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The Void Ahead

Authors: William R. Swanson
Episodes: Set after Breakaway
Show Year: Y1
Rating: PG
Date: 2002
A sequel to the pilot episode "Breakaway". What really happened at Area II? Where did planet Meta come from? And how does the Moon get around so fast, anyway? Find out in this episode...
Average Rating: 5.0/5 (based on 3 reviews)

Timeline: This Season 1 story takes place immediately following the pilot episode, "Breakaway".

Premonition of Death

"How's it look, Paul?"

Commander John Koenig crossed from his desk and down the steps of Main Mission, to stand beside Paul Morrow at the Controller's station.

"Steady so far, Commander." Paul expertly adjusted the twin joysticks of the remote-pilot console. The image on Main Mission's big screen, relayed from the outermost video observation point, showed the remote controlled Eagle gliding soundlessly across the desolate lunar landscape.

"Let's see it, Paul. Punch up the image from the onboard camera."

Paul complied, and the big screen gave them their first look at Nuclear Disposal Area I since the much larger explosion at Area II. As before, the lunar regolith was pitted with soft-rimmed craters left by the detonations of individual storage silos. But since these looked scarcely different from natural lunar craters, the desolate gray vista didn't appear all that different from any other part of the lunar highlands.

"It still looks okay," said Koenig, relaxing somewhat.

Professor Victor Bergman, standing over by the Main Computer wall to have first grab at incoming data printouts, tore off one just emerging from the printer. "Low residual radiation," he reported. "What one might expect from having the Area's contents scattered all over the landscape. I wouldn't recommend a visit, it's still far too hot. But at least the pile's broken up. We shouldn't have any more problems there."

"All right, Paul," Koenig said, tensing despite his efforts not to. "Head for Area II."

Paul brought the Eagle about and sent it off along a new vector. As they waited Koenig wondered what to expect. More of the same, just larger craters and more extensive radioactive contamination? Or something much worse... like a hole blasted straight through to the Moon's core?

"Well, John?" Asked Commissioner Simmonds, who had shadowed Koenig out of his office and now stood just behind his left shoulder, like an accusing conscience. "Do you think we're past the worst of it? Can we start plans for a return to Earth?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, Commissioner."

"Coming up on Area II now, Commander," Paul announced. "Or where it should be."

Koenig stared at the screen, trying to understand what he was seeing. Even with the fading light from the ever-distant Sun providing a few shadows, it was difficult to estimate range or scale. The Eagle seemed to be sweeping upwards, following a gently rising slope, and approaching the top of a sharp-edged ridge line...

And then the lunar surfaced plunged away, and Koenig understood. He involuntarily took a half-step back, horrified.

To the horizon in every direction, the lunar mantle had been laid bare. Kilometers of overlying crust, millions of megatons of the calcium-bright rock of the lunar highlands, had been stripped away by the force of the nuclear holocaust, over an area of unguessable scale. Koenig mentally compared it with pictures he'd once seen of early strip mines. The near wall, just visible to the left of the image, in shadowed half-light, resembled the ragged, terraced edge of such a mine pit. But here there simply was no far wall. The bare dull-gray basalt mantle extended to the horizon, an immense, bone-dry ocean floor.

And there was something odd about it...

"Paul, pan down and zoom in on the surface."

"Do you want me to bring her in closer?"

"No. Maintain present altitude."

The view closed in on the surface. The bare, glassy surface was flickering with an eerie orange glow. From a distance it faintly resembled the shadows of invisible currents, rippling across the dead landscape. Close up, it was much more active: prominences exploding upward, curling into loops and spirals, then tearing into shreds and showers of sparks. If not for the steel-gray lunar mantle underneath it might have resembled the surface of the Sun.

Or Phlegethon, the river of fire in Hell, Koenig thought to himself.

Victor clucked softly. "Unspeakably high magnetic field activity. But strangely enough, no conventional nuclear radiation. Alpha, beta, gamma rays -- the detectors are all silent. I'd say any remaining nuclear waste was simply hurled off the Moon by the force of the explosion."

Simmonds nodded. "Well, that should mean it's safe now. It's expended itself."

Koenig glanced at him. "I wouldn't be so quick to declare it safe, Commissioner. Paul, launch the sensor packages."

Paul tapped controls on his console. Racks hastily mounted on the upper space-frame of the Eagle turned steadily about, launching radio/sensor bundles in high arcs to all points of the compass. The sensor packages drifted slowly to the surface in the light lunar gravity. A few were visible on the big screen as they fell into the abyss.

Victor was watching the readouts closely. He shook his head. "They're all being overloaded and burnt out before they even get near the surface... but we are getting some data at least, enough for a map of the magnetic fields out there. Paul, put up page 10 of the data summary, please."

Paul called up the requisite page, generated automatically by Main Computer as its limited expert system attempted to sift and categorize the incoming data under useful headings. This one said "Magnetic Intensities", and looked like a topological map: wood-grain isobar lines showing magnetic concentrations -- with the knotholes showing where the intensities were the greatest.

"Now, if you would, Paul," Victor said, unhurriedly, "see if you can get a matching cartographic map of the mascons for that area."

Even as Paul complied, Koenig was nodding. Mascons -- short for mass concentrations -- were regions of the lunar mantle that protruded upward into the outer crust. The variations in surface density they produced caused variations in orbital glide paths, requiring compensations the closer one approached the surface. The Eagle's onboard flight computer was designed to take that into account for short-duration flights. But as yet, no one had ever had the opportunity -- or the misfortune -- to view them directly.

A mascon chart appeared, overlaying the magnetic data. There was no correlation, the lines were completely different.

"Sorry, Professor," Paul said, efficiently, "wrong latitude reference. Here's the correct one."

A new overlay replaced the old -- and it was a clear match. Victor nodded. "What we're seeing is consistent with the magnetization of the iron-rich lunar mantle. The intense magnetic energy of the explosion has created a polarized region of enormous strength. And apparently, there is still enough residual energy and gaseous matter out there to create visible effects."

A warning klaxon sounded. Paul stabbed a control, switching views. They could see that the flaming glow on the mantle's surface was becoming more turbulent. Paul backed off the view to normal, then wide-shot, and there was a general intake of breath around the room. A solid wave of flickering energy was approaching the Eagle's position, and as it neared they could see it was a concentric ring, closing on the spacecraft's location.

"Blast out of there, Paul," Koenig ordered.

Paul attempted to do so, then struggled with the controls in exasperation. "Commander, I have no control. Command channels are overloaded."

The image on the screen pitched and yawed drunkenly, but every time it swept downward, they could see the approaching wave front closing in, converging like a wolf-pack.

"Boost the signal, Paul. Try to get through."

"Already on maximum, Sir. No effect."

Without warning, the screen filled with distortion, then static, then went dead. Automatically, the view dropped back to the outermost observation point. Above the distant horizon in the direction of Area II, they could see a firestorm of rushing, tortured gases and fragments blast skyward. It was accompanied by an evil, ominous glow that domed above the horizon.

Seconds later the shockwave reached the base. The floor trembled, then lurched in a strong roll, hurling them off their feet. The rumbling and shuddering continued for several seconds, then slowly petered out.

Seeing that everyone was all right, Koenig got to his feet and returned to stand beside Morrow's station again. He felt, rather than saw, Simmonds lurking at his shoulder. "That was close, Paul." Koenig looked to Bergman, who was studying the Main Computer readouts again. "Victor, what happened?"

"I don't know. The activity of the Eagle, or the sensor packages, or both, may have triggered a magnetic surge that burned out the Eagle's stabilizers -- even through the enhancements we made to the magnetic screens." He peered at the display. "There's no immediate sign of further activity, but we'll need to keep a close watch -- because if whatever it was that caused the original explosion at Area II wasn't destroyed by the blast itself..."

"Then it could happen again," Koenig finished the thought. "At any time."

Victor nodded.

They all looked to the big screen. The hellish glare was fading back into the gaping wound of Area II, like a giant, lurking daemon settling reluctantly back into its lair...

