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La Carmencita

Authors: Philippa Sidle
Characters: John Koenig
Show Year: Y2
Rating: PG
Date: 1996
A freak accident kills Dr Russell, plunging the Commander into a deep depression. A few weeks later, the Moon is intercepted by space gypsies who offer to revive her. But the price they want may be too high...
First published in the fanzine "Dark Domain"
Average Rating: 5.0/5 (based on 3 reviews)

The death of Dr. Helena Russell stunned the community of Moonbase Alpha. It was an accident of the cruelest kind, a freak malfunction of a simple piece of medical equipment which ought never to have happened. She had been operating the brain tissue scanner to check that a young technician had not sustained serious concussion in a fall, when an unexplained power surge had electrocuted her. Dr. Ben Vincent had been there at the time and he had been astonished to see her collapse to the ground. At first he thought she had merely fainted for some reason, but all attempts to revive her failed. By the time it was realised that she had been subjected to a massive electric shock, it was too late for the rougher techniques of medicine to save her. They were tried in helpless succession, but she was dead. Without a mark upon her body or internal damage of any kind, the all- important something which had made the still, glassy- skinned body into Helena Russell was gone forever beyond an impassable boundary.

Nobody knew how to take it. Everyone on Alpha had known Dr. Russell quite well, all had respected her, and many had sincerely loved her. She had been one of the key figures of the community, and to have her removed was devastating. Dr. Vincent quietly filled her role as Chief Medical Officer, but he would never fill quite the same place.

Her perfect remains were interred in what had become the Alphan 'graveyard'. Bodies of all personnel were kept in refrigeration, so that their organs could be reused and their bodies could eventually be buried in the soil of a colonised planet. This was a romantic notion which Commander Koenig had not entirely approved of, but it prevailed because storage space was plentiful enough and Helena had always liked the idea. So Helena was 'buried' in a compartment in the mortuary, with a brief and simple ceremony attended only by her closest friends.

When that was over, there was nothing to be done by the people of Alpha but to adjust to the change and reflect that a clever and compassionate woman who had been so brave and so important to them would be remembered by future generations if they ever found a home.

Alpha was shocked and grieved, but life, on the whole, went on.

It was three weeks after the tragedy that the ship appeared. It came from nowhere, for it had warped abruptly out of hyperspace to overwhelm the scanners and tracking instruments of the Moonbase. On the screen it was huge, and its appearance was surprising. Maya, who knew more than the others about spaceship design, was made almost uneasy by its oddness.

"It's not streamlined," she said to Tony Verdeschi. "That means it must spend most of its time in space. But it doesn't look like a cargo freighter. It's huge... and the design is almost haphazard."

"It looks like it's been lumped together any old how," said Tony, gazing at the spectacle on the screen. "No commercial ship would be built like that, surely?"

"Maybe it's some alien's idea of beauty," said Maya. She added, "Though I doubt it."

The communications officer Sandra Benes had been hard at work trying to contact the ship, but so far it had not responded on any of the Alphan wavelengths.

"Maybe we should just ignore it, and hope it'll go away," said Tony cynically, sitting down at his station and rubbing his eyes. He felt weary, tense and put-upon, and he did not want to have to handle anything big just yet.

"Tony! That's a big ship with hyperspace technology. If it doesn't prove to be a threat, they could help us. Take us to a habitable planet, or maybe even back to yours."

"Do you think John will care?"

"He ought to," she said hotly. "For all our sakes."

"Yeah, I know." He stood up. "Keep trying, Sandra."

Maya was still staring in fascination at the spaceship when Tony leaned over the back of her chair and put his hands on her shoulders. She was stiff and unresponsive. He was greatly pained to see her still simmering with anguish under her unwavering composure. There was something in her nature or her race or her upbringing which did not allow her to release her emotions, and to Tony's knowledge she had never wept over Helena's death. Even at the funeral she had remained grave and collected. But she was deeply afflicted; that was as apparent as it was inevitable, particularly to him. Ever since it had happened, she had shunned him. She flinched when he touched her, turned away when he tried to kiss her, and made it clear that she wanted to be alone. It was getting hard to bear. Tony felt there was something he ought to do to console her, and that he was failing her in not knowing what. Nothing would bring Helena back, and Maya's logical mind ought to be able to accept that fact and come to terms with her loss. What could he do except offer her the comfort she seemed to be rejecting? And, genuinely anxious for Maya's peace of mind, he was afraid that by pressing too insistently she might think he was motivated by selfish desire.

That was just one of his more immediate problems. The other was Commander Koenig. It was was the same problem really, except that Tony felt he had less right and more need to interfere.

Helena would have known how to solve all this. The thought had more than once occurred to Tony with painful irony.

So the last thing he wanted on his plate was a threat to Alpha, though on reflection it might be just what was needed to bring John Koenig back to the land of the living. He gave Maya's stony shoulders a warm squeeze and went to the communications terminal. The Commander had to be told of this, at least.

Before he could call him, Sandra said, "Tony! I'm getting something. They're trying to communicate."

Tony looked hopefully at the screen. The view of the ship was broken up by a multicoloured sizzle of static as Sandra switched the communications channel to visual. The static jumped, stretched, and resolved into the image of a human face.

It was a young woman of alien appearance. "Wandering Queen to asteroid. Wandering Queen to asteroid. Does anyone receive me?"

"This is Moonbase Alpha," said Sandra in her precisely modulated voice. "We are receiving you, Wandering Queen."

"Our leader would like to speak to yours," said the woman, and another face took her place.

"You can speak to me," said Tony brusquely. He stared at the new face on the screen. Also a woman, but with the decided interest of a powerful, striking beauty.

"Are you the leader of your community?" she asked in a rich deep voice.

"No, but - "

"I want to speak to your top man, or woman," she said, cutting him off. "Assuming you have one."

"Yes," said Tony. "We do."

"Fetch him, then."

There was so much confidence and command in the woman's manner that Tony found himself obeying. He punched the interbase communication button and summoned the Commander.

"John," he said, "there's an alien hyperspace ship appeared near Alpha, with someone on board who wants to speak to you."

"Okay," he said. "I'm on my way."

Tony turned back to look at the woman on the screen. She had full, dark, angry eyes and cascades of black hair, and was altogether a very impressive woman to look at. But there was something frighteningly melodramatic in her very appearance which repelled rather than attracted him. "Commander Koenig is on his way," he informed her.

The woman responded with an imperious nod.

Now beginning to find her manner annoying, Tony added, "But you'd be better off talking to me."

Evidently the woman had decided he was beneath her further notice, for she ignored this remark.

Tony looked round anxiously when the Commander arrived, and gestured at the smouldering beauty of the screen. He glanced at the woman with patient disinterest, and made his way to the communications terminal. "This is Commander John Koenig," he said gravely. "Identify yourself."

"I am Merian of the Descarandos," said the woman almost haughtily. "We want to see you base or whatever it is."

"What do you mean, see it?"

"Just that. I and two of my people will come down to your planetoid and look the place over. It's our purpose."

"We can't let you do that," said Koenig flatly. "For all we know, you may be a serious threat to our community."

"So we might be," said the woman carelessly. "But we can bring benefits to you. You seem a fairly primitive lot. We have the wisdom of many worlds to offer you, and we'll give you everything in our power if you let us examine your civilisation."

"Why are you so anxious to do that?"

"It's the way we live, Commander - Koenig? I lead a community of five thousand people here on Wandering Queen - men, women and children. We travel the galaxy observing the ways of every people we find, learning from them and trading with them. There are other Wandering ships like ours throughout the galaxy, and probably in many others."

"Like gypsies," said Tony suddenly. "Space gypsies!"

Again Merian ignored him, and continued to speak to Koenig. "Yours seems to be a very small society, but those can frequently be the most interesting. I can only assure you that we mean you no harm. I can't very well prove it. But if you let us look at your world, the benefits to you may well be great."

There was a long pause. Tony looked unhappily at Koenig as he considered with an effort. "Merian," he said at length, "please understand that I can't afford to take you at face value just like that. We're a castaway people, struggling to survive. I - am responsible for the lives of three hundred people, and our existence often hangs on a knife-edge."

"Yes," said Merian, tossing her head. "I understand that, Commander Koenig. All the same I think you should let me come down. Send up one of your own ships and give me an armed escort if you like. You won't regret it, I promise you."

Koenig looked steadily up at the screen. After a while of distracted contemplation, he said, "All right, Tony, take a couple of your men up to that ship in Eagle One and bring her down here."

"And two members of my crew," said Merian quickly.

After a pause the Commander conceded, and Sandra switched off the communications link.

Though he was loath to contradict Koenig, Tony hesitated. "John," he said quietly, "do you think it's wise to come onto Alpha? We don't know how dangerous she could be. It seems to me to be inviting trouble."

"That ship," Koenig replied without looking up, "must be armed with enough weaponry to destroy us several times over. I call it weighing two risks. I'm still in possession of my judgement."

The reproof behind his words jolted Tony to a sense of shame. He nodded, glanced at Maya but could not catch her eye, and set about his business.

The operation of bringing Merian and two others of her people was a fairly lengthy one, but it went smoothly. Watched by Command Centre, Tony flew the Eagle with two security men to one of the docking ports of the huge bulbous ship. A quarter of an hour later the Eagle disengaged and began back to Alpha with the visitors on board.

With an effort, Koenig roused himself to greet the new arrivals at the landing port. Everything was an effort now, but he ploughed grimly through the duties of each day. He still had a base to run, and by forcing himself to do everything he was supposed to do, even if it were done mechanically, he felt that he was keeping himself alert. Now a crises had come up, and that theory was put to the test. The awareness that Tony had doubted his judgement hurt him, but it made him more determined to prove to his people and to this alien that he was still capable of performing his part.

Maya came with him, though he hadn't asked her to. No doubt she wanted to greet Tony.

