The chime of the door bell awoke Durn Galvine from a fitful alcohol induced sleep. With the soft chimes reverberating in his brain like huge gongs, he struggled into a crumpled pair of pants that were on the floor by the bed. Adding a rumpled shirt off the chair, he headed for the outer office, swearing nonstop about being awakened at this hour. Stopping to dig the clock out of the clutter on the desk, he saw it was already noon. "All right, I'm coming," he shouted as the door bell rang again, echoing through his brain. Stubbing his toe on the equipment case he'd dropped on the floor the night before, he swore again and promised himself that he would somehow find the money to get the housekeeping robot fixed this week.
Opening the door, Durn was about the berate whoever kept ringing the bell when his bloodshot eyes fell on a small plain woman. "Are you Durn Galvine, Earth surface guide?" questioned the woman.
Durn sized the woman up, noticing that her clothes, although of nondescript cut, were of good quality. That meant she probably had money so he replied instead, "That's what it 'ses on the door. Come on into the office and tell me what's on your mind. Here have a seat." Durn quickly cleared the clutter out of one of the chairs facing the desk, dropping the debris in a pile by the filing cabinet.
The woman sat primly in the chair and stated "I wish to hire you for a trip down to the surface of the planet. I wish to leave as soon as possible. Whatever your fees, I can afford them, so do you want the job?"
"Slow down just a minute there," responded Durn. Events were progressing a little to quickly for him to keep up in his current state. "I've gotta' know a little more about the job before I tell you if I can do it or not. First of all, I gotta' know how many passengers there'll be. I assume you want to hire me for someone else - your husband maybe, or as a present for someone else? Then I need to know what they're going for - hunting, archaeology, treasure hunting, sightseeing, what?"
The woman's composure seemed to waver for a moment but she regained control and said, "I will be the only passenger. Five weeks ago, my husband, Roderick Wenbere, went down to the surface on a big game hunt and he hasn't come back yet. I want to hire you to help me find him."
"Why come to me?" asked Durn. "If your husband went on a hunt, the guide agency he hired should look for him. After all, they have their reputation to protect and they also have all the information on where to look."
The woman broke into tears at this point, and between the sobs managed to say, "He didn't take a guide. My husband and his brother have always prided themselves on being able to handle any situation. They thought it would be a lot more exciting not to take a guide. I tried to change their minds but they wouldn't listen to me. And now look what's happened!" At this the tears became a torrent.
Durn definitely didn't like the way this job was shaping up and he would have refused it in better times, but the mountain of unpaid bills that arrived each morning didn't leave him much of an option at the moment. More than anything he hated trips where he had to coddle the client. But with bills on his mind, he put on his best manners and said, "Mrs. Wenbere, do you have any idea what the surface of the planet is like? It's no walk in the park!"
"No, I don't really know," replied Mrs. Wenbere. "I've heard it's primitive, without any hotels or supermarkets, but I can put up with that for a couple of weeks."
"Oh jeeze!" exclaimed Durn, cradling his head in his hands. "Just like most of the people living up here in orbit, you don't have any idea what the surface of the Earth is like. You live pampered protected lives up here. You think roughing it is going without video for a couple days. If your husband and his brother went down to the surface with an attitude like yours, I can tell you right now they're dead. Death is the easiest thing to find down there."
Stiffening at the implications of Durn's statement, the woman replied, "I can assure you, Mr. Galvine, that my husband did not go on his hunt unprepared. He read books, studied maps, bought several guns - he even took a body conditioning course at the gym. I'm sure the reason he hasn't returned is because of some mechanical problem with their ship or something. I expect that all I will need you for is to find their ship and bring them back.
Durn had heard it all before. An amateur hunter reads a couple books and thinks he can handle the surface. He thinks a guide is only for beginners and that he can stay an extra week on the planet with the money he saved. The end result is almost always the same - sometimes they found parts of the bodies, sometimes only the empty ship. "Mrs. Wenbere," he began as gently as he could, "I would like nothing better than to tell you your husband is probably all right and we can just go pick him up. But to put it bluntly, that's not the case. Your husband isn't the first amateur hunter to go down to the planet, and very few of the others were found alive. Most were never found. I suggest you report this to the authorities and forget about going down yourself."
"Does this mean you don't want the job?"
"It's not that I don't want the job," replied Durn. "It's that I think it would be a disaster for you to go down and look for him. Tell the authorities - that's what they're for."
Mrs. Wenbere hesitated for a long time before she responded, "I can't go to the authorities. Mr. Galvine, is everything I say to you held in strictest confidence?"
"Just like a doctor or lawyer,"
Mrs. Wenbere moved up close to the desk and lowered her voice as she explained, "When he left, my husband made me promise not to tell this to anyone, and I'm only telling you because I think he's in trouble and needs help. Roderick didn't go down to the surface to hunt - he went to recover a fortune in gold and jewels! Davis - that's my brother in law - showed up at our door three months ago with a map that showed the location of the private estate of a gold and gem dealer.
The dealer was killed in the bombing during the war. The estate was over run by refugees but the dealer's safe was hidden so that it couldn't be found without the map. The dealer had relatives living up here in the orbiting colonies so when things got bad on earth, he sent the map up here just in case. Of coarse, right after the war it was too radioactive to go down to the planet and recover the safe, and through the years of waiting, the descendants of the dealer fell on hard times. That's why they had to sell the map to Davis."
"Now I don't mind telling you that Davis has gotten my husband involved in some outlandish schemes before, but this time it seemed to be for real. For two months Roderick and Davis made preparations to go get the treasure. To avoid arousing suspicion they told people they were going hunting. They couldn't take a guide because he would want a cut of the treasure. I'm only telling you this because if Roderick needs help, part of the treasure is better than none at all. So will you take me down to the planet?"
To Durn, learning that the men had been treasure hunting was only slightly better than hunting. It meant they weren't looking for trouble, but trouble could still find them. "Mrs. Wenbere, I hate to tell you this but there are thousands of maps floating around the colonies that fit the description of the one your husband and his brother used. There's practically a whole industry based on printing and peddling those maps to unsuspecting amateur treasure hunters."
After thinking about his unpaid bills for a while longer and seeing the distress the woman was going through, Durn continued, "All right, all right, I'll take you down to the planet. But I don't work for part of any treasure. I want my usual fee, paid in standard credits - 10,000 credits for a two week stay on the planet, including ship rental and equipment. I charge 5,000 up front, 5,000 when we return. And I get paid whether we find your husband or not. If that's satisfactory, we have a deal."
