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Earth 2.1

By BuggyQ

Adventure / Romance

Chapter 9

Julia walked along next to the Transrover, waiting for Melanie to notice what she was doing and demand that she go back to riding.

Melanie had been almost fiercely protective of Julia in the aftermath of the revelation about her contact with the Terriers. It would have been heartwarming if it hadn’t been punctuated by angry outbursts and criticisms of Julia’s ability to take care of herself.

The worst part of it was that Julia knew the anger—and the protectiveness—came from Melanie’s fondness for her. I don’t deserve it, Julia thought. If she knew what was really going on, she’d be so disappointed.

The guilt Julia felt over lying, not just to Melanie, but to Devon and all the others, was almost overwhelming. No matter how she tried to justify it to herself, it still felt like she was betraying them. If only I knew for certain who I could trust, she thought. But until she did, she couldn’t risk telling them the truth. At least I only have to report if the opportunity—

Julia frowned. She hadn’t had the chance to really think about what Brendan had said before she fell, but now, there was something about it that bothered her. He’s been pushing me to report on everything, especially our location, and now he’s worried I’ll get caught. Why the sudden change?

Not that she was complaining much. Even if she'd felt it was safe enough to try it, she had no chance get away from the camp to report, not with everyone watching her every move. She knew it wasn’t really that bad, but it certainly felt like it. Especially from Valerie, who seemed to be somewhere close whenever Julia turned around.

But why would Brendan suddenly be more concerned about me getting caught than—

“Melanie’s going to be pissed if she sees you walking again,” Valerie said from behind her, and Julia stumbled, startled. “Are you okay? You’re not feeling dizzy again, are you?”

“No,” Julia said quickly. “I’m fine—you just scared me, that’s all.”

“So why are you walking again? Nobody’s going to hassle you for it, not with Melanie ready to bite their heads off if they do,” Valerie said with a sardonic smile.

Because it’s one less thing I have to feel guilty about, she thought. “I got tired of riding in the ‘rover,” Julia said.

“You don’t look so good,” Valerie said, studying her face as they walked. “Is your head still hurting? I could go get something—”

“No,” Julia lied. “My head is fine. I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? Melanie’s on her way over,” Valerie said.

Julia groaned inwardly. “Maybe a sedative for her,” she said under her breath.

Valerie looked at her sharply. “You are hurting, aren’t you?” she said. “I was kidding about Mel, by the way.”

Julia shot her a deadly look.

“Hey, word has gotten around how you operate, Dr. Heller,” she said. “When you start saying things you’d normally keep to yourself, you’re not doing so great.”

“Julia!” Melanie said, coming around from behind the moving Transrover. “What the hell are you doing?”

Julia sighed. “Walking,” she said, pointedly not turning around to look at her.

“Her head is hurting again,” Valerie said.

“No, it isn’t,” Julia began, but she felt the hypospray inject before she had a chance to protest. “Damn it, Mel!” The headache started to fade almost instantly, but with the easing of the pain came a fuzzy, spaced-out feeling. “You used the hydrotere again, didn't you?”

“You said it was good for severe headaches, and was less likely than ketoxidine to exacerbate nausea,” Melanie said reasonably. “See, I remember! And I'm even using all the big words.”

“But it makes me so groggy,” Julia said, and it was bad enough she was afraid she was slurring her words. “How much did you give me?”

“A minimum dose. You must be overtired. So why don’t you go hitch a ride on the Transrover to sleep it off?” Melanie said, smiling sweetly.

Julia bit back the reply she wanted to make, and was proud of herself for maintaining that much control.

“Hey, Melanie!” Todd called from the cab of the Transrover. “Your tablet's making noise. I think it's picking up a signal.”

Melanie trotted over and climbed up. A few minutes later she leaned out of the cab and gave a loud whoop. “We’ve got a supply pod!” she yelled. The caravan came to an immediate halt and everyone crowded around the Transrover. Melanie was studying her tablet intently, sitting with the door of the cab open. “Definitely south,” she said, tapping on the tablet. “It’s hard to tell how far, but I don’t think it’s more than fifty k.”

Danziger whistled. “That’s close! We could still find it today,” he said happily. Melanie handed him the tablet. “C’mon, let’s get going!” he said to Helen, and they ran for the rail.

“Hold it right there,” Devon said. “I’m going with you.” She turned and found Rick in the crowd. “Rick, you’re coming, too. We may need the extra hands. Bess, would you look after Uly for me while we’re gone?”

“Sure, Devon,” Bess said. “I’d be happy to.”

“The rest of you, keep going along the route we mapped out. We’ll catch up with you,” Devon said.

“Uh, Devon, are you sure you want to come?” Danziger said uncomfortably as they walked toward the rail. “Maybe we should bring Bill.”

“Bill has barely gotten back on his feet,” Devon said.

“Then Hardy,” he said. “Or Todd.”

“Danziger, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were scared to have me along,” Devon said, smiling.

“Scared? Noooo,” he said, his voice rumbling. “Don’t be silly!”

Devon laughed. “Suck it up, Danziger. I’m coming. I can’t let you have all the fun.”


“Please let there be more tents,” Toshiko said after the pod expedition left, looking up at the sky as they walked. “Please, please, please.”

“See that thing there in the dirt?” Phoebe said. “That there is my self-image. Would you like to stomp on it again, oh, tentmate of mine?”

Toshiko stuck her tongue out at her, and Phoebe laughed.

“Don’t let that sweet face fool you, Phoebe,” Valerie said. “She complains about you snoring behind your back.”

“I do not snore!” Phoebe protested, even as Toshiko exclaimed, “I never said that!”

“I am so naming the next river we come to ‘The Nile,’” Valerie said.

“I know what I want,” Bill said. “Another rail. Or six.”

“Are you tired?” Toshiko said, and she sounded concerned. “Maybe you should hitch a ride on the ‘rover for a while.”

Bill shook his head. “We’ll be making camp soon. I’ll be fine.”

“Don’t argue with me,” Toshiko said emphatically. “We’re hours from making camp. Transrover. Now!”

Bill looked shocked.

“Who are you, and what have you done with Toshiko?” Phoebe said, equally surprised.

Toshiko looked embarrassed. “I…I just promised Helen I’d look after him,” she said.

“Oh, that explains it,” Phoebe said. “I wouldn’t want to get on Helen’s bad side, either. I’d do as she says, Bill.”

Bill headed for the Transrover, muttering about bossy Amazons as he went.

