"It's the End of Days!" Doctor Smith's voice echoed throughout the open space of the Jupiter's main deck as his frantic footfalls clattered up the ramp and he practically tumbled inside. "We're all doomed! Doomed, I tell you!"
John, Maureen, and Will looked up in alarm as Smith charged across the deck, making for the elevator. Penny came in right on his heels.
"What's going on?" John demanded. Smith just ignored him and proceeded down to the lower deck. Showing concern, Will made for the ladder and went to follow Smith.
"Doctor Smith!" Penny called after him, chidingly, coming to a halt next to her father.
"Penny, what's happened?" Maureen pressed, somewhat more gently.
"There was a thing in a cave," Penny babbled out, between breaths, "and it turned and then there was a noise and this big light shot into the air!"
"What?" Maureen asked, grabbing hold of her daughter's shoulder's and pulling her close.
For his part, John quickly turned to the ship's entrance and rushed over to look outside. In the middle of the rapidly lightening sky, he saw the column of red light. "What in the world?" he exclaimed as Maureen and Penny joined him. "It looks like some kind of a signal."
"John, look!" Maureen exclaimed pointing toward the sky. A tiny figure was speeding toward the column. A moment later and another came into view. Then another, and another.
John ducked back inside to grab a pair of binoculars, pressing them to his eyes as he came back out, searching the sky for the tiny flying objects.
"It's some of those robot beasts," he said, grimly, "dozens of them!"
"I saw a bunch more while we were on our way back," Penny explained, "it's like they're being called."
"If that's true, it might be calling to Don, as well," said Maureen, resting a hand on John's arm.
John gave a grim nod. "Something tells me that everything's coming to a head," he said, "we're still no closer to a solution to those nanites. But I think we're out of time. Penny, can you show us where that light is coming from?"
She gave a nod.
"I'll get the laser rifles," Maureen said, already in motion back into the ship. She passed Will on his way out.
"Doctor Smith is pretty scared," he said, "I don't think he's coming out any time soon."
"Fine, he can stay there for now," John snapped out, "we don't have time to deal with him. Will, help me get the Chariot ready."
"Yes, sir," Will agreed, trailing off after his father.
Tears running down her face, Penny latched on to Maureen as soon as she came back out of the ship with two laser pistols slung over her shoulder.
"It's all my fault, mom!" she sobbed. "I should have stopped Doctor Smith from touching it!"
"I'm sure it's not your fault, sweetie," Maureen soothed, "but you can tell us all about it on the way. Come on."
With that, the family piled into the Chariot. John took the wheel, motioning for Penny to sit next to him in the front passenger seat to show him the way to go. And then, the Chariot trundled off in the direction Penny and Doctor Smith had just fled.
Judy had figured that the column of light was where Don had been heading. It made it easy to decide on a direction to go. But when she got closer, she saw several more of the cyborg beasts, each in a state of severe disrepair, some nearly rattling apart as they flew, approaching the area as well. Eventually, she had been forced to put down in the woods again and continue on foot, lugging the heavy jetpack along with her.
When she came within sight of the base of the light column, she stopped cold, seeing several of the beasts silhouetted against the red glare. She released herself from the jetpack and kept her head low, peering through the branches of some bushes and watched as they took up positions like guards on watch. She knew, she just knew that Don was inside the cave. But there was no way she would ever make it past those sentinels.
So it was a relief when she heard the distinct sound of the Chariot treads coming through the forest behind her. As quietly as she could, Judy left her hiding spot and made for the familiar sound. As soon as he spotted her, John brought the Chariot to a halt and the other Robinsons all piled out again.
"Dad!" Judy exclaimed, giving him a hug.
"Are you all right?" John asked.
"I'm fine," Judy sobbed, giving Maureen a nod as well as she gathered in as well, "and I found Don. I think I was getting through to him, but then that light started up and he ran off toward it. I think he's inside that cave with more of those awful things."
"Look at them all!" Will exclaimed, peering through the trees. "Where'd they all come from?"
"I think they came from everywhere, son," John stated.
"Answering a summons," Maureen agreed.