Missing Mass

The section heads met around the circular meeting table in Koenig's office. At Koenig's nod, Paul Morrow led off.

"We're still in the Solar System," he reported. "Just outside the orbit of Saturn. Professor Bergman has set up a tracking program to give us our velocity relative to the Sun and planets, and..." He paused, uncomfortably.

"What is it, Paul?" Koenig encouraged him.

"Well, the data doesn't make sense. It shows our velocity is varying -- speeding up or slowing down -- seemingly at random. And in any case, irrespective of the actual speed, we're moving far faster than we should be." He shrugged. "Aside from that, the Base is functional, and we're working around the clock to repair damage and to get the Eagles and launch pads operational again."

"Alan, what's the ETA on that?"

Alan Carter, chief pilot and flight operations officer, shook his head. "We're picking up the pieces, Commander. Over half our Eagle fleet is damaged or simply blocked by debris, and we've only got two working pads: Three and Five, neither of which is where the majority of our working ships are located. I've put Pad One on priority, since that's above the big hanger, but it'll take time to clear. I'll know better in an hour."

"Understood. Helena, what about Medical?"

Doctor Helena Russell, the base's Medical Officer, nodded. "No changes. We've got some injuries, a few serious. One critical case due to explosive decompression. But we're able to handle the load. Aside from the understandable stress and shock, I'd say we have healthy, dedicated people here."

Koenig turned back to Paul. "What's our current heading?"

"15 hours 48 minutes right ascension, negative 18 degrees declination. Roughly in the direction of Scorpio/Libra, and the galactic core."

Simmonds broke in excitedly. "That's also the same general direction as Planet Meta, John! It's too good a coincidence!"

Koenig silently ignored him. Victor spoke up. "It would be, Commissioner, if we were on the Meta Probe's flight path, but we're not. Even at our current velocity it would be years before we reach that area of extra-solar space. By then, Meta will be long gone."

Simmonds sat back, frustrated.

"In fact," Victor went on, "given our mean velocity it would take us some 50,000 years to reach the nearest stars -- if we were heading for them. On our present heading, it will be more like a million years before we reach even the nearest planetary system."

They all took that in, without comment. As if aware of the sad faces around the table, Victor put on a cheerful smile. "Of course there is one good thing in all this," he pointed out. "We appear to have remained on the same heading ever since we left Earth's orbit. So long as that doesn't change, even with the velocity shifts Earth will be able to determine exactly where we are at any time. If rescue from Earth becomes possible, success is guaranteed."

"No," Simmonds said abruptly, "I don't think we can place our hopes in a rescue from Earth. You heard the telecast. They've written us off. We're going to have to do this ourselves. We need a revised Exodus plan, as quickly as possible.

"We can't do it, Commissioner," Alan objected. "We can't implement Exodus without every Eagle available and operational."

"We still have casualties," Helena said. "And we need time to get the life support, reclamation units, and other essential services back to full operation. I can't see us implementing Exodus for at least another two days, at the earliest."

"I agree," Koenig said, indicating by his tone the subject was closed. "Earth's not going anywhere, Commissioner."

"Yes, but we are," Simmonds persisted. "Any delay merely increases the journey home."

"Commissioner, with respect, we have more pressing concerns."

Victor spoke up softly, cutting off Simmonds' angry retort. "I agree -- we still don't know what's happening at Disposal Area II. We need more data, but all the remote sensors were burnt out by that flare-up."

"We can't send people out under these conditions," Helena warned. "Even assuming there's no normal radiation, there are too many unknown factors. The risk is too great."

"Agreed, Doctor," Koenig said. "Alan, Victor, I'd like you to work together to see if there's a way we can increase the shielding of our Eagles to permit them to operate under these conditions."

Victor looked doubtful. "I'm not sure there's much more we can do, John, but we'll see if there's anything we've overlooked." He glanced at Alan, who nodded.

"Paul," Koenig ordered, "I want another remote sensor Eagle on the pad and launched as soon as possible. We need to keep tabs on Disposal Area II -- but this time we'll do it from a respectable distance. Use your best judgment, but get the ship out there."

"Yes, Commander."

"That's all. Thank you everyone."

They got up from the table and returned to their posts. All except for Simmonds, who waited to one side until everyone else had left. Koenig stood by his desk for a moment, then reluctantly pressed the control that closed the doors separating his office from Main Mission. "You want something, Commissioner?"

"John, I think you're approaching this all wrong. We need to return to Earth. Every hour we delay increases the likelihood of failure."

"I'd be only too happy to oblige you. But you heard the situation: we're not in a position to mount Exodus. That's the cold hard truth, and you might as well accept it. Under the circumstances, our priority is survival. And that means understanding what's going on out there." He pointed in the general direction of Area II.

"John, I don't want to pull rank on you but..."

"But what?" Koenig snapped, angrily. In public, he had to maintain the fiction of cooperation with the Commissioner for the sake of morale. In private, it was another matter entirely. "Simmonds, you've been replaced back home. Right now, you're not in a position to pull rank. As far as I'm concerned, you're... a distinguished guest here on Alpha, not my superior. And if you can tear yourself away from trying to do my job, and start pitching in like the rest of us, we'd get along a hell of a lot better."

Simmonds took a deep breath, and seemed ready to fire back with both barrels. Then he backed off, his tone stiffly formal. "I... appreciate your candor, John. This isn't easy on any of us, least of all on you. I understand that at present my official status is -- shall we say limited, at best? Nor do I have your level of comfort in dealing with people here. I'd still like to contribute, if I can."

"Fine, Commissioner. I'm sure we'd all appreciate that."

"I tell you what," Simmonds added, his tone shifting skillfully to chatty good humor. "Why don't I take charge of coming up with the revised Exodus plan, since I'm the one asking for it anyway? That'll leave you free to focus on the Area II problem. I can check in with the section heads, collect the necessary schedules. Then when we're ready to go, we'll have a plan in place."

"Thank you, Simmonds," Koenig replied briskly, "but my people know their jobs, and right now they're fully occupied. If you really want to help... just stay out of the way for a while."

He punched the control to open the left-hand door panel, and strode out into Main Mission, effectively ending the discussion.

Simmonds frowned darkly after him, chewing a thumbnail.

Forcing himself to cool down, Koenig went looking for Victor Bergman. He eventually located the Professor in his cluttered quarters. Marker in hand, Victor was staring intently at the transparent clearboard on the far side of the room near the computer terminal. Both the clearboard and the terminal's screen were covered with figures and equations.

"Ah, John," Victor said, noticing Koenig in the open doorway. "Come in." He added a line of symbols to the clearboard, and then set down the marker. Without looking away from the board, he spoke in response to Koenig's as-yet-unasked question. "I've given Alan some figures for increasing the power output of the gravity screens on the Eagles. He's down in technical now, seeing if that can be made to work."

"Gravity screens? Victor, I thought you said the problem was magnetic."

"Mmm. Yes, John. However I'm beginning to think that gravity -- or rather, mass effects -- are involved as well." He gestured toward the board, though at which equation he was gesturing, Koenig had little idea. "I've been going over the figures for the Moon's velocity, in particular the random shifts, trying to account for our hell-for-leather speed which is all out of proportion to the original explosion." He tapped the board. "My guess is that some kind of mass-screening effect is involved, which is somehow neutralizing the Moon's mass, at least partially. It varies in intensity, which accounts for the random shifts in velocity -- conservation of momentum: the mass goes down so the velocity goes up, and vice versa."

"Mass screening?" Koenig asked. "Like the gravity screens on the Eagles? Or the gravity towers around Alpha itself?"

"Close but not quite. No, those create the semblance of gravity by using energy to simulate or counter the effects of mass in the vicinity. This is the other side of the coin: a negation of the very substance of matter itself, the mass, and hence its effects such as electromagnetism and gravity."

"But if the Moon's mass is being affected -- why don't we notice it?"

