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Child Play

Authors: Philippa Sidle
Categories: John/Helena, Tony/Maya
Characters: Maya, Tony Verdeschi
Show Year: Y2
Rating: PG-13
Date: 1996
Maya falls victim to a mysterious illness, with consequences that affect not only her relationship with Tony, but the lives of all who know her on Alpha.
First published in the fanzine "Far Side of the Moon"
Average Rating: 5.0/5 (based on 20 reviews)

'He has no children.'

Macbeth, Act IV Scene III


Nicola wrote 'Moonbase Alpha is a good plaice for childeren. I think that their shoud be other childeren her but Comander Koenig wont let peple have any. This I think is a shaime.'

It was not always possible to put the reality of mind into words that could be written on a slate, but to try at least was a challenge and Miss Pulcher's praise was always assured. Nicola considered what she had written, watching Miss Pulcher turn over the pages of a thin Earth book with her sharp little frown of concentration. Nicola wondered what she was doing.

As Nicola stared, Miss Pulcher's attention dissolved from the book to the child. She looked up. "Have you finished?"

"Not really."

"Let's see what you've written."

Pouting with resignation, Nicola handed Miss Pulcher the electronic slate.

"Your spelling," she said perfunctorily, "is appalling."

Nicola ignored this criticism as irrelevant. But she was rather peeved when Miss Pulcher's crease of a frown deepened between her eyebrows. "I said I hadn't finished."

"Nicola, must you run on about things you shouldn't know anything about?"

"What shouldn't I know anything about?" Nicola asked innocently.

"That you don't know anything about. You mustn't say things like this, that the Commander won't let people have children. It's not true, it's not fair, and it's none of your business."

"Yes, it is so true."

"Oh, Nicola, really - "

"Dr Russell told me."

"Now Nicola, I'm sure Dr Russell didn't say that the Commander doesn't let people have children."

"Yes she did. She said it was a Command Decision. The Commander has to make lots of difficult decisions like that for the good of everybody. Dr Russell told me so. Dr Russell hands out everybody little white pills every month. She showed me them. They stop ladies having babies."

Delighted with the effect she was having on Miss Pulcher, Nicola pressed the weight of Dr Russell's unassailable authority. "Dr Russell told me all about babies and how they grow in their mummy's tummy. Dr Russell said that the little white pills stop babies growing. She even gives them to ladies who aren't married. She gives them to everyone. Commander Koenig says she has to. Even Dr Russell has to do what the Commander says. Sometimes. I asked if she took one of the pills and she said yes, she had to, everybody had to. You must have to too, Miss Pulcher, so you must know it's true."

Miss Pulcher looked extremely uncomfortable. "I'm not married, Nicola, so I can't have children anyway. Now can I? So it really doesn't matter. Now does it?"

"Dr Russell isn't married, but she - "

"Nicola! Will you please finish that essay!"

An excellent politician, Nicola withdrew triumphant into demure silence.

The essay title Miss Pulcher had given her was 'People I Know'. It was the sort of theme in which Nicola revelled. At first Miss Pulcher had set her compositions from her one and only English text book, which Nicola had happened to bring with her three years ago when she had visited Alpha for a short time with her mother. It was a Primary Two book, entitled English Is Fun, and it suggested free compositions about A Windy Washing Day, The Firework Display, A Walk in the Park, and The Funfair. Nicola's quick contempt had risen against themes so irrelevant to her life on Alpha. Miss Pulcher, helpless in the grip of her only and her brighter pupil, had very early in their association thrown academic convention to the winds. Nicola learned what she wanted to learn, when. She did as little formal maths as possible, but she could spend a whole day writing ingenious computer programmes. Though she refused to do 'interpretations', she was fascinated by the basics of grammar - which Miss Pulcher barely understood herse lf - and her creative writing was bewilderingly fluid and prolific for a child of nine. Her great love was observational essaying of this sort, and she laboured two silent hours over four and a half slatefuls of writing.

When she had finished, she fed the data into the desk terminal and waited impatiently while the printer slid out three small, crisply printed slips of paper. Her essay was neatly formatted and the spelling mistakes corrected. The slate-and-printer system was used to allow her to develop handwriting skills while saving scant resources, Nicola knew, but she liked to have her scribbled words so nicely presented.

'There are lots of people on Moonbase Alpha, nearly 300, so obviously I don't know everybody well. The lady who looks after me is called Lesley Whitticker. She is not my mummy who is dead. Lesley knew my mummy however and she is an engineer in the radiation division which means she wears a red sleeve on her uniform which everybody on Moonbase Alpha has to wear except for special things like parties and concerts. Lesley is not old. She has long sort of yellow hair which is supposed to be blonde but isn't because she makes it that colour when she washes her hair with horrible stuff that comes from rocket fuel. I know this because a rocket technician Michael gets it for her under the counter. I do not know what counter but when I asked her she said this is where they probably keep the bottles. Michael is also someone I know but not very well because whenever he comes to our quarters Lesley tells me to go out and play.

'Another person I know is Dr Russell. She is a very very important person on Moonbase Alpha. She is head of the medical division and because of this everybody has to do what she says, even the Commander sometimes. Although she gets to boss everybody about and is sometimes very bossy indeed, Dr Russell is very nice and she is my friend even though she is so important. She is so important that she is fourth in command which means as she told me that if Commander Koenig and Tony and Mr Carter all dropped dead she would be Commander. Dr Russell has real blonde hair which is sort of silvery. She said that it is really grey because of me being naughty but this is not true because Dr Russell is not old despite what the Commander says.

'Maya is another person I know. Maya is also important because she is science officer and she teaches me things about computers. Maya is special too because she comes from another planet and she can change into all sorts of things because she is a metamorph. She is my friend because though she is a grown up sort of she sometimes plays with me like a child and we have great fun. Maya's best friend is Tony, who is very very important because he is second in command and head of security. Maya always says nasty things about Tony but she likes him really because she will always try his beer which Dr Russell says is unfit for human consumption and nobody else likes usually which is a shame on Tony who really likes making beer. Tony is nice too but sometimes he is big-headed and I have told him so. After that he stopped being big-headed to me. Maya told me this is the only way to deal with men.

'Everybody on Moonbase Alpha knows Commander Koenig because he is in charge of everybody and everybody has to do what he says, even Dr Russell sometimes. The Commander is often serious and stern, but he has to be because he has the whole of Moonbase Alpha to look after. Sometimes he smiles and is nice, and Dr Russell says I must always respect him because he is the Commander and a very good person.

'These are the people I know best. Even though there are no children here I always have plenty of friends to play with and I am very glad to live on Moonbase Alpha.'

"I've finished, Miss Pulcher."

"Oh, have you, Nicola. Good girl. Let me see."

Nicola surrendered the essay to her teacher and watched her reaction minutely. Miss Pulcher puckered her mouth convulsively and looked flushed.

"Is it a good essay, Miss Pulcher?" Nicola asked brightly.

"Er - yes, Nicola - a very good essay, but - well, you haven't actually said much about the people, have you?"

"Haven't I?"

"Well, take - er - take Maya. All you've said about her is that she's science officer and a metamorph. Now there are plenty of other things you can say to describe Maya, surely?"

"I said she was nice."

"You seem to have said everybody is nice. What colour is her hair?"

"Sort of reddish."

"Auburn is a good word. Do you know what auburn means?"

"No, Miss Pulcher."

"Auburn." She wrote it on the blackboard in her large round handwriting. "That means a red-brown colour. It's a word usually used to describe hair. Maya has very lovely auburn hair. You can use the word to describe her. All this - er - stuff about Mr Verdeschi's beer isn't quite - "

"Have you ever tasted Tony's beer?" asked Nicola suavely.

"No - of course not."

"I have. Maya let me have a little, it was horrible. I spat it out. Maya threw a cup of beer at Tony once when I was there, but he ducked and it went all over my arm."

"Really?" said Miss Pulcher weakly. As the door slid open she looked up with the desperate expression of a drowner sighting a dangling branch. That expression quickly changed to surprise and even redder confusion as the imposing figure of the Commander strode in.

Here was a good interruption. Nicola had the pleasure of watching Miss Pulcher turn bright pink. "Commander?" she wittered. "Can I help you? I mean -"

"You said you wanted to see me sometime," said the Commander, smiling at Nicola and ruffling her hair. "Now's convenient. What have you been doing today, Nicola?"

"Writing an essay, Commander."

"You write good essays. Keep it up. Have you finished it?"

"Yes, I think it's time Nicola was running along," said Miss Pulcher hastily. "Run along, Nicola. I want to talk to the Commander."

Obediently, Nicola slipped from her seat and was going out when she felt the hand of the Commander on her shoulder. She stopped and looked seriously as he knelt to face her. He had very blue eyes which, when he was gentle, were deeply alluring.

"You go past Medical Centre, don't you?" he said, pressing a piece of paper into her hand as she nodded. "Would you take this to Dr Russell?"

Nicola ran along a few corridors until she came to the hydroponics garden, where she sat down amid the tropical vines and leafy flowers to read the note. It had been scribbled on a scrap of torn-off memo paper.

'Helena - we have kept this up for twenty-four hours now. Nothing changes the fact that you blatantly undermined my authority. However, noting that, I think we should forget the whole incident. I'm willing to do so if you are. I am sending this via Nicola in an attempt to sway your judgement. John.'

Nicola tossed the paper into a nearby waste disposal chute and, after a quick look round to make sure that she was unobserved, picked a blue flower from one of the displays. Then she made her way to the Medical Centre.

Dr Russell, happily, was alone in her office with the door lodged open. She sat at her desk sifting paperwork with a frosty look of annoyance. Nicola made her entrance solemnly, unnoticed by Dr Russell until she was right in front of the desk. She started.

Nicola held out the flower. "The Commander told me to give you this. Aren't you speaking to each other?"

Dr Russell took it, her expression softening. "We had a policy disagreement yesterday, Nicola."

"Well, the Commander gave me this. He came into the classroom to speak to Miss Pulcher and when he saw me he took me to the gardens and picked that flower and pressed it into my hand with trembling force and said, 'Take this to Helena and tell her I long to be forgiven and regain her favour. Tell her the past day has been like a week of unrelenting misery and I cannot live any longer in her censure'."

"What nonsense, Nicola," said Dr Russell, her eyes bright as she touched the flower to her chin. "He said nothing of the sort."

"He did!" said Nicola earnestly. She knew that Dr Russell would assume her to be elaborating on something more tender than the incinerated note.

A moment later she became brisk again, and popped the flower into a vase. "All right, Nicola, what did he really say?"

"He wants to make friends with you."

"Well, that might be arranged. Tell him I'll see him tonight."

Happily satisfied, Nicola left.

Once upon a time Sarah Pulcher had been gratified to be given Alpha's one pupil as her own. Possibly the Commander had thought that as full-time Theatre Manager she had abundant time spare to devote to the education of Nicola Brown. That was not the case. Sarah had given up her post at the hydroponics plant to concentrate all her resources, imagination and effort on the Theatre, and even now that she had an Assistant Manager in young Susan Ralston she had little energy to spare for any child like Nicola.

Perhaps her unique status exaggerated her. Sarah had taught in a primary school for one misdirected year, and she knew that every now and again some similar diabolically bright child dominated a class. But never had she been at the mercy of such a pupil - never had her wits been assaulted, her authority, her senses so subtly, skilfully abused by a little girl of nine.

And yet she was fond of Nicola. She was proud of her abilities and her promise. She remained optimistic, as she ever was. Only a steadily increasing sense of frustration at her own failure to cope with Nicola's talents made her miserable.

It had occurred to her to speak to someone about these feelings, but the Commander was not the person - now or ever. Worried as she was, she was even more afraid of losing her; and of losing whatever scant face she had with John Koenig, whom she respected fervently. Whom, in fact, she respected too much for her own peace of mind. She was secure in the assurance that he thought nothing of her, perhaps even found her an object of ridicule. Humble in her own estimation, she hardly even resented that. The Commander was quite beyond her reach, for any number of reasons, and if she could have helped her feelings, she would. As it was, she struggled to suppress them and usually succeeded in making herself nervous and unappealing whenever she encountered him.

"Well?" The Commander smiled benignly, as soon as the door closed behind Nicola.

"It's not really very important - nothing really important, Commander."

"If it's something to do with the theatre then it's bound to be, Sarah. Come on, out with it. What do you want?"

"Well, actually, it's Macbeth, Commander. It's the next project and I'd very much like to cast Dr Russell as Lady Macbeth."

This seemed to amuse the Commander greatly, but he conquered it and looked at her gravely. "Ah. And does she want to do it?"

"Well - when I asked her she gave me an indirect answer - I feel I could persuade her - but she said I had to ask your permission first. Well, you see, she thought you might object to rehearsals and suchlike interfering with her work - not that they would," she added hastily. "But anyway, she asked me to ask you, and..." She trailed off helplessly.

"Sarah, I can't see Helena acting, but if she wanted to she would do so whether I approved or not. It's not my place to dictate what anyone does with their free time."

Sarah felt herself redden, and she looked down in humiliation. He was mocking her, suggesting that Dr Russell had been fobbing her off. And though the taunt cut deep, she knew without being able to defend herself that it was untrue. When she had tackled Dr Russell the day before she had been sincere and kind but distantly distressed, and her precise words had been, "I really think you'd better ask the Commander if he objects. He's in a mood at the moment."

A note of kindness crept into the Commander's voice as he said, "I couldn't persuade her for you, Sarah. I'm sorry. I'm sure you'll get what you want."

"But you don't object to her - "

"Of course not. And even if I did, as I said, she'd do it anyway." He grinned at her suddenly.

Sarah looked down in confusion.

The door opened and Nicola burst back in, brimming with an ominous smug excitement. The Commander turned to her quickly, even eagerly.

"Gave Dr Russell your note," she announced, panting for breath. "She says go to the Medical Centre right now, unable to live a moment in your displeasure."

"What's she going to do?" said the Commander. "Anaesthetise me?"

"No. She wants to make friends with you."
"She's alone?"


With a disbelieving, "Humph!" the Commander went on his way to the Medical Centre, intently enough.

Sarah turned back in time to see Nicola give her an impudent smile before vanishing again.

Nicola was well aware that Lesley, her foster mother, was planning to get rid of her for the evening. She served the beans and vegetable mash at tea time with an impatience that Nicola read perfectly, and she looked grateful when Nicola announced her intention to visit Maya.

Maya had different moods but she was usually companionable and Nicola wondered if they got on well together because they were both outsiders in the community of Alpha; Maya an alien, Nicola a child. She answered her door-buzzer with a look that seemed to welcome Nicola, and Nicola skipped past her into her quarters.

"I've come to see you," said Nicola unnecessarily. "Will you play with me?"

"No, not this evening. Tony's coming round in a minute."

"Oh," said Nicola, disappointed.

"It's all right, you can stay. He's bringing his latest batch of beer to poison me with, you see, and I'll need some moral support." As she spoke, she brushed out her long mane of bright hair.

Nicola climbed up on chair to reach her and stroked the soft hair, intrigued to see it loose for once. Maya usually wore it tied back, or up. "Your hair's auburn. Miss Pulcher asked me what colour it was and I said sort of reddish and she said auburn was a good word."

"It is a good word, yes." She twisted a handful back onto the top of her head. "It makes sort of reddish sound pretty." She frowned. "I think I might send Tony away again fairly soon anyway. I'm not feeling very well."

"Oh! What's the matter?"

"Something I ate might have disagreed with me. Hm, I'll try not to think too hard about it. Talk to me about something else. What have you been up to today?"

"I wrote an essay. It was a good essay. Miss Pulcher said it was very good, but I don't think she liked it really. Oh, and the Commander came into speak to Miss Pulcher and he gave me a note to take to Dr Russell."

"Did he?"

"I think they must have fallen out. Only I didn't give her the note because if I had she wouldn't have spoken to him for another day."

"You interfering little busybody!"

"I know I am," said Nicola proudly. "But I managed it okay, I think."

"Honestly, Nicola, I think the Commander and Dr Russell are perfectly able to handle their own tempestuous affairs."

"What does tempestuous mean?" asked Nicola, sensing a good melodramatic word.

Maya merely laughed and shook out her hair one last time, and looked round as the door sounded and opened to admit Tony Verdeschi carrying a tray. His glance fell on Nicola and she saw the slight frown in his eyes, and the quick look over her head at Maya. And the slight smile and shrug that Maya made in return.

Nicola sat down. "Can I try some of your beer, Tony?" she asked politely.

Maya's smile widened and she joined her on the sofa as Tony laid the tray on the coffee table. There were two mugs and a transparent jug filled with a pale brown liquid.

"It looks paler than last time," said Maya, holding it up to the light.

"I used a different yeast strain."


"And less sweetener. You said it was too sweet last time."

"Did I? I was probably only making polite conversation."

"Look, just try it, will you? I think I could be getting somewhere."

"I'll try it," said Nicola.

"Okay, sweetheart. Here you are." He poured two generous cupfuls, and gave one to each of them.

Nicola took a brave mouthful, and made herself swallow. She couldn't gulp it quickly enough for her mouth to ignore the immediately bitter, stinging taste.

Maya laughed. "Your face, Nicola!"

Tony scowled and snatched the cup away from her.

"I'm sorry, Tony," said Nicola, mortified.

"Oh come on," said Maya. "Did you like beer, any kind of beer, when you were nine? Actually, I think you're right, this is an improvement."

"On a scale of one to ten?"

"One and a quarter."


"I'll have some more." She held out her cup.

"Well, this is a first. Are you sure you're feeling all right?"

"As a matter of fact - no, not really. I was going to ask you to go in a while."

"Hey, what's wrong?" Tony asked, immediately more serious.

"I'm not sure. I think it might be something I ate."

"Do you want me to call medical?"

"Oh no, Tony, don't be silly. It's only a bit of a stomach upset or something."

"I'd better stay with you and make sure you're okay."

"Of course I'll be okay. I'd rather be alone. Or - " she raised her head. "Do you mean, to make sure I don't start rampaging everywhere?"

"No, I didn't mean that. For goodness sake, Maya, don't be so touchy."

Nicola sensed a change in atmospheric temperature and decided to absent herself. "I'll go. It's safe for me to go home now."

"Why safe?" asked Tony.

"Michael goes to work at nine. He's on shifts at the moment."

Tony looked conscious, and caught Maya's eye. "What happens when he's not?"

"I go to bed and go to sleep," said Nicola firmly.

Maya caught her breath and leaned forward slightly.

"If you're going to be sick," said Nicola, "it's much better to be sick, then you get rid of it."

"Thank you," she said, getting up. "That's very good advice."

She bolted to the bathroom, and Nicola listened uncomfortably to the sounds of violent retching. After a moment, Tony stood up impatiently and went to the bathroom door.

"Maya?" he said. "Are you okay?"

"Of course she isn't, she's being sick," said Nicola.

When Maya opened the door again she looked dazed and pale. She leaned against the doorframe, doubled over her arm, and held out a hand. "Tony - "

Tony moved to catch her and she crumpled, collapsing against him. He was unprepared and she fell, steadied by him, to the floor. Where she lay, white and still, while he pressed her forehead and fumbled for her pulse.

"She's passed out," he said. "Call Medical Centre!"

Frightened, Nicola ran to the com and punched up the code of Medical Centre. The face of Dr Vincent, Dr Russell's immediate subordinate, appeared on the screen. "Medical Centre. Nicola! What's wrong, honey?"

"Maya's ill," Nicola stammered. She looked back to where Tony was crouching over her unmoving body.

"Where are you?"

"Maya's quarters."

"Okay, Nicola, we're coming. Don't worry."

It was all happening so calmly, so quietly. Nicola felt herself under a sacred obligation not to panic or make a fuss. She didn't even cry. Having done what Tony had asked, Nicola went back to where he was moving her onto her side. Maya looked dead. Nicola had seen dead people before, and the perception of the absence of life was almost - an instinct. Her legs felt shaky, and she didn't dare to speak. Tony said nothing either, holding one of Maya's limp hands and stroking her forehead as if trying to bring her gently back to consciousness. Her face, which might have been made of wax, was colourless apart from the two flecks of brown skin along each cheekbone.

Within a very short time, Dr Vincent and a nurse arrived with a trolley.

"I'm not sure what happened," said Tony wretchedly. "She was sick and then she collapsed. She said earlier she thought she must have eaten something."

Nicola watched, frightened and miserable, while Dr Vincent peered into one of Maya's eyes with a stick of light. "Hm," he said, pressing points on her limbs.

"What does that mean?" Tony demanded hotly. "Is she all right?"

"Any chance she could have hit her head when she fell?"

"I don't know. I don't think so. Nicola, did you see if she banged her head?"

Nicola shook her head, and Dr Vincent knelt to take her by the arms. "Nicola," he said intensely, "it's very important that you remember."

Suddenly overwhelmed, Nicola burst into tears. She was aware of the build-up of tension in Tony's face darkening to thunder. For a moment both adults were conspired against her to blame her.

Then Tony picked her up and hugged her, pressing her face against his neck with a too-oppressive tenderness. She clung to him and gulped what air she could.

"Let's get her to Medical," said Dr Vincent.

By the time Nicola had gained control of herself, Maya had been stretched out on the trolley looking like any corpse. No-one questioned that Nicola came with them as they whisked along the corridors to Medical Centre. She was carried alongside by Tony, almost unnoticed.

Medical Centre was quiet and empty, apart from one nurse left behind on standby. Maya was wheeled into the two-bedded casualty unit, and started to move her head.

"She's coming round," said Tony, lowering Nicola to her feet and going to the bedside.

Maya's eyes had opened and she curled her legs up, her face twisting.

"Abdominal pain?" said Dr Vincent. "Maya? Can you speak?"

"Yes," she said in a quiet voice.

"Do you still feel nauseous?"

She shook her head.

"Can you think of anything you might have eaten in the past twenty-four hours that could have caused this reaction?" As he spoke, Nicola watched him pressed his hands into her stomach.


"You've no violent allergies that you know of?"

She shook her head.

"Is the pain coming in spasms, or is it continuous?"

"Continuous - at the moment - "

"Did you have any pain earlier, before you passed out?"

"Just - a small ache."

"Can't you do something for her?" Tony demanded, as Maya, clutching his hand and arm, almost pulled him down on top of her.

Dr Vincent straightened up and said, "Cara, could you prepare a sedative."

Nicola stood by against the wall, unnoticed, her fists clenched, unable to look away. She was fascinated by the close-up medical films in Alpha's video library, and was rather proud of her ability to watch the most explicit scenes of scalpels and sliced flesh and exposed pulsating organs without flinching, but it was different when it was someone you knew.

As the nurse went out to get the sedative, Maya seemed to relax. She let go of her desperate grip on Tony's arm, and her hand fell limp onto the pillow beside her face. Nicola came a little closer and saw real beads of sweat on her forehead.

"I just don't know what's wrong," said Dr Vincent to Tony. "All my best guesses for humans might mean nothing. If she were human, I would be thinking about operating right now for acute appendicitis. But according to the tissue scans we took when she first came to us, she never had an appendix. Maya - I know it's difficult to think at the moment - but can you tell me if you know of any disease or condition that might be causing these symptoms?"

She shook her head.

"I had appendicitis when I was six," said Nicola helpfully, more comfortable now that Maya seemed a little better. "I had tummy ache and was sick all over the place too, I remember it really well. It's easy to fix. They do it through a keyhole. I can show you the scar if you like."

But Maya had closed her eyes.

"Could she have something similar?" asked Tony.

"She could have, but I'm not going to start removing organs unless we're very sure. And not without Dr Russell's advice."

"And where is Dr Russell?"

"Off duty."

"Then get her."

"She - left instructions that she wasn't to be disturbed."

"To hell with that!" Tony cried, exploding. He took a deep breath, and glanced uneasily at Nicola.

Faintly, Maya raised her hand and touched his arm in a calming gesture. "Tony - it's all right. I feel better now - it's gone. I feel better. Don't bother Helena."

Dr Vincent sighed, and looked uneasy, and folded his hands behind his back. Tony turned his full attention back to Maya. Nicola knew that she had become invisible to the adults, and she slipped out of Medical Centre unobserved and raced along the corridors to the Commander's quarters. Instinct told her that Dr Russell would want to be informed about Maya's illness immediately.

Despite this conviction, her heart tripped fast with alarm as she stood outside the door and reached up on tip-toe to press the buzzer.

Almost at once, the door slid open. Dr Russell looked at her in surprise and Nicola, gazing up at her face, was relieved to see no anger in her expression.

"Maya's ill," Nicola blurted out. "She was sick and then she was unconscious and now she's got tummy ache. Dr Russell, you must come and see at least. Dr Vincent didn't want to call you because you said not to and Maya was a bit better, and Tony got angry and poor Dr Vincent had to choose between him being angry and you being angry. So I came to get you."

She could see that Dr Russell was vacillating between amusement and concern. After a moment she nodded briefly and turned back into the room. Fascinated, Nicola peered in. She caught a glimpse of a world and an atmosphere beyond her, and experienced a poignant twinge of loneliness. Yet what she saw was nothing, innocent and commonplace; the Commander relaxing in one of the chairs by the coffee table, which was set for two. Dr Russell picked up one of the cups and swiftly swallowed the last mouthful, then said to the Commander, "I have to go, John. Important summons."

"Do you want me to come with you?"

"Oh, no. I'll let you know if it's anything serious."

Nicola found herself looking directly into the Commander's eyes as he glanced at her. He must have known that she hadn't delivered his note, but she read no reprimand in his expression and she stared boldly. Well, hadn't her own tactics worked?

They had. Even she understood the sensuous intimacy tangible in the air. And in the way Dr Russell leaned close to the Commander, and said, "I won't be long, and seemed to brush her lips against his ear.

Then Nicola found herself taken firmly by the hand and hurried along the corridors.

Timidly, Nicola said, "Do you mind me getting you?"

"No - no, Nicola, you did the right thing."

Their entrance caused a stir of surprise. Maya looked ill again. Tony jumped up and said, "Helena, do something, for God's sake!"

Dr Vincent said, "Dr Russell. I was just about to call you."

Dr Russell took over with clinical efficiency, ushering Tony out of the way and leaning over Maya to examine her. "Where does it hurt?"

"Everywhere," said Maya with a gasp.

"That doesn't help, Maya. Come on."

"Deep. Deep inside."

"Have you had anything like this before?"

"No I haven't!"

"Are you going to be sick again?"

"She was," said Dr Vincent. "A few minutes ago."

"Did you keep it?"

"Of course I did."

"Good. Well, it looks very like food poisoning. What did you eat today?"

"Nothing. I mean, the usual."

"What was the last thing you ate?"


"We didn't get as far as dinner," said Tony.

"Did you have lunch together?"

"Not today, out shifts didn't coincide, but - look, Helena, everyone has the same lunch, we all eat in the canteen, nobody else is ill."

Maya's breath slowed down and her fists unclenched.

"Maya drank a whole cup of Tony's beer," said Nicola brightly. "It was a new batch."

She was used to being half-ignored in situations like this and she was startled when everyone turned to look full at her.

Dr Russell turned on Tony. "Get me a sample."

"Now wait a minute - " Tony began indignantly. Then Maya gave a low, sharp moan and grasped his hand. He sat beside her again, looking helplessly into her face and trying to comfort her in silence.

After staring at this scenario for a moment, Dr Russell turned to Nicola instead. "Can I trust you to bring me a sample of this new batch?"

Nicola nodded vigorously.

"It's in the vat nearest the door," said Tony. "And it didn't poison her. I drank two cups myself."

"Bring me about half a cupful, Nicola," said Dr Russell in a lower voice.

Aware that Tony's feelings were hurt by this insinuation that his beer might have made Maya ill, Nicola carried out her mission with some sense of trepidation. She went to Tony's quarters - she felt as if she had spent all evening now running round the corridors of Alpha - and identified the vat containing the most recent brew. A proportion of Tony's living area was consumed by the sprawl of improvised brewing equipment. Golden fluids bubbled through a tangled web of plastic tubing, reminding Nicola of a mad scientist's laboratory in an old horror film. Tony might have been making an invisibility lotion or an elixir of life rather than a rough approximation to beer. Nicola took a plastic cup from the many on the shelf and pressed the small lever on the vat and drew off an exact half cup. Anxious to comply literally with Dr Russell's instructions, she held the cup up to the light to ascertain this. Then she walked back at a fast pace. Nicola usually ran places, but it was necessary to avoid splashing and spill ing her consignment.

When she got back to Medical Centre, Tony was sitting outside in the waiting area. Dr Vincent came through and took the cup from her with a swift, "Good girl," and disappeared again.

Suddenly left alone with Tony, Nicola felt uncomfortable. He looked depressed and not very approachable. Nicola sat on her hands a few seats away from him, and there was a long silence. But she found it difficult to be either still or silent and despite Tony's gloomy look she asked, "Where's Maya?"

"Through there. They're pumping her stomach out."

"Oh yuch."

"Yeah, that about says it." He rubbed the back of his neck, and looked up sharply as Dr Russell came in. She was wearing an apron and was peeling off some rubber gloves.

"All right," she said. "We've made sure that whatever was in there, poisoning her, isn't there any more. Now it's just a question of waiting and seeing how long it takes to get out of her system. She's more comfortable now, the abdominal pain seems to have gone. I've given her a sedative. I think she'll be substantially better by the morning, if she gets a good night's sleep."

"Can I see her?"

"For a few moments, then I want her to rest. Don't be alarmed by the IV, it's just to replace lost fluids."

Tony nodded, and went through. Nicola jumped up to follow him, but Dr Russell put her hands out. "Hey, not so fast, young lady. I think it's time you were in bed."

"Can't I say goodnight to Maya?"

"No. You can see her in the morning, if she's better. Come on, I'll take you home." She took Nicola's hand, and said to the nurse, as they left, "I'll be back to see how she is. Call me immediately if her condition changes."

When they got to Nicola's quarters, Lesley wasn't there.

"She must be out looking for me," said Nicola, a little guiltily.

Dr Russell told her not to worry, and was very kind. She helped her undress and tucked her into bed.

"Dr Russell," said Nicola, "can you stay and talk to me?"

Dr Russell hesitated a moment, then sat down on the bed and stroked Nicola's hair onto the pillow. "Just for a little while. Did you want to ask me something?"

"Will Maya be all right?"

"Oh yes, I'm sure she will be. I think she just ate something that was nasty for her, but maybe not for us."

"Because she's an alien?"

"You shouldn't call her that, Nicola."

"But that's what she says."

"Yes... I know."

"Dr Russell - do you mind about this afternoon? What I told you wasn't true only in that he didn't actually say it. He meant to say it."

"That's probably true, sweetheart, but I'll tell you something that I want you to remember. You shouldn't ever interfere in something which is between two people and nobody else. Very probably you don't understand the circumstances, and you can't fully understand the feelings. Especially when the people are much older than you."

"But grown-ups don't have very different sort of feelings, do they?"

"Not very different sorts, no, but they can see things differently. Some things that would be important to you aren't to us, and the other way round. The Commander and I both have - positions to maintain. Now the Commander has to look after the whole base - our survival depends on his decisions, and he has responsibility for us all."

"I thought you did," said Nicola, snuggling down into the pillow. She loved it when Dr Russell talked to her like this.

"Well, there can be the problem," said Dr Russell with a smile. "As Chief Medical Officer I am in charge of the health and well-being of everyone on Alpha. Sometimes - inevitably, I suppose - we disagree over the best way to do something. If the Commander makes a decision and issues an order in my field which I disagree with - then I have to maintain my position, and he has to maintain his. And we fall out. But because we have to have a smooth working relationship because of those very positions, we soon get over these difficulties and forget all about them."

"So you're happy now."

"Of course I am."

"Dr Russell?"

"Yes, darling?"

"If we ever get a proper planet to live on, will you and the Commander still have to maintain positions?"

"Nicola, I think that will only be the start of the hard work."

"Dr Russell?"


"I like living on Moonbase Alpha. Do we have to find a planet?"

"Ah, yes, Nicola. Because if we don't, we won't be able to have children. There's hardly enough space and food and other resources to keep the people we already have, and that's why we can't have babies. So if we don't find a planet to colonise, all the people will eventually grow old and die and that would be the end of us!"

"That's horrible."

"But that won't happen, because we'll find a home long before that." Dr Russell's expression became a shade solemn. She had both Nicola's small hands in her own, and now she pressed them. "I'm glad you like it here, Nicola. Sometimes I worry that it's a terrible place for you to be. A dreadful situation for you to be in."

"Oh no, I love living here with all my friends."

"Good." She kissed her, and pushed her gently back onto the pillow. "Come on now, settle down. The Commander will be thinking I'm lost. Night-night."

"Dr Russell."

"One more question."

There was a sound in the other room, and Nicola's spirits sank in dismay. The bedroom door opened and Lesley stood there, hands on hips, staring at her in irritation. "Where have you been - oh. Dr Russell." Her face resolved into an uncertain smile.

Dr Russell patted Nicola's head and stood up. She faced Lesley with a pleasant expression. "She's been with me, Lesley. Maya's been taken ill, and we've been in Medical Centre. I've put her to bed."

"Yes." Lesley tossed back her hair with a frown.

Quietly, Dr Russell said, "Goodnight," and left.

"I've been hunting high and low for you," said Lesley in a low fierce voice when the outer door slid shut. "You've to be in by nine and no later. I don't care if half the people on Alpha drop dead, you come back here by nine. I'm responsible for you and this is a dangerous place for a nosy meddling kid like you. What do you think would happen to me if you hurt yourself?"

Nicola turned onto her side and faced away from Lesley, ignoring her. Hating her for interrupting her so-interesting talk with Dr Russell.

By the time she made it back to John's quarters, Helena found that he had given her up and gone to bed. She cleared up the coffee cups, feeling, against her will, resentful about having her evening interrupted. She was sure that whatever was wrong with Maya was reactive and nothing serious, and she had left her in Medical Centre sleeping peacefully; on the other hand, since her last illness everyone was nervous about her. But this time she had no temperature, and her symptoms, though acute, were ordinary.

She undressed without putting the light on a slipped into bed, curling against John's back and kissing his neck to say goodnight. He stirred, with a start, then caught hold of her.

"Sorry," she said.

"How's Maya?"

"Oh - she'll be fine. Tony's beer finally poisoned her."

"Not really?"

"Actually, it's my best guess. I don't know what he puts in the stuff but it would never get past the nutritional hygienist. We won't know until I can get the samples analysed tomorrow, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's what made her ill."

"That would be very funny. Maya would never let him hear the end of it."

"Well, I don't think Maya's in a condition at the moment to appreciate the joke, but - yes." She closed her eyes. "Sorry I was so long, anyway. I got sidetracked by Nicola."

"You're too indulgent with that child."

