Chapter 1

July 23, 2455

In the Headquarters of the Federation in Miami, the building was pretty much empty. It was a Sunday, and most of the employees had gone home for the weekend. The Federation building never shut down completely, however.

Inside Conference Room 14A, a group of men sat around a rectangular table. Most of them had military uniforms on.

At the head of the table sat Federation leader Matt Winthrop. He sat with his hands folded loosely together. The men sat around the table in complete silence. The only noise to be heard was the occasional squeak of a chair that would rip through the silence like a bullet.

The dimly lit room was bare except for the table, chairs, and a few framed photos of the president and vice president that hung on the whitewashed walls. The old-fashioned clock on the wall ticked loudly as the seconds went by.

Winthrop tapped his fingers impatiently on the solid genuine imported oak table. He was a well-built man, with square shoulders and facial features to match. Even his fingers appeared squarish. He ran a hand through his neatly cut hair, which was already a silvery color at his age of 46.

Winthrop sighed and looked at the clock, then at everyone in the room. He smiled slightly. "He'll be here," Winthrop assured, though he wasn't completely sure whether he was trying to convince them or himself.

Suddenly the door opened and in walked a tall man with dark eyes and hair. He bore no expression on his face as he walked to the table and sat down in the empty seat adjacent to Winthrop.

"Alex Reed, nice of you to join us," Winthrop said.

Reed returned the greeting with a curt nod.

"Now we can begin," Winthrop announced. He took a deep breath and leaned forward as if he were sharing a secret. "Do you know why you are here, Mr. Reed?" Winthrop asked.

"Cut the crap," Reed interrupted. "I've been pulled off the Megalopolis to meet with you today, and I'm anxious to get back."

"Oh, you won't be getting back," Winthrop assured him. "As of this very moment, you are being reassigned."

"Reassigned?" Alex asked with a frown. "To what?"

"To the Luna mission."

"Luna... I'm not familiar with that name."

"As you shouldn't be. This is a highly confidential, top-secret mission. The Luna is one of our newest ships, still in construction, that is to be sent out on the resupply route past Sagittarius."

"So, I've been called off my mission to go play delivery boy on distant planets," Alex interrupted harshly. "Megalopolis is a very important mission, and I don't think..."

"That's right, Mr. Reed. You don't think. You just act," Winthrop cut in.

Alex opened his mouth as if to say something, but quickly shut it.

Winthrop continued. "The Luna has capabilities well beyond the other ships in the fleet. The Luna will have a second objective. Major Wilson, please explain," Winthrop said, turning to the solidly built man beside him.

Wilson stood and walked to the far side where a holoprojector sat. He turned it on and waited for Alex to get a good look at the picture.

Alex cocked his head in curiosity. It was an illustration of a spaceship labeled "Luna", with other various labels and cross-sections.

"This," Wilson directed, "is the Luna. She is a quarter of a mile long in length, with 4 decks connected by air and maintenance shafts. She's made of pure titanium with magnetic shields and laser emplacements."

Alex looked around the room and yawned loudly to show how standard the ship was.

Wilson scowled in his direction but continued his presentation, pointing out objects as he went. "The Luna has Stellar Drive and optitrope settings. She's a basic ship to most onlookers, but in reality she's our finest."

Alex furrowed his brow, his curiosity regained. "How so?"

Wilson nodded approvingly and answered. "As you know, Terra is currently at war with Fallacia. We are losing by a small amount. The Luna is to be our prototype new generation warship. We will test it by sending it out on this resupply mission. And if it works... we can get those Fallacian bastards where it hurts!" Wilson slammed his fist into his open palm and looked around the room.

"We will send the Luna to Varga 3, where our secret base is set up," another man said. "From there, we reproduce, and attack."

"Won't they be suspicious if the ship makes a beeline for Varga 3?" Alex asked.

"No. The ship will do delivery duty until it gets to Varga 3," Winthrop said.

"What's so special about the Luna?" Alex questioned.

Wilson picked up the question. "The Luna will be transporting a bomb. Not just any bomb. The bomb."

"Why?" Alex asked.

Winthrop shook his head. "That's where the secret part comes in. You may remember that a few years ago we sent out a crew to establish a base on the planet of 329-X8-F6-4 in the Sagittarius sector. Well, the part that nobody knows is that we lost communications with them after about seven months. We got one last communique from them... and it's not pretty."

"May I see it?" Alex requested.

Winthrop nodded at Wilson, who got up and fiddled with the holoprojector for a few minutes. The snow cleared into a scene of complete chaos.

"Oh, God! Help! You've got to help us! We're under attack... vicious monsters..." The audio quality wasn't all that good - words kept getting lost in the static. But from what Alex could see on the visuals, there was some sort of an attack going on. Blood sprayed across the screen, so that all he could see was red, and then the picture faded to static once more.

"So I'm here because..." a slightly pale Alex prompted.

"We want you to be in charge of the mission," Winthrop answered.

"Captain?" Alex asked hopefully.

"No, you will be operating in secret. You will go to 329-X8-F6-4 where the base was, and if there are signs of hostile activity, you will blow up the base, and anything surrounding it where the enemies may be hiding out. No one else will know, so to keep it a secret, you will be going as an officer," Winthrop said.

"What if I refuse to accept?" Alex challenged belligerently.

"Mr. Reed, there is no choice to be made here," Winthrop said in a rather mystifying voice.

Alex swallowed hard. "Who gets to go?"

* * *

Brea Marlson hopped out of her battle cruiser and high-fived her partner Anorian Johnson. Her boots clanked on the slick metallic surface of the Pyre Light's docking bay. She untied her pulled-back hair and shook it so that an auburn cloud surrounded her face.

Anorian whooped and it echoed through the large bay, bouncing off the metal walls and other various machinery. "Brea, you are the man!" Anorian said, laughing.

"Correction," Brea grinned. "I am the woman!" she yelled, smacking him playfully in the head. Adrenaline pulsed through her veins and she whooped another victory cheer. Her green eyes sparkled, face flushed with victory.

"Oh, yeah?" Anorian asked, following Brea to the bridge.

"Did you see that explosion?" Brea asked, walking backwards. "Those Fallacians must be steaming!"

"Now we're just a little further through the war with Fallacia," Anorian agreed.

Brea, much calmer now, stepped onto the bridge. "Yes, sir, you wanted to see us," she asked respectfully. Anorian stood next to her.

Captain Hillerman stood facing away from them, looking out the viewport. "I just wanted to say," Hillerman started gloomily, "that we're going home!" he said happily, turning around.

Brea grinned and looked to Anorian. He too was smiling.

"That's all," Hillerman said in his proper way. However, he let a smile slip from one side of his dark face. He had greying hair and dark eyes that showed years of wisdom and hardening.

Brea saluted and started to follow Anorian out.

"Oh, Brea," Hillerman called. Brea turned back to him. "I've got an order here to have you report directly to the Federation headquarters," he said, turning on a computer monitor.

Brea furrowed her brow. "How come?" she asked curiously.

"It says something about a new mission..." Hillerman said.

Brea's eyes lit up.

"I'm sorry to lose you, Lieutenant," Hillerman said, giving her a printed out list. "You're to take these people with you in one of the cruisers. They will also be on your mission."

Brea took the list and scanned it. On it were only two other people: Anorian Johnson and BobbyJo Simms. Brea looked up at the captain. "Do you know what it is?" she asked.

Hillerman handed her another sheet. "This is all they told me."

Brea looked at it. On it was crudely written the word "Luna".

* * *

Alex sat back in his chair.

Winthrop drew out from his briefcase a packet of dossiers. Alex looked at them curiously. Winthrop spread the dossiers on the table in front of him.

"The captain of the Luna will be Ms. Brea Marlson. Graduated with honors from the Academy, head of her class. Promising cadet." Winthrop handed the slim folder to Alex.

Alex studied it carefully.

"Anorian Johnson, also graduated with honors. Very bright. Best technician we could get on such short notice." Winthrop again slid the dossier to Alex, who glanced over it briefly.

Winthrop picked up another folder. "BobbyJo Simms. She'll be 19 in a few weeks. Graduated from the Academy, then took supplementary courses for fun. Intelligent but not intuitive." Winthrop gave the dossier to Alex, who put it down after briefly glancing at the photo that was paperclipped to the dossier.

Winthrop selected another folder. "Fox Steel," he said. "Former CIA agent, spent a year on Fallacia undercover doing reconnaissance work."

"I'm not familiar with these people," Alex said. "Is there anyone I know?"

Winthrop shuffled through the dossiers. "Ah, yes. Well, you should. She was on your latest mission."

Alex crossed his fingers underneath the table. By the way his luck was going, he expected the worst.

"Dana Pendrell," Winthrop read.

Alex felt a sinking feeling in his gut.

"Graduated from University of Maryland, FBI academy and the Federation Academy. Only survivor of the Callisto mission that crashed on Aenigma last year." Winthrop looked impressed. "Know her?"

Alex nodded briskly and wrinkled his nose. "Yeah," he said quickly. Boy, did he know her!

When the bomb fell on Chilmark, their hometown, in 2442, they were put in the same orphanage. At first they were friends, but soon turned into enemies. Alex couldn't even remember why. Maybe it had to do with Dana's short temper, or maybe Alex's jealous ways.

Or maybe both.

Winthrop continued to introduce crewmembers, but Alex only listened with half an ear. Alex and Dana had competed all through school. In Alex's mind, she had won.

But he could never admit that. He was too proud.

Now Alex and Dana could be on different planets and still fight. Alex couldn't say he didn't live to fight with her. As Dana would say, it sharpened his people skills.

Alex snapped back to reality.

"Lamara Stewart. Biologist. Graduated from School of Botany with honors." Winthrop continued to drone on.

Alex let himself drift back into daydreaming. He snickered as he thought about what Dana would be doing at that very moment.

* * *

Dana sang along with the song that came through her headphones. It was a very old song, all the way back from the 20th century, but then the 25th didn't have much to offer. She stopped to nestle the headphones more comfortably on her head, then resumed working on the pipes overhead as she lay on her back.

Dana didn't mind her punishment. After all, fixing a broken water main in one of the skimmers was easy. Especially since she had slugged Alex pretty good. Dana had thought of it as a goodbye kiss, only it wasn't for good luck. More like bad.

Dana was so glad that Alex was reassigned to another mission.

She worked on the pipes and listened to the tune, now humming with it. Suddenly, someone grabbed her by the shoulders.

"Aaaaagghhh!" Dana screamed in surprise and yanked her headphones off. She looked out from underneath the skimmer and saw Josh's grinning face looking at her. "What do you want?" Dana screeched.

Josh smiled. "You're to report to Federation HQ immediately. You've been reassigned."

Dana felt a sinking feeling. "Reassigned?" she asked carefully, crawling out from underneath the small craft. Josh must have seen the look on her face, because he hurried to placate her.

"Not that kind, Dana. They have a new mission for you."

Dana closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. Among Federation employees, "reassigned" was slang for being fired. She opened her eyes and looked at Josh. "Did they say anything about the mission?"

Josh shook his head. "That's the funny thing. All they would give me was this."

He held out a slip of paper. Dana took it. On it was written one word: "Luna".

* * *

Dana walked into the Federation building and went to the receptionist's desk. The receptionist looked up with a bored expression on her face. "Yes?" she asked in an equally bored tone of voice.

"Uh, yes, I'm Dana Pendrell, and..." She got no further, for the receptionist pulled off her headphones and looked at her with wide eyes.

"Dana Pendrell? I'm so sorry, ma'am, I had no idea. Let me show you the way..."

Dana cut her off. "Uh, that won't be necessary. Just tell me where to go."

The receptionist stood, her eyes growing wide. "Oh, no, ma'am, I insist!"

Dana sighed resignedly and followed her. "This mission must really be important," she thought, "to have these people acting like this toward the crewmembers." She wondered what the Federation had gotten her into this time.

The receptionist left her standing outside a door, with a respectful nod. She looked at the door. It was of the old-fashioned hinge type, made to swing open instead of slide. It was made of dark-colored wood, with three gold numbers on it: 147. She steeled herself, took several deep breaths, and knocked.

Almost immediately, a voice called out, "Come in." Dana opened the door and walked in. There was a large group of people inside. About half were seated in chairs; the rest stood. She was a bit startled to find that the group of people included the leader of the Federation, Matt Winthrop himself. He was seated at a desk at one end of the room. She glanced at him, as if for instructions, and at his nod joined the crowd.

Winthrop rose and began to talk. "Now that we're all here..." He broke off to give Dana a meaningful glance, then continued. "Now that we're all here, I want to introduce you to each other, and give you some basic information about your mission. I'm going to call your name, and I want you to stand in a line beside me, so you can get to know each other."

Winthrop began the list.

"Lieutenant Brea Marlson."

Brea stood forward and saluted.

"Brea, your captain did not get a chance to tell you this, but you are being promoted to captain. You are in charge of this mission."

Brea's eyes widened in pleased surprise. "Thank you, sir! I won't let the Federation down," she said, saluting again. She went to stand in line.

Winthrop continued the list. "Kal O'Connor. Second in command." A tall dark-haired man stood and walked over to stand next to Brea.

"Redux. Android. Lieutenant Commander and navigator." Only a very experienced eye could have told that the android was not human. He was made of plastiform skin, with titanium-steel alloy bones. Although he was an android, he looked and acted totally real.

"Xep Green. Medic." Winthrop seemed to enjoy the pauses between names as the crewmembers glanced around curiously at each other.

"Kamira Roberts. Scientist." A woman with long black hair and cool, calculating grey eyes saluted and stepped into line.

"Thom Brown. Biologist." Pause.

"Dana Pendrell. Physicist." Dana stepped into line with an arrogant toss of her hair. Suddenly, a look of horrified surprise came briefly into her eyes. She quickly stifled it, however.

She stared straight ahead as Winthrop ion. You who are left are to be the regular crew. You will obey these men and women, especially Captain Brea-" Here Brea subconsciously straightened- "...as you would myself. I will now call you into line." He proceeded, not bothering to pause this time, simply reading down the list.

"Gemini Anderson. Marc Croftman. Dos Grey. Truth Griffin. Anorian Johnson. Nimwen McHaffie. Chris Muldrich. Alanna Nelson. Milo Otis. BobbyJo Simms. Garonen Smythe. Fox Steel. Lamara Stewart. Reggie Tyler."

Dana looked around. She made a quick tally and raised her eyebrows. 26 people were standing in line before Winthrop. Another man stepped forward. Winthrop introduced him. "This is Major Wilson. He will explain your mission."

He returned to his desk. Major Wilson pulled a table with a holoprojector on it over. He dimmed the lights, then activated the projector. A holo of a ship appeared. It rotated as Wilson talked, showing the different areas he was referring to.

"This is the Luna, the most state-of-the-art, high-tech ship existing today. You people are her officers and crew. This mission is top secret, code named Luna. This is a test flight of our newest warship design. You are to follow a routed path of coordinates and make resupply stops at these planets." Several points lit up in yellow on the screen. "You will eventually arrive at Varga 3. Upon your arrival and debriefing, the mission will be completed.

"The Luna is constructed from pure titanium, which is one foot thick. This is the skin of the ship. The ship is a quarter of a mile long, with 4 decks. These decks are connected with air vents and maintenance shafts, with trap doors in the ceiling for easy access. The Luna has the ability to hold many people, but can run on a minimum required crew of four, or three and one android. She has magnetic repulsion shields, laser emplacements, and missile capacity in order to defend yourselves should the Fallacians decide to come visiting. The Luna is equipped with our newest breakthrough in propulsion systems: Stellar Drive. She is also equipped for optitrope coordination and transmission. In short, she's a fine ship. Winthrop?"

Winthrop got up from his desk and took Wilson's place at the front of the room. No one had thought to turn off the holoprojector, and it bathed Winthrop's face in an eerie bluish glow, stopped on the last image, an overall holo of the Luna.

His face became stern as he stared directly at the new crewmembers of the Luna. "This is a top secret mission. The Luna could very well prove to be the ship that wins this war. I cannot stress this fact enough. From now on, you do not leave this building. Anything you need can be delivered. You are not to tell anyone about this mission, don't even discuss it unless you are in a secured room. Got it?"

Everyone got it.

"Any questions?"

Nobody had questions.

Winthrop straightened. "Good. You leave in two weeks. It will take that long to complete preparations for your mission. Take a key from this bowl on my desk. Each has an auto-locator in it. It will lead you to your quarters. Dismissed."

Each crewmember took a key and silently left.

* * *

The tech closed Redux's access panel and smiled. Redux accessed the proper behavior code. He smiled back and said, "Thank you. What is the result of your tests?"

The tech brought out his clipboard. "Well, the diagnostics show that you are in remarkably good shape for an android of your age, but I would recommend an oil treatment and a memory crunch."

Redux nodded. "Please direct me how to obtain these services, as I am restricted to Federation grounds."

The tech directed him to a small workshop down at the other end of the building. "You can't miss it," the tech assured him.

Redux thanked the tech and walked out of the room. He walked down the halls, following the directions the tech had given him. All of a sudden, he stopped, his behavioral program twisting his nondescript facial features into a puzzled frown.

Something was wrong.

Something in his logic circuits didn't match.

He ran some very thorough scans of the environment around him, being careful not to miss anything. Everything was normal, except for some slight fluctuations in the electrical power of the small room near him. Redux accessed his schematic readout of the Federation building and saw that it was a small coffee room. Probably someone had ordered one too many mochas and had shorted out the system. Things like that happened often with these low-grade, inferior machines. But still something about that nagged at him.

If he could only figure out what was the matter... Then, like a flash of lightning, it came to him, from information he had downloaded a long, long time ago. He accessed his short-range 'com unit and said, "Hello? Security, please."

There was no time to lose.

* * *

Lamara walked into the Level 5 lounge and looked around. There was only one other person in there - a woman with long dark hair and large grey eyes, framed by silver-rimmed glasses. The woman smiled and patted the seat beside her.

Lamara smiled back, got herself a drink from the catering slot, and took the vacant seat.

"Hi," the woman said. "You're Lamara, aren't you?"

Lamara blinked in surprise. "Um, yes."

The woman grinned at her. "I've got a knack for names. I'm Kamira, scientist."

"Oh! You're on the Luna, too? I thought you looked vaguely familiar."

It was Kamira's turn to look surprised. "How did you know I was on the Luna?"

Lamara shrugged. "Easy. I haven't talked to anyone else, so the only people who would know my name would be the people in that conference room."

"Oh," Kamira said rather sheepishly.

They talked for a while, until a very tall blond woman came over and sat down beside them with a friendly smile.

"Hi," Lamara said. "Are you on the Luna, too?"

The woman nodded. "I'm Gemini, the assistant medic."

"Hey, what's up?" Kamira said with a broad grin. "I saw you in that conference room and I just couldn't believe it!"

Gemini smiled back. "I know. At first I could only see your profile, and I thought it was just someone who looked like you."

Lamara cut in, "Wait a second. Would someone mind enlightening me as to what's going on here? You two know each other?"

"She's my cousin," they both said at once. They started to laugh, and Lamara had to join in. Once the laughter died down, there was a moment of silence.

"Hey," Kamira said with a frown. "I just thought of something. It's been bugging me all day ever since the mission briefing - I just couldn't figure out what it was. This mission is to go play delivery boy to a bunch of outposts, right?"

The other two women nodded agreement.

"So why would it be a top-secret mission, if all we're going to be doing is resupply duty?"

"Hey, you're right," said Lamara. "I never thought of that."

While their conversation had been going on, other people had been slowly trickling into the lounge. Now it was almost full.

Gemini shushed her. "Shh! What if someone hears us?" she asked, looking nervously around. "We aren't supposed to talk about it unless we're alone in a secured room!"

Lamara rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. I've been through some of this security junk before. It's just something they use to scare us, make us scared of their power. It psyches us out, makes us think we're more important than we really are. It helps mission morale. It's a bunch of lies and blown-up egos, psychology stuff. They really don't expect us to..."

Her words were cut short by what sounded like a very close clap of thunder. The room rocked wildly, and the lights flickered. Pieces of the ceiling fell in, and a choking cloud of dust settled over the room. There were several piercing screams as the ceiling collapsed.

Finally, there was silence as the shaking abated.

Kamira pulled herself up from where she had been thrown out of her seat by the blast. She was a bit shaken, and she had a horrible headache from where she had hit her head, but other than that she was fine. She took a glance at the area of worst damage, because that was where most of the screams were coming from. "Gemini is gonna have her hands full," she thought absently.

Kamira stopped abruptly.

Where were Gemini and Lamara?

* * *

The lights in Winthrop's office dimmed and swayed. He started, nearly dropping the digital reader. Data disks were spread out all over his desk. Winthrop felt the shaking, but his reinforced office took no damage, except for the desk lamp that would have shattered on the floor had he not caught it in time. He replaced it carefully in its former position on the desk.

His 'com buzzed and he picked it up. It was one of the new subordinates that had been hired last week. He was sweating and clearly nervous about the news he had to give Winthrop.

"What's going on?" Winthrop barked.

The subordinate gulped, not making eye contact. "Sir, we've had an unprecedented groundquake..."

Winthrop cut him off with a movement of his hand. He leaned back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head and lacing his fingers together. The general feeling of that incident...

He sat up abruptly, his hands coming down hard on the desk with a smack. "That was no groundquake, subbie."

Winthrop leaned forward, pointing a finger at the screen. "That was a bomb."

Chapter 2

Gemini climbed up on an overturned table to survey the scene. What she saw was utter and total destruction. Screams and cries echoed through the dusty air. She hopped down. She was relatively unhurt, and there was work to do, as soon as she found Kamira and Lamara. Gemini started forward, but stopped when she caught sight of a few locks of dark blond hair from behind a piece of ceiling. She skirted the chunk of stone in front of her - and gasped.

Lamara was lying there unconscious, blood streaming from a cut on her forehead near the hairline. Gemini dropped to her knees beside her, removing her sweater as she did so. She pressed it to the nasty-looking cut on Lamara's forehead.

Lamara moaned and moved slightly. Gemini repositioned the makeshift bandage and pressed it down more firmly. She checked Lamara's breathing and pulse and shook her head. Lamara's breathing was labored, and her pulse was a bit shallow and fast.

She heard someone calling her name and Lamara's name over the chaos. She peeked out from behind the massive boulder and saw Kamira picking her way cautiously through the debris scattered all over. She looked worried.

"Kamira!" she called back, lifting a hand and stepping out away from the rock. "Over here!" Kamira caught sight of her and picked her way over. Other people were beginning to crawl out of the wreckage, looking dazed.

She coughed as a cloud of dust fell down from the exposed rafters. "Are you okay?" Kamira asked, rubbing the side of her head.

Gemini looked down at her hands. "Yeah, I'm all right."

"Other than this splitting headache, I'm fine too," Kamira said, wincing.

Gemini looked to Lamara. "But I think we need to get her to the medical unit." Kamira and Gemini started to pick her up. They put her arms around their necks and started to drag her. "We have to get her out of here before another... whatever that was happens," Gemini explained.

Lamara groaned and opened her eyes slightly. "Hey, I can walk by myself," she said, trying to shake them loose. Kamira and Gemini let go and watched as she collapsed to the floor like an overcooked spaghetti noodle. "Maybe not," she slurred, then giggled.

Kamira sighed in slight amusement as they picked Lamara up. Gemini looked around at the destruction as they made their way to the door.

"I wonder what that was."

Kamira nodded. "It was probably a groundquake. They happen all the time on Terra because it's younger than old Earth, therefore less stable."

Gemini shook her head. "Sure didn't feel like a groundquake to me," she mumbled.

* * *

Dana picked herself up from where she'd been thrown and tried to clear her vision. The electricity flickered on and off with buzzing sounds, and she dodged a sudden shower of sparks. She looked around her quarters and saw that part of the ceiling had caved in and the floor was starting to collapse. Furniture and such were thrown about the room.

"What the..." She was cut off by another blast, slightly less fierce than the first. Again being thrown across the room, Dana crawled to her bunk. The lights went completely out and she could hear screaming from below.

She groped her way to her suitcase where all of her stuff was, including her most precious possession: the picture of her mother and father who had died when she was only 8 years old.

The emergency lights came on, bathing everything in a blood-red glow. She found that her door was blocked by a huge rafter that had fallen from above. Dana couldn't move it, so she climbed down through the hole in the floor. Dana dangled for a moment, hanging onto the edge of the cheap plasterboard flooring.

She pulled her suitcase down and into the hole, looking down as it fell to land on the floor below. It wasn't that far, and there didn't appear to be anyone in the room below. The red emergency lights flooding the room made it look like a furnace. Dana tumbled in, landing hard on the floor.

She winced as she climbed to her feet and wiped away the perspiration on her face. She looked down at her hand, finding that instead of sweat covering her hand, it was blood. In the reddish light, the blood looked surreal and unnaturally glossy.

She gingerly touched the wound on her head. Dana hissed in pain and quickly pulled her hand away. Feeling slightly dizzy, she picked up her suitcase. Dana picked her way through the furniture and debris scattered all over the room. She got to the door and opened it.

She looked up and down the halls before creeping out. She acted as if she were sneaking out of her house late at night with her parents sleeping in the next room. Reaching the end of the hall, she turned right. Dana gasped as she looked down. The entire northeast side of the building had been blown off. She recalled that all the crewmembers for the Luna were on the top floor, just like her.

She just hoped that no one was in the rooms that lay battered, broken, and burnt to a crisp far below.

* * *

Chris screamed as he flew through the air. The blast threw him across the hall. He moaned and struggled to get up. Pieces of rubble fell down around him from the ceiling and dust floated down in clouds. Chris coughed as he got shakily to his feet.

He looked around the hallway for Anorian, Garonen, Reggie, and Thom. The five of them had been headed down to the lounge for a drink, when some sort of quake had shaken the whole building.

He saw movement under a board that had fallen from the ceiling and rushed to move it. Garonen lay underneath, groaning slightly. Chris tried to help him up, but Garonen winced in pain. "Aahh!" he hissed, reaching down. "My ankle!"

Chris watched Garonen cradle his ankle. Feeling helpless, he knelt down. "Can you move it?"

Garonen tentatively released his hold, then clamped it down again quickly. "No," he breathed. "I can't feel my toes."

Chris sighed. "I'm no medic, but I think it's broken." He looked around for the others. Out of a cloud of dust, two figures emerged. One hunched over and coughed as he stepped into the clearer air. It was Reggie. He had black smears on his clothes and face, and scrapes and cuts on his arms and hands. The other was shorter and skinnier.

Anorian stepped into Chris' view. Honey-colored hair hung in his now-dull blue-green eyes and his clothes were ripped and dusty. Blood trickled down from his exposed shoulder. Chris got up and walked to them. A few moments later, they were joined by Thom. He was in an awful mess.

