She started moving about, but quickly ran into something her probing hand identified as a metal table. Realizing she could injure herself by tripping over some invisible obstacle, she took out her commlock and swept it in a circle, trying to open a door. There was no response. Evidently, something between the commlock and the door was blocking the signal. She cautiously moved, trying to find a wall. Maya finally realized she was in a large storage room, some of which could be thirty meters wide.
How on Psychon did I get here? she wondered, still feeling a little dizzy and confused. After a little more groping, she finally reached a wall, then moved along it and another -- avoiding several huge piles of storage units -- before reaching a door. Once there, she found the door refused to open. She used her commlock on it, but the door responded with a refusal beep, which surprised and further confused Maya: being an officer, her commlock should have opened any door on the base. She could do nothing with this commlock, not even turn up the lights.
Changing her strategy, Maya entered the code to reach Tony by voice, but got only a beep from the commlock. The code for the commander also resulted in naught, and the commlock continued its annoying feedback when she tried to reach Helena. She was going to give up after Victor's code, but a face appeared. It was not the professor, but Lena Andreichi, a botanist. Knowing there was insufficient light for the receiver to see her, Maya gave her name.
"This is Maya. I seem to be locked in a storage room and can't get in touch with anyone else. Could you please notify the on-duty officer to release the--"
"Maya who?" Lena interrupted.
Maya frowned in the dark. "Just Maya," she said in exasperation. "Science Officer Maya."
The woman on the other end grimaced. "Look, whoever you are, I'm having a bad day, and I'm not in the mood for jokes." With that, Lena broke the connection. Maya started pressing another button, then held, caution suddenly taking over.
She remembered her hypothesis that someone would be snatched out of time and deposited a week later, and Maya assumed she had been the one taken. Yet, while something obviously happened, Maya was no longer sure what it was, because what little she had seen -- literally -- so far, was stranger than expected, and she had to carefully -- but quickly -- find out what it was. Simply blundering randomly about the situation would be dangerous.
She turned to the door, debating which physical form to use to open it up.
"Commander," Paul Morrow called.
"Unauthorized commlock access attempt in Storage Room Three."
"Someone's trying to enter?"
"No, sir." Paul paused a moment, not believing the indications. "Someone's trying to exit."
"The commlock code is unrecognizable. It identifies itself as Number 453 -- an unregistered number." He paused for several seconds, and John tapped his fingers impatiently against the console. "It's now tried several person-to-person calls," Paul said, "but all of the numbers it has tried are invalid."
"Sounds like a commlock gone bad. Open the door from here and let the person out."
"But, sir, readings indicate no one has entered that room for five days, and the lights are out."
"Then the computer must be malfunctioning to give such readings. Kano?"
"It doesn't make any sense. The computer--"
"Just check it out," Koenig said.
"Commander," Morrow called out, "It's just hit a valid one: Lena Andreichi."
"When it's done, call her and ask who communicated with her."
Paul only had to wait ten seconds for the current connection to be terminated. Then he called Lena and asked her what had happened. She sounded resentful of this second interruption, and snapped out a response. "No picture, just someone saying something about being trapped in a storage room. Okay?"
"Anything else? Did you get a name or see a face at all?"
" 'Just Maya,' she said. Science officer I think she claimed. There was nothing to see -- no picture at all. I have no time for jokes, and I hung up. Is that all?"
Paul looked up at John, who nodded. "Right, thanks Lena," Paul said, terminating the connection; though it looked more like she killed it first. "We don't have anyone with a name of Maya here. It does sound like a joke."
"Maybe. Just to be safe, send someone down to check it out. I doubt Gorski tolerated this, and I certainly I won't abide by people playing practical jokes on security."
"Right," Morrow agreed.
"See," David Kano said. "It wasn't the computer."
Paul flipped a button on his console. "Tony?"
"Yes," came Tony Verdeschi's voice through the console.
"Check out Storage Room Three. Lights are out, but someone inside is playing around with what appears to be a malfunctioning commlock."
Tony's laugh sounded from the speaker. "Sounds like someone's idea of a joke."
"That's what we were wondering. Determine the situation and re-secure the area."
"Understood," Verdeschi said.
Maya cautiously edged down to the poorly-lit hallway. The hall lights suddenly came up to full force. Footsteps approached. Her heart hammered, urging her to hide. She followed the feeling, retreating down the hallway and around a corner, where she waited for the source of the footsteps to appear.
A voice sounded first. It was Tony's, calling out, "I hear you. Are you really having any fun at this? Is this one of your ideas, Jake?"
Maya's heart fluttered, and she wanted to rush to Tony. This time, instead of following her desire, she fought it, for there was something odd about what he had just said: she remembered no "Jake" on Moonbase Alpha. Then again, the humans had a penchant for what they called "nicknames." As if they don't have excessively long names already, she thought. This might be one she hadn't heard before.
She stayed still, though, watching as Tony rounded the corner at the far end of the hallway. Pulling her head back, she listened as he walked towards her for a moment before turning into the short corridor which ended at the door to the storage room she had vacated. Heeding the noise her boots made, Maya turned a corner and cautiously moved up the hall to the same intersection, then peeked around the corner to see Tony standing in front of the open door, his back turned to her.
She only looked for a few moments, then turned away, headed back to where she had just come back from, and continued on towards an even emptier section. Tony's voice called out something to his "Jake" again, but she didn't hear most of it -- didn't even care for that matter.
It was indeed Tony; but his clothes were a different, older style which had been changed before her arrival on Alpha. Some frightening hypotheses were forming in her mind, and her instincts ordered her to stay away from the others until she figured it out.
Tony took in the sight of Storage Room Three's sliding door -- stuck open -- bemused that someone would do so many singularly odd things for a laugh.
Already believing it was a joke before he had even arrived on the scene, and not having been told that the person involved was female, Tony assumed it was Jacob Kendall, a talented technician with a sense of humor that rivaled Tony's, but who had even less restraint. At this rate, he's going to end up on report or get himself kicked off Moonbase.
Tony knew he was being watched, and thought he had heard footsteps, so he simply turned away to face down the corridor, and spoke out loud again. "Okay, Jake. Very entertaining. But what's your point?" He turned back to the open door. "This seems more useless then most of your setups. You're going to get yourself in trouble with the new commander, not to mention me. Somewhat stu.... What the hell?"
He had taken his commlock out and turned back to the door to close it, but the door did not respond. Not even a beep. Then he noticed the burn marks along the upper surface of the tracks. The hair on the back of his neck prickled, and he pulled out his stun gun and slowly retreated from the open door. This was no joke, and instantly regretted his casual assumptions, which had allowed the vandal to escape.
With only the slightest pause, he pulled out his commlock and activated it. "Security. This is Verdeschi, I need further assistance at Storage Room Three. Signs of forcible entry. Perpetrators may be near by." He'd have to give the whole story later, but the important thing now was to get the most salient details to Main Mission, so immediate action could be taken.
In Main Mission, Koenig heard Verdeschi's report, then looked at Morrow, who only shrugged. This was getting real odd. John quickly strode over to Paul's console, so he could speak over the connection to Tony. "Any further information?" he asked.
"Yes, Commander. Signs that someone forcibly entered this room. Lights are off inside, but I'm keeping it secure until I get some assistance to search the room."
"Someone burned out the wall panel?"
"That's the weird thing. No apparent damage there."
"The commlock signals came from the inside," Paul reminded everyone.
"That makes no sense," Tony protested. "The intruder had to get in first. But I did hear some footsteps in the area outside, but I think they left shortly after I got here, down Corridor 26 or 29, perhaps. Maybe that was the suspect." He paused a moment as he recalled another impression. "I'm not certain, but the footsteps sounded like a woman's."
" 'Maya?' " Paul muttered to the commander.
"Who?" Tony said, his speaker-carried voice sounding puzzled.
"Paul, have the whole area secured, if possible. I want that woman found. Have someone look for evidence of someone entering the room by alternate means. Maybe she couldn't get back out the same way and panicked. And Paul, have someone inventory the room, just to see what's missing."
"Very good, sir."
Victor had walked in on the end of the conversation. When Tony signed off and John turned away, Victor walked up to him. "Why would anyone steal something? It would eventually be found."
"Hmm, good point. Which reminds me... Kano, have computer seal all Eagle pads until further notice, just to make sure no one tries to leave."
For long minutes, Maya simply stared. Her suspicion had just been confirmed, in the most dramatic and devastating way possible: out the window, across the lunar surface, and just over the mountains on the horizon, floated planet Earth, homeworld of the Alphans and mother planet to the Moon. A breathtakingly beautiful world, surely; but quite thoroughly out of place.
It all fit, though. Old uniforms, a commlock which didn't work on doors and reached people with codes that had been changed years before. And "Jake," whom she suddenly remembered was Jacob Kendall, who had died in the initial Breakaway when part of Section Seventeen explosively decompressed.
That was seven years ago. Yet it was also today, or something close to it.
She had not ended up in Alpha's future, as the equations had implied. She was instead living the past -- a past with Alphans who had not yet experienced the accidental Breakaway of the Moon from the Earth, much less met any aliens. They would find her eventually. This time, she could appear to be a hostile intruder in their own star system, rather than an orphaned alien who had helped them survive an encounter in deep space. This was a crazy situation. Or was it a nightmare? She rarely had them, and this was simply too vivid -- too real to be a dream.
She shivered, feeling more hopelessly alone than she had ever been, even aboard the Eagle seven years ago which had taken her away from her destroyed planet towards a base full of jittery aliens who had survived an attack from her mad father, Mentor.
She started feeling dizzy, then tried to shake it off as she furtively walked down the corridor, wondering what to do.
Twenty-four hours later, the "Maya" incident had been virtually forgotten by the people in Main Mission.
Shortly after Tony's report about the damaged storage room door, Nuclear Disposal Area One had flared up in what Professor Bergman was now calling a "magnetic subsurface firestorm." This incident prompted worries about the far more massive deposits at Area Two, so Koenig issued Emergency Code Alpha One, prompting Commissioner Gerald Simmonds to take an Eagle from Earth to the Moon.
It was now September 11, 1999, and everyone in Main Mission, including a less than happy Simmonds, was watching as a remotely-controlled Eagle hovered over Area Two. Bergman anxiously watched the readout from the Eagle's magnetic sensors. There were some slight fluctuations, but they were hardly interesting, much less worrisome.
Eventually, they recalled the Eagle, which returned to the moonbase without incident. Simmonds looked at John with smug satisfaction. Nothing had happened, Gerald thought. The emergency code Koenig had transmitted was nothing more than a panic response. Simmonds began to doubt the wisdom of replacing Gorski with Koenig.
"Nuclear waste shipments will resume," Simmonds concluded.
"Commissioner, Area One blew itself apart," Koenig protested. "It sounds damn risky to be sending anything more to Area Two until we have made a complete evaluation of the situation."
"You found no disturbance in Area Two. What happened in Area One was an isolated event, probably caused by negligence in monitoring."
Koenig had only been commander of Alpha for only two days, but he bristled at Simmonds statement. The commander, and then the professor, continued to argue with the commissioner about the possibilities and things they didn't know and couldn't adequately assess yet; but Simmonds would not budge, and ultimately, he had more authority than Koenig, who was reluctantly forced to accept the order, though he vowed to continue monitoring Area Two.
Helena opened her eyes to darkness. For a moment, she felt completely disoriented, wondering what kind of dream she had just awakened from. Two Victors. Maya vanishing in front of all of them. Herself fainting. But it all seemed so real, she thought. Oh well, some dreams do. The disorientation faded, but the confusion remained as she pondered the musty, almost stale smell in the chilly air. In the dark, she frowned, then reached for the nightstand to grab her commlock. When she did not find it there, she felt for her belt, and found it there. Why am I in uniform? she puzzled as she used the commlock to turn up the lights. Though they only came up to quarter power, it was enough to make her gasp at the sight which greeted her eyes. Not only was it not her own quarters, but the room seemed abandoned and in disrepair. No, she corrected herself, actively cannibalized, she realized, glancing around, seeing the panels hanging open, gaping holes where the video consoles had been removed, wires either removed or left behind, and specific circuit boards removed. Likewise, three-fourths of the lighting had been taken out. Dust covered everything. What part of Alpha could be in this condition?
She approached the door, and used the commlock to open it. It made some tortured grinding sounds, then noisily flew open, making Helena jerk back as it clunked hard into its recess. She cautiously approached and stepped through, afraid it would fly closed in the same way it had opened. Fresher air greeted her in this short branch of hallway; but it too was tinged with a strong element of staleness, and was just as chilly. When she turned and used her commlock to order the door closed, the door just sat open, insensate to all commands, even from the wall panel. She shrugged and walked away from it.
The room she had been in was recessed a bit from the main corridor. When she turned the corner, the sight greeting her was enough to make her wish this was just a nightmare.
The lighting was sporadic at best, but sufficient to show the sheer chaos. Jagged, burnt holes were punched through the walls, and the floor had strange stains. It looked like an attack had occurred. Besides that, there were also more of the same signs of "disrepair" she had seen in the room, for many of the fixtures in the ceiling and panels in the wall had been removed, and naked wires hung everywhere. There were also storage units stacked in somewhat orderly piles down the hallway.
It looked as if there was an attack, then an attempt at evacuation, then a total halt to all activity.
This was far more than the week Maya and Victor had predicted, for several weeks or even months of dust covered everything. It looked like Operation Exodus had started, but had been abruptly halted. Why?
Maybe the attack had happened during Exodus, she thought, but she saw no signs of damage to any of the storage cubes. It had to be something else. With a doctor's mind, one word popped into her mind: disease. A chill ran down her spine, a primal shiver which had nothing to do with the cold air. She started running deeper into the base, past a completely gutted communications pylon, dreading the moment when she would find bodies.
The mouse slipped quietly into the Main Computer Room through a vent near the floor, driven by orders planted into its minuscule brain. It glanced around. No humans were evident in sight or sound, and their lingering smell was at least an hour old. This combination of circumstances triggered one final instinct in its tiny brain: forming an image of a certain near-human in its mind triggered a nerve signal alien to its usual biology, which in turn initiated a cascade of events in all its body cells. Tiny quantum loops expanded from within each molecule of each cell. The loops snared the molecules, pulling them into a hidden nano-sized dimension, where they were altered and released back into "normal space," along with an enormous mass which had been hidden for forty-four minutes within pockets of "metaspace" created by these "hidden dimensions."
Maya stood up, trying to shake off the dizziness which seemed to haunt her every transformation in this pre-Breakaway Alpha, particularly with the small forms.
The small forms had brains too tiny to hook any of her intelligence -- much less sentient consciousness -- onto. A few semi-complicated instructions was the best she could do. Even the average cat had enough inherent brain power to allow part of her own mind to directly control it. The worst had to be insectoid forms. In mice, she could at least plant orders dealing with several possible situations. Insect brains, however, were so tiny and wired with so little extra room that she could only plant the simplest instructions and the reversion orders which allowed her to return to her normal form. She could only maintain the smaller forms for about 53 minutes, whereas she could hold the largest forms for up to 64 minutes. Below two centimeters -- the size of a large beetle -- the brain was to small to even put reversion orders into. Her metamorphic instincts and training would not allow that, so she simply didn't transform into anything smaller.
In this case, the set of orders she had planted had carried her through the ventilation ducts, into this room, and through a sensory search for humans. The room had been empty, as required. Now fully humanoid, she walked over to the "Scanner Log" panels, and started reviewing them. The records of Area One were the most informative. Hmm.... The explosion was one day early, and only forty percent the strength it should have been. All of the canisters exploded, but the energy output is far lower. Why is it different? This and other bits of evidence were leading her to speculate this was an alternate reality to her own. Almost identical -- for sure -- but with differences. She had not only traveled back in time, but had apparently jumped into an alternate reality. Unfortunately, there was no proof; and she needed facts, not conjecture. There was energy missing from the explosion, and it had to be explained.
She started searching for the tachyon-caused patterns she had seen in her own time, in hopes of discovering the cause and perhaps a solution. She was interrupted by an opening door. Hidden behind the banks of processors and memory cores, she transformed, moments before Kano turned the corner.
"Ah, Ouma," Kano said. "I've got those faulty dataplexors in Section Twelve fixed."
"Excellent. Is that all?" Maya/Ouma asked, hoping he would leave.
"What's the hurry? Hey, talking about hurry, when I spoke to you a few minutes ago on the commlock, you were in Main Mission, and said you would be there for an hour. Why'd you come back here right away?"
"I needed to run some tests to verify some data on Area One for Victor -- Professor Bergman."
"Victor, eh? When'd you get to know him? You better watch it. I don't know about Koenig, but Gorski didn't like junior officers being so informal about senior officers -- and you know Bergman is Koenig's personal friend, comprende, mon?"
Maya/Ouma merely nodded, uncertain how to respond at first. S/he tried to order him out again, but Kano resisted on the grounds of previous orders. "I've got a couple of hours of work here, remember?" he said, suspicion becoming evident on his face.
"You're right, Dave," Maya/Ouma said. "I'm sorry. I need some food."
"Food? You need rest, more than food. Now get outta here."
Maya was surprised at the tone Kano took with Ouma. Ouma had been Kano's superior officer before dying from injuries sustained at Breakaway. Then she remembered Ouma and Kano -- and Bob Mathias as well -- had been lifelong friends since their childhood in Jamaica on Earth, and had never let rank get in the way, from what she had heard.
Afraid to arouse Kano's suspicions again, s/he said "right, mate," turned, and left. S/he did not feel Kano's gaze boring into her back, but remembered "mate" was an Australian expression, not Jamaican. There were so many Earth expressions, but that was no excuse.
Knowing Kano would be busy with Main Computer for several hours, and Ouma would be in Main Mission for at least fifty more minutes -- hopefully -- she walked to the cafeteria, continuing to maintain the latter's form. Maya had been getting hungry, and when she reverted, she would feel it again.
