The Terra Project is over, ended in one blast that scattered a handful of survivors through deep space. Grace Hargrove and her team—including Dr. Danny Thorne, the Project’s despised geneticist, the man she loves—find themselves stranded in the virgin landscape of a habitable moon. Two other escape pods crashed near theirs, one controlled by Brian Kutrosky, a conspirator convicted of attempting to sabotage the Project, and another led by the soldier known as Kinn, whose mission was to neutralize the threat Kutrosky presented.
In order to build a viable new world, the survivors must come together, but from the moment each group discovers the identity of the others, they are at war. With every conflict, every death, their chances of long-term survival decrease. The only hope of peace for the survivors comes at a terrible price for Grace. Her life hangs in the balance between the will of the man who loves her, the power of the man who wants her, and the secrets of the man who owes his life to her. But as Grace struggles to lead her people in building a new world out of the ashes of The Terra Project, the greatest danger lies in the hidden truth she carries with her.
Here’s a sneak peek
Chapter One – The Crash
“Impact with the moon’s inner atmosphere in five…four…three…two….”
Before Grace could take a deep breath, the emergency ship groaned, a shiver that turned into a violent jolt. The impact shook ES5 like a cosmic child angry with its toys.
“What’s going on?” Beth yelped across the cramped cabin, pale with terror.
“It’s all right,” Grace assured her, even as her own heart sped to double-time. She checked on her fellow team members, tense in the seats that lined the walls of the ship they’d been stuck in for months. “It’s just the atmosphere surrounding Chronis’s moon. We won’t—”
She was cut off by a boom that rocked the helpless vessel. The straps crisscrossing her torso dug in to the point of bruising. Screams echoed off the metal walls.
“Are you okay?” Danny shouted beside her.
“Yeah, it took me by surprise is all.” She put on a brave face, fear lurking under the surface. The increasing roar of their descent caused her to wince.
“If deciding to land on this moon gets us all killed, I’m going to wring Sean’s neck.” Danny shouted.
That wry burst of humor twisted Grace’s stomach with panic. Danny only joked when he was desperate.
The screech of the hull rose to an unbearable volume. Sirens blared to life, adding to the clamor at a higher and higher pitch. Grace’s ears burned. The pressure threatened to squash her head from the inside. It was madness to try to land, but it was that or die drifting in space. Die in space or die on solid ground. It wasn’t much of a choice.
Muffled shouts to her left pulled Grace’s attention to the flapping cockpit door. Through it she could see Sean and Dave and a few of their team members straining over the controls, shouting directions. The wide front viewport—hot white glare growing around the edges—showed a swirl of blue and green and brown racing toward them.
A moment of awe eclipsed her fear. Green and brown. After more than a year of nothing but black and silver, space and metal, cold and darkness. Life sped toward her. Life that was about to destroy her.
Before the thought could coalesce into fear, the ship’s engines groaned into action. The accompanying jerk took her breath away. She gripped her seat with white knuckles and prayed as if she could hold the vessel together by her will alone. Will and prayers were the only thing that had held ES5 together for the past six months. The blasted thing had started malfunctioning within two weeks of fleeing the colony transport ship, Argo. It hadn’t been designed to land and she wouldn’t have risked it if they had had any kind of a choice.
To her right Danny shouted. She couldn’t hear him at all now over the engine and rush of atmosphere. She fought against the pressure of their speed to turn her head toward him. His wide blue eyes burned with fear and determination behind his glasses. He shouted again—whether words of comfort or of warning she couldn’t tell—and lifted his hand to plant it protectively over hers. Grace managed a smile, even as black sparks formed at the corners of her vision.
She stared once more toward the cockpit door and the tiny glimpse of promise or annihilation in front of them. The green and brown and blue were no longer spinning, but now the impossible rattling returned as the ship’s braking mechanism kicked in. The glare of entering an alien atmosphere stung her eyes. She looked away. This was it. The end of her life or the beginning.
