T-414 DAB 0440-0630: Grey Passages
It was an empty star system -- "Scarcely even a system so much as a lone star," Astronomer Douglas McLeod had declared. It was not even two weeks since the encounter with the 53 pods of the Golosian Exiles, and a little over a week since 51 had been pushed back into their journey, unawakened.
Golos could not offer settlement. Dr. Helena Russell had asked, but the alien leader, Mirella, and her operatives had determined the damage to their control room had triggered a force field against further incoming transmissions, which would not be repaired in time. Only an outgoing transmission would work in the limited time, returning Helena and Tony to Alpha.
Now, First Officer Tony Verdeschi, was alongside another alien, Maya of Psychon, as they jogged in the long, almost unbroken grey-colored "under-Tube." Some Brits were taking to spelling it as Undertube or even Underground. It wasn't Britain, or Kansas, or anywhere else on or near Earth, however, but a maintenance corridor underneath one of the Travel Tubes. Two of the under-Tubes were now doubling as long jogging tracks, in recognition that sometimes Alpha itself had to change to try keeping the health of its people. It was already changing to accept a person from another planet, though this was not without more bumps or outright controversy.
They were silent at the moment, just a pause in conversation, which between them today had been about yet new questions Maya had about Alpha. In the silence, his thoughts jumped from Golos to thinking of how infrequently she asked about Earth. Either she had been hesitant from the beginning, had quickly picked up on how infrequently Terrans themselves even talked about Terra since Breakaway, or herself had the same reticence talking about Psychon and assumed something similar of all those around her. They were all bereft of their former homeworlds under explosive conditions.
His mind went back to Golos, and he then asked about the analysis she had been running on the modifications Cantar and Zova had been made to Alphan systems. Maya's own changes were already starting, still cautiously for now. She had made a few minor changes on Main Computer, adding a couple display modes, though only she could read one of them, plus some new calculating systems. Separately, she had created a new type of scanner, using Alphan technology in new ways.
"Their modifications were unique, but there are two problems." She spoke pretty clearly, hardly winded like she had been in some jogs they had taken early after her arrival. These jogs were one occasion he had scaled back after she no longer needed protection around the base, only to resume almost daily after he found out she had ceased jogging due to some residual fears she had about being in such a large corridor. Not that she had said it like that, but in her disjointed response, he had surmised she still feared being hassled or targeted in such a long, often empty space. He wondered if any of her female friends, of which he was aware of a few, jogged, but he couldn't recall seeing any here. So he had started asking again if she wanted to take jogs with him, and she had readily accepted. For some reason, he found he was glad she had.
He knew he was no longer jogging with her as security escort, as had been the case early on, so he must be doing so as a friend now, he had figured. It was also a curious reminder of what he already knew: she might have some metahuman abilities of mind and body, but she was not some superwoman. She had more than one vulnerability. She could defend herself well, but was far from invulnerable. She could be stunned, as had been recently proven.
In animal form, she couldn't always hold onto her full intelligence, such as when she had failed to guard a stun gun dropped by the Exiles after Maya had surprised them with a transformation. She had reacted in such a way that she couldn't "bring a sufficient set of instructions through," as she had explained afterwards. It was something she could work on improving, but there were still going to be per-form limits.
Even moreso, she simply felt as vulnerable as any person might. Maybe less in some ways, but more in other ways, being the only of her kind here and having arrived after less than kind treatment of Alphans by her father.
Away from the jogs, he had noticed that she no longer seemed to tense a little going around corners, or when doors opened near her. Or at least she didn't show it anymore, this many weeks after having been attacked by Sanderson and forced -- pushed by Tony really -- to defend herself as only she could.
"The subsystem they altered was damaged after the return," she was continuing after a few moments of thought, probably summarizing her answer. "The alterations more than the original equipment, I mean. I suspect there was a feedback mechanism that Cantar or Zova built in, that after you and Helena returned, triggered a return feedback from the Golosian shield and was not anticipated in the Exiles' hasty modifications, damaging them."
"Huh, well, that is too bad."
"Yes, but even without the damage, the system was dedicated to targeting a specific location. The modifications were not designed to be generalized, and they were hiding their true intent inside of what we thought they were working on."
"We should have had you observing their progress directly."
"You trusted their innocence."
"No, not entirely; though actually, in this case, John was more untrusting."
It was a little strange, that coming to accept this alien had evidently compromised his suspicions about others. Then again, he had never been anti-alien per se, just over-reactive to Maya looking so different, reminding him of her late demented father Mentor, and having very alien mental and physical capabilities -- while Cantar and Zova seemed almost human, like an innocent, 18-year-old couple or something.
No excuse on either, and he and John had had a talk about it, during a brief monthly performance discussion, only to find John still trusted Tony's opinions. John had qualified it as Tony being more contrary in both cases, sometimes taking the opposite stance of John, which could be helpful to bring out varying viewpoints, especially with a depleted officer corps. Yet with both the Psychon and the Exiles, it had been more than Tony just playing devil's advocate. The Psychon attack had left him over-suspicious, but then he had over-compensated with the Exiles. Tony had come away with some advice on returning to a balance, where he'd still be devil's advocate, still have suspicions when needed, and act on them when it made sense, but not over-react.
Tony's respect for John had grown further. The sometimes moody commander seemed to have mentoring ability in him. Maybe something he had learned from one of his main mentors, the late Victor Bergman.
"Are you listening?" Maya asked.
"Oh, sorry. Didn't get much sleep last night, and my mind is wandering."
Sometimes she seemed so shy about asking the least of personal questions. Sometimes she was abrupt, blunt, and simple about it. It occurred to him that he had no idea if this was some sort of Psychon social pattern he could not discern, or just Maya, stuck between cultures.
Fortunately or unfortunately, his lack of sleep had nothing to do with a date. He still didn't have a girlfriend since he and Lena had broken up. He wondered if hanging around Maya so much wasn't creating some sort of interference, then dismissed it as a cruel thought, especially considering she had not shown any sign of seeking such attention, that he had noticed. Still, he spent a lot of time with her....
He shook his head. "No, just going over some new training programs and some old reports, and lost track of time. That and your funny 33-hour sleep schedule."
Maya shot him a look, one of her amusing bright-eyed, off-kilter smiles, still sometimes seeming not to catch his transitions to humour or her being momentarily uncertain. She had been getting better at this, after having seemingly caught on for no apparent reason, one day about three weeks ago. She was even giving some comebacks of her own, at times.
This was not one of those times. He knew she had a sense of humour, but besides sometimes being slow to catch on, she was sometimes slow or completely hesitant to deploy it, the last probably out of fear of being insulting.
His mind turned serious, feeling disappointment in her conclusions so far. "How did they do it so quickly, in just a couple days?"
"Human and Golosian technology may not have had as large a gap, or maybe they had come up with a transport idea and considered how they might implement it in different technologies."
"While in suspended animation?"
"Oh, that does not make sense."
"Unless they were imprisoned more typically at first, then later sentenced to suspension, but still had time before it was carried out."
"Possible, I suppose. It is difficult to understand them."
"Terrorists," he said, with bitterness.
"Never mind." Painful territory. He had lost friends -- in both Italy and Britain -- in World War III. That now seemed almost a lifetime, not to mention like another life, ago -- something even more pointedly clear given his company.
They reached the end of the corridor, and their jog for the day, near the centre of the base, and went their separate ways. Tony would go to the gym, while Maya stated she and Kate had another early morning racquetball game.
Tony was happy to see that Maya was keeping a few close friends. There weren't that many, and most of the people who showed up for her birthday party some weeks back seemed more like friendly acquaintances than friends, but Maya seemed happy about it, if still subdued in many ways over all. Tony found he was happy she had friends and that no one had been overtly creating problems for her lately, though he was aware of people who did not trust her, or like her. He figured Maya probably knew this too. After all the attacks from aliens, including her own father, Maya was probably finally starting to prove some aliens could be good -- or remind them that she was like the friendly Kaldorians, not like the indifferent, manipulative, or hostile ones.
Still, the Exiles had left a sour memory for many, including Tony, especially after he had been more trusting of them. He shook his head as he returned to his quarters and prepared for the day.
Just as Tony finished a shower and was just wrapping up getting ready, an Alert sounded.
T-414 DAB 0610-2000: Starshine
Before the alarm sounded, Commander John Koenig was looking at the lone sun, risen somewhat over the low crater hills.
This star system was not that of Golos. That was some distance behind them now, and had not even been entered at all.
It was an irony that they had spent the past couple of days getting deep into a system that they had already determined was empty. According to the Indirect Gravity Wave Detector system designed by Joan Conway and Maya, there was nothing bigger than a few large asteroids.
Some of these systems lately had been empty or nearly empty, like that of about seven weeks ago, when they had passed through the edge of a system with only a single gas giant planet, which they had not been that close. A few weeks later, they had passed through an alien-designed "Bridge" across a dangerous phenomenon Maya spelled the Alk^inharda (but most referred to more simply as Alkinarda), leaving that planet a good chunk of this galaxy behind them.
Now, they were only 84 million kilometers from this system's lone star, and it was fairly bright right now. Not as bright as Earth's Sun, but the Moon was much closer, so this one was still brighter, and the glare off the tops of some Moonbase buildings was pretty strong. John looked out from one of the windows of the upper level of Main Observation. This was the former, decommissioned Main Mission, now recommissioned, half as an observation deck and quiet socialization area, half as a memorial to Alphans who had died just before, during, and since Breakaway.
They were close enough to this star to prompt some greater worries of radiation. Operatives, Sandra, and/or Maya -- whoever was on duty in shifts -- were tasked with keeping an eye on that. Moonbase was well-shielded, but it was worth monitoring, in case of a powerful flare or some other factor which might have to have them shutting down a lot of equipment and seeking deeper shelters, all quickly and as a precaution.
That could be watched without John's constant presence. Besides, compared to what the Alk^inharda's attendent blue giant stars could have done to Alpha, this seemed a piece of cake. He shook his head. Mustn't get complacent, or we could get dead, John thought.
"What is it?" Helena asked, having noticed.
Yesterday, he had come up here at around the same time, alone, only to discover the sun just rising, which he had not know it would at that time. Last night, he had decided to return this morning, this time with Helena. The Moon's rotation was somewhat faster than it had been in Earth orbit, due to encounters with other planets and frequently sweeping by them on the same side, and from other events, such as course changes, but the star was still only part way up into the eastern "sky" this morning. He had gotten complacent and missed the chance to see a sunrise -- even if with only the Moon's black "sky" -- with her, and this didn't make up, but was about wanting to be here with her.
"Sorry, just thinking about we have to be careful not to assume that surviving something nasty makes something only somewhat less nasty a piece of cake."
"Didn't you mention something like that after we got past the Alkinarda?"
"Maya's first descriptions of the Alkinarda sounded somewhat like the Black Sun we survived that I think we all started making assumptions. She got frustrated trying to correct, until Tony and I realized we might have been getting complacent."
"I know the same thing in medicine. Complacency can kill very quickly here. Yet despite everyone knowing that, it can still be far too easy to start sliding down a slippery slope on this."
"And I'm sure your patients appreciate that," he said, with a somewhat teasing smile, "even if I'm not directly your patient any more."
"Oh, thank you."
He reached his arm around her shoulder, even though he was aware of two others on the floor below them. If they were up here with him and Helena, he probably would not have, but that he did so now with anyone in the room told him something too. "And I think I know why you shuffled me off to being Bob's patient awhile back," he whispered. "We're closer than a doctor-patient relationship."
John had rarely seen Helena blush, but that she did only confirmed his theory. It seemed she was thinking about a relationship, as he was, but it had been moving slowly, cautiously. It had been more than a dozen years since he had been in a serious relationship, and Helena a half-dozen years. She wasn't a year removed from rediscovering Lee, or at least what she called a "reflection" of him, on Terra Nova.
Helena looked at him, and said, "I'm still Maya's doctor, and we're friends."
"So you're saying I'm closer than just a friend. Good."
She seemed to appreciate the confidence, but the moment was not to progress, for something caught the corner of his eye. He looked back outside for the first time in a few minutes, and saw something that made his arm muscles stiffen, accidentally drawing her closer, and his hand squeezing her shoulder too much, drawing a small sound of protest.
His gaze was fixed on a portion of Alpha that was out-gassing, at the corner of one structure. Helena followed his gaze. Already, he was letting go of Helena, and reaching for his commlock -- when a Yellow Alert rang out.
Sandra was on watch, and reached John before he could call Command Center, informing him there was an apparent explosion.
"I see its after-effects -- out-gassing near the PPU. Are we under attack?" he asked as he turned and began descending the stairs from the upper to lower level of Main Observation, followed by Helena.
"Unknown. Nothing detected so far."
"Raise shields anyway, actively scan, issue Red Alert, and get all non-essential upper-level workers to lower levels." Some areas of the upper levels had once been quarters, but they had been repurposed to be workspaces like most of the rest of the areas up there, and immediate caution was still warranted.
Sandra confirmed the orders, informed him Tony had just arrived in Command Center, that Maya was on her way. Alan had already been on-duty in Reconnaissance, talking with Diane Bell and Pete Garforth in Hangar 3 this morning, about new post-repair test flight schedules. He ordered Sandra to have him remain there, in case he needed to lead an Eagle flight.
"Casualties?" he asked into the commlock as they left Main Observation.
"No information yet. Bulkheads came down in that area, so it is contained, but damage is also unknown."
He knew, however, that the Protein Production Unit was in that area, not far from the out-gassing. Helena split off towards Medical Center, in case of casualties from the explosion or the possibility this was an attack that might continue.
He arrived in Command Center, and found it buzzing with voices trying to work the problem, including Maya, who was just settling in.
Nothing was being detected in space, and further readings from seismic sensors said little. It took more, agonizing minutes, but Helena reported everyone had been accounted for, with no injuries except for a bruised hip from someone tripping trying to get further away from the area, even though the bulkheads had already come down.
Nonetheless, John ordered two Combat Eagles to pads as a precaution, but kept the large laser battery underground.
"Is that a site damaged in a prior attack?" one operative, Kate Bullen, wondered aloud, apparently thinking it might have been a weak repair.
Mentor's attack was still fresh in mind, and John caught Stewart giving Maya a dirty look, as if Stewart immediately assumed this was one of the sites of Mentor's damage. Stewart happened to glance in Koenig's direction, and the commander shot him a sternly disapproving look, and Stewart quickly turned away. Sandra soon quietly and calmly stated this was not the site of a prior attack.
An hour after the initial incident, there was no repeat. Emergency personnel had reached the area in spacesuits. There was another problem, however. The Protein Production Unit was not responding to remote orders from the Technical Section, and Sandra verified no response to Command Center terminals either.
It was not in the area currently in vacuum, for the bulkheads had come down, but it seemed that the PPU was exposed to the vacuum and cold just long enough to do some sort of damage. John's heart sunk, and voices in Command Center became more muted. Alpha's people needed the PPU, in order to survive. Without it, they'd be dead within 2-4 months, after the surplus in the Protein Store ran out and people faced protein starvation.
Sandra sent some Technical personnel to the PPU, and others to the breach. John stepped the Red Alert down to Yellow Alert, but ordered all others to remain on lower levels, working a second job if they had one, helping out where they could, or just staying in quarters or finding diversion somewhere out of the way, while the repairs and investigation went into full steam.
Sandra was more familiar with the systems, so he sent her to oversee those efforts while keeping Maya on scanners.