S/he kept a wary eye for anyone giving her strange looks, or anyone from Main Mission. If someone just left Ouma in Main Mission and shows up here.... It wasn't likely, being in the middle of a crisis, but she kept herself prepared for rapid action.
Maya was aware that her taking other Alphan forms was in some ways working against her in the long run, since someone would eventually discover the duplication. She had little choice, however, if she were to get information or even food. For the tenth time, she wondered if she should be showing herself again. She still did not feel comfortable with the idea. At least not until I get some more information.
Maya/Ouma reached the cafeteria, and then stared in surprise at the food available. She had never seen most of the selections before -- since many were no longer available on the runaway moon -- and the opportunity to try out some of these dishes intrigued her. S/he ended up choosing small samples of almost everything there -- at least as much as she could fit on the tray. Near the end, s/he ran out of room. Not being interested in human-made desserts, most of which she found disgusting, s/he instead put a last sample of vegetable -- a pasty green substance -- on top of the slice of grainy brown meat already occupying part of the tray.
When s/he glanced up, the chef had a unidentifiable look on his face. "Guacamole on liver? Feeling creative?" he asked. "Brave," Maya responded, realizing her choices were an unusual combination to humans. The chef snorted, then commented "Brave? You must be to take so much. I've never seen you take even half that much food at once."
"I feel like I haven't eaten in two days," Maya/Ouma quipped, smiling at the ironic truth of it. She had been here for over a day, and hadn't eaten for a day before then, so wrapped up was she in the crisis involving the duplicate Victor, which seemed so distant now.
"I guess the huge strawberry-covered waffle you ate three hours ago only made you more hungry," the chef added, obviously referring to the real Ouma's breakfast.
"Seems like I don't even remember having it."
Maya said the right thing, for the chef laughed, then returned to his work as s/he left the line. The truth, however deceptively she was applying it, had worked better than a lie. This is almost fun again.
The thought vanished as she caught sight of Lena Andreichi approaching. Evidently, the overworked woman had found a few minutes to eat, and insistently tried to steer Ouma to her table. Maya/Ouma tried to get in a word of refusal, but Lena just overran the attempts, much like she had overridden Maya in the commlock communication. Lena was not subtle, and being a woman -- even if not human -- Maya could recognize Lena had more interest in Ouma than just a friendly discussion over breakfast.
Maya felt -- and Ouma's face probably looked -- embarrassed at the situation. S/he got flustered and, when Lena finally paused for breath, s/he muttered "Maybe a snow check after Breakaway" and fled the cafeteria with the tray full of food, leaving behind an utterly baffled woman to her thoughts:
Snow check? Breakaway? He needs some rest. Then, putting it together, Lena smiled. Ah, a rain check after breaking away from his work. If I could make him so flustered.... I won't let it be just a mere 'maybe' next time. Gee, he sure looked hungry, though.
Returning to the empty room Maya had previously found in a newly-built and as yet unused section of Alpha, the metamorph reverted and rapidly proceeded to assuage the hunger her Psychon body felt, reviewing the last hour in her mind as she delighted in the alien tastes of Terran food she had never experienced before. She didn't know what the names of most of these items were, and of course had not asked the chef, as that would have made him suspicious. The liver and guacamole combination proved to be an excellent idea. Many other foods were excellent, but some were not so good, and one thing -- a juicy, curved cylinder of grayish meat -- was absolutely hideous. She moved it aside with a grimace, feeling a little guilty she had gotten so many foods, when disliking -- and wasting -- some of them would have been inevitable. It was too late to worry about it now, so she set the thought aside and considered other issues.
She had not handled the last situations very smoothly. Being a metamorph, she was used to masquerades, even as men; but for some reason, she had managed to hopelessly scramble the last two encounters -- along with seemingly half the idiomatic expressions of Earth. None of this boded well for her keeping herself hidden. On the other hand, she had retrieved some valuable data which would help her decide her next course of action, or at least what further information she needed. And I probably gave Ouma a pursuer, or at least didn't chase one away, unless Lena finds out it wasn't Ouma she was talking too. She almost choked on her food with laughter at the thought. She didn't even have to try to be funny, and she could make funny things happen. It was too delightful.
With her good humor partially restored, Maya's attention returned to her food and some mental calculations, trying to find her way out of the less- than-amusing situation she was currently trapped in.
She wanted to find a way to safely reveal herself, so these people wouldn't try to detain her in any way from pursuing information and taking actions to return to the Alpha she knew. She could see no way of ensuring that. These pre-Breakaway humans were obviously different than the Alphans she had joined nearly a year after Breakaway -- in the sense that the latter had survived many alien encounters, whereas the former had never seen a single alien, discounting unverifiable rumors in Earth's recent history.
Continuing to remain in hiding increased the chance of the Alphans realizing the presence of an intruder, and treating her with more suspicion if she finally did choose to show herself, or was found. The quandary was all too evident. Reveal herself now, and risk being prevented from pursuing vital leads? Or wait, gather more information, with the possibility of finding her own way out -- but with the alternate possibility of needing their help, but being greeted with more distrust for waiting?
Neither option was good. She decided to attempt two more secret forays to key information centers. Then she would make a longer-term decision on the basis of whatever she found -- or did not find. She had a feeling it would involve revealing herself at that point.
An hour later, she returned to the Main Computer lab, again as a mouse, again to find it empty. She clambered out of the ventilation grid, only to have a human with an almost flowery smell walk in and try to attack her with some kind of flat board. The mouse-form's own instincts to flee -- wired right into the neurons of its brain -- served Maya well.
Upon returning to the shelter of the "her" room, she suffered through another bought of dizziness. Then, when her mind cleared, she thought over the encounter. At least this one didn't throw knives at me, like the other one did. The day before, she had tried the same strategy to get into the cafeteria after hours, only to find a rodent-hating cook still hanging about. Maya had gone hungry for another day. Apparently, human attitudes to mice had been hostile until Maya proved the utility of the form. It was the only animal of that small size in which she could plant a relatively large set of instructions in. Upon mentioning this to a biologist, he had said mice were surprisingly adaptable and flexible; adaptable enough to flourish in many habitats and flexible enough to use in a variety of experiments. The last had chilled her a bit. "Just so long as you don't use me," Maya had said.
Tony Verdeschi and Jake Kendall walked a quiet hall of a rarely-used section, looking for intruders. When they heard a strange fluttering sound from an unknown direction, they pulled out their stun guns. They nearly jumped when a dove flew around the corner and passed right over their heads. In a second, it had flown around another corner.
They looked at each other and laughed as they reholstered their lasers. "Another escapee from the lab section," Tony said, amused.
"Another?" Jake queried.
"Yeah, some people in the cafeteria and computer labs have reported close encounters with mice."
"Mice? In the cafeteria and computer sections? The cooks must have gone ballistic; though I can't see the computer people being too happy about animal hair in their equipment."
Tony chuckled. "You better believe it. They called me. As if it were a security issue."
"Well, of course it is. You better post some guards around the biology labs," Jake wryly stated.
"Hey, you never know what manner of creature may end up wandering the hallways."
Maya swiftly flew over the humans who had been approaching and continued flying through the hallways. Yet another foray had ended with her fleeing. On this flight, she had went somewhere else: Records Lab, where some non- computerized records were kept. This time, while in there, she had turned on an internal monitor to watch for approaching people, and received enough warning to transform into a bird and fly into the hallways, which was much quicker -- though more obvious -- than crawling around ductwork for half-an- hour at a time. Either way, though, was far less dangerous than continually adopting human form. The only problem, which was worsening, was the dizziness she had been feeling every time she reverted from animal forms.
She now flew through less-crowded corridors, passing a pair of humans and then another lone human, and on into an almost completely unlit section, only to pull up short when an wall unexpectedly appeared in front of her. She alighted on the floor and reverted, confusion puckering her face as she stood and glanced around, trying to ascertain whether this was the correct section, and that she hadn't been impeded by working through the small bird brain. She was in the right place, the layout was somewhat different. No major construction had been undertaken after Breakaway, and this difference in the physical environment was yet another piece of evidence this was not just a different time, but a different reality with subtle differences.
When she realized people could easily trap her in this unexpectedly unfamiliar section, she started cautiously backtracking on foot the hallway she had flown down. Dizziness materialized in her head, as had happened soon after every metamorphic occasion since reaching this alien reality. This time, it was late -- and much, much worse. Nausea welled up within her. She clutched one arm to her stomach, and leaned forward against the wall with the other, fighting to remain upright against the pain searing through her whole body. She slid to her knees, rapidly losing the battle....
It was after three in the "late night" hours, early on the "morning" of September 12, 1999.
Captain Alan Carter was wandering the quiet hallways, his mind engrossed in the problems piling up: astronauts -- friends -- dying, a mysterious magnetic storm at Nuclear Disposal Area One, that damnably annoying Commissioner Simmonds on the base, the fact that the Meta probe was in serious jeopardy. For one of the few times in his life, Alan had been unable to sleep. Despite it being the middle of the moonbase's "night" cycle, he had taken to wandering the halls, slowly building a headache from it all.
It didn't help that people had been asking him strange questions about whether he felt okay, saying he had looked haggard -- almost older -- and was asking strange questions. He wondered what their game was. Now, in the dead of night, the thought crossed his mind that he may have done these things and forgotten them, perhaps because of the same illness the others suffered from. It was unthinkable, and he pushed the thought aside, desperately worried these stories might come to the attention of the Commander or Doctor Russell and get him suspended from the program.
So engrossed, he didn't notice a fluttering sound until it was directly overhead. His head snapped up in time to see a dove fly by. His curiosity aroused, he started running after it, but quickly lost it in the corridors. He wondered where it had come from, then shrugged. An odd yet welcome respite from his dark thoughts -- but nothing more, he decided. Yet despite the irrelevancy of the bird, it had yanked his mind away from the problems; and within minutes, he could feel the fatigue finally coming to the surface. Realizing sleep might finally come if he got back to his quarters promptly, he turned to look for a major corridor. He hadn't gotten more than twenty meters when something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.
In a newly-constructed and still-dark hallway, there was some shape heaped on the floor. He frowned, an action which made his headache even worse.
Approaching, Alan realized it was a woman lying on her stomach and side, her head hidden by her arms and her own hair. He ran the rest of the way and knelt beside her. He touched her shoulder, then froze. Who the hell is this? I've never seen a woman with all this reddish hair before. He shoved the question aside, pressing two fingers to her neck and finding a strong pulse. She started stirring even as he gently turned her over.
Catching sight of her face, Alan abruptly -- almost violently -- released her and pushed himself back. For a second, he thought he really had gone insane, for he thought he had seen an alien face. He shook the thought from his head. It must be the fatigue and lack of sleep. He approached her again.
She started picking herself off the floor, however; and Alan realized she was definitely alien, and he wasn't imagining her. She looked nervously at him, then glanced around her, as if looking for escape. He didn't notice her nervousness, however. He was caught in his own fear, which only increased when she used his name aloud: "Please, Alan, I mean no harm." He simply reacted, pulling out his stun gun; but the alien delivered a surprising -- and painful -- kick to his hand. The laser went flying far in the dark hallway, out of sight.
Alan snapped. Enraged by the pain in his hand and head, driven by fear over her and confusion over all that had happened in the last several days -- and the last sixty seconds -- he lashed out at the alien. His fist struck a glancing blow to her face. She cried out, but did not fall, instead swinging her weight back around and shoving him away. Before he could recover, she turned to run, stumbling as she started. He recovered quickly and ran after her. The alien seemed ill, for she did not run well, and he quickly caught up and spun her around by her shoulder. She made an ineffectual, off-balance attempt to push him away, but he held on and slammed her roughly against the nearest wall, causing her breath to explosively rush out. He grabbed one of her wrists, and lodged his other arm against her neck, pinning her to the wall and choking her at the same time.
Finding herself unable to transform, Maya fought; but she was too weak from resurgent dizziness to effectively resist. In desperation, she tried to drive her knee up between his legs; but his fighting technique had anticipated this, for he held his legs too close together, and was too close for her to get her knee up. Her attempt at disabling him in this way only enraged him further, his arm pushing harder against her neck, cutting off her air. Her limbs grew distant from her dissolving mind, as sound roared in the narrowing tunnel of consciousness, and she closed her eyes against the dizziness of her spinning head.
When she heard a strange sound through the roaring in her ears, Maya thought it was her own neck snapping under the pressure. Suddenly, she didn't feel the pressure -- or anything -- at all. Then, sensation slowly returned, demonstrating she was not dead. Carter had released her. She was sliding down the wall, however, hardly able to feel her own body, much less get her weakened legs to support it.
Someone intervened, pulling her away from the wall and into a standing position. She opened her eyes to find Carter again. She panicked. For some reason, he wasn't shoving her against the wall, so she had some space in which to act. She allowed herself to partially collapse; then, when he bent over in an attempt to hold her, she tensed, pushed herself forward and then up, using her own rapidly returning strength to flip Alan right over her and roughly to the ground. It was her own unique modification to a human art of physical defense, requiring little strength to use, but useful only in certain bodily configurations.
He grunted, then started getting up. Maya slowly backed up. Not yet able to run, transform, or fight well, she instead put up a verbal defense. Standing her ground, but putting up her empty hands in a gesture of peace, she spoke to him, trying to hide her weakness at the same time she attempted to prove she wasn't a threat. "Please, wait. Let me explain. I meant no harm."
"Jeez, Maya," he groaned. "Wait a second."
She paused, momentarily surprised by his use of her name; but she quickly dismissed his familiarity upon remembering she had already used her name over a commlock, and resumed her previous pleas. "I can explain my presence, if you let me," she said, even as she continued backing away, ready to run -- if she had to -- as soon as her strength and coordination returned.
"I'd love to hear you explain mine as well, Maya of Moonbase Alpha, daughter of Mentor of Psychon, Tony's... well... if you get the picture."
She stopped backing up, and looked at him in shock and confusion and residual dizziness. Then, following Alan's eyes, Maya glanced back and realized there was another Alan behind her, lying on the ground, unconscious. Her attacker and her savior were two different copies of one man, though the one on the floor was younger than the Alan she knew.
Maya's defensive posture melted away. "Al... Alan?" she gasped, still trying to catch her breath.
"The one and only -- well I guess that isn't right anymore," he hastily amended, glancing at his counterpart lying unconscious on the floor. "Say, who's been teaching you those techniques anyway?" he asked, rubbing for a moment at his sore back, as she likewise rubbed at her neck, still trying to catch her breath and banish the residual dizziness.
"Oh, Alan, I'm sorry. I... didn't know it was you -- the you I know, I mean. I thought it was...." She let her sentence trail off, then added another. "Thank you, Alan," she said, kissing him briefly on the cheek.
"I'm sorry," Alan said, turning his face down and grimacing.
It was a strange response to her thanks. "For what? Saving my life?"
"Huh? Oh no, not that. I mean having to save it in the first place... from myself. I don't like what I saw."
Realizing what he was feeling, Maya approached again and put her hand on his arm, speaking in a quiet, comforting voice. "Alan, this was seven years ago. If you're worried about this being a reflection on you, don't. I can't hold this against you. Even if you're concerned, just remember this is the past, and people change. We're friends now, right?" she asked.
He made eye contact, and found a warm, concerned expression on her face and in her steady eyes. "Yeah, we sure are," he said, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Thanks, Maya. I needed that." After a moment, he let go of her shoulders and changed the subject. "What's up anyway? It looks as if we're in our own past, before Breakaway. What happened?"
"I have a pretty good idea; but first, what do we do about him?" she inquired, tilting her head towards the other Alan, lying supine on the floor.
"Probably find way of getting him back to his room without anyone else noticing," he replied briefly. His attention having been drawn right back to his doppelg馬ger, he grimaced, then asked Maya, "Why didn't you transform to break free?"
"Since arriving here, I've had problems with dizziness every time I revert from smaller animal forms."
"Because I have to... 'hide' a lot of mass, to put it simply. The smaller the animal, the harder it can be. This time, after reverting from a dove, I fainted. He found me, then attacked when he saw what I am. I couldn't transform."
"Why though? I don't get it. Is it anything like what happened to you around the space warp a few years back?"
"Perhaps. It may bend my... metabody... out of shape -- so to speak -- or affect my mind somehow."
"Can you transform now? Into someone human?" he then asked.
"Probably in a few minutes. Why?"
"It's the night cycle now. If we can get him back to his bed, he might wake up thinking you were a nightmare."
"A nightmare," she quietly said, noticing several possible interpretations.
"You know what I mean, Maya. He'll wake up in his own bed, under his own covers, in his own room, and think it's a dream. With any luck, he'll think his neck ache comes from sleeping wrong."
"Don't you ever wake up with a numb arm or something?"
"No. You do? I know humans turn over in their sleep. Don't you turn over enough?"
"I guess we don't," he said, wondering how she knew humans toss and turn in bed. "I take it Psychons are more restless in sleep?"
"Yes, I've been told that." She didn't explain what she meant by that, instead changing the subject back to the main concern. "Are you sure it will work?"
"Of course I know. He's me, after all," he said jauntily. Maya frowned. Alan continued, "I hate to ask, with dizziness and all, but you seem to think it's only animals."
"Hmm? Oh, yes, I've had no trouble transforming into people."
Alan realized she must have been here for some time -- hiding. He suppressed the urge to start questioning her, knowing something needed to be done about the younger Alan lying on the floor.
"Not many people are in the halls at this time. You could turn into someone else and carry him back. It would obviously be bad for me to be carrying myself around. The room isn't too far from here." He briefly outlined directions, then added, "If you're stopped, you could say Tony's beer got to me -- er, him."
A sharp smile came to her face. "I didn't know Tony was brewing this early."
"A little. It became an obsession while recovering from the severe injuries he sustained at Breakaway. I'm surprised he didn't turn into a drunkard."
