He should have been sliding
and rolling down the mountain pathway to…what?…His death? Hadn’t he made that voyage already, regardless
of what Jean claimed? Yet instead of tumbling downhill toward the lakeshore, he found himself walking forward so evenly that
he nearly fell over his own feet in surprise, and he had to catch himself mid-stride to avoid the fall he’d been anticipating.
Within seconds, he was standing on the small dock that stretched off into the cold blue lake. Behind him he heard the stream
still gurgling on its merry way and the lazy bump of the rowboat against one of the pilings. Part of his mind thought he should
go pull the little boat to higher ground to avoid damage; another part of his brain decided it hardly mattered.
Hands stuffed in his pockets, he strolled forward to the end of the dock. Reaching it he slowly sat, leaning
his back against the side railing and gazing at the cottony clouds overhead. He tried to inhale the superb piney scent once
more, but got only about halfway through the breath and began to cough. The center of his body ached, and he felt a dull pain
spreading up and out through his chest. He assumed it a consequence of the hard out-of-body yank he’d suffered earlier.
Breathing seemed more of an effort as well. Just why he should be experiencing pain or performing the act of breathing was
a mystery to him but at this point, he saw no reason not to simply go along with whatever happened. He closed his eyes and
tried to enjoy the lowering sun and late afternoon breezes on his face.
Footfalls on the wood drew his attention; not airy and measured like Jean’s, but rapid and purposeful.
John opened his eyes and looked up. He had to shield his gaze from the tilting sun to see, but as light and shadow resolved
into a now familiar figure in an old flightsuit, he found himself laughing out loud at his previous arrogance and disbelief.
Lee Russell sat down across from him and leaned against the opposite railing. Dangling one leg off the end of
the dock, he brought the other leg up and twined his fingers round his knee. He looked at John with a mixture of annoyance
and concern, but he didn’t appear unfriendly.
John stopped laughing. “We meet again, Mr. Russell.”
“We do indeed, Commander Koenig,” the other man responded politely.
“You certainly seem to come and go quite mysteriously,” John observed.
“It’s a newly acquired talent,” Lee replied. “One I’m still mastering.”
He glanced at the surroundings, taking in everything with one comprehensive sweep of his eyes. “It’s beautiful
here. This is a good place.”
John nodded. “When I wasn’t working…which wasn’t often…this was my favorite place
“I can see why,” Lee approved. “Helena and I had a place in coastal Maine…different
water, different air, different trees, but same feel. We never went there enough.” His voice was tinged with regret.
John’s eyebrows flicked upward in understanding. “Never seemed like there was enough time when you
worked as much as we did…not enough time for the important things anyway.”
“Yeah, funny, isn’t it,” Lee mused, “how you don’t find yourself wishing that
you’d worked a little more?” He looked thoughtfully over at John. “You though, you still have time.”
John chuckled. “I would assume I have all the time in the universe…What else is there to do when
Lee snorted in frustration. He’d been away from humans too long. He didn’t remember his species
of origin being quite this obtuse. “As has already been explained, Commander, you’re not dead yet…not in
finality.” He watched Koenig’s slightly labored breathing. “You
still have much ahead of you…but you must return.” He wished idly for his old cricket bat, long lost back somewhere
on Earth, to smack a little urgency into Koenig’s head. There was such a short time before the man would be truly dead,
no way of bringing him back no matter how intently Helena might wish it…and total bedlam would explode in this part
of the universe caused by the presence of this man and his people venturing where they didn’t belong, where they were
warned not to go.
“Oh, yes, I’m sure I have much ahead of me,” John voice was laden with sarcasm. “My
only transportation off your world blew up a while ago...but that’s okay because the only place I had to go…blew
up, too. I saw it happen.” He looked out across the lake and his tone went bitter. “Everyone I know is dead.”
Now Lee was getting irritated, but he strove to keep his voice controlled despite the words he spoke. “And
whose responsibility might any of that be?” he asked. “I seem to
recall telling you not to go near the planet.”
