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Payload From Bruma

Authors: Heather Hammonds
Show Year: Y2
Rating: PG
Date: 1997
The Alphans find a cold planet replete with tiranium. For once, they can bring back as much as they need. But it turns out that isn't all they've brought back.
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Doctor Helena Russell sat absorbed at her temporary workstation on Eagle One, studying a stream of technical data that was coming in from the small brown planet they were flying towards. The low background symphony that was the craft's on- board computer system at work suddenly changed key, throwing in a few extra blips and bleeps for good measure.

"Here we go then," commented geologist Dave Reilly, looking up from his own work for a moment and tipping back his lucky hat, his handsome Irish face breaking into a smile.

Sure enough, a few seconds later the message 'Eagle One in orbit' flashed on one of the vid screens above their heads. Helena sighed and switched off her computer, before standing up.

"Just going to see what the situation up front is," she muttered.

Reilly grunted; his rock- obsessed mind was once again completely immersed in the fascinating geological data he was studying.

Helena entered the eagle command module and came to stand quietly behind one of the pilot seats. Commander John Koenig, the man who was sitting in it, turned and favored her with the kind of smile that nobody else on Moonbase Alpha was privileged to receive.

"Not long now," he said, reaching behind him to briefly touch her hand. "Eagles Two and Three are going into orbit right behind us as we speak."

"There's a signal coming in from Eagle Three Commander," called Alan Carter, who was sitting in the other pilot seat.

Koenig looked over, his attention immediately back on the job in hand. Maya's lovely Psychon face filled one of the small screens on the eagle's control panel. She was grinning cheerfully, and having a struggle to remain businesslike.

"Commander, the tiranium sites on Bruma's surface have now been plotted exactly, and fortunately for us, they are all very close together, centered at one site very close to the planet's equator. Sending the co-ordinates across to your computer and back to Alpha now. Do we have your permission to go on down?"

John glanced back at Helena with an unspoken inquiry. She shook her head.

"We've found nothing to suggest we shouldn't John. Bruma is a good name for that planet; it's apparently too cold at this point for life to exist down there it seems, in spite of the nitrogen and oxygen atmosphere. There's nothing to stop us taking what we want."

"What we need," he corrected her. "This little planet is a godsend to us; our stores of tiranium on Alpha are almost completely depleted, remember."

He gave the landing order at last.

"Eagles Two and Three, follow us down and land at the sites designated by Maya. Maintain contact with Moonbase and Eagle One at all times."

"Copy that Commander," came the voices of eagle pilots Bill Fraser and Joe Newton from their respective craft.

"You know, I'm rather disappointed," sighed Reilly wistfully, as Helena came aft again and sat down next to him to await planetfall. "This little world should be showing us at least some evidence of life, in spite of its chilly temperatures. It wasn't always this cold, you know."

"It's better for us this way," replied Helena. "No unhappy natives to object to us taking what we so desperately need, no little bugs that we might be susceptible to."

And because the place is obviously so inhospitable, there will be no hopeful thoughts from our people about trying to make a home here, she added to herself.

"I know you're right Doctor Russell, but still, a few voluptuous young native women wouldn't have gone astray..."

Helena shook her head at Reilly's boisterous sense of humor. He was a good geologist, in spite of his annoying manner, and she found that she couldn't take offense at him, no matter how she tried.

Across space in Eagle Two, Maya was reviewing the data that Moonbase Alpha had been gathering on the planet they had named Bruma, ever since it had come within range and presented itself as a possible source of much needed tiranium: the rare metallic element that Alpha depended on for its life support systems to function smoothly. Words filled her computer screen.

Bruma was a small terrestrial member of an average sized solar system, lying sixth from its sun; a sun that was rapidly expanding and reddening as it cooled, hence the chilly temperatures on the planet's surface. In a few short millennia the little world would be swallowed up by its dying parent, but for now it was a bonus to the Alphans, as they sailed past on their traveling moon.

Why do I feel uneasy about it? she asked herself again. It's dead; there's nothing there to cause us a problem!

But that was exactly what was wrong- the planet shouldn't have been dead. She would have expected some sort of life to have survived the drop in temperatures.

"Have to wait until we land to be sure," she whispered to herself, staring at the arsenal of laser weapons that hung on the eagle's wall.

Tony Verdeschi sat at his desk in the Command Center of Moonbase Alpha and drummed his fingers. He too was feeling slightly uneasy, although it had nothing to do with qualms about the planet they were about to mine tiranium from. He simply didn't like the idea of Maya being so far away from him. Usually, he could press a few buttons on his console and locate her, wherever she was on the base. Nevertheless, they both had their jobs to do and for the moment, his was to fill the Commander's shoes on Moonbase while Koenig was on the mission.

"Sahn, can you check in with the crews down at the entrance to the catacombs, and see if they are ready with the storage area for the payload the expedition will bring back from the planet?" he asked.

Quietly and efficiently, Sahn procured the information for him in moments.

"Ahead of schedule and all ready to receive the supplies Tony," she said. "It is a good idea to store it down there."

He nodded and acknowledged the compliment with a smile. It had been his idea to store any raw materials they collected down in the catacombs where they would be out of harm's way, and yet easily accessible when required. Standing up, he went to get himself a cup of coffee. For the moment, Alpha was a base on auto- pilot. All they need do now was wait for the others to return.

Cold and forbidding, Bruma seemed to wait quietly as the three eagles touched down upon its still, lifeless surface. Here and there patches of permafrost were visible against the sandy brown ground, unmelted in the weak light of the dull red overhead sun. Small chunks of tiranium melded into rocks the size of footballs lay scattered about amongst the sand and inside Eagle Two, Maya's geological sensors were in a frenzy.

"It's incredible," she almost shouted to Bill Fraser in the excitement of the moment. "There's more tiranium out there than we can take in the time we have. How did it come to be lying on the surface like this? And look, there are other precious minerals too. Gold, silver, uranium, milgonite. My sensors are registering a treasure-trove here!"

"Stop!" he laughed. "Or I may just jump out there right away and pick up a few of those shiny yellow nuggets for Annette."

"Nobody moves out of the eagles without their suits on Bill," warned Helena from a communications monitor, where she'd been listening in to their conversation from Eagle One. "The air out there is too cold and thin. You'd never be able to breathe."

"Aye aye Doctor," he replied jovially.

The sight of so much precious material was exciting for everyone on the mission, and it took John Koenig's authoritative voice to bring order back to the crews of the three eagles.

"Listen up people," he called. "It now looks as though our mission is going to be much easier than we originally anticipated, but nevertheless, there is still a lot of work to do in a limited time. Weather patterns at the moment appear to be cold but stable and windless; however, we don't know how long that will last. Eagle Three has been fitted out as a cargo ship for this mission, as you know, so this must be loaded first with tiranium and milgonite. Joe, you are in charge of that."

Joe Newton, pilot of the eagle in question, answered in the affirmative. He had four men and three well equipped moon buggies on board his ship, and could make light work of loading it up.

"Eagles One and Two will take a limited amount of cargo, including samples of uranium, gold, silver, and whatever else we can viably extract from the surface in a short period of time. Now each of you has been assigned a specific task and I ask you to perform it with the same professionalism I have come to expect. However, if a nugget of gold should find it's way into a pocket here and there, I think it could be overlooked."

There were vague chuckles at this last comment, as gold would have no monetary value on Alpha, the way it had back on Earth. It was useful only as a pretty bauble, or in a manufacturing sense, where it could at times, prove useful.

Space suits were donned and eagle hatches were opened, the Alphans setting about their tasks. Reilly sought out Maya as soon as possible; not only did he find her attractive, but he valued her quick scientific mind and the opinions she would give. She may have been practically spoken for by Verdeschi, but that didn't make her any less a pleasure to be around.

"It's not possible for all this mineral wealth to be grouped in the one area of its own accord, you know," he remarked through his comm-unit, as he came to stand next to her on the cold brown surface. "My data shows that the whole planet is not like this- just this one area that stretches for about 500 kilometers in each direction."

"Yes, I've been wondering about that myself," she answered. "At first I thought that the small distribution of tiranium could have been due to some volcanic activity, or the presence of an ancient sea bed. But all this gold and silver? No-"

She shook her head inside her space suit.

"Intelligent life then," Reilly murmured.

"Yes, at some time in the past, perhaps," agreed the Psychon. "Let's go and find Helena, and see what she has to say."

Helena Russell was taking air and soil samples when the two approached her.

"Incredible, isn't it?" she said, pausing in her work. "What a geological freak- and a bonus for us."

"No freak, as far as I'm concerned Doc," replied Reilly. "And Maya agrees with me. Someone, or something must have gathered this up from all around the planet and put it here."

Helena looked through the bubble of Reilly's space suit helmet and saw that for once, he was deadly serious. The characteristic twinkle in his eye was completely absent.

"Perhaps you're right," she said softly, staring out across the flat landing site they were working on, across barren landscape to some nearby hills. "But there's nothing here now. Whatever life existed on Bruma once is apparently long gone- either dead or moved on. It's too cold now to be anyone's home."