"I've seen you ruffle her hair often enough. No," she added, "I think it's important that she's exposed to as many influences as possible. She needs a complete education - she's very bright, and she'd the only child we have."

John pressed her hands but said nothing, because, as Helena knew, there was no point in talking about it. Then - possible in consolation, to distract her from that thought - he turned round and took hold of her and covered her mouth with his, and proceeded to make her forget everything for a while.

But afterwards, when they had time and inclination to talk, Helena returned to the subject of Nicola. For some reason the small green-eyed girl was haunting her tonight.

"She runs rings round poor Sarah," she said.

"Sarah Pulcher? Well... she's a remarkable woman in all the wrong ways."

"You don't like her much, do you?"

"I admire what she's done with the theatre."

"She like you."

"Poor kid."

"Kid? She must be over thirty."

"Does she?"


"Like me?"

"You're not very perceptive, are you? I feel sorry for her."

"Sorry enough to be in her play?"

"I don't know about that. What do you think?"

"Do you want to do it?"

"I used to enjoy drama at school... but that was a long time ago. And I can't see myself as Lady Macbeth."

"I think you need some relaxation. You work too hard."

"I'll give it a shot. It might be fun."

So Helena took a light decision in a moment of drowsy benevolence, and rolled happily onto her side to hug against John. He lifted a hand to stroke her hair and their eyes met.

"I missed you last night," he muttered. "Why do we do it?"

"Maintaining positions."


Helena smiled. "You try explaining grown-up tantrums to a sensible child."


Nicola began Friday with a row. Lesley was in a foul, milk-splashing mood, and blew up after about six questions. Nicola, who concentrated determinedly on her cereal and toast, was informed that she was an impudent, pestering nuisance - and unnatural child with morbid obsessions - a burden, a hindrance, a legacy of trouble.

"Your precious bloody Dr Russell wouldn't be so enamoured of you if she had to put up with you every day," she told her. "Your poor mother would have been driven to her death if she hadn't met it first."

"Shut up about my mother," Nicola said fiercely. "She was better than you."

"Your poor mother wouldn't be able to cope with you now. I'm tougher than she was. I must be. I'm still alive after three years of looking after you." She snatched the empty plate from below Nicola's nose. "Eat your toast and lose yourself for the day. Go on. I'm sick of the sight of you."

Stuffing the last crust into her mouth, Nicola grabbed her electroslate and ran out. Lesley's rantings affected her little; Lesley had a variable temper which was basically irritable anyway, and Nicola accepted that as she accepted everybody. An upset with Michael the evening before seemed probable. It would blow over quickly, Lesley's upsets usually did.

She ran straight to Medical Centre, mindful of Dr Russell's promise that she could see Maya in the morning.

Nurse Conway was at the reception desk, typing at a terminal. Nurse Conway was not very nice to Nicola, usually, and now she gave her a cold look.

"I've come to see Maya," she said, standing defiant. "Dr Russell said I could."

"Well now, I'm afraid Maya isn't allowed visitors."

"Dr Russell said! Ask her!"

"Dr Russell's very busy."

Nicola glared at her insistently.

Nurse Conway gave up on the locked switch first, and, with a sigh, flicked on the desk comm. "Dr Russell, I have Nicola Brown in reception." And then she turned back to her typing, ignoring her.

Nicola hopped from one foot to the other until Dr Russell appeared from one of the inner wards, looking pale and tense. "Nicola," she said, rather sternly.

Mollified, Nicola hung back. "I came to see Maya like you said I could."

"I think I said if she was better. Well, she's not. She's not very well at all."

"Oh! What's the matter with her?"

"If I knew that, Nicola, I wouldn't be - " She broke off. "I'm sorry. It isn't your fault."

"Everybody's in a bad mood this morning," said Nicola, pouting. "Please can I see her?"

"All right." With a sigh, Dr Russell took her hand and led her to a small observation ward.

Maya was stretched out on the bed, surrounded by machines making gentle blipping noises. A long transparent tube was taped to her arm and ran to a hanging bottle. Despite everything around her, which looked so frightening and distracting, she was asleep.

That was Nicola's first thought, but as soon as she entered the room she was chilled by the incongruity of Tony being there, sitting at her side and holding her hand. You didn't do that if someone was asleep. And Tony looked extremely miserable as he looked up at them.

"A visitor," said Dr Russell quietly.

Nicola was struck silent. She didn't dare go closer to Maya.

"She's in a coma, Nicola," said Dr Russell. "When someone is asleep and won't wake up."

"Can't you - can't you just - shout loudly in her ear or something?"
Tony almost laughed, and lowered his head.

"No, Nicola," said Dr Russell. "Her brain has stopped responding to stimuli."


"We don't know why. We're working as hard as we can to find out what's causing it. Now come on. Visiting hours are over. That goes for you too, Tony. There's nothing you can do here and I know they need you in Command Centre."

"I thought maybe - if I talked to her - isn't that what you're supposed to do?"

"When the come is induced by head injury, perhaps. But this isn't caused by external trauma - her blood pressure's low, her heart-rate has slowed down, her temperature is dropping. It's as if her body and her brain are shutting down. We can only stop it if we find out what's causing it."

"You've still no idea?"

"Well, it wasn't the beer. Not much consolation - "

"Some. At least I know I didn't do this to her."

"We're pursuing several theories, but I just don't have an answer yet. There's always the possibility that she'll recover spontaneously, in spite of our treatments, like she did last time."

"Yeah. Helena - this could be a security issue as well. If I stayed, I could cover that."

"No, Tony. John won't be back from his reconnaissance flight for another six hours, you're needed. I'll call you as soon as I know anything, or if there's any change."

Tony nodded, laid Maya's hand on her chest and kissed her forehead, then marched out a little too fast. It seemed to Nicola that Dr Russell exhaled a breath and sagged slightly as the door shut behind him. Before Dr Russell could stop her she ran to Maya and planted her own small kiss on her expressionless face. The skin of her cheek was like ice; Nicola started back in shock.

Dr Russell took her by the hand and led her away.

"Where's the Commander gone?" Nicola asked.

"Out in an Eagle, to see what's ahead."

"Isn't that dangerous?"


"Aren't you worried?"

"Nearly all the time, every day, Nicola, for one reason or another. Now run along. I must find out what's wrong with Maya."

Trusting Dr Russell to do this, Nicola ran along.

Questions and no answers. Helena hated them. She was facing an immobile, impenetrable wall, and it terrified her, both as a doctor and the friend of her patient.

It had begun at six hundred hours that morning, not long after John had departed for his Eagle flight and she had been trying to drift back to sleep for an hour. Ben Vincent had called her to say that Maya had slipped from apparently restful sleep to an unresponsive state, and that all her vital signs were sinking fast. There had been no external trigger, not even a return to consciousness.

Helena had stood over Maya's lifeless form after a thorough but useless examination, losing her grasp on the hope that this was reactive and not an illness. She had wanted it to be food poisoning, even beer poisoning, so much because if it was some disease or condition indigenous to Psychons then she was about as well equipped to diagnose and treat it as a tribal witch doctor faced with a case of diabetes.

She thought with sickening clarity of all the human diseases which had been untreatable before the development of modern drugs, and from which patients had simply declined and died. Tuberculosis, a slow painful death. Diabetes, a short painful death.

She drew in her breath, aware that Ben - tired and bleary after a long night shift - was waiting for an expert opinion. "Test everything," she said. "We'll take every sample we can from her and test them all for everything. Blood sugar, mononucleide count, hormone levels, viruses, anything that even looks like a foreign organism. We'll compare them to her recorded norms and try to work out an analogy with a human syndrome."

"Treatment, for now?"

"Just watch over her, Ben. I don't want to try anything on her until we've got some idea of what to treat."

She had got all the medical laboratory staff out of their beds and set them to work on analysing the samples, as well as her stomach contents and the beer. As the results of each analysis came in she ran them through the computer to match them against the complete set of biochemical readings she had taken from Maya after the nightmare of her last illness. She had hoped then that having a record of what was normal for her would enable her to reach a diagnosis if Maya fell ill again; rather than watching helplessly and blundering with useless drugs for humans. It was helping, however, only to baffle and disappoint her more as each reading matched up neatly with the records. Analysis of her stomach contents and the beer, meanwhile, came back with a definite negative. There were no recognisable irritants or poisons in either, and unless Maya had gone into an extreme allergic reaction to some substance that was otherwise harmless there was no hope of believing any longer in the original diagnosis.

She had been at this all morning now and she had started to snap at the lab technicians as they brought in their reports and offered their ideas. Every now and again she went to see how Maya was, though Ben and then Ed Spencer had kept a constant watch on her. Her condition appeared to have stabilised. She had been relieved to get rid of Tony so easily and so early, and she was tensed for his reappearance because she had nothing to say to him. He had called three times already to ask whether there was any progress, and on the third occasion she had been unable to keep the irritation out of her voice. He didn't mean to blame her, but that was the effect; she didn't want to lose patience or fail to sympathise with him, but her frustration and her own sick anxiety for Maya drove her to it.

It wasn't healthy to be a doctor in such a close-knit society. Like most doctors she had often found it difficult to maintain a protective impartiality even when practising in a hospital on Earth. Now that the reality of their situation made distance impossible - she knew all her patients, and loved too many of them - sometimes she longed for a stream of anonymous faces.

Straightening up from the terminal and turning round, she found herself facing John.

"I heard Maya was worse," he said in a low voice.

Greatly distracted - feeling as though she had awoken from a lucid dream - Helena pushed back a fold of hair and nodded. "Much worse, John. She's comatose and her life signs are low. For a while - her heart-rate and her temperature were slipping lower and lower - and I couldn't do anything - but she's stabilised now."

John was watching her calmly, his trust and confidence unspoken and enveloping. "Can I see her?"

Helena took him to Maya's bedside, where Ed Spencer was attending her. Ed shook his head as Helena made a desultory check on the monitors, and John gazed stonily at Maya's white face.

"Where's Tony?" he asked suddenly.

"On duty... in Command Centre."

"What's he playing at? Why haven't you got security in here?"

"John, she hasn't got a temperature - in fact, the opposite - I don't think there's any danger."

"We can't assume that. I want two guards outside this ward at all times and I don't want you - " he glanced across at Ed, "or anyone else to be alone with her."

As if on cue, Tony came in, and John repeated his orders. Tony nodded without comment, and went to stand by the bed for a moment. He made no move to touch her; she had become, Helena thought, more like an object than a person, and there was obviously no point.

"There's no change?" Tony asked.

"She's stabilised, Tony, which can only be good."

"Helena... could she be seriously ill?"

Helena bit back the impulse to point out that she already was seriously ill, and tried to put aside her own guilt and fear. "She could be. At the moment, I just don't know."

Tony's hand hesitated towards Maya's face, and his fingers brushed against her cheek. "She's so cold."

"Her system seems to have gone into a state of sustained shock - it's not like anything I've ever seen in a human."

After another moment he turned away. "I'll put the security measures in place. I'm sorry, Helena, I should have done it before - I wasn't thinking properly. You'll - "

"I'll call you, of course I will."

With one more painful glance, he was gone.

When Helena returned to her office, she was startled to find Sarah Pulcher by the desk, evidently waiting for her.

"Sarah...?" she said in distraction.

"Dr Russell, could I have a word?"

A girl from the lab knocked on the door and came in with another report, which Helena took with a nod. "Sarah, I'm sorry, I'm busy."

"Yes - I know - but I need to have this sorted out as soon as possible - have you considered my proposition?"
"Your proposition?"

"To be Lady Macbeth. I talked to the Commander about it, and he said he wouldn't mind."

Helena sat at her desk and glanced through the print-out. One line of figures stopped her eyes immediately, and she called out, "Annabel!"

The biochemist returned. "Yes, Dr Russell."

"This reading here - H17 - could you do a repeat assay? No - ask Dr Spencer to get another blood sample, and check the level of H17 again."

"I repeated that assay twice, Dr Russell."

"Yes, I know, that's why I want to check again from a fresh sample. All these H substances are labels that I designated to neurotransmitters or hormones that were only recorded in minute quantities when we did the original blood analysis. From this, it looks as though the level of H17 is seriously elevated. We could be onto something, it's the first solid clue we have."

Annabel nodded and took the printout with her.

Helena refocused on Sarah. "Sarah, if I undertake to be in your play, you must understand that I could hold up the production badly. My time is scarcely ever my own and I could be called away at any point. Wouldn't you be better with someone more reliable?"

"No," replied Sarah steadily. "I want you to be Lady Macbeth. Nobody else will do. If you won't, then I'm not going to do Macbeth."

"Very well."

"What! You agree? You'll do it?"

"As long as you understand that I'll cause you no end of trouble."

"Oh that doesn't matter, that doesn't matter! I'll arrange all the rehearsals to fit round your schedule."

"It's not my schedule that's the problem, it's what happens on top of it."

"Oh of course, of course. Well! I'll see you later, will I?"

"It looks like it."

Sarah scuttled away, an eager squirrel.

Helena stood up to go to the lab to see how the tests were getting on, and she saw Lawson and Carmichael from the security division wandering awkwardly through the reception area; and Cara Conway pointing them smartly in the direction of Maya's ward.

Miss Pulcher was in a good mood that afternoon, and she said that Nicola could have any lesson she wanted.

"Teach me about TBA," said Nicola.

"About what?"

"Maybe it's not that, but Dr Russell was telling me about it. It's spirals that make people fall in love."

"Oh. I think you mean DNA."

"That's right! Tell me about it."

"It's not really my field, Nicola. I was never very strong on genetics. I think you ought to ask Dr Russell if you've any questions. Now be a good girl and write an essay or something. There are some things I want to do."

"What'll I write an essay about?"

"You remember those stories we read from that book Famous Kings and Queens? You liked them, didn't you? Why don't you try writing one of those about Moonbase Alpha?"

"Moonbase Alpha doesn't have a King or Queen."

"Er, no, but that's not quite what I mean. The stories are really essays called histories. Remember that most of them told the story of the country the kings and queens ruled in? We're like a little country all of our own here, aren't we?"

"The Commander is our king, then."

"No, no, he's our leader. Leaders don't have to be kings. In many countries on Earth, there were presidents instead of kings."

"Is the Commander a president, then?"

"Er, no, he's a Commander."

"What's the difference?"

"Ahm, basically that he was appointed leader before breakaway. Someone on Earth said he would be Commander of Moonbase Alpha, and paid him for being in charge of us. Nobody knew then that he would have to take care of Alpha for so long."

"Doesn't that mean he's a president now?"

"No, Nicola, I keep telling you. He wasn't elected by us. None of us chose him to be our leader. But we like him being our leader, because he's a good leader. That's all. Please write an essay."

Nicola had often noticed that talking about the Commander made Miss Pulcher edgy. Although this gave her a reason to do it, she couldn't work out why. Surely Miss Pulcher wasn't afraid of him? Nicola had been a bit afraid of him once, when she had been littler and had not known him very well. Not that she knew him very well now, but as she had grown older and spent more time with Dr Russell she had seen more of him as a person. That had erased away her fear of his persona. The stern, uncompromising image he projected wasn't really him. It was possible that Miss Pulcher had never seen the real Commander, and was still intimidated by him.

Grown-ups were very interesting.

Stowing the observation at the back of her mind, Nicola pulled out her slate and tuned her scriber.

'In 1999, the moon which we live on was blasted out of the orbit of Earth where we come from by an explosion in the nuclear waste dumps. Ever since then about three years ago we have been drifting fast through space. We are looking for a new planet to live on. We have passed lots but none of them have been any use. Dr Russell however says we must always always hope and when we find a new planet all of our own we will be allowed to have children except me because I'm not old enough.

'I like living on Moonbase Alpha because it is a very nice place to be a child. However I do not think it is a nice place to be a grown-up. I think grown-ups want other things and worry more and need a big new planet to think and worry on properly.'

Miss Pulcher was jumpy when Nicola was writing an essay. Perhaps the sight of a silent, industrious child made her nervous. "How are you getting on, Nicola?" she asked, just as Nicola was putting the final conscientious full stop to the second paragraph.

Silently Nicola handed the slate across. She wasn't sure the essay was very good so far. She seemed unable to get into her usual effortless flow. It was almost as if she had been thinking too much since yesterday and too many thoughts stopped the flow of words.

Miss Pulcher's face was 'working'. With a sinking feeling, Nicola waited.

"Nicola," she pronounced, "why is your punctuation so erratic?"

At tea-time, Lesley was frying soya steaks. The aroma assaulted Nicola as soon as she opened the door. Lesley was standing at the small hotplate, tossing the thin realistic slices about with a spatula. Nicola slid in, rather unsure of her reception; for she had not seen Lesley since that morning, and it was just conceivable that her foster mother was still in an unfavourable mood.

"Hi," said Nicola.

"Something on the table for you." said Lesley.

There was indeed a piece of paper on the dining table, folded over once, with Nicola's name written on the upper side. Much intrigued, Nicola sat on the bench by the table and opened the letter.

'Dear Nicola. I know you'll want to know how Maya is, so I shall leave this letter for you. The truth is, Nicola, Maya is not well at all and though she'd be glad to see you if she were awake, she wouldn't even know you were there if you came to visit her. No-one is being allowed to see her while we try to find out what's wrong with her, so I hope you'll understand if I ask you not to come to Medical Centre for the time being.

'We don't know what's wrong with her yet because Maya's body has a different way of working than ours, and I was only taught how to cure humans - not Psychons! But don't worry. I'm sure she'll be better soon.

'Don't get into too much mischief. I'll see you soon. Love, Dr Russell.'

Nicola was overjoyed. No-one had ever given her a letter before. Any disappointment she felt at not being allowed to see Maya was swamped out by the special magic loveliness of Dr Russell, one of the busiest people on Alpha, having taken time to write this for her.

"What is it?" asked Lesley.

Nicola held it out. Lesley wiped her hands on the dishcloth and took it. Nicola feared for her treasure's safety as Lesley held it open in one hand and served the dinner with the other.

"Hm," she said, putting a plate in front of Nicola. "Why did Dr Russell write you a letter? Dr Russell's a very busy lady."

"I know, but she thinks about me. She wanted to tell me how Maya was."

"She wanted to keep you out of her hair, you mean."

"She didn't!" said Nicola, deeply mortified.

"Of course she did. That's why she wrote that letter."

"She didn't!"

"Oh, for God's sake don't start bubbling. Come on, tell me what you've been up to today. What's wrong with Maya anyway?"

"Don't know," Nicola mumbled, pushing the steak around the plate with her fork.

"Oh, come on, tell me. I'm interested."

"I don't know! Dr Russell doesn't know, so how'm I supposed to know?"

"Eat your soya, stop playing with it. You must know something about what happened."

"First she was sick and had tummy ache, and then when I went to see her this morning she had a coma. She was asleep and didn't wake up even though we were all there talking loudly. Dr Russell even told Tony to go away."

"Tony Verdeschi?"

"Yes. He was upset because he thought it was his beer that had made Maya ill, but then Dr Russell said it wasn't. Anyway, I had some and it didn't make me sick."

"You had some of Tony Verdeschi's poison brew?"

"It was only a titchy bit. Anyway, it isn't poison. Haven't you ever tried it?"

"Not likely, I've never had the offer. You don't seem to realise that these people you're so fond of are the elite of this wretched place. I'm just an engineer, and a pretty lowly one. I can't just go and chat to people like Dr Russell and Tony Verdeschi."

"Why don't you? I do, and you're a grown-up."

"And you're a kid. That's why you get away with it. You work on the feelings of ageing childless spinsters like Dr Russell."

"She's not! She's not ageing! She's pretty!"

"Oh, I know she is, but she's not getting any younger and she knows it." Lesley sighed. "But on the other hand it's difficult not to be jealous of her. There she is, chief medical officer, good looks, second in command in effect, more or less married to the Commander - she's got everything. What have I got?"

A dramatic pause followed this question, and Nicola wondered if Lesley wanted an answer. So she ventured, "Me."

Lesley stared at her in exasperation and said, "Drink your coffee before it goes cold."

In bed that night, Nicola smoothed the letter on the pillow and read it through over and over. Dr Russell wrote in a lovely sloping hand, joining up every letter neatly. Nicola could imagine her warm, kind voice with its gentle American inflection in every curve of the handwriting. Now she had this voice written down forever and ever, until she was old.

She folded it and tied it with a little bit of ribbon that had once belonged to her mother, and which had probably been bought on Earth. Then she laid it at the very back of the top drawer of her chest of drawers, hidden underneath a pile of clean pants.

Scrambling back under the covers, she wondered if Maya was so ill that she would die. It was an unreal thought, and it slid from her mind as she drifted into sleep.

It was late at night when John came off duty, but Helena had forgotten time. She and her team had spent all afternoon taking various fluids from Maya's cold, still body, analysing them in the lab, and running computer models alongside sheer, desperate human intuition. They had also been over the records of Maya's recent activities, and Helena got a shock when she realised that she had essentially forgotten about the exploratory mission, three weeks ago, to a half-dead planet where Maya, Sharmeen Williams and Eric Jenkins had all been exposed to the spores of a fungus they had found growing there. At the time the xenobiology lab had pronounced the spores harmless, and her own examination had revealed no ill-effects, but all three members of the team had either inhaled or ingested them. Hurriedly, she had called Williams and Jenkins to Medical Centre for another check-up - which proved negative - and got a copy of the full report on the spores.

She was still, she realised, scrabbling at the hope there was some external cause for Maya's condition. Otherwise, she was trying to discover, in a few hours and with one single comatose subject, what it had taken mankind hundreds of years and millions of deaths to piece together.

She was alone in the lab when John looked in. Ed Spencer had gone off duty at last, and so had most of the laboratory staff; she couldn't blame them, after a sixteen hour shift.

"Are you coming home?" he asked, after watching her for a moment.

She shook her head. "I can't let up, John. I don't know how long she's got."

"Are you making any progress?"


"You said you'd keep me informed."

"I know. I'm sorry. I just - to be honest I didn't want to call Commander Centre because I didn't want to talk to Tony." She sighed, and sat down at the bench. Her feet were aching, she realised, swollen in her shoes. She kicked them off.

John joined her at the bench and looked at her gravely, and lifted a lock of hair from her eyes. "Progress," he said, gently.

"Apart from the theory that the fungoid spores on planet V20 have had a delayed effect on her - a theory supported by no evidence at all, only my own hopes - the only definite biochemical indication we have is a greatly elevated level of the substance H17 in her blood."

"What's H17?"

"I don't know. When I did a complete record of Maya's biochemistry I found, as I'd expect, a number of substances that were obviously her neurotransmitters and hormones. None of them were identical to our own, though some of them were close enough for me to guess at a function. The higher numbers - fifteen through twenty-two - those were the ones that were only present in trace quantities. H17 is probably a hormone, not a neurotransmitter - I mean, if it were, the amount of it in her bloodstream now would be untenable - I wouldn't believe it."

"A hormone? Do you mean there could be something wrong with her - " He paused, evidently deciding how to phrase it delicately. "Well, as a woman?"

"No, no. Lay people tend to think hormones have to do with sex but in fact they're the biochemical messengers that regulate all sorts of processes in the body. Insulin, which diabetics can't produce, that's a hormone. So is adrenaline, which causes the flight or fight reflex. In fact, Maya's state at the moment is like the opposite of that - the H17 may well be suppressing her heart-rate and lowering her body thermostat - and if the level continues to increase, obviously that's going to be very serious."

"And you don't know what's causing it?"

"The part of her brain, or the organ in her body, which produces H17 has gone into overdrive. But I don't know what that is, where it is, or how to treat it." Articulating this was causing panic to rise from her diaphragm in a sickly warm wave, and she breathed slowly to control it. "John, what I'm trying to do is impossible. Human medical knowledge is based on centuries of experience, thousands upon thousands of experiments, trials, post-mortems, dead-ends and inspirations but most important of all comparisons. I have no other Psychon to use as a model, except Maya in her healthy state. If I had another Psychon I could inject him with an extract of H17 and see what happened, for instance. Just one more subject would increase my chances of finding out what's wrong with Maya exponentially. But no disease on Earth was conquered until doctors had watched people dying of it for years."

John put a hand on her shoulder. "The implications of this hadn't even occurred to me."

"It's been at the back of my mind ever since her last illness," said Helena, her voice still betraying her. "The only thing that keeps Maya safe is the fact that she is - or was - a healthy young woman, at the time of life when she's got a good chance of not suffering from any serious illness. But if she caught something from one of us that her body reacted to differently - that might have been what happened to her last time - or if anything at all were to go wrong with her, I couldn't cure it, John. My particular nightmare - what if she ever needed major surgery, or was wounded and lost a lot of blood? I couldn't replace it. I've had no success in freeze-drying her blood, the red cells just rupture. All I've got is pints of her plasma, but that wouldn't save her in a real emergency. We could watch her bleed to death."

"Hey," said John gently. "Come on now, that's not happening."

"No, what's happening could be worse."

He wrapped her up against him and she closed her eyes, unable to enjoy the contact; every nerve in her body felt raw. She felt her fists clenched against his shoulders and consciously unfurled them.

She reacted slowly to a step and the sound of the door opening, and came out from the embrace. It was Bob Mathias, who looked momentarily embarrassed. "Sorry," he said, awkwardly.

"Oh - no - Bob."

"It's just that I thought you ought to see this."

"What is it?"

"Something that came up when they ran tests to find out whether any of those spores could still be in her system. They've just come through with a DNA analysis."

"They're still working on it down there?"

"Shermeen Williams has spent all evening on it. She's a good kid."


"She also said that since she'd breathed in the stuff herself she wanted to know if it had mutated into anything nasty."

"That's understandable." Helena was skimming over the print-out, her tired senses unable to extract immediate meaning. John was reading over her shoulder, frowning, clearly uncomprehending.

"She was looking for the distinctive RNA marker of the spores, and she didn't find it - well, not exactly that. But there is this." He placed a finger on one of the long, broken-up lines of genetic code.

A chill settled around Helena's stomach, and crept upwards like a physical thing. "It's not Maya's, is it?"

"No. I just ran another check. That is definitely foreign genetic material."

"Oh God, it's a virus."

"It doesn't really look like a virus. Though of course that's not my field - "

Helena fingered the edge of the report over and over, trying to think in several directions. "First thing in the morning, we'll get Alex Milburn to analyse this - he's a virologist, or the nearest we've got. Maybe this is the solution, maybe the H17 is part of her auto-immune system, and it's fighting this invasion."

"By lowering her temperature? When she was ill before, she had a fever, like we would."

"I know, I know. Or this could be a harmless parasite that lives in her body anyway. Was this DNA extracted from single cells?"


"How is she otherwise?"

"The same."

Helena went through to the ward to take one further, pointless look at her patient. Maya's circulation was so poor now that she was concerned for extremities; as she lifted her hand she noticed that her fingers were becoming purple-tinged and mottled, and her complexion had gone from white to grey.

"I might have to put her on life support soon," she said to John. "But her heart just needs to beat faster. I don't think her brain is in danger of becoming oxygen-starved - not yet, anyway, her brainwave pattern is being monitored constantly - but Bob, we need to pay attention to her hands and feet. Get a nurse to massage them every half hour. It wouldn't be good if her toes turned gangrenous. Keep testing for H17, and call me if she takes a downturn."

"You're coming to bed, then?" said John.

"I may as well get a few hours sleep."

Even warmed against John's peaceful body, Helena had difficulty in relaxing enough to let her mind go. Genetic spirals coiled and uncoiled and snaked themselves round Maya's cold purple fingers, as she hovered between sleeping and waking. Eventually she sank deeper into more painful images.

It was more brilliantly clear than a waking thought because there was no consciousness of absurdity. Maya was turning towards her, and Helena noted that she was wearing the shining blue party dress she had found for a dance a few weeks ago. She was alive and healthy and looked happy, her eyes clear. She smiled, and started to speak. And then, with a sickening wet exploding noise, the front of her dress burst outwards with blood and flesh and a mass of tentacles erupted from her abdomen.

Helena woke with a gasp, immediately aware of John stirring and blinking at her.

"Helena? What is it?"

She scrabbled for the light. "John - John, it's Maya. We were looking for something microscopic, microbial - or something chemical - a poison - but what if those spores - what if she has something growing inside her?" Even now she was awake, it didn't seem as ridiculous as it sounded.

"What do you mean?"

"You remember the film Alien, when the alien implants itself as a seed and grows rapidly and erupts from the victim's body - "

"Helena, is that likely?"

"Something's poisoning her, John. That was my first impression and that's still what I think, even though we didn't find a poison in her system. Her first symptoms were gastric, acute, and now her body's shutting down. I don't believe that's an infection, if it were, she'd have a fever as her auto-immune system went into action - in that respect, she's the same as we are. She didn't just breathe in those spores, she ingested them too. That foreign DNA - there could be some alien parasite attached to her intestine - or somewhere - draining her life away."

As she spoke she pulled on her clothes. John watched her, bemused and sceptical.

"I haven't weighed her but my guess would be that if I had, I'd find that she'd lost weight over the past two weeks."

"Helena, don't you think this theory is just a bit - lurid?"

"What do you expect me to do? Lie there sleeping while Maya dies?"

"Of course I don't. But I wonder if your judgement is working at this time of night, after an eighteen-hour day."

"Okay, I had a nightmare," said Helena, catching her voice. "But I think it could have given me an insight. I'm going to do a complete set of tissue scans and X-rays right now to find out if there's anything I can actually see. Then, if there is, we can think about operating."

And that, she though, was what she had wanted to avoid from the start.

When she got to the Medical Centre and looked at Maya, the sense of the dream faded further and she found some difficulty in explaining her idea to Bob without sounding and feeling foolish. It was one thing to pour out a wild theory to John, who was not a doctor and with whom she could be emotionally naked; it was different to talk in the surroundings of Medical Centre to her colleague and subordinate.

She could see the doubt, mixed with respect, in his eyes. "Like Alien?" he said, in a murmur. They were speaking in low voices to avoid being overheard by the two security guards at the door, who appeared to be ignoring them but were almost certainly trying to listen. Helena didn't want anything reported back to their commanding officer.

"Well, probably not like Alien - I don't really expect it to burst out of her stomach over dinner - but there's no reason why those spores couldn't have been the seeds of an alien parasite that lives in the bodies of animals."

"Except," he said slowly. "that there weren't any animals on V20, it was a dead rock aside from the fungi and a few algae."

"I know." She was massaging Maya's hands herself, trying to ease the blood back into the fingers. "I want you and Jenny to take tissue scans of her chest and abdomen, and then X-rays - as many as it takes to cover the whole area. If we don't find anything we'll move onto the limbs and then, if we have to, the brain. But I don't think it's in her limbs, or we'd probably see an obtrusion. I'm going to go back to the lab and carry on from where I should never have left off. We haven't got time to wait for Alex Milburn to wake up."

"Her condition does seem stable, Helena, her respiratory rate hasn't dropped since you left - at least she's still breathing on her own."

"Yes. How about the H17?"

"I haven't tested for it in the past three hours. There's nobody to take over."

"I'll take a sample to the lab now."

The H17 assay took thirty-five minutes. Nearly everything to do with testing Maya was slow, because all the settings had to be calibrated manually. Helena pulled up some texts on parasitic infection in humans, hoping to find an analogous condition while the centrifuge whirled, but the slightly-too-warm temperature in the lab, and the hypnotic hum of the machinery in the empty room, lulled her to drowsiness.

She jerked awake at the sound of a step, her mind coming back together slowly. Bob was standing by the bench.

The curious expression on his face made her snap back to full consciousness. "Are you done?" she asked fearfully.

"We got halfway. You were right in a way. There's your alien organism."

He placed the print-out on the bench in front of her. She stared at it dully for several seconds before she understood, and then she swore out loud.


When Helena arrived at Medical Centre early next morning, after half a night of lying awake listening to John sleeping and perhaps an hour of queasy semi-slumber, she found Tony already there. He was hovering at Maya's bedside, wearing the same haunted, reluctant expression, watching while one of the nurses massaged her hand with brisk, practised movements.

The security guards shuffled aside, bored and perhaps embarrassed, as Helena entered. She shut the door on them and met Tony's eyes.

"Helena," he said. "Is she - is her brain still working?"

"Yes, Tony. Don't worry about that."

"It's just that I remembered - last night, while I was thinking about it - that she once said to me that it was something she dreaded - being alive but not alive - a living husk - she'd seen it happen to someone she knew or something - she said she never wanted to be like that. So if she's not going to come out of this - I know she'd want to die."

"She's not going to die. She'll be all right, I promise."

He shot her a look of quick desperation. "How can you promise?"

"Because I've found out what the trouble is."

"You have? That's wonderful!"

"Could you wait in my office, please? I want to talk to you."

She knew that the gravity of her voice and look had imparted something sinister to him, and she watched him go with anxiety. As quickly as she could, with minimal conversation with the nurse, she repeated the checks she had made the night before. Nothing had changed.

Tony was waiting in her office, as she had instructed. He looked despondent, and was obviously braced for the worst. When Helena came in her winced, looked at her quickly, then looked at the Escher print on the wall.

In an attempt to create a better atmosphere, Helena moved swiftly behind her desk and invited him to sit down. He did so with an air of reluctance. Before Helena could begin the little speech she had been composing in her head all night, he broke the silence abruptly. "All right. There was something you didn't want to talk about in front of the nurse and the guards. Tell me."

"Give it to me straight, doctor?" said Helena, smiling a little.

She got no smile in return. Tony was desperately serious. "Do you know what's wrong with her?"

"Yes, I do."

"And can you cure it?"

"Yes... I can."


"But," Helena sighed. "You're not going to like it."

"I'm not going to like it? What's it got to do with me?"

"She's pregnant, Tony."

She put it as plainly as possible, because she knew that however she announced it the effect would be the same. Tony stared at her, genuinely speechless for a moment. Helena looked away, unable to continue with any of the soothing expostulations she had planned; as usual she was too close to the people involved to adopt a professionally objective persona. She twisted her ring and waiting for him to say something.

It was a flat, deadened voice. "Are you sure?"

She nodded. "We took the long way round on the diagnosis but that's only because I didn't recognise Maya's hormone H17 as the Psychon equivalent of human gonadatropin. Yesterday afternoon we knew she had alien DNA in her and we thought it was a virus or bacterial infection. Last night I had an idea that it might be a parasite, so we took tissue scans looking for it, and we developed... this." She handed it to Tony. It was a slide of the sonic scan she had taken after Bob first obtained a blurred image, and it showed, much more clearly than the original, the developing embryo. "It's reasonably far advanced," she added softly. "I would say close to twelve weeks gestation. It has as strong heartbeat."

Tony looked at the slide with a numb, bewildered expression, and put it down on the desk slowly. He shook his head. "And that... that's what's making her ill?"

"I don't think there can be any doubt about it. Either her condition is a serious complication of Psychon pregnancy, or her body's reacting against the... alien organism - I'm sorry, Tony."