The woman dried her eyes now that she'd gotten what she wanted and agreed, "You could make a lot more by taking a cut in the treasure, but if you want standard credits, that's fine with me. When do we leave?"
"I can be ready to leave within 24 hours of receiving your front money," replied Durn.
"I want to leave as soon as possible," stated the woman, handing over her credit card.
Durn rummaged around in the clutter on his desk until he found the billing machine. Inserting her card in the slot, he tapped in the necessary information and was rewarded with a readout on the small screen confirming that there were enough credits in the woman's account to cover the charge. Passing the machine to Mrs. Wenbere, he said, "I think you will find everything in order."
Mrs. Wenbere checked the billing information and placed her thumbprint on the reader to indicate she agreed to the charge. "Where do we meet and is there anything I should bring?"
"No, I'll provide all the equipment," replied Durn. "I'll need your size for an exposure suit. We can meet back here tomorrow morning. I'll arrange for a ship to leave from terminal 43 and have it all loaded up and ready to go by this time tomorrow. Are you sure you want to do this? I mean no offense, but you don't really look like the type who takes to roughing it."
Mrs. Wenbere stood up and said frostily, "I can do what ever is necessary, Mr. Galvine. Until tomorrow then."
Durn shook the proffered hand and then watched his latest customer as she walked out the door. As the door closed, Durn was already regretting having taken the job.
As she closed the door, Emily Wenbere could hardly believe what she'd just done. She'd never been outside the colony and going shopping was the extent of the adventure she'd sought in life until now. It almost seemed like it was another person who'd asked the man in the office to take her down to the surface. And to hear this other person talk she could handle what ever came her way, when in reality she got flustered just dealing with surly sales people. But she had to go. She was sure Roderick needed help and he'd made her promise not to tell the authorities under any circumstances. Struggling to contain the violent trembling she felt beginning in her legs, Emily hurried back to the transport shaft, afraid that if the guide saw her in this state he might refuse to take her.
With only 24 hours to prepare for the expedition, Durn knew he had to work fast. As a short cut he shuffled through the papers on his desk until he found the requisition list for his last trip down to the surface. Editing the list down to supplies for two and changing the sizes on the appropriate equipment, he sent the list to his regular supplier. Then he got on the phone to Reliance Ship Rentals. When he heard a response on the line, he started, "Hey Bucky, this is Durn Galvine. Listen, I gotta' have a ship to go down to the surface in 24 hours. You got anything that could be ready in time? I need a four seater, but I'd take something bigger if that all that you've got."
Bucky replied, "Galvine, you still owe us 859 credits for the damage on the last ship you rented. The boss says no more rentals until you pay off your bill. He also says not to rent you any of the better ships. Something about having to replace the entire interior of a Quazar 46."
"Oh for greasle kurn, that old geezer calls a couple of scratches in the dash board a total," replied Durn. "What are you getting so excited about? Just send me the bill."
"We did send you the bill - two months ago," replied the voice on the phone. "And it wasn't the scratches on the dash that got the boss upset, it was the overall green tint on the tan interior. That and the indescribable residue that was left in the cargo hold."
"Oh yeah, I forgot about that," responded Durn, remembering the incident clearly now. "But if I'm not mistaken that wasn't all my fault. It was pretty touch and go there for a while, and it was only through my quick thinking that Reliance got the ship back at all! Besides, that was years ago and the insurance paid off for the damage. As for the last bill, the post office must have lost it. Just send me another bill and I'll pay it." As Durn was saying this, he shuffled through his desk and saw the unopened envelope from Reliance.
"Not good enough," said Bucky. "The boss said paid in full before any more rentals."
Durn juggled the figures around in his mind and saw his cash reserve being dangerously depleted but agreed, "All right, I'll pay the bill in cash when I pick up the ship. Now what have you got that can be ready in time?"
"Well, I've got a Nova 23 that I could have fueled and ready to go by tomorrow."
Durn knew the ship in question and complained, "That's all you've got? That old bird can hardly lift it's own weight off the planet. I thought it was scraped out last year. You must have something better that that."
Over the phone came the reply, "Yeah we got a Starcruiser 88 in stock, but even if you could afford the rent, I couldn't let you have it. Remember about what the boss said about none of the better ships. A Starcruiser is about the best there is. Besides, the Nova's been in the shop getting her engines rebuilt. She's a little rough in the fittings but she's got plenty of power now."
Durn sighed resignedly, "Ok, I'll take the Nova. What bay will she be in?"
Durn jotted down the information and hung up the phone. He then sent the location of the ship to the equipment supplier so that the gear would be waiting when they arrived. With the basic logistics taken care of, he started to order breakfast from the wall mounted autokitchen. Remembering the unpaid bill from the central food service, he canceled the order and decided to eat out. Finishing dressing he headed first for one of the few restaurants where there wasn't a bill waiting, and then went to the central library to research the history of the area on the planet where Wenbere put down.
Leaving the library after most of a day in front of a viewing screen, Durn had a basic idea of what to expect when they reached the surface. He was even more convinced that the treasure map was a fake. The area where they were headed wasn't bombed in the war. In fact there weren't any bombs dropped within 1000 miles of the place.
With the information from his researches fresh in his mind Durn was once again amazed at how little people in the space colonies knew about what had happened on the Earth. The popular opinion was that a nuclear war destroyed everything but that was a far cry from what actually happened. Even Durn was hazy about most of the details, but it was clear that there had been a long decline in the economies of the various nations of the Earth brought about by dozens of interrelated factors.
Irrational economic policies, nationalism, racism, religious fanaticism, pollution, materials shortages, and above all emigration to the space colonies by the best and brightest, were the basic causes for the decline of the Earth based nations. The war was just the end result.
It was just a little war - much smaller than most people thought. Instead of a global war between superpowers, the war was actually between two groups of small countries over an obscure local dispute. The radiation and dust that were released into the atmosphere managed to kill most life outright, and doomed those who were left to a slow death by starvation due to the nuclear winter that lasted for years. But even more devastating to life on the planet were the chemicals industrial nations released into the environment before the war.
Between the radiation, chemicals, and the extinction of all of the larger life-forms, a biological miracle - or nightmare, depending on your orientation - was taking place on the Earth. Only the smallest and hardiest life-forms survived the dark years, and since then they'd mutated at an accelerated rate until they now covered the Earth.
The practical effect as it applied to men like Durn was that while the residual radiation had diminished to where it was no longer a danger, the air and water were still toxic and likely to stay that way, and there were dangerous creatures everywhere. No one had yet managed to catalog the various new species that now lived on the planet, and new ones seemed to appear all the time.