“Hold on.” she shouted, hardly able to hear her own voice. She worked against the force pinning her to make eye contact with as many of her people as she could. It was her job as emergency management coordinator, her responsibility as a person, to keep them safe. Most tried their best to return her nod through the fear and the turbulence that replaced the pressure of speed. “Hold on.”
Her eyes snapped to Danny, to his hand holding hers. “Hold on, Danny.”
“I am holding on.” His reply was muffled over the din. He tightened his hand around hers. “I’ve always held on.”
For half a second she felt comfort.
It vanished as the ship knocked sideways. Screams cut through the chaos. Grace’s heart dropped to her stomach. She squeezed Danny’s hand hard as they smashed against the side of their seats. The rip of cargo breaking out of its mesh restraints at the back of the cabin doubled the noise.
The view through the flapping cockpit door showed trees and hills and distant mountains, distinct against the coral-tinted sky. Sean and Dave evened their descent, but they couldn’t control it. Grace saw the ridge of a hill moments before they skimmed it.
The impact sent loose cargo smashing across the cabin like dice in a cup. Several seats down, Peter ripped out of his seat’s restraints and bounced off the ceiling.
Grace pushed against her own restraints, her instinct to help overpowering her alarm. Danny’s hand tightened around hers. She could only watch in horror as Peter smashed into walls and cargo, limp and battered. He banged against the seats to Grace’s right and was caught and held by three fellow travelers.
Grace swallowed the edge of fear that made her heart pound and turned to check on the cockpit. Through the front screen she could see a deep green valley with trees and fields speeding toward them as they sank lower.
“It’s almost over!” she yelled, unable to hear herself. Her eyes flickered across to Carrie. She raised her voice, “It’s almost over.” She and Carrie would laugh about this later. If they survived. She swallowed a fresh wave of panic.
Carrie nodded as if she could hear. Grace looked to the cockpit viewport one more time then twisted away as they rammed into the trees.
The moan of speed was replaced by sick rumbling as impact after impact shook the ship so hard she was sure it would come apart. Lights flickered and vents hissed as ES5’s systems failed. The straps digging into her arms and chest were the only thing keeping her from Peter’s fate. The screaming in the cabin grew. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the warmth of Danny’s hand still clamped over hers.
With a final booming lurch, the ship ground to a stop and flipped up at an angle. Grace smashed into the side of her seat as it bucked against the bolts holding it down. Metal groaned and snapped and some of the crates and boxes that made up the cargo hurled to the front of the cabin. They crashed against the wall, mashing the cockpit door shut with a boom like thunder. The emergency sirens gave one final shriek and died as the lights in the cabin dimmed.
Then the ship was silent.
Grace panted, ears ringing, body aching. Her fear coalesced into shaking. It was over.
She lay still, disoriented with the new angle of the ship. Her head lolled to the side before she summoned enough strength to lift her neck.
The world returned to focus with a ringing buzz.
Weeping, more creaking, the crackling snaps of electrical wires, were all hollow through the buzz.
She inched open her eyes. The cabin sloped down toward the cockpit. Several crates were piled against the wall, some smashed open to spill their contents. One was wedged against her foot. She had to stare at it for a moment before the pain registered. Pain was something real, something she could focus on. She chose pain instead of fear.
With shaking hands, she reached to unclasp the buckle of the restraints that had saved her life. Danny’s hand tightened over hers.
“Are you all right?”
Dazed, she twisted in her chair to face him. His voice seemed miles away. In the dim light of the cabin she could make out a cut down the side of his face and blood trickling from his nose, but he’d managed to keep his glasses on straight.
“I’m…I’m fine.” She took a breath, pushing herself to action through her shock. “How about you?”
She laid a hand on his warm, sweaty jaw and turned his face to see his wound better.
“I’m all right.” He squeezed her other hand then let go to unclasp his restraints. “Your nose is bleeding.”
