Out in the farthest reaches of the still blackness of space, a mighty starship shuddered. Her hull plates glowed white hot as her pilots fought to control her too rapid descent. The ship, helpless in the grasp of some unknown force, bucked and spun aimlessly despite her crew's best efforts.
"Hold onto her, Solis!" the co-pilot urged as she wrestled with her controls.
"I'm trying... Dya! By the heavens... it's like trying to grapple with a charging ballangee... I..."
Dya's thin fingers moved rapidly over her console, wishing she could will the ship into submission, but it seemed to suddenly have a mind of its own and there seemed to be nothing she, or her lifemate could do to stop it.
She glanced over at the third seat in the cockpit, worriedly. Her daughter, Tuli, sat rigid among the myriad straps and buckles binding her to her recently installed flight seat. Tuli's eyes were rimmed with red. She'd been crying silently, as if she knew her parents were having enough trouble without any added distraction from her. Dya sent a silent prayer to the gods of her family to protect her little one and those sleeping in the ship below them.
It had been only bad fortune that she and her lifemate had been chosen to stay awake during this stage of their long voyage. She flicked on the distress beacon before she dared risk a glance out her viewport and gasped in horror at the sight of a flowing luminescent green mist. She heard Solis let out a cry before everything around her went black.
* * * * *
Dan Erickson woke to the dim reddish glow of the Spindrift's passenger cabin. He wondered at the darkness for a moment until he realized that the door to the narrow corridor between the ship's cabin and cockpit had been closed.
He smiled. He had taken a bad fall the day before and the others must have decided to let him sleep in to speed his recovery. As he sat up, his left shoulder made a silent, but undeniable, protest. He rubbed the abused joint a bit and moved his arm in slow circles for a few moments until he'd worked some of the stiffness out of it. He stood, dressed quickly and went outside.
Valerie Scott and Betty Hamilton sat at the base of a sapling weaving carrying baskets out of thick blades of Giant grass.
Off to one side, Alexander Fitzhugh was stirring something thick, brown and noxious in a crude bucket made of a discarded Giant thimble and a bit of wire. The "bucket" was supported over a fire by a tripod of Giant knitting needles.
"Hi, Dan!" Valerie said cheerfully. "How's the shoulder?"
He moved it experimentally. "Well, I won't be doing any handstands for a few days, but it feels better than it did last night." He looked around. "Where are the others?"
The women giggled. "You won't believe it," Betty said, her blue eyes sparkling with delight.
"Barry found a Giant bar of soap under a tree. It's clean clothes and hot baths for everybody as soon as Steve and Mark get it cut it up into pieces we can handle."
Fitzhugh threw down the crudely carved spoon he'd been using and turned to face them, a disgusted expression on his round face. "I, for one, cannot wait. The stench of that revolting potion is more than I can bear."
Valerie shot him an amused look. "You could have gone to help them with the soap," she reminded him. She flashed him a mischievous grin, knowing how the portly con-man hated any sort of physical activity.
Fitzhugh bent, picked up his improvised spoon and returned to his stirring without another word.
"I just hope we got the formula right for the sealant this time," Dan said, indicating the thick brown liquid. "Mark's been working on it for a long time."
Valerie made a face. "Well, if the smell's any indication, it should work perfectly."
Steve Burton and Mark Wilson appeared just then, their arms loaded down with neatly cut blocks of pink, floral scented soap. Barry Lockridge followed not far behind carrying the two handled saw Steve and Dan had made out of a discarded Giant scalpel some time before.
"Looks like you three hit the mother lode," Dan said, with a grin.
"Pink Gardenias, at least, that's what the wrapper said," Mark announced. He dropped his load onto the nearest rock. "Well, beggars can't be choosers, I guess, but I've always hated the smell of gardenias."
Steve looked up through the overhanging leaves, a concerned look on his face. "I hate to break up the fun, but those clouds are starting to look pretty threatening. We'd better get that soap under cover. It could be a hell of a storm."
There wasn't a single complaint from the other six members of the group. Even Mark, who occasionally balked at Steve's orders, moved silently to help prepare the camp for foul weather. The fire was extinguished, the baskets, sealant, and drying meat were taken under the protection of the lean-to they'd built beside the crippled spaceship.
Barry went to the north corner of the camp and untied his beloved dog, Chipper, and took him into the ship.
Steve was the last of the group to enter the ship and close the door to the Giant world where they had been marooned more than five years ago. As he watched his passengers and crew ready the Spindrift for the possibility of a storm, Steve spent a few moments thinking about how far they had come since their too sudden arrival here. This world was not quite as frightening as it had once been. They still had their run-ins with the Giant population, but things had gotten better once Senator Obek had managed to pass the "Little People
Protection Act" he'd been working on so diligently. At least, it had put Inspector Kobick and his "Special Squad" out of commission.
There were still Giants who would like nothing better than to capture the Little People and use them for anything from scientific experiments to pets, but there was no longer a reward out for their capture. That didn't mean their everyday life had gotten that much easier, but they could sleep a little better at night. The Little People from Earth even had a few friends among the Giant population now.
A slight smile crossed the pilot's handsome features as the image of Kona flashed through his mind. Kona was an old woman they'd met only a year, earlier. She'd caught Dan, Barry and Fitzhugh in her pantry and, since she was all but blind, had nearly swept them out with the trash. She'd heard Fitzhugh's bellowing at the last moment and rescued them.
Now, she willingly shared her meager rations with the Little People on the condition that some member of the group came and read to her for two hours a week. The girls and Barry normally went, leaving the men to work on other things, but lately, Steve, Dan and Mark had gone to check on her between the regular visits and had even done some very minor repairs
to her tiny shack.
Steve suddenly realized he hadn't gone to see the old woman in quite a while. 'I guess it's time I paid her a visit,' Steve reminded himself. 'We'll check up on her after the storm.'
There was a bright flash followed by a violent crash from above and Steve ducked involuntarily. The storm was beginning. He went into the cockpit and positioned himself beside the controls for the ship's life support system, ready to switch it on if the little hollow the Spindrift rested in was flooded out again. It had happened three times in the last few years, not really enough to worry about, normally, but he didn't want his people to drown or suffocate. Another streak of lightning shot across the sky and was followed by its own ear-shattering thunder clap.
Dan entered, his dark eyes gleaming in the dim light. "Boy, you sure know how to call 'em."
"Looks like we got everything battened down just in time. We never had storms like this on Earth."
Dan chuckled. "We probably did, but we were too big to notice."
"Yeah, I guess size does make a difference," Steve agreed, with a smile.
A steady yapping and shouting from the rear compartment caught their attention and they turned to see Chipper up on Fitzhugh's chest barking in the man's face as he dug at the fat man's clothing with his short claws.
"Better go see what that's about. I'll stay here with the air switch. I don't want to turn it on unless it's absolutely necessary."
Dan nodded and went back into the passenger compartment.
Steve was the only one to see the bright, orange fireball that shot across the sky. He stared in disbelief as the ball slammed into the ground less than a mile away. He heard a burst of yelling, then silence as Dan returned to the cockpit.
