Moonbase Alpha status report, 2510 days after leaving Earth orbit; Doctor Helena Russell recording. We have entered a solar system rich in vital minerals. Reconnaissance Eagles have been mining one planet in particular, the only one with a breathable atmosphere. It has an otherwise hostile environment, unsuitable for settlement. At her request, Science Officer Maya was excused from this mission, in order to monitor unusual radiation patterns. The radiation itself is harmless and not uncommon within a star system; but Maya believes they are hiding some unusual patterns. Professor Victor Bergman has been sent in Maya's place aboard the lead Eagle. Ten more Eagles have been dispatched in the last twelve hours; and an eleventh will follow shortly.
Geologist Dave Reilly would have agreed with Helena's assessment of the planet. Mineral-rich it was, but comfortable it was not. At least the milgonite isn't hostile, he thought as he lifted the heavy piece of rock from its deposit. It's the genuine article, born and bred -- his thoughts stopped abruptly. No, this time it was not born or bred like the "milgonite" several years back, which had been a living rock masquerading as the needed mineral, nearly killing everyone in its desperate quest for moisture. They had been lucky to all get out alive.
This time, it was easy... sort of. Merely lifting the rock caused the rivulets of sweat to turn into rivers. It was a hot planet: at this location, temperatures climbed into the mid-forties, Celsius -- a sweltering 110ƒF day. Probably not much warmer than Texas in the summer, he thought.
Then he cringed inwardly. His own lines about that state, spoken or not, were wearing thinner than cowhide left in the sun for.... He had built the idea Texas so heavily up in his mind, he found it hard to escape. Not that he had previously wanted to... but it had started to seem so foolish lately, like a worse-than-tired cliche: so oft spoken that it could only elicit groans from others -- and more recently, himself. Texas -- as he knew it -- hadn't existed on Earth for centuries, due to the time dilation aspects of the Moon's bizarre form of faster-than-light travel. It was only a name, a memory... a state of mind -- and perhaps just a foolish obsession. The damned Moon -- unless by some strange twist of this warped universe -- was never going to return to the Earth he knew, Texas or no Texas. He thought he had adapted to Alpha's insane situation; but perhaps that was merely an illusion -- a self-deception.
He had not realized his changing feelings at first -- or how it was affecting his approach -- until someone pointed out a visible sign: "What happened to the Irish cowboy?" Alan had asked on an earlier mission.
"What?" had been his surprised reply.
"Your hat! Where's your hat?" Tony said, jumping ahead of Alan.
"Uh, I... guess I just forgot it," he said sheepishly, confused at his omission, not yet realizing the conclusions he would begin to reach in the following months.
When he tripped over a small rock, he was jarred back to the present. He started falling forward, instinctively dropped the rock he was carrying, overbalanced, and ended up on his butt, cursing.
He got up and straightened his hat (he had decided to wear it to forestall any annoying questions). Rubbing at his bruised dignity, he glanced around, once again thinking of how barren the planet was. Old obsessions still held fairly strong, for the thought, At least there's a tree or two in Texas, crossed his mind, otherwise unnoticed as he once again lifted the stone off the ground.
Except for the light-colored milgonite, red rock stretched to the horizon. Indeed, the entire planet had appeared a rusty -- or bloody -- red from space, like Mars, though much larger with a thicker atmosphere containing a near-normal amount of oxygen provided by an odd, ochre- colored, lichen-type plant coating the shaded side of most of the rocks -- orange-yellow on red. The sky could have been blue, but the sheer quantity of suspended red dust kept it a muddy sort of purple in the day -- though it had provided a brilliant sunset the night before. ("You would have liked this planet for its colors, Maya," Victor had said over the communicator screen yesterday, an hour after arriving.)
The colors, coupled with the heat, had quickly driven Dave to dub the planet "Hell." Shermeen added that it must be Hell IV or so, since she was sure other planets on their forced journey had been called that. The name had stuck, for it was appropriate, if a bit vulgar: the equator, some eight thousand kilometers north, basked in 90ƒC heat, nearly at the boiling point of water; though the pole, one thousand kilometers to the south, remained at 20ƒC -- average room temperature.
Reilly was aboard the first Eagle, surveying the planet and pinpointing mineral deposits for the cargo ships which had subsequently arrived. Unfortunately, milgonite was the only vital mineral to elude them in the polar areas, so this ship had struck out towards the equator. Fortunately, they found a deposit while still south of the searing heat of the equatorial region. Some comfort, Dave thought sarcastically as he lugged a heavy rock over terrain too rugged to allow the use of moon buggies to haul it. I'd even take a good 'ole wheelbarrow right now. The terrain would have been too rugged for even that, however.
The Eagle itself had barely found a purchase, and its pads were perched uneasily on the uneven surface. Dave finally reached the blissfully cool air of the ship, carefully depositing his treasure inside. Professor Bergman was aboard, having a discussion with Alpha. He had come to help search for minerals, to Dave's disappointment when he discovered Maya was originally slated for the mission. The pretty Psychon was enchanting company, even if she had never returned any of his interest. That was a long time ago, and she had long since fallen in love with Tony Verdeschi. Tony was a lucky man, and Dave held nothing against him, though it still made him sad at times, especially for how long Tony had strung her along, unable or unwilling to show deeper commitment -- or so the stories went. There were even rumors that Tony had, at one point declared his love to Maya, only to retract it for some reason. That seemed absurd to Dave, who couldn't imagine why anyone would do that, especially to Maya. There had been a lot of speculation a couple years ago, but over the last year, their relationship seemed to have cemented more strongly.
Has everyone really gotten so gossipy? Dave wondered. It wasn't that Alpha was terribly gossipy to start with; but it was made up of people, and people interact and discuss, among various things, other people. And in the small community of the moonbase, things do get around.
As a whole, Alpha had highly variable feelings about privacy. Sometimes people needed distance, to ponder the enormity of all their experiences, or to just to have some quiet times in the usually frantic life of Alpha; while at other times, people desired closeness to band together and shut out the pain and loneliness of a vast and often cold or stormy universe. They had suffered so many losses, taken so many blows. Yet Alpha continued to survive. It wasn't thriving by the usual definitions, but they were holding their own remarkably well.
Since when did I start thinking so much? He smiled at the number of ironic meanings the thought contained. It was true, however. He had become a little more contemplative, and he knew everyone else was that way too. Not that Alpha had become a base full of philosophers; but fighting for survival, they needed to be strong of will and keen of mind.
If they did not act when needed, they would die; but if they did not learn and think, they could easily make a fatally incorrect choice.
There was a highly beneficial diversity of individual personalities already, and that certainly remained as true as ever, but it seemed that even with individuals, each was having to learn to be both a thinker and a doer at the appropriate time.
