never have left, should never have left, should never have left.’
The loop wouldn’t stop running through her mind. She sat in the Eagle’s cabin, posture rigid, speaking to no one.
At the beginning of their flight, she made a little small talk with Sandra, but she wasn’t even up to that now. Helena
knew she was feeling sorry for herself which she didn’t usually allow, but she was past the point of caring. She knew
Sandra was suffering over Mike’s death and Paul’s absence, and whatever was going on in that triangle, Helena
didn’t know or care about that either. Days from now, assuming they survived for days, she’d see her way back
to being sympathetic but right now…had she mentioned the fact that she didn’t care? Not about Mike or Sandra or
Paul or anything else except her own heavy sense of loss.
Helena had never been so angry at him, and that was saying something.
How dare John make her leave?! Just when they were almost…no, she pushed that thought away. The fact that their relationship
hadn’t gone as far as either of them would have wished was her doing, not his. She had to be fair about that. But now…now,
the chances of this miserable little band of voyagers surviving to find some habitable planet before they starved to death
were even worse than the chances of surviving back on Alpha if you asked her. Nothing about this felt like a good idea. The
six of them were going to die out here in empty space, that was the real odds-on bet.
She didn’t fully understand why John had forced her to go. Certainly there were things he wasn’t
admitting, feelings that were absurdly pointless to dwell on now. But still, why? Her own question continued to beat in her
mind: what did it matter if she died on Alpha or out in space if the end result was the same? Did he really believe their
chances were all that great? Or was he just not capable of watching her die?
He wasn’t capable of telling her goodbye, he’d proven that. He hadn’t even come out to the
Eagle as Paul had done for Sandra, though that, she grudgingly admitted, was a sensible choice on his part. Normal restraint
be damned, she wouldn’t have been able to stop herself from giving him a hug, a small kiss of farewell. Then it might
have evolved into a bigger kiss because she couldn’t have stopped it from happening, might even have encouraged it,
and then…She wondered whether he would have made her go if she’d done the unexpected and wrapped her arms around
his neck and refused to leave his side. Not a typical act for the reserved Dr. Russell to be sure, but would it have worked
if she’d had the nerve to do it? If he’d given her the opportunity?
She sighed wearily in the stillness of the cabin. She’d never loved anyone as much as she loved John,
she faced that fact. She’d been with Lee for years; had loved him, had mourned him, had missed him. She’d meticulously
walled herself off in her mourning so she wouldn’t have to go through such an experience again. Her work was satisfying
and it was enough…most of the time. There had been some minor sexual involvements since Lee, but nothing special, nothing
serious, and all in all, as long she had rechargeable batteries she could make herself happy in that regard and usually more
so than most men had managed to do for her. It was easier that way. No extra commitments. No man to have to cater to or depend
on or worry about.
But then He had been assigned to Alpha and come strolling into her
office one day, oozing confidence with every step. He made himself at ease in her personal space, sliding his long-fingered
hands over her beloved microscope without invitation. Then he’d gotten straight to the point of his introductory visit,
and had the insolence to practically call her inept right to her face…and in a monumental act of self-betrayal, part
of her very soul had been lost ever since.
Oh, and the romantic course had been a bumpy one. She’d known of John by reputation; the space community
was not large. When she’d finally had the opportunity to meet him in person, she’d thought him a pompous ass despite
her intense and unwanted physical attraction to him. Even when time and closer association had forced her to reevaluate her
position, they’d had to forge over all kinds of obstacles. Her cooperation in removing him from duty when he and a badly
injured Alan had been the only ones able to communicate with the mysterious Arra had not been, in retrospect, one of her finer
moments. The professional baggage they’d carried into the Tony Cellini affair had been difficult to overcome, too, and
of course, there was the personal baggage in the shape of former spouses.
Then there were the Darians…but she didn’t want to relive that now. The only thing that mattered
in the wake of that horror was how kind and patient and loving John had been with her. He had put his own desires on hold
for her…and his desire was difficult to overlook. She’d felt it on several occasions when he kissed her goodnight.
She’d noticed it in subtle glances at his lap when they sat close together on her couch. More than once, she’d
considered throwing reserve aside, allowing her hand to slide down his thigh, freeing every impressive inch of him from the
confines of his clothing and proposing he do what they both wanted so badly.
The scope of her lust for John had caught her by surprise and she’d tried to tell herself it was elementary
biology, basic chemistry. She was, age-wise, at her sexual peak, and the swarthy, dark-haired, blue-eyed Commander who stalked
her dreams happened to be in the right spot at the right time. He was an assertive, mature man in a position of authority
that he took seriously and performed well despite his natural hotheadedness. She’d never been attracted to little boys
in grown-up guise that whined and sniveled their way through life. ‘Just old-fashioned
lust, Helena,’ she’d repeated in her mind, week after week, month after month. ‘You can control it.’
