Space walking was possibly the most magnificent part of Major Don West's job. As a boy, he had dreamed that he could fly on numerous occasions. Those dreams never left him and were probably what led him to join the Space Corps and become a pilot. Even so, most of his time was spent sitting behind a control panel, gripping the stick and flipping switches, even still under the effects of artificial gravity. Hardly flying, but after all, men weren't born with wings; they had to build their own.
But out here, with his weight gone from him and only the thin layers of his spacesuit between him and the vacuum, with the stars all around him and a blue-green planet looming above his head, he was able to fly. As best as he was able around the oxygen tank on his back, he gave a stretch and a sigh of contentment.
"Now, this is what I was born for," he said to himself, quietly, around a dreamy grin.
"What was that, Don?" The voice of Professor John Robinson intruded on Don's reveries, sounding in his earpiece.
"Nothing," Don responded, almost quick enough to make it sound as if he had been caught doing something wrong. "Just taking in the sights. You should see it out here, John."
"I still can, you know," John said, "there's still enough time for us to switch places."
"Aww, no," said Don, nearly before the Professor had stopped speaking, "no, no, no. No way, Professor, this one is my flight. I'm the qualified test pilot, remember. And you're checked out on the controls of the Jupiter Two enough to make a solo landing, by now. Besides, I haven't gotten to make an atmospheric jump since we left Earth." As if John was about to change his mind, Don turned his attention back to the small pile of equipment that was waiting for him in the open airlock hatch. He began to struggle into the over-sized, hard-shelled backpack and arm extensions that made up the new system he was going to test.
"I still say you're a madman," the prim baritone voice of Doctor Smith sounded in his ear next. "To leave the relative safety of a ship in orbit to go jumping, willy-nilly, into an alien atmosphere as if you're leaping off a high dive. Absolutely preposterous!"
"Don't knock it till you tried it, Doc," Don said, snapping the last of the equipment into place.
"I think not, Major. I prefer not to be incinerated over an alien planet."
"You don't know what you're missing," Don replied. "Final system check is all green, John. I'm ready to go. Just give the word."
"All right, Don," John's voice sounded again, "I want you to play this one by the book. No pushing the envelope, this time. If there's more than a five percent error in your course, I want you to kick in the emergency thrusters and abort."
"You got it. Anything else?" Don picked up the last piece of equipment, an over-sized shield of titanium that had been fashioned into the shape of a glider with a curious bubble on the top of it.
"Nope, that about covers it. Contact the Jupiter once you've left radio blackout."
"Roger that. I'll see you all in an orbit or two," Don said, giving a gentle push with his feet and leaving the surface of the Jupiter. "Over and out."
As soon as he had cleared the circular space ship, he turned his attention to the set of controls on his left arm. A small display showed his trajectory and speed. He pulled the titanium glider up under his legs and kneeled on it just inside the bubble. Settling his helmet just against the innermost wall and digging his toes into the surface of the glider, he hit the control on his arm that let loose the first of two tanks of fuel in the backpack. He began to feel a slight pull of gravity as he watched the Jupiter Two overtake him in orbit. Soon, he was falling toward the planet
A few moments later, just as the pre-programmed deceleration burst ended, he felt the first lurch of the glider hitting the atmosphere. Almost instantly, the temperature began to rise and Don could see the rarified gasses beginning to erupt into flame outside his titanium bubble. There was little for him to do now but hang on and enjoy the ride.
The flames outside gathered and he watched the streams of plasma dance their way past him in reds and blues and greens. This was the most exciting part of an atmospheric dive, when you surrender yourself to physics and let Sir Isaac Newton run the show. There was nothing between Don and oblivion but mankind's understanding of gravity and a tiny bubble of titanium.
He realized that a bead of sweat was beginning to crawl around on his neck between his skin and his spacesuit and that his breath was starting to quicken. He forced his breath to calm and checked the temperature gauge again. It was slightly warmer than had been projected, but still well within Don's assigned margin of safety.
Outside, the fiery cacophony began to fade away. Don began to catch glimpses of the land below him, rushing past and away behind him almost faster than he could see it. A red range of mountains, surrounded by white clouds loomed up before him and danced past, revealing a vast ocean of deep blue beyond, reflecting a great yellow orb that was the planet's sun.
A quick check of the temperature told Don that things had cooled down enough for him to emerge from his titanium cocoon. With one hand, he reached up behind him and pushed forward on the edge of the sectioned bubble until it was collapsed into a small niche in the glider's surface. With his feet still firmly planted where they had been, Don stretched out his legs, pushing himself forward on the glider until he was laying down atop it, belly down, and gripping a set of dual control sticks. After a quick glance at his readouts to check speed, altitude, pressure, and temperature, and satisfied that all were well within acceptable limits, he pulled back on the control sticks. On the wings of the glider, two flaps swung down below him, catching the thin air and giving the glider another lurch. The glider's angle of decent changed and Don began to fall somewhat more vertically. The ocean didn't fly by him quite so quickly any more.
A shrill indicator began to sound in his ear, telling him that he had emerged from radio blackout. He flipped a switch on his controls to silence it, but hesitated before opening his radio frequency back to the Jupiter. He wanted to savor the moment by himself before having to report in. With nothing but the wind around him, with no engines whirring away, and with nothing between him and the open air, this was flying in its purest form. This was what he had dreamed of as a boy.
But, enough self-indulgence. If he didn't contact the Jupiter soon, John was liable to bring the ship down after him before Don had had a chance to test the planet's environment or find a suitable landing site. Don didn't begrudge John his worry. In point of fact, he was flattered and honored that the older man thought of Don as a part of his family and thought enough of him to tell him so.
"Major West to Jupiter Two, do you read me?"
"This is the Jupiter Two," John's voice replied only a moment later. Don figured that the professor had been hovering over the radio for some time now. "What's your status, Don?"
"Everything's a-okay so far," Don reported, "the glider came through the insertion with no problem at all. I've got full control, now. I'm still over the ocean, but I should be coming up on the eastern continent any minute. What's you're pleasure; northern or equatorial latitudes?"
"Let's keep it in the mid-range, for now," John replied, "a landing there will conserve the ship's fuel since we won't have to make any course corrections."
"And here I was looking forward to taking this baby for a real spin," said Don.
"This isn't a joyride, Major West," John said, pitching his voice a little lower in admonishment.
"Spoil sport," Don mumbled.
"What was that? I didn't copy."
"Nothing, Professor. I copy. Mid-latitudes it is."
A large landmass began to approach and Don finally got a more visual sense of how high he was, once again. Below, a thin layer of clouds drifted past. Beneath that, Don could see more land features as they came into his view; a river, a forest, foothills and a small mountain range. A rolling grassland came into view a few minutes later and Don figured that such a wide open space would be an ideal landing zone for Professor Robinson's first solo landing of the Jupiter. As soon as it was beneath him, Don pulled the glider into a clockwise spiral and began a more controlled decent.
After a few minutes of spiraling downward, Don and the glider passed the cloud layer and he could see the features of the ground far more clearly. The grassland had something of a faint reddish tint to it, making Don wonder, very briefly, what was in the planet's soil. A twinkle of reflected sunlight caught his eye and he spotted a river flowing off to the east. Looking about some more, he saw a forested area to the south. And far in the distance behind him, he could see another red mountain range that he had passed over as he cleared the boundary between the ocean and the continent. This would be a nice, picturesque change of pace to all the barren, rocky landscapes they had been met with on so many other worlds.
"I think I might have found us a good landing zone," he reported in, "I'll put down and run a final environmental check. Do you have me on the scope?"
"Affirmative," John replied, "go ahead and set down. We'll begin making calculations to land nearby."
Don pitched the glider forward, bringing it once again into a dive. The ground began to rush toward him. A moment later and a sensor on his altimeter began to sound. He leveled off once more and brought the glider around to face the direction he had come. Slowly, he guided it down. At the last moment, he pulled the nose of the glider up. With a lurch, the back edge of the glider hit the ground first, kicking up dust in its wake. Another lurch and the front was down, skidding on its belly across the grasslands. It went for nearly a quarter mile before coming to rest amid a cloud of dust and sand.
Don allowed himself a few moments to catch his breath. His body protested the sudden presence of full gravity once again and Don very nearly had to roll off the top of the glider. He lay amid the long grasses for a few minutes, facing the sky as the dust around him settled and breathing deeply of what was left in his oxygen tank. As soon as he was reasonably sure his voice was steady enough, he opened his radio frequency again.
"Jupiter Two, this is West. I've landed just fine down here."
"You sound a little flushed, Don," came the voice of John's wife, Maureen, tinged with a bit of worry, "are you all right?" Leave it to the intrepid space mom to see through his efforts to disguise fatigue.
"Yeah, I'm fine, Maureen," Don replied, "just a little tired. I'm feeling the gravity a bit, at the moment." He tapped a few controls on the display on his arms and read its results. "Well, the gravity down here is a whole, whopping one-point-oh-five gees," he said jokingly, "no wonder I'm feeling so heavy!"
"What's your oxygen look like?" John asked.
"Right where it should be," said Don, "but the readouts down here say the air is breathable. Oxygen mix is almost Earth-normal. No dangerous airborne microbes. Temperatures are good. I gotta tell ya', I'm itching to get this helmet off."
"I don't see why not," said John, "just make sure you keep in radio contact."
With some effort, Don lifted his head off the ground and unlocked the seal at his neck holding on his helmet. He slid it off his head and set it aside before allowing his head to loll back and look at the sky. He took a few deep breaths of air, smelling a tang of something citrus-like on the wind. With one hand, he gathered a bit of the long grasses surrounding him and held it to his nose.
"Oh, that smells sweet. Kinda like oranges. C'mon down here, Jupiter. It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood."
Hours later, after the Jupiter Two had landed safely and relayed their position to Don, the pilot finally trudged his way into the rapidly forming camp of the Robinson family. The Robot was dutifully scanning the surrounding terrain and John was already fiddling with the force field generator not far from the ship's entrance and spotted Don as he approached, dragging his feet like lead weights. John abandoned what he was doing at once and went out to meet the younger man at the perimeter of the camp.
Don had left behind the glider and the hard-shelled backpack that contained the remains of his oxygen tank, thrusters, and the second, unused, tank of fuel he'd had for an emergency abort. Still, he looked as if every step was a struggle and that he might collapse at any moment.
"You look like the dog's lunch," said John, worriedly offering Don a shoulder. It did little to calm his fears when Don took the assistance without argument.
"Nothing a good night's sleep won't fix," Don replied, "I'm not used to making those jumps any more. It's been too long."
"Negative, Major West," the Robot intoned as they approached, "you are dehydrated and anemic."
"Traitor," Don directed at the Robot, half in jest.
"Anemic?" John asked as he settled Don on the ramp to the ship's entrance. "Didn't you eat before the jump?"
"No way! I made my first jump during training on a full stomach. Spent the entire time down trying not to puke and the twenty minutes after landing at Cape Canaveral up-chucking my brains out. After that, it's been an empty stomach every time."
"Well, you better get something into it before you fall over. I'll go tell Maureen."
As John went inside the Jupiter, Don let himself relax somewhat. He put one foot up on the ramp, leaving the other to dangle over the side, and leaned against the outside wall at the edge of the hatch. He was just about to close his eyes and give them a break from the glare of the mid-day sun when Judy came running out of the hatch. The sight of the Jupiter's only eligible bachelorette energized him, slightly, and he pushed himself up into a more attentive posture. The sight of the tall glass of water in her hand helped, too.
"Don, there you are!" she exclaimed, lighting on the ramp next to him. She handed him the glass of water. "Dad said you needed this."
"Thanks," he said, taking it and drinking deeply, nearly running through the whole glass without taking a breath.
"You look exhausted."
"Long day at the office," he said with a wink.
"So, how was it?"
"Ah, Judy, it was fantastic! There's nothing like entering fire in the dark and coming out on the other side of it in the light. And then, I got to fly like a bird afterward. That feeling... it's why I became a pilot."
"Well, I don't know about the part when you go through the fire, but the rest of it sounds incredible."
Lightly, Don reached over and put his hand on top of hers. "I've only found one thing more incredible."
A couple of snickers drifted to them in the silence that followed immediately after. Judy's head whipped around and she looked back toward the doorframe to find Will and Penny lurking almost out of sight.
"Oh, you horrible little snoops!" Judy exclaimed, jumping to her feet, her face reddening.
Don's face reddened as well, but he couldn't help but laugh at the whole thing. The budding romance between the Robinson's bright and beautiful eldest daughter and the Jupiter Two's hot-shot pilot had been the worst-kept secret at Alpha Control before their takeoff from Earth and out in space it was considered all but a done deal. Don had long ago resigned himself to the fact that they were hardly ever able to get some time alone together. But Judy still clung to an almost territorial desire for privacy every once in a while and her two younger siblings seemed to revel in poking and prodding her from time to time.
"C'mon out, you two," said Don, "no one likes eaves-droppers."
"Or little brothers and sisters," Judy mumbled, crossing her arms over her chest.
"So, did the glider work okay, Don?" Will asked as he clomped down the ramp.
"Absolutely textbook, the whole way down. I think we can count on being able to use it for planetary scouting all the time."
"Gliding down instead of thrustering down," Will said in amazement, "it'll sure save us a whole lot of fuel in the long run."
"Mom sent me up to get you," said Penny, "she says she's making something 'almost edible' from some of the last of our store of hydroponic garden vegetables."
"That sounds great," said Don, slowly getting to his feet, "I think I could eat an elephant."
"Do they have those on this planet?" Penny asked, jokingly.
"I guess we'll just have to find out," Don replied in kind.
Noting that he seemed to sway slightly on his feet as he went up the ramp, Judy hovered close, then latched herself on to Don's side, snaking an arm around his waist. He put an arm around her shoulder and leaned on her just a hair more than he would have admitted to. John passed them as they went into the ship, heading back outside again. He cast his eldest a knowing look and a slight nod of approval.
"Here, Will, Penny, why don't you help me get some of this equipment set up," John said before the two younger Robinson siblings could follow Don and Judy inside to pester them some more.
"Kay," they both answered, almost in unison, then went trailing off after their father.
