"Meeting Mom"
By Susan

       Ricki's notes: This is story one of the "Gunsmoke & Feathers" Series. It's an alternate universe. The background: Milly and Meryl are pilots of a starship. Their universe is one of dangerous aliens, firefights in space and think Star Wars type powers, (however this is not a cross-over).
        Susan's notes: Written before she finished watching the Trigun anime series, she took what she knew and tried to fill the gaps in her own mind. As the story progressed she has created a completely new world that still has the familiar characters we all know and love!

Part 1 - Sand Fall
         Millie groaned oh my goodness her head hurt so badly... Wait a minute, why did her head hurt? Had she been out drinking the night before? Was this the morning after? Okay, no more drinking for a good long time, she firmly told herself. Well maybe, no need to be rash about this.
         With another stab of pain a second groan escaped from her lips, she managed to pry one eye open to take in her circumstances. Immediately, she regretted the curious need to know her surroundings as a piercing light threatened to detonate the thundering pressure building up behind her eyes. Slamming her eyelid back down even as stabbing pain ran along her optic nerves causing a sudden wave of nausea to sweep over her, she took a slow deep breath, willing her stomach contents to calm down and stay put.
         She knew she was alive. No one could be dead and feel this bad.
         Gritting her teeth from the throbbing pain in her temples, she slowly moved her hand to reach up and carefully unsnap the strap of her helmet. She fumbled a bit but managed to find the release button and pressed it. Her face plate slid back into the helmet and she felt warm, stale air greet her face with, *painpainpain* throbbing from one temple reaching to the other. She lightly touched a bump on her forehead, exploring it gently. She had cracked her head pretty good for that to happen when wearing her helmet. She raised her hands and grasped either side of her helmet, and oh so cautiously, lifted, and set it on the console beside her. Next, she moved her hand over to the small cubby where the first aid kit and meds were stored. Opening the latch by feel alone, she found the packet of fast-acting painkillers and ripped them open with her teeth, regretting it instantly as a piercing lance of pain shot through her tender head. Who knew teeth had nerve endings that could scream? When the riot of pain died down, she reached for the water container from its place, somehow managing to get the meds and water down with minimal spillage. The trick would be to keep it down even with the rebellious stomach. She sat the eternity it took for the meds to kick in, but when they did, Millie smiled with pure relief. It felt so good to be alive and NOT be in pain.
         With the pain now receding that had kept recall at bay memory swooped in with a rush of dark wings. Eyes flying open, Millie sat up abruptly, or attempted to, yelling out, "Meryl! Are you okay, Meryl! Say something!"
         Silence. Only a slight whistling noise of the wind and a skittering of sand against the thick transglass responded.
         Even as Millie continued to yell "MERYL!! MERYL!! Speak to me!" She began fumbling at the latches and buckles of her safety harness with fingers trembling from a rush of near-hysterical fear, fighting to free herself. Struggling and throwing off straps as soon as she had them unlatched and unbuckled, she kept yelling, hoping for a reply and growing more desperate with each moment of answering silence.
         "MERYL!! Wake up! Say something! Anything! Meryl! MERYL!! You'd better be okay, or, or..." A sob began to rise in throat but she managed to hold it down, "If you die on me, I'll... I'll hate you forever!! I'll hate you, I'll hate your children, and your children's children, and I mean it!"
         Finally she was out of the webbing, flinging it aside, she threw herself between the small space between the control boards and the pilot's chair trying to reach Meryl. Managing to get her torso jammed through the small space she reached for and found Meryl's release button on her helmet. Relief flooded her as the face plate revealed Meryl's face. Her eyes were closed, but doing a quick visual scan she noted that her color was good, there was no blood and from what she could see, a growing bruise on her forehead looked like the only injury sustained from the crash of their Wing Glider. She felt her the pulse in Meryl's wrist. Again, good. Granted, she couldn't tell if there were any broken bones at this point, but that could wait. Millie puffed out her cheeks with a sigh of relief. So far, so good. It was awkward but she managed to remove her helmet and dropped it to the floor.
         Then, wiggling to free herself after being firmly wedged in the tight space, she fell back into her chair then bent over to unsnap the slender knife attached to her boot. She used it to cut away a swatch of material and wet it with her canteen water. Replacing the lid and canteen, she again wormed herself back into the position next to Meryl. Gently patting the cloth around Meryl's face and speaking in a soothing voice, "Aren't you a wonder, getting us through a tight spot with damaged belly thrusters and leaking grav compensators, you still managed to set Sweetness down, and look at us, we aren't dead, always a sign of a good landing. Of course, I knew you could do it. You should open your eyes and see for yourself the splendid job you did, and just see how well everything turned out. We landed on a really..."
