Earth 2.1

Chapter 7

Over the next several days, they settled into an uneasy routine. Hardy took Bill’s place with Helen on the hunting expeditions. The bouncy creatures—which Helen and Toshiko decided to call tangaroos, much to Devon’s dismay—turned out to be surprisingly good to eat, and Julia found they were an excellent source of protein. Bill was recovering, but Julia didn’t want him over-exerting himself too soon, so he spent most of his time in the Transrover or looking after the hydroponics for Helen in camp.

The hydroponics were a source of joy to most of them. The tomatoes came in sooner than expected, which Helen explained in complicated terms no one really understood, or cared about. Bill took the credit, however, and though they were less than flavorful, they were a welcome change. Helen made everyone save every seed, anticipating being able to either grow them in real soil once they got to New Pacifica, or setting up more hydroponics or even a greenhouse over the winter.

The terrain had evened out, the rocky foothills giving way again to rolling fields of grassland. The tangaroos seemed fewer the farther they got from the hills, and Helen spent a lot of her time collecting plant samples for Julia to analyze. Julia had determined that several were edible, though no one really seemed to like them much.

For Julia, the aftermath of the Terrier attack had given her plenty of distractions. But as things settled down again, she began worrying again about Brendan, especially since it had been so long since she’d given him a full report. Unfortunately, the heightened security Danziger and Devon had imposed after the attack made it nearly impossible for her to get away from camp, so she hadn’t been able to report in again. Which only added to Julia’s growing fear that she’d blown it. I have to find a way to report to him soon, she thought, feeling the edges of panic creeping in as she followed along behind the Transrover. But what am I going to say?

Danziger continued to scout ahead, sometimes sending Hardy out on alternate routes. They both called in the afternoon to report to Devon. “It looks like this northern route I found is the better bet. That spur of the mountains the sat images showed is a little more substantial than we thought. To the south, you run into a bunch of steep ridges. Hardy doesn’t think we can get the ‘rover over them. But up here it looks passable.”

“How far north?” Devon said, remembering Julia’s concerns about winter coming.

“Not too bad,” Danziger said. “It’s maybe twenty k out of our way, and it looks like it’s relatively flat on the other side, so we should be able to make up the time.”

“You went twenty k?” Devon said, annoyed. “You’re not supposed to go that far, Danziger!”

“Hey, look, we needed to know which route to take, and I couldn’t tell without going this far,” Danziger said. “I’m on my way back now. I should be able to make it before it gets dark.”

“You’d better,” Hardy piped in. “If you’re going over rough terrain, you’ll use up more juice. And it looks like it could rain. That’ll cut back on the solar.”

Danziger rolled his eyes. Thanks a lot, Hardy. Now Adair’s going to worry even more. “Not a problem. I’ve only got about fifteen k to go and I’m holding a full charge,” he lied.

“How close are you, Hardy?” Devon said.

“Maybe ten k out. I’ll be back in…probably a little over an hour. The terrain is slowing me down a little,” he said.

“Okay, we’ll set up camp here. Hurry back,” Devon said. “I want the ATV back in case we need to go save Danziger’s hide. But be careful.”

“Hey!” Danziger said. “I can look after my own hide, thanks.”

Alonzo made his way to the mess tent on his crutches, but as usual, getting inside with them was a complicated maneuver.

“Here, let me help with that,” Valerie said, coming up from behind and holding the tent flap open for him.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Why don’t you go ahead and sit down?” she said. “I’ll grab you a bowl of whatever looks least repulsive.”

Alonzo smiled. “I appreciate it,” he said. He headed for the nearest table and maneuvered his way onto the bench, his leg sticking out to the side. He set his crutches down, and Valerie came up with two bowls.

“It’s that funky meat again,” she said, sounding annoyed. “I know it’s better than the synthofu, but it does get a little old having it for every meal.” She plopped down on the bench across from him. “So how’s the leg?” she said.

“It’s better,” he said, sawing at the meat with his knife. “Julia thinks I’ll be able to put weight on it today or tomorrow, and maybe get rid of the crutches in another week or so.”

“That’s great!” Valerie said. “I’m sure you’ll be glad to be on your feet again. No more physical therapy.”

He nodded. “Yeah, that part I won’t miss,” he said, though he didn’t sound too enthusiastic about it.

Valerie looked at him intently for a moment. “You’re crazy about her, aren’t you?”

Alonzo’s head shot up, and then he looked chagrined. “Is it that obvious?”

“To everybody but her,” Valerie said.

Alonzo sighed. “I suck at this,” he said. “I mean, I know everything about how to score. It’s not that part. But I’ve never been in one place long enough for a real…relationship,” he said the word like it pained him, “to be practical. I just don’t know what to do.”

“Listen,” Valerie said, taking pity on him. “I don’t want to butt in, but I used to know somebody an awful lot like her, and you’re going about this all wrong.”

“I’m just using a trial and error approach,” he said, waving one hand airily, then smiled wryly. “Emphasis on error. But did you have something specific in mind?”

“To start with, yelling at her for risking her life,” Valerie said dryly.

Alonzo winced. “Yeah, I figured that out. I just—I mean, she doesn’t even think before she does those things!”

“Exactly,” Valerie said emphatically. “The thing you need to understand is that for her, the work will always come first. And it won’t even occur to her to think about it, and it doesn’t have anything to do with how she feels about you. Trust me, if you try to make her choose between you and what she sees as her duty, you will lose. Every time.”

“I don’t want to make her choose,” Alonzo said earnestly. “Watching her after the crash, and seeing how hard she worked…that’s one of the things that drew me to her. I just want her to be smart about it.”

“So let her know that,” Valerie said. “And make sure that you’re there for her with no guilt attached. If you make her feel bad for not being around you as much as you’d like, she’ll dump you so fast your head will spin.”

Alonzo looked at her appraisingly. “The voice of experience,” he said.

“Oh, yeah,” Valerie said. “It’s work being with somebody like that. But if you can pull it off, it’s worth it.”

Julia came in and grabbed a bowlful of tangaroo meat. She added a tomato, then turned to find a place to sit. Alonzo was sitting across from Valerie, and there was plenty of space next to them, but Julia hesitated. She turned instead to sit next to Phoebe, who smiled at her as she sat. Unfortunately, the seat she’d chosen gave her a perfect view of Valerie, who was still talking to Alonzo.

Julia looked away, trying to interest herself in the conversation Phoebe was having with Todd. “See, now that we’re stuck here on our own, I think we’re probably a perfect example of Marx’s concept of primitive communism,” Todd was saying. “We all share in the means of production, we all contribute to the good of the whole—”

“Most of us, anyway,” Phoebe said dryly.

