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Before it gets dark

Authors: Terry Shewmaker
Episodes: Set after The Dorcons
Show Year: Y3
Rating: PG
Date: 2012

Story 3 in the "Alpha's Universe Trilogy" series +
3 - Before it gets dark
As the runaway Moon approaches the triple-star system's outer reaches, a Survey Eagle team seeks out needed natural resources - and the answer to a riddle - on a chilly, fog-shrouded planet. Beyond, a return to the darkness awaits.
Newly revised and updated, from the original 1982 edition.
Average Rating: No reviews.

Here, sown by the Creator's hand,
In serried ranks the Redwoods stand:
No other clime is honored so,
No other lands their glory know.

The greatest of Earth's living forms,
Tall conquerors that laugh at storms;
Their challenge still unanswered rings,
Through fifty centuries of kings.

The nations that with them were young,
Rich empires, with their forts far-flung,
Lie buried now - their splendor gone:
But these proud monarchs still live on.

So shall they live, when ends our days,
When our crude citadels decay;
For brief the years allotted man,
But infinite perennials' span.

This is their temple, vaulted high,
And here, we pause with reverent eye,
With silent tongue and awestruck soul;
For here we sense life's proper goal.

To be like these, straight, true and fine,
To make our world like theirs, a shrine;
Sink down, Oh, traveler, on your knees,
God stands before you in these trees.

The Redwoods

Joseph B Strauss


For Lost Grove, Sequoia National Park

Ever Timeless

And Tony Anholt

Far Too Soon...

John Koenig (Moonbase Commander; black/charcoal left sleeve)
Dr Helena Russell (Medical Section leader; white)
Maya (LSRO/Science Officer; flame)
Alan Carter (Reconnaissance Section leader; orange)
Tony Verdeschi (Security Section leader/Operations Team leader; flame)
Sandra Benes (LSRO/Data Coordinator/Operations Team; yellow)
and Alix (LSRO/Research; matte silver)

Professor Victor Bergman (LSRO leader/Scientific Advisor; khaki/no color)
Bill Fraser (Reconnaissance Section; flame)*
Annette Fraser (Data Section/Operations Team; yellow)
David Kano (LSRO/Technical Section leader/Operations Team leader; rust)
Tanya Alexander (Operations Team; flame)
Dr Bob Mathias (flashback only) (Medical Section; white)
and Peter King (LSRO/Technical; rust)

* - wears this (Command Center-rated), rather than the orange of Reconnaissance

THIS EPISODE: Before It Gets Dark

The world's big, and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.
John Muir (1868-1914)
I met a traveler from an ancient land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Chapter One

"There," said Maya. "I have the location pinpointed to within about a mile."

"No closer?"

"I get interference if I try any closer," said she.

"So, what do we have? We have the planet, Chehalis," indicating its image, taken from Moonbase Alpha's long-range scanners, on the Research Section conference room's view screen, "teeming with vegetation, a planet whose every square mile we can scan - except for that one place," whereupon, as Maya tripped the appropriate switch, a blinking telltale appeared, a minor decoration to the sun-dappled disc.

"Where our search-beams can't penetrate," she finished, leaning back in her chair. "They simply bounce off."

Tony Verdeschi thought this over.

"Force field?" he suggested.

"An artificial, rather than natural, source is indicated," said she.

John Koenig mulled this over, too.

Does anyone live there?...

"Force fields don't just happen - it's our experience that someone, or something, has to put them there," said he.

"To keep us out, and to keep in - what?" And when no immediate responses were forthcoming, the Security chief turned, incredulous, in his chair. "Well now, where's your sense of curiosity? Don't you want to find out?"

"There's also low-level radiation," Maya pointed out. "The air's breathable, but we'd still have to wear protective suits."

"And undergo an anti-radiation regimen, before we leave the Moon," Helena Russell added, making her first contribution to the discussion.

Across the circular conference table, Verdeschi sighed. His crystal-clear view of the situation was being muddied by such little details.

"I'd still like to know just what it is they don't want us to see," delivering his final judgment on the matter.

"Best to be careful what we wish for..."

Alan Carter's tone carried not a trace of his usual ironic sense of humor. Memories of their recent adventure on the island of Nephinefta were still too fresh; and especially with Koenig present, no one was about to venture any of the proverbial cautions on the consequences of the exercise of curiosity.

Next to him, a pensive Sandra Benes hadn't uttered a word.

So that passed the matter back to Koenig himself, to whom such decisions as these always came down in the end.

Jackets had been laid aside at the outset of the meeting, a tacit encouragement to his executive team to be at their ease, to think in depth and to speak freely.

Command conferences - like this one, prompted by Maya's discovery - had long been intrinsic to Moonbase life, at once indispensable for taking the temperature of Alpha.

He had learned, honed much of his own craft in hearing the reports and opinions from those other seats at the table even as the Moon fled onward, towards realms unknown.

The gold-zippered black left sleeve almost glowed against the stark white of the tabletop where it and its khaki-clad twin rested, contrasted with the duty-wardrobe vest he'd absently forgotten to remove.

Everything about him had gone quiet, gone still.

His gaze turned inward upon itself, as he thought it all over.

What would you want me to do?...

He lifted his commlock, from where it sat on the desk before him, and placed a call.

Bill Fraser's reply was immediate: "Flight Control - "

"All right, Bill, we're on. Set it up."

"Yes, sir," and the Reconnaissance pilot looked rather relieved. "Particulars?"

"You'll have them," from Carter.

"Right you are," and he was away.

Koenig was already placing another call.

"Research Section," said the new voice.

"Professor Bergman, please. Priority call."

"Yes, sir. Stand by - "


"Yes, John?" as Victor Bergman's image appeared on the view screen.

"We're going ahead with the mission; and I'd like you in charge here."

"Including the supply survey we discussed?"

"That, too. I'd still like to keep to a fairly small group, though."

The scientist listened, nodded. "Fraser's already spoken to me about it. Still, that force field will require on-the-spot research. What do you have in mind?"

"We'll need an expert in exotic energy phenomena. You know your team - choose someone, will you?"

"They'll meet you on the pad, I'll see to it," and he, too, was ringing off.

"Radiation, you said." Sandra spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "Could anything be of use to us, from such a place?"

"Let's find out," said Koenig. "You're at this table, you're on the team. Subject to Helena's requirements, of course?"

"Of course," said she. "Shall we begin?"

They spoke of a career, of ambitions envisioned and achievements realized.

As he lifted the anorak, silken threads gleamed, light catching the tiny bits of semiprecious stone and even precious metal, here and there.

Each patch a symbol, a small work of art, after a certain fashion; a chapter of his own story.

Most alluded to his advance through the ranks of the astronaut corps; indeed, most people tended to forget that Koenig had made his initial mark at Moonbase in the orange sleeve of the Reconnaissance Section. That the anorak issued as part of his duty wardrobe as base commander happened to be of a comparable color - albeit of a somewhat deeper hue - was a source of quiet amusement to him.

The eziimee blossoms caught his eye elsewhere.

Their placement and location had been a matter of careful consideration.

He stepped over, to have a closer look at them. Those shapely, sculpted blooms were thriving; already they'd needed a more commodious propagation unit to accommodate them.

He could still see her face, as he placed one of those blossoms into her hands; saw the bewilderment touching Yeteve's features as she looked up at him with those limpid eyes, the color of the sea in them.

Nephinefta, a tropical paradise of an island, surrounded on all sides by a shattered world; its radioactive environment - even with the force shield that ostensibly protected it - still lethal enough to kill any man who lingered there too long, as he very nearly had done.

But not before the two of them had fallen deeply in love. He still ached, from the loss of her.

Yet she was here, in these flowers she knew he had enjoyed; she'd sent them along with him, back to Alpha.

A man who loves flowers, must have them! -

No radio message could pass through that force shield, in either direction; he couldn't even tell her that he was safe now.

She it was, who'd told him about this new world the runaway Moon was approaching. And he'd made her a promise...

Perhaps, in your thoughts, I might travel with you?...

He could still hear her voice. He would keep that promise. There was a debt to be paid.

"Be in my thoughts, now," speaking quietly to those sculpted blossoms, "I'm going to Chehalis. Come with me..."

The anorak had been neatly laid out upon the comforter, its quilted satin a rare luxury allotted to a room and a life ruled by relative austerity.

The color-coded white sleeve patch, set off by the blue and red and gold of the Andromeda Research Project and the other, varied indicia of her officer's rank.

Its blue was the hue of her eyes.

A packed equipment satchel sat in readiness, not far away.

Helena sat at the desk in her quarters, still collecting her thoughts. Then she tripped the switch, and began her dictation.

Moonbase Alpha Status Report, 3307 days since leaving Earth orbit, Dr Helena Russell reporting: For the past several months, Alpha time, the Moon has been traveling amidst the wide-flung environs of a triple-star system - one golden, one sapphire-blue and a more distant white dwarf - and we have experienced several adventures.

We explored the beautiful, and untouchable, mountainous paradise we named Psyche Elysium - and the opulent, and stagnated, island civilization of Nephinefta, on the world called Quincux...

She paused, trapped anew in the memory of how close, how very close, he had come to death. Then she composed herself once more, and continued.

Now, one last adventure beckons to us: a small planet, lushly overgrown and shrouded, much of it, in fog and mist; also with a lingering tinge of radiation - and one puzzling location our instruments fail to read, an area smaller than Moonbase itself.

Since this will be our last sizable landfall before we leave this solar system - and, as always, we have no idea where the Moon will next take us - Commander Koenig has felt obligated to launch an investigation, and a small exploration team has been assembled. Although the radiation precludes consideration of this world as a possible new home for us, natural resources useful to Alpha may yet be found.

And, above all other points of consideration, there remains the mystery of who or what has erected a force field here, and why...

Within the antechamber leading from the travel tube access to the boarding apparatus leading out to the Survey Eagle's launch pad, the landing-party group found their last member awaiting their arrival.

The wine-red anorak with its matte-silver sleeve patch was far more modest in its appointments, only one or two indicia denoting its wearer as a rank-and-file member of Alpha's diverse Research Section.

Already somewhat nervous, as she rose from where she had been sitting, she studied each of their faces reacting to her presence there.

No, they hadn't been told, it seemed.

"He sent me," said Alix, shifting the position of the equipment satchel draped over one shoulder.

She hadn't set eyes upon Koenig since that frenetic dash through the night aboard the Rescue Eagle, rushing him back to the safety of Alpha from the toxic realm of Quincux. She had tried, and failed, to keep him from going in the first place.

But he appeared well and strong now, as he passed her en route to the airlock, with Helena following close behind...

Maya brightened as she passed; likewise, Sandra's gaze was one of ready acceptance.

Verdeschi, indicating the way into the airlock for her, actually seemed pleased. What was that all about?

Inside the laboratory module everyone took their seats, Carter checking each of them over before heading forward to his place alongside Koenig in the command module.

Alix he came to last. She reacted; was that the briefest wink?

Chapter Two

Once the Survey Eagle was off the flight deck, and its course set to carry its crew away from the Moon, the green all-clear lamps flashed in the laboratory module.

It spoke much of the strength and flexibility of the Moonbase fleet, that every Eagle was meticulously customized for the mission it was to perform. No two pod configurations were precisely alike; shelves, racks, cupboards, lockers - every square foot of available space in the module - had to be, and were, utilized down to the seemingly-least detail.

Verdeschi arose from his seat. Around him, was the carefully-assembled technical menagerie for their voyage: stacked supply hampers, packed with all manner of exploration gear and testing equipment; other cases in a variety of shapes and sizes, dictated by their contents; provisions for the crew; smaller items stowed here and there wherever space permitted; and - because mission rules so required - the requisite weapons rack, stocked with the standard allotment of hand lasers.

He hoped they wouldn't need them.

Maya was also up, en route to the command module, her gaze sweeping briefly across the wall-mounted banks of computer and tracking apparatus that dwarfed virtually all else in the module.

She lingered briefly by him, "I've never quite thought of Alicky as an 'exotic energy phenomena'!" whispering in his ear.

After she'd disappeared into the annex connecting the two modules - where Helena was engaged in organizing her medical supplies and their anti-contamination suits - the Security chief settled himself into the empty rumble next to Alix.

He quietly took note of her strained, unblinking gaze set straight ahead, and still as a statue.

What she was actually seeing, he could only wonder.

A good friend, and a good man...

Both of them up there, in that cockpit, just now; which man, if either, was in her thoughts?

"Now why is it that people forget I studied cosmology?" he absently observed.

"Excuse me? - "

Good manners, once learned, are never truly forgotten; they turned her, quite instinctively, in his direction.

"The white dwarf," said he. "We've been everywhere else, around here. But there's no going out there, is there?"

She slowly shook her head. "Too far away. Even the swiftest Eagle could never reach it."

"Then I'm glad to be along this time," grinning. "Get to see you in action..."

However tentatively, she couldn't help but smile back a little. He was charming, she had to admit, having seen more than a few heads turn his way, and admiring female glances scattered in his wake, in the dining complex.

He relaxed, looked off toward the command module, and his mood grew more serious.

"He's alive, because of you..."


"He nearly died, because of me..."

In the cockpit's right-side seat Carter looked up from his controls, glanced across the way, studied the face, the eyes, of his traveling companion.

He knew the look, the demeanor, knew what lay back of it.

Once, long ago, it had been his own.

In another lifetime, long before the Moon had ever blown away...

And only recently, there had been Alia. Laughing insouciance and limpid eyes, the Nephineftan princess who never wanted to go home; who had drawn close to him instead, sharing a lifetime in the fleeting space of mere moments.

And, as the Rescue Eagle's external cameras focused upon the stretcher party, waiting there in the darkness of that Nephtineftan meadow, he glimpsed, in the baleful glow of the landing lights, her mother.

Such a woman as she would've drawn, and held, the notice of any man...

The tender gestures and caressing gaze, focused solely upon the comatose man who lay upon the stretcher.

Something had happened down there, on that island, of this the Eagle pilot was certain; something that had nothing whatever to do with that mysterious sickness, from which they'd all feared he might never emerge.

He was safely past that, at least...

He was not over the woman.

Not yet...

An incongruous pair they were - the nearer sparkling sapphire and the most distant minute diamond chip, their combined light coming in through the hurrying Survey Eagle's forward viewports.

Sandra could see them, from where she was perched between the throttle boxes in the command module.

The golden, Sun-like component of this trinary star system lay elsewhere in the heavens, beyond the Moon's view-shed, and could no longer be seen.

To her, the cockpit wasn't so quiet, so soundless, as first impression might've indicated...

Already her ear was picking up the odd little noises here and there, things the smooth pulsing of those four big main engines might otherwise have obscured...the subtle little puffs of the maneuvering rockets, one or more of them, steadying their course, the least little whisper of vibration...every nerve coming alive to every rhythm, large or small, of their Eagle rushing away from the Moon, set upon an urgent mission...

She was coming to realize how very much she had missed all of this, missed being included, it had been so long.

You're at this table, you're on the team, Koenig had said; still and all, though, she couldn't help wondering whether this duty assignment was perhaps a sort of reward, for her pivotal role in resolving the Nephinefta debacle...

It actually took a measure of conscious effort to redirect her attention; for, in the interim, Bergman had appeared on the module video screens and the small planet out there was being discussed.

Chehalis would not remain small for too very long...

"Weather conditions in the general vicinity of the force field appear to be deteriorating," as Carter studied his readouts.

"We concur," from the science advisor. "Lowering skies, light winds, surface temperature 45 degrees Fahrenheit, as of the last measurements."