"He probably could not stomach enough of it at any one time."
Alan laughed. "He probably doesn't mention it because he did get someone sick on it before Breakaway -- namely me."
She giggled softly. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Frankly, it slipped my mind. I think I wanted to forget it."
She giggled again. "Can't say I blame you." Then her expression turned more serious. "Are you sure we shouldn't be revealing our presence now, instead?"
"I was hoping we could find out a few things first, to make sure we understand exactly what situation we are in."
Maya nodded hesitantly, telling him that's what her thoughts had been, but that she was also concerned about waiting too long. In the end, they agreed to keep themselves hidden for a short while longer before making a move. There were still too many unanswered questions to be sure what of what kind of welcome they would receive by this base's denizens. "Not to mention my double's probably going to come to in a short time," Alan added.
Maya nodded, adding, "You probably shouldn't be so close to him either." Then her eyes focused on a distant point, as they usually did when she was going to transform. But she looked back to him, a question on her face.
"What about his clothes? I don't think it would be very convincing for him to wake up in day clothes rather than night clothes."
Maybe it was a lapse in his judgement, or maybe meeting and actually contacting his own doppelg馬ger was affecting him in odd ways, but he couldn't help baiting Maya, blurting out, "that's something you'll have to handle on your own." Alan had never realized Psychons blushed, until now. His smile widened. "What, can't handle it?" he recklessly joked.
Her blush deepened. "You've been hanging around Tony too long," she accused. "You're picking up his awful sense of humor."
Alan didn't believe for one moment that Maya found Tony's sense of humor 'awful,' but instead said, "Guess I've had one too many of his beers."
"You haven't drunk one in years, unless you've been hiding a habit."
"A habit?" he sputtered. "Oh no, not on your life -- or mine. And yeah, it's been years, but one is more than enough. The damage is permanent."
Maya laughed. "I agree. But aren't you the least bit embarrassed?"
"Oh, why should I be? It's not me, after all."
She looked at him with an accusing glance, but did not call to his attention the contradiction to his earlier statement about it not being him.
Alan felt a strange combination of giddiness and disappointed at having outmaneuvered this tricky pixie of a woman. He could certainly understand why Tony found her so fascinating. She had all the (sometimes exasperating) complexity of any other woman, with a playful, mischievous sense of humor, an exotic beauty, and an healthy dose of alien mystery. Quite a potent combination. No wonder so many men were infatuated with her, even after all these years of her concentrating her attentions on Tony.
But Maya recovered suddenly, and her comeback was devastating: "This will make quite a story: Alan, quite willing to bare himself to any woman who comes along. Even encourages them, he does. Hmm... I guess I'll have to improve the delivery a bit."
"It's good enough," he grumbled, in sheer embarrassment. Then, he abruptly realized something he had long forgotten, and felt worse. "Maya, I just realized that at that time, I sometimes just crawled right into bed while still in day clothes. Don't worry about it."
"Now you tell me," she said while still smiling -- seemingly oblivious to Alan's discomfort.
Alan hoped Tony wouldn't find out about his behavior. Jealousy was still a concept that Maya couldn't quite grasp. Apparently, they didn't fear straying or something. Alan had heard Mentor had a wife that had died early in Maya's childhood, and Maya's romantic interest was firmly fixed on Tony, so Alan knew they were monogamous, at least to that degree. Beyond that, he really didn't know, except that Maya's high spirits and light- hearted humor were apparently common on Psychon, so perhaps innocent flirtatiousness was acceptable there. Still, he didn't know, and besides, Alan had no idea how the sometimes hot-headed Tony could react.
Meanwhile, Maya had playfully transformed into a spitting image of his younger self, which was also smiling.
"Ah, Maya, I don't think it would be very good if someone were to stumble into three of me."
The sight of two copies of himself, one of them speaking in his own voice and using his own words, raised the hairs on the back of his neck and sent a chill down his spine. It reminded him forcefully about a fact he rarely thought about much more: Maya was an alien, and that alienness could still unnerve people, as friendly as she was. More than a few Alphans still found her intimidating at times, even after years on Alpha. She would probably scare the hell out of these earlier Alphans, he thought. He remembered his other self; the image of himself trying to choke the life out of Maya coming to the forefront of his mind, making him sick to his stomach. Yes, she could terrify even the good-natured, like himself.
The feeling quickly passed, and he abruptly found himself laughing about it: the sight of two more of him was simply too much to resist. Yep, you can bet that's why Maya did it.
The unconscious Alan regained consciousness, briefly looked around him, took in the sight of two of him standing above him, groaned, and fell back to unconsciousness.
Alan and Maya/Alan laughed for a moment more, before heeding the noise they were making.
Maya transformed directly from Alan to Sanderson, the strongest man she had ever known (from unfortunate personal experience), picked up Alan's unconscious counterpart, and carried him off.
When she was out of sight, he wiped his brow. You can't tangle with that woman, no matter what form she takes -- even her own. How does Tony get away with it?
He rubbed his head, trying to ease the sudden splitting headache he had.
On an Alpha some 2519 days further in the future from Alan and Maya, and along another, slightly different line of reality, John Koenig watched as Victor -- the "real" Victor -- vanished with a pained expression on his face. Maya was soon in obvious pain, and started collapsing.
It was so surprising that Tony, standing just behind her, only barely managed to realize what was happening in time to catch her. Then she vanished. No multi-colored flashes of light. No fade out. Not even a sound. One moment, he was holding her warm body; the next, his hands were flying up into the air as her weight vanished. He jerked back in surprise -- crying out her name -- and stared, somewhat wildly, at where she had just been standing. His hands were still up in the air, slowly tensing into claws and then fists. "What happened?" he shouted.
John felt light-headed. Helena instantly noticed, and helped him sit down.
"She was talking about someone jumping to the future," Alan said. "Perhaps a week or two ahead."
Tony had of course heard this, but it hadn't seemed so bad when it was a nebulous "someone." Now that it was Maya, he found the prospect intolerable.
John hardly heard anything as he felt himself drifting away. He shut his eyes hard and shook his head, attempting to clear it. He was genuinely surprised when it worked, for he abruptly felt fine. He opened his eyes -- and blinked at his reflection. When the reflection moved on its own, he almost shouted hysterically, as if suddenly thinking himself insane. He instinctively averted his eyes from the source of confusion, and looked around.
He was sitting at the same meeting table, in the same room, but all of the people had moved, and a few had vanished, replaced with others. He, Victor, Maya, Alibe, Paul were sitting at the meeting table. All of them were staring at him, mouths hanging open in shock, prompting him to look in front of himself again. Yes, he was sitting in front of him -- a complete copy of himself, staring at him with as much shock as the others. Now he knew what Victor must have felt like.
Finally, someone spoke.
"Commander?" Paul said, looking at him.
It didn't quite break through his shock: he merely mumbled an habitual "Yeah" as he looked around. He could not help but stare at the people, who all appeared years older. His own image had stark white hair, deep stress lines around the eyes, and furrows through his forehead. He turned away, finding it difficult to look at himself. Paul bore his age more gracefully, and Victor simply looked older. Maya's face just looked... different. She also had a very faint scar line on her neck, which surprised him, because he knew metamorphs didn't scar easily; but it seemed as if her throat had been slashed, albeit only shallowly.
"Who are you?" his counterpart finally demanded.
"Commander John Koenig of Moonbase Alpha," he replied, semi- automatically, his shock only now starting to lessen. "Seems I was the one who got caught in the time warp you predicted, Maya," he stated.
Maya's eyes widened, but she looked at his copy -- her Commander -- then at Victor, confused. Finally, she turned back to him. "Me?" she shrilled. "I never said anything about a time warp."
"Maybe it was years ago. I'm from Day 2517. You predicted someone would jump forward, but I know you didn't expect such a large jump, whatever it is."
"It's day 5034, double the day you listed. But I know I never said anything about time jumps."
"But I jumped," John protested.
Victor pointed out the obvious. "You're not the commander we know. He's right here."
Paul completed the thought. "But he can't have just jumped from the past, or our commander would have been missing all this time."
Then everything snapped into place, and the fuzz evaporated from his mind. Victor and Paul were right. The Victor he knew had gone back in time, leaving two copies for some period of time. If John had leaped forward, there would have been a gap where he didn't exist. Yet here was a version of himself, complete with aging -- and lots of it. The younger John had leapt forward, yet a copy had stayed firmly rooted in time, aging the years away.
"Then maybe this is a different reality altogether," John suggested, already familiar with the idea from hard experience. "Have you seen any evidence of tachyon fields, Maya?"
Maya looked startled at the question. She looked at her commander, who nodded. "Well, yes. I have. Victor pointed out some strange radiation fields, and I recognized it as indirect evidence of tachyons. I thought it was minor quantum swapping. I didn't imagine anything this major happening," she finished with a bit of awe in her voice.
As Maya talked, something nagged at the younger John. He looked at the others again, more closely. Again, they looked older, more gaunt and drawn. What more was there to say?
Then he looked at Maya again. She looked different, for sure. Her appearance had a tendency to slowly alter over time. The Maya he knew had called it "aging," but most of the other Alphans -- especially the men -- agreed she didn't really look older in a human sense, just different. Yet his discerning eyes could somehow see the age in her bearing. He couldn't sense the same zest and energy that the Maya he knew put into every little movement. He had never, ever, seen her like this. The irrepressible liveliness and spirit which so defined her were not as evident, not even in her eyes.
Tired, was the word that finally came to mind. When he looked at the others, it was suddenly clear to him. There was a weariness far beyond their years. He felt a sickening sensation deep within his bowels. Something was terribly wrong here.
Alan skulked around the newly-built section of this pre-Breakaway Alpha, waiting for Maya to return from her little mission to deliver this base's younger Alan to his quarters. He paced quietly, fighting a nasty headache that kept coming and going. When another Alphan woman walked into the section, he retreated around a corner. The woman called for him, "Alan? It's Maya." It took him a moment to understand she had chosen not to return as Sanderson for some reason. This time, he got a look at her face, and his heart did a back flip. It was the image of a woman he had once fallen deeply in love with on Alpha, Martha Williams. It had never worked out, and for awhile, her essentially unavoidable presence on Alpha had been painful.
On sight of him, she reverted, and both retreated to the room Maya had "borrowed." She must have noticed Alan's pained expression, for she asked what was wrong. He dismissed it lightly, not wanting to unnecessarily burden her. Maya filled Alan in about her foray. She didn't get very specific, only stating that she had successfully returned him and that a couple of people had questioned Maya/ Sanderson, but the excuse Alan had half-jokingly made up seemed to have worked, "though I still got rather odd looks," Maya added.
When Maya suddenly started swaying on her feet, Alan grabbed hold of the slim woman and helped her sit down on the edge of the bed. "Are you okay?" he demanded.
She did not respond at first, then said, "It's getting worse," with a hint of fear, one of the few times Alan had heard or seen that emotion in her. "The dizziness is now hitting me after being a human."
"Okay, take it easy. Just don't try to transform."
Her expression turned to downright misery, as if just told she had muscular dystrophy and wouldn't be able to walk anymore. He changed the subject, trying to pull Maya from her private misery.
"How did we get here in the first place? In the officer's meeting before we jumped here, you said someone would travel up to a week into the future, to balance Victor's traveling a few days into the past. But instead of one person thrown days into the future, there are two of us seven years in the past. What happened to the 'balanced transfer' idea?"
Maya rose off the bed and took a few steps, apparently having shed the faintness. "Oh, I'm sure it was a balanced transfer. The tachyon event was just far stronger than I had predicted. There are quite a few ways to balance it, but the most likely would involve a reflection of what happened to us and Victor. To balance Victor, someone still jumped a week ahead; and to balance us, two other people probably jumped years into the future."
"Oh, hell. That isn't good. But there was no such 'balance' when I, John, and Helena ended up in Fourteenth-Century Scotland."
"That was a different process, based on neutrinos. The balance was made in far subtler ways which I cannot really explain in simple terms."
Alan looked exasperated, to which Maya shrugged, saying, "It's a complicated universe."
Alan laughed, "Yeah, I know."
Her expression seemed to get more troubled, and Alan asked why.
Maya paced the quiet little room. "If it was that much stronger, Alphans could be strung out all over time. Maybe there are a few more here with us."
"No, I don't think so. When I arrived and discovered the situation, I changed my uniform to the old style, then mixed in a bit, trying to see if there were any others from my time. I got nothing but odd glances and comments about how haggard or stressed I look. The age difference, I guess. I never heard about anyone else who looked strange. Then I found you." Alan cringed at his phrasing, but Maya took no notice, and he simply continued. "I didn't know how they'd react to me -- and I guess they'd misunderstand you even more." Maya nodded her strong agreement to that point, rubbing at her neck.
She started discussing her activities for the past couple of days. "I've been around in the computer lab a bit to try and calculate the situation and get some scanner reports, but there were always too many people about, and I could get no more than a few minutes at a time. I've had more luck stealing food than computer time. I need hours of steady access to scanners, computers, and records -- to determine how we got here, and how to get back."
"Yeah. That'll probably be impossible though, at least in our current situation."
"So what do we do now, if I can't even reach the main computer?"
"Do you have any idea of how we can get back?"
"Ideas -- no more. I need Main Computer to get meaningful data."
"Are you sure?"
"Then we'll have to show ourselves."
Maya nodded tightly, chewing her lip slightly. Alan noticed it, and realized part of the reason: the hostile reaction of the other Alan made her doubt the wisdom of showing herself. She voiced the other part aloud: "I doubt they will let me at Main Computer, even if they accept me otherwise."
"Yeah... I don't know. There must be a way. We may have to be quick. Breakaway is tomorrow."
"Even that is uncertain."
"Why? Today is September 12th, 1999. Breakaway happened on the 13th."
"Yes; but in our history, Area One blew up on the 11th. Here, it blew up a day earlier -- the 10th, when we first arrived."
"Yeah, I heard that. What does it mean?"
"The energy levels were also much lower, despite the fact the whole dump exploded. It's as if something sapped the energy. I think it was us -- that the missing energy went to pulling us here."
"If Area One's explosion pulled us here, why didn't we materialize in Area One -- and die from vacuum exposure?"
"The Uncertainty Principle and chaotic interactions in the... slipstream vortices, I would call them."
"You mean we were lucky." Maya nodded, and Alan pursued another point, "This base is on Emergency Code Alpha One. We'll have to be delicate about revealing ourselves, or everything could get real ugly."
When Alan said nothing further, Maya impatiently piped up, "But how?"
"Give me time to think. Better yet, let's catch some sleep."
"Yes. I haven't sleep more than two hours in the last forty-four, since I got here."
"Forty-four? I arrived fifty-three. Did you fall unconscious?"
"No. I was standing in the meeting room, when it suddenly turned into a clothes closet. I never lost my footing, so I couldn't have been unconscious."
"That's very interesting. A trans-temporal differential. But it should only occur--"
"Maya, you can think about it later. I doubt you've gotten any sleep, and you've been claiming problems with dizziness. Hell, you fainted already. Now sleep, and that's an order."
"Why is everyone ordering me to sleep?" she complained.
Alan smiled. "Because you haven't been doing it yourself. I need you to be your usually alert and lucid self, unimpaired by whatever this dizziness is that you're suffering. You don't take to time warps much better than space warps, do you?"
She shook her head miserably. "At least I'm not turning into raving monsters this time."
Thank God for that, Alan thought. They'd probably have killed you by now.
"What happened to this base?" John asked these older versions of his officers -- and himself.
The other John Koenig -- the commander of this Alpha -- answered, though he continued to avoid his doppelg馬ger's eyes. Neither wanted to look at the other. "It hasn't been easy," he said. "There have been many devastating attacks, starting with the Dorcons. We've never been able to properly repair the base. We're down to two Eagles and one landing pad. Alpha has sustained cumulative damage in life support systems which will render this base uninhabitable within the year, even if we find supplies. If we don't- -" The last words were abruptly choked off.
"And the people?"
The commander did not respond, so Alibe filled in. "Down to 116."
He looked at Alibe in sick shock. "116?" Alibe nodded sadly.
"Helena?" he asked weakly, trying to pull the name past a constricted throat.
That pulled a pained glance from his older counterpart; and, for a brief moment, they made eye contact.
"My wife. Dead. Four years ago."
"Victor, what the hell is going on around here?" The commander paced around his office adjoining Main Mission, as Victor leaned against a wall.
"Well, I'm not sure yet. This magnetic effect was not predicted by any of our science."
"No, that's not all I'm talking about. Ever since the magnetic storm, we've had people seeing mice in their work areas, birds in the hallway, strange commlock communications from someone calling herself 'Maya,' a door to a closed room yanked open from the inside, and a report of Sanderson carrying an unconscious Alan through the hallways -- which we've discounted, because Sanderson is at Remote Station Seven. Plus Alan himself looking so haggard and asking strange questions; then showing up somewhere else, completely normal -- almost like there are two Alans," he said in frustration, though he never considered the last idea literally.
Victor scratched at his balding pate, then glanced back to John. "I hadn't really put them all in one statement, but it now seems too much for simple coincidence."
"Exactly! I mean, it was already strange enough that people are dying up here, but now we get this garbage. And I don't think it's the disease, since it always appears suddenly, disabling the victim within minutes. This is more like stretched-out hallucinations, especially the Sanderson part."
"But the damaged door isn't an hallucination," Victor pointed out.
"Yeah.... So many strange things at once. It's obviously all tied together. There is something more about those magnetic disturbances -- something we're missing. They must be causing all of this."
"I can't see how all of it is directly caused by magnetic disturbances. The dumps are scattered in various locations of the Far Side, thousands of kilometers away. Some of these incidents are being reported by people who haven't been in an Eagle for months. Certainly not to any of the dumps."
"Are you saying something else is causing the incidents here?"
"I don't know. The magnetic disturbances are a new phenomenon; and I really don't understand it."