John turned fiercely back at him. “And I suppose you would have believed me if the situation had been
reversed. You didn’t exactly give me a lot to go on.”
“Perhaps not,” Lee allowed, “but I happen to know your friend, Professor Bergman, advised
you against it as well. Both of us gave you good reasons for our recommendations, too; maybe not in the detail you would have
liked, but good reasons nevertheless.” He sighed and his voice took on a more conciliatory quality. “Your people
have the right leader in you, Commander Koenig; but you do need to learn to listen,
even when what you’re being told isn’t what you want to hear.”
For a moment, John didn’t know how to respond. Russell was crazy. There was no more Alpha, he didn’t
have any people left to lead. Still, he looked away in reluctant admission of undeniable
and uncomfortable facts. “You sound like you know my ex-wife,” he said grudgingly, but his useless anger was leaving
“We haven’t actually met,” Lee reassured him.
Something in Russell’s tone, though, and his earlier words told John the man was not unaware of the rendezvous
he’d had with Jean. He ran a hand over his face and exhaled heavily. He was feeling weaker every moment and concentrating
on the conversation was becoming difficult. What did this guy want anyway? If his goal had been to get Helena to himself,
it would seem he’d achieved that…But John didn’t get a sense Russell was that type of calculating, or so
Machiavellian that he would have caused the total destruction of Alpha just to get Helena back no matter how much he might
care for her. If he had been that kind of man she would never have loved him in the first place. This, then, was not about
Helena. John tried to focus on getting enough air to think more clearly.
Lee observed the shaky breath. “Time is very short, Commander
Koenig. You must return soon.” If it was within his power to send Koenig back without the man’s active assistance
he would have done so the moment he sat down. Though Lee could prod, Koenig himself had to feel the tug from his body, he
had to make the mental efforts to rejoin. Lee longed again for his cricket bat.
“What exactly is it that I have to go back to?” John tried and only partially succeeded in stifling
“I can put things as they were, but only for so long. I cannot do it if you continue to sit here wasting
time.” Lee allowed what he hoped was a sense of emergency to enter his voice.
“Alpha is gone,” John reminded him sadly. “I saw it happen.
Our moon exploded. Everyone is dead.”
“Helena is alive, and I pledge to you the rest can be made whole again.” Lee decided to try a different tactic. “Even if it could not, would you really leave her?”
John shook his head, trying to ignore the utter loss he felt. “She has you. She’ll need you more
than me on that planet.”
There it was: the pressure point. He lacked the conviction that his Base could be restored, but it was the belief
that he would not be going back to her that really held Koenig here. Lee felt a cascade of contrary sentiment rush through
his soul, maybe envy, too, but relief followed right behind. He had already felt the love Helena had for this man. Now he
knew it was returned. For someone as intense and vital as Koenig to set aside his own feelings for what he believed was her
best interest, he must love her very much indeed.
“It’s quite impossible for her to be with me,”
Lee informed him. “And I’ve already tried to tell you that all can be as it was. I can fix it if you will cooperate.” He paused and his tone dropped to a calming, encouraging note. “I’m
not the one she wants.”
John wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean. A silence descended, then, “Is she…I saw
her…I…” he stopped himself. He shouldn’t be discussing Helena with her husband. It was inappropriate
even in these bizarre circumstances. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry that you feel concern for the woman you love?” Lee asked matter-of-factly. “Why should
you apologize? I’m happy to hear it.” He eyed John earnestly.
John felt the ache in his chest grow sharper, becoming more challenging to overlook. He blinked his eyes and
tried to find some sliver of normalcy where he could center his thoughts, but all he could assume was that he had fallen down
the White Rabbit’s hole…and if he wasn’t dead before, he felt like he was dying now.
“There is no need for reticence, Commander,” Russell declared, scrutinizing the other’s deterioration.