They continued west for the rest of the afternoon, then finally set up camp as twilight approached. Valerie helped set up the med tent, and even though it was nice to have the help, it only heightened Julia's suffocating feeling of being watched all the time.

Melanie came into the tent shortly after Valerie left. “They found the supply pod,” she said, beaming.

“Which one is it?” Julia asked.

Melanie shook her head. “Don’t know yet. They ran out of charge about four klicks away, and they decided to camp where they were till morning. But they said it looks like it’s intact. Oh, and I'm sorry I didn't come to help with the tent.”

“It's okay,” Julia said. “Valerie helped.”

“Yeah, I saw,” Melanie said. “That's why I'm sorry.” She frowned. “What is up with her, anyway? She spends the first three weeks we're here avoiding you like the plague, and now...”

“I know,” Julia said. “I wish I could figure it out. And I wish we could find a happy medium. I suppose this is better than barely concealed hostility, but not by a lot.”

“Well, hopefully whatever it is, she'll get it out of her system soon,” Melanie said, and then launched into a story about Rob, and Julia was about to scream by the time she finally climbed into her cot.

“Aren’t you going to sleep?” Melanie said.

“I’m still working on this sample,” Julia said. “It’ll only take me a few more minutes.”

“I’ve heard that before,” Melanie said, but she didn’t protest further.

Julia waited almost an hour, trying to work on another round of plant samples, but she simply couldn't concentrate on it. All she could think about was what Brendan had said—and why.

Finally, set down her tablet and glanced over at Melanie. She appeared sound asleep. Julia looked over at the hypospray and hesitated. What if something happens? she thought. What if we need her?

You have to do it, she told herself. She'll be fine. She picked up the hypospray and went over and injected Melanie before she lost her nerve. All you need is a few minutes. She went back to her lab table, picked up her gear, and plugged in her encryption chip.

But this time after she activated the VR, she left the eyepiece flipped away. Might as well see if I can do audio only, she thought. At least that's a little less risky than full VR. “Brendan?” she said.

“What the hell happened?” his said almost immediately. “And why aren't you in here? I want to see you.”

“I can't risk it,” Julia said. “They're watching me almost constantly. I had to sedate my tentmate to do this much.”

“Why?” Brendan said suspiciously. “And what happened last time?”

“I nearly got killed, that’s what happened,” Julia whispered. She explained as briefly as possible her encounter with the Terrier, the fall, and the subsequent negotiation with the Terriers.

“So you’re in communication with them?” Brendan said. “How interesting.” He didn’t sound at all interested, though.

You already knew they were empaths, Julia thought warily. Does that mean you’ve been able to communicate with them, too? The thought of Terriers working with the Council was a chilling one.

“So where are you now?” Brendan asked.

“I have no idea,” Julia said. “I was unconscious for some time, and I couldn't very well ask how far we'd come and in what direction.”

“Well, I suppose it doesn't really matter. My men have picked up your trail,” he said.

Julia nearly gasped, and was immediately grateful she'd decided not to go into VR completely. There was no way she'd have been able to keep her expression neutral. “Really?” she said. “How far away are they?”

“I can't really answer that question without knowing where you are,” Brendan said, and he sounded smug. “Don’t worry. They’ll find you. So, tell me, how is the Adair boy now? It's been quite some time since I got an update from you.”

“He’s still improving,” Julia said, and she realized her irritation with Brendan had caused her to raise her voice slightly. “And I think I may know why.” What are you doing? one part of her asked, but she was tired of letting Brendan have the upper hand. It’s time to find out if I’m right about why he keeps asking about Uly.

“Oh, really?” Brendan said, and Julia could practically hear his raised eyebrow.

“I’m beginning to think Devon got it backwards,” Julia said.

“What do you mean?” Brendan said warily.

“The conventional wisdom about the Syndrome was the neo-environmentalist theory—that it was something missing from life on the stations that caused the Syndrome. But what if it was the opposite? What if there was something present on the stations causing it?”

“You know as well as I do that Dr. Harrison’s work was a dead-end, Dr. Heller,” Brendan said coolly.

Julia’s expression hardened. “That was a poor choice of words,” she said. And I must have hit a sore spot, she thought, and smiled inwardly.

“Forgive me,” he said, not sounding at all sorry. “My point was, none of the tests he did showed any kind of toxin, therefore it must be something on G-889 causing the boy’s improvement.”

“Of course,” she said reasonably. “It’s just a theory, and one I have no way to test.”

“Then perhaps you’d better consider other theories that you can test, Doctor,” Brendan said, and cut the connection.

The brief smile Julia allowed herself at the thought of having gotten under Brendan’s skin faded fast as she thought about what he’d said. How close can they be? she thought. It must be fairly close, or he wouldn’t have said anything, especially if he thinks I’m helping them.

There was an odd sound from outside, and then Julia heard Todd yell for help. Almost immediately, there was a series of shots from one or more mag-pros.

It can’t be! Julia thought, her heart pounding. She started for the tent flap, then stopped, looking over at Melanie. Damn it! she thought. She grabbed for a stimulant, slapped it into the hypospray, and started to inject her, then hesitated. The risk was small, but there was risk all the same. She threw the hypospray onto the table and ran out of the med tent. Please let it be nothing, she thought.

“What’s going on?” Toshiko said sleepily, coming out of her tent with Valerie close behind.

There was another series of shots from the far end of camp, and Julia could see the flashes of the mag-pros. She ran towards them.

Todd was firing into the darkness, with Hardy next to him firing as well.

“Is everybody okay?” Julia said.

Todd fired a couple more shots, then shone his flashlight out into the surrounding landscape. There was nothing to be seen. “You saw them, too, right, Hardy?” he said, sounding agitated.

“Oh, yeah,” Hardy said.

Julia almost said, “Who?” but stopped herself, even as Valerie jumped in with, “What? Was it the Terriers again?”

Todd shook his head. “More of those long-toothed things. Only this time, it was a pack of them. I didn’t get a good count, but there had to be at least six or seven, maybe more. They came right up to the camp,” he said, “bold as brass.”

Julia let out a sigh of relief. It isn’t the Council, she told herself. And maybe this is an opportunity...

“At least they took off when we started shooting,” Hardy said.

“I don’t like it,” Julia said, looking out into the darkness. “One of them was dangerous enough, but a pack?”

“Why don’t you try talking to them?” Valerie said. “It worked once, after all.”

“Go to hell!” Julia said, whirling on her.

Valerie looked surprised. “I was kidding, Heller,” she said.

