DAY FIVE – Morning to Noon
He was still disoriented but maybe less so? He knew he felt stronger, more alert. He pushed himself into a sitting
position and tried to gauge his location in relation to where he’d started.
He couldn’t have gotten far, he knew that much. The wind and cold had been too ferocious. He’d staggered
around in the dark, falling into boulders and tripping over rocks, what energy he’d had sucked from him almost immediately
by the cruel environment. The last thing he remembered before finding the plant growths, fungi, whatever they were, was the
thought that he’d been an audacious fool to try what he had. He couldn’t save the rest of them, his friends, Sandra.
He couldn’t even save himself. The mountains, the winds, the temperature were too formidable. He would die out here
alone. He only hoped his absence bought the others more time.
He’d stumbled, then passed out beside yet another pile of rocks. When he opened his eyes, he saw he’d
fallen face first into the growths. They seemed edible. The best news was the liquid they held inside, not water, but it was
drinkable. In less dire moments, he would never have touched the plants or their fluid. In his current condition there was
only the thought of surviving another few hours. He had no choice. He sheltered behind a boulder from the howling winds and
drank. He thought he’d rest just a little while then try to be on his way. Even if these things were poisonous, he might
live long enough to be of help.
Within minutes, hours, who knew?...the visions had begun. Swirling iridescent geometrical shapes of quadrangles,
nets and pyramids. Molten, magical shades, the colors of sunlight through cathedral stained glass falling all around him.
First he was looking up at them, then down, then through, his perspective altering fantastically from one moment to the next.
One of the net shapes grew diamond patterns, lengthened, morphed into what first appeared to be a giant snakeskin, then changed
into the living snake itself. Why he felt no fear of the enormous serpent that twined all about him he had no idea, but he
seemed to sense from it an intelligent curiosity rather than intended harm.
The snake’s coils twisted, transporting him into a jungle; a sentient jungle where all the plants and
trees were not just other living things but fellow beings that knew him, acknowledged his life force as symbiotic with their
own. He saw a huge feline figure drawing near out of the center of one of the pyramids in the middle of the jungle, glowing
gold, altering before his eyes into a half-cat half-human female creature not unlike the ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet.
She, too, seemed to intend no injury, merely…observation? More therianthropic figures joined her: a human with the head
of dog or jackal, Anubis come to life, and men with the torsos and heads of bison and giant deer that could have stepped,
living, off the cave walls at Lascaux.
Then came the ‘insect men’ for lack of a better description; hundreds, no thousands of them, even
hundreds of thousands. Ant-like creatures the size of a human child, that changed before his eyes into beings resembling every
sketch ever drawn by human hand of an alien encounter. They seemed to examine him closely, with their tiny hands and big eyes
set into triangular heads, their small mouths moving with words he couldn’t interpret. The illuminated snakeskin returned;
it folded, doubling in on itself, first into a ladder shape, then looping and reforming in a Technicolor finale to the double
helix design of the DNA code.
That was when he’d awakened in shock, certain that what he’d experienced was a direct visitation
from the people of Ariel. He understood; he understood everything. They were all, everything in the universe, a small cell
of something bigger, all connected to a whole, each with a design and destiny. A verse learned in childhood circled up through the cacophony of his mind. *In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told
them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them.
Then he knew. He had specifically been led here to find this manna, to save himself and the others. It was fortuitously
placed so that he would find it when he did. Further along in his journey and it might have saved only him, but it was clearly
meant to save them all. In this spot…New Alpha would be built right here and they four would be the beginning.
He felt light as candy floss, braver than a gladiator. He could have scaled Everest with the energy surge he
felt, and done it without a Sherpa, without oxygen tanks. This was wondrous, incredible. Why hadn’t they found these
glorious offerings yesterday? Or the day before? It would have saved them so much agony. But it didn’t matter now because
he had found the gifts. In their greatest hour of need, he had been chosen to save them. If he hadn’t ventured out would
one of the others been chosen instead? That didn’t matter either because now he was chosen. He was the one who would
save them and all would be well.
In the end, only exhaustion to the point of collapse had permitted her to sleep
at all. When Paul had left, she had immediately re-opened the door, calling after him with no result. Alan had heard the commotion
and joined her, even going several yards out into the wind and cold in pursuit. Helena had stopped him venturing further;
to do so in the blinding dust and darkness would have risked his own safety.
Then she’d lied to Sandra to keep her calm. Fortunately Sandra’s
weakened state had allowed her to believe Helena’s assurances and go quickly back to sleep. She was the only one of
their trio who dozed happily and hopefully.
With the dawn came the much-needed break in the wind’s bluster, but Helena
and Alan could only eye each other in mutual fear. They didn’t know how close to the Eagle’s door they would find
Paul’s body, but it couldn’t be far away. The nighttime conditions had been too punishing. He could not have survived
without provisions or shelter, especially starting with an undermined physical state. In silent communion, they opened the
door together, each offering up a prayer that he would not be right outside, that he wouldn’t just fall in on top of
them with the piled up moon dust and be the first sight that greeted Sandra.