"So it may be affecting us, at this great distance?" John was frightened about the possibility.
The professor only shook his head slowly, with uncertainty.
"If it could be affecting us here, we've got to step up the medical effort," John said. "Hey, wait a minute. It seems to me Alan was rubbing at his neck, like he got hit."
"By a copy of Sanderson, maybe?" Victor said, humor in his voice.
John didn't smile. "You know what worries me?" He didn't wait for a response. "It worries me that I'm not dismissing your crazy idea."
While Koenig and Bergman talked in the commander's office in the late "evening" hours, Alan sought out the company of the remaining astronauts, who were in one of the lounges, as they were every night at this time -- good or bad, it seemed. Tonight, however, the conversation was stilted, broken by long and awkward silences. They could not set aside thoughts of their dead and dying friends, the jeopardized Meta probe, and the mysterious magnetic storm in Area One.
Besides having a headache that had came and went throughout the day -- and had now returned -- Alan's mood further soured when the others brought up their stupid joke about him looking a little older and confused. His mind refused to contemplate the possibility he had the same illness which had sickened some astronauts, so he didn't know why his friends were indulging in such cryptic behavior, and found their few tries at lightheartedness to be tiresome. Alan's sense of humor was absent, an unusual fact he scarcely noticed.
As soon as he politely could, he left the lounge. As he walked the halls, bits of his strange dream drifted to the surface. An alien in a darkened hallway? Some ugly violence. Not from the... female; but from himself. His own sore neck when waking up. He had slept funny, and some of the fearful things happening on Alpha had manifested themselves in a dream. Its meaning evaded him, however. He was not prone to dream analysis, so he dropped those thoughts without the slightest care when he reached his own quarters.
Walking in, he discovered life was far stranger than his dream. Another man was in his room, getting up to face him -- with his own face. A duplicate. A few years older, but definitely himself. He backed away from the apparition with a primal fear so overwhelming he didn't even think of using his commlock to open the door or call for help.
"Take it easy, mate," the slightly aged apparition said.
Somehow, those words made the fear fade into mere confusion, which he quickly put into words. "What are you? Where do you come from?" Alan asked, again wondering if he was being affected by the mysterious disease spreading through the ranks of the pilots.
"I'm you, from the future of a parallel reality which is very similar to this one. I need your help."
"My wife. Dead. Four years ago." The words seemed to echo in the small meeting room, and before John could frame a tactful question about it, the older, weary commander got up and left, having found the subject -- and the company -- very difficult. With only a moment's hesitation, Maya followed, and the younger John observed the concern evident on her face.
Victor was the first to speak. "Paul, Alibe; could you please excuse us?"
"I'm not sure we should leave you alone. We don't really know for sure who this is."
John spoke up. "I understand their feelings. We went through this with your copy on our base."
Your copy. The words startled him, but he set his questions aside for a moment. "Very well," he said, drawing John over to a corner of the room. Victor softly spoke to the other, who seemed so affected by the pronouncement that Helena was dead.
"She and Tony were the officers on a mission to study a planet. They had been scheduled to go along with three others: Fraser, Paul, and Eddie Collins. But Helena had an emergency surgery to perform, and it was decided to split the mission between two Eagles, with the other three to go first, and Tony and Helena to follow two hours later. Ten minutes after leaving Alpha, the second Eagle went through a series of distortions, then... exploded." He paused, the memory still weighty on his soul. "It was completely vaporized. No cause was ever found."
"And it hit him pretty hard," John realized in total empathy, having seen another Helena die. The oft-mentioned Santa Maria incident had to be mentioned again.
They wandered back towards the others, as John continued speaking to Victor -- the third version of the professor he had seen in an hour. "I should be kept apart from my doppelg馬ger. Helena died when she met one of her copies, and though our two Victors didn't have the same problem, there's nothing saying we won't."
"I know the first incident you are referring to, and agree with your idea. Maybe that's why he fled. Not necessarily the memory, as some true discomfort. I'll pass it on. It is interesting we share that incident. I wonder how far the commonalities extend."
"Does it matter?" Paul asked.
"Perhaps," Victor said, then looked at John again. "It seems you understood some aspect of this problem, and were discussing it with your version of Maya. You, her, and I will have to discuss it later. It would save a lot of time if we knew what to look for. First, I think you should visit Medical Center. I hope you understand that we'll want to look you over."
"Completely. Like I said, we had a duplicate of you on our base, and I gave the same order. And yes, I agree we should talk with Maya. The Maya I knew underestimated the severity of the problem. She only expected one person to jump about a week ahead, to balance our Victor's jumping a week back in time."
John and Victor left the meeting room together, and were escorted by a guard whom Paul had called upon. John made no comment about it. Paul and Alibe returned to Command Center.
Something about John's statement struck Victor, and he told the younger man. "Balanced transfer? If true, some of your other personnel had to have jumped years in the past."
John groaned. Dammit to hell, I think he's right. I hope Helena's not involved in it.
Helena was very involved, wandering down the musty hallways of a deathly quiet base, towards its core, in which direction the air seemed to be getting fresher, though not any warmer. Attempts to raise someone on the commlock resulted in refusal beeps, as if the system had been reprogrammed -- or perhaps because everyone was dead. Fortunately, she had seen no bodies -- so far.
There were whole stretches of unlit corridor, followed by sections where she could turn the lights up to quarter power. She was startled to find an emergency bulkhead cutting off the corridor. It partially explained the stale air: this section had been cut off for some reason, which actually made it surprising there was any heat or oxygen at all. She had checked many of the rooms near where she had awakened, but found nobody, and no bodies either, so she had quit looking. Now, faced by the unmoving bulkhead, she looked in the neighboring rooms, whose doors were entirely missing.
The first was empty, but the second was more interesting. Except for a twisted framework of metal, one entire wall had been blasted away, chunks of which littered the floor. The opening provided a way around the bulkhead in the neighboring hallway, and explained the presence of some warmth and oxygen in the cut-off section. The hole opened into another room -- a laboratory -- which was a scene of complete chaos. All of the equipment was in broken pieces on the floor; sturdy tables had been shattered or twisted about; more holes of various sizes were punched through all the walls; and burn marks were everywhere. It was a chilling scene, thankfully incomplete for the lack of bodies. She approached the door, but found it bent out of shape and unable to open. She had to climb through one of the other holes into yet another room.
This one was starkly empty, preventing her from ascertaining its original purpose. Its door had been bent and torn open, and she could feel the rush of air that was deliciously warm and fresh in contrast to what she had been breathing. Stepping through, she found a relatively normal hallway. Lighting was still lower than usual, but it was otherwise well-kept.
The dread in the pit of her stomach started fading, for she could feel life in this area.
She started running, and ran into someone turning the corner.
Strong arms grabbed a hold of her, and Helena instinctively guessed who it was. "John!" she blurted before she had even looked at his face. The man's arms stiffened, causing her to look up. She gasped in shock at the sight. His face was more wrinkled than she knew. His eyes were confused and sad. And his hair! Almost completely white. "John?" she gasped, confused. She reached up to touch his face; but he drew back slightly, pain and confusion filling his eyes.
I jumped here, and never returned to my time. He's been alone for all this time. As if sensing her thoughts, he shook his head.
"No, you're not the Helena I knew. She died four years ago, and she never time-traveled."
Helena's heart seemed to skip a beat, both about the time-span, and...
Another copy, dead? It was a chillingly sinister pattern in her life.
Sometime after Alpha's midnight -- which had heralded a new day: Monday, September 13, 1999 -- Commander Koenig found himself staring at two Alans, one of which seemed a few years older than the one he knew. When he finally had the presence of mind to close his gaping mouth, he promptly picked up his commlock to call his friend Victor.
The older Alan had to give the commander credit for his relative calm at being confronted with the near incomprehensible. He hoped Koenig -- and the others -- could handle one of the other aspects of deep space as well: aliens, or at least a single alien, namely Maya. His idea had been to go first -- "test the waters" to see the reaction of this base's commander personnel to him, a duplicate, before revealing the presence of Maya, an alien. Plus, the plan had the advantage of keeping Maya hidden for awhile longer. In case something went wrong, she could take action; though neither could come to concrete conclusions on what such actions might be.
Maya had been visibly disturbed about the idea of Alan coming into further contact with his duplicate. He told her that being around his younger copy for over five minutes hadn't affected him. "Yet," Maya had said. He didn't mention the headaches, which didn't seem to follow any pattern. He said he didn't feel any sort of shock, and it would help for both Alans to present themselves, to put down doubts quickly. "If your doppelg馬ger doesn't attack you," Maya had said.
Yet, here they both were, in front of the commander and now the professor as well.
"So what do you think, Victor?" John asked ten minutes later, taking Victor aside to the far corner of his spacious office after Alan recounted his story. It had been quite a tale, starting with a disaster he referred to -- rather plainly in John's opinion -- as "Breakaway," then jumped years to the appearance of a duplicate Victor, including the duplicate Victor on his base, and something about tachyon storms. Yet, he also seemed to be holding parts of the story back.
"His apparent age lends credence to his story that he comes from the future," Victor whispered.
"Yeah, but is it all believable? Is this really Alan? Is he telling the truth?" John said.
"Well, I'll have to think a bit about the story, and see if sensors picked up anything which could account for this; but I can suggest you bring Doctor Russell in to check the identity."
Koenig followed the recommendation, ordering her to bring some medical equipment.
Russell didn't take long to arrive. She was all business, but her coolness fell aside for a moment as she took in the sight of two somewhat dissimilar Alans. Her head flipped from one to the other for a few moments; before she turned a surprisingly calm, inquiring glance to the commander.
He looked tense. "Claims to come from the future, where the Moon has been blasted from Earth orbit and into deep space by a massive explosion on the Far Side, at Nuclear Disposal Area Two."
Helena's eyes widened, realizing the obvious similarity to the fact Area One had undergone a mysterious magnetic storm, and wondering if they could avert the rather terrifying possibility just mentioned. Then she was all business again, pulling out what few pieces of equipment could help her at the moment -- when he had called her, Koenig had been frustratingly vague as to the problem -- and started scanning the older Alan, using the younger for a baseline.
The commander turned to the doctor and said, "Doctor Russell?"
Alan had to repress a smile. I haven't heard them so formal with each other since... Breakaway.
"Well, he's human."
"That's not saying much," Koenig snapped at the medical officer. "Is he Alan?"
"I can't tell without further testing in Medical Center," Helena said, almost visibly chilling the air in Koenig's office.
They all went, except for this base's younger Alan, who was told to stay behind for ten minutes, then follow. Helena wanted to run comparison tests, which required the presence of both Carters. By two-thirty in the "morning," some of the test data had been analyzed. All seemed to verify the identity of the copy as Alan Carter.
"Okay, I'll accept that conclusion for now," John said. He turned to the older Alan. "So how do we get you back to where -- when -- you belong?"
"You're not going to detain me here, and try to prevent my return?"
John's insulted look told Alan what he needed to know, but was happy to hear the words anyway. "No restrictions. I have a feeling it would be better to get you away from here, and your copy."
"Wouldn't there be some people wanting to detain me anyway?"
"Well, yes--" Koenig started, but never finished. The person he had been thinking of took that moment to enter. Commissioner Simmonds -- who had somehow found out about some strange activity among the command personnel -- had tracked them to Medical. "John--" he stopped abruptly, realizing there were two Alan Carters in the room. He stood still for a second, his mouth still open from the sentence he had started. Then motion began again. His voice rang out, demanding explanations.
They told him what Alan had told the others; but it wasn't enough for Simmonds, who circled the room like a hungry shark, prowling. Impatient with the incompleteness of the reports, he went over Koenig's head and called Morrow and Verdeschi in. After that, it turned into a one-man feeding frenzy, with Simmonds demanding to know everything that occurred. Like the others, the commissioner wanted answers, but unlike the others, he went after them in an almost vicious manner. He put people down whenever they didn't remember certain things which had gone unnoticed or had seemed trivial at the time. He criticized them all for perceived misjudgments, whether accurate or not. He understandably railed on them for assuming the "Maya" in the storage room was a joke, but tore hard into Verdeschi for "sloppy work" in calling aloud to the presumed jokester, at the cost of warning away the intruder. He criticized Helena for not running more tests. He threatened Victor with dismissal if he did not solve the mystery of Area One's firestorm, as if a new phenomenon in physics could be explained in two days. He railed on Koenig for being so accepting of the duplicate, and took a misguided jab at Paul for not having found 'Maya' or used cameras in the hallways.
When John stated the supposed 'Maya' had not stolen anything from the storage room, Simmonds ordered Morrow to go over the inventory again. When Koenig tried to intervene, to bring some sanity back to the meeting, he was shouted down by an irate Simmonds for trying to lessen the problem and inappropriately shield his officers.
It was a zoo, and the time-traveling Alan could only cringe. Simmonds had somehow brought out the worst of them, and he realized it would be a terrible mistake to reveal Maya now. With Simmonds' paranoia running rampant, he would be likely go right over Koenig's head to order Maya hunted down and killed. The fact Alan could not dismiss such a ludicrous thought made him decide not to reveal the Psychon's presence. Damn Simmonds, anyway. He's making the problem much worse than it already is.
Eventually, Simmonds stormed out of the room, demanding his orders -- what few concrete instructions there had been -- be carried out immediately. "I had better see some results, and soon!" he shouted as he left the room, giving the two Alans a nasty, almost hateful look, then shouting, "and keep the... duplicate under strict guard at all times. I'm going to find out what progress has been made with the nuclear dump situation; and I'll have to send a communiquè about all of this."
It had become a parody of a meeting, and Simmonds had become a caricature of himself.
"What the hell was that?" the younger Alan asked, feeling he had been in the presence of a typhoon.
"Trouble," the commander said.
Helena walked next to the aged commander, glancing all about her as they headed towards the Command Center. Surprised faces stared after her the whole way, but no one seemed to take further interest. The people seemed terribly withdrawn, almost as if it were an extended form of shell shock, like in Earth's wars. Being attacked constantly, seeing friends die, with little hope for the future -- and little food, to judge by these thinner ranks of Alphans. From what she had seen in the outer section, this base had undergone at least one, and possibly several, devastating attacks, including at least one invasion, as evidenced by some of the damage she had seen.
Day 5035, he had at last said in response to her questions. Only -- only? -- seven years removed from her own time, and yet John had appeared to age twenty years. The others she saw also looked much older, though even Helena found it hard to decide if it was physical age, or just they way they bore themselves as defeated, almost hopeless individuals.
He had no interest in talking; and despite the number of questions racing through her mind, she found it nearly impossible to break the silence as she followed him towards Command Center.
A rich, female voice sounded behind them. "There you are," Maya called out. Helena and John started turning towards the voice. "I've been looking all over for--" she stopped abruptly on the sight of Helena. Maya's eyes widened, and she tentatively approached, a look of probing curiosity -- and maybe something else too? -- on her face. She looked at John too, as if checking on him, and Helena started wondering about.... "When do you come from?" the science officer asked, interrupting Helena's thoughts.
Helena realized that Maya had apparently guess there was some form of time-travel involved. She answered Maya's question, saying, "Day 2517."
"That's what the other John Koenig said."
"Other John?" Helena cried excitedly. No, it couldn't be. Did he jump too?
"I think they were going down to Medical."
The commander looked a bit upset at Maya for giving so much information; but said nothing, apparently deciding no harm had been done. "Okay. Let's go there."
The "other John Koenig" that Maya had referred to looked just like hers, and she rushed to him and embraced briefly, before pulling back, suddenly uncertain. "Are we really sure..."
"... we're from the same reality?" he completed. "Do you remember a duplicate Victor?" She nodded. A short series of questions -- a few of them whispered -- followed. Finally satisfied, they smiled in gratitude that the time displacement had flung them both to the same time.
The older commander found the scene extremely disturbing, and abruptly departed. Maya was torn between following and staying behind to find out more, since she had already missed some information from the first questioning of the other Koenig in trying to find her -- but she sighed and followed after John. Helena and the younger John watched Maya depart, then turned back to each other for a moment, finally turning to Victor for answers.
"What happened to this base?" Helena asked.
Victor gave some horrifying details. John listened intently as well, having only gotten a blanket statement earlier.
"We were attacked by a race called Dorcons--" Victor started.
"Us too," Helena gently cut in.
"We never quite recovered from that when another race attacked, this time even more viciously. They stole our entire supply of grain seed which was to be used for Planetfall."
Victor nodded. "We tried to defend ourselves, but had little success. They didn't damage much of the physical base, but dealt morale a terrible blow. Our future food grains were stolen from us. We will no longer be able to grow Earth food on any planet we settle on -- so we must have a world with a sufficient quantity of edible food. The Compatibility Index must be that much higher."
"Then?" John prompted when Victor slowed down.
"Then... we were attacked by the Zalkers."
"Stalkers?" John said.
"No. Zalkers -- though some people call them Stalkers. We never found out their real name; "zalker" was just a word they kept using. Ten well-armed thugs descended on us like a gang of bored kids with time -- and people -- to kill. They had force fields around their bodies, and went through the base shooting everything up. Consoles, Eagles, rooms, and... people."
"You've got to be kidding," John stated in horror. "That's what did this? It's horrifyingly ridiculous!"
"Ridiculous, maybe. Real, yes. They looked like human adults, but seemed to have no human feelings at all."
"How did you get rid of them?"
"We didn't. Their body fields were impenetrable, and they wore portable supplies of air, so we could not poison the air. They didn't fall into any of our traps. Well, they did, but destroyed them. Then they left, apparently satisfied with whatever they were doing."
As one, John and Helena shook their heads slowly in horror at the sheer stupid callousness of the enemy.
"They were hunting intelligent beings; but took no notice of our attempts to communicate. They didn't give a second thought to killing us. The more creative the destruction the better. I think they had a contest regarding how bizarrely each could wreck the doors -- not to mention the whole base."