"Seems Chipper actually likes the smell of that sealant Mark concocted. Fitzhugh's been stirring it most of the morning. He must have gotten some of it on his clothes," he reported then, seeing the strange expression on his friend's face, he frowned.
Steve didn't answer at first, he just kept staring out at the sheets of rain coming down around the ship. Finally, the pilot shook his head as if to clear it.
"Hey, are you okay, Buddy?" Dan asked. There was concern in his dark eyes.
Dan repeated his question.
"Yeah...yeah," Steve finally answered. "It must have been the lightning," he muttered. "What?"
"Dan, I... just saw a... fireball." Steve threw up his hands in frustration. How could he describe what he'd just seen to his co-pilot? "It hit over by the Outpost."
"I guess so, but it looked strange."
"What do you mean strange?" Dan asked. He peered out the viewport at the pelting rain.
"I don't know... not so much like lightning, Dan. To tell you the truth, it looked more like a re-entry glow."
Steve shrugged. "I don't know... I don't know."
Dan reached for a coil of rope and headed for the door.
"Wait, you can't go out in this mess," Steve warned.
"Steve, I can make it to the Outpost. It's protected most of the way. If you're right, and it is a ship, the survivors will need help."
"I can't let you... Damnit, at least, wait until after the storm's over!" "Where's Dan going?" Mark asked, coming forward.
"He's not going anywhere," Steve said, taking his co-pilot's arm.
"Steve says he saw a flash... like a re-entry glow over by the Outpost. I want to go check it out."
"I'm with you."
"No, you're not!" Steve ordered. "Look, until this storm's over, it would be suicide to go out."
Mark grabbed the rope from Dan and was out the door before either of them could stop him.
"Mark, get back here!" Steve yelled, trying to be heard over the thunder. "Damn! Dan, you stay here with the others, on the air switch," he ordered, taking up another coil of rope. "We'll be right back," he added and dashed out into the pouring rain.
Dan closed the door and went back into the cockpit. He agreed with Mark, of course. Anyone their size trapped in a damaged ship could be killed by this rain. He just hadn't counted on Mark's taking off like that. He realized he should have known better by now. Mark tended to make snap decisions on a more emotional level than Steve and had, a few times, almost gotten himself and others of the group killed in the process.
He just hoped there wasn't another fight on the way. The last time Mark and Steve had had one of their "Battle Royales" as Fitzhugh called them, they'd both been too hurt to do much of anything for almost a week.
Valerie and Betty had been furious and insisted the men were little more than "bull-headed idiots" and had left them to do their own cooking "for a change" while they went off to visit with Kona.
The next week had been a disaster! Steve's squirrel steaks had been too tough to cut, much less eat; Fitzhugh had, somehow, managed to make a passable stew, but Chipper had chased a butterfly into camp and knocked the kettle off the tripod and Dan and Mark's nights hadn't been much better.
Finally, after a lot of persuasion and promises, they'd talked the women into cooking for them again. Valerie had said she and Betty figured they'd better return or the men would probably starve. Their only conditions had been that Steve and Mark stop their fighting and the men spend time learning to cook.
* * * * *
Steve finally caught up with Mark just past the exposed roots of ancient oak tree that marked the entrance to the Outpost.
The pilot tried to wipe the water out of his eyes and peered out from behind the enormous tree. He gasped as a large drop of cold water rolled off the corner of a leaf and streamed down his back.
Each drop of rain on this world was the equivalent of being hit with a bucketful on Earth and the men had been soaked to the skin within a very few minutes. The rain was literally coming down in buckets, as far as the two Little People were concerned.
Mark stood, panting, beside him, his blond hair darkened by the pelting rain. The engineer's eyes widened in disbelief at the sight of the massive ship before them. But even as big as it was, it was still dwarfed by the stems of a rosebush nearby. "Well, you were right. It was a ship," Mark muttered. "Feel better?"
"I don't recognize those markings."
"Not from Earth, then."
"Let's get closer."
"Wait, Mark, we don't know who, or what they are."
"Does it matter?"
Steve sighed. "No, I guess not."
"Then, let's go."
The rain hitting the hot metal sent plumes of steam up into the air. As they got closer, they spotted the cockpit of the strange ship and Steve went toward it. The viewports were starred from the impact and he couldn't see anything through them, so he made his way to where Mark stood at the other side of the ship.
Mark had found a hatch, its hinges bent and melted from the impact. He called for Steve to come help him.
The pilot started to grab a corner of the hatch, then, feeling the waves of intense heat radiating from it, pulled off his jacket and draped it across the exposed edge.
Mark found a heavy branch nearby and, together, they pulled and tugged at the damaged door. It wasn't easy, but they finally managed to pry the door open.
"Hello?" Steve called. He didn't want to frighten anyone still alive within the strange ship by just walking in. "Can anybody hear me?"
"Hey!" Mark yelled. "We're here to help!"
There was no response from the inky blackness beyond the door. The men traded glances, then clambered into the ship.
"Hey, Mark, take a look at this."
The other man turned to see rows of gleaming cylinders stretching above and below him on huge racks. "Cryogenics," he announced. "They were talking about it back on Earth, but I didn't think they'd actually managed to make it work."
"Mark, I don't think this ship's from Earth," Steve said earnestly. He pointed up at a piece of metal with some sort of writing on it. "I can't make heads or tails of that sign."
"I don't recognize it either," the engineer admitted. "Come on let's see if any of their machinery is still working."
Steve nodded and started to follow the taller man toward the rear of the ship, but stopped to look into one of the canisters.
Whatever had been inside it was now a mass of crystalline powder on the bottom of the container. When he showed Mark his discovery, the engineer nodded.
"If they were using Cryogenics their bodies would have to be kept at hundreds of degrees below zero. At those temperatures, their bodies would be as fragile as glass... they'd shatter on impact."
Steve winced. "Let's keep looking. I'll check the control room."
Mark nodded and continued toward what he believed was the engine room.
Steve quickly counted the canisters. They were arranged in rows of ten and ten deep. All these people had set out on an impossible journey. 'How many had survived?' he wondered, silently.
He crawled into the shattered cockpit. Here, the damage was about what he would have expected. Steve stopped for a moment to stamp out a small fire off to one side before he gave the room his full attention. Bits of glass and metal were embedded in the walls. A man and woman, the pilot and co-pilot he assumed, were still in their seats, their bodies covered with blood from God knew how many cuts made by the flying debris. He carefully reached over to check for life and finding none, hoped it had been quick for them.
Off in the back corner, he found another seat, it's occupant still bound by belts. His eyes went wide as he realized that the slight figure in the seat was still warm - still alive. Excited at his find, but cautious about moving a possibly injured being, he ran toward the back, calling for Mark.
The other man came at a run. He had found several things in the engine room he believed he could use to repair the Spindrift, but Steve's find was far more important.
"She's breathing!" Steve whispered, as Mark reached him. It was hard for the pilot to keep the excitement out of his voice.
"What?" Mark asked in disbelief. "You're kidding, no one could have..."
"I tell you, she's breathing! She's alive!"
Mark bent to examine the tiny figure a little more closely.
"What makes you think it's a girl?" he asked.