“So is yours.” She nodded.
As blood and feeling returned to her limbs and mind, she took several calming breaths. This was what she was trained for. This was her job. She could handle this.
The groans, crying, coughing, and retching of her people came clearer as the ringing in her ears subsided. She brushed a thick strand of loose red hair out of her face with the back of her hand, wiped her bleeding nose, and kicked the crate away from her foot.
Her head pounded as she struggled to her feet. It took a moment to regain her equilibrium, especially with the floor slanted under her and the hint of true gravity holding her down. The muted light of emergency power was cut with flashes of alarm red, showing her the damage. Voices and banging could be heard on the other side of the blocked cockpit door.
Carrie lurched free of her restraints and sat hunched on the slanted floor, rubbing her ears. Grace pushed her way across scattered debris to her friend.
“Are you all right?” She reached Carrie in half a dozen faltering steps, foot aching, and caught herself on the arms of Carrie’s chair. Her knees threatened to give out, but they were the least of her worries. The air inside the ship was heating, which mean life support systems were on the fritz at best.
“What?” Carrie shouted at her, cringing and shaking her head. “My ears….”
Grace nodded and straightened, offering her hands to pull Carrie to a standing position. “The ship’s systems are malfunctioning. I don’t trust this thing to last long. ES5 wasn’t designed for six months in space and a crash landing. We have to get out of here.”
She twisted towards the door. The banging from the cockpit startled her.
“Help! The door’s stuck.” Sean’s deep voice was muffled and tinny through the wall.
“Hold on. There’s stuff blocking it,” Carrie responded before Grace could get a word out.
Carrie wove unsteadily down the sloped floor to push crates out of the way. A few of the others recovered and stumbled across the cabin to help her. They formed a team to clear debris from the cockpit door.
Danny shifted his way around the team at the door to help Peter, who lay limp across the seats, two others crouched over him. Peter was still and silent, his limbs bent at wrong angles. Dread swirled in Grace’s gut. She took a step towards him. If he was dead…. She paused took a breath of the stuffy cabin air. One disaster at a time.
Grace hiked up her skirt, climbing the incline of the floor toward the ship’s exit door. The acrid smell of wires burning heightened her sense of alarm.
“What d’ya think?” Stacey asked as she approached. Stacey’s overloud voice hinted that her ears were ringing too, even if she stood with her hands on her hips and head cocked as though she was repairing drones instead of assessing danger.
“ES5’s instruments say…said that the atmosphere on this moon is comparable to that on Earth.” Grace pretended ease and command, though her heart pounded.
“ES5 is a piece of shit,” Stacey spat.
Grace gave her a wary look of agreement. “We trusted it enough to land. Apparently the ship following us did too.”
“Yeah, I noticed that.” Stacey shifted her weight. “I wonder if their ride down was as fun as ours.”
Grace managed a faint grin, but that was it. People were recovering and inching closer to her. Decisions needed to be made.
“We can’t stay in here if the power dies and the life support stops functioning. If the moon can’t support us, I’d rather know now.”
Stacey shifted her weight. “You want to ask Sean first?”
Grace clenched her jaw. “No, I do not want to ask Sean first.”
“Good.” Stacey grinned. “Neither do I. You’re the emergency management leader.”
“And this is an emergency.” The half joke energized Grace. She’d spent too long drifting. Now it was time for action. “Open the door and we’ll find out if the ship’s computer was right or if this little moon isn’t so habitable after all.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Stacey was as eager as she was.
ES5’s door wasn’t designed to be open until the instruments said it had landed. With all but emergency power out, it had no idea whether they were in space or on Earth or Terra or in the middle of a sun. It took five men to force the latches open and to turn the wheel that loosened the door enough for it to slide. The door groaned in protest at its first taste of true gravity before clunking heavily down the hull, breaking part of its casing as it smashed the end of its track.
