Bridge One - The Ship (by David Welle)


Arkadian Pinball

It had been lunar pinball recently. The Moon slowed, seemingly artificially. Yet it was still difficult to understand what had done that.

Arkadia was a dead world, having suffered an armageddon. Yet some force had altered the Moon's course at several points, and that remained something of a mystery.

Some of the Arkadians had died on their world. Yet there was writing that some had fled, apparently to Earth given the Arkadian script was essentially a variant of Sanskrit. Luke and Anna had become convinced the Arkadians had seeded Earth with with intelligent life, namely humans. Were all Terrans -- all Alphans -- really Arkadian in origin? John had considered much, had written some impressions, yet questions remained, and there were still other points to consider.

Luke Ferro.... He had been a kendo sparring partner to John Koenig. Perhaps the start of a friendship. John felt betrayed, not only at that level, but as Commander. Luke and Anna had threatened Alpha to get to Arkadia with enough supplies to establish themselves... as a colony John realized... on Arkadia. To bring back some life to this ancient world. They had threatened Helena. They had broken one of their own agreements, but had fortunately stuck to some of the key ones.

It was still breathtaking how completely the two had been changed by their experience on the planet. The threats they made cast some of the rebirth possibility into a darker light for John. Yet at the same time, he could not deny a curiously positive symmetry of a sort. Moonbase Alpha had been a colony of Earth. Still was, really, just cast away now. Yet Alpha now perhaps had founded a colony of its own. Well, two Alphans trying to found one while threatening the rest.

History was full of examples of colonies founded, though not necessarily with just two people. Colonies came about for various reasons, and this was perhaps not that unique, in that way at least. In other ways, it was beyond unique, to the point of singular. Trying to found a colony on a world that in its death throes had founded human society?

Something still nagged at him. Perhaps it was the fanatical fervor of Luke and Anna that disturbed him, made him wonder if there weren't even more layers. He paused, struck by the incomplete thought and having no idea to where that was supposed to lead. He was disturbed by the thought that he must have appeared in a somewhat similar fanatical state during the collision course to Atheria. So he set this line of thinking aside for now.

Could two people found a colony, with in-breeding to soon set in? Chief Medical Officer Helena Russell thought not. Paul reminded them that there were compatible aliens out there. Perhaps Luke and Anna would have a bunch of children and then perhaps a few aliens with sufficiently-compatible DNA would crash land or otherwise decide to become part of the new Arkadia, before little if any inbreeding could set in. The Kaldorians had turned out to be compatible, after all, according to a range of tests the CMO had run, including genetic. They were not within the usual range of the phrase "human race" yet clearly within the fuzzy boundary of the "human species." That itself was something of a mystery that Alphans had been discussing sometimes.

With whatever was affecting the course of entire planetoids, perhaps a crash landing was not so far-fetched, Victor had thought. Paul had reminded them too that many human cultures had origin stories with humans starting only two in number. Sandra had added that it sometimes included violent aspects to such beginnings.

Alpha would likely never know if Luke and Anna would even survive their first year there.

Commissioner Gerald Simmonds, not long after Breakaway, had deserted Alpha as well. Yet it was very likely he had died within days, and Koenig had recorded him in the official log as "Deserted, Presumed Dead."

At least with Luke and Anna, he now only needed to record, "Deserted, Contact Lost, Fate Unknown." Still, it pained him. Three desertions in a year. His authority had been fought at other times. Was it all a sign of more chaos to come?

Service Leader Sandra Benes called into his office via her commlock. "Enter," he said. She was here to talk about the disposition of the possessions the two had left behind, and the holes they had left in terms of their various talents now being absent from the base.

They went through these, alighting eventually on one of Anna's secondary skills, as a philologist.

"It is curious how little those skills have been called upon out here," the Commander stated.

"Hmm," Sandra said.

That line of curiosity ended almost as soon as it started, for reasons neither could perceive, but there was still part of the topic left.

"I will give her language material to Smitty," she stated.

"Smitty? Why?" he asked, knowing Smitty was a mechanical jack-of-all-trades, capable of working many of Alpha's systems at an operational level, though he had no skills with their internal electronics.

"On the skills survey," Sandra was answering, "he stated he had read some books on linguistic history, and had learned some basic phrases in numerous languages. All just as a hobby."

"Huh," John said. It was sometimes difficult to predict people's hobbies. "Is he the only one remaining?"

"With that kind of broad curiosity, yes. I know several languages, but have never had the time or interest to study their interconnections. A few other people know three languages, and some people know two, but it ends there too."

"Okay. You might as well point him at copies of the reports on Arkadia."

Alpha was starting to return to routine, which after encounters was to try to deal with new information at least, or new structural situations. The conversation of base leader and service leader slowly wound down through some more such details, but as often happened, they returned back to some of the deep mysteries, possible answers, and uncertain sources.

Finally, though, they had to turn their attention away from Arkadia, to deal with some of the daily concerns, and upcoming needs.


Recommissioning

It had sat dormant for five years. It had taken months to fashion replacement parts. It was needed; or so some felt.

It had been designed in the early 1980s. It had been built in the mid 1980s.

In the run-up to the 1987 war, Moonbase Alpha remained essentially a facility of the two main space agencies of the United States and western Europe, its three primary contributors being the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy.

Tensions had been rising for years, and the very Hawks meant to defend those three countries, their allies, and the Moonbase -- were a double-edged sword. Plans had been stolen, and two entire Mark III Hawks had simply disappeared, location and fate unknown until reappearing in some stunning attacks, including in Turkey and England.

Alpha Moonbase was a massive undertaking, and represented many billions in money already. It was a small city on the Moon, after all.

So the laser had been built. It had been used in the War of 1987 and in the years afterwards. It had even targeted sites on Earth. No one was happy space had been militarized. Treaties had been broken. That the laser had saved Alpha from some or total damage was remembered. However, as the space program became highly internationalized after the War, in part to heal the wounds of war, almost everyone was happy with the idea of decommissioning the big gun on the Moon.

It had taken until 1994, however, due to lingering elements left from the war posing a risk. With a small ceremony, but even greater relief, it had been decommissioned, with some of its key components removed to Earth.

That it was not totally dismantled had been a controversy, but recommissioning the laser required work and use of components that would not go unnoticed. Nor would unsealing its hatch. Several countries and two international agencies kept a permanent eye on that site.

Now, no Earth country could do so. It was almost certain no one on Earth knew where the Moon even was.

Five years after the laser cannon had been disabled and sealed, the Moon had violently broken away from Earth, and in the months since then, had been violently attacked and threatened with attack.

Tony Verdeschi, then a supervisor in Security Section, and Weapons Systems Expert Petrov, had both suggested its recommissioning, not long before the former's elevation to the new role of Security Officer.

David Kano had backed the recommissioning. He was the leader of Technical Section, his position called Technical Director.

Controller Paul Morrow had resisted the recommissioning at first, but then had abruptly not only changed his mind, but had added starting a second such cannon as a possibility in his then-new relatively new long-term planning scenario called Plan B.

Commander John Koenig had not expressed his opinion at first, wanting to let the debate occur before weighing in with a final decision.

The Command Corps mostly agreed that the gun had value, even if only for its mere existence. Eagles could sometimes be disabled, and their weapons, individually, were not strong. Embarrassingly, the Alphans had been forced to target Jarak's ships with hand-held laser rifles held by four men who had walked out of airlocks. Not that the laser would have been guaranteed, but adding another tool to Alpha's paltry defenses seemed wise -- as long as wisdom was employed in deciding when to use it.

In the end, Commander Koenig agreed with the recommissioning idea, and ordered work on it to begin.

Electrical Engineer Carl van der Mir, with the assistance of other engineers as well as Chief Architect Alexander Karedepoulos, had started designing replacement components, some of them structural. The hatch took a week of part-time work to unseal. That it took so long verified that observers on Earth would not have been able to miss such an action if the Moon had still been in orbit.

Finally, it was brought back online, just recently. A test shot at a passing asteroid was made, only to discover that the Alphan-designed targeting system needed improvement. That was ongoing.

There would be no recommissioning ceremony. The nearest representative of Earth authority, Commissioner Gerald Simmonds who would have probably campaigned even harder for its recommissioning, had extorted his way off Alpha, but in a way that likely meant he was now dead.


Computers and Corridors

David Kano and June Washington settled into chairs in Cafeteria 3. Even the determined David, who rarely showed signs of fatigue, did so now, just a little.

The targeting system on the large laser battery was not working correctly, and given it was a small computer system in its own right, they were troubleshooting it. David doubted it was a flaw in his own earlier work, and was beginning to suspect the unit either had a hardware fault, or more likely was being fed incorrect raw data from another subsystem.

"Bad inputs?" June asked, and David looked at her, mildly surprised again. She was still turning out to be more than he had expected.

"Yes, I think so," he evenly stated, though he must have let some emotion show through in his face or voice, because her smile seemed more than just in response to his agreeing with the likelihood.

She really did like him, and had more of the patience he liked to see in women, more than Lena Andreichi ever had.

The infrequent times he had actually asked a woman out, he seemed to make bad choices, ending up with women that seemed to yearn for more than his calm, steady patience.

Lena had been appealing, especially after hearing of her no-nonsense personality, something he thought would fit well with his own. Neither wasted much thought or talk on needless humor beyond occasional wry observations, he noticed after he asked her out and they began dating.

Still, he and Lena had suffered difficulties. Both might have been no-nonsense in some ways, but they saw things so differently. He thought and worked more by logic, facts, whereas Lena leaped about by intuition, guesses, responses he felt were emotional even if well-controlled. How they arrived at conclusions were so different, even if they both cut to the chase.

Furthermore, once either one locked onto a conclusion, neither budged easily. Both had a sort of faith that way. She also argued with him almost as much about Computer as Alan sometimes had. No one seemed to get Computer was rarely at fault, but the people who programmed their mistakes into her, aliens that interfered with her, and such. It was not that Kano didn't make mistakes, and it was not that Computer was completely flawless, but that both made mistakes a lot less often than some people wanted to argue. Even he knew some would call it arrogance; he called it evidence.

He and Lena had both had a streak of stubbornness, he supposed, too often they were at odds, her trying to convince him very persistently, even after he tried to close the topic, unresolved. Worse, her no-nonsense mode made her impatient, whereas his made him patient in most regards. This extended to their relationship, where she felt slowness was stagnation and he felt it the way to build a good foundation.

They had eventually broken up, surprisingly amiably, as if they both wanted to avoid the nonsense of a messy breakup or needless repercussions afterwards.

Then there was June.

Why hadn't he taken much notice of June before? Her spilling coffee one day had left him unimpressed, yet he rarely put much stock in momentary impressions, preferring to accumulate a better picture of someone. She had been and still was an assistant programmer, but at the time had done what many still did, take a turn at delivering coffee.

Her programming skills had been good all along, but he had not taken much note other than considering them good or adequate. She had not distinguished herself, to him at least, in any particular way, early on. Oh, he had known "good" on Alpha really meant great, but he had not taken the time to really look at her.

Perhaps since then, he had gained a better picture of her, and that had made him ready to date this very pretty woman.

That it took this quiet little thing asking him if he was interested in sharing a meal with her, casually as if it weren't a date even though that is clearly what she was asking, had made him realize he had taken too long thinking. Now, they had been dating for a couple months, in a slow, comfortable relationship, and he was starting to wonder a little again, yet feeling hesitant.

Right now, June was talking about how her mother was named May, grandmother April, and great-grandmother Mara.

"So your family's female line has gone through at least four months of inspiration."

She laughed. "I never heard it put exactly that way before, David, but yes. Despite a new wave of distinctive African-American names among some of my peers, my mother had continued this tradition. Sounds more Southern plantation than modern Midwest, but I don't resent it. Not sure where I'd go, though. Julia for a daughter? Augusta as a granddaughter? Septima to follow as a great-granddaughter?"

"Retro Roman?" David asked wryly.

"Exactly."

"But those are all pretty names," he said, not quite sure how they had gotten on this topic. Oh yes, talking about her Midwestern upbringing, he recalled. She had talked about growing up in....

The Chippewa Valley, the supercomputer center of the world. Midway between Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire, twin cities of hundreds of thousands each. The explosive success of Cray, followed by others including X Systems, the company responsible for much of Alpha's computing power. These companies and associated research organizations, and some universities existing or popping up around them, had attracted much computer hardware and programming talent to the area.

David had interned for a time at Cray, but had found X Systems efforts more interesting, and had changed jobs. He had actually met June there at X once, briefly; but by then it was a large campus spread out over those twin cities, and he did not recall seeing her again until Alpha.

The Chippewa Valley and U.S. 53 corridors in western Wisconsin had become transformational, Cray in Chippewa Falls being the first in the area, then X Systems in Eau Claire. IBM had set up a satellite campus in Cornell. Some expatriates of all three set up another company in Osseo, calling it Osmosistems -- Oz for short -- and seeking computer systems with powerful "learning" capabilities, some outside observers half-joking that maybe they were trying to build HAL but with Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws" built in.

Another set of people went further north, to Superior, to found Super-ior Computer Systems -- Ior for short -- only to soon set up most of their research and development facilities in the Chippewa Valley into which so much top talent was flowing. Theirs were the most powerful system of all: the Ior Mark I. Far too large for a Moonbase, there were now still only twenty in the whole world, spread out here and there -- dubbed Supercomputing Centers. Their much-delayed next-generation system, the Ior Mark II, was on order at only a handful of locations.

The Ior machines were tasked with trying to understand some of the greatest scientific and technical mysteries. Some estimated they might be able to solve enough to crack photonic technology wide open, from cutting-edge but small-scale and limited experimentation, into something practical in large scale.

At the time, Kano had already heard of Professor Bergman visiting Ior sometimes, Indeed, through research organizations, Bergman and other scientists had been interacting with Cray, X, Oz, Ior, and others, all in hopes of finding such scientific solutions. So it was no secret Ior wanted to upgrade electronic computers into photonic-driven systems that would make even the Ior Mark II seem primitive. That was assuming photonic technology was truly the wave of the future. No one knew at this point.