John gave a thoughtful nod, setting his teeth, looking grimly at the spectacle before them. "Then that means whoever is pulling the strings must be inside," he said, "this might be our chance to try to communicate with them and try to get them to stop whatever they're doing to Don." He turned back to his family. "You all stay here. I'm going to try to talk to them."
"I'm going with you, dad, and you can't stop me," Judy stated.
"If Judy's going, I'm going!" Will exclaimed.
"Me too!" Penny agreed.
Maureen looked at John somewhat apprehensively. "It looks like we're doing this together as a family, for Don," she said.
"I don't like it," John stated, "but we don't have time to argue. All right, as a family then, but keep behind me, all of you." There were nods all around and John took point, resolutely making his way toward the clearing before the mouth of the cave.
As soon as they came within range, all of the sentinels came to attention, readying various weapons and pointing them in the direction of the approaching family. In unison, they all barked out a word. It wasn't in English, but its meaning was clear. John brought everyone to a halt, swinging his laser rile back over his shoulder and holding up both of his hands, empty.
"We mean no harm and we come in peace," he called out, "we only want our friend. May we speak to your leader?"
"You do not belong here, Professor John Robinson," a stilted voice called out from behind the line of sentinels, sounding as if he was struggling with the words, framing them for the first time. "You should depart this world. You are trespassing here."
The sentinels parted, revealing a small lizard-skinned being with cat-like legs and a hunched over back. Its face had a row of several eyes flanking two main ones. Though it was much smaller than the cyborg beasts, it was clear that the beasts had been made as some sort of grotesque mockery of this being's form.
"I'm sorry,"John replied, "we didn't think there was anyone on this planet and we don't intend to stay. We're only stopping here to replenish our supplies and our fuel. We'll gladly leave as soon as we are able, but we want our friend back."
The being's head tilted to the side as if considering the words and trying to find their meaning. "Your friend," he said, "the one called Major Don West."
"That's right," John affirmed, trying to keep his voice even, but fighting with his temper, "you've been messing with his mind, transforming him into one of those monsters. And we want to you undo it and return him to us."
"Monster?" the being asked, sounding puzzled for a moment. The realization seemed to come upon him and made an angry rattling sound in the back of his throat. "No monsters! Guardians! My peoples' guardians! Noble! Not monsters!"
"It was a poor choice of words," John admitted, "nevertheless, Major West never agreed to be turned into one of them."
"Agreement is not required," the being stated, "guardians are required."
"Required for what?"
"Protect," the being said. And there was a murmur across all of the sentinels, echoing the word, but in another language John had never heard before, "protect my people. They slumber, hidden, until the planet is healed."
"Healed?" Maureen asked. "From what? Your world is one of the most beautiful we've ever seen."
"Calamity, thousands of years gone," the being replied, "pulsar. Third radiation."
"Third?" Judy asked.
"I bet he means gamma radiation," said Will, "you know, like alpha, beta, gamma. Third."
"Yes," the being said with a nod, "gamma radiation. Third radiation. Wiped out almost all life on the surface. My people sleep. We wait for the planet to heal again. To support again."
"John, if a beam from a pulsar hit this planet, the devastation would have been terrible," Maureen stated, "millions must have been killed."
"Billions!" the being corrected. "Only few are left. Retreated under the ground, to sleep, to wait. Ten thousand years we waited. Guardians keep watch over the planet, deal with intruders. Protect."
Once again a murmur rippled through the sentinels in response to the word.
"But why Don?" Judy demanded. "Why turn him into one of your guardians?"
"Damage worse than we thought," the being replied, "our own warriors, spent, gone, dust. Only... civ... civilians left. Had to find others. Warriors from visiting races. We made them our guardians. See."
The being stepped aside, allowing space for another figure to come through the line of sentinels. Towering over the being, a uniquely pristine cyborg came forward, pressing all of its eyes toward the family. In comparison to the collection of rusting and degrading beasts, it looked like it had not weathered one single day.
"Your Major Don West," said the being, "uniquely suited to the change. From among your planet's warrior class. Already programmed to protect."