Maya and Reilly returned to their respective tasks and the loading of the eagles continued smoothly, but their words stayed in Helena's mind, nagging away at her. What sort of creatures could have lived here at one time? Were they intelligent? Had they indeed brought all these precious rocks and metals to one small area close to the planet's equator, as a last stand against the cold, perhaps? She shook her head; there was no supporting evidence, apart from the precious elements themselves. No fossils that she could see, no ruined buildings. Nothing but the frozen sandy ground. Nevertheless...

She gathered up her samples and headed back to Eagle One, knowing that John was aboard and wanting to talk to him. Once inside she removed her helmet with some relief, always feeling as though she were in a fishbowl whilst wearing it.

"Eagle Three is almost loaded and I've given orders that it is to return to Moonbase as soon as it's ready," the Commander said, coming through to help her with her suit. All that remains is to load what we can onto One and Two, and we can head for home. Are you satisfied with what you've got from the planet's surface yourself?"

Helena didn't answer immediately and he raised his eyebrows at her.

"Something wrong?"

"No, not exactly," she replied. "But has Maya, or Dave Reilly discussed their view that there is no way all this tiranium and the other precious metals could have concentrated itself in one area on its own?"

"Yes, Maya did," he sighed. "But Helena, it's irrelevant now. Whoever, or whatever put all this in one small area, they did us an enormous favor, don't you agree?"

"Oh yes," she replied slowly. "I guess I'd just like to know who did it, and why. In fact, if we're just about done here, do you think we can spare a little time to check out those nearby hills? We might find some evidence..."

Koenig thought for a minute before giving her his answer. He could see no valid reason for a side expedition, but since the weather was clear and they were running way ahead of schedule, he decided to indulge her. He handed her helmet back and nodded.

"All right, a moon buggy and thirty minutes- no more. We should be able to get as far as those small hills and back in that time. Okay?"

It was with some surprise that Maya watched the Commander and Helena

roll away from the landing site, as she packed up her gear. Had she missed something, she wondered? She checked in with Alan Carter and discovered the reason for their trip.

"They're not going out of visual contact," he replied to her question, his voice sounding tinny and far away on the communications unit. "Helena just wanted to satisfy herself that there really is no evidence life existed here, and since we had a bit of time up our sleeve, the Commander agreed to take her on a quick sightseeing tour. They'll be back in thirty minutes."

"Hmmph," she said to herself, feeling slightly put out. "I would have liked to check out the terrain too- although I suppose three's a crowd."

She trudged back to Eagle Two and boarded; her work on the planet's surface was completed, and she was looking forward to returning to Alpha, and Tony.

Helena scanned the surrounding landscape with a pair of specially designed binoculars pressed to her space suit helmet, as John steered the moon buggy around several large rocks, and chunks of tiranium. He glanced at the time readout on his air tank and slowed down.

"See anything?" he asked.

"No," sighed Helena. "Just the rocks, and... wait on a minute!"

"What is it?" Koenig asked, stopping altogether.

"Looks like a cave entrance over to the left of us," was the reply. "If there's any sign of a previous culture here, surely it would be visible inside a cave, hidden away from the elements."

They drove off again and covered the short distance to the cave's entrance in minutes. Helena got out, intent on having a look inside.

"Be careful," warned Koenig. "Don't go in far."

He was just about to radio their position back to Alan in Eagle One when a shout from Helena distracted him.

"John," she called. "Look at this!"

He ran inside through the small entrance, switching on a torch which he carried at his belt.

"What have you found? Is it..." but the words died on his lips.

The cave was shallow and almost perfectly round, shaped like the inside of an egg. Koenig had expected to see remnants of some sort of civilization, but what he was actually confronted with was an incredible example of naturally formed beauty. Stalactites of various colors dripped down from the high, damp ceiling, to be mirrored below by strange, hollowed out stalagmites, that looked as though they were creeping up to devour their fellows above. His torch light reflected of their damp, shiny surfaces and he stood transfixed for some time.

Helena had brought a small video camera with her and she played it around the cave in the gloaming, taking in every detail for others back on Alpha to share at a later date, if they wished to.

"No fossils, no remnants of past civilizations, but the buggy ride was still worth it to see this," she said in a hushed voice, her voice whispering through the suit communications unit and into Koenig's ear.

He put his gloved hand on the arm of her suit and patted it.

"You're right, it was worth it. But we've got to get back now. If there were every any life forms here, they must have left long ago, and we're out of time."

Reluctantly, Helena began to follow him to the entrance of the cave. In the distance, back at the landing site, Eagle Three took off with its precious cargo, as per the Commander's instructions. The ground beneath John and Helena's feet vibrated slightly with the roar of the ungainly bird's engines and in the millisecond before it happened, they both had a premonition.

"Run!" shouted John.

But it was too late; in their bulky suits, they never had a chance.

With barely a sound, an overhanging ledge at the entrance to the cave collapsed, one great solid chunk of rock completely blocking their way out and sending fine sandy dust gushing in on them, temporarily obscuring their view. John grabbed Helena's arm and pulled her backwards, away from the rockfall. She tripped and crashed into one of the stalagmites poking up from the cave floor. Fortunately for her it snapped harmlessly in two, as it was hollow. If it had been solid, she may have been impaled.

"My God, are you all right?" asked John, pulling her up.

He felt useless in his space suit, unable to see properly that the woman he cared so much for was unharmed inside hers.

"I'm fine," she replied breathlessly, as the dust settled. "What about you?"

"Okay," he said, fiddling with his commlock. "Eagle One, this is Koenig. Come in."

There was no response; just the hiss of static.

"Yours may have been damaged," said Helena, pulling out her own and pressing it into service.

"Eagle One, are you receiving me. Anyone!"


"I don't understand it, the rock isn't that thick here. Our commlocks should easily be powerful enough to get a signal back to the others," she cried.

"It could be the tiranium itself interfering with our signal; there's so much of it lying around out there," sighed Koenig. "Ironic, isn't it? The element we so desperately need to survive may be responsible for our-"

"Don't say it John," interrupted Helena quickly. "The others will easily find us, with the moon buggy parked just outside the cave. Alan knew we were only going to be away for a short time."

"Of course," he answered, wishing he hadn't spoken so hastily and frightened her.

Still, he knew he was only voicing what they both must accept. Although the other members of the expedition would find them with relative ease once enough time had passed that they realized something had gone wrong, it remained to be seen whether they would do so before the oxygen in their tanks ran out. And the air here was too thin and cold for them to breathe; it would be like trying to draw breath on a mountain much higher than Everest, back on Earth. Impossible.

Helena took his arm and pointed to a flat area of rock on the cave floor.

"Let's sit down," she said. "We need to conserve our air."

Alan Carter thought he heard a noise over the Eagle's radio. He pressed a few buttons and listened again. There was laughter coming from the passenger module and he clicked his tongue.

"Be quiet back there!" he shouted.

There it was again; a static noise, as if someone was trying to contact him on the wrong frequency. He called up Moonbase and Sahn's face appeared before him.

"Eagle One here," he said. "Sahn- did you just try to raise me?"

She shook her head.

"No Alan. When are you and Eagle Two expecting to leave?"

"Very shortly, we're ready to go and just waiting for the commander to give the order," he replied. "I'll make contact the minute we lift off. Out."

Frowning, he stabbed at another button on the console.

"Eagle One to Commander Koenig."

He swore softly when there was no reply. Patching through to Eagle Two, he said,

"Bill, I think we've got trouble."

"I thought you said he wasn't going out of eye contact!" Maya exclaimed, her face appearing on the little screen beside Bill Fraser's.

"He told me he wasn't," replied Alan, folding his arms. "But I've checked the area with the on-board camera and I can't see the moon buggy anywhere."

"A whole hour has passed and we can't raise them," Dave Reilly added, coming through to stand near Alan's seat. "They could be dead for all we know."

"Thank you very much. We don't need your opinions, so just shut up," the pilot replied angrily.

"What if one of us lifts off a little way? It would give us a better view of our surroundings," offered Bill. "They can't have gone far, even in an hour. Look - I'll do it; I'm slightly better positioned than you."

Alan nodded.

"Okay," he said. "I'll let Alpha know what's going on."

John and Helena sat with their backs against the cave wall and listened, as Eagle Two blasted off. A few more crumbs of earth fell inwards in front of them, but apart from that, it seemed that all that was going to tumble down had done so.

"They're looking for us," said Helena.

"It won't take them long to find us; we're so close," John replied.

But how are they going to get in to us in time without burying us alive? he wondered.

"I'm sorry John."

Koenig could tell by the tremor in Helena's voice that she was weeping. He took the bubble of her helmet in his two hands and jammed his own against it, peering through the tinted perspex. He wished with all his might that he could wipe her tears away and the frustration of it brought moisture to his own eyes.

"I'm sorry that I brought you out here and led us into this. I only thought that we might learn something..." she continued.

