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The Hetch Hetchy Tale

Authors: Terry Shewmaker
Episodes: Set after The Dorcons
Show Year: Y3
Rating: PG-13
Date: 1982

Story 1 in the "The Alpha's Universe Trilogy" series +
1 - The Hetch Hetchy Tale
2 - Effects of Nephinefta
Two Alphan landing parties explore an idyllic - and mysterious - valley, on a mountainous planet. Newly revised and updated, from the original 1982 edition!
Average Rating: No reviews.

The Hetch Hetchy Tale: A Novella of Space: 1999,

Suggested by the Television Series

by Terry Shewmaker

Part One of the Alpha's Universe trilogy

Newly Revised and Updated,

with Suggested Links to Historical Photographs

Based on the 1982 original story

In Celebration of the 35th Anniversary

of the Ultimate Adventure Series...

For John Muir, Harriet Monroe,

and Barry Morse

To the world, you may be one person.

But to one person, you may be the world.



John Koenig (Moonbase Commander; black/charcoal left sleeve)

Dr Helena Russell (Medical Section leader; white)

Professor Victor Bergman (LSRO leader/Scientific Advisor; khaki/no color)

Alan Carter (Reconnaissance Section leader; orange)

and Peter King (LSRO/Technical; rust)

and Alix (LSRO/Research; matte silver)


Paul Morrow (Main Mission Controller/Operations Team leader; flame)

Maya (LSRO/Science Officer; flame)

Dr Raul Nuñez (Medical Section; white)


Tony Verdeschi (Security Section leader/Operations Team leader; flame)

Sandra Benes (LSRO/Data Coordinator/Operations Team; yellow)

Ben Ouma (Technical Section/Operations Team; rust - voice only)

Dr Bob Mathias (Medical Section; white - flashbacks only)

THIS EPISODE: The Hetch Hetchy Tale

Yosemite is so wonderful that we are apt to regard it as an exceptional creation,

the only valley of its kind in the world;

but Nature is not so poor as to have only one of anything...

John Muir (1838-1914)

from The Yosemite (1912)

Chapter One

"We're going down?"

An undertaking whose end-consequences, translated into tangibles, could literally change the lives of everyone at Moonbase Alpha - and yet, only Professor Bergman could make it sound so casual, like setting out on a picnic.

Tony Verdeschi had to smile.

"John's already picked the team," said he. "Alan as pilot, Helena on medical, yourself for scientific, Peter King as your adjutant, and Alix as security patrol."

This last raised the older man's eyebrow. "Well - I suppose it will be a pleasant change, after that Palkee-Nur business."

"John's thinking exactly," squinting somewhat at the ceiling panels that illuminated the room. "Rather bright in here, isn't it?"

"That much more light on the subject..."

"Hmph," shrugging. "Well - operations briefing in hanger bay 5, one hour. As they say, be there."

Escorting his visitor out into the corridor, Victor Bergman lingered a moment as he gazed off after Verdeschi's retreating figure. The Security chief's visit wasn't an unusual occurrence. Alphans sought him out here on a regular basis, and had since he'd retreated to his laboratory and left to Maya the Command Center-related aspects of the job.

He ambled back inside and commlocked the doors closed.

"All right," said he, to the seemingly-empty room, "he's gone..."

And the room responded - the bright light from the ceiling swelled to a blinding brilliance, filling the room to its very walls.

Near the room's communications post, the silvery-blue nimbus faded away, swiftly and with scarcely a sound - and from its last lingering glow a very pretty young woman in her twenties emerged, with a low-sheen silver left sleeve on the tunic of her pant-suited uniform.

Shimmering mauve hair becomingly framed her face even as it spilled in waves down her back, held in check just so with a silver clip of intricate design.

"Security patrol?" Alexandra was incredulous. "But I'm only on temporary loan to his section - why me?"

The scientist understood the hint of shyness, of a certain reserve, behind that incredulity.

"If you hurry, you can ask him," resuming his seat.

The sheaf of technical blueprints on his workbench hadn't even rustled, this time. She continued to improve, every time he tested her...

With a practiced ease he slipped his commlock back into the desktop's receiver port, linked once more to Alpha's master computer network. "Just don't forget the briefing - "

" - hanger bay 5, one hour. Don't worry, I'll be on time," and with a beaming smile she was away, as the doors swooshed aside for her. He could've sworn her commlock never moved from its position on her belt, nor even so little as a touch upon it - and he hadn't opened them.

As thoroughly as he knew the capabilities of all those who worked for him in the Research section, this one particular adjutant could still surprise him...

Verdeschi heard her voice, and paused. "Well now, going my way?" on seeing Alix coming up behind him in the corridor.

"Indeed I am," taking the arm offered, as they walked.

He'd finally prevailed upon her to start calling him Tony; she never could manage his last name, no small matter when a rank-and-file operative - especially one with her sensitivities to protocol - addressed an officer.

"You were there, all along," after a beat. "I thought the lights were brighter than they should be."

"It was meant as a surprise," somewhat sheepishly, "I've been practicing for days..."

So, he hadn't been expected to present his news in person! No wonder, then, the science advisor had kept the timer running - even as their unsuspecting guest blithely wandered into the midst of one of their test-sessions.

"You're always saying my abilities have security applications. You're not angry, are you?"

"No," shaking his head. "Thanks to Maya, I'm used to such things. She and John are conducting the briefing, before you all leave."

"My only other landing party was ages ago," said she, thoughtfully. "I've not been allowed since."

"Well, then - time's up," said he. He had not been along on that occasion; but he was well familiar with the tale, and what resulted because of it.

"Wouldn't someone with more experience be better?"

"My choice. And John's..."

Thus, at the appointed hour, all the choices gathered in the briefing room at the launch area - within easy view of the Reconnaissance Eagle in the adjoining hangar bay, being prepared for their journey by the support staff sporting the orange left sleeve of their section.

John Koenig, his black left sleeve denoting his position of leadership, was content to wait his turn to speak, instead listening attentively as Maya described the first findings of the world that awaited them.

"The planet is about the size of your planet Venus," she was saying, "and lies well within the useful ecosphere of the parent sun. It receives approximately the equivalent amounts of light and heat that Earth did. As to surface conditions - the planet appears to be emerging from a recent Ice Age. 'Recent' in scientific time, that is. We've prepared a map," which duly appeared on the briefing room's large screen, in response to her commlocked instructions. "Three major oceans, four larger continents and one subcontinent. Some large-scale glaciation remains in the vicinity of the north and south polar regions, but has largely retreated elsewhere."

Alan Carter, the pilot, had the first question, "Cold-weather gear, then?" his mind busily compiling checklists of red-zippered, down-filled blue jackets and bibbed overalls, thick white-collared sweaters, insulated snow boots and gloves.

"We shouldn't need it. Anoraks, yes, but nothing further," said Koenig. "All the prospective landing sites we've identified are in the more temperate regions."

"You can expect some rather brisk temperatures overnight, and in the pre-dawn hours," Maya added, in aid of clarification. "Much of the surface is quite mountainous, with an average elevation of 9000 feet above sea level. There are canyons and valleys practically everywhere, fashioned by the glaciers as they withdrew."

"The landing sites are at around the 4000-foot level," Koenig added.

"Should be quite pleasant," from Bergman, whose khaki left sleeve was unique on the runaway Moon.

He eyed Alix, seated next to him, her face rapt with attention to the ongoing lecture...

The color-code intended for use by VIP visitors from Earth, who'd once come to Alpha - and never implemented, instead rendered obsolete by the traumatic events of 13 September 1999. Some of those visitors had thought he should have that silver left sleeve too, as he had stayed on at the base for so very long; had even gone so far as to present him with it at his birthday celebration, that last fateful summer.

A gesture of contrition, years after the ignominy of the Ultra Probe debacle, perhaps? No matter - he had demurred; and then the Moon blew out of Earth orbit, and that was an end to it.

Or so he'd thought. And then, long afterwards, Alix had come into their midst, wanting to stay on and help them in their search for that elusive new home. He'd essentially taken her under his wing; and her duty assignments continued to proceed at his personal direction.

And besides, that color did suit her. A new and different meaning, one to replace the old. There were, after all, no VIPs left on the Moon anymore - only the 311 residents of Moonbase Alpha.

What would Earth have thought?

The notion still amused him, as he went on listening...

"You spoke about three oceans," said Helena Russell, the physician. "Salt-water?"

Koenig and Maya both nodded.

"Fresh water, then - lakes, rivers, streams?" Her zippered left sleeve was the pure white of the Medical section she headed.

"All fed by glaciers," said Koenig. "They're still there, a lot of them, well above timberline. Lakes carved out like the valleys were."

"The plateaus above them are heavily forested," said Maya. "Sensors are reporting a wide variety of vegetation, from sea level to snowline."

"Is there life?" Alix asked.

The most important question, perhaps; most certainly so, if matters were to advance to the point of having to make that all-important GO/NO-GO decision on the aptly-named Operation Exodus: complete evacuation of the runaway Moon.

That decision would fall to Koenig, the penultimate responsibility of his command, and so it was he who answered. "We haven't found any. Not yet."

"We're still looking," Maya added.

"Instrumentation's still coming back to full power," said the new voice. "Palkee-Nur did make a mess of things. Still," from Verdeschi, who'd been sitting in on the briefing, "you'll probably find out, one way or the other, before we will..." His uniform sported a flame left sleeve, as Maya's also did.

Everyone had to laugh, and the general mood relaxed.

"Any more questions?" from Koenig.

"What about a name?" from Peter King, the lunar geologist with the rust left sleeve of the
Technical section; he too was a protégé and adjutant of Bergman. "If this could be home, I'd sort of like to know what to call it."

Maya, it seemed, had given a measure of thought to this.

"Its name is Psyche Elysium," beaming.

"That's a rather curious confection, isn't it?" from Alix.

"Something of a cultural compromise. Both names are synonyms for paradise - or, ostensibly, the means of obtaining it."

"Last chance for questions," Koenig prompted, and when there were none, "All right, then - let's go see if 'paradise' lives up to its billing..."

Chairs were pushed back, as everyone rose. The briefing was over. It was time to go to work.

Chapter Two

Moonbase Alpha Status Report, 3147 days after leaving Earth orbit; Dr Helena Russell reporting: Twin stars blaze in the darkness above our bright and golden and so very much like the Sun, under which all but two of us were born; and the other, farther distant, is an azure-blue, like some great sparkling sapphire. We do not yet know whether this latter star may have planets of its own - that investigation is continuing. For now, there is the yellow sun's only known planet - the world we've christened Psyche Elysium - and while Tony Verdeschi and Maya head the operations team processing data on the Moon, a reconnaissance led by John Koenig is descending to its surface...

Alpha had intercepted the tiny point of light far out, near the extreme range of their resuscitated instruments, as the after-effects of Palkee-Nur's disruptive and violent passage continued to diminish and disappear. Not without method, either, had the Eagle's launch window been chosen: it would take time to coax Psyche Elysium into revealing its secrets - time subtracted from that in which Koenig would have to make that decision of decisions, and he was not one to be rushed.

Bergman and King were using part of the lengthy outbound journey to avail themselves of a cat-nap. Elsewhere in the laboratory module, Helena glanced up from the notebook in which she'd been writing, noted her two slumbering fellow passengers, a smile just touching her lips. Her journal entry would be added to the master record on Alpha, that chronicled the runaway Moon's travels. She closed the diary, secured it with her other gear.

All but two...

Still being very quiet, she went over to slip into one of the rumbles, next to one of those two. Alix seemed to be fidgeting with her laser.

"This is our first landing party together," said she, knowing their newly-minted Security patrol much preferred the cozy seclusion of the Research section - and the many tasks Bergman's adjutants performed for him there - and thus was quite unaccustomed to being amongst so many of Alpha's upper echelon of command, and all at once.

"That's true," also softly, as she looked up, "you weren't on the other one. Dr Mathias was."

Theirs was but a passing acquaintanceship only, that too was true. Perhaps, the physician considered, this journey might aid in lessening a measure of the distance. She hoped so.

"Brisk air and snowy mountains - you should like that," musing. "It's rather like what you had back on Rumnipoor, isn't it?"

"With the distant light of Sol sparkling off the glaciers every night," wistfully remembering. Then, more serious, "I do hope I can live up to peoples' confidence in me."

"Was something wrong?" indicating the laser in her lap.

"Landing-party issue, Type Two laser-fired personal sidearm," holding it up critically, "stun setting - kill isn't the target range anymore, where you shoot for accuracy or in competition. I enjoy that. But this...I've never carried a weapon that could kill before. There was never a need to."

No, probably not...with a mind like yours, there wouldn't be the need - would there?...

"It imparts responsibility - for the using, and for the consequences," said she.

"That's what my instructor, Mr Petrov, says..." She let it trail off, her eyes suddenly redirecting themselves upward. "Clouds..."

The wedges of sky admitted by the overhead inset windows were no longer black - they were of a breathtakingly-deep blue, streaked by wispy, gossamer threads of clouds.

"Atmosphere," and Helena was out of her seat, en route to waking up the men. Alix was hastening forward, to the Eagle's command module.

Here Koenig and Carter were holding forth, and their view of things was even more striking: the Reconnaissance Eagle was coasting above a vast rumpled plateau of undulating clouds that stretched out toward the four horizons. So achingly bright its limbs could not be discerned, the yellow sun had just broken above them, flooding this nebulous plain with pinks and oranges, purples and copper. The distant blue sun could not be seen.

"Right into the sunrise," said Helena, a wistful sigh.

"Rather like a huge featherbed," Bergman thought.

"We'll have to get below it," said Koenig.

"A brand-new day that's never been touched," the science advisor added.

"New home," King wryly corrected.

"Let's start finding out," said their leader. "Any time you like, Alan..."

The clouds loomed up and swallowed them, the sun vanishing. For uncountable moments endless white swept past their windows, swirled about the Eagle's superstructure. There was no sensation of motion; but for the steady droning of the engines, they could've been standing still.

But, moving they surely were - and, to judge from the subtle changes of inner ear pressure they were all experiencing, they were dropping, rapidly.

Suddenly they burst into bright sunshine and clear air, and some gasps were heard in the command module...

As far as they could see, in all directions, lay a vast panorama of jumbled mountain ranges, many of them capped by ice and snow.

Carter's had to be the most succinct reaction: "Holy cow! - "

"It's like the Himalayas," from Helena.

"You were right," breathed Alix, "my world has mountains just like this - "

"So did mine," cut in the new voice, "before they turned into volcanoes..."

Koenig smiled at Maya's image on the screen before him. "Getting a good view, hm?"

"That's like calling the Mona Lisa a good drawing," as Verdeschi also came onto the net. "We're scraping each other off the ceiling here - it's a spectacular view," and, indeed every screen in the Command Center carried that view. "Picked out a spot to set down yet?"

"We're still deciding." Bergman, who'd stepped out of the cabin, was now returning, still perusing the reports even as he spoke. "The extensive forestation and comparative lack of level terrain make the mountainous areas on our list undesirable for landing. In any event, significant downdrafts in the vicinity of the higher summits could make flying near them quite treacherous," and, elsewhere, Carter nodded in assent. "The valleys turn out best, after all...I rather like number 3 on our list."

Verdeschi looked over Maya's shoulder, watching her as she went about asking computer for the particulars. He leaned in closer; if she was aware of this, she gave no outward sign. That immaculate profile, her striking cat-like Psychon features...his mind wasn't entirely on the graphics display appearing before them, and it took a certain conscious effort to force his attention back to business.

"Prospective leading site number 3," Maya was reading it off. "Valley location, temperate latitudes - floor elevation 3900 feet above sea level, north rim 1800 feet, south rim 2270 feet above the floor; total east-west length 3 miles, by a half-mile at its narrowest point; ready availability of fresh water; open meadow and vegetation," adding, more thoughtfully, "It does sound nice..."

"Lots of room to land," from Carter. He apparently liked it too.

"Objections?" When there weren't any, "All right, then. Number 3 it is," said Koenig. "Let's hope it's lucky..."

Chapter Three

The lingering nippiness of early morning yet tinged the air outside the Reconnaissance Eagle, as the six members of the landing party readied themselves to take their first look at Psyche Elysium up close. Like their uniforms, each left sleeve of their anoraks was tipped with the identifying color-code of his or her duty section. Koenig in orange, King in melon. Bergman, Carter and Helena in blue tones; Alix in wine-red. This aided in the wearer's easy identification, as did the brightly-colored pressure suits Alphans wore when they ventured outside the safety of their base, and onto the Moon's airless surface.

They only awaited Helena's last atmospheric scan, and here she now was to report it: "Atmosphere composition confirmed," said she, "as we expected. Outside temperature 58 degrees Fahrenheit."

This last hurdle cleared, the exterior hatchway doors flew aside for their debarkation. And they again drew in their breath at what they saw.

On their right, a great hulk of rock, like some massive granite gumdrop, seemed to throw itself out across the expanse of the meadow.

On their left, sheer cliffs reared almost vertically to the bright blue heaven.

Before them, beyond the immediate area of their landing site, grasses and flowers and ferns rippled waist-high in a light breeze. Tree groves could be discerned, farther away.

"Did you ever see a place like this?" from an appreciative Carter.

"I have," from King, the ex-Californian. "We have valleys in the Sierra Nevada a lot like this, and made much the same way, by glaciers."

"I can hear water," said Alix.

"Too loud for a river," Koenig judged.


Helena had ventured out amongst the grasses, and now she pointed, off across the meadow.

Down the face of the north rim spilled a great billowing waterfall, ending in a massive cloud of spray and filling the stillness of the valley with its thunder.

"Classic 'hanging-valley-type' fall," said King. "I'd guess a total drop of some thousand feet or so. You know, I'm beginning to understand why you brought me along on this trip."

Koenig had reached Helena's side by now, and she let out a pleased little sigh. "John, it's so beautiful here," drawing close to him, feeling him returning the gesture.

Elsewhere, Alix had bounded out into the meadow, eagerly shedding her anorak and revealing the Security indicia strapped over her uniform.

"Beautiful?" her khaki- and silver-clad arms flung wide. "It's perfect!" exultantly. It seemed Psyche Elysium was already agreeing with her stamina for, and predisposition to, the rigorous high altitudes and thin atmosphere of her native planet.

Bergman was suddenly busy with binoculars: "John - smoke!"

