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Blue Planet

Authors: Heather Hammonds
Show Year: Y2
Rating: PG
Date: 1999
The Alphans visit a tropical planet which appears ideal; even its population seems willing to welcome them with open arms. But is everything really as it seems?
Average Rating: 4.5/5 (based on 2 reviews)

The wide, calm lake stretched away in front of her as she stood on its shores, a gentle breeze ruffling her hair. Out in its center, Maya splashed gracefully about, laughing and calling out to her.

"Helena, come on in - it's so beautiful!"

Beautiful indeed- and tempting. The water was crystal clear and when she dipped her hand in it, comfortably tepid. It washed through her fingers like liquid silk. Slipping off her clothes, she followed Maya in.

Smooth round pebbles on the bed of the lake pressed sensuously against her feet as she walked, and soon the water was deep enough for her to swim properly. Laughing herself, she paddled out to the middle of the lake and looked around for Maya, but there was now no sign of the Psychon. All at once, she detected an eerie, brooding silence in the air. A malevolence that had not been present before.

Where had Maya gone?

Feelings of vulnerability and fear threatened to swamp her as she turned to swim back to the shore. The lake around her had turned black and menacing; its waters, deathly cold. The shore seemed a long way away now and her pace was slow; she felt as though she were swimming through quicksand. A sharp tug on her foot made her scream and she was pulled under by some unseen force, choking as her mouth filled with water. While she struggled to regain the surface she could hear the sound of strange chanting and a rhythmic drumbeat. Why was this happening? She was going to drown!

"John," she cried out silently, arms flailing as she fought for her life.

From the depths below, something unimaginably awful rose, and wrapped itself around her leg. Something with large wings, that flapped as it swam. With a sharp, painful snap, she felt her leg break. In agony now, she ceased to struggle and began to sink, knowing that to fight any longer would be useless......

Helena awoke with a scream lodged in her throat, and sat bolt upright in bed. Tears mingled with sweat as they coursed their way down her cheeks and she pushed a strand of damp hair away from her eyes with a shaking hand.

"Just a nightmare," she whispered, trying to calm herself. "Just a horrible nightmare, nothing more."

But it had been so vivid. She could almost smell the foul, brackish water of the lake- taste it in her mouth. She ran her hands over her legs, reassured by the fact that they were both strong and whole.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," she whispered out loud again.

Helena's eyes wandered around the reassuring familiarity of her darkened quarters, lit only by the glow of a communications monitor on the wall. Cherished photographs, a tiny figurine she'd recently sculpted, books, personal computer- everything was fine. Feeling slightly better, she got out of bed and went to wash herself in the small sink in the corner of her room. As she splashed water on her face, she wondered what could have caused such a powerful nightmare. As a rule, she didn't suffer from such dreams, no matter what trials and tribulations the Alphans went through.

It's probably the thought of the new planet we're about to explore, she told herself. It's always a tense time when a possible new home comes into view. We've suffered so many disappointments in our search for a place to end our journey.

Although she'd only had four hours sleep and her shift was not due to start for some time yet, Helena decided to get dressed and head over to Command Center, to see what new data had been collected on the approaching planet. She knew there was no way she was going to be able to get back to sleep after such a terrible nightmare and even the thought of lying down again made her shiver. Better to put a good few hours between her and the dream before she tried to rest again. As she left her quarters, she glanced back at the room one more time and frowned, shaking her head.

This is not like me, she thought.

The atmosphere in Command Center was alive with optimistic expectancy when Helena walked in; a feeling that was only present in the air when a potential new home was in sight. In the center of the big screen hung an inviting blue, green and white ball, which at first glance, bore an uncanny resemblance to planet Earth. She noticed that every so often one or another of the personnel on duty would pause in their duties and gaze up at the image, hope plainly written on their faces. A tired John Koenig stood at his desk, receiving details about the planet from Maya. Helena stole up behind him and put her hand on his shoulder.

"You should get some rest you know," she whispered in his ear.

Smiling, he swung around.

"No time Helena," he replied. "Maya keeps feeding me with exciting information."

The Psychon ran some figures across the computer monitor on Koenig's desk for Helena's benefit.

"As you can see, the planet approximates Earth's temperature and climatic conditions. It consists of mostly oceans, although there is one reasonable sized land mass, even if it is small by your Earth standards, situated right near the equator. My calculations show it to be very promising!"

"How long until we are close enough to go down and take a look?" asked Helena.

"Ten hours, and it will remain in range for only 96 hours - 4 Earth days," was the reply.

There was a sharp intake of breath from the direction of Sahn's desk and all eyes in Command Center turned to her.

"Commander, I am picking up indications of intelligent life!" she exclaimed. "A power source of some kind."

Koenig and Maya stepped over to Sahn, examining the information on her computer screen.

"It's very faint at this distance, but definitely there," Maya agreed.

"Yes, and growing stronger all the time, as we move closer," added Sahn.

"Right; get Tony and Alan up here, this puts a whole new perspective on matters," said the Commander thoughtfully. "And start broadcasting a message on all probable frequencies. Maybe whoever is down there will be willing to talk."

Hours passed and the inhabitants of the approaching planet remained stubbornly silent. As the Moon drew closer, the globe's beauty manifested itself in more and more detail on the big screen in Command Center, and it could easily be seen through the observation decks and ports on Alpha. The whole of the Moonbase was tense; on yellow alert, not knowing whether to prepare for an exodus, or attack from hostile aliens. They had faced the same situation many times before and dealing with it never became any easier. The ball of brilliant blue flecked with strands of white cloud, hung passively in space, awaiting their next move.

"Hmm, I don't like it," sighed Tony, squinting at the big screen. "The land mass on that planet is too small; whoever is living down there isn't going to want to share it with us. They're probably keeping quiet in the hope that we'll go away."

He was feeling pessimistic because he was tired- the Commander's call had interrupted his sleep.

"Not necessarily Tony," chided Maya. "It may simply be that the inhabitants of that planet have not yet developed communications systems sophisticated enough to penetrate space."

"But we can detect a strong source of energy that is looking more and more like a form of nuclear reactor," Sahn said quietly. "Whoever they are, they must be reasonably advanced."

"Well, just talking about it won't get us anywhere," said Alan. "I reckon we should take an Eagle down there and have a look. If they aren't going to answer us, it's the only way we're going to find out whether we'd be welcome or not."

The Commander agreed with Alan. After waiting as long as he felt they could afford to and still receiving no reply to their signal, he had to make a decision. The beautiful blue world was just coming into range, and now would be the optimum time to make a first trip to its surface.

"Listen up everybody," he said, drawing the attention of all in Command Center away from the image on the screen, and on to him. "I think it's time we sent an exploration team down to the planet's surface. We can't afford to miss out on the chance of a new home because the natives can't- or won't- talk."

"Hear hear," Alan muttered, earning himself a nudge in the ribs from Tony.

Koenig ignored him, intent on the next part of his announcement. Choosing who to take with him on these expeditions was never easy, and it was so important to get it right. Also, he always had the urge to leave Helena behind on the base, thus protecting her. This time, as usual, he knew that she would not be dissuaded from coming. After all, she'd correctly argue that she was Chief Medical Officer on Moonbase, and it was up to her to make sure any potential new environment was safe for the Alphans. So to save time, he wouldn't bother to try.

"The initial exploration team will be as follows: Alan Carter as pilot, Doctor Helena Russell as medical officer, Maya as science officer, myself of course, and two men from security, to be chosen by Tony Verdeschi. In my absence, Tony will have command of the base."

Tony was not a happy man at this choice, and opened his mouth to protest at being left behind. But before he could say anything, the Commander silenced him with a look, and a few quiet words in his ear.

"I need you here Tony. I'll feel easier, knowing I'm leaving the base in your capable hands. You and I both know there's always the small possibility that the exploration party might not make it back, however cautious we are. There's the rest of Moonbase to consider, if that happens."

