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Effects of Nephinefta

Authors: Terry Shewmaker
Episodes: Set after The Dorcons
Show Year: Y3
Rating: PG-13
Date: 2011

Story 2 in the "The Alpha's Universe Trilogy" series +
1 - The Hetch Hetchy Tale
2 - Effects of Nephinefta
John Koenig embarks on a journey into the unknown, when he investigates a lush tropical island - surrounded on all sides by a shattered world. Sandra and Alan are also drawn into the mystery. Revised and updated from the 1982 original.
Average Rating: No reviews.

Effects of Nephinefta: A Novella of Space: 1999,

Suggested by the Television Series

by Terry Shewmaker

Part Two of the Alpha's Universe trilogy

Newly Revised and Updated

In Celebration of the 35th Anniversary of the Ultimate Adventure Series...


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

and Alix (LSRO/Research; matte silver)


Dr Helena Russell (Medical Section leader; white)

Maya (LSRO/Science Officer; flame)


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

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

Alan Carter (Reconnaissance Section leader; orange)

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

Tanya Alexander (Operations Team; flame)

Alibe (Data Section/Operations Team; yellow)

Dr Bob Mathias (Medical Section; white)

Shermeen (Williams) Collins (LSRO/Hydroponics; yellow)

THIS EPISODE: Effects of Nephinefta

O moon high up in the deep, deep sky,
Your light sees far away regions,
This sleeping world you wander by,
peering into human dwellings
O, moon, stand still for a moment,
stay for a while...
Antonín DvoÍák (1841-1904)
Song to the Moon (excerpt; from the opera Rusalka)


The egret gathered itself, its white wings closely enfolded, every toe of its golden feet tensed expectantly as it steadied itself against the firmness of the ground. Its slender white neck slowly uncoiled, revealing a beautifully-proportioned head, lean and oval. With its black beak, long and needle-like, it seemed to be probing, testing the air.

Now, a decision. Long, slim, powerful black legs rose, straightened and, with a certain languid motion, it launched itself into space.

The act of flight was transformative. Stretched to its full length from the tip of beak to the tips of its toes, two great curvilinear white clouds propelling it forward, whump-whump measuring each beat. Perfect formation for gliding and soaring -

- or would've been, if the ceiling height of the library had so permitted. A sudden loss of equilibrium, a churning blur, it scrambled to alight upon the nearest reading table.

Alexandra's mauve head bent over the open book before her, several sheets of paper placed alongside, her pen industriously scratching away upon one of them. So completely given was her attention to the task, she seemed quite unaware of goings-on elsewhere in the library; even when - something - was jostling the book, her hand absently reached over to steady it.

Only then was her concentration broken: instead of the book, her fingertips were touching eight golden toes, jointed and slender and strong.

Her eyes, growing increasingly round, followed those "golden slippers" - to the black legs, the white-feathered body, the undulating neck, and a face not even remotely human.

Surely unlike anything even Moonbase Alpha had ever seen before - had to be!

It seemed wreathed in an ethereal halo of fine lace, of delicate aigrettes about its head and the gently recurved plumes of its back.

Alix felt rooted to her chair, and her jaw dropped. Those small dark beady eyes were aimed directly at her.

Two perfect mirrors, within whose depths she could behold her own startled countenance...and, perhaps, that of another?

How was that possible?

The churning of wings was dissolving into a happy warbling of mischievous giggles.

"Hello, Rememberer! - "

Much relieved, she let out a deep breath. "You gave me such a start...!"

"Oh, I am sorry," and Maya was genuinely remorseful. "What are you doing there?"

"Translation," said she. "What was that?"

"A snowy egret," as Maya's enthusiasm rebounded. "Come see what I've found," as she lightly hopped off the table, Alix gathering up her research papers as she followed.

"I think I've got the basic physiology right, but there's still some question about the wingspan," as Maya slid into her chair where another, larger book lay open at a certain place. Alix leaned in to look closer. These folio pages appeared to be quite old.

"John James Audubon," reading from the page. "Oh, Princess! - It's beautiful," with an appreciative little sigh, admiring the artistic confection of blues and greens - and at once recognizing its comely subject. "'Snowy Egret, or Snowy Heron - Egretta thula...'"

"This entire book is filled with these amazing paintings of birds," said she, pensively. "The birds of Earth come in such great variety! Quite unlike the few remaining species we had on Psychon. So small as to nestle in the palm of the hand, and so large - measured wingtip to wingtip - as to stretch almost the length of Command Center. And, almost without exception, the male of the species has the more colorful plumage, or the prettiest song," this last with some regret.

"That doesn't seem quite fair, does it?"

"No, it doesn't..." with a certain meaningful inflection, and they were both smiling.

Having fetched another chair, Alix slid into it alongside her friend. "Princess, this is a first edition," with a certain little gasp, examining the folio more closely - and realizing the table whereupon it rested, had been specially built for that purpose. "Virtually priceless - more than one hundred years old!"

"The memory-banks tell that many important scientists, from as many different fields, studied and worked at Alpha, before the Moon was lost to Earth. Perhaps this was left behind, by one of them."

"Then it becomes our responsibility to protect it, and all the knowledge stored here." Her classical education on her native Rumnipoor had made Alix something of an intellectual, and ever appreciative of new things to learn.

They were reminded yet again of the Moonbase Alpha library's longstanding, albeit unwritten, tradition: when one arrived on the Moon for the first time - and for each tour of duty thereafter - one was expected to bring a copy of a favorite book for the library. Its aggregate holdings came thus to acquire a certain eclectic quality, beyond the usual accumulation of video and audio discs in the memory-banks.

For there, in the pages of books such as this one, was writ the human history of Alpha - of its people, in their great variety, who called this now-wayward little outpost home.

Maya resumed her perusal of the egret painting. "He does beautiful work, this Mr Audubon...but I still can't decide, about the wings."

"Then we'll need additional material, won't we?" presently locating a desk-top receiver in which to place her commlock. "A called me that once before. I still don't know what it means," as she called up the library's extensive computerized catalogue.

"On Psychon, it was another name for an omnimorph."

"You knew about omnimorphs, on your world?" looking up from the small video screen.

"Oh, yes. According to legend, omnimorphs founded the Psychon race - it's where our talent for molecular transformation came from. That was long, long ago."

She murmured something, more to herself than to Maya. Then, "Was that really true?"

"Father knew much more about it than I did," she admitted. "All legends are said to contain a certain grain of truth, and Mentor pursued that. I think he wanted to meet one of them. I think...that may well have been the beginning of the end of him," and her tone and look changed. "It came to consume him, even as our planet slowly began to die...only an omnimorph, possessing virtually limitless power - a Rememberer, who could remember everything - could make Psychon live again."

Solemnly, and cautiously, Alix considered this.

"The ancient Greek scientist Archimedes said, 'Give me a lever, and a place to stand...and I could move the world.' One mind, a single mind, could do so enormous a thing?"

"That's what my father believed. So much so, he...tried to create one..."

Her companion's gaze fell. She had read the history of the runaway Moon's passage through Psychon's sphere of influence; of the malevolent biological computer called Psyche, and the terrible consequences that had ensued.

"I'm glad it wasn't you..."


"This omnimorph is first a human, with human foibles," quietly.

An omnimorph both volatile and unpredictable, Maya sadly considered.

As much as she still loved her father, brilliant as he was, the fate of Palkee-Nur had compelled her to look back anew upon those events. So very long ago now, so very much out of another lifetime...

The rapacious maw of Psyche, devourer of living souls, would've meant certain death for her friend, had she then been amongst those captured Alphans - and the omnimorph would surely have taken lethal umbrage at Psyche's efforts to pry it away from its human host.

She had come to realize, with a new and haunted wisdom, that Mentor had no idea of the true nature of what he was seeking; and that neither he, nor Psyche herself, could ever have proved a match for any omnimorph...

Rousing them both from past to present - and to no small modicum of mutual relief - the familiar sound set them to plucking up their respective commlocks to answer.

"Professor Bergman?"

"Yes, from the observatory," studying the message. "Come at once, he says; they must be ready. Command Center?"

"Come at once," said she, as they rose in unison from their chairs. Then they were carefully conveying the old folio and its accession table - and the task did require the efforts of them both - returning it safely to its storage place. "Alicky! Your book - "

"Oh - " quickly scampering to fetch it.

Even before their emergence into the corridor, they were mentally reviewing the particulars of Alpha's extensive transport system and debating the swiftest method of reaching their respective destinations.

Khaki, flame and russett merged, blurred, even as the sound of Maya's footfalls faded to that of a billowing mass of white feathers...

"Princess! Wingspan! - "

...coalescing into the snowy egret again, this time in a different size than before, each throbbing graceful beat of its wings cleaving easily through clear air.

And wouldn't the corridor's unobstructed straightaway provide an ideal venue for a speed test? -

Still with book and papers in tow - and not without a measure of admiration - Alix hurried along in the egret's wake; by the time they reached the sliding doors of the travel tube, those "golden slippers" would surely have devised a means of opening them, to whisk the two Alphans away.

Chapter One

Effects of Nephinefta...

Certain of the natives were restless, this particular evening. The last lingering afterglow lit minute stars along the sandy stretch of beach as Alia walked. Tawny hair, unpinned, streamed down her back. A cameo-cut face, full liquid-green eyes and the lips of a truly-unearthly Gibson girl, good blood and breeding. By all rights Alia should have felt quite secure at the top of the world. Only, just how secure was a world tantamount to a leaf jostled about by a far vaster sea? -

"Alia! - "

A small wave sloshed languidly across her bare feet. The tangy scent of brine, sand squeezing up between her toes, a bit of breeze swirling about - everything was in harmony, and would have remained so had it not been for that interjecting discord of a voice:


Alia couldn't let that pass. Seeking the source, her eyes registered the silhouette of a woman standing at the edge of the shallow cliff overlooking the beach. All but swallowed up by the fulsome arrival of darkness, yet still distinguishable through the medium of lengthy acquaintance.

"Roma?" The shoreline was forgotten as she scampered up the sandstone rise, toes digging in and leaving haphazard rows of five holes each in the wake. "Is she asking for me?"

"Only that you come in before the wind comes up," draping a white silk and fur wrapper over Alia's shoulders. She, in her own turn, tossed the loose ends over opposite shoulders and huddled beneath as in swaddling.

"And before the sky falls down, is that it?" laughing sarcastically. "Well, then I suppose I ought to go. Once a daughter, always a daughter. I'm a good girl."

"Undisputedly, dynasthanee."

A certain giddiness touched Alia's features as the pair of them made their way along the bluff. "Mm, I do believe I feel one of my moods coming upon, you'll just have to excuse me til it's past..."

"Too much wine at dinner," was Roma's knowing pronouncement.

"Mm, quite possibly!" with a sly smile. Then she was fixing her companion with those glowing emerald eyes of hers. "How very tolerant you are of me," her voice dropping to a feline purr.

She stopped and Roma stopped, and the latter regarded her noble charge with genuine affection. "'ve a willful nature, you have for as long as I've known you. We've been friends from childhood, after all...and aren't friends endlessly tolerant of one another?"

Alia smiled, without a glimmer of inebriation in evidence. "So we are...and so we shall be," taking a deep breath of cool sea air, "so - tell me honestly, I won't be angry..."

"At least a bit overly done on the wine, but nothing further," relieved. "And nothing a good night's sleep won't put right."

"Well, then, leave us to forge onward!" And they did so, resuming their stroll along the beach land.

Night had come in full force, and the stars were now out. And a sort of ethereal relay-race amongst several overhead clouds was in progress, sending ghostly wraiths of silver fleeing across the sands, one after another.

Alia was halting again, turning, lifting her gaze skyward. A certain roundness came to her eyes, and all trace of her earlier state vanished.

"What in the name of Khosrowdad is it?" voicing the query with real emotion. "Where did it come from? - Don't they have any idea?"

"None that I've heard," as a worried Roma also looked up.

"So, the mystery remains. What does my mother say?"

"It's left her quite nervous. The way it just - appeared, as it has. She doesn't want you outside tonight."

"Better the wind," drawing her wrap still closer about her. "You go on, then - I'll follow," pausing. "I know, I know. But I for one have no intention of cowering under my bed - I mean to see its face, if it has one," raising her voice, " - and if it isn't a coward! You can't hide behind that silly cloud all night! - "

The blustery breezes seemed to propel her shouted words of defiance up to the darkness, and to the pearlescent halo that one cloud in particular had acquired.

Roma slowly shook her head, let out a long-suffering sigh. The dynasthanee was very much herself once more, expecting everyone and everything to acquiesce to her. She kept her word, however, once given; she said she'd follow her in, and so far as Roma was concerned no further pledge was required. Her footsteps made very little noise amidst the soft soil and the cool grass as she moved away.

Alia remained, swathed in fur and satin, statuesque and poised on the edge of the dune, windy fingers lifting her hair, her chin still tilted upward. The flat of her bare foot tapped nervously away, compacting the sand beneath it.

"Come on, come on," muttering vexedly, "so lazy and so slow! You won't even show yourself...!"

But it did.

Riding the crest of the evening zephyr, the celestial obstruction was gliding off. And the mystery was to be revealed...

The halo was assuming a new and vaster and brighter form...

Now the cloud had retreated in entirety, and the transformation was complete...

It was very round, like the cheerfully-colored balls she'd played with as a child.

Yet, in appearance, utterly unlike any ball or like object she'd ever seen.

Amidst the blinding whiteness nestled great dark areas that gave this unfamiliar sphere a sort of identity - an uncanny semblance of a face -

Its baleful light touched Alia's features with silver, and sent a momentary coldness through her. She shrank inside herself...

I could almost swear that face is staring back at me...

"So," aloud, as a measure of her earlier bravado resurfaced, "it seems I'm the first to blink, this time." Letting out a deep breath, "Well, after many times can the sky fall upon us, anyway?"

And with that - and a disdainful little sniff and a regal shrug of a shoulder - she spun on her heel and thus turned her back on this new arrival crossing her night sky.

Chapter Two

Not one but two suns lit the usually ever-darkened heavens above Moonbase Alpha with their fires; they could be seen in the sky together now, similar in relative size and brightness, golden and azure, a spectacular pair.

The atmosphere in the Command Center, below the lunar surface, was that of a relaxed vigilance. Only a very few of the higher-echelon officers were there present, and the current operations team was carrying the duty.

The senior-most officer present was Tony Verdeschi, who headed base security, seated at his desk, his dark-haired head bent over the clipboarded sheaf of paper, his pen industriously scratching away. He'd been about this occupation for awhile, but now appeared to be finished. Leaning back in his chair, absently tucking the pen behind one ear, he critically studied his just-completed composition.

"Mm - Maya - " gesturing across the aisle, to the next desk, "listen to this, and tell me what you think. Now, those Engineering Section types pride themselves over there on being able to build just about anything, from replacing a washer to rebuilding an Eagle - right? Well, let's see if they're up to tackling a real challenge - 'Memo to Engineering: We, the undersigned, wish to complain, again, about the current quality - or lack of same - of the coffee dispensed here in the Command Center. In a word, it's deplorable. How can we be expected to find a new world for all of us, without a decent cup of coffee close to hand? You might as well ask us for the way back to Earth! And, no, the chair will not entertain comparisons to the quality of his beer...'"

She had slipped quietly into the room and assumed her seat. She tried to listen, but as he droned on she felt her thoughts drifting off, the ball of clear crystal she'd brought along with her.

She cradled it in her hand. Beneath its shimmering surface the butterfly reposed, its gold and silver-laced deep purple wings outstretched as in flight.

The memory touched her lips with a special little smile.

How splendidly it could fly!...

It had wheeled and soared without a care in the golden sunshine of Psyche Elysium, following her virtually everywhere...only to perish in the end, suffocating in the folds of her anorak in the course of trying to follow her aboard their Reconnaissance Eagle and back here, to the runaway Moon.

Her smile faded. This small and delicate creature had been the nearest to a pet she, a metamorph, had ever had, and its loss had broken her heart.

Psyche Elysium's flora and fauna existed in great "chains of life," with many different members of the animal and vegetable kingdoms dependent on one another in aid of the survival of all.

Thus, the death of her butterfly had taken many other likewise-innocent lives with it; and, because of this, she could not be consoled for a time after the Moon and Alpha upon it had coasted on, out of range of the planet.

She felt the tragedy had been her own doing, for if the butterfly hadn't formed such an attachment to her - indeed, if the Alphans had never come along at all - neither it nor any in that particular "chain of life" would ever have died.

They had interfered, again.

Now, amongst the many hobbies to be found at Moonbase was that of butterfly-collecting; and several of its practitioners had offered their expertise to her, to preserve and mount the butterfly, so that she could always have it with her. But, viewing this well-meant generosity nonetheless as tantamount to cannibalism, she had refused.

Then she remembered things she'd seen other people keep: a single perfect blossom enclosed in a clear plastic cube, at Helena Russell's quarters; and other delicate flowers, in a ball of crystal that Alicky kept on her desk in Alpha's Research section, flowers Alan Carter had given her on their first landing party together.

This idea took hold of her and, set to wondering whether the appeal could be translated to reality, she made inquiries as to whether this process could in fact be utilized without harming her butterfly; yes, she was told, and so she had agreed...

...and, deep within the crystal, it still seemed to be flying. She liked that. And that people here had understood her grief, and tried to ease its impact upon her.

"Maya?" Verdeschi was eying her quizzically, wondering if he'd lost his audience. He rose and ambled over to her duty station, and with tongue firmly in cheek tried again. "Moonbase Alpha, calling Maya," bending down to murmur in her ear, "come in, please..."

This finally rerouted her attention, and she looked up at him with a tentative smile. "You - said you were drawing up a petition to get the coffee machines fixed...of course, I'll sign it," and indeed, her hand was already out for the paper. "I'm your first signature?" with genuine surprise, as she studied it.

"Who else would I think of first?" watching her as she gently drew forth the pen from where it still reposed behind his ear, and signed.

She would never cease to amaze him, for she hadn't missed a single spoken word of his, even though her mind had been somewhere else...where, required no guesswork to divine.

He took back his petition and squeezed her hand, glad that she was taking it all as well as she seemed to be. Yet, just the same, he could glimpse that tiny glimmer of inner grief that would take so much longer to go away.

From her duty station in the front row of consoles, colloquially known as "the trench," Tanya Alexander concentrated on her work. Brunette, an attractive Slavic face, over a flame-colored left sleeve. Mindful of what went on behind her, she had tactfully waited. Now she spoke.

"Tony - here they come..."

Operatives sat up in their seats, turned from their clipboards, looked away from monitors displaying the ever-ongoing electronic commentaries of Alpha's master computer network.

Renewed hope appeared in every face, and all eyes fastened themselves upon the room's Big Screen.

Processed by the Research section as swiftly as they were being received from the base observatory's powerful telescopes, the pictures were at once appalling: under cloudless skies stretched vast tracts of devastated landscape.

"Such a beautiful place, that must've been," from Tanya, "once...and, look at it! Ruined..." and then she muttered something in Russian, to give further vent to her feelings.

Aware that some sort of official pronouncement would be expected from her, Maya rallied herself to the task.

She shook her head as the data on her screen paraded themselves before her analytical gaze. "Radiation, high-level - everywhere." Regretfully, "Whoever they were, they did it to themselves," and Verdeschi, still standing there, put a gentle hand on her flame-colored left shoulder.

For a long time they continued to watch, with a certain dazed fascination and a tinge of dismay, as the rotation of this new planet and the continuing motion of the runaway Moon combined to reveal even more of that distant and utterly blighted surface.

Some couldn't bring themselves to stay for this dreary and disheartening monotony, and a few people thus drifted in and out of the room as time passed.

But all such meanderings suddenly came to an abrupt halt...punctuated with gasps of amazement and disbelief:

"What was that? - Did you see that?"

"Back it up," from Verdeschi, "and magnify."

The view on the Big Screen steadied, shifted, refocused.

"Verify color-code sequencing."

"Research confirms, sequencing is correct," from Maya.

"It's an island," said Tanya, "and it's green! - "

Verdeschi slowly shook his head.

"That is not possible," from Tanya again, "the planet is dead! - "

Maya, slack-jawed as the rest of them, tried to extrapolate some answers from the racing ticker: " water...probable volcanic origin..." and past this, even she couldn't keep up the front: "But how? - "

"Let's get everybody in here," Verdeschi told Tanya, who nodded, turned back to her desk and started putting out the calls. Then, murmuring in Maya's ear once more, "Your best guess, darling, that's all you have to do."

"Tony!" in a whisper of protest, "I'm a Psychon! - Guessing - goes against the grain, somehow...and yet, sometimes, that's all you have, isn't it? All right...the island would have to be shielded, in some way; but the instruments are quite 'iffy' as to how successful such action might be..."

No blaring klaxons, no flashing Red Alerts, not even the code-yellow silent alarm. Not this time. Yet to a certain select scattering of commlocks, all across the base, the word was passed.

Presently, John Koenig came hurrying into the Command Center. Unbidden, hard on his heels nonetheless, came Helena Russell. All around them, the operations team was swelling in its numbers, flame joined by yellow and orange and white and purple left sleeves, coming up to its full complement and collective strength.

Everyone could only stare in bewilderment at that mysterious lush vision from the Big Screen - along with its splendidly-sterile surroundings.

"Life forms?" Koenig presently managed to say.

"No clear prediction possible," from Maya. But everything else is there...

Cocking a finger at the Big Screen, he put an even finer point to it: "Could it support us?"

"Again, no clear prediction possible..."

Helena hadn't uttered a word. We're getting ahead of ourselves, her inner voice whispered warningly, this is far too new, it's all too quick... Her eyes grown round with rapt attention, she struggled for descriptives. "It's - it's like - "

" - like discovering a flawless solitary emerald, imbedded in an unrelenting mass of - of plutonium - wouldn't you say? I would. But if your thoughts are running towards divining its secrets, you had best derail them. There's nothing for us there."

Koenig's gaze averted itself, and his lips thinned briefly, and he turned in the direction of his own desk. He knew the disembodied voice.

The touch of a button summoned a video image to accompany it.

"I hear the glimmer of first-hand knowledge in your voice."

It was an observation, and a challenge.

"More than that. Much more. I lived there, once..."

The Big Screen finally lost its charm, and its audience. For everyone in the room was turning in their leader's direction.

Framed by the monitor screen, her visage faltered; and when it spoke again, Alix's voice was a little unsteady.

"And I very nearly stayed..."

Chapter Three

For once, Koenig wished he had his old office back. Adjoining Main Mission as it did, he nevertheless could isolate himself within at the proverbial touch of the button, those familiar double doors coming together to keep out the prying gazes that might catch his own unawares and unguarded.

One could neither run nor hide in the Command Center; behind that desk, with nothing between him and his subordinates save for air, he had to keep his inner workings more guarded than ever.

Now, in the present, he needed to question Alix, alone; needed that old privacy in which to do it, and fumed because he didn't have it.

Professor Bergman stepped into the breach, offering the use of a conference area at his research complex. Koenig, happy for all the educated guesses and other such opinions he could get, accepted the offer immediately.

So, here the inquisition convened; and insomuch as one of his adjutants was involved, Bergman himself was present as observer.

The runaway Moon's arrival in a new solar system invariably signaled an extra run-up of work for his section.

So many responsibilities fell across its mandate. Accurate mapping of the general vicinity was vital; certainly the presence of planets, if there were any, had to be sought out and investigated for the possible dispatching of Alphan exploration and landing parties.

And, as always, there was the constant flow of requests for assistance and specialized expertise from within Alpha itself, to be accommodated.

The science advisor had already dispatched selenologist Peter King to the mining catacombs, along with Carl Renton, the Kenya-born Technical engineer. One of the tunnel crews, hewing into the lunar rock, had gouged out what looked to be a tiny new seam of tirenium, one of those exceedingly-rare yet ever-vital necessities for the base's life support systems. King was an acknowledged expert on the subject, his knowledge and skills were needed below.

And he had sent Alix back to the observatory, where her acumen for star identification stood to be particularly useful at the moment; for the viability of any planet they all might settle upon, was utterly dependant upon the behavior of the star it orbited.

In the interim, Verdeschi's summary report on her recent tenure as Security patrol on the Psyche Elysium expedition, along with his recommendations, had arrived on his desk.

Much beyond that, he was still pondering the nature of her next duty assignment.

And it had all been upended, as the older man studied the two people before him. He knew them both well, knew both to possess strong temperaments, and sparks threatened to fly...

Now it said much for Koenig, that he was trying to go about the business in a logical and methodical manner - and trying to keep his own temper well-leashed, as he was listening.

For her part, Alix wasn't faring too well. Adept as she was in a number of interstellar languages, thanks to her travels, by her own admission English confounded her. Important to know, being one of Alpha's predominantly spoken languages; native to Koenig and Bergman and Carter, yet each spoke it differently. She had a certain of difficulty thinking in it, her spoken diction somewhat more precise; and her syntax tended to suffer on occasion.

