CHAPTER 73

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Phoenix and Ariel rounded the northwest bank of Ligeia Mare, and followed the map's directions on a northeasterly path, straight for Habitat One. For the past forty-eight hours, they stayed on schedule, sleeping for only the allotted three hours and twenty minutes each day. It was twenty-four hours to nightfall and approximately twenty hours and forty minutes to the habitat if they kept walking and didn't stop. They had enough time built into their schedule for one more allotment of sleep, and they could use it, but that would be cutting it a bit too close for Phoenix's taste. Though his feet and legs were screaming for a break, he knew they needed to keep pushing forward. He wanted to cross the finish line of this alien hike with plenty of time to spare.

He glanced over at Ariel—Dr. Fairhaven in his mind—but she told him on the space station Arcturus that he could keep their interactions informal and call her by her name, which he did without objection. Her flaxen hair was almost completely hidden by the thermal helmet that only revealed her face, highlighted by high cheekbones, a porcelain chin, and sapphire eyes. Phoenix had to admit that she was easy on the eyes, his eyes in particular. On top of that she was a kind woman with a tender stare that could unwrap him at a single glance. He supposed it all came down to the fact that she was a medical doctor and the profession she chose seemed to be more of a deeper calling. It came out in the way she cared for him from day one of his recovery from the shark attack, and it even showed in the way she genuinely comforted him after losing his one and only love of his life—Nova—twice. Once on Earth and a second time on Arcturus.

But he needed to keep a clear mind and not read anything into the way she treated him since Nova's death. Ariel was a doctor, and a good one at that. She could make anyone feel comforted in a time of distress, not just him. The thought made him want to call her 'Doc' again, or 'Doctor', anything but Ariel. Her name rolling around in his mind made him feel vulnerable and he couldn't have that. He was a soldier, a pilot. A naval veteran. And he needed clear focus. Sharp and not clouded in any way. Besides, he supposed he was feeling the normal vulnerability of someone grieving with loss. After sinking to the bottom of despair a soul needed to heal, and sometimes that required them to move on, but Phoenix wasn't ready for that.

As they trod along, he said, "We'll be the first to reach Habitat One, but we'll come close to intersecting with one of the other pairs before we get there."

"Callisto and Luna, or Dr. Lawson and the other guy?"

"Think I heard her call him, Wolf. Kind of a weird name. Probably a nickname." Phoenix lifted his gaze from his feet as he walked and looked ahead at the brown, dirty horizon framing the orange sea. "It would only be a guess as to which group we'd run into, the beacons don't identify us, only our suits. What's more disturbing is the other pair has halted their progress for some reason. They could be sleeping or something could be wrong."

Solemnness overshadowed Phoenix. He wouldn't want anything to happen to anyone on this barren moon, but the odds of them surviving this trip to the far reaches of the solar system was actually low. One of them had all ready perished, immortal or not. The thought of losing Nova a second time after everything they'd been through, struck him like a punch to the gut.

"One of them could be hurt, causing the other to wait around until they can get moving again." Ariel placed a hand on Phoenix's arm. He didn't feel the soft touch through the thermal suit. Even though the sleeves and legs appeared thin compared to the thicker chest region of the suit, there was enough flexible and heated material to keep a person from feeling nothing more than a direct hit...a hard one. But he received the message from Ariel. When he looked at her, there was a softness in her eyes. Again, he got the genuine feeling that she really cared about him, even though it was likely in a doctor-patient type of way. He swallowed a hard lump in his throat. He wasn't sure which way to take her. Maybe she was just being a nice person. Or maybe...

No. Phoenix wagged his head. What's wrong with me?

He was turning soft. Besides that, in his mind his fiancée had just died a horrible death, even though the truth was that he'd awakened from cryogenic hibernation two and half years later. His brain was getting all turned around under the canopy of this frozen moon.

"We don't know who they are or what happened to them, if anything," he said, referring to the pair of dots on his wrist display.

"You may be right, but hopefully they're taking a break."

"So we keep moving and we don't stop until we get where we're going."

"Agreed."

Phoenix slowed his pace and allowed Ariel to move out a few steps ahead of him. The gesture had more to do with his mind being distracted by thoughts of Nova more than anything else. When he was in deep thought or concentration it tended to slow him down, whether he was walking, driving, or flying a fighter jet like the F-49 Comet.

As they continued on their path, the ground rose in elevation. Before long, the trail tilted at a steep thirty degree angle. Ahead, jagged mountains jutted into the yellowish sky. In the low lighting, it almost took on the look of an eerie alien landscape, which it was, but Phoenix knew it was nothing more than an obstacle that would slow their pace and push them incredibly closer to nightfall and the harshness of a bitterly cold and dark winter's night on a moon called, Titan.

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