"By the time they left, they had killed ninety-three people, including Alan, Sandra, Kano, Vincent, Reilly. I think what hit morale hardest was how totally senseless and useless the deaths were. It's not like we were attacked because we were a threat, or carried a disease, or accidentally insulted their bathroom janitor." John and Helena could hear the bitterness that ran deep. Even Victor now had a cynical and bitingly ironic way of stating things.
"But this..." Victor continued. "These people just attacked us because we were there, because they wanted to have fun. Do you understand the difference?"
The other two nodded their heads, faces pale in horror as Victor continued the grim tale.
"They also destroyed all but one pad and four Eagles, and damaged virtually every system in the base. That was about three years ago, a year after Helena and Tony were killed. We were devastated, and have been dying ever since. We abandoned parts of Alpha. Systems still fail: we've lost people in airlocks; under the care of medical equipment that falters; in a fire when a piece of equipment exploded. Twenty-one more have died in that manner.
"One Eagle was stolen by some insanely desperate renegades who later crashed the Eagle on the Moon, killing themselves; another was destroyed during a mission to a planet. Another had a fire that killed the few Eagle technicians who had remained. The Eagle was still usable, at only half normal capacity. That one, and the only other remaining Eagle, have since suffered breakdowns we can't always repair completely, and they're only at a one-third and two-thirds normal capacity, each. The best we've been able to do is settle fifty-three people on two separate, marginal planets, because we simply can't move everyone fast enough with such damaged equipment. We're down to 116 people now. Everything is breaking down including food production capacity and Life Support. We've been forced to cannibalize from other parts of the base, since we can no longer create many of the needed components. I predict we won't last beyond another three months.
"It's been harrowing. Morale has been completely destroyed, and even simple, thoughtless hope is hard to find anymore."
At four in the morning, September 13, 1999, the group in Medical Center was still talking. Paul had left to check on the status of the dumps, especially in light of Alan's dire prediction. Tony had remained as security officer. Simmonds had not reappeared. He was probably busy demanding results from technicians he had undoubtedly roused from bed. Either that, or he was talking to Earth. Simmonds had a talent of making situations very sticky in a short time.
"This duplication phenomenon could also explain the mice and birds," Victor was saying.
Koenig noticed the older Alan's sharp glance, and wondered what it meant.
"And Sanderson," Paul added.
"And Ouma and Kano's strange comings and goings around here."
"But what about 'Maya?' " Tony asked.
The older Alan gave a startled glance. It was subtle, and he clamped down on it quickly, but John had seen it. "So there is a Maya," he said. Alan said nothing, and seemed wary and defensive, perhaps from the sour atmosphere Simmonds had created. But Koenig had to know, so he pressed on.
"She must have been the one who pulled open the storage door," John speculated. He had to give the others credit for remaining silent at this point as he tried to draw out the older Alan, who only seemed to adopt a poker-face, acting as if he were merely listening to a discussion about someone he didn't know. Koenig wasn't fooled. "The panels were intact, except for some short-circuiting while the door was forcibly opened. Yet there is no evidence of machinery being used. This Maya must be incredibly strong." He paused, noting the indecisive look on Alan's face, then continued, "Which either means Earth manages to develop superhumans in a few years, or there is an alien here."
That earned him stunned glances from everyone present. The oddest glance, however, was not from the Alan copy, but the "real" Alan. "Carter," he said, looking in the eyes of the younger Alan, "I think you have something to say."
Alan was silent for a second before speaking. "I thought it was a dream, but I saw an alien woman."
"Why did you think it was a dream?" Doctor Russell asked.
"I woke up in bed and had a sore neck; but I thought it was because I had cricked at an odd angle, and that I simply had a nightmare. But now...."
"How did you react?" Russell asked.
Carter looked at the floor, a sheepish expression on his face.
"You didn't hurt her?" the professor asked in horror, suddenly -- desperately -- wanting to meet the alien.
"Well, I didn't kill her. Ahh..." he paused, realizing it had not been the most brilliant phrasing. He made no attempt at excuses. "I guess I kind of... attacked her. Nearly... choked her," he said in an almost sympathetically strangled voice.
Helena's features grimaced. "Why?"
Alan described the incident. He was red-faced, ashamed at his violence and remorseful he had simply attacked the woman, without giving her a chance to explain herself.
"Okay.... What happened in the end?" John asked.
"I woke up in my bed, with a terrible ache in my neck, not to mention a headache. The memories were fuzzy, incomplete, and bizarre, like a dream. That's what I thought it was."
"Did someone hit you? Was it your duplicate?" Tony queried.
Alan's face tightened in concentration, then unexpectedly broke into a smile. "I think I had to be definitely dreaming at one point, because when I opened my eyes, I was on the floor, and there were two of me, talking to each other."
At this, John turned sharply to the other, older-looking Alan, silent now for several minutes. "Is there another of you on the base?"
Alan shrugged. "There's no other Alan on the base, that I know of."
The response sounded honest to John, but he still had the feeling it hid something.
"You're trying to hide a female alien named Maya. Why? Did she have something to do with the Area One disaster, or the other odd stuff happening on the base?" When Alan remained silent, John upped the ante. "I'm convinced she's here. I know Simmonds did not put on the best show, but I'm willing to listen to her case, and maybe help her if I can. Otherwise, I can start assuming the worst about both of you -- including the possibility you somehow caused the Area One storm. Your choice."
Carter, already tired, already suffering from headaches, suddenly felt exhausted.
On Day 2517 of another reality, Paul Morrow finally reached the meeting he had been called to, having been awakened five minutes before. He had drunk a glass of water, thrown on a uniform (a shower would have to wait), washed his face, and ran down the corridors, trying to comb his hair. When he entered, he blinked in surprise. Hadn't he just seen John when the door first opened? But there was no John. Instead, Helena was staring in shock at the location where Paul thought he had seen him. What the...? Victor and Maya were not present. A second later, neither was Helena. Only Tony remained, but before Paul could act, Verdeschi also vanished, leaving the room otherwise empty, except for Morrow, who quickly vacated it.
He got only three steps into the hallway before a powerful, high- frequency sound struck his head. He covered his ears, but it didn't help. He made eye contact with a woman in the hall; and it took him long moments to realize she wasn't hearing the sound: for she wasn't covering his ears, merely looking at him with a puzzled expression.
Lena went up to a communications pylon to call Medical, but before she could press the button, something happened out of the corner of her eye. Turning back, she found the officer was gone. How did he move so quickly? She turned back to the pylon to report it, but Professor Bergman was running towards -- and then past -- her and into the meeting room. He quickly re-emerged and asked what Lena had seen. She told him about Morrow walking out and suddenly stopping in pain.
"Where did he go?"
"I don't know. I turned my back on him for a second, and he was gone. I don't know how he could have run so quickly."
The true scope of the situation was quickly discovered. When Victor had jumped towards the past, five officers had also disappeared. Lena was asked twice more what she saw. When it was all done, she returned to her quarters. She had work to do, but she suddenly felt ill.
For the fifth time, Tony felt the urge to argue the Commander's decision that only one of them -- Tony himself -- should carry a weapon. For the third time, he swallowed the urge. Koenig didn't want to frighten the alien -- but in Tony's opinion, anyone who could single-handedly force open a heavy storage room door could easily kill them all.
They reached the end of the corridor in the new section of Alpha, and the older Alan started calling out. "Come on, Maya, you can show yourself."
"Show myself?" an accented, hesitant female voice sounded.
Something about this little conversation struck John as odd, but he couldn't place his finger on it.
From around a corner stepped a tall, slim woman with abundant auburn hair framing a face with several distinctly alien -- yet not unattractive -- features.
She approached slowly, with her hands in plain view, trying to demonstrate peaceful intent. Even so, Tony fingered his stun gun.
John could not help but think: Years of fruitless searching for extraterrestrial signals, then we get the Meta signals, and now we find an alien wandering our own hallways. "Are you from Meta?" he asked aloud.
She shook her head and said no, it was a planet called Psychon, thousands of light-years distant.
"Thousands of light-years?"
She told them of Breakaway and the Moon's strange form of faster-than- light travel, backing up Alan's story in the process. She told them only the tiniest bit about their encounter with Psychon, saying the planet had undergone a cataclysm, and that the Alphans had welcomed her. Maya noticed their eyes on her uniform, and their apparent fascination with her ID badge, both of which seemed to indicate her status as a member of the base, even though the uniform style -- especially the dress -- was a deviation from the unisex style being used here -- now. All, especially the men, gave her body at least a glance, noticing how human she appeared, other than the few facial differences. Tony in particular looked Maya up and down a few times, and realized something more: "You don't look strong enough to have ripped open a storage door."
Maya knew she could not get away denying the charge, of having ripped the door, for long; but she could at least hide the method she had used to do it. No sense frightening them more than they would be. "Looks--" she started.
"Can be deceiving," John interrupted, completing her sentence. "Yes, I know the clicheﾈ; but I don't believe it this time. You had better come clean pretty quickly, or I'm not going to be able to trust you at all. It already appears suspicious that you and this 'other Alan' arrived at the same time as the Area One storm."
She looked at her friend Alan, but he only shrugged slightly, saying the ball was in her court. He trusted the others well enough, but the decision was hers.
She sighed, then nodded. "I'm what your counterparts call a metamorph."
"Metamorph?" Tony asked.
But Helena, fluent in Latin roots and their synonyms, instantly put the meaning together -- in disbelief. "Multiform? You mean you can transform yourself into other lifeforms?"
"That's ridiculous!" Paul immediately exclaimed.
"We don't know everything about the universe," Victor chided, though he found it difficult to believe as well, since it would violate some of what he did know about the universe. Then again, the magnetic storm at Area One had already done the same thing a number of hours before.
"But how?" the younger Alan asked.
John cut through all the chatter with a practical question: "Can you show us?"
Maya looked uncomfortable.
"I don't mean to be rude," John said, wondering about protocol, "but--"
"I usually don't mind; it's just that I've had trouble with dizziness every time I've tried transforming since getting here. I also fainted once. I would prefer not to transform."
Everyone was disappointed except Tony, who looked relieved.
John brought up a point. "I've seen speculation about the possibility of time travel affecting the past in deleterious ways, and am wondering why you show yourselves at all.".
"I have reason to believe this isn't even the same reality," Maya stated. "There were already subtle differences between our base and yours. Another difference is how Area One detonated one day early, and released only 40% of its energy."
"How would you be able to verify this and find how to get back?" Victor asked.
"Checking detailed sensor readings and carrying out some rather complex calculations," Maya said.
"Like the ones you've already been carrying out," Koenig realized aloud.
A nervous expression came to her face. "Commander, I'm sorry. I just was afra--"
"I understand your reasons," the commander said, and Maya relaxed a bit.
"Well, I sure don't understand," the younger Alan said.
"The birds and the mice," Tony jumped in. "They were you, right?" Maya nodded nervously. "So you've been in the computer area and the cafeteria, presumably to do clandestine work on our computers and to sneak some food, and were forced to flee in another form." He and the commander had both drawn the same conclusions from her admission of a startling and previously unheard-of ability.
"Commander," the older Alan broke in. "We both agreed we shouldn't reveal ourselves until we knew what was going on. We weren't even sure how you'd react to me, much less her. We couldn't even be sure this whole crazy situation wasn't some sort of sophisticated deception."
"Deception?" Helena asked.
"It's happened before in deep space," Alan said.
"Several times," the alien confirmed.
The others shivered a bit, realizing there were dangers they could hardly imagine.
"We need to get back to our home, and we need your help," Maya said. Alan nodded agreement.
Home. They called Alpha home. Scary thought.
In Victor's research lab, Maya was wading through heavy equations, using sensor readings Victor was obtaining. The boards were filled with equations, some written in recognizable mathematical symbols, others in a unrecognizable script. Right now, she and Victor were staring at some of the recognizable symbols.
Alan had slept in a corner of the room for many hours. Both Maya and Victor had became concerned when he had awoke, for he looked terribly haggard. He finally revealed his trouble with headaches. Maya's brow furrowed, now deeply concerned, and said "We must get you away from your doppelg馬ger as soon as possible."
The had called Doctor Russell to check on him, but he seemed okay otherwise. Helena had left, and Carter now lounged about, watching Maya and Bergman work on computers and fill boards with equations, and getting bored by it all.
Instead, Alan thought over what had happened. This base's commander had spirited Maya into Victor's lab during the early morning hours. No one simply entered Victor's lab without a commcall, so they would have warning if anyone wanted to enter, enough time to hide Maya and/or the Alan copy in closets ("Seems damn undignified to hide the first alien we meet in a closet," Victor had muttered). Alan was surprised John had taken this risky approach, which would probably end in his dismissal from Alpha if Simmonds ever got wind of it -- which seemed very likely. Koenig must have realized that things had become touchy on the Moon and Earth after the magnetic storm and Koenig's declaration of Emergency Code Alpha One, and an alien found on the Moon would be greeted with even greater suspicion. Also, few answers would be found if Simmonds started throwing his weight around. Koenig's own officers had as much told him that he was putting an end to his career. Why did he trust a strange copy of another man, and an alien? Carter wasn't sure. Koenig had always had a strong sense of situations, but the pilot couldn't guess what the commander was thinking of here. Well, I'm not going to worry about that.
"I don't understand this," Maya said. Now that's a reason to be concerned, Alan thought after Maya's statement drew him back to the present.
"An imbalance?" Victor said, puzzled.
"The temporal asymmetry seems sensible, but why the mass imbalance? Why so much mass?"
"It would make you fall considerably short of your time and reality."
"Huh?" Alan grunted.
"It seems that in temporal distortions, the more mass, the less time traveled."
"Well--" Maya started.
"I know, I know," Victor said. "It's a simplification. Just give me a bit to catch up."
"You're doing an admirable job, Professor."
"That's quite a compliment," he said, taking the chance to look at the Psychon again. All his life, he had thought and dreamt of the possibility of alien intelligence, and here it was, sitting on a chair next to him -- and complementing him, of all things. If only he could have the chance to talk to her about... well, everything, he thought. He decided it was a selfish thought in the face of her -- and this older Carter's -- needs.
"What Victor said seems sensible," Alan said.
"It's one of the few things in this field that is," Victor stated.
"Humph. I'll leave that to you two. Can't we just lower the mass and go farther?"
"That's where the non-sensible equations enter," Victor said -- seemingly with a straight face.
Alan smiled, despite the seriousness of the issue. " 'Non-sensible equations.' Is that a technical term?"
Victor smiled. Maya giggled, then said, "Well, maybe it should be. But no, sensor readings indicate that an approximately 490-tonne disturbance has developed in this star system."
"Where?" asked Victor, seemingly at ease with the measurement of a disturbance in tonnes, which made no sense to Alan.
Maya ran through a series of equations on the computer at the same time she ran them through her head. This computer is even more primitive than I remembered it being when I first got to Alpha, she thought in frustration. It didn't provide much of an aid to her. "Can't be precise," Maya said.
"But you said we couldn't get back to where -- when -- we came with this mass problem," Alan said.
"Yes. Unless we put ourselves in a powerful energy field."
"Area Two?" Victor asked.
"Hmm?" Maya said.
"Could you have been pulled in by the disruption in Area One, and somehow mitigated the explosion you think should have happened?"
"You mean we sucked away the energy in coming here, preventing the explosion?" Alan asked.
"That could have provided most of the energy," Maya agreed.
"But Area Two was -- or will be -- a much more powerful explosion. Would it help?"
Victor and Maya looked at each other. "Maybe!" she said excitedly, immediately working out some more calculations. She didn't even bother with the computer. "Based on the information I was given about the explosion, it would put us at about Magnitude 28 seconds, plus or minus 1 Mag."
"In English?" Alan said in a pained tone.
"A range of 1550-6200 days."
"That's quite a range. Can't you be more certain?"
"No. The sensor readings from Area One are too sketchy to even validate the hypothesis that our arrival attenuated the firestorm, much less apply anything to predicting the effect on Area Two. This kind of mathematics isn't as intuitive as everything else. It's not easy to accurately calculate. It involves some unique and non-linear chaos equations, and requires far more digits of precision than this computer or I can provide."
"Would a more powerful computer help?" Victor asked.
Maya nodded. "Yes. It probably wouldn't give a certain answer, but it would at least narrow the ranges of possibility down. Why, what computer are you referring to?"
"Well, the most powerful computers -- in this solar system at least -- are on Earth. I know an administrator of one, and she owes me a favor or two."
"-- just disappeared!"
Yasko, Sandra's late-night replacement at the last hour of Day 2517, was suddenly inundated with strange calls about people disappearing. "Alibe?" she called.
Alibe, temporarily in command while most of the officers discussed the Victor situation, looked at Yasko. "Yes?" she asked.
"Multiple calls. People missing. They are disappearing!"
"What?" Alibe said. She hesitated for a moment, then called for the Commander on her console. No response. She could not raise Tony's commlock either. Then she tried the meeting room the officers had gone to, and got no response.
She called to Stewart, who was temporarily monitoring the computers. "Where are all the officers' commlocks?"
"The only one indicated on the base is Sandra's and the 'duplicate' Victor," he reported ten seconds later. The others are missing."
Meanwhile, the calls to Command Center were rising rapidly.
Yasko looked at Alibe. The latter had broken out in a sweat. At first, Yasko thought she maybe couldn't take the stress of command, then realized it wasn't that at all: Alibe fainted. Stewart abruptly vanished, then Alibe. Yasko, now the closest person to command, reached for a Red Alert button, but never quite made it. Her last sight as blackness swept over her was Victor, entering through a side door.
Tony found himself relaxing more and more around this charming alien. She was so genuinely friendly, so warm, he found it harder and harder to distrust or fear her -- and that bothered him a bit. He was the security officer, after all; and was supposed to worry -- and an alien intruder seemed like something he should worry about. But she seemed so honest, so trustworthy, and seemed to have an understanding of the base and the people which indicated the truth of her having lived for years on some alternative Alpha. She and the older Alan were obviously friends, and that Alan seemed like the younger astronaut he was acquainted with.