Julia lost the train of the conversation after that, watching Valerie and Alonzo. There was something weird about it that Julia couldn’t put her finger on. She ate in silence, wondering what it was that bothered her. Valerie laughed at something Alonzo said, and she flipped her red hair back over her shoulder with one hand.

Is she flirting with him? Julia thought, surprised. And irritated. She looked away, frowning, and caught Helen looking with narrowed eyes at Valerie. Helen glanced over at Julia, and Julia looked down at her food, suddenly embarrassed. Why does it matter if she is? she asked herself.

You know exactly why, she told herself. You told yourself you wouldn’t do this, that you’d let it go. You have other, far more important things to worry about. She made herself finish her meal, then got up to go, passing Alonzo and Valerie as she did.

Alonzo turned and saw her go and reached for his crutches.

“Here, let me help you,” Valerie said.

“No, I got it,” Alonzo said, getting to his feet. “Thanks, though. And for the advice, too.” He knocked the tent flap open with one crutch and ducked through it.

Valerie looked appraisingly after him for a moment, and then Helen sat down across from her.

“What are you doing?” Helen said, smiling.

Valerie raised her eyebrows. “Um…eating dinner?” she said as if it were self-evident.

“You know what I mean,” Helen said, still smiling, though there was an almost predatory look to it.

Valerie frowned in confusion. “You’re going to have to spell it out for me, Helen. Apparently I’m clueless.”

“Look, I know you’ve got a bug up your butt about Julia, for whatever reason,” Helen said quietly. “That’s your problem. Don’t make it mine by going after Alonzo.”

What?!” Valerie said, loud enough nearly everyone in the mess tent looked at her. She lowered her voice. “What on earth makes you think I’d go after him? Come on, Helen, you know me better than that,” she said, and she genuinely sounded surprised.

“But--well, that’s what it looked like,” Helen said lamely.

“Oh, man,” Valerie said, biting her lip. “I’m not even remotely interested in him. I didn’t even think—I mean, I was just—” She stopped and sighed. “Shit. Look, if you get a chance, could you maybe explain to her—?”

“Explain?” Helen said incredulously. “I have no idea what we’re even talking about. How could I explain anything?”

Melanie sighed. The excitement of the Terrier attack had almost been a welcome change from the boredom she’d been feeling. But now that it was over, the boredom was back, and Julia wasn’t exactly helping. Melanie glanced over to where Julia was hunched over her lab table, relentlessly running tests on the plant samples Helen had brought her.

They were at least on speaking terms again, but that was about it, and Melanie really missed even the limited conversations they’d had before.

She shook herself and picked up her tablet. Maybe there was a puzzle game she hadn’t done a dozen times already. She started to look and noticed the little flag she’d set to show up if she picked up another odd signal. She opened the folder and was stunned to see that there were now a total of 7 recordings.

What the hell? she thought, kicking herself for not having noticed it sooner. Not that it would have made much difference, since I still can’t decrypt them. She checked the time stamps on the recordings. Most were about two days apart, but there were a couple of longer gaps, and it had been four days since the last one. So it can’t be something automated broadcasting on a schedule, she thought. That pretty much rules out the supply pods or another escape pod, even if we thought one had survived. Which leaves what?

She shook her head. The only way you’ll ever figure that out is if you figure out how to decrypt them. Good thing I went ahead and set it to automatically record. At least that way I have them if I can ever do that.

She started to mention it to Julia, then stopped herself. There really wasn’t much point to it if she couldn’t tell her what the recordings were, and she didn’t want to suffer through another clipped response. She bit back another sigh and went back to staring at the encrypted recordings, hoping to crack them through sheer force of will.

Danziger glowered up at the sky as it started to rain. Damn it, Hardy, he thought. You just had to say it. He looked down at the gauge and winced. Less than twenty percent, with cloud cover and night coming soon. Adair is gonna be pissed.

He took his foot off the accelerator as he crested another hill and let the rail coast down, trying to eke out as much from the charge he had as possible. Who knows? he thought. I might get lucky.

Moments later, he regretted having tempted fate by thinking it. The rain got heavier, and as he approached the bottom of the hill, the dirt was quickly turning to mud. He hit a small rock, and the rail bounced a little. When it hit the dirt again, the back end started to slide. Danziger turned into the slide, but it was too late. Both of the right side wheels hit a low ridge of rock, and the rail tipped on its side.

Danziger found himself counting each time he saw sky above him, and got to three before he lost his grip on the steering wheel. The next thing he knew, he was looking at the sky again, but this time lying on his back, gasping for air with the wind knocked out of him.

Yep, Adair’s gonna be pissed, he thought finally, getting his wind back. He tried to raise himself on his elbows, but it was hard. He was on a slight slope with his head pointed downhill. He groaned as he saw how bad his situation really was. The rail had come to a stop on its side on a wide expanse of rock—with the roll bar right on top of both of ankles. “Ow,” he said as he became aware of just how uncomfortable it was. Miraculously, it didn’t feel like anything in his legs was damaged, but the weight of the rail was painful. He tried to lean forward to see if he could lift it, but he couldn’t get anywhere near enough leverage to even move it a little.

“Great,” he said aloud, leaning back against the rock. He reached up and couldn’t feel his gear. “Oh, it just gets better and better,” he said, looking around for it. It took him a while to find it, but amazingly it was just barely within reach, close to his feet and just under the rear of the rail.

He sat up, grabbed for it, missed once, then got it on the second try. He leaned back again, wincing at the pressure the rail was putting on his ankles, put the gear on his head, and opened a channel.

And paused. “Hey, Melanie, you there?” he said finally.

“I’m here, Danziger,” Devon answered promptly. “What’s wrong?”

“Uh, nothing,” he said, knowing he sounded weird. I need to get Tru to give me some lessons, he thought. “Listen, could I talk to Tru for a second?”

“What did she do?” Devon said.

“Nothing,” Danziger said impatiently. “I’d just like to talk to my daughter for a minute, okay?”

“Okay, okay,” Devon said. “Hang on.”

“What’d I do?” Tru said moments later.

“Nothing!” Danziger said. “Listen, um, is anybody else still listening?”

“No,” Tru said warily.

“Good. So, listen, things got a little crazy after Bill got shot, so I kind of forgot to talk to you about this, but I remembered today, and I wanted to tell you before I forgot again,” Danziger said.

“Okay…?” Tru said, drawing out the word skeptically.

“That idea you had, about the flashback, that was a really good idea. I wanted to thank you for coming up with it. I was pretty proud of you—proud enough that I’m not going to ask you how you knew about flashbacks.”

“Thanks,” Tru said, and he could hear the frown. “Um…is something wrong? You sound kind of…weird.”