They waited in silence at the entrance to the travel tube that communicated with the docking bay. The light on the wall winked, and a minute later the doors of the travel tube slid back.

Tony stepped out. "Okay," he said expressively, leading in the alien.

She marched in with her head titled in the air, her long full skirt swirling dramatically around her. In the flesh, she had beauties and nuances of femininity that had not come across on the cold communication screen. Seeing her now before him, Koenig could appreciate that she was a tall, well-built woman who moved with the grace of a dancer and who managed to fill the room with her presence the moment she entered. She was bewitching, without having particularly pretty features. Her clothes were brightly coloured and flowed all around a body that was made more suggestively sensuous by being obscured. All she needed was the blood-red rose between her teeth the complete the image.

As she rounded on his and threw back her head to address him, Koenig half expected her to bust into song.

"You're Commander Koenig," she said, in a tone that invited no contradiction. "My name is Merian, as I told you earlier. These are Domnick and Rathpha." She waved a hand back over her shoulder to indicate the two more sobrely-dressed and less expansive space gypsies who had followed in her wake. The man Domnick was dark-skinned and serious in expression, the woman Rathpha was a rather pretty young girl in a pale pastel dress with hanging earrings and large brown eyes. "Domnick's my technical wizard, and Rathpha is a healer and an observer."

"A healer?" said Koenig. "A doctor?"

"We practice a form of medicine which relies as much on the mind as it does on technology," said Rathpha, in a naturally soft voice. "We like to call this healing rather than doctoring. The mind and the body - "

"The people will have enough time to learn our customs, Rathpha," said Merian. "For the time being please concentrate on observing theirs."

Rathpha closed her eyes for a long moment. It was a gesture of obsequience, Koenig guessed.

He realised that Merian was waiting impatiently, and he recalled his manners. "This is Tony Verdeschi," he said, "the security chief, and Maya... science officer."

"How do you do," said Maya politely.

In some surprise, Merian began to say something about a Psychon, how interesting... but the situation was too familiar. How often in the past had they greeted visitors from other worlds, and made similar introductions. In this very place. For a moment Koenig was almost overcome by a sick wave of horror and despair, and the dull, repressed pain in his chest sharpened to agony. He fought it desperately and thought he had succeeded, but the young girl Rathpha happened to look at him and stepped forward in alarm with her hands in front of her.

"You're hurt!" she exclaimed in instinctive concern.

"Nonsense, Rathpha," said Merian sharply. "Leave him alone."

Rathpha shrank back obediently, but she had the air of knowing what she had seen. Koenig could not bear to look at her.

"Commander," said Merian, bearing down on him, "a tour of your base would be in order, I think. We'll see what can be done for you at the same time that we gather the information we want about your people, and your way of life. Are you short of anything in particular? Food? Clothes? No, I don't suppose you are. You all look well- nourished and well-clad and healthy. Well, we'll see. A compliment, Commander," she added, and to Koenig's astonishment she produced a violently-coloured flower from somewhere about her person and tossed it at him.

He caught it dumbly.

"That's a sign of friendship and peace between two leaders," Merian informed him. "It can also be an offering to a man whom I find... most interesting." She flashed a smile at him, showing a set of perfect teeth. Then tossing her head of wild curls, she marched on ahead into the base.

Tony followed her quickly. He was gravely apprehensive about this woman and he decided that in the interests of security he had better keep her in his sight at all times. The Commander showed no signs of coming after the little party; he stood where he was, studying the flower as if he were trying to decide what it was, and what therefore he was supposed to do with it.

"Your name is Tony," said Merian suddenly. "Are you going to be my guide?"

"Yes," said Tony guardedly.

"I prefer your Commander," she said, glancing back at him.

"Yeah, well - I'd advise you to forget that idea. That was a damn tactless thing to do back there. You couldn't know - but I'm warning you now to leave off him."

"Why?" said Merian haughtily. "Does he need his security chief to keep undesirable women away from him?"

"Right now - yes."

Merian performed one of her head-tosses and laughed richly.

Tony felt Maya looking at him, and he caught her eye. He saw that she was thinking like him. Even if Merian was here to do what she claimed, she as a person - however honourable her people might be - was dangerous.

It was an exhausting day. It went against expectations that a woman so lovely and lively should be such heavy company, but Tony found Merian - her voice, her commands and questions, her presence alone - to be wearying to an extraordinary degree. And nearly every other man on Alpha jumped eagerly to her. Even Dr. Vincent, when they came to the Medical Centre, turned on his charm for her.

Rathpha examined the Medical Centre with quiet, concentrated interest. "It would seem that their medicine is advanced, but highly techno-pharmaceutically orientated," she said to Merian, as she turned over instruments which Dr. Vincent had brought her to study. "That's normal, in a developing technological society. No doubt," she said with a gentle smile to Dr. Vincent, "you have precision hits and wide misses."

"I don't entirely understand," said Dr. Vincent.

"Well..." Rathpha spread her long delicately brown hands over the instruments. "In very primitive societies, one finds a close symbiosis with the body and the workings of the mind, and when the body fails there is a great effort to cure it through the mind. Thus the witch- doctor phenomenon. Of course, there is so much ignorance in such societies that this can be quite dangerous. In societies where technology has become important, one tends to find the other extreme. For every illness, there is a drug, and virtually all efforts are concentrated on the body itself with little reference to the mind. For example - I see from your records that you recently performed an operation to remove a gallstone from the bladder of a young man. This was a very successful procedure, and that you man is now happily performing his function in your society. But someone with a very important function in your society is not - your Commander, doctor, is suffering very badly, and that sickness appears to have been neglected."

Tony, who was loitering uneasily on the sidelines, wondered if that was a stab at himself. That was a ridiculously self-centred notion, however. The calm young girl was merely making a cross-cultural professional point to Dr. Vincent, who looked conscious and stricken .

"Oh," she said in alarm at his reaction, "I don't mean that as any reflection on you, doctor. I know you care. It's just that you don't have the level of knowledge.... which isn't your fault. Oh, now I sound patronising."

"For heaven's sake, Rathpha, stop dithering," said Merian. "Dr. - Vincent? Where are the children of Alpha? I haven't seen any."

"That's because there aren't any," said Dr. Vincent, breaking off a look with Rathpha. "We've maintained a strict policy of non-childbearing ever since we left Earth orbit. We can't afford to put a strain on our resources."

"Really?" Tony could have sworn that Merian looked annoyed. "That's unfortunate. And rather boring, if I may say so!"

"It hardly makes sense either," said Rathpha earnestly. "How will you survive with a zero birth rate?"

"We mean to colonise a planet as soon as we can," Maya said. "Then we'll be able to have children - as many as we want - or at least, the Earth women will."

"You exclude yourself," said Merian. It was an observation and a question.

"You can see that I'm a Psychon," said Maya quietly. "Helena thought that I might not be able to interbreed with the Alphans."

"Nonsense," said Rathpha almost vehemently. "Of course you can. Whoever is Helena?"

"She was our chief medical officer," Dr. Vincent told her. "A brilliant woman, badly missed."

The brief flare in Rathpha's placid temper vanished, and she looked mortified. "Oh. I didn't realise - I'm sorry.

"Hah!" said Merian, flashing her teeth brightly. The information seemed to please her.

When the entire base had been looked over, Tony felt fit to drop. But he had to gather his energies to attend the dinner that protocol demanded be laid on for the guests. He had half an hour in his quarters, most of which he spent slumped in a chair watching the gentle bubbling progress of beer along the many clear tubes of the brewing equipment. The sight did not soothe him as it usually did. He was anxious and depressed, and heartily he wished that Merian and her shipful of gypsies had chosen to impose themselves on some other world.

He wondered where she was now, and what she was doing. He had sent her with Maya to dress for dinner, but she had had time enough to get ready. He felt he ought to go in search of her, to make sure she was not up to anything. Though what, he could scarcely imagine.

His nerves were so raw that when the door of his quarters opened with a gentle hum he nearly leapt out of his seat. It was only Maya. She stood in the doorway, tall and pale and tragically beautiful in her long waspish party dress. His heart ached for her.

"I think we ought to go now," she said.

Tony glanced at the clock. "There's time enough, surely? Come in. Sit down. Have a drink. It might help you to relax."

"I don't need to relax," she said, coming into the room and wandering about as if she hardly knew what to look at. Suddenly she exploded. "I can't stand that woman!" she cried, thumping the flat of her hand against the table. The brewing apparatus jumped and gurgled.

"That makes two of us," said Tony.

"Oh, I believe she's here for what she says she's here for," she continued. "The other two are very pleasant - I like the other two - it's just her."

"I know."

"And why did I mention Helena to her? It just slipped out. Oh, I wish I hadn't!"

She was more upset now than she had ever been since the accident, and Tony couldn't help but feel that this was a good thing. He took a cup down from the shelf, went to the table and drew off some beer from the fermenting barrel, which M aya took gratefully and gulped without comment. He watched her in silence for a while, wondering whether an attempt to touch her would tip her back behind her painful mask. The moment seemed to precarious to jeopardise. Gently, coaxingly he said, "It's th e first time you've mentioned Helena to me."

"I know. I know. I've been ignoring you, Tony. Today - when you were following that woman around everywhere - I was afraid you might be getting fed up of my behaviour."

Tony stared at her, in amazement and concern. There was no calculated decision, no weighing of risk and reason; without thinking he took her in his arms and drew her close. She did not tense. She responded warmly. For a long time they clung together in a tight, silent embrace and Tony felt his throat choke with tears.

He had no right to be as miserable as he had been. Maya was alive. That hug, and the long, relaxing kiss which followed, did them both a great deal of good. They walked to the entertainments lounge together, considerably more at peace than before.