“I’m aware of her feelings for you; now I know they’re reciprocated. It would have made no difference in
my helping you return. I must do that for the good of all…But it does put my mind at ease to know she is loved as she
should be.” Distantly he wondered if Koenig himself recognized the depths of his feelings considering how he was placing
himself in jeopardy…Then again, the man didn’t realize the risk he was taking with everything.
He could not be having this conversation with this man. “This is your
wife we’re discussing,” John reminded him. His breath was ragged. The air around him seemed to be changing,
too; getting heavier, growing misty. He needed to lie down to take some of the pressure off his chest.
Lee knelt beside him. He must force Koenig to choose now, and he must be made to choose correctly. The critical
instant was approaching. “Commander, will you trust me?” he whispered anxiously.
“If you can make me feel better, I’ll believe anything you say,” John whispered back. His
tone was facetious, but then he smiled…weak, but sincere. “I trust you.”
Lee nodded. “Close your eyes,” he instructed. “You will not remember what you see, but you
will be guided to what you must do…You stand on a threshold, between worlds. Two very different, but very real outcomes
await you.” He placed two fingers of his right hand between John’s brows above his closed eyes.
Russell’s voice was soothing, and if he’d been able to breathe more easily, John would have felt
like he was floating on air currents again. The voice was leading him, trying to pull him along, coercing him to see…
…But what he saw was awful, terrifying…He saw his own body once more, but also Sandra’s and
Paul’s and…No! Not her, too! But yes, Helena’s as well. He’d thought he’d saved her, but apparently
not so…Then the storm, the storm that had ripped across the planet’s surface before was returning in greater fury.
Pieces of their moon still flew in all directions, raining down on the planet and off into the surrounding stars. On the planet’s
surface, sparks, like electrical charges began to form and fly off their dead bodies into the rocks, the air, the ground and
worst of all, into other shadowy figures; beings whose features he couldn’t make out, presumably residents of this world
who had gone undetected by Alpha’s instruments. There were many of them and from their movements, they were being tortured
by the lightning bolt effects shooting into them.
Where he lay, Koenig was beginning to twitch and spasm. He couldn’t take much more and he wouldn’t
last much longer, but Lee pressed on. He could do nothing else.
Now, John seemed to be watching the tale unfold from a vast distance. He was far above the planet’s surface,
floating in space. The electrical charges, for lack of any other term he knew to call them, were visible all over the planet,
arcing high past the atmosphere into space beyond. The entire world seemed to vibrate with an energy it surely could not contain…and
suddenly it didn’t. The whole planet exploded before his gaze. Huge chunks of it careened out where they shouldn’t
be, joining and sometimes passing the still flying moon fragments. Smaller pieces of both hit other worlds. If the other worlds
were fortunate they experienced only minor disasters with limited chaos. Larger chunks slammed into other planets causing
chain reactions of devastation. Civilizations older than Earth and millions of miles away were destroyed within hours of the
debris hitting their atmospheres. Species that fate had intended to spread and colonize places far from their original homes
were annihilated in moments.
“Sometimes our choices reach so much further than just ourselves, Commander,” Lee’s tone was
not judgmental , merely a statement of truth. “Usually we cannot know what we do, what untold heartache we may cause
with the wrong choice…and almost never do we get a second chance, an opportunity to rectify.” The twitching was
getting worse, and Koenig’s heartbeat was becoming irregular. Lee willed his voice to remain consoling, but he had to
move fast. There was almost no time…for any of them. “Sometimes, our lives bond with others in ways we do not
expect. There is another future for you…not so immediate. But it’s out there, waiting for you if you will only
John could hardly breathe. He was gasping, his muscles seizing, but he was helpless to control the action. His heart was doing something quite peculiar, too, and the pain in his chest was nearly
unbearable. Thankfully, the horrifying images were fading from his mind, but that was the only respite he received. Then a
welcome tranquility filled his brain. It arrived unseen but its source was soon comprehended.