         Here Millie stopped talking as it began to dawn on her that the scenery wasn't all that inviting. If a person hadn't seen all manner of sand, loose or blowing this was sand paradise... A whole endless parade of sand and rocks... No, it was more like sand heaven, where sand goes after it dies. Milly shook her head in wonder, a lot of beaches had given their lives to supply this.
         Then she noticed that there were two, not one, but two suns overhead. Every genetic fiber in Millie's DNA makeup was screaming "This is just so wrong!" Millie whispered, "Oh Meryl, where have we landed? This doesn't look familiar at all! This looks like the backside of hell!"
         "Oh great." A voice muttered, "I can't wait to take vids and send them back home. Everyone will be so jealous." Millie whipped her head around to look at her friend who still had her eyes closed. "MERYL!" Shouted an overjoyed Millie as she threw the one arm that would reach, around her friend, forgetting about any other injuries Meryl may have sustained. "Meryl! I'm so glad you're alive and well!" Exclaimed Milled; light blue eyes shining with unshed tears of relief.
         "Why are you yelling?" Meryl asked in a hoarse whisper "I can hear you just fine. But yes, alive..." murmured Meryl, frowning as she slowly tried to open her eyes, "okay, well that's debatable." She managed to open her eyes just a crack before closing them again. Her head felt like a starbomb had been deployed behind her eyes.
         She felt Millie take her hand and hold it steady as she dropped something light into it. Meryl assumed it was the ship's pain meds.
         "Here," said Millie, Hold these, I'll get you some water to wash them down with."
         With some grunts and wiggles that jostled her chair and head, making Meryl wince, she felt Millie leave and return. "Okay, put the meds in your mouth; I have the water right here." As she guided the canteen to Meryl's mouth. She watched with sympathy as Meryl winced as she gingerly swallowed the pills and water.
         Soon the fast-acting meds kicked in and Millie could see the tension leaving Meryl's body and the scowl fading from between her eyes. The corner of her mouth on the side that faced Millie tilted up, ever so slightly. It was a good sign.
         "How's the rest of you?"
         This time Meryl opened her eyes fully in surprise.
         "Wow. Actually, I feel pretty good. Those meds kicked in a lot quicker than I thought they would. The only thing that would make this any better if is I had a cup of coffee and a chocolate bar."
         "You know, it feels a little stuffy in here. Hey! How long was I out?" Turning to look inquiringly at her friend.
         Millie shrugged, she had no idea how long she had been out and the quick glance she threw at the chrono-com had shown it winking off and on. She wasn't confident it was going to be an accurate measure.
         Ever efficient, Meryl said in her most business-like voice, "Millie, check the navcharts and see if you can figure out where we are and if we were followed. I doubt it, but it's better to be on the safe side. I'll check all the jump engine fuel cells, phoebus charge conductor, energy re-router, the transfer hives and power plant cell packs. You check your station to see what systems we still have available to us; I'll do the same with mine so keep a list of anything on your end that is functional, who knows, we may be able to use it somehow. Also, I'll the check the gun batteries. I don't think we will need them here so we may be able to shunt some energy over from there. Let's see, oh, when you get a fix on where we are at I'll charge up the emergency comm unit. It would be handy to have all the info we can gather when we contact command and alert them to our status. Hopefully it won't be long before they can retrieve us..... oh, General McCoy is going to have a conniption fit. Our very first Glider and we wreck it. We'll be lucky to only get KP duty."
         "But first, let's get out of these battle suits. I can feel the sweat running down my back already."
         After stripping off their suits to their skintight uniform underneath, and shedding even what layers they could in an effort to combat the stifling air of the Glider, they got back to their consoles.
         Millie's fingers flew, pushing buttons, twisting knobs, not really caring if they were working or not as she snuck a peek at Meryl out of the corner of her eyes, she was just happy that Meryl was awake and in charge again, tapping out queries and commands at her console, mumbling to herself. Millie had truly never been more afraid than when she got her first glimpse of Meryl's still form. Saying a little "thank you" of relief, she turned her attention back to her own console and readouts. It wasn't long after working with a slow and moody computer that without realizing it; a frown slowly began to form over her eyes. This was all wrong.