David had, not long before Breakaway, debated a move from X Systems to Ior. He had a considerable career investment in X Systems, however, not the least of which was the implant system in his brain. Ior was aware of that, though, and had shown interest. Oz was showing even more, considering they had even stronger "artificial intelligence" goals.

David's Moonbase Alpha tour was to have finished at the end of 1999. He had already planned a month-long sabbatical back to home and parents and other family in Jamaica. Chippewa Valley was intertwined with those major companies, various startups feeding off the expertise, and supporting industries. David had thought it logical to leave it for awhile, to clear his mind and consider possibilities methodically yet in a relaxed environment

June had recalled growing up in what would later be the "center of gravity," the then-quiet Lake Hallie area between the then-modest city of Eau Claire and its even smaller near-neighbor of Chippewa Falls. That had been before Cray's success had passed a tipping point for them, their industry, and via that, the whole valley and world beyond. Now, as a result of all of these companies, research organizations, universities, and various supporting factors, these two cities were far larger.

"I scarcely recognize the area anymore," she said wistfully, having returned to the topic herself. "53 and 29 are full scale freeways, a huge airport was built, and there is a major spaceport not far from where I grew up. Everything on 94 to Minneapolis and St. Paul has supporting companies or even headquarters of some companies. That whole area is computer central now."

"I am surprised how they all both competed and cooperated," he said.

"And sometimes sued."

"Business is messy. The computers themselves are much less complicated."

June laughed. "I like your way of thinking. Even all that work expanding the Alpha Information System, setting up more video monitors, and greatly reducing dependence on paper-based output?"

"Oh, sure. The AIS and the rest is very complex, as you well know, yet it is still a problem that can be solved. Human beings are much harder to predict."

"Do you have any idea how much most people will appreciate the changes?"

David looked at her blankly.

June smiled. "Don't you see? Everyone is really looking forward to the upgrade and efficiency, not to mention easier access to the AIS."

"Sure, that seems logical."

June tried to bring back the human points, and finally David got the point, smiled, and said, "Sure." He was not in this for people's appreciation, but somehow accepting some ahead of time via June did not seem like such a bad thing.

They had already drifted away from reminiscing of Earth. Alphans rarely dwelt on what they had lost, for it was often too painful. They instead moved to talking over the last ten months, Main Computer, the current laser cannon concern, and, not the least bit incongruously, the two of them -- which at the moment meant not much more than about where to go for something a little more light than computers and a little more fun than Alphan food. June suggested a music practice by the Atonal Alphans. He had never heard recital by that group of musicians, but that sounded good. Then again, anything with June sounded good.

They left the cafeteria. Recitals moved from location to location each time. David and June had to walk down two corridors to reach the recital. Just two corridors. Two corridors far, far smaller and simpler than the two that had dominated their lives before Moonbase Alpha. Yet... it felt like another small further step in their relationship.


Toys

They were Professor Victor Bergman's "toys" -- electronic spheres and other experiments.

Many of the spheres could be put into vacuum, which was essential to some experiments.

His friend, John Koenig, had for awhile tended to ask about them a lot.

They were Victor's attempts to extend technology, to create new devices for new purposes.

Many of them failed to progress, and he'd remove the circuits or devices from a sphere whose contents had failed, and start some new experiment in them.

Victor had known John was always looking for new advantages for the lost human base on a castaway Moon. After awhile, Victor had realized the frequent failures were bringing John down a little bit at a time. John understood science, and that it and invention were a process of many dead ends and other "successes" that proved illusionary or useless. Still, it was probably hard to keep hearing about the failures. Victor was not sure if John had stopped asking or Victor had stopped offering as much detail, or if both together had silently reached the same conclusion that it was better to wait to hear about Victor's successes. These were frequent enough that this seemed better.

Victor stared closely at the latest sphere. No one would recognize what was inside it, he thought. He was experimenting with combinations of electronics and photonics -- the latter barely years-old technology on Earth.

Perhaps photonics would supplant electronics at some point, but currently, no one on Alpha knew if that would be the case or not. Back before Breakaway, most on Earth were trying to crack pure photonics wide open from a few small applications to extensive use. One computer technology company was determined to use brute force computation ability, using their massive electronic computers to try to find how to create and use photonic technology.

Victor's efforts were far more modest, and with a twist.

He had been playing with a mix of physics theory, electronic theory, and photonic theory for a year or two. Hybridization of decades-old electronic principles with a few known principles of infant photonics.

Carla thought it a waste of his time.

She had been his assistant for years. She was not a physicist, but more of an organizational assistant back in orbit, when he had many roles as a professor, research foundation lead, and science advisor -- dividing his time between the Moon and multiple sites on Earth. However, she had been around him long enough to have picked up some basics about much of his work.

"I've heard you and others talk about photonics as the future," she had said a couple weeks before Breakaway.

"Ah... possible future. Dead ends are common in science and technology."

"Others talk more glowingly."

"And they may be right, and I find the field fascinating; but one must be careful not to become blinded."

She had heard him talk about the traps of tenure and other over-dependencies on one theory when the universe was so complex. So she had nodded and that had been the end of that conversation.

After Breakaway, his need for a planning assistant had disappeared, and she had taken up a number of other roles in Service and Technical, and more recently Medical. Still, they had talked about his experiments sporadically, including his fascination with trying to mix electronic and photonic equations.

"Why not spend more time trying to advance photonics in isolation?" she asked.

"Because I keep seeing an occasional curious connection between them."

"What was the term? Anomalous?"

He had laughed. "Perhaps."

He had sometimes stopped those experiments. Recently, however, he had found a startling boundary condition. By that point, he had mostly stopped talking to others about the toys, tired of frequently raising their hopes only to have to dash them.

No one just looking at the device or analyzing it would recognize how he had implemented some force field and artificial gravity technology in an attempt to create a new effect. It was only proof of concept, at a tiny scale. It was not going well.

He looked again more closely. Not that it told him much; it was just his way of thinking sometimes.

He was missing something, or some things. Some of the interactions were unhelpful, and others he thought should exist were absent. He turned back to the printouts. Not good. He debated pulling open the sphere and gutting it for a new experiment, but for the moment, he sighed, pushed it back further on his work desk, and stood up.

Such was science. He'd let the thoughts on this one steep a little more, before deciding whether to end this particular line of inquiry or the whole electronic/photonic hybridization idea, or whether to continue with some tweaks. Maybe he would just set it aside for a few months.

He walked over to pick up the violin.

LQ12 stood for Living Quarters #12 -- one of the earliest built. He preferred working out of here most of the time. So many thoughts came from new ideas upon waking, or from walking over to do what he was doing now, sitting down and starting to draw the bow over the strings. He sought a tune, and found one, relaxing and searching for inspiration.

Doing this in a typical, larger lab would annoy at least some others.

He often worked in small teams, both at university and in the non-academic research foundation back on Earth. He often visited other labs here on Alpha. But his own space often led to his most fruitful ideas.

He stood as he continued playing, walking over to one of the windows. Viewports, as some called them. He would miss the view, one of his frequent inspirations. The universe -- or at least this almost infinitesimal part of it -- laid out in front of him.

There were massive moves coming up soon, many of them swapping upper-level quarters and lower-level workspaces, converting the latter into quarters for safety reasons. He did not dwell on this much now, but he was glad he had put in his say to the Strategic Planning Centre that there should be a few spaces at uppermost levels for private contemplation or public gathering. Paul, the lead of the SPC, was considering it.

The view out the "port" was always beautiful.

No inspiration came on the "boundary" experimentation, but he eventually had a new thought on a different train of study. He finished the tune, and returned to set the violin on the same chair from which he had picked it up, and moved to some notes that he had stowed in a folder last week, opening it up to add new equations. He nodded, thinking the new thought seemed promising, and started to think about what sort of experiment might be suitable to verify it as a viable hypothesis worthy of further study.

Still, the electronic/photonic boundary experiment sat there, in plain view, nagging at him....


Modulated Signal

It was a nondescript star system that the Moon slowed its way into, in its bizarre but now partially predictable mode of movement between systems.

There was of course no way to detect terrestrial planets yet, but they did detect something: a signal. It was a simple signal, but clearly artificial.

Now, closer, still not enough to resolve more than the gas giants, of which there were three, Alpha was now ready to try responding to the signal, even though there was a lag.

The signal was a simple set of prime numbers, terminating after 59. The Alphans returned a reply with the next ten primes. After some delay, the signal changed, to add the next three primes. Then there was a nearly hour-long pause, only for the primes to start all over again.

"Are we missing something?" Koenig asked in a Command Conference.

"Could be richer signals in multiple bands, that are expecting a reply too, but reset after an hour," Professor Bergman offered. "I had Sandra check for that, though, and there is nothing, at least not in ways we can think of checking."

"Seems like the signal may be originating from a flawed computer crashing and then self-rebooting," David Kano offered.

Further attempts resulted in similar behavior. There was definitely some sort of computer at the source of the signal, but the "crash/reboot" hypothesis seemed to be holding.

In a private discussion between Commander and his first officer, Paul suggested an Eagle mission when they were in range: David Kano for computer expertise, Victor Bergman for his invaluable advice and over a potential first contact situation, himself, and Tanya Aleksandr in a support role.

Koenig's eyebrows raised, not so much over Paul wanting another off-base mission, but in not taking Sandra. John knew of their relationship, which by now was general knowledge. Was Paul trying to protect her from potential danger? Was he remembering his turn as wild-eyed "prophet" that had only put Sandra and others in danger during the Ariel encounter?

Paul gave an explanation, and John decided to accept it, deciding it made sense at higher levels, and not seeing any cause to probe deeper in this instance. If a troubling trend started, John would confront it then.

Paul then also asked for someone from Security, but John denied the request, saying they should only approach the planet and assess what might be transmitting, not to land, at least not immediately. A basic initial reconnaissance mission only.

Another Eagle would, however, be set up to respond quickly, if needed.

It would still be a full day before they could pinpoint the planet and launch the mission.


Plans B and Better

Paul Morrow rolled onto his side and kissed the cheek of Sandra Benes, gently waking her for a new day -- another very busy one.

For the moment, they just rested together, slowly easing out of sleep together, enjoying each other's warmth in Paul's rather austere room in a large base on a grey Moon hurtling through cold, black space.

He felt as if his personal world lay with her, and that was feeling increasingly real. A protective urge was further forming as their relationship had only continued to deepen.

That this personal protectiveness was straying close to interfering with professional duty decisions was still on his mind.

The officers spent most of their time with each other, and both female officers were in relationship with male officers. The remaining male officers were in or out of relationships with non-officers, something that would have been frowned upon back on Earth, especially the rumoured relationship Tony Verdeschi had heard was apparently developing between David Kano and June Washington, where there was a direct supervisory situation. Paul and John had talked about this concern, some time before. Both had agreed they themselves were not entirely out of the same situation, given John was still Helena's superior officer, and Paul being second in command was still technically Sandra's superior.

Paul did, however, have other reasons -- true logic -- for bringing Tanya rather than Sandra on the next mission. Still, he could understand why John had scrutinized Paul -- however subtly -- on the logic. This scrutiny would stick in Paul's mind as a reminder for the future, to continue making sure there was always logic backing such decisions.

When the conversation had come up more recently due to Verdeschi's hearing about Kano and Washington, Koenig and Morrow had again talked privately, then had brought Tony back into the conversation, asking him to be quick to point out any inappropriate decision-making he observed or heard about, from any of the couples involving one or two officers. These concerns were based on older dictates that were starting to break down -- though not without some concern over consequences. The Security Officer had taken the request in stride. Verdeschi was not afraid of confronting a superior if necessary. It had been something that had stunted his career at times before Breakaway, but had been one point of perceived value in making Tony an officer since then. John knew Tony could play the contrarian -- in many senses of the term -- when needed.

Paul was still a professional man, an officer, and he wanted to be careful. That was important to him. His actions during the Ariel encounter still troubled him. Separating personal from professional decisions was key.

For now, Sandra's gentle presence was plenty of a reminder of what he wanted in his personal life. They had been talking of the eventual possibility of children. They might have to wait for various elements of Paul's so-called Plan B to come to fruition several years down the road. Both still hoped for an earlier lottery, given the probable need for Alpha to allow small clusters of children along the way.

Perhaps Paul's spearheading the Plan B idea of building further on the Moon in case they could not settle a planet any time soon, a topic which frequently put the topic of "biological clocks," children, and such in mind so frequently, that had them talking more about this even though marriage had not yet been discussed.

Given that engagements were often measured in weeks on Alpha, in part due to how much simpler planning was on a castaway Moon than back on Earth, Paul suspected that one day soon he would just ask and that a week or two later, they would be married. Yet they seemed to be satisfied holding back for now, continuing to build their relationship.

"I love you, Sandra," he said quietly to her sweet face. She smiled beautifully, and said, "I love you, Paul."

Soon he thought. Yet even she seemed to be ready to wait at least one more day, for almost as one, they kissed and started climbing out of bed. Perhaps it was because of the busy day ahead. The main parts of major enhancements to Main Computer being brought on line. Some more initial mission planning. Many details for the major move to be settled. Security Officer Tony Verdeschi having asked for a meeting because he had picked up increasing grumbling over the move.

The last could have stuck in mind right now, but still happy at the presence of Sandra, he instead focused on getting some juice and food from the small food station in a back corner of his quarters. He and Sandra had found they both liked to eat together first, before just about any other preparation for the day.

They shared discussion about various topics, some personal, some professional. In a rarity, they lost track of time such that they then had to hurry just to not be more than five minutes late to their first tasks of the day.


Atypical Moments?

Tanya Aleksandr waited. Controller Paul Morrow was already more than five minutes late. The unusually-punctual Russian was used to the usually punctual Brit.

She had been brought in to assist in carrying out some of the early parts of Paul's plan that were coming to fruition now. That meant a lot of details, which she usually relished. Sandra was also involved, as were others in key organizational positions, all overseen by Paul and coordinated by him with the Commander.

