It was the quiet that reminded her most of Moonbase Alpha. The lunar surface had been hauntingly lovely in its own way, but the green of Earth was also to be treasured—especially as it was no longer to be taken for granted. Sandra sat at the desk in her small, unadorned office and looked out the open window. The academic square below was lined by stately buildings and even more stately trees. The leaves were vibrant yellows and reds, and every shade in between. Only the presence of birds and butterflies was missing.
"Professor Rockwell?" Sandra looked up from her daydreaming, turning her head to see the door with her good eye. Two serious young women stood at the door to her office, compu-tablets clutched to their chests.
Sandra smiled and beckoned them to enter. Her brief respite was over. Even with the world falling apart, a teacher's work was never done.
The two young women had been followed by a young man, and then by an older woman who had joined the course late when an unexpected opening occurred. Her classes were always well attended; her notoriety saw to that.
Each student had cogent questions concerning the material on the final examination scheduled for tomorrow. A serious student herself, Sandra found herself comfortable with the intense students who now attended university. Those intent on partying and socializing their way through school were no longer welcome, no matter how well connected. There was simply too much to do to help Earth recover from the devastating damage of that September 14th. The universities and colleges of the world were now much fewer in number; but, of course, so were the available students. These days, students entered on a specific education tract, studied hard, and were expected to enter the workforce immediately.
Sandra packed away the few remaining items from the bookshelf and turned off the desk light, her soon-to-be-former office becoming soothingly dim. The only thing she was leaving behind was what she had found here: a framed butterfly collection with specimens impaled upon pins, their Latin names neatly underneath.
She looked out the window. Dusk was approaching, but the solar-battery streetlights had yet to turn on. Suddenly, she pressed a hand to her right temple, the familiar pain stabbing through her skull. All too quickly, her head started to throb as the room swayed beneath her feet. She reached out a hand to the desk to anchor herself and keep from losing her balance and falling.
The post-concussive headaches of the first few years were mercifully rare now, but once in while they recurred with a vengeance. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. What was worse than the pain, though, was the sense of unreality that accompanied it. She felt as if she were a disembodied stranger looking at herself from a distance, yet feeling every piercing lance. A miserable combination, to say the least.
She gingerly made her way to the sofa and sat down, carefully resting her head on its back. She really should head home; Peter would be back tonight from his flight to the southern hemisphere. The pain made thinking difficult. Her left arm and leg were becoming numb. This was shaping up to be a bad attack. No, she would have to wait this out here at her office. She needed to do something first... she needed to call home to let them know she would be late. Sandra managed to get up and reach the phone. She pressed the autodial and let Peter's mum know she would be late. Her mother-in-law said something to her, but she could not make it out. She needed to lie down. She needed to sleep...
The dream was a familiar one. She was trying to reach Main Mission with the report. Paul had called for her, and she was trying to comply, but she just could not make it. The data was unbelievable; it simply could not be true. Had she entered the parameters incorrectly? If not, Ouma would call her harshly to task for such a novice mistake.
Had she reported to Paul? She could not recall. She did oh-so-clearly remember the ground shaking and heaving underfoot as the air circulation fan shred itself apart on the ceiling high overhead. She could still see the fan blade whipping through the air heading toward her, and her frantic attempt to throw herself out of its way. They told her later that she had almost died, that she should have died, if the blade had struck her even a fraction harder than it did, or if her head had been one or two centimeters lower. So many ifs.
She had snapshot memories of events after that. Tanya shielding her from more damage. Paul's voice calling for Medical. Dr. Russell sending her to Earth. The trip down on the Rescue Eagle had passed in a medicine-induced fog. Once back on Earth, there had been brief periods of pain-wracked lucidity where she was questioned intensely; but after that, she recalled nothing until Peter's gentle voice awakened her in the hospital room. An older, wearier Peter, dark hair now sprinkled with gray. He told her fourteen months had passed, that the moon was gone, and the Earth nearly with it.
The doubt gnawed at her middle with a physical agony... like it always did. Could she have helped? Could she have somehow, in any small way, changed what had occurred on that fateful September 14th? Of course not. What had she been? A lowly Main Mission operative, that was all. Still...
Whirling images took her down to merciful oblivion.