It was her. Helena…looking at him with such love in her eyes and appearing so delicate and ethereal he
thought he must be seeing her ghost and that all the destructive imagery he’d witnessed was real. Tears of thanks sprang
to his eyes. She was waiting for him after all. He could be with her…But, no, that wasn’t it…Her hair was
just a little longer than he was used to seeing her wear it, and lighter, but it suited her…It really suited her…She
looked younger and fresher and prettier than he remembered, too…which was odd, considering how beautiful she looked
all the time. Was this some flashback to her in another time and place he was being shown? No, that wasn’t it either.
She turned away from him and moved apart. He started to follow but foggy tentacles blocked his view. He felt
a playful tug on his trousers and looking down, there were standing in front of him two children; quite young, a boy and a
girl, maybe three-ish the both of them, grinning happily up at him with wide-eyed expectation. He knelt before them and looked
doubtfully from one to the other. The boy had his coloring and general features, but his head was crowned with dark blond
hair and his eyes were a shade of sea-green John would know anywhere. The little girl had hair so dark it was almost black,
and vibrant blue eyes the same as his own; but the eyes looked out of ivory skin and her face was the same as…her mother’s?
Giggling at some unspoken joke, they simultaneously threw their arms around his neck. He lifted one in each arm and stood,
still glancing between them with disbelief, but growing delight.
From somewhere, nowhere, she was at his side again holding…What?...Another one?...An infant…boy?...girl?
He didn’t know…More dark hair, hazel eyes and the rest, a pleasing compilation of them both…Cradling the
baby in one arm she raised her free hand to his cheek and kissed him, long and lovingly. Then she pulled away. Her whisper
was urgent. “You have to come back to me, John. Now. You have to.” Then she and they were gone, and he was alone.
“Helena,” he gasped. He could only gasp. He couldn’t breathe at all. There wasn’t enough
air. This must be what an asthmatic attack was like, but he knew that wasn’t his problem. He struggled to open his eyes
and found himself back on the dock, Lee still with him. All around them, the fog thickened, but he didn’t know if it
really was, or was just the failing of his sight. “Helena,” he gasped again, but at Lee, desperate for some explanation.
Lee smiled down at him with confidence. “She will be your wife. She will bear your children. Not yet,
but it will happen…But you must feel her pulling you back…feel her calling you to her side…feel her willing
you to return…follow that, Commander…follow her call…follow her pull…just follow.”
Russell’s voice was hypnotic, rippling but restful, like the breezes on the lake. He nodded and closed
his eyes once more, accepting what he needed to do even if he failed to see the hows. The sensations he’d retained in
what had seemed to be his body were fading along with his breath. The pressure on his chest could no longer be borne. It was
pain beyond any he had ever undergone. He thought he could feel Russell edging him toward the end of the dock and off into
the water, but he was incapable of fighting it even if that might have been what he was supposed to do.
His almost last conscious thought was that he wished to hell these damned people, beings, creatures, whatever
they were would stop shoving him off things. His last thought was an awareness of a reprise of that same pitiless yank he’d
felt before. Whether jerking him out of the water or further under he couldn’t tell, but it would not be denied and
could not be disregarded. He let it conduct him where it would.
Lines of worry etched across Lee’s face as he watched Koenig’s form sink into the water without
a struggle. He popped back up again a few feet away from the dock, but barely, and then Lee lost sight of him in the fog.
The man was very weak. The last rattling breath Lee had heard him take sounded very much like it could indeed have been his last breath. If everything depended on what Koenig had left
in the way of physical strength, Lee wouldn’t care much for their chances. But Lee was counting on something far greater
than Koenig’s personal vigor. He was counting on the power of love between a man and a woman who were meant to be together,
who were intended to have a future. He was banking on Helena’s heart being mighty enough to find Koenig and pull him
to her, and on Koenig to have enough stamina to hang on to the force of those feelings and allow her to draw him back where
he belonged. Their love was potent. The bond between them, ancient and persistent. The theory should work. For the sake of
this corner of the universe, Lee hoped he was betting right.