"You guys all right?" Chris asked.

Anorian rubbed his head. "Yeah, I think so."

Reggie looked around at the destruction in the halls. "Man! What happened here?"

"I don't know," Chris answered. "But we need to get out of here. Garonen's hurt. It's pretty bad."

Reggie and Anorian looked past Chris to Garonen, who lay rocking back and forth on the floor, whimpering slightly. They moved to help him up, but Garonen hissed in pain. He gritted his teeth as Reggie took one side and Chris took the other. They carried him over to the transporter.

Chris muttered under his breath, "We'll have to take the stairs."

"I guess we will," Anorian said, looking at the mess that was formerly the transporter. Anorian and Thom led the way down the stairs.

* * *

Winthrop reached for his microphone.

"Attention! All personnel evacuate the building."

He rushed out of the office and ran down the stairs. Down, down, down he went. People screamed for help, but Winthrop couldn't worry about them... yet. He finally reached Level 1.

Breathing hard, Winthrop ran outside. People were stumbling past him and falling over helplessly. Some got up again. More didn't. Men and women screamed and ran around like chickens with their heads cut off. Some were missing limbs, some were badly burned, and others were hopelessly injured.

Winthrop ran out from the building and turned around to see. He caught his breath. The building was a shambles. Fire lapped out of windows and whole sections were just... gone. People fell or jumped out of windows screaming. Smoke rose from the ruins in billows.

Winthrop thought aloud, "Oh, my god."

Two men in black business suits walked by. They stopped next to him. Each had a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. The man nearest Winthrop held his coffee cup out.

"Coffee, sir?" he asked in a casually annoying voice.

He turned to face the burning building as his partner commented, "This is new."

Winthrop scowled at his yes-men for being so damn nonchalant. But, having gone to law school, all emotion whatsoever had been summarily removed from their systems.

"Lawyers," he muttered under his breath. "Might as well be blood-suckin' zombies."

* * *

Electricity surged through the lounge and sparks flew everywhere. Lamara was dragged out into the hall and down the stairs by Kamira. Gemini was helping others out of the lounge. Choking on smoke and soot in the air, Kamira drew closer to the door. Only a few people pushed to get out now; more pushed to get in from the other direction.

Kamira could see the bright light of outside ahead, and she had to shield her eyes from the intensity versus the interior darkness of the building. Struggling to pull the now fully unconscious Lamara, Kamira made her way to the door. Paramedics swarmed around out front and several rushed in.

Seeing the clearance tags around their necks, the paramedics quickly radioed a man with a voice similar to Winthrop's, if not exactly like his. They placed Lamara on a stretcher and escorted Kamira outside. The bright light made her look confused and disoriented. They were taken to Winthrop, who was waiting on a helicopter pad.

Lariana, Nimwen, and Fox were already standing next to him and waiting for a helicopter. "Was there anyone else with you?" Winthrop asked Kamira immediately.

Dazed, Kamira blinked. "Gemini was with us in the lounge."

Winthrop picked up his 'com. "We have one positive in the Level 5 lounge, repeat, the Level 5 lounge."

No sooner had he said this than a figure appeared at the doors. Carrying a child in one arm, Gemini stumbled out to the waiting paramedics who took the child and led her to the helicopter pad. Gemini knelt over Lamara and checked her temperature, as the paramedics had done.

Kamira noticed that Gemini was dirty, probably from rummaging through the rubble searching for people. Paramedics ran back, tending to numerous wounds on Fox and Lariana. Nimwen seemed to be unhurt except for a shrapnel score on her forehead. Attentive paramedics dabbed at the bloody marks, but she shook them off impatiently.

The building smoked and burned in the oxygen-rich atmosphere. Smoke poured out of windows, and fire lapped at the wreckage below like a hungry living thing. Kamira gaped as people launched themselves out windows, some landing in fire nets, others not as lucky. Winthrop looked at the disaster and cursed under his breath.

* * *

Dana ran down the stairs, suitcase in hand. She saw fire and ruins on every floor she passed. Floors caved in and she treaded carefully on the feeble stairs. When she reached the 3rd floor, fire prevented her from going down any further. Panic flooded her brain and her stomach lurched.

She stood perfectly still and watched the fire eat up the staircase. Memories of her childhood came back to her. Memories of the night World War IV started. Memories of the night her family died. She had heard her parents screaming as she just stood there, paralyzed with fear.

The fire had won that night.

It wouldn't win today.

Dana dodged fallen rafters and crawled under ceiling panels that had fallen to the floor. Sparks flew from exposed wires and started new fires. The floor seemed deserted as she hunted for another way down. Finding none, Dana ran around a corner to where she might find a window.

Instead, she ran straight into Alex.

Falling backwards, Dana dropped her suitcase. "You moron!" she groaned, picking herself up.

"Sorry," Alex mumbled. He crawled to her suitcase and offered it to her. Dana got up and grabbed it from him. She grumbled under her breath. Alex pulled himself up and saw her clearly for the first time since running into her. "Dana?"

Dana looked up as a burning two-by-four started to come down. "Watch out!" She rammed herself into Alex, knocking them both out of the way. She landed right on top of Alex. She looked into his wide dark eyes for a second.

"Dana," Alex said in an astonished tone of voice, "You saved my life!"

Dana collected her suitcase. "Let's just say... you'd do the same for me." Dana thought that over in her mind and decided that no, he probably wouldn't have. "Besides," she said, pushing herself off of him, "You were in my way."

Alex and Dana ran into one of the unlocked rooms and looked out a window. It looked out over the front of the building. Dana set down her suitcase and went over to the window to look out. People scurried about and paramedics were all over the place. Dana started to climb out on the ledge. The flagpole that came out of the building horizontally was right in front of her.

"You're crazy," Alex hissed.

"Well, it's better to be alive and crazy than dead and sane, don't you agree?"

Alex looked down below. People were pointing at Dana and hollering to the fire marshals. He shook his head, sighed, and joined Dana on the ledge. Suddenly she stopped in mid-motion. "My suitcase!"

"No time for it! You'll just have to go without it!" Alex replied.

"I can't!" Dana seemed near tears. "The only picture I have of my parents is in there! Wait for me and I'll go get it."

"No," Alex said quickly. She was distraught, and it was getting more dangerous in there by the minute. If something happened to her, not only would he be stuck up here alone with no way down, but he would probably get blamed. "No," he repeated. "I'll go."

* * *

Gemini turned to go back into the building, but Winthrop caught her by the shoulder. "Just where do you think you're going?"

Gemini turned around. "I'm going back in there. Those people need help!"

"Yes, they do," Winthrop agreed. "But not from you."

Gemini bristled with anger, her green eyes going icy. "I am a qualified medic, and..."

Winthrop cut her short. "I have no doubts about your capabilities, Ms. Anderson. However, you are irreplaceable."

But instead of mollifying her, this just seemed to make Gemini angrier. "Oh, is that it? We're slated to go on an important mission for you, so we get extra-special protection, while in there a lot of people are dead and more are dying? I can help them, sir. It's my job to help them. And if you try to stop me, you can take your mission and shove it!"

Winthrop looked rather amazed by this outburst. The ice in Gemini's eyes had metamorphosed into a defiant fire. He was about to reply when Kamira grabbed his arm.

"Look, sir!" He followed her pointing finger to a spot on Level 3, where two figures stood on a ledge. "There's two people up there," she said incredulously.

Winthrop cursed. Even from this distance he recognized them. Reed and Pendrell. He hoped they weren't about to do something completely foolish.

"But look," Gemini called. "One of them is going back in!"

Winthrop sighed. "Never mind."

* * *

Dana watched in astonishment as Alex climbed back in after her suitcase. Why on earth was he going in for her? He hated her! Who did he think he was, anyway? She peered anxiously through the window. Even though her dearest wish was for him to drop off the face of the planet, she would never forgive herself if he got killed because of her.

Alex stumbled through the smoke-filled room. He could barely breathe, and the heat was getting worse by the minute. Where was that blasted suitcase? He looked back at Dana's worried blue eyes peering through the window at him.

How touching.

Then, he spied the suitcase. It was lying in a pool of some sort of liquid. Judging from the distinctive smell, it was one of the many extremely flammable fuels used by modern housing. And just to top everything off, there was a live wire lying next to the puddle, sparking for all it was worth.

Wonderful.

He reached the suitcase, which was soaking wet with the fuel. Alex looked down and realized that his shoes and pantlegs were also soaked.

Even more wonderful.

He quickly scooped up the suitcase. It was of the overnight variety, designed to hold a large amount of objects in the smallest space possible. He tucked it under his arm and turned to pick his way back to the window.

WHOOSH!

One of the sparks had finally reached the puddle at his feet. He leaped clear just as Dana screamed, "ALEX! Watch out!"

"Thanks for the warning," he muttered under his breath. He double-checked for the suitcase. Good - it was still there. He would have been most annoyed if he'd had to search for it in this. He dodged a falling piece of ceiling - not burning this time, thank goodness!

It was getting worse in here by the second. Alex pitied the poor people who were still trapped in here. Undoubtedly there were; the paramedics couldn't possibly have gotten everyone out in such a short time.

He wondered if some of his fellow crewmembers were among them.

Alex stepped over to the window. "Help me out, Dana," he requested. His footing was unstable and he didn't trust it. He took the hand she offered him. It was ice-cold. He noticed how small and nimble it was, especially when compared to his large one. He grunted as he heaved himself out the window.

Alex felt Dana pulling hard, too hard, and watched as she almost lost her balance. As he dropped the suitcase on the ledge, Alex used his free hand to grab her shoulder, stabilizing her for the moment. Dana was looking down at what looked like a colony of ants, scurrying around as if a magnifying glass had just set their anthill on fire.

With hair still in her eyes, Dana tilted her head slowly upright, until, through auburn hair, she met Alex's gaze. Alex realized that his hand was still on her shoulder, and her hand was still in his. A slight breeze blew more hair in her face, hair that was illuminated by the sun, which was only hours away from being on the horizon.

Alex let go of her hand and used his to move fiery hair from her face. She kept his gaze for only a second more before looking away. He heard her clear her throat quietly as she pulled away from his grasp and again, looked down.

Alex wondered what she was looking at, if anything at all.

Then she sat upright with a look of realization. "Alex?" He could barely hear her voice over the roar of the commotion below, planes above, and fire behind him. "Did you get it?"

"Of course."

"Give it here." Dana extended her open arms. Alex picked it up, but instead of giving it to her, he prepared to throw it. "Hey! What was that for? What did I ever do to you?"

She snatched the suitcase and began digging through one of the outer pockets.

"Besides ruining my life?"

Dana smiled and stopped to mime taking out a pad of paper and pencil. "Well, my life's work is done." She pretended to cross off something on the paper, then throw both imaginary articles over her shoulder. The smile vanished. Replacing it was a slightly hurt look. "Why?" She then found the picture and took it out, zipping up the pocket once more.

"It's too dangerous for you to have out here, you could lose your balance easily."

"Like you care," she said, giving him a disgusted look and beginning to pull away.

"I do."

She pretended not to hear. "Fine, just throw my life away. Do it! Go ahead! Destroy what I live for!"

"A suitcase?"

"It's what's inside the suitcase, dummy!"

"We'll get it later. I'm sure in all this commotion, no one's going to care about a little old suitcase."

"You know, if you dropped the suitcase from up here, and it hit someone, they would probably die?" Dana changed the subject slightly.

Alex shrugged. "Heads up!"

The suitcase fell 3 stories, and through all the ruckus, didn't make a sound.

Dana sidestepped out onto the ledge in front of her, slipping the picture in her pocket. She was extremely careful not to crumple or bend it. Alex put a restraining hand on her shoulder. "Whoa, whoa, wait a second here, Dana. Just what exactly is our plan?"

She stared at him for a second. "Plan? What plan? I'm just trying to get out of here!"

"I... thought you had a plan."

"No, I thought you were supposed to come up with the plan."

"Me? You always brag about how you're the smart one, you think of something!"

"Oh, come on, don't you ever watch any bad, clichéd movies? The guy always comes up with the plan!"

"Well, whatever it is we're doing, we'd better do it fast, because that fire is getting closer!"

Dana nodded and moved along a bit farther. Alex decided to wait until she was safely on the ground to follow. That way, he would know if her idea would work or not. A gust of wind came, and Dana sucked in a breath sharply. She nearly lost her balance, but managed to recover... barely.

Suddenly, a helicopter came flying up. Alex felt a surge of relief. Good old Winthrop had sent help. But his relief turned to horror as the intense wind generated by the blades proved to be too much for Dana. She was almost blown off her perch with a scream, only barely managing to catch hold of the end of the ledge.

"Alex, help me!" she cried.

He hurried over to the spot where she dangled from the ledge. "Grab my hand!" he ordered.

"I... I can't!" she gasped. The helicopter flew nearer. Dana's hands began to slip. "Eek!" she cried as she slid down a bit further off the ledge. Alex knelt down and tried to grab her wrist, gripping the ledge with his other hand so that her weight wouldn't overbalance him and send them both dropping to the ground. He succeeded just as her grip slipped all the way. Dana was now dangling by one arm from the third story of the Federation building. Her life was, literally, in his hands.

"Give me your other hand!" he shouted.

She tried to reach up, but the wind blew her to one side. Alex's hold slipped a bit. She slid down slightly. Dana yelped. Alex's hand was beginning to cramp. Dana slid down further.

The helicopter began to move in, adding to the wind problem. Dana was again blown to the side. Her wrist was wrenched out of his grasp.

"DANAAAA!" Alex screamed in an absolute horror that mirrored the look on her face as she plummeted to the ground.

"ALEX!"

Her scream rang out in unison with his.

* * *

"Are you sure this is the right way?" Chris asked, looking around.

"I dunno," answered Reggie. "Everything looks way different. It got all shaken up in here. It's freaky, man."

Garonen groaned. "Can we stop and rest for a second? My ankle is really starting to hurt."

"Sure," answered Chris. He hoped the kid wasn't going to lose it. He was only 16, barely past standard Academy minimum acceptance age. He looked around and saw a region that wasn't too broken up. He pointed, and Anorian and Thom helped Garonen hobble over to a fallen chunk of stone where he could sit.

Chris knelt down in front of him. "Let me take a look at this," he said. Chris pulled off Garonen's boot as gently as he could, but Garonen still moaned in pain. Garonen's sock was all bloody - a bad sign. He pulled it off. Garonen looked like he was about ready to faint any second.

The injury was an ugly sight. Blood gushed out of myriad tiny wounds. The foot looked crushed. Chris squeezed it gently. He could feel Garonen's crushed bones like thick-set jelly under the skin. It was bad, all right. Worse than he'd expected.

Chris looked up to find that Garonen had passed out. He looked around, but could see no way out of the building. "How are we going to get out of this one?" he said to no one in particular.

* * *

Gemini and Kamira both screamed in horror as one of the figures from the ledge fell from the flagpole. Winthrop felt his heart sink into his boots. He turned to the ever-present toadies in black business suits beside him.

"Who sent that helicopter up there?" he demanded.

"I did, sir," the taller one volunteered.

The expression on Winthrop's face did not change as he addressed the man. "You're fired. And if whoever that was dies, well - we outlawed the death penalty, but by the time I'm done with you, you're going to wish they hadn't. What's wrong with you, man? Why didn't you send a skimmer or something instead of a helicopter? You are so fired."

"Yes, sir," the man said, staring straight ahead. He fervently hoped whoever that was survived the fall. Winthrop's threats were not to be taken lightly.

"Which one was that?" asked Gemini in a hushed voice. Both she and Kamira knew from Winthrop's comments that it was two of the crewmembers up on the ledge, but they didn't know which ones.

"I think it was the female," Kamira whispered huskily. "I saw her hair whipping around. And it was the shorter one who climbed out on the pole."

Gemini closed her eyes. She didn't want to think about what a fall from that height would do to a person if they landed on the steelcrete.

Kamira watched as the male was loaded into the helicopter. Suddenly, she grabbed Gemini by the arm. "Come on! Let's not just leave her there!" The two women ran at top speed towards the spot where they had seen her fall.

They were almost there now. Kamira saw Dana. She was being loaded onto a stretcher. Kamira didn't hesitate. She ran over there and asked the nearest paramedic, "Is she all right?"

The paramedic looked up. "Huh? Oh, yeah, she'll be fine, except for a terrible headache when she wakes up. Even with the net we barely managed to get under her, that was one heck of a fall."

Kamira and Gemini breathed a collective sigh of relief. They slowly walked back to the helicopter pad.

Winthrop waited for them anxiously. "Is she all right?" he asked, a worried look on his face.

"The medics said she'll be fine," Gemini replied soothingly. Winthrop exhaled loudly and leaned back against the helicopter that had landed directly behind him.

Alex stumbled out, wide-eyed. "Where is she?" he asked frantically. "Is she okay?"

Kamira wondered why he was so worried. She'd seen them in the conference room. They'd looked like they hated each other, and up on the ledge there had appeared to be some sort of disagreement going on. But then she realized that seeing anybody die, even her worst enemy, would probably affect her the same way. He was probably sure that the female crewmember was dead.

Gemini put a calming hand on his shoulder. "We talked to the medics. They're taking her to the MU. They said she'll be just fine."

Alex did not look convinced.

* * *

Chris's attention was caught by someone calling his name.

"Chris? Chris Muldrich? Amber MacKenzie? Brea Marlson? Truth Griffin? Garonen Smythe? BobbyJo Simms?"

Before the voice had gotten any further, Chris yelled, "Here! We're over here!" Clearly whoever the person was, he was looking for Luna crewmembers.

The voice came back, "Keep talking! We'll find our way over to you!" Chris paced around and yelled out all that had happened since the quake. He was right in the middle of describing Garonen's broken foot when there was a crunching sound and a team of paramedics vaulted through the sudden hole in the wall.

"Is everyone here okay?" one asked.

"Yeah," Thom replied. "Except for Garonen." He motioned to Garonen, lying unconscious in the rubble, still holding his ankle. Immediately half of the paramedics went over, picked him up, and carried him out the hole. The remainder escorted Chris and the others out. Chris squinted in the bright light, momentarily blinded.

Through watering eyes, he could make out vague figures standing by a helicopter. As his vision cleared, he recognized Winthrop and some of his fellow Luna crewmates. Winthrop's 'com buzzed. He whipped it out.

"Yes?" he barked.

"Sir," the voice came back, loudly enough for Chris to hear, "We've identified a Luna crewmember at the MU."

Winthrop's face paled. "The name?"

"Marc Croftman, sir."

Winthrop closed his eyes. "Condition?"

"Deceased, sir. DOA. He died while being transported. The medics did their best, but there's only so much one can do."

Chris felt his body go numb. Dead on arrival.

If there was one crewmember dead, how many more lay in the rubble or in the MU dead or dying?

Chapter 3

Brea crawled through the debris littering the floor. The blood-red emergency lights flickered wildly, and she was afraid they would go out, leaving her in complete blackness. She couldn't even count on a window for light, because she was on one of the many subterranean floors.

Another landslide of dust and various items from above crashed down nearly on top of her. Brea jerked away, stopping to cradle her throbbing left arm. Blood was still gushing out of it, even though she'd used her sock to bandage it. She couldn't bear to look at it; she'd always been somewhat queasy about these things, and the broken bone protruding from it didn't help much.

She felt dizzy, and was beginning to pant. For some reason, she was having some trouble breathing. Brea eased herself down to sit on a broken piece of plasterboard with a groan of pain. What on earth had happened? There she'd been, minding her own business, simply looking for a lounge that hadn't been filled to the brim with people, when she'd been thrown across the hall and a huge pile of junk had landed on her. Then, the entire building had rocked, as if it were a boat on high seas.

"Let's see," she thought out loud. "I want to go up, because up will lead out. I'll just wait a few minutes, though. I'm so tired..."

The room was spinning. Brea thought that was the most hilarious thing she'd ever seen in her entire life.

She still had a rather idiotic grin on her face as she crumpled to the floor and passed out.

* * *

Truth stumbled out of the wreckage of the cute little café, cute no longer, located on the top floor of the Federation building. "Xep? Amber? BobbyJo? Alanna?" she called. Where were they? Her voice was all but drowned out by the screams and cries of the wounded and other people frantically calling out names. Then, she heard her own name being called.

"Truth? Truth!"

She whirled around as well as she could in the ankle-high dust. It was Alanna, framed by beams of golden sunlight that made the dust clouds and everything else glow with a radiant brilliance. Truth's mouth dropped. The entire northeast corner was blown off. In fact, from the way things looked, they were lucky the entire café hadn't been blown away.

Alanna stepped closer. Her dark blue eyes were wide with surprise and worry. "Truth, are you okay?"

Only then was she aware of a stinging pain in her arm. She looked down. Blood oozed out of the shrapnel scores on it. She grimaced. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a couple cuts. How about you?"

Alanna shook her head. "I'm all right, but from the looks of things, the café isn't."

Truth scrunched her face up as she looked at the damage. "Hey, Alanna, do you know where the others are?"

"No," Alanna said, widening her eyes even further and flicking her chestnut-colored hair to her back.

"We were over there..." Truth mused. She hopped over various items lying on the floor and came to the little corner table. Her, BobbyJo, Amber, Alanna, and Xep had been sitting here, drinking the popular new coffee substitute or tea, when the room had rocked violently. She'd been thrown hard up against the opposite wall. Truth shook her head to clear it, chin-length dark brown hair, almost black, whipping around her face.

She didn't really know what had happened, and didn't really care, either. All she wanted to do was find her new acquaintances and fellow crewmates. "Let's see," she murmured to herself. "Xep was sitting here, Amber here, BobbyJo..." Her voice trailed off and she stared in shock at BobbyJo's corner. There was literally nothing there - nothing, that was, except for a gaping hole that was so deep it seemed to stretch to infinity.

* * *

Winthrop paced around the main waiting room of the J.H.A. Memorial Hospital. He was waiting for news of the rest of his Luna crew. Only 12 out of 26 accounted for! Half! His 'com buzzed, and he pulled it out instantly. "Winthrop," he barked.

"Sir," the voice on the other end replied, "we've identified another Luna crewmember."

Winthrop felt his pulse pick up. "Well, who is it?"

There was the sound of an ID book being leafed through. "Captain Brea Marlson, sir."

Winthrop's body suddenly went numb. "Condition?" he asked carefully through stiff lips.

"Stable for the moment, sir, though I'm not sure how long that'll last. She's taken a compound fracture to her left arm, and we've detected internal bleeding. She's lost a lot of blood, and I'm not sure how long she'll last if we can't get her over to your location pretty soon."

"Well, get her over here, then! She's the captain, man! We can't lose her!" Winthrop scowled at his 'com.

"We're trying, sir, but we're caught in a traffic jam! All these dratted civilians are crowding in hoping for a look."

Winthrop swore. "I'm sending a 'copter out to you. Transfer her to it. Where are you?"

"We're about four blocks south of the Federation building, sir. Right by the park."

Winthrop signed off and immediately punched in another 'com code. "Wilson? Winthrop here. Get me a 'copter. Now! Go to the park by the south end of the Federation building. You'll see a red ambulance. Take the injured person and fly her over here ASAP."

"Gotcha. Wilson out."

Winthrop shut off the 'com and collapsed into a chair, suddenly and inexplicably drained. If they lost the captain, it could take forever to consolidate the mission. If that happened, they could lose everything. The Fallacians would take over Terra, and that would be the end of the Federation, to say nothing of all those poor civilians and colonists.

Winthrop shuddered as he remembered the holos he'd seen of the Fallacian takeovers on Capella and Procyon. They'd proudly recorded everything, and sent it to Terra, the heart world of the Federation. Probably trying to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. Combat Lesson Number One: A frightened enemy does not think clearly.

Winthrop smiled tightly to himself. If the Fallacians were planning on easy pickings, Terra was going to give them a run for their money. After all, as the Fallacians were shortly to find out, Winthrop thought, you just didn't mess with humans.

Especially not the Federation.

* * *

Dana was suddenly aware of voices. They chattered and babbled nonsensical gibberish at her. She thrashed about, trying to escape them. She was held down and someone grabbed her hand. A bright light shone in her face, and she moaned and tried to turn away.

It didn't work too well. Her head seemed to weigh roughly the same as that skimmer she'd repaired... She stopped her train of thought. Where was she? She remembered fire, and Alex, and a suitcase, and a helicopter... Falling! She remembered falling, and screaming.

She heard a whimper, and recognized it as her own. "Hush, Dana. It's all right." A cool hand touched her forehead, helping slightly to abate the fiery pain lingering there.

Dana moaned and cracked her eyes open. Her vision was blurry. She caught an impression of blond and black hair, two faces bent over her, and someone else down at the foot of her bed...

She opened her eyes a little further. As her vision cleared, the first thing she saw was Alex, because he happened to be the shadowy someone at the end of the bed, and so right in her line of vision. She managed an inward chuckle. Alex. Exactly the person she wanted to wake up and see first thing.

Dana looked up and found two women, one with dark hair, the other with blond hair and startlingly green eyes, bent over her. Dark Hair had her hand, so Green Eyes must have been the one with cool hands and the soft voice.

"Suitcase?" she asked Alex. Well, actually it came out more like "shoocashe," since she didn't seem to have any control over her lips and tongue. She frowned and licked dry lips.

Alex rolled his eyes. "Honestly, Dana! We've been worried sick about you, and all you can think of is your stupid suitcase? I didn't even think about it. But don't worry. What with all the excitement going on, no one will even stop to look at it. You can get it later."

Dana quirked an eyebrow at him. "You? Worried about me? That's a first," she slurred.

Alex shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "You know what I mean," he snapped back. "Don't tell me you wouldn't be a little worried if you watched me fall three stories, presumably to my death."

"Actually," she grinned, "what I'd probably be thinking would be more like 'goodbye and good riddance'."

Alex flushed angrily. He started to get up and make a move towards her, but Green Eyes stopped him. "She's in no condition to fight with you right now, Alex. Either sit down and shut up, or leave." Alex chose the latter option, his dark eyes glaring with suppressed fire at Dana.

"You doctors?" she asked.

Dark Hair shook her head. "No, we're on the Luna mission with you. Gemini over there is medic, and I'm going as scientist. I'm Kamira, by the way."

Gemini smiled wryly. "Friend of yours?" she asked, jerking her head towards the door.

Dana tried to smile back, not very successfully. "Yeah, sort of. More like archenemy."

"He really was worried, Dana," Kamira said softly. "He was freaking out when they got him out of the 'copter."

Dana snorted. "Probably because he thought he might get a share of the blame for letting me climb out on that ledge."