There it was, rising from a grove near the base of the south rim; a gray billow of it.

In the meadow, her eyes closing, Alix had gone quite still.


"Natural or man-made?" The latter term was something of a misnomer, given the circumstances of the moment, but Koenig's meaning was not misunderstood.

"From the way it's disturbing the planet's magnetic field, natural," said the answering voice - belonging not to Bergman, but to her.

Is that possible? Koenig wondered. She was an excellent student of the nature of stars, the fiery furnaces of the cosmos itself; her innate sensitivity to such things seemed to approach, if not surpass, intuition...sometimes...

From his commlock, came Maya's voice: "Computer confirms - natural causes."

While all this had elapsed, King had briefly ducked back into the Eagle's passenger module. Now, emerging with an equipment satchel slung over one shoulder, he was barreling out across the meadow in the smoke's direction.

Bergman had moved on, stooping to examine the ground-soil, the tall grasses surrounding him. "John," calling him over, "the ground's still damp here. The heat of our engines didn't reach this far. There's probably been a storm front through here recently."

"Touched off by lightning, perhaps?"

"It's not uncommon in high country like this."

They rose to full height. The plume of smoke was bigger now.

"That fire could spread quickly, as the day heats up. It could torch a lot of this area."

"Also not an uncommon occurrence. Nature's own way of scouring, and renewing."

"And I'd be the first to let nature have its way. But we're here, and that introduces something new."

"No chemical retardants, nothing of the kind," slowly shaking his head. "We simply can't consider it, John. The ecology of this world is as yet unknown to us - we haven't had time to run tests on the vegetation, or even to take the required contingency-samples..."

Their commlocks were buzzing. It was King: "I'm at the fire area. Is everybody on?"

"Affirmative," said Koenig.

"Alpha, are you there?"

"We're here, Peter," said Verdeschi's distant voice.

"Maya, you have the data I sent you?"

"I'm running it now. Stand by..."

"What's on your mind, Peter?" from Bergman.

"No fighting this fire by conventional means. Are we agreed?"

"Affirmative," looking at Koenig as he said it.

"I think there's another way..."

"Tell them," from Maya.

"We turn this fire against itself. Set up a perimeter, and blast out a firebreak. It'll have nothing to burn after that. Our lasers can do it."

"Tony, you have position coordinates for each of us?" from Koenig.

"I'm sending them now."

"And ask Maya to do a new weather workup for this area, would you?" from Bergman.

"You'll have it," said she.

"Well," Koenig sighed, as they set off, "I guess little boys are supposed to dream about growing up to be firemen..."

Bergman had to smile.

"They're ready, Peter," said Verdeschi, sometime later.

"Here's how it works: We're positioned at intervals around the fire area. You each take your laser and use it to blast out a trench of sufficient size, moving forward until you meet up with the trench of the person in front of you. There's little breeze here, so our firebreak should contain it."

"Landing party-issue lasers have multiple-setting capability. The third setting - the next-to-most powerful - can create the size of trench we'll need. You're all checked out on the necessary safety gear. Minimum safety distance is at least 9 feet."

"Alix will use the fourth setting," Maya added, "as she has certain - natural protections. That means at least 15 feet minimum, Alicky."

"Understood," said she.

"Questions?" As had been agreed, Verdeschi would run the operation, with Maya monitoring the fire area. "Very well - clock is running. Prepare to assume firing positions on my mark...MARK. Check weapon settings. Range targets. Firing safetys to OFF on my mark...MARK. Commence firing in five, four, three, two, one - now! - "

It was dusty, dangerous work - aiming through the hazy smoke-choked air, the crackle of the flames clearly audible, the smell of the burning underbrush assailing their nostrils despite the safety gear. Beneath their feet, the ground shook as their lasers blasted channels through the rock and substrata, coming straight through the heavy soles of their hiking boots...

On the other side of the world, where it was still night, the runaway Moon blazed in the heavens. In the Command Center, Verdeschi and his operations team hung onto the signals relayed by the Reconnaissance Eagle, heard the cacophony of noise from the fire operation.

And a new sound was coming to them: the coughing spasms, from smoke-besieged throats...

A warning lamp flashed on Maya's operations console; Verdeschi, recognizing the code, reached over and patched in the datalink from the Medical section. Maya quickly apprised the six displays of vital signs, looked up at her companion, who still stood beside her. "The conditions are exceeding the capability of their safety gear," slowly, and with meaning.

"Peter, come in..." Silence. "John, it's Tony, come in - "

And Koenig's raspy voice answered: "Okay, Tony, we're linked up - "

"Status to RECALL, all firing safetys to ON. You get out of there, right now," in a tone of command any of his Security operatives would instantly have recognized.

Maya's fingertips flashed rapidly across her keyboard, the perfect pitch of her native Psychon mathematics calculating as display after display appeared on the screen before her. At last, "Fire perimeter established...and holding!"

Chapter Four

The vicinity of the Reconnaissance Eagle was rapidly transforming into an official Moonbase Alpha outpost. Supply hampers, their trapezoidal shapes mimicking the Alpha cartouche, sat here and there, singly and in pairs and groups. Tenting gear was arranged on the ground elsewhere, awaiting deployment.

Helena, her medical post established, had insisted on examining them all for any signs of heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation in the wake of their repechage at the fire area. Bergman showed some signs of being affected, even as his mechanical heart maintained its usual good order; so did Alix, but not entirely because of their recent labors, it seemed. For when Helena mentioned this to him, the scientist seemed unsurprised.

"She's still having some difficulty with the air," said he, "notwithstanding that little display of exuberance out in the meadow. And the fire didn't help, of course. This altitude's too low - for her, at least. But I shouldn't worry. She's as sound as I am."

So they all rested awhile.

"John" Bergman was saying, "after the fire does burn itself out, I'd like to go back in there and take some samples; to see how the trees and plants were affected, the composition of the ash, that sort of thing."

"I want to be sure it's safe before you do. Alix, put that area on your patrol route for tonight."

"Yes, sir," said she. Cold beverages had been unpacked, and were making the rounds.

"Helena, I think you and I will take the north side of the valley, including the falls so we can test the water. Victor, suppose you take Alix and tackle the upper end of the valley, where the river's created a gorge? I'd like some idea of what lies beyond."

"Fine," said he, downing his drink.

"And we get to go south," Carter grinned at King, who grinned right back.

"South it is," and the two men clinked their drink-containers in a mock toast.

"We've lots of daylight in which to have our look around," Koenig summed up. "Since we'll be on foot, let's budget our time carefully. I suggest we all meet back here about an hour before sunset, compare notes, have a nice dinner and a good night's sleep. Agreed?"

The going was slippery, as Koenig assisted Helena on her way. Below the roof of leafy boughs that filtered the climbing sunlight, their hiking boots found cautious footholds on the slimy rocks. The air was already heavy with mist; and, as though leading them on, there was that omnipresent roar somewhere out ahead of them and as yet unseen...

The live video they sent back to the runaway Moon proved the truth and meaning of the saying that such transmissions bespoke volumes.

Here, at the base of the great waterfall, mist aerated by the fall's own winds and lent an iridescent sparkle by the sun, filled the Big Screen in the Command Center. The roar's sheer volume was such that Koenig all but had to shout, to be heard above it:

"Thought you'd like the view we're getting, Alpha! - We're getting drenched, too! - "

"We're getting drenched just looking at it! - " and Maya's smile almost had a soul of its own.

"You've never seen anything like this, have you? - "

"No, never! Psychon's surface water was evaporated by the heat of the volcanoes! - " She almost had to shout herself, for them to hear her over the open audio circuit.

"Helena says, stand by for the water sample! - "

"We're ready! - "

Her khaki uniform and blue anorak, even the golden bowl of her hair, were festooned with rivulets of water droplets; even so, Helena was dipping her specialized container into the foaming, rushing water. Many thousands of miles away, Maya could just hear her computer's electronic chattering...

"Water analysis positive! - Computer says, safe for human consumption! - "

It was the first step - the first triumph. There were sure to be more...?

Verdeschi, having availed himself of the opportunity for something of a leg-stretch during a lull in the action, was just now ambling back in. He beheld Maya, she gazing slack-jawed at the Big Screen.

"They still sending waterfall pictures?" casually.

"No..." resonant with disbelief. "That's another one..."

"Two of them?" dropping into his own seat at the Security desk and going on the net: "John? - "

"There are two giant falls here! - In close proximity - no wonder the noise is so pervasive - Victor says he and Alix can hear it all the way up the gorge! - "

This fall was very different: exploding out of a narrow, deeply-recessed chute at the top of the cliff, plunging to the valley floor far below in at least three massive drops - and half again as high as the other one. And it looked far more vigorous and powerful.

"Maya," from Koenig, "we've been giving names to landmarks for reference points - we named the first fall for Helena, since she found it - I'm naming this one for you - "

"For me?" still not quite believing it.

"The drops give it a certain - changeability! - " from Helena, this time. "We thought that was like you! - "

"I like it very much! - " She did...

All the day long, excited messages flashed back and forth - up and down the valley, and across the very heavens.

Even as lengthening sun-rays touched the valley's farthermost flanks, turning their glacier-sculpted faces to gold here and plunging regions into deep shadow there, many stories yet remained to be told - and were, around the dinner fire that evening at the Reconnaissance Eagle.

"No big falls along the south cliffs," King was saying, "at least, not now. But there have been - we found a lot of evidence of water-streaking, and staining effects, where primitive plants such as lichens and algae had gotten a foothold. I'd say, judging from that, we're fairly late into the spring runoff season."

"Water-streaking?" from Helena.

"It's just like it sounds," said he. "Waterfalls - short-lived falls, created by runoff from snowmelt or thunderstorms. The plants just followed the water afterward. Gives them a place to grow. Those two big falls over there have more permanent watersheds, but even they could dry up - say, in low-precipitation years. I looked at our maps - your fall, for instance, will likely go dry by the advent of summer. Maya's should make it through to autumn, but it'll lose some of its present punch."

"Thanks!" mockingly insulted.

"I shouldn't take it to heart," smiling. "I also ran a cross-check for falls of similar type. It comes down to numbers - your fall's watershed simply lacks long-term staying power. High country, scant soil mantle - it can't absorb the snowmelt. So when the last of it's gone, that's all she wrote."

"So, for Maya's fall to continue into summer, its watershed would have to be located at lower altitudes and with deeper soil?"

"And the resulting greater volume of soil moisture keeps it running," he nodded. "Feel better?"

"Yes!" with a soft giggle. "What would cause such conditions?"

"There is some question on that," he conceded. "I identified the creek that feeds Maya's waterfall, and traced it back to a lake that appears to be its source. But it also seems to have some sort of branch or spur that feeds your fall, in a way I haven't determined. Not yet, anyway." On their maps, he had carefully sketched in details of the lake and the creek, giving both the same name: Wonderful.

"The river forms a minor fall where it shoots through the gorge at the head of the lower valley," said Bergman, giving his report. "We've named it The Narrows, and it's on the maps. On the way there, we passed through meadowlands and great groves of trees. Beyond The Narrows, the river widens rather dramatically. And we made a most important discovery - "

"We found a settlement!" Alix declared excitedly.

"Structures on either side of the river, just past The Narrows," Bergman was continuing. "Undisputedly man-made - or at least by some form of intelligent life. One with considerable intelligence, I'd say, to incorporate the course of the river into the overall scheme."

"It was a delightful place," Alix beamed. "The largest room in each structure had a little tributary stream running through one section of it, and a large picture-window view of the main river. And plants everywhere - flowers and ferns inside, and wildly-overgrown trees outside. And more colors than I could give names to. You really couldn't see the buildings for the forest!"

"It reminded me of ancient Asian temples overrun by tropical jungles," Bergman mused, "with a difference. These structures are virtually new. I ran what tests I could on their materials. The trees 'choking' them are far older."

Toward the west, only the lingering evenglow marked the place of sunset; toward the east, the oncoming blanket of night could be discerned, the blue sky deepening into darkness.

"I'm coming to have a certain feeling about this place," Alix resumed, her tone changing, "the same sensation from everything I attempted to touch - not those buildings, but living things. They look placid and lovely, and yet - I can feel something else in play, something just beneath - a sort of tension, like a coiled spring just before it's released. Does that many any sort of sense?"

"Yes, it does." Helena was more thoughtful now. "There were flowers growing all around the edges of the pools at the base of the falls - John, you know the ones," to which he nodded. "And I tried to pick some. But - something stopped me - held me back. I couldn't do it."

Carter, who'd momentarily left the gathering, was returning with lanterns, to augment the firelight. "Same thing happened to us, when we tried to take samples from those big groves of trees near the cliffs."

The last glow of day had gone. A slight evening breeze stirred the fire; and the omnipresent rushing of Helena and Maya Falls, from across the valley, continued to fill the air.

Koenig was quietly fuming. Their idyllic time had been too good to last, after all.

"Then we've all noticed it," said he. "The stillness. No animal sounds, no chirping of birds. Not even the humming of insects."

"Place like this ought to be bursting with life," Bergman concurred, quietly noting how readily his adjutant was speaking up, her shyness retreating before the needs of their mission.

"Maybe they're like Alix - they prefer the high country and the brisk weather," Helena ventured. "What you saw could be their failed attempt to settle here in the valley. They couldn't re-acclimate, and they had to abandon it."

"It could even be us," from Alan, who'd taken his seat again. "They could've been spooked when we landed this morning. We're strangers here - and isn't it instinct to distrust the unfamiliar?"

"I have Maya's new weathercast here," said King. "This entire area lies along the track of frontal systems coming in from the ocean off to the north and west of here. Classic winter weather pattern, and a perfect 'storm door.' A sudden massive thunderstorm could easily obliterate animal tracks - even force this river to crest above flood stage. They'd have to pull out, head for higher ground, rather than risk staying."

Alix looked dismayed. "I still can't believe there isn't any life in a beautiful place like this..."

"Did you two see any fish in the river?" gently, from Koenig. "Anything at all?"

"Not even a little one," unhappily shaking her mauve head.

Silence, save for the crackling of the fire.

"Then there's this 'sixth sense,' warning us against tampering with anything growing here," Koenig resumed. "We've all experienced it?"

Alix was still thinking the matter through. "Perhaps it's a sort of inbred defense mechanism, rather like some of mine. Even I don't understand how or why they function. They just snap on, like reflexes."

"Or a form of allergic reaction to contact with our presence," from Helena. "As Alan suggests, we could be the trigger."

"Victor, you haven't said anything in awhile..."

He spoke slowly. "The setting here is magnificent, we'll all agree to that...and while I'm afraid it may shatter the last of our illusions, it has to be said just the same. This world could be another Luton - where plants, and not animals, are the dominant species. That settlement, upriver - remind you of anything, John?"

"M'm," solemnly. "Maya and I saw the same thing on Luton. Only it wasn't buildings...but the bleached skeletons of animals the plants had killed."

A more ominous silence this time.

"I think we should seriously consider leaving here," said he.

This was greeted with vigorous protests.

"John, we've been here less than twenty-four hours," from Helena, "we've had time to make only the most cursory examinations. Let's keep looking, let's find out everything there is to know about this place..."

"I agree," from Alix. "We can't just give up!"

"We've put in a full day, John, we're all of us done up," from Alan. "Let's sleep on it."

King fell in with the others. "Clear heads make wise decisions," said he.

"You seem to be outvoted," said Bergman.

"One vote yet to be heard from..." One he set great store by.

The older man stood, stretched. He could easily be the father of any of the others, but time and again he'd proved himself their equal in whatever was required.

"Knowledge has always spoken to me in a clearer voice than ignorance," said he. "Let's give it a little longer, hm?"

"All right, then," sighing. "Let's hope we don't regret it. Maybe Alpha will come up with something overnight. Alix, you'd better be thinking about starting off on your patrol."

"Yes, sir," said she. "The east loop - across the valley, past the foot of the falls, along the north wall; then back across the river toward the south wall, check the fire area and then return. That should take me till after local midnight, at the very least."

"Alan will relieve you, and he'll take the west loop," summing up.


Helena had stepped back inside the Eagle's passenger module during this interval, and now she reappeared, her features animated by discovery.

"Look what I've found! The enclosed note says, 'Something to keep out the cold night you'll be having - from Tony and the crew in Command Center...'"

"You have got to be having me on," with well-founded indignation, from Carter. "Bad enough he can't peddle that stuff up on Alpha, but when he starts - catering landing parties - !"

The Security chief's home-distillery efforts had a good-natured - albeit well-earned - infamy, around the base.

"I've never understood this," with a certain little sigh, from Alix, "all the teasing. He does try so very hard, you know."

"Do you really have to encourage him?"

"Well, I did come upon him one afternoon, and asked what it was that he was doing there. He seemed genuinely pleased that someone was interested. I felt all the worse afterward, since it didn't end especially well."

"I heard something about that," from King. "You can't taste Tony's beer, can you?"

"Not a drop," regretfully, "as Dr Russell, for one, can attest. Dr Spencer thinks it has to do with my metabolism being different. Still - he's going to succeed one day, and make believers of you all."

"We needn't worry about it tonight," as the turn came back to Helena, and even her eyes were smiling. "It's apple cider - hot apple cider!..."

"Mm," from King, sometime later, "that is good..."

"Guess we owe Tony an apology," as Koenig lounged by the fire with his glass. "He does have good taste in drink, after all."

"He has indisputably good taste in women," said Alix; adding, with a certain telling twinkle, "unlike certain others..."

Both Carter and King sat up at this. "That meant for him or for me?" from the latter.

Alix said nothing, and sipped her cider, the fireglow catching and reflecting the minute silver flecks in her blue eyes - the only noticeable mark of that something more, that dwelt deep within her.

"It is lovely," said Helena, adding wistfully, "although I do wish we could have cinnamon sticks to add to it."

No one saw Alix unobtrusively reach for her commlock...

"...Anybody else feel that?" from the puzzled King, a mere heartbeat later.

"I've never seen or touched cinnamon," said Alix's voice, "there was only computer's description to go by - but I do hope it's sufficient."

Koenig held his glass nearer the fire, the better to see - and to be surprised: "There's cinnamon here!"

"Mm - tastes like it, too," as Helena took a test sip.

King appreciatively lifted his glass. "Well, then - to wishful thinking!" this being the colloquial term they'd given to such manifestations, generated by that more-than-human mind of hers.

Alan narrowed his gaze. "Well, I think it's just a plot to get you back in my good graces..."

