. “You were the one who said you were bored.”
“Devon, may I have a moment?” Yale said, coming up to her from the pod as she left the med tent.
“Of course,” she said. “Is Uly asleep?”
He nodded. “His O2 sats are looking much better today. I left Toshiko to watch over him.”
“Good,” Devon said, feeling bad that she had spent so little time with him since the crash.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Devon,” Yale said. “He understands you have responsibilities beyond him.”
“I wish he didn’t have to understand that,” she said ruefully. She looked curiously at Yale. “I meant to ask you, that verse you quoted at the funeral. What’s it from?”
“A poet named Rabindranath Tagore, from the Old Earth nation of India, a province called Bengal. He was born in the late 19th century,” Yale said.
“Bengal?” Devon said, raising her eyebrows. “You do have a gift for the obscure.”
He shook his head. “This one was not so obscure as you might think. It has been used at many funerals. It simply seemed appropriate to me for this situation.”
“Well,” Devon said grimly, “here’s hoping you don’t have to come up with any more appropriate quotes for a funeral.”
“Indeed,” Yale said gravely.
“So what did you want to talk to me about?”
“I’ve had some time to review the data from the escape pod while I’ve been looking after Uly,” he said.
“The data—you mean it’s intact?” she said, surprised.
He nodded. “For the most part—there was some damage to the memory, but I was able to reconstruct most of the events leading up to the ejection of the pods.”
“And?” Devon said, knowing it had to be something big.
“The crash was not an accident,” he said. “The ship was struck by a man-made object. It changed course and accelerated immediately prior to impact. A meteor simply could not have done that.”
Devon’s eyes widened. “But how? Who could have…?”
“I suspect it was a drone launched from the stations after we escaped,” Yale said. “It could have followed us here and been programmed to hit us as we approached entry.”
Devon shook her head wonderingly. “Twenty-two years later, and they’re still trying to kill us.”
“There is something else,” Yale said. “There was another object the scanners picked up right after the impact. I’m sure no one noticed in the chaos of the evacuation.”
“Another object?” Devon said. “What sort of object?”
“It could have been another drone,” Yale said. “The damage to the memory was quite severe at that point—I could get no details of shape or mass. It would not surprise me if the Council had sent a second drone, in case the first failed.”
Devon nodded, but she still felt uneasy. What if it was another ship? she thought. There’s not a damned thing you can do about it if it is, she finally told herself. And chances are they wouldn’t be able to do a thing to us, either. They’d have to find us, and our pod beacon isn’t working. Once we get moving, we’ll be safe. It’s a very big planet, after all.
“Should we tell the others?” Yale asked, watching her think it through.
“No,” she said after a long moment. “No, they have enough to worry about.”
A while later, Julia saw Devon coming out of the pod. “How’s Uly doing?” she asked, coming up.
“He’s good,” Devon said. “He’s still pretty tired, but it looks like he’s bouncing back.”
Julia nodded, relieved. “We’ll have to be careful once we get moving,” she said. “Maybe I can get Danziger to rig up something like the scrubber system for whatever vehicle they found.” She looked thoughtful, then looked at Devon again. “How soon do you think we will get moving?” she asked.
“Well, now that we think we have everyone accounted for, I’d like to get going soon,” Devon said. “Is Solace able to travel?”
Julia nodded. “With the plasticast, he should be fine, especially now that we have a vehicle to transport him in. And the sooner we get going, the better.”
“Why?” Devon said, curious.
“That creature I ran into—not the carnivore, the other one—I told you it had stubby legs, right?”
“Yes,” Devon said, wondering what on earth that had to do with them moving soon.
“When that thing jumped,” she said, raising her hand to demonstrate, “it went up higher than my head—”
“That’s not exactly a record,” Tru said from behind her, smiling mischievously. “You’re not all that tall, y’know.”
“Oh, look who’s talking, short stuff,” Melanie said, joining her.
Julia ignored them. “It shouldn’t have been able to do that, given what I saw of its legs.”
“So?” Melanie said, apparently as baffled by her line of thought as Devon felt.
“So,” Julia said, turning to her, clearly fascinated by her topic, “I think it may have longer legs than I could see. If it could fold them up inside itself—it had an unusually fat body, more so than I would have expected given the size of its head and legs. So if it could do that, then it might have much longer, more powerful legs than I saw.”
“That’s really interesting,” Devon said, not feeling particularly interested, though this was certainly the most animated she’d seen Julia.