"What about the Eagles on pads?" Alan asked from Hangar 3.
He paused, then said, "Bring them back down, but keep the pilots on immediate ready alert."
"I could have them run a practice flight, but keep alert."
Not long after, Chief Architect Alexander Karedepoulos was outside investigating the damage. Commander Koenig, though still leery, ordered the shield remain off after it was deactivated for the Eagles to pass through. That was done, and nothing adverse happened.
The immediate adrenaline edge came off the incident, but everyone was still nervous about the PPU, where the nature and severity of the damage were still unknown.
Hours went by. Finally, though, John broke away to the nearest cafeteria for a late and badly needed lunch.
An initial report came in not long after he returned. It was not a point explosion, and so far did not resemble prior attacks. Stewart didn't bother with an apologetic look in Maya's direction after his prior look not long before. Koenig knew Stewart was far from the only Alphan who didn't appreciate an alien's presence here, or at least didn't trust or like her, but Stewart was definitely one of several who didn't bother much to hide his feelings.
The Protein Production Unit had been briefly exposed to partial vacuum, cold, and some intense wind. The last had gotten some loose pipes, still sitting in the area from a prior minor repair, to blow against part of the PPU, putting it offline. The state of the batch of protein it was currently producing was not yet known.
How long the PPU would remain offline, the larger concern, was unclear yet.
Precautionary rationing might be needed, but the determination was not yet made. So far, rationing had not been needed, despite some close calls after Breakaway. Curiously, though, the worst damage previously was not to the PPU itself, but the auxiliary unit, called the Texturizer. This unit took the protein from the PPU and added varying amount of air, water, pressure, and lipids, so the final results would look and taste somewhat more like meat, and in variations that could be called pseudo-beef, pseudo-chicken, etc.
Breakaway had temporarily damaged the Texturizer. The PPU was the essential part, but in many ways, the Texturizer was almost vital, to ensure people's appetites for Alpha's half-artificial foods remained reasonably healthy. Still, everyone had been grateful when the Texturizer was eventually repaired.
This, however, was the PPU, and unlike regarding the Texturizer, he soon paid a visit to the site, to see the damage to the hull, and to the nearby PPU, his presence emphasizing the need to get problem cornered and repaired as soon as possible, without getting careless of course.
News spread fast, and looks of concern were evident on many Alphans' faces as he returned to Command Center, so he punched up an official announcement to the Alpha Information System, including assurance it was top priority.
It was a top priority, but his true top priority was trying to determine what had caused this. It was an empty star system, but maybe something or someone was lurking here, and had tried a simple first attack as a way of gauging Alpha's responses -- Koenig's responses.
Yet by the time the normal first shift time completed, there were no answers, and seemingly no immediate danger, so he dropped the Yellow Alert, and re-opened upper levels. He still felt on alert, but maintaining a Yellow Alert for too long for no immediate reason could dull later responses to alerts, research back on Earth had shown.
It was Helena who later showed up in CC to try telling him the same thing regarding his own responses. More and more often, she seemed to know him so increasingly well, and he let her convince him to ask her to have a late supper in a cafeteria. Not quite a date, really, but something he could still use -- though it didn't entirely take his mind off worrying. Maybe she knew that too.
He returned to CC. Kate was gone. Sandra, her sense of dogged determination to seemingly work her way through the grief of losing Paul keeping her here. She seemed alert, but as soon as she saw him, she gave a quick summary, then glanced at Maya. He came around, to find her looking half-asleep. She was working as if the Yellow Alert was still on, when he suddenly suspected it was the middle of the night for her.
She finally realized his gaze, looked up, then said, "Sorry, Commander," reported that she was scanning all the raw data for alien presence, looking for anything she could find that maybe Computer didn't know to collate for, but she could find nothing. Then, after a pause, she quietly asked to be excused. She quickly caught herself, knowing it was her responsibility to make sure someone was covering her station when needed. None of his officers abused their rights and responsibilities on their work, and Maya was apparently no exception. She seemed to have only a partial grasp on Terran authority structure and some of the details or reasons for some of the details, or that she did not seem to entirely buy into, but then again, all of his officers had quirks, and it was his job to either take advantage of those quirks or counterbalance, depending on positives or negatives.
He left her to find her own replacement, and finally took the hint in his own thoughts about his officers, and the hints he had already taken from Helena in earlier contexts today. He asked for a few brief verbal reports, then retired, to a little exercise, reading, and sleep. He had been up early, and running himself ragged if there were to be a true crisis to follow tomorrow was no better than having exhausted officers if such happened.
Still, this crisis was on his mind, or never far from it. It was his nature.
W-415 DAB: Too Quiet?
Fortunately or unfortunately, little more was found in the next day. No sign of alien presence. No information on what had compromised the hull. No update on how long it would take to repair the PPU.
The only news was that the prior batch of protein, nearly complete, had been mostly saved. The top had crusted over, but the whole area was kept cool while they removed the mucky, partially frozen material. The fully frozen and then prematurely over-oxidized outer crust had to be skimmed and recycled, but the rest, while having lost some air content from vacuum exposure and then sitting, could be put into the undamaged Texturizer. Extra air than normal could be injected, along with the usual varying mixtures of fats, pressures, and liquids.
That created a ripple of relief through the base, which was fortunate, according to Bob Mathias, as it took the edge of near panic off, that more food could be put into the Protein Store. Of course, everyone was cognizant it might soon have to be tapped if no new batches were forthcoming for a while.
Chief Architect Karedepoulos reported a decision to not do a simple repair to the breached hull, but remove five entire hull panels, each several meters on a side, and outright replace them. Some spares had been in storage pre-Breakaway, but those had long been used up due to repeated damage to the base at and after Breakaway. Part of Manufacturing's duty was to keep a steady supply of new panels. Maintenance had duties to repair ones that were only lightly damaged, and the Survey teams to find more metal on the Moon -- or on the alien worlds they were visiting. Fortunately, they could recycle much of the metal too.
Koenig had learned that it was best to let the architect run with his ideas to a degree, and besides, it was pretty easy to see he wanted some close analysis of the damaged panels in a more controlled location.
Long-term lessons were already being learned. One was that too few people in Technical understood the PPU. Maya asked a pointed question in that day's Command Conference, only to find that this was not a new topic, but one with new urgency. Maya immediately offered to learn the system, and to work with Sandra, who was still the officer most directly supervising this part of Technical Section since the loss of the Technical Officer, David Kano. A few more volunteers would be needed, to also start some cross-training. They would all just be observers, one or two at a time so as to not interfere with the need to repair this as soon as possible. After that, more formal cross-training would be arranged.
Maya's pointed question did trigger another, this from Helena, reminding them of the total vulnerability they had with having only one PPU on base.
"We've had this on our list--" John started.
"For some time," Helena reminded -- or informed in the case of the newest officer.
"Of course. Karedepoulos has been drawing up--"
"I think this needs to be done faster, or should I say sooner," she said bluntly.
"Helena, I know--"
"I am already going to have to start considering rationing orders, since Bob pointed out the obvious possibilities some people, after the good news of saving the one batch fades, start thinking they should start taking excesses -- to start hoarding."
That perhaps explained her icy attitude on this. John had no problem with this side of her. He had seen through that difficult exterior to who she was inside as well and had quickly come to appreciate her regardless. A complex woman, he knew -- one he had long since started admiring.
So he took her bluntness in complete stride, saying, "Helena, I agree. This incident proves we need to move a new Protein Unit up in priority."
It also re-emphasized the need for alternate sources of protein. There had already been some work on analyzing ways of ramping up fish production. It was fairly easy to manufacture nutrients for algae to grow on, and provide light for its growth, so that fish could grow. The problems were providing the physical capacity for holding more fish, and to getting their numbers up to support human consumption.
The final conclusion of the Command Conference was that further alternatives had to be investigated as well....
R-416 DAB 1000-1100: Cold'birds
They are such peculiar birds, Lars Sundriksen thought, as some of the medium-sized black birds stared at him.
They were called coldbirds, so-named by another odd bird, Maya. She apparently spelled the word cold'bird, for reasons not clear to Lars, though he guessed it was based on some grammatical tendency of her native Psychon language that she carried over in a residual fashion into English.
Maya had been saved from the destruction of her home planet Psychon after she had saved Alphans from her father, and those Alphans in turn had saved the rest of the Alphans. Others put it more simply, that Maya had saved all the Alphans.
Then a few of the coldbirds, living on the next planet encountered, called Kaskalon, had stowed away on a few Eagles, most then quietly escaping into Alpha before being noticed. All had been rounded up over the subsequent week or so, some easily and some, especially two which had slipped into Biosphere IV, with some moderate difficulty. Most had been apparently-established breeding pairs. Two pairs had seemingly abandoned still-empty nests on Kaskalon, given one had already laid an egg on an Eagle by the time it was discovered, another soon after, then three from the second pair. Most of the rest had been clearly grouping in twos in the time before each was captured. Not long after they too were rounded up, nesting behavior and eggs soon followed, despite having "binary cages" that allowed a pair to be kept in the same unit but in two halves. The partitions were soon removed and each family put in a slightly larger cage, in case both sexes cared for hatchlings -- which given the frequent exchange in egg-warming duty, seemed to be the case.
So far, besides the inconvenience of their discovery, round-up, and their stealing some food from a cafeteria, they had not been too much trouble. At first, there had been concern they and their then-impending chicks would just be more mouths to feed. In some regards, they were, but very minimally -- yet they also seemed to also fill an odd niche only partially filled by some of the limited number of species previously on Alpha. The coldbirds now seemed content to feed on small amounts of grain, over-old leftovers, as well as some other rejects, spoilage or other excess not considered human-usable, even some material rejected by other Alphan species.
Lars, Alpha's dietician, was meeting with Pedro Gutierez, a zoologist, and Maya, the Science Officer, in one of the Zoology Labs, where about half the captured coldbirds were, along with some other cool-preferring Earth species. The other half of the coldbirds was in another lab -- a redundancy repeated with every other species on Alpha to avoid damage to one part of the base from wiping out the species from Alpha.
It was a curious gathering, watched by caged coldbirds, whose stares seemed eerie right now considering the topic of discussion.
"It is a valid question," Maya was answering, "and worth discussing, especially given the Commander's recent orders to consider alternatives; but from what I recall, cold'birds were not considered edible."
"Yes, but why?" Sundriksen asked.
Gutierez, one who didn't remain silent for long, kept that streak very much alive. "The stowaways, including the one that died recently that we did a necropsy on, all show signs of the same sort of contamination by some of the chemicals that the surface of Kaskalon was 'salted' with."
Lars waved his hand impatiently. "Yes, yes, the birds seemed to live despite that, and we can't consume them; but the blood analyzed from a hatched chick shows little of that except for one or two surprises."
"The surprises may be why," Maya suggested.
"But you don't know."
"Not that I recall on that particular reason."
"That particular reason?"
"Cold'birds are highly adaptive, apparently not just on biochemical survival, but on what they eat. Nectar, some plant material, insects or worms, or scavengers on higher life forms, even those of their own who have died, or even from sources not typically considered edible."
"Well, not exactly kosher, I agree; but I'm tasked with diet of other Alphans of various beliefs, and there is no expert on the Law for kosher here, either."
"I didn't understand most of that. Kosher?"
Just what Lars didn't need: getting into religious discussion with an alien with who knew what kind of religion, if any. She probably would care less about his beliefs. Maybe she didn't even know what religious faith was. However, after three world wars had been fought, two of which took decidedly nasty turns in part at least, on religious lines, he, like other Alphans post-Breakaway, simply didn't want to relive such horrors, certainly not with a nosy, perhaps judgmental alien.
Right or wrong, it had become difficult for most Terrans to wear religion so openly on their sleeves, and Alpha, especially Breakaway, had further muted that. There were some that didn't bring it up at all. One case was Commander Koenig. It was common speculation among the base's Jewish people that he was also Jewish, but it was unclear whether he kept kosher or in any sort of active practice. Some speculated perhaps as commander, he did not want there to be any focus on his faith. Or maybe he was just that private about it in general.
"Never mind. What I meant is that while some view the consumption of even occasional carrion eaters as unacceptable, I'm not sure if I buy everyone rejecting that, or that being the reason no other aliens consumed them."
"I don't know conclusively that no one ate them, just that I never heard of anyone considering them a food'bird. My perspective may be limited on this question."
"What I'd like to know," Pedro said, jumping in either randomly or as a hackneyed and pointless attempt to get between Lars and Maya, "is why you still cannot transform into any of the particular individuals who stowed away, or even their young."
"The young are still too small for me at this stage in my metamorphic ability; but the reason for the resistance over the adults still eludes me. There is something strange about these cold'birds. Maybe some aspect of the metamorphic interference I experienced at times on Kaskalon clings to them in some way."
"Can't you scan for that?" Lars asked.
"Not now. Perhaps not ever."
Lars almost jumped on this as a sign of her being arrogant over what she probably viewed as primitive Alphan tech, but he abruptly decided, from her expression, that he was being unfair in his thought -- this time at least. Besides, she might be thinking of the word 'scan' in her unique biological sense instead, or responding to both at the same time.
"Well, I don't want to play chicken with poisonous squab," Pedro said drolly. Now he was being intentionally hackneyed, and smiling oddly at Maya, like he thought himself the funniest guy on Alpha. Maya looked baffled, but didn't ask anything. Lars rolled his eyes.
Being kosher on Alpha was not too difficult, for many of the non-kosher sources were simply absent here after Breakaway, except for some dwindling frozen supplies from Earth. There were few Jewish people here, him the only one of Scandenavian descent, and being dietician was something of a dual irony in having to accept and give non-kosher advice before -- yet now finding de facto partial compliance to such now.
Yet here they were talking about food potential of some alien bird that so far had a lot of odd properties. That wasn't mentioning how its highly territorial behavior on their planet had vanished here, their rampant curiosity, their wandering instincts, or why their Alphan-born chicks had so quickly shed their initial black down in favor of mottled white and grey -- the same colors that so dominated on Alpha. Two were starting to get some orange streaks in addition, which seemed an odd variation on an odd situation.
Pedro had confirmed it matched no known Earth species, at least in terms of exact appearance and verbal calls, though physically, it did resemble a few families of Earth birds. DNA analysis of them had not been high priority, but it was on the list for some months later. Pedro had argued with Maya earlier in this meeting, only to find she wanted the DNA analysis too, but was being sensitive to other priorities on scientists' time.
The alien science officer was proving naive in some ways, was seen as condescending by some, pushed some points rather relentlessly, according to others, yet was humble, cautious, and a good listener, according to still others.
Lars had talked with her more early after her arrival, to introduce dietary information about Alphan food. She had memorized grids of such in no time, making that aspect of the discussion rather brief. Most of the rest of their communication had been by electronic post, as she gave lists of what foods she seemed to prefer or avoid here.
Lars was realizing he had no real good idea about who Maya really was, as herself or transformed into Alpha's newest officer. He didn't like that uncertainty, or having an inexperienced young alien in that post. Yet he was starting to wonder if maybe Koenig wasn't as much as a lunatic as he had seemed to many after this announcement.
He had talked to one early doubter about Maya, namely Alexander Karedepoulos, only to find his working with her on Kaskalon had apparently changed his opinion about her a great deal. That had happened with some others as well. Even Greg Sanderson, known as one of the most vocal against her, had gone quiet; but the doubts still simmered strongly in other quarters, such as with Strong and Hayden, the leads of Botany and Hydroponics, as well as some of the Eagle pilots, Medical personnel, and various others who considered it rash -- at best -- to elevate an alien so high in Alpha's power structure.