“No, nothing’s wrong,” he said, then paused. “Well, I…uh…had a little accident,” he said finally.

“How little?” she asked worriedly.

“Well, I’m kind of…stuck,” he said, closing his eyes and cursing his luck.

“Stuck how?”

“The rail, um, rolled a little, and I…uh…can’t get my feet out from under it,” he said.

“Oh, and you wanted me to be the one to tell Devon? Thanks a lot!”

“No!” Danziger protested. “I really did want to tell you that about the flashback. But…if you wouldn’t mind telling her…”

“Hey, Devon!” Tru called. “My dad has something he wants to tell you!”

“Damn it, Tru!” he hissed.

“What is it?” Devon said.

“I…” Oh, hell, just spit it out, Danziger. “I rolled the rail.”

“You what?!” Devon yelped. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just…stuck. The rail’s sort of…on top of me.”

It took almost five minutes before Devon stopped yelling at him. “Okay,” she said finally. “So you’re stuck. And you need us to come get you.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“How’s the charge on the ATV?” Devon asked Hardy, who’d just come in.

He frowned. “It’s at about forty percent right now,” he said.

“How far out are you, John?” Devon said.

She’s calling me John, he thought. I’m in so much trouble. “About ten k out,” he said.

Devon looked over at Hardy. He shrugged. “We still have some daylight left, but with the cloud cover...” He trailed off, shaking his head. “It’ll be dicey. They could make it, or they could get partway and have to stop.”

Devon sighed. “It’ll have to do. At least if they can’t make it tonight, they’ll be that much closer when they start tomorrow.”

“But they’ll be out there overnight,” Valerie said nervously. “What about the Terriers?”

“That’s a risk we have to take,” Julia said, coming up. “I can be ready to go in a few minutes.”

“No,” Devon said. “I think Melanie should go.”

“But—” Julia began.

Melanie held up her hand. “She’s right. I have to be able to do this sort of thing in an emergency, right? If there’s something I can’t deal with, you’ll be available on gear.”

Devon shot Melanie a grateful look.

“Come on,” Melanie said to Julia. “You can help me pack up.”

Julia hesitated, looking like she was ready to protest again, but she finally followed Melanie back to the med tent.

“Who else is going to go?” Toshiko said. “I mean, if you need somebody who can help lift the rail...”

“I think Rick is our best bet,” Devon said, but Rick shook his head.

“I injured my ankle while I was out with Rob yesterday,” he said, and Rob turned to look at him, frowning. “Sorry, Rob, I didn’t want to worry you at the time.” Rick turned back to Devon. “I think Rob should go.”

Devon nodded. “Have Julia take a look at your ankle,” she said to Rick. “Rob, I want you in contact on the gear at all times. Just because we haven’t seen any Terriers in a week doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Have Melanie drive, and you keep the mag-pro ready. Got it?”

“Um...uh...” he said, hesitating. “Could I talk to you alone for a second, Devon?”

Devon gave him a weird look, then nodded. She turned to Rick and Hardy. “Why don’t you guys get the ATV ready.”

“Sure,” Rick said.

“Maybe we can figure out a way to transfer some juice from the ‘rover,” Hardy said.

“Good idea,” Rick said.

“Danziger?” Devon said into her gear.

“Yeah,” he said, sounding annoyed.

“Help is on the way,” Devon said. “We’ll have somebody out there soon.”

“I’m not goin’ anywhere,” Danziger said glumly.

Devon smiled at Rob. “So what did you need to talk to me about?” she said after she closed the channel to Danziger.

“Well,” Rob said, looking enormously embarrassed, “it’s about...Melanie.”

I should have known, Devon thought. He breaks into a cold sweat whenever she’s within ten meters of him. “Do you have a problem going with her?”

“No!” Rob said. “No...I just...we’ll be out there for a long time...alone...”

“Yes,” Devon prompted after a long silence. “And?”

“What do I say?” he said in a rush, and then blushed to the tips of his ears.

“Rob, you have absolutely nothing to worry about,” Devon said reassuringly. “Melanie will take care of it.”

“What do you mean?” Rob said, looking confused.

Devon fought back a smile. “Rob, she’s been throwing herself at you since we crashed.”

Rob’s eyes went wide. “She has?”

Devon nodded. “Like a hanging curveball. You’d have to work really hard to avoid knocking this one out of the park.” He looked baffled by the metaphor. “Not a baseball fan, huh? Never mind. Look, just relax. Be yourself. You’ll be fine.”

He didn’t look like he believed her, but he nodded and headed off to help Rick and Hardy.

Devon watched him go, smiling to herself. “Men,” she said out loud, shaking her head.

“Woah,” Melanie said, watching Julia adding all sorts of things to the portable med kit. “I don’t need the whole med tent. Remember, it’s going to be two of us on the ATV. I don’t particularly want a bunch of—what are you putting in there? Catheters? Seriously?”

“Well, you—” Julia paused, looking down at the med kit. She sighed, frustrated. “You’re right. Sorry.”

“No problem,” Melanie said, smiling. “I just don’t think catheters are all that conducive to romance.”

“I still think it should be me going,” Julia said, not even noticing Melanie’s comment.

“Why? Don’t you think I can handle it?” Melanie said.

“What? No, of course you can!” Julia said, turning to look at her, but Melanie was grinning.

“You’re such a control freak,” Melanie said, grinning, then looking contrite when Julia glared at her. “I’m sorry—I know this is hard for you, but we’ll be fine. I promise.” She took the med kit from Julia and zipped it shut.

“Be careful out there, okay?” Julia said, looking uneasily at her.

Melanie smiled fondly at her. “It’s nice to know you still care,” she said quietly.

Julia looked embarrassed. “I do, against my better judgment. Just…don’t do anything stupid.”

“No problem,” Melanie said dryly. “I’ll just imagine what you’d do, and do the opposite.” Julia glared at her again, and Melanie grinned back. “Besides, I’ll have Rob with me. Finally, my big chance!”

“Don’t let that distract you,” Julia said warningly, then frowned when Melanie looked at her like she was an idiot. “I mean it! You don’t know what might be out there.”

“Okay, okay,” Melanie said, putting her hands up placatingly. “I promise, I’ll be careful. See you soon!” She turned and left the tent.

Great, Julia thought. Now I’ll have one more thing to fret about while I’m stuck here doing absolutely nothing.

“Devon, could I have a word with you for a minute?” Valerie said, coming up next to Devon.

“Sure,” Devon said absently, studying one of Melanie’s sat images.

Valerie looked uncomfortable. “It’s about Julia,” she said.

