There seem to be a number of methods by which alien races and species learn to communicate with each other, some by obtaining linguistic data before encounters sometimes by decades or even millennia, some by offering and/or determining patterns during the early stages of an encounter. An adjustment period is usually the polite expectation, though obtaining data beforehand can lower the adjustment time. Some use well-hidden technology to aid in this. A translator circuit hidden in the outer ear that picks up sound from the outside or thoughts from the inside and translate them to allow rapid understanding or speech. Some even, unbelievably enough, embed such technology directly in their bodies. Psychons prefer to simply memorize arrays full of such information. Translator'experts were often dedicated to absorbing the maximum number, at least when we were more active space explorers. Much of the data could be purchased via barter with a race known as the Khorask, who operate in at least several galaxies but are surprisingly poorly understood. Yet there are known to be other means of obtaining language data, some of them of them quite mysterious. This is long-known to our people, but little understood in breadth or depth.

(from A Brief History of Psychon)


"Dance of the Flammon"

by David Welle

S-440 DAB: (Non-)Barrier

It was an exercise the Alphans had completed a number of times already, albeit with some new twists many of the times, this time no exception. First readings, however sparse, were coming from a new star system.

They had passed into this system not long before, and were still near the edge. Their bubble of normal space inside a shell of hyperspatial influence that pushed them through interstellar space at faster-than-light speeds, had collapsed as usual, and this time, they were now traveling towards the inner part of the star system. They would soon have some data on the presence of somewhat Earth-sized planets from this distance, something they were not able to do this early only a couple months ago.

Maya was collating data from the Indirect Gravity Wave Detector system, an invention of her and physicist Dr. Janina Conway about two months before, by combining some existing components in a new way and writing some additional software to process the results. The IGWD was now showing Maya data allowing her and -- after a slight delay -- Main Computer understanding of where not just this new system's gas giant planets but also the terrestrial -- small, rocky -- planets were.

There were three of the latter, the second of which seemed to be in a semi-optimal location for inhabitation by more typical sentient lifeforms.

She was acting in her role as Moonbase Alpha's Science Officer, something she -- and some of the other Alphans -- were not entirely comfortable in. In fact, her accepting that role had created plenty of new problems. At the moment, however, she focused on her duties. When she relayed to Commander Koenig that she had data, he briefly queried her for what that was, and she verbally submitted it.

What no one was expecting this far out was for Sandra Benes to be informing everyone that there was an incoming communication stream. It was so early, and they were so close to the edge of the system, beyond all its planets.

"Open the channel," the Commander ordered.

"Channel open," Sandra responded quickly.

A human-looking alien appeared on the screen. A male, with dark hair, a drab grey collar, and green tunic. "Da tret*ac abalornaehka hyronikta crom ep ko, seeki ryrorn sapad. Acba rezor labanor esibadanak?" Maya heard. The stream seemed to be a statement followed by a question, she thought.

Maya had been spending time drawing out each language hyperarray thread from her extensive memory of languages, and forming an extra index of key words in a different part of her mind, to speed up access, to become more efficient locating the correct thread and array and adjust more quickly for Alphan needs. She let her unconscious start searching for this language.

Commander Koenig spoke. "Da tretsek, wertas hyronikta Moonbase Alpha, seeyi Oor John Koenig. Uu zalaka huikor padaei woiwee manukorlaeh, i sapano leepi."

The contact had come so quickly that when she listened to the Commander speak, she was stunned at first, startled by him just talking some language from space that he had almost certainly never heard before. Then she quickly recalled prior discoveries, and was less startled, but still rather amazed and very puzzled to listen to this first demonstration in her presence of this ability. This had been a surprise discovery several weeks after she had first come to Alpha. During a conversation with Smitty, that he played a record he thought was in Alphan English -- Alphanglish she sometimes thought of it as -- but in which both Bethans and Terrans were speaking Bethaen.

As Maya mused, bemused, she also scanned the area for potential threat. She was careful to ensure the eepkond'arak signal was embedded, which she had been asked to program into the system after technical discussions with her had alerted the Alphans that the eepkond'arak was commonplace in space, as a measure of politeness.

Attempts to get a Terran to speak Bethaen again had failed, even when Maya spoke it to them. They strangely understood her, but replied to her in English, as if the fact that they knew Maya could speak English, Alpha's primary language, overrode the fact that Maya was speaking Bethaen.

Helena arrived in Command Center, as the discussion with these new aliens continued. The tone sounded cordial. Unfortunately, Maya had not yet recognized the language.

It was a strange gift that the Alphans had been given, complex yet very gap-filled. Their request for her to write in Bethaen -- and Deltaen -- had provoked no recognition in them, and that was the case for several written languages they could speak. The three complex block symbols they had recorded on both of the airlock doors on Balor's asteroid were concatenated words, in that case a stern warning about a "blood-minded criminal insurrectionist with insidious powers of mental infiltration." They had understood Balor's spoken Progron, as the Alphans now called the language, but not the written Progron.

Had the mysterious linguistic gift-giver -- the Alphans still strongly suspected Arra, Queen of Atheria, or something in the Black Sun they could not remember -- known only spoken language and given only such, or had they withheld written data, or just knew less of such? Still, Smitty wanted her to try more written languages, since only a few had been tried so far.

The Commander was speaking in what to Maya sounded like somewhat cautiously pleased tones. She glanced at Tony, and saw a cautious look, but one tempered with what she was finally realized was some hidden optimism. Helena spoke, sounding almost a little -- what was the Alphan word? -- giddy, for her at least. She heard the word Eagle or Eaglev. She realized she was not going to recognize this language. She had not memorized an associative hyperarray with this one in it.

Yet here the Alphans spoke it without an ear'device or technology, nor from any memorization protocol. Maya had metamorphic 'images' of a number of Alphans, and though she could not analyze details consciously, impressions, such as metallic resonances of commlocks, she could grasp. She had not sensed any metallic resonances indicating some unexpected device. It was different with the Exiles. She had metasensed Zova and Cantar, and could later recall each had something metallic deep in one ear canal each. This had been confirmed after Zova's body had been found in orbit and retrieved for autopsy, before burial on the Moon. Unfortunately, the device itself had shattered in the cold vacuum of space. Maya had been studying the tiny, fragmentary remains of those, as well as the pods of those two Exiles, since then, as adjuncts of the Alien Ship Salvage project she was leading.

Helena and Tony had been kidnapped and Maya stunned in that incident. Getting shot was unpleasant. Even in animal form, her molecular structure still fought against the strike, but it was too strong, and it overwhelmed her, forcing her back to normal form even as it rendered her unconscious. She had felt worse about failing to protect her friends. She had paused to think of a form to turn into, and had surprised Cantar and Zova, but had failed to anticipate that while in that animal form, she would not have enough mind to realize the importance of the stun gun. She should have left herself an impression of needing to be territorial about the stun gun, or at least that those in red and yellow should not be allowed to have it. She was glad her friends had managed to return, and that they had accepted her explanation graciously. There was little doubt these people from Earth were survivors. She was starting to understand why they were a mix of cautious and hopeful.

She still listened to the words being spoken now. Some Alphans had expressed amazement at the way she had been able to learn languages since adolescence, via a means she did not find all that unusual, for her people at least. Yet she was still amazed how these people seemed to have learned languages for no discernable reason at all, speculation aside. For some reason, she found the strange symmetry pleasing.

Eventually, Sandra muted the conversation, so the Commander could briefly converse with his officers or other personnel he might wish to query.

"Tony?"

"Well, that seems more genuine than most other invitations, but you know my usual caution," Tony said.

Maya felt a pang in regard to his reference to "invitations" -- remembering the deceptive one her father had extended to these people, a few months ago. Indeed, Maya had experienced Tony's caution first hand after her arrival on Alpha shortly thereafter. He had watched her like a hawk on one hand, even while acting friendly and being helpful on the other hand, until he had gotten more comfortable with her. One day, the already-melting suspicion had simply evaporated, for unclear causes she had not dared to ask about.

"Maya?"

"I am not detecting anything unusual or threatening in the immediate area, Commander, but we are still well out of range."

"Uh huh, we have to accept or reject an offer when they know more about us than we of them?" Tony added.

"Not unusual," Helena stated, wryly.

Maya continued looking at the Commander, staring almost, which around here she would have feared would be taken the wrong way, but which she had been told would signal him she had more data to provide.

"Maya?"

"You and they are speaking an alien language I am unfamiliar with."

That got all the others looking at her and each other.

"So it is instantaneous recognition on our part," Sandra observed.

"Well, so we do know something about them, even though we don't know how," John stated. He then looked around, saying, "Any objection to accepting the offer to visit their planet?" He paused, then said, "No? Okay. Sandra, re-open the line."

He spoke for awhile in the alien language. There was what seemed like a brief argument, the Commander looking at his first officer, Tony giving a slight frown but also a shrug. The conversation soon ended.

"Well, it will be a couple days before we're even in range. They're going to wait for us to arrive before resuming discussion. Their world is named Crom II, Maya. His name is Ryrorn Sapad."

"I heard the words Crom Ep and his name as words, though I didn't realize they were proper names," Maya provided.

However, there were other priorities right now. "Is there any further data on the second planet?" he asked.

"At this distance, very little, except our likely closest approach distance," Maya provided.

They discussed this and other information, but there was little to prepare for, for the aliens had insisted on in-person communication being important, rather than discussions over lines. This had shut out any preliminary discussion of potential trade or settling on their planet.

This left little to discuss among the Alphans. They would just have to be ready as they could be for any eventuality.


M-441 DAB: Roadblock?

Shortly after, John was in the small conference room near Command Center, for the daily briefing, sometimes called the Daily Security Brief, given Tony Verdeschi was the chief of security. It was really about many things, however, given Tony was also the base's first officer.

Having arrived first and sitting alone for a few minutes while Tony finished checked something, John had mused on the whole language phenomenon, which he found interesting and very deeply puzzling. He should have still felt more unsettled about it. Should have from the moment he heard about it. He had, a little, but not as much as he would have expected. Just as the mysterious gift givers had arranged this embedded knowledge to remain used yet unnoticed, deflecting suspicion, it seemed as if it were trying to deflect strong reactions after discovery, deflecting more disturbed feelings -- though it hadn't stopped at least some semi-concerned statements among some about "alien meddling" and such.

Even now, it seemed to be acting, for he found himself wanting to think about something else. He didn't mind in this case, because the language puzzle wasn't going anywhere and he had a thought about the upcoming dance. It was Alpha's first since Breakaway, and though a casual event, he still wanted to make it formal in one way, by asking Helena to accompany him. Would she find it too old-fashioned?

Doesn't matter, he thought. That is what I want to do. He decided that after this meeting, he'd see if Helena was in her office or that he could otherwise meet with her alone for a few minutes.

Tony arrived and soon started expressing more concerns.

"I am more leery about this after thinking some more," Tony Verdeschi stated.

John knew Tony as someone with good instincts. If Tony judged someone positively immediately, that almost always bore out, Tony had said in prior interviews for the Security Officer position. So far, that had been borne out, along with cases where Tony's first reaction was essentially negative. It was the in-between cases that provided less useful information. Yet even then, Verdeschi was still helpful because he could throw lots of positive and negative potential outcomes -- basically provide a lot of brainstorming and play devil's advocate very well.

The prior communication with the inhabitants had gone well -- mostly -- John thought. The alien, named Ryrorn Sapad, had opened with a welcome to the star system of Crom II, had introduced himself by name, and had politely asked why Alpha was approaching. In similar order, John had introduced Moonbase Alpha, himself, and given the familiar declaration that they were there by accident, meant no harm, and wanted to discuss possible interaction of their peoples.

A few more details had followed, then an invitation to come to Crom II when Alpha was close enough. A bit of information about Eagle launch windows had allowed a proposed ETA to be set, with the aliens then asking if the Alphans wished to accept the offer.

Offline at that point, Verdeschi had of course expressed his usual caution. Besides the general concerns, Tony had pointed out the initial offer was for a timeframe that would put the Eagle out of Alpha range for about a day during initial meetings on the planet, adding risk, the security officer thought. It also added opportunity for further research, John had pointed out. Besides, they could talk in the meantime, he had stated. With that, the other officers having no specific objection, and one indicating the Terrans were actually speaking the alien language, it seemed like almost everyone was ready and mostly optimistic about the chance for a face-to-face meeting. Koenig had accepted, but when he tried to get some more over-commline discussion to continue between now and then, the aliens had resisted, insisting only direct meetings were proper for deeper discussions, not 'coarse methods of technological word exchange.'

Feeling the press of time, John had tried arguing, but did not press when it seemed the aliens were set on this and might start taking umbrage at further argument on this point.

Koenig had delivered the decision to accept the offer, and in return, the aliens had delivered landing location information.

"We start a dialogue I thought was good," Tony now continued, "but then they start throwing up roadblocks about having to meet in person to discuss anything further."

"In-person meetings are often the norm, with the early discussion only serving as initial introduction and setting up the face-to-face."

"I know, but that's humans; adding alien culture to the mix only complicates understanding the motivation."

"Maybe, maybe not. Would you recommend changes?" John asked.

"At this point, I have nothing concrete. I just wanted to offer my new concerns. We can't exactly go in armed to the hilt on what is supposed to start as a diplomatic mission."

"Exactly. Okay, I think for an initial team, it should be you and myself, and I'm thinking Helena too," John stated, to Tony's nod. "Plus probably Sandra."

"Sandra?" Tony objected.

Verdeschi's misgivings about the slight and tragedy-struck officer were known to Koenig from prior discussions, including about the possibility of eventually training the junior officer for senior officer duties and the possibility of command. There were no concrete plans yet, but John had started including Sandra in a few related tasks, to judge her aptitude for that, how well she might be pulling out of her shell, and trying to encourage both, subtly.

"She used to go on missions more, and--"

"Get herself into trouble, from the reports I read," Tony stated flatly.

"Far from always and we all have gotten into trouble."

"Hmmph."

Tony worked well with Sandra, and John knew he appreciated the abilities of Benes as data analyst and junior officer, but maybe it was time to get the two of them on the same Eagle during a mission, for the first time. It had helped Tony overcome a lot of doubts about Maya becoming a junior officer, when John, after Helena's suggestion, had included both of them on Eagle 1 while exploring Kaskalon.

That only cemented his decision on Sandra, who he thought was stronger than Tony -- or even Sandra herself -- realized.

Tony picked up on John's becoming more set on that point, but shifted to another, though as John listened, it was a reasonable concern: "That leaves us awfully thin on officers remaining on base."

"I know. Alan, his first in temporary command, and Maya as the sole remaining officer."

"Which as much as I agree with making her a junior officer even while continuing her training.... Having her as Alan's second?"

"With various experienced operatives assisting both."

"I'm not sure I like it."

"This is a diplomatic mission, which could become about settlement on a new planet. I'm the Commander, you're Security and usually good at arguing multiple sides, Helena's medical, and Sandra can run various other data analyses right on site and more directly look for various factors to check, which I think is best considering we will be out of base contact for nearly a day, and she and Helena can run the non-medical and medical factors analyses on site from the start. Sometimes it is best to have the most experienced or best people on site. Extra risk for that potentially greater benefit."

"Yes, but could spread that experience out with some lower-ranking people, in greater numbers."

"I'm not sure bringing a larger contingent in an initial meeting, when they could perhaps come later if initial discussions go well, is wise. Smaller teams tend to be treated with less caution by those receiving the team."

"Because we're even more defenceless."

"So you want seven in case we have to fight a planet, rather than four?"

"Hmm, I see your point. It's not always about numbers. My concern still stands, but I won't press it any further."


M-441 DAB: A Dance of Cultures

Later the same day, with the excitement of a new first contact some hours behind, a few days ahead to make relatively minimal initial preparations, and her day's duty shift in Medical over, Helena went to a cafeteria for a somewhat late supper.

She found Maya eating alone there. Helena knew Maya felt meals were often key socialization times. A Psychon's fourth meal was the only one usually taken alone, while the others were often but not always social in intended nature. Yet Maya's longer day, over 33 hours compared to 24, often left her with meals at offset times. While she had partially adapted by sometimes sharing her fourth meal, awkwardly labeled a 'snack' by Alphans, or moved her meals about a little, she often still ended up eating alone. Frequently, she removed the food to eat in her quarters, or just did so from the start.

"May I sit down?" Helena asked. Maya immediately and graciously approved. That Maya didn't just take all her meals to or in her quarters and wait for invitations was a sign Maya was still trying to fit in. It was just too bad there was still a fair amount of ice floating around that had not been further broken.