Understanding that he had no choice, Tony nodded his head and accepted the decision. Nevertheless, he didn't feel any better about it. Maya was going down to that planet and he wouldn't be there with her, if anything went wrong. Besides, he had a bad feeling about the lack of communications between the planet's inhabitants and themselves. If the aliens had nuclear technology, surely they were advanced enough to have made some sort of contact...

He was careful to choose his two most trusted men from security to accompany the exploration team on planetfall. It was all he could do.

A well equipped Eagle One blasted off the minute the exploration party was ready, taking with it the hopes of every member of the Moonbase. Perhaps this time, they would find success. It all depended on who - or what - they ran into down there.

"It's gorgeous," breathed Maya, as the Eagle approached the outer atmosphere of the planet. "The land mass looks so verdant and my computer readings say the atmosphere is perfect for us."

"Earth must have been like this once, before man overpopulated it," murmured Helena, staring at the thickly vegetated, dark green continent on her computer monitor. It lay like a precious jewel, displayed on a velvet cloth of bright blue sea.

"Yes, with such a small area of land, we will have to take care not to damage the eco-system if we settle here," said Maya enthusiastically.

"Don't get too excited ladies," cautioned Alan, from his seat in the pilot section. "Remember; the natives may not be friendly."

Helena felt anything but excited. In fact, she felt rather more nervous than she usually would under these circumstances. As the Eagle dropped into a low orbit around the planet, she recalled her nightmare and shivered. Drums- there had been drums....

Stop it! she scolded herself. You can't associate a bad dream with real life. Forget it!

The Alphans circumnavigated the lovely globe in their Eagle once, and as expected, found nothing that they hadn't already seen from space.

"We'll take her down to where we picked up signs of a power source," said Koenig. "I want to get a closer look at exactly what it is."

"Okay Commander," replied Alan, and he started their Eagle on its descent to the planet's surface.

The ride was slightly bumpy as they thrust their way through the rich, thick atmosphere and back in the passenger module, Helena found herself gripping the edges of her seat. Maya noticed her discomfort and frowned.

"You look pale; are you feeling airsick? It's not like you, Helena."

She forced herself to relax and smile at Maya.

"No, I'm not airsick. Just a little tired, I guess."

The Psychon accepted her explanation, but kept a surreptitious watch on her friend, feeling sure that there was something she wasn't saying.

The green equatorial jungle swept up towards the Eagle as Alan took it down, and he whistled at the sight.

"Wow, will you look at that! If anyone lives there, they haven't made much of a dent on the plant population, have they."

Koenig shook his head.

"No," he replied, examining his instrument panel. "But that power source is just up ahead of us, so we should see exactly what we're dealing with any minute."

Sure enough, they soon had a large circular clearing visible on optical. Alan throttled back the Eagle's engines and they cruised slowly above it, watching and waiting. The center of the clearing was dominated by what was obviously the hull of an ancient, grounded spacecraft, roughly three times the size of their eagle. From the rear of it a twisted mass of cables poured forth, winding their way out to a large number of primitive huts, which ringed the craft.

"Fascinating," breathed Maya, standing behind Alan's chair and staring at the image. "There's the source of power that Sahn detected! They must have converted that old ship's nuclear engines into a generator for themselves."

"They may be colonists then," commented Koenig, rubbing his chin. "Newcomers to this place. If so, it could mean they are more likely to understand our own predicament, and welcome us."

"That's all very well John," said Helena from behind him. "But exactly where are these people? It looks like there's nobody down there."

It was true; though they hovered above the village for some minutes, they didn't see a single soul. It appeared to be deserted.

There was silence in the command module, as each person thought about this fact.

"Might the inhabitants be frightened of our Eagle?" wondered Maya. "They may be hiding somewhere."

"Perhaps they're all dead," said Alan. "Or maybe they've left here for another site, somewhere else."

The Commander was becoming impatient.

"Well, whatever's going on down there, we can't afford to waste any more time. Alan, let's move on. We'll see if we can put the Eagle down a little way away from the settlement and then if we have to, we'll introduce ourselves in person- if we can find these elusive aliens."

"Sounds good to me," was his chief pilot's reply.

They were in luck. Although the surrounding tropical rainforest was dense, Alan was able to find a clearing just big enough to land the Eagle in, about a kilometer away from the village. He brought his charge to rest right in its center with great skill, barely brushing the leaves of the surrounding trees as he did so.

"Another perfect landing," he declared immodestly.

Maya made a sound of mock derision.

"We realize that Captain Carter," sighed Koenig, trying not to grin.

As the Eagle's engines died away, they watched its outboard cameras for any sign of movement from the surrounding forest. Nothing stirred, except for a few extremely large butterflies in the treetops, as they flitted about collecting nectar.

"My God, look at the size of them," said Helena. "They're like big birds- I hope they're harmless."

"Well, they're behaving just like butterflies back on Earth did, and our landing didn't seem to bother them at all," replied John. "I guess we'll have to take a chance and see what happens when we step outside."

The Alphans waited inside their Eagle for a time, but still no alien delegation came to greet them. It did seem as though they were going to have to take the initiative themselves. Cautiously, Koenig opened the hatch and stepped down from the ship, one of Tony's well armed guards beside him. Now that he was outside, he was able to fully appreciate just how alive the surrounding rainforest actually was. Crickets sung in the trees about them, an echo of bird song reverberated through the air, and the whole area smelt of damp earth and the perfume of flowers. One by one, the other members of the party followed him.

"Wow, I haven't been in country like this since I was on holiday in Northern Australia, many years ago!" exclaimed Alan. "We really are standing bang in the middle of a tropical rainforest!"

"So it seems," replied the Commander thoughtfully. "And this dense jungle would provide perfect cover for the inhabitants of the village, if they were afraid of us and wanted to hide."

"Well if they're shy, then Mohammed will have to go to the mountain," said the pilot. "But I suppose we may never find them. Like I said before, maybe they don't even exist any more. Perhaps they all died long ago, and their generator has just kept on functioning by itself."

"Come on Alan, I don't believe that for a second," said Maya. "It's highly unlikely that it could function for long on its own without maintenance- you know that better than I. By the way, what did you mean by 'Mohammed will have to go to the mountain?"

The richness of the English language of Earth never failed to amuse her, and Alan always seemed to be coming out with some colloquialism or other. Grinning, he patiently explained his words and she stored it away in her sharp brain for use at a future date.

The beauty of their surroundings began to infect the little party with optimism, despite the uncertainties that lay ahead. Only Helena stood back and remained quiet, feeling a sense of trepidation she couldn't account for. She glanced nervously up at the large butterflies, still flitting high above them in the trees. Their chitinous bodies and brightly colored wings repulsed her and she found that no matter how much she tried, she could not admire their beauty, as she would have done back on Earth.

Why does this place trouble me so? she asked herself.

Koenig used his commlock to let Tony and Alpha know that they had made a successful landing and discovered what Sahn's power source was.

"Be careful John," warned Tony, his brows drawn close in an anxious frown.

"We will," responded the Commander, breaking contact.

He knew full well why his Chief Of Security was looking tense, and hadn't wanted to be left behind on Moonbase. Basically, it was Maya. John sympathized; after all, he worried constantly about Helena, and knew that the instinct to protect loved ones was a strong one. Nevertheless, each of them had a job to do and he couldn't make decisions that affected the whole of the base on one or two people's personal feelings. Maya would be fine. They all would be fine. They had to be.

Something caught his eye in one corner of the clearing and he walked away from the Eagle.

"Over here," he called. "It's a faint path, leading in the direction of the village. Let's check it out."

Leaving one guard on duty at the Eagle, the exploration party headed off down the damp, narrow path, pushing past the plant life. As they walked, an increasingly excited Maya took readings of the atmosphere with instruments she was carrying.

"Look- here amongst the trees, the air is perfect!" she exclaimed, showing her readings to Helena. "We could thrive in this jungle."

"Yeah, like plants in a hothouse," Alan joked, sweating in the high equatorial temperature.

Helena nodded her agreement, tugging at the collar of her uniform. She wished she was wearing something cooler; the humidity and heat were draining all the energy out of her. The party walked on and she made sure she stuck close to John. At one point, he took her hand and helped her over some slippery tree roots, giving it a squeeze as he sensed her apprehension. She looked up at him and forced a smile.