“No,” Julia said, “I mean, it is, but that’s not why I brought it up. That’s a pretty unusual adaptation. Why would a creature evolve with that kind of structure? What purpose could it serve?”
“High jumping?” Melanie said.
“Yes, but that could be achieved without tucking the legs inside the body,” Julia said. “I think it has a completely different purpose. Do your feet ever get cold?” she asked the group.
“Julia—” Devon said, starting to get impatient.
“Think about it—when your feet get cold, what do you do to get them warm?” Julia continued. “You pull them up against the rest of your body, right?”
Devon’s impatience evaporated. “You think this is an adaptation for warmth?”
Julia nodded. “And you see my point now,” she said.
“It’s going to get cold,” Devon said.
Melanie frowned. “Wait, that’s kind of a leap,” she said then winced. “No pun intended.”
Julia nodded. “I know, I’m not saying it’s a certainty, but we know we’re fairly far to the northern side of the continent, so we’re in the higher latitudes. And based on its axial tilt, we know this planet experiences seasonal climate changes, more so even than old Earth. I also talked to Helen about the trees—they’re very similar to Old Earth pines, with needles for leaves. She says that’s an adaptation for cold climates.”
“You’ve convinced me,” Devon said, looking worried. “Do we have any idea where we are in the seasons?”
“Based on the length of the days, we’re either in late spring or late summer,” Julia said, looking concerned. “I can’t be sure which, but if you take into account—”
“Just give me the bottom line,” Devon said.
“I think we’re headed for winter,” Julia said. “I don’t know how far along we are, but I’m fairly certain the days are getting shorter, not longer.”
“Did you say winter?” Bess said, joining them.
“Of course,” Melanie said. “That would fit with the rest of our luck, wouldn’t it?”
“We knew we were going to be dealing with seasonal extremes,” Devon said. “That’s why we located New Pacifica where we did. But we also planned for that in our supplies.”
“Which could be anywhere,” Tru said, sounding dismayed.
“It’s not so bad as that,” Melanie said. “Alonzo launched the supply pods before any of the escape pods launched, and he still had at least some control of the ship at that point. We’re both pretty sure the rest of the supply pods have to be at least close to New Pacifica, or between us and it. They had some basic attitude adjustment capabilities, though they’d have had a hard time being launched as low as they were,” Melanie said. “No, I think we’ll have a decent shot at finding them if we just head for New Pacifica.”
This time Julia tried not to let her relief show. That hadn’t been her intent in bringing up the approaching winter—she was genuinely concerned about that. But now she realized it was probably the best argument for moving that she could have come up with.
“Besides,” Devon said, “there are already supplies in place at the New Pacifica site. We sent ahead an automated shipload three months ago—or three months before we left,” she amended.
“If the Council didn’t screw that up for us, too,” Melanie said bitterly.
“Let’s not borrow trouble,” Devon said, looking troubled. “I’d say we have more than enough as it is. Okay, Melanie, I need you and Alonzo to see if you can figure out our best line of travel to maximize our chances of finding the supply pods. You’ll need to keep in mind what Julia just told us—chances are we’ll end up having to hole up for the winter at some point.”
“If we can find at least some of the supply pods,” Julia said, “they were designed to double as temporary shelters. They’re insulated, with sealable doors and ventilation. They even have self-contained generators.”
“But they’re not exactly mobile,” Devon said. “They weren’t designed for cross-country travel.”
Julia nodded. “But Danziger might be able to find a way to either move them or pull their generators. Either way, they’re useful for more than just what they contain. Even one of them might be enough to give us living quarters. They’re what—6 by 15 meters?”
Devon nodded. “It’d be cozy with one, comfortable with two, and downright luxurious with three.”
“And if we’re lucky, we’ll find four or five within transportable distance of a perfect winter location,” Bess said. She got a wide-eyed look. “Will it snow? It snows in winter, right?” She practically glowed when Julia nodded. “I’ve always wondered what snow was really like—all those old stories about it sounded so beautiful!”
Devon smiled at her. “You know something, Bess? I like having you around.”
Danziger and his group got back late that afternoon, and the haul from the supply pod was even better than Devon had hoped. The twenty more people are wonderful, she thought, but when you add in the three vehicles, six mag-pro rifles, a hefty supply of ammunition for the rifles and—
“The synthlab!” Julia exclaimed, watching Danziger unload another case. “It was Fifteen! You found the synthlab!” She touched the box like it contained the most precious item in the universe, then turned and flung her arms around Danziger.
“Damn this stupid leg,” Alonzo said under his breath, looking on from where Melanie had helped him to get out of the tent for a while. “I should have been on that trip. He doesn’t even appreciate what he’s getting there.”
