The Law of Indirection

By David Welle

AN ORIGINAL STORY BASED
ON THE TELEVISION SERIES

SPACE: 1999

Many thanks
to
Terry Bowers
and
George Eichler
for
help making this
fanzine a reality

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

The Law of Indirection, story and artwork, Copyright ©1995-2007, by David M. Welle (Space: 1999 MetaForms), and may not be reproduced or published without consent of author/artist.

Thank you for your interest. You are welcome to send me any and all comments--positive and negative--on any aspect of this story.

All text and some pictures were created using MS-Write, MS-Works, MS-PaintBrush, Borland C++ 4.52 (text editing of the .HTML), and Borland Resource Workshop. Additional art was scanned using Logitech PageScan Color. All product names listed are trademarks of their respective companies (Microsoft, Borland, and Logitech). Originally published as a one-story, novel-length fanzine in 1995. First uploaded to the Web on May 15, 1997, with a slight revision on October 18, 1997. Restored to the Web on August 10, 2007, at the start of website repair. This introductory part of the page was revised on September 13, 2007 (happy Breakaway anniversary!).


Prologue

Moonbase Alpha status report, 1040 days after leaving Earth orbit. Dr. Helena Russell recording. We continue to travel through a relatively star-poor area of space. It has been several weeks since the last planetary system, and months since the last living world, Luton. This has been the longest period of peace we have enjoyed since breaking from Earth--a badly-needed rest for everyone, and a grace period for repair and upgrade of systems, including those which have been neglected in favor of continually repairing the major systems. On the other hand, we have been unable to get at supplies of critical substances--such as tiranium--that are rare on the Moon. The situation is not yet critical, but will be in several weeks. We are, however, a couple of days from a star system. We can only hope for the best: it is entirely possible that we will not reach another planet until close to the critical point.


Chapter One
Boundaries

Helena completed her report, switched the recorder off and left Medical Center, heading towards Command Center to confirm a suspicion. At 7:40 in the Alphan "morning" the halls were relatively calm, except for the muffled sound of voices inside the rooms of couples, and a few people heading for breakfast. Alpha's nerve center was a little more busy; and she was not surprised to find John there, looking over some reports--his slightly disordered hair indicating he had been here for hours.

Typical, Helena mused with a smile. Watches everything like a hawk--or is it an Eagle?--during stellar approaches. She had often argued against his sixteen-hour days during encounters, due to the stress they induced; but she could understand his motivation. The unexpected had a way of popping up, and he wanted to be there when it happened. Nevertheless, the way he ignored the limits of his body often drove Helena crazy--both as medical officer, and as a woman who loved him deeply enough to feel the emotions he kept from everyone else. Here he was again, repeating his age-old pattern.

Maya, the science officer, was here as well. Her alien body could not keep the same time as the rest of Alpha. She worked by a thirty-three-hour clock, including eight hours of sleep plus a two-hour nap, forcing her to keep irregular hours by Alphan standards. She could trans form herself into other forms for short times; but when in her natural form, she had to work by its dictates. Here was another person Helena had urged to cut down on her hours. Where John hid behind claims of being needed in Alpha's nerve center, Maya sometimes hid behind claims of a more tolerant biology and psyche. Helena no more believed Maya than she did John on this issue, especially considering that Maya rarely mentioned her biology otherwise.

And finally, Tony Verdeschi, the security officer, was also present. Helena did not worry about him: he enjoyed his off-hours far too much to allow himself to over work except when absolutely needed. He just appeared to have arrived a little early, probably to talk with Maya.

Apparently, the "night" watch had already been dismissed by the commander. It figured.

When Helena walked further into Command Center, her distinct- sounding footsteps caught John's attention, and he turned his seat around to face her. "Good morning, Helena," he said warmly.

" 'Morning, John," she responded with equal warmth, resisting the urge to kiss him on the cheek. Despite the fact that the Tony and Maya were not looking their way, Command Center was just too public a place to be kissing in. "Anything happening yet?" she asked.

"No. Should there be?"

"Well, with you here, it looks as if you expect something. Maybe if you just stayed out of Command Center for once, nothing would happen."

He looked at her blankly for a moment, then smiled. "Yeah, I'll have to try that sometime, maybe when we approach a dead red dwarf star or something. Say, Jack Bartlett and his group are putting on an impromptu classical music recital tonight, open to the rest of the base. Interested?"

"Why are you so suddenly interested in the classics?" she asked coyly, trying to hide her smile of delight that he had asked.

"Well, you were probably about to say that I need a break--"

"Is that the only reason?" Helena interrupted.

"Are you saying I have ulterior motives?"

"Perhaps you do."

"Well... maybe I do."

"Hmm, that sounds a little better. I accept."

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony noticed Maya turn and look at him. His gaze was drawn to hers, and he instantly saw her expectant smile. He had not missed John and Helena's exchange, and realized the significance of Maya's stare. Oh God, he thought, she expects me, of all people, to take her to a classical music concert? Doesn't she know that I hate that boring, overly-romantic tripe? He couldn't resist wondering what her ulterior motives might be.

Tony heaved a sigh of relief when Maya's attention was drawn by alerts from her console.

"Hmm, that's interesting...."

"What is it, Maya?" Tony immediately asked.

"We seem to have prematurely emerged into normal space, at a space- normal boundary unusually far away from the star. We are no longer traveling faster-than-light."

Koenig frowned. "I thought you said it would be two days yet."

"It should have been."

"Any readings or explanation yet?"

"No, except that we are ten light-days out. I can't explain. We'll have to wait for further details."

Koenig nodded understanding, then turned to log this fact and send notification to everyone through computer mail. At the same time, Tony got up and approached Maya. "So, the super-smart Psychon scientist slips up." It sounded as if he had wished to deliver that line for some time, though it sounded more than a little silly to everyone else present.

Silly or not, Maya still fell for it, taking it seriously as she turned to him with a slightly annoyed look. "Given the complexities of our unusual form of hyperspatial travel and the variable space-normal boundaries around stars, prediction isn't easy."

"So she blames mysterious complexities."

"The mathematics of hyperdimensional folded topography are never precise."

"Next, she accuses the mathematics."

"And the computer can barely handle the simplest aspects."

"Then she insults our computer," he said, striving to maintain a poker- face.

"It doesn't understand probability vectors, transtates, slipstream tachyons, and hyperstrings."

"Ooohh, then she tries to knock us over with a bunch of fancy, pseudo- scientific-sounding statements that she probably made up on the spot."

John and Helena couldn't help smiling a little. Watching the antics of the younger couple could be quite amusing in some ways. On the other hand, it seemed their behavior continued to be almost exclusively along the lines of playful feints of various sorts, despite the fact they obviously loved each other. Apparently neither had a clear idea of how to express it. It was obviously tricky territory, as love always was. John knew the usually hot-shot Tony was deathly afraid of scaring the exotic Maya off, and Helena knew Maya was still innocent in many ways, despite her very playful nature. But they'd figure it out for themselves sooner or later, John and Helena figured.

"But there is still something unusual about this star system!"

"And when all else fails, she blames the poor, innocent star system for her mistake."

John almost visibly frowned at the sound of the word "innocent" being applied to any star system, even in jest.

By now, Alan and Sandra had shown up, and were watching the events with mild amusement.

"Well, I guess I'm washed up as a science officer," she said without skipping a beat or showing any expression. She got up from her seat, watching Tony's expression change from a smile to one of surprise. "I suppose we've got to find a new one," she continued as she walked around to Tony's back side. "And I think I found one," she said, pushing the surprised Tony into her vacated chair.

"Hey, wait a minute, Maya. I didn't mean anything--"

"Now," she continued, overriding his protests, "just to let you know where I left off, your first duty is to interpret these readings and give your report to Commander Koenig." She started walking away. His surprise held him in his seat, and her words caused him to look at the readouts flashing by at a dizzying speed. He could make no sense out of them.

Tony turned towards Maya, entirely missing John and Helena's amused looks, which they quickly tried to smother. Maya had nearly reached the rear doors. "Wait a minute! I can't understand these crazy readouts! Have you got them programmed in Psychon or something?"

She turned around. "No, Greek."

Her words triggered what she was looking for: Tony blurted, "Well, it's all Gr.... Heeyyy, now wait a second!" He pointed an accusing finger at her. "Oh, ha ha. 'All Greek to me.' You thought you could catch me."

"She did," Helena said, getting caught up in the fun despite herself--or perhaps because she felt a little nudge couldn't hurt, having suddenly realized what the other woman was up to. Tony looked at Helena in betrayal, and John was giving her a look that was both reproving and approving--not to mention the quiet amusement Helena saw in his eyes. She simply shrugged in return to both men.

"Call it a draw," Tony said.

"Sore loser," John added. Tony looked at John in surprise, having expected his support. Now Helena returned John's expression, the best she could. He likewise copied her shrug.

"A draw then, if you take me to the recital," Maya said with an pixie- like smile.

She had totally turned around his ill-conceived joke, and had him quite pinned. He could back out--but in front of everyone? His face flushed. "Ah, Maya... do you want to go the music recital?"

"Why thank you for the offer," she said smoothly, as if it were the first time she had heard of it. "Yes, I would be delighted to go with you."

Just a moment "too late" for Tony, Maya's console started clamoring for attention. Maya automatically tried to sit down, attempting to push Tony out of the seat. At the first moment of contact, Tony did not seem to want to move; but he finally got up. Maya settled in and took stock of the readings, then frowned, pulling her up-curved eyebrows tighter together. "Hmm..." she started hesitantly. "Seems to have been a moonquake somewhere."

"You don't sound so sure," Tony observed.

She ignored him. "I am calibrating readings from several detectors in order to determine its location and depth." Before the computer had even finished processing the raw data coming in, she had already used the same data to calculate the location in her mind, which she spoke aloud: "Roughly longitude 151 east, latitude 41 south, south of crater Jules Verne, approximately 4700 kilometers away by surface travel." The computer finally caught up with her and began printing some figures, but she ignored them. Her puzzled look prompted John to ask her what was bothering her. "It was an extremely shallow quake, practically at the surface," she said, then turned to the now completed read out to verify her calculations, while the others puzzled the meaning of her words.

Alan came up with the answer first. "An asteroid strike."

"That would account for these readings."

"We've never hit one before," Helena stated. "At least nothing big enough to detect this easily."

"They're thinly spaced and few compared to the huge volume of space-- even very near a star."

"And we are still far from the star," Sandra said.

"But we had to hit a somewhat larger one sooner or later," Koenig reasoned.

At 38 million square kilometers, the Moon was too large to have spread detectors thickly enough to detect anything smaller than about a thousand tons, given the most sensitive equipment they had been outfitted with by Earth. Those detectors had never been upgraded since instal lation a decade before. It simply wasn't a priority, given all of their ongoing problems.

After a pause, the commander turned to his chief pilot. "Alan, take an Eagle and check. Have Maya give you the exact coordinates." Alan nodded, took the printout Maya offered him, and left.

Four minutes later, at the stroke of eight--the usual start of "alpha" shift--Eagle One launched. Shortly after that, Maya had more raw data to calculate additional figures. "We entered the space-normal sphere at an unusual angle. Not only are we farther away, but we will only cut through the outer most part of the system before exiting in about a week." She put an image of the star on the main view screen. It looked like the other stars in the field of view, just brighter. "Assuming the sensors are showing an undistorted picture, we will not be getting much closer to the star."

"Too far out for the Eagles, then," Tony commented.

"And too distant to detect smaller, earth-size planets," Sandra added.

Maya typed some commands; a picture showed up on the big screen. The circle was a two-dimensional representation of the space-normal sphere, with an line--the Moon's path--cutting a small section far from the point at the center representing the star. "We will have full verification of exact distance and angle when we have traveled long enough to get meaningful parallax figures."

"It is rather unusual to be so far from the star, but it has happened several times," Sandra said.

"Not that it has made us any safer," Tony added. "We've encountered our share of ships out that far. Not to mention a few that travel faster- than-light and reach us during our extended jumps."

While the others continued talking, John could not help do some musing. Somehow, they always ended up reminding each other of their hardships. Yet morale tended to be quite high, most of them time. Hope had to be at the core of each and every Alphan. Hope and friendship were just as necessary as air and food to keep them alive, psychologically and physically, in deep space, far from others of their kind.

Sometimes, though, it was surprising they hadn't worn down after all these years, especially Maya, who in some ways had the least to hope for of any of them: it was possible she was the last survivor of the Psychon people; so how could she be so consistently cheerful and uplifting? John had never gotten the nerve to ask her how she went through everyday with such vitality and happiness, for he didn't want to remind her of her status. Maya often baffled him, but he realized it was probably more a matter of her individual personality than her alien nature--just as other humans, especially Helena, could regularly surprise him. On the other hand, Maya had once said Psychon was "a happy place," and given this remaining representative of that dead planet, he had little doubt it once was, before environmental catastrophe followed by Mentor's madness doomed it.

On top of everything else she had done for Alpha, Maya restored some small sense of trust in the universe. After so many hostile encounters with intelligent aliens, the humans had come to distrust almost anything alien. Maya's father Mentor had only furthered that impression with his bloody attacks on Alpha's personnel. At first, people had reacted poorly to his daughter's arrival, making her even more miserable for several weeks. Fortunately, it hadn't taken most of them too long to recognize Maya's innocent suffering and remorse, however, and accept her as a friend.

After acceptance came, and Maya's own grief faded somewhat, her innately cheerful nature had quickly reasserted itself. People found that they liked to be around her. Furthermore, her warm and cheerful nature, combined with her exotic beauty, had proven fascinating to the men of the base, which made Alpha's women--and some of the more conservative men--nervous at first, until they realized she really wasn't returning their interest. Now, however, Tony's special friendship with Maya, however slow it was in developing, was generally accepted as two people gradually falling in love; even if the two had trouble admitting it--though that was probably due more to their fiercely independent personalities than the fact they came from different planets.

John watched Sandra get up from her console to look at something on Maya's. Tony and Helena joined them. It was a picture of cooperation and friendship. Friendships with the humans undoubtedly helped sustain Maya, just as friendship sustained the other Alphans. Friendship and hope. They were indeed as necessary to their continued survival as any other factors.

The beeps emanating from Sandra's console broke John out of his reverie.

Sandra returned to her console, checked out the source of the beeps, then turned to John. "It is Alan. He is approaching the site of collision." It had been twenty minutes since Carter's launch.

"Okay, Alan, send us back a visual." The big screen lit up with a picture. Except for endless mountains of dull-gray moonrock, there was nothing to see yet. "Maya, tie your console into the detectors aboard Eagle One."

"Yes, Commander." She pressed several buttons. Almost instantly, she had something to report: "Sensors are picking up a magnetic disturbance."

"At that distance?" Tony asked.

"It is an object with high metallic content." Koenig noticed she did not say asteroid. Her eyebrows drew together as she pressed several buttons. "What is this?"

"What?" Tony and John asked in unison. They looked at each other, then turned back to Maya.

"There appears to be some sort of energy dis--" She didn't just trail off her sentence, she abruptly stopped. A worried expression appeared on her face, and she glanced around Command Center.

"What is it?" Tony asked, wondering what she was looking for.

"Something...." She reached for another button, but stopped as a soft glow started covering her form. It first seemed like she was transforming, but it was different. Instead of the soft fuzzing she usually went through, she was being covered with white light. "Maya!" Tony shouted. Her expression filled with fear as she vanished into the light. They tried to reach her, but the light was like a solid wall. "I can't move!" she cried out.

Two seconds later, the light turned from a uniform white into a chaotic swirl of color. Cries of pain instantly filled the air. Tony reached for the shield button, but Maya screamed not to activate any shield, so he pulled back, confused. They started pounding at the strangely solid colors, but the force did not yield. They heard her voice one last time, crying out for Tony, then near-silence. The light faded, to be replaced with what looked like a layer of highly reflective mercury covering her form. It also deflected all blows.

Tony, being Moonbase Alpha's security officer, was always armed. He pulled his laser gun, made sure it was set to a stun setting, then shot at the mercury-like layer. Like all other light, the laser was reflected, full strength, in a direction determined by the curve of the substance, itself determined by the curves of Maya's body. Sandra dropped to the floor, stunned. Tony looked at her, muttering "Sorry, Sahn" apologetically, even though she couldn't hear. He realized that a cutting setting would be reflected, as would a kill setting; and even if the substance covering her was shattered, the beam would kill Maya the moment the shield cracked, before he could turn the laser off.

They could not do a thing. They helplessly watched the shield for many long seconds, desperately trying to figure out a way to get at Maya. After several more seconds, the metallic silver turned back to a uniformly white light, which itself disappeared two seconds later. Maya did not reappear. Everyone looked aghast at the empty chair where the lovely woman had been sitting a mere forty seconds before.

"Oh, my God!" cried out Alan's voice from the speakers. His surprise had nothing to do with Maya's disappearance, which he had not witnessed. He had reached the collision site in an Eagle.

"That's no asteroid. It's the wreckage of a gigantic ship!"



Chapter Two
Viewpoints

Arlanka of Radial Transfer Station Tyrok-17 frowned at her console. "I'm having trouble with the transport," she offered to the seven men standing around the Transfer Alcove.

The target coordinates were being fed to her station real-time by hyperlink from a larger station with powerful sensors, located deep inside the star system. Someone there had picked out a specific target. Unfortunately, that target--which her computer identified as human--was on the small, traveling planet which had destroyed the Far Radial Station Tyrok-19 just thirty-two minutes before. It was well outside Tyrok-17's normal transport range, and barely within its theoretical range.

Sweat broke from her brow as she realized she was losing control of the disassembly, which was breaking down in a completely unexpected and chaotic way. She shivered, pitying the person on the opposite end: being chaotically disassembled was reportedly a painful process which often killed the recipient of such mistreatment. Her mind and hands raced as she ordered the computer to turn the failing disassembly field into a remote stasis field, in an attempt to restabilize the target's form.

Cocooning the person in a stasis field did not end the problems. For a moment, it returned the person to a stable form, as she expected; but then the readings started changing, far more than they should have been for something locked in such a field. To Arlanka's amazement, her computer claimed the person itself was doing it. That is impossible, she thought, dismissing the idea, instead concluding the great distance had weakened the initial disassembly attempt to the point where it had destabilized the person captured within. If so, why hadn't the victim simply disintegrated?

Her mind--working at a feverish speed--ignored blips indicating an energy attack at the stasis field from the outside. The target obviously had friends, but they could not break through.

Despite orders to capture the target, she would have released it by now, except she could not even restabilize it. Even the stasis field had failed to return it to human form. Arlanka called up some reassembly programs in an attempt to force a return to its original state, keeping the stasis field in place. Arlanka watched in delight as the energies, caught between the two forces, finally started returning to human form. That feeling vanished as she watched the restabilizing field being pushed back by the internal instability of the creature.

Arlanka was deeply disturbed to see such a visible demonstration of entropy fighting order. She had botched the transport so badly that she had turned a living creature--normally a highly-ordered construct constantly fighting to make order out of chaos surrounding it--into a source of disorder. Having been so utterly disrupted, the poor human had to be quite totally dead. Yet for some reason, the energies which had once been a living being remained surprisingly coherent. Not taking time to comprehend this, she continued manipulating the controls, trying to force a return to order, hoping against hope she could reform a living person. These strangely coherent energies seemed to resist the attempt, as if striving to create some new order, completely different than the human being that it had originally been.

"What have I turned this person into?" she cried aloud in frustration and confusion, drawing glances from her subordinates. She felt miserable, having unintentionally tortured a living human being into twisted ropes of energy. She was about to order the computer to deactivate the stasis field in order to release what was now an ugly mess, when by some miracle too huge to believe, the energy reverted to its initial human form. The computer automatically restarted the disassembly.

Too shocked by the sudden reappearance of the human form from dissolution, she did nothing to stop the disassembly. When it was complete, the computer gave her startling new data. With a calm voice which belied the sudden fear she felt, she relayed the information to her people, so they would be ready. "It's coming. Computer says it is not quite... human. It is unarmed, but wears a single metallic device near its waist. Please confiscate it. Be careful. This may be the first intelligent alien our culture meets. It could be dangerous."


On Moonbase Alpha, Maya felt energies form around her, immobilizing her to the point that she could barely move. She cried out for Tony as the image of Alpha and her friends was drowned out by a light so blinding she had to close her eyes against it. She suddenly realized that this was a transport system. She had gone through several transports--by Magus, by Taybor, and by the Vegans--but she had never before felt the actual process of dissolving her body. It was a terrifying sensation to a metamorph who was highly aware of physical coherence, so she resisted, trying to disrupt the field by transforming into another humanoid.

The field was disrupted all right--but not to the point that it released her. Its organized attempt to dissolve her immediately ceased, only to be instantly replaced by a completely chaotic attempt to do the same thing. Maya felt her body being ripped apart, and she screamed in pain. Her frantic mind suddenly realized it would be dangerous to have a shield raised during an unknown transference method, so she forced herself to scream out a warning. The sensation of being torn apart continued for several agonizing seconds. Suddenly, all attempts to dissolve her body ceased, and she found herself immobilized in what seemed to be a damping field.

It was an utter lack of outside sensation. No sound or light. No direction to space. No space even. Even time seemed distorted--the near nothingness continuing for an appalling length of time. She could feel nothing beyond her body, and even her physical form seemed distant, fading by the second. She was quickly approaching complete sensory deprivation.

Terror welled up in her. She attempted to move her body, but found she was losing all control over it. Despite the painful failure of her previous attempt, she again tried to regain control by ordering her body to transform. This was somewhat successful, until something clamped down and tried to force her back to humanoid form. Suddenly having a force to fight against, she pushed as hard as she could, trying for a radically different form that still had roughly the same size, instinctively feeling the damping field would not allow anything larger. Maya had already succeeded in disassembling her humanoid Psychon form, and was now reassembling the energies into that of a Mothan, but was unable to change it into matter.

The onslaught of outside force was preventing that, and causing her a great deal of pain in the process. Her body felt far from distant anymore, and it advertised that fact by screaming messages of agonizing pain to her mind. Utterly exhausted, Maya ceased all resistance, unable to fight anymore. She allowed the outside force to influence her body back to its normal humanoid state. After that was complete, she felt herself dissolve-- this time in an orderly and painless way. For a moment, she felt nothing, not even the rest of herself. Then she felt her body reforming around her.

In near-shock, her eyes still closed, it took a full five seconds to notice the sensations of Alpha had vanished. No computer noises. No human voices. New smells. Warmer. She slowly opened her eyes.

It was not Moonbase Alpha.

She was still too shocked to feel anything else. She slowly glanced about, taking in one thing at a time. Near silence. Enclosed. In a large cubicle. Green, with pink and purple dots. She wondered what was wrong with her eyes.

She looked out the window of the cube. There were seven men with drawn weapons, and a woman standing behind a console. Blinding blue walls prevailed, and streaks of wild purples and bright greens swirled sickeningly around. The people were likewise dressed in chaotically- colored clothing. Maya, used to the almost austerely muted colors of Alpha and preferring the low-wavelength oranges and reds of her destroyed homeworld, found the riotously clashing splashes of high- wavelength colors distressing. This, coupled with the vivid memories of the painful experience she had endured, nearly made the Psychon sick on the spot. She tried to resist the feeling, instead looking over her captors.

They were quite human, in the Alphan sense. Their heights varied little, from one to four centimeters shorter than Maya; and their faces were all medium-toned and relatively rounded--not quite fat--in shape, though the woman's face was slightly thinner. The men all wore their black hair uniformly short, and the woman's barely reached her neck. Where they failed to differ greatly in physical appearance, they made up with their wardrobe. Though all wore spacious, loose-fitting garments, each had clothing with differing patterns: stark vertical stripes on one, psychedelic swirls on another, random lines on a third, zig-zags on two others, as well as big dots, various animal-like figures, and some abstract shapes to round out the collection. Worse than their sense of style was their sense of color. Any one person's clothing had a variety of bright colors, often alternating such ugly combinations as blue and red, pink and purple. She briefly wondered if their home planet had such garishly-colored scenery, thinking that might account for their dreadful taste. They had to be the worst-dressed aliens Maya had ever seen.

She set aside such useless observations and turned her attention to the situation itself.

The nausea was passing, so she finally stood up. That action made her realize she had materialized on a chair--though certainly not the one she had been sitting on in Command Center less than a minute before. The one here had evidently been provided to prevent her falling to the floor after transfer: she had been sitting at her console on Alpha, and a transport computer could not make the attempt to change her body position, for fear of not reordering the molecules and cells correctly in a new configuration, thereby causing disphasing shock and death.

She looked back to the aliens on the other side of the transparent walls, demanding--first in Psychon and then in Alphan--the identity of her kidnappers.

They remained silent.


On Scan Station Nyka-2, near the heart of the Lykrontak system, a woman's frown finally faded, to be slowly replaced by a smile. Syranak had watched the inept handling of the transport with an anxiousness that almost made her lose control and cry out in front of the commander of the station.

She had the fortune of being on official inspection of N-2 when an emergency call came in from the Grand Council. A rogue planet had suddenly fallen out of faster-than-light travel at the far point of a hypertransport radial, destroying Far Station Tyrok-19 in the process. Syranak had considerable experience with scan systems and had commanded sibling station Nyka-1 some years before. In this case, she simply took over the scan equipment. From near the heart of the star system, she directed intense hyperscans at the object on the edge of the system. Within moments, she was listing the intruder's diameter and other key figures for the Council, which was meeting on Lykrontak itself. Syranak began concentrating the scans. She quickly found the remains of T-19 on the planet. It was partially intact--the stations being constructed of extremely tough alloys--but no survivors could be found. She shuddered. Almost one hundred people dead. She reported this tragic information. Scanning elsewhere, she almost found something that caused her heart to seemingly skip a beat.

"Incredible deposits of nuclear material near one edge of the intruder!" she said, her eyes widening at the sight. Her conscious mind refused to allow itself to jump to the obvious conclusion.

"A nuclear engine?" cried Potrak, commander of the Scan Station. Despite his own conclusion, he did not fully realize what it meant until Prime Councilor Garolak's impressively baritone voice provided the answer that shook them all up.

"Then the planet may be populated by intelligent alien life."

Silence reigned for a long moment before someone broke it. "That kills the conclusion that intelligent life elsewhere is highly improbable," grumbled Councilor Gastka, a man with the sharp eyes of a ieyask but the foul manner of a Ratakian salari.

"They are either brilliant or stupid to be using nuclear pile propulsion," Councilor Pylorka stated in the icy voice she reserved for seemingly every person and situation that existed in life.

"Verify the deposit isn't natural, first. Scan for life," Garolak commanded, providing a reassuringly authoritative voice which helped push aside the fear growing in them all: a fear of something new and dangerous which had already destroyed a station of nearly a hundred people.

Syranak altered the scans and probed the area around the nuclear deposits, and in a shaky voice, relayed the results. "A series of metallic structures house the material. Definitely artificial. No life forms present, however," she concluded, somewhat relieved. Her ease was short-lived, for she realized the incompleteness of her scans. Widening the beams again, she started playing them over the rest of the small, satellite-sized world. A blip caused her to concentrate the scans further.

"It is..."--she swallowed hard--"a large installation near the opposite limb of the rogue."

Without prompting, she narrowed the scans again. What she found shouldn't have surprised her or any of them. It still did. "Life indicated," she stated with simplicity. Not very grand words for what was the first discovery and verification of apparently intelligent life; but that is what would go down in Lykrontak history--assuming the aliens didn't have the power and desire to put an end to that history.

Stopping down her scans even further, she resolved the life readings. "Individuals. Estimate 270-310. Dozens of nuclear sources--probable energy generators."

"Or propulsion for ships," Pylorka stated dryly.

"I am unable to quickly distinguish metallic ships from the installation's metallic superstructure," Syranak said. She narrowed the hyperscanners to their ultimate--however incredible--limit, and probed a few of the individual life forms, interpreting the patterns in the false-color, wide-spectrum view, filtering and interpreting the confusing mass of computer-represented colors into something more meaningful. After a few seconds, she sighed in relief--though from what, she was not certain. "They are human," she said, not feeling--at least not consciously--the least bit surprised.

As if suddenly told everything was okay, they all relaxed. They had collectively waited for Syranak's pronouncement as if uncertain of the coming results; but in the end, it was nothing more than waiting for verification of the aliens' humanity.

As if it had merely been paused, their normal way of thinking resumed.

"So how much to satisfy the Law?" Gastka asked.

"One higher up in the command structure should do," Prime Councilor declared. "We can thus be assured the individual would have near- complete information."

Pylorka's eyes narrowed. "Only one?" she said icily. "For such a crime?"

"It's likely a commander's decision that set its course," Garolak said, "so one near him or her should do." At this, they all agreed, albeit with some hesitation on Pylorka's part. "Find an individual in a command location," Garolak relayed over the hyperlink to Syranak, over 100 million kilometers away. "Is there a Radial Station within transfer range?"

"Tyrok-18 is not properly aligned," Syranak said, looking at the situation 250 billion kilometers away from them all. "I am contacting Tyrok-17, which is nearly aligned and still within range."

In a matter of moments, she had a non-voice data relay set up with the commander of that station--Arlanka. Syranak scanned the overall layout of the alien base again, correcting for the angle of view. It was not symmetrical in exact design; but in general, it had strong radial and circular patterns which centered on a single tall structure. Concentrating her attention there, she found the upper levels were empty, but the lower ones contained increasing numbers of individuals. Finally, she found a close gathering of life forms in a single room off-center in the lowest level. Guessing this was the central control, she stared at the layout of the room and the positions and movements of the people, trying to determine who was the commander, so as to avoid transporting him or her.

Fine-tuning the readings, so the colored blips representing people resolved into fuzzy indications of limbs, she was able to see which direction they were facing from where their barely-resolved legs were pointing. She was then able to determine where the front and back of the room were, and realized one individual in the back was along the central axis of the room, while all the others were off to the sides. The one in the rear was almost certainly the commander.

A slight discoloration in the processed scans drew Syranak's attention to one of the blips nearest the probable commander. "What...?"

"Syranak?" Garolak prompted when she did not immediately follow up.

"Something is wrong with the scanner. It is giving odd readings. Wait--it is concentrated around one of the people. No, it is one of the people!"

"What are you saying?" Gastka demanded.

Ice materialized in Syranak's bowels. With effort, she calmly reported what she thought she was seeing, hoping she wasn't going crazy. "One of the individual life forms is not human."

"An animal? Ignore it," Pylorka said blithely, as if she were speaking to a functional idiot.

"No, no," Syranak said, a sharp edge in her voice. Not an animal." Her eyes kept growing wider. "Almost human--but not quite. Very much an... alien."

"Are you certain?" Garolak said with a surprisingly calm voice, sensing fear arising within himself and the Council around him; but trying to avoid further fanning it.

"Yes. It can't be a scan flaw--it would not distort only one individual in a consistent way." After a moment's pause, Syranak gave her opinion: "I say we take that one. The others are human; this one is not. That must be important in some way. It can be brought in, and you can... whatever." Syranak unconsciously avoided including herself among whoever would meet the alien.

After a few moments of chattering, the Grand Council became quiet. Then Garolak gave the order. "Have T-17 transfer the alien out."

The target was on a fast-traveling object which itself was rotating, so the coordinates were constantly changing. Precise real-time location had to be beamed along the hyperlink from Scan Station Nyka-2 to Radial Station Tyrok-17. This took up the entire bandwidth of the link, so Syranak could not warn Arlanka of the alienness of the target; and after the transfer, a warning would be superfluous. If Arlanka followed the usual precautions, no difficulties would occur. She did not even consider the possibility that the usual precautions could prove quite insufficient in handling an alien.

Tyrok-17 slowly rotated to the correct angle, then began transference. Syranak used the scanners to watch the transport process. As she saw disassembly fields and then stasis fields fail to work properly, Syranak grew angry at how badly T-17's commander was handling the transfer. Arlanka will be reported for this, she thought--though now with some nervousness as it became evident that the target was totally collapsing under Arlanka's inept ministrations.

Arlanka's lost the alien--and her command, I swear. If she-- Syranak's thoughts were abruptly halted as the situation suddenly-- miraculously--stabilized. The process reverted to normal, and was completed. The data link from T-17 had a moment to report success before the commlink to the Radial Station collapsed under the expected excess of tachyon emissions which followed completion of a transfer--the usual limitations of having "hyper"-everything. This had never been that annoying before; but now... everything had changed, and time was frustratingly crucial.

Syranak suddenly discovered how crucial. "Oh no...." Before the Council could demand clarification, she provided it: "Course of the rogue planet has been computed. It is aimed directly at the Far Station of another Radial--Utrax. Three-point-five days until collision."

Councilor Hajrar, an calm, older man with gray hair, shook his head sadly. "Remember that the shuttle linking Utrax-18 and 19 crashed against 19 and damaged the hyperspatial transfer system. Those aboard U- 19 cannot evacuate to Eighteen or to the Vaknor system. As with T-19, there are approximately one hundred people on U-19."

"Kaliskay," Gastka spat; a curse which made it unnecessary for others to add their own.

Pylorka gave a solution. "They cannot be transferred directly from T- 19, due to the nature of the radials, but if the people are evacuated far enough from the station by another ship, they can be transferred off that ship."

"What ship?" Syranak asked. We have none that can get there in time.

"The alien base might, when it gets close to collision point. We must secure their cooperation."

It was not the greatest idea, but no one could come up with any better.

Garolak sounded amazingly calm when he relayed what had been agreed on. "You, Syranak, will travel up the Tyrok Radial. Meet the alien. Find--"

Syranak interrupted, quailing, "I don't want to meet it!"

"We didn't say you had to touch it," Garolak stated impatiently. "You are already in space, which saves a great deal of time."

Syranak quickly recovered her emotions, horrified at her extremely atypical lapse. If Garolak and the others were analyzing her reaction, they made no hint of it. Syranak losing her control? No, she didn't want that to get out. "I will interrogate her. I need to take a team to the alien base to secure their cooperation." Now that was more the Syranak everyone knew. A woman of action.

After a moment's discussion, the others agreed, giving her the team she needed.


After the alien's arrival, the personnel of Tyrok-17 who were present in the transference room stared at her in shock. Despite the commander's warning, none of them--not even Arlanka herself--were psychologically prepared for the sight that greeted them in the transporter. It was indeed a humanoid, obviously a woman, and an oddly compelling one at that. She had an abundant amount of strangely reddish hair arrayed in an unusual configuration about her head. But it--she--was quite alien. The alienness seemed confined to four features: the strange color of her hair; her unusual eyebrows; streaks of dark skin angling across her cheeks; and hair that curved to a point on her forehead. Other than those details, her general facial structure was quite human: she had eyes, a mouth, a nose, and everything else--in the right places. She had also visibly paled since arriving.

She slowly, almost shakily, got up from the chair, and they found her body's outlines, evident in her nearly form-fitting clothing, were those of a normal woman--somewhat tall and slim, but certainly within human norm. She was dressed in a rather dull, beige-colored skirt that reached to her knees, a long-sleeved tunic which was the same color--except for one sleeve and some kind of collar around her neck, both of which were a striking red-orange--and long boots that were more gray than tan.

Her face was quite interesting, to say the least; but her clothing was utterly drab--at least color-wise, since the men's continued glances showed something was interesting.

Despite having been told by the computer, Arlanka was quite gratified to see for herself that the alien's human--human-like--form had been restored, though she was still at a loss to explain any of what had transpired during transport. She could only assume it had to do with the unusual distance, or perhaps the mass of the planet the target was on--the systems of Tyrok-17 had never been used to draw something from a deep gravity well.

When the alien vocalized two brief sets of gibberish, they found themselves wondering why she couldn't speak correctly, then were struck by the possibility she might not speak a language at all. They didn't even consider the possibility she simply spoke some other language.

Arlanka touched a control, and the door of the transport cubicle slid soundlessly into the wall. She looked at Marlkror, who then turned to the alien and waved his pistol, saying, "Out. Slowly."

Two utterances were not enough to allow Maya to identify the language, but she understood the gesture. They did not appear to have friendly intentions, but seemed in no hurry to harm her either. Evaluating her options, she realized transformation would not help at this moment. Inside the cube, they could transport her out--perhaps into empty space--or cocoon her in their hideous damping field.