"Perhaps it's winter in this hemisphere," said Koenig, taking his turn at the Eagle's dual controls.

"I've been studying the vegetation," said Maya, from where she lingered in the open hatchway. "It does appear to be of the cool-weather variety, what you would classify as conifer-types. Trees, shrubs, vines..."

"What about the radiation?" from Koenig again. "Are you getting our data, Victor?"

"Fraser says loud and clear," said the radio voice from thousands of miles away, "and still consistent with our long-range numbers. No significant variation."

"Still within the useful range of our suits," as Helena looked in for a moment.

Bergman's face on the monitor was replaced with Fraser's: "Alan, you should be coming up on orbital-insertion sequencing..."

"I have it," said he. "You enjoying the company there?"

In the Command Center, the Eagle pilot glanced over to one of the adjoining consoles in "the trench", where Annette Fraser prettily carried the duty. She briefly smiled, and her husband smiled back.

"I'd say so," said he.

Behind them, at the command desk, Bergman considered this little tableau vivant with a certain bemused expression. Those two so very rarely pulled compatible duty schedules, a logistical dilemma not unfamiliar to married couples - and there were in fact a number of them - on Alpha.

"I'd best get back to the charting machines," from Sandra.

A soft murmur, "Company's pretty nice here, too," came to her ear from the pilot's seat, as she gracefully arose, passing Maya en route back to the lab module. Having glimpsed a fleeting pink in those cheeks, the latter couldn't help a telling little smile of her own...

Chapter Three

As its velocity slowly eased, the Survey Eagle became subject to the gravitational pull of the world below it - coasting in orbit just above the gauzy atmospheric envelope of Chehalis.

"Tony, what do you have for us?" Bergman was inquiring.

"Not a thing, I'm afraid," from where the Security chief sat at the research console he was manning, in the laboratory pod, "Still running scans for that force field, and still nothing to show."

"It's there." Alix had appeared at his shoulder. "I'm sensing it now..."

"And still nothing from the instruments?" in Sandra's puzzled voice. She was settled in once more at her data station, alongside Verdeschi's, coordinating the continuous relay of her mapping and videoscanning operations back to the runaway Moon.

"I don't need the instruments," all but hushed, "it's so close..."

"Exercise caution, Survey Eagle," was Bergman's advisory.

In the lab module, the green lamps flashed to yellow. Their cargo manifest properly secured, Helena and Maya removed to their seats and likewise secured themselves. Sandra and Verdeschi were also in safety harness at their stations. Alix remained standing, between them, watching...

Forward, behind the double safety doors of the command module, the cockpit had gone quiet. Koenig took the role of off-sider; Carter was in charge.

"First contact with atmosphere," he reported.

As the two pilots' voices crackled over the open radio link, the Command Center group was tense with listening.

"Visibility's somewhat improved." Koenig's voice, this time.

"Anything unusual? - "

Annette looked over to her husband. "They wouldn't try to land inside it, would they?"

"They'd decide on that only if it proved possible," said he. "And Alan would set up a search-grid first..."

Through the unfamiliar atmosphere the Survey Eagle continued to fall...

"Let's fly around it, and try again for instrument readings..."

"Right - then try to fly over it, if we can..."

Bracing herself as best she could, Alix watched Verdeschi as he continued to analyze and correlate the data from the craft's many sensor platforms. On the screen before him, a simple cross-hatched grid pattern began to fill the empty space...

The Command Center group heard "No! - " in an anxious female voice, and then only a slur of static...

"Eagle telemetry reporting severe turbulence," from Fraser," but they're still with us..."

Victor Bergman was first a scientist, the innate cool-headedness of his life's calling augmented by the mechanical heart ticking over inside of him.

He closed a switch, "John?" in a calm voice that helped steady the room around him.

He also lived very much for people.

"We can't fly over it," said he, "you saw what happened?- "

"We saw," concurring.

"Anything else, Annette?"

"Negative, Commander," said she. "I'm still receiving your incoming data on all planetary factors - except where the force field seems to be."

"Alix, have you anything to add?"

"It was very quick, very strong," said she, "it was simply upon us."

"Alan was quicker," from Sandra.

"Threw us around a bit, but we're still in one piece," from Verdeschi.

Having circled the room for opinions, Bergman brought up Koenig's image on his video, gaged the Moonbase Commander's expression. Not happy, he thought, and why not? It had to be disconcerting, at the very least, to be dealing with something whose very existence they'd deduced through the apparent failure of Alpha's instruments.

"What now, John?"

"We made a complete circumnavigation of that centerpoint, so we'll go ahead and attempt a landing. Alan," directed off-screen, "pick your spot, and get us down..."

Even utilizing the additional space the access corridor provided, the laboratory module nonetheless was a bit crowded, what with all seven of them there present.

Having donned their low-matte silvery protective suits - each carrying the trapezoidal Moonbase shoulder patches and the stark black and white Anti-Contamination indicia - they were surveying the effect this had created.

Maya was giggling, "Aren't we a sight?"

"Like a mob of tin soldiers," Alan suggested.

"Or something out of old surrealist German cinema," Verdeschi dryly countered.

"Never mind, Helena," and Koenig couldn't help a certain twinge of amusement, either. "Are we ready?"

The physician was studiously scanning each of them in turn, nodding to herself in apparent satisfaction. "We're ready," said she. "The protective regimen you received in Medical Center is at full effectiveness. And your commlocks are fitted with a specialized high-sensitivity geiger-counter function. This environment mandates constant monitoring for radiation, so Alpha can determine if or when we're receiving any potentially-lethal doses."

"We'll turn down the volume for communications when necessary," said Koenig, who was conducting his own inspection of his people. Equipment satchels slung over shoulders, sidearm lasers in place. "You ready there, Victor?"

"How are the suits?"

"See for yourself," as Helena used her commlock to beam video of them back to the Moon. "This project has been in the works for some time, as you know - the latest thinking from a collaboration of Research, Medical and Technical Sections. At every stage, the results have been impressive. Now, at last, here we are - full deployment in the field. This is an important step forward for us, operating in such environments without bulky breathing gear."

"Well - we have you only a few hundred yards from the apparent perimeter of the force field. Visibility's still dropping, and of course we were expecting that. Surface temperature continuing to hold in the 40-degree range."

"We're just moving out now."

"John - you must realize that if our signals can't pierce that force field, we won't have communications with you if you should happen on a way through..."

"We still don't know that there is any..."

Chapter Four

Trees reared above them, ramrod-straight, massive, their great leafy crowns soundlessly vanishing into the silver-grey mist that billowed and swirled in every direction, leaving everything it touched dripping with dew and enveloping the Survey Eagle in a cool velvet.

Electronic cicadas hummed, echoed in the clearing, as instruments were run up and geiger-counters switched on...the only sounds to disturb the ghostly stillness.

"Look at the sheer mass of them," from a marveling Helena.

"Hundred feet tall, at least - hard to tell," from Verdeschi.

"Two hundred..." Koenig was also straining to see, to somehow follow them, up into the clouds.

They were all looking up now, and to a one awed into silence...

"Radiation's still holding," Sandra reported, bringing them back to reality.

"Low-level - and it's everywhere," from Maya. "Plants, trees, the ground itself."

"And the force field?" from Koenig.

"That way." Alix pointed. "Through the trees, several hundred yards."

"Victor said we were close by," said Verdeschi.

Carter was studying those mist-shrouded treetops.

"Ceiling's dropping, all right. Not helpful."

"We'll let Victor and the others worry about it for now. First things first - let's fan out along this line," so indicating with the sweep of an arm, "and try to work our way toward where Alix thinks the force-field may be. Then we'll decide what to do next..."

A certain teasing smile touched Maya's lips as she passed Verdeschi.

"You wanted to find out!"

"I know, be careful what you wish for..."

But not before he made sure that Koenig was very safely out of hearing range.

All these towering trees, Maya couldn't help musing, this luxuriant foliage, as she scanned about here and there, the portable video documenting her surroundings. Outwardly pleasing, inwardly lethal...such a paradox!

Forever interested in all forms of living matter, she paused to take detailed closeups of one great old knarled tree, its branches sagging markedly from the weight of all those vines; some nearly trailing along the dew-laden turf.

Rather like some of Tony's spaghetti, she thought with a smile.

So completely given was her attention to her task, she failed to notice a faintly-perceptible shiver run along some of the vines...

...not until the sky whipped crazily past her, and she abruptly found herself gazing, startled, at the ground.

She was hanging upside down, trussed by at least three of the larger vines - all with grips like steel cables.

Her commlock had tumbled from her belt; her laser remained, held in place by its holster clip, but other vines were closing about her arms and torso.

Food! -

The tree bough groaned and creaked from the additional weight as she struggled, her russett hair streaming groundward -

Her awareness was going, and not because of the blood rushing to her head - one of the insidious things had gotten round her throat and was tightening, choking off her air supply.

I've got to change, she thought hazily, frantically, I MUST change...!

...and suddenly the vines were clutching empty air, then collapsing at the tug of gravity.

The tanager effortlessly winged it way clear, a whirring blur of orange and yellow.

As it was alighting, it faded away and a breathless Maya reappeared.

The tree vines were still snapping and flailing crazily about - could they sense her presence, somehow?

Her laser was, at last, in her waiting hands. She also scooped up her commlock as she retreated, trying to aim but unable to range a target to get a shot off.

As quickly as she could catch her breath, realization flashed upon her. Tony...

Her countenance glowered warningly.

The guttural screech of the hawk reverberated from every other tree in the area -

- and she was off again, a whoosh of deep and powerful wingbeats, in the general direction she knew he had gone...

Swooping above the misty canopy with nary a quiver, she presently dove downward, through the trees, wickedly-sharp talons clutching an easy purchase upon the branch. Reddish-brown eyes focused, searched. Her body tensed, in expectation of the hunt...

He never heard those wings cleaving through the still air, nor even heard her voice.

As she presently reached his side, he was tearing away at one of his insulated gloves.

Lines of acute pain etched those features she usually found so very appealing...most especially in private...

"Burns," gasping, "it went through the glove! - "

"Let me - "

She got it off, revealing ominously-discolored welts all over his hand. She started at the sight of them.

"I touched one of them," still rambling, "it went right through the glove - !"

"I was just hauled upside-down and half-strangled by a lot of tree vines," said she.

He was as unbelieving as she.

"What the hell have we run...into..." and then his eyes were rolling back, to some faraway place in his skull.

She cradled him gently to the ground, her own disbelief vanishing before alarm. She saw his hand.

One of those venomous welts had ruptured, its toxin released...

Carefully, very carefully, the Psychon serpent moved, creeping ever so slowly along the still form of the Security officer.

Its sense of smell was far keener than that of the hawk, or any other life form of Earth.

Nostrils, set on either side of her flat wedge-shaped head, tellingly flared.

Her slender deep blue-ebony forked tongue fleetingly spit forth, probing the air.

There...yes, there it was...light, sweet, enticing...beckoning...and for a moment she too struggled against its swaying influence...

Her sleek body contorted itself, into a subtle shimmer of languid waves.

Her mind cleared, resolved against being drawn in like that again.

Those hypersensitive olfactory talents again came into play, searching out the source of that insidious poison...

The wan sunlight, drifting gray and nebulous through the canopy of the trees, touched her coiling form and it glittered like jewels.

The predator tensed. Its hinged jaw yawned wide, rows of fangs gleaming dangerously. No prey of the ophidian ever escaped...

Emitting a high-pitched bloodcurdling shriek it lunged into space, arrow-straight, smashing head-on into the innocuous-looking bush.

Repeatedly, those fangs ripped asunder whatever they came in contact with: wood cracking, splintering, crushing fruit and flowers alike, obliterating every possible source of that menacing scent.

Powerful muscles tightened, sensing its victim's death throes.

Finally, the last of the root structure gave out and, blackened and lifeless, it fell.

The ophidian wrenched itself free of the sprawling wasted husk, still snarling with each deep breath.

Then it too was collapsing, stretching itself out across the grass in a resting posture. This near-mythological Psychon life form was capable of nothing so much as a true miracle - one that could save her Tony...

Chapter Five

Fog and still more fog, and from a great distance the beseeching voice, calling him by his given name...

Deep and dense, it had swallowed him, impossible even to see his own hand holding the commlock; unable to link directly to the Survey Eagle, relying instead on the instrument's own internal power and a certain amount of his own inventiveness, he'd managed to jury-rig a simplified radar-infrared function to plot a path for him to follow.

The sudden, tightening grip upon his arm; a warning -

There was solid ground at his back, and his eyes were gazing up into the fog. Or trying to...

He'd still gone sprawling, then, over - something - and nothingness afterward.

Only darkness, and a memory...

He drew in, let out a deep breath.

The stiffness, the aching all over, was real enough. Sitting up brought into view his equipment satchel. Gloved fingers closed about the commlock, lifted it from the damp mossy ground.

Nothing broken or sprained, as he got to his feet and gathered himself. His protective suit was intact; no damage done, save perhaps to his dignity. The watch-like medical monitor on his wrist, standard issue for every Alphan, was flashing at a frenetic rate. No surprise that, considering. The commlock was more of a puzzlement, only snow and static issuing forth when he pressed the buttons.

When he shut them off, the discordant chatter continued.

Carefully - very carefully, without the commlock to aid him - he attempted to retrace his steps. And in so doing, he came upon what had felled him.

At some unknown time in the distant past of this world, some giant hand had plowed into the ground, rupturing the fragile crust, fingers gouging deep into the soil and rock, leaving only the rounded boney knuckles of its gripped fist still showing as the fog and clouds billowed over and around them.

Koenig neared one of them. It would've been easy to miss, all right, in the dense clouds.

His ear heard it, even before the renewed grip upon his arm: the same hissing noise he'd thought at first to be coming from his commlock.

It wasn't, was in fact emanating from here.

No mere knuckle, but the bole of a tree, ready-made buttressing for a tree of so massive a trunk as this one.

His medical sensor's life signs had steadied, that was good; at least it was still working. The other pieces of equipment he carried with him, when he tried to activate them, produced only the same mysterious sound that continued to fill the surrounding air.

Even with that silver suit, he could feel the hairs on the nape of his neck reacting...

The peripheral glimpse of - something - instantly sent his gaze skyward...something up there, in the clouds...there it was again - light - colors...the brightest turquoise, the deepest blue he had ever seen, violet hues pale and vibrant, still others he couldn't begin to put names to...and now and again the throaty, warning voice of the lightning, blinding arcs sizzling through that ghostly canopy.

Nor just from any one tree alone but from all of them, each distinct in pitch and tone from any other, erupting from the fog-shrouded air, firing straight upward towards the sky.

Plasma, he realized, an enormous plasma field, crackling and shuddering, it was all around, everywhere...

His scalp tingled, they were so close.

Plants, trees, the ground itself, Maya had said...

The humming of the ground, muted by his heavily-insulated hiking boots.

The ethereal drapery thickened, parted, a clearing presently revealed, and it surrounded many were there, of these ghostly giants? Breezes blew and mist billowed around, between them...more, deeper shapes swallowed by the shadows.

Dozens? Hundreds, a vast tract of them; no real way of telling...

It's like a fortress, he thought.

But whose?

Had they - whoever they were, or had once been - lived here?

No man-made structures on the, all of this was some grand construct of nature, and there was no certainty that they had once been men...

Nor was there any sensation of his being held, or in any way confined. Perhaps he was allowing his imagination too much free reign, he felt almost...accepted.

Was he ascribing too much to them?

"Don't be afraid..."