"If you mean our military, then yes," John agreed, "but he wasn't programmed. He chose to protect. He chose to be a warrior, to serve his people in that way. Now you have forced him to serve yours, messed with his mind. To our people, there is very little more abhorrent than that."
"Abhorrent," the being mused, tilting his head to the side and looking puzzled, "this... word...?"
John couldn't help but let the corner of his mouth turn upward a little. "I suppose it isn't a word Major West would use that much," he said, "and I assume you learned our language from his mind."
"Yes," the being replied.
"Well, suffice it to say," John said, his expression sobering again, "there's very little that disgusts us more than slavery and mind control. I'm sorry for everything you and your people have been through. But what you've done to Major West is wrong and we won't leave without our friend."
"Then you will not leave," said the being. He uttered a word in what was apparently his own language, then. He pointed toward the Robinsons as the word was repeated by the sentinels. And then, in clear English, the gleaming cyborg that had once been their friend uttered one word in chorus with them.
The being faded back behind the line as the sentinels all came forward, closing in around the Robinson family. Don was in the lead, though it seemed there was very little of him left. He kept repeating that single word over and over and the others continued their chant as well. "Protect. Protect. Protect."
"Don, no!" Judy exclaimed, pushing forward, out in front of her father. "This isn't you! I know you're still in there and you'd never hurt us! Never!"
"Judy get back!" John ordered, grasping for his daughter's arm, but she shook it off.
"Please! Please come back to us!" Judy pleaded. "Come back to me!"
Don stopped only a few feet from Judy, looking down at her, his eyes all pressing forward, studying her face. The rest of the Robinsons all huddled together, grasping on to each other as they looked on, the other sentinels pressing in around them.
"Protect," Don murmured again. "Protect. Protect... the Robinsons."
And then all hell broke loose.
As if a switch had been flipped, the cyborg that had been Don West spun to one side, swinging out with his bladed right arm, catching the nearest sentinel square in the chest and cutting deep. The thing gave a yelp of surprise and then gurgled and collapsed in a heap to the ground. Don was already moving on, striking out at the other sentinels, placing himself between the Robinsons and the cyborgs, pushing Judy toward her father with one arm before continuing the battle that had erupted.
Being the latest model, so to speak, Don clearly had the advantage of speed and strength. He was able to tear into several of the sentinels, grasping an arm and ripping it off here, slashing his metal claws into degraded weak points there, and just generally being a whirlwind of carnage. "Protect the Robinsons!" he shouted.
But the old, decaying sentinels had the advantage of numbers. Cringing back in fear, the being gestured and another line of them came forward, converging on Don from all sides, surrounding him in a death pocket. Don let out a ferocious roar of fury and lunged for one of them, but another fired an energy weapon, catching Don in the center of his back, sending him down to one knee with a howl of pain. Other sentinels began to pile in on top of him, grasping on wherever they could find purchase, clawing, and pulling, trying to rip him apart.
"Not on my watch!" Maureen exclaimed, swinging her laser rifle off her shoulder and taking aim. She began firing off shots into the melee, trying to push the sentinels back. A moment later and John joined in as well. The two of them felled beast after beast, but others simply kept coming forward to take their places.
Finally, the being let out a desperate cry, a single word. All the actions of the sentinels ceased. There was silence in the area for a long moment as the being came forward. John held up his hand to keep the rest of the family from moving and pushed Maureen's rifle down to point at the ground.
"He chooses to protect the Robinsons," the being mused, looking up at Don where he was being held down by the other sentinels. Don gave a growl and thrashed, trying to break free, but it was no use. "How? How does he choose? His mind should be conquered."
"I protect the Robinsons," Don angrily ground out, every single one of his cyborg eyes glaring at the being.
There was a long, tense moment as the being came in closer to Don, his head tilting this way and that as he chattered in the back of his throat.
"You resist," the being said, "the programming. So like your own. Not different enough to change you entirely. Free, natural thought remains."
"That's right," John agreed, "you'll find us Humans to be a stubborn bunch that way. And Major West is more stubborn than most."
A couple of Don's auxiliary eyes flicked back toward the Professor and almost seemed as though they were rolling at him.