"Hush, don't upset yourself," he replied, trying to keep his voice steady. "It's done and you're not to blame. I should have radioed our position back to Alan before we came in here. And I shouldn't have let you come inside the cave before getting Dave Reilly to take a look at the lie of the land, and see if it was stable."

"We're going to pay for our mistakes with our lives. We were too complacent- this place seemed so harmless," she sobbed.

Koenig could do nothing but hold onto Helena's helmet and hope that the nearness of his presence comforted her a little. He glanced down at the readout on her air tank and saw how little breathing time she had left.

"Like you said before, the others will easily find us," he repeated, not knowing what else to say, but hardly believing that they could meet their end in such a pathetic way, after all they had been through together.

"Got it!" shouted Bill Fraser. "They are so close; it's just that the buggy was hidden behind a pile of rocks. That's funny, the rocks appear to be newly disturbed..."

"Oh no," breathed Maya. "Move over and land as close as you can Bill."

Without another word, the eagle pilot did as she said. A moment later, Alan Carter blasted off and followed him, unable to sit tight and do nothing.

Inside the cave, John and Helena clung to each other as the roar of the landing eagles shook the ground beneath them, petrified that another collapse was imminent.

"T- try the commlock again," panted Helena, once the noise had died down.

The oxygen in her tank was almost gone and she was feeling light-headed and nauseous. She prayed that she did not vomit in her helmet before she passed out.

Koenig did as she asked, but with no better result than before.

"God dammit!" he fumed, standing up. "I've got to get us out of here."

"It's no use John," whimpered Helena, only too aware of the fact that he would be hardly better off for oxygen than she. "I wish- I wish you could hold me. I don't want to die inside this suit alone."

Her words tore at him and he knelt back down beside her.

"If we take our helmets off in here, we'll have a couple of minutes," she whispered. "A last couple of minutes together."

"Don't give up like that! We never could have come this far if we'd had that attitude in the past," he insisted. "Don't you dare give up on me!"

At that moment, she lifted her head.

"Over there," she whispered, pointing.

From the crack in the top of the fallen rock, a long, snake-like creature appeared. It took one look at them and then it was gone, shooting back out the way it had come.

"Maya," said Koenig thankfully. "Helena, that had to be Maya."

But she didn't hear him, as she had quietly slipped into anoxic unconsciousness. Koenig looked at his own dwindling supply and made a decision. Disconnecting his air pipe, he plugged it into the emergency jack on Helena's suit; they would have to buddy-breathe and hope that the others outside were able to get to them before his tank also gave out.

"There's a crack in the top of the blocked entrance, and I was able to get inside with no trouble," Maya panted, as she transformed herself to her original form, once she was back on Eagle Two. "The Commander and Helena are in there all right, and they're alive, but they must be desperately short on oxygen! Helena looked to be in a bad way."

"Take tanks and run a couple of emergency lines through to them Maya," said Alan. "The rest of us will make a start on getting them out of there. Reilly - we'll need your expertise on how best to re-open a gap in the cave wall without bringing the lot down on them."

"It'll be a tricky job," replied Reilly, taking a look through the eagle's on-board camera.

"Let's get on with it then," answered Carter grimly.

Helena was dreaming. She stood on the top of a cliff, overlooking the Grand Canyon; a place she'd visited when she was much younger. It was sunset, and the ruddy colors playing over the chasms below her were breathtaking. A cool, fresh wind was blowing against her face, and whichever way she turned her head, she could not get away from it. Although it was sweet, it was distracting, and she lifted a hand, batting uselessly at the invisible zephyr.

"Helena, Helena, keep still. You're okay."

At the sound of John's voice, she opened her eyes and reality came flooding back. The wind in her face was nothing more than the sweetness of fresh oxygen, pouring into her suit from one of two tubes that were protruding through a crack in the blocked cave entrance.

"Thank God," John muttered, when he saw recognition flicker in Helena's wide open eyes. "We'll be fine; they'll have us out in no time."

Helena nodded and struggled to sit up as she began to feel better.

Satisfied that she'd placed fresh oxygen tanks with extra long lines right where the two who were trapped could reach them, Maya returned to Eagle Two to operate its laser, and sat in the pilot seat, watching and waiting as Dave Reilly carefully marked the areas of rock he'd chosen as suitable to be blasted away, to make a small tunnel back into the cave. She had to hand it to him, he was clever. One small triangular corner at the bottom of the main rock that was blocking the entrance would be removed. Doing it that way wouldn't compromise the ability of the rock to hold the rest of the structure above it up. She scratched absentmindedly at a spot on her wrist and glanced down.

"Ugh," she muttered, with a frown.

A small bit of brown dirt had stuck to her, and she wondered how it could have gotten there.

Must have stuck to me when I morphed and went outside without a suit on, she concluded.

Still, it was an unusual thing to happen, and she rubbed the dirt from her wrist until it was completely gone. A small red pinprick remained, but the itch had disappeared, and so she forgot about it.

"We're ready Maya," came Alan's voice. "Give us a minute to get well clear."

Carefully she lined up the ship's laser with Reilly's marks and then, holding her breath, fired.

A long burst of laser light crept up the rock, bubbling and sizzling its way along a straight line. A small explosion occurred and she cut the beam in a hurry. As the dust from the explosion cleared Maya saw Alan Carter and Bill Fraser disappearing into the hole that had been created. Moments later, the Commander staggered out, followed by Helena Russell, supported between her two rescuers.

"Eagle Two, come in please," came Tony's voice over the airwaves. "Can you give us a status report- Maya, what's happening down there?"

Relieved that it was over and she could reassure him, she replied, "Rescue of Helena and the Commander completed successfully Tony. We'll be on the tail of Eagle Three in minutes."

"Just get back here safely," he replied, breaking completely with communications protocol in his anxiety.

Helena sat in a seat looking pale and exhausted, as the two eagles put space between themselves and the planet who had been so generous in its gifts to them, and yet, had very nearly stolen the lives of two of Alpha's most valued crew members.

"Thank you," she whispered to Maya, who had elected to fly back on Eagle One with her. "I thought we were lost - had given up until I saw you poke your head through that crack back there in the cave. By the way, what was that snake thing you became?"

"Another creature from one of the moons of Psychon," grinned Maya. "A Creet."

"A what?" asked Helena.

"A Creet. It's named after the strange sound it makes when it's angry. Creet! Anyway, it lives most of its life underground, surviving on very little oxygen and drawing what it does need from that which is trapped in the rocks. It was the obvious choice to get into the cave."

"Well, you saved our lives, all of you" said Koenig, coming over to join them.

He was feeling slightly embarrassed at being caught up in such a situation, but was supremely thankful that his crew had risen to the occasion.

"You've done the same for each of us in the past Commander," answered Maya quietly.

The corridors of Alpha were abuzz with activity when the two eagles finally touched down. The booty from Eagle Three was being transferred through to the lower levels of the moonbase at a great rate, and everyone was excited at the amount of tiranium, in particular, that had been brought back. Also, word about the gold that had been found was circulating the base, and many personnel who were not on duty had come to see if the stories of large nuggets were true.

Tony Verdeschi was waiting impatiently at the boarding lounge, ostensibly to fill the Commander in on what had been happening and welcome back all the expediters, but when Maya stepped out of the Eagle, he forgot himself and took her in his arms.

"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked, much to the amusement of those watching.

"Tony, it wasn't me who was trapped in a cave with almost no life support," she laughed. "Poor Helena and the Commander have been through the mill, not me!"

"We're fine," said Koenig, shaking his head. "No need to fuss."

Ben Vincent was hovering nearby, and he insisted that Helena, at least, go straight to Medical Center for a check.

"I can't believe how many storage containers of tiranium Eagle Three brought back," enthused Tony, walking back to the commander's quarters with him. "And the amount of gold, silver and milgonite you have aboard; it's an incredible haul."

"Yes it is," agreed Koenig. "We have enough supplies to last us for months and months, meaning we don't have to make expeditions to other inhospitable planets and asteroids, which always risk lives, for some time. We're extremely lucky from that point of view."

They paused for a moment outside the Commander's door and he smiled at the younger man.

"You did a good job of looking after the base while I was away Tony, and it was a great idea to open up the catacombs for storage purposes. It's cool down there and the temperature's stable all the time; I don't know why we haven't done it before. You know, if anything ever happened to me, you would be in command permanently. I want you to know I have every confidence that you'd do an excellent job."

"Thanks John, but I hope that situation never arises," replied Tony awkwardly.

He must be feeling his mortality after that near miss down on the planet, he thought.

"I'm going to get cleaned up and then I'll see you back at Command Center," said Koenig, slapping him on the shoulder.

Tony lifted his hand and walked away, his thoughts turning to Maya once again. She was at Command Center now, he knew, feeding some data into the computer. Perhaps she would consent to spending a bit of free time with him later.

Maya sat at her desk in Command Center and watched as cold little Bruma dwindled into a smaller and smaller dot on the big screen. She felt a strange sense of loss as they moved away from it and scratched at the tiny mark on her wrist in agitation. Feeling uncomfortable, she shifted about on her seat.