"I thought you gave everyone the pill."

"I do - but Maya's physiology, though analogous, is biochemically different from ours. In her case taking human progestogen has obviously not had the effect of suppressing ovulation, which is how oral contraceptives work. There's no reason why it should."

"Great. Bloody marvellous." His temper was beginning to rise.

Desperately contrite, Helena said, "Well, what could I do? I discussed it with her when she first came to us and she was dismissive, in fact uninterested - she said she knew nothing about contraception, and couldn't see that she would need it anyway. She took the pills because I asked her to, but I couldn't get her to talk about it again even once I knew - things had changed in that respect. At the back of my mind I just assumed that she was genetically incompatible with humans, and that conception would never occur."

"Well, it did," said Tony shortly. "And now she's at death's door."

"I wouldn't say that."

"But you can help her."

"Well, yes."

Tony leaned forward eagerly.

"Look, Tony," said Helena with a sigh. "Maya is not going to be able to carry this baby to term. That's obvious. Her heart-rate and respiratory rate have sunk dangerously low - you've seen that she's losing circulation in her extremities now. The best - the only - thing to do is to terminate the pregnancy now."

"An abortion? You're not serious?"

"Of course I am. It's the only course open to me."

"Without even trying to work something?"

"You mean try to sustain the pregnancy? No, that just isn't an option, Tony. Think rationally. If her life signs sink any lower I will have to put her on artificial ventilation. Do you want to see her like that for six months? But in my judgement she'll die before that anyway."

"You don't know that."

"No, I don't, but the prognosis isn't cheerful. I don't know why the pregnancy is affecting her like this but if it's anything like the human condition eclampsia then the outcome could be fatal."

"And you're telling me you've got all the wonders of modern medicine out there and you can't do anything?"

"I can perform a safe abortion," said Helena firmly.

He stood up and paced. "Not without her consent you can't, and she's not about to give it to you, is she."

"I know. That's why I want to ask you to give it on her behalf."

"Me? Look, if Maya was conscious she would never agree to have an abortion - "

"If she knew her own life was at risk, of course she would."

"Well, you're wrong. And how did it get there in the first place, how did it survive for twelve weeks, if it wasn't possible for her to have it? You've got to try and help her, Helena. Give her human hormones or something."

Hopelessly, Helena continued to shake her head.

Tony was nearly shouting now. "Or is it really that you can't bear for us to break the rules? No kids on Moonbase Alpha? Would you get rid of Nicola Brown if you could do it without anyone noticing?"

"Tony! Tony, for heaven's sake calm down. You're not being rational."

"Well, maybe I'm not. Or maybe I'm a damn sight more rational than you are. What you're telling me is that Maya will never be able to have children."

"I don't know, I don't know."

"Don't avoid the issue. Do you think it would be any easier on this hypothetical planet of ours than it would be up here in this technological cocoon? We'd lose a lot of this fancy equipment if we colonised a planet, wouldn't we? Helena. Please. Its heartbeat is strong, you said. Isn't that hopeful? Surely she has more chance of having a baby here than anywhere."

"If I thought there was a chance - "

"Find one."

"I can't risk her life, Tony! I can't."

He stared at the ground for a moment, as if calming down, then faced her. "I do not consent to the operation, Helena. I don't know if I can stop you but, if it comes to it, I'll try."

Helena shook her head slowly, afraid to speak in case the tears broke through.

The door opened and John came in. He hadn't knocked. Helena felt a moment's irritation; not that she ever knocked to enter his office, but he had chosen an awkward moment to walk in unannounced. She saw him flicker his eyes over their respective attitudes - Tony, tense as a violin string, pale and agitated, and herself, forcibly composed - and notice at once that something serious was afoot.

She went to him. "John... I must..."

"I've said all I need to say," said Tony suddenly. "I'm going to see Maya."

"Yes," said Helena. She watched him leave with a dull twinge of pain. She was certain that if she could convince Tony of the immediate and great danger to Maya he would change his mind, but wrapped up in his religious ethics and personal longings, he was oblivious to reality as she saw it. Their interview had left her feeling wrung-out and empty, even though he seemed to have done most of the talking.

"Well?" said John, almost brusquely.

"I'm not really sure I should tell you, John. It's a matter of patient confidentiality."

"Weren't you discussing it with Tony just now?" he said, with just a touch of annoyance in his voice.

"Yes, but - " She looked at him and smiled, despite herself.

"You're wearing your frosty look, Dr Russell," he informed her solemnly, pressing her hand to his lips. "Unfreeze."

"John, this is serious. How would you feel if I couldn't have children?"

"I - disappointed, I suppose."

"Is that all?"

"What else could I feel? As long as I've got you... that's enough for me. What's brought this on?"

An overwhelming need to confide in him and ask his advice overcame Helena's professional scruples, which in the circumstances were artificial. It was a command issue anyway. "Maya's condition seems to be an adverse reaction to pregnancy."

"To pregnancy?"

"Apparently human oral contraceptives didn't work for her."

"My God."

"And either her body's rejecting the alien tissue, or what's happening to her is a complication of pregnancy for her species. I don't know which."

"Can you find out?"

"I don't think I can, without asking her - and she may not know. Maya's surprisingly ignorant about the way her own body works, John, and she's reluctant - coy, even - to talk about it. I got the impression there wasn't the same kind of awareness in Psychon society that there is in ours about gynaecological health. When she came here she knew that sex caused babies but that was about it - she wasn't aware of the specifics, she knew nothing about ovulation, conception, implantation. She just said she was a physicist, not a biologist. Anyway, we're not going to get any explanation from her at the moment."


"My brutal best guess is that she can't sustain the pregnancy - for whatever reason - and the only thing to do is to terminate it right now. Tony hit the roof when I told him."

John frowned. "Because he's a Catholic?"

"Oh, among other things. Some of what he said was unnervingly reasonable. He's afraid that Maya won't be able to have children at all, and he thinks she's got a better chance on Alpha than on some colony. And he seems certain that Maya wouldn't consent to an abortion if she were able to."

"But since she isn't, you can go ahead."

Helena hesitated. "In these situations, if the next of kin refuses consent - "

"But Tony's not her next of kin."

"The baby's his."

"Helena, we can't afford to be sentimental."

"Sentimentality doesn't come into it, you can't just brush huge ethical concerns under the carpet."

"I think you can, if someone's life is at stake."

"Well, you've never had to make decisions like that. I have." She turned away, faintly distressed, and began to file away the scan pictures. She suddenly felt disinclined to talk to John.

"Helena," he said.

She looked over her shoulder.

"Let's not fall out about it," he suggested.

She smiled and went back to her work.

Nicola woke with a start at quarter to six. She blinked at the bright digits on the bedside clock before the extreme earliness of the hour and the memory of a bitter dream occurred to her.

She had no wish to go back to sleep. In fact, she was irritated by an urgent energy. She slipped out of bed and dressed very quickly, without pausing to wash or brush her teeth. Pushing open the door to the other room very carefully, she was met by warm darkness and a gentle continuous breathing. Lesley was asleep.

She padded into the living room and put the kettle on as quietly as she could, and climbed up on a chair to get the bowl of cereal from the cupboard. The cupboard above the bench was full of storage bowls with plastic seal-lids, identical in design. Nicola knew which held what because she had made little labels out of the adhesive film they used in the radiation division. Lesley, who worked there, had brought her a small portion of the thin, intensely black sheeting they used to wrap round things they wanted to be non-reflective, and Nicola had fashioned and painstakingly cut out tiny black lettering to label the containers. Sugar, coffee, bran, salt, biscuits, beans, dried soya chunks, soya flour, cooking spices. The range of foodstuffs available on Alpha was impressive in the circumstances, and constantly being augmented by the creative people in hydroponics. Nicola had often heard the grown-ups lamenting the lost wonders of Earth food, but she had no concrete memory of anything different from Alphan fare a nd she was quite happy.

Silently, she poured the milk until it was precariously level with the edge of the plate. Miss Pulcher said that on Earth, milk came from cows. Dr Russell said it was the fluid which all mammals made in their bodies to feed their young. Nicola thought that was disgusting. She was sure she would never be able to drink Earth milk, though she reflected that she probably had when she had lived on Earth.

She poked her spoon into the bowl of cereal flakes, and the milk splashed over the edge.

"What are you playing at?"

Lesley's irritated voice heralded her appearance in the bedroom door, knotting her dressing gown around her.

"Getting breakfast," said Nicola.

"What are you doing up at this hour? Don't you ever sleep? Oh look, you're making a mess already. God! At this time of the morning!" She took a cloth from the sink and snatched up the cereal to wipe the table. The bowl overflowed, and Lesley gave an exclamation. "There's far too much milk in this bowl! For God's sake, haven't you got any sense? This stuff's rationed. Everything in this pit's rationed. It's not worth eating, but you can never get enough of it. So don't splash it around as if it came out of a tap."

"Go back to bed, Lesley," said Nicola calmly.


"You're in a bad mood."

"Too right I'm in a bad mood. I've got every reason to be in a bad mood. Wasting my life on this rock. I didn't do anything to deserve this. I'm sick of being fatalistic. I just want to know why me. What did I do?"

"Don't you like living on Moonbase Alpha?" Nicola asked innocently, and rather unnecessarily.

Lesley had sat down by the table. Her irritation had sunk into listless despondency. The look she flashed Nicola had a hint of murder in it. "Don't you dare say how much you enjoy it, or I'll throttle you."

Nicola took a spoonful of cereal. "I wasn't," she said, her mouth full. "I asked if you did. Maybe you've got green sickness. Dr Russell says that people get that."

"If you start going on about Dr Russell, I really will throttle you!" Lesley burst out with this, then dissolved into tears.

Nicola thought that if she had been a good loving child, like those in The Railway Children, she would have put her arms round Lesley's neck and comforted her. But she got up immediately and left, frightened. She did not want to see Lesley cry.

Instead, she raced along the corridors as fast as her small legs could carry her to Medical Centre. It was only when she entered the brightly-lit reception area that she remembered what Dr Russell had said, that she wasn't to come here.

There were two security guards standing outside the door to the ward where Maya was. Suddenly shy, Nicola hung back. As she watched, Nurse Fairbanks came out carrying a tray of instruments and went through another door. Nicola tripped across the floor and looked up at one of the guards, whose name she knew was Mr Barrie.

"Nicola," he said pleasantly. "You're up and about early."

"Yes. Can I see Maya quickly?"

"Well, that's not up to me, Nicola. We're just here in case anything happens. You should ask one of the doctors."

"Yes, but I only want to be a little minute." She edge past him to touch the door panel.

"Hey, just a moment, Mr Verdeschi's with her."

"Oh, that's all right," said Nicola, slipping through.

She stopped, chilled motionless. Tony was sitting by the bed, leaning over Maya, his face buried in both hands.

Jarred, appalled, Nicola whirled away and ran out, ignoring Mr Barrie who called to her, and Dr Russell who tried to catch hold of her as she fled through the reception area.

Dr Russell couldn't run, none of the grown-ups could run like she could, with high free strides. Grown-ups, especially ladies, just sort of tottered. Even though she didn't look back to see if anyone was following, Nicola was soon confident that she had lost any desultory pursuit.

She slowed down and found a place to stop, at the end of a silent corridor near a never-used airlock. There, she slid down the wall and felt salty, prickling tears tremble up her head and dissolve in her throat. She wanted to go to someone but she had run out of adults. Lesley was in her quarters crying, Dr Russell was busy and worried, Maya was ill and Tony was - what she wanted the comfort for.

She twisted her hair and bit at her lip, trying to make the small physical pain blot out the thinking about it.


Tony heard a noise and looked up. He caught just a flash of what could only be Nicola running away, and through the open door he saw Barrie take a few steps to follow her.

Mick Lawson, however, met his eyes with an uneasy but curious expression before the door slid shut again automatically.

He took a long breath, fighting against the seasick feeling in his head that made everything around him seem to sway queasily whenever he opened his eyes. He blinked until he could see clearly again, and steadied himself with a hand on the bedpost until the dizziness went away. He was beginning to assimilate the shock, but that didn't calm the panic that was still clouding his brain.

For the first time he understood the feelings that had driven his friend Patrick Osgood to snatch his wife from here. His immediate urge was to tear the drips and wires from Maya's arms and head and chest, gather her up, and take her to where no-one would find her. Or even just back to his quarters where he could keep her safe; after all, he was in command of twenty-six armed security guards.

Unfortunately, he thought grimly, he was not going mad like Patrick had been. He knew he would do no such thing.

"Maya," he said, in a low voice. "Come on, sweetheart, stop this. Wake up and talk to me."

Absurdly, he was angry with her too for lying there and leaving it all to him. The guilt and terrible sense of responsibility would be less if she would open her eyes and laugh at him.

The door opened again, and John came in. He looked grave and perhaps embarrassed, for Tony could see immediately that he knew.

He moved to the other side of the bed, and gazed at Maya for a moment. "Tony," he said quietly, "Helena told me what the situation is."

Tony looked aside. He resented that, and he was angry enough with her as it was.

"I know you're in a difficult position, but you need to put those feelings aside for Maya's sake. You've got to let Helena do whatever needs to be done to make her well again."

Tony shook his head. "I can't, John. There's no way."

"Fine. You're going to let her lie there, slipping away?"

"Who the hell are you to talk to me like this?"

"I'm Maya's friend. You're not the only person in her life - if she dies you won't be the only one who is affected."

"She's not dying."

"Look at her, Tony!"

"Yeah. She's been like this since yesterday, she hasn't got any worse. Come on, Helena doesn't know what's wrong with her - for all we know she could come round any moment and be fine again. Maybe - maybe this is just some kind of Psychon version of morning sickness. Killing the baby won't cure her. It's the last thing she'd want us to do."

"It's not a baby, it's just a cluster of cells."

"I saw the pictures. It's a baby."

"Okay. I accept that. It's a sad situation, but these things happen sometimes, Tony. Maya will understand."

"I don't want to discuss it any more."

"I want you to - "

"I said I don't want to talk about it!" Tony shouted, his temper suddenly flaring through him in a hot surge.

John stood his ground, his mouth set, his eyes hardening.

"Look, John," said Tony, holding onto the anger. It felt better than doubt and misery. "You're Commander and you know that I'm loyal to you, but this is not a command issue. It involves me and Maya and you have no right to interfere."

"Maya's an orphan. Her father asked me to look after her. As far as I'm concerned, I do have the right to be involved."

Tony had to sit down again, not trusting his balance as a new wave of giddiness overcame him. He became aware that their argument had snapped off, from heated voices that must have been audible outside the door to stinging silence.

Without saying anything more, John turned on his heel and left.

When the door was shut, Tony closed his eyes again, clasped her icy hand, and began to pray fervently. It seemed a long time since he had done so and meant it seriously.

The lesson that morning would have been very interesting if only Nicola had been happier. She had slunk around the furthest fringes of Alpha, avoiding adults, swinging moodily round doorways, unable to go home; killing time until it was half past eight and she could go to the classroom for her lesson. Today Miss Pulcher was telling her the story of Macbeth, for she was about to start rehearsals today and Nicola was to have a part in the play.

"Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers that ever lived, Nicola," Miss Pulcher said, writing the name on the blackboard in her large round hand. "We should consider ourselves very lucky to speak English, because we can read Shakespeare in the original. The original language, that is. But he wrote in funny old-fashioned English which might be a bit difficult for you to understand."

"Why?" asked Nicola starkly.

"Well, because he uses lots of words that aren't used today. Shakespeare's English is archaic. That means old - A-R-C-H-A-I-C. That's a difficult one to spell, isn't it?"

"Then why don't you just say old?" said Nicola, scathing.

"Well, because the English language is so rich. You must learn how to use synonyms. What's a synonym?"

"A word that means the same as another word."

"Yes - er - almost, but the fascinating thing about synonyms in English is that they often have very slightly different shades of meaning... however. You'll learn about that when you're older. Now why don't you write the story of Macbeth like I've just told you, then when we come to start reading the lines at the rehearsal this afternoon you'll be able to understand it better. Good girl."

"Miss Pulcher - "

"Yes, Nicola." Miss Pulcher was settling down to some paperwork.

"Can I write what I think about it too?"

"No, just - oh, well, yes, if you want to, but I think you're a bit young to be engaging in literary criticism. Write the story first and then write down what you like and don't like about it."

While writing the essay, Nicola managed to submerge the memory of the morning's events. And when she was finished, she was proud of it. Miss Pulcher made her usual faces, but Nicola didn't care.

'Macbeth is a play about a man called Macbeth who wanted to be King of Scotland where I come from on Earth. He got to be king by killing the old king but he made everybody hate him because of that and in the end he was killed by Macduff. At the start Macbeth didn't really want to kill the king, but his wife Lady Macbeth who wanted to be queen persuaded him to do it. Macbeth also met three witches who said he would be king and he believed them. One day the king came to Macbeth's house and Lady Macbeth made him kill the king when he was asleep with a dagger. After this Macbeth became king because he was second in command. However because he is nasty and kills Lady Macduff and family and because everyone suspects him of killing the king Macbeth is not a good Commander and nobody respects him. Lady Macbeth goes mad and starts sleepwalking and trying to wash her hands in her sleep. Macduff and all the other command officers plan to kill him and after Lady Macbeth has died Macbeth is killed by Macduff in a duel - M acbeth thought he couldn't be killed because the witches told him that no man of woman born would kill him but it turned out that Macduff had been delivered by caesarean and not born at all. Macbeth is killed and Scotland is free again.

'This is a very good story I think because it is very realistic. People really do things like that. Lady Macbeth is exactly like Dr Russell because she has influence over her husband and uses her feminine guile to make him kill the king. Commander Koenig is like our king except that he has never killed anyone to be Commander like Macbeth did.'

"Well, it's a start," said Miss Pulcher. "Don't forget you've to be in the theatre by one o'clock sharp."

"Miss Pulcher, will Dr Russell be there?"

"Er - yes, she's supposed to be. We're doing a read-through."

But when Nicola skipped eagerly to the rehearsal room after lunch, and sat on the edge of one of the hard chairs - feeling important amidst the other actors - it soon became clear that there was no Dr Russell. She could see Miss Pulcher glancing more and more frequently at her watch, and getting more nervous.

"Couldn't you call Dr Russell on the comlock?" Nicola asked eventually, making several people round about stop talking and look at her.

Miss Pulcher appeared flustered. "No, no, Nicola, I'm sure she's got a perfectly good reason - who am I to ask her to - I do wish though - oh, come on, everyone, I think we'd better make a start. I'll read in Lady Macbeth."

Nicola got bored through the first acts of the play. She was dismayed to discover that Miss Pulcher was right and she didn't really understand a word anyone was saying, though the powerful rhythm of the words was like listening to spoken music. Her bit wasn't for ages. During a five-minute break between acts three and four, she found herself listening to a conversation between Gordon Briar, who was playing the title role, and Gillian Merle, who was to be her stage mother. She caught the words Maya and Dr Russell, and edged closer with her cup of orange juice.

"I don't know how true that is," Gordon was saying, "but Mick was sure it was something along those lines."

"My God, you never know what goes on, do you?"

"But don't you? I thought you still saw something of him."

"No, not for months, not since Maya dropped out of the sky." Gillian sucked at her coffee, and shook her head. "No wonder Dr Russell hasn't turned up then, I mean that is serious. To be honest, I don't even feel at the moment that I can go to Tony and ask him if it's true. There's just that kind of distance between us now and anyway, what could I do?"

"Best to keep out of it," said Gordon. "I told Mick I thought he shouldn't be spreading things like that unless he was sure of his facts. I told you because, well, I thought you might have inside knowledge."

"Not me. You're about a year behind the times."

Suddenly Nicola was caught by Gillian's eyes, and she looked guilty. She knew now why she had wanted Dr Russell to be there so much; it would have meant that there was nothing too much wrong.

Helena lifted her head, hot and disorientated. For a few moments she wondered if her alarm had failed to go off and she was going to be late on duty, but then she realised that she was lying face down on her own bed, on top of the covers and fully clothed. And she remembered that she had come back to her quarters at lunchtime - desperate to escape from Medical Centre and Tony and even John, just for half an hour - and stretched out to close her eyes for a few minutes before getting something to eat. After lunch she was off duty and she had promised Sarah that she would go to her first rehearsal.

The clock by her bed said, incredibly, 18:15. Helena ran a timecheck via her comlock before she would believe it. One sleepless night and she had dropped off midday for nearly six hours. She was getting old, she thought.

Feeling drowsy and foolish, she called Medical Centre. Ed Spencer was the duty doctor by now.

"There's no change at all," he said. "Oh, except that the Commander's ordered security to step down."

"He has?"

"I suppose he decided now that she isn't going to become a danger. I have to say I agree with him."

"Yes, I do too, but all the same, be careful, Ed. It flared up so suddenly last time."

She signed off, faintly disconcerted. It wasn't as if the security division had very much to do in a quiet period like this, and two guards could surely have been easily spared. Also, it should have been Tony's decision and not John's to remove them. There was the suspicion of an unpleasant political overtone here.

Although she had missed lunch she wasn't hungry, but she supposed that she would have to eat something around now. She was searching through her own half-empty, barely-used cupboards when John signalled at the door and came in without waiting for a reply.

"I just came from Medical Centre," he began, gravely, without preamble. "She's no better."

"I know... but she's no worse."

"She isn't going to get better, is she?"

"I can't possibly say, without knowing exactly what's causing her to react this way to the pregnancy."

"What's your instinct, though? Dr Russell?"

Helena shook her head.

"You've got to do it," he said, turning to face her for the first time. "I tried to speak to

Tony - "

"I know. I heard. I should think everyone in Medical Centre heard."

"Helena, I don't like this any more than you do, any more than he does for that matter. But I will not stand by and see Maya come to harm when you could cure her."

"If Tony won't agree then I can't, John. Please see that."

"No. I don't see that. What I see is my science officer - probably the most valuable person on Alpha, after you - lying there desperately ill, maybe dying. Tony has no right to do that to her, and you have no right to withhold treatment."

"Can't you even imagine how he feels about it?"

"No. I can't imagine wanting to let someone I love die for a principle."

"Then maybe you and he have different principles," she muttered, backing down from the confrontation and retreating from his coldness. At the back of her head she felt tears prickling, and she glanced once again at his black expression to look for any suggestion of sympathy.

She took a careful breath, determined to maintain her composure; trying to ignore for now her own feelings of hurt and disappointment, that he was not supporting her in this impossible dilemma. "We have to persuade Tony to give his consent," she said. "When you spoke to him I'd only just given him the news, he was still in a state of shock. By now, he must have had time to think about it."

"All right. Command conference room in fifteen minutes."

"John... we should talk to him in the Medical Centre, in my office. This isn't a command issue."

"Yes it is." He sighed, angrily. "Medical Centre. I'll meet you there."

Tony had spent most of the day staring blindly at the computer screen at his station terminal, doing nothing but responding mechanically to the occasional query from security. He was aware that Sandra was watching him with long anxious glances, concerned and wondering whether to speak to him. At one point, when she offered him coffee, she asked quietly how Maya was.

He could only shake his head.

"Helena will find a way to make her better," she said, pressing his arm.

He had to look away. It was possible that Sandra would understand, but he could hardly talk about it in the middle of Command Centre.

When Helena summoned him to her office, he knew as soon as he entered the room that he was going to be subjected to a joint command attack. Helena looked distressed but resolute, and John was stony-faced.

"We need to talk about this calmly," Helena said. "Tony, I don't know exactly what Maya's condition is, but I do believe that it's directly caused by her pregnancy and I also believe that it's serious. I want to explain to you what happens when human women develop a condition called eclampsia, usually in late pregnancy. After a build-up period, called pre-eclampsia - which is detected by abnormally high blood pressure and fluid retention - the woman can experience sudden acute swelling, convulsions, and coma, with death as a very likely outcome. Usually, with modern pre-natal care, the condition is caught in the pre-eclampsia stage and treated by bed-rest, but if full-blown eclampsia develops the only treatment is emergency delivery of the baby. Even then, the mother can die. Now I've thought about this ever since we discovered Maya's pregnancy, and my opinion is that what she's suffering from is some variant of that, which happens to her species in early rather than late pregnancy. Obviously I can't be sure, but I'm inclined to believe that rather than the alternative theory, that she's reacting against the alien origin of the foetus. If that were the case, I don't see that it would have been conceived in the first place, or developed to this stage. And the foetus is healthy, we're monitoring its heart-rate constantly. Despite Maya's poor circulation it seems to be getting an adequate supply of blood and nutrients."

His own heart began to beat faster. There was a bitter joy in what Helena was saying, and he couldn't help that emotion; despite the harm it was doing to Maya, despite the fact that he had never intended to create a baby. "Then it's got a chance," he said.

She shook her head. "No, I'm afraid I have to say that there's no hope for the baby. I think Maya's life is in grave danger."

"You think - you don't know."

"No, I don't. But are you prepared to take the risk?"

John lifted his head for the first time and fixed him with a steady look. "You've got no choice, Tony."

"Helena," said Tony desperately, "you're a doctor. How can you say one moment that the baby's healthy and has a strong heartbeat - and the next, talk about killing it?"

"Because it's killing Maya, you fool!" cried John, losing his composure abruptly. "You claim to care about her - "

"I do care about her - "

"Then see past your selfish obstinacy and let Helena save her."

"If she knew what was going on she would never let you harm the baby."

"It's not a baby. How can it be a baby, it has no chance of growing and being born. A baby is a living independent creature, that - thing inside Maya is more like a growth that could be killing her."

Tony rose to his feet, swaying with fury towards him.

Helena held up her hands. "Please. I want to suggest something. A compromise. Sit down, Tony!"

He obeyed, realising that he had begun to shake.

"Maya has remained stable for forty-eight hours now," she said. "If her condition doesn't deteriorate, I propose we do nothing."

"For how long?" said John.

"Indefinitely, if necessary."

"You're saying you'd leave her lying in a coma for six months?"

"Tony says he believes that's what Maya would want. Tony is more likely than either of us to know. But I have to say I don't think that will be the outcome. I'm certain that her condition will deteriorate, probably soon. And in that case, I want you, Tony, to agree that I have to operate."

Tony opened his eyes and looked between them, knowing that he ought to feel sorry for Helena but hating her. The sick, giddy feeling in his head had returned. He nodded.

"Good," said Helena. "We're monitoring her life-signs and the foetal heart-rate, so if there's a change in either we'll know immediately. I will tell you, Tony, as soon as anything happens, but I may have to act quickly if it develops into an emergency. Do you understand?"

He nodded again, and got out of the room as fast as he could. As soon as the door shut behind him he heard the beginning of a rising, insistent exchange.

The reception area was empty, but suddenly he found himself looking straight into the eyes of Nicola Brown, who was swinging round the main entrance door. She stared with an expression of guilty surprise, pouted her mouth, and darted away.

"Hey!" said Tony, moving forward. But the door had closed automatically.

Even Nicola was avoiding him. He looked through the window in the door to the isolation room where Maya was, not sure whether there was any point in going in. A nurse was changing the drip hanging over the bed, and he saw, with a dull shock, her uncovered arm. A piece of plastic was obtruding from her inner elbow, the artificial thing making an obscene contrast with her flesh. With impersonal brisk movements the nurse manipulated another tube into the shunt and taped a bandage over it, handling her arm like an object. As she turned she saw him, and it seemed to him that she looked faintly accusing.

He ignored that, went in, and gazed at Maya's face. It was like a chiselled mask of her features, recognisable but devoid of the animation of her personality. Her lips, he noticed with a shiver, were colourless and had begun to flake.

For some painful moments he doubted. He remembered the conversation they once had on the subject of keeping brain-dead patients alive artificially, which had arisen out of a film they had been watching. She had insisted passionately that she thought they ought to be helped to die, and said that she knew, she had seen it. On Psychon no doctor had been allowed to kill anything.

But Maya did not have brain damage. He looked up at what he knew was the brain monitor, at the steady undulating wave on the screen. Next to it was another screen, which had not been switched on yesterday. A pulse, as rapid as a sparrow's, darted up and down. He stared at it, slowly understanding what it was.

There could be no more doubts.


Helena went to sleep in her own quarters that night. She did not want to make an issue out of it, but she felt coldly disinclined to share a bed with John when there was so much tension between them. She knew that it would only result in angry, unsatisfying sex followed by a circular midnight argument. So she did what she always did in the circumstances, she retreated to her own space and curled under a stale duvet; listening to the silence, holding her resentment at arm's length.

The agreement they had reached with Tony, which John had immediately afterwards made clear he was unhappy about, was only putting off the inevitable and prolonging the pain. Her only consolation was that Maya herself wasn't suffering. But now she was at odds with John over it, and caught in an agony of reluctance herself as she waited with dread every moment for a downturn in Maya's state.

She sat up and grabbed her comlock. Bob Mathias's face stared back at her from the tiny screen. "Dr Russell? Everything okay?"

"That's what I called to ask you, Bob. Maya - any chance in her condition?"

"None. The monitors are set to alert us if there is."

"Fine. Just checking." She was about to sign off, but added, "If those monitors do go off, if there's any change at all, call me. I don't care how late it is."

"All right, but I can handle - "

"For my peace of mind, Bob."

"No problem." He hesitated. "Where can I find you?"

"I'm in my own quarters."

She switched the comlock off and sank back onto the pillow. He had known to ask. Very little could be private here.

Sleep did not really come. By closing her eyes and strenuously relaxing her limbs she achieved a twilight state of semi-slumber, but she started to full awakeness when she heard a slight noise in the other room. It was a familiar sound, that of a door opening. Wide awake and puzzled, Helena lay still and listened.

There was a clatter, and a plaintive voice calling, "Mummy! Are you here, Mummy?" Another crash, and Helena switched on the light.

Nicola was standing in the middle of the floor in her short nylon nightdress, clutching a book like a doll. Helena was so surprised to see her that she did not at first recognise the symptoms. She began pleasantly, "Nicola, what are you doing here at this time?" but stopped when she realised that Nicola was scarcely aware of her.

"There you are, Mummy," she said, in a very natural voice. "I've been looking for you for ages. I'm frightened, Mummy."

Helena decided on the best course of action and lifted Nicola up. She was a featherweight. This seemed to make her happy, for she closed her eyes and snuggled her head against Helena's neck.

"Can I come in beside you, Mummy?" she asked, in - it seemed to Helena - the voice of a much younger child. "Let me, like I used to."

Helena laid Nicola gently on the other side of the bed and covered her. At once, Nicola closed her eyes and began to breathe deeply. She was entirely asleep.

Rather enchanted, Helena climbed into her own side and looked at Nicola's little head on the pillow. She laid the back of her hand against her forehead, but she was sure there was no fever; Nicola was not unwell. She wondered whether she ought to call Lesley Whitticker.

But in a moment, Helena too was deeply asleep.

When Nicola woke up she thought the bed had suddenly got bigger. And someone had changed all the furniture around. By the time she realised that she was not where she should be, Dr Russell had already looked round the edge of the kitchen unit, smiled brightly, and disappeared again. There was a faint clattering of utensils.

Nicola sat up, blinking. She was in Dr Russell's room, and in Dr Russell's bed. How had she got here? She expected it was a dream.

"Dr Russell!" she called.

The head appeared around the corner again. "Good morning, Nicola."

"Is this a dream?" Nicola asked anxiously.

"Not at all," Dr Russell assured her. "Breakfast in bed?"

Most mystified, Nicola received a bowl of cereal which she propped on her knees, and a glass of soya milk which she placed on the neat bedside shelf. Dr Russell got into the bed beside her, with a cup of coffee. She didn't have any make-up on and looked a little bare and odd, and her hair was ruffled.

"Dr Russell, how did I get here? Did you bring me?"

"No, you sleep-walked."

"Did I?" Nicola was impressed. "But it's miles and miles from my quarters and along a travel tube and everything. You mean I went in a travel tube in my sleep?"

"You must have."

"Why didn't somebody stop me?"

"You didn't look asleep - you knew where you were going, I imagine."

"I came here on purpose?"


Nicola was silent. She felt bemused. It seemed an awful presumption to march in on Dr Russell in the middle of the night, and she would never have done it. Yet she had. "Dr Russell, why didn't you wake me up and take me home?"

"Oh," said Dr Russell, "I was glad to see you. Come on, eat up."

Nicola looked guiltily at her bowl of cereal. "But I should go home and tell Lesley I'm here. She'll be angry."

"I already called Lesley."

"Oh! Is she angry?"

"Of course not. Nicola - could you tell me - is Lesley often angry?"

"When I'm naughty she is."

"Did you have a fight with her last night?"

"No..." said Nicola, almost automatically, before trying to remember the night before. There had been some routine altercation over dinner, she thought, but she had spent most of the time between dinner and bed reading a book in her bedroom while Lesley watched a boring film in the living room.

"Nicola, is there something you're worried about?"

Nicola shook her head, then said, "Miss Pulcher was a bit upset you didn't come to the rehearsal yesterday."

"She - said that?"

"No, I was there. I'm going to be in the play too. I'm going to be Lady MacSomebody's daughter and I get stabbed and I shout 'He has killed me, mother!' and Lady MacWhatshername runs out shouting 'Murder! Murder!'"

"You'll be good at that, Nicola."

"Yes, I know I will. I've got quite a lot to say, too. Miss Pulcher says I've got a Scottish accent which is good because the play's supposed to be in Scotland where I used to live on Earth. Why didn't you come, Dr Russell?"

"To be perfectly honest, Nicola, because I fell asleep."

"But it was the afternoon."

"I was very tired."

"So it wasn't because of Maya," said Nicola in a rush. She poked her spoon into her cereal and bit the inside of her cheeks. "I thought maybe she was more ill."

Dr Russell was smiling softly. "Were you worried about that? Why didn't you ask me?"

"You said not to go to Medical Centre. In your letter."

"Ah, yes."

"But I did go," Nicola continued in reckless confession, "and Tony was - upset."

"Tony is upset at the moment, yes."

"And Gillian and Mr Briar were talking about it and saying it was very serious and that was why you weren't there at the rehearsal, so I was scared."

"Hm. Well, Nicola, Maya is still ill, and we are very worried about her, but all the same I think she'll be all right because if she does get worse I know how to make her better."

"Can't you make her better now, then?"

"It's not as simple as that, I'm afraid."

"Why not? Tell me why not."

"I can't, because doctors aren't allowed to talk about their patients to other people. Didn't you know that?"

"No. You're just not telling me," said Nicola, solidly.

Dr Russell sighed and tossed back her head. "Would it make you happier if we went to see her?"

Nicola nodded.

"I'm sorry I've kept you away, Nicola. I kind of forgot you were involved at the beginning, and that you're her friend, too. I didn't want you to become frightened."

