Another deleted scene from the Tanner and Miranda story I’m working on at the moment. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it, but it didn’t fit with the pacing for the story.
As much as I wanted to complain about it, it was impossible to deny that the Outlands were beautiful. Harsh and unforgiving if given the chance, but truly stunning. In the simplest terms, the whole area is a tangled network of canyons running between steep red cliffs and narrow mesas. Fortunately for us, most of the canyon floors were flattish and relatively simple to traverse. Unfortunately, there were some that weren’t, and those were the ones that seemed most likely to take us towards the drone’s last coordinates.
Of course, if it were that easy, no one would pay us.
It started out well enough. Part of that was the fact that the first stretch was downhill, not so steep that a missed step would send me rolling to my death, though plenty steep enough for me end up windmilling my arms several times, to Tanner’s audible amusement. Something about me spending too much time on space stations with boring, flat floors and no way to practice my dexterity. Lies, all of it, not that the truth did me any good.
I didn’t get into any real trouble until it evened out for a bit and lulled me into false sense of security. One second I was stepping forward, trusting the tread of my boots to keep me from slipping. The next, the rock I’d assumed would hold my weight didn’t, and the whole world spun. I careened past Tanner. Only a miracle kept me from cracking my head open on the way down. And despite what it felt like, the tumbling and spinning didn’t last long either. I skidded to a stop in a sort of awkward crouch and tried to convinced my heart to slow to a couple hundred beats a second.
A scrambling sound from the direction I’d just come suggested that Tanner was following as quickly as he could, probably for better teasing opportunities. And to make sure I was still functional. But mostly for the teasing. That was my fault. If I’d let myself fall flat on my face, I might have gotten some sympathy. Though I suppose I’m grateful my thick duster and boots kept me from anything worse than ugly bruises and wounded pride.
I squinted upward and towards my brother’s voice. I’d meant to glare, but the sun was brighter than I expected. “Don’t say it.”
“You shouldn’t do that. It hurts.”
I growled. “I know.”
“Any real damage?”
I shook my head. “Nothing I can’t walk off. Tell me it’ll even out soon?”
Tanner laughed, and I shot him another scowl.
“This is the easy part.”
At least he had the good grace—or the common sense—to look a little sheepish. And to reach down and offer me a hand up.
“It should get flatter, though. More rocky, but you won’t roll as far if you fall.”
In reality, it wasn’t even that bad, though I didn’t mind being pleasantly surprised on that count. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t difficult, but the flash of adrenaline I’d gotten when the whole world spun out around me was enough to flush most of the remaining lag from my veins.
Not that it was easy, per se. By the time we were another hour into the trek, every bruise from my fall had decided it was too easy for me to ignore the ache and throb, and I felt it with every step. Sure, the damage was minor, especially when compared to what I’d dealt with in the past. It still hurt. And Tanner was setting a brutal pace. If we hadn’t been in relative shade beneath the canyon walls I wouldn’t have made it. Not that I was about to tell him that. I could push through just fine and save myself the trouble of admitting how much I’d been spoiled by my years on the Stations.
Unless he already knew and was waiting to see how long it took me to give in. In which case it was a toss up for which of us would win. Battles of stubbornness in the Griff family never had a foregone conclusion. They were always funny, though.
This time, I got lucky. Tanner got hungry (meaning ravenous) before I gave in and asked him to slow down. Just before. If he’d held out another couple of minutes, I’d have admitted defeat. Instead, I got to use the precious seconds he spent digging a ration bar out of his pack to catch up and tramp along next to him, red-faced and panting and pretending he hadn’t almost gotten me.
He grinned at me through a mouthful of food. “Almost had you. Good thing I didn’t over-commit and pass out. You’d have had to drag me back home.”
I grinned back. “I’d have left you. You jerk.” My breath came out in little wheezes. “We’ll regret this tomorrow.”
“We’ll be fine. You recover fast and I’m used to it.”
“I used to recover fast. Eight years ago. I’m out of practice.” Then again, the slower pace had already worked wonders.
In fact, for the time being, our greatest delay was going to be caused by the fact that we needed to find somewhere to refill our water. We were still in the shade, so it was cooler than it would have been anywhere else, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t hot and dusty. And between that and our impromptu race, we had emptied our canteens steadily through the morning. I might have been worried, but Tanner said he knew a place. A spot, really, since the little spring of cold, sweet water was nothing any human could take credit for.
Technically, it was out of our way. Not by much, only a half hour detour or so, but enough that it was an even more natural point to stop and take a break and eat something more than the trail bar Tanner had. Once we got there, I told Tanner this was enough to make it all worth it. The spring was beautiful. I think I’d know that even if I hadn’t spent so much of the last decade on something as thoroughly artificial as a space station.
This would be something I learned about this planet. It looked like as much of a desert as anything on Earth, like the places they filmed for all those old Westerns, all dry dust and red dirt, harsh and inhospitable. But huge stretches of this planet were like that. And, as near as the scientists could tell, they had been that way for centuries. Or possibly millennia. Maybe it was harsh, but it was not so harsh as you might think by looking at it. Water was never that far away, not if you could reach the underground rivers.
The spring trickled out of the red rock and fed a pool cut into the stone below. I had never seen such clear water. I had never seen much naturally pooled water. But even if I had, this would have surpassed it all. It was almost circular, three or four meters across, and hip deep at the center. And there was green. Plants clung to all the rocks beneath the surface of the water, and things like bushes grew all around it. It was incredible.
And I must have been staring.
“Bet you’re glad I made you hike out here now.”
“Hush.” But I smiled. “Maybe.” It was just a shame I already had some idea of how much I was going to be hurting the next day. And the next three days after that.
As much as we would have liked to, we spent less than an hour there. Just long enough to eat our rations (dehydrated meals are nasty, but they feed you) and rehydrate ourselves. It was peaceful. So peaceful, and in a way that it couldn’t ever been on a space station. It was peaceful even though there was a strange moment when we were both convinced something was watching us. I couldn’t say why. I might have heard something, or it might have just been the prickling feeling on the back of my neck. We looked around. My hand reached for my gun. But we didn’t see anything. And the feeling went away.
“I thought you said there weren’t aliens out here,” I said.
“There aren’t,” said Tanner, but both of us were questioning that a little. Only a little. But enough that neither of us minded getting moving again. And fortunately, the feeling faded quickly. Just not quickly enough for either of us to be anything less than fully alert for at least the next hour.