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Authors: Christine
Show Year: Y1
Rating: R
Date: 2008
After the events in Y1, the Alphans move to underground facilities as the moon enters a massive nebula filled with deadly radiation. But the one holding the key to their survival goes missing during the transfer - Helena.
Now includes new Chapters 7 and 8.
Average Rating: 5.0/5 (based on 147 reviews)

Chapter 1

"It is so pretty". He said his voice subdued.

"It is our death" She stated matter-of-factly. They were standing quietly by the window of the commander's office. She was leaning against him, her back on his chest and he had wrapped his arms around her shoulders. The couple was looking at a strange glowing object in the distance, a massive cloud of bright gas with swirls of darker regions, expanding and shifting in most gorgeous colors.

"I thought we would be able to survive" She heard the tears in his voice and turned around to look at him with tenderness.

"Is our survival that important? We have left a legacy behind us already. We have changed so many universes" Her voice was soft and resigned.

"Helena, I just wanted more" She looked up and gently kissed him on the lips. His comlock beeped and Helena pulled away from John as Victor entered.

"That's it. We basically are ready to go down to the shelters. We are all set. All systems have been transferred in the underground technical sections. All essential personnel is already settled, research labs are operating. Helena, what is the status of medical?"

Helena answered, back in her professional manners.

"Victor, we are set. All medical equipment brought down from the surface is functioning. Dr. Mathias and I have set up all of the underground facilities; we will be ready to receive patients as soon as needed. All we have left is an emergency station, here, in the surface medical center. I am going to go get it and transfer control and files down to the underground facility before we all go down." Helena had worked several weeks in a row to set up the medical facilities and her new private quarters down in the underground level, since they had first detected the nebula. They were progressing relentlessly to the nebula and it had been clear early on that they would not been able to avoid it. It was a dark nebula, reflecting star light and glow of a surrounding expanding radiating nebula.

"I think we are ready to transfer computer control completely to the lower sections. I will ask Kano to start the procedures" John Koenig looked at her decisively, and then turned to Victor.

"What about the force field, Victor?"

Victor hesitated

"Well, it protected us from the black sun against all odds. But here we are dealing with something quite different. Enormous levels of radiation, shock waves, soaring temperatures, dark matter, atomic and ionized hydrogen and other atoms, ultraviolet and X-rays, and most likely fast neutrons, electrons.... Quite honestly, I do not know" Victor looked gloomy.

"Victor, we do not know what protected us from the black sun anymore that we know why we survived all these years in the strangest encounters" John stated "But I believe that we have a chance, just as we did then"

The nebula with its radiations and heat was showing the most wonderful bright colors, as if a cosmic painter had dropped splashes of glowing paint on a dark background.

Victor continued: "it is difficult to predict what will happen when we penetrate its vicinity. It most likely will fry our electronic equipment on the surface. This is why we transferred downstairs."

"And fry our DNA" Helena interjected.

"But under protection of meters of rock, lead and force shield, we might stand a very slim chance" Victor sighted. "Unfortunately, if we get out of there alive, the surface buildings will be too irradiated for us to come and live there"

"How much time do we have before we approach the nebula?" John asked.

"The radiation levels have been increasing rather rapidly. Even if we just edged the nebula and did not fully penetrate it, it would be quite lethal very soon. I think we ought to go down within the next five or six hours, if we want to remain within safety limits. But in fact, we will not enter the densest part of the nebula for another ten days. By then, who knows..." Victor replied.

The glowing cloud was now taking most of their visible horizon. For weeks, all kinds of solutions had been attempted, but with little fuel to attempt a course change, the only way seemed to try and protect their people from the radiation harmful effects and hope for the best. This time, John Koenig had decided against sending a survival Eagle, as he had tried when they faced the black sun, as such an attempt seemed even more futile in the hostile environment they were now facing. So they had watched the beautiful and deadly cloud of star dust grow in their horizon with a sense of desperation. During one particularly stressful brainstorming session, they had decided to move the base in the underground levels, normally used for storage, with the hope that layers of moon rock would somewhat protect them. Nobody really addressed the real motive for this move: to keep everyone busy in the face of destruction and to give an ultimate goal and hope to the survivors of moonbase Alpha. Indeed, it had been hard work. They had to transfer life support systems and computer control. They had to rebuild hydroponics and move technical sections down below. It took several weeks of implementation following a strict schedule along several phases. The work had busied their lives and minds. But now at the last phase, they would have to move down and say goodbye to the surface sections. The reality of the eminent contact with the nebula felt like a last dance. They would have to wait with hope, in the logical mind of these scientists, for their death. For now, the ultimate test had to be performed with the complete transfer of computer functions to the underground command center, where the databases were being installed. Once this was completed the main computer would be dismantled and the hardware brought to the lower sections. Restarting the computer systems then would restore full functionality.

Kano had calculated that five hours would be necessary to complete the computer transfer.

"Kano, start computer power down" John turned back to Helena and Victor. "Helena, how much time do you need to transfer medical files and get the last emergency system downstairs?"

Helena replied "No more than four hours, John" Her eyes locked with his. She knew how pointless this move was. She was playing well the game of hope, without really believing it. It is a game of futility, she had said to him privately. The medical scientist knew too well the effects of radiation at the level they were about to encounter on living systems. Even if they did not fully penetrate the nebula but skirted it, radiation would reach lethal levels quickly. The solution to this impending destruction, she intuitively knew, laid somewhere else. But John, in his command role, with the desperation to survive and save his people, had no time for philosophical discussions with her. John pushed the intercom button. "This is Commander John Koenig. All non-essential personal should have reported to the underground level. If you have not, do so immediately. We will be shutting down all Alpha surface sections at 18:00 hours. That is six hours from now. Countdown started." He looked down, cut off transmission and whispered: "And now we need to close this command center permanently" He looked around at his office and the double door open to the command center, which usually would have been busying with activity, but which was strangely quiet with most of its systems already switched off, and he barely could contain his emotion. In his office, all that was left was his big chair. Victor put a comforting hand on his arm. "Let's go John, we need to transfer the computer files" John turned to Helena, seeing in her green eyes a reflection of his own emotions. His voice was soft: "when you are done packing the entire emergency unit and powering down medical, go immediately to the underground command center. I will meet you there". He added: "Be careful. You will not be able to communicate after the command center is deactivated"

"Be careful too" she whispered. His fingers trailed her cheek as a soft caress and she smiled a silent goodbye of unspoken love. Then she left the room swiftly to go to the now empty medical center.

The corridors were dark already as most of the power had been redirected downstairs. The silence and darkness of those once lively corridors was unsettling. An eerie light, originated from the nebula, illuminated her path. She paused to contemplate the beauty of the multicolored rainbows reflecting on the walls of the base. The bright colors were swirling in a dance like sunshine passing through stained glass windows of a giant cathedral, but more vivid and much more intense. It was unlike anything she had seen before. The radiant light was coming from the windows and she approached to look at the stunning display offered by the nebula. "Who would have thought death so beautiful" she whispered in wonder. Then she turned and made her way to medical where she kept herself busy packing the last emergency unit. It took about three hours for the file upload, during which she finished loading the last boxes. A technician came over with a rolling cart and picked up the material to bring it down and Helena just waited for the last files to upload to the new computer system. Alone in the medical center, as the time approaching the end of the countdown was drawing near, Helena powered down the medical systems. "Medical center life support units, turn power off, section M, ICU.". Lights went off completely and the glowing from the nebula became more vibrant as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. It was odd to see all of the systems off, after having lived and worked here so many years. "Computer, unlock doors, deactivate after this message. Dr. Helena Russell signing out". She keyed in the code and the computer went off line. After a long sad look around the now completely empty and dark medical center, she turned around and left.

Chapter 2.

An exhausted John Koenig made it down the stairs to the underground command center. All surface areas were now off line and powered down. The procedure had gone smoothly without any major faults and the main computer had been rebooted successfully. Everyone was relieved that no major system failure had threatened them.

"Four, three, two, one, zero. Countdown completed. Seal the radiation doors" All doors were locked and the only communications with the outside were established through cameras, satellite transmission and the scientific sensors left on the surface. John released a big sigh. Now the wait had begun, and it was quite a wait; it would take several days to find out if their move downstairs was able to protect them efficiently from the radiations. It would take about two weeks to enter the center of the nebula and much more to completely traverse it. They would have to see if they would make it through the nebula alive. Victor came over, excited at the readings he was already receiving from the sensors. "John, this is unbelievable, look at this..."

"Victor, have you seen Helena?"

"She must be in medical getting the files up and running"

"I told her to meet us here" John, worried, went over to Sandra's desk.

"Sandra, where is Dr. Russell?"

"I have not seen Dr. Russell at all" Sandra replied puzzled. "Last time I saw her was when we still were upstairs". John frowned suddenly nervous and picked up his comlock.

"Dr. Russell to command center... Dr. Russell, please, come in... Helena!" Victor turned around at John's tone of voice, feeling his rising panic.

"Medical have you seen Dr. Russell?"

Mathias replied: "No commander, I thought she was with you"

"Computer, locate Dr. Russell"

"Dr. Russell is not on moonbase Alpha"

John's face turned very pale. "That is not possible".

Victor came over to him. "If she was still upstairs, the computer would not be able to detect her comlock. All surface sections are now off-line". And he added: "we know she handed the emergency unit over to one of the technicians and then turned the power off in medical, so she was done and probably was making her way downstairs"

John's reaction was immediate: "I've got to get back up there. Something must have happened, Victor" His voice was shaking and everyone turned to look at him. Victor was computing rapidly. "She should have been back one hour and a half ago. That means that she has been exposed to high levels of radiations in the past half an hour. The data that we are getting back is showing a sharp increase in radiation levels, John. The doors are sealed, if we reopen, we will contaminate the underground levels. We cannot risk that. If you go out now that way, nobody will make it" Victor lowered his voice in sadness. "She has been exposed to levels of radiation that are above limits, John" John turned to face him, his face flushed with anger. "What are you trying to tell me, Victor?" Embarrassed, Victor lowered his eyes and shook his head. "Victor, she is not dead. I know it." He was incensed. "I feel it...right here!" And with his clenched fist, he banged at his heart, and then left the command center raging. After a minute of hesitation, Victor followed him. John paced several minutes in the technical section, blaming himself for leaving her alone. Abruptly, his decision made, he started to undress and put a spacesuit. He could not reopen the sealed radiation doors without contaminating the underground sections, but he could exit through the door leading to the catacombs and walk back on the moon surface to reenter the surface areas. It would take a long time and expose him to radiations, but he did not care. He just wanted to get to Helena. Victor found him at last, when John was putting on the spacesuit gloves. "You are not going out, are you?" John looked at him, eyes burning with determination. "Victor, I am not leaving her alone up there to die. She must be injured. I will not leave her. This is final" He continued to set his suit busily. "John, this is suicide" Victor stated. John turned to look at him and grabbed both of his arms as he answered: "Then let it be. Without Helena, I would not want to live anyhow"

"John, you have a duty to this base"

"I have a duty to my family. Helena is my family". It was the first time stated his relationship with Helena explicitly to Victor. The couple had been very private about their growing feelings for one another, but their love had been obvious to Victor.

As he realized that John would not give up, Victor consulted the computer.

"At this point with the current radiation level, you should not stay exposed more than 10 minutes in the open. Once you are inside, the shields might protect you some more, but I would keep your exposure under 20 minutes. Any time beyond this and you may get exposed to dangerous radiation levels and risk all kinds of side effects. You will have to go out by the catacombs, on section D and walk over the moon surface to... hum..." he paused "to section E, yes, section E. There you should find an airlock with a manual mechanism to open it from the outside. Do not attempt to get back through the sealed doors, they will not reopen from the outside. If you find Helena, you will have to bring her back the same way, so she would have to be in a space suit. Your communication systems will not work out there, as the radiation interferences will be too great." He thought for a moment. "If she is badly hurt, I do not know how you will bring her back"

"I know how..." Both men turned around surprised to see a smiling Carter. Alan said beaming: "Commander, do you think I was going to let you go out there alone? If we are going to fry from this nebula in the next days, I'd rather take a chance and fry up there trying to help you" He added: "Let's take a moon buggy, it will shorten the amount of time we spend exposed. Let's also take a pressurized emergency stretcher in case Helena cannot walk"

John nodded appreciatively "Thanks". Alan gave him a slap on the back. "Let's go mate. We have an appointment with your lady"

Chapter 3.