"That's okay," said Nicola generously. She hugged her knees up, thinking that this was the very nicest breakfast she had ever had.

Dr Russell smiled and stroked her hair, then uncurled out of bed and took her coffee cup to the kitchen. As Nicola listened to her running water into the basin, the comlock lying by the bed sounded. Nicola picked it up and answered it, intrigued to see Dr Spencer's face appear in miniature.

"Nicola?" he said, in confusion.

Dr Russell came swiftly over and reclaimed the comlock. "Ed."

"Dr Russell, I think you should get over here."

"Maya. Has anything changed?"

Nicola felt Dr Russell's eyes flick onto her, and she sank down under the covers, wanting to disappear and not to hear or know.

"Not according to the monitors, but - I don't like the look of her."

"How do you mean?"

"You'll see when you get here. I'd - quite like your reaction."

"I'm on my way."

Dr Russell's face had become closed and hard, and her manner brisk. When Nicola looked up from under the covers again, she was straightening the tunic of her uniform and tucking her comlock into her belt. Immediately, Nicola scrambled out of bed.

"Oh no," said Dr Russell. "You'd better go home."

"But you said I could come and see Maya!"

"That was before Dr Spencer called me."

Nicola burst into tears.

"Nicola!" said Dr Russell, almost angrily. Then she said, "Come on."

They were only just turning the corner of the corridor where Dr Russell's quarters were when the Commander appeared, coming towards them. He glanced uneasily at Nicola then apparently decided to ignore her, interposing so that they could not proceed without stepping round him.

Dr Russell stopped, with a faint exhalation of breath.

"Helena," said the Commander, "I hate it when you do this."

"John - I'm sorry - I haven't got time."

Nicola watched with interest as the Commander cupped his hand round Dr Russell's face. "Make time," he said, in a way Nicola had never heard him speak before; low and gentle, almost whispering. "Let's go back to your quarters and take fifteen minutes out, no more."

Dr Russell covered his hand with hers for a moment, then pulled back and said, "I'm - needed in Medical Centre."

The Commander frowned. "Is it Maya? Helena, is she worse?"

Dr Russell had started to walk along the corridor again, towards the travel tube. The Commander followed her with his long strides.

"Tell me," he said.

"I don't know yet. Ed said he was concerned about her, but it might be nothing."

"Nothing? She's lying there in a coma!"

"I do know that, John."

They got into the travel tube, and the Commander sat down looking sad and angry at the same time. Dr Russell just looked angry. Nicola sat in the corner, a little frightened but determined to stay with them.

"We should never have left her like that," he said.

Dr Russell said nothing.

When they got to Medical Centre, Dr Spencer was waiting for them. Nicola followed closely behind Dr Russell and the Commander as they went into the ward where Maya was.

"You see what I mean," said Dr Spencer.

Nicola moved quietly round the side of the bed and looked at Maya curiously. Instead of lying flat on her back stretched out like a corpse with wires sticking out of her, she had curled up on her side. She looked much more comfortable.

Dr Spencer lifted the bedcovers, and Nicola could see that Maya's knees were tucked up too.

Dr Russell looked worried as she examined her, checked the wires that were still taped to bits of her, and pressed buttons on the monitoring machines. "No change in brain wave pattern," she said in a mutter. "How long has she been liked this?"

"Cara noticed an hour ago, when she came to change the drip," said Dr Spencer.

"What does this mean?" asked the Commander, frowning and folding his arms.

"She's adopted the foetal position," said Dr Russell, finishing her examination and turning to him. "Usually, that would indicate the cessation of higher brain functions. It's normally seen in patients who are essentially brain dead, but might continue to live in a persistent vegetative state. But there's no question about it, Maya's brain is still active - you can see for yourself." She indicated the monitor with the moving wavy line on it.

The Commander came closer, glared at the monitor, and down at Maya. Then he did something which Nicola had not imagined he would; he laid his hand on Maya's head, with the same kind of tenderness she had seen earlier when he touched Dr Russell's face. "Do it," he said.

"John, there's been no objective, measurable change in her lifesigns - "

"We had an agreement. This has gone far enough."

"Now just one minute. Since when have you been qualified to make medical judgements?"

"Helena - "

"I have the final say when it comes to the treatment of anyone on Alpha, and you cannot override my authority."

The Commander whirled around. "Dr Spencer? What's your opinion?"

Dr Spencer had been standing in the corner, looking as if he wanted to disappear. He said quietly, his eyes on Dr Russell, "I think this amounts to a deterioration in her condition... despite what the monitors say. I think we should operate without any further delay."

Dr Russell pressed her hands together, and shook her head. "If only we could ask her," she said.

"Couldn't you wake her up?" asked Nicola.

Dr Russell frowned at her. "Come on, Nicola, I don't think you should be here. You've seen her now."

"She looks like she's hibernating."


"When I lived on Earth, I had a hamster called Sylvester, and one morning I went to give him his breakfast and Mummy and I thought he was dead. He was cold and all curled up in his nest, like Maya. We were going to have a funeral, but Daddy got up and looked at him and he said he didn't think Sylvester was dead, it had just been cold in the night and he had started hibernating. He got a towel and a hot water bottle and warmed him up and rubbed him, and Sylvester came back to life. He uncurled and ran away and ate his breakfast as if nothing had happened. It was very exciting."

Dr Russell looked away from Nicola as she spoke, and Nicola thought she had stopped listening so she prepared to be quiet again in the hope of being allowed to stay. "Ed," she said, in a quieter voice, "it's one approach we haven't tried, simply treating the physical symptoms. Let's get some thermal blankets and give her some oxygen and run a mild electrical stimulus to her heart - maybe we can bring her out of it."

"That won't cure the underlying problem," said Dr Spencer, doubtfully.

"No... but if she recovers consciousness, even for a while, she can tell us what she wants us to do. All right, Nicola, out you go. John, could you take her home, please."

"No," said Nicola fiercely. "It was my idea. I want to stay and see if she wakes up."

Dr Russell sighed, and said to the Commander, "Take her into my office."

Nicola found her hand taken by the Commander's, and she followed him through the two sets of doors to Dr Russell's office.

There was a sofa there, as well as a desk and some hard chairs and a picture that went funny as you looked at it. The Commander sat her down, then stood for a while examining the print with his hands folded behind his back.

The Commander was probably the only person who impressed Nicola into silence. He paced round the room a few times, then snatched out his comlock and had a conversation with someone called Dr Clarkson about the oxygen recycling plant. A long time seemed to go by, and Nicola got very restless.

Suddenly the Commander left the room, without saying anything to her. Without hesitation, she followed. He had gone to the door of Maya's ward to look through the high-up window, something Nicola had no chance of doing without growing at least two feet.

Dr Russell appeared in the doorway, and they had a low conversation which Nicola couldn't hear from her semi-concealed position. The Commander nodded and strode out through the reception area, ignoring Nicola.

She waited a second then peered out again. He had definitely gone and it was safe to creep to the door to see what was going on.

Maya was wrapped all up in what looked like silver foil except for where Dr Russell was pressing something onto her chest while glancing up at the monitor screen above the bed.

"Look at that," said Dr Spencer.

"It's picking up."

"It's leaping up. I don't believe it."

"I do. Her metabolism is switching on again." She took the things off Maya, laid them aside, and pressed her hand against her neck. "Her pulse is much stronger. Ed, I think she's coming back."

Suddenly, with a shock of delight, Nicola saw Maya's head moving. Her mouth opened slightly, and Nicola heard an exhalation of air.

Dr Russell looked pleased. "Her respiratory rate's picking up too."

Maya's eyes blinked open.

"Maya!" cried Nicola, forgetting the necessity of concealment in her excitement and bolting into the room.

Maya fixed on her, focusing, confused but rational. "Nicola," she said, in a low, strange voice. She coughed.

"Hey," said Dr Russell. "Careful. Go away, please, Nicola."

"No I won't," said Nicola, hanging by the bed.

Dr Russell took off the silver blankets. "How do you feel?" she asked.

Maya turned her head slowly to look at her. "I'm - not sure. Thirsty."

"Ed," said Dr Russell. "Could you get a glass of water, please. Lukewarm."

When Dr Spencer had left the room, Dr Russell sat by the bed and took Maya's hand. "Maya... is there something you'd like to tell me about?"

"No - I don't think so."

"Something perhaps you were worried about, but didn't want to say?"

Maya shook her head. "I don't understand, Helena." Her eyes widened. "I didn't - do anything, did I?"

"No, no. You've been unconscious - in a coma - for the past two days, you've done nothing at all."

"Two days! I thought I'd fallen asleep for a few hours - but I don't feel rested - my hands are full of pins and needles."

"I know, it's the circulation coming back."

"My legs hurt too."

"That will pass." She stood up to take the silver sheets away, and came back over with an instrument.

Nicola bounced up cheerfully onto the bed. "It was my idea," she said. "I said you were hibernating, and if Dr Russell warmed you up like my daddy did to my hamster you would wake up."

Maya gave a faint smile. "I must be better now."

"Let's hope so," said Dr Russell, placing the instrument on Maya's forehead. "Your temperature is back to normal." She looked up and nodded slightly.

Nicola, noticing this, turned round just in time to see that Dr Spencer had been waiting outside the door, watching through the window, and now came in at this indication. It had taken him a long time to pour a glass of water.

Maya eased herself up to a sitting position and took the glass carefully, her hands shaking as she cupped it. Dr Russell had to catch it when she had taken a few mouthfuls, or it would probably have fallen onto the bed.

"Careful," said Dr Russell gently. "Not too much at once, your stomach's empty."

"I remember," said Maya, and Nicola could hear the return to her voice of strength and expression.

"I'm really glad you're better," she said, putting her arms round her neck and squeezing.

There was something still not right, she sensed at once. Maya did not have her usual smell of scented hair and the distinctive perfume of grown-up ladies; and, as Nicola hugged her, she felt her body harden and push her away. She sprang back, at once offended that Maya wouldn't cuddle her and scared by the indefinable wrongness in her.

"Helena - " said Maya, with panic in her voice, sitting up and doubling over and clasping her hand over her mouth.

With lightning speed, Dr Russell produced a bowl for Maya to be sick into.

Nicola had slid quickly off the bed and couldn't stop watching, disgusted but fascinated, at a kind of yellow slime that came out with the water.

She sank back onto the bed. "I'm not better," she said plaintively.

"Don't worry, it will probably take a while for your system to settle down again after forty-eight hours in a catatonic state. Try to sleep now."

"I've only just woken up."

"I know, but you need to rest. Later on, there's something we need to talk about."

Maya had settled onto her side and closed her eyes, but they snapped open. "Talk now," she said.

"It can wait until you - "

"Helena, tell me whatever you have to tell me now." She sat bolt upright, her expression serious, and gripped Dr Russell's arm. "Is there something wrong? Has anything happened - while I was unconscious?"

"No, Maya."

"Don't be - soothing! I can see you're not telling the truth, you're no liar. And you can't say something like that - in our situation - and except me to go to sleep until you think I'm strong enough to be told!"

There was something wrong, Nicola knew, because Dr Russell and Dr Spencer were looking at each other as if they were trying to communicate telepathically. They may have succeeded, as Dr Spencer picked up the bowl that Maya had been sick into and made for the door.

Maya had been on the point of rising out of bed in her insistence, but she let go of Dr Russell's arm and bowed her head suddenly, curling over forwards.

"Maya, what is it?" asked Dr Russell quickly.

"The pain - the stomach pain I had before - it's coming back."

"All right, lie down. Ed!"

Dr Spencer came running back in.

Maya would not lie down. She was bending so far forwards that her head was touching her knees, her hair falling over the bedcovers, her arms locked over her stomach. She made a high gasping noise and sobbed, "Helena!"

Nicola backed against the wall, shivering and transfixed with fright as Dr Russell and Dr Spencer physically manoeuvred Maya with real force to lie down. Dr Russell pulled over one of the large pieces of equipment and pressed a extrusion from it onto Maya's stomach.

"The uterine muscles are contracting," she said, looking across at Dr Spencer.

Maya seemed to relax slightly, and unwound herself. "It's going away. I'm all right."

With a queasy shock that went through her like a paper cut - something she tried to forget all the time, but the sensation and the memory sprang on her unexpectedly for a long while afterwards - Nicola saw that the white sheets were suddenly covered in blood.

Maya cried out again, twisting over, and this time Nicola knew that she had to be very badly hurt.

"Maya," said Helena, "listen to me. I know this isn't the best moment but you must understand. You're pregnant, but I think you're miscarrying - you're losing the baby. Please try to be calm. If you're not frightened, the pain won't be so bad. Nothing is going to happen to you, the pain is just caused by the muscles in your womb contracting to open up and expel the foetus. I know it's not easy but try to breathe deeply and relax. Ed, get Cara."

Dr Spencer turned round and stopped as her saw Nicola. "Nicola - "

"My God, get the child out of here!" snapped Dr Russell, her voice furious.

Nicola was propelled out of the ward and through Medical Centre by a stern Dr Spencer, who ejected her into the corridor and rushed back without saying a word to her. She ran and ran, colliding with and brushing past people who were briefly indignant but paid no other attention to her, until she got to the travel tube that took her to Block D where she lived. Her quarters were empty, for Lesley was on duty.

She hit under the duvet of her bed and cried passionately, trying to dissolve everything in tears. It didn't work, and there was no-one coming to look after her, so after a while she let the sobs die down and hugged her knees and allowed herself to be comforted by the warm darkness.

When she emerged from the duvet cocoon she felt cold, and the light pricked her eyes. She took down Five Go Camping from the bookshelf, and started at the beginning to immerse herself in a fantasy world of bicycles, lanes, caves, picnics, clean good children and safe, remote adults.

Nobody came to find her.


"What do you mean I can't see here?" cried Tony, staring at the hardened face of the nurse, Cara Conway. "Let me through - that's an order!"

Her expression was unyielding, giving him no sympathy and no emotion. She was one of the frosty breed of nurses, he thought desperately, who had seen most things and were affected by nothing. "You have no right to throw your authority around in here - sir," she said, in a low controlled voice.

"Let me speak to Dr Russell."

"Dr Russell is busy."

"Doing what?" he shouted.

Nurse Conway glanced round at a younger nurse who was working at the reception terminal, and had lifted her head with a frown. "Would you come in here, please," she said in a glacial mutter, and Tony found himself more or less forced into Helena's office. "Dr Russell," she continued, pulling the door closed with a click, "is trying to save Maya's life. We're in the middle of a medical emergency and your belligerent attitude is not helping anyone."

"What happened?" he asked, dreading the answer.

"Maya suffered a miscarriage almost immediately after Dr Russell managed to revive her from her coma. She started to haemorrhage and we can't replace her blood."

"Miscarriage? She lost the baby?"

"I'm afraid so, yes, but that's the least of our worries now. I'm sorry, I have to get back."

"Is she going to die?"

"I hope not, Mr Verdeschi," the nurse said with an unmistakable undertone of grim satisfaction.

Tony collapsed onto the sofa that Helena provided to make her office appear more soothing to patients or anxious friends, drained now of any anger that might have made him storm into the ward where Maya was and see what was happening. He understood and felt as justified Conway's attitude of accusation; he had been responsible for the pregnancy, and he had stopped Helena putting an end to it cleanly and safely. There was no question that he had done exactly what John had said he would, put Maya's life in danger for nothing. If she recovered, she was unlikely to thank him for it.

If she recovered... he had a painful perception of the past year as a frittering frivolity, in everything that had happened in his personal life and what he would once have called his career. Why had he treated his promotion to second-in-command so lightly, and still did not believe in himself as someone with any real authority? He was even intimidated by Helena, whose importance on the base was artificially elevated by the fact that she happened to be sleeping with the Commander. How had he had the heart to take up with Sandra just because she was there and needed comfort, and then slide away from her because she was too - serious - towards a flirtation with an exotic newcomer? Why had he persisted in treating it as a flirtation, one that just happened to be getting more complicated?

Sometimes he thought that Maya took it all less than seriously, sometimes he knew perfectly well that she adored him. It was easy to drift along in a conditional limbo, the way things were on Alpha. Now he realised, with horror, that he had treated her badly by neglecting to acknowledge that and to be honest with himself and her about his own feelings.

He hadn't in his heart believed that the baby would have survived long enough to be born, but after the first reaction of panic he had been prepared - eager - to welcome it if it had. He was sure that she would have also, so passionate as she was about things of life and death. The loss, though he had expected it, sickened him with a dull pain.

Nothing would matter if Maya did not recover.

The minutes passed in an agony of apprehension. He didn't dare to move. When the door opened he was jerked out of his stupor and found himself on his feet, gazing with incomprehension at the gentle, pretty face of a young nurse whose name he did not know.

"I thought you might like some coffee, Mr Verdeschi," she said, in a soft voice. She was the other, angelic type of nurse, forbearing and compassionate.

"Yeah - thanks. Do you - know what's happening?"

"I don't, I'm sorry. But Dr Russell will be with you as soon as she can."

He nodded and sank onto the sofa again, clutching the mug of what they called coffee on Alpha, letting it scald his fingers. The small physical pain was a temporary distraction.

It was impossible to tell how much time had passed - the coffee, undrunk, was stone cold - when Helena appeared at last. She looked white and drained and her first expression seemed to communicate the worst. He stared, paralysed.

"We lost the baby, Tony, you know that."

"Yes. The nurse told me. Maya - "

"She's lost a lot of blood, but I'm confident now she'll be all right."

He breathed out and looked at the floor, his heart thumping in his ears.

He felt Helena sitting beside him, and the warmth of a female presence - and the hand that squeezed his shoulder - comforted him, unexpectedly.

"Thanks," he said.

"I didn't want this to happen, Tony. Had Maya been able to have the baby it would have been wonderful. In fact, it's a miraculous thing that it was conceived in the first place - and it means that you are genetically compatible."

He glanced at her. Right now, that was little comfort. "What happened?"

"We managed to bring her out of her coma. Maybe that was a mistake. I wonder if her body shut down to protect the pregnancy, when it realised there was a problem. Perhaps she would have come out of it spontaneously when the danger was over."

The pressure on his shoulder increased. Looking round at her again, he realised that her head was bowed and she seemed close to tears. Relief had made him even more contrite, and he realised with shame that he had put Helena in an impossible situation. "Don't worry about it," he said, awkwardly. "If she's going to be okay, that's all that matters."

Helena nodded, and he could hear her swallowing. It wasn't his imagination; she was fighting back tears.

"Can I see her now?" he asked.

"No. She's under sedation, I want her to sleep for a few hours. Usually, miscarriage at this early stage of pregnancy is not painful - a few cramps, perhaps - but sometimes it is, and Maya had strong uterine contractions which caused her considerable pain. Then when she started to haemorrhage I had to operate to seal off the site of the detached placenta and evacuate the rest of the uterus lining. The whole experience will have been very traumatic for her, particularly as I don't think she had any idea she was pregnant."

"No. No, she would have told me."

"I blame myself for this, you know. It should have occurred to me that human progesterone would be an inefficient contraceptive, but I told her to take the pills and she would be protected."

"Look - Helena - you're a human doctor, you're not a Psychon doctor - and you saved her life all the same."

"Only because I'm a pretty good surgeon, and Maya's anatomically almost identical to us. My medical instincts, my common sense, were non-functional."

He had never seen her quite like this, though it occurred to him now that she was probably often as self-critical and emotional behind her cool exterior. There was an eggshell quality to her composure. Before he had been promoted she had been the remote and powerful Dr Russell, and for a long time after he had been admitted to what Gillian had called the claustrophobic Command Centre coterie he had remained uneasy about her. He could see that she was beautiful - he was looking now at the soft gold of her hair, and her unblemished, ageless skin - but he found her curiously unattractive. It was only after a year of being thrown together with her, and various crises, that he was beginning to warm to her and to understand that she was just someone doing her best under almost continuous pressure.

Still, she wasn't the kind of woman he could be natural with, that he could easily put his arms around and comfort. While he tried to think of how else to express sympathy, she raised her hand to lift a lock of hair from her eyes and he saw that the cuticles of her fingers were lined with dried blood. Water was not an overabundant resource on Alpha, and she had probably only rinsed sparingly before hurrying through to tell him that Maya would be all right.

He looked down, sickened.

"Come back at sixteen hundred hours," she said, briskness creeping back into her tone. "If she wakes up before then and asks for you, I'll call you."

There was no call, though Tony spent a miserable afternoon on duty in Command Centre waiting for it. He had the idea, paranoid though it might be, that conversation in Command Centre cut off when he entered and remained subdued; nobody, today, asked him how Maya was, though Sandra, for one, was still watching him. By four o'clock he felt as though he had lived through the longest four hours of his life.

He was met by Helena, composed and professional once more, in the reception area.

"I've moved her to another room," she said. "There's no longer any need to keep her in the intensive care ward. The only real problem now is the amount of blood she's lost, and nothing will cure that except rest and time."

"How much time?"

"As usual it's impossible for me to be certain in Maya's case, but if she were human I would expect her to have recovered most of her strength in about a week."

"She'll have to stay in that long?"

"Possibly. We'll have to see how it goes. I just want you to understand before you see her that she's not as ill as she seems - she won't get worse now, only steadily better. But she's got little else but plasma circulating in her body at the moment, so she's very weak."

"Does she know about what happened?"

"Yes, I explained everything."

"How did she take it?"

"Unemotionally, but you know Maya. It may not really have sunk in."

He nodded, then thought suddenly - with an irrational pang - that she had not asked for him.

He felt self-conscious as he entered the ward, his heart thumping uneasily; he was longing to see her awake and speak to her after the days of anxiety, but the circumstances made him afraid of how she would react to him. And there was a nurse in with her, the young kind one. She smiled and left immediately.

Maya was propped up against the pillows, very still. She smiled faintly in greeting.

Despite Helena's warning - and despite the hours he had spent watching her white unmoving face - Tony was horrified by her appearance. She looked terrible. The dark flecks on her cheekbones stood out starkly against her chalky skin, her lips were still cracked, and her eyes had no lustre.

"Hi," he said, awkwardly. "How are you feeling?"

"Tired," she said in a whisper. Her breathing was low, and sounded troubled.

He sat by her and kissed her hand. It was still cold. "We're always doing this - ministering to each other in Medical Centre. It's getting routine. Still, the last time it wasn't me who made you ill."

"This isn't your fault."

"Well, I hope it's my fault, and nobody else's!"

He got no kind of answering warmth, not even the suggestion of a smile, and he bit mentally on his clumsy tongue. He was going to be sensitive for once, he was going to think about how his actions and his runaway words affected her feelings from now on, and he could make a start by not unloading his guilt and distress about this whole thing. It would be better for her if he never mentioned the baby, and good for him if he controlled his own selfish desire to talk about it. It could only upset her, and make it more difficult to forget. This would be a fresh start for them, he resolved.

"At least you're going to get better now, that's all that matters," he said, cupping her cheek. "I was worried there for a while."

She nodded, and closed her eyes.

He took his hand away slowly, disappointed, his stomach still knotting nervously. "Well," he said, after a long silence, "I'd better let you get some rest, I just - thought I ought to put in an appearance."

Her fingers curled into his with a gentle pressure.

Tony became aware that Helena had come into the ward. "Tony," she said, quietly.

"Looks like my time's up. I'll - just stay here with you if you want - "

Maya let her hand fall out of his.

"No," said Helena. "Come on, she needs to sleep."

Maya made no protest.

"Right - I'll - see you later then." He kissed her cheek, and left with a strong sense of unease.

Outside, Helena said in a low voice, "There's probably no point in coming back until tomorrow morning."

"Yeah - Helena - are you sure she's okay now?"

"Tony, I warned you she was weak."

"But I've never seen her like that. It's like she's been switched off inside."

"She will be much better tomorrow, I promise you."

He had thought he would sleep that night, but he stared into the darkness for hours.


Nicola was woken by the sound of dishes being clattered. She peeped out from under the duvet and found that the bedroom lights had timed-out, and it was dark. Through the half-open door there was light, and those domestic noises.

She had the familiar feeling that she was going to be in trouble.

Lesley stared at her in distraction when she made her entrance, feeling bleary. "Where did you spring from?"

"The bedroom."

"Have you been sleeping in your clothes? Oh, honestly. What's the matter, are you not well?"

"I'm okay." Nicola sat herself at the table, and with a sigh Lesley slapped a place mat in front of her. It was tea-time, Nicola realised with surprise. Lesley must just have come off duty. She was still wearing her overalls, and as Nicola stared at the fading intertwining blue pattern on the mat Lesley went into the bedroom to take them off.

"What have you been doing in here?" she asked. "Your bed's all messed up."

"It only takes a second to straighten it out."

"So why don't you do it? I'm not your slave."

"You're the one who cares whether it's in a mess or not," said Nicola, something driving her to be provoking.

But Lesley only sighed loudly as she pulled the duvet into order and tutted as she retrieved the book and put it on the shelf. When she came back through, changed into her old worn slacks and top, she peered into Nicola's face. "Have you been crying?"


"Your eyes are all bloated. Come on, what's the matter."


"I can't think what you could have to upset you, it's not as if you've got any responsibilities, or a boss, or a boyfriend even. When I was your age it was things to do with school or friends that I used to worry about, but you don't go to a proper school, and you don't have any friends."

"I do so have friends."

"You don't have proper friends though, do you. I mean, you can't." Lesley paused with the pan of mashed starch in her hand, preparing to spoon out Nicola's ration. "Is it something to do with Maya?" she asked, in a different tone.

Nicola thought of Lesley as having two voices; the automatic one, drained of real expression, which she used to grumble and scold and answer questions she wasn't interested in; and the quicker, more 'real' tone which she used with adults, or when she actually wanted to talk to Nicola.

Nicola shook her head, and watched as the mush came off the spoon and plopped onto the plate.

Lesley added soya stew and pulled up her chair. "I heard she was getting better."

"Who said?"

"I just heard, these things get around. Someone said she came round, and that they think she's going to be all right."

Nicola wanted to put her hands over her ears inside her head to stop the memory.

"I thought you might know about it," she added. "You were with Dr Russell this morning, weren't you, when she found you wandering the base in your pyjamas or whatever drama it was you staged."

Nicola had almost forgotten about that, forgotten to expect a row. But she saw that Lesley was unconcerned, at least about her sleepwalking; she was fixing her with a longing, inquisitive look.

"Did she tell you anything, about what was wrong with Maya?"


"You're no use. You'd think you could at least keep me up to date with Command Centre gossip."

That evening Nicola would have told Lesley anything she knew to please her, because she was desperate for affection and attention. But she wanted not to think about it. She concentrated on pushing the mush around in the bowl, making mountains and crevices.

"Eat it, don't play with it."

It was the nagging voice again.

"I'm going out tonight," she added, getting some food for herself and sitting down. "You'll know where I am if you need me."

Nicola nodded, silent. Lesley had been doing this more and more recently, going out for the evening and then not coming back. Sometimes Nicola went to bed alone, got up and made her own breakfast, went to her lessons, and didn't see Lesley until tea-time.

"I'm going out too," Nicola said after a moment, "so it doesn't matter."

"Where?" asked Lesley, indignantly.

"It's all right, just to Miss Pulcher's rehearsal."

"Oh. When do you have to be there?"

"It's not until six o'clock."

"Well, it's half past six now."

Nicola pushed her plate away and ran.

Miss Pulcher had impressed on Nicola the importance of attending rehearsals when you were 'called'. If you committed to a show and then proved yourself to be unreliable, she said, you would soon get a bad reputation and would end up never being cast for anything, no matter how good you were. With horror, she realised that she was on her way to destroying her credibility forever. She raced along the corridors, causing one security guard to shout at her to slow down, there wasn't a red alert; by the time she got to the lift that descended into the deep sublunar level where the theatre was, she was out of breath.

All of Alpha was underground now, since they had decided to abandon the surface installations to make the base more secure against attack or accident, but the theatre level felt very low down. It had been converted from an old experimental bunker, Miss Pulcher had told her, which had already been abandoned before Breakaway. Access to the auditorium was at one end of the corridor and at the other end there was a door which led to a narrow flight of metal steps that took her even deeper into the moon. These went down to the backstage corridors, with old offices that served as dressing rooms and one large room they used for rehearsals. Down here it was different from the rest of Alpha, you had to swing open doors with your hand. Many of these old-fashioned doors led into completely empty rooms that had not yet been colonised by Miss Pulcher's theatrical empire and whose original function was fantastically obscure. It was an eerie, exciting place.

Nicola crept along, fascinated as usual by the atmosphere, urgent and uneasy. Perhaps if she sneaked in quietly Miss Pulcher might not notice. The door to the rehearsal room was slightly open, shedding a crack of light, and she pushed it open as delicately as she could.

Miss Pulcher had her back to her, which was fortunate. She was standing in the middle of the floor with Dr Russell, waving her hands about and talking. Susan Ralston, looking bored, and Dr Wintergreen from hydroponics were also in the space defined as the stage. The rest of the cast were sitting or standing in groups round the walls; Nicola saw Gillian Merle crouching with her arms folded, gazing abstractly across the room, and Mr Briar tapping away at a laptop computer. She slid along the wall, trying to make herself inconspicuous. Gillian noticed her and raised her eyebrows in greeting.

"Have you done our bit yet?" Nicola asked in an anxious whisper.

"Oh no, nowhere near it, Sarah's spent forty minutes blocking the sleepwalking scene. If she goes on at this pace it'll be Christmas before we put this thing on."

Nicola was relieved, but she realised that Miss Pulcher might still count her very late arrival against her on principle. She sat down next to Gillian, who yawned and stretched and put her chin on her knees.

Susan Ralston left her place on the stage and came over. "You okay?"

"Oh, fine. Whacked. I've come off a ten-hour shift."

"You look a bit distrait."

"Yes, well, I've been wondering whether I ought to go and see Tony, and I can't make up my mind. You heard about Maya?"

"Yes - isn't it awful - but is it true?"


"How do you know?"

"I asked - " Gillian nodded in the direction of Dr Russell. "So the question is, do I."

"Gosh Gillian, I don't know. It depends how you feel."

"I just feel sorry for him."

Miss Pulcher suddenly called, "Quiet, everyone. Come on now, we can't do this if everybody keeps talking. If you've got anything vital to discuss please go outside. Thank you. Susan, where are you. Over here, come on."

"What about Maya?" Nicola asked as quietly as she could.

Gillian frowned, shook her head, and shushed her.

Nicola wrapped her arms around her knees, not really wanting to hear the answer anyway. Gillian and Susan had been talking in the hushed intense tones people used when something really awful had happened.

The room fell silent, and the scene began.

Nicola watched attentively, suddenly caught by a spasm of excitement. She had never been this close up to real acting, and she knew as soon as she saw Susan and Dr Wintergreen moving and speaking and looking like other people that she was witnessing an intangible but real transformation that made shivers run over her. They were talking about Lady Macbeth, who had been sleepwalking. Nicola was more interested in this than she had been before, since she had sleepwalked herself.

Dr Russell came in from the side, holding her script in one hand and a pen, upright, in the other. She frowned. "This isn't going to work," she said, and handed the pen and script to Miss Pulcher.

"What do you mean?"

"How can I wash my hands if I'm carrying things?"

"You have to carry the light, you need the light, it's in the script."

"People who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder frequently present continual handwashing - I could put the light down."

"Well - all right," said Miss Pulcher, waveringly.

Nicola could tell that Dr Russell was already beginning to boss Miss Pulcher.

"But the script," she added, holding it out.

"I've read it through," said Dr Russell dismissively.

"Oh. Right. Okay, I'll prompt you. From your entrance again."

They began again. Dr Russell carried in the pen, looked intently at her hands, laid the pen on the ground -

"We'll have a table or something," said Miss Pulcher.

Susan and Dr Wintergreen began to talk about her again, and Nicola realised with a thrill that she could understand them now.

"How came she by that light?" asked Dr Wintergreen.

"Why, it stood by her - she has light by her continually - 'tis her command."

"You see, her eyes are open."

"Ay, but their senses are shut."

"What is it she does now? Look, how she rubs her hands."

"It is an accustomed action with her, to seem thus washing her hands. I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour."

Nicola watched spellbound as Dr Russell, with a haunted staring look, tried as hard as she could to rub away something that was all over her hands. "Yet here's a spot," she whispered. "Out, damned spot, out, I say! One - two - why then, 'tis time to do it. Hell is murky - fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? - Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?"

"Do you mark that?" said Dr Wintergreen quietly.

Nicola stared in terror at Dr Russell's hands, overwhelmed by a horror she thought she had managed to make go away. The shivery feeling of enjoying the acting turned in a single moment to coldness.

There was blood everywhere. Nicola climbed to her knees, suddenly able to move again, gasping for breath. She put her hands into a warm pool and saw her mother staring at her with wide open eyes that did not see her. More blood like bright red paint trickled over the side of her face, but most of it was spurting, slowly and rhythmically, out of a hole in her neck.

She held onto her, begging her to get up and crying because she did not, until a long time later - when everything was cold - she was lifted forcibly away. It was sticky then.

"Here's the smell of blood still," said Dr Russell, and stretched out her arm. "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand."

"Now collapse!" said Miss Pulcher, almost jumping up and clapping her hands. "And cry out!"

Dr Russell clasped her hands and folded to her knees.

Nicola burst out with a wail.

She saw Dr Russell's startled, ordinary eyes as she lifted her head from her crouching position, and then she was seized by the kind of paroxysm of weeping that made her feel like she was outside her body watching herself losing control. At first she fought Dr Russell's hands away, and she heard Miss Pulcher scolding and Dr Russell soothing at the same time. When Miss Pulcher and Gillian made a grab for her she flung her arms around Dr Russell's neck and clung on as hard as she could, sinking into her warmth and gulping painfully.

The detached part of her saw Dr Russell pick her up and carry her out of the rehearsal room, along to the small kitchen near the end of the corridor. She was put on the one chair there and given a glass of water and told to drink it slowly.

As a calming technique, it was effective. Nicola had to stop crying and get her breath back to drink, and though she spluttered and gulped with the first few mouthfuls, she managed it. She sat there feeling fragmented and vulnerable while Dr Russell knelt to be at her eye level, her face open and kind, her hands clasping hers.

"I didn't see you come in," she said, gently. "I looked for you earlier, but I couldn't find you."

"What happened - what happened - to Maya?"

"Maya's all right now."

"Don't say that just to be nice! There was blood, lots of blood - that's how people die."

"Not always. Let's go back to my quarters and I'll tell you about everything. I promised that I would, didn't I?"

"Yes. What about the rehearsal?"

Dr Russell smiled and waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. "We'll do an extra one some other time."

Nicola snuggled against Dr Russell's pillow, feeling warm and full of important information. There was a clean cool frangranced smell in here, quite different from the cluttered atmosphere of the bedroom she shared with Lesley; in fact there were hardly any things lying around, rather as if nobody lived here.