Steve reached over and gently lifted a gleaming black braid from the pile of glass around the child's neck.
Mark smiled up at the other man. "I guess you're right. She's unconscious, but I think she'll be all right. I don't know if we should move her."
"I think we'd better. If we saw the fireball, the Giants must have, too. The rain's stopped. I think one of us should go back to camp, get Dan and Betty and do what we can for her."
"Good idea, I'll stay here with her." Mark offered.
"Okay. Did you check out the canisters?"
Mark frowned. "Some. All dead, their bodies in tiny bits." He took a deep breath. "This has to be a colony ship, Steve. There are crates of tools, seeds, housing materials, food, bottled water... everything they'd need to survive on a new planet.
These people had a big dream... at least, they never knew what happened to them."
Steve nodded silently, then turned to leave. Mark bent over the tiny belted figure and started undoing the safety straps that had kept the child, the sole survivor of the expedition, alive. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, still soaking wet from his run through the rain, and gently started wiping at the slow trickle of blood from the tiny round face. "Don't die on us, little one," he whispered.
* * * * *
Back at camp, the remaining members of the group were slowly coming out of the Spindrift. The rain had finally stopped and they set about resetting their camp. Betty jumped as Steve barreled back through the trees.
"Steve, where's Mark?" she asked, worriedly.
He leaned against the hatch, trying to catch his breath - it was a long run from the Outpost. "It WAS a ship... we found... a little girl. She's alive."
"Were there any others?" Valerie asked.
Steve shook his head. "All dead. I don't know how she survived, but she needs treatment."
Betty nodded and ran into the Spindrift for the first-aid kit.
"Anything I can do?" Dan asked.
"Yeah, get the wagon. Mark thinks there may be some equipment he can use on the Spindrift."
"It sounds pretty ghoulish to me," Valerie said, shivering slightly. "Stripping the ship before the bodies are even cold."
Steve put a hand on her shoulder. "I don't like the idea much, either, but we've got to get what we can before the Giants find that ship. And, we've got to save that little girl."
She nodded. "Yeah, I guess so. I'll come along."
"No, I want you to stay here with Fitz and Barry... get a bed ready for her."
Steve and Dan led the way out of the camp, with Betty following not far behind. When they reached the damaged ship, they found that Mark had unbuckled the remaining straps and had managed to wash most of the blood off the child's face. "I didn't want to move her, 'til you got here, Betty," he said as the blonde stewardess walked hesitantly into the cockpit.
Betty nodded. Then, mindful of the shards of glass all around her, she crouched to look into the tiny, round face. "Steve, she can't be more than four or five years old," she said. She opened the kit. "She's a pretty little thing."
Mark took Steve off to one side. "Listen, I found two empty canisters back there."
"Then, there may have been other survivors?"
The engineer shook his head. "No, I think those were for the pilot and co-pilot. On a long trip they would probably have had some sort of rotation system... two awake while the others slept."
Steve nodded. "Sounds logical to me, but you said you only found two canisters. That means..."
"Right, the little girl must have been born in transit, between the time her parents were "defrosted" and the time the ship got in trouble. It was probably the same green mist that hit us."
"Damn," Steve said under his breath. He ran a hand through his wet hair and looked around. "Have you had a chance to look over the controls in here?"
Mark nodded. "Yeah, I'll show you the things we can use on the Spindrift, but I feel like a thief taking parts of the ship without asking them."
"Ghoulish," Steve muttered.
Mark looked puzzled. "What?"
"Nothing, just something Val said back at camp." He turned.
"How's she doing, Betty?"
The blonde looked up and smiled. "I think she's okay, Steve. She's got a lot of cuts and it looks like the straps may have made some pretty bad bruises, but it could have been a lot worse."
Dan looked over at the still forms hunched over the ship's controls, sadly. "Yeah, she could be dead," he muttered.
Steve put a hand on his co-pilot's shoulder. "Come on, let's get the gear Mark's picked out." It took more than an hour to get the wagon loaded with parts, food, tools and other supplies with, thankfully, no sign of Giants. Betty was becoming increasingly worried, because the child hadn't regained consciousness, but there was nothing more she could do for
Dan offered to remain behind, out of sight, waiting to see whether or not any Giants would show up, while the others returned to camp. Betty carefully picked up the child and carried her while Mark and Steve maneuvered the heavy wagon behind them.
* * * * *
That night, everyone was understandably subdued. They hadn't known the members of the failed colony, but they couldn't help feeling some sadness at their needless deaths.
Dan had returned to report there had been no sign of Giants during the two hours he had waited. Steve shrugged, deciding the Giants must not have seen the fireball, after all, and it was decided that he, Dan and Mark would return in the morning to bury the bodies of the pilot and co-pilot and empty the canisters of their crystalline contents.
Valerie, quietly, cooked dinner, but not much of it was eaten. Later, Fitzhugh gathered the dishes with the half- finished meals and washed them without comment. Betty went into the ship to check on the still unconscious child while Barry went to bed without a word to anyone and lay long into the night clutching Chipper tightly to his chest.
Steve, Mark and Dan did a quick check of the area, found no signs of trouble and, after filling a bucket for the next morning's use from a little stream nearby, turned in.
Valerie stayed up just long enough to keep Fitzhugh company, not that either of them was really in the mood for the usual bantering that went on when there were dishes to be done, but somehow, knowing that neither of them really wanted to be alone tonight.
* * * * *
Darkness... Darkness and pain. He was floating in a kind of grey haze while thousands of tiny lights flickered at him. Blue, yellow, green, red...
Why couldn't he make sense of them? He should be able to understand what the lights were telling him, but his head was filled with a loud buzzing. Like the sounds he'd heard when he'd trapped a bumblebee in a tin can had made when he was ten. Blue, yellow, green, red... blue, yellow, green, red... the sequence had to make sense, but it didn't. His old flight instructor was yelling at him to pay attention, but even his voice sounded funny, garbled somehow, and while he understood the meaning, the actual words were just random sounds.
'NO!' He was falling, now, spiraling down, out of control! He felt the ground coming up to meet him, calling to him... offering safety, when he knew hitting the ground was certain death. He saw Dan beside him, struggling to hold onto something... but no, it wasn't Dan, was it? For just a brief moment, he'd thought he'd seen a woman in the co-pilot's seat... but that wasn't... couldn't be... possible!
* * * * *
When Tuli woke, she found herself alone in a strange place. Smells she'd never known mixed with those she remembered. Her mind tried to put names to the others around her. Machine smells, dried sweat, cooked food... those she could identify, but the others made no sense to her.
Had the Shiphome finally reached its destination? Were these planet smells? If the Shiphome had finally landed where were her parents? They would explain the strange things. But no, she remembered there had been some kind of trouble. She'd heard her parents planning to put her into one of the pods.
Her mother had even given her the sleep drink, but the situation had gotten worse faster than her parents had expected and there hadn't been time. Her mother had strapped her into her seat and prayed to her Gods for protection. The little girl had seen them struggling to save the Shiphome but that was the last thing she clearly remembered.
