DAY FIVE – Evening
Nothing ever seemed to be easy. John rubbed a hand over weary eyes. He was certain his ten fingers represented
a good approximate number of the hours of sleep he’d logged in the last five days. Soon he’d be able to nod off
standing up, but he was filled with gratitude. The worst of his fears had not come true. Helena was alive and home, the others
with her; all settled in Medical and according to Bob’s reports, all should recover completely and quickly. The blue
capsules remained hard at work outside Alpha’s walls, sucking away the atmosphere they had so keenly supplied only days
ago. At the rate they were going, Victor and Computer figured the last of the alien oxygen should disappear about the time
the moon moved beyond the Ariel sun for good. There would be no crushing death inside an ice tomb after all. Now all they
had to do was secure every outer door and hatch, every window, and maybe every corner and cranny with the same graphite coating
that had protected the Eagle.
As John had raced back with Helena and the rest, he and Victor had discussed a theory…a most undesirable
theory. It had occurred to them both that the same unknown element that had played such havoc with the Eagle fleet and moon
buggies could have done a similar job on Alpha’s entire structure. The Technical and Engineering Departments agreed
it was possible. Kano had run the proposition through Computer and she concurred though, with maddening vacillation, she also
declared that no harm might be done at all and she humbly bowed to human decision. Privately, John thought since Breakaway
that Computer had proven herself to be an indecisive box of circuits, but he would not say so out loud lest he hurt David’s
When it came to Alpha’s fortification, John was unwilling to risk the odds. There had been no problems
with any airlocks; no visible cracks on any viewports. Computer detected no apparent damage. But he would not let Alpha exchange
the looming potential of one horrible death for another; that of being blown out into deep space if the airlock mechanisms
gave way or the viewport seals failed. It meant another few days of blurry-eyed overtime for all techs and engineers. It meant
the same for Kano, Victor and himself…and anyone who was willing and able to pitch in. If no further difficulties surfaced,
they should make their deadline with time to spare.
As he thought of time he checked the hour. Thirty minutes since he’d last pestered Mathias for information;
should be long enough for the doctor to have more news. He pulled his commlock from his belt.
Bob knew who was paging him without looking. ‘Good Lord, does the
man have no one else to badger?’ But he repented the thought as soon
as it crossed his brain. He couldn’t fault the Commander for his concern for Helena, and he was only marginally less
anxious for the welfare of his friends. He was, Bob had come to realize, a deeply caring soul on many levels. It would just
be nice if he could learn to communicate less curtly…Even there, Bob had to admit he’d shown improvement over
recent months. His relationship with Helena had softened him around the edges. The thought made Bob grin. He was still grinning
as he raised his commlock.
“I’m assuming there’s a good report to go along with your perky expression, Mathias?”
Bob almost laughed. All right, Helena hadn’t succeeded in softening all
the Commander’s rough edges. “Well, nothing negative, sir. Alan and Sandra are resting comfortably; I’ll
probably release him tomorrow. We isolated the hallucinogenic ingredient in those growths; something comparable to psilocybin
and Paul is ‘coming down’ pretty quickly. And Helena…would be resting more comfortably if she would be more
cooperative, but she doesn’t want to stay with us this evening. I’m seriously thinking of sedating her.”
The last sentence, though made as a statement was also intended as a question.
John comprehended the doctor without further explanation. He even chuckled in empathy. The only resident of
Alpha with a worse ‘patient reputation’ than Helena was himself. “Do what you have to do, Bob. She can blame
Bob nodded with a smile. “I’m sure she’ll blame us both, Commander. But it’s for her
own good,” he responded cheerfully.
John checked the time again. Things were as under control as they could be. Everyone knew what they had to do
and could manage without his supervision for awhile. Hell, they’d welcome the break from his obsessive micro-management.
Victor had already suggested once, good-naturedly, that he go take a nap for the next week. “I’m coming down there,”
he told Bob. “She can get mad at me now if she wants. That way you’ll have back-up.”
“Fine, Commander. See you soon.”
His trip to Medical was unsurprisingly delayed; Alphans wanting him to convey best wishes for speedy recoveries,
Alphans with questions about the blue capsules. When he finally arrived, Bob pulled him into Helena’s office.
“I already gave her something to make her sleep, Commander. Once we got her to take the pain medication,
which she’d been refusing, she decided she felt better and was going to go toddling off to check on the others…and
promptly passed right out. She’s all right,” he added quickly as he saw Koenig’s eyes widen in alarm. He
cleared his throat. “There are a few other things I need to speak with you about.”
Bob told him what he’d learned so far from Alan and Sandra. The story wasn’t a pretty one, but Helena
received nothing but praise. According to Alan, she was the undisputed heroine of the whole sorry saga. Then he listed her
injuries – all minor, but she would be very sore for several days. Lastly, he told of Paul’s attack, choosing
words judiciously, becoming more cautious with his phrasing as he saw the Commander’s hands clenching on the arms of
the chair where he sat. “She’s all right,” he repeated, trying to calm the volatile man seated across from
him. “Uh…you are going to be upset when you see the bruises,” he advised, still wary in his delivery, observing
the Commander’s jaw tighten with each passing second. “They weren’t as apparent a few hours ago but…they’re
pretty well in full bloom now. But I promise you, she’s fine.” Koenig, Bob thought, looked unconvinced.
“Is that everything?” he asked brusquely. “I want to see her now.”
The ‘now’, Bob understood, was not a request.
Despite Bob’s warning, he was startled by her appearance. She had a hint of mild sunburn across her nose
and cheeks that brought out a sprinkling of freckles. He thought they were charming though he knew she’d hate them.
