Alan found her sitting alone in the cockpit in the co-pilot seat. Wearily, he sank into the pilot’s place
next to her. A small dust cloud rose off his clothes as he let his weight flop into the chair. “Takin’ a break,
Doc?” he asked her. His tone held a strained cheerfulness.
Helena gave him a wan smile. “More like trying to give Paul a little private time with Sandra.”
She ran her fingers through her dusty hair. “She’s still pretty out of it but I’m sure she knows he’s
He nodded. “How’s she doing? Truthfully?”
She shrugged. “Not good. But, surprisingly, not worse either. As long as we’re not out here for
more than a day or two she should be fine.” She looked over at him, trying to read his expression. She was fairly sure
she didn’t care for what she saw. “No more Eagle sightings since the one this afternoon, I take it?”
Wordlessly he shook his head.
She stared ahead at the gloomy view out the Eagle’s windscreen. “All that dust out there…I
can’t blame them for not seeing us, but why didn’t they pick up the emergency beacon?” She didn’t
“My best guess,” he sighed, “the mountain range is causing some kind of magnetic interference
with the atmosphere. They may have heard the signal but not be able to pinpoint our location. Could also be something in this
atmosphere itself that’s affecting the signal.” He paused, not wanting to tell her the rest, but knowing he had
to say it. “Either way, with all power sources shorted out, the beacons can’t recharge. We’ll let ‘em
run, try to conserve a couple, hope Alpha picks them up…but by this time tomorrow they’ll probably be useless.
And the commlocks don’t work for the same reason…With the magnetic interference, they’d need to run their
signal through the Eagle’s antenna, but the antenna’s shorted out with everything else and we can’t recharge
the commlocks either.”
Helena nodded, taking it all in. She’d already noted they were dependent on Alpha to find them; she had
expected, though, to be able to offer the search parties some clue of where to look. “How big is the Taurus Mountain
range?” She felt dumb for not knowing considering how long the moon had been her home, but the information had never
been pertinent for her before.
“Oh, they can get up to nearly ten thousand feet at their highest point, give or take a couple of hundred,”
Alan told her. “The range runs a little over a hundred miles.”
“Well, that’s…not really that big an area to search?” She meant to sound optimistic,
but she heard the uncertainty in her own voice.
“No-oo, not really,” he tried to agree.
She didn’t like the way he stretched out the ‘no’. “But?” she prompted.
He shook his head. His instinctive first reaction was to drift into the known comfort of standard male/female
roles rather than operating colleague to colleague. He didn’t know Helena very well, and he toyed with cushioning his
response as the safer choice. Immediately, his mind rejected that idea in favor of honesty. John had put her in charge of
this escapade and he wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t believed her competent. “Mountain searches are
never simple anyway,” he began. “All those crags and peaks…And…I know our communication with them
was cut for quite a bit before we went down. I don’t know when they stopped receiving us, but their last point of contact
could have them thinking we’re miles from where we are…It could be awhile before we see another Eagle.”
‘Can this get any better?’ She thought about all the things they didn’t have…With
the power blown, they couldn’t make a lighted signal to be seen in the advancing darkness. Visibility would be problematic
no matter what they did, given some genius’ idea that Alpha and everything associated with it should be the same color
as the moon it inhabited… Would it have been such a terrible thing to paint a few of the Eagles purple? Maybe a nice
glow-in-the-dark orange like duck hunters wore so they wouldn’t be shot by other duck hunters?...They couldn’t
make a campfire. Even if they could have shielded a fire from the swirling mountain winds, they had nothing that would burn
properly. Plenty of items onboard the Eagle, if torched, would provide lots of noxious fumes and toxic gases, but nothing
would really burn with a clean, obvious flame. She sighed. “When we get back, remind me to tell John that every Eagle
needs to be equipped with some old-fashioned matches and flare guns. Screw all this technology.”
Alan laughed in spite of his grim mood. This was probably the longest conversation he’d ever had with
Helena. Though John was head over heels about her, he’d not had much interaction with her other than as her occasional
patient. When they and the four others had spent those miserable two days trying to outrun the black hole, there hadn’t
been a lot of talking. He also remembered he’d not been especially pleased with her lack of faith in his and John’s
confidence in Arra during that crisis, but he didn’t hold that against her personally. No one else on the Base had believed
them either. He’d never thought of her as easy to talk to and he was pretty
sure he’d never heard her make a joke. With her last comment, though, he thought maybe he saw a glimmer of what John
saw. She was okay.