The grip upon his arm eased, relaxed...

Far above, the otherworldly play of flash and sound and colors skated and skittered and danced within the shimmering cloud-decks of the canopy.

Below, in the vastness of the grove and its great trees, there was only peace.

Peace and a visitor, one who was quite content to allow himself simply to observe, to experience it all for a while, utterly disinclined to be rushed.

There'd been a way in to this place; there would, in due course, be a way out...

Following her own track, Alix was engaged in the same exploratory activities that were going on elsewhere.

Her mauve tresses, pouring down her back to her waist, contrasted vividly with her silvery protective suit and made her appear as unearthly as she truly was.

The primeval force of the omnimorph simmered and pulsed deep within her.

Now her commlock was buzzing, and she lifted it to reply. It was Helena:

"I want everyone back at the Eagle. Immediately."

"What goes on? Have we found something?"

"Yes - but not what we came for. And see if you can find Alan. You're closest. I can't raise him."

"I won't return without him," said she. Then, shifting contact frequencies, "Alan?...Alan, it's Alix - are you there?" With a certain knowing little sigh, "Alan, I do hope this isn't one of those little amusements of yours - this is quite serious, we've been recalled! Please answer..."

And when there was still no response, concern began to come upon her.

He would always respond to an official call - if he could.

Was there, now, some reason that he wasn't?

During her recent duty assignment in the Security section she had learned a great deal about that useful little device that every Alphan carried. It could do far more than simply provide communications and lock or unlock doors.

Her instructors had taught her that the instrument's individual profile included a call tone - a personal electronic signal - and was of a unique character, no two were the same, and this could be utilized to great value in emergency situations. And they'd trained her how to do so.

Yet the physician would not have tasked her with locating their missing companion, not unless all known search methods had been utilized - and to no avail.

Now, there was something. Surely Koenig or Verdeschi, or...

Silvered fingertips clicked away upon the commlock's keypad. The Survey Eagle's onboard computer could not provide what she was seeking, but it could relay her inquiry to the Moon and Alpha's central computer...

First step, standard security check...

"Computer," touching the audio prompt.


"Identity check. Verify by commlock registry number, and by voice."




The lessons ticked over in her mind. So far, so good.

"Code Red, stored location history profile as specified, Security protocol Search and Rescue..."

It's taking too long...





Her usual low-level access profile had been changed, to permit her inclusion on landing parties; those provisional-only protocols were still in place.

She took a breath, and asked again. Carefully, the language had to be precise.

"Emergency Code Red - Security protocol Search and Rescue - authorization code Special Orders..."






That personal signal was of a certain peculiar form of energy; and the omnimorph's knowledge, and mastery, of such was available to her...

I must find him - quickly!

She let her eyes close...and again breathed in the perfumed air of the royal gardens back on Rumnipoor, felt the warm sunshine fall upon her face as she sat upon the marble bench...and the hands of her royal guardian, quietly stealing over her brocade-draped shoulders as he stood behind her.

All my life, I've wanted to be exactly like you...

He always conducted their lessons outside, enjoying as he did the bracing airs from the surrounding mountains, and the peace and quiet of the place - as well as the lack of prying eyes elsewhere, that might discern that he was something more than what he appeared.

But his ward knew of the secret, and he was preparing her to share in it.

Himself an accomplished psychic, he had taught her the basic technique, of how to focus and, as he put it, to listen to the universe.

It always had something interesting to say, he told her, and she had laughed at this. At first...

...but you already know I won't be - will I? You've always known...

...yet, even as she felt him steadying her, heard his whispered instructions in her ear and she nodded in response, she had come to realize he spoke the truth.

One had only to listen...

...listen for a single faint whisper, amidst the vast howling cacophony of the universe...

Listen! -

The universe grew quiet.

The whisper was resolving into a sound...

No human ear could hear it, but the omnimorph could.

A steady beep-beep-beep-beep...

There was the scent of flowers, as one gloved hand held the commlock while the silvered fingertips of the other continued to gently probe the surrounding misty air.

Flowers, here and there amongst the trees, pink and of a spiderweb-like delicacy...and trembling nervously, at the approach of something unknown.

The nearer she came to them, her steps faltered...

Unseen forces moved, changed within her. Whatever it was, that had somehow directed her to this place, was fading. Her limbs felt leaden as they responded to her thoughts once more, and she breathed deeply in aid of collecting her wits.

And still more flowers; as she rounded a bend in the track, there were great masses of them, everywhere...and now it was, that she glimpsed the still silvery form sprawled on the ground near them.

Here the scent was neither light nor enticing, but a heavy sickening sweetness that sent her reeling and gasping before she could reach him.

Holding her breath, she scampered forward and with an effort dragged his dead weight back to the area of the trailhead, where the air was clearer.

She hurriedly drew her commlock:

"Everyone - stay away from the pink flowers - there's something about a lot of them together - the scent is quite literally overpowering. They got Alan, that's why he didn't answer."

Helena responded:

"What's his condition?"

"Unresponsive - it's like he's been drugged. I've got him away from them, so he should revive soon. Once he's conscious, we'll be there."

She rang off, and resumed her study of him. Nothing visibly fact, she found herself rather approving of the composition, just as it was...

One hand reached out, fingers tentatively extended...

A change of breathing, barely, what was he saying? -

The hand was quickly withdrawn, she leaning in closer to hear...

"Flowers?" repeating it, puzzled.

Then, a decision: a snap, then a soft "whoosh" as she hit the firing button. Afterwards she took one of his gloved hands in both of hers; and the need for contact, for connection, was satisfied.

How long, before the small pressurized dosage, fetched from her equipment satchel, would take effect?

Then he began to stir...and his grip was iron and she grimaced in pain, pain contorting his face as his entire body convulsed once...and it was over.

Her hand at last free, she anxiously bent over him, her gloved fingers trying somehow to soothe, to comfort.

How could she not? -

His random mutterings were quite unintelligible, and probably just as well...

"Where'd you come from? - " as his eyes fluttered open.

"'re all right now," said she. "You spoke a word, 'flowers'..."

That seemed to resonate...

"Something in the flowers," nodding, letting his eyes close.

In the flowers?

"Then we'd better have one to analyze. You lie still."

Repeating her earlier stratagem, she presently returned with a specimen safely sealed in a sample bag.

"Will you please keep still?" worriedly.

"You're fussing again," muttering, as he was trying to sit up.

"Then let me fuss," said she, "I was sent to find you."

"Ooh, my head," grimacing, holding it in his hands. Every nerve-ending in him felt on fire.

Just a bit too quick, after all; and so he acquiesced.

She withdrew the small field-issue bioscan unit from the equipment satchel, clicking the perspex into position. He watched her as she examined him. Fretting again too, he thought, and from the look in those eyes - even through the winking light-sequencing of the perspex - that worry was genuine.

Her probing gaze moved on, and he conducted his own check-through. His laser was still secured in its belt clip, and he noted the urgently-flashing indicator on his commlock; he knew mission rules, without a manual-only response it would automatically trip an emergency signal. He moved to switch it off.

No chance to get a shot off, or even call for help...

"You had a delayed reaction," she was saying. "Are you better now?"

Somewhat tentatively, he nodded. Whatever that was, it still stung a little. But he was functional enough, and didn't even half-mind as she helped him get to his feet.

Chapter Six

Back at the Survey Eagle's landing place...

Helena and Sandra found themselves confronted by acute danger - in the form of a huge menacing-looking creature lumbering towards them, with Verdeschi slung across its broad shoulders like a hunting trophy.

Gloved fingers flew to holster clips. Before they could even draw their lasers, it was collapsing into a misshapen heap at their feet, its unmoving captive limply sliding through empty air. The two women rushed to gather him in, pulling him to safety.

From that improbable miasma, a drained and shaken Maya was reappearing - and, brusquely shrugging them aside, staggering towards the medical trunk.

Torn between the two of them, Helena went to work on Verdeschi, who lay unconscious on the pallet. Sandra had the emergency kit open. For the first time they beheld, on his exposed hand, those alarmingly-hued blisters...

Something gripped the doctor's wrist, so strongly it hurt:

Maya - pale, driven, all but possessed; and with some sort of potion in readiness.

A potion she administered to him, before they could stop her.

And then she fainted dead away.

"Her skin's turning cold..."

She was unnervingly still.

"Maya? - Come on, Maya! - "

"Maya! - "

"Her wrist monitor's nonresponsive - "

"I've got a pulse - it's so faint..."

"We can't let her slip away - Maya!"

"Helena - Tony! Look!"

The Security officer was stirring. Fingers twitched. Eyes opened, and glassily gazed skyward, into the mists.

"Tony?" Helena was there.

"I hear you," said the distant, hollow voice.

"Do you know where you are?"


"Survey party..."

"Tony...stay with me now."

"Maya...where's Maya?..."

What can I tell him? -

The chance was lost. He saw her, was clumsily trying to reach her. His uninjured hand stretched forth and touched her.

Her back arched like a longbow, her body jerked with spasms.

A massive strangled, convulsive gasp; a sobbing cry of pain and agony.

She was breathing...

Her protector was there.

Other hands were lifting her, and Helena found herself looking into the face of Koenig. Sandra fumbled with the bioscan unit; the physician instinctively, somehow, focusing other instruments upon the restored Eurydice come amongst them. Their eyes met, wide with utter disbelief.

Verdeschi was oblivious to any of this. His world was in his arms, the tremulous bundle of raw nerves and unabashed tears that wouldn't stop flowing; he cradled her close to him, gently stroking her hair, murmuring quietly to her.

Around them, the clouds and mists of Chehalis continued to ebb and flow...and the pair of them were quite alone; she was there, and he was there...and she was giving him something to drink...

...and it tasted wonderful...

Chapter Seven

John Koenig's first concern was for his people; and for their sake, he was close to the point of calling off the whole venture.

They were, all of them - himself included - going down, one by one, to misadventure, in this place. But it wasn't in his nature to just surrender the flag.

And there were other reasons not to. He'd had the entire observatory staff in for a command conference, listened as they gave their reports, even taken a look for himself through the base's powerful telescopes.

The runaway Moon was approaching the outermost realms of this solar system, and beyond only darkness awaited. Chehalis offered a last opportunity to search out, to gather in, anything that Alpha could potentially put to use or hold in reserve; Bergman had made that quite clear.

And there was even that pesky force field, it was still around, somewhere or other; and he inherently disliked mysteries he could not solve...

The massed photographs and charts spread themselves across the field table where he'd seated himself. He browsed idly through them, duly appreciative of Sandra's quality as a videographer.

His gaze sought the woman herself, observed her engaged in packing up the emergency medical gear, and surprised that Carter had appeared alongside her. She took the case as he passed it to her; then he took both her hands and gripped them firmly, adding a grin of reassurance that she returned.

Nearby, Maya was still recuperating; Verdeschi had not left her side. She could literally feel her molecular structure mending itself, its unique cohesion strengthening with every moment...

"I'll be all right, Alicky," as the latter approached, "the worst has passed..."

"Are you sure?" She wasn't, instinctively reacting to the uncharacteristically pallid countenance of the Psychon.

"What have you got there?"

"I'll tell you about it," the flower sample she still had, "presently..."

"Alan - "

Helena's voice, a summons; and in due course he was sitting to take his turn at her medical post.

"There seem to be no lingering ill effects," said she, as she examined him.

"I used my dose of the Rhonden accelerator drug," from Alix, elsewhere.

"You're supposed to save that for your headaches."

"It accelerates the body's own regenerative capabilities," hence the name, and origin, of this medical marvel.

"And it's calibrated only for you, not for any of us," the physician reminded her.

"I could never have carried him back here, not in that state."

"I am better, doc," the patient spoke up. "Bit of a nasty headache at first, but it's gone now."

Helena surrendered. She'd caught a glance from Koenig, a brief little let-it-pass turn of the head. Better, sometimes, to just accept good fortune as it came to them. She softened.

"Well, then, let's hope that more-than-human mind of yours doesn't lose sync with your human body before we return to Alpha. Without that dosage, you've no defense."

"I won't be a bother," said she.

Surmising himself to have been excused, Carter looked around for somewhere to sit. Alix found a place to seat herself, next to him.

"Delayed reaction, you said. I wasn't sleepy, not at all."

She took in, let out a breath. "I don't dare use my wishful thinking, with all this radiation about," murmuring. "It may not work properly..."

"Understood," said he. "So, there I was," he deadpanned, "out like a light..." moving closer to her and murmuring something else in her ear.

She listened, her eyes widening and her jaw dropping, and a gasp escaped her.

"That is not amusing," eyeing him coolly, critically. "There are rules - !"

Helena, still unsure of the evidence of her own eyes, had stepped over to where Verdeschi and Maya were sitting close together; and she was again scanning each of them.

"I'm all right, Helena," said she. "I am, really."

"And you?"

"Never better!" grinning.

She parsed her next words carefully.

"Maya, can you tell us now - what was all that about? What did you give him?"

She took a breath. "Do any of you know what an ophidian is?"

"Yes," from Sandra, after thinking a moment, "it's from mythology - a sort of snake, or serpent. A malevolent spirit..."

"Long ago, long before the rise of science and civilization, the ophidian - that's the closest Earthly word for it - was the scourge and nightmare of ancient Psychon. So powerful a myth, it haunted the dreams of children. And so feared, that to invoke even its name could set armies against one another.

"But it truly existed! The how, when, where are lost...the reality was far more remarkable. You see - the ophidian could perform a miracle: a potion, prepared from its venom, that could cure sickness. Any sickness."

"Any sickness?" echoed Koenig.

"Yes. For the cure to work, they had to be captured alive; and so they were hunted, wherever on the planet they appeared. And everyone rejoiced - here was the end of fear, of illness and plague! But it wasn't. The 'miracle' had a flaw: one ophidian could cure one disease, in one person. Only one.

"They ignored the fact that it could not replace the venom extracted from its fangs to make the potion - it couldn't survive the shock. Besides, there were always more of them to be found."

"So they knew little else about the ophidian's life cycle," from Koenig.

Her gaze fell. "My people - went mad, after that...fear returned, in all its most dreaded permutations. Terrible wars were fought, over the least patch of land or water where ophidian were believed to congregate. But it was all futility, it made no difference."

", what ended it?"

His voice, the one she most wanted to hear, and the haunted look lifted from her features.

"When the ophidian was no more," quietly. "It completely disappeared."


Her russet head bobbed slightly. "That finally brought my people to their senses, and they vowed never again to be swayed by superstition."

"You became one of those things - how?"

Her gaze fixed itself upon him, her eyes devouring the sight of him, alive...

"Well - curiosity, I suppose. Reading the old histories, wondering...copying its shape, its behavior, that was simple enough. But not the 'miracle' of the ancient accounts - that proved far more difficult. When you brought me to Alpha, I still had not mastered it. Practicing all but became an obsession - time after time - over and over again." She took his uninjured hand in hers. "It was almost a ritual - I felt myself drawing closer to my ancestors, swept up in their veneration of the ophidian spirit. And I knew the cost of that 'miracle.' The most complex act of molecular transformation I would ever attempt - but it could actually be used only once."

Her rigorously-trained molecular structure - that could hold any transformation for no more than an hour - had ultimately spared her suffering the same fate as the ancient ophidian.

Helena understood now, or at least thought she did. Still, she couldn't help wondering...

Koenig, from his seat, looked with new eyes upon the woman he had long ago promised her doomed father he'd save. She could, he reasoned, better recuperate within the secure and enfolding embrace of Alpha, as he himself had only recently done.