As Maya slowly walked out of the cubicle, the others, weapons still trained on her, backed away, staying out of her reach. They were taking no chances, which limited her possibilities. Even as a large animal, she could not hope to knock out seven men quickly enough, much less the woman further back, behind the console, where she likely had a weapon as well. Even if she could knock them out, then what? If she could understand the transport equipment and beam herself out, they could just pull her back again when they woke up, this time taking more precautions--or perhaps punitive action in the form of an attack against Alpha.

She refused to even consider killing these people to prevent further action. She couldn't imagine doing that. Even in animal form, she was still Maya; and even if the animal had a smaller brain that prevented rational thought, it would still carry out her pre-transformation directives, none of which would allow her to cold-bloodedly kill these people. Even if she were a lesser person, and did kill these people, others like them could probably carry out a revenge attack against Alpha anyway. No matter what, Maya would not allow harm to come to her friends in an attempt to save herself.

In any case, it would be senseless to reveal her abilities in a useless escape attempt when it would be more advantageous to surprise them at a later point. She would have to wait it out and try to extricate herself by some other means.

Abruptly, one of those "means" came to mind: her commlock. It was something they were likely to take from her. She was determined not to lose her means of communication, and started thinking frantically, trying to come up with a solution.


Chapter Three
Barriers

In the Command Center of Moonbase Alpha, Alan's voice continued issuing from the speakers, unaware of what had transpired in Command Center scant seconds before.

"Hey, Maya, wake up! You getting all this?" He received no response.

Commander Koenig quickly ordered Sandra to run a full scan to try to find an alien ship in space. Tony ordered attack crews to the Eagles and Weapons Section personnel to their stations. The laser was raised from its hidden platform; and though it was too late for Maya, the shields were activated.

"Maya?" Alan continued to call. "Hey, Alpha, would somebody get on the horn and talk to me!"

Koenig finally did so. "Stand by, Alan."

"Did you hear what I said?" Alan persisted. "There's some spaceship heaped out back."

"Understood. Scan for further spaceships."

"Affirmative," Alan said. "Is something wrong with Maya?"

"She's just disappeared," Tony growled. "Some sort of energy system transported her right out of Command Center. She was covered with light, and then disappeared."

Alan muttered an Australian curse, then turned his ship's detectors upward, but failed to locate anything. He reported that fact back to Command Center. He could hear Sandra's voice give a similar report, then Koenig's voice returned. "Alan, return to base immediately." Alan was about to protest, but something in the commander's tone said it would be pointless to argue.

In Command Center, Tony looked at Koenig, wondering how he had come to this order, rather than keeping Carter in the air. Koenig gave him one of his "we'll talk about it later" looks, and Tony held his tongue.


Maya searched for a way to prevent the aliens from taking her commlock--her best chance of calling for help. After a moment's frantic thought, she came up with a partial solution: with a slight transformation, she could hide her commlock in what Psychons referred to (and Maya translated to Alphan) as metaspace. She already was able to "take" a limited amount of inorganic mass--such as her clothes and equipment--"with her" as she transformed into another being. This would be a variation on that ability. Furthermore, since she was not really transforming her own body, she would be able to "hide" the commlock for many hours or even days, well beyond her normal limits.

It was only a partial solution, for Maya knew the others had seen a device on her belt, so couldn't just "hide" it. Her mind rushed for a solution, and found one. Because Maya had once met a semi-metallic creature Mentor had brought down--kidnapped really--to Psychon, she had since built up a store of metallic metamass. With difficulty, she could build a very simplified sort of "fake" commlock by adapting what she knew of that life form. The fabrication would satisfy their search and keep them occupied, hopefully sparing Maya the full intensity of their attentions. Creating such a thing would be difficult due to two more of the natural limitations of Psychon metamorphosis: the inability to create a life form never before seen; and the inability to transform into anything non- living.

Maya would be carefully avoiding both limits: one because she was simplifying the biology of one creature, and not making a truly new life form; and the other because the "fake commlock," even with its unusual concentration of metals, would still be organic and just barely alive-- though not in any truly meaningful sense: a cockroach or tree was far more vivacious.

Only the better metamorphs could so closely approach these limits (or "dance on the fence," as the Alphans would say); and only the best could apply one more trick besides: maintain the integrity of something separated from the body, as the commlock would be moments after its creation.

Maya desperately hoped she was among the best. She had been practicing these abilities for some months--but only one at a time. She had never tried applying all of them at once.

Setting her fears aside and concentrating with all her mind, Maya sifted through four-dimensional images, alien feelings, memories, and bizarre senses; reaching all of herself, through herself, and within yet beyond herself to her metabody, a hypodimensional construct buried in the tiniest of loops: twisted axes of space at levels far below the size of atoms, somehow found by Psychon mind and body, which influenced non-massed nano-loops to expand and snare the metallic commlock and then contract, pulling each molecule apart but holding it in an array, its mass nullified and hidden amongst and within the molecules of Maya's body; while other parts of metaspace were rearranged according to a strange mental picture, then expanded into something resembling both an object called a "commlock" and creature called a "Euthrak Metal-Hide."

It took all her concentration, except for one other thing she had the presence of mind to do: moving her hand, she covered the commlock, hiding the slight transformational fuzzing from prying eyes.

Though she made the motion almost casually, without even touching the commlock, several of the men gave her menacing looks as they tightened their fingers around the firing mechanisms of their weapons. The man who spoke to her earlier uttered some more words--still too few for Maya to identify the language. By then, she had successfully replaced the commlock; and she repressed a sigh of relief as she prepared for the final difficulty. She raised her hands in a gesture indicating compliance, at which they relaxed. The man who had twice spoken gave his weapon to his neighbor--to prevent any chance of Maya getting to it--and then approached her. She stared at him, letting some of her anger show, but otherwise did not move. He seemed to find her stare somewhat unnerving, but still pulled the "commlock" from her belt. He then stepped back and handed the device to yet another man.

Maya successfully fought the cry that threatened to escape her throat as what seemed like a part of her body was ripped away. With great difficulty, she managed to force her "metabody" to stretch and hold the "commlock" together.

Arlanka watched the alien female carefully. She saw the intense but distant expression on her face, then wondered about the little hand movement, and finally noticed how reluctantly the woman had given up the device, almost as if it were painful to do so. Obviously, it was of some importance. Seeing no further threatening action from the alien, she turned her attention to Sarlocron, telling him to "Take that down the electronics lab and try to see what you can discover. It's not a weapon, so ignore explosive procedures." Just then, her console beeped.

The sound made Maya nervous, given her bit of metamorphic subterfuge. Fortunately, the other woman merely smiled--an irritated smile at best--and spoke to the others. "The transport computer was destabilized by the transference, and has just now gone down. I can't see to it right now. Tyrlor, analyze the situation and restart the system." Tyrlor, a different man than the one who had spoken to Maya, nodded in response. "And while you're at it," the woman continued, "try to determine just what happened during the transfer. It was either the distance, or some interference from the alien base. An outside attack was recorded, but that was after the trouble had started."

Suddenly, Maya understood their words, the extended speech having finally allowed her to identify the language as Lykrontak. Unfortunately, she did not know the language very well, so she was going to have some difficulty with it. But she did recognize it well enough to realize they had not connected the transfer problems with her metamorphosis attempts, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

Sometime before their encounter with Psychon, the Alphans had apparently received some sort of "gift" of language comprehension, though it seemed to be limited to those languages known to the mysterious bestower, leaving conspicuous gaps: the language of the chlorine-breathers on the planet dubbed "Chrysalis" (for lack of the native designation); most other Earth languages, including the old Gaelic; and even Psychon. On Alpha, Maya was forced to use English, which she fortunately learned sometime before, based on mostly-complete information Psychon received in trade from an alien exploration probe in need of critical supplies, years before Psychon's environmental decay began. The same ship's crew had also provided some sketchy second-hand information on Lykrontak, but nothing about the people themselves, other than that they were of a human species remarkably similar to others scattered in space, and that they spoke only one language, which the traders had fairly complete information on, despite not having any direct contact with the Lykrontak.

Am I their first direct alien encounter? Maya wondered.

The woman behind the console walked over towards Maya. For just a moment, she looked as if she were going to approach very closely, but then backed up slightly and kept a safe distance, just in front of the men. At the same time, one of the men backed away. They always maintained at least one person at a distance greater than four or five meters.

"I am Commander Arlanka," she slowly stated in way of introduction. "Do you understand me?"

Maya paused for a moment, trying to translate, then dug up the correct words to respond.

"Yes. I am Maya."

Those four words startled the others, who after the alien's earlier gibberish had been considering the possibility she could not talk rationally- -or the even more radical idea that she spoke something... different. Now, she had spoken sensibly, if hesitantly. What was going on?

Sarlocron, who had not yet left with Maya's "commlock," was now fully convinced--despite Maya's speaking clearly this time--that the alien had grown up speaking a language as alien as the woman herself. It was an obvious idea (How could she know the language of our planet if she did not grow up here?), which made him feel all the more embarrassed for not having thought of it before.

Maya's "new" comprehension caused most of the others to assume complete understanding, however; and Arlanka and two men launched into a rapid fire of complex sentences. In a language Maya had little practice in, it was much too fast, especially with three people attempting to speak.

Without raising her hands, she said, "Stop... please. I do no... follow all voices... once."

The others, now baffled by a partial return to language difficulties, halted the barrage.

Just where did she learn our language from? Sarlocron wondered, continuing his own musings.

Maya clarified her last, badly botched sentence: "Speak one... per time, and more... slowly." The two men remained silent, while the woman repeated--very slowly, as a parent to a small child--a set of instructions that basically amounted to "don't try anything" and another command to follow her. Maya found herself surrounded by Arlanka and most of the men as they left the transport room.

Tyrlor, following Arlanka's previous orders, remained behind to determine what the transference computer's problems were; and Sarlocron, despite his intense curiosity about Maya and how she had learned their language, had been ordered to study the alien device, so he broke off towards his lab.

Arlanka led Maya and the five remaining men into a pair rooms connected by an open doorway. At the opening, the Lykrontak held back to form a semi-circle outside the second room, which was obviously a detention cell. Maya hesitated at the entrance, but decided not to make stepping into the cell an issue. When she was in, one of the men pressed some buttons, and the space within the doorway shimmered for an instant. A force field. Arlanka tossed some small object, and it bounced off the shield with a loud snapping spark. "Or," the commander added, "if you get some idea of jumping through despite the pain...." Arlanka found a larger object--an empty food tray--and threw it at the field. In an instant, it was surrounded and held in a mercury-like substance which hovered in the center of the doorway. Maya shuddered, realizing what it was: a version of the damping field which had virtually tortured her in transit.

Arlanka noticed the other woman's momentary sign of fear, and suddenly found it difficult to be taunting towards someone who had obviously suffered a great deal of pain during transfer--a transfer Arlanka had been controlling. Well, not totally, she thought. Someone had fed the coordinates from Nyka-2's hyperscanners, which were sensitive enough to pick out individuals at immense distances. Yet I was never informed of how different the inhabitants of that small planet are.

She broke off the momentary musing and signalled to Uytrar, who pressed a control. The silvery substance vanished, and the tray was thrown back towards Arlanka, who sidestepped it.

"We shall talk later," Arlanka stated. She left, signaling three of the five men to follow her. As she walked out of the detention ante-room, Arlanka continued wondering what other aspects of that scan had been kept secret. Who was sending the coordinates? Why is that small planet moving through our space? Where did it come from? Why did my station's sensors find no evidence of atmosphere around the planet, when something interfered? Just who are these strange aliens living on that planet? She began wondering if anyone had thought about what they were doing. Arlanka felt bewildered.

Her own culture was a monolithic entity which had changed so gradually over the millennia that few Lykrontak had even defined the concepts of cultural evolution and cultural variation. Language provided little hint: the earliest written versions were still readable, with only a little difficulty, sixteen thousand years later. Lykrontak had that many years of history, with the only changes being in the form of adjustments to new technologies, which occurred infrequently, as exemplified by the fact over thirteen hundred years had passed between the harnessing of electricity and the first space travel, and another two centuries before they had reached the nearest planet in their own system (unlike Earth with its Moon, Lykrontak lacked a natural satellite to strive for). That had been five-hundred years ago, and they had only recently reached beyond their own star system.

Earth sociologists would have had difficulty understanding the slowness of cultural and technical progress, when individuals seemed lively and intelligent enough. Where is their curiosity, creativity, and drive? they would have asked after a few decades of study, baffled at why Arlanka's people moved forward with such tiny, shuffling baby steps. Not stagnant--never stagnant. Just slow--extremely slow. Perhaps it was due to the general biological richness of the planet. Maybe it was that most of the land area was on a single, gigantic, nearly mountain-free continent straddling the equator, lessening the number of barriers and variety of environments that necessitated different ways of coping, and thus different cultures on so many other worlds.

Beyond some degree of thievery, assault, and about one murder per day for the entire planet of over one-billion people, there were occasional short but strangely vicious wars fought between weakly-defined territories competing over the rarer resources--never over ideological, racial, or political differences, which were virtually non-existent. Even these rare battles had been declining in frequency, with the last having been fought three-hundred years before. The largest differences were between the sexes, but even those were minimized by the fact of their equality of power.

Perhaps the lack of diversity led to the slow pace of technology. Personal variation existed, but the overall range of viewpoints was comparatively small, stifling the range of creativity. On other worlds, diversity also tended to spark many long wars, which as destructive as they were, tended to spur almost desperate leaps in technology as well--a bloody, often two-edged "benefit" of war. Lykrontak lacked both the disadvantages and significant advantages of cultural variation.

On the other-hand, maybe that near-unity of culture and slow, careful change were what allowed them to invent the novel technology they had used to reach out to four new living worlds in other star systems. Those planets, however, were inhabited by little more than insect life, or in the case of Ratak, some warm-blooded--if brutally fierce--animals. They had but one culture, yet considered themselves ready for the challenge of space. Now Maya was their first example of a new culture, yet none of them recognized her as such, though Sarlocron had the most advanced inklings.

There were personal variations, however; and the idea was slowly creeping up on both he and Arlanka that all aliens could be completely different compared to the Lykrontak. It was only a partially-formed idea which had not come to consciousness; but the beginnings of it made Arlanka nervous: What if the aliens reacted in unexpected ways? was the question her mind was struggling to ask. A nameless fear slowly insinuated itself, making her question what little she knew of her government's orders. But when she reached her station, duties took over, and her mind stopped its "errant" wandering.


The two men watching Maya from the other side of the unusual force field appeared anxious, for they wandered aimlessly around, talking to each other in short bursts and frequently peeking in the cell. They were not leaving her any privacy, but she did not mind: watching and listening to them would provide vital cultural details. Maya caught parts of the discussion, which ranged over everything but the alien only meters away. Finding the language--what she knew of it anyway--was coming back, she quickly gained some information about the culture and this group in particular.

It seemed this was a small station, its personnel numbering only three women and seven men. Maya wondered about the fact Arlanka commanded, and that there were so many men to so few women. Did that mean this was a matriarchal society? Unfortunately, the guards' discussions did not really involve talk of women's positions in general, just about very particular positions. Maya did not allow herself to react too strongly about this fact, but she debated why they were talking so freely. It looked as if they were intentionally trying to "bait" her, so she kept silent.

Disappointed by the alien's lack of response to their words, they looked at each other and shrugged. She was kind of pretty, in a strange sort of way, but was singularly unflappable and humorless. Tired of oblique approaches, they began to question her directly.

"How many relatives do you have?" one asked her.

"None." The language was coming back well enough to respond almost immediately.

They looked at each other. "What happened?"

"A series of disasters," she replied vaguely. When they started asking more probing questions on the subject, she stated her unwillingness to discuss it. They got the hint--somewhat--dropping that line of questioning, but moving to other personal questions. Did she have a bond-mate? Children? No? Didn't she have anyone? "Yes," she stated with growing irritation, "I have plenty of friends." At this, they seemed to relax in mysterious satisfaction, one of them stating something to the effect that "it seems strange that it is a friend for a far point." The other nodded agreement. The statement baffled Maya, making her think she had mistranslated. When she asked what they meant, they seemed surprised by her confusion, then asked what the "weather was like" on her "planet." The radical change of subject to such a silly question left her behind for a second. What planet? Psychon? The Moon? Do they think the Moon has an atmosphere?

Apparently they didn't, for they abruptly turned away and began discussing minor details of some game called darcat which was "only played in the Kuska Region," acting as if it were the most important thing they could talk about. She was infuriated at the rude change of subject, and almost demanded an answer from their backs. She resisted the urge: they shut her out for some reason, and she wouldn't get anything out of them for a while.

A woman entered moments later, and immediately pointed a noisy device in Maya's direction, through the stasis field. Maya resisted the urge to back up or respond in some other way, instead asking what it was. Instantly, one of the men started talking to the woman about the latest results of the "Sal'iikor elections" until the woman left. Maya never did find out what the woman's name was.

She turned her thoughts back to the earlier conversation with the men. Why did she feel that saying she had friends was a bad idea? She had wanted to appear like the real person she was, and not some cold, friendless creature; but the answer had provoked an unexpected response.

Her captors, whose continued discussions revealed their names to be Uytrar and Nyakrayn, wandered to a pair of chairs, sitting down with their backs to Maya, allowing her some privacy to scrutinize the cell for escape possibilities. There was a bunk, sink, and toilet. The last was thankfully partitioned off. At four by five meters, the cell was actually rather large; if it had a table, chairs, and some decorations, it could have easily served as reasonably comfortable guest quarters. The walls, however, were painted in an eye-jarring combination of green, blue, and white.

There were several twenty-centimeter-wide air vents, but the air was passed through an dense bramble of wires--evidently a filter of some kind. The bolts were the kind Alphans called "butterfly," and she was able to remove them with ease. The guards turned back to her at the noise.

"You do not like clean air?" Nyakrayn joked.

"Throwing that against the shield will be useless," the more serious Uytrar said. "And if you try to use them as a weapon, we will immobilize you."

"I think you are too big to fit through there, unless you can change size," Nyakrayn said.

Maya nearly choked in surprise at his words before realizing it was in the same joking vein as his first statement. She said nothing, and they turned away again.

Looking into the vent, she saw no light. The other end was not in sight. She could transform into something small to crawl--or fly, in the likelihood of vertical ducts. What then? If there was a filter here, there would probably be filters everywhere. She could test the theory, but if it was true, she be forced back here. And one of them might get the brilliant idea of restoring the mesh, trapping me in there, where I would die. She shivered, dismissing the idea.

Turning back to the guards, she found they were still watching her. She tossed the filter under the bunk, as if frustrated, which, of course, she was. They shook their heads and made a strange hand movement she could not interpret, then turned away and resumed their discussion, which was now about some food which was the specialty of the Kolokwa Region.

Methodically, she checked all the vents, hoping for any sign of a clear passage, but found none. All she ended up with, once she gathered them, was a small pile of the wiry filters. She softly kicked them into the partitioned commode, which itself was very solidly bolted to the floor. The sink was similarly bolted, and also had a thin mesh covering both the tap and the drain. They are certainly fanatical about their filters, she thought with some amusement. If anything, her chances in crawling or swimming through plumbing were worse than with the vents, for it included the possibility of being ground to mush in some pump. Not very appealing. The only remaining piece of furniture in the room was the bunk, whose bolts were again too strong to remove.

Seeing nothing at eye level or below, she looked up, and found that the light streamed through what looked like a smooth, unbroken ceiling. There didn't appear to be any monitoring equipment, but the walls could have been opaque in one direction and transparent in another. Somehow, she doubted it. A one-way mirror was easy, but a one-way wall was a difficult alloy to make, and she had a "gut feeling" the Lykrontak didn't have one. At least she hoped they didn't.

In the end, she realized there were no other exits. She sighed softly in annoyance. The only escape option would be through the currently force- shielded door.

She then turned her attention back to her captors. Now comfortable--if not perfectly fluent--with their language, she tried to get some information from the two men. Now they completely ignored her. They would not even reveal the name of their planet, even though they talked incessantly of certain specific aspects of their culture, even naming regions on their planet. She finally said the planet's name--Lykrontak--herself. They merely paused for a moment.

"Have you been told not to talk to me?" she finally broke down and asked.

They continued talking about the burden of pollutants the Ostarkon Region bore from extensive use of chemical fertilizers some centuries before.

Obviously, they would only speak to her on their terms. Maya would have gotten even more annoyed at the thought, but something else caught her attention.

For a moment, she felt a strange, distant pain. It took her a few seconds to realize what it was: the fake, organic commlock. Part of her subconscious mind was still occupied in holding it together. One thing she had not immediately thought of was how long she could hold it together. Fortunately, the small amount of tertiary mass involved would allow her to maintain it almost indefinitely, as long as some part of her mind concentrated on it--and it was not too far removed from her person.

Now, there was a signal of pain. The somewhat-alive object was too simple to possess a nervous system, so it was her own mind's way of interpreting the fact someone had cut the device open. That meant they were going to very puzzled, very quickly. She had to do something soon, before they made things unpleasant.


Chapter Four
Energies

Just before nine a.m., Alan returned to Command Center, and Koenig revealed his concern that alien ships were still hanging about the base, rendered invisible by some technology.

"Invisible? That's impossible!" Verdeschi declared, impatiently wanting to get ships back out to search for Maya. He gave no thought as to why he was almost desperately anxious to do so.

"Any more impossible than everything else we've seen?" Koenig demanded, trying to put Tony back on a path of logic. Though John had never heard of Tony admitting his love of Maya to anyone, and wondered whether Tony fully realized it himself, it was evident in the younger man's impatient reactions, unusual even for Tony.

"Okay, I concede that," Tony said. "But is sitting on our bums going to help find answers? We could drift until we leave the system, without ever seeing a ship."

"Assuming there was a ship," Sandra said.

"We crashed into one," Alan countered.

"We have never seen ships that could render themselves completely invisible," Koenig said. "But there is always a first time."

"There have been a lot of 'first times,' " Tony protested. "Has that stopped us from taking action?"

"I agree we should do something," Koenig said. "Let's just do it cautiously. Alan, send up two Eagles." John put up his hand against Tony's attempt to protest. "Just two for now. Since we have no idea where she went, make it a standard lunar-origin search. Scan for energy emissions, ion trails--anything that would indicate where a ship might be. Keep one in near orbit, and send the other back along our path since we entered this system."

"Armament?" Alan asked.

"We shouldn't rush out with weapons bristling--"

"Commander, they kidnapped Maya," Tony said impatiently. "That's hostile intent in my book."

"Something tells me there is more to the situation than we know. We haven't gotten the alien perspective yet."

Tony threw up his hands. "That's part of the problem! They aren't talking. That's not a sign of friendliness either."

"They may have more powerful weapons," Sandra said.

"Maybe. But that doesn't mean we should go out defenseless!" Tony countered.

"Okay. One armed ship, one unarmed." At sign of further protest from Tony, he added, "That is final." After a moment, he continued in a calmer voice. "Alan, you stay near the Moon in the armed Eagle, just in case Alpha is attacked. I think Fraser should be in the other one, traveling back on our path. Put four other armed Eagles on immediate standby." Alan affirmed the orders and left.

Seeing Tony twitch in his seat, he barked at the younger man, "You stay. With a possible alien ship lurking nearby, I need you here, in case they start harassing the base." Alan continued out the door.

Tony tightly nodded in agreement. "Sorry, Commander," he said, in a voice that was mixed embarrassment and annoyance.

Once, late in the first year, when Tony was still recovering from injuries sustained at Breakaway, he had a private conversation with John, and indicated his concern--"off the record" as a temporarily off-duty but still observant security officer--that John's relationship with Helena might interfere with the former's command decisions. "There's nothing wrong with your having feelings for Helena," Tony had added. "But--"

"I understand your concern," John had interrupted. "While I agree we should be careful about all our decisions, we've always done pretty well being concerned about each individual."

"Well, yes, sure," Tony hastily agreed. "We shouldn't stop taking action on behalf of each person, but you should be careful not to react too... excessively when Helena is in trouble."

"Tony, you know I'd never throw away the whole of Alpha just for Helena, no matter how much I may care about her."

Tony looked insulted. "I know that, John. You know what I mean."

John had of course known. Now, he began wondering if he should point out the same thing soon, back at Tony, in regards to Maya. John quickly decided he was satisfied with the security officer's response--for now. He'd have to keep an eye on the already emotional Tony.

Filing the subject away, the commander turned to Sandra. "Organize intensive scans of all surrounding space, including uplinks with the Eagles' detectors. Also give attention to the main commlock frequencies, especially the emergency channel in case she can still communicate."

"If they take her commlock, she may be forced to find alternate means of communications," Sandra said.

"Yes, of course. Do what you can to cover everything."

"Even on alien equipment, she'd still try to find some way to find an Alphan frequency," Tony said.

Sandra gave a slight, patient smile. "If she doesn't know Alpha's speed relative to herself, she will not be able to account for the Doppler effect, which shifts the frequency. I will try to balance the possibilities."

Tony nodded, realizing Sandra's job was nothing to envy; it was no easier than anyone else's.


On an alien space station, Maya paced in her force-shielded cell. The guards had their backs turned to her, and had not looked in her direction for some time. Satisfied they were not overly concerned about her movements anymore, Maya moved to the bunk, which she was surprised to find semi-comfortable. The blankets covering it turned out to be an unexpected bonus. She drew them back and climbed in. The rustling of bedcoverings prompted the guards to turn around. One smiled. Maya wasn't sure what the smile meant, feeling it could have had any of several hidden meanings, especially given their previous conversation. Unfortunately, as was often the case with the Alphans, the hidden meanings stayed hidden. It had taken her some time to understand the complexity of the subtler Alphan expressions--facial, verbal, and written. With the Lykrontak, she was starting over.

Now fully in bed, she drew the covers over her and lay on her side, back to the guards and face towards the wall. She wondered about non-visual detectors; but not having seen much in the way of sophisticated visual or even auditory communicators, she decided to take a risk. Through a subtle transformation, she brought the real commlock back into "real" space.

Instantly, the sound of computer buzzers filled the air.

Maya froze. Damn, she thought, using a Terran curse in her Psychon thoughts. Why are their computers so sensitive to my transformations? Although a whole zoo of subatomic particles was emitted during transformation, she had never seen a system sensitive to the rather weak and exotic particles produced. She hoped that it was merely a fluke of construction, rather than intentional design. Fortunately, the men did not seem to be too concerned about it. One casually hit a button to turn off the alarm, then looked at the other. "Crazy computer is getting more nervous than we are," Nyakrayn, the more light-hearted one, said.

"Didn't the transport computer do the same thing earlier?" Uytrar asked.

"You're right. I better report it," Nyakrayn said, leaving the room.

Maya was relieved they did not consider the possibility she had something to do with computer alarm; but she was concerned that attention might come back to her in a very unpleasant manner. It was too late to simply hide the commlock and ignore the fact that buzzers had sounded. She might as well use it.

When she started feeling for the keys to initiate a signal, she realized something: Alpha may be out of commlock range. She suppressed a cry of frustration at the possibility this alien station had plucked her from billions of kilometers away. She could not try calling Alpha just to see if it was in range. If it wasn't, and the Lykrontak picked up the commlock signal, they could take action to prevent any further attempts to communicate. She had to reach Alpha on the first try. She chewed her lip, trying to come up with a solution. Obviously, she had to boost the commlock's weak signal enormously, but how?

Turning over to look around the cell, her eyes locked on the deceptively open doorway, where the invisible barrier resided: an energy field which could suddenly change into an incredible damping field. The latter would be of little use, but the former was a ready source of what she needed: raw electrical power. Watched again by the guards, she got off the bunk-- leaving the commlock behind--and put her hand near the shield, feeling the electrical energy, painful even from a few centimeters. Perfect! She thought. At a distance, it gives off electrical energy without making obvious sparks or noise. She drew her hand back, seeing the openly amused stares of the Lykrontak.

When she opened her mouth to try to talk, they simply turned away and started discussing one Arvanarm of Kuska'rasko, who was apparently a social analyst or news chronicler. She resisted the urge to override their conversation, realizing it would be futile. They still would not talk to her.

She turned away and paced, thinking instead about the commlock. The idea became fully formed in her mind: boost the signal with more power. But she would have to alter the commlock to accept a strong outside--and alien--power source without burning out. She returned to the bunk and closed her eyes, starting to picture the circuitry in her mind, trying to determine how to reconfigure it.


Several hours later, at thirteen-hundred lunar time, Bill Fraser reached the area in space where the Moon had collided with the alien ship.

Even as he decelerated, he brought all sensors to bear on the point in now-empty space where the collision had occurred. The sensors detected faint energy signs, but the computers could make no conclusions. It could have been a ship's trail, so he approached more closely.

The Eagle's lights flickered for an instant, but he happened to blinking his eyes at that moment.

If anything, the readings were less conclusive, more chaotic--and much more energetic. He slowed further, nervous that something was wrong but unable to come up with a good reason to abandon the area. He wouldn't be scared off information for no real reason.

Space took the opportunity to provide a terrifying reason.

The Eagle lights dimmed and flickered as sensors indicated massive energy shifts. Suddenly, the ship was wrenched about, then tossed around like an old sailing vessel on a stormy sea, shaking the single living being within. Superfluous alarms rang everywhere, unheard by Fraser as he fought to regain at least a semblance of control. Sparing the viewport a momentary glance, he could see stars flashing by in continually varying angles--indicating an three-axis spin--as well as splotchy, multi-colored, shifting patches of light.

For brief seconds, he stabilized the Eagle, and found the seemingly motionless stars were trying to form trails--like meteor paths originating from a point--only to revert to points sitting in the same places as before, like being thrown at a blurring, light-year-gobbling speed, only to snapped back as if attached to a rubber band. Bill's panicked mind connected to an answer. Space warp, he thought, instantly redoubling his efforts to pull away before he could be sucked permanently through space.

The Eagle suddenly reeled again, as if struck by an angry hand, and he felt enormous forces of acceleration overcoming the artificial gravity.


After four hours of confinement within the cell, Maya had fully thought through a method of reconfiguring the commlock. It would involve wholesale cannibalism of most of its circuitry and wiring. Oddly, the wiry mesh filters she had methodically removed from the walls would help-- except in opening the commlock. Stymied by the lack of usable tools in the room, she had to resort to what she was wearing. Still lying under the covers of the bed to shield any possible noise, Maya used the short edge of the zipper of her skirt to pop the screws on one side of the commlock, thankful the unit had been designed with easy repair in mind--though this would hardly count as repair.

She turned around in the bed to look out at her two most immediate captors--the other had returned earlier--who were sitting with their backs to her, apparently having lost all interest in her. She found that puzzling-- not that she wanted badly-timed attention. It was just that people tended to be more curious about aliens than these Lykrontak were. Had they become jaded from numerous encounters? The scanty information she possessed indicated the Lykrontak were fairly new to space, but the Moon's peculiar form of hyperspace travel occasionally created pronounced time-dilation effects, so the Lykrontak could have already met numerous alien cultures since the time of her second-hand data.

Maya did not debate the question long, knowing their mostly ignoring her was one of the few factors in her favor. Carefully, she slipped out of bed and into the partitioned-off lavatory with her commlock. Neither man turned to look. She set to work, first removing the unsealed panel to expose the inner workings of a device which no longer seemed alien to her after two years on Alpha.

She couldn't create a screwdriver the way she had formed the fake commlock. The former was a solid metal mass with precise edges, something she could not possibly make. The latter was based on an organic creature which happened to have outer layers consisting of matrix of organic molecules and metallic compounds. The fake was an amorphous, semi-biological construct with non-sharp edges--an object which had been very difficult to construct and even more difficult to remotely maintain, even after months of practice. Making a tool was completely impossible.

That did not preclude her securing a tool, however.

Her hair was elaborately coiffured, as usual. Some of it was simply through elaborate twisting and tying of the hair itself, but this arrangement still needed a few strategically-placed pins. Arlanka had either not noticed the pins during transport, or not deemed them threatening, so they were still available to Maya. She pulled all seven out, releasing her hair to cascade down her shoulders and upper back. Hopefully, the Lykrontak would simply assume she had simply "let her hair down" and not think about where the metal pins had gone. She used the pins to alter settings and pull electronic chips out, following the picture she had earlier formed in her mind.

The alien air filters were incredibly shabby. Using one bent pin as a tool, she was able to pull out quite a few wires with surprisingly little noise, which was masked by the electronic yet smoothly flowing alien music coming from undetermined sources in both the cell and apparently the guard-room, as evidenced by their occasional comments about specific segments of the soothing songs.

The commlock's transmitter, internal clock, antenna lead, and their interconnections were left intact; while the all other components were sacrificed, their chips reconfigured to modulate an alien power source with the help of all the other free wires she had removed and reconnected to the bent arrangement of capacitors, inducers, air filter wires, and some of the hair pins. The interconnected mass formed a primitive "pseudo-neural bramble" which she hoped would analyze and collimate the alien power source into something the few remaining components could handle, using the signal from the commlock's power pack--which she also left intact--as the "teacher." The clock would give the time to the antenna, to which the neural heap would add the rest of its power to create an extremely powerful signal--hopefully. She partially replaced the panel--even though most of the almost-fluffy mass of wires remained outside--since the system needed all six panels as power-handling planes. From the bramble emerged three main wires, leading to another arrangement of the remaining hair pins: this would be used to tap the shield's energy. She hoped pin-tips would be too small for the shield to react to--an assumption she had no choice but to make, not having any other idea how to get power. It was almost unbelievable that she had been able to put such a system together, and she sighed thankfully and in relief, suddenly discovering how sweaty she had become working on so many tiny components with only a few primitive tools.

She had spent forty minutes sitting on the flat cover of the toilet. She stepped from behind the partition with the commlock hidden under a towel, which she put to her face to wipe away the sweat. Maya hoped they thought she might still be sickened by the torturous transfer. Is there any suspicion on their faces? Their mostly-puzzled glances seemed to be directed at her now free-flowing hair.

"It looks better," Nyakrayn commented to Uytrar, as if Maya weren't within hearing distance.

Uytrar disagreed. "The other way was more interesting."

They launched on a protracted discussion of women's hair styles, while continuing to watch her. They did not seem the least concerned over her having spent so much time behind a partition.

Suddenly, however, the two men turned to Maya, Nyakrayn asking her how she felt.

The question took her completely off guard, and after a moment's pause to find the words, she whipped out a angrily sarcastic response: "How would you feel being taken from your home, put through a... blender, and then... jailed without explanation?"

Curiously, they proceeded to give answers--some of the most baffling she had ever heard.

"I'd know that it was deserved by someone," Nyakrayn said.

"And it would be a chance for stable analysis, if I asked," Uytrar said.

"New opportunities, but it would introduce need for further probes."

"Mental shifts could be intrinsically abducted by transducing the escape instincts."

"I'd probably do some of that too, but a reorganization of unfulfillable inter-gender attraction would seem more prudent."

Maya wondered if she had lost her grip on the Lykrontak language. When she tried to interrupt to get an meaningful translation, they ignored her, proceeding further into a morass of something that Tony would have called "psychobabble"--intense but seemingly pointless discussion of various hypothetical mental "forces."

After several more insistent demands for answers, they turned their full attention back to her. "Unfocused hostility and full-feed impatience. A little too Ratakian...."

They proceeded to analyze her, and every attempt to disagree or demand an explanation merely triggered more crazed analysis, all spoken in a third-person tense, deliberately ignoring her obvious presence. The whole conversation made her nervous. She was still holding the towel with the commlock hidden within; and their line of analysis suddenly seemed to be a sophisticated way of interrogating her. She could feel herself sweating, and she turned away, giving up any attempt to talk, afraid they would trip her up with their words, and unintentionally reveal something vital. Immediately, their voices decreased, and looking back, she saw they had turned away from her. They continued to discuss her, however, using copious volumes of nearly-meaningless expressions.

She shook her head in bewilderment. Two men acting as guards, but talking in terminology that hinted at years of psychological training. It had to be a method of interrogation (it could certainly make for a good method of torture, she thought), but Maya felt there was something more to it, something important. Unfortunately, the full meaning escaped her.

