“Okay, everybody. We’re Eden Advance. So let’s advance!” Devon said with a grin.
It was the sixth day since they’d left the emergency pod. They’d been heading mostly south to get out of the foothills, but the foothills had spread out into a wide plain the day before, and since then they’d been angling more west.
Julia was spending a lot of time in the Transrover. Danziger had set up a fairly effective scrubber system cobbled together from the pod to help keep the air in the cab cleaner for Uly, but he was still having trouble off and on, and it seemed to be a little worse once they got into the plains, where it was drier. And dustier. Julia felt guilty at riding so much when everyone else was having to walk, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. Hopefully, she thought, Uly will improve soon, and then I can make up for it.
“This is annoying,” Uly said.
“What is?” Julia said, scanning him again with the diaglove.
“This,” he said waving his arms, then wheezing slightly. “There’s this whole big world out there, and I’m stuck in here.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, there are a bunch of people out there who’d love to trade places with you for a while,” Julia said. “I’m treating a lot of blisters.”
“I’m with Uly,” Todd said from the driver’s seat. He’d been driving the whole way because of his injured leg. It was healing well, but he still couldn’t walk easily. “I never thought I’d like the open spaces, but now that they’re out there and I’m in here…” He shook his head. “It is annoying.”
“You’ll be up and around in a few days,” Julia reassured him.
“What about me?” Uly said, looking glum.
Julia sighed. “Honestly, Uly, I don’t know.”
“It’s stupid keeping me shut up in here,” he said. “The whole point of coming here was to get me outside!”
He has a point, Julia thought. But every time she’d gotten him outside for any length of time, his lung function dropped like a stone. “We’ll keep trying to get you outside, Uly. I promise. I just think we need to do it in small doses, to let your body adjust.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Uly said derisively.
“You’re doing a little better,” Julia said. “Your O2 sats are back up to 95.”
He barely glanced at her.
“Listen, I need to go check on some things right now. Do you want me to get Yale back up here?”
He looked dismayed. “He’ll want to do history again,” he said. “I hate history.”
“History’s not so bad,” Todd said. “He’s just not telling you the cool stuff.”
“What cool stuff?” Uly said.
“Like how they made mummies in Ancient Egypt,” Todd said. “Did you know they had to take the brains out of the body? They stuck this pointy thing up the nose of the dead body and pulled the brain out bit by bit.”
“That’s one theory,” Julia said, smiling at Todd. “The other one’s even better.”
“What?” Uly said, actually sounding interested.
“They used the pointy thing like a whisk and whipped the brains inside the skull till they were liquefied and then drained them out the nose,” she said.
Uly looked skeptical for a minute, then grinned. “Okay, so that’s cool. But that’s like one thing, and there’s all those stupid kings and constitutions and stuff.”
“Okay,” Todd said. “How about Pompeii?”
Julia left them discussing the way volcanic ash preserved the shape of dead bodies, and climbed out of the cab. She jumped to the ground and headed back to the back of the rover to check on their water supplies. They’d filled their tanks from the river before they left, but she was starting to get a little concerned. The pure water from the pods’ emergency supplies was already gone. Rob had put together a remarkably elegant distillery using scavenged equipment from the escape pod and the supply pod, so she was comfortable with the safety of the water they’d carried from the river, but even those supplies were dropping fast.
She came back around the rover and saw Danziger driving up in the rail. She trotted to catch up to where he was talking to Devon.
“It’s just a whole lot of the same,” Danziger said. “I went about 10 klicks out, and nothing new.”
“No water?” Julia said.
He shook his head.
Devon glanced at Julia, frowning. “Is it that bad?” she said.
Julia shrugged. “We’re going through a little over 80 liters a day right now, and that’s just in drinking water. Our storage holds about 1000 liters. At the rate we’re going, that’s going to last us another…seven days, unless we start rationing.” She glanced up at the sky. “And if the weather continues the way it has, we’re going to go through it faster—it’s hotter down here on the plains than it was in the foothills. Winter may be coming, but not fast enough.”
Devon looked at Danziger, who nodded. “Let’s cut the ration down to two liters a day for now,” she said. “If we don’t find another water supply in two days, we’ll cut it more. And no using water for anything other than drinking.”
“I’ll spread the word,” Julia said. “And I’ll talk to Rob about trying to come up with some way to recycle.”
Devon grimaced, but nodded. “And in the meantime, we need to keep moving,” she said. “Let’s see if we can cover those ten klicks by the end of the day.”
“I’ll head out for a longer scout tomorrow, see if I can find any water at all,” Danziger said.
They set out early the next day, trying to cover as much ground as possible. Danziger left as soon as the rail had a full charge. “Stay in touch on the gear,” Devon said. “I want to know where you are if something goes wrong.”
“You worry too much, Adair,” Danziger said.
Devon frowned. “Only because you give me too much reason to,” she said. He grinned at that, then gunned the rail and sped off. Devon sighed, shaking her head as she watched him go. It was clear he was having the time of his life going off scouting. For somebody who’d spent his life on the stations, he took to the wilderness like he was born to it.
Actually, most of us are. There were a few exceptions—she glanced over at Morgan Martin, shaking her head—but almost everyone seemed to find the new environment exciting. Here’s hoping that lasts, Devon thought. It’s going to be hard enough doing this with everyone working together.
They kept up a good pace through most of the morning, and Devon was pleased at the progress. But by early afternoon, she still hadn’t heard back from Danziger, and she was starting to get worried. If he’s gotten into trouble, she thought, I’m going to kill him. She started to reach for her gear to call him, but forced herself to stop, knowing he’d give her a hard time. I’ll give him another fifteen minutes, she thought.
Julia tripped for the third time in less than an hour, barely keeping herself from sprawling flat, and nearly dropping her tablet in the process. “Hey, Heller, maybe you ought to keep your eyes on the road,” Alonzo said, pulling up next to her in the ATV.
Julia smiled wryly. “I know,” she said.
“If whatever you’re working on is so important,” Alonzo said, “why don’t you see if you can hitch a ride on the Transrover?”
She shook her head. “I’ve been riding more than just about anybody because of Uly,” she said. “Other people need the break. I’ll be more careful.”