To their relief and dismay, they
were merely inundated with more dust; no signs of Paul. Alan climbed over the new dust heap and reached back a hand to help
her out. When they were a safe speaking distance from the door, Alan turned to her soberly.
“Where do you want to start?” His tone was poignant resignation.
Helena ran dusty hands over her dusty face. “The way you do any search;
we’ll work a grid. We’ll check this way first,” she pointed forward, “stay about twenty feet from
me, we’ll go out about a hundred yards and turn and go back on the other side and…keep doing that till we find
him. We’ll go further out as we need to.” Her voice was raspy with fatigue and grief.
They’d only covered about fifteen yards in the first direction when both
came to a sudden stop. Of all the sights they’d expected, the least of their presumptions would have been what they
saw before them: their marker…the marker that been so grueling to construct, so much effort to try and maintain…was
completely excavated…and missing.
They stared at the empty space. They turned and stared at each other.
“What the…?” Alan was so stunned he couldn’t even vocalize
the expletive he was thinking.
Helena just shook her head, dumbstruck.
From off to their right came a hearty greeting. “Good morning!”
John tried to blink the weariness from his eyes. Through binoculars, he stared out at the first communiqué from
the planet Ariel, the capsule that had started this whole fiasco. He felt like having it blasted to the same size fragments
as the moon dust it sat on, but that would be tantamount to a child’s temper tantrum, not rational behavior. He would
not indulge his anger and frustration that much. Not yet.
“Check it again, Kano. There may be something we missed.” Victor was pleading.
Kano couldn’t fault the Professor. This was about the worst information they could have been given, but
it wasn’t going to matter how many times he ran the data. Computer was not going to furnish a different answer. Sighing,
he looked up at the older man, his sensitive brown eyes even more woebegone than usual. “I will if you really want me
to, Professor, but…” he shook his head.
Chewing on his upper lip, Victor shook his head and ran a hand through his sparse strands of hair. Gloomy acceptance filled his own eyes. “No, that’s all right. Our wishing it won’t make
Computer say it’s so.”
David glanced across Main Mission to the lonely figure in the black sleeve standing at the viewport, then returned
his gaze to Bergman. “Do you want me to tell him?” He would do it, but he was hoping the answer would be no.
Victor squeezed the computer whiz’s shoulder in appreciation. He knew how much David didn’t want
to be the bearer of this news…he knew how much he didn’t want to be. “No. I’ll do it.” He could
see relief flood over Kano’s features. In other circumstances it might have made him smile. Taking the reports from
the desk, he tried to impose a hopeful look to his face as he moved to approach John. This would not go well.
He heard the false optimism in Victor’s voice and grasped the problem even before he turned toward him.
The equally forced optimism in Victor’s expression told him everything. It was official: just about all that could go
wrong had now done so.
There would be no orbit. If Helena and the others weren’t already dead, they would be in a matter of days
whether or not they were found. Everyone on Alpha would be dead with them, either crushed to death in the wreckage of the
Base as the atmosphere they’d been given turned to ice around them, or sucked out into deep space once the walls imploded.
Neither ending would be pleasant.
It arguably made continuation of the rescue effort illogical. Dead was dead. They would all be dead. But he
would not leave them out there if he could help it. He wouldn’t leave her out there period, no matter how unreasonable
the search might now seem. If they died together three days hence in Alpha’s ruins, so be it. He would not leave her
abandoned on the surface, her last thoughts spent wondering why he hadn’t come.
At least the corrosive-proofed Eagle was finally finished and ready to go. Urgently, he summoned Bob.
Helena had done all the fundamental tests she could on Paul’s mushroom ‘things’. She wasn’t
happy. The rudimentary experiments she could manage were primitive at best. The fungi were every bit as rubbery and fibrous
as they appeared. They were more alkaline than acidic, more protein than carbohydrate or fat. What vitamins or minerals they
might provide, if any, was anyone’s guess. They didn’t seem to contain the most common harmful metals to human
health, but that gave her little comfort. Even in her less than fully alert mental state, she could think of a list of poisonous
substances a yard long that could be present, either organically to the plants themselves or transferred through the root
system from the moon’s surface.
She hadn’t liked the way Paul’s eyes had looked this morning at their Spartan breakfast of emergency
rations; a little too bright, possibly feverish. That concern had as much to do with her persuasion to postpone eating the
plants as her natural professional caution…Then again, they all looked hollow-eyed and drained. Paul’s appearance
might have nothing to do with any side effects of his premature ingestion of these…whatever they were…and she
couldn’t argue with his assessments. Based on how things had gone so far it could be weeks, even months, before they
saw another Eagle. Survival was what mattered now.
Paul’s energy reserves had risen higher and higher as he spoke to Sandra. Just the fact that she was clearly
so much stronger was all the indication he needed to confirm the rightness of his thoughts. It would prove difficult at the
beginning. Even small projects could be difficult at the start and this would not be small. They would be constructing a new
Helena and Alan might have misgivings at first; Helena in particular, since Alan was not her partner of choice.