They briefly discussed Crom II further, while Tony sat down alone at a nearby table and started eating quickly. Helena's thoughts about Maya soon had her turning to a different social topic. "So, I see Sally Martin and Karen Smith are organizing Alpha's first post-Breakaway dance. Are you going?"

"I was not invited."

"The invitation was for anyone."

"Hmm," Maya said, rather evasively it seemed.

Helena had heard, via Bob Mathias, who had better tabs on some aspects of Alpha's social side, via his psychological practice and via his friends, that it seemed many parents had rejected Maya's presence around their children. Both doctors had been loath to interfere in this area, however, feeling that would create further backlash potentially more permanent than the initial reaction, which if left alone, might fade away, one parent after another. Helena had seen Maya interact with a baby, namely Susan Crawford's son George (formerly named Jackie), however, and Maya seemed a natural.

While Smitty had gotten along with Maya early on, but it was unclear whether his wife Karen had been so welcoming. Maybe not, and maybe that was creating resistance in Maya to accepting the event organized in part by Karen. Then again, maybe it was over an alien factor. Of course, there was a simple first question....

"Did Psychons have dancing?" Helena asked instead.

"Yes, to let established couples show social affection among others and provide an example of how happy such can be."

It was a cultural similarity yet a difference at the same time, discussed in a way that was somehow warm yet clinical.

"Well, while that's also true here, we often use dances as a way to start establishing such relationships."

"I had not gained any such perception yet."

Sometimes, Maya still talked like an alien, either in her choice of words or in feeling she was the alien among them. Understandable, yet Helena had observed an early curiosity in Maya about her potential genetic compatibility with humans. The Psychon had not had any prospects on Psychon, being alone with her father since mid-adolescence. Early on her arrival on the Moon, she seemed to quickly realize it was unlikely she'd see ever see another Psychon again.

Yet despite the little looks Helena had caught Maya giving human men, and the stares cast her way that Maya had trouble distinguishing from the other stares, some of which were more intolerant, Helena was not aware of anything new here. Maya now seemed to be carefully avoiding giving out any signals, as if feeling they'd be roundly rejected and she had decided to bide her time. Helena had used a light touch pushing Maya in other social aspects, leaving most things to develop on their own time, but occasionally giving Maya a nudge in one thing or another, always lightly. Maybe this was another time.

"Well," Helena started saying, "I think you should go. You'd like it."

"No one has invited me," she stated, basically repeating a prior point.

"As I said, the invitation was for anyone."

"There is no man inviting me," she said in a clarifying tone.

It seemed like Maya was standing on thin ground virtually repeating points, but Helena was understanding her dismissiveness was on somewhat cultural reasons. Of course, it was not an unfamiliar one to Helena. The dance was open for anyone to go, as a couple or a single, but Helena was nonetheless appreciative when, a few hours ago, John had asked, in a rather old-fashioned but romantic way, whether Helena wanted to go with him to the dance. She had of course accepted.

Maya had not seen a Psychon dance in half her life, so maybe resistance would not be too ingrained, would be more about words than experience. Helena didn't want to deny Maya's cultural background, yet this Psychon was already showing a lot of willingness to try adapting. Besides, sometimes even getting a relationship started meant stepping out of one's comfort zone.

"You heard what I said before, that it sometimes helps people meet."

Maya had that dubious look again, yet was not acting shocked, acting more like some part of her was interested. Maybe there was nothing on Psychon saying that an solid invitation in the context of an existing relationship was absolutely demanded, but just that no Psychon would see the point in going without one. Maybe Helena was providing a valid reason in the milieu of the new culture, or cultural melting pot, that Maya found herself in. Still, Maya resisted....

"I don't know any human dancing protocol."

It was another evasive answer, yet was not sounding truly dismissive. Then Helena realized Maya had somewhat trapped herself, or perhaps unconsciously had let herself get trapped. Helena moved quickly.

"You don't know any of our dances? Well, that should be easy to deal with." She looked away from Maya. "Tony? Do you have a moment?" Helena caught a subtle, odd facial expression from Maya. The Psychon and the Italian had become friends, but Helena was aware of a slight bit of tension between them, the tension of at least a little mutual interest neither seemed willing to act on. That Tony happened to be sitting nearby and at just the right time was one reason Helena had broached the topic now. Sometimes timing, even if not entirely conscious, was everything.

Tony wandered over, greeting Helena and Maya.

"Maybe you can help Maya with something," Helena then started.

"Sure," Tony said.

"She's not familiar with our current typical styles of dancing."

"Er.... Uh... I... don't know anything about teaching dancing."

"You make it sound so complicated." Helena cajoled the reluctant Terran man and Psychon woman to meet Helena again in the Recreation Centre, after supper.

Once there, Helena selected some music. They both seemed reluctant to touch, much less dance with each other. They'd shared some touches to arms or shoulders at times before, both showing more willingness on that, but dancing was more than simple friendly contact. Finally, they did, and some awkward, slow teaching and learning commenced.

Someone would walk in once and awhile, and Tony would blush slightly and give a rather uncomfortable look, while Maya seemed to hesitate looking at his face much. She probably missed that Tony was signaling other people he was just helping Maya at Helena's request, not truly dancing with Maya.

Suddenly, Helena was starting to gather more of why no man had tried approaching Maya yet: reputation. Who'd be the first to try approaching the Psychon romantically and take the mixed or negative reaction from male friends? Maybe even... if that attempt or such a relationship failed, how'd human women react to a man who had tried dating -- or had a relationship with -- an alien? As a woman, Helena could guess that this concern might indeed have a basis in reality. Not universally but likely.

Maya, for her part, just seemed happy anyone would try to help her learn something more about human customs. She had set her expectations low from the beginning, and probably wasn't expecting much out of this either.

The Psychon might not have known Terran dance, but either she'd been taught something on Psychon, or just had natural grace, for she learned well and fairly quickly. It was not without some mix-ups and stepping on toes or getting her toes stepped on, however, which fortunately the uniform boots took fairly well.

Tony was already a smooth natural. The handsome Italian was obviously considered a very eligible bachelor, and Helena could certainly understand why, even though he was not really her type. He seemed family-oriented but not the settling kind yet, it seemed.

John, however, was the settling down type, and Helena wanted that with him, and was already in a deepening relationship with John. After the incident with the clay head-and-neck sculpture Helena had made for him in lieu of the more Alpha-norm picture, John had started making an effort to repair the damage done by Zova -- but Helena had joined in soon enough. The sharing of physical affection had progressed further than before, finally showing both were willing to progress beyond the losses both had received, if not all the way to the next level, at least further than before. The wonderful yet frustrating tension between them was increasing.

It was difficult to tell if any tension was increasing between the two dancing in front of Helena now, to the strains of music Helena would be sure to suggest to the planners of the upcoming dance. It was scheduled in under two weeks from now, well after the upcoming Crom II encounter -- assuming they were still stuck on base at that point. Maya and Tony seemed comfortable now, but both showed teacher/student behavior, rigorously enforced, keeping emotional distance even where physical distance was more lacking. At least Tony was not rejecting that much, and seemed more comfortable when no one else was present except Helena.

It seemed Maya might be ready to dance for real by the time of the event, at least to the limits of what she might learn beforehand, even if she was still awkward about all the rest. Helena decided to make sure she secured some time from both to continue the lessons before and after the Crom II mission.


R-444 DAB: Clouds and Circles

Two days later, John, Tony, Helena, and Sandra boarded Eagle 1 for the mission, cognizant that this was still much of the command corps of the base, but knowing such personnel were often the ones needed on missions to try securing the best outcome. There was no initial probe mission by non-officers, for they had already communicated with the aliens and accepted an invitation to visit.

Alan would remain on base, in temporary command, with Maya as the only remaining officer, relatively new or not, as his primary support, along with key, experienced operatives. Alpha was not at alert state, but was nonetheless in a high state of readiness, to defend Alpha or initiate Operation Exodus to evacuate to the planet.

Alan had been in the process of being trained for temporary -- perhaps permanent if there were unfortunate circumstances -- command for some months now. Helena had been the first to start such training, only months after Breakaway, already feeling space was dangerous and could cost some officers or their commander their lives. Tony had already undergone such training, in general terms, before Breakaway, before his posting to Alpha even. His career had taken a long and twisting path that had seen him ending up on Alpha as a mere security guard that at least could speak technicalese better than most other Security personnel, something that had turned out to be of value on a base full of scientists.

After his promotion to Security Officer and then First Officer as well, in between which had occurred the loss of two officers (Morrow and Kano), a de facto officer (Bergman), Verdeschi was the first of these untapped or newly command-ready personnel to be in temporary command, at Psychon, followed by Helena at Kaskalon, and now Alan at Crom II.

Tony's roughest edge had been a somewhat reactive personality, that though fairly tempered by reasonable aspects, could still lead to foot-in-mouth syndrome or rash action. He was still young, and could still be gung-ho. Yet he was intelligent, and he did tend to compartmentalize well -- though sometimes not without some prodding to do so. One such case had been over Maya after her arrival here. John's reminders then had focused on those aspects.

Helena had no real problem taking charge. In talking with her formally and informally, he had gained a picture in the last year that right after her posting to Alpha, she had found Medical Section in some chaos, and had found herself having to assert some steely control. He had seen evidence of that since, as well, such as during the Ariel encounter. She had a strong core of sympathy in her, yet she was adept at making tough medical decisions, and had found that training her was partially about bringing forward some of those same sensibilities to command.

Alan was, in some ways, the most difficult, and he felt potentially most unpredictable. He was reliable in many ways, but one of his most reliable characteristics was most reliably dangerous in some situations. He was loyal, defended his own strongly, but in doing so, was quick to try shooting first and asking questions later. It had nearly gotten Helena killed on one occasion. That was not entirely his fault by any means, and John knew why he had that characteristic: chain of command. He was used to taking orders, and where cut off from communication, to doing what he could to finish the mission successfully. Judgment was not always called for, and in other cases snap judgments on first instinct were called for. It was an irony that the very characteristic trained in by the military was one that had to be somewhat unlearned as one climbed the ranks, to let oneself start thinking, while still taking orders. Alan was showing those signs, but John had to stress the importance of taking a few breaths, taking some advice, and then making a decision -- that if those few moments were afforded, or could be created, to take them as they were valuable. John was under no illusion of instant change, but Alan was an excellent officer who did have command potential, but like Tony and Helena, had rough edges.

So now in just over one hundred days, all three had or would soon have their first temporary commands. There had been no choice but for people to learn new roles quickly. Space could be cruel to the prepared but even more to the unprepared.

One final part of the preparation (though some training would continue) was John just recently giving Alan the information on the Directives and other coded signals, most established post-Breakaway, and a few more since Psychon.

The launch began, for a landing on Crom II at the pre-arranged time. The name of the planet had gained some Alphan interest. Alan had pointed out that while many knew Earth could be called Sol III, no one would introduce it that way to aliens. That these aliens had introduced their own world that way suggested they had not always been there.

"A colony?" John had wondered aloud during that discussion, but soon nodding, accepting it as a potential clue.

The journey was nearly twelve hours -- again thanks to a long lead-in time with the early detection of a planet and communication with it. Though the mission had started with John and Tony piloting, it had since shifted to Tony and Sandra. Though this Eagle was unarmed, Tony was not surprisingly going over battle tactics with Sandra. She and Maya were in Eagle Training Phase 2 -- which moved beyond take-off, general flight, landing, and some basics, into more detail about weapons systems, tactics, evasive maneuvers, more troubleshooting procedures, and such. Such were not being outwardly practiced now, in part due to having passengers and in part to not alarm their upcoming hosts. It was all discussion, known and approved by Alan, for exposure to learning from other good pilots was a fine idea.

This left John and Helena in the back, now separated from the other two, and it wasn't long before John discovered Helena wanting to lean against him and talk about some of the better times on Alpha.

It had not been lost on him that she was more openly smiling around him, even a little more in public, and he was not only not minding it, but enjoying it, and reciprocating more and more often. They had few opportunities to see each other much, and even the relatively quiet time between Psychon and Kaskalon had still been busy with repairs, remembrances, preparation, and dealing with the new situation of having an alien permanently settle in, along with some incidents relating to that.

Yet in recent weeks, there had been Kaskalon, which had separated them for a few days, followed by the wrenching kidnapping of Helena, along with Tony, to Golos, by the Exiles. Hearing her screams then still echoed sometimes in his mind. It was haunting, that they were in the wilds of the universe, in frontiers beyond imagination, subjected to all manner of tests it sometimes seemed, of will and relationship.

Deep space brought them turmoil, yet that had only strengthened them. It had brought Helena a "reflection" of her lost husband, she had called the being which had come to Alpha from Terra Nova. She had finally told him some of what had happened on that world, and he was shocked. She had found renewed grief about Lee, yet a sort of unexpected "closure" to a degree, she had recently said.

Was that why it was getting more and more difficult to hold back his feelings now? That one of the reasons he had been holding back, was now fading?

"Approaching atmosphere, Commander," sounded Sandra's soft but clear voice over intercom, interrupting musings and shared thoughts.

John came forward, into the pilot module, relieving Tony as the pilot, while Sandra remained in the co-pilot seat. The planet was looming large. It had very unusual color patterns: a mix of red and blue in a wide equatorial zone; some thin bands of yellow desert on either side, and green and blue zones towards the poles. There were no ice shields. On their way here, Sandra had reported land surface was slightly more extensive than ocean surface, though large lakes were somewhat more common, still giving a slight majority to water surface, overall.

That it was on what seemed like a fairly hospitable world certainly did not go unnoticed, with Sandra using the infrared scanners. The planet was generally somewhat warm, even viciously hot in equatorial regions. Its inhabitants perhaps agreed, because their two cities were not far from the poles, this larger one at latitude -71 degrees, near the south pole, but well out of its tiny 'antarctic' circle. The planet had only a 1.4-degree axial tilt, and a satellite probably barely a tenth of the mass of Earth's Moon.

As he started planetary approach procedures, John had Sandra open a channel to Crom II, to verify permission to land. It was greeted with polite but curt verification by an alien operative, as if they had thought it completely unnecessary.

They had been too far from the one city to pick up any detail or picture of it, but were approaching the other, which was under high cloud cover.

John followed the pre-arranged signal towards the landing location.

They broke through the clouds and had their first view of the city. It was a startling sight. It wasn't high buildings like on Kaskalon, but the strange road pattern of the city and outlying countryside: circles upon arcs upon more circles -- all of varying size. Every last road seemed to be built as some part of a circle, ranging from a short arc through most of a circle to entire circles. Each seemed to overlap with at least one other circle. Some were almost nested in a larger one, while others were almost equal overlap of almost equal size, while some were barely touching.

"Hell of a way to build a city," Tony opined over intercom, obviously watching a monitor from the back.

The city was roughly aligned over a beautiful, meandering, turquoise river, partially nested within or overlying its tributaries.

Its seeming heart was where the smallest circle radii were, and the tallest buildings, though they were of relatively humble stature, most little more than ten stories, with a couple of twenties and maybe a thirty.

The center -- and most of the city -- was sliding by starboard, to their south as they flew east towards where their landing coordinates were.

The paucity of cities, and this one's modest size, again suggested to John that this planet was possibly a colony.

Two aircraft resembling helicopters joined them, both to their portside. The nearest seemed unarmed, while the further one seemed to have a pair of missiles. It was a curious mix of technology they seemed to have, of highly advanced detection and communication systems, but flight systems -- at least in the atmosphere -- that resembled 1990's Earth. Maybe the Alphans had not seen their spaceships yet.

Their destination seemed to be at the juncture of one moderate and one large road circle, just to the north of their intersection. The larger circle was almost completely green -- too green. Agricultural area, he thought, noticing more such lush circles, though most of the others held a mix of green and buildings.

As he approached the landing field, he could see it was curiously just a sort of relatively small gravel field -- but appearing well-packed at least.

As the Eagle settled above the field and necessarily switched from anti-gravity system which could not be active close to the ground, to the undercarriage thrusters, the armed 'helicopter' eased away, evidently cognizant that the landing craft might feel more vulnerable at this point. The other hovered.

There were a few ground vehicles at the edge of the field, something not unlike minivans that looked more like narrow but tall beetles to apparently lower wind resistance. The field itself was one hundred meters on each side. Koenig eased the craft down on the far side from the vehicles, to avoid subjecting the people and vehicles to the downblast.

