I was still groggy when the shuttle dropped through the atmosphere towards Verdant and touched down in the big landing field outside of Coville. That was normal enough after eight months in coldsleep, but it meant that I didn’t see Tanner until a split second before he wrapped me in a massive bear hug.
“Hey, sis. Took you long enough to get here.”
I tried to punch him without letting go of the hug. “Stuff it.”
He squeezed me one more time and tousled my hair. “How are Mom and Dad?”
“They’re good,” I said. All around us, the hum of other reunions filled the air. “Mom keeps talking about going out to one of the older colonies, but you know how Dad is. I promised we’d send pictures. And that we’d try to stay safe out here.”
“Are they still worried about us?”
I gave him a look. “Of course they are. But it’s not any worse than the last three years. They’ll be alright.”
There was a heavy clank behind us as the shuttle crew disengaged the locks that held my and the other passengers’ luggage secure during the short trip down from the big starliner still hanging somewhere up in orbit. The buzz of greetings broke off for a moment as the small crowd moved closer and waited for their names to be called as their baggage was handed down. Tanner and I hung back, keeping just outside the tightest part of the chaotic press.
“By the way, did you find any work for us?” I asked.
“Nah, I thought I’d leave that to you. Figured I’d done enough on my own for the last five weeks, you know?” He grinned.
I glared at him and gouged his ribs with my elbow. “Jerk. What do we have?”
“Something nice and easy, just for you.” He dodged away as I went to elbow him again. “One of the automated planes they’re using to map the Outlands went down in a canyon and they’re having trouble finding it. I thought you’d appreciate getting to know the area without getting shot at, so I said we’d be happy to hike out and see if we can find the thing.”
I grimaced. “When you say hiking, you mean actual hiking, don’t you?”
“More or less.” He grinned. “Someone might have a couple of horses we can borrow, but the terrain can be rough enough it might not be worth the trouble.”
I was about to mutter that horses were never worth the trouble when the shuttle crew came to my bag.
A couple of the closer passengers reached up to grab my big, black duffel and pass it back to me, and then Tanner and I were on our way. We trekked back across the dusty expanse of the landing field, towards the boarding house on the edge of town where Tanner had a room. I handed him my bag and made him carry it before we made it halfway there.
“So, when are we heading out?” I asked.
He slung the strap of my bag over his shoulder. “Well, I was going to let you get a little rest first, but since I’m carrying all your stuff now we might as well go now.”
I punched him in the shoulder. It was a cheap shot, especially since my bag was the only reason he couldn’t avoid it, but I didn’t feel too bad about it.
He giggled. “Man, I missed you.”
In the end, we decided to wait until the next morning to head out. Or rather, Tanner strung me along until finally admitting that he’d planned it that way all along, I punched him again, then enjoyed a long shower and a quick nap while he stepped out to handle a few last minute details. We had a light dinner and turned in early, and I slept until he shook me awake the next morning with the sort of gleeful grin I’d learned to hate when we were kids.
“Rise and shine, Miranda!” The whole mattress shook as he took it by the corners and bounced it up and down. “No freeloading for you. Time to earn your keep.” He shook the mattress again and moved just far enough to the side that my poorly aimed kick met with nothing but air. The room was still fairly dark, lit by nothing more than a dim lamp in the far corner and a few shreds of pale sunlight that came through the thin curtains hanging over the room’s one window.
“What time is it?”
“Time to get up.” He was still grinning. “I thought that was obvious enough.”
I raised a hand and one finger. “Not what I meant.”
“It’s six AM, give or take a couple minutes. I let you sleep in.”
“I’m pretty sure I hate you.”
I sat up, slowly, jamming the heels of my palms against my eyes in a vain attempt to rub the worst of the sleep away. They’d told me that lag from coldsleep would take a while to wear off, but somehow hearing about it from a nurse and actually having to contend with the fact that my body didn’t want to have anything to do with consciousness were two entirely different things.
Tanner tossed me a ration bar from across the room. Sluggish as I was, I missed it as it flew past my head and bounced off the wall behind me to land on the floor. It took me a moment to do more than stare at it.
“Oh, you’re going to be fun today,” said Tanner. He was grinning again.
“It’s just the lag. I’ll be fine once I get going.” I leaned back and reached down for the ration bar. “Coffee would help, though. You got any to go with this?” I retrieved the bar and waved it back and forth in the air.
“Nah. They haven’t gotten coffee to grow here yet, and the stuff they import is too expensive.”