Sandra awoke, the sense of something not right very strong even before she opened her eyes. It was dark. Pitch black, in fact. She reached over to tap Peter awake—and fell out of bed. Thoroughly disoriented, not to mention bruised by the unexpectedly hard floor, she shook her head to clear out the cobwebs of sleep. She paused, considering what was different. She was in her office, not her bedroom, and the headache was gone—that was it. Or was it? Her thoughts were usually a bit muddled for a few hours after a bad headache, but still, falling off the sofa seemed a bit excessive.
Had there been another power outage? They happened less frequently now, but they were statistically due for one in this section of London. It was so dark; it must be well past sunset.
She sat on the floor, holding herself quite still in the utter blackness. Something was truly not right. The air smelled wrong, and her office felt very wrong. She reached out to the sofa to help pull herself up—and had to swallow a cry of disbelief.
She had fallen out of a bed. A bed with contours and linen of such uniqueness that she could not be mistaken.
It could not be.
Standing in the dark, Sandra closed her eyes and counted to ten. Then counted out her birth date in Roman numerals. And finally, for good measure, spelled the word 'world' backwards in the eight languages she could read. There. She had to be sane. Carefully, again opening her eyes to the darkness, she made a systematic tactile search of the room, carefully mapping each piece of furniture in her mind and assessing the dimensions of the small space. It took a while, and some new bruises were added to her growing collection, but she finally came to the sinking realization she was not in her office. Nor any room in her home. Nor any hospital she could recall.
Sitting carefully down on the edge of the bed, Sandra took stock in what she was just barely beginning to suspect. Could it be? Could she be having a particularly vivid dream? She gathered her courage, took a deep breath, and said: "Lights!"
Something whispered in her mind that this was no dream. But if it was not a dream, then what was it?
The bright light flooded standard Alphan quarters. The contoured bed was exactly as she recalled, although the orange blanket was different. The room divider held an assortment of knick-knacks, some familiar and some not, but all recognizably belonging to her.
She rose and walked to the bathroom and addressed her needs. Everything there was as she expected. The most out of place item here was herself in Earth clothes. She walked over to the closet and opened the door. Her uniforms were hung neatly with shoes lined up underneath the slacks, as always. She pulled a uniform down to change. If this was all a delusion, she might as well be dressed appropriately for it.
The sleeve was red. That unique, bright, Alphan red that had been her pride and joy to wear when she had won her appointment to Moonbase Alpha. Tears formed in her eyes, memories of those first exciting days working on another planet flooding back crystal clear, unlike so many memories from later. This delusion was becoming more and more real with each passing moment.
Collecting a uniform and belt and laying them over her arm, she was heading back to the bathroom when motion outside the direct vision port caught her eye. A mixed wing of Eagles and Hawks was flying past. She almost dropped her clothes. Hawks? Then that report she had read for her dissertation had been correct. There had been orders to send Hawks to the moon, despite the official denials afterwards. Curiouser and curiouser. If this were real, which it most assuredly could not be, then... The implications were astounding.
That sense of unreality still lingered, but the headache was gone. She might as well see what else her subconscious wanted to explore. The therapist who had helped her cope with survivor's guilt had counseled her there would be days like this. What a tale to share with Peter!
She dressed, clipped on the waiting commlock, and decided to see if what was on the other side of the door was as well imagined as all this. She opened the door to the corridor just as a base-wide announcement pealed overhead:
"Red Alert! All personnel to their duty stations." The voice quickly caught her attention. Who had a voice so much like hers? And what is she doing in Main Mission?
"Red Alert! All personnel to their duty stations. Immediately!"
The door to her quarters closed behind her. The corridor was crowded with rushing bodies. Small bodies, all about the same size, in fact. Sandra looked around, disoriented by the unexpected. If her memory was correct, the way to Main Mission had been to the left, a short straight corridor connecting to the travel tube, then a trip to the heart of the moonbase, and finally up four stories.
To her left was an intersection, the signs on the top of the commpost bearing labels to the Reference Library, Eagle Bay Three and the Solarium. The entrance for Travel Unit Two was nowhere to be seen.
Someone bumped into her hard from her blind side. She stumbled and fetched up against the wall, a helpful hand keeping her from falling.
"Apologies," a familiar voice said even as its owner, a rust-sleeved woman, hurried swiftly away down the corridor.
"Do you need assistance?" Another familiar voice asked from behind her. Sandra turned to see a purple-sleeved security guard look at her with concern.
Sandra stared at the guard, at the Alphans passing her in the corridor, at the face on the commpost's screen. Petite, dark haired women with Eurasian eyes stared at her from all directions. She felt a scream bubbling up as she backed against the wall, frantically trying to put space between herself and her doppelganger. She turned and found her retreat blocked by a white-sleeved woman.