"And am I?" ever so shyly...

He only smiled and drank his cider...

"I'd - best be getting on my way," said she, after a beat. "Moonrise will be soon, and what a sight that should be!" standing up and briefly checking herself over in aid of final preparation.

"The trail's been clearly marked," said Koenig. "And, Alix - "

"I know, sir," beaming back over a mauve-swathed shoulder, "I'll be careful..."

Chapter Five

Cool darkness spilled in soothing waves across the valley, the faint shimmer of starlight reflected in the meandering ribbon of the river.

Having made her way along the trail uneventfully thus far, Alix had struck out across the meadow. By night it seemed enormous.

She paused at one point to redirect her gaze upward. Another unfamiliar sky, filled with unfamiliar stars, she mused. So very many of them!

Even as a child, the night sky and its stars had captured her imagination. She had hoped the sapphire-blue component of this binary-star system might be visible after dark but, yet again, the search was in vain.

Elsewhere, the first silvery glow frosted the eastern sky...

She was well out into the meadow. Their campsite would itself be dark, her companions in exhausted slumber. She was now their lookout, their listener - and, if need be, their protector.

Soft, silent opalescence was pouring into the valley, touching every tree leaf, every blade of grass...

Above the cliffs, the runaway Moon had risen into view, its first appearance in this new sky since their arrival.

Amidst the silvered lushness of a fern garden, she watched its ascent.

Moonrise Point...

This was no "bent and broken moon, all batter'd black, as from a thousand battles." Full and round, the undisputed queen of all the surrounding heavens, surely this was the Moon as the Alphans had known it in the night skies of Earth. Once...

She moved on, on her way to the waterfalls. The first of the cloudy mist was enveloping her when she heard the noise, like the odd snapping of a branch underfoot, and halted.

Her explorer's instincts alerted, she moved soundlessly, stealthily, back down the trail several yards, listened, peered through the trees.


The grove was suddenly alive with light; a blinding nimbus no mere flashlight could equal, it moved from tree to tree, finally coming to rest - and vaguely outlining a human figure.

The laser rifle, carried at Koenig's behest, promptly dropped into her waiting hands.

"Hey, turn that off!" in protest.

The light promptly died. Alix let out a relieved breath.

"Alan! You gave me such a start! - "

"Sorry," coming to join her, "forgot you could do that," still blinking, as his eyes tried to readjust to the Moon-silvered darkness.

"And you're quite fortunate not to have been hurt," she chided. "As it is, you came very near to being shot," consulting her commlock, "and you're early! What is it, has something happened?"

"Nope. Just wanted to show you something."

"At this hour?" incredulous.

"Come on, and you'll see," leading her up the trail again, toward the base of Helena Fall.

The basin was filled with mist, lent a hazy glow by the moonlight - and there was even more:

"What is it? - " in a breathless whisper.

"It" was a ghostly silver-white arc of light, hanging in the misty air as thought suspended from a silken thread anchored to a star overhead.

"Look at that! It's a moonbow - a lunar rainbow. I saw one of those things in Hawaii once."

"I can just barely see the colors in know, I may just forgive you. This is beautiful..."

"It's an unexpected dividend. We haven't yet come to what I want to show you. We have to keep going a bit."

And so they did, past the pounding plunge of Maya Fall and even further beyond that. Then they were leaving the marked trail, he leading the way up a creekbank's silver ribbon.

They continued thus for some 200 yards, and then he was helping her up over the jumbled rocks and boulders.

Now, suddenly, they were looking down on yet another waterfall.

It shot out like the report from a cannon, billowing down some 400 feet into its narrow gorge.

As with the other falls, the moonlight seemed to catch and reflect every droplet even as they all flew relentlessly away, into the darkness.

"This is what I wanted to show you. Spotted it on the aerial pics we snapped coming in. Thought Alexandra Fall would make it a good name - couldn't come up with better."

She turned to him, her mouth fallen open, emotions left unguarded.

"No one's ever done such a thing for me," said she. "It's like - well - having something of the eternal, with your name on it..."

"Now, then," moving closer, "what's this about my taste in women?"

"I haven't the vaguest idea what you're talking about," she murmured, just before they kissed...

Time passed, and the waterfall he'd named for her continued booming its way into the gorge it had itself gouged out over time, as erosion had forced its slow-but-sure retreat upstream.

The two of them, meanwhile, had found a place amongst the rocks where they could sit together.

"Something wrong?"

"I don't know," taking in the climbing Moon. "Something's been puzzling me - about you."


"M'm...I suppose you're aware that you have something of a - well - a reputation," this drawing a smile from him. "The strangest things about you float into my sense of modesty, no sense of shame...and yet, you've never behaved that way when you're with me, and that's why I'm puzzled. It's made me wonder whether I'm - deluding myself...whether I'm looking at you, and seeing only what I want to see..." looking up at him again, "is that possible?"

He went on smiling as he drew her close and kissed her again. Her fingers twined themselves round the back of his neck. Perfect peace, perfect stillness...


You still have a rather besotted transmorph on your hands...

"I'm more confused than ever...!"

"Hopeless!" shaking his head, and their kiss resumed...

Presently they were making their way back down to the main trail. He had always been a perfect gentleman - or near enough to it! she smiled to herself - around her, she could not fault his behavior. Nor was she ignorant of the rest of his reputation. However much he might like her, she well knew that he did not prefer her to the exclusion of others.

"Any reason for the quiet?"

"I suppose I've been thinking..."

"Always thinking!" But his tone made it clear he wasn't mocking her.

"In the morning, for example," struggling to regain her composure, "I think I'd like to take a look at the maps, and find something to name after you. Perhaps one of those splendid high-country lakes, with water as blue as your eyes..."

"That's not really necessary, you know."

"Oh, but I want to! You named a waterfall for me, it's only fair," said she. "Does your Australia have such waterfalls as this?"

"Different in character, but yes. We do. And other places I've been, like Hawaii..."

And as they struck back out across the park-like floor of their valley, he told her about some of them. He knew she enjoyed hearing his stories about Earth, and the country where he was born.

Moonlight glinted off the metallic surfaces of the temporary footbridge Koenig and Helena had erected across the river during their traverse in the daylight hours. These two latest Alphans paused to check its condition before crossing it, as each of them had earlier done individually.

"The fire area's near here," said she, awhile later. "I'll have to leave the marked trail to reach it..."

"That's a hint for me to leave, isn't it?"

"I could be awhile..."

"Report for Victor, eh?"

"You know how he likes to hear all the little details..."

"That he does..."

"And besides," smiling sympathetically, "you know I won't be able to get any work done, as long as you're still here..."

Really? What a strangely flattering thing to say...and to hear...

"You've got to get some sleep, you know."

"Okay, I'll shuffle on back to my trundle-bed. For a few hours, anyway." Pause. "You're not sorry?"


"Then, good night - again," and his footsteps faded away into the darkness.

Alix let out a long breath, still trying to pull herself together.

He is so very confusing! - A rather delicious confusion, to be sure, but...

This part of the trail lay in the massive coal-black shadows of the valley's south wall, and seeing that trail was sometimes difficult - which contributed to his surprise as he beheld the soft silvery pool of light that bathed his hiking boots just now.

For several steps the light stayed with him, then suddenly veered to one side and seemed to wait for him. Was it somehow alive?

And he understood. It wasn't the Moon, the angle was wrong...

It's her! -

He stepped to the side, met up with the light, and together they moved forward.

At one point he stopped, looked up at the night sky. With no moonlight, it was so very dark. And yet...yes, there it was; as though the river in their valley was somehow projecting itself upon the heavens above it...

Ripples, and eddies, and pools of...starlight: the ethereal signature of the galaxy through which they were passing...

He went back to thinking about the Moon, as he walked...they'd all forgotten what the Moon could look like, could be like, on such a night and in such a place as this.


And so utterly benign. And not the rudderless, blasted-out hulk, with all 300-or-so of them hanging on for their very lives...

One day, we'll go back to the full Moon of moonbows and poetry and imagination, and...


Her voice, an urgent summons, a come-right-now tone, and he could hear the fear in it...brave as he knew she was, nonetheless she wasn't incapable of being frightened...the light abruptly snapped out, and he hurriedly scrambled back through the underbrush to respond.

Still another bloody crisis at midnight...

Alix stood at the edge of the fire area; stood as if paralyzed, her hand-beam pointing toward the remains of their firebreak.

Alan, reaching her side, also looked - and visibly blanched at what he saw.

"Go wake up the others," when his voice returned. Alix did not move. "Go on, go! - " This stirred her to life, and as he took her light she backed away from the scene. In the darkness he could hear her running.

She'd put in a full day, and Tony had insisted on her putting in an early night.

A night spent dreaming about magnificent waterfalls, cascades leaping great distances, crashing and exploding over rocky outcroppings and ledges, sending up huge clouds of spray and mist -

All of this is for me?...

...she rolled over, annoyed, at the discordant noise. But the noise wouldn't go away. Her fumbling fingers sought out the commlock on her night table.

The glowing image, LUNAR TIME, lit up the tiny screen, and a whine of dismay escaped her. Through half-closed eyes, she sleepily activated the audio-link: "Do you know what time it is...?"

"Sorry, love. Can't be helped."

Maya sat up in the darkness of her quarters, her unpinned hair awash over her shoulders.

"Tony - ?"

"Yes, it's me..."

"You should've been in bed yourself, ages ago..."

"That can't be helped, either," said he, from the Security desk.

"Wasn't Paul supposed to relieve you at midnight?"

"He's busy at Flight Control, loading up a Rescue Eagle."

"A Rescue Eagle?" She was fully awake now.

"He's taking Raul Nu(ez and a forensic medical team to Psyche Elysium, and you're going with them. Fastest intercept course will get you there just after their sunrise."

"Forensic?" puzzled. "They specialize in autopsies and such things, don't they?" clearly not liking the implication.

"Just get your beautiful self over to the launch area. I'll explain as we go."

"All right, then, I'm on my way. But, Tony - you simply must get some sleep. See us off if you must, but then let someone else take over. Please?"

"Don't worry, Maya," came Ben Ouma's voice, "I'll make sure he does."

"Thanks a lot," said he, sardonically.

"Yes, Ben," gratefully, "thank you...that reassures me. I won't worry so much..." tossing the bedcovers aside; the silken powder-blue fabric of her uniform-issue V?J?C pajamas subtly rustled as she rose and switched a light on.

From what little she yet knew, there'd be far more than enough to worry about elsewhere...

Chapter Six

Dawn broke cold and dreary, and a slate-blue sky arched across the roof of the world.

King was the earliest riser; his ear recognizing, even through sleep, the distant sound of something familiar approaching from the air - a sound belonging not to this place, but to another...

Sometime after this, bundled up in her anorak - its back collar zipped together to become a protective hood - Alix trundled into the Reconnaissance Eagle's passenger module. She got as far as, "Alan, the Rescue Eagle's here - " before her hand flew to her mouth, "Oh..." and she lapsed into embarrassed silence.

Carter was there, a lumpy huddled mass in a sleeping bag sprawled across the module floor. His share of the Security patrol, once resumed after the night's terrible interruption, would have brought him back to camp very late. And exhausted, he hadn't even bothered to drag his sleeping bag outside where the tents of their bivouac had been pitched.

She, whose fragile looks were wont to stir a bit of the protective instinct in others, now felt a stirring of that very instinct herself. Being very quiet, she knelt down by him and carefully arranged the covers over him...there, that was better. Then she was rising, and tiptoeing away...

"Hi..." There was a rustling as he rolled over, and with half-open eyes took in the sight of her.

"Hi..." speaking softly.

"Rescue Eagle's here?"

"Not long ago. They'll be awhile getting organized. So, you see? You aren't missing a thing. Not just yet. Do try to go back to sleep for awhile longer..."

"Victor's right, you know," with a drowsy smile, "you fret and you fuss and you worry..."

"Do you mind?" worriedly.

"No," still smiling. "Have some breakfast ready?"

"I will..."

"Good..." and with that, he rolled over once more, "Just think of my reputation...!" and tried to doze off. But this interval didn't last long. "Oh, it's no use," groaning as he sat up, "Alix? - "

"Yes, I'm still here - "

Fully awake now, he was looking at her.

"What is that?"

Stung by his tone, she cocked her head. The hood had fallen back, to reveal that her lengthy tresses had been pulled up off her shoulders and dressed in a sort of futuristic Victorian "poof," neatly brushed, braided and arranged atop her head.

"Well," still flustered, "this may be brisk weather for you, but it isn't for me...I thought it might be more comfortable..."

"But you've changed it."

"Maya says that, on Psychon, a lady's hair worn upswept denotes intelligence," trying again. Then, "You don't like it..." more disappointed than angry.

He'd stood, and was gathering up his sleeping bag to store it. "Oh, now, come on - remember me? I'm the bloke you had your first fight on Alpha with!"

"Your breakfast is ready," in a pouting tone. "I've half a mind not to give it to you..."

"Women!" in a huff, from elsewhere in the module.

"Men! - "

His overnight gear stowed, he let out a long deep breath. It was such a petty little thing they were bickering over, and especially after last night.

"All right, we're both stubborn and we both have know, I never said I didn't like it."

"And I invariably get angry with the wrong people," in a resigned sigh.

He came over to take a seat in one of the passenger rumbles. Beneath that unfamiliar arrangement, her expression bespoke her wrestling with some inner quandary...

While their different duties, and vastly different security clearances, kept them separated most of the time, the so-called "common areas" of Alpha had afforded some measure of opportunity for him to keep an eye out for her, following that accidental first encounter in the corridor.

In the dining complex, over any number of breakfasts and lunches (even a dinner or two, and - it had to be admitted - a careful bit of quite-innocent flirting), he'd gradually put her at ease and coaxed her into opening up a little about herself and her past.

She had never known the mother she was said to resemble, who'd died in childbirth, or even who her father was. Rumnipoor, she'd told him, was itself a relatively small planet, its sparse population scattered mostly across a number of spectacular mountain valleys.

Within one of those valleys lay the capital district - and the royal estates with their sprawling gardens, where she had been discovered, only hours old, by the Queen's husband and his private secretary and best friend. The carefully-sheltered life under her royal guardian's personal protection constituted the only world she had known as a child...

"You could do no greater honor to another than to address him in his own language, and to respect the culture that made him what he was..." murmuring to herself, and then looking up. "They taught me that, and many other things. Still...there's something I've been doing for awhile, and on just never occurred to me that it might've been - well - unwittingly offending to you."

"Offend me? How?"

"You know I've tried to speak some of your Australian slang, regretfully not always with success," to which he nodded. "I thought, this was surely something you must miss, not hearing it, being on the Moon. And I thought - hoped - you'd be pleased. But - not so very long ago, it floated into my ear that the old slang wasn't spoken so much any more."

He assimilated this, as she continued.

"I would never, ever, cast even the most inadvertent slur upon your pride of country," said she, quietly and earnestly, "or consciously do anything that would hurt must know that. So, if you want me to stop, I'll stop...only, please tell me what to do?"

He regarded her with a certain sad little smile. As admirably knowledgeable as she'd become in many subjects pertaining to Earth, in others her naiveté was embarrassingly evident.

"Come over here," indicating one of the other rumbles. "Now, why would you think I'd be offended? Yes, it is true that you don't hear the old slang quite so much - but listening to you trying to use it, wasn't insulting at all. It's flattering. Shows you were interested. And that's a commendable trait in anybody, whatever the reason. So - if you feel you have to keep trying, well, then I guess I can take it. I will set a condition, though - that you try to use it correctly. Deal?"

She smiled, in that shy little way. He knew how relieved she was, inside. And trying so bloody hard not to show it! Ever the "proper lady"!

"You'll want your breakfast now..." and she rose to fetch it.

He watched her, leaned back in the rumble, content to be fussed over now that the fretting and worrying had been dealt with. At such times she seemed like a little girl and a woman, all at once...

But now, his were the features touched by puzzlement. She was arranging food-laden dishes on a tray. She brought it over to him, and he realized why.

"Steak and eggs," and she was flaming into color, "the traditional Australian breakfast. At least the books said so..."

Hopeless, he thought, absolutely hopeless!

"Go get another plate..." That wishful thinking of hers again! Bringing about this meal, from out of his own memories!

When she reappeared with the plate, he indicated that she sit down across from him.

"Now, mind you, there's nothing really wrong with book knowledge - so far as it goes," taking up knife and fork. "The real world changes - usually faster than they can write the books!"

He partitioned the food into two equal servings.

"And they keep on writing them, just the same," carefully transferring one portion to the other plate, which he then placed before her. "Now we can have breakfast..."

Outside, in the chilly light of day, Koenig and Bergman had met the Rescue Eagle landing party, giving them an initial briefing before they dispersed upon their various first sorties. The two men now stood off to one side, finishing off their hot coffee and conversing quietly.

Paul Morrow and Maya, in their anoraks of chestnut brown and red-trimmed blue, had ventured out across the meadow and had been admiring the grand view, including the great twin falls. For the first time, she could see in full the waterfall her companions had named for her.

Presently they were returning, she waving a greeting in the direction of Peter King. He waved back. She continued in his direction, while Morrow headed on toward the Reconnaissance Eagle.

Her cheeks pleasantly pinked by the morning air, she came up to the campfire, where King was attempting to warm himself. "Mm, that smells marvelous! May I have some?" He poured a cup of the hot beverage for her, and then topped off his own.

"Been to the fire area?"

"Helena and her people are still there," said she. "That really was a clever piece of business yesterday, that firebreak. It's a side of you I haven't seen before!"

"I'm not just about lunar geology. I do know a few other things..."

He'd told her about himself, once; listening as a boy to his geologist-father's stories of teaching early astronauts the scientific side of their lunar-landing missions - and knowing, even then, he wanted to follow them. Rushing through his schooling, bringing to Moonbase Alpha the pluck of a genius - and a certain lingering reputation, for even here some still called him the Whiz Kid of Stanford!

His life's ambition led him to the most dangerous place on the far side of the Moon - the notorious disposal areas for the nuclear wastes of Earth - and very nearly proved his undoing.

In September of 1999, after the smaller Disposal Area One self-detonated into a hideous blast, all effort on Alpha concentrated upon thwarting - somehow - the same fate for the adjacent, and vastly larger, Area Two.