Sandra ran final environmental checks. The temperature outside here was comfortable. The oxygen was a little thinner than typical for Earth or Alpha, but well within human norm, and no poisonous elements were detected. So after those checks and checklists were complete, they gathered in the pod, exchanged a few words, then left the Eagle.

The first two aliens to approach still looked quite human, albeit the male had rather yellowish hair that seemed natural, with a simple cut, while the other was a blonde female. She had a ponytail with circular bands down its entire length, that the Alphans could see when she turned to the man. Ryrorn Sapad had dark hair, but he was not here. These two were dressed in muted green and blue pants/shirt outfits, his with black mixed in, hers with red. Both had subtle circular patterns in the outfits. They seemed fond of circles, apparently.

There was a quick greeting, and abruptly, the Alphans were being scanned at short range by both aliens. Tony tensed, but John noticed the aliens were treating this as normal first contact protocol. One alien looked expectantly at the Alphans, and Helena quietly moved her hand to near her medical scanner kit. John looked up to the aliens, who had apparently noticed the motion and seemed to be waiting expectantly now, so John signaled Helena to proceed, and Sandra, much to Tony's apparent surprise, also proceeded to doing so with her sensors. Fair turnabout, two to two.

Helena then turned and nodded, not unlike the aliens had done to each other, followed shortly by Sandra. No one had noticed anything amiss. Details would be discussed later, in private -- on both sides, undoubtedly.

"Please, follow me," the male alien stated, as the female gave a gesture indicating the same.

They got into one of the 'minivans' which, despite its aerodynamic look, provided a somewhat noisy ride. This prevented them from much meaningful conversation with the woman 'minivan' driver or the man who had taken a side-facing seat. They seemed more like temporary handlers anyway, so the Alphans settled in and watched the journey, which turned out to be unusual on the constantly-curving roads. At each major intersection, they usually turned right, except for a single left turn. Only on such curving roads could a series of mostly right turns still take them 'steadily' west-southwest, passing by a number of smaller gravel or paved landing pads along the way.

Tony watched the scene intently, undoubtedly memorizing the path taken, and other details about the outskirts of the city.

John did much the same, but spending more focus assessing the alien city as they moved from outskirts towards it heart.

He carefully watched Helena and the alien male as she moved up a seat to talk a little with him. Verdeschi glanced over, but Koenig subtly waved his finger back towards the outside, signaling him to keep his focus there. John would keep an eye on Helena's safety.

Sandra had her scanner out, constantly looking around, since it seemed to be almost expected. The alien man had noticed immediately, but seemed not the least bit bothered.

Good. If this is a potential home, the more known about it -- and the more open the people about it -- the better, John thought.

It was about a ten minute ride, the turns coming after shorter and shorter distances, as they got to the smaller circles deep inside the city -- but almost equal times due to the higher traffic, despite more lanes. Small 'helicopters' became somewhat more frequent overhead around here, which perhaps explained why the mostly two-lane roads seemed relatively uncrowded. They passed by what struck John as more of a spaceport, with what looked like more advanced craft -- though not many of those.

As the 'minivan' slowed and stopped at the next intersection, John could overhear the male explaining that this was busy and crowded airspace so deep into the city that only very experienced pilots were allowed to fly here.

Plus, John suspected that they were concerned that if an alien ship landed here and decided to start shooting or drop a bomb as it left, that half the flight capacity of the city could be taken out, not to mention the damage and death to other structures and bystanders.

The large city back on Kaskalon, dubbed Glasscit by Alphans and later found to be named Eemochawren, had been impressive, yet the building metaphor not truly that alien, despite everything else about that vanished people seeming highly advanced. Here, the people, at least on the scant evidence so far, seemed rather human in many ways, but the city was very different. Here, the always-arcing streets of various sizes and displacements, and increasingly smaller sizes, seemed to influence the way they built buildings. The result was a hodgepodge of 'random' widths, heights, and shapes to the buildings -- none really skyscrapers except for the few twenties and an apparent thirty. They all had very random-looking placements, while the buildings themselves seemed to follow no consistent patterns in shape or design detail either.

They reached their destination, a building with a wide base but only a few stories of height that nonetheless seemed to be one of the largest volumes in the area. There, they spotted Ryrorn Sapad, the Representative, approaching.

"Welcome to First City," he said after they got out of the transport.

"Thank you, Representative Sapad."

"I request you call me simply Ryrorn."

"Thank you, Ryrorn," he said carefully. Call me John. This is my first officer, Tony Verdeschi."

Verdeschi extended his hand, but the alien did not reciprocate. Yet Tony recovered quickly, saying, "Call me Tony."

"Thank you," Ryrorn said.

"Dr. Helena Russell, and Data Analyst Sandra Benes," John concluded, to similar returns from both ladies to use their first names as well.

The courtesies dealt with, they proceeded to the building. It was brick outside. It had a remarkably similar pattern to its orange-yellow bricks as the city plan did: lots of varying-sized chunks based on various-sized circles and arcs. The bricks were formed and mortared that way, but the patterns were more repeating than that of the city streets, probably to facilitate ease of making those bricks. Still, there had to be several dozen if not more than a hundred differently-shaped bricks to make the pattern work properly.

Ryrorn apparently noticed John observing this, and explained, "We often get that reaction. They symbolize the Circles of Life, defending against -- or containing -- the Flammon."

That word had not translated. Another proper name? "The Flammon? What does that mean?" John asked.

"It is an older word, meaning the Death Glow."


R-444 DAB: Business as Usual

Though time spent monitoring in Command Center was needed, there were other pre-existing meetings and needs that had to be tended to as well by Maya, if there was no immediate emergency. One was the weekly Science Board meeting, and this was not one she was looking forward to, for she would have to publicly ask for a progress report on something she privately knew was behind schedule.

Thomas Hayden had not followed Maya's recommendation. It had been a Science Board vote that had resulted in a tie, 4-4-1, with an unknown abstainer, presumably one who had too little understanding about Hydroponics combined with the immediate issue at hand.

Becoming Science Officer had made, by the rules of the board set up by the commander and his officers prior to Maya becoming an officer herself, Maya the chair'person -- chairperson or simply chair -- of the Board. Fortunately, Carl van der Mir, the former chair, had relinquished it very professionally. He and Maya had always gotten along well. That was not true of some of the others, and some tensions had increased, and it had become very clear to Maya that some distinctly did not appreciate her rapid elevation to Science Officer on a base she had first stepped foot on, completely alien and nearly in shock, two months before that point.

Carl and Janina were always respectful towards her, even when they disagreed with her on an issue, or fill in some knowledge'gap she had. Thomas, Abigail, and two others were not so kind. Not disrespectful in meetings, but argumentative even in contexts where she did not understand why they were taking an argumentative tone even when the content of their arguments was not much different from hers. The remaining two members were roughly in between, seemingly little more than tolerant but at least not arguing for seemingly pointless reasons. Still, maybe those reasons were not pointless. Maybe it wasn't just about her.

Still, sometimes it was, it seemed. Some people who had been tolerant interacting with her when she was just the Science Advisor, had become less tolerant -- some much less -- after she had accepted the Commander's offer of the Science Officer role. This had frustrated Maya, even when she thought that maybe it was one thing to be advised by an alien vs. being ordered -- or even just potentially ordered -- by an alien.

On her own, she had come to the conclusion that becoming an officer had apparently cost her at least one potential friendship. Maya had noticed, soon after the official announcement, that Sally Martin refused to return any electronic posts regarding sharing another meal, and greetings in the hallway had been nothing more than just polite. Kate Bullen had been more distant in recent weeks as well, sometimes indicating professional needs temporarily incompatible with social, which Maya would have been willing to completely believe if not for the case of Sally. With Kate, it had not started after the announcement, but a few weeks later -- though Maya was not sure exactly when, which left it more difficult to hypothesize on the cause.

Maya's early speculations about Sally perhaps being uncomfortable among leaders had made Maya realize that the concept of ziran -- leadership -- was far different here. On Psychon, it was very fluid, very accomodating to circumstances, and trained into the young from early ages; and all of these factors probably reinforced each other. It was the person who had more key experience in certain situations, the cross-training they had, or simple circumstances, that brought someone to short- or mid-term leadership roles. Leaders also remained well integrated socially, with little impact to prior relationships, in part because any signs of favoritisms in ziran'situations was so strictly shunned as total anathema.

The Alphan -- Terran -- way seemed somewhat more rigid, fraught with social aspects she did not grasp and feared she never would. Yet so far, beyond early suspicion from Tony, she had not come into much conflict with detraziran -- officers (before or after she had become one) -- so much as the non-officers since leaving the non-officer ranks. Ranks of the non-officers? The word 'ranks' seemed to imply a status level yet also a simple 'large quantity' indication, which seemed a subtle contradiction. Alphanglish was a strange language sometimes, she continued to think as she learned even more than she had already known.

She could do little about this, and it had frustrated her and apparently the Commander, and made her transition far more complicated. It also complicated her role as chair of the Science Board, for her authority situation over departments was complicated and slight at this point, while on this Board was stark but odd. It was like Psychon's scientific councils, on which many in her relatives had participated in at one point or another, and had thus described in some detail in Maya's presence or to her directly. The latter was no doubt as some general leadership training, and to perhaps prepare her for this specific possibility, that she might have followed in the footsteps of so many of her lineages, including her father and brother.

So she had to follow their footsteps in a most unexpected way, in a role similar but different from theirs, on a board that was similar but different to those councils, among an alien people both similar and different, with unusual concepts of leadership/ziranae.

Leadership. Another odd Alphanglish superficial compaction of words that did not seem to belong even contracted -- much less compacted -- together. Leader'ship? Yet they already had a word for long'time'term or frequent ship'leader: captain. Leadership was a word used everywhere here, even off ships. Maybe it had originated for ships, and spread more generally. Terrans seemed a people well suited for frequent travels in some ways. Or was it perhaps leader'ship once, 'ship' as a metaphor for leadership being a journey, not a destination? The Alphans were as fond of metaphor as Psychons, as she had found -- different as the metaphors sometimes were.

Now, her chair had given her the tie-breaking vote or overriding choice, and since the tie had persisted in a second vote, she had voted in favor of a controversial idea to take some plants and treat them with a new chemical that Manufacturing had produced as a byproduct of a chemical reaction required to better fill another new need. That byproduct chemical had been suggested as having possible fertilizer potential, and a small test had proven very promising.

That small test had been well within the department's prerogative to carry out, Maya had understood, but expanding the test to a significantly larger sample size had been brought up in an earlier board meeting, with the unanimous decision to elevate it to the command corps level for discussion, as it could have more significant impacts, positive or negative. Maya had done so, and a week ago had received approval for the board to proceed further, at its discretion on methodology. This is what had led to trouble, one faction suggesting using a rather aggressive test, applying scientific principals but in a larger jump, while another faction suggested a more incremental, cautious, time-consuming approach.

Thomas Hayden had counseled a cautious approach, while Maya had advocated the aggressive one. Maya suspected the abstainer was Janina Conway, who felt a middle-road was better, which while receiving broad agreement, was actually not very practical in this case, as Manufacturing could only make a small amount or a large amount of the chemical, Byproduct 409B -- named after the Day After Breakaway count when the Alphans discovered this byproduct.

It main chemical process took some energy and complexity in time, and Byproduct 409B -- also dubbed BP409B in the strange compaction pattern the Alphans sometimes used and called acronym -- was fast to break down. It was either try a larger quantity of it, or waste a lot of it.

Thomas had not liked the idea of removing a still-small yet significant percentage of several food plant species to try BP409B on them. If this went wrong in most or all of those species, there would not be starvation, but some temporary rationing would have to be enforced. Thomas had become extremely conservative, Maya had learned from others on the board, after a rogue study conducted by some that had resulted in three deaths in that department. Maya sympathized, but as she understood her own role, sympathy could be expressed but should not impede worthwhile goals.

Janina had argued that the waste of chemical if only some was used was not such a huge problem, given Alpha's surviving Nuclear Generating Areas were running well and a replacement for the one destroyed in the Zoref incident was under construction for later first'light in a few months. Maya had understood the viewpoint, but still agreed with others to take the chance, plant-wise. Maya was learning fast that there were many different life support limits, and as she started building matrices of understanding in her mind, was starting to perceive that while disrupting a lot at once in large amounts each was reckless and probably suicidal, changing each one by only tiny increments would take too long to expand Alpha's overall capacity. A mix of small and larger tries in different areas, as already discussed in Paul's Plan and related documents, made the most sense. They'd have to suffer some middle-term risk to try to lower the long-term risk of unexpanded capacities, or the survival of the Alphans beyond a generation or two was in doubt.

No wonder there was controversy.

"Maybe the Croms will let us settle," one started today's meeting. Unfortunately, that seemed to introduce a strain of dismissiveness into today's meeting, followed soon by an argument when Maya asked for the status report on trying the volatile chemical and finding that indeed, there was little for Thomas to report. He was taking a cautious approach despite the Board's overall if mixed decision that had forced Maya to give the overriding decision on implementation method.

This was a challenge, for the command corps had given approval for either approach, at the Board's discretion, but the tie had rendered it more at Maya's own discretion, and a man who had not always proven professional towards Maya now promptly got in an argument with her, and it started becoming more fractious.

"I'm trying to balance the volatility with a degree of caution," he was saying.

"That was not a parameter of the decision. We discussed that possibility, but the risk of the chemical degrading and skewing results was too great. You are risking that right now in the delay, and that could corrupt the results data we receive later."

"That can be tempered by methodology."

"That still reduces the effective sample size at original variables by introducing divisive new variables into the equation."

"You speak numerically and equationally a lot, but sometimes one's gut feel has to be trusted."

There was that word again: feel. Eagle Flight Training Level 1 (she was now starting Level 2) had taught her that the meanings of that in the professional context were very different among Psychons and Terrans, yet had also shown that both sides still did gain a feel based on some partial grasp of knowledge. Psychons just preferred to do it with lots of data absorbed quickly, while Terrans couldn't absorb raw data that fast or thoroughly but compensated by some rather startling logic'leaps.

Thomas couldn't see this, yet his words also put some doubts in her. Yet... she still had to decide whether to carry out her prior decision. It wasn't just a scientific thing, it was a professional and social thing. She mustn't be dismissive of new data -- that much she knew since being a child -- but wavering too much on decisions that might still be quite sound, carried its own risks in terms of lost respect.

Suddenly, Maya realized she did have a sort of professional 'feel' after all. She felt her own logic'leap that in this case, it was wiser to enforce the previously-considered decision of the Board and herself.

"Thomas, the risk of data'distortion is too high. You need to apply the remaining chemical now. Track the separation, given that you have delayed, but we will otherwise consider them the same data'set unless divergences are noted. Please look for them."

"But I still think caution is warranted. What about the rest of you?"

The others looked uncomfortable. Maya didn't have direct authority over the Hydroponics Department as a whole, but in the context of the Science Board and the topics considered, and her role of chair, she did have authority in this case, and he was clearly challenging it.

She had gotten this before, on the first of the now-continuing Alien Ship Salvage Exploration missions, and she had deferred a response at the time. Carl had needed to jump in to reinforce her authority, which though welcome and good support, she knew even at the time was probably something a good leader would have to use herself: authority. She knew a good way of doing it now, in this context.

"Thomas, this has been discussed in this manner, and the votes and decision made. I have reconsidered your words now, but my opinion has not changed. I accept as valid that perhaps some further discussion is warranted. Let us vote whether to do so."

The vote was 7-2 against further discussion. Most members wanted to get the show moving. Most seemed to understand some chances would have to be taken to secure a better future.

Thomas raised his hands in a gesture Maya assumed was defeat, verified by his words, even though his tone was unclear to Maya. "Okay, I understand. Yes, ma'am."

Maya distinctly disliked being called by some vague word rather than her own name, but in this rare case, decided to let it pass.

She'd have to check tomorrow on the progress. This too would be uncomfortable, given this incident and the odd partial authority situation here. That was her role now, though, as she understood it.

When she looked at Janina, Maya's friend, she received a subtle nod and smile. Janina may have wanted a middle course no one else wanted in this case, but Janina did not seem critical of Maya's methodology. Nor did Carl, who again seemed the gentleman in all this. Still, Maya was relieved to move the meeting to another topic, and finally to end it later.


R-444 DAB: Going in Circles

"The Death Glow?" John asked of Ryrorn.

"A sign of danger we have found we must take seriously."

