It had taken close to an hour for Alan, with her assistance, to shift enough of the fallen equipment and damaged
bits of Eagle out of the way so she could get into the cargo hold to survey the rest of the wreckage. The job would have been
accomplished quicker with Paul’s help, but other than lending a hand with the heavier lifting, Helena had assigned him
to attend to Sandra for awhile. She figured he could do as much for Sandra as she could at the moment, and offer more comfort
when you added in the personal factor. It gave him comfort as well.
As she stood finally in the doorway of the hold, the destruction revealed in the dim and dusty space was more
horrific than she’d expected. ‘What fresh hell is this?’ Helena
muttered quietly to herself. Her mind pondered where the old Dorothy Parker line had come from, but it was certainly appropriate.
The main motor had ripped free and smashed its way into the hold bringing its tanks of chemical propellant with
it. She wondered idly why the whole mess hadn’t ignited a massive fireball taking the crashed Eagle, and them, with
it. Impassively, she couldn’t help but consider the irony that if the motor had exploded, yesterday’s search parties
would have been bound to see it. She and the others wouldn’t have been found in one piece, but they would have been
As the dust settled and her eyes adjusted to the gloom, a far more alarming problem revealed itself. Acid had
leaked out of the tanks, and her eyes and nose told her it had eaten its way into everything it could reach, which was basically
everything. She plunged into the piles of ruined boxes and equipment with both hands, trying to find something worth salvaging,
anything that could assist in their rescue or at least help keep them alive. The quest was fruitless. No medical supplies
were untouched, no food or water uncontaminated. Any equipment that wasn’t beyond repair was useless to them anyway.
Hot, dirty and sweating, she leaned her back against the cargo hold wall and fought off the urge to sit down
and cry for a long time. Instead, she coaxed her brain toward anger; anger at the lightening that had sent them plummeting
to the ground, anger at a couple of broken fingernails she incurred during her search, anger at anything she could think of
to get good and angry about. Anger was more constructive and energizing than self-pity. Then she pushed the anger, too, through
her system and pulled herself together for the talk she had to have with Paul and Alan about their situation. Taking a deep
breath, she grabbed a box of spoiled foodstuffs and turned toward the cabin. ‘You
better find us soon, John,’ she thought in what she assumed to be Alpha’s general direction, ‘or there won’t be anyone alive for you to find.’
David Kano puffed out his cheeks in resignation as he re-read the terse confirmation email from Cranston in
To repeat…Eagle 15 grounded. Seizure of lateral stabilizers. Cause currently unknown. 1, 7,
18 & 22 also having issues, suspect same problem. Checking rest of fleet for similar or other failures. Will advise further
when more known!
He was already certain of one thing; if the worst occurred and their missing colleagues could not be recovered,
no one was going to miss Paul Morrow more than he, and not just because of a lost friendship. This job of having to be the
one to look the Commander in the eye and give him bad news, particularly when Dr. Russell was involved, was getting very old
very fast. Professor Bergman was doing his best to try and keep Koenig’s spirits raised, but with limited success. David
supposed it was hard to blame the Commander for his frame of mind. He couldn’t imagine what the man must be going through.
This was definitely one of those times when he was glad the only female in his own life was Computer. Most days, he preferred
it that way.
Taking a deep breath to brace himself, he rose from his desk and walked toward the Commander’s office.
He and the Professor were plotting search strategies based on yesterday’s aerial photos. He cleared his throat for attention.
“Excuse me, Commander.”
…To his credit, he didn’t flinch…not even when he saw Professor Bergman silently shake his
head with as crestfallen an expression as he’d ever seen him wear…not even when he saw the Commander’s eyes
flash in as much fury as he’d ever seen him exhibit. He stood his ground and didn’t flinch as he bore the brunt
of the Commander’s anger because he knew it wasn’t directed at him. It wasn’t really directed at anyone,
but rather the situation. But the reaction was, if anything, worse than he’d anticipated. On a scale of 10, Koenig had
just hit 12, and David didn’t expect things to improve unless and until their missing were found.
Victor had hated to say it, had known before he said it how the suggestion that they might not be found would
be received. He was sanguine by nature and he didn’t often allow the pessimistic to even enter his thought processes,
much less come out of his mouth. He hadn’t always been so resolutely cheerful, but the second chance his artificial
heart had given him had also bestowed him with the twin gifts of hope and faith that things tended to turn out all right…if
you just waited long enough. Sometimes though, no matter how fiercely you hoped, you had to grit your teeth and be pragmatic.
He sensed they might be approaching that point in the current emergency.
Rising from his seat at the conference table, he moved behind John as he stared out at the sterile moonscape.
Consolingly he reached out and squeezed the younger man’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean we should abandon hope.
Or stop looking for them.”
John swallowed hard, tried to keep his voice steady. “I know,” he whispered. “I’m sorry
I snapped. They’re your friends, too.”
Victor shook his head. “No apology needed. We’re all on edge.”
“Victor…I don’t know if can take it if…if she…if we can’t…if she’s…”
Sighing, he gave up. He couldn’t even say the words. The scene outside the viewport was so desolate…and she was
out there in it. Somewhere.