And Mentor - like any parent, anywhere - had found himself forced to cede, at the very last, to the brutal reality that he could not protect his last remaining child forever...

...It was Verdeschi, of all people, who ultimately resolved his conundrum for him. He had gotten to his feet; and as Sandra hovered attentively close by, he took a few tentative steps. This seemed to satisfy him that he was fit enough for the moment; although as he carefully made his way over to where Koenig was, Maya's eyes warily followed him...

"How's the hand?" this carefully swathed with protective coverings.

"It'll live," wryly.

And you?

He looked up at his Security chief - studied his stance, his demeanor. No medical device could quantify what it was, that he was seeking...


The man himself provided it.

"We have three incidents here..."

"Yes," Koenig heard himself musing, "Maya's, yours, and Alan's."

And the moment passed.

"Mm...have a look, here," his free hand probing amidst Sandra's prepared charts, "now - this is where Maya ran into those vines, here's where she found me afterward, and there's where Alan got waylaid by those flowers. Do we both see a pattern?"

Looking at the maps, he found that he did.

"Roughly paralleling our extrapolated force-field perimeter," now a bit suspicious.

"Too coincidental," agreeing, "almost like a natural Maginot Line."

"Maginot Line?" Maya looked up, puzzled, from her battery of instruments. In the interim, Carter had moved and redeployed her entire field-laboratory station, piece by piece, to where she was sitting - receiving one of those exquisite Psychon smiles as his reward - whereupon Alix (after waiting a tactful beat) delivered the cached flower sample she had kept.

"Ligne Maginot - a series of defensive fortifications in France, back on Earth," Verdeschi explained, "built long ago, ostensibly to keep out the enemy."

"Or anything - anyone - away from the force field," Koenig added, with meaning. "I could accept one incident, even two, as pure happenstance. Not three."

"Four," said the quiet voice, in whose direction six pairs of eyes were turning. "I think I had better show you..."

Alix stepped over to a nearby bush, put out one of her silver-gloved hands to touch it.

The branch rustled - and moved away.

Koenig lifted his commlock, tapped in his instructions, noted the response: SYSTEMS TEST COMPLETE - STATUS OPERATIONAL. Time to put Alpha back in the picture; and it puzzled him not a little, that no one in their group had mentioned hearing from the Moon lately.

Chapter Eight

The Moon already knew.

In the Medical section, wrist-monitor alarms were sounding: Carter, Koenig; fluctuating signal-strength from Alix. A second, heightened alarm from Verdeschi.

And a spike in Maya's signal so powerful, so virulent, sensor-panels were blowing out.

Then, silence.

In the Command Center, Victor Bergman gathered his operatives round the command console. Orders were issued, Code Yellow Alpha Two - the silent alarm - was called, and everyone got busy.

Fraser was off to the launch pads, to oversee the readiness of the Rescue Eagles. There were always two of them, manned by the elite Medical Rescue units, primed to leap at an instant's notice. He would brief the flight crews, and be ready to lead one himself, if the call came.

Tackling the loss of communications with Chehalis, was the one person on Alpha best equipped for it.

Early on, Maya had become an ardent admirer of David Kano. She watched, with rapt fascination, as he fluidly interacted with Alpha's master computer. How much at ease he was! She'd already discovered that her Psychon education enabled her to intuitively outthink the computer, and she believed his comparable acumen also sprang from natural talent alone.

Less by design than happenstance, she came to learn otherwise.

Back on Earth, an experimental cybernetic implant in the cortex of his brain had inbued it with the computer's vast memory and acuity.

Beneath a certain area of his scalp, the access port still rode in his skull...

But it was too soon after Psychon's violent demise, and she was still far too vulnerable, too impressionable.

Nightmares ensued: the voracious maw of Psyche, the malevolent biological computer that devoured living souls, leaving only wasted, mindless husks - it loomed anew at her, roaring, angry - furious that she had escaped its clutches -

She screamed, and she bolted.

Change after change, no transformation could help, she couldn't run fast enough, couldn't get away...

The deep pitiable howls booming, echoing, in the corridors finally brought the emergency teams to her - to the traumatized foam-mouthed Alsatian sprawled on the floor, spent and writhing, fading from their view as the last moments of the hour slipped away...

They didn't dare attempt any Earthly medications, they yet knew so very little about her Psychon physiology; and so Helena and her team did whatever else they could, to get her stabilized.

...she awoke, slowly, in the intensive care unit, to discover another physician in a white zippered left sleeve sitting quietly at her bedside, introducing himself as Dr Mathias. Dr Russell had asked him to look after her, he said. No, there were no guards, nothing and no one to constrain her in any way. Nor would there be. She was safe here.

Gently, patiently, he coaxed it all forth from her. He understood. Kano, he explained to her, survived that risky surgical procedure, his mind yet intact, while three other test subjects had not. He himself had once seen it in action. She listened.

Later on, newly chastened and remorseful, she sought out the head of the Technical section. Civilian dress, he noted, rather than duty wardrobe; surprised to see her appear thus, at his door.

Could they begin again? her small, tentative voice asked.

Did she play chess? He'd been occupied with arranging the board for a match.

Would he show her?

Yes, he would and he did; and the ancient game of strategies, castling and en passant moved from healing bridge to firm foundation, and their mutual friendship continued apace thereafter.

And during the time the Eagle carrying Verdeschi and John Koenig was rushing back to reunite with the Moon, after escaping the space warp that had separated them - he had appeared unannounced in the isolation unit, keeping a soundless vigil by the slumbering, exhausted metamorph whose feverish and uncontrollable transformations had caused so much havoc to those around her. She would not be alone...

"...all right, try it now," said Tanya, who'd reported in to the Command Center, taking one of the consoles in "the trench."

"Running systems check," said Annette.

Behind Bergman's executive station, the double doors whooshed aside for Kano.

"Medical Center reporting," from Tanya. "Re-acquisition of signal..."

"Report," from the science advisor.

"Seven data-sets, all presenting within the nominal range."

"Good," said Bergman, "very good."

"Let's get those communications back," as Kano settled in at his duty station.

"Systems check complete," said Annette.

Kano took in the readouts, analyzed their meaning and was satisfied. "Link up," said he.

"Tanya - Survey Eagle first," from Bergman again.

She nodded. "Moonbase Alpha calling survey party - come in, please." A pause, a bit of fine-tuning. "Moonbase Alpha calling landing party through Survey Eagle - "

"...Alpha? - " Koenig's voice sounded almost as distant as he and the rest of them really were...

"John? We lost your signal. Glad to have you back."

"We couldn't talk to each other down here for a while," said he. "Good to be back." Koenig took his commlock, focused its video feed. "Take a look at this - try something else," to Alix.

She did so, reaching up towards a low-hanging tree bough. The result was the same as before.

"It's happened whenever I've tried," she tried to explain, "except for Alan's flower."

"I wish you wouldn't refer to it as 'my' flower," somewhat dourly.

Far away, Bergman mused over this.

"Perhaps," aloud. "Helena, would you scan everyone, please?"

She handed her scanner to Koenig so that he could examine her first; then, following that, each member of the survey party in turn. Each time an audible electronic "racket" ensued. Alix, however, produced the loudest "racket" of all.

"The human body possesses a certain inherent electrical charge," said the doctor. "We've all experienced the phenomena of static electricity, for instance - of getting a shock, quite literally, from something we've touched."

"Like charges repel, and opposite charges attract," said Koenig.

"But that would mean I couldn't be around - well - anything. No, something's different, something here..."

The science advisor considered this. "That force field's still somewhere nearby," said he, "and still unknown."

"Then - what follows 'perhaps'?" said she.

Maya had also been thinking, and now ventured forth an idea. "Alicky, try again - really try, this time."

But no sooner did she touch gloved palms to the roughish bark of the tree's massive trunk (this being least likely to get up and run away), than a frightening inhuman shriek erupted, shattering the cool stillness - and hurling her backwards through the air, along with a crackling cloud of multicolored plasma.

Bergman's command, "Wait!" halted Carter in his tracks.

Saucer-eyed and agog, Alix struggled to pull herself together.

But he was still close enough to hear the soft hissing sounds, glimpse the tiny sparks...

"I'm all right," she finally managed to say, whereupon he promptly moved in and got her to her feet.

Koenig knew at once what it was:

"Corposant - St Elmo's fire," said he. "I saw a grove of big trees, not so far from here, firing off like enormous Roman candles. Just like that. There's your difference."

Lucky, then, that his earlier fall had been no more than an accident...

Maya was analyzing what her instruments had recorded.

"The physical contact set off a chain reaction - triggered a massive discharge of energy!"

"That could be your way in," said Bergman's voice, on the commlock net.

Verdeschi nodded, understanding. "The plants just naturally 'shun' Alix, and us, if we follow right behind."

"This flower didn't shun Alicky," as Maya resumed her earlier examination, peering inquisitively through the eyepiece at the limp blossom on the blotter. "It couldn't - it's dead. Judging from the internal structure, the seeds appear to be missing. Most likely it expelled them in some sort of explosive outburst, so the wind could catch and carry them."

"Like a dandelion's," from Helena, conducting her own examining of Alix.

"Mm...the excessive scent may be a defense mechanism, a deterrent against enemies..."

"...that have long since died off," said Alan.

"Except for you," with a teasing twinkle. "You were simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time!"

"Story of my life," somewhat ruefully.

Presently, the group of Alphans was putting their new approach strategy into effect.

Alix was duly placed in the lead, with the others behind and close together; the bushes, shrubbery and hedgerows subtly parting before them like a verdant ocean.

"We haven't seen any animals," said Sandra, "or birds or insects - not even their remains."

"Like Psyche Elysium, all over again," from Helena.

"Radiation," from Maya, behind her. "They couldn't adapt, and they died. All of these plants and trees could, and did - they're the survivors. They adapted and they're still competing with each other, for growing space," this last with a certain apprehensiveness prompted by memory; and an involuntary shudder went through her.

"Did the builders of the force field die off, too?" Verdeschi wondered. "And where does all this radiation come from?" He'd placed herself in front of her, mutely brushing aside her efforts at protest; whatever might come at them next, he would meet it first...

"I saw the Research reports, when they were briefing me - they told us your scans revealed no other artificial structures on the planet's surface," said Alix.

"Then my guess would be some sort of weapon, or bomb," Verdeschi resumed. "Highly-specialized, selective; something that could destroy buildings, cities, yet leave the countryside otherwise untouched."

"Along the lines of your neutron bomb, perhaps?" Maya cautiously ventured. She knew, from their time together on Luton, that Koenig had lost his wife to the use of quite possibly such a dreadful device, back on Earth, long ago.

"Possibly. It'd take a pretty sophisticated technology to build, though."

"As well as a force field that's still operating," from Helena.

It was left to Koenig, to tack on the last word:

"Still - where did they go?"

Silence, save for the rustling sounds of the survivors as they reacted to the subtly-disturbing presence in their domain.

The fog and the mist floated in and out of view like ghosts.

Suddenly, there were no more trees or shrubbery to pass through.

"This is it, we're here," Alix called back over a shoulder to her companions. Then, as she came to a stop, "O My Lady, look at that - !"

On the Moon, Bergman sat up in his seat. "Annette - "

She was already ahead of him, as the Big Screen put the Command Center group in the picture.

For the first time, he wished he had gone with them:

"That's cultivated land! - Someone's using it for cropping!"

Chapter Nine

In its prior natural life it might've been a meadow, but no more.

Stretching off and away, as far as the Alphans could see, were orderly rows of what appeared to be berry shrubs, fruit trees, grains; tall stalky things that seemed to them analogous to corn; the tousled tufts of what might be vegetables.

Here, too, shafts of sunlight pierced the grayish fog, revealing a deep blue sky above and sending spectral refractions glinting off the ponding basins and the canals they fed.

The seven Alphans were fanning out, unbidden, in order to take in as much of this unexpected sight as they could.

"Then the force field is a sort of boundary-fence," from Carter, "something to keep the forest out."

"And the radiation," Verdeschi agreed.

"And the inclement weather," Bergman finished. "It no doubt functions like a hot-house; a greenhouse, self-contained, manufacturing its own weather."

"A garden," said Sandra. "But we still haven't answered the Commander's question - where are the gardeners? Where did they go?"

"Maybe they died, too," Kano suggested, from his distant post.

"So, what now?" from the Security chief.

"Once the operating frequency of the force field is identified, we can devise and transmit a counteracting program to your commlocks, which in turn will set up a short-term jamming effect," Bergman explained.

"That should get us in," said Koenig. "Same tactics we used on Kalthon. One more time, Maya," this last to her.

She was already running up her sensing instruments.

"One more time - and still, no reading! - " frustrated. "I checked our equipment, but I couldn't find any fault - "

"The power source could be coupled to some form of baffling device," Kano suggested.

"And there is a barrier here," as Helena skimmed cladded fingertips along what seemed to be empty air. "I can touch it - it feels cool, like glass."

Nearby, Alix was taking a call on her commlock. Bergman regarded her seriously, and yet kindly, from the small video pickup.

"This is why you're there," said he. "You know what to do?"


I hope...

Whatever qualms she'd had, when he'd first sent for her, faded away. She was in no position to refuse going, not after Nephinefta. He had entrusted her with this assignment. She would not fail him...

She put out a cautious silvery fingertip. Where it made contact with the force field, a small burst of multi-colored energy blossomed, like jewel-chips in a kaleidoscope, fading as she withdrew.

Curious, she touched it again, and the same result ensued.

Helena, being the nearest, turned to watch.

More jewel-chips, in neat rows following the path of her fingertips as they continued to probe the otherwise-unseen surface of the barrier.

They found their reflection in the minute silver flecks in those blue eyes that carefully studied them, attempting to somehow divine their true nature.

Verdeschi didn't need to get Maya's attention, she was already focusing her scanning gear. Sandra also had her video equipment up and focused, recording...

With each hand in turn, she brought the flat of her palm into brief contact, and yet again the jewel-chips radiated forth and in greater numbers.

Koenig carefully lifted his commlock, spoke low:



The older man put a finger to his lips. Hush...

She appeared to have reached a decision. She steadied herself, breathed slowly in, then out. Then her eyes closed, her head bowed slightly.

Both hands were carefully positioned, palms flat against the still-unseen force field.


Then her lips began to move, barely a whisper but just enough for Alan, nearest to her on the other side, to hear.

Her native Rumnipuran dialect, unintelligible to him save for a single word.


Too, he could see the gathering concentration etched in her face.

The whispered words continued.

Listen! -

Silvery fingertips moved, summoning forth the jewel-chips...

There were more, far more, of them now, as though drawn to that very spot.

They made no sound...

In the still air, a scarcely-perceptible - something - rippled through her streaming hair.

Elbows were moving, arms straightening...

The gloved hands began to move, move forward...and in less than an eye-twinkling, their owner's shimmering form merged into the force field...

...and vanished.

The Alphans - six of them now - turned wondering gazes to one another, trying to grasp just what it was that they had witnessed.

Chapter Ten

"What just happened?" as Sandra found her voice.

"Shouldn't we be able to see her?" Helena asked.

"If she got through." Though hopeful, Verdeschi was somewhat dubious.

"She got through." Carter, however, was certain.

"Light refraction, perhaps?" Maya was trying to puzzle her way through this, even as Koenig's attention was given to his commlock's video feed.

"They're calculating," said he.

All of their commlocks, all at once, sprang to life, the same electronic "chatter" issuing from each - wavering, fluctuating.

From it, a new sound was fading into clarity: the unmistakable tune of Le Marsellaise, sung in a clear, albeit untrained, feminine voice.