At one point, he was alone with her in the small computer lab, and they got to talking a little. She was the only one of her kind -- a Psychon -- on a base full of humans. She even thought it possible that she was the last of her species. She didn't seem to want to discuss whatever calamities which had brought that about, so he didn't ask. He didn't know why, but he asked her if she "had anyone" on Alpha.
"Of course," she responded. "I have lots of friends."
Was she being obtuse to his question? How could she live among humans so long and not know the meaning of the expression? He felt she did, but was being evasive. "Why do you seem so surprised by the question?" he simply asked.
"I just didn't expect you to think of it."
"Why not? Because you're an alien? You're warm, friendly, intelligent, and... well... kind of beautiful." He looked away for a moment, suddenly a bit embarrassed by his directness and by the slow smile spreading on Maya's face; but he forged on anyway, despite her bemused look. "I would think that you receive some interest -- serious interest."
She was still smiling, though in a slightly more shy -- or coy -- way. "Yes, I've received some interest."
"Anyone in particular?"
Maya hesitated, but her smile kept on widening, until she could resist no longer. "You, Tony."
Maya continued smiling. "Are you surprised?"
"Me? I... ah...," he floundered.
"After all those wonderful complements you lavished on me a minute ago?" she teased.
"After the way you looked at me?"
He blushed, then put his hand up. "Okay, okay. You win. I believe you."
"How could I not fall in love with a woman able to outmaneuver me in a battle of wit?"
"Oh, Tony," she said, forgetting herself for a moment and drawing close. She quickly pulled back. "I'm sorry. For a moment, you just seemed so much like..." she trailed off.
"...like Tony?" he completed. She laughed -- and it was a beautiful sound. "I understand," he continued. "I didn't mind it."
"Victor, what the hell is this stuff you sent? The people I've put on it have a healthy curiosity, yet they couldn't even determine what branch of mathematics this stuff belonged to. They say it's the most bizarre trash they've ever seen."
Victor tensed. Late in the Alphan evening, just before he was going to turn in, Janice Christenson of Computer Lab Three in Australia -- where he had sent Maya's calculations -- had called him, headless of the late hour on Alpha.
"Well, we've had some advances up here."
"Don't give me that bull, Victor. They're convinced it's not garbage, yet haven't the faintest idea what it means, except for one who thinks it some sort of physics. He's a top-notch physicist and mathematician in his own right, yet that's all he can say. It almost sounds alien," she concluded, leaving the last word -- alien -- hanging in the air.
"Sorry, I guess I should have warned you. I know it's pretty wild stuff. Someone came up with it, but had no way to test its validity up here. I think we may have stumbled upon a new branch of mathematics. Hopefully, your calculations will hold it up."
"Well, believe me, I'll get them up to you as quickly as I can. I look forward to discussing the results -- and everything else -- with you later."
Amazing woman, he thought. She didn't even call my bluff. Does she distrust her own guess? Or does she trust me that completely. Hmm... "I would find that delightful," Victor said aloud, with a slight stress on "delightful," bravely reminding her of the relationship they had once had, so many years before. It had faded, but... maybe it was time to rekindle it.
"Yes, so would I," she said, signing off.
"Red Alert! All personnel to their duty stations."
The sirens blared, waking Sandra up with a start.
"Red Alert! All personnel to their duty stations." The voice quickly caught her attention. Who has a voice so much like mine? And what is she doing in Command Center?
"Red Alert! All personnel to their duty stations. Immediately!"
The urgency propelled her into action. She left her quarters, not taking the time to change into uniform. She got two steps outside her quarters, and stopped. At least three copies of herself were staring at each other, and now her. She did likewise, rubbing her eyes, not thinking it would help, but just out of simple disbelief. Another copy of herself walked out of yet another room. "Who are you?" she asked promptly. Sandra automatically gave her own name, and it was echoed by the other Sandras present, two saying "Sahn" and two saying "Sandra." It was the Victor situation, one worse -- four worse. Five worse: another walked into the corridor from another. "You heard the... commander!" the newcomer called. "I know this is crazy, but let's all go to our duty stations, and get this sorted out! Now move!"
Sandra looked at the other Sandra in surprise. It was an authoritative voice, snapping commands out in a crisp and loud fashion, which surprised the quiet -- almost timid -- Sandra.
Sandra finally did so, falling in with the others. At a major junction, they quickly started breaking towards different directions. Almost as one, they stopped, and looked back towards each other, surprised. They did not all have the same duty stations.
"All personnel report to stations -- immediately!" the voice -- her voice -- said again, more impatiently.
The loudmouth continued along with Sandra, and they stared hypnotically at each other until Sandra felt compelled to break eye contact. Promptly, the other asked who she was. Knowing the other was not referring to her name, Sandra stated her rank: "Communications Officer. Who are you?"
Science officer? "I don't suppose you know Victor Bergman or Maya?"
"I met Victor Bergman once. Discovered the planet Meta. Maya who?"
"Just Maya. A Psychon."
"No, an alien."
"Oh? No, no Maya."
They reached Command Center. At every station, Sandra Benes sat. It hit her worse here than in the halls, for she spent many of her waking hours in this room, seeing people like John Koenig, Helena Russell, Maya, Tony Verdeschi, and the other officers -- and friends. Now, everyone was her.
The strangest of all was seeing herself sitting at the commander's console. It didn't seem right, but somehow felt very good, even in this crazy situation.
There was a Sandra on every screen, and her own voice filled the air. Then it finally struck her. Each was different. She had already noticed different personalities, but it was even more obvious than that: hairstyles differed. The Commander had long, lush hair; whereas the Science Officer wore a terribly ugly head of curls -- fortunately still black. A few were almost heavyset.
"We've obviously had some collision of differing realities," the Science Officer was saying, and Sandra noticed the use of a contraction -- not her own style at all.
"An interesting one," the Commander said. "Each one of us seems to have had a different position on our respective bases before or after Breakaway."
"Breakaway?" the Environmental officer, a Sandra with even closer-cropped hair than Sandra herself. Myself? she wondered? What is that in this situation? Am I going insane?
The Commander was obviously surprised at the question. "Breakaway. When the Moon blasted away from Earth."
"Holy...! When was that?"
"September Thirteen, 1999. Why, when do you come from?"
"August 5, 2005."
"That's today, 2518 Days After Breakaway," the Science Officer said. "Do we all agree on that?"
A chorus of affirmatives.
"Seems some things in the realities are the same; but other things have a damn huge amount of variation."
So do the versions of me, Sandra thought, shocked at the Science Officer's use of vulgarity. This has to be a dream, she thought again; but something whispered in her mind that this was no dream.
"Okay," the Commander started. "Science Officer, try to find a cause. Environmental, keep an eye on Alpha. Security, check all parts of Alpha. Each room, drawer, crevice -- everything. Look for any indications of alien presence."
"Maybe we're all aliens," someone up front joked.
Not all were amused, and the Environmental Officer looked terrified.
Yo? Had another version of herself just said that?
"Which position is reported as being filled by Sandra Benes?"
"Ah... all of them."
"What? That makes no sense." The Commander turned to the Science Officer, who only shrugged.
The Commander dropped it for a moment, unsure how to go about finding whose base this was, and having other urgent issues: "Medical, get a handle on everyone's health -- make sure we're all okay. I think some of us are bugging out. And if we aren't now, we may start later. Get a census, too. Flight Officer, check the status of the Hawks."
The Flight Officer, a woman with purple hair, was just walking in. "Hawks? We've got Eagles here. I checked."
"Oh," the Commander muttered. "I thought this was my base."
"How many thought that?" Sandra herself -- the Communications Officer -- suddenly blurted. Six of the eight present raised their hands. "Why don't you two?" she continued.
"The walls are the wrong color," one said. "I woke up in a man's room," the other said, to a titter of nervous laughter. Someone whispered something to someone else, and there were a few more giggles.
The Commander turned to Sandra, but made only momentary eye contact, then spoke without looking at her. "Seems you've voted yourself the surveyor, Communications. Get some... people together, and try to find just what all the differences are -- or at least the important ones, if you can figure out what 'important' is."
In the Commander's office, mid-afternoon of September 13, 1999, Commander Koenig was having a very uncomfortable conversation with Commissioner Simmonds.
"You and I both know that there has been a pattern of mysterious deaths and even more mysterious events on this base," Simmonds was saying. "Now someone working for Janice Christenson down at Computer Lab Three says she's had them run some completely bizarre stuff which probably came from Professor Bergman, though the word 'alien' has cropped up."
John tried to stop from reacting to that, but was not entirely successful. Fortunately Simmonds did not read the fleeting expression correctly.
"Ahh, I can see the thought of alien presence has crossed your mind."
Ohh, if you only knew.... Koenig could not help thinking, though he tried to keep a nonchalant face. Simmonds was very good at reading people, if not understanding them.
"Dammit, John, you're hiding something from me. You know more about what's going on here."
Koenig tried distracting him. "I already gave you the information on the magnetic disturbances and how they've affected our astronauts."
"Ah, the theories of Doctor Russell and Professor Bergman. Yes, I've read them, and I don't know agree with their findings. Their... hypotheses do not explain the original cause of these disturbances. The word alien has cropped up several times in connection with these problems, and I have put serious thought to the possibility." Simmonds paused, inviting -- demanding -- comments from Koenig.
"We don't have any evidence. I don't think we should get paranoid."
"Why not? There have been discussions of the possibility in general -- even before this situation -- and recent developments have convinced me that we should have worried about this at an earlier point in Alpha's development, and brought in a stronger military element to defend against invasion, instead of keeping it so much of a scientific establishment. You know we are vulnerable. The Earth is vulnerable."
"We've barely found our first evidence of possible intelligence in the form of Meta. I don't think we can jump to any conclusions about hostility yet."
"You don't sound very convincing."
After the commissioner had finally left, John sat heavily behind his extensive desk, and looked at the globe of Earth. Am I doing the right thing? he asked himself again. He got no answer from Earth. He had to question his approach. Hiding Maya and Alan was a rather atypical and reckless route to go; particularly since secretiveness seemed more Simmonds' style. But John found Maya and the older Alan very likeable, honest-sounding people; a feeling he simply did not get from Simmonds. If John had revealed the strangers, the commissioner would have tied their hands -- perhaps in as much a literal sense as figurative. Furthermore, if Alan and Maya were right, as Victor seemed to think, Alpha was already in enormous danger from Area Two. If the time-travelers could help, and secrecy was the cost, he'd pay it, even if he paid with his career, which seemed very likely at this point. He'd rather be in disgrace than have allowed three-hundred-plus people from being flung into cold, hard space; which if the time-travelers' statements were any indication, was extremely dangerous.
Still, the path he had cut was a troublesome one to John, built on one major assumption: that Alan and Maya were telling the truth about being unwilling time-travelers from another reality.
As it turned out, Sandra -- the Communication Officer Sandra on a base full of Sandras -- had drawn rather interesting duty. She couldn't poll everyone; but after she changed from her night clothes into a uniform, she recruited some idle people, as suggested. The group whipped together a set of interesting questions while a few set up computer connections. Some of the Sandras were sent a form to fill out and return quickly, while others were interviewed directly. The first was to be a breadth review -- rather than an in-depth analysis -- to get a handle on the possibly critical issues. To a great extent, they had to establish the important issues, and she was hoping the first interviews would point to some interesting information.
The first thing she tried to ascertain was which copy actually belonged to this base. Fully one half of the Sandras recognized differences between this base and their own, most of those because they woke up in rooms which were not their own -- mostly in regard to the clothes hanging in the closets, which were either for men, were too big, or of an "unusual style."
Sandra was surprised to find so many found the correct clothes. She told the ones who had not "arrived" in their room to find the place their thought was their own. The strange aspect is each had their own room, except for certain individuals who found the design of the base different from what they knew. Yet, of those told to check their rooms, one-third still thought it was their own. How is it possible? Did parts of rooms come too?
A quarter of the people thought there were at least of few Hawks stationed on Alpha.
Twenty people were married, eighty more had strong relationships -- both cases were a mixture of mostly Paul or Alan, though a few mentioned Koenig, other members of the base, or names she did not recognize. Half said they had never met an alien named Maya, though some of those same people mentioned various other aliens resident on Alpha -- the only race name familiar to the communications officer were the Darians, the twelve "civilized" survivors could not be "unified" with the "barbarians" by one Commander Simmonds after Neman -- and Kara -- were killed.
Ten thought there had been no Breakaway. One said there was a far less powerful blast, and rumors of a "copy" of Alan Carter and maybe an alien on the base at the time.
Only eleven reported seeing Victor "copies" before jumping. That seemed of some immediate significance, and she reported it to the Science Officer. The Science Officer said she herself had met a duplicate Paul Morrow before this new variant, then gruffly thanked her and hung up, giving no thoughts on what it meant. How did she become science officer? She doesn't have the patient temperament to do well, unless she happens to override that problem with sheer brilliance.
Half thought the base was commanded by Koenig. One base was obviously commanded by Sandra Benes, now in command of this base -- though it was not the Commander's base, as evidenced by her erroneous belief in the presence of Hawks on the base. Forty others mentioned women, and the names varied, including Tanya and Yasko. She found the thought of Yasko commanding even more unlikely than herself commanding -- but the potential of any one person was evidently close to infinite. Fifty others thought the commander was Gorski, while ten mentioned Tony Verdeschi. Eight listed Simmonds, which was another surprise. There were mixed reviews, some Sandras thinking their commander had done the best he could, others thinking the commander made some bad mistakes -- good and bad reports were given on all the individuals commanding Alpha, including Koenig and Simmonds. Good reports on Simmonds? The differences in realities were incredible.
Just how had she turned out so many ways -- with so many different personalities? Her parents seemed to have somewhat different personalities in a few of the realities, but the difference did not correlate well with the various Sandras: some of the most unusual copies had come from parents who were like her own; and some of the very similar versions of herself had parents who were different. She had to pull herself away from fascination with her other personalities. It was incredible to see how different she could be; but she felt it would be dangerous to get dragged too far into that arena. Her personality was beside the point, she felt. It was finding who was "native" to this base and returning all the others to where they belonged. Hopefully, the different members of the base would reappear: Koenig, Paul, Maya. Over the hours, she had narrowed the "natives" down to eighty people, herself included. There were a slow but steady stream of people reporting this wasn't their base after all, some for reasons which should have been obvious before.
She also noticed signs of stress building up in all the other Sandras, and began to feel it in herself. The situation was terribly unnatural, and it was still unnerving to be around so many people who all looked alike. It seemed better when she kept working--
Alarm sirens blared. "Red Alert! Report to stations."
A ship had been discovered at the far edge of the huge normal-space sphere which held the Moon as a hyperspace shell outside of Eagle range propelled it through space at trans-light speeds.
Indeed, the ship itself was still outside of Eagle range and sat there unmoving. It was too far to get a picture of it, though it was large -- almost a kilometer long and half that wide. They seemed to looking directly at the side of the ship, so they couldn't estimate the third dimension hidden behind.
"It could have been there for hours," the Science Officer reported.
"Hmm," the Commander mumbled. "Nevertheless..." she looked around, then pressed a button on her console. "Flight Officer?"
Sandra's voice came over the speaker. "Flight Officer here."
"Why are no Eagles on the pads yet?"
"Because, something strange has happened."
"Something strange? That describes everything. Be more specific."
"We now have some Hawks." Her voice was ragged.
"I thought you said there were only Eagles here."
"There were, dammit! I swear. You've got to believe me!"
She sounded hysterical. The Medical Officer was present in Command Center and started speaking soothingly to the frightened woman: "Easy, easy. Don't look at the people around you. Shut them out. Turn off your screen -- just use speakers. Think about your work."
When the Flight Officer spoke again, her voice was much more calm, only a single frightened warble in her voice. "No one was looking in Bay Two for awhile, and when someone did, it was filled with Hawks. The rest still hold Eagles. Twenty-five ships total, eight Hawks.
"This base is metamorphic," the Science Officer commented.
Sandra had to stifle an expression of surprise, struck by Science Officer's use of a word which referred to the science officer she knew on the sane Alpha.
"What does that mean? Skip it, I know what you mean. How could this be happening?"
"I don't know."
The Commander looked displeased, and glared at the Science Officer for a moment before both broke eye contact, a little gasp coming from both. It was hard to look at your own face reflected from everyone around you, yet easy to start staring, and slide into hypnotic shock. Helena Russell had once died of something not too dissimilar.
"Any more details on the scanners?" the Commander demanded.
"Negative. It's too far away."
Sandra had been trying -- and failing -- to make contact. She reported that fact.
"Okay, send an Eagle out as far as it can to get a closer look. No, make it a Hawk. Belay that too; they may not like an attack ship. Send the Eagle, but put a few Hawks at readiness."
Soon after the Eagle launched, something happened.
"The ship is pivoting. Now it is moving! Accelerating extremely rapidly towards us. Now steady at point-seven-c. It will arrive in four hours. Third dimension of ship is estimated at 100 meters. That makes 1000 by 400 by 100 meters, volume 40 million cubic meters."
"It is huge!" someone up front unnecessarily exclaimed.
"Still no contact," she said to these other Sandras. She did not look at them -- it was getting too difficult to do so.
"Put two Eagles up at one-hundred thousand kilometers, and two Hawks at twenty thousand."
There was nothing else to do but wait. In the time, Sandra started discussing her survey results to the others, especially the Science Officer. Everyone was fascinated, to judge from the rare times she actually looked at the other faces. At one point, the Commander asked the Science Officer if the information was useful, and the latter said, "Yes, it's narrowing things down and giving me a few ideas." Whatever the ideas were, she was unwilling to discuss them at this point.