The dinner, predictably, was a gruelling affair. It was fortunate that Merian was fond of the sound of her own voice, for without her incessant and apparently effortless flow there would have been little unforced conversation. Maya only opened her mouth to give an extremely concise account of how she, a Psychon, had come to live amongst the Earth-born Alphans. Domnick the technician Tony had concluded to be a taciturn sort anyway, and Rathpha seemed largely occupied in watching Merian and the Commander in quick darting glances either way. The Commander ate steadily and without apparent interest either in the food, his guests, or conversation. Tony was left to keep up the small talk with Merian, though she only needed the occasional polite word or so, and to sweat in an agony of apprehension that she might veer onto dangerous ground. He was convinced that those sparkling eyes had noted everything, and that exacting brain stored it all up for later use. Although the mealtime conversation remained neutral, Tony felt that she still meant to use what she knew.

As soon as form made it allowable, Koenig escaped to the blissful solitude of his quarters. The stunning, flamboyant gypsy had an uneasy effect on him, and he wanted to avoid her as much as he could. Merian had talked extravagantly of riches of all sorts which the Descarandos could and would bestow upon Alpha if they so desired, and Koenig knew that he ought to talk to her formally and see what she could really do for them. But there was the morning for that. Merian and her two officers had been offered accommodation for the night, and though they might easily have returned to their ship this had been accepted immediately. So, there was the next day to do what he ought to do.

He was thinking about going to bed when the door buzzer sounded, and to his surprise and dismay Merian flounced in uninvited. She had changed back into her bohemian clothes. Koenig merely stared at her, outraged at the intrusion.

"You put the flower in a vase, I see," she said, tossing her head at Koenig's desk where he had put the intensely-perfumed flower in a small thin glass. "I'm glad of that."

"We haven't got too many flowers on Alpha," said Koenig patiently. "I could hardly throw it away. What do you want, Merian?"

"Well, now." She moved carelessly around the room, picking up objects and replacing them with an ostentatious lack of reverence. When she came to a small clay sculpture of a dolphin swimming into the air, her interest was caught. She studied it, revolving it thoughtfully in the light. "How sweet. Handcrafted, evidently. Did you make it?"

"No," said Koenig calmly. "I didn't make it. Put it down."

"What, like this?" said Merian, and opened her hand abruptly to let the sculpture fall.

Koenig was on his feet in an instant, with an exclamation of horror. It took him a moment to realise that Merian had caught the sculpture with her other hand. She threw it at him, and gave a peal of maddening laughter as he fumbled to catch it.

Her mockery was inflaming. Koenig had to fight down the urge to strike her, hard, right across that white cheek. She knew that too, and was almost daring him to lift a finger to her. There was a fiery, manic delight in that laugh, and those flashing eyes. There was nothing he could do but control his anger, and put the sculpture delicately back onto the shelf.

"You're too sentimental, Commander," she told him triumphantly, "particularly for a commander. How you can afford to be so sensitive, I don't know. Who cares if the dolphin was smashed to splinters? Why should you? How important is a lump of baked clay in the wider scope of the universe - how important to your here and now?"

Koenig did not trust himself to speak.

"Have you ever had any children, Commander?" Merian asked, picking up a photograph of a small girl.

"No," he said. "That was my sister-in-law."

"I have six," said Merian, laying down the photograph. "I collect them in much the same way as you seem to collect clay sculptures. All different fathers, of course - only one of whom was a Descarando. I might bring my children down here tomorrow, to show them off to you. Motherhood is an activity I enjoy immensely. And getting a wonderful variety in one's family - that's the skilful part of an otherwise natural process. All my children are fine healthy specimens of sentient humanity, and they are all of different race. If I admire a people enough, I try to mix their genes with mine. We're dedicated to the mixing of genes, as must be apparent. Now your race - there's something wonderfully romantic about your tenacious struggle for survival which quite captivates my imagination, and fills me with admiration for a people who can manage it. I'm glad I'm ready for another child. You, Commander, are going to provide it."

With this declaration, she sat comfortably on one of the chairs and waited for his reaction.

"Go away," he said wearily.

"No. Why should I?"

"Because I want you to."

"Oh come now, Commander. If I refuse, will you call that handsome young security chief of yours to have me flung out bodily?"

"If necessary, yes."

"Well, that would be foolish. I don't doubt your intention to do it, but it would be a very short-sighted reaction."

"Merian," said Koenig, desperately and deliberately keeping his voice low, "if you had any pity - any sense of decency - you would go right now and leave me alone."

"You asked me what I wanted when I came in. That's what I want. And it's not much to ask. In return - I'll give you anything in my power. I could probably give you what you want more than anything else in the universe."

With a dreadful sense of nausea, Koenig saw the trap that this witch was closing around him. "You can take us to a habitable planet," he said dully.

She threw back her head. "Heavens, yes, but I had intended to do that anyway. As a tribute to your tenacity if nothing else. I was speaking about what you really want more than anything else." She leaned forward with a hint of a smile. "The beloved Helena."

Possessed by a dark rage Koenig jumped to his feet. "Don't you talk about her!" he yelled at the quite unconcerned Merian. "Don't abuse her name! Get out of my sight! Get out!"

Merian watched him perfectly calmly. "For heaven's sake, man, calm down. You'll burst a blood vessel. Sit down."

Through simple weakness Koenig obeyed. His anger left him as quickly as it had erupted, and he felt drained, humiliated and exposed to the scathing gaze of this woman. Though unutterably distressed, he still had pride. Fierce pride had, indeed, provoked his outburst; he couldn't bear it that the gypsy should freely and lightly pronounce her name.

"With the help of Rathpha I've come to some interesting conclusions," Merian continued. "I detected the woebegone atmosphere in this place the moment I stepped out of the travel tube, and it didn't take me too long to discover that you were all mourning the tragic death of a very important member of your community. A certain Dr. Russell. A brilliant doctor. By all accounts a charming and popular woman. And, moreover, the lover of Commander Koenig himself. Oh, more than that - he adored her! Doted upon her! And her death had driven him wild with grief. So much so that his second-in-command hovers about him like a mother hen as if he were wrapped in cotton wool. Hah! So I had a word with your effective Dr. Vincent, Commander, and learned that the beloved Dr. Russell had died as the result of a massive electric shock which stopped her heart too long for your poor instruments to save her. And, most conveniently, that she had been frozen in a state of perfect preservation necessary for the future extraction of transplantable organs. Well, my dear Commander Koenig, young Rathpha will tell you that such a state we would not regard as death. Provided there has been no critical brain damage, which Rathpha seems to doubt from this account, we can revive her. What do you say to that?"

Koenig felt himself grow cold. "Don't taunt me, Merian."

"I'm not taunting," she said impatiently. "I'm making a straightforward proposition. And a perfectly serious one. I want a child, your child, and you want your Dr. Russell back."

"I can't have her back. She's dead."

"Oh, saints above! I explained that it will probably be no problem to revive her. I'll bring Rathpha here to tell you all about it if you don't believe me. And really... Commander... can you afford not to believe me?"

"I don't think it's right."


"To bring someone back from the dead. I don't think it's right."

"Commander! I say again that to our technology she isn't dead at all. How would my dear little Rathpha put it - if the potential for life exists, death does not." He eyes huge, she knelt beside his chair and ran a brightly-coloured talon along his leg. "Now imagine your beautiful Helena - for I suppose she is beautiful - back inside this room, listening to you, watching you, speaking to you... making love to you. You can't resist it, because I know you're a man of deep and powerful feeling, and that life is empty and worthless without her. I can give you all that. And beyond. A planet. The galaxy is littered with primaeval gems just waiting to be taken by people like you. We Descarandos know where they are. We might have settled ourselves to a planetbound existence a hundred times over, but that we don't choose to stagnate. Whatever happens, you and your people will have your new world. Would you want it without her, Commander?" Her tone was no longer mocking. It was intense and lyrical and spellbinding.

In a confused haze of feeling, Koenig stood up sharply. "All right. Don't gloat - all right! But I'm not just going to take your word for it, Merian."

"Of course not," she replied with a triumphant flash of her teeth. "Come with me right now and Rathpha will examine her, if you'll let her."

Koenig did not summon Tony or Maya to accompany him and the two gypsies down to the mortuary; he suspected that they were otherwise occupied, and he felt besides that the fewer people who knew about this at the moment, the better. It was a strange dreamlike procession, done with as much stealth as possible, as though they were engaged in a crime. Merian glowed exuberantly but said nothing as Koenig led her to the elevator which took them down to the deeply sublunar mortuary. Rathpha was quieter and more solemn than ever.

The gleaming white clinically of the mortuary hit Koenig like a physical blow as they stepped out of the lift. Its cold atmosphere blasted across him like ice. It was a stark, depressing place, and he had left it last meaning never to return; too powerful and painful had its associations become.

Rathpha seemed struck in much the same way. She looked around and shivered. "This is an unwholesome place. Where is she?"

"Here... " Koenig moved along to one of the compartments which were set in symmetrical rows along each wall. Her name was set on the door in black lettering. He slapped the activating panel and the electronic coffin slid out. The heavy frosted lid obscured the body inside. Koenig turned away, unable to bear the sight. He had closed that lid himself three weeks ago, and he didn't want to remember that.

As he turned, he found himself gazing straight into Merian's jubilant eyes. She was raucously alive, and the brilliance of her clothes clashed obscenely with the sterile desolation of the surroundings.

"The preservation technique is sophisticated," Rathpha's gentle voice informed the atmosphere. "And perfectly adequate." There was a silence while she found the control which unlocked the lid, and lifted it.

Unable to resist, Koenig looked. Though he was struggling to mask his emotions from Merian's merciless gaze, he was not ashamed of the way he felt. And no-one could fail to feel something at the sight of the frosted marble face, as white as the walls of the mortuary. Her body was swathed in a silver sheet, but her face had been left uncovered. Koenig felt Merian at his shoulder, and with a certain bitter satisfaction he heard the quiet hiss of breath between her teeth as she cast her eyes over Helena.