         "Something is very wrong here!" An obviously frustrated Meryl exclaimed. "We should be getting all sorts of readings. According to my readouts it says that the Niven cells and standby batteries are full, but then in the next minute it registers as empty. The halo cells are okay, I think. The only thing I have a green light on is Frankie." Frankie was the name they had bestowed on the experimental power plant tucked inside the guts of the ship. Shaped more like a lima bean than anything else, it supplied a basic, low level power to only a few systems, mainly the backup environmental systems. It was after all, an experimental power alternative, the first of its kind to be placed in a star fighter.
         "All the back ups are listed as damaged. The phoeban charge conductor and energy re-router, the hailing frequencies are totally jammed! Everything has been listed as damaged at least once, and then it gets a green light, then amber and then zip, nothing. And, it reads that we were in this condition before we were shot into that sideslip hole the Snakes created. We didn't get hit THAT badly!" Now addressing her console in front of her... "Stupid computer, what do you think we did, stuck an oar out the window and paddled our way here!! This is just unacceptable! "
         Millie piped up with her scan results "Well the central command vein reads green, no, red, no make that stand-by, no now it's green again, oops, now it says we don't have one at all! I am reading that the engines are on-line though. No, correction, it says they were ejected, oops, nope, now registering green, er amber, no, now saying it needs a maintenance check, again, not even on-line. Shoot. This isn't very helpful! Infernal machine!"
         Just then, Meryl lifted her head from her console, noticing for the first time a drop of sweat rolling down her nose.
         "Uh, speaking of infernal, it sure does feel hot in here. Can you get the cooler going Millie?" Asked Meryl.
         Even before she finished her question a cool breeze sprang from the vents and began flowing throughout the cockpit.
         "Ahhhh, What a relief! Thanks Millie." Smiled Meryl as the stuffiness and heat began to dissipate.
         Millie stared down at her controls and readouts; hands still positioned where they were before Meryl had asked about the air. The hair on the back her neck stood up straight as she felt a chill go over her that had nothing to do with the cooling air from the vents.
         "M..M...Meryl?" She said as her voice began sliding upward in pitch.
         "What?"
         "I didn't do that."
         "What do you mean?"
         "What I mean is," Taking a deep breath, "That wasn't me that did that."
         "What? What do you mean it wasn't you, of course it was you. It had to be you. I didn't do it and if you didn't do it, who...." She began slowing down; she didn't like what she was beginning to hear herself say.
         "Well, something must have just kicked in, Ha HA ha..." Milly gave her a look. Yea, that laugh had sounded hallow and false to her own ears also. Well, when in doubt, fall back and punt. "You must have inadvertently started it up..."
         Millie saw her wave her hand in dismissal, but Millie wasn't quite ready to do that just yet. She didn't bother to say anything more; Meryl's mind was made up and closed for the moment. She would need something besides an intuitive feeling to offer up to the logic and reasoning gears of Meryl's rational mind to grind upon.
         She sighed softly, so Meryl couldn't hear.
         "I heard that! And I know what you're thinking, and NO, I don't think someone else turned on our cooling system! So don't bring it up again!"
         Touch-eeeee!
         Millie let her fingers fly over her consoles and controls, turning in her chair one way and another and back again as she let that inner, intuitive; and never coming when she wanted or needed it, rise up from who knew where. She didn't have a clue herself what it was. Her immediate superiors didn't care what it was after they found out how useful it turned out to be. The girl could dismantle a subspace transverter and assemble it again without any left over parts. And it still worked! Well, the Academy shrinks and scientists didn't care either how she did what she did, except for a few that wanted to run experiments on her. In the end they had labeled her a "idiot savant." She wasn't sure about the savant part, but she knew "idiot" when she heard it and wasn't too pleased about it, but at least they had decided to leave her alone for now. The only one who seemed to know anything was her Granny Nan.

         "You got it girl, I can tell these things. It's a gift chickadee, to know things without learning them, to see things without eyes, to know a why without hearing a question. Use it well child and it will go well with you."
         Here Gran leaned forward in her old cane rocker to cup Millie's cheek with her arthritic hands "I need not fear for you child; you have a future and destiny. You are going to make a difference for good in people's lives. Uhhmmm, yes you will. I can see it."

         Meryl was the only other one who knew, but she insisted they not talk about it, it gave her the creepy jeebers. Now, even as Millie's fingers danced, pushing and tapping, she felt the unknown knowing rising up from the unknown place within and sweep over her.
         She knew.
         They were not alone.