“Or,” he said, “you could wait to work on that till we get to camp tonight.” Then he frowned and looked at her carefully. “Unless you’re planning to stay up all night. When did you get to sleep—?”
“Solace,” Julia interrupted, “I’m fine. I got plenty of sleep last night, and I’ll do the same tonight. I’m just onto something right now, and I need to see if I can figure it out.” She turned back to her tablet, hoping he’d take the hint.
“What is so important?” he asked.
Julia tried not to roll her eyes. “I’m working on something to try to help your leg heal faster,” she said.
He frowned. “Talk to me,” he said.
Julia almost told him to go away, but he really seemed interested. And it is his leg. Maybe talking through it will spark something, she thought. “Okay. It has to do with the synthlab. It’s actually a two-part system—the part we have is the actual manufacturing mechanism. The other part is a dedicated database of chemical and biochemical formulas, and the processes for synthesizing them. We’re missing that part—we had two of each part and packed each of them in separate pods to avoid losing both parts if we lost a pod.” She looked chagrined. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Famous last words,” he grinned. “So what are you doing?”
“I’m trying to reconstruct the process for synthesizing a medication that can stimulate bone healing,” she said. “Once I have it, I can input it manually, and the synthlab will produce it.”
“But how are you going to reconstruct it?” he said. “Do you have it in your tablet?
She shook her head. “I know the chemical formula of the end result. What I’m trying to do is figure out the steps I have to take to put it together. It’s sort of like a logic problem.”
“Or astrogation,” he said, nodding. “How to get from point A to point B without running into a black hole.”
“Kind of,” she said absently, looking back at the tablet.
“Heller,” Alonzo said, and she looked up at him. “You might want to just focus on getting from point A to point B right now.” He pointed, and she realized she’d been about to walk right into a rock.
She stopped, shaking her head, smiling. “Thanks, Solace,” she said. “Maybe I’ll put this away for a while.”
“Yeah,” he said, grinning back at her. “Good idea. I appreciate the effort, but you really don’t need to knock yourself out literally for me, okay? I already know you care.” He sped off before she could come up with a retort.
“You two are adorable,” Melanie said, coming up behind her.
Julia tucked her tablet into her pack and walked around the rock, pointedly ignoring Melanie.
“Oh, come on, Julia, you have to admit he’s pretty cute,” Melanie said, trotting to catch up.
“I don’t have to admit anything,” Julia said. “He’s not my type.”
“So what is your type?” Melanie asked. “If you don’t go for tall, dark and handsome, what do you go for?”
Tall, dark and elsewhere, Julia thought.
“Julia,” Melanie said wheedlingly. “Please, I’m dying of boredom. Conversation is my only hope.”
Julia sighed. With anybody else, I’d clam up, and they’d leave me alone, she thought. But not Melanie. And of all the subjects for her to pick... “I don’t really have a type,” she said, hoping Alonzo would stay up at the front so he wouldn’t hear this conversation.
“Oh, come on, with those crazy blue eyes of yours, you must have to beat them off with a stick,” Melanie said, rolling her eyes. “Don’t tell me there aren’t some you go for more than others.”
“Mel, my…experience with men…” Julia trailed off. Hell, my experience with human beings in general, she thought.
“What?” Melanie said gently, realizing she was serious.
“I’ve gotten burned,” she said finally. “More than once.”
“Oh,” Melanie said. “How?”
Stop asking me questions! Julia thought despairingly. “Let’s just say the kind of people interested in a relationship with the daughter of a Council member aren’t the kind of people I’d recommend,” Julia said, hoping Melanie would drop it.
“Oh,” Melanie said again, wishing she could say something more helpful. She’d forgotten about the rumors about Julia’s mother. No wonder she’s so guarded all the time, she thought. She’s probably used to people wanting stuff from her. Or worse.
“What about you?” Julia asked, trying to divert the subject to something lighter. “What do you go for?”
Melanie looked embarrassed. “I kind of have a thing for brainiacs, which is tough, because I don’t get to meet all that many in my line of work. They’re either flyboys like Solace or bruisers like Danziger. But there’s something about a pair of glasses…”
Julia glanced back at some of the group walking behind the Transrover. “I’d say you have some options here,” she said.
“Yeah,” Melanie said, grinning as she looked back at Rob Anderson, but she refused to be diverted. “And so do you. Look, I know ‘Zo is a little hard to take at times, but—”
“Melanie,” Julia interrupted. “I’m not interested. I have too much to do, too many responsibilities—”
“But I’m not hearing that you don’t like him,” Melanie said.
“—and I don’t like him,” Julia said, trying not to smile.
Yeah, right, Melanie thought, looking hard at her. This is gonna be fun.
“Don’t give me that look,” Julia said. “If you’re so bored, how about I quiz you on the meds again?” Melanie looked exactly like Tru had when Yale insisted she study math with Uly. “For treatment of nausea?” Julia said inexorably.
Melanie sighed. “Queasy-goo,” she said.
“Melanie,” Julia said warningly.
“C’mon, Jules, I know what it looks like, I just can’t pronounce the damned word. I’ll remember queasy-goo.”
“Fine,” Julia relented. “What’s the dosage for Uly?”
“Hey, everybody! Come take a look at this!” Hardy called from the front. Melanie glanced sideways at Julia, then took off at a run. Julia shook her head, grinning, and trotted after her.
They came up over a small rise, and there before them at the bottom of a long slope was an enormous canyon. Julia remembered seeing VRs of the old Earth Grand Canyon, and this easily rivaled it.
“Wow,” Melanie breathed. “That’s a big honkin’ canyon. It didn’t look like there was a big canyon on the sat image.”
And it’s right across the route we need to take, Julia thought, realizing the implications of the obstacle. So if we can’t cross it, we’ll have to go around. She found herself glancing uneasily to the south.
“Damn it, Danziger, where the hell are you?” Devon said into the gear.
“Keep your pants on, Adair, I’m here,” Danziger said.
“I headed south along the canyon edge, trying to see if there’s a way down,” he said.
“And you didn’t think it was worth mentioning to me that there was an enormous canyon?” Devon said.
“Hey, it’s kind of hard to miss,” Danziger said. “I knew you’d run into it. I figured it was more important to find a way down.”
“Why?” Devon said. “We’re not going to be able to get the Transrover down it. We’ll have to go around.”