Kamira and Gemini looked at each other. Clearly they didn't believe her.

"We'll let you rest now, Dana," Gemini said. They left the room, leaving Dana to mull over their news. Alex? Worried about her? Ha! Although she did have to admit that if she did see someone fall like that - anyone - she would be at least a little concerned. But of course she wouldn't let Alex know that. Dana chuckled softly as she turned over onto her side.

The look on his face had been priceless!

* * *

Amber moaned and forced her eyes open. She heard sobbing coming from somewhere. It sounded almost hysterical. She pushed herself up and experimentally moved her limbs. She gave a sigh of relief. Nothing broken; just a few bruises and the wind knocked out of her. Moving over to where the sobbing was coming from, she slipped on a loose piece of plasterboard.

She cursed as she looked at the blood trickling down her left hand. The sobbing was coming in shorter gasps now, as if the victim couldn't breathe well. Amber knew that whoever it was had to be seriously hurt. She looked up - and found herself staring at the sky, which was far, far above her. Her turquoise-colored eyes widened as she realized that she must have fallen several stories. She'd been lucky - she'd fallen on the bed in someone's quarters.

Amber picked her way over to where the sobber was just plain gasping now. She gave a gasp of her own. It was BobbyJo, but she was all but buried underneath a large pile of stone. Only her head, part of her chest, and one arm were free. The rest of her body was trapped beneath the rubble.

As Amber neared, BobbyJo's dark green eyes widened with recognition and hope. "Amber?" Her voice was merely a cracked whisper, barely audible. "Amber, get me out of here!" she pleaded.

"I'll try," Amber replied, although she hadn't a clue as to where to even begin. First she cleared away the smaller stones as best she could. Then she started on the larger ones. But just about as she'd almost gotten BobbyJo halfway free, there was an ominous rumble and the impossibly high pile of stone crashed down again on both of them. Amber cursed herself. BobbyJo was running out of time - and now she was trapped, too.

* * *

Dos stumbled out the door of his wrecked room. The blasted Federation was so blasted cheap, he thought. Couldn't even spend the extra mil or so to build a decent bombproof building. He wanted a word or two - or ten or so - with Winthrop.

Dos stalked down the ruined halls, ignoring screams and cries for help. He shot a scathing glance at one particularly noisy moaner. He took a look. "Aah, shut up. It's only a flesh wound. You'll live. Come on, take it like a man!"

He continued on his way, not looking left or right. "Now where in blasted space are the blasted transporters?" he thought out loud.

"Over here, sir," came an answering voice. Dos looked over - and groaned. It was Bob McKenna, the resident Federation do-gooder. He'd met Bob during his stint at Mission Control - before he'd been diagnosed with heart problems and they'd fired him.

Bob's official title was Overseer, which was just a fancy way of saying that he sat behind a desk all day and assigned missions and made sure so-and-so wasn't being paid too much. Bob was the biggest suck-up Dos had ever seen in his entire life; always kissing butt and throwing his lowly status in front of every high-ranking person available. It was his way of saying that he wanted a promotion.

Fat chance.

And since Dos was now 55 standard years old, being the biggest suck-up he'd ever seen was saying quite a bit.

He went over to the transporters, but ignored Bob. He stepped into one, and, as luck would have it, Bob joined him. He chattered incessantly all the way down to ground level.

"Gee, I wonder what that was. Pretty freaky, huh? Of course, I'm just a lowly overseer, so I wouldn't know about that sort of thing, because it's usually the important smart people who figure stuff like this out. I could be smart, but I'm only an overseer, so I really don't count, because..."

He was silenced by Dos slamming him up against the wall of the transporter and holding his fist right next to Bob's nose.

"One more word out of you," he growled, "and you'll be carrying your head out of here!"

Bob thought it best not to say another word.

The remainder of the trip was carried out in silence.

* * *

Gemini ran for a suture tray. If they didn't get those wounds stitched up quickly, this man probably wouldn't make it. She entered the supply room, now virtually bare, and arranged the trays. Then she hurried back, careful not to spill anything off the tray. Gemini held the tray for the medic as he began to stitch up the awful wounds. The man was unconscious, so he didn't feel a thing.

She watched anxiously as the medic began to stitch up the huge gashes. Gemini wondered how he'd gotten those. He'd been unconscious when he'd arrived. She breathed a sigh of relief when the gush of blood began to slow to a trickle. The medic slapped a couple of Quick-Heal bandages on, then sent him to an already over-crowded room. The hospital was beginning to fill up.

Gemini had no time to even take a breath before he was calling for another patient. She gave a gasp as he was wheeled in. He looked young - only 16 or 17 or so, and he had bright red hair. But Gemini was looking at his foot. It looked crushed. Ugly purple bruises were already sprouting, and the sheets of the stretcher he was lying on were soaked in blood.

She made a small revulsed noise deep in her throat and turned to get the form for the records.

"Ready to take the info?" the medic asked tersely. Gemini just nodded.

He rifled through the kid's clothes looking for ID. The medic frowned as he pulled out a clearance tag from the kid's pocket. A tingle ran through Gemini as she stared at the little blue card with its crescent moon emblem. She involuntarily reached for her pocket and touched her own with gloved fingers. Each mission had its own distinctive card.

"Name-" the medic read. "Garonen Smythe."

Gemini nearly dropped her clipboard. Here was a Luna crewmember! Winthrop had given her a list when she'd told him that she was going to help out at the hospital whether he liked it or not. She took the rest of the information with numbed fingers. The medic finished his examination.

"He's stable for now. Let's get to work on this foot."

* * *

Milo stood in the coffee room, a look of frustration crossing his face. "Aww, come on, you wretched machine! I want my coffee!"

The machine made grinding sounds but otherwise refused to produce his espresso.

Milo cursed and kicked the base of the machine. "I want my coffee, dammit!" he screamed. He proceeded to beat it up, banging on it and pressing the button over and over again.

He failed to notice the little red light blinking on and off on the machine.

* * *

Security Camera #407 stared fixedly into the coffee room, as it was assigned to do. Its glassy eye gazed unwaveringly at Milo and the coffee machine.

Milo cursed yet again and pressed the button one more time. The camera eye caught the small flashing red light and zoomed in, as per programming. The small light slowly began to blink faster, then faster, and even faster.

Milo sighed in resignation and turned away.

The room exploded into a fireball. The camera managed to capture Milo's scream and the image of a body flying backward out of the fiery maelstrom before the storm reached it and the screen faded to static.

* * *

Amber's consciousness flickered in and out. She had no way of knowing how long she and BobbyJo had been buried. Every time she woke up again, BobbyJo's breathing seemed worse. She tried to keep up a conversation for a while - as much to keep herself awake as BobbyJo - but eventually she ran out of both strength and subjects and simply trailed off.

She lay silent, listening to the gasping wheezes coming from over to her right. She dreaded to think that soon she might hear them stop. At least she was in a slightly better situation than BobbyJo. She was lying on her stomach, not her back, and she wasn't buried nearly as deep.

Somehow, this wasn't very comforting.

She lay there, with about 200 pounds of rock digging into her back. Not exactly her dream choice of places to be right now, but it seemed she didn't have any choice in the matter.

"BobbyJo?" she asked softly.

"Y-yeah?" Her answer came back as sort of a breathy gulp.

"You doing okay?"

A few more breathy sobs. "Yeah, I - I guess so."

"Just hang on, BobbyJo. Sooner or later someone will come along and get us out of here."

She just hoped it was sooner.

Suddenly, there was a rumbling sound, and more of the ceiling fell in on them. BobbyJo screamed in pain and fear. It was all Amber could do to keep from crying out. Amber tried to block out the pain of the huge rock digging into her back. Fortunately, the portions of the ceiling that fell slid off the side of the rock and away from them. The rock seemed to shift and small pebbles rolled down it and onto her.

Amber cried out as the rock pressed into her back harder than before. She only heard a pained grunt come from her right. The wheezing grew louder and less separated. Amber knew that BobbyJo was running out of air.

"I can't breathe!" BobbyJo gasped.

"Yes, you can," Amber said soothingly. "Relax, you're breathing right now."

The wheezing turned into long gasps. Amber blew out a long breath of air. Keeping up a conversation seemed to be the thing to do. "So, BobbyJo," Amber said loudly. "How old are you?"

BobbyJo spoke in a forced whisper. "I would have been 19 next week."

"Would have been?" Amber thought. "You know," she said, "We're not going to die down here."

BobbyJo made a sound Amber hadn't heard from her before. She laughed. "How do you know?"

"Call it... a feeling," Amber said slowly.

BobbyJo mumbled something Amber couldn't quite hear. BobbyJo coughed again and again. "Ooh," she moaned.

Amber bit her lip. What was she going to do? Suddenly, Amber noticed a puddle of brown liquid around them. Then she recognized it as the gas used to heat the building. Its strong odor gave it away. Amber's heart stopped and her stomach knotted. But then she blew out a sigh of relief as she realized something. The gas was flammable, but only when a flame was already on it.

Then she noticed an electric wire on the ground, sparking dangerously. Amber could only hope that the gas didn't ignite.

She closed her eyes.

* * *

Xep opened her eyes slowly. Where was she? What had happened? She felt a pounding in her head, and she ached all over. Xep realized that she was sprawled out on the floor among rubble and rocks.

She tried to move, but found that her leg was trapped under a rafter. She touched her temple and gasped as she saw her arm. Her sleeve was soaked in blood, although she felt no pain. "What happened?" she asked herself. Xep remembered the café, and then shaking, and... an explosion!

A bomb? But it couldn't have been; this was the Federation building? How could a bomb have slipped by Security? Xep looked around. Where was she?

She looked up. There was a hole in the ceiling where light fell through. The café! She could see the booth up above where she had been sitting before the blast. More dust and pieces of the ceiling fell down on her. Xep knew that she had to get out, and fast.

"Help!" she shouted, but she heard only a hoarse whisper come out. Of course! Xep had been losing her voice already before the explosion, due to a cold virus. "Help!" she tried again. Still only a hoarse whisper came out.

Xep tried to pull her leg free. It wouldn't budge. Xep wrapped both hands around her ankle and pulled hard. "Ohhhh," she whispered. "Ouch!" Finally it edged free.

Her foot left a smear of bright blood on the black rafter. She struggled to her feet and wiped blood from her hands onto her pants. Where was everyone else?

Then she heard voices up above. "Hey!" she yelled. A cracked whisper escaped instead. Xep picked up a chunk of wood and banged it against the wall. A face peered down from the hole in the ceiling.

"Help me up!" she whispered.

"Alanna!" the person called. "I found Xep!" Xep squinted and realized who it was.

"Truth?" she asked quietly.

"Xep, grab my hand," Truth said, extending her arm down. Alanna came up beside Truth.

"I don't know, maybe we should go down there to get out. We can't get out up here. The door's broken."

Truth nodded. "Xep, is the door okay down there?"

Xep shrugged and went to see. But before she could reach it, she fell through the floor with only a slight yelp.

* * *

Winthrop had turned the small hospital magazine table into his temporary desk. Papers were all over it, and three phones lay on it. One phone was to his ear. "What do you mean, you detected a bomb prior to the explosion?" he yelled. "Well, that would have been pertinent to know about an hour ago, don't you think?"

Before the man could answer, Winthrop shouted, "Oh, that's right, you don't! Winthrop listened, shaking his head. "Don't even start sucking up to me, mister! Oh, so this is what 150,000 dollars buys the Federation? The best technician in the world? The best technician in the world my-"

Someone tapped Winthrop's shoulder. "What?" he barked.

The startled intern quavered slightly. Her red lips trembled as if Winthrop had slapped her across the face. Winthrop took a deep breath and said in a calmer voice, "I'm sorry, now what is it?"

The intern's blue eyes dimmed as she placed a strand of blond hair behind her ear. "It's about Ms. Marlson, sir."

Winthrop's eyes widened and his expression softened. He put the phone back to his ear. "I'll call you back." Without waiting for a reply, he pushed the 'end' button.

"Sir, I think we're losing her," the intern said.

Winthrop was silent. Why him? Why did these things always happen to him? Winthrop cursed under his breath, then turned to the intern. "Where is she?"

* * *

"Amber?" BobbyJo whispered. "Are you still awake?"

"Yes," Amber croaked. She swallowed hard and tried to talk more. "You okay?"

"I think so," BobbyJo answered in a little above a whisper.

Suddenly, there was a rumbling from above and the boards creaked and broke. Amber winced and braced herself for impact. BobbyJo shrieked as a figure fell down from above.

The figure coughed and choked on dust. "Xep?" Amber asked, squinting.

Xep got to her hands and knees to catch her breath, before climbing to her feet. "Amber," Xep said. She realized that her voice was coming back. Xep cleared her throat and coughed.

Voices called from above, "Xep! Where are you?"

Amber replied first. "We're down here!"

Suddenly, BobbyJo screamed. Xep whirled around. BobbyJo was frantically trying to escape as fire slowly weaved its way through the glistening fuel. Xep saw that Amber and BobbyJo were soaked in it. Even she had some on her shoes and pantlegs. Xep picked her way over to BobbyJo and tried to pull her out by the arms.

"Ow ow ow!" BobbyJo screamed. The fire snaked towards them rapidly.

Xep scrambled to the other side of her and began removing rocks from above her, hoping that it wouldn't create a landslide. She lifted a piece of drywall from BobbyJo's chest. BobbyJo began to breathe more easily as Xep continued to pull wreckage from off of her.

The fire continued to spread throughout the room. Finally, only BobbyJo's legs remained trapped beneath the rafters and other rubble. Xep pulled hard and BobbyJo edged free. Xep and BobbyJo went to Amber.

Xep saw the fire creeping towards the heating unit in the corner. "Pull!" Amber ordered. Xep tugged on the piece of ceiling that covered Amber.

"I can't move it!" she said in a dry, cracked voice.

Xep turned back to the heating unit. It was mounted on the wall above the smaller fuel container. The fire crept up the wall and to the fuel container. Xep's eyes widened.

"Oh, sshhhh..."

BOOM!

An explosion went off, sending a shock wave through the room. A fireball came hurtling at them. Xep and BobbyJo were thrown across the room. Xep landed hard on her back as BobbyJo landed a few feet away from her. The fireball set the whole room ablaze. BobbyJo got to her feet.

Shockingly, the rocks had all been blown off of Amber. Even Amber herself had been thrown across the room. Xep and BobbyJo rushed to Amber's side to help her up. Smoke started to fill the room.

"How do we get out?" Amber asked through coughs.

Xep looked back at the heating unit. The fire crept up to the main fuel container unit. BobbyJo pointed to some rubble underneath the opening in the ceiling.

"There!" Amber climbed up and out of the room, followed by BobbyJo. Xep took one last glance back at the heating unit. She saw the flames licking the side of the casing on the main fuel containment unit.

Xep pushed BobbyJo to hurry her and climbed up on the rubble herself. Xep grabbed the ledge and struggled to pull herself up. Her foot slipped and she dangled for an instant, kicking wildly.

Amber and BobbyJo struggled to pull her up as the flames consumed the main fuel containment unit. Fire lapped beneath her and burned the rubble she had climbed on. Heat rose up and burned her legs. Xep grew more frantic.

Now only her legs hung down into the room. Xep swung one up followed by the other, just as flames began to poke through the hole. She was on her hands and knees, panting.

"Are you all right?" Amber asked, bending over her.

Xep looked up and nodded. "RUN!" she ordered in a harsh tone. BobbyJo pulled Xep to her feet and pulled her along. Xep noticed that BobbyJo clutched her chest as she ran. Amber limped slightly as she went.

Xep wasn't sure where they were headed, but she hoped it was a way out.

She was hunched over in pain by the time they reached the far end of the room. Truth was standing there helping Alanna down. "Go!" Xep yelled. "Go back up!"

"But we just got down here..." Alanna protested.

"Do it!" Amber shouted. Truth pushed Alanna back up and was pulled up in turn. Amber climbed up like a nimble cat.

"Go," Xep said.

"You go," BobbyJo said firmly.

"Look," Xep started.

"There's no time!" BobbyJo argued.

Xep was pulled up by Alanna and Amber as Truth helped BobbyJo up. "Why are we hurrying?" Truth asked with worry in her big brown eyes.

Xep said between gasps, "The... fuel containment unit... it's going to..."

At that very instant, a huge "boom" rang out and filled their ears. A shock wave shook the building and fire spouted into the room.

"How do we get out?" Amber yelled over the roar of the explosion. Fire surrounded them and smoke filled the air.

Truth shouted, "Over there!"

BobbyJo spun around and saw that the explosion had knocked out one of the walls that overlooked the front of the Federation building. She pulled Xep to the opening. Alanna, Amber, and Truth followed.

"What if we..." BobbyJo started.

"Oh, no," Amber said, cutting her off. "No way."

Truth looked around. "Do we really have a choice?"

"Not really," Xep said quietly.

Truth shouted, "Look!" She pointed to a fire marshal emergency skimmer. "We're over here!" she yelled, waving her arms. Truth absently stepped forward, losing her balance. With a scream, she began to plummet to the ground.

Chapter 4

Nimwen sat in a chair, shaking her head. The other occupants of the small room sat in silence. The bleak concrete walls were cracked, giving the room an appearance much like a jail cell. The only light in the room came from a window high up on the far wall. The sunlight poured in, illuminating the dust particles that lazily drifted through the air.

The only way out of the room was a door with a small slit for a window. On the outside sat an armed guard, with orders not to let anyone in or out unless authorized by Matt Winthrop.

The only furniture in the room was the chairs that were scattered about in no particular fashion. In them sat the crewmates of the Luna who were more or less unharmed. These people were treated briefly by medical staff before being shipped to the Federation's secret base.

Chris, Thom, Lariana, Nimwen, and Fox sat in the chairs. Chris had a splint on his wrist and Lariana had a bandage around her head. Thom had a cut down the side of his face that was mostly covered with gauze. Nimwen and Fox were only wounded slightly. She had a scrape on her forehead that was caused by a pepperspray of debris. He had bruises and scrapes on his face, neck, and arms.

Nimwen supported her head in her hands glumly. "I don't believe this. I just don't believe this."

Thom rubbed his temples as he listened to Nimwen's rambling.

"I can't take this. I wasn't aware of the danger!" she said. "I didn't ask for this, I didn't even sign up for this! I can't believe this!"

Thom lost his patience. "Nimwen, will you shut up?"

Nimwen glared at him. "But it happened to the Federation building! This sort of thing doesn't happen! They have ways to prevent this! I must be dreaming. Yes, this is all a dream. I've just got to wake up..."

Lariana, Thom, Chris, and Fox all yelled simultaneously, "SHUT UP!"

Nimwen quickly shut her mouth and looked down.

"Jeesh," Thom muttered.

Suddenly, they all heard yelling and commotion coming from outside. Nimwen sprinted to the door. She looked out the slit. Down the hall, she could see a figure being ushered by armed guards.

BAM!

The guard outside shut the slit abruptly, causing Nimwen to jump back in surprise. She backed into her chair and sat down, listening to the yelling.

"Let go of me!" said a female voice. "I can walk by myself!"

"Ma'am, I need you to lower your voice," said a male voice.

"Or what?" the female voice contested. "You'll shoot me?"

"Here!" said the male voice. "She's all yours now."

Another male voice chuckled. "Get in there!"

The door opened, and in stormed a young woman with dark black hair and cold grey eyes. She had a flustered and wary expression carved into her unlined face. "I'm going, I'm going!" The guard had a hand on her arm. The woman shook free of his grip. He backed out and closed the door. "Pig," the woman muttered.

She then turned around and banged on the door. "You can't just keep us here! We're caged up like animals! Human rights!" she shouted. "Human rights!"

The slit on the door opened and the guard's eyes peered through. "It's for your own protection, ma'am."

"My protection? Ha! Fine job you did of that before!"

"On Winthrop's orders, ma'am. You have a problem, take it up with him."

The woman hissed, "Maybe I will. And don't call me ma'am!"

The slit slid shut abruptly and she jumped back. "What if we have to use the restroom?"

Chris grinned. "I asked 30 minutes ago and I still haven't gotten a reply." He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

The woman spun around to face the group. "Hi, I'm Kamira." Her look of anger was banished by a warm, welcoming smile.

"I'm Chris," Chris said. He moved blond hair from his eyes. "This is Fox." Fox nodded. "Lariana and Nimwen..." Lariana smiled while Nimwen remained motionless. "And Thom."

Thom raised a fist. "Yo."

Kamira forced a smile. "Say, do any of you have an idea of why we're in here?" She turned around and banged on the door, raising her voice slightly. "Caged up like animals?"

Chris sighed. "I think we're being held here so we don't talk to any press or spies about the bomb or our mission. It's not like we're going to leak any top secret information. Especially not me. I'm just the mechanic!"

Lariana made motions with her hands as she spoke. "We haven't even been properly briefed!"

Thom smiled. "What do you mean? We were briefed by Major... Major... What's-his-name."

"Wilson. And that wasn't much of a briefing," Lariana argued.

"It stated our objective and instructions, what else is there?" Chris asked.

Lariana persisted, "But I still don't understand."

"What isn't there to understand?" cut in Fox.

"Our mission is top secret. We have a state-of-the-art ship. The Federation's best. What are we doing delivering supplies?" Lariana finished with a mystifying twinkle in her eyes.

Kamira had her arms crossed over her chest. She stepped forward. "So, what you're saying is, maybe we're not just playing delivery boy."

"No," Lariana shook her head. "What I'm saying is, maybe we're not carting supplies at all."

Kamira furrowed her brow and Chris leaned forward in his seat. Fox got an interested look in his eye.

Lariana laughed. "Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but..."

"No," Nimwen cut in, jumping to her feet. "It makes perfect sense!"

Chris raised an eyebrow and looked to Lariana and Fox. They stifled a laugh.

"I see! That's why the bomb was planted and why it's top secret!"

"Nimwen," Fox said suspiciously, "where were you when the bomb went off?"

Nimwen thought a moment. "I was in the lobby..."

"Doing what?" Fox interrupted.

"Waiting for my brother, he was supposed to bring me my luggage..."

"That's quite convenient, don't you think?" Fox said, crossing his arms.

"Fox," Lariana glared, "what are you getting at?"

"Look at her, Lariana!" he shouted. "Do you see what I see? She's untouched! Know why? 'Cause she knew where to be when the bomb went off!"

Chris stared at Nimwen. "So what are you saying?"

Fox nodded. "She must have been the bomber. Now she's attempting to fool the guards with her little 'nervous breakdown' act so they'll take her to her own room. But as soon as they let her out... WHAM! She pulls her secret karate moves and takes out the guards!"

Lariana sighed, "Fox..."

He interrupted, "She's probably just waiting for us to fall asleep so she can WHAM us, too!"

Chris let out a long breath of air. "It's a stretch, Fox..."

"That's what she wants us to think!" he replied curtly.

"Well, Fox," Chris said, a tiny smile escaping from the corner of his mouth. "Where were you when the bomb went off?"

Fox smirked. "I was in the lavoratory... taking a leak."

Lariana wrinkled her nose. "Oh! We didn't need to know that!" she said in a low, scolding tone.

Nimwen raised her eyebrows as Kamira grimaced. "Thank you for sharing, Fox."

"Well, it's better than your alibi!" Fox shouted accusingly at Nimwen. "I'm on the security tape! Remember, the Federation doesn't have cameras in the lobby, just at the metal detectors past the lobby. I'm on tape!" he repeated.

"Taking a leak?" Lariana emphasized. "On tape, taking a leak?"

Fox ignored her. Nimwen's eyes darted around the room. "You... you all don't... believe him, do you?" No one made a move. "For all we know, he's the one!" She pointed an accusing finger at Chris.

"Me?" Chris shrieked. "I was with Reggie, Garonen, Anorian and Thom the whole time! Right, Thom?"

Thom shifted his eyes nervously. "Actually, I recall you slipping away just before the bomb went off."

"If anyone 'slipped away', Thom, it was you!" Chris spouted.

Thom's mouth dropped. "Oh, you know I was in the bathroom! Where were you?"

Chris furrowed his brow. "Well... well, I'm not telling until I hear from her!" Chris pointed at Lariana.

"What?" she asked incredulously. "Why me? She looks guilty!" Lariana motioned to Kamira.

Kamira looked stunned. "Me? I was in the lounge helping hurt people! The nerve of you!"

Chris narrowed his eyes. "Can anyone verify her?"

"Of course! Chris, you're one to talk! I haven't heard your story!"

"Yeah, Chris!" Lariana chimed in.

Kamira glowered. "Oh, sure, Lariana! Act all sweet and innocent! I didn't hear your story either!"

Lariana acted as if Kamira had slapped her. "I... I..."

Chris interrupted, "She was with me."

Kamira, Lariana, Fox, Nimwen, and Thom all turned to Chris. Kamira looked back at Lariana.

"Chris..."

"Lariana, be quiet and let me tell. I saw her in the halls and followed her. She blew me off and I was attempting to prove myself, when the bomb went off. She went running off as I went back to my group."

Kamira had a look of disgust on her face. "You were hitting on her?"

Lariana opened her mouth. "What was that supposed to mean?"

"Oh, nothing really, Lariana."

"Tell me, Kamira!"

"Kamira, what did you mean?"

"Oh, Chris, nothing, really!"

"Thom, did you hear about the game in Oakland?"

"Oh, yeah, they said it was a beaut. Too bad I missed it. What were the scores, Fox?"

Nimwen jumped up and down. "This is all so stupid!"

"Why don't you stay out, Nimwen?"

"Shut up, Chris!"

"Don't tell him to shut up!"

"Oh, Lariana, protecting your boyfriend?"

"Shut up, Kamira!"

"The score was 17 to 3."

"Fox, be quiet!"

"Shut up, psycho!"

"Don't call me psycho!"

"Well, you are, Nimwen!"

"You shut up, too, Thom!"

"Well, I've had just about enough..."

Suddenly, the door burst open and in flew Reggie. He had been thrown in by the guards. "Man! Wha' choo think you doin'? Throwin' me around like dat! And don' choo evuh touch me there again! Man, I ain't like dat!"

Everyone in the room stopped and turned to him. Reggie jumped when he saw everyone staring. "What? Ain't choo evuh seen no straight bein' molested by no queer?"

Kamira raised an eyebrow. Fox crossed his arms over his chest. "And where were you when the bomb went off?"

Reggie furrowed his eyebrows. "Is this some sort of confrontation or somethin'? Man, I don' do drugs! And I don' drink!"

"Fox, you've been acting awfully suspicious lately. I think maybe we're all just..."

"Oh, sure, Lariana, try to clear everyone's minds so you can go scot free!"

"But Chris, you know damn well that I didn't plant that bomb!"

"Oh, is dat what 'dis is all about?"