Judy led Don inside and to the lower deck of the Jupiter where the crew quarters and the galley were located. Maureen was there, stirring at something in a pot over the modest stove and turned to greet them just as Don was dropping into the nearest seat at the table.
"Welcome back, Don," she said.
"Thanks, Maureen," he said, giving the air an appreciative sniff, "you have no idea how good that smells right now."
"Probably about twice a good as it would smell if you had eaten at all yet, today," said Maureen with a hint of scolding in her voice, "I don't know how you managed to slip past my Radar at breakfast time, let alone lunch, too. I do wish you would take better care of yourself. Oh, Judy could you help me with this?"
"Sure," Judy said, rushing over.
"Honestly, Don," Maureen continued her tirade, "John's noticed it, too. He was just mentioning it to me. You eat strange things at odd hours. You don't get enough sleep. And in the meantime, you're doing the work of three men." She handed a dish to Judy to take to the table. The younger Robinson obliged and turned back to the table, but stopped short.
"Not to mention, jump into atmospheres from orbit," Maureen went on, "and that's no small feat for a person, test pilot or otherwise."
"Mother," Judy said in a hushed voice, putting a hand on Maureen's arm to get her attention, then indicating the table. Her mother looked to it and there saw Don, head in the crook of one folded arm on the table, sleeping soundly. "Should we wake him?"
"Oh, no, let's let him sleep a bit," Maureen answered, "why don't you go outside and help your father."
Judy nodded and climbed the ladder back up to the flight deck. Meanwhile, Maureen got a blanket out of a cabinet and quietly went over to where Don was sleeping at the galley table and put it around his shoulders. A little bit of concern wafted through her and, as lightly as she could, she checked him for a fever. She found none, though, and concluded that Don was simply exhausted. After that, she went back over to the meal she had been preparing and put it into the food preservation unit. Lunch would have to wait.
Days later, the crew of the Jupiter Two had learned a great deal about their new host planet. For one thing, there was a high iron content in the soil. That was what was causing the reddish tints to all the vegetation and, they suspected, why the distant mountain ranges looked red. For another, the day was twenty-six hours long, requiring a bit of an adjustment akin to jet lag. The information they had already gathered on the planet's orbit around its sun was enough for the Robot to extrapolate the rest; it was only slightly more elliptical than Earth's orbit around Sol, which, they supposed, accounted for the Earth-like climate they were now enjoying. The planet also had three moons which wreaked havoc on the tides in the nearby river. There were days the water came as much as a quarter mile closer to their camp.
As yet, they had not encountered any other forms of intelligent life on the planet. Of course, as past experience had taught them, that didn't mean that there wasn't any or that none would come. In fact, given how idyllic a planet it was, they were all but expecting some to arrive any day. But until then, it was their world.
None of them was quite certain who had named it first, but they had come to call their latest stop-over Ingui Fréy.
But, despite all they had already learned and despite giving the planet a name, they still didn't know everything they needed to know about the area surrounding their camp. For the most part, they were surrounded by grasslands, making it all the easier to see any approaching danger. But there was a series of stone outcroppings about a mile to their north which made John and Don rather uneasy. Such geological anomalies could signify a fault line or something else that they couldn't fathom. And so, a week after their landing, John, Don, and Will set out across the waist-deep grasses to go and scout the stones, laser rifles slug over their shoulders.
As most of the rock they had already seen on the planet, the stone formation had an overall red tint to it. Will had brought along his usual pick and rucksack and took a sample almost as soon as they reached it. It only took him a moment to pronounce the stone to be a form of granite. John had joined him in his analysis, running though a number of other geological field tests and pronounced the stone to be free of dangerous compounds and radioactive materials.
While they were doing that, Don set off on a short patrol around the rock formation's perimeter. It was a large formation and a thorough search all the way around it took him nearly a half an hour. He spent that time climbing up and down the rock face where he could, searching in all the little cracks and crevasses and scaring his fair share of local fauna. One in particular creature he came across really caught his eye. It was a short way out from the rock formation, grazing on the grass. No bigger than an Earth house cat, it looked to be something akin to a three-legged rabbit. It froze when they saw each other and it stared at him for almost a minute. Don had made an attempt to coax it over to him, but as soon as he got too close, the thing had arched its back, revealed furred wings, and fluttered off into the sky like a very large sparrow.
One other thing had piqued his curiosity while making his survey. There was one crevice into which he had poked that seemed to go on for quite a way. He had shined his flashlight back into it, but the beam hit a wall at the back. He couldn't be sure, but it looked as if it continued off to the left. He briefly thought about going inside to have a look around, but thought better of it. He couldn't be sure how stable the footing was inside and if something happened, John and Will would have a hard time finding him.
"Funny thing is," he reported to John after he had completed his loop, "it would be the perfect place for any of the local wildlife to shelter in, but I don't see anything that says they do."
"Well, maybe they just don't know it's there," Will ventured.
"No, they know it's there," said Don, "I startled a... well, I don't know what it is. I'll tell you about it later, but there's a million of 'em around here. Anyway, I scared it and it went running. It went looking for cover, paused right before that entrance, then skittered off somewhere else."
"It wouldn't go in," John realized.
"Exactly," Don confirmed.
"Well, it seems the animals around here know something we don't," said John, "and I'd like to know what that is. Sounds like it's worth taking a closer look. Why don't you lead the way, Don."
After a few minutes to pack up their rock samples and small equipment, the three of them walked back around to the north side of the rocks where Don had found the cave entrance. The major led the way, climbing about five feet up the rock face before coming to a small landing. John boosted Will up to him and then followed. John peered inside with his flashlight for moment.
"Yup, it continues on to the left all right," he pronounced, "and then down, from the look of it."
"Should we go inside, dad?" Will asked.
"Well, I don't see why not," said John, "the ground looks sturdy enough. Just watch your footing to be safe, though."
With his flashlight shining on ahead of him, John led the way into the cave. Will followed close at his heels and Don took up the rear. It was noticeably cooler inside and around them they could hear the sounds of water dripping down from the cave ceiling and along the walls. They followed the path that led to the left. It sloped gradually downward at first, then began to drop off, steadily. The passage wound back and forth on itself in hairpin turns, sometimes widening, sometimes narrowing. But strangely enough, it never seemed to get smaller than ten feet.
Suddenly, the slope leveled out and opened into a much larger cavern. The space was so large that the trio's flashlights could not see all the way to the back of the cavern. The floor of the cave was perfectly flat; unnaturally so.
"This sure is a strange cave," said Will as they all set about searching the perimeter.
"And getting stranger by the minute," said Don from his place along one of the walls, "take a look at this."
Don had fixed the beam of his flashlight on three deep grooves in the cavern wall, running parallel to each other.
"Call me crazy, but those look like claw marks," said John with surprise.
"But this is the same type of rock that's outside," said Will, "what kind of creature could make claw marks in solid granite?"
"Makes me nervous," said Don.
John nodded his agreement, then moved his light away from the claw marks and toward the darkened back of the cavern. They all began to move in that direction, spreading out somewhat to cover the space between both walls.
"Wait, I think I saw my light shine off something back there," Don said, "it looks like it might be some kind of-"
Suddenly, there was a grinding sound near Don's feet, like stone against stone, then a twang off to their right and a whistle. All these happened nearly on top of each other and before they had ended, something sharp dug into the flesh of Don's right arm. With a yelp, he dropped his flashlight and clutched at the wound. There was a shaft sticking out of his bicep with furry fletching at the end.
"It's a booby trap!" he yelled through a pained voice.
"Everyone stay still!" John ordered. Will instantly rooted himself to his spot and Don did his best not to move and to keep quiet despite the piercing pain in his arm. John and Will set to scanning the area nearby for signs of other traps. Seeing no obvious ones near them for the moment, John slowly walked over to where Don was standing, clutching his arm. "Here, get your hand off it for a sec," he said to the pilot, "let me take a look."
There was already a fair amount of blood around the wound and the arrow had torn a considerable hole in Don's sleeve. John pushed the fabric back carefully while Don ground his teeth in pain and tried not to burst out in a long string of expletives. As gently as he could, John probed around the wound near the shaft of the arrow and found one of the back corners of the arrow head still sticking out from Don's skin.
"It doesn't look like it's too deep in," he said.
"Think you can pull it out?" Don asked, stoically.
"I'm not sure that's such a good idea," John answered, "not until I can get a better look at it in the daylight. How do you feel?"
"Well, it hurts like you wouldn't believe," said Don, "but otherwise, I'm all right."
"Okay, I think it's time we got outta here," and John.
"Dad, did you hear something?" Will asked just then, his gaze fixed along the far, dark wall, "it sounded like it was over there."
All three listened for a moment, their eyes scanning the darkness before them in trepidation.
"I don't hear anything," said Don.
"No, wait, I hear it!" John exclaimed, hushing his voice. "It sounds like something on the ground."
"It's coming this way," said Will.
Ignoring the persisting pain in his arm, Don swung his laser rifle off his shoulder and held it at hip level. John handed Will his flashlight, then did the same. The sound got steadily louder, a sort of metallic shuffling along the stone of the cavern floor. As Will swept the flashlights around in the darkness, it suddenly hit something smooth and rounded, looking like a sectioned cylinder of metal ending in three claws which twitched menacingly.
And that was all John needed to see.
"Let's go, everyone out, now!" he yelled.
No sooner had he yelled this than a bright light flared all around them, lighting the cavern in oranges and reds. At very nearly the same time, the metallic form began to shuffle toward them at a frightening speed. It was nearly ten feet tall, a bulbous body of brown metal sporting spiked shoulders and a head that looked like some sort of horned, beaked beast from the nether regions of hell itself. Two arms, each ending in three-clawed hands of silver, sprouted from the shoulders. Two legs, beast-like and standing on their toes, shuffled along the ground, scratching marks in the cavern floor. At nearly every joint and at two points on the head, red pin-holed orbs moved amid hawk-like folds of flesh, as if searching all around. It lurched strangely as it moved and despite its already formidable speed, John's mind refused to believe that this was as fast as it could move. It was upon them before they could take a single step back the way they came. It flung one of its massive arms around in an arc, catching John in the chest and knocking him backwards into Will, sending John's laser rifle clattering along the ground and out of his reach.
As the two Robinsons fell to the ground, Don squeezed off a shot from his laser rifle and began moving, heedless of any other traps in the area. He went toward the back end of the cavern, toward one of the eerie orange light sources, an orb floating in the center of the space. He hoped to use the thing to shield himself from the creature's attacks.
The creature wheeled about and was upon Don in a moment, charging straight toward the orb. Don backed off as best he could, bracing himself for the sound of the creature's impact against the light source. But, impossibly, the creature continued toward him, though the orb. Don let loose another laser bolt and was dimly aware that John was readying a volley of his own. The bolt had little effect on the creature and it continued his way so Don vaulted back as quickly as he could.
But the creature was already within range and swung a blow Don's way, arcing around from Don's right and catching him in his wounded shoulder, hard. He went flying to his left and into the wall where he crumpled to the ground, dazed. As he shook his head to clear it, the creature came upon him again, launching one clawed hand into the cavern wall just above his head. A moment later, and the creature's other hand was speeding directly toward him. Don clenched his eyes shut, awaiting the worst.
It was a moment later he realized he was still alive. Cautiously, he opened his eyes and saw nothing but the three silver tips of the creature's claws. Slowly, they moved to the side and Don found himself staring into what he could only assume were the creature's two main eyes, on its head. All of the red orbs pressed forward, looking directly at him as if studying him.
Panicked, Don began to feel around him for his rifle, never taking his gaze off the creature as if to do so would break whatever spell was now holding it. His hand found something smooth and cylindrical, tapering. Not looking at it but hoping it had a point, he brought it up and thrust it into the creature's mid section. The creature's eyes cast about wildly for a moment, then it fell backwards sliding off the make-shift weapon, away from Don, into a heap on the floor.
Shaking with adrenaline and pain and breathing wildly, Don watched it for a moment for any signs of movement.
"Don, are you all right!?" John asked, rushing up to him a moment later.
"Holy jumpin'..." Don said in reply as he shakily got to his feet, realizing a moment later that John had hoisted him up by his good arm and was holding on to his elbow. "What the hell is that thing?"
"I dunno, but I don't want to find out if it has friends," said John, "c'mon, we're getting out of here."
Will had already gathered up both laser rifles and now handed them to his father. The boy took charge of both flashlights and led the way toward the cavern exit. They took off at a full run, not stopping until they found themselves outside the rock formation, amid the grasses and under the mid-day sun. They watched the entrance for a few moments while they caught their breath and finally relaxed when it was clear that nothing was following them out.
"Everyone all right?" John asked between breaths.
"I'm okay," Will gasped out.
"I've been better," Don wheezed, swaying for a moment, then falling forward onto his knees. John caught him before he could fall any further. "Brought you a souvenir, though." Still clutched in his right fist was the thing he had used to dispatch the creature. He handed it to John.
It was a very narrow cone of silver metal. Toward the wider end was attached a shell-shaped cup with two spikes aligned perpendicular to the cone, each a perfect 180 degrees apart from each other.
"Almost looks like a sword," said Will.
John was less concerned with the artifact than with his pilot. The younger man had gone ashen white and his entire right arm was now covered in blood. Worried, John took another look at the wound. The arrow had snapped off in the fight, which didn't surprise him, but he was more concerned with the arrow head.
"It looks like the arrow head got pushed in deeper in that scuffle," John said, "and the shaft broke off pretty close. That's gonna hurt coming out."
"Hurts already," Don said, half in a fog.
"You're losing blood," said John, "we better get you back to the spaceship." He handed Will the alien artifact and stood, hauling Don to his feet and putting the pilot's good arm around his own shoulder. Will gathered up their rucksacks and the two rifles and they were off, heading back across the grasslands as quickly as they could.
"Sir, I objected to the question, that's all!"
"Yes, you did, Major, with your fist."
"What was I supposed to do? The guy ambushed me on the street!"
"Of all the nerve! How is that any of his business?"
"Look, Major, in principle, I agree. However-"
"It's not any of his business! And John would agree with me! Judy is under enough stress and it's no business of the general public or the press who she chooses to spend time with when she's not working on the Jupiter Mission! And lemme tell you, a worse man would have-"
"Stand at attention, Major West!"