But she knew she was lying to herself. Biology and chemistry were involved, but something innate to this particular
man seemed determined to haunt her thoughts, and conspired to give her the sluttiest images at the most inopportune moments.
It was one thing that she fantasized about him in her dreams, but she also fantasized about him at work. If there were no
emergencies to address, she fantasized about him during staff meetings, when he sat so close to her she could have reached
over at any time and guided his hands to her breasts, his body between her legs. She pictured various intimate positions on
the conference table, on the couch in his office and she was dead certain that big, leather command chair could be put to
good use. She sat through the meetings, professional mask in place, giving updates in a normal voice, but oftentimes thinking,
‘Why don’t you “command” me to do something more interesting,
John? Like take off my clothes and sit on your lap?’
Oh, and if only it was just about sex, two sets of human genitalia following normal hormonal compulsions and
calling out for one another, she would have allowed him into her bed months ago. No strings; just two adults in an extraordinarily
demanding situation who needed occasional stress release and companionship. But it wasn’t just physical urges she’d
been holding in check and she knew there would be nothing casual between herself and Alpha’s turbulent Commander. Somewhere,
back when she’d lost that piece of her soul, she’d misplaced her heart as well. No, that was a lie; neither had
been mislaid. Commander John Koenig had marched into her life and helped himself to both…or maybe she’d handed
them over to him. All she knew was that he had them in his custody, and it had taken her months to trust that, whether it
was her heart or soul at stake they couldn’t be in safer keeping.
They’d been so close, it was all so near. He was ready, she was ready. Despite fears that cried out from
some murky primal place in her psyche to beware, because there was the stuff of destiny lurking here and once she abandoned
herself in the arms of this man, there would be no returning and her heart would never be her own again, she was still ready.
She knew he loved her…but he hadn’t come out and said so…and then this damned black hole…and he’d
sent her away…and now…it was too late for everything…
Of course, she hadn’t admitted that she loved him either. Maybe he wouldn’t have made her leave
if she had. ‘Damn him and his too-blue eyes straight to hell anyway!’
Anger flared, but just as quickly she forced it down, superstitiously afraid of inviting some spiteful cosmic hammer down
on his head. ‘No, no, no, I didn’t mean that, I didn’t mean it!…Please,
whatever happens to us, whatever happens to me, let him live.’ Helena didn’t have a concept of some remote
deity in charge of everything and running the big show. She was about provable scientific fact; but if anything, anyone was
listening, she urged her thought out into the universe, ‘I love him. Please just
let him live.’
Her musings were rudely interrupted. She became aware of some very odd sensations: lightheadedness and tingly
prickles all over her skin…and…was she becoming…translucent? Yes, sure enough she could see right through
her own hand and glancing to the side, she could see through Sandra, too. Oh, this couldn’t be good. She considered
quickly and assumed they must have been unable to outrun the gravitational pull of the black hole in spite of Alan’s
best efforts. Her suppositions had been correct: they were going to die out here. John had meant well, but she was still going
to die. Taking for granted these were her final thoughts and last breaths, she pictured his face and willed her love to him
wherever he might be.
The next half hour or so of John’s life came close to bringing him round to Victor’s way of thinking.
Maybe they hadn’t hallucinated that voice, those sensations. Maybe there was a grand design in place, and maybe there
was something bigger than the universe that had a plan for their insignificant little moon. Though that force, call it what
you will, seemed to enjoy tossing out challenging circumstances, maybe it wasn’t malevolent after all. Or maybe it was
temporarily bored with them and their tiny problems and was looking in the other direction. For now.
With no offense intended to any deity who might be spying on his thoughts, he’d worry about God and philosophy
some other time. The only thing that mattered to him now was to perform his leadership duties as proficiently as possible
so he could welcome home one member of the Eagle’s crew a little more personally.
After the initial celebrations and when he reasonably could, he moved to her side. The look she flashed him
was telling and eloquent: yes, she wanted to be alone with him, too. His hand strayed to the small of her back and, oblivious
to the knowing looks being exchanged behind them, he led her away from the rest as she related more details of their unexpected
voyage home. In actuality, he was scarcely hearing her words. In actuality, she had little idea what she was saying and after
rounding the first corner, she fell silent, content just to be in his presence. His hand slipped round her waist, nudging
her closer. Until they were alone, it was enough to be walking together, side to side, hip to hip. Words would wait.
They went directly to her quarters. Immediately she turned toward him just inside the door and threw herself
into his arms so hard she knocked him back against the wall. Grabbing her commlock, she tapped in the privacy setting, and
allowed the instrument to fall to the carpet, all her attention geared toward sculpting the front of her body to his.
He held her as though she were trapped in his own gravitational pull, breathing in the scent of her hair, her
skin. He was so grateful to feel her in his arms it took him a moment to register the sound of her voice speaking next to
“Don’t you ever send me away from you like that again. Please, John, promise me you won’t.