Sunlight flooded into the ship. Grace blinked and raised a hand to shield her eyes. She and the others shied back, holding their breath as one last moment of doubt gripped them. In an instant, all doubt vanished. The light brought with it the rich scent of earth and vegetation, damp and vivid. Grace breathed in, testing the air’s viability.
It was clean. A wave of elation pulsed through her with the fresh, natural oxygen. She closed her eyes and let her shoulders drop as she filled her lungs.
How long had it been? How long since she’d breathed real air, since she’d felt dirt beneath her feet? Since Nature had taken precedence over Man? How long since she had felt life around her?
She opened her eyes and pushed her way to the doorway as those who had opened it climbed out.
In the course of its crash, the front half of ES5 had been wedged into dark dirt, tipping the body of the ship up at an angle. The bottom corner of the doorway was several inches below ground level. Grace stepped cautiously out of the metal hull, still steaming from its dive and run through the ground in lieu of breaks, and into a forest.
Trees swayed in a mild breeze around her, spreading in a thick canopy of green. Above their rustling tops she could see a hint of blue sky tinted with soft orange. Greens and browns spread around her in all directions, shades she had forgotten existed. She wandered forward, feet remembering what rocks and twigs felt like, body remembering what true gravity felt like. The scent of the forest was rich and authentic, earthy below and tangy with something close to pine above. She could hear birds chattering in every cadence, insects humming in the undergrowth, noisy and true. Honest nature.
She stumbled several yards forward, across tufts of grass and moss, and sank to all fours. Her fingers splayed through the cool, damp grass. For a moment she breathed, letting her fear dissolve. This was what she had dreamed of from the moment she entered the Project. She plucked a handful of grass and brought it to her nose with both hands. Her throat squeezed in joy and she closed her eyes. She was alive. She had a future. They all did.
“Hey Grace, you all right?” Stacey called after her.
Grace let the torn grass go and stood to face her. “Never better.”
Confidence filled her. It didn’t matter where they were now, her purpose was clear. She was alive. She had a future to build.
Her gaze shifted past Stacey to the wreck of ES5 behind her. From the outside it seemed like a metal-plated cottage that had landed on a witch, impossibly small for the number of people who had been cramped in it for six months. Its tapered nose was buried deep, the churned earth pouring over the front, like a child’s toy in a sandbox.
Her elation shifted to decision.
“We need to get people out of there and into the open, away from the ship, until we can determine if it’s stable,” she spoke to whoever would listen to her.
Several people were already fanning out in the forest. They nodded at her command, ready to look to her for something to do, and ducked into the hull as more of them began to emerge.
Grace glanced around, assessing their surroundings. Surviving was only the beginning. They would need water, something to use as shelter besides the wreck. They would need food, protection from the elements. The clock was ticking, but she had no idea how fast it ran.
She strode the length of ES5, searching. A long trough of destruction cut through the trees stretching behind the ship. She raised a hand to her eyes and studied it. Far in the distance, something glimmered at a break in the trees, possibly water. On the other side of the wreck, a hill sloped steeply up to a crest. A few large clusters of rocks and trees were scattered across the hillside.
She breathed deeply, the virgin air energizing her more effectively than coffee. Danny could argue with her all he wanted, but this was what it was all about. This was what she’d given everything up for. Now her job began.
Carrie struggled out into the sunshine, Sean leaning heavily on her for support. His tall, muscular body looked like it would overwhelm Carrie, but Grace knew her friend’s strength better than that.
“Carrie. Sean.” She jogged to intercept them. “Did everyone make it out of the cockpit?”
“We’re all alive,” Carrie answered, voice shaking. “I don’t believe it, but we’re all alive.”
“I’m not sure about Peter,” Sean added, less optimistic. “We have several other injuries.” Sean blinked and squinted in the sunlight, his eyes red rimmed and blood trickling out his nose.