"Calm down. It will be alright."
She shook her head. No, this was not alright. It was utterly and completely not alright! The corridor around her started to swim, her vision becoming tunnel-like and then gray. This could not be happening. The small, dark haired medico was reaching out to her as she desperately tried to back away. Sandra somehow knew deep down that the woman should not touch her!
The last thing she heard was a scream of absolute fear.
She awoke, but kept her eyes closed. The sounds around her were familiar to anyone who has been hospitalized for months on end. She was on a medical ward of some sort. So, it had all been dream. Or perhaps a hallucination. She shook her head in mixed relief and disbelief. Why had she imagined an Alpha staffed with endless copies of herself? No, not copies; there had been differences beyond that of merely different uniforms. Echoes then. Many various echoes of herself? What would the therapist think of that? Deep down was she truly that conceited?
She used to have odd dreams in her first weeks out of coma. Images of Alpha and Earth all intertwined; people now certainly dead intermingled with those providing her daily care. It had been unsettling in the least, but she had never mentioned it to anyone, not even the therapist assigned to her to help in her recovery. She wondered what had happened for Peter to bring her here to the Emergency Department. A seizure, perhaps? She had not had one of those in years.
"Here now, you're finally awake."
Even with a British accent the woman's voice was familiar. Very familiar. Too familiar. The bubble of fear began again.
"You can keep your eyes closed, if you wish. Some of us are finding it easier if we do not look at each other. How are you feeling?"
Sandra opened her eyes briefly, and then closed them firmly.
"Lightheaded. Confused. Scared."
"Then you are doing well enough. We're all feeling that, more of less. Even the Commander, I have it on excellent authority."
Her mind whirling with the implications of what she had so briefly glimpsed, Sandra felt cool gloved fingers tilt her chin to the left, and then felt her hair being brushed aside. There had been white Alphan walls behind the woman, black space through the direct-vision ports, and the white-sleeved nurse—no, she had the unmistakable manner of a doctor—was...
"What happened to you to leave all those scars? And you're blind in that right eye, if I'm not mistaken."
Sandra jerked her attention back to the doctor's question. It was comfortingly commonplace in the midst of all this. "I was injured in the Breakaway explosion. The first one. I do not remember the second one. I was hurt badly, the damage was... well, I was in a coma for many months."
The doctor was silent for a short while. "A second Breakaway?" The question was obvious.
Sandra nodded her head, feeling the need to explain further. "I was amongst the few evacuated off Alpha on Dr. Russell's orders." She squinted her still closed eyes in the effort to recall that kind woman's face leaning over the gurney, telling her that she was to be evacuated off Alpha, but it was all so foggy. "I vaguely remember her telling me that Alpha did not have the resources I needed, but Earth did. She injected me with something, and that is the last I remember."
"So, Helena was there. Good. If she said you needed evacuation, I am sure it was so. You have been living on Earth?" The doctor's tone was wistful.
"Yes. But Earth is... it is very different. Things have changed..." Tears welled up in Sandra's eyes.
The cool hands patted her arm reassuringly. "Shh. That's enough for now. I'm sure the Commander will have questions for you—later. Rest now."
Sandra felt the familiar touch of a hypodermic nozzle against her neck, and the room mercifully faded to black.
She really needed to wake up. This constant retreat from reality was serving no good, and was rather cowardly besides. It was the quiet curses of the medtech that caused her to finally accept something very strange, but quite real, was happening. She had never cursed, not even in a dream. She opened her eyes, only to be confronted again by the faintly yellow-tinted wall of Medical Center. Things were a little different now. The walls a subtlety different hue, the space feeling 'tighter' somehow. A nurse busied herself across the room, helping some of the still forms that lay in the casualty beds.
It was easier if she did not directly look at the echoes of herself, especially those who most closely resembled her. It was interesting, but the women who were the most noticeably different seemed not to provoke such visceral disquiet. Such as the purple-haired woman in the silver catsuit now speaking with the doctor. Sandra blinked. That color purple simply had to be artificial. A wig perhaps, or at least she fervently hoped. She stretched her ears to overhear the hushed conversation. This was not the time for politeness.
"Doctor, this is the formula we use to cloud the memory of people who we'd rather not realize Shado or Moonbase exists. It is quite safe, although we have never formally tested it on a pregnant woman. The way I designed it, the molecules should not be able to cross the placental barrier."