Perhaps John would choose to join them once he, too, saw the rightness of the plan. That would be fine, they could use a man
of his skills. They would need many of their former colleagues to join in the effort. There was no reason why they should
be selfish with this good fortune.
As the duly appointed leader, he would have many responsibilities. All heroes throughout all ages and cultures
had trials…Gilgamesh, Hercules, Henry V, even Luke Skywalker…All heroes were really one hero, after all, each
in their own time and place proving that all heroes were every man, every man having to find his meaning and destiny within
himself. Now he, Paul Morrow, would join them. This was his destiny. New Alpha would rise here and it would be beautiful.
When the chronicles of new Alpha were written, when the new songs were sung, he would be central to them all.
John banked the Eagle sharply and started on a new search line. To his relief the ship responded normally to
its controls. That was the only thing going right so far today.
“Come on, honey, where are you? Show me where to look.” He couldn’t keep the desperation out
of the words. It took him a few moments to realize he’d spoken aloud. He’d meant to keep it inside his head. Glancing
sideways at Bob, he saw nothing but commiseration on the other man’s face.
“We’ll find her this time, Commander,” he said supportively. “We’ll find them
“We’d better,” John commented tersely. “We’re running out of time.”
The precise moment when everything had gone to hell, Helena couldn’t entirely pinpoint. One moment, Paul
had been a little flaky and overly exuberant, both attitudes explainable by the days of hardship and his worry for Sandra.
Then she’d mentioned being back in Alpha…and all of a sudden he was shouting wildly, ranting about building civilizations
and crossing the Pacific and journeying out to explore the stars.
A glance at Sandra told her this was unexpected. Sandra wasn’t just surprised by his mood shift, she was
Helena was frightened, too, but her medical training steadied her nerves a little. Positioning herself protectively
in front of Sandra, she whispered not to argue with anything; just smile and agree and hope that Alan returned soon.
Unfortunately, Alan’s arrival had been no help. Though not as tall as Paul, he was the bigger and stronger
of the two and would normally be the expected winner of any physical confrontation between them. Paul however, his system
revved by adrenaline and whatever hallucinogenic compounds were in those mushrooms, was like a rabid animal. The fight, such
as it was, had been one-sided: all Paul. With a few vicious punches, he dispatched Alan and left him lying bruised and unconscious
on the ground.
Helena had not realized until then how dangerous Paul had become. He had to be stopped before he caused further
injury…or something worse. She’d tried to grab the tranquilizer, but she’d been without enough rest or food
for too long and her reflexes were sluggish. She couldn’t get him injected fast enough and in his crazed state, he’d
lost all sense of his actions. His hands closed around her throat and he began to strangle her.
Under most conditions he’d be stronger than she was; in his hopped up state, she couldn’t begin
to fight him off. She forced herself not to struggle in the hope that would keep his hands from squeezing tighter, maybe even
make him comprehend what he was doing. All the while her hands groped blindly at her sides, searching for something, anything
to use to strike him. She found nothing. His legs had mostly pinned her own but he was so intent on choking her that he was
attending to little else. She nearly had one leg free. If she didn’t pass out, in another second she’d be able
to give him a hasty kick to the groin…probably not a forceful one, but it should bring him down for a moment. Then she’d
need to find something to hit him with, and promptly.
Ironically, the reappearance of those damned blue capsules saved her. Paul suddenly released his grip on her
throat and gazed in goofy astonishment as the mysterious pods began landing all around them. More demented than ever, he turned
away and ignored her as he went to greet the ‘people’ of the planet Ariel.
She was relieved, but nearly at the end of her strength. She needed to check on Sandra, she needed to knock
Paul out in order to save him, she needed to catch her breath. But now…now she was hallucinating, too, maybe…as
she heard a familiar sound from the sky above, somewhere behind her. Looking up, she saw an Eagle, flying on an obvious search
line but just as obviously not seeing their location. She begged her mind to think fast; she had to do something. She was
the only one left who could.
Staggering toward their downed ship, she made her decision. It was rash and would leave them with no shelter,
but as long as John – and somehow she knew it was John piloting that Eagle – saw the blast, it wouldn’t
matter. If he didn’t, it still wouldn’t matter. They had no food sources left to them, no water. Given the harsh
environment, they would be dead soon anyway.
Helena thought she’d retreated far enough away from the potential radius of debris to be safe. She supposed
really, she’d only gone as far as her failing energy had allowed. Her hands shook badly as she pulled the trigger of
the laser rifle, hoping for the best.
She was aware of the explosion. She was aware of being almost instantaneously thrown backwards by the concussive
force, landing hard and hitting her head on very solid ground. Aware, too, of her ribs connecting sharply with the same unforgiving
surface and a free-flowing pain spreading up and down her side. She couldn’t see the Eagle and didn’t know whether
it had turned back. She couldn’t hear anything but the continuing waves of the detonation echoing in her ears. The impact
had knocked the wind out of her and she couldn’t breathe without gasping. She tried to sit up, but dizziness overcame
her and she sank back to the ground and closed her eyes, aware of nothing else.