“Have him throw in some sticks and marshmallows, too. No reason we shouldn’t have some fun while
we wait for rescue.”
Now she was laughing, just a little, at him. “Stop right there. You’ll get me thinking about how
I’d kill for a Hershey bar.”
Alan chuckled again. “And a beer.”
“There’s always Tony Verdeshi’s brew,” she suggested, her voice trying to be serious,
but changing to a snort of laughter as she saw the deeply offended look on his face. She knew John felt similarly about the
Security Chief’s distilling efforts.
“Honey, I meant a real beer,” he told her contemptuously. “That stuff of Tony’s should
just be put back in the horse.”
She really laughed then, not just a chuckle but an outright guffaw and Alan did understand part of the reason
for John’s attraction beyond the fact that she was pretty. He’d never known Helena even had a sense of humor but,
suddenly, in a way he hadn’t thought about before, he could see she was probably very good for his old pal John, very
good indeed. As her laughter trailed off, a companionable quiet fell between them.
Momentarily she sighed and twisted her neck from side to side, trying to loosen some of the stress. “Okay,
tomorrow I want you to take the mirror out of the lavatory and store it near the door where it won’t get shattered,
but in easy reach. Next time they fly over, we can use that to try and signal. And let’s do what we can to keep Paul
“Going bonkers about Sandra, is he?” he asked flatly.
She considered deflecting Alan’s forthright question into a more diplomatic phrase, but decided not to
bother. “Inwardly, yes, I think,” she answered. “He’s trying to stay stoic but he’s worried
about her. It’s not just Paul, though,” she pointed out. “We’ll all be better off if we can keep ourselves
“You got it,” Alan told her amiably. “He and I’ll work on constructing a real marker.
We should have enough of what is now completely useless crap to pile it up three stories high out there.”
Helena smiled in spite of their unpromising situation. “And hopefully, your fellow pilots will be able
to see three stories of crap.” She stood tiredly, rubbing her hands together for warmth in the increasingly chilly air
and tapped him on the shoulder. “Come on; we need to get into space suits for the night. It’s going to be freezing
John had known the answer to his question without asking it, known from the
way everyone in Main Mission avoided his gaze the moment he entered, but he’d felt compelled to ask the pointless. Making
his way directly to Kano’s desk, he’d seen the man tense in anticipation and the doleful expression in the big
brown basset hound eyes told him all he needed to know, but still he asked. “News?”
David had shaken his head. “They’ve run out of daylight. The last
Eagle is returning to base.”
“Have them refueled immediately,” he’d ordered, and sent half
the fleet back out to do a night sweep of the same areas they’d covered during the day. With no visual or electronic
hit in daylight, night contact seemed unlikely, even in his best hopes, but he had to try. It was all he could do now.
Victor, ever resilient and optimistic, had tried to cheer him. Mostly, the effort
had been wasted. In his view what Victor had given him with his projected arc of orbit was a deadline. The missing group had
food supplies for a fortnight and emergency rations beyond that, but if there were serious injuries to any member, they didn’t
have much more than eight days anyway. They might not have the eight.
Alone in his quarters, he surveyed the day’s photographs searching for
any angle, any detail, that appeared unnatural and manmade. He dreaded spotting evidence of explosion and a field of debris,
but even that would have given the search parties something to trace. So far, no luck. No sign of disaster, no nothing. He
rose from his desk and paced awhile.
It wasn’t just his fear for Helena’s safety, though that was gnawing
a hole through his heart. The potential of losing four of his people at any time was a horrendous price, but for it to be
four of Alpha’s best and most capable was too much to contemplate. They could ill afford the sacrifice. That the missing
quartet included one of his best friends along with the woman he loved was beyond his ability to consider. Any ending other
than a positive one was unacceptable. Until proven hopeless, he wouldn’t consider it.
He was angry, too; whether more at himself or the nearby planet’s inhabitants
was hard to say. Every trinket the residents of Ariel had dangled before him he had eagerly seized. He’d asked for an
atmosphere and it had been given, asked for rainfall and it had been provided. Each action on their part and reaction on his
had distracted him from what had been the original intent: to explore Ariel itself. He felt as though he’d let himself
be led right along the pretty, dappled forest path, picking up each breadcrumb until he’d found himself just outside
the witch’s gingerbread cottage door. The key difference was that he himself had stood there and pushed his friends
and his lover into the witch’s oven.
Sighing heavily, he dimmed the lighting and lay back across his bed fully clothed,
trying to rest his eyes a few minutes before he looked through the photographs for the fourth time. They had to be alive out
there somewhere. They had to be.