The white-sleeved physician nodded her head briskly in acknowledgement, but then replied thoughtfully. "We do not have the luxury of time nor the resources for animal experimentation first, I'm afraid. Sedation is showing itself to be only a partial remedy. Pregnant or not, many of these women will lose their sanity if we do not do something more definite. And quickly. Explain to me the dosing schedule again."
Sandra sighed deeply. So, she was not the only one to be driven to the verge of madness by this bizarre situation. That in itself was very reassuring. She sat up, careful to look only at the purple-wigged version of herself, who was now turning her head in Sandra's direction, perhaps in response to the motion. Sandra quickly dropped her gaze. Eye contact was too much.
"So then, the sleeper awakens. How are you feeling?" The doctor walked over but stopped a few feet away.
Sandra took a few deep breaths, which helped to calm and re-center her, enough so that her native curiosity returned. "Better." She was surprised to realize she meant it. The vertigo and sense of unreality were gone.
"Good," nodded the doctor. "Still, you experienced one of the worst reactions we've seen. I'm inclined to keep you sedated, for your own good."
"No!" Sandra bit back her next words, and took a deep breath and continued with an earnest smile on her face. "Please, no. I am better, truly."
She darted a quick glance at the doctor who was studying her thoughtfully.
"The Commander has requested all capable personnel report to their stations. Are you capable? What is your skill?" The woman who Sandra now realized must be the CMO asked.
Sandra's smile faded. "I was assigned to Main Mission as a..." she paused, saddened. "But..." she gestured to the side of her head. "I can no longer see the math. I will be of no use."
The doctor nodded as if she understood. Perhaps she did. "What do you do now on Earth?"
Sandra raised her head, forcing herself to make eye contact, if only briefly. She was proud of what she had accomplished, even if it was about as far as academically possible from what she had first excelled in. "I am a historian. My doctorate was on the events leading up to and surrounding Breakaway."
The doctor tilted her head, ostensibly still studying the extensive scarring that was for the most part hidden by Sandra's long hair. "Very commendable. You took a handicap and turned it to your advantage. You may not be of use in Command Center, but I know someone who would be very interested in interviewing you." The CMO unclipped her commlock, holding it up but not quite looking into it. "Communications Officer, please." A quiet exchange took place, of which Sandra could only hear the one side.
"Yes, we are crowded, and becoming more so, but please relay to the Commander that I now have a potential treatment for the most seriously affected. The reason I called, though, is that I have someone who might provide interesting insights for your survey. She is a historian." A pause as the other woman obviously spoke. "No, I'd rather she didn't leave Medical." Another pause. "That is acceptable. She will be in an observation room awaiting your arrival."
The doctor re-clipped her commlock to her belt and addressed Sandra again. "It might be a while. She is interviewing those in Reconnaissance just now, but was intending on coming here next in any case." The doctor finally looked at her with a quick, penetrating glance. "I am pleased and relieved you are improved, but I do not wish to tempt fate. Too many of us are not doing well. I'll have you wait where there will be fewer... distractions. I'll try to arrange a computer terminal to be brought to you."
Just then, the door opened and a security guard stumbled in, helping a rust-sleeved nearly catatonic woman to the nearest gurney. The doctor hurried off to help, hypospray in hand.
The nurse escorted her into a dim, quiet room with viewports overlooking Alpha, and then quickly left without comment or making eye contact. They were all undoubtedly unnerved by this situation, but Sandra rather suspected that her scars and physical defects were especially upsetting to her echoes. Sandra shrugged. She had come to terms with the injuries years ago, now she much preferred seeing new possibilities. She walked over to the viewport and rested her arms on its ledge. She drank in the almost-forgotten sights of the lunar surface, Alpha stretched out in front of her. It was beautiful. Eagles and Hawks were poised on launchpads, some flying overhead in protective formations. A moonbuggy was scooting across the surface between buildings. Simply mesmerizing.
"If you watch carefully, you will see the buildings are shifting slightly over time."
Sandra jumped. She had not realized she was not alone. The woman had approached from her right, her blind side. She refrained from looking toward the voice, concentrating instead on the landscape outside. An orange-sleeved arm attached to an overweight torso appeared to her right as the woman leaned into the ledge of the adjacent viewport.
"I have wondered what happens to the inhabitants of a building when it shifts. Do they even realize it, I wonder?"