"My mother would have said you had worms, moving around like that," joked Sahn, watching her. "Is everything all right?"

"Worms? Oh- yes," replied Maya vaguely, taking a minute to get the joke. "I think I'm just worn out, that's all."

She stood up and wandered off, her feet carrying her out of Command Center and down a corridor, towards a lift that would take her to the lower levels, where she could enter the catacombs and watch the cargo they had brought back being loaded into storage.

"She works herself too hard sometimes," remarked Alan Carter, coming to stand beside Sahn. "It wasn't the easiest of expeditions out there and when the Commander and Helena went missing... well, you can imagine."

"She's not the only one who could do with a rest," said Sahn pointedly, looking at the bags of fatigue under Carter's eyes.

"Yeah, yeah," chuckled Alan, slouching off like an old man, exaggerating his condition. "Well, I'm off duty now, anyway, so I'm going to head for the gym and take some hydrotherapy. You won't recognize me by the time I've finished over there, I'll be so fit and handsome that every woman on Moonbase will be after me!"

Sahn shook her head and tried not to laugh too much; it would only encourage Alan to further ridiculous statements.

The deeper Maya went under the moon's surface and the closer she came to the catacombs, the better she felt. Most of the storage containers of tiranium from eagle three had been packed away in one side cavern; the other raw materials from eagles one and two would be placed in an adjacent area that had recently been blasted out and enlarged. The cavern was dimly lit and cold, but Maya did not notice. She went as though in a trance, and sat herself down among the boxes, experiencing a feeling of belonging stronger than she had ever felt before.

"Lovely tiranium," she whispered softly, her susurration echoing around the cavern. "Life sustaining, strengthening, lovely tiranium."

The mark on her wrist throbbed for a moment, and something rippled past it just under her skin. She scratched again, and the tiny pinprick hole opened a little, breathed a little, before closing over once more.

"Maya, are you in here?" Tony shouted.

He had looked everywhere else for her and couldn't raise her on her commlock. One of the techs who had been working in the catacombs had mentioned seeing her heading down there.

"Oh- Tony, yes I am," she replied, hastily standing up and giving herself a mental shake.

"What are you up to? Why didn't you answer your commlock when I paged you?" he asked, stepping into the cavern. "God, it's cold down here!"

"Tiranium might have been interfering with reception, because I didn't hear you at all," Maya said, fiddling with the unit to see that it was functioning correctly. "I was just checking that everything had been stored away properly. We collected so much Tony; it was a really worthwhile expedition."

Verdeschi took her hand and it felt almost as cold and damp as the rock walls around them.

"Come on girl," he chided. "Leave the storage to the storage guys; you've done your job and are on a break! Come have a meal with me."

She nodded and walked out with him, strangely silent and withdrawn.

"Close call for John and Helena down on that planet," Tony commented, wanting to make conversation. "From the way the commander spoke to me before, I think he must have thought they were done for. Lucky you showed up, eh?"

"It was a team effort Tony; it took all of us to find them and get them out," Maya replied.

"You're being too modest," he smiled. "I heard that if you hadn't changed into some exotic snake thing and slithered inside to take a look at them, they would have died of anoxia before they were blasted free. Besides, I would have thought they'd have known better than to go wandering off alone."

Maya shrugged her shoulders.

"It wasn't like that; they were actually very close to the site we were working out of. It was a terrible freak accident and it could have happened to any one of us if we'd poked our heads in that cave just as Eagle Three was taking off."

"Yeah, yeah, but you still saved them," Tony insisted, grabbing her wrists from behind and playfully squashing her against him as they reached the door of his quarters. "Now we're going in here for a minute, 'heroine', while I check on my latest batch of beer. God knows what else we'll find to occupy ourselves in there before dinner-"

Maya froze and drew a sharp breath.

"What's the matter?" asked Tony frowning.

Then he felt a strange elongated nodule on her wrist and relaxed his grip, lifting it up to examine it. When he looked closely, he couldn't see the nodule he'd felt, but he did notice a tiny open sore, a little larger than a pinhole, with raised, slightly red edges.

"Has this been swollen? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you," he said. "When did you do this?"

"Oh, it's just a scratch and not infected at all," Maya bit back irritably. "Nothing to worry about."

Tony stepped away from her and tilted her chin up, forcing her to meet his gaze.

"It doesn't look like a scratch to me, and it hurt when I touched it, didn't it."

Maya didn't answer and tried unsuccessfully to avert her eyes.

"Right," he said. "My beer can look after itself for the moment, I want someone over at Medical to look at this now."

Meekly, she allowed him to usher her down the corridor in the direction of a travel tube.

After all, there is nothing to see but a tiny hole, something whispered inside her. No evidence...

Helena Russell lay back on her bed in an examination room in Medical Center and stared at the array of technical equipment that lay dormant in one corner of the room. She was fine, and had known it before Drs. Ben Vincent and Ed Spencer had insisted on performing every test they could think of to ensure her body and brain had not been affected by the temporary lack of clean oxygen. Her thoughts briefly touched on what might have happened if Maya hadn't gotten a fresh supply to her so quickly and she shivered.

I wouldn't want to live if I were mentally impaired by an accident like that, she said to herself. But how would I know? I might have woken up a happy witless child, not knowing what I'd lost, existing as nothing more than an endless source of grief to poor John.

She was glad to have such morbid thoughts distracted by the sight of Koenig himself walking through her door. He sat down next to her bed and leaned over to kiss her.

"Ben tells me that you're okay, and can return to your own quarters now, as long as I stick around there to keep an eye on you," he said. "Sounds like a good idea to me."

Helena sighed.

"I don't really need the time off John, and there's a backlog of work to be done here in Medical; personnel health checks I was running before we went down to Bruma, and-

Koenig put a finger to her lips.

"You could have died back there. You need to rest and recuperate, and you know it. The sort of work you're talking about is always there to be done, so do as the doctor orders and relax for a few hours. Spend a little time with me while we have the chance."

"You've persuaded me," she said, seeing the sense in what he was saying.

Koenig handed Helena her uniform and she got out of the bed.

As they were leaving Medical Center, they bumped into Tony and Maya.

"What brings you down here?" asked Helena, catching the look of concern on Tony's face.

"A small scratch," laughed Maya. "Tony insists I get it seen to, so perhaps one of your nurses could dress it for me, just to satisfy him."

"No, I'll take a look at it before I leave," said Helena with a frown. "When did you do it?"

John Koenig had also noticed the worried look on Tony's face, and didn't try to stop Helena. If something really was wrong with the Psychon, he knew that she was the best qualified person on the base to take care of it.

Maya didn't speak, but merely smiled and held out her wrist. Helena looked closely at it.

"I want to see this under magnification; it's more like a puncture wound than a cut. Can you remember when you got this Maya? Try."

Asked again, Maya could not avoid answering this time.

"Oh, I first noticed it when I was sitting in one of the eagles a few hours ago. I think I must have bumped into something, or scratched myself. Perhaps some antiseptic..."

Helena guided her to an examination chair and sat her down, pulling over a powerful surgeon's magnifying glass with a light at its center. She squinted as she looked at the wound.

"Well, I can't see anything in it, but the edges are raised and red. Maybe you have a splinter under your skin and it's making a little sinus. I'll dress it for you and give you some ointment that is antiseptic and has a drawing effect. If there's a foreign body in there, the ointment should draw it out. Keep a close eye on it and come back and see me again in 24 hours."

"See Tony, it's nothing serious. I'm not in any mortal danger," joked Maya.

"Can't hurt to be careful," muttered Verdeschi, feeling foolish.

Finally John took Helena away from Medical Center and back to her quarters, where he insisted that she lay down. He kept watch over her, working from the small computer terminal in her room, reading some of the finished reports on the planet they had just left behind.

"I was thinking-," she piped up from her bed.

"Don't think, just rest," interrupted John, looking up from the computer screen. "If that's possible."

"No, seriously," she said, struggling to sit up. "There's something that's bothering me about the wound on Maya's wrist. Tony was worried too, couldn't you tell?"

"Yes I could, but Tony would worry if Maya so much as sneezed," he snorted.

Helena laughed and shook her head.

"Oh, well look who's talking. Anyone would think that I couldn't look after myself, the way you are carrying on."

Then, she became serious again.

"It's a strange puncture mark though. I hope it doesn't give her problems. Her physiology isn't identical to ours and I do worry that some things might affect her when they wouldn't bother us at all."

John held up his index finger and walked over to Helena's bedside.

"See this?" he asked, pointing to a little mark on the end of the digit with his other hand. "I scratched myself with a piece of wire last week down in technical, when one of the fellas there was showing me a piece of his handiwork. Did I come running to you when it got a bit red and sore? No- I bravely put a bandage on it and you didn't even notice."

In spite of his kidding around, he couldn't make Helena laugh a second time, as she was only half- listening to what he said.

"If it was on the end of her finger, I wouldn't be so worried. The inside of the wrist is a strange place for that type of wound."

John took her by the shoulders and gently pushed her back down on the pillow.