The freckles, however, were the only additions that could be termed ‘cute’. The dark circles under her eyes were
worse than the matching pair his own face carried and her cheekbones stood out gauntly in testament to the lack of food and
water she’d endured.
But it was the bruises that caught his attention…bruises on her neck and along her arms, stark against
her pale complexion. Bob had told him she was bruised all over, her ivory tone not taking well to impacts of any kind. There
were bruises from the crash, bruises from the fall after the explosion…and then there were the ones that were manmade.
Taking a deep breath, John reminded himself of what he already knew: that Paul had been wholly out of his mind. The man that
had attacked her wasn’t a man any of them recognized. Their Paul would never do such a thing to anyone. Logically and
intellectually, John knew that. Emotionally, he didn’t like to think what he might have done to his normally reliable
second-in-command if had he come upon the actual scene of Paul with his hands around her throat.
Seating himself beside the bed, he reached out and stroked the side of her neck, his fingers gently tracing
the marks. His other hand held one of hers.
Helena had been floating in a half-waking haze for some time. In addition to medication for pain, her colleagues
had obviously given her something to make her sleep and she was fighting it all the way. It was her natural tendency; even
before becoming a physician, she’d never been a good patient.
She thought she felt John’s comforting presence before he touched her.
Then his warm hands on her skin reassured her that it wasn’t a dream, she really was back where she belonged.
With concentrated thought, she opened her eyes to see him. “Hey.” Speaking was an effort, too.
He squeezed her hand a little tighter. “Hey, beautiful.” He hadn’t expected her to waken,
but he was glad she had.
She smirked. “I doubt if beautiful expresses it right now.” Her voice sounded miles away to her
“Does for me,” he told her fondly.
Helena thought about turning on her side to face him, but that would have been too much work. She settled for
angling her head in his direction. “How are the others?”
“Everyone’s fine, thanks to you,” he informed her. “Alan and Sandra are resting and
Paul’s responding well to the detox. He’ll be fine, too.”
She nodded, pleased with the optimistic update. Then, “I don’t want to be here,” she complained.
She sounded petulant and she knew it and she didn’t care. She hated being sick.
“I know…but you need to be here tonight.” John slipped from the chair onto the bed taking
both her hands in his.
She grimaced in reply. “I’d rather be in bed with you.”
Leaning over, he kissed her and ran his fingers through her hair, smoothing it off her face. “Honey, I’d
rather be home in bed with you, too, but right now it matters a lot more to me to make sure you’re all right.”
She frowned. She wanted to argue the point more forcefully, but all her energy reserves seemed gone. “I
want you to fire Bob,” she decided.
John laughed at her pouty expression. “Why would you want me to fire Bob?” He already knew the answer.
“Because he gave me something to knock me out and keep me here. I can tell.” She tried to glare.
“Yes, he did,” John attempted not to sound too patronizing. “And he did it on my ok. So I’d
have to fire me, too.”
“Traitor,” she protested weakly. “John, I’m fine,” she sighed. “I’m
“No, baby, you’re exhausted,” he corrected her. “You’re also severely dehydrated,
you’re very banged up and bruised, including three bruised ribs and you have a nasty bump on your head. Of course,”
he teased her, “since your skull is about as hard as mine, we’re not too worried about that.”
“Ha, ha.” If she’d had the vigor to stick her tongue out at him she would have.
“Honey, I couldn’t stay with you the way I want right now anyway.”
Her eyelids were feeling heavier every moment, but she tried to focus. “What’s wrong now?”
“Nothing more than usual.” John didn’t figure she needed a long, detailed discussion.
Thinking was difficult, but her mind wasn’t shut off entirely…not quite yet. Those miserable blue
capsules, she remembered. They’d come back…and it had been so hard to breathe…losing oxygen…Even through
her drug-induced fog she could put the pieces together. “We’re not going into orbit, are we?”
Beyond her grogginess, he could hear the disappointment in her voice. He felt the same way. “No, we’re
not,” he said quietly.
She heard the letdown in his tone and she wanted to hug him but she didn’t have the stamina. She settled
for squeezing his fingers. “I’m sorry.”
He leaned down and kissed her again. “Me too.” Consciousness was failing her, but she was still
fighting it. “Sleep now,” he instructed. “I’ll be back later.”
“You sleep, too,” she mumbled. “You look awful.” Her eyes closed heavily.
He snickered and once more kissed her. “And after I said you looked beautiful,” he whispered.
Helena smiled, nearly asleep. “But you were lying,” she whispered back. Then she was out, her hands
going limp in his.
“No I wasn’t,” he replied, though he knew she didn’t hear. John continued to sit on
the bed for several minutes, holding her hand, stroking her forehead and watching her sleep. He wondered if he’d ever
again have the nerve to send her on an expedition without him. It wasn’t a question of her capability. Based on the
preliminary comments he’d heard second hand from Mathias, she’d done as able and competent and…courageous
a job as anyone could have. He was immeasurably proud of her. But the heart-numbing anguish of thinking he’d lost her
had nearly been too much to bear. He swallowed hard and blinked away sudden tears that filmed his eyes. Bending low, he placed
his lips against her ear and murmured a soft, “I love you.”
A tiny smile in her sleep, really just the corners of her mouth went up a little, but enough for him to know
she’d heard. John kissed her and eased himself off the bed, back to the chair. He thought he’d sit beside her
for a few minutes more then head back out to check on the progress of ‘Project Graphite’. It was the sitting still
that was his undoing...that, and the assurance of being at her side, knowing that she was as much out of harm’s way
as he could arrange. Within seconds, his chin dropped forward onto his chest and he, too, dozed peacefully.