This, plus the name of the city (First City), and their name for their own planet (Crom II), were convincing him of one theory, so he asked it. "If you don't mind my asking, are you originally from this world, or are you colonists here?"

"Chosen settlers."

"Chosen?"

"Unwillingly. Kidnapped one day, some generations ago, from seemingly random places on our homeworld, called Yagona, onto what we soon realized was the second planet of a star we had called Crom back home."

"By whom?"

"We do not know. They are god-like in their power. Whether gods or a highly-technological race, we do not know. The symbol itself is somewhat well known in this small area of the galaxy, including our original homeworld. Other races in the area are known to use it, however; but we think the original writers were the same as those who settled us here, and left the original signs about, to warn those they were trying to... protect us on this planet. We do not really understand entirely how this all fits together."

Ryrorn paused for a moment, then continued. "We see many more of them on this world, and given that and the climatic conditions, we don't entirely understand why we were put here."

Now was John's turn to pause, before he finally decided what to say. "Even if for different reasons -- perhaps very different -- we get the same feeling of not understanding the bigger picture, as we fly through space. We don't see Flammon or anything obvious. Sometimes we feel it very intensely, like we are being manipulated, yet at the same time feel it could just be coincidence, or our own feelings of lonely smallness in the vastness of empty space, trying to find patterns or reasons where maybe there are not any."

Ryrorn looked appreciative of Koenig's admission. They were very quickly getting to deep matters, and finding some common ground, or at least enough to feel like they had some thoughts in common.

"Then we share a similar feeling of frustration, even if you cannot be certain there is anything," Ryrorn responded. "Perhaps you have never met the Caretakers, even indirectly. Perhaps there are others, or perhaps just the universe alone can be difficult even without ancient powers moving about you. We cannot see, because we are in the middle of something we do not understand."

"And what do your people feel about it?" Tony asked, quietly.

"Some of us are bitter. We are only a minimally spacefaring people, and were not yet leaping beyond our system. Yet the choice was apparently made for us. Forced. We don't know why. Personally, though I wonder why, just like anyone, I accept it as something behind us. It has taken us these generations to build back more technology, enough to put satellites in orbit and start exploring into this system."

"Your scanner technology seems to be advanced."

"They took whole buildings, with various devices, so we arrived here with some of our technology, and were able to build some more of it back afterwards, but it has been a slow path in some ways too. Our first spacecraft here have been relatively slow, but we're able to outfit them with good scanners."

"And a hyperlight communication relay system?" Sandra asked.

Ryrorn confirmed, and stated this had not been strong enough to make contact with Yagona, however. Further discussion about Crom II as a colony continued, and the Alphans started discovering, to their delight, that the planet was indeed hospitable away from the equator. At the equator and for a large zone on either side, the native plant and animal life was described as being adapted to temperatures over 50-60C, something to which neither the Yagona nor the Terrans could tolerate.

The Alphans were offered food, and after a medical scan by Helena, something they again seemed to take as expected, they were soon talking mutual interest, the possibility of Alphan settlement on Crom II, to maybe build two small near-polar cities. Here the Yagona got more dubious, expressing doubts about being able to expand the planet's capacity that much, especially when they realized Alphans were not all that agrarian.

"We do grow our own crops and experiment on expanding capacity," Koenig objected.

This triggered discussion about such, and an invitation to explore some "plant plants" -- as the phrase seemed to translate in whatever linguistic filters the adult Alphans had been given at some unknown point.

John requested they return briefly to the Eagle, so they could use its transmitters, more powerful than those in a commlock alone, to report back to Alpha, which was now within range. To Koenig's relief, they did not offer the use of their own communications circuits. After the incident on Psychon, a few subtle protocols had been initiated that would be more useful on self-communication rather than assisted communication, though Koenig was still willing to do the latter if necessary due to situational or diplomatic circumstances.

The report was routine, and passive Eagle sensors were checked. A slight rise in ultraviolet radiation was noted. The sensor was not calibrated to locate the source within the atmosphere, but it was assumed to be random daily variation as on Earth's surface, from atmospheric conditions. It would be something to watch. They didn't really want to get a sunburn -- starburn? -- here either.

They were then taken on a tour of the city, driving on the strangely-arcing roads, which provided rather inefficient paths in most cases. After pointing out parks, factories, schools, homes, and progressing generally eastward across much of the city, they started reaching the opposite outskirts of the city and then large agricultural areas. These too were mostly enclosed by circular roads or paths, very widely-spread in these cases. Not surprisingly, they used irrigation systems not unlike those in some Great Plains fields, as John had seen from the ground or air on a few occasions, here creating smaller circles within the larger ones, with buildings in the gaps. In some ways, the circles and arcs were proving quite efficient, John thought.

They looked over the plant in the nearest smaller field, which even seemed similar to corn, though the cobs were more spherical than cylindrical.

The Alphans commented on this, complemented the orderly agriculture, and conversed briefly, Tony eventually even asking, "I don't suppose you grow any hops?"

"It is used as a supplement in some animal feed and as a supplemental component in some alcoholic beverages."

John could see Tony looked like he'd died and gone to heaven, having found some kindred souls in appreciating beer or something similar; but the officer hid it fairly well, saying only, "I wouldn't mind talking about that too, if we get the chance."

"Of course."

The discussion soon turned more intensely professional, each side trying to assess the other's potential, even though none of the representatives present were truly technicians in the plant growing or the other topics discussed.

The aliens seemed to actually appreciate the Alphans' use of scanners to check things over, like it was showing another form of reaching out to understand the other side.

Sandra wandered across the street towards another, more diverse-appearing field, in this case encompassed by a 'faster' turning arc that seemed to suggest a smaller -- but still significant -- area.

"Stop!" one of Ryrorn's assistants called out.

Sandra froze, and while not having left the road, quickly re-checked for traffic, backed up a few steps, and returned to the group. Then she saw Ryrorn was pointing to something just off the road, so she turned and they all approached a little to see what it was. A large metal plate lay some meters off the road. It was forty centimeters on a side, and on it was sort of an extended diamond-shaped symbol, glowing and pulsing slightly.

"The Flammon," Ryrorn stated.

"Death Glow," Koenig repeated the earlier definition.

The same symbol, much reduced, appeared on signs scattered more liberally at the edge of the road, each of those signs on a pole, in a signage pattern that seemed very human, unlike the large metal plate.

"The plate on the ground is protected by a force field, so it cannot ever be covered. Violating such areas usually led to injury or death, sometimes from elements, sometimes from disease. This seems a dangerous world in some ways. Yet sometimes our scanners sense interesting materials we'd like to obtain and study, but we think these markers were left by the same aliens, for our protection."

These were discussed at a little more length, but inconclusively, other than it being clear Alphans should not violate these areas. The inhabitants of this planet built their road system semi-symbolically, yet for sometimes-literal reasons too, it seemed. John finally asked and learned that there were some 56,000 of the Yagona on Crom II, but that some had started calling themselves Cromepna, after their words for Crom, two, and people. The partial resemblance to Alpha and "Alphans" was interesting.

It was not the only resemblance, for they were soon back to the topic of technological and agricultural capacities, as they returned to the city, this time to some tech/agro research facilities. The Alphans found the Yagona/Cromepna were a curious mix of conservative and aggressive, implying the Alphans were too conservative in their own approaches yet discussing caution in regard to their own colony world, and expressing doubt about being able to accept Alphan settlement here. It sounded coherent yet could have been doubletalk too. Koenig was not sure.

Tony looked distinctly uncomfortable, and was not bothering to hide it much now. Helena and Sandra were discussing further medical and technical details even as the commander and first officer shared their concerned looks. They had limited time to either make this happen or decide to stay put. The planet, though having a lot of ecological and artificial limits, did seem to have some room for Alphans and growth, but the Cromepna were talking more exchange and less on settlement.

Yet at the same time, the aliens suddenly gave the Alphans cuttings of several agricultural plants, as well as the edible portions. Parts of the ball-corn plants, as Tony dubbed them, including a number of their "cornballs" -- several other vegetables, and such. "For you to scan further here or aboard your spaceship," Ryrorn explained, "to better determine compatibility."

John explained there was little he could offer in trade at this moment except a few Alpha-manufactured food bars, but the Cromepna accepted that offer graciously, and stated they could wait until someone did return to the Eagle and then back to downtown First City.

Additional discussion of longer-term contributions to each other could continue over another meal a little later. Now was just for some initial gestures.

Sandra's commlock chirped for her attention. The Eagle's passive sensors registered a continued build-up of UV, and the ship's computer duly informed Sandra of this. Benes reported this to Koenig, while Ryrorn seemed surprised and called in a report of his own, before offering to take them for another meal, during which they could have more detailed discussions about how each side could help the other if settlement occurred. The first meal had been very small, and it suddenly seemed clear the Cromepna ate small but frequent meals.

That the faces of the Cromepna still registered concern did not go unnoticed by John, however. Something about the UV report troubled them. It apparently did not vary as much here. Maybe they really were closer to the edge here than the Alphans had first thought. Still, seemingly not as close as Moonbase Alpha.


F-445 DAB: Prompt Partial Results

"It killed all the damn peas, Maya," Thomas stated angrily. "They were the first I treated immediately, some days ago, and now they're all dead or dying."

"All the peaplants subject to this experiment, not all of those on the base."

"What, that's acceptable losses to you?"

His tone was clear enough to Maya this time, and she was frustrated. She knew this was not a time to defer, however, so she stood her ground, as the Commander called it. "I am sad to see them dying, but experiments on food plants are a necessary task. Alpha has goals. Paul's Plan, the Strategic Planning Centre, the Commander's orders. Aren't some of the other plants showing positive response patterns?"

"Initially, though even the ones started before two days ago are too early to tell if this is true long-term bonus or overstressing the plant."

"So you have kept separate data tracking for the ones started later on this experimental protocol, after our discussion yesterday?"

"In most cases."

"Most cases?"

"Time was short to get this going, and we lost track of one batch of tomatoes, which may have gotten doubly-dosed."

"An unintended secondary experiment and further unclarity in the already-limited dataset."

"You can stop your uber-scientist act, trying to look like our Science Officer." Before Maya could object, he continued. "I'm not happy about the screw-up either and chewed out the responsible -- irresponsible -- person. Not to mention we'll probably lose that batch of tomatoes."

"Is it already reacting?"

"Maybe you can touch it and tell with your lifeform sensing abilities or whatever the heck they are."

That sounded much like Abigail Strong's words two months ago, further adding to Maya's hypothesis that Thomas and Abigail might have a strong relationship of some sort, professional and/or personal. "It does not exactly work that way, especially with plants, who have no central nervous system. I cannot sense their stress easily. Even with animals, I can only sense certain acute stress factors in that way. It is difficult to explain, and given all that and more, is not acceptable scientific data in this context, regardless."

"Well, fine."

"Please, continue with the rest. Have all plants set aside for this experiment now been treated and the control subjects set up?"

"Yes, it is all done per your order."

She thought that despite the oversight, his unscientific attitude in general and especially towards her, he was actually very intelligent; but Maya was now certain both the plant-related managers would continue to be a constant challenge to Maya for some time. For now, she felt it was still her challenge to accept and not to the point of having to submit a complaint to anyone. She had to stand her ground, she thought as she left Hydroponics Lab 3.

Standing'ground oddly reminded her of the dance, and also feeling the need to relax, away from Alphans for now, she retired to her quarters, but not without a brief stop in the Recreation Centre to grab a few round-disk music recordings. She prepared her meal in silence, but as she ate, she played the music on her room's speakers, closed her eyes, and recalled dancing with Tony, thinking both of the steps and moves, and of Tony's hands, one frequently holding one of her hands, and one frequently around her waist.

She tried pushing aside the latter set of thoughts to concentrate on the former dynamic dataset, wanting to keep the steps fresh in her mind. She realized maybe she could just ask another male to practice with her, but she was not sure who, or how to proceed, so she just worked on gridding the moves in her mind, for full recall once she could resume practice with Tony after his return from the planet. She hoped everything was going well there. Alan had informed her before her visit to the Hyponlab -- as she sometimes fused the term Hydroponics Lab -- that all seemed to be going okay, if inconclusively. Privately, he confided some feeling that first phases of Operation Exodus might be imminent. Oddly, she found mixed feelings, having only just started adjusting to Alpha and starting to think of it as her home now, to be uprooted.... However, it would be better for everyone, assuming the people of Crom II accepted the Alphans -- and her.


F-445 DAB: Hops and Hush

The discussions were now going better, with the Cromepna starting to accept that maybe Alphan settlement was possible, that the latter brought some interesting ideas and permanent technical and agricultural exchange was possible.

The Cromepna had extremely fast DNA sequencers, and genetic similarity was discovered, even closer than Maya's unclear status compared to humans. The Cromepna seemed to be approaching acceptance that all the Alphans, including the Psychon, could settle there. Yet there was distinct hesitancy. Understandable given there was little time to exchange enough information to see all the potential compatibilities and incompatibilities. However, the Cromepna, former Yagona, seemed to see something of themselves in the castoff Alphans, both having been ripped from their home in one way or another.

For his part, John was not certain about settling on a world that seemed to have been populated via kidnapping, and was still apparently overseen by some alien race that had done so and dumped so many danger/death symbols about the planet, which itself was rather inimical to Alphan and Yagona sentient lifeforms away from the poles.

These were factors giving Koenig and Verdeschi pause. Russell and Benes agreed with the doubts but seemed to take them as a small price to getting off the lunar barracks.

The private discussions were already getting contentious between the men and the women. The former arguing further about feeling like they might end up zoo animals, not of the Cromepna but of some unknown alien power. The women further argued their sense that opportunities had been snatched away so many times, and this one seemed one of the more golden ones, to be welcomed by a friendly people, and that maybe what the Cromepna dubbed Caretakers were really just that, trying to spread life to even borderline worlds but then do even more to protect it.

These sort of arguments had cropped up so many times on their journey, and though the people on one side or the other tended to vary, John was beginning to feel like he was always on the side of caution, and that there could be a price to pay for this at some point. Also, that he had turned out right so many times did not eliminate the possibility that he could be wrong at some point. Was this the point? He wasn't sure, though, and actually was hoping this one would pan out. As always, he sought more information.

Of course, whatever factors were giving the Cromepna pause were not fully revealed to the Alphans any more than the Alphans were quick to reveal some of their core doubts. Each side was still treating the other with some caution. They were, of course, alien to each other. Still, John found himself liking Ryrorn, who really seemed to be an honest administrator, a far cry from the late Commissioner Simmonds. His instinct was that Ryrorn, while being a little cautious, was not truly hiding anything. Except... John still did not know why the rising UV level was troubling them more than even the Alphans.

There was a brief snack, followed by a tour of the low but large building they were in, which turned out to be the major center of civilian power in this city.

The two colonies were largely independent of each other, having something more of a mutual trade structure and frequent diplomatic contact, and little in the way of arguments except mild ones of an economic natures. Or so Ryrorn stated.

The Alphans met several other Representatives, who, though varying somewhat in personalities, all seemed to be fairly friendly.

However, Ryrorn was interrupted by a message that the there was a rise in "transblue" detections.

Koenig looked at Benes, who pressed a number of buttons on the commlock, then nodded. The UV level had risen a little further.

"What is happening?" John asked Ryrorn in the presence of his fellow Representatives.

"We're not sure. We're also detecting rises in transblue light in some circles of the city. They are simple detectors and it is partly cloudy, and I have little further information. It's been known to happen from time to time. We will keep you apprised."

Yet something about it clearly did not sit well with Tony, setting him off asking more questions, as time went on, only to get no further answers.

One thing that the Alphans all unanimously, even Tony, no longer doubted was that if the Cromepna welcomed the Alphans, they would be welcomed as friends, become part of the society, be afforded protection as equal citizens of the planet, and as such be expected to contribute as well. There was no push to suppress Terran/Alphan culture, and the Cromepna, gathered from all over their former homeworld of Yagona, seemed to expect what they called "varying stimuli response patterns." Their casual acceptance and even expectation of scanner use and other communication seemed to be taken as a way of smoothing over difficulties.

That was what made the lack of response to Tony's queries regarding the UV more troubling, however. John was starting to think Tony's persistence was correct, but decided to let Tony do the pushing for the moment. The Commander throwing his weight around as well might be too overbearing for the aliens' taste, perhaps. It was like silent, after-the-fact delegation of the task of contrarian gadfly to Tony, something he could do well without costing the Commander too much 'political' capital. Of course, Koenig was staying alert too, realizing he'd have to act, one way or another, on the concern at some point, especially if answers on this, or settlement possibility, did not come soon. Alpha had a limited timeframe for Operation Exodus, after all.