“What about her?” Devon said, looking up and frowning. Please don’t this be another interpersonal relationship landmine, she thought, knowing Valerie had been almost hostile towards Julia at times.

And it suddenly occurred to her for the first time why that was. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that before, Devon thought, remembering what Toshiko had shown her in Valerie’s background check. No wonder she’s been so weird.

“I’m worried about her,” Valerie was saying. “I don’t know if you’d noticed, but she goes off by herself a lot. She’d been doing it before the Terriers showed up, and I didn’t really think anything of it. You know what a loner she is. But she’s still doing it, and I don’t think it’s safe.”

“Wait—you’re worried about her?” Devon said, catching up with the conversation.

Valerie rolled her eyes. “Yes, Devon. I’m not a complete asshole, you know. Tosh explained a few things to me, and…well, long story short, I decided I shouldn’t be mad at her anymore.”

“Oh,” Devon said uncertainly. What on earth did Tosh explain to you? she thought, starting to review in her mind what she knew about Julia, and then deciding that would take too long. “Okay. So what do you mean by going off by herself?”

“I mean, she leaves the camp entirely and goes off somewhere,” Valerie said. “I haven’t followed her to see how far she goes—I didn’t want to spy on her. But the other day—right before the Terriers attacked—Melanie was looking for her, and I had seen her leave. And she’d turned off her gear. That’s violating two of the basic rules she argued for when we first got here. ”

Devon looked troubled. “Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll talk to her about it.”

“Thanks,” Valerie said. “I’d have done it myself, but…well…I haven’t exactly handled things with her well.”

“No,” Devon said evenly. “You haven’t.”

Valerie looked pained. “I’m trying to do better,” she said. “I just don’t want anything to happen to her before I get a chance to fix it.”

Rick ducked into the med tent a few minutes after Melanie and Rob had gone. “Hey, Julia,” he said, and he looked embarrassed.

“So what happened to your ankle?” Julia asked, putting on her diaglove.

“Yeah, about that,” he said, smiling shamefacedly. “I kind of...exaggerated a bit.”

Julia raised her eyebrows.

“Well, see, Rob and I have been talking a lot lately, and, um, he’s told me some things,” Rick said. “He’s kind of hung up on Melanie. When they decided she was going, I thought—”

“Oh,” Julia said. “I see.”

“Yeah,” Rick said. “Listen, it’d kill him if he knew I’d told you—”

Julia nodded. “I’ll keep it to myself,” she said, smiling a little.

“And while you’re at it,” Rick said, hesitated, then continued, “maybe you could cut Alonzo a little slack.”

Julia stiffened.

Rick raised his hand placatingly. “I don’t know what he did, and maybe it’s more than I think. If so, I’m sorry. But pretty much everybody knows there’s something going on between you, and it’s making him miserable—”

“Really?” Julia said skeptically, thinking of him eating dinner with Valerie earlier.

“—and it’s not making you all that happy, either,” Rick finished. “Look, we’re all stuck here together. What’s wrong with finding a little happiness wherever you can?”

“And what makes you think Solace can make me happy?” Julia said coolly.

Rick tried not to smile. “Never mind,” he said. “Forget I said anything.” He headed out of the tent. “Thanks for the help with the ankle,” he said as he ducked out.

Julia stood looking after him for a long moment. Why is everyone so damned interested in my love life? she thought angrily. What makes them think I even want one?

“Excuse me,” Morgan said, ducking into the tent. “I was wondering if you’d take a look at something for me. I have this rash—”

“Oh, for—” Julia began, thinking of the last “rash” Morgan had demanded she look at. And the one before that. “No, Morgan, I’m not going to look at your rash.” She pushed past him and out of the tent.

“But—” Morgan said, starting after her. “But I have these big red bumps! It’s some sort of alien virus or something!”

“What do you think about trees?” Rob said, riding on the back of the ATV.

“Excuse me?” Melanie said, frowning.

“Trees,” Rob said.

“What do I think about trees?” Melanie said, unsure of what else to say.

“Yes,” Rob said, and now he sounded nervous.

“Rob, is something wrong?” Melanie said.

“Wrong?” Rob said, and his voice almost squeaked.

“You seem a little weird,” Melanie said.

“Weird?” Rob said.

“Yes, Rob, weird. Like repeating everything I say and asking me what I think about trees,” Melanie said. “What’s going on?”

“I’m just…trying to pass the time. You know, small talk,” he said.

“Small talk,” Melanie said. “I see.” It’s a good thing socially awkward brainiacs are my type, she thought. “I think trees are…lovely.”

“I’ve never really thought about them before,” Rob said. “I mean, I’d seen them in VR, but that’s different. Here, it’s…they’re…” He trailed off.

“Bigger?” Melanie said.

“Yes!” he said desperately. “Bigger!”

I must not laugh, Melanie thought. I can’t laugh at him, it would break his heart. “You know,” she said, thinking fast, “I was thinking about your distilling process for getting pure water. Isn’t that the same process they use for making alcohol?”

“Sort of,” he said, sounding surprised at the change of topic. “You’d have to ferment something first, some sort of carbohydrate. For that you’d need yeast, or some equivalent—something to convert the carbohydrates into alcohol.”

“How would we get that?”

Rob considered it for a moment. “You know, we might be able to use Julia’s synthlab. I think it has protocols for synthesizing single-celled organisms. If we could do that, then…” He launched into an explanation of the process, and he relaxed visibly as he talked more. By the time they were three-quarters of the way to Danziger, he was able to carry on a normal conversation with only minor stumbles.

Unfortunately, that was about the same time the ATV started to wind down. It finally died completely when they were still about three kilometers from Danziger.

“What do we do?” Rob said.

“I could go on to Danziger by myself,” Melanie said. “And you could bring the ATV along in the morning once you got it charged.”

“No,” Rob said adamantly. “Not with Terriers around. No way.”

“All the more reason not to leave Danziger there by himself all night, especially not knowing what his medical condition is,” Melanie said.

“Then we go together,” Rob said.

“But what about the ATV? We’ll need it if the rail is damaged.”

“We push it,” Rob said. “It’s only three kilometers.” He disengaged the transmission and started to push, straining to get it moving. Melanie sighed and put her shoulder behind it.

It was starting to get dark, and there was still no sign of Melanie and Rob. Danziger tried to sit up for a little bit so his head would stop pounding, but it was hard to hold that position for long. Man, I’ve gotten soft, he thought. There was a time I’d have shoved the rail over without breaking a sweat. He shook his head. Yeah, that was ten years and 20 pounds ago. And that sparked a bad thought. “Hey, Adair?” he said over the gear.

“What?” she said, still sounding annoyed. He winced.