So Alpha was slowly becoming a place filled with people who were both thinkers and doers, a usually rare but powerful combination which was becoming almost commonplace on Alpha. They were more vital, more alive, more human than ever, as if becoming a tiny bit more of their own potential -- though no one spoke the last idea, as it tread near the treacherous territory of hubris. Besides, no Alphan felt they could take full credit for their fortune in survival, for many times, they had survived only by the grace of luck, or God, or something.
"We have been incredibly fortunate," Bergman was saying, as if reading part of Reilly's thoughts, even though the elder man was speaking to the commander on Alpha about a completely different subject. "Not only did we find unexpectedly large milgonite deposits -- enough to last for years -- but we also turned up adequate amounts of beryllium, which we can use in some of our medical equipment and other scanners. The other Eagles found supplies of magnesium, titanium, manganese, lanthanum, and some relatively pure water, which will save us the energy used to split it from moonrock." He continued flipping pages, saying, "This planet may be virtually lifeless, but it has certainly given our base a new lease on life." Then, finding some more information, he continued: "We also found a three months' supply of tiranium, and..."
On Alpha, Commander John Koenig and Science Officer Maya listened. With so many personnel down on the planet, Command Center was otherwise empty. Sandra Benes and David Kano were the only other officers left on the base, while Paul Morrow, Helena Russell, Victor Bergman, Tony Verdeschi, Alibe Parsons, and Alan Carter coordinated the mission planetside.
At first, John had rejected Maya's request not to go to the planet, for he felt she might find the source of the radiation there. She disagreed, saying the patterns had no center or obvious source; though at Koenig's urging, she instructed Bergman on what to look for with the Eagle's sensors. Maya's assessment concerned him, and though Paul Morrow was a very capable officer, the commander decided to remain on Alpha, preferring to be on hand in case his presence became necessary.
As time passed, he became more nervous about having so many people on the planet; and found himself searching for excuses to call a few back, especially Helena. Victor and Maya had not provided any, however: he had found nothing new on the planet, and she had made little progress on the situation. Maya was only able to say the patterns "indirectly suggest the presence of tachyons" -- elusive faster-than-light subatomic particles. Unfortunately, their equipment could not detect tachyons directly, so Maya couldn't be certain of their presence, much less speculate on their source or effects, since "tachyons are involved in a myriad of natural and artificial processes, most of them harmless."
Those words had irked the commander: they told him nothing, and did not ease his mind about having a total of twelve Eagles and over eighty people committed to the mission.
At the moment, however, they were both listening to Victor as he continued to recite the literal treasure trove of minerals. The overwhelming success of the mission helped John relax slightly. It was rare to find a completely uninhabited world and avoid the tangles entailed with meeting alien intelligences. Alpha's luck had never been too great on this count. So many of the cultures had been hostile, and the friendly ones were unable to help Alpha much, especially in regards to relocation. On the other hand, their luck had actually been pretty good when it came right down to it. Eerily lucky when it counted....
In this case, they were very well off with what this planet was yielding: all of the raw materials on the critical "Need Immediately" list, most of the ones on the "Need Soon" list, quite a few of the "Need Eventually," and even some of the "Want" items.
John glanced at Maya. He couldn't see her face, but her body attitude and the particular intonation to her 'hmmm's suggested she was extremely pleased, and John knew why. Many of the raw materials were needed by Alpha for routine maintenance or even repair of current equipment. Some of the raw materials, however, were not needed per se, but were on her "want" lists of material she'd like to use to upgrade the equipment or create totally new equipment, or to just experiment with.
At first, years before, Maya's requests for materials had been automatically consigned to the "want" list -- which was given the lowest priority in mineral explorations -- since Alpha's current equipment had no need of most of her material requests. It hadn't taken the commander long, however, to realize that what Maya wanted to do or try could be just what the moonbase needed to improve its survival chances -- so after asking her to prioritize the list based on what could help Alpha the most, Koenig had authorized an upgrade of some of the desired resources as far up as "Need Soon."
There was no way to outright bridge the huge gap between Earth and Psychon technology; but Maya, working with her team, Victor, and others, had already started coming up with some small but often radical and almost always useful ideas.
At one point, Maya and several departments came up with a totally new design to replace a failing piece of equipment that previously required continual maintenance and repair, as well as resupply with a rare and hard- to-create isotope of lanthanum. The new design had been successfully implemented, and was the first of several ideas that had improved Alpha's systems well enough to keep pace with the continual damage the base had taken, and even improve its chances in certain ways.
So, not surprisingly, Maya had continual requests over the years. Some had been fulfilled, but others had gone unfilled for some time, either due to rarity, low priority, or expeditions that were disrupted for various, all-to-familiar reasons.
The plentiful planet they were skirting by was obviously fulfilling many of Maya's hopes, as well as Koenig's wishes for the whole base. The planet so ungratefully and irreverently dubbed Hell IV had turned out to be a blessing -- or blessings, and he felt tempted to count them.
For a moment, he thought he heard Victor's voice echoing off the back wall, but paid no attention. When Maya whirled in her seat and stared in an open-mouthed shock at a point beyond him, he snapped around to have a look.
Professor Victor Bergman had entered the room.
"I ran the mineral analysis you asked for, John." Victor started saying. "The planet we are approaching is very promising, but need to send an Eagle there to do more detailed scans and...."
The man who had just entered trailed off the moment he happened to look up at the screen. John and Maya followed his lead and discovered Victor was still on the screen. Glancing back, they verified there were indeed two Bergmans. The man on the screen had stopped talking, apparently having looked up and noticed his duplicate within the narrow field of Command Center's camera.
The two professors were quite silent, faces frozen in the same expression of almost child-like astonishment. John and Maya weren't doing any better: her mouth was still hanging open a bit, her eyes wide; while his eyes narrowed, as if willing the explanation to appear in front of him. When it didn't, he looked at Maya, only to find she had turned back to her console and was hurriedly stabbing at the controls, trying to find a cause for what had just happened. So John turned back to the duplicate of Victor who had just walked in.
"Who are you?" he demanded as he stood up, keeping a wary eye on the duplicate.
"Professor Victor Bergman," the other said, sounding a bit dazed. "What planet is that? We're not in Eagle range of the planet yet."
"We've been in range for hours," Koenig stated, his expression hardening into suspicion.
Maya was turning to ask a question, but the Victor on the screen beat her to it by saying, "What is the date?"
"Day 2507," the Victor standing in front of John said.
"Three days ago!" Maya cried in surprise.
"Time travel?" the Victor on the big screen speculated.
"Or alternate reality?" the other Victor added.
"Or duplication?" the first Victor said.
"Maya?" John growled impatiently, thumbing the silent alarm to Security -- a new console feature.