Impartial and expressionless, Rathpha spread her hands over Helena's face. Her fingertips traced swiftly along the contours of her nose and jaw and cheekbones then, very carefully, she folded aside the silver wrapping sheet and pressed the palms of her hands lightly over certain parts of her body. When she had completed this strange examination she replaced the sheet and looked up impassively. "No damage," she said. "Every organ is in perfect condition. There will be nothing to do but restore heart function and rebuild the affected brain cells. I can't definitely say without instruments, but I think recovery will be one hundred percent. There should be no loss of memory or faculties. She's a textbook candidate for post-mortem resuscitation."

"How can you tell all that just by touching her?" Koenig asked, still staring irresistibly at the waxen face.

Rathpha spread her hands. "Trained sensitivity. Some people are born with the ability to divine ailments, and often to cure them by touch alone."


"This is a case which does need technology," said Rathpha with a soft, rather bashful smile. "But she can be revived with no ill-effects, if you'll let me take her up to our ship."

"By all means, right away!" said Merian.

"I asked the Commander," said Rathpha, humbly but firmly.

Koenig was at an utter loss. He could not accept the idea that Helena might be rescued from the valley of death. This whole escapade had become grotesquely unreal. The harsh unnatural glare of the strip lighting on the white shadowless walls accentuated the sensation. There was nothing of the woman he loved in the beautiful corpse before him - Helena had never looked so perfect, so ethereal - and it was beyond him to believe that some gypsies could draw her back. But he forced himself to think logically. "Yes," he said. "Of course. Take her to your ship and do whatever you can. I must - come with her."

"Oh no you don't," said Merian immediately. "This is a deal, remember. How long will it take to get her back on her feet?" she asked Rathpha.

"From beginning the process to the recovery of consciousness, about fifteen hours," Rathpha replied. "It will probably take another day to recover fully."

"Perfect. Commander Koenig, you may deliver the lovely doctor entirely into the hands of my trustworthy young Rathpha, and tomorrow night you may have her back fit and well. In return..." She laid a hand on his chest.

He shuddered.

"Merian," said Rathpha quietly, "help me lift her out onto this trolley."

The business of taking Helena from the mortuary to the alien ship was done as swiftly as possible, with minimal fuss. Rathpha even had the forethought to cover the body with a blanket, so that any Alphans who might happen to pass them in the now almost deserted corridors would not see who it was they were stealing away so furtively. Koenig led them to Eagle One, and radioed briefly to Command Centre to inform them that he was taking one of the alien visitors back to their ship.

They docked smoothly with the Wandering Queen, which was precisely how Koenig was beginning to regard Merian. Merian stayed in the copilot seat while Koenig went into the back-section of the Eagle where Rathpha was with Helena.

"This is where you get off, I suppose," he said, opening the outside door. "And I wish to hell I was coming."

Rathpha's sensitive brown eyes flicked anxiously to the door which separated the passenger compartment from the pilot section. It was firmly closed. She laid a hand on Koenig's arm and spoke in a low voice. "I'm glad that I'm able to do this, for your sake. Merian's motives I don't know exactly... but I can guess. I'm deeply mortified that she's blackmailing you like this. I'm ashamed for her and for the way she's representing our people. Please don't judge us by her. Merian really does have a good heart and a generous nature, and she is loved as a leader, but she is often unable to see things beyond what will be pleasant to her, and gratify her - she has no concept of honourable love, and she imagines herself superior to those who do. Our society encourages and promotes tolerance of others and their ways and the understanding of others... societies and individuals. Therefore I beg your to understand Merian and not to condemn her too harshly, though I feel strongly that her behaviour is tactless and thoughtless - but she isn't unfeeling, Commander, believe me. She has a large family and is an affectionate mother. Just - don't listen too hard to her, and don't take offence, and don't think we are all as free-spirited as she is, or likes to think herself to be. I'll take the greatest care of Dr. Russell."

"Thank you, Rathpha," said Koenig with feeling.

Rathpha folded back the blanket to reveal Helena's face, and smiled.

The next day Tony was jolted from a deep slumber at what seemed to him an unreasonable time of the morning, considering he was dreading what the day ahead might bring. He lay where he was for several moments after deadening the alarm, mulling over the fact that he had woken with a feeling of dread every morning for the past three weeks.

Maya stirred and he shook her gently. "Wake up. I think we're wanted."

She sighed, sat up, looked at the time, and flopped back down onto the pillow. "It's only seven!" she complained in a plaintive mutter.

"The alarm went."

"Oh well, if the alarm went..." Her eyes fluttered closed and she looked as if she was slipping back to sleep.

Grabbing her arms, Tony shook her more roughly. "Come on. Rise and shine."

Her eyes snapped open and she smiled up at him. "I'm awake."

"Good." The smile, small but real, had heartened him. "How do you feel?"

"Human," she said after a moment's consideration, and she smiled at him again.

Well, one of Tony's worries seemed on the mend. And that was cause enough for happiness. He felt a surge of warm admiration as he gazed at her face surrounded by the fan of silky auburn hair, and he leaned over to kiss her.

The communicator buzzed sharply. Tony stabbed the acknowledgement button and Koenig's face snapped onto the small screen. "Tony. Get a move on. And Maya. I want you both in the conference room in five minutes flat."

The animation in his tone and look astonished Tony, and Maya observed in wonder, "That's the Commander! What's happened?"

Tony lost no time thereafter in hurrying to what was sometimes termed the conference room when the name seemed to apply. In fact, it was a now- disused office of unexpected size which had been fitted with a long table. As he and Maya entered, Commander Koenig was seated at his place at the head of the table and Merian was presiding at his right. Domnick and Rathpha were there too, but as usual their presence was overshadowed to oblivion by Merian.

"Tony," said the Commander as they came in, "Maya. Sit down, both of you."

They obeyed, in growing mystification. There was no doubt that the Commander had undergone some inner transformation. He looked worn-down and wearied, but his air of confidence and his normal assurance were self-evident. He was, as Maya had said so expressively, the Commander.

"For a start," said Koenig, as soon as they were seated, "Merian is offering to take us to a habitable world. She can't get us back to Earth - that's beyond the capabilities of her ship - but she says there's enough room on board the Wandering Queen to take the entire personnel to a world we can colonise."

He stopped. Maya spread her hands. "Well... that's wonderful, isn't it?"

"There's another piece of good news," he continued, in a warmer tone. "Rathpha brought it just half an hour ago. Yesterday evening Merian informed me that the medical expertise of the Descerandos is sufficiently advanced to enable the revival of anyone who had died in such a way that did not substantially damage the body. She - "

"John," Tony cut in with a sudden cold pang. "Don't tell me that she's offering to resurrect Helena. Don't buy it, John!"

"I already have," Koenig replied calmly. "I let Rathpha take Helena to the ship early last night. At six fifteen this morning Helena regained consciousness."

"She's alive?" cried Maya, ecstatically. She rounded on Tony. "Oh, Tony, Tony! What's the matter?"

Tony rose unsteadily to his feet, almost staggering under the waves of nausea and horror. Faces watched him uncertainly; John unperturbed and totally oblivious to anything but his own deeply- contained joy, Merian half-laughing, half-scathing, Maya anxious and happy and puzzled. "I don't believe it," he said. "It's a lie!"

"It's true," said Rathpha. "Dr. Russell responded perfectly to treatment. She came round about three quarters of an hour ago, and I left her in the care of another healer to come down and tell the Commander personally. I'll be going back up again shortly to encourage her recovery."

"John," said Tony desperately, "you don't know what this is. You don't know what you've let them do!"

"It's Helena, Tony," Koenig said quietly.

Not only Rathpha but Merian went back to the ship shortly after what had proved to be a rather unpleasant conference with Koenig's senior personnel. The reaction of the over-wrought security chief was very difficult for Merian to comprehend. Fortunately Koenig had not reacted much to the virulent fuss Tony Verdeschi had made about Dr. Russell's revivification. Now Merian had come to fetch a sample of her children to display to the Commander; that had been her stated reason. She had kept him away with some bland medical nonsense, for she was not at all certain that she ought to have been so generous... she was definitely beginning to regret the very easy terms she had made. It might be possible to extend the payment.

So she had come back to the Wandering Queen mainly to see what the beloved Helena was really like, and how far she could push her luck.

While Rathpha went to check on Helena's progress, Merian sought out her eldest child Brieth. The girl was painting on a stretched canvas while two small children - one her brother, the other a baby-sitting consignment - played about her feet.

"You're a lucky girl, Brieth," Merian announced as she saw her, and picked up her baby who crawled happily towards her. "I'm taking you down to meet my favourite Commander."

"I don't share your fascination with all things male and desirable," said Brieth, without looking round from her work. "And I'm surprised you managed to tear yourself away from him."

"Ah! He's unwilling... which makes him all the more irresistible."

Brieth dabbed her brush onto her palate and added a delicate touch to the painting. "I heard all about it, Mother," she said. "And I'm not coming down to meet the poor man. I couldn't look him in the eye, knowing the way my mother had behaved towards him."

Merian shrugged. "You're the loser, my dear. I'll take Anne-maria instead. She's cute... but you're my beauty. I wanted to show him my beauty."

"Oh, aren't you worried that I might distract his attention from you?"

"Not in the slightest. You're only fourteen."

"I didn't mean it seriously, Mother," said Brieth, with gritted teeth.

"Well, you ought to start thinking seriously about these things."

"Why should I? There are plenty more important things you've never thought seriously about.

"You impudent hussy! I will take Anne-Maria instead."

Brieth continued painting, and Merian, after glaring indignantly at her back for a good few moments, tucked the baby on her hip and went in quest of the younger sister.