At the moment, when a group meeting was supposed to be going on, she was instead stuck coordinating the moves of various animals. Pedro Gutierez, the Zoologist, was concerned about exactly how certain species were to be moved, and was pressing to have species split up, such that any one species was not in just one room, but split up among two. "That way, if one room is hit in an attack, we will not lose the whole species," he was saying.

Lately, she had been working with him more over the move, but this was an unexpected detail. For some reason, perhaps nothing more than annoyance at Paul being uncharacteristically late and allowing this conversation to stray in early, this had her trying to keep annoyance away.

Her mind drifted a bit in a most un-Russian way, she thought, suddenly noticing the Mexican was actually rather handsome, and that he was perhaps finding her attractive. She shook her head, thinking herself silly, even if it had been awhile since she had a relationship.

Pedro mistook her headshake, and said, "You're saying I shouldn't--"

"No, sorry, just thinking of something else for a moment."

Pedro seemed to take that in stride, while Tanya's practicality had her forcefully pushing the stray thoughts aside. Now was not the time. They finished the point of discussion, and he moved away, taking his seat again, at the table that was filled with some of the department managers that were to be meeting as soon as--

Paul appeared, and after he apologized quite genuinely if non-specifically, he started the meeting proper.

Afterwards, Tanya and Paul remained to discuss the upcoming mission. Tanya had been on very few, but increasing cross-training efforts were trying to cultivate mission capabilities in other people. She had recently trained on moonbuggy driving.

They talked, hammering out her role on this mission. After it was over, she had another meeting, but was left with a few extra minutes, and once again, found her mind straying, thinking how Sandra had found herself a good man. Paul was practical, sensible, level-headed, but rumored to have a streak of mysticism -- all of which seemed very Russian, at least to her.

Tanya was not jealous. It was not her way. She had had something of a chance at Paul a number of months back. There had been moments -- and one in particular early on. One perfect moment in the midst of black fear, a moment that they could have turned into more.

Yet perhaps it was their main characteristics, their background, the thought of an officer and non-officer in a sustained relationship, that had let that moment stand alone. Much had changed since then as the castaway Moon traveled on and new relationships developed, but that memory stood as that, simple, perfect, comforting, and singular.

As always when thinking of that, she smiled, her mind soon energized for her next task.


Not Computer

It had been an incredibly hectic day with the main parts of deployment of the expanded Alpha Information System, switching over to greater use of the monitors that had been installed over the last few weeks, and disabling most uses of tape for output. Now, David Kano had several hours to spare.

It wasn't just these changes that had him needing a break, but that amidst all of that, he and June had also just barely gotten a fix for the targeting system of the big laser battery in place and tested, when the alien signal had been detected, prompting Paul Morrow to include him in a mission he was planning.

Some additional analysis had proven unrevealing of further detail on the seemingly broken signal. He had set up a computer heuristic to scan the signal for any potential embedded information, and to thoroughly scan multiple sidebands for possible information. This was in operation now, but would not finish with its computations for many hours -- regardless of success or not.

The date he had asked June onto was not to be for a couple more hours, so he decided to accept that open invitation to try Tony Verdeschi's beer. David drank little alcohol -- it dulled the mind too much in his opinion. Most of those few times he drank alcohol, it was usually just beer, which he drank like it was fine wine: slowly and in appreciation. Wine, he drank in shot-glass amounts, even less often, and just as slowly.

He decided to head over to the fellow officer's quarters. Tony was the newest officer, promoted to Security Officer a couple months back. This had been largely to relieve some of the Controller's duties to allow him to add other duties, such as the so-called Plan B, including his recently starting the Strategic Planning Centre.

Tony was a junior officer, had scarcely had any time in Main Mission, and had attended only a few routine Command Conferences. Morrow was still Verdeschi's immediate superior, and the former took the latter's reports into most conferences.

Tony reminded David more of Alan than the rest of the Officer Corps. Somewhat more impulsive, blunt, but with even more of a sense of humor. David had been surprised that he got along so well -- professionally at least -- with the fast-rising Italian security guard.

He supposed he could have called first, but either Tony was in his quarters or he was not -- a binary condition. A ring in showed the former. He had never really shared any social time with Tony. This time started okay, with some talk over how Tony found out David liked beer, before they settled in to try the first of the two kinds. Kano knew nothing about brewing beer, and had no idea how Verdeschi's odd looking contraptions worked as opposed more traditional methods, whatever those might be. He just liked sipping the occasional amount back on Earth.

It turned out that Verdeschi had started this out of boredom while recovering from injuries sustained at Breakaway. That brought a pang to David's mind, remembering Benjamin Ouma's injury that he had not reported until prompted by Lena Andreichi -- an injury which proved fatal in the end. David's first lost friend in this forced journey.

The beer was not bad in Kano's typical sipping mode -- at least the first one. It was less than a can's worth anyway, but still took over a half hour to consume. "Lena hated that one."

"Lena?"

It turned out that Lena was dating Tony now -- something David of course had not heard. Despite the amiable breakup, they just did not talk often -- rarely socially and almost never professionally, except for one time where the terminal in Botany was dropping sessions.

David was not that good with social banter, but somehow, it got going about Lena a little bit, Tony confessing he sometimes found the short-haired brunette from eastern Europe a confusing woman, no-nonsense yet with curious quirks, such as intolerance for interruptions, or for "clowns" or "fools."

David chuckled a bit. "I ran across the first, but mostly just heard her speak about the other two, in regards to other people."

"Fortunately not you. She calls me a clown sometimes. Keeps pushing me in some ways to get with her program. I like her a lot. But... I don't know...."

"Trying to re-write your operating system from the moment you got together, rather than waiting for marriage?"

Tony laughed, and seemed surprised. Perhaps at the wry way of wording this. Kano did have a sense of humor, but rarely deployed it -- so rarely that when he did, it was sometimes mistook. That only reinforced his keeping the humor down. Perhaps a causal loop of sorts.

"Well, if I had not readily recognized at least some of that was humour," Tony was saying, "I would have taken it for cynicism from a divorced man."

"Nah, mon, just the observations of one often outside of some of the social swirls. Various relationships, with pushing from one side or the both. The need to balance change versus acceptance. The ability to adapt to that mixture or failure to do so being a partial determinate of success."

They talked for awhile, but conversation of Lena eventually led to memories of Benjamin Ouma, that they discussed or just recalled.

Benjamin Ouma had been David Kano's supervisor, yet a good friend too; but in being tossed about during Breakaway, Ben suffered some unnoticed organ damage. By the time he started realizing something was not right, and Lena insisted he see a doctor, the damage had already taken a toll. By then, she had already called him a "macho fool" for waiting for so long, apparently prodding him to seek out an exam; but, in a rare move for her, took it back when the results came back. Despite everyone's best efforts, including Ben himself holding on for several more days, he had eventually slipped away. His death was ruled a result of injury sustained at Breakaway. Four pilots had died directly from the Breakaway explosion itself, Jacob Kendall -- a security guard and friend of Tony's -- from explosive decompression on Alpha, and Benjamin Ouma from injury. Six Alphan fatalities had been due to Breakaway itself. It could have been more, but it was still tragic it had not been less.

Lena had partially retreated for awhile, but he and her had already become friends due to in part to Ouma, and that friendship had remained after the loss, and had abruptly morphed into more, lasting in that form for a few months before an amiable breakup that had nonetheless left little in the way of the original friendship. It was difficult to go back to "before," David had found out.

Kano came back to the present, adding, "A fine woman, really, but not for... me."

"Sorry, did not mean to bring up memories of Ouma, either."

David waved his hand, brushing aside the concern. "He was my friend, and deserves to be remembered. I recalled Jacob Kendall too. Wasn't he your friend?"

"Yes, he was."

"Then here's to the memory of Jacob Kendall," David impulsively said, raising his glass with what beer remained. It did not matter it that it was half-sipped already, that it was not wine, or that it was the worse-tasting of the two kinds Tony had proffered. Alpha had little alcohol, and it was the gesture that counted more than the form.

"And to the memory of Benjamin Ouma," Tony toasted in turn.


The Great Migration

So it began.

One of the most complex logistical rearrangements got its start. Star system or not, action was needed.

Almost everyone on base was moving quarters, in a complex migration process, downlevel.

As a rule with plenty of exceptions, the largest quarters were at the higher levels of the residential blocks, with decreasing sizes as one went downlevel -- mostly. It was not a simple matter of everyone moving into new quarters whenever they wanted, for it was not like Alpha had 600 residential quarters. The residential capacity had been designed to be higher than the actual number of residents to allow for influx of temporary or permanent residents as needed, especially for construction workers whenever the base was being expanded, which had been every few years pre-Breakaway. Yet it was not that much higher.

The smallest quarters were largely for such workers and others, and had remained unoccupied, except for storage, since the last major visitor event, before Breakaway.

At times, when Manufacturing was humming along, and production outweighed demand, or more Mining had found more raw materials faster than could be processed, or other temporary circumstances, some space had to be "borrowed." This forced some temporary sharing of quarters, or even the awkward situation where Dione was offered Sandra's quarters because the guest quarters were filled with more "settling" protein that the Protein Production Unit had turned out than the Stores could accept. Three VIP guest quarters were right around freezing as the final post-Texturizing "setting" was taking place. Other usually-empty rooms were "occupied" by various items at the time.

Post-Breakaway Alpha was already subject to some temporary internal transformations. It was necessary if they were to survive.

The next smallest quarters were currently occupied by single non-officer personnel, but now they had to move to the smaller quarters further down. There was even some sharing of quarters necessary, at least temporarily -- though it was likely to happen again. Couples then moved into the just-abandoned quarters, while families took over the couples quarters or Double Accommodations. Officers, who once had the large quarters as well, now had more modest quarters, but still larger than single non-officers.

It was all something of a logistical nightmare, filled with lots of complications from different sized rooms at different levels, needing to convert some additional rooms to quarters to avoid leaving anyone still exposed at upper levels.

The order of executing moves had come from a Strategic Planning Committee, chaired by Paul who had taken responsibility for the details of forming long-term future plans for Alpha. The main plan being worked on over time was dubbed Plan B.

For some, getting away from the more exposed upper-level quarters was a relief. A dozen had already asked for, and been approved, for earlier moves, a few of them even at the price of smaller quarters. It was those last few who made up the majority of those not needing to move.

For many, though, the moderate reduction of risk was either doubted, or not seen as worth the price of loss of some of the few creature comforts on what some called "the barracks" -- namely having some more space, and a room with a view. They had to be reminded of other purposes to this move, of people sacrificing some space so that other efforts could be expanded. They needed to use the moonbase's volume more efficiently.

Overall, though the net effect was everyone would move lower in the Moonbase. No one was to be left in the most vulnerable quarters.

Many of the lowest quarters, when not previously occupied, had been used for storage and other needs. That meant the move involved moving a lot of other things up-level.

Medical Center was being moved downlevel, repurposing a former satellite facility, Medical Care Unit 1 -- swapping, actually, so that the abandoned Medical Center became MCU-1 instead. Other swaps were taking place as well.

The upper levels would be used, but for non-residential purposes. The idea was the more exposed the space, the less visited it should be. Labs that while working could be left unmonitored most of the day, or days. Mostly-automated light manufacturing. Simple storage, more often of things that while their loss would be unwelcome, could be replaced with some effort. People could not be replaced. The upper levels were not to be set off-limits in any manner, but the idea was to generate new patterns of movement that would tend to keep the numbers up there at any one time lower -- often much lower -- than before.

The higher-than-expected level of grumbling was creating morale problems, after a year in space had already done plenty of damage, being attacked from outside or within, to the punishing loss of dozens already.

Today was already seeing the rise of petty irritations and even minor fights -- mostly verbal -- over the beginning of action on this order, and all the little details that went along with it. Security was busy, not just dealing with this, but lending a hand in moving items. That the latter could take place while watching out for problems was part of Tony's plan, a suggestion he had made weeks ago.

It was also going to be draining on the time of several people more than others, especially Sandra, who was seeing to many of the logistical details, and Paul, who was generally making most of the decisions except those needing to be elevated to a Command Conference or the Commander himself.

Paul, however, could soon delegate most of the supervision, including to Sandra. One of the main reasons he had decided to take Tanya on the mission was that Tanya, while also helping with the logistics, was much less involved than Sandra. Today, he had scarcely a break transitioning from the moves to having to do final preparations for the mission.

He and Sandra scarcely had more than a few minutes of personal interaction, him heading to sleep minutes after she awoke from a nap. Unlike a few mornings before, there was little shared time now, and most of that was consumed with professional matters, him giving her some "handoff details" on some things that had cropped up that she should keep an eye on.

This process was barely begun. It would take weeks. Some details were still not fully worked out, but Gwent's attack some weeks ago had been yet another push to get the process going even if not all of the planning had been fully completed. One known change, that would be one of the later stages due to the immense amount of related hardware and other logistics, would also include a shift of the command location from Main Mission to the new Command Center.

In such a professional mode of exchanging information regarding progress, with Paul very tired, Sandra in a hurry to get back to duty, they did not even share even a kiss, or even a touch.


Small Puzzle

In the middle of the move, but with it up and running almost as smoothly as such a massive undertaking could, Sandra took over most of the details as Paul and his mission team launched. Moonbase Alpha had to multitask. However, there was a contingency that if the encounter escalated, that Alphans had to be ready to respond to the encounter instead.

Now, many hours later, Eagle 8 approached the source of the oddly-behaving signal.

The world it was on was as nondescript as the star system. Two terrestrial planets had been resolved just before the launch, one baking near its sun, the other chilling some distance away -- neither seeming immediately hospitable. The signal was emanating from the first, which was somewhat unexpected. They would not have been able to move about on this surface, for they did not have any suits rated for the conditions there. Infrared readings showed the planet was rather Venusian, a hothouse world despite its thick atmosphere being more transparent over its yellowish rock surface.

Morrow sighed. No settlement possibilities. Just an odd signal.