         At least a day and half later, though time was hard to tell since their chrono-com would fritz in and out again and again, Meryl finished up the last of the visual and hands-on inspection of the inner belly of their craft. At the moment, she was underneath a console yanking on wires, ripping out the fried kinetin-plas packets, replacing the phoeban charge cells and conductors, the re-routers, every crystal intersector and power conduit that she had replacement parts for. The one thing she had not touched was the experimental power plant in the middle of the ships innards. She was afraid to. Neither of them were qualified to work on it. It was truly a new technology between machine and a living plant. Meryl had strenously argued against it, but she was not in authority and command had overridden her objections. They were placed in all the small gliders to test out. So far there hadn't been any trouble with them, but it was one of those things that made Meryl's flesh crawl. The little plant, about the size and shape of a lima bean, powered some of their systems and didn't need recharging or changing. It was supposed to be a revolutionary development, but it made Meryl feel creepy and nervous. She hated it being on board and would rather have the old system put back in. Unfortunately, she hadn't had a choice in the matter.
         Millie tried not to glance over at her, but she couldn't decide what made her more nervous, watching or not watching as Meryl unlatched and yanked out the surrounding delicate and unreliable pods and transfer hives packed in around the "power plant".
         "Dammit, Dam. Stinking. It!" Growled Meryl in a muffled voice from the gaping hole near the floor. Jerking herself up too quickly, she slammed her head into a loose-hanging pipe. Instead of swearing, Meryl grabbed her head with both hands and fell backwards, only to bang the back of her head on the floor as she landed. A muffled moan floated upward from the hole followed by muttered curses.
         Millie couldn't help herself from asking. "Meryl, are you all right?"
         "Does cracking one's head on a pipe look all right to you?" Responded Meryl acerbically.
         Moving more carefully this time, Meryl slid herself out from the work hole and sat up slowly. Taking a moment to rub the throbbing bumps on her head, she peered at Millie through one open eye and resigning herself, said, "Okay. Say it. I know you want to."
         "All right then! " Millie's chin was thrust out in stubborn defiance. "Nothing is going to work; we have used the computer, the scanners, and have crawled all over this rig doing an eyeball inspection with tweezers. It should work; everything should work even if only barely because nothing is seriously broken. The phoeban charge conductor and all the cells, should be standby-ready. There is enough fuel in the backup halo cells for take off no matter what the computer sensors are saying. I keep running the preflight checklist; one time it is a go and the next time there are serious alarm lights flashing next to system after system. But, the only real damage we sustained in the firefight was to the weapon tubes and laser housing. We should have been able to limp back home. Yet deep probe scanners are toast as is every circuit that doesn't have to do with environmental and medical. The communication board and call veins look like they were eroded and the sensor tuners look melted. We have nothing to work with. The only things that are staying in good working order are those things needed for planet survival!"
         Meryl signed and hung her head.
         It was true. Things had not been going well for them since they had crashed. 'Not going well' was a nice euphemism, let her amend that to freaking, spooky and weird. And if she dared to admit it, things had taken a decidedly strange turn. Meryl was thinking of hammering a signpost outside emblazoned with the warning: "You are now entering the Twilight Zone. Adjust speed accordingly."
         Meryl didn't believe in the supernatural, heck, she barely believed in a loving Supreme Being, but she also didn't NOT believe either, but "weird" was beginning to pop up in her mental vocabulary with alarming frequency. First when they had been doing a physical inventory of their supplies, they had opened the lid to the cryostasis pod to find the whole unit gone, leaving loose hanging wires as if someone had ripped it out. Meryl had stood with open-mouthed astonishment at the ruin unable to process the next thought. Millie had no problem with that.
         "Gee Meryl, what do you suppose happened to it?" It was the only time in her life that Meryl wished she had the ability to faint on demand. Following that discovery came a smaller one, albeit, just as troubling. They had gone on to check the cabinet where the enviro-suits were stored and there, sitting on top of the folded suits was her guitar case and yes, upon checking, her guitar was inside it. The guitar she had last played the night before their mission. She had left it in the corner by her bed. She blinked. Stared. Blinked again. Brain cells were flashing the warning, "Unable to compute, temporarily going off line. Check start-up procedures." Stared, and blinked again. She knew she had to get a hold of herself or pretty soon she would be sitting in the corner drooling and babbling to pink tribbles. Yet, there it was a guitar, her guitar, stowing away. A stowaway guitar. She felt like giggling. "I'm going insane." She thought to herself out reaching out a tentative finger to run lightly over the strings. The sweet sound brought tears to her eyes. Yes, it was real, and hers. She slammed the door on the cabinet; it was too much, she would think about it later.
