(See Disclaimer in Part 1)
Vansen handed watch off to Damphousse, and climbed
down the arroyo wall. The meager shade below was a big
relief from the heat above, even as the shadows lengthened
towards their second evening on the planet.
Amy was gathering dry brush for the fire, Vansen was
pleased that she was pulling her weight and even more
pleased that she had chosen a way to do it that would keep
her busy for a while! West and Hawkes would be gone for
a little while yet, if they were going to scout as far as the
mesa. Vansen caught Damphousse' eye and gave Amy a
significant glance, gestured to the cave. 'Phousse answered
with a little grin and a thumbs-up, she'd sing out if Amy
chanced near the entrance.
Vansen went inside, the cool air was a relief from the heat
outside. She dumped the warm, plastic-tasting contents of
her canteen into the recycler and, by habit, drew exactly as
much fresh, cold water from the unit. They weren't hard
up for water...not with the evaporator unit on the
transport, even in these arid conditions it would extract
plenty of water for six people...but reflexes she'd picked up
on Demios died hard. She'd never be able to look at a
simple sugar packet in the same way again for the rest of
She found McQueen going over Amy's pictures again,
trying to get some idea where they had been taken. She
settled in beside him and put her arm around him. "Any
Instead of returning her embrace as she expected, however,
she felt his muscles tense. "No...these cliffs could be
anywhere within the coordinates Amy's source gave her,
but that takes in a lot of territory."
"Ty, what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong....I'm going to scout around down the
canyon for a while. You'd might as well stay here where
it's cool." With that, he left.
For a moment, Shane just stared after him with her mouth
open, she had no idea what to make of that. After a few
minutes, she jumped up and went to the cave mouth--by
then he'd disappeared. What the hell--! She tried to figure
out what she could have done to get that kind of a reaction,
and couldn't think of anything. She wasn't sure how to
handle the situation, if he wanted some time to himself she
could respect that, but she figured there was more to it than
'Phousse urgently motioned her up to the rim. She climbed
up there easily. "What!"
"Go after him!"
"'Phousse, I don't know what's got into him, but he
doesn't want my company right now--!"
Damphousse urgently grabbed both her wrists and gave her
a little shake. "The hell he doesn't. Girl, do you have any
idea what I'd give to have Paul yell at me just _one more
time_? Go after him, now!"
She looked at her friend, then suddenly answered her with a
quick hug and scrambled back down the bank.
It was rough going in the rocks down the valley, and it was
getting near sunset. Vansen knew she was going to have a
hell of a time finding McQueen if he didn't want to be
found, much less at night. By the second time she slipped
on loose rocks and damn near broke her ankle, she was
getting real pissed off. She didn't know if it was a man
thing, or an IV thing, or just a TC McQueen thing--but
whatever, he'd damn well better not try using that leg of his
for an excuse for anything after starting a wild goose chase
through this stuff! He'd found places to go that a damn
goat couldn't have followed...!
Fortunately she didn't have to go much further than that.
He was standing by the cliff wall watching the sunset, and
the look on his face took all the anger right out of her.
Vansen crossed over there. "Ty....For the love of God,
don't do this to me. If I've done something, tell me what it
He turned to look at her. "You didn't do anything. It isn't
you. You shouldn't have come after me."
"Why not? What is it, Ty?"
"I'm going to end up ruining your life, Shane, there's no
way this can turn out well for you."
"What---? We've been all through this."
"Amy and I had been all through it, too."
She stared at him for a second, then her dark eyes flashed
fire. "Ty...don't you DARE project Amy's problems onto
me! I've said this and said it until I was blue in the face,
and it just isn't soaking in. I'm not playing games, or
walking into anything with a blindfold on....I know full well
what the prejudice is like and I'm not afraid to make myself
a target if that's what it takes. If someone starts making
racist comments to me, I lose whatever respect I did have
for that person, and their opinion ceases to matter to me."
"What are your sisters going to think?"