I made a face. “Of course it is.”
Despite my protestations, it wasn’t all that bad once I actually got moving. Food helped, as did the fact that Tanner’s preparations meant that all we really had to do was grab our packs and head out to the depot where he’d arranged transportation for us with a rancher heading in the direction we wanted to go. It wasn’t glamorous— we climbed into the back of his jeep and made ourselves as comfortable as we could— but it worked, with the biggest downside being that the day was half gone by the time we reached the mouth of the canyon.
I can’t say that tramping through an alien wilderness looking for wreckage was my idea of the best job ever, but I was more than happy to admit that Tanner could have done a lot worse. The snatches of the planet’s surface that I’d seen during the shuttle’s descent the day before had given me a the impression that this corner of it looked a bit like the old American Southwest, complete with sagebrush and tumbleweed, or whatever they called the equivalent here. So, while it still might have been something of a desert, at least it wasn’t the sandy kind, and once we entered the canyon it wasn’t even all that hot.
And it’s fair to say that I was feeling optimistic. It wasn’t that nothing could go wrong on a job like this, but compared to what we were both used to, it wouldn’t be anything we didn’t know how to handle. Neither of us were going to complain about that.
If anything, it was all almost too easy. Or too simple, at any rate. Doing private security work back in Sol and Centauri, I’d gotten used to getting shot at, or at least used to the idea of getting shot at. I’d also gotten used to things rarely being what they seemed, large numbers of ulterior motives, and even the occasional double-cross. Here, the only thing we needed to worry about was keeping an eye out for bits of broken drone and making sure we didn’t lose our way as we made our way through the canyon. Given that it only branched every now and then, neither of those were going to be particularly difficult.
So, we talked. Even not counting the eight months we’d both lost to coldsleep, it had been a long time since we’d had the chance to just spend hours in each other’s company. I don’t know if Tanner meant to give us the chance to catch up, and knowing him it probably hadn’t crossed his mind except as an afterthought, but he couldn’t have done it better if he’d tried. I told him about everything I could think of from the past three years. Or, if not everything, then everything that hadn’t been important enough to work into the occasional datapackets we’d exchanged but still loomed large in my memory. There were clients with more money than sense, a couple with more sense than money, and too many without much of either. There was the time I got paid to stand at a door and look imposing, which, being five-foot-six and female was a little easier said than done, though I managed well enough. There were a few close friendships, a couple of ill-fated romances, and not nearly enough trips back home to visit our parents. And there was convincing them that going out to this tiny little system on the edge of civilized space was a good idea.
“Did you try to get them to come out here too?” asked Tanner.
“I hinted once or twice. We might be able to convince Mom, but you remember how hard it was for her to get Dad to even go as far as Centauri, and that was just for a visit. He just kept saying we both needed to move back closer to home before they get too old, though sooner would be better.”
Tanner laughed. “He still hasn’t retired, has he?”
“Neither of them have. They’re hoping to within the next couple of years, though, I think. They’re talking about it, at least.”
It was getting to be late afternoon, and the sun had dropped low enough that the canyon walls blocked the best of the light. The sky above our head was still a pale blue, and the shadows weren’t so deep that we couldn’t continue searching, but it wouldn’t be that much longer before we started running into the very real possibility of walking right past what we were looking for. As if that wasn’t enough, both of our stomachs were starting to growl, and we were quickly finding ourselves less interested in looking for debris than a likely spot to make camp for the night.
We found the latter in the form of a shallow cave near a bend in the canyon and a small stream that trickled down from a crack in the walls and into a small, clear pool ringed by a few trees and more greenery than we’d seen all day. Dead branches provided more than enough kindling for a small fire, and all in all, it looked like we were going to be able to sleep in far more comfort than either of us had expected. Well. Comfort being a relative term. The fire would keep us warm, the water meant we weren’t going to have to ration ourselves quite so carefully, and the cave was a nice bonus in case the weather decided to turn funny. Sleeping on the ground and eating ration bars for dinner just came with the territory, and you could even say that it added to the charm of it all. Tanner did say so, which was why I threw the empty wrapper of my ration bar at him.
After that, we talked for a while longer in the dying light of our fire before unrolling our sleeping bags and heading off to bed. Well, I went to bed. Tanner stayed up a little longer to watch the fire as it burned down and to keep watch a little longer. It hardly seemed necessary. We hadn’t seen any wildlife the entire day, and by all reports most of the nastier critters indiginous to the planet lived elsewhere. Still, old habits die hard, and if I hadn’t still been so tired from the interstellar trip, I would have done the same thing. But I was exhausted, and so I was more than happy to let him take that particular bullet while I fell into a deeper sleep than I would have expected to find given the circumstances.