Dr Russell came through with a mug of warmed, sweetened soya milk. "I just called your quarters," she said, sitting on the bed. "Lesley wasn't there, and it seems she's switched off her comlock."

"I know. Lesley's not in tonight."

"Where is she?"

"Don't know," said Nicola untruthfully. "But that's why it'll be okay if I stay here." She took the milk.

"Does she do this often?" asked Dr Russell.

"Only sometimes."

Dr Russell frowned but said nothing, and Nicola felt uncomfortable. She shouldn't have told on Lesley.

To change the subject back to their fascinating talk, she said, "I thought people weren't allowed to have babies until we find a planet."

"Yes, but it isn't something you can always stop happening. I've shown you the pills we take - "


"Well, they just didn't work on Maya."

"Because she's an alien?" said Nicola, before remembering she wasn't supposed to call her that. "Will you give the pills to me?"

"You don't need them, Nicola. You're too young to have a baby."

"When will I be old enough?"

"Not for a good long time. Now Nicola, will you promise me something? It's not exactly a secret, but I don't think Maya would like to have people talking about this. Please try not to tell people what I've told you - not Lesley, not Miss Pulcher. And I wouldn't mention it to Maya either, when she's better."

"Why not?"

"Because losing a baby like this is a sad thing, and it will probably upset her, and Maya won't want to feel that everyone on Alpha knows about it."

Nicola nodded solemnly, wondering at the back of her mind why, in that case, she had told Gillian. But she resolved to keep this important confidence. She finished the milk, gave it back to Dr Russell, and buried down under the covers. Dr Russell smiled and kissed her head, and Nicola drifted off to sleep with warmth spreading slowly through her body.

She heard voices.

Nicola started and lifted her head from the pillow, the memory of where she was whirling quickly into place. It took a few moments for her to remember why she had a special happy feeling inside, too.

The voices were low, murmuring. She slipped out from under the covers and padded to the door and rocked the door-switch slightly to make it open a crack. It was a trick she had discovered and perfected some time ago.

The Commander was there, in the corner of the sofa. Dr Russell was sitting a little way along from him, her attitude quite different from how she usually was; Nicola could see it at once in the way she was slumping forward, as if she was crumpled. Her face was pale and worried. The only light was a dim lamp by the table, casting deep shadows.

"How can it be your fault?" the Commander was saying. "If it was anyone's it was Tony's."

"Oh John, don't say that."

"I've no intention of saying that - certainly not to him - but I still feel strongly about it. The fact is Maya could have died, isn't that so?"

"Yes. She seems to be inherently more resilient than we are - I've often noticed that. If she'd been human, and had haemorrhaged like that without the possibility of an immediate transfusion, she would have been in serious trouble. As it is, I don't really know how close she came to death, but - I think we nearly lost her."

"Then I find it hard not to be angry."

"John - "

"Don't worry, it'll go no further. As far as I'm concerned, this episode is over."

"I hope so. Yes."

"And I want you to put it out of your mind too."

"Maybe you should talk to Tony, you can't afford for there to be any bad feeling between you - "

"No. I've nothing more to say. Talking about it would be more likely to raise bad feeling again, and there's no point now."

"You - may be right."

They were silent for a little while, Dr Russell still huddled up as if she was upset and the Commander snaking his arm along the back of the sofa towards her. His expression changed and softened and he leaned forward. "What's more important, I want to know if there's still bad feeling between us."

Dr Russell rubbed the side of her face with one hand. "I could have done with a little more support. I didn't enjoy being stuck in the middle between you two."

"I know. I'm sorry. Look at me... come on."

She turned away from Nicola, so that she could only see the back of her head. And their voices dropped so low that she couldn't make out the words any more. She was about to sneak back to bed - she was still a little in awe of the Commander, and didn't want him to see her - when they stopped talking and started kissing. Nicola stayed, reluctantly fascinated. She had seen Lesley and Michael doing this, but she had not imagined that the Commander and Dr Russell would be the same. Yet he put his arms around her and drew her onto his lap, and Dr Russell cuddled there like a little girl; no longer the strongest, wisest grown-up on Alpha, but small and yielding.

"What are we going to do about madame?" said the Commander, finally letting go.

Nicola was surprised they hadn't suffocated.

"There's nothing we can do. I'll have to get back to her, and you - " she ran her finger down his chest, "will have to go."

The Commander glanced over at the door and Nicola found herself looking directly into his eyes. Her hand slipped on the switch and the door slid fully back, exposing her.

Nicola made a dive for the duvet and hid.


Helena turned around and washed her hands slowly after finishing the examination, giving Maya time to get up and rearrange herself. She knew that she found this clinical intimacy distasteful.

"The cervix is still swollen," she said, "but it should settle down in another few days. Have you any discomfort?"

"No," said Maya, stonily.

"That's good. I'm going to let you go, but only because nobody in Medical Centre could stand another day of you making a fuss about getting out."

"Thank you," said Maya, standing up.

"No - Maya - wait a moment, I haven't finished."

She sat down again, avoiding her eyes, pressing her hands into her lap.

"I want you to take things very easy for the next two days at least. Go to the gym, perhaps, and do some gentle exercise - but stop if you feel dizzy or faint - no high-impact aerobics." She smiled.

"I can't go back on duty?"

"Absolutely not. Your haemoglobin count is still only eighty percent of normal - you need to rest."

"I'm tired of resting!"

"Too bad, that's an order. Maybe you could suggest that Tony takes some leave, and you could spend some time together. I'm sure he wouldn't take much persuading."

Maya looked at her humourlessly.

Helena took a mental deep breath. "There's something else I need to talk to you about, and that's the problem of contraception."

Maya lowered her eyes and flexed her hands against the seat of her chair.

"We know now what I ought to have realised," Helena continued, ignoring this display of embarrassment, "that a hormonal contraceptive designed for human women doesn't protect you. I'm sorry I let this happen. Now I think I've isolated the hormone that corresponds to our progesterone, but even if I could be certain of synthesising it I would be very reluctant to start experimenting on your biochemistry. Undoubtedly the best kind of contraception for you from now on is a barrier method. Do you know what I mean by that?"

Maya shook her head.

"The principle is very simple, it's a device which physically prevents the sperm ever meeting an egg, usually coupled with a chemical which kills off most of the sperm on contact. I'm going to make you a small ring of flexible plastic which you can fit inside you before you want to make love. It should be perfectly comfortable, you won't know it's there, and used properly it will be nearly as reliable as a hormonal contraceptive. It has to be made to measure so we'll have to wait until you've properly recovered - in two weeks or so. It's unlikely you'll start ovulating again before that, but to be on the safe side, avoid having full sex until I can fit you with this diaphragm."

Maya transferred her rigid gaze from her hands to the wall somewhere behind Helena.

"I know this makes you uncomfortable," said Helena, as gently as she could through her rising impatience. "But we have to talk about it, or the same thing could happen again - would, eventually."

"It won't," said Maya emphatically.

"Don't be discouraged. The one good thing to come out of this - and I think it's a wonderful thing - is that we know you are genetically compatible with us. You will be able to have a baby one day." Which is more than I can be sure of, she thought in a bitter undertone. Coming from another planet was nothing compared to the ordinary daily advance of age. "Your next pregnancy might go quite smoothly," she continued, "and - if it doesn't - well, we know a little more about what to expect."

Maya displayed no enthusiasm at this prospect. It was obvious that she wanted to bolt from the room.

"All right, Maya," said Helena with a sigh. "Off you go."

Tony had not spoken to John since the terrible meeting in Helena's office. They were not deliberately ignoring or avoiding each other - as far as he was concerned, anyway - but nothing had arisen to give them occasion to talk, and they had not come into each other's orbit.

He was uneasy, but not surprised, when at last John came into Command Centre during his watch and approached his station.

"There could be more of a problem with the oxygen recycling plant than we thought," he said, in a low voice, leaning on the console.

"I thought Engineering had fixed it," said Tony, not quite looking at him.

"So did they, but Jordanstoun's just brought me a report, it seems there's a component they can't repair."

"Everything can be repaired. What do they need, titanium?"

"No, we're okay for titanium still, despite Helena helping herself a couple of weeks ago. As far as I understand it, it's a mechanical problem, not a resources issue. We're having a command conference to discuss it at fourteen hundred hours today, Jordanstoun's going to explain in detail then."

"Right," said Tony, feeling an uncharacteristic ache of depression. It was all hell when you really thought about it, and looked beyond the absorbing daily drama; utterly trapped on this disintegrating base, which had been built as a research station, not a permanent home.

John straightened up, and frowned. Tony turned round to follow his look and was shocked to see the door closing behind Maya. She was in uniform, and she smiled a faint acknowledgement at him before taking her post.

For the first time Tony caught John's eye, and they both went over to her.

"Maya," said John quietly, "what are you doing here?"

She was turning on her computer. "This is my shift, Commander."

"I don't believe for one moment that Helena's okayed you for duty."

"She discharged me this morning. Really, I'm all right."

"You're not all right!" said Tony. "You're still pale as a ghost."

"I can't help that."

"Don't be stupid, stop trying to be a martyr. Go home, go on."

She flashed him a sullen look then ignored him.

"Maya," said John, gently but insistently.

Of course, Maya paid him the courtesy of attention and a reasonable reply. She said calmly, "I want to be here, doing something. I don't want to stay in my quarters, I dislike feeling useless. I can sit here just as easily as anywhere else."

"All right, but no dashing out anywhere in an Eagle."

"No, Commander."

John left it at that and, since he was being given the cold shoulder, so did Tony. He returned to his station, which was only a few feet away from Maya's and spent the rest of the morning watching her in anxious sidelong glances.

Usually, when space was quiet and empty as it had been recently, a certain informal lassitude developed in Command Centre. They all kept watch attentively - the slightest change could mean overwhelming danger, or the possibility of hope - but there was also a lot of casual conversation. Today, everyone seemed to be concentrating on their various duties and Maya was silent, intent on something she was running through the screen. Every now and again she got up and consulted the readouts on the computer banks, and Tony watched her with apprehension. He was sure that she was still too fragile to do anything but rest in bed; she seemed to move more carefully than usual, without her characteristic fluid elegance.

He let the digits on the clock creep up to 12.15, then he approached her.

"Lunchtime," he said, leaning close to her. "Are you coming?"

She shook her head. "I'm in the middle of something."

"Come on - lunch. I'm going to make sure you eat something, and I'll have a go at dragging you out of here physically if you don't come quietly."

She sighed, and switched her screen to standby.

They walked to the canteen in silence, and rather slowly. It wasn't his imagination; she was still weakened, physically, which disconcerted as well as worried him. He wanted to put his arm round her and support her, but he could sense how that gesture would be received.

When they sat down at their usual table near the back of the canteen, he had the chance to examine her properly for the first time. She still looked as if she'd spent the night with a vampire, and being in uniform and moving about didn't make her look well. She was lacking something indefinable, her animation.

"You don't look well," he said as earnestly as he could. "Really. You shouldn't even be up, much less on duty. Why don't you go home after we've finished lunch."

"And do what?"

"I don't know - watch a film or something. Sleep."

"I've spent rather a lot of time sleeping in the past few days, and I've no interest in watching a film. Please stop going on about it, Tony."

"Look, I'm worried about you."

"There's no need!"

They ate in silence. Tony watching her cutting the grilled slices of starch - perhaps supposed to approximate to polenta - into methodical squares, and putting them steadily into her mouth. At least she was eating.

"Nothing much has been happening while you've been stuck in Medical Centre anyway," he said, making an attempt to change the mood. "Except for Helena being bitten by the acting bug in a big way, it seems Sarah Pulcher thinks she's Alpha's answer to Meryl Streep. But I suppose you know all about that, since you've been locked up with Helena - "

"No. I've hardly spoken to Helena."

This was hard work. Tony finished off what was on his plate, struggling to think of another subject of conversation. He tried to remember what they usually talked about. Nothing and everything, for Maya was normally interested in and amused by most things.

Maya's gaze left her plate and wandered around the canteen, past his shoulder.

Tony became conscious that they were being watched, or at least noticed, by others. Bill Fraser and his wife Annie passed by their table, and stopped.

"Glad to see you better, Maya," said Bill.

Annie added, "Yes," warmly.

Maya nodded and raised the same faint smile. As soon as they moved on her expression glazed over again. Tony couldn't judge whether she was bored, or distressed, or simply exhausted.

"You need cheering up," he said. "Remember that batch of beer you said you liked, before you - before you were ill? Well, I made some more, specially for you. Let's celebrate your release from Colditz with dinner in my quarters - candlelight and Verdeschi's brew, vintage two days ago. Hm?"

He was speaking to a wall of blank indifference, and he took another drink of water to get over the awkwardness. Though he tried to suppress a reaction of irritation, he couldn't help thinking that she was doing a pretty good imitation of someone who didn't want to be there with him.

Helena stared in astonishment when she arrived slightly late for the command conference and saw Maya at the table, sitting between Tony and John. She was unable to catch Maya's eye, but Tony gave her an expressive, reproachful look.

But as she could hardly reprimand Maya in the presence of the chief engineer Georg Jordanstoun and Esther Clarkson from life support, she took her seat at John's other side and only said, "Sorry I'm late, we had someone in emergency."

"Chief Engineer Jordanstoun has been outlining the problem with the oxygen recycling plant," said John. "Perhaps you could just repeat that for Dr Russell's benefit."

Jordanstoun placed something small on the table in front of him. It was a wafer-like component, resembling a computer chip, made tiny by his large hand. "This is a diffusion wafer. It's a critical component of the oxygen recycling plant - they're coated inside with chemicals which release oxygen when gases are forced through the network of microscopic tubes etched onto the surface. There's an array of three thousand of these in the plant, and as you can imagine they last no time at all - they wear out in five months. We're not short of the materials we need to keep manufacturing them - we recycle ninety percent of what's in them - but what we need is a working X-ray synchrotron to imprint the pattern of diffusion channels."

"And it's the X-ray synchrotron that's gone, isn't it," said John.

"That meteor storm last month knocked out one of the magnets. We thought we got it working again, but we discovered this morning that it's fractured right across - it's had it."

"Can't you make another?" said Tony.

Jordanstoun shook his head. "It's impossible to manufacture an industrial magnet on that scale. We just don't have the kit here."

"Built the kit," said Tony.

"We might be able to do that - eventually - if we devote a hell of a lot of time and resources to it. The trouble is, our supply of diffusion wafers will only last another eight months."

"There must be a way of manufacturing these wafers other than by using a large and difficult to repair machine," said Maya, turning it over with her fingernails.

"If you want to find one," said Jordanstoun, "you're welcome to try - but remember, we get through them at the rate of two hundred a week."

"We've got a suggestion," said Esther Clarkson. "I don't know whether you're aware that there's an extensive oxygen mine located some distance from Alpha."

"A plant which extracted oxygen from moonrock to fuel the old type of space shuttles," said Alan Carter. "They were an important part of making the construction of Moonbase Alpha possible. Before fusion drives, shuttlecraft needed massive amounts of oxygen, and if they carried it with them from Earth, their payload would have been severely lightened."

"That's right. But the mine has been out of use since the late eighties, its function became obsolete. Our idea is to look into the possibility at least of recommissioning it."

"Do that," said John. "Look into it."

"I agree," said Helena. "It would be a good thing to have a backup source of oxygen, even if you solve the problem with the recycling plant."

"We use the X-ray synchrotron to make computer chips too, don't we?" John asked.

"Yes," said Maya.

"Then we need that fixed, period. Mr Jordanstoun, if you could set things in motion immediately. Dr Clarkson, submit a report on the feasibility of recommissioning the oxygen mine as soon as possible. Maya... work with Dr Clarkson's team to make yourself an expert on these diffusion wafers and see if you can come up with an alternative way of producing them."

"Yes, Commander."

Tony sighed and gave John a sideways, impatient look.

As they were walking out together, Helena made sure that they were clear of the others before saying in a low voice, "I'm not sure it's a good idea to put Maya to work on anything just yet, John. I discharged her but I told her to rest in her quarters."

He glanced backwards, as if checking that they were alone. "Helena - she presented herself for duty - I asked if she was all right and she insisted that she wanted to work. I guess keeping busy is her way of dealing with it."

"Or of denying it. She didn't behave like this when she was ill before, she didn't try to pretend she was fit when she wasn't."

"If you think she's going to do herself harm then I'll order her to quarters, but she seems as decisive and rational as ever to me."

"To you. Maya reacts differently to you than to anyone else."

"She does? I never noticed."

"Let's... just keep an eye on her, John."

He nodded seriously, then said in a different tone, "I looked at our schedules, we're both clear after seven. Do you want to make an evening of it?"

"I can't, I've got a rehearsal at seven thirty."

"Another rehearsal?"

"The play goes on in six weeks and there's a lot to learn - and I keep having to cancel at short notice."

"Sarah Pulcher's been seeing more of you than I have recently."

"I'll see you later, anyway," she said, tapping him lightly on the chest and diverting down the corridor Medical Centre.

It was after what he still thought of as seven o'clock before Tony finished leading a surface training exercise, and he got back to his quarters hungry and in need of a shower, a rest, and some companionship. Moonwalking was tiring and physically disorientating. During the exercise he had been troubled - because it distracted his concentration - but warmed by the knowledge that Maya would be with him that night, instead of locked away in a cold white bed in Medical Centre. Irresistibly, he thought of settling down to sleep curled against her back, his arms wrapped round her body and his face pressing into all her silky, sweet-smelling hair; and although it was a sensual image, it was not sexual. He knew that nothing more would be possible for a while, yet the longing to be out of this spacesuit and be there in bed - just holding her - was overpowering.

He had been working on the vague hope that she would be waiting for him, and when he came home to find his quarters were dark and empty, he was unreasonably disappointed. He showered and changed and went looking for her, not bothering to call ahead on the comlock; he was confident that he would find her in her own quarters, perhaps asleep.

The door slid open under her security code, to silence. She was not here either.

With the beginnings of concern, he called her. To his relief, she acknowledged at once. "Where are you?" he asked.

"I'm in life support. I'm doing a preliminary study of these diffusion wafers."

"Don't you think it's time you called it a day? It's nearly eight."

"This is important, Tony."

"They're not going to run out of those things for another eight months, Jordanstoun said, so it'll wait until tomorrow. I thought we were having dinner."

"I've already eaten something."

Taken aback, Tony said, "Well, come and have some beer, then. Come on, you can't spend the rest of the night in life support. You're not supposed to be working at all."

He was even more surprised when she signed off without saying anything else, but he went back home to wait for her.

It was after nine, and he was thinking about calling her again, before she turned up. He had sunk into a bored irritated stupor, and half-rose from the sofa when the door signal sounded.

She stopped a little way across the floor. "I'm going back to my quarters," she said. "I thought I'd drop in on my way, since you said you wanted to see me."

"Of course I want to see you. Don't go."

"I'm tired. You were right, I do still need to rest."

"Fine, rest here. Come on, don't stand about - come over here." He held out his hand.

With a slight sigh, she joined him. She accepted his hand for a moment - long enough for him to feel that her fingers were still cold - then withdrew and looked down.

He realised that she was gathering herself for something.

"Tony," she said, eventually, "we can't do this any more."

"Do what?"

"It no longer makes sense, it's too dangerous."

"What is? You mean sex?"

"We run enough risks here, almost every day, through circumstances we can't avoid - I can't justify using up Helena's time and resources, and possibly putting myself in danger, by doing something unnecessary."

"Unnecessary?" he cried, staring at her calm, frank expression in bewilderment.

"It is unnecessary," she said gently, "however enjoyable it might be."

"Maya, this is ridiculous. Look - I know you don't feel like it now, but you'll be okay in a couple of weeks, won't you?"

She pressed her lips and looked aside.

"Or are you really saying you want to call it off - us?"

"That's not what I mean at all."

"Yeah? That's what it sounds like."

When, after a short silence, he saw her hands were twisting in her lap. He tried, hard, to force down his anger, and told himself to remember what she had been through only days before; and his own repentance and remorse and resolution to behave better towards her. He stopped the motion of her hands with his, and put his arm around her shoulders. She was stiff and tense and would not relax into him.

"Let's not worry about it at the moment," he said. "You'll feel different later."

She shot up from under his arm like a missile. "I knew you might not like it," she said, pacing. "That's why I've been reluctant to discuss it with you. But I didn't imagine that you wouldn't accept I was serious."

"Maya - you've been through a bad experience - you're still not well, you're not yourself. I should know!" He stood up to confront her as she turned to make another stride, and caught her arms.

"We have no choice," she said, making no attempt to break away. "Whether I'm myself or not, I've come to a decision."

Tony held onto her, fighting with a raging hurt and disappointment in a desperate attempt to be reasonable. It would be too easy to say what he though immediately, that she had no right to come to any decisions about something that affected both of them without consulting him, at least; but he wasn't the one who had suffered pain, and come close to death. "All right. I'm sorry."

She smiled slightly.

He slipped his arms round her and she let him hold her close.

But only for a few moments. She stepped back and said, "Now I must go back to my quarters and sleep."

"You don't have to go away - stay with me."

"Tony, I thought we agreed - "

"Sleep here, just - sleep. I want you here - I've - missed you like crazy, if you must know."

He expected a softening, the usual, capitulating glow in her eyes. Instead, she gave him a steady, sad look, with the return of apprehension. "It wouldn't work," she said. "I'll see you tomorrow. Goodnight." She grazed his cheek with her lips.

In the last moment - stupidly, he thought for the rest of the night - he gave into frustration and motioned her away with a scowl. She bit her lower lip and left him alone.


Nicola carried her two treasures home one evening, elated by the idea of what she was going to do with them. One was a small book of paper which Miss Pulcher said was a 'jotter', which children on Earth used to write in at school. On Earth, paper had of course been plentiful. Miss Pulcher had found the jotter in a store cupboard, and had given it to Nicola 'to scribble in'. Nicola did not intend to scribble in something so rare and exciting.

The second treasure had come into her possession in the course of the same afternoon. It had not been entirely unexpected; Dr Russell had mentioned a few days ago that she had a real ink pen which Nicola might have, if she could find it. That afternoon she had come into the classroom and given the pen to Nicola.

Nicola was going to put the pen and the jotter to good joint use. She was going to write a Diary.

That evening she waited until Lesley had gone out to Michael's before she cleared the table and opened her jotter on the first ruled page. Neatly and carefully she wrote: 'MY DAIRY. Of Nicola Alice Brown, Aged 9. 20th October, 2004. Their was a girl on Earth who wrote a dairy called Anne Frank. This Dairy became very faimus. I do not expect my Dairy will becom faimus becaus I am ordinry and not living in hiding or anything, but I woud like to write a dairy for myself and not for anybody els. Miss Pulcher who is my techar will not see it ether becaus I dont think she likes my essys.'

She thought.

'I am not like Anne Frank. My name is Nicola Alice Brown and I am 9 years old which is much younger than anyon els wher I live. Age is relitiv however. Dr Russell says that you are as young or as old as you feel. I think too that you are as young or as old as peple treet you. Some peple treet me very young and some peple treat me as if I was grown up.'

The pen wrote beautifully on the smooth paper. Miss Pulcher said that on Earth most paper had been made from pulped-up wood. On Alpha, a sort of thin, scratchy, tough paper with an oily feel was made by a chemical process, and it did well enough for everyday use. But Nicola thought that 'real' paper - like book paper - was very much nicer. If they found a planet with tree, paper like this would become abundant again.

She laid her cheek on the paper. The play was soon. In less than a week, she would be on the stage. Miss Pulcher had confessed to being very excited by the way the production was coming together.

Nicola had only that afternoon, "Has anybody on Alpha ever written a play you've done, Miss Pulcher?"

"Er, no, Nicola."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. We've got all of Shakespeare and Ibsen and Shaw to get through before we bother about home-grown efforts."

"Can't the people on Alpha write plays just as well as Shakespeare and Ibsen and Shaw?"

"Not really, Nicola."

"Why not? Couldn't I write a play?"

"Of course you couldn't."

"Why not?"

"Because," said Miss Pulcher, suddenly sharp, "little girls of nine can't write plays. Don't be silly, Nicola. Get on with your work."

Nicola had been crushed for a while, but now, as she gazed at the real paper of her wonderful new Diary, she wished again to write a play. She wasn't sure she could make up a story, and a play had to have a story. She didn't know what to do or how to begin. She was scared it might be too much like Macbeth, and people would think she was copying. And she was haunted by the idea that it was somehow wrong to write a play, a presumptuous and silly thing to do. Miss Pulcher had said so.

Next morning Nicola ate her breakfast steadily and thoughtfully, then dashed away before Lesley could make her do the dishes. During the night she had dreamed that Maya had told her how to write a play. Having a strong inclination to believe in her dreams, she marched confidently along to Command Centre.

On her way she met the Commander, and she was gratified when he said good morning to her. It was treating her as a person and a grown up.

She had gone on a little when the Commander called her back.

"Nicola," he said, "have you seen Dr Russell lately?"

"I saw her yesterday evening at the play."

"Yes. Will you be seeing her again soon?"

"This evening again."

"Perhaps you could - " He put a hand in his pocket, then shook his head. "Well, perhaps you could tell her that I would appreciate any odd half hour she might have to spare me."


"No. On second thought don't. Forget it."

"No - Commander! Have you fallen out?"

"Not that I know of. But I've had little opportunity to - I've hardly seen her for the past few weeks."

"Well, she's doing the play."

"I know she's doing the play."

"You should come along to the rehearsals and see her. You'd enjoy them."

"No," he said, with a grave expression. "I don't think I would enjoy them. Look." He knelt down with a kind look. "I think I can trust you to communicate with her. Whenever you see her next, say something to her. Thank you."

Nicola nodded and carried on to Command Centre, but she was puzzled. Why couldn't the Commander talk to Dr Russell himself, if they hadn't fallen out? Reflecting as hard as she could, Nicola could not recall that Dr Russell had grown cold or tense recently; a general frostening of temper being the usual symptom of an upset in relations with the Commander. But she had to admit that she had not seen them together for quite a while.

She was surprised, flattered and a little daunted that the Commander had actually asked her to meddle in his affairs. Nicola had never been authorised to interfere before, and really - it took away some of the fun.

She slowed down as she came into Command Centre, the urgency of the dream image fading. She wasn't really supposed to go into Command Centre but if there was nothing going on nobody seemed to mind if she made a short visit. Tony, who was in charge if the Commander wasn't there, usually let her play at his terminal for a bit. If it was Mr Carter supervising instead, she could do anything she liked.

That morning, Tony was at his station, and so was Maya, and the place seemed quiet. She slipped in, and edged up to Maya.

She felt shy. She had hardly seen Maya for ages; she had got out of the habit of going to visit her because Dr Russell had told her that she had to be left to rest, and not be bothered by boisterous little girls. Nicola had consequently avoided her, and so much of her time recently had been taken up with rehearsals - and Maya seemed to be very busy herself with some new project - that what had been a confident intimacy had lapsed. Perhaps the dream had been something to do with that, telling her to make sure that they were still friends.

"Maya..." she said, plaintively.

Maya glanced round from her screen, with what seemed like a welcoming look. "Hallo, you."

"Aren't you supposed to be in school?" said Tony, from across the room.

He sounded cross, or as if he was about to be cross. Nicola felt that now was not the time to ask Maya about writing plays.

"Can I come and play with you?" she asked Maya quickly.

"I haven't got much time at the moment, Nicola, I'm helping Dr Clarkson fix the oxygen recycling plant."

"Oh." Nicola felt rebuffed, though Maya had spoken kindly. Tears stung unexpectedly at the back of her eyes.

Maya seemed to notice, and took her hand. "We need oxygen to breathe, Nicola. It's very important."

"I know," she said, sucking her lip. Maya looked different, she thought suddenly. She had got thinner.

"Look, do you want to see?" Maya pulled her onto her lap, and pressed a key on the terminal. Figures streamed across the screen. "These are the oxygen output figures for the past twelve months, and this here - " she pressed another key, "is a chromatogram produced by the diffusion wafers we use at the moment."

Nicola snuggled happily, gazing uncomprehendingly at the screen, suddenly enveloped in sweet maternal warmth.

Tony came over to them and leaned across the back of Maya's chair. "Come on, Nicola, hop it."

Maya pressed her arm around her and said, "I'm showing her some of the work I've been doing on the recycling plant."

"Yes, well, I think that's a bit beyond her."

"You don't know that - how will she ever learn?"

"By starting at the beginning like everyone else. There aren't any regulations about nine-year-olds in Command Centre but if there were, you wouldn't be allowed in. Off you go."

She was always prepared to be turned out of Command Centre so Nicola was unsurprised, but she slipped off Maya's lap with a bad grace and gave Tony as resentful a glare as she dared. He looked uncharacteristically bad-tempered; she knew he could be abrupt when he was working, but it wasn't as if there was a red alert or anything.

She glanced back as she was opening the door, and saw that Tony and Maya were exchanging low and apparently angry words. Just before the door slid shut on Nicola's view, Tony marched back towards his own station.

Nicola wandered away disconsolately, afraid that she had somehow made Maya and Tony fall out with each other. She supposed it was time to go and see whether Miss Pulcher had turned up to give her a lesson yet; her education had been thrown into a state of flux by the imminence of the play, something which happened regularly.

"Hello, Nicola!"

Nicola jumped. It was Dr Russell, on her way to Medical Centre. She was carrying a folder under her arm, and she wore a calmly happy look.

"Are you going this way?"

Nicola nodded.

"Come on then," she said.

Happily, she joined her, then remembered her commission. "Do you have this evening off, Dr Russell?"

"Yes, it's Friday."

"Is the Commander off too?"

"I believe he is, unless something comes up. Why do you want to know?"

Faltering in her intent, Nicola shrugged.

"There's a rehearsals this evening anyway," Dr Russell continued. "Will you be there?"

"Oh yes."

"Goodness, Nicola, you must know the whole play by heart by now!"

"Yes, I do! I love to go and watch the rehearsals even when it's not my bit. You're doing the bit tonight where you and Macbeth murder the Commander, aren't you?"

"The king, Nicola."

"Same difference."

"I suppose it is, really. Yes, all of that bit."

"Oh good."

"Why," said Dr Russell humorously, "do you like to see me murdering someone?"

"You're really good at it! But not in real life. You're a doctor and doctors never kill, do they?"


"Miss Pulcher said you had to take a Hypocrite's Oath."

Dr Russell smiled mysteriously.

Sarah Pulcher was living now in a happy dream. Not only had she found a Lady Macbeth of great potential, she had... somehow scored one over the Commander. Sarah was two parts at once. In her dull-shaded everyday life, she was timidly sensible. In her theatrical domain, she was all-powerful. And in bringing Dr Russell from the cold sober light of everyday into the soft bright flattering lights of the theatre, she had attained a subtle power over the woman.

As Dr Russell, Chief Medical Officer, the Commander's woman, the queen of Moonbase Alpha, she was formidable and Sarah had neither liked nor disliked her; despite her own silent feelings for the Commander, she had never shown her anything but respect. But as Lady Macbeth, as the doomed Queen of Scotland - she was under Sarah's direction, and within her control.

Not that the outer protocol was ever breached. Sarah, rankless now in her non-commissioned post as Theatre Manager, never failed to treat her with all the respect that was due to her position. She never ceased to be conscious of the honour Dr Russell was doing the theatre project by sparing her time. And yet, insidiously, Sarah felt she was gaining ground.

Now a new, daring thought was taking root. It filled her with a dangerous fire.

On her way to the theatre that evening she had met the Commander in the corridor. He had stopped her with a, "Sarah," and, obedient and flustered, she hurried to him. "There's a rehearsal this evening, isn't there?"

"Yes, Commander."

"Nicola said there was..."

"Would you like to come and watch, Commander? We're doing the big murder scene - with Dr Russell, you know, and Gordon. Gordon Briar, that is, of engineering. He's playing Macbeth."

"No, I don't think so."


"It's nothing - well, nothing personal, Sarah. It's just that I don't like plays in general. I don't like my own response to the atmosphere they create. Once will be enough for me."

"But you've enjoyed all my other plays! I thought you did, anyway."

"Yes - it's more that I don't like to see people I know well acting."

"Oh, I see. Yes. Yes. Of course, Commander."

The Commander nodded and went on his way.

Sarah had wandered to the theatre with her head full of new thoughts. The Commander was one of those people, then, who was unable to ride on the wave of theatrical illusion. The power of the theatre could be frightening and Sarah had seen people shrinking from it before. And watched others go under, to be carried by the strong currents into dangerous waters. Dr Russell was not, she knew, one of that sort; she had too strong a grip on reality, by necessity. But if the Commander disliked the business, she could manipulate - very slightly - to her own small ends.

"Dr Russell," she said, when the cast was gathered for the evening's rehearsal. "I've been thinking that something's missing from our Lady Macbeth."

Dr Russell looked up attentively.

"One of the things many people forget about Macbeth is that it's actually a great love story. Have you considered, Dr Russell, that the fuel for Lady M's obsessive zeal for her husband to be king is her love for him? It's her power over him, too. Lady M genuinely wants Macbeth to be king for his sake, not so much her own. Now when he comes down having done the deed, her 'My husband!' is I think one of the most emotive lines in the play. You've never really got enough punch into it, Dr Russell."

"I'd never actually seen it in that light before."

"No. Exactly. Exactly. Consider this, Dr Russell - Lady Macbeth is a woman of passion."


"Who never does anything by halves."


"She is passionately in love with her husband. I think that's what we want to bring out pretty heavily, then everything else falls into place."

"Yes, I suppose so."

"We'll try it out and see how it works."

Gordon Brior, who had been listening to this with interest, put down his coffee cup and said, "Does this mean stepping up the soppy stuff?"

"Well, er, put like that, I suppose, yes. What have we at the moment? Lady M gives you a quick hug and peck when she greets you for the first time. End of all romantic contact for the whole play."

"Looks can often say more than being all over each other," said Dr Russell, with a readiness that greatly annoyed Sarah, largely because she knew it to be perfectly true.

"We'll have looks! But I really want to try and bring out Lady M's sexual drive. Oh - I take it you don't mind?" She looked shrewdly at each.

Gordon grinned. "Always ready to oblige a lady."

"Of course I don't mind, Sarah," said Dr Russell lightly. "You could be right."

She was the Director. She had absolute power. And it soon became apparent that Dr Russell's theatrical innocence was extreme. She took up every suggestion with the readiness of a good sport, without any apparent uneasiness. And Gordon Briar was the same, except that Sarah suspected he was more than happy to be allowed to get close to such an attractive woman. That was good, from Sarah's point of view.

She was exuberant, not least because the development worked in the production. By the end of the evening, she was fully convinced that her motives were and always had been artistic.