"They'll probably climb up on the roof and yell hallelujah,
I think they've already decided poor Shane's going to be an
old maid auntie for the rest of her life. I cannot believe my
sisters would be prejudiced, Ty, they might be a little
surprised at first but they aren't a couple of bigots! And
if they are, that's their problem and they'll just have to
get over it!" She shook her head. "I can't stop the things
people say, but as far as I'm concerned, there's a little circle
around the two of us and none of that stuff can come in
unless WE LET IT. I don't know where you're going with
this, but I'll tell you how things are. I love you. That isn't
going to change next week, or next month, or next year, or
for the rest of my life. If you walk out, there's nothing I
can do to stop you...but if you do, you'll be able to walk
back in any time because there won't be anything for me to
do except wait for you. I will never feel this way about
anyone else, ever. And I'll never let go."
Her eyes had never left his, and still she held his gaze,
unbroken under the weight of the strongest emotion she'd
ever felt in her life. There was no room here for anything
but absolute honesty. "I love you, Shane, with everything
that I am. I want everything for you. But you probably
can't have that with me. Maybe you'll be accepted on
your own merits. More likely you'll be 'the woman who's
sleeping with that damn tank'. You'll have to settle for
second best too often because the people who are making
the decisions concerning you will see you as second best."
"Oh, God, Ty...I hear what you're saying. I know. And
I'm dreading seeing the look in your eyes the first time you
hear someone say something about me because of you. But
after everything else we've been through, I believe we're
strong enough to survive that too. Nothing anyone could
say to me, or do out of spite, could hurt me worse than
watching you walk out of my life. My everything is right
here," she replied. She held out her hand, calm, steady,
trusting. After a moment, he took it, and the next moment
they were in each other's arms. "We'll get through it
together," she said.
"Don't ever let me forget that. Shane, I'm sorry."
"Hey, you know what, I think we just had our first fight."
And come through it, if anything, stronger than before. "I
guess so." She smiled, reached up to lay her hand on his
cheek for a moment. He caught her hand and drew her
fingers to his lips. "We'd probably better get back before
everyone comes looking for us."
"Probably," she replied. Together, as the evening shadows
lengthened, they made their way back to camp.
Hawkes and West got back a while after dark, everyone
gathered around the coffee pot to hear their report. Amy
got their supper and they ate as they talked. "We found
where the transmitter had been, everything's gone except
three big blocks of concrete where the legs were set in the
ground. We took pictures of everything, but I don't know
if anyone's going to be able to prove that's something the
chigs put there...it just looks like sawed-off metal I-beams
set in concrete to me."
McQueen said, "Sometimes you can tell where metal came
from, Nathan, the ore has a pattern of impurities like a
fingerprint and the refining process doesn't get it all out. If
this hasn't been recycled a dozen times, the lab geeks may
be able to tell us something."
Amy asked, "Any sign of these carvings?"
"Not that we found yet, but there are a lot of rock
outcroppings around there like the ones in the pictures,"
West replied. "Can you tell if the pictures were all taken at
the same time?"
She replied, "Yes, let me show you." She pulled up the
picture of the dead chig and the transmitter. "This was
taken at three in the afternoon--this is the time/date stamp
here." She flipped to the next one, the first in a series of the
carvings. "And this one at five thirty. Two and a half
hours. There's no question about that, the original optical
chip was written by the camera. Pictures are admissible in
court if you have the original chip, because the way those
chips work, you can only use them once, and those chips
can't be changed once you burn them. You can download
the file and do anything you want with the image then, but
that original laser chip might as well have come down from
Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Whatever's in
that image is exactly what the camera saw when the original
shot was taken."
McQueen said, "Let me see the shot of the transmitter
Amy returned to that image, and suddenly her eyes
widened. "I think I see what you mean..."
Hawkes said, "Well, you could let the rest of us in on it."
McQueen told him, "Look here." One of the legs of the
transmitter and its concrete anchor were clearly visible in
the image. "Once the lab people confirm that your shot and
this one are identical, then we've got proof that somebody
took a picture of a dead chig at this spot in 2059. Go from
there to just who was on Vesta in 2059."
Vansen said, "Then--that's it, right? We've got what we
came here for."