Maybe they're all simply crazy, she mused as she started wandering around the cell, sometimes leaning on the wall, sometimes walking again, as if loath to lay down. They paid her no further attention, so decided to make her move. Maya approached the wall by the shielded doorway, then set the commlock on the floor next to the wall--just out of the guards' sight, but near the edge of the shield. From there, she could feel static prickling at her skin. Though the array was not in contact with the core of the field, it could still gather a lot of power.

If the idea works, the signal is being broadcast now. Having sacrificed all readouts, she had no idea what was actually happening. Unfelt by their owner, her slim hands clenched and unclenched. Then, teased by the excessive power flowing within the commlock, the tiny video screen started glowing. To forestall any concern the guards might start feeling at her hiding behind the wall, she took to wandering again. The commlock remained silent, but the video screen's feverish glow slowly increased to the point where it was lighting up almost a square meter of the wall.

When a faint whining started up, she realized the commlock was overloading, and had probably quit transmitting. She returned to the commlock and pulled it away from the shield, before the sound could become audible to the guards. She almost cried out in pain when the object's heat seared her skin slightly before she "hide" the now-heavier mass in metaspace. Once again, computers buzzed. Nyakrayn and Uytrar looked into the cell suspiciously.

"She couldn't be doing anything in there, could she?" Uytrar asked.

Nyakrayn laughed. "How? She's locked in there with no mechanical device. There's no circuitry she could get at, and she isn't the first frustrated prisoner to play with those stupid filters."

The last words made Maya momentarily wonder how often they got prisoners here.

Despite his own words, Nyakrayn got up and took a closer look at the whole cell as Maya climbed back into bed. He shrugged, but his joking demeanor had been subdued by the thought that maybe an alien could do... alien things. He had no idea what, and didn't even really think about it in such clear terms; but the feeling nonetheless bothered him. He resolved to have a discussion with Sarlocron, or if the chief scientist was too busy, perhaps Marlkror, the sub-commander.

Maya relaxed--having done all she could do for the moment--and wondered whether a strong-enough signal had been transmitted. If Alpha heard, they would come. Of that, she had no doubt; having come to feel a great deal of faith in her friends. Though she hoped other options for escape would present themselves, Maya silently took comfort in the image of Tony flying an Eagle with all haste to save her, like a knight in white armor.

Or is it supposed to be a knight in shining armor? Only at this moment did she partially understand the strange attraction some Terrans felt for the concept of chivalry and some of the related and ancient imagery. She saw Tony, astride his trusty white steed as it snorted its hot breath and galloped at half the speed of light--well, fifteen percent anyway--towards her. She almost giggled, but her heart beat faster at the sight of him battling her captors with a sword of laser light until they finally surrendered and released her. Then she yielded to his embrace, his kiss, his....

Whoa, not so fast. Simply yield to Tony, the toad who constantly teased her? Who tried to ply her with that foul Terran concoction called "beer?" No, she was no weak-kneed woman, ready to swoon and fall at a man's feet. Taybor was right: I am a wild, untamed beast. Then why did she like Tony so much, and all the little things he did to her? Why did she enjoy the teasing? And why did she feel so warm at the thought of Tony racing to her rescue? Because it's rescue, she thought. Then why did she feel even warmer at the image of Tony kissing her...? Must have been that mind-warping transport system. It certainly was worse than Tony's beer, making me want to imagine something that hasn't even happened yet.

Maya didn't even give a second thought to the last word through her mind; a word pregnant with hidden anticipation and desire: "...yet...."


Chapter Five
Angles

In Science Lab Four, Jim Haines meticulously combed the sensor readings during Maya's disappearance, both from Alpha and from Alan Carter's Eagle.

He sighed in frustration at how little they told him.

After the death of his mentor, Ernst Linden, previously known as Ernst Quellar, the creator of the infamous Quellar Drive some two decades before, Haines had started analyzing the enormous body of data contained in the Voyager records. Brushes with space phenomena and high technology, strange forces and strange languages; cold space, numerous star systems, alien worlds. He had disseminated many volumes of information from that deceptively small box, collecting theories in return, while creating his own hypotheses in attempts to integrate explanations. It was an enormous task Koenig had assigned to him that first year--a task which could have been the work of ten experts. The commander couldn't spare the people; so it was up to Haines to analyze the data, calling on experts as needed, which was frequently--though perhaps not as often as in the past. Physicists, sociologists, chemists, linguists, geologists, biologists, and more--the whole host of "ist"s, with engineers and others thrown in for good measure--had all been called upon. With his earlier training, the help of others, and an ability to learn quickly, he had become an excellent data analyst--now almost on par with Sandra Benes.

Two years ago, Maya had become science officer, inheriting one of the largest groups of people on Alpha. As with several previous supervisors, the hot-headed Haines experienced some friction with Maya. He had been surprised that an alien was immediately made science officer, especially an alien whose father nearly destroyed Alpha with his mind-draining biological computer. The cruel violence reminded him all too vividly of other hostile entities, including those which touched closest to his soul--the Sidons, who like Mentor, had condemned Alpha to death. Jim wasn't too quick to welcome Maya; but he had learned a lesson from the Sidons' narrow-minded and eventually self-destructive attempt at revenge, or perhaps he had grown up with more moral fiber than he realized, for Haines soon felt his distrust subsiding. She was friendly, and obviously felt remorse over her father's malevolent acts.

Jim's duties had soon taken him out of the "pure" sciences, however, and into data analysis, a still semi-vague and growing field whose main purpose was to integrate multi-departmental information. It was something Professor Bergman had once done; but he had been one man, and when he disappeared, Sandra started expanding her role as analyst-- even though she did not have the breadth in the sciences that Victor had-- while drawing on Alibe and others for relief in the communications duties, which quickly made Benes a supervisor.

Maya came aboard only a month after Victor's disappearance, and since the Psychon had an even more extensive repertoire of scientific and technological knowledge and skills than Bergman, she was soon under terribly high demand from all departments. Maya was the obvious choice for science officer, since her knowledge and skills could help choose the best directions for scientific study, and though this seemed to include the obvious offshoot of "data analysis," Maya made no attempt to control Benes and the people she oversaw, including Haines. Perhaps it was Maya's respect for her obviously-capable fellow officer. Or perhaps it was because Benes worked with all the sections--as Maya obviously did--but with a radically different approach. Diversity of all forms had long been proven a strong point.

Sandra had been the one most actively carving out this niche, and with Maya, Haines, and parts of other people's time, this small but growing inter-departmental team of people was gathering all the disciplines together to work on problems common to their survival, subduing the state of occasional internecine war between the various sciences and engineering disciplines, making cooperation--along with the more friendly and useful forms of competition--the constant pattern of activity. It was obvious that Sandra felt no science was any less important to their survival than any other. Maybe archaeology and history, for example, seemed arcane to the selenites while in Earth orbit; but Arkadia, amongst other places, proved that view wrong. Sandra, more than any other person, was the first to emphasize the "leveling" of the sciences--not necessarily in their already near-equal importance, rather in their perceived importance.

Privately, Jim felt larger strides in technology would start coming out of the fuller and more intimate interaction being fostered by these people, and felt proud to be part of the effort--for "data analysis" was fast becoming a center point of that integration.

Though no longer under Maya's supervision, Jim frequently needed to get her view on various alien phenomena; and though she was spread thin as a resource, he managed to work with her on numerous occasions. He found her to be consistently calm and patient, even when dealing with what to her was frustratingly primitive science and certain frustrating people-- like Jim, who sometimes got combative and angry when he didn't understand something. But he always learned, and over time, he even mellowed, the enormity of the task and his own characteristic dedication both converging to draw his energies in more fruitful pursuits, creating a more mature man in the process. In the past, he had sometimes felt like a kid on Alpha. Now, he felt as confident as the people who had originally helped to get him the posting on Alpha, which had seemed nothing less than a miracle at the time.

In spite of the obvious stress involved, she had always been a charming and friendly woman, to the point where Jim would forget she was an alien. Though he scarcely admitted it to himself, Jim found her quite attractive. He was angered at her apparently senseless kidnapping.

Behind him, the doors parted. Commander Koenig and Security Officer Verdeschi strode through. Despite being used to the fact that people were quite within their right to walk in--this was a laboratory after all--it nonetheless unnerved Jim to see them when he still had no real results to report.

"Well? Have you found anything?" Verdeschi immediately demanded. Koenig looked at Tony, askance. Oddly enough, the rudeness of the question did not bother Jim. There had been many rumors about Tony and Maya falling in love with each other, and this was one of the most obvious signs of the attraction Jim had directly seen beyond the fact they spent a lot of time near each other. Without trying to make excuses, he told them there was nothing conclusive. Tony looked as if he wanted to shout at Jim, but Koenig held his hand out in front of Tony and spoke in a quiet tone. "Have you found anything at all? Any clue, or even guess, might help."

"Well, it was a transporter...."

"Obviously," Verdeschi interjected. Jim shifted in his seat, and Koenig glared at Verdeschi. Jim relaxed a little when Tony subsided, and he continued, relieved by the commander's support.

"Actually, it isn't entirely obvious what kind of transporter."

"I didn't think there were different kinds," Verdeschi said crossly.

"Well, there are quite a few," Jim said, somewhat defensively. Koenig's pause indicated that Jim should continue. "We've combed all the earlier Alphan and Voyager logs, and she identified the type for most of them, based on 'the primitive instrumentation,' as I finally got her to call it."

Tony smiled slightly, his respect for Haines growing. That was Maya all right, and she must have trusted him, for few people had actually gotten her to say that. He relaxed, realizing he had been too hard on Jim Haines, who was obviously doing the best he could.

Encouraged by the security officer's smile, Jim continued. "There are the light-speed variety, as the Guardian of Piri, the Taybor, and Magus employed. Then there was the neutrino transfer used by Texas City. The Vegans used tachyon transformance...." At Tony's odd look, indicating that he thought Jim was making this up, Jim added, "That was her phrase for it, anyway." Tony started looking impatient at his recital of scientific facts, prompting Jim to wonder what Maya saw in him. It certainly isn't his overwhelming interest in science, he thought. Koenig, however, still looked interested, so Jim finished his list. "Beyond the apparent mental origin, we could make no determination about what the Judges of Luton or the living rock on Milgonore used. "Nor could we figure out what the Exiles did, despite their apparently altering the computers...."

Despite his show of interest, Koenig had heard much of this before, from Maya herself. On each occasion, she had given an explanation, followed by the understandable but always disappointing statement that it would be years, decades, or even centuries before they could achieve similar technologies, even if jump-started by Maya's skills and Terran ingenuity.

"What about this case? Do you have any ideas?" Koenig asked.

"Unfortunately, I couldn't fit it in any of those categories. The best possibility seems to be a technology only Maya has seen, and even this system was a very poor application of her equations, as I understand them."

"Well, what is it?" the security officer said.

"Like I said, I'm not really sure, but my best guess is that it is a hyperspatial transporter."

 "But we've seen hyperspatial transport!" Verdeschi protested. "Taybor's ship, remember?"

"No, that's hyperspace propulsion--a ship throwing itself into and through hyperspace, rather than the case where Maya was disassembled"-- Tony grimaced slightly at Jim's use of the word--"and pulled through hyperspace from a remote location. Maya said she never read of a culture that used that form of transport."

"So why aren't you sure that's it? Are there enough readings?" Koenig asked.

"Well, I'm not sure that it's a lack of scan records. What I have just doesn't fit well."

"Could they have been some exotic variety?" Verdeschi asked.

"Lacking any other ideas, that's just what I'm guessing."

They all paused for a moment. Then Koenig continued. "Just after she was initially covered with light, she shouted not to activate the shields. Why would she say that? Would the transport have been disrupted in a way that could have killed her? If so, do our shields constitute a defense?"

"I've been debating that, and thought of another possibility. Perhaps the combination of transfer beam and our shields would have caused some sort of explosion."

The others' disappointment was visible. "So we may not be able use the shields as a defense," the commander said.

"Maybe. I don't know yet. The second reason I have my doubts about the hyperspace theory is they shouldn't be able to transport within the space-normal boundary. Maya said only simple hyperspatial communication waves can be used within a system."

"And you disbelieve Maya?" Verdeschi said, almost as if he had been insulted.

"In this case, I think I might," Haines said tightly, holding his anger. "She stated that she was only just learning 'this esoteric branch of folded topography,' as I think she called it. But the data I have seem to be an unexpected fit--however poor it is--to the approximations we developed."

"Approximations?" Koenig queried.

"She said hyperspace cannot be represented well by our 'Terran' mathematics."

No wonder Maya rarely gave her honest opinion of Alphan science and technology. It was rather depressing. On the other hand, she often said Terrans were ingenious at making incredibly complex machines with what they did have, and using them for even more inventive purposes. Now if only Psychon experience could be fused with Earthly cleverness....

Koenig's commlock beeped. Responding, he found Sandra's face filling the tiny screen.

"Commander, we are picking up a Alphan-style locator signal."

Tony's glum face broke into a smile. "It's Maya!"

"We'll see," Koenig said. "Come with me, Tony." The order was unnecessary: Tony was already halfway to the door. Jim stayed behind, turning back to the equations, trying to find a solution.



Arlanka appeared outside of Maya's cell and ordered the guards away, though at their insistence, she took one of their weapons--in case the shield would fail for some reason. Maya couldn't blame them too much for being singularly paranoid. No, that isn't quite right, Maya thought. They are simply highly protective of each other. From what little she had seen of them, they seemed a highly cohesive group, at least as much as the Alphans. As soon as the two men were out of sight, the alien commander set the weapon down on the table and approached the force field, unarmed. That surprised Maya a bit. Even if there was a force field between them, it was a pretty bold action for one of the semi-skittish Lykrontak.

What Arlanka proceeded to say surprised her even more. "Look... ah... Maya.... I'm sorry about what happened during the transport. I didn't mean to hurt you." When Maya said nothing, she continued. "I almost killed you. This has never happened to me before. Something strange happened during the transport."

It was not an apology for the original act of kidnapping, but it was an apology nonetheless. Though Maya did not really want to give any quarter for the crime, she couldn't just ignore the apology she had just received. It was a peace offering, and she didn't have the heart to reject it, no matter what else went unapologized for.

It soothed Arlanka's guilt a bit to hear Maya say "I accept that apology." It wasn't a full absolution, and Arlanka knew it.

"What is the name of this place?" Maya asked.

"Radial Transfer Station Tyrok-17."

"Transfer? What do you mean exactly?" She had a feeling about what it meant, but she continued probing, hoping for some information that would allow her to formulate an escape plan.

"Remote mass transmission through hyperspace."

The Lykrontak word for "hyperspace" did not translate for Maya, so she asked for a definition.

"Faster-than-light transportation, through some sort of higher-level but compacted dimension or space. It's not easy to explain."

It was enough explanation to allow Maya to translate the word. A controlled hyperspatial transfer system. It was impressive and rare, though not unheard of. Transportation with light-speed waves was more common, mainly because hyperspace equations were slow in yielding practical solutions. Even the best scientists of Psychon and other planets had difficulty in this particularly esoteric branch of hyperdimensional folded topography mathematics, and Maya was a mere beginner in the field. These people appeared to at least partially fluent with the equations.

"I'm impressed," Maya offered.

Of course, transference was different than propulsion: disassembling and "transmitting" an object along hyperspatial wave/particles versus propelling starships through hyperspace. Both, however, could only work safely outside of solar systems, beyond what the Alphans called the "space- normal boundary." Massive objects such as stars defined these boundaries. Intermediate-mass objects such as the Moon, when outside a star system, seemed to cause a large hyperspace field to collapse in the form of a shell about a large volume of normal space, causing the whole combination, Moon and all, to spurt through space at high speed, as well as allowing certain spacecraft originating from such a body to travel within the large bubble of normal space surrounding the mass, including smaller objects that temporarily fell into and were slowed down by such a bubble.

It was nearly impossible for low-mass objects such as starships to form stable hyperspace shells about them, which had led Maya to disbelieve Taybor's claim of owning a hyperspatial jump drive at first, much to her regret. But his people and a handful of other cultures had developed such propulsion. One more, the Eeskoi, tried, but activation of the drive in orbit of their home planet had created a shell too deep within the system. It promptly collapsed into a short-lived singularity whose subsequent explosion devastated the planet. The peaceful, highly artistic and mathematical culture now only survived in others' recordings, and in a famous lament penned by their nearest neighbors, the reptilian Yarzysst, in their so-called "semi-pictorial binary" style:

                                                                                 Eeskoi
                     You danced to faint star songs;                      In a moment,
              Only you could hear the beauty.
       You strived to soar to their song--                                        swift dreams
To join  them in  their  infinite  flight.
       Then you encountered a star,                                                      collapsed
              But did not glory in its rays:
                     for you had never wished                                         in a mass
                            to create an furious one
                                   on your own home soil.                      of light.
                                                                                 Lament
Maya shivered, realizing something similar could have happened to her, either here or on Alpha, due to her metamorphic meddling: even though hyperspatial transfer was different than hyperspatial propulsion, both displayed certain horrific instabilities within the "space-normal boundaries." And she had been transferred from when the Moon was just barely within the star system.

Maya had remained so deep in thought, for so long, that Arlanka finally asked if she was well.

"Just think," Maya responded clumsily, botching the tense of the alien verb.

Arlanka smirked, both at the linguistic mis-step and the alien's apparent inability to understand the fact they could travel faster-than- light.

Maya, for her part, understood it well enough to realize that the Lykrontak were not only intelligent, but quite clever as well. But she had also noticed many aspects of this station indicating that their brilliance lay mainly in this one direction, implying more of a dogged dedication to understanding one branch--admittedly fascinating--of mathematics and physics. Their computers, for example, seemed as hopelessly primitive as the computers on Moonbase Alpha, despite their hypersensitivity to her transformations.

Despite being plucked from the Moon when it was just within the star system, this station and others of its kind had to operate outside the star system, so she started querying Arlanka from this point: "How far outside the system are we?"

"How far outside?" Arlanka said, sounding puzzled.

That surprised Maya in turn. She could only guess she had used the wrong word in an unfamiliar language. She tried another phrasing: "Well... beyond the... boundary of this star system."

The alien quirked her head to one side. "It's inside the system boundary."

How could a hyperspatial culture not be aware of the star system's space-normal boundary? Further attempts to clarify Arlanka's meaning finally netted the statement that "We are between our Sun and your Moon: seven percent closer and at an angle of fourteen percent of a circle towards the retrograde direction, and a off-plane tilt angle of forty-four percent."

Maya frowned, confused that this "transfer" station could be within the space-normal boundary. But that was what Arlanka was insisting. Was the alien commander lying to confuse her? No, it didn't seem to be the case. Somehow, if Arlanka was telling the truth, the Lykrontak could make hyper-transfers inside their star system. But what was the limit of this station? If she was not freed, could she escape using the transfer system, or would the Moon be too distant? Would eventually be forced to steal a ship instead? Would they even have a ship with enough speed and range?

Attempts to gain further information from Arlanka floundered, however; for the Lykrontak woman seemed to be a little wary, as if realizing she had given away too much information. Maya tried to shift the subject to other areas; but Arlanka gave no useful responses.

Maya finally asked the question that most concerned her: "Why am I here?"

Arlanka immediately gave a flippant, "It should be obvious," then ignored any more questions Maya asked, as if not understanding why Maya could not comprehend something so basic.

Arlanka's response was useless, except as indication there was some uniquely Lykrontak reason why it was supposed to be so obvious. Maya had been thinking they were they going to use her as a hostage in an extortion plan against Alpha, but Arlanka's response made her think something more sinister was involved.

Silence came down between them, another barrier not unlike the physical barrier separating them. There was too much distrust on both sides to have even the simplest of conversations anymore. Maya did not want to reveal anything important about herself, and Arlanka was now wary of the same thing. Both were relieved to have the silence interrupted by an intercom message paging Arlanka, who promptly left.

Maya sighed in frustration, then perked up at the realization that she had gained some incredible information: a claim of intra-system hyperspatial transporters, and, far more importantly, directional data that could pinpoint the Moon to within a few light-seconds. Maya walked back to her bunk, closed her eyes against the irritating blue walls, and began considering options.


By the time John and Tony reached Command Center, Sandra had already determined the distance, as indicated by a circle thrown over Maya's original diagram. At the sound of opening doors, Sandra turned back to face them. "The beacon transmits its current time, and given the difference between that and our present time, it is nearly a light-hour away. I'm trying to determine direction right now."

"A light-hour?" Tony exclaimed. "That's over a billion kilometers from here--many times the range of the commlock. Could the timer be wrong?"

"It is possible," Sandra said. After an ever-lasting minute, Sandra pinned down the direction of the exceedingly faint signal. Her expression became grim as she graphically displayed the results. "It is behind us, almost straight back on our course, only a bit further inside the system." She stared at the diagram for a moment more, adding, "Like a link in some chain, pointing towards the center of the star system."

Tony again stated the main problem: "But it can't be a commlock transmitting at that distance--it's too far away."

"The carrier wave is distorted, and the frequency is much lower than we use--even when adjusting for the doppler effect--but the signal itself is recognizably Alphan," Sandra said.

Tony noticed John's eyes narrow. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" the security officer asked.

"That it may be a baited trap?" the commander responded. "Sure."

"But we still have to check it out."

John said nothing, weighing the risks.

"We're getting farther away by the second," Tony added pointedly.

No one brought up the ironic fact Eagle Nine had been a few million kilometers away from the signal, just hours before; but an emergency transmission--delayed ninety minutes by the huge and growing distance between the base and the ship--had been received twenty minutes before, in which Bill Fraser stated he had sacrificed most of the spare fuel in escaping a mysterious maelstrom at the site of the collision, and had to return to Alpha, which would force someone else to make a billion- kilometer trek. The communication had been cut off by static--presumably from the space storm.

"We have no other lead," John finally said, not quite agreeing with Tony's impulsiveness, but lacking any option beyond their so-far futile search attempts. "Sahn, connect me with Eagle One."

Before she could do so, Eagle Nine broke through the static again, and Benes put him on the speakers. Fraser's voice was weak and slurred. Eagle Nine was too far away to talk real time, but Fraser was already describing a problem he hadn't been able to convey earlier, apparently hoping it could reach Alpha now. "Autopilot cannot engorge... engage I mean. Eagle mossstly... okay... otterwisss. I am worse than thought. Losing concuss... con... science... consequence.... Have started in general direcsssion of Alpha, but..."--a long, static-filled pause ensued--"... I request real... refeel... refueling... relief plot... pilot."

Bill's slurred voice started repeating some of the message, then died out. Sandra sent a message on its way to Eagle Nine, stating relief was on the way. Koenig ordered Verdeschi to send rescue personnel and a spare pilot to the fastest Eagle on Alpha, then ordered Benes to establish contact with Eagle One. When she nodded in affirmation, he continued. "Alan, Bill is in trouble; and we now have coordinates for Maya's commlock. We're sending a refueling Eagle to you, and Tony will take Eagle Four, which will also carry medical personnel and a replacement pilot for Fraser. Rendezvous with Eagle Nine and drop rescue personnel off. They will bring back Nine and Bill. Eagle Four is already outfitted with boosters, so even with the small detour, you will both reach Maya's signal before any other Eagle could." After Carter confirmed, Koenig signalled to Benes to break the connection, then nodded to Verdeschi, who promptly left.

Yet again, he wondered exactly what the motivation for kidnapping Maya was. To get information? Weaknesses of Alpha for an attack? Or perhaps it was simple, cruel revenge. He shuddered, fearing for what they might be doing to her right now, hoping they only wanted to ask her some questions. But he doubted the "asking" would be that benign, considering.

He hated any of his personnel being mistreated, and kidnapping alone was mistreatment--much less the terrible cries of pain they had heard as she disappeared.

But perhaps Maya tried to fight the transport, in the way only Maya could do, causing herself pain when the aliens had meant no such harm. Perhaps they had tried to communicate, failed to find the frequencies we use, and simply transported someone.

Suddenly, Koenig was unsure of his rash decision to send the hot- headed Tony. He was liable to start shooting if the kidnappers didn't turn over Maya immediately. Perhaps I should have gone instead. He could withdraw his order, though it would wound Tony and make himself look indecisive. He decided against it, but not for those reasons. He had a feeling his presence on the moonbase would be critical.

A link in some chain, Sandra had said. A chain leading back to the heart of the star system. A chain that perhaps lead back to the heart of their command as well. And he had little doubt they would take further interest in the Moon--sooner or later. After all, one of their ships had been destroyed here.

No, he had better remain on Alpha this time.

The beacon could be coming from a mere border station in a wide net of ships, Koenig thought. The odd construction of the thought made him wonder. Perhaps it really was a station--maybe even a net of permanent stations, rather than mobile ships. A commlock beacon and a wrecked object on the Far Side were not enough to infer the presence of a net, but knowing the object was a station might lend more credence to that hypothesis.

He pulled out his commlock and called Pete Irving, another Eagle pilot. "Irving, take an Eagle out and explore the wreck. Coordinate computer links with Sandra Benes and Jim Haines. I want to know whether that object had any means of propulsion, or was just a station parked in a far orbit about the star." Irving responded in the affirmative before the commander broke the connection.

Koenig watched indications of Verdeschi's Eagle taking off. His glance also took in a clock; it was three in the afternoon, just over seven hours since colliding with the alien ship, which had been followed by Maya's disappearance forty minutes later. Since then, the only sign of any unusual activity was the mysterious storm at the original location of the collision, some billion kilometers back from the Moon's current location. Bill had escaped that and set his Eagle in the general direction of Alpha, but had failed to get the exact vector or the needed velocity before passing out, and was falling behind the Moon.

John sat down in his chair. He would try to calmly await Irving's report, as well as any Tony and Alan might be able to offer in a couple of hours. He was also awaiting the appearance of the aliens who kidnapped Maya. What filled him with dread was not the thought that saving Maya might come to such a face-to-face meeting rather than anything Tony and Alan did, but that the aliens could just as easily attack Alpha again. How could they defend against what they could not see? He looked at the shield button on his console. Could it be used? The hyperspace equations that Jim Haines was working on started to look very important.


Chapter Six
Arrival

Arlanka already knew the reason for the summons, so she headed directly to the Shuttle Room. Sarlocron and Tyrlor had already helped with docking procedures, and were ready to receive a councilor and her party from Transfer Station Tyrok-16. The commander took up position in front of the airlock, ready to greet the councilor. When the door opened, a woman dressed regally in green stepped out, followed by a party of four women and five men who were all well-armed and quite strong-looking. It bore more resemblance to a military commando force rather than a diplomatic party, and it made Arlanka nervous.

Councilwoman Syranak looked around. It appeared that most of the station's complement had turned out--a pointless but perhaps understandable waste of time. She recognized Station Commander Arlanka from a dossier, but made no indication of this when Arlanka approached and introduced herself. They embraced for a moment. In this context, it was a Lykrontak gesture not of warmth but of respectful greeting. "Councilor Syranak, this is Station Officer Marlkror, my second- in-command." Marlkror likewise embraced Syranak. Syranak sensed tension in both of them, practically bordering on fear in Arlanka's case. The situation was not good. The alien was obviously causing some emotional turmoil in these people. She would have to deal with the creature quickly, before it created further damage.

Syranak turned back to Marlkror. "Inform the technicians to immediately begin preparations for my transfer to Station Tyrok-18. Make sure any remaining problems with the system are eliminated." Arlanka glanced sharply at Syranak. The councilor had been on the station for mere minutes, and she was already bypassing the station commander and issuing orders.

Marlkror looked uncomfortable. "Arlanka ordered us to look at the problem immediately after it occurred," he said politely, not wishing to offend either the councilor or the commander.

Syranak glanced at Arlanka. "Very prompt," she said to her as Marlkror left the room. The complement did not soothe Arlanka. They had heard of Syranak, of course. Everyone had heard of Syranak. She was the overbearing councilor from the Siak-Rai continent. How Syranak had become a leader of Siak-Rai, much less gotten a post on the Prime Council of Lykrontak, was somewhat of a mystery to everyone, though most now agreed her forcefulness was often effective at getting people to do things that she wanted. It was fortunate that what she wanted corresponded well to what was best to her people, and now--through the Council--to the whole planet. Only Garolak, the Prime Councilor, held more influence. Syranak's sway sometimes came in the form of a fury-storm, knocking down everything in its path.

Arlanka wondered whose idea it had been to send her in the first place, especially to meet the alien. Syranak had probably volunteered. How would Maya react to this domineering woman? The alien seemed so strange, and Syranak was rather unusual herself.

At that moment, Tyrlor walked in. He stopped, surprised at the sight of the woman dressed in royal green. He was about to turn around and leave, but she called him over. They went through the usual niceties, with Arlanka carrying out the introductions. Syranak then asked, "Did you have a report?" Tyrlor shifted uncomfortably, not sure if protocol was being violated. He looked at Arlanka, not wanting to bypass her authority. Arlanka nodded. Syranak mentally noted the exchange, but made no comment.

He launched into his report. "We did a full systems check. We could find no system fault that would have caused the bizarre occurrences during transport of the alien, as well as the spurious signal a few minutes later." He then turned to Syranak and tried to explain what had happened, but Syranak cut him off, saying she already knew about the distorted transport. Tyrlor paused. He wasn't surprised the councilor had been briefed, but he was disturbed by her abruptness. Now he could see the stories about Syranak were not exaggerated. He continued. "I ran all the readings across the databases contained at Central Transfer Station, and could find no readings even remotely like some of the sequences we observed, even with other previous long-distance transports. I can only theorize that the alien base had some sort of interference--perhaps a shield--that distorted the transport."

That had not been very enlightening. They knew little more than before, and had not eliminated the possibility of it being operator error, and that made Arlanka, station commander as well as transfer operator, a little nervous.

Syranak turned to Arlanka. "What about the device the alien was carrying?"

"I will go and check on that," Arlanka said, wanting to get away from this woman.

"Do you mind if I observe?" Syranak asked, seemingly sensing and disapproving of Arlanka's attitude. After a moment, Arlanka nodded. How could she refuse? Syranak turned to Tyrlor and issued him an order to continue his research when he finished transport preparations. Arlanka said nothing, though she fumed at the continued violation of command protocol.

Syranak and Arlanka walked down several corridors to Sarlocron's lab. When they entered, the scientist looked up for a moment, grunted, and looked back down at what he was analyzing. So typical, Arlanka thought as she waited impatiently for him to finish. She glanced at Syranak, only to notice that she was standing there calmly--which seemed out of character. Syranak smiled slightly. It galled Arlanka; even more for the fact that she could not discern if it was supposed to be a friendly, comforting smile or a condescending smile. For some reason, that made her feel even more ashamed. This alien was making her look like a fool in every respect, and she desperately hoped that Sarlocron would have some information that would restore her in Syranak's sight.

Sarlocron finally looked up at them. "You want to know what I know about the device the alien was carrying." It was a statement, not a question, so he continued. "I've scanned it, I've opened it up, I've scanned it some more, I've run tests with diagnostic equipment--whatever I could think of."

When he didn't continue, Arlanka prompted him, "So? What does it do?"

"As far as I can tell, not a zwhar thing!"

"So, keep trying. I want to know."

"I don't think I stated it clearly enough. It does not do anything."

Arlanka frowned. "You're not making any sense. She was carrying it. It must do something."

"Here it is. Take a look at it."

Sarlocron walked over to one of his very cluttered tables. Arlanka usually didn't mind the clutter either, but in front of a Prime Councilor, she wondered how it reflected on her station as a whole.

In a wide, shallow laboratory pan sat the alien device, its metal skin cut open and peeled back. He had carefully pushed it back further. Arlanka peered inside, then looked at Sarlocron. "So what did you do with all the circuitry?"

"That's all there was."

"That's it?" exclaimed Arlanka. "One wire? That must be one very interesting wire."

"It's not. It is a strange band of a highly pliable material which is too light to be completely metallic. I ran a molecular scan, but it is still being processed."

"Does it have a power source?" Arlanka asked, both frustrated and genuinely curious.

"No."

Arlanka scowled. "So what is it?"

"Don't know. It looks more like a child's toy."

"Why did she have it? She is obviously an intelligent being. What use would she have for it?"

Sarlocron shrugged.

She continued thinking, aloud, hoping that they could come to a conclusion. "Is it a probe, or some sort of diagnostic tool?"

"No."

Sarlocron's simple responses were frustrating to Arlanka. Standing next to her was a Council member, and she had no conclusions, only frustrated questions. Sarlocron didn't even seem to care that Syranak was a Council member. Then again, he was not the commander of a Radial Station.

They all paused in thought; but no one could come up with another idea.

"Another piece of the puzzle unsolved," Syranak finally said. The commander cringed inwardly at the implied blame--at least what she saw as implied blame. Another one of Syranak's little glances made her blush, despite herself. Syranak did not seem to care. Arlanka wondered if the councilor had found it easier to make it up the power structure with her ability to manipulate people with those enigmatic glances of hers. They were certainly helping Arlanka feel lower than dirt.

"I want something to eat," Syranak finally said, to Arlanka's relief. "You, Sarlocron, continue scanning that... toy. Run whatever tests you can think of, even ones you would expect to be useless. It must be something."

Sarlocron grunted. Whether it was in agreement, disagreement, or a general affirmation, he did not say, and no one asked.

As they left the lab, Syranak continued issuing orders as if she ran the station, "Arlanka, you come with me. While we eat, you can give exact details of what you saw during the transfer process."

A pace behind Syranak, Arlanka blanched a bit. The councilor earlier had said she already knew about the distorted transport; but it was now apparent that she only knew some of the details, and not all. The commander had been about to protest Syranak's ordering station personnel about; but almost as if the councilor had sensed the intention, she deflected Arlanka, pointing the commander to the nearly-botched transport, as if reminding her that the incident could still be Arlanka's fault. Rubbed in the fact of their respective positions, Arlanka backed off before she could say anything.

The meal was no more pleasant to Arlanka than anything else the course of the day had dished out.

Time zones took on a whole new meaning in space, and four had collided on the station. It was a slightly delayed first-meal to the hyper- jumping Syranak. The crew of Tyrok-17 were working on a clock that said it was time for mid-meal. It was just before supper-time on Alpha, but this should have been mid-"night" to Maya, who worked off a 33-hour sleep cycle--but she had not eaten for seventeen hours either, since waking up at Alpha's midnight and having her breakfast.

She wasn't sure whether to relish or be revolted at the prospect of alien food. She had never spent an extended amount of time away from Psychon or Alpha, and was not sure if she should eat any offered food. She suddenly smiled at the thought. Hadn't Alphan food been alien when she first arrived? But that was two years ago. It still seemed different now, but no longer so alien. If she were trapped in the Lykrontak system for a while, she would need nourishment.

She decided that if she were careful, she could eat; and it would be better to keep herself at peak energy levels. She would likely need that fine edge. Now, if they would only offer some.... But she was a bit too proud to ask for food at such an early stage in imprisonment. Or was it simply logical not to reveal "weakness" so early, when it could hurt her position, tenuous as it already was?


For what seemed like the tenth time that day, Sarlocron shook his head. Leaving the alien commlock behind in his lab, he headed towards the tiny cafeteria.


Maya paced her prison. The cell was starting to drive her crazy. It wasn't just the confinement, it was the color of the walls, of all things. To a Psychon used to reds and oranges, she found the blue to be disruptive. Her Alphan friends claimed that they found blue soothing and red too distracting and even tension-inducing. One of their psychology texts claimed it had to do with the color of blood versus the color of the sky and water; but on this account and many others, she found their psychology texts even more excessively confusing than the humans themselves. She was thankful that Alpha was mostly whites and metallic silvers--which Psychons neither liked or disliked overly much--and soft oranges, which were quite soothing to the Psychon. After spending time in this tension- inducing cell, she realized that had Alpha been painted blue, she would have been "going nuts" by now, as some of the humans would say.

In an attempt to keep her mind off the colors, she returned to the bunk, sat down, closed her eyes, and immersed herself in thought.

If the hyperspace radials were stable, as Arlanka had implied, then the stations must be anchored in hyperspace, pulling in threads of hyperspace from outside the space-normal boundary to the inside of the boundary. It made sense that the stations would have to be anchored, otherwise the hyperspace threads could get wound up as the stations orbited, increasing distance beyond maximum transport range. Furthermore, the "threads" would eventually snap at some point. She tried to run these ideas through some mathematical checks, and was once again frustrated by her lack of knowledge in the field. She couldn't get the situation to fit the equations.

