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A Plague of Fear

Authors: Em Wycedee
Show Year: Y1
Rating: R
Date: 2001
John, Helena and Victor try to come to terms with the hazards of life and love on Alpha.
Average Rating: 5.0/5 (based on 6 reviews)

Warning: what follows is a very talky story with no plot to speak of. It's set in the middle of year one, has some non-explicit John/Helena intimacy, and assumes, based on a certain amount of onscreen evidence, that Victor has a thing for the lovely Dr. Russell. I know some fans can't stand that, so look out below if you're one of those people. This story is for Deborah, who isn't.


"Helena," said John Koenig's voice.

Helena Russell turned away from Victor Bergman and spun around. Moments before, she had disconnected the machines that kept Koenig alive. Legally, the commander of Moonbase Alpha had been dead for hours, but the demands of others and her own conflicted emotions had prevented Dr. Russell from shutting down the life support pack earlier.

Still, it was no mistake: there on the diagnostic cot lay John, smiling at Helena.

Somehow she smiled back, and took John's hand when he offered it. Then the room exploded with activity. Both doctors took readings on John -- Bob Mathias pulling readouts from the computer, Helena examining his head, his eyes, his heart. Professor Bergman faded quietly into the background, his profound sense of relief driving out another emotion that he hadn't wanted to name while he held Helena in his arms.

Koenig still had a concussion, plus his body had been battered by their efforts to revive him -- shock treatments had disrupted his electrocardiac system and CPR had nearly broken one of his ribs. The joyful smile with which John had returned to the living faded as his initial euphoria wore off and the pain set in. Helena wanted to keep him conscious long enough to run a few tests, to check for brain damage that could become irreversible if it weren't caught right away, but she knew John was suffering.

Despite his pain, John tried to talk. "I was on Zenno," he explained to anyone who was listening, in a voice that faltered the longer he spoke. "The people there are human but much more advanced. They hid their planet from us. They brought me to a city of light where they live on the power of their minds. No pain, no fear."

Victor watched Helena bite down on her lip, trying to stay focused as she examined the printouts from the computer. One hand rested at all times on Koenig's shoulder, as if the physical contact could alert her to any important changes. "A city of light. No fear," John repeated, his voice weakening. She stroked his face with the back of her hand. "Vana," he muttered.

Helena glanced down sharply, but John no longer appeared to be lucid, on the verge of sleep. Then Mathias shone a bright diagnostic beam into John's eye. "Raan!" he shouted. "I'm not an experiment! I'm a man!"

"It's all right, John," Helena soothed. "You're back on Alpha. Now rest." When he tried to speak again, she shushed him, though it proved unnecessary; he couldn't muster the energy, and his voice faded away into a sigh. Victor watched him close his mouth to swallow. The doctors were giving John fluids intravenously, but Victor imagined that his throat must be dry.

Still, as Helena raised the hypodermic that would bring him relief from his suffering, John made one last effort to communicate. She strained forward to hear the words, putting a hand on John's chest.

"Vana," he whispered. "You're beautiful. I won't forget...Vana."

John's eyes had glazed over; now they drifted shut. Helena remained still beside him, even though Mathias stood ready to perform a skin test and she had a dozen readings to analyze. She took a deep breath; Victor supposed she was filing the moment away for later, so that she could straighten, turn to Bob, and say, "Prepare the brain tissue scanner."

With a hand on her shoulder, Victor pulled Helena toward him so that he could meet her gaze when she lifted her head. He'd seen her weeping in sorrow earlier, when she knew she had to disconnect Koenig's life support, but now her eyes glittered with a different sort of pain. "I'm glad he's asleep," he said to distract her.

"He's alive, which means he can be rehabilitated." Her voice was steel. The professional mask came down over her features and she set to work, a cool, poised woman whose inner feelings would remain inaccessible to Victor Bergman. As they should, he told himself. She was so much younger than he was, so beautiful, so engaged with other people as well as the abstract and scientific principles that enthralled him.

And she was finally recovering from the loss of her husband, which had sent her fleeing to the sterile solitude of Alpha. They had John Koenig to thank for that. In fact, if the alternate timeline they had witnessed a few weeks earlier repeated itself, Helena Russell was destined to marry John Koenig. However much the man's latest slip of the tongue had wounded her, in all likelihood that history would play out once more -- assuming they all survived that long.

As she passed him again, Helena reached out and squeezed Victor's hand, a give-and-take of comfort that gave him unexpected, guilty pleasure. Victor didn't know whether to feel anger or gratitude toward John for having hurt her.

Rather than sit and contemplate his reactions, he headed to Main Mission.

The control room remained quiet. Alan Carter stared unseeing at the work in front of him, twisting and untwisting his hands. Alan had tried to stop Helena from disconnecting the life support machines that had kept John breathing -- he'd accused her of attempted murder, and Victor of angling to take over John's post. They had no way of knowing whether the machines had kept their commander alive, or somehow prevented John's mind from rejoining his body at an earlier time. Though Victor put a hand on Alan's shoulder and smiled at the younger man, he knew it would be some time before the astronaut felt truly comfortable with all of them again.

Despite John's testimony about Zenno, the machines still registered the entire sector as devoid of life. They read no anomalies, nothing that led them to believe the computer had been deceived. The truth about this Zenno was destined to remain forever a mystery. Perhaps it had been only the hallucination of a dying man.

Late at night, when Victor was about to leave the command center, Helena contacted him by commlock. Her initial scans on John were very encouraging -- his concussion was healing, his brain wave patterns were normal and his circulatory system didn't seem to be suffering seriously from having shut down, though she expected it would take some time to recover. She was keeping John sedated, but the one time he'd woken, he'd been cheerful and hungry -- both of which were good signs.

Helena looked exhausted but sounded as though she had no plans to take a break any time soon. "What about you?" Victor prompted, repressing an urge to head down to the medical section to make sure she ate and slept.

She didn't bother to pretend to be happy, but she did fix her gaze firmly on his. "I'm fine. I trained for this kind of work, Victor. You don't have to look after me."

She looked on him, Victor supposed, as a father figure. As did John. No point in overemphasizing his concern for her. Victor smiled and nodded. "Well, make sure you get some rest, anyway. It's been a long few days."