As Victor Bergman's hand-picked troubleshooter, he found himself posted to Area Two - a truly- lethal brew of a place, all those countless numbers of waste cans simmering like malevolent demons, buried below the lunar surface.

At first he'd resisted the orders recalling him and his team to Moonbase - his job, and his duty, was alongside those colleagues and friends, he argued; and he could not help them effectively, merely by assisting in the liaison of the dispersal operation in which Main Mission was then engaged.

But Koenig himself had cut those orders, and Bergman was firm.

It saved his life.

Every one of those friends and colleagues perished - as did those of Alan Carter, in the many Cargo Eagles in the dark sky above it - when Area Two finally surrendered to the apocalypse...all obliterated by the same cataclysmic forces that ruptured the very bonds between the Moon and Earth, sending it - and Moonbase Alpha upon it - careening away, into the uncertainty of the greater cosmos..."Maya?" he was prompting, back in the present.

" do," slowly. Still somewhere between the present, standing before her, and the past in which she'd never truly been able to share, not having lived through those terrible hours with all of them.

The red and white Technical section patch, on the sleeve of his anorak, still carried the numeric cartouche from his posting to Area Two.

"Still, where did you acquire it?" coming back to the moment.

"During my off-time from Stanford, I used to go up into the Sierra for the summer. And I joined up with the local volunteer firefighting brigade. Fire could come at you so many different ways there - we had to learn, had to know, how to fight back."

She looked at him more closely, soberly. "But you're now having second thoughts?"

After last night? -

"It's not just knowing how to fight it. It's knowing when. For a long time, we didn't understand that fire was a natural part of the forest. So, of course, we put it out. But fire is necessary. Without it, the forest couldn't grow. We learned that the hard way - terrible wildfires, that could've been prevented."

"The mission could not have continued," said she. "We discussed whether to order an emergency abort, even to having you attempt a landing elsewhere."

He considered this. "We might've touched off another fire ourselves, lifting off..." letting it trail away.

Maya followed his redirected gaze, saw Alix and then Alan existing the Eagle.

"More second thoughts?" watching his eyes following Alix. Then, more gently, "Peter - nothing you could've done, nothing anyone could've done, would have prevented what Palkee-Nur did to her...I've had some time to think about this, to write it down, to study it. And yet, there are still - certain things I feel I ought to remember about it - but I can't."

Even now, there was no more than a distant fevered blur of successive and terrible visions: of discordant lights and sounds all around her, of others Alphans appearing, disappearing, a great reaching, grasping, probing her, them, Alpha, the Moon itself...

She took a breath, steadied herself. "What I know, is this: Alicky is a 'made' omnimorph, not a born one. And that critical difference saved her, and the Moon, and everyone on it, from utter destruction."

"Tony is a lucky man," he finally said, studying her.

Her eyes danced, "You still think I care about what he thinks?" and her smile was luminous.

And he wasn't fooled for a moment.

They raised their coffee mugs to each other, and then beheld Alix as she approached. "Good morning, Alicky!" gaily.

"Hello, Princess," said she; already, her anorak had disappeared. "They're asking for you..."

"Medical team back yet?" from King.

"At any moment, they say."

Maya gracefully excused herself and moved away. And yet - she found her footsteps carrying her not toward the Eagle, but elsewhere.

To dream only of waterfalls again...!

She stood there, allowing her eyes to close and the billowing sound of it to sweep over and envelop her.

King and Alix were left by the campfire.

"The chill's starting to come off the air," said she. "The day should be quite nice..."

He noted with quiet approval the new aspect of her appearance.

"The moment is nice," said he. "It's the first chance we've had to be alone, since we got here."

He moved closer to her. She felt rather disconcerted as those blue eyes, with the grey flecks in them, focused upon her; the same reaction, whenever he presented himself.

"They said you're leaving." Even speaking took a certain effort.

"It's fairly straightforward. Tony and Ben Ouma have been up all night, between them, and they're both exhausted. Paul's staying on down here, with Maya and all of you. Victor needs a point man up there - that is my job, after all - and the Commander needs someone on duty who knows the situation - and that means me."

He too seemed hardly aware of his own words. He was still looking at her.

"I still wish you weren't going..."


"I mean - you seem to know so much about places like this - "

Slowly, quietly, he cupped her face in his hands.

"It won't be so very long...and when I do return, it'll be with all of Alpha at my back...and we'll have us one fine reunion..."

The kiss, when it came, was unhurried, unrushed. Her fingertips searched for, and found, his shoulders...

It still haunted him, his inability to protect her that night. So long it had taken, to work up the courage to ask her out on that date...she'd absorbed with such interest the contents of his Stanford yearbooks and laughed at his stories about the Big Game, especially the - well - unconventional antics of the university's band, to which he had belonged. He'd even brought his enormous tuba along with him, when he first came out to Moonbase - a feat not accomplished, he confided, without some measure of difficulty - and despite the sundry bangs and dings the rather unwieldy instrument had acquired from the various cosmic wrenchings to which the Moon had been subjected, it still played beautifully. Which he immediately demonstrated for her, to her delighted applause...

And he was hearing his own laughter, joining in with hers; and, after that, discovering that he couldn't tear his gaze away from her face.

And, for the first time in a long time, he could begin to glimpse a life - a real life - beyond the work into which he'd retreated, keeping largely out of view, since the Moon had blown away.

Others had found the Moon a refuge, and Alpha a place to hide from private pain. But, how to run away from the Moon itself?

Gazing into those eyes, with their minute flecks of silver, he felt the realization gradually stealing over him that there was no longer any need of running away...

And the two of them had drawn close together, as they were now, at the awful moment when Palkee-Nur - that violent, malevolent force of nature - literally crashed into their lives.

He remembered only the enormous, the blinding light, Alix literally wrenched from his grasp, and - something - hurling him hard against a wall; and nothing more. Both of them were found, he was afterwards told, in a catatonic state - he insensible to his surroundings, and her...

Then it was, from somewhere deep within that glittering corpse, that something - some thing? - arose.

Shrieking, howling, deafening light and blinding energy - the omnimorph, revealed; and far beyond any means or measure of imagining.

The omnimorph, that overwhelmed Palkee-Nur, banishing it to doom and perdition.

The Moon literally shook, from the sheer force of that cataclysm; and, when all had at last gone away, the recovering Alphans discovered that their path through space had changed.

None of all this had mattered a whit to King, in the Medical section, where she eventually awakened - still gripped by terror, frantically calling his name.

"I've got you," he repeatedly assured her, "I've got you," and so he did.

She remembered nothing whatever of what had happened - nearly happened - to all of them. The omnimorph was submerged within her once more.

...and now, just as on that harrowing night, he could feel her responding to him. While he knew she couldn't read minds, this once he wished she could.

Come back to me...

They parted.

"We should go now..."

"Yes...we should..."

Elsewhere, Maya had met up again with Morrow and they elected to do some additional reconnoitering, inasmuch as Helena and her team were taking a longer time than had been expected.

Thus engaged, they had not seen the occurrence at the campfire. Neither had Koenig. But Bergman had. No one knew where Carter was.

Chapter Seven

As they were assigned to different operations teams on the Moon, Paul Morrow and Maya rarely had the opportunity to work together. Yet here they now were, on Psyche Elysium, wandering amidst the sun-dappled environs of a great grove of leafy trees.

"I still can't understand it," she was saying, "how such a thing could happen in such a beautiful place? I thought about it the whole way here. It's still a contradiction in terms."

"Appearance can be illusion," was his response. "Who'd know that better than a metamorph?" smiling at her, and she smiled back.

He was about to speak again, but she was hushing him, putting up a hand for silence and listening to the morning breeze.

His fingers unobtrusively reached down and freed the holding catch of the sidearm clipped to his belt...

"Something in the bush?" whispering.

"No...higher," moving with catlike stealth and quietness. Then her eyes were alighting on one of the closer trees. "There..." indicating, as he came up to her shoulder.

The mysterious noise now took on character and form: an urgent, frenetic flapping and fluttering. "Like birds' wings," Morrow thought.

"No..." in a hushed voice. Standing at the tree's thickly-knarled base, they could look almost straight up - and there beheld the first living creature any of them had seen here.

"It's a butterfly," said he.

"A beautiful butterfly..." Maya's eyes were very round and softly glowing as she gazed upon it, an exquisite thing of deep royal purple threaded with gold and silver. "And it's caught," in dismay at the butterfly's predicament, for it had found itself entangled in a nebulous netting of tree sprouts and thin fine branches. "Anything I turn into would only frighten it even me up," she directed, and he accordingly set about hoisting her upward into the tree's outstretched larger branches, rippling with leaves.

"So long as Tony doesn't find out about this," trying to keep both her balance and his at the same time.

"Sandra, either," as his maneuverings presently brought her to the butterfly's level. A pleased little sigh issued from her. "Here, don't struggle so!" cooing to it, "you'll only damage yourself...I'm a friend," her fingers carefully closing about the obstruction. "Now, you try to hold still and I'll have you out of there straightaway..."

Several moments' effort was rewarded as, amidst a whirring blur of color, the butterfly shot upward - free!

It presently was lost to sight, a dot overwhelmed by the shimmering disc of the morning sun. Maya, her features animated by delight at her success, shaded her eyes as she followed its progress.

That seemed to be that, but before Morrow could move to return her to the ground, they both heard a loud crash from elsewhere in the grove: wood heaving asunder, branches snapping, underbrush flattened.

"It was over there," Maya, still held aloft, was pointing, "I caught a glimpse of movement..."

"Stay with it," said his voice, from below, "I'll get the others organized, maybe we can circle around it - "

Only when he felt her form dissolving out of his hands, did he release her. He looked, and saw the hummingbird hanging perfectly still in the air, like a tiny gossamer helicopter. Then it was darting off, and he was turning away to hurry back to their landing site.

Chosen for its superficial resemblance to the butterfly - at least in terms of size and the colorful iridescence of its feathered form - the little blur of wings buzzed in and out amongst the trees and displayed its aerobatic dexterity well to advantage as it swung sideways and cartwheeled, tracing dizzying paths in the morning air.

It swooped low along the ground, past broken and crushed shrubbery and flowers, and depressions in the grassy soil that had not been made by the Alphans, for they hadn't passed this way.

This continued on for a space, and then it was soaring up towards a nearby tree.

Now a hummingbird spends the greater part of its life in the air, and as a result its wings are far more powerful and developed than its feet, whose tiny toes lack the practical strength for such things as walking. It can perch, however, and this it did, on a low-hanging bough...

At virtually the same instant a great glow rose to surround it, and in an eye-twinkling Maya was shimmering back into existence as herself.

Her commlock was already buzzing, even as she reached for it:

"Maya, it's Alix - Controller Morrow just got here and told us, we're ready to move out - they want to know if you've anything more..."

"You may as well stay put, Alicky," sighing, "I've lost it...there are some tracks, but they seem to just start, and then after awhile they just stop again. From the size, I'd estimate the creature that made them to be comparable to a young female Slah..."

Alix smiled a little on the small screen. "Princess, I'm from Proxima Centauri...perhaps something I could understand?"

" xzella, I think?"

"Understood. You said the tracks simply stop?"

"Yes, and the ground here is definitely soft enough to retain such tracks, were a creature of any demonstrable size and weight to pass this way."

Her attention was briefly drawn elsewhere; then Koenig appeared on the screen. "Come on back, then. Dr Nu(ez and the rest of his group are back from the fire area, and I want everyone here for a briefing before they leave."

"Right," said she, and rang off.

But, before she could lightly leap down to the ground, a barely-perceptible beating of wings came to her ear.

Then a delicate blur of motion, and a sight as familiar as it was unexpected: here was the butterfly, alighting in Maya's tree, near her.

She felt a genuine sense of joy at its return.

"Hello - ? Where'd you come from?"

A moment's fluttering and it alit upon her knee where she was seated on her bough, among verdant clouds of leaves.

She giggled, watching it placidly displaying itself before her - its body pencil-slender, like a wand, and of a purple hue so very intense it appeared black except when it chanced to catch the sun; the two pairs of wings it held about itself just so, as true butterflies do when at rest, exquisite in their delicacy of form, their slightest movement sending refracted light sparkling off their minute scales.

"What a splendid view you have up here," beaming, as she gazed through her leafy curtain, and again beheld the great "staircase" waterfall across the valley that had been given her name. "You can look the whole thing over. You wouldn't have liked my planet very much...all those volcanoes. But it wasn't always that way," wistfully. "To have heard Mentor, my father, tell it, Psychon was once a place very much like this...alive with growing things and exquisite valleys and waterfalls and warm breezes...and, yes, even butterflies!" this with a special smile.

She marveled at how tame this butterfly seemed to be, and how little frightened it apparently was of her.

Meanwhile, at the Alphans' enclave, a temporary lull was ensuing.

Helena and her team, headed by Dr Raul Nu(ez, were being served with hot coffee. Their Rescue Eagle, with its distinctive red-striped passenger module, was parked at a distance from that of the original landing party.

Bergman was puttering with one or two small instruments, Koenig was looking over several others. King was again sweeping the general environs with binoculars.

Alix had ventured out into the meadow. Morrow and Carter had undertaken to do a bit of reconnoitering of the immediate area on their own, maintaining that they could cover more ground more quickly than she could've done on her own. This stung her a little, for it seemed to question her ability as Security patrol, but Koenig had sanctioned it and she had reluctantly remained quiet thereafter.

Now she could look off and see them returning, wading nearly waist-high in the ferns and grasses that carpeted their meadow. She called to Koenig. He summoned the rest of their group, which had swelled to double its size literally overnight.

"Maya not back yet?" from Carter.

"She didn't meet up with you? You were headed over that way."

"We found the tracks Maya and I made earlier, but none like those she described to Alix," said Morrow.

"John," Helena was touching his shoulder, "there she is - " and pointing. The morning breeze sent a rippling through this verdant sea as Maya came into view, bounding along toward their camp.

"I tried looking around a little more," she breathlessly reported, "but I couldn't find anything else..."

Helena stepped forward, regarding her with curiosity. "What have you got there, Maya?"

She smiled at the butterfly, which flitted and fluttered about her brunette-swathed shoulders.

"That the same one we let out of that tree?" from Morrow.

"Yes, and he followed me all the way back here," giggling, "did you ever see such a thing?"

Bergman scanned her lepidopteron escort from a discreet distance. "Perhaps it can sense your affinity for all forms of living matter, as a metamorph," he suggested.

"In any event, you seem to have acquired a shadow," said Helena, amused at the tableau and quite appreciative of the little creature's striking beauty.

"A gossamer shadow," smiling. "What do you think of all my nice friends?" softly.

"With an exceedingly complex molecular structure," as Bergman mulled over the output of his scanning gear. "There's a certain - undercurrent in the data that I can't readily identify, but your little friend seems otherwise quite harmless."

Koenig was calling over his shoulder, "That give you any insights, Raul?" to the leader of the forensic medical team from the Moon.

"Just what was that, at the fire area last night?" from Alix, who had good reason to want to know.

The white of his zippered left sleeve gleamed in the sun, the legacy of his Andean ancestry in his striking meztizo features.

"Intuitively, I think you already know," said he. "They were the remains of animals - living creatures. A fresh kill."

Koenig's follow-up question was critical. "Within the time we've been here?"

"Very definitely."

All of them traded glances. Two words that took a little more of the bloom off of paradise.

Koenig was subdued. It was beginning to look like his instinct to leave Psyche Elysium was being borne out.

"All right then, Raul. I won't keep you any longer. But I want a detailed necropsy on those - remains - as soon as possible. I want to know how many there were, and especially what killed them."

"Right, sir."

Alan had moved to Alix's shoulder. "Sounds like he thinks something else killed them," he murmured in her ear, "something other than the fire..."

The seven Alphans remaining behind stood and watched the Rescue Eagle, with King now in command, as it ascended into a sky of a brighter azure hue than earlier. The last of the early morning pale had likewise evaporated, leaving the promise of another brilliantly-sunny day.

"That's behind us, at least for the moment," said Helena, when the air had stilled again and the Eagle was lost to sight. "What now, John?"

Before he could reply, the butterfly flitted over and alit on the tip of his nose.

Maya struggled to suppress a fit of giggles.

"For such a small creature, it seems remarkably unafraid of people," Morrow commented.

"The people who built that settlement upriver, perhaps," from Bergman, "if people they were..."

"Maybe it's as Alan says," Helena suggested, "our coming here frightened them all off - at first - "

"And now they're starting to come back," Koenig mused, "because they've gotten used to us?..."

"Or, perhaps, that most truly-universal of emotions - curiosity," Alix offered.

The butterfly skipped into the air again and presently returned to Maya, poising itself sedately on her shoulder.

Koenig had to smile. "He seems to like you best," said he, to which she shrugged happily and smiled back.

"We ought to be finding that creature," Carter reminded them, "while we still can..."

"Right," said he. "Victor, suppose you take Maya up past The Narrows, and have another go at that settlement - you two pool your famous brains and see if you can come up with some answers. Helena and I will take the grove where those tracks are. Alix, you tackle that east loop again - you're most likely to notice if anything's changed from last night. I want to know if it has."

"Yes, sir," said she.

"Paul, you go with her. That section of the trail gives a good overview of that area of the lower valley."

"What about me, John?" from Carter again.

"You stick close to the Eagle. With some sort of animal, or whatever, roaming in the area, I don't want it left unattended. And you can coordinate the rest of us, if anybody should find something."

"Okay," said he.

"Let's move out, then. We're getting an earlier start than yesterday, and with fresh eyes to boot - so let's make the most of it -"

Chapter Eight

It was their first visit to the southern part of the meadow and its great groves of trees, casting their branched shadows across the grasses, they and their shadows alike rippling rhythmically with the slightest breath of moving air.

Beneath their spreading boughs, Koenig and Helena wandered in the shade of the still-young day, at ease and unencumbered by anoraks left behind at the Eagle. Helena could reach up with her hand and set the leaves to flickering, making the sunlight sparkle, like stars falling in the daytime.

It felt very peaceful here.

"Penny for your thoughts?"

"Oh...I just had the silly notion of kicking off my hiking boots and wading barefooted in the grass," musingly, with a smile. "Back on Earth, it would've been such a little, it means so much."

They were only words now, and had been for so very long. Trees, leaves, grass...concepts, labels recalled from a long-vanished place and given to the otherwise-unfamiliar flora here, in this new and unfamiliar place, to help make it seem a little less so. A function of arbitration, perhaps; a sort of necessity. Even a convenience, like giving names to waterfalls.