“Yeah,” Danziger said patiently. “I know that—but there’s water at the bottom of the canyon.”
“Oh,” Devon said. “All right, then. We’ll stop here, set up camp, and see if we can find a way down.”
“That’s my plan,” Danziger said.
Infuriating man, Devon thought, heading over to where a bunch of their people had gathered to look out across the canyon. “Pass the word,” she said as she went, “we’re camping here for the time being.” She found Melanie standing near the edge, peering over.
“Hey, Melanie, don’t get too close to the edge,” she said. “It’s a long way down.”
“No kidding,” Melanie said, shaking her head. “This has to be—what—at least a kilometer down, right?”
“It’s hard to tell--it’s pretty dark down there. But it’s probably a half a kilometer wide,” Devon said, looking across to the far side. “It gets a lot narrower at the bottom, though.”
“I wonder how wide it gets farther south,” Julia said, looking off that direction. She looked worried.
Devon considered that. “You think we’d be better off trying to go back north?”
Julia looked at her, shaking her head. “I don’t know, Devon. But I think it’s possible this could go all the way to the…the Donut Hole,” she said, giving in to the inevitability of that name sticking. “If it does, that would take us a long way out of our way from the line we think the supply pods are on.”
Melanie nodded. “And we know we’re not that far from the foothills, maybe 60 kilometers. I doubt if this thing goes all the way through the mountains,” she said.
“I sure hope not,” Devon said.
Danziger got back from scouting southward a little later. “I found a spot that looks like it might be a way down,” he said. “Looks like an animal path. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to start now. Better to wait till morning.”
Devon nodded, though she chafed at the delay. It’s like this planet seems bound and determined to keep me from getting to New Pacifica.
Melanie woke up and blinked sleepily. Why is the light still on? she thought, and sat up.
Julia was still sitting at her lab table, but she’d laid her head on her folded arms. “Oh, honestly,” Melanie said out loud. She got up and went over. “Julia,” she said, shaking her shoulder.
Julia shot up straight. “What? What is it?”
“This is your conscience speaking,” Melanie said. “You told your tentmate you’d be going to sleep in ten minutes, and that was…” Melanie paused, looking over Julia’s shoulder at her tablet. “…over two hours ago. You’re one of those annoying people who always got top grades and still studied more than everybody else put together, aren’t you?”
“Sorry,” Julia said, rubbing her neck. “I was getting close on the seventh step.”
“This is crazy,” Melanie said. “Is it really that important?”
“It could cut two full weeks off of Solace’s recovery time,” Julia said seriously. “The only reason this treatment isn’t standard now is that Shinzuko developed the boneheal vaccine. Before that, Johannsen was getting very promising results with this in early trials. Up to thirty percent increases in—”
“Okay, okay,” Melanie said. “I get it. It’s important. But you’re trying to do too much again, Jules. There’ll be plenty of time to work on it tomorrow, anyway.”
Julia sighed, then nodded. “Okay, just let me—”
“If your next words aren’t ‘save my work so far,’” Melanie said, “you’d better be prepared to get slapped upside the head.”
“—save my work so far,” Julia said meekly.
“So, who’s gonna go down there?” Melanie said, looking nervously over the edge the next morning. “I’m okay with heights, but falling kind of freaks me out.”
“I’m willing,” Helen said.
“So am I,” Danziger said.
“Sorry, Danziger, but you’ll have to sit this one out. Rob has an idea for rigging a way to extract moisture from the air,” Devon said. “But he needs some help.”
“But if we get water from down there—” Bill began.
“There’s no guarantee it’ll last us through the next dry patch,” Devon said. “Not to mention that we don’t know if we’ll be able to get down there at all, let alone bring water back up. We need a plan B.”
Bess nudged Morgan hard with her elbow. “What?” he said.
“You should volunteer,” she said under her breath.
“Me?!” Morgan breathed. “Are you nuts?”
“No,” Bess said reasonably. “I just think it would be a good first step in getting back in everyone’s good graces.”
“Or a good first step towards getting dead!” he said.
“Morgan says he’ll do it,” Bess called out.
Everyone turned to look at them both. Morgan swallowed hard. “Uh…” he said, and Bess elbowed him hard again. “Yes, I’d be…happy to help.”
Devon looked over at Helen, who shrugged. “Okay, Martin,” Devon said dubiously, “you’re with Helen. Be careful, both of you.”
“Come on, Martin,” Helen said, resigned. I’m going to be stuck with this guy forever. It’s like my own tiny version of hell. “Let’s get geared up.”
“If I die, Bess, I’m coming back to haunt you,” Morgan muttered.
“How’s it going?” Melanie said to Julia, coming into the med tent.
Julia held up her hand, staring hard at the tablet. “Hold on…” she said absently. “If I…” she tapped something on the tablet. She paused, thinking, then nodded. She tapped several more times on the tablet, then leaned back, studying it.
“Julia?” Melanie said after several minutes of silence.
“I think I have it,” she said. She turned to look at the synthlab. She pressed a button on it and began tapping commands into a small keyboard that popped out.
“You mean the whole thing?” Melanie said. “Already?”
Julia nodded, referring back to the tablet as she typed. Melanie watched, growing increasingly impressed as the typing continued.
“Just out of curiosity, how do they come up with these processes back on the stations?” Melanie asked.
Julia glanced over at her. “They have a program that calculates all the possible permutations,” she said, “and then virtually tests them.”
“And how many people work on this?”
Julia shrugged. “I don’t know. A few.” She continued typing, then tapped another button, and the keyboard retracted. The box started to hum faintly, and Julia looked nervously at the far end of it. Finally, a slot opened, and she pulled out a tray with several small pills. She grabbed one, and scanned it with the diaglove, then turned to Melanie and grinned. “Osteomycin! I got it! C’mon,” she said, and ran for the tent flap. She looks like a kid on Christmas morning, Melanie thought.
“Solace!” Julia called, running toward the Transrover.
He rolled into view in the ATV, and looked surprised. “What’s going on?”
“Here, take this,” Julia said, handing him one of the pills.
Solace looked at the pill, then dry-swallowed it.
“You should have some water with that,” Julia said, and ran for the back of the Transrover. She came back with a cup of water.
“So what did I just take?” he said, downing the water.