With the moon buggy it was easier and faster to cross the moon landscape from the entrance of the catacombs to section E of the surface buildings. The nebula like a giant cat eye was watching over the two men as they made their way along the grey moon surface, now illuminated by beams of glowing colorful light.

"Time elapsed?" John asked.

"3 minutes and 45 seconds" Alan answered.

"Not bad"

The airlock of section E opened without resistance and both men penetrated the now dead surface sections of the base. Once they were inside and the airlock closed, they were able to remove their helmets, since breathable air was still distributed.

"We've got to find her, but where" Alan questioned.

"Well, she was working in medical and we know she disconnected the computer system. So logically, she would have left and made her way back to command center to find the stairs to the lower sections. She knew that the elevators were put off line, so she would have gone to the emergency stairs."

"We should start in medical" Alan commented. Both men made their way to medical to find the section empty as Helena had left it. Then they took the corridor going to command center. "No signs of her". As they made their way back, John got more and more silent, deep in his thoughts. He was now shaken by her absence. He simply was walking automatically, searching the darkened corridors as if he was in a middle of a terrible endless nightmare. Every second passed reduced their chances to find her and exposed them to more radiations.

"Commander, look over there" Alan pointed to a darkened section of the corridor. "It looks like this section collapsed".

Clumsily impaired by his suit, John ran over. "She is probably trapped under there".

Alan was puzzled. "I wonder why the structure collapsed. There was no tremor, no impact of meteorite. And besides, there is no decompression. So the outside seals held"

"Are you sure Alan? How is the air pressure?"

"Normal, commander"

Alan continued to inspect the rumble. "There are signs of scorching. There must have been an explosion"

"Alan, I hear something" Both men became very quiet to listen. From under the block of cements and the torn beams they heard a barely audible low moan.

"Helena?" John called and ran over in the direction of the sound.

It took John and Alan several minutes to clear up some of the rumbles in their way. John's strength had multiplied under the stress and the determination to find her. And then they saw her. John froze, when he saw her body with a leg bent at odd angle and tangled under a beam and wires. A puddle of blood had spread on the floor from her abdomen and her torn uniform was soaked. She had burn marks on her shoulder, arm and face. The uniform sleeve had melted and coagulated into a synthetic blob under the heat, leaving the skin and flesh of her arm and shoulder raw, blistered and exposed. He slowly kneeled down beside her. "Helena" he whispered. She was breathing fast and shallow. Her face was dangerously pale and the burned marks were sharply contrasting with the whiteness of her skin. She weakly opened her eyes and looked at him with a sense of recognition.

"So beautiful..." she murmured in a shallow breath and added "John..."

John, tears streaming down his cheeks, turned to Alan. "We've got to get her back quickly".

"Is it safe to move her?" Alan questioned.

"Probably not, but we do not have any other option. If we leave her here any longer, she will die"

Alan ran back to get the pressurized stretcher, while John slowly started to move the beam blocking Helena's legs. With much effort, he managed to dislodge it and free her.

Then he came back by her side and tried to comfort her. "We are going to take you back now, Helena. You are going to be ok". He was never really good at lying and did not want to insult her intelligence. Most certainly, if Helena was aware of her condition, she would know how seriously hurt she was. Helena opened her eyes slowly to look at him and whispered "John". He bent and very gently kissed her mouth with tenderness. When Alan came back, she had slipped out of consciousness again. Both men lifted the torn body of Helena onto the stretcher and doing so revealed a puddle of blood under her back, her hair pasted by the dry blood and the fabric of her uniform sticky and wet. They placed her carefully in the pressurized stretcher and closed the air tight lid. John turned a valve and established air pressure inside. As the men secured back their gloves and helmets, John realized with an unsettled feeling that his hands were sticky from her blood. It took all of his concentration to keep the nausea away. He had to save her; it was the only important goal. They raced back to the moon buggy with Helena safely protected in the back in the pressurized stretcher and started to drive back to the catacombs entrance. As soon as they reentered the radiation shelter, communications came back. "Dr. Mathias, we found Dr. Russell, she is badly hurt and has lost a lot of blood. Have medical ready"

Suddenly, every nurse, every technician and every doctor on the team came in and they rushed Helena, now unconscious, to the intensive care unit. One nurse was cutting the torn fabric of her suit to expose her wounds and setting up an I.V. with a bag of blood, as they were walking to medical. John removed his space suit quickly and followed them to medical apprehension etched on his face.

Chapter 4.

She lay bared on the table of the medical center, a thin sheet covering her injured body up to her shoulders. It was cold and dark. He was sitting by her, holding her now cold hand, his face washed by grief, his heart still shaken by disbelief. He knew all of their friends would come, slowly one by one, to say good bye. But for now, he was alone and would not have been able to bear anyone else's presence. He was lost in his thoughts and wanted only peace.

"I will join you soon, my love" He whispered to her, referring to the nebula they were about to reach and his exposure to radiations on the surface.

In this small community of Alpha, the 250 persons had become a large family of close-knit friends. With nowhere to run or hide, survival had been dependent on their friendly partnership and understanding. Each death was a tragedy. How many more would die in this dangerous and wild exposure to deep space? Space exploration was dangerous. No doubt. Subfreezing temperature, deep vacuum, intense particle radiations, instrumentation failures in this harsh environment, long term life support, meteorite showers, psychological disorders of the personnel facing constant danger and the unpredictable events of deep space had made their survival quite improbable. Of course, they had met many unknown events and also phenomenon, which, back on earth, had been predicted, but were still the domain of speculative astrophysics, such as time-space warps, tears in the time-space continuum, or Einstein-Rosen bridges. Worm holes, as they were commonly known, were a lot more frequent than expected. It seemed that star systems were linked by a network of worm holes, were they natural or built, no one knew. But indeed, the worm holes had provided a mean for the moon to be thrown to distanced regions of space and different time frames, as it fell through that network, just like the holes of a giant sponge. It was the only way he could explain the fast way they encountered star systems, without spending years traveling empty regions of space. In fact their survival was nothing short of a miracle. Or wasn't it?

John looked down at her pale peaceful face, her eyelids closed, like a marble statue frozen in eternity. Maybe those who died were the lucky ones. The survivors were submitted to an uncertain fate, a long agony among the universe, without a hope of reprieve. No relief of duty for anyone, no chance to build a normal human life. They were lost perhaps millions of years away from earth. Without any control on their course, they were submitted to the capricious derive of their moon through worm holes. Maybe Helena was the lucky one. No. He wanted her alive; he wanted her as his companion. He wanted to build a life with her, have children, age together. Perhaps it was just mere wishing. They would not be any children. They would just die here slowly suffering from radiation sickness or fast, torched in a nebula. Who in their right minds would want to give birth, and submit children to such an uncertain fate and an eternal agony? But, what if they were the only survivors? What if the earth had been destroyed in the cataclysm that pushed the moon out of orbit? Then they had the responsibility to carry on the human civilization. Helena. She certainly would have argued that he should allow people on Alpha to procreate. So many memories of friendship and love. He knew he loved her at that very first moment he met her, at that first look. Their first professional fight revealed her as a woman of conviction, resolute to fight for what she believed in. As a commander, he appreciated that. She stood strong and she held a tight grip on her emotions, professional in all circumstances, a skeptical scientist only influenced by logic. She was extremely competent, yet capable of admitting her limits and her errors. He remembered the dignified way she reacted to the illusionary come-back and death of her husband, shielding her private life and emotions behind the mask of logic, even when there was no logic to this situation. Her courage facing the most dreadful situations revealed her as a cold-blooded person reliable and capable of making decisions in the worst conditions. She was a leader. Her fights, her strength and her vulnerability, but also her resilience, her competence attracted him. Yes, she had made judgment mistakes in the past, but never denied them and accepted them, as being human. She was also full of compassion for others, which led her to her medical profession. Threatened by a black sun, he had made a desperate attempt to save her along a few others, revealing for the first time his feelings and attachment for her. It had made her furious that he would consider her above the 300 other lives of Alpha. Her anger was barely contained: she wanted to choose her own life and her own death, or at least the place of her death. But did one really have that choice? She refused to be treated any differently than anyone else because of any emotional involvement with him. But in that Eagle taking her away from Alpha, barely containing tears of frustration, she realized what he meant to her.

Their journey brought them close to destruction many times. She faced it each time with courage and faith, getting closer to him. And then, there was this intense moment, when through a tear in space and time they had met their doubles on another earth and the other Helena had died in his arms. It was a confirmation that they were soul mates in any universe. Many hopes had been destroyed, when at each encounter with another world, they found it unsuitable for life and survival. But at the same time, they had given so much to the worlds they encountered. Indeed they had changed the universe and many of those worlds by the very actions they took while trying to survive. But they never had found a planet to settle. He wished that he would have started a new life with her. He wished. But wishes and dreams are not reality.

Helena had been very shaken by the events on the spaceship of the Darians. She was haunted by the death and cannibalism, she had witnessed there in the name of survival. Taken prisoner, stripped forcefully of her clothes and left naked on the frozen floor next to a pile of rags to wear, she had been offered to a fictitious god during a primitive religious ritual. She had collapsed out of fright, when multiple hands had explored her exposed body in search of visible signs revealing genetic mutations. Violated, she had passed out unable to cope with her fear. Finally declared 'pure', she had been dragged to a recycling plant for organ donors. She immediately understood what this facility was from the surgical material she saw as well as the bodies lining the morgue. In her struggle to escape, she had realized her hopeless position. She did not know where the others were and the ship was enormous. They drugged her and kept her heavily sedated, while they harvested samples of stem cells and oocytes from her ovaries. She had remained unconscious until John and the rest of the team found her in the organ donor facility. John remembered his fear, when he saw her laying there, being prepared for a major surgery. Reanimated and wrapped in a warm blanket, they took her back to the Eagle and she remained silent and strangely numb during the entire trip, the sedative still affecting her mind. On the ship, Helena avoided everyone's eyes, not making any personal contact, silent, and looking down. When he realized how shaken she was, unable to hold anyone's gaze and walking like a zombie, John placed a confidential call to Doctor Mathias. Upon her landing on the base, she was immediately hospitalized for a thorough check up. It is during that check-up that Dr. Mathias realized the extent of her trauma. Clearly, eggs had been harvested through the natural ways, which confused any rape evidence. She bore bruises and cuts over arms and legs from a struggle. She had a scar from a spinal tap and they clearly did harvest bone marrow from her hip. While these procedures did not endanger her, as long as she remained infection-free, John could not begin to imagine the pain and fright she must have lived. He felt horribly shocked and upset that his decision to respond to the distress signal from the ship led to this terrible ordeal for her. Helena was kept in the hospital for several days, administered fluids, pain medication and antibiotics, to prevent any further infection. The first time he came to see her, he was shocked at her physical appearance. Her eyes were sunken and she looked thinner. His first words were: "I am sorry for what happened." She replied way too quickly to be sincere: "I am Ok. It was not your fault, John." But she lowered her head avoiding his probing eyes and she kept her gaze downcast. John very gently brought her hand to his mouth and kissed the tip of her fingers, and then he left her. He came back to visit her very often, showing to her more openly for the first time his affection, sharing his meals with her, and keeping her updated on the base events. On Dr. Mathias advice, he never brought up the events which happened on the Darian ship and mostly he kept on talking about other subjects, often lightly. She remained very quiet, talking little and refusing to expand on her traumatic experience. John found her strangely disconnected from anything happening around her, and often he just sat by her on the bed holding her hand in silence. Dr. Mathias held therapy sessions for her and she started to reveal some of the horrific details of her ordeal. It took a long time for her to recover and she was experiencing all the symptoms of post traumatic stress, nightmares, anxiety and panic for which she was prescribed anxiolytics. She went back to work on a light schedule and came back to her apartments for an apparent return to normality with nightmares as her only reminder of her trauma. She started to write a diary of their day to day experiences, a way to exorcize her pain and feelings that Dr. Mathias had suggested. She became quite enthralled in the writing and developed skills in literature, which she never knew she had.

One particular night her fright and scream in her nightmare was so loud, it triggered a medical alert. Mathias had rushed in to find her drenched in sweat and shaking. John, who was finishing his turn of duty and was on his way back to his quarters, heard the alert and stopped by, as his affection and concern for her had grown strong. Helena had quickly regained control of herself, and put a professional mask of calm on her face. John would have fallen for it, if not for the beads of sweat on her skin, her damp hair and her drenched night shirt. She kept on repeating to Bob Mathias that she was fine now and Bob eventually left after prescribing her a calming medication. John lingered for a while, not believing a word she said.