"Do you realize what seeing those pictures on the monitor did to me? Do you? Up to that moment I'd thought nothing on it, wrote off that vague feeling of - familiarity - and why not? By the laws of probability, how many star-families like this one does the universe hold? Numbers beyond counting! And yet, the Moon's taken so many twisting and turnings..."

Well, that went aways towards explaining some of it; her tirade was directed less at him personally that at the capriciousness of fate in getting them all here. He was simply in the way.

"I might be better able to sympathize, if I knew the rest of it! Now that's the most you've told me since we came in here - round and round we've gone, circles leading nowhere! Just what is it on that island, that you're so bent on us not going there? Obviously, it's something you don't want me to see, or even to know about. But what? I can't imagine...simple information, that's all I'm asking..."

She stood there, having refused the chair offered; ramrod-straight, her gaze unblinking. Stood there, trembling on her feet. Not because Koenig's relentless questioning was starting to get to her, to wear down her resolve to keep silent - but because, even if she did break her self-imposed vow, she remained firm in her certainty that he would never believe her.

Koenig let out an exasperated breath. Trying, and being tried! He too couldn't sit, and instead was restlessly pacing across the floor.

He had not set eyes upon her since the Psyche Elysium expedition, so busy had everyone been, in the month's time - at least as lunar time clocked such things - that they had been in the sphere of influence of the double star.

He took note of her countenance now. The zippered silver left sleeve, an honorific given her by his science advisor; one that bore but scant resemblance to the early sketches or even the prototype mockups, with their shiny aluminum surfaces, he'd seen during the time of his post-Ultra forced exile on Earth.

She had personalized it, made it her own. A subtler hue and softer fabric, a more suitable match to the khaki of her uniform tunic, its length carefully measured and well set off by the belt that carried her commlock. The close-fitting collar precluded her hair becoming entangled in it. Careful bits of tailoring here and there, which he had to admit improved the overall line. She knew, innately, what looked good on her.

He recalled a glimpse of her, escorted by Ed Spencer, at a sitar recital, in a sleeveless unzippered vest - not unlike one he himself fancied on occasion - over her skirted duty ensemble. A rare glimpse, as she was apt to be clambering up and over things, in the course of her work; why, he could count on a single hand, if even that...

...a tactful clearing of a throat, and he was back in the moment once more. Bergman continued to watch the two of them, his gaze passing between the one and the other.

"All right, then," searching for another tack, "let me ask this. Now Maya theorizes that a type of shielding, or force field, has protected this island, enabled it to escape the fate suffered by the rest of the planet. Would you consider this a reasonable assumption?"

"Yes, sir, I would," quietly.

"And within this great force field, various sorts of vegetation not only could keep their established footholds, but could and did flourish - also reasonable?"

"Yes, sir," without elaboration.

"So far, so good, then. Given that, couldn't it follow that some simple life forms might be able to eck out an existence?"

As she nodded her wavy mauve hair, spilling down the curve of her back, threw off tiny silver sparks in the light.

Progress, he thought. He'd have to tread very carefully now...

"So, couldn't it also be possible for - higher life forms to live there?"

"They can and do; yes, sir," said she, her tone still correct, although strained.

Sensing victory at last, he went for the kill: "Then it stands to reason that we ought to go there! - "

"No!" emphatically.


Koenig sensed and heeded the subtext. He stepped away to another quarter of the room, barely shook his head and silently swore.

Stubborn! From the first moment he'd known her...

" - Do you customarily keep armed personnel at your back, when you're speaking to a guest!?" -

...Stubborn! Brought up by royalty or not, just who did she think she was?

Still, the brief interval allowed him to simmer down. He turned back to her again, "There are 300 other people on this base - shouldn't they have my ear, too? Don't you think I owe them something? From the moment we broke out of Earth orbit, I've seen my duty to them very clearly - I know, you weren't here then, but I daresay you've learned something of what being an Alphan is, by now. And my first duty, before all others, is to investigate any and every possibility that could mean a new home for all of us - !"

"Then, sir, do so," very quietly, looking at him directly for the first time, "I have never stopped you..." but it was the calm preceding the explosion: "Do so - only, do it anywhere except here!"


She too recognized the scientist's subtle inflection. Her face fell, and her eyes closed.

Koenig was placing a call on his commlock.

"Flight Control," said the answering voice...

She turned toward the science advisor, her features radiating a last appeal.

He put up a hand. Wait...

"See that a Reconnaissance Eagle, with stepped-up anti-radiation shielding, is put on the pad immediately..."

"Yes, sir," and was away.

She knew she'd lost.

"You'll always have your way in the end, won't you?" quietly.

"In this matter, yes," evenly.

She took a breath.

"Then I must go with you," resolved upon it.

He mulled it over, and then nodded. "It's a reasonable request...all right, you'll be included in the landing party - "

"No landing party," sparks flying once more, "only the pair of us - you and I - no one else - "

"Alix - "

"I will not be responsible for any more lives! - "

"That's enough."

She didn't dare disobey him now. Bergman ran his section with the quiet voice, and his adjutants were very loyal to him. She owed him her very existence here; he'd allowed her to speak her piece, given her more leeway than otherwise might've been allowed, but there were boundaries that could not be broached.

Koenig, meanwhile, summarily ended the meeting by heading for the door.

"Fifteen minutes," he told her, as he passed.

And after it had whooshed shut behind him, Bergman finally came over to her. For the first time, he noted the finely-etched lines of stress and strain in her face.

"I won't be responsible for any more lives," she murmured. "My Lady, isn't it enough I'll have to be responsible for his? - "

Chapter Four

"...perhaps a half-dozen times have I seen him struck speechless, and this was one of them He stood there, looking at me - and he never spoke a word. He just stood there. Staring!"

"Shouldn't bloody wonder," Carter mused, trying to imagine Koenig in the midst of such a silence.

Although Alix stood behind the relative security of the wardrobe screen in her quarters, her visitor was scrupulously keeping his back turned.

His gaze moved here and there about the room, curious to see what she had done with the place. A set of constellation maps on one wall seemed familiar enough...until he realized the glowing Sirius, "the scorcher," and the dusky Betelgeuse, both perched upon the shoulder of Orion the hunter; and his own familiar Southern Cross had only the blue-white Agena, to keep it company...

An old-fashioned orrery, sitting on a tabletop elsewhere, mechanically depicted planetary motions around a heliocentric globe that appeared to be a semiprecious stone of some kind. It was red.

Carnelian, perhaps, he thought, or some other such. She would probably know...

He tried to relax, as he waited.

Well, not everything about his so-called reputation was to be believed, he grinned to himself...

Then he was growing serious: "News travels fast, in a place like Alpha. A few tongues are wagging already over this business."

She stiffened a little, but forced herself to sound impassive. "And what do these wagging tongues say?"

"That you were out of line - that you overstepped the bounds of reasonable behavior."

Her eyes flashed. "What I do, I do for Alpha - first, last, always! - "

A fleeting chill touched the air - the omnimorph within, mirroring her moods. Or was it the other way round?

He started to speak and, momentarily forgetting, to turn around. He promptly remembered, muttering "Bloody hell! - " or words to that effect, as he did so.

In spite of herself she had to smile, if only a little. He had a gift, for bringing that out in her - of not taking herself quite so seriously...

She stepped into view, sturdy hiking boots zipped into place for the coming journey. His hands sought out hers in greeting, and she liked that. Some of those things people said about him simply had to be exaggerated, she'd decided, for she'd never seen evidence to support them.

For his part, he was studying her face and her eyes, and the arrangement of her hair...

No, they hadn't told him wrong about her hair, that first day, and that unexpected encounter at a corridor junction; it really did stream down her back and it really was mauve.

At close range, one could easily discern the myriad fine shadings and gradations of color that gave it its depth and natural appearance. Neither too pink, nor too purple.

Just right...

Studying its arrangement now, his mind still not made up as to whether he liked it, he'd grown wise enough not to voice his indecision aloud. After Psyche Elysium, the lesson had been learned. Still, he did have to concede it possessed a certain fetching manner, unpinned as it was and allowed to flow freely, to graze her cheeks and her shoulders en route to disappearing in a wavy cascade down her back...

"How very quiet you are!" marveling at his silence.

Grinning, he shrugged it off. The last of the chilliness had disappeared, and he found himself wondering if he might somehow be the reason why...

"I suppose I ought to have remained silent," regretfully. "But this once, I couldn't - do you, at least, understand?"

"Not the 'wherefore,' since I haven't heard it yet. But, the 'why'? I think maybe so. I've come to know you well enough by now, to grasp that much of it. Seems you wouldn't have spoken up at all, unless for a good reason. As for your not telling John - well - I suppose there's a reason for that, too," and, while he'd been talking, his arms had quietly slid around her.

You are so confusing, she thought, even as she found she liked that too. She'd become aware, in recent times, of an increasing closeness to him. So many of his ways remained quite strange to her, as a comparable number of her ways surely were to him...

Within that impractical and supremely-wishful region of the mind possessed by all, she wanted not to go away on so awkward a mission, but to remain rooted to this spot, not moving so little as a single step...

"This quiet seems to be catching," said he, and smiled as a tint of pink appeared in her cheeks. "I'm glad to see that. Look, would it help smooth things out at all if I went along?"

He'd never seen such a look come into her eyes, of sadness tinged with fear, and its glow spread to her other features.

Touching his face with tentative fingers, she slowly shook her head.

"This once, you can't," in a tiny voice. "Not for my sake - that would be selfish - but for your own. You're safe here...stay that way."

He resumed his scrutiny of her, the two of them standing thusly close together, this time in search of a deeper message.

Trying to gauge the measure of both parties in this dispute between Alphans, he saw himself coming down on her side.

No less than John Koenig himself knew what it was to have to keep a given situation's particulars within the parameters of his own counsel, for the ultimate sake of those around him.

"There really is something down there," as some of her worry reflected itself in turn upon him. "And it's got you scared to death..." for at such proximity he could readily sense the anxieties running along her nerves.

"I won't stop trying to make him turn back, at least," unhappily, "but without proof more tangible than words, even the most earnest of entreaties, I cannot convince him that this is not the place for us! - "

"Nor can I," with quiet seriousness, as he drew her closer. For his money, Koenig could be left waiting just a little longer...

She felt his fingers carefully drawing her hair back from her face, and through that delicious confusion registered the sensation of something else - the familiar jeweled clip, settled into place.

"There," said he.

How had he come by it? -

"You take care, on this trip," presently, "Take care..."

How strange it was, for her to be going off and for him to be left behind!

"Away you go..."

Behind him, Alix felt she could breathe at long last; for there had been imparted to her the boost her spirits were so much in need of at such a difficult moment.

Koenig was taking her along grudgingly, but Alan was trusting to her judgment and, to her, that meant everything...

From behind her desk in the Medical section, Helena Russell was desperately unhappy. Bergman had been by to see her, to tell her the outcome of the meeting, the decisions made. He had offered to stay awhile, but she demurred. She could not believe Koenig would not want her along with him.

Lifting her commlock, she summoned the screen on the nearby commpost to life. External video, from outside their base, showed the already-distant winking color telltales of the retreating Reconnaissance Eagle.

Thus distracted, she missed the audio cue from the log recorder sitting at her desk, and she moved to switch it off, then to reset. The audio cue sounded again, and the machine stopped. Her fingers tripped another switch, and her own voice came forth from the device. Her eyes remained fixed upon the commpost screen.

Moonbase Alpha Status Report, 3177 days after leaving Earth orbit, Dr Helena Russell reporting: We experienced another double sunrise this morning. Pressure-suited maintenance teams outside the base, checking as they always do to make sure our physical plant is basically sound, are reporting that everything - from the smallest moon rock to Alpha itself - is casting two shadows, as the Moon's ancient surface is awash in blue and golden light. And our Research Section has confirmed what was only rumor before now: there is a third star in this solar system, at so great a distance from the main pair it was, at first, misidentified. It is a white dwarf.

Meanwhile, as the Moon continues to coast along on its journey, yet another new world has been revealed to us - but as starkly different from Psyche Elysium, as day from night. And an island, green and glowing - alive - where no such island could possibly exist - surrounded by entire continents in ruins, laid waste by some long-ago cataclysm. Commander Koenig's plans for exploration are being vehemently opposed - by one of our own people, a member of Professor Bergman's science team. We find ourselves vividly reminded that, in her own right, Alix has also been a space traveler, before she came to stay with us. As yet, we still know very little about those wanderings in the heavens...

Many Alphans kept their own diaries, a place to confide their private thoughts and feelings; and in this Alix was hardly unusual. So did she.

One day, amidst the ever-present intellectual ferment of the Research section, she had discovered the data catalogues from the infamous interstellar probe Voyager One and its brilliant and haunted late creator, Dr Ernst Queller.

Voyager had visited many worlds and photographed much of the universe through which it had traveled - all the while spewing behind it the lethal plume of its propulsion mechanism, the Queller Drive. Many innocent lives were lost before the probe was destroyed - by Queller's own hand, a final act of contrition - but its priceless treasure-trove of knowledge lived on, carefully preserved on the runaway Moon.

Fascinated, she had pored through those catalogues; and an idea was sparked: perhaps, she reasoned, the knowledge compiled and recorded in the diaries of her own travels - the worlds she had visited, the places she'd seen and experienced - could help Alpha too. It could be her contribution to the archives in the Moonbase library.

All written in her native Rumnipuran dialect, they would first have to be translated; she and Sandra Benes worked at this together, whenever time permitted...

"...I came as soon as I got your message," breathlessly. "Alix, what is going on? Quarrelling between you and the Commander - the rumor mill is buzzing with it!"

"Rumor exaggerates," as she withdrew a certain slipcase of volumes from one of her bookshelves. "The original account of my prior sojourn to this planet - it's still not translated yet. You'll have to complete the task."

She accepted it as it was handed over. "I hope I remember enough of your language, what you taught me," a bit doubtful she might, even given her documented acumen with languages.

"You knew more of it than anyone else," encouragingly. "You still do."

"Then I hope the dictionaries are still in their old places!" and, despite the moment, they shared a brief moment's laughter.

"Now," said she, "once you have finished the document, take it directly to Research Section - "

"To Professor Bergman?"

"Yes, and Alan too. And the others - and make sure they read it. All of it. Have them pass the various pages about if they must, but see that they read and understand it - for at that moment they'll know the truth..."

Chapter Five

The Reconnaissance Eagle had been outward-bound from the Moon for a number of hours. Quietude had settled in upon its command module, and the two Alphans it contained.

She had not set eyes upon him since the Psyche Elysium expedition, so busy had everyone been lately; but then, such was the structure of Moonbase life that one might easily go for days or even weeks at a time, and not even fleetingly glimpse any member of the base's executive pantheon.

Psyche Elysium, then, had afforded her a rare opportunity to study him at fairly close range. Officious as ever, and at the same time so much at ease, so utterly relaxed, he had actually dozed off after lunch!

She couldn't help but wonder how comfortable he was - or wasn't - within himself, as she took note of him now. He needed elbow-room in which to move about, that was evident. He was restless in the conference room, unable to sit still; yet his reputation arose from rather confined spaces - the laboratory of the scientist, the cockpit of the astronaut...

There he sat, an exercise in perfect concentration upon the many instruments in that portion of the command module given to his charge...

From the pilot's seat, Koenig directed a glance of his own across the throttle boxes.

Well, he thought, I ought to make some sort of attempt, and he did so:

"How was your world governed?" something he hadn't inquired of her before now.

"My guardian was royal only by marriage," said she. "He wasn't born to that life, but he embraced it when it came to him. He had to learn the procedures, the protocols, all the rest. It made of him a leader, and he could and did rule."

"Did he bring you to court?"

"Early on he was very protective, and kept me well away from the scheming, the intrigues. There were always matters he could not discuss. But he did teach me something of government, later on. More a philosophy, really. He believed people innately cared about each other - and rules, and laws, could assist; could provide guidance, fairness, protection when it was needed. It could bring out the best in everyone, so long as it was exercised wisely and equably. What I know of the leader, was - as you say - learned at his knee."

He let a space pass, as he absorbed her words and their meaning. Is she comparing us? he wondered...

"We'll be there soon," taking a breath, as though in anticipation of the accomplished fact. "I should imagine the place has a name to be called, when it's at home..."

"It is called Quincux," said she.

He debated whether to ask if the island also had a name, and elected to let it go. At their current rate of travel, he reckoned he would learn it for himself soon enough.

Chapter Six

Sandra was finding she could turn pages all the more quickly when Alan held the thick bulk of the open dictionary for her, as he was doing just now.

Jackets draped across chairbacks attested to their having been at this awhile.

"Ah - here it is," said she, and then set about copying the desired phrases on paper. "Are you certain you don't mind doing this for me?"

"You were in here in too big a rush," said he. "Of course, I had to find out why..."

"As you always do," with a smile.

They had been close, in their time, and their friendship endured.

"I still can't make heads or tails of any of this," looking at what she had amassed so far.

"It's actually quite simple," said she, bidding him sit at the desk and moving things aside. "The words are written and read from right to left, as many Earth languages do. Let me show you..."

Picking up a sheet of paper that had been inserted into one of the diary volumes, she proceeded to sketch in a few words alongside the written ones.

"Once we've translated the words, we can then transpose them into sentences that read from left to right. You see?"

"I guess," trying to follow on the page what she had done.

He was very loyal, she knew, to those who were important to him. She regarded him thoughtfully, studying his face...and wondering if some of those loyalties might be getting in the way of each other.

"Alan," said she, "you 'take the Commander's shilling,' so to speak, in most things. But you're siding with Alix, this time. You believe her, don't you?"

"Yes, I do," solemnly, "exactly what she told them, in there - remember? 'I very nearly stayed' - that's what I heard out of it. If she's objecting now, it could mean whatever drove her away then is probably still down there. And she does have prior knowledge of the place to draw upon - we don't."

"But we will, soon," fingering the pages of the old manuscript. Each was crammed with neat rows of flowing and quite unintelligible alien characters - to untrained eyes, at any rate.

"Let's make it sooner," said he. "Look, you're the linguist; I'll fetch the dictionaries, whatever else you need - only, let's finish the thing! Better our fears prove unfounded - but if they don't, there may still be time to stop John from making a very big mistake - "

Chapter Seven

If Carter's exclusive aim had been to prevent the Reconnaissance Eagle's touchdown upon the soil of enigmatic Quincux, then in this he had already failed.

For dawn was breaking, its spreading rays gilding that convergence of latitude and longitude straddled by those improbable verdant shores.

Koenig's foresight in having their craft equipped with that extra shielding had been borne out by their easy passage through the barrier that opened itself across the island like a huge unseen umbrella. The lessons gleaned from the likes of the Triton probe had been learned well, and profited from.

Alix followed after him as he quit the command module and moved aft to where the airlock awaited.

"You'll not need that," said she, watching him slip out of his gray jacket as he reached toward the locker housing this Eagle's complement of pressure suits. "Or that," as he reached in turn for an anorak. The jacket was accordingly placed alongside it. "These are equatorial latitudes. It will be very warm today..."

A great tangle of tropical foliage greeted their eyes as they stepped outside, with scarcely a breeze to ripple it. Through a maze of leaves and fronds, the new sun in the sky peered back at them.

"Atmospheric distortion?" Koenig wondered. "Seen from the Moon, it gave off yellow light; but from here it appears almost orange."

"A side-effect of the shielding surrounding this island," said Alix, simply, "and the cause of occasional rainbows, halos and such related phenomena..."

Presently a swift-rushing stream appeared through a parting amidst these lush curtains, and they continued on their way along one of its moss-fringed banks. The sound of a waterfall could be heard, from somewhere farther away.

Koenig's eyes were everywhere at once. That metaphor, likening this island to an emerald set in plutonium, was taking something of a beating. At least it's constructive, he surmised, with some irony. Everything was so green, and glossy, and practically glowing with life...

He passed bowers heavily-laden with flowers that were nothing short of dazzling, blooms that bore scant resemblance to any of his past acquaintance elsewhere.

He did, however, happen upon one that could be near enough to a lily in its appearance to pass inspection. The green tints could indicate the presence of chlorophyll or perhaps something quite like it, as had been discovered to be the case on Psyche Elysium, or some other completely different lynchpin of life; regardless, he found it all difficult to put into words...

"And you say there's nothing for us here?" buttonholing Alix at one point, "this place is full of life!"

"Yes, I say it, because it's true," said she, evenly. "Our more immediate problems are twofold - how to make our presence known, and how I'm to explain you," as they walked on.

"Well now, I think I ought to be able to explain myself," said he.

"You'll bear explaining, believe me," said she, and then no more. He had noted she carried no laser, or any other sort of weapon, on her belt, only the ever-present commlock.

Koenig paused, his ear picking up the faint noise, elsewhere in the tropical bush and from a different direction than that in which the two of them were traveling.

She'd already moved on, apparently not having heard it.

But he stopped, listened again, took a number of steps off the track.

His expectations rose markedly in these few moments, anxious as he was that this should turn out to be the sort of life he most hoped for - that which he could talk to, and which could then answer him back...

Abruptly he found himself face to face with his desire.

From behind a leafy wall of still more flowers the woman appeared, definitely of human extraction and surprisingly comely.

Beneath hair touched with sun and braided with blossoms lay long-lashed eyes and a well-formed expressive mouth.

Her gown, pastel in hue and fastened to a great brooch of gems about her throat, grazed her ankles and fell flowingly along a reasonably-shapely form - and, alas, failed to fully conceal it in some places.

Who was the more staggered? His jaw dropped in astonishment at the sight of her; she stood as if paralyzed, eyes full at the sight of him.

And, as swiftly, all was climaxed: she screamed, and darted away in terrified retreat.

Other racing footsteps announced the arrival of Alix, who'd heard this sound without fail.

"Thus for that problem," sighing, "they know we're here..."

"How much farther do we go?" keen to know whither that marvelous personage had fled...

"There is only one settlement on the island," said she. "It lies not so very far off, that way," pointing thus.

"Well, if they know we're coming anyway, we may as well - " indicating the track, which he and she might have followed - had another voice not intervened:

"Oh now, you really shouldn't let such thoughts of false security dance in your could so easily lose it!"

Smug and mocking - and utterly serious - it floated down to them from somewhere in the treetops, and subtle rustlings were heard here and there amidst the confusion of shrubbery. Without spying so little as a mere glimpse, the pair of Alphans knew nonetheless that they were quite surrounded...

Chapter Eight

"Do be so kind as to remain where you are," that feminine voice sang sweetly on, "otherwise I shall have to do something rather unladylike, and you don't want that - do you?"

Alix listened, and incredulity touched her features, and her lips moved soundlessly. "I know that voice!" aloud.

"That voice" exclaimed something amazed and unintelligible, and in the next instant was shooting commands which likewise could not be understood save for their tone.

Then, as a swath of branches seemed to move themselves, Alia was revealed. Her hair was this morning dressed as a tawny-gold cloud, and her hunting costume fit her form quite sleekly.

No foliage could have decorated a great tree limb as did she, who now prettily poised herself upon it. She gazed down upon them, at Alix in particular, with utter disbelief.

Then she began to laugh, absurdly and quite uncontrollably.

"Ho-ho, look who we have caught! - "

A trailing tree-vine ferried her lithely to the ground - where, walking straight up to Alix, she clasped her like a close sister and went on laughing.

"A far better welcome than you deserve, my inconstant friend! Wherever have you dropped in from?"

"From the Antipodes," inwardly grateful for such a greeting.

They stood there, the seconds raced - and Alia stiffened, and her eyes widened as they beheld Koenig, who stood several paces off.

So, Joia hadn't screamed without just cause!

"It's a man! - " this in a shocked whisper.

Alix held onto her rediscovered companion, lest the latter crumple to the grass from sheer fright...

"What's he doing here!? - "

"Come and meet him," murmuring soothingly into her ear, "and show him how very gracious you can be..."

And, accordingly, Alia steadied herself - after all, she wasn't the dynasthanee for nothing - as Alix led her over to be introduced.

"Alia, be pleased to meet Commander John Koenig, of Moonbase Alpha. That's where I live now. Sir, be pleased to meet the Princess Alia - whom, happily, I may still claim as a friend. In their language, she is called the dynasthanee."

"Shall I let him call me Alia?" as a teasing twinkle came into her eyes once more.

"It would please me if you did," said she.

"Done! - "

She was slowly walking around Koenig, her eyes roving about him, up and down, in appraisal. By the time she'd made a complete circuit of him, her gaze exhibiting much shrewdness and no small measure of approval, the object of all this regal scrutiny was beginning to feel somewhat self-conscious. He hoped he didn't look it...