"So, what now? We just close our eyes, hold our breath and walk in?"

"That's exactly what you do," as Bergman's voice answered Verdeschi's question.

"The jamming effect is building to full strength," Kano added. "It will last only moments."

"We're ready to go in at your signal, then."

"All right, John. We'll be on line to you as soon as we can. You take care. One - two - "

" - Three!"

Koenig was first to appear...somewhere...

" - How very strange!"

Helena was next. A moment's dizzying loss of equilibrium, the rush of a prickly, tingly sensation along her

skin, and then...

...behind her, the misty air soundlessly exploded anew into color...

" - That's marvelous!" from a clearly-delighted Maya.

"- Isn't it?" Sandra was, too.

" - So that's what it's like," as Alan followed her.

" - There you are!" and Verdeschi was the last.

"There you are!" from the astonished Alix, "I couldn't see any of you, I feared the worst..."

"Le Marsellaise?" quizzically.

"Oui, Le Marsellaise," said she.

"Victor said that's the longest piece you've ever learned in French," from an amused Koenig, this being another of Alpha's predominately-spoken languages.

You know your team - choose someone, will you?

He'd come to see that his science advisor had chosen shrewdly...

"Can he hear us?"

"Soon, I hope. They're recalibrating now."

"The force field seems to be a one-way glass," said Maya, "for us, anyway."

"So, what say we inspect the crops?" Carter suggested.

"By all means, let's have a good look around," Koenig directed; and all accordingly began to disperse amongst the rows of this improbable agricultural bounty, so very out-of-place in its forested setting.


Maya's voice held a certain urgency, as she peered critically at the numbers coming up on her radiation-counter.

"If the force field was intended to keep the radiation out, as Tony says, it didn't work," said she, with meaning. "Not so bad as outside, but it's here."

"Then we move on the assumption this entire area is contaminated. We eat nothing, drink nothing."

Crouched down next to a row of the vegetable-like plantings, Verdeschi was testing the soil with a specialized container drawn from his equipment satchel, the analysis displaying on his commlock's video pickup. With one ear he heard Koenig's words of caution, and shook his head.

"Such good soil, too," remorsefully...

Generations of his family had worked the land, had come to know it intimately.

His mother, at first, was baffled by his desire to go to the Moon; such terrible soil there! she'd complained. What could possibly grow, in so strange and distant a place?

Dreams, mama, he told her. Dreams grow there...

"All this food, and we can't eat a bite of it," in wistful dismay, from Alix. She had cut open a peach-sized fruit and was examining its interior. It took no small measure of joy out of the discovery that these plants didn't shun her touch as the others, outside, had done.

Helena, further over, was scanning a row of the stalky plants.

"John - admittedly I'm no botanist, but the instruments say these may be a sort of perennial."

"Plants that live on indefinitely," he mused. "They might die off to ground-level after the crop reaches maturity, but they'd regenerate the following year."

"Many of these plants indicate such tendencies," from Sandra, standing near a canal and making an electronic "sweep" of her own.

Koenig mulled this over, trying to fit it into the greater puzzle. Glancing over to where Alix was plucking a fruit from another tree, he also glimpsed his own answer.

"What did Victor call this place? A hot-house? Filled with crops that don't have to be seed-planted each growing season, but instead perpetuate themselves - with readily-available water, controlled climate, absence of natural enemies - insect pests - "

Helena saw what he was leading up to: "A hot-house that would need as little - human maintenance, as possible."

Maya bent close to a bush festooned with great masses of tiny, iridescent golden berries.

"Surely that must be what they - whoever they were - planned this place to do: to virtually run itself, except perhaps for actually picking the matured crops," detaching a berry cluster and sealing it in a sample bag.

"And a lot of these do look like they're ready to be harvested," Helena pointed out.

"Where are they?"

The question was becoming repetitive, but it also was coming to haunt their thoughts more than ever.

Elsewhere, Alix was delighting in the reflected images of herself and Sandra, in one of the large ponding basins.

"The basins' water is far less contaminated than in the canals!" And the noisy "chatter" of Sandra's geiger-counter was, in fact, noticeably less so.

"Whoever they were, these people must've obtained their water the same way my people did - they pumped it to the surface, from vast underground aquifers," from Alix, in explanation. "And for a plot of land as relatively small as this one, the supply might well have lasted indefinitely!"

Maya came over to join Helena and Koenig. Something yet confused her.

"This 'perennial' - you say it's important - you had such plants, then, back on Earth?"

"Yes, but mostly in shrubs and flowers," said the physician. "Pinks and tulips and chrysanthemums, and such..."

"Nothing on a scale like this," Koenig concurred. "When we left Earth orbit, they'd been experimenting for years in developing perennial foodstuffs - corn, for instance. The ideal type of crops for feeding a hungry planet - that would live many growing seasons under normal conditions, with little aid from man."

"And in virtual perpetuity, under ideal conditions," understanding. It was no small irony that, since being brought to Earth's runaway Moon, she had seen and experienced far more of the infinite variety of flora and fauna in the universe than on her own native planet - where billions of years of evolution had been extinguished by the world-ranging "volcanic furnace" Psychon had at the last become.

"That's it," agreeing, with a smile.

Verdeschi had moved further afield and joined up with Carter; together they were closely investigating the grassy surface in the area. Now they were calling their partners over.

"There's something under here," from Alan, "some five feet on a side - we can feel the edges. Too perfect for a natural formation. Same idea came to both of us - ingress panel."

"The only artificial structure on the surface now, is our Survey Eagle," Sandra pointed out, "remember?"

"Right," as Verdeschi also theorized aloud, "so, if any of the 'gardeners' are still here, there's only one direction they could've gone. Down."

Koenig crouched down to have a look for himself, his gloved fingers probing amidst the turf.

Yes, there it was...cold, smooth, sizable. And, no doubt, quite heavy.

"Can we open it?"

"We've been trying to figure out how. It doesn't seem to be pressure-sensitive."

"Except to my fingers," with a certain knowing inflection, from the Security chief. "I can't get a firm grip..."

"All right, then - up," said he. "Maya," calling over a silvered shoulder, "we need two good hands here - "

Grumbling over what he viewed as a relatively-minor infirmity excluding him from the action, Verdeschi rose to his feet. Upon discovering the hands assisting him belonged to Maya, his annoyance mollified considerably.

Other eyes watched after them, Koenig's; the words had tumbled forth without thinking, and beyond his calling them back...

In a private backwash of quiet air they stood close together, eyes meeting, holding...

"Are you sure?" his free hand gently cradling her cheek.

"Yes..." as her fingertips touched his.

Helena was there, taking him in tow. But his eyes still followed her...

"...It's no use," from a puffing Maya, following several minutes of their combined struggling. "Even with three of us trying, we'll never be able to move it..."

"And we still don't really know what's beneath it, do we?" from Alix. "So it wouldn't do, to simply set about blasting one's way in."

"Assuming Tony and Alan's theory is correct," said Koenig, "that this is some sort of door..."

Elsewhere, Helena also attempted to reassure Verdeschi. "You'll have to content yourself with being a one-hander for a while longer," adding, with a certain knowing little smile, "I'm sure you'll find someone who'll happily supply the other one!"

In the interim, Maya had engineered one of her molecular transformations - and there now stood, in her place, yet another of the huge and hulking space creatures that she numbered amongst her repertoire.

"That isn't funny," in a vexed tone.

Alan was shaking his head, less from agreement than incredulity.

Tiny flinty eyes gleamed, its back and shoulders strained, thick sinewy muscles rippled as the creature threw its unthinking brute strength against the camouflaged obstruction.

Heart-banging gutteral roars issued from its throat, as the six humans hurriedly got themselves well clear...

Abruptly it was over. Dirt and grasses went flying as the ostensibly-immovable object yielded itself up to this truly-unearthly irresistible force; like an improbable discus, it sailed crazily through the air for fleeting seconds before rudely slamming into the ground, sending short-lived tremors through the substrata.

And, true to the principle of action equaling reaction, the creature tumbled off-balance in the other direction, transforming back into a gasping Maya even as it rolled to a stop and went still.

Helena, seized by déjà vu, was the first to reach her there, hovering attentively over her; but as she looked past her, up at Verdeschi, her smile came back as easily as ever, her eyes losing none of their sparkle.

"I'll give you that other hand now, if you'd like! - " exultant, between deep gulps of air.

Smiling back, "Have you ever thought I wouldn't? - "

His free hand's grip was strong, as she tried to stand; and yet her hiking boots couldn't seem to feel the ground beneath her...other arms gathered her, lofted her up...

"Maya? - "

"I feel dizzy..."

"See to her..."

Koenig's voice trailed away, as she tried anew to focus.

"You've turned pale again..."

"Just give me a moment..."

Behind them Koenig moved to join Alan, Sandra and Alix, who were attempting to peer down the great dark gaping hole in the ground that Maya's literally-wrenching efforts had wrought.

"It's like a bottomless pit," from the very latter.

Koenig passed his hand-beam to Carter and ran up his scanning gear.

"There's a power source down there, somewhere," said he, "and it's still operating."

"Smooth walls," as the Eagle pilot's light flashed here and there, piercing the darkness. "No sign of any sort of ladder or handholds or anything."

Verdeschi presently came, taking the strip of white cloth in his good hand and carefully extending it as far down into the shaft as his limited reach would avail. It began to noticeably flutter.

"There's moving air here," said he.

"Could we breathe it?" from Sandra.

"Instruments say yes," after Helena had consulted them. "This may not be any sort of door at all, as we thought, but only an air shaft."

"Sealed off?" from a still-dubious Verdeschi.

His divided attentions merged in an instant: Maya, once more in the Psychon pink, had appeared beside him. Her gaze followed that of the others, down into the shaft.

"My turn again, I think," said she.

"Carefully, Princess," Alix cautioned.

They were all of them still concerned for her.

That, and the force field did not keep out all of the rain...

This time, Koenig tempered the pitch of his directive. "Let's try to take a sounding first."

He looked around, chose a sizable stone, cradled it in his glove and then let it drop down into the shaft, timing with his commlock to when it would strike bottom...

"Should've landed by now," from Verdeschi. "How deep can it be?"

"It can't be bottomless," said Koenig, with a sideways look at Alix. "All right, Maya, go ahead. We'll give you as much light as we can."

The owl perched itself upon Verdeschi's cladded glove; a most comely creature, one that might've sprung to life from the Audubon bird portfolio she'd been avidly studying.

And yet another expert hunter...

He carefully stroked her feathered form, felt her responding. At least she'd chosen something easy, something she was good at; he well knew how she delighted in changing into birds.

Nonetheless, he was dreadfully loath to let her go. Well, too many people around, anyway, for what he really had in mind...for now, at least, it would have to do.

"Be safe," softly, "off you go," and the owl leaped skyward, testing itself, before dropping into the shaft.

Downward she plunged, between shafts of light, into realms of darkness.

Sound floated up to her companions, the ever-fainter churning and flapping of wings...

At last, from somewhere far beneath their feet, a tiny bright pinpoint of light appeared.

"I'm at the bottom," her echo-amplified voice declared. "There's a gravity-offsetter of some sort operating in this shaft. A beam, I'd guess. I had to flap harder than usual to overcome it. And that stone you tossed - I've just now caught it!"

"Could that beam do the same for us?" Koenig queried.

"I don't see why it shouldn't..."

"Then someone must test it."

Alix was sitting down and allowing her insulated hiking boots to dangle into the upper reaches of the shaft.

"I need you to describe what it's like," said Koenig, "so we can hear you - "

" - and time you, so we can get some idea of the depth of the shaft," Verdeschi added. Still acting upon her recent Security training, he observed; tempering, as it was, a certain impetuosity he'd heard about from others, back on Psyche Elysium.

"Maya?" calling down, "if I do stop talking, don't ask questions - just turn into something quite soft for me to land upon, post-haste!"

Laughter floated upward, in reply.

"Here I come, then," pushing off and promptly disappearing into the darkness below.

Moments later, they heard her voice:

"Oh my!'s like floating! My hair is streaming in every direction...I do believe I could spend all day long just doing this - up and down - it's that much fun..."

"Sorry to disappoint, but we're not here to have fun," Alan gently chided.

"Spoilsport! - " Then, "All right, I'm down. And in one piece."

Intended or not, that little exchange, quite harmless in most any other context, broke the current moment's manifest air of tension. Verdeschi, for one, hadn't even realized he'd been holding his breath almost from the moment he'd released her...

"Hey, Maya - just what are we dropping into?" he called down to her. "Does that shaft lead anywhere?"

"I can't see very well, even with both our lights - it's quite dark down here - but there is a corridor that seems to lead off somewhere."

"We're coming down, then," said Koenig.

Chapter Eleven

On the runaway Moon, Victor Bergman was looking over the beefed-up Command Center team he'd assembled.

Tanya and Annette continued working side-by-side in "the trench;" elsewhere, Fraser had reported back in from the launch area, moving over and running up the duty station for the Reconnaissance net.

Behind them, Peter King had also reported in and was now manning the Science desk; an infrequent visitor to this room, he remained at heart a field man, dating to his original posting on what had once been the far side of the Moon.

All of them, and those elsewhere on Moonbase too, were bent upon the vital task of re-establishing contact with their people out there on Chehalis, now that the much-made-of force field had been breached.

"Okay, then, we're ready - "

"Very well," said the science advisor.

Next door to King, David Kano looked everything over.

"Right," said he. "Link up."

Every console, every duty station came to attention, and the room grew quiet.

"Go ahead, Annette."

"Moonbase Alpha calling survey party - come in, please."

She waited, listened.

"This is Moonbase Alpha, calling survey party - please verify we are on the frequency you specified - " Static over the open circuit, in response.

"Moonbase Alpha calling landing party through Survey Eagle," as Fraser made his attempt. "Radio check - one, two, three, four, five; five, four, three, two, one - do you copy?"

Again they waited, and still the absence of other voices.

The science advisor, listening for himself, considered and then decided. He nodded to Kano.

"David, we don't seem to have contact - would you check everything over, please?"

King looked across the way to his boss, read the unspoken message, nodded and reopened his channel.

"All right, everybody - status checklist, and report. Then we'll try it again..."

The two men, both in the rust-colored left sleeve of the Technical section, quietly conferred, King standing alongside Kano as they listened to the incoming section-status reports.

Elsewhere, Bergman leaned back in the command chair, watched Fraser link in their sensors to those of the distant Survey Eagle in aid of running his own checklist, and absently drummed his fingertips upon the desktop.

Far below the fog-shrouded surface of Chehalis - within some still and unknown quarter therein - Alphan light-beams probed and danced in all directions.

They could hear each other, that and the soft whooshing of air from unseen conduits, and that was all.

"I can feel textures when I run my hand along the wall," said Helena's voice.

"This wall, too," Carter's voice responded.

Pooling their lights revealed an elaborate frieze of carvings covering, from floor to ceiling, one entire section of the wall.

"Seems to be more decorative than functional," was Verdeschi's comment. "Pretty well-preserved, too."

"Mm," Maya mused, examining one section closely. "This is very ostentatious - even the smallest areas are crowded with detail."

"I'll bet if we checked, we'd find more than a few of these forms are mathematically-perfect," said Koenig.

"I'd cover that bet," said his science officer, who amongst them was perhaps the best judge of such things.

"So they had art," said Alix.

"And agriculture, and technology," Sandra added.

"And warfare, very likely," as a sober Verdeschi rounded off the inventory.

"All they lack is identity," Koenig finished, and they moved on.