Helena had awoken some time ago with a heavy sluggishness weighing on her body and spirits, and her first conclusion was that she had been drinking too much the night before. She tried to trace her memory back to some party or celebration, but there seemed to be a gaping hole somewhere. The last thing she could positively remember was the slightly nervous features of Martin Long as she saw him laid back on a bed just before she took some scans of his brain. There was obviously a discontinuity somewhere.

Only slowly did a general consciousness dawn of there being something very wrong. She was not in her room on Alpha. She did not even appear to be on Alpha at all. There was a young, vaguely Asianic girl with long brown hair and big brown eyes whom she did not know, but who talked to her kindly in a soothing voice.

By the time that girl returned Helena was alert and full of questions.

Rathpha put it plain enough, with a respect for the doctor's feelings. "Your people regarded you as dead," she said. "For the past three weeks you've been lying in a refrigeration vault. When we came, we found out about you and offered to help."

Helena's head swam. "Oh God," she said, trying to gather her thoughts and resources. "I haven't been unconscious.... I've been dead?"

"That is for you to decide, doctor," said Rathpha gently. "Do you regard death as a state beyond which no return to life is possible? And therefore isn't the fact of your thinking and moving and feeling now proof that you never really were dead - only thought to be so by the standards of your own technology?"

"Yes. Yes, I can accept that. But - it's not me. It's everyone else - my dear, I must see somebody urgently. Can I go back to Alpha?"

"Not yet. But don't worry about the Commander, Dr. Russell. He's quite happy."

"Is he?"

"Yes," Rathpha replied with a smile. "He is now."

With an instruction to sleep, she was left alone again. She could not sleep, of course. She lay in the strange bed with its fantastically- embroidered quilt, fretting and wondering, and sank gradually into sheer misery. Why wasn't John here? How much of the truth had she been told? Her instinct was to trust the girl, but in an unfamiliar environment she could not afford to trust blindly.

After a while she became thirsty. There didn't seem to be any way of signalling for attention, and after a few moments meditating on the cloying dryness of her mouth, she risked getting out of bed. For the first time she realised that she was wearing a long, sleeveless nightgown of brightly patchwork-dyed cotton. They must have given it to her.

Of course. In the mortuary she would have been wrapped in nothing but an insulating sheet.

Helena suddenly felt sick. Trembling violently, she sat down on the bed and ran a hand along her bare arm. She pinched the soft, firm flesh and felt its warmth. There was a mirror on the wall, and she dashed anxiously across to examine her face. She gasped with relief when she saw that it was normal and as it had been. There were shadows under her eyes, but on the whole she looked healthy. Not the face of a zombie, then.

She wanted to be touched and held and told she was still acceptable. Bringing her feelings of revulsion and distress under reign, she tried to evaluate her position without emotion. Where exactly was she? The girl Rathpha had said that this was a large ship in standing orbit over the moon. Helena only had Rathpha's word for that, for there was no space window in the little room. If the girl wasn't telling the truth, she could be very far away from Alpha indeed.

"Admiring yourself?"

Started, Helena turned from the mirror. A woman was lounging in the doorway, a woman of no uncertain attractions. She was tall and slender and overwhelming, with a sweep of curling black hair, sparkling black eyes, and dramatically-fashioned clothes. She had a beautiful, golden-skinned child of about nine months balanced on one hip.

"There's enough to admire," said the woman, breaking off her searching look and closing the door behind her. "Though you look a little pale and fragile, which is understandable. How are you feeling?"

"I'd feel a long better if I knew who you were," Helena replied cooly. "And when I'm going to get back to Alpha."

"You don't sound her grateful." The woman swept her up and down with her eyes. "Your people had given you up for dead, I hope you realise. We saved you."

"I'm very grateful," said Helena impatiently. "Please - who are you?"

"I'm Merian of the Descarandos. Their leader, you understand."

"I understand... "

"And you are the great Dr. Russell, otherwise the beloved Helena. Yes! You're just as I imagined you would be. I'm glad. I like to feel that my conquests have good taste."

Helena didn't know what she was talking about and didn't care. Forcing respect due to a leader, she said, "Merian. I'd like very much to go home as soon as possible."

"Well now. That's perfectly natural. But shall I let you just yet? They say patience is a virtue... some say it at any rate," she added, apparently talking to the baby.

Now greatly irritated, Helena demanded, "What possible reason could you have for detaining me here? I'm no use to you."

"Oh, none at all! Except as a bargaining tool. Yes! And if I let you come back to Alpha, the great Commander Koenig will have eyes for no other. And that would be a pity..." She smiled. "A great pity. I like him even more than I thought I would."

Wearied, Helena sat down on the bed. "You seem to know a great deal about me, Merian."

"Not much. A few basic facts."

"You don't know much about Commander Koenig, though - do you?"

"A little more than you might imagine, my dear."

"You've no chance with him." She looked up to meet the mocking eyes. "Don't even try."

Merian threw back her head and laughed. The baby, watching her face, gurgled pleasantly. "Oh, the beloved Helena! I know all about your Commander Koenig, dear. I know he's infatuated with you. But I know too that when it comes down to it, he's the same as any other man. And more! I know by the look of any man approximately how passionate he is - how adept, how profound. And of course no man can make love to a woman if he really doesn't want to. I congratulate you, my dear. He is a wonderful lover."

Helena suppressed her gut reaction to all this and said, "I don't believe you."

"Oh, don't you! Why, don't you think I'm attractive enough to arouse him?"

"He wouldn't."

"You were dead."

"All the more reason."

"Hah! You're very trusting. Do you really value fidelity so much that you'd extend it beyond death?"

"No," Helena replied, fighting a mounting inclination to slap the woman very hard. "I'm talking about facts. Since you seem to know so much about us, I won't mince words. John loves me. If I died, he would - well, he would be too distressed to care about other woman for a long long time. I know that. So don't play silly games. I want to go home."

Merian stared at her for a moment. "Good God, you really are incredible. You place a good deal of faith in his affections."

"Of course I do," said Helena, tilting her chin at the gypsy.

"And do you know - have you any idea - how distressed he really was? Not so much that he couldn't struggle over that insurmountable disinclination for other women in order to save you."

Helena understood her in a flash. The enormity of what had happened stunned her beyond reaction.

With a brilliant smile, the gypsy hitched the baby up more comfortably on her hip and said, "Adieu, the beloved Helena. I might send my beautiful daughter in to entertain you while you're waiting. She sings very prettily. I taught her."

She whirled out.

Wisdom and self-control and simple shock had held Helena's head high in front of the woman. Now she was alone all restraint was unnecessary and impossible. Five minutes after the door closed behind Merian, Helena sank to her knees and wept in horror and humiliation. She was bitterly hurt; one moment overwhelmed by a sense of cruel betrayal and desperately furious with John, the next crying with pity for him. For several minutes she could not reconcile herself to any thought or feeling.

But eventually anger resolved itself from the whirlwind. She washed away her tears at the basin with cold water and calmed herself with a determination drawn from that anger. She attached no blame to John. It was ridiculous to make an issue of the act of sex when there were no feelings involved. No, she was revolted by what Merian had done - this emotional blackmail when he must surely have been in a very sensitive state - and angry that she had been used and would be used.

"My mother sent me to sing to you," said a youthfully cynical voice at the door.

A well-grown girl of thirteen or fourteen was standing watching her. "Come in," said Helena, after a pause to assess this new arrival; a precocious child turning into a stunning woman, and quite patently the daughter of Merian. Her features resembled her mother's, but they had a classic cut of perfection, and her eyes were a vivid blue in contrast to her black hair. There was an expression of uncanny intelligence in those eyes.

"My mother sent me to sing to you," she repeated. "But I fancy you'd rather get back to your people. Wouldn't you?"

"Can you help me?"

"It's betraying kin," said the girl, "which is against my better nature. But on the other had what Mother did to your Commander didn't exactly show her own better nature in glowing colours. I'll help you if I can."

Alone in his room, Tony was again too disconcerted even to find consolation in his brewing apparatus. He had been coming gradually to terms with a situation which could not be altered; glad that he had brought Maya round, and hopeful that John would get over it somewhat. Now the state of affairs had been turned upside down. If the witch was to be believed - and Koenig, who was never gullible, clearly felt that she was - the unalterable had been altered, but it did not make things as they had been.

It was like the Monkey's Paw. The cherished son brought back to life, the dearest impossible wish fulfilled; which instantly became the thing least welcome and most horrifying. Tony felt that Helena Russell was knocking insistently at his door. No way was he going to let her in.

Three soft raps on the door of his quarters nearly sent him through the roof. Once again it was only Maya. She crept round the door with a light step, radiant and penitent. "I'm sorry I shouted at you," she said. "Can I come in?"


She was in anyway. After watching him in silence for a while, she said, "I still don't understand, Tony."

"Doesn't it scare you? Just a little bit?"

"No, of course not! Helena can't really have been dead if she could be revived, and what is death anyway? I only knew it had taken away my friend and Alpha's best doctor. If death can be defeated then I can only see the benefits. I can only see Helena. Helena, Tony!"

"Yeah, I know. That's the line John used."

"Your religion... doesn't it have something in it about the resurrection of the dead as a joyous event? The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised? And then the incarnation of your God actually brought someone to life some days after he'd died, didn't he?"

"That's God, Maya. He has power over all human life and death, and gives and takes at his own discretion. I don't equate some intergalactic Carmen with Christ."

"What did you call her?"

"Carmen. That's who she reminds me of all the time. I keep expecting her to burst into song." On seeing her puzzled look, he gritted his teeth in a familiar irritation. "It's an opera. By Bizet, I think. About a gypsy girl who seduces an upright young soldier, drags him into crime and degradation, then goes off with a bullfighter and gets stabbed by the soldier. Merian looks like my image of Carmen and would probably carry on like her given half the chance."