"Reggie, be quiet."

"No, I wanna hear his story, Nimwen."

"Is that really necessary, Thom?"

"Yeah, I was with him, but an hour before it went off, Reggie was nowhere to be found!"

Reggie's mouth dropped open. "Why would I want to blow up the Federation buildin'? Man, I live here!"

"Oh, so you were doing nothing?"

"Right, I didn't do nuthin'... except for that cute 'lil secretary on floor 4. Man, I did that!"

"Reggie!"

"What?" he asked, as if he had no idea about what he'd done.

"Lariana, I'm talking to you!"

"Well, I'm not listening, Chris!"

"Oh, will you two stop?"

"You started it, Kamira!"

"Well, Thom, I don't recall you jumping in to stop our fighting!"

"Jim Johnson made 4 of the 5 points scored in the fourth quarter."

"And I'm supposed to believe your alibi, right?"

"Nimwen, you're one to talk."

"Was I talking to you, Chris?"

"Will you all shut up?"

"Stay out, Lariana!"

"Oh, shut up, Kamira!"

"No! Blah, blah, blah..."

"Oh, that's mature."

"No one asked you, Thom!"

"Well, it's true, Kamira!"

"You know what? I don't even..."

With a shout and a slam, the door flew open and in walked a short, husky man. His greying hair was ruffled and his blue-grey eyes were narrowed into a slit. "What is goin' on in here?" His gruff voice rang out and echoed in the suddenly silent room. "It sounds like a bunch of animals are all caged up in here rippin' each other's livers out!"

The man had a southern tinge to his voice that made what he said all the more comical. "Well? What's goin' on?"

Kamira straightened and cleared her throat. "Fox got us into an argument over who planted the bomb."

"Well, which one of y'all did it?" he asked. "No, don't point fingers, if you did it step forward."

Fox tried to nudge Nimwen forward, but she elbowed him subtly in the ribs.

"Well then," the man said. "Looks like none of you did it."

Fox put up a finger. "But..."

The man cut him off with a wave of his hand. "None of you did it. If you did, the Federation will find you. We've got nothin' to worry about, that is, unless one o' y'all did do it. But I'm not worried 'bout that. Now..." He yelled to the guard, "Can I get a chair or somethin' in here?"

"Only what's in there!" another man shouted back from outside.

"Who are you, anyway?" Kamira asked.

"Name's Dos. Nice to meet ya." He extended a hand and Kamira gingerly took it. Dos shook it hard and released, leaving Kamira clutching her hand in pain. "Sorry 'bout that, missy."

Kamira nodded, wincing, and mouthed, "it's okay".

Dos shrugged and leaned against the wall as everyone else settled down in a chair. Kamira was left without one too. They sat against a wall and talked. "So, what's yer name?" Dos asked.

"Kamira," she replied.

"What do you do?"

"I'm head scientist," Kamira said. "You?"

"I'm just an engineer," Dos said glumly. "I used to be on mission control, but I've always wanted to go on a mission. This will be my first."

Kamira raised her eyebrows. "Really?"

Dos laughed. "I know what you're thinkin'. What's an old fart like that doin' goin' on his first mission? Well, I've been on mission control for over 30 years!"

"Hmmm, was it fun?" Kamira asked.

"Fun? Well," Dos looked thoughtful. "Well, it was a hell of a lot more fun than this!"

Kamira chuckled. "Anything would be." She looked up at the ceiling and sighed.

* * *

Winthrop followed the thin intern down the hall. She stopped in front of Room 22B. "You're not allowed in."

Winthrop swallowed with a dry throat as he stepped up to the window. It looked into the room and overlooked the hospital bed. Winthrop drew back when he caught sight of Brea. People in silver scrubs surrounded her with syringes, scanners, scalpels, and forceps. The white masks made them faceless clones.

Winthrop looked on in horror as Brea writhed and shook. Sweat rolled down her face as she coughed and fought. A doctor stepped into Winthrop's line of view. He could only see her pale hands clenching the white bedsheets. Shouting came from within and the intern rushed inside. Now Winthrop saw what was going on. Blood ran out of Brea's mouth as she coughed and choked.

The man who stepped in front of Winthrop seemed to be in charge, as he barked orders at some of the others standing nearby. A mask was put over Brea's mouth and nose. Winthrop was no doctor, but he guessed it was some sort of device to help her breathe.

"We're gonna have to go in, Fraiser! We need to stop the bleeding, it's in her lungs! Cut her open!"

Winthrop flinched at the cruel wording. Past two of the people standing nearby, Winthrop could see them injecting Brea with a clear liquid. The man with the scalpel lowered it to her chest. Someone noticed Winthrop and gestured at the window. "Will somebody get him out of here?"

The young intern appeared at the window. She closed one side of the silver curtains. She showed no emotion whatsoever as she slid the other side shut. Winthrop was left staring at the silver material. He put his hands up to the window and pressed his forehead against the cool glass. He closed his eyes.

Here was the worst part. All he could do was wait.

* * *

Alanna screamed as Truth disappeared from where she had stood only seconds before. Xep stepped back in horror as BobbyJo put an arm around Alanna. "Don't look," she cooed.

Suddenly Amber, who was behind BobbyJo, shrieked. Alanna looked up and gasped, "Her ghost has come back!"

There, floating before them, was Truth. She rose up to reveal her legs and feet, at which point Alanna could make out a shiny metal sheet that Truth was standing on. "Hi, guys!" Truth said.

Alanna now saw that Truth was standing on the roof of an emergency skimmer. She let out a breath of relief and thanked the pilot for coming as he popped the clear plastic bubble encasing the cockpit.

"I saw this young lady fallin' and rushed over here right away. Lucky I caught her on the roof. Hop in, ladies."

Amber, Alanna, BobbyJo, and Xep climbed into the skimmer and closed the hatch. "I'll stay up here, if that's all right with you," Truth said to the pilot. She grinned broadly and knelt down on the roof, holding on tight.

"Suit yourself," the pilot mumbled.

The skimmer suddenly spun around and dipped down to the ground, going almost straight down, making a sharp left turn and then rocketing up again. The skimmer veered right and zoomed down to make a final, abrupt stop.

The pilot chuckled as Alanna exited, followed by Xep, Amber, and BobbyJo. Alanna looked up to the roof of the skimmer, where Truth still clung. Her hair was tousled and windblown, and the expression on her face was one of panic and fear. She seemed frozen in place, and was breathing a bit faster than normal, wide-eyed.

Truth turned to find Alanna staring at her. "What?"

* * *

Gemini stuck a needle into the leg of the young boy. He howled in pain. "It should take effect soon," Gemini said soothingly. The boy seemed to lose all consciousness of where he was as he stared blankly around the whitewashed room. Finally, he closed his eyes and went limp.

Gemini removed the bandage the emergency medical crew had placed on his crushed foot. There was so much blood it was hard to see any wounds. Throwing the blood-soaked bandage into the biohazards bin, Gemini peeled off her gloves and threw them in too. She pressed a button on the wall 'com. "I need help in here! Level 2, emergency room D!"

Gemini snapped a new pair of rubber gloves on and grabbed a roll of gauze. She looked at the heart and blood pressure monitor. His pulse was falling and his blood pressure was dangerously low. His temperature was a cold 95 degrees Farenheit. Gemini knew that she had to work fast or he wouldn't survive.

She soaked up as much blood as she could before attempting to assess the wounds. She could see that there was major damage to the bones and it looked as if one of his toes was gone. Suddenly, two men in silver scrubs burst in with equipment in their arms.

"I need 5 cellu-bandages and an x-ray machine!" Gemini ordered.

One doctor helped apply the cellu-bandages as the other went in search of a handheld x-ray. "Put one on the fifth digit!" Gemini said.

"Where is it?" the doctor asked.

Gemini gave him a knowing look.

"Okay, I got it," the other man announced, coming back into the room. Gemini snatched the x-ray machine and turned it on. She held it steadily over his foot. "Oh my..."

The first man furrowed his brow. "What?"

"Look." Gemini held the x-ray out to him.

"We need to get this foot into reconstructive therapy," he said, showing no emotion in his brown eyes.

"Dr. Freeman, the laser is being used," said the other man.

"Well, tell them to stop!" the first man - Dr. Freeman - said.

The other man had pale blue eyes and light brown hair. He looked young. Gemini concluded that he must be Dr. Freeman's assistant. "Okay, sir," the assistant said. "We have located another one in the Kennedy wing. It's being moved over here as we speak." He was standing at the wallside 'com.

Dr. Freeman removed his bloodstained gloves and threw them away. "James, get my radioactivity protection gloves."

James nodded and hurried out of the room. Dr. Freeman nodded to Gemini. "How many cc's did you give him?"

"Standard dosage."

"Okay, can you pull me another 200?"

Gemini nodded and peeled off her gloves. She knelt down to the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of the ubiquitous clear liquid. She shuffled through the various medical equipment, finally coming upon the box of disposable jumbo syringes.

She pulled one out and closed the cupboard with her foot. The doctor had put on fresh gloves, and Gemini mimicked him. The laser was rolled in. It was grey and green and had a rocket-like shape. Three rods came out at the tip to form a triangle. At the ends of the rods were little conductor spheres. The beams would come together from these spheres to form a larger beam of power. Gemini had never seen this procedure actually done before.

"The syringe?" Dr. Freeman extended his hand. Gemini pulled the cap off with her teeth and jabbed it into the bottle. She slowly drew out the liquid to the 200 mark. Gemini threw the rest of the bottle away before carefully handing the syringe to Dr. Freeman.

James came in after the laser and handed Dr. Freeman his gloves. "Ms..." Dr. Freeman looked to Gemini.

"Anderson," she finished.

"Yes. Ms. Anderson. I think it's best if you leave."

"But he's my patient," Gemini argued.

"We've got it under control," Dr. Freeman stated plainly.

Gemini nodded and backed away. She collected her clipboard and walked out of the room. She could see through the window that the lights had gone out and a purple glow came from the laser. Sparks flew from the machine as a teeth-grinding tone emanated from it. Gemini sighed and made her way back to the emergency waiting room.

* * *

Alex took a seat in one of the purple, cushy chairs that the waiting room had to offer. This particular waiting room was nearly empty, as were the halls. Alex had a feeling that it was about to get a whole lot more crowded. He knew that Dana and he had been lucky to get out and seek medical help so swiftly.

As Alex looked around the waiting room, he began to wonder what he was waiting for. "Dana's a big girl," he thought. "She'll handle herself."

Alex got up and began to look for someone he knew. Maybe he could speak to Winthrop, or maybe... What was that? Alex stopped in his tracks. A whimpering?

He backed up, looking into the hospital rooms. Suddenly, he found himself looking at Dana lying lifelessly in her bed. Alex softened his gaze. She thrashed her arms and mumbled.

Alex strained to hear her. "Mom, Dad, no," she seemed to say. "I can't, the fire..."

Suddenly, it dawned on him. Her suitcase! Alex didn't really care, but... He sighed. She was gonna owe him big time.

* * *

Winthrop sat down behind his makeshift desk and sighed. He picked up a sheet of paper and looked at it. At the top were the words, "The Luna Crew Roster." Below it were 24 names listed in a column going down the center. The first name read, "Brea Marlson". Next to it was a check. Several of the names had check marks next to them.

One name had a red line through it. Winthrop could still see through the pen the name Marc Croftman. Many of the officers were still unaccounted for. Second In Command, Lieutenant Commander... Winthrop replaced the list and buried his face in his hands.

The sudden chirp of a 'com made him jump. Winthrop pulled out the small grey box and pushed a black button. "What?"

"Sir, we have good news. We've just located five crewmembers."

Winthrop's eyes lit up. "Condition?"

"Good."

Winthrop let out a sigh of relief. "Names?"

He heard a rustling of papers. "Alanna Nelson... Amber MacKenzie... um, BobbyJo Simms, Truth Griffin, and uh... um... Ed, what was that weird one again? Oh, yeah, Xep Green."

Winthrop checked off the names as he listened. "Good. Get a team in to where you picked them up, just in case. Was anyone else with them?"

"No, sir."

Winthrop pushed the black button again and set down the 'com. The list now had only a few names with no checkmarks next to them.

"The android's missing?" Winthrop thought. "Where could that stupid robot be? He should be carrying my crew out of there!"

Winthrop sighed. "Good for nothing hunk of metal."

* * *

The paramedic swiped at hair that hung in his eyes. Next to him stood another man, who was also dressed in a reflective silver jumpsuit, with a red circle below the right shoulder. It was the official paramedic uniform. The red circle had words written in ultraviolet ink, so forging a true uniform would be difficult. When a black light was held up to the circle, it would identify the wearer and give his/her position.

The man turned his blue eyes towards the other. "Pete, we've been out here for, like, hours. Maybe we could..."

"What?" the other asked. "We could do what? Leave everyone that can't cry out or is buried under tons of metal? How humane is that? How humane are you, Michael?"

The first man - Michael - shrugged slightly. "I only thought that maybe we could, like, move to a new area?" Michael's tone indicated that he was asking a question.

"Oh," Pete said. "Sure."

Michael knew that Pete was just worked up over this. Pete was five years younger than he was and was fresh on the job. To have a job as extensive as this bombing be one of his first was stressful.

Michael stepped over a piece of concrete, at the same time ducking beneath a caved-in ceiling. Pete was just behind him, following his movements. Michael felt like the old man on the team, even though he'd only been on for 6 years. Michael looked back at Pete, who had stopped and was looking at a broken picture frame that appeared to be quite an old antique. A very old picture was inside, too. Perhaps from the 21st century. He was surprised that the acid of the paper it was printed on hadn't rotted it away.

Michael looked at Pete thoughtfully. If he had Pete's looks, Michael might have married and had ten kids by now. He wondered why Pete wasn't a model. He watched Pete's brown eyes scanning the picture. Michael knew that Pete also had a high IQ. People who had IQ's as high as his didn't think like other people.

Michael turned around and wandered into another darkened room. He couldn't see anything for a moment as he fumbled with his flashlight. Finally it came on, illuminating the room. It was littered with debris and beam, rafters, and ceiling pieces were piled up in one corner.

Michael watched his feet as he walked, stepping over obstacles as he made his way to the corner of the room. He jumped as something brushed by his head. Stepping back, he looked up and sighed.

An extension cord swung slightly as he pushed it out of the way. Michael picked his way to the pile and began to sift through the top of it. Working his way down, he caught his breath. A pale arm was revealed. The hand looked slightly crushed as he took it. It was warm.

Placing his index and middle fingers gingerly on the wrist, he drew back. "Pete! We've got a live one here!" Michael squeezed the hand, but got no response. He began to remove the rubble block by block, and more of the arm was revealed. Soon, the whole top half of a human body was revealed. The man encased in the debris had blood running down his face and wore a Federation uniform. Attached to it was a tag that read, "Luna." Beneath that was a name. Pete came up behind Michael and looked over his shoulder.

"Kal O'Connor?"

Michael turned to Pete. "Let's get him out of here."

Chapter 5

Walking down the empty hallway, the man's footsteps echoed loudly. Staring straight ahead, the man showed no emotion on his stony face. As he passed a younger man clothed in a Federation uniform, the first man got a wide-eyed look and a shaky salute, but he still seemed emotionless.

His silver hair was barely long enough to move in the slight breeze that drifted down the hall. He passed an older man in a guard's uniform, who was sitting in a chair looking like he was about to fall asleep.

He jumped at the sight of the man and saluted. As he neared the door at the end of the hall, the man showed no sign of slowing down. A guard in front of the door fumbled with keycards on an oversized keyring. "Mr. Winthrop," the guard said, sliding cards into the slot to the side of the door.

As a red light, accompanied by a buzz, flashed, the guard frantically tried another card. "What brings you here, sir?"

Winthrop stopped and glanced at the guard. "Just open the door." He sounded irritated. The guard nodded and tried another card. As the same red light flashed again, the guard wiped perspiration from his brow.

The guard's blue eyes were frightened and unnaturally wide. He was maybe only 19 or 20. Winthrop sighed loudly. The guard tried another card.

BUZZ!

The red light came on again. "All the cards look the same," the young man said quietly. He put another card up to slide it through, but his hand shook violently.

Winthrop put up his hand to stop him. The young man looked at Winthrop with a gaping mouth. He winced as Winthrop reached for his hand. Winthrop took the ring from his hand and sifted through a few of the cards. The man's breathing was erratic as Winthrop held one card up to the card slot. As he swiped it through, the man stared at him in bewilderment. A green light flashed, accompanied by the swoosh of a door opening.

Winthrop handed the key ring back to the young guard. "You'll get the hang of it."

The guard let out a long breath of relief and smiled. "Yes, sir!" He took back the ring and saluted.

Winthrop stepped back as a woman almost toppled out the doorway. She had evidently been watching from the slot in the door. She shook her finger at the guard and then put her hands on her hips. "That's why he's the boss." She nodded at Winthrop.

Winthrop sidestepped around her and entered the room. The woman followed him in. Winthrop was greeted by shocked faces. The woman stood next to Winthrop like a "yes-man" and crossed her arms over her chest.

"Ma'am," Winthrop said, looking at the woman standing next to him. He looked at her identification tag and read, "Truth?" She nodded. "Please sit down."

Truth furrowed her eyebrows and started to sidestep away. When Winthrop looked away, Truth gave him a mocking stare and made odd hand movements at him. Fox stifled a laugh, as Chris full out laughed. Lariana giggled and looked away, covering her mouth with her hand. Winthrop turned his head to Truth, who looked at him innocently with a wide, open expression and sat down on the floor next to Alanna.

"I'm sorry to have put you all in such... uncomfortable surroundings, but at the time, it was the only secure place you could be brought to," Winthrop explained.

"Sorry?" Lariana said in a mocking tone. "Thousands of people are dead, we're injured, not to mention traumatized, and all you can say is, 'I'm sorry about the conditions'?"

"Ma'am, you have to understand," Winthrop said. "These..."

"Understand what?" Lariana interrupted angrily. "That those people don't matter and we're the only ones that do?"

Winthrop raised his eyebrows. "Anyway..." He paused. "I've set up a shuttle that will take you to our secret base on Cappa Island."

"But... isn't this your secret base?" Fox interrupted.

"This is our emergency base, for situations like these." Winthrop explained.

"Well, obviously," Chris said, throwing up his hands. "When are we leaving?"

"Now," Winthrop answered.

* * *

Redux buzzed in and out of consciousness. His viewer was cracked and burnt. Luckily, his head was intact. His head was where all his major components were.

He looked across the dark room, his screen changing colors from a light orange to a pale blue. Then to static. He couldn't see or scan or feel, just think.

He remembered tracking the bomb to this room, when... his memory chip was damaged. It might have been slightly damaged in the explosion. "And I just had a new one put in, too!" he thought. There was... someone... getting coffee... coffee? The bomb... was in the coffee machine! Of course! Redux hoped that the rescue team would find him before his emergency power supply ran out. Then he might totally black out of the events leading up to the explosion, and maybe after.

With a "zap", Redux again lost consciousness.

* * *

Gemini watched a young boy walk away, limping slightly. She had just given him a prosthetic leg after his real one had been too far gone to save. She shook her head. All these people with ruined lives, and all because of a dumb terrorist.

The young boy actually thought it was cool, getting a bionic leg, but he'd never be able to swim, climb trees, or do any of the other things his friends would. The robotics involved were still rather delicate, and water or lots of abuse would short it out.

Gemini was on her was back to the waiting room when two men came up behind her. "Ma'am," one said, "Winthrop has orders for us to take you to the base."

The voice made her jump. "Excuse me?" she asked. "I'm to leave?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Gemini sighed. "Where?" she asked warily.

"Just come with us."

Gemini looked at the men carefully. They walked past her and towards the elevator. Gemini reluctantly followed.

* * *

Alex walked along the darkened street towards the Federation building. A brightness filled the air in the distance. He knew that it was fire. He approached an odd-looking man dressed in a trenchcoat. As Alex walked by, the man screamed, "The end is coming! Repent!"

Alex rolled his eyes. They'd been saying that for centuries.

The man reached out for Alex. "Sinners repent!" he cried.

"Okay," Alex mumbled. He hurried past the man and crossed the street. Now the Federation building was in sight. Rescue teams were still on the scene trying to put out the fires that continued to smolder.

Alex dug his hands into his pockets. Police surrounded the building as reporters tried to push past. Alex stepped over one of the roadblocks that was set up. He was now behind a huge crowd of paramedics, journalists, reporters, security officers, and police, all shouting at the top of their lungs.

He pushed through several people, receiving dirty looks, but he was stopped by a blond woman with a microphone. "Oh, my, were you in the building at the time of the bomb?"

"Uh, yeah," Alex said, trying to dislodge her from his coat sleeve.

A camera was shoved in his face. "What was is like?" someone else, a man this time, asked.

"Were you involved in some sort of secret mission?" another voice said.

Now Alex was surrounded by cameras and microphones. "Your ID tag says 'Luna', is that your mission?"

"Do you have any idea who planted the bomb?"

"Just... let me... get through here," Alex said, trying to get through.

"Sir, what happened inside?"

"No comment!" Alex shouted harshly. He pushed by the first blond woman, who had a hurt look on her face. Alex showed his ID to an officer standing in his way, who gladly stepped aside.

Alex walked up the front lawn, past firefighters and paramedics. The grass was slick and cool. He looked around. There was so much stuff out here, finding Dana's suitcase would be impossible.

He didn't know what Dana was so worried about, anyway. She'd taken her picture from the suitcase before she fell off the ledge. Alex hunted through the various rubble and debris. If he and Dana had been up there...

Alex looked up at where Dana had fallen. "Then the suitcase should be around here... aha!" Lying in the grass a few feet away was a squarish box. It actually looked more like a flat rectangle.

He picked it up and felt the monogram. Even with the firelight, it was still too dark to see it.

DLP.

Dana Lauren Pendrell.

Alex put it in the crook of his arm and took one last look at the ruined Federation building. Flames shot up to the sky and illuminated it. One whole half of the building drooped to the ground, and the other was badly burnt. Alex began to walk away from the destroyed building.

* * *

Xep howled in pain. "Owww!" She squeezed her eyes shut as the doctor peeled off the gauze. A handsome young man took her other hand.

"Okay, now you're gonna feel a slight prick, then nothing at all. Okay?"

Xep nodded. Even through closed eyes, Xep could see the bright white lights of the emergency room she was in. "Oh!" she squeaked as she felt the prick.

"Can you feel your arm?"

"No," Xep answered, opening her eyes. Suddenly she felt tired. Her eyes felt heavy and burned. She had to close them. All she wanted to do was sleep. Sleep.

Xep lay back on her bed. The papery sheets rustled noisily. The bright lights made her close her eyes. She had to sleep...

When Xep awoke, all she heard was the steady beeping of a heart monitor. The chattering of nurses, the clanging of instruments, the shouting of doctors, all were gone. Leaving only the beeps.

Xep opened her eyes slowly, blinking rapidly. The light was dim here, and it was a different room. Xep tried to move her arms, but found one of them to be stuck. With her free arm, her left one, she groped for the call nurse button.

Buzz!

Xep couldn't move her neck and was forced to stare at the blank ceiling. Several minutes passed before a man entered the room. "Hello, Xep." The voice rang out. "I'm Dr. Ramond. Do you remember what happened?"

Xep cleared her throat. "What do you mean?"

"Before you fell asleep," Dr. Ramond said.

"No..." Xep sounded unsure.

"We told you we'd have to give you a prosthetic arm."

"What?" Xep exclaimed. "Can I see? Is it done?"

"Yes. You can. The drug we gave you to prevent your moving should be wearing off. We gave it to you to make sure you didn't hurt yourself during your unconsciousness or after you woke up. We've had quite a few incidents lately where... well, never mind." He took off his wiry glasses and wiped them on his shirt.

Xep found that she could move her neck slightly. "Here," he said, "Let me adjust the bed." The top end of the bed came up slowly as Dr. Ramond pushed a button on a small remote. Xep was almost sitting straight up now.

She gasped. "My arm!"

"This is the conspicuous model, I'm afraid," Dr. Ramond said.

Xep stared at what used to be her forearm. It was now replaced by an ugly grey hunk of metal with wires and everything else exposed.

"Don't tell me this is it."

"Well, there's a metal casing we put on to protect the parts, but yes, this is it."

Xep now realized that she could move. She tried moving the fingers. They flexed easily. "Why is this so... cheap?" Xep said.

"You have the Federation's medical coverage. This is it," he said.

"Great," Xep muttered.

"But there is a built-in 'com, plus a compass, thermometer, and other nifty gadgets built right in."

"Why?" Xep asked.

"Because the Federation has a program where if the person getting a prosthetic limb is part of the Federation, they get a free 'gadget pack', as we call them."

"Cool." Xep flexed her fingers again. This was gonna be kinda neat.

* * *

An hour after he'd walked away from the devastated Federation building, Alex was still walking. He realized that he should have been back before now when he encountered a sign that read, "Leaving Miami". He quickly backtracked, but now he had absolutely no idea where he was or how to get back.

Automatically, he reached for his 'com to call Winthrop, but then realized that it was gone. "Great," he muttered. He tried to remember what had happened to it, and finally succeeded in calling up a dim memory of his 'com lying on the table in the waiting room at the hospital.

Alex sighed. Dana had better appreciate this.

He glanced around. It was dark, and he wasn't exactly in the best part of town. He passed a gloomy alley, containing a drunk blissfully slumbering in a pile of garbage. He mentally changed that to "one of the worst parts of town."

Alex looked down at the suitcase in his hand, briefly toying with the idea of throwing it off the nearest bridge.

However, he decided that not only would that be extremely immature, it would negate his entire errand and he would be stuck out here for nothing. Instead, he found a more or less untenanted alley, the only inhabitants being several large rats, and set down the suitcase and tried to open it, in the hopes that there would be a 'com inside.

No such luck. The suitcase was locked.

After a moment of searching in the dim light, Alex found the small combination lock attached to the suitcase. "Just perfect," he grumbled.

Alex sat back on his heels. He was lost, it was dark, and it was starting to get cold. He didn't have a 'com, and he didn't have any transportation.

"Great," he muttered. "I'm stuck out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a locked suitcase that doesn't even belong to me."

He looked down at the suitcase, thoughts of destruction once more running wild through his mind. He envisioned fire... shoving it out into the middle of a crowded street... tossing it in the river...

"No!" he told himself. "You don't want to do that."

But he couldn't help thinking, way in the back of his mind, that he would feel a lot better if he did.

Alex sighed and got up from where he had been squatting on the rain-slicked asphalt. He picked up Dana's suitcase and kept walking.