“There’s a ridge up there, on the other side of the ship.” Grace assumed command. “We need to take people up there away from the wreck. I don’t trust its stability.”
Sean nodded. “Good idea.” He pulled himself up to his full height and studied the growing activity around the wreck. “We should organize—”
“Come on.” Carrie tried to haul him away, sending Grace a look.
“I should stay and take charge,” Sean argued.
Carrie snorted. “It’s Grace’s job. She’s the emergency management coordinator, not you. She can handle it, looks like your eyes can’t.”
Grace nodded to Carrie and left her to sort out whether Sean was fit to help. She was needed elsewhere.
Danny, Beth and Jonah carried Peter out into the sunlight.
“Hurry, hurry!” Jonah barked. “He’s dying.”
Grace’s pulse shot up again. She lunged toward them.
“I’ll take him.” She moved to take Beth’s place. “Beth, go sit over there until your eyes clear up.”
Without question, Beth nodded and wandered up the slope of the hill where others were gathering, glancing with red-rimmed eyes over her shoulder at Peter.
“Get him to flat ground,” Grace ordered Danny and Jonah.
Jonah nodded and picked up speed, but Danny held him back. “It’s too late,” he said, barely audible.
“It’s not too late,” Jonah shouted.
“His neck is broken.” Danny looked to Grace, his eyes saying everything.
They rushed Peter to a flat patch of moss beneath two swaying trees. He didn’t make a sound, no groan of pain, no shock of breath, as they laid him down.
“Do something!” Jonah shouted, holding the sides of his head.
Danny bent over Peter. He loosened the top buttons of Peter’s shirt and pushed the fabric aside, feeling for a pulse.
“I can’t tell.” He pinched his lips to a tight line.
“You’re the doctor now,” Jonah panted. “Can’t you do CPR or something? Wasn’t that in your fancy training?”
Grace stood, taking Jonah’s arm. She stared in wide-eyed horror as Danny laid his palm over Peter’s heart, shaking his head. “You saw what happened. He couldn’t have survived that kind of trauma.” He pressed his fingers to Peter’s neck. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re not going to do anything?” Jonah shifted, fists balled at his sides. “You’re just going to let him die?”
“He’s already dead,” Danny whispered. He stood and stepped away. “If there was anything I could do—”
Jonah whipped to him. “You goddamn coward,” he roared. “You fucking geneticist. You’re just going to let him die like a lab rat. That’s all we are to you, isn’t it? Fucking lab rats.”
Without waiting for Danny to reply, Jonah dropped to his knees, grabbing the crushed fingers of Peter’s hand. “Pete! Pete, buddy, wake up. Wake up!”
Grace watched the scene with an odd ache in her chest. She hadn’t known Peter that well until after the crash. He hadn’t deserved to die like this. Danny turned her aside. She sucked in a breath and swallowed.
“He was probably dead as soon as his neck snapped in the crash,” Danny murmured. “It was quick. I would have saved him if I could.”
Grace shook her head. “We can’t afford this. I cared about Peter. He was a good man. Without him….” She swallowed. There would be time to mourn, but not yet. “Thirty-nine was bad enough, thirty-eight is exponentially worse.”
“Worry about the numbers later,” Danny told her. “For now, let’s just focus on surviving.”
She turned her head and met Danny’s eyes. “We landed because we wanted to live, Danny, to build a civilization, not just survive. No one is coming to scoop us up and take us back to Earth or to Terra. This is it.” She nodded at Peter. “We just lost generations of his descendants. We just lost a valued friend.”
Danny put a comforting hand on her arm. “Worry about it later. Deal with the immediate first.”
His steadiness settled her. It always did. She met his eyes and drew her strength from his confidence, from the support he always gave her.
“How bad are people’s injuries?” She made herself focus.
Danny shook his head as they shuffled away to stand on a mossy patch under a tree.