I don’t know how long I’d been asleep when Tanner shook me awake for the second time that day. The fire was out, save for a few red embers, and the better part of the light that allowed us to see anything at all came from the big, pale halfmoon that hung high in the sky and managed to spill its light down into the canyon. It was enough for me to see three or four dark forms moving along the edge of the pool.
“What is it?” I whispered.
He had his sidearm drawn, and he handed me mine as soon as I brought myself up to a crouch.
“Human or animal?” I thought it was the latter, but I wasn’t certain. Tanner wasn’t either.
Whatever they were, they moved together, and they were getting closer. They weren’t being overtly threatening, but I wasn’t convinced that that made anything better. At least then we’d know where we stood.
“We’re sure there’s no aliens here, right?”
Even in the darkness, I’m pretty sure I saw Tanner give me a look. “No such thing,” he said. “Not the kind you’re thinking of, anyway.”
A second later, we were both pretty sure they weren’t human. As to what they actually were, we were still at a loss. Tanner crept a little closer to the pool to get a closer look. He didn’t move far and he didn’t move fast, and he was quiet about it, but his foot caught on a rock and sent it tumbling softly across the ground. The nearest and biggest of the creatures looked up with a snort and snapped its head towards us. My stomach lurched up into my throat.
For just a moment I thought that we’d be wildly lucky, and the whole thing would end there. The creature gave a sharp, bleating bark. The other three responded in kind and wheeled, bolting back into the canyon with a thunder and rumble of what sounded like hooves. The first one looked like it was about to follow suit.
And then it changed its mind and charged us.
The thing was fast. Tanner and I barely had time to dive out of the way before it was on top of us, careening through our cave and scattering the remnants of our fire all around. We scrambled away and sprinted for the trees as soon as we could get to our feet.
“Climb! Tanner! Climb!”
“What the hell do you think I’m doing!?”
I made it up into the branches of the nearest tree first, and I braced myself against the trunk as I reached down to give Tanner my hand. The animal turned and charged us again before I could haul him out of the way.
We disagree on what happened next.
If you ask him, Tanner will say I dropped him just as he was getting up onto the branch, and that the animal took a bite out of his leg as he fell. He’ll also say that if it weren’t for his presence of mind and incredible aim, the thing would have mauled him within an inch of his life. What actually happened was more like this: my brother, with all the grace of a drunken, lamed muskox, failed to pull himself up and out of the way and expected me to get his fat ass to safety, and while I was doing my very best to do just that, the creature jumped. Like a jackrabbit. It sank four fangs that had no business in the mouth of any herbivore (as I later found out it was) and pulled, dragging Tanner back down to the ground with it. And then, if it weren’t for my presence of mind and incredible aim, it would have mauled him some more.
Either way, when the dust settled Tanner was on the ground with a bite missing from his leg, and the critter that had done the deed was down next to him with a clean shot through its skull. My clean shot, but I digress. I dropped down from the tree and landed beside him.
“Tann, how bad is it?”
“Bad enough.” He sucked in a sharp breath as I reached for his leg.
“Don’t think so.”
“That’s something. Can you walk?”
He shifted around until he could test the limb with a little weight, and then when that worked, he pulled himself to his feet. “Yes. Ow. I’ll make it work.”
“Yeah, okay. Sit down.”
I jogged back over to our cave and groped around until I found one of our packs and the flashlight and first aid kit inside. It took a little doing, but we managed to get his wound cleaned and bound up, and then he slept the rest of the night while I kept watch. Once the sun finally rose again, we took the time to take a closer look at the dead animal.
It looked like a sheep. Sort of. It had shaggy fur that seemed a bit like wool, and it had cloven hooves. Its face was long and narrow, but its jaw was heavy and clearly strong, probably so it could make better use of the four massive fangs that protruded from its mouth. We built another fire and cooked a little of its meat for breakfast and found that it wasn’t half bad, though that could have just been the sweet taste of revenge. I’m pretty sure Tanner enjoyed it more than me.
And then we started back toward the mouth of the canyon, limping and slow and trying not to think too hard about the fact that we had just failed our first job together on Verdant because of a bloodthirsty ovine. But that was okay. The story alone made it all worth it.