“Two weeks off your recovery time, I hope,” Julia said.
“You did it?” he said. “Already?”
She smiled and nodded.
“How soon will we know if it’s working?” he said.
Julia shook her head. “It depends—most of the trials showed some results within two to three days, but given our circumstances…” She shrugged. “I’d bet we’ll know within four or five for sure.”
“You’re amazing!” he said. “So I could be walking again in two weeks?”
“Hold on, I didn’t say that,” Julia said. “We’ll have to start you on physical therapy, probably within the next couple of days, and that’s going to be rough. But if this works the way it’s supposed to, and you work hard at the PT, maybe we can have your leg bearing weight in two weeks. You’ll still have to go easy for another month at least.”
He looked crestfallen. “Hey, don’t look a gift horse,” Melanie said. “Without this stuff, it’d be at least two months, right, Jules?”
“Easily,” she said. “But the best part is, the bones should knit even stronger than they were originally. This stuff is the next best thing to boneheal.”
Alonzo was impressed, particularly by the effect this success was having on Julia. She’d smiled more in the last five minutes than she had since he’d met her. “Listen, Heller, thanks. I know you worked really hard on this.”
She looked embarrassed. “I—it’s why I’m here,” she said.
“Listen, don’t take any chances,” Devon said to Helen as they were about to start down the rough path they’d found. It looked like it was used by some sort of animals, and Devon hoped that they were worse climbers than humans. “If it looks at all like you could get into trouble—”
“You can count on me,” Morgan said. “We’ll be back here at light speed.”
Helen rolled her eyes behind him. “We’ll be fine, Devon. I’m betting we’re down to the bottom within a couple of hours, tops.” She set off down the slope, with Morgan trailing tentatively after her.
“Be careful, Morgan!” Bess called.
Helen picked her way down the steep slope. It was clear that whatever animals had worn this path were fairly sure-footed, but there was enough space on the path that she didn’t feel too nervous. The path appeared to switch back and forth as it went down, so her estimate of how long it would take them was probably optimistic.
“Do we have to move this fast?” Morgan said behind her. “It seems a little reckless to me.”
Helen ignored him, half-hoping he’d slip and fall, and then feeling guilty for it. She’d grown to really like Bess Martin in the few days she’d known her, and for some unknown reason Bess loved this overgrown weasel behind her. Maybe there’s more there than meets the eye, she thought, but she didn’t think she’d ever have the patience to look for it.
They’d been hiking downward for a couple of hours when the wind started to pick up. Helen hadn’t expected it to be that windy down in the canyon, but she supposed that the canyon could act like a wind tunnel if the conditions were right. She hoped it wouldn’t get much worse—she didn’t like the idea of trying to climb this path in a high wind.
“How close do you think we are?” Morgan said for the fifth time in the last hour.
“About ten minutes closer than we were the last time you asked,” Helen said.
“There’s no need for you to use that tone with me,” Morgan said, sounding irritated. “I was just asking.”
“Look, Martin, I didn’t ask for you to come along, and I’d have been more than happy to do this by myself,” Helen said. “So why don’t you do me a favor and keep your mouth shut?”
“Why is everyone so unpleasant to me?” Morgan said.
Helen decided to take that as a rhetorical question, and kept going without saying a word.
“Valerie?” Julia said, coming over to where Valerie had set up a camp stool and was studying something on her tablet. “Do you have a moment?”
Valerie looked up and frowned. “What do you need, Heller?” she said warily.
“I was hoping you could help me with reconstructing our medical records,” Julia said, wondering what she’d done to deserve the waves of hostility radiating from the tech.
“I don’t know a thing about medicine,” Valerie said as if that ended the conversation.
“That’s not what I need,” Julia said, trying to sound friendly. “I wasn’t able to grab my tablet during the evacuation of the ship, and it had all the medical records on it. But we can recreate them if I have some way to organize and store them. I was wondering if you’d be willing to help us set up a database on one of the spare tablets so Melanie and I can start doing interviews and enter the data as we go.”
“Piece of cake,” Valerie said. “Have Melanie get together with me, and I’ll get it done.”
Julia started to say that she could explain what she needed, but it was more than apparent that Valerie didn’t want to talk to her. “Okay,” she said, at a loss. “Um…thanks.”
Valerie waved her hand dismissively and turned back to her tablet.
“Don’t mind her,” Toshiko said under her breath, joining Julia as she walked away. “She’s like that with everybody.”
Julia looked sidelong at Toshiko as Phoebe snorted. Valerie might be snotty to everybody, Julia thought, but she’s not like that with everybody.
“She’s right,” Phoebe said after Toshiko shot her a meaningful look. “That girl just got hit a couple extra times with the bitchy stick when she was born.”
“Phoebe, don’t be mean,” Toshiko said quickly. “Listen, Julia, I might be able to help a little with the medical records. I did all the background checks for the Eden Project crew. There might be some things in my records that would be useful to you, and I was able to grab my tablet.”
“Thanks,” Julia said absently, still wondering what she’d done to antagonize Valerie.
“You might also talk to Yale,” Toshiko said. “He has a pretty extensive database on his system. He helped Devon select the ship and crew, so he may have some records relating to the ship’s personnel. And the best thing with that is, you can just download it directly from him.”
“Really?” Julia said, surprised. She’d only thought of Yale as Uly’s tutor, but it sounded like he was quite a bit more than that.
“He’s kind of like Devon’s walking tablet,” Toshiko said, grinning. “She was always misplacing hers anyway, so she got in the habit of using him instead. At least if she lost him, he could find his way back.”
“How far are they?” Bess said.
“About two-thirds of the way down,” Devon said, sitting on a rock at the top of the canyon. “Helen thinks they should make it to the bottom in the next hour or so.” She squinted as a gust of wind blew dust across them. Off to the north, some clouds were building up on the horizon. I wonder what a storm will be like here, she thought, suddenly worried. We’ve had such good weather so far, I hadn’t even considered the possibility before.
Then she had a worse thought. What if it rains? We have no idea whether it’s safe! She almost called Helen right then and told her to turn back, but then thought they might be safer at the bottom than clinging to a canyon wall. I’ll keep an eye on it, she thought uneasily.
Melanie frowned, looking down at her tablet. “That’s weird,” she said.