"Aren't you going to take these?" He said pointing to the pills.

"A miraculous pill to forget everything?" She had sounded bitter and sad. "Thank you, but no thanks!" She stayed there by the window and looked into the infinite blackness of space silently, her entire body tense and her arms wrapped about herself. She started to shiver. John gathered her in his arms and held her tightly. A heavy silence fell on them for several minutes. He always had been tactile person, holding hands, padding backs and hugging friends. But this was different, there was tenderness and warmth. There was love. It took a few minutes for her body to start relaxing. And as she did, her control started to ebb. His touch affected her such that she suddenly broke down in tears and collapsed in sobs. Buried in his arms, she wept her pain out. She wept her loneliness, her distress, the loss of her long dead husband, the loss of her planet, the loss of her future, the violence imposed on her body by the Darians, her anguish. She wept years of tight emotional control as a medical doctor, confronted to the harsh reality of space travel. When she calmed down, he spoke for the first time.

"You are soaked, Helena. You are cold." She looked at him as if she was seeing him for the first time. "Why don't you change into a dry shirt and wash up" He took her hand gently and led her to the bathroom. There was no argument. Her emotions had wiped her strength and she felt exhausted. She changed into dry pajamas. Then he laid her down tenderly on her bed and she cuddled in his comforting embrace until she drifted off into a safe sleep. He slowly pulled a blanket over her and closed his eyes. She woke up the next morning with her face hidden in his shoulder, a little embarrassed to find him there, maybe even more embarrassed by the crying of the night before. He took her face in his hands and buried his blue eyes in hers with so much love. The kiss that followed was shy and tentative as if forbidden. He recalled the taste of her lips, salty of dried tears and sweet of tenderness. Trembling of barely contained emotions, she was conflicted between her desire for him and her professional restrain. "John, I..." He looked up. "I am sorry, I shouldn't have" He nodded. "I am going to go now and let you rest". But of course, circumstances were quite different on this rogue planet deriving in an unknown universe. Even worse maybe, if this would go bad there was no way to escape that place. There was so much solitude and despair here where the only living beings were stranded in this strange bubble resting on this lifeless rock. "No". Maybe it was time to let go of the masks she put on herself. "No, John, please stay. I need you." She let go in his embrace and the floodgates of her restrain breached letting her emotions and feelings for him loose. Strangely released, she kissed him with all her passion.

Their love was fierce and intense. It was also uncompromising, with many fights, as their strong personalities would clash. She refused to be possessed by his will. He needed desperately to protect her. She would not accept to be placed in a special position, because of their relationship. He would not bear to expose her to danger. Yet she boldly faced danger, taking risks unacceptable for him. She would freeze in anxiety each time he would step on an Eagle. He would refuse to delegate his command. Their responsibilities and duties toward the personnel of Alpha were tearing them apart as much as they would bring them together. Their survival forced them to take risks. Danger was the price to pay. During the day, facing ordeals, they would often exchange tortured looks, when they had to part from one another, their love expressed silently in their gaze. Then they would meet at night unbeknownst to anyone and consume their fear of losing each other in intense passion, fusing souls and bodies in eternity, only to be torn from each other in the fake daylight of the artificial morning. It took a while for the personnel of the base to realize of their relationship. Victor was the first one to know, in fact he had known almost since the first day they met and confirmed it when confronted with a black sun, John could not even mention her name. On Arkadia, in the shock of discovering their long lost ancestry, John and Helena had hoped to find a place to live an uncertain future, as the power loss they experienced on the base threatened their very survival. They had spent the night around a small campfire with the rest of the team. Victor was reconsidering the tremendous impact of their discovery on their past scientific knowledge. The reality seemed very grim. That evening in the gloomy light of this dead world, everyone was quiet, lost in their thoughts. They set up to sleep outside, as the temperature was not too cold and so they placed sleeping pads and bags in the clearing by the fire. For the first time, Helena, ignoring the puzzled looks directed at her, set her sleeping bag next to his and lay in his arms to sleep. Alan had a small understanding grin on the corner of his mouth as he turned over to sleep. John still remembered the whispering conversation they had that night in the darkness. She had voiced her concerns about moving down on this planet and her fears of the future. But at the time it seemed to be the only acceptable solution. They slept little that night, anxious about their immediate unseemly future. They kissed softly and held each other in their fear. He was worried about making the wrong decision. She was twisting every possibility in her mind to come back to the same conclusion. But the planet seemed to be full of ancient ghosts and the atmosphere of dread completely prevented anyone from relaxing. John and Helena found solace in each other's tender embrace and waited for the pale yellow sun to rise, drifting on and off into a shallow tormented sleep. In the morning, Luke saw them entwined, Helena's head resting on John's chest. And maybe, that was why he knew to take Helena, when he and Anna decided to remain on Arkadia. John had hurt deeply, when Helena was taken hostage. He was worried, it would bring back to her the difficult times of her traumatic Darian experience. John felt guilty that his love for her was responsible for her current predicament. He knew he could not let her go, yet, he could not let his command and Alpha down. That day, it became obvious to all how they felt for each other. When Helena came back, they looked at each other lovingly for a long time. There was Alan, granting them a few precious minutes in private before he knew they would go back to their duties at her return from Arkadia.

"John" She had whispered. "What?" He said gently, touching her hair. "I love you." He remembered the emotion he felt, when he bent to kiss her. "I love you too."

Not enough kisses, not enough time together, not enough love. He sighted at the memories of their passion, the funny parts, the tender parts, the embarrassing parts. Like when Paul, bursting in a rush in John's quarters when a brief power failure happened during one night after they had left Arkadia's vicinity, had found them asleep in each other's arms. John recalled with tenderness the look of embarrassment of Helena as she grabbed the sheet to cover her exposed nude body. Paul with dignity never commented on the incident.

Chapter 5.

As he looked over the shape of her body barely concealed by the satin sheet, his grief and love for her overwhelmed him. Her body had been badly hurt. Her face still bore burns, bruises and wounds. She was serene now, her pain gone. John had spent every minute at her side since the terrible accident. When was the last time he slept in his bed? He could not remember. He could not remember either all what happened that night after he brought her back from the surface regions of Alpha. He just remembered the chaos he experienced, when all the medical staff took her to the intensive care unit and started to work on her with this incredible sense of urgency. He had felt as if the ground had opened under him and time stopped as he fell a slow and infinite fall. For the first time ever, he felt lost. Victor had quickly assumed command in his place for John could not focus on anything but Helena. John did not worry about the nebula anymore. He heard often alarms and comments on the intercom system about how the radiation levels were rising, but the entire outside world came to him through a dense fog. This was a reality he did not belong to anymore, just some kind of sick dream. He felt bereft, as if he had been dumped on the edge between life and death, and life was just passing by without touching him like an insensitive running river, while he was waiting numb next to the intensive care unit, where Helena was laying.

They had spent hours trying to save her, surgeries after surgeries. He had spent hours waiting by her, or next door, praying, crying and hoping. And at the end, they knew they would not be able to repair the damage to her spleen and intestines and she still was bleeding internally. She also had suffered radiation burning and even if the hemorrhage was contained, the radiations effects would claim her. She would have needed the best medical facilities on earth, but they were far away from earth. Dr. Mathias came out of surgery with tears in his eyes, losing with her a colleague and dear friend. With only one look the two men exchanged, John knew. They had given her blood transfusions, repaired her broken leg, closed her abdominal wounds, cleaned, stitched and bandaged the cuts on her arms and shoulders, and they had dressed her burns, but they were barely managing to keep her alive. In a painful discussion, Bob had told the details of her injuries and how little they had been able to do to help. The irony was that Helena was the better surgeon and Bob was devastated about his inability to save her. All John could remember from Bob's statement was: "She does not have much time, commander. She has received strong doses of radiations and we cannot stop the internal bleeding. She will need you to be here for her." Beyond that everything was a blur. John could not remember what his answer was. He recalled only his pain and the deep confusion in his mind.

When looking at her extremely pale face with the skin burned and bandaged on one side, he had then understood Dr. Mathias words. As a fighter, grasping for her own life, she stayed alive and conscious for another three days, growing weaker and weaker by the hour. But Helena was a competent doctor and she did not need any explanation of her condition. She just knew and was peacefully accepting her fate. John attended her constantly, catching sleep one hour at a time in the chair next to her bed. Her skin started to become dry and rough from the exposure to radiations with the top layer of skin cells dying as if she had powerful sunburn. Her lips chapped, despite the heavy hydration she was getting from the intravenous line and so he asked for some cream for her. He took to massage her body gently with moisturizing aloe cream to relieve her from the irritation of the inflamed and peeling skin. He would rub the cream lightly with the tip of his fingers on the skin free of bandages of her cheeks and forehead, caressing her face lovingly while she would look at him in silence often falling lightly asleep from the comfort of his touch. His thumbs would run over her chapped lips tenderly. He would massage the cream on her hands, arms, shoulders, legs and feet, carefully avoiding injured and burned areas, her cast on the leg and intravenous line. He was soft and delicate. He would also wipe her face with damp cloths, give her ice pops and brush her hair gently. She would open her eyes and bring his hand to her lips, comforted by his caresses. His fingers on her skin mirrored his devotion for her, in a way that was deep and intimate, like a prayer. She would smile weakly and whisper to him in return. His lips would brush her skin in light kisses, over her fingers, face, hands, feet and arms. Often, nurses, who used to work with Helena, would move out of the room, tears in their eyes over the overt display of this intense love. John had stopped caring about other witnessing his passion for her. And so Helena and John locked themselves up in this bubble of love, having only eyes for each other in what they knew would be their last moments together.

She started to refuse pain medication, to be able to keep awake, but, even so, her desperate efforts to keep conscious were in vain and her conscious moments were becoming more sporadic. She received brief visits from Victor, Alan, Sandra, Paul and her friends from command center. She accepted the visits with understanding. She whispered to John: "I am glad, I got to say goodbye". During her very few aware minutes, she spent trying to console him, repeating to him that she would be alright, that she was not hurting anymore, that she loved him. She would talk soothingly and softly, as her strength was fading; he would reply with all of his love, kiss her and hold her tenderly.

"I am dying, John" she had whispered.

"No, you will be fine. You will recover and we will have a lot of good time together" he had assured her. "We will...."

"John... Don't lie to me" She took a painful breath, frustrated. And he steadied, paying attention finally. "I am dying." He was shaking his head. "John... But it is not really death." Her voice was determined, but so soft he had to bend over her to hear her words. "Everything changes, John. Nothing stays the same. Molecules, atoms do not die. In the nebula, atoms are created from pure energy, strings of energy combine, I saw it, John. The nebula is not our death, John... It is the opposite. The nebula is life. I did not understand until now. Molecules, atoms, they just change form to something different. When I die, I will still be here with you. It will still be me in energy... Nothing is ever permanent, everything changes... And when you go in there...we will be together again. So much love cannot go away, you know. I am already part of you, and you of me." She had looked at John' eyes and saw tears. "Are you scared, Helena?"

"No, I am not scared anymore. So, don't be." She added and smiled slowly, then lifted weakly her hand to wipe his cheek. Then she closed her eyes briefly in exhaustion.

He looked down, burning tears running again unleashed down his face at the memory of her last moments. Later she had briefly reopened her eyes. And when she did, her eyes had locked with his, sharing her most intimate feelings of love and tenderness in a few seconds. She had given a soft squeeze on his hand and he had managed a smile through his tears. "Helena". She had smiled and whispered weakly "John, I love you". He had kissed her mouth with more love than he ever expressed and he took in her breath, her last breath. When he had lifted his face from hers, she was gone, a lonely tear caught in her eyelash. Just like that. John had screamed her name in grief, letting out his pain in a long cry. Victor ran over but froze when he saw John hugging the limp body and shaking in uncontrollable sobs. Then John collapsed in his seat, hiding his face in his hands and weeping. Victor left him alone with his grief and waited patiently in the next room for his friend. It would take time for John to compose himself. And so John stayed with her, his fingers entwined with hers, not ready yet to leave her.

Chapter 6.