"Perhaps she's had more than half the chance," said Maya thoughtfully. "I've been wondering why Helena hasn't been brought back from the gypsies' ship, and why the Commander hasn't been over to see her. Any why she was taken away so secretively last night. I think Merian's using her as a hold over the Commander."

"To what end?" Tony asked sceptically.

"Well, her own, of course! She made no secret about being attracted to the Commander."

"Can this be the innocent child I picked up in a nunnery?"

"Oh, don't patronise me, Tony," she said sharply. "I'm serious."

"So that's Helena's problem. God - Helena's dead." He felt his perspectives spinning giddily around. After a few moments he said, "John's a big boy. He can look after himself. For God's sake don't give me something else to worry about."

"Why should you be worried?" Maya cried in vexation. "Why should you worry that Helena's alive?"

"Forget it. Let's not fall out about it."

"But Tony - "

"I said forget it."

A disagreeable silence followed this. It became thick and tense. Moodily, Tony drew off a cup of beer and tasted it, more for want of something to do than a real desire to drink it. The taste was bitter and mouth- curdling, he noticed for the first time. It wasn't one of his better batches. After a few more sips he tipped the contents into the sink.

Maya smiled, coming forward tentatively. "We'll be leaving Alpha soon," she said softly. "Tomorrow, perhaps."

"Yeah," Tony agreed shortly.

"I'll be sad. I've been happy here." She put a hand on his shoulder.

Her touch made him nervous, and unconsciously he shook her away.

"What's wrong?" she asked behind him, in a bewildered and slightly hurt tone.

"Nothing. Just don't."

"But I thought we could - "

"No. Not tonight."

"Why not?"

"I'm not in the mood! Just leave me alone for now."

The air crackled with frustration. Eventually Maya said, in a rather timid voice, "I wish you would, Tony. I need you tonight."

"How the hell do you think I've felt for the past three weeks?" Tony snapped, rounding on her.

She actually flinched back, startled by the brutality of this outburst. Tony regretted it instantly, but he could not find the words in time to recall the damage. Maya looked crestfallen before pride flickered into her eyes. She drew herself upright. "I see," she said frostily. "I am no more than a sexual object to you. You wouldn't care about me at all if I were plain and unattractive. I've often suspected that. As long as I do the things you taught me three or four times a week you'll be happy. But you used me! You took advantage of what you just called my innocence and I'd call my ignorance. I didn't know anything when I came here and you knew that! You helped yourself to what I scarcely knew I had. And I really think you value the fact that I am your exclusive unsullied possession more than anything I might feel. Do feel. Oh!" And ending almost in a wail, she swept out.

Tony, who had listened in astonished submission, sprang forward. "Maya!" he called. "Come back - oh, hell!"

The things she had said wounded him deeply, and the thought that she might believe them horrified him. What had brought it on? Maya certainly wasn't given to flying off the handle. One night together hadn't been enough to heal the dreadful tension of the past three weeks.

Throughout the day Helena had been visited at regular intervals by Rathpha, to whom she said little. She was awaiting Brieth, who had promised to come when when she had 'arranged' things. There was little Helena could do but wait and trust in this child. Although she was not locked in her room, Brieth had asked her not to stray; for the ship, apparently, was so huge and complex that she would certainly get lost if she tried to wander about.

As the hours dragged by, Helena's indignation and anxiety mounted together. She found it very hard to believe that John would not have come to her by now unless he was entirely unable, or unless... She forced her mind to the thought. Unless Merian had worked her forceful spell over him, and was holding him entranced. Alone and in suspense, all the powers of the logical mind were not enough to suppress a creeping agony of jealousy.

When Brieth at last arrived, Helena had taken to pacing about the room and slapping her palms in her agitation.

"My mother's come back on one of your Eagles," Brieth announced as she came in. "But it was only to bring my little sister back. I've got an idea, but you might not like it."

"Why not?"

"It doesn't involve your going back yet."

"But you want to communicate with your Commander, don't you? And you want to stop my mother's fun and games too, I imagine. Mother wants to take me to Alpha. I'll go, and I'll take any message or letter you want to send to the Commander - secretly, of course. And when I'm there, I'll be better able to control things. I won't let Mother lay another finger on your Commander."

"You must have quite a bit of influence over her if you can be sure of that," said Helena in wonder. The girl merely smiled.

Brieth had brought her a sheet of paper and a pen, and Helena lost no time in scribbling a note to John. As clearly as she could with a spinning head she told him that she was safe and well and shocked to know that she had been considered dead - told him she longed to see him, without insinuating that she knew anything about Merian - briefly rejoiced in the hope the Descarandos gave them of settling on a new world very soon - and quickly added her love.

Brieth deposited the letter in a pouch on her skirt, and Helena was left alone once more.

Operation Exodus was scheduled for the next day. Koenig prowled about in Command Centre, desperately hoping to avoid Merian's advances. She had come back half an hour ago with another daughter in tow, and had made it quite clear that she intended to stay the night again. He recoiled from the thought. Last night he had been desperate, and had done what was necessary in a kind of reckless abandonment which had seemed to please Merian but disgusted him now. All of today he had been cherishing the growing urgent realisation that Helena was alive. The cold still death-mask haunted his memory. He had to see her face in life before he could really believe it, and Merian was denying him that.

More than once he had thought of grabbing an Eagle and going to the alien ship in search of her, but common sense exercised its restraint. He did not trust Merian. He had a feeling that she could make life very uncomfortable for all of them if he aggravated her. And as Commander of his people, he had to put the general good before his own personal longing; Merian would take them to a habitable planet, but only, Koenig suspected, if he did not make an enemy of her.

Well, he was prepared to wait to see Helena. But he was not prepared to betray her.

He glanced at Maya, who was supposed to be off-duty but who had installed herself at her computer terminal and was running up streams of data. Seized by a desperate desire to talk to someone about anything, he went over to her and said pleasantly, "Working overtime?" Maya jumped. "Oh - Commander. No, I'm just processing the data about the Wandering Queen."

"Not much point. We'll be leaving this place tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" She looked up quickly. "I - I don't want to leave Alpha, Commander. And I'm in the most terrible mess." She stabbed a few buttons almost blindly.

Seeing that she was really upset, Koenig adopted a sympathetic expression and said in a lower voice, "What's the matter?" "I said some dreadful things to Tony. I don't know what came over me. I was upset, confused, anything but rational. What am I going to do?"

"Apologise?" Koenig suggested. Maya gave him a wan smile. "Thank you, Commander. But I had thought of that."

He decided that he did not particularly want to be landed with any more troubles, and after giving her an encouraging pat on the shoulder he wandered out of the Command Centre. His feet took him to the medical centre, which was all tranquillity at the moment. A lone nurse looked briefly at him as he entered. She disappeared into a ward. Koenig thought he was alone, so he went to Helena's desk. It was bare. Presumably they had cleared it, and Dr. Vincent hadn't had the heart to take over. The desk was normally in a tidy clutter. He took a stack of reports from a shelf and laid them on its surface. Somehow that served to highlight the desktop's desolation, and feeling rather foolish he put them back.


It was a polite voice, and it came from a child sitting unobtrusively in the corner. Brieth, Merian's eldest. The resemblance between mother and daughter was too strong for Koenig's liking, though he admired the child's finer beauty. "What are you doing here?" he asked her rather harshly.

"Your friend's a doctor, and this is the hospital. I thought you might come here, and I was right." She stood up. "I had to speak to you alone. I've got a letter from you."

"From Helena?" Koenig took the folded sheet of paper eagerly. The sight of her handwriting silenced him with wonder.

It was slightly eerie, as well as a delight, to read her words. They were controlled and formal and told him that Helena was getting worried. She could be poetic, but only when she was at ease. But he read the letter through only once, rapidly, with this child's interested gaze full upon him. "Have you see her?" he asked when he had finished.

"Yes, of course. Mother doesn't know about the letter."

"And is she - " "She seemed perfectly all right to me. A little unhappy, but very much alive." "Good. Good. I want to see her. Have you any idea how I could get to your ship without your mother knowing?"

"No," said Brieth. "I'm not a wonder-worker."

She was a self-assured enough little madam. Koenig smiled, liking her. "All right, but you were resourceful enough to bring me this. That puts you pretty near it in my books. You know your mother better than I do, I hope. How do I get Helena back without disrupting diplomatic relations?"

"Well," said Brieth, "You could give her what she wants again, but my mother has an insatiable appetite and that would be likely to increase it. And I assume you don't want to. You could stand up to her and tell her where to go, but my mother likes to domineer people and doesn't have respect for anyone who tries to deny her authority. Or you could send someone up to our ship in one of your own Eagles with me as a guide and bring Dr. Russell back to fight her own battle with Mother. Probably Mother won't know a thing about it until your girlfriend is down here tearing her eyes out." She lifted her chin as she finished with this suggestion, wordlessly batting it over to him for consideration. And indeed it was nearly irresistible. Koenig frowned as he considered the implications. "Does Helena know about... "

"Oh yes. Mother was in there gloating at her, the beast."

"But I've got to keep on your mother's good side because of what she can do for my people."

"I didn't say you wouldn't. Mother needn't know it was you who sent someone for her. I'll take the blame if she makes a fuss about that. As I said, the first thing she'll know about it is your Dr. Russell leaping on her with outstretched talons. That is one language she understands."

Koenig thought fast. "Now look, Brieth, I don't want to expose Dr. Russell to any danger."

"What, my mother?" Brieth retorted scornfully. "Your Dr. Russell looked more than a match for Mother Dearest."

Wryly, Koenig had to admit to himself that this was probably true. "Okay," he said. "I don't honestly care what Helena does or doesn't do to your mother. I just want to see her and have her with me. If you could tell your mother that you want to go home, my security officer Mr. Verdeschi would take you and bring Helena on his way back."