The order triggered a particular override in Don's body, instantly clamping his mouth shut and straightening his spine even though his conscious brain was still dictating a tirade of choice words. The pause the reflexive action afforded him allowed Don to finally notice the rather irate look on Admiral Howe's face. Clearly, Don had pushed their amicable relationship a little too far for the older man's taste.
Howe rose and calmly strode around his desk to stand only a mere couple of feet away from Don. He loomed just behind Don's shoulder for a few moments.
"The fact of the matter is," the Admiral said a few moments later, "that I didn't call you here to talk about your dust-up with Mister Welles this morning. I'm not happy about it, but I'll let Alpha Control's legal paper pushers deal with it. In the meantime, I have a protocol for the Jupiter Mission to discuss with you. At ease."
"Admiral, if there's a mission protocol to go over, shouldn't we have John here?" Don asked as he relaxed his stance somewhat and put his arms behind his back.
"I think under the circumstances you'll understand why we're not telling him about this particular protocol," said Howe.
"Sir?" Don said in genuine confusion.
"Your position as pilot for the Jupiter Two is mainly a cover," Howe continued, "both for the media and for the Robinsons. The auto navigation system on that ship is advanced enough that a trained monkey could pilot it to Alpha Centauri. But I'm sure you've noticed that."
"I had," Don admitted, "but I just figured, with such a high-profile mission, you were assigning good backup."
"That's true, in part," said Howe, "but piloting the Jupiter Two is unofficially your second priority. Or rather, it's part and partial of your primary mission."
"Then, what am I really there to do, sir?"
"I'm sure you're aware of the latest rumors about the Jupiter One?"
"Yes, sir. But I don't put too much stock in rumors."
"In this case, you should."
"Sir, do you mean to tell me that the accident on the Jupiter One was-"
Howe had dropped the news so abruptly and with such finality that it actually felt to Don as if someone had punched him in the chest. Without bothering for permission, Don sank into the nearest seat. He sat there in stunned silence for several moments while Howe went back behind his desk and sat as well.
"We have reason to believe the Jupiter One was sabotaged," the Admiral continued, "and since the explosion originated near its computer core, we can't be sure if it was done in person or remotely somehow. Robinson is a brave enough man, but if he knew there was the threat of an enemy attack on his family, he'd back out of the mission before you or I could turn around."
Don paused as a number of scenarios played through his head. Finally, his jaw clenched as he settled on the one he considered to be the worst. "Sir, I'm not being asked to keep him from finding out about this, am I?"
"No," said Howe, "that's not your mission. Although, I won't lie to you, it was discussed. I fought tooth and nail to make sure it didn't happen. No, if Robinson finds out about this, he finds out. But one thing you are being ordered to do and that's not to tell him about it yourself."
"Admiral, I can't-"
"That is a direct order, Major!" Howe paused and gave a sigh of discontent. "I had to give them something. I'm sorry."
Don's teeth ground in frustration and it was several moments before he could bring himself to look at Howe. "Then, why was I told about this at all, Admiral?" he finally asked.
"Because you need to know it. Given the very real possibility of an attack on the Jupiter Two, it was decided that a military presence was needed. That's you. Major West, your primary mission is to keep the Robinsons safe from any threats, foreign and domestic."
"Isn't that what the MPs are for?"
"They're gone after liftoff. The enemy might strike once the ship is in space. Not only that, but we have no idea what is out there in the space between Earth and Alpha Centauri. So, these are your marching orders, Major; protect the Robinsons."
Don awoke with a start, sitting up in his bunk and throwing back the covers. It had been a while since his subconscious had conjured up that particular source of guilt. How many times had he considered telling John about Howe's order? How many times had he been just about to do it and then chickened out like a coward? Over the course of five years, he had lost count. And not just because of what John would say. As long as the Jupiter Two was still in space, making for Alpha Centauri, Don knew he was technically still on-mission. But five years... he had to wonder when it stopped being a mission and started being... well, he didn't know what, to be honest.
Those thoughts blasted through his head in just a couple of seconds, kick-starting his brain out of sleep. His senses finally caught up and he realized that he was in his cabin, a sharp stinging in his right arm. He didn't remember getting back and at some point the injury he had taken had been tended to and covered in a neat bandage. Maureen's impeccable handiwork, no doubt. There probably would hardly even be a scar.
The quiet of the ship told him that it was night. But he was suddenly seized with an urge to get back up to speed. Obviously, at some point on their trip back, he had passed out. His head was still kind of swimmy and he was sure he'd hear an earful from Maureen when she found out he had gotten up on his own. But he was just too restless. Giving in, he swung his legs over the edge of his bunk and stood up slowly, allowing himself to acclimate to being vertical again. As quietly as he could, and shaking cobwebs out of his head, he pushed open his door and padded out into the deck in his bare feet, making for the flight deck.
The flight deck was chilled and still, with only light from the console's controls and the faint moonlight from outside to light it. But that was enough. Don knew every inch of this ship, especially the flight deck. He made his way over to the console and plunked down in his seat, swiftly bringing up sensor readouts to get the latest status. The sensors reported back that all was quiet and well. The force shield was up and running and operating at peak, protecting the Jupiter from any external threat. Nothing to worry about.
So why did he feel on edge?
Leaning back in his seat, he pondered the view out of the main window. The mysterious outcropping of stone that they had explored with such disastrous results was silhouetted against the starry night sky. It conjured up a dread in him. He knew that whatever was down there would need to be dealt with eventually, even if it meant simply moving their camp elsewhere on the planet. But until then, there it was... just looming over them all.
"I thought I heard someone puttering around up here," he heard John's voice come from the direction of the ladder to the lower deck, "glad to see you're awake, but you shouldn't be up." The Robinson patriarch strolled forward and plopped himself down in the co-pilot's seat. "You should have called, you've been out for a while."
"Nah, it's nothing some pain-killers and a good meal can't help," Don said, waving it off
"You passed out before we got back," John countered, sounding genuinely concerned, "Will and I had to carry you the last quarter mile. Maureen was worried that dart you took might have been laced with something. She's got some tests running to make sure."
"John, would you stop already?" Don said, "I'm fine."
"I hope so, for my sake," John replied with a wry grimace, "you should have heard Judy. She read me the riot act when she saw the state you were in."
Don couldn't help but give a chuckle at that. "What would we do without 'em?"
"Us?" John shot back. "Run ourselves into the ground probably."
"That's true enough," Don admitted. Then, he jerked his chin out the window, toward the stone outcropping. "Any idea what that was down there?"
"Not yet," John said with a sigh, "there hasn't been any movement since we got back. I'm hoping that one you took out was the only one, but I've got the Robot monitoring it round the clock."
Don gave a thoughtful nod, returning his gaze out the window as they lapsed into a contemplative silence. After a moment, John seemed to shift uncomfortably.
"Hey, Don, you know you were pretty out of it for a while, there," he said, sounding uncomfortable, "when we were carrying you back after you passed out, you were kind of... rambling a little. I don't think Will heard but... Don, is there anything you want to tell me?"
Oh crap. So, he hadn't just been dreaming. Great. Don leaned forward, resting his elbows on the console and clearing his throat uncomfortably.
"It's just that, uh," John pressed on, sounding none-too-happy with the conversation himself, "you kept muttering some things... 'gotta tell him,' 'can't keep it from him,' 'it isn't right,' that sorta thing."
Don leaned back in his seat again, letting his head flop backward over the rest, contemplating what to say. Finally, he settled on a line of attack. "John, we've been out here, what? Almost five years now?"
John gave a nod. "Five years in just a couple of weeks."
"Back home, they probably don't even know we went off course, yet. If the mission had gone to plan, we'd have been waking up out of stasis about now, getting the Jupiter Two prepped for landing on Alpha Centauri, warming up systems and making ready to start a colony."
"I suppose so," said John with a shrug, "hadn't really thought that much about it, to be honest. What's done is done. Why?"
"Well as soon as we got set up and got long-range communications up and running to make contact with Earth again... well, that, technically, would have been the end of my mission."
"Don, you're not... thinking of taking off, are you?"
"No! No! Absolutely not. There's no where I'd rather be, John. You know that."
"Then what's this about?"
"You know my being here has always been partly an assignment, right? Orders?"
"Well, yeah, but as I understood it you were one of the first to volunteer for this mission, back then. Beat out, what? A couple hundred candidates for the job. And that was before they even let me have a crack at you."
Don gave another wry smile at that. "Yeah," he breathed out, barely above a whisper. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "It's just... it's one hell of a tightrope to walk, that's all."
John gave a nod. "It hasn't escaped me," he said, "you may have signed up to walk it, but you never imagined it would be for this long. Now, I'm sure Admiral Howe probably gave you instructions that he didn't tell me about. Honestly, I'd be surprised if he hadn't. But we're way past that. As far as I'm concerned none of that matters out here. You've done everything I could have asked of you and a lot more besides. I trust you with my life, Don. And more than that I trust you with my family. And that makes you a part of it, in my book, mission or no mission. Whatever this is, whatever orders you were given before we left Earth, that's your hair to split. If you decide to tell me, then tell me. If not, well, then that's the end of it."
Feeling considerably unburdened by John's statement, Don leaned back in his seat again, rubbing his face tiredly. "Appreciate it," he sighed.
"You sure you're all right?" John asked, that note of concern coming back to his voice.
"Yeah, yeah, it's fine," Don replied, sitting up once again, "just bouncing off the walls a bit."
"Well, walk it off, then get back to your bunk and get some real rest," John said, getting up from his seat, "I don't wanna find you asleep in that chair in the morning."
Don gave a nod, turning his gaze back out the window again. Seeing the stone formation again, dread began to well up again in the pit of his stomach, inexplicably. Admiral Howe's last order to him echoed through his mind once more, with strangely vivid clarity. Protect the Robinsons.
"Jupiter One was sabotaged," he blurted out, still hearing John's footsteps on the deck behind him, "command knew it. They had proof. Kept it quiet." He heard John's footsteps stop and then turned around when there was a long silence. John was looking back at him, an oddly un-surprised look on his face. He seemed to be waiting for Don to continue. "Howe and the rest of command ordered me not to tell you. Said it was need-to-know. They were afraid you'd back out of the mission."
"And they decided that you needed to know?"
"So, all this time, you've really been here to-"
John gave a smirk and shook his head, then shrugged. "Hell, Don, I can hardly be mad at you for having secret mission parameters that you would have done anyway."
Looking away from John for a moment and giving a short, breathy laugh of relief, Don gave a nod. "You know it," he said, looking back up again.
John's eyes darted away for a moment, a clear sign that he was thinking something over, rapidly. "When we get to Alpha Centauri," he said, meeting Don's gaze again, "and we will, this conversation never happened."
John gave another small nod before turning back to the ladder. "G'night."
"Night," Don answered, lazily turning back to the view out the window once more.
"Oh, and Don," John added, calling Don's attention back to the aft once more, "Howe couldn't have found a better man for the job."
Don gave a smirk. "Well, they had to be able to keep up with you, right?"
John's face broke into a full grin, a twinkle of mischievousness in his eyes. "Well, no one's perfect, but you've done okay at that, too."
John proceeded down the ladder and Don watched until the top of his head had disappeared. He was alone once more with nothing but the controls and the view out the window for company. The planet really was a beautiful one, he had to admit. But for some reason he couldn't get over the fact that it felt like it was the beauty of a cobra.
The new routine on their new host planet had taken only a few days to establish itself. And right now, Judy was helping in the task she had quickly determined to be her favorite.
Once every two days, someone would take a trip out to the river a half mile away and make a resupply of their water. She liked taking the hike; the beautiful landscape, the sights and sounds of the local wildlife, and simply the time away from camp. It wasn't her turn today, but she had gone along anyway, seizing the chance to spend some time alone with the person whose turn it was.
Don hiked along at her side, their footsteps swishing through the tall grass. He had a large backpack on, carrying empty containers for drinking water. Another side bag was slung over his shoulder. Judy had started their trip carrying that, but they hadn't even gotten out of sight of the Jupiter before Don had insisted on taking it on as well.
"I mean, it had three legs, which was weird," Don said, continuing on his retelling of the previous day's escapades, "but overall, it was kinda cute."
"We'd better not let Penny see those," Judy said with a laugh, "the ship will be a real menagerie before too long if we're not careful."
Don gave a light laugh, sending a big grin her way. "I don't know that we'll be able to avoid it," he said, "they were all over the place. They must breed like rabbits."
"Or, it could be that whatever their natural predator was isn't around any more," Judy said, "dad did say there was evidence of some kind of major geological shift within the last thousand years. Maybe the apex predator got killed off."
"Or almost killed off," Don mused.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, that thing in the cave yesterday," he said, "I just... I'm sure it's nothing."
"I thought dad said you killed it," Judy said, puzzled, "what are you worried about."
"Ah, I'm sure it isn't anything," Don replied, "I'm probably just being paranoid."
"Donald West," Judy said firmly, coming to a halt and grabbing on to both of his hands in order to get his full attention, "you'd better not be trying to protect me from anything."
"Can't help it," Don responded, softly and catching up her hands in his, "you know I'd protect you from anything."
"Even if I don't want to be?" she asked, pointedly. "I'm worried about you, you big, dumb idiot. Just tell me what's on your mind. Maybe I can help." Just to push it over the edge, she looked at him with that look that she knew he could never say no to. "Please?"
That did it. She could actually see the moment Don's defenses crumbled like a dry cookie. He gave a sigh and then looked back up at her again.
"I just can't help feeling that monster yesterday wasn't the only one," he finally said.
"What makes you say that?" she pressed.
"I dunno," Don said, letting go of one of her hands and rubbing the bridge of his nose a little, "we only saw the one, but... it's just this feeling I've got, like we're being watched or something. I dunno." Still holding on to Judy's other hand, he dropped his eyes away from her and was back in motion again, heading for their destination. "I'm just being weird, I guess."
"Don, you were almost killed yesterday," Judy protested, "no one could blame you for jumping at things. Have you told dad at all?"
"Nah, I don't want him thinking I'm going space-happy," he replied.