I won’t go, even if you try, but promise me.” She was near tears.
His arms wrapped her tightly. “I won’t, honey, I promise. I’d never have the strength to do
it again. I won’t.”
Her lips pressed suddenly against his, her tongue darting so quickly into his mouth it startled him. His tongue
instantly responded to hers, delving into her mouth with eagerness, one of his hands rising to hold the back of her head to
press their mouths firmly together.
He heard her moan softly in the back of her throat, the low purr inspiring him to break his lips away from her
mouth and trace them over to her ear and just below where he could feel her pulse racing beneath her skin. His tongue darted
out to taste her neck; salty, smooth, so warm. She moaned again, but pushed away to look lovingly into his eyes. “I
need to get freshened up first. I’ve been in that damned Eagle for more than two days.”
He chuckled, with relief more than amusement; he’d been sure he’d overstepped her boundaries. “I
could tell you it doesn’t matter to me, but I want you to be comfortable.” He kissed the tip of her nose and placed
his hand on the side of her face, his thumb brushing her lips. He inhaled sharply as she whisked his thumb into her mouth,
softly sucking it in imitation of the many fantasies he’d had involving her mouth and another part of his body.
She stepped away from him then, kissing his open palm and pointing him at the cabinets on the far wall. “I’ve
got some kind of food in there, I don’t know what.”
John considered mentioning it wasn’t food he wanted to eat just then, but chose to refrain from undue
crudeness. “I’ll check it out.”
“I won’t take long,” she promised.
She showered quickly. It took longer to choose what to wear. It wasn’t going to be a uniform and her Alpha-blue
pajamas were more casual than she wanted to be. She considered going out with a towel wrapped around her, but decided she
wanted a little more sophistication this first time than a towel alone would give her. She pulled out a full length black
satin nightgown and a much shorter emerald green one, neither of which had gotten any use since she’d been assigned
to Alpha. She’d sometimes wondered why she’d bothered bringing them. The green one showed off her legs, but the
black one did, too, thanks to the thigh-high slits all around.
‘It probably doesn’t matter this much, Helena,’ she tried to give herself confidence. ‘Whatever
you have on isn’t going to be on long….Probably not,’ she agreed, remembering the burning look in his
eyes from minutes ago.
Making her choice, she dabbed perfume and fluffed her hair and critically inspected her mirrored image. Things
could be worse. A few fine lines at the corners of her eyes; nothing awful, but they hadn’t been there a year ago. She
needed to put in more time at the gym, too; her hips were just a little wider than they used to be. On the bright side, her
breasts remained pretty perky, and her legs were good. She knew he liked her legs. She sighed. ‘Get out there already before you talk yourself out of this. He’s not going to be looking at lines around your eyes.’ Nodding at her own advice, she had one last thought. ‘Okay…so that leaves the panty question, doesn’t it?’
John had found snack-y things made of the ever-lasting Alpha soybean protein in the cabinet. Better, he’d
found the stash of Alpha wine they’d been laying in for several months…no great vintages, but it would do. As
he uncorked the wine, he checked in with Main Mission to be certain all was well and he could go missing for awhile without
causing problems or raising awkward questions.
Victor’s steady face and voice assured him, “Everything’s under control, John; you and Helena
relax. You both need some down time. Together.”
He smiled at the professor’s prescience. He hadn’t mentioned Helena himself, and obviously when
it came to Victor, he didn’t need to. “Thanks, Victor,” he’d signed off…and the older man gave
him an encouraging wink.
He was sharing out the wine when his nose caught the scent of familiar perfume, slightly spicy, toasted vanilla
or ginger, maybe an undertone of cinnamon. Whatever, it was immediately identifiable as her. Lights dimmed and he felt her
close by. Turning, he had to grab at the bottle with both hands to keep from dropping it as his eyes stared at the vision
before him: black satin poured over her breasts and waist like a candy coating, flaring out over her hips and showing plenty
of leg between numerous slits. As he watched, one strap fell teasingly down an ivory shoulder and his breath caught in his
He put down the bottle and took the few steps that separated them, his hands coming to rest on her waist. “You
look so astoundingly beautiful.” His voice was a whisper gone hoarse. He almost kissed her, but paused. It was time
to say it. It shouldn’t wait until after whatever was about to happen, and he could no longer hold it in anyway. “I
love you, Helena.”
Her eyes misted over, as much from gratitude as love, and her arms slid round his neck. “I love you, too,
John.” Their lips met, tongues probing tentatively.
For several long minutes they stood there holding on in thankful amazement for the miracle that had given them
back to each other, letting a conspicuous air of anticipation rise around them. At last, he inhaled shakily and traced the
line of her jaw with one finger. “Be sure about this, honey,” he whispered. “I don’t want to push…”
Helena placed her fingertips over his lips. “I am sure, John. I want us to be together. It’s time.
I want us to make love.”
His heart pounded. His hands slid up her back. “I want that, too.”