She resisted the urge to pound the bunk, but she must have made some noise of frustration, however, for when she opened her eyes, she found the remaining guard--Nyakrayn--was looking at her with an annoyingly amused look on his face. "You think imprisoning someone and watching their frustration is funny?" she said.

That got him to blush a little. He felt genuinely guilty about his amusement. Once again, she found herself thinking that these were actually quite decent people. Except in one obvious fashion: they--or more likely their superiors--had kidnapped her for no apparent reason, and didn't even have the courtesy to tell her why.

She turned her attention back to her calculations. Eventually, the frustration drove her to pace the cell, a fact she took no notice of. She still couldn't fathom how someone could draw hyperspace threads into a star system and anchor a series of stations on them. Everything indicated that the threads would break, and quite explosively at that.

It makes no sense, by Psyche, she cursed in her thoughts, using Psyche as the distasteful word it had become to her.


Tony slowly maneuvered into docking position with Eagle Nine. His thoughts were equally on Maya and Bill as he unlocked the airlock after pressure equalization; but when he left the pilot module to board the Eagle with the other two men--a medical technician and a replacement pilot-- Tony's thoughts were on Bill.

Alan--in Eagle One--hovered impatiently, two hundred meters away, wanting news on his injured pilot--his friend. Tony's report, a few minutes later, was mixed news at best.

"He's alive; but still unconscious. We can't see any signs of physical trauma, so we're not sure what is wrong with him."

The condition of the ship itself was equally baffling. It was missing various small chunks from its exterior. Even from his distance, Alan could see bits gone from the girdered backbone--no clean breaks, just little slices missing, like peelings taken from a carrot. A passenger module support leg was missing. An underside thruster was split in two pieces that were bent back from each other, like a tree hit by lightening. Alan maneuvered his ship around the other, and glumly noted that a landing pad was missing, while the landing pod and the main vertical strut remained intact. Another was completely intact, except the strut was bent out of shape. It was an odd grab-bag of several different patterns of damage, and Alan wondered what kind of space "storm" could have done it all.

Internal systems checks also revealed a strange collection of damaged systems--including the disabled autopilot--though like with the body of the ship, there was still plenty to hold it together and get it back to Alpha, albeit in a cautious manner. When the status of everything had been ascertained, Eagle Four, carrying only Tony, detached from Eagle Nine. The new pilot of the latter ship boosted it on the correct course, giving maximum thrust the somewhat battered Eagle could take: it would reach the Moon, but take several hours to do so.

Alan and Tony felt better than before, knowing Bill was at least alive, even if his condition was uncertain. They picked a new course for their two ships, bent more towards the alien sun than when they had been flying to Eagle Nine. They were still not heading towards the planets, which were far beyond Eagle range, but towards the last known position of Maya- -or her commlock at least. Or perhaps a mocked-up signal baiting a trap. Tony glared at the tiny sun at the far-right edge of his screen. At this distance, it looked cold. Yet it also seemed to glare back at Tony. He turned his gaze from the star to the center of the screen, towards their destination. Whatever was there, Tony Verdeschi would not allow it to further harm the beautiful alien woman Alphans now called one of their own, and who Tony wanted... wanted to call something else... something more.


Uytrar returned with a tray of food. Maya, sitting on the bunk, watched as Nyakrayn got up from his chair while Uytrar approached the force field and set the tray down just in front of it. They both pulled out their weapons, and Uytrar ordered her to step back to the far wall. She complied, even though she had already been some distance away. Uytrar deactivated the force field, quickly shoved the tray through with his foot, then immediately re-instated the force field. Uytrar sat down, and Nyakrayn left.

She contemplated the escape potential of the gap she had seen, then decided there was little.

She approached the tray, then intentionally stared at the food for awhile.

Uytrar stared at her before finally uttering "What?" in annoyance. "It is food."

Maya had briefly contemplated the possibility of the food being drugged, but the Lykrontak language, a very inclusive language containing many highly specific words, didn't have any words for "drug" or even "poison," implying their planet's plants had never developed that evolutionary strategy, and more importantly, that they couldn't drug the food. Still, it could still be somewhat harmful to her anyway, but her sense of taste was somewhat more acute than her human friends', so she didn't have much worry, though she still had to be careful.

She thanked him for the food as she approached the door. She picked up the tray, carried it to the bunk--she had not been provided a table--and began to eat, very slowly at first. She asked what the various foods were. Thalik was a green protein mash; naranaka was the cooked mixture of purple and blue vegetable seeds; salika was some sort of semi-crunchy black pasta; and ranjor was the dark red fruit. The ranjor was revolting, as it had a mealy texture and disgusting taste; but failing to sense any poisonous elements, and realizing this probably represented a balanced meal, she ate it anyway, washing it down with a liberal amount of sykai milk. Uytrar could see her distaste, and smiled. Her temper flared for a moment, until he stated, "I hate ranjor too." It was the first sign this particular man had a sense of humor. She hastily smiled in return.

Though she was alone with Uytrar for the moment, she doubted that would be the case for long. In her 7.5 hours aboard, she had noticed that there were almost always two Lykrontak present, though it did not seem to be a requirement. It was more a matter of being so highly sociable that they could not really stand being away from other people for more than a couple of minutes. They did not seem to care much for private time. No matter who was present, they talked incessantly. They discussed even the most minute, irrelevant detail. A pair of them had spent thirty minutes discussing possible symbolism in the swirling wall patterns of just one tiny corner of the ante-room.

She got up and approached the door, tray in hand. He watched but said nothing as she set the tray next to the door, to one side, mostly out of his sight. She was happy to see that he made no attempt to remove it.


"What?"

It was a doubled female voice--Arlanka's and Syranak's. He had caught their attention with his latest declaration about the nature of the commlock. He did not realize how much nature--Maya's nature--had to do with it, however. "It is not entirely metal," he repeated. "I found significant quantities of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and traces of half the elements on the Cargosoc Graph."

"Does that mean anything?" Syranak asked, now over her surprise. "Other than the fact they aren't very careful about purity in their manufacturing process?"

Sarlocron frowned slightly at the councilor's apparent flippancy. "I'm not sure what it means; but when I noticed the quantity of light, non- metallic elements, I started scanning it at a molecular level. This... thing... is replete with organic molecules."

"Organic?" Arlanka said. Sarlocron nodded verification.

"I don't understand," Syranak said, a rare moment where she admitted her ignorance.

"Neither do I," Sarlocron returned.

"Is it... alive?" Arlanka asked in wonderment and confusion.

"I... don't think so."

"Why do you say that--say it like that, I mean?" Syranak demanded sharply, her rare moment of open astonishment gone, replaced with her usual intensity.

"There is no major organization to the... thing. Quite a few patterns, some complex; but nothing truly organized. More a semi-random amalgam of metal and non-metal. A half-formed mass at best."

"Half-formed mass..." Arlanka puzzled the strange phrase, but found nothing to latch onto.

"There is a whole zoo of organic molecules," Sarlocron continued, "many of them unidentifiable by this equipment, which isn't set up to run such a scan."

Arlanka was quick to come to a conclusion. "I think we should give this to Lynata to do a..." she trailed off.

"... an autopsy?" Sarlocron completed, the corners of his lips quirking a bit, as if trying to hold back a smile.

"Later," Syranak said. "I think it is about time I see this strange alien for myself. I will conduct the interrogation. And bring that... whatever it is... with you."


Chapter Seven
Interrogation

Minutes after finishing her meal, Maya heard noises outside the guard room. She got up and approached the invisible barrier. Sarlocron, then Arlanka, Marlkror, and a woman she had never seen before entered the anteroom. The new woman, dressed in a flowing green robe, radiated an air of smug superiority. Arlanka, walking just behind her, seemed to have shrunk into herself a bit. So it isn't just an air of superiority, Maya quickly realized. It is actual authority. Marlkror had his left hand on Arlanka's shoulder, evidently in an attempt to comfort her. Maya had obviously made Arlanka look like a fool, both in terms of the transport-- which Maya had confused in a way that put Arlanka in a bad light--and the fake commlock as well. Maya felt for the commander, but could do nothing for her without giving away her own abilities, which would be a singularly foolish move.

Some bit of this pity must have shown on Maya's face, for Arlanka stiffened and glared at her. Maya carefully wiped away the emotion, thinking, I shouldn't pity her. She was the one who kidnapped me. Though Maya did not believe in revenge, she had no reason to give quarter to any of them either. Then she put it together. They were on some station near the far edge of the star system. Arlanka probably did not have the authority to simply kidnap someone from an alien base. She must have been ordered by someone from the home planet--someone that could very well be this haughty-looking woman now standing right in front of the shielded door.

For her part, the new woman was raking Maya with a nasty expression which Maya could not entirely interpret. It seemed almost a mixture of anger and disgust. Despite coming from this self-important woman, it made Maya blush. She had seen her share of fearful and fascinated glances, but never had a human--who were not so distant from Psychon in appearance after all--given her such a revolting look. Maya realized what she was trying to do: she wanted to put the alien "in her place," as the Alphans would say. Maya straightened, wiped away her blush, and glared back at this overbearing woman. The woman smiled, and that smile grated on Maya's nerves. Oh Psychon, this woman knows her domination techniques, Maya thought, trying to draw herself above this subtle fight of wills. The woman turned away from Maya in a dismissive manner, as if to show that she was already above it. This infuriated Maya even more.

Arlanka, quite recovered, approached the cell and stood next to the smug woman, then carried out the introductions. "Syranak, this is Maya of Moonbase Alpha. Maya, this is Syranak of the High Council of Lykrontak."

"Greetings, Councilwoman," Maya said politely, finding what she thought were the correct words.

Syranak did not even bother with a polite response. "Just what are you?" was her sole greeting. Syranak had already dismissed the alien's feelings as unimportant. In the eyes of the other Lykrontak, she had also dismissed civilized manners, if Marlkror's expression was any guide. The scientist, Sarlocron, had not seemed to pay too much attention to this whole exchange until now, and even Arlanka seemed to find something wrong with Syranak's behavior towards Maya. Syranak had evidently overstepped her bounds. If so, Syranak did not acknowledge it in any way, but continued. "You seem to have caused quite a lot of disruption in the personnel here."

Maya shrugged lightly, giving herself a bit of time to construct a clear sentence in a language she did not have a good grasp on, so as to not appear bumbling. "You seem to have caused quite a lot of disruption in my life, and by consequence, my friends' as well."

At last, Maya scored a hit, for Syranak drew back slightly as if struck. Arlanka's initial report indicated partial linguistic ignorance, but Maya's repartee was as clear as it was sharp. The others--Arlanka included-- smiled, surprised Maya had scored so quickly against the likes of the formidable Councilor Syranak. Even Arlanka couldn't care less that it was the irritating alien that had struck the blow. It was simply gratifying to see. Arlanka suddenly realized the obvious: Maya had feelings. And she also had friends. She appeared quite civilized. Yet if that is true, why does she react in such a confused way towards simple principles of everyday social life?

Maya, for her part, saw in Syranak's reaction verification of her guess that the councilor was the responsible party.

Syranak recovered quickly, smiling curtly. "That's a very perceptive guess--thinking it was me, that is. You obviously are a semi-intelligent species." Maya found the statement not only insulting, but ironic as well: you... are a... species. It could be true: right now, she could easily be the whole Psychon species. How did Syranak find ways to say such things? Were Lykrontaks, or Syranak in particular, slightly telepathic? Few telepathic species could scan Psychons, due to the metamorphic haziness of the Psychon brain. Since coming to Alpha, however, Maya had discovered some people--such as Taybor or Magus--could influence her.

Maya resisted the urge to say something belittling in return, feeling she was already "treading on thin ice." This woman had some authority, and it would not do to further insult her. That first jab would have to suffice. Indeed, she hoped that she hadn't gone too far.

When Maya said nothing, Syranak continued. "That disruption is the nature of the punishment."

"Punishment? What punishment?"

"Punishment for destroying Far Radial Transfer Station Tyrok-19."

"I didn't destroy any station!" Maya said indignantly. "I have never heard of your... Radial Stations before you kidnapped me."

"That's irrelevant."

"What do you mean, 'that's irrelevant'?" she demanded impatiently.

"It means that it is not important."

"I understand what 'irrelevant' means as a word. I don't understand why my not... having done anything is irrelevant!"

Syranak turned to Arlanka. "She knows language better than you implied."

"She has improved since I first saw her."

Maya fumed at the change of subject. She calmed herself when she realized that was exactly Syranak's intent. Syranak turned back to Maya; and if she was disappointed in not seeing any anger left in Maya's expression, she did not show it. Syranak had earlier been reduced to throwing petty insults at Maya, despite Maya saying little. That no longer seemed to be happening. Syranak was gaining the upper hand. The councilor was obviously gifted in this form of discourse, and Maya was being forced to compete with her on Syranak's own turf. Maya realized she could not win this verbal sparring if she did what Syranak would expect.

"How long have you been a councilwoman?" Maya asked, biding time while she did some thinking.

Syranak said nothing for a moment, analyzing Maya's change of tack. "Five years," she then said. "What has that got to do with anything?"

"A council member with five years... experience, and you... raced all the way up here to see me?" It was a silly thing to say, for someone obviously had to come, and a leader was often the best choice. But Syranak did not like to think anything could make her "race" anywhere, and she responded in a hurried manner. "You? Hardly." It was a silly denial, and Syranak soon realized it, but not before Maya pressed her sudden advantage. "So, you're racing out to see my friends." Syranak's silence was adequate confirmation. "Furthermore, since our moon is out of range of this station, and you need to get to the next station--which is still in range--you've been making... technical people change... rush too quickly--so you can get there more quickly." Sarlocron's glare at Syranak's back was ample proof of this.

"You gave this station people--station's personnel, that is--no warning that I was an alien." Marlkror made no visible sign of agreement, though he should have been the most annoyed. Then again, Marlkror rarely showed his emotions.

"And you forced Arlanka to make a risky, long-distance transport, and then probably decided she was at fault for the problems."

Arlanka looked as if she were going to say something, but she did not open her mouth. Standing next to the councilor, she didn't dare respond to the alien's baiting, as much as she may agree. She was secretly delighted to see Maya raking Syranak over the fire, however.

Syranak, however, didn't bother to show any guilt, realizing Maya was trying to get the others' sympathy, at the expense of Syranak herself. After looking a bit dizzy from Maya's offensive, Syranak's expression hardened

Uh oh, thought Maya. She knows what I'm doing. Before Syranak responded to the attack, Maya brought attention back to the crime perpetrated on herself. "You ordered me taken from my people. You had me put me through that torturous transporter. You had me thrown in this cell. And you have the... nerve to come in here with an attitude of superiority?"

Syranak blushed, though whether in embarrassment or anger, Maya couldn't immediately discern.

Despite the fact Maya was an alien--and Syranak was one of their respected leaders--Arlanka, Marlkror, and Sarlocron could not help smiling in delight. This alien had the brains and guts--or perhaps stupidity--to get Syranak red-faced. They had never heard of anyone on Lykrontak being able to do that. It would be quite a tale to tell over the wavelines.

Syranak caught Arlanka smiling, and glared at her. Arlanka's smile instantly disappeared, as did the smirks of the others. The glare was a lot less subtle than her usual enigmatic glances, another sign Maya was winning this argument.

Syranak realized that she had grossly underestimated this alien. Despite a little clumsiness with the language, she had a deadly verbal attack. She was also far more intelligent than Syranak had wanted to believe--perhaps more intelligent than Syranak herself. She immediately shied from that thought. This alien couldn't be smarter than a Lykrontak councilwoman. That was an obviously ridiculous thought, and Syranak knew it. She was compelled to consider the possibility that the alien was more intelligent than the Lykrontak. A disturbing thought. Xenophobia welled up inside of her. Syranak immediately batted it down. It would not help, for it was a snare that could easily trip her thoughts up-- and she needed a clear mind.

At first, she had been flustering the alien into emotional responses. But the accursed creature had turned the tables on her, and had gotten her going to the point that she lost control and embarrassed herself. She would not fall into that trap again.

Syranak turned to Sarlocron and silently held her hand out, palm up. Without word or expression, Sarlocron handed her the alien device. His manner suggested to Syranak that she had permanently lost some authority over him--and the others. No matter, she wouldn't be here much longer, and neither would the alien. "What is this?" she asked Maya.

"It is a 'commlock,' " Maya answered, using the Alphan word for it.

Syranak frowned slightly at the unfamiliar phrase, but did not ask for translation of the word, instead asking what it did.

She decided to only give a real commlock's less important, and now somewhat outmoded, function. "It... remotely opens doors on my base."

Syranak looked at Sarlocron, who only shook his head.

"It's too simple for that," Syranak continued.

"What do you mean 'too simple'?" Maya asked, acting surprised.

"You know perfectly well what I mean, al--" she caught herself from a pointless barb. "It's just one primitive wire in an otherwise empty box covered with useless buttons and a square of bluish metal."

Maya frowned. "It was far more complicated before you transported me." That was the truth, whatever subsequent events she had left out.

Tyrlor was entering the room at that moment. Syranak heard his approach, and turned to him as he stopped next to Arlanka. "Are you ready to transport my party?" She didn't even bother with the politeness of asking Arlanka, who was the station commander after all. She had no time for niceties.

Tyrlor at least had the good grace to look embarrassed. He looked to Arlanka, who looked at Sarlocron, Tyrlor's immediate supervisor and partner in the conversion. He nodded, then she nodded at Tyrlor, who finally answered Syranak's original question. "Yes."

She had not missed this exchange, and fumed that it had taken almost as long as it would have if she had gone by protocol. She turned on the alien and glared at her, suddenly needing a target for this strange, unfamiliar frustration. The alien seemed to draw back slightly, but did not react otherwise. Syranak had misjudged the alien on all counts. Her first judgments had been reversed almost as quickly as she made them. Maya was intelligent, strong-willed, understood language, grasped Lykrontak emotions, and seemed to have very recognizable emotions of her own.

She would have felt some sympathy for the alien, except for a couple of factors: Maya did not understand civilized laws. The other was that Maya had obviously feigned her initial display of ignorance, enough that Syranak had let her guard down, which allowed the deceptive alien to maneuver around a Councilor, of all people. Syranak felt no sympathy, only anger.

Syranak, of course, failed to realize what Sarlocron, Arlanka, and the first officer Marlkror clearly saw: the alien's initial ignorance was just that; and that Maya displayed an even more interesting talent (which Syranak would have considered a threat if she had properly seen it): an ability to learn extremely rapidly. Of course, their assumptions went too far as well: none of them considered the possibility she had some pre- knowledge of Lykrontak's language and people. That would have worried all of them even more. They were only just beginning to learn how woefully unprepared they were for first contact. As a people, they had scarcely argued the possibilities in fiction or more factual forums. They had seen alien worlds; but with nothing more advanced than the equivalent of Earth's canine species, the initial fears of intelligent aliens faded, until the whole idea had been considered unlikely. Now, they were starting to pay the price. A foolish approach, involving kidnapping, misinformation, bad assumptions, and little attempt at communication. This was frustrating to an increasingly worried Maya.

The councilor's next statement showed Maya had good reason for worry. The former turned to the station commander and gave two orders. "You will transport me immediately to Station Tyrok-18. After that, shuttle her down the radial, to Central."

Maya blanched. She had gone too far. Syranak was sending her deep into the system, where she had little chance of escaping before the Moon reached the hyperspace boundary and zipped away.

Syranak turned to walk away. She did not see Maya's fearful reaction, how she paled, how her alien eyebrows knitted together in consternation and fear. Everyone else did. Their feelings ranged from relief to pity. Some were relieved to be getting rid of this strange creature, to leave the problem for others. And though Maya seemed unable to comprehend civilized law, others pitied the woman for her innocent confusion.

Something clicked in Maya's mind. "Wait!" she shouted to Syranak's retreating back. In a blinding flash, she finally understood the incomprehensible Lykrontak Transfer System. All along, some part of her mind had been considering it; and now, the solution finally come to her. "Your scientists couldn't maintain a single hyperspace string from the edge of the system to its core, so you split it up into segments!" Syranak turned around, taken by surprise. Maya continued. "Several long hyperspace links within the system, separated by short gaps bridged by simple spaceships. That would allow for a full radial--and numerous radials-- made of individual stations, each anchored in hyperspace, but only transmitting and receiving from one station each, either deeper into the system or deeper into space. The innermost station hyperspatially transmits to the next station. That station then transports by spaceship to the third station. The third station then hyperspatially transmits to the fourth station. Finally, the last station, at the usual hyperspace boundary, can transmit to a completely different star system."

Syranak turned to Arlanka, furious. "Who has been giving her this information?"

Arlanka withstood the accusation. "It wasn't any of us. The only thing I told her was that this is a hyperspace transfer station, which is perfectly permissible. She was confused at first, but since then, she's been steadily figuring out the meaning of it all."

Syranak seemed to accept this explanation. She turned to Maya. "Very well, you have reasoned that much out. What is your point?"

Maya wasn't sure she had one yet, so she continued thinking up the solution aloud. "This station normally points outwards, to Tyrok-18, so it was easy to rotate it slightly towards the Moon to kidnap me. But it made for a distant... dangerous transport. Now, you are transporting to Tyrok- 18. Since 18 normally points inward, it couldn't be used at first to get at the Moon, even though 18 was--and still is--closer to the Moon than 17. The Moon has moved, but is still close enough to 18 to rotate that whole station away from 17 to transfer you to the Moon."

"Very clever, but I ask for the last time: what's your point?"

Maya finally had one. "Two, actually. The first is that our Moon, in its form of hyperspatial travel, is attracted to the tips of your intra-system hyperspatial threads--and we cannot control its path."

"Meaning?"

"Through no fault of my people, a second station will be destroyed."

Syranak showed no surprise, and though Syranak had not stated it, the personnel--Marlkror, namely, had calculated the path of the alien world to be aimed at the Far Station of the Utrax Radial. It was, however, startling that Maya had determined this, apparently on her own with no computers. Her science and mental mathematics are incredible, Sarlocron thought.

"We already knew that," Syranak said. "What is your other point?"

"Your attempts to transport yourself to the Moon could disrupt the whole system."

Syranak looked as if she were going to laugh, but she turned to Tyrlor, the transfer system technician, who shook his head.

"Your desperation is showing--quite badly. That is a very weak move which won't help you out. You will be transported by shuttle as soon as I am transferred to Tyrok-18. Come everyone." She started leaving, followed by Arlanka, Marlkror, and one of the guards, Nyakrayn. Sarlocron hesitated, but Syranak noticed and called him over. Unable to refuse a direct order, he followed.

Maya was again left in the cell with Uytrar on guard outside. She fumed. Tyrlor was ignorant, and Syranak was an arrogant fool. If Maya's hypothesis was correct, it would cost them dearly.

She tried to plead with Uytrar, feeling she had to get the warning through, even after they had kidnapped her. It was partly because she felt she would need an intact system to get back; but she had no desire to allow people to die when she could prevent it. Uytrar, however, put up the typical Lykrontak wall; as if Syranak's dismissal of her meant everyone should dismiss her. Arlanka and Sarlocron, and even Nyakrayn, the other guard, might have listened if Maya had been given the time, but Syranak had pulled them all away.

Maya gave up trying to get through to Uytrar, knowing that within minutes, she would be transferred--under heavy guard--to start the piecemeal journey into the system. Once under guard by several people with weapons, she would have little opportunity to use her shape-shifting skills without risk of being immediately shot. She had to get out now.


Chapter Eight
Changes

Sarlocron couldn't get his hands back on the commlock fast enough. After Syranak had handed it back to him, he took his chance to slip into his lab as the group walked by it.

"No, that cannot be."

The first measurement, some time back, had been 621.1 salitar; now it was 565.7, a considerable decrease. It made no sense. The scale is in need of repair, he thought. That would take time, however.

An idea struck him. The transference unit had even more sophisticated sensors--needed for accurate scanning of an object or person undergoing transport. He gathered up the mysterious, semi-organic object and swept out of his lab.

But he promptly slowed, considering the alien's words. Syranak had cut Maya off; but what the latter had said betrayed an incredible grasp on something she barely understood upon arrival. Did she comprehend it that fully now? And her warning of being "in danger of disrupting the whole system." What was that about?

He arrived at the Transfer Room just in time for Arlanka to transfer Syranak's party to Tyrok-18. He saw their forms fading from the cube. Arlanka announced success, while Tyrlor reported the circuitry performed flawlessly.

Arlanka gave Sarlocron an annoyed, but tolerant look, indicating she had noticed his slipping away. She then turned to her first officer, inviting comments.

"That contradicts Maya's statements about the system being disrupted," Marlkror provided.

Arlanka seemed to agree at first, then tilted her head in negation. "I'm not sure she was referring to this transport. Maybe she meant the next one, where Syranak jumps from T-18 to Themoon."

Syranak's habit--shared by all Lykrontak--of cutting others off had cost them valuable information. Before they could follow the thought through to the idea of asking Maya what she meant, a different form of subject change was forced on them in the form of an intercomm. "Arlanka, report to Central Control."

 Arlanka immediately left, and Marlkror moved to follow; but Sarlocron, silent through the brief conversation, put his hand out to stop Marlkror, saying, "You may want to see this."

Tyrlor, the only other person left in the room besides Sarlocron and Marlkror, was quite obliging to the scientist's request to set the transfer system for a standard scan. After the scientist set the "commlock" in the transference cube, the engineer started the probe as the first officer watched.

In shock, the three men saw the mass figure: 560.789--but decreasing steadily. They watched the latter digits spinning down in a blur; by the time Tyrlor blurted the question "how?" the figure had decreased to 560.530.

Sarlocron had no answer. "It is..." he groped for a word, "... evaporating."

Tyrlor ran further calculations. "At this rate, it would disappear in zero-point-four-four days.

"It won't just disappear," Sarlocron stated uncertainly.

"Should it even be 'evaporating?' " Marlkror countered.

"You have a point," Sarlocron admitted.

Though they could not know it--since they hadn't even guessed at Maya's metamorphic abilities--she was having a problem. After having moved the functional commlock into real space earlier, then back to metamorphic space, she had lost partial control over the decoy, and could not regain full control over remote integrity maintenance: the mass was reverting to an unformed state, back into metaspace. It had been "evaporating" for hours.

Even at the moment the three Lykrontak men were puzzling over the decoy, she was deciding how to attempt her escape.

"We need to send that device to homeworld and the Grand Council," Marlkror stated. "It must be stabilized. Bring up the stasis field."

Marlkror had no way of knowing; but it was exactly the wrong thing to do.

Sarlocron had a feeling it was a bad idea, but before he could protest, the enigma was encased in a reflective coating. Immediately, the computer started displaying numerous serious errors.

Maya, about to transform, was caught by what felt like a stabbing, though distant, coldness. Instincts caused her to try to hold the distant piece of her metaself intact; but the connection itself was being attacked by a damping field. Worse, she could not transform while in this condition.

The stasis field, used to freeze and stabilize an object's state, had completely the opposite effect. The commlock started dissolving more rapidly. Its structure grew increasingly amorphous. Without warning, it collapsed. In an instant, it was gone. The mass counter hit 0.000, and the stasis field imploded, creating an "instantaneous" singularity which utterly disrupted the transference system.

After a brief rush of air and a rapid stutter of "popping" noises, all was quiet. Tyrlor checked the main console, while Marlkror and Sarlocron approached the transfer cube. There was nothing in it.

Maya had no choice but to release the decoy commlock. Uncontrolled, its mass transformed out of real space and scattered itself randomly in "metaspace." She was free to metamorphose again.

"It must have been reduced to a powder in the explosion," Sarlocron hypothesized.

Tyrlor immediately contradicted that idea. "No, it's mass went to zero while encased in the stasis field. Don't ask me how. It should be impossible."

Marlkror couldn't answer it. Instead, he brought up the most recent instance of strange transfer. "Maya herself was nearly disrupted during transport. Is it something about our equipment?"

"Nothing that was apparent before. Now, the system is dead. It just shut-down."

"How long to repair it."

"Repair? To fully operational status? No chance. Some large components need replacement."

"Replacement?" Marlkror said, unintentionally duplicating Tyrlor's initial tone. "Why?"

"The main system collimator overloaded when whatever happened... happened."

Marlkror slammed his hand on the console. "Salistar. Fine disaster this is."

Sarlocron spoke again. "You said the same thing started happening with the alien. I wonder if it isn't something about her that is causing all these oddities."

Though no specifics had been offered, the idea momentarily riveted the men.

After the pause, Marlkror spoke. "I think we should have an uninterrupted chat with our guest."

"Most sensible statement I have heard from anyone all day," Sarlocron said as the two of them left Tyrlor to salvage whatever operational capacity the transference equipment might still have--and inform Arlanka of the problem. Tyrlor had never had major problems with his equipment before, and now such cases were piling up at every turn, worsening as the day progressed.

As Marlkror and Sarlocron headed down the hallways, Maya's words suddenly echoed through Marlkror's consciousness. You are in danger of disrupting the whole system. The first officer's bowels turned into molten lead. "Tyrok-18," he blurted aloud.

Sarlocron stopped dead in his tracks as Maya's and Marlkror's words collided in his mind. "Tell them to shut it down." Marlkror numbly nodded his agreement, then turned towards a wall panel. Sarlocron started running away, shouting "I'll start talking to Maya" to his superior. For a moment, hatred against the alien flared within Sarlocron. She's somehow disrupted everything herself, even while she tries to blame us. He tried to shrug the thought, but couldn't, an almost murderous rage growing within him. She's toying with us, and messing with our sanity. If any dies because of her....


"It appears to be a double-lobed asteroid or perhaps a barely-split asteroid," Lynata, a medical officer now doubling on the scanners, quietly informed Arlanka, her friend and her superior.

"Or a ship or two?" Arlanka asked.

"Too distant to get any detail. Tracing back, the path nearly intersects the course of the rogue planet, but time-wise, there is a huge difference. If it is a ship, it would have had to sit there for considerable time, or have been way off course."

"Its closest approach?"

"Nearly there now. Thirty-seven million draskai."

Arlanka sighed in relief. "Quite distant then. Where will its course take it?"

"Nowhere, really. It won't approach any radial and will remain out here, far from any planet."

"Suppose that is a ship. Does it show any signs of a search pattern?"

"None. It is moving rapidly--at 2179 raiask--but on a straight line bent only by the central gravity of the sun, which is weak at this enormous range."

Arlanka frowned. It seemed little more than debris shooting through space at high speed, but its timing still bothered her.

"Is post-transfer static still preventing hypercomm?" Arlanka asked.

Lynata nodded.

"As soon as it clears, call Central and have a Scan Station check it out."

"Understood." Arlanka was turning to leave, but Lynata brought up another issue. "Arlanka, Marlkror has stated his concern over you, but hasn't been able to do more than mention it to me."

"Oh? What about?"

"He thinks you're taking Syranak's statements too hard--like she's blaming you for everything. He thinks you've done everything correctly."

"An interesting observation. I'm not sure I agree with any of it, especially the implied accusation of paranoia. Besides, the 'correct' way may not be the best way."

"You may have a point--this is the first intelligent alien we have ever met."

"Exactly."

"But I still agree with him that you cannot blame yourself, since everything is still under control." Arlanka started to interrupt, but Lynata overrode her, "And Syranak may not have revealed part of her role. Marlkror says to remember that she was once a scan officer."

That bit of information riveted Arlanka for a moment, before her thoughts were rudely interrupted by an urgent console noise. It was Marlkror, who quickly stated what had happened to the commlock and to the transfer system, then stated Tyrok-18 must shut down their system, until the nature of the problems could be determined.

Arlanka remembered Maya's statement as well. No one trusted the alien; but they could not afford to ignore what she said either. Too many lives were on the line. While Marlkror listened, Arlanka ordered Lynata to try to punch through the post-transfer static to T-18 as early as possible, and even try a simple light-speed signal, even though both would take more time than Syranak had planned to be on Tyrok-18. Perhaps something would delay the councilor enough for the warning to reach her. Finally, she ordered Marlkror to talk to Maya.

"Sarlocron is already on his way to do just that. I am following."

After she closed the commline, Arlanka shook her head. News of a mysterious space object, moments before news the alien commlock had vanished, disrupting the transfer equipment in the process. And Syranak perhaps responsible for the decision to pick the most alien person for Arlanka to transfer from the traveling planet. Her neck muscles tightened, as tension further mounted at the feeling so much was out of her control. A lot of things had always been that way; but until now, that had rarely mattered. Unable to sit still any longer, she left Central Control. She was going to have a very insistent discussion with that talask alien salari.


Maya looked down at the dishes sitting next to the door, just out of sight, then at the commode located in the corner of the cell nearest to where she had set the dishes. The commode had partitions blocking it from view, and she walked behind them. As soon as she heard noise, she transformed into a fast-crawling beetle and scurried along the wall towards the door, stopping by the dishes, out of sight.

"Maya?" Sarlocron's voice called urgently, with an edge Maya would have been very concerned about if she still had been in humanoid form.

"She's in the pit," Uytrar said.

Sarlocron simmered at the bad timing. "Maya, I will speak with you now!" he shouted.

When Maya still did not respond, Uytrar pulled out his weapon, then gave one to Sarlocron. "Guard my back," he said as he downed the force field and went in. He worked his way slowly into the cell. Maya, in her beetle form, unseen by Uytrar or Sarlocron, dashed from under the dishes and turned the corner, out of the cell. Unfortunately, there was no place near the guard room's outer door where she could hide. Sooner or later, she had to revert.

Uytrar could now see into the commode. "What...? She's disappeared! She couldn't have!" Shaking in disbelief, he beat a hasty retreat from the cell, as if fleeing from an invisible creature.

Maya did not have that ability, so she was relying on more mundane means--mundane to her at least. Unfortunately, Sarlocron happened to notice the big-eyed beetle crawling along the wall.

The moment his eyes fell on Maya, pre-transformational directives implanted in her beetle-brain took over, and she transformed directly into a fast-moving, vaguely ape-like creature. In a moment, before the shocked man could even pull his weapon up to her, she ran over and shoved Sarlocron hard into Uytrar, who was just running out of the cell. The force was enough to knock them against a wall. Both fell, stunned to near- unconsciousness. Maya had been unable to pass enough directives through the bottleneck of the beetle-brain to the anstor creature, so she had to revert to her usual form to open the electronic door. The hallway outside was empty and silent, so she ran down it.

Turning a corner, she found herself facing Nyakrayn, the other guard. Before she could react, he pulled out his weapon and shot her. To her surprise, she did not lose consciousness. In a moment, she realized why: she was cocooned in one of those hideous damping fields. She metamorphically struggled against it, managing to transform into a person- sized lizard. Not backed up by the extra power of a transporter system, the damping field failed, releasing her. In the moments that she was cocooned in it, Nyakrayn had approached; and now, free, she was able to knock the surprised man unconsciousness. Unfortunately, Marlkror, who had discovered the injured men in the detention area, came up from behind and shot her with a more powerful version of the damping field. Somewhat weakened by the first shot, she had trouble throwing off this newer, more powerful field. She tried to transform, but was unable to.

There was no sound, no sight, no feeling of anything outside her body. Fingers of icy nothingness reached into her being. Everything was being taken from her by remorseless emptiness. She resisted with all her might, trying to push it back through transformation, as before. Though weak, she finally managed to transform into someone she had seen in the past day, namely Arlanka. To her unbounded relief, the bonds finally broke, allowing her to see daylight--and more worrisome things.

She was now surrounded by several weapon-carrying people. Their eyes widened at the sight of Arlanka emerging from the field. They were so confused that she managed to break away, though she stumbled slightly as she ran down the hall. They recovered, realizing it was Maya, and one shot at her retreating back. It was a clean miss, and she reached a corner and disappeared around it. A half-second later, they heard the sound of a muffled impact, and a double cry of surprise. They followed. Turning the corner, they discovered two Arlankas on the floor. The real Arlanka, heading down this hall, had been run down by her duplicate; but the men could not tell them apart. The one on their left was gasping for breath, the wind knocked out of her; the one on their right was slowly picking herself of the ground, her face pale and her body trembling.