Soon they were aiming their lights through one of several open doorways they'd passed.

"Seems to be the largest room so far, what we can see of it," from Verdeschi.

From the dark came a brief scuffling and a moment's swearing under one's breath.

Helena was first to recognize the voice, "Another force field?" and to grasp the implication.

"Felt like it," from Koenig.

"So these doorways have 'doors,' after all," from Carter.

"Can we get past it?"

Maya made her way to Koenig's shoulder.

"More light," whereupon the other beams were aimed as she directed. "See here? This section of tracery is worn so smooth, it's scarcely detectable. The surrounding carvings still show up in distinct relief."

"In this light, they shine like glass," said Helena.

"Psyche Elysium," from Alix, who'd evidently made some sort of mental connection. "Remember when we were all telling our stories over the fire that night, after dinner? And that mysterious settlement we found, in the upper river valley, that made us think of ancient Asian temples overgrown by the jungle? I found books about them in the library, and pictures in the computer - some had great bas-reliefs, rather like these. The books said the people would touch them, run their hands, their fingers, over the carvings as they passed by..."

"Why would they do that?"

In the interim Sandra had moved up alongside Maya. "Those friezes often had a religious significance," as her fingertips tentatively brushed that mysterious surface. "The people believed that touching them would impart darshan, a sort of blessing. Over the course of time, some of those stone-carved panels came to acquire the gleam of the finest polished marble."

"Try it," said Koenig, to Maya.

She did, and after several seconds' effort could hear that subtle humming sound cease.

"That did it, touch!" pleased. "There must be some sort of pressure-sensitive trigger mechanism underneath..."

As they cautiously ventured into the rather cavernous chamber beyond, their lights sparkled amidst huge banks of machinery.

"The other rooms were smaller," said Verdeschi, "they seemed more for storage. Not like this place."

"I do hate to sound redundant, but we need more light," in a half-sigh, from Koenig.

And his wish was a soft baleful glow that seemed to come from nowhere, and everywhere.

"Will this do?"

"Technology," studying the equipment more closely.

"And still more carvings," added Maya, spotting them.

"Look for one of those 'smooth' areas. Maybe they control the lights in here..."

"...found it," came Verdeschi's voice from another quarter.

Bright light suddenly poured down upon them, vivid as sunshine - and revealing the chamber and its environs in totality.

Helena took it all in wonderingly.

"Except for the setting, this could almost be one of our own control centers, back on the Moon."

"That force field up there would have to be directed from somewhere," as Koenig busied himself anew with his scanning equipment. "Why not from here? Some of these devices are still operating: we have light, breathable air, force field 'doors' - and we did pick up a power source down here somewhere."

"Did you ever see such beautiful metals?" as Alix ran eager gloved fingertips along their cool and smooth surfaces, secretly relieved that the surroundings down here weren't reacting either to her touch. "And the colors - deep greens and blues and violets - the light makes them seem almost alive." Turning to her companions, "Whether in their machines, or their art forms - they loved beauty."

"Sounds like a fairly advanced science of metallurgy," as Maya scanned some of them. "I saw that settlement too; and, extraordinary as it was, this is simply beyond that."

Helena, however, did not like the tale her own sensing gear was telling her.

"John," worriedly, "listen - "

The muted "chatter" issuing from the instrument was distinctive, and by now too familiar.

A loaded question, but he had to ask:


"No - but just the same, I don't think we should stay down here too very long."

"You're the doctor," said he.

Maya had moved further into the room, and had settled herself in a contrivance made from the dusky iridescent metal.

"The chair feels comfortable," said she. "Their proportions might have been similar to ours, perhaps."

"But, who were they?" asked Sandra, with feeling.


"And this seems to be a sort of information terminal," Maya resumed. "Look at the sheen, the patina of this metal - like those smooth carvings we saw, and possibly indicating a similar function. What do you make of these?" indicating the neat and orderly rows of small precise cuneiforms.

"They're like little pictures," Helena thought.

"Picture-writing," Sandra concurred.

"Like the old Egyptian hieroglyphics," Alix added.

"Maybe it's the closest they had to a written language," from Koenig.

"Some ancient peoples back on Earth possessed no written language at all," Sandra pointed out, "but they still had their ways of communicating."

"Also pressure-sensitive," as Maya demonstrated.

As she touched a silvery fingertip to a certain hieroglyph, its electronic twin promptly appeared on the flat screen positioned forward of the keyboard panel.

Trying others produced whole groups of pictographs.

"Here's something else I've seen before," said Alix. "This is like a praenomen, or a Pharoah's cartouche - a type of given name, or signature - something denoting identity."

"More of Victor's stories?" from a somewhat bemused Koenig, who had heard his own share of them.

"He talks about all sorts of things," shrugging, "and I listen happily!"

"Maybe it wants to know who we are," said Alan.

"It's trying to 'talk' to us, at any rate," as Maya continued to press various "keys," filling the screen with pictographs, singly as well as in groups and clusters.

"What's the chance of our talking back?" from Verdeschi. She would be safe here, he thought, she could rest awhile, calling only upon her phenomenal scientific talents and not her ability to transform...

"Well," leaning back in the chair, "mathematics is a sort of universal language. I could start with that..."

Before the war, we could 'hear' their signals with our instruments, even decipher some of it - basic codes of mathematics and physics...

"Get all the information you can, then. I saw several corridors branching off this one, not far beyond here. Let's each take one. Helena, you and I will stay together," said he.

"John," said she, "there's one other reason we shouldn't stay very long. We haven't heard from Alpha since coming down here."

"Yes," Maya considered, "surely they ought to have realigned by now. Either they still haven't gotten through the force field - or, if they have, this bunker is itself shielded against the radiation, and their signal's still being blocked."

"Then we'd best not linger," Alan summed up.

"Vraiment," said Alix.

"Right," said Koenig. "Let's get started."

He was leading Helena to the main corridor, with Alan, Sandra and Alix following close behind.

Verdeschi's words, however, stayed them:

"John - this wall of instruments, here - they've been wrecked. From the look of it, somebody took to it with a sledgehammer, or whatever passes for one around here."

He stepped back over, and looked.

The beautiful metals they'd admired were virtually unrecognizable, for having been recklessly smashed and pounded about; clearly beyond any hope of salvage.


The very idea was unfathomable to him.

"That's how it looks."

Not any more. Not since the war. We've never heard from them again...

"But why?" Helena wondered, and watched Koenig as he and she made their way along the corridor, finding and turning on lights as they went. "They couldn't survive down here without machines - well, any more than we could. Why would they smash them on purpose?"

Surrounded by still more decorative friezes, the very notion became all the more imponderable.

"Perhaps Maya will find some of the answers. And us, too."

The buzz of a commlock halted them some distance down their corridor. It was Carter:

"John? Let me talk to Helena..."

"I'm here," said she.

"I've found what appears to have been their medical center. The place is a shambles - locked cabinets broken into, shattered glass - rubble everywhere," a doleful commentary accompanying the pictures they could see on their small video pickups. "Machinery's one thing, but why smash up a place like this?"

"Alan, this may sound somewhat facetious, but - would you say that room had been ransacked?" from Helena.

Her mind had already skipped ahead - and she didn't like what awaited at the end.

"Well, I didn't know there existed criteria for such things, but I'd say so."

Her blue eyes fell and a knowing little sigh issued from her. Even in this unearthly setting, the scenario was uncomfortably familiar.

"Drugs," said she. "They were after drugs. We've seen the same thing happen on Alpha, to a lesser extent - especially after we left Earth orbit - drug-stealing."

"So they could've gone on a rampage in there while on some sort of drug-induced 'high,'" Koenig suggested.

"Very likely."

"Alan, do you see any evidence of - people?"

"Not that kind of evidence." Pause. "But I'll keep looking. If any of their medicines are still in intact containers, I'll bring them along, Helena," and with that, he rang off.

Koenig reholstered his commlock and looked at Helena, as she did the same.

Her cool professional demeanor seemed in place once more, but those eyes betrayed her. They welled with inner pity.

"Alix said they knew beauty," her voice tremulous with feeling, "and so much of is still here, all around us, and yet - and yet, we keep finding ugliness." She took a breath. "What could have driven them to their own extinction? Something did - call it woman's intuition if you want, but I can't quite accept that radiation up there as the only cause."

He put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"I know 'let's keep looking' isn't much, but..."

"It's all we have, isn't it?"

Their corridor went on and on, a seemingly-endless tunnel.

It eventually led Koenig and Helena to yet another room; and, judging from the echoes stirred by their footsteps, it seemed a sizable domicile.

Their hand-beams located the light-activating section of yet another enormous bas-relief, yet only subdued illumination issued forth this time.

"That seems to be all the light there is in here," said Helena, almost in apology.

She and Koenig looked around them, and their estimates of this place increased considerably.


Vast - by far the largest they'd yet come upon, was this circular chamber with its high-vaulted ceilings which at once helped explain away those echoes...

Like the earlier rooms the survey party had encountered, this one was resplendent with dusky iridescent metals of many colors, lent an eerie sparkle by the low light.

Its every exposed surface - walls, ceiling vaults, columns, even the floor - was covered with the precise and beautiful bas-relief friezes they'd all come to marvel at.

And there was also a new sound - the faint trickle of water, filling the series of small low-walled pools of varying shapes, with canals connecting them.

"Like the irrigation network above," said Koenig, as they slowly walked past each pool in turn. "That aquifer must be under our feet somewhere."

"This doesn't seem functional, so much," said she. "It seems more, well, ceremonial. Even the bottom of this pool has carvings in it," shining her light down into it, through the water, to better observe details.

They next turned their attention to a large fount, circular and the largest of the group, in the center of the great room, ringed by its smaller fellows.

They had to carefully hop over one of the canals to reach it.

The bottom-decoration here was quite different.

"That's almost like the papier-mache maps we used to make in grade school," as Koenig thought out loud. "Three-dimensional. Those larger forms could be continents, and the smaller ones island archipelagos."

"Then this could be a map of what this planet looks like."

"Or the way it used to look. It doesn't match our maps, back on the Moon."

"John - "

Her light had picked up a large recess in the far wall, one of several such that ringed the perimeter of the main chamber.

It held a great metallic statue.

Training both their lights upon it, they drew nearer...

"They were humanoid," said she. "Possible reptilian extraction," noting the scales that covered much of its form; from a tiny mesh-like fineness to overlapping plates that seemed vaguely reminiscent of a turtle's. "I wonder if this is life-size..."

Small niches on either side of the statue's esconcery held beautifully-crafted bowls. Helena withdrew and examined one.

"Offertory dishes," she thought. "Then this must be a sacred place, a shrine. Perhaps they worshipped their gods here..."

She carefully set it back in its place once more, and briefly bowed to it as a gesture of respect...

So this is someone of great importance, then? I wonder if I ought to bow or something...

"Add to the list," Koenig heard himself saying, in the present. "They had religion."

Helena was looking around again, seeing light and shadows fencing provocatively with one another, hearing the gurgling of water as it flowed from pool to canal to pool in the ceremonial ring.

Although the air temperature seemed pleasant enough, she couldn't help an instinctive shudder.

"For the first time since coming here, I can almost feel them watching us..."

Koenig had momentarily disappeared into a narrow passage nearby, which apparently led to yet another chamber. Helena could see his light-beam sweep its dark interior.

Rooms within rooms, she thought, like an elaborate maze, as she followed him in.

But he was putting up an arm, as to block her way.

"You don't want to see," said he...

Her grip upon his arm tightened once more, as it had back there in the grove of towering corposant trees...

He could not bear to see pain in those limpid eyes...

Gently moving his arm aside, "I'm a physician, John," Helena stepped past him. In such situations, he and she seemed able to communicate in silent and private ways. "I've seen death before..." and after this, her voice whispered away into silence.

Koenig had found, tripped the lights. Here, as outside, subdued illumination.

Dusky metallic walls, crowded with the unintelligible hieroglyphics; the ceiling was the same...

He drew his commlock, punched a conference-call channel:

"They have identity...we've found a body."

It lay on a catafalque of the dusky metal, this being covered with great masses of a beautiful fabric with the softness of velvet; the first evidence of such they had seen.

All was enclosed by smooth, rounded crystalline walls that showed no seams to their eyes or instruments.

"There are more of those offertory bowls here," when Helena could speak again, "filled with grains, those little gold berries Maya picked, and others too..."

"We've been thinking only in terms of those croplands up there," in Verdeschi's voice. "Looks like we'll have to think again."

"Helena called this a sacred place or shrine," said Koenig. "There are several of these alcoves, all around this room - I'll wager we'll find each one contains a body laid out very much like this one."

"Then this is no mere granary," from Carter, "but a funerary shrine, something like the Pyramids of Egypt..."

"No, not like the Pyramids - more like the Valley of the Kings!" Alix's voice was touched by the glow of inner revelation. "The ancient Pharoahs were entombed within the Pyramids, along with all the treasures they would need for their lives in the next world - but they were too easily accessible to determined grave-robbers. Even the cave-tombs of the Valley weren't completely immune from that, they were also looted to some degree."

"Except for one," Koenig finished, "the best-known of all: Tutankhamen - King Tut."

"There's a statue just outside here that looks very much like this," said Helena, and she went on to describe details of the body for her listeners elsewhere, as Koenig utilized his commlock to send a video feed: "Some six feet tall, size-ratio of the limbs to the torso roughly comparable to human norm. Similar cranial size, chest cavity slightly larger. Three long slender fingers and a fourth thumb-like appendage on each hand. From what I can see of his teeth, he was probably a meat-eater."

"They ended their lives as vegetarians," said Sandra's voice. "We saw no evidence that the land up there was used for grazing by animals."

"I do wish you wouldn't make it all sound quite so - clinical," said Alix, regretfully.

"It's unfortunately true that the dead don't always have privacy," said Alpha's chief physician.

"Maybe, doc," from Alan again, "but he used to be a person once. A lot like us, I'd bet, even if he doesn't look like it. Like John said, he had identity. He had a name. And friends - mates. He laughed, feared his gods, worked hard, likely raised bloody hell sometimes...fell in love, perhaps..."

He left the rest unfinished.

Unfinished sentence, unfinished life.

A moment's silence passed, before he started again.

"We're not going to find any of them alive. For one thing, anyone still alive would've brought those crops in - but they're all still up there, unpicked."

"Land of that size would produce enough to adequately feed only a relatively-small community, in any event," Maya added.

"Alan still has a point - whatever killed them all, it happened before the harvest," from Verdeschi.

"And it must have been horrible, to cause the type of - reckless destruction we've seen so far," said Helena, in conclusion.

"Perhaps it might explain what we've come upon," from Sandra.

"I was going to ask Tony for his opinion," from Alix.

"Go ahead," said he.

"We're in a small room," said she. "It must've had one of those force-field 'doors' at one time, but it doesn't now - it's apparently been taken-to with your sledgehammer. There are shelves filled with - well - various geometric solids. Cones, cubes, spheres, cylinders and such. They're all of a hand-held size, like this octahedron," Sandra aiming her commlock so that the others would be able to see it on their own little screens. "Metallic, covered with those little praenomens - and with traces of an energy source still inside some of them. I could feel a - a certain tingling, when I touched them."

Verdeschi, watching and listening, tried to analyze.

"A force field would suggest restricted access," musing. Then, in a tone that clearly indicated he didn't quite believe it either, "Weapons locker? - "

"Hence my question," said she. "This is a sacred place - there should be no need of such things here. Should there?"

"A last line of defense against grave-robbers, perhaps?" Alan suggested. "Assuming they could get past the other barriers - if that's indeed what they are."