          After that, it was rather anti-climatic, finding the extra rations and extra canteens of water. She eyed Millie, envious of her calm demeanor, which was irritating Meryl to no end.
         They had been able to do a few sensor sweeps with the ship's computer before it had just blinked off and no poking, prodding, or re-wiring could get it back on line. Meryl shook her head in frustration. It didn't make sense. The whole ship was designed to work together as a whole with all the systems, in one way or another, inter-linking and overlapping. That way in case one system was shot up badly enough, the pilot or gunner could shunt energy from one system to another or have a totally different system piggy-back another damaged unit's job. No system on board was totally a stand-alone system, at least not on their Wing Glider which was the smallest star fighter in the Glider class made up of Star, Paladin, Scout, Beacon and Wing units. The environmental system worked great, which was a relief as it kept their cabin cool enough for comfort. However, Meryl found it extremely annoying that she could not, no matter what she did with the computer or under the hood work, get any energy to squirt sideways to any other system. Meryl flung a greasy rag into the depths of tangled wires and sat down with her back to the console. Glancing over to the communication unit.... Maybe she should start with that next, but she didn't have near the confidence that she had when she had first started working on the ship's systems. And maintenance was not her strong suit. She knew enough basics to be able to jury rig things she couldn't fix in order to limp back to the maintenance bay and listen to the techie crew gripe at her for how she had treated their "baby". Lord knows that right now she would trade her guitar for that sight.
         She picked up a hyper wrench lying on the floor next to her and lobbed it into the hole on the floor near her foot pedals.
         "Just in case you didn't know Millie, I hate this scorched, sorry excuse for a planet."
         She figured they had been marooned now for over two days maybe into the third, but she couldn't be sure with a chrono that wasn't working accurately. It felt like forever though. Cautiously rising amid the growing graveyard of parts at her feet, she peered through the transglass at the landscape around them.
         Desolate.
         Bleak.
         Barren, but plenty of....
         Sand. In a variety of shades. Tans, yellows, beige, ochre, burnt sienna, and whitish sand, but not a lick of green to be seen anywhere. She idly wondered if the Snakes had found this planet first and, as was their way with any green, vibrant planet, burned it to a crisp, eradicating as much green plant life and animal life as possible. If that were true, they would be back in several hundred years to colonize it in some capacity. No one knew just what exactly their culture was like or what they used the desert planets for as Humans had never been able to win a planet back after losing it.
         She looked to the skyline with the cliffs on the horizon. Probably built of hard sand. Yes, sand and more sand, sand on top of sand, sand at the bottom of sand. Plenty of stinking sand to go around. She let out an exasperated puff of air blowing a black lock of hair off her forehead.
         She squinted at the sky. It looked as hot as she knew it felt. They had already been out and felt the heat when trying to do repair work on the outside of the ship; little good that it did them. With only their personal scanners left working they had analyzed the environment of the planet in an area around them. Turning in a complete circle around them would have accomplished the same result except that the analysis report stated that the climate was favorable to humanoid life forms.
         Favorable! Hmph! Stupid computer. Probably needed new batteries.
         She noted that the sun, er make that suns, were beginning to set. The second day and she felt worse than she did when they first started working.
         Hope.
         You couldn't touch it. You couldn't see it. But it was a valuable commodity. Elusive and as fragile as a butterfly's breath, yet for such a little thing, it gave great strength. It gave an individual the ability to persevere. And here she was; only recently stranded and she felt hers draining away minute by minute. She knew they couldn't keep depending on their water and rations. They would have to find some kind of water source and a way to live off the land until they were rescued. She turned to look at the cliffs behind them. Maybe they could camp there and find some clue to a water source, plant life, and animal life. She wasn't too confident, but she knew they would have to try something. An old quote from one of Earth's ancient leaders came back to her, "Never. Never. Never give up!"
         A light display before her broke through her turbulent thoughts.
         Suddenly, inexplicably, bright shafts of light lanced across the dusky sky breaking through her turbulent thoughts. Gasping, she waved her hand in Millie's direction trying to catch her attention. More from movement than any sound, Millie looked up from her work on the energy transducer to see Meryl staring. Leaping to her feet she stared in the direction of Meryl's finger.
         Millie stared, shock-still and let out an awed "Wow...That's so pretty! What do you suppose it is?"
         "No idea." Responded Meryl in the same quiet voice.