"What do I have to do to get you to stop being a doctor for a little while and think about your own well- being?" he asked gently. "Maya will come back and see you about it like you asked her to, so put it out of your mind, or I'll call Ben Vincent and get him to come and tranquilize you."

"Yes Commander," she replied with a sigh, wrapping her arms around his neck.

"While Helena was fixing your wrist up, Ed Spencer told me that some of the guys from environmental have got up a bit of a comedy act," Tony remarked, as he and Maya strolled back towards his quarters. "Apparently, they're putting a show on in the recreation room in about half an hour. After I've checked on my beer, do you want to go and have a look at them? See how good - or bad - they are?"

Maya nodded and gave a surreptitious tug at the dressing Helena had put on her wrist. It was itching intolerably; almost burning. She longed to rip it off and expose the wound to the air once more, but didn't want to do it in front of Tony.

"I'd like to go back to my own quarters and get changed first, if that's okay with you," she replied. "I could meet you at the recreation room."

"Okay, I'll save a seat for you," said Tony. "Don't be late."

Maya gave a quick nod and hurried away. Verdeschi shrugged his shoulders and walked on to his room wondering what was the matter with her tonight. Perhaps she was more put out than she let on about his fussing over her wrist? Then his brows drew together as he wondered if her strange mood had anything to do with the fact that she had spent several hours on the latest planetary expedition in the company of the smooth talking Dave Reilly - when he was stuck back on Alpha and unable to keep an eye on the situation.

Now I'm being paranoid, he thought, annoyed with himself. She's probably just tired, nothing more.

Maya glanced at her watch on the way to her quarters and stopped walking.

Without pausing to examine the reasons why she was doing it, she changed direction, heading back towards the catacombs.

"If I hurry, I've just got time," she whispered.

Running along one of Alpha's maze of corridors, she almost collided with Alan Carter and Bill Fraser. Alan opened his mouth to ask her if she'd heard about the comedy act in the recreation room, but shut it again as she ran on without so much as a 'Sorry'.

"That's not like Maya; I wonder if there's something going on that we don't know about," he said.

Fraser shrugged his shoulders.

"I was in Command Center not ten minutes ago and everything was fine then."

Alan shook his head and they walked on.

The catacombs were cool and Maya's wrist was burning. In fact, her whole arm felt as if it was on fire- and her shoulder, and her chest, and her head... She flung herself down on the cold rock floor in front of the cases of tiranium and sighed with relief, ripping the dressing from her throbbing wrist. The fingers of her hand clenched and unclenched as her arm began to ripple.

"Help me," she softly whimpered, as the pinhole wound, now free of the dressing, began to expand.

Maya's pupils became fixed and vacant as she stared at the tiranium; control of her mind and body no longer belonged to her. From the hole in her wrist, a small white thready creature stretched hungrily, greedily out. It reared up and searched the cavern around it, before extending forward and burrowing its way into one of the cases of tiranium. More and more of the obscene spaghetti-like thing crept from her wrist, twisting and turning as it moved. As it burrowed into the tiranium with its head, it latched its powerful scolex onto the precious substance and began to pulsate and glow, drawing the life sustaining energy from it. Maya opened her mouth slightly, but that was all. Inside her mind, one part of her wanted to scream for help, but another -the part that the creature had control of- was quite content to lie still in the cold and dark, willing host to the invasive alien parasite.

Tony sat in the recreation room with folded arms and a scowl on his face, an empty seat beside him. The comedy act had begun and it was good; so good that practically everyone else watching the would- be comedians was laughing until they had tears rolling down their cheeks. He looked around the room, trying to spot Dave Reilly, but with no luck.

I'll bet he's with Maya, he thought grimly.

Taking advantage of a pause in the act a few minutes later, he stood up and moved towards the door. Alan Carter, who had noticed both Maya's absence and Verdeschi's anxious scowl from where he sat at the rear of the room, followed him out.

"Hey Tony, wait a minute," he called.

Verdeschi did as he was asked.

"Are you looking for Maya?"

"Maya, or Dave Reilly," growled Tony.

Suddenly, Alan understood. He knew of Verdeschi's dislike of Reilly, and the reasons why. He also knew that Dave Reilly didn't stand a chance as far as Maya was concerned.

"Look mate," he said. "Dave is on duty in his lab, drafting a report for the commander. Alone. You've got no worries there and never had! If it's any help to you, the last time I saw Maya she was running off somewhere in an awful hurry, down corridor G."

Tony looked both relieved and confused.

"Corridor G- towards the catacombs?"

"Er, I guess so," replied Alan. "I gather she was supposed to meet you here?"

"Yes; what the hell was she doing going back to the catacombs?"

He pulled his commlock off his belt and punched in Maya's code. As before there was no response.

"Damned tiranium's still interfering with the signal," he muttered.

Next, he contacted Koenig. John's face appeared on the tiny screen, looking tired.

"What is it Tony?"

"John, did you send Maya back down to the catacombs for any particular reason?"

"No," was the short reply. "Is there a problem?"

"I don't think so. I don't know," muttered Tony, feeling as though he shouldn't have bothered him.

"Well, keep me informed," said the Commander.

"Come on mate, lets go and check this out for ourselves," sighed Alan. "I can see you're worried."

"It's just a feeling I have. Something's wrong with her," said Tony, as they walked away from the sounds of laughter in the recreation room. "Something's not right."

Maya lay unconscious on the floor of the storage cavern, the core temperature of her body beginning to cool. Her heartbeat had slowed and any thoughts in her mind that might once have been her own had slipped away into the oblivion of hypothermia. Without help, in another hour or two she would be dead, but that would not present a problem to the parasite that used her. By then it would be well grown, and independent of her. It continued to pulsate and grow as it anchored itself more firmly into the tiranium. Every now and then, a little more of its body would slip in and out of Maya's wrist, as it grew bolder in the security of its new lair.

"Maya, are you down here again?"

Tony's voice echoed about in the darkness.

A flashlight beam ran along the wall of the cavern, and then the newly installed lighting flickered on.

"Why would she be sitting down here?" asked Alan, mystified.

"I don't know, but she was before," was Tony's worried reply.

Then he saw her.

"Maya!" he cried, horrified.

He leapt forward, intent on pulling the grotesque creature from her wrist, but it twisted and writhed furiously as he approached, making her arm flail wildly about.

"Wait a minute," yelled Alan. "It will break her arm if it keeps that up. Get help first, man!"

He shouted into his commlock, calling Sahn back in Command Center, the horrific details spilling from his lips in a panic.

"There was nothing wrong with her commlock," Tony half- sobbed. "She just couldn't answer me."

Alan gripped his arm and pulled him further away, frightened that the thing which protruded from Maya might turn on them. For the moment, there was nothing more they could do but stand by and watch.

Helena awoke to find someone shaking her shoulder.

"What is it?" she mumbled.

"Helena, I'm sorry, but there's an emergency," said John. "You're needed, and it's important."

She took one look at his face and struggled out of bed, hands grabbing for her clothes as he gave her the brief details that he had on Maya's predicament.

"My God, it's coming out of her wrist, you say?" she panted, as they set off for the nearest travel tube at a run. "I knew there was something wrong with that wound."

As they went, both Helena and the Commander snapped orders into their commlocks; Ben Vincent and a team of three nurses, together with a security team, armed with the most powerful side arms Alpha possessed would meet them down there. Then, they would see.

The dank air of the catacombs hit Helena as they stepped out of the warm familiarity of corridor G and into the rocky caverns.

Great for storage, but no place to be ill, she thought with a shiver.

Her heart sank as they rounded a corner and entered the storage area. One of the nurses stifled a scream.

"Oh no," breathed Bob Vincent. "Look at the length of that thing- it's pulsating!"

"What do we do?" asked Tony desperately, glancing from Helena to the Commander and back again. "We've got to get that thing off her."

"Let us think Tony," she snapped, something tugging at the back of her mind.

"She must have brought it back from the planet's surface," whispered Vincent. "But why her? Because of her slightly different molecular structure?"

"It may not be that simple," Koenig said slowly. "Maya was actually the only member of our team who exposed herself to the alien atmosphere without a suit on. This - this thing might have invaded her then."

"She transformed herself into a snake-like creature and pushed her way through rocks to find us when we were trapped in the cave," explained Helena. "Her body would have been in direct contact with the planet's surface."

"Bloody hell, we've brought lots of the planet's surface back with us!" exclaimed Alan, pointing at the storage boxes. "And there are little bits of it all over the base right now, being examined by various personnel. Like Dave Reilly, for instance."

Helena and Ben moved slightly closer to Maya, in order to take a better look at the creature.

"An invertebrate," Vincent said. "It's using Maya as a host, but what kind of a host? Permanent, or intermediate?"

"Hopefully, the latter," whispered Helena, swallowing the revulsion she felt and forcing herself to step even closer. "One thing's for sure, we are going to lose Maya if we can't warm her up a little. It's so cold down here that she must be hypothermic."

"We might lose her anyway, by the look of things," Vincent said, shaking his head sadly. "I don't know what we can do."