She ignored him for a moment, furiously typing away at her console's keys. Then she threw her hands up in disgust, frustrated by the lack of results, the primitiveness of Alpha's scanners, and the commander's demanding tone. "I... don't know. I don't think he can be from the past. There was some disturbance several minutes ago which could have been caused by tachyons, but I can't trace the cause or predict the effects, at least not without more detailed scans and further computation."
Koenig wasn't pleased by his science officer's floundering. Three days of studying "unusual radiation patterns" -- and now this -- and she still couldn't answer any questions. He had to stop himself from glaring uselessly at her. He instead found something useful to say.
"Take him down to your lab and to Medical Center. You and Helena -- have her return to Alpha immediately -- run all the tests you can. Find out where he came from. I want answers -- and fast."
He turned from Maya to the Main Screen, "Eagle Seventeen, return to base immediately."
"What about the other Eagles?" Bill Fraser -- the pilot -- asked.
Koenig turned back to Maya, who was now standing up. "Any reason to think they're in danger?"
She shrugged unhappily. "I can't find any origin point. They could be more exposed than we, or less, or the same. Readings show no concentration, so they're probably in no more danger than we."
This time, he did glare at her a bit; then, realizing he was doing so, turned back to Fraser's image on the screen. "Well.... Let the other Eagles stay on the planet then, for now; except for the Eagle Helena is on. Send it back." When Bill responded in the affirmative, John turned to the mysterious Victor copy, in time to see the security men enter. "Sorry, but until we know exactly what's going on, I'll want you under security escort."
"I understand, John. Completely."
"Thanks, ah... Victor," John concluded, oddly uncertain how to address this copy. He turned to the security men. "Giles, you may go. Bokessu, you are to stay in sight of the Professor. Maya's in charge of him."
"What's the problem?" Bokessu, one of the security men, inquired, seeing nothing amiss.
"Take a look at the screen," John said, with an oddly choked chuckle.
He looked; then, after a moment of shock, whispered "Oh..."
The image on the Main Screen was then replaced with the view of the brooding red planet.
Ten hours later, Maya and a sleepy-looking Helena walked into the commander's office, joining John, the Victor who had returned from the planet, and Tony, who had returned on another Eagle whose mission had been completed. At Helena's suggestion, Victor and his duplicate had been kept apart, for Helena vividly remembered what happened when she had met her duplicate in a bizarre situation some years before: one had died.
"Physiologically, they're both essentially identical," Helena declared.
"Essentially?" John said in a slightly irritated tone, wondering if Helena was going to be as vague as Maya had been for the last couple of days.
Helena paused at his tone, but otherwise ignored it, long used his impatient behavior on these occasions. "Well," Helena started, "a person's body changes slightly from day to day, depending on various chemical processes, food ingested, stress levels, and so on. But they are the same man."
"Okay. Thanks, Helena. Maya?"
"The extra seems to have an unusual energy signature."
"Unknown, but it resembles the traces I found permeating much of this star system."
"Speculate," he demanded, now drawing a worried look from Helena, which he didn't notice.
Maya paused at the tone. Then her eyes grew distant, and she put her fingers to her chin in a very human gesture of thoughtfulness. Then she looked back at them. "Again, these traces are probably due to tachyon radiation, which itself could theoretically result from any number of phenomena, but temporal displacement could be what has happened here, which matches what the copy said."
"You mean some kind of time travel?" Tony replied.
"Possibly; but it is very puzzling."
"Puzzling?" John said.
Helena could hear something in his tone: his patience with his science officer's uncertainty had just run out. Helena tried to step in before he let loose; but he beat her out. "You've analyzed this situation for three days, and still can't find a cause?" he snapped at Maya.
Helena stared at him, knowing he felt the base may be in danger. When he could not act, he began to feel impotent -- helpless. Unable to attack the situation, he would feel the urge to verbally attack those around him. It was a tendency John usually kept under tight control, but sometimes, it would slip by him -- as it just had. Usually, people let it go by them.
Maya's expression grew stony, and she practically had to bite her tongue at her desire to shout something about the primitiveness of Alphan technology.
"Commander," Maya started with a chilly voice. "Tachyons are generated by dozens of processes, natural and artificial, harmful and harmless: spatial rifts, matter-antimatter annihilation, black holes, quantum filaments, temporal displacement, cosmic strings, superluminal starship drives, nano- loop expansion -- and those are a few of the simplest effects." She didn't explain what each term meant, rattling off the list in an almost haughty manner -- with a tone she rarely used. "With this equipment, I can only detect them indirectly, through their effect on other particles, so I can say little about their cause or ultimate effects."
Despite herself, the Psychon woman had complained about Earth technology after all. She stopped, realizing how she was talking down to the commander. Outwardly, she adopted a neutral expression: though ashamed for her outburst, Maya was too angry to apologize.
"What's puzzling is Professor Bergman thinks he came from three days past," Maya said quietly with a totally transformed tone, as if no verbal altercation had occurred.
Tony covered his smile of amusement at her metamorphic behavior, while John looked as if he was trying to repress a scowl.
"Yet, if he jumped from three days ago to now," Maya continued, "he would have disappeared from our base at that time, and should have been missing from when he jumped out at Day 2507, to when he appeared in Day 2510 -- yesterday. But we know he was here during those days. Yet, the emissions correlate most strongly with a subset of causes which include several forms of time travel. I am narrowing it down with more readings."
"Until we know what caused this problem -- and even know exactly what the problem is -- we won't know how to correct it," Bergman said, trying to cut the tension between Koenig and Maya.
John looked at Victor, and the elder man returned gaze with steady eyes. By the time John broke eye contact, Koenig's scowl had vanished. "Okay," he said in a quiet, tired voice. "Keep me apprised. Anything else?"
Helena had watched John during the exchange, concerned about the altercation. John's last words prodded her to speak. "Doctor Mathias just started psychological testing on the other Victor. The only thing of note at this early stage is that he now seems confused about the date. He's said 2509 twice now, and mentions flashes of memory which pass too swiftly to scrutinize. I'm only guessing, but to add to the time travel idea, it could mean he was from later in time than he first said, but his mind was shocked by the transfer."
"Helena, keep me informed about that, if you could be so kind," Victor said.
"Of course," she said, noticing the professor -- this one -- seemed to be taking it all well.
When nothing further was forthcoming, John ended the meeting. Maya and Tony left, the former sighing in relief. Helena and Victor remained seated.
"John," Helena started. "I know these mysterious situations put you under stress, but you really must watch the personal criticism. Maya is not happy about her lack of answers; and your words sting, even when she defends herself -- especially when she feels she has to defend herself."