Her eyes shifted. "I will." He knew she was lying, but what could he do about it? He had his job to do, she had hers. Just as John had his. Perhaps those roles would always define their inner beings, trapped on a runaway moon far from home.

The next afternoon when Mathias informed him that the commander was awake, Victor went to hear John's story. It wasn't so hard to believe that in a sector their computer had reported as dead, a man had been abducted and taken to a world with cities of the mind. It was harder to believe that John Koenig had nearly chosen to remain in that place of his own free will, though those events seemed to recede further into the past the longer John talked. He sounded deadly earnest describing the Bergman-double who had bewailed their existential fate, but Victor got him joking about his phantom's wild hair and John's sense of humor returned.

Dr. Russell came in while they were discussing Raan's conception of human emotion. Others might have been fooled by her bright smile, but the dark circles under her eyes concerned Victor. At least maybe with her patient conscious, she'd start sleeping again.

"Helena!" Her restrained nod in response to the enthusiastic greeting seemed to confuse John. Victor wondered whether the man remembered what he'd uttered when he was too full of painkillers to care. Seeing her hesitation, he knew Helena wondered, too. "Victor's been getting me caught up," the commander assured her cheerfully as she pulled a chair within acceptable range of his cot. "Looks like you're all doing fine without me."

"Other than the near-mutiny, life on Alpha has been wonderful." She looked more tired than John did, and couldn't manage the same broad grin. "The base is holding together, anyway. How about you?"

"Everything hurts, and I want to sleep for a month. Besides that, I feel fine. Tell me the good news."

"Your brain scans haven't changed since last night and your breastbone's healing," she reported, glancing at Victor. "I don't know what's going on in Main Mission. I've been pretty busy here with Sandra. She seems to be doing well."

"We've repaired the Eagle, and Alan's speaking to Paul again." Victor smiled at Helena. "I think he wants to apologize to you, when you get a moment."

"I'll try to get up there later. I'm sorry I'm so far behind."

Grinning, Koenig made a mock gesture toward the computer. "I'll start writing up a formal reprimand. For both of us."

A fleeting smile crossed her face, then vanished. Victor wondered whether he should mention to John how much time Helena had spent at his side. But it was her move, and Victor didn't want to interfere. "Tell him to get some rest now," he grumbled instead.

Helena started to reach out to touch the patient, then thought the better of it, but John had caught the gesture too; he stretched to take her hand, pulling her forward so that her body was balanced on the edge of her chair. "How are you holding up?"

"Oh, I'm all right." The answer was much too fast, and Koenig didn't buy it.

"Your hand's cold. You look like you've lost weight."

"Thanks a lot." Helena mustered a glare. "I haven't had much time to eat."

"Then make some. Don't make me make it an order," Koenig joked.

"For God's sake, I'm not hungry..."

Mid-sentence, she fell silent, looking as surprised as he did. She tried to sit back and compose herself, but Koenig didn't relinquish her hand, so she had nowhere to fall but towards him when her tightly-wound muscles suddenly refused to hold her upright any longer.

"Don't you dare die on me, John," Helena hissed. Then she burst into helpless sobs, the kind Victor had assumed she had probably been crying at night in her room, except she hadn't been in her room, she'd been in here. He started to reach for her, but John caught her first, or maybe she caught him.

Well, that was that, Victor told himself as he stood and walked across the room, repressing every thought he'd ever had about Helena Russell that weren't those of a friend or colleague. He was definitely too old for her anyway. He'd had little doubt about her feelings for Koenig, and he'd never doubted John's at all until the commander murmured that other name, but that probably didn't mean a damn thing in the long run. It would be just like John to sacrifice what he wanted while it was sitting right in front of him out of a sense of duty, and Helena kept a pretty tight lid on herself too, but there wasn't much doubt how they felt about each other from the way they were clutching one another now.

He kept an eye on them from a distance. John didn't seem to know what to do with his hands, which kept gravitating towards Helena's head, stroking her hair, then moving guiltily away to hover in mid-air. Victor couldn't hear what he was whispering to her--something more along the lines of comfort than confession, from the man's tone--but she calmed quickly and sat back, wiping her eyes and nose.

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It happens to all of us."

"Not in the middle of a work day."

"How many hours have you worked today, Helena?" John pulled her closer on the cramped medical cot, until her cheek rested against his shoulder. "Zenno offered me a life without suffering. No death, no responsibility to three hundred people. I have to admit I was tempted to take it."

To Victor, Helena looked embarrassed. Still, she reached out for John again, settling herself beside him. Victor glanced at the monitors. The commander's heart rate and brain activity were stable. Having Helena with him was obviously good for Koenig's health no matter how tired they both were.

They sat in silence until Bob Mathias burst through the door, looking for Helena. The sound jolted her into focus. Quickly she sat back, only to discover that John had fallen asleep.

Mathias took in his fellow doctor's pallor and her reddened eyes. "Dr. Russell, now that things are under control here, why don't you take the afternoon off. I'll call you if there's any change." He didn't smile, and he didn't bother to tell her that he too could make it an order if necessary.

Nodding, she rose stiffly to walk to the door, dropping a hand on Victor's arm as she passed. He couldn't tell whether she meant to draw strength from him or offer it to him; he felt only the connection, the warmth they both took for granted. Yet before he could cover her hand with his own, she had moved on, turning back with eyes only for John.

"Goodbye, Helena," Victor said.


By late afternoon on the third day after John Koenig miraculously woke from the dead, Helena Russell came to the conclusion that keeping him in the medical bay was probably doing them all more harm than good. John, who was recovering slowly but without complications, complained that he couldn't sleep on the uncomfortable cot with the lights and the noise right outside the diagnostic area. She couldn't get any work done knowing he was right there. And Bob and the nurses were getting edgy around the two of them.

With some misgivings, she released him to his quarters, on the conditions that he promise not to work, exercise or otherwise strain himself and that he wear a medical monitor strapped to his wrist. Though he'd walked around a bit, she insisted that he be taken by wheelchair, and when he resisted, she took him there herself. And ate dinner with him, making small talk about her undergraduate art history studies, his longing for a nectarine that they couldn't grow in the hydroponics unit, their favorite music.