“That’s enough, both of you!” Toshiko said. “We need to worry about those animals right now!”

Julia glared at Valerie, then turned back to Todd. “They didn’t attack you, did they?”

Todd shook his head. “They would have if I hadn’t fired, though,” he said uneasily.

“I think we should post more sentries for the night,” Julia said. “If even one of those things got into the camp…”

“I’ll go get Phoebe and a couple of the others,” Toshiko said.

Julia had a bad thought. “Is Tru in with Bess and Morgan?” she asked.

Toshiko shook her head, and then looked nervous. “She’s in her own tent, by herself,” she said. “She didn’t want to stay with anybody else.”

“I’m going to go check on her,” Julia said.

“I’ll go with you,” Valerie said tersely.

Julia ignored her and set off for the Danziger tent.

“Look, Heller,” Valerie said, following her, “I really was just kidding.”

Julia turned to look at her as they walked, frowning. “I guess I’m just used to you being hostile,” she said finally. “It’s hard for me to tell the difference.” They arrived at the Danziger tent before Valerie could respond.

“Tru?” Julia called, and pulled the tent flap back. She wasn’t in her bunk. Julia ducked back out, looking up and down the space between the tents.

“The Transrover,” Valerie said, and headed for it. She pulled the door to the cab open and Tru yelped.

“Jesus!” Valerie said. “You scared the hell out of us, Tru!”

“Me!?” Tru said. “You’re the ones yanking the door open in the middle of the night!”

Julia laughed nervously. “Sorry,” she said. “We just wanted to make sure you were okay. When you weren’t in your tent, we got worried.”

“I’m fine,” Tru said. “What was all the shooting?”

“Animals,” Julia said. “Nothing to worry about. But I want you staying in here for the night, okay?”

“And next time you decide to bunk in the Transrover, tell somebody!” Valerie said.

Tru glared at her, leaned forward and yanked the cab door shut.

Julia turned to head back to her tent, then hesitated. She turned back to Valerie, who looked like she was braced for something. “I’m sorry,” Julia said. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that.”

Valerie looked surprised, then nodded. “It’s okay, I deserved it. I don’t always think about how I sound. It’s just…” She paused, then continued in a rush. “Look, you scared a lot of people when you got hurt. What if that pack of animals had been around that night?”

Julia sighed. “I know—believe me, I know. It was a terrible mistake, one I won’t be repeating.”

“Good,” Valerie said. “There are a lot of people who’d be very sorry if something happened to you.” She turned and headed back to her tent.

Julia watched her go, bemused. What brought that on? Julia thought.

Julia turned and went into her tent. Melanie was still sleeping peacefully. Julia looked at her, and her thoughts about Valerie fell away. She stared at her friend, feeling sick about what she’d done. I can’t sedate Melanie again. I won’t. And I can’t possibly leave the camp again, she thought. Valerie’s right, it’s far too risky, especially at night. I’ll just have to hope that Brendan’s men aren’t too close. But she knew her time was running out—sooner or later, she was going to have to tell Devon the truth. Sooner, she thought. It’s too dangerous—she needs to know. But how can I tell her? She’ll never forgive me. None of them will.


“Well, would you look at that!” Danziger said early the next morning, looking at the cases containing two pre-fab geodesic domes. They took up nearly a quarter of the supply pod. “That’s one less thing to worry about if we have to hole up for the winter.”

“No kidding,” Helen said, looking at the instructions on one of the cases. “These are both ten meters in diameter. We could house everybody in these if we had to.”

“But how are we supposed to get it to wherever we hole up?” Devon said.

Danziger called up the pod manifest on the panel. “There’s a trailer in here,” he said. “Looks like your people had some sense when they packed. It’s big enough to haul ‘em both.”

“But the rail sure isn’t,” Helen said. “We’ll have to get the Transrover.”

Danziger nodded. “Let’s see what we can load up. There’s another ATV in here,” he said, reading off the list, “and a smaller trailer. So we can at least haul some of this back, and make for a smaller load next time.”

Devon looked over his shoulder at the manifest and grinned. “I know two things we need to get on the first trip,” she said.

“Tents and food,” Helen said, grinning back. “It’s going to be a much happier camp when we get back.”

“Yeah,” Devon said. “I just wish there were more of the food. But if we were only going to find this much, at least we got the good stuff.”

“Come on, let’s get loaded. The trailer’s going to make this a lot slower going back,” Danziger said. “We’ll be lucky if we catch up to them by nightfall.”


Alonzo rolled up in the ATV next to Melanie later that morning. “Hey, Mel, how’s it going?”

Melanie shrugged, yawning.

“Jeez, late night?” he asked. “Did the shooting wake you up, too?”

“Shooting?” she said blankly. “Oh, the thing with the toothy things. No, I slept through it. But Todd told me about it this morning.”

“Wow, you must have really been tired.”

“I guess so,” Melanie said, shaking herself. “Sorry, ‘Zo. I’m a little out of it this morning.”

“How’s Julia?” he asked, glancing toward where Julia was walking next to the Transrover.

Melanie shrugged again. “She’s had her head in that tablet all morning. Barely said two words to me.” She smiled. “Maybe you should try talking to her.”

Alonzo looked wary. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think I managed to get things back to where we can at least talk to each other, but...”

“Yeah, I know,” Melanie said. “Better to take it slow. But you could maybe ask her about what she’s so focused on.”

Alonzo shook his head. “It’ll look too much like I’m pushing her again,” he said. “Nah, I’ll just wait for PT tonight.” He zoomed off in the ATV with a wave.

Melanie yawned again and trotted over to Julia. “Hey, Jules,” she said. “Whatcha doin’?”

Julia glanced up, frowning. “Just following up on a thought I had the other day,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“I was talking to Devon about how Uly’s doing,” Julia said. “And as I was talking, I had an idea about the Syndrome.”

Melanie’s eyebrows rose. “Really? And?”

Julia shook her head. “I just don’t know. I’ve been going over some data—”

“Who’s Dr. Harrison?” Melanie said, reading over Julia’s shoulder.

“He was one of the researchers working on the Syndrome,” Julia said, her eyes dark.

That’s when Melanie realized where she knew the name from. “Wait, was he the one who...” Melanie trailed off as she saw the sad look in Julia’s eyes. “Oh...sorry, Jules.”

“It’s all right,” Julia said. “Yes, he’s the one who died in the lab explosion, he and one of the other researchers, Jamie Sinclair. I suppose I should be grateful he fired me before that, otherwise I’d have died, too.”