Melanie snorted. He was right—Danziger looked almost terrified. But Alonzo’s reaction was even more interesting. Has the flyboy really come down to earth? she thought, her eyes narrowing slightly as she looked at him.
“Melanie, come on!” Julia said, finally releasing Danziger. “Help me get this into the med tent.”
“What is it?” Melanie asked, knowing everyone else was thinking the same thing.
Julia smiled radiantly, and Danziger caught a glimpse of what Sawyer must have seen in her. “It’s the most important piece of medical equipment we had in the supply pods,” she said. She ran her hand through her hair. “I’ve been worried about our supplies—the things we’ll have to go through, and this,” she touched the box reverently again, “will allow me to synthesize some of the most important medications we need. Including Uly’s,” she added, smiling at Devon.
Devon smiled back. And we both just took a step back from the edge of the cliff, she thought.
Helen and Bill were unloading another box, and Melanie turned to see what it was. “Oh, this is like Christmas!” she said. “One of the hydroponics units, too? Are there seeds? Do we have seeds?”
“Right here,” Morgan said, patting one of the boxes still on board the transrover. “Looks like…” He paused, reading from it. “Tomatoes, onions, wheat, rice and carrots. And broccoli,” he added, making a face.
Julia sat down on the hydroponics box like she was suddenly unable to stand. “We’re not going to die,” she breathed so quietly Devon was almost certain she was the only one who heard, and she felt her heart skip a beat. I knew it was bad, she thought, but…
“C’mon, Doc. Let’s get this stuff stowed away for the night,” Danziger said.
“Thank you,” she said, turning to him. She turned back to Bill, and then looked up at Morgan. “Thank you all.”
“Uh, Doc,” Danziger said, clearly uncomfortable with the attention, “you’ve got some patients to look after.” He nodded over at two of the new people who were still sitting in the little yellow four-wheeled vehicle. What did he call it? Julia thought. The rail?
Then she realized what he’d said. “I’m so sorry,” she said, and ran over to them, shoving her diaglove on. “I should have taken care of you first.”
“No problem, Doctor Heller,” the dark-skinned woman in a mech uniform in the back seat said. “We were pretty sure we weren’t going to get any medical help at all, so this is all a pleasant surprise. I’m Phoebe Callahan,” she said, holding out her right hand as Julia ran the diaglove over her. Julia glanced over and took her hand.
“Call me Julia,” she said absently, letting her hand go so she could tap some commands into the diaglove. “Melanie, could you grab the med kit? Make sure the pain block is in there.” Melanie nodded and ran for the med tent. “This must hurt,” she said to Phoebe, nodding at her left hand. “It’s a nasty burn.” It ran all the way up her forearm, a second-degree burn across most of it, but the area of her palm was third-degree.
“Not as much as it would have hurt if I hadn’t gotten that leak sealed,” she said wryly. “We almost lost pressure completely right as we were entering the atmosphere. That’s when this big furry guy next to me here got hurt—”
The young man snorted. “Todd Kramer,” he said. “She hates the beard for some reason.”
“—something blasted right through the hull, hit his leg,” Phoebe said without missing a beat. “Must’ve been a piece of the ship breaking up. Anyway, I managed to get the emergency sealant in place, but the outer hull was already heating up, so, yeah, I got a little burn.”
Melanie scampered up with the med kit. “Give her the standard painblock dose,” Julia said, “and then treat these burns with the neoderm, like I showed you.” Melanie looked nervous, but nodded, and Julia went around to look at Todd.
There was a nasty wound in his right thigh, but it looked like a through-and-through, and the diaglove confirmed that there hadn’t been any damage to major vessels or to the bone. “You got lucky,” Julia said, smiling at him.
“Yeah,” he said, looking grim. “I saw what happened to the other pod.”
That night, once they had the new folk settled into some of the tents they’d found in the supply pod, they had a group meeting by the fire. “We have a lot to talk about,” Devon said, standing up. “First, while the supplies our people brought in today are a godsend, they’re still only a fraction of what we’ll need if we’re going to survive here. So we need to try to find as many of the other supply pods as possible. Second, it sounds from what Todd saw that the last of the pods we had hoped to find didn’t make it.” She paused a moment, breathing a little shakily. “Given that, I think we need to start heading for New Pacifica.”
Some of the ship’s crew looked a little uneasy.