The Eagle was now out of communication range with the moonbase. They approached. By now, they had little of that communication delay with the signal. Kano had hypothesized the earlier light-time delay might be leading to the resets.

Tanya sorted through the multiple sidebands as they tried sending the answer again. The reply teased, again responding with more primes and then emitting a quiet signal on a side band -- one that could not have been picked up from Alpha.

"Fascinating!" Victor said, then, more soberly... "Also rather unexpected."

"Yes, why such a weak secondary signal?" Paul asked.

"It seems to contain denser modulation. Perhaps much more information," David commented.

"Well, then we're getting somewhere."

"It will take awhile to decipher," Tanya's rich voice commented. "May I have your help, David?"

They worked together, while Victor pursued another line of inquiry, running scans against the surface, to try pinpointing the device. He eventually found a small ship by radar, then visibly. It seemed heavily corroded, like the heat had taken its toll on the ship but that the computer and transmitter were more hearty.

"Or maybe only a little," Paul said. "Is the secondary signal making any sense?"

"Eagle's Computer cannot find any useful patterns so far," Victor said.

"Static?" Paul asked.

"Too early to dismiss it."

Something about this was making Paul nervous. He did not necessarily have all of Koenig's instincts, but trusted what he had.


Ship(s)

It was a fleet. Alien ships. They had simply appeared at the edge of Moonbase Alpha's sensor range. They were a few times longer, wider, and higher than Eagles. Somewhat chunky yet somewhat sleek as well, and colored silver and green. Nine of them. Very much larger than Eagles, but still much smaller than some of the behemoths that Alphans had seen.

The ships were ignoring hails so far, but they had only just appeared. Sandra was only on her third try to reach them. Still....

"Yellow Alert," Koenig declared.

"Something simple looking about these ships," Alan commented, "like they were slapped together." Their main bodies seemed about 4-5 stories high, all in one unit without much in the way of projections. What might have been a bay for smaller ships stuck out somewhat at one side, but the entrance/exit was facing the rear.

"Lead alien ship will be inside the orbit of Satellite 3 shortly." This satellite, perturbed by multiple encounters with planets, had shifted into a somewhat high and rather eccentric orbit which usually rendered it useless, but now helpful as its camera zoomed on the lead alien ship as it slipped some tens of kilometers away, moving towards the Moon.

Symmetrical ship bays pointing backwards at the second-lowest level. From the lowest level on either side, and from the very top, bristled several weapons. No symbols were visible.

"Sandra?" Koenig asked.

"Still nothing, Commander."

John turned to Alan. "Launch half of the Attack Eagles. Take up defense positions only."

Alan started racing out of Main Mission, then stopped and turned back to John. "What about the Laser Battery?"

"Good question. Sandra, contact Tony." Alan left Main Mission by the time John was done.

Sandra contacted Tony, who promptly asked about just that very thing.

"Have it ready to go, but don't open the hatch yet," Koenig ordered. "Let's start the defensive posture, but not overdo it. Raise the shield, however."

John cut that connection to watch as the lead alien ship went into mid-level orbit, followed by its compatriots, all still without making or accepting contact with Moonbase Alpha. There was no evidence the aliens were targeting Alpha yet, and Alpha did not raise any targeting systems against them.

"Moonbase Alpha to approaching ships. Please reply," Sandra continued to call out when not seeing to other duties. The Commander looked around Main Mission, and realized with a start he and Sandra were the only officers in Main Mission. There were plenty of operatives, but....

Controller Morrow, Technical Officer Kano, and Science Advisor Bergman (who was a sort of de facto officer even if not officially) were still out of communications range exploring a planet with the strange signal. He had just sent Alan to launch Eagles. Chief Medical Officer Russell was surely either on her way here or to Medical Center.

Sandra was a more than capable officer, and this was not the first situation shaping up to be a potential battle with her involved; but the more voices and ideas he could get on this, the better.

He took out his commlock. "Tony, report to Main Mission ASAP."

"Yes, Commander."

A few minutes went by, then he asked, "Sandra, where are Alan and the other Eagles now?"

Sandra, smoothly shifting among several different tasks now, delegated this one to an operative, who put up a multi-colored orbital chart. Alan was in the lead, approaching the nearest ship.

"Contact Alan." He waited for a moment for Sandra to make and affirm the connection. "Alan, approach slowly. Don't get too close." He wanted the aliens to be aware that Alphan hackles -- and defenses -- were being raised by the uncommunicative ships' approach, but were not going to attack. Lessons had been learned to be cautious about silent aliens, in several different senses of "cautious."

Alan's Eagle slowed, while he in turn contacted the other Eagles to have them fan out further and into a similar approach pattern.

Lew Picard, from Technical Section, arrived and replaced an operative at a station.

John was not sure why Picard had shown up until recalling overhearing Sandra calling him to report, clearing knowing she needed to draw in more people to help her as well. He briefly recalled hearing prior reports on Picard that indicated he was something of a mild generalist who was picking up further science and other technical cross-training very rapidly.

Just as John felt Alan was perhaps getting too close to the closest alien ship, the latter apparently felt the same, abruptly shifting orbit away from the Eagle.

"I think we are being scanned," Lew stated. "Low-level interference patterns. Nothing severe, but they were not there before. Indirect interference, I think."

"Why aren't they talking?" he asked, more out of habit, and out of the same, half-expecting Victor to reply.

Helena arrived, looking at the fairly simple yet somewhat sleek shapes above them.

"Picard, any further readings?" the Commander asked.

"They are not proving difficult to scan," Lew started just as Tony arrived. "Multiple lifeform readings," Lew continued as Tony took Paul's station. "They are occupied. Low-speed engines seem ion-based, but no way to tell what their superluminal system might be."

"Weapons potential?" Tony asked.

"I can't say why," Lew said, doubt echoing in his voice, "but the impression I'm getting from these readings is of rather primitive weapons systems. Projectile based, perhaps, or very low-energy lasers that our sensors cannot pick up at this distance."

"A hodge-podge," one operative deadpanned as Tony leaned over to the closest operative to get a quick update on what he had missed while getting up here.

"Hmm, maybe," Koenig replied, though largely agreeing.

"Signal, Commander!" Sandra stated.

"About time," John said. "Put it up on the Big Screen."

An initially human-appearing alien appeared on screen. He had dark hair, a colorful headband, perhaps denoting rank given a rather dull tunic. He had an intelligent, piercing look. What came out of his mouth seemed to betray that, however.

"We Graktor. Call Alphas."

John gave Tony a look. The latter shrugged.

"This is Moonbase Alpha. I am Commander John Koenig. How may I help?"

"Commands Alphas Koenig. Help with the ship."

"The ship?"

"The ship."

"Do you have a damaged ship?"

The response was indistinct.

"I think he said, 'The ship of your,'" Sandra speculated.

"Our ship? Which of our ships?" John asked, suddenly fearing for Paul's team -- even though these aliens had not approached from the direction of the planet.

"The ship."

"This is getting nowhere fast," Tony said, sotte voce.

There was some sort of communication gap. John wondered briefly why, but he dismissed it. The reasons were unimportant, some part of his mind said. Figuring out what they wanted as first and foremost.


Static

Paul was pacing up and down the length of the passenger pod of Eagle 8. Tanya, David, and Victor -- three sharp minds -- were making no headway with the secondary signal. It had disappeared several times, forcing them to re-address the primary signal, to get the secondary signal back. Then Tanya tried something, having the Eagle's computer "superimpose" -- in its memory -- the beginning sequences of the last three instances of the secondary signal. The secondary signals were different each time.

Victor sat back. "I think it is static. Random noise. Keep the records, because maybe it isn't, but we should get a better-equipped landing party here."

"I don't think we'll find anything," Kano stated.

"If you get direct access to the computer--" Tanya started supplying, only to be cut off by Kano.

"I think it's fried. Probably on its last legs. The primary message and listener are working, but I think its secondary message is lost, and all we're getting is static."

"Still--" Victor started.

"Still I would like to get a closer look," David said. "Maybe if we send more primes, or respond with a more significant message of our own, it will respond with more meaningful content itself."

"That is a fine idea, David," Victor commented, enthused.

Paul had had enough.

"No, we leave here now. I think we've just been drawn to a meaningless wreck at best, a decoy at worst."

"Decoy for what?" Victor asked, apparently surprised at this turn in the conversation, yet adapting quickly, his tone even.

"I don't know. Kano, let's get up front now. We're leaving orbit now. Time to return to communication range to report this."


The Ship Sleep

"The ship sleep."

Discussion with the Graktor was not getting clearer.

"Can you show us a picture of what ship you are asking about?" Koenig requested.

There was another indistinct reply from the Graktor, prompting John to ask the officers and operatives around him, "What did he say?"

"'The ship sleep in piece,' as in pieces, I think," Sandra stated, already recognizing that these aliens seemed to have a poor handle on pluralization.

"You want to have access to one of the wrecks on the surface?" Koenig queried of the alien speaker. The Satazius, a Deltan gunship, and several other destroyed ships littered the surface and orbited the Moon -- all in pieces of various sizes. Koenig had no clue if there was some interstellar law regarding such things, but felt that by Earth law, Alpha now had complete salvage rights on these ships. "If you want to discuss trade, we can do so," Koenig stated after the Graktor had not replied.

"Ask what you can. Abandon ship."

That raised Koenig's hackles further. Something was off kilter here, where negotiations were lacking a stable linguistic ground, and the alien's words were not sounding quite right.

"We will not abandon anything until we understand each other better. I suggest you land a small group of your people so we can talk in person."

"No talk people. State request. We want the ship."

"Which ship?" Koenig demanded, more frustrated.

The aliens went silent, and did not respond further.

John signaled for Sandra to mute their end of the connection. "Tony, get some more Eagles launched, but at further stand-off distance. Sandra, any word from Eagle 8?"

"No, Commander," Sandra said, professionally, but with a little concern creeping into her face, obviously recognizing they were not in danger now, but might be flying blind into some.


Expansions

"Paul!" Tanya's voice called up from the Eagle's pod. "Static pattern increasing in strength and crossing frequencies."

They were leaving the area, and just as the secondary signal was supposed to fade away, still being recorded but otherwise ignored by the Alphans, it suddenly was expanding even as the Eagle was departing the planet's orbit.

In ten minutes, it was clear the signal was growing in strength, range, and frequency coverage -- faster than the Eagle was departing.

"Can we fight this interference?" Paul asked the whole team, but knew the answer before it was given: no. The alien ship was down on the surface of the too-hot planet, that the Eagle could land on, but the astronauts could not leave from. The Eagle itself was unarmed. No one knew how strong the alien ship's hull was, even half-deformed.

"A trap. But why?" Paul asked. "What good does blanketing us with interference do?"


"John!" Tony called out.

The Graktor ships were moving, expanding outwards -- mostly. Instead of a line of ants marching in even intervals in one orbit, they were turning into a cloud of bees in orbit.

Several more showed up at the edge of sensor range.

"Not good," Tony added unnecessarily.

The Graktor representative re-appeared.

"You Koenig half power Alpha. Authority to order release ship."

"Which ship?!" Koenig shouted.

"The ship. You know one. Sleeps. You sit it pretend ignorant. It key. Not your now. Our. If not know, not deserve."

Had Alpha overlooked something important in the wrecked ships?

"Just clarify your request," Koenig almost yelled, still trying to salvage something of the situation.

It was too late. Two alien ships were descending from orbit, rapidly.

"Strafing runs!" Alan called from orbit.

Despite Alan's known tendency to wanting to shoot first and ask questions later, John had to agree with his assessment of this development. "Attack Eagles, launch and engage approaching targets. Tony, raise the main laser battery."

"Petrov. Raise large gun. Target closest ship. Sandra, send coordinates. Fire on command."

The lead alien ship let loose on the Moon, missing an outlying structure but quickly approaching the core of Alpha. A just launched Eagle ceased its climb, hovered, already high enough to hover on its anti-gravity, using the tiny thrusters about the ship to rotate.

"Main Mission?" the pilot called.

"Fire at will," Koenig ordered grimly.

The Eagle blasted holes into the alien ship, which broke off its run, though not after first passing frighteningly close to Main Mission. Other ships began descending. Sandra had already changed the coordinates she was relaying to Petrov to the second ship's as it commenced its run.

The big gun, recommissioned only days before, soon recorded its first kill in its new life, hitting the second ship, which limped quite a few kilometers before it crashed headward into the Moon's surface.

The remaining Graktor ships began targeting the Eagles around them. The larger alien ships proved bulky, less maneuverable than the Eagles, which nonetheless had their hands full trying to dance among multiple hostiles as they alternately expanded and contracted in a curious battle maneuver.

The Eagles at the edge of the battle, closest to the now-ignored star, were the first to report -- just barely -- some static coming from deep inside the star system.

Soon, all the Eagles were cut off by the interference, continuing the battle as largely isolated units, going off training and instinct.

Sandra watched, helpless, unable to communicate with any of the Eagles, the clipped phrase "We want the ship" echoing in her mind.

Koenig pounded his fist on the console. The only order he could give now was for the main laser to keep firing at will. Alpha so far stayed remarkably free of damage, but he was again feeling vulnerable up here, wishing Command Center was complete and fully operational.


"What is all that?" David asked Paul. "Are my eyes--"

"They're fine. I see the sparkles too. A battle. There's the rest of the trap, I think."

They had gotten most of the way back to Alpha, when they had discovered a glittering roadblock.

"We're unarmed," Paul stated almost unnecessarily. "Keep our distance. Bring up the telescopic camera. If we can assist somehow, we will, but otherwise, we cannot go through that."

Tanya came through the pilot module door. "Should I attempt contact with Alpha?"

"No, let's play dead for the moment. Hope we go unnoticed."

They powered down some systems.


Sandra, panning the camera about to the new targets, still detectable with Alpha's more powerful scanners even through the growing interference that would soon blanket them completely as well, she stumbled across something.

"Commander! It is Eagle 8."