He was numb from too much crying. He felt helpless without her. And he knew that he had to let go. But his legs were weak and each beat of his heart was painful, threatening to crush him. Victor entered the medical center. "John, now, come! It is time. You have been here for hours" He took John by the arm and strongly helped him up. "No, Victor. I want to stay with her". But one look from Victor and he knew that there was no argument. "John, you have to let her go". So John bent over and kissed Helena one last time on her lips, shivering at the cold touch, realizing for the first time the reality of her death, and he followed Victor. "I think it is best if you get some sleep. Mathias will give you something to help"

"The nebula?" John managed to say, his voice shaking.

"We are getting close to penetrating it. There is not much time." Victor sighed. But John was already lost in his thoughts and did not answer, wishing only to follow her wherever she went. He took the pills without resistance and Victor stayed on his side until he saw him drift away.

His sleep was light and agitated, populated by dreams of her. He would reach next to him and feel her body. Her smile would light up the room and his soul. Her eyes, her beautiful deep green eyes.... She was there and he turned around to hug her, longing for closeness and warmth. Then the nebula would come and take her from him, closing colorful arms made of stars on her and dragging her away and everything around him would be engulfed in flames. Then she was gone and he woke up screaming her name, his pain returning to stab him as his dream drifted away and the reality came back like a shock. He tried to fall back asleep to be with her, but he could not. So he got up and paced in the room. He missed his old quarters, with the windows out to the stars. Underground quarters seemed completely cramped and he felt the walls close on him like a shroud. "Helena, where are you?" But only silence answered. He could almost touch her. She was so real, so close. All he had to do was to close his eyes to make her appear in front of him, her silver hair, her lips so near his, her warmth... No, that was not real. He reopened his eyes and looked around in the darkness of his room. She was not here, she would not be here ever again. Painfully, he rubbed his face as if the physical pressure of his knuckles would sink the reality back into himself. But still he could feel her presence, not in the room, but within himself, as if she was part of each molecule of his body.

"I am hallucinating" he murmured, as if the sound of his voice would dispel the feeling.

"That is a classical defense against an unbearable grief, John". Now, he could hear her voice, sounding with the authority of the doctor and the tenderness of the lover. He smiled. Yes, that is what she would have said. Now, there was no way he would fall back asleep. Without thinking, he got dressed and stepped out in the corridor. He walked without determined aim, but finally, almost to his surprise, his steps led him to Helena's door. He stared at the door, reading the name he knew so well slowly, hesitating. Then, he entered her quarters.

The room was dark. Nobody had dared to come here since the fateful accident. It felt like a century ago. Helena had moved there from her surface quarters almost as soon as these quarters were available to be inhabited. Her rationale was that she would be close to the medical center to be equipped and soon ready to take patients. It had driven him crazy to know she was so physically far from him until he was himself ready to move downstairs as well. She had replied with humor that true love would not suffer from long distances and that their reunion would be even more passionate. He turned on the night table lights. It was as if she never left and he thought she just would enter at any moment, coming home from a long evening duty. In the dim light, he saw her pajamas, neatly folded on the bed, ready for an upcoming night. A book was left opened on the night table, a bookmark leaning across the pages. He looked around, mesmerized. On her desk, medical reports laid scattered, scientific papers marked with notes, reports on tasks to do to implement a successful move. There was a pen, and internal medicine manual, an immunology and infectious diseases textbook and a number of handwritten pages in notebooks. She seemed to have been working on something else unrelated to the move of the surface sections of the base. He smiled at a little fuzzy stuffed animal nested on the side of her desk. A rabbit? A mouse? He could not really tell in the darkness. On the shelves, books were lined up tidily. What was he looking for? A confirmation of her death? Or a confirmation of her living? The closet door was not closed. He could see spare uniforms and lab coats, dresses and civilian earth clothes. On the side shelves, pajamas, night robes, undergarments and socks. His fingers caressed the silky fabric of a turquoise blue evening dress, which used to match her eye color perfectly and which he remembered removing clumsily from her eager body on a passionate evening, one of those rare evenings without interruptions. They had been so busy trying to survive. These moments had been too few, as if stolen from their public lives, more often caught between shifts and emergencies. He regretted not making more time for her. He moved toward the bathroom. The sink was lined with essential toiletries, a toothbrush, and a hair brush. He looked down on the hair brush at the strands of blond hair, which remained trapped in the bristles. She had taken a shower. A large towel, now dried, placed hastily on the rack was still wrinkled. A bottle of shampoo was left opened inside the shower. He took the towel in his hands, handling it like a sacred object, and slowly buried his face in the soft fabric still bearing her scent. Surprised by the intensity of the sudden grief he felt, his eyes filled with tears. Moving out of the bathroom, he sat on her bed, his legs weak, and his chest tight, barely able to breathe. He felt so weak, so alone, suffering. He had laid down on her bed and cradled her silky pajamas in his arms as if he would hold her, his face rested on her pillow, feeling the soft fabric against his cheek. He cried tears of grief and regret. He could smell the faint traces of her perfume, of her shampoo, mixed with her skin. She was everywhere in this room. He closed his eyes, to take her in deeper, so that her ghostly presence would invade his soul. Holding her pajamas, he fell asleep, like a little child holding his blanket.

His commlock was beeping insistently, an intrusion of the real world. Could they not leave him alone? "Commander Koenig, please respond"

"Yeah" he mumbled in his half awake state.

"Are you alright?" Paul was concerned.

"Paul. I am fine. I would like to be left alone, if that is possible. Do not disturb me again unless if is of critical importance"

"Sorry commander" Paul replied, not delivering the news that they were starting to enter the immediate vicinity of the nebula. After all, there was nothing to be done and the command center personnel knew too well that John Koenig was lost in a deep grief. John heard the intercom alert from command center and displayed the message of their current status. All of this seemed so far away from another world, a world he did not want to belong to anymore.

John sighed, fully waking up with his sorrow taking over the cloudiness of his sleep. He rested on Helena's bed, unable to move just now, still holding in his hands her pajamas. He felt so unbelievably tired. Yet the soft light of the morning was bathing the room. It almost looked like real sunlight. A long silver-gold hair, caught in the pillow's fabric, reflected the light just near his open eyes. He carefully picked it up with his fingers. He wished he had something to save it properly, an envelope maybe. He got up, still holding the lonely hair and went to her desk. She must have envelopes, but where? With his free hand he opened a drawer and search through her papers. The first envelope he found bore his name. In surprise, he let go of the hair to grab the envelope and stared at it astonished. It was sealed and he hesitated before breaking the seal. She had left it for him, but still, he felt he was violating her privacy by opening the note. Submerged by fear and sadness, he tore the paper open and read the handwritten letter.

"My dear John,

This is the most difficult letter I ever wrote in my life. If you have found it, it means most certainly that I am dead. I can only imagine the pain you must be feeling, because I would feel the same way, were it reversed. I am sorry that you have to go through all of this because of me. I hope dearly that you will forgive me for this pain. If it is any consolation for you, I can assure you that my death will not be in vain. It will bring us our most cherished desires. With all my heart and love, I want to tell you that I am with you, within you, and I will remain there as long as you need me.

John, my love, I had to do this. In time, you will understand...

I love you in eternity,


John lowered the letter solemnly, tears flowing. He bent to pick up the hair, he had dropped and let it slide within the envelope.

"What will I understand, Helena?" He whispered. "What did you have to do? What does it all mean? In vain? Which desires could I have that does not include you?"

He realized suddenly, with shock, that maybe her death was not an accident. A suicide? How could she? She was not depressed at all. No, that would be impossible. Not Helena, not after all they went through together. John struggled with many questions and no answers. Clearly, she had foreseen her death, if not planned it. There was no date on this letter, was it old? How long did it rest hidden in that drawer? It had to be recent, she just had moved there. He needed answers. If there was anything going on, Helena would have left him some clues. But why not tell him in the letter?

He sat down puzzled, his gaze sweeping the room in search for answers and stopping on the night table. In the despair of the previous night, he never really looked at the book. Why would she leave it open? Why not mark the page and close it? The book mark, a thin metallic strip engraved with Chinese characters, rested across the pages like a ruler underlining a paragraph. Without moving it, he bent cautiously over to read.

"She studied the sharp contours of her own pale face framed by that impossible hair which defied any style but nature's own, but beyond that face was the apparition of another girl. Suddenly the other girl began to wink frantically with both eyes, as if to signal that she was really in there on the other side" The book was Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder.

Why would Helena leave him such a puzzle? She was not a woman who played games. He could not understand. He took the book, carefully marking the page and shuffled through. Helena had underlined several sentences. The book was essentially a lesson in the history of philosophy throughout the ages. But the passages she had underlined related to our perception of the universe. Reality existed only through our perception of it, in fact it existed only because we were able to perceive it. He moved over to her desk and for the first time since he entered her room he paid attention to the notes on her desk. Some of them had to do with the recycling systems and hydroponics utilities, and regarded enzyme systems, others, drastically different, seemed to be reflections on the universe. Another set of notes were annotations to a very long DNA sequence, arrows pointing to sections of the code, and amino acids correspondences. He took in his hands the pages related to her reflections, not keen to read heavy duty biological work. His background was in space engineering and management, not in molecular biology. He was not sure he would understand her work.

Could universe be just a mathematical creation? She had reflected on those pages. Some kind of self-regenerating theorem within the very fabric of the universe, with an randomized element, which would after billions of years have grown so complex as to create an emergent property, known as life? If then, there could be others universes, with slightly different parameters. They would harbor life. They could be just around us, but we would never know of them and they would never be able to find out about us, unless they found a way to translate the algorithm. If Helena was working on something, why wouldn't she have talked to him about it? Even if those were just metaphysical reflections of a human being confronted to the mysteries of space and the proximity of death, Helena was intimate enough with him and always discussed her ideas, problems, opinion and even private ideas referring to religion and beliefs with him. Helena did not hide any secrets from him, did she? Didn't she? He was beginning to wonder.

"John, we need to get ready for Helena's funeral" Victor, on communication, took him out of his reflection. "How are you, John?"

"I will be alright, thank you". John decisively left Helena's quarter, overriding the password and encrypting a new one to prevent anyone from entering without proper authorization. He walked back to his quarters, still holding her letter in his hand. Victor was expecting him. "John, I am so sorry. But we have to prepare for the funeral; Of course you will have to say a few words as the commander"

"And as the friend, the companion, the lover... Yes, Victor, I know" The tone of John was caustic. "I just want to be left alone".

"Look, John. We all can understand how you feel. You do not have to say a lot, only a few words will be necessary."

And so, John isolated himself in his quarter to rest and think. But then, thinking proved itself a lot more difficult. He had never experienced such a disabling pain in his soul. After the many tears, his mind and body were numb. He rested on his bed, with his fingers still clasped around her letter and closed his eyes, only wishing for emptiness.

The time of the funeral came a lot faster than he wished. But then, time really stopped as he entered the room and saw her body. He could see himself walk across the room where people started to assemble, as if he was disembodied. He could not feel and all sounds came to him as if through cotton. It had been difficult to find a room large enough to fit everyone in the underground sections of the base. Most quarters and labs were really cramped, so was the command center. But fortunately, one larger storage room was hastily cleared up for the occasion. They had placed Helena on a white table and dressed her in a white robe of soft cotton. Even in death and with the marks of her injuries and radiation damage, he was stunned by her beauty. He closed his eyes for an instant, fighting the tears and the pain taking him like a storm and took several deep breaths to steady himself. He was unable to disengage his look from the sculpted profile and her blond hair falling gently around her face. He felt the others continue to assemble behind him in silence, but nobody dared to address him and all kept respectfully their distance. John never turned back. He never looked to anyone; he never took his eyes off her face. Some stayed at their post voluntarily to keep Alpha in function and monitor the increase of radiations coming from the nebula, but the majority of the personnel were here.

Victor started his speech, visibly shaken by emotion.

"Dr. Helena Russell was a respected member of our community, a trusted doctor and a dear friend. She was a woman of many talents, an accomplished scientist and an artist. She has made many contributions to our community and on many occasions helped us with our survival. She had a very big heart and was full of compassion and empathy. To me, she was a very dear and close friend. She was a competent colleague full of humanity. I had a very deep affection for her.

Helena, you will always be with us and in our hearts. Rest well.


He lowered his eyes and discreetly wiped off his tears and remained silent. The silence was abyssal, deep of grief and thoughts. Sandra was crying in Paul's arms.