"What's wrong?" he asked in a low voice.

"I'm not sure," she replied softly. "But I hope we make contact with whoever, or whatever lives in that village soon, if they're still around. We're very vulnerable while we're trekking through this jungle."

Suddenly John lifted his chin and narrowed his eyes, pushing her slightly behind him.

"Well... I think we may be about to meet them now," he said, bringing his party to a halt and putting a hand on the butt of his laser.

Up ahead of them the path widened and took a sharp turn. From around the bend marched a group of a dozen aliens who initially, looked fairly humanoid in appearance- until they drew closer. Quite short and slim in stature, they were approximately the size of ten year old Earth children. Their faces were pale white; flat and expressionless in an eerie way, with large black multi-faceted eyes. Their small mouths were ringed by lips that were shiny brown and almost beak- like. They were dressed in simple green tunics made out of some kind of fine material that looked like silk and wore slippers of the same material.

The aliens showed neither surprise or fear as they continued their approach, and the Alphans took a few cautious steps backwards, pulling their weapons from their belts.

"Well, they're certainly not afraid of us, so what do we do now?" asked Maya.

"Nothing- don't fire unless we're forced to," hissed the Commander.

"They sure are little guys," commented Ralph, the guard who was accompanying them. "I don't see any weapons."

"Just keep them covered," muttered Koenig.

All at once, a short whistle echoed from the rear of the alien group and they came to an immediate stop. They stepped deferentially to either side of the path and from their rear, appeared an ancient woman. She looked completely different from the people that had gone before her, her facial structure being far more similar to that of the Alphans. Instead of a green costume, the crone was dressed in a raggedy brown shift that looked almost as old as she did, and her feet were bare and dirty. But, regardless of her dress, she was most definitely the leader of the group. She shuffled forward, leaning heavily on a wooden staff for support, her bowed back and lined face giving her an appearance of great frailty. Yet there was nothing frail about her mind- intelligence and curiosity were apparent in her forthright gaze, as she summed up the exploration party before her. Coming to stand in front of John Koenig, she began to speak.

"I am Laana, ruler of the people of this world," she said in a voice which rang with surprising strength and clarity. "It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to the planet we colonists have named Cerulea. When I saw your ship approaching our settlement, I fell to my knees and thanked the Gods for answering my prayers."

Koenig looked bemusedly at the old woman and was unsure of what to say for a moment. In his heart of hearts, he had not expected an enthusiastic welcome such as this. He took a deep breath and smiled.

"I am Commander John Koenig. We come from a base on the wandering Moon that you may have noticed recently in your night sky. We are not travelers by choice but were separated from our planet of origin when its moon was blasted away from it in an accident. Now we are desperately searching for a new home. We hoped to find it here but if this world belongs to you, we will leave and continue on our way. We mean you no harm.

"Oh please, you are most welcome to stay," replied Laana quickly. "Are there more of you on this moon?"

"Just over three hundred," said Helena softly, from behind the Commander.

Laana nodded her head and signaled to the rest of the colonists who accompanied her, to step aside once again and let the Alphans past.

"That is excellent. Come with me and I shall take you to our settlement. There you may take refreshments and learn our story. There is room for all here on this planet; of this I am certain. Your people and your knowledge would be most welcome on Cerulea."

The Alphan party passed through the aliens and walked at the head of the group, with Laana. For some reason, the strange little people now seemed slightly wary of them, staying well behind and communicating amongst themselves in a series of incomprehensible grunts and clicks. Of them all, it looked as though only the old woman was able to speak the English language of Earth, and Helena and Maya glanced at each other with raised eyebrows. They were both curious about the dramatic difference in appearance and abilities between these people and their aged leader. Why was it so? Weren't the smaller aliens capable of speech? Were they some sort of a lower form of life than Laana?

Presently the path opened up into the vast clearing which housed the alien village and derelict spacecraft. The clearing was surrounded by squat green leafed trees of a species the Alphans had not seen before, which were covered in masses of lily- like flowers. A cloying perfume filled the air of the clearing, and it was so overpowering that they began to choke, their eyes and noses running. The dwellings which encircled the old space craft were of the most primitive construction and some were in a bad state of repair, with holes in their roofs and sides. This much had not been obvious from the air, and Helena in particular, was shocked to see the state in which these aliens lived.

"Do you and your people occupy this village all year round?" she asked.

"Oh yes, this is our main settlement. As you can see, it's quite large," replied the old woman blandly.

Helena said nothing more, but looked at John, who shook his head.

Don't question any further right now, he seemed to say.

In spite of the poor state of repair of the village huts, the converted nuclear engines at the rear of the space craft sounded as if they still in good order. A low hum emanated from them as they produced power, solid black cables running from them to each hut and several to one much larger building, attached to the side of the ship.

"Must have taken some pretty clever thinking to convert that ship's engines into a generator," whispered Alan, trying not to rub his itchy eyes.

Koenig nodded. The inference was obvious; these little aliens didn't look as though they had the technology to accomplish such a feat. Who did then? The old woman alone? Hopefully, they would soon find out.

Laana led them inside one of the huts that was still in a reasonable state of repair, waving her escort of aliens away with a twitch of her hand. She bade them take a seat around a small wooden table, choosing a stool at the head of it for herself.

"So you are refugees from a traveling Moon," Laana said, as cups of sweet yellow fruit juice were passed around by another, even smaller alien female. "It seems we may have much in common."

"You called yourselves colonists earlier," said Koenig, thankful to be inside the hut and slightly protected from the overpowering smell of flower perfume. "How did you come to be here?"

"It is a long story, but perhaps you will indulge me," replied the old woman. "It will help you make a decision as to whether you wish to stay here or not. Almost two generations ago, when I was a young girl, I was chosen as a member of a special group of colonists who were to begin the task of spreading our race of people away from our home planet, which was becoming overcrowded. It was an exciting mission; a planet in the local area of our galaxy had been located as a likely prospect for colonization, a large transporter ship was constructed and five hundred of our planet's best and brightest were chosen to be pioneers. The journey to our new home was to take six seasons and at the end of that time, a large and empty world was supposedly awaiting us.

"Four seasons into the flight, our ship passed through a wholly unexpected space phenomenon. When we finally emerged from the other side of it, we found ourselves in a part of the universe completely unknown to us. All contact was lost with our home planet, we had no idea at all of where we were and worst of all, our transporter ship had sustained irreparable damage. Many colonists died in that catastrophe. A mere forty of us survived to escape in the reconnaissance craft you see outside this hut.

"In our small craft, we traveled through space for many weeks, hopelessly lost and praying for a miracle. Then, our meager store of supplies began to dwindle, and terrible fights broke out among us over the smallest trifle. Unfortunately, the loss of our ship had left us with no surviving medical staff and the fights, coupled with a shortage of adequate food, caused a further five of our number to perish. We had almost given up hope when as luck would have it, a miracle did occur. We stumbled across this beautiful planet."

The old woman paused for a moment to drink from her cup and her guests remained respectfully silent. Helena sat with the fruit juice untouched in her hand, looking about the interior of the hut. Sparse, damp and primitive, it depressed her.

"Unfortunately, most of our surviving party were unskilled workers. As luck would have it, the cleaning and food preparation staff were in the only part of the transporter ship that was relatively undamaged by our passage through the space phenomenon. Almost all highly trained people; technicians, scientists and the like were killed. When we landed here, only four of us were able to take charge of the group. Of that council of four, I am now the only survivor; I alone carry the knowledge of languages such as yours and the ability to operate the few computer facilities we have here.

"In spite of our difficulties, we made the best of a bad situation. This planet's kind climate even allowed us to prosper to a certain degree, and procreate. There is abundant food and water here, our population has multiplied, and there are now almost two hundred of us. Sadly, there were too few knowledgeable survivors to begin with and our little colony is beginning to degenerate. My people will surely revert to primitive savages without the benefit of technical know-how and education. I am one old woman and I cannot stop this regression alone. This is why I viewed your landing here as a blessing. If you have come to conquer us, I beg you to do so. It can only help my people live decent lives again."