It was almost like a normal evening on Alpha, except when an expression or a turn of phrase made her remember the name he had said in the medical bay. She felt unbalanced, particularly when he touched her -- John had always been tactile, with Alan and Victor and Sandra as well as herself, though she doubted he laced his fingers with theirs when he talked to them, and she was certain he didn't push their hair out of their eyes.

When John started to talk about the music on Zenno -- how the people could project it with their minds -- Helena became uncomfortable enough to decide that it was time to leave. She switched into doctor mode to order him to rest, busying herself with cleaning up their dishes. He was sitting on the bed by the time she had finished, waiting for her to come say her farewells.

"I should go. Is there anything I can do for you first?"

A hand on her arm, a warm smile. "You could stay."

"You need to sleep and so do I."

"Then come to bed."

She thought at first that he must have been joking, but his averted eyes and the color in his cheeks made it clear that he meant it. An almost nauseating sense of disorientation gripped Helena. She tried to make light of the proposition. "Didn't I mention sex on that list of strenuous activities you're supposed to avoid?"

John's dark blue eyes twinkled at her. "Mathias did. I told him I have no intention of trying it until I make sure everything's back in working order." His expression turned vulnerable. "I would just like to be with you."

The outstretched hand, the pain etched in the lines of forehead only reminded her of what she had been through the past week. Pointedly she snapped, "What about Vana?"


"Vana's a who, not a what, right?" She turned away from him, taking a breath as she studied the wall.

"How do you know about her?"

Helena cocked her head to the side so she could see John in her peripheral vision. He was studying her with a guilty expression. "I see I was right that she's a 'her,' too."

"Past tense." His voice sounded tired and heavy. "The question should be, 'Who was Vana?'"

"John!" She whirled back, furious because her eyes had filled with tears and there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it. "This is hard enough. Stop playing games with semantics."

"I'm not playing games. Do you think this is a joke to me?"

"No. I'm sorry." Swallowing, Dr. Russell pushed the mask of professionalism back into place. Commander Koenig needed a psychiatrist -- she should have responded as one, not as a spurned woman. "I understand that you need to come to terms with what happened on Zenno. You have no idea of the stress we were under when we thought we might lose our commander..."

"Helena, don't do this!" John sat up, flinching at the pain of sudden movement. "If you're angry, be angry, but let's not go back to shutting off our feelings because we have to stick to protocol. I can't do that anymore." Breathing heavily, he sat back. "Damn. Victor was right -- this is not living."

Helena's cheeks were wet. Angrily she swiped at them. "When did Victor say that?"

"On Zenno, when Raan made him appear to me. It wasn't really Victor, but an aspect of my own mind they projected, to see how I'd respond. They brought Sandra, too, but somehow they wiped her memory of the experience. Didn't the monitors tell you anything?"

She shook her head. The tears kept coming. John extended his hand again. "Please sit down so we can talk about this. Please."

It was as if the normal barriers had been shattered -- maybe when she had cracked earlier in the diagnostic unit, or maybe when she realized she had to make the decision to terminate John Koenig's life support. Some day, she would probably lose him, maybe in her own medical center, to one of the hundreds of hazards that faced them out here. He was the commander; it was his responsibility to die for them all if necessary, just as it was hers to make objective decisions about his health and well-being.

Now when he reached for her, she curled into his embrace. For the second time in as many days she broke into sobs and he held her.

When she quieted Helena started to apologize again, only to find that John's face too was streaked with moisture. "I'm not being a very good doctor," she sniffled ruefully.

"I don't need a doctor right now. I need you. Will you let me explain?" Nodding, she settled against him, rationalizing that he'd asked for the contact she also craved. "I wish you could have seen Zenno," he began. "The whole place was made of light. You would have looked beautiful there -- your hair, your eyes, everything. Everything was golden, even the people."

"Flatterer," she accused, but his words warmed her.

Then he continued, "Vana was Raan's daughter. She had golden skin. She wasn't a scientist -- she was very lovely and seemed very young." When Helena tensed at this, John stroked her back to soothe her. "By the time I met her, Raan had already started working on me, showing me their city of the mind. He let me see my body half-dead on Alpha, but he tried to convince me it didn't matter because all life is in the mind. They believe that thinking is superior to feeling. Their city of light seemed to me like holograms, totally unreal, and I accused Raan and Vana of not really being human, but I also envied them. To live in a world without death, without fear -- can you imagine?"

The memory of John inert in the medical bay, kept alive by machines, flashed through Helena's mind. It superimposed itself over an image of her late husband in exactly the same diagnostic bay, giving off readings that couldn't possibly have come from a living human being. Both images sent shudders through her.

"Raan made an exact duplicate of Alpha and created Victor to test me," John continued. "He asked how I feel playing God every day -- he made me realize how much I hate it, making decisions get get people killed. I blamed Raan, but I knew he was taking it all from me, from my mind. Then Vana said hate is born of fear, and without fear, Zennites live in peace, inside and out. There is no fear. There is no hate."

Helena remembered the uncanny calm at first when she realized she would have to decide when to disconnect the devices, then the crushing horror when Alan called her a murderer. Yes, it would be a blessing to live without those feelings. Yet the promise of perpetual calm seemed worse than the terror. "But without hate..." she said finally.

"...there can be no love. I said that to Vana. She claimed it wasn't true, that as long as they understood hate they could know the joy of love. So I started pretending to be in love with her. It was my own experiment, to counteract Raan. But she was so innocent, and everything was so confusing. It was like a dream, except it was all real -- those people really had built that world. The longer I stayed there, the harder it was to imagine waking up."

It hurt so much to imagine John voluntarily staying in the alien city while Helena and everyone else on Alpha mourned him and disintegrated into chaos. "You told us they tortured you with your own fears," she said, trying to rationalize. "This sounds like a case of identifying with one's kidnappers..."

"It's not that simple. I suppose on some level I did identify with Raan. To have that kind of power, and be blind to its possible abuses...but when he was trying to make me feel fear, it manifested as fear for myself. I could stand that; it didn't drive me mad, as I think he was expecting. Here, it's fear for others, all the time..."

He shifted to look at her. "Helena, I know you can understand that. You're probably the only other person on Alpha who can really understand having to play with life and death like that. I don't think it's any accident Raan didn't have you appear to me like he did with Victor. It would have made me much less susceptible."