Bob Mathias told of her knowledge and her competence. He spoke of her humanity and compassion. He spoke of her strength and will. More than anyone, he felt that he failed her, because he was unable to save her. When the silence fell again like a lead cover, John slowly moved forward without taking his eyes of her. His steps echoed in the room. He choked back the tears with difficulty, such that it took a few minutes for him to even be able to speak. They all looked much moved by his grief.

"Helena, you are my light in the darkness. You are my friend and my love. You mean the world to me. We had many fights, Helena, because you were so strong and always so logical... and I would not listen to you enough.

Helena, I have so many regrets. I regret the children we never had, the world we never found, you and I. I regret not seeing the wind brush your face, or your smile in the sunshine. I regret not kissing you in the rain.

I regret the moments we never had, these human moments on a normal world.

Helena, I do not know where you are. But if you hear me, wherever you are, please know how much I love you, know, how much I miss you"

He was now whispering through his tears.

"Helena. I love you."

Many were wiping tears. John stood, almost in a trance, not paying attention to anyone around him as they passed slowly to pay their respects to her and say goodbye. Then they left slowly, leaving only John and Victor. Victor took his friend's arm. "Time to go. I will wait for you outside"

John walked to Helena, trying to form a memory of her face, a precise image, her eyelids, her lips, the straight nose, the curve of her chin. But as he looked at her, he realized she really was not there anymore. She was just an empty shell. And so his goodbye was not as hard as he thought he would be. "Goodbye my love".

The words of Helena in her letter were ringing in his ears like a repeating endless tune, which was driving him crazy. He barely slept over the next couple of nights. Six days already since they found her, injured under the rumble. Six days, it might as well be an eternity stretching into infinity. Six days and the world had changed, the universe had shifted. Reality did not exist anymore. Six days driving John into extinction. Doubt was distilling in his soul like a perverse poison, parasite eating at his grief like bacteria on the perfect culture medium. Helena, the woman he had loved more than anyone else, had left in her death a trail of shadows, a shroud of mysteries surrounding a life of secrets, he was only now starting to discover. Helena seemed to have decided to reveal herself only partly to him. He was hurt and frustrated that she had deliberately concealed part of her life. Why would she do such a thing? The gentle Helena, fair and open, his confident and lover, the repository of his soul, had secrets deep enough to drown him. The letter was telling him that much. The book, her notes, the cues, she left him, were suddenly revealing another side of herself. She had not shared anything with him. His pride was wounded. His trust was shattered and he could not recover. It was not as if he could confront her... She was dead. Indeed she was very much out of his reach, very much departed. And John was crumbling under the pain of his losses, the loss of his beloved companion, the loss of his confidence, self-confidence, the loss of his memories in which he had now to decrypt and decipher like an alternate reality, a truth that until now had escaped him. He had lost a certain idea of her. Certainly there was more about Helena that he had known about, much more and maybe a more complex and sinister side. He stared in disbelief at the words she wrote in that fateful letter. From fragments, like a tedious puzzle, he set to reconstitute, without any idea where this would lead him, the hidden Helena, the one she had taken such care to conceal. He felt lost and deeply scared, as he had never felt before. He felt that she truly had left him in more than one way. Maybe, she never had belonged to him at the first place. It occurred to him that he had spent all his time near her without really knowing her and that thought deeply disturbed him, like being thrown in an entire new universe without a known frame of reference. Each memory with her now had to be reexamined under a different light. Helena was not what she appeared to be. Helena knew something he did not and did not share with him. John was grieving, deeply oscillating between sorrow, despair and rage. She had misled him while assuring him of her endless love. He was fantasizing, leashing at her in anger, for being dead and thereby escaping any confrontation and a few minutes later collapsing in grief for losing her. He was an emotional mess driven only by the desire to shine the light and expose the truth about Helena. But did he really want to know? Part of him was intensely frightened of what he might discover. Part of him could not resist the challenge.

Everyone was surprised to see John attend his post in the morning at the command center. Technicians were analyzing the latest data on the nebula. It seemed now that they were edging to enter its immediate suburbs. Temperature and radiations had reached very high levels and outside cameras were showing stress on the surface structures. Any higher and all electronic equipment would start to fail leaving them blind and deaf on the outside conditions. "The beginning of the end" John thought "I will be with you soon, Helena". Knowing his sometime difficult temper, everyone stayed clear of him except only for a few words of condolences. He maintained a stern face throughout the day attending dutifully his work and managing a series of emergencies generated by the higher temperatures. Yes, the underground base was now reduced to an oven, baked by ultraviolet, particles and heat. Shields were deflecting most of the radiation, but as it increased they were starting to become less effective. John was numb; he was doing what was expected of him, issuing the orders, discussing the situation with the other officers. They had an emergency situation on their hands and he knew soon that it would be intolerable. Just, he did not matter to him; he felt his life had already ended.

Chapter 7

She moaned just a little in her deep sleep. He smelled her hair in his face and buried deeper. Her hair was soft like silk and he kissed the jungle of threads, his lips reaching the warm skin of her scalp. He eased up in her warmth. His hand slowly moved on her bare back, surrounding the soft curve of her shoulder, massaging the relaxed muscles and then lowered along her side to wrap her waist, fingers sliding on the soft velvety skin, circling her navel. Her ribs were rising and falling under the regular rhythm of her breathing and her skin was marvelously soft and warm. He kept his eyes closed, feeling her life nearby under his fingers and tightening his embrace, enveloping her with his own body. If only matter would allow his body to merge completely with hers to become one entity, to reunite again just like their souls. A slight difference in the property of electrons would allow this. But then again maybe no matter would be stable. She had laughed at this once, a bright clear laugh without sarcasm and had said with a wink "That is what making a baby is: the biological response to a physicist query". His lips tasted the thin translucent skin of her temple, brushed the closed quivering eye lids and searched for her mouth. He felt her warm breath on his parted lips. He loved her so much, her, present in this moment. Some cloudy thought rose like smoke in his mind. It was all wrong. He had kissed her and felt her surrender her life. Helena was dead. No! John suddenly jumped out of the bed, his entire body shaking, breathing heavily, sweat running along his back, his heart pounding. He was alone in his room. In the eerie blue light casted by the wall unit computer, John was looking at the now empty bed.

He stared at the sheets and then sat down again and took his head in his hands. Immediately a much less pleasant memory resurfaced like poison.

"I am not getting any younger, you know!" she had said in a restrained but firm tone across her office in the medical center.

"Helena, this is not life... This base is not real life. It is artificial, without trees or sky or sun. Do you want any children to grow up in this?" He was shouting. A nurse turned around in the other room separated by a windowed panel.

"John... it is what it is... it is all we have. It is our life and our home for better or for worse. We do not have a choice. We cannot wait for perfection, which might never happen... I cannot wait."

"How do you choose? Who do you allow to have children... on which criteria? Age? You and I know very well that it is a lousy way of doing things. If one woman has a child, then you have to allow all women. If we allow all women, we will not have enough resources to survive. It is too tight, Helena. We are barely surviving as it is. Also, any of us can get killed at any given time. Any children could grow up with one parent or both missing. This is not life, it is hell"

"Did you ever consider that we might be the only survivors of the human race?"

"We have no way of knowing that" he dismissed. "John, you have to entertain that possibility." She replied sharply.

"You are scared, Helena. You want a child and you are getting older. You are scared of dying without leaving anyone behind you. Lots of people feel that way, you know. I just cannot let selfish motives direct me. I have to think about what it would be for a child to grow up on a barren piece of rock, millions of kilometers away from his home planet!" As he spoke those words, he saw her face become very pale. He wanted to stop himself, but it was too late.

"Is that what you really think of me?" She asked, her head softly tilted to meet his gaze. Her face betrayed how hurt she was. "Do you really think my motives are selfish?"

When he did not answer, she got up quietly and left the room without another word.

John felt tears fill his eyes. Helena had not been afraid of death. She had narrated to him her confrontation with the alien race, who did not experience fear and regarded it as a primitive emotion. She had confessed to him how she got so scared of dying on that planet all alone. But mostly, she had not been able to bear seeing him die in his spacesuit in the vacuum of space. She had connected with him at a deeper level at this instant and known then that they were one and the same. She had taken his pain and had brought him back to her, just by the power of her love. She was maybe the only one who understood the lesson of these aliens completely and never forgot it. Death was no more a source of fear for her. Yes, he knew he had been very unfair to her.

He remembered how, after their disagreement, she had become quite cold and distant, as if something had broken. He had been stubborn. He now realized he was the one scared. He was scared of having the story of Jackie Crawford happen all over again. He was scared of what would happen if he had a child, of this increased responsibility which could and would impair his command. He was scared and he regretted, but it was too late. And then the nebula had appeared on their horizon. In the stressful hours after spotting the nebula, he did not see Helena, busy as they all were computing their chances of survival. But when the time for a mission came, she had volunteered to be on the reconnaissance team and he did not try to prevent her; he knew that she was determined to go. Helena had suddenly become unreachable emotionally, retreated in depths that he was just beginning to discover. She had closed the door, just like that, without any screams and tears, without any fight or break up. If she was upset by this, she never showed it publicly. She was totally in control of her emotions and aloof. Main mission had lost contact with the reconnaissance team for hours, probably due to particle storms and he waited, thinking of her, and worrying for her safety, his gaze lost out of his window. When the team had come back with grim news, Helena did not even make eye contact with him during her brief verbal report on the situation. She was an astute authority in science and nothing escaped her scrutiny. She made a clear and documented report, without fault, precise in each minute detail. The nebula was very far, but was inescapable and radiating particles that would annihilate any life quickly. She was professional, mastered her emotions and remained cold and composed. But the message was just the same. They would not make it. When her report was done, she excused herself, saying she was tired by the mission, and retreated to her quarters. Helena could become as cold as ice and sharp as a diamond blade.

"Helena?" he had rung her door bell a couple of hours later.

"Yes, John"

"Can I come in?" There was a few seconds of silence and he thought she would not let him in, but then the door slid open. Her hair was still wet from a shower and combed back. She was in her pajamas, sitting at her desk, finishing typing a report. She did not turn around, or move. She just continued typing, as if he was not present in the room. He spoke cautiously in a low tone, with barely hidden emotion.

"Helena, I am sorry. I was very unfair to you, when I am really the one scared for our future" He was pacing in her room talking to her immobile back. She just paused her writing. He continued. "You are a lot braver than I. You do not shield as I do from reality". With her typing stopped, the room became strangely quiet, with the low humming of the air recycling system. She whispered almost as if she was talking to herself, after what seemed to him some very long seconds. "I let you down when we encountered Piri. When we encountered Atheria, I would have let you get killed by operation shockwave, if you did not return. I refused to listen to you and your story about Arra. I refused to believe you and betrayed you. On Ultima Thule, I disallowed you my support. Don't call me brave, please." She lowered her head staring, without reading, at the paper she was writing.

"It takes courage to admit mistakes. I let you down too on Terra Nova, Helena, and on Zeno. When I came back that night and I saw your face, I knew my place was with you here on Alpha" They had discussed Zeno before and he had told her what happened. He had told her everything. She had been hurt, but understood. She had shared with him how tough it was to make the final decision to turn off his life support. She had done it for his own sake, out of respect for the man he was. It was the hardest thing she had done in her life; her heart had been shattered with a pain too strong and too tight for even the tears to come. "You do not belong to anyone, not me, not her, John Koenig, but only to yourself." She added. "Besides, at the time, we did not have a relationship." He corrected her: "Not an intimate relationship, you mean, but we had this incredible faith in each other. And I should have known better. We are just people, Helena, not brave, no heroes, with faults, weaknesses and imperfections." He looked at her intensely and added: "But it was wrong of me to call you selfish."

Helena relaxed in her chair and sighed with a touch of bitterness in her tone. "Anyway, it does not matter anymore. Brave or not, we are facing forces way beyond our comprehension in this nebula. You were right. There will not be children, why create life and then let it be taken away. Besides, it is too late. Our universe is strange and big, enormously big, and life is uncommon. This universe bears all the properties to support life, but life is still the exception. It is vast and bare. We represent only a very negligible part of it. Only in certain very peculiar conditions, rare and tenuous, life does exist. Only in minute places, matter is concentrated enough to create molecules and bear life processes. The rest is mostly emptiness and blackness. It is very empty. But you know this already, don't you? We are going to this nebula, John, and nothing we do will prevent this. This is part of what should be. We should return to the stars, which created us. We've got to accept it. But, if I had a child, it would hurt a lot more to see this child die than die myself"

He put his hands on her shoulders in silence and stayed that way for a few minutes.