Victor smiled at him. "How often do you notice the rotation of the planet you're standing on?" he asked. "It's usually considerable, but you're moving at the same rate, so it's effectively nonexistent for you. That's what's happening here. Whatever this effect is, we're part of it now, at least as long as we remain on the Moon." He turned back to the clearboard. "I think it was more than just a simple explosion at Disposal Area II, John... much more."

Koenig nodded. "So the explosion itself didn't push us out of orbit?"

"No, no," Bergman replied. "An explosion powerful enough to push this Moon out of orbit should have shattered it instead. But that didn't happen. The Moon's mass was reduced, its momentum was conserved, and we were slung out of orbit like a stone from a sling."

"So what's causing it, Victor?"

Victor scratched his head ruefully. "I have to admit that I don't know, John. All I can observe is that this effect was produced by the explosion in Area II, but it has affected the iron-rich mantle of the Moon in some way, so that now the effect is self-sustaining."

"Well, let's just hope it doesn't get any worse."

A chime sounded from the communications pillar in the corner of the room, and Paul Morrow's face appeared on the display screens on each side of the pillar.

"Commander Koenig and Professor Bergman, report to Main Mission please. Urgent."

Victor gave Koenig a rueful look. "Be careful what you don't wish for."

They headed for the door on the run.

When they arrived back in Main Mission, Chief Analyst Sandra Benes looked up from her station. "Commander," she called, "base perimeter sensors are picking up increased magnetic field levels -- slight at the moment but steadily increasing."

"Any threat to the base as yet? Or to us?"

Paul shook his head. "Not according to Doctor Russell. It's still below harmful levels. But if it keeps increasing it won't stay that way."

"Anything on the external observation cameras? Sandra?"

She shook he head. "Some minor interference on a few screens, but that could be caused by uncorrected damage from the explosion. No other visible effects as yet."

Koenig turned to Victor. "You said this mass-screening effect, which was causing the Moon's shifting velocity, was itself caused by magnetizing the mantle under Area II. Could that effect be spreading to the area beneath Alpha?"

"It's possible, John," Victor admitted reluctantly. "But there's no way to know for certain."

"Whatever the cause," Simmonds spoke up, from his position behind Paul Morrow's station, "the effect is clear and immediate. Evacuation is the only possible answer."

"Evacuation to where, Simmonds?" Koenig demanded. "Earth's too far away, none of the other planets are in range, and we're still not ready for plan Exodus."

"We can't stay here, that's obvious," Simmonds retorted. "We should take what Eagles we can and evacuate what personnel we can, before it's too late."

Alan bristled at that. "And leave everyone else stranded? With no way off this rock? Not bloody likely."

Simmonds swung on him. "If we do nothing, we condemn everyone. That's no answer. While there's life, there's a chance."

"Seems to me the only life you're concerned about, Commissioner," Alan replied hotly, "is your own."

Koenig interrupted them. "Simmonds, go to your quarters. Now." Simmons looked about to reply, but Koenig cut him off. "At the moment that's a request. Don't force me to make it an order."

Simmonds nodded curtly, looking at no one in particular, then turned on his heel and moved to leave the room.

And was swept off his feet, along with everyone else who was standing, as another tremblor shook the base.

"Paul!" Koenig called above the noise. "Is the second remote Eagle in position yet?"

"Yes, Commander. I set it down a kilometer from the edge of Area II."

"Give us the visual from its camera."

Gripping his console to steady himself, Paul hit the requisite controls. The big screen displayed a wide shot of the lunar landscape, with a gradual rise leading to the edge of the Area II crater. And above that edge the luciferian orange glow was rising again, leaching out of the crater to flicker across the gray highlands.

Victor had managed to cross unsteadily over to the Main Computer panels on the other side of the room. "It's building in intensity," he called. A sudden shock threw him toward the operations floor, and he managed to grab a support stanchion barely in time to keep from being pitched headlong down the steps.

"And there's no way to stop it?" Koenig called, more to confirm his fear than to seek a remedy for it.

Victor shook his head, and Koenig slapped the "Red Alert" button on Paul's console. It might be too little too late, he thought, but at least it's a warning of worse to come. The alert klaxons sounded throughout the base.

On the big screen, the glow from Area II intensified, rising from the vast crater into a scintillating firestorm. Then, all at once, it flared up in a vast, aurora-like field of energy. The glare rose in intensity, until the screen was one indistinguishable wash of shimmering light.

Koenig was slapped to the floor, as if by a gigantic hand, and rattled helplessly across it by the increasing quakes. At the same time, he felt himself somehow growing insubstantial, as if his very substance was ebbing away. The base, everyone in it, even the lunar landscape outside was becoming transparent...

And then the lights went out, all over Alpha, plunging them into the depthless, eternal night of space.

Space Warp

The lights came back on, the tremors stilled. In Main Mission, and around Alpha, everyone and everything appeared to be normal and substantial again. But no one in Main Mission could feel totally certain of that. It made Koenig uneasy: it was as if at any moment the floor might vanish from beneath his feet, tumbling him into the Stygian depths of the Moon, or helplessly away into the vacuum.

Cautiously the base personnel returned to their stations. Damage reports began coming in, and Paul Morrow fielded them with his usual efficiency. But Koenig saw the Controller occasionally glancing at him. What just happened, and what do we do about it? that look said. Koenig wished he had an answer. First, he had a few questions of his own.

"Full sensor sweep," Koenig ordered. "As soon as the systems are back online. Report any anomalies."

Sandra jumped -- she'd been staring up at the big screen, which showed the hideous glow sinking back into Area II once more. She immediately turned to her console and began punching up requests from the various scanners and sensors all over Alpha. Everything appeared normal, no variance aside from damage already reported in. A few electrical fires, currently being contained. The same magnetic field effects registering around the base perimeter. Nothing new there. She happened to punch up the automated tracking reports coming in from the cartographic section...


"Yes, Sahn, what is it?" He crossed quickly to her station, and she pointed to the readout.

"We are not where we were. The velocity tracking program reports that our position, relative to the Sun and planets, has altered drastically."

"What's our current location?"

Sandra forced herself to calm down, and phrase the question in terms the program could answer. "We are well beyond the orbit of Pluto, Sir. Into the Oort cloud, almost. But that's impossible -- to do that..."

"We would have to have traveled faster than light," Victor observed. He was at the Main Computer displays again, punching requests for data and tearing off the strips as fast as they were printed.

Simmonds dramatically dusted himself off. "Well, Koenig, it would appear that I was right about the danger. There's no question, now. We have to find some way to get our people off the Moon, before this happens again."

"Out of the question," Koenig answered, trying to control his rising frustration. "All Eagles are grounded until further notice, except for unmanned remotes studying Area II. If the Moon should shift again while our ships are in flight, they could be left behind, marooned forever."

"So we are assuming," Paul asked, steadily but with evident concern, "that it will happen again?"

"I don't know, Paul. Victor..." Koenig turned to look for him, and saw him just leaving the room, printout slips in hand.

Koenig caught up with Bergman in his quarters, where there was now a second clearboard standing beside the first. The table beside Victor was littered with scrips of data printout, and the Professor was writing furiously, rubbing out mistakes with the edge of his fist, humming tunelessly to himself. Rather than speak, Koenig waited patiently, recognizing from experience that Victor was hot on the trail of an idea, and needed to run himself out of steam before he could answer questions.

It was Victor himself who spoke first, during a brief pause. "Ah, Sorry, John. Apologies for running out like that, but I needed to compare the figures on our change in position with those on our velocity shifts, and my previous calculations here." He indicated the first board. "You know, I think I've had this thing all wrong."

"Do tell," Koenig said, smiling at the Professor's characteristic humility.

"It ... appears that... it's not... simply... a negation... of mass that we're seeing," Victor explained, with pauses to scribble a line or two on the board. "But a negation of being itself. Now, we effectively vanished from the Universe for a fraction of an instant, and came back into existence here. Or, if you want to look at it another way, we became insubstantial enough as a material object that quantum effects could come into play, and the entire Moon simply 'tunneled' from its prior location to this."