"He won't think you're going space-happy," Judy stated with a roll of her eyes, holding on to his good arm a little closer, "it's not like it's the first time you've had a feeling about something like this and been right."
"Not the first time I've had one and been wrong, though, either," Don countered, "it's not really an exact science."
"Still, if yesterday showed us anything," Judy went on, "it's that this place might look beautiful, but anything could be out there."
Don gave a thoughtful hum of agreement, almost absently, staring off into the space in front of them. He went silent for a long moment and Judy could practically see gears turning in his head. It was like they were turning, but not really moving anything along.
And then he stopped. It was so abrupt that Judy actually felt herself rebound on his arm before coming to a halt herself. Looking up at him again, she saw his eyes narrow, sweeping the area about them.
"Do you hear that?" he asked.
Judy listened for a moment before shaking her head in confusion. "Just the wind in the grass," she replied.
"Something just changed," Don mused, "it just got..." He trailed off as if he couldn't find the right word. His eyes continued to dart about the landscape and his arms went limp letting go of her hand and allowing the shoulder bag to drop to the ground.
"Don?" Judy asked with uncertainty, her voice low.
Blinking rapidly, now, and shaking his head as if to clear it, Don's face scrunched up as if in pain. He rubbed at his forehead, as if trying to work a knot out of it. "My head," he mumbled, "it's killing me."
"Here, let me take that," Judy said, pulling the backpack off, "let's sit down and take a break for a moment." She ushered him down to the ground, both of them sitting among the tall grass. It was not exactly comforting that he didn't argue.
Don was pressing the palms of his hands into his eyes, doubling over, shying away from the sunlight. Her mother hadn't said anything about a knock to his head, but Judy knew that sometimes symptoms of head trauma were delayed. She put her hands to both sides of his face, trying to steer his gaze back toward her. His eyes fluttered open for a moment, but slammed closed again the moment light entered them.
"Here, here, look at me," said Judy, "let me see your eyes."
Almost as if in answer, Don's eyes flew open, staring straight ahead. For just an instant Judy could see that his pupils were contracted to the size of pin-pricks. Then he was shouting and pushing her to the ground, covering her head. At very nearly the same instant, something roared overhead, close enough that Judy felt the air move as it passed. There was a clatter as whatever it was landed and skipped to a halt in the grasses beyond. Then Don had darted away from her, heading in its direction and placing himself between it and her.
By the time Judy looked up again, Don already had his laser pistol out and was facing off against a creature right out of her nightmares. From the description she had been able to prize out of Will, it seemed like it was another of the creatures that Don and her father had faced off against the day before. But it looked old, patches of rust covering most if not all of its metal parts. One of the main eyes in the creature's head was missing, a crack in its armor around the eye socket giving sparks. The fleshy parts at the creature's joints looked grey, dried, and wrinkled. All of its eyes, some of them seemingly clouded-over, pressed forward, settling on Don and its head tilted to the side as if considering something.
"Don!" she exclaimed.
Half the creature's eyes snapped her direction and narrowed. Then it coiled on its cat-like legs and shot into the air, leaping over Don and making for her, a jagged, rusted chain shooting out from its right arm like a whip. Don's laser went off, finding its mark right in the joints of the beast's left leg, blasting it off in a fiery hail of sparks and smoke, throwing it off its course.
As the beast made a three-point landing on its remaining leg and two arms, Don was in motion once again, charging it recklessly, firing shot after shot from his weapon which deflected off the beast's metal body leaving only small scorch marks. Don tried to put himself between the creature and Judy once more, but an almost casual swing of its chain knocked him aside. The beast hardly even looked at him, its focus still on Judy as it lumbered clumsily toward her in an awkward three-legged bounding motion. Judy had just regained her feet and desperately backed away as it approached, but it was faster than it seemed it should have been. It was upon her in a second, raising the arm with its chain whip high into the air, the chain snaking out in a vicious upward loop. The chain cracked like a whip and the sound of it made Judy squeeze her eyes closed.
She heard the chain rattle to a halt somewhere above her and when she looked, she saw the thing's horrible three-fingered hand hovering in the air above her. The chain was stretched to its limit, holding the arm back. Judy's eyes quickly followed the line to find Don holding the end of the chain in both hands, straining against the tension.
Impossibly, Don actually managed to pull the beast backward, sending it sprawling onto its back in the grass. Don leaped on top of it to grapple, pinning it to the ground. He brought his fist down right into the remaining main eye on its head. Over and over he punched it, until it almost looked like there was no structure beneath it, yielding like a pillow. Then, with one last punch, there was a flash of something gleaming silver just before Don's fisted connected. There came a crunch of rending metal and the beast sort of flailed for a second, its remaining limbs going rigid. Then then was a hail of sparks and the thing dropped limply to the ground, unmoving.
There was a momentary pause as everything went quiet. Don's fist was still in the midst of the remains of the beast's head. The only sounds Judy could hear were the wind, Don's labored breath, and her own fiercely beating heart.
Then Don crumpled to his knees, letting out a cry of agony, his free left hand reaching across his own body to clasp onto his right bicep almost like he had reason to try to hold together. And then every bit of tension left his body all at once and he tipped to his right side, sliding off the beast. As his right hand emerged from the remains of the thing's head, it was followed by a sharp, vicious-looking blade almost a foot long. He fell into an unceremonious heap next to the beast and lay still and quiet.
Most of Judy's focus was taken up by worry. She scrambled over to him and rolled him onto his back, calling his name. But he lay there limp, unresponsive. She reached for his arm to check for a pulse, her hand acting on instinct and getting there before her eyes did. When she brought his wrist around to find the pulse point, Judy found one of the strangest and most oddly gruesome sights she had seen.
Some small part of her mind had wondered where Don had gotten a knife. He had never carried one before, that she had noticed, besides the small pocket knife he had. It was this moment that the rest of her mind caught up with these thoughts.
The blade wasn't in Don's hand, or rather he was not holding it. It emerged from beneath the cuff of his shirt, extending along the back of his hand and onward. In a horrible mess of metal and flesh, it seemed to be fused to the back of his hand, almost as if it had pushed its way out of his skin.
Gasping in horror, Judy all but dropped Don's wrist. She managed to get a hold of herself at the last moment. Pushing back Don's sleeve, she found that the blade ran the length of his forearm, first emerging from a point just below his elbow. Above it, there was a series of silvery veins covering Don's skin, seeming to radiate outward from the blade.
As shock and panic began to set in, one thought pushed its way to the forefront of her mind, screaming out over all the other whirling thoughts that were spinning around her.
Shaking, she lowered Don's arm back to the ground again, then scrambled over to the backpack she had relieved him of earlier. She tore into it, found the radio, and called home.
A Ph.D in biochemistry and a couple of decades of post-doc work and Maureen still didn't have any idea what she was looking at. She had never seen anything like it.
Don was still unconscious, though every once in a while he mumbled something unintelligible. There was very little doubt in her mind that whatever was afflicting Jupiter Two's pilot had originated from the wound he had taken the day before. But she had checked the arrow head she had removed from his arm and found no biological substances at all; certainly nothing that could transform flesh to metal. It shouldn't have been possible and Maureen wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes.
And the effect was spreading. In the time it had taken John to get out to Don and Judy in the Chariot and return, the silvery, hardening discoloration had spread vein-like emanations throughout his entire right arm and up into his neck. The knife-like extension that emerged from his arm had grown by two inches. At first, she had thought that it was simply fused to his arm. But scans had shown that it actually grew all the way out from the bone. A significant portion of Don's right radius and ulna had also transformed into solid metal, though the muscle and tendons around them had remained supple.
Maureen was completely at a loss. She had the Robot running analyses of tissue and blood samples, as well as taking another pass at the arrow head. but she really didn't know what else to do. Don was running a fairly high fever, so she had started an IV and given him a broad-spectrum antibiotic, but it didn't seem to have any effect at all.
Don gave a protracted groan and shifted on his bunk, his face scrunching up in pain.
"Don?" she asked, gently, resting a hand on his forehead and feeling considerable heat.
"Where'm I?" he managed to reply, his breath quickening.
"You're back on the Jupiter," she responded, "can you open your eyes?"
Seeming to muster his determination, Don obliged, focusing pain-brightened eyes on her with some difficulty. "Maureen?"
"I'm right here," she reassured him, taking his left hand in her grasp, "are you in pain?"
"Feels like every part of me is on fire," Don replied, his voice shaking. Slowly, with some effort, he lifted his right arm to look at it. "What's happening to me?"
Maureen shifted her gaze away for just a moment, pondering her response. "I'm working on that," she finally settled upon, forcing as much comfort into the words as she could.
"You dunno, then," Don stated, "smartest person here doesn't know. That's not really reassuring."
"I don't know yet," Maureen affirmed, "but I'm going to find out."
"Judy," he said with realization, trying to lever himself into a sitting position, "where's Judy?"
"She's just fine, thanks to you," Maureen replied, putting a hand on his good shoulder and easing him back down, "she's on the lower deck with the others."
"Gotta protect..." Don mumbled, his eyes beginning to drift closed again.
"Don, I'm going to give you a sedative," she told him, readying a dose for his IV, "I'm hoping that it might slow whatever this is down. It'll also help you rest."
"Will it stop the noise?" he asked, eyes still closed, almost absently.
"Noise?" she asked, pausing in her ministrations and looking back to him in worry.
"Buncha voices," he said, "like radio chatter. They won't shut up."
She didn't like the sound of that one bit. Maureen remembered when her own mother had begun to decline, succumbing to the disease that previous generations had quaintly called "the long goodbye;" Alzheimer's. She had reported hearing something similar, distant voices as if over a poor phone connection or through a wall. Whatever this was, it was beginning to affect Don's mind.
Maureen mustered a weak smile as she pushed the plunger home to add the sedative to Don's IV. "It should," she said, "just relax. I promise, I won't give up."
It didn't even take a minute for Don to go under again. There were still creases in his forehead, but he was mostly still. Once he had settled, Maureen quietly went out of Don's bunk to find the Robot stoically standing nearby.
"Do you have any results?" She asked it.
"Affirmative," the Robot answered, beginning to print out a ticker-tape of readings and analyses. She tore it off when it finished, her eyes already scanning over the readout. She had hoped to find some insight, some form of an answer or at least a hint to what was happening to Don. But what she found there only confused her all the more.
"This says it's an inorganic substance," she exclaimed, "are you certain of these readings?"
"Affirmative," the Robot said again, "substance is an inorganic virus."
"That isn't possible," Maureen protested, "there's no such thing."
"To clarify," the Robot added, "substance is an inorganic compound that performs the same function as a retro-virus."
"So it's mutating the cells it comes into contact with," Maureen said, "well that much I can see. Can you estimate how long before it it spreads to his entire body."
"Estimation is not necessary," the Robot replied, "inorganic retro-virus has maintained a perfectly constant rate of spread since readings began. Full infection will be complete in fourteen hours, twenty-six minutes, and thirty-nine seconds."
"Perfectly constant?" Maureen asked in amazement. "No virus is that exact."
"Affirmative," the Robot replied, "conclusions imply intent behind the substance's action."
"Intent?" she asked in alarm. "You mean like something is directing it, telling it where to go and what to do? Like a program?"
"Affirmative," the Robot said, "substance is acting in accordance with a program."
Maureen gave a sigh of frustration, leaning against the navigation console and putting her face in her hands. None of this made any sense. A virus that acted like a computer program was completely and utterly preposterous. It was acting on a microscopic level, for crying out loud! Electrical impulses needed for computing just wouldn't be possible on such a scale, never mind the central unit needed to process that amount of data. Such a thing would have to be a microscopic machine that could act as a hive-mind and self-replic...
Her head shot up with realization. She had heard of such a thing.
"Robot," she said, "data-bank query. Does the substance match description of theoretical concept known as nanites?"
"Searching," the Robot responded, a series of tiny LED lights on its front flashing quickly. "Affirmative," it finally said.
Nanites! Maureen could hardly believe it. Back home it had been a cutting-edge theoretical concept. Not much more than an idea for science fiction, really. Microscopic, self-replicating robots that operated on hive-mind programming in order to perform a task on the microscopic level. The biggest stumbling block, of course, had been how to make computers and machines on that scale, since computers have a downward limit on their size, based on the minimum thickness of a wire that could still carry a current. No one had been able to figure out how to get around that and so far that had relegated the idea to just that; an idea.
Maureen knew she was well out of her depth. Bio-sciences were her bailiwick, not computing or mechanics. This was a little bit of both; biology and technology working together to become her worst nightmare. She needed to consult experts in those fields and the closest thing she had - the only thing she had - was her family. It was time to bring John and the others into this. They were Don's only hope. If they failed to find a way to stop the nanites, their friend wouldn't be recognizable in just over a half a day.
They argued for the better part of an hour about what to do. Doctor Smith had immediately insisted that the nanites be destroyed, by any and all means necessary, before whatever they were doing to Don spread to anyone else. The Robinsons were collectively horrified by this idea, of course. It implied that there was no hope for Don and they weren't ready to entertain that idea just yet. This was basically the end of Smith's meaningful participation in the conversation.
John had asked if there was a way to shut the nanites down and remove them after the fact. But Maureen had shot this down, telling them that the nanites weren't just spreading throughout Don's body, but also replacing his cells. If they removed the nanites, they ran the risk that there wouldn't be enough of Don left for him to survive.
Judy had then asked if they could be deactivated and then left in, sort of like artificial implants, replacing what had already been transformed. But this was a non-starter as well. From what Maureen had been able to tell, the nanites were now governing a significant portion of Don's anatomy. Shutting them down would mean those portions would stop functioning altogether.
In the end, it was Penny who had come up with the most promising idea.
"Why don't we just ask them to stop?" she had said.
Will had naturally poo-pooed the idea, calling his sister a silly girl who didn't have any sense. This had only made her dig her heels in, of course. She insisted that the idea wasn't dumb. After all, the nanites had to have been instructed in the first place. Judy had joined in on her sister's side, then, adding that they might be able to be re-programmed.