The Alphans looked around the table at each other and then back at the old woman. If this story was true, then it was indeed a sad one. If they did not settle here, could this be the future that all those on Moonbase were doomed to? Everyone there had their special tasks also. If all of say, the hydroponics staff, were killed in a freak accident; who would have the knowledge to continue to produce the Moonbase food? It was a problem that Koenig, for one, had worried about before. He was quite ready to believe it had happened to this group of colonists. Their numbers had been so small to begin with...

"We have not come to conquer you," he said emphatically. "Any sharing of your world would be just that- a sharing. Including, an exchange of the knowledge and skills we each have available. But before we make any decision about whether to bring the rest of our people down, my party and I would like to do some studies of the planet and the surrounding area here. We only have a limited time to complete our surveys before our Moon moves out of reach. So for now, we would like to return to our Eagle and start work immediately."

The old woman smiled and rose stiffly from her seat.

"Excellent," she said, inclining her head. "I'm sure you will find the planet suitable. I have done extensive ground and climate studies over the years here, as you can imagine. You are most welcome to have access to all our available data; we shall hold nothing back. I will have you escorted back to your craft, as night is drawing in. I suggest that for the first few days of your stay here, you do not wander about without one of my people to guide you. There are some unfriendly creatures about..."

Helena thought of the giant butterflies and suppressed a shiver. What else was lurking in that thick jungle?

Once the party was back on Eagle One, the escort of four aliens left them, running swiftly off into the forest.

"Nice of them to respect our privacy," commented Maya, watching them disappear.

"They seem to be in a bit of a hurry though, don't they," murmured Helena, their sudden departure adding to her continuing sense of unease. "I thought Laana would have had them stay with us."

Unperturbed, Alan wasted no time in sharing their good news with Moonbase.

"It's looking better and better Tony. These people are not just friendly; they're ready to welcome us with open arms. There are only a couple of hundred of them on the whole planet and they're living in a pretty primitive state. Seems they're the survivors of a colonization ship that didn't make it's destination. We couldn't have found a better planet!"

"Are you sure? You've discovered all this so soon?" asked Verdeschi, his cautious nature unwilling to accept such good news immediately. "So are we to begin Operation Exodus? I admit that everyone here is keen to get going."

"No; not so fast Tony," said the Commander over Alan's shoulder. "Keep the base on stand- by for another 24 hours. That will still give us plenty of time to pack up Alpha. It's imperative that we complete our own surveys. We can't just rely on what the locals here say. The future of our people is at stake."

"Understood. We will wait for you to give the order Commander," replied Tony.

"We'll keep you posted," said Koenig, ending the communication.

"Maya will be back soon Tony," teased Sahn when she saw the glum expression on his face. "You will survive another 24 hours."

Verdeschi gave her a sour look and threw a pen in her direction. He wished fervently that he was down on the planet with the exploration party, instead of up here supervising the Moonbase. Everything on Alpha was organized, and the whole crew could begin evacuating on John Koenig's word. There was nothing for Tony to do now but sit back and wait. And he detested inaction. Punching a button on his desk, he summoned Bill Fraser to Command Center. He would instruct the pilot to prepare a small fleet of Eagles and have them ready and waiting on a launch pad, just in case John and the others decided they could use his services ahead of Operation Exodus...

On the blue world of Cerulea, darkness enveloped the Eagle and its passengers were due for a rest. All computer calculations regarding the planet continued to look perfect and finally, Helena and Maya agreed to stop working on them for the night. The Eagle's hatch had been left open, to let the hyperoxygenated forest air and tropical smells inside. As the Alphans sat eating and talking amongst themselves, a dark gray moth the size of a raven flew into the cabin, beating its papery wings against a light. It swiveled its head to and fro, making an audible chittering sound that reminded Helena of the smaller aliens' voices. She screamed and moved away into the command module.

"Okay, okay, it's only a moth," laughed Alan, throwing a blanket over it and depositing it back outside where it belonged. "Nothing to be frightened of."

He closed the hatch against further intruders, puffing slightly.

"We're going to have to get used to that kind of creature if we stay here," commented the Commander. "Remember the butterflies we saw today- they were even bigger. This is an environment where creatures thrive."

"You've got to admit, they're a bit creepy though," Helena replied, composing herself.

"I agree," said Maya with a shudder. "Let's just leave the hatch shut all the time, from now on.

"Women," huffed Alan in a deliberately exaggerated fashion, earning himself mock scowls from both Maya and Helena.

Half an hour later found Helena pouring herself and John a strong cup of Alphan coffee substitute.

"I guess large tropical insects are only one of many things we are going to have to adjust to," she sighed.

"Insects are something I can learn to live with, if it means a new home for us all," he replied with a smile, taking his drink from her.

Maya and Alan were involved in an animated game the Psychon had installed on the Eagle's computer and the two guards were playing cards, so Helena and John were stealing a private moment together in the command module.

"You know, this place could really turn out to be a tropical paradise; it might be great to make a new start here," he continued, as Helena sat down on the floor next to him with her coffee. "No more searching for a home and wondering if we will ever find one. No more flying uncontrollably through space. Having a predictability about life again- the changing of the seasons, the sun rising and setting each day, the forest around us..."

"Yes, I suppose so. And I guess we would be helping the people here, too," she agreed, looking away.

"Something's been bothering you ever since we got here, hasn't it?" said John, putting a comforting arm around her shoulder. "This is so unlike you that it's got me worried. What's wrong?"

"I don't know," sighed Helena, shaking her head in confusion. "Almost everything here looks so damned good and I keep telling myself not to be stupid, and jumpy. This is going to sound silly, but I had a strange dream. Well, it was a vivid nightmare, actually. I've been wary of this planet ever since."

"Psychic predictions?" laughed John, trying to get her to see the funny side of it and cheer up.

Helena's face remained sober and he saw just how disturbed she really was.

"Don't worry; you know I won't make a decision to bring everyone down here unless I am absolutely sure that this is the right home for us," he said, gently stroking her cheek. "There are quite a few things I want checked out first. For instance, if Laana's group of colonists started out as only thirty- five people, how, in the space of one lifetime, have they managed to boost their numbers to almost two hundred? And she didn't explain why the other colonists look so different from her. We need to have the full picture about those people, as well as the planet itself, before we begin Operation Exodus."

"Maybe they always have multiple births," volunteered Helena, trying to be fair minded. "And Laana did say that the majority of the survivors from their transporter ship came from the service areas; perhaps the aliens who worked there were of a different genotype to the higher skilled workers. I don't think we'll have any problems with the colonists, they seem genuine enough."

John sighed and slowly nodded his head.

"I hope you're right," he said. "I really do."

Helena put her coffee to one side and rested her head on his shoulder. She shut her eyes, telling herself that she would feel better about this blue world in the light of a new day. John's close presence comforted her immeasurably and soon, she slipped into a deep sleep.

Koenig rested his chin on Helena's golden head and closed his own eyes. The guards would take shifts, one napping while the other watched. He could afford to relax slightly and get a little shuteye himself. The sound of Maya and Alan laughing at the computer game they were playing faded from his ears as he too, fell into a doze.

Neither John nor Helena felt the Psychon tiptoe up a short time later and drop a light blanket over them, quietly shutting the Command Module door to afford them some privacy. They were far too exhausted.

The sun rose rapidly on equatorial Cerulea. The Alphan party were up and about with the dawn, and a morning cacophony of harsh jungle sounds greeted them as they opened their Eagle's hatch. Each had managed a few hours of good sleep and their mood was upbeat as they looked forward to a day of exploration. Even Helena was smiling again; memories of her previous nightmare were fading into the background of her mind at last. The alien guides who had led them back to the ship the day before had not returned and it was unanimously decided that they would not wait for them. Everyone felt that it would be better to see the planet without the distraction of an alien presence and if there were any unfriendly creatures out there.... well, they had their lasers, didn't they?