In spite or perhaps because of the fact that she did understand, Helena could not keep bitterness from her voice. "Susceptible to Raan, or to Vana?"

"She wasn't manipulating me, not deliberately. She loved me. That was real." Helena's hands clenched into fists; angrily she pushed back from John. He stared straight at her, his gaze penetrating as if he wanted to read her mind the way the Zennites had done to him. "Don't judge me for one minute. Imagine it. To feel love in a place where you don't have to fear separation. Where you could never be responsible for causing your beloved to suffer. Tell me that doesn't appeal to you."

"To be with someone who reads your mind and adapts to your desires? In a world where attachments aren't balanced against the possibility of losing them? That doesn't sound like love to me. It's just another way to die."

John stared at her. "That's exactly what I said to Victor," he admitted. "The Victor from my mind, on the planet. I said that running away was just another way to die."

"Then why did you want to stay there?" Her voice revealed more anguish than she intended, but she couldn't help it. "How could you do that to us?"

"Because I was right, the same as you are -- when there is no fear, there aren't passionate attachments. I started to let go of Alpha when I believed I could stay in their world. Intellectually it seemed to make sense, and that was what mattered there. Until Raan brought Sandra, I had nothing to ground me -- Zenno became real, and Alpha the dream."

"And you loved Vana."

She started to stand up, but John caught her by the forearms and slid his hands up to her elbows, drawing her back down. "Like you said, it doesn't sound like love, does it? Does that even sound like me, Helena? Have you ever known me to put my own desires before the good of Alpha?"

"No," she conceded.

"It's not me. If it were, I would have asked you to stay every night since -- God, probably since before we found Lee. Every single night. When I didn't ask you, it was because I thought I shouldn't, not because I didn't want to. The fantasy that puts me to sleep on the terrible days is that one day we'll be together and none of the rest of this will matter."

Helena's throat seemed to have closed over. She cleared it. "You never said."

"I'm sorry I didn't. I'm telling you now. I thought it would be unfair to us both to act as if we had a future together when in all likelihood..." John blew out a breath. "...when we just don't know. The risks are so great here. Whenever anything happens to Alpha, when we're in danger, the first thing I worry about is you, and I'm not supposed to do that..."

"So do I, John." They were both wiping their eyes again and John was holding his side like it hurt. "We're only human."

"That's what I'm saying. That's what makes us human. I thought it would be unfair but now I think it's more unfair not to. When we finally find someplace to settle, or even if we don't, I still want to be human. And I want to be with you. Even if the universe doesn't let us have a future together, I want you with me now. Is that wrong?"

"I don't know," she whispered harshly.

"Is that what you want, Helena?"

Because she couldn't speak, she slid the rest of the way into John's arms, pushing him back towards the bed until they were both nearly horizontal. One of his hands buried itself in her hair, clenching and unclenching the strands, while the other slid to rest in the hollow of her back, pulling her to him as his head angled to meet her lips. The kiss must have been rough and messy, leaving the pillow beneath them damp with tears and spit and someone's blood leaking from a split lip, but when she saw the stain later Helena would remember only passion so overwhelming that nothing else mattered -- not his injuries nor her responsibilities, neither Alpha nor whatever end they might meet out in space.

"Will you stay?" he asked when they stopped to breathe, gazing at her with dilated pupils. She nodded, ignoring the doctor's voice in her head that reminded her they both needed to heal -- whether they shared a bed or slept alone shouldn't make a difference, she told herself. But of course, they didn't sleep at all at first. The moment John rolled her beside him and put his hands on her body, she began to ache with desire she could neither control nor hide; her movements and the sounds she made told him everything he needed to know about her feelings.

She tried to make herself focus on his infirmity, but John seemed to become more comfortable the more intimately he touched her, as he wrapped himself around her and relaxed into her pliant form. His hands moved in circles over her skin, growing increasingly more concentrated in their attentions. In the end he barely needed to lift a finger to send Helena into paroxysms of pleasure.

When the red haze cleared, she found him resting on his side with his head lolling against hers, one hand cupping her hip, as content as she'd ever known him. "Shhh," his breath tickled her neck. "I'm supposed to be asleep. Don't tell the doctor that I'm up, all right?"

"I don't think she could fail to notice that you're up." Rolling, Helena pressed her torso along the length of his, but John winced momentarily as her chest rubbed against his bruised breastbone. Gently she touched the spot. "How do you feel?"

"I'm a little tired but I feel pretty good. What's the prognosis? Am I up for this?"

She slid her hand toward his abdomen, noting his instinctive shift toward her. Obviously his arousal was stronger than his discomfort, though she knew he was was concerned about his battered body's ability to perform. "Just lie very still and don't exert yourself," she ordered.

For the most part John obeyed her, other than bucking his hips at the last minute when he didn't seem to have much control over them. He let her do what she wanted to him without trying to dictate his desires, though he did keep murmuring her name, apparently just for the pleasure of hearing it. His hands tangled in her hair and remained there while she brought him to climax, almost effortlessly, and though he apologized for his haste, she found it sexy as well as flattering.

Then he said the words he hadn't quite gotten out before, the terrifying ones, because they implicitly contained the fear of loss. And though she wanted to defuse that terror, to demand that he remember it the next time a beautiful alien read his mind, to attribute the declaration to gratification that was erotic rather than emotional, Helena knew she needed to accept all the pain his words encompassed. And to return them.

John kissed her. For one moment, she felt only love. Then the moment passed and she remembered seeing his comatose body, the gash in his head, the black bruise on his chest.

Somehow the love remained stronger than the fear.

"Tell me this isn't going to show up in my medical file," he begged sleepily when she held her fingers to his throat for a quick measurement of his pulse. It was still a bit fast, but that was to be expected, and his elevated endorphin levels would ease his pain and help him sleep.

"I won't write it up if -- oh no. You're wearing a medical monitor on your wrist!"

"But you're not," groaned John. "Mathias is going to think I'm locked in here testing the equipment -- Helena, this is very humiliating!" But he was laughing, even though he had to clutch his chest because of the discomfort. She knew that once she explained to Bob that she had checked on the patient after dinner, he would never say a word about the monitor readings to John or to her. So she made a remark about doctor-patient confidentiality and ordered John to roll over and close his eyes.