"A space warp?" Koenig asked. "We've been trying to do that for years. The whole Super-Swift program has been blocked on it for as long as I can remember."

"Space warp." Bergman rolled the term around in his mind, his face expressing his dislike of it. "I suppose one could call it that, but it's not really accurate. The Super-Swift attempts to cheat the light barrier by creating an artificial wormhole, a true space warp -- if the term really applies to anything. But in our case, space isn't actually being warped -- just the opposite. Our capacity to warp space is being eliminated, because we're being made insubstantial, relative to everything else around us. If I'm right, the magnetic effects imposed on the Moon's mantle are having gravitic side-effects, generating this 'space warp' effect and allowing us to attain effective speeds far greater than light. The three unification theories we know about have all postulated a linkage like this, but we've just never seen a physical example of it until now."

"A true space drive." Despite the dangers of the situation, Koenig could allow his astrophysicist side a brief moment of amazement. "The biggest blunder mankind's ever made -- and it turns out to be the discovery of the century."

"Yes, and it's ironic in another way as well." Victor crossed to a chart cabinet and pulled open a drawer. Hauling out a blueprint he slapped it on the table next to Koenig. "There -- the Orion project. One of the early designs for an interstellar space ship. Remember it?"

"I remember. A generation ship, driven by repeated nuclear explosions pushing against an immense, shock-absorbing plate -- a simple Newtonian reaction drive that can't even approach the speed of light."

"If only they knew," Victor said, returning to the board. "Yes, if there was some way to harness the effect we're seeing here on the Moon, using an immense nuclear explosion to create the necessary magnetic/gravitic effects, you could build a real honest-to-goodness FTL ship, capable of interstellar travel."

Koenig seized on that immediately. "Victor, is there any way we could make use of it ourselves? Adapt some or all of our Eagles to be able to travel faster than light, and return home?"

Victor pursed his lips. "No, we have no idea of the scale involved, nor the resources necessary. It might turn out to require a mass the size of the Moon, and an explosion as powerful as the Area II detonation, to make it work at all." He gestured at the equations beginning to clutter the second board. "I can make a few stabs at the theory here, but it's only tangentially my field."

He turned from the board to face Koenig. "But," he said, "we might not have to do it ourselves. If we could just communicate the data we've obtained here to Earth, then the engineers back home might be able to make use of it, with the resources available in the Solar System. They would then be able to build FTL craft themselves, and come pick us up, in no time flat."

"If they're still there," Koenig pointed out. "And if they were able to make use of the information -- and assuming we're still here when they arrive."

Victor nodded sadly. "Funny, isn't it, John? We may have the answer to our own rescue sitting right here with us all the time -- if only Earth knew about it."

Suddenly, he threw down the marker and slapped Koenig's shoulder.

"Come on. Enough theorizing. Let's get back to minding the store."

When they reached Main Mission, Simmonds was standing behind Paul Morrow's station, directing him in aiming the Eagle's camera to get a better look at Area II.

"Over there, to the right," he said, pointing. "That looks like a flare-up."

"Looks like it," Paul agreed, noncommittally. "But I'll place my money on the sensors. They say it's relatively quiet out there."

"But not here. Look here, John," Simmonds turned to Koenig. "Sandra reports that the magnetic effects here at the base appear to be increasing. If nothing's done to halt it, the base will become uninhabitable within hours."

"What can we do?" Koenig replied. "We've got a forest fire out there, and all we've got against it is a canteen of water."

"We need to take action, John," Simmonds persisted. "Put a lid on whatever's happening at Area II, and hope it damps down the effect here."

Victor cleared his throat softly. "Ah, Commissioner, we have to tread carefully here. So far we've been fortunate that the space warp effect has hurled us forward along our original trajectory. Any action that alters that trajectory will make it that much more difficult for rescue ships from Earth to locate us."

"Rubbish!" Simmonds shook his head. "Any decent telescope on Earth should be able to spot us, even at our present distance. No, we've got to try to put a lid on this thing. Now! We've been pussyfooting around with no results. We need a direct approach. What about stirring it up -- in a controlled manner, of course -- so that it burns itself up safely?"

Controlled manner? Koenig almost felt like laughing. "And if it burns us up along with it, Simmonds? We don't know enough about it yet."

"Fair enough, John," Simmonds replied. "Then let's find out more. Get more equipment out there. Then we stir the pot a little, and see what we learn. Surely the modified remote Eagles are ready for flight by now?"

Koenig glared at him, thin-lipped. Then abruptly he turned to Carter. "Alan, are any Eagles with the modified gravity screens ready for launch?"

"Well, we've finished converting Eagle Three so far, sir," Alan said. "We can launch it any time. We're still working on the rest, but those should be ready shortly, now that we know what to do."

Koenig looked back to Simmonds. "All right, Commissioner," he sighed. "We'll try it your way."

"Excellent!" Simmonds smiled enthusiastically. "Action, John. That's the key."

It took a few minutes to launch Eagle Three, and several minutes more for it to make the traversal to Area II. During that time all was quiet, although Sandra continued to report that magnetic field levels were increasing at the base. Finally, the new Eagle reached the position of the previous one, and came into its camera view on the big screen in Main Mission.

"Switch to the view from Eagle Three, Paul."

The view was not reassuring. Area II was now a cauldron of fire, prominences rising and twisting like tornadoes. Under Paul's guidance, Eagle Three closed to near the edge of the crater, and hovered above the rim, looking out on the inferno below.

"Anything so far, Victor?"

"Quiet for now, John. Relatively speaking."

"All right, keep your eyes on those data readouts. Paul, give us a half-second shot with the laser, to see if light affects it."

"Any particular target, Commander?"

"We're short on time. Dead center of the zone. Be ready to ground that Eagle if a flare happens."

"One moment, Sir." Paul adjusted the Eagle's position laterally until the landing sensors reported relatively clear terrain beneath. "Ready."

"Fire the laser."

Paul hit the switch. The invisible laser beam, automatically simulated by a glowing green line on the viewscreen, launched out into the heart of the maelstrom for a brief moment, then cut off.

"No visible effect, Commander," Paul reported, sounding relieved.

"Nothing here either, John," Victor called. "It's far too localized. Like prodding a whale with a hatpin. Now, just a minute --"

He paused, staring at the data displays for a moment. "Paul," he called, "have Eagle Three increase its gravity shield output, just a hair. Thank you. Now cut it back." He examined the results, and nodded. "Uh huh. There is definitely some gravitic/electromagnetic linkage happening here -- the magnetic field was directly influenced by that."

"So if we put all the modified Eagles out there," Simmonds suggested, "and have them trigger all their shields to full power at once..."

"We could wind up immolating ourselves," Victor interrupted him. "There's no sign that this effect has any limits."

A communications monitor beneath the big screen beeped, and displayed Doctor Russell's face. "John, the magnetic effects here at the base are still increasing. I've just had two cases of collapse from neural shock, in the outer research bunker. If the field increase continues, it'll start to affect everyone."

"Understood, Helena," Koenig replied. Then he turned away from the screen so she could not see his concern. "We can't escape it," he said, thinking aloud, "and we can't sit around waiting for it to consume us."

He turned back. "All right, we'll try it, but I want all non-essential personnel moved into the emergency shelters. The base is on Emergency Red Alert."

The alert klaxon sounded, and Paul gave the order to move to the shelters. Simmonds approached Koenig and warmly congratulated him. "You're making the right decision, John."

Koenig stared back at him with unmasked distaste. "Congratulate me if we're both alive an hour from now, Simmonds."

Into The Abyss

Despite Alan's confident assessment, with only one launch pad accessible to the modified Eagles it took time to launch the five additional ships and get them into position, at equidistant points around the Area II crater. It was over an hour before the last of them was finally settling into place.

"The last Eagle has touched down, Commander," Paul reported from his station.

"Good, Paul," Koenig replied from his command desk. "Is the base secure?"

"Yes, Sir. Shelter doors are sealed. All non-essential systems shut down."