When he reached his office Durn sent an updated equipment order to cover the new information he had about their destination. He also informed the Independent Guides Association - the organization that would come looking for him if he didn't come back on time - where he was going. Then he ate the sandwich he'd picked up on the way home and went to bed.
Durn had already been up for several hours packing his kit when the door bell rang the next morning. Slapping the magazine into the small automatic, he slipped the gun into his pack and answered the door. As expected it was Emily Wenbere dressed in gardening clothes. "These are my only outside clothes," she stated in response to Durn's appraising glance.
Holding the door open for her Durn replied, "You needn't have bothered. You'll be leaving your clothes here." In response to Emily's uncertain look, he continued, "We'll both be wearing exposure suits at all times. You did know the air can poison you through your skin, didn't you?"
When Emily indicated she didn't, Durn continued, "I'd better tell you what you're getting yourself into before we go any further. Like I already said, the air is toxic - either through your lungs or contact with your skin. So is the water. Don't take your exposure suit off for any reason until we get back here. There's no radiation danger, at least not in the area we'll be in, but there are other things to worry about. And that's about what they are - things. Some of them evolved out of bugs and small rodents. No one's has been able to figure out what some of them were before the big change. You'd better expect that anything that moves is dangerous - even the little ones can do you a lot of damage. There are also a lot of things that don't move that you don't want to come in contact with either. If you follow me and walk were I walk, you shouldn't have any trouble."
"You'll be armed with an ultrasonic projector to deal with anything with an outside shell - the ones that used to be bugs. You'll also have a rifle - an old fashion projectile weapon - to use on the ones with skin and fur. I like the old fashioned rifle because it has better knock down power than a laser. Don't shoot anything you don't have to and don't use the wrong weapon on the wrong target. The rifle will go right through the bugs without stop'n 'em, and the ultrasonic will only deafen a rat-bear and piss him off. Now that you've heard some of what you're up against, do you still want to go?"
Emily paused at these new revelations. It was just like Roderick not to tell her how dangerous it was. She could vividly remember Roderick assuring her that the planet surface was primitive but with their guns they would be safe. But she also remembered the sleepless night she'd just spent working up the courage to show up this morning, so she straightened her shoulders and replied, "Yes I want to go - or rather I must go. The conditions you have just described are all the more reason to start out as soon as possible. If Roderick and Davis need our help they won't be able to hold out forever." After a pause, Emily asked, "All these...things you speak of - won't you take care of them? I mean, that's the job of the guide isn't it - to protect the client from harm? I won't have to do any...killing, will I?"
"I'll do what I can," replied Durn, "but if there's more than one at a time you're going to have to help. You'll be armed at all times and will be expected to use those arms if the need arises."
Emily had to hold tightly to her knees to keep them from trembling but she thought she concealed the reaction from the guide. Keeping her voice as steady as she could, she said, "I will do what ever I have to, Mr. Galvine."
"And that's another thing that's going to have to go. We're going to be seeing a lot of each other in the next couple of weeks so you'd better just call me Durn. And you're...?"
"Emily. Emily Wenbere."
Durn thought how the name fit the woman and he made a mental note to make sure he didn't end up in a position where he had to depend on her. He was more convinced than ever she was the type that would freeze up in a pinch. "All right Emily, if you're sure you want to go through with this thing we'd better get moving. Our ship is waiting for us in bay 3B so if you'll follow me." With that, Durn picked up his kit and led the way out of the office.
Since Durn's business involved traveling down to the planet he'd rented office and living quarters in the outer ring of the colony where the centrifugally produced gravity was the most earth-like. Leaving the office, Durn and Emily walked to a nearby lift tube which carried them to the main transport highway in the hub. Floating in the zero gravity of the hub, they followed the highway to terminal 43 which was at one end of the hub. Once inside the terminal, a large open space with tubes leading to the various bays, they quickly found their tube and arrived at the ship.
Stopping at a view port, Emily eagerly looked for their ship. "Which one is our's? That sleek black one, or maybe the silver one?"
Durn took a look and replied, "Neither. Our's is the one over there."
Emily followed Durn's finger and was dismayed to see that it pointed to a beat up old junker full of dents and obvious crude repairs. "We're going to be depending on that to get us down and bring us back?" questioned Emily incredulously. "Couldn't you get us a better one? If it's a question of a higher fee, I would be willing to pay a little more." Fear had loosened Emily's normally tight purse strings.
"More money wouldn't help," replied Durn. "Planetary landings are the hardest duty a ship can draw. They get let out for rent to people like me after they're well used. But you can't judge a ship by its outer skin. It's the engines that matter and they assure me that the engines have just been overhauled. Come on, it's too late to change ships now anyway."
Durn led the way to the hatch in the side of the ship. Piled around the hatch were boxes of equipment. He looked through the boxes until he found the exposure suits. Picking out the one that was obviously Emily's, he handed it to her and instructed, "Here, get in the ship and put this on. It's pretty self-explanatory where all the tubes go. Make sure it's comfortable because you won't be taking it off for weeks. The ship's been cleaned so it's considered safe now. After it's been down in the atmosphere it'll be contaminated. That's why you won't take off your exposure suit until we leave the ship after our return. Then the exposure suits are incinerated. While you're changing, I'll inventory the supplies."
Emily took the suit and floated through the hatch. The inside of the ship was just as worn and patched as the outside but she took comfort in Durn's assurances that the engines were in good shape. After all, she reasoned with herself, if the exposure suit would protect her from the toxic air of the planet it would protect her from the dirt and grime of the ship as well. Finding a fittingly modest corner protected from view from the hatch she set about getting into the suit.
When she had the suit on Emily was glad she was alone while she struggled with the fittings and fixtures. She pushed the memory of what she had to do to "install" herself in the suit out of her mind. Wild beasts were one thing but if she'd known about all those tubes she might not have been able to convince herself to come.
Durn was just finishing the inventory when Emily came floating out the hatch. He checked out all the external connections on her suit with particular attention to the fittings on the small backpack that recycled her air and supplied the food concentrate. Finding everything in good order he said, "Ok, now I'll get suited up and we can load this equipment. We'll be under way inside of an hour."
Each time the ship passed over the spot where Roderick and Davis' ship had put down, Durn scanned for a distress signal but drew a blank. He looked over at Emily for some sign of weakening, but met only stony determination. With a sigh, he keyed the computer to start the decent.