Where were her parents now? She couldn't feel them. She cast her mind about, but there was no comforting mental caress. There were others nearby. A few more than a hand count were close enough for her to read, but there were many, many others far away. One was awake while the others slept. This one was concerned. About her? Yes, this one was very worried, because she hadn't awakened.
Tuli let her mind drift to the sleepers, reading their dreams, as she'd been taught. Reading the dreams of sleepers was an important skill on the Shiphome. The sleeping colonists were in a dangerous state. Certain dreams could kill the sleepers. These other sleepers were different than those she was used to, but her curiosity was too much for her.
One dreamed of the mating time and she pulled her mind away, not from shock, but consideration, this was a private time. Her parents had taught her not to interrupt such dreams, because these dreams were often pleasurable and very important for the sleepers' survival.
Another dreamed of running and, at first, she was concerned, but the dreamer felt a sense of joy and triumph as his dream legs flew beneath him.
Two of the sleeping ones weren't dreaming but another dreamed of past fear, guilt and frustration. She sent her mind closer, as she'd been trained and let herself enter the dream.
The dreamer was piloting a Shiphome, as her father had done. She recognized the signs. This dreamer needed her help. His muscles were tight with tension as he fought to control his Shiphome. The dreamer's intensity frightened her. Had her father felt such fear and frustration as he fought to save their Shiphome? She sent calming thoughts and urged the sleeper to wake. This one had a very strong will and it overpowered her young mind before she could pull it away. The sleeper let out a startled yell and woke, breaking the contact and throwing Tuli back into unconsciousness.
* * * * *
Steve Burton let out a yell and sat up suddenly in his bunk. His body was bathed in sweat and his heart was beating wildly in his chest. He looked around the dark lean-to for a moment, getting his bearings, then swung his legs off the side of the bunk and hopped down.
The Spindrift's pilot padded barefoot to the bucket he'd filled earlier, poured some of its contents into the wash basin and splashed water onto his face, wishing he could wash away the last vestiges of the dream with the sweat, but the images stayed clear in his mind.
He hadn't had nightmares about their violent arrival here in some time, and now, suddenly, they were back again, triggered, no doubt, by the crash of the colony ship. He and the others had gotten off lucky, he realized, as he sat on the small landing just outside the Spindrift. His ship had landed in one piece, her passengers and crew bruised and frightened, but alive and well, if stranded on this crazy planet.
His thoughts turned to the other pilot. Had he known, at the last minute, that his people were doomed? And the child? Mark had said the seat she'd occupied had to have been added after her people left their home planet, whatever that had been, and had almost ripped loose on impact.
Steve had never been a very religious man but, as he stared up at the strange patterns of stars that were gradually becoming familiar to him, he sent a silent "thank you" to whoever it was that had protected his little group for so long. He just hoped their protector would stick around long enough for them to return to Earth.
Betty appeared at the doorway. "Steve, what are you doing up?" she asked in a soft whisper. She didn't want to wake the others.
He shrugged. "Couldn't sleep," he said. "How is she?"
Betty sighed. "Still out, poor thing," she answered, as she filled a thermos with cool water from the bucket.
"She took a hell of a knocking around," he reminded her. "I'm amazed she survived at all." He stood and followed the pretty blonde into the passenger compartment. He looked down at their new charge, with her round, baby face washed free of blood, but pale in the dim, red light of the room.
Valerie and Betty had bathed her, carefully, to get all the glass and blood off and dressed her in one of Barry's old shirts.
"I wonder what her name is," Betty muttered.
He smiled. "I think she'll tell us, when she comes to," he teased.
Betty wrung out a small cloth and placed it over the child's forehead. "Yes, I suppose she will." She looked over into his tired face and put a hand on his bare shoulder. "Steve, there's nothing you can do here. Please, go back to bed."
"No, I'm okay. Why don't you take a break? You've been watching her since we brought her back to camp." At her look of concern, he held up a hand. "Don't worry, I'll come get you if she wakes up," he promised.
Betty smiled, exhaustion in her blue eyes. "Since you put it that way..."
He nodded. "Go on."
The blonde stood and walked over to her bedroll and stretched herself out on it. In a very few moments, she was asleep.
Steve checked the cloth on the child's forehead and noticing it had gotten warm, removed it, soaked it in water, wrung it out and gently replaced it. "You're gonna be just fine," he whispered softly. He vaguely remembered reading somewhere that unconscious people sometimes responded well to encouraging words and he was going to do his damnedest to make sure this child survived.
* * * * *
"So, how's the little patient this morning?" Dan asked, as he and Mark came into the passenger compartment the next morning.
Steve sighed. "Still out. Betty was up with her most of the night, but she never came around."
The handsome Black grinned, "Well, I think you'd better look again, old buddy. I see a pair of pretty, green eyes starin' up at you."
Steve turned to see that his co-pilot was right. The child's eyes were open and staring straight at him. He smiled down at the girl. "Well, hello there," he said softly. "How are you feeling?"
"You're really expecting an answer?" Mark asked.
"I'll get Betty," Dan offered. He walked over to where she was still sleeping on her bedroll and shook her gently.
She got up and came over to where the men were grouped around the girl. She sat down beside the bunk and smiled at the girl. "Hi, I'm Betty," she said in a quiet voice and pointed to her own chest. "This is Steve, Dan and Mark," she continued, pointing to each of the men in turn, keeping her voice low and reassuring. "Can you tell me your name?"
The emerald eyes followed the moving finger, but no sound came from the slightly parted lips. The child stared at each of them, in turn. A single tear formed and rolled down the side of her face.
"Honey, it's gonna be okay," Betty said, her own eyes filling. She gathered the slight figure in her arms and hugged her close. "Nobody's going to hurt you."
A steady yapping began from outside, and the child started.
She pulled away from Betty and pulled the covers up over her head, then huddled there, shaking in fear.
Steve let out a low curse and walked outside. "Barry, take Chipper for a walk or something, will you?"
The teenager nodded and left the area. Steve walked back inside to find Fitzhugh sitting on a box making faces and bizarre noises at the girl.
There was a sparkle in the girl's green eyes that hadn't been there just a few moments earlier. 'Trust Fitzhugh to get through when all else failed,' he thought with a smile. He had to admit, the con-man did have a way with children.
Valerie came in, informed them quietly that breakfast was ready, and asked Betty if they could feed the girl.
"I don't know why not, she seems okay."
A few minutes later, Barry brought in a small bowl and handed it to Betty. The child, who had remained lying in flat in the bunk, sat up almost immediately and started chattering to the boy.
"What's she saying?" Barry asked, nervously.
Steve grinned and patted the boy on the back. "It doesn't matter, Barry, the important thing, is that she's talking."
"I'm glad I could help," he said shyly and turned to leave.
The girl let out a peculiar keening sound and reached forward.
Steve and Betty exchanged concerned glances. "Barry, wait," Steve said, taking the boy's arm.
Barry turned back into the room. "Yes, Captain?"
"Listen, uh, would you mind sitting with her for a while? She seems to be a little afraid of us, but she seems to have taken to you."
The teenager looked down at the child and Steve thought he saw something flash across the boy's face, as if he were uncomfortable with the idea, but he nodded and sat down in the spot Fitzhugh had vacated for him.