* * *

Kamira looked out the window and sighed. The ocean below her seemed not to go by at all. It was so calm and empty. An occasional boat seemed to speed by, but in reality it was probably just standing still.

Next to her, Nimwen drummed her fingers nervously.

"Will you stop it?" Kamira said, slumping into her seat.

"Sorry," Nimwen whispered, clasping her hands together.

Kamira's eyes darted around the cabin. Her eyes landed on the back of Chris's head. She smiled wickedly as she leaned forward and yanked his hair, hard. Chris yelped and spun around.

Kamira was looking out her window. "What?"

"You pulled my hair!"

"No, I didn't!" Kamira pointed at Nimwen. "She must have!"

Chris turned to Nimwen, who was curled up in her seat, fast asleep. He raised his eyebrows at Kamira, who fell back laughing.

"Oops..." she whispered.

A voice came over the loudspeaker. "Hello, this is your pilot speaking. We are approaching the island and it should be in sight in a few seconds. We are slowing down as we near our descent."

Everyone pushed and shoved to look out the windows, which were present for every aisle of 3 seats. Winthrop sat in front of everyone else, next to Gemini. As she peered out the window curiously, her gaze shifted to Winthrop. He looked unaffected and indifferent, untouched by the surrounding noise and commotion.

"So, the, uh... crewmembers in the hospital are coming... later?" she asked, looking around.

"Yes. I will accompany them to our secret base."

"Well, where's Alex?"

"Didn't you work on him? At the hospital?"

"He wasn't... he was at the hospital, but he wasn't injured, I remember that... he was visiting."

Winthrop's voice grew louder. "Visiting?"

"Yes, sir... Dana, I believe..."

"Was he there when you left?"

"No, he left, according to Tim, my assis-"

"When?" Winthrop cut her off.

"Around... 8 or 9, I suppose." Gemini shrank back as Winthrop shook his fist at the air. He swore very loudly. So loudly that everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at him.

"Pilot!"

"Yes, sir?"

"Hurry up! Get these people off the plane as soon as we land!"

"Do you want them at the base?"

"By military transport only."

"Will you be accompanying, sir?" The plane descended slowly.

"No. Sonny, as soon as you land this thing, turn it around. We're goin' back."

* * *

Dana smiled. The warm spring sun made her hair feel crisp and hot. A slight breeze blew through her hair, and it cooled her. She held the wooden bat tightly and readied herself for the pitch.

"Ready, Dana?" her mom asked. Dana nodded excitedly. Her mom tossed the white ball in her direction. Dana swung madly, and missed. She angrily threw the bat down.

"Now Dana, let me help you," her dad said, picking the bat up off the green grass.

"The sun was in my eyes!" Dana complained.

"Let's move into the shade then," he offered. The trio walked slowly beneath the huge oak tree until the shade totally engulfed them. "Now try it." Dad handed her the bat, grinning with that twinkle in his eye.

Dana took a couple of practice swings as Dad ran into the makeshift outfield. Dana grinned at her family as she prepared for the ball to come her way. Mom tossed it, and Dana swung the bat hard. It hit the ball with a "thwok" and sent it flying in the air.

She began to run to first base - which was in no particular spot - as her dad missed the ball on purpose. "Where's the base?" she giggled, running through the grass.

"The tree, Dana! Run to the tree!" Mom yelled as Dad came trotting after Dana in timed strides. She barely made it, just as Dad came up beside her with the ball in hand.

"Awww! I almost had ya!" he said, playfully grabbing her by the waist.

"You weren't trying hard!" Dana accused.

"Me? I was trying as hard as I could, honey. I'm just getting old. If anyone was faking, it was your mother!" he laughed.

"Bill!" Mom cried.

"Did you see the way she threw that ball? She obviously wanted you to hit it!"

Mom sprang from behind, and playfully knocked him down to the ground. Dana laughed and jumped on her parents. They grunted heavily as Dana giggled hysterically.

"Why you little..." Mom said rustling Dana's hair as she crawled out from under her.

Dad scooped her up and got to his feet. Mom was still on the ground. "What's that in the sky?" Dad asked, imitating an old TV broadcast. "It's a bird! It's a plane... it's.... Super Dana!" Dana laughed. "Oh no!" he exclaimed. "She's on a collision course with Mom!" He turned and started running towards Mom. Dana put her arms out.

"Aggghhh!" Mom pretended to be scared as Dana 'flew' into her.

"Got you!" Dana grinned.

Dad lay down next to her as Dana rolled into the grass. "That cloud looks like a pony!" Dana exclaimed, pointing at the sky.

"Sure does," Mom agreed. "And that one looks like a duck."

Dana stared at the clouds, until an odd feeling came over her. She sat up abruptly and looked around. Behind a fir tree stood a shadowy figure. She squinted and watched Alex come out from behind the tree. As she was about to tell Alex to go home, Dana realized she was in her bed.

How tiring that day had been. Time to rest, now. Maybe they'd go to the park again tomorrow. Dana closed her eyes, and was beginning to sleep, when the sirens went off. Almost simultaneously was a loud "BOOM" that rocked the house.

Dana bolted from the bed and to the window. The house next door was gone! Only fire and rubble was left! Another "BOOM!", this time from the other side of the house. She screamed and ran to the bedroom door. Her parent's cries were loud and echoing.

"Dana! Dana! Help us! Open the door! Help us! Help! Help! The door! Dana!" She opened the door, and froze. The fire was everywhere. It looked her in the eye, and began to eat its way up the door and into her room. Her hand was still on the doorknob, and it began to grow unbearably hot.

Dana tried to scream, but no sound would come out. She tried to run but her legs were like lead weights. She tried to shut the door, but it was suddenly heavy and her arm was useless - like rubber. She felt the hot fire on her feet start to eat up her legs, arms, body and finally her open....

Dana sat up in bed gasping for air. It was dark and cool, even though she was sweating profusely and felt like she was burning up. Her throat was sore, and she ached all over. Sighing, Dana laid back, turning the pillow over onto its cool side. The digital clock read 12:03 AM. She sleepily closed her eyes, letting a single tear fall from her eyes as she drifted back into a tortured sleep. If she stayed awake, there'd be the visions. If she slept, there'd be the dreams.

"Eh," she thought dreamily. "At least the dreams are partially good."

* * *

Two men chased the steaming Winthrop down the hall shouting suggestions almost simultaneously. "Sir, would you like some coffee?"

"Or a doughnut?"

"You have to calm down, sir, this isn't healthy!"

"Remember what your doctor said about your blood pressure, sir!"

"How about a meadnut or two? Your favorite!"

"PEANUTS!" Winthrop shouted, stopping in the hall. "Peanuts are my favorite! And don't you buttkissers have someone else to suck up to? Cause I've about had it up to here!"

Winthrop's unexpected outburst startled and silenced the frenzied men as he continued to storm through the hallways of the "something or other memorial" hospital. Winthrop couldn't even recall the name, what kind of a memorial is that? You have hundreds of people dying in a building named after you. Winthrop had to remember to request that none of the following were named after him: hospitals, schools, colleges, orphanages or anything else that he would never really donate money to or visit. Unless of course it furthered his cause: himself.

His face was red, and fists clenched as he stalked by some woman in a skimpy nurse's outfit. She was calling desperately, "Sir! Sir! You can't go in there! Sir!"

Winthrop merely ignored her as well, as he pushed through two doors on hinges that swung back and forth... "What are those things called?" Winthrop found himself thinking.

He let his mind wander as his physical body took charge and demanded to see the security hologram tapes from the past day. Pounding on the receptionist's desk, Winthrop screamed his requests as the bewildered secretaries and interns scrambled to figure out what to do.

The nurse that was earlier screaming at him to stop came up from behind. "Barbara, I couldn't stop him. He just stormed through like a madman! I'm gonna call security." She reached for the phone that sat on the counter.

The black secretary - Barbara - put her hand on the nurse's to stop her. "Nuh, uh, Shirley. Just get Mr. Winthrop-" she paused, emphasizing his name, "a cup of coffee or somethin'."

The nurse - Shirley - widened her eyes as her mouth spasmodically dropped. "Oh my God, sir!" she cried, nearly bowing at his feet, as she begged him to forgive her. "I didn't know!" She was bawling now.

"Uhhh, can somebody get her out of here?" Winthrop said hesitantly.

Barbara took off her headset-phone and nodded. "Brad, take her someplace," she said quietly. Winthrop watched the tall redheaded man half-escort, half-drag the screaming blonde down the hall.

Barbara seemed to be indifferent to Winthrop's arrival, unlike the rest of the men and women who had scrambled aimlessly around before retreating to the coffee room. She sighed, shaking her head. "We have bomb drills, fire drills, groundquake drills, even intruder drills. I told them we needed a Winthrop Drill."

Winthrop smiled - for the first time that day - and allowed some of the blood to drain from his face. The two men abruptly stopped hanging on him and slowly retreated, studying his face intently.

"He's smiling," said one quietly.

"Smiling?" said the other.

"Yes."

"He looks unstable."

"Very... why is he still smiling?" said the one fearfully.

"He's about to snap!" the other whispered urgently.

"Let's get out of here!" With that, they ran down and out of the hall.

Barbara watched the two men run off and looked back to Winthrop, "What can I do for you? I'm pretty sure you said what you wanted already, but there was such an uproar..." she trailed off.

Behind her, blinds snapped and she turned quickly to see 4 pairs of eyes staring at her from behind drawn blinds. Winthrop waved to the eyes, and they quickly disappeared, replaced with barely audible hushed whispers coming from the room. The whole floor was eerily silent, as the only real noise to be heard was a slight commotion from a few halls away.

"I need to see the security tapes from today from 6 pm to 10 pm. All exits," Winthrop said quickly.

The woman didn't miss a beat. "Will you be viewing them yourself or should I get a description and name now?"

"I'll see them myself." Winthrop rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"I'll take you to the security room," Barbara said, already walking down the hall with Winthrop at her heels. They came to a room marked "Security", and Barbara slid her keycard through the panel, opening the door.

Two fat men sat at the controls, both in security uniforms. One lay asleep in his chair, a stream of drool trickling out of his mouth, as the other greedily gobbled down powdered donuts. He nearly knocked over his cup of coffee as he jumped from his seat to greet the visitors. The second man still lay asleep, as the first tried to slap him awake. "Earl, Earl... come on." he said through clenched teeth.

Earl awoke abruptly, jumping from his chair. He hastily wiped the drool from his face on to his sleeve and cleared his throat. "Mr. Winthrop, sir!"

Barbara sighed. "Terra's finest."

The men stepped aside and let Barbara take control, with Winthrop sitting next to her. "You boys run along now," she said gesturing towards the door. The two men scrambled out of the room. Barbara sighed as she pushed candy wrappers, empty cups of coffee and various other garbage items from the controls onto the floor.

"Do you have his picture?" she asked, logging onto the computer.

"Noooo... I know what he looks like though-"

"Nobody searches the videos by hand anymore, sir. These computers are far too advanced for that. Do you know his name?"

"Yes." Winthrop said plaintively.

"That's a start. What is it?" Barbara got her hands ready at the keyboard.

"If those computers are so advanced, why aren't they voice activated?" Winthrop challenged.

"Mr. Winthrop, that's purely science fiction, as far as we're concerned. We aren't about to get the funding for those babies," Barbara said. "Name?" she prompted.

"Alex Reed." Winthrop watched her type, correcting her: "R-E-two e's-D."

"Work for the Federation?" Barbara asked, scrolling through a list on the screen.

Winthrop gave her an odd stare and started to say something when Barbara cut him off. "I need to know what database to search," she explained.

"Oh, yeah, he does," he said sheepishly.

"Here we go. Now I'm searching the video feed for him," Barbara narrated. Winthrop leaned forward to get a better look at the screen.

"Okay, at the main entrance, we have one at 8:48 PM," Barbara read.

"Play it," Winthrop said hurriedly.

Barbara selected the clip, and it began to play. A shadowy man who appeared to be talking to himself was walking out of the building. The exit read "Broad Street." Winthrop squinted and tried to focus on the face of the man. It was too blurry to make out. "Sure that's him?"

"The computer is, and that's good enough for me." Barbara said popping a cigarette in her mouth. She lit it, hastily taking a drag on it.

"Those'll kill you," Winthrop said.

"They help you relax," Barbara said defensively. "Want one?"

"I don't smoke," Winthrop said, looking at the cigarette package she offered him. Then he shrugged. "Gonna die anyway," he said, taking one.

* * *

Alex stopped and leaned against a lamppost for a moment to rest. He felt as if he'd been walking all night. Then he realized that he probably had. He had no idea when he'd left the hospital.

"Winthrop's gonna kill me!" he thought. Once more, he wondered why he'd even bothered. It would have been so easy to just stay in the nice, warm, lighted hospital and not come out here after Dana's stupid suitcase. He wondered what was in the damn thing anyway that she was making such a fuss about. It wasn't like her clothes and makeup and things (he wasn't exactly sure what would be in there) couldn't be replaced or anything.

Alex looked up sharply at a noise coming from one of the alleys intersecting the street he was walking along. He'd never really liked the dark. Okay, in fact, he was even a bit scared of it. The dark and his imagination conspired together in his mind to show him horrifying pictures of what frightening mutant creature could have possibly made such a sound.

Alex decided he'd better move on.

He wondered why they weren't looking for him yet. Maybe they hadn't even noticed he was missing. He could be wandering out here for days before they even realized that he was gone! Now that he thought about it, he could recall Winthrop saying something about moving to an island... oh no! What if they left him here?

The thought gave him new strength, and he started to walk again. He didn't know why he just didn't sit down and stay in one place and wait to be found. Miami was a big city. A person could start at the north end, walk for days, and still not reach the south end. But Alex was an active person. Having something to do made him feel better. So, he walked.

He traveled maybe three or four more blocks, when he heard footsteps start to follow him. Trying to convince himself it was all in his head, he nevertheless sped up his pace. The footsteps were sounding louder now, and there seemed to be more than one... whatever it was... making them.

Alex veered away from them, then a few seconds later turned again. Too late, he realized his mistake. The footsteps had herded him into a blind alley. He found himself staring at an impossibly high brick wall. Or did it just look higher to his confused and frightened brain?

The footsteps entered the alley. Then Alex heard a chuckle. "Hey, boys, look what we got here! Turn around, punk!"

Alex slowly turned.

"Oh, shit."

* * *

Winthrop smoked a cigarette as he unrolled several maps onto the table. Puffing clouds of smoke everywhere, he held the corners of the map down with various objects - a pencil jar, paper weight, a sandwich - as other men did the same with other maps. The room was a confusion of voices and smoke.

"Quiet!" Winthrop bellowed. Silence. "Now, Krycek's got a good 4 and a half hours on us, he could be anywhere. Ted, take the team of 'copters on these routes: down Broad Street, north and south and then down 60th west and east. Fan out the rest in directions in between."

Winthrop pointed to places on the map as he gave the directions. "Jill, check all the rail stations, airports, bus terminals, subways, whatever and see if he's been there. Bob, take your crews on foot back to the bomb site, then fan out from there. Bill, post an APB for him and make sure every cop on patrol is looking for him. Rick, check with neighboring towns, and Jeff, check all hospitals in town. I'm staying here at base. Got it?"

"Got it." Everyone said it at once.

"Now go!" The men and women scrambled out of the room in a matter of seconds. Winthrop took a long puff from his cigarette. "I hate my life," he said aloud.

Chapter 6

The helicopter emblazoned with the Federation symbol flew over the city, making wide circles. The two pilots sat in silence, scanning the streets for any sign of life.

The female pilot grimaced and rotated her head around on her neck. "You know, this is getting old real quick. Just because some guy Winthrop needs for a mission is on the loose, it doesn't mean we should have to lose sleep."

"Orders, remember?" the male pilot said wearily.

The female sighed. "Ted, this sucks."

Ted nodded and sympathetically put his hand on her shoulder. "I know, Whitney. If I had a choice, I would have gone out alone. I am your instructor, and I should be able to say when you fly. Personally, I think night duty when you're already tired is dangerous, especially for a cadet."

Whitney allowed herself a lopsided smile. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"Hey, nothing personal. Accidents happen."

Their conversation was interrupted by the 'com. "'Copter 6917, 'copter 6917, report in to base. You're being relieved. Repeat, 'copter 6917, report in."

"Thank you!" Whitney addressed the ceiling of the helicopter.

"Roger, base, this is 'copter 6917. We're coming home." Ted remained expressionless even after he disconnected. "We still haven't found Reed." He shifted the flight stick, and the helicopter turned in response, heading back towards base. He brought it even lower and flipped on the high-beam searchlight.

"Who cares? Anyway... you think he got lost or something?"

"Nah, I think he was just going out for a good time."

"You think he found it?"

Ted thought a moment. "I think so. I also think that he's awfully lucky to slip by Winthrop and not get caught till three hours later."

Whitney laughed. "He's probably getting lucky with the ladies, if you know what I mean."

"If you ask me," Ted said, bringing the helicopter down, "this is his lucky day."

* * *

Alex stumbled backward as a punch landed squarely on his face. He held his jaw from where he now lay on the ground and watched the semi-circle of gangsters draw nearer.

"Well?" inquired the one who'd punched him. "You gonna give us that suitcase, or we gonna have to... take it?"

Alex looked from face to face. Each man's face was deathly white, framed by black stringy hair. Two of the men actually had no hair on their heads at all, but their long, matted beards more than made up for it.

"Eddie," said the one, "tell this punk how we're gonna take it."

"You're not getting it," Alex spat. Literally, since his mouth was beginning to fill with blood.

The supposed leader cocked his head. "Very poor choice. Looks like today ain't your lucky day." He grabbed Alex by the collar, holding him up in the air so that they were face to face. The greasy-looking man was at least a foot taller than he was, and definitely wider.

"I didn't think so," Alex mumbled.

"What?" he said coldly. "Did you just talk back to the Rock? 'Cause if you did, you're gonna-"

A loud siren ripped through the air, causing the gang to scatter, "The Rock" dropping Alex unceremoniously to the ground. Red and blue flashing lights blinded Alex, and before he knew it, he was being dragged into the backseat of a police car.

Alex realized that he had lost the suitcase, and began to look around for it in a frantic search, when he sighed, "Screw it," and pressed his forehead to the cool metal of the bars in front of the window.

The cops were outside, and Alex watched them. They were examining Dana's suitcase. The cops got in the vehicle, as Alex could see through the bars.

He leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes as the cop car pulled into traffic and sped off.

* * *

"This is the Federation's secret base?" Fox said in annoyance. "It's so..."

"Small," Kamira finished.

They all stood around in a semi-circle looking at a decrepit shack that stood before them. Contver, their guide, led them inside.

"Um," Chris said, stopping in the doorway, "we won't all be able to fit in there."

"Just follow me," Contver said in his accented voice. In the center of the room was a slight indentation in the wooden flooring, so slight that you wouldn't be able to notice it if not for Contver's fingers digging into it.

He lifted, after much effort, a small hatch that was about 2 feet by 2 feet.

Kamira wiped sweat from her brow and sighed. "Shame to leave this deserted tropical paradise for a dark dank underground base."

"Oh, no, ma'am," said Contver, "this underground tunnel is only a passage to the base which is located around that mountain on the beach."

Xep, whom they had picked up from the hospital after her surgery, widened her eyes and looked out to the mountain from the window. "But it's miles away!"

"Everyone in the hole," Contver said, ignoring Xep.

"Follow the white rabbit down the nice hole, Alice," Chris joked.

Contver dropped in last, securing the hatch behind him. Underground was a network of hoverbuses and the like. Several construction crews were working on the roads as a small hoverbus pulled up in front of the group.

Gemini and Lariana were first on, followed by Nimwen, Fox, and Xep. Chris, Thom, Dos, Alanna, and Truth were last to board. Contver took the driver's place, and the driver left the bus.

Without warning, the bus jolted forward and continued down the street at full speed. No less than 20 seconds later, Contver began to drone monotonously.

In classic tour guide mode, he seemed to find the most boring subjects to talk about, the things nobody really cared about. "And to the left, you can see where we've been doing construction to improve the sewers... Keep it going, guys!" he called, even though none of the workers could possibly have heard him through the closed windows of the hoverbus.

"Useful to know in case we ever have to hide in them," Truth commented to Alanna.

She shuddered. "Ick."

The bus drove for about half an hour, Contver talking the whole way. Most everyone was blocking him out, except for Fox, who was sitting nearest him in the front seat, and kept getting poked by Contver whenever his attention wandered.

"Ow! I see the damn bridge... now, Lariana, about the sleeping arrangements... OW!"

Pokes from both directions finally shut him up.

***

The 'com in Winthrop's now-crowded office chirped yet again. One of his lackeys dove for it, but Winthrop calmly nudged him out of the way and picked it up.

"I wonder if it's another one," a man whispered to the person sitting beside him. "I swear, we've had more 'Reed sightings' tonight than 'Clinton sightings' in the entire 21st century."

"No kidding," his partner said. She sighed. "I've had at least eight tonight. All these weirdos calling hoping to get some reward. I even had one who claims he saw Reed walking out of a strip club in Tallahassee."

Winthrop listened to the voice on the other end of the 'com for a moment, his expression unchanging. "Uh huh. I see."

There was a few moments' pause.

"I'll be right over." He disconnected and sat down heavily in his chair. All activity in the room ceased as everyone turned to look at him. He allowed them a few moments' curiosity, then slowly rose. "Go home and crash," he bellowed, "'cause this party's over!"

***

Alex sat in the brightly lit police station, head in his hands. He looked up as one of the officers who'd brought him in walked by, her boots tapping on the polished surface of the floor.



Chapter 1

April 16, 2456

Trumpets blared, followed by a long formal drum roll. As a tall, greying man ascended the podium, the crowd erupted into applause. Following him a line of persons varying in age took positions behind the podium. All of them were dressed in navy blue uniforms and carried varying degrees of decoration upon their chests. The applause gradually subsided to silence, and the greying man began to speak. His image was projected onto a large screen behind him, and the words boomed loudly through speakers.

"Today is both a very sad day in our history, and a joyous occasion. With the passing of a natural leader, brave soldier, and great man, we welcome the arrival of a new era for the Federation and a new chapter in Terra's History. Brea Marlson!"

A woman behind him stepped forward and saluted, nodding her head out of courtesy. "Yes sir!"

"Repeat after me. I, Breanna Marie Marlson, swear to... da da da da da da da." She repeated the words stiffly and exactly as they were told to her, but in a higher voice.

The man smiled, "Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the 6th Federation Leader, Breanna Marie Marlson."

The audience again applauded, and the man said over the noise: "Miss Marlson, let me be the first to congratulate you on your outstanding accomplishment."

"Thank you, General." She took his hand in a firm handshake and smiled charismatically. Brea moved behind the podium, bright auburn hair trailing behind her. Flashes from cameras below went off like shimmering glitter as the audience continued to applaud.

She smiled and leaned forward a little to speak in to the microphone and as the applause died down she said, "Thank you. This is such an honor." She was interrupted by a new wave of applause. "Thank you." Brea said charismatically. She waited for it to be quiet again. "I just want to say thank you for this extremely splendid honor, and for the chance to serve Terra, in the way I have always dreamed of, as Federation Leader! Furthermore--"

"Captain?" A reporter in the front row interrupted.

"Yes?" Brea blinked.

"Captain, are you alright?"

"What do you mean?"

"Captain? Captain Brea?"

"What? I already said 'what'." Brea allowed herself a confused smile.

"Captain, ma'am? Are you alright?"

Brea awoke with a start when a hand fell on her shoulder. She jumped back, tumbling out of her seat and landing on the carpet with a "thump". A cascade of papers and books fell off her desk and landed in a pyramid-shaped pile on top of her.

"Captain? Are you alright?" Chris said stepping back in bewilderment. Brea climbed to her feet quickly and smoothed out her uniform. "I... was just finishing up some paperwork."

"I... see," Chris nodded.

Brea detected moisture on her chin and wiped away the drool in embarrassment. "What time is it, Crewman Muldrich?"

"Half past seven. Were you up late?"

"Until four, at least. I must have fallen asleep..."

"Now, I know your shift doesn't start till nine, but--"

"Yes, but I'm on call twenty four--seven, you know," Brea said dryly as she scooped up an armful of papers from the floor and dropped them on the desk.

"Well I came to get you at Officer O'Connor's request."

"Why? What's going on?" Brea grabbed her jacket from her chair and slipped it on as she started to follow Chris out.

"Dana and Alex are out of control."

"Again?" Brea whined, "In that case, hang on a minute while I fix my hair." She stopped in front of her mirror and began to tug at her hair. "Oh jeez, why didn't you tell me my eye makeup ran all over? I look like I have two black eyes!"

"Captain, I think you'd better hurry."

"Why couldn't Kal take care of it? He'll never be promoted if he can't take care of a little argument." Brea vainly wiped at her eyes, and then licked her fingers and tried again.

"Captain, one of them bit him."

"Bit him?" Brea made a face and looked incredulously at Chris.

"Yeah. They're like dogs. If you get between them when they're fighting you are likely to lose a limb."

"Which one bit him?"

"We don't know."

Brea sighed, still rubbing at her eyes. "Why don't you just shoot them?"

Chris furrowed his brow and looked at her quizzically. Chris pulled out his PLS and started to leave.

"I wasn't serious." Brea said with a grin. "Just give me a minute."

A war-like scream and a very loud thumping followed a loud crash from the bridge.

"Damn it to hell!" Brea exclaimed storming out of her quarters. "I'll shoot them myself!"

* * *

Brea approached the bridge at a run, but slowed down as she started to catch snippets of dialogue.

"Mind your own goddamn business!" Alex screamed.

"It's my report, so it is my 'goddamn' business!" Came Dana's shrill voice.

"I didn't delete it, Dana."

"Did too!"

"Did not!"

"Did too!"

"You lost it!"

"Did not!"

Brea now stepped onto the bridge, unnoticed by everyone on it. Kal, Dos, Anorian and Chris stood around the bridge watching the two officers fight. Brea cocked her head to one side and opted to let it play itself out. She decided she'd have more fun punishing them later, than breaking it up now, and watched the two spar.

Alex let his lips curl into a satisfied smile. "Next time try saving your report in the report file and maybe you won't lose it!"

"I didn't lose it!"

"Then where is it? For all I know you didn't even do one. I get on the computer for five minutes and you accuse me of deleting your report. The same report you may not have even done."

"You know you deleted it! Or you moved it! Where is it?!" Dana took a confrontational step forward.

"Why would I do that?"

"Because... because... you're... mean!"

Alex rolled his eyes. "I don't know where your report is, ok? Maybe if you learned to use the computers you could find your files when you--"

"Dammit! I'm not kidding!" Dana shoved Alex hard and he stumbled backward.