But such a "silly notion" bespoke sensitivity - and other qualities, too - and for his money that easily outdrew all the other considerations.

And it added substantially to his admiration of her.

"Now you're thinking..."

"About the sort of creature we're looking for," said he. "You know, I was listening to that exchange between Maya and Alix earlier...they seemed able to make each other understand what it might be like," now looking a bit sheepish, "but in our haste to get on its trail, I forgot to ask them to explain it to us! - "

Helena laughed.

What a joyous sound laughter was! And in the moment, and in her voice, he thought it sounded wonderful. Even if it was somewhat at his expense.

"John!" shaking her golden head, "I never knew you had such an impractical side! - "

He had to smile a little at this, and as they walked each put an arm round the other. "The job just doesn't give me much of a chance to show it..."

"Well, I think I can help you," said she. "Maya turned into a Slah, amongst others, when she was so very ill that one time and you were away. And Alix described riding an xzella to me - she was quite good at it, it seems - it's somewhat like a gazelle and a thoroughbred horse. Not so unlike the Slahs of Psychon, apparently."

"So - some sort of light-bodied creature, not overly heavy-set," said he, musingly, "who'd probably depend on its great speed potential to outdistance pursuit, rather than stand and fight..."

"Rather like Maya's butterfly..."

A casual observation, one that simply popped out...and had momentary looks passing between them as they moved on...

In response to the climbing angle of the sun, light and warmth were filling the valley, spilling to the edges of its lower quarter, along the domes and cliffs over which the great twin falls plunged, like blue-silver tassels, on their way to join the main river.

The scents of dew-dampened flowers and ferns filled the air as well, surrounding Morrow and Alix as they sought out the markers that denoted the track they were to follow.

"I don't understand," she was saying.

"Don't understand what, exactly?"

"Why Alan made such a fuss about my wearing my hair up this way," said she. "We nearly came to a row over it - how could such a thing happen? And, despite what he said, I'm still not quite certain he likes it..."

"No mystery," Morrow asserted. "He doesn't like it, because Peter King does."

She stopped, buttonholing him with an incredulous gaze. "Are you saying - ? Oh now, that's the silliest - "

Laughing, "It isn't to them!"

"But it is! It shouldn't matter whether my hair is worn up or down!" Then, in a sigh of resignation, "I ought to cut it all off and throw it at their feet and say, 'So there!'"

"But you won't, will you?" still laughing.

"Of course not! No proper Rumnipuran lady would dream of doing such a thing..." Sighing again, "The more I think I understand you men, the less I really do..."

"A peace offering, then," as Morrow stooped amidst the grasses, his eye caught be a particularly fine-looking flower, its delicate tissue-paper-like petals of red and orange open nearly horizontal to better catch the morning sun.

He was puzzled as his fingers seemed to refuse to obey his brain's command to pluck the blossom. He looked up, "It's true, then, isn't it?"

"It's true," sadly.

"Perhaps you'd accept the thought, instead?"

"Accepted," with a glowing little smile.

Morrow rose to his feet once more, and they walked on.

"Would you think me superstitious, if I told you something?"

"Can't judge what I haven't heard..."

"Well...I'm dreading what we're going to find here."

"Because of what happened last night?"

"Because of what else happened last night...before I came to the fire area, before Alan joined me on the trail - perhaps it's why I was a little - well - too quick with the rifle, when he did - even before the Moon came up, and it was very dark. I looked up, at one point, and saw several meteors - shooting stars - above the valley. The sight chilled me to my bones."


"Your tradition says that whenever there's a shooting star, somebody dies," quietly. "On Rhenium, that had a certain basis in fact." Awkward in transliteration, it resonated with an exotic richness given its native pronunciation of REE-NY-UUM.

"Where your people's ancestors came from?"

"M'm. Long ago, long before they colonized what would later become my home world." She took a breath. "Your world, Earth, has - had - only the single Moon. Rhenium had six, of varying sizes. And there was once a seventh - the smallest, perhaps a captured asteroid - and was called Esher, which means something like 'interloper.' Its course was always erratic, it never really settled into a stable orbital pattern. And at last the day came when it approached too closely, and gravity shattered it into a million pieces - many of which rained down on the mother world below - "

"As shooting stars," said Morrow.

"Most simply vaporized in the atmosphere. But the largest of them survived to reach the ground - to crash into inhabited areas. People were killed. The rest would take up their own orbits around the sun, and produce meteor showers whenever Rhenium's orbit took it through them. 'Pieces of Esher,' they came to be called, whether or not they really were. And when I saw them here, last night..."

It was Morrow who stopped this time, flame- and khaki-clad arms folded, looking hard at his companion and trying to decide whether she was serious.

"Meteors are - just meteors. Nothing more. Are you saying you believe they're some sort of ill omen? A harbinger of back luck?"

"Yes, I believe it. They've jinxed the mission."

"Still sounds farfetched," in a dubious tone.

"Listen..." and they both did, carefully, "it's the river..."

"I can hear it now," said he. "We must be pretty close," and they looked around for the trail. Another few minutes, and the sea of ferns was parting at the riverbank - and Alix was rushing forward.

Morrow waited, watched as she scampered along the muddy shore.

At last she halted, breathless and dumbfounded. "The footbridge," she exclaimed, "they put it up here yesterday...Alan and I both used it last night," turning back to Morrow in disbelief, "it's gone! - "

" - Alan, are they sure?"

"They're sure. They checked all along their side of the river, and found nothing to suggest what happened to the footbridge. And they can clearly see the trail markers on the far shore - so they're where they're supposed to be."

Helena had spent much of their traverse of the great tree groves using her video equipment to document their surroundings, from carefully-focused closeups to panoramic vistas; something the still-enigmatic nature of this valley apparently would permit them to do.

She'd decided upon the name Peaceful Grove, it would be her contribution to their maps.

She came over to Koenig, to listen at his shoulder; now she joined the conversation: "Could the bridge have been washed away overnight, somehow?"

"We both checked it, Helena, it was well-anchored. You two did your job," this with a wry smile on the small screen of Koenig's commlock.

Koenig grinned a little, too, before resuming. "Any chance of swimming across?"

"According to Paul, the river's running pretty high. He's a good swimmer - she isn't," this last dubiously.

"Then they don't try - you tell them that's an order."

"Right." He'd set up shop at one of the survey consoles in the Eagle's passenger module, the hatchways open to admit the free flow of light and fresh air. "They said they were already looking for another way across. You two having any luck?"

"We found the tracks Maya saw earlier," said Helena. "It's just as she said: they begin, and then they abruptly end. We're still checking the area for any signs of passage the creature may have left behind."

"Okay, then. I'll pass the word to Victor and Maya - they ought to be fairly well up the gorge by now. I tried raising her awhile ago, but her commlock didn't respond with the usual locator signal. She's probably transformed...could be they're trying to make better time..."

The relentless motion of tons of ice across tons of granite in ages past had left a certain special patina, called glacial polish, on the fractured massifs and cols that reared above the rushing river just past The Narrows, in the upper valley.

The sun was high enough by now to catch the foamy whitewater and turn it into a wide rippling blanket of sparkling diamonds.

The way was rocky here, countless granite pebbles crumbling beneath her cloven hooves, but she picked her way along with assurance. Her rippling muscles accented the gleam of sunlight on the metallic sheen of her body.

Bergman rode astride her flanks, not seeking to hurry her along beyond her capability but allowing her to use her own time.

Presently he was bending forward, toward her long-jawed and well-formed head. "This will do," he called into her ear, having to raise his voice somewhat to be heard above the racing rapids.

She obliged, and he easily slid off her back. The ground wasn't as stony here, and with less of a down-slope to the river.

He took in with proper admiration the sleek, harmonious proportions of his mount as she pranced and frolicked about, delighting in the river spray.

Then a sun-like glow enveloped her, and an instant later a smiling Maya was standing in her place.

"A female Slah can outrun enemies, outfight other females, and out-climb practically anything!" she happily declared. Her anorak was dripping and her hair damp, but her spirits were buoyant and her voice exultant.

He had to shake his head, his admiration of her much increased from before. "It was a very sure-footed ride!" and they both laughed. "Now - I need a breather and you need a rest - so, suppose we recollect ourselves and then we press on, hm?" beginning to unstrap and thus extricate himself from the equipment-laden backpack he'd been toting.

He waved off her efforts to help as he spread a groundcover for them to sit upon, and poured something cold for both of them.

"Success," said he, in a toast.

"Success," said she, and they drank. "Isn't this a nice outing!" taking in their surroundings.

The sun, a drop of molten gold, had gilded the river in its image here. The granite sheaf where they'd stopped was just above the waterfall, as it tumbled and barreled along on its way to the lower valley, propelled by the tug of gravity.

Confined here to some extent by the aggregations of jumbled talus that flanked the high-walled cliffs on either side, the river was itself transformed, metamorph-like, into an aureate spume chuting out of the recess like a prisoner fleeing towards liberty.

The power of its winds, like those of the big twin falls elsewhere, left countless droplets suspended in air; these turned to gold-dust by the sunshine pouring down from above.

Maya stretched, trying to relax. The journey had been somewhat tiring on her. Then she was considering her traveling companion. Admiration was a two-way road. She was coming to understand why Alicky and others so prized his friendship. Like all Alphans, he was bent on doing his share.

There had been a time of a certain awkwardness, between the two of them...

There he was, the "father figure" to so many on the base; and there she was, freshly-arrived from Psychon...and who had just lost her father.

Perhaps he worried that I might've thought him trying to take Mentor's place? -

It had taken them awhile to adjust to each other, to properly appreciate each other's gifts. There had never been any real sense of rivalry, and in point of fact they complemented each other quite well.

And she had come to understand something else about him, too: just why it was, that so many looked upon him as the conscience of the runaway Moon...

Soon they were ready to start off again. From here on he knew the trail better than she, and he helped her up over the boulders and deceptively-harmless-looking talus, whose sharp edges could bring misfortune to the unwary.

Past them, past a bend in the river, and they were there.

"You really can't see the buildings for the undergrowth," said Maya, taking in the settlement and recalling Bergman's analogy to jungle-choked Asian temples.

She ran slim fingers along leaves and branches festooning the nearest structure, and was puzzled by the response this stirred within her.

This is very odd, she thought, how is it I'm able to touch them, when none of us could before? And why am I feeling as I do?...

"It appears your little friend came with us after all," said his voice.

She looked up - and, sure enough, there was her "gossamer shadow," quietly fluttering in the tree-shade near her.

"I thought we'd left him behind, in the valley," much surprised.

"Perhaps he wants us to hurry up," with a smile.

"Do you think so?" Cannily eyeing the butterfly, "What a demanding little taskmaster you are!" Even so, she was secretly pleased to see him. And he obediently flitted after her as she went over to join Bergman, who was unpacking their sensor gear from the backpack.

Chapter Nine

Further downstream, in the lower valley, Morrow was using his instruments to scan a great downed tree trunk he and Alix had come upon while scouting the riverbank in search of another way to cross.

"I wish you'd come down off of there, til I've finished," said he.

She had clambered up onto the smooth, small-scaled bark of the fallen timber and was taking cautious steps upon it.

"The idea is to see whether it can support us, so we can use it as a makeshift bridge," said she, hands extended outward in aid of keeping her balance. She paused and looked, from her elevated vantage point, out at the river. Sunlit and shining, and quick-moving. "We've lost the use of the footbridge, and we're under orders not to swim across; so what other way is there?"

"Be that as it may, I still wish you'd come down."

"Very well," lightly jumping to the ground. "Wait, now...I was walking upon it, how is that possible? Every time we've tried to pick a flower or take a tree sample, something's rebuffed us..."

"Perhaps because this tree's been uprooted. Not much in the way of deep roots, despite its apparent age."

"And with no root system to nourish it, the tree would've died," musing. "The mechanism's been upset, somehow. How else to explain our being able to touch it, but not our moving through the fern gardens and stepping on the grasses in the meadow with no effect? So there must be more to it..."

"For the moment, at least, it doesn't concern us," as he consulted his readouts. "The tree's been dead for quite some time - much of the bark seems to be intact, as you've demonstrated," with a little telling edge, "but the inside's mostly deteriorated. The heartwood's collapsed, leaving only the outer shell."

"The heartwood comprises much of a tree's weight," she pointed out. "Shouldn't it be light enough now for us to use it? Maneuver it into the river?"

"Also makes it more likely to be swept away by the river," dubiously.

"But computer gives a better probability that it won't be."

"Well," surveying the scene, "we aren't all that far upshore from the water, and we'd have gravity on our side if we could get it to rolling..."

This proved impractical, however; the two of them simply weren't strong enough, between them, to so little as budge it. Seeking a way to take advantage of things as they were, they were soon setting about fashioning a quite-makeshift flume along which the log could be delivered into the water. This stratagem took the form of a wide and shallow trench they created in the shore mud, to guide their would-be bridge where they wanted it to go.

While Morrow was training his instruments on the far shore, searching for one particular spot that would satisfy his requirements, Alix was dipping first one hiking boot and then the other into the churning river-foam and letting it carry away the caked mud. She scampered back up the stream bank, picking up yet more mud on her boots as they oozed in and out of the clingy stuff.

As she reached Morrow's side, his head was still churning about facts and figures and possibilities.

"You're always so - even-keeled," said she, "like - well, like a ship even a great storm can't overturn. Doesn't anything ever make you angry?"

Thoughts of any number of minor - and not so minor - contretemps between himself and Koenig in Main Mission, darted across his mind. She wouldn't know any of that, as her security clearance did not allow her to be there.

"'Even-keeled,'" trying it out, as one slips into a jacket. "Well, I've never been called that before!"

"I wish I could hold my temper so well," said she.

"Think, before you open your mouth - about whether you'll bear the consequences for what pops out of it," he suggested.

She slowly smiled up at him. "That's a good guide. And I'll try to follow it."

For now, her gaze followed where he was pointing, this indicating the locale across the river he'd selected.

She understood. That more-than-human mind of hers, culling its encyclopedic store of knowledge, reached out - and the very air moved, convulsed, reassembled itself.

"A crossbow?" as they were heading back to the head of the tree trunk. It was as wicked-looking as it was beautiful.

"The task calls for utter precision," said she, stretched out upon the ground. Morrow stepped away as she brought the crossbow up to position, steadying herself for the trick-shot. Carefully - very carefully - she was aiming through the log's hollowed-out heart, as one would a huge wooden spyglass, until her intended target was in sight.

It wasn't the target range now...

For a moment she lay quite still.

Suddenly -

Two steel cables flashed out, twin blurs, like coiled snakes striking.

They leapt the watery chasm, and there was an audible report as the diamond-sharp arrowheads imbedded themselves in the granite.

"Anchor them on this side," as he helped her up. "I'll set the charges."

Leaving her to do so, he went about arranging the small packets at specific locations along the downed tree's length. Then he was unspooling the slender power cable, watching his step as he backed up toward a medium-sized boulder that blossomed forth from the flowery carpet like a granite soap-bubble.

"They're ready," as she joined him there.

"Right," said he, "keep down," doing so himself, as he tripped the switch of the master detonator he held. Several muffled thuds came to their ears.

But only when they heard a clearly-audible splash, did they dare peer over the stony contours of their protecting barrier.

The log had been jolted free - the series of charges accomplishing what the two Alphans could not themselves - and the momentum had then propelled it along the contours of the muddy trench down to the river, where the cables extending lengthwise through it held it relatively in place and prevented its sinking completely from sight.

"We have a bridge," said Morrow. Methodical as always, he wound back the detonating cable before following Alix down to the river's edge.

The tree trunk lay partly submerged in the water, bisecting the high-velocity rapids from shore to shore, and although being bobbled about to a marked degree by them, the restraining cables were as yet holding.

Morrow took all of this in, as he tried to come to a decision - whether this improvised contrivance was safe to use.

"We are going to try it, aren't we?"

"I don't know," studying the ever-changing tension of the cables. "I don't like the way it's being jostled about like that. A lurch at the wrong moment could toss us both into the river."

She looked critically at the scene, thinking. "Then we go across one at a time. As Security patrol, it's my responsibility to go first."

Yes it was, he considered. But he also remembered what Carter had said earlier - that she wasn't that good a swimmer, especially in conditions like these.

"Be careful, then," said he, finally. "If it feels too unsteady, stay low and go very slowly."

He was all as chivalrous as Sandra had told her, all right. And while he might lack Alan's good-natured rough edges, he still had that same sort of subtly-melting quality that made it ever so difficult to say no...

Morrow carefully boosted her up onto the log. Following his behest, she kept quite low and tried to use hands and feet for locomotion.

"Think like an inchworm," he suggested, behind her, "the motion it makes."

She had to giggle at this, the mental picture was simply too much! -

But as she glanced down at the river rushing by beneath her rather precarious perch, yet another vision - one from out of the long-ago time - came to her...

...the vision of a little girl, on her first visit to the seashore on Rhenium, a world so very different from her own.

All that water, meeting all that sky!

And all those big waves, crashing and exploding as they vented their strength and power on the land...

...and now, in the present, she felt a twinge of that never-forgotten childhood terror resurrected, rising within her as she beheld the river's foam and spray below, roiling and charging perilously close to her, filling her ears with the roar of that faraway sea...

Still watching from shore, Morrow became concerned as she had ceased to move along the log. Something's wrong...she's starting to freeze.

"Don't look down! Don't look at the water! Look straight ahead - look at the shore, look at the flowers, look at anything - only, don't look down!"

She felt the timber shiver as a surge in the cataract bumped it, her grip instinctively tightening; felt the catch in her breathing. She had to be truly frightened, her heart was pounding so. The spray and the winds generated by the rushing waters lifted her hair, beaded it with rivulets, some of which settled themselves upon her eyelashes, causing her to blink so that her eyes, very round from fear, could see to look straight ahead.

She simply must look straight ahead! - at the flowers, he said...there they all were, in the meadow, bobbing and swaying placidly in their many colors and shapes in the breeze, the sunshine transforming water beads on leaves and petals into blinding diamonds...

Morrow's tenseness abated somewhat, as he saw her starting to move along the log again, slowly, tentatively.

He quietly berated himself for not insisting on going first; that would've put him on the opposite shore already, where she could see him, key in on him in her current plight.