“I haven’t had time to assess the full extent yet. Looks like the restraints on the seats may have been the one thing that worked on that bucket. Loads of bruises and burns. I think most of the people who were in the cockpit or near it are having trouble with their eyes because of the glare during the descent. Lois has a broken leg and a Marjorie has a cut on her arm that’ll need stitches of some sort. I suspect there are a few concussions, but that’s it.”
“The folks from the cockpit might have lingering vision problems,” Danny finished, “but everything else will heal. We got lucky. Very lucky.” He met her eyes, concern battling with something darker.
“What do we have to treat them with?” she asked.
“I’ll see if I can find the medical kit.”
“One medical kit. That’s the best we can do?”
“It’s better than no medical kit.” Danny squeezed her arm and headed for the wreck.
Grace swallowed and looked around, assessing their situation. The wooded gully had ample trees, grass, small animals of some sort scurrying through the branches. They could use the trees for fuel and shelter, if they could fell them. There was food, if they could catch it. The resources were there, but could they use them? Interstellar emergency ships were not equipped with axes.
She counted her people scattered across the verdant landscape. More than half of them had already made it out of the ship. They limped and walked in a daze across the rut caused by the crash and up the side of the hill. Hushed talking, coughing, and retching joined the breeze and birdsong as her friends and colleagues adjusted to gravity and ground. Humanity had arrived.
She hitched up her skirt and started climbing toward the top of the hill to get a better sense of their surroundings. Six months trapped in the cabin of an emergency ship hadn’t done her muscles any good, but the abundance of authentic air made up for any weakness. Besides, she had climbed steeper hills at home in Pennsylvania. This was—
All thought stopped when she reached the crest. The wide vista that spread before her was awesome in every sense of the word. The hill dipped down into a larger valley and up again to higher, taller hills. Mountains stretched across the horizon beyond them. The forest gave way to open fields, purple and yellow with flowers, in the valley between her hill and the next one.
Far beyond, curling away to the left, she caught a glimpse of a narrow river sparkling through a thinner section of trees. Beyond that, the river was hidden by forest again. In the distance a herd of what could have been deer or some kind of cattle grazed. Birds flew in formation through the air, jumping up out of the leafy trees. Above it all the vast orange orb of the planet Chronis loomed, impossibly large for someone used to seeing only Earth’s moon above them. Its rings formed thick orange and coral rainbows overhead. The sun of this system seemed like an insignificant blob in comparison.
A thick trail of dark smoke drifted up across several hills, miles away. Grace raised a hand to her eyes and strained to see more. It was too thin to be a major fire but thick enough to hint that the emergency ship following them hadn’t had such a lucky landing.
She scanned the rest of the horizon. But for the faintest wisp of possible smoke somewhere across the river, there was nothing to see but natural beauty. No other sign of mankind. At least a hundred escape ships capable of holding dozens of people or more had fled the Argo. They had been in deep space, between systems, when it happened. None of them had a plan. But surely more than two small vessels had found this haven in the void. Theirs couldn’t have been the only instruments to alert them to the habitable moon.
“Oh my God.” Carrie’s startled voice lifted Grace out of her thoughts as she joined her on the ridge.
“The landscape, Chronis, or the other crash?” Grace asked as she continued to scan for signs of other survivors.
“What?” Carried leaned over and braced herself on her knees as she caught her breath.
Grace let herself smile as she pointed to the column of smoke in the distance. “We’re not alone.”
“Good.” Carrie straightened, continuing to pant. “I hate being alone.”
Grace chuckled. Not once in the time since they had met boarding the colony transport pod had she seen Carrie alone.
“It will take us hours to reach them.” Her mind was already ordering things.
“Who says we have to reach them?” Carrie muttered. “Don’t be reckless, Grace.”
Grace ignored her. “I hope they were as lucky as we were.”
“Are we lucky?” Carrie sent her a sideways look, crossing her arms. She was afraid. She could hide it all she wanted, but Grace knew her better than that.