"No, I was not right, Helena. You were. Without hope and the life it bears, there would not be any meaning to our existence. But, I know one thing: I would like very much to be with you until the end."

She lifted her face to look at him. With the damp hair pushed back from her forehead, her eyes seemed bigger, greener and deeper. He looked at the beautiful peaceful face of the woman he loved. She stood up and embraced him tightly, her head resting on his chest. "Helena, how can you be so serene about this nebula?" She answered without moving in a whisper. "I don't know".

John stood up and started to pace his bedroom, as memories, kept on coming to him uncontrolled in his grieving mind.

"This is completely ridiculous. We are going to spend weeks moving the base downstairs. It is labor intensive. And for what? 15 minutes of respite?" Paul was furious. "Doctor Russell, tell them what the particles out there will do to us."

Helena lowered her voice. "Everyone here knows perfectly well what it will do to us"

"So what is the point?"

"The point, here, I believe, is hope" Victor answered quietly almost reassuring. "Nothing more. We can spend weeks waiting, our eyes riveted on the screens, or we can do something about it. Nobody can remain sane waiting for his or her death for weeks doing nothing. We have to occupy our personnel or the situation might become very quickly unmanageable." This had not been a light decision, but right after the reconnaissance team report had been made public, a couple of technicians, one in the nuclear section, the other in hydroponics, had committed suicide. The managing team had feared panic might seize the base with a wave of suicides or other irrational behavior. Tension was high among the personnel. So this security meeting had been set with a restricted number of senior officers, John, Helena, Victor, Paul, Alan and Kano.

"I do not like it. It is lying." Paul added "I always considered my personnel with respect and, in that sense, they deserve to know the truth"

"I am not sure it is a lie. We will get a brief relapse being underground. And then who knows what can happen? Remember the black sun, the shield was no better -no offense professor-. But still we made it. When you guys were going into the black sun, we on the eagle were redirected right through it and we found you again. What are the odds of this happening? No, we've got to put all the chances on our side" Alan was smiling at Paul. "Some ethics committee! Hey?" Paul shrugged.

"How about the computer systems? Kano?"

Kano was serious and more pessimistic.

"I do not know how we can transfer all the functionality to the downstairs systems without powering down the whole thing. But if we power down, then we will lose life support systems, atmospheric recycling and so on. We are going to have to do some serious thinking on this problem. What are you planning to do with hydroponics?"

Helena answered his question.

"Well, a lot of the crops are already growing on sub-lunar levels, but that is not enough and we will have to replant and move the hydroponic systems downstairs a little bit a time and let the plants adjust. This is actually where we will start, because, if we find out that plants do not tolerate the move, we might as well abort the whole thing."

"We can try to convince the plants that there is hope!" Paul replied with sarcasm. John slammed his hand on the table and then took a very deep breath, trying to calm himself.

"Paul, will you meet me in my office?"

When the door closed, John looked for a long time at Paul.

"None of this is easy, Paul. But our duty is to keep this base safe and operational under any circumstances. I can understand your feelings and I share some of them, but, with all its flaws, moving downstairs right now is the best plan we have."

"Then, we don't have much, do we?"

"No, that is right, we do not have much."

Paul left the office without rancor, while a gloomy John was staring at the nebula from his window.

Of this chaotic time, all John remembered was very busy weeks, with everyone assigned to a particular task and his command delegated to project managers in the vital sections of the base. Preparations for the move went on for several days and everyone got very busy. As expected, the work kept everyone mind off the impending disaster. The hydroponics move took the most time and Helena remained for periods of days in the underground sections of the base supervising the implementation of the changes and the growth of the plants. He was missing her. John searched his memories of these past few weeks for evidence of a change in Helena, a change that would indicate she had discovered something. She had been more distant, grave and preoccupied, but the very nature of this move would have explained such a change. When living quarters had been made available, she had been the first one to move. She said that it was much easier that way as she needed to be present to supervise hydroponics and the move of the medical center. It had then seemed to John that she welcomed the solitude and silence of the underground base, which was still not completely operational and was sparsely populated, even if more and more staff kept moving downstairs to set up their working stations. Life continued as such for weeks until they were completely ready to move all the systems down. Helena and John saw each other only briefly during that time. It was only for meetings, a few meals taken together on the run discussing details of the implementation or a few minutes stolen walking downstairs to the underground levels. He had noticed how tired she looked, and wondered if she was even sleeping at all. But she had made remarkable progress with the hydroponics and the medical facilities were now completely operational, which represented a huge amount of work. This was not even taking in account the hours she had spent stitching wounds of technicians getting hurt while moving equipment.

He remembered with emotion the last day they spent together, before she was injured. She had left her quarters very early that day, even before the artificial lights signaled the morning, and made her way up to the surface corridors of the base a few hours ahead from the command meeting she was scheduled to attend. He almost did not see her, when he woke up, for she was sitting in dark shadows besides his bed. Dressed in her uniform, she seemed tense, her legs crossed under her, her arms folded on her chest and her back nested in the soft pillow of a corner chair. Her head was tilted looking at him. She was studying him with a serious and deep expression.

"Helena, what are you doing here?" He asked surprised.

"I just wanted to see you." She replied with a low and quiet voice, which chilled him in a way he could not explain. He could only whisper:

"What's wrong, Helena?"

"I wanted to watch you sleep."

"How long have you been here?"

"About an hour." She remained silent for minutes, then, she added:

"I am scared, John. I am scared of dying" Her voice was quivering. John got up, picked her up and held her in his arms as tight as he could without hurting her.

At the time he did not think much of what she said and he had accepted that she would feel that way as their fate was approaching. But indeed, it was quite out of character for Helena to admit this so openly to him, especially after their recent argument. She had been serene and calm about encountering the deadly zone surrounding the nebula. She had not appeared to be panicking about her fate, but, on the contrary, quite accepting of it and prepared to face it. That morning, after missing her so much in the previous weeks and facing such an uncertain fate, all he could feel was his desire for her and his need to hold her in his arms, to comfort her tenderly, and to love her as they so often had. She had been passionate and intense, with a sense of desperation, as if she could not get enough of his love, as if her body and her soul wanted to fuse with him forever like metals forge alloys. And before they parted, she picked up her discarded clothes, freshened up quickly in his bathroom and dressed up in silence solemnly. When she opened his door, he sighed in comfort, his eyes closed. "See you later in command center" he said as he started to get up, his back to her. He never noticed the tears in Helena's eyes, as she left his room silently without a reply. John met Helena and other members of the command team only a few minutes after in his office for the scheduled meeting and finalized the program of the day with the dismantlement of the surface main computer. She was then the perfectly controlled professional he knew and discussed the implementation without a trace of emotion. Later in the day, approaching their final countdown, they had met in his office and she had appeared completely in control of her fear, calmly talking with him and reassuring him as he was showing signs of distress. Victor came in with the latest report, Helena got ready to power down the computer in medical. When John started the countdown and prepared to leave the surface sections, they had exchanged a long last look full of emotion and she had left to the medical center in order to implement the migration of the medical files and shut down the medical sections. It was the last time he saw her before the explosion.

Once this realization hit, John was now completely awake and he quit his reverie.

"She knew she was going to die" he muttered to himself. "She knew and she wrote the letter, but why and how?" he banged his fist on the wall. "She was trying to tell me. She was saying goodbye. And I was completely oblivious to it." He was pacing back and forth "I got to know why." Then, he got dressed and stormed out to main mission.

David Kano was just starting his early morning shift. John and Kano always used to play chess together when their long night shifts coincided. They had developed a strong friendship over the weeks spent on duty.

"David, you have to give me access to Dr. Russell's files. You did not delete them, did you?"

"Commander? But why?" John looked at him, hesitant for a moment. "David, Helena knew she was going to die. I do not know how she knew that, but she did. She might have left something in her files. I've got to find out."

"Commander, everyone knows it was an accident."

"Was it? She left a letter, in her desk. A goodbye letter."

Kano looked aghast.

"John... was it a suicide note?"

John lowered his head. "I am not really sure, but I don't believe so. No, I can't believe that. But she knew and accepted the fact of her imminent death. Why?"

Kano shook his head, pensively.

"She asked to be allocated more memory space recently. She must have been working on something"

"How come you did not report this to me?"

"It is not unusual for anyone on this base to occasionally request an increase of memory. I knew she was restructuring the hydroponics on the lower sections; it did not seem to be unrealistic for her to need more computer power. I would have expected that."

"Thanks, Kano"

"Her access code will be emailed to you shortly." John ran back to his quarters and activated his computer terminal, waiting for Kano's email.

Chapter 8

In the darkness of his office, John hesitated a moment before keying in the login and password of Helena. He did not feel comfortable reading her files, even if she was dead. She had hundreds of files, neatly organized. Most of them were professional, like patient records, drugs information sheets, MSDS data, textbooks, various medical literature articles, conference proceedings and research papers. He was looking for something personal, a diary, data log entries or notes. It did not take very long for him to find her data log files. He saw only that the last entry was dated before they had first spotted the nebula and it did not contain any critical information. He wondered where she was hiding her diary or any other entries. Surely she had to have documented what happened after the nebula was first spotted. As he was browsing her files, he finally found a folder named "private stuff". He smiled a little as he clicked the folder. A screen popped up. "Enter your Password". He typed the password Kano gave him, but it did not work. He tried her name, his name, anything he could relate to Helena. Simply nothing worked. He stood and dashed in frustration to main mission searching for David Kano.

As the moon drifted into the nebula, the temperature rose sharply, particles began to bombard the moon at a higher density. It was only a matter of time that the surface instrumentation started to fail. One by one all cameras died, all sensors fried and moon base Alpha was left blind and deaf.

"Professor, if the heat continues to rise, we will not make it" Sandra's statement was disguised question. She lowered her head and stared at her hands.

"Solid matter does not exist at the temperatures we will soon encounter, Sandra. Elements disintegrate and everything turns into a dense hot gas of elementary particles." Victor padded her shoulder as if it would be enough to comfort the young woman. She sighed. "Then what will happen with us?" she barely managed to say.

Victor looked at her with tenderness. She was so young and full of life. She wanted to live.

"Then we will return where we originally came from, to be part of the star dust and to be part of the universe"

Sandra looked at him with a sigh of despair. "I don't understand".

"Sandra, nothing ever dies. We are made of molecules, which are also made of elements. Each element is made of particles, electrons, protons, neutrons. And each one is made of smaller particles, named quarks. At the time we left earth, we even thought that these quarks were made of strings of energy. When everything falls apart, we will be dissociated, but the matter and energy that makes us will surely reassemble into something else"

John heard Victor's words and turned around swiftly.

"Victor, what are you talking about?"

"Well, we all have heard about string theory, haven't you John?"

"I certainly have, although I have to admit that my mathematical abilities are not quite up to the challenge. I have a physics degree, but I have left the theorical field for quite while after working on the microwave radiation left over by the big bang and focused on engineering. I am not much of a string theorist and I am just familiar with certain applications of quantum physics" John spread his arms.

"Of course not... there are maybe only one or two persons on earth that can make up the math. I do not think anyone really understands it... and of course none of this has been proven. Mathematically the solutions to these equations have not been found yet and the math tools which would be needed have not even been invented. We are quite primitive in what we understand from the universe"

John looked at Victor pensively.

"When Helena died, she said to me that she saw the nebula. She said something similar to what you just said to Sandra. But Helena was specific, she talked about strings of energy, creating matter and recycling it endlessly. She said the nebula was not death but life"

"A very bright scientist, such as Helena, would certainly reflect on such things when confronted to her own mortality." Victor explained in a logic way.

"This is what I thought at first. I thought she was scared and was trying to rationalize her fears. I was shaken to see her suffer that much. It was unbearable. I did not question what she said until I found her letter. Now I am trying to access her files and her last data log entries."

"John, which letter are you talking about?"

"Victor, come with me"

And John explained everything to Victor, how he found Helena's room with papers on philosophy, and reflections on the universe. He explained how he thought Helena was hiding something from him. He showed him the letter. Victor remained silent, his eyes filling with tears as he came to realize that Helena's death was not an accident. Both men stayed for a few minutes lost in their thoughts.

"I can't get into her private files. She put a password."