The ship glided down on its stubby wings to a landing on a lake near their target coordinates. Durn dropped the anchors and spread out the solar collectors that would combine solar energy and water into fuel to lift the ship back to the colony. The ship's fuel tanks were far larger than she would need to return and it was this extra "freight" that helped pay for the ship rental. It took so little fuel to navigate in the zero gravity of space that dozens of ships could operate for months on the extra fuel Durn and Emily's ship would bring back.
With the ship happily percolating the slime in the lake into pure liquid Hydrogen and Oxygen, Durn keyed the control to launch the fliver. Making sure both of their helmets were properly secured, he opened the inner door on the air lock and began the laborious process of transferring the supplies through the air lock into the fliver. Emily tried to help but was much less useful than she'd been back in the zero gravity of space. With everything they would need in the short run packed in the air lock, Durn closed the inner door and cycled the lock. Emily got her first look at the Earth as the outer door opened.
All through the long trip down, Emily had tied to picture the worse place her imagination could conjure up. She dredged up old memories of when her grandfather took her to see the algae farms, and of digging up worms and grubs in the soil garden. But nothing in her imagination could prepare her for Earth.
They were floating in a lake of black water with blotches of purple upwelling from the depths. Misshapen lumps of orange and yellow floated in the black water, their edges alive with a fringe of tiny hairs. Whenever a blotch or streak of purple would appear the lumps would converge on it with frantic haste, churning the thick water with their edges. Fetid yellow tendrils of vapor snaked from where the lumps disturbed the surface of the lake, rising to mingle with the brown haze that hung in the air and obscured her view of the shore line. She could just make out the vague outline of the verdant plant growth that fringed the lake and of large shapes moving on the shore.
Insects of all sizes buzzed through the air. Emily was concerned when she saw flies the size of a small child but they seemed to be ignoring the two humans. A large flying creature appeared with huge orange, red and blue patterned wings and a body the size of Durn. Emily was amazed that such a beautiful creature could be found in such a horrible place as the lake and she paused to watch it flutter over the edge of the water. The creature noticed Durn and Emily and started towards them. Emily was just thinking how nice it was that she would get a closer view of the delicately beautiful creature when Durn grabbed up his ultra-sonic. Emily was about to protest when she saw the vicious fangs that lined the slavering jaws. Durn fired and the creature disintegrated into a cloud of wings and vapor. The cloud settled to the lake inciting a brief flurry of activity.
"I appreciate that the view is a whole lot different than what you were expecting - it effects everyone that way the first time," explained Durn. "But we've got to get moved onto the shore and secure a camp site before it gets dark. I can guarantee that by the time we leave the planet you'll be quite sick of the look of the place. So lend a hand here and let's get this stuff moved."
Emily found it hard to drag her eyes away from the horror all around her but Durn was insistent so she forced herself to break the connection. Durn got into the fliver and Emily handed the equipment down to him. Within an hour they'd moved all the gear and locked up the ship.
Durn keyed the fliver to manual control and it quickly rose up to tree top height. Pushing the drive lever forward, Durn flew out over the dense jungle that ringed the lake. He brought the fliver around to the compass heading that would bring them to Roderick and Davis' intended campsite. With the fliver under way, Durn divided his attention between piloting and scanning for any signals from the other ship. He wasn't surprised that he didn't find any signals. Most of the books on treasure hunting suggested turning off the locator beacons to keep other treasure hunters from hijacking the find. It was a stupid maneuver but then so was going down to the planet without a qualified guide in the first place.
As the fliver sped along barely clearing the tops of the jungle, Emily looked down and tried to see what they were flying over. The details were blurred with the speed and altitude but she got a strong impression of a thick ropy growth of mainly black, purple, and dark green colors, with splashes of lurid reds and oranges scattered about. In between the plants was constant movement, with the movers being of all different shapes and sizes - some with hard, shiny shells, some with fir of various colors, and some with...well, something different.
In a small clearing, she saw the last moments of a large furry creature as dozens of man-sized bugs closed in and began to tear off huge chunks with their pincer-jaws. She shut her eyes and tried to blank out the image of spurting blood and rending flesh from her mind while swallowing hard in order to keep from losing control of her stomach. After that she kept her gaze mainly inside the fliver, only looking out the bubble for quick snatches of images.
Durn cut back the fliver's speed and began a slowly expanding spiral when they reached the coordinates of Roderick and Davis' camp. Finding nothing on his first search, he moved the center of the circle a mile to the north and began again. Durn had to move the center of his search twice more before the glint of metal caught his eye. Circling over the spot, he could make out the outlines of a fliver covered with camouflage down in the underbrush. He cut back the power and pushed the control stick forward as he swooped down for a landing.
When they landed Durn advised, "Better wait here while I check the other fliver. If there's no sign of 'em in the fliver we'll camp here for the night and start tracking in the morning."
When Emily agreed, Durn opened the bubble and got out. The ground was covered with a squishy layer that came up to his ankles and left a gray-green slime on his boots. He trudged over to the camouflaged fliver, the slime dragging at his feet like he was walking through thick mud. Pulling back the camouflage and opening the bubble, he found the interior full of mold and slime but without any trace of the two men. It only took a moment to find the tracks that led away. The slime that covered the ground turned black where it was disturbed. Perfectly preserved footprints led north and did not return. Durn trudged back to the fliver, dreading what he knew they would find at the end of those tracks.
Although Emily was anxious to follow the tracks right away, Durn convinced her to wait until morning. They spent the last of the daylight teaching Emily how to use her weapons and assembling packs for the trip tomorrow. When the sun set they reclined the seats in the fliver and tried to go to sleep. The constant sounds of things slithering and crawling around the fliver kept Emily awake most of the night, but Durn nodded off right away and didn't awake until first light.
They set off following the tracks as soon as the light was sufficient. At first Emily tried to step daintily in Durn's footsteps so she didn't get any of the slime on her boots. When she noticed Durn watching her with amusement she realized how ridiculous she must look. Goaded by his laughter she stomped her foot resolutely down in a virgin spot. It was a struggle to hold off the shudders of revulsion that racked through her until Durn had turned away, but she managed. With one boot already soiled it was much easier to take the next step and smear the other with slime as well. After a couple hundred yards she resigned herself to the inevitable. She quit even trying to avoid the constant drip from the over hanging plants or the misshapen things she happened to brush against along side the track.
The tracks led to a group of over grown buildings. As they approached, the hair on the back of Durn's neck bristled and he had a feeling that dozens of eyes were watching from the shadows. Nothing stayed vacant for long on this planet, and the blackened doorways and windows probably provided homes for any number of unpleasant prospects. Then he noticed the human form laying on the ground, seemingly beckoning to them. Durn started to move cautiously but Emily ran ahead when she saw the human form on the ground.