"See if you can get her to eat something, Barry," Betty urged.
He took the bowl from her and peered down into its contents a little worriedly. "What if it makes her sick?" he asked, remembering the stomach troubles they'd all had just after their arrival, before they'd learned which Giant foods were safe to eat.
"Damn, I hadn't thought about that," Steve said. "We can't be sure what to give her."
"That won't make her sick," Valerie assured them as she entered, carrying a water bottle. "I made it from the supplies you three brought back last night. Instant soup is instant soup."
A relieved smile crossed Steve's face. He turned to Dan and Mark. "I guess we might as well go take care of that other matter," he reminded them quietly.
* * * * *
When the men returned that afternoon, tired and sweaty from their grim task, they found Betty and Valerie waiting for them at the edge of camp.
"What's the matter?" Dan asked, seeing the expressions on their faces.
"Not the girl..." Mark began.
Betty shook her head. "No, she's fine, getting stronger all the time."
"Steve, it's Barry...he sat with her for a while, like you asked, even got her to eat most of the soup, but around lunchtime, he took Chipper and ran out of camp," Valerie explained.
Steve let out a slow breath. "I'll go check the Outpost."
Betty shook her head. "Fitzhugh just came from there. I haven't seen Barry this upset since we landed."
"Maybe that's it." Mark muttered.
"What are you talking about?" Valerie asked.
"I hadn't really thought about the way this situation would affect Barry, I don't think any of us did. His parents died in a car crash, what...a couple months before we left Earth?"
"Three weeks," Betty supplied.
"And he was being shipped off, like a piece of baggage, to live with cousins in London he never knew he had."
"Exactly! I keep forgetting he's only eighteen," Steve said. "But, that could explain why he's so upset. This whole situation is a little too close to home... for all of us. It even gave me nightmares."
"You too?" Betty asked.
"So, what can we do?" Dan asked, quietly. "Go after him?"
Steve shook his head. "No, Dan, not yet. Give him time to settle down. He won't go far. Look, if he's not back by dark, then we'll go, but he's got to work through this on his own."
Mark nodded. "For once, I agree with you," he admitted.
"Well, that's a first," Dan laughed and Mark clapped him on the shoulder with a grin.
"You're sure he'll be okay?" Betty asked, worriedly.
"He's got to grow up sometime."
"Okay." She frowned, then turned back to the Spindrift. "Val and I managed to test some of the food from that ship, while you were gone. Most of it is okay, but the stuff in the blue packets tested very acid. I'm sure she could eat it, but it could kill one of us."
* * * * *
When Barry didn't return at dusk, Steve and Dan left, as promised, to go look for him. They checked the Outpost, the stream and made a quick pass at Kona's, in case the boy might have gone there, but found no sign of him.
They had almost given up, when they came across Chipper tied to a tree near the wrecked spaceship.
"Barry?" Dan called, knowing the teenager never went far without the shaggy canine. "Barry, answer me."
"Let's try inside," Steve advised.
Dan nodded and they entered through the hatch Steve and Mark had pried open the day before. "Barry?"
Steve shone his flashlight around the dark interior. "Barry, come on, now, it's getting late." They found the boy huddled in a corner of the ship, tears making slow trails down his thin face.
"Barry?" Dan said. His dark eyes were filled with concern.
They waited in silence and, when the boy didn't respond, Dan repeated his question.
Barry let his eyes take in the rows of, now empty, canisters, their contents now in a hole not far from the ship. "Why?" he whispered.
"Why what?" Steve asked.
"Why did we survive? Why do we keep fighting? All these people, they were no different than we are, and they're dead."
Steve took a deep breath. "I don't know how to answer that, Barry," he admitted. "Maybe we got lucky, if you can call it that. We can keep trying to get back to Earth."
"Why bother? We're just wasting time. We'll never get back. And even if we do, what's the point."
"It's our home, no matter how bad things may be. It's something to hope for - a reason to survive."
Dan crouched beside the boy. "Barry, we know how hard it's been, but you've got to deal with this. We can't do it for you. We all have friends and family back on Earth that we want to get back to and it's going to take all of us to do it.
"And think about that little girl. You've got us, but she's got nobody, now. She's really alone. She needs you as much as we do."
Barry closed his eyes and shivered. "I'm sorry, I guess I was..."
"Don't apologize," Steve said. "The last couple of days have been rough on all of us. Just remember, we ARE going to get back to Earth, one way or another."
The boy smiled. "Thanks."
"Now, let's get back to camp, you've got the girls worried sick."
He stood. "I didn't mean to. I just had to get away."
Steve put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, we all have to get away sometimes, just tell us where you're going next time." "I will," the teenager promised.
The three of them talked quietly as they made their way back to camp. About halfway there, Steve's flashlight reflected off something in the waist-high grass off to their right. He told the boy and his friend to stay on the trail while he went to investigate.
Above them, a young tree, its previously tight grip on the soil weakened by the torrential rains of the past twenty-four hours, fought vainly to stay upright against even the gentle breeze that was now wandering through the clearing. Finally, with a soft ripping sound, the sapling toppled down toward the unsuspecting Little People below.
Steve's warning cry came almost too late. Dan shoved Barry away from him as quickly as he could, but the one-time Olympic contender wasn't quite fast enough. The falling sapling, as thick as an automobile tire to the Little People came crashing down, pinning him to the ground. Dan was only able to manage a short yell of pain before the breath was knocked out of him by the falling sapling.
"Dan!!" Barry cried, rushing forward. The boy grabbed one end of the fallen tree and tried unsuccessfully to lift it off.
"No, Barry," Steve warned. "Don't try to move it."
Steve shook his head. "Look, unless we do this just right, we'll just make matters worse. Now, calm down." He crouched and shone his light the length of the fallen tree, then over his friend's too still body. He reached down to feel for a pulse and was relieved to find it thudding away strong and steady.
"Good. Good," he breathed.
Dan was lying on his side, the sapling had fallen across him diagonally, pinning his hips and chest to the still damp ground. He groaned softly as he started to regain consciousness.
Steve knelt down and put a hand on the other man's shoulder.
The co-pilot frowned, squinting, trying to focus his eyes. He took a deep breath, or tried to, before his ribs made a violent complaint.
"Dan, you've got to lie still," Steve warned. He tried to keep his voice quiet - reassuring. He turned to the teenager. "Barry, we're going to need the others."
"I'll go. If I hadn't been so stupid, this wouldn't have happened. Besides, I'm faster."
"Okay. Just tell Mark what's happened, he'll know what to bring." Steve watched Barry crash off through the bushes and turned back to his friend. "Hold on, Dan," he pleaded.
Dan groaned again. "Can't breathe..." he whispered.
Steve reached down and unfastened Dan's jacket as far as he could, hoping it would help. "Better?"
It hadn't helped that much, but Dan nodded anyway. He knew Steve was doing all he could for the moment. It hurt too much to talk, anyway. He half-suspected the tree had broken at least a couple of ribs. He tried taking slow shallow breaths to try to ease the pain, but it wasn't helping. There was an enormous amount of pressure on his hips and legs and, without taking the risk of moving and setting the pain in his chest off again, he moved just his eyes and glanced down to see the tree, just a sapling, really, lying across him.