The men looked at both, trying to figure out which was the real Arlanka and which was the alien monster. Neither was in a condition to speak. By now, the one on the right was standing. Knowing the alien could transform into some deadlier form, like the lizard they had seen, and perhaps kill the real Arlanka, Marlkror quickly shot both in turn.

The men stood there a full minute, staring at the two frozen female forms covered with the stasis fields. Finally, one turned to Marlkror and asked, "So how do we tell?"

"Just wait a minute more," he said. "I have a feeling we'll know soon."

Within thirty seconds, the perfect mercury-like surface of the standing form to their right started turning colors. Marlkror immediately reversed a setting on his weapon and used it to nullify the stasis field on the left. That woman immediately resumed her gasping for breath as Tyrlor rushed up and pulled her away from the other form.

Moments later, the discolored stasis field cracked and then vanished. The creature inside had reverted to the Maya-form. She put her hands on the side of her head in a sign of excruciating pain. Marlkror was about to shoot her again, but Arlanka put her hand up in a signal to hold. The field evidently caused a great deal of trauma to the alien, perhaps because of her ability. Maya opened her mouth, screamed for a couple of seconds, and finally--mercifully--collapsed to the ground.


Cries of confusion, shouts, and strange--alien--sounds filtered into Central Control. Lynata quickly drew visual scanners on the situation, discovering a strange tableau. Two Arlankas? her stunned mind cried, trying but failing to comprehend what she saw. She watched in horrified fascination as Marlkror shot them both, freed one, while the other field collapsed, revealing the alien, a terrible grimace painted on her features. Maya's scream of utter pain was a call to action for the doctor, who shook off her surprise and headed towards the corridor, leaving Central Command empty.

Moments later, two things happened in the control room she had just left. One was indication of course change in the hurtling "asteroid." The other--almost simultaneous--was a readout which turned from white to blue, indicating the hypercomms had cleared sufficiently for communication.


Sandra had no way of knowing it, but the coordinates she had given Tony and Alan were incorrect. Alpha knew nothing of the Lykrontak hyperspace radials, or how they slightly distorted electromagnetic radiation, bending it almost as if there were gravity wells standing a few million kilometers from the station.

Now, 3.5 hours later, at 18:04, lunar time, having arriving at the coordinates Sandra gave them, they found no evidence anything had been there for centuries. The emptiness--a sort of visual silence which was also echoed by the quiet sensors--was eerie; and it made them nervous.

Tony had earlier scoffed--for a moment--at Koenig's suggestion of invisible ships. Now, he was seriously considering the idea. But concentrated, high-intensity scans still found no evidence any ship had been through this area, so he and Alan widened their scans, both in angle and range.

Again, he began to worry about someone other than Maya--namely himself this time. He could face down awesome-looking warships, yet it was the invisible which he feared far more. The invisible buzz of a mosquito in the night. The gunman hidden somewhere in a forest. Taybor's ship materializing and vanishing at its capricious owner's whim. Far from making him lock up, however, the fear put him on his finest edge. Oddly, recognition of his current awareness-heightening fear made him aware of how afraid he had been for Maya.

His unrelenting blindness to the true nature of his own emotions prevented him from seeing his current feelings as coming from the growing love he was feeling for the warm, beautiful alien. He thought only in terms of small aspects. Wanting her safe, like he wanted any and all Alphans to be secure. Wanting to see her frown at his teasing. Smile at his jokes. Eat dinner with him. Stare at...

As many dreams get interrupted, so were his flitting, almost instantaneous "daydreams," which he quickly forgot as his attention shifted to the console which was demanding attention. An object had been found, and he gave Carter the scan coordinates.

"How could Sandra be so far off?" Alan asked. "She compensated for the doppler effect in the clock signal." He quickly answered his own question. "Maybe it was a ship that changed course."

"There's no evidence of any kind of energy trail. I doubt anything flew through here. The object is just barely detectable, but it is distant and thus fairly large, though scanners cannot get any details at this range. It is stationary... no that can't be right. It seems to be stationary relative to the star."

"What? Your scanner must be daf.... Wait, mine says the same thing. Even at this distance, some orbital motion should be evident."

"Then it's artificial," Tony concluded.

"Yeah, I'd have to say that," Alan agreed. "I still don't understand how--or why--they'd totally freeze orbital motion. Maybe that somehow distorted Maya's signal too."

Lacking any other obvious targets, they altered course towards the object.


Arlanka, finally recovering her breath, stumbled over and signalled Lynata to approach. They turned Maya over. She was very pale, breathing shallowly, and Lynata found that the alien's pulse was rapid but very weak and irregular. As she listened, it started strengthening, finally returning to normal. Maya's breathing likewise stabilized. Lynata looked at Arlanka. "Some sort of shock. I've never heard of anyone reacting at all after being released. A stasis field simply freezes the person. Then again, I've never heard of anyone able to do what she's done. Was she really... you?"

Arlanka nodded, still trying to understand.

"And a two-legged reptile," Nyakrayn quickly added, followed by Uytrar, who had recovered enough to reach this corridor, mentioning two other forms. Arlanka and Lynata looked from one man to another in shock as the list was rattled off.

The commotion had also drawn Tyrlor to this corridor, and he caught the entire conversation. "She threw off a stasis field?" the engineer quickly asked. Nyakrayn and Marlkror sounded "yes" in stereo. "Then we know the source of the distortions," Tyrlor continued. "It was Maya herself. She must have remained conscious within the damping field and struggled, trying to change her form in an attempt to throw the field off."

If Arlanka hadn't been so shaken up, she might have noticed her engineer's quick perceptions.

"I can't say that I would blame her much," Lynata said. "If she remained conscious, she most likely would not have sensed anything outside of herself. The damping field was probably removing all her bodily control, as it would normally do by freezing the person. Only she could feel it happening. Can you imagine losing all sensation, completely? I'm not sure any of us could.

They were silent for a moment; then Marlkror dropped a question. "Another shot...?"

"Would probably have killed her," Lynata said quietly, without malice.

Marlkror paled a bit. The whole point of using the stasis field as a weapon was to circumvent the necessity or possibility of death.

Arlanka noticed something. "What the...?" The others all pulled closer. She yanked a device from Maya's belt. It was an alien device, remarkably similar to the one she had earlier surrendered--the one which had disappeared. "Another useless device? No, this has got wires protruding from it."

Sarlocron, now conscious again, came running around the corner. "Did you see that creature?" he shouted, before pulling to a halt before the dense knot of people. It parted, revealing the supine Maya. "Then it was her?"

"Yes," Lynata affirmed.

"Oh, yttrikor!" he exclaimed. "That's incredible. Is she... dead?"

"No, but the stasis field nearly killed her."

"The stasis field?"

"Even when shot, she was apparently self-aware, and fought stasis through transformation."

"Then that's what happened during the transport?"

"We think so," Arlanka said.

He shook his head in wonder, then noticed what Arlanka was holding. "She must have... yanked it"--he stumbled, looking for words to use in a situation unlike any they had experienced--"away... while we were analyzing it in the transference cube. But how?"

"It is not the same. Here," Arlanka said, handing him the device.

He immediately noticed the difference. "It's three times heavier! With actual wires, working buttons, and what could be a miniature video screen," he said, amazed.

"She must have somehow hidden it," Lynata said, speaking aloud in an attempt to get a grasp on what happened. "Maybe through some sort of transformation that replaced it with a simple, useless one which could distract us for a while."

"She was very successful in that regard," Arlanka stated bitterly, remembering her humiliation in front of Councilwoman Syranak.

"She must have made the switch when she put her hand in front of it just before she handed the useless one over," Marlkror said, remembering that action. It had looked harmless at the time, but had evidently hidden a bit of very alien trickery.

"She probably was unable to hold it when she was knocked unconscious," Lynata hypothesized.

"Then this is her... usual form?" Arlanka asked.

"Probably," Lynata said.

"She could be deceiving us further," Marlkror stated. "Faking unconsciousness in this form so she can surprise us."

A couple of them backed up and drew their weapons.

"I say we shoot her again," said Uytrar.

"No!" protested Lynata. "That would probably kill her. Even if it didn't, and even in this unconscious state, she would probably throw it off again."

Arlanka glanced at Lynata sharply. "How?" she demanded.

"My scanners show an active interference field on certain of the wavelengths shared by our stasis fields and transference systems. Her body seems to radiate it at all times. It's not very strong, not strong enough to prevent my taking readings, but probably strong enough to eventually scramble any stasis field, no matter how strong, until it broke. But the stasis field apparently hurts her in return, wearing her down. A strong stasis field would probably hold long enough to weaken her to the point of death, even if she made no conscious attempt to transform."

"Koru!" Marlkror swore. "Can't even use our weapons without killing her. Why didn't your earlier scans into the cell reveal this?"

"Those were remote scans through a semi-quiescent stasis field. It didn't interfere with the normal biological readings, but it must have interfered with the other readings--like I said, her own body's interference field is active on frequencies shared by the stasis and transference systems, and probably other frequencies our scanners can't detect. I don't understand how her body does it--but that is what she can apparently do."

Uytrar exploded. "Yes! And she could have killed us all!"

"But she didn't," Sarlocron said. "It.... I mean she.... I mean whatever she was--the creature I mean--knocked me out with her first try. With that kind of strength, she could have ripped me in two if she had so desired. But she didn't."

Despite himself, Nyakrayn nodded his agreement. "If it had wanted to, it--she--could have killed me the moment it broke out of the stasis field. She was she--human-like I mean--when I shot her, and I approached her. When she broke out, she was some kind of lizard."

Uytrar looked at him. "Well, it was kind of stupid to approach," he said sarcastically.

Nyakrayn protested. "Wait a second! I didn't know what all the commotion was about. How could I know she could do that? You probably let her escape in the first place!" He said the last half-jokingly, but the nearly humorless Uytrar took offense, his face turning noticeably red as he shouted "How could I have taken that into account?" he shouted, pointing at her body in an attempt to indicate what she was able to do with it.

Now Nyakrayn took insult to the tone. "You probably left some opening that she exploited!"

"Silence!" Arlanka shouted, being driven mad by the irritating shouts. What was happening to them all? First she and Syranak engage in some silent battle of wills, with Arlanka on the losing side. Next she silently cheered Maya as the alien scored hits against the councilor. Then Nyakrayn and Uytrar--usually the best of friends--start shouting angrily at each other. Her head spun. She had never experienced so much ill-will in one day. Somehow, this accursed alien was splitting them apart, making them fight each other. But how? She felt as if she was going to be sick.

She shook her head, trying to clear it, then turned to the guards. "Take her back to the cell." They looked at her uncomfortably, remembering what Marlkror had said about the possibility of deception. "Now!" she shouted. Marlkror looked at her in surprise. Nyakrayn and Uytrar hesitated another moment, then finally complied, each reaching down and grabbing one of her arms. They unceremoniously dragged her away in this fashion, touching as little of her as they could.

She addressed her first officer, Marlkror. "I need to call Radial Central to see what they want to do with her now." She then gave Lynata, the doctor, an order to keep Maya sedated. She then turned away to walk down the hall, but Lynata's protest halted her.

"Sedated?"

"That's what I said," snapped Arlanka.

"But how?"

"Are you saying you don't know your own profession?" Arlanka didn't even realize the insult she had just hurled at the doctor.

"No... I..." Lynata stammered for a moment. "This is an alien!" she protested. "Her physiology is different."

"You said you were able to scan her through the interference. What did you find?"

"Except for the interference, she seems almost human."

Arlanka's head was spinning dizzily, and she wanted to get away from these overly tense people. This whole situation was driving her crazy. "Well, then, give her what you would give any of us."

"But...."

A temper Arlanka scarcely knew she had rose up within her. "Just... do it!"

She immediately walked away, towards the control room, struggling to push back the gibbering voices--outside and inside of her. She turned yet another corner, trying to calm herself as she approached the door. But the emotional monster that had reared its ugly head would not go away.

Arlanka slammed her fist into the control panel. The panel exploded in a most satisfying way, and the door opened. She walked in, then looked at her hand. There were bloody cuts where her knuckles had broken through the thin metal. She walked over to a medical kit hanging from the wall and wrapped her hand in bandages. She smiled, feeling much calmer now. The pain helped restore calm to her mind. She didn't even think of the alien during the moments she manipulated the controls to establish a connection. Hoping that they were meeting, she demanded contact with the Grand Council. In this emergency situation initiated by the destruction of Far Station Tyrok-19 by the alien planet and the taking of an alien by Tyrok-17, Arlanka had the authority, so the operator complied. When she had a video feed of the council chambers and its occupants, she quickly stated what had happened.

She was extremely gratified when she received stunned silence and shocked expressions from the other end. "The alien did what?" was the first verbal response. By now, Marlkror had entered and recovered the relevant video log, and he nodded at Arlanka.

"She's some sort of monster, and I'm sending video proof now," she said, then turned to nod at Marlkror. He pressed some controls, and the video fed into the transmission in place of the live feed of Arlanka's face.

Moments later, the mouths of all nine councilors on screen dropped open, amusingly in unison. "Oh, sytr," one of them said. That particular curse pretty much summed up everyone's feelings.

The Prime Councilor, Garolak, looked at the others and asked, "Do we still bring her in?"

After some long pauses, they all eventually indicated a unanimous affirmative to that question.

Garolak turned to the screen. "We still want to analyze her. Send her in, full precautions, including stasis field."

"Pardon me, Prime Councilor," Arlanka's said from the screen, her voice barely respectful in her annoyed impatience. "The stasis field will kill her. It seems to be incompatible with her body."

"Yes, of course. I understand. Well... not really. Just keep her unconscious during transport. We'll deal with the rest."

"Thank you, sir," Arlanka said with more than obvious relief.

In the Grand Council's almost spartan chambers, Garolak turned to the others. "Do you believe her story about how the stasis field and the alien affected each other?" He had carefully left the adjective "ridiculous" from the sentence, perhaps because it no longer seemed that way.

One of the councilors, Gastka looked at him. "After seeing that," he said, pointing at the now-blank screen, I could probably believe anything."

On Tyrok-17, Syranak swept out of the command room to relay the orders, completely failing to take note of one of the readouts which had changed some time back. Marlkror, sitting at the wrong console, did not notice either. The "asteroid" was approaching, and only the computer knew it was something else.

Minutes later, the small shuttle Syranak had arrived on now launched back towards Tyrok-16--deeper into the star system--from T-17.

It went completely unnoticed by the Alphans, who were still too distant to detect it.


Chapter Nine
Stations

Thirty minutes later, Tony and Alan watched the space station looming closer on their respective screens. It was basically cylindrical, but rotated far too slowly to create more than an insignificant amount of centrifugal force, so it probably had artificial gravity. One end--visible to Tony--was bristling with highly-forked, antenna-like structures, and Alan reported that the other end--the one pointing towards the star--was smooth except for some docking apparatus, currently unoccupied.

Alan looked at his readouts, then spoke to Tony in the other Eagle. "It's about one hundred meters long and sixty wide."

"Fairly large then," Tony commented. "Any readings on mass or life forms?"

"Sensors can't say much about mass, except that it is very high, which also indicates high density. It's probably packed with machinery, containing little open space. That and the low level of life form readings seem to indicate there are only eight to sixteen people inside."

"Maya?"

"The readings aren't clear enough to resolve individual people or their characteristics. Hmph... the whole station is flooded with some of the same readings Maya's body makes."

"What? How is that possible?"

"I would guess a lot of their equipment works with some of the same frequencies."

"Oh, sure. So we can't be certain where on the station she is."

"Right."



Arlanka arrived back in the control center and noticed the console across the room from Marlkror was blinking for attention. There was no auditory alert, and Arlanka struck the console lightly--the universal "knock-it-to-check-it" test--wondering whether there was actually a problem. The console immediately started buzzing, as it should have some time before, and finally put up its readings on the main screen. "Kala stupid compu--" Her annoyed words were choked off when she turned to the main screen and took in the sight of what was looming large: two alien ships.

Their "sudden" presence nearly panicked both on the spot, though Arlanka's first words--"Oh no, now what?"--were said in an almost numb way. They calmed quickly, but neither thought of reconnecting with the Council: time was short, for the ships were almost upon them already.

"Attempt to contact them," she ordered. He complied, but it took nearly a full minute to make contact. Marlkror put the image on their screens.

Arlanka gasped in surprise. The man facing her on the screen was quite totally human: he had none of Maya's alien features. Could it be a gender difference in these people? No, she thought quickly, it can't be. There would be something alien in all of them, male and female. Why didn't Syranak say Maya was different from the others?

"I am Security Officer Tony Verdeschi of Moonbase Alpha. You kidnapped one of the members of our base. We regard this as a hostile action. You will return her immediately, or face reprisals."

Marlkror had also come to the conclusion about Maya being the alien among these people. Or are these two men the aliens among her people? he wondered. For the moment, it hardly mattered, as he could see the deadly serious threat in Officer Tonyverdeschi's eyes.

A Far Station such as the threatened Utrax-19 was larger and more populated than the station they commanded. The Prime Council was trying to save that base, and questioning any of its orders would be tantamount to interfering in their effort--and one order was that Maya be brought deeper into the Lykrontak system. If these human aliens caught the shuttle heading towards T-16, the Council's plans, whatever they were, would be disrupted. He and Arlanka had to delay these aliens long enough for the shuttle to reach T-16, so it could transfer her through the hyperspace link to T-15, which would hopefully be out of the range of the alien ships threatening them now.

Arlanka paused; but Marlkror had an idea, and decided to risk it, and risk Arlanka's recent brittle anger. "She was killed," he said. Like a seasoned commander, Arlanka kept still, not revealing any surprise at Marlkror's declaration.

Tony swallowed hard, his heart sinking into a pit. No, it can't be true, he thought. Too shocked at hearing the words, he couldn't say anything for several seconds.

Alan filled the gap with a simple but important question. "How?"

Marlkror was ready for this. "She transformed into some monster, and we were forced to kill it."

No! Tony's mind shouted. Maya simply can't be dead! He scrutinized their expressions, trying to find some sign one of them was lying. He didn't see any. They couldn't have killed her. But they could have, and he knew it. If Alphan weapons could kill, so could theirs. But they could be very good liars, trying to get rid of him. "I want to see her.... body."

"We put it in a stasis field, and it cannot be disabled prematurely; it can only be transported, not moved."

It sounded like pure nonsense to Tony, but before he could argue, Alan broke in. "It?" Alan was hoping to get them to say whether she reverted to her normal form after being shot or remained as some animal. He didn't know what would actually happen to Maya--but was hoping Tony would.

Marlkror heard the other man's words, heard him probing. He tried to keep his face from reacting to a problem he had not considered: what would happen to Maya if she were killed while in another form. These aliens could know, and for that reason, he couldn't just make something up. Despite having seen it, he really knew little of her ability, or its limitations. Then the picture of her in one form came to his mind, along with an answer. It may be the wrong one, but he had no other ideas.

"The weapon burnt it too badly to tell, and she had turned into some reptile about her size."

That didn't help the Alphans. Even if the alien man had responded differently, Tony didn't even know what would happen to Maya if killed. He had never had the courage to ask her such a morbid question. He regretted it now, for the information might have helped.

"Have you done an autopsy?" Alan asked.

Tony was grateful that Alan was thinking quickly, because he was not.

"We don't have the equipment, and it is encased in a stasis field."

"Well, can we see... what's left?" Tony finally asked solemnly.

Alan watched as the alien man looked at the woman commander. She simply stared back. That must have been some sort of affirmation in their body language, for when the man turned back, he said, "You may come aboard, unarmed. I assume you have a compatible docking system."

Alan rechecked his scan of the alien station and its docking system, then responded in the affirmative. Tony added that he would come aboard. Alan immediately signalled Tony over the alternate, scrambled frequency. "Have you lost your head, man? You know it's a trap!"

"I know what I'm doing."

"The hell you do!" Tony protested, but Alan cut him off. "Look, I know how much you care for Maya, but you can't let it addle your senses. You're the security officer. Don't you see a trap?"

"Of course I see it; and I know how to make sure it stays unsprung."

Alan made sounds of protest, but this time Tony cut him off. "You'll be my backup." Alan subsided, but did not agree either. "Have you got a better idea?" Tony nearly shouted.

"No," the captain said quietly, grim tonal counterpoint to Tony.

Verdeschi turned on the other line, to the alien station. "Okay. I'm coming in, unarmed. But the other ship will monitor the situation. If I don't check in with him every few minutes, or if you make a hostile move, he'll start shooting your station. You got that?"

Tony saw both of them pale. Good, he thought with satisfaction. Maybe they won't try anything.

Alan watched Tony's Eagle slowly pull towards the station. This situation stuck in his craw. He hated it, and did not trust the aliens a bit. Having nothing else to do for the moment, he watched the progress of Tony's Eagle. Alan's eyes strayed from the Eagle to the much larger station behind it.

It was a way station in the middle of the empty wilderness. Almost as desolate as the Bush, he thought, the image coming naturally to mind. God help Maya, dying here at this station, in the middle of such emptiness. It's worse than the Bush. At least there, you had villages, or at least occasional watering holes, strung out in the desert. Places to stop and rest on your travels. Here, with this one station.... He stopped. There had been another station: that crashed "ship!" Sandra's words leapt to mind: 'Like a link in some chain, pointing towards the center of the star system.'

Sudden inspiration hit him. He turned the long range scanners inward, towards the star. In an outward spiral, he scanned the area around the star, occasionally sneaking glances at Eagle Four slowly approaching the docking ring. Just when Tony's ship was about to dock, Alan's console beeped. He quickly backtracked to that point again, and received a steady, if delayed, signal from the scanners. He was surprised when he realized there were two objects being detected. The return signal's pattern indicated one was small, about the size of a ship, and the other was much larger and cylindrical, like the station hanging in front of them. Alan contacted Eagle Four. "Wait, Tony! A ship is approaching a station deeper in the system."

Instantly, Tony started pulling away. The story had seemed suspicious, and now it seemed to be an attempt to cover a fleeing ship. "Give me the coordinates," he demanded.

Alan looked at his readouts. "Damn."

"What is it?" Tony nearly shouted.

"It's too far away. If we chase it, we won't have enough fuel to return to Alpha! We're only barely in range of the Moon now, and for not much longer."

Tony looked at the frequency band, checking to be sure they were using a coded channel so the Lykrontak could not listen in, then continued. "I chase it. You stay behind, and when I return, we will use your Eagle."

"But the time factor!" Alan protested. "Even if I wait here, Alpha will be out of range of my fuel supply by the time you return--to say nothing of your fuel by then." As much as he wanted to save Maya, it would make no sense for all three of them to be stranded in this system.

"Then we steal the rest of my Eagle's fuel when I get back."

"Risky. These aren't Refueling Eagles. We don't have the proper equipment for that."

"We still have some usable equipment. I'll take the risk," Tony said as he ignited the engines, boosting him on his decided course. Before he was out of communication range, he gave further orders. "Pull farther away. If they make any move against you, defend yourself. Shoot at the station if you have to."

It didn't take long for the need to come up. As Eagle Four started leaving, the station let loose with a volley of laser fire on both of them. Carter instantly took out the one firing at him, and quickly destroyed two of the four firing at Verdeschi. Sensors indicated laser fire was coming from at least two locations on the other side of the cylindrical station. Alan flew Eagle One around the station, destroying everything that looked remotely like a laser system. One was rather large, and two others looked more like communication dishes, but he eliminated them all, just to be safe.

"Thanks, Alan," Tony said. "I owe you one."

"Yeah, mate; let's worry about that later. Just get Maya."

"You don't have to tell me twice!"

As soon as it was safe, he increased the engine thrust to pursue the distant alien ship. Minutes later, the computer informed him that he had insufficient fuel to return to Alpha. He punched up some new figures, and was gratified to learn he could reach the new station in sixteen minutes, spend ten minutes there, return to Alan, and still only have to transfer less than half the remaining fuel to Eagle One. Transferring nuclear fuel in a non-Refueling Eagle was an incremental process that could take considerable time. They would obviously have to abandon Eagle Four, but they would still make it to Alpha with fuel to spare. Hopefully, they would make it back with Maya.

He pushed that thought aside, frantically trying to understand the presence of the shuttle. Was Maya really aboard it? Why use shuttles when they have a transporter? Maybe they could only transport at certain times, but still needed to get Maya away quickly, forcing the use of a ship. It was a logical explanation, but it did not satisfy Tony.

Maybe they could only transport a certain distance before the signal degraded, forcing them to use intermediate stations to retransmit at full power. No, they wouldn't need the ships at all then. Maybe they couldn't use transporters, retransmission or not, in one continuous line. Maybe they needed gaps, and thus ships to bridge the gaps. Oh, hell. They would be bridging the gap right now; and if they reach the station first, they could transport her to the next station, which is probably billions of miles away, out of my reach. He had no idea if his gap idea was even correct, but the mere possibility of it being true frightened him. He quickly ran the calculations through the computer, and was horrified to learn the alien ship would reach the station several minutes before the Eagle, and if Alan had knocked out communication systems on the first station, this station might assume the worst and immediately transport Maya out of his reach.

At that thought, he pushed the Eagle's engines to full power, deep into the red zone of several indicators. The ship burst forward, chewing up the space more rapidly than was really safe--or even sane. Checking his computer, Tony was gratified to see that he would reach the alien ship in ten minutes, two minutes before it could reach the station. He watched as the distance between them rapidly closed, paying no attention to the shaking that slowly rose in intensity aboard the overstressed Eagle.

Aboard Shuttle 327, Uytrar tried to raise Arlanka at Station Tyrok-17. Getting nothing but static, he frowned. He then tried to raise Tyrok-16, and was gratified to hear a clear, crisp response. "Can you raise Seventeen?" he instantly asked, overriding all protocol. After several seconds, the man at the other end responded in the negative. "Contact Central, and have them conduct a long-distance scan where it should be," Uytrar ordered, not caring that he didn't really have the authority.

Two minutes later, the man had an answer. "According to Scan Station Nyka-1, Tyrok-17 is still there, but there is a small object in close proximity, and another one approaching you and us. They do not respond to hypercomm hails. They appear to be unknown and... alien... ships."

Fear rose in him. "But how...?" He glanced at Maya's real commlock, as she had called the fake. Though the earth-based linguistic root of "comm" did not translate for Uytrar when Maya had said it, he could now guess that communication was one of its functions. She had used it to attract these ships. But he was under orders to get Maya to the station, so he pushed the engines to full power.

"Dammit!" Tony shouted aboard Eagle Four. Scanners informed him that the little ship he was chasing had suddenly sped up, and computer informed him it was now impossible to reach the spacecraft before it reached the station. Even though his ship was travelling faster than the alien's, the latter was too far ahead, and he was already at the Eagle's limit. He pounded his seat's armrest in fury, and heard it--and a something in his hand--snap. He barely noticed. It merely distracted him from the Eagle's bone-rattling shaking.

He watched helplessly as the little ship reached the station and docked. A minute later, he began procedures to slow the Eagle. To his relief, the shaking almost completely ceased. The fact it didn't entirely cease was a sign that permanent damage had been done.

He was now within visual sight of the station. It had a virtually identical appearance to the last one: cylindrical with several dishes. The little ship that was attached to the flat end was a much smaller cylinder, tipped with a conical nose and powered with a conical engine. It reminded Tony of the command and service modules of the Apollo series of spacecraft that had first taken humankind to the moon nearly thirty-five years before.

Remembering the last station's attack, Tony activated the shields, moments before laser fire shot across space. The first shots were weak, but quickly intensified as he approached. Tony activated his targeting computer and destroyed the two guns currently within his sight.

He initiated contact with the station, and reached an alien man who immediately demanded, "Why are you attacking this station?" Tony almost laughed.

"This is First Officer Tony Verdeschi from Moonbase Alpha, and I demand that you return Maya, whom you have kidnapped without provocation from our base."

"This is Commander Lortryp. What do you mean 'without provocation?' That can't be true. There was obviously a reason. Your base must have destroyed the Far Station."

"No. Our moon destroyed it, and we cannot control its course."

"That's ridiculous. Satellite worlds just don't..."

Tony impatiently cut him off, "I demand that you return my friend immediately!"

"Your... friend... was transferred to the next station upon arrival at this station."

"Then have her transferred back--immediately!"

A trace of fear crept into the man's features. "I can't! I don't have the authority. She's being taken into the system at Council orders."

"Then contact your council at once!"

"That won't help. They won't take their orders back."

"Like hell they won't."

Lortryp made no response. Tony could see he wasn't going to do anything.

"Get in contact with them immediately, or I will destroy your station."

Lortryp blanched. "You can't be serious."

"Try me."

"But that's... uncivilized."

"You call your kidnapping Maya civilized?"

"Of course. It's the Law."

Tony was about to ask "what law," but the slow rotation of the station was bringing another, intact laser into view. It was intact, much larger and more powerful-looking--perhaps used to destroy the largest incoming asteroids. It was now taking aim at the Eagle.

He immediately brought his lasers to bear on it, but before he could destroy it, it got a shot out. Tony's shot still fired true, destroying the laser, but the Eagle shook with the impact of the other shot. Some of the energy got through the shield and circuits started blowing. Alarms filled the pilot section.

None were immediately serious, and Tony flew the Eagle around the station to destroy the remaining lasers. The last was quickly destroyed, but in anger and frustration, Tony continued firing at the station.

"We were trying to defend ourselves!" Lortryp shouted, almost in terror.

Tony did not even look at the monitor.

"For pity's sake, Tonyverdeschi, there are twenty-three people aboard! We had orders to transport her into the system, and we did! We can't do anything to reverse the action or the orders! Maya's not here!"

It only infuriated Tony further to hear that there was nothing he could do. He kept firing.

"Stop firing! I will try to get her back," Lortryp shouted. "Just stop shooting!"


Chapter Ten
Leaders

Garolak looked at his aide, Rylatra. "Are you serious?" he asked dumbly.

Rylatra nodded.

"Oh, Koru. Call an Emergency Session immediately."

Rylatra didn't outwardly react, even though she knew an Emergency Session hadn't been called in over a century. Inwardly, it frightened her.

Garolak left her to that duty, then left his office and slowly wandered down the hallways to the Council chambers. He blankly looked at the cheerfully multicolored wall designs. They didn't seem appropriate. They were too joyous, meant to excite, rather than calm. They grated on his nerves.

To Garolak's surprise, he found half the councilors gathered when he finally reached the chamber. Most of the rest arrived shortly after he did. They looked as if they had awakened unhappily, though several hours before. No, he corrected himself, they look as if they've been up all night, like myself.

Without preamble, Councilor Gastka asked, "So what is your bad news?"

That didn't sound good. Despite his urge to ask for an explanation from the man, Garolak held back. One thing at a time. "Ten minutes ago, the shuttle carrying the alien from Tyrok-17 to T-16 called Sixteen to report that it had lost contact with Seventeen. Sixteen could not raise Seventeen either, so they called Scan Station Nyka-2, which found Seventeen intact, but also turned up something else. There were three ships in the area between Sixteen and Seventeen."

"Three?" several councilors said in unison.

"Three," he confirmed. "In addition to the shuttle nearing Sixteen, there was a mystery ship chasing it, and another in close proximity to Seventeen."

Stunned silence ruled the Council for several seconds as this information was digested. There couldn't be three Lykrontak shuttles in one segment, so two had to be alien.

Garolak continued. "Several minutes ago, we lost contact with T-17, and we have not been able to raise T-16 either. N-2 thinks there has been laser fire in proximity to both stations, and it has energized the hyperspace links in a way that creates distortion in hypercomms directed towards Sixteen and Seventeen, but does not interfere greatly with sensors." A confused-looking Gastka was going to ask a question, but he cut him off. "Please, I am not a scientist, so I don't know how that all works out. We can see them, but we can't talk to them."

Gastka subsided unhappily, frowning. Garolak immediately regretted his outburst. Why were they hurting each other? This insane situation was bringing out the worst in him. When he was fully calm again, he asked Gastka a question. "What is your bad news?"

"People have found out about the destruction of Tyrok-19."

"So what? We released that fact hours ago."

"Forgive me," Gastka said politely. "I didn't phrase that correctly. The public has found out about how Tyrok-19 was destroyed; rogue planet and all. Everyone knows the aliens attacked the station."

Garolak took it calmly, instead pursuing a minor point. "Syranak argued the planet itself may have destroyed the station, and that the alien base was not directly responsible."

"Well, that may have been true, but it is not what reached the public," Gastka said.

Most nodded, confirming the situation existed over much of the planet.

Councilor Pylorka spoke up. "It's worse."

Garolak had always disliked her methods of introducing subjects; now he hated it.

She continued. "My public has learned of the alien, and her shape- shifting abilities."

"What?" Garolak shouted with a fury no one had ever heard from him before. "That was supposed to be kept quiet!"

"I know, but the footage of her changing shapes was apparently intercepted somewhere in transit between Tyrok-17 and here. It is all over the 'comms."

Garolak could feel his face turning red from an emotion he had never felt before: rage. He tried to calm himself, but failed utterly. He pounded the table hard, causing the others to snap their heads around in startled surprise. Somehow, though he didn't know why, it seemed to help, though not as much as he would have liked.

Rynar continued grimly. "The public is in a state of terror. I was swamped with calls demanding she be killed."

"Killed?" Garolak said numbly.

"Others were demanding to know how they can tell if their neighbors were humans or alien shape-changing monsters, and how the latter can be killed. I tried to calm them; but I doubt I succeeded."

Garolak felt as if he were going to be sick. He had a helpless feeling there was little he could do about the panicked and brutal thoughts surging through Lykrontak. Looking for someone who could ease the planet's sudden fear through words, he turned to one of the elder members of the council. "Hajrar, get on the videocomm and calm everyone down."

"What do I tell them?"

"So most know of that"--he wanted to say monster but didn't--"woman's shape-changing. Acknowledge the fact but say the situation is under control. There is only one, and she is in a stasis field. Yes, an alien planet collided with Tyrok-19, and we plucked the alien from it as punishment to the people there, but she was the only one of her kind among a group of Lykrontak-like people."

"You know how ridiculous it's going to sound to claim she was the only one of her kind," Hajrar said. "We know that, but is the public going to believe it?"

Garolak had to resist the urge to pound the table again. "You are right, of course." He thought for a moment, then came up with the solution. "Obtain the readings from Scan Station Nyka-2, and have them released surreptitiously, in a way which will get them picked up quickly, but not traced to us. Hopefully they'll believe the scans." Some of the councilors looked horrified at the dissembling; Garolak responded with continued frustration. "If any of you have a better idea, I'd love to hear it!" They said nothing, so he continued. "But try to make sure nothing gets out about the alien ships or the loss of communication with Tyrok-16 and 17. Let's take this one step at a time."

Hajrar nodded solemnly and left.

For hours, the remaining councilors haggled over what to do about the alien and the alien ships.

Sending a fleet of armed shuttles would only fuel rumors of invasion by shape-shifting aliens. Furthermore, the alien ships were too far out, too fast, and apparently too well-armed to be dealt with. It would take weeks for fully-armed fighters to get out that far. By then, the alien planet would have reached the system boundary and flitted back into hyperspace, taking all the ships with it.

Hajrar returned, reporting the public heard his report, and had, in general, believed him, but was still demanding the death of the alien.

It was an unthinkable idea--yet it had been thought up by most of the planet.

Is everyone insane? Garolak wondered.

He was too numb to be surprised when some of the councilors argued for just that solution, as horrifying as it was. Garolak pointed out that Syranak's report before she had transported from Tyrok-17 indicated the alien was quite intelligent and had seemed to be quite well-mannered, as well as calm, most of the time.

Traspako laughed hollowly. "Because she knew she could kill them all later."

Garolak was surprised to hear the deadpan Pylorka defend the alien: "She could have, but she didn't. She acts far more gently than the monster she looked like. When options ran out, she tried to defend herself, as any of us would do when cornered."

They continued arguing, even more violently this time. Finally, to everyone's relief, Garolak's aide Rylatra came in. She was shocked to hear the initial uproar, but approached Garolak and whispered in his ear. She left, and he turned to the others. Too tired to soften the blow, he just let it out.

"We've now totally lost Tyrok-18. It disappeared, presumably destroyed."

Everyone turned pale. Two stations destroyed. A hundred and ten people dead. And two more stations were out of contact, though apparently still intact, unless a hull breach had occurred, and the interference that was completely blocking hypercomms was also partially hindering with hyperscans, so they couldn't tell the physical state of T-16 or T-17 at this distance. It seemed like everything along that radial was falling apart.