By the time they had begun to debate what to reprogram the nanites to do, it had become clear that this was what they were going to attempt. Maureen had wanted to try to get the nanites to reverse the damage they had done. But she had to admit that she didn't actually know how they had achieved what they had, let alone how to program something to reverse it. So while that was the closest thing they could think of to an actual cure, it was also the least likely to succeed.
They decided instead to concentrate on programming the nanites to halt their progression without actually shutting down. If they could do that, it would give them more time to figure out how to actually reverse their effects.
All of that, of course, assumed that they could figure out how to access the nanites' programming in order to change it in the first place. Not to mention decipher the alien programming language and learn it well enough to write new code. It was a project that might have taken a team of scientists specializing in the area a lifetime to accomplish. They had only a few hours.
Needless to say, the idea that the situation looked bleak wasn't far from anyone's mind.
Doggedly, they worked throughout the evening and into the night. Their first breakthrough came after four hours of work when they learned that the secret to communicating with the nanites was to use the Robot. There was something about one artificial intelligence communicating with another that they finally determined was the key. They had moved on to researching the code the nanites used and after two hours of staring over her father's shoulder, Judy just couldn't look at the screen any more. Not that she followed very much of it. Exo-botany was her field of interest. All in all, Judy felt fairly useless.
Eventually, she just couldn't take the tension any longer. Needing a breath of air and a stretch, Judy decided to wander outside the Jupiter for a little bit and made her way to the ladder leading to the upper deck and the airlock. The air outside was cool and damp with dew. The light of the planet's triplet moons caught in the dewdrops on the tips of the long grasses around the ship, sparkling almost as brightly as the stars above.
After five years, Judy would have thought that she would be used to it by now, but somehow, the sight of the night sky always seemed to catch her by surprise. The look of Earth's night sky was so distinct and familiar, almost as if it was somehow ingrained into her very DNA. Of course, there was no reason that it would look the same on an alien planet. But even after all this time and all the planets they had landed upon, looking up to see not the bright streak of stars that was the Milky Way but - as in this case - a tilted spiral stretching out like a distant table that she was looking down upon was just unsettling. She had no idea why.
A slight sniffling noise caught Judy's attention and she looked around the grassy landscape to find its source. She found Penny sitting at the table that they usually had set up outside the Jupiter when they made camp. She was slumped on one of the benches, her head resting on the table top and her finger tracing circles on its surface.
"Penny?" Judy asked, wandering over to her younger sister, "are you all right?" The question seemed to set off Penny's waterworks. Slowly, she lifted her head off the table and looked up at Judy, tears spilling over her bottom eyelids, and shook her head. Judy immediately placed herself down on the bench, next to Penny and gathered her up in a hug. "I know," she said, "I'm scared, too."
"We're gonna lose him, Judy," Penny sobbed into her older sister's shoulder, "what are we gonna do?"
"Well, I'm not ready to give up, yet," Judy affirmed, "dad and mom will figure it out, you'll see."
"But what if they don't?"
"Well..." Judy said, trailing off in thought, "I suppose, it's like mom always says. It isn't what a person looks like that matters. He'll still be Don... I hope. He'll just look..."
"Like a horrible monster-bot?"
Judy wanted to scold her. But somehow, she just didn't have the heart to. She had to admit, if Don really was turning into one of those things they had seen, she'd have a hard time not being scared of him, too.
"But what if he's not still Don on the inside?" Penny pressed. "Mom said that something was happening inside his head, too."
"Oh, Penny, I wish I knew," Judy replied, "but we gotta keep up hope, for Don's sake."
Penny gave a sniffle, lifting her head off of Judy's shoulder and looking up at her again. "I'll try," she said, her voice just above a whisper.
Don West was no stranger to pain. After all, it was something of a job hazard in the military. From basic training onward, you pretty much spent intervals getting the crap kicked out of you in one way or another. Those intervals had become more frequent since he had joined the Robinsons on the Jupiter Two, of course, but that was probably to be expected.
But never had he felt anything like this. It was a burn that he felt from the outer most layers of his skin and all the way deep into his bones. It persisted even into unconsciousness when whatever it was that Maureen had given him had knocked him out. It denied him the restful oblivion of sleep, as if the active part of his brain had been stuck in the "on" position, bright bursts of color flashing behind his closed eyelids. If he didn't know any better, Don might have thought that his mind was on fire.
His hearing, smell, and taste were going mad, too. Voices seemed to chatter in his ears, just out of range of his being able to hear them well enough to understand. He wasn't sure he was supposed to understand the words; it seemed like he should, for some reason, even though they weren't English or any other language he had ever heard before. It was like their meaning was dancing just on the edges of his consciousness. Smells wafted past his nose, fading from one scent to another, some familiar, some not. Something similar was happening in his mouth with his taste.
All at once, there was a distinct and familiar tang of oranges that broke through both taste and smell at once, feeling almost exotic at the same time.
No. Not oranges. Not quite. It was the grasses of this planet.
A voice in the cacophony of chatter rose to the surface, insistent, urgent. It was like someone was trying to give him a warning, snapping out...
No. Not a warning... an order? Yes, it sounded like an order, like a drill sergeant snapping out a command that could not be disobeyed. It wanted him to get up off his back, to go and... and... do what, exactly? But as Don's eyes snapped open and he tasted the bitter taste of adrenaline in his mouth, he knew he wasn't going to ignore it. He didn't have it in him. He was up and off his bunk before he realized what he was doing. He expected to feel light-headed, but that dizziness never came. As he looked about the world seemed to have a sort of luminous yet color-starved look to it.
The radio chatter in his ears prodded him onward, out the door of his bunk and on to the flight deck of the Jupiter Two. Something nibbled at the back of his mind, like he was being watched, like something was coming. He needed to be on the lookout for it, not flat on his back just waiting for whatever was happening to him to finish.
Don's limbs felt heavy as he wandered across the upper deck to the open airlock and stood at the top of the ramp, looking out at the landscape. He squinted as a shell of bright light seemed to envelope the area, like an upturned bowl covering the entire camp.
"What the hell is that?" he wondered aloud.
"Don?" a voice came from the side. Turning to it, he found Judy approaching, looking concerned. Penny was just a step behind her. "What is it? Are you all right?"
For some reason he had trouble forming the words and his voice sounded strange to his own ears. "I dunno," he said, almost absently as his eyes scanned the horizon. "Something's wrong."
There was a long silence as the two girls stared at him in concern. Finally, Judy turned to Penny. "Go get dad and mom, please," she said.
"Yeah," Penny breathed in response with a bewildered nod. Then she slipped past Don up the ramp and into the ship.
Judy came forward, gently taking hold of his left hand, although she seemed to hesitate for just a moment. "You should be resting," she said gently.
"No, no, something's wrong," Don insisted, "gotta git rid of it."
"I know," Judy soothed, "mom and dad are working on it as fast as they can. We're going to get this thing out of you."
"No, not this," Don replied, knocking his free hand against his chest lightly, "not this. That's not it. Something out here. Something's wrong." The light above them flashed momentarily and he had to shield his eyes against it, shaking loose of Judy's grasp. He studied that curved, phantasmic surface for another moment. "What the hell is that?"
Judy followed his gaze skyward, but looked puzzled. "What is what?"
"That thing," Don insisted, "above us, over the whole camp."
"It's just the sky, Don," Judy stated, worry growing in her voice.
"No, no, no, that is not sky," Don shot back, "I know sky, that is not sky." A tendril of energy arched over them, like lightning shooting out over the surface of the light. His eyes followed it back, where it had come from. Other paths of energy joined back to it, streaming toward the same point. When he reached their collective end, he found that they were spewing forth from a machine. Don felt like he should know that machine, what it did, what it was for. But what was coming out of it didn't make any sense. He rested a hand against the surface of the machine, feeling it hum with electricity.
It was wrong. This! This was wrong! This did not belong here. Don felt his breath quicken and the chatter in his ears grew to a fever pitch. He had to get rid of it. He had to protect them from it! Dammit, this thing was wrong!
Vaguely he heard Judy trying to coax him away from the machine. His hand closed into a fist and the surface of the machine crumpled like so much paper. The light above sputtered out and disappeared.
"Don! No!" a voice shouted from behind him.
Spinning around, he saw the rest of the Robinson family standing together at the top of the ramp into the Jupiter, John in the lead. He was charging forward, almost as if to bull rush him aside. Something told him that his friend wasn't going to fare well in that competition, so Don obligingly backed off.
"We need that shield!" John exclaimed
Shield. Don knew that word. It was something that stood between a person and danger. It was something that protected. He knew that was what it was supposed to do, but that just didn't feel right. But as he opened his metallic, three-fingered right hand and watched the pieces of metal and wiring fall, he knew he had just done something terrible, something that put them in danger.
Three fingers? Metallic? Since when? Don looked to his other hand and found five fingers splayed out, the soft pink of flesh. Somehow, it seemed as though neither one of them was wrong. But then again, neither one of them was right, either.
The radio chatter rose to a discordant crescendo again and a spike of pain lanced through his head, nearly sending him to his knees. He pressed both his hands to his head, trying to keep his skull from exploding. His left hand dug into his hair while he right scraped against warm metal. When the pain and the chatter passed, he looked up and found John had moved closer to him, holding out a hand, palm out, as if to push back against an unseen force.
"You should come back inside, Don," he said, steadily, "you need to rest."
Rest! Rest! No, he was not supposed to rest! Don shook his head, taking a slow step backward, his breath moving quickly. Slowly his hands moved away from his head again and he caught sight of both of them once more. His attention was drawn to the one on the right. Behind the three fingers, emerging from the back of his hand, a long, vicious-looking blade extended outward.
And then he knew what he was turning into. God! It had been so obvious! He looked back up to John, his eyes wide. He had just crushed metal with his bare hand! Sweet Lord in Heaven! What would he do to John? Or Judy! Or any of the others!
He had to protect them. Protect the Robinsons. The phrase echoed through his mind in perfect, clear English. As John advanced slowly, Don retreated, trying to keep distance. But it wasn't enough. The distance needed to be greater. He needed to leave.
Leave! Leave now! Protect!
Don spun on his heel and broke into a dead sprint, something pushing him forward from his back. He was vaguely aware of a chorus of protests from the Robinsons, but they faded into the distance quickly as he shot forward. He ran so fast that he didn't even feel his feet touching the ground.
To say that John was surprised to be knocked off his feet by the backwash of a small jet engine would have been the understatement of the century. And for that jet engine to be somehow mounted to the back of his best friend... well, no one ever said space travel would be boring.
Having tumbled end-over-end for a few feet, John was just picking his face out of the grasses when he realized Maureen was next to him, trying to help him up. He could barely hear her voice through the ringing in his ears. He took stock of himself quickly; bruised a little, maybe, but otherwise none the worse for wear.
"What just happened!?" he heard Will exclaim as his hearing returned.
"Judy?" he asked, turning to his eldest as h heaved himself up from the ground.
"I dunno," she replied, "he just wandered out here, looking confused. He said there was light covering the whole ship and then..."
"He smashed the shield generator," John finished.
"Is it possible that he was actually seeing the shield's energy field?" Maureen asked.
"Maybe," John mused, "the whole right half of his face has been completely taken over by the nanites, including an eye. Who knows what he can see that we can't."
The sight had been disturbing, to say the least. It was increasingly clear that the nanites were transforming Don into one of the machine beasts like the one they had seen in the cave. The three-clawed metal hand and the creepy red eye had only confirmed it. He seemed to be about half way through the transformation. The right half of his face had been covered in metal, fused to his skin where the transformation was still happening. The left half of his face was covered in the silvery, vein-like infection that heralded the nanites' spread. His entire back had been covered in metal armor already, spiky protrusions sticking out from his spine and shoulders, interrupted only by the disturbing-looking bulge between his shoulder blades from which the jet engine had spewed. When Don had abruptly turned and sped away, he had done so at approximately mach one.
"I've never seen him look so scared," Penny mused aloud, "why would he be scared of us?"
"I don't think he was, Penny," Judy replied, pulling her younger sister close, "I think he was scared for us."
"Of what he might do," Will agreed.
"I know it sounds frightening," Maureen said, sidling closer to her three children, "but believe it or not, that's actually a good thing. It means that somewhere in all of that Don is still Don."
"But why smash the shield generator, then?" Will asked. "It doesn't make any sense. He knows what it's for."
"I don't think there's any question the nanites are affecting his mind," John stated, "if they're trying to... reprogram him, somehow, it might be influencing what he perceives as a threat and what he doesn't. We've got to reverse the process before the nanites take him over entirely."
"We haven't even figured out the code they're using," Will protested, "let alone how we're going to actually change it. And now, Don's not even here."
"I'll have to take the jetpack and go find him," John stated.
"You don't have time, dad," Judy protested, "you and mom and Will need to work on the nanites' programming if we have a chance of stopping this from taking Don over completely. I'll take the jetpack and go."
John gave his eldest a dubious look, hesitating. He didn't have any doubt that she would be able to use the jetpack. He had seen to it himself that she had been trained in its use when she had been ready. Nor did he have any doubts about her ability to find Don, despite how fast he had been moving when he left. No, he was more worried about what she would find, the state that Don would be in by then. If the pilot was losing control of his own mind, the last thing he wanted to do was put Judy alone in his path.
A gentle hand landed on John's shoulder, bringing his attention to his wife. "She's right, dear," Maureen said, "after all, if it were you, I'd..." She trailed off, unable to continue the thought.
Resignedly, John gave her a nod, holding on to her hand. "You're right," he said softly, then turned toward Judy, "go. But be careful. There's no telling what you'll find."
Judy gave a nod, already in motion. Penny and Will trailed off after her, saying something about helping her get the jetpack ready.
"She's not our little girl, any more," Maureen commented, watching them go, and taking hold of John's hand again.
"I know, darling," John said, leaning into her a little, "I just hope this isn't more than she's ready for. To have your heart broken for the first time is one thing, but like this..."
"That won't happen," Maureen affirmed, "we're going to figure this out. And we have to get back to work to do it."
John gave a silent nod and then, hand-in-hand, the two of them went back inside the Jupiter Two.