"Don't look at me that way, it's true," John shot toward his friend before settling his gaze back on the being. "You won't be able to re-program him. Not completely. He will always resist you."
The being cast his glance back and forth between Don and the Professor, still making that chattering noise as he seemed to ponder.
"Then, useless to us," he finally concluded. He raised a hand and slowly the other sentinels released Don. The Robinsons watched Don get back to his feet again, taking a defensive stance, his eyes darting from retreating sentinel to retreating sentinel. "We have failed," the being went on, "first guardian in 100 years. All others, wearing out. Soon, we will be defenseless." He cast his gaze aside and downward, looking defeated and filled with sorrow.
"Well, then maybe it's time," Will ventured, "the planet seems to be healed enough to live on again. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to survive."
"That's right!" Penny exclaimed in agreement. "Maybe it's time for your people to wake up!"
"My children are right," John affirmed, "we've been on this planet for ten days, now and we haven't detected a trace of gamma radiation. The vegetation has recovered and the whole planet is pristine again. Your people could make a go of it."
The being looked off into the distance, into the forest as the trees were rapidly becoming crowned with golden sunlight. He seemed to be pondering it, as if having missed the sight of the sky for a long time.
"Whatever you decide to do, you have my word we will leave you to it in peace," John pressed, "as long as your return Major West to his family."
"Family," the being mused, "I too have family. Would protect them with everything."
"Our people are the same way," Maureen prodded, "we'd do anything to protect the ones we care about. And Don is very important to us."
When the being did not respond for a long moment, Judy hesitantly stepped forward toward him. Don shifted, as if to hold her back, but she set a calming hand on his metal arm and gave him a reassuring look before continuing on toward the being.
"What is your name?" she asked.
"Name?" the being asked, looking up at her in askance.
"What are you called?" Judy persisted. "My name is Judy."
"Judy Robinson," the being stated.
"That's right," she replied, "I'm sure you've learned all about us from Don's memories. That's Penny and Will, and our parents, John and Maureen. What are you called?"
The being tilted his head to the side, studying her face for a long moment, as if considering a response.
"Jixtan," he finally said, "I am Jixtan."
"Jixtan it is, then," she said, gently, taking hold of one of his three-fingered hands, giving it a slow and gentle shake, "this is how our people greet each other in peace. Please, can you reverse what's been done to Don?"
After a long moment, Jixtan's other hand came down on top of Judy's gently and he held it there for a moment. Finally, he gave what seemed to be a sigh and released her hand, turning back to John.
"No matter your thoughts," he said, "we are not cruel, Professor John Robinson. Your friend... your family member, may return to you."
"And the transformation," John pressed, "can he be turned back?"
"Never done before," Jixtan replied, "do not know."
"I got a look at your nanites' programming," Will put in, his voice brimming with hope, "not enough to really understand it all. It's pretty impressive stuff, but... well, it looked like the nanites keep a record of the changes they make. Don't they have an 'undo button' or something?"
"Undo button?" Jixtan asked.
"Yeah," Penny agreed, "just like putting everything back the way they found it."
Jixtan chattered in the back of his throat again. "Perhaps," he allowed, "but dangerous. Maybe fatal. Body might shut down."
"Try," Don stated, finally speaking up once again, "I want to try."
"There are many risks," Jixtan said to him, "you understand? And you still wish to make the attempt?"
Don gave a nod. The Robinsons all held their breath, waiting for Jixtan's decision.
"Then we will try," the being said, "we will use the... undo button."
Don gave a moan under his breath, his shoulders dropping with the ridiculousness of the statement.
"Back away, Robinsons," Jixtan ordered. Then he looked back up at Don again. "Will be painful. Prepared?"
Don steeled himself and gave a determined nod.
"Then, so be it," said Jixtan. He gave another imperious wave of his hand.
At that signal, all round Don's cyborg body, tiny motes of light coalesced into a glowing mist all around him. He held his head, thrashing against an unseen pain that was coming over him and dropping to his knees. As the light around him strengthened, he began to fight back whimpers and cries until finally they would no longer be held back. He let loose a primal, alien scream as his body arched backward and seized. Like a dust shaking from him, the glowing fog began to pull away from him, revealing a human form beneath. Don's cry of agony slowly changed back into the more recognizable voice of their friend, still crying out in pain, but now using his own voice. Finally, the last of the fog lifted like dust in wind, swirling off to mix with the air and fade away.