"That's it, one hand at a time...just pull yourself along...easy," when the sudden jerkiness of the log set the cables to humming and tensing nervously, "'re all're almost there now..." Then, suddenly, the potential for calamity:

"Don't stand up - it's not safe! - "

But she was up, her figure swaying unsteadily, her khaki and silver arms churning the late morning air as she struggled for equilibrium.

Only a couple of steps would deliver her to the shore and safety. But the river remained unpredictable, and in the end it bested her - a lurch of the log at the wrong moment, and a shriek was escaping her instants before, rendered a mauve-haired rag doll by the abrupt loss of balance, her form was catapulted into space, to vanish into the racing rapids.

A splash like a rifle shot ensued, as Morrow hit the water. Below the roiling sapphire surface, struggling with the turbulent current, he found her. Coping with it was clearly beyond what strength and skill she had.

Gasping, he emerged with her into the river-aerated mist and wind. From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed the log and realized in these fleeting instants they'd been carried some distance downstream. Water poured over his hair, into his face and eyes, obscuring his vision as he tried to make for shore.

Then his feet were striking the riverbed, wrenching themselves from the suction-force of the muddy bottom with each step.

Rousing himself to the effort, he rose from the swirling cataract, a waterlogged Poseidon of Alpha, Alix's fingers locked tight round his neck as he struggled from the shallows.

Clear of the water, he scooped her up in his arms.

Upon reaching a grassy knoll over which hung warmed and golden air from the touch of the sun, he laid her out upon the dry land. She was coughing up water, spluttering, gagging, unable to get the oxygen she needed.

His movements were quick and efficient as he rendered first aid.

Her eyes flickered open, her coughing ceased and her breathing steadied.

Her body shuddered.

"You're all right," he told her. "You're on shore, and you're going to be all right..."

Her blue eyes were still very round.

"You've lived all your life by the sea," in a quavering voice, "you came to terms with it...I never did..."

Tears welled in those eyes, she knew how close she'd come to drowning, and he gathered her close. They were both thoroughly drenched, their soaking-wet uniforms clinging to their bodies, their hair in tangled disarrays.

He wished he could understand, somehow, what seemed to him the unreasoning fear of the ocean that had paralyzed her out on that log.

But Rumnipoor, the long-ago colony, was a landlocked world, its waters deep underground; and he realized he likely would never come to have that understanding.

Now he looked across the river, across the sun-filled meadow and beheld the big twin falls, Helena and Maya, still crashing over their great granite steep as though nothing had happened.

He reached for his commlock, hoping his unscheduled swim hadn't short-circuited it: "Alan, we've had a mishap here - Alix fell into the river when we tried getting across - "

His response was immediate: "She all right?"

"Shaken up, but she's all right."

"Thanks to Controller Morrow," she added.

"Let me call in to John. Hold on one - " and was away.

Morrow had slickened his wet hair back from his face, and set his mustache into some semblance of order. "After a scrap like that," said he, "you'd better start calling me Paul - the rest is too time-consuming," removing one of his boots and dumping a stream of water from it.

She was unpinning the last of her own water-matted tresses, shaking them down about her damp shoulders amidst a shower of spray.

Her eyes took in the sight, the - totality, somehow - of Morrow. For the first time, she felt she really knew this displaced Englishman. He was all right...

Carter was calling back:

"Paul, Alix - new report from John - we're got a break. Over at that grove - they've found another creature there."

"The one that made those tracks?" from Morrow.

"Don't know yet. I'm leaving now - everybody's to meet him and Helena there, as quickly as you can get there."

"Right," said he. "We'll start off as soon as Alix feels up to it," and he rang off.

Chapter Ten

Elsewhere, Koenig was stepping from the tree-shade and directing his gaze toward the sky, this now a bright and brilliant blue and so achingly evocative of faraway Earth.

Only a very few gossamer cloud-streaks disturbed such a blue, swirled and dissipated into ever-changing forms by the winds aloft.

He was looking east, up the valley in the general direction of The Narrows, for something else had caught his eye too. Producing the binoculars from his equipment satchel, he lifted them to viewing position. The field of vision framed a dark dot, one growing by the moment...

"John - " Now Helena was looking, she too could see it. "What in the world is it?" She rose from where she'd been sitting, came over to stand beside him, her features touched with worry.

"Whatever it is, it's got Victor," said he, with concern, "and if I try to shoot at it, it might drop him..."

"What's going on?" announced Carter's arrival behind them. Koenig handed him the binoculars. He looked through them, and then smiled. "I wouldn't worry," handing them back again.

"It" was big, reptile-like, and for its size maneuvered the air currents with a deceptively easy grace, its wings scarcely moving - giving the appearance of an enormous sort of glider, with scales.

Beneath this vast wing-span could be glimpsed its rather small and squat body. Two short stubby pincer-tipped appendages, clearly less developed than the wings - lending credence to the supposition that this creature spent the greater measure of its lifetime in the air - cradled Bergman, in a perch precarious to the observers far below. For his own part, he was clearly enjoying the entire business, hardly an unwilling captive, if captive he was -

Now it swooped low above the ground, and with exacting accuracy deposited Bergman in the meadow. Then it was climbing, reaching for altitude, circling above the valley.

"Getting ready to land," said Alan. "Let's give her plenty of room - "

This time it did indeed alight, pinions aflail as it sought to fold them away. It was also shrinking dramatically in size.

It seemed a clumsy and pitiful sight, as a land-creature...but not for very long, for it was already shimmering like a lattice-lamp, and not solely due to the gleam of sunlight in its scaled sheathing...

As at The Narrows, Maya looked happily breathless as she leaned on Bergman's shoulder, glowing and triumphant.

Helena was shaking her head. "Do you know you had us frightened half to death?"

"We took you at your word, John," said Bergman, and he too was a little out of breath. "You did leave a certain implication of haste! - "

"What was that, anyway?" said he.

Joy touched her features and her hair was tangled and wind-whipped, the ecstasy of the journey yet clung to the pair of them. "I don't know what it's called, but Alicky does..."

All of them felt it, at the same time - the subtle, telling change in the air, somehow rushing right at them...

...and as swiftly as it appeared, ever faithful to the Doppler principle, the silvery-blue nimbus faded - and Alix was revealed, with Morrow moving a step to stand beside her. Had she, somehow, heard her name mentioned?

"I knew the precise distance, from the maps," said she, looking at Bergman and detecting the subtly-raised eyebrow telegraphing his disapproval. Her genetically-modified molecular structure could not tolerate transformations - except for those very, very few the omnimorph apparently vouchsafed to her.

A thrashing sound from the bush precluded further conversation, and they all turned in its direction.

Alan could be seen behind the vale of rainbow-hued flowers, and he was wrestling with an animal, trying to keep it on the ground with him. Its size and bulk about that of a wild boar, it seemed even larger with its thick glossy long-haired dark coat extending from its neck and flanks back along its tailless body. Its head was long-snouted and graceful in proportion, vaguely reminiscent of a greyhound's, lacking the long hair and covered instead with dark very close-cropped fur.

Now it again wrenched about wildly, and Alan was again hard-pressed to contain it; this a demonstration of the not-unhandsome creature's strength. "Helena - " She drew near. "She's in a bad way, no doubt about it - "

"'She'?" from Morrow.

" - is a female," said Helena.

"How is she 'in a bad way'?" asked Maya.

"Is she hurt?" from Alix.

"No," said Helena. "I don't profess even a start to understanding everything about her internal physiology, but something's very wrong - that's clear enough. She's in a great deal of pain. I'm guessing she's overdue..."


"She's going to reproduce?" from Maya. "To have babies?"

"And unless we get her back to the Eagle right quick, she'll be doing it right here - "

"You seem to know a great deal about such things," said she in her curiosity, watching him.

"I grew up on a cattle station, remember? Learned a few things about animals - "

"There's that tarp in our equipment pack," said Bergman; Maya quickly set to work getting it open. "We can use it to move her." Alix joined her, and they both started rummaging for it...

The four men - Koenig, Bergman, Carter and Morrow - had themselves a tussle getting the heavily-pregnant, struggling creature to their landing site and thence into the Eagle. Helena, Maya and Alan remained within, and the others accordingly left them to get on with the task.

Morrow was availing himself of the hot midday sun to finish drying out from his unplanned dunking with Alix in the river.

"Have you seen Maya's butterfly?" said she, as he took a cold drink from the tray she was holding. "The poor little creature is fluttering back and forth in front of the Eagle gangway, looking totally lost." Then, "I haven't properly thanked you yet, for saving my life. That's very bad form - worse than bad form. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here to worry about form..."

"Then don't worry about it. It's really unnecessary."

"You're sure you're all right, too?"

"I'm sure," with a smile.

"I'm glad." She was.

Koenig and Bergman had each appropriated a supply hamper to sit upon, and were enjoying the bit of breeze that had come up. Both smiled as Alix came up and passed a glass to each of them

"So, just what was that creature?" from Koenig.

She looked confused for a moment.

"That one," said Bergman, with a certain emphasis.

"Oh," said she, understanding now. "It is Coyaden. What you would call a reptilian species. Or closer to your dinosaurs, perhaps - for some of them were. Legend says they first arose on Rhenium, but all of that was long ago - they live on a neighboring world now. There are many clans - I still can't pronounce most of the names. They keep to themselves mostly, not so much contact with humans anymore. But I got to meet one of them once, as a little girl. He gave me my very first flight through the air."

"Weren't you afraid?"

"Terrified. And absolutely safe."

Her two listeners seemed satisfied with this.

Watching as she moved away, the science advisor found himself recalling another landing party... Another solar system, and yet another hopeful planet; a world not so very unlike Psyche Elysium - or so they'd thought.

He was put in charge of the landing team - Carter, Sandra Benes, Dr Bob Mathias; and Alix, an unexpected visitor to the Moon back then, and still only on approval.

He'd convinced Koenig to sanction her inclusion; already she wanted to stay on permanently and help them, so why not allow her the chance to show what she could do?

True, she was somewhat awkward, tentative at first, not knowing the Alphan way of doing things; and yet the mien of the explorer, the discoverer, had shone through - a discipline that could not be feigned, a regimen only experience could teach.

She observed eagerly, learned readily. And he judged her to have done well.

It had been a good day, a productive one, for their expedition.

But he also remembered the night.

He had good reason to. Nightfall in that place brought a terrible, and ultimately terrifying, darkness - and with it monstrous thunderstorms, incessantly ripping the sky.

As massive cloud-to-ground lightning strikes shook the surface beneath their encampment - and drawing dangerously nearer by the moment - abandoning their Eagle was the only option; simply too perilous to remain.

Distress calls went out; as did they, into a drenching torrential downpour - with the lightning, quite literally, right behind them.

Came the dawn, revealing a wrenching tableau of destruction almost as far as the eye could see - all around them lay vast swaths of massive trees felled like mere matchsticks, and a still-smoking crater of considerable depth to mark the ruination of their landing site.

Or nearly all...

Having tactfully waited in the interim, Koenig presently resumed. "Well, it hasn't been dull, has it? First we had to be firefighters, and now - midwives," shrugging.

"Or expectant godparents, at the very least," with a twinkle. "I rather look upon it all as a sort of addition to our collective repertoire. Since leaving Earth orbit, we've been called upon to do a little bit of just about everything."

"Like having two women - contending, over you?" much amused.

"They're spoiling me," said he. "Alix's hovering, however well-intended; and Maya's ferrying me all over the valley..." adding, cannily, "Of course, they don't know I plan to outlive both of them! - "

Koenig had seen that look before. He had to laugh.


Helena's voiced floated over to them. She stood framed by the Eagle's open hatchway, and she looked happy.

The seven of them made for a crowded passenger module, but it was well worth the close company.

Their unexpected four-footed houseguest reposed in a large clean receptacle on the module floor and was looking markedly more svelte, if at the moment rather overwhelmed - by some seven or eight chubby little creatures covered with dark peachfuzz-like coats and energetically shoving one another this way and that, jostling for nursing room.

"Suckling liveborn young," said Helena. At this close range, she was radiant. "They're warm-blooded. Mammals. Like us."

Maya was toweling dry her freshly-washed hands. "Mother and babies are doing fine - all of them. We didn't lose a one."

"Goes to show some things are the same, no matter where you are," said Alan, and he looked happy too.

Chapter Eleven

The runaway Moon was well along into its new young day.

Moonbase Alpha was a round-the-clock operation, and as such it never truly slept. As one operations team completed its time, a new group was coming into the Command Center to replace it and carry the duty, sporting left sleeves of flame, rust, white, orange, and the purple of the Security section.

Her bright yellow sleeve bringing a welcome burst of color to the control room's rather austere environs, Sandra Benes had assumed her usual duty station and was monitoring communications between the Moon and the landing parties coming and going from Psyche Elysium.

Morrow was down there, she'd seen his time-message to her, else he and she both would be in here now. They'd long had eyes for each other.

Across the way, instead, sat Peter King. He was staring at his cup of coffee, in its cardinal-and-white Stanford Centennial mug. He took a sip, and with a resigned look set it down again. Probably just as well, for there was a call-tone buzzing from his monitor.

The touch of a certain button, and a rather bleary-eyed Verdeschi appeared.

"Well, good morning, sleepyhead," faintly amused.

He half scowled in surprise. "What are you doing back? I thought you were still down there."

"Haven't read our morning papers yet, I see. Besides, you were still in the arms of Morpheus at the time," raising his cup and, forgetting, took a big gulp of its contents.

"Woke up awhile ago. Alarm hadn't even gone off yet. Couldn't get back to sleep. And I'll thank you not to make a face about it," noting King's wincing image on the commpost in his quarters.

"Sorry. It isn't you. Don't have the coffee today, it tastes terrible..."

"Any more word from them?"

"A little while ago. Something's afoot - I'm expecting to hear back any minute..."

"So you came back with Raul Nu(ez and his group. No word from them either, hm?"

"They're still busy."

"So was I. You weren't my first call this morning. Afraid you came out second-best."

"So it goes," grinning, as another, different, call-tone interrupted.

Sandra answered it at her desk, pensiveness softening to pleasure as she unscrambled the auto-relay's access code. "Peter - it's Maya, " said she.

"Hold on, that'll be them now," to Verdeschi, punching a few more buttons. Maya graced his console screen, "Heard about your little population increase - "

"Yes, how are they all doing?" from an eager Sandra, who'd come over to join him.

"We've been watching the babies chase each other around - they're very fleet," said she, giggling. "They seem more dependent for locomotion on their hind legs than their forepaws. Alan says it vaguely reminds him of how kangaroos went bounding along. And their growth rate is astonishing. They've given themselves the run of our camp, and everyone loves them."

"I can imagine," wryly, from King. "Got something for you," and with that, she could see Verdeschi on the video pickup of her commlock.

He and she looked, smiled at each other. Their day was made.

A short distance away, Koenig and Helena stood together watching two of the youngsters barreling around this quarter of the meadow, matched stride for stride almost as though they were a single unit.

"They're like jackrabbits in coonskin coats," Koenig thought.

"Looks like we may have been right earlier," as Morrow came up. "The animals are starting to come round now. They're used to us being here."

"Whatever the reason, it's wonderful to have animals around again," said Helena. Koenig held her a little closer.

Having sought out one of the vacated supply hampers, Alix had seated herself upon it and, taking up a hairbrush, she was at last making more constructive inroads on untangling her still-disorderly tresses.

"Poor Victor," said the voice from behind her, "I hope he brought along a stopwatch - he'll need it, to keep up with them!"

She turned to look up at him. "I can't seem to get this to fit properly," holding the hair-clip. "Would you?..."

It was the one singular misjudgment he'd ever made of her, and it almost precipitated a tragedy.

Popping above the water, one afternoon at the recreation complex swimming pool - buoyant as a cork, from the depths of his latest dive from the high board - he stroked leisurely over to the poolside, yet again taking notice of her presence there. Eschewing the rather more revealing swimwear of many of the other women there present for something a bit more modest (and no less fetching, he thought), she still reposed in that same deck chair. He could've sworn she hadn't stirred so little as a whisper; even the book in her lap looked open to the same page as before. Had she been watching him dive, perhaps...? Why, she hadn't even ventured into the pool...

The realization - after a heartbeat's worth of shock - that she was sinking like a stone, had him plunging to the pool-bottom after her. They broke the surface together, her gasping viselike grip on him all but choking him too. Other hands hurriedly splashed to their aid, conveyed them to safety.

She couldn't swim! Carefully prying her frozen fingers loose, seeing for the first time the abject terror in those still-paralyzed features...adept at navigating the oceans of deep space, but helpless in an ordinary swimming pool? -

Dumbfounded as he was, he also determined then and there to do something about it. Just easing her fear of the water itself tasked a great measure of his patience. That, and teaching her some basic survival techniques, things that had come so early and still so easily to him, even to the simple act of learning how to float...

He took the hairbrush, as she handed it to him and turned back again. Spencer's diagnosis, that she suffered from a phobia, bridged his initial disbelief to that of understanding. Memories of his own early lessons as a boy, doing the same endless repetitions, came to him...the body will remember, they'd told him, even if the mind forgets...

Her mauve tresses shone like silk as he worked through them, they spilled over his fingers as he bracketed off a section in the style he knew she preferred, and then he was motioning for the clip.

It was a beautifully-worked piece, more akin to jewelry than a purely-utilitarian object. Her people, he recalled, were expert lapidaries and jewelry-makers.

The body will remember, even if the mind forgets...

But even so, thank God Morrow had been there.

That's one I owe you, mate...

What if they all ended up settling on a planet that was mostly water? -

"There," as he finished.

"Some Security patrol I've turned out to be," said she.

"You saved the Moon."

And not for the first time...

"I still can't remember..."

She let it trail off as she felt his hands stealing over her shoulders. One of her hands reached up to touch one of his, and that was compensation for anything...

A soft rustling in the grass drew their attention. It was the new mother, gently nudging at Alan with her velvet muzzle. She smiled, watching him stoop down next to the fluffy creature and allow her to lick and nibble at his fingers.

"She knows," said she. "She knows you grew up with animals around."

"Poor thing was panic-stricken in there," said he. "Rather trusting now, hm? Seems to be a characteristic here."

"I wonder whether she has that fur coat all year round, or if she'll lose part or all of it when the hot weather comes. Rather like the way her babies look now. Otherwise, how could she keep cool?" Her admiration was evident. "How very handy you are!"