It was seemingly still, sitting well beyond the edge of the battle -- but not outside danger. The new target, probably not detectable with the Eagle's weaker scanner systems, was bearing down on the Eagle.

The interference grew more intense.


Eagle 1 shuddered as it took an indirect hit. Alan dodged one Graktor ship to fire on another chasing Bill in Eagle 14. The Graktor ship, hit several times already, shattered in front of Eagle 1. "Crickey!" he shouted as he tried to avoid several large chunks. This mid-orbit battle was proving the worth of the Eagles, which were not helpless against this enemy. That having a Hawk or three for this would have been even better did not really cross his mind, as he concentrated on the battle.

Just then, he spotted some other ships, which did not even register on sensors, blanketed as they were by interference. His co-pilot centered the camera on them. Each of the Graktor ships varied a little in shape, but these were rather different.

"More enemies, or new friends?" his co-pilot asked.


"More new targets!" Tony called out. "Orbital Reference 21, range 44. Different shape on scanners. Maybe not Graktor." He started panning cameras that way.

They now had three groups of ships: The original set of Graktor, now in the heat of battle. The second group that also seemed Graktor, approaching, and a third set, somewhat different, approaching as well.

Sandra was frantically trying to raise Eagle 8. "If you can hear me Paul, they are behind you!" she called, referring to the second group.

They watched helplessly as the lead ship in the second group overtook Eagle 8. What looked sort of like a whale hook speared the back end of the Alphan ship.


"Something just took out the propulsion units!" Paul yelled. "Thrusters are ineffective. Electrical interference! I think something hit the stern hard."

Consoles sparked, ravaging the controls. Paul and David put their arms up in front of their faces as their Eagle died around them.


"Paul..." Sandra cried out plaintively.

The Graktor ship flew closer to the speared Eagle, which was unceremoniously pulled into the black square of one of the alien ship's docking bays.

Koenig's fists balled, tensely, as he watched four of his finest people, including his mentor and friend Victor, as well as his second, get pulled in their Eagle into the alien ship.

"Sandra," he called, to no response. "Sandra!"

"Sorry, Commander," she said.

"Find whatever power reserves you can to punch a strong signal through to any other Eagle to focus a non-lethal attack against that new ship."

She tried, but it was futile.

One Attack Eagle eventually targeted that ship, but it seemed to be going in for the kill, probably unaware a captured Eagle was inside it.

"Tony! Big gun, target that area, but hit neither ship. Warn ours off!"

The Security Officer relayed the order to Weapons Specialist Petrov. The shot was made, but a battle maneuver nearly brought both ships, human and alien, into the line of fire. The Eagle immediately backed off, probably confused, while the alien ship holding Eagle 8 moved elsewhere.

"Third set of ships almost in visual range," Tony stated.


Paul looked about. Inside the alien ship, slammed rather rudely to the floor of the alien ship bay, the mostly-dead but still atmosphere-intact Eagle now lay, facing a few alien craft of smaller size. Shuttles, seemingly. Not attack craft. Security guards, humanoid in general shape but in fairly heavy battle gear, surrounded the Eagle.

The Professor, bleeding from a head wound, moved into the pilot module. David was still unconscious in the co-pilot seat.

"Any ideas, Professor?" Paul asked quietly, not targeting any anger at him.

"Stall. If we leave the Eagle and this alien ship is breached during battle--"

"What if we are already breached? Everyone, into spacesuits. Tanya, bring up the medkit and get out the stimulant. We need to bring Kano back to consciousness."


More Graktor ships appeared, apparently from hyperspace or from artificial space warp, or wherever.

Some took up stances against the non-Graktor aliens approaching, while others thickened the battle. Amazingly, Alpha had thinned the Graktor ranks, and though two damaged Eagles had limped back to Alpha, there was no report of outright losses. Six Graktor ships had been destroyed, but now there were more of them.

The non-Graktor soon started targeting some of the new Graktor, ignoring the Eagles -- until the Eagles tried to join up with the non-Graktor against the Graktor, and were promptly hit with laser fire from the non-Graktor. The Eagle remained, and flew away under control, but the Alphans were finding the enemy of their enemy was not their friend either.

However, Graktor ships began going down faster in orbit, and two more elsewhere just above the Moon, even further from Alphan than the first destroyed one.

Alpha's main laser continued striking Graktor ships, but on Koenig's orders, stayed well clear of the non-Graktor ones. He did not want to further offend them, even while being concerned their motives -- beyond attacking Graktor -- were quite unknown.

Sandra tried contacting the others these newest alien ships, but the interference was still strong.

"Paul..." she then said. "I lost Paul."

For a moment, he thought Sandra's focus was slipping, but when he saw her panning about the battle, he realized she meant they had lost sight of the Graktor ship that had captured Eagle 8 -- the intensifying battle having pulled the thin command corps in too many directions.

"Tony," John called, "any idea which alien ship has Eagle 8?"

"No."

"Dammit. Kate, back through footage," he ordered, not wanting Sandra's attention further divided. "Find that ship and track it forward."


Eagle 8's crew, David Kano now revived if groggy, were all in spacesuits. All armed themselves, most with stun guns, Paul with the laser rifle.

Paul had recorded a message into the Eagle's log recorder, which was still working, with Tanya having transcribed the most key points into writing, in case this Eagle and their captor ship were destroyed. The chance of either record being found then were slim, but this was better than ignoring the opportunity.

Paul checked the one still-functional outside camera. The alien people ringing the Eagle remained fast, though there were others milling about closer to the ship, before most of them left, leaving only the guards. Whether waiting for orders or waiting for Paul's first move, he did not know.

Abruptly, all his senses flared. A searing sensation, then consciousness fled almost instantly.


The battle abruptly turned. Graktor ship after ship was destroyed by the non-Graktor. Eagles were still doing damage and destruction to other Graktor ships, even as Kate and now Sandra tried frantically to figure out which ship held Paul -- if it was still even intact.

Abruptly, it partially ceased to matter. The Graktor ships, their ranks badly thinned, fled, disappearing just as abruptly as they had arrived. Their enemy turned away until they were at some distance, and turned into brief streaks, even as Sandra tried one more time to raise them.

Alphans were all alone again. Eagles picking their way through belts of ship debris in orbit, checking, of their own accord, for more targets, still out of communications from the still-strong interference.

Sandra sagged back, a blank look on her face. The aliens were, in one way or another, all gone. So too was Paul and the others on Eagle 8, it seemed.

John debated relieving her, but there were still further needs. He decided to give her a moment, but when damage reports and status points started flowing in, she seemed to snap out of her blankness and start coordinating. Her voice was thready, as if drained but forcing herself -- or compelled by a sense of duty -- to find some reserve to power through.

The Eagles were still up there, picking through debris, hopefully looking for any surviving points of danger. Perhaps the Graktor ship that had captured Eagle 8 was still nearby, damaged.

However, telescopic cameras eventually showed them starting to return to base, a few at a time.

Sandra still seemed to be somewhat in shock, but quietly counted the returnees, adding to the ones that had limped back before the battle had ended. She finally concluded, in a weak but tightly-controlled voice: "All Eagles accounted for, except Eagle 8." As internal communications had continued working throughout, she could also report that among the returnees, there were no fatalities, but enough injuries to keep Dr. Russell and her staff busy through the night at least.

The moonbase itself had not been spared either, the hull taking some hits but mostly holding, except two breaches, compromising ten rooms total, none occupied at the time. An outlying lab had been hit too, along with an underlying storage depot. One detail no one took much note about at first was that Alpha's entire supply of prepared titanium had just been vaporized.

Somewhat reported a burn mark on Main Mission. When that had been sustained was not clear.

The hostiles had fared worse. At least three Graktor ships were thought to have crashed on the Moon. There were likely more, and no one knew yet how many were shattered in orbit. The Moon's cloud of debris from several battles had just gotten thicker, though still not really visible to the human eye. Detailed scans would have to be run and orbits ascertained, since they could be a hazard to Eagle hulls and artificial satellites.

At this point, no one was sure whether or not any non-Graktor alien ships had been destroyed.


Tolls

It had been hours since the battle had ended. Sandra was running herself ragged trying to find evidence of Eagle 8, until Helena eventually showed up and gently but very firmly got her out of Main Mission. Kate took up the video search, which continued for some hours.

She eventually tracked down the ship that had captured Eagle 8, worked it across multiple satellite cameras, until the tragic footage was revealed. She assembled all of it, from capturing Eagle 8, then through several battle maneuvers, until a non-Graktor ship, apparently more powerful than the Graktor, had taken one shot at that ship, which exploded, with the Eagle inside it.

Unfortunately, Sandra happened to return to Main Mission just as Kate played out her discovery on the Big Screen. Sandra collapsed on the spot, and was rushed to Medical Center.

Perhaps Sandra's reaction had sucked in most others' emotional reactions, for after watching her in concern, once she was removed, it was grim silence that took over Main Mission, forcing some of the shock and most of the grief to the corners of what seemed like a much more empty Main Mission.

Kate returned to her task and continued apace, while John saw to getting more details on status of casualties and repairs, until Kate found a streak of white in one frame, amongst all the streaks of silver and green. Programmer June Washington and Astrophysicist Douglas McLeod computed its likeliest trajectory and orbit. John ordered Eagles up to search.

Finally, exhausted, he retreated to his office, to log events and send an official notice over the newly-expanded Alpha Information System, up and running not long before its technical lead, the Technical Director, David Kano, had died. The AIS "re-boot" now seemed almost like a footnote, yet it seemed like it would be Kano's final legacy.

John paused, and looked around his office. He could almost hear Victor's voice, which had so often been present here, offering sage advice. John stared blankly at the screen, now having terrible difficulty writing into the record Victor's name. He had done this too often in the past ten-plus months. It was never easy. It was harder when it was a friend, a mentor, and everything else Victor Bergman had been.

It was not only difficult on a personal level, but his mind reeled trying to picture Alpha without the Professor's counsel.

Add to that was having lost Paul Morrow, Alpha's second in command -- the Commander's right hand. Paul had been on Alpha continuously for longer than John, but now he was gone.

As if it could not get any worse, they were now without their Technical Director, David Kano. Even worse than that was he practically was the Computer Department. There were other programmers, but none with Kano's experience.

Tanya Alexander, a solid, key operative, who John had felt had potential to become a junior officer, gone as well. There was no doubt the efficiency of Main Mission would take a hit.

Now what? John wondered. Now beyond exhaustion, he had no answer at the moment. He could only feel the weight of command and loss and bone-deep fatigue. Setting his head on his arms on his desk, he was unconscious in moments.


John awoke, immediately aware he was still in his office. He had not even moved to one of those more comfortable chairs, and had to get up and stretch stiffness out of his muscles. He left for his quarters, then returned to Main Mission.

Along the way, he noticed it....

A "silence" descended over Alpha. Four friends; four people so key to Alpha's operations, including two of its officers, its Science Advisor, and a senior operative, were all dead, all lost to the remaining Alphans. Everyone was feeling some degree of shock or loss.

He checked at Medical Center, almost going to the old one before realizing it had moved most of its operation shortly before the battle. Helena was there, and gave him mostly good news, and that Sandra was still sleeping. He looked at the woman's delicate, troubled features, and felt that was perhaps a mercy at this point.

Helena asked some pointed questions of him, and he answered honestly if tersely. "We can talk more later," he finally said gently, making it clear he did not want to get into his own deeper thoughts at this time and place. Helena seemed to accept this, and accepted his asking how she was doing. He received a similar framing to her response. Then, still out of sight of others for a moment, he reached for her hand, and they gave each other's a gentle squeeze -- sympathy and support in a brief gesture.

He left there. When he reached Main Mission, it seemed half empty, and in a way, it really was.

It stood, essentially undamaged physically, yet lessened, weakened.

What Command Center was going to bring literally, the Graktor had already brought about figuratively -- the end of Main Mission as it had been. Main Mission would continue operations for probably a few more days, but it felt hollow without several of the people whose presence and voices had helped make it the nerve center of Moonbase Alpha before and after Breakaway.

He set aside the grief-tinged thoughts for now, as Tony approached him to give a report.

Alan had reported to Main Mission while John was in Medical Center, but like John did now, had left Tony on watch, while Alan tended to his damaged fleet.

"Alpha is still blind too," Tony reported. "The interference, from the planet Eagle 8 approached, is still almost as bad as during the battle, fading only because the Moon is now putting distance from the planet."

Tony suggested they could send an Attack Eagle to see if the source of the signal could be found, but he played his own devil's advocate in immediately suggesting the original signal was probably bait, arranged by the Graktor, and that it might not be wise to perhaps raise the Graktor again.

John once again noticed the equal measures of brashness and caution in the Security Officer, and nodded agreement. They did not know the connection between Eagle 8, the Graktor, their enemy, and the planet from which the original weaker signal and then and now the strong interference emanated. Whatever Paul, Victor, David, and Tanya had learned at the planet was lost.

They would just have to suffer the interference for perhaps a couple days and hope for the best.


Just then, a report came in. It had taken almost half a day to find....

The Big Screen showed a view from onboard Eagle 17. On the floor of its pod was part of what Jim Haines, an Eagle engineer, verified was an Eagle spine girder, along with part of some alien alloy, twisted around each other, almost one, almost like a pretzel, partially scorched and melted.

Eagle 8 and its captor had been destroyed, these pieces being all they could verifiably find so far -- but sufficient to confirm it was a devastating event.

John, already having assumed the four on board Eagle 8 were dead, felt little more than what he was already trying to hold off feeling. He was the Commander, and had to present strength. So he called on more of his strength. He ordered the evidence brought down for verification it could not have come from any other damaged Eagle, and to analyze the alien material.

Alan looked ready to argue against any other source, but perhaps got the point about being thorough, and said, "Aye. Eagle 17, bring it down to Hangar 3. Commander, I'll contact Technical to send a metallurgist."

Alan had already taken temporary oversight of Technical Section's Eagle Maintenance department, and had already had them taking inventory of the damage. It would probably not take too long to verify the source.