Then Victor started. "Her science is advanced, but so was the technology at her disposal on Psychon. She doesn't have it now; but if you haven't already noticed, she rarely complains, and is very innovative at using what she has. I would never have recognized these patterns as being caused by tachyons. To me, they're barely more than theoretical particles. To her, tachyons are a simple fact. Earth science couldn't even verify they existed, but Psychon science had studied them -- and even used them -- for over a millennium. That many years lies between our science and technology and hers. No matter how innovative she is with our equipment, and how much she tries to teach us, it's too large a gap for one lone person to bridge in a few years -- or even a lifetime."
John started opening his mouth to speak, but Helena jumped in ahead of him. "And don't you dare criticize her for an insubordinate attitude, or something military like that. You were not exactly inspiring either, and I won't let you get away with it on 'command prerogative' or whatever, if it's going to hurt morale -- and that's my department. Well, Bob's actually, but--"
"Helena!" John interrupted, putting his hands up in a defensive gesture. "You're right. I didn't like Maya's attitude, but I was being too hard on her. Now could we drop it, before we all overreact?"
"Overreact?" Helena shrilled, then realizing her tone, calmed herself. "Okay, but Maya deserves an apology." When John said nothing, Helena added, "you may not have approved of her attitude, but I bet if you apologize, she'll try and beat it out with her own apology. I know she promised herself never to use that tone, no matter how much our primitive equipment would frustrate her."
"Shortly after coming to Alpha and realizing how large the gap was, she told herself she would never use it as an excuse to talk down to us, even when freely discussing her knowledge. She wanted to play her alien aspects down, so we would accept her. She wanted to be down-to-earth -- er... approachable I mean."
"How did you find this out?" John asked.
"I once asked her how she kept her temper and never once complained about our technological primitiveness, and that's what she told me."
"And I managed to provoke her enough to break the promise."
"Well, she's been awfully uptight about something for the past few months, according to Tony, and we don't know why -- she won't say anything. Whatever it is, I doubt personal criticism could help."
John puzzled over her words. He had noticed something about Maya, but hadn't thought about it. John resisted the urge to ask Helena more questions, for she obviously didn't know much, and he couldn't add anything useful, beyond what needed to be said: "Okay. I'll apologize to Maya."
Helena smiled. John was being a gentleman. She wanted to kiss him, but resisted the urge, since Victor was still in the room, almost forgotten. Helena looked at the professor, and saw the knowing smile on his wise face.
Yes, John could be difficult sometimes; but he was really the best of men, and Helena could hardly do better. Only Lee.... Only Lee could match John. Helena had come to love John as much as Lee. She no longer felt any guilt over her new love. Lee would have approved; and in an unspoken way, had already done so on that mysterious planet so early in their journey, where Lee made no demands on her, and even helped restore John to her.
Victor had quietly left the meeting room during Helena's thoughts, and Koenig called to her as he headed towards the same door. She walked to him and locked her arm in his. He gave her a smile and questioning look at the same time.
"Let's take a walk in the Biosphere," Helena suggested with an almost matter-of-fact tone.
"Yes, now. Crisis and all. You need the relaxation, and wolfing down a bird's meal in Command Center is nobody's idea of relaxation, except maybe for yours."
He apparently didn't know quite how to take the last sentence, and he tried to back out a different way: "I've got to apologize to Maya first."
"Tony is with her now."
John gave her an dubious look. "And how do you know that?"
"Oh, I just know," Helena said mysteriously. "Don't you want to take a walk with me?"
John stopped trying to refuse. His expression widened into one of those rare glowing smiles which made Helena melt. "I would love to walk with you," he said guilelessly. That shining smile could not be faked.
Helena was right, of course.
Tony sought Maya out immediately after he left the meeting room. He was not surprised to find her in her quarters. Maya wasn't crying -- she rarely did -- but wore a distressed look she could not hide from Tony. When he asked how she felt, she surprised him by apologizing.
"What for?" he asked, confused.
"For being so insulting."
"To me? When?"
"To all of you. I have no answers, yet I flaunted my science -- treated you all like children," she choked.
Tony laughed. Maya gave him a hurt look, obviously not knowing what he found amusing. He explained. "Oh, Maya, honey. I thought it was what you did was funny. John was way out of line pushing you around like that. He needed to get off your back, and you did one hell of a good job removing him."
"But he's the commander," she protested.
"So? Has it ever stopped you from speaking your mind -- or playing practical jokes on him for that matter?" he smiled at the last, reminding her of the day two months after her arrival on Alpha, when Helena and Maya played a little joke on the commander. At the doctor's urging, the metamorph had transformed herself into an exact duplicate of Helena's form, and they put a little test to John: which was the real Helena? His primary clue: a kiss from each. Maya had thought it so wonderfully fun.
"Since when have you gotten so serious?" Tony continued.
"Serious? Me?" she shrilled, as if mortally insulted.
He ignored her protest. "You, by nature or upbringing, could never take the quasi-military structure of Alpha as seriously as the rest of us, and we love you for that. It reminds us we're human beings." She gave him a enigmatic look, so he added, "You may not be quite human, but you're still a human being."
"That makes no sense."
"You should know by now it makes plenty of sense. Think about it."
Her look told him she would. He walked up to her and took her warm, soft hand in his, drawing her towards the door. At first, she did not resist; then she tried to protest, "Oh, Tony, I'd love to take a walk, but I've got too much work."
"What did you say?" he asked, pretending he hadn't heard her response.
She gave him a baffled -- almost annoyed -- look, then repeated her own words, verbatim, including the tone: "Oh, Tony, I'd love to take a walk, b--"
"I'd also love to," he said, overriding the beginning of her refusal.
Tony knew that she could have restated her protest, but he looked at her steadfastly, wanting her to stay her protest and come with him instead; and indeed, she stared into his eyes for some moments, then smiled and raised her head slightly more, indicating she would indeed love to take a walk.
Silently, they left her quarters, and meandered slowly through the sterile hallways of Alpha, now conversing in near-whispers. Wrapped up in gentle conversation, Maya did not take notice of their course -- or destination. When yet another door opened, she hardly noticed, until the sweet scents reached her. Abruptly, in the middle of her sentence, she stopped, and looked around. Her pretty eyes widened in a way Tony found intensely attractive.
The multi-branched trees immediately in front of the airlock were covered with delicate pink flowers. In "August" -- apparently disrupted in some way by the difficult conditions of Alpha -- the apples trees were in full bloom in Biosphere IV.
Maya was beaming like a child, and Tony could not help smiling in turn.
"Oh, Tony, they're absolutely gorgeous."
"Not as much as you." Tony mentally cringed at how corny the words sounded; but it didn't matter, for Maya gave him a warm kiss, making it apparent that she didn't find the expression the least bit trite.
The difficult morning was forgotten as they sat down in the tiny grove of blooming trees, on a blanket of the first fallen petals. Usually wont to walk, run, or even fly around Biosphere, Maya's desire to simply lie on her back next to him was an obvious sign that was not lost on Tony. For awhile, she talked about the few pieces of Psychon nature which had remained in her early childhood, describing the scenes she so vividly remembered as her perfect fingers played with the delicate petals.