Of course, Tony was also good at tempering his own persistence, to be diplomatic too, and he too soon shifted gears to just that. He could make it clear his patience on the one subject was thin but still existing, but that he was still happy to interact in other ways -- at least for the time being.

They shared yet another brief meal period, with all the Alphans being offered a glass of Cromepna beer. Sandra politely refused, asking if they had a drink of the local juices. Helena took little more than a sip of hers, John a few more than that. Tony of course acted -- or perhaps more accurately, reacted -- like he'd just been offered the nectar of the gods. He didn't guzzle, though, enjoying it at a quiet pace, while shrewdly asking many questions about that and Cromepna social life -- the latter also a good thing to hear, as another aspect of their culture.

The Alphans in turn offered similar levels of detail of their own. Fair and mutually interested exchange. The Cromepna seemed most fascinated by the Moon's travels through space. For an almost non-spacefaring people, they did show a lot of curiosity, like they had gotten the message from the supposed Caretakers. This only got the Cromepna talking more about their new efforts in space, then back to social and agricultural aspects.

John let Tony and the women take that in while he moved to a more quiet corner of the room to get an update from Alpha, and to give his own, that things were looking somewhat promising but that there were some things giving him pause, such as the means of settling the former Yagona here, that there seemed to be a number of danger points on this planet, and the worrisome rise in UV. Alan and Maya reported readiness but little ability to illuminate the UV issue, nor on any potential recognition by Maya of the name Yagona. Ryrorn had said they had not been much of a spacefaring culture, and they were far from Psychon due to the Alkinarda Bridge.

John returned in time to find someone must have cued the kitchen staff, for, much to John's bemusement, a cook brought in a small bag of hops for Tony, to add to the other plant items given to the Alphans to analyze. Tony's diplomatic side shown through this time, graciously thanking his hosts before opening the bag to smell and look at the alien hops. Perhaps he could experiment with some of it, after a quarantine period and some kept by Botany or Hydroponics.

However, it was now Helena who took up the baton on the UV problem, asking their hosts for an update. When there was none given, even her face gave John a subtle look of quiet doubt. She had argued fairly hard for settlement, but the doctor was finding the UV rise and the Cromepna reactions about it a little troubling to her, it seemed.

He gave her a slight movement of his lips, acknowledging her glance and its meaning and that it was matching his concerns. That there seemed to be something wrong with this planet, as so many before, was not a point of victory for anyone. He was not giving up on Crom II, by any stretch, but her taking one step -- if not all of them -- towards his viewpoint was only confirming his misgivings.

Still, if John pulled the trigger for Operation Exodus.... It was time to have Tony and Sandra update Alan and Maya back on Alpha, both to check on Alpha's status regarding Operation Exodus and on the misgivings. Perhaps they could, even at a distance, shed some light on the UV problem. Probably not, but it was worth them checking in, and Sandra checking the Eagle scanners and sensors in more detail than she could over commlock.

It was a team effort, though the decision was still his. He had made some missteps in the past, but liked to think he had learned from them. He had always known he didn't -- couldn't -- have all the answers. One mentor after another had made that lesson clear. He knew it, but command required firm and sometimes rapid decision making too. Sometimes it was difficult to balance all those and other factors, but hard experience had provided new yet sometimes "familiar" lessons.

"Ryrorn," John started. "I request that two of my people, Tony and Sandra, be taken back -- temporarily -- to our Eagle, to contact our people back on Alpha to exchange updates and run more scans." He added the last because it again seemed to be a typical expectation, and quite true in this case.

"That is completely up to your people. They have only to ask me or one of my assistants, who will call for a vehicle. They may take back the samples you have at this point, along with a few others we may be able to provide at this point."

Helena looked at Tony and Sahn and said, "Be careful to limit your outdoor exposure. Outside of the Solarium and brief planetary visits, none of us gets much UV exposure any more."

John especially wondered about Helena herself. She was a very fair-skinned example of a Midwesterner, and probably more at risk than any of the rest, including Sandra.

For a moment, he found himself admiring her regal beauty yet again. Instead of a Midwestern beauty, she could have easily passed as a medieval queen too. She certainly would have also had the intelligence to handle that well, he thought. He shook himself loose from the thoughts of Helena, something that was tending to become very common nowadays. There was no doubt he had long since fallen deeply in love with her. Now was not the time to think about this, however, lack of sleep or not.

After the two Alphans had left with the same two handlers which had brought them into the city some time before, Helena began peppering Ryrorn with more questions.

"Is it an ozone hole? How often do those happen?"

"Rarely. Just a chance phenomenon."

He had noticeably answered her last question but not her first.

"Is it an ozone hole, or increased output by your sun?"

"Frankly, I'm not sure which, and I'm a little annoyed that no one has told me to this point. I will contact both my assistant and a fellow Representative to try getting you this datum, for I understand you have a major decision in front of you, as do we. I have to imagine it is temporary, for there are occasional transblue advisories, one every few years."

Ryrorn stepped away, leaving John and Helena alone at the table.

Helena looked at John, then said, "I have to agree this is likely a temporary phenomenon. We cannot give up a world just because of that."

"No, but it wouldn't be just because of that. Still, at this point, even with their mysterious 'Caretakers,' I am still leaning towards settlement."

When all three of them gathered back at the mealtable, long since cleared of food, they soon moved to Ryrorn's office. For the process to continue, the Alphans had to submit a verbal petition for settlement, right now, to Ryrorn, who would relay it to both city councils.

The Alphans could back out at any point, but it was time for the serious negotiations to begin. John agreed to the petition, to keep the process rolling. They proceeded to discuss the various strengths the Alphans could bring to the table, as well as what they were lacking in. It had to be a frank discussion, and that was reciprocated on the part of the Cromepna.

It turned out the Alphans had the far stronger space fleet, something seen as very positive to the aliens, who had not been fast into space on Yagona but felt like they had been delivered a message by their Crom 'Caretakers' that they should be advancing into space.

That the Alphans had some skills in hydroponics was a surprise to the Cromepna, who had never considered such methods. There was even an admission by Ryrorn that, "You seem more agrarian than we first thought." John wasn't so sure how true that was, but let it stand, for they were trying and did have some good process going.

That the Cromepna had greater skills in long-distance communication seemed complementary to a fast-growing collective space program. The Cromepna had a few surprises, and were surprised when they learned more about Maya and that she had come from an even more advanced world but was only just starting to adapt to Alphan tech.

Agriculture. Communications. Spaceships. More on technological abilities. Social structures. Religion. The 'Caretakers' again. It had all been or was soon discussed, with amazing rapidity, which was just as well, for fatigue was setting in, on the part of all. Days on Crom II were exceedingly long, something even the Cromepna said they didn't like at first, but had adjusted to by treating each planetary day as two biological days, albeit still slightly longer than usual.

The sun was only halfway down to the horizon from local noon, which had been quite some time ago. It was turning into a long, 'transblue' day but with some huge rays of figuratively positive sunshine.

Still, it was the literal rays of UV that were proving the oddest point of consternation among all. It could induce sunburn on light-skinned humans in as little as twenty minutes now. This prompted pointed questions from Helena, and a diplomatically-phrased but pointed question about what information they could provide.

"I will have an atmospheric-scanning satellite re-vectored this way as soon as possible," Ryrorn stated. Given the habitations were close to the poles, many satellite orbits were not above the equator, meaning their views of inhabitable areas would be at a rather shallow angle. Higher-latitude satellites had wait times.

At Helena's request, Ryrorn was calling for historical UV data to be retrieved from an atmospheric tracking lab they had.

When they had a moment to talk privately, Helena explained to John that she had become increasingly concerned that maybe these UV bursts happened more frequently than the Cromepna were letting on.

"Perhaps they are somehow more resistant to them, and have less frequent need to issue 'transblue alerts' over them," she speculated. "I am concerned about increased potential for Alphans to develop skin cancers, or even possible long-term indirect damage to our gametes due to secondary effects. The daytime here is so much longer, as well -- more time to accumulate a burn, to put it simply."

They would both have to wait on these and other results, however. The satellite would give its UV data, as the historical UV report would be retrieved or compiled and then delivered for Helena and Sandra to analyze (the Alphans had noticed they could read this alien language as well), and hopefully some finding would be made by Crom II's primary Council on the settlement possibility.

Now, it was a waiting game. John felt exhausted, as much as he tried to hide it. The Alphans had already skipped a sleep cycle themselves. The UV concern was at a standstill, and the political situation about to be taken up in closed chambers. John would be expected to speak to them at a later point, but not now, and Ryrorn had to organize his notes and thoughts. John would need to be of fresh mind, as much as possible. So on various counts, John and Helena had no choice but to take a rest.

They were offered rooms to sleep in, though not without an awkward moment. "Or are you a couple wanting one room?" Ryrorn had asked, seemingly sensing they were a couple. It was ironic, because though they had not been together yet, it was no secret on Alpha that there was some sort of relationship. Yet the two officers had felt compelled to keep it under wraps. If even an alien was picking up some signs of a strong relationship, though, whose charade was it? And why weren't they truly together yet?

John pushed the unbidden thoughts aside, especially when his tired imagination had started running further with the associated imagery than he expected. Or maybe it wasn't his tired brain, but his true desires.

As they headed towards another part of the building where two separate rooms had been converted into temporary lodgings, he contacted Tony and Sandra, who were in the Eagle. After finding they were similarly fatigued, he told them to stay put. If the decision, later in the Crom II day, came up positive, those two would already be at Alpha's forward coordination hub: the Eagle which was already on site.

John and Helena wished each other good sleep as they parted ways. The two rooms suitable for short-notice conversion to lodgings had not been in sight of each other.


F-445 DAB: Requests

It was the first of two surprise requests to Maya.

The first from was Kate, who had scarcely talked to Maya in three weeks. "Do you want to play racquetball?" was a request to her, on the Alpha Information System.

Maya didn't understand the sudden contact any more than the earlier loss, but simply accepted. Maybe she'd be told, or maybe not. She couldn't afford to chase away friends with questions the humans, or individual ones at least, might not welcome.

She welcomed the exercise, which felt good, especially since in the last week or more, Tony had once again started seeming less interested in taking his regular jogs with her. He had lots of duties, she knew, and this wasn't the first time this happened. He had continued other workouts with her, though mainly the martial arts training. Maya wasn't sure if this was anything to worry about, but she was not going to pester him when he returned. On the other hand, maybe some half-joking pestering was better. He seemed to respond better to her expressing her concerns than trying to defer and pretend nothing was wrong, even when he disagreed with her thoughts.

She had just recently heard the word pester, and its definition. The word itself clearly had to be based on the Alphanglish word pest, for annoying or destructive insect or other animal. It probably wouldn't be long before she could molecularly transform into one, and more literally pester Tony if she wanted. She smiled at the thought. That might be fun. She now knew that of all the Alphans, he seemed to have one of the best senses of humor. So maybe....

She remained of divided mind as they played, but soon left those thoughts aside as Kate started talking some more.

While they continued to play, their usual very early -- for most humans -- game had no audience, and Kate's conversation shifted to talk about a boyfriend, and how she had taken some things he said too seriously, how she had stood up with his viewpoint without checking for another.

Unexpectedly on a base where she often didn't understand the social contexts, Maya had a guess to whom Kate was referring: the other Thomas, namely Thomas Graham. He was the Eagle pilot on an earlier mission to check mathematical anomalies in sensor readings, that in the end were almost certainly cloaked alien spaceships. Maya had, as an officer out of any contact with higher authority, felt compelled to block him from taking actions he felt correct but she had not. She had nearly ordered him out of the pilot seat over it. This had earned Maya a lot of apparently-disgusted reactions from some of the other Reconnaissance personnel.

Kate was retrieving the ball, and as she returned, she must have seen realization dawn on Maya's face, for she said, "I see you probably just figured it out. I was willing to sacrifice a new friendship over an even newer relationship. Like young love. Sorry if this is a bad question, but have you ever liked a boy so much that you would believe almost anything he would say, even when you barely knew him?"

"No, before everyone... left, I never got much beyond some simple friendships, or joking -- or teasing a little."

"You know, I could see you being a bit of a tease."

"But I understand what you mean," Maya said quickly. "My mother Taylia told me about that possibility, and there was Psychon fiction warning against such overreactions. I suspect some still did."

"Yes, but still, I'm not excusing myself. It was silly. I was silly. I still like Tom, am interested in him; but I cannot become so wrapped up I lose friends over his words alone. If he doesn't like that, he'll have to make a choice, or maybe I'll have to make it for him. Anyway, I finally asked around about that mission, and got a different version of the events. So I just wanted to say I'm sorry for not just asking you, then or now."

Maya of course accepted the apology. Kate then, as the game resumed, proceeded to joke about how Kate ought to "find" Maya a man that Maya might lose herself a little -- "though not too much too soon." Maya said nothing about that as they resumed play.

She was still more than put-off by the very alien idea of arranged dates at her age. Bill and Annette had once mentioned their friends had been considering "arranging" the two of them on a date. Contemplating such highly improper behavior troubled Maya. Or apparently not improper for them. Humans could be very alien at times.

Worse, "blind" dates sounded the height of foolishness to Maya, not only to any sensibility she understood, but even more so with her here on Alpha. Maya had no intent of trapping a man in such a way. Though one date was apparently not further binding here any more than the equivalent would have been on Psychon, it might still earn her enmity and suspicion. As much as part of her wondered if she had to modify some expectations, this seemed a highly dangerous one. It could also get human males rejecting blind dates in general, even if the target would be a human woman, and this might earn Maya anger from the females as well. An alien disrupting Terran courtship practices, as alien as some of those practices sounded to a Psychon, seemed highly dangerous, socially. Even non-"blind" set-up dates sounded almost as risky, for if the man did not like the idea of being set up with Maya, that could strain friendships and make him less willing to accept other non-"blind" set-up dates. Even non-blind "set-up" dates still sounded so highly improper to Maya at this point.

So on many counts, it was simple: she'd let herself be open to an approach; but she would not try or accept trapping men in such ways.

She sometimes wondered if she shouldn't just "make a move," but that seemed foolish, not over customs at all, but more of her being where she was. If she did, and was greeted with irritation or even laughter at foolish boldness, would she ever want to try again? That seemed 'blind' too, but in a different way. Maybe if she thought there was some interest from someone, she might make a reciprocal move, but anything more...? No, at least not now.

Kate must have picked up something of that, for she said, "Or maybe a little later. I've seen how you sometimes look at men in general, after all."

Maya blushed. Fortunately, already flushed from the exercise, Kate probably didn't notice. Sometimes Maya felt too obvious, even when trying quite the opposite.


It was a second surprise request to Maya.

She ran across Douglas McLeod, the astronomer, in a quiet hallway. He greeted her in a friendly tone, then brought out some photographs of Crom II, then abruptly asked if she wanted to share a meal.

It was so sudden, from someone who had not done this before, she was wondering his motives as he stared expectantly at her. However, by the time she started wondering if he was trying to ask her on a date, he was already clarifying, awkwardly.

"We could talk, er, about more of this, and other astronomy."

Oh, a business'casual meal, she thought, adopting a term she had heard that had been explained to her. It was something many here did, and very like Psychons as well.

Feeling happy he had clarified, yet vaguely disappointed too, she accepted on those professional terms. She added that she had noticed some objects in her scans that she wanted him to put the large optical and the smaller gamma-ray telescopes on. This was something she could bring to the meeting'meal.

So it was a few hours later that they were in a cafeteria, both in uniforms, mostly ignoring their food... in favor of professional discussion. It was a good conversation, and the food mostly good except for discovering she didn't like one of the items, which she had not tasted before: squash. The name was appropriate, for it seemed like some hapless vegetable had been completely crushed. She found the cooked spinach, another new item to her, rather sadly mushy, yet with a curious bitter taste that almost seemed slightly metallic, to be much tastier.

Douglas was apparently cognizant that long stares still made her somewhat uncomfortable, after her having been on the receiving end of some unkind ones, and generally having difficulty sorting them out. She liked direct eye contact, but there was a difference between that and staring, of course. Yet he seemed to be going out of his way not to stare, like he wanted to do so, but was pushing himself to avoid such.

She still fleetingly wondered if he had intended this to be a date instead of a professional meeting, but she tossed the thought aside as a silly one of her own creation. Probably residual thoughts from the strange half-conversation about Kate "finding" Maya a man.