An hour later, Alan appeared back in Main Mission and reported to John that enough of that had been done to conclude that though one other Eagle had spine damage, that the recovered piece did not match the Eagle which had returned. The fragment could have come only from Eagle 8. The alien ship seen destroyed had indeed also shredded the Eagle.

Koenig decided to convene a Command Conference for an hour from now, sans Sandra, but with Tony. There was a lot to discuss, though he suspected this conference would only turn up some of those discussion needs.


Sandra fought her way back out of her shock. She was in Medical Center, and could no longer stand it. She could not grieve here. She could not return to duty here. She needed to do both, in separate places, neither of them in Medical Center.

It was not even Medical Center. She had been moved. Then she realized it was Medical Center -- the new one downlevels. Her fuzzy mind wondered if the swap had happened while she was in shock, but then realized it had been just before the battle.

The battle. It hit her again, but she pushed it away. That effort was exhausting and drained much of what little energy she had awoken with, but she had to do so.

Ben Vincent noticed her movement, and quietly called someone. Within a couple minutes, Helena Russell and Bob Mathias appeared. They asked several questions that she answered the best she could, then quietly told her a heavily damaged piece of Paul's Eagle had been found.

"Then he really is gone," she said quietly, albeit with a tiny bit of disbelief -- part of her mind not wanting to accept that Paul was dead. Yet there was a vacuum in her heart, the pain of loss growing there.

They talked a little more, then Helena quietly started handing off conversation to Bob Mathias. Sandra suddenly guessed Helena might be....

"If there is a Command Conference, I need to be there," she said quietly but insistently.

"We can--"

"Helena, I need some duty, and my duty is to help determine how we... recover."

Perhaps it was that last word that was key, in all its meanings.

"Okay, Sandra. But if you--"

"I will be okay," Sandra said, though perhaps with more confidence than she really had. Still, it was a step out of where she was now.


Chips and Change

The Command Conference started. All probably realized it would be the last around the round table -- or at least around it up here in the commander's old office. Perhaps Command Center's smaller size would make Command Conferences seem superfluous. More likely, one of the smaller rooms near Command Center would be made into a conference room. No arrangements were made yet, just one of the incomplete details of the move.

Yet the difference in this conference was already dramatic. The Commander and all his officers were present, but that still meant a small group now: John, Alan, Helena, Sandra, and Tony.

John looked at Sandra, but Helena caught his eye and nodded, signaling this was approved. He hoped this included hearing his first announcement.

"As difficult as this is for all of us, I have to state for the record that it is official. It is now clear Eagle 8 was lost with all hands. Killed In Action: Controller Paul Morrow, Technical Officer David Kano, Professor Victor Bergman, and Senior Operative Tanya Aleksandr."

There was no more "presumed" over this. The finality left them silent for several moments. Then they resumed. They had to.

Helena would start arrangements this time. Sandra, who usually took that role, looked at Helena and nodded, apparently gratefully.

They shared impressions of the Graktor encounter and battle, but it was difficult to reach conclusions as to what it had been about, especially with no one from Eagle 8 to report on what had been found at the planet. Had they disturbed the Graktor? The aliens had not arrived from that vector, but the timing was still suspect. But if so, who were the other aliens?

Tony spoke up. "Perhaps the Graktor's fleet was as ramshackle as some of our impressions were, and they were seeking multiple ships. Maybe even our Eagles. Well, maybe not. But I almost think they were being chased by the non-Graktor and were found again."

"But why the interference from the planet?" Sandra quietly asked.

"Yeah, there's that," Tony said, accepting that he probably was not accounting for a factor yet.

"Maybe the Graktor dropped something on the planet before we got into the system," Alan suggested. "A comm buoy."

"But why draw one ship there and then attack the rest of the base?" Helena asked.

"Perhaps they meant to draw more of us there," Tony said. "If they really wanted more Eagles, that would have made it easier."

"It was 'the ship' though," John said.

"They were mixed up on pluralization the whole time," Sandra suggested, though no one thought too much what that might suggest linguistically.

Alan laughed, but grimly, knowing the cost of lack of communication, saying, "They did not make much sense the whole time."

Further conversation about what ship or ships they wanted was fruitless. Nothing had hinted at what the Graktor meant about wanting 'the ship.' Now some of their ships had joined the wreckage already on and orbiting the Moon, which was turning into something of a spaceship graveyard. "A few more years, and someone may think the Dragon be here," Alan deadpanned grimly, affecting a British sound to his voice.

They worked through more impressions of the encounter. What was difficult for all of them was they could reach no reason why. In not knowing 'what' they wanted, there was no obvious 'why' to go with the loss of four Alphans. The aliens had taken that knowledge with them.

So they eventually turned to the base. An update on casualties was then followed by another difficult but necessary discussion: how to deal with the duties the four lost people had.

The survivors decided to split up oversight of the sprawling Technical Section's departments among all of them for now, given that David Kano was deceased and no replacement stood out at the moment. These were initial assignments, subject to swapping as they sorted it out more or eventually found a replacement leader.

Victor Bergman had not had any formal leadership roles, but where David was more technically-oriented than pure science-oriented, Victor had often taken point on the latter. It had been a fortuitous -- and vital -- arrangement. No one was sure who would replace him, not in the "filling his shoes" sense but in at least being enough of a generalist to speak for the rest when needed.

At least there was depth in those departments if not someone with as much breadth. Then John remembered something. "Victor kept mentioning Lew Picard as having some cross-department talents. He leads one department already. Anyone recall off-hand whether he has any further leadership training?"

Helena thought he had some. Not officer training, but supervisory. John returned to his desk to pull up a file, and grunted. Victor had unknowingly left a clue, perhaps. Picard had a little more generalist and leadership background than John had recalled, and with Victor's occasional words....

They called him in, discussed the situation, and asked if he could take some of the Technical departments. Picard thought, and picked two science and one mechanical department -- the latter not related to Eagles.

Alan immediately volunteered to oversee any technical department having to do with Eagle maintenance, and a couple others.

Helena asked for Chemical Manufacturing. Her own Section, Medical, was already one of CM's bigger "customers" anyway, and she had some biochemistry background as well. Not all chemistry was biochemistry, making for other definite differences as well, but it was still a reasonable fit for now.

Sandra started volunteering, including oversight of Computer Department. She was not a programmer herself, but her Service Section leadership and frequent presence in Main Mission together meant she was one of the more extensive users of Computer, breadth-wise anyway. The thin ranks of programmers in Computer Department was of serious concern, but there was little they could do about that for the moment. Sandra requested several more departments after that, anything even vaguely Service-oriented, and some not necessarily so.

Tony took several that had little to do with each other. Helena got a few more. Alan picked another. John tried to take a couple but was quickly advised that having the Commander in direct lead of a few departments should be very short-term at the most. Tony and Lew quickly volunteered to take those instead.

Koenig advised Picard this was still considered a temporary assignment, and that the two of them would talk about longer-term possibilities. John wanted to find out whether Picard was a potential Science Advisor, but this meeting was not about that yet. Besides, this reminded John about the Science Officer idea bandied about a few times in the past. Perhaps now was the time to consider an SO possibility. Time to start phasing out the SA role? Trying to determine whether Picard had officer potential was a different matter, one John would not consider lightly, quickly, or prematurely. Now was not the time, and even deciding whether to assign Picard the SA role, even if that would become a limited term, was beyond the scope of this meeting.

So John dismissed Picard, and with Technical Section's oversight now split up -- at least initially -- among all the officers and the potential new Science Advisor, they turned to other roles.

John stated he would talk to the operatives and find out how they were going to cover for the loss of Tanya, but Tony said he could take that and would suggest they find one or more people to train for such duties to re-even the schedule and have more backups. Cross-training, already having been started earlier, was now clearly becoming even more necessary. That John had thought Tanya showed some potential to become a junior officer was now yet another loss for Alpha.

That left only two roles undiscussed. "What of Paul's roles?" Helena asked. There were actually two now: Controller, who was the second in command; and leader of the Strategic Planning Centre, which was working the ongoing and expanding "Plan B."

"I would like to take lead of the SPC," Sandra abruptly said. "I know I have a number of the Technical Section departments for now, but I would like this too."

"That is still a lot of additional undertaking," Dr. Russell spoke up.

"For another couple of weeks. Then once that move wraps, most of the short-term planning subsides for some time, and..." Sandra continued.

Helena was still looking at Sandra with concern, then gave John a slight sideways glance.

He got the message. Benes was trying to evade all grief by throwing herself into a far deeper pool of work. As much as Sandra thought work might help her, too much of one meant none of the other. Helena had said that everyone grieved in their own way, but this was pushing even the doctor's definition to the edge.

Helena had subtly deferred the decision to John, though, apparently uncertain whether she herself had enough grounds to rein back Sandra at this particular moment, and wanting to see if John did. He suddenly realized he did. One shocked officer trying to evade grief by overtaxing herself was a flight path for a personal and professional crash that could have very damaging results for her and for all the departments, present or new, that she was trying to oversee. The SPC might go back to more medium- and long-term planning in a few weeks, but crises would likely occur as well, and other unexpected factors. She could not assume a lightening of the workload -- and perhaps she knew that more than she was letting on.

"Sandra, if you want to manage Plan B, you will need to give up three Technical departments, one each to Helena, Alan, and Tony."

"Commander, I--"

"That was not a request, but an order, and a choice."

He thought he saw a slight flash of anger or at least frustration, but he let it pass. She was only human, and she needed to see that too.

"Yes, Commander. I want to manage Plan B." She looked over her notes, and finally figuratively put three departments back on the table. John suddenly felt like Alpha's future was a bunch of chips. The other three officers each took one of those departments.

There was quiet for a moment, some choosing to take sips of water or "coffee" as they thought of how much more work each had. Some "chips" of potatoes tinged with other vegetable tastes were present as well, perhaps Helena's idea to try to encourage return of appetites. The collision of literal and figurative chips in John's mind wrecked his appetite for the moment. It was perhaps another sign of grief he would have to deal with -- at some point.

"We have to find a way to make this temporary," Commander Koenig said. "The idea of a Science Officer needs to be pushed to the front of the table. Whether that might be Picard or Strong or any of the other department heads, or from some other Section entirely, I don't know. Let us all think back over those we know and consider possibilities. I want suggestions over the next few weeks or so."

"Perhaps," Tony started adding, "even some mid-level management, that perhaps we can expand what just happened with Picard to find some others like him. That would make our oversight easier if we're only interacting with a couple multi-department managers rather than lots of individual department managers."

"Good idea. Let's put that on the table too."

They ran out of immediate discussion needs regarding the sprawling Technical Section and its very numerous set of departments. There was again momentary silence, more sipping of fluids.

"What of Controller?" Helena finally asked.

John sat back. Others noticed that and held for the moment as John thought about it.

"A lot has been changing out here. Controller was already a mutating role since Breakaway. Paul gave up most direct oversight of Security Section to Tony when Paul started promulgating Plan B and the SPC. Now the officer ranks are involuntarily reduced, and more swamped. Regardless of how much you filter, I know you -- and me as well -- are going to get flooded with much more detail getting elevated to higher levels than in the past. It already happened sometimes even before the latest losses."

John recalled with bemusement a then-annoying situation a few months back: being asked how they should dispose of an excessive number of snails that had gotten out of control in a micro-biome project related to food-generation research. He could just see being swamped with minutiae about cacti, bolts, a kilogram of beryllium, data disks, a leaking faucet, a squabble over who got to borrow an exercise mat next, a spare kilowatt-hour of energy, and/or some errant clock somewhere. Time was often the most precious commodity, some occasional deep lulls not withstanding. Perhaps it was just as well for another reason that he had not taken direct oversight of some technical departments: he would end up hearing some of those concerns anyway.

Koenig looked at Benes. "Sandra, I worked a lot more closely with Paul regarding Plan B than you may realize, and I already have more thoughts on that. I need to reconsider what the Controller role really needs to be now. Whether it is still much the same, or much different, I don't know yet."

A Security Officer role had been crafted by Paul with John's input. A Science Officer role had been discussed on and off but with only some traction. Defining officer roles were not taken lightly, and John had just taken that upon himself. "I need to redefine that role, and I think I need to define a Science Officer role. Of course, I will take input, as before."

Change, already started in planning months ago and now in action even before this battle, had been further thrust upon them in the form of so many key deaths, and more change to come.

Then, quiet descended upon the group, not one having anything to say at the moment, even though there would still have to be much more later. Perhaps it was an impromptu moment of silence among most of the surviving officers.

As if acknowledging it as such, John then said, "They will be missed. All of them." With that, he stood up, paused. Almost as one, all turned away from the table and left.

Indeed it was true. They would never again have a Command Conference here in this office.


New Strengths

Eventually, John and Helena met up again in her quarters. She started preparing a meal from her food station, insisting they should both eat.

They talked for awhile but their own grief, sharing their pain to a degree. When that degree ran out, there was quiet, silent gratitude for each other's presence, ear, and strength.

Then he asked about Sandra.

"She's in more pain than she shows right now," Helena started replying. "She's both in shock yet holding back at the same time. You have to realize she watched him being captured, and later saw the footage of the alien ship being blown up around him. She lost her fiancÚ at Breakaway, seemed to bounce back in some ways, then lost Mike Ryan, bounced back, and formed a strong bond with Paul. Now he's gone too. That's a lot for her -- for anyone -- in a year."

"Bereavement Leave?"

"She approached me after the Command Conference, perhaps to forestall some actions. She doesn't want Bereavement Leave. She wants to work. Just so long as she does not completely bury herself in it."

"And how effectively with what she now has?"

"Less, probably for at least a month, but I'd accept it."

"I thought you preferred--"

"I generally prefer the fastest way for someone to heal, but that varies by person. In some cases, that is facing the loss directly; but I think we may push her to grieving for three at once if we take too much work away from her. So let her work at the levels she now has responsibility for, at least for now. She will need to face this, but not now. She talked to me after the Command Conference, and I talked to Bob, and he agrees."

The Commander sighed. "Very well, Doctor, I understand, and accept. A month--"

"At least," Helena interrupted.