“He fired you?” Melanie said, shocked. “Why? Do you think he was protecting you?”

“I hope not,” Julia said.

“Huh?”

“If that’s why he did it, then why didn’t he fire Jamie, too?” Julia said. “No, it was something else.”

“So, wait,” Melanie said. “If he fired you, how did you get this data? Did you steal it?”

Julia shook her head. “I would have if I’d had the chance, but Harrison just sent me a comm message telling me not to come in again,” she said.

“Dang, that’s cold,” Melanie said.

“Jamie was really mad about it. The first thing she knew about it was when he asked her to bring me some things I’d left at the lab. That’s when she gave me this,” Julia said, gesturing with the tablet. “It has all the files from the studies we’d done. She wanted me to keep working on it.”

“I thought you hadn’t gotten your tablet from the ship,” Melanie said, frowning.

Julia nodded. “This is different—it was in my bag. Jamie disabled the wireless on it and made me promise to keep it with me, to keep it safe.”

“Wow, paranoid much?”

Julia shook her head. “I don’t think so—not when you consider that the lab explosion destroyed every bit of information they’d collected, except for this.” She looked at the tablet. “Ever since I found out, I’ve kept this with me, just in case. Good thing, too, because I’ve been going through it trying to see if the idea I had holds any water.”

“And?” Melanie said. “Any luck?”

Julia shook her head again. “At least not so far. I keep feeling like there’s something obvious I’m missing, but I just can’t see it. It has to be something that was present on the stations, but isn’t present here.”

“What makes you say that?” Melanie said, curious.

“Because Uly only really started getting better once we were drinking water that went through Rob’s still,” Julia said. “And since then, he’s done nothing but improve. Virtually every symptom of the Syndrome is in remission now.”

“That’s great!” Melanie said. “So how hard is it to figure out whatever might have been on the stations that isn’t here?”

“It shouldn’t be that hard at all,” Julia said. “Only I can’t do it. There’s nothing that shows up in the scans we took of the Syndrome children on the stations that isn’t also present here.”

“Nothing?” Melanie said.

“I know,” Julia said. “It just doesn’t make any sense. I’ve even gone through and looked at it the other way round, but there isn’t anything here that wasn’t also present in those scans.”

“Well, knowing you, I’m betting you’ll have it figured out soon,” Melanie said.

“Melanie, I’m not really that—” Julia began.

“I didn’t mean because you were smart,” Melanie said, “though I assure you, you’re smarter than you give yourself credit for. No, I meant because you’re so darned stubborn.” She grinned.

“Melanie, it’s Devon,” Melanie heard through her gear.

Melanie put one hand over the mic pickup and whispered, “Speaking of stubborn people.” She grinned even wider at Julia’s glare. “I’m here, Devon. What’s up?”

“We’re having to go pretty slow because of the load on the rail. I don’t think we’re going to catch up to you today,” Devon said. “Why don’t you plan on staying wherever you camp until we do catch up? We’ll have to send the ‘rover back for the rest of the stuff anyway.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Melanie said. “Listen, you might want to be extra careful keeping somebody on watch tonight.”

Devon frowned, glancing over at Danziger. “Why?”

“We had some visitors last night,” Melanie said. “Some of Julia’s toothy-things showed up. Todd wants to call them hexadents.”

“Please tell me he hasn’t made pets out of them,” Devon said.

Melanie laughed. “Hardly. I think he’d rather see them as trophies to display on the front of the Transrover after the scare they gave everybody last night.”

“Is everybody okay?” Devon said.

“Yeah, but Todd and Hardy had to fire a few rounds to scare them off. The main thing that has us worried is that they were in a pack—six or seven at least. So I want you guys to be careful out there.”

“Yeah, wouldn’t want to have a hexadent,” Danziger said, grinning.

“Tell them to keep Julia clear of them,” Helen added. “She’s already hexadent-prone.”

Melanie laughed out loud, and glanced at Julia, who had gotten a little ahead of her as she’d talked. “I am so telling her you said that.”

Devon groaned. “Can we please put a moratorium on naming things? It seems like the names we come up with are either stupid or punnable. Or worse, both.”

“You need to get a sense of humor,” Danziger said.

“I have one—it’s just more sophisticated than yours,” Devon said with dignity.

“Puns are a very sophisticated form of humor,” Danziger said. “Ask Alonzo.”

“Alonzo?!” Devon said. “Since when does he know sophisticated humor?”

“Hey, his mom was a lit professor,” Danziger said. “The guy’s read everything.”

“Really?” Devon said.

“I wouldn’t ask him about it,” Melanie said, stopping to make sure Julia got far enough ahead she could talk more freely. Not that it would have mattered—she had her head buried in the tablet again. “He’s kind of embarrassed by it, actually.”

“I really need to get to know our people better,” Devon said. “I had no idea.”

“You think that’s weird, ask Todd why he joined the Eden Project,” Melanie said. “You’ll get a dissertation on Hobbes and Locke and ‘man in the state of nature.’ It’s downright scary.”

Devon was looking thoughtful. “Then I really need to tell him that Julia has a favorite poem.”

“Who, Todd?” Melanie said.

“No, Alonzo,” Devon said as if it were obvious. “It would give them something in common.”

This time Danziger groaned. “Don’t you start playing matchmaker, Adair. That sort of thing never works. And don’t go thinking you can weasel out of our bet by interfering.”

“He’s right,” Melanie said. “Trust me. Alonzo’s doing just fine. And just in case you have any ideas, Devon, if you do try to get involved, I’ll give Toshiko the go-ahead to try to get you and Danziger together.”

“What?!” Danziger and Devon both said at the same time.

Melanie grinned to herself. Gotcha, she thought.


They made camp a little earlier that evening so Devon and her team wouldn’t have so far to go the next day, and they could get the Transrover headed back to the pod.

As Julia was finishing up setting up her lab table, Rob poked his head in the tent, looking slightly nervous. “Hi, Julia,” he said.

“Hi, Rob,” Julia said. “Did you need me for something?”

“I had a question about your synthlab,” he said.

“Really?” Julia said.

“I was wondering if it’s capable of synthesizing simple one-celled organisms,” he said.

Julia raised her eyebrows. “One-celled organisms? Like what?”

“Well, like yeast,” he said. “See, Melanie was talking to me on the way out to rescue Danziger last week, and she brought up my distillation process for cleaning our water. She was wondering—”

“If it could be used for making alcohol,” Julia said, smiling. “I should have known. It would be either her or Danziger.”