Kal moved towards the fight. Dos and Garonen stepped cautiously towards them on the opposite side.

"Dana," Kal said, coming up behind her, "just drop it, he's not worth it."

"Yeah, he's just a little worm," Chris said, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder.

She looked back at Kal and Chris and sighed. Dana relaxed abruptly. She began to turn away, and then lunged at him, flailing every appendage of her body. Kal and Chris tried to hold her back, each one holding an arm. Dos and Garonen held Alex from lunging at her.

"This is the last time! You are so dead, Alex!"

"Just wait till I get my hands on you!"

"You mean your report-moving, sabotaging little claws?"

"Look who's talking about claws!" Alex yelled, pointing at the long scratch down his cheek.

"DIE!" Dana screamed and broke free of the two men’s' strong hold. She wrapped her hands around his neck and pushed him down on the floor. Dos and Garonen tumbled backwards. Dana pummeled him fiercely. Alex kicked furiously, hitting her repeatedly. She held his flailing arms down with her knees and pounded his head against the deck of the floor.

"That's it." Brea mumbled, "Letting them sort it out apparently was a bad idea." She pulled out her PLS, charged it, and pointed it readily at Dana, who was in the process of beating Alex's head against the deck. "Officer Pendrell! Freeze!" She yelled.

Dana stopped and looked blankly at Brea, as though without any idea as to why she had yelled at her. Alex kicked up furiously and caught her in the ribs. Dana collapsed, wheezing for air, and Alex used the opportunity to get to his feet.

"Hey, hey, guys," Chris said, "She's serious. I heard her talking and she said she was going to shoot you."

Dana, ignoring him, let out a kamikaze scream as she jumped on Alex's back. He screamed, too, and punched her over his shoulder, landing three punches to her face. Dana fell backwards and landed flat on her back.

Brea fired the PLS, and the orange beam whizzed between Alex and Dana, missing them by inches. The beam hit the far wall and was absorbed by the paneling.

"Agh!" Dana screamed, "You could have shot me! Are you crazy!"

"Damn." Brea said replacing the PLS in her belt. "I missed."

Dana and Alex exchanged horrified glances.

"Now someone tell me what the hell is going on."

Dana gasped as she looked at Brea for the first time. "Captain! Your eyes!"

"What happened, Captain?" Alex frowned.

"OK, that's it, not another word from you two. Kal?"

"Well... you see, I was here... on the, um, bridge, that is... and um, Alex, he uh.... wait... first Dana went... no... um--"

"Ok, I see he's just as confused as I am." Brea sighed, turning to Alex. "Alex? You first."

"Well, you see, I was on the computer looking up some vital information on computer circuitry when Dana," Alex explained as he rose to his feet, breathing hard and motioning to Dana, "attacked me like a lunatic, screaming something about a... report?"

"No! No--" Dana hissed in pain and rubbed her jaw, wincing. "He's lying!"

"Okay, Officer Pendrell, what happened?"

"Well, I was just checking out the computer diagnostics to help me file my daily report, right?" Dana explained, moving her hands around. "When he fiddled with the controls and not only changed the diagnostic readouts, but erased my report. He did it on purpose, too."

"Officer Reed, is this true?" Brea questioned.

"I have no idea what she is talking about." He turned to Dana. "Did you try looking in the MU filing system? Or the Lab? Sometimes files get put in there by mistake-"

"I saved it to my folder," she replied through clenched teeth.

"Officer Pendrell, would you go check?" Brea said stifling a yawn.

Dana turned around to the computer console. After a couple quick finger movements, Dana looked up at the screen and two bright splotches of red appeared on her cheeks. "I-"

Alex smiled sweetly, "See?"

"I-" She turned toward Brea and furrowed her brow, "He changed it! He, he... he did something!"

"I'm sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused you, Dana. Next time be sure to save your files to the proper place, okay?" Alex rubbed his sore jaw and shook his head.

"I-" Dana paused. She looked around, and stalked off to her quarters.

Brea sighed. "I suppose I'd better have a talk with her about disruptions. And as for you..." Brea's penetrating glare would have burned a hole through Alex if such things were possible. "As for you, I'll discipline you for fighting, with or without provocation. Dana will be punished, too, mind you all." She spoke out loud to the whole crew, "Let this be a lesson to you all next time you think about turning to violence." Brea turned back to Alex and glared. "You were supposed to have been off duty, anyway. Next time stay off the bridge computers and out of Officer Pendrell's way on her shift. Alex, report to my quarters after you've been taken care of. " She sighed. "We should probably get you checked out. Those cuts look pretty nasty. Ugh, your forehead is starting to swell... Kal, let me see that bite."

"Oh, they didn't really bite me." Kal said sheepishly. "I just told Chris to say that so you'd come help."

"Alright one less thing to worry about." Brea said walking to the console. "Everything under control?"

"Yes, Captain." Kal affirmed.

"Anorian, get Officer Anderson on the 'com. Tell her Alex is on the way for some bumps and bruises, and that she'll need to stop by Officer Pendrell's quarters to check on her."

"Aye, Captain." Anorian replied heading to the wall 'com.

Brea sat down in the captain's chair. "Kal, can you get someone to get me a cup of coffee?"

"Captain, go back to bed. You're exhausted. Why don't you let me take part of your shift? I'll cover for you with Redux."

Brea reluctantly agreed and managed to leave the bridge with her head held high.

Kal barely waited for her to be out of hearing range, "Alex, get down to the MU! Dos, get me the tidal conditions! Anorian, finish up that call, and Chris, get me a cup of coffee!" He barked.

* * *

"Did you hear? Dana and Alex got in a fight again." Kamira sighed and tossed her long black hair out of her face. The gossip network in an enclosed environment like the Luna was usually pretty efficient.

Lamara rolled her eyes. "So what else is new?" Then she grinned. "But I also heard she whipped him pretty good, and they had to get Gemini to take him to the MU." The biologist's mouth curved upwards in a grin of malicious pleasure.

"Hey, maybe we'll get lucky and he'll slip into a catatonic state?" Kamira said with a playful grin.

"Irreversible I hope!" Lamara laughed.

"Well whatever he got, he deserved it." Kamira concluded. "He is always picking on Dana! And she's so little..."

"Hey, she's not so innocent," Said a voice from the hallway.

"Hi, Garonen. What's up?" Kamira said. In contrast to Alex, everyone liked the redheaded kid. 17 was rather young to be in the Federation, not to mention on missions, but Garonen was exceptionally smart. He'd been promoted to Life Support tech after the pre-mission and early mission disasters, so only the most unusual circumstances should bring him anywhere near the Lab. Garonen didn't smile back.

"Gemini sent me. Her pullpips are acting funny, so she asked me to get Lamara to come check on them."

Lamara frowned. The pullpips were past mating season, and should be settling down about now. Her large brown eyes took on a worried look as she walked quickly through the corridors to the Medical Unit.

Gemini, the ship's medic, looked up with an expression of fervent relief in her cool, icy-green eyes. She straightened from where she had been bent over the examination table.

Lamara automatically felt her head tilt back so she could still look Gemini in the eye. At 6'3, Gemini was one of the tallest crewmembers, towering even over the Captain.

"Thank goodness you're here," she moaned. "The pullpips are making the most annoying noises. I've got a migraine from here to Antope 5! Can you please just make them be quiet?"

Lamara followed Gemini to the pullpip's cage. The pullpips acted as an organic carbon dioxide scrubber, taking it and replacing it with breathable oxygen for the crew. They were much more sophisticated than the crude mechanical devices used by early space flights. They didn't have to be repaired, and as long as you took care of them, there would be more than enough air to last an entire mission.

They were indeed making an awful racket, hooting and chattering and screeching. They resembled little colored balls of fluff with arms and legs, balls of fluff that were even now hopping vigorously around the cage in a frenzy.

Lamara saw the problem almost at once. "Of course! Somehow one of Alex's pullpips got in your cage. See?"

Gemini could plainly see Alex's orange pullpip against her green ones. Each crewmember had his or her own color, with another for pullpips just working in the entire ship with no owner. "How in the world... It must have escaped during feeding or something."

Lamara reached into the cage for it, but it bit her finger. "Youch!" Lamara yelped, and quickly yanked her hand out of the cage. "He's a vicious little thing!" She reached back into the cage, more carefully this time, and picked up the wriggling pullpip, holding it tightly in one hand.

"Maybe he's hungry," Gemini laughed.

"Ha, ha, ha," Lamara muttered. Then she stopped. "What the..."

Gemini frowned. "What's wrong, Lamara?"

Lamara reached into the cage once more and extracted the dead body of a pullpip, dripping with blood. The other pullpips continued to scream frantically in their shrill, high-pitched voices, almost beyond the range of human hearing.

Gemini went pale. "How..."

Lamara pressed her lips together thoughtfully. "It appears we have a killer pullpip on our hands. But how did it get into the cages in the first place?"

Any further conversation was cut off by a 'com announcement by Brea to all crew. "Attention. All hands on bridge. Repeat, all hands on bridge. NOW!"

Gemini gestured to the orange-furred struggling pullpip Lamara held firmly in her hand, keeping her fingers out of reach of its tiny, sharp teeth. "What are we going to do about that? We have to go to the bridge."

"I'll just take it down to the Lab real quick and stick it in a cage. I'll deal with it later."

"We are out of range of gravitational distortions. Everyone, grab hold of something. Redux, activate the Jump sequence."

"Yes, ma'am."

The space around the Luna crumpled, and the ship disappeared. Instantly, the ship appeared at the edge of another planetary system.

"Is everyone alright?" Brea asked looking around.

"No!" Anorian shouted as he ran off the bridge, his face a sickly green.

"Ohh," Kamira moaned, "I'm a little dizzier than usual."

"Probably just the breakfast you had, or the amount of exercise you did today." Gemini reassured her.

"Dana's going to throw up!" Alex shouted.

"Am not!" Dana cried, her cheeks flushed.

"You do look a little sick, you sure you don't wanna go follow Anorian?" Brea asked, comfortingly.

"No..." Dana grumbled.

"Alright we are approaching our next stop, 329-X8-F6-4. Obviously, it's the fourth one from the sun. We'll reach it in approximately six hours if we put it into fifth." Brea announced.

"Aww," Anorian exclaimed, back from the lavatory, "You mean 5g again?"

"Officer Johnson, we have a schedule to keep." Brea sighed. "We're all going to be sleeping through it, since it is going to be rather uncomfortable if we were to stay up. Redux will be in charge out here, and wake everyone when we are in orbit."

"Captain, what are we delivering to this one?" Kal asked.

"Oxygen, water and some food. There's a base on the planet that's requested some extra supplies to last until they can make more. Apparently their is malfunctioning." Brea answered reading the itinerary.

"What about the planet?" Alex asked.

"Any indigenous creatures?" was Lamara's first question.

"Hmm... four moons... must wreak havoc with the tides," Kamira commented.

"Humph!" said Dos. The Engineering Specialist looked away with a look of contemptuous disdain in his cold, unfeeling grey eyes. "Rubbish. You kids, always thinkin' you're getting the better of your elders! You oughta take a gawk at Terra and all her wonders, you know she's done more for us than that ol' hunk o' rock ever will! Or for that matter, what it did for the crew of the base on that god-forsaken chunk of space debris. Back in '38, when I was on watch, we saw some pretty fancy planets, too, only we couldn't stop to gawk. No, sir! The second we take our eyes off our enemy.... KABLOWEE! We gotta hole the size o' our head in our chest, that's what we'd've got!" He stalked off the bridge, muttering. The assembled crewmembers could make out only a few words, like, "planet" and "Terra" and "load of crap".

Kamira sighed wearily. "Um, Captain, ma'am?"

"Yes, officer Roberts?"

"Wasn't Dos on... mission control... before he was assigned to this mission with us?"

"Affirmative." Brea bit the inside of her cheek to avoid smiling.





Brea chose to ignore the banter. "Redux?"

"Yes, Captain Brea, ma'am?"

"I've changed my mind. Set up a low orbit and we'll do the customary two circuits before landing. Wake me when you've finished the assessment, and wake the others after I join you on the bridge. We'll go into 5g in 2 hours. Finish up any work in that time, because if you're not in bed by then, you will have a very unpleasant experience."

* * *

Lamara sat at her desk, going over the computer analysis report of the killer pullpip. She scrolled down, reading swiftly. Then she stopped. She went back and reread a section. Lamara launched herself out of her seat and grabbed her 'com.

"Yeah?" a sleepy voice answered.

"You're already sleeping?" Lamara asked incredulously.

"Yeah... I'm tired. Uhh, I can't find my glasses, who is this?" Kamira asked almost suspiciously.

"It's Lamara. You know earlier, when Gemini sent Garonen over because her pullpips were acting funny?"

"Yes," Kamira said, sounding slightly annoyed at being awoken for something so seemingly trivial.

"Well, they were screaming because there was one of Alex's pullpips in their cage, and it had killed one of them."

"What?" Kamira sounded fully awake now.

"But the strange thing is," Lamara continued, "it looks to have been tampered with. I think you'd better come take a look."

"I'll be there in a second," Kamira promised.

Within a few moments, Kamira was at the door. Lamara opened it and motioned for Kamira to enter. "Look at these reports," she said, guiding Kamira over to the computer.

As Kamira read, her eyes got wider and wider. She turned a pale face to Lamara. "This pullpip has been seriously damaged mentally! Somehow its hormones have been changed to make it a killer. There's no possible way we can stop it from killing any more," Lamara said.

"So what do you think we should do with it?" Kamira asked with a worried frown.

Lamara shook her head, dark blonde hair floating behind her with the movement. "I would say that the best thing we could do for it would be to put it out of its misery."

Kamira glanced at Lamara. "It's in pain?"

"Not physical pain, no," Lamara explained, "but the killer instinct has been triggered. It'll suffer unless it can kill... continuously."

Kamira's eyes widened. "We'd better."

Lamara and Kamira walked down to the Lab. Upon their entering, the pullpip, which Lamara had put in a cage, began to shriek. Lamara got out a syringe. Then she looked through her cupboards until she found the liquid she needed. She filled the syringe to capacity. It should be more than enough to euthanize the pullpip.

Lamara stuck the needle into it, and it squawked almost indignantly. That was the last sound it ever made. The poison worked almost immediately. Lamara sighed sadly, and Kamira put a comforting hand on her shoulder. She knew Lamara, being a biologist, loved animals and hated it when she had to kill one.

Then the alarm sounded. "Going into 5g in two minutes. Please assume standard positions."

"Uh oh!" Kamira blurted, "Gotta go, see you when we get there, Lamara, have a good nap!"

The two ran to their quarters and made it into bed just in time.

* * *

The hooting of alarms shattered Brea’s peaceful slumber. She glanced at the digital clock. It read three o' clock in the morning. "We should be there by now! What is going on?" She catapulted herself out of bed, noticing that the gravity was normal. "What the... we're out of 5g! Why hasn't Redux..." she muttered to herself as she raced along the halls.

Only then did she notice that the lights in the corridors were getting dimmer and dimmer, and the emergency lights weren't even coming on. Someone poked their head out of their quarters. "Brea- er, Captain, ma'am? What's going on?" It was Kal.

"I don't know! Stay where you are, I'm going to the bridge, and I don't need people underfoot!" She sped up, leaving Kal standing behind her in bewilderment.

Finally, she made it to the bridge. The bright lights of the bridge momentarily blinded her. She rubbed eyes still puffy from sleep. Brea winced at the volume of the alarms going off and squinted in the brighter light. It looked and sounded like every single alarm and warning flasher that the Luna possessed was going off. Directly in front of her the thermal monitor displayed a flashing red number: 251 F

"Redux we're burning up! What did you do?!"

"What are you talking about, Captain Brea, ma'am?"

"What in God's name are you doing?" She screamed.

"Just as you asked, Captain Brea, ma'am."

"The hell you are!" She grabbed the main terminal and read, "We're breaking apart! Where the hell did you take us?!"

Brea spared a second to look out the viewport, and saw nothing but white clouds, orange at the edges.

Brea nearly panicked, but shrieked, "Divert power to the shields!"

"But--"

"NOW!"

"Yes, Captain, ma'am." Redux said reluctantly.

"Redux, correct our entry angle!"

"Entry? But Captain--"

"Set it to 39.8 degrees, now!"

"The controls are stuck, Captain, but perhaps the manual throttle--"

"Out of my way!" Brea angrily pushed Redux aside and grabbed the throttle, just as the Luna crashed into the atmosphere at an almost vertical angle. The thermal monitor rang out determinedly and glowed a menacing 369 F. Brea pulled hard, but the ship continued to plummet vertically.

"Redux! If I can't straighten us out we're going to burn up!"

Redux grabbed the throttle and pulled, but it only budged slightly. The ship's entry angle changed slightly, and then slightly more. Redux pulled hard, nearly ripping metal from metal, and finally the entry angle read 40 degrees, just shallow enough to get through safely.

The ship crashed into the planet's surface, and the whole bridge shook. Brea was thrown, hitting the far wall sharply. The ship continued to bounce and slide, shaking the computers, some of them fizzling out altogether. Electrical wires came loose and sparked fires, the sprinkler systems coming on to put them out. The ship slid through a meadow, and crashed into a forest. Mounds of dirt flew up from the ground, and the Luna finally ground to a stop, rocking backwards, once more throwing its contents around fiercely.

The ship lay battered, crushed, and steaming at the edge of a forest.

Chapter 2

Brea picked herself up off the floor where she had been thrown by the force of the impact, and shook her head to clear it.

Bad idea.

That just made it throb worse. Only then did she notice the blood streaming down the left side of her face from a gash on her forehead. The whole thing reminded her unpleasantly of the bombing of Federation HQ just after she'd been assigned to the Luna mission.

"Redux," she croaked, "you moron. Not being able to tell orbit coordinates from coordinates that will crash you into the planet... Redux? Redux?"

Redux didn't answer. He was lying on his back a few feet away. Sightless glass eyes stared upwards into infinity. Smoke was pouring out of his ears, and sparks were coming out of his mouth. Redux was "dead". The shock must have done something to his internal circuits, overheating and then shutting them down.

She gritted her teeth and wiped the blood off her forehead with the sleeve of her uniform. Then she just sat there for a moment.

"This won't do," she said to herself out loud.

Brea collected herself sufficiently to get to her feet and glance at the instrument panels to check the atmospheric conditions. "Hmm," she mused to herself. "A bit chewy." She reached for the 'com controls. "Okay, everybody, this is Captain Marlson. We've crashed on the planet. Telemetry readouts show moderate damage and a few small fires spread throughout the ship. The scurrier robots are taking care of those, but I want everybody outside the ship. Find a breathing mask, the atmosphere isn't poisonous but it's not going to be very comfortable to breathe on your own."

She then proceeded to follow her own orders. Outside, everyone turned up except Dos, and, of course, Redux. There were varying degrees of injuries, Brea found as people began to report in. Kal had blood pumping from a gash on his thigh. Lamara had a broken arm. Gemini had burned hands. Kamira and Dana had some pretty bad-looking scrapes and bruises all over. The others all had minor scrapes and bruises and cuts of some sort.

With silent unison, they all turned and looked at the ship. Brea made a quick head count. She frowned and said, "Where's Officer Grey?"

Chris said softly, "He uhh... he had a heart attack. He just panicked when the alarms started going off.... Once we... that is, me, him, and Dana - we were down in Engineering - once we figured out what was happening it was just..." He shrugged helplessly. "too late."

Brea nodded and turned back to the ship, the action masking the look of pain on her face. Chalk up another loss. Dos had been a good crewman, efficient and effective, even with his bad attitude.

"Well, Officer Muldrich," she asked, "do you think we can save her?" Brea mentally crossed her fingers. If they couldn't, the Federation would not be happy, to say nothing of their being stranded.

Chris looked thoughtful, his pale blue eyes running over the length of the ship. "I don't know, captain, ma'am," he answered slowly. "If we can, it'll take a while. Looks pretty bad."

As everyone moved to help Chris make damage assessments, Brea thought, making rapid plans. They would have to camp inside the ship. Who knew what kinds of little nasties they could run into out here?

She looked out over the meadow, or rather, what she could see of it. A mist or a fog of some sort flowed over the area, even in the bright sunlight. It only reached to about knee-height, with clear patches here and there. One opened up right at her feet, and she noticed for the first time that the grass was purple. Well, maybe not purple purple... more of a greyish color, with purple tinges. But it was still strange-looking. Very strange. She'd have to get Kamira and Lamara on that as soon as possible...

* * *

Dana awoke early, at about 4:30. After a few half-hearted attempts to go back to sleep, she decided that it was no use. She yawned and stretched, and decided to go down to the galley to get some cornflakes or something. Dana dressed hurriedly, and left her room.

On her way to the galley, she saw Alex coming out of his room. Obviously he'd awoken early also. "Great," she muttered to herself. She quickened her step.

However, Alex jogged up and matched her stride. "Morning, Dana," he said cheerily.

She snarled at him. Dana was not a morning person. Alex shrugged and kept walking with her.

Suddenly, she stopped.

"Did you hear that?" Dana asked with a frown.

"Hear what?" Alex asked.

"It sounded like there's somebody down there walking around."

"Hmm... let's see," Alex thought out loud. "What's down there? The galley, storage space, some rooms, not much else."

"Well, what are we waiting for?" she asked. "Let's go check it out!"

"I don't know," he replied cautiously. "There could be anything down there. I don't think anybody else is up yet."

She looked uneasy, but shot back, "So? How do you know? I've got my PLS in case it turns out to be the boogie man... although my parents were pretty good friends with him so I don't think I have to worry...." She started to walk down the hall, trailing off.

Alex sighed and followed. Why him? Why? He nearly ran into Dana as she stopped abruptly.

"Shhh!" She held up a hand.

"Wh-" he started to say, but she elbowed him in the ribs.

"Listen!"

Alex strained his hearing, and finally caught a low sound, like soft footsteps. He looked wide-eyed over at Dana. She nodded, then pointed to him, and down one hall, then at herself and down another. He nodded, understanding. They would take separate ways and meet in the middle, trapping whoever or whatever was down there neatly and effectively. He gave her the thumbs-up sign and began to jog down the indicated hall.

Dana watched him go for a second before moving down the other. She crept along swiftly and silently. Dana pulled out her PLS, charging it up as she went. She reached her goal at the end of the hallway, and a few seconds later Alex appeared.

There was a broad expanse of hallway between them, where Dana hoped they had trapped whatever was making the noise. She began to walk towards Alex, her eyes darting from side to side in an attempt to catch anything unusual. Alex also started to move in her direction.

When she was only a few inches away from him, she leaned forward and whispered, "Anything?"

Alex shook his head.

Suddenly, they both heard the sound of a door. Dana whirled around in time to see the door to the galley sliding shut. She glanced back at Alex, who nodded - he too had seen it.

Alex pulled out his PLS as they approached the now-closed door. Dana opened it and stepped cautiously inside, Alex at her heels. She heard running footsteps. Whoever it was certainly wasn't trying to be quiet now!

Alex tapped her on the shoulder as they both heard another door open. "The freezer," he mouthed.

She nodded and stepped forward. He followed her to the large walk-in freezer. The thick bar that normally locked it was indeed slid back. Dana shoved the doors aside and stepped into the freezer. Alex entered next, the doors swinging shut behind him. He and Dana made a thorough search of the room, checking behind shelves and boxes.

They again met in the middle, again finding nothing.

Alex shook his head in disgust and began to walk back over to the door. Dana was right behind him. She watched as Alex shoved on the doors.

They didn't open.

"Ha, ha, very funny, Alex," she said sarcastically. "Now if you'll quit fooling around..." She trailed off as Alex turned to face her.

His expression was one of surprise and fright, not the smile of trickery she would have expected from him. Dana felt a sick fear ooze into her stomach, settling there like a leaden weight.

She pushed past Alex and tried the doors herself.

They wouldn't budge.

"What?" she gasped. "No!" Dana threw herself at the doors, banging furiously on the metal and screaming, "Help! Help! Let me out! Help!"

Alex grabbed her by the wrists. "Stop! Dana, stop it!"

She quit pounding and looked at him curiously. "Don't yell, and don't exert yourself," he explained. "We only have so much oxygen, and if we want to last until someone finds us, well..." He left the rest unspoken.

Dana relaxed, knowing he was right. She pulled her arms free of his grip and moved over to the nearest box on the floor. "What are you doing?" Alex asked curiously as he watched her rip it open.

"Trying to find something that will help us get out of here! Now get off your lazy butt and help!"

Alex shrugged. "I don't see how boxes are going to help us. Now if we want to get out of here in a hurry..." He aimed his PLS at the doors.

Dana looked up in time to see him. "Alex! No!"

Too late. He fired at the doors, but the laser beam only reflected off them, heading straight back to where it had come from at the speed of light.

Right towards Alex.

* * *

"Oof!" Alex grunted as he hit the floor. Dana had launched herself at him when she'd seen him shoot. She could feel the heat of the laser beam's passing just inches over her. He started to shove her off of him, but she held on.

"Wait." The laser beam continued to ricochet off the metal walls, miraculously missing the boxes. Dana knew that if it hit one, it would start a bad fire. Finally, the beam of energy dissipated.

Dana pushed herself off the ground and Alex. He sat up, and immediately Dana began to yell. "What did you think you were doing, you moron? Your puny weapon doesn't have anywhere near the power required to punch through that metal! You could have killed us both!"

Alex looked stunned. "I... I'm sorry... I don't know what I was thinking..."

She sighed. "Well what do we do now? You have the Federation Manual memorized. What does it say about being trapped in a freezer?"

"It says that all those trapped should battle to the death and then eat the losers." Alex smiled.

"Sounds good to me." Dana muttered.

"We'll eventually need to lie down." Alex thought aloud.

Dana raised an eyebrow.

"Stop being a baby." Alex said looking around. "Now, we can't lie on the bare metal, so... we need to line it with something warmer."

"This is a freezer, Alex. Everything in here is frozen!"

"Well we need to find something."

"What do you want me to do? Strip off my clothes and line the floor with them?" She paused slightly, "Don't answer that."

He sighed. "Oh, shut up. Now come and help me. There might be something in one of these boxes that can help us."

"Like what?" she asked. "Oh, I know! We'll get into the ice cream and freeze our way out!"

Alex ignored her and continued rifling through the box he'd opened.

"Maybe we could use the cardboard from the boxes?" Dana asked, and began opening boxes also.

"Well, at least we won't starve," Alex muttered. A few minutes later, he whistled appreciatively. "Hey! Dana, look what I found!"

Dana looked up. "What?" she asked excitedly. Alex was too busy gloating over his find to answer her. "Alex, what is it?" She got up and started to walk over to him. Dana looked down into the box.