Sandra thought of that. Perhaps the subtle shifting of Medical Center's features had not been the result of faulty memory. She considered carefully before replying. "Everything is impossible about this, so I suppose shape-shifting buildings are par for the course."
The orange-sleeved echo chuckled quietly. "Maya would approve."
Sandra was silent at that.
"Do you not have Maya on your Alpha?" The orange-sleeved woman asked.
"No. I do not come from an Alpha at all. I was sent back to Earth due to my injuries," she gestured to the obvious scars, "before the second explosion."
"Earth?" There was that same wistful fascination in this woman's voice as had been in the doctor's. "There, look!"
The orange arm pointed out to the residential building. It had shimmered ever so slightly, like a tear film crossing one's eye, re-forming with one, or perhaps two, fewer stories? "I wonder, what happened to those inside?"
"Perhaps they returned home," Sandra mused.
It took a moment for Sandra to realize just how... odd, this conversation was; how unconcerned and distant they sounded. For all they knew, the people in that level were now dead. A coping mechanism, perhaps?
Sandra darted a glance at the other woman. Her first impression that the woman was overweight was very wrong. She was simply very pregnant. That made Sandra happy, somehow. She had often fantasized that her friends had somehow survived the Breakaway blasts. After all, the long-range images sent back from a Mars satellite showed the moon to be fundamentally intact as it had left the solar system. And then there had been the messages sent to Earth after the second blast. The confusion and fear were obvious in those one-sided communications, but so was the fact that Alpha had survived.
"You are an Eagle pilot?" Sandra asked curiously. She had never even considered that as a career.
The other woman answered with a smile in her voice. "In a manner of speaking. I am currently a grounded Eagle pilot, at least until I deliver the child."
Sandra nodded encouragingly and the other woman continued.
"I held a small-plane license on Earth prior to Breakaway, but only recently learned how to fly an Eagle. It is my cross-skill. I was Alan's willing guinea pig when he wanted to expand the pilot corps."
Sandra knew the name well from her dissertation research, as well as a vague impression of having once known the man. "Alan Carter?"
Sandra recognized the smile on the other woman's reflection and she decided to take a gamble, "You and he are..." She paused delicately.
"Married? Yes. This is our second child. We have a daughter named Danae."
"What a lovely name." And, perhaps not so surprisingly, one she and Peter had considered in the past. "What do you do on Alpha—your primary work, that is?" Perhaps she should wait until the Communications Officer arrived with her survey, but she was fascinated by what appeared to be the endless possibilities one person could achieve.
"I am Head of Service Section." The woman glanced at her orange arm. "Apparently that role here is filled, and I was selected for my secondary skill. Alpha can never have too many pilots, although gravid ones can be at a disadvantage."
Sandra smiled. "Yes, I can see that. The command modules are not very spacious." The other woman chuckled at that.
The two women enjoyed a companionable silence as they watched the Hawks and Eagles and moonbuggies going about their business.
The pregnant woman finally broke the silence. "And you? You made it back to Earth?"
Sandra nodded. "Yes. My injuries occurred during the first Breakaway explosion, and my evacuation took place before the second Breakaway several hours later. The one that sent our moon out of the solar system."
"Two Breakaways?" The surprise was apparent.
"Yes." Without entirely meaning to, Sandra fell into lecture mode. Why not? She was the surviving authority, in her reality at least, as to what happened and why. "The first explosion sent the moon out of Earth orbit, most likely to find a new role as a wandering elliptical beyond the gas giants. It was initially hoped that a rescue mission from Earth could have been mounted in six to nine months, once Earth herself had recovered from infrastructure damage. The second explosion several hours later changed that orbital trajectory utterly."
No need to go into the rumors of a 'copy' of Alan Carter and maybe an alien on the moonbase at this time. Best to start with the exchange of basic information. More could come later; if they did not all go mad first. She continued. "The second blast sent the moon out of the solar system entire and we received only limited information from Alpha prior to their passing Pluto's orbit. It is doubted by most that anyone on Alpha, or Alpha herself, could have survived long term." Perhaps this strange confluence showed otherwise? "Am I to understand events occurred differently for you?"
The pilot nodded. "We had only the one Breakaway, but it sent us out of the solar system. Our Earth reported wide-spread devastation." Her voice became very soft. "We do not think it could have survived."
The two women became silent. Death and destruction seemed to be a common theme, no matter which echo was followed.