He just smiled and good-naturedly roughhoused with his new four-legged friend.

Soon everyone was gathering around for a somewhat more practical discussion concerning their newly-acquired "mascots," and the ramifications of their rather unexpected appearance in their midst.

"These aren't the animals whose tracks we found in the grove," said Morrow. "Their feet are smaller and narrower. More like a paw, than a hoof." One of the babies was fitfully lopping at his heels as he sat.

"Then, presumably, they're still around somewhere," said Helena, who had one in her lap. "Unless they can swim the river?"

"That current'll be a fair cow til the main of the runoff season's past," from Alan. "I'll give you odds they're still over here, on this side." The mother was staying close to him, and was curled up contentedly at his feet.

"Then we'll confine our search to this side," Koenig concluded. "In any event, we can't get across without the footbridge. I think we all agree on that. We're fairly well hemmed in on the other three sides by the canyon walls..."

"Assuming they can't climb them, like Slahs," Maya pointed out.

They talked for awhile longer and then, the time of day being what it was, they all agreed to break for lunch - during which it was noted by all that the mother and her babies did not attempt to beg for their food.

"Just as well," said Alan to Alix afterward, out in the sunlit meadow. "We couldn't give it to them. Likely make them sick..."

"I've never heard you use that expression before - 'fair cow.' What does it mean?"

"Means the bottom," said he, as they walked along, "the last thing you need. Anything that'll give you a really rough go." Because she didn't understand many English-language idioms - a trait she and Maya shared - he had to be careful when defining his own slang for her. By dropping a word or phrase into his conversation every so often, he could demonstrate for her how it worked in a sentence.

"We're having a rough go now, aren't we?"

"M'm," solemnly. "We ran a lot of tests and scans and all on mum here," reaching down to stroke the mother's fur, "and guess what? Remember what Victor said, about Maya's butterfly? That 'complexity of structure,' that 'certain undercurrent'? Well, she has it. The nippers, too. In a different sort of way, of course, being such a different life form."

"I found your lake," said she, after a beat.

"My lake?"

"While you were all in the Eagle, I looked through the maps we've been compiling. The creek that forms my waterfall was there. It comes from a lake, in the upper high country. Just like the two big waterfalls do. So I gave it a name: Lake Australia. Is that acceptable?"

The aerial photographs revealed its waters were of a particularly exquisite shade of blue.

"I like how that sounds," said he. He did. Then, "Moonbow Creek, then - that needs a name, too."

"I like how that sounds," said she. She did.

One of the babies came romping up, to leap into Alix's arms. "They have their mother's eyes," she beamed, "that same soulful, trusting expression. I do wish we knew what they're called..."

"We're missing something," as he thought aloud. "Something about this whole place, something right in front of us, maybe - and we're missing it - "

"Perhaps Dr Nu(ez can provide it, once he and his team complete their investigation."

"I hope so. This place has an awful lot going for it, despite the problems we've run into; and if we don't start coming up with some answers pretty soon, we'll start hearing an awful lot of backchat on Alpha for coming down here for good." On seeing her puzzled look, he quickly added, "Sorry - a lot of strong argument."

She took a few steps, her gaze drawn off towards the twin waterfalls.

"Could you be happy, in such a place?"

He came that close to wondering aloud if she was trying to proposition him; sensing that odd little quaver in her voice, though, he held back.

Instead, he followed her gaze, conducting a quiet little survey of the valley in his mind...pastures and grazing lands, tracts for cropping and strategic high ground, they all spread themselves out before him.

It was all good land...

"I could be..."


He took a few steps. She still cradled the frisky baby creature in one arm. Her free hand slipped into his and they started walking back toward the Eagle, the mother placidly trotting alongside.

"All that business at the river," said he, presently, "why not simply think up another footbridge? You have a pretty famous brain, too."

"There are rules, it seems: only that which I've seen, or heard, or touched," said she, "and even then, there are exceptions..."

That "crisis at midnight" had first revealed to the imperiled landing party, and the Alphans at large, the unguessed-at potential of that "famous brain" of hers - and of the ancient soul at its source.

Bergman had ordered all of them out of that Eagle, with whatever supplies they could carry, into those pouring rains and, with Alan in charge, towards the relative safety of a series of caves some distance away, discovered during the daytime's explorations.

Alix had abruptly spun away, with Carter yelling at her to come back, upon realizing the science advisor was not with them.

Stumbling into the transporter's laboratory module, she'd found Bergman still within, still broadcasting mayday calls to Alpha - and, firmly grasping his arm, frantically pulled him outside after her.

They were still running when the concussive force of the Eagle's destruction, from somewhere behind them, flung the two of them farther still, forcibly separating them, and on into unknowing darkness...

"...I saw the bridge only at night," she was saying, "and once with no moonlight..." A slight catch in her breathing ensued, reacting to the subtle changes of pressure from his fingers upon hers. "And you know I...can't simply...make things up..."

She was still confused, all right. And the notion pleased him.

Inside the Eagle's passenger module, Helena was racking up the lunch gear and had appropriated Maya to help out.

"It's odd," she mused, dallying over an opened equipment hamper, "we went through all the work and struggle to become independent women, and yet I find I still enjoy little chores like this. I suppose it's because life on Alpha affords so very few opportunities to be just a bit domestic," with a dreaming little smile...dreaming of a time and place that would afford them, and more...

"I imagine so."

"Maya, is anything wrong?" inquiring gently. "You were very quiet over lunch..."

"It's nothing special," said she.

"Something you and Victor found in that settlement, perhaps?"

"There is that," she conceded. "We found the buildings in very good order, not randomly scattered along the shore but in a clear pattern of conscious arrangement, and with no visible signs of any existent technology. And yet, there's that 'something' Alicky spoke of, in the growing things there...I could sense it, too. It feels - familiar, somehow."

Helena laid a hand on hers. "Are you truly sure?" She wasn't prying, only voicing a friend's concern.

She had to acquiesce, and slowly shook her head.

"It's watching those baby creatures being born, and the way all of you have been reacting to their mother taking to Alan as she has. And my butterfly...did you know that he followed us all the way up the valley, to The Narrows? And back? It was's just that - everyone's been calling it 'my' butterfly..."

Helena assimilated this.

"Many of us had pets at some time or other, back on Earth; and I think that finding these creatures, here, has reminded us of them." She paused, thought a moment. "Didn't you ever have a pet, back on Psychon?" This was, to her, a surprising discovery in someone who could become any life form for an hour.

Maya settled herself upon one of the hampers. "Not quite in the same way you did. There were almost no animals left alive on Psychon, by the time all of you came along. While our people were arguing and debating over whether to go underground or escape to space, entire species were disappearing as their natural environs became uninhabitable."

"But other species managed to hang on a little longer, on Psychon's moons, like the laryn," she suggested.

"A little longer, yes...but as my father continued to instruct me in the ways of molecular transformation, he increasingly had to turn to Psyche - his biological computer - in order to provide test subjects for me - role models, if you will. Nor did he confine his search to Psychon life alone. There were other exotic creatures I'd never seen before. And so, in a sense, the Grove of Psyche, as he came to call it, became my laboratory as well as his."

Her expression was changing, for this tapped vein of memory was yielding up nuggets better left undisturbed and forgotten...and yet, no longer could be.

"Haven't you ever wondered just how it was that I was able to turn into the flora and fauna of Earth - birds, tigers, orange trees and such - without otherwise ever having seen them? Because Father used Psyche, to scan Alpha - its technology, its stored memory-banks, and every one of you. That's how thorough he was. And that's how I knew..." shrugging, in a whisper of a voice. "It - didn't seem wrong, at the time. It was just another laboratory exercise..."

Helena moved another hamper over near Maya's so she could sit next to her. "I can finish up in here," said she, quietly. "You go on outside, enjoy the with the babies, too, if you want. It might be just the thing..."

Her eyes were unclouding, to become somewhat incredulous. "Even without giving your minds to Psyche, my father used all of you - and, for that matter, so did I - and you're not angry?"

"Anger isn't the point! That's all behind us, far behind us. On Earth, there's a saying, about the sins of the fathers being borne by their sons...and it doesn't say anything about their daughters."

All of this, because of a butterfly...! Why didn't she open up to us before?

She pondered this, marveling at how Maya had somehow managed to keep this misdirected flicker of guilt locked up inside her all this time.

"Come on now. I'm prescribing fresh air. John will want us to move out again soon," as she stood.

Maya stood also and smiled a little, as she moved to the hatchway. Within herself was a feeling of release, and of some wonder at these extraordinary people she'd been fated to spend the rest of her life with.

But a moment later, she was looking in again.


She was still smiling, and gesturing in a come-here fashion.

She followed her outside, onto the gangway steps, and saw the reason immediately.

Koenig had chosen a shady spot beneath one of the large nearby trees, there to sit and watch some of the day roll by while his lunch settled. He had dozed off there, his arms folded, still sitting up with the tree trunk at his back; a couple of the four-footed youngsters had curled up in his lap, and they were dozing as well. It was a sight to bring giggles to the two onlookers at the Reconnaissance Eagle.

"The others look ready to start off now," said Maya. "I'll stay here, in case Alpha calls..." With some hesitation, she went on, "That is, I'd like to stay - if that's all right?"

Helena looked at her, considering this. "All right," pleasantly, and with that she was moving down the steps and away, on very light and quiet feet, to join Alix and the rest of the men. They too looked much amused at the tableau vivant before them.

Maya waved to them as they started off across the meadow. They would presently disperse, each taking a different direction until they reached either the river - still unnamed, curiously - or the cliffs and canyon walls, alert for any signs of life forms in their particular area. With their instruments now programmed with the information gained from the study of their "mascots," they had their best idea yet of what to look for...

When they were lost to sight, Maya ambled down the steps and out amongst the breeze-rippled grasses.

She saw one of the babies, several yards away, and called to it in the manner she'd seen the others use. Her efforts presently yielded success as the plump little thing came loping over to her, all bright-eyed eagerness as it vigorously jumped up and down, as though issuing an invitation to come and play.

It was altogether ingratiating, and Maya had to laugh aloud, "All right, all right! - " and promptly found herself with two-arms-full, being licked and nuzzled with an animal's selfless affection. It tickled, and she kept giggling.

She took it back over to the Eagle with her, and it immediately nested in her lap as she sat down. "I wish I knew if you were a little boy or a little girl," stroking its stubby fur. Rapid as their growth had been up to now, their internal development hadn't progressed enough yet to allow for ready identification of gender.

She sat there, stroking its coat, for a long time, and thought about vast roving mobs of cattle and horses, and about dingos howling in the deep blue outback nights at a Moon that was no longer there.

She thought about sloe-eyed cats creeping across deep plush carpets on velvet paws, and about fine English hunting dogs and about flaming Irish setters. And she thought about sleek-bodied xzellas racing against one another, propelled by their powerful legs - entire herds of them, flying through the dusky-jade sky of Rhenium as they hit their stride, coats agleam beneath the ever-changing aspect of its gold and copper suns.

She watched three of the babies playfully jousting out in the sunshine, and noted with much pride that her butterfly was wheeling and soaring above them and just managing to stay out of the reach of their paws. That made her smile.

She looked down, at the little creature still snuggled up and peacefully snoozing away the afternoon with her.

A certain rush of emotion assailed her and she gathered the little one closer, and thought about what she had missed.

Chapter Twelve

Koenig stirred.

His eyes edged open, blinked a few times.

Something was different, changed. He looked up, through the leaves and the branches. The sun had moved, the afternoon was well along.

No, there was something else. Ah! - There was the pronounced scent of water in the air, and the hint of minutely-fine droplets. The wind had shifted, was now coming from the direction of the big twin falls. From where he sat beneath his tree, he could look off across the valley at them - still sun-sparkled as they dropped over the north rim, side by side, with their muffled roar.

And for a moment, at least, he let all the practical considerations slide from his mind.

I could stay here forever, he thought...

He smiled as he saw the babies still slumbering undisturbed in his lap, and stroked them a few times. "Time to run along," he told them, "I have to stand up! - " At his first motion, they obediently sprang up and darted off across the flowered field.

He stood and stretched, and let out a long breath. It was warm and pleasant, a perfect afternoon, as he started toward where the Eagle was.

Maya still sat on the gangway steps. Her baby, too, had gone scampering off elsewhere. She was staring dully off into space. She must've heard him approach, for she now lifted her face to him; and he could see the roundness of her eyes, the stillness of her lashes, the vivid imprint of emotion on her features.

Her voice was small, and not a little shaken.

"We can't stay here..."

Koenig stood there, looking down at her. He could almost hear the breeze carrying his feeling of ambiance away.

The same unhappy tone was in her voice some while later.

"Necropsy report from Dr Nu(ez and his team," she was saying, as she paced the grass. "Analysis of those remains, from the fire area...skeletal reconstructions showed them to have been a similar species to the one whose tracks we found in the grove. Both developing young and mature adults were identified."

"Family groupings?" Helena suggested.

"Possibly," said she. "They also found something they weren't expecting, something they couldn't readily explain away. Traces of what computer identified as a chloroplast-like substance."

"Chlorophyll," said Bergman, "the basis of photosynthesis, as we understood it on Earth. We've identified what appears to be a comparable process in many of the local plants."

"But what would it be doing in the remains of animals?" from Helena again. "Living creatures are incapable of photosynthesis - aren't they?"

"But the trees in that grove weren't," from Alan.

"No other evidence was found to establish that the remains came from trees or any other member of the plant kingdom. So Helena's question is entirely valid: what was this chloroplast-like material doing there?"

"Certain single-celled organisms on Earth could photosynthesize, like plants, and yet have some characteristics of animals," Bergman pointed out. "The class Euglenophyceae jumps to mind..."

"I remember that," from Helena.

"So do I," from Koenig, "the euglena - we all studied it in our science classes. Its vital functions straddled the plant and animal kingdoms - but, because it could make chlorophyll, it was classified as a plant."

"Raul's reports mention that," said Maya, "as well as one other example of such a 'straddling' of the major classifications of life. In a higher order." She let out a breath. "I'm that example."

"You?" from Morrow. "Why?"

"Every Psychon is - was - born with a certain factor of, well, instability in their molecular structure," said she, wearily. "With extensive, very specialized training and guidance, it could be developed into molecular transformation, whereupon one became a true metamorph. That instability factor, or something quite like it, is in everything here - everything! No wonder it seemed so familiar..."

Alan was seated on the grass next to the hamper where Alix was sitting; he now put up a hand to hush her.

"Maya," quietly, "if I'm just yabbering on, you stop me...but, are you suggesting that maybe - just maybe - there could be a group, a colony of some kind, of others from Psychon, encamped on this planet? Who also got away, before the end came?"

She did not answer at once.

"I - wouldn't be honest, were I to tell you that it didn't occur to me...because it did...but not for very long. They would've known me for one of their own, they'd have revealed themselves to me..."

She stopped, needing a moment to recollect herself.

"No, there's a very intricate, very involved ecosystem in existence here, and I don't yet understand everything about how it works...but it would explain why Raul's people found no trace of ash or other such, from trees all of us clearly saw going up in flames."

"You have a theory," prompted Bergman.

"My butterfly served as the model," she concurred. "So far, it holds up. Think, now. Paul remembers - when I let my butterfly out of that tree, we both heard all that crashing-about in the bush - "

" - heard it almost simultaneously," as Morrow picked up the story, "and when we investigated, we found only a trail of tracks - coming from nowhere, going nowhere - of a creature we still haven't really seen."

"And, only minutes later, my butterfly reappeared," Maya finished. "Molecular transformation had occurred: that 'unseen' animal, is my butterfly. And it, in turn, is that creature."

"Then we've been searching for an animal we never had a chance of finding," said Koenig.

"Because the butterfly was farther up the valley, past The Narrows with Maya and me," Bergman nodded.

"Your butterfly is a tiny metamorph," Alix surmised. "From what you're saying, it fits the Psychon definition..."

"It is a metamorph-like characteristic," said she, in aid of clarification. "It doesn't quite fit the classical definition of what I do, or of what you do. This is something else again, something that goes beyond one life form simply changing into another - these are two quite different, otherwise independent life forms, sharing the same existence."

And that does sound not a little like you...

"The basis of this relationship is a variant of symbiosis," said Helena, "mutual dependence."

"And the expeditor is molecular transformation," Alix added.

"A link," Bergman extrapolated, "a binding force - a common thread linking every living thing here with every other. There could be any number of them, connected in a single 'chain of life,' if you will - each individual contributing something to the mutual survival of all in that chain."

"So, whenever we try to pluck a flower, for example, the 'rebuff' we experience is a completely natural defense, after all," said Morrow, "because we're not part of that chain."

"And with the animals, it's the complete reverse," Alan interjected, "because we're animals too, I guess," adding, with a mischievous twinkle, "I presume we fit the 'classical definition'?"

Admittedly it was at their own expense, but they laughed anyway; it relaxed everyone and dispelled the unspoken tension generated by the past few minutes' revelations. Alix reached down and playfully mussed his hair, as he mockingly tried to evade her.

When things had settled down, Morrow resumed: "The chain's already ruptured, in places - like that fallen tree we tried to use as a bridge across the river."

"That's true," said Alix. "If one member of the chain died, what would happen to all the others?"

"I took the path that led to the river," said Helena. "I suppose I wanted to see for myself...about the footbridge. Your tree-trunk bridge was still there, cables and all, undisturbed."

"Assuming an analogy to a string of colored holiday lights, if one were to go out they're likely to all go out," said Bergman. "If one life form perished, the rest almost certainly would cease to exist. They couldn't survive otherwise." He paused, and his tone changed. "So, I think we know now what happened at the fire area - what really happened. Our best educated guess, at any rate. The valley's 'chains of life' aren't mutually exclusive. In some instances, the two kingdoms have crossed. Animal - vegetable. The critical factor would then be, what is the exact nature of the trigger for this transformation process to occur? But I'm sure Maya can speak to that subject better than I."

She pondered this for a time.

"In Psychons, the trigger would be simple thought. In the higher animals, it might lie anywhere along a line from sentient awareness to primal instinct. And," her voice taking on a trace of a harder edge, "it could also be utterly random - erratic. Unpredictable. That's what I'm afraid of. Because of the fire area..."

Her troubled demeanor remained unchanged, and wind gusts plucked at her hair.