Maya's once vibrant and beautiful face lay pressed to the cold rock floor, expressionless, unresponsive. It was as if the creature had sucked the life force from her.

"Quite recently, somebody told me that even in the worst of situations, you should never give up hope," said Helena quietly. "It's how we've come this far since we left the Earth, Ben. Now; I think the first thing to do is get some heat into this cavern. I doubt it will bother that creature and anyway, we'll have to take the chance. While that's being set up, I'm going to have to go quickly back to Medical Center and look up a few files on my diagnostic database. I keep remembering something from a lecture on parasitic infections I attended years ago, when I was a med student."

"Are you sure it's just a parasite? We're dealing with a totally alien creature here," Vincent reminded her.

"I realize that, but we can only try to do what we can within the limited boundaries of our knowledge," sighed Helena, going back over to John to get him to organize some heating.

"Why don't we just blast that thing off her?" Tony was saying to the commander.

He was beside himself with worry and itching to take some action.

"No!" exclaimed Helena, hearing what he said. "If we want to save Maya, I think we have to be a little more subtle. I'm only guessing here, but it may be that if you fire on that creature, it will retreat back inside her body and kill her. We have to approach this laterally."

Koenig nodded.

"Let Helena try to figure this out Tony. If you want to do something constructive, go with Alan and help him round up every bit of that planet's surface that is being used for experimental purposes or otherwise, around the base. Tiranium, gold, the lot. I don't want any stray nuggets sitting in people's quarters as a decorative piece, either."

"Also, every single person who has come into contact with the stuff should report to Medical immediately for a check. Any perforations of the skin, any blemishes are suspect," added Helena.

"Come on mate," said Alan, taking him by the arm. "Let's go."

Tony looked at the commander, his face a study in fear.

"You'll call me... you know, if anything happens?"

"Of course, now go," was the firm reply.

Helena Russell sat at her desk in Medical Center and rubbed her eyes as she waited for the computer to shunt the files she'd requested up onto the screen of her terminal. She was feeling more tired and weak than she had in a long time, but she doggedly forced her brain to move at its fastest. More than once since she'd first seen Maya lying on the floor of the cavern, she'd thought of the fact that the beautiful young Psychon had probably fallen victim to this creature whilst saving the lives of John and herself. There had to be a way to help her!

"Ah," Helena breathed, as the information she was searching for turned up trumps.

She pressed a button on her communications panel.

"Ben, can you come in here - quickly!"

Vincent was in her office in seconds.

"Ed Spencer has the personnel checks well in hand," he said. "So far, everyone seems fine."

"Good," Helena replied. "Now Ben, look at this."

He came to stand beside her and read the screen, staring with amazement at the picture in the corner of it.

"Guinea worm - our creature does look very similar to that, only bigger," he muttered. Then he began to read off the screen. "Guinea worms were ingested through the drinking water by natives in Africa and Asia. They could grow to enormous lengths within the bodies of their hosts and after approximately twelve months, they made their exit by burrowing their way out of the feet and legs. They could take up to thirty days to leave their host, crawling slowly from the victim like a strand of live spaghetti. If disturbed, they retreated back inside the body, causing infection and death."

He paused for a moment, digesting the information.

"Helena, Guinea worms back on Earth never fed on tiranium."

"Of course not," she agreed, leaning back in her chair and massaging her temples as she spoke. A slight headache was beginning to annoy her and she prayed it wouldn't get any worse. "But they did leave their victim's body after an allotted time, provided the conditions were right."

"So, we're back to the question of whether or not this thing will leave Maya before it kills her," Vincent said, crossing his arms and staring at the screen.

Helena nodded, her face pensive.

"If only we could think of a way to encourage it to."

There was silence in her office for several long minutes, as both doctors frantically racked their brains.

"That planet was warm once, like Earth," whispered Helena, her thoughts leading her along a convoluted path. "And our landing site was at the equator... Oh, my God, I've got it!"

"What?" asked Vincent.

Helena jumped up and ran to the communications monitor on her office wall.


Koenig's face appeared, looking grim.

"How far have you got with setting up the heating down there?"

"It's all in place Helena, and we're about to switch it on. We managed to throw a thermal blanket over the lower half of Maya's body, too. But there's been no change in her condition, or the actions of the creature, at this point."

"Don't turn the heating on yet," she snapped.

"What did you say?" Koenig asked, thinking he'd misheard.

"Leave it off!," Helena shouted, banging her hand against the wall of her office in frustration. "I'm coming back down. I've got an idea of how to kill this worm, so just leave the heating off until I get there."

A second later she was running out of Medical Center and back down the corridor towards a travel tube, Vincent close behind her.

"We can draw it out Ben, using the heaters as bait!" she panted, as they threw themselves into seats on the duo-rail and waited to be shunted across the base. "Think - it's a creature of the tropics, it's feeding off tiranium and converting it to energy somehow. The cold in that cavern wouldn't suit it at all, so it clings to Maya's body for the last bit of warmth it can extract from her. We'll give it a concentrated external source and with luck, it won't be able to resist it. Then, when she's free of it, we'll freeze the worm with liquid nitrogen."

"Let's hope it works," was all he said.

John Koenig stood in the dim light of the storage cavern and waited. Behind him, he could hear the ungainly footsteps of men in decontamination suits as they tramped through the catacombs to the second storage cavern with the recovered planetary samples that had been scattered around Moonbase Alpha.

At least now it will all be safely in the one place, he thought grimly. Then we'll have to decide what the hell we're going to do with it.

A movement in the corner of his eye drew his attention. It was the creature - the worm. Another couple of feet of it appeared to slide from Maya's wrist and then after a moment, shrink back inside. Two security guards standing nearby raised their weapons, looks of revulsion written plainly on their faces.

"Hold it," Koenig ordered, afraid that the men would lose their nerve and fire. "Nothing's changed; unless I say so, we wait for further instructions from Doctor Russell.

Tony Verdeschi came running back into the cavern at this point. In his anxiety, he had not been able to keep away for very long.

"The heaters John; why aren't they up and running yet?" he asked.

Koenig tried to make his voice sound calm, although he felt anything but, himself.

"Try not to worry Tony, Helena will be back down here in a minute. From what she said, she's formulated a plan of attack against this thing. She specifically told me not to switch the heaters on yet."

"But with every minute, every second that passes, Maya's getting colder!" Tony yelled. "We can't wait! John - please. We've got to try and get that thing off her right now."

In desperation, Verdeschi drew his hand laser and aimed it at the worm. At that moment, a beam of light arced into his shoulder and he crumpled to the floor, before he had time to fire. With a trembling hand, Helena Russell lowered her weapon. Ben Vincent called for a stretcher to have him taken to Medical Center.

"I wish I hadn't had to do that to poor Tony," she said, shaking her head. "But he was about to do the worst thing possible. If we antagonize that worm now, Maya stands no chance at all."

"He was right though Helena," Koenig answered. "Look at Maya; she desperately needs warmth. Now, what's this idea you've come up with?"

"It's quite simple," she replied.

Briefly, and in layman's terms, Helena explained her theory about the worm, and how she wanted to try to draw it out.

"Place those infrared heating lamps behind the storage boxes that it is attached to and turn them up to full power. Once the tiranium inside gets hot enough, it is bound to leave Maya in a hurry," added Helena.

Koenig shook his head and looked uneasy.

"There's a risk," he said. "Perhaps you've forgotten that tiranium, when directly heated so that it undergoes a sudden temperature change, can become unstable. The stuff could explode, perhaps even bringing the roof of this cavern down if it sets off a chain reaction with the other storage containers in here. I don't like it."

"Oh come on John!" Helena snapped, exasperated. "You and I both know that tiranium has to be damned hot to explode like that. Ask Dave Reilly if you don't believe me. I'm not talking about making it glow red, you know."

Koenig looked at her. He had no doubt that the theory behind her plan was solid, but could he risk it? It was one thing warming the cavern up, but to heat the tiranium directly...

"All right," he sighed. "But I want everyone out of here except myself, just in case. We'll have men with liquid nitrogen standing just outside at the ready, so that the minute Maya is free they can come on in and cool the whole place down."

"I'm not leaving my patient John," replied Helena, arms akimbo.

Koenig saw the look in her eyes and knew that they would end up wasting more precious minutes arguing if he didn't capitulate on that point.

"Okay Doctor," he said frostily. "But everyone else out, right now."

The big infrared heaters were moved and duly switched on, before all other personnel left the cavern, to wait anxiously back at the entrance to the catacombs. Helena and John stood together in silence, watching as the worm pulsated every now and then, feeding greedily. It was making a little tubular tunnel in the side of the tiranium as it devoured it that reminded Helena of the hollow stalagmites in the cave they had been trapped in back on the planet. Her hand crept out and sought John's, gripping it tightly. He squeezed it back.

"It's my fault," she whispered. "No matter what you say to me John, it's my fault. I'm convinced that worm came from the cave we were trapped in; look at the tunnel it's creating. And Maya was exposed to it because of my stupid wish to explore..."