“What?” Devon asked, glancing over at her.
“I’m getting some strange electrical signals on the comm,” she said. “It’s like interference, but not from any source I’m familiar with.” She continued to frown, tapping at the tablet. “It’s coming from off to the north, but…”
“What?” Devon said, wondering suddenly if this could be related to the other object Yale had said the sensors had picked up before their ship went down.
“It’s not from any single source—it’s like it’s bouncing from one spot to another randomly,” she said. She looked up at the sky to the north. “This planet creates the weirdest signals.”
“This is really odd,” Helen said, looking at the rocky wall of the canyon.
“What?” Morgan said.
“This almost looks…” She frowned. “Look at this—what do you see?” She pointed at a spot where the rock face looked like it had been sheared off.
“I see a big rock,” Morgan said.
Helen sighed. “I know, but look at the shape of it—this doesn’t look natural. I mean, a rock would break along a flaw—like metal fatigue. But you wouldn’t expect it to have a flaw at almost a perfect ninety degree angle.”
“So?” Morgan said.
Helen shook her head. “I don’t know—the scans all said that there was no intelligent life on G-889, but…what if they’re wrong?”
Morgan’s eyes got wide. “You mean—?” He broke off, looking wildly around. “Did you bring guns?” he said.
“Yes,” Helen said, and thought to herself, And I’m not about to give you one. You’re liable to shoot me by accident. “Devon,” she said into the gear. “Could you put Bill on? I want him to take a look at something.”
“Sure,” Devon said, and Bill came on a moment later.
“What’s up, Helen?” he said.
“Go to visual,” Helen said, and flipped her eyepiece around to train the camera on the rock face. “What does this look like to you, Bill?”
Bill didn’t say anything for a long time. “Could you pan to the left?” he said finally. “And get closer.” Helen knelt down and turned toward the rock face a bit. “Good, stay there. Hold steady.” After a moment, he whistled.
“What?” Devon said.
“I can’t be certain, but I think Helen may have found proof of intelligent life on this planet,” Bill said.
“What?!” Devon said.
“Are you looking?” Bill said.
“Yes,” Devon said questioningly.
“See that spot there, where the wall meets the path? I think those are tool marks,” Bill said.
“You mean someone carved this path out of the wall of the canyon?” Devon said. “But—the scans all said there was no intelligent life here!”
“The scans were all given to us by the Council,” Melanie said darkly. “Just like the sat images. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’d monkeyed with all of it.”
“It could be ancient, though,” Devon said. “I mean, maybe whatever made this isn’t here anymore.”
“Maybe,” Helen said. “But I’m not sure I want to count on that.”
She’s right, Devon thought. “How close are you to the bottom?” she asked.
“Not far—probably another ten minutes,” Helen said.
“Go ahead and get down there, and then get back up here as fast as you can,” Devon said. “I don’t think I want any of us separated for long anymore.”
“Roger,” Helen said. Helen led Morgan on down the path, and within a few minutes they’d reached a relatively wide, flat space between the steep canyon walls. There was scrub brush scattered along the floor of the canyon, but mostly it was sand. There was a river flowing along the floor about fifteen meters from where the path reached the floor.
“Come on,” Helen said, reaching around to unstrap the large plastic container they’d cannibalized from the escape pod. “Let’s get these filled and get back up there.”
“You don’t have to ask me twice,” Morgan said, still glancing around worriedly. They were filling the jugs when a loud crack reverberated down the canyon, echoing over and over.
“Jesus! What the hell was that?!” Morgan said, flinging himself to the ground. “Somebody shooting at us?”
“It’s okay,” Melanie said over the gear. “It’s thunder. There was a lightning strike just up—oh, crap…” Melanie said, and Helen heard her yank off her gear. “Everybody, get the hell away from the Transrover!” she yelled. “Get down on the ground, now! And stay clear of anything tall and metallic—get out of the tents!”
“What is it, Melanie?” Helen could hear Devon asking. “Why?”
“Devon, trust me, just do it!” Melanie said, and the fear in her voice came clearly over the gear.
What’s going on up there? Helen thought.
“Okay,” Devon said. “You heard her, everybody! Move!”
“Helen,” Melanie said coming back on the gear. “I think it might be raining up there, and it may have been doing it for a while. No, it’s definitely raining farther upstream, it’s starting to rain a little bit here.”
Helen frowned. “Okay?” she said. “Is that dangerous? The water isn’t toxic or something, is it?”
“I don’t think so,” Melanie said, and there was a brief pause. “No, Julia says it’s fine. But what if it’s raining a lot, and it’s been doing it for a while north of us? I mean, I don’t know how much water a storm like this produces, but think about it. A lot of water, a confined space like a canyon…”
Helen went white, and her head shot around to look back up at the canyon to the north. “Martin, get that jug filled, now!” she snapped, pushing her jug deep into the rushing water. “We have to get out of here.”
“What? Why?” Morgan said.
“Just do it!” Helen ordered. They got the jugs filled after what seemed like an eternity to Helen and strapped them back onto their packs. Damn, these are heavy, she thought. How fast can we move with these? She shook off the thought. I have a feeling we’re going to find out. Helen took off for the path at a labored run.
“Slow down!” Morgan said. “This jug isn’t exactly light, you know!”
“Martin, there’s a good chance that any minute now this whole canyon could fill with water,” Helen said over her shoulder, not slowing down a bit. “Do you want to be here if it does?”
Morgan’s eyes got big, and he almost beat her to the path.
The sky above them was getting frighteningly dark. Whatever is happening, it’s happening fast, Helen thought. Raindrops started to splash down on them.
* * *
Melanie’s orders took a while to make their way through the camp, but pretty soon, everyone was huddled on the ground in a low spot Melanie had picked out away from the camp, and just about everyone was asking why. Julia was helping Alonzo hop along, his arm draped over her shoulders. “What’s going on?” Danziger said.
“Lightning,” Melanie said. “That’s the interference I was getting earlier—lightning strikes. Electrical discharges created by—oh, never mind—it’s bolts of energy created by storms. Like the worst static ever. You have to have seen it on VR! You know, Stagecoach to Laramie? The big storm episode? Oh, come on, the one with the baby!” There were a lot of blank looks. “Listen, just trust me. As this storm moves over us, there’s a good chance we’ll get lightning strikes. They’ll be most likely to hit tall objects—like the Transrover.”