Emily recognized Davis' exposure suit from the many times he'd modeled it before they left. He was so proud of it, bragging how it was a deluxe model and a custom color. Seeing him lying there beckoning for help made her forget all her concerns about staying clean and she rushed to him. When she reached him the sight froze her with shock and she couldn't take her eyes away. She first noticed that the whole body was twitching uncontrollably. When her eyes reached the helmet she saw that it was filled with corruption. The leering skull grinned at her as ooze crawled in the eyesockets and mouth. The skull seemed to be talking to her as it was jostled by the crawly things that fought over the bits of flesh that still clung to the bones.
Emily was shocked out of her horrified fascination by a loud report. Turning towards the source of the sound she saw Durn take aim and fire his rifle again. The second report stirred her out of her stupor and she jerked around in the direction Durn was shooting just in time to see a huge furry brown shape full of teeth and claws pile up in a lump not 10 yards away.
Durn used another bullet to make sure that the furry lump was truly dead and then began checking the buildings for more hungry surprises. He could feel the sweat forming on his brow and inside his gloves as he approached the first doorway. He hated being this close to obviously inhabited buildings. He'd seen too many good men die in this situation - all the openings and complex shapes provided too many directions for attack. Durn tried to look in all directions at once as he kept his back pressed against the wall and slid towards the door.
Stepping into the doorway, he unloaded his rifle into the large shape that lunged at him out of the darkness. Slapping another magazine into the rifle, he slipped carefully into the building, keeping his back to a wall whenever possible. In one room he was surprised by a flurry of leathery wings that battered him frantically as they made for the door. He held his fire as the ducked quickly and stepped to one side. The little creatures fled the room leaving him unharmed. After settling his nerves back to merely razor-edged tense, he continued his search of the building.
The slime and mold that covered everything made it hard to tell at first but after going through several rooms he was convinced that the building had been a house at one time. Something had eaten the wall paper, and the various pieces of furniture were nothing more than misshapen lumps of filth, but the patterns of the place made its intended purpose clear. In a back room he found what had obviously been the furry creature's den. The room was several feet deep in old bones and leavings. In one corner was a matted bed of uprooted plants. Among the fresher bones, Durn found the shredded remains of an exposure suit. The name tag said Roderick Wenbere.
Durn took out his laser and adjusted it to a needle fine beam. The pinpoint of light cut the name tag out of the exposure suit and he put the tag in his pocket. Holstering the laser, he began to work his way back out of the house. He used as much caution going back through the rooms he'd already traversed as when he first entered. He knew only too well how quickly conditions could change here on Earth.
Leaving the house, Durn returned to the first body. Emily was on her knees facing away from what was left of Davis, slowly rocking back and forth and moaning softly. After shooing away a dog sized scaly animal with a darting red tongue that was showing an interest in Emily, Durn turned to Davis. Cutting the name tag out with the laser, Durn tried not to see the churning commotion inside the suit his cuts exposed. Stepping back and adjusting the laser to a broad beam, he fanned back and forth across the body until it was a layer of fine ash on the blackened plot of ground.
Turning to Emily, Durn saw that her suit's mechanisms were finished cleaning up from her fit of retching but she had a dazed look in her eyes and didn't respond to his touch. Opening a panel in her backpack, he keyed it to inject a mix of drugs into her bloodstream and sat back to wait.
After several minutes, Emily began to show signs of returning to awareness. As soon as he thought she could understand him, Durn grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her while shouting, "Emily! Emily! You've got to snap out of it! We've gotta' get moving. There's too much dead meat here and the scavengers are gonna' show up any minute. Come on, get on your feet and follow me."
As Durn was helping/dragging her to her feet, Emily mumbled, "But what about Roderick and Davis? We haven't found Roderick yet, and we can't leave Davis here."
"I found Roderick," Durn replied softly. "There's nothing we can do for him now. I've already done what I could for Davis."
Durn indicated the scorched patch of ground and Emily nodded numbly through her drugged haze. When Emily was able to walk on her own, Durn led off back the way they'd come. He knew he was being hard on her but he also had a good idea of the sort of creatures a dead body the size of the furry thing back there would draw. He didn't want to be anywhere near when they arrived.
It was a strain to watch in all directions as well as make sure Emily continued to follow him but he knew they couldn't afford to wait until she recovered further. For her part Emily stumbled along behind Durn, dumbly following where ever he led, mumbling continuously to herself, unaware of the world around her. Only Durn in front of her and the need to stay near that familiar image disturbed the dark blankness into which her mind had retreated.
Durn stopped to rest when they reached a safe distance. He sat Emily down on a rock and keyed her backpack to inject the full psycho-shock series. He knew the series included a short term memory suppressor that would give Emily amnesia about everything that had happened for the last several weeks. The effects of the drugs would last for two days. As long as he had a believable story to explain the blank spaces, Emily would be able to function normally until the shots wore off. By then he would have her back at the colony hospital where they could ease the shock of her returning memories. The series also included mood enhancers that would help her believe whatever story he told her.
Durn keyed his own suit to deliver a meal of food concentrate through the mouth tube as he waited for the drugs to take effect on Emily. The concentrate was tasteless and uniformly smooth, but it satisfied his stomach.
The fog in Emily's mind began to clear and she made contact with her senses again. She found herself sitting in an unbelievably foul place, in the company of a man she didn't recognize, and dressed in an outlandish suit with tubes and a clear bubble helmet.
The last thing she could remember was driving home from a trip to the supermarket thinking about Roderick and something about treasure. Try as she might she could not remember how she'd gotten where she was now. But as incredible as the situation seemed, she was most surprised at her own reaction. She didn't sense any alarm at all. She felt quite comfortable and at ease in the company of the man - in fact she could feel something at the fringes of her mind that told her she could trust this man. Leaning over to touch his arm, she said, "Um...I don't know how to say this, but I don't know where I am or who you are. What's going on?"
Durn turned his attention from the clump of brush that had been making rustling noises. "Ah, you're back! Good. Well, I guess you could say we've had a bit of a problem. The medical unit in your backpack malfunctioned and fed you the psycho-shock series. I've got the unit fixed but we've got to return to the colony to get you another suit. Your memory will return in a couple of days. Tell me the last things you remember and I'll fill you in from there."
Emily described her last memories after which Durn lied, "Emily, that was a long time ago. Roderick left you and has been out of your life for years. Your kids are grown and on their own. You and I are partners, and the treasure you remember is the one we were after - before your suit malfunction that is. You're an ace gem hunter, you've got nerves of steel, and you're one of the best with a ultra-sonic or a rifle. Don't you remember any of that?"