After the silence had gone on awhile, Maya spoke again. "You stated, Lars, that many on Alpha would welcome the return of direct'source animal protein on Alpha, similar to how the fish are being bred in increasing numbers for that goal. While that is logical and a sound idea, I would be cautious regarding the cold'birds, even if their second or third generation lacks the clear poisonous aspects from Kaska'lon."
"But on what basis do you conclude that?"
"As I said--"
"What scientific basis?"
"I do not have the data, but other aliens--"
"Aliens. How do you know humans won't find them edible?"
"I don't." With more irritation, she added, "Would you want to try such?"
He looked at her with a repulsed expression. "No, I doubt they could be kosher, though I suppose maybe if we deny them some of their more unusual food sources in favor of other sources. But I'm not a judge of--"
"I still don't under--"
"I have some... personal standards I cannot force on people, and have to enforce more scientific standards per other people's beliefs, and you are giving me statements of what you believe other aliens did -- or I should say did not do -- and that isn't scientific either."
"I didn't say it was scientific. If you wouldn't want to try, who would be the subject of experimentation?" she demanded, seemingly a bit more caustically. Then, more calmly yet firmly, saying, "I understand sometimes someone has to try or some advancements are not possible, but I would strongly advise caution."
So she did have a somewhat arrogant -- or at least sarcastic side. Lars looked over at Pedro with a wary look. Pedro merely shrugged, as if saying, 'Well, I'd at least listen to her.' Of course, it was an irony, because Lars would have simply settled for deciding these 'coldbirds' had to be non-kosher and leaving it at that -- but that was not respecting others not practicing kosher eating, and his duty as a scientist and medical personnel to consider possibilities.
Frustrated, he said, "So not even if we try to make them a more kosher source."
With a tone and expression that was either frustration or a little anger, she said, "I still do not fully understand that word. Other cold'birds came from more typical alien planets, and I am able to transform into some individual cold'birds I saw on Psychon. Even lacking the strange aspects of the Kaskalon'birds, there must be some reason. Maybe even as simple as foul taste."
Pedro laughed. "Foul! That's good. Foul. Fowl. You're getting better with the jokes."
Maya's thoroughly alien eyebrows bunched closer together.
So did the more normal eyebrows of Lars himself. Was Pedro again trying awkwardly to defuse tension, just mindlessly joking, or making a lame attempt to hit on Maya? Lars thought it all three, but immediately doubted himself on the third, thinking he must be misreading Pedro. The alien, though quite attractive in a very alien way, had not struck Lars as one any guy would seriously consider approaching. Not that Pedro's minor attempt was really even an approach at all, and Maya seemed to completely fail to recognize it as such, either. Now there was an interesting question. A Terran and a Psychon?
The CMO had not put the slightest restriction on her conclusions that Maya was seemingly almost human in terms of medical treatment -- with a few notable oddities, some of which he was very directly aware. Her dietary needs were not something even Maya understood in great depth, but she seemed to be subsisting well enough on human food. So far, she was even maintaining that mysterious excess of potassium, a condition normally called hyperkalemia, but in her case now termed psykalemia as it seemed to be normal for her. He was finding, after further discussions, that she was increasingly gravitating towards potassium-heavy foods, though whether that was from unconscious recognition of loss she needed to recover or just a proactive stance since she had learned which foods were richer in potassium, he did not know.
Oddly, it was the potassium, and how the rest of her electrolyte levels were normal or close to it, that was the strangest medical mystery to him, even more than her unique desire for heavy metal salts presumably poisonous to her 'normal' body but something she craved to 'outshift' to 'metamass' as 'resonance' or some-such for her metamorphic ability to use in some sense of physics he was clueless in. The salts he could practically dismiss by lumping with the whole bizarre transformation thing, whereas the potassium levels were part of her 'normal' physiology.
Still, more surprising were the genetic results, which though not known to many in exact detail, had been generalized within the CMO's sweeping statements that Maya was 'almost human', including an uncertain status genetically as being potentially within the outermost reaches of the species, or perhaps excluded. Dr. Russell had evidently added it as emphasis to her first point; but it had become a point of surprise to many, Lars included. That she was not outright excluded was a grand surprise and mystery.
Oddly, he could sometimes sympathize with her feeling an outsider. The Jewish people had been outsiders amongst most of the rest of those on Earth for millennia, but Jews were still quite thoroughly human, as much as some deluded people acted as if they were not. Despite millennia of such antipathy and sometimes psychopathy against one people, the Jewish people had adapted, had survived. Space had virtually erased that outsider feeling for him. What were religious differences when there were only just over three-hundred people living four-hundred thousand kilometers away and twelve years removed from the brief but nasty third world war on Earth? A year later, what were religious differences to less than three-hundred Alphans struggling to cling to life on a barren rock hurtling through almost empty and rarely friendly space, a galaxy away?
Lars returned to the present, finding Pedro was trying to explain his awkward foul/fowl reference, Maya eventually saying, "Oh, a homonym." She clearly missed the joke, treated it as a linguistic datum, and moved on, looking at Lars, continuing to speak. "So if the kosher is a matter of belief -- passed from elders and parents to the young I presume? -- and there is no expert on the Law of this belief, then what happens if Alphans are forced to adapt more alien food'sources into their diet due to circumstances? Who judges the belief'law?"
Lars was flat out stunned. Despite the awkward phrasing, it was a surprisingly perceptive and cogent question given his few clues and how they had confused her earlier. She still didn't know kosher or Judaism yet had realized the gaps his statements had implied.
Apparently mistaking his silence and stare for disapproval, the Psychon looked away, and said, "I apologize; that was an impolite question."
"No, it wasn't a wrong question. Direct, but insightful. I'm just not sure I can answer." He still didn't want to argue religion with an alien, when past experience with most non-Jews had proven that a bad idea even among humans; but he simply didn't have an answer for her question. It had been troubling since Breakaway. The Chaplain was knowledgeable and fluent in several major religions, but as he himself would admit in a heartbeat, he couldn't speak as a true authority figure outside of Christianity, and even there, he was not a full minister or priest either. Brief discussions among the several Jewish people and the chaplain had been inconclusive as to who might interpret Jewish law here, much less possibly have to promulgate some, given new experiences out here. To some degree, he wondered what it all meant, out here, anyway? Earth had seemed like everything back then, now as a mere mote, no larger than a single cell in a black ocean.
Space was proving tough on faith -- yet at the same time, making faith seem a still important thing.... It was a fundamental contradiction that the Alphans had started feeling in their first year, and had started awakening to, then and even more as time went on.
A coldbird cackled just then, followed by its mate, then a coldbird in another cage. It was another eerie coincidental moment, like they were laughing at the Alphans over these musings or the earlier talk about coldbirds probably not being good squab.
Or maybe they were laughing at the contradictory position he was stuck in. Aliens. He was surrounded by alien birds, an alien woman, and a human zoologist who seemed too accepting of the latter. Lars was not unaware of all the contradictions in his thinking. At least Lars could respect Maya as a person, however. He wasn't so narrow-minded. Yet narrow-mindedness could work both ways. The officers could be blinded into thinking that this Psychon was some know-it-all, when she clearly was not.
Lars would have to have a serious talk with Dr. Russell. As scientific as Maya apparently got in some other areas, here she was not being objective. If others were not recognizing it, were not keeping some eye on the alien, she could end up interfering -- consciously or unconsciously -- with Alpha's long-term needs, as much as helping.
Once again, her being Science Officer, and thus also chair of the Science Board, was bothering him. Some of her defenders pointed out her deference and listening skills, but Lars was seeing a stubborn streak too. They pointed out that she asked plenty of questions, and talked well with the command corps. How they'd know the latter claim, Lars did not know.
Some of the coldbirds cackled again. Abruptly, he wondered what Edgar Alan Poe would have made of this species.
F-417 DAB 0700-0900: Eep
The first meeting of the day with the Recon Section had proceeded about as expected for Maya. Getting stared at by half the pilots on the base, most in Recon Section but some from other sections who had volunteered and learned to be pilots. The second meeting was to be next hour, with less of the regular Recon people and more of the 'civilians'.
"They're not the early birds we are," Alan had stated, much to Maya's bemusement.
She was there to train the pilots on something that the relevant people in Command Center had been trained previously. "There is a kind of signal common and well-understood among many races and species. It is called the eepkond'arak," she had started explaining. That provoked various responses....
She repronounced it.
"Hey, Maya! Does that mean something?" Pete Garforth yelled out from the back.
"It does not translate easily. Something proximate to 'we're scanning but adding an obvious component in politeness.'"
"That's a mouthful," someone commented.
"So's eepkonnedra," Thomas Graham commented dryly.
Laughter, followed by rapid-fire comments....
"Let's just call it an eep."
"How about a beep?" someone else asked.
"Beep beep!" Pete Garforth said with a smile.
"No, it wasn't beep beep!" Thomas stated. "It was meep meep."
"What was meep meep?" another Terran asked.
"Roadrunner," Thomas replied.
"Beep beep!" yet another pilot uttered.
"Meep meep!" from still another.
More laughter. Maya was completely bewildered, but waited patiently, having already seen such confusing conversational shifts to totally Terran contexts. She had no idea what a road'runner was, but now some of the men were making sounds that seemed vaguely like birds. For a race incapable of molecular transformation, they still had a wide and often unusual array of animal'metaphors. The pilots also seemed to be having some fun with the word, seeming to have a much more dynamic sense of humor, at least in such a large group. She liked that, even though she had no grasp of what this humor was all about.
"Well, we wanted an easy-to-remember codename," Alan said, jumping in. "I think we have it. The roadrunner."
There was some laughter, while Maya looked at Alan, who gave a look that Maya interpreted as 'I'll explain later' -- and she gave him a subtle nod and smile. She suspected the explanation might not entirely make sense either, however.
"2R for short?" Garforth asked.
"No, too easy to mistake for another reference," Alan said.
The first meeting continued on to its purpose of this signal, that it decreased the quality of the scan but that itself made it a more polite, superficial scan, when protocol required such. It was the protocol discussions that took awhile, and one conclusion was that others would have to ask questions about whether or not to embed the signal, until everyone became adapted to using it without having to ask whether or not to do so.
She had a short break between meetings, but was soon back to discussing the same topic with the second group. Though this could have been seen as inefficient, the officers disliking too frequently concentrating all of a particular group in one place in case of attack or major accident. This time, Maya introduced both the name "eepkond'arak" and "roadrunner" -- the latter as the codename they could all use.
After the second meeting, Maya was leaving on her own, when one of the pilots called her name.
"Yes?" she asked, turning with a friendly smile.
"Why isn't the eepkon -- the roadrunner -- always just embedded in all scans?"
"It can interfere somewhat with the quality of the scan. That is why it is a measure of politeness, because it is somewhat of a sacrifice on the part of the one doing the scanning, which indicates that the scanner wants some information but is not getting too... intense about it."
She thought she had explained this already, but then again, memory was not always perfect, or perhaps he was thinking about something she had said just before.
"Oh, well, that makes sense, actually. Say, you and Sandra haven't been back to the Eagle Aerie Club since getting your wings, eh?"
"Wings? Oh, no."
"I don't know," Maya responded vaguely, though for good reason, because she simply wasn't sure further appearances would be intrusive in a large human crowd whose social rules and tendencies she still had difficulties with in smaller numbers.
"Well, you ought to come again, eh? Maybe tonight. It's a Friday after all."
"Maybe," she said.
Afterwards, she still felt nervous about the idea, and was glad she had stayed vague. Some had talked to her the day she was certified as a first-level pilot. There had even been laughter when she asked a question about the source of the liquid she had been served, that it might be Tony's odd beer. Still, there had been stares that made her uncomfortable, long ones with neither a smile nor frown. Yet part of her wanted to go. How could she become more socially adept if she did not challenge herself to the difficult situations? How could she fit in better if she did not become more socially adept? Then again, many situations were difficult. Still....
She went back and forth in her mind, but did not resolve the contradictory feelings.
A-418 DAB 0300-0400: Solarium
By the time Friday was over, Maya vaguely wondered if she had passed up some other opportunity....
It was difficult determining the social objectives of individual humans at times -- sometimes often. There were so many similarities she had with them, yet there were distinct differences too, and a fair number of subtle ones.
Then again, she was starting to understand some things better. Helena having cajoled her into something humorous with the Commander. Then when Tony had found out, Maya managed to play a joke on him, with Sandra's help. That had been delightful fun, reminding her of some of the jokes she had started playing on her father, only better. Yet there was more than simple jokes about it. She had gotten a kiss, even if in another form. Then she had found maybe Tony was a little shallow, yet she liked him, more than she had ever expected after their tense first meeting and initial weeks on Alpha.
Maya smiled, then yawned, garnering a curious glance from a couple walking down the hall in the 'deepest night' here, in some slightly-dimmed hallways. Maya still found it intriguing that humans yawned too. Why she found it intriguing, she didn't know, since they seemed to have a lot in common, and many other species yawned too.
Maya was exhausted.
She had started learning a lot about the damaged Protein Production Unit. Besides being an occasional observer during repair attempts, she had some of the manuals, and was reading through them. She had no real advantage over the experts here, at this point. It was still a new system to her; but maybe in the future, she'd be able to suggest some partial advancements or at least compaction. For now, just becoming one more person familiar with it was more important, it appeared.
Maya had trained all the pilots on the eepkond'arak signal they had given the strange "road'runner" codename. She had discussed the cold'birds with the Zoologist and Dietician. She had been pouring over raw sensor data from before and after the incident which had damaged the protprodunit. Scanning the damaged hull panels with her scanner and others, but finding the same evidence of stress other people had already found. She could not determine whether the stress patterns existed before or were generated during the decompression incident, the question which was most vexing to everyone. Yet lack of a follow-up attack, even as they had just, a few hours ago, reached the edge of this no-planet star system, and had gone translight again. Plus, just simply worrying about how long a major source of food would be inoperable.
She needed some relaxation, and something else too, that she had not been getting enough in her curious new home.
The dietician, Lars Sundriksen, had mentioned the lighting in Biosphere IV was designed to be as sun-like as possible, with a variety of frequencies, rebalanced a little to cut out some of the more dangerous ultraviolet wavelengths. He had brought up the topic of what the Alphans called Vitamin D. In the Shelter on Psychon, some of the rooms where plants were grown had lighting not that dissimilar from Psyoliyask, Psychon's star, with the same sort of rebalancing. She had spent lots of time in there, tending to the food'plants, some research, as a good place to sit and study, contemplate, or just relax.
Now she found herself spending time in a similar, but much larger room on Alpha. The lighting was more yellow-tinged, since Earth's sun, Sol, had been a little smaller, slightly cooler, and a little more yellow.
Still, she could not spend a lot of time in Biosphere IV, and the uncomfortable looks she was sometimes receiving had her keeping more to the middle of Terran mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when most Alphans were working, on those days where Maya's longer day'periods gave her off time matching this. She would have went more at the times where her day matched their night, but other than that one time Tony had had the lights turned on for a short time, Biosphere IV was supposed to have a night. So really, she got little time there.
On their last in-person discussion with Lars -- infrequent since most discussion with him was by electronic post -- he suggested that with the decline of time spent in prime Vitamin D generating situations, that she might want to visit the Solarium. He had provided little further information, and she had only seen it briefly in a tour. At that time, from the doorway, she had seen a woman in what appeared to be a bikini, and a man in shorts, who had been chatting even with their eyes apparently closed under protective eyewear.