Don, now back to a much more recognizable and Human form, allowed his voice to fade away as his eyes - only the two - rolled back into his head and he began to shiver violently. Naked and limp but for his trembling, he collapsed to the ground in a heap.
"It is done," said Jixtan.
The Robinsons were already in motion, descending on their friend and surrounding him in concern.
"Will, Penny!" John barked out. "Get the medical kit from the Chariot, quickly." The two children darted off back toward the vehicle without another word. John looked to Maureen as she took stock of Don's condition, checking his pulse, looking him over quickly.
"He's cold and his heart rate and respiration are both way too high," she said, "I think he's in shock, John. We need to get him back to the Jupiter, quickly." Will and Penny returned with the medical kit just then, setting it down next to their mother. She opened the box quickly and pulled out an emergency thermal blanket to wrap around Don's trembling form. Then she reached for the oxygen mask and began to slip it on to Don's head, over his nose and mouth.
John backed off and left Maureen to her ministrations, turning back to Jixtan. "Thank you," he said, finally, "thank you for understanding and giving him back to us."
"Go now, Professor John Robinson," Jixtan said, "see to your family. We will speak again." With finality, the being turned away and returned to the mouth of the cave. Slowly, the remaining sentinels all followed.
John turned back to Maureen, looking askance. "Well?" he asked.
"We can move him," she affirmed with a nod.
"Then let's get him back to the Chariot," said John, shifting position in order to get a firm hold on his unconscious friend, "let's take him home." With some effort, John lifted Don up under his knees and his back, still shivering violently and wrapped in the crinkling thermal blanket.
With the rest of the family hovering around him, John carried Don back to the Chariot so they could all go home.
It was nearly two days before Don was awake again for any meaningful amount of time. He had a few flashes of memory here and there, but none of it seemed to make much sense when strung together. He remembered seeing flashes of relief on the faces of the Robinsons, but keeping hold of those seemed to be the most difficult task in the world. There was a bone-deep, almost soul-crushing exhaustion pressing down on him. Over all, it was just easier to give into the pull of unconsciousness. So it was reassuring that the others seemed to be all right with that. He didn't remember much about what any of them had said but for an over-arching encouragement to simply rest.
But, eventually, there was a time when he drifted back into the waking world without quite so much of the weight of fatigue on him that there had been. Don finally had enough energy to take stock of himself.
The feeling of a gentle hand taking hold of his wrist and pressing fingers to it lightly was what woke him. Maureen was there when he opened his eyes, looking away from the watch on her wrist that she had been carefully watching when she realized he was awake. She gave a smile and let go of his wrist, resting a hand on his forehead.
"Welcome back," she said with a smile, "I think the fever has finally come down. How do you feel?"
"Like lead," Don managed to breathe out when he finally found enough moisture in his mouth to allow it to unstick his tongue from his palate. "I think someone ran me over with a steam-roller. What happened?"
"Well, I'm not completely certain, to be honest," Maureen replied, "but as near as I can tell, the reversal of the nanites' effects was just too much for your nervous system to handle. It was so abrupt, it sent you into a state of shock. I can't be sure, but it might have been easier on you to make the change back gradually, like the change had been in the first place."
With some effort, Don managed to shift enough to get an arm under his shoulder and push himself up into more of a sitting position. Maureen was immediately fretting over him, helping to get a couple of extra pillows behind him to lean against and adjusting the blankets that were covering him and the tubing from an IV in the back of his hand.
"Is everyone all right?" Don asked. "I didn't hurt anyone, did I?"
"No," Maureen said with a small shake of her head and a gentle smile, "in fact, your stubborn determination may have brought an entire race back from the brink of extinction."
"Where's all this about me being stubborn coming from all of a sudden?" Don asked with a bit of a smirk.