The Commander decided to split the party in two for the morning. Everyone had their commlocks, so they could contact each other, should it become necessary.

"Alan, Maya I want you and one of the guards to take some instruments and reconnoiter the immediate area of jungle around the Eagle on foot," he said. "Helena and I will head back to the alien settlement again, and see if we can learn more about Laana and her people, as well as have a look at the data on the planet she promised us. At midday we can meet back here and then this afternoon, do some low altitude aerial mapping of the continent in our ship. By the end of the day we should know one way or the other, whether we want to bring the rest of our people down here."

"What about me Sir?" asked Stephen, the remaining guard.

Koenig looked about the small clearing and up in the air, at the ever- present butterflies.

"I want you to stay back here on watch," he replied. "We still have to be careful. I don't want any curious aliens trying to get inside when we're not around."

Stephen nodded dutifully and went to stand at the Eagle's closed hatch. Maya, Alan and their guard were soon on their way, taking with them an array of geological and environmental instruments. Alan could be heard whistling and singing long after they had left the clearing, making Koenig grin.

"If they got lost, we wouldn't have any trouble locating them by the sound of his voice, would we," he chuckled.

Helena smiled and shook her head, her hair glinting in the bright sunlight.

"Come on then, let's get going ourselves," she said. "I'm keen to have a look at any medical records that the colonists have preserved, if Laana will allow me to. I feel it would be a good indicator of how quickly they adapted to the planet and what, if any, health problems they faced. You know- parasites, bacteria, that sort of thing."

"I'll leave that side of it all to you," replied John with a grimace. "But I'd love to get a close up look at those nuclear engines on that ship. I'd like to see how they've been converted into generators. I hope the smell from those trees surrounding their village isn't as strong today though; it really irritated me yesterday."

"Me too," agreed Helena, wrinkling her nose. "Perhaps we're simply not used to the smell of so many flowers any more."

The two set off along the narrow path they had traversed the day before, leaving Stephen standing to attention outside their craft.

The jungle was already humid and steaming, despite the earliness of the hour. Helena had changed the top of her uniform for a lighter sleeveless shirt, but still she felt uncomfortable. John felt little better and it was a relief when they finally arrived once again at the settlement, hoping for a cold drink. Strangely, just as it had been when they'd flown over it the day before, the whole clearing appeared to be deserted. And unfortunately, the perfume of the flowers was just as strong as ever.

Helena called out into the stillness.

"Hello? Is anyone around? Laana?"

They stopped outside the hut they had previously visited and peered inside. It was empty.

"This is strange," murmured John, fingering the laser at his side. "Where do they all keep disappearing off to?"

"There must be a simple explanation," said Helena, still trying to be fair and remain unbiased by the bad feelings she'd experienced earlier. "It's very early in the morning; perhaps they are all out hunting for food at the coolest time of the day, or taking part in some religious ceremony. We know nothing of their customs."

"True enough," he agreed. "Still, there's got to be at least one person about. How about we split up and scout around the village? I think it should be safe to do so."

"Okay," said Helena, rubbing her itchy nose and trying not to sneeze. "One of us is sure to find someone who can take us to Laana."

The pair went in opposite directions, the Commander taking some huts at the one side of the settlement, Helena starting with the larger building attached to the hulk of the space craft. A soft hum of machinery reached her ears as she mounted a short flight of steps that led into the building and she moved quietly, so as not to frighten any of the alien colonists who might have been in there. She need not have bothered as the large room she walked into was completely empty. It was also in much better repair than anything else in the village, and full of rather alien looking computers and machinery. A console sat in the middle of the room and curious, she walked over to it.

This must be where Laana works at caring for her people, she thought. I'm sure she wouldn't mind if I just took a quick look...

Helena's eyes opened wide as she stared at a handful of computer printouts lying scattered about on top of the console. Although the language they bore was unintelligible to her, the diagrams and pictures on them weren't. Some of them were complex anatomical sketches of the colonists - although there were several different versions, with some depicting bodies that appeared to be almost completely insectile. To her horror, there were also computer printouts of human bodies on the desk, with arrows pointing to various vulnerable areas, such as vital organs. And sheets of information on their genetic makeup. Most chilling of all was a printout devoted entirely to Maya's special genetic structure- Helena knew it was Maya's because she had studied the Psychon in great depth herself. What the hell was going on here and how did Laana come to be in possession of such detailed information on them all?

Helena picked up her commlock and called John, but there was no reply. Cursing under her breath, she shook it and tried again. Nothing; it wouldn't work for some reason, and she guessed it was because she was inside the building. A dreadful foreboding gripped her and she snatched up the printouts, turning to run back outside and try to make contact again.

"I shouldn't bother dear," said a soft and menacing voice.

Laana and some other colonists who were carrying wicked looking knives, stood in the doorway of the hulk. They were effectively blocking her way out. Helena dropped the printouts and her commlock in fright, not knowing which way to turn.

"Your Commander has been, er, shall we say, detained. He cannot answer you."

Helena's hand automatically began to go to her belt, and her laser, when she remembered that it was tucked out of sight beneath the sleeveless shirt she was wearing. Perhaps it would be wiser to wait, and see what eventuated. She stood still, saying and doing nothing, hoping desperately that John was all right. Seeing her captive was not about to make a fight of it, the old woman spoke again.

"It was foolish of you to enter here without asking permission first. I saw you walk inside the building and knew what you would find. That you have chosen to pry into our business without my supervision is... unfortunate. You have spoiled my plans and considerably shortened the life span of your friends."

"From the look of these, it seems our life spans wouldn't have been particularly long anyway," retorted Helena caustically, pointing to the scattered printouts which now lay on the floor.

Laana laughed.

"A simple scanner positioned above the table in my hut allowed me access to the workings of your bodies. While you took refreshment and listened to me talk, I obtained all I needed to know. You cannot blame me for doing this; after all, it is the survival of the fittest. Isn't that what your people would say? This planet is not big enough for all of us, as in truth, there are almost one thousand of we colonists here living in the forests- not two hundred. You see, this beautiful planet Cerulea harbors a puzzling secret. Somehow, in the short span of my lifetime, it has begun to alter my people's basic physiology, causing their bodies and minds to change and their rate of procreation to increase dramatically, with each succeeding generation."

"I can see that from the diagrams, but what has that got to do with us?" asked Helena.

The old woman scrutinized Helena closely for a minute, apparently deciding whether or not to tell her more. She gave a sigh and continued.

"My people are in fact, mutating into a form of insect as the generations quickly pass. They barely speak at all now, but communicate by the spread of pheromones and a series of clicking noises instead. Their transformation has been more painful than you can ever know for me to watch. There was such excitement when the first children of we survivors were born, but it soon became noticeable that they weren't quite what they should be. Their enormously increased rate of growth, their strange habit of running off into the forest, their reluctance to speak, their early and prolific rate of breeding. It was devastating...

"Now, they and their subsequent children have deserted civilized buildings and sleep in the trees surrounding our village at night, feeding off the flowers that bloom among the branches. Soon there will be nothing left of the former species. I am sure you have noticed the large butterflies living in the treetops here- that is what I believe my people are destined to become. Nothing but mindless arthropods!

"I, as the last surviving member of the original landing party, feel a responsibility to find the reason for this terrible change and salvage what I can of my people's intellect. Your landing here was providential. Your Alphan technology could provide me with a key to-"

"Why didn't you simply tell us this in the first place?" cut in Helena.

"Why the secrecy? We would have tried to help you all we could, had we known the truth!"

"Would you?" sneered the old woman. "Or would you have run straight back to your Moon, and the safety of your base, fearing contamination from whatever it is here that causes the mutation of our children."

Helena was silent, not knowing how to reply. Laana was possibly right. "Anyway, that is of no consequence now. After I had learned all I could from you and your people you would have become expendable and I would have had you destroyed. Since you have discovered our secrets earlier than I planned, I will have to make do with the craft you came to Cerulea in and the knowledge we can extract from you miserable few who are here now!"