"The confusing part," Garolak continued when everyone seemed composed again, "is that no alien ships were ever detected anywhere near Eighteen, so we don't know why it has been destroyed or what happened to Syranak's party."

Speculation still centered on alien ships, however, with Traspako doing nothing for everyone's mood by suggesting the aliens could possibly make their ships disappear at will.

Finally, a little good news started filtering in. It seemed that one of the alien ships was hurrying back to the alien planet from Tyrok-17. Unfortunately, the other one--which had chased a Lykrontak shuttle to Tyrok-16--had returned to Seventeen and was now floating there, for reasons unknown. Hypercomm channels to these stations were starting to clear, so they hoped to regain contact soon.

Terrifying news followed less than an hour later, however: the public had learned of the alien ships, the inability to contact Tyrok-16 and 17, and the destruction of Eighteen. Panic was spreading like wildfire. They were horrified to learn one man had killed a stranger wandering through his neighborhood, thinking it was an alien disguised as a human.

By now, the alien primarily responsible had been alternatively transported and shuttled down to Tyrok-1, and transferred to Medical Station Sala-7.

One councilor argued they "should analyze and dissect it, to try to discover how it could make those shape-changes." Garolak felt like throwing up. Fortunately, no one broached the idea again. By now, however, they were all shouting like a pack of lanar.

Garolak was losing control of the council--and the planet.

"Silence!" he finally roared. He was gratified when he instantly received it. He had at least that much control. "If we keep her in this system, the situation will only worsen. We well analyze her for one hour, then send her to the Ratak System, and notify the public of this and that the alien ships are fleeing. I don't care if the last part is only partially true. We must restore order immediately, before we all start killing each other. And keep trying to raise that alien base. If they are not responding to hypercomm, try light-speed signals."

Traspako immediately protested. "What about the people who have relatives on Ratak? They won't be happy to hear about the monster being sent there to prey on them."

"So what?" Pylorka said. "Ratak is a banishment planet, and I doubt she would really do anything there."

"Do you want to guarantee that?" Traspako said acidly.

Garolak put a halt to this argument. "Then say she was killed, but send her to Ratak anyway. I will have no part of killing someone who--despite her alien ability--did not kill. We haven't killed killers in centuries, and I'm not going to start now, not even for an alien as bizarre as this one." Garolak heard murmurs of discontent, but they subsided. None of them could argue for a return to darker ages, even if the public seemed to want it. As with the council, it seemed everyone would have to be reminded of that. Unfortunately, with all of the other problems, it would not be so simple.

Garolak thought of how Syranak's argument and everyone's approval had brought the alien into the system in the first place. It had seemed so easy to simply follow the law in punishing the aliens for the destruction of Transfer Station Tyrok-19, without considering just how differently they would react. Or, more fundamentally, just how different they were. For some reason, they had never thought about those possibilities in a situation of first contact with intelligent aliens. In the centuries they had spent exploring a handful of nearby star systems, they had rarely found anything as advanced as mammal-like forms--certainly no sentient life. They had been lulled into a complete lack of concern about the possibilities, and were now paying the price, in the form of planet-wide panic. His thoughts turned towards that issue, wondering how to halt the shockingly rapid breakdown occurring because of the perception that an alien invasion was in progress.



[Hastily jotted diagram of Alphan Encounter by a Lykrontak councilor.
Moon is skirting across upper left corner of picture, on edge of the Lykrontak system,
intersecting first the Tyrok Radial and then the Utrax Radial.
The Ratak star system is represented at right side as a distant target of another radial.]


Syranak opened her eyes, and found herself facing a tall, dark-haired, almost ominous-looking man. He was at least seven centimeters taller than her--probably the tallest person she had ever met. Having to look upward at him bothered her. So did his tone: barely contained impatience and anger, spoken with accented yet quite comprehensible words.

"I am Commander John Koenig of Moonbase Alpha. Who are you?"

Then she looked around, surprised. Not really at the alien base--except to note it was done mostly in hideously dull greys and whites with a few somewhat redeeming areas of orange--but at the smallness of her party. Only Noktrak remained--and he looked confused as well. Something had happened during the transport. People had been lost, much to her horror, which she quickly suppressed. Maya's statement did not come to mind, for she was more concerned about not having the force she had brought. In fear, her hand moved to her belt, reaching for her communicator, but stopped. The rules had just changed, but she had a mission here; showing fear in front of the aliens would only undermine it. In a second, she had recovered.

"I am Councilor Syranak of Lykrontak, and this is my aide, Noktrak."

Koenig had not missed their immediate shock, but was unsure of its source. "What do you want?" he asked, not in a completely polite tone.

"You have destroyed one of our stations, and you are headed directly for another, which you collide with and destroy in a few days. We need your help to save them."

All the Alphans present were shocked by the nerve of the alien leader. They kidnapped an Alphan, then expected Alpha's help?

"Don't they have a means of escape?" Koenig asked.

"They recently had an accident involving their shuttlecraft. It collided with the station and in the process damaged the transporter."

"Only one shuttlecraft to service a station?"

"Yes, one has always been sufficient."

"One of anything useful is never sufficient." Helena gave him a puzzled look. He ignored it, for politeness was not his goal. He had noted Syranak's authoritative manner instantly, and realized he might not get the answers he needed if he allowed her to bargain from a position of verbal strength.

"Well, it does look insufficient in this case," Syranak admitted, now wary of this alien commander. "The crew cannot be transferred directly from the station, but must first be removed some distance from the station. Only your ships can do this."

"If you wanted our help, why did you kidnap Maya?" Helena asked.

"To satisfy the Law, of course."

"What do you mean?"

Syranak did not seem to grasp the exact direction of the question, for she answered along a different line. "I was not entirely convinced by the arguments of my fellow councilors that you intentionally destroyed our station, and when detailed scanner readings showed an alien among you, I argued for this lighter sentence."

Sandra, unable to hold her disbelief at the last part of Syranak's statement, spoke up. "Your scanners are powerful enough to not only detect humanoids at that distance, but to identify which one was not human?"

"Yes," Syranak said proudly, before continuing her original monologue. "Usually we banish a good friend of the offender, or even a family member if the crime is severe enough. But since I did not believe you intentionally destroyed the station, I argued to reduce the sentence to banishment of one person I knew was not related to any of you."

"Why thank you for acting in our behalf," Koenig interjected.

Syranak entirely missed the sarcasm in the commander's voice, for she continued with her previous statement. "The Law will be marginally served, without any pain to you."

Koenig immediately protested. "Without any pain? What the hell does that mean? What kind of 'law' do you have?"

Syranak looked at him, again missing his main question. "I don't understand all of your protests. She is alien to you, is she not? What could you have cared about her, except as a servant? Don't you put your prisoners to some useful work?"

Koenig was furious. "Is that what you see aliens as? Servants? Or maybe slaves? Is that your real intent for Alpha? Is Maya your first victim? Or are you sparing us because we don't look alien to you?"

"What would make you think we don't care for her?" asked Helena.

Syranak was distressed at the barrage of questions. They weren't reacting in a normal way. She felt as if she were standing amongst barbarians. Didn't these Alphans have any civilized laws?

Sandra's console beeped. She pressed a number of buttons, then turned to Koenig. "Commander, an Eagle is returning. I believe it is Eagle Nine."

"Fraser's ship? Put it up on the big screen and try to raise it."

Syranak looked at the alien ship. It was generally rectangular in shape, almost pure white with some shadows--and some subtle but noticeable damage. It seemed to be missing pieces, while other parts were bent or burnt. It was obviously damaged, and she quickly drew the obvious-- though incorrect--conclusion: that it had been sent to attack some of the stations, and had suffered damage. She felt she was in terrible danger. The transport had lost most of her party, and now the two of them who remained were surrounded by barbarians. They had to get out of here immediately. She reached for her communicator.

Koenig and a security guard, Tom Jackson, spotted the movement of her hand towards one of the devices on her belt. The former immediately nodded to the latter, who promptly grabbed her hand and pulled it away from the device. Before she could do anything with her other arm, it too was grabbed, this time by Helena. Syranak struggled, but the guard soon had both of her arms pinned behind her. At the same time, her guard, Noktrak, pulled out his weapon; but before he could use it, he was stunned by another guard who had arrived in the command room. It was an alien beam that did not confine Noktrak in a stasis field, and she suddenly feared he had been shot dead.

At Syranak's horrified glance towards Noktrak, Koenig assured the woman he would recover, then ordered their equipment isolated, and the two people put under guard, separate from each other. Helena called Medical Center for a stretcher. Koenig wondered if confining an alien leader was a good idea, but just decided to go along with his instincts for the moment. Jackson, with the help of the other guard, Al'Siad, started pulling Syranak out of Command Center.

"Wait!" Syranak shouted, trying to stop the guards. The guards paused for a moment, but on seeing no interest from the commander, continued pulling her towards the door. "Wait! Commander Johnkoenig! What are you doing?" At Koenig's upraised hand, the guards stopped again.

"Punishing you," he said coldly--so coldly that Helena gave him a startled glance, which he ignored. They seemed to have a rather bizarre concept of punishment, and he wanted to get it out in the open.

"Punishing me? Why?" Her composure had evaporated, and confusion had crept in.

"You have committed a crime."

"Crime? What crime?"

"Kidnapping."

"But why imprison me?"

"Because we pass sentence on the perpetrator of the crime."

"So why imprison me?" she repeated.

"We imprison those directly responsible for a crime," Helena stated.

Stunned silence from the alien woman. He had gotten through.

"That is our law," Koenig added. "Take her away.

Syranak's open mouth as she was removed from Command Center showed she was just as shocked by Earth laws as the Terrans were of hers. The Alphans who realized this deeper meaning of her expression felt sorry for her. Who was right, and who was wrong? Her manner evidently indicated that their law was very effective on their planet. These people seemed to care about each other so much that imprisonment of a friend was more painful than being imprisoned oneself.

After direct contact with dozens of different races, Koenig had learned- -sometimes painfully--the lesson that alien cultures could not be judged by first impressions, at least not with any hope of accuracy. Maybe they cared more about their friends than even the tight-knit Alphans did. Then Koenig thought about it a little differently: many of the Alphans would probably have offered to take Maya's place, if given the choice. And Maya herself, given the choice, would have willingly accepted the "punishment" that she had been forced to accept. Thus the Alphans did care about each other more than themselves in the same way Syranak's people did, even if it didn't take the Lykrontak form: civil Law.

Eagle Nine touched down an hour later, and good news followed from Medical Center ten minutes after that, when Dr. Russell reported that Bill Fraser was regaining consciousness, though the exact cause of his condition stubbornly remained a mystery. Helena could only guess he was badly shaken, or perhaps space itself had been distorted, "bruising" Bill's body and mind in the process.

John had been working for sixteen hours straight, with only a few brief breaks. For once, without prompting, he heeded the advice Helena had given him on so many other occasions: he retired to his quarters to get several hours of sleep, also ordering those who had been there for more than one shift to do the same.

He would leave Syranak to stew in her cell, hoping it would do some good. With a new individual for a new culture, he couldn't be certain she wouldn't harden her defenses even more in the time; but he realized he wouldn't be very effective either way if he didn't rest. Better for her to think everything through, and hopefully come to the conclusion that she had to alter her approach towards the whole situation. And John needed the Councilor to do that, or Alpha might never see Maya again.


Chapter Eleven
Differences

Moonbase Alpha status report, 1041 days after leaving Earth orbit. Dr. Helena Russell recording. Overnight, both Bill Fraser and the alien male, Noktrak, regained full consciousness. It has been 24 hours since colliding with the alien object, which Sandra Benes and Jim Haines have concluded to be a space station--not a ship. Maya is still missing after being forcibly transported from Alpha shortly after the collision. No starships have been seen in vicinity of Alpha, and Haines has determined the transfer beam was strong enough to have emanated from the area that we received a signal, possibly from Maya. Unfortunately, only one Eagle is returning from that rescue attempt. It will be in communication range shortly.

"Eagle One to Moonbase Alpha, Eagle One to Moonbase Alpha. Do you copy?" It was Alan.

"We are receiving you, Eagle One," Sandra responded professionally, though not without a bit of warmth in her voice.

A picture of the Eagle cockpit appeared, and everyone sighed in relief when the saw not only Alan, but Tony as well. Neither appeared hurt.

Maya, however, was not with them.

"Good to see you both," John immediately said. "When we saw only one Eagle, we feared the worst."

"Yeah, it isn't the best, though, since we didn't get Maya," Tony said grimly.

There was silence for a few seconds, then Koenig continued.

"What happened to you? Why is there only one Eagle?"

"It's a long story," Alan said.

"Well, okay, tell it to me when you get down."

Seven minutes later, Alan and Tony walked into Command Center, sipping the computer's idea of hot coffee. John got up, smiling, and patted them both on the shoulder. "Good to see you both back in one piece." Then he asked the question he asked before. "Why is there only one Eagle?"

After a moment, Tony answered, "We left it behind."

Koenig's expression turned sour and confused. "Left it behind? Why?"

"We had to use most of its fuel to get back."

"But it had enough fuel when you started out. Look, I know you care for her, but--"

Tony looked a little outraged, but Alan was the one who interrupted the commander. "I think we had better start at the beginning."

John and Helena listened as they recounted the story, frowning at the part about Tony simply letting loose his lasers on the second station. That was what Koenig had been afraid of. Fortunately, Tony had taken pity on the helpless Lykrontak and left only minimal damage on the strong-shelled station.

When Tony and Alan finished, John and Helena quickly filled them in one the arrival of Syranak. Not surprisingly, Tony immediately demanded to see her. After some of Tony's overly emotional response at the stations, John was going to refuse, but Helena signalled he should accept. Trusting Helena, John nodded affirmation. As they all headed out of Command Center, John held back to talk to Helena. "What's your idea?" he asked softly. "All he's going to do is butt heads with Syranak."

"That may be what we need to crack Syranak a little more. Having Tony yell at her a bit might help her realize how much we care about Maya."

"You have a good point. She's a councilor, and if she can be convinced to have Maya returned...."

A guard had lead Tony and Alan to Syranak's temporary quarters. Alpha had no detention cells as such, but the room was well guarded. When John and Helena arrived, Tony was already in a heated argument with the alien woman.

"... You call kidnapping an innocent person civilized?"

"Of course. It's punishment for your destroying our Far Station. It's actually a rather light sentence, in my opinion."

"Light sentence?" Tony yelled in anger.

"We knew the fault had to be yours. We set its punishment accordingly. The decision cannot be revoked."

"What do you mean 'accordingly?' "

"Don't you understand civilized law? You yourself admitted that she was a friend. Thus it would be punishment for her to be taken from you."

Tony looked as if he was going to go into an apoplectic fit over the statement about civilized law, so Koenig cut him off. "But what about her pain?" he asked.

"If you can feel that pain, then you are civilized after all; so how can you not understand the deterrence principle built into any civilized law?"

"I understand the deterrence principle well enough; but for us, it takes a different form."

"Explain," Syranak demanded.

"We punish the person responsible."

"I don't understand. So do we."

Koenig sighed, realizing he had not gotten through. "I am not making it clear enough. Maybe an example will help. You admitted that you were the person responsible for the order to kidnap Maya. Because of that fact, I have decided that you will be the one we imprison."

Some sort of understanding dawned on Syranak's face; it was quickly followed by surprise, fear, and then shock. "So that's why you had me confined to this room. But what kind of deterrence is that?"

"It is deterrence." Koenig left out the fact that it had not always been so. "Don't your people have any sense of self-preservation?"

"Of course we do. Don't your people have any sense of love for each other?" she countered.

"Of course we do." he said, parroting her condescending tone.

"Then why would anyone commit a crime if it would hurt their close friends or loved ones?"

"If they were desperate enough to commit a crime in the first place, then many would ignore that consequence." Again, Koenig intentionally left something out. In Earth's past--he hoped it was the past for Alpha-- some criminals would gladly welcome another being punished, even if it were a close friend or family member. But that was the past. Koenig continued, "Are you telling me that no one ever commits a crime on Lykrontak; that no one ignores the consequence to friends and family?"

Syranak said nothing, but her blush answered for her.

"So you have your deviants, just as we do."

Silence held for several seconds. She finally recovered some of her wits, blurting out, "You don't understand. It is the Law, and a judgment cannot be altered," she stated with finality. "Be thankful it is a light punishment."

The pride in her voice grated on Koenig's nerves. "From hundreds of billions of miles away, you arbitrarily decided that we didn't care deeply for her, and that we wouldn't care if you simply took her? Then you have the gall to call it light punishment?"

Syranak opened her mouth, then closed it again. She couldn't defend herself against this accusation. "Perhaps I was in error about the lightness of the punishment."

"Yet you still defend the punishment itself. Why?"

"You may not have intentionally destroyed the base, but our scanners detected your planet so close to where the Far Station had been that we concluded your planet destroyed it."

"Then why punish her?"

"Because you obviously took no steps to prevent it."

"And how the hell would we have done that?" Tony burst out.

"By changing its course, of course."

The Alphans all looked at each other. Ohh, if only it could be so easy....

"If we had that kind of control, we wouldn't have been flying through interstellar space in the first place," Carter stated.

She looked at him with confusion. "Then why... how...?" she stammered.

Koenig took over. "This 'planet,' as you keep calling it, used to be a natural satellite orbiting our home world. We had established a base here, only to have the whole Moon blown out of our solar system when some dangerous substances on the far side exploded." Koenig did not add that humans had put the 'substances' there. "The explosion destroyed most of the material, so the best we could hope from another explosion is a slight directional and velocity change, well before reaching the problem. We couldn't have done anything to prevent the destruction, as it happened mere minutes after emerging into this system from our faster-than-light travel.

"Our outward monitoring systems have been repeatedly damaged, so we didn't even know the station was there until it hit the Moon, triggering a tectonic disturbance, which in turn set off our still-operational moonquake detectors. It was only when we dispatched a spaceship to the site did we find out what that was. We didn't even find out until after Maya had disappeared. You were already punishing her and us for something we hadn't even known we had done.

"I'm sorry about your Far Station, but there was nothing we could do to prevent it. And Maya was never at fault for this Moon's course, for we met her only after we were blasted from our home system. So if anything, we are more guilty of a crime than her."

"It doesn't matter to the Law," Syranak protested, though more weakly at this point.

"It does to us. What you did is criminal by our laws. You committed an act of aggression against Maya and, by consequence, to our entire base. We sent ships to attempt to recover her, as our morality demanded. We see your actions as unlawful, and uncivilized. It was even more uncivilized to force your laws upon us, without even the decency to try to talk first, to find out what happened."

Syranak remained silent, having no rebuttal to these facts. Commander Johnkoenig firmly believed in what he said. She was suddenly not so sure she could fault them for any of their reactions. These people obviously cared a great deal for each other, even the alien among them. Indeed, the man named Tonyverdeschi seemed extremely attached to Maya. They cared so much so that they had taken steps that no Lykrontak would consider. They didn't accept the punishment. They tried to get her back. It was unheard of--at least Syranak had never heard of such a case. "What about our other Far Station, which your Moon will destroy?"

"Return Maya, and we will help."

Syranak's head swam. This was not good. "That's out of my power."

"No, it is not--it had better be not. You're a councilor. Do you want us to help your other station?" Syranak nodded weakly. "Then will you help to get Maya returned to us?"

Syranak was defeated. On virtually every count, she had misjudged the situation. She had assumed the Alphans, obviously civilized, would react in a civilized manner. They were indeed civilized, but in a different manner. They did not react as Lykrontak. She had underestimated this alien commander as well. He was very shrewd, and far more equipped to deal with the unexpected and come out the victor. She had never been defeated so badly. "You win. I will help you, if you help us in return."

In an image eerily familiar to Syranak, the alien commander held out his hand to one of the men standing around him. The man walked up and set her communicator on the commander's open palm. Now she understood what Maya felt like, and found she was beginning to regret her own actions.

"I will give this to your aide, and he will contact your Council."

This was done, but Noktrak had no luck in raising Tyrok-18, the station they had beamed from. They would also out of range of any other stations until final approach to the doomed Utrax-19.

Syranak's mind raced. What happened to Tyrok-18? We are still in range. Then Maya's words finally came back to mind. "You are in danger of disrupting the whole system," she had said. Oh, no, she was telling the truth. But what happened? She cursed herself for ridiculing Maya instead of listening to her.

"Are any communicators on your planet powerful enough to reach this far out?" Alan asked.

Noktrak nodded. Not Lykrontak itself, but the stations deep within the star system not only had powerful scanners, but communicators--of all varieties--as well.

"Then you had better hope they contact us," Koenig said coldly, as he and the others left. Again, she and Noktrak were separated, leaving Syranak alone in the room. It was not a prison cell--at least not an obvious one, since it even seemed to have computer controls. Unfortunately, the script on it was alien, and even if she understood the characters, she knew that the terminal would have been deactivated. That prompted her to wonder how all of these Alphans could understand the Lykrontak language. She forced herself to drop that question and turn to more important things. She reviewed the whole situation, and found that every misjudgment had occurred because of erroneous assumptions on her part. She realized it had been a mistake to apply her people's Law to what was obviously a non-Lykrontak culture. The first contact had been tainted from the moment it started, and the decisions of Syranak and others had made it progressively worse.


Narlank, squatting at the edge of a forest, looked out over a huge open area. A ship was descending in the middle of the area, over a kilometer away--a silhouette in the weak light of the setting Second Star. He called to another man and a woman. They huddled about him, watching the ship as it landed. It sat, quiescent, for several minutes. They all knew that they had been seen, but that was expected. The ship couldn't care less--as long they kept their current distance. Finally, it opened up and disgorged several people carrying an object between them. It was a familiar drill, with a somewhat unfamiliar ending. Narlank was surprised to see them merely drop the object and scurry into their ship, which took off within seconds.

Before the ship was even out of sight, they broke into the open area. It was a huge bare spot on a slight hill. It took them five minutes to jog the mile to the center of the open area. When they reached the object, they were not surprised to find a human form--female in this case. They were surprised to find it still encased in the usual reflective stasis field.

Nyla looked at Narlank. "Why would they leave her encased in a stasis field? Those things last for centuries."

"I don't know. There must be a reason. Maybe it's a new kind of field that disintegrates after a while. Let's wait and see."

"We can't. The salar will be hunting soon," Nyla reminded Narlank.

"Of course. We'll pull her into the forest." Cocooned in the stasis field, she was as stiff as a statue, and it took two of them to carry her. They reached the forest and set up camp, lighting a fire against the approaching night. After two hours, the stasis field started changing from its metal-like form to a multi-colored, tarnished-looking mess. They all backed up several meters, unsure what would happen. Perhaps it would explode. Within a moment, however, the field disappeared with a strong snapping sound. They hesitantly walked back to the woman. Almost as one, they gasped. The woman was not Lykrontak. "What the...?" Sortak shouted, pulling a knife out, but not approaching. Shock held the rest rooted to their spots.

They could all could see distress come over the alien's body. Though she was unconscious, she seemed to be going into some sort of shock. Her face instantly paled as her breathing became shallow and irregular. They stood there dumbly, unsure of what to do, afraid to approach her. The alien started trembling. "If that was a new field, it sure is a cruel one," Nyla whispered.

Narlank stooped down beside her. There was pain in her expression, and when he put his hand on her forehead, he found it clammy with cold sweat. He grabbed her hand, which was also cold. "Shhh," he said quietly. "It's all over." It was all he could do. They did not have any medical equipment. Oddly, the contact seemed to help her. Her expression grew peaceful, and her breathing deepened and returned to normal. Warmth slowly returned to her skin. "Tony?" she suddenly muttered. They all started a bit at the noise, then looked at each other and shrugged.

Maya felt miserable, but she opened her eyes and looked around her, remembering her dilemma. "Lykrontak? Is this Lykrontak?"

Sortak fingered his knife nervously, try to find comfort in its cold sharpness. Maya, her vision blurry and her head and body throbbing with pain, did not see any of this as she struggled to sit up. None of the Lykrontak considered it strange she spoke their language.

"No," Narlank finally answered. "This is Ratak."

Maya, her vision blurry and her head and body throbbing with pain, struggled to lift herself off her back. "Ratak?" she asked as Narlank helped her to a sitting position.

This surprised them. "You didn't know your destination?"

She shook her head, then added "no" just in case the gesture was misunderstood.

"Quarantine Planet Ratak."

"Quarantine?"

"Banishment from Lykrontak by a cruel Law."

"Oh, the 'Law.' I know what you mean by cruel. I was kidnapped from my home for no apparent reason and informed it was punishment for something I didn't even do."

Narlank looked at the others and smiled. This was getting more interesting every moment.

"I've never heard of anyone meeting any intelligent aliens in the systems Lykrontak has explored."

She smiled in ironic amusement. "Actually, our Moon is skirting the edge of the Lykrontak system. And to be honest, the rest of my friends there look more like you than me. Wait, if this isn't the Lykrontak system, then where am I? I need to see some stars."

"Well, there's a clearing just over there, but its almost night and the salar will be hunting soon, and you'll be an easy meal out there. What good will it be to see the stars?"

"I need to know where I am. It felt like an eternity in that terrible damping field, but I think it was only a little less than a day." Maya slowly got up to her feet.

The others exchanged confused glances. "You can remember being in the stasis field?" Nyla said incredulously.

"Yes. Can't you? An absolutely... hideous experience." she shivered with the memory.

"No, none of us ever felt anything, except for the first and last instants."

This confused Maya for a moment. The damping--stasis--field had been a vividly memorable form of torture for her, but these people had apparently gone through it with no conscious memory. Maya drew the obvious conclusion: it simply couldn't handle a Psychon--a metamorph-- very well.

"What do you mean your Moon is skirting the edge of Lykrontak? Is it just flying through space?"

"Yes. It was orbiting a planet; but an accident propelled it into deep space."

Sortak jumped in, returning to the main point. "How did you throw the field off?"

"I don't know for sure," she said evasively. "It must have had a flaw. I need to get to that clearing."

Narlank pointed towards the clearing, and the alien stumbled out there.

"What about the salar?" Nyla shouted to her.

"Don't worry," the alien yelled back as she reached the edge of the clearing.

The small group looked at each other with expressions of disbelief. " 'Don't worry'?" Nyla laughed.

"I didn't like her response to the question about the stasis field," Sortak said. "There's something strange about her, and I don't mean the obvious. She gives me the creeps. I say we kill her now."

"No," Narlank said slowly. Sortak started to protest, but Narlank overrode him. "I agree there's something strange. But let's just watch her for a bit."

They then rushed into the clearing and caught up with the alien. "Wait," Nyla called. Maya slowed, and the other woman continued speaking. "What do you mean, 'don't worry?' The salar are vicious creatures that hunt in packs and tend to kill anything, including their weaker members at times. They love to prey on animals--and people--in the clearings."

Maya used a technique popular with the Lykrontak as she continued up the hill: she changed the subject. "I want to get off this planet. Probability is high that I have to do it on my own, and quickly, for the Moon may not pass through this star system."

The others looked at each other, still not quite believing her story of a traveling satellite, but... "It seems we have a number of things in common, especially the desire to escape," Narlank stated.

He had hoped for an opportunity for years. Most of the others, including his two comrades, had little desire to escape, for they had a whole world to themselves, to their depredations. He had no doubt of their guilt in horrific acts he could scarcely comprehend. But somehow, despite all of Lykrontak's technology, sophistication, civilization--and the testimony--he had been not only accused of a brutal murder, he had be convicted and sentenced for it. It was one of those crimes which had a very unusual punishment, banishing the one directly responsible. In only one way, it was better, for he would not have wanted his wife and children sent here. Among barbarians, he had to play the barbarian. But now... someone absolutely incredible had just been dropped in front of him. Her claims of innocence resonated with his, and the desperate hope welled up in him--hope she could do something to help him off this planet of abomination. He struggled to maintain his demeanor, but noticed Nyla and Sortak were having the same problem. Now what about them...? he suddenly worried, apprehensibly.

All three "Ratakians" came out of their musings at the same time, and Nyla quickly jumped back to the original subject. "You seem very self- possessed about something," she told the alien.

Sortak was much more blunt: "What are you hiding?"

Maya paused. Lykrontak demeanor tended to rapidly shift between direct and evasive; but something about this group bothered her, despite their being in the same situation as she.

Her pause was just a bit too long.

Nyla had an extremely sharp mind, and turned just as blunt as Sortak. "You have some ability, something you know you can use. Something to do with your reaction to and perception of the stasis field."

Maya was startled. This was the first Lykrontak she had met that seemed to almost instantly realize the possibility an alien could have some "unusual" traits. Was it a lesson this "banishment" planet--Ratak--had taught?

Nyla's idea had not occurred to Narlank, and he was taken aback. He had always known Nyla had an intuitive grasp on other people; but why hadn't she seen through his act of "guilt" and not declared him a "filthy clean," as they referred to the mostly-theoretical concept of innocent people imprisoned on Ratak? Maybe she has. I was not the first time he thought of the possibility; but it was the first time he thought it might be true? Now why would she protect me by not saying it? Maybe.... The thought was interrupted by Sortak's voice.

"Nyla's right. You are hiding something. Either you can be forthcoming, or you can be de--" he cut himself off mid-word-- "mistrusted."

Maya sighed in resignation. Somehow, they had partially pierced through the veil of silence Maya kept around her ability--something no other alien had done. Like Syranak had been at one moment, saying something... beyond mere perceptiveness. For the second time, she wondered whether some Lykrontak had a light telepathic ability.

She decided to bargain, even though she was not quite sure of her position. "I will tell you what I may be able to do for us, if you tell me what standard procedure is for the drop-offs."

Nyla frowned, and this time Narlank felt he was on the same wavelength at the same time. The alien--what is her name?--was going to give only a partial answer by tailoring it to the answer about "standard procedure." Sortak must have caught some feeling of this, for he started fingering the handle of his knife. To forestall any stupidity, Narlank answered the alien woman's question, informing her that a Defense Shuttle arrived almost every day to drop off two or three prisoners, and that they shot at nearly every living thing in the nearest kilometer before landing. That was why this particular clearing was so bare, even of vegetation (since someone could hide in it).

"Do they ever shoot at birds?" Maya asked.

"No," Nyla answered. "The birds on Ratak are harmless to humans, but a lot of other things are not, especially the salar. What are you getting at? Do you have some control over animals?"

"You could say that."

Jumping ahead of Nyla, Narlank gently questioned her, feeling they were too close to an answer to drive the alien away with too fierce of a demand. "But you did not," he said quietly. "What do you actually mean?" Maya hesitated for a moment, despite her having decided to reveal her transmorphic ability when the questions had become insistent. The feeling that something was not quite right returned, a little more strongly. Despite it, she felt her best chance would be with these three, and she wanted to help them. Overcoming her hesitation, she finally gave a direct answer.

"I can transform into various animals." She deliberately left out the full extent of the ability, which included being able to turn into other people.

The answer caught all three Lykrontak/Ratakians by surprise, and none said a thing as they tried to accept what she had said. Narlank took the next conceptual leap. "I think I believe you. So you are saying you can become a bird, fly into the ship, and take control?"

"Take control? As a bird?" Sortak ridiculed.

"No," Nyla said. "A salar would take care of the pilots quite well."

Maya frowned. "Maybe not a salar, but something that could overpower the crew."

Narlank noticed her reaction to the salar idea. Nyla had described salar viciousness very well, and the strange woman had recoiled a bit at the idea of turning into one. Narlank's remaining fears over the alien evaporated at the realization she was a not a violent-minded woman, even when claiming she could "overpower the crew." I probably have more in common with her than my fellow Ratakians right now, he thought. He could only guess she was thrown out here because of her alienness, rather than having been guilty of extreme violence. Or maybe she was, in another form. But he felt that was not the case. She had probably used her ability at some point, terrifying everyone. If I can believe her amazing claim.

Nyla and Sortak, had not taken advantage of the pause in conversation, so Narlank took the opportunity--long overdue--for formal introductions.

"I am Narlank. This is Nyla, and he is Sortak."

"I am Maya."

Maya was finally introduced to the Lykrontak custom of greeting everyone--friends and strangers--with hugs. It did not take long to realize one of its uses, intentional or not: getting a sense of another person's emotional state from their body tension. Narlank seemed surprisingly relaxed; but Nyla was far from ease; and Sortak seemed the worst of all... hostile. It could have been a typical reaction to a new alien with a potentially dangerous talent; but Maya was not sure.

Narlank could discern Maya's reaction, and realized he could easily lose her at some point, if she realized what Sortak and Nyla were guilty of. If he could get her alone....


The four of them spent the night around a campfire at the edge of the forest. Sortak keep a constant eye on Maya, which did not go unnoticed by her or Narlank.

Trying to keep everyone distracted, Narlank told Maya of their group: how it was a "welcoming cluster" to newcomers, while there were other scattered clusters, none smaller and most larger than their own group. "We arrange for the arrivals to be put into established clusters spread across the continent. Having no technology but what we can scrape together, and having no domesticated animals or plants yet, we've had to revert to a hunting state." He painted an incomplete picture. The planet was full of antisocial people that tended to get more violent as the population density increased. Yet they had no choice. Salar were ubiquitous to the planet, and being the only large predator that existed here, it did not take long for their paths to cross human paths, and hunting in packs, the salar rarely lost. Antisocialness was not a viable personality trait on this planet. Narlank had long speculated this world had been chosen by the Grand Council for this reason. Not that the individuals here could be reformed enough to return to Lykrontak, but maybe with the hope they could still be made better, more civilized.

"Why not a larger group with a permanent camp right here then, if you're supposed to be the welcoming committee--cluster, I mean?"

"The ship does not seem to tolerate more than six people in the immediate area. They've destroyed larger groups."

Maya shuddered, then frowned in disgust. Those were awfully extreme measures, even for the Lykrontak. It only added to her nervousness about these people.

Sortak was glaring at Narlank from behind Maya, quite obviously saying he had told Maya enough. He simply shut up, and Sortak relaxed-- mostly.

Maya found herself running into a wall when she tried to ask any of them more questions. It was so like all of the Lykrontak to do this, and she had trouble deciding whether it was more sinister than that.

Having been hit by so many stasis fields, any semblance of normal sleep patterns had been temporarily banished from Maya's body, despite her mind's having keep track of time. In this case, she simply fell asleep, exhausted.

Narlank looked at the sleeping alien woman. She and her claimed abilities were absolutely stunning. She was his best hope. He didn't think his two cohorts had noticed the doubt which was becoming a more frequent expression on Maya's face; but he had, and it made him quite nervous. He didn't believe she had discerned Ratak's secret, which Nyla and Sortak were keeping hidden with cunning ease; but her manner indicated she suspected something was wrong. With the abilities she claimed, she could obviously bolt at any time and complete their plans herself, leaving him stranded on a planet of sociopaths. He had just been dropped the opportunity of a lifetime, and he would not allow it to slip away. Somehow, he had to allay her fears. But how, without tipping off the other two, or scaring Maya away?


A buzzer interrupted Syranak's gloomy thoughts as she paced her "room" on Alpha. It had been quite some time since the mostly-disastrous confrontation with the four alien officers, from which she had only barely received an offer to help--if she in turn helped retrieve Maya. Unfortunately, no one had been able to contact any other Lykrontak station. She had been left in this room, whose depressingly dull colors only made Syranak's mood worse. If she would have known who distressing Maya had found the colors of her cell, Syranak would have been more bothered by the parallels.

The buzzing sounded again. The first time, she wasn't quite sure what it meant; but after the second, she realized it was a door signal. "Entry allowed!" she tersely called out.

The young, dark-haired woman she had earlier seen in the control center entered. She introduced herself as Sandra. The woman somehow looked more Lykrontak than anyone else, and Syranak instinctively stepped forward for the ritual greeting embrace.

Sandra backed up slightly, then realized that Syranak probably wanted to shake hands or something, so she held her hand out.

Syranak wasn't sure what it meant, but she held out her own hand slightly. The alien woman grabbed and softly shook it for a moment. It seemed like a friendly action to Syranak, and she relaxed.