The older man sighed, too, as much in empathy as sympathy. He wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to
voice the words himself. He didn’t suppose he could love Helena more if she were his daughter, and he’d been so
delighted when these two, both cherished friends to him, had discovered one another. He’d thought from the moment of
John’s arrival on Alpha that they’d be good for each other, though there hadn’t been time to consider such
things at the beginning. It had been so much fun observing the pair of them in their tentative courtship, while they’d
tried to deny what everyone knew…and just as much fun to observe them after they’d stopped denying.
Clapping John firmly on the back, he tried to prod them both back to more confident ground. “Look, I’ll
get over to Technical, shall I? See if I can lend a hand figuring out what’s bothering the Eagles. By the time you and
Bob get back, we’ll probably have them all flying again.” He forced a grin. “Of course, by that time, you’ll
have probably found Helena and the others and it won’t even matter so much.”
John managed a smile. He knew the exuberance was feigned, but he appreciated it. Returning the clap on the back,
he nodded briskly. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Let’s get going…And Victor…whatever it takes to get all of them back in the air, do it on my order,” he instructed.
“Right!” Victor nodded fast agreement and took off out the door at a far sprightlier pace than he
felt. Here, at least, was something to do.
Ill-concealed impatience barely held in check, John had waited while the medical supplies already loaded onto
Eagle One got transferred to another that was still cleared to fly. In the end, he and Bob had done as much of the unload/reload
shifting as the Techs. He didn’t begrudge the trade-off; he wanted as many of them as possible looking into solutions
for the grounded Eagles.
With intense relief, they were finally able to lift off on Kano’s all clear. There wasn’t a lot
of daylight left and he wanted to be able to make one complete sweep of what they believed to be the most promising area before
nightfall. He hated the idea of Helena, or any of them, having to spend another night in the dark and cold, especially if
they were injured.
“Kano, stop him! For heaven’s sake, stop him! Bring him back!” Victor, hair flying in every
conceivable direction, had entered Main Mission at a mad gallop, clutching what appeared to be part of an engine intake valve
to his chest as he came.
Before David could even react, the warning klaxons sounded. Victor’s alarm was too little, too late.
No one had dared to go near him as he stomped back into the base. The glowering expression he wore would have
sent demons cringing underground and even Bob, who could normally deal with any type of temper anyone presented, kept a circumspect
distance. There was nothing to be said or done to make the Commander feel better anyway. Their lost members were going to
be staying lost for at least another night.
Their Eagle had come down only a couple of miles from Alpha, and after verifying they’d each sustained
only a few scrapes and bruises, he and Bob had walked back. As circumstances revealed, they would have had few other options.
All Eagles were now grounded and even the moon buggies seemed to be showing problems.
The good news was that Victor and a couple of engineers had discovered a solution that would get the Eagles
back in the air. The bad news was they couldn’t get it done yesterday. The worse news was that they claimed it would
take them three days to get just one Eagle flying again.
He told them to make it two. Everyone agreed to try. No one wanted to see where the Commander’s wrath
would fall if they didn’t make it happen. His mood was getting ugly.
All day they had struggled to construct a proper marker. They might as well have been trying to move the mountain
range itself, one armful of rock at a time. The winds refused to let up and their marker of crates and boxes, all inconveniently
the same color as the moon’s surface, was already nearly covered with several inches of regolith. By morning they’d
have to dig it out.
As the winds picked up their pace, darkening the air with yet more dust, Alan and Paul had given up for the
day. Relying solely on a visual sighting to provide their rescue, it was unlikely to happen in these conditions. Their marker
would not be seen today and had they heard an Eagle overhead, there probably wasn’t enough sunlight getting through
to make the mirror effective. Exhausted, they stumbled back inside to hope for better conditions tomorrow.
Using her body, Helena tried to shield Sandra from as much of the dust as she could. As Paul and Alan entered
the cabin, they brought yet more dozens of pounds of it with them, along with its distinctive acrid smell of spent gunpowder.
She was worried about the dust. It was mostly ground silicon dioxide glass, with a little iron, calcium and magnesium thrown
in for fun. They’d all breathed in so much of it they’d be lucky not to experience severe allergic reactions at
the least. Over the long term it might well generate far worse physical problems than allergies. She didn’t like to
think what might show up on their chest scans when they got back to Alpha…if they got back to Alpha. Still, they had
to breathe so there was little choice. Whatever scarring and damage was being inflicted on their lungs, she’d have to
try and treat it later.
Sparingly, she doled out the evening’s emergency rations, having to first calm a potential quarrel between
the two men as she did so. They followed up their near quarrel cocktail with a testosterone-driven posturing chaser, each
trying to demonstrate who could get by on the least sustenance. She had to waste more of her own energy to halt that. Helena
was gaining a whole new insight and respect for what John went through when he led a landing party. She’d never realized
how much of the job called for being part motivational coach and part babysitter, in addition to whatever your regular duties
might entail. She was going to think twice if John ever asked her to lead any groups again.
Later, as she settled on the hard, slanting floor of the cabin to try and sleep, she wondered how long they
could last out here really. She wondered what John was going through and how close he was to having any idea of where to search
for them. She wondered how long it would take before someone started looking like the weak member of the Donner party.