Helena opened her mouth to say that others would follow from Moonbase Alpha to rescue them, and then shut it again. Better that Laana thought they would be left alone.

The old woman gestured to the colonists behind her and four of them stepped forward, taking Helena by the arms. She did not try to struggle for she realized that incredibly, they were not going to search her for weapons. She had dropped her commlock and they must have thought that was all she carried. Helena went quietly, figuring that once she was back outside, she could try to stun them all and make a run for it. The touch of the little aliens as they led her forward made her shiver; what strange forces had been exerted upon their genetic structure to make them mutate so? Helena saw that the village was alive with colonists again, as she stepped outside, and she wondered where they all could have been when she and John had first arrived this morning. She glanced around, but saw no sign of John. Worry for him made her voice shake as she asked,

"What have you done with our Commander? I want to see him!"

"He is no longer your concern," snapped the old woman. "You are a doctor, are you not?"

Helena gave a reluctant nod.

"Well if you are cooperative, you may live longer than your friends. I want you to find the reason for the proliferation and degeneration of our species on this planet. If you succeed and are able to stop it from going any further, I may change my mind and decide not to kill you."

You may live longer than your friends, thought Helena, replaying the woman's words in her mind.

Did that mean they had already killed John? Anger began to bubble its way through her, pumping adrenaline into her veins and making her heart race. As they approached Laana's hut, Helena judged that it was now or never. She had to make a run for it. Whatever had happened to John, she must alert Maya and Alan to what was going on here. She couldn't help him alone.

Helena gave a helpless little cry and let her arms go slack, allowing her knees to buckle for a moment. Her disconcerted captors chittered to themselves and looked up at her, thinking she was about to collapse. With a jerk, she swiftly pulled herself free and reaching under her shirt for her gun, sprayed a line of laser light around in a 360 degree circle, stunning all those within range. The colonists she did not hit squeaked in high pitched voices and ran for cover as Helena sprinted out of the clearing, through the flowering trees and back towards the Eagle.

"Hang on John," she panted to herself as she ran, sure that she was leaving him to the mercy of the colonists back at the village.

But she reasoned that there was nothing else she could do; there were too many of them and she had been damned lucky to get away. She needed help. Tony would have to send down more Eagles... Terror made her swift and with a hammering heart and tears in her eyes, she arrived back at the Eagle in record time, only to find it deserted, with the hatch left carelessly open. Where was the guard who had been left on duty?

"Stephen! Stephen, where are you?" Helena yelled, gasping for breath and looking back the way she had come.

The colonists who she had failed to stun were bound to be close behind her, and she expected to see them running towards her at any minute. There was no answer, so cautiously Helena stepped inside the Eagle and closed the hatch. Acutely aware of the fact that she didn't have much time, she went straight to the command module and contacted Moonbase.

"This is Eagle One calling Moonbase Alpha, are you receiving me?" she called.

"This is Moonbase Alpha, what's the situation Helena?" replied Tony, his face appearing on the monitor in front of her.

"We have big trouble here Tony! Cancel Operation Exodus. The aliens on this planet are hostile. I am alone on our Eagle, the Commander has been captured, and I don't know where any of the other members of our party are. We need help, and fast. There are at least a thousand inhabitants of this planet to contend with, not two hundred as we were led to believe."

"The Commander's been captured and you don't have contact with the others?" asked Tony in a shocked voice. "Well, Maya and Alan reported in to me thirty minutes ago to get a geographical fix on their position. They were fine at that time, and about to investigate some strange building they had found, and a lake. They've not called in since, though."

"We've got to warn them," said Helena. "Tony, they could be in grave danger!"

"Understood Helena, now calm down," he replied, thinking fast. "One thousand natives are nothing to a few armed Eagles, you know that. Communications are working fine, so try to alert Maya and Alan to the situation while I organize reinforcements. Then just stay put in that Eagle. I'll contact you again soon. Out."

He ended the communication and the monitor went blank.

"But what about John?" Helena sobbed softly to herself, the shock of what was happening to her beginning to take its toll.

All sorts of scenarios were playing their way through her mind; Laana could have killed him outright, she could be using him for some bizarre experiments, she could be torturing him...

"Stop that, it won't help him," she whispered.

Forcing herself to effect a calm she did not feel, Helena made contact with Maya, via the Psychon's commlock.

"Maya, do you have Alan and the guards there with you?" she asked.

"Yes I do," was the whispered reply. "Both guards are with us. Why didn't you answer your commlock Helena? Alan and I were beginning to worry; we've been calling you repeatedly for the last few minutes."

"I lost it and I'm speaking to you from the Eagle," replied Helena shortly. "Listen to me Maya, the colonists here are not friendly, I repeat, not friendly. They have John-"

The Psychon interrupted her before she could say any more.

"Helena, we know! The Commander is here; we've just this minute spotted him. When we set off to explore the area this morning, we came across a strange worship site about half a kilometer due north of the Eagle. It is hidden in what appears to be a small volcanic crater, so we didn't see it from the air when we arrived. A freshwater lake takes up most of the floor of the crater and in the middle of it, connected to the edge of the lake by a narrow bridge, is a small island. A kind of altar and a stone hut are built on it. That's when we called Stephen away from the Eagle- we needed some instruments that we didn't bring with us. But then, a short while after we spotted the place, a great many more than two hundred of those little aliens showed up. We had to hide to make sure we weren't seen."

Alan's face appeared on the screen, sweat standing out on his forehead.

"Helena, there was a strange sweet smelling substance burning in the altar and it attracted these people like ants to a jar of sugar. I've never seen anything like it before; they came in lines and behaved exactly like insects, each taking a bit of the stuff out of the altar and disappearing off into the jungle. Now most of the crowd has dispersed, but a second group aliens has just arrived, carrying the Commander between them. They've put him inside the stone hut and I'm afraid he looked pretty well unconscious to us."

Helena's heart leaped at the thought that at least she knew where John was. But was he simply unconscious, or already dead?

"We have to get him out of there as quickly as possible," she shouted at the monitor. "There's no time to explain exactly what's going on, but I was captured back at the village too, and had to use my laser to escape. Can you see your way clear to picking up John and finding your way back to the Eagle immediately? I've notified Alpha of what's been happening and reinforcements are on their way now. But the aliens will soon be looking for us all and I was told there are at least a thousand of them."

"It's not going to be that easy to rescue John," replied Alan. "There are alien guards around him who are armed with some sort of long swords, and we have to neutralize them first. Can you activate the Eagle's laser and sit tight until we get back? Helena, can you do that? Helena?"

He received no reply, as Helena, in her overriding concern for John Koenig, had abandoned the Eagle and was making her way as fast as she could due north, to where Maya had said he was being held captive.

Tony Verdeschi was wasting no time in sending out a rescue party from the Moonbase. A fleet of four Eagles blasted off the launchpads in a flurry of gray moondust, with himself and Bill Fraser in the lead craft.

"Monitor us closely Sahn," he instructed from his seat. "We don't know what sort of reception we'll get when we reach the planet's surface, so be ready to send extra reinforcements at my request."

Back in Command Center, Sahn watched an the array of screens in front of her, biting her lower lip nervously.

"Understood Tony. Our Moon is now passing the planet at it's closest point, so ETA for you is just forty minutes."

"Thanks Sahn," said Bill. "We'll be doing our damnedest to get there in less than that."

The time could not pass soon enough for Tony. His concern over the condition of John Koenig, coupled with an even greater worry over the safety of Maya, made him unreasonably impatient. Bill Fraser kept his head down and said little as Tony snapped out orders to the formation of Eagles as they drew closer to their destination. His monitor beeped and Sahn's voice filled the cockpit once again.

"Communication from our party on the planet Tony. I'm patching it through to you now."

The heartening sight of Maya's exotic face filled the screen.

"Helena told us what has happened to the Commander Tony. We have located him about half a kilometer from our Eagle. He's being held in a building in the middle of the lake I told you about earlier, by six guards. We have a plan and should be able to rescue him without too much trouble, but have lost contact with Helena. She was on the Eagle and Alan was speaking with her. Then, nothing. She stopped responding. We think she may be heading out here to try and help the Commander."