"Why don't you try her date of birth?" Said Victor without even lifting his head from Helena's letter he was reading and reading again. John started to type. "No, John... Enter the date the European way: day, month and year. It is the universal way." The screen cleared and John could see about a hundred files labeled with dates.

"How did you know?"

"Quite typical, I assure you. Nothing to it." Victor smiled. John was looking at the files.

"Where do we start?"

"From what you have said to me, it looks like Helena started to have isolated herself recently. You mentioned how she stayed downstairs for days when she was preparing and implementing the hydroponics move. It seems to me that it is when everything started."

Victor started to scroll the files up. "It looks like we have word processing files and video log files. We should start reading from there." Then, he looked at John. "Those are personal files, John. I should leave"

"No please stay. Victor, it does not matter to me. Helena is dead. I am not sure I am thinking very straight. I need your expertise to sort all of this out."

So both men started to read Helena's private notes first.

"Lunar Date 980 days AB, 18:00 LT

Technicians are building the hydroponic chambers and it seems we have constant problem with lightning. It is a constant source of frustration. No matter what we try, we do not seem to get enough light, which would allow the plants to grow at their maximum potential. The other problem, probably more damaging, is the heat. We could probably do with a little less light, but not with a high heat. I think it is because the underground chambers are tighter and we are simply not losing as much heat as when we were doing this right under the surface. Engineers are trying to improve our air recycling system with the idea that this is would help cooling the whole chambers down. I have taken the problem from another angle. Maybe we can select some crops, which will survive better in higher temperatures. There is not enough time to genetically modify the plants we have, but it is something to consider if everything else fails. For the time being, if we could just use crops that are heat resistant, we might be able to survive until we can figure out a better solution, either biological or technical.

What am I talking about? Surviving? Maybe I am getting caught up in this odd game of hope. If you lie to yourself often enough and convincingly, then you start believing in the lie. I really do not see how we will get out of that one. John and the others want to believe in a miracle. It is their drive and it works for most. We have been granted an extension of our survival already and many times. And I think we have done good things to the worlds we have encountered. And we have been true to ourselves and what we believe. But what has a beginning also has an end."

"Ok, so she was having problems with the hydroponics chambers, we know about the problems they faced down there" Victor commented and they went on to the next entry.

"982 AB, 22:00 LT

I would like to select a plant with effective heat shock systems, chaperones proteins, which would protect the cells from excessive heat or abrupt changes. I have spent the past two days going over the genomes of the species we have on the data base. I found some species, which look like they have a good heat protection system. Not surprisingly, they all are tropical or desert plants. The only problem is the fact they might not have a high productivity to sustain our needs. I will ask botanics to germinate the seeds and send them over for trials.

I have searched the data base for hours at a time.

I found this very odd thing when I was looking at the DNA code. We all have this load of DNA doing nothing and not coding for proteins. I never really paid attention to it, but it looks like some sequences are repeated endlessly. If this DNA indeed does nothing, why are sections of it repeated so frequently? I crossed referenced it with animal DNA and found the same sequences within this non-coding junk DNA, that even forms over 95% of human DNA. That is really odd. It certainly does not solve my current predicament about the plants to select. It is certainly something I am going to look into once I am done with the hydroponics, if I ever have the time. I wonder, though, if these sequences of DNA represent something significant. If I could only do a computer analysis on it and try to find out what it could be coding for. I suppose it would not hurt to try."

"983 AB, 21:30 LT

The computer could not find any reference for these uncommon DNA sequences, except that they are present in all living species known to earth. They are in very small numbers in bacteria and other unicellular organisms, and are repeated multiple times in other organisms. To have such sequences conserved and amplified so perfectly over evolution would mean that they are critical for life. I feel I am onto something. Maybe the idea is to look at the problem from a different angle. I got to think out of the box.

The hydroponic idea to use effective heat shock system plants will be working fine. The botanic crew has agreed to germinate seeds to that effect and we will begin to put them in the hydroponic systems soon. Other plants seem to do a little better with some adjustment of the recycling systems.

I cannot stop thinking about these DNA sequences. They look utterly different than anything I have ever encountered. They do not look like a DNA code, more like a computer code. Maybe they are a computer code, just made out of As, Cs, Ts, and Gs instead of the binary 0s and 1s. I wonder if the computer could convert this into a program and decode it. I have to work on this."

Victor nodded: "that is indeed quite unusual, a mathematical code within DNA... hum... a few years ago some scientist tried to make a DNA computer based on that principle. It did not go very far, but it was possible and did work for very simple calculations."

Both men looked at the video entries for the latest recordings. Helena generally recorded entries to document life on Alpha, any event of importance and her professional work. For the most part they were formal video recordings, destined to be viewed by anyone. They were not daily recordings, and their frequency depended on the events encountered in their lives. There were only three recent video recordings, two dated a few days before the accident and the last one was dated on the morning of her accident. "Maybe, I should stop calling this an accident." John muttered. He decided to view them in logical order, starting with the oldest.

He held his breath when the video loaded. Victor lowered his gaze.

Then the image appeared and her face filled the screen. John was not prepared for the shock to see her full of life, caught in the video. He covered his mouth as to prevent his emotion to surface, as Helena in the recording started to speak, poised and noble in her demeanor. Victor stared at the screen, emotion etched on his face.

"Dr. Helena Russell recording. 990 days after breakaway. It seems we have come to the end of our voyage. As we will soon enter the nebula, our future is precarious. Our chances of survival are in fact nil, if we take into account the temperatures and levels of radiation we are about to encounter. We are buying time by moving the whole base underground, with the hope that it will somehow delay our fate. All of this base, our past and our survival seem to be so trivial and insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. I have difficulty believing that all of what we represent as human beings, our culture, our arts and writings, our music, our passions, our primitive science will disappear in a flash because the moon had the bad idea to drift into a nebula. I have found a piece of code hidden very deep inside each living being, whether plant, bacterial, fungal or animal. It is universal. I think it is a signature, a little note left for us to discover in time, if we ever reach that level of evolution granting us intelligence. I even found it in the samples of plants we brought back from Arkadia to be examined and which were kept in a lab. This would be the biggest discovery of our time. A piece of code, universal to any living specie, even microscopic, hidden in our DNA, seems to be a mathematical formula relevant to the very nature of our universe. It took a little bit of studying and a lot of computer power, but I think I know what it means. There is only one way to be sure... in science, one can only verify something with the correct experiment... Too bad there is so little time. Time... we need an island of time, a safe place for all of us to live..." She paused and sighed. "This has a meaning beyond what we ever thought of our universe. We cannot die, not now, not when we are about to understand it all"

Helena closed her eyes for a moment. "I have programmed the computer to run this equation and solve it. I am not really sure what is going to come out of it, but I will let it run all night and day."

Helena looked in the camera for a few seconds and John felt her gaze reach him deeply. Then she closed the connection.

John and Victor looked for a few minutes at the dark screen, numb. If Helena was right, this would be indeed the biggest discovery of all times. John was silently thinking of the implications of what she just talked about. Why did not she say anything? What did the computer solve? Obviously something had happened and this had not been a trivial discovery. Helena would have communicated the results of this research even if they were too busy with the move. She knew it was important, even could be relevant with their survival. She would have contacted him and anyone familiar with cosmology, physics and mathematics. Why didn't she? What prevented her to talk to mathematicians, with Victor or himself? John knew there was more than what she said and it is with a trembling hand that he clicked on the next recording, dreading to see the answers to his questions.

"Dr. Helena Russell recording. 996 days after breakaway.

I have run the mathematical equations found within the very code of our DNA in the computer system: it identified it as the unified theory, which unites all the forces of the universe in one equation, an equation derived apparently from string theory applied to the multiple dimensions. I am not sure I understand the math. It is way beyond what I know, but I trust that it is correct. According to what I read, the equations link a number of parameters, which describe our universe precisely. There are almost an infinite number of solutions, each with a slight different set of parameters. The computer estimated the number of solutions to this fantastic number: a one followed by five hundred zeros. It would mean that there would be that many different universes next to our own. The equation in our DNA specifies precisely the parameters of our universe. I am not sure why they have to be that way, but I do believe that matter as we know it would not exist otherwise. The computer ran the equation for several nights and days. I did not even imagine it would take that long. And I fell asleep while it was running it." She paused for an instant and lowered her eyes, thoughtful, almost hesitating. Then, she looked back in the camera and continued calmly to talk. "In the middle of the night, I got awaken by a noise in my room and I turned on the light to see this odd woman standing next to me. She obviously did not belong to Alpha. I did not get scared, because I immediately felt like I knew her. She was younger than John had described her and was wearing some silky black tunic over loose pants. Her hair was short and blond, she had penetrating blue eyes. She could have been in her 50's, if giving her an age meant anything, but no older than this and felt very mature and wise. I thought I could be dreaming, because the woman lacked the physical material presence of a real person, she felt more like a projection of an image. Yet, I knew I was not dreaming, when she started talking. So I turned on my video recording. I was not sure why I decided to record it, except maybe that I doubted what I was seeing, as if it was just an elaborate hallucination and wanted to document a real event happening just in front of me. I thought that keeping it on record would allow me to analyze later on. If you open the link below you will see the recording."

John paused for a moment. He looked at Victor and whispered "Arra." This was starting to become clearer to him and he was beginning to understand. He opened the file and now he was watching a poor quality picture, pixilated and granulated from the lack of light, with Helena sitting on her bed in her blue pajamas and across from her Arra. Arra was very recognizable, yet younger in appearance and her hair was much shorter and not as white. Her voice, however, was unmistakable.

"I have been watching you, Helena Russell, for quite some time. You are indeed an exceptional woman"

"Who are you?"

"You know about me. I am Arra." Helena was in shock, and all she could do was to nod at her. But in a sense, she was not completely surprised to see her there. Arra was standing tall next to Helena and was observing the woman with a piercing gaze.

"You have found the key, Dr. Russell. It is hidden inside each of us"

"In DNA" Helena confirmed what she said.

"In any self-replicating molecule bestowing life, DNA, RNA and others." Helena's mind was racing at her words, trying to catch the implications of this statement.

"Who wrote this code?" She asked her voice low and shaken.

"Nobody knows. It is in every living being in any universes and evolves with time. It helps generate life, where life is possible. It is embedded in the fabric of all universes"

"Universes? How many are there?"

"Trillions and trillions of universes, self-generating, dividing like cells in your body, growing and dying. Only a few are stable enough to allow life to develop. The very small and the very large are one and the same. This code is registering you to the universe you belong to, the one compatible with your life forms." Helena remained silent overwhelmed by her revelation. All of this made perfect sense to her.

"Arra? How did you get here?"

"We travel in time and space. John Koenig saved us by allowing your moon to project Atheria in another dimension of space and time. This code running in your computer sent a signal for me to come. This nebula might generate life, but it will destroy you. You are facing great danger; you have to leave this section of the universe."

"How?" Helena's voice was low, just a whisper.

"Helena Russell, I chose you to help us save your people. By nature, you are the caretaker of humanity. The code you decrypted is the key to open the door to another part of the universe for your moon to travel and escape destruction, but running it just through your computer will not generate the proper set of signals which are necessary. The original code needs to be read by a device, which will create a mathematical matrix necessary to open a gate for your moon to travel into. Once we have this matrix, we will generate a wormhole from our end. We will need enormous energy and this wormhole will be stabilized using negative energy at its center. This device will read the DNA directly." She handed Helena a very small sphere, it was glassy, but very black without any reflection and very dense. In her hand it weighted so heavy it seemed unnatural. It was also very cold, draining all of the heat from her skin and Helena handled the sphere very carefully.

"Inside this force field, lies a very small black hole." Helena almost dropped it in astonishment and continued to look at it with disbelief.

"It needs to read a very large amount of DNA."

John, despite the bad quality of the image, could read the emotions on Helena's face. He could tell she was in shock and a wave of sadness had engulfed her.

"Why not just feed it purified DNA sequence from the PCR machine?" It was more a statement than a question, as if the doctor already knew the answer.

"It needs living DNA with the configuration found in living systems to operate properly and needs to be in large quantities." Helena lowered her head.

"Is there any other way?" She said calmly, her voice low, swallowing her emotion.

"Unfortunately no. When you are ready, you will have to place the sphere in front of you, touching the skin of your body. Particles from the current nebula, as they gain in strength, will disable the force field and activate the black hole. It will start spinning very fast and create a microscopic wormhole, which will scan your DNA."