         Off toward the cliffs a vibrant light display of dancing, glimmering colors, impossibly weaving themselves around each other and sometimes merging with each other to create a new color. Sapphire blues, emerald greens, ruby reds, fire orange, royal purples, lavenders, and pinks all combining and separating in a complex pattern. The only thing Meryl could think to compare it to was Earth's Aurora Borealis, the northern lights, but even that was a sad, pale comparison to the wonder and depth of color flinging itself about the sky with gleeful abandon. She had never seen lights act like this. They gave Meryl the idea of possessing some kind of intelligence, but quickly dismissed the thought.
         Then giving herself a shake, she spoke firmly, "Whatever it is, it doesn't look like it is being generated by human or Snake technology." Uncertainty creeping into her voice, she continued, "... although I'm not positive, but I have never even heard of something like this. Well, the only thing to do is check it out. Millie, you know the... oh crap!" As she remembered the limited scanning ability of their personal scanners. Rubbing her hand over her eyes trying to think, she continued, "Oh, just do what you can with what sensors we do have that work." Which was like saying, "Build a communicator out of bearskins and stone knives."
         "Uh huh." Responded Millie, already turning to her station and pulling out her scanner. The business of gathering as much information as they could was going to be a frustrating one.
         "Meryl! The lights! They're gone!"
         Snapping her head up, Meryl quickly scanned the horizon. No doubt about it. The light show was over for the evening. Meryl looked back down to notice that the readout on her scanner was blurring, realizing a moment before she went to bang her hand against its side, that it was her eyes causing the problem, not the screen. Feeling a little self-conscious, she looked up to see if Millie had seen her aborted movement and noticed the weary slump of Millie's shoulders. She wasn't the only one getting tired.
         "Let's knock off for now Millie." She said. "This can keep till morning. It's not like we are going anywhere. " Both girls gratefully slumped to the floor and started wadding up the uniform jackets they had been using as pillows.
         "You know Meryl, it's strange," Millie said, mind still on the lights, "But those lights didn't register at all, not biological, not mechanical, not even as light particles. Isn't that weird?"
         "Not for this sorry excuse for a planet."
         Millie humphed, leaning back on her pillow, mumbling as she played with her scanner.
         Meryl reached over to the food storage compartment and pulled out a couple of bars and some water containers. "Snacks are ready! Come and get it while it's still... er dehydrated!" She tossed Millie's bar into her lap who was, uncharacteristically ignoring her rumbling stomach. Now that Meryl wasn't intensely focused on a solving a problem she could hear her own stomach making the same noise. Starting to slide the compartment door closed, she noticed a cup of something she hadn't noticed before. Leaning over, she grabbed it and sat up reading the label.
         "Hey, Millie?"
         "Not a clue... oh well," looking up, she saw the expression on Meryl's face and asked, "Yes?"
         "Here, I think this is for you." And tossed the cup into Millie's lap.
         Millie picked it up and read the label and began to smile. "Banana pudding!? Where'd you get this! This is wonderful Meryl! Thank you so much!" she gushed until she saw Meryl shaking her head.
         "I have no idea where it came from. It wasn't in there when I got us dinner. I give up trying to figure any of this out. Go ahead, you might as well enjoy it, I am sure it won't have anything in it that will hurt you." She gestured for Millie to continue opening the cup. Millie hesitated and then ripped off the rest of the lid and began eating. It was good.
         She laid back on her improvised bed and mentally reviewed the day until she heard Millie saying softly, "Now I lay me down to sleep..." and a glow infused her. How often had she gone to sleep in their room at night to that little prayer?
         Meryl woke before the suns were up but kept her eyes shut. She soon felt the strength of the heat and the brightness of the light as they rose over the horizon, chasing away the fleeing remnants of night. She sighed. Another day in paradise.
         And though she tried to keep herself from calculating how many days of rations they had left, she worried over it like a hungry dog over an old bone. Unless food began to mysteriously appear, like the banana pudding, they would have to come up with an alternative soon. Which reminded her that her stomach had been hurting for a while and she decided she wouldn't be shocked if it turned out she was developing an ulcer. This was certainly the most stressful situation she and Millie had ever been in and they needed something to break in their favor soon.
         After breakfast, Meryl broached the topic that had been on her mind since the night before. "You know, I think we should go scout out that area where the lights were last night and check it out. We might as well earn our paycheck. Ha ha! (That sounded false even to her!) I noticed the lights were near the cliffs and maybe we can find something, anything that will help us survive. Who knows, it may be our new home."
          Millie nodded with a smile. "I think we are supposed to go."