Sandra asked the first question on her mind. She wanted to know something about the powerful scanners that had been able to distinguish between different people at a distance of ten light-days. Syranak was familiar with the underlying technology, but did not wish to reveal any of it. Sandra was clearly disappointed, and moved briefly towards the door; but she stopped and looked at Syranak again.

"Why were you so quick to enforce your laws in a first contact situation?"

"Did your commander order you to do this?" Syranak asked.

Sandra was taken aback. "No. The question is mine."

"But you would relay my responses, if you thought it was important."

Sandra's silence was a sufficient for verification. Syranak decided that there would be no harm in talking about it. After all, the mistakes had been made, and explaining the reasons couldn't hurt--she hoped. Syranak needed to rebuild her credibility if she were to help the Utrax Far Station, and maintaining a sulking silence would not improve her image.

"We never thought that you would act in such an unciv--unusual manner."

Sandra looked shocked. "You mean you just assumed that aliens would act like Lykrontak?"

The question sounded vaguely insulting; but it was true enough, so Syranak simply nodded.

"Why did no one think of other possibilities?"

"We didn't even think there was intelligent life out there."

"So what?" Sandra said, somewhat surprised by her tone. "Do you have science fiction?"

Syranak looked confused. "That's a contradiction in terms. Science deals with facts, not fiction."

"Allow me to word it differently. Do you have any literature that deals with the possibilities of the future, such as new technology and meeting alien cultures?"

Syranak's negative only puzzled Sandra more. How could a species lacking such imagination have enough creativity and desire to reach the stars?

After a few minutes, Sandra excused herself and left, leaving Syranak alone again, to her thoughts, which were no more pleasant than they had been before Sandra had arrived. It didn't help that she was feeling guilty over Maya, now that she herself was trapped in a similar situation.


Much to the impatient Maya's frustration, the next day passed without any ship appearing. The others had been there for months or years, and could wait a while longer. She could not. She needed to get back to the Lykrontak system in order to get back to the Moon before it jumped into hyperspace. She would have to pass through the links in the Ratak system, eventually to the Far Station of Ratak to jump to the Far Station in Lykrontak. Tyrok Radial's Far Station had been destroyed by the Moon, so that was definitely not the radial she would reach. Furthermore, her position calculations allowed her to realize the Radial which pointed to Ratak would be a different one than the Moon was headed for. Thus she would have to travel down one Radial to the inner Lykrontak star system, then up another to reach the Moon. At any stage, they could all be stopped. But they would have the stasis weapons they would take from the guards aboard the Defense Shuttle. Maya could turn into a Lykrontak to fool station personnel long enough to put them in stasis. They would not kill anyone. After it was all over, others could make their way up the Radial and to the Ratak system to free all those in stasis. The probability of success was not high.

The worst part would be at the large stations deep in the system. The Ratakians would leave for Lykrontak itself, but Maya would have to continue alone, transferring to another Radial and making her way up it. Unfortunately, that was the Radial whose Far Station would be destroyed by the Moon, so it would probably be seeing a hell of a lot of activity. As one person trying to use force, she would never make it. Without the Ratakians, however, she could turn into something small and sneak her way up the system, hopefully rapidly enough not to have to change form again. She would have to be careful not to get trapped somewhere.

She looked over her campmates. A strange group by any standard, they made her nervous. Over and over again, she went mentally toured everything since she had awakened on this planet, trying to find something in their mannerisms which would clarify their ultimate intent towards her. There were some obvious feelings of distrust and hostility towards her; yet that could easily be expected from any individual upon meeting an alien. By many standards, she was still a na´ve woman, having lived most of her life under the powerful influence of her manipulative--however loving--father. She simply couldn't sense these people well enough to make conclusions. Narlank seemed the friendliest of the bunch; but she had not managed to separate herself and him from the other two long enough to get his undiluted opinion, and she did not dare get too far from the clearing, or she might miss the next ship, for none of the couriers hung around for more than a minute or two, according to these three people.


Chapter Twelve
Distances

Moonbase Alpha status report, 1042 days after leaving Earth orbit. Dr. Helena Russell recording. Captain Alan Carter and Security Officer Verdeschi have returned, but Science Officer Maya remains missing. The two alien representatives detained on Alpha have offered no further information, and contact still has not been established with any other Lykrontak, despite our calling in every available frequency. Either they refuse to talk to us, or they communicate through a technology unknown to us.

Helena finally managed to corner John. She had wanted to speak to him since yesterday, after they'd left their prisoner's quarters; but she had been distracted by issues in Medical Center, and he otherwise refused to discuss the situation. Instead, he prowled Alpha's various science labs, trying to get all the theories they had relating to the transferences that had taken Maya and later sent Syranak and her aide. Helena, though feeling a bit insulted at the brush-off, followed along. John was once again pushing himself to the limit, and she had to keep an eye on him. She ignored the fact she was also pushing herself to stay awake.

There was precious little information about the transference system. It was beyond Alpha's ability to fully understand. The most useful information was given to them by Jim Haines. What limited luck he had with Maya's hyperspace equations seemed to strongly indicate that Alpha's shield would indeed disrupt any transfer, but in an explosive manner. If the shield was already up when the beam hit, the explosions would occur outside the shield. If a transference was already in progress when the shield was thrown up, the explosions would occur inside the shield, effectively destroying the surface installations of Alpha, which would cause a lot of casualties. Koenig shook his head. Maya's quick thinking in crying out a warning not to activate the shield as she was being transferred had saved many lives. Koenig thanked Jim for this crucial information. Alpha had a defense--a very dangerous defense.

When he left the lab, Helena confronted him.

"Do you intend to let those people on the other station die?"

"Now what kind of question is that, Helena?"

"You know what I mean. What if we reach this Council of theirs, and they are unwilling--or unable--to return Maya?"

"We will see what happens when we get closer to the station."

"That's not an answer!"

"Helena, don't you know me well enough to know what my ultimate answer will be?"

She nodded, then smiled. How could she have doubted him, even for a moment. "I'm sorry, John. Of course I know what your answer will be." She was gratified to see him smile in return. He only did so for a moment, before a weary expression settled over his dark features, turning his usual handsomely rugged image into a weak echo. It didn't make Helena happy to see him this way. She was about to say something, but he was already speaking.

"I am tired," he said. "I think I will get some sleep."

That surprised Helena, so much so that she could not help teasing him. "You mean you are actually thinking sensibly for a change?"

He shrugged, then said, "Just make sure I'm called if anything--and I mean anything at all--happens."

"Hmm, does that include my getting an urge to kiss you--or perhaps more?"

"Well, I don't know...."

"Thought so," she said, walking away.

"Hey...." He pointed at her back for a moment in surprise. She turned for a second, showing the smile on her face, then continued down the corridor. John walked to his quarters. Since Maya's disappearance two days before, he had only gotten six hours of sleep. He had so little energy left that even Helena's flirtation failed to excite him. That bothered him a lot, but he decided a good rest could quickly change that situation, so he would be able to enjoy the more part of Helena's words.

He badly needed at least six hours of sleep, but failed to get it: after only four hours, his communication pylon screeched for attention. He was almost instantly awake. Sandra informed him that she had reached a councilor on Lykrontak. About time! He ordered Syranak brought to Command Center, then quickly threw his uniform over his rumpled sleep clothes and ran to Command Center, trying to smooth the wrinkles out of his clothes. He was not entirely successful. Helena, Tony, and Alan were already there when he arrived.

Prime Councilor Garolak was an impressive figure. Like Syranak, he was dressed in a flawless, flowing green robe, and had a white headband that contrasted effectively with his somewhat darker skin. It was the air of calm authority which caught the commander's attention, however.

Garolak asked about Syranak's status, stating they had lost contact when the station she was being transported from exploded. Koenig informed Garolak that Syranak had arrived, with one aide. Koenig caught the faintest glimmer of surprise in Garolak's expression. Remembering Syranak's delayed surprise on arriving on Alpha, he drew the conclusion that other people had been lost during transport. Garolak then asked to speak to Syranak. Koenig stated it would be only a minute before Syranak arrived. Garolak did not ask any more questions. He was evidently going to wait to get answers from Syranak.

Koenig realized why Garolak was the senior member of the Council. He did not use his authority as a weapon, the way Syranak tended to do. He was subtle, and probably got people to do what he wanted by making them think it was the reasonable thing to do. Koenig would have to be careful.

Two guards appeared, escorting Syranak between them.

Syranak was immensely relieved to see Garolak's visage on the big screen. She had fouled the whole situation, but she had no desire to lose her life or be stranded over it. There was still so little to judge alien law by, and what ultimate punishment they would hand out. Being so thoroughly out of her element unnerved the normally fearless Syranak to the point that she hadn't yet been able to ask the Alphans what they would do with her. She was one of the toughest people on Lykrontak, formidable by almost any standard, as Maya had found. Syranak's being undone and outdone so badly was an indication how unprepared she--and all of Lykrontak--had been for this.

Now, she saw Garolak as the best hope for recovering something from the debacle. She filled him in, stating that she was being held on Alpha, but only in return for what the Alphans considered a hostile and uncivilized action, namely the kidnapping of Maya. Garolak pointed out that the Alphans had destroyed Far Station Tyrok-19, and was now on a collision course with Far Station Utrax-19. Syranak argued the Alphans had no control over their "Moon." She listed Koenig's demand for the return of Maya in return for freeing Syranak and helping U-19.

"I'm not sure that's possible."

"You don't seem to have heard what Syranak said, Councilor Garolak," Koenig said. "We consider your actions up to this point to be highly uncivilized and illegal, according to our laws. We consider you a hostile force, and will not provide any aid, or release Syranak and her aide, until Maya has been returned."

"I heard Syranak. It is not a matter of law. It is a matter of distance. She appeared to be a dangerous alien, and had our people terrified, so we sent her to Ratak, in another star system.

Before any Alphan could ask for more detail, Syranak broke in. "You sent her to Ratak? Why?"

"Because it wasn't even human," Raltror stated.

"What kind of reason is that?" Syranak demanded.

"Isn't it enough?"

"No. These people have great respect and love for her. She is as human as any of us."

"Hardly. She is obviously some animal. She turned into one."

"Turned... into one? What do you mean she turned into one? One what?"

"I mean her body changed from that of a near-woman into a bug, other humans including copies of some of Tyrok-17's personnel, and even some sort of lizard monster."

She turned to Koenig. "Is that true?" she demanded. Her tone told the commander that she would not support the Alphan side without the truth. Then again, if she knew the truth, and reacted in a xenophobic manner towards confirmation of Maya's very alien ability, they could lose her support anyway.

"Yes, she can."

"Why didn't she say something?" Syranak asked dumbly, still shocked by this ability.

"Do you think she would be so stupid as to take away her own best chance of escaping a law that isn't right?" Tony asked.

Garolak spoke up from the screen. " 'A law that isn't right?' That's a contradiction in terms."

"How can you be so sure? We are civilized, and have our own laws, yet we disagree with yours. Who is right and who is wrong? Who is more civilized? We may look uncivilized to you, but you just as easily look uncivilized to us."

"In your case, wouldn't letting innocent people die be uncivilized?"

Koenig quickly sidestepped that subject: "Look, are we going to continue haggling, or are we going to compromise? Maya in return for Syranak and our help."

"I don't see much choice, but your alien friend is some distance away. We might have trouble getting her back in time."

"Well, you had better try."

"We will do our absolute best."

"Then we have a deal?"

"Yes."

Despite this affirmation, Koenig could only wonder why he did not feel confident about the man's ability to keep his promise.


Dawn arrived on Ratak with the rising of the First Star over the horizon. Maya realized days were longer here than on Alpha--at some twenty-six hours, it was eight percent longer, but still about seven hours shorter than her Psychon-based biological clock. The far smaller Second Star was visually close to its brighter sister, and rose only an hour later. Quickly calculating, she realized it would be the sixth hour of Day 1043 on Alpha, just under three earth days since she had been kidnapped. She had spent much of the past two days mulling over not only what to do--but what had happened, wondering whether she could have done anything better. It seemed her futile escape attempt was what had prompted Lykrontak authorities to dump her here; but even before the attempt, she was to have been sent deep into the Lykrontak system, where she would likely have had little or no chance to make an escape. At least here she had some freedom of movement, a better plan, and even some help, though something about these people still nagged at her brain like an annoying josray, one of the few insects that survived right up to the end of Psychon.

Thinking about what happened did not help with the present. One set of circumstances had been avoided at the cost of having to deal with another set, and she had to deal with the latter.

Two hours after the rising of the Second Star, a ship finally arrived. It was a small shuttle. At one point, the three Ratakians had stated there would only be enough room for the four of them, plus whatever new prisoners the ship would be bringing. Maya could see the truth in that statement now. It was also bristling with armament, and promptly destroyed some hapless animal wandering through the clearing. She could only guess they feared the planet's prisoners would find (had already found?) some way of delivering a bomb in the animal. Out of sight of the ship, Maya quickly transformed into a sparrow, a small drab bird that would probably not be noticed. Two men were already starting to carry a stasis-covered form out the ship's door.

She climbed high enough into the sky to be out of sight of the people who were watching the ground intently, then approached the ship and flew in the open door, alighting on the floor only a half-meter from a man and a woman. The man took note of the brave little bird, but before he could point it out his female companion, Maya transformed directly to one of her favorite incarnations, a semi-intelligent, two-legged lizard from Yarzysst. She immediately knocked out the two inside of the ship, since they had rooted to the spot in shock at her transformation. She then rushed out and took care of the two men outside. None of them had even gotten a hand on their weapons.

She reverted, then quickly removed their stasis weapons and shot them. For a moment, she felt some satisfaction for paying a Lykrontak back for the stasis fields she had endured. She immediately felt guilty for such a cold-blooded thought--at least they would not be harmed by the field the way she had been. She did not release the prisoner, a man. She wanted him to see other Lykrontak first before being confronted by an alien.

When the Ratakians saw her moving freely around the ship, they broke into a dead run. They had not been able to approach until Maya had knocked out the guards, but were certainly cognizant of the possibility of her taking off in the minutes it would take to get there.

"Should we kill her now?" Sortak asked as they ran. "Once we get those weapons, we could make it through the Radial on our own."

Narlank intentionally paused, then made up a reasonably selfish- sounding reason for the benefit of his less-than-kind companions. "No, she could have taken off on her own, but she didn't. She trusts us completely, and we may have further need of her abilities."

"But what if she turns on us."

"We can handle that when it happens. We need her now."

"Handle her? You saw that reptilian creature--or whatever it was. Obviously, little birds aren't her only specialty. Who knows how many forms she has--and how ferocious they are."

Nyla looked understandably concerned. Narlank wondered if it was concern for him as well. "You're forgetting one thing, Nyla." He paused for a moment, trying to regain his breath as he continued running. When it looked as if her patience was wearing out, he continued. "We'll have stasis weapons shortly."

"The stasis field did weaken her in some strange way," Nyla conceded.

"We had better keep our eye on her at all times," Sortak added, rather unnecessarily. Narlank was simply relieved he had argued them out of a vicious course, at least temporarily.

They ran in silence for the last minute.

By then, Maya had dragged the stasis-covered guards out of the ship, and had pulled the prisoner back in. When the others reached the ship, they freed the prisoner as Sortak took the controls of the ship and lifted off. The prisoner was conscious, and did not seem to have any ill effects, though he did suffer a start on sight of Maya. After the moment of surprise, he tried to punch Maya out, but Narlank caught his fist. After calming him down, they all introduced themselves by the usual formal embrace. Maya sensed unbridled hostility in the coldness of the former prisoner's hug.

After they released each other, Maya shivered slightly. Something was definitely amiss amongst these. She was now certain of that fact; but still couldn't pinpoint what the problem was.

It did not take long for the swift little ship to escape the atmosphere, and they rapidly crossed the inner solar system towards the first, small station. Minutes before reaching it, buzzers sounded. "Lalur!" Sortak shouted. "There's a second ship approaching. It's far larger, but seems unarmed."

Maya looked sharply at Narlank. He seemed as surprised as the others by the appearance of a ship. "I should have thought of that," he simply said.

"Why didn't you?" Maya demanded angrily. "You said we would reach the station unopposed."

"I never heard of a second ship in the Inner Ratak System."

Maya frowned. That makes no sense. Why wouldn't there be a second ship, especially in a system used for Lykrontak's obscenely indirect style of punishment? It's stupid of them not to have considered it. Then again, she had seen ample evidence that the Lykrontak tended to be somewhat narrow-minded yet over-trusting in what they did put their minds to.

But Sortak came up with a somewhat different explanation. "It must be one of those huge construction ships that helped bring the first transfer station here by sub-light twenty years ago."

Narlank frowned. "I didn't think they kept those ships around. Well that won't matter. Since it's not armed, we should have an easy time of it."

It was yet another assumption they made; but before she could protest, Sortak unleashed their ship's weapons against the other ship. She was about to object to his premature conclusion that the other ship was unarmed; but she suddenly felt herself in the grip of a transference beam. She saw her shipmates turning to her in surprise just before the light of the transference process blocked out her view. She half-heartedly thought of resisting, but this beam was too powerful--due to its source's proximity--to metamorphically struggle. The feeling of being disassembled was as disconcerting as ever, but she endured it.

When she was released, she fell roughly to the floor. She opened her eyes, finding herself in a small transference cube. Apparently, no chair had been provided to catch those who were transferred in a sitting position. She stood up, and saw the cube was in the back of a room that looked quite large after the cramped quarters of the other ship. She was aboard the interloper. A man quickly opened the door of the cube, then backed away, stasis weapon pointed directly at her, and some other device in his other hand. Another man, also pointing a stasis weapon at her, stood further back.

The nearer spoke to her, an edge in his voice. "If this scanner makes any noise indicating that you may be changing that shape of yours, alien, I'll shoot you instantly."

Remembering the computer beeps that her transformations had provoked aboard Tyrok-17, she realized they must have figured out the cause and built some device to detect her transformation.

She didn't know they were bluffing. They had finally made the correlation, but had not yet been able to isolate the effect quickly enough to build a compact sensor.

Maya looked to the front of the room, seeing a woman sitting in front of some controls set in a console two meters in front of a large screen that showed the ship she had just been in. A man sitting near the woman gave an order Maya didn't hear well. As Maya watched in horror, the woman let loose previously hidden weaponry this larger ship carried. The other ship instantly vanished in a fiery explosion.

Maya didn't need the transporter to make her dizzy. The number of nasty transformations this adventure was making was quite enough. She was a rat in a maze she barely understood, hoping she would reach the cheese--the Moon in this case. Serious doubt plagued her mind now. She was down a blind alley.

"Why did you do that?!" Maya shouted in fury, hardly caring about the consequences any more. "They were my friends!"

The man who had given the destruction order got up and approached Maya.

"Then you ought to choose your friends more wisely, alien."

"What do you mean?"

To Maya's consternation, he did not answer her question.

"Then again, maybe they were just your type."

"What?"

He turned to Maya's guards, leaving her to fume impatiently. Every Lykrontak she had met seemed to use this tactic, and Maya forced herself to calm yet again.

"I am glad our new weapons and new light-speed transporter took them by surprise," he said happily. "If she tries anything, shoot her. Her ability makes her very dangerous, but don't let her fool you with something simple, either."

The lead guard looked at his superior with a puzzled expression. "Why not shoot her now?"

"I have orders not to unless we have no other option. Seems it could kill her."

"Then why not take her to the brig?"

"She won't be aboard the ship that long."

"What, are you going to dump her out the airlock?" he asked hopefully, glancing at the emergency airlock elsewhere in the control room.

Maya looked uneasily at the airlock, then the aliens. Lykrontak sounded less civilized each day.

Lontror, for his part, was rather disturbed. Yarlor's words were appalling, especially in reference to this strangely beautiful alien woman. The murderous mental attitude of the criminals on Ratak spread too easily. Pitying her evident fear, he finally turned back to Maya.

"They were murderers and other vicious criminals, sent to Ratak as an extraordinarily direct punishment for their crimes."

"Murderers?"

"Yes."

"I don't believe you."

"They obviously had you fooled. Then again, I can see that they would have kept it hidden, in hope that you could help them."

Maya was speechless at first. Who could she believe? She had not really gotten to know her fellow escapees too well, since they had all spent most of their time plotting their escape. And the extraordinary precautions taken by the transfer ships... her own misgivings.... Her mind swirled. She didn't know who to believe. She was too tired to care.

Lontror carefully watched her reactions. Her surprise seemed quite genuine to him. The videocomms had called her a monster, yet the Council said she was quite human in many ways. Lontror could recognize that the latter seemed more true. On an urge, he approached and embraced her for a second in formal greeting. For a moment, she stiffened in surprise; he could sense tension, exhaustion, and otherwise hidden fear, but not hostility. "I am Councilor Lontror, and I already know you are Maya."

"Councilor? Are you from the same council as Syranak? Do councilors always do all the field work?"

"Yes, we are both from the Prime Council of Lykrontak, eleven members strong. Councilors do some of the key work. The more important or global the work, the higher the council that does it--in this case, several members of the Prime Council itself. I am in temporary command of this vessel, sent to retrieve you from Ratak. I can't say I'm too surprised that you escaped so quickly. It seems no one thought of the possibility of your turning into some small bird."

"How did you know?"

"Hindsight. You're here, yet every non-flying creature in the Ratak Clearing is killed on sight. You had to have infiltrated the ship as a small bird before changing to a monster to knock the others out. I assume you knocked them out?"

"Yes. They are cocooned in stasis fields."

"If you weren't there, they would probably be dead now. Then again, if you hadn't been around, we wouldn't have had such a terrible mess."

"Mess?"

"Your presence has thrown the whole Lykrontak system into a frenzy."

"We can't control our moon," she said, missing his point.

"I'm talking about you, not your crazy moon. The public got a hold of video showing you in all your shape-changing glory. They've also heard about your people's ships flying around and attacking stations and ships along the Tyrok Radial. As a result, most of the planet is in a state of terror, believing that an alien invasion is imminent or already in progress."

Eagles attacking the stations? Oh Psychon, I probably just missed rescue. "Well, if you hadn't kidnapped me...." she said, though she was too exhausted to put much anger in it.

"I've heard that's the word you keep using. So be it. Our Law and Councilor Syranak's excessive curiosity seem to have conspired to bring chaos on ourselves. You're 'kidnapping' has been more of a punishment to us than it was to your people. Some citizens have killed strangers on the street, afraid of shape-changing monsters." He saw Maya's face transform into genuine sorrow at the fact. "Don't take it too hard. I guess you're not to blame for our stupidity." That statement got him some strange looks from the other personnel of the ship, but he ignored them.

"You said 'retrieve me,' " she said. "What do you mean?"

"I am to take you back to the Lykrontak system and try my best to get you back to your planet--moon. Seems you've got one very convincing commander. He apparently agreed to help evacuate Far Transfer Station Utrax-19, if we returned you alive. This is the first time a Council has ever revoked a punishment, especially after being blackmailed by the criminals."

Maya's spirits surged in joy at the news. Could he be telling the truth?

As if hearing her unspoken question, he looked at her and nodded, then said, "We're reaching the first station of many. Unfortunately, we don't have much time. Your moon will apparently hit Utrax-19 in four hours. Because of the uproar over you, I'll need to sneak you through the system. Can you change into some small Lykrontak animal? I can put you in a cage and carry you through. No one will notice. The suggestion seemed to frighten Maya. "What is wrong?" he asked. "Can't you do it?"

She hesitated. "Yes... I can, if I see one."

"Then what's the problem?" Maya remained silent. "Look, do you want me to help you?" She nodded. "Then tell me what you're so afraid of. Is it the transporter?"

"Well I hate the transporter, but...." she trailed off.

"What?"

She finally told him her fear. "I can only remain in an alternate form for one hour before I must transform. If I'm in too-small of a cage at that time, I will die."

It took him a few moments to digest that information. He was evidently successful, for he asked an intelligent question. "How long do you need to be normal before transforming again?"

"To transform back to this small animal you talk about, it would be three minutes or so."

"Well, I suppose I could find some private room to allow you to do it. It will slow us up, but it's better than you dying in transit. Look, I care about your feelings. We are really not a brutal people. That's why the council made sure not to use stasis fields while you were moved to Ratak."

Maya's expression suddenly hardened in anger, and Lontror actually stepped back. "Wrong," Maya said in a way that virtually chilled the air in the entire control room. "Quite a few stasis fields were applied--and reapplied when they failed. I nearly died by the time I reached Ratak."

Lontror was appalled. "Allorkorzha! That is not what we ordered. No stasis fields--that was our strong order. Someone down the line disobeyed it and then sent false orders. I promise he or she will be found and punished."

"No," Maya said. "No punishment--not your kind of punishment. I want nothing further to do with your system."

Lontror was taken aback, and had no idea how to respond. Maya simply moved to a slightly different subject. "Then you didn't escort me to Ratak?"

Lontror was grateful--if baffled--so he simply went along with the change, which was, after all, very Lykrontak. "No. I was sent several days behind you, after we made a deal with your commander to return you."

They fell silent in the remaining minutes it took to reach the first transfer station. Upon arriving, Lontror, who was still armed, escorted her to a room containing numerous plants, as well as a few small caged animals. He walked over to one of the cages, which held a small rat-like but fur-less animal he called a pakar. He also brought out an empty cage from a cabinet.

When Maya hesitated further, he got impatient. "Look, lady, trust me. If I had wanted you dead, I would have let Yarlor dump you out the airlock."

Maya could see his point, so she transformed into a pakar, in front of Lontror's amazed eyes. Despite having seen the recordings, he found that he truly believed in it only when he saw her do it with his own eyes.

When it--she?--showed signs of thoughtlessly wandering away, he reached down, picked her up, and deposited her in the empty cage, smiling slightly.


Prime Councilor Garolak had bad news for the Alphans.

"We won't be able to get Maya back in time," he stated quietly.

"Why not?"

"Transport isn't as simple as it sounds. For technical reasons--the Uncertainty Concept, I believe it's called--it takes a variable amount of time for a transference beam to cross between two star systems," he said nervously.

"Hogwash!" Tony shouted. At Garolak's confused facial expression, he chose another verbal expression. "You're lying! You're not making any attempt to bring Maya to us!"

"Yes, we are!" Garolak protested. "She is right now halfway back in the heart of the system, at Central Station. There are just too many more stations to go through. I don't understand the science of the time delays, but they are a fact, even if you don't believe me. Besides, at this point, we have come to the conclusion that we would rather be rid of your shape- shifting alien anyway."

At Tony's concerned expression, Garolak added, "No, we haven't killed anyone as punishment in centuries, and I have no intention of allowing it start again, even with an alien--especially with an alien. I can see we severely mis-handled our first contact with intelligent aliens, by narrow-mindedly applying our laws to them. We even had the talent to upset two species at one time."

Helena could hear the genuine regret in Garolak's voice. "We have to help them, John."

"But they haven't returned Maya yet!" Tony protested.

"They're working on it," Alan said.

"Oh, and I suppose you just swallowed his ludicrous story whole?"

Alan could only shrug. He had his doubts too.

Syranak, in her doubt and growing desperation in the face of being stranded on this Moonbase Alpha, was thinking fast, trying to get some idea on how to escape this situation. She was grasping for mental straws, but suddenly found an entire tree, something which led to the root of this whole problem.

"You're punishing the people of Utrax-19 for something they didn't do."

She was gratified to receive everyone's full attention, even if Tony, Maya's closest male friend, had a acidic retort: "You're the one who got her into this trouble in the first place." He turned back to Koenig. "John, she's our guarantee that we get Maya back."

"So what do you want, Tony? To strand her here for the rest of her life, as punishment for a series of acts that passed out of her control at a very early stage? She's already shown herself to be opposed to much of what happened in her absence. Would you let the others die?"

Tony turned away. As much as it galled him, John was right.

Koenig, hearing a bit of fear in Garolak's voice--fear at the possibility of the Alphans refusing to free Syranak or help the people aboard Station Utrax-19--decided the leader was making an honest effort to bring Maya back, even if he didn't think he could get her back before the Moon flew back into hyperspace.

"Okay, we'll help your people. We'll send ships. They will remain shielded. Only one at a time will shut off its shields to allow you to transport them. Any attempt to kidnap more of our personnel, and we will suspend all rescue efforts."

"And Syranak? It seems some of you wish to keep her there."

"She and her aide will be aboard one of the ships, for you to transport back."

Tony made no move to protest.

"Thank you," Garolak said simply.

Then the obvious finally occurred to Helena. She turned to John, tugged on his arm to get his attention, then whispered insistently. "What about transporting us as well?"

For a brief moment, Koenig looked at her blankly. Then, before any other sign of understanding showed, he whipped around to face the screen again. "If you can transport your people off our Eagles from that distance, can you also transport our people--all of our people--into your system."

Garolak seemed puzzled by the request. "Why?"

"As Syranak informed you, we cannot control the course of this moon. An accident jettisoned it from our home system, leaving us to face dangers with only limited resources. We wish to get off and settle on a planet. Right now, just about any living planet would due."

Garolak frowned. "I sympathize with your plight, but I doubt I can help."

"Why?" Sandra Benes asked.

"Because the receiving station, while as large as any of the others, is crowded with equipment. We will barely be able to handle our own people. Though that station can beam them aboard from your ships, it can't beam them deeper into the system; and the shuttles are only big enough to handle six at a time."

Verdeschi and Carter, having been to other Lykrontak Transfer Stations, could see the truth in Garolak's statements, and nodded verification to the commander.

"We had to check," John said. The others simply nodded.

"Maya will be... stranded," Tony stated weakly. "What will you do with her?" he asked Garolak.

"We will try to find her some place to live unmolested."

"Alone?" Koenig asked. "If you're so attached to each other, I'm sure you'd understand when I say that Maya is also a social person, though she may be able to survive alone. I don't know."

"I will do all I can for her. I am sure there are a number of people who could come to like her, assuming she doesn't have a tendency to be belligerent with her abilities. Though I still don't like your society, I will accept that you all see yourselves as wronged, with Maya unfairly stranded in an alien system. Though I can see she is alien to you as well, I can also see that you accept her as an equal. Our people, on the other hand, reacted mostly with thoughtless terror. That one fact alone makes me think you are just possibly more civilized than we."

"Can I talk to her?" Tony asked.

"We discovered Maya carried a personal communications device," Garolak stated. "We do not have such devices, unfortunately; and hers is now lying disassembled on some other station. Lacking such devices, the man who is escorting her would have to bring the alien to a station's control room. That would set off more terror in our people. I am sorry, I cannot allow it."

"She can transform into other humans," Helena said. "She could talk to us like that."

Garolak paused for a moment, then shook his head. "She turned into a Lykrontak back on Tyrok-17, and all of Lykrontak found out about it. Some people, in a fit of terror, killed strangers on the street, thinking they might be some alien shape-changing monsters disguised as humans. The people thought an invasion might be in progress. Her talking to you in a way which indicated she was one of you would allow them to reach the conclusion that she was the metamorphic alien--which would probably trigger murderous impulses there too. No, that's even worse." Garolak could see further protest in the Alphans. "I know I must sound uncivilized to prevent her from talking to you. But I am trying to prevent our civilization from falling apart, acting in a more uncivilized manner than it already has."

Even Tony had run out of protests. They could all see the alien leader's point. They could not back out on their pledge to help them. The Alphans looked at each other, heartbroken expressions on their faces. Poor Maya was going to be stranded in a hostile star system, and they apparently could do nothing more for her. She would be more alone than ever before.

"Could we at least send her a recording?" Sandra asked.

"That would be acceptable."

It seemed pitiful to be saying goodbye to Maya in such a way, but it appeared to be all they could do for her now. They--Koenig and Tony in particular--had very convincingly argued for Maya's return. They had convinced Syranak, then Garolak. They were persuasive enough to convince the Lykrontak to make an exception to their Law and return Maya. They just hadn't done it in time. Through no fault of the Alphans, Maya would pay the price for Lykrontak Law anyway.


Chapter Thirteen
Gaps

Deep into the transfer process, Lontror realized he could pilot the small Gap Shuttles himself. Though the station commanders protested this complication--they would have to take extra steps to return the shuttles-- Lontror's status as a Councilor overrode their concerns. He tried to soothe them with an claim about the need for private communication with the Council, but their speculative gazes at the cage holding Maya's altered form showed him how transparent his excuse was. They had all seen the unconscious Maya pass through on the way to Ratak, and had heard of her abilities. To his surprise and relief, however, not one voiced the question in their eyes.

After reacquainting himself with the controls of a standard shuttle, and setting it on its way to another station, Lontror knelt down, put the cage on the floor, opened the top, and delicately removed the pakar that was Maya, setting her carefully on the floor. He stepped back, and watched in continued amazement as its outline became fuzzy. The fuzz almost instantly grew in dimension to the height and shape of a woman. When it solidified, it was Maya, still dressed in the same alien clothes that had been soiled by Ratak's dirt. She glanced around the cramped quarters of the small shuttle, then looked at him, wondering at the change in procedure.

"I just wanted to talk for a little while."

"Why?" she asked, a bit nervously.

"You already know more than you had probably ever wanted to know about us, but I know so little about you." He wondered why that statement seemed to make the alien nervous, but decided to ignore this for the moment.

"I really don't know that much about your culture," Maya said, "just about the personalities of a few people and about your--forgive me--twisted form of justice."

Lontror insisted. "Just knowing you as an intelligent, shape-shifting alien is not enough." He started asking questions. As typical for a Lykrontak, he did not ask about her metamorphic abilities, but instead probed family relationships. He said he knew the Alphans were a different--essentially Lykrontak-like--species than she. Admitting that she came from a planet called "Psychon" only increased the probing. Yes, her family was dead, and she was stranded on Alpha. No, she liked the Alphans a lot. No, she didn't want to talk about how her family died and how she came to be on Alpha. That statement seemed to hurt his feelings, and Maya realized why: they discussed everything to do with family and friends. It was insulting not to. She felt mixed emotions at this realization. She didn't want to be at odds with this man, who seemed so genuinely concerned about her. "But it's not a pretty story, and I'm not sure what you'll think of me after it."

That statement seemed to make him nervous. "Now you have to tell me."

She couldn't tell what he really felt when he said that, so she sighed and relented. She told him a story. A story of a idyllic planet, and of a passing rogue. A story of a dying planet, and a dying people. A story of a brilliant scientist, and an beautiful dream; of numerous aliens, and a mind-draining machine; of a rogue moon, and its hapless residents; of the scientist's daughter, and a convincing alien commander; of a fateful choice, and a destroyed planet; and finally of an offer of a new life for a lonely, orphaned alien.

Though she seemed to show little emotion while recounting the story, Lontror could easily hear the repressed pain in Maya's expressive voice. Lontror reached over and gathered her in his arms. She stiffened a moment in surprise, then relaxed. "You still feel guilty?" Lontror asked after releasing her.

"Sometimes."

"Why?"

"I sometimes feel guilty that so many aliens died before I found out the truth. Sometimes I feel guilty that I helped bring about the destruction of my own planet, that I couldn't have stopped my father some other way."

"But your computer had to be destroyed. The death of your planet was inevitable. About the other, well, I don't know what you could have done. You trusted your father. Trust in itself is a good thing, necessary for friendship, love, and even civilization; but it can be twisted to evil purposes."

Maya remained silent, though he thought she agreed.

"And how did you think I would react?" Lontror asked.

"Wouldn't the Alphans' leaving me behind to die have been an appropriate punishment for my father's crimes--under Lykrontak law?"

He felt as if she had struck him over the head with a hammer computer console. She had seduced him into responding as she desired. No, he corrected himself. Those were my honest responses. Caught in confusion, unsure how to respond to the question she put to him, he dodged it and asked a question of his own. "Are you saying that none of the Alphans mistreated you for what your father did?" Thankfully, she didn't object to the change of subject--at least for the moment.

"Oh, some did, a little, at first. But they knew I was the one who saved them, not the one who tried to destroy them. They distinguished between the actions of individuals; they didn't lump every Psychon under the same category as my father."

"So they just assumed you were friendly?"

Maya blushed a bit. "Actually, I didn't make a very good first impression on the commander."

"Oh? Let me guess. You first showed up as some monster."