“Could you make sure that somebody keeps an eye on—”

“Tosh has Tru with her in the mess tent right now,” Devon said. “Did you really think I’d let her run around unsupervised? I can only handle one Danziger headache at a time.”

“Um, thanks,” he said.

“Do you have your mag-pro?” Devon asked out of the blue.

Danziger winced again. “It’s…um…in the rail,” he said, hoping she’d just assume that meant it was accessible.

“The rail that’s tipped over on you,” Devon said evenly.

“Yeah,” he said, knowing he’d been stupid to think she wouldn’t see through him.

“So can you reach it?” Devon said patiently.

“Not exactly,” he said, looking up at the mag-pro, which was wedged next to the driver’s seat. It could have been on the stations for all the good it was doing him right now.

Devon sighed. “Wonderful,” she said. “You’re doing this just to annoy me, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, Adair,” he said dryly. “I’m really enjoying myself. You’d be surprised how relaxing it is to lie here on my back with 800 kilos of rail on my ankles for a few hours. The blood rushing to my head is a special treat.”

“Sorry,” Devon said, sounding a little less annoyed. “It’s just…you do realize that I worry, right?”

“Yes, Adair, I do realize that,” Danziger said. I think everyone within fifty parsecs is aware of it, he thought. “And I appreciate it.”

“We should be getting close, shouldn’t we?” Rob said, and he sounded as tired as Melanie felt.

“Danziger!” Melanie shouted.

“Yeah!” they heard him say faintly from just over a small rise ahead of them.

Melanie looked over at Rob and grinned. “Close enough!” she said, and she stopped pushing the ATV and set off at a run. Rob grabbed the mag-pro out of the ATV and ran after her.

“Man, am I glad to see you guys,” Danziger said as they came up. “Wait—where’s the ATV? Why are you on foot?”

Melanie pulled out her diaglove and started scanning him while Rob looked at the rail. “We lost power about three k back,” Rob said. “The ATV is just over the hill there. We pushed it here.”

“Damn, I’m sorry,” Danziger said. “That must have been a bitch.”

“You’re lucky,” Melanie said, reading the diaglove scan result. “Another klick, and I might have had to give you some injuries for me to treat.”

Danziger snorted. “Believe me, Adair’s gonna take care of that for you when we get back. Heck, just the stuff she said over the gear left a mark.”

“How do we get it off him?” Melanie said, looking up at Rob.

He shook his head. “We’re definitely not just shoving it—there’s too much chance it could just roll back and squish him.”

“I’m all in favor of not getting squished,” Danziger said. “Did you bring any biocord?”

“Yeah,” Rob said, nodding. “Just what I was thinking.” He looked up the hill at a small tree. “That’ll do nicely,” he said. “Hang on—I need to go back to the ATV. I’ll be right back.” He hesitated, then took off at a run.

“So what do you think, Mel?” Danziger said. “Should we take our time getting back so Adair can cool down, or will that just make it worse?”

“Worse,” Melanie said, patting his shoulder. “Definitely worse. She was worried enough about you being out here as it was.”

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

Rob came trotting back over the hill with a coil of biocord in one hand and the mag-pro in the other. He was looking anxiously back over his shoulder.

“What is it?” Melanie said. “Did you see something?”

He frowned. “I don’t know. I thought I did, but I can’t be sure.”

“Let’s not wait to find out,” Danziger said impatiently.

“What can I do to help?” Melanie said, standing up.

“Hang on,” Rob said. He tied the biocord around the roll bar right next to Danziger’s legs, then tossed the rest of the cord up over the rail. He ran around to the uphill side of the rail and set down the mag-pro. He grabbed the cord, then ran up the hill to the tree and looped the end around the tree.

“Uh…guys…nobody make any sudden moves,” Danziger said quietly.

Melanie yelped, and Rob whirled to see a Terrier standing no more than five meters from her, holding its crossbow at the ready.

“You leave her alone!” Rob yelled, dropping the cord and charging back towards them. He grabbed Melanie and pushed her behind him. “Don’t you lay a finger—claw—don’t you touch her!”

“Rob!” Melanie gasped.

“Easy there, cowboy,” Danziger said, wishing he was in a position to do more than talk. “Just stay cool, okay, Rob?”

The Terrier looked at Rob, its enormous eyes blinking for several long seconds. Melanie held her breath, wondering what Rob was planning to do. But then the Terrier slowly lowered its weapon. It held out its hands, the claw tucked into the palm.

Rob blinked back at it, then mirrored the gesture. The Terrier dipped its antennae-horns at him, backed away slowly, then turned and galloped off.

Melanie let out the breath she’d been holding with a gasp.

“Uh, Rob?” Danziger said. “Next time, you might want to bring the mag-pro with you when you decide to stare down a Terrier.”

Rob looked back at the far side of the rail where the mag-pro was still lying on the ground, and his face went white, and for a second Danziger was afraid he’d pass out. Melanie was looking up at him wonderingly.

“Danziger,” Melanie said after a long moment, “I need you to close your eyes for a minute.”

“Huh?” Danziger said.

“Close…your…eyes,” Melanie said deliberately, and she looked down at him with an intense glare.

“Okay,” he said, and closed his eyes.

Melanie turned, put one hand around Rob’s neck, and pulled him down into a long, deep kiss.

Rob’s eyes went wide.

After a moment, Melanie released him. “Okay, Danziger, it’s good.”

“Yeah,” Rob breathed. “Good.”

“Uh, Tosh?” Valerie said, coming up to where Toshiko was standing sentry, looking comical holding a mag-pro that was almost longer than she was. “I need a favor.”

Toshiko turned to her, surprised. “Sure, Valerie. What is it?”

“I need you to talk to Julia,” she said.

Toshiko frowned. “Why? What did you do?”

Valerie sighed. “I didn’t do anything,” she said defensively. “I was just talking to Alonzo, but I guess it looked like—I mean, even Helen thought—”

“Ohhhh,” Toshiko said, looking dismayed. “And you want me to try to convince her it wasn’t?”

“Do you think she’d listen to me?” Valerie said.

Toshiko pursed her lips. “You have a point there. But I’m probably not the best one to tell her. Everybody already thinks I’m Little Mary Sunshine.”

Valerie laughed. “Well, aren’t you?”

“Hey, you’re the one here asking for a favor, remember?”

“Sorry,” Valerie said contritely. “I guess you have a point. But…who else is there?”

“Melanie,” Toshiko said without hesitation.

“Tosh, she hates my guts,” Valerie said.

“All the more reason,” Toshiko said pointedly. “If you really want to convince Julia you’re not the mean girl stealing her boyfriend, you need to convince Melanie first. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt you to try to mend some fences with Melanie, too.” Toshiko smiled.