“We’re alive.” Grace feigned nonchalance for her friend’s sake, sucking in a deep breath of real air. “That’s as lucky as I ever need to be.”
Carrie arched her eyebrow and laughed. “I’ll remember you said that.”
At the sound of scraping footfalls behind them, both women turned to see a disheveled Gil climbing up the hill. They reached out and grabbed his arms, hauling him the rest of the way to the crest.
“Gil, you’re safe,” Grace greeted him as Carrie said, “Where’ve you been?”
“The human body was not supposed to spend six months in a box,” Gil panted. He coughed and grabbed his chest as he leaned against Carrie. “Even a relatively big one. Muscle atrophy could— Whoa, God!”
His jaw dropped open, when he saw the view.
“Nice, isn’t it.” Carrie helped him to stand fully on his own.
He ran his hands through his overly long hair and stared. “Nice isn’t the word I would use.” He swallowed, goggling at the sight spread before him. “I’ve never seen a ringed planet from inside the rings before.”
“Leave it to Astrophysicist Gil to notice the planet when nature slaps you in the face.” Carrie shook her head.
Grace was through with sightseeing. “Stop looking at the sky and focus on the vegetation.” He followed her outstretched arm to take in the valley. “Can we eat it?”
“Eat it?” Carrie puffed in disbelief. “Half an hour ago we crashed in the middle of God knows where, and you want to know if we can eat our surroundings?”
Grace shook Carrie’s sarcasm aside. “Danny will treat the wounded. Sean and Dave will probably try to salvage what they can from the wreck. My guess is you and Stacey and half the rest of us will want to explore the area. My job is and always has been coordinating everyone’s efforts. Our food supplies were already starting to dwindle before we made the decision to land, so somebody has to focus on that problem. We need to reach the other emergency ship and bring all of the survivors together. But no matter what we all end up doing, we’re doing it here. The Argo was obliterated. No one is coming for us. Welcome home.”
“Great,” Carrie said. “Love it. Don’t you think you should rest before you tidy the place up for guests?”
“I’m fine.” Grace shrugged and turned to start down the hill. “Don’t go turning into Sean on me.”
Carrie eyed her warily and tromped down the hill after her while Gil continued to gape at the landscape.
The hillside and valley around ES5 was now swarming with people. Grace spotted Danny near the bottom of the hill kneeling beside Lois. He’d found the medical kit and worked splinting her leg. Alvin was now assisting him with treatment. If anything happened to Lois, if any more of them died, they could be in real trouble.
“Help me out, Carrie.” She pushed the emotion aside and focused on the situation at hand. “I think that river we saw from up there crosses below us. We can assume that the ship that was following us crashed across the valley that way. There was some sort of smoke further up on the other side of the river too. It might be a third emergency ship. See if anyone is fit enough to check it out and to bring back water.”
“All right.” Carrie nodded, sending her a brief sidelong glance before jogging off to do as she was told.
Grace continued on down the hill. “Sean,” she called as she drew near to the largest cluster of rocks. Half a dozen of her people sat with their backs against the sizable stones recovering, including Sean and Beth.
“How are your eyes?” She lowered her voice to a soft inquiry.
“They’re doing better.” He proved it with a warm smile. “The glare of the hull on the way down was pretty bad, but at least the heat-shielding held up. Dave’s worse off than I am.”
“Is he going to be all right?”
“Yeah, we’ll make it.” He stood to prove his point, stretching his broad shoulders, and finishing by planting his hands on his hips and looking down at her. “How ’bout you?”
“Never better.” She smiled, took a quick breath. “I need you to do something for me. We need to—”
“Hold on.” He stopped her, laying a hand on her arm. She stared at his hand, then met his eyes. “I don’t think I’ve seen you stand still for one second since we landed.”
“You need to take a moment and just sit, okay?” He rubbed her arm.