He had decided on Tony almost instinctively, with little intellectual deliberation. On his way to Tony's quarters he began to have doubts. Tony had been violently against the idea of Helena being revived, though at the time his protests had failed to register too deeply. Koenig could comprehend something of Tony's distaste, but to Koenig's mind the reality of Helena overrode all superstitious fears; perhaps if Tony were entrusted with such a mission, he would get over his bad feelings. After all, he would have to accept her sooner or later.

As he entered Tony's quarters and saw him slumped despondently in a chair reading, he recalled that he had had some sort of upset with Maya and was unlikely therefore to be in the most obliging of tempers. Koenig would have been largely unsympathetic - Tony and Maya were always falling out over something - had he not seen Maya himself first, and got the impression that this was a real quarrel. Tony looked up and greeted him with an uncomfortable air, then he said, "Remember those Victorian patriachs who used to marry girls who thought babies were found under gooseberry bushes? I remembered reading this book about it and I've just found it again in the library. They used to value brides who hadn't the first idea what they were letting themselves in for."

Taken aback, Koenig said, "I can't say I ever met one - I'm not that old - but I think I know what you mean. Why?"

"Do you think I'm like that?"

"You've never married anyone," said Koenig, bewildered.

"Hell, it wasn't my fault!" said Tony, slapping the book shut. Koenig saw it to be entitled Victorian Morality: The Angel in the Home and Other Myths.

"That you never married anyone?"

"No, no. It's Maya and her latest bout of paranoia. You know, he 'I'm an outsider and always will be' bit. Only this time, she got at me. And she got at me. There was a ghastly ring of truth about what she said. What am I supposed to do about it?" "Nothing," said Koenig confidently, without having the faintest idea of what the quarrel had been about. "She'll come round."

"That's not the point. Not this time. I want to show her - well, that I do care. And I don't know how, not after that."

"Tony," said Koenig persuasively, "there's someone who could sort this out for you."



"Helena's dead, John!" Tony said harshly.

"She's alive. Look - she wrote me this letter. Merian's daughter smuggled it in for me. Look at it! Read it! Dead women don't write letters."

With some reluctance, Tony took the letter, unfolded it, and studied it with an expressionless face. He handed it back with a grimace. When it became obvious that he wasn't going to comment on it, Koenig said, "I need your help, Tony. I can only ask you to do this as a favour. Merian is trying to blackmail me - has already succeeded in doing so - both with Helena and the rest of Moonbase Alpha. It's not a very dignified position to be in. I can't risk angering her because she's got to keep her promise to take us all to a habitable planet, and also because she's still got Helena. On the other hand I have got to get Helena back. And I've got to escape from that woman's clutches."

"Good God. Maya was right."

"Look, I know it sounds quite funny but it isn't. I'm desperate. This kid is offering to help for reasons best known to herself, and I hope I can trust her. I know I can trust you. If you take Brieth back to the Wandering Queen, she'll show you where Helena is, and you can bring her home. Will you do that?"

For a long moment Tony was silent. At last he said, "I think this whole thing is grotesque, John. I'm sorry. That's my honest opinion."

"That's your thick-headed irrational Catholic phobia!" Koenig shouted, losing the battle with his nerves. He was shaking. "Can you think of anything more pointlessly tragic than her death? When she'd come through so much, to be electrocuted by a faulty brain scanner? Alpha needs her, Tony. You know that. Can't you open your mind and accept that a higher technology could redefine the boundaries between life and death? Wouldn't you rather she was on the living side of that line?"

Tony said nothing.

"All right," Koenig said. "I'm not going to have a philosophical debate with you. Right now I don't care much about philosophy. I just want her back, and I want you to get her for me."

Half an hour later, after Merian's permission had been obtained, Tony founded himself transporting a pert young lady from Moonbase Alpha to the great bulbous mass that was the Wandering Queen. Tony's mind was a dark mass of uncertainty as he stepped off the Eagle and followed Brieth deeper and deeper into the incomprehensible complexity of the ship. He had only half an eye to notice that the Wandering Queen was more like a sprawling town than a ship; its passages with their irregular branches and sudden stairways and odd openings resembled streets, and people and children of all racial variations seemed to run about at will. Some corridors were crowded, others deserted. Some were wide and bright and highly decorated, some were narrow and dark and wound into sinister corners. It was some ship, and it was as different from Moonbase Alpha as could be.

Brieth opened a door and said, "She's in here."

It was the first time she had spoken for a long while, and Tony was startled. His mind had wandered; he had not prepared himself mentally for this encounter. For a moment his courage almost failed him. Aware that the girl was watching him with calm expectation, he braced himself and stepped into the room.

Ghastly images of squalor and decay resolved into the trim familiar figure of Helena, who was sitting on a bed reading. A figure which tossed up its head and recognised him and gave him a smile of delight.

"Tony!" she cried, and jumped up.

Tony found himself hugged warmly and affectionately in greeting.

"I don't think this is quite the one you want," said Brieth to Helena, "but I hope he'll do to be getting along with."

"Tony, where's John?" demanded the apparition, laughing with pleasure and frowning with puzzled anxiety. "Why hasn't he come? Is he all right? Is anything wrong? You look so - "

Tony shook himself, still trying to come to terms with the thing that looked and talked and laughed like Helena. "He's - fine - but - it's a long story, really," he muttered mechanically. She put a hand on his arm and stared closely at him, searching. "There is something wrong."

Overwhelmed by the sheer physical presence of Helena herself - real, here, alive and well - Tony shook his head. "There's nothing - wrong - Helena."

"I think we ought to go," said Brieth tauntlu. "Mother might be doing anything with the Commander."

Helena's eyes widened, and she propelled Tony out of the door. "Right. Take me down to Alpha, Tony. John needs a helping hand."

Tony suddenly decided that the waxen corpse they had interred three hellish weeks ago had been an illusion and an imposter. The real Helena was back, and she would put everything right. Koenig had managed to avoid Merian for several hours, but at last his luck ran out; and it was a piece of sheer thoughtlessness that led him to his own quarters, where he had retired automatically in order to think and be calm. His mind was full of Helena. After three tortuous weeks of trying to shut them out, the memories flooded back in. He took down the Flower Girl and admired the realism and character in the clay.

The door slid open and an emphatic, "Hah!" told him that he had very unwelcome company.

He met her vivid dark eyes. In his new mood of anticipation he could not mind Merian so very much. He even admitted that in her Machiavellian way she was quite a woman.

Merian entered, sweeping her skirt around her. She had a way of walking that swirled that skirt dramatically with every step. "Tomorrow morning," she said with the air of a proclamation, "your people will remove to my ship. Then you will be received back into the faithful arms of the beloved Helena. That gives me another night to have you all to myself."

"And what," said Koenig levelly, "if I said I didn't want you anywhere near me again?"

"Oh, Commander. I wouldn't believe you." She came near, laying her hand on his chest and smothering him with some musky perfume. "Because... I know men. I've studied and sampled hundreds. And none of them are averse when given the opportunity. Don't you find me attractive?"

Strangely he did. The deep shadow along her fine cheekbone was called to his attention. And her raven-black hair hung in fascinating curls and ringlets. Her beauty was softer and more appealing than he had noticed before this moment.

It was a misjudgement not to wish for her and madness to resist the arms than twined around his neck like long sensuous snakes. She was deeply compelling. Her mouth tasted of spice. Why shouldn't he pull her close? That firm contoured body was made for holding hard. The dark hair was fine silk between his fingers. Every buried association stirred, every forgotten desire drawn into the urgent moment...


It was almost a scream. And it was a familiar scream which tore through him like an electric shock. He threw the witch from him. For several seconds his mind was a confused whirlwind and he saw what he saw through a cloud of unreality. Merian sprawled at his feet, toppled by the force of his repelling thrust. Helena grabbing her arm and pulling her up and shaking her.

Merian's curls tumbled madly.

Helena threw her back onto a chair. "My perfume!" she cried. "You're wearing my perfume! That's no excuse," she added viciously, looking at Koenig.

Who began to muddle out of his senses. Abruptly he was back in the real world. He realised what had happened and he saw Helena before him, alive and furious. Merian started to get up and Helena, with a readiness that shocked him, struck her hard across the face.

For a moment Merian looked startled. "Hah!" she said sharply. "The beloved Helena will fight, then."

"But you won't," Helena retorted. "You cheated, you self- satisfied whore. Where did you find it?"

"I took the opportunity of examining your room quite a while ago." "Then take the whole damn bottle and fling yourself under any other male you fancy. I don't need the stuff."

Merian leapt up and towered forbiddingly over her. "I should fling something hard at you. The beloved Helena! No wonder you cling to one man. Most men definitely don't go for the wilting blonde type."

"Most men wouldn't go for you with a laser gun," Helena retorted swiftly, "if they dared."

"Ah, but they don't - do they? I impress men, my dear. I get my way with them. Your precious Commander was - "

Helena cut her short with another massive blow.

Koenig, who had watched in exhilarated fascination until now, felt he ought to intervene. "Helena," he said feelingly. "Helena!"

She turned to him, her eyes flashing.

Swiftly and surely, Merian grabbed her by the neck and threw her heavily to the floor.

For a moment nothing else happened. The silence was eerie. Gradually it grew chilling. Helena did not move. Merian looked at her still body. Regret passed briefly over her face then hardened into determination. She took a stance between the Commander and Helena, and threw back her head. "Lay one finger on me, John Koenig, and I assure you that the beloved Helena won't be coming to your nice new planet."

A blade flashed accurately over her shoulder and landed in the floor inches from Helena's face.

Koenig stayed absolutely still. He watched transfixed as Merian stepped over Helena and went to the door, where she activated the lock circuit.