The Alpha Information System indicated the Solarium was "designed to give stronger, broad-spectrum light re-balanced for safety, to allow long-tour personnel the opportunity for exposure to soothing heat, soft music if desired, and a light sources conducive to relaxation, Vitamin D production, and quiet socialization. Caution against overexposure is still an individual responsibility, and timing mechanisms are available. Contact Medical Section for further advice if necessary."
Obviously, wearing less clothing was required for her to more efficiently soak in the light and produce Vitamin D. That wasn't the part that concerned her -- at least not much. Though modest, she was hardly ashamed. Yet her bikini, provided along with the larger batch of clothing she had received after a few days on Alpha, had gone unused. Neither in the Pool nor the Solarium.
It was, again, the socialization aspect. She was not shy about new social opportunities, but yet was very cautious. Or at least she felt these were distinct behaviors. New introductions had smoothed the way. Yet just as the introductions to new people had been vital to her, she felt it best to wait for invitations to new social situations.
So she decided to use, for one of the first times, one of her privileges as an Alphan officer, in this case, the opportunity to look up statistics on Solarium time'use'patterns, or Room Activity Statistics, as one report stated.
Maybe it partially was a social situation, because what came up was a huge blank spot between 00:00 and 05:00, in the middle of Alpha's Earth-style 'night', when only every week or so would be some use -- always on a Sunday early morning. Away from that, there was a random visit in that timeframe only every few weeks. Apparently even those awake at that timeframe had no interest in visiting there alone.
She had never seen someone walking the halls in just a bikini, so it was obvious she had to change there. Once there, she turned on the minimum necessary lights in the previously-dark room, then went to one of the four small changing rooms. On returning to the main room, she looked around, suddenly feeling like maybe she was shy after all. Yet she didn't think she looked much different than the human females of Alpha, below the neck anyway.
Maybe if a few Alphan males saw her, they'd.... She shook her head as she smoothly settled her lithe body onto one of the beds, already liking the feel of the light on her skin, which seemed to 'know' what it had been partially missing.
She was getting ahead of herself again. Too long without suitable males on a near-dead Psychon, followed by being marooned on a base where she felt her chances of ever seeing another Psychon were vanishingly small, had gotten her thinking of other chances. If anyone wanted to give her a chance. So far, no signs. The dinner with Tony 26.25 days ago had in one way seemed the closest, but it had not been framed in any sort of date context.
She had seen males stare at her, but with no sign she recognized of interest. No smile, however subtle, outside of simple humor situations. No follow-up in coming over for greetings or small'talk, though it was probably known she wasn't good at small'talk here, since she still lacked some of the context and the form still eluded her.
Then again, with humans, maybe things were different. Yet if Psychons had shown up on Psychon again, would she have recognized their signs of interest? All she had were some references in fiction and some words from her father. Her last direct experience had been light, early adolescent teasing via words and expressions. Nothing serious. Would she even recognize Psychon interest, much less Terran?
Or had she missed an opportunity regarding the pilot's invitation to return to the Eagle Aerie Club? That was an invitation to general socialization in a very large group, which had discomforted her. Then again, maybe she was supposed to cultivate interaction in larger groups before expecting anything. Her discomfort might make that ineffective, however....
She wasn't feeling very relaxed right now. So she finally just imagined better days, not of sitting in one of the well-lit plant'rooms in the Shelter, but of being out underneath Psyoliyask for hours at a time. When her mother, Taylia, had still been alive.
Already, 6.4 minutes had passed, so she chose a final duration. Her sense of time would alert or wake her. She was not seeking a 'tan' anyway. Besides that, the UV aspects were somewhat lessened away from skin-aging settings. Halfway through the full duration, she turned over, and a few minutes after that, she had finally relaxed and actually was starting to slip towards sleep. For once, she was getting very relaxed during wake'time.
Just then, she heard a male and a female voice in the hallway outside. The walls were a little less insulated than in the more quiet quarters. She wasn't ready for social contact since she had assumed the likelihood of it at her chosen time was exceedingly low. She quickly got up and moved to the same changing room she had chosen before, shutting the thin, non-electronic door just as the main door did indeed start sliding open. When she finished changing and putting her bikini in the small bag she had brought it in, they had reached two of the other changing rooms, and she then slipped out, not in a rush, just glad to avoid contact.
Helena would probably call Maya "silly" right about now, and maybe she was; but after finding some moments of peace, she would have hated spoiling if some social contact had turned awkward.
It was time to return to work, and find new relaxation in numbers and technical manuals.
S-419 DAB: Progress?
Repairs to the Protein Production Unit were continuing. Parts of the unit had been started up, but new problems had appeared.
There was enough surplus in the Protein Stores to keep them for two months without rationing, but the PPU itself was years old, and no one was sure how many more problems would appear trying to get it running again.
Rationing of protein had started. It was not welcome, but it was realized it was necessary. Portions of pseudo-meats in the cafeteria were reduced, and people tracked on Computer for when they took a serving, so they couldn't just go to another cafeteria to pilfer another portion during the same meal period.
The tracking was via the same means that allowed people to take larger items, like a box of cereal, or a unit of vegetables, back to their quarters to prepare themselves at one or more later meal(s). Those who already had some pseudo-meat-packs of various Texturized varieties were not asked for any back, but when those ran out in their quarters, they would not be able to select meat as their 'grocery' item of the day, until the rationing ended. Leftovers of protein items prepared in the cafeteria but untaken, normally free to remove to quarters at any time, soon dwindled too.
Now, the Texturizer was shut down, and being put through some early maintenance given the unexpected opportunity given the PPU was still not actually productive.
Fortunately, as various techs worked on its hardware and software, the unit had just been started hours before, but during its prep cycle before batches could be started again, a sweeper grid which served as a sort of organic "catalyst" surface, metaphorically speaking, had failed to operate.
The PPU was a complicated piece of machinery. Only one had been on Alpha, and while there had been some scattered post-Breakaway discussion had occurred about trying to create a duplicate unit, this had started turning into demands, most recently at a Command Conference. Approval had been granted to increase the priority for Engineering and Manufacturing to study the data and start proposing timelines and various resource needs to construct another elsewhere on base.
Unfortunately, that didn't solve their current problem, and the setback, hopefully minor, had Medical Section more nervous, and considering whether to order some additional rationing. Other meat sources were not practical at this time. There were a number of birds, but to take only a few of each species would barely add more than a small snack for the whole of the base, and would reduce their genetic range and damage long-term chances of creating a larger viable food-providing population. News had come that the coldbirds, even fewer in numbers, might never be a possible food source. Discussion and planning to increase the fish population was more promising, but still a mid-term goal, not something which could help now.
One of Tony Verdeschi's guards had suggested that even with mild rationing, someone could get an overwhelming 'urge' to grab up a bird or fish on the sly, and Tony had started posting guards around the various Zoology labs, usually two per location. This was not unlike the guards usually present around Protein Storage and the two Seed Stores. The one or two doves and few small fish occasionally kept in Recreation Centre were removed back to Zoology for now.
Some minor grumbling which had started with the first rationing, was already getting worse after Medical's later posting to the Alpha Information System.
This was all a reminder that Alpha's survival was much too dependent on the Protein Production Unit -- and that at any time, damage to any of certain pieces of key equipment could kill them, quickly or slowly.
What was troubling was the original decompression incident which had damaged the PPU was still cause unknown.
It was not a pleasant end to a weekend where everyone tried to ignore a deepening worry, or where the worry had started bringing some closer together, in their concern, or out of remembering again how precarious life was. Not that they needed much reminder, but this one was coming from within. That too was not new, either.
M-420 DAB 1530-2050: Anomaly
Something was not adding up. Or more precisely, something about the raw sensor data seemed to collate to something....
Main Computer saw nothing in the readings. Maya had shifted her attention from readings around the time of the decompression near the PPU, to new readings from days later, after the Moon had left the planetless star system, curious to see what Alphan sensors could currently scan near them while interstellar. Again, the Terran computer found nothing, other than Alpha's satellite network, and a few stray larger rocks in various orbits. The latter had been picked up in the last couple of weeks, since the Moon had been cleared of everything else before and during passage through the Alk^inharda Bridge.
Maya frowned again. Since she had started going through hyper-interlaced computer monitor's filled with raw sensor data, she thought she kept seeing a pattern, though its meaning eluded her.
Suddenly, however, she was able to collate some arrayed ellipticals in her mind, and obtain a location. But a location for what? Maybe it was just some hardware or software flaw in Alphan systems, rather than something in space.
So she cleared her mind a little, and tried different calculations in her mind. She ran more data, collating the elliptical imagery in a different way, rotating 3-D data slices around a 4-D object she could not directly picture. The pattern -- meaning still unknown -- persisted. It might not be anything of concern, but still....
It was getting late in Alpha's evening, but Maya had little doubt that the Commander would accept an interruption. She checked his commlock/duty status, which was Off Duty but not Do Not Disturb, so she decided to call.
Twenty minutes later, the Commander was looking at her, asking, "So... what? Asteroids? Another distant comet? A ship? Some sort of oddity with our hyperspatial bubble?"
Maya shrugged. "I don't know. It may be worth a closer approach and deeper scans."
"Our bubble is huge when between stars. You're talking an essentially full-range mission with a Refueling need."
"I understand," she said simply. She was grasping the leadership role of her officer assignment in some ways, but at other times, she was not. This time it was the latter, for she was just providing data when the one-on-one circumstance meant she was also free to provide her opinion.
"Are you suggesting it is worth exploring?" the Commander asked.
"I doubt it is of much concern, but it is an anomaly in the data at least. Still, I do not want to be wasting base resources needlessly."
"We don't lack for nuclear material to process into fuel."
"Or to waste people's time. Still, I was trying to further understand what Computer is capable of detecting now, directly, or could be made capable with little effort, or what would take more effort, or new subsystems altogether. Your -- our -- systems may even weakly detect some patterns familiar to me but in a way unfamiliar to me, without any of us being aware until I look more deeply. So it would be helpful to obtain more scan data."
John considered. It did sound sort of pointless to expend so much time and a degree of energy chasing around a curious ill-defined pattern that on further questioning could be anything from a mathematical or computer variance, to a tiny speck of an asteroid, to a slight interference pattern from the 'bubble' they traveled in, to something perhaps more significant. It was the last that concerned him a little. Besides, if this was Maya's way of starting to even more finely 'calibrate' Alpha's sensors and scanners for things it could already detect but didn't know to look for....
"Approved. Are you suggesting you be part of the mission?"
"I could begin to better understand fine-level capabilities or current potential of Eagle systems as well, as the Eagle's computer, though derivative of Main Computer, is subset not fully overlapping with--"
"Okay, I get the point."
"Of course," she said.
"I will allocate an Eagle and pod with good scanners, and weaponry."
T-421 DAB: Oddities
What had she gotten herself into? Maya wasn't so sure about this idea any more.
She was on board Eagle 25 with a pilot she barely knew, and a third-shift communications person who barely seemed to know Alphanglish, evidently having learned it not long before her posting on Alpha, not long before Breakaway.
The Commander, evidently wanting to further improve one of Maya's weaker areas, namely leadership, had given her some authority on this mission, like with the Alien Ship Salvage missions. Actually, when she had asked -- "I have some authority on this mission?" -- the Commander had replied she already had authority, being an officer on a flight with no other officers. She thus outranked a third-shift Command Center operative named Yasko Nazumi, and the pilot, Thomas Graham.
She barely knew him. An introduction had gone okay. Tony had said some called him Tom, but unlike some other Alphans introduced with a "some call me..." name -- nickname? -- Thomas had not suggested she use it. There were two people named Thomas, the other being Hydroponics Department Manager Thomas Hayden, who had little respect for Maya. Thomas Graham seemed to respect her, or at least listen to her. Maya remembered he had shown up at the Eagle Aerie Club when she had gotten her pilot 'wings', but given how much he looked at Sandra then, Maya had doubted his appearance there had nothing to do with Maya.
Now, the brown-haired pilot did watch her... every time she reached for any control. She was only acting a co-pilot, and he was a more senior pilot, so he certainly had the right -- perhaps duty -- to watch that she didn't make a mistake. This seemed excessive, however, especially since after takeoff, she was now mostly touching non-flight controls, like scanners and sensors. Still, she probably could not make that judgment, so she tolerated it. She still had to watch her place here, she felt.
Dealing with a data anomaly that only she had detected, via her own reading the data and collating it in her mind, apparently did not help.
He also seemed more interested in chitchat with Yasko, frequently commconnecting with the pod to ask her some minor question or another. Oddly, as much as he watched Maya's every movement towards controls, he seemed to have no problem getting up for ten minutes at a time to talk with Yasko or "check something," which even Maya could interpret. Yasko's responses to the comms were difficult for Maya to interpret, for they were short and tentative. Maya wondered if Yasko was a little overwhelmed, by Thomas, by Maya, and by the assignment.
Thomas, returned from the pod, asked if Maya wanted to go back for rest, and she accepted. It was a longer flight, within the giant hyperspatial bubble surrounding the Moon as it traveled faster-than-light between star'systems, and she was well past the siesta part of her normal 33.464-hour Psychon sleep cycle.
Still, she tried some small'talk with Yasko, to little success. Maya was still learning Alphan forms of this, but this time, wondered if the difficulty wasn't all on her own side this time.
Sandra was starting to take on new duties, a little more at a time, with Paul's Plan, associated committees, and more pure analyst roles. Yasko was a trainee on some of Sandra's roles with Communication, scanners, and sensors.
This "simple science run" as Tony had dubbed it, was Yasko's first mission off-base, and Maya was sensing a curious pattern, that it was quiet, shy women that seemed to get posted to similar roles -- though Sandra's was much more varied than Yasko's. She did not understand this correlation, decided it might be coincidental, especially since Maya did know Sandra had lost a lot of people in her life, including what sounded like a mate, or at least a very close male friend, not long before Maya's arrival on the base. Yasko, she did not know at all, and Yasko did not seem to want to talk much to Maya either.
So Maya gave up, and was asleep ten minutes later, deciding to sleep longer than a normal siesta, since her longer sleep time would normally occur right when they were at farpoint of the planned mission. Better to sleep longer now.
Four hours after leaving the pilot module, she woke to find Yasko missing, presumably up front. Maya got some water, straightened her hair, and went up front, to find Yasko in the co-pilot seat, working some sensor controls.
Yasko looked up, but Maya shook her head, and said, "Stay. Please. I will analyze your scans on the monitors back there." Yasko's look, curiously enough, seemed to be masked disappointment, but Maya assumed she was misinterpreting, as she went back to the main science console there. It was much easier to review the data here, with much more science-oriented computer interfaces as well.
Yasko didn't need to stay up front. She was not a pilot, even at trainee level, but Yasko might as well continue scans of her own while Maya reviewed the resulting data. The anomaly was still there, along with a smaller one at a rather different angle, which was not detectable from Alpha. Their nature was still unclear.
Eventually, Maya did return up front, to allow Yasko a break. She found Thomas talking about something called corvette. This time, Maya did not really see an expression on Yasko's face, and the dark-haired woman quickly left the pilot module.
It seemed an opportunity for small'talk or chitchat -- she wasn't sure which -- by asking, as she settled into the vacated seat, "Corvette?"