And when Alia spoke again, her words were directed more to her unseen entourage in the bush:

"You see? I have gazed upon the animal, and I still stand! His name is John...and he is tall, and cool...a little too serious, I think! And he is rather disgustingly handsome, any more so would be quite criminal! - " this last being greeted by a ripple of giggling from unseen feminine throats. "There, that ought to pacify them!" coming back over to Alix. "Now, she'll want to see you - a few of the swifter runners will have brought the news to her already, if I know them. And you," rounding on Koenig, "very nearly gave poor Joia an apoplexy! No doubt she's clear to the other side of the island by now."

"The 'swifter runners'?" Alix appeared to be getting in a bit of teasing of her own.

"But of course," shrugging. "On any day, I can beat most of them - and," winking, "on a good day, I can beat all of them!..."

Alix shook her head helplessly, "She hasn't changed," smiling, watching Alia moving sprightly away.

Koenig also watched, arms folded, with a shrewdness of his own, and didn't utter a word...

The settlement, as they came upon it, was seen to fit no recognizable mode of architecture that Koenig knew of.

Too small to be called a true city, it was quite spacious, well-planned and laid out; and it was very clean. He divined a fondness for ostentatious decoration, as there was so much of it; and that perhaps this place had been conceived more as a kind of resort, than an administrative seat.

Surely, an island would need nothing so large?

Alia was conducting the two Alphans through vast and airy corridors of smooth bright walls and columns, across floors tiled with intricate mosaic patterns.

Then, into one particular chamber. This was large and high-ceilinged, open to the side to lush gardens and needing only natural daylight to illuminate it, which it did in great abundance. Imposing though it was, it presented a cheerful atmosphere that set nervous visitors at their ease, as perhaps had been its intended purpose; and it was filled with fragrant flowers in many vases, and comfortable furniture to sit upon.

Alia smartly clapped her hands, and unseen footsteps were heard to be hurrying away into other rooms.

Then she was arranging herself upon a divan, sultry and pouting - pouting, because the Moonbase Commander was looking at her hardly at all! And she, the dynasthanee, did not easily suffer not being noticed...especially by a man! -

There were footsteps, clicking briskly, somewhere along the polished floor of a small corridor; approaching footsteps...

She floated into the room, in a whisper of silks.

And such a woman! Graceful of carriage, litheness of movement, an elegant bearing that went far beyond even the most fetching comeliness of many another woman...

Little clusters of just-opened flowers peeped out here and there from amidst the cloud of russett hair, dressed off her sloping bare shoulders.

Her simple cream-colored gown, unlike that of the unfortunate Joia, did allow for what - in a place, say, like Alpha - would be considered an acceptable modicum of modesty.

To be sure, she was beautiful; and although it only just missed being the ostensibly-classical type, hers remained the sort of beauty that inspires the painter or the artisan to rush off to capture her essence in portraiture or sculpture at once.

Now she halted, amidst billowing skirts and, as Alia had done, fixed the pair of Alphans with a gaze of astonishment.

Koenig, conscious that he had been staring, was almost relieved for the distraction presently materializing at his side.

Alix looked so incongruous in the doing of it, but she had been brought up as a royal ward, and only such an upbringing could have enabled her to execute a curtsey with so smooth and graceful a motion - in zippered-up duty uniform and sturdy hiking boots.

So this was a lady of great importance, then; and he wondered whether he ought to bow or something...

Then she was standing again, and there was that glimmer of past acquaintance in her eyes once more, as well as in those of this new lady. Then the latter stretched out one hand, and then two, and a radiant smile came forth from her; gestures of welcome that enveloped her in a joyful embrace.

"My dear girl - " in a rich and musical voice, "dear, darling girl! - " trembling with emotion. "Even with the weight of Alia's word, I could not believe such a thing possible - !"

"But it is - !"

"Let me look at you," holding her back at arms' length. "You've become pale," worriedly. "I never knew you not to have...'roses in the cheeks,' is that the expression?"

And here she left it trail off, as her eyes once more came to settle themselves upon Koenig.

"And this is...?"

"This is the man I work for now," said Alix. "May I present him to you?" and accordingly led her across the plush carpets.

"And this," said Alia, still pouting and posturing like a bored feline upon her divan, "is Yeteve, my royal mother; whose domain once extended across all of Quincux, and is since reduced to no more than this trifling little isle of Nephinefta..."

"You honor me, with your presence," said she, quietly and earnestly, as he accepted the bracelet-bangled hand offered him.

"I'm glad that's settled," as Alia now roused herself from her divan to her feet. "Now, I plan on hearing about everything that's happened to this errant shadow of mine since we saw her last, so I'm stealing her away for awhile. You have a great deal of explaining to do, you know," this very last to Alix, commandeering her arm.

"Yes, my dear," Yeteve smiled maternally, "you needn't twist my arm, either! Run along..."

Alix, with a weak half-smile, shrugged helplessly as she was thusly being shanghaied; and Koenig didn't demur.

Yeteve watched after them fondly. From whence Alia had inherited her own fine liquid-green eyes was no mystery indeed.

"If I know my daughter, that's the last we'll see of them for a goodly time!" said she. "And it seems the pleasant task of entertaining a guest has fallen to me. Nephinefta is hardly the 'trifling little isle' that my daughter would portray it - I should like very much to show it to you..."

"I'd like to see it," said he, for he genuinely did.

"Good! Seeba?" motioning to yet another of the extraordinarily-comely women that seemed to populate Nephinefta. "You'll want an opportunity to collect yourself, after your journey. In the gardens just outside are many flowers that I planted with my own hands; and Seeba will be happy to show them to you, while I arrange our transportation."

Yeteve's was a long-practiced ease with manners, but the innate graciousness could never have been taught or acquired from elsewhere; this was perfectly natural, from within the woman herself...

Koenig watched her elegantly withdraw and then turned to Seeba, who smilingly indicated the way out into the blossom-scented sunshine.

Chapter Nine

Koenig and his Nephineftan escort walked leisurely along a huge hedgerow that reached higher than both their heads and was thickly-festooned with pastel-colored buds and blossoms.

"I don't think I've ever seen so many beautiful flowers, in one place, in all my life," said he, marveling at these dozens of them presently within his field of view.

"Are there none such, in the place you come from?" queried Seeba, who strolled easily at his side.

"Not the place where I live now. But the place where I was, not even there, either..."

He left the sentence unfinished, the thought behind it hanging in the air. Seeba studied his face, and was moved by what she saw.

"There's a sadness in your eyes, when you speak of this other place..."

And when he did not speak further, she lowered her eyes.

"Forgive me...I am sorry..."

"Sorry?" not understanding such a curious apology.

"I offended you," in a small voice.

He hadn't realized his silence had hurt her feelings.

"You haven't offended me," smiling.

A bush heavy with well-sculpted blooms lay several paces away, and he went over to crouch down near it.

"This particular flower, here - what do you call it?"

"It is called an eziimee blossom," said Seeba.

He plucked one, and brought it over to her. "This is very much like a flower I knew, back where I came from. Our name for it was a lily," placing it in her hands.

"Lily," she repeated, and her cheeks pinked a bit as she accepted it. "Your name for it is very odd...and yet, it fails to diminish the beauty of the blossom itself..."

He went on smiling. Seeba had surely never heard the phrase "a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet," but she clearly did understand the meaning well enough.

"Well! What a pleasant picture this is!" Yeteve had reappeared, standing prettily framed by an arbor. "So much happier a world, if power were to be forever consigned into the hands of men who love flowers!"

The moment of awkward embarrassment had flown, and Seeba's features were once more bright and animated.

"I commend our guest back into your own capable hands, dynasthaia," with a smile and a brief bow, "while I attend to overseeing the preparation of quarters for him."

"And Alexandra's former suite," Yeteve added. "She'll be happy to see it again, I'm sure..."

"I fancy she will! - "

"Shall we be on our way?" the regal tour-guide proposed.

Koenig was altogether amenable to that, but not before picking another eziimee blossom and presenting it to Yeteve. The gesture puzzled her.

"He calls it a lily," Seeba offered, in explanation.

Yeteve looked at it, and then at Koenig, and her brow wrinkled.

"That's an odd name for a flower, isn't it?"

She sounded altogether sincere.

Seeba lowered her eyes again, embarrassed more for Koenig's sake this time than her own. He himself glanced from the one woman to the other, and a hint of sheepishness crept upon him.

"I guess I asked for that, didn't I?" grinning. Both Seeba and Yeteve laughed delightedly, and he shook his head and had to laugh too.

"Who is she?" curious, as he followed Yeteve along a tree-shaded path carpeted with a rich glossy grass.

"Seeba? Perhaps my closest and dearest friend. She helps me run my household."

"And that word?"

"Dynasthaia? Literally translated, it means 'to exalt,' or 'to place very high.' It has also come to denote a lady of very high rank." She went on, more subdued. "And it's what I was, once...and am not so much, anymore...Nephinefta is far too small to have something so lofty as a dynasthaia. We don't stand quite so much on ceremony, these days."

"But Seeba does," said he.

"Friends do such things," said she.

Her riding costume was of a luminous plum-color, and a wide belt of gold and gems encircled the waist of her tabard with its lace-edged great sleeves and close-fitting neckline. Her slippers were of a soft material, and the leggings displayed fetching proportions.

She carried a riding crop in one hand, and it cut the air with pleasant rhythmical swishes as she walked.

Presently they emerged into a flagstone-paved clearing; Yeteve continued onward, but Koenig came to an incredulous stop and his eyes widened...

At first look it was nothing so much as one huge gelatinous mass, standing at least as high as he was tall and lacking eyes or ears or feet or toes, or any other such appendages one thinks an animal rightly ought to have.

By itself it filled a generous area of the clearing, and riding atop its incongruous flanks was an elaborate structure akin to the howdahs carried by Indian elephants.

Yeteve by now had also halted, and she watched with quiet amusement as Koenig walked all the way around the creature, and that staggered glaze never left his face.

"But it has no form! - " he finally managed to say, "no shape, no..."

She giggled sympathetically. "My husband used to say that he had no more able a negotiating partner than a nuxghsceap, like this one! A quarrelsome diplomat would be so dumbfounded on first setting eyes upon it, he would immediately lose any advantage he might have had - whereupon my husband could then set about striking almost any sort of bargain he wished!"

"And getting it, I imagine, in the end," with wry admiration.

He looked on as Yeteve moved about, touching the creature here and there with her crop and making various little noises.

The nuxghsceap, in response, soundlessly reduced and consolidated upon itself, thus lowering the howdah so that it became accessible to passengers.

Yeteve lightly boosted herself in, and Koenig emulated her example.

The ritual was repeated, and they and their howdah rose amidst the trees with the smoothness of an ascending elevator.

"So far, so good?" Yeteve inquired.

"So far...or at least, once I've located my stomach."

She giggled again. "In very ancient times, many species like the nuxghsceap flourished all across Quincux. But only they have survived, and much of their life cycle still isn't clearly understood. But I can tell you what we do know, or suspect, to help pass the time - would that interest you?"

"Please - "

"Let me think, now. They were never hunters, never meat-eaters, but foragers who upon reaching maturity must eat almost constantly to stay alive. They're so very large, you see; and their mouths are situated very low, and close to the ground, so whatever they can forage can be consumed at once."

"How do they see? How do they sense their way about?"

"Your second question, I fancy, is nearer the mark. For they have no true eyes, as you or I would think of such. Instead, they seem to react to subtle changes in temperature and atmospheric pressure, light or darkness, and the contours of the land..."

And as Koenig asked his questions and Yeteve answered them, she would from time to time digress to point out to him various places of interest on the island.

Farmers out in their fields, their day already several hours old, paused in their work to wave to their sovereign and to gape at Koenig as the pair of them passed by.

Here and there, too, were to be found groups of artisans collecting their imaginations, philosophers their thoughts in vigorous discussions, and inventors their genius; and Koenig found himself wondering how Bergman, for one, might have appreciated that! -

But, by now, he was also beginning to wonder about other things.

For everywhere there had been women, some of them shyly turning away from him, to perhaps spare this strange guest of theirs being embarrassed.

Still, they were all women...

Where were the men?

Chapter Ten

On the runaway Moon, the duty continued to go forward in the Command Center.

With one ear Verdeschi registered the subtle whoosh of the double doors, from behind his desk, as they slid aside.

Seeking to match sight to sound, one eye became two and he promptly rose to his feet.

Others wondered at the reason for this, looked for themselves and as swiftly emulated him.

All conversation in the room whispered into silence, and only the sound of the computers was heard.

Thus could be calibrated, with an exquisite simplicity, the degree of esteem in which his fellow travelers held Victor Bergman, who stood framed by the open entryway. He noted the faces turned in his direction, the astonishment registering in some of them.

He stepped forward, into the room, glanced toward Verdeschi.

"Your seat," said the latter.

He nodded, "My seat," and thereupon took the chair behind the main command desk - the seat only Koenig occupied.

After a beat, the activity in the room resumed.

No written protocol had ever governed, or even guided, his presence there.

Long ago, in the more informal days before Earth fell from their sight forever, his was a welcomed addition to whatever operations team was running the base.

Afterwards, more than once, no less than Koenig himself - on the tip of the spear of peril - had stated quite clearly that should anything happen to him, to be prepared to take orders therewith from the science advisor.

Even after the command structure became more formalized, issuance of that particular directive - most memorably during the crisis of the Triton probe - had never been rescinded.

One Alphan with good reason to remember this, was Carter; he'd been Koenig's duty pilot on that occasion, and had faced down the Triton threat alongside him.

Now, it was Sandra who walked alongside him, in the corridor. He carried the stacked neatly-bound transcripts, and as they came up on the main entryway to the Command Center, she stopped and so did he.

"You all right?" asking gently, for he knew what lay behind her troubled moment's hesitation. As translators, they were the first to read the diary.

She briefly nodded, and he smiled, and then drew his commlock to punch the admittance sequence.

They stopped first at the command desk. Sandra had shrugged off her mood of an instant before, and was in firm control once more.

"They told us you were here," said Alan.

"She said to give you this," as Sandra handed the first copy to the scientist.

Alan took the other copies, passed amongst the various duty stations and handed one to each operative, keeping a copy for himself.

"Read this," Sandra directed.

"What is it?" from a curious Helena, accepting a copy.

"Alix's diary, her original account of her visit to this world - and that island. It tells the whole story."

Alibe, manning one of the duty stations in "the trench," leafed through the pages and then looked up. "Including why she didn't want the Commander going down there?"

"Including why none of us ought to go there," quietly.

Bergman was at once intent on reading his copy, and those around him were also settling down to the task.

Except for Helena, who sat at the Medical duty console and stared absently at the first page. Maya, en route to her own desk, noted this and paused.

The physician was still gazing at that first page; gazing at it and not seeing it...

She, understanding too well what is was to be acutely concerned for her man, laid a hand upon the white-clad left shoulder.

"This is absurd," its owner murmured, "just sitting here, when John could be in danger...we ought to be doing things! - "

"I know," softly, their platinum and russett heads bobbing close together. "I's the natural reaction, wanting to help...but right now, the best way we can help the Commander is to read this document, to absorb the knowledge it contains. So that when we are called upon, we'll be prepared and we can act quickly. Don't you see?"

They also serve, who only sit and wait, she sighed to herself. Waiting for what? -

Her head accepted Maya's logic, but her heart insisted she ought to be running for the nearest Eagle; that there was danger on that island, or very soon would be, and she had to be there to meet it with her man.

For now, though, she summoned a brave face for Maya to see. "Then, I suppose I must do my lessons," trying to sound brave, at least. It was enough for Maya, who smiled down at her and then moved on.

Behind her, Helena fixed anxious eyes upon the Big Screen.

The more time passes without any word, the more nervous I grow...

She wondered how he fared; and how much longer would it be, before she could find out?

Chapter Eleven

"Now," said Alia, " let's see, shall we? air, no water, no rivers or seas, no vegetation, you said..."

It was a wicked-looking contraption, but she shouldered the elaborate crossbow lightly and expertly.

"On target?" as the quarrel thudded into the boldly-marked, overstuffed edifice some distance away.

"On target," Alix smiled with approval, for the shaft yet quivered from its dead-center landing.

"And you live in such a place?" incredulous.

She lifted her own crossbow - the one she had carried on Psyche Elysium.

"It's a very different sort of place, the Moon, with a beauty uniquely its own," aiming carefully, "and there are those who love it," she let fly; and her quarrel, too, scored a bulls-eye.

"I needn't inquire if you number yourself amongst them," with a shrewd twinkle. "Well, I suppose I see. Mind, I still think your aim in some matters is grossly misdirected!" Pouting, "It makes me feel rather thrown-over," fitting another shaft into place.

"Nonsense! I came back, didn't I?"

"Yes, and for how long, hm?" again lining up her crossbow, the aiming hairs meeting her viridian eye. "This Moon of yours - other people live there as well, you say?"

"Just over 300 of them," engrossed with fitting her own quarrel. "I don't think Commander Koenig would mind my telling you."

"Including men?"

"M'm," also aiming, "some one-half that number or so, I would guess."

Alia watched her quarrel fly, and a certain smugness settled over her; for she sensed she'd hit the target, in more ways than one...

"And have you one of these Alphan men for yourself?"

Alix's timing was spoiled at the critical moment, and her quarrel missed its mark.

"Alia!? - " letting out an exasperated breath. "No one but you could make a man sound like a - a piece of furniture!"

"Nor am I redecorating my mother's palace," with that wicked little smile of one who is exercising the proverbial upper hand. "The witness will answer..."

Not the sort of question that merited too very swift a response, insomuch as these two had, long ago, learned to love to verbally parry each other in their conversations.

Alia could easily sparkle in such a setting, teasingly drawing out her somewhat more reserved companion.

Thus, Alix was well aware of how to play her audience, even to giving her pause just the proper shading of drama. Would it infuriate Alia? - well, of course!

"There could be one," thoughtfully, "perhaps...although I know many men on Alpha, and count them amongst my friends. Still - this one is rather special..."

Alia put down her crossbow. There would be no more talk of targets and quarrels. This new subject was becoming quite interesting, and she wanted to hear it all and meant to miss nothing.


"Well..." still drawing out the moment.

"Khosrowdad!..." stamping her foot. Alia possessed her own personal blind spots; one of these, alas, was a bent for impatience.

"All right!" laughing. "His name is Alan; and he's tall, and fair-haired - but in a different way from you - and he has the oddest manner of speaking!" here trying, however awkwardly, to mimic that rather broad, rough-edged syntax. "Oh my," giggling, "I still can't imitate that accent of his, I'm afraid you'll have to imagine it..."

"And what else?" clearly savoring what she'd heard so far.

"What else?" softly, with a certain special, warm inflection. "A multitude of things!...things and places and ideas I never knew existed...and he has the friendliest blue eyes I think I've ever seen..."

Alia dropped her usually-flighty exterior, aware she had discerned something more sensitive than she had anticipated.

She hadn't guessed it would be thus.

Then again, perhaps she had, and she spoke very quietly.

"It's been quite a long time, you know...and yet - I seem to recall that such a tone of voice would never speak of mere friendship..."


"This man you've you love him?"

Alix was silent, touched with a certain glow about her that had nothing whatever to do with the omnimorph...

Definitely not that sort of question...

Laughing, "Well, do you?" Alia slipped back into character with the ease any lady would display in donning a fine new dress.

"M'm," softly, still radiating that glow. "Yes, I think I do...even given my doubts as to whether I'm really suited for him..."

"Doubts!?" in an indignant outburst. "My mother had her choice of all the most handsome, all the most brilliant men on this planet - and she chose my father, do you know why?"

"Because, for all their handsomeness and all their brilliance, she did not love those other men. She loved your father."

"There, you see? And you're just the same. My friend is more than good enough for any man!" loftily. "And if this - "

"Alan - "

" - Alan - of yours were standing here on this spot, I'd tell him so, too - you be assured of that! - "

As I fear you would, my friend...

How good it was, to be with Alia again! Glibness of tongue, showy assertiveness, strutting bravado and all. Such improbable wrappings, for so dear a friend!

"Oh! - " suddenly remembering, and drawing her commlock, "talking on and on...the Eagle's onboard computer ought to have a picture somewhere...ah! Here, Alia," handing the instrument to her, "look, right there - "

Alia did so, and she reacted, "Well, now!...what have we here?" and not a trace of the usual cockiness was evident in her voice. "It's an interesting face...I do like it..." and before another few seconds had flown, she was dissolving into a fit of giggles; and in no time after this, they were both laughing merrily, as women anywhere will when men are the subject of conversation.

And after yet another moment this sound ceased, floated away on the foliage-heavy tropical stillness, leaving silence behind.

Alia was still gazing at the little photograph in the commlock's video pickup, and her words resonated with that stillness.

"I'm glad you did not bring him with you..."

Alix's reply, when it came, bore that stillness also.

"So am I..."

Chapter Twelve

As the three of them approached the top of the hill - Yeteve, Koenig and their nuxghsceap - the Moonbase Commander had come to acquire a dazed respect for this ostensibly-ungainly creature and its capabilities, if Yeteve's running commentary on how it managed this and that could be taken as gospel. He'd tried, and since given up, to classify it as a sort of very large relation to certain species of mollusks back on Earth.

The nuxghsceap simply stood alone, however it managed to do so. That it could keep its massive weight so evenly distributed was something to wonder at; but the manner in which it maintained this weight at a fairly constant level was remarkable as well...

"Excessive weight interferes with the great tensile strength of the skin, and hence its mobility," Yeteve was explaining. "So the nuxghsceap will simply come to a halt, no matter where it is; it ceases ingesting any more food and assumes a form of torpid state. When the skin is stretched so very tightly as to become rigid, its splits open as though slit by a blade, and the creature forces itself out through this opening. It has grown an entirely new skin beneath the old one, with great masses of fat and tissue in between; and these are left behind, discarded, after the nuxghsceap revives. And once the new skin has cured properly, upon contact with the sun and air, the creature simply sets out placidly about its business once again, its proper weight restored. Instinct seems to be the driving force. And the process will be repeated many times, during its life."

"Sounds like quite an ordeal to go through, just to drop those extra pounds," he commented. "Is any of it edible?"

"You shall dine with us this evening," she smiled, "and thus be given the opportunity of deciding for yourself!"

Low-hanging tree branches and frilly fronds passingly grazed their heads, and they laughed together.

"How do they perpetuate themselves?" he wanted to know.

"Perhaps the strangest chapter of the piece," she asserted. "We know nuxghsceaps live to a very old age and produce but a single tiny offspring, wriggling out from beneath the massive bulk of its parent - very slowly, yet under its own power, and a perfect copy of the parent in every way. Life, from life! You ask how they accomplish the miracle? No one knows! The parent dies soon afterward, from what appears nothing so much as sheer exhaustion. The most striking of afflictions, if you will, that can kill a nuxghsceap. Life from death, perhaps, is more fitting a phrase..."

"Is it possible to do any sort of post-mortem on these things? To examine them?"

"We've tried, but with very little success. Even their gender - if they possess it - is unknown to us. The internal organs collapse very soon after death..."

Here the sunshine had become clear and strong, and not filtered through the thatched and leafy canopies of the jungles below and the forests through which they had traveled up the slopes.

"So, you just lie in wait for them to slough off their old skins," he surmised, blinking in the newly-brighter light. "Sounds something like what a rattlesnake does."


"In the place I come from, the place where I was born, rattlesnakes regenerate their skins in a similar manner."

"A torpid nuxghsceap must never be disturbed," said she. "To do so, is to call down divine disfavor..."

Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, shooting the albatross, Koenig thought.

"I'm glad you don't have to hunt them, to kill them for food."

"So am I," bringing their mount to a halt on a level surface well-carpeted with grasses and flowers, so it could thusly graze. "The nuxghsceap is a docile, gentle creature," as the howdah slowly dropped, "who's long, long since outlived all of its ancient natural enemies..."

By now she and Koenig stood on solid ground; and he watched her walking around their nuxghsceap, making sure its needs would be met in this place.

She spoke of it with such clear pride and affection.

By the time she had come back around again, the circle complete, Yeteve's mood had changed. "We should have learned to be nuxghsceaps...why didn't we?"

There was such a mingling of sadness and barely-contained anger in these last words, that Koenig was shocked. It was the first time his hostess had displayed any such emotions in his presence. He wanted to hear more...

The buzz of his commlock, when it came, startled him; he'd almost forgotten he hadn't come here from the Moon by himself.


"Are you two enjoying your reunion?" Yeteve asked, her brighter spirits returning, after Koenig had shown her how the device operated.

"Oh yes!" Alia sounded jubilant. "I've been hearing all about the things these Alphans have done, and all the places they've been - things you simply could not believe - and Alix has been showing me the flying craft she and the Commander traveled here in - what do you call it? - " looking off-screen briefly,

" - yes! The Eagle - I'm getting a tour, you see."

"So long as Commander Koenig doesn't object," her mother advised.

"Oh, he doesn't mind - does he?" now looking a bit reproachful. "It's just that...we simply thought this would help me understand better - about how all of you live, up there on your Moon," said she. "Does any of that make any sense?"

"It makes for a healthy, responsible attitude," said Yeteve.