"Perhaps touching those pictographs in a certain sequence activates them," Maya speculated, following up with a caution, "so be careful how you handle them..."

"Like that tree," her voice still wincing at the memory.

Koenig, still in the burial chamber with Helena, was reminded of Verdeschi's earlier speculations...a doomsday weapon, capable of wiping entire cities from the face of the world; even altering its geography, perhaps...

...except for this isolated enclave, deep underground ...

"Maybe if we can find answers to some of our other questions, we can then answer yours, Alix," thinking aloud. Then, to Helena, "Is there any way you can tell how he died?" motioning towards the glass-encased corpse.

"This crystalline shell doesn't seem to block the search beam," referring to the catafalque's see-through upper structure. "But even without the risk of contamination, I don't dare break the seal. There's a vacumn inside. That would explain how well-preserved the body is - but it'll also make determining how long he's been dead, rather difficult."

"Maya, if that machine of yours there could give us some physiological data, it'd be a help..."

"Well," sighing, "I've figured out most of its basic functions, but I haven't gotten very far in deciphering the language. There are several different interpretive methods that can be applied to hieroglyphic languages like this one. The Egyptian system is understood primarily due to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. We aren't that fortunate here."

"Looks like you'll have to make an educated guess," to the doctor, and then he fell silent as she brought her instruments into full play...

But for the subdued light, they could almost be back in the Kaldorian sleepership that had crashed on the Moon, their wondering gazes sweeping about the still and soundless chamber and its slumbering occupants encased in their caskets.

The Alphan boarding party, convinced that they no longer lived, then decided to attempt to open one for examination. And immediately realized their error, when its occupant literally vanished in a puff of smoke before their startled eyes...

No, she would be far more cautious this time. The seal remained intact.

Her expression slowly changed, from studious to perplexed.

"Maya," said she, "I wish you could find that Rosetta Stone - with little knowledge otherwise of this species' anatomy or vital functions, this readout makes no sense..." Looking up at Koenig, "Because, according to this and making an 'educated guess' - this creature died of starvation..."

"Starvation?" from the incredulous Psychon; sentiments echoed by Carter:

"Are you saying with all that food up there, he starved to death?"

Verdeschi was more cautious:

"'All that food up there' is probably contaminated - if we can't eat it, they likely couldn't, either."

"Maybe they knew it," said Sandra, quietly.

"And that set off all the rest," said Koenig.

Silence. The proverbial "silence of the grave" was no metaphor, not in this place...

The piercing tone ripped through the stillness, disturbed the innermost quiet of their thoughts...

"Radiation alarm!" in Maya's voice.

Helena was on the net, quickly, tersely:


"It's mine - " Verdeschi's response was all as immediate, " - there's another body here, I can spot it off at the far end of this corridor - not under glass. Looks like yours, Helena - in about the same shape, too - "

"Meaning no vacumn - he hasn't been dead very long," said she.

"And he's 'hot,'" from Koenig; this being of crucial importance.

"Like the proverbial pistol - my geiger-counter's gone crazy," and indeed, its "chatter" was of the highest and most frantic pitch.

"Stay away from him - don't get anywhere near him - "

Helena then turned a worried face to Koenig, her eyes very round in this subdued and surreal light. "Radiation poisoning - where he got it from doesn't matter - we've all been exposed - "

"Your call, then" said he.

"We have to get out of here, right now."

In this situation, hers was the deciding judgment.

He broadcast the necessary orders; that the mission was being aborted, and for all of them to return to the control room where Maya was, and from there they would return to the surface.

There was danger, in lingering too long...and no one in the survey party understood that better than he.

Chapter Twelve

It had taken the three of them - Koenig, Carter and Maya's space creature - to reseal the air shaft; a task calling not so much for brute strength as exacting delicacy.

The booming THUD of their act set up reverberations inside the realm of the force field, and more unsettling echoes elsewhere.

They knew now, all of them, that they would be the last living beings to tread the ground of this planet, to take in its marvelous sights above and around them, and the elaborate mausoleum far beneath it.

There was no one else.

The truth of Carter's doleful prediction had virtually been assured by the still-radioactive corpse Verdeschi had discovered; and even without adequate time for thorough exploration of the massive grave-city, there was no certainty others such would not be found.

With that THUD they could yet hear, the tomb-city truly became a tomb again; of god-kings and the workers who'd served them, of the entire culture that had once filled Chehalis with its vibrancy.

There was no one else...

On Koenig's orders, they had removed no artifacts; this as much a mark of respect as a safety caution, to help minimize the risk of lethal exposure.

Somewhere beneath their feet, those last nameless denizens lay in their darkened-again crypts, enveloped in a greater darkness.

And above their heads, the sun had advanced to another quarter of the sky, shadows had lengthened and the silver-gray fog was billowing in again, washing over the unseen apex of the force field like a wave over a seashore; and still, with no sound to it.

There seemed little left to do, except simply turn and go.

Except, perhaps, to Helena's the others made their way along ahead of her, she took her own last look around.

She took in the brilliant golden berries Maya had earlier sampled, the head-heavy grains she herself had examined, the fruit trees...and she decided.

She stopped.


Koenig had noticed.

"They died before the harvest," half to herself, half aloud, "and all of this is still here, waiting to be picked..." Turning to him, the flush of excitement and resolve could be seen in her beautiful face. "John, why don't we do it?"

"Do what?" not quite following.

"What they couldn't do," hurrying on, "pick the fruit, gather the grains - bring in the harvest - "

"Helena, virtually all these fruits and grains, and all the rest too, are contaminated," reminding her, "and they very likely killed all those people down there."

"But we can remove it! We'll have to go through decontamination procedure, us and our Eagle, when we get back to Alpha anyway. The food can be treated to eradicate the radioactive traces, and then we can start compatibility tests. We've done this before. Even if we still can't eat it then, perhaps Maya or Alix could, with their different metabolisms. And there are other possible applications, too..."

Maya herself had paused near one of the fruit trees.

"This fruit is ready to fall off the trees right now, it's that ripe," helping herself to one. "If it isn't picked soon, it'll drop to the ground anyway - and it'll rot there. Helena makes a certain sense. And what she says is true - before, the workers were always here when the bounty of the land was ripe for the taking. There was perfect balance. But that balance has been destroyed - the workers are dead, and without them this place will die, too. The last casualty. It's only a matter of time."

Time, Koenig thought, as his eyes passed from berry bushes to stalky grains to fruit-laden trees.

A lot of time had been invested in this place; time and care and hard work had fashioned this remarkable plot of land into a new likeness, bringing it to such a state of perfection.

But time had become its enemy, as Maya had said, and would eventually bring it down. Perhaps as soon as the next harvest; even their own presence might've further disturbed its harmony, could bring the end even sooner.

All that planning and lavish attention would be wasted, and the thought of this was abhorrent to him, the leader of a community where the waste of any vital commodity was abhorrent.

"I had their computer make a copy of all the information in its storage-banks," Maya offered. "I was able to do that's certain to contain propagation data on all of this. Once we've cracked the linguistics..."

"It can't help them anymore," as Helena made a last entreaty. "But it could help us..."

He looked to the other members of the survey party.

They all appeared to be lining up behind Helena; had also seen the possibility to save and preserve at least a part of this place.

Life, over death - who could argue with that?

What would you want me to do?...

"It mustn't go for nothing," aloud. "We'll do it. Everything we can carry, plus whatever graftings and soil and water samples we don't already have, until Alan says we've reached the weight allowance. We'll likely have to make several trips to the Eagle - Alix, you can move through the force field most easily, you'll be our 'runner.'"

"Yes, sir!" beaming her approval.

Helena's eyes were radiant with their own special gratitude. She had won her victory...

Chapter Thirteen

Time passed, and their labors subtly altered the landscape.

Above, the mist swirled, thickened, and then began to dissipate and blow out; and yet again the sun had moved.

Within the force field, silence reigned.

And an emptiness it would know from now on.

The others had already disappeared through the force field, and Koenig paused before following them, for one more look.

The berry bushes seemed curiously exposed, shorn of their masses of minute golden baubles.
The fruit trees had likewise been picked clean.

The grains had been cut, the vegetables pulled; leaving mounds of clumpy, broken soil as the marks of their passage.

He felt a certain sense of satisfaction in what they had accomplished.

His thoughts, though, were for another.

Little left to do, except simply turn and go...

But not just yet...

"I'm going to Chehalis. Come with me..."

His words, but spoken by another voice.

He looked, reacted as he saw her.

Amid the mist-shrouded desolation, the plum-colored silks of her riding costume glowed; the full sleeves, the close-fitting white lace collar.

Below those fetching dark leggings, her soft slippers scarcely made marks in the ground as she approached him.

The cloud of russett hair, the beaming countenance, and those limpid eyes...he knew, remembered them all.

Just now, though, puzzlement touched those comely features as she surveyed the sight of him in the silvery decontamination suit he needed to wear here.

He shrugged, tried to be nonchalant. "It's the suit..."

"I see only you," said she, and she meant it.

Perhaps it was the suit, for neither of them attempted to touch the other.

Their eyes could, and did.

"Your Maya was correct," quietly. "What destroyed my country long ago was of our own doing, and not at the hand of another," as her mournful gaze took in the now-barren croplands around them. "They are at peace," bowing her head and falling silent for a moment, as did he.

The she was turning back to him once more and her mood changed, brightened.

"And you are alive - !"

"I read the letter..."

"Did you?"


"The eziimee blossoms?"

"Thriving! - " with a smile.

"As I knew they would, with you to care for them..."

A more awkward silence, and then he and she began speaking at once.

And they were laughing, the tension broken at last, and at ease with one another.

"I still can't believe it..."

He felt like an awkward schoolboy. Did she know that?

She was cupping his face with her hands, in their lace-trimmed cuffs.

He let his eyes close, as those fingertips gently probed and soothed...

"I remember that..."

"Do you?"


"I'm glad," as she drew him closer.

The last hint of fog and mist disappeared, and all came flooding back upon the two of them...the little gestures, the gentle touchings, the looks exchanged; the closeness they had known within the howdah, and in the darkness of his suite, and no wish of release from any of it...

All was revelation once more...

And still, so very much left unspoken...

And she knew.

More than he realized.

"I am already gone from your life, John," that voice, aching with feeling, whispered. "Even now, at this very moment, the Moon is taking you away. Let it do so... Show me your New Earth, when the time comes. Call for me. Will you?"

"I will..."

"Until Man in the Moon..."

He knew no more after that; and the touch of the hand on his arm, when it came, startled him with its seeming suddenness.

His eyes opened, and he involuntarily drew in a breath.

The hand on his arm belonged to Helena.

Her blue eyes mirrored incredulity and concern.

"They were worried. You didn't come..."

"I'm coming now," said he, laying his own hand over hers, and then followed her.

The longer rays of the sun glinted off the ponding basins and the canals they fed.

Now there came a sound, to disturb the stillness; perhaps the last sound that ever would.

The sound, as from afar off, of revving engines, accelerating and taking a spaceship up and away. Moments later, a minute white contrail appeared, high overhead, catching the sunshine.

There was a CRACK, like a rifle-shot, a momentary rumbling inside the force field as the otherwise-invisible hurrying craft passed through the sound barrier.

Then the silence returned. It would not leave again.

Chapter Fourteen

Specially-suited Reconnaissance crews swarmed over the Survey Eagle, as it reposed in the Security Research Station's pressurized hanger bay.

Koenig could watch them, while studying his own visage reflected in the thick shatterproof glass.

He had no real memory of the last time they'd brought him here, only a discordant blur of images...of soft-slippered steps sinking into plush carpets and the subtle rustle of silks, the distant whisperings of voices and a sea of candle-flames floating in the darkness...

Of the subdued comings and goings of the nurses, a moment's flash of light against the zippered stark white left sleeves of their uniforms, and the multi-colored blinking telltales of machinery in the isolation ward wherein he had awakened...

The suite was large and comfortable, easily able to accommodate the seven Alphans in quarantine until physicians could pronounce them safe.

Their anti-contamination suits had been changed out for powder-blue hospital couture.

Sandra was also watching the goings-on in the bay, fascinated by the ever-shifting patterns of men and machinery.

A stir of activity at her elbow turned out to be Alan, offering a grin and a cold beverage. She was grateful, and then puzzled at the look of his reflection in the glass.

It turned and he turned, and so did she...

Over to one side of the ward, Verdeschi was still sound asleep - had been, almost as soon as the Survey Eagle had cleared the misty treetops back on Chehalis - his dark-haired head nodded off to one side, as he half-sat, half-laid upon the quarantine cot.

Next to him, his healthy hand resting easily upon its shoulder, there reposed one of those especially exotic-looking felines whose name for the moment escaped them.

"Do you hear that?" she murmured.

His eyes still fixed, incredulous, upon the sight before them, he nodded.

"It's purring..."

The lithe and muscular form of the cat draped itself comfortably across his lap, forelegs stretched absently into space, lengthy tail absently flicking every so often, sleek ears and whiskers moving in subtle rhythm with the deep and relaxed breathing of sleep.

Other eyes had noticed. The Reconnaissance bay couldn't hold Koenig's attention and he'd wheeled away from the glass, resumed the pacing that still wasn't quelling his restlessness.

His probing gaze came to rest upon Verdeschi's cot, and perhaps in spite of himself he found himself smiling at that. He had known such things.

Nearby, Helena was napping on another cot. He stopped, continued to look at her.

She lent such elegance to the simplest things; like a nap, for instance.

She looked breathtaking...

Elsewhere in the suite, Alix was seated before a chessboard, carefully setting the chessmen, shapely-crafted and polished, in their starting positions. The seat opposite hers was empty.

"I play chess..."

She looked up, reacted at the voice - not the one she had expected - and immediately rose.

As Koenig took the chair, her moment's surprise retreated into a shy silence.

Into the breach came Carter, carefully managing three more beverage glasses. With some modicum of caution, all were deposited safely on the table; he took one for himself and quietly withdrew. Koenig offered another to her, before claiming his own.

"They told me what you did," said he quietly, sincerely. "Thank you..."

Her gaze fell; still too shy to speak, it seemed.

"You never came..."

It was more of a question, one he had wondered about, and seemed to coax her towards words.

"Everyone was under quarantine," said she. "While you were isolated, Alan was sequestered was I. They tested me again. I've never contracted the sickness, you see; and they still don't know why. And afterward, when quarantine ended, they thought it best that I stay away..."

Alan had stationed himself at the observation glass, with his drink. Sandra had wandered off elsewhere. With one eye he noted the two of them, there at the chessboard; they were talking now, and by his reckoning that was all to the good. He meant to see the awkwardness between them ended, the effects of Nephinefta put behind the Moon once and for all.

And still elsewhere - in the reception area of the travel tube leading back to Alpha proper - Victor Bergman had appeared.

He approached, hands clasped behind his back, a pensive posture typical of him.

He saw Koenig, beyond the glass, and smiled; saw past him, too: across the room, Maya had reappeared, the pair of them still close together upon Verdeschi's cot, his healthy hand resting easily upon her shoulder, her russet head nestled against his.

Alix turned in her chair to see the new arrival, and stood.

Helena, stirred from her light slumber, rose to her feet with easy grace.

"Word from Medical is, you'll be out of there soon," said the science advisor.

While the protocols had been Helena's, the physical footprint of the place had been his; he'd correctly surmised that a different arrangement would only be positive for his longtime friend and protégé, a deterrent against potentially-traumatic flashbacks to the aftermath of Nephinefta.