To a Giant, it would have been a little larger than a broomstick, he realized. He blinked. He couldn't believe he could be so calm. Here he was pinned under this stupid sapling and making size comparisons. 'Oh, well, anything to pass the time,' he thought absently. He heard someone calling his name over and over then an explosion of pain as somebody touched his side. He opened his eyes to see Betty leaning over him, her blue eyes worried.
"I'm sorry, Dan," she said. "You can't go to sleep on us - not yet."
"Me? Fall asleep on duty? Never!" he whispered.
Fitzhugh stood nearby. "Mark, why can't we just roll it off him?" he asked.
The engineer shook his head. "No, that's not a good idea," he answered.
"I think it has possibilities," the con-man insisted.
"Fitzhugh, we're not strong enough to lift that tree by ourselves and if it got away from us, it could kill him. The only reason he's survived this long is because of that flat rock beside his left arm. Otherwise, the tree would have crushed him when it came down. The safest way to do this is to cut as much weight off as we can and use the ropes and block to lift it straight up."
Steve nodded. "Sounds like a good plan to me." He and Mark moved down to the other end of the tree. They lifted the saw and began trying to cut the roots off as gently as they could. Barry and Valerie were being careful to avoid moving the tree too much as they broke off the sapling's smaller branches with their hands and threw them toward the trail.
"Fitzhugh, get your carcass over here," Mark ordered.
"You have no right to order me."
Steve dropped his end of the saw and moved toward the older man. There was anger in the captain's blue eyes as he glared at Fitzhugh.
Fitzhugh shut his mouth and went to join Valerie and Barry at the other end of the tree.
It was almost ten minutes before Mark was satisfied. He and Steve carefully ran two pieces of rope between Dan's body and the rock that had saved the co-pilot's life, then pulled the rope through a rough cut block and tackle so they could try to lift the tree.
"Betty, you and the others try to pull him out when we get this thing lifted."
The two men were in position and ready to start pulling the ropes when Mark noticed a small figure off to one side.
"What's she doing here?" he asked. "Valerie, get her back out of the way."
The redhead walked over to the little girl and, taking her hand, led her back to the far side of the trail.
Mark and Steve took up the slack on the ropes and, muscles straining, pulled as hard as they could. The tree moved less than an inch, then teetered dangerously.
"Again," Steve said and tightened his hold on the ropes.
The result was the same. "It's no good. We need more weight on this end. Barry, you get ready to pull Dan out," Mark advised. "Betty, you and Fitzhugh get over here."
Fitzhugh nodded, wordlessly and took a hold of the rope Mark had been pulling while Betty went to join Steve.
"Ready?" Steve asked. "Pull!"
After a moment, Mark shook his head. "It's not working. We just don't have enough leverage." They released the ropes and Fitzhugh found a convenient rock to sit down on.
"I am too old for this," he complained.
Valerie felt the girl's hand tighten around her own, then pull free. Puzzled, she watched as the child went to stand about three feet of the fallen tree and stood raising her arms. The redhead and the others stood watching in disbelief as the tree rose a full two feet off the ground.
Steve and Mark hurriedly reached under the hovering tree and pulled the injured man out onto the trail. A few seconds after he was free, the child lowered her arms and the tree drifted back down onto the spot where it had fallen.
"Holy..." Steve whispered. He stared over at the tiny, child. "You did that?" he asked, pointing.
The girl tried to hide behind Valerie as Betty went to crouch beside Dan. He had cried out when Steve and Mark pulled him free, then slipped back into unconsciousness. She felt his pulse, frowned, then tried it again.
"What is it?" Mark asked, seeing the expression on her face.
"His pulse, it's all wrong, somehow."
Steve knelt beside his friend. "Do something."
She looked up. "I can't, Steve, and you know it. I'm not a doctor and we don't have time to find one."
"Hang on, Dan!" Steve muttered. He felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Mark standing behind him. In spite of all their often loud and violent arguments, that simple gesture said more than words. He looked back down to see the girl with her hand on Dan's chest. "No," he said and tried to pull her away, but a jolt of pure pain tore through him. He released the girl with a yelp and slumped against a nearby rock.
There were immediate worried noises from the others.
"I'm okay," he whispered. He was shocked to find that he really
WAS fine now. The pain had been there and gone so quickly that his nerves had barely had time to react. "I'm okay."
"What's she doing?" Valerie asked.
"I don't know," Betty answered. "But after what she did to Steve, I sure don't want to stop her."
* * * * *
Tuli was pulling the woman closer to the tiny knot around the tree. She was frowning, trying to understand what these people were doing and saying, but it didn't make any sense to her. The woman with the yellow hair was touching the dark man, but she obviously wasn't doing it correctly, because he wasn't getting up. Her mother had taught her the way, how to think, to concentrate. Hadn't theirs? She pulled her hand free and knelt beside the dark man.
The leader said something and tried to pull her away, but she sent a small hurt at him and he released her with a cry. She heard the others, especially the fat one, fussing, but there were no words to give them or time to waste trying to make them understand. She laid her hand on the dark man's chest, felt the feeble, faltering life there and added her own to it. The dark man was almost gone, but she knew she would do what she could to save him.
Their leader had gotten over his little hurt and was staring at her, his mouth open. She couldn't believe they didn't know what she was doing for their friend. She ignored them and concentrated harder. "Breathe, Dark One!" she ordered in her mind. The man's dark eyes opened. They were empty of the pain she'd seen a few moments earlier. He smiled and squeezed her hand.
* * * * *
"Steve!!!" Betty cried. "He's back!!"
The captain's eyes widened. "What?"
"You heard me! I can't begin to guess what she did, but his pulse is back up to normal." There were tears in Betty's eyes. "Oh, God! He's coming around."
Steve looked down to see Dan holding the child's tiny hand and smiling up at them. "Dan?" he asked.
"Hey, what say we build a bonfire?" Dan asked, weakly. He grinned up at his friend. "Maybe, roast some marshmallows."
"Don't ask me. She did it."
"How do you feel?"
Dan considered the question for a moment before he answered. "I'm a little sore, but..."
"She lifted that tree without touching it?" Fitzhugh muttered. "What kind of monster can she be?"
"Now, you shut up, Fitzhugh!" Dan interrupted. "She's no monster! I don't know much about it, but I get the feeling what she did isn't unusual for her people. It's like our being able to see better in the dark than Giants, that's all. I don't think she's dangerous."
"She hurt Steve," Barry reminded him.
"Yeah, but only because I was trying to keep her away from Dan," Steve admitted quietly, as the realization struck him.
"Listen, can we talk about all this back at camp?" Dan asked. "I don't know about you, but this ground is getting a little cold."
Steve looked down at his friend, worriedly. "Are you sure you're okay?"
Dan sat up, felt his still slightly sore ribs and nodded. "She even fixed my shoulder."
Mark and Steve helped the other man to his feet. Barry and Fitzhugh picked up the ropes and blocks and they all went back to camp for dinner and some much deserved rest.