"Fine." Koenig stood up, took a last look at the displays on his desk, then hit the control to close the partition doors, coming around the desk to pass through them just before they closed. "Stand by for shield activation."

"John," Victor called, from his position next to Sandra's station. When Koenig joined him, he spoke in a lower, reserved tone. "The additional Eagles are giving us a better picture of the extent of the effect out there -- and it's not a generalized magnetization of the mantle. It's highly localized, rising to a peak underneath Area II. Now, that doesn't mean it can't spread, but at least it's not a generalized phenomenon."

"Victor, that should be good news," Koenig replied. "But the way you say it, it doesn't sound like it."

Victor dropped his voice even lower. "I'm concerned that there may be a hidden danger here. It may be that the force of the explosion has created a singularity, a point of infinite gravitational collapse, buried deep in the Moon's mantle. If so, it would be steadily expanding and taking parts of the Moon's mass with it, accounting for the rise in both magnetic and gravitic effects that we're seeing. Eventually, it could consume the Moon completely, and there'd be no way to get at it or stop it."

Koenig nodded, taking that in. "Do you think that's what's happening?"

"At this point, I can only hope that it isn't."

"Does it affect going forward with the test of the gravity screens?"

Victor thought for a moment. "No, you're right, John. Even if it's the cause, we're working on containing the effects here. Never mind."

Koenig put a hand on his shoulder. "Keep coming up with good ideas, Victor. You're my conscience, you know."

"Heaven help you, then," Victor retorted, returning to his place by the data displays.

"All right, everyone. Places please. Paul, activate Eagle gravity screens at minimum power."

"Minimum power, sir."

On the screen, via a remote-placed camera package, they could see Eagle Three, with the simulated conical glow of the gravity screen sheathing its control cabin.

"I'd advise a slow buildup to standard shields," Victor said. "So we can gauge the effect based on what we've seen so far."

"Paul, execute," Koenig ordered, and waited as Paul moved sliders on an improvised control box, bringing the Eagle screens up to normal power. "All Eagles now at standard power levels, sir."


"All quiet on the Western front," Victor said. "We may need to bridge some sort of resistance barrier before we see anything new. I'd say a slow build up to double screens on all Eagles, keeping them in balance."

"At this point," Simmonds remarked, "it's in for a penny, in for a pound. I say give it full screens on every Eagle. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, we can move on to another strategy."

"Slow increase, Paul," Koenig ordered. "Hold at double output."

"Right, Commander."

"That's doing it, John," Victor called. "It's having an effect. Strong jump in magnetic and gravitational fields. Astonishing! I wouldn't have believed it without seeing it." He sounded almost enraptured by the result. "Though it does seems to be ramping upward. We'd better cut back to standard again, give it time to cool off."

"Cut back to standard, Paul."

"Commander!" Paul reported, in a shocked tone. "The Eagle screens -- they're all at full power."

Koenig crossed to look over his shoulder. "I ordered you to stop at double output, Paul."

Paul mutely indicated the slider controls, which were all at double power. "There's a malfunction somewhere, sir -- the screens are radiating full strength."

"We're looking at another flare-up, John," Victor called. "A big one."

"Cut the screens, Paul!"

"Too late!"

This time there was no prelude of tremblors -- the floor was snatched out from under Koenig's feet. The roaring, crashing noise was incredible... and everything became insubstantial. Crushed to the floor, Koenig could see all the way through the Moon, and was aware of it only as a vague impression of enormous bulk, against a background of stars. He was a minute, barely tenuous fragment clinging to the surface of an nonexistent hunk of void. And he was slowly and helplessly losing his grip...

And then it was over, the shaking ground quieting, the base resuming its normal reassuring solidity. But the feeling of insecurity remained -- that perfectly normal trepidation anyone has about going back into a building after an earthquake.

Several alarms sounded. Paul moved to silence them. "Explosive decompression in areas 3 and 14," he reported. "It's contained, bulkheads closed."

"How's the hydroponics section?" Koenig asked.

Sandra checked. "It still has pressure, Commander. No leakage."

Koenig punched a communications button. "Helena, what's the situation in Medical?"

"We're operational," she replied. "No casualties reported from the shelters. But that was a rough one, John."

"I'm afraid it may get worse yet," Koenig replied. He looked to Sandra. "What's our position?"

Sandra tapped in the request. Then she did it again. Finally, she tossed her hands in frustration. "The velocity program does not have any recognized points of reference. I cannot get an estimate."

"Full scan and report," Koenig ordered. "Report anything! Find out where we are." He glared at Simmonds. "Commissioner, my office. Now."

Surprised, Simmonds followed him up the steps and through the partition doors.

When the doors had closed behind them, Koenig whirled angrily.

"Simmonds, if I find out that you were responsible for sabotaging those Eagles..."

"Now just a minute, John!" Simmonds objected heatedly. "What you're implying is completely unfair."

"Is it? You were the one demanding an all out assault on Area II -- and look what it's bought us!"

Simmons paused for a moment. "John, I realize that in the past I have exceeded my authority here on the base from time to time --"

What authority? Koenig thought, but kept listening.

Simmonds went on: "But I have never placed this base and the lives of everyone in it second -- in fact, I have argued for just the opposite. Now, something did happen that caused the Eagles to malfunction. We saw it. That's a fact. What is also a fact is that I had nothing to do with it. Check the access logs for my comm-lock for the past hour, if you don't believe me."

Koenig gave him a skeptical look, then nodded.

"All right, Commissioner. My apologies. Maybe I jumped the gun a little."

"Quite understandable, John, under the circumstances. You know, I feel as frustrated about this as you -- but unlike you, there is precious little I can do about it. So if I do overreach, it's always with the best of intentions." Simmonds read Koenig's disbelief in his scowling expression. Sighing, he shook his head.

"You don't believe me. Well, I suppose you have the right not to. I've pushed you too hard, been riding you like a taskmaster. But can you accept that it's not because I want to cause you trouble, but because I'm trying to make up for what we've all lost here?"

He smiled, thoughtfully, and went on as if speaking to himself alone. "I suppose it's because I wanted the Meta Program to succeed for so long, wanted it for years, worked on it for years. I lost touch with my wife, my family, friends -- had to devote everything to making Meta a reality. Everything! Had to become everything I used to dislike about administrators -- cold, authoritative, take-no-prisoners, because that's the way you get... things... done!" He punctuated the phase by smacking a fist into a palm.

He looked around at the office -- cold, sterile, and empty except for the two of them. "And now this: marooned on a chunk of rock, hurtling into space, nowhere to go and nothing I can do. And the Meta Probe, to which I've devoted so much of my life... is so much junk floating in some random orbit around the Earth. If it's even still there. It's probably decaying and burning up, even as we speak." His tone turned bitter. "Probably making an interesting fireworks display for anyone watching."

After a pause, he looked up at Koenig. "I'm trying to find a place here, John. I really am. It's just going to take us both a while to figure out what it is."

Koenig said nothing for a moment. Then he nodded.

"If I can think of anything, Commissioner, I'll let you know."

"Commander," said Sandra, as Koenig and Simmonds returned to Main Mission. "I have determined our position. This is impossible, but --" She shook her head, amazed. "We are outside the solar system altogether, at least 10,000 AU. And Commander -- we are within Eagle round-trip range of the planet Meta."

"Meta!" Koenig repeated, astonished. "Are we still receiving the Meta signal?"

Paul tapped a switch, and the big screen displayed the Meta signal trace, the circular sinewave with overtones that varied in an aperiodic -- and possibly artificial -- fashion. "Loud and clear, Sir."

Maybe that's where our future lies, Koenig recalled his earlier rumination about Meta. Maybe there. At the time, it had been little more than a pointless fantasy -- a pipe-dream to help keep his spirits up in the face of the inevitable. And now here it was, an actual possibility.

"Evacuation," Simmonds said, snapping his fingers. "We should evacuate everyone there while we have the chance. God only knows where we'd end up if we were to space-warp again."