Three hours later, the ship was close enough to make out its shape. Sandra stared at it. It's shape teased at her. It seemed familiar -- not its actual configuration, but its general lines and curves. She stated this aloud, and got murmurs of agreement from two of the other eight present.
Forty minutes later, Sandra made contact.
"Forgive us. We have had problems with our communications systems," were the first words from the aliens. Then a picture formed on the screen. It was a wide angle shot, showing several people, three nearer to the cameras.
They were Psychons.
Late in the evening of September 13, 1999, Victor finally received the call he and several others were anxiously waiting for: Janice Christenson, who had completed Maya's calculations. She was once again demanding to know who had created the strange equations. Victor tried to deflect her thrust, attempting to use the same bluff as before, that the calculations were the result of rather unorthodox musings of a creative and slightly mad scientist.
"Victor, don't give me that crap."
He sighed. Why does every conversation with her eventually get to that kind of statement?
Maya and her friend Alan watched from a corner, well out of sight of the camera on the pylon. Tony Verdeschi was also present, as well as one of Victor's trusted assistants -- Carla McNally -- just in case...
Janice continued speaking. "These equations are amazing. We still can't figure out what they mean; but they're too-well organized to be garbage. Your response, however, is not. I want to meet and talk to whoever made up this stuff."
Victor had been partially expecting this, so he called Carla over. Janice, however was having none of it. "Bullshit. She's not it, and we both know why."
"I'm not sure I follow," Victor said.
"Oh, you follow, like a man in the bush following signs of water. You're thirsty for this information, and you'll give me what I want for it, or it will dry it up."
Victor had sometimes found her forthrightness oddly charming. At this moment, it was not. "I know you well enough to know you wouldn't withhold the information." As he said it, Victor got the strange feeling he had just made a bluff. He wasn't sure why.
"Don't try me."
"Over mere curiosity?"
"Dammit, Victor. I've heard the rumors."
Now Victor was beginning to get genuinely angry at Janice. "Rumors probably started by the idle speculation within your own people. Idle speculation and an un-idle mouth."
"Come on, Victor. You owe me for this one."
"I thought it was the other way around," Victor said with genuine anger now.
Janice said nothing, and Victor sighed. Too late, he remembered exactly why they had drifted apart. Victor regretted calling a favor on her; but could now find no way around the problem. She had the information he -- and several other people -- needed, and he would not get it until Janice got what she wanted. In this case, she was not going to back down. He called Maya's name.
Janice frowned a bit. Apparently, "Maya" was not the a name she had expected, probably because a few women -- though not many -- on Earth carried it.
Trusting Victor had no choice in signalling her over, Maya walked to one side of the pylon and presented herself to the camera there, and Janice found it certainly was not a woman of Earth who carried the name. Despite convincing herself of the presence of an alien behind those incredible equations, Janice still appeared surprised at the sight of Maya. A set of inevitable questions gushed forth from the troublesome woman. Maya only answered a few, but got the solutions anyway.
She wouldn't get to use them for some time.
John Koenig stared at some graffiti scrawled on a grimy wall in a dusty, virtually unused hall. A symbol. The Greek letter Omega. The End. Opposite of Alpha.
It was morbid. Deathly morbid.
It's damn depressing just being in this base, John Koenig thought to himself. It was slowly dying, component by component, dream by dream. Little bits of hope bleeding out of the injured people of Moonbase Alpha, 2013 A.D. Big things and little things. So few Eagles. Partially shutdown sections of the base. Holes in the walls -- never repaired. Grungy consoles which no one had the time -- or desire -- to clean anymore. Entropy crawling from every crevice, hopelessness killing people one tiny bit at a time. Everything that defined the life of Alpha was slowly breaking down, rotting away even before death had actually come. A commander who had turned white-haired way before his time. An alien science officer whose usual irrepressible zest was virtually gone, like her first love, Tony. Supplies running out. People running out. Too few technicians to repair too much damage -- futility in chasing constant degradation.
The people were worn, crippled, dying. The younger John and Helena from another reality had brought more liveliness to the base than it had seen in years, but it was not enough, and the two of them were being worn down by the feeling of Alpha's death throes.
They say rumors travel faster than light. In this case, the rumor was far more substantial, in the form of video. Twenty minutes after Janice saw an alien on a small telescreen, Simmonds was seeing one in person, having marched straight down to Victor's lab after receiving an urgent communiquè from the International Lunar Commission, which somehow had obtained footage barely hundreds of seconds old, from a plant in Computer Lab Three who had been tapping communications after the strange and suspicious equations had first appeared on Earth from Moonbase.
Without signalling his presence, he walked into Victor's lab. The Carter copy was there; and then an auburn-haired woman turned to face him, and it was the same alien face he had seen mere minutes before in the communiquè from the ILC. Tony had been standing too close to the door, and before the security officer could even turn towards the intruder, Simmonds had grabbed Verdeschi's stun gun, pulling it so suddenly and forcefully that the holster was ripped in the process.
Before anyone could react, he shot the alien, backing away from Verdeschi as he did so. Maya froze in place a full second before collapsing to the floor. By that time, Simmonds had already shot her a second time, frightened of her unusual reaction. The Carter copy made a move towards him, so he shot him as well, then held Tony at bay with the laser, backing along one of the room's walls, to prevent being overcome by someone entering the door.
Tony looked back at the unconscious Maya and Alan, before turning angrily on Simmonds. "Why the hell did you do that?"
A few minutes before, the professor had called the commander down to the lab so he could warn him of the unfortunate step he had been forced to take. Now, Koenig arrived to face a scene Bergman had never wished for -- and just in time to hear Simmonds response to Tony's shocked question.
"To prove it could be done. To show how easy it is to take the proper action, John."
Easy? Proper? John bridled at the insult, and shuddered at what Simmonds thought proper.
"You are relieved of command, Mr. Koenig. I am taking operational control of Alpha as of this moment, according to Provision 230-stroke- seven-nine. You have been deceptive, negligent, and blind. This alien, and whatever this copy is -- they are the problem here, and I have little doubt they caused the Area One explosion.
"I think you're wrong, Commissioner. Their arrival may have mitigated the explosion there, and their departure may mitigate the Area Two explosion."
"Area Two explosion? Is that what they said? Don't be so naíve, John. They could have been sent here to destroy Alpha. The first stage of an invasion on Earth. I also know you've been sending robot Eagles, even while we resume shipments there. I put you here, and within four days -- four days -- you've created a goddamned disaster. I am going to straighten this mess personally. I've got to calm down the ILC, which wanted to send Hawks here when that video hit. We have to contain this. I've got a hell of a lot of damage control to tend to now, so we can get something in order before this starts hitting other Earth agencies." That last thing seemed to be of highest priority to Simmonds, for he nearly rushed out in his haste, then stopped and turned to Tony. "Are you security?" he asked Tony Verdeschi.
"Okay, you take over our prisoners. See that they are put on my Eagle for return to Earth. Keep the alien covered, so no one else sees her. Get Doctor Russell down here to keep them sedated. And confine Koenig to quarters. Is that all clear?"
"Loud and clear," Tony said without expression.
With that, Simmonds rushed out.
"Loud and clear?" Koenig asked the security officer as Helena Russell -- called surreptitiously by Bergman -- arrived to tend to the unconscious individuals.
"Yeah, loud and clear that he doesn't know what the hell he's doing."
John smiled. "You're going to get in a lot of trouble."
"We're already in trouble, and Maya knows how to lessen it, so I'm not going to let Simmonds drag her -- or Alan -- anywhere. I wouldn't trust that idiot with anything."
Before Simmonds could stop Koenig's running order of two days before, another robot Eagle was hovering above Area Two. In the first hours of Tuesday, September 14, 1999, it went down, the victim of an intense burst of magnetic energy.
Some good news came for the Alphans on Day 5035. They had been approaching a star system for some days, and had finally entered it.
The course was plotted. "We're going into the heart of the system," Maya said, some excitement coming to her voice. If they were lucky enough to find a habitable planet, they could get a couple of dozen people off the Moon at once.
For the first time, Helena saw a glimmer of hope come to the eyes of these Alphans, and was happy for them.
There was a sour note to the announcement, however. The external communications systems had catastrophically failed. A short circuit had sparked a fire in one of the main control units, and before it could be controlled, the entire system had been completely melted. There were no replacements left on Alpha, and no way of constructing one anymore.
One announcement had sounded like the coffin being opened to let in some light, the second sounded like another nail pounded in.
Maya awoke, slowly opening her eyes, to find Helena leaning over her.
"Oh, Helena. So I did faint. Where is Tony?" she blinked a few times, looking confused. "You wouldn't believe the awful nightmare I had, that I went back...." She trailed off, frowning. She rose up in bed, slowly glancing around her and trying not to let the dizziness and pain overcome her. Then it dawned on her again. The clothes, the younger faces. "Ohh. So I am in the past... still."
" 'Fraid so," Helena said.
Pain shot through Maya's head, and she almost fainted; but it soon cleared.
Tony walked in, and Maya's heart instinctively jumped, then settled down when it finally listened to her mind telling it was not her Tony, the Tony she loved. It was not easy.
"You sure recovered quickly," he said. "Two stun beams should have put you out cold for eight hours, and you're awake in two. Your friend Alan is still unconscious, and he was only shot once."
She put her hand to her head as the room started to spin again. Fortunately, it quickly slowed down. "I heard stories the Commissioner was cold-hearted and irrational at and after Breakaway, but I never thought I'd get a first-hand sample. One stun beam would have been sufficient."
The others noticed Maya's wording and wondered what the post-Breakaway stories could be. They did not ask though. Tony instead addressed the alien's last point: "You weren't exactly quick to collapse," Tony tried to explain, even though he didn't approve of Simmonds actions.
"It's got to do with my ability. It briefly protects me, simply because it ends up sucking in the energy. But the energy is chaotic, too powerful and disruptive to handle. It is spit back at the rest of myself -- my body I mean, and it finally knocks me out, much like any of you." She did not mention that certain of her forms could actually deal with the stun beam. It would only frighten these people.
"And your quick recovery?" Helena asked.
"Aided by my ability. It works to restore my form to how it knows it should be."
"That is... incredible," Helena said, almost speechless with fascination.
"Well, your bodies do the same thing; mine just has more help." Then Maya completely changed the subject. "Have you got those calculations?"
"Yes," Victor said, wheeling over a portable console. "I already looked at some of the figures. A magnetic burst was predicted for 1.5 hours ago, and it happened, downing the robot Eagle, as your friend Alan told us happened in your reality. Simmonds called me for advice after that happened, and I brought up the idea of splitting the dump. You said it didn't help in the short amount of time your Alpha had once the Eagle went down. It will keep Simmonds busy, though."
Maya couldn't believe what she was hearing from the stolid professor. The trust they had put in her and Alan was incredible, and heartwarming.
Victor continued: "The explosion is predicted for 4.4 hours from now. That's all I understand here. Does the rest of this tell about your tachyon fields and any underlying time warps?"
Sitting up on the bed, she used a remote control to flip through screens of readouts at a pace that stunned all of the others present except Alan. Her smile appeared and grew as she watched the figures, then turned to a frown.
"What is it?" Alan asked, concerned.
"I have verified that a tachyon field is already forming, and that we will be propelled forward in time by it, mitigating the Area Two explosion when we use its energy. The mass required is roughly 480 tons."
"That's a little more than two Eagles," Alan said in surprise, then turned to John.
Koenig was a bit more pragmatic. "What happens to us?" he asked Maya.
"The exact amount of mitigation is undeterminable, but your Moon will not be propelled out of the solar system, and probably not even beyond Earth orbit, though your orbit will be changed. Earth will also suffer much less damage."
"And if you don't take the Eagles to Area Two?" John asked.
"Full detonation. If we, who don't belong in this reality, do not go to Area Two when it detonates, there will be nothing present that can be properly propelled in time, and none of that energy will be absorbed to do that. It will all come pouring out of the dumps as a full-scale thermomagnetic nuclear explosion."
Koenig suddenly looked hesitant. This part of the story was getting very abstract, whereas giving up two Eagles was a very concrete act. But against the Breakaway explosion they discussed, did he have a choice? I do, if I choose not to believe them. An alien, and a copy of Alan Carter. If anything, the latter seemed to be the most convincing truth, for John found it difficult to believe the universe "liked" having two copies of one entity running around in the same locale.
"Okay, you have your Eagles; and I must be crazy to be taking all of this in stride."
"Thank you," Maya said with a warm smile. " 'Preciate it, mate," Alan said, giving John a friendly pat on the back.
"What were you frowning about?" Alan asked Maya.
"There are signs in the tachyon stream of another, even more massive event much further up time in this reality, and it is blocking my view of what would ultimately happen to us."
"What is that massive event?" Victor asked.
Maya's strange eyebrows drew together in a very recognizable sign of bewilderment.
"I have no idea."
None of the Psychons facing the Sandras were familiar.
"I am Commander Sandra Benes of Moonbase Alpha. Please identify yourselves." Like the Science Officer, the Commander's Moon had not passed near Psychon, and thus she knew nothing about them.
One of the people on the screen -- a very dignified older woman whose age was otherwise impossible to guess at -- spoke up after a long pause. "Eralay, leader of the Grakza of Psychon." It was the pleasant, friendly-sounding kind of voice which all Psychons seemed to affect most of time, and said little about the aliens' actual intentions. Sandra looked for an opportunity to warn the Commander of how unpredictable and dangerous Psychons could be -- as well as how friendly and helpful some could be -- but the Commander was speaking.
"What can we do for you?"
"That depends on whether you can give a reason for us suddenly getting caught and trapped in this bubble of space. The bubble itself is normal for inter-solar objects of your mass, but the trapping effect is not. If you are responsible, Sandra Benes, we will consider it an act of aggression."
"Eralay, we are not responsible. We have been having some difficulties of our own."
As if to demonstrate the point, another Sandra entered Command Center. Two copies of the same woman could now be seen in the narrow view of the room's main communication camera, and it made quite an impression on the Psychons.
"A clone race?" another female Psychon cried out in surprise, partially overrunning a male who was saying something about androids. Hearing the commotion, another Psychon turned from her instruments to face the screen.
"Maya!" Sandra and two other Command Center personnel simultaneously cried out.
All faces -- on Alpha and the Grakza -- turned to the surprised Psychon woman, who immediately denied knowing Sandra. Eralay seemed to believe her, for she turned back to the screen and demanded, "How do you know Maya? Are you telepaths?"
"No, it's not that simple. None of it. We are all different copies of the same person, from different realities."
"That is..." Eralay started, then turned behind her to consult -- in whispered voices -- with several other people -- evidently scientists -- including Maya. "... not possible," Eralay concluded as if there were no interruption, turning back to the screen.
The Commander and Eralay started arguing. Eralay seemed confident in the conclusion of her officers, and could not be convinced the Alphans were not lying about something.
Then something finally occurred to Sandra. What was it her friends Maya and Victor had been talking about? "Tachyons!" she finally shouted.
"What?" said three people in unison: Eralay, and the Alphan Commander and Science Officer. The Science Officer thought they were pure postulation. The Commander hadn't heard of tachyons outside of science classes, but was upset the Communications Officer hadn't mentioned it before.
And Eralay...: "Tachyons should be present in unusual quantities in this bubble, but they are not in evidence."
"Try scanning this base," Sandra said. The Commander looked upset at her Communications Officer acting in such an authoritative manner, simply inviting unknown aliens to scan the base.
The alien leader turned to Maya, ironically enough. Maya turned to her equipment, and in less than a minute had answers. "Tachyons are in strong evidence on the alien base, trapped in nano-loops at Level Seven! Quantum tunneling to Level Eight may be connecting those loops directly to the hyperspace shell, which is why we couldn't find them elsewhere in this normal space sphere. That connection would also cause the shell to flip to the anti-gravitons we saw, preventing our passing through with our stardrive. Probability hyperconnections also indicated -- numerous pockets of differing realities with tri-level containment shells -- around individual life forms. Each person has an unique tachyon signature, but they are somehow insulated from each other. The base has multiple overlapping signatures of a metamorphic nature...." she trailed off finally, shocked at all she had found.
Eralay had appeared to follow most of that, until the end: "What was the last, Maya?"
"Aspects of the base itself are shifting between realities."
"That's not possible," another Psychon said. "The individuals could form seventh-dimensional non-overlapping shells, but how can the base differentials overlap and still be semi-stable?"
Maya shook her head, while the other Psychons started arguing amongst themselves.
Eralay ignored this, turning her attention back to the Alphans.
"Seems you are correct."
Now, the science officer version of Sandra spoke up. "Am I correct in understanding that each one of us is, in effect, trapped within an unseen bubble of our own realities?"
The Sandras saw Maya turn around and heard her respond affirmatively.
"So is there any way to return individual bubbles to where they belong?"
Maya said, "I'm not sure yet."
"Do the bubbles need to be broken?"
"That is an interesting thought. I will have to make a more thorough scan and some additional calculations."
No one had anything else to say, and Eralay concluded with, "We must shut down our communications systems to allow for a more thorough scan. Grakza terminates connection."
The image faded.
The commander thanked the science officer for her ideas, then turned to the Communications Officer, new-found respect on the former's face for the brief moment they made eye contact. It was still awkward to be talking to each other while they looked in other directions, but it was the only way they could work together. "You had the vital information we needed to initially break the ice with them," the commander said, "and find useful data about this. Hopefully the science officer's thoughts will ring some bells with these Psychons."
"Hopefully, they'll come up with a solution," the Security Officer said, "since they seem claim to be trapped here with us."
"Claim? You have doubts?"
"And you do not?"
"A little. They talk in that friendly-sounding tone so much I cannot be sure if they're hiding anything. I do not know. Three of you knew this 'Maya.' What can you tell us about these Psychons?"
Sandra and the other two talked about Maya and the Psychons. They didn't leave anything out. Maya was discussed, but so were Mentor, Psyche, and Dorzak.