“Thank you, Little Mary Sunshine,” Valerie said dryly. I must have been a horrible, horrible person in a past life, she thought.

“Time for your PT,” Julia said to Alonzo, coming up to where he was sitting by the Transrover.

“Great,” he said, smiling. He wasn’t surprised when she didn’t smile back, but there was something odd about her behavior that he couldn’t put his finger on. He watched her face as she put on her diaglove and scanned his leg, and he couldn’t tell what she was thinking. As usual, he thought, and sighed inwardly.

“So,” he said tentatively, “how are we doing?”

Julia glanced up at him for an instant, then looked back down at the readout. “Good,” she said. “Really good.” She looked back up and actually smiled. “I think it’s time to put some weight on it.”

“Seriously?” he said, his eyes lighting up.

Julia nodded. “I want you to stand up—no, just keep your weight on the left leg for now,” she said quickly. “I don’t want to risk putting too much on it all at once. Put your hands on my shoulders.” He did, trying not to look as pleased as he felt, and she put her hands on either side of his chest. “Okay, we’re just going to shift your weight a little, but keep most of it on your good leg. How does it feel so far?”

He grinned. “It feels good!” he said.

“I meant your pain level,” she said warningly.

“That’s what I meant,” he lied, but then realized it really did feel good. “Honest, it feels fine.”

“Okay,” she said. “Shift a little more of your weight onto it.” She held him tight, keeping him from shifting too far to the right.

He winced slightly. “Okay, that hurts a little.”

“Ease back,” she said immediately. “How is it now?”

“Better,” he said. “It aches a little, but it’s not bad.”

“Sit down,” she said. “I want to scan it again.”

“Okay, but first,” he said, and he pulled her into a hug. “Thank you,” he said, and he was amazed when she didn’t automatically pull away, though he could feel her heart pounding. He let her go before she could pull away, and she looked up at him and smiled tentatively.

“You’re welcome,” she said quietly.

He grinned. “See, you’re learning!”

“Okay,” Rob said, running back to the rail with the end of the biocord. He slid it underneath the rail and Melanie grabbed the end and pulled it on through. “With the three of us pulling, I think we can tip it.”

“I sure hope so,” Melanie said. “Let’s give it a shot.” She handed the part of the cord closest to the rail to Danziger, then uncoiled the rest and Rob grabbed hold.

“Okay,” Rob said. “One, two, three!”

They strained at the cord, and the rail creaked. The front wheels shifted slightly.

“Ow, ow, ow!” Danziger said, but when Melanie started to let up, “No! Keep pulling!”

The rail shuddered, then slowly tipped and landed on its wheels with a crash. It started to roll.

“The emergency brake!” Danziger yelled.

Rob lunged forward, dove into the rail and pulled the brake. The rail slowed, then stopped.

“Well,” Melanie said, “at least we know it still rolls.”

“Help me up,” Danziger said, wincing as he rotated his ankles tentatively. Rob grabbed his hands and with Melanie’s help, they got him standing.

“How do they feel?” Melanie asked.

“Sore,” he said, “but functional. Let’s see what kind of charge we have in the rail.” He leaned into the vehicle and grinned. “We’re actually at almost fifteen percent. That should get us back to the ATV anyway, and we can see if this baby still works right.” He clambered into the driver’s seat and Melanie loaded her med kit into the back seat and climbed in, with Rob following.

Amazingly, the rail seemed relatively undamaged. Even the solar panel had survived the roll intact. They made it back to the ATV with no problem, and set up camp for the night.

“We’ll start back as soon as we get a full charge in the morning,” Danziger told Devon over the gear after they’d gotten a fire started.

“Okay,” Devon said uneasily. “Be careful, okay?”

“No problem,” he said, and closed the channel.

“Aren’t you going to tell her about the Terrier?” Rob said.

Danziger looked at him like he was an idiot.

“She’s worried enough already,” Melanie said, nodding at Danziger. She glanced out at the darkness surrounding them. “Do you think it’s still around?”

“I don’t know,” Danziger said. “But considering it could have easily killed all three of us without breaking a sweat earlier, and it didn’t, I’m not too worried about it.”

“Why?” Rob said. “I mean, not why aren’t you worried, but why did it let us go?”

Danziger shrugged. “Maybe it thought you were cute,” he said, grinning.

“Ha, ha,” Rob said, glaring.

“I don’t find that so hard to believe,” Melanie said, looking sidelong at him.

Rob’s eyes went wide again, and Danziger laughed. “Slow down, Melanie. You’re freaking him out.”

“Hey, I can’t help it if a guy risking his life for me turns me on,” she said archly.

We’ll be lucky if we make it back without Rob hyperventilating, Danziger thought.

Late the next morning, Julia was reviewing her scans of Alonzo from the night before. The progress was amazing—the bone density in the areas of the fractures was actually greater than the surrounding bone, and even the surrounding bone was significantly denser than it had been before the treatment. And he’ll be able to walk without the crutches within four, maybe five days at the outside, depending on how long it takes the muscles to recover. All that twice as fast as I’d anticipated. I’ll have to test this on the people who had the vaccine, she thought happily.

But as proud as she was of her success with Alonzo’s leg, she couldn’t help thinking about the rest of the events of the night before. She found herself remembering the feel of his arms around her, and she shook herself.

Stop it. You can’t let yourself get too close to him, she told herself fiercely. To any of them.

“Julia?” Bess said over the gear. “Could you come to our tent, please?”

“What is it, Bess?” Julia said.

“It’s Morgan,” she said.

“What now?” Julia said, and she couldn’t help sounding annoyed.

“I—I’m sorry,” Bess said. “I know sometimes he...exaggerates, but this is different. He has these big red lumps all over, and he seems to be having trouble breathing. And—” She stopped.

“What?” Julia said, suddenly nervous.

“Well, it’s going to sound silly, but…he started talking funny.”

Julia’s blood ran cold. “Like high-pitched?” she said.

“Yes!” Bess said. “How did—?”

“I’m on my way!” Julia said, grabbing her diaglove and turning to her dispensary chest. She grabbed a med kit, several vials, her hypospray, and an intubation guide and ran for the Martins’ tent. She nearly ran over Devon on her way.

“Julia?” Devon said as she ran past, and she turned to follow her. “What is it?”

Julia ripped the tent flap open. Morgan was lying on his cot, and he was breathing with an ominous whistle. Julia slapped one of the vials into the hypospray and injected him without even running a diagnostic. She ripped out the vial and replaced it with another and injected that as well.

“What is it?” Devon said, coming in. “Bess, what’s wrong?”