Before Sandra could ask another question, the door opened and a yellow-sleeved woman bearing a clipboard paused at the open door, not looking at either woman. "I apologize for the interruption, but I am conducting a survey and need your assistance."
The Communications Officer entered and took a seat facing out the viewports, gesturing for the other women to seat themselves. Sandra thought it a most unusual interview: three identical participants carefully sitting in a line facing the viewports and not making any eye contact.
The short-haired, yellow-sleeved woman cleared her throat, studiously concentrating on the activity outside. "The Commander has asked me to perform a survey to help better understand what we are all experiencing, and to perhaps find information that will assist us in getting home. To get to our homes," she corrected herself.
It seemed to Sandra that the Communications Officer was intending to start with her, but the officer apparently changed her mind and instead addressed her inquiries to the pregnant pilot. The questions did not surprise Sandra. They covered what she would have asked: the pilot's roles on her Alpha, the events in progress at the time of her arrival here, as well as her moon's travels and experiences. The answers, though, amazed Sandra and she listened avidly. Could the pilot's Alpha really have traveled through a Black Sun? Met a sentient spaceship that almost kidnapped the Commander and CMO? Include an alien shape-changer amongst their number? The universe seemed so alive!
Just as the questions came to an end, it was apparent the pilot was exhausted. She leaned back in her chair and caressed her pregnant belly is a manner familiar to any woman who has carried a child. Soon, even that motion stilled, and the regular breathing told the others she was asleep.
The Communications Officer waited patiently, her concern for the pregnant woman apparent. Now she spoke softly, ever so slightly turning to face Sandra. Her manner was different now. Instead of the close-ended, focused questions she had asked before, there was only one question.
"Tell me about the two Breakaways."
The interview lasted three-quarters of an hour. Sandra described the events leading up to Breakaway, with the battle of wills between Commissioner Simmonds and Commander Koenig. How events played out such that the first explosion at NDA-2 occurred September 14th at 0715 lunar time, and the second explosion approximately four hours later, at 1137 hours. Sandra, of course, had not been on the moon for the second explosion, but her extensive research and access to the surviving pilots who had been involved in the events of those chaotic days had given her an excellent grasp on the situation.
Of all the things she explained, the point that appeared to most fascinate the Communications Officer was the documentation that hinted at the presence of a 'copy' of Alan Carter and maybe an alien on the moonbase at the time. It seemed that the officer was finally about to ask her questions when alarm sirens blared.
"Red Alert! Report to stations."
Sandra jumped, her heart skipping a few beats, as the pilot awoke with a start. The Communications Officer appeared to regret the untimely interruption, but nonetheless quickly excused herself and left.
"Do you think we should report?" Sandra asked, uncertainty coloring her voice.
The pilot smiled and shook her head. "I rather doubt the Commander has use for a grounded pilot and a....'
The pilot paused, obviously waiting for her to offer her profession.
The pilot looked gratifyingly surprised. Sandra was willing to bet that was one career she had never thought of. She had not, not before the accident.
"A grounded pilot and a historian. We had best stay where we have been put." The pilot then sighed as she settled back in her chair. "I do wish I had my needlework to keep busy. Sitting and waiting is never easy."
Time passed slowly as the women at first hesitantly, but slowly with increasing confidence, learned much about two of the many possibilities that the universe offered.
A little more than three and a half hours later, the commlocks of both women chirped a peremptorily strident tone. Automatically, each unclipped her commlock and held it up to receive the urgent message. The image on the small screen wore command black.
"Attention everyone! Attention please. We may have a way of returning to our respective realities. Wait for my mark, at which point you must make contact with each other to break what is holding us all here. This must be done by everyone simultaneously. Please send your response by computer connection to Command Center to verify. All must reply."
Sandra and the pilot shared a fleeting glance. It was time to go home. The pilot missed her Alan and she missed Peter.
Following the pilot, Sandra walked back out to the main bay of Medical Center where the CMO was doing a head count. The place was even busier than only a short time ago. Not knowing what was expected of her, Sandra was relieved when a white-sleeved nurse approached her, but was surprised when the woman stopped in front of her and actually looked at her.
"You can no longer see math equations or their answers in your mind's eye, can you?"
Steeling herself, Sandra looked into the white-sleeved woman's eyes. She had not met this echo of herself before. The eyes were brown, of course, but very shrewd and with a sharp, glittering, intelligence.
"No. Not since the head trauma."
The woman nodded as if not surprised. "You can still memorize characters." It was not a question.