Amy said, "It doesn't prove how this chig got dead. It
doesn't prove that executives at Aerotech knew anything
about it. And it doesn't give a motive for the reason why
the colonists were sent here in spite of the fact that they
did know. If I were to file this story the way it is now...it
would make a big scandal, yes. But it isn't damning
evidence. I'd be starting another Watergate in the middle of
the war. I don't want to end up doing more harm than good
West said, "When we were being trained to be sent out
here, they didn't know at first who was going to Tellus or
Vesta. We got some orientation for both colonies. Looking
back on it, everything they told us seems to have been, I
don't know, designed to discourage us from exploring here
in the desert. The conditions here are miserable, but they
aren't as deadly as they were made out to be...not for
people with survival training, and believe me we had plenty
of that. No, there's something here they didn't want
anyone finding out about."
Vansen said, "Well, going on that logic, was there any
specific place they warned you away from?"
"Christ, that's been five years ago and I've been kind of
busy since then," West wisecracked, trying to remember.
"I don't think they got that specific."
McQueen said, "Okay. We know the carvings are within
two and a half hours of the transmitter site. Amy, do you
know if that was on foot or what?"
She shook her head. "I just know from the time stamp on
West said, "Colonel, from the training videos we saw, the
recon teams used helicopters to get into an area and traveled
"What kind of helicopters?" McQueen shot back.
"Bell Electrorangers, mostly, modified with an extra battery
Vansen said, "That puts the carvings, what, a max of 200
klicks from the transmitter site? That's still within those
coordinates we got from Amy's source."
McQueen nodded. "But that would be assuming they shot
that chig, jumped right on the chopper, and flew straight to
the site of the carvings."
Amy shook her head. "That doesn't sound right at all, Ty.
The person who gave me the pictures made it sound like the
source was upset about the chig and the transmitter, like he
took off on his own and took the pictures of the carvings.
Aerotech doesn't know about those."
McQueen didn't say out loud what he was thinking, which
was that Amy's source was a dead man if she was right
about that, unless the rest of the recon team covered for
him. "That's a maximum value," he said. "Now assuming
they were on foot the whole time gives us a more
reasonable search area. When it gets light, we'll start a
search from the transmitter site. Who's on watch after
Hawkes raised his hand.
"Okay. Let's all get some sleep, we can't do anything more
It didn't take long for the camp to quiet down. McQueen
found himself unable to fall asleep, and it wasn't hard to
figure out why. He hadn't said a word when the others had
suggested making camp in the cave...it would have been too
damn hot anywhere else...but trying to sleep with a stone
roof over his head reminded him too much of Omicron
Draconis. So when Hawkes got up to relieve Damphousse
on watch, he casually walked out with him, and then
decided to check around the planes.
He was on the ramp to the ISSCV when someone tackled
him hard, knocking him completely off his feet. In the same
instant, there was a ricochet off the ISSCV's hatch. He
pulled Damphousse off the ramp with him, they landed in
sharp rocks but they had cover from the sniper under the
"Are you okay, sir?"
"I wasn't hit, you?"
"Scratched my shoulder, it's nothing."
He tried to figure trajectory. "Did you see where it came
"Didn't even know what 'it' was. All I saw was you going
down, and I just reacted. It's like trying to be in two places
Hawkes scaled the other side of the transport. "Colonel
"We're okay," he replied. "The sniper has to be up on the
other rim somewhere, it had to come from above us."
Hawkes sighted through his night scope. "Got him. He's
up in the rocks about...six hundred meters." He kept his
rifle loaded with standard ammunition, but he had a few
special-purpose shells in his belt. He switched the rifle to
single shot and chambered a long-range round. It was a very
long shot for this weapon, designed as it was for the shorter
ranges generally encountered in close combat. But even if
he missed he was going to come close enough to scare the
crap out of their sniper.
The only thing that prevented him from making a kill was
that the sniper moved to reload just as he took his shot.
The impact spun the sniper around, out of sight in the
By then, everyone else had got up there. Damphousse's
shoulder was bleeding, she was trying for all she was worth
to control her reaction to the sight of blood but she still
looked like she might keel over any second. McQueen told
her to stay with Amy while the rest of them went after the
sniper. Hawkes and West went right and McQueen and
Vansen left, hoping to catch their quarry in a crossfire. But
when they got up there, they found only a large bloodstain
and the discarded wrapper of a gauze pack.