* * * * *
"Over here, little one," Dan called. He watched Betty set a plate of food into the child's hands and patted the flat stone beside him.
Her eyes lit up as she turned to him. She walked over and he took her plate for her while she took a seat. "Thank you, Dan," she said as she retrieved her plate.
A plate clattered on the rocks as Valerie let out a surprised gasp. Dan smiled and reached over to give the child's shoulder a squeeze.
"Well done, child," Fitzhugh crowed.
"Valerie, are you all right?" Mark asked worriedly, as he ran back into the clearing.
She nodded, her eyes shining with delight. "She finally talked. I guess it surprised me after all these weeks."
Mark dropped the load of firewood he'd been carrying and came to crouch beside the little girl. "That's great!" he exclaimed. "What did she say?"
Betty repeated the child's words and the engineer smiled.
Tuli's eyes flicked to the faces of each of the adults in turn. What were they so excited about? Had she used the sounds improperly?
The man with the pale hair was making more sounds at her but she understood very few of them. He was pleased... they all were. Suddenly, all of them were making their strange sounds except the dark one... Dan. He seemed to be studying her face intently. He put a reassuring hand on her arm and turned to the others.
"Everybody, quiet!" Dan yelled.
There was instant silence in the camp.
"You're frightening her," he said. "Look at her."
The little girl's eyes were bright with tears.
"I guess all this excitement is too much for her," Barry put in.
"No, I think it was all the racket we were making," Mark said. He knelt beside her. "We're sorry," he told her. He reached into the pocket of his jacket and held out a carved wooden doll. He took her hand and laid the doll into it.
"Where did you get that?" Betty asked. "It's beautiful!"
"Well, sitting in the Outpost isn't the most exciting job," he explained with a grin. "I haven't done anything like this in years." He shrugged. "Never had enough time before, or a good reason, I guess."
"Oh, Mark, it's gorgeous!" Valerie said.
The engineer smiled, slightly embarrassed.
The girl's tiny hands encircled the doll's waist and she hugged it to her, then threw herself into Mark's arms. "Pretty," she said in a quiet voice.
"I think it's a hit," Dan said with a chuckle.
Mark smoothed the child's gleaming black hair as he returned her hug.
Tuli pulled away slowly, then in a quiet, clear voice, thanked the handsome engineer.
"You're welcome, little one."
She shook her head then pointed to each of them in turn and said their name. The big surprise came when she pointed to herself and proudly announced. "Tuli."
"So, that's your name!" Dan said, grinning.
The little girl nodded and said her name again.
"Tuli, that's a very pretty name," Steve said.
* * * * *
As the days passed and Tuli learned to trust them a bit more, her vocabulary grew. She had little to say about her people, or their life aboard the colony ship. There were occasional questions from her about Earth and the Giants, but she never volunteered anything.
She also developed a habit of following Barry from place to place and, surprisingly, the teenager didn't seem to mind until the adults started teasing him about his 'shadow'. After a few more days, however, he began to refer to her as his shadow, too, and got a giggle from the tiny child.
* * * * *
One afternoon, as Valerie and Betty were gathering mushrooms not far from the Spindrift, they heard an odd, high pitched screech.
"That sounds like it's coming from the Outpost," Valerie said. She and the blonde exchanged concerned glances, then ran toward the Spindrift.
"Steve!" Betty yelled as they entered the little clearing. "We heard..."
The pilot held up his hand for silence. "I know. We heard it, too. Dan's getting the radios now."
At that moment, Dan and Mark appeared from inside the Spindrift. Dan handed Steve one of the radios and the three of them started off. Suddenly, Steve turned back to Valerie and Betty. "Fitzhugh, Barry and Tuli are at Kona's, aren't they?"
The stewardess nodded.
"If they come back before we do, keep 'em here."
Betty nodded again and the men tramped off into the forest.
"What do you suppose it is?" Valerie asked.
Betty shrugged. "Who knows. Let's just hope it's not dangerous, whatever it is."
* * * * *
The sun was shining down through the canopy of leaves high above the three men as they moved silently toward the Outpost. They crouched behind a boulder and looked down into the small valley beyond.
Another ship was resting on the grass beside the remains of the wrecked colony ship. Three men and two women were moving about in and around both ships.
"It's another colony ship!" Mark whispered.
Steve nodded his agreement. "They probably came to find out what happened to the first ship," he agreed. He stood and slowly moved forward.
Dan stood and grabbed Steve's arm. "What if they think we're responsible for the crash? What then?"
Steve frowned and turned back to his co-pilot. "You've got a point, Dan, but we didn't find any weapons aboard the other ship."
"Maybe they don't need any," Mark said. "Remember what Tuli did when you tried to keep her away from Dan?"
The pilot frowned. "Yeah, but we've got to do something." Before any of the men could make a move, however, there was a cry from the landing site and the three Earthmen were quickly surrounded and brought forward.
"Take it easy," Steve protested. "We're friends."
The leader, a tall, thin man who looked about forty with longish black hair and black penetrating eyes, came toward them. He stared at the men for a moment, then pointed at the empty ship.
"It crashed. We tried to help them, but they were already dead," Steve told him.
The leader shook his head and pointed again at the wreckage.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand," Steve said in a quiet voice. "The ship crashed during a thunderstorm about two months ago. We tried to help them, but they were all dead, except the little girl."
The taller man stared at Steve, the gaze was so intense Steve felt as if the other man's eyes were boring through him. A woman approached them. She laid a slim hand on the leader's arm and frowned at the men. As Dan and Steve watched in horror, Mark was flung backward against the hull of the wrecked ship. The engineer's face contorted in pain as he struggled to breathe.
Steve whirled to face the colony ship's leader, fury in his eyes.
"Let him go!" he shouted.
Mark felt the incredible pressure pushing him against the ship lessen for a moment at Steve's shout. He groaned as the pressure surged back to its former strength. It was all he could do to take in any air at all and what air he did manage to inhale tasted heavy and stale. He could hear Steve and Dan trying to get the colonists to release him, but his vision was going and he knew he would pass out soon.
There was a loud, crashing sound as someone, or several someones, came breaking through the undergrowth. Steve turned to see Valerie, Betty, Barry and Tuli run into the small clearing. They were followed a moment later by a panting Alexander Fitzhugh.
"I thought I told you to wait at camp?" Steve said.
Valerie nodded, trying to catch her breath. She pointed down at the child who had taken up a position between the newly arrived colonists and the humans. "Tuli came running back through camp yelling something about 'sleepers'. We followed her to make sure she didn't get hurt."
Steve looked to where Tuli was standing, her green eyes locked on the leader's black ones. "I guess you did right, then," he said in a quiet voice. The black haired man looked shocked, then Mark collapsed onto the soft grass. Valerie and Betty knelt beside him.
"He's unconscious, Steve," Betty reported, glaring at the colonists. "I can't tell how badly he's hurt."
The leader spoke for the first time. "Your friend is not injured, Captain Burton." He gave them a sad look. "I am called Zosef. I am truly sorry for this unfortunate misunderstanding. I was not aware of your method of communication. Tuli has informed me that Soma's thought contact was unwarranted."