Still, he kept the tone somewhat light, "I trust there haven't been any problems with, shall we say, propinquity?" looking past their blue-clad shoulders, to the two still-dozing lovebirds. "So I see. Obviously not!"

Alix put a fingertip to her lips, and her eyes danced.

She quietly tiptoed over to the cot, stopped at the Security chief's shoulder and softly blew into his ear.

He stirred, grumbled, blinked; saw her beaming at him and briefly motioning towards the window. He understood, and nudged Maya. She too wakened, yawned, noticed the gazes fixed upon the two of them.

"I do hope I didn't - interrupt anything..."

Verdeschi fixed her with critical eyes, and Maya managed a brief smile in sympathy.

"Why are they looking at me like that?" softly, so he alone would hear. He didn't seem to know either, and absently shrugged.

They presently stood and joined the others.

"Your 'harvest' has cleared decontamination," Bergman resumed. "Hydroponics has charge of it now. I left them just a short while ago, and they still haven't stopped talking."

"What else do you have for us, Victor?" Koenig seemed more at ease now.

"The combined weight of Research and Data Sections is being brought to bear," said he. "Along with your debriefing reports, and admittedly a certain amount of guesswork at this early stage, we're starting to piece it together. Some of it, anyway."

Some knowing looks passed amongst the recently-returned survey party. They knew what they were in for, once they were away from here...

"You were saying about a preliminary report?" as Koenig gently steered things back to business. He knew this unspoken invitation included him, too.

"We have the vault or the force field, so far - I suggest we begin with the vault?" Pause. "Our analogy to the Valley of the Kings appears to be holding up; although whether the entombment ritual was common to their entire species or solely reserved for some privileged caste, isn't yet clear. The shrine had a colony of workers and attendants to serve it, and they likely also performed the mummifications of the bodies on-site..."

"And tended the crops," added Alan.

"Which brings us to the force field. That it kept out the forest, like your boundary-fence, makes a certain sense, I think. Whether it kept out would-be grave-robbers, seems to be another subject. All of you were able to touch it, without any ill effects; so perhaps it's lost some of its former punch."

"That bank of shattered controls, down below," Verdeschi suggested, remembering.


From the corner of his eye, he was watching his adjutant. As if trying to summon her own memories, she had let her eyes close and her head bow slightly as she listened.

Her mauve head moved, only barely, from side to side.

No? he wondered.

"And its ability to keep out the radiation?" Helena prompted.

He spoke slowly. "I don't believe it was ever intended for that purpose."

A perceptible little nod this time, as he continued to observe her.

"Again?" from the puzzled Koenig, giving voice to the raised eyebrows of his fellow listeners.

"Something you said, Helena, in the debriefing - that so many of the things you saw appeared to be more ceremonial than functional. Think about it. Those crops admittedly had to feed the workers there, but they were primarily intended for the shrine - you found them in the tombs. The overriding connotation was a spiritual one. To me, that suggests a sort of purification rite. They would've wanted - indeed, required - their offerings to their gods to be perfect, as - well - otherwise-uncontaminated, as possible."

"To that end, the gravity-offsetting beam I found operating in that air-shaft would've been ideal," as Maya followed his reasoning. "Foodstuffs could be moved easily, with little need to actually lay hands, so to speak, upon any of it. And in large quantities at the harvest, as well."

"And the crops themselves, those particular strains, could have been specially-bred for that purpose," from Koenig, also following. "So, at the time, we did have the right idea."

"But we approached it from the wrong premise," said Helena.

"What about outside the force field?" Alix queried aloud. "The pink flowers, and all those other curious plants we ran into first?"

"Hydroponics says they aren't yet ready to pronounce on that. They're still trying to determine whether the plants' more unusual attributes are in fact due to radiation-caused mutation, or have always been present and thus aren't unusual at all - except, perhaps, to us," with a wink at Carter. "Their placement, proximity to each other, within such a relatively-small area, does seem more than coincidental, doesn't it? Or, perhaps, it's only a natural fluke of circumstance the shrine's builders took advantage of when they built it, and the offertory crops were planted behind the force field. As such, they would indeed have served as an ingenious deterrent against grave-robbers, wouldn't they?" clearly intrigued by this idea.

"That bush was not a mutation," said Maya, more perhaps to herself than to her friends. "It was a hunter, drawing its prey to it in some way - direct-contact disoriented, paralyzed, then consumed. Living prey, like insects. Certain plants on Earth could do that. Until no prey remained..."

"And no more grave-robbers," Helena spoke slowly, "or builders, or workers or worshippers. They're all dead. We saw - some of them. Why did it happen?"

No one spoke.

We never heard from them again...

She hadn't known, had never known.

Are we the only ones left to find out? -

"Let's think about them for a moment," Bergman spoke quietly. "Let's imagine them, alive again...growing food to offer up to their gods and to provide for the needs of their dead in the next life - and, of course, to feed themselves. That was the extent of their world..."

"I spent the most time exploring their control center," said Maya. The words, the reasoning, were coming more easily now. "There was nothing there, nothing in evidence, nothing that I could identify, that even remotely resembled communications switchgear. Except for the funeral processions, when the bodies were brought to them, they apparently had no other form of contact with the outside world..."

"They stopped coming," Sandra murmured, more perhaps to herself, than to those around her. "Those processions stopped prior knowledge and no forewarning, you said. They couldn't dream there was going to be a war, or cataclysm of nature - or whatever it was..."

"No more funerals - well, that would've been the first sign, likely as not," from Bergman, "...and then, at such time afterwards as we may never know with certainty, their own people began to die for no apparent reason. Given adequate time, and the state of their medical art, they would've discovered that reason - would've found that radiation had contaminated their only food supply. Can you imagine what such a discovery must have done to them? That the offerings to their gods, which must be perfect, were no longer perfect? How devastating must it have been to them, to find that out?"

The science advisor's listeners could now perceive the beginnings of a certain pattern, could assign a certain perspective to what had seemed, down there, the wanton and senseless destruction and pillaging they'd witnessed; their memories of the time spent surrounded by the tomb-city returning to them, and with a haunting clarity.

"They believed their gods had deserted them," in a morose tone, from Verdeschi.

"And here was the sign, of their divine displeasure, over whatever killed everyone else up on the surface," from Sandra.

"And they would've taken out their - well - frustrations, on anything within reach," Carter added, "like the machinery that failed to protect them."

"I'm still not so sure it could have done that," from Maya. "Some of what I found didn't impress me as being sufficiently sophisticated."

"The one lingering reality - they were all going to die, sealed away down there. And they knew it." The turn had come back to Bergman. "In the initial - venting of passions, there may very well have been injury, widespread injury, inflicted. Perhaps even murder - whether their ethical code would still allow this, there's no way of knowing. The other choices that would have faced them, were several. None of them pleasant. And yet, each of them, however many there may have been, would have to eventually choose..."

The color was leaving Helena's cheeks. Choose how to die... ?

And she, a physician, felt sick to her stomach.

Insulated as he was against emotional extremes by his mechanical heart, Bergman was continuing. Although not quite as dispassionately as before.

"They could refuse the food, and gradually starve. Or they might have gone ahead and eaten it anyway, knowing it would kill them - slowly - but at least they would die with their stomachs full. Others would've sought oblivion in addiction to drugs, underestimating their potency and in the end overplaying their hands..."

"O My Lady - " Alix was also turning pale and her voice trembled as she took in his words, her imagination conjuring up pictures to go with them. The omnimorph roiled within her. Carter moved a step closer to her.

"...and in one final hallucinogenic rage, smashing and clawing at everything in their path, before overdose took them down. And it would only have worsened, as the drugs ran out and the inability to support their 'habits' forced them into withdrawal. By one means or another, they took their own lives."

An unsettling stillness fell.

Maya, who'd tried to keep herself detached, was aware of a disturbing sensation, analogous to heat-waves, coursing through her brain, and feeling none too steady on her feet.

Hypocrite, she scolded, trying to fool yourself...

Herself the last known survivor of her own race, she felt a certain bond between herself and these vanished creatures; one in which her companions could not share.

"What happened to them - afterward?" She recognized Verdeschi's touch as he gripped her arm with his good hand, to support her. "Except for the one I saw, we found no others outside the tombs."

"That may be where those geometric objects Alix discovered, enter the picture. They could, as you and Alan have both suggested, be weapons of a sort; a last line of defense to protect the sanctity of the tombs. In those last days, they possibly found another use. A culture as reasonably-advanced as theirs would find most desirable and efficient a weapon that would kill quickly, clinically, painlessly and with no trace remaining. It might well have been the - method of choice, for some. And for those who chose - other means - their remains could thus be disposed of. Any guise of rational thinking, of reasoning, had already long vanished from their minds."

"Then I saw the last of them. The very last one..."

"Death took him, before he could turn a weapon on himself." Bergman allowed a decent interval to follow, and then took a breath and tried to sound somewhat more upbeat. "As I've pointed out, all of this is still speculation. We should know more, hopefully, once we've made a breakthrough on the language."

The science advisor paused again.

"I don't say we'll understand - I wonder whether we'll ever even begin to. But at least we will know." Then, more gently, "Perhaps it might be a good idea to try to rest, for awhile..."

Verdeschi wondered about that, "I don't fancy the sort of dreams we might have," but he led Maya from the window anyway.

The field-dressings on his injured hand had been replaced, and his antibiotics had been further adjusted. He looked, remembered again the story of the ophidian of ancient Psychon. And knew what she had risked for him.

"I couldn't lose you again," whispering in his ear.

"'ll never happen..."

He made a mental note to look in on Hydroponics later on, to keep an eye on their reports and analyses, to watch what would grow...

Alix felt haunted, not wanting to think about anything. After Nephinefta it was simply too much to bear...

She gasped, nonetheless, as something touched her hand...

"Saw what you did," said the voice behind her. "I don't suppose...?"

She felt the most curious paralysis taking hold. His fingers strayed along her blue-clad forearm.

"You most certainly may not," she barely managed to whisper.

"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," as his other hand slipped over her shoulder.

"And the gentleman forgets himself..."

Somehow her feet managed to move, as she felt him leading her somewhere...and then they were sitting.

Her awareness was clouding by the moment, and it didn't seem to matter...

"Shocking!..." when they parted.

"You are the most confusing person I have ever known," she murmured.

"No more disappearing, then?"

"You've made that impossible," as they kissed again, and she didn't have to worry about thinking anymore.

Helena remained by the observation glass, near Koenig.

Their eyes met, spoke, the invitation tendered and accepted. Then she was moving away.

Bergman lingered.

"John, you haven't uttered a word."

"There, but for the hand of fate, go you or I," musing. "You could hardly fail to see the parallels. Given a different lifetime, a different reality, they could've been us."

"But they weren't. We're still here, and we're still batting. And we've learned a few things - I think that would've pleased them."

He wasn't quite convinced.

"The price was too high," shaking his head. "I keep thinking about something Tony said down there, about a bomb. A war. Started by someone for some silly reason that seemed so damnably important at the time...and nobody won. Nobody left alive to 'win.' They simply blew themselves off the map...and tore away the last underpinnings of that little colony beneath that force field. And they simply gave up, too. Now it's all gone. All of it."

Bergman absently ran fingers through his scruffy mane. "I'll go talk to them again in Medical, try to expedite your release, hm?" directing a glimmer of a smile at his old friend, who despite his moodiness managed to smile back.

Seconds passed, and those smiles widened. No, they were not done. Not yet...

In another corner of the room, Sandra had sought out her own cot. Tiredness was starting to make some inroads on her as she sat, stretched, the soft cladding easily giving way beneath her. It had indeed been a very long day.

She cast an idle glance about her. Three's-a-crowd could be parsed in multiples; and she was coming to feel not a little self-conscious...Tucking her feet comfortably beneath her, she took her commlock and placed a call to the Command Center. David Kano answered. His operations team was just being relieved. With a certain canny little smile, he handed her off to the incoming group's leader. A certain rush of shyness assailed her, after that, and the austere hospital surroundings faded away...

"Yes, it's me...I'm back..."

Koenig watched as the science advisor disappeared into the terminal leading to the travel tube that would carry him back to Moonbase.

Helena, in her turn, watched him as he came up to her.

A faint whir of wings danced over their heads.

The canary began to sing, and from that tiny throat there issued forth a rich and eager chirpy, rolling, trilling symphony, born of pure joy.

He sat beside her on the cot. Her hand easily slipped into his, and she proceeded to give him something else to think about for a while...


Fading light, dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar, drawing nigh,
falls the night.

John Koenig stood before the observation window, looking outward. He'd been there awhile, on the balcony in the high bay; down below, lay the empty and abandoned floor of what had once been Main Mission Control.

He was seriously thinking about opening up the old place again. The Command Center was coming due for an overhaul; he'd already alerted the department heads to the command conference he'd scheduled, to discuss the project. Having something new to think about, would do them all some good.

Outside, past the thick protective glass of the window, Moonbase Alpha spread itself before him; a manmade sprawl of domes and ramparts, towers and travel tubes, all but indistinguishable from the lunar surface from which it had all been fashioned.

It lay in deep shadow, much of it, this landmark or that discernible only by his intimate knowledge of its arrangement. More and more, the light was failing...

No one was out on the surface now, the maintenance teams recalled back inside the safety of the base, airlocks sealing behind the last of them.

No Eagle remained on any of the launch pads, all made secure below in their pressurized hanger bays.

He looked, and with his mind's eye could pick out some of the laser cannon placements. Diverting the manpower and matériel to construct them had always offended the scientist in him - even as the commander in him had grudgingly acknowledged the necessity of their creation - nonetheless, he was grateful that for the duration of this passage, at least, they had remained in their silos.

The demarcation between moon and sky was absolute, even in this spreading unnatural twilight.

Millions of square miles, or several billion acres - it was vast, this little world of theirs, that by cosmic default now belonged to only the three-hundred-or-so of them.

Flanked on all sides by mountain ranges with rounded summits several thousand feet high, Plato and its dusky alluvial volcanic floor, the color of cut steel, was itself an isle filled with noises...

Scattered across their tiny outpost, men and women were stirring to computer-generated wake-up calls even as still others drifted off into the artificial night to rest, and - other pursuits.

He thought of Verdeschi and Maya, alone somewhere in that darkness, and utterly lost in each other.

And of the Frasers, themselves entwined in a sound and blessed slumber.

He hoped Bergman had gotten to sleep, at last.

And that Helena, too, had settled down, not to be called from sleep by some medical emergency...

Too, his thoughts sought out yet another...

It was time, at last, to let go.

And he knew she wanted him to.

"Until New Earth..."

It was as much a farewell, as a promise.

Until then...

His gaze faltered, fell, but only for a moment. Then, drawing a breath, he pushed off from the windowsill and wheeled away, his back straight and his walk leaving a measured click-click-click upon the tiled floor of the observation deck.

Behind him, beyond the window and its view of the base, beyond Plato itself, the ancient lunar sands stretched far away.

For a precious little while, the runaway Moon and those upon it had enjoyed sunlit days; now it fled on, the influence of stellar forces whispering away as it drew nearer, ever nearer, to the three-in-one star's massive heliopause.

Then the darkness would take over...

...Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

Open the gate, O watchman of the night!

Ho, travellers, I open. For what land
Leave you the dim-moon city of delight?

We take the Golden Road to Samarkand!

James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915)

This is story 3 in the "Alpha's Universe Trilogy" series.
Copyright (c) 2012. Reprinted with permission.
Space:1999 is (c) 1976 by Carlton International Media.
All stories are the property of their respective authors.

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