“Oh, crap,” Danziger said. “How powerful an electrical discharge?”
“Yeah,” Melanie said, seeing where he was headed with that question. “Powerful enough we could lose the solar generator.”
“I’ll go pull the panels,” Danziger said.
“No, it’s too dangerous,” Melanie said, and another bolt of lightning lit the sky, followed seconds later by another boom. “See? We’re already getting strikes.”
“It’d be just as dangerous to lose the ‘rover,” Danziger said, and he ran for the Transrover, stopping on the way to grab his tool belt.
“Danziger, get back here!” Devon shouted over the rising wind. Rain was starting to pound down.
Danziger climbed onto the Transrover and started working on the panels.
“Wait,” Julia said, looking up and holding out her hand and looking up at the sky, blinking as raindrops hit her face. “The rain…”
“What?” Alonzo said as she lowered him to the ground.
“It’s water,” Julia said emphatically, studying her diaglove as she ran it over her wet hand. “It’s drinkable water! Rob, Rick, come help me!” She took off at a run back toward the camp.
“Oh!” Rick said, and scrambled up to run after her. “I get it!” Rob followed him.
“No, you—” Melanie shouted after them. “Julia! Rob! Come back! This lightning stuff is serious!” she shouted.
Julia grabbed one of the cases that contained some medical gear and dumped it unceremoniously onto the ground in front of her tent. She dragged it out into the space in front of the tent and opened it out flat. Rob and Rick skidded up. “Get more of these! Everything that can hold water,” Julia said, and ran to get another case.
“Of course!” Rob said. “Great idea!” The two of them ran for more cases.
There was another flash of lightning, and the thunderclap followed almost instantly. “You idiots! The lightning is right on top of us!” Melanie shouted.
“Danziger!” Devon yelled furiously. “Julia! All of you, get back here!”
Danziger lifted a solar panel from the Transrover and jumped to the ground with it. He lowered it to the ground, then climbed back up and started working on another.
There was another flash, and this time Melanie could actually feel the heat from it. The thunderclap was so loud it left her ears ringing. Someone behind her was crying.
Danziger got the second panel off the Transrover and jumped to the ground. He started for the rail. Julia and the others were still getting boxes out in the open.
“Get back here!” Melanie shouted plaintively into the pouring rain.
Helen and Morgan scrambled up the path as the rain started to pound down harder. They were barely twenty meters up the trail when they started to hear a rumble in the distance. At first Helen wasn’t sure she was hearing it with the echoes of the thunderclap still reverberating in the canyon, but as she sprinted up the trail, it became more distinct.
All at once, the canyon below them was hit by a roiling wall of water flowing out of the canyon to the north of them. “Oh, god!” Morgan breathed, realizing that they’d only barely gotten high enough in time. They were only a few meters above the raging water.
“Thank you, Melanie,” Helen breathed, looking down at the torrent inundating the ground they’d just been on. The water was brown, churning with debris, bits of trees and other unidentifiable things. Helen watched as one big log was flung against the rocks below them and shattered into chunks of splintered wood. That could have been us, she thought sickly.
“Um,” Morgan said. “I think the water’s still rising. Shouldn’t we…?”
Helen nodded, and started on up the trail. Morgan scrambled after Helen, but as he did, her foot slipped on the wet rock of the steep path and she fell, sliding towards the edge. Morgan grabbed for her pack as she slid past him, and he caught hold of one of the straps. She slid over the edge, grabbing desperately at the rocks, and Morgan threw himself onto the ground, trying to keep from being dragged off. He caught hold of a rock with his right hand and managed to hold on, the sharp edge of the rock digging painfully into his fingers.
“Don’t let go!” Helen shouted, though he could barely hear her above the roar of the water raging below them. He could feel her flailing, trying to get some sort of foothold, but all it was doing was making it harder for him to hold on. The rain was pounding down, and he felt his hand on the rock starting to slip. I should let her go, Morgan thought wildly, his arms shaking from the strain. She’s going to pull me off—I’m going to die.
But suddenly he could see Bess in his mind’s eye, and he could imagine the look of disappointment she’d give him.
And he held on.
“Danziger, I swear to god, if you get hit by lightning, I’m going to kill you!” Devon shouted as Danziger yanked the solar panels from the rail. He turned and ran for the ATV.
“Heller!” Alonzo yelled. “Heller, where are you?”
Julia came running out of the rain and skidded to a stop next to him, splashing mud. Rick was right behind her, and Rob followed seconds later. “I think we might be able to get at least a few liters that way,” Julia said breathlessly.
“Are you crazy!?” Alonzo snapped.
“It was worth the risk,” Rick said, coming to her defense. “It was a good idea, Alonzo. In a couple of days, you’ll be really glad we did it.”
“You all could have been killed!” Melanie said, grabbing Rob’s arm and pulling him down just as there was another bright flash of lightning. Everyone ducked as the boom reverberated over them. Devon looked up and saw that one of the tents was on fire.
“Is it the med tent?” Julia gasped, and started to get up. Alonzo nearly tackled her.
“It’s not—it’s our tent,” Valerie said and looked almost like she was ready to run to it, but Toshiko put her hand on her arm. She glanced over at Toshiko and sighed, shaking her head sadly as they watched the tent smoldering under the pouring rain.
Danziger ran up to them, grinning. “It’s all good,” he said. “The vehicles are fine.”
“Our tent isn’t,” Toshiko said, almost in tears.
“It’s okay, Tosh,” Phoebe said. “It looks like the rain’s putting out the fire. Maybe it’s not so bad.”
There was another flash, but this time the boom seemed a little later, and the rain seemed to be letting up a little. “It’s moving off,” Melanie said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Nobody move just yet, though. I want to be sure it’s safe before we head back.”
“Please…hang on, Morgan, I’m almost—” Helen said, and he felt the pull on his arm ease slightly. “Don’t let go, don’t let go,” Helen said, gasping. He saw her hand reach up and grab hold of one of the rocks on the path, and she pulled herself up, struggling under the weight of her pack. Morgan pulled on the pack to help her up, groaning under the strain, and she finally collapsed onto the path, breathing hard.