"What were they all doing there, in one place, like that? Grazing in the meadow, perhaps, when the change came? They would've been fine, if that storm front hadn't rolled in...and without their animalistic thought processes to call upon, they would've been trapped - first, from the fire caused by the lightning strikes, and then from us...careful as we were, didn't we still have to fell several of the smaller trees to help make the firebreak? - "

Her listeners were turning meaningful looks to one another.

Far away, others were listening too: Sandra turned in sympathy to the desk alongside hers, saw the face, its features stilled and set, yet not without a measure of struggle beneath the surface. Peter King hadn't uttered a word.

All of them had been awaiting the truth; and now, at last, it was coming.

Maya was going on, and she didn't look especially well.

"And afterwards, we went away and didn't think much about it any more - until Alan and Alicky were there, last night - Most of the trees were already dead, killed outright by the fire...most, but not all...some - the older, more resistant ones, perhaps - must've been slower to die..."

"And they left behind the cholophyll traces," from Koenig.

"And they kept enough of that 'link' functioning, before they also died, to trigger the transformation process...for one final time." She pulled her anorak closer about her. "Don't you see? They couldn't defend themselves...and when we started blazing away in that grove, however well-meant our intentions...they couldn't run away. They were helpless..."

Koenig's lips thinned into a line. Helena rose and approached him and her look, too, bespoke volumes.

Around the gathering of supply hampers, faces fell, wrestling with the unspoken.

Coming over to where Maya was standing, gazing away at her waterfall, Alix laid a comforting hand on her blue-clad shoulder. Of them all, this manifested awfulness was bound to have affected her once the same, and yet so very different!

"As it all turns out," said she, in a regretful sort of way, "we weren't so very wrong..."

"In what way, Princess?" gently.

"The name we gave to this place," taking a breath. "It is a paradise...but it isn't the one intended for us. It's theirs, not ours. We're interfering...and anything we do here, however benign, however insignificant it might seem to us, can cause a catastrophe for them..."

Silence followed. Their "mascots" had retreated a short distance away from the Alphans' encampment, the babies clustering about their mother.

The separation seemed symbolic - and portentous.

"Is it true?" from Morrow.

"John?" Carter prompted.

Alix turned, and her eyes picked out Koenig. "Are we? Going to - give it away?" this last hesitantly.

He slowly nodded. He didn't look happy either. Then he was getting up and taking brisk strides toward the Eagle, presently disappearing inside.

Behind him, only the breezes spoke.

No one else did, or had to.

They all knew it was finished.

Chapter Thirteen

Sometime later on, Bergman and Carter and Alix were traversing the meadow towards the great tree groves of the valley's southern flank. They were taking the mother and her babies there, so they would be safely afield of the Reconnaissance Eagle when it lifted off...

The investigation was already underway, on Koenig's orders, even before the return to Alpha of the rescued survey party: everything on the Eagle, the mission and the planet - everything - was to be thoroughly examined and evaluated.

Without their Eagle or its survey gear, the required contingency-samples from the zippered pockets of their anoraks had yielded the first clue: analysis revealed the presence of the silicate by-product fulgarite, known colloquially as "petrified lightning" due to its origin.

The entire Eagle fleet was already properly "grounded" to protect it from such phenomena.

The only difference, this time, was Alix's presence; and, in some quarters, rumors swirled: that she had somehow put the survey team in danger.

The final report on the mission would essentially disprove this.

The planet, it turned out, had experienced repeated bombardment by fitful storms for many centuries; there would be no more thought of settling there.

Further, not only could she not be held in any way to blame for, somehow, "drawing" the lightning to the Alphans' expedition there - the findings revealed something unexpected, suggesting quite the opposite had occurred.

From the crater marking the place of the Survey Eagle's destruction to the safety of the caves - the very direction they had all fled - along that exceedingly narrow line, there stretched a nearly-intact, otherwise-unscathed, heavily-forested landscape.

And only there.

No felled trees, no fresh deposits of fulgarite; instead, matching up perfectly to the scanners' master record - from before the Survey Eagle was dispatched, even before the decision to go had been made.

Even allowing for the detritus of flash-flooding from the overnight rainstorm, this discovery was considered all too precise to be ascribed to mere chance.

Nothing could match up that perfectly - or could it?

Is that possible?...

", how do you think Alpha's taking it?" from Alan, as they walked.

He had ordered every Eagle to be re-examined, one by one, per the recommendations detailed in the mission report - and yet again, following the Moon's emergence from the malevolent influence of Palkee-Nur.

"I think you know," said the scientist.

Psyche Elysium had offered the first opportunity to test out the newly-installed shielding modifications he and Maya had pooled their "famous brains" to devise.

"I find myself still thinking about those - trees," Alix mused. "Why didn't their natural defenses protect them? Like the other plants we've encountered?"

"Maybe, in a plant-and-animal hybrid like that, the system can't function."

"Or such cross-breeding has so weakened that system as to render it all but useless," was Bergman's addendum to Carter's suggestion.

The Eagle pilot pondered this further. "All in aid of survival - how does that get started?" he asked. "I mean, has it always been like this?"

"Life can develop, can get a foothold, in many ways," said Bergman. "And it demonstrates great tenacity in holding on. My own inclination is to believe that this 'survival structure,' as you call it, has been here in some variation or another. Because, I suppose, I simply cannot envision the sort of - cataclysm, that could've caused such a shattering of the evolutionary order."

Alix's mauve tresses rippled as she shook her head. "It still seems topsy-turvy, doesn't it?"

"However so it might look to us, it works for them," said he. "Even without the presumption that this 'instability factor' carries on into the mineral kingdom, we still have no reliable way of knowing how long this valley has looked like this, or how long it will continue to look like this."

"And the odds are on their side that we'll find the same thing if we look anywhere else on this planet," Alan added.

"So, taken on the whole, I'd say we're getting off rather lucky," Bergman summed up.

Sun-dappled tree branches arched above their heads. They'd arrived.

As difficult as it was to be leaving Psyche Elysium, it was all but heartbreaking to leave the animals they'd all become so very fond of, in so short a time.

They'd first found the mother in such a grove as this, she seemed to belong here, and it was for this reason that they had returned here.

Alix had her hands full, hugging two of the babies, for they were wriggling about and quite literally smothering her.

"How I'll miss all of you! - " she managed to whisper, before setting them down.

Bergman, too, was surrounded by them, as they kept happily trying to jump into his lap. He stroked them, and he smiled.

Alan was off to one side, with the mother. He held her head in his hands, saw that now-familiar trusting look in her eyes mitigated with something that almost could be taken for sadness.

"I guess she's right...there's no fooling you, is there? You know we're leaving, don't you?"

She maneuvered herself free and licked and nibbled at his fingers, as she had often done in the past.

"I don't even know what kind of a sound you take good care of that mob - if you don't, I'll know it," with a little smile.

Then he became serious.

"Thanks for the reminder..." He understood the deeper meaning of this, and fancied she understood too. "You stay now," stroking her fluffy fur coat a couple of times, then rising and wheeling away.

They were a more subdued group as they retraced their journey. Above, the sun had become a winking firefly and cloud-shadows chased each other across the meadow.

"We all seem rather quiet," Bergman observed at last.

"I was wondering," said Alix. "Whether paradise ever really does work - whether you think you've found it, or it finds you..."

"Or it's rammed down your throat," from Carter. "That's happened a few times, too."

"And unanswered questions," she continued, "about who built that settlement upriver, or what happened to the footbridge. We still don't really know."

Said Bergman, with a certain air of finality, "I don't think we're going to..."

Yet we never really stop believing in it...we still want it anyway...

Carter let his gaze sweep across the breath and depth of the valley, his mind marking, measuring...conducting that quiet little survey once more.

Land for pastures, grazing, cropping, strategic high ground...and for building a house.

It was all good land, and its promise had taken hold of him...

I'll see you again...

And with that, he turned the key and carefully, very carefully, locked the file away, to await the coming - somewhere - of another time and place.

Sometime later, the sets of connecting doors to the command module of the Reconnaissance Eagle whooshed open. From them, Koenig emerged and stepped through into the passenger module.

He glanced around, finding all was in good order.

He noted Bergman, with Alix seated next to him, and smiled briefly at the two of them...

Bob Mathias had sat next to her aboard the Rescue Eagle as it lifted off, still attending to her. With Sandra safe in the caves, he and Carter had backtracked through the downpour, running as they heard the explosion.

They found the sprawled form of the science advisor first, aching and gasping but alive, and managed to get him to his feet.

Locating Alix had taken longer. She was not moving. Mathias deduced a concussion.

They all retreated to the shelter of the caves, taking turns on watch, waiting for the dawn.

Alan took his turn sitting beside her, during that long night. He stoked the fire keeping them all warm, as his companions fitfully slept.

The sound of the rain from outside was fainter now.

Very carefully, he brushed aside a few stray mauve strands from her face.

"You're staying," murmuring into her ear.

You're staying...

Koenig had moved on. The outside hatchway was still open, the gangway steps still deployed. Morrow was waiting there.

"Helena and Maya not back?"

"Maya said she had something to do," said he. "She promised not to be long. Helena's outside..."

Their camp had been struck, everything packed away, nothing remaining to indicate they had ever been there.

When he turned in a certain direction, he saw her.

She stood there, the blue of her anorak and the gold of her hair buffeted by the breezes that had stirred the ferns and grasses to rippling waves surrounding her.

She was looking far across the valley, toward the great twin waterfalls. More clouds were rolling in, billowing pillows of cotton, their shadows dappling the canyon walls and leaving one fall in sunlight while submerging the other in deep shadow.

His touch upon her shoulder was familiar, as he drew up alongside her. Her features were strained, yet composed.

Better than any other, he knew how crushing the weight of her disappointment had to be.

"No tears, John," said she, "not here, anyway, but out there," the cascading fall he'd named for her. The wind was still gusting, swirling about the cliff-face, seeming almost to lift the plummeting cataract from the rock and turning it into a zephyr-driven filigree. "And even that won't last - they'll all be dry, by the time summer comes..."

They said no more and, arm in arm, walked back to the Eagle together.

After they passed him and were inside, Morrow lingered still. He came down a step or two on the gangway.

His eyes were searching for Maya, he knew where she had gone. And why. He debated whether to commlock her, and while so doing he spotted her at last, coming across the meadow.

"You went to the grove, didn't you?"

"I wanted to say goodbye," shading her eyes from the sun, "and I couldn't find him. I searched and searched, but he wasn't anywhere..."

As the hummingbird, and as herself, he considered. And others, perhaps? She'd left this unspoken, but from it much could be inferred, and understood. And it did explain something of the extra time.

"Maybe he changed, to his other form - or, perhaps, a different one altogether."

"I suppose he did..."

It was, then, in such states of mind that the Alphans took their leave of the place. This once, at least, paradise had not lived up to its billing.

Chapter Fourteen

And, yet again, the Moon - the rumpled mountains rearing above the vast mares pockmarked with craters of every size and description, gray and ash and still more of the same, from horizon to horizon...

This and moondust, flying straight and sideways - in its own peculiar fashion - away from the undercarriage of the Reconnaissance Eagle as it settled to its landing. The sparkle of the dark sky above was mirrored, emulated, by the scattering of lights across the orderly sprawl of Moonbase Alpha, nestled securely in a sheltering lee of the dark-floored crater Plato.

"We copy you, Eagle," came Sandra's words, "we are glad to see you." Words of genuine welcome, and yet she did not entirely trust herself as to whether they'd be received that way.

Once safely esconsed in the hangar bay area below the lunar surface, its environs re-pressurized, the Eagle's passengers emerged and began to disperse, routine once more asserting its hold upon them. Debriefing, reports to write...

"I'll stop by later," Koenig said briefly to Bergman, as he moved on to keep up with Helena.

That "later" might be longer still, the scientist cannily reckoned.

Morrow was already off for the Command Center, he'd want to see Sandra, of course...

Alix summoned one of those special little smiles for him, as she passed.

He knew she was disappointed with how her Security stint had gone, but more training would provide for that. And the thalassophobia they'd all forgotten? Well, that could be looked after, too.

Just as well, then, that Carter would be occupied for some while yet, seeing after the Eagle, while King was still on duty in the Command Center. That strange dichotomy of her nature seemed to carry on right into that eternal realm of bewilderment and mystery - romance - along such paths as even the runaway Moon had never traveled...

Palkee-Nur had felled only the human, that awful day - freeing, however briefly, the omnimorph within to impose its will with utter impunity. That primordial force of nature slumbered now - on some level of existence far below even the subconscious - having safely returned that human to them, still leaving her able to call upon only the barest fraction of its limitless power.

For himself, he still wasn't at all certain just what that was, that they had seen. Was it merely how the omnimorph had chosen to manifest itself, at that moment? Machines could be deceived, just as surely as people; and Alpha had known its share of both.

And what, if anything, might summon it forth again?

Walking along the corridors en route to his quarters, his mood changed as the names, faces of other Alphans came to him. The technician Anton Zoref, and that pretty wife of his! And that other young married couple, the Osgoods; and Sanderson, the mystic and Mateo, the botanist - all conjurors, in their fashion, of their own apocalyptic visions...only to be consumed by them in the end.

Hadn't all their minds reached out into the not-so-empty void surrounding them - and been touched by it, somehow, in return?

This universe of ours, Alpha's universe, is so very vast, and here we all are, so very small within it...and, still, so very much to learn! -

Behind him, Verdeschi had quietly appeared in the launch area, waiting for Maya. She still took his breath away, had since that first moment he'd set eyes upon that glittering, haunted figure, hiding herself behind Helena Russell as they'd stepped off that Eagle, freshly arrived from the debacle of Psychon.

His eyes had seen in hers the grief for the loss of her father, the fear of what would become of her now...and he had looked beyond them, and glimpsed so much more...

Here she came at last, probably wanting a sympathetic ear or shoulder, and he would provide them. His arm slipped around her as they walked, but she didn't try to extricate herself as she so often playfully did.

"You know, we still haven't fully explored the rest of the area yet," said he. "We already have a contact, from the general direction of the blue star. It's still at extreme range and all, but we ought to know more in a few days...maybe we'll get another chance."

She nodded. By sheer reflex her Psychon brain calculated the odds of that...and then relented. In the last analysis, it was far better to hope.

They'd reached her door. He turned her to himself, and gently held her close. "You relax, try to unwind a little," he told her, softly, "and I'll see you at dinner..." She smiled at him, and didn't even begrudge the kiss he stole. To his great surprise she made it longer, and he was only too willing to respond...

The door softly swooshed shut behind her. She stripped off her anorak and wearily sank down upon the bed and let her eyes close...

...and when they edged open again, she came to realize that much time had passed, and Tony would soon be calling for her. She felt somewhat stiff as she rose and took the anorak over to hang up again in her wardrobe.

When she turned, her eye caught a vivid splash of color on the carpet, and her heart leaped.

She knelt, extending one hand to carefully cradle her butterfly. No wonder she'd found no trace of it in the grove; it had somehow gotten into the Eagle, had followed her here, to the Moon and Alpha...and in almost the same instant her joy died on her lips.

No movement stirred the limp little creature. Nor did too much difficulty attach itself to determining how it had died. It had secreted itself upon her own person, quite without her knowledge, and had smothered in the folds of her anorak - to drop to the carpet at last, utterly lifeless.

Grief, tinged with anger, heaved within her.


She bent over it in a gesture of protection, and her tears fell...

Burnished sunlight, and emptiness, filled the meadow. More clouds were swooping down on the valley from the northwest, and the pungent tinge of water filled the air. There would likely be showers soon after nightfall.

It had taken her quite a lot of time to cover the distance from the grove, but she had managed to return to the place where her young had been safely delivered with the aid of strangers. They were nowhere to be seen now. The youngsters wandered around aimlessly, bewildered. The breeze rippling her fur, she sniffed about here and there, detecting the lingering unfamiliar scents in the grass and the unnaturally-warm patches in the ground. Presently she lay down amongst the ferns and the flowers, her wet velvet nose in the grass, and from her issued a high-pitched, almost-birdlike, screech.

It was a pitiable, lonely cry.

And in the upper valley, along the glittering riverbanks, bushes and shrubbery rustled with the movements of unseen beings as they turned back up The Narrows, towards their city.

List Of Suggested Photographic Links

(note: all copyrights retained by the original owners)

The reader is invited to explore, on the following page, links to historical photographs of the real-life Hetch Hetchy Valley, as it existed a century ago (before it was drowned for a reservoir), in Yosemite National Park, California. Today, as in 1982, I looked at those images of a lost world and wrote what I saw.

I have still never been there.

Title Page: The Hetch Hetchy Valley (painting by Albert Bierstadt; choose thumbnail on second row right):

and Park-like Floor of Hetch Hetchy Valley (Edward T Parsons, 1907): This Episode Page: Map of Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1910 (includes errata; eg, missing Tue

eulala Falls):

Hetch Hetchy Gorge (undated, photographer unknown; where the dam was later built): Hetch Hetchy Valley, view from Surprise Point (Requien for Hetch Hetchy Valley series, J N LeConte): Kolana Rock (Herbert W Gleason, c 1910):

Landscape Garden of Hetch Hetchy (Kolana Rock and Tueeulala Falls; Herbert W Gleason, c 1910): Wapama Falls (undated, photographer unknown; possibly from a stereopticon slide):

Fall in Main Tuolumne River, head of the valley (Requien for Hetch Hetchy Valley series, J N LeConte): Sunrise in Hetch Hetchy Valley (Edward T Parsons, 1907):

Wapama Falls, seen through the trees (1912): Giant Oaks in the Fern Gardens of Hetch Hetchy (F M Fultz, 1907):

Above the Rock Pool in Hetch Hetchy Valley (Requien for Hetch Hetchy Valley series, J N LeConte): Hetch Hetchy Valley (1914; photographer unknown):

Meadows and Cliffs, Upper Hetch Hetchy Valley (Requien for Hetch Hetchy Valley series, J N LeConte): Hetch Hetchy Meadow at the foot of the trail (Requien for Hetch Hetchy Valley series,J N LeConte): Kolana Rock from the lower Hetch Hetchy Valley (Requien for Hetch Hetchy Valley series, J N LeConte): View of Hetch Hetchy from the South Side, near the Lake Eleanor Trail (Herbert W Gleason, c 1911):

This is the first story in the "The Alpha's Universe Trilogy" series. Next story
Copyright (c) 1982. 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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