"You could have..." Dan began. He was still angry, despite the apology. "Killed him?" The taller man shook his head. "No, we do not kill. We meant only to stun him."
"Torture him, you mean," Dan snapped. "It wasn't necessary. Steve already told you what happened to the other ship."
Zosef hung his head. "In our culture, only children speak aloud. We are thought readers. Do you understand the concept?"
Steve nodded. "Yes."
"We read other beings best when the subject is asleep or unconscious. Soma underestimated your friend's strength. It was necessary for us to learn all we could about you and your people, especially your language, in the shortest possible time to prevent further misunderstandings. It is a method not generally approved of on our home world. In this instance, while it may have been painful for your friend, I feel its use was necessary." He turned his dark eyes on Steve. "I am a leader, like yourself, Captain Burton, and the safety of my people comes well before any diplomatic considerations.
Steve thought about what the older man had said. Zosef had a point. If he had their power, and his people were in danger, he probably would have done the same thing to protect them. He nodded, finally. "Yeah, I guess you're right, Zosef."
Dan was still angry. "Are you crazy, Steve?"
Burton shushed him. "Dan, I think we can trust them."
On the ground, Mark let out a low moan and moved about restlessly.
"Steve, I think he's coming around," Valerie told him.
Mark opened his eyes a moment later and he looked around dazedly. Valerie helped him sit up. He looked pale and a little groggy. He rubbed his temples with his fingers, groaning.
Tuli knelt beside him, her tiny, round face creased with worry.
"Mark okay?" she asked Betty.
Betty nodded and put an arm around the child's shoulders.
"Yes, honey, I think so," she reassured her.
Tuli reached over and cupped his face in her tiny hands. "Not hurt, Mark," she said. "Not hurt." The engineer felt the pain filter off almost from the moment she touched him. He suddenly felt fine. It was as if he'd just awakened from a deep, relaxing sleep.
Tuli removed her hands and looked at him expectantly. "Better?"
Mark nodded. "Much better, Tuli." He stood. "Thanks."
Zosef's eyes widened in disbelief. "A healer?!" he whispered. "Even on our home world healers are rare."
Mark put a hand on Tuli's shoulder. "She's something special, all right. I'm glad we found her."
The colonists surrounded Tuli excitedly, while Zosef and the humans moved a little way off.
"What are your plans now, Zosef?" Fitzhugh asked. "Are you marooned on this despicable planet, as well?"
"No, our people have visited this world before. We know of the Green Barrier surrounding it. The first ship was badly damaged by an ion storm and was unable to avoid the barrier. We came only to investigate the distress call from our sister ship." He frowned. "We had hoped to find survivors." He looked over at the wrecked ship. "We were curious, there are no bodies. Where are they?"
Steve and Dan, who had calmed down by now, described the conditions of the bodies and what they had done with them.
Zosef nodded. "That is good. I suppose you said the words of your gods over them."
"Yeah, sort of," Steve said with a shrug.
"Any words are better than no words," Zosef said quietly.
Betty rubbed a foot through the grass. "We were all pretty upset, Zosef. All those people - it could have been us. We had to do something."
"You rescued the child, perhaps that is enough." Zosef turned to Mark. "I, again, apologize for Soma's mind probe. We did not know it would be so painful for you."
Mark shrugged. "I heard part of what you told Steve. I understand."
"Captain Burton, how many people are in your group?" "Seven and a dog," Steve answered.
"May we offer you transport?"
"Back to Earth?" Fitzhugh asked. The con-man's round face was alight with excitement.
Zosef shook his head. "Unfortunately, no. We are going in the opposite direction. You may come with us to our colony world. I will be truthful, the journey is a long one and the world is undeveloped, but you are all welcome to join us, if you wish. I will leave you to discuss it."
As the tall, handsome man walked over to rejoin his party, the crew and passengers of the Spindrift broke into a lively discussion.
Finally, Steve went looking for Zosef, who had moved on to his ship.
"You have a decision, Captain?"
Steve nodded. "Zosef, we've decided to stay here and keep trying to get back to Earth on our own. We appreciate the offer, believe me, but if we stay, we might just make it, if we go with you, we'll never get back home."
Zosef accepted their decision with a nod. "I believed you would decide not to join us. Tuli has told me more and, though you will not accept our offer, perhaps we can still aid you in some way to return to your Earth. I am told it is a beautiful world. Unfortunately, there is little tolerance for people with our abilities."
"Yeah, I'm sorry for that," Steve told the older man earnestly.
"It's a shame it took a tragedy for us to meet."
Zosef nodded his agreement and the two of them went off to talk to some other colonists about getting the humans back to their home planet.
* * * * *
"Everybody ready?" Steve called over the intercom almost a week later. When he received an excited cheer from Barry, Fitzhugh and the women, he grinned over at his co-pilot. "How about you?"
Dan grinned back, his white teeth gleaming in the near darkness. "Am I ever."
Steve flicked a switch on his console activating the radio, a twin to one recently installed aboard Zosef's colony ship. "Ready here, Soma," he said and began operating his controls.
The Spindrift lurched as it was dragged from the spot where it had lain immobile for nearly five years. It slowly rose into the air.
Zosef's people had helped outfit the tiny, Earth ship with a propulsion unit from the wrecked colony ship. They had lifted it with their minds as easily as one of the humans could lift a feather, raised the heavy unit high into the air, maneuvered it through the trees and placed it atop the Spindrift. All without ever once touching the unit.
Mark and a man named Magger had worked well together bolting the unit onto the ship and connecting it to the Spindrift's controls. Magger had explained that the colony ship's propulsion unit was much more powerful than the Spindrift's comparatively tiny engines, which had been designed only for travels in and out of Earth's gravity and atmosphere. and out of Earth's gravity and atmosphere.
Steve, Dan and another man named Uro made other repairs, while Fitzhugh, Barry and the women sorted through their belongings and cleaned out the passenger compartment. The girls and Fitzhugh even had collected a few Giant souvenirs: the bucket made from a thimble, the hand axes they'd made early on, a pea the size of a basketball and even an acorn from one of the nearby oak trees to show to the people on Earth and had stowed them away.
Tuli had come yesterday for a last, tearful good-bye, then returned to the second colony ship.
Steve slowly increased the power and the Spindrift continued to rise. There was another cheer from the passenger compartment, but Steve didn't let his attentions waver from his piloting duties.
"Here we go!" Dan crowed as the spaceship freed itself from the Giant planet's atmosphere.
Zosef's ship passed them and soared off through the Green Barrier as if it had never existed. It was followed, a short time later, by the Spindrift.
"We're through the barrier," Steve announced. "We should be in London in less than two hours."
Zosef's astrogator, a blonde woman named Sana, had helped Steve and Dan lay out a flight plan and had explained how to get through the portion of warped space they would have to cross in order to return home.
True to Sana's word, the beautiful, blue planet appeared before them, growing larger by the minute.
"Look at that, Steve, isn't that the most beautiful sight you've ever seen?"
Steve smiled. "We're home!" he announced over the intercom. This time, he was certain he heard Mark cheering right along with the others.
The Spindrift came down in a fog at the London airport, five years and ten months late, but with all hands alive and well.