"Now," she said sweetly, taking the same provocative route back, "I reverse that order. You can't resist me, you know. Give, and perhaps if the beloved Helena comes round she can watch. Or perhaps I've killed her already. I really don't know. All I know is - what I want - and you can't resist, Commander. This is a powerful little scent."

She was a demon. Koenig saw Helena's white face lying on the floor and looked up to see Merian's mask of dangerous evil. The perfume swamped his senses. Her eyes flashed fire. She was coming to him. She had hurt Helena, perhaps injured her badly.

A complex rush of hatred illuminated his perception of her.

"Don't come any nearer," he growled.

She laughed the witch's laugh and stretched out her arms. He drew his laser and fired. Once. Twice. A third through the chest.

Again Koenig experienced a moment of disorientation and confusion before the mind-distorting effects of Helena's perfume evaporated and he was in full possession of his sanity. While he stared in numb disbelief and gathering horror at the lifeless body, Helena came round and clambered painfully to her feet. She looked at Merian, and then at Koenig.

He held out his hand and let the laser fall. "I killed her," he said, hearing the sound of his own voice from a long way off.

"She's not dead," said Helena, examining the body. "Three laser burns, one near the heart, but there's still a pulse." He felt her standing up swiftly and heard her going to the communicator. "Medical Centre," said Dr. Vincent's voice. Then, in astonishment, "Dr. Russell!" "Top marks for observation. Get a team to the Commander's quarters now. Move it!" "I don't know why I - it's murder."

"It was the perfume, John," said Helena, kneeling over Merian and pressing her hands against the wound on her chest. "She thought it was an aphrodisiac but actually it removes inhibitions which prevent the rational mind from consummating the desire of the moment. Any desire. You felt you wanted to kill her and because of the perfume you..." She trailed off. Her voice too was oddly distant. "I ought to have got rid of it long ago."

"Oh God, this is awful. What am I going to say to them?"

In an absurdly short time the room was full. Dr. Vincent and two nurses had arrived with a stretcher and Helena, firmly shrugging off their amazement at seeing her, was explaining, "It was a dreadful accident. Let's get her to the medical centre." They lifted her onto the stretcher and rushed out. Koenig watched the proceedings with increasing detachment. Even when Helena turned to him briefly and looked at him for the first time with something approaching tenderness to say, "You'd better come too, John. I think you're suffering from shock." - he could not respond. He followed her to the medical centre wrapped in a cocoon of fear and scarcely conscious of her, and watched without comprehension as they attacked her unmoving with instruments.

"We're losing her," said Helena. "The trauma's too extensive."

Koenig turned as he heard footsteps outside. His heart sank. Standing in the doorway, staring tensely with tear-reddened eyes, was the small figure of Brieth.

"Get your doctor," he said to her urgently. "Get Rathpha."

She whirled round and ran. Merian was taken back to the Wandering Queen in an Eagle, attended by an unsmiling Rathpha holding her hands over her in a strange reflection of the way Helena had tended to her at first. Koenig was soon summoned by Tony to the Command Centre, where the Wandering Queen had opened communications.

The face on the screen was someone he had not seen before, a man of authoritative appearance who wore a red and gold band around his dark hair. "I am Ennon," he said, "Captain of the Wandering Queen and Merian's husband."

"Her husband!" said Koenig in astonishment.

"As Captain, and Merian's consort, I have authority to speak for her. You have committed a monstrous act of violence against my wife and we cannot consent to aid a people whose leader has behaved so appallingly." "Ennon," said Koenig, "it was a terrible accident, believe me that it didn't happen through my deliberate act or intent."

"We are not a violent people," said Ennon coldly, ignoring this. "Rathpha has assured me that Merian will recover, and we will not retaliate. If any greater harm had come to my wife, you would not have found me so reasonable."

He terminated the connection abruptly and the face vanished from the screen to be replaced by a momentary vision of the Wandering Queen. It warped and disappeared.

Sandra went through the motions of attempting to re-establish communications, as Koenig sank heavily into the command chair. Surprise and disbelief in Command Centre quickly changed to profound disappointment as the realisation spread that the ship was gone and with it the immediate hope of finding a homeworld.

But that disappointment was too common to sink morale for long. Lifting his head, Koenig saw Helena surrounded by a cheerful crowd of personnel. In their delight at seeing that Dr. Russell really was alive and back amongst them, they seemed to have forgotten the setback already.

That didn't alter the fact that he had gunned down a woman in what had seemed to him an ecstasy of heightened rather than confused awareness, and in doing so had ruined their chance of escaping the confines of Alpha. Every chance, he was aware, might be their last. Would he ever live at ease with that memory? Tony had been looking vaguely for Helena, wanting to get her effective opinion on Maya's attack; which, after a period of busy oblivion, had returned to preoccupy him. Helena was not to be found, however. Realising that the gypsies were gone, most of Alpha was settling down to a late night and Helena had every reason to be with John. Dispirited, Tony wandered back to his own quarters. He rehearsed speeches in his mind which he might make to Maya in the cold light of morning. None of his friendly persuasive platitudes sounded convincing even to himself.

On entering his quarters he saw Maya curled up in the easy-chair reading the book he had left lying on the coffee table. She greeted him with a brief enchanting smile. "Hi." Taken by surprise, Tony asked her rather gruffly, "What are you doing here?" "That's no way to welcome me! I'll go away again if you don't want me here."

And she had actually closed the book and stood up before Tony gathered his wits enough to say, "No - no - sit down. Make yourself at home." She obeyed brightly. "I might even take some beer," she added graciously. Wondering quite how to take this, Tony syphoned her off a cupful. "It's just that the last time you were here you stormed out on me in high dudgeon."

"What? Oh, that. That was hours ago!"

When Tony turned back she was studying the book again. He felt faintly annoyed by her offhand manner. "Well, you worried me."

"Oh, Tony." She laughed and took the beer from him. "I was just unhappy because we were going to be leaving Alpha."

"And you've cheered up now that we're staying?"

"And because Helena's back!"

"Yeah. You're right, she is." Maya's eyes sparkled. "I knew you wouldn't mind when you saw her. Oh Tony, everything's perfect now."

"But what about John gunning down Merian like that? What the hell did he do that for?"

"Helena said it was her perfume - Merian thought it would make the Commander leap on her, instead it made him want to kill her. She'd been fighting with Helena or something."

"Oh boy." Tony chuckled. "That would've been a sight." "But you see," Maya continued smoothly, "I was right about her motives."

This touched too painfully on the subject of their quarrel. A subject as yet unresolved. Tony was not prepared to sweep it under the carpet, but he was still at a loss as to how to approach the matter. He said, "Do you like the book?"

"Oh - yes. It looks very interesting. I was only skimming through it, waiting for you. The history of the social customs of your planet fascinates me. This subjugation and humiliation of women just for being women must have been awful."

"According to what you said earlier I subjugated and humiliated you," Tony said hotly, feeling himself flush.

Her eyes widened. "What? I'd soon let you know about it if you did!" "But - you know - when you first came to Alpha you were a bit like those Victorian girls..."

"Oh, I see. Well, I had to learn sometime. And you didn't trample all over me like those men in the book. You were terrified, I seem to recall."

"That's what I thought," said Tony in relief. Her last statement registered and her turned on her indignantly. "What do you mean?"

"You were! 'Are you sure about this, Maya? We don't have to, you know' - until I was begging you to get on with it."

"Well, I didn't want to upset you or anything," said Tony. "I'd never made love to a virgin before."

She was laughing at his earnestness. Tony stood up, took the book from her lap, flung it to some unimportant region of the room, and reached for her warm body.

To his extreme chagrin he found himself embracing a giant cobra. Deeply disturbed, Koenig paced around the living room of his quarters. The spot where Merian had fallen seemed bloodstained, though the floor was in fact spotless. He felt queasy and bitter in here, the scene of pain and humiliation and what still seemed scarcely less than attempted murder.

The door opened and Helena stepped in carefully. "John..."

"I think I'll change my quarters," he said without looking at her.

"Come to my place and I'll arrange it in the morning. Psychologically I think it would be best." She held out a hand.

As they walked slowly along to Helena's quarters he managed a faint smile and said, "Which - changing my quarters or going to your place?"

"She'll be okay, you know. I couldn't do anything for her, but the Descarandos had more medical knowledge than I could have learned in three lifetimes. Don't be too hard on yourself."

"I let Alpha down."

"You know it wasn't your fault. Be rational. I wonder - "

"What?" "I just wonder if Merian got what she wanted. I guess we'll never know." Appalled, Koenig was silent. To Helena, he knew, it was no abstraction, though she said it calmly enough. He felt the warmth of her shoulder bone under the fabric of her uniform as they walked along, and wondered if anything else could make him feel even worse.

"I've got something for you," she said lightly, breaking the silence as they approached her door. "I made it on the gypsy ship."

A feeling of warmth - almost of homecoming - enveloped him as soon as he stepped into the room. She sat him down by the coffee table and took down a little figure from the shelf.

"Here you are," she said, presenting it to him.

In his hands was a vivid representation of a dancing gypsy girl. Her pose was at once mocking and alluring, and in one outstretched hand - which might have been beckoning - she held a rose. As a sculpture it was a work of art; the frozen body moved with energy and life. Though Koenig admired, he was uneasy. "Merian," he said accusingly.

"Not specifically," said Helena precisely, sitting next to him. "She was inspired by the gypsies I saw... all of them. She's called La Carmencita. 'Carmencita' is Spanish I think for gypsy, but styling it in French gives her definite overtones of Carmen as in the opera."

"Complete with rose," Koenig remarked wryly. "It's beautiful, Helena, but then your sculptures always are."

"And," she continued, pressing her hand ominously against his chest, "it will help you remember, just in case I ever let you forget." With an apologetic grin he pulled her to him.

Twenty minutes later they had both forgotten completely.

Copyright (c) 1996. 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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