Koenig shook his head, amazed at the man's stubbornness. "Simmonds, we haven't even determined whether that planet is habitable. Paul, what do your instruments show?"

"The planet's radiating a good deal of heat, Commander, so it isn't frozen, even this far out in space. Spectrograph shows high concentrations of oxygen and nitrogen in its atmosphere, plus water vapor." He looked up, a half-smile on his face. "It just might be habitable."

"Well, then," Simmonds retrenched, "a survey Eagle at least -- find out if the planet is capable of supporting life."

"Now that I'll agree to," Koenig answered. "If it can be done without unnecessary risk to the pilot and survey team. Victor, what do you say?"

"Well, we've had to shut down the gravitic screens in all six remote Eagles -- by the unbeautiful method of simply cutting power to the shielding circuits altogether. Remote systems on two of the ships have overloaded, but the remainder look in good shape -- possibly shielded by local rock outcroppings or the like. The sensors in those four Eagles are still operative, and could serve as an early-warning mechanism."

"What about Area II?"

"It seems to have quieted down, but based on our past experience, you can tell what that's worth." He frowned.

"So," Koenig prompted him, "you're saying it's not safe to go?"

Victor shook his head. "Is it safe? Clearly not. But can we take the risk, and what are the chances? I'd say these magnetic flare-ups are much like moonquakes: essentially unpredictable in themselves, but providing enough warning to at least allow preparation -- or to call back a survey Eagle," he added with a smile.

Koenig thought it over, realizing that everyone was waiting on his decision. Finally, he nodded. "I'll authorize it. We'll need volunteers, Paul."

Alan Carter stood up. "You've got your pilot, Commander." He smiled broadly. "I was in line for the Meta Probe program, but Gorski held me back. Said something about me being needed here."

"Looks like he was right. All right, Alan. But stay alert out there -- and if we give you the recall signal, turn that Eagle around and get back here."

"No worries, Sir. I'll be back before the echo."

"Ahm," Simmonds said, hesitantly. "I'd like to volunteer as well." Before Koenig could reply, he went on, more forcefully. "John, you know how much I wanted that Meta Probe, as much as any one of the pilots or crew -- I wanted man to go to Meta. If I can at least assist in surveying it, I'll feel that my presence here, my efforts for the project, were justified."

After a long moment, Koenig nodded. "All right, Commissioner. But consider yourself under Alan's authority. If he says you're turning back, that's final."

Simmonds nodded. Then he crossed to Alan's station, and nodded stiffly. "Well, Mr. Carter. If you'll tell me what we'll need... I'll... go to the stores and collect it." The effort of making the concession was clear in his face, but it seemed sincere as well.

Surprised, Alan smiled, and clapped the Commissioner on the shoulder. "All right, Commissioner, come along. We'll hit the survey stores together."

As they left, Koenig exchanged a glance with Carter. Keep an eye on him, his expression said.

Both eyes, said Alan's nod in return.

The Dark Side of Meta

In record time, Eagle One was lifting off from the newly-reopened Pad One, and setting out away from the Moon toward the distant blue sphere of Meta. Per orders from Koenig, Alan kept a comm channel open, and reported what he saw visually from the pilot's seat.

"It looks beautiful from here," Alan said. Dressed in an orange pressure suit, he adjusted the Eagle's trim with an expert nudge of the control yoke. "Earth's not the only big blue marble any more. I can just make out stratification in the cloud tops. Looks like a gas giant, almost, funny for the rock-ball you say it is."

"We read that, too, Alan," Victor replied, from his seat beside Paul in Main Mission. "Not sure what to make of it. Might be a greenhouse cloudbank, like Venus. Or else the product of some planetary evolution we don't yet understand."

"Plenty of possibilities there," Alan agreed. "How's the you-know-what you-know-where?"

"Still quiet, Alan," Victor reassured him. "I'm watching it closely. I'll warn you if it starts acting up."

Alan nodded. "Hey, Commander, I can pick up the Meta signal from here." He pressed a switch on the Pilot's console, and the Meta signal trace appeared on a comm monitor. "It's strong as ever -- but it doesn't appear to be coming from any specific location. It seems to be a generalized signal. It does seem to be coming from the planet, though. Any idea which way I should head once I get there?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, Alan," Koenig replied. "Try an inclined orbit, so you catch both the poles and the equatorial regions. And make sure you keep in line-of-sight communication with the base at all times."

"Right." Alan glanced over his shoulder, toward the connecting corridor. "Hey, Commissioner. How's it look from back there? Long-range scopes picking up anything yet?"

In the service module of the Eagle, Simmonds was observing over the shoulders of the two survey technicians, Jete Patrone and Alicia Gordon, seated at the panel of monitoring and sensor equipment that filled the right rear section of the module. Like Alan, the two technicians had been in line for the Meta program, but hadn't made the final cut, and now were living out a dream assignment. Simmonds had joked with them that their files must have crossed his desk at some point, although he had no idea what recommendation he'd made at the time -- a good one, he hoped. The joke managed to break the ice, and now they were reporting their results to him as if he was still in charge of the program.

"It looks good from here, Alan," Simmonds called. "Jete can see some of the inner layers of the cloudbanks on visual, and there are concentrations of heat on the infrared that look like they might be cities."

"Commissioner," Alicia objected, "they could just as well be volcanic vents, or other sources of internal heat."

"Could be," Simmonds nodded. "But I prefer to think positive, my dear. Gives the Universe the chance to prove us right, eh?"

Alicia and Jete exchanged a private smile, but said nothing. They were too busy coping with the increase in data as the planet came closer.

Back in Main Mission, Koenig stood behind Paul and Victor, observing both them and the relayed images being displayed on the big screen. Helena stood by the medical monitors beneath the screen, monitoring the vital signs of the survey crew. She glanced at Koenig, who gave her a reassuring nod.

"They'll be in orbit in a few minutes, Commander," Paul reported.

"Good, Paul. Sandra, conditions here?"

She shook her head, a tight, worried look on her face. "The magnetic field is within safety levels, but rising. The shelters are shielded, but they won't hold forever."

"Let me know when we're close to the danger area for our people here in Main Mission."

She managed a smile. "How close is close, sir?"

Koenig smiled back. "Victor, is Area II still quiet?"

"Yes. Interesting," he said. "The magnetic energy readings seem to be dying down completely. I don't know what's causing it, but I'm not going to complain"

"Neither am I." Raising his voice, Koenig spoke to Carter's image on the big screen. "Alan, you're cleared for one orbit for now. Make it a good one."

"Will do, Commander. Alicia, got your recording gear running?"

Before she could speak, Simmonds answered for her. "Everything's running fine back here, Alan."

"Okay, hang onto your hats."

He put the Eagle on a smooth parabolic intercept, which he could tweak into an elliptical if the Commander gave the go for a new orbit. Then he twiddled the trim control and let the planet's gravity do the flying for him -- alert all the while for unexpected hazards like orbital debris. "Looks like a clear path from here. I'm going to roll right to put the sensor antennas at a better angle. Don't lose your lunches." He tipped the yoke, put just enough spin on the ship. A moment later he tipped it the other way, taking the spin off, smooth as a pancake off a griddle. "Hah. No chance I'd be able to do that with the Meta Probe."

"What was that, Alan?" Simmonds replied, in an amused tone. "I didn't quite catch that."

"Nothing, Commissioner," Alan said, grinning even more broadly. "Just a little pilot chatter up front."

The minutes ticked away. Jete and Alicia worked at their consoles, selecting targets for photographs, spectrographs, and high-speed recordings, which could be analyzed later for details not visible at their current speed. Simmonds leaned over their shoulders, gripping the backs of their chairs, staring intensely at the displays as if willing the answers to appear.

"Come on," he whispered. "Come on, damn it! Show yourselves! Where are you hiding?"

"What was that, Commissioner?" Alan retorted, half-seriously. But there was no reply from Simmonds. Alan heard Alicia and Jete calling advice to each other, so he shrugged and kept an eye on his own monitors.