They both lay there for a long time, then Morgan rolled onto his back, his face getting pelted by raindrops, and moaned. “I think I dislocated my arm. Arms. Both of them.”
“Jesus,” Helen breathed. “Morgan, you…” She looked over at him, her eyes wide, her blonde hair plastered against her head by the rain. “You saved my life.”
Morgan looked back at her, just as wide-eyed. I’m a hero, he thought.
Toshiko and Valerie stood in front of their decimated tent, looking sadly at what was left of their gear. Valerie stepped into the charred mess, lifting the blackened remnants of tent up to look underneath.
“I bet a lot of it is salvageable,” Rob said, trying to sound optimistic. “It looks like the tent didn’t burn completely, so a lot of your stuff probably wasn’t damaged at all.”
Valerie seemed to be looking for something in the ruins. She dug through the pile of debris with a singleminded energy.
“It’s just…it was a little crowded with two to a tent,” Toshiko said. “How bad is it going to be with four?”
“It won’t be so bad,” Phoebe said. “It’s not like you take up much space, after all.”
Toshiko glared at her.
“We’ll find another of the supply pods soon,” Rob said reassuringly. “Then we’ll be able to spread out again.”
“You’re such an optimist, Rob,” Valerie said, tucking a stray lock of red hair behind her ear. She glanced over at where Julia and Rick were trying to transfer the water they’d captured into the storage tanks. “I tell you, though, there’s one person I wouldn’t share a tent with on a bet.”
“What?” Toshiko said, following her glance. “Oh, Valerie—” she began.
“Between her stunt with that creature the other day and what she did today, I’d say that our doctor has a death wish,” Valerie said darkly. “It’s better to stay clear of people like that—I don’t want to be collateral damage.”
“Oh, come on,” Rob said. “It wasn’t that big a risk—and I was out there today, too.”
Valerie looked steadily at him. “Collateral damage.” She shook her head. “I’m just glad she’s training Melanie. I have a feeling we’re going to need her before long.” She went back to digging through the mess.
Rob frowned at her as he headed to help Julia and Rick. Toshiko sighed. “Phoebe, could I talk to Valerie alone for a minute?”
Phoebe raised her eyebrows, but nodded and started for the mess tent.
Valerie looked sidelong at Toshiko. “Oh, don’t tell me,” she said. “I already know. ‘Lay off the doctor, she’s had it rough.’ Bullshit.”
“It’s not bullshit,” Toshiko said emphatically, and the shock of hearing Toshiko swear silenced Valerie for a moment, and Toshiko took advantage. “You have no idea what her life has been like, and you shouldn’t hold what happened to Jamie against her. It wasn’t her fault.”
“How the hell would you know?” Valerie snapped. She pulled something out from under what had been her bunk and began wiping away ash. It looked like a small plastic case of some sort.
Toshiko frowned. “I know a lot more than you think,” she said, refusing to back down. “And a lot more than I wanted to know. I get why you don’t like her—I really do—but if you knew what I know, you’d realize it isn’t fair. And it’s especially not fair since she has no idea what she did to make you act this way.”
Valerie stood up, looming over Toshiko. “And you are not going to tell her, either,” she said emphatically. “Or anybody else. Got it?”
“I mean it, Tosh,” Valerie said, and her manner had changed. She was almost pleading. “I just couldn’t stand it if everybody knew.”
“Devon knows,” Toshiko said reasonably. “And she doesn’t treat you any differently than she would if she didn’t know.”
“That’s because Devon is the definition of focused. She tends to think about what’s right in front of her and ignores everything else,” Valerie said dryly, then looked hard at Toshiko. “Please, Tosh. This is important to me.”
Toshiko sighed. “All right,” she said finally. “I won’t say anything—unless Julia asks me about you. I will not lie to her.”
“Fine,” Valerie said, and then looked faintly ashamed. “Look, I’m not going to get in her face, okay? I’ll steer clear of her. Just let her know she needs to do the same for me. It may not be her fault, but just looking at her—” Valerie trailed off, her eyes shadowed. She shook her head, tucked her little case under one arm and headed off after Phoebe.
Toshiko sighed, watching her go. This isn’t going to be easy, she thought.
“Helen, are you guys okay?” Melanie said over the gear.
“Yeah,” Helen said, and she sounded odd. “But I have a hell of a story for you. Listen, I think we’re going to sit tight where we are for the time being. The trail is really slick, and I don’t want to fall off again.”
“Again?!” Devon said.
“Yeah, like I said, hell of a story,” Helen said, and she sounded even odder. “And you won’t believe the ending. We’ll start up in the morning, okay?”
“You’re sure you’ll be okay where you are?” Devon said.
“Sure,” Helen said reassuringly. “We stopped at a wider place on the trail. We’ll be fine.”
“Call us if you need anything,” Devon said, and then realized how silly that was. It’s not like I’ll be able to give them room service in the middle of the night. She shook her head and turned to go talk to Julia.
She and Rob were carefully pouring the contents of one of the cases into his still. “How did we do?” Devon asked.
Julia shrugged once they finished pouring. “We got a few liters. And the condenser Rob and Danziger put together is working pretty well. If the moisture in the atmosphere lasts, we may have bought ourselves another day. Maybe two, depending on Helen and Morgan. Are they okay?”
“Yes,” Devon said, “though Helen sounded a little rattled. Something happened, but she didn’t want to tell me over the gear. My bet is she wants an audience for the story.”
“Is she on her way up?” She nodded her thanks to Rob for the help with the water, and turned to talk to Devon.
Devon shook her head. “The trail’s too slick. They’re waiting till morning.”
Julia nodded. “It’s almost dark anyway,” she said. “Better safe than sorry.”
“Did you hear about their find?” Devon asked.
“Find?” Julia said. “No—what?”
“Helen thinks the trail isn’t natural—somebody carved it out of the canyon wall.”
Julia’s eyes got wide. “You mean intelligent life? Here?” She looked out at the horizon, where the sun was slowly setting on the far side of the canyon, clearly thinking hard about the idea. She shook her head finally. “Well, that changes things. We’ll have to be careful.”
“Absolutely,” Devon said. “But on the bright side, at least now we won’t be completely surprised if something six-legged walks up to us and starts talking.”