After he collapsed into sleep, Helena lay squeezed against him on the too-small bed and tried to sort out her feelings. That she loved John she had never doubted. She was still bothered when she thought of Vana, though the other woman was on Zenno, he'd chosen to leave her -- she gritted her teeth and determined that she would not let that brief weakness on his part eat away at their relationship. If only that were her sole concern. Everything else John had worried about remained valid. They were still in a precarious situation on Alpha, with little likelihood of the idyllic life she fantasized with him. And they were both in professional positions that had to come before any personal desires.

These were compromises she would have to live with. She wondered as she drifted off whether she had lied when she denied her desire for love without the possibility of loss.

(3) JOHN

He was not a man to lament his fate, nor did he lack confidence in his leadership -- neither Gorski nor Simmonds could have done a better job running Moonbase Alpha under the current circumstances, on a runaway moon traveling through the hazards of space. Most of the time, John Koenig felt content -- even happy, despite the tensions of his job and the unease around him. Occasionally guilt intruded on his peace as he watched his crew struggle, but he did not believe that making himself miserable could possibly improve morale or the smooth operation of the base.

After Piri, however, he wondered whether he was out of touch with the despair preying on everyone else on Alpha. Including the woman he loved.

In retrospect, John supposed Helena's vulnerability to the Guardian should not have surprised him. Not after finding her husband, only to lose him once more. Not after performing an autopsy on his own body from an alternate future where their counterparts had married. Not after having to switch off his life support when he nearly broke her heart on Zenno.

John was only beginning to recognize how resilient the human heart could be. He'd survived losing his wife, his job, his home. He'd survived Helena's abduction by an alien computer, her near-loss in deep hibernation, her dying in his arms on that alternate Earth. Surprisingly, those events hadn't numbed him, nor had they broken him. They only made him realize how much he loved her. How much he would sacrifice for that love, and how lucky he was to know it -- to cherish his time with her, not to take a moment for granted.

So his gorge rose at the recollection of Helena giggling and glowing, oblivious to his suffering and the danger threatening Alpha once the Guardian began to influence her mind. He didn't blame her. But he couldn't deny it had hurt when he learned she was responsible for having him locked up. Forced to choose between him and mindless ecstasy, she had cast him aside.

John wished he could say he hadn't found her appealing in that giddy state, but she had looked stunning in that low-cut high-hemmed robe, relaxing under the unnatural light of the Guardian. The sense of fun that he witnessed all too seldom in Helena had come to the fore -- she'd laughed and danced around, flaunted her body, acted as though his attempts to bring her to her senses were some sort of kinky game. He wished he could forget the open trust on her face when he strapped her down to shock her. The easy smile had distorted into pain, then a terrifying moment of emptiness before the familiar facade returned.

"We offered her bliss," said the voice of the Guardian of Piri in John's head.

"You offered her death," he retorted.

"Absolute perfection lasts forever. Your fear is from ignorance and it has made you stubborn." In his mind, the smile on the face of the girl from Piri stretched wide, until there was a charred maw in the middle of her face. Beautiful and artificial, like the cities of Zenno.

"Hey." A pair of fingers snapped in his face. Helena's. She smiled conspiratorially, as if she'd caught him in a naughty daydream. "Where are you?"

If only he could have followed her lead, accepted her convivial mood and let the past fade. Instead he tried to answer her question. "On Piri," he meant to say. Somehow what came out was, "On Zenno."


The staccato syllable stung like a slap in the face, but John knew from the way Helena jerked back from him that his answer had hurt her more. "It was similar to Piri," he fumbled to explain.

"The girl?" Her expression remained neutral, held carefully in check -- the professional mask he both appreciated and resented. Helena could never forget that she was John's doctor as well as his lover, just as he could never forget that he was her commander.

"Not the girl. The light. That blinding, dreamlike light. Zenno was like that too." Forget the girl, as I have, he wanted to beg. The smiling avatar of the Guardian of Piri laughed inside John's skull. He would have reached out to Helena, but they were in his office with the doors open to Main Mission, and she still seemed uncomfortable when he touched her with the crew nearby.

Helena cocked her head, pondering the anomaly. "You were the only one who resisted the effects of the Guardian. I wonder if what happened on Zenno could have made you immune."

"Maybe it was the responsibility of command. Or something more selfish -- not wanting to give up control." He touched her hand. "Or maybe I don't need the Guardian's kind of eternal bliss when I've got you."

"I'm hardly a substitute for paradise." The mask dropped into place again. "I have an appointment later with Sue Crawford -- I want to make sure there were no adverse affects on her pregnancy." Sue had lost her husband shortly after they had all lost contact with Earth, but she had taken consolation in the knowledge that she carried his child. Not even looking forward to a baby had made Sue immune to Piri. It wasn't enough.

"Do you want to have children, Helena?"

The question took her by surprise, though she dropped her eyes quickly when she saw John studying her. Sitting back, she looked over his shoulder out the window at the dark lunar surface, shrugging a little too casually. "It's not something I spend much time thinking about. I suppose in a someday-off-in-the-future sense, in the right circumstances."

"What would those be?"

"In a stable environment. In a strong community." Helena picked up one of the glass globes on his desk, weighing it in in her hands. "With the right person."

"If the circumstances were right, would you have a child on Alpha?"

"I thought we agreed that we couldn't sustain any more new births," she said edgily, glancing back at the open doors behind her.

"For now. But that could change. At some point, if we don't find a planet to settle, it might become more important for the crew to have offspring who could eventually run Alpha."

"And end up with a base full of children whose parents who have died out here, and parents who have to worry about whether we'll be able to feed their babies as our supplies run out..." Helena took a deep breath. "John, the longer we're on Alpha without establishing a permanent home, the less likely I think it is that anyone will want to have a child. The risks are too great."

Though John wanted to argue the point, he let the conversation drop -- right before she examined Sue Crawford was obviously not a good time for it, for a number of reasons. Instead he cupped Helena's hands in his, gently taking the globe from her as he changed the subject. "Has anyone shown any ill effects from Piri?"

"Not directly. There have been more than the usual number of headaches, space sickness, that kind of thing. A few people I'd describe as suffering from seasonal affective disorder -- extra time in the solarium seems to help. David Kano came in, said he was having trouble sleeping. And Victor's heart has been acting up."

The words sent a chill over John. "Can you fix it?"