Nicola had watched the proceedings that evening with a perception which certainly would have surprised her teacher. She had doubts. To her mind this sudden heavy emphasis on kissing and suchlike was unnecessary. With the Commander's commission in mind, she felt that things had taken an unwelcome turn.

After the rehearsal was over, Nicola ran after Dr Russell.

"Shouldn't you be going home, Nicola?" Dr Russell said, in a tone which nonetheless said she was ready to be talked to.

"Why do you have to kiss Gordon?"

"It's part of the play. I'm playing his wife, remember."

"But you aren't."

"What, his wife? No, it's all in the play. I'm not really kissing him."

Nicola was not sure enough of herself to argue. Instead, she said, "The Commander wants to see you."


"I don't know why. You usually go and see him for no reason at all."

"Yes, when I have time. I'm busy at the moment."

"He says you've been busy for ages."

"You can tell him I'll be busy for the next week."

"Don't you want to see him?"

"Of course, but I really haven't got the time just now. He'll understand."

"Don't you think he's more important than the play?"

"I - Nicola, what's got into you? The Commander knows I have to work long hours in Medical Centre and if he can't give me some leeway to rehearse for a play that's going to be over in a week then he's being totally unreasonable."

She was angry, and that anger was fired directly at Nicola. It took all of Nicola's courage to stand under the blast, but for the sake of what she had seen and what she believed the Commander felt, she stood her ground long enough to say, "The Commander will be jealous of Mr Briar when he finds out," before running quickly home to hide her tears of fright and shame.

Utterly furious, Helena marched to Command Centre and accosted him.

"What kind of game were you trying to play?" she demanded hotly, demolishing his look of pleasure when he first caught sight of her. "Getting Nicola to do your dirty work for you?"

"Why, what did - "

"How dare you ask her to take sides against me? She knew she had to do what you told her. How could you use a sensitive child like that? If you wanted to complain to me, you could have done it myself. To my face."

"But I - "

"And you made me lose my temper with her."

"Helena, don't create a scene in here - "

"I'll say what I want to you where I want, when I want. I'm not afraid to confront you directly."

"But I don't want to confront you, Helena," he said in a low voice, glancing uneasily around. Maya seemed attentive, but the rest of the personnel in Command Centre were studiously ignoring them. "I just want to have you to myself for a while... I only asked Nicola to remind you that I still exist."

She relented a little. It was difficult to resist his calm, reasonable tone; only when he shouted back did her hackles rise the more. "I'd rather you hadn't involved Nicola."

"Then I'm sorry."

That left Helena somewhat stranded and she looked about for something else to say. But the momentum had gone from her anger, and staring into his frank blue eyes she suddenly felt the compliment in his wish to claim some of her time. She ought not to be offended.

The pause became a silence and she had capitulated. "Maybe I ought to be apologising. I've got tomorrow evening free."

"Let's make the most of it," he said expressively, and gave her a look which could not leave her unmoved.

Nor could she help smiling in response. They watched each other for several moments more as Helena's tension unwound, and she forgave him.

"I'll see you then," she said, and left.

Helena did not turn down the branch of the corridor that led to Medical Centre as she usually would, to check that everything was in order there. Instead, she took the travel tube that led to Block D. It was important to see Nicola now, and reassure her. There had been something strangely courageous in the child' face which had stuck in Helena's mind, but it had been a white, defiant, terror-stricken bravery.

It would become necessary to think more constructively about Nicola's future. Helena had avoided the issue in her mind, because she had not liked to remember that they had a child trapped with them in the perilous situation; but since she had been thrown more together with her in the past few weeks, she had realised both that Nicola genuinely did not regret her circumstances - how true it was that a child would accept anything as normal - and that she was ready to move on a stage. Ah-hoc classes with Sarah Pulcher, supplemented by irregular science lessons from Maya, were not really appropriate any more.

Although no-one could tell what lay ahead for the Alphans, it was impossible not to begin to make plans. Helena felt that, after all this time, they could not continue to put their life into suspended animation, waiting for a future to materialise out of the mists of space. Nicola's attitude put the timid, procrastinating outlook of the adults to shame.

She had hoped -

Apart from natural womanly well-wishing, and some intellectual curiosity, she had discovered deeper reasons for hoping that Maya's pregnancy had succeeded. A baby on the way might have acted as a catalyst to release the scared deadlock in their society, which was hardly a society at all without basic human events. As it was - in effect - Alpha had just had one more death.

Helena knew that the nurses had talked, and what had happened was general knowledge. She could only hope that Maya was unaware of this.

She signalled at the door of Lesley's quarters, and after quite a while Lesley opened it and stood impassively in the entrance. She was in her dressing gown, and her hair was bound up in a towel.

"Hello," said Helena. "I'm sorry, were you in the shower?"

"I was just coming out," said Lesley.

"I wonder if I could see Nicola."

"You can't see Nicola."

"Why not?"

"Because I've put her to bed."

"At half past seven?"

"She was naughty."

"Oh, surely."

"I'm sorry, Dr Russell, but you can't see her."

"Lesley, I really would like to talk to her."

"And who do you think you are to insist on seeing my charge?" said Lesley, with unexpected belligerence.

Taken aback, Helena tensed. "You know who I am," she said quietly.

"Yes," replied Lesley icily, "you're the Chief Medical Officer. So what? Does that give you the right to stand outside my door ordering me what to do with my kid?"

"She's not your kid. She's a human being and she belongs to herself."

"Listen, Dr Russell, that child is nine years old and she needs a firm hand."

"A firm hand? Lesley, what are you saying?"

"I'm telling you to leave her alone. I can't do anything with her these days. Her answer to everything I say is Dr Russell says something else. How the hell am I supposed to bring her up with you indulging her behind my back and encouraging her to defy me?"

"Lesley - "

"Go away, Dr Russell. Go away and leave Nicola to me."

She was standing in the doorway, blocking the entrance. "Let me past," said Helena.

"Good night, Dr Russell." Lesley operated her comlock and the door began to slide shut.

Firmly, Helena wedged her foot in it to stop it and used her own comlock to open it again. Quickly, she stepped in.

"Get out!" cried Lesley. "You've no right to be in my quarters! If you don't get out right now I'll call security!"

"Go ahead, call them." Helena went to open the door to Nicola's room. To her surprise it did not respond to her touch on the control. "It's jammed!"

"It's locked," Lesley retorted.

"Locked! Did you lock it?"
"How else am I supposed to keep that child in one place? I've got to use force to make her do what she's told these days."

Helena used the emergency medical override on her comlock to open the door.

Nicola, in her nightgown, was standing directly behind it. Her eyes were bloated and her cheeks were streaked with tears. On seeing Helena, she gave a gasping sob and threw herself upon her.

Helena reached down and lifted her. Her body was trembling convulsively. "Come on, Nicola," she said soothingly. "It's all right. You'll be all right."

"Nicola, I told you to stay in bed!" Lesley snapped. "Get back there!"

Nicola wailed incomprehensibly against Helena's shoulder.

Without a further word of argument Helena marched out of Lesley's quarters with Nicola in her arms.


Tony had been called out of the squash courts by Jim Ingles, one of the younger members of his security team.

He had been playing a lot of solitary squash practice sessions recently, developing strange muscles in his upper arms.

"I'm sorry to disturb you off-duty, sir, but Lesley Whitticker just called the security office, and she's threatening to come over here in person. She claims Dr Russell has abducted Nicola Brown."

Tony wiped his face with a towel and said, "Have you checked it out?"

"How can I? I can't exactly go barging in on Dr Russell and ask her if she's kidnapped Nicola - I mean, not Dr Russell. It's a job for you, sir - I don't mind saying that."

"Okay, Ingles, you're right. If Lesley Whitticker turns up, keep her there - I'll be with you as soon as I can."

Lesley had turned up at the security office by the time Tony had pulled on his uniform and made his way at a brisk pace from the recreation complex. She had obviously been crying and was still wobbling on the edge of angry tears; a thin, pale woman with running eye make-up and crinkled yellow hair and a curiously grating Scottish voice. Tony realised that, although he had seen a lot of little Nicola, he had never before spoken to her foster-mother.

"Why has he called you?" she demanded, jumping up as soon as he approached her.

"Because I'm Chief of Security - "

"And nobody else is allowed to touch Dr Russell?"

"And you've lodged a serious complaint which has to be dealt with by someone in authority."

"Particularly as the complaint is against Dr Russell?"

She was absolutely right, but Tony tried to conceal his irritation. He was finding everything and everyone irritating now, tasting a bitter undertone in every transaction. "Just tell me what happened, Lesley, there's no need to get personal."

"It is personal!" Lesley cried, her cheeks flaming. "That bloody woman marches into my quarters - using her medical override, I bet - and walks out with my little girl, spouting all kinds of self-righteous patronising - nonsense!"

She was spitting, almost hysterical, and collapsed into huge sobs.

Intensely uncomfortable, Tony sat beside her and wondered what to do next. There had to be more going on here than was apparent. "Did Nicola go with her willingly?" he asked, trying to sound gentle.

"Of course she did! She thinks Dr Russell is some kind of fairy godmother! But it's easy for her, isn't it! She can just swan in and out of her life, dispensing niceness - she doesn't have to deal with her, day in, day out!"

"Well, Lesley, if Nicola went with her willingly, then I don't think it's a matter for security. It's hardly kidnapping, is it."

"She's a little girl of nine, for God's sake, she's not old enough to know what's good for her! I'm sorry, Mr Verdeschi, but on Earth, if - if - I don't know, a divorced father or something - took away a child when the mother had been awarded custody and the child was only nine - it didn't matter what the child's opinion was, it was still a crime. You could still get the police to sort it out."

"Dr Russell can hardly have absconded with her to South America, she's only going to be in her quarters, or somewhere else on the base. Nicola might even have gone home by now. Why don't we just call Dr Russell, and see what the situation is."

"Will you demand that she returns Nicola to me?"

"I hardly think Dr Russell intends to keep her - "

"Or rather, that she stays away from her?"

"I think you and she should have a talk."

"Oh, this is pathetic!" Lesley cried, jumping up. "You won't do anything, will you? I've no recourse to any kind of justice or protection."

"Lesley, as far as I can see Dr Russell hasn't done anything that - "

"Just because she's the Commander's bidie-in - she's above the law."

"We don't have law here, as such. If someone committed a serious crime then we'd improvise, but we're a small community and we can't get away from each other, we have to try to get along. Now if Dr Russell had abducted Nicola and was holding her somewhere against her will, then her rank would be irrelevant - and her relationship with anyone else on the base would certainly count for nothing. What do you think we are here?"

Lesley sat down and folded her arms. She was shaking with barely contained emotion.

"If you want me to act as an intermediary, I'll go and see Dr Russell now," said Tony. "You can stay here if you want and - have a cup of coffee or something."

Lesley's arms clasped tighter to herself, and after a moment Tony took her silence as an assent.

He went straight to Helena's quarters, without calling her on the comlock; since he was now involved in it, this was a situation that had to be handled directly and in person. Although Helena more or less lived in John's quarters - he had never before heard, but could easily guess the meaning of the expression 'bidie-in' - he had a feeling that she would have taken Nicola into her own territory.

He was right. Helena answered her door immediately, with a quizzical expression. "Tony."

"Helena," he said, awkwardly. "Do you have Nicola Brown here?"

Helena stood aside and indicated into the room. Nicola was kneeling by the coffee table on the floor, clutching a steaming cup. She looked upset and shivery, and after one more glance at Helena - whose face had assumed an uneasy tension - Tony lowered himself to be at a level with her.

"Hey," he said. "How are you doing?"

She gave him a pouting look full of melodramatic resentment, and Tony remembered, with annoyance, that he had thrown her out of Command Centre that morning. He tried gentle charm, a technique he had lost confidence in recently; he took her shoulders and touched her cheek and said softly, "Come on, sweetheart, you can tell me about it."

He got about the same response as he would expect from Maya at the moment, though tear-stained rather than frosty. Deciding that he had lost whatever power he had ever had over women, Tony left her alone and straightened up to face Helena. "Can we have a word?" He motioned with his hand to the bedroom door.

Helena frowned and led the way.

"She has to go back," Tony said, as soon as the door closed behind them.


"Nicola. To Lesley Whitticker."

"Of course she will," said Helena with an impatient, angry sigh. "Once I've settled her - "

"No, Helena, now."

Helena stared at her. "Where do you come into this?"

"Lesley's made a security complaint - she saw what happened as an abduction."

"That's nonsense. Nicola was upset - I removed her from the situation. As soon as she's calmed down, she can go home."

"She's got to go home now."

He hated to do this. He didn't want to antagonise or upset Helena, but he felt now that her attitude and behaviour was bordering on arrogance; as irritating as Lesley's hysteria was, she was in the right.

Helena looked shocked, and that was another discomfort. She was expecting him to side with her because of who she was and their professional relationship. And if he made things really difficult here he was almost sure he could find himself demoted, but he was damned if he was going to let that stop him dealing with this problem fairly.

The trouble was, he had lost confidence in his ability to handle anything that involved personal interaction.

"She's not a piece of property," said Helena, with the beginnings of anger.

"I know, but she's a child of nine, and Lesley's her guardian."

"I have no wish to dispute that - "

"Good. I'll take her back."

"But I worry about the way Lesley seems to treat her, and that's a legitimate concern."

"Helena, I've seen a lot of Nicola because she always used to be there when I wanted to spend some time with Maya, and she's always seemed to me to be a normal, happy kid. In a place like this we'd soon know if Lesley was abusing her or neglecting her. Other than that, it's a matter of opinion how you bring up children - isn't it."

What the hell did he know about it, he thought suddenly.

"I'm going to take her back," he continued. "I suggest you sort things out with Lesley, maybe tomorrow when she's cooled off."

"Tony - "

He turned, his hand almost on the door button.

"Is everything all right - with you, I mean? You don't seem yourself, somehow."

Tony thought about this. Maya had just miscarried their baby, the only child he had ever conceived, and was now cutting him off from any kind of physical or emotional intimacy. Helena wondered if everything was all right. He was afraid that the pressure of misery and frustration, which he was trying to force down inside himself for everyone's sake, was going to explode out in someone's face soon.

It wasn't Helena's fault. "I'm fine," he said shortly, and went back through to get Nicola.

She was standing in the middle of the floor, her eyes alert and innocent, as if she might just have darted away from the door.

It had been an unthinking, instinctive act. It was only after she had kissed a sullen Nicola goodnight, and had one more reluctant look from Tony, that she recognised that she had done something - unwise. The realisation built up quickly into something near panic, and as always she wanted to do something immediately to solve the problem. She knew, however, that Tony was right; she couldn't approach Lesley again tonight when Nicola would be all too aware of anything going on, and she would have to seek an opportune moment the next day.,

She went to John's quarters, made herself a drink and stretched out on the sofa to think and attempt to relax. It was impossible, with the consciousness of her impulsive indiscretion pressing into her like a physical weight. She was going to have to tell John, before he heard about it from Tony.

But she was asleep before he came off duty late that night.

She woke up suddenly in the middle of the night, as she often did when she was worried about something, which she often was. The barriers that insulated rational thought and optimism from the dark expanses of fear around her were thin and transparent in the dead time of night. Panic crept coldly over her skin as she thought about her invisible ovaries and womb, suspended in a pickle of synthetic hormones, silently and unpredictably waiting to shut down forever.

She gripped the pillow and started to cry - silently, to avoid waking John.

Nicola got up very early, on purpose. She tip-toed into the kitchen and, being very very quiet, she made breakfast for Lesley, put it on a tray, and carried it carefully through to the bedroom. She had to operate the door button with her elbow.

Lesley was asleep. Nicola put the tray on the bedside table and watched the motionless lump, wondering if it would be wise to wake her. But if she didn't, the tea would go cold and disgusting.

"Lesley!" she whispered.

The lump stirred and flattened. "What?" said a cross moan.

"I brought you breakfast in bed."


"I brought you breakfast in bed."

Blinking and scowling, Lesley emerged from beneath the duvet. "What? Oh, good God, look at the time..." The bedside clock said 6:20. She slid back under the covers.

"But Lesley," said Nicola, "I've brought you breakfast in bed."


"I wanted to be nice!" Nicola wailed. Why was it such hard work to be nice to Lesley? She felt pious and insincere.

Silently and despondently, she left Lesley and her breakfast alone and wandered out of her quarters. To go to the Medical Centre was impossible. Nicola was almost resolved never to speak to Dr Russell again. But she had to go to somebody, and Maya was the next person she thought of.

Though Maya could still be asleep too, and might not like to be woken up. Nicola didn't know whether she still had to leave her alone to rest or not, or whether she was all better now.

"Why does nobody want me?" she cried to the empty corridor.

Helena decided, after sitting at the breakfast table with her comlock in one hand for about five minutes, that the only way to go through with this was face-to-face. She called Sarah, whose com code she knew off by heart now.

"Does Nicola have lessons with you this morning?"

"Yes, starting at nine - why, Dr Russell, is there a problem? You're still okay for tomorrow?"

"Yes, Sarah. There's no problem, I just needed to know where Nicola would be this morning. I may ask you to take part in a command conference later."

"A command conference! Gosh. That sounds a bit too important for me."

Helena smiled, not sure whether she was being ironic or not - Sarah was English, and she was sometimes unsure whether to take what she said at face value - and called Medical Centre to say that she would be late on duty as she was making a house call first. Then she swallowed her pride down, braced herself, and went to Lesley's quarters. She had already taken a look at the duty rosters, which were posted on the computer network, to determine that Lesley was not in engineering until eleven that morning.

Her heart thudded while she waited for her to answer, trying to assume an expression that would not be read wrongly.

Lesley in fact looked exasperated, and weary. She sighed, closed her eyes, and turned back into the room immediately.

"Lesley, may I come in?"

Lesley waved her hand, and carried on with taking some crockery down from the kitchen unit cupboard.

"I've come to apologise for what happened last night," said Helena. "I was wrong to take Nicola out of here. I acted rashly."

Lesley shrugged and sat down at the table with a cup of tea. Then she looked up, and said, "Oh, for goodness sake don't just stand there. Do you want a cup of tea?"

"Thank you," said Helena, and took the chair at the other side of the table.

"Or coffee maybe? I thought you didn't drink tea in America. Not that either of them are anything like the real thing, anyway."

"Either one is fine."

She had a cup of what they called tea on Alpha placed in front of her. Lesley took her seat again, and shifted backwards.

There was a silence.

Lesley began suddenly, her voice hard with nervousness and resentment. "Look, I don't know what you think I'm doing wrong with her."

"I don't think you're doing anything wrong."

"But I am. We don't get on, she never listens to me."

"Listens, in what sense?"

"She won't do what I tell her?"

"What do you tell her?"

"The kind of thing you tell kids to do - you know - go to bed, keep things tidy, don't make a noise."

"Perhaps you're focusing on the wrong things in your relationship with her."

Lesley made a contemptuous noise, her gaze still on her cupped hands. "Perhaps I am, but what time have I got to do anything else? I've got to give her structure, haven't I. She can't be allowed to run wild round the base. The thing is, Dr Russell, and this is what I meant - it's easy enough for you to come in, be nice to her, and go away again."

"I'm sorry you feel that way. I don't do it with any malicious intent."

"I know."

"And I do feel that Nicola needs a variety of influences in her life, particularly as she has no age peers."

"Yes, I know. It's a shame on her."

"That's why I'm worried that you're resentful of my involvement with her. I don't want to take her away from you."

Lesley looked up for the first time. "Do you want children, Dr Russell?"

"Yes. But I want my own child, not someone else's."

"Pamela MacAllister was my best friend at university, you know. We met at Astrosoc, she was doing an English course but she was interested in astronomy, she had a lot of interests. She was terrible bright, more so than me - you know, she had one of those brilliant minds, fascinated by everything, energetic - articulate. I was overawed by her, I followed her around at first like I had a girlie crush on her, but it was an intellectual attraction, nothing funny. I was sort of shy, I didn't have much self-confidence, I wanted to empty myself out and let her fill me instead. I never knew why she took to me. And she always said that if she got married and had a baby, she was going to stay at home and look after it. I thought women should have a career. Pamela said that life was more important. And she did it. She met Iain in her fourth year, they got married straight away after they graduated, and she had Nicola straight after that. I moved to Imperial College in London to do an MsC because I was determined to go i nto space and she stayed in Scotland so I didn't see so much of her, but I held Nicola when she was a few hours old - I'm her godmother. Pamela gave her everything - there's not much I can do for her."

"Pamela was killed during Breakaway, wasn't she?"

"I found her in her quarters with part of the wall through her neck, and Nicola kneeling beside her in a great pool of blood. I just picked her up and hung onto her, and I haven't let go since." She broke down into tears.

Helena waited in sympathetic silence, judging that Lesley did not want to be interrupted.

"I know that a lot worse things have happened to people," she said, after the brief burst of weeping. "I never got hurt, nothing's ever happened to me - I've just been frightened - a lot - and bored, a lot. I don't do anything exciting, Dr Russell. I don't go around saving lives. I'm a second grade engineer and I'm never going to be anything else, not unless five other people in my section die - and of course I don't want that. I had a career that was going really well, you know what a great thing it was to get onto Alpha. Now it's all over, everyone's trapped. We can't move forward, we can't even have kids. What's the point of anything?"

"Many of us feel like that some or all of the time, Lesley. You're not alone."

"My boyfriend wants us to get married. I just can't see the point."

"As... an affirmation that life still goes on?" said Helena tentatively, not wishing to suggest that this relationship itself might be at the root of Lesley's malaise.

Lesley sniffed, and pushed back her hair. It had probably once been well cared for, but it had gone an odd colour and was noticeably dry and brittle as a result of various desperate chemical lighteners. "It doesn't though, does it. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I wonder what's the point of getting out of bed. So what good am I to Nicola?"

"You give her stability and structure, as you said. You're also someone she knew on Earth, someone who was close to her mother, so you give her a sense of continuity with her life before breakaway. I've been thinking recently that Nicola would benefit from more opportunities to develop intellectually, and, with your permission, I'd like to call a conference to discuss her education."

"With my permission?"

"Yes, Lesley."

"A conference of who?"

"Of those concerned in the matter - you, of course, myself, Sarah Pulcher, Maya, and the Commander."

"The Commander? Why him?"

"It's an important issue, I would like the Commander to be involved, and to give his authority to any decisions we make."

Lesley shrugged. "All right. I mean, I don't have any objections."

"Thank you."

"And - Dr Russell - I'm sorry I overreacted last night. I should never have called in security, that was stupid."

"I acted unprofessionally, you had legitimate cause to be angry."

"Och, I'm embarrassed now thinking about it. I'd never spoken to Tony Verdeschi before. He's nice, much nicer than I'd thought. I wish I hadn't made a fool of myself." She gave a small laugh. "But then he's spoken for, isn't he."

"I think so, yes."

She added, in a more serious tone, "I just want something to change, Dr Russell. I feel at the moment like nothing's ever going to happen again. Thanks - thanks anyway for coming to talk. Don't take any notice of my carry-on, I mean Nicola likes you, and I don't want her to stop seeing you or anything."

"I'm glad. I'm glad we've reached an understanding." She paused at the door, wondering how to put this. "Lesley, we don't have any qualified counsellors on Alpha, but Dr Mathias does have a background in psychiatry. I wonder if you might benefit from having a talk with him."

"You think I'm going round the bend?"

"I think you've described symptoms of depression, which is quite understandable in the circumstances. Dr Mathias may be able to suggest some ways to help."

"Give us a planet to live on," said Lesley. "That would be a big help, for a start."


Maya had been opting out of Command Centre tours of duty. Tony had suspected it, though for a while he wasn't sure if her less-frequent-than-before presence at her station opposite his was something to do with her being on light duties. As time went on this began to seem unlikely, and it was confirmed when he quietly, but openly, asked Annie Fraser why she was there.

"Maya swapped with me, sir," she said, wide-eyed but unselfconscious.

"Did she give a reason?" he asked, realising that he was pushing at the edge of making it obvious that things were going from bad to worse between Maya and himself. That sort of rumour got round Alpha like bushfire.

"She said she was working on a project in life support and needed the time. I don't mind covering, she's going to do my evening shift."

"And when she's supposed to have any time off?" he demanded, impulsively.

Annie's eyes widened further, and Tony moved away, cursing himself.

He sat out his own shift stolidly, then went to find her. Of course he understood that the work that she was doing in life support was important, but as far as he understood the recommissioning of the oxygen mine was going well and the facility would probably be fully operational by the end of the month, giving them the option of a direct supply of fresh oxygen. Meanwhile, work was underway on repairing the damaged x-ray synchrotron, which would restore their ability to manufacture conventional components for the oxygen recycling plant. They weren't about to suffocate.

He found her in one of the innumerable, seemingly identical labs in Block H, bending over some kind of ray-gun apparatus, in close consultation with Esther Clarkson. Tony stopped in the doorway and watched them, arms folded. Maya was directing operations of the firing instrument and Esther was setting up small square targets in a restraining frame. Both were wearing white lab coats over their uniforms and oversized protective eye goggles. It was incredible that two women of approximately the same size and shape, dressed identically, could look so different. Esther had a pleasant, neutral, fair-complexioned face, and a trim figure underneath her lab coat, but she was a negative presence in the room as far as Tony was concerned; a sexless figure, without radiance or appeal. Although he could only see Maya from behind, the lines of her body as she leant over the firing device seemed supple and suggestive through the shapeless garment. A few strands of coppery hair straggled from an otherwise tight, twisted knot, showing off the curve of her neck. She was desperately desirable, and in spite of the situation - possibly, he admitted, because of it - he stirred inside just watching her.

Esther lifted her head and noticed him. "Maya," she said.

There was a certain level note in her voice that made Tony wonder with irritation whether Maya had made this woman her confidant and they had spent hours discussing her vows of celibacy in the intimate, confessing way girls did.

Maya turned, and removed her goggles. He noticed, with a sudden feeling of alarm, that her face was thin. "Tony. Is something wrong?"

"No, nothing's wrong, I've just come off duty, I thought you might be finishing up here."

She shook her head. "We're got a lot more runs to do on this."

"Maya," said Esther, "I'm about ready to call it a day now."

Maya gave her what looked like a distressed look, but said nothing.

Esther gathered up a few papers and disks and said, "I'll see you tomorrow," and left the lab.

It was one of the quickest exits Tony had ever seen. As soon as the door closed on Esther, Maya's blank expression fell away and her eyes sharpened. "Why did you come down here?" she demanded.

"Why shouldn't I? It's not a restricted area, is it?"

"You made Esther go - that was so embarrassing."

"I didn't make her go, she left. And how else am I supposed to see you? You've made yourself pretty scarce in Command Centre recently."

"Tony, I'm working on an important project here, I haven't got time to spend in Command Centre waiting for something to happen. In fact, I may ask the Commander to excuse me from Command Centre duties altogether for a while. It makes more sense for me to be in the labs much of the time, I've discovered that."

"You don't have to put on a white coat and hide down here, you know."

"I'm not hiding."

"You just have to tell me."

"Tell you?"

"I'm very bad at taking hints, which is why I'm standing here, but I'm excellent at understanding words of one syllable, so go on."

He could hear the tone of his own voice, confident, careless, shading into flippant; it gave no indication of the terror that came, suddenly, with the words. He was ready to push her over the precipice of admitting her feelings because he could not bear to continue in this uncertainty, but he was giddy with fear that she would actually say it.

She twisted the elastic strap of the goggles. "If you think I'm avoiding you, you're wrong."

"Well then, come back to my quarters and have dinner," he said, quickly, stepping back again from forcing a confession from her.

She sighed. "I have to do Annie Fraser's shift in Command Centre in half an hour."

"No you don't. I've fixed up Alibe to cover for you."

"Why did you do that?"

"Because I think you've been working too hard, and even if you don't want to heat up some rations at my place you can go home and have a rest."

She lowered her eyes, her fingers still twisting.

He took the risk of stepping over the great barrier of reluctance she was projecting, and moved close to her. Touching her was like pressing a soft statue, but he couldn't resist taking her arms gently as soon as he was near enough to feel the warmth of her body.

After a moment she looked up at him, and the expression in her eyes was wavering. He could see the old warmth flickering behind her assumed attitude of rigidity.

"I don't want a rest," she said, her tone unwinding.

"Good. Let's unwrap some tinfoil then."

In his student days, Tony had perfected a repertoire of uncomplicated but hearty Italian dishes as a seduction technique. English girls, in particular, he found, were impressed by a Latin man who could present them with an effortless home-cooked meal. Under present conditions it was impossible to conjure up tagliatelle al prosciutto with a side salad of tomatoes and olives, but he did his best to arrange a selection of hydroponics rations in an appetising fashion and he brought out one of the last two bottles of wine he had stowed away at the back of his cupboard. That was supposed to be saved for extraordinary occasions, but he was facing the fact now that getting back on normal terms with Maya was a matter of life or death. He would have no more use for bottles of wine if he lost her.

While he prepared the food with the air of casual panache appropriate to the role of skilled bachelor, Maya found herself a book to read and curled up in the corner of the sofa. It was a hopeful sign. She looked relaxed and at home, as she used to.

"What's this?" she asked, as he put the bottle on the coffee table.

"Wine, from my uncle's vineyard." He'd never even opened a bottle for her, he realised.

"Another of your alcoholic concoctions?"

"Not mine. My Uncle Giuseppe's. I could trade this for almost anything on Alpha, you know, but I decided that you deserve a treat."

"I do? I'm not sure this is it."

"You haven't tried it yet." He wrestled with the cork and it came out with a satisfying wet plop.

Maya picked the cork up and turned it over in her fingers. "What a curious method of sealing a bottle."

"You've never seen a cork before?"

"No. Is it an organic material?"

"Yeah - it comes from a tree, I think."

He laid the food and wine out on the table, trying to distract himself from the maddening longing that was as much psychic as physical. Is it an organic material - the way she handled the cork in her long elegant hands like a toddler examining a spark plug, with a serious expression of scientific concentration, asking basic questions about objects he had never given any thought to before. She made him notice the familiar things of life in unexpected ways, because so much of his world was still new to her. That was one of her charms, the same quality that was appealing in a child.

A wave of regret and fear struck him without warning, and he had to pause as he placed down a wineglass.

She stood up, and approached the table with a small smile of appreciation which was as much as Tony expected, and pleased him.

He poured the wine with a flourish, hoping that she would admire the flash of ruby-red in the glass, and watched anxiously as she took her first sip.

"Oh," she said. "It tastes - strong."

"It should be stronger than my beer, by volume. Go slowly if you're worried."

"Why should I be worried?"

"I can drink most of the bottle, no problem, if you only want a glass."

"Where is your beer anyway?"

"I - haven't bothered recently. Well, I wasn't getting anywhere - you know that - I thought it was time to pack it in for a bit."

"Oh." She frowned over his shoulder, looking towards where the apparatus was partially dismantled. "But you mustn't give up, Tony."

"You reckon?"

"Absolutely not. It would be - sad."

"I never thought I'd get any encouragement from you to carry on making that stuff."

"The last batch I tasted was really not bad, or maybe I'm just getting used to the taste." She sipped at the wine again.

Suddenly Tony remembered exactly when she had last tasted his beer, and what had happened that night. The momentary lifting of his spirits deflated back down to the region where, he realised, he had been in a state of misery for weeks.

For a moment, he was on the point of blurting it out, and using what she had said to lead into talking about it. He had to force himself to remember in time that she didn't need to be reminded.

They slipped into a very long silence.

"Did you hear about Helena's run-in with Lesley Whitticker?" he asked eventually, desperate to end it.

She shook her head.

He outlined what had happened.

"Why did Helena do that?" Maya asked. She had almost finished the glass, and she did not protest when he topped it up.

"God knows, I never got as far as investigating the cause, when I see two women fighting my instinct is to stand well back. I just tried to calm them both down."

"Helena wasn't calm?"

"Of course she was calm, she was icier than ever. Okay, I tried to warm her up. She implied that Lesley had injured Nicola in some way. If I thought that was true I'd've looked into it further, but - you know what Nicola's like, she'll make a major drama out of anything. What do you think?"

Maya paused with the glass to her lips, widening her eyes. "Me? I wasn't there."

"No, but you know Nicola better than me."

"Lesley would never do anything to harm her."

"Yeah. I always got the impression that Lesley wasn't all that interested in her, but when I saw how upset she was last night, I realised I was wrong. She really cares about her."

"Of course she does. They had difficulties together because Nicola has a different kind of mind and personality, and of course is bright and intellectually demanding, but Lesley has taken on the role of a mother to her, it would be impossible for her not to care."

"Not impossible, some parents do neglect or abuse their kids."

Maya shook her head. "I don't believe that."

"Come on, you're not going to tell me that on Psychon there was never any child abuse."

"I've never heard of such a thing."

"That's it, you've never heard of it. It was probably socially unacceptable to talk about it. It would have been going on behind closed doors, some closed doors anyway."

"You're wrong," she said coldly.

Tony cringed mentally, suddenly realising that the conversation had veered onto dangerous ground. Maya wasn't usually touchy about discussing the cultural differences between Earth and Psychon, and they had vigorous, good-humoured arguments about some of them, but this was not the ideal choice of conversational topic right now. Trying to back out of the subject, he said, "Well, Nicola's okay, she seems to do well considering."

"Considering... what?"

"You know, being here. Alpha's hardly an ideal environment for a kid."

Maya said nothing.

Tony wished he could effectively kick his own ankle. What the hell was he doing? Since he had obviously contracted uncontrollable foot-in-mouth disease, he kept quiet too and concentrated on finishing the food on his plate. It tasted of nothing but his own bad feelings.

Any moment now she was going to shatter the silence by saying, "Tony, I've been thinking..."

Uncomfortably he remembered a similar dinner at this very table with Sandra, punctuated by the same uneasy silences, and their great relief when they discovered that they had both been thinking. After that they had laughed and talked freely and retreated from each other on cheerful terms, though their friendship had subsequently dwindled to nothing. Tony knew from long experience that it was impossible to cross back over the line, even if you wanted to.

He noticed that she had drained her glass again, and he tipped up the bottle to fill it to the brim.

"Like it?" he asked.

She nodded. "It's very different from your beer. Did you have other kinds of alcoholic drink on your world?"

"Oh yeah, loads. The other major class of drink was spirits, much stronger than either beer or wine. I could try and get hold of a sample, if you're interested."

She smiled. "What would you have to trade?"

"Oh... almost everything I own."

"I thought so. It isn't worth it, just to satisfy my idle intellectual curiosity."

Tony had to stop himself saying that he would do anything to satisfy her, intellectually or otherwise. "For you, anything," he said instead, with a flippant intonation.

"Others would appreciate it more."

Suddenly, life seemed not to be on the brink of disaster, and he started to feel more hopeful. As soon as she laid her cutlery down he said, "What do you want to do, watch a video?" to forestall any dash for the door. He half expected her to say that she was too tired, but she seemed happy to stay.