When she became silent, he took up the subject on his own, remembering how he liked to hike parts of the Appian Way in Italy as a teen and young man in the early- and mid-1980's. It was not the lushest area of Earth, but held its own beauty in the farms, the vineyards, and the people.
Maya loved Tony's stories of his alien planet, unique for the sheer diversity it displayed in its nature and people. By unconscious agreement, they ignored the troubled history of both worlds as they lay in the tall grass talking and often simply staring at each other, deep into each other's eyes. Finally, Tony rolled a little, to bring himself right next to her, their bodies making contact as they laid on their sides, facing each other, Tony using his arm to help him lean over and gently kiss Maya, as one of Maya's arms rested on Tony's body. They enjoyed their long, warm, relaxing kisses.
Then a door sounded from somewhere, and though they didn't necessarily have to, they separated, each rolling onto their backs.
They lay there silently, just enjoying the lingering feelings, and the peacefulness and sweet scents and sights of nature, watching the flower petals falling on each other. Tony tended to sweep them off, even as he enjoyed the way the little bits of color added even more beauty to Maya's abundant auburn hair.
Eventually, amused yet exasperated at the way Tony swept the inoffensive little petals off him, Maya waited for him to close his eyes for a moment, then lithely pulled herself into a partially-kneeling position, swept up a handful of the fallen petals, and threw them at Tony.
He sputtered to a sitting position, pink bits flying off his shirt and face, with others sticking in his hair. Maya tried to hold back her giggles, but couldn't. They quickly turned into a free, relaxed laughter, which rang out across the Biosphere.
The sounds reached John and Helena, who had discretely kept to the opposite side, having spotted the younger couple earlier.
"They sound relaxed," John observed.
"Mmm," Helena said almost languorously in the fresh scents of the Biosphere.
"We laughed with Carla of Earth so many years ago, when she said, 'Who needs nature?' Yet we all know how desperately it is needed," John said, then added, "Sometimes too desperately," referring to the so-called "Green Sickness" which had overcome Sanderson and others almost two years before.
"Without nature," Helena said, "everything is so sterile; and we seem to become sterile in manner, colorless in emotion. It is so rare to hear laughter like Maya's."
"She's lost more than we have, yet she shows more verve, energy, and happiness than any of us. I don't really know how she does it, but I wish we could distill it and inject everyone with her spirit."
"It's already infectious," John said, unconsciously using some of Helena's typical phraseology. "I hear it more. Joy is rare and fleeting; but the gentle, day-to-day happiness of being alive, the fighting spirit, the endless wellspring of hope, the growing togetherness of the people -- it's all here already, at least in a greater degree than I ever remember before." He paused, then continued. "Despite everything, we've adapted. We still want to get off this rock in the worst way; but we've accepted this dustball as our temporary abode, and have made it seem more like a home than in the past. I've never really noticed it much before, but I think we're the happiest we've ever been since Breakaway. That's testimony to the human spirit -- to the Alphan spirit," he added, amending his statement to include the Psychon.
Helena smiled warmly. "You're right, of course," Helena said. "We didn't want to tell anyone, but Bob and I have found the morale of Alpha has generally increased over the years, however fitfully. The year after Breakaway was the hardest. We'd hardly recover from one experience, only to run into another. People coped with the situations; but many decided the universe had it in for them, with all the hostile aliens and strange forces. Victor, Paul, David Kano, and some of the others disappeared, apparently killed. Then Mentor nearly destroyed the base. Psychon had to be the low point, when most felt we'd finally be put to an end at alien hands. We've come a long way since then, and have noticed how we always get through these crises -- somehow. Things still get chaotic after encounters, of course; but in most ways, we're happier than we've ever been." She paused, then added, "Just don't tell anybody."
He stopped his slow walking. "Why?"
"The feeling is natural, and growing well enough on its own. It should be left to its own devices."
"Why tell me, then?"
"Because you absorb everyone's frustration, anger, fear -- dealing with trouble so frequently -- and you rarely see the good for all the bad that happens. This is the first I've seen you recognize how far we've come. You opened your eyes a little bit to the happiness, and I want to make sure they stay open."
"You're that worried about my recent tension."
"Yes, John. I am; and not because it's recent -- just worse again. Keep your intensity when it's needed, since it makes you strong in difficult situations; but you must let go of it when it's not needed, rather than venting it in the wrong direction."
"Like Maya," he said.
Helena nodded briefly, then added. "I love you, and I don't want to see you destroy yourself."
How did I ever wind up so lucky as to have Helena caring this deeply about me? "I love you," she had said. He had heard it from her before; but each time, it felt deliciously wonderful to hear. His usual giddy grin appeared, and he returned the favor by reconfirming his love for her, both by speaking the vital words and by following them up with light kiss which startled Helena with its relaxed, peaceful nature. The tension that often filled him, and which she had expected now, was absent. It was a brief kiss, but it completely changed the character of the moment.
When they started walking again, Alpha was left behind. It was only the two of them, slowly walking next to a pool that for its small size still had a faintly salty smell which made it seem like an ocean; walking hand- in-hand through a wooded area, on a sandy beach, to a marsh. The few frogs and birds present seemed to make all the more noise, to cover their fewness in number. A bumblebee flitted between them, the buzz loud in their ears. Tiny and still fragile fragments of Earth's diversity, painstakingly maintained as best a balance as possible -- the more variety, the healthier the system, as the Botanical Sciences department had found. Right now, the science didn't matter. It was the atmosphere -- the feelings -- that counted the most. Words were no longer needed. Only the sights, sounds, scents, sensations. Not just the surroundings, but also each other. Their feelings....
In the following days, the Moon drifted out of Eagle range of the planet, as it crossed the star system towards the edge of the "space-normal boundary" -- the distance where the Moon would jump to a faster-than-light travel which even Maya could not claim to fully understand. That was still several days away. Meanwhile, they started putting their mineral finds to good use: dispensing them to the various departments. The water had been added to purifiers, and thus into the recycling system.
Helena and Bob Mathias could see the upswing in morale brought about by the superbly successful mining mission. The planet hadn't been habitable, but it had been the next best thing: a world devoid of hostile life and replete with valuable resources -- a rare find indeed.
Unfortunately, the feeling hadn't reached the command officers as much, concerned as they were over the mystery of a duplicate Victor. John's irritableness returned again, but in a much more subdued and less directed form. The time spent with Helena had been reviving. Helena knew that John's tension levels had varied over the years, and had been increasing again lately, but she was hoping he could continue to let go of the tension, as he momentarily had done in the Biosphere.