“I know standard procedure is to stay with the escape pods,” Devon said, acknowledging their concerns. “But I also know that there’s nobody out there to come to our rescue. We’re on our own.” She nodded at Melanie and Alonzo. “We’ve been able to make some estimates about where some of the supply pods are likely to have come down, and they’re pretty much in a line straight west from here. Melanie, do you want to tell them the plan?”
“Based on what Danziger and his group saw on their trip to the supply pod,” she said, holding up a map of the larger continent, “Alonzo and I are pretty sure we’re somewhere in this vicinity.” She pointed at a spot north and a little east of a large body of water in the center of the continent. “New Pacifica, and the load of supplies that were sent there three months before we left, is here,” she pointed at the western coast of the continent, at a spot on the southern end. “Most of the supply pods should have come down somewhere along this line from just north of the Donut Hole to this part of the mountains.”
Devon looked sharply at her, barely noticing she was pointing at a spot two-thirds of the way to the northern end of the mountain range that started just south and east of New Pacifica, west and a little south of their location. “The Donut Hole?” she said incredulously.
Melanie looked embarrassed. “Sorry—that’s what we started calling it. I was hungry, and I have a thing for pastry, and…well, doesn’t it look like a donut?” she said, gesturing at the big round shape of the continent. “And see, the lake’s kind of like the…” She trailed off as Devon rolled her eyes, and a ripple of laughter ran through the group.
“So we’re gonna call this the Big Donut?” Helen said, grinning.
“Believe me, that’s better than what Alonzo wanted to call it,” Melanie said, looking even more embarrassed. Alonzo grinned shamelessly. This time the laughter took a while to die down.
“All right, everybody,” Devon said, trying to stop smiling. “So the plan is, we head west along the line that they’ve laid out. We’ll send the ATV and the rail out on search patterns as we go, scanning for the supply pod beacons and scouting the trail ahead. When we get to the mountains here,” she pointed at the range running from the northeast to the southwest, “we’ll have to figure out if we try to cross over them or if we turn to the southwest and try to cross at some point closer to New Pacifica. Hopefully by then we’ll have more of our gear, and we’ll have a better idea how close we are to winter, and whether we can survive it in the north with the supplies we have. Any questions?”
There didn’t seem to be any at that point, but Devon knew they’d come up once people had time to digest the information. But for the time being, she decided to move on. “Okay, that brings me to the next point. Julia and I were talking about a little incident we had earlier today.” She looked pointedly at Tru, who looked almost as embarrassed as Melanie had. “It made a few things clear to us. Most of us don’t have clue one about how to survive on a planet like this. We’ve all grown up on the stations, without any experience dealing with wild animals, weather, and any number of things we haven’t even thought of yet. There are too few of us to have any margin for error here. We need everyone to be as careful as possible. So we’re going to set up some ground rules. Julia, do you want to start?”
“Okay, first, nobody leaves the camp without somebody going with them. You’ll tell someone where you’re going, and you’ll have your gear with you and turned on the whole time you’re out. Second, nobody touches anything unless Melanie or I have had a chance to scan it…”
“Uh, Dr. Heller?” Morgan Martin said from just outside the med tent.
Julia pulled open the tent flap. “Yes? Did you need something?”
“Well, I was, it’s just, I have this…” He looked embarrassed and nervous.
“I won’t bite, Mr. Martin,” Julia said gently. “Actually, I’m glad to see you. I wanted to apologize for saying all the things I did to you before. I was completely out of line, and I’m very sorry.”
He looked stunned. “I-it’s fine,” he said finally. “We’re fine. No apology needed. I mean, I’m sorry, too. I messed up. Again.” He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there. “So…uh…okay…” He trailed off and started to walk away.
“Mr. Martin?” Julia called after him. “Did you need to see me for something?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, turning around, but he looked like he wished she’d just let him walk away. “I mean, no…it’s hardly…it’s not…”
“If there’s something bothering you, you need to get it looked at,” Julia said. “Come on in.”
“Oh,” Martin said, “uh, okay.” He stepped into the tent, but he still looked nervous.
“So what’s the matter?” Julia said.
“I have this…rash,” he said.
“A rash,” Julia said, putting on her doctor’s deadpan face. “Where exactly?”
“Well, it…uh…it’s in…a…delicate place,” he said, blushing furiously.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to be a little more specific,” Julia said, and when he hesitated, she added, “Mr. Martin, I’m a doctor. Just spit it out.”
“It’s…my…manly parts,” he said, and Julia bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.
“I see,” she said. “Let’s have a look.”