She had already admitted to herself, about 100 Terran days ago, that her finding another Psychon again was extremely unlikely. She knew that being thrown among rather attractive aliens where about 100 of the men were available -- if apparently still uninterested -- had not gone unnoticed by a part of her that had not had prospects. It had been since she was an early adolescent that she had even had male peers around, that she could... what was the Alphan word, flit around? No, flirt with.

It was like Tony's "belated welcome dinner" almost two months after her arrival, that she felt hints of other possibilities but decided they were figments of her own imagination.

So she resisted the urge to look too much at Douglas. He had brown hair, with a hint of reddish tone. The red hair color, so common on Psychon but so uncommon here. It was almost hard to stop herself from staring. He was pleasant too look at; but she did not want to stare and make him uncomfortable.

She had also noticed, weeks ago, that if she did lapse into staring, in any way, trouble could occur. It had with a pregnant woman early on, when Maya couldn't help but stare at the first pregnant psychonoid female she had seen in almost half her life, not long after her arrival on Alpha. To this day, Maya had not met that woman's daughter, Hope, probably as a result of that incident. Other slight stares on Maya's part sometimes even drew the attention of humans she was not even looking at, like they found her staring at any fellow human to be suspicious. Some of this was fading a little, but not she still had to take care.

Finally, she brought her mind back to the present. Douglas was showing her photos of a region directly ahead, that both she and he agreed could harbor a planet -- yet it seemed they were going to miss that area by far, and not reach another promising region for approximately 70 days. It was too far away to truly gauge anything about the latter case yet, but Maya's low-confidence estimate -- guess -- was for another near approach but still too far away.

The dinner ended amiably. The time had passed with few stares from others, except for a puzzling look from Lena Andreichi, a botanist Maya had scarcely talked with, and who Maya found difficult to read. Still, the Alphans seemed to be finding her presence less and less strange -- to some degree at least. Yet she doubted it would ever go away entirely.


A-446 DAB: Thump

Tony and Sandra would sleep on the Eagle, almost certainly in phases. Alpha was waiting. Alan claimed it was patiently, but in that 'not really' tone he sometimes had.

It was still late afternoon daylight in Crom II's First City. John had been provided some bedclothes, and after he was changed into them, he looked out his window at the city. Helena is correct, he thought. We cannot sacrifice the chance at a colony on a living planet among seemingly friendly aliens, just because of one day of bad weather, and a few other mysteries.

John pondered the irony of his and Helena's opinions on settlement. Early on, he -- and Tony for that matter -- had been somewhat skeptical, given the oddities of this world and how its people had been settled here via kidnapping by some unknown power. Helena -- as well as Sandra -- had been indicating they considered these mysteries as a small price for getting off the Moon and settling a planet.

Now, after John and Tony had come to feeling trust for the Cromepna, Helena was getting skeptical about the UV situation, and though Sandra's reports were simply factual on the surface, there was that change in tone of her voice that John recognized: concern, and a little skepticism. They had done if not 180-degree turnabouts, then maybe 135's, dancing about a common center of wanting what was best for all of their people, and having to work with limited and changing data.

Still, John felt trust for the Cromepna, something that was sometimes slow coming to him. His instincts were that Ryrorn and this planet's people were not trying to hide anything, and that this was just a rare, if rather ill-timed occurrence.

John was cautiously optimistic, and when he went to sleep, he even dreamt of green fields of plants bearing spherical cornballs. He imagined children -- whose? (his and Helena's his dreaming mind seemed to whisper) -- rolling the cornballs around the ground, then one child picking up a cornball and using a tennis racquet to repeatedly hit the partially-edible 'ball' against the outside wall of their house. Thump, thump, thump. Pause. Thump, thump, thump. Just as he was about to reprimand the child for the improper use of food....

John abruptly woke to the sound of pounding on the door. Thump, thump, thump. He awoke, climbed out of the bed, and opened the door, wondering hazily why there wasn't an electronic tone, even while his senses snapped back to cautious mode, for the knocking sounded urgent.

He opened the door, to be confronted with a spacesuit. Ryrorn was inside. "Come with me, now," he said.

"What? Where? What's going on?" John did not detect hostility from Ryrorn, but a lot of urgency. Was there an ultraviolet storm? "Where's Helena?"

"We are retrieving her now. Contact your ship, and prepare to leave."

"What? Why?"

"I don't know why; but you must leave, immediately."

"Do Helena and I need a suit?" he asked, even as he realized it was not a spacesuit, but a hazard suit.

"Yes, they are being obtained. You may keep them."

"Tell me what is happening."

"I do not know. I have been ordered, in no uncertain terms by another a key part of the Council, to escort you back to your spaceship so you can leave the planet immediately. You may keep the plant materials we supplied to you."

John quickly retrieved his equipment and uniform, but had no time to change, as Helena appeared at the door, as did two Cromepna holding hazard suits, just moments after John had alerted Tony and Sandra. As soon as John and Helena -- who was also in modest Cromepna nightclothes but carrying her equipment and clothes -- were in the suits, they were hustled into a vehicle, and driven at breakneck speeds back to Eagle 1. The sun was just setting as they headed generally in the opposite direction.

"Ryrorn, is it something we did?" Helena asked.

Ryrorn shook his head, but did not clarify if that meant "no" or just ignorance, and stayed silent until they arrived and got out of the vehicle. The alien did not approach closer to the Eagle, but spoke. "I am sorry, John. I think you and I could have been friends. You and me. Your people and ours. There is some other factor that was not disclosed to me yet. You cannot stay. Please leave now. My best wishes for the future of you and your people." Ryrorn then raised his hand, and even at a moderate distance and with the hazard suits, John could sense sadness in Ryrorn.

John, though still feeling in a whirlwind, decided to return the gesture and the final words. Then, seeing alien aircraft in the distance, converging here, he whirled around, feeling sudden anger at this abrupt and mysterious unraveling.

Helena gave a slight wave, but had her commlock in hand, ordering Tony and Sahn to don Alphan spacesuits, until they could try figuring out what was happening. John ordered Tony to prepare to take off. Once on board the Eagle, Helena ordered John to keep his Cromepna hazard suit on, until she could run scans on everyone.

"What the hell is going on?" Tony asked again when John reached the pilot module.

"Their council just ordered us off the planet. I don't know why. Ryrorn apparently doesn't either."

"What, like they go from sharing beer and colonization stories with us to suddenly treating us like guests who have outstayed our welcome?"

"I don't understand either," John said, very frustrated.

That got Tony to stop asking, though the younger man still muttered, "Strange set of manners."

John called back to order Sandra to run some more scans and sensor sweeps as they departed. He found she already had taken the initiative to activate the sensors and was about to ask about the active scanners. Given the usual Cromepna acceptance of Alphans using such systems, Sandra had only hesitated on the scanners due to these strange new events.

He told her to scan. He let Tony fly the Eagle, himself deciding to run some other scanners from up front. Helena was starting a medical assessment, even while all four were still in protective suits.

They were searching for the slightest scrap of data that might give them a clue why negotiations had abruptly collapsed without the slightest word on why.

Mysteriously, they could no longer find the elevated UV readings, even as the sun stayed in sight as Eagle 1 climbed higher into the sky of Crom II.


A-453 DAB: Simply Dancing?

The dance couldn't have been timed any better, Helena thought. It was less than a week after they had left the Crom II system altogether, empty-handed except for a couple of alien hazard suits, some atmospheric samples including filtered micro-organisms and insects, "cornballs" and other plant material including hops, a few good meals, and some interesting perspectives on colonization, agriculture, and mysterious powers in the universe. Maybe not completely empty-handed, then, but certainly far less than hoped for.

No one understood what had happened. Sensor and scanner sweeps as they left, and further analysis back on Alpha, had revealed nothing new, nor why the elevated ultraviolet level could not be found after launch. No contagion had been found. There was no real sign of what had triggered the abrupt Cromepna action.

Their journey back had been filled with lots of long stretches of silence.

The abrupt unraveling there had left morale a little low -- though overall, it was still above its nadir before and after Psychon. Still, too many false starts on Operation Exodus were wearing too, it seemed. They all just wanted a home. To have it dashed in this manner -- well, the manner was starting to matter less and less. There was always some "manner" to the disappointment, but it was disappointment nonetheless.

Still, maybe this was to be a "new" form of partial cure, or at least of momentary forgetfulness of the lost chance. Even some diversion was probably still of long-term help.

A rousing birthday party of thirty, almost three months ago, had led to other, even larger ones, and now, a dance had appeared. It was not formal, but rather quite casual.

The attendees were largely dressed for such, with few uniforms to be found here. It seemed many were re-"finding" some of the casual clothing they had brought, stored, and had rarely used. Plus, Janina "Joan" Conway probably was, in her spare time away from nuclear and other physics work, finding more time to make some clothes out of a large amount of stored material, or to teach others to do so. Good, it is an important skill, Helena thought. Reference material existed, but she and a few others with lesser but increasing skills were all there were on a modern Alpha that until a little over a year ago, could safely rely on Earth. Helena had chosen a favorite of hers that she had: a white dress with a red belt at her waist.

So far, the music had been highly varied: classics, R&B, country, rock 'n roll, entries from various countries, some new late 1990's music, as well as something the DJ had strangely called a "power ballad," and another that he pronounced "effseeon" and said was spelled "f'sion." He said it was a combination of other styles called "fusion" and "fission" -- neither of which Helena was familar with either. Not everyone else knew all these different styles or dances to go with them, either and some stayed on the sidelines for some, while others bravely tried to do something with it.

Thankfully, disco seemed to be absent, at least so far. After decades of disco dominance in the music world, it seemed Alphans, or at least the DJ and/or organizers, were wanting to leave it behind -- at least for this dance. Maybe no one could find a disco ball on Alpha, she joked to herself with a smile.

Now however, was a different sort of faster-paced song that had some of the younger dancers out there, but that had left John and Helena disinterested. She had sat down at an empty table, alone for now while John sought some drinks.

Across the room, Maya was sitting alone too. She had received more dance lessons from Tony and Helena, but seemed to get some last-minute jitters, confessed to Helena. Yet here she was, being stared at with some curiosity by men from a distance, and talked to by a couple female friends at times, yet otherwise ignored -- as Helena had noticed from time to time. She was a pretty sight, Helena assumed. In another cheerful and slightly clingy dress, her hair done up beautifully, smiling fairly easily, and half the guys staring at her even while Maya steadfastly continued to avoid anyone else's stares.

Some were not the most friendly, however. While some men were clearly curious about her, some did not seem to find her presence welcome. More than a few of the women seemed annoyed by her presence as well, as if thinking Maya did not belong, or perhaps even found attractive alien competition unwelcome. Poor Maya had saved them at Psychon, and as an Alphan and part of a team, had helped get them past the dangerous Alkinarda. Yet while that had helped win her some friends, it still had not convinced some that she belonged, or belonged as anything more than an alien helping Alpha.

Helena intercepted the gaze of one particularly unfriendly look from Carolyn Powell, and Helena shook her head, making it clear one officer had noticed and disapproved. It was a subtle yet semi-formal move Helena would have been loath to make in an informal situation if Carolyn hadn't been so blunt in offering up such a very unfriendly gaze.

Maya had not noticed, or so Helena hoped. Maya could be forgiving, but was a quick study, and Helena was never sure from case to case if Maya would keep trying, or would forgive but not forget and take the rejection to heart and avoid the situation. The latter had apparently set in regarding children. She recalled again that rumors had filtered up that so many parents had rejected Maya's presence around their babies that Maya had scarcely met any. That had left Helena furious, yet feeling helpless. Yet she could sympathize a little, however. Parents could, and should, be protective, but she felt it was so very misplaced in this case. Still, she could not interfere. That would only create further defensiveness. Helena suspected Maya was perfectly well aware of it, and the few times she had even tried to probe, Maya had steadfastly refused to respond in any way.

Helena was not a sociologist, but it was clear Alpha, already in an interesting situation sociologically as an accidentally cast-off 'melting pot' community/colony of scientists, military, and others, all of multiple human races, had a new wrinkle in the form of a permanently-resident alien trying to integrate herself into an already dynamic, embryonic society.

Now was probably not the time for heavy musing, however. The song changed to something more of Helena's liking, namely the one she had suggested to the planners. John approached with drinks but promptly set them down and held out his hand, asking Helena for another dance, which she immediately accepted. She loved the feel of his hand holding hers as he led her to the floor.

A lot of established couples were dancing, frequently or infrequently in turns, depending on the songs or moods. One could almost forget this was Moonbase Alpha, a barracks on an unanchored rock flitting through space, and just imagine a dance hall back on Earth -- even with the barely decorated white and grey cafeteria walls and the alien now sitting alone at a small table, looking like she was getting ready to leave.

Helena didn't want to push an uncomfortable Tony at her in this context, for he'd probably just give off all those I'm only dancing with her because... signals to everyone else. It was too bad that Tony wasn't at least thinking he shouldn't let his time giving Maya dance lessons go to waste. Perhaps he recalled this song, for Helena noticed Tony glance Maya's way at least once. Not that Maya should get a dance out of pity, but still....

John and Helena were dancing fairly freely though hardly wildly, not going overboard but not really trying to hide what the whole base must have figured out by now -- that they had a relationship. Helena found she loved dancing with John. The song was a longer one, and she found herself musing about her relationship with John over the last several months. It had been so unexpected, especially after their frosty first meeting. The ice had eventually melted when it became clear that he respected her, and later clear he was interested in her. He moved her, in so many ways, but he was not demanding, did not push her around. He clearly both respected her and wanted her. He was being patient for her, unnecessarily at this point. She knew he thought she was still getting over Lee. She would never get over Lee, but she felt as if Lee's reflection on Terra Nova had quietly given -- demonstrated -- an understanding that she could move on, not forgetting but continuing. It did seem like what Lee would have wanted for her.

She had appreciated John holding back, had appreciated the continuing slow building of the relationship. Yet now, she felt like he was giving her too much time.

"This is so good," she said to John just loud enough for him to hear her over the music. "We should have found a way to dance before now, even if just you and I."

The words certainly caught his attention, and she felt he was realizing subtle extra meanings even as she was realizing what she had said.

Just then, they got bumped by another couple, breaking the gaze and the moment. The song changed a few moments later, to something faster, less romantic.

Helena then noticed Maya still being left alone, looked at John, and said, "Why don't you ask Maya to take a dance?" Dances of course could be among shared for reasons other than romantic, something she promptly reminded John about, both for his sake, and for him to inform Maya, who seemed to have different expectations of it being between already-involved individuals. Helena had already tried to dissuade Maya of that notion, to only partial success. Helena had wondered just how Psychons got involved in the first place, but Maya had not offered, and Helena had decided not to ask yet, just happy Maya had even shown willingness to come to the dance.

This time, unlike Helena's private question to John about Maya's potential attractiveness as a woman to men, John did not have to be argued with.

Maya seemed to need such, but her expression of surprise -- nearly shock -- soon faded, presumably as he clarified. She soon smiled, and was dancing and doing well, and attracting a lot of stares again. This included from Tony, as he danced with Leann Picard -- for not the first time that night. This perhaps explained Tony's prior discomfort better. Helena felt a little sad about that, for despite her misgivings about Tony and Maya, there had seemed a small spark there, that apparently wasn't meant to get going. Then, she felt a little guilt for involving Tony in the dance lessons.

Helena sat down, to watch the goings-on, now with an honest smile, both to show she had no concern about John and Maya dancing one dance, and just about the whole event. There were so many smiling and talkative faces here. It would have been just what the doctor ordered but which had instead been created by others. It was yet another sign they were slowly recovering from what John had called the "Year of Quiet Mourning."

Sandra was nowhere to be seen, but Helena had not wanted to push the younger woman at all, since she was likely, and understandably, still grieving over Paul. Of course, there was another good reason for her to not be here at this moment, given the concentration of some of the officers. Not having all at a social occasion was prudent.

Tony eventually left -- with Leann. That seemed to seal the fact of them having a relationship. It seemed Tony and Maya were not to be. Then again, Tony's relationships didn't seem to last long. Helena wondered if what other women had not managed to do, Maya might. Still, that seemed unlikely now. Besides, Helena didn't want to wish ill on a relationship that might work, in terms of Tony and Leann, who did make for an attractive couple.