At one point, in Helena's quarters, John even stated something that had surprised Helena: "I shouldn't have been angry about Maya's attitude at all."
"Oh? Why is that?"
"She accepts the outline of our command system, but doesn't buy into every unwritten rule: she's got a streak of rebelliousness in her. It proved invaluable with the Kalthon incident."
Helena grimaced at the memory and nodded, but said nothing. It had all been said earlier -- how they had almost blindly followed the copy, against overwhelming evidence something was wrong. Faith could work to one's disadvantage at times -- but where the commander was concerned, that was the rare exception.
Later, he apologized to Maya; and, as Helena had predicted, Maya apologized to him, not for having talked back, but for having talked down to the Commander. He accepted her apology as stated, and even followed through on the discussion with Helena, telling her that maintaining order within Alpha was important, but not at the cost of Alpha itself. "Just don't go around questioning everything I say!" Maya smiled and said, "No, Commander, I won't."
Hours later, in Command Center, something occurred to him. After all of these years, Maya still calls me 'Commander,' even in informal situations. Before he could pursue the thought further, he was interrupted by a request for guidance on the distribution of beryllium, which not only could be used in medical equipment, but could be part of an alloy for the hull of a new Eagle they were building, and was also desired by Maya and Victor for research and development purposes. In his typical fashion, he immediately immersed himself in the various daily problems of Alpha.
The mutual apologies between Maya and John, the time spent with Tony in Biosphere IV, and better progress on the tachyon problem had all helped to lift Maya's spirit. She and both versions of Professor Bergman were steadily narrowing down the possibilities. At Helena's strong urging, the two professors worked in shifts to keep themselves apart, for fear of danger in contact. Neither could resist the opportunity of talking to the other, however, and they found a way to do it: over the commlocks and commscreens. At one point, John had walked in to find Maya with one Victor -- the duplicate (as evidenced by the presence of a guard) -- and both were talking to the other Bergman, having a three-way conversation.
"The heavy neutrino count has gone down twenty percent," the Victor who was in person said.
"Then there should be a corresponding tau neutrino increase," the Victor on the commlock said.
"According to the scintillator pool, there was actually a decrease of 44%," the first Victor said.
"That doesn't make sense," the second Victor protested.
"It does if there is an expanded nano-loop breaking Z-bosons across causal planes," Maya stated.
"But if the Z-bosons are... broken, wouldn't there be kilo-EV 'charmed' quarks showing up in--"
John bailed out of the room at that point, feeling pity for the woman who had taken the security shift opposite of Bokessu. With his degree in astrophysics, he was familiar with most of the terms, but he still couldn't quite follow what they were saying, probably because their discussion was going quite far beyond anything he knew. He was curious to learn, but decided not to interrupt them, since it sounded like they were quite immersed in the problem. He'd check back a little later.
John couldn't help chuckling as he walked towards Helena's quarters. Years before, he had gone completely without a science officer for a month, after the mysterious disappearance of the professor. Then Maya had taken over the position and had proven her worth, though John had missed Victor as an advisor and close friend. Then he had reappeared, just as mysteriously. And now... Maya and two Victors. It would have been a dream for him, if it weren't part of another nightmare. Yet, he could still smile about it.
Twenty hours later, the science officer and two professors finally came to some conclusions. Unfortunately, the final answer was almost as enigmatic as the duplicate Victor's presence.
Maya and the "real" Victor -- the duplicate had since retired to another part of the base -- asked to hold the meeting in the lab, and John assented, calling Tony, Helena, and Paul to attend. There weren't enough chairs for all of them, and Maya was already sitting, so Tony and John remained standing, allowing Paul and Helena to sit.
Without much ado, other than a brief apology for not getting enough chairs, Maya started speaking. "The patterns finally make sense. He comes from the future," Maya declared, with a bit of repressed weariness which was only evident to Helena, the doctor. Even Tony missed it.
"The future?" Paul exclaimed.
"Yes. In a few days -- I'm not sure how many yet -- the 'real' Victor Bergman, the one standing here, will go to past, leaving us with the 'duplicate.' The 'real' one travels to the past, and becomes the 'duplicate.' The 'duplicate' is merely the 'real' Victor, having traveled back in time."
Paul immediately protested. "That's nonsense! If the duplicate was our Victor, traveling to the past, then he should remember everything up to now and to when he travels to the past. This is Day 2514, and we're talking to the 'real' Victor now. If he travels to the past, he should remember today, Day 2514. But the 'duplicate' didn't even remember past Day 2509 when he first got here, which was a day in the past at that time -- Day 2510. So how could he be this Victor traveling to the past?"
"Now there's one of the interesting things," Victor said. "When he first arrived he actually thought it was earlier, namely Day 2507. But only a few hours later, he thought it was Day 2509, then 2510, and accurately reported events which had occurred up to then, up to his boarding the Eagle for the planet early on 2510. But after that, he couldn't remember anything."
"Oh, how convenient," Paul retorted sarcastically. Tony nodded in agreement.
Helena spoke up. "It's like he had -- and still has -- major memory gaps, starting at Day 2507. But he has felt almost constant deja vu since arriving, almost as if he actually had memories of 2510 up to today, 2514; and could feel the familiarity, even if he couldn't reach the repressed memories."
"Deja vu?" Maya said. "The feeling you have done something before, even though you know you haven't?" Maya had of course heard of this bizarre human feeling, so common to them, but completely unknown to her, and still sounded strange every time they mentioned that phrase. She wasn't sure if this were some aberration in the human brain, some sort of rare side effect of normal cognitive activities, or some as-yet unexplained cognitive ability.
"That's it," Helena affirmed. "Except he said it was somewhat different this time. Almost as if he recognized his actions, but from a different viewpoint. 'As if I've done this already, but it wasn't really me,' were the copy's exact words, I believe."
"That makes some sense," Maya said, recovering quickly. "The other one -- the copy -- comes from the future -- if we're right -- and has already seen this happen. But you, the one I know, have not. But in a few days, you will get transported to the past, thus becoming the duplicate, 'older' person." She paused, making sure the others had followed her up to that point. When they all looked satisfied, she continued. "You have seen all this happen. You may not actually remember, but it will seem familiar -- even if you'll be seeing it from the perspective of the 'duplicate' now, rather than your 'original' self."
Victor nodded, but the others were -- in various degrees -- lost.
"But if he goes to the past... we will be left with the duplicate," John protested, then smiled. "Of course, we'll be left with one Victor, just as always."
Paul picked up the same thought again. "But it's like you said: we'll be left with the duplicate, instead of the original!"