Emily said, "No, all of that is gone. All I remember is being a housewife in the colonies. It seems incredible that I'm the person you're describing, but here I am so it must be true. Quite honestly, I may be deadly with one of these things, but right now, I don't have any idea how to fire it." Emily began to examine her ultra-sonic in detail.
Durn was amazed at the change in Emily. When he first showed her how to fire her weapons she was loathe to even touch them. Now, convinced she was an expert, she seemed to have a new found confidence. Encouraged by his initial success Durn expanded on it. He re-taught her how to fire the weapons with much better results this time. Emily, taking Durn's story seriously, apologized for missing the bull's-eye but promised she would soon recover her "lost" skills. Durn explained the duties of the rear guard while Emily listened attentively. He described the various dangerous animals they might encounter and how to deal with them. Emily took it all in without a bit of her previous squeamishness.
Emily watchfully took up the rear when they set off again. Fingering the trigger guard of her ultra-sonic, she was determined to fulfill her duties as part of the team. Even though Durn insisted that her suit malfunction wasn't even remotely her fault, she still felt she'd let the team down in some way and she was determined to make up for it.
Emily was watching the rear so intently that when Durn signaled to halt and take cover she stumbled into him and fell down. Cursing her clumsiness she scrambled to cover, sure that she would improve quickly once her memory returned. She must be a much better partner than she was being now if Durn was as pleased with her as he seemed to be. Peeking through the cover she saw a long line of bugs passing, each larger than several men put together. A surge of fear coursed through her at the sight but she looked at Durn and saw that he wasn't getting ready to run. She tried to calm her fears while fingering her ultra-sonic nervously.
"If we're lucky we sit tight until they pass," whispered Durn urgently. "We only fight if they turn towards us. They move in a pack, and if we blast one of them we'll have to take on the rest as well."
The line of bugs seemed to go on forever. Suddenly there was a thrashing in the bushes behind them as several of the bugs crashed though. Emily saw the bugs first and rolled over, pulling the trigger and sweeping the beam of her ultra-sonic across the lead bug in the process. She felt a wave of queasiness sweep over her as the bug exploded spraying green fluid into the air. She continuing to roll, wiping the green goo off her helmet so that she could blast the next bug in line. Durn got the third and fourth bugs, and then they were up and running.
They broke through the line and kept on running with Durn hitting the bugs on the right and Emily spraying the left. After a hundred yards Durn signaled to turn and stand. The lead bugs of the group that had been gaining on them exploded filling the air with legs, antenna, and clouds of green vapor. The vapor blinded the following bugs and confused the rest. Taking advantage of the confusion, Durn and Emily continued their flight. They had to stand and fight several more times before the bugs were either all killed or gave up - Durn and Emily didn't hang around to find out which.
It was already getting dark when they reached the fliver. With no sign of anything following them and Emily handling herself so well, Durn decided to wait until morning before risking the dangerous flight to the ship. He mentally calculated the amount of time before her real memories would return and was sure they would be back in the colony in time.
As she drifted off to sleep, Emily probed her mind, searching for any sign of her returning memory. She felt so helpless not knowing what she was doing. Watching Durn for guidance was all well and good, but she'd feel much better if she knew how to respond by herself. But all her probing drew a blank.
Durn fired up the fliver and lifted off for the ship as the morning sun was just starting to illuminate the hazy sky. Emily watched his motions with interest as they flew along. "Could I fly this thing before I lost my memory?" she asked.
"Sure," replied Durn, keeping up the pretense as well as curious just how far it would stretch. "Don't you remember at all? It's real easy. The levers on the dash control forward, reverse and power. The control stick by your right hand controls direction. Push it right and the fliver goes right. Push it left and we go left. Forward will make the fliver dive and pulling back will make the it climb. You used to be good at this. Give it a try. Just take the control in your hand and I'm sure it'll all come back to you."
Emily slipped her hand carefully around the joy stick. It didn't feel familiar, but Durn said she was good at it so she tried moving the stick a bit to the right, hoping that it might trigger a memory. Nothing came to her mind but she did notice how the fliver responded to her command. She moved the stick back to neutral and then over to the left. The fliver straightened its turn and began to track over to the left. It still didn't feel familiar but she found she liked the feeling of power it gave her. She tried a few shallow dives and climbed back to altitude. She looked over at Durn, noticing he was smiling and flushed at his amusement. "It's like learning all over again," she protested. "Give me a couple hours practice and I'll be as smooth and graceful as I ever was."
"Hey, don't get me wrong," responded Durn. "You're doing just great as it is. You don't have to worry about getting your memory back - you're doing just fine without it."
Emily flushed even more at the complement, realizing as she did so that complements of that sort were another thing she couldn't remember. Back in the time she could remember, Roderick never said anything nice about her - although she had to admit, looking back over that part of her life from her current perspective, she'd never really done anything to deserve complements. But now she got them even when she was just playing it by ear. I must be really something when I've got my whole brain working, she told herself with pride.
Pleading that they were pressed for time, Durn managed to convince Emily to relinquish the controls. He turned back to the proper compass heading and turned up the power. The scenery dissolved into a blur as the fliver rocketed above the jungle. In his mind, Durn calculated the time left before Emily's shots wore off. There was some margin of error in the dosage the suit injected due to individual differences in the people wearing them. According to the time table they still had a comfortable margin to get Emily into a hospital before her memory returned and he wanted to make sure it didn't slip away with needless delays.
They skimmed the tops of the Jungle all morning. Sometime after lunch Durn noticed a little roughness in the way the fliver was handling. Shortly afterward the oil pressure in the starboard turbine dropped to zero and the temp gauge pegged into the meltdown range. Durn was just hitting the emergency shutdown switch as the turbine erupted in a ball of flame, spraying the fliver with shrapnel as it tore itself loose and fell into the jungle.
Durn fought with the bucking fliver until he had it settled in a twitching and unsteady but mostly level flight. He switched off the fuel feed and hydraulics to the missing turbine with his free hand while he anxiously scanned the gauges for the remaining engine. Moments later the second turbine blew itself apart and separated from the fliver. Finding himself suddenly in free flight, Durn searched the Jungle for an emergency landing site.
The dense jungle offered nothing in the few seconds he had to look. All he could do was pull the control full back as the bottom of the fliver started to touch the tops of the trees. The fliver pitched up and took the worst of the impact on its belly pan, the strongest part of its structure.