Julia ignored her. She grabbed the intubation guide and placed it over Morgan’s mouth. “Open wide,” she ordered, and he did, looking terrified. “Try not to swallow—it’ll be hard, but try.” She triggered the guide and watched the readout as the tube snaked its way through his vocal folds, which were showing a dangerous amount of swelling, and into the trachea. She breathed a sigh of relief as it dilated slightly to open the airway. Julia placed an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose.

“Julia?” Bess said in a small voice.

“It’s okay,” Julia said. “He’ll be fine now.” She shook her head. “God, I’m sorry, Morgan. I should have listened to you before. The rash he mentioned to me last night,” she said to Bess. “What did it look like?”

Bess came over and lifted Morgan’s shirt. “Like that,” she said, and pointed to the large red welts covering his chest.

Julia put her hand over her eyes for a moment. “It’s an allergic reaction. Has he been bitten by anything?”

Bess shook her head. “Not that I know of, anyway.” She glanced at Morgan, who shook his head.

“What about foods? Has he eaten anything new recently?”

Bess shrugged. “Nothing that the rest of us hasn’t,” she said. “Actually, less than the rest of us. He hasn’t tried any of the plants you said were safe to eat. Just the tangaroo meat, synthofu, and Bill’s tomatoes.”

Julia frowned. “Has he touched anything—any plants that are new?”

Bess shook her head. “You know Morgan,” she said, ignoring his frown at her. “If he could be in a hermetically sealed bubble, he would be.” Morgan made an outraged noise, then gagged a little.

Julia looked thoughtful, then turned to Devon. “Could you bring me one of Bill’s tomatoes?” she said.

Devon looked surprised. “Uh, sure,” she said. “I’ll be right back.” She ducked out of the tent.

“The tomatoes?” Bess said.

“Did he have any this morning?” Julia said, though she already knew the answer.

“Well, yes, but—”

Morgan grabbed Julia’s arm. He raised his other hand questioningly.

“Relax, Morgan,” Julia said. “I think I know what caused this. We’ll find out for sure, and I can prevent another reaction.”

He gestured at his neck, where she’d injected him.

“Histamine blocker and an anti-inflammatory,” she said. “I should be able to remove the tube within fifteen minutes or so. Just lie back and try to breathe normally.”

He rolled his eyes.

“I know,” Julia said, squeezing his hand. “I’m so sorry, Morgan. I know better than to dismiss a symptom like I did last night.”

Devon came in with a small tomato in her hand. “Here,” she said, handing it to Julia.

Julia took it, grabbed a small knife out of her med kit, and poked it into the tomato. She turned, rolled up Morgan’s sleeve and found a spot with no welts on it. She pricked his arm with the tip of the knife.

“What are you doing?” Bess said.

“If we see a welt rise up here, we’ll know it’s the tomato,” Julia said.

“You mean it’s not something from the planet?” Devon said, incredulous. “A completely alien planet, and the thing that he’s reacting to is something we brought with us?”

Julia nodded. “I know, it sounds crazy, but I’ve heard of this before. Some of the older generation nutrient solutions they use in hydroponics can cause allergic reactions.”

“Oh, my,” Bess said, pointing. There was a small welt rising on his arm.

“And that’s even with the histamine blocker in him,” Julia said, nodding. “I think we’ve found our culprit.” She smiled at Morgan. “Don’t worry, Morgan. I can put together an anti-allergen treatment. You’ll have to get a dose once a month, but you’ll be able to eat all the tomatoes you want.”

He shook his head wildly.

“Easy,” Julia said. “Just keep still.” She stayed with him for another half an hour, waiting to remove the tube until the welts had gone down significantly. Bess thanked her as she left the tent, but Julia shook her head. “Look, just bring him by later today. I’ll want to make sure he’s responding well to the histamine blocker. Keep him inside for now. I don’t want to take a chance on him running into anything that could cause another reaction. If he shows any other signs—trouble breathing, new welts, anything—call me immediately. I’ll have the anti-allergen treatment ready for him by the time you bring him by.”

Devon followed her out. She almost ran into Julia outside the tent. Julia had stopped and had her hand over her eyes again.

“Julia?” Devon said, putting her hand on her shoulder, and Julia jumped. “Are you okay?”

Julia nodded. She took a shaky breath. “I really screwed up,” she said quietly.

“What? Morgan’s fine,” Devon said. “Though I think you could have left the tube in a little longer,” she added under her breath. “He’s a lot easier to deal with when he can’t talk.”

“No,” Julia said. “You don’t understand. He came to me last night. He said he had a rash, and I completely ignored him.”

“I think that’s understandable,” Devon said, guiding her away from the Martins’ tent so they could talk freely. “Everybody knows he’s a hypochondriac.”

Julia shook her head emphatically. “First year human behavior,” she said. “Hypochondriacs can really get sick. You never, ever ignore a symptom. God, Devon, another few minutes, and his airway would have closed.”

“But it didn’t,” Devon said. “You got there in time, and it’s all okay. Come on, everybody makes mistakes now and then.”

Julia looked at her. “Devon, when I make mistakes, people can die.” She turned and headed for the med tent.

Devon watched her go, frowning. Well, now certainly isn’t the time to hassle her about going off on her own so much. It’s so easy to forget how young she is, she thought. She always seems so competent, so together. But she’s still just a kid in a lot of ways. Devon smiled a little at the thought. She’s—what?—ten years younger than I am? When did I get to be such an old lady?

Danziger, Melanie and Rob arrived back at midday, and their story about the Terrier was a sensation. Danziger was surprised at how well Devon took the news, but apparently she was focusing more on the behavior of the Terrier than on the fact that it could have killed them.

“So you think it was friendly?” Devon asked after they’d finished telling the story.

“That’s the only thing I can figure,” Danziger said.

“The hand gesture it made sure looked like it was trying to be non-threatening,” Rob said.

“Well,” Devon said, “I guess that makes our policy of not shooting first even more important.”

“So we still get to be sitting ducks?” Valerie said, frowning.

“We’ve been through this already, Valerie,” Danziger said.

“Come on, you’re putting our lives at risk on the basis of a hand gesture?” she said. She flipped off Danziger. “That could easily be interpreted as non-threatening, too, but that’s not what it means to us, is it?”

Rick stifled a laugh.

Danziger glared at her. “Would you like a demonstration of what I think is threatening?” he said darkly.

“Stop it, both of you,” Devon said. “This is not up for negotiation. If there’s a chance that we can develop some kind of at least neutral relations with the Terriers, we’re going to try to do it. So if we see another Terrier, our rules of engagement stand. Nobody fires unless fired upon. Is that clear?”

There were nods from everyone, though Valerie and a few others still looked unhappy about it.