There was a light rap on the doorframe just before the folding screen that separated Don's cabin from the rest of the deck slid back to reveal Judy standing on the other side. When she caught sight of Don sitting up on his bunk, her look of concern melted into one of relief.
"I heard voices in here," she explained, "thank goodness you're finally awake. For real, this time?"
"I think so, for now anyway," Don replied, "I'm still pretty tired."
"It'll probably take a few days to get your strength back," said Maureen, "so I don't want you to push yourself too hard. And I mean it."
"Yeah, no playing tough guy, this time," Judy agreed, pulling a chair over to Don's side and lighting in it and taking hold of his free hand.
"Yes, ma'am," Don replied, "think I'd face-plant on the deck if I tried to stand up right now, anyway."
"Would you like something to eat?" Maureen asked.
"I could eat an entire side of beef right off the grill," Don admitted.
"Something a little lighter to start with, I think," Maureen replied with a laugh, "I'll go see what I can do."
As she left his cabin, Don nodded this thanks, then turned his full attention to Judy, placing his other hand over hers.
"I'm so glad you're all right," she said to him, "I was so afraid I'd lost you, completely."
"I think I was lost for a bit there," Don replied, his tone sobering a little, "for a minute, nothing mattered but the orders. Protect. It was all there was. And then, at the very last second, I saw you. And I suddenly remembered what I was supposed to be protecting." He saw her face color a little and grasped on to her hand, holding it close to his heart. "You brought me back."
She looked at him, swallowing back a small sob and her smile widening. "Every single time," she whispered, tiny sparkles of moisture forming in the corners of her eyes.
For a moment, the two of them simply look at each other. Then, Judy leaned in and softly, they came together in a gentle kiss.
It was about a week later than John and Maureen permitted Don to return to some light work. In truth, he was grateful for their mother henning even though he was going stir-crazy. Being up on his feet still wiped him out and he was still unnervingly weak. But at least he could get around by himself and get into the daylight to help with small things.
By then, the Jupiter Two had neighbors. About a mile away on the grasslands, a small camp had sprung up where a few of the planet's newly-awakened population had emerged and settled. It turned out that ten thousand years of stasis hadn't done any favors for the equipment and supplies they had set aside.
Jixtan visited them frequently, sometimes bringing others along. It seemed that his people who just as curious about their visitors as the Robinsons were of them. And in that way, the crew of the Jupiter Two learned more about their hosts and their millennia of hibernation. Jixtan was the fifty-second in a rotation of scientists who had volunteered to be awoken at intervals to monitor the gamma radiation levels on the planet and see to the population's well-being and security. But it had turned out that the effects of the radiation were more severe and lasted longer than they had prepared for. As a result, the stasis preserving most of their food and equipment had needed to be cannibalized in order to keep the stasis pods of his people running. It had been their only option at the time. But it meant that now, Jixtan and his people were emerging from their underground shelters as timeless castaways with almost nothing to use to support themselves.
In the interests of goodwill, John had offered what help they could give. Jixtan had been confused by it at first, unable to understand how people from another world would have compassion for those who had so horribly mistreated one of their own. He had at first stubbornly refused any offer of supplies, insisting that they had taken enough from them already. It wasn't until Don had been up and about and spoken to Jixtan personally, telling him that he understood what had happened and didn't hold any ill will, that the being had relented.
"You were protecting your people," Don told him, "I can understand that better than most. Visitor to your planet or not."
Jixtan tilted his head at Don in puzzlement for a long moment, then, the chattering noise in the back of his throat again. "You are a wise man as well as a strong warrior, Major Don West," he said, "I am grateful that you are my people's last guardian. It is... a reminder that... compassion may be found among strangers. My people will not forget again." He gave a solemn bow on his head, holding up his hand with two fingers out in a sort of a c-shape. "I promise this."
Somewhat awkwardly, Don tried to emulate the motion, then thought better of it and extended his hand instead. Jixtan had taken it equally as awkwardly, but somehow, the exchange had conveyed everything else there had been to say.