Hawkes said, "Looks like they decided to book it." He was
still looking around carefully.
West said, "Sir, they must have followed us back here.
"It wasn't your fault. They had the advantage of knowing
we'd check out the transmitter site sooner or later."
After a search of the area turned up no sign of the sniper or
anyone else, they headed back to camp. Amy had patched
up Damphousse's injury, it really had been only a scratch.
But Vanessa had put herself in harm's way to save his
life--he wasn't going to forget that any time soon. "Thanks
for what you did out there."
She just smiled and shook her head. "Who's keeping score?
I lost track a long time ago, sir. Besides, I was on watch
and I let him sneak up on us!"
That, McQueen saw, was really bothering her. "You were
guarding the camp. He was up in the rocks on the other rim
another six hundred meters south of the LZ. You couldn't
have seen him from where you were. What happened,
She scowled. "Everything was okay when Coop took over
guard duty. I started back to camp, and then...I don't know
exactly. I got this feeling about the ISSCV, so I came down
here to check it out. At first I heard you and I thought
someone was messing around but then...I got this flash of
you taking a hit. I never actually saw the shooter. The next
thing I knew you were pulling me off the ramp."
West said, "Sir. Whoever that bastard was, he had all the
clear shots he wanted at me and Coop as we were coming
up through the rocks."
"So he was laying for me. Why doesn't that surprise me?
Maybe we got lucky and Hawkes took that one out." He
didn't really believe that himself, but they had certainly
come out ahead in the exchange. Damn! He had been lucky
all around tonight. If he'd decided to take off south instead
of north earlier in the evening to think things over, he never
would have come back...or the sniper might have hit Shane
instead of him. He had a flash image of her lying lifeless in
front of him...having taken a bullet that had his name on
it...and he knew right then and there he had just added an
entry to the list of things to have nightmares about.
Amy asked, "What do we do now?"
McQueen said, "We'll have to move the planes, Amy, then
I want to know what we're up against here."
Hanes staggered up the ramp leaning heavily on O'Donnell.
Wolfe pulled out the medikit from a locker. "Is it still in
O'Donnell said, "No, there's a clean exit wound. I don't
think it caught her collarbone, but she lost a hell of a lot of
blood before I got it packed."
Hanes said, "I'm all right. That son of a bitch hit me at six
hundred meters with a rifle he pulled off the armory shelf--!
If it didn't hurt so bad, so help me, I'd buy him a beer. I
want to know how the hell that sentry saw me. She
couldn't have...not from where she was!"
Wolfe told her, "That was Damphousse, the one I told you
about. Now we know why the spooks were interested in
"Danny, you were right, I should've took out Hawkes or
West while I had the chance. We probably could have got
the both of them."
"No, it was worth a try. It would've worked if we'd been a
"Give me a shot of whiskey before you start digging around
on that," Hanes told him. Wolfe got a bottle and a shot
glass, she tossed one back left handed and took the folded
cloth he gave her to bite on.
Wolfe used his knife to cut her shirt away from the wound
and opened the medikit. "Okay, folks, that was lesson one.
Anyone want to comment on what we learned this
O'Donnell laughed without humor. "Danny Wolfe knows
what he's talking about. Those people are dangerous."
Hanes bit hard on the square of cloth as he got the packing
out of the way, the gel stuff he put in there had an
anesthetic in it but it took a little while to start working.
More importantly, it would keep her from getting some
kind of an alien infection in the wound, gunshots were
likely to go bad anyhow. "I won't be able to use it much
for a few days, tape it up enough so I can brace with it and
"You got it."
Gordy asked, "What now?"
"They're still going to have to start from the chig
transmitter, that's where we'll have to pick them up again.
They're onto us now, so be ready for anything. If you see
anything that looks gift-wrapped, it's probably ticking," he
warned. "I'd like to get Amy separated off from the rest of
them so we can grab her, but I doubt we'll be that lucky. It
looks like we're going to have to do this the hard way...."
<end part 6>
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