For the first time in the conversation, Alix was heard from: "Sir, I had hoped to be able to take Alia up for a brief flight..."

"Denied," said he, in a pair of crisp syllables. "You know you're still barred, on medical grounds, from flying an Eagle by yourself. I know, your headaches can be controlled now, but it's Ed Spencer's rule and not mine, so if you want it changed you'll have to convince him."

He heard the whispered words of explanation off-screen, of the India-born physician on Alpha who looked after her health and its unique perturbations.

Like many Alphans, she had taken the basic pilot's course offered by the Reconnaissance section, learning from a number of expert instructors there. Having as many Eagle-rated personnel available as possible would be important, when the long-awaited day of Operation Exodus arrived at last.

Carter, as was his practice, had given her the final certification exam himself; to be assured thus that only qualified personnel would be allowed anywhere near his fleet of machines...

A contrite-sounding Alia was responding: "The flight wasn't her idea, really, it's mine. She knew you would object, for the reasons given...but she asked, for me. We haven't had flying machines of any sort here for ages, and - well - to have the chance to ride in one, now!..."

Koenig glanced up from the little screen. "Is that true?" to Yeteve.

"It's true," said she. "We found they could not be maneuvered properly in the confined airspace of our force field."

He saw Alia's electronic image still glowing and hopeful in the palm of his hand, but his spoken words clearly included both of them.

"All right," conceding, "a very short flight. And, Alix - show her the rock-bottom rudiments of working dual controls - I want you obeying at least the spirit of the rules. Clear?"

"Clear, sir, and thank you..." She looked much relieved, and grateful too, as she rang off.

"A mother's gratitude, as well," with a smile, from Yeteve. "That was a most thoughtful gesture," as they both walked.

Here, very near the summit, fresh gusts of wind plucked at their hair; and, above, the iridescent glimmers of sun dogs escorted that blazing yellow-orange orb towards the zenith.

Breezes whirred, eddied, shifted, bringing a host of scents - of rushing water, from streams not far distant; the volcanic pungency of the soil; the now-familiar dizzying perfume of countless thousands of flowers.

And at least one new scent, the islander's ever-present companion: the salty tang of the ocean.

Yeteve tilted her face towards the sun and wind, breathing deeply of this invigorating air; and the effect was to render her beauty all the more arresting.

"I cannot remember a day that has passed so very pleasantly!" she sighed.

Taken on balance, Koenig found himself agreeing with her.

For all the doubts continuing to feed upon themselves in some back corner of his brain, he yet had to concede to having been charmed by his hostess.

Yeteve was a genial, and approachable, traveling companion; far too cultured to be, say, an Elizia. Quite the opposite, in point of fact: although their extended time alone with each other had suggested any number of little untried-for openings, she had made no attempts to come on to him, in even the least overt sense.

In another context, his male ego might be feeling a bit wounded by now; in this one, he knew Yeteve to be a married woman, and he actively wondered about the husband she had spoken of so fondly - and always in the past tense.

He turned and she turned at the distant muffled sound, from somewhere far below in the lower-lying tropical climes of Nephinefta.

"The Eagle's taking off," matter-of-factly.

"Alia will so enjoy it," and Yeteve herself sounded most pleased. "Shall we sit here?" indicating a series of grassy hullocks that looked out across the widest breath of the island and the sea beyond.

They did so, and as she settled herself Yeteve took the opportunity to study the face and demeanor of her guest.

"You've become very quiet, in these few minutes," gently. "Perhaps we have attempted too much, and too soon? We shall both take our rest and our ease here..."

Cultured, charming and tactful. She would never have thought to ask him point-blank if he felt tired, which he rather did.

"It's these tropical latitudes," shrugging absently. "We're not really used to this sort of climate, up on Alpha."

"I've been pondering that, from the moment she introduced us," said Yeteve. "How strange and wonderful it is, having someone new to listen to..."

"You mean to talk to, don't you?"

She shook her head. "No, to listen eyes, through which to see the world; a new fount of knowledge and ideas to hear about...that means so very much in a place like Nephinefta, isolated as we are from the outside. This place you come from, Alpha...I gather it's a very different place than this. What is your day like, up there? What sorts of things busy up your time, and fill your hours?"

It surprised him, that he had to think about it for a moment. So many others, whose paths the runaway Moon had unwittingly crossed, had accepted his statement of executive responsibility at face value.

And yet, here was someone wanting to hear about what he actually did in his job; expressing not a cool and dispassionate, analytical front, but a keen and genuine curiosity.

"What is your day like?"

Even the way she had phrased it was affecting, and it touched him. He stretched, relaxed, and thought.

What IS my day like? -

"What sorts of things? Work, mostly..."

And the images that word called up from the darker side of him, chased off any notion of frivolity.

"And trying to think ahead, every waking moment...and worrying. A lot of worrying fills my hours. Will the machinery keeping us alive, go on keeping us alive? Is there enough food to eat, enough good clean air to breathe? Some nights I don't sleep well, for wondering what sort of dreams I might have, when I shut my eyes...and other nights there's no sleeping at all, because my brain can't, or won't, push it all aside, even for a very little while. Do you ever have nightmares, both waking and sleeping? I do! - Human error, good old human stupidity, blew the Moon out of Earth orbit - and us - Alpha - along with it, and we've been wandering in deep space ever since. Where the Moon goes, we must go also, no matter whatever - each has become the other, and both have become one. Over three hundred people, equating their very survival with the existence of a single man - and, no, I'm not being vain - because vanity hasn't got a damn thing to do with this! - "

Those beautiful liquid-green eyes had grown quite round, and her lips moved without speaking, as though feeding in the various factors of this strange and mystifying equation.

"But, how do you live?" a query vibrant with incredulity and acute and deep feeling - and matching the grip of her fingers which had stolen quietly over his arm, unnoticed by either of them.

"As best we can. Day by day." With a bitter laugh at his own expense, "I am nothing so much as Horatio! I 'hold the bridge' - and try to keep Alpha's hopes and dreams, what hopes and dreams we still have, from going completely to pieces..."

Yeteve was silent.

Her fingers loosened, slipped away, stymied as she was for a response.

Then she stood, and looked out over the sun-glittered expanse of the sea.

"This is the highest point on the island," said she, presently. "You can see far across the ocean from here," this being a great stretch of heaving green and gray that went off towards the edge of the world.

He got up and went over to stand beside her and share the view.

"You know, when I think about what lies just over those horizons, beyond these shores, it makes the existence of Nephinefta all the more remarkable..."

Then he was glancing at Yeteve. It was, he suddenly realized, the hue of the sea that he saw reflected in those limpid eyes of hers.

The wind shifted yet again, blowing in cold and hard from off the water. Their clothing flapped like pennants, was molded against their bodies, and their scalps - indeed, their very skins - tingled. The force field was so very much closer, up here.

"It's strange," she mused, "to think of seeing the ocean without any signs of life in it - the wheeling-about of a sky-creature, the wake of a water-vessel or a sea-creature - I come up here, knowing I won't see them again...and yet, I expect them still."

And, still gazing down upon the crashing waves far below, her visage hardened.

"In this, we are the same, you and I...we have both known light and darkness..."

For the tropics, it felt uncomfortably cold; and the wind could not be assigned sole culpability. Had he yet seen, even glimpsed, the true Nephinefta?

Or did all of this constitute only bright colors, and fragrant images?

This island, this world, had its own darker side; and perhaps it was that Yeteve was poised to show it to him now...parting the light, and revealing the darkness.

He tried to ease carefully into the subject, trying to sound sprightly and off-handed: "Well, now you've heard something of my history; so, what about yours?"

She pshawed, "An exceedingly brief recitation, and quite boring besides! - " but he wasn't put off so easily:

"Oh, no - you don't give me that! Maybe to Seeba, and the rest of them down the hill, but not to me - !"

Yeteve melted, laughing, in the glow of that luminous smile, and relaxed.

"Well...I was the daughter of a noble family, whose parents - like most parents, I suspect - wanted their daughter to marry very high, and very well! - " She took a breath. "Alix has told me that, in other cultures, marriages often are contracted for reasons of, shall we say, expediency - was this so, in the place where you were born?"

"Sometimes, for policy's sake," said he.

"I could never marry for such reasons..."

Her features grew fine and soft, and the sunshine touched them in a special way.

"How can there be marriage, without love? And in the event, there was only one man I ever wanted - that he was intended to rule his people, made not the least difference to me..."

"And all the difference to your parents, hm?"

"Oh, yes!" laughing.

"What was he like - your husband?" sitting back down and settling himself, to take his turn at listening.

"He was like..."

A windblown cloud of purple poised on the bluff, she took in the sight of him from head to toe, as though doing so for the first time.

"He was like you...not so much in the details...the color of your eyes, or of your hair...but in the way of your face..." She paused. "Strong, decisive...with a hint of gentleness, just under the skin. Boqkanah's face was like that..."

"Boqkanah," repeating it, "that was his name?"

"M'm," nodding. "We were newly married, when we came here for the very first time, and it never left us if its only reason to exist, was for us. We built a home, and a life for ourselves. Alia was born here - we undertook the journey when my time drew near, and the doctors judged me still fit enough to travel. This was our refuge, a place to come to, again and yet again...where we could be ourselves, a family like any other. Ours was a strong, happy union, and never stronger or happier than here, on Nephinefta..." With an aching wistfulness, "We were so very happy..." as if no more effort than this could summon that blissful era back once more.

Koenig said nothing. Those oh-so-familiar alarm bells in his head, which served him so well up on the runaway Moon, were alerting him here, now.

He waited, and left it to her to continue.

She did, but with very different emotions in her voice - those of someone who, like himself, had known nightmares, both waking and sleeping...

"There were two factions, bitterly divided," said she. "I can't even remember what it was, that made them quarrel so...only that they did quarrel, sharply and with great anger. My husband offered himself as negotiator, to aid in mediating a peaceful end to the troubles. Progress came so very slowly! But there were those who did not wish him to accomplish even this - for an attempt was made upon his life, which he survived...and a second plot was discovered, before it could be carried out..."

Past this she could not continue, her words choked off by that reawakened moment of terror that precariously separated any wife from a grieving widowhood.

She presently managed to resume. Having begun the narrative, she now felt somehow compelled to finish it.

"His security advisors told him they could not guarantee his safety in the capital, under such - conditions - and they begged him to go away, somewhere..."

"And he chose to come here, to Nephinefta, the one place that had always sustained him - an island, an isolated location, where your husband's bodyguards could better protect him - that's what the force field is for."

"It extends into the very sea-bottom," she concurred. "The plans were laid in great secrecy. On the surface, it was made to appear no different from any other time we had come here. So Alia and I came along with him, as we always did, and so too did our usual retinue of retainers. Boqkanah had made the island - self-sufficient? - we did not lack for food or water or any other such comforts here. We arrived and settled ourselves, whereupon he returned at once to his work as mediator."

"Despite the fact that somebody, somewhere, had tried to kill him - and, presumably, still wanted him dead?"

"You impress me as a man who does not scare easily, even in the most tenuous of situations. Neither did my husband. He did not choose Nephinefta for safety's sake strange, that you already know that!" wonderingly.

But again, revived memories overtook her.

"One night, I awoke and found him gone...and I was frantic, believing that our enemies had finally followed us. Instead, I found him up here, sitting alone in the dark. He said he couldn't sleep. He would well have understood the - the great uncertainty hanging over your lives, there on the Moon. There were no real secrets between the two of us, he and I...he confided to me that his negotiating effort was failing, and he knew it. Both sides had stiffened themselves, refusing to give any more ground. The increasing ferocity of the language, made him deathly afraid...afraid of what could happen if the business were not resolved in peace.

"All of this preyed on his mind, and would not let him rest. I entreated him to at least try, to come back down with me. Dawn was not far off - what you call, I think, the 'witching hour' - when life is at its lowest ebb, and the world sleeps..."

She swayed on her feet, seized by a reborn terror surpassing even the near-assassination of the husband she'd adored. Koenig was springing up to help her.

Presently, she seemed to recover herself. But it was too late, all was coming back to her and losing none of the horror...

"Praise Khosrowdad, we were together, when that moment came...!"

Silhouetted on the knoll by the sparkling clarity of the afternoon, still close to her, he followed the direction of her eyes, away over the ocean...

...and he beheld her darkness.

" was there...a great unnatural sun, appearing on the horizon where the sun never rises..."

Her purple shoulders drooped, and her eyes closed.

"Boqkanah forcibly threw me to the ground, and shielded me...I never saw the flash, and yet there was this terrible - whiteness, everywhere - " She was almost crying, "We both knew what it was..." for her tears were not for herself, not possibly for herself...

"Then he was hurrying me down the hill, through the forest and the jungle. The ground beneath us began to tremble. The entire island shook, we could scarcely stand upright for the sheer force of it. By the time we reached the settlement, the blast and sound arrived - like a great and terrible wave of booming thunder. Everywhere was panic and fear and shock - people incoherent and hysterical. Boqkanah tried to calm them down - he told us all that our country was at war, and that we too must expect to be attacked. The force field was our best hope - something meant only to stop terrorists, and now it had to stop bombs!?" laughing sarcastically.

"Beyond that, all he could really do was to order everyone below ground, with all the provisions we could carry - some very modest caves exist there, formed during the volcanic birth of the island. A number of our young people had first discovered them, for - trysting places - !"

Her soft giggling was more melancholy now.

"So we all huddled there, by the light of many lanterns, while all around us the ground rocked and those terrible sounds swept over our heads...only Boqkanah was willing to take chances, to try to see what in fact was happening. He ordered me to stay below with the others, but I would not heed him. The buildings, the gardens, all held the stillness of death. Dawn was newly arrived, pink and gold and orange...such a beautiful morning, for such - evil! We held close to each other, always within some form of shelter; and whenever we dared look up, we could catch a glimpse of them - climbing, racing each other high across our zenith - invisible, save for their contrails, lit by sunlight - and we heard the sounds of their passage...

"Boqkanah was certain they were the attack wave, come for us at last, and he hurried me back below again. To a one of us, we made peace with our gods; and then we waited, for the inevitable..."

Her eyes were very round, her lashes very still, her nerves poised on the edge.

"But it didn't happen...they never came...! No one knew what to think...we didn't even know which side had started the shooting! - "

"It doesn't matter," he murmured.

First, last or in between, he thought, with a freezing disgust, because no one is left, in the end...

"No one knew what to think," she was going on. "Either they had forgotten about us, or - or there wasn't anyone left to remember... Boqkanah said it didn't matter - we were alive! Oh, he roundly and brazenly cursed them, he called down divine retribution upon their heads, for bring their own people to this! But we on Nephinefta were spared; for a reason, he said, although he couldn't fathom what it could be. Tests were conducted, so far as such testing was possible, and by all reckonings the force field had been the saving of us. So we came back up, into the light, and...and tried to pick up the threads of our lives..."

Her slippered toe stubbed at the grassy flank of the bluff while she was speaking. Now, as she once more fell silent, her foot kicked at it with a genuine ferocity, sending up a miniscule cloud of dislodged dirt.

And she has every right to be angry...

Even with her features distorted by that anger, she was beautiful...

He gently led her over to the hilly tussocks, carefully settled her upon one of them and then himself, next to her. Before his eyes, she seemed to age many years. The past, the darkness, bowed her straight back and she buried her face in her hands.

"We were fools! - " vehement, muffled syllables floating out from amongst her interlaced fingers. "We were such fools...thinking we had somehow been made over into...agents of some divine agency, simply because we'd survived! Such vanity - ! The first sign of illness humbled us, made us realize our leveling was at hand. In the close confines of the island, it quickly became an epidemic...a terrible malady no one had ever seen before..."

Radiation, Koenig thought, suddenly seized by his own vision of the past...of the brain cancers that had killed those men, back on Alpha, their deaths setting the stage for the Moon's blasting out of Earth orbit...brain cancers, caused by radiation.

Here too, the ogre had raised itself up, to smite innocents...

Yeteve was looking up at him, and her fine liquid eyes were haunted.

"We called it, simply, the sickness...even our doctors and nurses were struck down with it. No one was spared. And there was nothing anyone could do, to check it - ! I was left bedridden for days - I couldn't even summon the strength to raise my hand...Alia suffered through fits of fever and coma, she nearly died...I realize it's an offense against life, to pray for death, because life is a divine gift...but in those times, we did pray for death, for release from that malevolent pestilence! -

"And yet - and yet, eventually I started to feel better. In small degrees at first, but soon I could stand myself on my own feet without toppling to the floor. The fever had broken, and the sickness was going away...and not just from me, but from others..."

An involuntary gasp escaped her.

Facial muscles twitched and her body shuddered, and her next words came in jerky, ill-connected spurts that clutched at him with deep feeling:

"We women, we lived...we survived the sickness...but it killed our men - !" sobbing openly, "All of them - all of them - from the oldest counselor of state, to - to the unborn son I miscarried! - "

Then her grief was suffocating her, leaving exposed a crushed spirit that had never really recovered from this succession of cruel blows.

"My God," he whispered, filled with a great sympathy for her - and an even more explosive rage aimed in other directions.

Eaters of babies! - It sounded Biblical somehow, and he thought this must be so, although the mental image of the page eluded him...

Butchers of children! - for there could be no more heinous an atrocity visited upon the living, anywhere...

Yeteve was there, before him, the survivor who had to bear it all in her darkness.

He reached over to her and gathered her unto himself, she offering no resistance; surprisingly light she was, like a rag-doll, as he lifted her up.

They went from the blustery knoll, to the cooling shade and fragrance of the trees, and here he carefully set her down again.

"It's out," choking for breath, "I've said it...I've never told that to anyone before..."

Never told - !?

"Not even Alia?" in low-voiced astonishment, "not even your own daughter?"

"No-one! - " The marbled veils of trauma were passing from her face, and she seemed to be seeing

He gently cupped her face between his hands, her russett hair spilling about his fingers.

"The same sort of war killed my wife, back on Earth," he told her. We had separated, long before that, but..."

A sentence he still could not bring himself to finish.

"Jean and I never had any children of our own, and yet...well, it's true in my culture and I suspect it's true in yours, and just about anywhere else too. A woman keenly feels the loss of any child...she is the instrument of creation. While we men are reduced to nothing more than awestruck bystanders - ! It's different, for a man...especially the loss of a son. A man sees his son as an extension of himself; a part of his knowledge, his feeling - his soul, if you like - that by all rights ought to live on, after he's gone. But when his son dies first, that is the worst sort of agony - !"

He paused, seeing her eyes filming over with unshed tears. They were swollen, from so many other tears.

"When you...when you lost the baby, you couldn't go to your husband; he was already dead, or dying..."

"They were dying all around me! - " this a shriek of inner torture, reborn.

"And no one, no man, left to go to," quietly, "until now..."

"You're a stranger...why am I telling you?..."

"Am I? - " whispering it...

The hairs-breath between them became nothingness. And, in the awkward spaces between heartbeats, their lips brushed and, having found each other, remained there.

Their nuxghsceap was still where they had left it to graze, and await their return.

Having conducted her thither, Koenig very carefully assisted Yeteve into the howdah, and spoke quietly to her. He would shepherd the nuxghsceap down the hill, could she show him how to do it? She did, and they set out.

The howdah itself seemed to follow the basic form of all such works on Nephinefta; richly-grained woods, so perfectly fitted together as to reveal no seams, and with elaborate decoration. There were even what appeared to be niches that could presumably hold masses of fresh flowers.

Remembering what he and Yeteve had found earlier, he located the rudiments of what appeared to be some sort of supportive apparatus for a canopy. He soon had it up and in order, the fabric, with its bright colors and exquisitely-stitched patterns, spreading itself across a portion of the sky to offer shade and shelter.

Then he turned back to Yeteve. She lay curled up, almost in a fetal position, amidst the billowy clouds of pillows and cushions that carpeted the interior of the howdah, claimed by an exhausted stupor...

He had held tightly onto her, trying as best he could to contain that emotional quake, untold minutes of their gently rocking back and forth together.

To have been able to bring him up there, to that spot, with all its associations with holocaust, of race and of family, had demanded some great inner reserve of will, of strength from her. Once arrived, however, that had not lasted very long, could not possibly last.

Nothing could last forever.

Down below, amongst those fragrant clouds of flowers, she had been able to live some sort of a life. But up on those wind-buffeted cliffs, it had all come back to her, and this even her strong will had been unable to withstand.

A strong tower fell heavily, he'd reflected; and there and then, and in his presence, it had finally happened...

He gathered her close once more. His eyes looked out over the disheveled cloud of her hair buried in his shoulder, they could just see the edge of the sea from here, above the treetops. Within those eyes, ancient emotions burned.

Somewhere over the edge of that sea lay great cities laid utterly to waste by vast firestorms and their attendant cataclysms - looking, from the distant runaway Moon, as if no one had ever been there. Again he silently leveled true and awful curses at them, whoever they had been, for turning their backs upon sanity and regressing to the primitive, succumbing to the blood-lust of barbaric antecedents.

Then it passed out of him. There was no longer any need. In the bomb - or whatever horrific weapon they'd resorted to - they'd fashioned their own purgatory, had already paid for their mistakes and their folly, their pettiness and contempt for those other than themselves.

But other were still paying. The woman in his arms. And the others, down below; the world had become theirs, by default, and Nephinefta an island without men...

So limp, and so very fragile! Silently he willed his own strength into her and gentleness promising shelter. And, at last, an answer. The tentative movements of fingertips, of that russett cloud, close to his face. The scent of flowers, of the sea, of perfume, perhaps?...

Then her mouth was seeking out his, and all was revelation; and the world was sliding away, sinking ever so slowly into the clouds...

Chapter Thirteen

His eyes edged open, wincing.

The sun was a bobbing flash, peeping out from beneath the canopy.

He let out a breath. He stretched, tried to move. Every limb responded languidly.

A sense of utter peace had swept over him. The subtle motion around him had a lulling effect. He had no wish of release from it.

But, somewhere, something was trying...not light, not this time, but a sound, and from such a distance...

Reluctantly, he tried to focus on that sound...and his surroundings gradually reshaped themselves before him.

Beside him, Yeteve was sleeping.

And still, that sound...

He roused himself, seeing the perimeter of the jungle approaching. And at last, he recognized that sound.

A sound belonging not to Nephinefta, but to Alpha - to the world he knew.

One sound became two: the wrongful timbre of the Eagle's engines from afar, and that incessant buzzing - from his own commlock.

When he lifted the instrument, Alia's frantic voice issued from it:

"Commander! - Praise Khosrowdad, you've answered! Something's happened to Alix - she started gasping and choking, and now she isn't moving at all! I tried to grasp the controls, but I can't - "

Instantly his mind cleared.

Seizure, he thought at once...

"We can't help her until you're on the ground. You'll have to land the Eagle, Alia..."

"I can't! - I don't know how! - "

"I do," said he, "and I'll talk you down. You do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it. Understood?"

"Y - yes, sir..."

"Good. First - take a long, deep breath and then slowly release it - very good! Now, look around...find somewhere to land, somewhere with lots of open ground. You know this island - "

"Yes...yes, I do see! We use it for an athletic field - "

"That'll do. Now, listen very carefully..."

She did so, and acting as he bade her she moved the controls.

His listening, trained ear - alert to the craft's every twitch - told him the Eagle was responding as it should...

Elsewhere within the howdah, Yeteve was stirring.

She moved from side to side and moaned several times, and her eyes flickered open.

"What's happening...?" Her lips scarcely moved...

"I've deployed the footpad probes, sir," Alia's voice said, from the commlock's audio pickup, "go ahead - what do I do next?"

"All right. The probes will tell you you're very close to the surface. When any of them touch, tell me - our old lexicon for it was 'contact light' - you say 'contact light,' and immediately shut down the engines. You'll fall only a very few feet, but you'll be fine - I promise. Any questions?"

"No, sir, I understand..."

Yeteve was sitting up. Her features were etched with confusion, and she still looked very tired.

Alia's voice burst out in triumph: "Contact light! - "

"Shut down! - "

"I have it - "

And, an instant later, Koenig could hear sobbing over the open radio circuit - not born of sorrow, but of intense relief and absurd joy.

He reacted to her touch upon his shoulder...

"Your daughter just landed one of my Eagles," said he, "she has her mother's courage..."

Her hazy brain couldn't quite assimilate this.


"We're going to her now - right now - let me stop this thing," and, using the riding crop as he had watched her do before, he managed to halt the nuxghsceap's forward progress. "We can make better time without it," jumping to the ground and nimbly catching Yeteve as she followed him.

He carried her for a distance and then, at her behest, put her down. He marveled that she was to any degree capable of it, but she was keeping apace of him on her own...

Elsewhere, Alia had managed to get her insensible companion as far as the Eagle's laboratory module; here she was able to lay her out flat upon the module floor. Then she rose, in search of the switchgear for the airlock, presently managing to get the double doors open.