When the song ended, Maya ended up alone again, her female friends having disbanded to dance during the previous song and the next, Janina with one man and Kate with another. No guy seemed willing to follow John's example, and Maya, after standing on the sidelines, retired to the food line and seemed to be quickly gathering a plate of food, using what Helena recognized as the Psychon's gather-and-bolt methodology when she wanted to eat alone or was feeling her presence unwanted.

Helena was distracted when Alan breezed in with -- much to Helena's initial surprise -- Susan Crawford. Yet Helena thought that maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise. Alan was a good man, even if less the settling type than Tony, yet very clearly good with children. Helena thought poor Susan had been a widow and single mother for too long, then checked herself when she recalled it had been only about a year and a half.

Then she checked herself again. That was a painfully long time, dealing with a loss feeling half-alone after having found and now lost a soul mate. Helena had lived with a gaping hole in her life for five years, thinking Lee had to be dead, but not having the small "comfort" of absolute certainty. Helena finally had started admitting another man into her life, little by little, in the past year. Meeting that reflection of Lee had become a highly unanticipated sort of "closure" to her loss. Some of the pain would linger the rest of her life, but that reflection of Lee had given her so much, in a way she thought Lee himself would have. She felt Lee would have wanted her to find some new happiness.

Helena felt the same would have been true of Jack regarding Susan. Poor Sue needed someone in her life again, and her child deserved someone who could be father to him. It was good to see Susan opening up to the possibility of a new relationship, potential husband, and potential adoptive father for her son, who had always seemed to appreciate the attention of possible father figures. Maybe Alan would find the possibility of becoming both husband and adoptive father all at once an interesting idea.

Helena smiled, realizing that something long forgotten -- simple people watching -- was something she still enjoyed doing.

When Helena looked back to find Maya, she found her dancing with Bill Fraser, Annette walking away, unconcerned, to talk with Kate. Maya's plate of food remained abandoned as she danced with a few men, none available, until that string ended and Maya was soon returning to that plate, only to be stopped by Kate and Janina, and promptly shuffled over to the nearest unattached man -- one very surprised Jim Haines, who didn't seem to know what to do with an equally-surprised Maya at first until he finally started dancing with her. Helena had to stop herself from laughing. Helena wasn't necessarily pushing more than a little, but apparently a few of Maya's other friends felt no such compunction. That Maya and Jim had gotten off to a bad start early after her arrival was not all that well-known, and apparently not to Janina and Kate. While that had improved somewhat, it was certainly not to the point of supporting a relationship, as became evident in their mutual discomfort and relatively quick parting. In fact, Maya had seemed more than a little surprised by Kate and Janina's action too, again making Helena wonder how Psychons got together.

Still, that seemed to finally get things rolling more for Maya. Another single guy, Douglas McLeod, stepped up, and a few other finally followed during later songs. This, Maya seemed to welcome a bit more easily, though not without a hint of a surprised look. Unfortunately, all those men had some sort of fake I'm doing this to be nice look plastered on their faces (despite it being some of the same guys eying her before), while Maya pretended not to notice. It was all a hodge-podge of very mixed signals, and kind of sad, even though not that unexpected. Yet Maya was smiling a little, even talking a bit. Progress, after a fashion.

Progress was all around, Helena abruptly thought. There were a lot of smiling people. The room, as all were, was limited in its capacity, to the same Max 50 rule that so ruled around here now. Sometimes this event had been below room capacity, yet people were coming and going as the songs continued. Still, it seemed only some Alphans would appear here tonight.

Maybe dances would become more frequent and more well-attended after this first, Helena thought. Karen Smith stopped by to talk with Helena briefly, thanking Helena for coming, while Helena said that it should be the other way around, thanking Karen for thinking of this event and arranging it, and that she should thank the others who had pitched in to make it happen. Helena also expressed her hope it would lead to more such events.

Then, with the last, slow dance about to start, most of the unattached drifted towards the doors, along with one or two seemingly new couples, leaving only established couples on the dance floor. Alan and Susan remained. Maya had slipped out some time before, as had some other singles. The room had partially emptied, and something about that troubled Helena. She wondered why, then abruptly realized it -- or part of it.

The marriage rate had slowed drastically after the burst of pregnancies a few months after Breakaway, which had triggered birth control rules. Other marriages had subsequently occurred, but at a much slower rate, as if everyone had been made all too aware of limitations that the birth control rules had made clear, and that it was more difficult for some to contemplate marriage if they couldn't also contemplate one of its usual aspects -- a family -- yet. The marriage rate had practically stagnated after Bill and Annette's wedding, with only a tiny number of couples tying the knot in the five months since then.

Yet down the road, once the birth control rules started easing -- and they'd have to one way or another within seven years after Breakaway or Alphan society would be in dire long-term trouble -- lack of married couples ready to have children could create new problems and further delays.

Ironically, it was that burst of rather irresponsible pregnancies that had triggered not just the birth control rules, but that an ancient tradition had to be the starting point. Too many unmarried couples had made babies even before a strong, steady relationship was fully in place, and some partially formed relationships had crumbled with the addition of expecting a child. A few women had refused to even name the father, requiring pressure or even an outright paternity test, to establish this fact in the medical record, so all of Alpha's children would know their parentage. This was in part to avoid the future potential of inbreeding.

All of this chaos had not set well with Alpha's officers and especially commander, who had not expected to be hearing about sometimes soap operatic behavior from what were supposed to be among the most intelligent people on the planet.

When the birth control rules were instituted, with long-term plans for life support enhancement but also allowing that if numbers permitted before then, there would be a decision on how many births to allow each time, and a random lottery over who would be allowed to try. Yet having been "burned" by so many surprise pregnancies, and some of the other associated chaos, the officers set one main rule of eligibility: marriage -- that at least that level of commitment has been shown. The officers don't really want to be prudes controlling such things, but given Alpha's need to drastically limit births and control the numbers when permitted, they had collectively decided, though not without a lot of argument themselves, to make this the one and only major criterion.

Even more argumentative discussion over the thought that maybe some other judgments on parental suitability had to be made as well, but the officers had mostly found it difficult enough to decide birth control was absolutely necessary, to mandate a lottery for those occasions where some births would be allowed, and make one eligibility requirement. These would already not sit well with many Alphans, and in some quarters, had not. Most understood the limits of this Moonbase, perhaps knew some of the numbers; but some could feel the clock ticking. Many had already postponed major life steps for sake of a career that now had them careening through interstellar vacuum and among often-hostile planets.

Trying to act as judge and jury over parental skill was just a ludicrous thing attempt to control, and could easily destroy all morale and order. The officers themselves were only human, and simply had no way to know, and even more fundamentally, had no interest in pretending to play God. They were not that omniscient and did not want to be that omnipotent. Even institutionalizing marriage on Alpha was a curious irony in an age where marriage rates had declined and divorces had climbed.

Helena shook herself mentally. She had suddenly found herself at one of her most morose moments, in the middle of a cheery dance. She did not want to mentally muddle through all the other complexities from some months ago just right now, on what was supposed to be a happy social occasion. Yet she could not get away from some further thoughts....

With marriage now institutionalized on Alpha for the foreseeable future, until all birth control rules could be lifted, hopefully, at some point, Helena would have expected marriages to continue, in anticipation of that. Yet that rate had declined. Both Bob and Helena were starting to wonder if the one part of the birth control rule meant to encourage marriage, was being interfered with by another part of the rule that made it seem unlikely to carry out a natural extension of marriage, namely having children. After all, most couples back on Earth married with plans to have a family within a few years. 2-3 years was typical. Alpha was on a plan where it would take six years before larger number of births were expected to be allowed. In the meantime, there were a number of childless married couples already.

What troubled Helena deeply, was not that people were maybe just biding their time before getting married, and perhaps missing establishing solid relationships and marriages even before children were possible, but that maybe that the birth control rules, however necessary, were a deep morale hit, and that hope itself had somewhat faded among many.

People had to have hope, and if one path, children, was mostly blocked for now, then maybe simple things like dances were a way of reminding people to have some hope nonetheless. Yet this dance, while it and its moderate attendance were a good sign, were such a small good sign that maybe there was a deeper concern.

No major rule could be implemented on a society without unintended consequences, and Helena was starting to realize this dance was revealing more to her about Alphan society than she had previously understood. So as the room emptied a little too quickly tonight, it seemed symbolic and worrisome to Helena.

She was starting to think that maybe allowing a small number of births every year was necessary. Even if only one, to symbolize hope and the future, while emphasizing how they all had to work to try and improve Alpha's lot to ensure they and even more could survive in the future.

Otherwise, this was all a happy glow around a depressing, perhaps deadly situation. Alpha's rule was starting to feel like its own flammon, in this case a necessity that was creating a new sickness under the surface. Helena knew the numbers. Paul's Plan was right, and the timing well measured, but there had to be more incremental improvements up front, even if pushed more strongly. Everyone would need to become much more engaged in Paul's Plan, she abruptly realized. Small committees, science boards, and command conferences were absolutely necessary, but were only a start. They alone were not enough. Everyone had to feel an integral part of the Strategic Planning Centre, for everyone had a stake.

Suddenly, Helena felt morose. This dance had ended up almost Psychon in nature: more about re-affirming existing relationships and little about creating new ones -- or so it seemed. Yet it also seemed human in a different way too, being a mix mostly of established couples reaffirming their relationships, and of new couples forming but perhaps only intending nothing more than brief relationships. Had any new long-term couples formed here? Yet Janina remained, with what could be a new boyfriend perhaps. Kate was still dancing with Thomas Graham, perhaps a new boyfriend, though Helena was so far out of most such rumor mills, that she was not sure. Maybe there was hope in some, after all. Still, Helena was troubled by her sudden insights.

Yet.... When she saw John approaching, looking -- staring -- at her, she found it was not that difficult to temporarily wipe the concerns from her mind, suddenly wanting a true, honest, close slow dance with him, and maybe, at last....


A-453 DAB: Orangy

Maya walked to her quarters, feeling alone, yet a little bit pleased too. In some ways, it had gone poorly, with her being left largely ignored. Her friends had pushed her at Jim Haines, and that had been uncomfortable for both of them, though it had opened up a few more dancing opportunities. Even then, it was awkward, like they were only dancing with her to be nice.

Tony had not said a thing about having a girlfriend, but there he was, dancing frequently with Leann Picard, and walking out together. Maya felt unexpectedly greater disappointment. Maya liked Tony more than she had expected at first, and had already admitted that much to herself; but it seemed there was even more under the surface than she first thought.

She was not angry, and could understand that at least some Terran women would likely find him attractive. Yet she was completely baffled at why he had not said anything. Then again, Kate had not talked about having a boyfriend until just a week ago, after weeks of silence in part due to the boyfriend's comments to Kate about Maya's actions on a prior mission. Did the Terrans not just tell others of such things immediately? Or was there some sort of mysterious gap where they quietly dated?

In such a small city, it is also strange that word--

Then she thought again. Why would Maya, still largely an outsider to deeper topics, and still often on even less-deep topics, be informed all that quickly? She was assuming too much again. Alphan deep'talk patterns -- an element of social'fabric -- had some differences, just as Alphan small'talk did. Curiously, she had enjoyed deep'talk among some of them, and found in some ways it was not that much different than on Psychon, even if most of the particular contexts and histories were still new to her. Yet she was starting to realize there were more gaps than expected.

It was all very strange to her.

There were various unexpected factors and disappointments: being sort of 'pushed' at an obviously-uninterested Jim, the mixed signals from some of the others who danced with her, other differences in customs, Tony's interest in Leann, being ignored half the time, and a few other surprises. Yet despite all of this, Maya still felt as if there seemed like some sort of progress: at least some were trying to be nice, she did find some enjoyment at times, and saw some potential in future dances, that maybe both she and they could get over some awkward points. She wasn't sure, though, and would have to think about it more.

Others had stared at her too, but neither smiling nor frowning -- except for one or two of the latter -- she had difficulty interpreting the stares. This was nothing new, and still mildly discomforting. So she had pretended not to notice the stares in general. She wanted to think some were friendly, and had tried to smile more in general, had tried to be a little bit playful and funny, but it had not worked. Not this time, she thought, wanting and hoping it was just a very awkward first dance'event, and that maybe the next would go better.

At least the two primary organizers, Karen Smith and Sally Martin, had been civil. Sally had greeted her nicely, but had not really talked at all with Maya beyond that, turning hypothesis to theory in Maya's mind that Sally was no longer interested in friendship with Maya. Karen had barely met Maya's eyes at all, and unlike Sally, seemed to actively avoid Maya, though at least had not been actively unfriendly. Her husband, called Smitty by everyone including Maya, was present, of course, and Maya had noticed him give Karen an exasperated look at one point. Maya and Smitty got along well, but Karen seemed to want little to nothing to do with Maya, and she had not met their daughter at all yet.

Now, having left the dance, she resisted the urge to check on the progress BP409B experiment on some selected plants. After all, she was out of uniform, it was a Saturday (the others had encouraged her to keep non-urgent work out of her weekends), and after some pea plants had suffered, most of the rest of the other plants subject to the experiment seemed to be responding better. It was far too early to know the true results, however. The experiment would continue for many weeks.

Maya reached the door to her quarters, looking to her name listed simply there, as it had been for almost two months, since she had moved to her officers quarters. Her private residence in a city of aliens.

She pulled out her commlock to open the door, then paused, but uncertain why. She looked around, feeling like she was not alone. She felt nervous, still uncertain of her place among some Alphans. Then she did something she usually restrained herself from doing here, out of politeness, even if they'd never know one way or another. She extended her metasense.

She felt something, and after a moment, looked down. It was one of the cold'birds, huddled in the small 'corner' the closed door made with its frame.

It looked up at her, and she recognized which one. It was mottled white and orange. One of the young cold'birds -- one of the only two who had not turned mottled white and grey here on Alpha, but a mottled white and orange instead. A dating couple had, upon seeing them in a Zoology lab, each described them, one saying 'orangish' and the other 'orangy' -- leading Pedro Gutierez, a zoologist, to decide to name them accordingly. This one was Orangy, the female.

She was still looking up at Maya, moving her head slightly, nervously, apparently unsure what Maya's reaction would be. Yet she did not take flight, at least not yet.

Maya almost called Orangy in, so someone could catch the bird, but she realized her voice could make it take flight. Oddly it, like the rest of its kind, seemed to want to sneak somewhere, in this particular case, Maya's quarters. She didn't know why it wanted in, but it would make her easier to catch. So Maya opened the door to her quarters, with her commlock. As if expecting -- or even hoping for -- the door to open, the cold'bird didn't move, even as the door slid by right next to it. Orangy then stood up and sauntered in, and Maya smiled, bemused, but quickly closing the door after she had followed the bird in. Orangy seemed to take little notice. Curious about the surprise company, Maya decided not to call it in right away, instead setting her commlock in the recharger.

She stepped away, and the bird almost immediately flew up and alighted on the night'stand the charger was sitting on, and cocked its head at the commlock.

At first, it seemed a look of curiosity, but then it chattered at her briefly, flew around, alighted next to a white-lit wall panel, then flew back to look at the commlock.

"Seeah?" she said, asking it 'What?' in her native Psychon. It chattered at her again, then pecked at the commlock. "Ina, ina," Maya chided softly, reaching for the commlock and prompting the bird fly back to near the wall panel. Sudden inspiration hit her, and she punched in the code to activate the orange lights. It was something these quarters had been retrofitted with, specifically for Maya, something a few other Alphans had arranged as a partial substitute for the orange-heavy indoors coloration Psychons preferred. That had been of white lights on orange surfaces, not orange lights; so this was an imperfect substitute, but welcome and helpful nonetheless. She had used the orange lighting almost every one of her days, for an hour or two, finding it relaxing and that it helped her focus her thoughts.

Sometimes, it even helped after nightmares, which didn't make much sense in one way. There was so much she didn't understand yet about the end of her father's life and of Psychon. In some ways, there was much she still did not want to know, at least not now. Yet obviously, she was used to orange-colored spaces and did find it comforting to have a partial substitute here.

Still, she kept the lights on Alphanorm most of the time, to help her adjust to the strange conditions here. That was probably better in the end than orange-painted walls, especially for when she had guests, even though that occurred infrequently.

For several weeks, she had brought a cage with the same cold'bird family of four -- male and female adults and male and female chicks -- to her quarters to try to transform into them. The adults had been like others she had seen on Kaska'lon: something about them prevented her from adopting their molecular structure. She could sense them, but could not transform into them. Something stopped her. On the planet, there had been speculation, but it had not seemed convincing at the time. Some cold'birds had slipped aboard Eagles, made their way to Alpha, had babies -- and gave Maya the chance to make repeated metasensing/metamorphic attempts. She had quickly realized the speculation was incorrect. Some on the planet had felt old, her instincts warning her there was a risk that being one of them carried a risk she might die in its form. That was not the interference she had felt elsewhere on Kaska'lon. On Alpha, with these birds, there was no such 'old' sense at all, but the other, mysterious resistance remained. The block seemed intrinsic about its whole form. It didn't make sense.