"That depends on how it's broken."

Against his will, John flashed back to a memory of Victor he wanted to forget. The party on Alpha that had erupted when his crew believed he had discovered a new home for them on Piri. Helena holding up a drink for a toast, smiling tipsily at John. Beside her, Victor holding his glass aloft, but with eyes only for Helena.

Even though he'd been on the verge of passing out, John had recognized Victor's expression only too well. It was one he often feared his entire crew could read on his own face whenever he looked at Helena, but he could never look away. Because John could remember vividly in retrospect, he knew he'd seen Victor look at her that way before. When the Caldorians accidentally put her into stasis. And when the future-Victor saw Helena's dead body in the alternate timeline they had disrupted.

No mere effect of the Guardian of Piri, then. John's best friend adored the woman he loved. And even though John didn't blame himself -- Victor had known Helena for months before he arrived, had apparently never said anything to her, and had been nothing but supportive of the two of them together -- he couldn't even offer his sympathy, because he wasn't sorry about Helena's choice. Not sorry at all.

Yet Helena seemed to be suffering from the same affliction that had nearly trapped John on Zenno. Love and fear entwined so that she could not experience joy without dreading its loss. Except on Piri. The sprite representing the Guardian popped into John's mind once more, taking him back to the struggle in Main Mission where he injured his hand. He saw Helena larger than life on a screen, glowing unnaturally in silver light.

"Her nerves are relaxed, her appetite assuaged. Her struggle is over. And you can join her in Paradise," teased the Pirian girl.

"It's deadly," John replied.

The sound of his voice brought him back to the present. Helena was staring, concerned. "Victor's condition isn't that serious," she reassured him. "The power supply is draining unusually rapidly. Forcefields might pose a greater risk to him than to others. We think we can manage it."

"But you're worried."

"No more than about anyone else facing the dangers out here." Her face registered a brief moment of despair, then smoothed to its typical unruffled elegance.

John had once thought that Helena's placid demeanor was innate, rather than a facade she wore in public. Now that he knew better, he worried when she seemed too calm. A few nights after their escape from Piri, Helena had come to his quarters and loved him more aggressively than he'd ever fantasized. She had been rough and loud, using her teeth and fingernails, encouraging him to do the same. They had tied knots in the pillowcases, used the chairs as props, knocked half the things off his shelves and destroyed a set of printouts that ended up underneath them at a sticky moment. It wouldn't have been surprising if someone had heard them from the corridor.

John had been delighted by her sudden abandon, but he didn't think Helena was truly gratified, and she seemed strangely subdued afterward -- even a bit distant. He'd thought she might be ashamed of such hedonism, so he tried to let her know how much he enjoyed her. But as the days passed, he wondered whether she had been fighting off numbness by seeking extreme sensation -- whether she hadn't been trying to thrill him but simply to use him for her own stimulation. Although he certainly didn't mind, he worried that they would have trouble returning to the way things were before -- when just being with her was enough to make him happy, and he had hoped the same was true for her.

"Do you think we're becoming less human?" he asked.

"You mean with mechanical hearts and ports that let people link directly to a computer?"

John's heart sank. "Not only that. I mean our emotions. Being trapped on this base with no fresh air, no sunlight -- nothing to remind us of home. No children, no flowers outside the windows. Everyone afraid to have strong feelings because life is so fragile out here, so we channel ourselves into work. The work is necessary, but I wonder if we've all thrown ourselves into it so we don't have to notice what we're missing."

The calculated glance she trained on him let him know she knew perfectly well he was talking about her, not all of Alpha in the abstract. "You work harder than any of us, yet you say you're not afraid."

"I was afraid, Helena. But I confronted that fear on Zenno."

"You don't have to be smug about it." The sharp voice startled John, though the words didn't upset him. Helena could be so hard to read, even for him. If she was upset he wanted to know it, though that sometimes meant provoking her. It rarely lasted anyway. "I'm sorry," she amended. "It still bothers me that I fell for Piri."

"It's not easy to resist eternal bliss. It wasn't easy for me."

"You've fought hard in the struggle for survival. The burden of responsibility must be almost unbearable, and yet you've borne it."

For a moment John didn't know why the words sounded familiar. Then he remembered, and experienced a brief moment of absolute horror, when he thought he must be hallucinating. Had Helena said those words? Or was it the girl? Maybe he was on Piri still, under the influence of the Guardian. Or maybe he was still on Zenno in one of Raan's experiments. He wasn't certain Helena had spoken at all...

She saw him blanch and rose, coming around the desk with concern in her eyes. "John? What's wrong?" But he didn't want to burden her, so he shook his head and forced a smile, looking away. She didn't buy it, reaching out with her hand to turn his chin toward her. "What is it?"

"It's nothing. Just -- nothing."

"John. I'm your doctor, and your friend. Don't shut me out because you're afraid of upsetting me." Then she winked at him. "See, I've found something you're still afraid of."

He had to look away, and stab at the button to close the doors that separated his office from Main Mission. The bubble of rationalism around him had cracked. He had learned to live with the fear of losing Helena to the harsh reality of the universe, but he was terrified of losing her in the casual erosion of daily life, through lethargy, not living in the present. He saw himself like Victor, forever a step behind, smiling adoringly where she couldn't see.

"I love you," he whispered.

Helena gave him the first real smile she'd offered since she had snapped him out of his daydream. "I know, John." Her voice was light again. "I love you too."

But it was too automatic, and he wasn't sure she really understood. "I love you, Helena," he tried again, grabbing her hands. "What you said before, that you're hardly a substitute for paradise -- that's not true. This is what I want, not someplace like Zenno or Piri where our minds are disconnected from our feelings. I'm just afraid that this..." He swept his arm around, indicating the room, the base. "...this isn't enough for you."

"Oh, John." She came around and put her arms around him, pulling his head against her chest, her voice growing increasingly hoarse as she spoke. "You make me very happy. It's not you. It's me. I can't help being afraid. I know you think that's a weakness and I'm sure you're right but I don't know how to stop it. I'll be less human if I do. Do you understand?"

"I don't think it's a weakness." He sat back from her, watching her blink back tears, and found own eyes watering. "I only know that I hate to see you hurt. Especially if I'm causing it. I would give almost anything to give you a world without fear."