“He asked, too,” Rob said, grinning. “So is it possible?”

Julia shook her head. “At least not unless the pod they found has the other half of the synthlab. Without it, I have to program the process by hand. I can do it for relatively simple compounds, but something organic would take weeks, maybe months, to figure out. And even once I had it, there’s no guarantee that what I came up with would be safe to use for fermentation.”

He nodded. “I remember there were issues with some of the homemade alcohols causing blindness,” he said.

“That would probably be the easiest problem to deal with,” Julia said. “There are ways to prevent toxic alcohols like…” She trailed off, looking thoughtful.

“Like what?” Rob asked.

Julia shook herself. Something about toxins—not alcohols, but something else. Whatever the thought had been, it was gone now, and she’d learned that the harder she tried to recover a thought like that, the less likely it was she would. It’ll come back, she thought. “Like methanol,” she said. “That’s what would cause blindness.”

“Good to know,” he said. “So if we did find the other half of the synthlab, do you think we could do it?” he asked.

She nodded. “It should have several of the most common yeasts in its database,” she said. “And if I can’t find the right recipe in my databases, I’ll bet Yale could find something in his.”

“Well, I’ll just have to hope we find it then,” he said. “In the meantime, we’ll just have to make our fun the non-alcoholic way.”

“Something tells me that won’t be a problem for Melanie,” Julia said.

“Honestly, I’ve never met anyone like her,” he said. “There’s never a dull moment with her.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Julia said dryly.

He laughed. “Really, though, I’m so glad I came, in spite of everything. It was all worth it to meet her.”

Julia looked at him curiously. “So how did you end up coming, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Rob looked slightly embarrassed. “I…well, I saw Devon speak at a fundraiser,” he said. “She really made an impression on me. She was so committed…so passionate.”

I see, Julia thought, trying not to smile. It wouldn’t have been the first time somebody got caught up in Devon’s crusade because of her charisma. Hell, I might not have applied if I hadn’t seen her speak. No matter how good the opportunity of getting off the stations looked.

“So I started looking into the Eden Project, and I liked the idea behind it. I mean, it was a chance to be a part of something important. Something exciting.” He shrugged. “Something a heck of a lot more interesting than being a water filtration engineer on the stations.”

Julia nodded. “I’d say we all got more than our share of ‘interesting’ here,” she said. But as she said it, his comment about being a water filtration engineer sparked something else in her mind.

Rob looked at her, frowning. “What is it?”

Julia looked up at him. “Could you tell me how the water purification processes on the stations worked?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Sure. Do you have a couple of weeks?”

She laughed. “Well, actually, yes, but I was hoping for the shorter version. How would the station processes handle things like heavy metal contamination?”

“Heavy metals?” he said. “Are we talking just the normally toxic ones like arsenic or mercury?”

“Not necessarily. I’m thinking things like the lanthanides or actinides, too,” she said. “Neodymium, ytrrium, gasparanium—any of those.”

He nodded. “Well, the process isn’t perfect—in order to be completely free of that kind of contamination, you’d have to distill the water, and that gets expensive on the scale the stations need. Luckily, most of the cheaper processes do a really good job with the standard contaminants.”

“Really good? How good is that?”

“Well, with arsenic, the standard is ten parts per billion, which is pretty thorough,” Rob said.

“But arsenic has been understood as a dangerous contaminant for a really long time,” Julia said. “What about some of the more recently discovered elements?”

“The Council set safe levels for most of those when the stations were set up. But the standard for gasparanium was set, gosh, I think it was forty years ago—pretty soon after they set up the Series Two stations. But the levels on that are set really low—like 1 part per billion. I don’t think I’ve ever picked up even trace levels, let alone anything that exceeded the standard. What’s this about, Julia?” Rob asked.

“I’m not sure just yet,” she said. “But thank you. You’ve been very helpful.”

Rob nodded, looking bemused. “Sure, any time.”


“Tru!” Uly yelled, running after her.

Tru rolled her eyes, then turned around. “What is it, Uly?” she said.

“My mom said I could share my VR game with you,” he said. “Do you want to try it?”

“VR game?” Tru narrowed her eyes. “This isn’t some sort of math test disguised as a first-person shooter, is it?”

Uly shook his head. “It’s about pirates,” he said, grinning. “Come on, you’ll love it!”

Tru hesitated. “Fine,” she said. “But we’re doing it in the Transrover. I don’t want Yale telling us we have to stop.”

This time Uly hesitated, but he finally nodded his head.


“You are not going to believe this,” Melanie said, coming into the med tent.

Julia sighed inwardly. “What?” she said, hoping it was a short story so she could get back to reviewing Uly’s scans.

“Bill just grabbed me and made me listen to his plan for telling Helen how he feels about her,” Melanie said. “Oh, Jules, it was painful.”

“That bad?” Julia said, imagining how awkward Bill could be.

“Oh, worse. His first line was, ‘You’re like gasparanium—the thing that makes fusion possible,’” she quoted dramatically. “That poor man. It’s a good thing Helen already likes him.”

Julia had a distant look.

“Julia?” Melanie said.

Julia held up one hand. “Gasparanium…” she said. “And the Series Two stations. But…” There was something odd about the test results, she thought, and found the file. She called it up. Dr. Harrison had made Alex run it three times, and it came out the same every time. No gasparanium. Not even a trace.

But gasparanium makes fusion power plants practical, she thought. It should at least show up with some trace amounts in the water, no matter how good the filtration processes are. But it wasn’t there. Why?

It’s the dog that didn’t bark, she thought suddenly. Harrison had been convinced it was a heavy metal of some sort, but they hadn’t been able to find anything in any of the samples they’d taken—air, water, food—it was in none of them. So Harrison had broadened the search to include other possible toxins, but with no luck.

Julia hadn’t paid much attention to that part of the study at the time. Her position had been on the diagnostic side. She’d been running a series of tests on the Syndrome children, and gasparanium hadn’t shown up on any of her tests, either. Not even trace amounts.

I’m such an idiot, she thought. I was so focused on looking for what was there that I didn’t notice what wasn’t.

She pulled up Uly’s file. Every test they’d ever run on him was here, and as she scrolled through them, on test after test, he showed not even the tiniest amount of gasparanium in his system.

But she hadn’t run a full body scan for trace elements since they’d arrived here. She grabbed her diaglove and ducked out the tent flap.

“Julia?” Melanie said. “What’s going on?”