A soft whine penetrated through the thickness as Durn's mind slowly regained consciousness. His vision swam back into focus and drifted out again. But there was still the whine. And the pain. The thought began to coalesce in his mind that the pain was from his nose which had smashed against his face plate in the crash, and the whine was the suit's systems cleaning up the blood. His vision snapped back into focus again and stayed.
Durn saw that the fliver had crashed through the upper jungle all the way to the slime layer at the bottom. The fliver's bubble was shattered and the fuselage was pretty broken up, but the passenger compartment had hung together. As the blood stain on his helmet cleared he could see the details of the smashed foliage that broke their fall. The slime layer was blown away for 10 yards in all directions by the impact. He turned to the copilot's seat to check on Emily. She was still breathing and he couldn't see any obvious damage to her suit, so he returned his attention to the fliver.
Levering himself carefully out of the cockpit, Durn was relieved to discover that despite a general over all stiffness and pain in his joints, all of his limbs seemed to be functional. He lowered himself over the side and worked his way to the tail, supporting his shaky knees by holding onto the fliver.
The tail was a mess. When the turbines tore loose they took large sections of the supporting structure with them. What was left was riddled with holes from the hard little blades of the turbines which had been spinning at near top speed when everything came unglued. Poking through the shredded metal, torn cables and mangled plumbing, he came to the oil sump for the turbines. Although punctured in several places by the shrapnel from the engine explosions, the oil refused to leak out. Picking up a slender piece of metal, Durn poked it into one of the holes. The oil was stiff and resisted the prodding. Using the sharp edges of the piece of metal, he managed to separate a small chunk of the jelly like mass.
As Durn was removing the chunk of jelly and balancing it carefully on the tip of his make shift knife he heard a voice call out, "Durn! Where are you?"
"I"m over here! Be with you in a minute."
"What are you doing back there?" Emily asked. Looking about her incredulously, she questioned, "You can't fix this wreck, can you?"
"Not a chance," replied Durn. "It's an unwritten rule that if you survive a crash, you gotta' try 'n find out why it happened. That's the only way we get safer ships. Anyway, I think I found the problem. There must be a new bacteria that eats the latest lubricating oil."
"New bacteria? Latest oil? Has this sort of thing happened before?"
"Yeah, a couple years ago. The engineers thought they had it beat with this new oil. Spent millions of credits on research and swore up and down that nothing this planet could produce would ever be able to eat the goop. It worked too - for a couple of years. Looks like flivers will be grounded again until they figure out something new."
"I should probably know what to do now, but I still can't remember," said Emily, lowering herself out of the fliver. "Just tell me what to do and lets get moving. With the bubble shattered, there's no reason to stay with the fliver."
Durn looked at Emily speculatively. He knew they were at least two days walk away from the ship. Her memory would be returning in less time than that. After the way she'd handled herself getting back to the fliver the day before, he didn't have too many concerns about setting out with her. But if she retreated back into a shell like she had after finding Davis and Roderick, she could be a fatal drain on his energies. In the end, he had to admit that what she said about the uselessness of staying with the fliver with its shattered bubble was true. Better to die on the trail trying to reach the ship than to have death find them while they huddled terrified in the wreck of the fliver.
Durn climbed back up in the wreck, and after carefully sealing the jellied oil in a pouch and putting it in his pocket, threw down as much gear as he thought they could carry. Back on the ground he divided up the load and started out. He wanted to make as much progress as they could before Emily changed.
After a mile or so of walking the stiffness from the crash was working out of their joints but new pains began to appear. The packs got heavier and their weapons grew in weight until their arms seemed to be dragging on the ground. Several times Emily had to use her ultra-sonic or rifle on things following their trail. More often than not she missed but sometimes that was enough. Each time she hit her target she felt a wave of nausea sweep over her and had to fight to retain control. She wondered why killing still effected her so. She must have done it lots of times if she'd been on the planet as many times as Durn said she had. As the day wore on and the carnage continued she became increasingly numb to the blood and gore. By evening she hardly noticed anything except the accuracy of her shots.
Durn called a halt when it got too dark to proceed. He spread out a circular grid about 10 yards in diameter in an open space. Leading Emily to the center he explained, "The outer edge is a repeller screen. It's strong enough to keep most of the smaller life-forms away. Something really big will have to fight its way through. The grid itself is an alarm. If something big gets through the screen the grid will wake us up and keep the thing distracted so we'll have time to respond. Its the only way to get a night's sleep outside of a fliver." Durn laid Emily on her side facing one way, and he laid down facing the other. Each curled up around their weapons.
"If we've been partners for a long time, have we ever been...intimate?"
The question caught Durn by surprise and it took him a while to respond. "Ah, no, we haven't. Can't do it in a suit."
Durn awoke the next morning and felt Emily's body tense and trembling against him. He knew immediately that her memory had returned. He turned her over and saw that her eyes were tightly shut, her body curled up in a tight fetal position. He started to calculate the distance to the ship and knew before he even started that it was too far without at least minimal cooperation from Emily. Shaking her and calling her name only resulted in whimpers and cries. He sat her up and opened the medical panel in her back pack. He scanned through the list of available options for adverse reactions. He selected a mild muscle relaxer and a pain killer which listed mild euphoria among their reactions. He keyed in the instructions and waited for the result.
Emily's mind was in a dark quiet place with thick walls holding out the terror that raged outside. Drifting down through the quiet was a voice calling her name. She tried to shut it out but it seemed to penetrate the thickest walls she could erect. Then the walls themselves began to crumble and dissolve, and she felt a moment of pure panic. But the terror that was so threatening was receding with the walls. She recognized the voice calling her name now and it was a strong, comforting voice. She dared to open her eyes - just a slit at first, and then when she recognized Durn's face, all the way.
"Durn, I remember..." she said in a voice that cracked and trembled, "Davis...the skull talking to me...the fur with teeth...Durn, that all just happened. I was never your partner. I am just the housewife I remember being. That wasn't years ago - it was just a few days ago. And now we've crashed...Durn, what are we going to do? Are we ever going to get off this planet?"
Seeing that Emily was working herself into hysteria Durn tried to be as comforting as he could. "Sure we're going to get off the planet. The ship's just a day's walk from here. All we gotta' do is walk and we'll get there. You can do that can't you Emily? After all, you've gotten this far."
"But that was someone else," protested Emily. "That woman was someone you created with your stories. It might have worked while I was out of my head with those drugs you gave me, but not now that I know who I am. Why don't you just give me more of the drugs you gave me before?"