"Nah, you wouldn't understand."
She decided to take a chance. "I can't understand if I can't learn," she said with as nice a smile as she could manage.
"A hot car."
She frowned. "Stolen?"
"Oh, you're a fast learner if you've heard that meaning of 'hot' -- but no, I mean a really cool car."
Hot, cool, can't he make up his mind? "Is it cold and warm too?" she tried joking.
He laughed oddly, then shook his head, then said, "Told you wouldn't understand."
Maya thought he was being deliberatively confusing, but it somehow seemed different than Tony's sense of humor. Tony seemed to tease her in a nice manner. Thomas seemed more dismissive, just trying to exclude her from this conversation. Maya gave this one up. Maybe she'd ask Tony on a later day.
That was the end of small'chat. After a long silence, during which he got fidgety, he abruptly launched into discussions about Eagle refueling procedures. Maya listened patiently, knowing some of it but absorbing some new situational information Alan had not taught yet.
When it came time for the refueling procedure itself, she watched with interest, though he said little during it. Thomas was not authorized for formal training, and said nothing during the procedure itself. He then called into Alpha one last time, before the Eagle would go out of Alpha's commrange, the spatial bubble so immense that its edge was well beyond non-refueling range as well. The Refueling Eagle would remain on standby at this partway location.
Maya, for her part, reported detection of that other anomaly, and indicated it might deserve some later investigation since its pattern was a little different than the one found earlier.
W-422 DAB: Not Going Along
"I am not going to take orders from an alien."
The discussion had started more pleasantly, Commander Koenig with Abigail Strong, head of the Botany department.
It was just a general meeting at first. It had been some time since he had talked to her. With no Technical Section officer for a few months, and his other officers loaded with other departments, it had ended up under Sandra's purview, as a "similar" department to the Hydroponics department she had already overseen for some time.
When Hydroponics had been split out from Botany pre-Breakaway, the ILC had seen fit to make its emphasis on growing food more than research, while still emphasizing the importance of the latter. It thus became both a service-oriented and technical department at the same time; but with emphasis on supporting Alpha's population, had been reassigned to the Service Section, even though it retained some technical personnel. It thus had a mix of yellow- and rust-sleeved people.
However, Commander Koenig did want to occasionally speak to individual department heads, regardless of section, and regardless of whether there was a typical or a temporary mid-level chain of command.
Furthermore, he had been hearing about some things being a little sloppy in Botany, for months already. Those were primary topics of conversation. Strong danced around the items, sort of half-admitting some things, half-blaming others, and half-pretending there weren't problems. It didn't add up, but she was clearly looking "on the spot" and at least would be aware there were known problems, to the highest levels. She was a good leader in many ways, and he was loath to demote or reassign her.
That she had some attitude problems was a challenge, but one that was not a critical problem.
They got to talking about the Science Board, of which she was a member, and that's where more issues arose. She started raising issue after issue regarding decisions made in the board, and he soon started realizing she was raising every issue where the vote was close.
"Abigail, what is this all about? I get summary reports about all the decisions, including the close ones."
"You don't get all the perspectives."
"That's part of the point, that I and the officer corps are not drowning in details and miss the forest for the trees, to mix metaphors."
"Then how do you know it is the right decision?"
"Decisions have to be made at various levels. I can't decide every single.... Is this about Maya? That as Chair she's the one submitting the summary reports? That her vote is of greater importance in the close votes?"
Abigail blushed, as if caught trying to hide the true point. "May I speak freely?" she then asked.
"She's only been here for two months, and..." Abigail trailed off.
"How's that different than some of the prior cases of bringing in outside individuals at officer level?"
"She's not been trained as an officer."
"She's been getting training, and some aspects started beforehand. She does come with some degree of leadership aptitude and showed signs of it here. And note that she was Science Advisor for almost two months, before Science Officer."
"I had no complaint about her as Science Advisor--"
"My understanding is there was friction--"
"Sir, only to a degree. Fine, she knows some more advanced science, and could advise us. Science Advisor."
"She is a stronger asset to Alpha as an officer, being right in the mix at the highest levels, both learning and guiding at the same time. Professor Bergman was almost a de facto officer in his constant level of involvement, the same level I want her at as well."
Abigail looked at him stonily. He was not convincing her, or was but she was resisting. It didn't matter. She didn't have to be happy with the decision, but to respect it and work within the decision, and he was not sure she was.
"Have you decided departments to assign to her?" Strong asked.
Now he looked at her, trying to keep the 'stony' look out of his expression. He waved his hand at her, indicating this was still free discussion, wanting to get at the heart of the matter, even though he had a feeling what it was.
"I am not going to take orders from an alien."
"Well, you'll be glad to know I was not considering your department -- yet. You'll not be happy to know that it may be at any point."
Though loathe to bring up Earth history on post-Breakaway Alpha, he did so, asking if she would have taken orders from some of her country's former enemies post-WWIII, when people were trying to come together and heal from those wounds.
"Sir, we were all at least from the same planet. Who knows what she really thinks, or if she'll always have our best interests in mind."
"One, I trust her as much as anyone here, and two, our best interests are hers now, because she's as marooned as we are."
"And if something changes, or she starts getting some agenda of her own."
"Did we suspect just how low and far Commissioner Simmonds would go?"
"But Commissioner Simmonds--"
"Or Luke Ferro and Anna Davis?"
"Sir, Anna was my friend, and--" she started protesting, before being interrupted.
"I know that, and I'm not talking about.... But now that you bring it up, would you have thought her--"
"No," she emphatically said. "But that's not the same thing."
There was only one answer, already on the table, that Abigail refused to state again. She remained silent, and looked at him somewhat, yet would not meet John's eyes, like some part of her was a little embarrassed.
The conversation had not gone well, but she was at least listening a little, maybe.
"I'm not asking you to like the situation. If you have some specific, solid complaint, bring it to me; but I will not tolerate petty perceptions dredged up just because you don't want an alien giving you orders. Just so you know her caution, Maya is already elevating some decisions, not just ones where the Science Board votes specifically to elevate, but has asked for review of some of the closer ones, where she wants to make sure she understands Alpha's needs correctly."
This gave Abigail pause too, but she said nothing, and he could tell she would resist "taking orders from an alien."
"Think about this: substitute the word 'alien' with another race, and ask yourself what your response would be. I know this can be somewhat of an apples and oranges comparison, a different step. I know what history we've had with aliens. Are you going to assume they're all against us or indifferent? You have time to think. How much, I don't know. Use it."
She said nothing more, which was probably the wisest. She knew that 'talk freely' was at an end. Whether this would solve anything, he didn't know. It could even worsen her attitude, perhaps. He suspected this might just be the tip of an iceberg, and the vocal Strong perhaps one of the few parts that would stick above the water and be noticed before being run into.
She had hit on something that could be a problem among others as well, that there was a big difference between Advisor and Officer, an implication of the difference between her advice and her orders, and that while the former might have already been difficult for some to take, the latter might be unacceptable to some.
He dismissed her, then turned his attention to something her statements had brought back to the foreground. Which department would he assign to Maya first? She was an officer with only oversight of a couple small teams, including Alien Ship Salvage research, a small physics team discussing possibilities regarding some "simple" initial upgrade ideas, such as the one-on-one discussion that had led to implementing the Indirect Gravity Wave Detector. The last now allowed terrestrial-sized planets to be found almost immediately upon entering the "edge" of a new star system.
Physics? Astronomy? Astrophysics? Janina Conway and Douglas McLeod got along with her well. Computer Department? Maya was a natural on computer systems. The late Kano could think of what Main Computer was doing almost like he was part of it. Maya could think like a computer. Would June Washington, temporary lead of that department, and her people, accept Maya?
It wasn't a question of giving Maya oversight of some departments. It wasn't even a question of her having to overcome some resistance, not to mention John as well. It was a matter of where to start, which battles to take on and when. There were bound to be surprises.
W-422 DAB: Closer Scans
A few hours after resuming their journey, Maya asked if Thomas wanted a break, and he took it, with an abruptness that made it seem like she had taken too long to ask, even though he'd already been taking numerous short breaks.
Maya found this all rather unexpectedly fascinating. She had not expected so much subtle social detail -- even though she didn't understand it all -- in a simple flight that had not yet reached its destination.
After 3.47 hours away, he returned, and she hoped he now trusted her a little more, that he had left her as pilot for hours, and everyone was still here. Still, he was soon back to watching her every move. Thankfully, they were approaching the farpoint in their journey -- maximum Eagle range with one refueling. They were still not that close to the edge of the Moon's "space," but were now at a point where the Eagle's scans here were superior to Alpha's at a distance. She ran the scans from up front at first.
"Hey, aren't you supposed to embed the roadrunner?" Thomas asked, rather sharply.
The Terran synonym for the Psychon term eepkond'arak was not fully integrated in her mind, for it took her a moment to recall. The human word was named after a car'tune bird, according to an explanation about animation'drawings, something about a coyote that was a genius sometimes but was dumb and hungry, and she thought a rabbit was mentioned. It was some form of storytelling, apparently. Stories.... She missed hearing Psychon stories. She'd probably never hear another in her life, but she could tell them, though she wasn't sure how many would be interested. There were child stories too, but if she never had a child, those would never be told at all, unless some Terran with a child asked if Maya had any stories for a child -- but so far, she had barely met any of the babies.
"No. Despite some possibilities, we are not scanning a known alien ship or inhabited planet. There is no one to whom we are being polite. So we should keep the scan... clutter'free to be more accurate."
"Uhhh... right," he said reluctantly. His odd tone drew her gaze, which only seemed to annoy him, then provoke a further awkward response. "Mr. Carter told us we need to learn to be automatic about when to use it, so we don't have to ask whether or not to do it."
She almost said "correct" in a simply'factual tone, but she had already noted some Alphans didn't like that, at least emitted from her, so she nodded a little as she turned forward, which she understood was sometimes better. Other Terrans, such as Tony, or the Commander, did seem to appreciate concisely'factual statements, so she had no intent to change her responses to everyone for the sake of some, but also didn't want to seem arrogant, even if the same words in Psychon would never have been taken as such among her former people. Former. Now that was an odd thought.
Maya then went to the back, and Yasko watched as Maya directed the systems to more detailed, concentrated sweeps, altering the frequencies and the strengths in a way Maya thought would draw out more numeric texture.
Feeling no urgency, Maya tried to include Yasko more, as Sandra had done cross-training Maya, but Yasko's statements were short, and filled with pauses. Language skills got in the way a little. She asked Yasko to speak some of her first language. That startled her, and made her look uncomfortable, but she assented, and Maya tried to more actively find the information, since she'd been drawing out keywords into the forefront of her mind, from many language threads in the linguistic hyperarrays she had memorized over the years.
It still took a few minutes, but more quickly than before, to realize she knew it, one that the Khorask information indicated was 227.3, variant 2. Maya started speaking it. This only seemed to make Yasko even more uncomfortable. Perhaps it was simply Maya herself that made her slightly nervous. Maya still wanted to know the language name, and in response to a polite question, got a curt "Japanese" back as a response, then an apology from Yasko about impoliteness, then more silence.
Maya decided to cease small'talk attempts with this woman on this mission. Besides, Maya realized she could give Yasko some work, namely to correlate some of the secondary readings on computer, while Maya concentrated on running her own calculations on the main raw data. She ran this with the hyperinterlacing she had turned from a system bug into a display feature Maya could use whenever and wherever she wanted.
Her eyebrows drew together. The pattern was stronger. It wasn't one indistinct focus either, but a multi-foci numerical pattern.
She separated the discrete foci, putting each focus at the middle of a computational ellipse framework in her mind, running the collative mathematics. At the other focus emerged a discrete data hypergrid, which as she mentally rotated to get all of its shadows, spoke of something unexpected. The second, separated focus also brought a similar, but slightly different result.
She programmed some parameters, to let Yasko run Computer on some scans run from the front, for Maya knew what she had to do next. She went up front.
Even Thomas could read the concern on her face. "What is it?"
"The anomaly is actually multiple anomalies, and I think each is a discrete energy signature."
"Energy signature? You mean a ship?"
"I do not know, but a ship is not excluded."
"Like what, an invisibility cloak?"
Thomas reached for some buttons.
Almost immediately, she objected. "Why are you arming weapons?"
"You just told me there are ships out here."
"They are still millions of kilometers away, I am not certain they are ships, and your move is aggressive."
"Hidden ships in our space. That sounds aggressive."
"I said I--"
"don't know. Yes, but that only makes the situation more dangerous."
Though there was perhaps a hidden compliment that he might think her knowing would help make the situation less dangerous, but that was the irony, that she didn't know -- at least not yet.
"Thomas, disarm the lasers."
"I don't think that is wise."
"The anomalies are millions--"
"Okay," he said with an irritated voice, finally following her order to shut down the weapons. "So what do you want to do?" he asked.
"Take more readings, then approach towards the other anomaly, then return partway towards the Refuel Eagle, to contact them to relay a message to Alpha, and await instructions." It seemed logical and of correct procedure.
Maya frowned. His tone did not sound like one an Alphan officer was supposed to receive for simple instructions.
He seemed to pick up her concern, for he abruptly said, "Very good," in a more neutral tone. The Commander had told her this was a typical response among a few, learned from the former second-in-command, Paul Morrow.
They turned around, and as they took a course towards the other anomaly -- though they would not get any closer to that one than they had to this -- he eventually turned to her and said, "We could have gone further, and the Refueler would have headed our way."
"I was willing to go the extra mile, or millions of kilometers, for the sake of defending Alpha. How willing are you to defend us?"
"I thought I already had," she said with sudden bitterness, thinking how in defending the then-helpless Alphans back on Psychon, she had lost everything. Her father, her planet, probably any meaningful hope of making contact with her people. She had let her few words slip out before she had considered her reply, more pent-up frustration with the mixed Alphan attitude towards her than she had previously realized.
That silenced Thomas for a moment, but not for long.
"Yeah, Koenig convincing you to take one action. Did you know what it would lead to?"
That pained her. No, she had not known. Would she have done it again? Yes, but maybe differently. Let the Commander go, but confront Mentor a different way, that would maybe have let her father survive and the Alphans free. Would there have been such a way? Maybe Psyche always needed to be destroyed. Maybe her father would have never left. Same result every time? She couldn't just let them sneak away, for Alpha itself was already under attack, and Mentor would have discovered the escape. She had had no choice but to let the Alphans go, and events would have probably remained the same regardless. "No, I had not. I do not think that would have made a difference."
"You made a decision on confrontation, but didn't know the risk," he said. "I do, and am willing to take it."
Why was she talking to this man about a topic she had barely started discussing with Helena, her most trusted friend? Unfortunately, she thought she understood what he was trying to say. "I understand. My comparison is perhaps poor. I will not raise it again." She had never tried for sympathy on this, and decided this accidental use should not be repeated either. "However, it is not our place to take such a risk, especially when the unknown is so large."
"Sometimes you have to take the extra chance."
She did not respond to this, and they were silent the rest of the way to communication range.
Maya's report on there being a 32% chance of ships being responsible for these anomalies got a lot of concerned glances flying around Command Center.
They carefully left mentions of "ship" out of the return communication. These were narrow beam comms heading towards Alpha, away from the anomalies, but those same beams sent outwards, towards the area of the potential ships, were risking open communications.
That Maya added the first anomaly actually resolved as four "foci" and the second anomaly as two only multiplied the concern.
The Commander looked at Tony briefly, then turned to the screen. "Okay, we will send... assistance."