"You trust Maya, and we all seem to find this Eralay forthright."
"So do we trust this Eralay?" the Commander asked.
"Can you even trust the Maya on that ship?" the Security Officer asked. "One of you said Dorzak and his group tried to subvert the... Crotons in some way. Maybe Maya is willing to do that in this reality."
"They are trapped too. Let's just assume they are telling the truth about that."
"Okay. But if they come up with a solution, how do you know it will not be totally self-serving? Their solution may help them, but it may destroy us."
The Science Officer piped up. "That Maya spoke a lot of physics which went well over my head. If I can't come up with a solution, it may be a matter of having no other choice."
"Didn't you say you had ideas?"
"Yes," the science officer said in a high, tense voice, "but nothing we could do a thing about. We don't have the technology."
"Okay, calm down. We'll see what they say."
It was a long ten minutes. While the officers used experience, training, and willpower to better restrain their shocky reactions to each other, many of the others on this bizarre base didn't have as much of those same talents. Reports of difficulties, previously a trickle, were now turning into a flood. People were suffering shockingly rapid breakdowns, collapsing unconscious or suddenly starting to scream. Medical Center was filling up at an increasing rate. The news was unsettling to the calmer but still jittery officers in Command Center.
The thickening tension was finally broken by the Grakza. The Psychons were calling Alpha.
This time, Maya was standing next to her leader. The Commander wondered if it was because Eralay had seen the recognition of Maya in some of the Alphans.
"Have you tried to touch each other?" Eralay asked.
The Sandras looked at each other for brief moments, enough to see that all were shaking their heads.
"No, I doubt any of us have done so. We find it difficult to even look at each other. Touching each other seems like a repulsive idea."
"That may be literally true," Maya said. "However, I think you should try," Maya said over the connection. "Each of you is a source of tachyons, and that is because each of you are outside of your normal reality."
"All of us?" the Communications Officer asked, for when she had been running the surveys, she had been assuming someone was from this base while doing her survey.
"No one is free of the tachyons. And the base doesn't belong to any one of you. It is an amalgam of pieces copied from several million realities. I suspect many of you thought it is was your own base." Sandra nodded, and Maya continued. "In a sense, the base is not real. I doubt any of this belongs to our reality at all. If it did at one time, it had to have been destroyed to allow this... thing to happen."
An even more catastrophic Breakaway? the Communications Officer wondered.
"That is why we have been trapped," Maya continued. Space has added some extra shielding to the normal hyperspace shell to protect against your presence, and it isn't allowing us out. There are containment fields around each of you, and I think that is how this situation is remaining stable. If you touch each other, the fields should come in direct contact and collapse. When that happens, you should each return to your own realities. Can you please do this?"
The Commander did not respond.
"You don't entirely trust us, Commander," Eralay said bluntly.
"The thought has come up that whatever solution you give may be to your advantage, but not us."
"Understandable, I suppose. All I can say is that if even a single one of you remains here, it may be enough to keep us trapped. Please, we gave you our help. We all need yours now."
The Commander looked at the Communications console -- not at Sandra herself. "Please hold, Grakza. Mute it."
The Commander contacted the Medical Officer. The latter's voice was ragged, but holding as she said, "I say we try it. We are all getting crazy from being together for less than a day, and I think we'll be going crazy in a week or two." Everyone agreed -- vehemently.
"Open a base-wide channel."
"Attention everyone! Attention please. We may have a way of returning to our respective realities. Wait for my mark, at which point you must make contact with each other, to break what is holding us all here. This must be done by everyone simultaneously. Please send your response by computer connection to Command Center to verify. All must reply." The Commander then indicated to terminate the channel and un-mute the connection to the Psychon ship.
"Eralay, we agree to try it. Any particular time?"
"Thank you; and no, a particular time is not indicated."
"By the way, how many of there are you? Where are you going?"
"I would rather not say. I hope you understand."
"I would rather know; but I respect your desire."
They were both leaders of people, and for a second, Commander Sandra Benes of Moonbase Alpha, and Eralay, Leader of the Grakza, shared eye contact, a moment of mutual understanding.
"Okay. Let us do it now," the Commander said.
Someone indicated that 275 people had responded outside of Command Center, for a total of 283. Over the communication system, the Medical Officer indicated it matched her census. The Alpha broadcast channel was opened, and the Commander started a countdown of ten seconds. They all stood up, paired off, and approached other. Sandra ended up grasping shoulders with the Security Officer she had first walked down a hall with nearly a day before. A disturbing nausea started welling up within her.
Nothing else happened.
They turned back to the screen, to find Eralay had turned back to Maya, who had returned to her console to monitor the tachyon fields as the Sandras carried out the experiment. After ten seconds, Maya had a reason. "These containment fields are rather stable. They are maintaining integrity. Each of you must touch at least three other people. No, there's a better way. Make rings of seven or more people. That will collapse all fields."
One of the officers shouted, "that's crazy! What is this, some sort of--"
"Hush!" the Commander interrupted, trying to keep order.
The Psychons looked puzzled, but said nothing.
The Commander relayed the new plan to everyone else; but before she could start the countdown, the Communications Officer broke in with one last message for the Psychons.
"I'm not talking specifically about you or Maya, Eralay; but do not let any one of you have too much control over the rest of you. That is the way of madness."
Before the Psychons could respond to the statement, Sandra shut down the connection. The Commander gave her an unreadable expression, then started a ten-second countdown over Alpha's internal system.
This time, it worked well -- perhaps too well.
The nausea returned almost instantly, and quickly grew overwhelming -- terrifying. Despite orders, and despite herself, she tried to break contact -- but she blacked out instead.
Based on Bergman's suggestion, Commissioner Simmonds had ordered the nuclear pile of Area Two be split apart. Paul and Alan Carter -- this base's true Flight Officer -- carried out the order. Eagles were modified and sent out in a hurry. Thinking he could control the situation, he did not ask for Eagle or Hawk reinforcements from Earth, which would not arrive for hours anyway. He assured Earth authorities all was under control in regards to the command situation, and -- for the few who knew -- the alien and the Carter copy were under wraps.
With two guards in tow, he returned to Bergman's lab.
"Giles, Bokessu. Stand guard outside," Tony ordered the moment door sighed open.
Simmonds had kept Tony in charge of security concerns, so the men followed Verdeschi's order, which suddenly left Simmonds without support. Verdeschi grabbed Simmonds laser.
"What the hell?" the commissioner said.
"Just returning the favor," Tony said with a smile.
Simmonds looked around the room. Verdeschi, Koenig, Bergman, Russell, the Carter copy, and the alien were all here.
"I ordered her kept unconscious!" he shouted, pointing at Maya.
Maya's eyes flashed her disgust, and Simmonds finally addressed her directly. "You had no right to invade this base."
"I did not invade this base!" she shouted with indignation. "I was caught and pulled here through no fault of my own. Being here is an unpleasant accident of time."
"It's far more likely that you are the spearhead of a coming invasion."
The alien woman's expression tightened in a mixture of exasperation and outrage; but before she could retort, Koenig intervened. "Calm down -- both of you! Commissioner, we have to let them go. They don't belong to this reality, and I don't think they should be restrained from returning to their own home. They can only do so by hovering over Area Two with the mass of two Eagles. The explosion will propel them into a time warp which will take much of the energy of the explosion with it, and mitigate what would have been a severe catastrophe."
"So you accept their ridiculous story at face value," Simmonds sneered.
"No, I accept their calculations. I accept Professor Bergman's. I accept those of Earth Computer Lab Three; and they don't even know the source of these calculations."
"Yeah, an alien."
Koenig ignored the jibe. "That's not all, Commissioner. Can you deny Area One had a massive magnetic storm?" The other remained silent, begrudgingly granting the point. "It just missed becoming a full nuclear firestorm by this much," he continued, holding up his right hand with thumb and index finger a centimeter apart. Frankly, Victor -- and the computers on Earth -- don't know how it avoided it, once he factored in the cause -- magnetic disturbances of a previously unknown nature. He agrees the energy might have gone towards drawing these two here."
Simmonds tried to interrupt, but Koenig overrode him: "Area Two is one-hundred and forty times more massive. If Area One just missed a full chain reaction, it would be a trivial matter for Area Two to go critical, and far worse. Professor Bergman calculates that fully uncontrolled fission of so much material could rip the moon out of orbit or even destroy it."
Simmonds was for once silent, absorbing the staggering possibility which he had completely refused to believe earlier. It seemed too fantastic, too frightening to be true. The Moon blasted out of orbit? It's ridiculous, he thought. But Koenig was right. Area One had undergone a mysterious and powerful firestorm.
"Well then, if everyone agrees with the alien's mitigating ideas, send the properly-weighted Eagles, robot-controlled, to Area Two."
"Robot controlled? You mean keep Alan and Maya here?"
"I told you why not! This isn't their time or reality."
"Perfect reason to keep them for study. Especially the alien. Don't you see the opportunity for scientific discovery here?"
"What, to send Maya to Earth to be dissected? Or ruin Carter's life just because an Alan Carter from another reality shows up?"
"John, John. For godsake, don't get so melodramatic. The alien would be studied, but certainly not dissected. And Alan, he's done nothing wrong. After some comparisons to his copy, he can be free to pursue the rest of his life."
"The 'alien' and the 'copy,' as you so politely call them, happen to have names: Maya and Alan Carter. I don't think Maya would care to be imprisoned to be 'studied' the rest of her life; and Alan would probably not feel much at home in a reality that already contains another Alan Carter. I think both want -- and need -- to return to their reality."
"I see you seem to trust them and their 'reality' story completely. Perhaps they set off Area One."
"Why? And why bother showing up here."
Simmonds sputtered. "Maybe to steal some Eagles."
Koenig laughed aloud. "Commissioner. If they could set off Area One and possibly Area Two, why would they need two Eagles? That's a lot of unnecessary work when they could have found a more straightforward way to make off with them."
"I don't know. Forget the Eagles. Maybe that idea is some smoke screen. Can't you admit the possibility some alien technology could make the dumps explode?"
Koenig almost said "no," but stopped himself. "Yes, I suppose it is possible."
"Why won't you take some steps?"
"Any of the steps you mention could easily be interpreted as a hostile act, and if there were more aliens watching our actions, they may respond in a hostile manner."
"Do you suggest we do nothing?" Simmonds nearly shouted.
Koenig remained silent.
"We have to take some steps, just in case they're hostile," the commissioner continued.
"And what if they're not?"
"Don't be so damned naíve," Simmonds said in a patronizing tone.
Koenig realized how the idea of non-hostile intentions seemed alien to the commissioner. He simply could not find the right words to convince the commissioner, so in the end, he had the commissioner detained. Having been relieved of command, he really didn't have the authority, except Verdeschi chose to carry out the order. This will undoubtedly be the final nail in the coffin of our careers, John thought. Could he have done it differently? His mind skittered from the question. Hindsight was twenty- twenty, but there was enough in front of him to worry about. The troubling thing was that the commissioner's arguments made plenty of sense, in a way. It could have easily been the best way -- or maybe only way -- to go. But John didn't think it was the right way in this case.
He walked down to Main Mission and ordered the Eagles back from the imminent explosion -- three hours to go. Two Eagles were to be refitted with regular passenger modules to match the weight requirement Maya had found. He decided that after Maya and Alan took those two Eagles, that he would order everyone else to evacuate the Moon.
Meanwhile, he queried some people to discover what Simmonds had done, and discovered Earth had been surprisingly uninformed of the true scale of the problem. John doubted that would help his case, though.
Another problem cropped up, yet it strangely verified his Koenig's course. Alan Carter -- this base's younger Alan Carter -- was dying; and it was not the same problem that was killing so many other pilots. Same entity, same locale. He doubted anyone in the ILC would be convinced of the problem; but it was obvious that both he and Simmonds would be taking a fall. So be it, he decided.
Sandra awoke slowly, tiny fragments of what seemed like a dream floating around her. Images of herself, infinitely repeated. Images of Psychons infinitely repeated. Suddenly, it returned in a rush. She stood up, and found she had materialized on the floor of her quarters, still dressed in a uniform. She swarmed out of her quarters. Thankfully, the first person she saw not herself. It was Yasko. Out of sheer happiness, Sandra rushed up and impulsively hugged the surprised woman.
She went straight to Command Center, and was surprised to find that she was the highest-ranked person left on Alpha. John, Paul, Tony, Maya, Alan, and Helena were still missing, amongst many others. Sandra had watched an alternative version of herself being the commander; and now she herself was going to be too -- at least until one of the other officers reappeared.
For awhile, the base was almost completely empty; but dozens of people returning each hour, all unconscious upon arrival. It seemed to be some form of time travel, for they reported no extra experiences. One moment, they were on a base full of people -- though some reported seeing others disappear around them first -- then blinking and finding that people had disappeared, and clocks had jumped by hours or even days beyond what they had sleep.
Alan didn't like this. As incredibly intelligent as Maya was, this was beginning to seem like a stupid idea on her part. Theories sounded great on a white-board or computer screen, or out of the mouth of Maya herself; but they didn't comfort him much now, as he gently floated his Eagle over the deceptively calm-looking Area Two.
"I must be crazy," he muttered allowed.
"Hmm?" a distracted Maya mumbled over the commline between the two Eagles.
"Hovering over a nuclear waste dump that's about to become a ravening firestorm."
Maya's voice was concerned: "You're not thinking of backing out?"
"Maya, for a woman with your sense of humor, I'm surprised you still don't get a joke sometimes," he said with some false bravado. As he mouthed the words, however, he realized they weren't as far off the truth as he might have thought a few seconds ago. Voicing his fear seemed to dissipate it somewhat, making him realize he did indeed intend to follow through.
"Tony says that sometimes -- about my still being... dense... sometimes."
"Oh? And what do you say?"
"I don't say anything."
"I'm kind of disappointed," he couldn't resist jabbing.
"I find some way of turning the... tables and fooling him in the same way -- sooner or later."
Alan hardly needed to look down at the monitor to see her smile. "I'll consider myself warned."
"Oh? Why? Did I threaten you?"
"Well, I think he's on to my fooling him into taking a joke seriously. I think he's to the point where he might take something truly serious as a joke. I'm not so sure it is a good idea. I'll have to remind him that I'm sometimes serious outside of work."
When Maya did not continue, Alan could not resist blurting, "Oh? How?" As soon as he uttered the words, Alan knew he would regret them in some way or another.
"I wonder if Tony will think I'm joking when I tell him about your instructions in regards to your clothes. His reaction will be very interesting, and perhaps instructive."
Alan's heart flip-flopped. Despite her having given a kind of warning, she had said the last with such a straight face that he could not help thinking she might really do it. Though he caught himself before he would have blurted "You wouldn't," she had seen the question in his face.
"And I've heard how hot-blooded jealous Italians can get," she added.
Again, despite himself, he grimaced for an instant.
"Oh, relax, Alan. I was just joking. Couldn't you tell?"
"Please. You proved your point. You know, you can get pretty heavy at times. Doesn't it ever drive anyone away?"
"From what I've observed, it seems to have the opposite effect on a lot of men. Besides, I know when and whom I can joke with."
Alan wondered a bit on the accuracy of her statement, for a more jealous man than Tony would have been hard-pressed to keep his temper at Maya's good-natured and innocent flirtatiousness. Instead, he followed along the conversation. "Yeah, and I guess Tony at just about every off-duty time is an appropriate time for kidding around."
"Sure. And I think he loves it."
"Honey, you drive him crazy."
She smiled. "Oh, do I?" Then she frowned. "Wait. That has two meanings."
Alan said nothing for a moment. "Yeah, I guess it does."
"Well, what did you mean?" she finally blurted out impatiently.
"You figure it out."
Maya ached to see Tony -- her Tony -- again. Barring that, few other things warmed Maya's spirits more than some good-natured bantering. It also helped Maya forget the same thing Alan had been thinking of: they were intentionally floating above an area which was about to be obliterated, and that may obliterate the both of them, despite her own calculations. She had already mentioned the risk of her being wrong, and he had accepted it. She had wanted to reveal her nervousness to him, just to show him he wasn't alone in the feeling. Instead, she had decided that showing more doubt in her own calculations would only make him more nervous. She figured he probably knew she was nervous; but she had found that to humans, there was a huge difference between things spoken and things unspoken. Maybe she was wrong, but he had agreed to the risk she had earlier outlined, and openly showing her fears again would not change the decision, it would only make him -- and her as well -- more afraid.
Once their two Eagles had been prepared, farewells had been brief, as the base was evacuating, in case things did not go well. As planned, Carter and Maya had arrived with time to spare. The volley of ribbing each other had served well to pass the waiting time, especially considering the explosion was now slightly overdue. It was coming, however: the readings her Eagle's computer were giving her showed the whole area was starting to have massive magnetic disturbances. Understanding an effect the humans had not understood -- few of the Alphans she knew had grasped the quantum mechanical connections even years after their ignorance blew them out of orbit -- she could clearly see it had finally started.
She could only shout the briefest of warnings moments before the magnetic storm started wreaking havoc with both of their Eagles. Maya soon lost control over her Eagle. Alan had no time to spare for her, as he was fighting his own equipment. Unlike Maya, Alan had extensive experience with Eagles, including several crash conditions, and managed to hold the craft up for several seconds longer.
Her every action only seemed to make things worse, so Maya gave up fighting the Eagle to concentrate instead on the failing sensors. With an aplomb she had never known she possessed, Maya ignored the sickening dive the Eagle made towards the surface. Just before the readings went critical, and less than two seconds before she would impact the ground, she shouted a last warning to Alan.
"Alan, cover your eyes! Now!"
On September 14, 1999, one of the most massive concentrations of radioactive material in the galaxy inevitably progressed from a magnetic disturbance to a full thermonuclear fission reaction that briefly rivaled a small sun in intensity.