There, across the meadow, she spotted them, a most incongruous sight indeed - her mother a billow of plum-colored silks, and their guest from Alpha, all khaki and black trim. Both were running now.

Koenig, putting on a burst of speed, presently outraced his companion and abruptly burst into the Eagle cabin, dropping next to Alix's side; wasting neither time nor idle motions, he was arming the small pressurized charge and firing it, through the fabric of her uniform and against her skin.

"Stretcher!" he ordered, and Alia found herself leaping to obey. The training imparted to her from her friend, came to her now as though it had always been a part of her nature. "Let's get it open, then outside," reaching to help her do so.

Yeteve was now in the Eagle, "My bearers are coming, they'll be here in moments..."

Still short of breath, she nonetheless could not help but gaze in astonishment around the Alphan craft's interior.

His world...!

Their eyes refocused upon the stilled khaki-and-silver form on the floor, as the moments continued to tick away.

Her fingers twitched, and her breathing changed...

With Alia holding her feet, Koenig and Yeteve at her shoulders and Yeteve's bearers on either side, they all managed to bring the comatose figure out into the sunshine, and carefully laid her upon the waiting stretcher.

If Yeteve had been powerless in the great crisis that had consumed her world, she was by no means thus in a common crisis such as this, briskly shooting commands that would assure Alix's being properly attended to.

"My own physician will look after her," she told Koenig.

"And you?" quietly.

Such a terrible weight had lifted from those shoulders...he hoped she would never journey up that mountain, ever again.

Neither of them saw her, standing in a backwash of quiet air, overlooked in the heat of immediacy. Looking upon them from the half-shadows, Alia quietly smoldered. Her own mother, and the Moonbase Commander - it was oh-so-unfair, and oh-so-improper.

Little islets of bright flowers bobbed and swayed across the sunlit length and breath of the field wherein the Reconnaissance Eagle now reposed.

The others had long since gone away, back toward Yeteve's villa and elsewhere.

Koenig remained, checking over the vessel and making certain it was properly secured before he also departed.

To his pleasant surprise, very little damage could be ascertained. Alia had done a tremendous job, landing this exceedingly-complex machine, of which she had only the scantling of knowledge both he and Alix had taught her.

He felt as proud of her for the accomplishment as he would of any of his own people, and wanted to tell her so; but when he'd undertaken to seek her out, she had unaccountably disappeared.

Why had she done that?

Now he was himself on his way back to the villa, having satisfied himself the Eagle would be well. The nuxghsceap had probably beaten him there, he thought with some amusement, for someone had been sent to fetch it. And perhaps Alia had also returned home, on her own, and anxious after news of her friend.

He hoped so.

Well, he was expected! Comely retainers smiled and directed him to a particular area of the villa. Everywhere were the same vast and airy rooms and corridors as before, filled with light and floral fragrance.

He could easily believe love and laughter had filled them too, once...

There were soft voices floating down the hall, carrying with ease in the perfect acoustics, as he approached...

He heard Alix's voice, speaking his own name, and it sounded very tired.

"He'll be here soon," said Yeteve's soothing voice. "Doctor?"

"Her condition is stabilizing by the minute, dynasthaia," said the new voice.

"We must talk, you and I," as Yeteve's voice assumed a more serious inflection, "about Commander Koenig. It was most unwise to bring him here, you know that..."

"I know," wearily, "but he is very determined; I tried, but I could not dissuade I brought this for you...he knows nothing about it..."

On quiet tiptoes Koenig inched his way along, flattened against a tapestried wall, being very careful to do nothing that would betray him...

"There wasn't very much time to gather it...I fear it may not be enough..."


"She is correct, dynasthaia," from yet another voice. "This information is insufficient for my needs..."

"Then you must guess, as best you can, for much depends upon it."

" later then tomorrow morning."

"Tomorrow morning..."

" must lie still," as Yeteve's voice sought to comfort the moaning Alix. "We'll leave you now, so you can rest..."

"Side effect," she murmured, "it makes me sleepy..."

The whisper of many slippers upon carpets put Koenig to noiseless flight, back around the nearest corner. Yeteve and her handmaidens came out. He turned the corner, quite naturally as for the first time, and they met beneath an ornate lantern whose many facets glittered with jewel-colors.

"She's sleeping now," she told him. "Someone will be near at all times."

"You don't seem surprised by all this," said he.

"I'm not," as they walked. "When she first came to us, she warned us of her susceptibility to these dreadful fits. But what you gave her, appears to cure them."

"Only the symptoms, there's no cure for the cause," in explanation.

Her human body and more-than-human mind lost their synchronization at irregular intervals, for she had not been born with the gifts of the omnimorph. An Alphan security detail, puzzled one day at finding no apparent cause for a Red Alert alarm, instead found her, collapsed and insensible on a corridor floor near a communications post. Spencer, the physician, had used the experimental Ellendorf brain complex to revive her...

"The heat of the day is coming," said Yeteve, "and I usually rest at that time. Perhaps you would like to do the same - I know you'll want to see the quarters prepared for you. They're not far away."

She conducted him thither herself, and waited for his reactions. Yes, he said, he liked his rooms very much. Her entourage briefly bowed, and went away.

"And who'll be near my door?" he quietly asked.

Their embrace came soundlessly, easily; and with it, the memory of the howdah. Then she was quietly slipping away, into the corridor.

Koenig was alone. His hiking boots sank into the plushness of the carpets, he ran fingertips along the gleaming contours of the glowingly-polished furniture.

No living quarters on Alpha were ever so sumptuous!

The wide picture windows were opened, to admit light and fresh air.

He took in, let out a deep breath as he stood framed by them.

Most marvelous of all, was the quiet. There were always the odd little sounds, on Alpha. But not here.

He thought again of Yeteve's husband, the long-dead Boqkanah.

No wonder he always returned here...the tranquil beauty of the atmosphere would have done it. Did he ever want to leave? I suspect not. Well, he got his the cruelest manner possible, but he got his wish...

The bed, with its brocaded coverings and many colorful pillows, felt comfortable too. He sat, passing a tired hand across his face.

Even with the windows open, the air felt somehow stifling. Humidity, he told himself. Not used to it. A nap might indeed be just the thing. He lay down amidst the sea of pillows and, almost at once, he slept.

Yeteve did not return to her own quarters, at least not directly. There was somewhere else she had to go to first, something she had to do.

She knew the way, having made the journey often, and very soon she came upon the place.

Here the flowers grew most beautifully of all, and the trees spread their great branches most gracefully and lent the most bountiful shade.

The grass was well-clipped and carefully tended, rendering the stone and metallic markers and monuments distinct and visible, even from a distance away.

And the air hung above all with a certain reverent stillness.

It was very special, this place. It was a cemetery.

Here the men of Nephinefta had been laid to their rest.

Every headstone, every cairn spoke to her, their voices familiar and remembered.

She paused before one marker in particular, for it spoke to her in that most special and beloved of voices.

And, so pausing, she sank to her knees before it.


Her fingers tenderly probed the incised characters, their design and language chosen with the greatest of care.

"I wanted to build you a grand tomb, but you wouldn't let said we must never again think to exalt ourselves so, that this was the lesson of the sickness..."

She quieted, and her eyes fell.

"You would like this man, John Koenig, and I think he would like you...he has many of your qualities...because of that, I see in him a part of you, alive again. And that gives me great joy...I feel sure you would understand. Do you? Are you testing me, trying to fault me? You aren't too terribly upset with me, are you? Do you blame me? - Can you blame me? It's been so you mind? Truly? - "

"He doesn't, perhaps - but I do! - "

Startled by the suddenness of this voice - who wouldn't be, in a graveyard? - Yeteve jumped briefly, involuntarily as she looked up.


"Wherever have you been? You simply vanished ..."

"I wanted to be by myself," coming forward.

"You never even inquired after Alix - don't you wonder at all how she is?"

"I've seen her seizures before, Mother - I know they run their course, and then they pass away. Besides, I sought out your physician - she assured me she'd be well."

"All right, I accept that. Now, would you like to explain the rest of it? I assume there is more..."

Alia looked and sounded exasperated. "Mother, can't you see what is happening? Does Father's memory mean so very little anymore? - "

"In this sacred place, you are in your father's presence - and you will mind your tongue." Yeteve's tone and demeanor were issuing a clear warning against further impertinence.

Her daughter understood, and relented. "Mother...!" softly. "Please, open your eyes! - this man isn't one of us, he should never have come here to begin with, and he cannot possibly stay here - we both know this, and we know why! I don't want to see you hurt...but you have got to realize, he is not Father!"

The abrupt slap from her mother rocked her head back. Yeteve's hands flew to her mouth, and she gasped in horror at what she had done.

Alia was weeping quietly. No matter how many times the sky fell, it could still fall one time more, and so it now was.

She sniffled, "He'll never be Father..." and, trembling, she fled from the cemetery.

Behind her, Yeteve sank to the grass once more, doubled over in her own agony. Her arms crossed themselves tightly across her, as though the phantom child yet moved within her belly, and she gave way to venting still more pain, pain that was very real.

Effects of Nephinefta...effects that sometimes seemed to go on and on, achingly into forever...

Chapter Fourteen

Dusk was falling across the sea, gradually and exquisitely, sunlight refracted into many flaming-hued banners painting the sky in a last-gasp splash of riotous colors.

Behind them came evening, drawing itself over Nephinefta like a soothing balm...

The lingering afterglow tinted the walls of his suite as Koenig stirred.

He lay still amidst the pillowed plushness, unsure at first of where he was.

As he jacked himself up to a sitting position, the wave of vertigo that swept over him proved so unbearable as to force him to groan aloud in pain.

Holding his head between his knees seemed to help, and this he did.

Eyes closed, lips parted as he tried to sit up a second time, he gave the world the appearance of a drowning man.

As his senses absorbed the run-up time they required and began to utilize it, his surroundings took on better definition before him.

Lamps of cut and faceted crystal had been lit, and were burning softly. The windows had been partly closed, and breezes filtering through them into the suite were cooler than before.

Persons unknown had slipped in and then departed, never disturbing him, allowing him to sleep on in peace.

In peace?

With his thoughts clearing, he wasn't at all sure about that. His sleep had been undisturbed, but not untroubled.

A dream, and the vivid, sickening sensation of...falling. No direction, no sense of up or down, and no sort of ending or resolution...just falling. Tumbling, like a slow-motion succession of somersaults.

The formlessness of it all haunted him, and he was not by nature a superstitious man.

But something had chased the dream away, something summoning him back from the brink.


Gentle fingertips stroking his hair, soothing his nerves...perfume?...

Getting to his feet took a little longer than usual. Living such a vigorous life, he was unaccustomed to experiencing such lead-weight sluggishness when he moved.

Feels like that nuxghsceap sat on me, instead of the other way around, he mused wryly. With some surprise, he found he felt better.

Twilight was very nearly gone, yielding to the full embrace of night. The settlement glittered, like diamonds set in some marvelous necklace.

Throughout the royal villa, lamps of every size sparkled within every room and corridor, each one throwing multi-colored jewel-chips of light in all directions, as though focused through many prisms; creating a faery-like setting wherein wondrous events could befall...

His knock on her door was answered by Alix's voice; she sounded better, and this encouraged him. Admitting himself, he was at once checked by her appearance.

She stood there, arrayed in the billowing silken raiment and shimmering jewels that were the fashion on Nephinefta, even to the flowers and gems glinting in her dressed hair.

The jeweled Rumnipuran hairclip she dared not touch, remembering who had put it there...

She flushed with pleasure as her eyes set themselves upon her caller. She was about to speak, but checked herself after taking a worried few steps towards him.

"Sir, you look didn't sleep well, then?"

"On the contrary, I slept like a log," said he.

Still remembering the howdah...

"This climate seems to take a lot out of me. Doesn't seem to bother you, though - and considering the high-mountain environment you were brought up in, that's something of a surprise."

"Overdoing in such a climate as this could be very serious indeed, for someone like me. And I still must be careful, upon occasion - it took some time to become acclimatized to Alpha, as you'll remember." She seated herself once more, having arisen at his entry.

"Do you think you feel well enough for dinner this evening?

"It wouldn't be very good manners if I didn't, would it?"

"Tonight is going to be wonderful," glowing in anticipation. "What lady could resist showing off her very finest gown, for someone new? And the food - oh dear, I do hope you won't be allergic to anything..."

He smiled and settled himself on another of the room's velveted divans. "As any good guest should, I promise to eat everything set before me!"

"And we'll next be fetching the doctor for you!" Alix was laughing, "and your tummy-ache! - " and by now Koenig was laughing as much at himself as with her.

When this mood had passed, she grew more serious.

"You're unhappy with me, aren't you? That business with the Eagle?"

"The gesture itself does you credit," gently, "don't misunderstand. You were thinking of a friend...I can't fault that, and I'm not. But the consequences could have been tragic. If Alia hadn't managed to get the Eagle down, with radio guidance from me, both of you might have been killed. You took a very big risk."

"They know about risks here," said she, quietly.

"So they do. Yeteve told me, about the war."

"My people were isolated on Rumnipoor for a thousand years, because of such a war back on Rhenium," said she. "No one remembers why wars are fought, after they're over - assuming anyone is left to debate the matter. Why do otherwise-rational-thinking cultures do such stupid things?"

"Many cultures have been stupid that way. I wish I had more of an answer than that. I don't."


"What did you think of Yeteve?"

"She's a remarkable woman..."

"I think so, too," softly. "Each year, on my birthday, my guardian used to take me to a certain special place, there in the royal gardens. My mother was buried there. It's where they found her, after they had found me, and it was beautiful. Even without ever having known her, I missed her just the same - missed what having a mother was. Perhaps that was one of the things I left home to find - that does sound rather odd, but...but I felt I had to go search for this - something. And, guess what happened - !"

He had:

"You found that 'something,' here on Nephinefta."

"Here! - for a very little while. Yeteve never looked upon me as a stranger, or treated me as one. I suppose you've noticed that Alia and I are of a similar age...and Yeteve thought of me in just that sort of way, as a daughter. And it was wonderful! - She'll always be the mother I never knew, and Alia the sister I never had...

"Oh dear!" laughing merrily, "Alia does take some adjusting to - she expects all the world to genuflect to her!" punctuating these words with elaborate gestures of her hands. "Admittedly, much of it is what you call a 'front,' of course, but - well - it's just Alia; she's quite incurably extroverted! Far more so than I'll ever be. I rather envy her for it - she can get away with so much of it!" still giggling. "We were quite inseparable, in those days...we went everywhere, did everything together! We were totally devoted to each other. I'd still do virtually anything for her - and she'd still do the same for me..."

"Yes," fixing her with a certain telling glare, "I can believe you would..."

Jewels gleamed and flashed as her head turned.

"Whatever that's suppose to mean..."

"Business, is what it means. We're back to that now. You, and Yeteve and the others..."

Her eyes widened.

"You heard that!? - " astonished, and uncomprehending.

"Yes, I did," and he was up on his feet and trying to walk off his rising impatience. "What's going on here, anyway? There is some big, dark, mysterious secret to this place, and everybody seems to be in on it. You're in on it. While I'm left outside, listening furtively at the door! - "

Alix stared on, slack-jawed. "You're asking - ? But, if you heard - !?"

Koenig, however, had gotten up his next wind, and it beat against her with an accusatory coldness.

"Up until now, I've been willing to accept what I've seen and heard here, but after that little scene in the more fencing, and no more deceptions: what did you tell them?"

She too was standing now.

"What? - " still baffled.

"What did you tell them about us? About Alpha?"

Her eyes searched his wonderingly.

"You've gotten some very strange idea into your head. What do you think I told them?"

"You tell me," as he gripped her arm. In the heat of this moment his look was dangerous, and it frightened something inside of her.

"You're hurting..."

There was a lingering redness imprinted along the smoothness of her forearm, as he took his hand away, and it faded as her blood vessels readjusted to the removal of this stress upon them and their particular province of her body.

He looked and she looked, reacting.

"I haven't finished with this," said he, quietly serving warning upon her. "I have not finished..."

But, as he stalked out and off into other realms, within himself he too was shaken. For it was utterly unlike him, to so threaten those whom he expected to carry out his orders and directives.

What sort of devil had gotten into him?...

Alix stood there on her carpet, still frightened by this aspect of the man she'd never beheld before.

For a few terrified seconds, she feared he would strike her.

Those seconds fled onward, and deep within her the omnimorph was still.

She'd long suspected the thoroughbred-like high-strung nature and temperament were, in fact, more the omnimorph's than her own; the rigorously-ingrained discipline of her upbringing in a royal court's rarified climes, still retained largely intact, had thus far been a match for it...

Not at this moment, however - as her hand plucked up a vase and angrily propelled it into the nearest wall.

The report of its shattering reverberated in the stillness.

Both hands were flying to cover her face...

My Lady, why??...He said he heard why doesn't he finally understand?...

Chapter Fifteen

Seeba should've been pleased.

Dinner tonight was already a tremendous success. Everything glittered - the fine china, the sparkling glassware.

The flowers, brilliant and fragrant, and everywhere. Softly-burning incense, wafting upward from many polished metal bowls, enhanced them.

The food was exquisite; many of the women of Nephinefta were splendid cooks and, with a special occasion to inspire their endeavors, they had outdone themselves.

And the women themselves glittered - silks and satins in every hue of the rainbow, and dazzling jewels, and still more flowers. Indeed, Nephinefta had not been so festively decked out in many a long while...

So Seeba should have been pleased, as she looked about the banqueting hall. Her gaze rested briefly upon the Moonbase Commander. How he was enjoying himself so! Smiling as his goblet was filled, always willing to sample any prepared dish offered to him, engaging in his conversations.

Then her gaze was moving on. The joy of this feast wasn't being universally celebrated. Something was wrong, had been wrong all evening. For the dynasthaia and dynasthanee, while flawlessly cordial to all around them, were only barely speaking to each other. And, further, the dynasthanee had been rather pointedly avoiding the guest from Alpha...

All who beheld her knew Alia for someone to be reckoned with, this night; well-figured in a dusky green gown, a fantastic ornament in her dressed hair fashioned like a pencil-thin viper. The atmosphere about her was electric in its charge, and her liquid-green eyes smoldered.

"You will eat something, won't you?" annoyed.

Next to her, reclining upon the special cushions that accommodated all the diners, Alix had been absently picking at her own meal and eating hardly any of it.

"Watching you continually - rearrange everything on your plate, is rather irksome to bear..."

Alix surrendered, choosing some fruit.

"Alia," with a certain mischievous giggle, "you look positively dangerous! - You could have any man on Alpha you wanted. Crook your little finger, and they'd be elbowing each other to get to you," drinking from her own goblet, "any man at all..."

And Roma thinks I have too much of the wine, on occasion? -

"I don't believe I care to discuss this subject," diffidently.

Had the bland, reconstituted diet of Alpha spoiled his appetite for finer cuisine? Maybe, for Koenig was coming round to the realization that he couldn't eat another bite of anything to save his life. Well, at least he hadn't proved allergic to any of it!

He leaned back upon the cushions, relaxing as one did after a sumptuous repast. And, perhaps not so absently, glanced about...

Outside, in the cool evening and the lushness of the gardens, he found her.

Her gown gleamed, from the elaborate necklace about her throat to the girdle about her waist, with jewels of a smoky green hue and were neither jade nor emeralds. Still more of them fell in elaborate tassels from her girdle and sparkled in the hair ornament she wore; and a spray of iridescent plumes framed her face.

He was vividly struck with the thought that her husband had probably come upon his wife in this setting, on many a long-vanished evening...

"You were right," quietly.

"What - ?" There was a rustle of silks and a subtle clinking of jewelry as she turned in his direction.

"About dining on nuxghsceap," said he. "I liked it."

"Did you?"

"M' everything else about it, the flavor is unique. I liked it very much..."

"I'm glad..."

Silence, and then they both began speaking at once. And they had to laugh over it, and did so.

Yeteve started over, "Commander," but Koenig halted her.

"It's John," said he.

"John..." saying it to herself, testing the resonance of it. "It does suit you..."

"I've always thought so," grinning.

"You really enjoyed it? The dinner?"

"I won't eat again for a week! - Alphan food will seem very dull by comparison..."

"This isn't unseemly for a hostess, is it? Coming out for a breath of air?"

"A hostess may do whatever she wishes," said he. "Yeteve - if it doesn't make me look too unseemly...those people in there respect both you and Alia far too highly to say anything, but they're all noticing the coolness between you this evening. And Alia looks straight through me, like I'm a ghost. That can become rather unnerving, after awhile...I suppose part of the reason I came out here, was to get back the feeling of being flesh and blood..."

Yeteve sobered.

"I apologize for my daughter's conduct," said she. "And I know the reason she's been avoiding you. It's what she perceives to be my misconduct in your presence..."

"I don't understand..." He didn't.

"Alia feels I am subverting her father's memory in deference to you," trying to explain, "that I'm presuming to put you in his place."

"That doesn't make any sense...!"

"It does to her, I'm afraid. Could we walk, for awhile?" indicating the footpath with its opalescent pebbles. "Alia adored her father - to her, he was the greatest man ever to live. In every way, she wished to be like him."

He had to smile. "I do see a certain bent for being headstrong!"

"Alia's neither shameless nor spoiled," said Yeteve, "simply of a mind to do entirely as she likes, and the world would do well to listen! It's - it's an attempt to assert control, in a situation where she really has no control. She can't change, can't shake that old desire of childhood - to be exactly like her father. Notwithstanding the fact that she was born a girl, rather than a boy."

He tread cautiously as he put his question, "Did Boqkanah ever say that he - that is, did he ever regret...?"

"No - oh, no! He was a wonderful father to her."

"I never meant to question that."

"Nor have you," smiling. "We see so very clearly when we look back, of course, but I've always felt that, in some ways, he understood her better than I did...John, I was never disloyal or unfaithful to my husband when he was alive. Nor shall I, in death."

"I know," softly, "you don't have to convince me. I understand..."

"How I wish Alia understood! - " in a tone of aching desperation. "You and I, we've had our chances. For so very long, another person was the greater part of our lives - your Jean, my Boqkanah - and when that person was taken away...such a shadow isn't easily lifted from you...!" unsteadily. "Perhaps it's asking too much, to expect her to understand. Her generation had only begun to bloom into womanhood when the war came, and brought with it the sickness that killed off their young men. What chances did they ever receive? They'll never have the experiences that you and I have known..."

He was smiling again. "The apple doesn't fall too far from the tree!"


"An expression of my people. Alia is her father's daughter...and her mother's..."

There was frank admiration in his look, and his tone. Yeteve shyly averted her eyes.

The attraction between them was at once quiet and powerful. The howdah had banished any doubt, any question of its existence.

Their hands touched, and held...

They came to a small clearing in the gardens where there was a beautifully-carved bench for sitting, and here they stayed, quietly and close together, for a time.

Yeteve had set aside her elaborate headpiece, so that she could rest her head more easily upon his shoulder.

She stirred, as she sensed the subtle motion of her companion. She looked up at him, watching the workings in his face. They softened as he drew her closer.

"Look," said he.

Following his gaze took her up to the night sky, to the rising runaway Moon.

She shrank from it.

He steadied her, murmured in her ear.

"Don't be afraid..."

But a night before, she had feared the sight of this ominous heavenly body, so sudden in its appearance....

Taking her hand, he pointed with it.

"See there?"

She looked. Her hand moved his.


"Not the bright area. That small dark area, there. That's where I live."

She drew a breath.

"You live there?"


"It seems to have a face...does it?"

"An optical illusion. We called it the Man in the Moon."

She turned to him, "The Man in the Moon!..." and couldn't help giggling, as he couldn't help joining in.

They were very close, and drew even closer...

When they came up for air, she again rested her head on his shoulder, in such a way that she could look up at that unlikely celestial face.

This place is his home, and one always feels a very special bond to the place one comes from, she considered.

But then she remembered the subtle, and not so subtle, workings she'd seen in the face so close to hers just now, the odd twitching of a nerve, a muscle...

No, he does associate that place with fear, and a very private way. He tried to tell me, and I might think that I understand, but I don't, really. And I know I cannot.

This is his light, and darkness...

So close were they, that each could sense the slightest reaction of the other; and this alerted her. "John? - " seeing the change in the tensing of his eyes, "John, what is it?"

"That star, there..."

"Show me..."

She laid her hand over his, and allowed him to direct it towards a certain quarter of the sky.

"If star it is," said he. "All the others are twinkling, except that one."


"Atmospheric distortion..." And a child's nursery rhyme... "Scatters the light."

She continued to look, and in so doing undertook her own survey of the sky. Her lips moved, performing soundless calculations.

"Yes...yes, that would be its position at this time of year," musing more to herself then to him.

"Stars twinkle, but a planet gleams," said he. "There's another planet in this system, isn't there?"

"We called it Chehalis, from a phrase in our language meaning 'a brightness.'"

"Does anyone live there?"