The chicks had been too physically small for her to molecularly transform into, while she was still learning to expand her skills, including into smaller and larger forms. Finally, her improving skills regarding size and their growing size had met, and, much to her surprise, she had been able to transform into one of the chicks at first, namely Orangy.

She couldn't sense the 'conscious' mind of a bird any more than that of a sentient lifeform, but she could feel its instincts, trained patterns, and other well-established patterns. These all had been those of a still-young bird.

Now, it had its flight feathers. It must have escaped from its lab. They had larger cages now. Yet this one still clearly relished flying in more open space, whirling around Maya's quarters, chattering happily, evidently pleased with the change of lighting to semi-orange. Did it like the orange color so much that it was happier flying here than in the open hallways? She had not used the orange lighting that much -- then again, she had done so with the birds present, while attempting molecular transformation into one or the other of them, apparently subconsciously hoping the orange reminded her of when her father Mentor had been training her in metamorphic skills. The four birds had seen orange fairly often.

Ironically, even Maya, practicing in bird'form on other occasions, had not dared flying in the hallways. Fortunately, her officer quarters were larger than her non-officer quarters here had been, and there were the occasional visits to Biosphere IV.

She decided to molecularly transform into the cold'bird now. She sensed it, wanting a current molecular image of it as a juvenile adult. She concentrated, echoing the image in her mind, and feeling the transformation flow through her, change her. It was usually comfortable and familiar, but something always felt strange with the young cold'birds. There was still something different about them. She had recently transformed into cold'birds she had sensed on Psychon, whose forms she recalled from then. In those cases, she did not feel anything strange about doing so. Clearly, Kaska'lon was a factor, somehow, even to the first generation hatched on Alpha, but she did not know why.

She looked up from the floor, her mind a fraction of what it was, and partially subject to -- and in control of -- of a bird's brain capacity. The other of her kind was looking at her oddly, having alighted on the floor, opposite of her. The part of Maya's mind present knew why, and remembered: the cold'birds seemed startled by Maya's ability. Then again, so did everyone off Psychon.

Still, Orangy seemed to recall, just as she had with the... commlock. The word was slow to coming to mind. Maya/cold'bird started chattering to the other, and the other cackled back, triggering an image of a tall being, a sort of shadow. Maya as herself, maybe. How could she explain her change? She didn't try. Into her long pause, Orangy cackled again, triggering in Maya/bird's mind imagery of vertical and horizontal bars.

The more complex a bird's song, the more complex imagery it could cause in the mind of the same species, even partial, distorted imagery in other species, it seemed. The imagery was not solid, not like a movie or hologram, just flashes, faint overlays over her current vision. It was like how people describing something could bring images to her mind. This was simpler. Far less complex 'images', no conscious choice or thought on her part. It was a primitive yet still effective version, of which numerous species were capable.

The imagery shifted as the bird sung. The cage door was left dislodged, the human distracted by an opening door, and their family and the two others present all had swarmed the cage door at almost the same moment, startling the human. They had gotten out, across the room, through the door of the large white cave, and into the long white and gray tunnels.

After that, the still-young Orangy seemed to lose interest in sharing images, and Maya didn't know what to "say" at first. It soon started flying again, eventually chattering more, giving Maya flickering overlay images of plants and rivers -- the latter the weakest bits of all, something it had never seen, shared by a parent perhaps, and being only second-hand, even more fragmentary.

So she chattered an image of such vegetation from her own childhood memories of Psychon. Maya/bird then shifted to chattering an image of tall stone 'trees' and a long stone 'tree' across a river, images from where Maya had flown so freely herself, on Kaska'lon, and from the world which this bird's parents had came from.

Their mutual chattering turned simple, without images, just of acknowledgement, then of simple delight in flying.

Maya joined in the flight, flying around separately, curious to gauge the other's reaction. Orangy was just ignoring Maya/cold'bird now.

A beeping sound impinged, activating a reversion trigger Maya often left herself.

She promptly settled to the floor, reverted, and stood up, but did not hear any beeping right away. She was unsure what it had been, trying to sift through her impressions of the sound from when she was a bird.

She was intrigued that this cold'bird had communicated a little, and at a different level than when Orangy and Orangish were a little younger. Then, they had been more enthusiastic about communicating how much they enjoyed the taste of half-rotting, slightly-digested garbage crammed down their throats by their parents. Maya shook her head, but with a bit of a smile. It was rather intriguing and odd at the same time. These were indeed strange cold'birds. Then again, she was not used to interacting with others of such species. More practice. She'd have to do this -- or something -- again. Orangy clearly seemed to have some trust about Maya, even if it was like any other creature in not caring much for a cage. Simple mind, but with basic needs, like most other lifeforms. For a moment, she thought of how, if the Alphans had been less kind, Maya could have ended up in a cage, too. Aliens were not always kind to aliens.

It had only been a few minutes in the cold'bird form. The last dance will probably be starting now, Maya's sense of timing, based on the average song length she had noticed, was informing her for no good reason.

Fortunately, on several counts, the beeping occurred again. It was from a message left for her at her computer terminal. Someone had tried a direct video call to her while she was molecularly transformed. Maya thought she had left herself a reversion trigger for that too, and wondered why she had not perceived it. Of course, molecular transformation was called an 'art' for a reason, and she was still learning, practicing, extending her abilities.

Maya found Sandra had called from Command Center, but had not really left a message, just a quarter-second fragment. Sandra had apparently changed her mind about leaving a message, but too late to prevent the computer from sending what it had. Maya punched up a call to Command Center on one of the wall'screens.

"You called and did not leave a message?" Maya asked after greetings.

"I had others I could call, but since you are calling.... Some of the coldbirds escaped, and we think one may be in your quarters."

"Yes, one of them is here. How did you know?"

"One of the orange-shaded ones was found flying around in Nuclear Generating Area Two. Janina wondered if the other orange one might be found in your quarters, since you have the orange light option, and they have spent time there in the past."

"Oh. But they've never been in an NGA."

"This species gets around fast and is very sneaky. It may have just flown by NGA-2 when a door was opening, it saw inside, and got in then or the next time."

"Clever. Of course."

"Yes, but I suspect we're going to have to dispatch sharpshooters to Biosphere IV again."

Maya laughed slightly, before deciding Sandra might not see the levity; but Sandra smiled a little too, something Maya was glad to see from the often-grim human, who had lost her mate not long before Maya's arrival, and who had not attended the dance at all.

The cold'bird startled Maya by landing on her shoulder. It stared into the commlock and then chattered at Sandra. These animals could have a 'mean'-sounding cackle, but occasionally broke out in more 'pleasant' sounds too. Both parts were familiar from cold'birds on Psychon, but it still felt somehow a little different with this Kaska'lon breed.

"I'll send someone with a net and cage," Sandra then said.

Yet Maya had handled Orangy and Orangish when they were chicks. Maybe....

"Well, Orangy," Maya said in the same voice'tone she had used to try to keep them calm in the past, "it seems your brother has been found." She reached out. The cold'bird did not move, and Maya was soon holding it, and not even all that tightly -- which would have been difficult anyway since it was now too big for Maya to wrap her hand around much of it. It was called a cold'bird in part because of its preferred habitat; the bird itself was an endotherm like any other, and thus felt warm in her hand.

None of the cold'bird adults had been as territorial on Alpha as on Kaska'lon, like they knew they were invaders who best not press their luck. "Consummate stowaways," Sandra had called them. It was apparently part of how they got around so many worlds, sneaking onto transports and then being more subtle on arrival at new worlds, until they could quietly get established. Here on Alpha, though, they had essentially nowhere to hide. They had unknowingly snuck into a small city, not onto another planet.

Orangy didn't seem to mind being held, just looking at her. Yet the adults didn't like to be handled. Some of the chicks -- and not just Orangy and Orangish -- that had gotten more interaction with Alphans didn't seem to mind.

Maya looked back at the commlock, and Sandra was smiling a bit more, apparently finding all of this a little amusing.

"I will bring this one back to her lab," Maya stated. "If you find cold'birds in Biosphere IV, please call me. I would like to experiment with communicating with them back out of there, rather than them having to be shot by tranquildart."

Sandra seemed to understand the request just fine and accept it after only the slightest pauses, obviously still not used to some of the things Maya said, but adaptive. Sandra was a difficult human to understand in some ways. So quiet, so sad, quick to adjust in some ways even while struggling with tragedies.

Sandra thanked Maya and the call ended. Maya used the commlock to revert the lights to Alphanorm and then to open the door, and left, bird in hand and commlock in the other, shaking her head again a little. She felt a little sad to be taking away its short-lived freedom and back to a cage in a lab. They were in larger cages now, allowing some flight. They seemed to have potential to fill a niche in the Biosphere, but that was still under evaluation, and the previous incursion by two early on was unwelcome. They had been subject to a lot of zoological scrutiny, but no worse than the medical scrutiny Maya had received her first weeks and months on Alpha, she felt. One cold'bird had died, but a necropsy had revealed a cancerous growth in what seemed a middle age bird.

Cancer. She was aware of it. Psychon people, even those who were not full metamorphs, had a strong sense of self and not-self, extending even to the unconscious. Children gained a sense of beneficial symbiots vs. attacking microbes, even lacking partial metamorphic abilities. During adolescence, all Psychons would gain partial, subtle metamorphic abilities that could allow outshifting of invaders, at an unconscious level. They had to be taught to recognize haploid cells, ova or sperm, to allow them to consciously choose to let them remain at a time of their choosing, for sake of reproduction. There were even instincts regarding pregnancy.

So it was something that tended to disturb Psychons, to think of self'cells suddenly transforming into completely nonself'cells, within one's own body. In a Psychon with even partial metamorphic abilities, such cells were promptly, and unconsciously, recognized as not-self and outshifted. Psychon children could not do this, and in a few cases, a child developed cancer, was treated technologically, and, except for the rare death, would eventually gain the partial metamorphic ability and not be troubled with the chance of recurrence.

Maya attracted a few surprised looks in the hallways. Being seen wearing something other than a uniform, and carrying a bird in hand, was probably sufficient, so Maya stayed relaxed about it.

Something still felt different with these cold'birds, and it nagged at Maya. She abruptly resolved to move up the idea of DNA sequencing one of them. Alphan equipment could not sort the epigenomes, but Maya wanted to see their genome at least, and see how close they were to the genome of a Psychon cold'bird.

She had once seen a hypergrid of a Psychon cold'bird genome+epigenome example, in Mentor's training courses in the shelter, and Maya had memorized it, and some of the other species, thinking, like many young Psychons before, that she could somehow tie metamorphic impressions and mental memory of gendata together. It didn't work that way, however.

Yet the 'useless' data could be an interesting comparison here. Maybe they were not a typical cold'bird breed, but a more distant variant that had arisen on worlds away from Psychon. Outward physical and behavioral observations correlated well with typical cold'birds; but Maya knew well that wasn't always conclusive.

Orangy looked up at Maya, and there was a glint of something there. Maya smiled, but still, she could not shake that feeling of alienness....


A-453 DAB: The First Last Dance

When the final, slow dance started, after a long-lasting but fast-paced second-last song, John was caught a bit off guard, but finally approached Helena. As he did so, he admired her, looking so regal yet soft, dressed stunningly in a simple white dress with a red belt at her waist. The dress was the same as her sleeve color but it was far from a uniform, fit her even more beautifully, making her look more elegant than he had long thought. She was beautiful, and had even teased her hair a little more than she had started doing regularly the last several months.

He had watched her smiling more often today than he had seen before, it seemed, whether it was in his arms or among her friends. He was so happy to see her so happy. She seemed more radiant than ever, so absolutely gorgeous. Now, though, she looked sad and distant. Probably disappointed he had not been there right at the start of the last dance, since the look disappeared quickly on his approach.

It was as if there had been a sudden, silent agreement that they need not even bother with the fiction of hiding their relationship, at this dance. They would still be mature about it, but why not enjoy a few dances? It was more than that, though. He simply wanted to dance with her, honestly.

He stepped up to her and asked her to dance. She smiled promptly, and they hit the floor. Despite the urge to do so, and the example of Alan and Susan kissing occasionally, John and Helena were not going to do that here.

As the song and with it the dance wound down, they found themselves reluctant to let go of each other, but did. They left together, but this time, it was difficult to part company in all the ways they had done so many times before. This time, she did not seem to want to do so, and neither did he. Without a word while in the hallways, they went towards his quarters, and were soon in there, kissing passionately. Too long restrained, yet at the same time, experienced if too-long out of practice adults, they soon settled into slower, more deliberate passion. What had seemed to take forever to get to, to get past both their individual pasts, their reasons for resistance, they finally had. Yet they were not eager children, and what had taken forever to get to was something they both seemed to want to feel like taking forever to enjoy....

For the first time in a long time for each of them, neither would sleep alone.


Epilogue

Ryrorn stared at the photographs, but still didn't understand their meaning.

He had liked the Alphans from the beginning -- still did.

They seemed different in some ways, and even had racial differences too: light hair, dark hair. A casual question had elicited even more races: white hair, grey hair, and a few with red hair. The one named Sandra even looked different in eye shape than any of the other three Alphans or any Cromepna. They had even mentioned what sounded like an even more variant individual back on their base, and Ryrorn had thought he had even seen a darker-skinned person when Sandra was communicating with their base.

It could have been a good, high-communication friendship of people, and friendships of individuals. Not to be.

He finally had been told the reasons for the orders. At that same time, he had been given the series of photographs, the last few from a satellite and the earlier ones from elsewhere.

He looked at the final photograph in the mixed-source but time-ordered sequence. The sign had faded there -- just an empty gravel field photographed in transblue light. He looked at an earlier picture, the one that had the Alphan Eagle spaceship sitting in the field -- in the middle of a giant Flammon. The glowing danger/death symbol, invisible in normal wavelengths but shining brightly in transblue -- more and more so as time had progressed, clearly visible all around the alien ship. Yet the symbol was modified in a way that no one understood, with a Yagonai half-negation symbol at one end, as if implying the Alphans were and were not the source of danger.

Whatever the Caretakers of Crom 2 were, they were still active, it seemed, and wanted the Alphans off the planet, for in shallow-angle pictures taken earlier but not discovered until after the encounter, there was a hint of the Flammon just starting to appear around the Eagle, not long after its landing. As soon as the Eagle's footpads had left the ground, the symbol had started vanishing -- very rapidly.

Did they carry a plague? If so, why partially negate the symbol? Was it a plague of alien ideas? If so, why the partial negation? The Cromepna, being Yagona, were not unfamiliar with aliens. Cromepna technology mostly did not appear any more formidable than the Alphans', yet they had a few tricks, as some aliens had learned. Mostly, though, their communications via hyperlight had diffused situations, cemented friendships even if not much technical exchange. Here the Alphans had offered more exchange even over more limited differences, but they'd been clearly rejected by the Caretakers -- yet in a partial way.

Perhaps there was some other danger attendant with the Alphans that could not be easily understood. Maybe on the day he passed away, he'd brush by a Caretaker and learn the secrets of both Crom 2 and the Alphans from one of them. It was said most on Crom 2 wanted to pass back to Yagona; but Ryrorn would be pleased to pass right back to Crom 2, his home.

With a sigh, he set the series of photographs down on his desk. Answers would not be forthcoming today.


The references to Crom II/2, Flammon / Death Glow, and the latter
being noted as a warning of danger, are brief references from the
"The Mark of Archanon" episode of the series itself, but were
greatly expanded here by the author of this story.

"Dance of the Flammon" — an original story based on Space: 1999 — is
Copyright ©2010, David M. Welle (Space: 1999 Metaforms), and may
not be reproduced or published without consent of author/artist.

Thanks again to Meredith for lots of helpful thoughts and corrections.

This story is part of the Bridges and Anchorages framework of fan fiction.

1stDrft:  S-05/10/09
RevuPst:  M-05/11/09
ImgPost:  A-03/06/10
2ndDrft:  F-03/12/10
3rdDrft:  W-03/24/10
Release:  S-04/04/10


Space: 1999 Metaforms [Eagle 44] Fan Fiction