"Oh, is there any instructions you can send on what you are looking for?"
Some static started as Maya replied, though not enough to interfere much. "I wrote some parameters at..., then some additional computer code on the par... return. It is only partial, more generalized, and thus more unreliable, but could help. I don't know that I can program Com... to do the whole collation, at least not immediately, but that is part of what I want to try, part... mission. I will send the material on relay."
"Good, and we understand there are limitations." Still having some means of being able to look from back here, even if not as effectively, was good.
Over the next half-hour, more armed Eagles were launched, along with another Refueler, the computer code was received, and Sandra and June worked on quickly integrating it into Main Computer. They soon had it online -- to no result.
Another half-hour was spent trying to remotely troubleshoot the problem, only for Sandra to suggest Maya turn Eagle 25's scanners back to the first anomaly.
"Roadrunner?" Maya abruptly asked. "I'll lose most in this situation, and you all."
John knew she was trying to say embedding the "politeness" signal would be almost pointless in this situation, and would degrade the scan. He knew that from a tactical perspective, it would also give away that the Alphans suspected more than just an odd scanning anomaly. John was not willing to tip his hand that soon.
"Negative. No sense wasting lots of fuel running all over."
This complimented Maya's vaguely worded statement with a surprisingly easy follow-up to the 'runner' part which really had nothing to do with running the ship or using fuel.
The pause was not much longer than the light-speed delay, and then Graham's voice returned. "I understand. Turning for a rescan."
There was another, even longer pause, and John realized most of the interference had faded. Maybe Yasko adjusting the outgoing signal with better aim to the relaying Refueling Eagle.
Maya's voice was the one that returned next. "The first anomaly cluster is... missing. Turning for the second cluster." She then stated the same on that one.
"Can any sort of anomalies just fade?" Almost as soon as he started asking, he virtually knew the answer.
"Yes, Commander, many types."
"I don't like the timing," Tony said sotto voce, though somewhat unnecessarily in this case, for John also felt the timing odd.
"Oh, and Eagle 25, give Yasko a rest, her duty shift may be later."
Another ad hoc coded message, referring to her third-shift duty, which included communications, that they may try friendly attempts later. Maya's response was slow this time, only partially from light-speed distance, and partially from the veiled reference, he figured, before she confirmed the order with a, "Yes, we understand" that seemed to indicate Graham, or the two together, had understood the hidden implication, that they might try communicating later.
"Return to Refueler," John ordered. "Keep analyzing the existing anomaly data and others." He assumed Maya would probably keep refining her computer code.
John signaled Sandra to cut the communication, then turned to Alan. "Gather a flight. One wing, three Eagles. Early refueling, then fan out in a pyramid flanking approach. Weapons cold. We need to reacquire and refine the information."
"Sandra, expand the scans from here as well."
W-422 DAB 1030-1130: Strays
It was Sandra, on Alpha, who found anomalies again first.
"New angular reference 783." It was a combined system, referring to both right ascension and declination in one system.
"Are the new programs able to discern count?" John asked Sandra.
"No, they are very rough approximations of Maya's own calculations."
"Contact Alan and get his flight the new coordinates."
"You think they're responsible for the base damage?" Tony asked.
"I suspect they are ships, but I'm not sure of the connection."
"Too close. We're in the heart of the star system when it happens, and now we've got invisible hitchhikers. They may be connected."
"We don't know who or even what 'they' are," John reminded.
"You think we're chasing computational ghosts of Maya's?"
"All she's asked was to find out what the numerical anomalies might be."
"I know," Tony said. "Maybe not 'her' ghosts but her being stuck trying to read too much into readings from a system that is primitive to her."
"You may be right, and that's why we shouldn't jump to conclusions."
Back at Eagle 25, there was more jumping to conclusions, mostly from Tom Graham.
"They've got to be ships. Saw we found something to draw our curiosity, us approaching right in their directions, and scanning their way."
"What are your odds now?"
"Approximately 56% chance of ships."
Then they received word of new locations for what were still being called 'anomalies' -- and a request from base that Maya try refining her computer programs further.
"The computer on Eagle is more limited than Alpha Computer," she stated to the commander, "but I can try further improvements. They will still be rough at best."
"Do so," the Commander stated. "Is there anything more to scan out that way?"
"Complete rendezvous with Refueling Eagle, then return to base."
After that was done, Thomas turned to her and asked, "What odds now?"
"It is still difficult to say. 72% perhaps."
He turned away, then said, "Why is it we keep picking up strays lately?"
She didn't even wonder about his comment at first. Fatigue was setting in, from having been up for so long, not having eaten, being subjected to the constantly irritated comments Thomas was making. She reminded herself to be patient. Since there was no immediate danger, she got up, asked Thomas if he wanted her to bring a meal. She was going to eat in back while she worked on her program and sought some sleep.
At first, he refused the meal, then sighed, and said, "Sure, whatever."
After that was done, and a brief conversation with Yasko to get her report, Maya settled in front of the science/computer station. Then she remembered....
Strays. Maya had heard that term in regard to the cold'birds that had stowed away on Eagles at Kaska'lon. Then she wondered if he was referring to her as well.
R-423 DAB: Changing Patterns
Alan pushed his Combat Eagle towards the limit -- but not to it. It felt like there were hidden ships out here, but without confirmation, there was no sense burning out his ship if it was nothing more than anomalous patterns in numbers.
Still, he trusted Maya had found something, even if not ships, so this was not entirely futile.
It had taken Eagle 25 awhile to reach its farpoint, but Alan's Eagle had more speed capability, and he was pushing it harder. Furthermore, the new anomaly was located closer to Alpha. Somehow, that seemed like a game too. Being detected at the same distance from the Moon would be even more suspicious, which still made this new location suspicious.
Then Alpha reported they had lost Anomaly 3, as it was being called, but picked up a smaller Anomaly 4 at a different angle.
"Hey, Alpha, I don't think this is going to work. We're not going to get good... readings this way."
Over the next two hours, more anomalies began appearing and disappearing.
"This does not make any sense," Sandra stated. "We are only detecting them at a stand-still, not moving. We may be traveling through some spatial phenomenon, or that our hyperspatial bubble is destabilizing small debris crossing the boundary, and it flares later. I suggest contacting McLeod and Conway and see if they can brainstorm anything together, and with Maya."
Ten minutes later, the comms were filled with chatter, advanced physics and astronomy and other knowledge and speculation, while John quietly conferred with Tony and then had more Eagles launched, as the anomaly count continued increasing faster, crossing the one-hundredth temporary detection even as they talked.
Then rate of increase started slowing. Only a few anomalies were detectable at any one time. Then something strange occurred. Something flared into visible light, in the same octant as Eagle 25, but well off its path and somewhat behind it.
Tony looked at John with a frown.
"Sandra, is Eagle 25 refueled now?"
"Just reported in, and they are returning to Alpha."
"Redirect Eagle 25 towards the new target. Refueler should stop at current location." The Refueler was not armed.
The small flare-up was still visible, brightening a little, and perhaps spoke of a way of resolving this minor but increasingly annoying mystery without committing more Eagles to a defensive but skittering posture.
Eagle 25 was the only one close enough to investigate in a timely fashion, though it would still be hours before it arrived. It would also be out of communication range again.
The appearances and disappearances of anomalies continued over the hours. Sandra, analyzing all of them so far, was seeing a new pattern, but her report was initially interrupted by a last report relayed from Eagle 25 by the Refueling Eagle. Maya had a newer program, that she thought was more sensitive, but would only work with Alpha's scanners.
Sandra sent it on to June Washington to check and incorporate, while, after a few final instructions were sent to Eagle 25, with subtler word choices, Sandra resumed her report. The anomalies, especially now, were occurring like waves, seemingly passing through the Moon's immense bubble, from its forward side across half its width, but strangely, absent from the trailing half of the Moon's sphere of space.
"Maybe Maya's collation program only picks up these things from half the available angles," Sandra speculated.
"What, like polarized light viewed through filters?" John asked.
"Perhaps," Sandra said, then with a light shrug. She was a good analyst of data, including scientific, but was not a scientific expert herself.
"Starting to seem almost natural," Tony said, quietly, to John, but with a frown on his face.
John leaned back in his seat, briefly steepled his fingers, looked at Computer's readout of anomalies detected. Abruptly, his forehead creased, and he leaned forward, saying, "I'm starting to feel manipulated."
Tony gave a small, ironic grunt, then looked at the reduced set of controls on his console for Laser Battery 1. This was the decade-plus-old, formerly de-commissioned laser cannon, recommissioned, and readied just before the Graktor encounter and Psychon. A second one, a copy with some upgrades, was already in early stages of development.
Tony's look reminded John of the last time they were on river bridge on the surface of Kaskalon, and he thought Tony might have an idea here too. The idea that Eagle 25, beyond communications range now, may have flown into a trap, occurred to him.
Yet he didn't want to take an aggressive stance too quickly.
"Sandra, send greetings in the general direction of the nearest anomaly. Time we make it clear we know their presence."
"This is Moonbase Alpha to unknown in our space. Please respond." She repeated this a few more times, only to turn and shake her head. Even after considering brief light-time delay to this one, there was no immediate response.
"Deep scans, with roadrunner signal embed at first." Until everyone got used to when to use or not use this, it sometimes would have to be explicitly stated. "Still no response to greetings signal yet?" John asked.
"No, they should have received it thirty seconds ago, even considering their distance and speed of retreat from us."
"Hoping that we decide they're a ghost?" Tony wondered aloud.
"Maybe. I think they know we can't see them directly. If they intercepted our communications, or maybe even if not, perhaps they think we just don't know what we are barely detecting."
Tony nodded. "They'd be right, at least given what you're saying about them perhaps not even being more than sensor ghosts or reading too much into computations." Tony looked back up at the screen, then said, "Then again, they could be trying to lull us, dull our responses, make us complacent."
"Mmm, and I'm not sure I like six or more mystery objects skittering around here any more than 53 missiles," John said, before turning to look at Sandra.
She turned and shook her head. No progress on that front.
>John frowned, then said, "Tony, raise Laser Battery 1. Red Alert."
"Weapons Section. Raise Main Laser 1."
That got immediate looks from everyone in Command Center.
"Sandra, coordinate with Petrov. Next anomaly that appears nearer to Alpha, send the coordinates to Petrov. Tony, order him to aim but hold fire."
This still took several minutes. Suddenly, Sandra was sending coordinates to Weapons Section. The big gun swiveled that way, rotating to the right and somewhat downwards.
The reaction was stunning. "Anomaly has vanished," Sandra stated, soon followed by: "Two more have vanished."
"Uh oh, I think we have a problem," Tony said.
"I think we just called their bluff. Alert Eagles still in space. Sandra, keep scanning."
There were elusive detections. Then there was a problem. No longer were they being detected from half of the space surrounding the Moon, but they had contracted their appearances -- to the same octant as Eagle 25 and the Refueler. All the anomalies were getting further from the Moon.
Tony tensed, leaning forward in his seat. "Dammit. Maya, Graham, and Yasko may be in trouble now."
"Commit fastest Combat Eagles that direction," the commander ordered.
"They are much faster than we," Sandra stated.
"Get a message to the Refueler. Have it make a warning squawk in the direction of Eagle 25." It was not a coordinated message, for the Eagles were too far apart, but just a strong burst of signal on a particular frequency, which even then would only weakly reach Eagle 25, but hopefully enough to trip the warning that something was amiss.
A simple science mission had turned into an odd game of hide and seek, but where the hiding parties were suddenly making what seemed like a potentially more threatening moves.
"Sandra, can we target those?"
"The contacts are intermittent, and Computer is not finding any straight line connections between them."
"Evasive patterns," John speculated.
On board Eagle 25, there was a sudden alarm.
"What is that?" Maya asked.
So, she doesn't know everything yet, Graham thought, even as his pulse jumped and he called out: "Generalized warning squawk! Must be from the Refueling Eagle, probably on orders from Alpha. I think they must have determined your anomalies are ships. Arming lasers."
"Or they are warning us away from the flare object."
"Well, no kidding I'm turning away from that."
"Running sensors," she said, getting another reading of the flare from the closest point before turning the sensors about, searching for any further 'anomalies' -- even she was doubting any hypothesis except ships. It was theory now, but had to be treated as assumed fact for now.
She hit an intra-ship comm as Graham closed the doors between modules, a typical precautionary measure, as Maya continued, "Yasko, I had a new program version, anomscan4, which wasn't complete but can run. Load it into run state and put its basic output up here. You track its fuller readouts." Yasko may not be experienced with scans, and couldn't do Maya's math, but she could still look for other things Maya had been programming over the many hours of this journey.
"Yes, Maya," came Yasko's voice over the comm, succinctly confirming the order.
"What's that one do?" Thomas asked Maya after she closed the intercom.
"It is faster processing. May detect movement."
"I thought computers were slower than you."
"Yes, they are, but it can still help," she stated, too distracted for anything more than a simple factual statement, social consequences or not.
A few minutes passed, Tony looking more concerned. He had barely started getting to know Maya without the veil of partial suspicion between them, but more like friends now, and John could tell there was a protective instinct there now, stronger than John had expected.
Sandra's slim fingers momentarily stopped hitting buttons, and she turned back towards John and Tony. "No response to greetings, and initial scan return is negative for anything. They are still only appearing sporadically on sensors using the new collation program."
"It's like we're trying to box ghosts," Tony commented.
That triggered a memory of Mateo. These were not ghosts in that sense, but was there a containment or sensor corral that could be created? That might only work if Eagles could get out there. Yet out there, though not to the edge of the Moon's bubble of space, was beyond communications range. Time to prepare for the middle term.
"Tony, bring some Eagles back. Have them loaded with the new sensor collation program, and each with some frequency disruption equipment. Maybe we can force the aliens to appear."
"Try to get them to talk and find out what is going on."
Tony, though looking dubious, seemed to be glad to be able to do something more, and jumped to it.
"Still no contact. Nothing returning on scanners."
"Remove the embed and try getting clearer scans. Go deep. No sense trying to avoid offending them when right now they're starting to offend us with lack of contact."
John recalled some of the hard lessons from space, of being careful not to leap too far before looking, that attack before some degree of understanding was dangerous, something he had already known but which aliens had reminded was just as true out here as well. He had no interest shooting at these ships, if they were indeed ships rather than some exotic free-moving lifeform like the one that had taken over and transformed Anton Zoref. Still, the possibility of needing to shoot was still there, and he did have to be ready for it....
No one felt the last more intensely than Tom Graham, millions of kilometers away.
There was nothing to shoot at yet, and keeping lasers active was a drain -- small but not trivial. So he let Maya's advice -- he was loath to think of her words as orders -- remind him to do so.
She headed back to the pod to read some of the raw data (a mind more like a damn computer, he thought, annoyed) and to further enhance the approximation program she was developing literally on the fly. The last, he didn't mind. He believed she had picked up something, and was pretty certain they were ships. It crossed his mind that maybe all of the readings, from here and Alpha, were just figments of Maya's program, or even something Maya had done on purpose. For some reason doubted the latter, though the former could still be true. Still, even he was running an occasional sensor check even as he continued flying away from the 'flare-up' which had prompted a return back out of communication range.
Somehow, the danger added an element of excitement, a readiness to take on the danger. Problem was, he had nothing to take on. The now-fading flare seemed to be nothing but a distraction. Nothing to shoot at.