Melanie grabbed Julia’s arm and started to drag her off toward the med tent. “So, what do you think?” she said, grinning.

“About what?” Julia said, following her.

“About what happened out there!” Melanie said, ducking into the med tent.

“I think Devon’s right,” Julia began, but Melanie was shaking her head.

“Not about that,” she said. “About Rob!”

“Rob?” Julia said, confused.

“Weren’t you listening?” Melanie said. “He was ready to take an arrow for me!”

“Oh,” Julia said. “That’s certainly impressive.”

“Impressive?!” Melanie said. “It’s romantic!” She was nearly glowing with delight.

Julia couldn’t help but smile. “Okay, it’s romantic,” she conceded.

“So, listen, since we’re sticking around here for the rest of the day, I’m probably going to be a little…busy,” Melanie said. “In fact, you might not see me at all. For quite a while.”

“Okay,” Julia said, bemused.

“Well, see, Rick is off hunting with Helen, and Bill is working on the hydroponics, so Rob has his tent all to himself…” Melanie trailed off significantly, raising her eyebrows.

“Ah,” Julia said, smiling again. “I see. Well…have fun.”

That evening, Julia headed over to work with Alonzo again. She’d just finished checking up on Morgan. He’d seemed fine, though he was convinced he was having another reaction. She’d had to scan him three times before she was able to reassure him. Bess had shot her a grateful look as she left.

It was the very least I could do, Julia thought bleakly.

“Hey, Heller!” Alonzo said. He got up from his bunk, clearly ready to start.

“Careful,” Julia said. “You’re doing well, but I am not taking any chances, okay?”

“Sure, no problem,” he said, grinning. “We’ll take it slow.”

They spent almost an hour working, starting by putting a little weight on the leg again, then shifting to working on strengthening the muscles by using Julia as resistance as he flexed both the upper and lower leg.

Alonzo had been a little disappointed at first in Julia’s manner—she seemed distant and cold again, not the way she had been the night before. But as the hour passed, he started to wonder if something else was going on.

“So…do you want to talk about it?” he finally asked.

Julia frowned. “About what?”

“Whatever it is that’s bothering you,” he said.

Julia pressed down on his leg. “Not particularly,” she said quietly.

“Hey, I’m a good listener,” he said.

“Since when?” she said.

“Since always! You just never say anything, so you haven’t had a chance to find out.” He smiled ingratiatingly. “Come on, Heller. Remember what I told you that day after you blew up at Morgan?” She winced, so subtly he almost missed it, but it was enough that he realized suddenly what it was that was bothering her. “This is about what happened with Morgan this morning, isn’t it?”

Julia didn’t say anything, continuing to press down on his leg.

“Ow!” Alonzo said, and she released him immediately.

“What is it?” she said, scanning the leg with the diaglove.

“You’re hurting my feelings,” he said, and gave her his best puppy-dog eyes.

She stopped scanning and put the diaglove back into her bag. “We’re done here,” she said.

“Heller,” he said warningly. “Don’t you walk away from me. I’ll just follow you, and I might hurt myself trying.”

She turned and looked at him, exasperated. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said insistently. “I don’t need to talk about it. Nothing is bothering me. I’m fine.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” he said. “Look, I heard what happened, and there isn’t a person in this camp who wouldn’t have done the same thing, with the possible exception of Bess, and even her I’m not so sure about.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” Julia said bitterly, and then looked like she regretted having said it.

“You’re right,” Alonzo said. “It doesn’t.”

She frowned at him, surprised by that response.

“So what are you going to do about it?” he continued.

“I…” Julia stopped, and shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“The way I see it, you have two options,” Alonzo said. “First, you could stew about it, work yourself sick trying to make up for it, and generally make yourself miserable. I bet you could do that pretty well.”

“And the other option?” Julia said warily.

“Decide that you won’t make the same mistake again, and move on,” he said, and he held up his hand when she started to speak. “Wait, just listen for a second. I want to ask you one more question, and I want you to think hard about this. Which of those two options do you think is better for the people in this group?”

Julia looked at him for a long time, looking faintly annoyed, then nodded. “Okay, you’ve made your point.”

“Good,” he said. “Now come over here.”

Julia tensed.

Alonzo looked at her, disappointed, then got to his feet and started hopping toward her. She took an involuntary step backwards, but he grabbed her arm.

“Alonzo, wait—” she said.

“Jeez, relax, Heller!” he said. He took her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. “You are not perfect. But no one here expects you to be. Except for you.” He smiled and squeezed her shoulders. “Now go get some sleep, okay?” He released her and turned and hopped back to his bunk.

She stood there for an instant, completely taken off guard, then turned and headed for her tent, her mind running in circles. When did he stop being infuriating and start being so nice? Somehow, he’d found exactly the right things to say, and she felt far better than she had all day.

Julia heard Melanie giggle as she passed Rob’s tent, and she smiled. She ducked into the med tent and sat down at her table. She started to scan another of Helen’s samples, then became aware of an annoying beeping sound. She frowned, looking around, and then realized it was coming from her VR chip.

Dear god, she thought, horrified. She grabbed it, trying to figure out how to shut it off, but couldn’t find any way. She grabbed her gear and headed for the tent flap. She looked around, trying to figure out if there was a way to sneak past the sentries.

“Going somewhere?” Valerie said.

Julia whirled. She was standing a few meters away, her hair shining like copper under the light from the Transrover. “Uh, no, I was…just going to go see if Mel was still over at Rob’s tent.” She tightened her grip on the VR chip in her pocket, hoping Valerie wouldn’t hear it.

“She is,” Valerie said, coming closer. “I think she’ll be there for a while, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh…okay, thanks,” Julia said, and turned to go back into her tent, but Valerie followed her in.

“Look, Heller, whatever you do out there can’t be worth the risk you take leaving camp,” Valerie said. She was standing just inside the flap, holding it open with one hand, and she was rhythmically crumpling the material of the flap with that hand.

“I don’t know—”

“I get that you want to pretend that nobody knows what you’re doing, but I do. And you need to stop it.” She hesitated, looking like she wanted to say something else, but then turned abruptly, lifted the tent flap and left.

What could she know? Julia thought. Could she have followed me? She stood there for a moment before she remembered the VR chip beeping in her pocket.

Julia pulled it out and plugged it into her gear. The beeping stopped, but she could hear a faint voice saying through the earpiece, “Report immediately.” She shoved the gear on and flipped the eyepiece into place. Brendan sprang into view.

“Where the hell—?”

“Not now, damn it!” Julia whispered. “And don’t use that beeping again or you’ll lose me completely!” She ripped off the gear, breathing hard, and flung it onto her table.

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