He put the remains of the wine on the coffee table in front of the sofa and hunted desperately through the catalogue of films on his computer terminal for something that didn't have pregnancies, babies or children in it. This was remarkably difficult, as he also had to avoid violent films - she hated those - and he wasn't keen on showing her something with explicit sex scenes, on this occasion anyway. Anything that didn't involve commandos shooting people seemed to be about families and relationships, and he didn't dare risk a film that he hadn't seen. Eventually, he settled on the Disney animated film Beauty and the Beast. Nobody had babies or sex in Disney films, the father-daughter relationship would appeal to her, and she tended to like films with a clean-cut moral conclusion.

It was a good choice, as it turned out that she had never seen animation before and was absolutely fascinated by the process. For the first fifteen minutes she paused the recording at almost every frame and asked him detailed, unanswerable questions about the technicalities of it.

"Come on," he said eventually, "let's just watch it. You can go and look it up in the library tomorrow, I don't know how they made the things." He snatched the remote from her, set it to play, and put it on the shelf out of convenient reach.

When he settled back down on the sofa she stretched out and leaned against him, falling naturally into their habitual position. He allowed a short while to pass before he slid his arm along the back of the chair and let it drop down, casually, around her. There was no movement of protest. For innumerable minutes he didn't dare to move, enjoying the steady warmth of contact and her mingled smell, his heart knocking oddly.

He could feel her absorption in the stillness of her body, and gradually his concentration focused away from the film entirely. For weeks before that terrible evening he had held her like this - his hand resting where it was now, over her hip - without knowing that there had been another presence with them. An acute sense of loss, and pity that they had not known about it before it was over, overwhelmed him; while the Beast climbed up the walls of the castle towards Belle's outstretched hand, he forgot about calculation and held her more tightly.

His mouth pressed against her hair, which was still bound into an ugly knot. Almost without thinking about it, he found the pins with his fingers and pulled them gently out to let her hair unfold in odd kinks. She shook her head and it cascaded free, in all its exotic silky abundance. There was definitely something not quite human about the texture and quantity of Maya's hair.

"We had - not a similar, but a related story," she said, when the credits rolled. "A woman - a princess - the ruler of a great land - was proud of her beauty and her powers, too proud to accept the courtship of a prince who had fallen in love with her because he was not handsome. She sent him away without hope, and that night she was visited by a sorceress who tricked her into transforming into an ugly monster and then froze her in that form."

"Can you do that?"

"It's a fairy story, Tony - it was magic, like the film we've just watched."

"Fair enough. What happens?"

"The princess remains trapped in the form of a monster for forty years, and in the end she finds the sorceress and performs a task to be released from the spell. When she reverts to her natural form, she's an old woman. Her beauty has gone. Then she meets the prince, he's still in love with her, and she realises that love can transcend physical appearance after all. The same moral." She laid her head back to look into his eyes.

There was nothing to transcend here, he thought as he kissed her. Carefully at first, trying to hold back the burning urgency of touching her intimately for the first time in weeks, he stroked back her hair and felt her mouth open willingly.

Irresistibly, he reached for her breast through the fabric of her tunic, as eager and fearful as a schoolboy.


A cold, reproachful tone, and a stiff, suddenly unwelcoming body. She pulled away and he sat back, trembling with frustration.

"We had an agreement," she said.

"Maya." He touched her cheek, trying to recreate the mood and forcing down his irritation. "Come on, we can't keep this up. There are lots of things we can do in bed that don't involve any - risk."

"Yes - sleeping." She stood up. "I've got to go. Thank you for the lovely meal, and the wine."

He stared at the ground, too angry to trust himself to move or speak.

She turned at the door. "We've had a nice evening, Tony. Why are you looking so disappointed now? Is that really all you want from me?"

"No." He joined her at the door. "No, it's not. You said sleeping was safe. Okay - sleep here. I promise I won't try anything on."

She shook her head, her gaze steady for a moment. Then she turned and left with an abruptness that was emphasised by the calm hum of the closing door.


Helena entered the room accompanied by John, and she was subtly aware of the impression that created on the two women at the table who were not part of the command team. They both looked rather nervous, in different ways; Sarah with her girlish scraped-back hair, bare face and gooseberry eyes, and Lesley, now neatly presented and calmer than she had seen her last. John nodded, and Sarah smiled foolishly and Lesley nodded back impassively.

As Helena took her seat she noticed that Maya looked - distant. She had seen hardly anything of Maya in the past few weeks, but then she had seen little of anyone outside Medical Centre who was not directly involved with the play. It was the first time in perhaps two weeks that she had had the chance to look at her properly, and she saw with a quickening of concern that she had lost weight; over ten pounds, to judge by eye. Despite Maya's resilient personality, Helena had been aware of the possibility that she could suffer from depression after the miscarriage and visible weight loss was not a good sign. She realised with dismay that she had entirely failed to follow through on what she had discussed with John at the time.

She would have to make a formal arrangement to see Maya, little as she would like it. There was a difficult question she had to ask her, anyway.

"Thank you for coming," she said.

John folded his hands together and leaned forward, his expression - possibly unconsciously - dark. He hadn't really wanted to take part in this meeting, expressing the opinion that Nicola's education was not his business. She had overidden his objection, but wished she could feel that he was as concerned as she was.

She wondered, too - as she felt her stomach tighten with excitement - whether she was trying to appropriate some share of the child by interfering in her life like this, however much she believed it to be a good idea. Perhaps Lesley's first reaction had been accurate, and she had only thinly disguised motives.

"I wanted to have this meeting," she continued, "to talk through some options for Nicola's education. Now first of all, Sarah, I want to make it quite clear that this doesn't imply any dissatisfaction with your role as her main teacher, up to this point. I'm sure we'd all agree you've done a wonderful job with her, and that she's emerged as a bright and capable student in these difficult circumstances. What I'd like to discuss, however, is whether we can help her stretch her obvious abilities in a way that will make her feel positive about her role in Alphan society. We are very ordered and structured. Everyone at present has a place and a purpose. To some people that can be at times a source of frustration, but for many of us, a feeling of usefulness has kept us sane - as much in the uneventful stretches like now, as in the crises."

"Don't say that," said Lesley. "That's tempting fate. There'll be a Red Alert any moment now."

"But you see my point."

"Nicola doesn't lack a place in the structure," said Sarah. "She's The Child. She plays on that, you know."

"I know. And I wonder if that comes out of a basic loneliness, rather than being entirely childish opportunism. Nicola deserves the chance to develop as naturally as she can as a person, rather than - as you say - The Child. Now she's clearly enjoyed being in the play. I think she's gotten a great deal of satisfaction from being treated as an equal in the theatre. Obviously we shouldn't treat a nine year old as an equal in every respect, but my initial suggestion is this - we should give Nicola the opportunity to sample some of the professions we have here, so she can begin to acquire skills that will be useful to her and, more importantly, get an idea of what she might want to train for."

"You're not suggesting her letting her run loose in a Eagle maintenance bay with a welding torch?" said Lesley.

"Not as such. But we could assign someone from each section to supervise her and begin teaching her the basics."

"What about her academic education?" said Sarah. "Life isn't all science."

"I know, and I feel you should continue to teach her the arts as you have been doing. I'm only proposing that she should spend a few hours a week on vocational work."

"I never thought of her as having to become something," said Sarah. "But yes - I suppose it makes sense, doesn't it."

"I don't want to appear biased," said Helena, with a smiled, "but what Alpha really needs is more doctors."

"Are you going to teach her medicine, then?" said Lesley.

"I think it would interest her."

"I think she's too young."

"Nicola has, as we all know, already witnessed some horrific things," said Helena, the too-vivid word picture that Lesley had painted the day before springing back into her mind. "Seeing how we deal with them, how we can make people better - letting her help - would be a way of allowing her to bring those memories under control."

Sarah nodded gravely, her lip jutting, and Lesley, frowning perhaps with her own memories, made no further objection.

"You know," said Sarah slowly, "and I don't have a personal interest in this at all, I'm not married or anything - well, you know that - so I speak as an outsider I suppose - but don't you think that one of the best ways to make Nicola feel not isolated or whatever would be to have other children on Alpha?" She gave one flustered glance at John and looked down, evidently conscious of having breached a taboo.

Helena felt her own heart begin to beat slightly faster and she braced herself against the pain.

"There's no possibilty of that at present," said John, calmly and regretfully. "Even now, the oxygen recycling facility is under threat. We just can't be sure enough of our life support resources to let the population of Alpha expand. No-one likes it, but it's a question of survival."

"Oh - yes - of course."

"In any case," said Helena swiftly, "Nicola is nine. Even if ten new babies were to be born tomorrow they wouldn't be her age peers. We should start to consider her forthcoming life as an adult rather than attempt to construct a normal childhood for her. Maya - how would you feel about stepping up the lessons you've been giving Nicola?"

Maya spread her hands. "Yes, of course."

Helena was quiet for a moment, looking once more round the table. She was suddenly conscious that she had done almost all of the talking, though it had been her intention to avoid seeming at all authoritarian. John was letting her get on with it and Maya was clearly not in the mood for debates. Sarah, in remarkable contrast to her nervous-edged dominance in the theatre, was timidly passive. And Lesley, whom Helena sincerely wanted to help feel involved, was more tongue-tied than she had been before, possibly because of John's presence.

"Well then," she said. "If you all agree, I'll consult with someone suitable from each division and draw up a schedule."

She closed the meeting feeling depressed.

Sarah was still uncomfortable as she sat in the canteen with Lesley, picking over what had been said and not said. Gillian Merle and Susan Ralston had joined them, clearly curious.

She glanced round her circle and thought, with a stirring of positive feeling, that she commanded some loyalty at least. To Susan, one of the painfully young student placements who had been trapped on Alpha by Breakaway in her teens, she was close to a hero. And Gillian was no insubstantial personality; she was a clever, talented woman who had once been linked with Tony Verdeschi, though before he became important, who supported her in the theatre and seemed to count herself as a friend. She had already started to assess Lesley Whitticker, with whom she had previously had a purely functional relationship. It might be possible to involve her in the theatre, as she could sense in her the kind of loneliness and boredom that could be put to good use. Even if she had no connections, she had some distinction in being Nicola's foster-mother. And Dr Russell was very interested in Nicola these days.

"I don't know why the Commander bothered coming," said Lesley. "He never opened his mouth."

Sarah remembered his direct blue gaze with a shiver. What would it be like if those eyes looked into hers with tenderness and desire? She had a new image for her mental collection, which she played over in the dark at night.

"He did," she said, slightly defensive. "You know, when I asked about children."

"Yes. Why did you say that?"

"Well - why not? It's something I've often thought about - you must have too. It was an opportunity to point that out to the Commander."

"Yes, but he'll know already that people are concerned about it, and he wasn't likely to say great idea, was he, with the way things are with hydroponics and life support - and don't you think it was a bit tactless, with Maya there?"

"I know. I know. I just didn't think. It didn't occur to me until afterwards, I didn't remember. She's all right though, isn't she? I mean, she seems all right."

"Well, I've heard that she and Tony have broken up," said Gillian quietly.

"What?" said Sarah, amazed and instantly regretful that someone else should have this news before her. "From Tony?"

"No, actually. From Esther Clarkson. She's been working with Maya every day for the past few weeks, and she thinks they've had a big argument, at the very least."

"Gosh. Where does that leave you then, Gillian?"

"Oh, nowhere. That chapter is definitely closed."

"Did you go out with Tony Verdeschi, then?" asked Lesley. "I never knew that."

"He wasn't high profile in those days," said Sarah. "That was before he went off into the stratosphere. But you knew him on Earth even, didn't you?"

"Yes," said Gillian briefly.

Sarah knew that she didn't like to talk about this much, and she was surprised that she had raised the subject. Out of consideration, she tried to reign in her own tendency to gossip-spin.

But Lesley was obviously interested, and Sarah suspected that she misinterpreted Gillian's caustic casualness as unconcern. "Did Esther say what they'd fallen out about?"

"She didn't know. Apparently Maya isn't exactly the confiding type. It was just impressions, and a couple of tense transactions she'd overheard."

"She was rather quiet, I thought," said Sarah guiltily, ravenous to discuss the matter but wary of Gillian's feelings. Still, she remembered that Gillian had finished with Tony quite a while before Maya had joined them; they had drifted apart, as far as she understood it, when Tony had been promoted. Presumably she had no bad feelings about Maya herself.

She glanced across the crowded canteen and saw the Commander and Dr Russell settling down at a table in the far corner.

John found the time to join her for lunch, but he seemed preoccupied, almost moody; not in the mood to relax, even for half an hour.

She thought she knew why. It was one of Alpha's arid patches, when the moon appeared to be drifting through emptiness towards nothing. Everyone became more introverted, gossip and internal intrigue raged like bushfire in a drought, and John began to ask himself fundamental questions about his role that were never quite resolved before the next crisis re-established their priorities.

"I'm sorry," he said eventually, putting down his fork. "I had a talk with Maya just now."

"Oh... you did."

"She came to ask me if she could be excused from Command Centre duties to spend more time in research."

"What did you say?"

"I said no, absolutely not. I told her that I valued her most as a member of the command team, that I needed her quickness of judgement and her ability to perform under pressure. In fact, I said that if anything ever happened to Tony, I wanted her as my second-in-command. She didn't seem - pleased."

Helena smiled at the puzzlement in his tone. "That's because she expects you to be nice to her."

"I was. I couldn't have been much nicer than that."

"Did she say why she wanted to change duties?"

"She said she'd seen there was a lot more she could do in research, after working on the oxygen recycling project. But I wondered - " He paused.


"I wondered if she'd lost confidence, after - well, after her illness."

"Miscarriage, John. Since we all know about it, we may as well say it. So you think she hasn't been herself? You've seen more of her than I have."

"Before today I wouldn't have said so."

"Of course, she could have been upset by what you said at the meeting."

"What meeting?"

"The Nicola meeting. About babies."

"Helena, Sarah Pulcher asked me that question directly, I had to give her a direct answer."

"I know."

"And I had to give her the right answer. I'm sorry about what happened to Maya, but she knows the situation better than any of us. She's a sensible girl, I'm sure she didn't take it personally."

Helena felt a deep shiver, and they were both silent for a while.

"Maybe if I had a word with Tony," said John eventually. "See if he thinks she's all right."

"Don't - be surprised if she isn't. I wouldn't make too much of it. Some depression after a miscarriage is common, even normal."

John frowned as he finished the last of his soya mash. "I'll talk to Tony," he said, in a tone of voice that put the subject aside. He glanced at his watch. "I've got to go, I promised Jordanstoun I'd be there for the first descent into the oxygen mine."

"Are you - going down?"

"No, just encouraging them."

He did a lot of things, Helena thought, just to keep the morale of the personnel cohesive by his presence. She admired his commitment, but she knew it put him in unnecessary danger sometimes. It wasn't impossible that he would decide to go down the mine anyway.

She inclined her head upwards for a swift parting kiss on the cheek, and watched him progress to the door. He was stopped by Lesley, who intercepted him just as he was about to exit the canteen. They exchanged a few words and then left together.

Helena finished what was on her plate and drained her coffee cup slowly, vaguely wondering what that transaction concerned. She noticed Sarah getting up from the same table, and approaching her.

"Dr Russell, can I have a word?"

"Of course. Sit down."

"No - I'm just on my way out - I have to give Nicola a lesson - it's just that Gordon can't make it tomorrow after all - I need to have you both tonight - around seven?"

"Yes, that should be all right."

"Oh good. See you then, then."


Nicola arrived home from her lesson to find her tea of beans, toast and mushy greens already served and slightly cold.

"An early tea," Lesley called through from the bedroom. Through the open door, Nicola could see her brushing out her flat bright yellow hair. It went halfway down her back. She peered into the mirror and ran a finger delicately along her bottom lip, then took a small spray bottle and hissed its contents against her wrist and neck. When she turned back into the living room, she came with a waft of intense sweetness.

"Is there a party?" Nicola asked curiously. It was odd that Lesley was still in her uniform, yet putting on make-up and perfume.

"No. I'm going on duty. Eat your tea, hurry up. I want everything cleared up before I go out."

Nicola began to shovel the tepid beans into her mouth. "How come you're going on duty at this time? You don't do shifts."

"Well, I've decided to make a change. Life here can get very tedious if you stick in a rut. There are lots of other possibilities, aren't there. So I'm going for a change of outlook, and this is the first step."

Nicola had a faint pang of anxiety, unsettled by this change in Lesley's routine and disconcerted by her cheerfulness. "I'm going to a rehearsal," she said.

"What have you got, the lead role or something? You're off to a rehearsal every night." Briskly, Lesley snatched the plate from under her.

"I just like watching," Nicola muttered, embarrassed. She felt that her enthusiasm exposed her to scorn, and she knew that Lesley had no patience with it. She took advantage of Lesley's hurried distraction by slipping away from the table and out of the door when her back was turned, before she could be made to do the washing-up.

John waited for half an hour after coming off duty himself, punctually for once. He was unsurprised that Helena hadn't turned up, but mildly aggrieved as usual; he called Medical Centre for her, and got Bob Mathias on the intercom.

"She went off duty at six, Commander," he said. "She left here half an hour ago."

"Oh? Any idea where she went?"

"To the theatre, I think, Commander."

He had to suppress his immediate resentment, but there was a certain sharpness in his, "Thank you."

What was it about Sarah Pulcher that had Helena in thrall? He wondered briefly if it was rational to hold it against Sarah personally, but he could not think of the play that Helena was involved in without thinking of its producer. Despite her apparent timidity and ineffectiveness, Sarah evidently had some kind of power. He could not take kindly to the fact that Helena had put her before their previous engagement.

In no good temper towards Helena or the director, therefore, he made his way to the sublunar regions of the Alphan Theatre.

He had not been here before. The front of the theatre was well known to him, but he knew that the stage and auditorium was only one small part of any theatre, the visible tip of a submerged complex. Though the Alphan Theatre was only a converted experimental bunker, its backstage corridors had already acquired a mysterious, time-upon-time atmosphere.

Uneasily, John clattered down the old iron staircase and strode along the narrow passage towards the rehearsal room. In half-conscious defiance of Sarah Pulcher's authority here and assertion of his right as Commander to open doors as he pleased, he entered unannounced.

And immediately wished he had not. The sight which confronted him was as unpleasant as it was unexpected. Helena was thoroughly entangled in a passionate embrace with Gordon Briar, someone from engineering. She was finishing a line, and - apparently oblivious to his presence - she actually kissed the man, passionately.

John had to stamp firmly on the impulse to shout out and separate them. Sarah, presiding at the other end of the room, had caught his eye, and she said, "Fine, fine. That's fine. Dr Russell, I - er - think you're wanted."

Helena stood back indifferently from Gordon, but when she saw John she looked faintly conscious. "John. Just a moment."

He was too shocked and outraged to speak coherently, so he did not speak at all.

She came closer to him and said in a low voice, "I know. I hadn't forgotten. I thought you meant later, you don't usually come off duty so early." She glanced back towards Sarah, almost nervously. "This shouldn't take much longer. Why don't you stay and watch?"

"No. I don't think so." Stunned and sickened, he left.

On his way back to Command Centre, where his feet took him, his feelings went through bewilderingly rapid transfigurations, and the irony of the difference a moment could make stabbed at his heart as he passed back along the same way he had come. He was drawn back to the scene he had witnessed and again he felt the terrific surge of anger tearing at his stomach.

Into his mind, too, came Sarah's bright round eyes; bright with a light that disturbed him.

It was over, he knew that. This was the evening of the third day that he hadn't even spoken to her. She had been hiding down in the labs and he had been sitting up here in Command Centre and they had both no doubt been avoiding the other; and Tony recognised that bitter dismay which meant that there was nothing left to say, except the last few cold or angry words that they were trying to put off.

Greyness filled him as he swung back and forth in the swivel chair, gazing sightlessly at his terminal screen. It was impossible to get away from the physical reminders of her - they had first met here in Command Centre, over there by the door - so he would just have to wallow in it.

It was true what Gillian had said, that Alpha was an emotional trap with nowhere to run to.


Tony looked up, recognising the voice. To his surprise he saw Lesley Whitticker, her hands folded nervously in front, her expression half-smiling, half-uneasy.

"Reporting for duty," she said. "The Commander said I could try out Command Centre duty, I was getting bored stuck down in engineering."

"Aha. Right. Have you trained on these consoles?"

"Not since I had my induction training, years ago."

He led her over to Maya's vacant station and showed her how to operate the console, glad to have something to do if only for a few minutes.

Lesley was looking much brighter and more attractive than the last time he had seen her, and as she relaxed she became cheerful. "I always imagined you were doing something high-powered up here," she said. "But it's sort of like being an air traffic controller - isn't it? - only with no planes."

"If you don't like it, you can go back to engineering."

"No no, I'll have a shot here for a while, til I get bored anyway."

"That's what I like to see, commitment."

Lesley smiled at him as he went back to his own station, and it struck him that she was actually pretty.

Guiltily, Helena got away from the rehearsal as soon as she could and shook off Nicola, who was showing signs of wanting to tag along with her. There was another source of guilt. It wasn't fair to encourage the child to become close to her, and then only give her time when it happened to be convenient.

But undercutting these bad feelings was a current of anger. So many people seemed to be claiming a part of her, demanding her time and energy, making this guilt - and this increasing weariness - a constant drain on her emotions. With sudden sharp objectivity she saw the impatience in John's expression again, wondering how she could be wasting part of an evening she had promised to him on her own pursuits, and along with the inevitable dismay she knew that he was being unreasonable, selfish and imperious. Even as she hurried to his quarters to make amends, there was a part of her that was hurt and resentful.

Sometimes these trivial incidents could spark off a deeper discontent, she thought. It had not been a good few weeks. Looking back, she had been feeling increasingly low and stressed ever since Maya's miscarriage; nothing had gone right since that, except the play, which had been her escape. To her surprise, she admitted to herself that she would have been happy to have spent the rest of the evening in the rehearsal room.

Perhaps she was still angry with John about the arguments when Maya had been ill. If so, she wasn't sure what she could do to resolve that.

Tucking down her bad feelings as firmly as she could, she let herself into the quarters they usually shared.

The door slid open to darkness, and even though she turned up the lights she realised that he had probably not been here since the morning. There was no response to a direct hail to his comlock. With a sigh, she dumped her bag beside the sofa and called Command Centre.

Unexpectedly, Lesley Whitticker answered. "Oh - hello, Lesley. Is the Commander there?"

"No, Dr Russell. I haven't seen him."

"Okay, thanks. I didn't know you were on the Command Centre roster."

"I am now. I asked the Commander to assign me. I thought I'd try a change, like we were talking about."

"Yes. Good. I'm glad." She signed off, distracted. She was damned if she was going to play hunt the Commander, and she considered doing nothing more to find him and watching a trashy movie on her own. But after turning on the viewing screen and flicking through a few video clips at random, she got up again and called Alan Carter in the Eagle control bay.

"Alan, have you seen John this evening?"

"Yeah, about an hour ago."

"Any idea where he went?"

"He said he was going to play squash."

"To do what?"

"I assumed it was with you."

"I don't play squash, Alan. Thank you."

Indignant, she switched off her comlock and made her way to the squash courts. John usually played squash with Gillian Merle, who was about as bad as he was but as enthusiastic. It was almost beyond belief that he would be off playing squash with her when they were supposed to be spending the evening together, but as she looked down into court number one she saw them both down there. For some moments she watched, the violent thudding of the ball hammering into her ears, until John glanced up and missed.

He picked up the ball, turned his back to her, and served again. Gillian, who had also spotted her, let the ball go, said something to him, and left the court.

Grimly, Helena went back down the stairs to the changing area. Gillian, slim and wiry in her lycra squash outfit, nodded at her in greeting and disappeared without speaking into the shower room. John followed behind and laid down his racquet on a bench.

Helena looked over at the door separating the changing area and the showers, then turned back to confront John. "I thought we were spending the evening together," she said, trying to control her voice. But she could hear the hard, nagging undertone.

"So did I." John started to remove his shoes, stubbornly avoiding eye contact. "But it looked like you had other plans."

"John, I went to one short extra rehearsal because Gordon can't make it tomorrow and Sarah wanted to go through some scenes - the show's in three days time. I've let her down often enough, I thought I should fit it in if I could. All right, I should have told you, but I assumed you wouldn't come off duty until around eight anyway." She faltered. He was fixing her with a long, cold, hostile expression that seemed quite out of proportion to the circumstances. "John, what's wrong?"

"You have to ask?"

"Yes! Evidently."

He slammed the tennis shoes onto the bench and sank down, lowering his head. "Even now I'm having a hard time believing what I saw down there. Knowing you've been carrying on like that for weeks - all those times you couldn't see me because you had to go to a rehearsal - and that's what you've been doing." He raised his eyes, ominously calm.

It hit Helena in a sudden flood of understanding, and she wanted to laugh out loud. But knowing that he was entirely serious, she stared back instead. "Our acting."

"I don't care what you call it. It comes to the same thing."

"No, John. Oh no, it doesn't."

"And you're planning to do it on stage, on Saturday, in front of everyone on Alpha, making an exhibition of yourself and a fool of me - are you?"

"John - "

"Forget it. It stops right here. That play's not going ahead."

"On what grounds?"

"On any grounds. Safety, resources, personnel needed elsewhere." He shrugged on his jacket.

"And you think that's a solution?" Helena cried, her composure breaking.

He turned at the door. "Yes, for now."

"To throw away two months' work by all those people, to take away the pleasure of the play from everyone else, to break Sarah's heart - all because of your idiotic jealousy?"

"All right. Drop those scenes, change them. I've seen Macbeth often enough and I've never seen Lady Macbeth acting like some kind of nymphomaniac."

"John - " She gulped her breath back under control. "This is ridiculous. How can you be jealous of nothing? You're not giving me any kind of respect, you're making a fool of yourself - "

"I'm not jealous. I just don't think that kind of behaviour is suitable, or appropriate, given your position here, given my position and our relationship - "

"It's acting! It's the creation of an illusion, I won't be me when I'm on stage - why am I arguing? Why am I trying to reason with you? If you think I'm going to be dictated to like this - if you think I'm going to let you ruin the play - " She ran out of words and the power to express them, and she pushed past him to escape before tears overwhelmed her and she disintegrated. Just as she left she caught sight of Gillian lingering by the shower room, rubbing her hair with a towel and frowning.

Tony ended up going to the canteen with Lesley at the end of the late shift. It was refreshing to chat once again in an uncomplicated way with a girl who was at ease with herself and was obviously enjoying his company. In fact, it occurred to him as she brought the coffee over from the self-service machine - it had been her idea to come here - that she might be making something of a play for him. It had been so long that he didn't trust himself to understand the signs.

"There you go," she said, placing a cup in front of him and wafting perfume over him.

He smiled to himself, recognising the mating signal. No woman on Alpha wore perfume routinely, it was hoarded for very special occasions.

"What?" she said, smiling with him.

"I was just wondering where Nicola was."

"Och, in bed, at least I hope she is. I don't need to worry about her these days, I mean she's old enough. It's not as if there's anyone here who would harm her."

"No, that's one advantage of being stranded on an enclosed moonbase, floating through uncharted space. There has to be some."

"Oh aye. It's not a bad place for kids really, if you think of it like that. Look, what I was meaning to say was sorry about the fuss I made the other night."

"Forget it."

"No, it wasn't fair on Dr Russell either, and it was nothing to do with you."

"Don't worry about it. It's my job to sort out problems. All part of the service."

She smiled back, unabashed, gazing directly into his eyes.

This was the point at which he could mention his beer, he realised, and ask her if she had ever tried it. Although he hadn't made any recently, he still had some of the last batch in bottles in the fridge. It would be as simple as that.

What did Maya expect, he thought with sudden viciousness. She had pulled the plug on whatever had been between them, and rewarded his attempts to be understanding with several emotional slaps in the face. She had voluntarily thrown away the right to care whether he went to bed with someone else, and at this moment he didn't see why he shouldn't let go of some of the tension that had been souring in him for weeks.

But - but - if he did, he would be acknowledging that it was all over and he just wasn't ready to do that yet. Perhaps he was a fool to hang on in hope that she would suddenly come round, but the temptation of an hour's oblivion wasn't strong enough to overcome his longing for Maya. He loved her.

Well, that was it. Tony drained his coffee cup decisively, accept it with a grim sense of inevitability. Sitting in a deserted canteen at eleven o'clock at night with a woman he barely knew, he admitted it to himself in so many words. Nice time to have a blinding moment of self-revelation.

"Thanks for the coffee," he said, standing up. "I'd better be getting along. 'Night."

Helena cried angry, passionate tears in the privacy of her quarters, with both doors locked and the duvet pulled over her head. She knew she was unleashing a storm of misery and crying not only for the pain that John had caused her, but for the loss of her innocent escape route, and for Maya's baby, and for her own childlessness. After a while she would have to crawl out from under the duvet, put herself back together, and present herself to Alpha as a strong, efficient, capable doctor. For now, she was a tiny, shaking mass of tears.

Dully, her head throbbing and her eyes aching, she got up and washed her face before keying in the code to Sarah's quarters. "Sarah."

"Hello? Is that Dr Russell? I haven't got you on visual."

"I hope I'm not disturbing you."

"No, no. I'm not in bed. Is everything all right?"

"No, Sarah, I'm afraid not. I'm going to have to pull out of the play."

There was a dreadful silence on the intercom, and Helena pressed her forehead against the cool, blank screen.

"Why?" said Sarah's voice eventually, a pathetic monosyllable.

"I... don't have an excuse to give you, Sarah. Circumstances have arisen which make it impossible for me to go ahead with it... You know the part by heart, I'm sure... you can do it... I'm sorry..."

The intercom clicked off.

Alone in the dark, Tony couldn't sleep. He didn't regret his decision not to invite Lesley back - the last thing he needed to do right now, anyway, was get entangled in someone else's emotions - but he had plenty of time to think through the implications of being alone in the dark.

Once thing he knew for certain now, he had squandered his time with her. He had never properly appreciated her, nor had he given her back what she deserved. Some part of that had been diffidence, an inability to believe that she could really be serious about him, but most of it had been his own stupidity.

He remembered weltering in self-accusation before, while he had been waiting in Medical Centre to find out whether she was going to live or die. The difference was that it hadn't occurred to him then that she would turn against him; he had still been full of self-assurance and arrogant assumptions. The truth was, John's accusations had been fully justified. That didn't make Tony feel any more charitable towards John on this point - when he thought about it, he still boiled inside - but there it was.

He shifted uncomfortably onto his back and gazed at the shadows on the ceiling.

The sound of an alarm bolted him out of an uneasy grey slumber, and for a moment he was ready to leap out of bed and pull his clothes on in readiness for an emergency. It took him a few seconds to realise that his bedside com wasn't flashing, and that the noise had been his door signal. It sounded again.

Tony checked the time, which was half past one in the morning, and answered the door warily.

Maya stood outside in the corridor, her uniform jacket pulled over her pyjamas, her arms wrapped around her body. She was white and visibly shaking. "Tony..."

"Maya. Come on. Come here." He drew her into the room and let the door slide shut behind her as he held her tightly.

There was no need for her to explain. Occasionally, Maya suffered violent flashback nightmares about her father's death and the destruction of her homeworld, and what she needed immediately afterwards was comfort and reassurance. She didn't like to talk, she just wanted to be held and soothed.

Which he did, tenderness and delight taking over from concern as he felt her relax and quieten. She hated to be out of control, he knew that, but really - she was so vulnerable. So he said nothing, demanding nothing from her, not even a verbal response.

At last she broke away and looked at him, her face slightly flushed rather than white, and smiled nervously. "Can - I stay here?"

"Of course. Of course you can. I'll sleep out here on the sofa, if you want."

"No - Tony - could you just - hold me - "

"Of course I can. Of course." He pressed a kiss on her forehead, which was as much as he dared to risk, and led her with his arms around her to the bedroom.

As he slid around her warmth, he was enveloped in bliss. It was nice after all, he thought, to be in love. And it was nothing to do with sex, because he was utterly happy to lie here with her like this without making any kind of move -

"Tony!" Maya rolled out of his embrace and got to her feet, backing away from the bed. "You promised you wouldn't!"

"I didn't!" he cried indignantly.

"But you want to - it's obvious!"

"Maya, I can't help it!"

"Evidently not."

"No, I mean it, I can't help it - I haven't got any control over that - "

"Oh, don't be ridiculous."

"Look. just because you can change yourself into a grizzly bear when you feel like it doesn't mean we lesser mortals can control what happens to our bodies sometimes - don't be so bloody stupid - Maya!"

She had stormed out of the bedroom and was picking up her jacket in the living room. Her expression was pale and closed again.

"I've had enough of this," he said. "I've been expected to dance attendance on your hormones but you won't make any allowances for mine, will you. You've got a whole lot to learn about life, sweetheart, and as far as I'm concerned you can go away and learn it on your own."

It was liberating - exhilarating - to lash out his anger at her, for a few seconds at least. But once she was gone he sank onto the ground and tasted tears on his hands.


When Nicola woke up Lesley was already making breakfast. It was nearly eight o'clock. She was late. And she was supposed to be having lessons at nine; but she wanted to lie in the warm bed and fall back into...

"Nicola! It's eight o'clock! Get out of that bed!"

She let dozy moments slip under the covers.

The door was flung open and Lesley said "Nicola! Up! Now!"

When the door slammed again Nicola rolled out of bed after a few more moments of token protest. She was still glowing with the success of last night's rehearsal. Miss Pulcher had been very happy. She hadn't forgotten a single word of any of her lines. She was immensely impressed with herself and it was satisfying to know that, for once, Miss Pulcher shared her feelings.

"Here it is at last," said Lesley, though her automatic exasperation didn't seem too angry. "Eat your crispiflakes. I've got to be on duty by half-past."

Nicola sat by the table and began to eat. "But I thought you were on duty late last night."

"So? I'm putting in the hours to further my career at last. Here's the broadsheet if you want to read it," Lesley added, putting the sheet under Nicola's nose then laying it on the table beside her. Then she went into the bedroom to get ready.

"I collect them," said Nicola. "I've got lots in my cupboard."

"You've got far too much junk in your cupboard," Lesley said through the open door. "You're supposed to recycle it."

"I read about collecting newspapers in a book about collecting things. Did they have lots of broadsheets on Earth?"

"They weren't broadsheets, they were newspapers."

"Well, did they have lots of them?"

"Oh God, hundreds."

"What's the difference between a broadsheet and a newspaper?"

"That's just an amateur thing. They used to sell newspapers and there were big companies who printed them and English graduates who wrote for them, like your mother. That thing's just a glorified gossip column."

"I like it," said Nicola.