Penny did not hate Doctor Smith. She told herself this strongly and firmly almost every day. Granted, he was a self-interested coward with delusions of grandeur who was almost always the reason they got into trouble. But even he had his moments. And, to be perfectly honest, he had mellowed in five years of travel with the family. For all of his belly-aching, for all of his scheming, for all of his insistence that he hated every moment of being out in space with the Robinsons, Penny could tell he had actually grown to care about them. Even care about Don, in a sort of down-and-dirty, horn-locking adversarial alpha-male sort of way.
But right now, she really kind of wanted to slap him.
A soft glow was just beginning to build on the horizon, heralding the oncoming day. Penny trailed after Smith as he doggedly made his way through the tall grasses toward the river not far away.
"Come along, young lady, keep up!" he snapped at her over his shoulder, despite the fact that she was only about three feet behind him and had slowed her own pace in order not to overtake him.
"I still don't see why we're out here, Doctor Smith," she said with a sigh, "we should be helping mom and dad and Will."
Smith came to a halt and turned back to look at her, trying to muster something that was supposed to look like a sympathetic expression. It didn't really ring true, all that well, but Penny had learned that such things were not Doctor Smith's strong suit.
"Dear girl, your desire to help with the Major's current situation is completely understandable," he said, "even admirable. But neither you nor I have the expertise to assist in reprogramming microscopic robots. Our time is best spent on other endeavors."
She had to admit, it was true. The problem had moved beyond the medical aspects of the puzzle and on to computing. "If you say so," she said, "but I still don't see why we're out here."
"Simple, my dear," Smith said, "you and I are contriving a back-up plan."
"What do you mean?"
"Think of it this way," Smith said, once again pushing his way through the grasses and toward the river, "as much as we all hope for the Major's safe recovery, one must admit that the circumstances look rather grim. It is no judgement on your family, my dear. They are some of the most brilliant minds from planet Earth. But this alien technology may be beyond any Earth-man. It is obvious that whatever the aliens here have in mind for the Major, it is dangerous to us all."
"Yeah, okay," Penny allowed, "and?"
"I'm only thinking of the safety of the whole family," Smith went on, "with the shield generator down for the count, the Jupiter Two is all but defenseless. A sitting duck, you might say. In the likely event that your parents are unable to save the Major, it will be the rest of us that the aliens come for next. And since the Major knows everything there is to know about the Jupiter, any remaining means of defense we might have would be rendered moot. Therefore, it may be necessary for us to retreat to another location of which the Major is not aware. Someplace we can fortify and defend." He looked back at her for a moment, obviously taking note of the frightened expression that Penny had been unable to completely eliminate. "Ah, should that become necessary, of course."
Well, he was trying, at least.
Yes, Doctor Smith was certainly trying...
"So you want to find a hole to go off and hide in," Penny said.
"Not a hole to hide in, dear child," Smith insisted, "a fortification to defend us. Ah, heroically, of course."
"Of course," Penny said with skepticism, rolling her eyes as she continued to trail after him. It was obvious he was dead-set on the plan and would be venturing out without her if she went back. Best to humor him and maybe she could keep him out of too much trouble. "So, what do you have in mind?"
Smith stopped as they came to the shore of the river. Hands on his hips, he surveyed the area sagely. Finally, he pointed just across the river where a cliff face was just sticking out of the forest tree-line beyond. "According to that tin-plated tosspot, the scanners have shown a cave at the base of that outcropping. It will serve as suitable shelter as well as a defensible position. You and I will begin constructing some basic defenses."
By which, Penny knew, Smith meant that he would sit like a lump on a log while he ordered her around.
It didn't take them long to find a suitable place to cross the river. There was a small ford only a little south of where they had come to the banks. Determined, Smith marched them both right into the tree-line toward the cliff-face. There, in the growing morning light, was the large maw of what looked to be a rather deep cave. Smith stopped before it, looking self-satisfied.
"And here we are," he proclaimed, "big enough for everyone and possibly the Chariot besides. You start gathering materials and I will design some clever camouflage and defenses."
"Don't you think we should check inside first, Doctor Smith?" Penny pointed out, somewhat impatiently.
Smith glanced at the dark cave momentarily, looking wary all of a sudden. "Oh, yes, of course. How forgetful of me." Penny waited a for a moment for Smith to lead the way inside. But she found that he was likewise looking to her before he moved. "Ah, ladies first," he said, giving a flourish toward the cave.
Shaking her head at him and rolling her eyes once again, Penny gave a sigh and led the way inside. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she realized that the cavern had a faint light coming from its ceiling. Far above, at the top of a shaft, she could see a perfectly round disk of sky, framed by the stone of the cave. It almost looked like the shaft had been intentionally drilled through the ceiling, eons ago. Looking away from the shaft, Penny's eyes adjusted further, allowing shapes to appear out of the dim light around them.
Penny had always had very little interest in geology, much to her father's dismay. She preferred to learn all she could about the wildlife on the various planets they had come across. But even she could tell that this was not a naturally occurring cavern. Just like the shaft above, it was perfectly round. The floor was smooth and even. As her feet walked across the dusty surface, she left prints behind which revealed, of all things, some sort of an inlay in the floor. It formed a ring at the center of which was a pedestal with a large, crystalline sphere resting atop of it.
"Look!" Penny exclaimed. "What do you suppose that is?"
The look in Smith's eyes changed as soon as he caught sight of it. He short forward toward the crystal, placing his hands upon it reverently.
"Oh, Penny, my dear," he said, "we have stumbled across a treasure, to be sure. Whoever the aliens of this planet are or were, they obviously took steps to see that their valuables were well hidden."
"I don't see any other valuables around here, Doctor Smith," Penny pointed out, as Smith continued to fawn over the pedestal and its artifact.
"Ah, but look at the craftsmanship," said Smith, "this is no mere bauble. This is a monument. Perhaps, a trigger for a secret door where no doubt the rest of the treasure lies hidden."
It was a pretty crazy leap of logic, to Penny's mind. Other than this marker and the cyborg beasts, they had yet to see any sign of a civilization on the planet. There were no cities, no structures, and the landscape looked pristine and untouched by any intelligent person. If there was anyone else on the planet besides them, they were quite well hidden. It wouldn't make much sense to just leave their treasures out in the open, for anyone to find, secret door or no.
Although... a band of inter-stellar pirates having left behind buried treasure to return for later wouldn't be the most preposterous thing they had encountered...
Penny chided herself for the silly thought, trying to get her mind back on track. Go where the evidence leads you, her father always said. Don't make assumptions, observe instead. The pirate theory was just as fanciful as Doctor Smith's treasure trove idea.
"Ah! There's a seam here!" Smith exclaimed. "It looks like this crystal turns. Perhaps that is the trigger."
"I don't think we should mess with it," Penny decided, "it could be anything. We should tell mom and dad and come back later to study it before we mess with it."
"Rubbish!" Smith proclaimed, flapping a hand in the air dismissively. "We don't need to study something when we already know what it is." He continued to work at the crystal where it met the pedestal, trying to get a good grip on it. Finally, he managed to find the right spot for his hands and the crystal suddenly lurched around about an inch in rotation. Smith's hands flew away from the crystal and he looked up, listening.
There was nothing.
"See? It isn't anything like that," Penny pressed, "let's just come back later."
"Perhaps we simply haven't turned it far enough," Smith insisted, latching on to the crystal again.
"Doctor Smith, I really don't think-"
Penny's protest was interrupted with something at the seam of the pedestal gave with a grind. Smith stumbled to the side as the crystal was set spinning with a hum. A red glow began to build in the center of the crystal. Uncertainty finally creeped back into Smith's expression and he backed away from it slowly, grabbing on to Penny's shoulders and holding her close in front of him. The glow continued to grow until the entire cavern was lit with an eerie red light. The humming noise was beginning to change in pitch, working its way ever higher.
"I think we'd better get out of here," Penny stammered.
Smith was in motion almost before she had finished speaking, making a bee-line for the cave entrance. Penny cast one more glance at the glowing crystal and then turned on her heel and followed at a run.
The humming noise continued to grow, in both pitch and volume. Even outside of the cave, they could hear it clear as day. It was building up to something. Something big. Smith was still running toward the river, but Penny couldn't help but turn around and watch.
Above, from the top of the rock face in which the cavern rested, a blindingly bright red light shot skyward. Penny couldn't be sure, but it seemed like it was shooting out of that shaft in the cavern ceiling she had seen.
This wasn't a treasure trove. And it wasn't a monument. It was a signal.
Suddenly very much wanting the safety of the Jupiter Two, Penny turned and ran after Smith as fast as her legs would carry her.
Normally, Judy would have enjoyed a ride in the jetpack. It was liberating, being able to float high above the ground with a breeze in her face. But as the sun began to creep over the distant horizon, she grew ever more anxious. She was running out of search area to cover and had very nearly exhausted the search pattern she was following. And where she normally would have been enjoying the sights of the lush, green forest below, her mind dwelt on only one thing.
As the green landscape wheeled by beneath her, Judy spotted a thinner section of forest and moved down for a closer look, just as she had countless times already at other clearings like it. But as she got closer, the ground seemed to be undisturbed, just like all those others.
"Oh, Don, where are you?" she lamented aloud, hovering just above the trees.
Suddenly, as if in answer, a silver form shot out of the canopy just yards in front of her, climbing into the air rapidly. Judy gave a yelp of surprise and almost lost control of the jetpack. But as she bobbled around in the air, struggling to regain control, she somehow found a moment to look to the form. A small rocket kicked in, sounding familiar. Following it, her eyes found the bulbous torso of one of the cyborg beasts. While a wicked-looking blade seemed to be coming off of its right hand, the left still looked oddly out of place.
No, it looked Human.
"Don!" Judy exclaimed, immediately kicking in the rockets of the jetpack to follow him. He was already out-pacing her and she was just beginning to despair of ever catching up to him when something happened in the jet that was propelling him through the air. It sputtered and ground to a halt.
Judy saw Don shutter in the air as he lost forward thrust and lost speed quickly. Without that momentum, he was falling toward the ground like a stone. Horrified, Judy gave chase, plunging through the trees and to the ground, heedless of the branches and sticks scraping at her from all sides. She put down so quickly that she stumbled forward a couple of steps before finally coming to a halt.
As she shut down the jetpack and worked at the harness to release herself, she took stock of the scene. Don had plowed into the ground, leaving a gash in the dirt where he had skidded along before finally coming to a halt in a pile of push-ed up dirt shoved up against a very large tree. Steam was rising from the jet engine on his back his torso looked for all the world like a large animal heaving to catch its breath.
"Don!" she called out, leaving the jetpack aside and rushing over to him. He was just picking himself out of the dirt when she came next to him. "Don! Are you hurt?"
His two red main eyes looked up at her and fixed on her face. It was disconcerting the way the other eyes, at various places all over the cyborg body, were wildly casting about, trying to look in all directions all at once. He rocked back and forth in time with a labored wheezing sound.
"Judy." The voice that came from him almost didn't sound like Don at all. It was modulated, almost mechanical sounding and yet somehow also gutteral and growling. Yet still, beneath all of that, she heard the faint notes of his tenor voice.
"You're exhausted," she said with realization, one hand reaching up to lay on the side of the metallic mask that had now completely transformed his face.
"Out of gas," he replied and she thought she heard a funny twinkle in his tone, as if he was amused by something. Or perhaps laughing in the face of fear.
"You shouldn't have taken off like that," she said, keeping her voice gentle, "it was too much, too fast."
"Shouldn't be here," Don wheezed at her and she could have sworn the two main eyes looked sad.
"No, we should both be back at the ship," she insisted, "mom and dad and Will are going to figure this out. But they can't help you if you're not there. Please come back with me."
"No!' Don exclaimed, the cat-like legs of his cyborg body finding purchase on the ground under him and heaving him up. "You shouldn't have followed! Dangerous!"
Judy shook her head, feeling tears beginning to well up in her eyes. "You could never be dangerous to me," she stated, "I know you would never hurt me, Don."
"Can't trust my mind," Don replied, pulling away from her a couple of steps, holding his head in both hands, "becoming a weapon. The voices." He curled inward somewhat as a spike of pain seemed to lance through him.
"What about the voices?" Judy asked, desperate to understand. "What are they saying?"
"Orders," Don said, leaning against a nearby tree as if to steady himself.
"Orders? What orders?"
"Protect," he replied, "shouldn't be here."
"No, we should be back at the Jupiter, like I said," Judy pressed, reaching out to take his still flesh-and-blood hand.
"No!" Don exclaimed, pulling back from her once again. "The Jupiter. Must protect. The Jupiter shouldn't be here!" He let out a strangled, modulated yelp of pain, cringing against it again.
Yeah, so... Nothing ominous there.
"I don't understand," Judy protested, "what do you mean the Jupiter shouldn't be here? Are you saying that we're in danger on this planet? Are you trying to protect us and the Jupiter?"
"No!" Don said again, still holding his head. "planet. Must protect the planet. Shouldn't be here!"
"They're ordering you to protect the planet from us," she said with realization, "but why? We're no threat to this planet. And why change you into... whatever?"
"Weapon," Don ground out through a strangled whimper, "making me a weapon." His stance faltering, he dropped to one knee, still leaning against the tree for support. "Losing the fight. Losing myself. Can't hold on."
"Yes! Yes you can!" Judy shot back, feeling tears trickle from the corner of one eye. "You are one of the most stubborn men I've ever met, Don West, so don't you even think about giving up now!"
He didn't respond for a long moment, shaking his head as if to clear it. Finally, he opened his two main eyes again and looked at her, his flesh-and-blood hand reaching out to her face, gently brushing away a tear from her cheek.
"Judy," he breathed, sounding sad, almost desperate.
"Please hang on," Judy said, taking his hand in both of hers and holding it against her face. She would have been content to remain just like that forever if only it would mean that he would just hang on.
But it was not to be. A loud, high-pitched tone sounded from somewhere within Don's cyborg body. He let out a strangled cry, stumbling back away from her and thrashing his head desperately. With horror, Judy watched Don's left hand, the last Human part of him that was left, rippled and shifted, transforming into a metallic, three-fingered talon.
"Protect!" Don exclaimed, sounding pained.
A red light lit up the sky, then and both of them turned to look at it. All of Don's eyes pressed forward, settling on it and his head tilted to the side as if to puzzle it.