Now Alan was pushing his Eagle to the limit, with others following along. Graham, Maya, and Yasko now seemed to be in trouble, drawn into a trap, reminding him somewhat of how Paul and the others had been lost, even though the circumstances had been different.
Worse, he was a bit concerned that it was Graham piloting. The man had something of an itchy trigger finger. Graham reminded Alan of himself sometimes, ready to jump into action and vigorously defend those he was protecting, sometimes without enough thought.
Alan briefly wondered where this self-perception had come from.
Still, this made Graham a good point pilot and would probably serve him well in most battles.
Yet something in all that senior officer training for Alan, a little while back, was sticking, it seemed. This time he could see that blindly shooting at these oddities that might be ships, that were trying hard to hide but even harder to simply avoid being targeted, was perhaps not the best
Still, the part that didn't like invisible things buzzing around Alpha was larger than the part that thought maybe they were innocents.
Maya had returned to Eagle 25's pilot module, having re-adjusted her ad hoc program yet again to feed her several partial elliptical'collations in a more Psychon-like pattern, even though the representations were still Terran, and the computations unfortunately oversimplified.
She could have stayed in the pod to read all the raw data herself, but something made her feel her place was up here now, an officer next to the pilot in a crisis situation. Was this an aspect of Psychon or Terran leadership training? Curiously, on this small case, the differences seemed less than the similarities. "Best'talents integrated over halfparsed situation," was an ancient Psychon saying. "Right people for the right job," she thought she remembered the Commander or Tony stating early on as she further learned what being an Alphan officer comprised.
That she now found herself watching the every move of Thomas, as he had hers before, had her concerned. He seemed too ready to engage emotive'fight mode, even when showing some emotive'flight tendency.
That Thomas eventually noticed her looks, giving her a slight scowl, did not go unnoticed.
She checked the semi-proximal ellipticollations again, integrating them on the fly into a better whole, then frowned herself. There was now an anomaly paralleling them, and she finally caught one in movement, passing Eagle 25 from pilot to engine end and settling in somewhat behind the Eagle, a little off the side.
She relayed this new integrated data to Thomas.
She gave them, and abruptly, the Eagle swung partially in the direction of one, while he brought the forward laser, one of those firing from a mirror rather than a small cannon, towards what he was clearly trying to turn into a target.
"No!" she called out.
"Dammit, Maya, they're trying to use us as human shields!"
"Alpha could be targeting the big gun our way, but won't be able to fire with us right in the same general line of fire."
"They have not made a hostile move toward us."
"The hell they haven't. New coordinates!"
"What? You're going to get us all killed!"
"Shoot at them and you may get us all killed."
"Look at the readout. I can't read your data but even I can see it's now grouping three sets of data instead of the two there just a moment ago. We're being surrounded, right?!"
His insistent tone had her turning to the readout, and she knew her generally expressive face had probably just let confirmation of his hypothesis slip into view. There were indeed three, the third now out ahead of them, maintaining the same speed towards Alpha. Even as she glanced, she could see a less-collated chunk of data that was likely a fourth ship, appearing now.
"Damn it, we're in trouble. Give me the coordinates."
"No, I order you to... stand down," she said, with a mix of firmness yet hesitancy, all at once.
"We haven't been attacked yet."
"Fine, I'll hit the last known relative location, and--"
"Shut down lasers now. That is an order."
"An order? Who does everything think they are kidding? An alien girl giving orders on an Eagle to a pilot in a combat situation? I don't think anyone had that in mind for a Science Advisor."
"I know, but I don't--"
"I was given junior officer authority, as stated by the Commander's memo. I have the right to issue orders--"
"Your order is going to get us killed."
She felt in uncharted territory. This situation'class had not been defined for her here. Not yet anyway. She was inventing responses on the fly -- and the problem was she wasn't sure if she was correct by Alphan standards, even though she felt this was the correct decision overall, and she felt the authority still gave her response rights in this situation. Then again, he might know something she did not. Still, she was the superior officer here.... "I have the responsibility for our safety, and in my estimation, the greatest chances are not via shooting at these objects, at least not at this moment. I have not had to use my authority in this way before, but I am. Obey my order."
He was somewhat startled. Her face was very serious. Where had she learned this? Her sometimes nervous and somewhat meek nature was suddenly evaporating, some steeliness glinting now, even a bit of anger and resolve. A stubborn look.
Still, a fifth data block appeared in their shared readout, and he moved towards the laser. She suddenly moved too, away from him. At first, he didn't understand, but in a moment, she had a panel open and was yanking a circuit board out. The computer targeting skewed. He was about to override with manual targeting, but she had another board pulled before he could touch a button, and the whole weapons system went down.
"Dammit, Maya, what the hell are you doing leaving us defenseless?!"
"Temporarily defenseless. I have done no permanent damage. Plot the following course: three-"
"So they can shoot us in the back?"
"That is an order. Either accept the course or leave the pilot seat."
He stared her down, but she did something she hadn't since Psychon, staring him square on.
All at once, she was looking and sounding like a superior officer and looking like an alien, and with a start, he remembered her metamorphic ability. If she knew a lioness, did she know a gorilla, or something that could toss him out of the seat like a rag-doll? After that, she knew how to fly the Eagle, and if she had already learned where the main weapons circuitry was, she could probably easily lock him out of the pilot module.
He was used to taking orders, but from an alien was a first, and she had the situation under more control than he at this point. He could either follow her orders or sit there stubbornly or get tossed out -- perhaps literally. The latter two would only secure himself a lashing from the likes of Carter and/or Koenig back on base. He was probably still in trouble now, but could have a better chance to have his say that her actions were stupid if he still had some credibility left. Then again, maybe getting tossed about would show her to be somewhat crazy. The only problem was, she didn't look crazy, and there was some logic to her words.
He was stuck with a choice. "Fine. My apologies. Give me the coordinates back to Alpha."
She did, calmly adding, "We now have all six previously detected objects in range. You are correct that Alpha could not target them in this small cone of space without damaging or destroying us as well."
"Any change in their energy signature?" he finally asked, his adrenaline fading slightly but wanting to at least remind her to keep looking for any escalation in their behavior.
"Negative. I am restoring the weapons circuit boards. If I understand correctly, the system will restart, defaulted to an inactive state. Please leave it there, unless I give orders to arm it."
"Yes, understood, Maya." He had tried not to let the last word come out oddly, but it had, a little. If she noticed, she showed no reaction.
He wondered what his buddies would think of all this, sipping on soda or tiny amounts of something better, back in the Eagle Aerie Club -- assuming he survived to visit there again.
"They are not following us," Maya stated.
"What if we change course, towards the side, to open up the targeting cone?"
Maya looked dubious. Thomas wondered if she was trying to protect the aliens.
"That would leave the option in Alpha's hands, with the Commander," he argued.
"I understand...." she said. "Agreed."
She didn't look happy. It was almost like she still hoped it would not come to shooting, and might feel responsible if the aliens got shot down as a result, but that she also knew her life and "her" crew were in danger. That was a response he had not expected, one of the first reasonable things she had done in several minutes, though that did not make up for her out-of-control actions of the prior few minutes.
Almost at once, she continued. "Change course. I have one that will still put us in relay range of the Refueling Eagle almost as quickly as our current course."
She gave him the vector information, then input it into the computer, even as he turned. Strange procedure, but then so was the superior officer in this situation.
"What are they doing?"
"Moving to remain in our cone'section."
"They are matching our moves, even as they let themselves fall further back from us."
On Alpha, sensors and scanners were all extended to their limit, the latter on a powerful beam and narrow focus, at Eagle 25's direction. Six "anomalies" had danced about Eagle 25 for a while.
Tony's fingers didn't dance as they tapped on his console, looking rather anxious.
June was in Command Center now, to more rapidly integrate new programs and to scan the results, while Sandra also analyzed them. This information was absolutely all they had right now, and having two people working directly with that was best. Yet even Maya's program only showed intermittent position information on them, but it was helpful.
"Commander, Eagle 25 is moving aside," Sandra said.
"We have a shot," Tony said.
John paused. It seemed more like the aliens -- he didn't believe it could be anything else now -- were aware their shielding was partially compromised but were still trying nothing more than avoiding getting shot at.
Even now, Sandra reported readings were that the targets were falling back away from Eagle 25, but now moving sideways as well, trying to stay "shielded" behind the Eagle -- even if further and further behind.
"We're losing the shot."
Tony did not question it, and in fact there seemed to be some doubt on his face, as if not wanting to shoot either. The first officer saw John looking his direction, and turned to John, to say, with a less doubtful expression, "Yeah, but they're still using Eagle 25 as a human shield."
"Then let's take all the shields away," he said to Tony, then, more loudly, asked Sandra, "When will Alan's wing be in communication proximity to Eagle 25?"
"Thirty more minutes."
"And the Refueler to Eagle 25?"
"Eagle 25 has moved somewhat further away from the Refueler. Wait, newest is that Eagle 25 is turning more back towards Alpha."
"Maya probably found they were being shadowed, however more increasingly distant ones," Tony said.
"Sandra, as soon as this can be relayed to all Eagles, they should rendezvous and return to Alpha in two groups."
"Why two?" Tony asked.
"I'm curious to see the aliens' reaction."
The alien ships were, even at rendezvous point, going to be far, far beyond the range of the somewhat limited lasers of the Combat Eagles, but still within range of the big Laser Battery.
The minutes ticked by. Helena showed up, the immediate Red Alert having been rescinded back to Yellow Alert, as the immediate threat to Alpha itself had faded for the moment, and John was not intending to launch any more Eagles. In fact.... "Recall all Eagles near the Moon."
The reactions were strange, and unexpected. Even before Eagle 25 met back up with its Refueler, and the Combat Eagles -- which would need refueling as well -- the alien group split up into two, one made up of three targets retreating further from the Moon, the other group of three approaching Eagle 25.
Tony looked over to John, probably wondering if the latest order should be rescinded.
Though he had a military background and a degree of training, John was not a general. Deep space kept putting him into a military strategist position, but usually for short term. Here was yet another such case, and this situation, seemingly tipping away from outright battle, seemed to be tipping back to it now.
On board the Refueling Eagle, this was starting to seem like a familiar exercise but like it was in the middle of a cold battle.
Suddenly, they were the center of attention. Both Eagle 25 and the Combat wing were out of their direct communication range, but only Eagle 25 was out of Alpha's, while all Eagles were going to meet here to refuel and go.
Soon, though, Eagle 25 was within the Refueler's range, but still just beyond Alpha's. Yasko's voice came through, reporting exactly what Alpha had already informed them about, that presumed alien ships were hiding behind -- but well beyond -- Eagle 25 as it moved.
A relay between Eagle 25 and Alpha was set up, and the exchange soon switched from Yasko to Maya, and then Graham, the last sounding ticked off for some reason.
Eagle 25 arrived and started refueling procedures -- this was turning into a rather fuel-heavy mission with nearly-invisible complications.
The Combat wing arrived not long after, one taking up position at a moderate distance, pointing outward, to defend the cluster of ships, as Alpha reported three alien targets had started approaching again.
The alien science officer, whom the pilot did not know that well, was now talking about another updated sensor/scan "collation" program for this situation, and sending it directly to Alpha now.
Then there were new orders from Alpha, that as soon as refueling was complete, the Combat wing take its interference equipment towards the approaching targets, while Eagle 25 and the Refueler start returning to Alpha, but moving somewhat sideways at first, to try to split up the narrow cone that everyone was still in, from the perspective of Alpha.
After ten minutes, refueling was complete, and they started that pattern, only for the approaching targets follow Eagle 25's short "sideways" move.
"We have a laser, Maya. We should be helping the Combat group."
"That is not what the Commander ordered. He wants us to return."
"Maybe he forgot we're armed."
"Unlikely, but I can clarify, if you wish."
Tom had no idea if she meant ask the Commander word-for-word if he had forgotten such a thing, or a more subtle question, but either way, it started feeling like more questioning of orders, this time the Commander's, after he was probably already going to get grilled about arguing with Maya, even if for good reason.
He almost decided to explain the expression, but she simply nodded, obviously already knowing its meaning.
Maya felt a little miserable. Maybe Thomas was correct, that she had exceeded the intended authority. She was supposed to be directing more and more science missions as time went by, or research projects, whether purely Terran technology or with some of her own ideas admixed. Ordering someone around in a potential combat situation had not been discussed. Maybe it was to come, or maybe it was never intended. She had ordered an Eagle pilot more trained than she in flight and combat, during a situation that was fast escalating towards combat. She had taken over more of a measure of safety responsibility than in the simpler Alien Wreck Salvage forays.
Perhaps the Commander and his other officers had never intended this for her. Maybe that was one of the limitations of junior officer. Has Sandra ever given combat-situation orders? she wondered.
Maybe she had exceeded her authority, and would be demoted back to Science Advisor and brought on missions as a non-officer.
She suddenly was not looking forward to the de-briefing, but abruptly realized she was getting ahead of the situation again. There was still danger here, within the Moon's influence'sphere.
She went back to the pod, to try to get even more rapid interpretation of the data. The processor speed was invariant, but she could create some better equations for the computers here, on Alpha, and on the other Eagles to use.
Still, reading it herself was most efficient for accuracy, and she abruptly noticed a shift. "Yasko, report to Alpha. New movement from both groups."
The report came in. One presumed ship in the further group was moving up quickly, and the lead group had split into two, one slowing but two advancing, far more rapidly.
John frowned, then ordered Eagle 25 to hold its fire again, as well as ordering a second combat wing back into space, to take up defensive positions close to the Moon.
The two alien ships shot past Eagle 25 at very rapid speed, but then slowed as they approached Alpha and the climbing second Combat wing.
Ten minutes later, Tony, who had agreed with the move, turned back to John, and quietly said, "Now I'm feeling manipulated."
John had Sandra collate the anomaly detections so far, and put it up in the Big Screen, showing all of what had happened so far, within the Moon's large sphere of space, even as Tony continued....
"They rearrange from two to three groups, and then we commit a third group of ships ourselves. We've got six Eagles out there again."
Just as Sandra had pointed out earlier, all of the 'anomaly' detections had been in the forward half, or maybe even merely the forward third of the Moon's area of space.
"Sandra, how far are we from the next star system, exactly?" He knew the distance was not far between the last and the next, but....
"Two days, three-point-two hours to closest approach. We will not be getting within Eagle range of anything central, however."
"No, the edge of the system. The Space-Normal Boundary where our hyperspatial bubble will collapse again?"
"It varies by system. Estimate of 11 hours."
He frowned. Then, he thought he understood something. "Back to original plan. Withdraw all Eagles. Return to Alpha ASAP, on most direct courses."
Fifteen minutes later, the closest group of presumed alien ships slowed, and turned back.
There was some puzzlement in Command Center, but John said nothing, still not sure of his theory, or whether these objects still represented danger to Alpha.
The latest Combat wing ordered out reached Alpha first, followed by Eagle 25 and the Refueler, and not long after by the fast-traveling combat wing led by Alan.
The alien ships were retreating further, then suddenly spreading out.
"Okay, I get it," Tony stated. "They are feeling vulnerable to the main laser battery, exposed with no Eagles to hide behind. Why not just go to the far side, away from that laser?"
"I don't know."
"They've made nerve-wracking but not truly threatening moves towards our Eagles and Alpha. Why not just communicate?"
"Almost like the citizens of Ariel," Sandra's voice sounded quietly into the silence.
"Distract us for awhile and hope we don't do anything too hostile?" Tony asked.