"Then I will die". Helena's voice was trembling.

Arra looked at Helena with an expression of gentle tenderness.

"In a sense, yes. Your living systems cannot bear the levels of radiation needed to scan your DNA" The reply was quiet. Helena was looking down and could only whisper.

"Arra, I want to live. I am needed here. I have..."

"Yes... dear... you have John Koenig." The older woman's reply was soft.

"You will be united again. Your spirit and his are one by nature. In our world, we believe that true lovers are one spirit split into two bodies. And they spend their whole lives trying to form whole again." Arra saw the tears in Helena's eyes. She added:

"All of us want a long life, happiness and safety. You can provide this for your people with your own life, Helena. There is no life without death, but new life bears on the old one. Your matter will change its form. Nothing remains forever. We, beings made of matter, are children of impermanence. We live, we die and we change form. Nothing remains forever, except the information of your own matter and the love you have shared. Only you can make that choice. Through the wormhole, you will see the shape of eternity." The projection faded and the woman disappeared, leaving only behind her the small sphere, the size of a small pea in Helena's hand. John saw Helena slowly close her hand on the sphere and then bring both hands over her lowered head. She sat unmoving for a few minutes on her bed, her body shaken by sobs, then seemed to remember the recording, turned to look at the camera and with a touch of her comlock turned it off. Before the screen went dark, John saw a glimpse of her face, painted by tears, with the expression of sadness and despair she never expressed directly to him. He sat back on his chair, his gaze unfocused, thinking. John could easily imagine the rest. Helena had sacrificed herself for all of them to survive. For a few days, she bore alone the burden of knowing what had to be done. She did not share that knowledge. She finished her work with the hydroponics and made sure that everything was set up in medical. She organized all supplies and set up the center such that Dr. Mathias would be able to take over easily. At the time the moon entered the nebula and they were about to evacuate and close down the surface sections, she must have known that it was the time for her to let the sphere get exposed to the nebula radiations. She waited to that last day, and visited John very early that morning. She probably had not planned on telling him anything, but her visit had the bittersweet taste of a farewell. She had needed the courage and the reassurance of his arms. She had needed his love. After closing down the medical center, she must have made her way close to the windows, and placed the little sphere on the skin of her stomach. He imagined the sphere dissolving and the black hole spinning sending waves of energy along the corridor, space changing shape as a small wormhole opened and Helena's body thrown like a puppet by the sudden discharge of energy jolting through her flesh. John knew now that he had to open the last of the video files, the one Helena had recorded early that morning before going to her death. He avoided Victor's gaze. This was a moment between him and her.

"Helena Russell recording. 1007 days after breakaway, 05:00 hours.

Arra visited me and offered me the opportunity to save Alpha. I have read a lot on physics recently and while I do not understand all of the mathematics involved, I know Arra is right. There are multiple universes, so many we cannot imagine them. And only a few have the properties necessary for life to develop. We are little beings of flesh within an immense universe and there are many other universes much different than ours. It is kind of humbling. The parameters of our universe are coded in many places, it seems, in molecules, in subatomic particles, within the strings that make matter and within living beings, in our DNA. Its redundancy allowed us to see it. I do not know what made me think of the DNA as a computer code. Biologists see DNA as the blueprint for proteins, a simple arrangement of four base pairs, which assembled in triplets are making the code for amino acids. Those are the genes, we always hear about. But most of the DNA in our bodies (and in humans that is about 95% of our DNA), does nothing, it just sits there as 'junk'. Mathematicians and biologists had, however, identified that this so-called junk is really constituted on repeated sequences, which seemed to have some organization. In fact it is a different code, not binary as computers use, but quaternary. And this non-coding DNA has really a meaning. This solves the long standing c-value enigma in science, where the complexity of an organism does not correlate with its amount of active genetic material. It has a meaning and by entering the sequence in the computer as a quaternary code, it translated it into mathematical formulas. That was the first surprise: mathematical formulas hidden in the depth of our DNA, which the computer matched to a multiple dimensions expression of unified string theory. That was a shock. Why would this be in our DNA? It seemed very hard to believe that it was just a coincidence. Using the original formulas directly from the DNA code, I asked the computer to solve the equations. The computer worked for several days and nights, such the problem seemed to be complex and inextricable. It never gave me a solution. One night I got the visit of Arra. She explained that each one of use bore the signature of the universe we belong to. I am not sure I understood all she said, but I know that they can open a gate for us to escape. This little black hole will scan the mathematical code embedded in my DNA and this will allow Arra and her people to compute a matrix to open a wormhole for our escape. I do not know how and it seems they do have a technology way ahead of us." Helena's voice became emotional. "The energy needed to scan my DNA will kill me. That is the sacrifice I need to make for all of my friends to live. I would like to tell John and Victor, but I know without doubt what would happen. They would go on and on, and discuss it and come to the same conclusions I did alone. Arra said there is no other way and I trust her. Her technology is much more advanced than ours; I do believe she would know. I also do believe she would not let me die in vain. I know that John would not let me go. He would want to go himself and spare me. I do not want to have that fight with him about who has to die first, about who should be the one sacrificed. I would just want to bury myself in his arms and enjoy the last few minutes of my life with him. But I know that forever from now on, I will be separated from him by the lie I am about to make, by what I have to conceal. I do not think he would understand why I have to deceive him, but life has to continue and the survivors of Alpha have to carry along what is left of humanity. The beginning of my death is this little lie I will make, but that is only the beginning of a new future for all of my friends and the ones I love. I cannot let my selfish desire run my fate. I have to let go and help them. I know my life will let them live and find a world to settle. I wish I would have seen it. Goodbye Alpha." Helena had tears in her eyes, but her tone was resolved and brave, and her expression determined.

John thought it was the end of the recording as she looked as if she was going to switch off. But she seemed to change her mind and looked at the camera again. This time she looked more fragile and vulnerable. When she spoke it was in a low whisper, grave, with emotion.

"John, this is for you... You will be watching this later... and I will be gone. I am the only one who can activate the sphere. I can't tell you about this. Forgive me, please. You would insist on going, but you need to stay here, everyone needs you. John, you are the glue that keeps this base together. If it works it might save us. If it doesn't, I will die a just few days earlier. Think, what would you have done if you had made the biggest discovery of all times, the one discovery which might save all of us? But the only way to make it happen and save all of us was to sacrifice a human life. You know the answer already. You would have done the same. I have made my choice. I have to go. It was not an easy one, please, believe that... I love you, John... Goodbye." She looked into the camera for a few long seconds, tears running on her cheeks. John could feel her gaze reach his soul directly like an arrow. Then she switched off the recording.

John remained in his seat, numbed, shaken by what he just had seen and heard, tears in his eyes. Victor was looking at the floor. Silence was surrounding them. The screen was black and John still could not stop staring at it while his mind was running. Obviously the sphere she was talking about did not work, because she did not get killed as she expected, but got serious injuries, which claimed her life almost three days later. Also, she was hoping it would save them, but what ever should have happened did not. They were still there entering this nebula and getting slowly exposed to increasing levels of radiation and no wormhole had formed. And Arra must have been wrong. Maybe she missed something or miscalculated. Helena had died and they were still in the very same situation. He needed to know the details of the code she was talking about and the mathematical formula it encoded. Helena was a scientist. Scientists document their experiments. He was sure that she had left somewhere some notes on this.

Victor cleared his throat and spoke in the heavy emotional atmosphere surrounding them. "John, we need to access the code she input in the computer. Something must have happened. This is our only chance." As John remained silent, Victor continued: "John?"

"Yes Victor... You know she was right... I would never have let her go to her death. I would have gone instead. We need to know what happened to her when she turned on the sphere." He took his comlock and called up: "Dr. Mathias, Alan, Sandra, Paul and David, command conference in my office in ten minutes"

"What are you going to do?"

"Tell them what happened. We all need to work together. Helena was alone in this. I will not be."

The officers sitting in the commander's office were particularly emotional and gloomy. All of them had been very close to Helena and hearing from John and Victor that she had sacrificed her life in the hope to save Alpha came as a shock. He showed them the first part of her last video recording but turned of the recording before Helena started to address him privately.

"We need to know what happened up there." He started. "Dr. Mathias, did you autopsy Dr. Russell's body?" No matter how professional he was trying to be, John's emotion was barely contained.

"Yes, it is routine practice when an accident occurs." Bob Mathias answered.

"Can you tell us about what you found?"

Dr. Mathias looked at his commander with astonishment. "But commander, you were there... you know... how she died"

"No I was not there when she got injured. We need to know what happened exactly." John lowered his gaze, waiting for his answer. It was without doubt a difficult moment for him.

"Dr. Russell got several patches of third degree burns on her abdomen, arms, shoulders and the side of her head. She seemed to have been exposed to severe heat and lethal radiations. Her skin cells had been killed and that is the reason why she started to discard the top layers of epidermis. She had a ten inches long tear in the abdominal wall, which appeared to have been caused by a strong energy source, and multiple internal lesions. Burn tissue extended to the internal organs as well and there was extensive bleeding. She also had broken leg and arm consistent with an impact. This is consistent with a powerful explosion. I am surprised she survived that long. She died of cardiac arrest three days after the accident"

John gathered his strength, taking a couple of deep breaths before starting. "Could these injuries be consistent with the manipulations of a strong force field and a black hole?"

"Commander, I do not know what caused this, but I can assure you it was a very powerful energy source."

Alan commented: "It is very clear that a very powerful source of energy was unleashed in that corridor, there were numerous scorched marks on the walls and definitely some kind of shock wave. It seemed it originated from inside the corridor, since no seal was broken. At the time I was very puzzled and did not understand the origin of this explosion. But we hardly had the time to investigate when we rescued Helena. It was a race against time to save her and minimize the exposure to radiations. This is, however, very consistent with what Helena said in the video."

Bob added: "Her burns, though, and the radiation damage was a lot stronger than what she would have been exposed to from the nebula only".

Victor started to pace in the office, thinking aloud.

"It seems that Helena activated that sphere, like she was told to. The force field collapsed and let the black hole out. From the damage to the structure of the corridor and the stress on the walls that Alan described, it seems that indeed a small wormhole might have opened, causing a shift in the three dimensional frame of space. It could have created enough force to project a shock wave which would have propelled her body. But why didn't it work the way Arra said?"

From the corner of the office the timid voice of Sandra, shaken by emotion, was heard. They all turned to her. "She was supposed to bring the sphere to her body and she probably placed it on the skin of her stomach by lifting her tunic" She mimicked the gesture by bringing her hands right above her waist. To lift her tunic she had to pull the fabric from under her belt. "Doing this movement would have brought the sphere along her laser. It is possible that the laser could have been triggered by the proximity of such a big gravitational disturbance created by the black hole, since those things are powerful enough to attract anything. If the wormhole had started to open against her skin, the laser's energy discharge might have caused her injury instead and with the pain she could have dropped the sphere. I might be wrong, but I do not think this was supposed to be painful for her or injure her that way, and certainly according to what you told me, it should have been an immediate death. Then in this case, the scan of her DNA would have been incomplete and she would have remained alive, but injured. The explosion of her laser with the combined energy of the sphere would have created the burn marks in the corridor as well. This is probably why it did not work." Sandra grabbed Paul's hand, as sadness was overwhelming her. Everyone remained a few moments in silence, lost in their thoughts.

John broke the silence, his voice strong. "She should have died instantly." He swallowed hard, closing his eyes for a brief moment. "But she did not. Instead, she got burned severely and died slowly and in pain from her injuries." He turned around suddenly angry and called out the empty space. "Arra... how could you let this happen? How could you let her die in pain?"

Victor put a comforting hand on his back. "Now John...Helena gave her life willingly to save all of us. It would be quite a shame, if her life was wasted in vain. It seems we now have a pretty good idea of what went wrong. The question is: what do we do now? We need to have this wormhole reactivated and the gate Arra talked about opened."

"Do you suggest sacrificing another life? Who do you chose now?" Paul asked and added: "Dr. Russell's death did not allow this to gate to open. We do not know if this will work at all. I do not think we can afford to even try again!"

John considered his comment at length and he addressed of his friends.

"Paul is right... There has been enough death as it is. We do not even know if we could try to open that gate again. We need to find another way. And we need to find it fast... we do not have a lot of time."

To be continued...

Copyright (c) 2008. 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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