Maya shook her head. Tony took a moment to observe how her hair swung about in response, and how the arrangement -- a fairly simple bun with the usual drape of free hair -- was loosening up, as if from inattention. It was not an unattractive look, giving her a slightly tousled look which was attractive; yet it also made him realize she had to be pretty tired. With a guilty start, his attention jumped back to her words. "--fraid I got you tangled. It's the same person, it's just that one has not yet gone to the past, and the other, older, one has gone to the past. The duplicate is the older version, and the original is the younger. Perhaps 'older' and 'younger' are better terms."
Tony nodded, but he and some of the others still did not seem perfectly clear on this, so Victor picked up a wire from one of his worktables, straightened it out, and held it up, horizontally, for all to see. "Think of this as my time line -- my life. As you move along it from one end to the other, you are going from my birth to my death. Everyone's life should be straight through time, your life flowing with time, from past to future. For whatever reason, I have doubled back." He bent part of the wire around into a long, thin loop, then started moving his finger along the wire -- starting again from the beginning. "For the first part of my life, it simply follows time, as normal. Then I moved backwards and appeared in the past, to travel alongside my original self, which of course I would eventually see leave my side and disappear into the past as I continue into the future. Though I am duplicated in this segment, you can see it is still only one wire, one life-line, even though part of it follows parallel to another."
"One person," Tony said.
They all nodded, though Tony now noticed Maya seemed to be nodding off. What little energy she had at the beginning of the meeting was ebbing. He looked over at Helena, who gave a tiny nod of confirmation back to him. She had also noticed.
He rejoined the conversation with a question. "What about the part of the loop where he's going backwards? Shouldn't we see a third Victor here, doing things backwards? No... that doesn't make sense. But do you see what I mean? There are three parts of the wire paralleling each other here."
"Well, picturing time as a line is an oversimplification," Maya stated almost lifelessly.
"And it isn't easy to explain its real form," Victor added. "Just suffice it to say that the backtracking was instantaneous, even though that really doesn't mean much in this case."
"Okay, forget it," Tony said, then asked a question. "So when does it happen? When do you double back?" Tony asked, looking Victor.
Victor in turn looked at Maya, who shook her head listlessly. "We have only just finished defining what happened. There is more work to find the rest. There should be another tachyon field forming out ahead of the Moon, and we'll have to find it, to determine when another time slip occurs."
Tony, however, was not entirely won over to the time-travel theory. "What if he's some sort of alien imposter? We all remember those monsters that assumed the guise of our friends from Earth and nearly fooled us into blowing ourselves up."
"I did vaguely sense a problem with the crystal-formed imposter," Maya started, "and after the incident with those energy creatures six hundred days ago, it occurred to me that I ought to have tried interrupted transformation -- getting a... metamorphic 'look,' if you will, without actually changing -- just to see if he was human. Forgive me, Professor, but I took the liberty of trying it with your duplicate. He was not only human, but he seemed to be you."
Tony took issue with this hypothesis as well. "Maya, no insult intended, but I don't think we can trust that. Maybe some more sophisticated deceiver aware of your abilities could project a human structure so thoroughly it would fool you. Maybe this duplicate 'Victor' knows how."
Maya was silent for a moment, then frowned. "That would be more difficult, but certainly possible."
They all fell silent for awhile. Tony noted how Maya's eyes closed for a few seconds.
"I'm glad I ordered Security to escort him at all times," John finally said. The others nodded a bit in agreement. "There's still one thing that bothers me," John continued. "Why the memory loss?"
Helena shook her head. "Maybe it protects him. Even though we haven't let them come in contact, it may be the lack of memory is meant to prevent the shock, in case of a face-to-face meeting. Remember what happened at Santa Maria: I came in contact with an older duplicate of myself on Earth, and she died from some sort of shock."
"That sounded like a very unusual case. Psychon scientists heard of contact with what you would call doppelgänger or duplicates, but not of one dying from contact. Then again, the incident you describe is by far the most unusual I had ever heard of. It seems like a separate reality was started, but not entirely completed, leaving a second -- different -- Moon in the same universe."
Maya seemed caught up in speculating about what to her was only a story. The younger woman never had to live through all the bizarre horrors over those few days early in their journey. She had never met the unfortunate Regina.
No one commented about Maya's speculation. To her, it was something she had just heard of -- an interesting hypothetical question about a strange phenomenon. She had not met Regina, or experienced some of the other bizarre horrors. No one chastised her for her lighter tone. She had lived through harrowing events of her own which still haunted her, even if she steadfastly refused to show any aspect of that.
John posed a question: "Couldn't the same thing be happening here, just on a smaller scale with Victor? Duplication? Or maybe he's from a completely different reality. An alternate-reality Victor, instead of our Victor time-traveling from our own future? The deja vu could even come from the fact that his reality could be virtually identical to ours."
"Both are certainly possible, and the indirect evidence does not completely rule it out; it just points far more strongly towards his being from this reality -- but later in time."
"We all know how Helena, Alan, and I ended up in Fourteenth Century Scotland, but isn't time travel inherently risky, due to the possibility of altering your own past and possibly causing paradoxes?"
Then Tony jumped into the discussion again. "Besides, how does such a loop form? After all, time was just moving along quite nicely, minding its own business, when suddenly a second Victor appears. Now how could he be from the future, if the future hasn't been formed yet? Wouldn't that have been the case to the natives of Scotland too? The twenty-second Century certainly hadn't happened to them yet."
"It's because... ah... well...." Maya floundered. "I'm not sure I can explain it very well. Time is not that simple -- a line I mean. Time travel was a mystery to my people's scientists as well, even though we better understood why time seems to flow in one direction only, even though many equations in physics say time should not have a unique direction, or obvious flow."
Though Victor nodded understanding, the statement merely got frowns from the others present. John did know enough to add, "I've heard about the time flow mystery."
"Well, I haven't," Tony added.
Maya merely smiled a bit. "I'm afraid it wouldn't be easy to explain either."
John heard Helena shuffle her feet and realized the conversation was going nowhere. "Don't worry about explaining it all, Maya. Try to determine what happens next, and what we should do next."
Maya and Victor started turning back to their work, but Helena interrupted.
"First, get some rest. Both Victors skipped sleep last night, and Maya... I don't know quite where you are in your thirty-three-hour cycle, but you look as if you've skipped sleep for three days." Maya's eyes opened more fully, as if trying to deny the charge or hide the fact they had been half-closed for the last several minutes. Both she and Victor started protesting verbally, only to be cut off by Helena.
"I'm the Medical Officer, and that's an order."
As one, they both turned to Koenig, looking for a reprieve from the order, but the commander only shook his head. Helena's order would stand, for it was wise: they wouldn't work for several hours, but their subsequent work would more than make up for it in speed and accuracy.
"You, Victor, should get eight hours," Helena recommended. "And Maya... you look worse than Victor, for heavensake. Ten hours." Maya opened her mouth to protest; but, recognizing that stubborn look in the MO's face, promptly shut it. As they walked out of the lab, Victor gave Helena a fatherly pat on the shoulder for her almost motherly advice, even if she couched it in the form of an officer's order.