Fortune cookies.

"I love these things!" Alex said happily.

Dana rolled her eyes, not sure whether to hit him or to just lie down on the floor and cry.

* * *

"You will have great success."

"In bed."

"Ha, ha."

"Good things are coming to you soon."

"In bed."

"Oh, yeah? What about this one? Someone from your past will walk in on your present life."

"Maybe they're coming to rescue us-"

"-Or maybe it's a dead body in the ice cream locker."

Dana and Alex sat against a wall, comparing fortune cookies. There was nothing else to do, Dana figured, so why not? It was pretty clear there was absolutely no way out of here, unless someone came along and opened the door. And unless someone got a sudden craving for frozen spinach or ice cream for breakfast, she didn't think that was happening anytime soon.

She was cold, yes, but she was managing to ignore it. So far. Somehow she didn't think that her ability to keep it off would last much longer. She'd always been somewhat cold-blooded, preferring hot weather over cold, though she did like snow.

"Dana?"

Slowly she realized that Alex had been talking to her. "What?"

"Are you okay? You look kind of funny."

"Funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?" she tried to joke. Then she glanced around. Was the ship rocking? No, she realized, she was shaking. Then she realized that her hands were numb, and had been for quite some time.

"I don't suppose you brought along your 'com, did you?" she asked Alex.

He looked dumbfounded. "Oh, yeah! I guess we could call for help, couldn't we?"

Dana sat up, ready to hit him, when he added, "If we had one."

She sank back against the wall, murmuring, "Not funny, Alex."

He sighed. "You think we'll get out of here soon?"

"I hope so."

"I just hope we don't have Chinese tonight. I never want to see another fortune cookie again!"

* * *

Alex glanced once more at his solar rotation meter. It read 6 AM. Three more hours and the next shift would start. Someone would be in the galley in two and a half hours. If he could only stay awake for that long, and then get their attention somehow...

He looked at Dana, curled up into a ball in one corner. She was shivering violently and she looked awful. He didn't know if she was asleep or unconscious. Alex was cold too, but for some reason it had affected Dana more than him. Maybe it was because she was smaller and didn't have as much mass to keep her warm.

He stood up, wincing at the stiffness of his muscles, and went over to her. "Dana?" No answer "Dana?" He shook her by the shoulder. She didn't move.

Alex touched her cheek, which was slowly turning an ugly bluish color from the cold. It felt hard, almost like it was frozen. Suddenly, a shivering spasm ran down his spine. He sank down to the floor as he writhed and shook. Finally he was able to get his rebellious body under control enough to stop the shivering.

He had to get warm. He had to get Dana warm. Those two thoughts were all his numbed brain could think. Alex moved closer to Dana and put his arms around her. Maybe, just maybe, with shared body heat and a lot of luck, they would survive this. He felt so tired...

He knew he shouldn't sleep, but it was hard to resist the demands of his slowly freezing body.

Alex leaned back and rested his head against the wall. His eyes closed and he fell into an uneasy sleep.

* * *

Alex awoke slowly, in stages. At first he was aware of nothing but the two facts that he was lying on his back and that he was finally warm.

He opened his eyes slowly, wincing at the effort it took to do it. He was lying in the MU, in a bed, wrapped in a thick cocoon of blankets. As he sat up cautiously, he noticed that Dana was lying in a bed next to him, still unconscious.

Gemini entered the room. "Oh, good, you're awake. I've got a few questions for you. What were you doing in the freezer? And how did the door get locked from the outside? If this was a prank, Alex, it wasn't very funny."

Alex shook his head. "No, no prank," he croaked. His voice didn't seem to be able to work properly. He swallowed several times, grimaced, and continued. "Me and Dana thought we heard a noise, and so we went down there. It seemed to be coming from the freezer. We went in, but we didn't find anything. When we tried to get out, the door was locked."

Gemini nodded, taking notes on a clipboard as she listened. "Well, you're lucky that Lamara found you. She went in to get something and saw you huddled up in the corner with Dana. That was pretty smart, I might add. If you hadn't thought of sharing body heat, you both would probably have been dead. As it is, it was a struggle with Dana."

Alex glanced over at the still form lying in the next bed. "Is she gonna be okay?"

Gemini sighed. "I hope so. We managed to get her warmed up, and there was no sign of frostbite, but you never know. You know, because of you two Garonen and I had to take extra shifts this morning to cover you guys."

"Sorry... and thanks," Alex groaned.

"Goodness, you should have seen Brea's face when Kamira told her we couldn't find you two." Gemini grinned. "Lamara almost cried."

Alex winced. "I figured Brea would be mad... that bad, huh?"

Gemini raised an eyebrow, "You have no idea."

"Well I'll make it up to you and Garonen... and Kamira. Brea yell at her when she told her about us?"

"You know it. How about you take my graveyard shift this Friday?"

"Consider it done." He began to struggle to get up.

"Oh no you don't." Gemini pushed him down gently. "Lie down for a while and rest. Your shift is already over, so you might as well take the few hours to recover. Now open your eyes and follow the light," She waved the ocular scanner in front of him, "Uh, huh... good." She turned around and scribbled on her notepad again. "I'm going to give you some Nirogen. It should relieve some of the nausea, muscle pain, headaches and general disorientation for you... and I'll give you some Akima to increase blood flow to your extremities; you're still a few degrees shy of your normal temperature."

As if on cue, Alex shuddered.

Dana's eyes opened suddenly with a sharp gasp. "What..."

Gemini interrupted her. "You're safe now. You're in the MU. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Dana pushed herself up on her elbows after some struggle. "What happened? I-"

Gemini gently but resolutely pushed her back down on the bed. "Dana, you need to stay lying down. Do you realize you could have died?"

Dana started to open her mouth but Gemini put her hand up, "Don't answer that. Now try to get some sleep, ok?"

"Who-?"

Gemini crossed her arms and sighed, "Don't ask questions, save them for later. Now open your eyes and look at the light." Gemini repeated the tests she performed on Alex, and then made a tiny incision on Dana's left hand with the electron scalpel.

"Ow!"

"Stop being such a baby. I've seen you with a broken arm and you barely winced." Gemini smiled, inserting the nano-monitors through the injection tube. "I'll take these out in a couple of hours. In the mean time don't scratch, rub, pinch or pull on your hand. That includes you, Alex." Gemini turned around with a grin on her face. She spun back toward Dana with a scanner in her hand. "I'll scan your hand again in about an hour, ok?" She waved it over the back of Dana's hand.

Lamara walked in quickly and grabbed Gemini by the arm. "Gemini, we need you down in the Lab. Kamira just found the strangest flower!"

"Ok. Alex, Dana: Lie down, don't move and don't speak. You both need to rest now. I'll be right back."

She exited the room, talking quietly with Lamara. Dana rolled over on her side to face Alex.

"Smart idea," he told her. He made his voice high in an attempt to mimic her. "Ooh, I heard something. Let's go check it out. Ooh, I think it went in the freezer. Let's go in."

Dana scowled. "If I," she groaned and cleared her throat, "...remember correctly, you were the one who had the freezer idea. And who almost got us killed by shooting his weapon at the door?"

"Yeah, at least I was doing something. You were just throwing yourself against the door like a maniac."

"Oh, like you never do anything dumb."

Alex looked wounded. "Why, whatever can you mean?"

Dana attempted to sit up, but gave up, shoving the blankets off her, and placing one hand on her hip. "Hmm, maybe you were fiddling with the computer and you messed it up, causing a malfunction in the nav computer, causing us to crash? Hmm?"

Alex also sat up. "I never messed anything up."

"Stupid, stupid," Dana chided. "You know you were fooling around with the computer the day before yesterday! A smart person might even think it was your fault we crashed!" She gave him a long, searching look. Suddenly, she grinned maliciously "You did do something to the computers, didn't you? That's why you crashed the ship? To hide it?"

Alex's face remained calm and impassive. "Why, my dear Dane, darling, I have absolutely no idea what you are referring to. You know as well as I do what happens when you do something wrong and try to... well, we all saw what happened on the Megalopolis. I got blamed for something you did..."

"I didn't do it, Alex," she said, struggling to remain lying down and resisting the urge to get up and wrap her hands around his throat, then squeeze until he turned purple... "And don't call me Dane!"

"Of course you didn't do it!" he said in a sarcastic, patronizing tone. "You just got your little boyfriend to tell everyone I did for... what reason, now?"

Dana's face grew red with rage. She sat straight up and swung her legs over the side of the bed.

"Apologize," she said in an icy voice through gritted teeth. Her hands clenched into fists and she clutched the blanket through white knuckles. "And Josh was not my boyfriend!"

Alex smirked, dark eyes twinkling with pleasure at his success in getting one up on her. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said, not sounding sorry at all. "I didn't realize you were so sensitive to the truth."

Dana snarled at him. "When I'm finished with you, you'll be sorry you ever met me, Alex."

"Actually," came Brea's voice from the doorway, "you'll both be sorry. Both of you are on cleaning duty - for the entire ship. Maybe that will help you two cool off."

Both of them stopped fighting and looked at Brea in disbelief. The ship was huge - at least long, and around. Dana flopped backward on the bed.

Brea allowed herself an inward smirk. At last they'd found something to agree on. She'd be easy on them - let up in about a week or so. She left Dana and Alex and started to head outside the ship. She had originally been going outside, when she had heard the raised voices. Dimly, she could hear the yelling begin again. She sighed. Let them work this one out themselves.

Arriving outside, Brea turned outward towards the horizon. Everything looked so different, so foreign, so... alien. She glanced over the crewmates who were already outside.

"Officers Roberts and Stewart, take a skimmer out circle the area. I want a detailed terrain map of the entire area in a 2.5 mile radius. If there's a rock out there, I want to know about it. If there's a piece of dust out there, I want to know about it. We don't want any surprises."

"Can we take Redux, he's the nav-" Lamara stopped and winced. "Oops... never mind..."

"After you finish, I want you to fly out to the northeast where I'm getting a reading. The navigational devices are pretty fried, so I can't figure out which way the base is, but there seems to be a large amount of iron in that direction: it could be the base. If you find it don't go inside and stay at least 6 miles away. I want the map as soon as possible, so take Crewman Muldrich to operate the so you can wire it to me." Brea instructed.

"Yes sir, uh, ma'am," Chris said, unsure of himself as he climbed into the golf-cart-like hovercraft. "But shouldn't I stay to help fix the ship?"

"I'll get Officer Smythe on damage assessments and he'll prepare a report for you for when you get back. It's more efficient," Brea said. "Besides, I want that map as soon as possible."

Kamira and Lamara scrambled into the large front seat.

"Anything in particular we're looking for, ma'am?" Kamira shouted from the craft as it rose up into the air with Lamara at the controls.

"Well, the base of course... but for your map make special note of changes in elevation and waterways. Other than that, I just need to know what we're dealing with here. It's common knowledge that uncharted planets have very dangerous terrain and often wildlife," Brea hollered back. Kamira and Lamara glanced at each other uneasily. Those last words of "encouragement" weren't exactly comforting.

Brea tossed up three PLS's to the skimmer. "Just in case," she explained. The trio slipped the weapons carefully in their uniform pockets. Brea waved to them to hurry up and leave. The swift little craft glided away in the blink of an eye.

"What do you think Brea expected us to find?" Chris yelled over the roaring of the engine.

"Whatever's out here, I suppose," Kamira answered. "She's probably hoping we'll find that stupid base. And that reminds me, why hasn't it contacted us? I mean it has sensors, right?"

"Hey, maybe you should focus on your scope work?" Chris said, stretching and yawning.

Kamira grumbled and typed furiously into her computer while taking readings from her scope. The scenery below them crept by as Chris stretched out beside her and fell asleep, despite the loud rumbling of the engine and rushing wind.

"Chris," Lamara said incredulously, "how can you sleep at a time like this? We're the first ones out here on a new planet, and all you want to do is take a nap?"

He yawned. "I didn't sleep last night. Anyway, for all you know those base-people have been running around out here for months. Besides, it's not like there's much for me to do. You're flying, and Kamira's doing all the scope work."

"Speaking of that... which way now, Kamira?"

"Well just a little further west and we'll finish the outside perimeter, but that odd reading Brea was talking about is really close to the north. I guess we could finish the inside circle after we go check it out..." Kamira left the words hanging, as though asking Lamara for permission.

Lamara turned to face Chris who was sound asleep. She grinned at Kamira and turned the wheel sharply, turning the skimmer north. They zipped forward, passing over a large lake and through a small mountain range.

"It's odd," Kamira said, breaking the silence in a startlingly loud voice. "They have everything normal here. Mountains, lakes... even trees that are remotely like those on Terra. I'll be really interested to find out what the water content is like."

"Hmmmm," Lamara said thoughtfully.

Kamira stopped to clean her glasses as they sped over a barren desert. She found it difficult to hold them steady as the skimmer bounced unsteadily.

"Hey Chris!" Kamira nudged him. "Wake up!"

"Yeah?" Chris yawned sleepily.

"Should we be.... bouncing?"

"Yeah, perfectly normal, good night."

"That engine doesn't sound quite right," Lamara hollered back at Chris. Her long hair whipped back into Chris's face.

"Yeah, you're right," Chris yawned. "Better take her down."

Kamira mumbled, "Oh sure, listen to Lamara..."

"What?" Chris blinked.

"Nothing."

Lamara looked back at him and shrugged. She steered the skimmer down to the sand they'd been heading towards. Chris hopped out and popped the lid of the craft up. Billows of smoke and steam poured out of the engine.

Chris coughed and waved his hand in front of his face to clear the smoke. "Well, this will take a while to fix. Just sit back and hang tight," Chris told them as he walked back around the side of the craft.

Kamira crossed her arms over her chest in annoyance. Lamara threw her hands up in the air and let them fall limply to her sides. Chris sighed and went to work on the craft.

* * *

"This is all your fault," Dana complained as she picked up another piece of trash. Everything had gotten all tossed around in the crash - including the garbage.

"Yeah, whatever, but you see, you're being punished, too," Alex pointed out cheerfully as he speared a piece of paper and placed it in his bag. This punishment really wasn't all that bad. But then Dana had an aversion to menial labor.

"I should be back in sick bay... resting," she whined.

"Gemini said you could go." Alex smirked a little. "You sure seemed eager to get out of that bed before you got garbage duty."

"Oooohhhh!" Dana scowled. "You make me so mad, I could...." She showed him with her hands, pretending to strangle something invisible very tightly.

"Now, now," Alex chided. "Your temper..."

"Wait," Dana interrupted, straining to hear something. Her face froze into a mask of wary concentration. "Do you hear that?" Her eyes flicked from side to side, trying to locate the source of the sound.

Alex cocked his head to one side. "Hear what? Oh, I get it," he said in a mocking voice. "Footsteps... from the freezer? Oh, I know let's go-"

"Shut up! Really, it's like a... scratching..."

"Where?" He strained to hear what Dana heard.

Then, slowly,

TAP! TAP! SCRATCH! TAP!

"Holy… It's in the airducts!" Dana exclaimed, jumping away from the vent overhead.

Alex gulped. "W-wh-what is that?" he asked. "Do you think it could be the same thing we heard this morning?"

"M-maybe it's uh... a piece of machinery, that's um... rolling around." Dana's voice shook as she tried to calm her nerves.

“Oh, yeah, sure, Chris and his damn robot toys, leaving them all over the ship…” Alex rolled his eyes.

TAP! TAP! SCRATCH!

"Dana?"

TAP! TAP! SCRATCH!

"It's coming closer!" Alex glanced warily up at the creaking vent.

"Alex?" she said tentatively. Dana and Alex backed slowly away from the vent above. Suddenly there was silence.

Alex yelled, "RUN!" The vent in the air duct broke and a beastlike creature broke through. Dana screamed in terror as she dropped her trash bag. Not waiting for Alex, she darted down the hall. Alex started after. The creature was huge, and looked almost too big to fit in the airducts.

Dana looked over her shoulder. The thing was muscular and covered with thick, black fur. Without the horns and flashing red eyes, it might have passed for a dog on Terra. The biggest, meanest, scariest Demon Dog from Hell, maybe, but a dog nonetheless.

"Maybe it won't chase us!" Dana said breathlessly. She slowed a little. "Maybe it's a nice creature. Maybe he doesn't want to hurt us." Dana stopped and looked behind her.

Alex stopped in his tracks and, too, looked back at the creature.

The beast snarled viciously and shook its head before starting to chase after Dana and Alex.

"Maybe not!" Alex shouted, breaking into a sprint. He almost slipped on the slick metal of the floor as he tried to get away. Dana sprinted after. Alex ran past a corridor as Dana turned abruptly down it. He fell down trying to turn, and slid along the metal floor, though he wasted no time pulling himself up and starting to run again. The beast was only feet behind him. He followed Dana down a hall and put on speed, almost passing her. He turned left, putting him in the lead with Dana at his heels.

Even though he knew the ship like the back of his hand, Alex's mind was blank, except for the words "Run! Run faster! You have to make it!" that flashed through it. Dana yelled as the beast's claws swiped dangerously close to her heels. They turned right, leaving the beast to continue to run forward.

It stopped and seemed to realize its mistake, turning around and following them down the hall faster than before. The beast's claws tapped on the ship's hard floor as it gained on them.

Chapter 3

Brea and Gemini were outside, going over and over the mission profile, the part where it listed contingency plans.

The list was woefully short.

"We should contact the base first, fix the ship later." Brea concluded.

Gemini bit her lip, as if to keep from speaking.

"Gemini, I asked you to help decide what to do instead of Officer O'Conner. Do you have any idea why? You and Kamira are the only ones on this ship who will tell me when I'm wrong. The others... well... I say jump and they say 'Yes, ma'am, Captain, ma'am.'"

She protested, "But Dana and Al-"

"Yes, but I can't trust them like I can trust you two. First of all, both of you have more experience, and second they are likely to gossip to other crewmembers. They need to show me some responsibility and accountability." Brea made a sour face as she emphasized "responsibility".

Gemini laughed, "Ok, I know what you mean."

"Now tell me what you think about my plan." Brea said sitting herself down on a table they had brought out.

"What did Kamira say?"

"Who says she said anything?"

"I know you asked her already."

"See? I knew you two are perfect advisors. You know everything." Brea grinned.

"Alright, well Kamira probably agreed with you because she's so adventurous." Gemini started. "But she's not very practical. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about."

"Amazing! Why aren't you the Captain?" Brea laughed.

Gemini glared jokingly, "Ok, you are this close to losing your Medic."

"Seriously, what do you think?"

"I think we should try to fix the ship so we can get off this planet as soon as possible."

Brea bit her lip skeptically. "I don't know. Shouldn't we at least try to make contact with the Federation base? That IS what we're here for..."

"The base has sensors," Gemini protested. "Don't you think they would have picked us up and made contact themselves by now?

"Yes, and maybe that means they are in trouble. It's our duty to help them."

"Or that means they're all dead and we waltz into a trap."

"Set by whom?" Brea rolled her eyes.

"Fallacians? Rebels? Aliens? Who knows?"

"Exactly. No one knows. We should deliver the supplies and leave. What if they are running out of oxygen?"

"I agree we should deliver our supplies as soon as possible," Gemini said sitting down, "But we need to fix the ship first. What if we go to the base and there is someone there we want to get away from. What then? Then he tracks us back to our broken ship and we... do what? Hide in it? We need the ship fixed first."

"Well there could be other reasons they haven't contacted us. Maybe they haven't detected us yet." Brea offered.

"They would have detected us." Gemini insisted.

Brea sighed wearily. "Maybe they think we're an enemy ship. If a hostile ship landed in your backyard, would you go out to meet it? We need to complete our mission, and if that means staying a few extra days on the planet until we can reach the base and get our ship fixed, well..." She made a helpless gesture with her hands.

Gemini narrowed her eyes in contemplation and sighed, "You are stubborn aren't you?"

"Another 50 points for Gemini!" Brea smiled.

"Ok, well if I haven't convinced you yet, how about the fact that we are on a strange world we don't know anything about?

"Ah!" Brea stood up, "But I'm getting a map made and they're out there as I speak charting everything within a 2.5 mile radius."

Gemini persisted, "And there could be many dangers out here that we haven't even heard of before anywhere else."

"Like what?" Brea asked archly. She knew perfectly well the possible dangers, but she wanted her fellow crewmate to tell her.

Gemini gave an exasperated sigh. "You even need to ask? What about the freak storms of Sirius VII? The ones that washed away almost an entire colony? You remember those? Huh, Brea? Or what about those weird cat-things they found on Alpha Centauri? Or the killer plants on Rigel III? Or what about the Fallacians? Do you remember those? The ones who are probably going to kill us all, if we don't do it for them first? And you want to know what kind of dangers we could run into?" She was nearly shouting.

Brea shrank back slightly. She hadn't expected so vehement a response. But she passed it off and tried to act nonchalant. "I didn't want you to be that honest with me." She tried to smile, "I'm just saying, that not all worlds are necessarily dangerous, that's all. I mean, look at Terra's colonies. We have 42 of them on separate planets and none of those planets were dangerous." She quickly changed the subject before Gemini could think up a good retort. "Say, listen, would you go get everyone in the ship? I want people to start reporting. Kamira, Lamara, and Chris should be back any minute now."

"Okay," Gemini said dubiously.

"Especially Dana and Alex," Brea continued. "I don't trust them to go this long without supervision."

"Do you think they're going for each other's throats?" Gemini asked worriedly.

"Well, either that or goofing off," Brea replied. "Whatever they're doing, I'll bet you money that they're not working."

* * *

Dana looked over her shoulder as they turned a sharp corner. The beast missed it and slid past the doorway, paws scrabbling for a hold on the slick metal floor. The beast was soon behind them again, having spun around quickly and easily.

Dana was sure her heartbeat was loud enough for Alex to hear, as it was the only thing she could hear. The thumping sounded like it was in her ears and was even loud enough to drown out her breathing that echoed off the walls.

In pursuit, the great beast was almost close enough to touch Dana. Then, with one swift, catlike movement, the beast pounced onto Dana's back, knocking her to the ground. She shrieked and struggled to move, but the thing was too strong for her.

"Alex!" Dana screamed. "Help me!"

Alex stopped and spun around, watching as the beast pinned Dana to the ground. He swallowed dryly and cursed quietly. He blinked twice to clear his vision, then shouted "Hey! You! Yeah, you! Look at me!"

The beast looked up at Alex, who Dana knew was trying to distract it from her. She raised her eyebrows. Dana started to crawl out from under the beast, but her movement attracted its attention again. Alex started to dash over to her, quickly at first, but he slowed as he came nearer. He reached for her extended hand.

The beast snarled and batted him away as he came closer. Alex went sprawling on the floor.

"Alex!"

The creature turned her over onto her back with one hard shove of its massive paw, its nails digging into her side, drawing blood. Dana stared at the creature dumbly for a brief moment. Then she reached for her PLS and fumbled with it as the creature brought its head close to hers. She could feel its hot, foul breath on her face. It then proceeded to take her PLS in its mouth and try to chew on it. When the beast found it to be inedible, it tossed it against the far wall angrily.

The PLS broke into small pieces and sent a laser beam straight across the hall, bouncing on the metal walls above them.

Dana took advantage of the beast's momentary distraction to hoist up her legs and kick the creature in the gut, shooting it back away from her feet. She slid herself out from underneath the monster and pulled herself up.

Alex pulled himself up groggily and shook his head. Dana grabbed his hand as she ran past. She pulled him along to the end of the hall. Then she stopped.

"My PLS!" she reasoned.

"Leave it!" Alex urged. "We've got to hurry! It's broken anyway!" The beast was just recovering. Apparently she had hit a weak spot.

Dana groaned. "Brea's gonna kill me!" Reluctantly she followed Alex down the hall.

"If he doesn't get us first!" Alex shouted, looking over his shoulder as the beast came up behind them. "Better her than him!"

"Alex, turn right!" Dana shouted.

He dodged around the corner, with Dana trailing a few inches behind.

"Another right!" she panted. Her legs were beginning to feel like rubber, and her chest hurt worse with every breath.

"Dana?" Alex squeaked, coming to a halt.

"Oh, no," Dana moaned. "Dead end."

"Turn right? Another right?" Alex said mockingly. He was out of breath, so it came out in short gasps.

"I... I..." Dana stuttered, trying to explain herself. She stopped.

They could hear the clicking of the beast's nails coming closer. Alex didn't waste any time. He started to look for a way out. There were three doors, and as Dana ran ahead and tried them, she found they were all locked.

Alex groaned, "Where's my keycard when I need it?" His eyes darted around the hall, searching.

Then he saw it.

At the end of the hall, mounted a good six feet up, was a vent. It was just big enough for him to get through, and probably Dana, too.

"Dana, help me!" he shouted. Alex ran down to the end of the hall and frantically tried to pull the vent loose, standing on tiptoe to reach it. It creaked and bent ever so slightly.

Alex glanced at Dana who was busily trying to jimmy a door open. "Dana! That'll never work! Come help me with this!"

"Open, damn you!" Dana screamed as she kicked the door in frustration.

The beast appeared at the end of the hall.

Alex pulled and pulled, as hard as he could, but it still wouldn't do anything other than make noise and move back and forth a few inches.

"Come on, come on," he murmured. He tugged wildly at the vent cover.

RIIIIPP!

Alex tore the vent from the wall with the incredible strength of desperation.

He glanced up, and saw the beast charging down the hallway like a black bowling ball. Dana was still tugging furiously at the door. "Dana, come here!" He threw the vent cover on the ground.

"I'm not a dog Alex. You can't just make me come whenever you want." Dana growled.

"Come on! Dana! It's coming!"

"Leave me alone, Alex! I can do this myself!" Dana shrieked, frantically banging on the locked door.

"Damnit! Come here now!"

"No!"

"Dana, it's coming! It's coming now!"

"I know, just give me two more seconds and..."

"Damnit I'll drag you over here myself." Before Dana could reply, Alex already had her wrist and was dragging her down the hall. "Alex I almost had it!" "Yeah right." Alex stood her in front of the vent and knelt down to boost her up. Swoosh! The door Dana had been working on suddenly opened. "See? I told yo--aggh!" Her words turned into a scream as Alex suddenly boosted her up and into the vent.

"Now help me up!" Alex cried, looking over his shoulder at the charging beast. At the moment, it seemed occupied by the open door.

"You're on your own, sucker!" Dana yelled.

"What?!"

"Just kidding, give me your hands."

The creature realized there was nothing of interest with the door, and turned its attention back to Alex and Dana. It snorted, and then charged.

As Alex grabbed her wrists, Dana caught site of the charging beast and screamed.

"Dana! Hurry!"

"Damnit! You're too heavy!"