He moved his hand in an accepting gesture, then continued where he left off... "with the Service Leader at partial capacity is better than yet another hole in the command corps. You or Bob, keep an eye on her, though. We need every officer we have left, but I need them of sound ability, too."

Helena nodded, then looked at him, and he picked up a likely silent statement from her: That means you as well. He needed to grieve as well, but now was not that moment. He gave her a subtle nod, and she did not push further. He was surprised, then not so surprised, how well he was starting to read her.

That topic done, they turned more informal, shared a light meal, but then walked to her window and stared into space. Helena, Sandra, and Tony had not yet moved quarters, though Tony was apparently going to do so tomorrow.

For a moment, something glinted in space. Maybe it was an orbiting piece of junk, perhaps even of the same ship destroyed with Alphans inside.

The hunt was still on for bodies, but even Graktor ones were proving difficult to find for the ones destroyed in space. They had gotten lucky on footage of the Eagle girder. Human or alien remains could be in almost any orbit now, or simply vaporized or torn to tiny pieces. It was horrible, but the small consolation was they had hopefully felt nothing, had not suffered too long on the Graktor ship before it was destroyed.

It was small comfort to any of them, and Tony's word, by Electronic Post, that morale had slipped again, was not a surprise to him. It had already been bad through the Arkadia encounter. His own thoughts were probably not unlike those of many Alphans. They were taking too many hits from aliens. Too many, too fast, too hard. That it could be even worse at this point was small comfort to John as he thought about officers... friends... crewmembers... lost. So many recently, so many in the past.

He suddenly became aware of Helena next to him, looking at his face from the side. She reached for his chin and turned his face towards hers, then grabbed his wrist, and insistently pulled him away from the viewport. She got him talking about Victor, Paul, David, and Tanya.

Yet he knew immediately he was not talking to a doctor, but to a friend -- to his girlfriend.

Suddenly, he realized there was another change afoot on the Moonbase. Alphans drawing together. Pair bonds. Friendships. New families. Perhaps another way in which Alphans were responding to so much trauma and fear. Not just courage and grief and an often "stiff upper lip," but other human responses as well. Strengthening. Gaining ground. A needed change, a new strength, to add to their existing strengths.


T-330 DAB: Big Blue

Astrophysicist Douglas McLeod looked at the magnified image.

"Whoa, you seem quite the large nebula," he said quietly. He required a new, not-yet-used designation from Main Computer. He had to do so, as these tags were assigned rapidly, from more than one location on the Moon. It was now called NN330AD, which stood for: New Nebula, discovered 330 days after Breakaway, the fourth new nebula noticed that day.

The Moon's travels were fairly rapid inter-system, so he'd probably have some triangulation within a few days, but given the number of semi-giant blue stars sprinkled in front of it, apparently at relatively close range, unusually enough, as well as a barely visible red-orange one, probably a bit further away from the nebula, he already had a good idea of its distance -- and that it was huge, spanning at least dozens of light years. It was also already clear the Moon would get much closer to this one, though still very well clear of it, by dozens of light years. That was good, for the blue stars were packed pretty close together.

This nebula was the first in nearly two weeks worthy of print-out. Not that others were not, but Main Computer stored digital images well, or he'd be swimming in paper -- and probably trigger restrictions on such if he did. So he chose his printouts carefully. This was one.

On a lark, he printed a second copy of it. One, he immediately tacked to the wall of the small Telescope Link Up room off his office, as his own keepsake. The other, he would show to some others, curious if they had seen an arrangement like that. Douglas had not. It did not look like a stellar nursery. It was far too huge for an outgassing nebula from a dying star. It did not look like two molecular clouds colliding, but science still was not sure how such collisions evolved anyway.

Just then, he noticed a little off-yellow star in the photo. Middle of the main sequence -- some of the best stars to harbor planets conducive to life. This one, while yellow, was a little closer to yellow-green than Sol, presumably making it a little bigger and brighter than Earth's Sun, while still allowing it a longer life that could in turn increase the odds of living things taking hold.

He sat back down and checked some things. Whereas NN330AD had been hidden from view by a small, nearby nebula -- NN320CS (that they had now passed by) -- what seemed like the same yellowish star did appear in another high-magnification image recorded at 320DAB231009LT, which lent the Alphan tag NS320SVY, and more importantly, allowed him to calculate the distance, at least roughly.

"Damn." It was much closer than the nebula, by weeks probably; but it stood some 4-6 light years to one side of the Moon's predicted closest approach.

He left with the beautiful image of NN330AD, taking it to a cafeteria, to study it further. The picture attracted some attention, including from Security Officer Verdeschi, who was walking by with someone he thought was named Patrick Osgood, as well as Lena Andreichi. Questions were asked about this immense nebula, and Douglas answered what he could, as some more people started gathering around, perhaps ready for a distraction from recent losses and all the still-ongoing moving.

After hearing about its size, and that it would get fairly large in Alpha's "sky" some time from now if the Moon held its course, Verdeschi promptly dubbed it "Big Blue."

"Good name," Patrick Osgood affirmed.

"No, no..." Douglas started protesting, immediately hating the nickname. It was too late. Some of the others repeated the name. It was going to stick, unless he could think up a more attention-grabbing name. None came to mind.

"What's this yellow star?" Tony asked, curious. "Are we going to get close to that?"

"It is much closer to us than it is to the nebula, but it appears to be about 5 light years off our path, closest approach around 343 or 344 DAB, as opposed to about 395 to 400 DAB for NN330AD."

"Huh, too bad," the officer commented, apparently well aware that mid-sequence stars had the best chance for Earth-like planets.

"Be careful what you wish for," Patrick said.

Tony chuckled. "True, you never know who you might meet in some of these star systems. We have had poor luck in that regard. Just once, for one of these yellow stars, or another for that matter, to have just one Earth-like planet with no one on it."

Lena Andreichi, the serious-minded botanist that Douglas had noticed in the company of the security officer lately, nodded. Every adult Alphan yearned for a new planet.

There was a commotion near the door. One of the pregnant women was sagging, held by her husband. They could overhear the word "labor" mentioned even from this distance. There had been a lot of birth announcements lately, as the Baby Boomlet, as the Americans had dubbed it, seemed to be peaking right now. It seemed one of them would be welcomed onto Alpha by the time this day ended.

There would be about thirty children on Moonbase about the time they passed by NN330AD....


F-333 DAB: First Instinct

What now? The question still floated to Commander Koenig's mind. Some aspects had been tentatively solved. Orphaned departments assigned, some swapped immediately or in the last few days.

Yet no second in command.

He was reaching one conclusion, however. Controller, as it had been at least, was not to be replaced. Controller had been seeing to numerous daily details before Breakaway, so that the Commander could focus on the longer term goals of the base.

Post-Breakaway life had been making hash of that. Some details needed to be shared by all. There were missions to planets, differing personnel each time.

Alpha's "main mission" had become to settle a planet, but Paul had realized there needed to be a Plan B, and had taken over a lot of that long-term planning. Now Sandra. He felt more like the Captain of the Aerie, the first sea-borne carrier designed for Eagles and Hawks. A huge seacraft that had an XO -- Executive Officer -- as a second in command.

The Moon had become the biggest lumbering carrier of Eagles, and Koenig was a Commander feeling like a Captain now and then. The metaphor came and went, but he realized there was a possible message there.

He now had only four officers: a Chief Medical Officer whose primary duty was to her patients, and with an eye towards training new doctors; a Chief Pilot who managed that impressive fleet of spacecraft that needed care, that he now needed to supervise more directly, and who had something of a shoot-first tendency on occasion; a Service Leader who was quiet, gently efficient, strong, yet now shellshocked; and a Security Officer who was blunt, contrarian yet respectful in a way, and tried brewing beer on his off-time.

There was little in the way of junior officer prospects. Lew Picard had officially become the new Science Adviser, but John was now seriously planning, with the input of the officers and department heads, on setting up a Science Officer role. He wanted the hodgepodge of titles to be realigned as well, so that they all had Officer in the new title. He realized he needed an XO. Not liking the aircraft carrier metaphor for some reason, he decided First Officer had a better ring.

But it was a hollow ring. No definition yet. No prospect yet. He created a file on Main Computer and started writing. Some of it would read like the former Controller position. Some of it would read differently. Some points rolled off his fingertips and onto the screen with more of a military feel. The base had military aspects to it, and had to think military a lot recently. Koenig was not a warrior by training, but was adaptable. Still, he would not let that rule either. First Officer needed to several things.

A first officer among thinned officer ranks would have to be someone who could think up several options quickly and swiftly choose the likeliest possibility. Organizational skills. Be able to take Command, either temporarily or, if necessary, permanently. The last was as any senior officer, but as a first officer, such duty would be more frequent, or become more likely.

John found that as he wrote, the thoughts flowed, until they ceased. He had taken only a few minutes, but the list looked incomplete.

He sat back, wondering which person was best for what he had so far. One struck him in particular. But it seemed a little absurd -- yet not absurd at all. Still, he could not decide now. There could not be an instant decision.

He sought out the CMO, and on her computer monitor, showed her the file in a secure part of the Alpha Information System, asking for input. She added a few more points, then pointedly asked him if he had someone in mind.

"I need to consider this carefully," was his only initial response.

"I agree, but only to a degree. You have good instincts. Listen to them too. This person will be your right hand, much like Controller yet in a different way."

"And do you see yourself filling such a role?"

It was in effect a first interview. Seeing if she could help define the role, as someone who had enough such vision, and whether she could fill that role.

"I could fill that role in many ways, and you already know I am willing to be in command if needed. But we both know we are dangerously thin in actual count of doctors in Medical Section, on a base enduring much more danger and with no ability to ship the worst-injured to Earth. I've told you we need to start training new doctors."

John nodded slowly to all of this.

"Ask me again next time this arises," she continued, "or if there is really no better option. I had a mind to be a Director, perhaps of some place like the Cleveland Clinic or Mayo at some point. I just don't think now is the time to take me too far from Medical. I think my role is here, not on that screen at this time."

"Fair enough," Commander Koenig said.

"Were you considering me?" she asked.

"I would not have asked you that question if not."

"Fair enough," Dr. Russell echoed.

He looked for Chief Pilot Carter next, and fond him in his quarters. Alan had a similar response, adding several good points of duty, but also deferring, albeit more hesitantly. "Now that would be something I could see myself doing at some point, for sure, but not now. This fleet won't fly itself, and there is no other who knows flying these beauties..." -- he waved his arm at the viewport just as one was being winched into view as others sat in equal view -- "like I do. Not to sound conceited...."

"Hmm?" Koenig asked, sensing something curious in the combination of Alan's words and tone.

"I am where I need to be right now. Chief pilot, training other pilots, now also taking care of these birds in more ways. No mysticism. At least I don't think there is."

Koenig was struck by an old silent question. He finally asked it. "Did you ever consider turning around at Breakaway?"

Alan's response was immediate, but even in tone. "Never crossed my mind, mate. You blokes -- my fellow crewmembers -- needed help. I wasn't sure how I could provide it but no way I was going to turn tail, so I just kicked it into higher gear. I rue the day of Breakaway, but for all of us, not for me alone.

"Don't get it turned around," he continued. "I like leadership. I will help you with temporary command whenever needed. I'm there to help you -- help Alpha. But you need that Chief Pilot as much as you did the Day After Breakaway, and until I have enough people trained that I can safely spend more time away from Eagles on a more regular basis, I think you should look elsewhere for a permanent XO. FO, I mean. Besides, regarding a few of your points, I'm still working on taking broader views and thinking of several things before reaching quick conclusions."

"Give yourself some credit. You've been taking a broader view right now."

Carter laughed. "Yeah, still a work in progress. I respect you asking. Frankly, I think both of us know who is in the best position to take this role. Who has more background and ability than most recognize."

"I have to do this correctly."

"And I respect your process. Good luck, but think of Alpha."

John left Alan's quarters with more respect for the man than ever. Was he starting to mellow? Some of his rougher edges starting to be honed? Alan's deference and loyalty were strong, but so was his drive. So to back off and see the big picture so clearly, left John thinking even more highly of Alan. Yet the Chief Pilot was correct about Reconnaissance and the rest.

Koenig went to Service Leader Benes too. She had more points of input. However, though he sometimes wondered if she had further potential, he had a more difficult time picturing her making such a big jump at this moment. Nonetheless, if he encouraged her to see another possibility.... So he did, and still asked her the same second question as he had Russell and Carter.

She seemed rather surprised, though she mostly hid it, and promptly started deferring. She was not ready, and knew it. Yet he wondered if even the mere question sparked something inside her, or would at a later point. He suddenly thought that with maybe some training, at some future point, senior officer...?

Security Officer Verdeschi also had points to add. To the second question, he paused, then said, "You only just made me junior officer a few months ago."

"Yet you have the officer training back on Earth."

"Before my career stalled because of my pig-headed nature and willingness to question superiors a little more than they needed -- or wanted at least. Though I see some of that need here with so few officers, and some of your points here. But Alan, he has more experience. If I take more of these extra Technical departments from him, maybe -- though he's still got Eagles and pilot training and.... Hmm, I'm starting to see your point. I am the least burdened with seeing to areas of deep specialty. I could probably still run Security, and some of your points are actually outgrowths of some of what I already do or have recently volunteered for."

Verdeschi paused, looked at Koenig, then said, "I'm arguing myself into the role, aren't I?"

John said nothing.

"I'm not Paul. With all the respect he's certainly due, of course. You will get arguments from me. You'll get my respect too, of course, but I am not like Paul about that."

"Are you ready for this role?"

"What's on paper, yes. What I've seen out there, I like to think I am. Question is also whether you think I am ready for this role, and that I would make for a good first officer for you, both in supporting but in providing counterpoints too?"

"I think you are, unless you can suggest anyone more ready that you think would fit these points as well?"

Verdeschi stopped for a moment, then said, "I've been thinking through people who could be mid-level multi-department managers. While I have a few names that might be good to consider for even higher roles as junior officers a few years down the line -- or sooner in the case of Picard -- I can't see anyone jumps to mind as a first officer."