"Before the war, we could 'hear' their signals with our instruments, even decipher some of it - basic codes of mathematics and physics. Not any more. Not since the war. We've never heard from them again."

Koenig once more focused on Chehalis, "the brightness," its light far brighter indeed than that of the stars surrounding it. If Nephinefta lacked so-called flying machines, than it might well also lack those very listening devices. Little wonder, then, that the Eagle had dropped in on their island virtually unannounced.

And anyone living on Chehalis, whether human or otherwise, could be there still. Perhaps Alpha would know...

Hmm, now that brings up something...

"You never went there yourselves?"

"Oh, no. Our flying machines weren't as sophisticated as that!"

"But sophisticated enough to lob missiles at one another?"

It came out far crueler than he'd ever intended, and he was remorseful at once.

"Oh God, that was a stupid thing to say..."

"Don't apologize, John," reassuring him. "There's no longer any need - that died long ago, too. And I know you didn't mean it."

"Weren't you ever curious?" more gently. "Didn't you ever want to see Chehalis closer up than, say, through a telescope?"

Smiling, "John, you misunderstand! We weren't lacking for ambition, or even for the technology. We simply didn't have the desire to go anywhere else. All we wanted was here," fingertips seeking out his face. "All that I desire, is here with me now..." whispering it.


"And do the stars twinkle, for the Man in the Moon?..."

"No..." cupping her face in his hands, "everything glitters..."

Later, much later, he was still gazing into that face, and she was again resting her head upon his shoulder.

The fabric of his tunic, strange and unfamiliar as it was to her touch, was yet an inseparable part of him, of what he was.

The suite was very dark, and no lights shone.

The howdah once more enfolded them...

She'd had no idea how tense he was. Perhaps he hadn't realized, either. One could not always know that in oneself, but another could.

Her fingertips had probed gently, carefully, about the temples, and he seemed to respond to that, finding the sensations agreeable...

Now she stirred, realizing she had dozed off. Her unpinned hair streaming about her shoulders, she moved so as to better study his face.

It still brimmed with wondrous discoveries, invitations tendered and accepted.

Her eyes adjusted to the surrounding darkness. He was quieter now, his eyes had closed. Those marked little lines about the eyes, the mouth, had soothed away.

At peace, at long last; and, because of him, so was she.

Being very quiet, the silk of her gown making scarcely a noise, she rose to her bare feet upon the plush carpets.

The jeweled hairpins he had carefully removed, one by one, still nestled in a neat little cluster on the table, near the communication device he had shown her during their daytime travels.

She couldn't help remembering how long ago it was, that such a day, and night, had passed so very pleasantly.

How very long ago...

Chapter Sixteen

The night sky turned above Nephinefta, darkness soothing the forests and meadows. Waves washed softly along its shores...

Koenig wrestled with a dream. Or, rather, some cutting, surrealist fantasy. In it he saw himself, appealing to Alia that everything must be put right between herself and her mother, while Yeteve sobbed brokenheartedly on the carpet.

He cajoled, pleaded, summoning all the persuasiveness inherent in his character.

But Alia remained cool and unmoved. Her countenance was as alabaster, even her eyelashes did not once stir, and in a moment of horror he perceived the reason: this cool and unmoved flesh truly was of alabaster...

He'd hardly recovered from that, when yet another jolt assailed him, this one far closer to home: for he had looked down at his hands, as one absently did - and saw the floor through them.

A living ghost, supplicating favor from an alabaster statue!

And throughout the entire pitiful farce, Yeteve went on sobbing...

He struggled awake in the darkness. It pained him even to draw breath.

Nuxghsceap's sitting on me again...

And he was sweating, as a labored draw of the hand across his brow attested. A flesh-and-blood hand.

My God, it's become hot in here...need to get some cool air...

The crash, when it came, reverberated in the hallway, every echo amplified in the stillness. The darkened doorway framed a woman's figure.

Her eyes, accustomed to the dark, saw; and she stifled a gasp.

He lay sprawled askance and semi-conscious on the carpeting.

He'd apparently lunged for some piece of furniture to prop himself up with, missed in the unfamiliar room, and that had brought about the noise which now sent Roma darting into the Moonbase Commander's domicile.

Could she get him back to bed? Alone? Roma sorely doubted her ability.

A man? On Nephinefta, men lived on only in the memories of their women.

Her own young man slumbered in the island's cemetery.

And yet, inch by strenuous inch, she got it done.

Breathing rapidly from the rigors of the accomplished task, she looked upon him; saw the troubled respiration, the dampened brow.

He had a fine mouth, she'd thought at dinner hours earlier. Now, his lips scarcely moved.

As her own breathing steadied, fear began to take hold. Fear that hurried her out into the corridor, with much urgency, to commission a messenger...

Forever seemed to pass, and another womanly silhouette appeared on the threshold. Light from the runaway Moon reached in to the suite, creating patterns of silver squares on the carpet and intriguing shadows elsewhere.

From where she knelt at the bedside, Roma glanced up at the new arrival. Their voices were as whispers:

"Who or what is 'Helena'?"

"I have no idea..."

"Whatever it is, he keeps asking for it..."

The newcomer also knelt. "You showed great wisdom in sending for me, Roma..."

"It was your wisdom, dynasthaia, that bade me keep a discreet watch upon him..."

Burnished moonlight followed Yeteve's unpinned tresses, softly spilling over her shoulders and down her bare back. Her eyes were lowered, her expression in profile subdued.

"Fetch my personal physician," said she, presently, "and then remain close by, for I may have to call upon you again..."

Then she was standing, but Roma hadn't yet moved. Her features seemed fixed.

Fear, and memories, had once more overtaken her.

"Dynasthaia, I - "

Yeteve caught her, embraced her.

"I know, child," cooing sympathetically, "I know..."

"I saw him again...I thought it was over..." and the younger woman trembled.

"We all did," quietly. She cupped Roma's face in her hands, saw the eyes very round with barely-unshed tears. "Better?" Yes, she thought; for Roma was trying to summon a tentative smile for her monarch. " you had better run quick, now..."

Yeteve's smile of encouragement sent Roma on her errand.

It lasted no longer...

Her usually proud carriage drooped.

Then she roused herself to action; but as she set about preparing a porcelain vessel of cool water and a poultice, turbulent emotions pulled at her, too, from within...

Then she was sitting at Koenig's side, dipping the poultice and applying it to his forehead, tender and vigilant...

The moonlight cast the environs in fine shadings of unreality, blurring that special frontier separating the present from the past...

It was the tropics, and she felt only ice-cold in her veins...

"In the stillness of night, there is no silence," her voice numb and her thoughts scattering to the winds...

The first words, of the prayers for the dead! -

"No! - "

She gasped, swallowed hard...

"Is there never to be an end to this? First, my country...then, my husband...and, finally, my son - who I never knew - "

And as she raised her eyes towards the ceiling, her tone and bearing were transformed; and, if only for this brief instant, she was again the true dynasthaia, proud and defiant:

" - and still, You won't let us go! Well, Khosrowdad, You hear me - ENOUGH! Enough...I am done with death! - I will watch no more of it! This man is innocent - and You will not take him!..."

The poultice needed tending again; she went through the necessary motions and with it carefully dabbed his face, with its twitching little muscles.

He wasn't even aware of her nearness to him...

...or was he? Her fingertips gently probed, soothed, and the twitching stilled.

I should never have left you, I should never...

"Here I am," whispering in his ear, "stay with me...I won't surrender you easily, this island is already full of don't you die on me, John Koenig! Don't you dare! - "

She heard them first, their racing footsteps announced them; and with some surprise she beheld Seeba amongst their number.

Way was made for the royal physician, and no one spoke while the doctor examined her patient. Handmaidens set lamps into place, to better the light.

Finally, "I'd prayed I'd seen the last of this," sitting back on her heels and letting out a deep, regretful breath.

"There can be no possible doubt?" from Yeteve.

"None whatever, I'm afraid. It is unquestionably the sickness..."

The pair of words, spoken aloud at last, marked their impact upon those there present.

Yeteve felt turned to stone.

The doctor was going on: "Certain aspects of his biology differ from ours; that could work to his advantage..."

"We must make them work to his advantage," said Yeteve. "Spare no effort - do all things possible for him," and the doctor bowed, summoning her staff about her. "Roma - "

"Dynasthaia - "

"See that my daughter and Alexandra are awakened immediately, and bring them straight here - "

Roma bowed also, and turned away to do Yeteve's bidding; or would have, for Seeba was touching her shoulder. "I'll do that, shall I?"

They had sought out the doctor together, for Roma had come to her first - and the older woman had accurately read the churning inner turmoil of the younger. This was no attempt at condescension, only kindness, wishing to spare further pain; for amongst the women of Nephinefta, such was their way...

And thus, Alia learned of what had happened; and that her presence, and Alix's, was commanded at once.

The drowsy dynasthanee nodded and waved Seeba off. After she had gone, Alia rose in the dark and stretched and shook off the effects of sleep. She would have to attend; there could be no disobeying her mother's edict.

The soft noise came to her ear just as she'd about finished arraying herself in one of her hunting costumes.

Alix stood on the carpet, holding a lamp in one hand. Its baleful light picked out the gossamer ripples of her gown - for one wore very little, in these sultry nights - and sent the odd spark or two winking from her streaming hair.

"So, you're awake," said the dynasthanee.

"I've been awake...what is it?"

"Message from Mother," lackadaisically. "It seems that Commander Koenig has been taken ill in the night...and on Nephinefta, we know what that means - don't we?"

Alix felt the strength draining from her; the doorsill offered support to her sagging form.

Trailing a tiny shower of stars as it slipped from her hair, the hairclip tumbled to the carpet.

"Come over here and sit, before you fall," still irritated and prickly. "The doctors are there, for whatever good they can do...and we," said her voice, from elsewhere, "are commanded to appear," returning, and laying out Alix's Alphan uniform.

"He wouldn't stay away," the latter absently murmured. "Why wouldn't he stay away?..."

"Why?" dully repeating it. "Perhaps because he...wanted to see what's over the mountains...and the ocean..." and a little gasp escaped Alia's throat, quite in spite of herself, "...the way I've always wanted to do..." and the rest was left to trail aimlessly away. "Khrosrowdad...!"

That man! - He'd shamed her into silence, paralyzed her image of him. Sunning himself in her regal graces! All the while, seeing fit to ingratiate himself with her mother - her mother! Well, that had done it, had abruptly chilled her own initial emotional fervor, and with all the finality of a blown-out candle. By dinner-time, he'd ceased to exist in her eyes. He'd fallen from favor. Now, suddenly, events were moving, moving with a mind-numbing familiarity. Those events had transformed him, and he was made flesh and blood once more.

Flesh and blood, and stricken with the sickness...and, like her mother, Alia had seen far too much of what the sickness could do.

Alix's initial wave of shock was passing. She swayed as in a trance.

"He has the sickness...and he'll die from it, like all the others..."

This brought Alia out of her own reverie. "I don't know that, and neither do you," evenly.

"I'm responsible for him," still rambling, "I insisted on'll be on my head, when I go back to Alpha alone..."

As a rubber band snaps back into its true shape, Alia blew out her cheeks and threw up her hands. "Oh now, please..."

"You're not even listening! - " in a fierce whisper. "If he dies, they'll blame me for it, and they'll cast me out - even Alan will turn away..."

Alia grasped her friend's shoulders.

"Do you truly believe so little in him?" quietly, earnestly, "Or he, in you? Surely he would not fail, as you describe! My only knowledge of him, is through you - and I want to believe he's everything you told me..." She reached down, plucked up the hairclip from where it had fallen. "So - put on your uniform," placing it in Alix's hand, "and we'll go find out..."

Through half-open eyes, Koenig could just perceive the blurred refraction spikes of many candles. Thousands of them, a sea of candle-flames in the a scene out of some moody Gothic novel.

Like - death...

Yeteve's physicians continued their ministrations. And she herself nursed him, applying the poultice here and there, trying to cool his fever.

Trying, too, to will back into him the strength he had imparted to her, at her moment of greatest need.

He needed her now, as she had needed him, in the howdah they had shared...

A brief commotion elsewhere presaged the hurried arrival of the dynasthanee, along with Alix. "How is he?" breathless and anxious, from the latter.

Yeteve rose, and met her eye to eye. "How are you, child?" softly.

"I won't fly from the field, if that's what you're asking...I can't, too much depends upon it..."

"Good," taking her hand and squeezing it, and then leading her through the circle of doctors. "John? - " quietly.

Still not completely lucid, he stirred in the direction of her voice.


"John...Alexandra is here..."

He squinted, trying to focus his diminishing sight. Without sound the sea of candle-flames moved, rearranging themselves, rendering the air he labored to breathe more luminous.

Swallowing had ceased to be the simple autonomic act it usually was, and instead took concentration and effort. Many hands came together to carefully lift his head just so, while others put a small bowl of water to his lips, and the act was accomplished; and in a raspy, accusing whisper he forced out the word: "...liar..."

She felt the flintiness of those eyes boring into her, and she shrank from it.

"No, sir. No..."

"...lied to me..."

She started to speak, but Yeteve intervened. "Let me," said she. "John, I know nothing of what transpired between you, up there on the Moon. But, there or anywhere, she would not willingly lie to you, or deceive you. This, I know."

He beheld those beautiful liquid-green eyes, round and deep with worry. So very worried... He could not bear to see pain in those eyes. The trust they shared remained absolute, the bond between them pitch-perfect; that was the revelation of the howdah...

"...all right, then...the truth..."

"Fair enough. Here is truth. You already know part of it - when the war came, that decimated our culture, and created the sickness that cut down my husband...and the rest of our men, including the one Roma was to have married..." Her voice carried a certain aching poignancy. "John, that was a very long time ago...!"

His puzzled look and wrinkled brow put his question. Yeteve's mind raced, for she could not frame an answer he could readily understand. She mutely appealed to Alix for assistance. She too had to think a moment, her mind moving, calculating, comparing.

"The length of their year differs from yours, or mine," quietly, a reminder that she also had grown up clocked by a unique calendar. "But, reckoned by your standard, it comes out to be...just under 800 of your years..."

Had he been able, Koenig would've jacked himself up by an arm or even a hand; but the insidious sickness continued to exact its toll upon him, pushing so mere a task as that beyond his continually-ebbing strength.

It was left instead to the tensing nervous ticks of his facial muscles and the widening of his eyes to register his astonishment, and this they did.

Yeteve took one of his hands and gently clasped it between both of her own, as she continued:

"It's true, John. I am scarcely a day older than on the day I put my Boqkanah into the ground...but only on the outside, I do assure you...inside, in my heart, I feel the weight of every one of those years without him...! I had to dig his grave myself...we all became gravediggers, there were no men left to do it. Many of us tried to take our lives, but - but our own bodies rebelled - we couldn't do it - !" clenching her teeth at the memory. "We survived the sickness, but it had changed us. And the lethal pathogen still exists, even now; we still cannot cure it. Any man of comparable biology who comes here, does so upon peril of his life..."

"Sir, I never betrayed, or Alpha - !" How terribly vital it was, that he heard her and finally believed! "You didn't hear our entire conversation...what I gave them was medical information, about you. And with my security clearance, it was no easy task - we had to know, had to have some idea, how long you could safely stay here before you'd risk contracting the sickness...we couldn't build a wall without bricks - ! You were so bent on coming...this was the only other way I could see, to protect you...and it still wasn't enough...why did you do it? Why wouldn't you trust me! - "

The royal physician interceded at this point: "Dynasthaia - "

Yeteve acquiesced, and took Alix and her daughter aside. Alix's composure, already fragile, was starting to come apart: "I wasn't wrong, he is going to die - "

"No, he won't," Yeteve countered, firmly. "The one thing we never had, he still does - hope! You must take him back to the Moon, back to Alpha, where he belongs. The moment he's away from here, he'll begin to recover - "

"Dynasthaia, I must interject - his condition is precarious enough as to require constant care and attendance - "

Alix was distraught. The sky was falling...

"All right," trying to calm herself, "I - I'll go to Alpha, get a medical team - bring them back here with me - "

" - a team composed solely of women," Yeteve reminded her. "There must be no man on it - "

"Our chief physician is a woman. As to the rest - I'll see to it - "

"He'll be made ready for travel, by the time you return," said she.

Khosrowdad willing, he'll still be here when you do...

Along the palace corridors, past the many fragrant flowers and beneath the great sparkling chandeliers with their kaleidoscopic colors, Alix hurried with the greatest urgency.

A sudden wave of dizziness swept over her and, gasping, she had to stop; momentarily overwhelmed by too much oxygen for her Rumnipuran lungs to handle.

And, thus overcome, she stumbled.

Hands reached out, to steady her.

"What are you doing? - "

"I'm going with you - "

"Oh no! - "

"You can't very well stop me - "

Alarmed, Alia guided them both to the relative safety of the nearest wall, lest her friend's legs buckle beneath her. She too was short of breath, having matched her stride for stride.

"You cannot go," stammering, "I won't let you - you haven't left this island in 800 years - you leave now, you could die - it happened on Alpha, once - you're my friend, I can't let you take that risk - "

"As you are mine - so I can't let you do this alone - you can't fly the Eagle by yourself, you know that! - "

"Alia, please..."

"Khosrowdad!" stomping her foot in the old imperious way. "Will you make my shame any greater than it is? I see him felled by the sickness - as my father was! Oh yes, I did come to despise him, for awhile ...but I never wanted this, could never have wanted this...And, Khosrowdad - You had best strike me down, here and now, if I ever wished this man dead!" vehemently. "I cannot take a lesser risk than he did, in coming here - this is for honor, now - this is what Father would have done, for such a man! And, besides," with a dusting of her old pouting posture, "you know I'll get my way..."

Alix sighed, knowing this to be true.

She let her eyes close, felt the moving, the beckoning of the omnimorph, summoning her.

"Then let's be away, friend - we have work to do..."

Chapter Seventeen

It was a puzzlement to Alia, watching from the offside's seat, that her "errant shadow" should be barred from piloting this Eagle Transporter unassisted.

She still looks capable enough to me!

Alix had gotten them off the ground in a very great rush; hands and eyes and brain working flawlessly together, each knowing precisely what to do and when.

Hence, her question: "If this new treatment protects you, and you're otherwise qualified to fly - which you clearly are - then, why don't you?"

"Dr Spencer intended the rule for my protection," said she, letting a space pass before adding, "I owe you my life, you know. The Commander was right, we both could've died."

"Wasn't our time yet," with a twinkle, more like her usual cocky self.

"Atmospheric fringe coming up..." sounding composed, but feeling jittery inside.

Hers was but second-hand knowledge of the scientist Cabot Rowland's macabre demise; yet there were those on Alpha who most definitely had been there present, and who still remembered - Professor Bergman, for one...

...and Helena Russell...

My Lady, what will I say to her? -

"Well," as Alia let out a breath, "at least I'll have a friendly hand to hold..."

Their gazes met, and each reached out a hand across the aisle to the other.

Fingers latched together, and held tightly.

And they waited, for whatever unfolding time might bring...

The Reconnaissance Eagle traveled onward, beyond the embrace of air and into the void...

The clasped hands remained, bridging the aisle and greater distances, all at once...

"I think I'll take these back now," Alia declared airily, withdrawing her fingers and holding them up before her, "seeing how they've turned such a fetching shade of blue...and you can busy yourself with showing me this fine Moon of yours, that's going to break up a beautiful friendship - again!"

"Alia - "

"M - ?"

Her voice was a not a little unsteady. "You're a friend very much worth having..."

"So are you," with a glowing smile. "Now," tossing her tawny head, "show me the Moon..."

Alix sighed yet again. Who else but Alia could literally walk away, laughing, after a stare-down with potential death?

Her seat belt and harness loosened, Alia skimmed fingertips across the offsider's controls, being careful not to trip anything vital-looking. All those flashing lights, the unfamiliar-language markings here and there.

Back on Quincux, it had all seemed such a novelty.

But out here, she was in the Alphans' world.

Their world, surrounded by unending darkness and many-colored stars which did not twinkle - and in numbers she could not fathom counting...

Speak of it and there it was, in fact; albeit an electronic image on a view screen of the control display before her.

Hah! in a quirky smirk of triumph. Fooled you, this time! -

How very old and worn it looked! Pitted and pockmarked by all those - craters, they were called. One seemed reminiscent of a gargantuan bulls-eye; once-molten, concentric ripples rushing away from the epicenter of some long-forgotten pebble-in-a-pond event.

And another, radiating huge streaked ribbons of bright material out across the moonscape, more star-like than land-like.

Calling this Moon "a different sort of place," only barely scratched the surface of Alia's present astonishment.

Just what sort of world was this?

"Has it always looked this way?" aloud and incredulous.

"There are people on Alpha who understand the Moon's origin and history far better than I do. One of my friends, Peter King, is an expert on lunar geology. It's been pummeled about by passing meteorites and the solar wind, for all of its four billion years or so; while planets, like ours, don't really experience such things in quite the same way."

Alia leaned back in the cladding and wanly smiled. "Oh, I know, I rather gave you a good-natured rough time of it...! And yet, sitting here, now...I begin to see some of the things you see. Things like - poise and presence, and majesty...but there's also a sadness, a longing for old times that are gone..."

"Old times," quietly, "when the Moon swung in its orbit about the Earth, with no reason to believe it would ever stop. But, it did..."


"We had better let them know we're coming," taking a breath of renewed purpose, "if they haven't already divined it," and, bringing up the Reconnaissance radio net: "Moonbase Alpha, this is Reconnaissance Eagle; come in, please..."

Hanging on the circuits, practically, was Sandra Benes:

"Eagle, this is Alpha; we copy - please stand by for Professor Bergman - "

Alia's eyes were fixated upon the video-pickup image of the still distant Moon, trying to somehow connect this sight with the disembodied radio voice they had just heard. A female voice, she smilingly noted to herself.

"For whom are we standing by?"

"Oh, Alia, you would so like him. He runs Alpha's Research Section, I report to him. His ideas helped build Alpha - he's quite splendid, in every way..."

Victor Bergman appeared on the cabin screens: "We're all relieved to hear from you, at last...and yes, we have read the diary." Even Alia, studying that face, could perceive that this was a pleasant and intelligent, and careworn, face. "There are some questions...but questions can wait, and Helena can't. I know she wants to talk to you. Here she is..."

He moved aside for her. Her face shone with feeling: "Alix - ?"

"He was alive, when we left him," said she.

"When you left him!? - Isn't he with you? - "

"He has to be tended, and I couldn't fly the Eagle too. We have to fetch him back ourselves."

Personal worry and professional calling converged. Helena found herself nodding, heard herself saying, "I'll start putting together a task force, right away."

"A women-only task force. Is Alan there?"

Helena's image disappeared, Verdeschi's replacing it. "On his way to Flight Control - I suspect he's anticipated your request - "

"A flying-hospital pod, with airlock couplings, waiting on the pad," said she. "I'll drop off the lab module, and then rendezvouz and dock with Dr Russell's group. And, Tony - no men. I really do mean that."

"Understood. We'll be ready for you. Moonbase out."

After he had rung off, Verdeschi's gaze settled upon Helena.

The chief physician was trembling, and for good face's sake trying not to let it show.

Bergman came round and touched her gold-zippered left shoulder.

"This is why she didn't want him to go," gently.

"The price of knowing is too high! - "

Maya was there, also. "Helena, I'll go with you, shall I?"

"Would you?" Hers was the aching voice of a woman who'd just been tossed a life preserver, before going down for the third time.

"Of course," with that glowing Psychon smile.

Bergman watched off after the pair of them, before turning back to Verdeschi. "Security Research Station for me," said he. "Your seat - "

"My seat," nodding, as the older man was also hurrying out into the corridor, already drawing his commlock and broadcasting the necessary orders to his section.

Chapter Eighteen

Yeteve sat, alone now, by Koenig's sickbed.

They had done all they could, to make him comfortable. She sent everyone away, after that; with orders to carry out, preparations to be made, private instructions for Seeba.

All that remained was to wait, for the rescuers from the Moon.

The room, the suite she had chosen for him, was still, save for the ribbon of moonlight soundlessly spilling across the plush carpets.

Lamps flickered softly nearby.

She drew near, carefully studying his face, aching to give comfort.

Fingertips tenderly stroked the dark hair.

She looked, and knew - physically, emotionally - that both of them were near to the ends of their tether.

She slid to her knees beside him.

"Certain aspects of his biology differ from ours...that could work to his advantage..."

The one thing we never had, he still does -

Hope! -

"One thing more I can give you, John," softly, urgently. "Listen to me, now...remember our nuxghsceap? Remember, what I told you? It will come to a stop, wherever it will not will not drink...the very breath of life will fade away...slowly...very slowly...until it is scarcely a flicker..."

Her murmurings were as a rhythmical sing-song, an incantation, a summoning of the spirits.

"And thus it lies, undisturbed, unknowing of the world around it...and, as it lies, it will gather itself...slowly...ever so slowly...until at last, when the time is right - it will awaken, well and strong, once more in the full embrace of life...."