"Don't do this to yourself," he replied. "She wouldn't want you to, you know that."

The Psychon continued to lie on the cavern floor, her face a pale contrast to the brilliant cascade of her red hair. She could have been dead, if it were not for the occasional shallow rise and fall of her chest.

Five minutes passed and Koenig was getting concerned.

"It's no good, I have to turn the heat down," he said.

"Look!" hissed Helena.

As she spoke, there was a sucking noise and the thin body of the worm crept away from Maya's wrist. On and on it went, in a seemingly never-ending length. There was time for the two observers to wonder incredulously how it could have fitted inside it's host's body. At last a thin tail slithered out and it was gone, flicking its way right inside the container of tiranium.

The commander was over to Maya in a flash, scooping her cold form up and carrying her out of the cavern to Ben Vincent, who was waiting with an emergency team.

"Kill the heaters and then get out of here," he yelled at Helena, but he need not have bothered, as she was already over to them, switching them off.

As she turned to follow him out of the cavern, the worm suddenly burst through the side of the storage container nearest the lamps, its tiranium-swollen head furiously waving about as it searched for the source of the warmth. She let out a scream and ran stumbling away as she saw the creature's hideous face. Four pale, narrow eye slits sat behind its scolex and in the second that she saw them, Helena knew for certain that they held an awareness, an intelligence.

"Don't get too close," she managed to gasp to the three men who entered in decontamination suits, wearing backpacks of liquid nitrogen, in order to spray the area. "If it figures out what you're up to, it will attack."

The next thing she knew, John's arms were around her, holding her tight.

"It's intelligent," she said, her words muffled as she spoke into his shoulder. "It looked at me, and that look was so... so... rapacious."

"Don't worry, it won't survive the liquid nitrogen," he answered, listening with relief to the sound of the spraying backpacks at work.

Maya lay in a bath of warm saline in Medical Center, her body temperature having been brought back up to normal. She still had not opened her eyes an hour after being rescued and Helena was beginning to have grave doubts about whether they had gotten to her in time, when a groggy Tony came to stand by her side.

"I'm sorry Helena, I deserved that stun," he muttered bashfully. "I should have trusted to your judgement."

She put a comforting hand on his arm.

"No apology necessary; I know how much you care for Maya."

Ben Vincent came over and drew her aside.

"Those scans you ordered; they all seem clear. They show no sign of brain damage, or injury to her internal organs by that creature. Of course, with her unique physiology, there is always room for error..."

Helena nodded.

"At this point, I'm satisfied that she's no longer hypothermic, so let's get her out of the bath and pop her into an oxygen tent. Then there are one or two specific blood tests I think we should run. The scans might be clear, but I'd like to see her awake."

"Wouldn't we all," muttered Vincent, as he walked away.

"What's happened to her Helena?" asked Tony. "Why is Maya still unconscious?"

"I don't know," was the only answer she could honestly give.

John Koenig stood alone in a decontamination suit within the storage cavern and looked about at an icy, frozen scene. The air in the cavern was too cold to breathe at present, and it struck him that the creature who had done so much harm to Maya had once again been returned to the conditions of its home planet. The worm was now nothing more than a crystalline statue of ice, thanks to the liquid nitrogen. John approached it and stared at its ugly head, frozen solid when it had reared up in a position of attack. He found a small amount of pity for the creature creeping into his thoughts.

After all, it was only doing what we all do, he told himself. Trying to survive, against the odds.

Shaking his head, he turned and left. It was time to call a meeting of command personnel and decide what to do with the tiranium and other metals that they had collected on Bruma.

There was an air of despondency about the small group who gathered around the table for their meeting, thirty minutes later. Each person was acutely aware of two facts; firstly that Maya still lay unconscious in Medical Center and secondly, that they would probably have to dump all the precious cargo they had collected from Bruma. Cargo they simply could not afford to lose.

"Everybody here is aware of the situation?" Koenig asked, as he sat down and glanced around at the solemn faces.

There were a few nods, and a couple of "Yes Commander" 's.

Koenig sighed and looked to Helena.

"Have you come up with anything new on Maya's condition?"

Tony leaned forward attentively, hoping for a miracle.

"Yes, I have John," replied Helena quietly. "As you all know, Maya is no longer hypothermic; in fact, her body temperature is sitting at a little above what is normal for her. At first Dr. Vincent and I couldn't understand why she had not regained consciousness, but then I remembered something else about parasitic worms back on earth. A very few of them secrete a substance - a poison if you like - that can have a mild paralyzing effect. This is apparently the case with the worm that invaded Maya, only on a much more potent scale. Blood tests show that she remains unconscious due to an unidentified toxin in her bloodstream. I have Ben working on it at the moment, trying to develop an antidote, but to be honest, we're hoping we won't need it. We are monitoring her blood and waiting to see if her own body will be able to process the toxin out."

Without a word, Tony Verdeschi got up and left the meeting. Nobody tried to stop him.

There was silence around the table for a minute or two after Helena had finished speaking; Maya was a much loved and well respected member of their team and Tony was not alone in feeling grief.

"Once this toxin or whatever it is has gone, are you sure she'll wake up?" asked Sahn, in a small voice.

Helena shook her head.

"No, I'm not. We'll just have to wait, and hope."

"Which brings us to the problem of the cargo we brought back from the planet," Koenig said, seeing his people's dejection and wanting to move them along. "Although we desperately need those metals, especially the tiranium and milgonite, in my opinion we have no recourse but to load it into the cargo bay of a specially prepared eagle and dump it out in space, while it's still frozen.

"Hold on a minute Commander, there may be another way," piped up Alan Carter.

"Whatever it is, it's too dangerous," snapped Sahn, interrupting. "Look what's happened to Maya!"

Koenig held up his hand, silencing her.

"What do you suggest Alan?"

"Well, it's not my suggestion actually, it's Dave Reilly's. Something he said to me on the way to this meeting about the possibility of screening the Bruman metals for these worm things."

"It would be nearly impossible Alan," said Helena. "That creature probably came from a microscopic egg and it would be a Herculean task to detect something of that size in all that rock and metal."

Alan nodded.

"He knew that - mentioned about eggs actually. Said something about them being visible under magnification, and also when they were x-rayed."

"How does he know this?" asked Koenig. "All samples from Bruma were supposed to be returned to the underground caverns for freezing with liquid nitrogen - and that meant experimental samples too!"

"I know, I know," replied Alan, looking mystified. "I assumed he'd discovered this before the samples were recalled, but come to think of it, he couldn't have known about the worm before the recall, could he."

Koenig frowned. Reilly had apparently flouted his orders to suit himself, and it wasn't the first time he had done such a thing. Nevertheless, the man was brilliant in his own way, and if he had method of screening the cargo... He stood up and walked to the nearest com-post, putting in a request that Dave Reilly attend the meeting immediately.

"Let's see what he has to say for himself," he said grimly.

Reilly was so keyed up when he bounded into the meeting a few minutes later that he couldn't bring himself to sit down.

"We don't have to ditch all our precious cargo Commander!" he exclaimed, his Irish accent thickening in his excitement. "The eggs of this worm creature are clearly visible; they look like little grains of rice. I noticed them the first time I examined samples of tiranium under the microscope, as they're nothing like any mineral structure I've seen. And if you x-ray them, they glow like little beacons! You can't miss 'em. Now, the eggs aren't evenly distributed; they're in small clusters in only some of the tiranium I've examined and I've found none in the milgonite, gold or silver."

"The worm did seem to ingest the tiranium exclusively John," Helena added, beginning to feel that they might be able to save some of their precious cargo.

Koenig stood up and began to pace the room.

"I gave a direct order that all samples from Bruma be sent to the catacombs, and you contravened that order."

Reilly had the good grace to look abashed. He sat down at last, taking his ever-present hat off.

"I know Commander, and I'm truly sorry... But I was already onto something and I couldn't let it go!"

Koenig strode over to him and leaned right into his face.

"Don't ever pull a stunt like that again," he growled. "If you want special permission for something like that, come to me. Your actions could have put the whole base at risk; the lives of every one of us. Do you understand?"

Reilly nodded.

"All right then," the Commander continued. "Since losing all that tiranium would leave us desperately short again, we'll try to save some of what we brought back using your method. I want you to give Dr. Russell a complete run down on it and if she believes it will work, we'll go with it."

Reilly nodded again.

"I assume you have samples in your lab?" asked Helena.

"Certainly do Doc," he replied jovially.

"Well set the testing process up and I'll meet you there shortly. I have to check on Maya first."

"We were just about to contact you Doctor Russell," Ed Spencer said, as Helena walked wearily back into Medical Center.

"You've finished examining all those who came into contact with planetary material from Bruma?" she asked. "Because I was thinking, just to be certain, we should check everyone else also. This worm is too dangerous."

Spencer nodded impatiently.

"Okay, but that's not what we wanted you for. Maya's beginning to regain consciousness."

Tony Verdeschi stood in front of two of his security guards at the end of corridor G and tried to contain his temper.