         "Do you think it's a trap?" shot back Meryl with suspicion edging her question.
         "I had a dream last night that we were traveling in that direction. It was just a first step in our journey to fill our place in destiny."
         Meryl stared at her in unbelief before exploding. "Crap! I hate destiny, I don't trust dreams and I don't want to hear..."
         With a deep breath, Millie spoke over Meryl as if she hadn't heard her... "And these dreams have been the same every night for the last couple of weeks. I didn't know what they meant before, but I believe we are on this planet for a reason. We just don't know what it is yet!"
         "NNNOOOOO!" wailed Meryl with fingers digging into her cheeks. "Please don't tell me any more! You know I don't believe in that spooky stuff!"
         "Well, believe or not.." continued Millie, wagging a finger in Meryl's direction, "I do agree with you, we need to check out that spot and I have some estimated coordinates that I believe are pretty darned close, if not spot on, if you ask me."
         Meryl dropped her head to her drawn up knees, muttering.
         "Now, now Meryl, everything will turn out for the best."
         Meryl began raising her voice as if Millie hadn't spoken "...as my bleached, mummified remains slowly vanish under the hellish sands of this miserable, god-forsaken planet..."
         "Tsk, now you are being melodramatic! God never forsakes anyone. This is the beginning of a great adventure! Just you wait, you'll see I'm right!" Millie exclaimed, flinging out her arms as Meryl continued in an expressionless voice, "...with a freaking, reality-challenged, optimistic let's-look-on-the-bright-side, silver-lining obsessed mystic!" She began pounding on the floor beside her. "Can this get any worse?! Woe and misery love me so much they sent out invites for their friends to join them! I. Just. Can't. Take. Any. More!"
         "There, there, Meryl, don't let it get to you..."
         "And just what part of a gruesome death should NOT be upsetting to me?" yelled Meryl looking up. Tears began to slide down her cheeks, slowly at first, then in a flow as Meryl's shoulders began heaving with sobs.
         Then, to Millie's surprise, Meryl stuttered out, "I.... c.. can't d.. d.. do it! I failed! I failed you Millie. I just can't figure out how to get us off this hellhole! It's like something is fighting me every step of the way! I have tried everything I know how to do!" Even before the last word was out, anguish gripped her, and she breathed out, "I just can't lose another, I can't lose again!" A slow moan of despair began to gain momentum and soon it came to life as a scream ripping its way up her throat. From a place long denied came the power that shattered the self-protective barriers and hard-shell exterior, formed over the years.
         Millie started forward, the day she had been waiting for had arrived. Meryl couldn't keep the pain under control any longer. She kneeled down beside her and felt the howling force as it rippled through Meryl. It was equal to the long interval of having been spurned and denied even the semblance of existence. She began to tremble from the power of the wave as it rode through and over her, leaving her wondering for her sanity. Meryl was certain it was killing her. How could anyone live through this incredible pain while living in such frail human skin. How in the world had she survived living with this inside of her for all these years?
         Meryl was shocked at the depth and uncontrolled strength of what she was feeling. Why was this happening? Why couldn't she stop this, why couldn't she control it? That it would not let itself be held in check now frightened Meryl in a way she had never known. Words came out her mouth unbidden, a child's abyss of abandonment and terror had been breached and taken voice, refusing now to be denied a chance to speak out.
         "Why! Why did they leave me! I hate them both! How dare they leave me. I am so alone! I hate being alone!"
         Millie watched, tears trickling down her face in empathy. She knew Meryl was referring to the death of her parents, leaving her an orphan at the age of eight. She inched closer and put her long arms around Meryl, who was now crouched in a huddled ball, seeming the size of a child to Millie. For the moment she only held her waiting out the fury of dark rot that had not yet been pulled up into the day and exposed to the healing of the light.
         Trembling, Meryl continued, tears still streaming down her face, "And that foul piece of work! I hate him and the air he breathes! I hate him! I hate myself for trusting him. I hate myself, I hate... I hate you... I hate everyone! Everybody..." and here her voice lowered in a near whisper, "...but I especially hate me. I don't think I can live Millie, I can't live with this..." With that, another scream pierced the cabin air. Millie felt as if her heart were being cut in half so began crooning a lullaby with all the comfort, acceptance and love she was able to pour out into it, while rocking Meryl slowly, gently back and forth. "It can't have you now Meryl, you are not alone, I am here with you. " Holding her until Meryl's sobs quieted into sniffles, Millie reached over and pulled out the wipes and handed them to her friend. With one arm still around Meryl's shoulders while Meryl blew her red nose and wiped her puffy eyes, Millie continued humming. For some time they sat in silence as Meryl found the fragmented parts of herself shyly coming out of hiding to become reacquainted with the many torn selves. A quieter strength now resided within, not needing an outer image to prove the existence of a an illusion of strength. True strength and courage didn't need to bluster, didn't need a titanium exterior to keep aggressors out. She was able to accept the mixture of being that she was, human , and that, was only as good or bad as one made it out to be.