Several more minutes passed, and gradually, Alan became aware that the conversation had died out behind him. "Jete? Alicia? What's it look like?" he called. There was no answer.

Checking that the autopilot was set, his chosen intercept still valid, the flight path was clear, and that the ship's internal gravity field was operational, Alan unstrapped and walked back through the connecting tunnel.

Jete was stone-faced, and Alicia had her eyes closed. Then she spoke, despair in her voice. "It's dead, Alan," she said. "Completely lifeless, just gas and rock. Absolutely no trace of any kind of life."

"No," Simmonds said, leaning past her to punch controls, calling up view after view from the recording log. "I can't accept this! It's not possible!"

Alan breathed out, feeling his own spirits sink. "No chance you've missed something? I mean, we could have hit the local versions of the Sahara, the Gobi, and Antarctica on a loop like this."

"No chance," Jete said. "There's no sign of even microbial life."

"What about the oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere? I mean, that smog didn't come from nowhere."

Jete shrugged. "Maybe there was something here once. But it's not here any more."

"Alan," Alicia asked, desperate. "What do we tell them?"

Alan nodded, understanding. Bad enough to have your own dream crumble to dust, but how did you break the news to over three hundred people whose lives were hanging on the answer?

"Alpha to Eagle One," Koenig's voice called over the comm channel. "What's the verdict, Alan?"

Alan looked at the others, then unclipped his communicator. "Alpha, it's lifeless. Nothing down here at all. Not even a tree or blade of grass."

There was a pause from the other end. Then: "Understood, Alan. Complete the orbit, just to make sure."

"Right, Commander."

"No," Simmonds said, his tone weak, shattered. He turned away from the screens, unable to bear looking at them. "No, it's not fair."

Alan smiled grimly, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Steady on, Commissioner. Them's the breaks. You win some, you lose some. This time we lose." He glanced at the technicians. "You kids keep your eyes open in case something does turn up. I'm going back for'ard and make sure we don't hit anything on our way 'round the back turn."

Simmonds wasn't listening. He stumbled into a seat on one of the rear acceleration couches, and put his head in his hands. His hands shook. "Nothing there. Nothing at all," he whispered. "There's nothing out here for us. Nothing. Damn it!" He slammed a fist on the arm of the seat. "Fool!" he whispered, as if to himself. "All that time, all that effort. All for nothing. Wasted!" He leaned back in the seat and shut his eyes. "Nothing there. Nothing left to do... but get back home."

Alicia and Jete exchanged worried glances, then turned back to their instruments. Professionals both, they had a job to do, and they were going to do it.

Forward in the pilot's cabin, Alan was doing some thinking of his own. He stared out at the brilliant azure curve of the planet's atmosphere. In the normal illusion of spaceflight, it seemed to be inches away, just within reach outside the left-hand window. In actuality, Alan thought, it might as well be halfway across the Universe. He immediately saw the funny side in that: Well, so are we, in a way. Cheered by the thought, he reached out to press the switch that brought up the Meta signal on his monitor.

It wasn't there. Alan checked his instruments, found no fault. "Alpha," he called. "I'm no longer receiving the transmission from Meta. It's no fault up here. Tell me this isn't somebody's idea of a gag."

"We still pick it up, Alan," Koenig replied. "It's definitely coming from Meta."

"Well, it can't be... unless..." Rapidly, Alan adjusted the directional pickup, which was locked in on the planet itself. The Meta signal sprang into being on the monitor, loud and clear...

... and coming from empty space.

"Alpha," Alan called. "We're around the far side of Meta, and the signal is not, repeat not coming from the planet. It's coming from deep space, along the same bearing. There's no sign of a source for it at all. It's just coincidence that we thought it came from the planet."

Back in Main Mission, Koenig shook his head. Then he reached past Paul Morrow, and pressed a switch. The Meta signal, which to that point had been displayed on one of the secondary monitors in Main Mission, cut out. The subsequent silence in the room was leaden and uncomfortable.

Victor spoke up. "Hello, Eagle One," he prompted, "can we determine whether the planet is naturally lifeless? Have you done a radiation count?"

"Damn," Jete said. "That's me. So busy looking around for little green men..." He rapidly ran the appropriate scan. "Alpha, there's no sign of even background nucleonic radiation."

"What about magnetic radiation?" Koenig said, suddenly. "Can we check for that?"

"Just one moment, Commander. I'll need to switch to the new detector. Got it, and... Christ!"

"What is it, Eagle One?" Koenig called.

"Sir, the planet's red hot! It's like Area II -- but everywhere, all over!"

"John," Victor said, turning to face Koenig. "I've just figured out what happened to the magnetic levels in Area II. You know what happens just before a large tidal wave comes crashing into shore?"

"The tide goes out," Koenig breathed. "All the way out."

Victor nodded. "If that planet's displaying the same kind of magnetic effects as we have here, It could be affecting us, increasing the strength of the field. And when it reaches the breaking point..."

Koenig was way ahead of him. "Carter!" he ordered. "Abort and return to the base. Blast out of there and head back!"

"Roger, Commander," Alan replied, seconds before hitting the boosters. The Eagle surged ahead, accelerating at full thrust.

"Carter, what's going on?" Simmonds called over the intercom.

"Beats me, Commissioner, but Alpha wants us heading back."

"And we are going to make it?" Simmonds asked. "Back to Alpha, I mean?"

"Make sure you're strapped in tight," Alan replied. "Cause we're sure as hell going to give it an old college try."

Minutes ticked tensely away. Victor watched the gauges reporting the magnetic levels at Area II. "Magnetic levels coming back, John. It could go any time now."

"Come on, Alan," Koenig whispered. "You're more than halfway back."

"Magnetic levels at the base are rising, too," Sandra said. "Approaching critical for anyone not in the shelters."

A light tremblor shook the base. Not much, just a low rumbling and a rolling sensation. But Koenig was sure it was only a prelude. "Pressure suits, everyone. Right now!"

"There, John!" Victor pointed at the monitor displaying Area II. "It's flaring again."

On the monitor, they could see the hideous, flickering glow rising from the cauldron of Area II. Another tremor shook the base.

"Pressure suit, Commander," said Sandra, handing it to him. Koenig put it on, regarded the helmet for a moment, and then put it on as well. "Helmets, too!" he ordered. "We might have a blowout."

"Alpha," said Carter, "I can see the fireworks from here. I don't think we're going to make it back, John. Any message you want me to take back to Earth for you?"

Koenig couldn't think of anything. "Just tell them what happened to us, Alan. And... well, give my regards to Broadway."

"Will do, sir," Alan replied grimly. "If I do manage to make it back, dead or alive, I'll make sure they know where to look for you."

A warning alarm sounded. "John," Victor said, "we just lost one of the sensor Eagles. No, make that two. Burnt out by the encroaching field. The others are barely functional, but they won't last long."

Seconds ticked by, breaths were held. Koenig's gaze darted from Carter's face, on the secondary monitor, to the image on the big screen: the mounting, hellish glow pouring from Area II.

"Alpha," Carter said, his transmission heavily distorted by static. "I've achieved orbit. Coming in on approach vector -- need final..."

The signal cut off in a roar of static. "Alan!" Koenig called. "Come in, Alan!"

"Magnetic surge," Victor called. "This looks like it!"

Area II exploded, an inferno of light. Power went out, all over the base. The ground shook, then rattled, then heaved. And then the quaking really began. Support beams were falling, and electrical fires breaking out everywhere. There was little they could do but hold on and ride it out.

Out of the corner of his eye, Koenig saw one of the triple-paned windows on the north side of the room first spiderweb, then shatter. "Pressure loss!" he called over the roar. "Visors down!" He could feel the tug of escaping air, trying to wrench him away from his hold on Paul's console. Koenig looked around for Morrow, who suddenly wasn't there. Neither was Sandra.