"Must protect," he said again, turning away from her and breaking into a run.
"Wait, no! Don!" she called after him, even as the booster on his back kicked in again and took him flying away from her, going toward the column of light that was splitting the horizon. She sobbed as she watched him shrink into the distance, becoming a tiny dark point against the light before disappearing entirely. And one thought only pushed its way into her mind.
She had lost him.
"It's the End of Days!" Doctor Smith's voice echoed throughout the open space of the Jupiter's main deck as his frantic footfalls clattered up the ramp and he practically tumbled inside. "We're all doomed! Doomed, I tell you!"
John, Maureen, and Will looked up in alarm as Smith charged across the deck, making for the elevator. Penny came in right on his heels.
"What's going on?" John demanded. Smith just ignored him and proceeded down to the lower deck. Showing concern, Will made for the ladder and went to follow Smith.
"Doctor Smith!" Penny called after him, chidingly, coming to a halt next to her father.
"Penny, what's happened?" Maureen pressed, somewhat more gently.
"There was a thing in a cave," Penny babbled out, between breaths, "and it turned and then there was a noise and this big light shot into the air!"
"What?" Maureen asked, grabbing hold of her daughter's shoulder's and pulling her close.
For his part, John quickly turned to the ship's entrance and rushed over to look outside. In the middle of the rapidly lightening sky, he saw the column of red light. "What in the world?" he exclaimed as Maureen and Penny joined him. "It looks like some kind of a signal."
"John, look!" Maureen exclaimed pointing toward the sky. A tiny figure was speeding toward the column. A moment later and another came into view. Then another, and another.
John ducked back inside to grab a pair of binoculars, pressing them to his eyes as he came back out, searching the sky for the tiny flying objects.
"It's some of those robot beasts," he said, grimly, "dozens of them!"
"I saw a bunch more while we were on our way back," Penny explained, "it's like they're being called."
"If that's true, it might be calling to Don, as well," said Maureen, resting a hand on John's arm.
John gave a grim nod. "Something tells me that everything's coming to a head," he said, "we're still no closer to a solution to those nanites. But I think we're out of time. Penny, can you show us where that light is coming from?"
She gave a nod.
"I'll get the laser rifles," Maureen said, already in motion back into the ship. She passed Will on his way out.
"Doctor Smith is pretty scared," he said, "I don't think he's coming out any time soon."
"Fine, he can stay there for now," John snapped out, "we don't have time to deal with him. Will, help me get the Chariot ready."
"Yes, sir," Will agreed, trailing off after his father.
Tears running down her face, Penny latched on to Maureen as soon as she came back out of the ship with two laser pistols slung over her shoulder.
"It's all my fault, mom!" she sobbed. "I should have stopped Doctor Smith from touching it!"
"I'm sure it's not your fault, sweetie," Maureen soothed, "but you can tell us all about it on the way. Come on."
With that, the family piled into the Chariot. John took the wheel, motioning for Penny to sit next to him in the front passenger seat to show him the way to go. And then, the Chariot trundled off in the direction Penny and Doctor Smith had just fled.
Judy had figured that the column of light was where Don had been heading. It made it easy to decide on a direction to go. But when she got closer, she saw several more of the cyborg beasts, each in a state of severe disrepair, some nearly rattling apart as they flew, approaching the area as well. Eventually, she had been forced to put down in the woods again and continue on foot, lugging the heavy jetpack along with her.
When she came within sight of the base of the light column, she stopped cold, seeing several of the beasts silhouetted against the red glare. She released herself from the jetpack and kept her head low, peering through the branches of some bushes and watched as they took up positions like guards on watch. She knew, she just knew that Don was inside the cave. But there was no way she would ever make it past those sentinels.
So it was a relief when she heard the distinct sound of the Chariot treads coming through the forest behind her. As quietly as she could, Judy left her hiding spot and made for the familiar sound. As soon as he spotted her, John brought the Chariot to a halt and the other Robinsons all piled out again.
"Dad!" Judy exclaimed, giving him a hug.
"Are you all right?" John asked.
"I'm fine," Judy sobbed, giving Maureen a nod as well as she gathered in as well, "and I found Don. I think I was getting through to him, but then that light started up and he ran off toward it. I think he's inside that cave with more of those awful things."
"Look at them all!" Will exclaimed, peering through the trees. "Where'd they all come from?"
"I think they came from everywhere, son," John stated.
"Answering a summons," Maureen agreed.
John gave a thoughtful nod, setting his teeth, looking grimly at the spectacle before them. "Then that means whoever is pulling the strings must be inside," he said, "this might be our chance to try to communicate with them and try to get them to stop whatever they're doing to Don." He turned back to his family. "You all stay here. I'm going to try to talk to them."
"I'm going with you, dad, and you can't stop me," Judy stated.
"If Judy's going, I'm going!" Will exclaimed.
"Me too!" Penny agreed.
Maureen looked at John somewhat apprehensively. "It looks like we're doing this together as a family, for Don," she said.
"I don't like it," John stated, "but we don't have time to argue. All right, as a family then, but keep behind me, all of you." There were nods all around and John took point, resolutely making his way toward the clearing before the mouth of the cave.
As soon as they came within range, all of the sentinels came to attention, readying various weapons and pointing them in the direction of the approaching family. In unison, they all barked out a word. It wasn't in English, but its meaning was clear. John brought everyone to a halt, swinging his laser rile back over his shoulder and holding up both of his hands, empty.
"We mean no harm and we come in peace," he called out, "we only want our friend. May we speak to your leader?"
"You do not belong here, Professor John Robinson," a stilted voice called out from behind the line of sentinels, sounding as if he was struggling with the words, framing them for the first time. "You should depart this world. You are trespassing here."
The sentinels parted, revealing a small lizard-skinned being with cat-like legs and a hunched over back. Its face had a row of several eyes flanking two main ones. Though it was much smaller than the cyborg beasts, it was clear that the beasts had been made as some sort of grotesque mockery of this being's form.
"I'm sorry,"John replied, "we didn't think there was anyone on this planet and we don't intend to stay. We're only stopping here to replenish our supplies and our fuel. We'll gladly leave as soon as we are able, but we want our friend back."
The being's head tilted to the side as if considering the words and trying to find their meaning. "Your friend," he said, "the one called Major Don West."
"That's right," John affirmed, trying to keep his voice even, but fighting with his temper, "you've been messing with his mind, transforming him into one of those monsters. And we want to you undo it and return him to us."
"Monster?" the being asked, sounding puzzled for a moment. The realization seemed to come upon him and made an angry rattling sound in the back of his throat. "No monsters! Guardians! My peoples' guardians! Noble! Not monsters!"
"It was a poor choice of words," John admitted, "nevertheless, Major West never agreed to be turned into one of them."
"Agreement is not required," the being stated, "guardians are required."
"Required for what?"
"Protect," the being said. And there was a murmur across all of the sentinels, echoing the word, but in another language John had never heard before, "protect my people. They slumber, hidden, until the planet is healed."
"Healed?" Maureen asked. "From what? Your world is one of the most beautiful we've ever seen."
"Calamity, thousands of years gone," the being replied, "pulsar. Third radiation."
"Third?" Judy asked.
"I bet he means gamma radiation," said Will, "you know, like alpha, beta, gamma. Third."
"Yes," the being said with a nod, "gamma radiation. Third radiation. Wiped out almost all life on the surface. My people sleep. We wait for the planet to heal again. To support again."
"John, if a beam from a pulsar hit this planet, the devastation would have been terrible," Maureen stated, "millions must have been killed."
"Billions!" the being corrected. "Only few are left. Retreated under the ground, to sleep, to wait. Ten thousand years we waited. Guardians keep watch over the planet, deal with intruders. Protect."
Once again a murmur rippled through the sentinels in response to the word.
"But why Don?" Judy demanded. "Why turn him into one of your guardians?"
"Damage worse than we thought," the being replied, "our own warriors, spent, gone, dust. Only... civ... civilians left. Had to find others. Warriors from visiting races. We made them our guardians. See."
The being stepped aside, allowing space for another figure to come through the line of sentinels. Towering over the being, a uniquely pristine cyborg came forward, pressing all of its eyes toward the family. In comparison to the collection of rusting and degrading beasts, it looked like it had not weathered one single day.
"Your Major Don West," said the being, "uniquely suited to the change. From among your planet's warrior class. Already programmed to protect."
"If you mean our military, then yes," John agreed, "but he wasn't programmed. He chose to protect. He chose to be a warrior, to serve his people in that way. Now you have forced him to serve yours, messed with his mind. To our people, there is very little more abhorrent than that."
"Abhorrent," the being mused, tilting his head to the side and looking puzzled, "this... word...?"
John couldn't help but let the corner of his mouth turn upward a little. "I suppose it isn't a word Major West would use that much," he said, "and I assume you learned our language from his mind."
"Yes," the being replied.
"Well, suffice it to say," John said, his expression sobering again, "there's very little that disgusts us more than slavery and mind control. I'm sorry for everything you and your people have been through. But what you've done to Major West is wrong and we won't leave without our friend."
"Then you will not leave," said the being. He uttered a word in what was apparently his own language, then. He pointed toward the Robinsons as the word was repeated by the sentinels. And then, in clear English, the gleaming cyborg that had once been their friend uttered one word in chorus with them.
The being faded back behind the line as the sentinels all came forward, closing in around the Robinson family. Don was in the lead, though it seemed there was very little of him left. He kept repeating that single word over and over and the others continued their chant as well. "Protect. Protect. Protect."
"Don, no!" Judy exclaimed, pushing forward, out in front of her father. "This isn't you! I know you're still in there and you'd never hurt us! Never!"
"Judy get back!" John ordered, grasping for his daughter's arm, but she shook it off.
"Please! Please come back to us!" Judy pleaded. "Come back to me!"
Don stopped only a few feet from Judy, looking down at her, his eyes all pressing forward, studying her face. The rest of the Robinsons all huddled together, grasping on to each other as they looked on, the other sentinels pressing in around them.
"Protect," Don murmured again. "Protect. Protect... the Robinsons."
And then all hell broke loose.
As if a switch had been flipped, the cyborg that had been Don West spun to one side, swinging out with his bladed right arm, catching the nearest sentinel square in the chest and cutting deep. The thing gave a yelp of surprise and then gurgled and collapsed in a heap to the ground. Don was already moving on, striking out at the other sentinels, placing himself between the Robinsons and the cyborgs, pushing Judy toward her father with one arm before continuing the battle that had erupted.
Being the latest model, so to speak, Don clearly had the advantage of speed and strength. He was able to tear into several of the sentinels, grasping an arm and ripping it off here, slashing his metal claws into degraded weak points there, and just generally being a whirlwind of carnage. "Protect the Robinsons!" he shouted.
But the old, decaying sentinels had the advantage of numbers. Cringing back in fear, the being gestured and another line of them came forward, converging on Don from all sides, surrounding him in a death pocket. Don let out a ferocious roar of fury and lunged for one of them, but another fired an energy weapon, catching Don in the center of his back, sending him down to one knee with a howl of pain. Other sentinels began to pile in on top of him, grasping on wherever they could find purchase, clawing, and pulling, trying to rip him apart.
"Not on my watch!" Maureen exclaimed, swinging her laser rifle off her shoulder and taking aim. She began firing off shots into the melee, trying to push the sentinels back. A moment later and John joined in as well. The two of them felled beast after beast, but others simply kept coming forward to take their places.
Finally, the being let out a desperate cry, a single word. All the actions of the sentinels ceased. There was silence in the area for a long moment as the being came forward. John held up his hand to keep the rest of the family from moving and pushed Maureen's rifle down to point at the ground.
"He chooses to protect the Robinsons," the being mused, looking up at Don where he was being held down by the other sentinels. Don gave a growl and thrashed, trying to break free, but it was no use. "How? How does he choose? His mind should be conquered."
"I protect the Robinsons," Don angrily ground out, every single one of his cyborg eyes glaring at the being.
There was a long, tense moment as the being came in closer to Don, his head tilting this way and that as he chattered in the back of his throat.
"You resist," the being said, "the programming. So like your own. Not different enough to change you entirely. Free, natural thought remains."
"That's right," John agreed, "you'll find us Humans to be a stubborn bunch that way. And Major West is more stubborn than most."
A couple of Don's auxiliary eyes flicked back toward the Professor and almost seemed as though they were rolling at him.
"Don't look at me that way, it's true," John shot toward his friend before settling his gaze back on the being. "You won't be able to re-program him. Not completely. He will always resist you."
The being cast his glance back and forth between Don and the Professor, still making that chattering noise as he seemed to ponder.
"Then, useless to us," he finally concluded. He raised a hand and slowly the other sentinels released Don. The Robinsons watched Don get back to his feet again, taking a defensive stance, his eyes darting from retreating sentinel to retreating sentinel. "We have failed," the being went on, "first guardian in 100 years. All others, wearing out. Soon, we will be defenseless." He cast his gaze aside and downward, looking defeated and filled with sorrow.
"Well, then maybe it's time," Will ventured, "the planet seems to be healed enough to live on again. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to survive."
"That's right!" Penny exclaimed in agreement. "Maybe it's time for your people to wake up!"
"My children are right," John affirmed, "we've been on this planet for ten days, now and we haven't detected a trace of gamma radiation. The vegetation has recovered and the whole planet is pristine again. Your people could make a go of it."
The being looked off into the distance, into the forest as the trees were rapidly becoming crowned with golden sunlight. He seemed to be pondering it, as if having missed the sight of the sky for a long time.
"Whatever you decide to do, you have my word we will leave you to it in peace," John pressed, "as long as your return Major West to his family."
"Family," the being mused, "I too have family. Would protect them with everything."
"Our people are the same way," Maureen prodded, "we'd do anything to protect the ones we care about. And Don is very important to us."
When the being did not respond for a long moment, Judy hesitantly stepped forward toward him. Don shifted, as if to hold her back, but she set a calming hand on his metal arm and gave him a reassuring look before continuing on toward the being.
"What is your name?" she asked.
"Name?" the being asked, looking up at her in askance.
"What are you called?" Judy persisted. "My name is Judy."
"Judy Robinson," the being stated.