"Yes." Sandra was confused to where this was leading. "I can no longer see how the equations relate, at least not easily, but rote memorization is simple enough."
"Excellent." The woman motioned for Sandra to follow, and led the way to a computer terminal. She spoke over her shoulder as she pulled out a keyboard. "It is not known if we will be able to take any physical reminder of this place with us when we return. So..." She tapped quickly for a few moments and then gestured for Sandra to step forward. "Memorize this."
Sandra glanced at the woman, startled to see the other woman regarding her intently with no evidence of any distress. Controlling the rising nausea, Sandra turned her eyes to the monitor and studied the long strings of characters present. Once upon a time, the meanings behind math equations would have danced in her mind, allowing her to see the answer. Of everything the trauma had cost her, that was the most painful.
It took a few moments to double-check herself. "I am done."
"Excellent. When you return to your Alpha, give that to a genetic engineer. The gene product that formula encodes may well be able to help reverse at least some of the brain damage. And even if it does not help, it will not hurt."
Hope flared. Could it be possible? "Who are you?" Sandra finally thought to ask. In her peripheral vision, Sandra could see the woman's small rueful smile as she glanced at the white sleeve she wore.
"Nursing is my designated cross-training. By profession, I am Alpha's, my Alpha's, Chief Genetic Engineer." And with that remarkable declaration, the genetic engineer-cum-nurse motioned Sandra to take a position between two beds holding unconscious bodies.
Standing where instructed, Sandra stood motionless in thought. Could the woman's formula really do what she said? And if it could, did Earth still have the resources to make it? Peter would know, or know someone who would. She shook her head to focus on the present. A nurse was gesturing for the pregnant pilot to take position between two beds on the other side of the room. The conscious were to be the binding links to fill the Commander's orders. The thought of touching any of the others sent a shiver down Sandra's spine, but she would do it. She had been through worse in her recovery.
To distract herself while they waited, Sandra let her eye roam along the filled beds of sedated women. It was obvious that many of the echoes were not coping at all well. The two unconscious forms the pregnant pilot stood between caught her attention.
One woman appeared to be wearing the tattered remnants of a filthy yellow-sleeved uniform. Her disheveled hair fell below her shoulders, and her eyes and cheeks were sunken in. She seemed very, very thin. Sandra shuddered. That was one reality she was glad not to be from.
The unconscious woman on the other side of the pilot was better dressed in what appeared to be a cream-colored linen tunic. She was better nourished and more neatly groomed, and appeared to be early in a pregnancy. What most caught Sandra's eye, though, was the multi-hued blue knitted vest the unconscious woman wore. From the way the pilot was lightly stoking the vest, it must be made out of very fine, soft material.
The room suddenly quieted. All attention turned to focus on the CMO as she walked to the middle of Medical Center, pushing the loose hair unraveling from her French braid behind one ear. Quickly glancing about, she straightened and spoke into her commlock, her voice resolute as she reported to Main Mission: Medical Center was standing by.
The room was silent in palpable expectation.
"Now!" The command voice crackled overhead. Sandra fought down her fear as she reached out to take the still hands of the women she stood between. Wave after wave of nausea on top of horrific vertigo almost brought her to her knees. Unable to take it anymore, she dropped the unresisting hands and concentrated for an eternity on keeping her stomach in place.
"Attention everyone!" The Commander's voiced whipped throughout Alpha. "Obviously the first attempt was unsuccessful, but we now understand what went wrong. Make rings of seven or more. On my mark make simultaneous physical contact. Yes, the nausea will be worse, but we should each be sent to our respective realities." Sandra was certain the startled look she saw on other faces was matched on her own. Not needing directions, the women quickly did as they were told and made a circle that in essence encompassed everyone in Medical, the unconscious and the unable linked into the circle by those who could still function.
"On my mark. Now!"
This time, it worked well—perhaps too well.
The nausea returned almost instantly, and quickly grew overwhelming, even terrifying. Despite orders, and despite herself, she tried to break contact—but she blacked out instead.
"Sandra? Sandra, love, please wake up."
The voice was beloved and familiar, as was the touch on her face. She opened her eyes and smiled to see a worried Peter kneeling next to the sofa and looking down searchingly into her face. How did she end up on the floor?
"Are you alright? Mother said you sounded quite odd on the phone last night."
Sandra looked around and realized she was in her office at University, the bright morning sunlight streaming in from the window over the desk. Peter had made the logical assumption when she failed to make it home last night and had found her still here.