She shrugged away, pulse rising. “It’s not my job to sit. It’s my job to make sure everyone is safe, together, and taken care of. I’ll sit when that’s done. There’s every indication that the ship that was following us crashed across a valley on the other side of the hill that way.” She pivoted to point up the hill where Gil could still be seen standing on the crest. “And I suspect that there is another ship somewhere across the river, although it could be a natural fire, I suppose. What we need to do is—”
“The Project is over, Grace.” She snapped her mouth shut at Sean’s interruption. “This isn’t Terra. You’re not on duty. Give yourself a break. Let someone else—”
“Whether this is Terra or not,” she spoke over him, crossing her arms, “people need help. We need help.”
“Looks like the crisis is over to me.”
“We don’t know where we are, Sean.”
“We’re on the third moon of Chronis in the Ovid system, and—”
“But we do know what we need.” She refused to be bullied. “We need to gather everyone in a single camp. We need food, clothing, and shelter. Or do you not remember day one, lesson one of the Project.”
“Of course I remember, but—”
“Then you also remember that the Argo is only ship in existence capable of interstellar travel. Correction, was. It’s gone. We’re here. Our new settlement isn’t going to build itself.”
Sean shifted his weight and crossed his arms to match her stance. “Look, all I’m saying is that you’ve done your job, fulfilled your training, and someone more….”
She raised an eyebrow, challenging him to finish the sentence in a way that wouldn’t make her throttle him.
“Someone more experienced should take over.”
“Experienced,” she repeated flatly. “You’re a lawyer, Sean.”
“Okay, an ex-military lawyer, then.”
“You’re not the only one who trained for a leadership position.” The familiar light of stubbornness shone in his eyes. “This is my job too.”
“I’m not saying it isn’t.” She inched away, looking around for something more productive to do than argue.
Danny was watching them. When he saw the expression on her face he stood slowly, eyes narrowed behind his glasses. His blank curiosity dropped to a protective frown. He left Lois to head toward them.
Sean dropped his arms and hissed, “Shit. The last thing we need is his interference. He’s not even part of the Project.”
“No he’s not.” Grace pursed her lips. “But like you said, Sean, the Project is over.”
“Is something the matter?” Danny asked in his most soothing, scientific voice. He met and held Sean’s eyes with sharp warning.
Sean was over six feet, fit, and handsome. Danny was barely taller than Grace, over forty, with glasses that hid his startlingly blue eyes, but he carried an air of authority that even Sean sensed.
“No.” Sean shook his head, backing down without a fight.
Grace considered the argument won and moved on. “There’s smoke, presumably from the other ship, across the valley that way.” She pointed up the hill again. “But there’s also some kind of smoke, I think, coming from somewhere on the other side of the river. We need to investigate.”
Danny nodded with a half shrug. “So where do you want to go first? It’s up to you.”
A thick pause filled the air as Grace considered. Sean glanced between her and Danny.
“I want to go up the river,” she decided.
“Shouldn’t you stay here and rest?” Sean said.
Grace ignored him. “Someone else needs to lead an expedition across the valley.”
“I’ll go.” Beth stood from where she had been pretending not to listen to the conversation.
“Great. Thanks.” Grace smiled. “Gather a team and check it out. Keep an eye on the sun though. Try and be back before dark.”
Beth nodded and jogged off to find a team.
“Carrie went to recruit people to check out the river,” Grace continued. “I’ll join them.”
“You’re not going to listen to a word I say, are you?” Sean crossed his arms and shook his head.
“Why should she?” Danny answered for her.
The two men locked stares. The Project definitely wasn’t over.
“We won’t be gone long.” Grace neutralized the showdown by tugging on Danny’s sleeve and starting down the hill. “See if you can assess the damage to the ship in the meantime,” she charged Sean over her shoulder.
Sean frowned and shook his head, turning toward the wreck.
One crisis had been averted. She would be a fool to assume it would be the only one.