"Well, that's pretty close. I was awfully playful with my abilities at the time--well, I still am--and wanted to provide an entrance that would amuse him; so I turned into a nice, warm, fuzzy kind of creature I had seen in a cage aboard a trader's ship some time before. Unfortunately, in my inexperience, I did not realize it was a rather nasty predator from the commander's own planet. Also unknown to me, he and his people had already endured a lot of horror at my--" she sobbed or choked slightly, "--father's hand. So when he saw me and my tricks, he found no reason to think more highly of me than he did of my father. But in the end, he and the rest of his people saw the difference. They saw no reason to punish me for my father's actions."

"I'm not sure the comparison is valid. Your father committed the crimes, but the Alphans couldn't have punished your father--in a Lykrontak way--because he was already dead. He had already suffered the ultimate punishment."

"Oh? You're saying that if my father and planet had survived, but the Alphans had escaped with my help, they should have kidnapped me as punishment, as punishment to him, even though I had just helped them?"

Lontror was silent for a moment. She did not try to prod him, as she seemed to have already backed him into a corner. But his next statement showed he wasn't in the same corner she thought. "I'm not sure I think very highly of how little value your people--Psychon or Alphan--place in inter-personal relationships."

The insult stunned Maya for a moment. Recovering, she shouted angrily, "What do you mean 'little value?' " She paused a moment, catching her breath, pulling her emotions under control, and suddenly realizing the meaning of it all--all in the same moment. "So is that it? Is that is why it is a law of indirection--indirect punishment? Is this what no one would tell me? Tell me, please. People change the subject every time I try to discuss it."

"Probably because they didn't want to insult you by listing the obvious."

"It wasn't so obvious to me that you exploit people's love for each other."

" 'Exploit?' What do you mean by that?"

"Someone does something wrong, so you punish a friend or relative instead?"

"That is why no one should want to commit a crime! People can't stand to see the disruption in the lives of others."

"Yet some still commit crime, but instead of sending the criminal to Ratak, you send someone else--an innocent."

"No! I told you already: Ratak is meant as extraordinarily direct punishment to those few extreme deviants who commit heinous crimes such as murder, attempted murder, rape, or other such forms of molestation or abuse. Some people just snap for no apparent reason, or have always been distorted. They are best kept at a distance, on another planet, with no technology. All others are treated well. They are not sent to Ratak, and are kept for relatively short terms--depending on the crime. Tell me, don't you have any strong bonds? Don't the Alphans have strong bonds."

Maya's anger flared at the verbal punch. "Yes, zyrklm!" she yelled, employing a choice Psychon curse. "We have strong bonds. I would gladly give up my life to save any of them."

"And what about them? Would they do the same for each other? For you?"

"Yes," she said with absolute certainty (which actually surprised her, for she had not realized how much she had come to trust them--trust that they cared for her as much as any other of their people).

"And yet you do not feel strongly enough to be part of civilized law."

"Civilized law? Believe me; I--or anyone else--would feel extremely guilty to see another taken for something I did. But I don't believe in being punished for something I didn't do! Neither do the other Alphans. The punishment must fall directly on the one responsible for the crime in the first place. How could you overlook such a simple system?"

"Because it wouldn't work as well. People feel more for others than themselves."

"I--" She stopped. His last statement was far too compelling to simply refute out-of-hand.

"See, that's why we're probably more civilized than your people," he said. "I mean no malice. You are quite civilized, but obviously not civilized enough, since you act as if such a simple law would not work."

Maya could not totally refute this, except to the extent that "much of the time, it would work, if we tried it," as she stated.

"But not most of the time; not almost all of the time. And you have not tried it."

"To judge from the histories of Psychon and Earth--the homeworld of the Alphan Moon--perhaps not. But we may be close to that point now on Alpha. We have essentially no crime. I do understand your points, and can see you are a highly civilized people. But I feel I still could defend myself on several points, not the least of which is the fact I am not a murderer or molester, or anything else like that, as you claim the others banished to Ratak are. Only one point is truly important: in the Lykrontak sense, you are punishing the Alphans for something they did not do: destroy your station. We cannot control the course of the Moon. I didn't even know we had hit your station before I was--removed. It must have been what we thought was an asteroid hit, which occurred moments after we came out of hyperspace."

Now it was Lontror's turn to pause. She had a point--maybe. "You said it was an accident which propelled the Moon from its home orbit. Were the Alphans in any way responsible?"

"Does it really have that much bearing on the issue? Would other Lykrontak use that?"

"I don't know how the rest of the Council would vote; but I would probably have to agree with you."

"The Council? Do they decide every case? Don't you have a...." She struggled, searching for the Lykrontak word for "court" and not finding one--perhaps because there was no such thing.

"Yes, the Council--or its smaller regional versions--decide. We make new laws if necessary. Why shouldn't we enforce them?"

"Ohhh," she laughed, "we could spend hours on that subject--"

"Let's not."

"I agree. We already have too many differences of opinion that we will not change, though I have to admit I can see your law works because your people care so much more about others than themselves."

"And I can see your people also love each other a great deal. You and your commander are testament to that. I can also see the reasoning behind the original punishment was flawed." He said nothing for the moment, but then could not resist adding, "Ten days ago, if someone had told me I would be arguing philosophy with an intelligent alien who knew how to turn into animals, I would have recommended that person have a full, formal psychological evaluation."

She smiled, and Lontror found himself thinking it was a pretty smile. Despite her strange features, or perhaps because of them, she was a beautiful woman. I wonder. "You're intelligent, and you're beautiful. You may be alien among your own people, but surely there is a man in your life."

Maya blushed a bit, surprising Lontror in its similarity to a Lykrontak's reaction.

"Bond-mate?" Lontror persisted.

"No. Just... a beautiful friendship."

An interesting phrase, but Lontror understood it well enough.

Maya turned the conversation around and asked Lontror about him. He had lost his bond-mate some years back, he had no children, and had never formed another relationship, though he said he was lonely. They talked about how his friends were trying to get him to start looking for another woman friend again.

For a few minutes, Lontror and Maya enjoyed each other's company, not as Lykrontak and Psychon Alphan, but as two people having a friendly discussion--all politics set aside. It lasted for the few minutes left in their approach to the next station. As they docked, Maya returned to the pakar form. Councilor Lontror boarded the station, cage in hand, and talked to the commander of Transfer Station Rashtrykarso-12, a man named Hyzkar.

When they finished talking, Lontror asked for a private sleeping room in which to rest for a short time. When he reached it, he locked the door, then listened for a second. Satisfied the room was virtually soundproof, he set the cage down and freed Maya, who promptly returned to her normal form.

Without waiting, he launched into his bad news. "I just talked to the station commander. It seems your Moon is due to reach the Utrax-19 in forty minutes. We can't possibly get there before then. Are you sure your Moon will jump back into hyperspace at that point?"

She nodded silently, then slumped, defeated at last. She had been so close to getting back, but had lost.

Lontror didn't know how to comfort her, other than to hold her quietly for a couple of moments, while she muttered something in an alien language. She did not clarify it, and he did not ask. Then he remembered something. "Your friends had to leave one of their ships behind at Tyrok- 17, where you were first transferred from your Moon. Would your ship be able to help?"

She pulled back, head snapping up in surprise; but then slumped again. "No. It can't get to hyperspace unless already near the Moon as it plunges into hyperspace."

"But we have hyperspace equipment. I'm not a scientist, but can't that help somehow?"

"You can transport mass in a limited fashion, but you cannot propel mass. It's not the same thing. But wait!" she said, hope dawning as she mentally ran through sets of equations. "There may be a way after all!"

"How?"

"Your science wouldn't yet understand the method I have in mind, but you should have the equipment on Tyrok-17. Take me back there."

"Gladly," he said, reaching for the cage needed to sneak her up the Tyrok Radial.



John and Tony morosely watched the returning Eagles. They had successfully carried out the rescue operation, and the Lykrontak personnel were safely aboard Utrax-17.

But Maya was not safely aboard Alpha. Nor would she be before the Moon jumped back into hyperspace, moments after hitting the Utrax-19 station. Even now, the Station was growing in the video the long-range cameras on the Far Side was returning to the Moonbase. Garolak had, minutes before, thanked them for being more "civilized" than he could be to the Alphans. Coming from the Prime Councilor of Lykrontak, this was quite a complement. Nobody really cared.

As the station approached the Moon, the cameras panned to follow. At first, they aimed straight up into space; but as the station approached at an angle, the cameras panned away from the zenith. They zoomed back as the cylinder grew larger in the view. The rest happened in mere seconds. The horizon suddenly appeared in the panning view, the huge cylindrical station rapidly plummeting towards it. It finally fell behind distant mountains, and a glaring explosion blossomed between two peaks before quickly fading away. In quick succession, Sandra announced another "moonquake," quickly followed by an announcement that the Moon had once again jumped into hyperspace, as was the nature of medium-massed objects like the Moon.

Maya could no longer reach the Moonbase.

Tony slumped forward in his seat, putting his elbows on the console and his hands. Helena put her hand in front of her mouth for a second, before using it to grip Tony's shoulder. John's head sunk in defeat for a moment, before he turned and left Command Center. Helena, after a moment of indecision, followed. Sandra and Tony remained. Sandra felt her own pain, and saw Tony's. She didn't know how to help him. Words seemed inadequate at this moment, so she simply put her hand on his. He looked at her for a moment, and smiled a weak thanks, before silently rising and leaving Command Center.

They had lost Maya. He had lost Maya.


Lontror opened his eyes. Yet another station's transference room. Yet there was something different about Transfer Station Tyrok-17. The men and women working here had been the first to see an intelligent alien. It had not gone well.

Station Commander Arlanka looked worse for the experience. She seemed haggard, exhausted, perhaps on the edge of a nervous breakdown. She remotely opened the door, then approached.

"Councilor Lontror," she said weakly, too tired to be nervous.

"Commander Arlanka," he replied politely.

They embraced, and Lontror could sense pain in her. She had obviously heard a great deal about the chaos on Lykrontak. Her eyes fixed to the cage he was holding.

"Maya?"

"That's a good guess."

"It's not a guess. Councilors just don't go around carrying cages with common pakar unless there's a good reason. The best reason I could think of was that it was the shape-changing alien. What's going on?"

"The Council has ordered her returned to her people at all non-fatal costs. It seems it was the price for getting the alien planet's commander to help Far Station Utrax-19. They seem to care a great deal about her, as I am sure you noticed; and I have found that she cares a great deal about them as well. It confuses me to feel this way, but I think we made a grave error in kidnapping her, Law or not."

"Isn't it kind of late to return her? Their planet has already destroyed Utrax-19 and jumped back into hyperspace. A strange bubble surrounds it now, and we cannot transfer through it."

"She's got something in mind."

"I'm not surprised. She had our whole transfer system figured out so quickly that she was able to predict the destruction of Tyrok-18." He looked at her sharply, demanding an explanation for why it had not been reported. "No one believed her," she answered. "We thought she was trying to save herself by fabricating a falsehood. You must not have heard the story. We relayed it after Tyrok-18 blew up two days later. Sarlocron now thinks that the hyperlinks become sort of 'burned' into space. We were okay when we pulled Maya off the rogue planet because it was already so close to the normal transfer path, and the same was probably true when rescuing personnel from Utrax-19; but when Syranak was transferred from T-18 to that same target, it had moved quite far away. Sarlocron thinks T-18 blew up because of previously unknown sheering force caused by transporting at near right-angles to the well-established transfer path. That is what he sent in our report. Are you going to let her out? Don't worry, I have no intention of hurting her."

"I don't have a choice anyway. She can only hold a form--except for her own of course--for a limited time before she would die. She has limits- -quite a few actually. Sounds kind of silly to say that someone who can change her own body has limits, but it is true. She can only turn into forms she has seen."

"No, I know what you mean. She could disrupt transference and stasis fields; but in the end, they could, and almost did, kill her."

Lontror put the cage down and removed the pakar that was a metamorph, setting it on the floor. It changed to humanoid form. Arlanka looked at Maya in shock at the sight of dirtied clothes and the general appearance of exhaustion the alien woman bore heavily. Arlanka hugged Maya, who reacted in surprise, making Arlanka wonder if Maya continued to blame her for some of her woes. She had good reason. "I'm so sorry about what I've done to you. I made no attempt to soften the fact of your shape-changing. I just outright called you a monster to the Council, showed the video to prove it, and tossed you aside. I started feeling guilty a few days later, after my anger vanished."

Maya relaxed somewhat, and they drew back. "I understand why you did it. I can be a rather frightening person. I can't blame you for your reactions."

"But that's just it: you are a person--in the ways that count. I hardly made an effort to argue for your intelligence, kindness, or the fact you didn't kill anyone. You simply tried to defend yourself. My unflattering portrayal got you in a lot of trouble, and caused a panic on Lykrontak. I am sorry."

"I forgive you. I just ask for you to help me."

"How?"

"I have heard one of my people's ships is still floating nearby." Arlanka nodded. "You may have some equipment I can take aboard. If I fly the ship and your equipment through one of your beams while on a certain course, it should generate a space warp that instantly throws me past the space-normal boundary. With luck, I may be able to get the small mass of the ship to stay in hyperspace long enough to reach our Moon and merge with its bubble."

"I don't understand how that's possible."

"I cannot really explain without resorting to complicated mathematics; and I don't have the time for that."

"You can calculate such math in your head? You could have been quite a resource for Lykrontak."

"I wouldn't have helped you," Maya said, though without any real malice.

"I understand that. But isn't flying through a transport beam dangerous, for all of us?"

"It is far more dangerous for me than you. You will have to trust me when I say you are not in any danger."

"I trust you. We'll do anything we can to help. I'll get the others. They'll be quite happy to see you. Some of them were quite angry at the way I got rid of you. I just hope we can do better this time."

A couple of hours later, they boarded the derelict Eagle. Maya reassured them it would not blow up, as Tony had apparently claimed. The Eagles were not well-defended ships. The Lykrontak looked a bit chagrined. To have been able to claim a superior spaceship would have been some prize. But they could not go back on their pledge to help Maya.

Maya had helped them program in the sequence of transmitting a transference beam into empty space, without disrupting the radials. The rest would be totally up to herself.

She bid Lontror farewell. His hug was no longer the distantly respectful gesture she had received a few times. It was not the confused farewell she had received from Arlanka. Nor was it the hesitant ones she had received from the others. This was a hug of genuine affection, friendship even, that no Lykrontak had bestowed on her before. Without hesitation, she returned the feeling.

Lontror would never know what happened to Maya. It was better that way, she thought. After how he had happily helped her, she did not want to mention she had no real hope of actually succeeding to the point of returning to Alpha alive....


Chapter Fourteen
Crash

Helena and John sat in his quarters, saying little, depressed how they had lost a friend--yet again.

The communication pylon in John's room started beeping. He walked over and activated it. Sandra's face filled the tiny screen. "Commander, something is approaching the Moon!"

"Can't we even get away from this system before something new bothers us?" Helena asked morosely. They immediately headed towards Command Center. By the time they arrived, Sandra had a picture on the big screen. They couldn't make out the shape.

"A visual already?" he asked Sandra.

"It appeared out of nowhere, but is approaching very rapidly."

The object's outlines suddenly stabilized. Their mouths fell open at the sight of a strangely distorted Eagle rotating on all three axes. "Maya!" Tony shouted.

The Eagle was in bad shape. It didn't just rotate on all axes, its shape actually seemed to twist oddly, distorting and then returning to normal, not unlike the Eagle that had been subjected to the pressure of the black hole/sun early in their journey. Its shape stabilized, but it did not stop rotating.

"Heading?"

"Not certain, but it will probably hit the Moon some distance from Alpha."

He pulled out his commlock. "Alan, prepare a rescue Eagle for immediate liftoff. Bring two men." He turned back to the others. "Helena, Tony, you're with me."

"It hit," Sandra announced. "Crash speed, no apparent control." Their hearts sunk.

Thirty minutes later, they reached the impact sight.

It was not a pretty sight. The former spaceship was now a twisted mass of metal, with one end half-buried in--or maybe fused with--lunar rock. The rest was broken and burnt. They couldn't even figure out what part of the Eagle was what, until Alan finally decided--guessed?--that the end sticking out of the ground was the pilot section. There was no reason to hope for a survivor.

In the back of the Eagle, John and Tony watched as Helena analyzed her readouts. There was no way to soften the blow for any of them. "Scanners pick up no life forms--plant or animal. If Maya was in there, she did not survive the impact."

Bartelson and Bokessu headed out, charged with the duty of finding out what was actually inside, and returning any body found. Tony moved to follow, but John held him back. If Maya had been in there, John didn't want Tony to be the one to find her torn and mangled body.

Tony made no real effort to protest the decision. He slumped heavily into the nearest chair, feeling as if he had lost something he never knew he had.

Bartelson and Bokessu were forced to cut their way through metal formations that looked more like abstract sculpture than spaceship. Twenty minutes later, they finally reached the pilot section.

"What the hell?" Bartelson cried over the open commlines.

Koenig turned to the screen, but it still could not show what his men were seeing. "What is it?"

"We've run into something weird."

"Define," Koenig demanded impatiently.

"I... it's some sort of solid yellow... mass."

"Something melted?" Alan asked from the pilot module of Eagle Twelve.

"No... I don't think that's it," Bartelson said. "It's way too big and organized-looking."

"It's separate," Bokessu said. "And there's nothing sticking out of it. My hammer hardly does a thing to it."

John, Tony, and Helena looked at each other, frowning in incomprehension of these meaningless descriptions. "Well what the hell does it look like?" Tony demanded.

"I don't know," Bokessu said. He looked it over. "Kind of looks like a big, ugly egg."

"A cocoon," Bartelson said almost at the same moment.

"Maya!" Helena exclaimed excitedly. "It's got to be some form that protects against the vacuum and impact!"

John immediately issued an order. "Get it out of there on the double, but don't damage it."

Bokessu laughed. "After surviving a crash that totaled the Eagle, I doubt we could damage it."

"What's the hurry?" Bartelson asked.

"We think it may be Maya," Tony said.

"Maya?" Bokessu exclaimed.

"Well I be.... If this one doesn't top them all. Yeah, we'll hurry!"

John turned to Sandra. "How long since the crash?"

"Fifty-three minutes."

He turned to Helena, who immediately provided the answer to his unasked question. "Six to eleven minutes."

"Bokessu, Bartelson, hurry it. You've got... four minutes to get it out of there and aboard this Eagle."

"Four minutes? It... she... the cocoon is lodged in a tangled cage of metal. We should take the whole pilot module into a bay."

"We don't have the time!" Tony yelled. "We're too far away from Alpha!"

"She'll revert to human form before we could get her there," Helena explained.

"Oh!" Bartelson cried. "Then we need help, fast. People with cutting lasers. Besides, it's too big for us to carry. It must mass two-hundred kilograms."

John, Helena, and Tony--already suited up--instantly grabbed their helmets and lasers.

"I'll pull the Eagle closer," Alan informed them. "Hey, Bo, will it fit through the Eagle's door?" There was a terrifyingly long pause before Bokessu answered in the affirmative.

It was two full minutes before they got out on the surface and reached the twisted remains of Eagle Four. Three agonizing minutes later, the five of them had cut away enough metal to free the cocoon. As quick as the clumsiness of lunar gravity allowed them when carrying a mass that still had all the inertia of a four-hundred and forty-pound rock, they got it aboard the Eagle. After narrowly squeezing it through the door, they quickly repressurized the cabin. Alan took off for Alpha. There was no way of telling how hurt Maya's normal body was.

But if the rock was Maya in cocoon form, it gave no indication. It just sat there, inert.

"Damn it!" Helena shouted. "We may have repressurized too quickly!"

"You think it got the bends or something like that, Doc?" Alan shouted from the pilot section.

"She must have transformed into this before the Eagle crashed," Koenig theorized. "We have to assume she survived the depressurization, and that it was also built to survive repressurization."

Tony started pounding on the hard shell. "Maya! Maya! Is that you?! You're safe now. You can change back. Change back!" It didn't seem to work, but Tony kept on pounding for several minutes.

Helena looked at John. "She should have changed back by now."

As if on cue, the object's outlines started fuzzing and fading, and Tony pulled back. When the spatial distortion ceased, they found Maya lying on the floor, pale, dirty, and exhausted. She was the prettiest sight Tony had ever seen.

They knelt next to her. Helena started running medical scanners over her, and Tony held her hand.

She slowly opened her eyes. "Tony," she whispered.

"Maya," he said soothingly.

"It worked." There was a hint of both surprise and triumph in her weak, thready voice.

"You bet it worked," he said, not knowing exactly what "it" was.

She closed her eyes, and her hand went slack. Tony looked at Helena nervously.

"She's injured, but not badly. She seems more exhausted than anything. She'll be fine."


The next day, John, Helena, and Tony gathered around Maya's bed in Medical Center. Helena had confined her there, due to how exhausted she had been in, and what she had suffered. It took a long time to drag the story of her painful experiences in the transference and stasis systems. But she had finally broken down and spilled the whole horrifying tale. For the first time since seeing her father die on Psychon, John saw tears in the Maya's eyes.

She recovered quickly though, and finished discussing other aspects of her experiences, and how she convinced the Lykrontak to give her some equipment to generate an unusual kind of hyperspace field around the Eagle left at Tyrok-17.

"Your idea was quite ingenious," Helena said at one point.

"It was insane," Maya replied.

Unseen by the others, John smiled slightly. Helena and Victor had once had a similar conversation about the latter's idea of using a shield to protect against the murderous gravitational forces of the black hole they had later went through--and survived. "It's ingenious," Helena had stated. "It's insane," Victor had replied.

John missed his friend deeply. He was also sad that Victor had not survived long enough to meet Maya. The two of them would have become fast friends, John was sure. And they would have made a phenomenal team, he thought, unashamed at the way his mind always turned to the practical--if now impossible--aspects. Maya's alien knowledge coupled with the elder scientist's earthly knowledge and general wisdom would have propelled Alpha forward--technologically as well as scientifically-- faster than either alone had managed to accomplish. Just be glad you've got one, the practical part of his mind said. As much as he hated doing so, he had to accept that fact. But he would always grieve over what he had lost: a dear friend.

He abruptly dropped out of his musings, to hear Tony in the middle of a sentence.

"....but the distortions we saw...."

"Were the least of the problems," Maya interrupted. "Driven by those alien contraptions, judge-rigged--jerryrigged I mean--in a hurried manner by me, the whole ship should have collapsed into a singularity--a tiny black hole or black sun, if you will."

"You did it, even though you thought you would die, and maybe cause a singularity to collide with the Moon?" Tony cried out.

"A singularity made out of a 240-ton Eagle would have evaporated long before reaching the Moon," she said impatiently.

"Oh, well, excuse this idiot," he said with mock insult. Before Maya could protest, he continued. "But you still tried--despite believing your idea would never work!"

"I wasn't sure. I don't fully understand the equations, especially the unique solution the Lykrontak came up with."

"So you tried it because you couldn't stand the thought of being around those barbaric Lykrontak."

"Actually, they were quite civilized--though in a unique manner. Some were genuinely friendly."

"Don't you see, Tony?" Helena suddenly interrupted. "She couldn't stand the thought of being away from you."

As one, Tony and Maya turned to her and cried "Helena!" in apparent outrage.

"Excuse me!" Helena said, putting up her hands. "I meant to say that she couldn't stand the thought of being away from us, her friends back on Alpha."

Though Tony and Maya subsided, John was not fooled by Helena. They had both seen the younger couples' slightly blushing faces. As much as both of them would deny it publicly, there was a bond growing between them.

Ever the commander, John's mind came back to one answered question. Just how did Maya survive? His own arguments had convinced the Lykrontak to free Maya, and her technical and scientific skills had allowed her to come up with a solution to the problem of reaching the Moon once it had entered hyperspace. Without such extraordinary efforts on both their parts, she would have been lost. Yet it just didn't seem like the whole picture. The whole idea of black suns had come up twice, and it reminded him of a discussion he once had with Victor. "You ever wonder just how and why we survived?" Yes, I do....

Helena had the most ironically welcome piece of news. The two stations the Moon had smashed had been partially powered by tiranium, a substance incredibly precious to the Alphans. The amount they had recovered would keep Alpha alive for several more months. It seemed too easy, until they remembered the insanity that had come as a result: the cost in Lykrontak life, the near loss of Maya, and the disruption of Alpha and the entire Lykrontak planet. No, it hadn't been easy--for anyone.

It was unfortunate that none of the alien hyperspace equipment had survived the crash of Maya's Eagle. Then again, the Eagle had survived only in the form of short lengths of twisted and shattered metal, so he should be thankful that Maya had survived at all--and that was the most important thing.

John had lost track of the conversation, and when he returned, he found Maya looking at Tony with another exasperated expression--something she frequently wore around him.

"...You call being terrorized and exhausted by painfully torturous damping fields, distorted transports, and an imperfect hyperspace slingshot to the Moon easy? I don't think I could ever get near another spatial distortion like the one I created to get here. It would probably get me sick," she concluded.

"What do you call skipping through hyperspace all the time? A joy ride?"

"There are far worse things out there."

"Oh, thanks a lot, Maya," Tony grumbled morosely. "That really makes me feel good."

"I know what would make you feel better."

"What?"

"A nice recital of old Earth music. I overheard Helena saying it had been delayed." Without waiting for a response, she removed her bedcovers and stood up. To their initial surprise, she had transformed her clothes into a dress. Tony tried to hide a smile.

"Wait a minute!" Helena protested. "You're still weak yet." Would she ever get a good patient? This had to be the worst: an impatient alien who could pop out of bed with her clothes already changed.

"I'm fine, Helena. I can walk to the cafeteria. And the music couldn't hurt."

Helena surprised them all by relenting without further complaint. No one pressed for explanation.

"I can walk to the cafeteria."

Tony sighed in disappointment that she had not chosen to grace her lovely body with the native Psychon dress which Tony found so attractive. He had not seen her in that sexy outfit for some time.

Ten minutes later, John, Helena, Tony, and Maya sat in the back row of the makeshift auditorium. They had arrived too late to get anything better.

Almost at once, they became lost in surprisingly moving overtures, minuets, concertos, and just about anything the group--irreverently dubbed the Atonal Alphans--attempted. Nothing depressing was played. Now was a time for gentle joy at having overcome the odds once again.

Alan sat next to Sandra. John and Helena spent most of the time staring at each other, the music warming their hearts and souls. Tony held Maya's hand as she sat there quietly, slowly drifting into sleep with the delightful sounds of incredibly lovely alien music in her ears. Tony could only wonder why he had avoided such concerts for so long, then decided it must be the company that was improving his perception.

Though not perfect, the music was lifting to their souls. John and Helena certainly found it beautiful, as did everyone else--even when an instrument occasionally hit a bad note.

No, the arts on Moonbase Alpha were not up to the standards of the London Orchestra, Broadway, the Boston Philharmonic, the Beijing Symphony, the Parisian Louvre, or the Psychon Astakor. Nonetheless, they were precious gems to a small band of people struggling to hold their varied cultures in place as they forged a newer, stronger culture.


Epilogue

"Life Indicated"

The Alpha Encounter, Fourteen Years Later--A Comprehensive Summary
by Arvanarm of Kuska'rasko, from The Kuska Region Periodical
Issue Number 2321, Time Index 25593,34

The small alien world called "Themoon" is gone, never to return; but the panic which swept Lykrontak remains: a now-subdued but still- lingering fear that continues to alter the course of our world, fueled by the mysteries left by the Alphans. This article will discuss what we have discovered, extrapolated, or altogether failed to solve; then move on to the changes wrought on our people. It will assume basic familiarity with the details of the incident, easily retrievable from a multitude of sources.

The mother world of Themoon is known only by the name the Alphans gave: "Earth." Extrapolating back along Themoon's course has proven completely uninformative as to Earth's location. Themoon was propelled into interstellar space by an explosion of immense nuclear piles due to "a previously unknown effect;" and pieces of evidence corroborate the aliens' claim of inability to control Themoon's course. In an eerily reminiscent wording, Tyrok-18 exploded due to a "previously unknown sheering force caused by transporting at near right-angles to the well-established transfer path."

The destruction of Tyrok-18 and -19 has rendered transport along it or to the Randalor system impossible for lifetimes--thus isolating our colony of 440 people there. The destruction of Utrax-19 has isolated the Vaknor system, isolating the just-begun colony of twenty people--too small of a population to be genetically viable. Mysterious and dangerous storms still rage at the locations of the destroyed T-19 and Utrax-19 stations. The damaged Tyrok stations have been dismantled, while the others are being moved to build a new radial.

The location of Maya's Psychon and the reason for her presence on Alphan are unknown. Councilor Lontror may have had a detailed discussion with Maya. If so, he has chosen not to reveal anything--at least not at this time--despite persistent inquiries.

Cell samples taken from Maya revealed little. The lack of artificial implants within her body seems to indicate her transmorphic ability is biological, despite the conclusion she is of a nearly human species. Her body generated unusual fields which sometimes interfered with our computers and were detected by certain medical scanners; but in isolation, the cell samples soon stopped generating such fields. Though the mysterious emanations seem more a result of her ability than the cause, there are attempts to determine whether some part of this can be replicated in a non-biological manner.

Maya's commlock was the only alien machinery recovered. According to information Syranak gained on Alpha, it is a personal communications device which included an incredibly miniaturized video screen. Some rumor exists that Maya constructed a biological "fake" through her transmorphic ability--in order to distract the personnel of Tyrok-17 and allow her to modify the second, "real" version, tapping into the energy of a detention shield to boost a locator signal. A minor energy drain was indeed discovered in the logs--too minor to trigger an alarm at the time-- but no signal was recorded (though it is possible the signal was on an unmonitored frequency). A few radical scientists and technicians believe the modifications of the commlock were to create what they dubbed a "simple neuronal network." They claim this part could represent the earliest building block of a technology which could have been alien to even the other Alphans: brain-like networking of circuitry units--the ultimate result of which could be a "thinking computer." Those scientists were declared incompetent by their peers. Though the seized device has been extensively analyzed, the sheer alienness of the circuitry has stalled any efforts at adapting its technology for use.

It first seemed obvious we and the intelligent aliens could speak to each other; but nearly everyone now realizes this should be impossible, since the two--three, actually--races of people grew up on separate planets, isolated from each other's speech. Maya had some initial difficulty, but all the Alphans proved otherwise adept at speaking our language, which remains one of the most difficult issues to resolve. An unverified theory is that their computers--or perhaps the commlock device--scanned our computers to gain the knowledge. Syranak, however, reported no evidence of hearing or seeing a translator.

The aliens lack our hyperspace technology; but the ships which visited several stations were far from primitive: they had range, speed, and weaponry systems far in advance of even our best ships, much less our shuttles. This fact and others point to areas of technology which have been virtually unexplored, a myopic oversight whose discovery has disturbed many people. We were woefully unprepared for an encounter with intelligent aliens. It was far from just a technological issue. More fundamentally, it was a social flaw. Once their human biology was verified, we assumed they would react in the same way to Maya's removal and the demand to rescue Utrax-19. Our actions, though perfectly legal, nearly proved fatal, because the Alphans, civilized in ways both similar and dissimilar to us, found our actions illegal. The Grand Council alone cannot accept full blame for this, but its handling of the crisis on Lykrontak itself is questionable. Their initial attempts to hide the extent of the situation and prevent a planet-wide panic were understandable; but later actions were difficult to reconcile.

Though the Council did not attempt to deny the fact a rogue planet had traveled through our space, it tried to convince the populace that the transforming alien was a fiction concocted by several demented individuals who had fabricated a convincing video. No one believed this fanciful story, and the Grand Council was soon forced to admit its deception. Syranak resigned; and Grand Council Speaker Hajrar, upset at speaking the lies made up during and after the incident, "retired." Soon after, Garolak followed, for "having ultimately suggested or approved of all actions undertaken." The rest--at the behest of a populace frightened at being totally abandoned by even a troubled Grand Council--were encouraged to stay, at least temporarily. The three who resigned all stated variations of the following: "no more people should suffer for our decisions; we alone should bear this final punishment"--a semi-contradictory statement resembling those the Alphans spoke in regard to the difference between Lykrontak law and their own.

Given their involvement, it is not surprising these three former councilors have become part of the three powerful movements which have appeared since the Alpha Encounter.

One movement believes we should back off full-scale exploration of the neighboring star systems, feeling the hyperspace technology is what attracted the aliens in the first place. There is some truth to this in the way Themoon was pulled to the ends of two Radials, through hyperspatial interaction. The movement is, however, founded primarily on the fear experienced during the incident. Speaker Hajrar, who died seven years ago, fell into this camp, which is known as the Lykrontak Movement.

Part of that fear headed another direction, into the Vanguard movement, which believes we should use the alien circuitry and existing Lykrontak knowledge to fill the technological gaps and defend ourselves against future incursion. With intimate knowledge of the incident, Garolak believes the Alphans could easily have been more hostile than they were. He has quickly become a high-power figure in the Vanguard, which admits to the possibility of friendly aliens, but (based on what little the Alphans said of their own encounters in space) believes it is much more likely that alien peoples would be very dangerous and hostile, and that meeting them fully-armed will be the best course for a Lykrontak which must now defend itself from outside attack.

The last movement, fronted by Syranak and supported by still- Councilor Lontror, both of whom had the most alien encounters of any Lykrontak, takes a similar stand on technology; but believes using it in a fear-filled, confrontational manner is not the answer, instead feeling a non- hostile (though guarded) approach could lead to cooperation and alliances with neighboring alien peoples, perhaps being a much better defense against any hostile aliens which may exist. This organization, curiously enough, is called the Alpha Movement, perhaps admitting by its very referential name that alien situations can be far more complicated than first expected.

It is interesting the councilors joined different movements--a diversity which is curious in light of the fact all were intimately involved in the same incident: though each experienced different aspects, all of the facts should have later been thoroughly analyzed and disseminated within the Council. The lack of agreement by these councilors is echoed in Lykrontak's confusion.

Though it boasted most of Lykrontak in its infancy, the Lykrontak Movement was subsequently discredited by the Dorcon incident. A ship crewed by humans calling themselves "Dorcons" arrived three years later, inquiring after Alpha. Their intent (and how they knew of Alpha) was never discovered. What is still controversial is that without full-scale consultations, Councilors who were members of the Lykrontak Movement immediately revealed what they knew of Themoon, including its last known course. Another question followed from the aliens: had we seen a very obviously alien woman? The councilors described Maya, and the Dorcons seemed quite pleased, immediately leaving Lykrontak space. A Dorcon Councilor, Varda, parted with this statement: "we may return, to seek a relationship with your people."

The Lykrontak Movement was suddenly seen as cowardly and short- sighted by most: contact had already occurred; hiding on Lykrontak and fearing our own technology would not prevent further danger. There were indeed other aliens, with even more powerful ships than ours or even Alpha's--ships which could ply the spaces between stars unaided by hyperspatial transporters or a hyperspatial planet. The apparent friendliness of the Dorcons bolstered the Alpha Movement; but the parting statement was seen as very ambiguous by the Vanguard, which stated the Dorcon's words could have easily hid a threat that the "relationship" between Dorcon and Lykrontak could become master to the enslaved. The Dorcons' inquiring after the Psychon seemed to indicate ill intent towards that individual--and if an individual, why not a whole world? These facts, coupled with the inability to scan the Dorcon ship, triggered an exodus to the Vanguard movement, primarily from the dying Lykrontak movement.

Though we lack some of the talents the Alphans and Dorcons had, they lack the hyperspatial talents we have: powerful sensors and transference systems. Few doubt we can build incredible technologies rivaling or surpassing the alien ones we have seen. Some Alphans accused Lykrontak of having little imagination in regard to the possibilities of alien encounters. We seemed to have learned since then. Is it for the better? Almost certainly. What will we become? Only time will bring the answers--with one exception. The calm, unhurried aspects of Lykrontak are gone. Now, time drives us as we hurriedly prepare for the unknown, attempting to remake ourselves and our children in ways which eliminate what many now feel is nearsightedness and sloth in Lykrontak thought. No one knows how fast this can be done, or what we are turning ourselves into. The Alpha and Vanguard movements are both vying for positions in the future, with the latter holding more people at present. Many who cannot yet subscribe to either camp still feel one of these will become Lykrontak's way in the future. It is becoming clear that what is "decided" now by mass thinking will likely set our course for hundreds of generations. For better or worse, the Alpha Encounter is proving one of the most major transformation points in history.