In his mind the lovely image of the Guardian's avatar smiled triumphantly. With effort John pushed it away, shutting his eyes until behind them he saw only Helena's face. Slowly he opened his eyes again, turning his gaze to the real woman in front of him. She was even more beautiful than he pictured.

"Almost anything," he repeated, reaching out to caress the line of her jaw, the curve of her cheekbone. "But Helena, I won't give you up. I can't." She lowered her chin to kiss his palm, her lashes brushing his finger. That tiny intimacy, the briefest of sensations, was worth more than any paradise seen or imagined.

"Come on." She tugged on his shoulders suddenly. "I'm giving us both the afternoon off. Doctor's orders. You haven't completely recovered, and we need time to heal."

In her quarters, in her bed, with her hair falling around his face, warmth seeping from her flesh to his like a protective force, he remembered the poisonous healing touch of the Guardian and began to tremble, thinking that maybe he would never be free from its grip, or that he was beginning to go mad. But Helena held him tightly and kissed him until that was the only reality he knew.

Perhaps the fear, as much as the love, kept them human.


On the rare occasions when he couldn't sleep, he indulged in calculations -- the sort that didn't do them any good on Alpha, yet gave him a sort of inner peace, knowing that numbers were the most consistent things in the universe. Sometimes he tried to predict the most likely position of Earth in relation to their current location. Sometimes he tried to work out the density of matter on the event horizon of black suns. When he was particularly troubled, he attempted to calculate the exact quantity of mass in their universe, and whether that mass would present a strong enough force to cause their universe to stop expanding, and when, and whether it might all lead to another big bang, starting everything over.

Some time, perhaps, in some other universe, he might get another chance at life. But not this life. He had entered the waning half of his human existence on Alpha, and it seemed likely that he was destined to die here. That didn't particularly trouble him, for it was a good life, full of exploration and discovery, in a place where his knowledge and insight could make real difference in people's lives. Still, once in awhile late at night, he found himself plagued by the calculation of might-have-beens.

This was such a night. The entire crew had suffered a strange form of memory loss. Dr. Russell couldn't explain it, though she had the most vivid recollection of the events that had somehow been wiped from their collective consciousness, as if her experience of it had been the most immediate. There had been Hawk spacecraft, then there had not. There had been images of graphic destruction on the monitors, then they were clear. It didn't add up, which always left Victor Bergman feeling unsettled.

So he wandered to his lab, taking an unnecessary detour past the medical center just because he felt like it. Victor didn't waste energy fretting over the impulse that frequently led him to check up on Helena Russell, even when he knew she was fine. In the days since the inexplicable warning message to stay away from what had momentarily appeared to be a habitable world, life aboard Alpha had returned to normal, with most of the crew grateful to have escaped whatever dismal fate they couldn't quite remember. Helena was probably with John, relaxing. Or not relaxing, but Victor wouldn't let his mind wander that particular corridor. It wasn't his business.

The lights were on full in the main diagnostic room. That was a surprise. Victor stuck his head in, expecting to see Mathias or one of the technicians running tests, and was startled to see Helena sitting pensively at her desk. She smiled warmly when she saw him -- she usually smiled warmly when she saw him. Victor started to retreat, embarrassed to have been caught poking around, but she started to rise and waved him into the room.

"Working on something?" he asked her.

"Just finishing reports." She paused, aware that it was a strange hour for her to be up working on routine paperwork. "I'm trying to cure a plague."

"A plague?" This was the first Victor had heard of such a threat, though he felt intrigued, not anxious; Helena's wry grin didn't suggest impending catastrophe. "What have we picked up now, some intergalactic influenza?"

"A plague of fear, Victor. It isn't new. It's as old as humanity."

Victor sat down in the chair on the far side of Helena's desk and regarded her fondly. "Ah. I didn't realize you spent your evenings working on impossible conundrums."

"I don't, usually, but since I'm the only one who remembers..." Her eyes wandered to the model microscope on the table nearby. "John thinks I'm worrying too much. He thinks that since it all ended well with the Hawks, we must have learned whatever it was we were meant to. But it keeps happening over and over, Victor -- our own fears nearly destroy us, and bring about exactly the future we're afraid of. There must be a way out of the cycle."

"Maybe the first step is to stop being afraid of fear itself." Victor raised a teasing eyebrow, but Helena didn't smile back.

"'You have no future. You carry with you the seeds of your own destruction. You are a contaminating organism. A fatal virus. A plague of fear.' That's what I remember from the encounter. A plague of fear." She let out a long breath. "Victor, could I have been hallucinating? Or am I going mad?"

"Helena, you are the most sane person here." There was a time when Victor would have said that about John Koenig, but in the past few months he'd occasionally heard the commander talking to himself, debating with someone who wasn't there. He was sure Helena must have noticed as well, but she was his doctor as well as his lover, perfectly capable of differentiating healthy self-awareness from the beginnings of neurosis.

"I need to talk to someone and I don't want to burden John with it. I remember vividly, there was a battle. It nearly destroyed Alpha. John and I took an Eagle to go down to the planet, to negotiate. They wouldn't talk. Then there was a struggle. They killed John." Helena's calm facade abruptly crumpled, twisting Victor's insides as he watched. He started to lean forward, to reach out to her, but Helena put a hand over her eyes and rubbed them. A moment later, she was in control again.

"I'm not clear on what happened afterwards. They imprisoned me, only it wasn't really a prison. Somehow they took my fear away. They told me that John had been a victim of his own fear, and that I could transcend it. And I did. I willed him back to life. John got up and walked out without a scratch. But something happened, even though they said they wouldn't stop him from returning."

Victor raised his head sharply. "They would have let us land on the planet?"

"I don't know. They said they wouldn't stop him. They said they were tenants of a giant brain, and all the desires of individual flesh were accomodated." Her hands knotted together; she twisted the ring on her fifth finger. "Then I saw John floating in space, dying. He wasn't afraid. He was at peace. But I was afraid." Helena slumped back in her chair, suddenly resigned. "I was in a world without fear, and maybe we could have stayed if only I had stayed in control. But I couldn't face losing John."