"Can't," replied Durn. "There's only one dose in each suit. More than one dose and you might lose your memory permanently. Emily, that wasn't some other woman, that was you. I didn't do anything but tell you you could do all those things. The rest all came from inside. And if you could do it once, you can do it again. It's only another day's walk to the ship. But you're gonna' have to walk there yourself. I can't carry you that far. You can do it, Emily, I know you can."
Emily thought back over the last few days, and while she was amazed at the images, she had to admit that she was the woman in the pictures. She tried to push her mind back into the place it had been in while she thought she was Durn's partner. While she was only partly successful, she did find the courage to stand up and say, "If I'm going to die, I might as well die trying to get to the ship - isn't that what you said back at the fliver?"
Durn, encouraged by Emily's response, hurriedly picked up the gear that would be useful and set off for the ship with Emily following closely behind. A small animal rustled in the bushes as they passed and Emily shredded the foliage until her rifle clicked empty. Durn came back to where she was standing shivering and observed, "Hey, you got it didn't you? See, I told you you could handle it. Now put another magazine in the gun and lets get moving. Feel free to blast away at anything that scares you."
Durn started off again as Emily reloaded her rifle. She knew she'd over reacted to the sound in the bushes, but it was comforting to know that she could still handle the rifle as well as she could the day before. Then she'd thought it was a skill she'd forgotten. Now she knew that she was learning it for the first time, and in a way that made it seem all the more remarkable.
The day wore on and the miles passed behind them. Emily felt more and more like the woman she'd been the day before. The worst of the tension left her shoulders and some of the desperation left her grip on her ultra-sonic. Her nerves remained on edge and she obliterated several more harmless bushes along with a few real threats. She still fumbled terribly when she changed weapons but she managed. Most welcome of all, the numbness to the violence around her returned and their progress became just a hazy dream of stumbling through the jungle firing at anything that moved. The sun was low on the horizon when they reached the shore of the lake.
Emily looked out across the stretch of black water that separated them from the ship and began to laugh hysterically. She'd forgotten all about the lake. They didn't have a boat, and after seeing the things that lived in the lake, she knew that swimming was out of the question. To come all this way and end up like the stripped and rotting carcass that floated part way out in the lake seemed like such a cruel joke that she couldn't stop laughing.
Durn turned her around, and looking her straight in the eye forcefully told her, "Don't lose it now, Emily. We're almost there. You've gotta' guard my back while I build a raft. There's no time for hysterics. We have to be in the ship by dark - I left the repeller screen at the last campsite."
The thought that Durn actually had a plan to get across the lake sobered Emily up. After a violent shiver, she pulled loose from Durn's grip and said, "Ok, I'll stand guard. I'm all right now. You get on with the raft."
Durn set to work with his laser cutting down a number of trees that were growing where they would fall into the lake. Wading knee deep in the muck he pushed the logs into place and lashed them together with vines. He cut poles and sculpted paddles from smaller trees. Durn worked fast, with the shattering bursts of gun fire Emily let loose at the slightest noise spurring him on. He pushed his tired fingers to finish the lashing as Emily's bursts grew more erratic and prolonged. He knew she was losing control.
At last the raft was ready. Durn waited until Emily's magazine was empty before he tried to interrupt her. She had a crazed look in her eyes as she jammed a new magazine in and started looking for targets. She slowly became aware of Durn talking to her, and as the meaning of his words sunk in she sagged with relief.
Durn led the way down to the raft and started pushing it out. When the muck reached his waist he jumped aboard and started pushing with one of the poles. When it got too deep for the pole, he threw it away and picked up one of the paddles. Emily saw what he was doing and started paddling on the other side of the raft. She was dimly aware of shapes that floated or flew by in the rapidly gathering dusk, but her attention was fixed on the ship. Slowly, inch by inch, they made progress.
They made just enough progress to keep the ship a barely discernible shape looming in the murk as darkness fell around them. Their muscles were already aching and cramped as true darkness enclosed them, but with one more surge of energy the raft thumped into an unseen object. Durn almost cried with joy as he felt the smooth skin of the ship. They paddled back and forth three times along the ship before Durn, groping in the dark, found the hatch mechanism. The hatch opened with a welcome whir spilling clean yellow light out into the foul murk.
Durn whistled as he finished shaving. The Auto-kitchen beeped that his breakfast was ready and he hurried to finish dressing. He noted with satisfaction that the housekeeping robot was back from the repair shop and doing a fine job. It had been so long since it was working that he hardly recognized the newly uncovered furniture scattered around the apartment. He was in a good mood. Emily Wenbere paid in full for the trip as well as the incidental damages and lost equipment. There were enough credits left over after the ship and equipment rental to pay off most of his bills. He had a hunting safari lined up for later in the month. His bank account hadn't been in such good shape for as long as he could remember.
Durn heard his office door cycle followed by the door to his apartment. "Durn?", inquired a voice. Recognizing the voice, Durn quickly wiped the breakfast from his lips and turned to face Emily - at least it sounded like Emily. The woman standing in the doorway looked very little like the mousy housewife who'd appeared in his office only a few months ago. This woman stood up straight and moved with a cool self-assuredness. And then there was the new hair style and the new clothes. "Hello Durn," said the familiar voice.
"Hello Emily," replied Durn. "You've changed - and for the better I might add."
"Do you think so? I rather like the new me. I don't have all the moves down yet, but I'm working on it." She looked around the apartment and asked, "How have you been doing? It looks like you've finally gotten your housekeeper fixed."
"I've been doing very well, thank you. My creditors smile at me when I walk by and I have a big money safari lined up later in the month. How have you been? I haven't seen you since we got back."
"I had a lot of thinking to do," replied Emily. "As you can see I've made some decisions already. It's like I'm starting life all over again. Roderick, while he may not have been much of a treasure hunter, was good at buying insurance, so I don't have any financial worries."
"I really got a lot out of our trip down to the surface. I can afford it now, so I stopped by to give you this bonus. It would be hard to put a price on the education I received, so consider this just a token." Emily removed an envelope from a pocket in her coat and laid it on the desk. "There is one thing that I've been wondering about. Those nice things you said to me in the ship on the way back - did you mean any of them, or were you just trying to cheer me up?"
"Sure I meant 'em," replied Durn. "In the end, you had what it took. Listen, maybe we could get together - I could use a partner on this up coming safari."
Emily shuddered a little at the thought of returning to the surface. She stepped closer to Durn and responded, "I know your not serious, but thanks a lot for the offer - that's the best complement I've ever gotten." Emily hesitated, then kissed him and held him tightly for a long moment. Pulling away at last, she looked him in the eye and said, "It really is to bad you can't do it in an exposure suit." Then she turned and walked out the door.