When the door closed behind the exiting officers, John looked at Helena and Tony. Helena remained silent for a moment, so Tony jumped in. "Maya's theories are all pretty... interesting, but I can't place all of my trust in them. She admitted she doesn't fully grasp the subject, so it doesn't rule out some sort of alien influence." John looked at Tony thoughtfully, but said nothing in response. "You do remember those aliens masquerading as our friends and relatives," Tony insisted, a trace of bitterness in his voice at the memory of what had happened -- apparent friends and family on a rescue mission, later found to be deceptive aliens who were trying to destroy everyone on Alpha.
John remembered, so rather than answering, he instead directed a question at the anxious security officer. "We're keeping an eye on the duplicate. Do you have any other suggestions?"
"I'm not sure I like him having continued access to the computer, monitored or not."
"I think it would be premature to limit his access when we have nothing to contradict the theory."
"But we have nothing to support it either!" Tony protested.
"There are his biological readings," Helena said.
"Could be faked," Tony dismissed with a flick of his hand.
"And the tachyon readings?" John asked.
"Maya can't even detect them directly; and she still doesn't sound completely certain they're there. If they are, who's to say they don't have some machine which could spit out tachyons for the sole purpose of deceiving us into believing that?"
"It was an awfully subtle pattern. Why go through all the trouble, when she could just have easily missed it altogether?"
Tony didn't have a ready answer to the question, but still wanted to drive home his point. "Shouldn't we at least take some precautions?"
"We already are; but if you want, warn Maya to keep a closer eye on anything the duplicate does, including checking after anything he does on the computer."
"What about our Victor? Maybe this other one can influence him."
"Hold on, Tony. I agree these things are possible, but let's go with our current precautions, while looking for alternative explanations. We must be cautious, as always, but not completely paranoid. After all, if we followed our paranoia to the primitive extreme, we'd probably have to kill the duplicate, and maybe the original, just to be sure. Maya too, since she was in close contact with both."
Tony looked insulted by John's sarcastic reply, but backed down. "Okay. I'll warn Maya, and let's all keep an eye on the original too, just in case he starts acting strangely."
"For psychological reasons also," Helena added. "After all, you remembered what happened to my doppelg”nger. It may just be slower to happen here."
"Agreed," Koenig said. He turned to Verdeschi and asked, "Okay?"
Tony nodded smartly and walked out of the laboratory, leaving only John and Helena.
After the door closed, Helena stood up and faced John, who had been standing throughout the meeting. "I don't know if it helps, but I think you're doing the right thing, playing the wait-and-see strategy."
He looked at her with a slight smile -- happy as always at her support -- but then started pacing.
"Maybe. It always involves some educated guessing, and I'm not even sure how educated it is."
Helena frowned. "The duplicate's lack of memory still bothers me."
"And me," John agreed. "See if you can think of an excuse to get the duplicate in for a neural workup. Try to find any cause for a loss of memory."
"I don't think I'll have to give him any excuses: he's been extremely cooperative with the tests, as if he is just as interested as everyone else to find an answer."
"Well, good," pausing in his pacing, next to Helena. "That makes him sound awfully honest."
"If there's deception involved, it's been extremely thorough -- at all levels," Helena agreed.
A few days later -- 2517 days after Breakaway -- John called Paul, Helena, Maya, Tony, Alan, and the "real" Victor in for a meeting in a small office near Command Center. Everyone arrived promptly, except Paul, who had been sleeping.
"Due to the urgency of Maya's discovery, we will start immediately. Maya?"
"Professor Bergman and I have found the disturbance we were looking for. It is already surrounding us, and I'm certain it is being caused by tachyons -- themselves probably caused by a time rift or warp."
"What can we do about it?" Tony demanded.
"Nothing. None of our technology can influence tachyons in any way." She paused for breath, then continued. "In less than an hour, the Victor who is sitting with us will disappear. The duplicate, who is simply our Victor -- the one who already traveled in time -- will remain with us. Partial balance will have been restored. The coming disturbance is the main event. These tachyons are the cause, what throws him back in time. The disturbance seven days ago is merely where -- when -- he landed."
"You said partial balance," John noticed.
"I am afraid so. He will get transferred through time. But it must be a balanced transfer."
"Balanced transfer?" Tony said. Perhaps he had noticed the similarity of Maya's phrase to that of Vindrus, who had tried to swap Alphans and his own people between opposite universes. More bad memories.
Maya paused, but did not comment on that directly, instead simply explaining what she meant. "He goes back in time, but something -- or someone -- must travel forward."
"Who?" Helena asked.
"Anyone on the base, most likely one of those who had the most contact with the duplicate."
"You make time-travel sound contagious."
Maya smiled. "Actually, it is, in a way. A number of us have started showing traces of the same radiation patterns I had detected in space and on the duplicate. It's the tachyons."
Alan protested, "But if tachyons are faster-than-light, how could they hang about a person? They should have instantly sped away."
"Not if they're confined in a nano-loop. Space is made up of eleven dimensions. Only four are obvious: the three spatial dimensions, with 'time' being the fourth. The others contracted to almost non-existence right after what your scientists called the 'Big Bang.' If bombarded by tachyons, the hidden dimensions -- in the form of nano-loops -- can expand and tangle with each other or with normal dimensions. The fabric of space and time gets caught and... snarled," she said, struggling with the analogy. "That can happen in many ways. Contact with alternate realities, displacements in time. Actually, he is lucky he didn't turn into a sub- atomic singularity -- a microscopic black hole."
They all variously frowned or smiled at the unpleasant yet strangely amusing thought.
"Okay," John said, "you can't tell who, but can you say how far forward in time? A week? And what do you recommend."
"Yes, a week -- roughly," Maya responded. "The exact value would depend on the person's mass and a few other characteristics. We can't prevent the time jump, but we can warn everyone. The transfer itself should be harmless, but suddenly seeing things transform around them will be disconcerting."
"Okay. I'll transmit a general message. Consider yourselves warned. Back to your posts."
They all rose.
Victor gasped in pain, almost as if he were having a heart attack -- his mechanical heart shutting down or something.
Maya, nearest to him, reached out to support him, but he abruptly vanished, and she found her hands passing through the space he had just been standing in. Instantly, her hands felt as if they had caught fire. She gasped, clutching them together as the fire turned to a painful numbness. She cried out from the horrifying sensation as it spread rapidly up her arms and consumed her whole body mere moments later. She was fully conscious, but then grew dizzy, and found herself collapsing. From a distance, she felt Tony's prompt catch, and was grateful, but he suddenly let her go, and she fell to the floor, her consciousness now fading. Fine lout he turned out to be, was her last thought before she blacked out.