“Valerie,” Julia said as she came out of the tent. “Have you seen Uly?”

“He was with Tru earlier,” she said. “I think they were headed for the Transrover. Do you want me to go see?”

“Yes, if you wouldn’t mind,” Julia said. “Bring him back here. I need to do a scan on him.”

“Is everything okay?”

Julia smiled faintly. “It will be if I find what I think I’ll find,” she said.

Valerie gave her an odd look, then headed off toward Devon’s tent.

Julia watched her go, thinking through everything again to be sure she wasn’t overreacting. She looked up at the sky. It had darkened to a deep blue overhead, and the two moons were both at the tiniest sliver of crescents, but Julia barely noticed their beauty. It has to be gasparanium, Julia thought. And wouldn’t that just be ironic.

Julia heard a sound off to her left and looked over toward the Transrover. Valerie had Uly by the hand, with Tru following along behind.

There was a sudden flash off to Julia’s right, and immediately after, the sound of a mag-pro firing came. “Get over here!” she heard Hardy yell. “Those things are coming in again! There’s too many—” Another mag-pro blast overshadowed the rest of his words.

Julia started towards him, but as she did, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye between the tents to her left, right behind Valerie. Julia turned, and as she did, Valerie must have seen it, too, because she shoved Uly behind her.

“Tru!” Valerie yelled. “Get Uly into the Transrov—” The rest was cut off by a bizarre sound and one of the creatures bounded out from between the tents, headed straight for Valerie. She raised her right arm to ward it off, and its jaws clamped down on her forearm and hand. She screamed, falling backwards with the animal on top of her.

“Valerie!” Julia yelled, running towards her. She tapped the command prompt into her diaglove as she ran, watching Valerie struggle to keep the animal’s claws at bay. “Laser cut!” she said, and pointed her index finger at the creature’s eye and shoved her finger in up to the second knuckle. The animal jolted once, then abruptly stopped moving. Julia pulled her finger free, trying not to gag at the sensation.

Tru was still standing a few meters away, holding Uly against her. There was a flurry of shots from mag-pros. “Tru, the Transrover, now! There are more of those things around! Go!” Julia said. Tru hesitated, then turned and dragged Uly away.

Rob ran up and he grabbed the creature’s head, trying to get it to let go of Valerie’s arm.

“Get it off, get it off,” Valerie moaned.

“We’re trying, Valerie,” Julia said. “Just hang on. Melanie!” she yelled. “Get me the med kit! NOW!”

“It won’t let go!” Rob said, horrified. “It’s dead, and it still won’t let go!”

“Wait,” Julia said. “I have an idea.” She looked at the jaw of the creature. “Laser cut,” she said again, pointing at a spot near the back of the jaw, carefully angling away from Valerie’s arm. The smell of burned flesh wafted off the creature. Julia traded places with Rob and repeated the procedure on the other side.

“You got it!” Rob said as the jaws finally released. He started to try to pull them apart.

“Wait!” Julia said. “We need to make sure we don’t do any more damage taking it out.”

Melanie ran up with the med kit in her hand and knelt next to them. “What can I do?”

“Just hold on a second,” Julia said, looking at the tooth that had pierced Valerie’s hand. She used the laser to cut through the bottom of the tooth just below Valerie’s palm. It was nearly a centimeter thick at that point, and it took some doing to cut through.

“God damn it, Heller, get it the hell off me!” Valerie said through gritted teeth.

“Okay, let’s go. Carefully,” Julia said, and helped Rob pull the remaining tooth out. She scanned the wound, and was amazed the damage wasn’t worse. It didn’t appear that any of the major tendons had been damaged, at least not irreparably, and only the third metacarpal had been broken, though it was nearly crushed. The radius had also been broken, but at least the tooth hadn’t gone all the way through that one.

“Stop staring at it and do something!” Valerie snarled.

“That’s it,” Melanie said. She hit Valerie with a hypospray, and Valerie went limp.

“Melanie!” Julia said. “What the hell?”

“Hey, you’re going to have to set the bones anyway, right?” Melanie said. “I just gave her a dose of methohex.” She winked at Julia.

Julia gave her a withering look. “And you picked methohex because…?”

Melanie tried to look innocent. “It’s what you used on Alonzo when you set his leg. Besides,” she added after Julia gave her an even worse look, “you have to admit, if there’s anybody who would benefit from being able to sense other people’s feelings, it’s Valerie.” She glanced down at Valerie’s arm. “She is going to be okay, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” Julia said, then turned to Rob. “Can you help me bring her into the med tent?” She turned back to Melanie. “Next time, wait till we get her moved. It’s a lot less work for everyone.”

Julia had to admit that it was easier for everyone, especially Valerie, that she’d been sedated. Cleaning the wounds would have been painful, even with painblock, and Julia wanted to be certain she’d disinfected as much as possible. She didn’t want to find out the hard way that hexadents were the G-889 equivalent of Komodo dragons, with both a venomous bite and saliva so laden with bacteria it could kill within hours.

Luckily, it looked like that wasn’t the case. Her scan of the hexadent showed no indication of either venom or dangerous infectious agents, but she wasn’t taking any chances. She gave Valerie a heavy dose of immune booster once she’d finished cleaning and suturing the wounds.

“How bad is the hand?” Melanie asked, watching her finish.

Julia shrugged. “I think it’ll heal okay, but it’s hard to tell. We’ll have to keep an eye on it overnight to be sure. I’d really rather not have to do surgery if we don’t have to, but the bone actually splintered in spots, so it still might come to that. That thing has powerful jaws.”

“It must have hurt,” Melanie said, trying not to sound like she was glad.

“I have a feeling it would have hurt her more if Uly’d been the one bitten,” Julia said, remembering the way Valerie had shoved him behind her. “Listen, I don’t want to move her again tonight. Would you mind bunking with Tosh?”

“Sure,” Melanie said. “They’ll be wanting to know how she is anyway.” She grabbed a hypospray and handed it to Julia. “It’s already set with a dose of methohex. Just in case.” She winked.


Devon and the others rolled in with the first load from the supply pod late the next morning. Melanie met them as they pulled up.

“Check it out, everybody!” Devon said. “We brought tents and a little bit of food, and there’s more to come!”

“What kind of food?” Melanie said. “Please tell me there’s something sugary!”

Devon grinned. “Better than that. There’s chocolate! Not to mention coffee and tea.”

Melanie smiled rapturously. “I could kiss you right now. Hard. On the lips.”

“Sorry,” Devon said, “You’re not my type. Danziger will have to do.”