"I'm sorry Sir, but the Commander's orders are that nobody is to enter here. Besides, the air is freezing; you'd need to wear a suit."

"Right," Tony replied through gritted teeth. "Then I'll put a suit on. But I'm head of security and I'm going in there to check that everything is still secure. Do you understand? I think you'll find that if you check with the commander, he will have no objections."

The guard was unsure of what to do. He hesitated for a minute, watching while Tony donned a protective suit and helmet.

Oh well, he thought. If Verdeschi wants to go in there, it's his neck, not mine.

Making a decision, he stepped aside. If he didn't, he would suffer the Chief Of Security's wrath. Because he had, he might suffer the Commander's, but Verdeschi was here now, and he didn't look in any mood to be contradicted.

Tony strode through the semi-darkness and into the first storage cavern. The worm creature was still a frozen statue, as the temperature of the cavern remained at well below zero. He stared at its malevolent head, its twisted, ropy form, and his rage began to build. This thing had invaded his Maya; destroyed her, by the look of things! It had grown itself within her body and used her up, leaving nothing behind but an empty shell.

A discarded liquid nitrogen cylinder lay on the floor. With a moan, Tony snatched it up and rushed at the worm, smashing its frozen body into a thousand little pieces. He stamped his feet on what remained until there was nothing left of the creature, except a small segment of its body that he could not reach, because it was buried inside the storage container of tiranium that it had invaded. At last he hurled the cylinder away and staggered backwards, until his back met with rock wall. He stood there panting, surveying the destruction he had caused and knowing that he'd never felt so miserable, even when the Moon was blasted away from Earth. Tony had reached his emotional nadir, for he was sure that Maya was lost to him.

A hand on Tony's shoulder nearly made him jump through the roof. It was the Commander, come to guide him back out of the catacombs, and into corridor G - the uneasy security guard had decided to notify Koenig of Verdeschi's entry into the catacombs after all.

"Did that make you feel any better?" he asked quietly, as they were removing their suits, once they were back in the corridor.

Tony looked at the floor and shook his head, all his anger drained away.

"Not really John, but I had to do it."

"I understand," was the reply.

As they walked away from the catacombs, the Commander's commlock beeped. He pulled it off his belt and looked into Helena's face, seeing her smile and knowing with relief that she must have good news.

"Could you come to Medical Center please John?" she asked. "Oh, and bring Tony along if you can find him."

The two men looked at each other and began to run.

Maya's return to consciousness was a gradual one. Her first feeling as she regained awareness were that something had left her; but what? She hesitantly searched the recesses of her mind for the indefinable something, and found them empty, but for her own thoughts. With an effort, she opened her eyes. Helena was staring down at her, a smile on her face.

"How do you feel?"

Maya took a moment to answer, but then she gathered up the strength to reply softly,

"All right, I think. What happened to me? I remember showing you a wound on my arm, and then... Did I collapse?"

"You remember nothing more after I examined your arm?"

The Psychon moved her head from side to side on the pillow.


"Well, I'll explain later, after you've rested. You're going to be just fine now, and that's the main thing," Helena said. "And by the way, I think you've got a visitor."

Tony and John came hurrying over.

"Don't tire her out Tony; you can only have a few minutes," warned Helena, taking John by the arm and leading him to her office.

"So, she's okay," John said, once they were alone.

"Yes," Helena sighed with relief. "And Ben's excellent work on Maya's blood explains why she took so long to recover. It looks like that creature released an exotic chemical into her system, as well as the paralyzing poison. A chemical which would have made her extremely suggestive to its primitive wishes. On a mass spectrometer, Bill said it looked a lot like chloral hydrate; you know, the old truth serum! Thus, when the worm wanted to be near tiranium so it could feed, Maya felt that she wanted to be near tiranium. When it needed her to lie still and quiescent as it reached out from her body to feed down in the catacombs, that's what she did. At the moment, she remembers nothing after being examined here by me."

"Well, thanks to you and Ben Vincent, Maya's safe," said John, putting his arms around Helena's waist. "You've got to admire its tenacity though, surviving in egg form down on Bruma for who knows how many centuries, waiting patiently for the right host to come along."

Helena shivered.

"Tenacious sure is the word for it. I've got to go and check out Dave Reilly's screening procedure now and let's hope it is one hundred percent reliable. We could never afford to take a risk with any of those worm eggs."

"I hope so too," John agreed, reluctantly letting her go. "Because without at least some of that tiranium, we're in dire straits."

Several hours later, another Command Conference was hastily convened to discuss Helena's assessment of the merits of Reilly's tiranium screening procedure. Those taking part trooped tiredly into the room, taking their places slowly around the table. The Commander took his seat first, followed by Dr. Helena Russell. Alan Carter flopped into his chair, looking as though he hadn't had a good night's sleep in weeks. Sahn was next, followed by Reilly himself, who whistled and fidgeted, much to the annoyance of everyone. Tony and Maya's seats remained conspicuously empty.

"Well," began Koenig. "It looks as though we'd better begin."

Helena leaned over and whispered something in his ear. He looked surprised and then smiled.

"It seems that we need to wait a minute longer, because..."

He got no further with what he was saying, however, as the door to the room opened and in came Tony, pushing Maya in a wheelchair. She looked pale and tired, but the old light of mischief and intelligence was back in her eyes.

"Sorry we're late Commander," she said. "It was Tony's fault, of course, for not pushing this wheelchair any faster."

Everyone stood up and crowded round her, pleased to see she was well enough to join them. Tony was grinning from ear to ear with happiness; he had his Maya back.

"Okay, okay," called the Commander, after a time, trying to wipe the grin from his own face. "It's great to have your input on this Maya, but now we really need to get down to the matter at hand."

Seats were resumed and the deadly serious business of tiranium was once again at the forefront of their minds. Eyes turned to Helena, waiting to hear what she thought of the Irishman's plan. She cleared her throat and began to speak.

"I would like to recommend that we adopt Dave Reilly's scanning procedure of the tiranium on a limited scale, and then as an added precaution, storing that which appears safe in below zero conditions until we need to use it. We could scan enough tiranium to last us several months and ditch the rest in space, along with all the other materials we collected from Bruma."

"But the gold and silver," Reilly began to protest, speaking out of turn. "I found no evidence of worm infestation in either of those precious metals, or the milgonite!"

"We can't take the chance that you're wrong Dave," said Helena, cutting him off before he could say anything more. "Frankly, I don't like having to keep any of the tiranium at all, but we are in a situation where we simply have to, and your tests do seem to work."

The Commander looked at Helena and then let his gaze wander all around the table.

"Any comments?" he asked.

Maya responded.

"The material we jettison into space Commander; I think we should blow it up. I would be tragic if another group of space travelers should stumble on it and what happened to me happened to them."

"You're right," he said. "Okay then; we go ahead and screen a limited amount of tiranium. Alan, you and Bill can freight the rest of the payload from Bruma out into space. Then we blow it up."

There were murmurs of agreement, and nods of assent.

All was silent in Command Center, as the personnel there watched Eagles One and Two hover out in space on the big screen.

"3-2-1- Jettisoning now Commander," came Alan's voice over the communications system.

Two large containers floated free from the craft, as they turned and accelerated away, leaving their cargo as the sole occupants of the big screen.

"Return to base Eagles One and Two," ordered Koenig.

He looked over at Maya, who was sitting at her desk. She shouldn't really have been back on duty yet, but had insisted that she wanted to witness the material being destroyed.

"Maya," he said.

She looked over at him.

"Yes Commander?"

"I think this pleasure should be all yours; detonate cargo containers."

"Yes Sir," she responded crisply. "Detonating- now!"

Two bright lights briefly flared on the screen, drawing a few gasps.

"I think this calls for a celebration," said Tony, standing up from his desk. "My latest and best ever batch of beer will be available in the recreation room for anyone who would like to sample it!"

"Oh Tony, I think Helena has been busy enough lately without having to treat a whole batch of cases of alcohol poisoning!" exclaimed Maya, standing up from her seat and following him out. "Have pity on her!"

"We'd better go and keep an eye on them," laughed Helena, shaking her head. "Maya's right, I've been busy enough lately."

"So you have," replied the Commander, taking her by the hand as they left Command Center. "But Doctor, don't think I've forgotten for one minute that you yourself are in need of a rest. I think we'd better skip the celebrations in the recreation room and head straight for the peace and quiet of your quarters, don't you?"

Helena looked up at John, a glint of amusement in her eye. She disengaged her hand from his and began to walk briskly ahead of him.

"Oh really?" she called over her shoulder. "Well, perhaps you're right Commander. In that case, I'll see you later Sir, when I come back on duty."

"Hey, wait a minute!" he protested, catching up with her. "That wasn't exactly what I meant!"

Helena relented and slowed her pace again.

"I know," she said with a gentle smile, and linked her arm in his.

Copyright (c) 1997. Reprinted with permission.
Space:1999 is (c) 1976 by Carlton International Media.
All stories are the property of their respective authors.

Database last modified in 2018.

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