After that, the Robinsons had all taken turns visiting the other camp to offer their expertise in helping Jixtan's people find food, shelter, and equipment that could be salvaged or cobbled together for use. The process of awakening his people was going to be slow, in small groups, in order to ensure that everyone could be taken care of. Among the first group to be awoken were the rest of Jixtan's family; his mate, their five children, and another male that he called his clutch-mate, though they never quite got what that meant. Will and Penny had somehow hit it off with Jixtan's children, despite the steep language barrier, and seemed to spend as much time in play with them as helping them with their tasks. Penny had been a little grossed out by the fact that they ate insects as well as plants, but her dismay had lessened when she had learned that they had no interest in hunting and eating any of the animals that could be found.
Doctor Smith, of course, wanted nothing to do with any of it. He kept insisting that the "savage, cruel lizard-men" would turn on them at any moment and devour them whole. The fact that they were smaller than Humans and didn't eat meat didn't seem to play any part in this determination. He spent most of his time shut up in his cabin, avoiding the beings altogether.
As Don sat at the camp table outside the Jupiter one evening, tinkering with a part from the Chariot that John had relented and allowed him to work on, he pondered the little settlement not far away. The sun was getting low in the sky and the tiny community was wrapping up their work for the day. He must have zoned out staring across the grasslands at them, because John somehow managed to come up right behind him without his noticing.
"You've been working on that for hours," he said, indicating the device in Don's hands, "you should take a break."
"Nah, I'm fine," Don said, reaching for a screwdriver.
John's hand got there first and snatched it up. "Take a break," he said, "that's an order. Maureen will have my head if I wear you out. Besides, I'm pooped and it gives me an excuse."
"Take a break, you're tired?"
"Yup," John said with a laugh, taking a seat at the table next to Don. "Turns out Jixtan's mate is a botanist," he went on conversationally, "she's been showing Judy a bunch of new vegetables we can grow in our own hydroponic garden."
"That mean we can finally give the purple celery a break?"
"What's wrong with the purple celery?"
"One, it's celery, two, it's purple."
John gave a laugh. "You must have been a terror to your mother at dinner time," he said, "what'd you do with eggplant?"
"Snuck it to the dog," Don replied with a shrug. As John gave another laugh, Don gave a contented sigh, once again casting his gaze across the grasses to the other camp. "You know, John, in spite of everything, I'm glad we got to meet these people."
"Worth what you went through?" John asked.
"Yeah," Don said, "yeah, I think it was. These people are finally getting their chance at a new life. A whole species. I guess that's worth a little... mutation by microscopic robots with a hive-mind AI."
"I imagine they never covered that in boot camp," said John, "but I'm glad to hear you say that. It is nice to know that there are other beings out there that might look different from us, but are still enough like us to find common ground."
"Reminded me of some other stuff, too," Don said, "stuff I maybe might have started taking for granted."
"Yeah," John agreed, "the rest of us, too."
"Thanks for... coming after me... for not giving up when I was so out of it."
"Well, it's like I said before," John replied, clapping a hand on Don's shoulder, "you're family. It doesn't matter what your last name is, you're still a Robinson. And Robinsons stick together, no matter what."
"You know, I don't think it's ever come up," Don said, keeping his eyes on the horizon, "but, I, uh... I never really knew my dad. He walked out on my mom and me when I was little. I never really thought that I was missing anything, you know?"
"Well, his mistake," said John, his own eyes following Don's line of sight, "but it's my gain."
Don felt a large lump in his throat and the corners of his vision were getting a little blurry. Nothing more seemed to need to be said, judging by the long silence between them. Finally, Don gave a sniff and cleared his throat.
"Well, anyway," he said, standing up from the table and turning toward the entrance to the Jupiter, "I should probably..." He felt the blood drain from his face as the corners of his vision grayed out a little. The world tilted around him and he might have toppled over if not for the strong hands on his biceps.
"Whoa, easy there!" John exclaimed. "I told you, you shouldn't overdo it. Time for you to call it quits for the day. C'mon."
Don's reflex was to try and break free of John's grasp and insist that he was fine. But to be perfectly honest, the ground under his feet was still bucking around quite a bit. Besides, it was kind of nice being able to lean on John a little.
After all, neither of them had anything to prove.