She took one of his hands in both of hers.

So limp, it was - and alarmingly cool, to the touch.

Anxiety gripped her afresh.

Where are they? -

Time meant nothing, and everything, now.

"Be a nuxghsceap, now, for me, John..." Strength, and desperation, rallied within her. "Try? - Please?! - And when the time is right, my Man in the Moon - awaken! Return to those who need you..."

Did he realize, just how many?

And to those who love I do...

It felt warmer, his hand, for the interval spent clasped between hers, as she carefully tucked it in place.

Her hair streamed about as her shoulders drooped, and her face fell.

And muffled sobbing.

Her lifetime, her very existence, had been circumscribed by utter devotion to one man.

It was shattering, now, to discover that there was room in that lifetime, that existence, for another...

Forgive me, Boqkanah ...

A sound, from afar off, came to her. The muffled scurrying of many footsteps.

"Remember...!" a whispered urgency.

That, and another sound...from a great distance off...

She slid into the chair, arranged the writing materials before her.

The sounds were nearer.

Her gaze wandered over to him and remained there, quietly exploring him; and her features softened, awash in the glow of knowing the howdah would never truly leave either of them.

Time was so precious.

The stylus moved across the sheet of paper.

Dearest John, it began...

Chapter Nineteen

In the Reconnaissance Eagle's command module, Alia was now very much the Alia of old; coy and sparkling.

The image of the Moon - it had grown, from before - had reappeared on the video, but she was clearly thinking of another face that had been there just before it.

"Mm, wouldn't he be fun to encounter, in some dark corner!"

"Tony wouldn't have a prayer," responding evenly, "and Maya wouldn't stand for it, anyway..."

"Oh, ho!" loftily. "And is this Maya a more fascinating creature than I am?"

"Dear Alia, no creature alive is as fascinating as you are," drolly.

Alia laughed, that same ridiculous laughter that had floated in and out amidst the treetops of Nephinefta.

Across the way, Alix simply shook her head and minded her controls.

Before very much longer, Alia's laughter was subsiding. She was sitting straight up in her seat, her eyes fixed ahead of her.

The video pickup was no longer needed. Out there, right out there, the runaway Moon was filling most of the forward viewports. She could stretch out her hand, and almost touch it...

"Sinus Iridum, the Bay of Rainbows," said her companion's voice, "and the Jura Mountains, with the Heraclides Promentory. The crater is called Bianchini. And there's the Sinus Roris, the Bay of Dew, just beyond it."

"And you know the name of that crater, of course?"

"Of course. Its name is Harpalus. I do try to be diligent about learning my lunar vocabulary, and in the original Latin too."

Alia's eyes danced, sensing a game afoot. "And the one nearest the horizon?"

"Mm - Markov, I think. And the rather ghostly-looking one is Oenopides, and then..." She let it trail off. "Alia - "

They looked across at each other.

The time of games was coming to an end...

The Moon now rushed up at them, mountains and craters, promentories and rilles falling astern of their Eagle, the droning sound of the engines continuing to fill the air in the command module.

Alia was still staring hard out her forward viewport, even as she heard a warning tone sound elsewhere.

"This is Alpha Flight Control, stand by for landing instructions..."


"Landing instructions received..."

"We're locked onto you, and tracking. Flight Control out."

And at last, they were coasting over the craggy ramparts of Plato.

"We're here..."

Alia continued to stare.

In all directions beneath that incredibly-dark sky, the silver-and-black vistas of the sixty-mile-wide Greater Black Lake - as the astronomer Hevelius had named it - spread themselves out before her.

Again, the warning tone:

"Alpha Flight Control, Eagle on final approach..."

The maze of above-ground domes and covered walkways of Moonbase Alpha, radiating forth like some great technological water-lily, gleamed in the blinding sunlight.

Alia's eyes widened, and her jaw dropped:

"You live there!? - "

"Alpha is rather like an iceberg," trying to further explain. "You can see only a very little of it. All the rest is underground, because it's safer there."

Alia became more serious. "I suppose someplace like Nephinefta would look inviting, after this...such an injustice I've done, to people I've never even seen! Well, I'm going to put it right - "

"With your mother, too?"

"Mother, too," sighing resignedly.

"Then we may yet see a happy ending to this." With some misgivings, Alix continued. "Alia, there's something you ought to know, in all thing, more than any other, used to bedevil me, as a student pilot here...gave me fits, in fact..."

"Oh? What was that?"

"Pinpoint landings..."

Her lips formed "oh." Feeling not a little self-conscious, she cautiously withdrew into the padded cladding of her seat and automatically reached up to re-secure her restraining harness.

Lightening the Eagle of its passenger pod was an operation with inherent tricky moments all its own, Alix was explaining. "And it must be done correctly, the first time," said she, in conclusion.

"Just tell me what to do, and when to do it. I am a quick study, you know!"

Tricky, for she would have to keep the Eagle aloft by the barest of margins - with the engines still running - long enough for Alia to hit the switches loosing the latches, freeing the module from the craft's superstructure; and allowing it to be safely deposited on the flight deck.

"There, you see?" beaming in triumph. "You couldn't possibly have done it without me!"

Alix had to admit it, "We do make a good team, don't we?" Then, the change in call sign denoting their present emergency: "Rescue Eagle to Flying Hospital - "

Maya appeared on the video: "We're here, Alicky..."

"We're coming now. Don't sneeze...?"

"Promise!" smiling, and she was gone.

"Maya," was the response to Alia's wrinkled brow.

Down, and down, the Eagle went; so gradually as to be almost floating...

Alix's skill as a standby-status pilot, commendable though it was, remained no match for the finesse of a far more seasoned, experienced operator. With no allowances for error, she'd have to balance her own need for caution against the mission's need for alacrity -

"Docking complete," as Alia saw the green lights snap on.

Immediately, Alix threw the throttles over into the full-lift position and held them there, involuntarily gritting her teeth, as though straining to lift the multi-ton vessel off the pad with her bare hands.

The screens delivered views of Alpha's installations falling rapidly away from their undercarriage.

Now, a surprise: Alan, theretofore unheard from, appeared on the command module video. "That was a tricky piece of work you just carried off!"

"And that's welcome praise, coming from you," said a much-relieved Alix.

"You can tell me yourself," said he. "I'm aboard."

She was astonished, and then angry:

"I specifically said - !"

"I know what you said," cutting her off, "I also know mission rules - and you, of all people, should know I'd never ask anyone else in my section to do what I wouldn't first do myself. So, that's an end to it," and then the screen cleared.

Alia was round-eyed and agape, albeit in aid of a very different cause: " - ? - That's the picture you showed me! - "

Alix tried to somehow push down this new attack of panic. "You asked me at dinner what it was like, being in love with a man...this is part of it. Being in love with a man means you worry about him, sometimes more than you should. And other times, with complete justification..."


"Perhaps you' to go aft, and meet Dr Russell and the others. They're very nice people, you'll like them..."

Not that Alia doubted she would; but, even so, she hesitated. It wasn't right, really, leaving her friend in such an agitated frame of mind. Thinking on this, she realized the task lay outside her life's experience.

What a terrible - inadequacy, to discover within oneself!

And so, feeling oddly humbled and suddenly, strangely - womanlike - she quietly rose, and left the cabin...

Behind her, Alix took one hand from the controls. She was alone, there was no more need to submerge inner feelings.

And yet, ever the "proper lady," she clumsily tried to cover her face with her free hand.

Effects of Nephinefta were everywhere...

The "flying hospital," Alia discovered, was similar to the laboratory module she had first seen, back on Nephinefta; yet quite different in its details and appointments.

Most revelatory of all, were these Alphans themselves; with the single exception of her friend, Alia had never - before this day - set eyes upon creatures of a race other than her own.

They were, of course, all of them women. In Maya, so stunningly unique even in the company of Alphans, was to be found a rapier wit able to parry her own on an even basis. Her country also had come to a terrible end, it seemed. Well, they could certainly commiserate on that subject, couldn't they?

Helena Russell, the chief physician, beguiled and disturbed, within a single act of being. That she was beautiful could scarcely be denied, for she surely was; and yet, right alongside, there lay something else...

The turn of her golden head, the gesturing of slender fingers...these things, and others, suddenly converged.

Mother! she whispered to herself...

"Perhaps Alicky would like some company," said Maya, presently. "I think I'll go up and sit with her for awhile..."

She lofted herself easily from the passenger rumble and smilingly passed Alia and the small cluster of nurses en route to the command module. She had been the first to approach their visitor, to welcome her thither, and Alia had appreciated this.

Alan, who'd kept out of the way and rather to himself, ambled by and settled himself in Maya's place, next to Helena.

He had personally overseen the preparation of the hospital pod - including the same anti-radiation shielding as that of the now-jettisoned lab module.

"If it's about Alix - she and I'll square things up, after John is safe. First things first."

"M'm...but just now, I was thinking about another young who hasn't seen men in 800 years. Alan, you have got to tread gently with her..."

"Too right," and his tone was altogether serious.

...all of them women, with but a single exception...

Alia turned elsewhere in the hospital pod.

There he was, sitting next to the doctor, engaging her in idle chatter.

The usual plethora of clever lines deserted her. Perhaps something short and succinct would be better. He could talk, and she would listen...

She meandered over to the passenger section of the module. He, marking her approach, looked up at her; and as she stopped, he stood.

"You're Alan," a small voice, edged in timidity.

"And you have to be Alia," said he.

What an odd-sounding voice, indeed! she thought, and groped for something else to say.

"I've seen your picture," finally.

She knew she was staring, but however could she not?

"Have you?" He seemed to find this a curiosity.

"Alix showed it to me...she's told me everything about you..."

"Everything?" dubiously, cocking his blond head just so.


"Then I think I may be in trouble," said he.

An awkward silence fell between them at this point. Alia scolded herself. To be thus at a loss for words, was so unlike her. Why was she, here and now? What made this man different?

"Like to sit down?" he offered.

"M? - "

"It's a longer trip, standing..."

This made her smile. She laid a hand on his arm and followed him as he led her thither. Helena had, without a noise, taken herself elsewhere.

Alia sat, and Alan sat. This new silence bore an intimacy lacking in the other. She allowed her fingers to slide across his; he took her hand gently, but made no other attempt to touch her...

"According to your diary, you never came down with this 'sickness,'" Maya was remarking. "Why?"

"A very good question," warily. "Yeteve's doctors ran many tests, believing if they could determine why I didn't contract it, perhaps that could lead them to a cure..."

"But it never did," prompted Helena, who'd joined them.

"No," sighing. "It seems to be no more than a fluke of nature, some combination of factors that cannot be duplicated."

"The influence of the omnimorph, perhaps?" Maya speculated. Protecting its human host?...

Alix shrugged her shoulders. It was a question she had no way of answering.

"The Security Research Station is being readied for us," said Helena, "Victor's coordinating it. John will have to be kept in strictest isolation, away from the other men, until he recovers. And the protocols go much further: all of us are quarantined, as of liftoff; and, since he's insisted on coming, that includes Alan as well - "

" - he stays on the Eagle - "

"It's purely precautionary, Alicky," Maya explained. "There's just too much about the sickness that we don't know - we can't take the risk!"

She took in, let out a breath, trying to maintain the tight leash she'd imposed upon her inner workings, with other eyes watching once more.

"So, what do you think of Alia?" in search of a different subject.

Mention of Alia perked up the cabin atmosphere considerably.

"A surprise package - !" and in spite of herself, Helena was giggling. She couldn't help it.

"Everything in the diary, and more! - " Maya was laughing too. "I can see now why you two get on so well!"

"They broke the mold, as you say, after Alia. Have she and Alan met yet?"

Helena beamed. "Oh, yes. They've met!"

Sighing sympathetically, "He probably hasn't been able to get a word in edgewise..."

"On the contrary," said Helena, "they've been saying hardly anything at all."

"I don't believe it," raising an eyebrow. "Never, in the course of our friendship, have I known Alia to be lacking for a sprightly utterance to fit any and every occasion."

"Be that as it may," noted Helena, with a certain amusement, "the atmosphere between them is very quiet..."

Observed Maya, softly, "I gather it must take quite a person, to make Alia speechless..."

Alia, elsewhere, certainly seemed to think so.

Mm, he does cut a fine figure, glancing sideways at him as they sat together.

A couple of the nurses, zippered white left sleeves in evidence on their uniforms, were glancing at him, too; and at her.

At her? -

Could they be at all jealous? Of me? - Because I'm sitting next to him?

A tiny, calculating smile touched her lips. The possibilities felt oddly electrifying...

Through the command module's forward viewports, Helena beheld the darkened curve of the world as it soundlessly glided past, somewhere far below their Rescue Eagle. Moonlight picked out clouds here and there, like bits of silver flocking on deep velvet.

"A night landing," she mused, with concern. "How are you at night landings?" this last to Alix.

"I've never really been tried," said she. Already faced with the task of hitting a target as small as an island, having to do so in darkness somehow seemed a lesser difficulty.

This wasn't the dark of the Moon...

"Alicky knows the territory," Maya asserted. "We'll make it."

Helena assimilated this, and then stood and excused herself and went out.

Behind her, Alix touched a button, and the sliding double doors allowing access between the command module and its adjoining pod smartly whisked shut.

She and Maya looked across the aisle at each other, a silent pact of agreement passing between them, and then she flicked the Eagle's internal loop: "Attention, Flying Hospital - counting down to re-entry engine burn. Please keep to your seats, until further notice; thank you..."

Alan, listening, shook his head. "So polite! - " Then he was indicating Alia's seat belt and reaching over to help her secure it.

A momentary tremor rippled through the vessel, as its big engines kicked over into renewed life. Caught extending himself out just too far over his normal center of mass, his own seat belt not yet fastened, he might well have landed in Alia's lap, had she not quickly and quite instinctively moved to restrain him.

Their startled eyes met. And, just as quickly, he and she were untangling themselves.

He said nothing, affixing his errant seat belt in the proper position. She said nothing, settling back in her own seat...but she remembered blue eyes with more than a hint of mischief in them; and, however briefly and by accident, the warm pressure of his arms around her...

" - What was that?" Maya was straining forward, looking.

"M? - "

"I thought I saw lights, out there ahead of us."

"A trick of the moonlight, perhaps?"

The seconds ticked on, as the Rescue Eagle continued dropping down through thick atmosphere. Maya kept watching...

"No! - Look! There! - "

Alix did, trying to spot - what?

"Lights?...Lanterns! Yeteve must have ordered it - rows of lanterns - don't you see? They're showing us where to land! - "

Not that this startling development had transformed an otherwise dicey night landing into the proverbial piece of cake, but it did go aways toward "almost." At any rate, they managed, without significant mishap, to put the Rescue Eagle on the turf of a Nephineftan meadow.

The interior of the hospital pod became a beehive of urgent activity. Maya took Alan aside, "You'll have to stay here, you know," as the medical group prepared to move out.

"I know," said he. "Hurry back."

"Helena won't risk all of us in this environment any longer than necessary. Once we're back, we'll have to leave immediately."

"The moment she gives the word, we're out of here," said he.

He then stood back and watched them all move away, into the special airlock couplings. Or so he thought...

The whirring and clinking of machinery died away, and he believed himself alone.

He wasn't.

There was movement, in the shadows...and suddenly Alia stepped from them.

"Thought you'd gone with the others," raising an eyebrow.

"Alix knows the way. They won't get lost. Besides, are you so anxious to be rid of me?"

"It isn't that...I just thought you'd be glad to be home."

"Home," absently, shrugging. "What home?"

"You shouldn't make light of it," seriously. "Not something like home. I know I'll never see my home again...and yet, deep down, is a part of me that's never stopped wishing I could go back..."

Alia sank down into one of the passenger rumbles. "Everything's dead, at home...swept away, with nothing left, except the few of us. But here, within these walls, sitting in these seats - I've had the briefest taste of your sort of life - and I liked it...!" with a special animation in her features. "When we were out there, I found myself wishing that this Eagle would simply go sailing on and on, and never stop...I didn't want to go home, I wanted - I wanted to go where you're going..."

Slowly he sat on the edge of one of the hospital beds. With one ear, he heard as echoes Helena's gentle words of caution; and, with the other, heard an eight-hundred-year-old chrysalis gradually giving way to the strugglings of a new and exquisite and untried creature.

He knew what was happening, or at least about to happen. And he didn't want to hurt her.

"No one knows where we're going, Alia...only a no-hoper would make a wish like that."

"Well, I'm not taking it back; because I meant it. We've a saying here, it goes something like this: that it's unwise to wish for what's beyond the mountains and over the ocean; that in the end it can't bring you your heart's desire. When I was a little girl, long before the war, my mother thought me foolish for wanting exactly that. But not my father. He understood...he knew. The way I know now. Don't you see? Part of what lies beyond the mountains and over the ocean - is all this..." spreading her hands, this taking in the sweep of the Eagle's interior.

"The excitement of someplace new," said he, and with every syllable he tread upon eggshells.

"Someplace new," savoring, as a rare dish, this trio of syllables. "The mere prospect make me irresponsibly giddy!...Imagine! Seeing new and exciting places, and matching wits with strange cultures and stranger creatures..." Taking a new breath, she softly added one thing more: "...and discovering oneself to be alone, with a man..."

He sat very still, spoke very quietly.

"'s all because of where you are..."

She rose, and crossed the floor with soundless steps, and sat next to him on the edge of the bed.

"I know where I am," this with much meaning, touching tentative fingertips to his face...

In practically the next instant, she angrily sprang up and stalked away; angry not at him, but herself.

"Khosrowdad, do I! - Just about two steps short of seducing a man I know my best friend loves - ! Mother would laugh in my face! You know, I accused her of dreadful things - of throwing herself at your Commander Koenig, the way I very nearly threw myself at you, just now! She'd have every right to call me a hypocrite - "

Her momentary emotional tempest abated, having apparently spent itself. And when she spoke again, hers was a low voice vibrant with quite different feelings.

"However, you...shouldn't take that to mean I don't find you attractive...because I do..." and, before the air became too very thick with such potent melodramatics, "Just where have you been for the last 800 years, anyway?" twisting the mood into her own signature of zesty, outspoken irreverence.

He had to smile, even chuckle, as he stood up. Behind her outward display of elfin puckishness, could be divined her continuing and poignant desire to remain here...springing from that impractical and supremely-wishful region of the mind possessed by all...

She knew she couldn't, and so did he.

"You'll have to stay in the pilots' cabin," said she. "Will you?"

"I will," he assured her.

"Alix would never forgive me, if anything were to happen to you - she's so very worried about your being here. You really shouldn't have, you know. And yet, I - I feel strangely glad you did..."

In the interim, they had moved closer together. That the sense of attraction was operating in both directions, was self-evident. Whatever was to happen between them, would have to happen very quickly.

Alia was assailed by a rush of decidedly-uncharacteristic shyness and awkward embarrassment; a throaty chuckle issued from her, in trying to camouflage it. "You're going to think me unspeakably wretched, but..." abruptly becoming quite serious, and dropping to a whisper, "...would you kiss me?..."

What ensued was a thing of intensity, a mingling of exquisite discovery with aching regret for the ending which must come...

"...that's the first time," cooing, as they came up for air. Her fingers were still entwined round the back of his neck; and her eyes devoured the minute detail of him, memorizing everything. "How I do envy that errant shadow of mine...and how the others will envy me, from now on...!"

Her eyes were full, enormous deep pools of that bewitching liquid-green hue; within them lay an invitation, and under any other circumstances, he might well have accepted it. Hers was a reckless streak that mirrored his own; she'd make for a most formidable handful, a capricious bundle of trouble well worth any man's time.

Such as she were wasted, in a place like Nephinefta...

"You're so many things, but a hypocrite isn't among them," he presently told her. "You tell your mother that. Tell her a man said so..."

First to break the eye-contact, Alia reached to loosen a jeweled brooch from her hunting costume. "So you'll remember me," putting it into his hand.

You do have friendly eyes, she thought.

"I'd do that, in any event," said he, and with that took the identification badge from his uniform, wrapping her fingers around it. "I'll get another," hushing her surprised reaction.

In her memory he'd be there forever...standing framed by the doorsills leading to the Rescue Eagle's command module, striking a rougish pose and smiling for her like that.

He was, indeed, everything she'd been told he was.

Then the double doors were whooshing across their shared line of sight, taking him away...

His instrument board told him that one of the airlocks had just been used, but he otherwise paid little real attention.

Instead, he dropped into the module's left-hand seat and pondered the brooch, with its many smoky-green gems, he was still holding.

In every literal sense, he would be the only man in her life.

Quite a responsibility...

Chapter Twenty

Koenig, though weaker, still lived.

Yeteve would not leave his side, not even as the doctors swarmed attentively about the two of them once more.

The waiting was nearly over...

With every fibre of her being she was willing this man to live, and it was consuming her.

Elsewhere, the Alphan rescue party had reached the royal villa...

Seeba whispered the news, saw the toll being exacted by the vigil.

Khosrowdad, let this time be different! For her sake, and for his, I beg of you - !

The unfamiliar timbre of many running footsteps, echoed in the corridors...

And then Alix reappeared, the others collectively bursting into the suite behind her; and she breathlessly rushed through the introductions of Helena, Maya and the rest, to Yeteve.

From some unknown quarter came the strength to rise to her feet, instinctively roused to formally receive them all.

"You're Helena! - " wonderingly. "He's been asking for you - please, follow me - "

Her attendants cleared a path, to facilitate the Alphans' approach to his sickbed.

"We tried to tell him that she had gone to get help from the Moon," Yeteve told Helena, "hoping he would try to rally. Yet I fear for him, fear for him every moment he remains here..."

In these first moments of reunion, the doctor was submerged by the woman.


She had thought herself prepared. She wasn't, was shocked at what she now saw.

Seeba remained close to Yeteve, carefully gripped the latter's unresisting shoulders.

Khosrowdad be praised...

Even in his delirium he seemed to recognize her touch, her face, her eyes so filled with fear and worry. very worried...

His fingers slowly, clumsily entangled themselves in her golden hair as she laid her head on his shoulder.

"John..." in an aching, emotional whisper, "I've come to take you home..."

Maya stood silently, vigilantly by. Action equaled reaction, it seemed; as in the laws of nature, so too in the intermingling of humans.

The medical party moved in in full force, swarmed about the sickbed, securing, preparing.

In an out-of-the-way corner of the sickroom she saw Yeteve and Alicky, the older woman talking quietly into the ear of the younger. Then they were emotionally embracing each other.

Her Psychon gaze fell. Words of farewell, she could reasonably guess at them...

The darkened corridors of the villa responded to the emergence of the stretcher party from the suite. On both left and right, attendants stationed at intervals along the way, lanterns blazed and sparkled, cool wind and the fragrance of flowers flowing past to mark their progress.

Then they were outside, joined now by torchbearers, on either side, to guide them through the night, keeping them safely on the track through the trees and the jungle.

And, at long last, the meadow where the Rescue Eagle was waiting, looming from the deep shadows, swathed in a baleful glow, running lights flashing.

Lifting her blazing torch, Alix led the way out of the forests and onto the meadow's grass-carpeted floor. Behind her, Alphan nurses and Yeteve's bearers shared the burden of carrying Koenig's carefully-swaddled stretcher, along with Helena and Maya. Yeteve came last, at the head of the bier.

Torchbearers still flanked them, lighting the way.

The sound of the Eagle's engines grew with their approach.

Then they were stopping, everyone gasping for breath.

They were there.

The bearers came to formal attention, briefly bowed their heads.

Then they were stepping back and into the darkness, the wavering of the torches marking their passage.

Yeteve still remained, at the head of the bier, looking down at him, tenderly stroking his face.

His world, and it was, at last, reclaiming him...

A blinding portal opened before them. Yeteve squinted, tried to focus, recognized the austere interior of the Eagle's passenger module.

Over all lay the incessant summons of the engines, rising to the pitch of a hollow, shrieking banshee.

The Alphan stretcher party moved forward, the grassy ground trembling beneath them, and disappeared into that brilliant maw.

Yeteve's fingers were holding empty air...

Helena tensely observed her nurses as they swiftly, efficiently secured Koenig's sickbed, then she was urging them to get to their seats and strap in for the crash-lift she knew Carter was moments from executing.

But as she swung in the direction of the airlock, she halted.

She moved towards it, the double doors sliding aside at her commlock's behest.

Framed by the hatchway, she looked out.

The meadow had gone dark.

Completely dark. Every source of light had been extinguished, leaving only the faint sparkle of the night sky.

"Helena! - "

Maya's shouted voice, above the din of the engines; then her hands, pulling Helena back from the airlock.

Nephinefta disappeared behind the doors, sealing, locking in place.

The Rescue Eagle rose above the treetops, circled above the forests and the jungle, before taking up its course for the Moon and the stars.

Alia had not returned to her mother's villa.