"No," John said. "I think it is something else. I'm not sure what, but I think they were trying to hide more than distract." He leaned back in his chair, again contemplating -- briefly. "Target Laser Battery away from that octant, but do not retract it. Show that we will respond if they approach again, but aren't that interested in shooting them."
Alan and then Maya arrived in Command Center, looking at the new readings, even as the latter settled in at her console, loaded up her latest program, ran the readings, and read the verbose data herself.
"I have refined the collation further," she started reporting soon thereafter. "They seem to each be about 100±50 meters in size. I believe they have a partially unshielded power source which is energizing their hull slightly, creating an interaction with atoms in the vacuum and causing them to vibrate more on a frequency Alphan systems were already slightly sensitive. That is what I was first picking up in the data."
John detailed the supposition he had made a little earlier.
"Their behavior is not inconsistent with that hypothesis," Maya stated.
Alien hitchhikers. No one had expected this. Yet that seemed to be what it was all about.
F-424 DAB: Quiet Stress
Overnight, Alpha kept watch on the silent, still essentially invisible strangers at the far edge of the Moon's bubble of space, keeping two officers on duty at all times, rotating them during the long, quietly tension-filled evening. Sitting there with mystery hitchhikers hiding under cloaks in the "corner" of their space, everyone apparently anxiously waiting for the Moon to reach the edge of the upcoming star system.
In the meantime, Cmdr. Koenig was meeting in his small office near Command Center, with Chief Architect Karedepoulos, who now had an official cause for the hull breach that had damaged the still-inoperative Protein Production Unit.
"Stress fractures?" John echoed, in his small office near Command Center as Karedepoulos, looking fatigued, delivered the report professionally nonetheless.
"We weren't certain whether the fractures at the immediate damage was pre-existing or caused by the explosion. Forensic analysis of such structures in such environments is not my forte, I'm afraid. So I couldn't be certain of the causality after the damage in this case, but I had a couple other plates from another corner in the same structure analyzed, and they showed forming stress fractures."
"Stress from where? That area was not hit by attack. Was it subject to something during Breakaway?"
"I'm not sure. I'm starting to wonder if that represents some sort of convergence point from other hits. Breakaway, the Deltan bombardment, Mentor's attack, and everything in between."
"The hits, shakes, and rattles all racing down primary beams or even from hull plate to hull plate. At a corner, such might be reaching there from two or three planes."
"Like multiple waves hitting peaks at the same moment, and thus multiplying the strength."
"Exactly, Commander. Alpha was designed with a possible attack in mind, given the times in which it was first being built, or a degree of moonquake from a nearby meteorite strike, but not frequent bombardment at intervals."
John leaned back in his seat and repressed a sigh. "So are we looking at... well, let me first ask.... Why now? Just an inevitability, or was there a trigger?"
"Well, it would have given at some point, but yes, there is usually a proximate trigger, however minor. I don't know what in this case yet, or if it was simply that close already."
"Very well. Keep investigating. Wait. I saw the out-gassing, probably seconds after the breach started. We were in the middle of the last system, not far from the star, which I had just seen rising the day before. The out-gassing was backlit brilliantly. That whole section was seeing a lot more light than usual."
Alexander thought about it for a moment, then nodded. "That might be have been the immediate trigger: unusual heating, perhaps more quickly, going from cold to intense heat more rapidly than around Earth, given the somewhat greater light, and the Moon's own rotational changes." There was silence for nearly ten seconds, then Alexander continued. "Like I implied, this may just be a convergence point, more vulnerable than most simply out of coincidence or an unforeseen aspect of design. However, I'd recommend stress fracture scans of the rest of the hull plates."
John remembered some of the details from repairing the damage to the one of the sites hit by Mentor's molecular transformation weapon. That was an exotic form of damage that was somewhat extensive but still only a few floors in one relatively small area, not crawling all over the base with scanners that only evaluated a small area at a time. "That will take a lot of resources."
"And fairly frequently. Every spot being checked at least every few months, unless the pace of bombardment slows. Previous thinking, before Breakaway, by others and myself, is that Alpha would start needing metal fatigue checks, by 2009, when some of its first structures reached the quarter-century mark."
"Alpha's not falling apart, is it?"
"No. Most parts will be sound. It was designed to last decades -- a century or more even -- but with replacing plates and panels now and then. Still, this is a major complication, that we have to watch for faster aging."
"How much resources?"
"A lot, Commander."
They went over some numbers.
"That is unacceptable," the Commander stated. "We can't spare that many people."
"This is the only home we have for now."
"Yes, I know. Until we can find a planet, we have to protect what we have, but you know Paul's Plan is multi-front. Our research efforts are going into trying to expand other capacities, to defend ourselves in our journeys, to understand what it is we are facing, to find new resources on our own Moon, to exploring what planets we find, whether suitable for settlement or not. Even your part has other aspects. Some of your builders are working on the replacement Nuclear Generating Area at a more remote location, as well. Having that many people spending that much time crawling all over the base running stress checks is unacceptable. Find other answers."
"Karedepoulos, if you had any idea how many people come to me asking for more resources.... We've already got cross-training started in a number of areas, to reduce our risk of losing one or a few people causing loss of a whole area of expertise, or to spread out the risk more widely, with thoughts of more cross-training. What you're asking, however, is too much. Virtually everything every one of us does is vital or potentially vital to our survival. Prioritize, or find a more efficient way, or something."
"What about the more immediate possibility of there being some other such stress points, even if I do prioritize."
"Come up with a short-term plan, and quickly. Then we'll discuss cross-training a few more people. Besides, how many stress scanners do we have?"
"A few, but of varying types. Some were left in storage after the last addition phase ended. We can probably scrounge up a few more. Plus, a few more could be manufactured. I don't think it is that complicated a device to manufacture -- though I'm not an expert on that by any means."
"So you'd need resources from Manufacturing too."
"Right, come up with a short-term plan first, maybe with contingencies."
Finally, the Space-Normal Boundary -- the edge -- of the next star system was reached, and the Moon's hyperspatial bubble collapsed. After the minor light-speed delay, Maya reported the six alien ships were now moving fast away from the Moon, towards the heart of the star system, from which Alpha would remain well out of Eagle range.
While Maya was checking those readings, Sandra intercepted the information from the Indirect Gravity Wave Detector, ran the program, and reported there were thirteen detectable planets.
"A potential bonanza perhaps, out of our reach," John commented to Helena an hour later, in Main Observation, looking at the bright pinpoint of yellow light that was the star. It and its planets were so close, yet so far away.
A-425 DAB: Setback
Maya left Command Center. It was now nearly two days after having returned to home'base.
The readings had been fading, with distance as the presumed ships flew deep into the star system, faster than an Eagle but still much slower than light. They had gotten to the point of again resembling the unresolved 'anomalies' they had first appeared to be when Maya had first noticed them as oddities in the raw sensor data. Now, they were simply gone, too subtle for Alpha's sensors to pick up the slightest sign.
Yesterday, she went from a cafeteria meal with Tony to a de-briefing which had concerned her, given what had happened on Eagle 25. During the de-briefing, the authority'incident aboard the Eagle had emerged from the discussion. That had become unpleasant, Maya wondering if either she or Thomas would end up being the subject of a hearing for inappropriate actions. Neither would have been good, in Maya's opinion, one against her for obvious reasons, but one against Thomas for how it would be the second time in ten weeks that a Terran ended up in a hearing over the Psychon. Maybe it was necessary to maintain order, but it still concerned Maya.
Unexpectedly, neither had occurred. The Commander had supported her actions as proper, had stated he understood the concerns of Thomas about feeling under imminent threat, but disapproving of his reactions towards a superior officer. He had given him a stern warning, noting the warning in his record.
Still, there was a problem. Some of the Reconnaissance personnel seemed to be reacting differently towards her. Terran stares were still not easy for her to interpret, since they seemed to hide the reasons for their stares in a more neutral expression, as if they were concerned about opening up to her. Today, some orange-sleeved people were not trying that much to hide their feelings, and even she could see it was not positive.
Now, as she walked towards Recreation Centre, curious to see if she could find a friend there, to do something -- anything -- casually social, she even got one outright glare from a pilot.
She partially understood why. She had taken actions blocking a pilot from doing something that perhaps others among the pilots would have done in the same situation, and they were not happy about it. Part of her did not understand it, for it turned out she had the authority to do this. She had not wanted to use it, but had felt no choice.
She abruptly decided, with a pang, she would defer accepting the invitation to re-visit the Eagle Aerie Club, at least not for a while. Now, when she approached the Rec Center and noticed a few pilots heading in, she decided to turn around before they noticed her. Not every pilot was acting this way towards her, but she decided to 'leave well-enough alone' as Kate had once said -- at least for now.
She returned to her quarters, only to find a computer message that Kate had cancelled both a meal tomorrow and a racquetball game next week, with a brief electronic note saying nothing more than: "Have to cancel." Maya had not heard from Sally Martin in weeks, seemingly since Maya had accepted an officer role.
Suddenly, the lone Psychon was starting to feel more isolated again. She was already isolated or merely tolerated by most Alphans, but there had been a steady if slow melting of that. Now, she felt unsure of herself again.
She quietly sought out another female'friend, Janina. Maya had never had any problem talking with Helena, but suddenly wanted a non-officer to talk with, over a meal. Not wanting to intrude too much, Maya only sent an electronic post.
She suddenly felt tired, and took her siesta early, only to find that was an error, as she soon turned to dreams which turned into nightmares, the airlock one reappearing for the first time in two weeks.
That only left her feeling on edge, and when Maya found Janina had accepted the invitation, Maya thought she should cancel, that she would be poor host. Still, she decided she wanted the company, and felt more relaxed by the time Janina arrived and Maya had some food going, albeit with no protein other than a little left from what Maya had saved in the freezer when rationing stated.
She relaxed even more after a city-wide announcement, on monitors, that the PPU had been fully restarted at last. Alpha had gone 11 days without it.
Moonbase could ill-afford losing what little it had.
She and Janina shared a relieved glance at each other, and Maya was happy to be chatting with a friend after all.
Maya could ill-afford losing what friends she had.
There was little between any of them and the vacuum of further loss, perhaps total -- but every little bit helped.
They called themselves Wahtensa, quietly escaping the strange sphere of space around an ordinary-looking yet unusual grey planetoid.
They had seen it coming from a long way off, ten days before. They had seen its hyperspatial bubble. The planetoid's mass was right where the peak bubble size would form, yet this planetoid had an even larger than expected pocket as it flitted faster than light between stars.
It had seemed so perfect, to transport themselves to the next system quickly and quietly.
Yet that was the last time this seemed perfect.
Life was found clinging to one part of the planetoid, so they quietly scanned more closely, and decided their own shielding technology was more than adequate to hide from the primitive scanning systems the aliens possessed.
That was when the data turned even more unusual. Chunks of destroyed spaceships were found littering several sites on the planetoid, including a few, of apparently multiple sources, near the main habitation.
Even more worrisome were some extremely advanced alloy fragments, more likely from a station than a ship.
The ShipCouncil had been nervous. Were these itinerant aliens more powerful than they appeared, or just cosmic garbage collectors stuck on an uncontrollable transport? The possibilities did not make much sense, but the Wahtensa had to move soon, and decided to take the risk.
The planetoid had reached the system they wished to leave, its bubble had collapsed, as expected. The Wahtensa had positioned their six ships on the other side of the system, waiting.
They had moved carefully, at just the right time, to be swept into the planetoid's immense hyperspatial bubble when it re-formed. That happened, only for the Wahtensa to find a new conundrum: the sphere was unexpectedly tuyetenaba, what could be explained to primitives as analogous to polarized or charged, in a distinct way on one half versus the other half -- with a chaotic boundary between that, cutting across the "sphere." This would not have been a problem -- or even detectable -- to most races' technologies, but the Wahtensa had a few technologies they thought unique and very important. While their main systems would be safe, these particular unique systems would be destroyed if they tried to cross the transition zone. They were not willing to let one of their few advantages be lost. The transitional boundary was extremely wide and chaotic, a huge band taking up almost a third of the space within the sphere.
No one understood why the bubble was tuyetenaba, but it was now confining them to a third of the volume they had expected. This shouldn't have been a major problem, except for another: the aliens, after seeming unaware of the Wahtensa for awhile, suddenly launched a spaceship in their general direction. It was only one ship, but it did not seem coincidental.
The ship had approached, and had scanned their areas. So the Wahtensa decided to move, and hope the aliens would simply take it as nothing more than a faint echo fading away. Yet the Wahtensa ships were seemingly detected again by the aliens. What had followed, were a series of maneuvers by the Wahtensa, followed by increasingly worrisome maneuvers by the aliens, until it was clear they were aware -- albeit seemingly only marginally -- of the Wahtensa.
Confronting the unknown aliens, or even acknowledging their hails, seemed dangerous, for this entire situation was so far different than expected. The ships littering the planetoid were part of the fear, that their own could somehow end up like that, in pieces on that surface, or in long orbits of the planetoid.
Picking up some communications only gave them parts of the conversations, in a language they soon realized was one labeled "2719.9, variant -1" by the Khorask. The aliens on this planetoid apparently called their home Alpha.
The Alphans had activated their long-range laser, one which though it had good range, could not destroy the Wahtensa. However, the nervous ShipCouncil had wondered if that laser weren't even more powerful than scanned, perhaps responsible for the varying debris on the planetoid. Worse, the tuyetenaba band kept them confined to the same side as the laser. They had had to stall, to keep moving in ways that would hopefully keep the aliens from firing -- assuming they were interested in protecting the lives of their own people. They had even set off what could be called a flare, to draw their attention when it was needed in a certain way.
Fortunately, in the end, despite some brief signs of being targeted by the first alien ship, and longer signs from Alpha's lasers, the aliens suddenly seemed to decide to withdraw and keep a careful but quiet watch on whatever signs they were seeing of the Wahtensa, allowing them to move their ships back to the edge of the hyperspatial bubble and spread out a little, while they debated how the aliens could have been somewhat detecting them.
Finally, the planetoid and its strange sphere of influence had reached the destination star system, and the faster-than-light bubble of normal space had collapsed. The Wahtensa quickly flew further away from the planetoid, into the system.
In hindsight, the ShipCouncil had collectively wondered if perhaps all the debris on the planetoid's surface was from battles of others there, and not the actions of the resident aliens. Yet why would this planetoid, odd as it seemed to be, draw that much attention? It seemed to have traveled through some dangerous swaths of space.
Yet the Wahtensa were away now, ready to carry out the mission that had brought them to this star system....
This not-for-profit amateur/fan publication
is designed for entertainment purposes only,
and is not intended to infringe upon the rights of
Gerry Anderson, ATV, ITC, Polygram, Carlton, Granada Ventures,
or any other current copyright holders of Space: 1999.
"Whose Orders?" an original story based on Space: 1999
This story is part of the
Bridges and Anchorages
Copyright ©2010, David M. Welle (MetaForms, Ltd.), and
may not be reproduced or published without consent of author.
framework (series) of fan fiction.
W-01/13/10: first draft complete
M-03/01/10: official release
This not-for-profit amateur/fan publication is designed for entertainment purposes only, and is not intended to infringe upon the rights of Gerry Anderson, ATV, ITC, Polygram, Carlton, Granada Ventures, or any other current copyright holders of Space: 1999.
"Whose Orders?" an original story based on Space: 1999
This story is part of the
Bridges and Anchorages