         Feeling better than she had felt in a long time, she looked down at the crumpled wipe in her hand saying, "I'm sorry I failed you Millie."
         "What are you talking about?" Asked Millie perplexed.
         "I failed you. I tried, honest I did, but I just can't figure out how to get us off of this hellhole. You won't meet that special man, fall in love, won't have children that I can spoil rotten." A lop-sided grin came to Meryl's lips as she continued "And then send them home to you."
         She would have gone on but was startled when Millie pulled her arm off and stood abruptly, studying Meryl a moment before saying, "Okay, now you're just being selfish!" Gone was the sympathy that had shone in her eyes earlier.
         "Huh?" exclaimed Meryl. Looking up, she noticed the expression change. In its place was a frown and the fierce glint flashing in Millie's blue eyes. Quicker than Meryl could blink, Millie reached down and grabbed a fistful of Meryl's dark hair and lifted.
         Dumbfounded astonishment was soon replaced by pain and outrage.
         "OW! What the hell are you doing! Ouch! The hair, the hair, ow, ow, let go of the hair Millie!" She grabbed Millie's hands to keep her from pulling any harder than she was.
         "Ow, ow, DAMMIT! Do you even hear me saying 'OW'?! Stop it! That hurts!"
         Being a good foot or so taller than Meryl gave Millie, without trying, the ability to tower over her friend. Millie loosened her grip without letting go and leaned down until her face was nose to nose with Meryl's.
         With clarity and distinction she stated, "Who said you get to take on all that responsibility, eh? I don't remember you asking MY permission. I have free will and I make my own choices. I am here with you because I made choices that landed me here, for good or bad, but mine to make."
         Continuing in a softer tone but with a little shake of Meryl's head. "I am not expecting you to rescue me. Okay? We are in this together. So I would appreciate it if you would lose that narcissistic, queen chick, rescuer attitude right now. Because really, what it boils down to is this is more about you than me! Look around! There is no one else here, and I know you too well. You are just scared because for once, things are way beyond your control and it is freaking you out. Nobody controls all things all the time... unless you're God, and I know for a fact, you aren't."
         Still holding onto Millie's hands, an open-mouthed Meryl stared in shock at Millie. Rarely, if ever, did Millie get angry with Meryl, and if she did, she rarely used so many words to say it. You could only push the tall girl around so far before slamming into the immovable object.
         Mouth still working, but no words were coming out, when Millie finally let go of Meryl's hair, and caught her friend as she staggered. Meryl's legs sagged and Millie helped her slide down into a seated position.
         "Uh..." Was all Meryl could say at first, feeling like a star cruiser had just knocked her off her feet. She pulled her up knees, wrapped her arms around them, and rested her forehead on them. She kept her head down for so long that Millie, now sitting across from her, wondered if she had said too much. She usually was not so verbally critical of Meryl and wondered if Meryl would be able to handle it.
         Finally, Meryl looked up. "Millie, you are right. I owe you an apology. I am truly sorry." shaking her head in amazement, "I don't know when or where I started thinking that your well-being was totally up to me but you have convinced me." Rubbing the top of her head. "Again, I am sorry..." and in a small voice, "Do you forgive me?" Meryl asked contritely.
         Millie leaped from her place and flung her arms around Meryl, knocking her sideways to the floor.
         A whoosh of air gushed out of her lungs. "Oh Meryl, I'm so happy for you and of course I forgive you!" she said from the tangle of arms and legs. "Hey, let's celebrate! I bet there are a couple more banana puddings in the food cubby." Millie pulled herself out of the pile first and reached into the cubby.
         Neither was surprised to find there were.
         After their pudding celebration and lighthearted banter a silence descended upon them. It was the silence full of the comfort of mutual affinity and rapport of truly good friends, a silence filled with the unspoken warmth of the heart, a look, a gesture, even a sigh, could and did communicate a depth and feeling between the two of them. History, time, angers, laughter, tears and joy had woven this communication of knowing and harmony.

Part 2 - Sand Trek

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