Koenig turned, and saw Morrow's lean, suited form stumbling across the teetering floor in the low lunar gravity, carrying a plate broken loose from one of the Main Computer panels. Sandra was with him, and holding an emergency sealant gun in one gloved hand. When they were close to the shattered window, Sandra applied sealant to the edges of the panel, and then Morrow carefully heaved it across the open window frame. The pressure was already low in Main Mission, but there was enough left to clamp the panel in place with a solid thud. It was misaligned, but had a tight seal. Paul looked across at Koenig, and gave him a quick thumb's up.

"Fast thinking, Paul," Koenig called over the helmet comm, not sure if either of them could hear him. The shuddering and roaring were not dying away, and Koenig was beginning to wonder when the larger, heavier panels of the Main Mission observation bay would give in and shatter as well.

And then everything faded, became insubstantial. The shuddering stopped because there was nothing to shudder. The fires stopped because there was nothing to burn. The roaring stopped because there was nothing to transmit the vibration. The base, its people, the Moon, everything, because totally nonexistent. Some remnant of self that thought it might have been John Koenig stared down through the invisible ground beneath his feet, down through the kilometers of nonexistent lunar crust and mantle and core, and out the other side, to where the stars could be seen, eternal and unmoving.

And then the stars themselves began to move...

Reality, when it returned, was like a hammer-blow between the eyes. Koenig found himself on the floor. The lights were back on, though a few fires still burnt fitfully here and there. As Koenig got to his feet, he saw that everyone appeared unharmed. Normal base gravity was restored as well. Pressing a key on Paul's console, he took an internal atmosphere reading.

"It's all right," he said. "Pressure's been restored." Sliding open his visor, he sniffed the air cautiously, then decided there were no dangerous volatiles in it, and removed his helmet.

Helena crossed to stand opposite him, on the other side of the control desk. "We're all right," she said, as if surprised they should be so lucky.

"Yeah," Koenig said, taking another look around to be sure everyone was all right. "But where the hell are we? Sandra, is Main Computer operating -- can we get a picture of our surroundings?"

"I will try, sir." She slipped back into her seat, brushed away debris, and swiftly typed commands. "There, I have an image." She tapped another key, transferring it to the big screen.

They all gasped. "That's not the solar system," Paul said.

"No," Victor agreed. "But it's a solar system, for certain."

On the screen were a brilliant blue-white sun, and a planet in the near distance, streaked with clouds of vibrant colors.

"Where's our own system?" Koenig asked, fearing he knew the answer already.

"There is no trace, Commander," Sandra looked up at him, her voice small. "The Sun, Earth, everything, it is all gone."

"And Meta?"

"No sign of the planet Meta, either."

Victor nodded. "We must have left it behind, when we came here."

"Alan," Koenig said. "What about Alan?" He slapped a comm control. "Koenig to Eagle One. Alan, do you copy?"

Silence, unbroken except for static.

"Koenig to Eagle One. Alan, if you can hear me, please respond."

After a long pause, a reply: "Hey, Alpha. This is Eagle One. Nice to hear from you."

Koenig breathed a thankful sigh. "Same here, Alan. What's your status?"

"A-OK up here, though that was some ride. Can I try it again sometime?"

"Maybe later, Captain. Come on back down here."

"Copy that, Alpha. I'm on final approach. Pad One looks clear, so I'll set down there."

"Take over, Paul," Koenig said, as Morrow resumed his station.

"We copy you, Alan," Paul said, efficient as ever, as if absolutely nothing had happened and all was normal. "The tracking system is online. We'll guide you in."

"John," Victor called, motioning for Koenig to join him. When he did, Victor pointed to the readouts from the remaining remote Eagle, which had managed to ride out the space warp unharmed.

"Area II has stabilized. Only minor traces of magnetic flux. What's more, magnetic effects are down to background levels here at the base. I think it's settled itself down," Victor said, smiling. "Perhaps Simmonds had the right idea after all -- we just needed to prime the pump of our space-drive, so to speak, and let it work out the kinks itself. I don't think we're going to have any more problems."

He glanced up at the big screen. "Aside from the obvious one, of course,"

They all stared at the screen, at the brand new solar system spread out before them.

The Doorways Beyond

A short time later, the base was back in operation, all systems functioning. Damage was being repaired, casualties -- which were astonishingly light -- being cared for.

Koenig sat in his chair at his desk, looking over the latest status report. "I'd say we're just about back to normal -- whatever that means now."

Helena, leaning against the desk, nodded her agreement. "The only one I'm worried about right now is the Commissioner. When he got off the Eagle he went straight to his quarters and locked the door. He isn't responding to comm signals, either. I'm assuming he just needs time to recover, but if I don't hear from him soon I'll ask security to open the door."

"Fine," Koenig replied. "How are you taking it?"

"Oh, pretty well, considering. And you?"

"It's just one more damn problem to deal with," Koenig said breezily. He realized his expression showed his real feelings, and added, "Ask me again when we've had a chance to look over those planets out there. I'm hoping at least one of them might be capable of providing an evacuation site for us. Which reminds me -- Paul!"

"Yes, Commander?"

"When you think we're back to operational level, arrange for another survey Eagle. We're going to want to know which, if any of those planets might be habitable."

"Understood, Sir. I'll get right on it."

"Hey," Victor said, coming in through the side door from the corridor. "I've been going over my initial space-warp calculations, and..."

"Let me guess," Koenig said. "You're going to say you predicted it all perfectly."

Victor grinned sheepishly. "Actually, quite the opposite. I'm going to have to reexamine all of my assumptions. Funny how I keep having to do that, isn't it? I suppose it comes with the territory. Anyway, the fact that Carter's Eagle came along with us even though it was in orbit and not in contact with the Moon means it wasn't just us that became insubstantial -- it was space itself that opened up, and let us pass through."

"So it was a space-warp?" Helena asked. "Of some kind, at least."

Victor nodded. "Yup. And it's not as simple an effect as I originally thought. I think that the explosion at Area II has somehow made the Moon's core into some kind of resonant 'key', which unlocks gravitational doors in space. These "space warps" may be connected in some way to gravitational sources, like stars and planets, which is why we wound up here, near another solar system. And it's also likely, when we pass beyond this system, we'll encounter another point at which we'll space-warp to another system, perhaps the next one intersected by our original flight path. Possibly the warp entrances represent balance points between stellar systems, places where the fabric of space itself is equipotential." He smiles. "Or maybe I just don't understand what's really going on. We must always allow that possibility."

"So it's a crap shoot," Koenig observed. "If we don't find anything in this system, we just pull in the oars and wait until we've drifted into the next one."

"You think perhaps that's how Meta wound up near our system?" Helena asked.

"More than that," Victor said, "I'm almost positive of it. You remember that Meta displayed the same magnetic field effect as the Moon. And if that wasn't a natural phenomenon..."

Koenig saw it. "Then perhaps we're not alone in our folly. Maybe in Meta's case when it happened it was the planet, not the Moon, that was hurled out of orbit."

"Even if so," Victor said, "that folly helped save our lives. Contact with Meta has somehow 'healed' the Moon, made it more stable." He smiled ruefully. "That's one way of putting a bright spin on it, I suppose."

"Victor," Koenig reminded him, "you said earlier there was a possibility that the Area II explosion created a singularity, buried in the Moon's crust -- could that be the 'key' you mean?"

"Stipulating that I don't know what I'm talking about, it's a possibility, yes."

"Well, if that's the case, how long might we have?"

Victor grinned. "Oh, well. That'd be the good news. Barring any changes in present readings I'd say we'd have, oh, say thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years before it became an issue. Depends on how small the singularity is, of course."

Koenig relaxed. "Well, with that much time, we're certain to have found a new home for ourselves by then."

He, Helena, and Victor exchanged a smile, and turned to look out at Main Mission, where already Paul, Sandra, and Alan Carter were organizing the ship and crew for the survey team.

Credit where Credit is Due Department: Many thanks to Martin Willey, for the invaluable Continuity Guide and other Space:1999 information maintained at The Catacombs website. Thanks also to Ariana for maintaining the Space:1999 Fan Fiction Archive.

Copyright (c) 2002. 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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