Melanie turned to Danziger, who grinned and pointed to his lips. “Right there, sweetcheeks,” he said.

“Rob, close your eyes,” Melanie said and grabbed Danziger by the front of his shirt.

“Woah!” he said, pulling back. “I was kidding!”

“I wasn’t,” Melanie said, but she was laughing as she let him go.

“How are things here?” Helen said, climbing out of the rail.

“Exciting, as usual,” Melanie said. “Devon, you’re going to want to stop by the med tent. Julia has a story for you.”

Devon frowned. “Everyone’s okay, right? Uly?”

“Uly’s fine,” Melanie assured her. “But that’s part of the story. Go on, we’ll deal with all this, and I’ll get everybody up to speed.”

Devon nodded and headed for the med tent at a trot. “Julia?” she called, and ducked into the tent. Julia was sitting at her table, looking at a tablet. Valerie was lying on a cot, asleep, her right arm heavily bandaged. Devon frowned. “What happened?”

“She’s going to be fine,” Julia said quietly. “Don’t worry. She got bit by a hexadent last night.”

“What?” Devon said. “How? What happened?”

“That same pack came back,” Julia said. “Come on, I’ll tell you the rest outside. She needs to sleep.” She led Devon outside.

“Melanie said something about Uly,” Devon said. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine, thanks to Valerie,” Julia said. “One of them got past the sentries. Valerie got between it and Uly, and it latched onto her arm.”

Devon went white.

“Uly’s fine, Devon,” Julia said, grabbing her arm. “And so’s Valerie. Tru got Uly into the Transrover right away, and none of the other hexadents got past the sentries. We ended up with four of them shot, so I’m betting the others will stay clear of us, at least for a while.”

“How bad is Valerie?” Devon asked.

Julia smiled. “She’ll have a scar to go with the story, but other than that, no permanent damage. I was afraid the third metacarpal—a bone in her hand,” she added at Devon’s questioning look, “might heal badly. The canine tooth went right through her hand. But it’s looking really good this morning—between the boneheal vaccine and the osteomycin, her bones will be good as new, maybe even better, by tomorrow. The muscles and tendons will take a little longer, but everything looks like it’s healing just fine.”

Devon sighed in relief.

“Yeah,” Julia said. “That’s about how I felt last night. She was really something, Devon.”

“Let me know as soon as she’s awake,” Devon said.

Julia nodded and ducked back into the tent. Valerie hadn’t moved, so Julia turned back to her tablet. She’d finally gotten to scan Uly earlier in the morning, but the scan still showed no trace of gasparanium.

This is crazy, she thought. There is no way there isn’t at least a measurable trace of it in him. It just doesn’t make any sense. She turned to look at her diaglove uneasily. She hooked it up to the tablet and ran a full diagnostic. It came up clean. She leaned back and sighed.

“Hey, Heller,” Alonzo said quietly, ducking through the tent flap. “What’s the matter?”

“What?” Julia said, looking over at him.

“You look weird,” he said. “What’s going on?”

“I have…had a theory,” Julia said. “But it looks like I was wrong.”

“What theory?” Alonzo said.

“About what causes the Syndrome,” she said.

“How do you know it’s wrong?” he said.

“The scan I ran on Uly,” she said. “It didn’t show what I expected. It’s…frustrating. I really thought I had it. Unless there’s something wrong with the diaglove, which would be a little frightening.”

Alonzo frowned, then smiled encouragingly. “You’ll figure it out,” he said. He glanced over at Valerie. “How’s she doing?”

“What do I have to do to get a dose of painblock?” Valerie said, opening her eyes and looking over at him.

“Here,” Julia said, grabbing a hypospray. She injected Valerie with a painblock. “That should help.”

“Thanks,” Valerie said.

“Alonzo, would you go tell Devon she’s awake?” Julia said.

“Sure,” he said. He smiled at Valerie. “I’m glad you’re okay.” He headed out of the tent.

Valerie looked after him for a moment, then turned to look appraisingly at Julia. “Why are you working on the Syndrome?” she said.

Julia blinked. “It’s why I’m here,” she said as if it were self-evident, “why I joined the Eden Project. So I could continue to work on it.”

Valerie looked away, frowning.

“Why do you ask?” Julia said, but before Valerie could say anything else, Devon came in.

“Valerie!” she said, coming over to the cot. “I’m so glad you’re all right. Julia told me what you did. Thank you.”

Valerie looked uncomfortable. “All I did was get my arm nearly bitten off,” she said.

“I’ll let you two talk,” Julia said, and ducked out of the tent.

“I think it was a little more than that,” Devon said. “Uly says you put yourself between that thing and him.”

Valerie shrugged. “I just…reacted,” she said.

Devon shook her head. “You and Julia are more alike than you realize. Neither one of you knows how to say, ‘you’re welcome.’”

Valerie bristled for an instant, then looked embarrassed. “Fine,” she said. “You’re welcome.”


Toshiko piled the last of her belongings into her bag and turned to gather up Valerie’s things. She got out Valerie’s bag and stuck it on her bunk, then started piling everything else next to it, sorting as she went.

“There she goes again,” Phoebe said. “Making her little piles.”

“I have a system,” Toshiko said with dignity. “It works for me.”

“Valerie just shoves everything in her bag,” Helen said. “It’s a lot faster, and it works fine for her.”

“See,” Toshiko said, grabbing a little case from under Valerie’s bunk, “this is exactly why I’m looking forward to being in a different tent.” She set the case on top of the “unknown” pile, then turned to start packing the bag. Clothes on the bottom, not that any of them had much to pack.

“Did you hear that there was a case of clothes?” Helen said, watching her. “It’ll be coming up with the second load.”

“Oh, to have a change of clothes!” Phoebe said. “I’ve been thinking about trying to sleep while walking—I think these coveralls would just keep going on their own.”

“At least we’re all in the same boat,” Helen said, looking with dismay at her dust-covered pants.

“I just hope there’s enough for everyone so it stays that way,” Toshiko said. “I’d hate to have to do something like a lottery to decide who gets what.” She grabbed another pile, but as she did, the little case slid off and fell to the ground. It popped open, and the contents spilled out. “Dang it!” Toshiko said.

“Here, let me,” Helen said, kneeling down to gather up the contents. It was little odds and ends—a VR chip, a little handwritten note that Helen tried not to read, a gold ring with a pretty green stone, and an ornate printed invitation. “Jamie Sinclair and Valerie Carter cordially request your presence as they are joined together in matrimony…” There was a picture of Valerie with a petite blonde woman with striking green eyes and a splash of freckles. They were both laughing, their arms around each other. Helen frowned.