"Another headache?" Peter asked as he brushed her bangs out of her eyes.
Sandra nodded, taking a deep breath to clear her thoughts, and then inhaled sharply as memories of a shape-changing Alpha and endless echoes of herself whirled in an unrelenting cacophony.
She reached out and grasped Peter's hand like the lifeline it was. "I am alright. As long as you are here with me, I am alright," she panted as the memories receded.
Peter looked openly concerned, but also relieved that she was in her right mind. In the past, several of the post-concussive headaches had left her all but insensible for days on end. Not letting go of her hand, he stood up, leaned over and scooped her up in his arms. Seating both of them on the sofa, he tucked her head under his chin and held her tight. She felt wonderfully protected.
"Can you give your final exam today, Sahn? You can always have the research fellow proctor it if you're not able."
Sandra opened her mouth to say she would most certainly administer the test, but then closed her mouth as she realized she really did not have to. This was the final class she would teach here, and she could most certainly grade the examinations from home, or from wherever there was a computer terminal. She looked up into Peter's brown eyes and smiled.
"Let me make a call, Peter, and then let us go." Peter waited patiently as she made arrangements, only now he was looking at her in bemusement, an admiring smile growing across his face.
"Sahn, I didn't realize you kept an old Alphan uniform here. You do look smashing in it, if I say so myself."
Sandra looked down at herself, and smiled. As completely and utterly improbable as it seemed, it truly had not been a fugue-induced dream. The red-sleeved uniform had returned with her, complete down to the commlock on her belt. On a whimsy, she unclipped it and thumbed it on. A blank screen stared back at her. Ah, well.
A phone call later and arrangements now made, they left her small office for the final time. Let anyone who saw her believe she wore the uniform in tribute to the final day here at University teaching her History of Breakaway course. She smiled. It felt so right on her.
She enjoyed the walk with Peter to their flat, even if the once common birds were all but absent. She listened contentedly to his descriptions of his latest flight south and what he had seen. Earth was still a shambles, but the world government was slowly imposing order and preparation for the coming ice age the climatologists said was inevitable within the next few generations. Peter was in no small way a part of that preparation, and she was very proud of him. Sandra sighed quietly to herself. She could no longer help program the great computers that ran the world, but she hoped, in some small way, she could instill in tomorrow's leaders a sense of responsibility for the Earth. That would be a fitting tribute to her lost colleagues.
Once at their flat, Peter saw first that she changed into casual clothes and lay down to take a nap before he made the final preparations. When she awoke at mid-day she felt refreshed, the strange events of the past night now able to be seen in better perspective. She stretched, but then quickly flexed her knees at the unexpected aches and pains in her legs. She pulled up her skirt, not really surprised to see the fresh bruises covering her shins, obtained as she had carefully searched out a dark room that should not have existed. She ran a finger lightly over the tender swellings. Yes. There was much to learn from what she had experienced. She would talk to Peter about it all, but not quite yet. First she wanted to write down as many of her memories and impressions as she could. Most especially that enigmatic equation.
There was a knock on the front door, which then opened. Peter's mother called out a greeting and tiny footsteps pattered in the empty and echoing flat. Sandra got up, a broad smile lighting her face as she walked toward the main room. She knelt and held out her arms in joyful welcome to the little girl that threw herself into her arms.
Smiling a warm welcome to her mother-in-law, Sandra picked up Helena and tucked the laughing little girl onto her hip. She gave the toddler a gentle hug and looked about the now impersonal flat. It had been their refuge from a chaotic world while she had healed and finished her degree. Now, however, its service was done. The family mementoes coming with them were packed and already en route. They would obtain what else they needed once they got to their new home in Australia—where Peter promised the birds yet sang and butterflies still flew free.
~~~ Fini ~~~
26 March 2010
This story now available in ePub format.
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, Carlton,
Granada Ventures, ITV, or any other current copyright holders of Space: 1999 or UFO.
"Echoes"an original story based on Space: 1999
Copyright ©2010, Meredith Kausch, and may not be
reproduced or published without consent of author.
This story is part of the
Bridges and Anchorages
saga (series) of fan fiction, and is to be followed
eventually by the second part of Bridge Four.
MGK is planning to release a short story—
"The Confluence"—at an upcoming point.
M-08/05/10: official release R-08/12/10: one word changed W-09/01/10: one image change F-10/01/10: one image added W-10/27/10: mnr img changes F-10/29/10: added ePub link