"That's right," she replied, "I'm sure you've learned all about us from Don's memories. That's Penny and Will, and our parents, John and Maureen. What are you called?"
The being tilted his head to the side, studying her face for a long moment, as if considering a response.
"Jixtan," he finally said, "I am Jixtan."
"Jixtan it is, then," she said, gently, taking hold of one of his three-fingered hands, giving it a slow and gentle shake, "this is how our people greet each other in peace. Please, can you reverse what's been done to Don?"
After a long moment, Jixtan's other hand came down on top of Judy's gently and he held it there for a moment. Finally, he gave what seemed to be a sigh and released her hand, turning back to John.
"No matter your thoughts," he said, "we are not cruel, Professor John Robinson. Your friend... your family member, may return to you."
"And the transformation," John pressed, "can he be turned back?"
"Never done before," Jixtan replied, "do not know."
"I got a look at your nanites' programming," Will put in, his voice brimming with hope, "not enough to really understand it all. It's pretty impressive stuff, but... well, it looked like the nanites keep a record of the changes they make. Don't they have an 'undo button' or something?"
"Undo button?" Jixtan asked.
"Yeah," Penny agreed, "just like putting everything back the way they found it."
Jixtan chattered in the back of his throat again. "Perhaps," he allowed, "but dangerous. Maybe fatal. Body might shut down."
"Try," Don stated, finally speaking up once again, "I want to try."
"There are many risks," Jixtan said to him, "you understand? And you still wish to make the attempt?"
Don gave a nod. The Robinsons all held their breath, waiting for Jixtan's decision.
"Then we will try," the being said, "we will use the... undo button."
Don gave a moan under his breath, his shoulders dropping with the ridiculousness of the statement.
"Back away, Robinsons," Jixtan ordered. Then he looked back up at Don again. "Will be painful. Prepared?"
Don steeled himself and gave a determined nod.
"Then, so be it," said Jixtan. He gave another imperious wave of his hand.
At that signal, all round Don's cyborg body, tiny motes of light coalesced into a glowing mist all around him. He held his head, thrashing against an unseen pain that was coming over him and dropping to his knees. As the light around him strengthened, he began to fight back whimpers and cries until finally they would no longer be held back. He let loose a primal, alien scream as his body arched backward and seized. Like a dust shaking from him, the glowing fog began to pull away from him, revealing a human form beneath. Don's cry of agony slowly changed back into the more recognizable voice of their friend, still crying out in pain, but now using his own voice. Finally, the last of the fog lifted like dust in wind, swirling off to mix with the air and fade away.
Don, now back to a much more recognizable and Human form, allowed his voice to fade away as his eyes - only the two - rolled back into his head and he began to shiver violently. Naked and limp but for his trembling, he collapsed to the ground in a heap.
"It is done," said Jixtan.
The Robinsons were already in motion, descending on their friend and surrounding him in concern.
"Will, Penny!" John barked out. "Get the medical kit from the Chariot, quickly." The two children darted off back toward the vehicle without another word. John looked to Maureen as she took stock of Don's condition, checking his pulse, looking him over quickly.
"He's cold and his heart rate and respiration are both way too high," she said, "I think he's in shock, John. We need to get him back to the Jupiter, quickly." Will and Penny returned with the medical kit just then, setting it down next to their mother. She opened the box quickly and pulled out an emergency thermal blanket to wrap around Don's trembling form. Then she reached for the oxygen mask and began to slip it on to Don's head, over his nose and mouth.
John backed off and left Maureen to her ministrations, turning back to Jixtan. "Thank you," he said, finally, "thank you for understanding and giving him back to us."
"Go now, Professor John Robinson," Jixtan said, "see to your family. We will speak again." With finality, the being turned away and returned to the mouth of the cave. Slowly, the remaining sentinels all followed.
John turned back to Maureen, looking askance. "Well?" he asked.
"We can move him," she affirmed with a nod.
"Then let's get him back to the Chariot," said John, shifting position in order to get a firm hold on his unconscious friend, "let's take him home." With some effort, John lifted Don up under his knees and his back, still shivering violently and wrapped in the crinkling thermal blanket.
With the rest of the family hovering around him, John carried Don back to the Chariot so they could all go home.
It was nearly two days before Don was awake again for any meaningful amount of time. He had a few flashes of memory here and there, but none of it seemed to make much sense when strung together. He remembered seeing flashes of relief on the faces of the Robinsons, but keeping hold of those seemed to be the most difficult task in the world. There was a bone-deep, almost soul-crushing exhaustion pressing down on him. Over all, it was just easier to give into the pull of unconsciousness. So it was reassuring that the others seemed to be all right with that. He didn't remember much about what any of them had said but for an over-arching encouragement to simply rest.
But, eventually, there was a time when he drifted back into the waking world without quite so much of the weight of fatigue on him that there had been. Don finally had enough energy to take stock of himself.
The feeling of a gentle hand taking hold of his wrist and pressing fingers to it lightly was what woke him. Maureen was there when he opened his eyes, looking away from the watch on her wrist that she had been carefully watching when she realized he was awake. She gave a smile and let go of his wrist, resting a hand on his forehead.
"Welcome back," she said with a smile, "I think the fever has finally come down. How do you feel?"
"Like lead," Don managed to breathe out when he finally found enough moisture in his mouth to allow it to unstick his tongue from his palate. "I think someone ran me over with a steam-roller. What happened?"
"Well, I'm not completely certain, to be honest," Maureen replied, "but as near as I can tell, the reversal of the nanites' effects was just too much for your nervous system to handle. It was so abrupt, it sent you into a state of shock. I can't be sure, but it might have been easier on you to make the change back gradually, like the change had been in the first place."
With some effort, Don managed to shift enough to get an arm under his shoulder and push himself up into more of a sitting position. Maureen was immediately fretting over him, helping to get a couple of extra pillows behind him to lean against and adjusting the blankets that were covering him and the tubing from an IV in the back of his hand.
"Is everyone all right?" Don asked. "I didn't hurt anyone, did I?"
"No," Maureen said with a small shake of her head and a gentle smile, "in fact, your stubborn determination may have brought an entire race back from the brink of extinction."
"Where's all this about me being stubborn coming from all of a sudden?" Don asked with a bit of a smirk.
There was a light rap on the doorframe just before the folding screen that separated Don's cabin from the rest of the deck slid back to reveal Judy standing on the other side. When she caught sight of Don sitting up on his bunk, her look of concern melted into one of relief.
"I heard voices in here," she explained, "thank goodness you're finally awake. For real, this time?"
"I think so, for now anyway," Don replied, "I'm still pretty tired."
"It'll probably take a few days to get your strength back," said Maureen, "so I don't want you to push yourself too hard. And I mean it."
"Yeah, no playing tough guy, this time," Judy agreed, pulling a chair over to Don's side and lighting in it and taking hold of his free hand.
"Yes, ma'am," Don replied, "think I'd face-plant on the deck if I tried to stand up right now, anyway."
"Would you like something to eat?" Maureen asked.
"I could eat an entire side of beef right off the grill," Don admitted.
"Something a little lighter to start with, I think," Maureen replied with a laugh, "I'll go see what I can do."
As she left his cabin, Don nodded this thanks, then turned his full attention to Judy, placing his other hand over hers.
"I'm so glad you're all right," she said to him, "I was so afraid I'd lost you, completely."
"I think I was lost for a bit there," Don replied, his tone sobering a little, "for a minute, nothing mattered but the orders. Protect. It was all there was. And then, at the very last second, I saw you. And I suddenly remembered what I was supposed to be protecting." He saw her face color a little and grasped on to her hand, holding it close to his heart. "You brought me back."
She looked at him, swallowing back a small sob and her smile widening. "Every single time," she whispered, tiny sparkles of moisture forming in the corners of her eyes.
For a moment, the two of them simply look at each other. Then, Judy leaned in and softly, they came together in a gentle kiss.
It was about a week later than John and Maureen permitted Don to return to some light work. In truth, he was grateful for their mother henning even though he was going stir-crazy. Being up on his feet still wiped him out and he was still unnervingly weak. But at least he could get around by himself and get into the daylight to help with small things.
By then, the Jupiter Two had neighbors. About a mile away on the grasslands, a small camp had sprung up where a few of the planet's newly-awakened population had emerged and settled. It turned out that ten thousand years of stasis hadn't done any favors for the equipment and supplies they had set aside.
Jixtan visited them frequently, sometimes bringing others along. It seemed that his people who just as curious about their visitors as the Robinsons were of them. And in that way, the crew of the Jupiter Two learned more about their hosts and their millennia of hibernation. Jixtan was the fifty-second in a rotation of scientists who had volunteered to be awoken at intervals to monitor the gamma radiation levels on the planet and see to the population's well-being and security. But it had turned out that the effects of the radiation were more severe and lasted longer than they had prepared for. As a result, the stasis preserving most of their food and equipment had needed to be cannibalized in order to keep the stasis pods of his people running. It had been their only option at the time. But it meant that now, Jixtan and his people were emerging from their underground shelters as timeless castaways with almost nothing to use to support themselves.
In the interests of goodwill, John had offered what help they could give. Jixtan had been confused by it at first, unable to understand how people from another world would have compassion for those who had so horribly mistreated one of their own. He had at first stubbornly refused any offer of supplies, insisting that they had taken enough from them already. It wasn't until Don had been up and about and spoken to Jixtan personally, telling him that he understood what had happened and didn't hold any ill will, that the being had relented.
"You were protecting your people," Don told him, "I can understand that better than most. Visitor to your planet or not."
Jixtan tilted his head at Don in puzzlement for a long moment, then, the chattering noise in the back of his throat again. "You are a wise man as well as a strong warrior, Major Don West," he said, "I am grateful that you are my people's last guardian. It is... a reminder that... compassion may be found among strangers. My people will not forget again." He gave a solemn bow on his head, holding up his hand with two fingers out in a sort of a c-shape. "I promise this."
Somewhat awkwardly, Don tried to emulate the motion, then thought better of it and extended his hand instead. Jixtan had taken it equally as awkwardly, but somehow, the exchange had conveyed everything else there had been to say.
After that, the Robinsons had all taken turns visiting the other camp to offer their expertise in helping Jixtan's people find food, shelter, and equipment that could be salvaged or cobbled together for use. The process of awakening his people was going to be slow, in small groups, in order to ensure that everyone could be taken care of. Among the first group to be awoken were the rest of Jixtan's family; his mate, their five children, and another male that he called his clutch-mate, though they never quite got what that meant. Will and Penny had somehow hit it off with Jixtan's children, despite the steep language barrier, and seemed to spend as much time in play with them as helping them with their tasks. Penny had been a little grossed out by the fact that they ate insects as well as plants, but her dismay had lessened when she had learned that they had no interest in hunting and eating any of the animals that could be found.
Doctor Smith, of course, wanted nothing to do with any of it. He kept insisting that the "savage, cruel lizard-men" would turn on them at any moment and devour them whole. The fact that they were smaller than Humans and didn't eat meat didn't seem to play any part in this determination. He spent most of his time shut up in his cabin, avoiding the beings altogether.
As Don sat at the camp table outside the Jupiter one evening, tinkering with a part from the Chariot that John had relented and allowed him to work on, he pondered the little settlement not far away. The sun was getting low in the sky and the tiny community was wrapping up their work for the day. He must have zoned out staring across the grasslands at them, because John somehow managed to come up right behind him without his noticing.
"You've been working on that for hours," he said, indicating the device in Don's hands, "you should take a break."
"Nah, I'm fine," Don said, reaching for a screwdriver.
John's hand got there first and snatched it up. "Take a break," he said, "that's an order. Maureen will have my head if I wear you out. Besides, I'm pooped and it gives me an excuse."
"Take a break, you're tired?"
"Yup," John said with a laugh, taking a seat at the table next to Don. "Turns out Jixtan's mate is a botanist," he went on conversationally, "she's been showing Judy a bunch of new vegetables we can grow in our own hydroponic garden."
"That mean we can finally give the purple celery a break?"
"What's wrong with the purple celery?"
"One, it's celery, two, it's purple."
John gave a laugh. "You must have been a terror to your mother at dinner time," he said, "what'd you do with eggplant?"
"Snuck it to the dog," Don replied with a shrug. As John gave another laugh, Don gave a contented sigh, once again casting his gaze across the grasses to the other camp. "You know, John, in spite of everything, I'm glad we got to meet these people."
"Worth what you went through?" John asked.
"Yeah," Don said, "yeah, I think it was. These people are finally getting their chance at a new life. A whole species. I guess that's worth a little... mutation by microscopic robots with a hive-mind AI."
"I imagine they never covered that in boot camp," said John, "but I'm glad to hear you say that. It is nice to know that there are other beings out there that might look different from us, but are still enough like us to find common ground."
"Reminded me of some other stuff, too," Don said, "stuff I maybe might have started taking for granted."
"Yeah," John agreed, "the rest of us, too."
"Thanks for... coming after me... for not giving up when I was so out of it."
"Well, it's like I said before," John replied, clapping a hand on Don's shoulder, "you're family. It doesn't matter what your last name is, you're still a Robinson. And Robinsons stick together, no matter what."
"You know, I don't think it's ever come up," Don said, keeping his eyes on the horizon, "but, I, uh... I never really knew my dad. He walked out on my mom and me when I was little. I never really thought that I was missing anything, you know?"
"Well, his mistake," said John, his own eyes following Don's line of sight, "but it's my gain."
Don felt a large lump in his throat and the corners of his vision were getting a little blurry. Nothing more seemed to need to be said, judging by the long silence between them. Finally, Don gave a sniff and cleared his throat.
"Well, anyway," he said, standing up from the table and turning toward the entrance to the Jupiter, "I should probably..." He felt the blood drain from his face as the corners of his vision grayed out a little. The world tilted around him and he might have toppled over if not for the strong hands on his biceps.
"Whoa, easy there!" John exclaimed. "I told you, you shouldn't overdo it. Time for you to call it quits for the day. C'mon."
Don's reflex was to try and break free of John's grasp and insist that he was fine. But to be perfectly honest, the ground under his feet was still bucking around quite a bit. Besides, it was kind of nice being able to lean on John a little.
After all, neither of them had anything to prove.