"Damn," cursed Tony. "She should have stayed put in the Eagle, where she was safe!"

It was one more thing for him to worry about.

"Tony; can you get a fix on us and pick us up from here?" asked Maya. "We are in a crater that is hard to see from the air, because of the surrounding jungle, so you will have to look carefully."

"Don't worry, we'll find you by the signal from your commlocks," he replied. "The cavalry is on its way."

"Please hurry," said Maya in a small voice.

It was uncannily like her dream... A lake full of still, dark water, disturbed only occasionally, by ripples created when some small insect landed on its glassy surface. The tropical air was stifling and Helena paused for a minute at the top of the crater to catch her breath and see if she could locate the other members of the Alphan party. Alien guards stood to attention around the door of the small stone dwelling Maya had described, in the middle of the lake. But the stone hut had not been part of her nightmare... Helena shook her head, realizing she could not rely on dreams; only the reality which lay before her.

As she watched from her vantage point, she saw a stealthy movement in the water under the bridge that led to the hut. Helena could just make out Alan and the two Alphan security guards swimming along underneath it, holding their weapons out of the water as they went. With a loud shriek, a huge falcon landed on the roof of the building, distracting the alien guards for the time necessary for Alan and his two men to pull themselves out of the lake, and stun the unsuspecting little people with their guns. The falcon then flew to the ground and in a glowing shaft of light, reappeared as Maya. Quickly she helped the men drag the unconscious colonists off the island and hide them in bushes growing against the crater wall.

Pushing her way through dense greenery, Helena descended from her vantage point as fast as she could, eager to meet up with the others and see what had happened to John. Careless in her haste, she did not notice that the edges of the crater dropped away in sheer walls of rock in places and missing her footing, she tumbled headlong down the steep incline, rolling and bouncing painfully until at last, she ended up right at the water's edge. One of her legs buckled under her at an awkward angle as she came to a stop, giving way with a menacing crack.

In terrible agony, Helena lay gasping, all the wind knocked out of her from the fall. She drifted for a time in a state of semi- consciousness, aware only of an all consuming black and red pain that flashed behind her closed eyelids as she tried to draw breath.

Just like my dream... was the only thought that entered her clouded mind.

Maya heard a disturbance over on the opposite edge of the lake and looked up, just in time to see Helena come to a spectacular halt. Her distressed gasps of pain were audible right out on the island.

"Alan!" she cried. "Look, it's Helena!"

Alan Carter emerged from the dark interior of the stone hut, supporting a dazed and confused John Koenig.

"My God, she's really hurt herself," he said, shocked to see Helena lying prone on the ground.

"It's her leg," said Maya. "Look at the way it's twisted underneath her body. I've got to get over there and-"

Suddenly, all hell broke loose. The two Alphan guards who were standing on watch shouted a warning, a strange throbbing drum beat began, and all around the rim of the crater countless numbers of alien colonists appeared, chanting and pounding heavy staves on the ground.

The sound roused Helena from her pain and she groggily lifted her head, trying to focus above her.

"No," she whimpered, as she saw the multitude of little aliens begin to slowly descend from the crater's edge. "Keep away from me."

"Get into the water Helena," Maya yelled. "Try to swim for it; I'll come and help you."

Digging her hands into the damp earth at the edge of the lake, Helena began to push herself backwards, almost fainting from the stabbing pain coming from her useless left leg. Driven on by nothing more than the basic instinct to survive, she rolled at last into the murky black water and began to stroke forward with her arms, slowly moving further away from the approaching colonists, who were swarming down the bank, pointing at her and waving their sticks.

Maya thought for a moment and then dissolved in a spindle of light once more, taking the form of a seal. Swiftly she moved across the lake until she was level with a gasping Helena, who was about to sink. Helena thankfully grabbed hold of her back and soon the two women were safely back on the island with the others, outside the stone hut. While Maya was busy with the rescue, Alan and the guards aimed their lasers at the bridge, blowing a hole in it so the swarming colonists could not reach them via it.

"Wonder if insects can swim?" Alan said to nobody in particular. "I hope not."

Maya returned to her usual form and immediately became aware of a sudden silence. The colonists had witnessed her exhibitions of metamorphosis in amazement. They'd ceased to bang their staves on the ground and stood still as could be, staring down at the Alphans and chittering softly to each other. Then slowly, cautiously, they lowered themselves to their spindly knees in awe.

"Nice one Maya," muttered Alan. "I don't think they've seen someone like you before. Perhaps they think you're some sort of religious deity, associated with their stone altar, or the hut, or this island. It looks like you might have just bought us some time."

"Not much though Mr Carter," whispered one of the guards, his hand shaking as he pointed his weapon towards the edge of the lake. "Once these aliens start to move again, they could be into the water and on us before we can stop them. There are so many of them- they remind me of a plague of locusts."

"Listen to me," said John Koenig, who was rapidly fighting off the effects of the drug he had been stunned with back at the village. "If these primitives think of Maya as some sort of god, let's encourage the idea. Maya, do you think you could put on a little morphing exhibition to keep them distracted until our reinforcements arrive?"

"I can certainly try Commander," said Maya with a mischievous grin.

She stepped down to the water's edge, where she was visible to all the colonists surrounding them and began to give a magnificent display of all manner of alien life forms. Awed murmurs went up from the enthralled crowd and Alan used the time to give Tony a call and fill him in on what was happening.

"We are five minutes from you now Alan, so hang on," said Tony after he had heard the story. "A blast from our Eagle's laser should send them running."

Helena whimpered in pain, her face pale gray, as she tried unsuccessfully to sit up.

"Somebody please try and straighten out my leg," she moaned. "It must be kept straight and well supported; if the bone pierces through my skin, I'll be in all sorts of trouble with infection in this tropical climate."

The Commander sat next to her and held her hand as Alan slowly and gently maneuvered her broken limb into a better, more stable position. He then took off his shirt and ripped it in two, tying it around the injured limb in a kind of makeshift bandage.

"You shouldn't have tried to follow me," John said gently, shaking his head. "You could have gotten yourself killed."

"I couldn't sit around in the Eagle and wait for the others to rescue you," Helena sighed. "I wasn't even sure if you were dead or alive and I had to know. Laana is dangerous John. I saw diagrams she had of our bodies, and she told me herself of her plans for us."

She then went on to briefly explain what had happened to her when they had been captured, back at the village.

"That old woman must be desperate," he said, when she had finished. "And desperate people will do anything they need to, to get what they want. They ambushed me inside one of the huts and covered my face with some sweet smelling cloth. I blacked out..."

John saw the stricken look on Helena's face and stopped talking. She was in quite enough pain; he didn't need to add to it by telling her what had happened to him.

"I'm okay now," he smiled, pushing a strand of wet blonde hair from her face.

Giving her hand a final squeeze, he let go and stood up, anxiously searching the sky for signs of rescue. Maya's display of morphing had stalled the aliens, but he knew that his party wasn't out of danger yet.

Get a move on Tony, he thought.

The heads of every colonist turned as a trumpet blew and across the other side of the lake, at the crater's rim, Laana appeared. She bellowed an incomprehensible order at them and as one, they slowly stood up, torn between the preternatural sight of Maya changing forms and their allegiance to their leader. Turning her attention to the Alphans, Laana then shouted a warning, her voice echoing around the crater in the stillness.

"You cannot stay on the island forever, so you may as well give up this stupid fight, while you still have a choice. Logic should tell you that resistance in this matter is useless. There are few of you and many of us, as you can see. Come now, before I have my people injure you. I want no more unpleasantness."

Koenig was furious. His anger gave him strength and he gathered himself up to his full height striding down to the water's edge. Maya, who had stopped her morphing exhibition, stepped back, giving him the full stage.

"Laana, you should have told us the truth of what was happening here in the first place. Sorry, but we won't be surrendering. It's not in our nature to take orders from those who assault us and lie to us. Maybe we could have helped you, but you blew your chance. You'll get nothing from us. You and your people can rot here, for all we care. Do you understand?"

understand, understand, understand... his voice continued around the natural amphitheater, driving home his point. The crowd of aliens shifted restlessly, chittering and clicking softly amongst themselves.