"You'd've liked The Sun. Now I've put your tea in the fridge, just stick it in the over when you want it. I'll be back around eight."

When she was gone Nicola looked through the broadsheet eagerly. It usually came out every Friday and it had eight pages, made from two sheets of folded paper. It was called The Alphan Intercom. The people who wrote in it often didn't say who they were. Dr Russell said they didn't dare, though she also said it was freedom of speech. Freedom of speech, as Nicola remembered writing in an essay once, meant that you could write nasty things about the command personnel without getting into trouble.

The story on the front was GRAND REOPENING OF OXYGEN MINE.

'The lunar rock oxygen extraction facility - popularly known as the oxygen mine - was formally declared open yesterday, with the Commander present at the first descent into the re-opened mine shaft. Recommissioning of the plant, which was mothballed about five years before Breakaway, has gone ahead of schedule. The project was driven by the necessity of finding a backup source of oxygen in the event of components for the oxygen recycling plant failing, as we reported last week. Chief Engineer Jordanstoun said, "Crushing lunar rocks to extract oxygen would be a last resort. The plant was designed to produce fuel for rockets, not air to breathe. However, once the facility is working up to full speed, mining and processing of the rocks will be automated and could be called on in an emergency." Meanwhile, work continues on some of the underground mechanisms. "Over the next few weeks we'll be inspecting, testing and if necessary replacing every mechanical component to bring the plant up to Alphan safety standards. "'

That was boring. Nicola looked for the cartoon on the back page, which she didn't understand, then spotted her own nature in the column called Culturecom.

'In next week's column we will be reviewing Sarah Pulcher's Macbeth. This week we take the opportunity to preview it. Perhaps this says something about Alphan cultural life.

'To be fair to the Theatre Manager, her cultural conveyerbelt is moving swiftly now. Macbeth is her fourth Shakespeare, following Hamlet, a truly gory Titus Andronicus, and The Tempest. Undoubtedly the star feature of the production is Lady Macbeth in the shape of no less a person than Dr Russell. After Miss Pulcher's past use of Dr Russell's image as a subject for satire (most overtly in her recent excellent Iolanthe, when Dr Russell was openly identified with the matriarch Fairy Queen), it has to be a tribute to her powers of persuasion that she has managed to secure the participation of the Chief Medical Officer. Rumour has it, moreover, that she promises to be a fine actress.

No surprise to see theatre regular Gordon Briar as Macbeth, and we are to have a Macduff's daughter rather than son in nine-year-old Nicola Brown - making her debut.'

Nicola loved to see herself mentioned, but it was now almost ten to nine. She put the broadsheet in her bag and ran to the classroom.

Miss Pulcher was late. Nicola sat at her desk on her own and carried on reading the broadsheet. When the door opened, Nicola popped her chin in her palms to meet Miss Pulcher with an expression of innocent defiance. Miss Pulcher disapproved of her reading the broadsheet. It wasn't for little girls, she said, and there were things in it that she wouldn't understand.

But Miss Pulcher seemed ill. When she came in she didn't even look at Nicola, or the broadsheet. She appeared to have been crying.

"Oh, you're here, Nicola," she said in a tired, funny voice. "No lesson today."

"No lesson today?"

"No, off you go, there's a good girl."

"But I want a lesson!"

"Well you can't have one!" Miss Pulcher cried, and burst into tears.

Disturbed, Nicola ran away and didn't stop running until she was in the lift taking her to the level where Medical Centre was. She wished that she dared to go and see Dr Russell. She leaned against the wall of the lift and watched the lights flicker up the indicator panels, feeling tears tremble up her head and spill out. She wasn't unhappy. It was pure reaction. She hated seeing grown-ups crying.

As she stepped out, a team of people in the kind of grim hurry she knew meant an emergency brushed past her and piled into the lift. One of them was Tony, who ignored her. As the door closed on him she saw him frowning and talking into his comlock.

A little timid now, Nicola idled along the corridor and looked up at one of the monitor screens that hung everywhere. If there was a big emergency, it would be flashing Red or Yellow Alert, but it wasn't.

She heard more running and a medical team pulling a stretched rushed round the corner from the direction of Medical Centre towards the travel tubes.

There had been an accident, she thought. Curious, but not really wanting to see the consequences wheeled back this way, Nicola made herself scarce.

Sarah Pulcher looked at herself in the dressing table mirror, and wondered whether make-up would improve her lot in life. Her mother had told her, and she had always believed, that beauty came from within. She knew she was no pin-up, but she had sometimes hoped that it didn't matter. That was wishful thinking. It was the beautiful women who caught the imagination, and made things happen. She would catch nobody's anything looking like this.

Most girls in their way were reasonably attractive, or moderately pretty, even if they weren't glamorous. And she was not. She sank her face in her hands and let the tears flow again. Gillian Merle had come to her in high accusation the night before and left her shattered. Gillian was altogether too shrewd.

Her door buzzed. Sarah wanted to see no-one, but automatically she acknowledged and the door opened. It was Gillian, who stood uncomfortably a step into the room.

"Look Sarah," she began abruptly. "I had no right at all to speak to you like that last night. I know I upset you and I'm sorry. It was rotten of me."

"It was true," said Sarah wretchedly.

"It was absolutely nothing to do with me. Last night I felt it was, but I was just upset because I'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I lashed out. I'm too rash, too honest and I just didn't keep my head."

Sarah could think of nothing to say in reply. Gillian's apologies were quite ineffectual; the wounds had been inflicted, and there was no escaping the pain and sense of exposure. Choked with tears and almost faint with shame, Sarah sat down heavily on the sofa and only shook her head at Gillian, wishing that she would go.

Instead, Gillian perched herself on the chair opposite. "I got it right, then?" she said, in a softer tone. "You deliberately set out to make the Commander jealous?"

Sarah nodded, chewing her lip. "There's something - something else - just after you left - " She was overwhelmed by a paroxysm of weeping, and literally couldn't catch the words to speak.

With abrupt kindness, Gillian got her a glass of water and pressed her shoulder awkwardly. "Come on now, calm down. I'm not going to bite chunks out of you again."

"I know - yes - no - Gillian, just after you left, Dr - Dr Russell called me, and she said - she said - she wasn't going to do it - she's pulled out - she won't do it!"

"Oh, bloody hell." Gillian sat back on her heels. She was silent for a moment. "Look, Sarah, maybe you don't want to hear this, but it's only a show. Worse things happen in space."

"Not - not to me."

"I can do Lady Macbeth, I can mug up the lines in twenty-four hours, I've got a memory like a word processor. You can take over Lady Macduff if you don't mind having your one scene stolen by young Nicola. The show can go on."

"I've - alienated Dr Russell forever - and the Commander - they must know - "

"They don't know. Or if they suspected, I should imagine neither of them would take it seriously - oh, Sarah - why do you do this?"

"Do what?"

"I don't want to upset you again, but why are you pursuing this imaginary attraction? It really means something to you, doesn't it?"

"The - the Commander?"

"That about says it. The Commander. You don't know him, he's just an image of power, a figure of prestige. That's what attracts you, isn't it? As a real man, I wouldn't touch him with a bargepole. He's a bastard, if you want my opinion. You deserve better than that."

"Oh yes!" Sarah cried, with desperate sarcasm.

"No, really, you do. I don't understand why you have so little self-esteem. Look at all the things you've achieved - you make things happen, you get people organised - your enthusiasm and your talents get things done. You have a lot of friends, you know. And, okay, you haven't got a boyfriend, but then nor do I. Nor do quite a lot of the women here, because there are only so many men to choose from."

Sarah gave a short laugh.

"As for Helena Russell," Gillian continued, "she's not the superwoman you imagine she is, she's just the same as us - except that she probably has a few more problems, not a few less. I wouldn't envy her. And don't resent her."

Sarah shook her head, still clutching herself, no longer desperate.

"Right," said Gillian, standing up. "I'll make some tea, and then we'd better get down to the theatre for some intensive rehearsal. We've got forty-eight hours to save the show."

Feeling like a dead weight, with stinging, swollen eyes, Helena moved mechanically through her early-morning routines. She was burnt-out inside and emotionless, which was convenient. And she checked carefully in the mirror before leaving her quarters to make sure that the puffiness of her eyelids wasn't obvious. She could face Medical Centre and be normal.

She had more or less ordered a cold and reluctant Maya to come in for a check-up that morning, so that was something important to deal with; and she was resolved to be reassured that Maya had recovered emotionally as well as physically. That was the first thing on her list of obligations and worries. The only way forward was to tackle them one at a time.

She arrived at Medical Centre to find most of her staff not there.

"There's been an accident at the re-opened oxygen mine, Dr Russell," Cara Conway informed her. "Dr Spencer's in attendance."

"What's the situation?"

"As far as we understand it, three men were injured in a rockfall. They should be on their way back soon."

"Why wasn't I called?"

"Dr Spencer didn't think it would be necessary. The injuries reported weren't serious. Three nurses and an orderly are assisting him."

She called Ed. "There's a difficulty getting the injured men to the surface for treatment," he said. "Eileen's gone down with the sublunar rescue team to administer first aid. She thinks one of them has a broken leg, it's going to be a slow business moving him. Otherwise, it's a job for the rescue team at the moment - we're standing by."

"All right, Ed. Keep me informed. I'll come over if it seems necessary."

She wondered if John was at the scene, and concluded that he probably was. For now, she preferred to stay in the background unless her expertise was needed. Yesterday she would doubtless have rushed over anyway; today, she was glad of the temporary solitude of her office.

Perhaps it was time to take some sort of break, she thought, and stop behaving - for a while, at least - as if she were personally responsible for all the problems on Alpha. John and she wound each other up into a frenzy of work and lost perspective, leading to stupid, soul-draining arguments like the one hanging over them now. They were in a survival situation but from week to week it didn't feel like that, as you forgot you were on an island when you travelled inland. They didn't have to live every moment in a state of permanent Red Alert.

At ten, Maya presented herself. "This won't take long, will it, Helena? I want to get back to an experiment."

"No, it shouldn't take long. There are just a couple of things I want to talk to you about."

She started with a few routine tests, taking her blood pressure and pricking her finger for a blood sample. Then she asked her to step on the scales, and the readout told her what she really wanted to know.

Once Maya had sat down again, Helena said, "How have you been feeling since we last spoke here?"

"Perfectly well. I don't think there's any more need to be concerned about my health, Helena."

"One thing does concern me. You've lost fifteen pounds since I last examined you, when I passed you as fit for duty. Now that's a lot of weight for you to lose, because you didn't have it in the first place. It puts you well under the ideal weight for your height and frame."

"Perhaps those ideals don't apply to Psychons," said Maya calmly.

"Perhaps not, but I've never recorded any fluctuation in your weight before, so it does worry me slightly. Have you had any difficulties eating recently?"

"Not that I've been aware of. I have been busy, and it's possible that I may have missed meals because of that."

Fifteen pounds was a lot of missed meals, as Helena was aware, but she knew also that making too much of it would be counterproductive. "Don't miss any more," she said. "That's a medical order. And try to include more high-calorie foods in your diet for the next few weeks at least. I know the food here isn't exactly tempting - but do your best." She smiled.

Rather mechanically, Maya returned the smile.

"Now," Helena continued, moving determinedly into delicate territory, "how have you been getting on with the diaphragm? Have you had any problems with it?"


"Good, then that's obviously the best method for you. We'll carry on with that if you're happy with it."

Maya made no objection.

"Have you had a period yet?"


"Oh well, that's good, that means your hormones are getting back to normal. It also means you have to be careful to use the diaphragm, because you may have started ovulating again already. And if they ever stop again - you will tell me next time, won't you?"

"That won't happen again, I can promise you."

"Not until the time is right, anyway." She paused, and mustered her courage. Maya was still looking aside in embarrassment. "Maya - on that subject - there's something I have to ask you. I don't know why things happened the way they did when you were pregnant, and I realise you can't tell me. But I do want to make sure that you have the best possible chance of a normal pregnancy and a healthy baby next time, and the only way I can do that is try to find out what went wrong. I'd like your permission to dissect the foetus."

Maya turned her head and looked at her directly for the first time, her eyes widening and her calm expression dissolving into astonishment. "You kept the body?"

Uneasily, Helena said, "Yes, Maya. I wouldn't have disposed of the foetus without your permission, even if I hadn't wanted to study it."

"Where is it?"

"In nitrogen storage, in the autopsy laboratory."

Maya rubbed her hands together, then stood up and paced. She was clearly no longer composed.

Realising that she could be violating some Psychon custom, Helena said, "You don't have to give your consent if you don't want to. If you'd prefer me to destroy it now, then I will, straight away. Or if you want to think about it, take as long as you need."

"I thought you would have incinerated it," she said, in a low, agitated voice.

"And I will," said Helena again, "if that's what you want."

Maya sat down abruptly and stretched back her head, closing her eyes.

Helena waited a moment to see whether she would say anything, then she reached out tentatively. "Maya - I can see you're upset, and I thought it might upset you, which is why I hesitated to mention it. Don't feel awkward or ashamed, it's entirely normal to suffer feelings of loss and depression after a miscarriage, even if the pregnancy was unplanned. It's something I've seen many, many women go through. You should allow yourself to grieve - cry about it - talk about it, at least. I can't help feeling that your weight loss must have something to do with this, and you won't get any better if you try to carry on as if nothing happened - "

"But it doesn't matter about me!" Maya cried in a tone of utter exasperation, cutting sharply across her and thumping down her clenched fists.

Helena was silenced, and watched as Maya sprang to her feet again and walked back and forth across the room, her knuckles pressed to her mouth. After a while she risked saying gently, "It matters very much about you, Maya."

Maya shook her head. "No, no, no," she said dismissively, and stopped in the middle of the floor. After a short silence she said, "Ever since I came here, I've recognised that I have to live now according to the customs and values of Alphan society. I decided that from the very beginning, that there was no point in attempting to hang onto a Psychon way of life, or to resolve any differences by assuming my way was better. That would have been illogical and stressful. I've always wanted to be an Alphan. I've tried to assimilate myself. And I know - I'm well aware - that your society - " She paused, and her words became more measured. "Defines the beginning of life, of full humanity, as birth at a time when the baby doesn't need its mother to survive. And, as a result, that you don't regard babies younger than that as really alive, or really human. You even - " she flashed a look at her, " - allow them to be killed. On my world, we made no such distinction. A child was a child, with every right to protection and love, from the moment of conception. We had welcoming parties, big family affairs, as soon as we knew someone was pregnant - in fact, our usual word for that meant more like 'with child', and there was another word referring to the implications of the fact for the mother, which was much more of a medical term. When a baby was born too early, as - as mine was - there was a funeral ceremony, family mourning, everything." She paused. "I know that you don't think like that. It's one more way in which I have to assimilate myself. But I'm finding it difficult - very difficult."

"Maya." Helena took her hands and led her back to sit down. "You should have told me all of that when it happened."

"No. I didn't want you to think that I was implying any criticism. And I thought I could cope."

"For a start, I don't believe you should try so hard to suppress your own culture. Earth was a world with many different cultures of its own, most people on Alpha have their own views and values. Many people on Earth believed that unborn babies were sacred and condemned or even outlawed abortion." Helena suddenly remembered reading as a child about a tribe in South American which hadn't recognised a child as human until eight days after its birth. They had used this belief to justify infanticide when convenient, and mothers were quite at liberty to bury their newborn babies alive in the bush. She had been gripped by childish repulsion and indignation, she recalled. Without having grown up with years of debate on abortion, that was how their own practises must look to Maya. For a moment, she was ashamed. "At any rate," she continued, "you should have that funeral ceremony now."

"Alone?" she said bitterly.

"Of course not, we'll be with you, John and I. And Tony. And surely - "

"No. Tony and I..."

"Oh, Maya."

"You asked me if I'd had any problems with that device you gave me and I answered truthfully no, because I haven't had occasion to use it. I haven't... I asked Tony if we could stop, because I couldn't face going through it again. Not the pain, I was glad of the pain, at least it meant something was happening. But having a child - and nobody caring, nobody acknowledging its death - everybody concerned about me, my health, when I was still alive and my baby was dead - especially its father. And I'm afraid Tony hasn't been particularly pleased. Possibly I should have expected that, but every time I look at him now I just can't believe that he hasn't even mentioned the baby. My mind knows that it's not his fault, he just has the values and outlook of his own culture, but my heart won't let me feel that. Helena, I do love him, but I doubt very much now whether I can have a future with someone who feels so differently about something so fundamental. It was our child, and he doesn't care."

"You're wrong," said Helena. "Didn't he tell you?"

"Tell me what?"

"Everything that happened while you were in a coma?"

"We haven't talked about it at all."

"You must understand, Maya, I was very afraid for your life. Your symptoms were serious, you were in a deep coma and your life-signs appeared to be sinking. I was almost certain the pregnancy was causing it, and you might die if it continued - it was a choice between your life and the baby's, and the baby would die anyway if you died - I'm sure, even on Psychon, doctors sometimes had to make the decision to terminate a pregnancy if the mother's life was in danger. I would have performed an abortion as soon as I was sure of that, but Tony wouldn't let me. He fought for the baby, Maya. He and John practically came to blows over it. And if he hasn't mentioned it - well, you know what Tony's like, he may not be able to find the words to express something he felt so deeply about."

Maya gazed at her in amazement, then lowered her eyes and shook her head. "Oh, Helena. I've done him a great wrong. It might too late now."

"No, no, I don't think it is."

"You don't know how we left things last night... He wanted the baby?"


"Do you know - can you tell what it was?"

"It was a boy."

"A son! Strangely enough, I thought so. I must talk to Tony."

"Calm down a little first."


Helena, feeling light-headed and on the point of tears, left her for a few moments to get her a hot drink and recover her own composure. She took two deep breaths by the coffee machine, satisfied, almost triumphant.

"Dr Russell?"

She blinked and turned round to see Cara.

"The Commander's on the main com for you."

Her stomach giving an uneasy tip, Helena handed the coffee cup to Cara and went to the console.

John's expression on the screen was dark. "Helena, you'd better get down here."

"Have you brought the injured men up?"

"Two of them. They aren't the problem. They've been given first aid and are on their way to you now."

"Then perhaps I should stay here and - "

"No. Something else has happened - another part of the shaft collapsed while the rescue team was trying to reach the third man - "

"Have there been any fatalities?"

"We just don't know at the moment, Helena. But one of the men missing is Tony."

Helena turned round and saw Maya watching her from the open door of the office.

The Eagle skimmed over the top of the plant and settled on the landing pad, where fuel had once been loaded into experimental rockets in the early days of Moonbase Alpha's construction. They had passed Eagle Six returning to the main base, carrying the two injured men.

The head of the mineshaft was enclosed in a bare, utilitarian structure, and Helena and Maya came through from the docking bay to find John and some members of the engineering team waiting for them.

And, to Helena's surprise, Lesley Whitticker, who threw herself into her arms, sobbing. "Lesley?"

"Michael," she gulped. "Michael's trapped down there - Tony and the rest of them went to rescue him - but they could all be dead - and I was so horrible to him - "

"Tony and Michael Slater, who was already injured, were cut off by the rockfall," said John, in a quiet voice, over the top of Lesley's head. "The rest of the team escaped and managed to get back up." He looked backwards at the three members of the rescue squad.

"We couldn't make contact," said one of them. "We were afraid the whole thing could come down. We had to leave."

"Structurally, the shaft's become completely unstable," said Jordanstoun. "The sensory network is wrecked. There were monitors down there, but they've stopped functioning."

"Is there air in the shaft?" asked Maya.

Helena, still holding onto a shaking Lesley, turned to look at her. Her face was drained of colour but her eyes were steady, and she had to admit to herself that John had been right about her ability to keep going in a crisis.

"There was when we got out," said the rescue team member who had spoken before.

"We're still pumping it in," said Jordanstoun. "But like I said, the sensors are down. I can't tell whether it's getting through to where the men are trapped."

"Or buried," said the man from the rescue team, grimly.

Lesley gasped and wailed.

The Commander frowned meaningfully at Helena and she found herself obliged to take Lesley out of the minehead bay and sit her down in what seemed to be an empty office area, just outside. She didn't want to be impatient with her distress, but it was inconvenient; and she could hardly hand her over to Maya.

"How could I have done it?" Lesley cried. "I never meant to. What was I thinking about? Why did I think I had anything to moan about? I just want him to be all right, Dr Russell, I just want him back. Oh God, it must be some kind of retribution, both of them like that - it won't be all right, it won't be all right."

"It might be, Lesley. Hush."

"It won't be. It isn't, sometimes, is it?"

Helena glanced up as shadow fell across her and she saw Maya in the doorway. She patted Lesley's shoulder and stood.

"The mine shaft's too dangerous now to risk anyone else going down," Maya said quietly. "That's what they were trying to say."

Lesley froze and stared at them.

"The air down there won't last forever either," she continued. "So there's only one way."

"Maya - they could be dead already. Is it worth the risk?"

"The Commander doesn't think so. But it is to me."

"I know."

"There is, however, one other problem."


"Something I didn't get round to saying when we talked together in your office. I haven't been able to transform since it happened."


"I don't know, I just haven't felt able to do it. I've tried, but my body doesn't seem to have the energy to let go."

"And now?"

"Even if I can take another form, I'm worried that I might not be able to hold it or control it. Helena, if I don't make it, will you do - what we discussed - on our behalf?"

Helena nodded, her throat tightening.

She left Lesley in the empty office and went back out with Maya, to where John was standing with his arms folded and his head bowed. He met Maya's determined expression and said, "All right."

The safest entrance to the shaft was a lift, which took maintenance engineers down to the bottom of the shaft when they needed to inspect the otherwise automated process, and it was still undamaged; the fall had happened some way into the tunnel system. Chilled with foreboding, Helena watched as Jordanstoun led Maya to its entrance and operated the controls.

She started slightly as John put his arm around her, and after a momentary stiffness she yielded against him and put her head against his shoulder. Life was too dangerous for grudges.

When the crashing stopped, Tony had been amazed to discover that he was still uninjured. Even in the pitch dark he managed to feel the shape of a smooth chunk of metal which had fallen at an angle and shielded them both from a barrage of rocks. But it hadn't taken him long to realise that he and Slater were in a desperate situation. His comlock had been forced out of his hand and smashed to pieces, Slater's was non-functional anyway - probably they were too deep underground - and his light was long gone.

"Slater!" he said.

There was a mumbling moan in reply. Tony found him with his hands but couldn't tell whether he had sustained any further injuries in the fall. He was still alive, anyway.

"Great," he said, into the blackness.

He shouted for the others in the rescue team, but there was no sound at all. Remembering something he had read once about noise precipitating rockfalls in unstable underground environments, Tony fell silent. They could all be buried, and he and Slater the only survivors.

How long that state of affairs would last was in doubt. The air tasted dusty and warm already, and he didn't dare to attempt to move any of the mass of rocks after trying a few and finding them too heavy and too securely lodged. All he could do was wait for rescue.

He had no point of reference, but that wait had seemed endless. The darkness seemed to penetrate his eyes into his head, and he began to suspect that rescue was not coming because it was not possible. If that was the case, then he was already dead. He just had some time to think, first.

Despairingly, he tried Slater's comlock again. Even if no-one could get down to them, he might be able to talk to Maya and tell her he was sorry. The comlock spat static in his hand.

He didn't particularly want to die, but with the memory of the night before weighing on him, he hadn't been particularly careful about whether he lived, either. A numb recklessness had driven him to push ahead of the others through the precarious buckled support structures, taking risks to reach Slater. Now, he thought, he could be at peace if only he could speak to her once more. But the comlock was useless. He threw it to the ground in disgust.

A noise about him made him start, and he shuffled back against the wall, afraid that the rocks were about to collapse. Instead, he became aware that he could see again, dimly. His eyes were playing tricks on him after so long in the dark, because he thought that a patch of rock was glowing like coal in a fire. Abruptly, the reddish area melted open and the light died again with a curious acrid smell.

Something had burned through the rock like a sheet of paper under a blowtorch. He reached out to explore the opening and let out a yell as his fingers were grasped by leathery scales.

Simultaneously there was a click of white, ordinary light, and the clasp on his hand became warm and firm. He blinked, his eyes stinging with the glare.


"Maya." He couldn't see her against the light, but he clutched her hand to make sure that she was really there. "Maya, what the hell are you doing here?"

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah - I think so - is it safe out there?"

"No. Get back and keep still. I'm going to try to get through more of this rock - "

Tony edged back against the tunnel wall, and crouched over Slater to shield him. There was a hiss, followed by an ominous silence, and the curiously quiet rumble of rocks beginning to slide. He had only a second to throw himself over Slater and clasp his hands over his own head before heavy things tumbled over his back and legs. He could only hold still and wait.

It was several seconds after everything stopped that he was sure he was alive. Slowly, he uncurled himself in a shower of dust and debris and blinked through the passageway that had been cleared through the rocks. He caught a glimpse of something black and scaly, the kind of monstrosity he knew he didn't want to know about, but when he looked again, Maya was crawling through.

"Where are the others?" he asked, holding onto her.

"The others are all back up on the surface," she said, breathing heavily. She was covered in a clammy film of sweat that he tasted cold and salt on her forehead. "I'm alone. Nobody else could have got through - parts of the shaft are almost blocked - I didn't move anything, I just made myself small. Getting back - I'll have to blast through like I did there. It lived on the moon of Erda, it melted rocks to feed on minerals - I thought it had to be safer than pulling the rocks off - even so, getting back is going to be risky."

"You shouldn't have come down here."

She helped him up to a kneeling position and dusted his jacket ineffectually. "Helena said that you tried to protect the baby."

"Of course I did," he said. His voice sounded gruff to his own ears but a bolt of emotion jarred him like a physical shock, and he was startled and almost numb when she kissed him suddenly.

"There's something I want you to do," she said, "if we ever get out of here."

A slight movement against his foot reminded Tony that Slater was still barely conscious and had to be moved as soon as possible. Training and instinct put everything else aside. He helped Maya carry him through the gap she had created in the rockfall and, following her light, they began the dangerous crawl back.


Helena closed the door of the ward, leaving Michael Slater alone with a tearful, radiant Lesley, and turned back to check on the progress of the other three patients. Tony was waiting, impatiently, to be certified and dismissed. He had suffered some bruising and minor lacerations, but was lucky to be relatively unscathed.

Gordon Briar had not been so fortunate. He had taken the brunt of the first collapse, which had broken his femur in two places and smashed several small bones in his foot.

"What do you reckon then, Dr Russell?" he said, pale but attempting cheerfulness. "The show must go on?"

"Not in the immediate future, I'm afraid, Gordon."

"I'm supposed to have come off a battlefield."

"Yes, but in one piece."

"What I want to know is, who's going to tell Sarah?"

"I will. Don't worry about it."

"Protect me if you can, doctor."

She smiled and turned away from the bed to see John, watching from the reception area.

In the past few hours, since Maya and Tony had brought Michael Slater up from the mine shaft, she had been so busy that she hadn't had time to remember the welter of somehow trivial traumas that had consumed her the night before. Near-tragedies like these - and they had too many of them on Alpha - washed her emotions clean. She had been almost certain when she watched the mineshaft elevator lights descend that she would never see Maya, or Tony, again. She knew that John would blame himself for letting Maya go and she had been afraid for him, too.

She brushed past him and indicated that he should follow her into her office with a brief, neutral glance.

He hung back and the door as she put Gordon's X-ray films away in the pile of active files she kept on her desk. "All okay?" he asked.

"Everything's under control. Only Gordon Briar and Michael Slater suffered serious injuries, and they'll both be fine. We were lucky."

"That's the end of the oxygen mine, anyway. I've agreed with Jordanstoun that the whole thing will have to be sealed off and abandoned again."

"Then let's hope Maya's experiments work out."

"She thinks they will. I spoke to her just now, she and Esther are ready to start trials in the oxygen recycling plant itself. In fact, it could mean that we'll be able to expand the capacity of life support, not just patch it up."

Helena acknowledged the implications of that in her mind, but said nothing.

Deliberately, John left his place by the door. "There's something else I want to patch up... if you'll let me."

"John - "

"Everything I said last night was inexcusable, and I want you to forget it all."

"I pulled out of the play," said Helena abruptly.

He frowned.

"I called Sarah and told her I couldn't got ahead with it."

She gained a sharp pulse of satisfaction from seeing his perturbed expression. "I wish you hadn't done that."

"I didn't tell her why, if that's what you're worried about."

"No - Helena - " He caught her hands. "You know how I can lose control of myself sometimes when it comes to you - I'm not proud of it - and I know how badly that outburst made me appear in front of a junior member of staff."


"I've been feeling neglected because of your involvement with the play, but I know how important it is to you, and the last thing I want to do is take it away from you. Please - go and tell Sarah you've changed your mind."

"John, the leading man is lying through there with his leg broken in several places. Now I suggested to Sarah that she could take my place, but I don't think she'll be able to impersonate Gordon."

John looked down and shook his head, but not quickly enough to conceal his reaction of amusement. "I'm sorry."

"No you're not."

"No - really, Helena - you should have some way of relaxing, some interest outside of work - "

"I already do." She slid her arms around him. "It was fun, but it took up too much time. When Gordon's better, maybe I'll take part if Sarah still wants to put the show on, but I'm not going to do another one. I need my time for - other things."

"This is making me feel very selfish."

"Good. Of course, you could always take over the role of Macbeth..." She laughed at his expression of horror.

"I'll stick with feeling selfish," he said.

Nicola watched in awe, funny shivers going through her, as Maya knelt down to put a flower in front of the plaque. The lights in the garden of remembrance were dim, as they always were, but now there was a little soft spotlight over the new plaque they had just put in place. Dr Russell gripped her hand as Maya stood back, shaking her hair away from her face.

Nervously, Nicola let go and laid her own small blue flower.

Usually, she was scared to come in here. She knew, guiltily, that her mother's plaque was over there in the corner, and she never went to see it. Today, now, she felt different; frightened, sad and elated at the same time. She went back to Dr Russell's side, and there was a charged silence.

Then the Commander cleared his throat. "We're gathered here to remember our newest and youngest Alphan, Engor. Although we never had the chance to know him, he was loved and dearly wanted by his parents, Maya and Tony."

Nicola looked at them. They were very different to how they usually were. Tony had his arm around her waist, holding her protectively, and they both looked serious and thoughtful. She hadn't known, she told herself with self-conscious new maturity; before this had all happened, she had thought they were best friends who joked together. Parents sounded very important.

"We hope," the Commander continued, "that Engor won't be the last child born, either to Maya or Tony, or to the rest of us, the other Alphans. Maybe not here, but maybe so, if things change. In the meantime, Nicola is our best hope for the future, which is why we asked her here to say goodbye."

Nicola shivered again and felt, to her shame, that she was about to cry. Desperate not to, she sucked in her lower lip and clenched her throat.

The Commander stooped down to lay his own token, not a flower but a carved figure. Earlier, Tony had done the same. Dr Russell had told her that this distinction between male and female tributes was a Psychon custom. She had made the little mannequins herself with her modelling clay.

Not much more was said, and afterwards they went to the Commander's quarters and had something special to drink. Tony brought a tall, dark glass bottle of what he said was wine, his last. He poured a tiny layer in glass for Nicola. It had a sour, watery taste, but she drank it bravely. She no longer felt like crying. Everything seemed to have dissolved and relaxed. She had the relieved feeling of having gone through something awful, which had turned out not to be so terrible, and got it over with.

'The last thing that happened at this sort of party,' she wrote the next day in her essay for Miss Pulcher, 'was that Dr Russell said Ssh - look, and Maya was lying in the corner of the sofa fast fast asleep, even though it was only five o'clock'.

Tony had woken Maya up gently and taken her straight back to her quarters, where she half-undressed and rolled into bed.

"I'm so tired," she murmured. "I feel as though everything has unwound - every hour I haven't slept is pressing down on top of me..."

"You've not been sleeping or something?"

"No." She opened her eyes. "Scarcely at all."

He pressed her hand and let go. "I'll leave you to it, then."

She nodded and turned onto her side.

Tony hesitated for a moment more, then stood up to leave. From the sound of her even breathing, she was asleep again already. He dimmed the light and paused to look at her, wondering what was going to happen now. He suspected that things between them would not be the same as before, whatever that would mean.

More than anything else, he thought, he wanted her to laugh again.

He went back to his own quarters and sat unmoving for a while, aware that the loneliness had gone, even though he was alone. Eventually, he stirred and his eye was caught by the dismantled brewing apparatus in the corner. If he reassembled it differently, he could probably make it more efficient -

Seized by the idea, he jumped up and cleared aside the papers that had accumulated on its usual table.

By the time he had finished putting together the equipment and calibrating it to his satisfaction, he straightened up and realised that it was nearly eleven o'clock. Too late to go down to hydroponics and see if he could cadge any fibres and a corner to regrow his hops. He could probably go to the labs, anyway, and start a yeast culture.

He had actually picked up his jacket to go when the door buzzer sounded.

Immediately he hoped, but barely expected to see Maya. When the door slid back unemotionally to reveal her in a long, clinging blue dress that he had never seen before, her hair tied up from her neck but tumbling over the top of her head, her eyes glistening and uncertain - he let the jacket drop to the ground and took her hands tentatively to draw her across the threshold.

Nicola wrote in her diary, 'Satrday. We were supposed to have been doing the play tonite but very unfortnitely Mr Briar who was supposed to be playing Macbeth got his leg broken in the acident in the mine I wrote about yestrday. So Miss Pulcher came and told me we'll have to wait ages to do it now becaus it would take too long to teach anyone else to do it and anyway that would be a shaime on Mr Briar if he didn't get to be Macbeth. Miss Pulcher is going to start rehesing the pantomime now insted. It will be almost as much fun and I will get to be in it too.

'Never mind! Today I got to help Dr Russell in Medical Centre. I got to see her puting stitchs in someone's arm that had got hurt in engneering. I held the instrmnt tray for her and I wasn't scared or anything. She told me all about how blood circlates in the body and how it comes out if you get hurt and why it goes all gungy (this is to stop too much coming out). It was very intresting and I can't wait to go again.

'Oh, something else, this is rely important and I should have said first. Lesley and Michael are going to get married! Michael will be my foster father then and we will get bigger quarters which will be great! The weding won't be for a long time yet though becaus Michael has to get better, but I saw his scans in Medical Centre today too and Dr Russell showed me how bits inside were hurt and he has to rest in bed with fluids and things until it heals but it will be no problim. I'm exited about the weding becaus I've never been to one before and I'll be bridesmade, and they'll be a big party after where I can stay up as long as I like Lesley promised. Lesley is very happy to be getting married and she's being much nicer to me now. I think it must be a nice thing to be maried. When I grow up there won't be anyone my age tho."

Nicola put down her pen and read the last sentence again, with a momentary feeling of sadness.

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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