Odd, thought Victor, that she felt she couldn't tell John about these memories. Helena's experiences sounded a lot like what John had experienced on Zenno, and he had told Victor all about the insane duplicate Professor Bergman. But John didn't believe he had sacrificed a world for him. And John wasn't as afraid of death as Helena -- he remembered her screaming in the Eagle as they left Ultima Thule with a man turned to a dessicated corpse. John had been an explorer, a soldier trained to balance sacrifices against possible gain, but this woman was a doctor, committed to alleviating suffering.

"We can't change what we are, Helena," he reminded her gently. "Not overnight."

"The aliens said we never would. That we were on the verge of extinction, and contact with us would doom their civilization. You heard what they said, at the end. Because we're so primitive and unstable, we would destroy their world. They didn't even fight us, Victor -- they just showed us our true nature."

"Not all of us. You're the only one who remembers. They must have chosen you for a reason." Why Helena, and not the commander? He rose, pacing the medical center as he tried to figure it out. "You didn't have to tell John not to fire," he recalled.

"No. I was afraid I would have to try to countermand his orders, like when we attempted Operation Shockwave. But when I got to Main Mission, I knew he understood." How rare and how wonderful, to be able to communicate with just a glance. It was something Victor had never experienced with anyone. He started to tell her so, but Helena wasn't finished. "They gave us a choice -- first John, with the Hawks, then me, with John's death. We both made decisions based on fear. Are they right about us, Victor? Are we facing slow extinction?"

Victor remembered a similar conversation with her lover from months earlier, when they encountered the black sun -- only at the time John hadn't been Helena's lover, he was scarcely ready to admit that he had any feelings for her beyond the collegial, though the poor man couldn't bear to hear her name spoken once he sent her away on the survival Eagle. Hoping to cheer the commander up, Victor had confessed some of his late-night calculations -- his near-proof that none of them should still have been alive. The fact that they had survived made Victor seriously consider whether a sort of cosmic intelligence might be at work. Their survival after the encounter with the Atherians made the case even stronger.

And yet humans had nearly destroyed their own planet with their wars and their nuclear wastes. The cataclysm that had sent the Moon deep into space had probably rendered much of Earth uninhabitable. Victor thought back on the number of close escapes they'd had on Alpha, where one moment of non-cooperation could have doomed them all. But he also factored in the moments of grace. The survival Eagle returning after the black sun. Their escape from the Tritonians. Jarok releasing Jackie Crawford. The strange, sad evolution that took place in the body of Anton Zoref.

Which made Victor think of something else. "How is Eva Zoref doing?" he asked Helena, who turned a near-glare on him.

"Eva Zoref is doing quite well, considering. As you may know, she's formed a support group for people grieving for loved ones they've lost out here. Have you been listening to anything I've said?"

"Of course I have. Think of what Eva Zoref has gone through, losing her husband like that."

Helena's eyes flashed steely anger. "I know better than anyone what it's like to lose a husband like that."

"I know that. But look at you -- you survived it. And she's surviving it. You're strong, Helena. You're not paralyzed by fear, you've learned from it. Look at all of us -- remember when the probes from Ariel temporarily turned the moon into a world we thought we could live on? And how devastated we all were when the atmosphere dissipated? We went on. We go on, even when we suffer losses we think we can't survive."

She replied in a low voice. "John asked me once whether I'd ever thought about having children. All I could think was how terrified I would be to give birth to a child where I might have to watch it die. But if we don't have children, we'll all die anyway, and there will be nothing left." Her bleak eyes returned to his face. "How do you live when you know there are losses you can't survive? You have to become numb, but then you're not really surviving. Is there anyone you've ever felt that way about -- a loss you knew you'd never survive?"

Staring into the face of Helena Russell, Victor knew his choices in the personal realm had been defined by fear. He hadn't been willing to take that chance, living most of his life spared the great losses -- and the greater joys. "That's not something to be ashamed of," he said quietly. "I'm an old man -- I lost the courage to feel that strongly long ago. I'm not proud. Don't make the same mistake. It's not the path to salvation for humanity, it's the beginning of our end."

She smiled sadly. "You're a scientist. You don't really believe that."

"That's what John said when I admitted I could believe in a cosmic intelligence."

"Down on the planet John said he believed in God, or something like one. He said he has no rational explanation for how we have survived, but he has absolute faith in the strength of the human spirit, and that someone or something is looking after us." Her eyes lifted over Victor's head, past him. "He believes we have a future. That we'll survive and thrive. Somehow."

"Do you believe in him?"

The green-gray eyes came into focus. "Yes. I do."

"You see, you didn't even have to think twice. You're not paralyzed by fear, Helena. You're living a full life, taking care of people, helping to build a community here. You've found someone who loves you. And even though you've suffered a loss in the past that might have shut some people down forever, I daresay you've found the courage to love again. Refusing to let John go wasn't an act of cowardice, it was an act of courage."

"Courage." She smiled sadly. "Or idiocy. Why do we keep having to learn the same things over and over? I think the aliens are right. We're not evolving."

"But we do eventually learn. You did."

Her next words wrung his heart. "I love you, Victor."

It was said with friendly affection, and her eyes twinkled with humor. She leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. Victor felt brief gratitude that his artificial heart kept his pulse steady, though he also keenly knew the regret of it, that he would never know the peaks and valleys of love and loss as she would. "Why, I love you too," he said as lightly as he could. For a moment as her eyes met his, her smile faded as she saw more deeply, but he had no wish to cause her unnecessary suffering, so he turned his gaze aside and moved away from her toward the door.

"Victor. Thank you." Her voice behind him arrested his movement. He glanced back. She stood with one hand on the side of her desk, her shoulders relaxed, no longer hunched with pressure or grief. Now, he supposed, she would go to John. Victor felt his own loss, yet at the same time he was happy for his friend. And for Alpha, because they all benefitted when the commander and the doctor were at peace. He smiled and nodded at Helena, and opened the door with his commlock without looking back.

In his last calculation of the night, Victor pondered what he had said. Whether love was worth the price of loss. As he sat alone with his numbers, he knew that he believed it, even if it were more irrational than the belief in a higher power.

Perhaps it meant the aliens were right, and there was no hope for them as a species, but Victor Bergman was inclined to believe the opposite.

Copyright (c) 2001. Reprinted with permission.
Space:1999 is (c) 1976 by Carlton International Media.
All stories are the property of their respective authors.

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