Though the sun had only just passed its zenith, the ringed planet Duna—a vast gaseous orb that kept Nova Campi both temperate and tethered in space—was already breaking on the horizon as they approached the knoll.
"Go ahead. You take the lead," Xander murmured, shifting the rifle to his left arm and gesturing toward the rise.
"Me?" Jacob replied, his eyes widening.
"Why not? It's not like you don't know how to stalk gruskers after all this time," the soldier replied, his pale irises flashing against the darkness of tan skin and black hair. "Besides, maybe you'll have better luck than I seem to be having."
Jacob had been on nearly a dozen hunts with Xander, but none had proven this tough. They'd been having trouble locating the elusive herds all day and, when they did manage to spot several, were unable to move in close enough for a shot.
The pair had been on the plain since morning, taking the cruiser on a leisurely pace over the hills. From time to time, they would stop and get out. Sometimes they would take a brief walk, and Xander would scan the landscape for any sign of the large green-and-gold-striped herbivores that roamed in herds across the planet, grazing with their massive, horned heads.
Jacob, meanwhile, would pause, look back, and—as he did now—follow the cruiser's tire tracks to where they disappeared in the distance, twin trails that would be gone by morning. It amazed him to think that nearly two years had passed since he'd first watched Xander's cruiser cut through the grass, barreling toward him over one of these very same ridges. He'd come so far since then. With a shiver, he imagined how different things might be now if Xander hadn't found him.
He'd been at his lowest: stricken with hunger and thirst, ready to flee back to Harmony, the only home he'd ever known, either to resubmit himself to the community of Blinders—a people engineered to be born without sight—and plunge back into the darkness, back into the world of Truesight, the set of principles and rules that guided them in their blindness, or remain unseen among them, hiding in their midst like some lonely ghost. He'd lived both ways already, first as a Blinder, born as one of them, then as a Seer when, at the age of thirteen, his sight had mysteriously appeared, showing him both beauty and pain, revealing the corruption in his midst before finally forcing him to escape when the terrible secret of his change was revealed.
He'd hated the thought of returning, but he hated more the idea of dying alone in the middle of nowhere, of ending up like the body of the lost Blinder he'd discovered on the plain, its bleached bones and tattered smock tangled in the grass with only its sounder—a metallic badge all Blinders wore, a device that both identified them and helped them navigate the blind world—providing any clue to its identity.
But he hadn't returned, and it was that cruiser—and more importantly Xander, the man driving it—that had marked his first contact with the outside world, the world of the Seers. It hadn't been the warm welcome Jacob had hoped for; the grumpy loner had dismissed him with a scant offering of food and little encouragement. Never would Jacob have guessed that day how important Xander would become in the weeks that followed, when first he gave him a place to stay, then helped him find his friend Delaney.
Delaney had fled Harmony too, depressed and disillusioned and blind, though when they'd finally found her in the port city of Melville, Jacob was stunned to discover her unseeing eyes replaced by a gold-rimmed pair of synthetic, jeweled orbs, a gift from Mixel, the corporation that had taken her in. The excitement she'd felt—both for seeing and for life with Mixel—quickly faded. Soon, even the vision itself faded as the synthetic eyes failed, returning her to darkness.
Mixel wouldn't let her go, refused to relinquish its claim on her in spite of her misery. It was with Xander's help that Jacob managed to rescue her from the corporation's grasp. The weeks afterward had proved difficult as they fended off Mixel only to have Delaney suddenly seek a return to Harmony in the hope that her father, the colony's high councilor, would take her back. The return was brutal and short: Afraid to have his own corruption revealed, Delaney's father had tried to kill her, would have killed her if Jacob hadn't stayed behind to save her.
They'd left Harmony together, this time for good, and settled into Xander's home far from Harmony, far from Melville and Mixel, settled into a life together, three battered souls finding solace in one another's company. Comfortable, familiar, safe.
"Hey!" Xander called.
Jacob blinked and looked away from the nearby cruiser. "Sorry," he said, turning back toward the hilltop. "You okay?" Xander asked, stooping as they neared the crest.
"Sure," Jacob said. "I was just thinking."
"Things," Jacob replied, shrugging.
They'd reached the top of the hill now. While Jacob stayed low and hidden, Xander rose, lifting the hanging goggles up to his eyes to probe the valley below with its magnified lenses.
"You weren't having another vision, were you?" Xander asked.
"No. I pretty much stopped having those, anyway."
"Yeah, until this week," Xander murmured.
It was true. Though the visions—strange moments of prescience where the future, or its possibilities at least, seemed to open before his eyes—had begun to fade over the last few months, Jacob suddenly found himself troubled by disturbing dreams these last few nights—images of eyes, dozens of them, watching him. Glowing eyes that moved in ever closer, burning in the dark. The vision had even come upon him last night as he stood on the deck listening to Delaney play the piano, a beautiful antique Xander had bought for her. The image had come from nowhere—so fast and intense that he'd cried out. Xander rushed out onto the deck, scanned the darkness, but the only eyes he'd uncovered were those of a stray cat lounging in a nearby tree. Still, Jacob couldn't shake the feeling that he was being watched, a feeling that had all of them on edge.