“What is it, Helen?” Phoebe said, coming over to look over her shoulder.

“I heard she was engaged,” Helen said quietly. “Before she signed on with the Project.”

Toshiko’s head shot up, and her eyes widened as she saw what Helen had in her hand. “Helen—” she started to say.

“Who was?” Phoebe said.

“Valerie,” Helen said.

“Really?” Phoebe said, sounding surprised. “I can’t imagine who would put up with her.”

“She’s not that bad,” Toshiko said. “She’s always been really nice to me—and she doesn’t make fun of my system. Helen, let me have that, please.”

“I’m kidding,” Phoebe said, grinning. “She annoys the heck out of me sometimes, and I don’t understand her love/hate attitude toward Julia, but you’re right—she’s not that bad.”

“She’s pretty,” Helen said, still looking at the invitation. “I wonder what happened.”

“Some things are better not to know,” Toshiko said sadly, taking the case from Helen. She finished replacing the contents with amazing care.

Helen looked over at her, frowning. She knows what happened, Helen thought, and wondered whether she should try to find out more.


Julia stepped out of the mess tent carrying a tray of food and started for the med tent, then paused as she saw Yale.

“Good morning, Dr. Heller,” he said. “How is Ms. Carter today?”

“She’s doing very well,” Julia said. “The damage to the bones is healing better even than I’d expected.”

“That is most excellent news,” he said. “I’m very grateful to her for protecting Ulysses.”

“Me, too,” Julia said, and the reference to Uly made her pause. “Yale, you have an enormous amount of information stored in your system that I probably wouldn’t have access to in my files, right?”

“Yes,” he said, looking curiously at her. “Was there something you needed to know?”

“What do you have on gasparanium?” she said.

“It is a heavy metal, originally discovered on the asteroid Gaspar, hence the name. It is a fundamental part of the fusion plants that provide power to the stations—” He paused, a strange, faraway look on his face.

“Yale?” Julia said, frowning. “Is something wrong?”

He blinked, then looked back at her. “Wrong? No, nothing is wrong.” He blinked again. “The element was first used in the fusion plants of the second generation of space stations, and it allowed their growth to the size and number that exist today. The franchise for the mining of gasparanium has been held by the—”

“The Heller family,” Julia cut in. “I know that part. I’m wondering more about anything on studies relating to its toxicity, or to its incidence in environmental scans on the stations. Do you have anything on that?”

“There are no records relating to those subjects in my database,” Yale said.

There was an odd tension in his voice, but Julia didn’t notice it. “That doesn’t make any sense,” she was saying. “It’s brought to the stations from the asteroid mines, it’s processed on the stations, it’s used in the reactors on the stations—there should be something, somewhere about it. Why isn’t there?”

“I cannot answer that question,” Yale said gravely.

Julia sighed explosively. “I just don’t understand it,” she said.

“I am sorry I cannot be of more assistance,” Yale said, sounding more like himself.

“No,” Julia said. “Actually, you were a great deal of help. Thank you.” She smiled at him, then turned to head into the med tent. As she started in, Devon came out.

“How’s our patient?” Julia asked.

“About like you’d expect,” Devon said under her breath. “Cranky and annoying.”

Julia hid her smile as she ducked through the tent flap. “Hi,” she said once she was inside, smiling tentatively at Valerie. She set down the tray of food on the table. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Valerie said tersely.

“Is the painblock working?”

Valerie nodded.

“The arm is going to be fine,” Julia said. “I’ve scanned it thoroughly—the bone has already healed significantly, and it’s all looking great. You’ll be able to use it at least a little by tomorrow.”

“Good,” Valerie said. “So when can I go back to my own tent?”

“I’d like to keep you here for the rest of the day,” Julia said. “I want to be sure there isn’t any sign of infection.” She hesitated, then came over to the cot. “I brought you something to eat. And we’re lucky—Todd’s on the mess hall rotation this week, and he made some pretty amazing stew.” She held out a bowlful of some sort of meat in a broth with some of the hydroponic vegetables.

“This isn’t more of that tangaroo stuff, is it?” Valerie said.

Julia shook her head. “You seem like the kind of person who’d want to bite back,” she said, smiling. “This is roasted hexadent.”

Valerie looked up at her, surprised, then half-laughed. “Yeah,” she said. “I could go for that. What does it taste like? Wait…don’t tell me…”

Julia nodded, smiling. “Chicken.”

Valerie took a bite. “Take that, you little bastard,” she said, smiling fiercely.

“And you’re a coffee drinker, right?” Julia said, handing her a mug.

“There was coffee in the supply pod?” Valerie said, grabbing the mug. “Oh, my god, caffeine!” She inhaled the aroma and groaned rapturously.

Julia turned and sat down at her table, staring at her tablet.

“Hey, as long as I’m here, I might as well be useful,” Valerie said. “Let me take a look at your diaglove.”

Julia turned to look at her, surprised.

“It’s my job, remember?” Valerie said. “Eden Project’s computer and electronics tech. If there’s something wrong with it, I can figure it out.” When Julia hesitated, frowning, she continued, “Come on, Heller. I want to be sure the thing you’re using to keep me alive works right, okay?”

“Sorry,” Julia said, handing her the diaglove.

Valerie settled the glove in her lap and awkwardly punched in several commands with her left hand. She studied the readouts. “You ran a diagnostic?” she said.

Julia nodded and handed her the tablet.

Valerie looked at it for a long time, then hooked it up to the diaglove and punched in some more commands. “That’s weird,” she said.

“What?” Julia said.

“Everything comes up clean, no software bugs, nothing,” she said. “But there’s something odd in the firmware.” She looked up. “Listen, you’ve got a spare diaglove, right?”

“Two more,” Julia said. “Though I’d rather keep them all functional.”

Valerie nodded. “No problem—I just need to take this one apart so I can get at the firmware and see what’s in there.” She looked at her bandaged hand and frowned. “It’ll take me a while—I’m going to need both hands for this. But I’ll bring it back good as new.”

“Sure,” Julia said. “You should be able to at least have partial use of the hand in a couple of days.” She hesitated. “Listen, thanks. I appreciate your help.”

Valerie looked appraisingly at her for a long moment. “If you can figure out what causes the Syndrome…” She stopped, looking uncomfortable. “Let’s just say that would go a long way with me.”


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