“Can’t I just describe it?” he said desperately. “I mean, it’s red…well, reddish-orange, maybe with a little pink in it…kind of sunset colored--”
“Mr. Martin, just show me,” Julia said. It took several minutes to convince him, and another several to complete her examination, which revealed very little. Very little indeed, Julia thought, biting her cheek again. She made a note to herself to take Morgan Martin’s self-diagnoses with a large grain of salt in the future.
“Take one of these tonight, and another tomorrow morning,” she said, handing him two of her mildest anti-inflammatories.
“And then what?” Morgan said, zipping up his pants so fast Julia worried she’d be treating something real in a moment.
“Keep it as clean as you can. Everybody’s having similar kinds of problems. It’s going to be an ongoing issue with the limited clothing options we have.”
“But what if it doesn’t go away?” he said.
“Come back for more pills,” she said, starting to get impatient. She’d run into Martin’s type often enough in her young career, the patient who was convinced that whatever issue he had—and probably a dozen he didn’t—was a sign of some obscure but deadly disease.
“But—” Morgan began, but was interrupted by someone opening the tent flap.
“Hey, Doc, you—?” Danziger said, coming into the med tent, and stopping cold when he saw Martin. “Oh, sorry,” he said. “We need to come up with a substitute for ringing the door chime.”
He’s right, Julia thought. Thank god he didn’t come in five minutes ago.
“It’s okay,” Martin said quickly, blushing again. “I was just leaving.” He brushed past Danziger, who didn’t bother to get out of the way.
“So, Doc, you got a minute?” he said after Martin had left.
“Danziger, you found me a synthlab. You can have me all day if you want,” Julia said, then frowned, blushing slightly. “Wait—that didn’t come out quite the way I meant it.”
“I know what you meant,” Danziger said, grinning. “Look, I was talking to Bess a minute ago—”
“Hold on,” Julia said, “before you say anything else, whatever she said about today was probably pretty exaggerated.”
“Well, considering what Tru just spent the last hour telling me, I don’t think Bess came close to describing it,” Danziger said dryly. “Between them and what Devon heard over the gear, I think I have a pretty good idea of what went down out there. I owe you one, Doc.”
“We are more than even,” Julia said emphatically, patting the synthlab.
“That’s not all I wanted to say,” Danziger said, looking uncomfortable. “Tru pretty much thinks you walk on water right now—and she’s thought something close to that ever since she met you. I don’t know what you did on the ship, but it made a big impression on her. I think that’s good. She needs somebody to look up to—”
“Woah,” Julia said, shaking her head and putting up her hand to stop him. “I’m no role model. You two hardly know me, and believe me, I’m not—”
“Do you see a lot of other options around here?” Danziger said.
“What about Devon? Or Helen?” Julia said, thinking desperately.
“Look, Doc, I’m not trying to put you in a bad spot. It’s just—well, you said she was a handful, and you don’t know the half of it.”
Julia was really starting to look worried.
“Easy there, Doc, don’t panic on me,” Danziger said. “All I’m saying is that I’m okay with it if she hates me for bringing her along on this trip. But she needs somebody here she likes, and right now, that looks like you. If you wouldn’t mind her hanging around with you now and then, I’d really appreciate it. If it keeps her out of trouble for even ten minutes, it’ll be worth it for everybody.”
Julia still looked pretty uncomfortable, but she finally nodded. “Okay. But don’t blame me if she turns out to be something awful. I have no experience with children—at all.”
“Don’t treat her like a kid,” Danziger said. “Heck, I think that’s why she likes you—you talk to her like she’s an adult.” He grinned at her and ducked out of the tent.
Julia sighed. Of course the local juvenile delinquent would pick me for a role model. I’m the only person here besides her who seems to have criminal tendencies, she thought bitterly. She ducked under the back of her tent and slipped off into the underbrush behind it, hoping she didn’t run into any of the big teeth creatures. This is idiotic, she thought, knowing she was violating one of the first rules they’d set up. There has to be a better way of contacting them. She sighed as she came to a small clearing far enough away from the camp she figured no one could hear her if she spoke quietly. She leaned her back against a tree, flipped the VR eyepiece into place and plugged in her chip.
“Dr. Heller,” Brendan said. “Good of you to join me at last.”
“Look, it isn’t easy for me to get away, and it isn’t exactly safe, either. We ran into some dangerous creatures today, so I’m not all that wild about tramping around alone in the dark,” she said, keeping her voice low.
“Then let’s keep this brief,” Brendan said. “Where are you?”
Julia took a deep breath. And the die is cast, she thought. Let’s hope this ends better than things did for Julius Caesar.