Instead, she had taken herself to a certain secluded glade in the gardens. Nearby lay the winding, meandering track that led to the entrance to a series of very modest caves, formed during the volcanic birth of Nephinefta.

The island's young people used them for their trysting places...

There, in the Moon-silvered darkness, amidst the fragrant flowers, she took out the Alphan picture-keepsake.

With a slender fingertip, she idly traced every line of the man's face in the photo upon it.

I've just had my heart broken, by a man...and it's the most - wonderful thing, that's ever happened to me - !

From aways off, the sound came to her. She had come to recognize it, the sound of those engines...her head jerked up, the air caught in her throat, her eyes briefly glazed over.

He was leaving...

...and so, too, was one other...and just like you, too, my inconstant friend! Slinking off into the night!...

And, elsewhere - having run the entire distance from the meadow - Yeteve burst into the suite, rushing across the plush carpets, up to the picture windows and with a single swift motion opened them wide.

Heaving deeply for breath, she anxiously gazed upward, her eyes sweeping the night sky -

There! - There he was...the already-distant winking color telltales of the retreating Rescue Eagle, she could readily pick them out, against the backdrop of stars.

Had the night wind risen, or was that the last, faint sound of the engines...?

Clouds were drifting in, the stars winking in and out of view as they passed.

And there was the runaway Moon, it too had moved in the sky. For now, at least, a measure of its baleful light reached down into the suite and carpeted it with a soft silver.

Yeteve never felt the strength leaving her, never even felt the carpeting as it rushed up to meet her. There was only the fleeting memory of moonlight, before everything slid away into darkness.

Chapter Twenty-One

The Security Research Station was connected to Alpha proper by the base's longest single travel tube and serviced by its own launch pad, where the Rescue Eagle - its medical pod still attached - now reposed.

Its every access portal, large or small, lay open to the absolute cold and dark of space.

The penultimate means of sterilization.

Over on the far side of the base, on one of its more isolated launch pads, sat the empty and abandoned laboratory module, the same treatment regime imposed upon it also.

Moonbase Alpha's satellite installation was a unique creation, born out of both the hopeful past and the tenuous present of the runaway Moon.

Embedded into the very moonrock itself, it occupied a small crater situated out at the very edge of Plato - a truly unearthly vernal pool along the shore of the Greater Black Lake.

Its interior, readily adaptable by design to whatever the going need - and the more perilous, the more ideal - had been converted into a small specialized hospital.

Koenig lay within one of its isolation wards. In the subdued light, the soft hum and pulse of many diagnostic platforms kept watch upon their comatose charge, tracking the faint flickering of life within.

Electronic eyes were not alone in their vigilance.

Human eyes, the concerned and worried eyes of Helena Russell, blue as the quarantine couture she now wore.

So very still! Not once had he stirred, since they'd brought him in. Calling up the video closeups from behind her desk, she studied his face.

The fine lines of tension she remembered, about the eyes, the mouth, seemed to have soothed away.

Peaceful, she thought.

Peaceful and unnerving, as hours stretched out into days and still he did not move; utterly unchanged, sleeping, as she approached the viewing panel yet again, absently fastening the white collar above the zippered sleeve of her duty wardrobe, brushing a few stray golden hairs from her face.

What hold does that island have on him? -

Nothing in the base's extensive medical storage-banks offered solace or direction. Earthly afflictions of the body and the mind, and from beyond too, were all duly recorded there.

The radiation-caused brain cancers that leveled so many, over on the Moon's onetime far side. The baffling malady that severely disrupted Maya's mental control of her wondrous transformations.

The insidious, incapacitating lassitude that felled all but a handful of Alpha's population.

And then there was the planet Zeeno, the file she was still reading, certain it held the clue she sought. The crashed Eagle, the injured crew he had been part of and the most seriously injured; his physical life ebbing away, right there in front of her, and no way of stopping it...

At length she contacted Bergman, anxious for his opinion and somewhat surprised that he too had been reviewing the Zeeno case.

Perhaps not quite so much a surprise, as he'd been aboard that Eagle too.

Although the nature of his mechanical heart tended to inure him against such extremes, the science advisor was by no means unfeeling towards her distress.

"Your reports say that John's condition has not deteriorated further," he was saying. "I've asked Bob in for his evaluation..."

"It's a sort of stasis," said the physician, "where all life is suspended. We're well advised, I believe, to go on watching him, but to keep a certain distance. Something is at work here."

"And I concur," from Bergman.

"So do I, Helena," from Sandra, another member of that fated Eagle crew, invited to the meeting at Bergman's laboratory. "Something is taking place...and we must allow it to do so. Let us be patient, if we can. It wasn't his time before..."

"...and it's not his time now, either," Mathias agreed.

"He'll come back to us, Helena..."

His words of reassurance met the image of her troubled features. The eyes faltered, fell, as the video screen wordlessly cleared.

After she rang off, the science advisor turned from the commpost. He had reached a decision. "Right, then. Get your people ready, and I'll have a word with Tony - he has the duty now? Good. Command conference in, shall we say, half an hour?..."

Alpha needed a leader - and a clear path of succession.

The returning calm after the Zeeno affair was only on the surface, and belied how deeply it had shaken all of them that they could so readily allow themselves to degenerate into chaos, tempers flaring even to the point of physical blows being exchanged. Could they possibly survive another?

It could never, ever, be allowed to happen again.

And so, quietly and through back-channels - at least initially - the discussions began.

Verdeschi would later say, half in jest, that he'd been "kicked upstairs" (not exactly hyperbole, insomuch as his Security command complex in Main Mission Tower was only just below that of Main Mission itself); such was the net effect those discussions would have, in particular, upon him...

Time continued to pass.

Victor Bergman was lost in thought as he perused the workings of the latest scientific apparatus sitting on his workbench. Elsewhere, he knew, Verdeschi and Paul Morrow were splitting the executive authority between them; per the provisions of "the plan" - no fancy name or designation had ever attached to it - his was the final word in any disputes or disagreements. He had his own deep bench of scientific experts on call, at any hour.

All around him, in similar fashion, Alpha was smoothly ticking over.

So far, so good...

"He moved! - "

The slightest change in breathing, barely perceptible movement of the body -

Helena's voice, her features animated and anxious, burst into the room.

He nodded, smiled, pondered those two words after she rang off, and then he was tapping keys on the commlock where it reposed in its desk port. He rose, stepped over to the commpost. The video display appeared:

LUNAR TIME 19:30:43.281
LUNAR TIME 19:30:43.302

Those decimal places answered his immediate question. What took a bit longer to sink in, was that the yellow Sun-like component of the binary had set over the Moon's horizon for the last time. It would not return.

And thus the nuxghsceap lies...undisturbed, unknowing of the world around it...and, as it lies, it will gather itself...

Darkness, and whispers...she strained in the dim light to see, to follow them to their source, in the isolation ward. Beneath the covers, the body twitched restlessly. She tripped the switches, focused the monitor.

He labored to draw breath, his lips moved...

Slowly...ever so slowly...until at last, when the time is right -

His struggles ceased, sleep reclaiming him.

Beyond the glass, Helena's visage wavered...

Where are you? Maya's features clouded with a deep empathy, and she gathered her robe more closely about her. Yet another false alarm. It had been wise, not to disturb her...

- awaken!

The eyes opened.

In the morning, the nurses found a huddled shape amongst the bedcovers, curled up in a fetal position, with eyes that responded yet did not register, and from whom issued forth not a single sound...

The little group at the Security Research Station were all feeling rather keenly the effects of their forced isolation from the rest of Alpha, so tantalizingly near and infinitely far away.

With her uncanny Psychon constitution, Maya was the first of them to be cleared for release from quarantine.

She was missing Verdeschi terribly, and ached to return to him; but she could not.

There was Helena. Attentive, and on the proverbial razor's edge, to the least little twitch in the listless sort of demi-life that continued to cling to her man, keeping him just beyond her reach.

They were as each other's lifeline, the two of them. She would not abandon her, or him. So she had stayed on.

Helena sat beside him, in the isolation unit. He had spoken her name, on Nephinefta; she was the key to the riddle of his current state. She had to remain near him, it was more than a medical imperative, but a profoundly personal one...

He had taken no food, and she fretted for how he could recover his strength. "Shall I bring you some broth?" She was trying yet again to coax him. "Chicken, or beef - some rabbit, perhaps?"

He was sitting up, at least; still, nary a ripple of emotion flickered across that face, inherently so emotive, so expressive...

"You - told me you liked pheasant under glass, shall I bring that instead? Some asparagus hollandaise? Not even a little chocolate mousse?"

It was time to go, and she stood.

"I'll come back," leaning closer, promising him. The door slid open, and as it closed Maya let out a breath. She'd hoped he would remember their time together on Luton...

Helena - the real one - tried to serve some food to him, dishes she knew he liked. He accepted it from the spoon, chewed slowly and mechanically. She took the tray, turning towards the door so he would not see the despair sweeping over her...


She almost dropped the tray. Finding somewhere to set it down, she turned round. He was looking at her. She drew near...

He seemed to recognize her; her touch, her face, her eyes so filled with fear and worry. very worried...

His fingers slowly, clumsily tangled themselves in her golden hair as she sat down alongside him and laid her head on his shoulder. He had not the strength to do much more, but she would give him that; and anything else he asked.

She could not begin to guess as to what strange realm he had passed through, to come back to them at long last. For now, it was enough - more, far more, than enough - that he had come back to her...

Chapter Twenty-Two

Elsewhere, within another isolation ward, Alan had been sequestered.

No one knew, with even remote certainty, the length of the incubation period for the sickness; here too, no maps existed to show the way.

As each day followed yet another, with no release in view, he was becoming restless. It certainly wasn't his way to just mope about, and nothing getting done. The strain was starting to tell on him, too...

Just now, his fair-haired head bent over the clipboarded sheaf of paper, his pen industriously scratching away, a small volume sitting nearby amongst the bedcovers.

He'd been about this occupation for awhile, to help pass the time. Its beginnings lay in a certain piece of paper - one evidently not meant to be found in the place it had been.

For, although it hadn't any relation to the diary pages he'd assisted Sandra in translating, all had been written in the same hand.

She had explained a few words on that page to him, words that had somehow stayed in his mind. He couldn't imagine why, or why he had kept that page afterward.

But on that hurried way to Flight Control, he took those very few moments at his quarters to select a certain volume from his personal library; and because it had come with him aboard the Rescue Eagle, it had likewise followed him here, into quarantine.

He had absorbed enough of that strange language, to be able to do a bit of translation himself. He still lacked Sandra's efficacy, though, for the syntax looked rough and uneven.

Yet it still felt, sounded vaguely familiar.

He reached over, picked up the small tome again. Inscribed in the flyleaf, in his own swift strokes, was the following:

Copy donated to Moonbase Alpha Library
14 January 1999
Fourth Tour

He browsed searchingly through it, page after page.

Then, at last, the reference appeared. The translation, it turned out, was incomplete; stanzas were missing, but enough of the poem was there, including its title...

You named a waterfall for me...I'll find something to name after you, it's only fair...perhaps one of those splendid high-country lakes, with water as blue as your eyes...

And there was something else, something that in the moment had slipped entirely past him. What was it, that Alia had said? -

...Just about two steps short of seducing a man I know my best friend loves - !

He remembered it now.

...and how I do envy that errant shadow of mine...

And with it, a dawning realization...

In brisk order he swore, snapped the book shut, and reached for his commlock: "When do I get out of here?..."

So in due course, it came about that a man's arm in an orange sleeve abruptly reached out to yank the oncoming Alix into an adjoining corridor:

"Wouldn't be looking for me, would you?"

"Not if you were the last man on the Moon - !"

"Well now, seeing as I never got sick and they showed me the door, I was rather hoping to find you waiting on the other side of it..."

"Don't flatter yourself! - " still struggling to wrestle free. Notwithstanding her initial startled reaction, she was very vexed with him.

"Then, pray enlighten an old dumb, blind kangaroo - just what are you doing here?"

"I don't have to tell you that," each syllable reverberating with her old regal hauteur.

"Tsk,'ve really gone and done it, this time," mockingly pouting, "wounding my ego..."

"Your ego could do with some deflating," sharply. "Don't you ever scare me like that again! Scare me flying your Eagles, if you absolutely must, but not something like the sickness! Not ever again, do you hear me? - "

She got no further than this, however, for he was touching fingertips to her lips, to hush her.

"Have you finished?" blandly. She mutely nodded. "Good," whereupon he set about putting his case to her in a different and rather more intimate manner.

I hear you...

"Times when an omnimorph should be kissed, and not heard," when they parted.

A brief, discreet check of the library records had told him who'd been reading any A B Paterson recently...

"Oh now, that wasn't fair! - " softly. "Whenever I get angry with you, you do something like that, and..."

"Like this?" quietly, kissing her again.

And she stopped struggling.

"...and...and I can't stay angry..."

Alia had spoken out of turn. Or had she?

"Suppose we discuss it," said he. "But not here..."

And on the other side of that much-made-of door, was to be found Helena, lounging easily in her office in the main isolation unit.

Quarantine conditions for her small staff had at last been lifted; and yet, visits by the other men were still being discouraged.

Bergman she'd made an exception for; and his appearance promised a much-needed diverting interval.

The science advisor set down the tray, with its coffee service laid for two, on her desk. Then he eyed the video monitor focused on the restricted area wherein Koenig remained domiciled.

His isolation remained absolute; he had seen no other men since being returned to the Moon aboard the Rescue Eagle.

Only female medical personnel, garbed in transparent quarantine garments over their white-sleeved uniforms, had seen to his needs for these many days.

The older man clearly approved of what he saw. "He looks much better, much stronger."

"He improves every day," said she, in concurrence.

He poured out their coffee. "She was right, you know. We never should have gone to Nephinefta," passing her cup to her. "Conceding the supposed perfection of hindsight, I very much want to believe we would've listened to her, and heeded her."

"If she'd only spoken up..."

"Our word 'plutonium' has no equivalent in the Rumnipuran language. But all the rest of it was there, word for word, in the diary. Oh, yes. She knew what we'd find."

A beautiful place, haunted by a deadly ghost...consigning half the island's population to an unwished-for eternal life, and the other half to a terrible death; and still capable, even after many centuries, of dealing death.

Helena couldn't help the brief shudder. Such an otherwise-paradise as Nephinefta would hold out only hollow promises to her; for any eternal life without the constant company of her man, would've been unbearable...

The buzz of her commlock announced yet another visitor: Shermeen Collins, the required quarantine couture worn over her yellow-sleeved uniform, her fluffy chestnut hair pulled back from her cheerful countenance.

"Dr Russell? They said I had to have your approval, to go beyond this point..."

"I know the Commander's looking forward to your visit. He's more than ready for a new face, after the lot of us. Tell them I said to pass you through."

She rang off; and sometime after this, she and Bergman could watch on the monitor as Shermeen smilingly sailed into Koenig's room. She had with her, atop a maintenance trolley, a glassed-in modular hothouse; this containing a generous planting of those beautifully-sculpted eziimee blossoms of Nephinefta. Koenig briefly glanced about and then directed her where to deposit her flowery charge.

Then these two were exchanging some minutes' worth of various pleasantries, she looking cheerful and plucky, and he interested in her words...

When the Moon blew out of Earth orbit, its population numbered not only those assigned there, but those who'd just happened to be there. Shermeen was amongst the latter, younger than most of her colleagues, impressionable and feeling utterly lost.

As the Moon gathered botanical specimens from planets encountered in its travels, her talent for plant classification began to find a useful role. Then, disaster: Dr James Warren, head of Hydroponics - and one of her mentors - met a horrific death, at the hands of the ghostly doppelganger of botanist Dan Mateo. The remaining Hydroponics personnel rallied together as a team; redoubling her own work ethic, she focused on growing the curatorial skills Warren had encouraged in her.

The call from Verdeschi, asking her assistance in improving his homemade beer, was a gift from the gods. He was as handsome as Mateo, and far more approachable; and her thoughts brimmed with girlish dreams. But then they quarreled, every nightmare of l'affaire Mateo vividly regenerated; and her vulnerability, her foolishness nearly brought her, him and Alpha itself to ruin...

Anyone looking at her now, as Koenig was, knew she'd put the nightmares behind her forever. She'd married that young fellow, Eddie, and it pleased him to see it working out so well; for, amongst his other executive duties, he could marry people! Then she was excusing herself, and going away.

Bergman hid a smile as he sipped his coffee. "Now what do you suppose our young Mr Collins would think about that?"

Helena did not immediately reply. He gently prompted her.

"Hello?..." Perhaps she'd noticed the touch of brandy he'd put in the coffee; he'd correctly judged her to need it. "You're far away. Where are you?"

She let another silence pass, collecting her thoughts, and then spoke.

"While they were getting John ready to be moved, Yeteve and I had those few moments to talk a little. Victor, that force-field of theirs surely can't go on operating forever - parts can wear out, fuel could exhaust itself, an accident - what will happen to all of them, then? So, I put that question to her. And she answered, 'Either we shall all adapt, and change...or we shall all die.' The way she looked at me, when she said it; the - feeling, in her voice - ! It's as though she was trying to tell me even more, between the lines..."

Bergman put down his cup and saucer, and studied her critically; and, looking beyond her, perceived what he felt to be this unspoken and elusive message.

"You believe Yeteve and her women have already committed themselves to some sort of arrangement, when the force-field goes..."

"Yes, I do," unhappily.

He went further: "You believe they're going to try to follow their men?"

The last of the effects of Nephinefta...

Still unhappy, she nodded. "I've been wrestling over whether to tell John...he seems to think a great deal of her, and Yeteve does seem an extraordinary woman...and Alia was so delightful, if somewhat outrageous - " breaking off, one hand darting to stifle her gasp, " - oh no, that would mean her, too! - But, I have no evidence! Nothing, beyond this feeling I have...Victor, what should I do? The task needs Solomon, but I can't ask him. It would be cruel, I know, to just - go on in there and tell John, and have so little to back me up - but in the long run, won't it be crueler if I don't?..."

Koenig was alone once more.

He settled back, trying to get comfortable.

The translated diary still lay within his easy reach. Much insight into her feeling and thinking was revealed to his scrutiny.

True, she had related to him the various reasons she had nearly stayed on Nephinefta - an island, surrounded by ocean; and that itself was surprising, given her phobic fear of the ocean - but not why she had gone.

The diary was not silent, and it had told him instead...

Of how she owed everything to the royal guardian she'd clearly adored from childhood; the psychic, who set in motion the events that would join her existence to that of the omnimorph - as his own had been, from birth - carrying her out into space and, finally, to Earth's runaway Moon.

And of how remaining on that island would've meant breaking faith with him, somehow; and, in the end, she simply could not do it...

Koenig recalled all this, and shook his head. Homo sapiens sprang up from two sorts of the species; and surely neither could truly hope to endure or be happy, anywhere, without the other...?

Meanwhile, left to his own devices, he could peruse something else Shermeen had brought to him. Unfolded, it was revealed to be a rather lengthy letter, written in an unfamiliar and yet elegant hand...

Dearest John,
You will be better, when you read this. I pray it will be so - ! And if your companions there upon Alpha are all such honorable people, men and women both, as Alexandra, then I know it will be so. To live with such as they, who care so much, you are a lucky man indeed!
It will, I must confess, be the cause of much sadness to me, to see her go away yet again; and to know this time of parting will be the last. For I have to come to think of her in ways I think of my own daughter. She seems to be happy now, in her situation on your Moon. So be it. But, even so, I shall miss her company...
You won over Alia in the end, John. She went away with her "errant shadow" in your Eagle, to seek out help for you - a very great risk. She truly is her father's daughter! - And, yes, her mother's, also. There will be peace between us once again, and she will hear of the brother she might have had. Both these vows I make to you, John. And both shall be kept. I know you wish for this.
Just now, my thoughts are of the child I do have, who is gone away from me a little girl and who will, I think, return to me a woman, as I am. So I must hope...
How you shook up our tranquil lives! And the things I found myself feeling, while you were here...such things as I had all but forgotten! The little gestures, the gentle touchings, the looks exchanged...all that a woman and man may enjoy, in experiencing one another's close company and companionship. Alas, such things had ceased to exist in my country...and yet, they existed once more, for a very little while, because you passed by. And they live and flourish, in other places - in this, perhaps most of all, lies all our hopes.
So you fight as one possessed to keep those things, John - hold onto them! Don't make our mistakes; and, by so doing, lose them! For such things as these are still so very much worth having, and struggling for! You reminded me of what I lost, and how I lost them...and for that precious little while we spent together, I had them back again. And I know Boqkanah would not be dishonored. This I believe, with my whole heart and soul...
We can hear the sounds of the Eagle, as it passes overhead; and so I must stop now. For very soon, it will bear you away to the Moon; and from there to many stranger and more exotic climes. Perhaps, in your thoughts, I might accompany you and you will show me some of them? I should like that very much.
I send along eziimee blossoms, which I know to be your favorite, and instructions for their care. A man who loves flowers, must have them! On the Moon, for now; and, if the climate seems agreeable, when you at last find your New Earth. In them, a little part of me can travel with you; just as a part of you will remain here with me. No anonymous phantom, but a most amiable shade; and how I do welcome it!
I have grown for knowing you, John. I shall think of you often, with the fondest remembrances...and how I shall miss you, my Man in the Moon - for however long I may live...

She had not signed it. Nor had she needed to.

He continued sitting there, staring at that handwritten page, for a very long while.

You reminded me, too...

All right, so it had been wrong to go to Nephinefta...but if he hadn't gone, he would never have met her.

He would've missed out on making the acquaintance of that remarkable lady; she who knew him, understood him, down to the depths of his soul.

He would never ask back his introduction to her, not for all the danger to his own life.


From out of the corner of his eye, the small flat object drew his attention. Slipped free from the folds of the letter, perhaps?

It nestled easily in the palm of his hand.

He looked, and with some surprise beheld himself in miniature.

His own ID badge, the stark black and white photo, the security indicia, his name and rank.

Had she found, returned it? Strange, that he hadn't even missed it...

And she had sent along one thing more; to remind him of her, and of other things also.

His fingers lifted, tenderly handled the slender riding crop. He found himself smiling as memory called up the image of their nuxghsceap, that innocuous creature of outer ungainliness and inner virtues. That noble beast, that most unlikely survivor...

And, too, the protector of secrets...

Decisively his grip tightened about the crop.

I accept that pledge, his spirit told hers, far behind the Moon on an ever-receding world. I'll teach them...

Before many more days had come and gone, he would be well and strong again, safe once more in the healing embrace of the Moon.

Alpha had a name, and a few other vitals, to work with; and time before them in which to search out yet one more world thereabouts.

Chehalis, "the brightness," she had called it...

Those of Quincux, the all-but-extinguished, had never wished to go there.

Those of the runaway Moon, the unwitting wanderer, almost certainly would...

However, during the passage from here to there, Koenig would set off at least some of that time; and he would try to teach his fellow Alphans something of what it was like to be nuxghsceaps.


The snowy egret gathered itself, its great white wings closely enfolded, every toe of its golden feet tensed expectantly as it steadied itself against the firmness of the ground.

Its slender white neck slowly uncoiled, revealing a beautifully-proportioned head, lean and oval. With its long and needle-like black beak, it probed, tested the air.

It knew now what to do, and it waited.

And then, thusly assured, powerful black legs, long and slim, rose and straightened; and, with an easy languid grace, it lofted itself into space.


(note: all copyrights retained by the original owners)

The reader is invited to explore, on the following page, links to various reference sources consulted for Effects of Nephinefta. These include Birds of America artist John James Audubon, Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha, Australian poet A B Paterson, a Moon photo so spectacular it was written into the story (!), and a list of visual references (information-only, with watermarks) for what Nephinefta itself might've looked like. Both an island, and a state of mind...

Title Page: Lillies: This Episode Page: Yellow lillies:

Light and forest: Penedo Falls, Penedo, Rio de Janiero; Brazilian tropical rainforest:

Flowers and sky: Herbaceous border:

Field of Flowers/Welcome in Paradise: Between Heaven and Earth:

Coast and Ocean: Bird's Eye View:

Skiathos: Poppies: Sunrise

and Sunset:


Alphonse Mucha overview (1860-1939): (see also La Dame aux Camelias, L'Amethyste, Reverie, Lorenzaccio, L'Iris, L'Emeraude) East of Sinus Iridium (Plato is out of view, past the upper


As Long as your Eyes are Blue (Saltbush Bill, J.P., and Other Verses, 1917) by A B Paterson (1864-1941):

Proxima Centauri Skies (Northern, Southern, All Sky):


Snowy egret, or Snowy Heron (Egretta thula): (Birds of America online; from home page, click Table of Contents and select from Alphabetical Index)

This is the last story in the "The Alpha's Universe Trilogy" series. Previous story
Copyright (c) 2011. Reprinted with permission.
Space:1999 is (c) 1976 by Carlton International Media.
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