The old woman looked at the ground for a few moments before speaking again. This time, she took a different approach.

"I cannot expect you to say anything else, I suppose. Perhaps desperation in my old age has made me as thoughtless and single minded as the people I care for. As you can see, they are not what they should be and I would have done anything to find an answer to the strange changes that occur within our midst as each new generation is born. I imagine your doctor has already told you that this planet is destroying my people - turning them into something resembling a colony of insects. The only way I can now keep track of them is to attract them to this site of worship using a sweet smelling chemical as bait. Fortunately, they have become addicted to it and will do my bidding just to get a supply. Without it, they wouldn't even bother to come near the settlement any more. They would simply retreat permanently to the surrounding jungle, until their transformation into insects is complete."

"It's a sad story," whispered Helena. "But you can be sure she would have had us killed, once she learnt all she could from us. Survival of the fittest, she said..."

A sonic boom high above drew the Commander's eyes to the sky once again, and this time he was rewarded with the sight of four glowing specks, as the formation of rescue Eagles ploughed through Cerulea's thick atmosphere.

"There is nothing for us here, so we're leaving," he yelled, pointing at the Eagles as they rapidly descended towards the crater, looking uncannily like large insects themselves. One veered off, making its way to the landing site of Eagle One; a crew member would pick it up while the rescue was taking place at the lake.

Alan's commlock beeped and Tony's face appeared on the screen.

"Keep your heads down everyone; we're going to give the locals a little display of firepower and clear the area for you."

"Okay- let's get back inside the stone hut," ordered Koenig.

Helena was half dragged, half carried in by the guards as a massive pyrotechnic display by the airborne Eagles' lasers commenced. Screams and cries of terror could be heard coming from all around the lake as the swarm of aliens began to flee, fearing for their lives.

"No! No!" Laana cried out, as they charged up the slope and spilled out over the rim of the crater, waving their staves in the air. A stream of alien language poured from her lips, but her words were useless. She was mercilessly run down by her panicking subjects, the life stamped unceremoniously out of her in their mindless rush.

Looking down from the lead Eagle, which was hovering directly above the hut in the center of the lake, Tony shook his head in sadness. Another new home lost to the crew of Alpha.

"All clear Commander. Come on out and we'll winch you up one at a time.

I don't think those people will be giving us any more trouble."

Soon the full fleet of Eagles were pulling out, accelerating away from the planet as they ferried the exhausted and injured exploration party back home to Moonbase Alpha.

Cerulea's thick tropical jungle shimmered in the heat of the day, the waters of the lake in the crater lying quiescent and undisturbed once more. High above in the surrounding treetops, the exotic giant butterflies flitted industriously from branch to branch, their limited intellects concentrated totally on gathering nectar from the myriad of flowers growing there. Nothing stirred; it was as if the intruders from the passing moon had never been there at all.

A short distance away in the alien settlement, the nuclear generator that had supplied the little colony with power for so long, sputtered a few times and then ceased to function. A silence descended on the clearing and the perfume from the forest that encircled it seemed to grow stronger. The trees leaned avariciously forward, stretching out their branches, eager to return the area to the jungle it once was...

The following hours on Moonbase Alpha were sober ones for the whole crew. Once again their hopes of finding a suitable planet to settle on had been dashed and it was a struggle for each and every one of them to fight away the depression they felt at this. The beautiful world had looked so promising at first; who would have imagined it could turn out to be so strangely treacherous?

As enigmatic blue Cerulea faded to a speck in the windows of Alpha's observation decks, John Koenig sat in Medical Center at Helena's bedside, watching over her as she slept the sleep of the anaesthetized. Drs Ben Vincent and Ed Spencer had been forced to perform orthopedic surgery on her fractured leg, and Helena had not yet regained consciousness after the surgery. John found himself feeling vaguely guilty, wondering if he should have listened more closely to her when she told him of her bad feelings about Cerulea. But how could he, as commander of the base, rely on the dreams and hunches of one person?

Helena might not have been injured if I'd been a little more cautious, he chastised himself. I never should have split the group up. If we'd stuck together and trusted that old woman a little less...

With a sigh, John put his head in his hands and shut his eyes. He had come to accept that he would always suffer from self- recriminations when events didn't run smoothly; it was a side effect of the responsibility he bore. Besides, if he'd done something differently down there, things could have turned out even worse. What if he'd given the go- ahead for Operation Exodus? Would the future children of the Alphans have mutated also? It didn't bear thinking about.

"Commander," called a hushed voice from the doorway. "Can I see you for a minute please?"

He looked up to see Ben Vincent standing there, a sheaf of reports in his hand.

"What is it?" he asked wearily, stepping out into the main body of Medical Center, well away from Helena's anteroom, so as not to disturb her.

"I've got good news," said Vincent. "The blood samples of every member of the exploration team have been analyzed, and no evidence of abnormalities or damage to DNA can be detected at all."

"So we're still genetically sound, then," Koenig answered, noticing for the first time that the young doctor looked every bit as exhausted as he felt himself.

"Yes," agreed Vincent. "Whatever effected the changes in those aliens may have been subtle, requiring a lengthy exposure time. Maya has put forward a very interesting theory. She suggests that it could have been something in the large flowering trees surrounding the Cerulean village which caused their mutation. Perhaps, as a survival mechanism, the plants exuded a chemical which could alter the genetic structure of the colonists who fed on the flowers. This would ensure the trees had a continuing source of insect life for their cross pollination."

The Commander found the idea of simple trees being capable of such sophisticated action quite bizarre, but then he remembered the giant butterflies they had seen high up in the treetops. Could they have been the end product of so much genetic manipulation? Visitors to that planet from some time in the distant past, perhaps? Helena had been so afraid of them...

"Well, I guess it's possible. There's no doubt that those people definitely had a strange affiliation with the jungle. We saw it for ourselves."

"Maya is going to take the possibility up with Alpha's botanists," continued Vincent. "She has several samples of the flowers which she collected at some point during her time down there, and they should produce some interesting results. Anyway- that's all Sir."

John smiled at the younger man and nodded.

"Go get a coffee," he said. "You look like you need it."

Ben Vincent walked away and John returned to Helena's room, taking a seat at her bedside again. She stirred as he sat down, and opened her clear blue eyes.

"John," she whispered.

"How are you feeling?" he asked, taking hold of her hand.

"I've been better," she replied, with the ghost of a smile. "Is my leg okay?"

"Ben says it will be as good as new in a few weeks, if you're a well behaved patient," John said. "And before you ask, no - you can't see the x-rays until you've had more rest!"

Helena raised her eyebrows at him and looked away, trying to focus her sluggish mind on their trip to Cerulea.

"John, I can't help wondering what will happen to those people down on that planet. Do you suppose their race will eventually mutate all the way into insects?"

"Who knows Helena," he sighed. "But I do think we've learnt something from our experience on that planet, even if we didn't find a new home. Laana's story about not having sufficient trained people to go around after their ship's disaster reminded me of worries that have crossed my own mind. Perhaps a more vigorous cross training program could be introduced to the Moonbase personnel."

Helena nodded and allowed her eyes to close again, still feeling drowsy from the anesthetic.

"A good idea," she murmured.

John kissed her gently and stood up, as she drifted back into a peaceful sleep. He resolved to go and find Tony Verdeschi, before he went to get some rest himself. His Chief of Security was always full of good ideas, and would be sure to have some suggestions on a cross training program. Technicians learning to tend the plants in Hydroponics, botanists learning how to maintain Alpha's nuclear generators, medical staff learning to fly Eagles on their own... was it possible?

If we are to survive and go forward, it will have to be, he told himself, as he exited Medical Center and walked briskly through the corridors of Moonbase Alpha, a sense of purpose in his stride. And survive and go forward they most definitely would, if he had anything to do with it.

Copyright (c) 1999. 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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