Julia laughed, still looking at the sunset.
Devon nodded, following Julia’s gaze. “It makes you wonder what else the Council didn’t tell us about this place, doesn’t it?” she said without thinking, and instantly regretted it, remembering too late Julia’s connection to the Council. Julia looked away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
Julia held up her hand. “It’s all right,” she said. She looked back at Devon, her face lit by the dying orange glow of the sunset. “I’m not all that fond of the Council myself, you know.” There was a dangerous edge to her voice.
Brendan paced in front of Julia in VR, nodding at her report. He turned to look at her intently. “You look a bit bedraggled,” Brendan said. “Get caught in the rain?”
“Rain?” Julia said, caught off guard. “No…uh, no, I just…washed my hair in the stream we’re following. It gives me an excuse for being away from the camp. Is that what those dark clouds to the southwest were?”
Brendan looked at her for a long time, so long Julia had to resist the urge to fill the silence. Come on, she thought, carefully keeping her expression neutral. I’m not that stupid.
Finally, he seemed to come to some sort of decision. “Tell me about the condition of your group. Aside from the man who can’t walk, how is everyone else?”
“Generally, quite good, at least so far,” Julia said slowly, wondering what he was trying to learn.
“And the boy with the syndrome—Adair’s son?”
“He’s up and down—I wish I could get his O2 sats to stabilize. But if you look at the trend over the last week, he’s improving slowly,” Julia said.
Brendan nodded. “Keep me informed,” he said, and disappeared.
Julia frowned, flipping back the VR eyepiece. Why the interest in Uly? she wondered uneasily, making her way back to camp in the twilight. Maybe I shouldn’t— She broke off the thought as she rounded the Transrover and nearly ran into Valerie. “Sorry,” Julia said. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
Valerie nodded brusquely and shoved her way past Julia without a word, but after Julia had passed, she turned and looked back at the doctor, frowning.
What the heck is this thing? Melanie thought, looking at her tablet again. The signal had shown up about ten minutes earlier, and she’d recorded it like she had the second one she’d picked up, but she still couldn’t make sense of either one of them.
It has to be something from one of the supply pods or the escape pods, she thought, but there was something about the signal that made her uneasy. I really need to figure this out, she thought, but she couldn’t come up with anything, not even a direction. If we were on the stations, the strength of the signal and the lack of an identifiable locus would make me think it was a feed through the station wifi, but that just doesn’t make any sense here. I suppose it could be something to do with the planetary magnetic field, but what?
And then there was the encryption to complicate things further. It looked complicated, and without something to start from, she didn’t think she could break it. She leaned back and shook her head. Maybe if I pick it up again, she thought, I can get more information. She set her tablet to scan for the signal on an ongoing basis, and to chime and start recording if it picked something up.
“Hey, Mel,” Julia said, ducking in through the tent flap. “Did you get some dinner?”
“No, not yet,” Melanie said absently.
“Do you want me to go grab you something and bring it back?” Julia offered.
“Hmm?” Melanie said, then shook her head and stood up. “No…no, I’ll go get it myself. But thanks.” She headed for the tent flap, clearly still lost in thought.
Julia watched her go, wondering if she should ask about it, but she just couldn’t seem to make herself do it. And that’s what makes Melanie a better person than me. She wouldn’t even think about it--she’d just ask.
Helen and Morgan finally returned the next day in the early afternoon to find the group packed and ready to move out. They were both exhausted from lugging the heavy jugs of water they’d gotten. It hardly seemed worth the effort once Helen told the story. Amazingly, Morgan kept quiet during the whole story, and he actually looked almost embarrassed when Helen thanked him in front of everyone.
“He managed to hold on to me, with my whole pack plus ten liters of water strapped on it,” Helen said wonderingly. “I don’t think I could have done it.”
“Do you want me to have a look at your shoulders?” Julia asked him. “You could have torn—”
“No,” Morgan said uncomfortably. “I’m fine.”
Julia shot Melanie an amazed look. Hypochondriac Morgan Martin, refusing treatment? Will wonders never cease? she thought.
“Is there any chance we could go back down?” Bill asked Helen.
Helen looked skeptical. “I’d be willing to try it, but it’d be risky,” she said after thinking about it for a moment. “It was pretty treacherous coming back up. And it looked like the flood may have washed away part of the lower end of the trail.”
Devon shook her head. “I don’t think we can afford to waste the time trying—we don’t have that many of the smaller containers. We’d have to send too many people down too many times to get enough water for even an extra day. Hopefully, as we head north, the canyon won’t be as deep, and we might be able to get down to the water more easily.”
Julia nodded, resigned.
“Let’s move out, everyone,” Devon said. “We can at least get a few kilometers north before we make camp again. Helen, you and Morgan can take the rail. You’ve earned the break.”
Bess grabbed Morgan’s hand before he could start for the rail. “Morgan,” she said, smiling at him, “I am so very proud of you.”
“Bess,” he said seriously, “I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for you.”
“Of course you would,” Bess said. “That’s why I married you.” She squeezed his hand and started off.
Morgan watched her go, wishing for the thousandth time that he was half the man Bess seemed to think he was.
“Hey, Heller!” Alonzo called, and she turned to see him pull up next to her in the ATV.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, squinting in the afternoon sun.
“Actually, I was going to ask you that,” he said with a contemplative look.
Julia frowned. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“I mean, that whole thing with the sabertooth, then yesterday with the lightning—are you trying to prove something?”
“Of course not,” she said, looking surprised. “Those were calculated risks.”
“Calculated?” he said, shaking his head in amusement, but there was an undercurrent of anger. “You have some weird math, Heller.”
“I don’t understand why it bothers you,” she said.
He looked at her for a long moment, his expression unreadable. “Don’t you?” he said quietly, and then sped off in the ATV.
Julia watched him go, completely baffled by his behavior.
“That was interesting,” Melanie said, coming up next to her.
Julia sighed. “Don’t start, Melanie,” she said.
“I’ve known Alonzo Solace for a long time,” Melanie said. “I’ve never seen him like this before.”
“Like what?” Julia said. “Annoyingly cryptic?”
Melanie looked at her, smiling slightly. “Boy, for somebody who’s so good at logic, you sure have trouble grasping the obvious.”