Tony paused, then said, "Though somehow that feels like a conflict of interest to say that. As objective as I can be, though, that feels like the reality, and I have to say, it troubles me some about Alpha's future that we're so thinned and will remain so for that long."

As when Koenig considered Verdeschi for the Security Officer role, he felt there were no issues of trust here. That he could always know where Tony stood, because Tony would let him know.

"You will still need some additional Command-Ready training that your resume indicates is missing, and some particular to Alpha. Nonetheless, consider the role yours, if you accept it."

"It sounds like a challenge, especially for a position new to this base, but I am ready to take it on."

"Good, the role is yours. The extra training you need will start tomorrow. I'll work on the announcement tonight."

"Huh, that will be interesting to see how that goes over," Tony said, semi-flippantly. Yet he had a point. That was Tony's thing, that potential that Gorski and others had overlooked. Perhaps it was what the ILC had seen in him in posting him to Alpha. John wondered who at the ILC had done that. He asked, and got back a semi-surprising answer.


M-336 DAB: Field of Loss

Sandra steeled herself. She was outside Paul's quarters. She clicked the button on her commlock. The door opened. She had finally said she would look for things of his -- and hers -- might want to keep, and to look for items of professional importance as well.

There was an inner motive as well. She had been avoiding this part of the base since Paul's death. She knew she was in shock, and was struggling to fight it. This was one small step, but at the same time, she felt it getting worse as she stepped in.

Despite his meager possessions, and despite the efficiency of the environmental air circulating systems, she could still see it was his quarters, and could still pick up the faintest scent of him. Or was the latter just her imagination? No, there was the bed, where they had often slept of late.

She touched his side of the bed briefly, but then pulled away, and began picking up a few items. She touched his guitar, but left it there. The Atonal Alphans could have it. Keeping more than an item or two of his would be too painful. The rest of his stuff, small in quantity as it was, could go to Stores, for others to select if they wanted and had room. Except for pictures of his relatives, which would be stored elsewhere.

Sandra suddenly wondered what this room was destined to be. She sat down at his terminal and used her login. Perhaps the room was not yet designated. Then she found it. Botany had suggested a plant field, species not yet determined. She sighed, looked around, and suddenly had a different thought.

Perhaps the new location of the Strategic Planning Centre. Bob or Helena might frown upon that, but somehow that seemed to lighten Sandra's heart ever so lightly.

The CMO and Commander forcing her to give up taking three more of the Technical departments that she had taken in the Command Conference was leaving her slightly more time in which she was finding herself having to confront some aspects of her grief. Perhaps they had been right. That meant a more painful early road, however....


R-339 DAB: Decommissioning

There was no formal decommissioning, and somehow, that felt wrong. They had decided to move command functions from Main Mission, at the tallest height in the base, to a smaller Command Center, more like a bunker at the lowest main level, many levels below. There were very mixed feelings about that, and these were not completely absent from the commander and his officer corps either.

The command functions had already been transferred. The Main Computer interfaces were in Command Center; now only empty power and cable sockets stuck out of the wall a little, only half of them capped off, the other with red flags dangling, until a box of safety caps gone missing during the major move could be relocated.

The computer panel arrangement would not be entirely the same in CC as MM, for while some of MM's panels were going to CC, some of Command Center's were coming from Computer Center, and some were newly developed for Command Center. All of MM's computer interfaces were removed, and those not going to Command Center were going into Computer Center. The former Main Mission now just had a simple partial-height commpanel.

It was simply that one day, Command Center went from having a few operatives and sometimes an officer, to the next day having a full complement.

Days later, John headed up to Main Mission.

It was a little cool in the elevator. So was the rest of Moonbase Alpha. While power was usually the least of Alpha's concerns, they were still rebuilding the Nuclear Generating Area destroyed by whatever had taken over Anton Zoref. The Phoenix Glow, someone had called it, a name that was starting to spread. Perhaps John would add it to the official record at some point. That made it the second "Phoenix" that the Alphans had encountered. Then again, even if not named or dubbed "Phoenix," there had been others, such as Piri, and, if Luke and Anna succeeded, Arkadia, at least. John shook his head, his thoughts returning to the power and temperature.

Yet they still could afford to heat the base as before; but it just seemed wiser to reduce the temperature by a mark -- a few degrees -- and save those accumulating kilowatt-hours for other potential needs. It was a simple means of conservation. If Alpha needed just a little more energy at one point to survive, would they not rue doing nothing to conserve a little on this?

It was not cutting power to all little extras, for there were some morale purposes at play too. Yet more allowances on clothing would allow this one more universal means of saving a little power to be easily tolerated.

In a case of coincidental timing, this idea had arisen in parallel with the idea of allowing jackets as part of the indoor uniform. Less practical yet apparently still welcome by some, there was the idea of allowing women skirts if they wanted. Allowing more leeway in some aspects of the uniform. John had listened to Helena and Tony supporting suggestions that had apparently arisen elsewhere. Another was in progress, of name badges, for nearly 300 people were still a lot more than most people could easily remember. A few other ideas still cooking.

John was already starting to wear a jacket, black in color in this case, that Helena found in some box. It looked rather ugly, he thought, but it was the only one handy in his size at the moment. It would do just fine for now. He got cold too easily.

Tony had started wearing one. Some did not; whether hesitating at the change or being more cool-air preferring, he did not know. It was up to them. Koenig was not that interested in being that controlling. Perhaps Gorski would have never allowed it. Perhaps Simmonds would have protested. Neither was here any more, however.

John reached Main Mission and entered.

He was surprised to see the lights still on, despite its nearly empty state. Most of the consoles were gone, except for David Kano's, in a sadly ironic way. Unfortunately, the arrangements were more cramped down-level, in a smaller but far more braced room, and his console had to be left behind, whereas most of the rest were adapted to Command Center or moved to other key centers. One had gone into John's new down-level office, near CC. There was no place for Kano's rotating station, though. It made no sense anywhere but Main Mission, at least for now.

His former office, up here, was unchanged in some ways. The desk remained, as it was too large for his new, much smaller command office down-level, though there was virtually nothing on it now. The Earth globe remained for now, but he wanted it moved downstairs eventually. It had been in the Commander's Office from almost the beginning of Moonbase Alpha.

He walked around both spaces, and upstairs, then patted the railing as he looked down at the space that had been the literal and figurative hub of Alpha, acknowledging what this space had been since it had been constructed several years into Alpha's existence: the brains of a multi-purpose base and eventually, unexpectedly and for less than a year, the bridge of an itinerant Moon.

"Main Mission is hereby decommissioned," he quietly stated.

He would sign that into his command log later, he decided, to truly make it fully official, but it was now done.

He climbed down the stairs, and quietly left, turning out the lights, not sure when he ever might be back.

There was some talk about possibly repurposing the space, ranging from a poor joke about turning it into a cornfield, to turning the entire space into a memorial. He had not liked any of the suggestions, especially turning the entire space into an oversized dirge at the peak of Alpha. While appreciating wanting to remember the dead, it somehow seemed disrespectful to what this space had been and meant to people. Others agreed with him.

It was later in the day that he heard a most remarkable suggestion....


340-342 DAB: Six Light-Years

In the distance, a star. A little bigger and brighter than Earth's Sun.

It was nothing special. Another point of light they'd glide by. Six light years away. Close by galactic standards, impossibly far away by Alphan standards.

Abruptly, they felt a wrenching. Things flew. Not as severe as Breakaway, but it went on for several minutes. By the time they emerged, Computer was reporting the star patterns had changed somewhat. A second space warp of this sort.

One star had changed position the most. Six light years away, now some light hours instead. The Moon was still in its hyperspatial bubble, a huge pocket of cocooned normal space wrapped in a shell that was driving the Moon across this galaxy faster than light.

Abruptly so close to this system, though, they barely got any time of picking up from the minor damage, and assessing the rest of the base, when the hyperspatial bubble collapsed, as usual at the general distance dubbed the Space-Normal Boundary.

They were heading into the inner star system this time. A couple days later, Helena was making her report finding one of the life support systems had a damaged unit needing a component replaced that used a particular metal. Unfortunately, Alpha's store of that metal had been vaporized during the Graktor attack.

Fortunately, they had found they were approaching one of the inner planets. Now that they were much closer to it today, they knew it was a pallid sphere pockmarked with red spots and some bluish regions that might have been water or might have been something else. It was not an inviting-looking world, but maybe they could find the metal more quickly than on-Luna exploration teams would, and probably without any alien interference, since it did not strike anyone as a habitable planet.

Bill Fraser, a pilot trained some months before and now actually a flight lead on certain small missions, left with Ray Torens, on board Eagle 1. They were to search for the metal on what seemed to be a volcanic hell. Soon, they were in close visual range.

Very little would go well here....


Epilogue

Paul Morrow woke up into bright light.

However, there was a shadow presence in front of him.

Squinting, his pupils contracting, he started discerning more detail. Perhaps a table in front of him. He felt too weak to lift his hands to verify. A person was coming into focus as well, sitting on the other side of the table.

It was a room with white walls and bright lights, and even as his vision returned, he still had to squint.

"Who are you?"

"Leader. Graktor ship."

Paul's eyes could finally make out some details of the alien's face, the colored headband he wore, and his otherwise dull clothing (uniform?).

"Your name?" Paul queried.

"Disimportant."

"Where are my fellow crewmembers?" Paul, leader of this mission, asked.

The alien looked puzzled, so Paul said, "My people?"

"Safe. Near. See soon."

"I demand you return us to Moonbase Alpha."

The alien made a gesture that seemed dismissive, and promptly confirmed that by saying, "Demand disinterest."

Paul tried to protest further, but soon realized this was getting nowhere, and getting him no information on what this was about.

"Where am I?" Paul finally asked.

"Far from ship."

"Which ship?" he asked.

"Big ship. Your ship."

"The Eagle?"

"You comms. Talk Eagle often. Not small. Not that. Big."

Paul did not know why the alien was speaking in such a fractured way. "Do you know another language?"

"Sza eree dakto Graktor'in bak?"

"No, I don't know Graktorin," he sighed, finding this alien very odd, over more than just the communication gap.

"You second command."

Name, rank, serial number. "Controller Paul Morrow. WSA member 372-23."

"Controller. Good. Have upright authority."

"Upright authority?"

"Right successor. Challenge."

Paul bristled. "I have no interest in challenging the Commander."

"You right have. Better planet. For ship."

Paul got frustrated. "What ship?"

"The ship of Nauwkeem."

Finally, something slightly new. "Nauwkeem? Who are they?"

"Power. Ancient. Water."

Ancient power made sense. What "water" had to do with this.... Perhaps the lunar Maria. Yet these aliens barely knew English, so how would they know the "Maria" were first named as if they were lunar seas, the term sticking even long after it they were realized to be just a different kind of rock.

"Several ships are crashed on the Moon," Paul said. "A few, we never knew the name of the people attacking. Are you looking for salvage possibilities? Is that what this is about? If you wanted trade--"

"Yes trade. You leave. We have."

"Not a chance. I take it you lost the battle since I'm here and it sounds like you have fled from the Moon."

"You have authority. You give ship."

"Listen, captain of Graktor ship, you might as well show me what ship you talk about -- you are talking about." Already he was starting to talk a little like these aliens.

"You dumb. Not know ship."

"Fine. I dumb. Show me." If Paul could somehow escape and get back to Alpha, it was hopefully with an explanation or at least some more information.

The alien wagged his head back and forth, a gesture unfamiliar to Paul, then stood up. Paul tried to follow suit, finding his strength returned, but also discovering he was in an invisible box.

The Graktor captain turned and left the room.

Just as Paul was getting more frustrated, the box was lifted. A door opened behind him. Paul did not move, wanting that answer; but when hours went by, various other needs finally drove him to check out the other room. It turned out to be a cell with a bed, sink, counter, desk, cabinet with food in it and small locked doors to the other side -- a way to restock his prison cell pantry -- and small bathroom.

The door had closed behind him.

It was another day before something else happened. A door on the opposite side of the cell opened. Victor's voice was sounding "Hello?" So Paul went through into a common room, and soon saw not just Victor but Tanya and Kano as well. To Paul's relief, they were all unharmed. Unlike Paul, none had met Graktor directly yet.

The common room had some comforts, such as some easy chairs, pictures on the wall, some tables, and what seemed like exercise equipment, paper and writing utensils, as well some games he did not recognize.

The setup gave Paul an odd sense of deja vu and also rankled him a little, giving him the feeling of a subtle "carrot and stick" scenario. The alien captain trying to goad or pressure Paul, now trying to be hospitable. "Gilded cage," Victor commented.

They saw no obvious means of monitoring, but that was no guarantee. Still, they compared notes quietly, trying to determine what was going on. Unfortunately, Paul had the most information, which was very little.

After some hours, tones sounded, and after a couple of minutes, guards appeared in large numbers and gestured them to return to separate cells. Though Alpha could be getting further and further away, there was no opening to try fighting right now.

A day later, the first cell door finally opened again. He promptly left the cell for the large white room. He realized there were six other doors into this room, just like into the prisoners' common room. None of the other Alphans were in here this time either. The alien captain was there with two guards.

Paul walked warily towards him, until a few paces away, when a guard lifted a hand, fingers down, a seeming stop signal. His other hand was on what Paul assumed was a weapon. No sense getting stunned at this point, so he stopped. The captain lifted a paper and held it out to Paul, saying simply, "The Ship."

It was a photo-realistic diagram. What it pictured startled Paul Morrow to the core....


This not-for-profit amateur/fan publication is designed for entertainment purposes only, and is not intended to infringe upon the rights of Gerry Anderson, ATV, ITC, Polygram, Carlton, Granada Ventures, or any other current copyright holders of Space: 1999.

Bridge One — an original story based on Space: 1999 — is
Copyright ©2012, David M. Welle (MetaForms, Ltd.), and
may not be reproduced or published without consent of author.

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