Dana pulled and tugged, barely able to pull him up at all. Dana pulled hard as she could. Beads of perspiration rolled down her face. The beast was only yards away, and coming closer with each passing second.

Alex pulled his legs up into the vent, and turned around quickly. Dana and Alex watched as the beast smashed into the wall, and it seemed to explode upon contact. Red and yellow mush flew everywhere and spattered every surrounding wall. The messy mixture coated Dana and Alex with blood and skin.

Dripping with blood, Dana blinked it from her eyes and blew it away from her mouth. "That was weird."

* * * *

"Of course, we had to take the one skimmer that was going to break down," Kamira grumped.

"Will you stop complaining?" Lamara said in exasperation. "It could be worse, you know."

Chris let out a shriek of surprise and fear.

Lamara spun around in her seat. Kamira hopped over the side and ran around to the back of the skimmer. She stopped in her tracks and began to back up.

"You just had to open your big mouth, didn't you, Lamara?" she said.

"Quicksand!" Chris yelled.

"Give me your hand!" Kamira extended her hand, but uttered a cry of pain. Something was tugging on her leg! She looked down. She was sunk up to her ankles in the watery sand.

"Ouch!" she exclaimed. There was a sharp pain in her ankles, and she could see blood start to drip off the part of her legs that were near the top of the sand. "It's got me, too! Ouch... Damn! It's... it's... chafing me... like... like sandpaper!"

"What do you mean, it?" Lamara said.

"I think it's alive! It's trying to suck my blood!"

"Quicksand isn't alive! And it doesn't suck blood, that I'm sure of." Lamara extended her hand and grabbed Kamira's hand.

"Well, this is!" Kamira managed to heave herself into the ship. Her boots were covered with a sandy paste.

"Chris! Give us your hand!" Lamara said.

"Us?" Kamira muttered.

"I can't! The engine! It's almost done!" Chris said.

"Just give us your hand!"

"Saving me now will only kill all of us in a moment or two! I'm almost done!" Chris said. He was up to his waist in the sand.

"Chris," Kamira shouted, "cut the heroics and give me your hand!"

"Hurry!" Lamara yelled.

"I'm trying!" Chris shouted, "The nubulator's stuck!"

"What's that?" Kamira said.

"Does it matter?" Lamara said.

"No-"

"-There!" Chris yelled.

"It's fixed?" Kamira said.

"Yes! But..."

"What? Grab on and we'll pull you-"

"I can't!" Chris said.

Lamara started the engine. It coughed and sent a cloud of smoke up into the clear air, then sparked to life. The hum of the engine was usually quite soothing, but Kamira didn't notice it today. She gasped in horror at what she saw. The sand was pulling Chris's arm down with a rubbery band of sand! Another band flew up and latched around his throat. Another band latched onto the back of the skimmer.

"Chris!" Kamira groped for his flailing arm. He waved it madly as he made a choking noise. The sand was choking him! Her hand brushed by his finger. She grabbed his index and middle fingers, then lost hold.

"Do you have him?" Lamara said.

"Does it look like I have him?" Kamira snapped irritably. She leaned far over the back end. The tools Chris was working with were floating on the surface of the liquid sand. "Why aren't they being sucked in? Conscious choices..." Kamira thought: "Because it's not quicksand, it's a living organism!"

The sun was hot on her back, and sunk into her dark hair, but Kamira ignored it. "Chris!" She reached out, grabbing his palm between his thumb and little finger. She struggled for a better hold and used her other hand to stabilize herself.

The skimmer's gears shifted and made a grinding noise. "I can't take off anyway! There's something holding us down!"

"Let me guess..." Kamira mumbled.

Kamira's hand started to slip away from Chris's. She wrapped her leg around the post holding up the back seat of the skimmer. She used her other hand to grab Chris's arm. He was turning purple. A few more minutes and he'd be dead, or at least brain dead.

She tugged as hard as she could but he wouldn't budge. Kamira used one hand to reach into her pocket. "My PLS!" she said quietly. Kamira looked over her shoulder. There it was, lying on the deck of the skimmer, a foot or so away. She tried to kick it closer, but couldn't quite reach it. She stretched out her leg as far as it would go, but still couldn't get it.

"Lamara! My PLS!"

Lamara looked over her shoulder and gasped. She put the skimmer in Neutral, and pulled her own from her pocket. She tossed it to Kamira. Kamira raised her hand to catch it, but the PLS went far overhead. "Uh," she grunted reaching hopelessly for it.

The PLS landed in the sand just in front of Chris. "No!" Kamira let go of Chris to reach for the PLS. It was too far down; she couldn't reach it. Then the sand covered it up.

* * * *

Alex and Dana peered down to see the beast lying in a bloody heap of fur and bone. Dana winced as Alex wrinkled his nose in distaste. He started to crawl out of the vent and Dana waited patiently. He slipped once, and nearly fell, but regained his balance, managing to plant his feet next to the dead creature. He looked down and grimaced. Alex held out his hand to help her down.

She didn't need it. They began to make their way shakily from the incident, in an eerie, contemplative silence. Slipping in the thick coat of blood that must have been an inch thick, Dana held out her hands to balance herself.

Alex winced and checked his boots. "I think I stepped in dead-thing."

"Kiss that pair of boots goodbye."

Alex waved his hand in front of his nose and wrinkled it. "Ugh, that thing sure stinks."

Dana crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head. "Just wait till next week."

Alex smiled lopsidedly. "Do you think this was enough to get us out of our punishment?"

Dana laughed shakily, trembling with adrenaline reaction, and then sighed when she saw the beast that had been mashed to a pulp by his own strength.

Alex, she noted, was thickly coated in a red liquidy mucus. He appeared to be contemplating whether or not to use his shirt to clean his face, and then seemed to realize that it too was coated with the blood.

Alex was looking at her oddly, and she just stared back, wondering exactly how much blood was on her face. Maybe that was why he was staring at her so strangely.

"Hey!" a voice called from down a corridor close by. Dana and Alex turned their heads to where the voice was coming from. Dana led the way to the corner, where Gemini met them.

"Hey, you were supposed to be cleaning up! Brea's been looking for you." Then she saw the blood all over them and frowned. "What happened? Picking up trash is a non-contact sport, you guys."

"We had a little... run-in with a... creature," Dana explained, looking over her shoulder at the heap of flesh against the wall. "I think it needs some medical attention," she mused.

Gemini's green eyes sparkled. "Where is it?"

"Back there," Dana and Alex said simultaneously. They jerked their thumbs over their shoulders and started to walk away nonchalantly.

"Okay," Gemini said happily. She turned the corner and saw the gnarled, mangled mess of the beast. Dana and Alex could hear her screaming from down the hall. "Where? I don't see... Oh, god! YUCK! UUUUGGGHHH!"

Dana and Alex shrugged at each other and continued down to see what Brea had wanted.

* * *

Kamira gawked at the spot where the PLS had been before being covered up with sand, and shuddered. She felt fluttery in her stomach. "We can't leave!" Then, she lifted her head with a look of realization in her eyes.

There was still another PLS!

She turned around and spotted the other PLS. Kamira stooped down and reached for the gun. The plastic was slippery in her sweaty hands, but she held it tightly. Kamira lined up her sight on the gun, and fired. The band around his neck snapped. Chris drew in a deep breath of air and gagged on it. She pulled the trigger again, and the band around Chris's arm broke. The sand whined and sucked the bands back in.

Kamira aimed the PLS at the band attached to the skimmer. With a snap, the band broke in two. She shot at the sand around Chris again and again. It pulsed and shrieked, sending waves of itself across the seemingly endless desert.

The PLS made a sucking sound and the digital readout read: Charging. Kamira threw it behind her, and reached for Chris. His hair and clothes were matted with sand, and his hand was slippery in her grasp. She used both hands to grab his wrist. He started to come up comparably easily, but it was still like pulling a dead body out of a pool of water.

"Lamara! Pull out!" Kamira shouted.

Lamara put the skimmer in full throttle and pulled the control yoke towards her.

The skimmer shot into the air, quickly at first, then slowly. Chris was pulled clean out of the sand. Kamira used all her strength to pull him halfway into the skimmer, but she stopped pulling at that point, and laid down in the back. Chris was too tired to pull himself the rest of the way into the skimmer. His legs dangled loosely over the edge as Lamara steered the skimmer back to the Luna.

* * *

Dana and Alex walked out of the ship, dramatically cleaned up, and found Brea out front. Computer equipment and optitrope parts that couldn’t be assembled inside surrounded her. The metal of the ship would disrupt the optitrope signal. She smiled distractedly as she said, "Hi, guys. Just sit down and wait. We need everybody here."

A few minutes later, Kamira, Lamara, and Chris arrived in the skimmer. Chris was covered with a thick, sandy paste. Kamira and Lamara had tried to clean him off, but that had just made it worse.

Then Gemini, Garonen, Kal, and Anorian came out of the ship. Gemini still had a look of disgust on her face. She gestured behind her, over her shoulder.

"Got something in there for you, Lamara."

Lamara's eyes lit up and she made a move towards the ship, but Brea stopped her.

"In a minute, Officer Stewart. I want everyone to report first."

Alex and Dana stood up in mutual agreement. Dana said, "We saw an animal." She shuddered as she thought about how close they had been to becoming Beast Snacks.

"Go on," said Brea.

Alex began the story. "Well, we were picking up trash, when all of a sudden me and Dana heard a strange noise--"

"Hey!" Kamira interrupted, "I already heard this one."

"Yeah," Brea added. "It happened again?"

"No, this time it was coming from the air ducts." Alex explained.

Dana took over. "Well, we heard the noise, and then this horrible creature fell through the ceiling. It was black and furry, with red eyes and huge teeth and claws. It chased us all over the ship, until we pulled out a grating and went up in the ducts. Then the creature crashed itself into the wall and exploded!"

"Exploded?" Anorian gasped.

"Well... it looked like it did." Dana looked down.

"Hmmm." Brea looked thoughtful. "Officer Stewart, get on that as soon as we're done. Now tell me what you guys found."

Lamara said, "Absolutely nothing. Either there's nothing on this rock except fliers, sand," she emphasized slightly, "and beast-critters, or else whatever's out there is really shy."

Chris added, "Don't forget Mr. Sandman." He raised one arm and looked disgustedly at his sand-coated self.

Brea stared. "What... how..." She sighed and shook her head. "Never mind, I don't EVEN want to know."

Chris grinned sheepishly. "Had a little run-in with some sort of quicksand."

"Actually, it was some sort of a creature," Kamira said. "We have samples all over us, if Lamara wants to test the readings later. Maybe she can find a matching creature."

"What did it look like?" Garonen said excitedly.

"Well, it was about the size of a small desert and it had-"

"-There'll be time for that later." Brea said. She shook her head as if to dispel a stress headache. "All right, Officer Muldrich, go get cleaned up. Officers Anderson, Smythe, Johnson, O'Connor, anything to report?"

"I made the damage reports," Garonen said.

"Kal and I did a core sample from where we landed. It seems that this planet has a structure much like that of Terra. We also tested the water from a spring a hundred yards from here. It's pretty much pure water, but it's a little metallic. That could just be the particular spring, though." Anorian said.

Brea's green eyes sparkled madly and she focused intently on Anorian.

"The crash caused a leak in the ship where the pullpips are. If that had happened in space, the scrubbers would have failed and we would have suffocated in a matter of minutes, but the atmosphere here is breathable, so... we're alive. The scurrier robots already patched the hole, and the ship's air supply is restabilizing itself as we speak. The atmosphere here actually is 77% nitrogen, 22% oxygen, and 1% other gases, which is much like that of Terra's. However, there is a little bit more carbon dioxide in the air than we're used to, and a little less oxygen, so if you breathe it for more than 6 hours you might get very sick, and so we should wear masks outside if there is a chance we'll be outside for a while."

"OK, everybody dismissed. I want detailed, written reports on each of your activities, and I want it saved to the log folders. Nowhere else. Officer Stewart, take a look at that creature. Have Officer Roberts help you if you need it."

Lamara and Kamira saluted and disappeared into the ship.

* * *

"Find anything?" Kamira had returned some hours later. Lamara sighed.

"I ran a test on your 'sand creature'," Lamara said, turning her back to the animal she had pinned to the examination table. Her scrubs were splattered with blood and her gloves appeared to be soaked in it.

"And..." Kamira said, swallowing bile and averting her eyes from the bloody mess.

"And it's nothing but sand," Lamara said, suppressing a small smirk. "I told you that sand is not alive."

"But..." Kamira paused and stared off blankly for an instant as she collected her thoughts, "But, you saw it. You saw it... it... attacked us. You saw me shoot it off the skimmer, for god's sake, you saw it choking Chris to death!"

"I never actually saw anything. I heard you screaming and yelling and tugging at Chris, but I never once saw any... Sand Thing," Lamara said defensively as she peeled the bloody gloves from her hands and placed them on the table.

"But... it was real. I saw it, I felt it... it... it almost killed Chris! We both saw it, how can you not believe us?"

"These tests..." Lamara walked across the room and snatched a bundle of papers. "These tests let me not believe you because they prove you wrong." She threw them at Kamira who caught them and began looking at them briskly. "Whatever you saw... wasn't... what you saw. It could have been a mirage... a... hallucination even brought on by... who knows what! It could have been brought on by anything! Dehydration, the heat, distress, post traumatic stress syndrome, a headache, a disease, a concussion... the list could go on and on-"

"-Why don't you, Lamara? You've never been against talking my ear off before!" Kamira said bitterly.

"I'm not... I'm not saying that you didn't see it," Lamara said.

"So you think I'm insane?" Kamira cried.

"No, I think that something brought on an illusion of some sort. It's a strange world-"

"Then why can't you believe me, if it's so strange a world... why can't you believe that sand could be a creature?"

"Because of these tests," Lamara said firmly.

"Fine... just... just drop it." She sighed. "What about him?" She pointed at the creature on the table. It looked like someone's biology fair homework that had been hit by a hover-bus... several times.

"This is a very strange animal. It's just..." she searched for a word, "...unnatural. I dissected it, but there are absolutely no internal organs, no blood left. Well," she said, looking at her scrubs, "unusually low amounts, anyway. Even accounting for the blood all over Dana and Alex, not to mention the hall. It's as if something was just using a shell, like a robot body or something."

"What?" Kamira stepped closer to join her at the exam table and get a better look.

"Take a look." Lamara pulled back a flap of the beast's skin so Kamira could look into the inside.

"Yikes," Kamira commented. "It looks like it's been melted. I bet it got squished when it crashed into the wall."

"I don't think so," Lamara argued. "I don't know what happened to it, but I'm almost a hundred percent sure that this beast didn't get 'squished', as you so unscientifically put it." She grinned at Kamira before her face lapsed back into a look of professional detachment. "It's just too strange for me."

The beast lay motionless on the table on its back, its legs sticking up into the air and pulled back. It reminded Kamira unpleasantly of the roadkill she used to find out on the street in front of her house as a child. And no matter what Lamara said, it still looked "squished" to her.

She bent over to examine it further, but couldn't make out many details, as it had crashed into the wall head-first, and all its facial features were smashed back into the head. "Cause of death... that's a stumper."

"Well, I'm not all too sure what caused the actual death, actually," Lamara said, cocking her head to one side as she peered over it.

"Looks like a possible skull fracture," Kamira offered.

Lamara nodded. "I wrote that down in the report... as far as I've gotten so far... as the most likely cause of death. That or coronary arrest... well, actually, it doesn't seem to have any coronary system... but with an alien creature, you never can tell."

Kamira scoffed, "You mean Dana and Alex might have ran him to death? He just had a heart attack?"

Lamara shrugged. "The Federation sure can pick 'em."

"But... I mean... look at him. If I were a forensic pathologist, and I was examining him, coronary arrest wouldn't be my first thought." She gave Lamara a skeptical glance.

Lamara shrugged again. "Well, coronary arrest is right up there... along with brain damage and massive blood loss due to... well, you know the rest." She shook her head. "I just don't know. This whole thing is freaking me out. I could have sworn that as I was cutting it up that it twitched. And I had to close the eyes because I couldn't shake off the feeling that they were staring at me, trying to figure out who I was and what I was doing to it."

Kamira shuddered. "That's too freaky even for me. You're probably overdue for a break. If I were down here in the MU cutting up beasts all day, I would begin to think that they were looking at me, too. Maybe some rest will help with those weird ideas of yours. Come on."

Kamira and Lamara walked out of the Lab... while behind them on the examination table the beast melted into a puddle of black ooze and slithered off the table.

* * *

Alex sat in the galley snacking on a freeze-dried Snickers bar. He was tired and didn't feel well. Freeze-dried food was supposed to be better for your stomach than regular hydrated food when you didn't feel well.

Alex wasn't particularly fond of Snickers, but when you're temporarily out of Three Musketeers and stranded on a desolate planet, you don't complain... out loud, anyway. In his head, Alex was free to gripe and moan about the awful peanuts as much as he wanted. He had never liked peanuts. Or any peanut candy, either. Reese's Cups, Denby Bars, Chocolate Swirls, Mt. Peanuts, his list could go on and on. Peanut butter made him gag. He had never understood how kids could go to school and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day without complaining. Without vomiting uncontrollably. In fact, they enjoyed those sandwiches. They requested them by name. Or by popular abbreviation. PBJ. That's all he ever heard: "I got a PBJ today in my lunch." "My PBJ fell on the floor!" Well, good riddance! No one would make you eat it then. Alex didn't know why peanut butter was such a decrepit subject for him.

He now stared at the Snickers bar. It was freeze-dried, so the peanuts didn't taste all that bad. The chocolate basically cancelled out the whole peanut taste. Alex didn't even know why he was eating it now. There were other things in that galley. Why didn't he just get up, throw the Snickers bar away, and get something else? That's what the food was there for, wasn't it? It wasn't there to rot and not get eaten, it was there for him to eat. For him to eat! But it was there for the crew to eat. The whole crew. He had to spare rations now, for who knew how long they were stuck on this planet for.

Brea and Chris had said they should get off the planet by next week, but he knew about the optitrope's capabilities, and how they weren't able to get a direct link with the Federation, plus the fact that the base everyone else was counting on for help was no longer in existence. He knew that the ship might take several weeks, or even months to repair, what with only one mechanic and about 7 able bodied crewmembers. He also knew that if any rescue ship were to come, it probably wouldn't find them for months, or years - if they ever found them at all, that is.

He had a sudden mental picture of a rescue ship coming and walking through the darkened halls, dark because the ship's power cells had run out, finding the different crewmembers... finding his skeleton sitting at the counter in the galley, clutching a Snickers bar.

Alex chided himself for being so dark and pessimistic. There were some scientists who believed that reality is just a trick the mind plays on you, and you can achieve whatever you imagine. Alex thought he just might be able to get off this planet if he imagined it and believed it enough. Better yet, if he expected it to happen. Not that he believed those crackpot scientists or anything, he just needed a reason to remain optimistic.

He laughed at his irrational chain of thoughts. Snickers, the thinking candy bar. The candy bar that thinks. The candy bar for the thinking man... or woman... for the thinking person. The intelligent candy bar. He insanely contemplated these slogans, then, again, realized how odd his thoughts were sounding. His Snickers was almost gone, and he felt himself almost craving another one. Finishing the first, he got up and got another one.

This was the last one. No more Snickers. It must be the peanuts... they're... craved, no... addictive! It's those peanut companies, making everything addictive, so you can't stop eating, even if you were so full of food you could burst! Even then, your cravings would be so rash, that all you could do would be to eat! And you would burst. And then there would be a warning label on peanuts that read: "Warning: Eating peanuts may cause unwanted bursting of the stomach. Limit your quantities of peanuts and eat responsibly. Keep out of reach of children."

Alex unwrapped the Snickers, which was freeze-dried, like the first, and began to idly munch on it. The candy bar seemingly melted in his mouth the instant it came in contact with his saliva. Almost like drinking a Snickers bar. Like a big Snickers milkshake... without all the milk... and not so big. Maybe he should try eating something solid, but for now, while his stomach hurt, he was going to have to drink Snickers bars.

His legs were immensely sore from running for his life -a phrase Alex had never thought he was ever really going to use in real life- with Dana. She sure did run fast... for a little short thing. Her legs weren't very long, but when she was running, her stride was almost as long as his! A sprightly young girl, she was. He used the phrase "young" because she was, in fact, young. Compared to him, anyway. At the age of 21, Dana was 3 years younger than he. She usually looked so youthful and fresh, but lately, that look had been replaced by a wary frown, and unusually old eyes. Alex wondered if he, too, were beginning to show signs of wariness and depression.

Alex looked across the room to the metal coolant unit. A slightly distorted image of him stared back. He began to analyze himself. He hadn't changed his uniform for around 3 days, and the wrinkles were beginning to stand out, lines creasing the red fabric. He was beginning to let on a little stubble on his chin and cheeks, and his hair was unnaturally tousled. In the past he had always combed it neatly and gelled it down a bit. Alex set down the candy bar and attempted to smooth down some of the hairs that were standing up.

He heard footsteps and saw Dana enter. He quickly scooped up the candy bar and began chomping on it. She stopped as she saw him sitting at the metal table. "Alex," she greeted coldly. She opened the coolant unit and pulled out a Diet Coke. The can read, "The official drink of the Frink Colony." Dana knew that colony to be one located on a planet in the neutral zone between Fallacia and Terra. Dana sat down at one of the bar stools and opened the can noisily. Sph-ahh, the can seemed to say. She brought the can to her lips.

Alex stared at her as she took a sip, then quickly looked back to his candy bar. She stopped. "What?" she yelled. "Why do you keep looking at me like I'm an alien or something? Has the excess carbon dioxide gotten to you? Or are you just insane?"

Alex glanced curiously at her then back at his candy bar and started to finish it. As a matter of fact, he wouldn't be surprised if he was insane. But that didn't matter right now. All he wanted was to finish his candy in peace.

"I'm sick of you and your stupid stares! Look at something else! Anything else!" Dana yelled. She was turning red now. "Just leave me alone! What part of 'I hate you' don't you understand? Know what? I never want to see you again! At least as long as you're alive." Dana stormed out of the galley clutching the Coke angrily.

Alex looked down at his empty wrapper and tossed it across the table as he got up to leave.

Chapter 4

"Officer Reed?" Brea was using the 'com. "Officer Reed, please report to the bridge. Repeat, Officer Reed, report to the bridge ASAP."

Alex jogged in to find the entire crew of the Luna standing there, minus Dos and the melted Redux. He frowned as he saw the group simply standing, not moving, all staring at him.

Brea held in her hand a PLS. The light labeled "full charge" gleamed red. "Federation Statute 39 part B," she said monotonously.

Alex watched the crewmembers create a circle around him. He looked to each person's face, searching for compassion or emotion, but each face held a dead, unmovable expression.

"What's going on?" he questioned.

Everyone's eyes were as cold as ice as they all stared at him. "Officer Pendrell, to what does Statute 39b refer?" Brea asked, eyes glinting almost maliciously, the only part of her openly displaying an emotion.

Alex stared, and shook his head. All of a sudden, incongruously, he had the worst headache. "What? Me? No! I..." His voice trailed off and he turned slowly around to look at Dana. Her face was blank and her eyes were staring into nothingness. Alex opened his mouth to plead when the corners of her mouth twitched. "Federation Statute 39 part B," she said stiffly. Her eyes fell on Alex and she smiled. "High treason, Captain Marlson."

Their voices sounded strange, toneless. Alex's face crumpled. "No, I... I... what? High treason! What the..." Alex, horrified, spun around to face Brea.

She raised her PLS to point it squarely at Alex's chest. "Good, Officer Pendrell. Statute 39b states: 'Any officer or high ranking crewman found guilty of high treason, beyond a reasonable doubt - having put the lives of fellow crewmen, other crewmen, civilians, or the security of the Federation at risk - can be put to death at the captain's discretion.' Have you anything to say in your defense?"

Alex watched the noose of people grow tighter. "I didn't... I didn't do anything! I don't want to hurt anyone! I-" He paused, "You don't have any proof!" he blurted insanely.

"Very well... if you're quite finished..." Brea turned her head to address the rest of the crew. "As his peers, you will decide his guilt. What will it be, jury?"

They looked to each other briefly. Then Kal spoke. "Guilty." Alex turned to each person as they spoke.

"Guilty." Anorian said.

"Guilty." Garonen and Lamara spoke in unison.

"Guilty," Gemini said, her eyes a dull green.

"Guilty," Chris said tonelessly.

Alex stopped turning and faced the last of his crewmates: Dana. She blinked once and Alex's face crumpled as she spoke.

"Guilty."

Brea pulled the safety trigger off her PLS. "We the jury find the defendant..."

Everyone answered at once, "Guilty." They repeated it, no longer in unison, each voice louder than the one before. Alex covered his ears to block the screams. In his mind's eye, they were all laughing and pointing, and when he opened his eyes they were. Laughing as they screeched and screamed savagely.

"We sentence him to..." Brea pointed the PLS at his head.

"No!" Alex screamed, throwing his arm out to punch her in the stomach. She doubled over in pain, the PLS scattering to the floor. He began to run the other way toward the door, but Dana grabbed him and held tight. He wriggled and writhed, watching Brea begin to get up reaching for the laser gun. Finally, he freed himself enough to push Dana backward into the wall.

Behind him, Brea stood straight up again, composure regained, she held her PLS out at arm's length and pointed it at the fleeing Alex. She pulled the trigger once and the beam seared through Alex's left arm. The laser cauterized the wound immediately. She pulled the trigger again, but it hit the metal door as Alex slid through. The beam reflected back and everyone ducked, exclaiming as the beam ricocheted over their heads.

Alex turned and ran blindly off the ship. He opened the airlock and threw himself out onto the hard dirt. A cloud rose up and he coughed, wheezing on the semi-poisonous air, stumbling to get back up. After some frenzied attempts, he got back on his feet and ran toward the horizon. He feebly tried to remember where the sun rises on this planet so he could discern a direction. He knew it didn't matter and continued to run.

* * *

Alex ran, fell, got up again, and ran some more. His lungs burned and he felt light-headed from oxygen deprivation.

Blah blah, he runs, he finds the base, it’s all spooky-creepy and abandoned, he finds like records, possibly with data to show that the atmosphere has changed, zylo-Dana creeps up on him, gives herself away, he tweaks, runs, gets knocked unconscious, we don’t see what happens to him.

* * *

The next day, nobody could find Alex, and his bed had not been slept in. All four moons hung in the sky and a single bright star shone as the crew shot off in two of the skimmers to search in the early-morning light. The crew had decided to go with the new planet's time for now, a -hour day, in order to get the most work done.

Neither of the groups could find anything, until Brea transmitted a message over the 'com. Her voice sounded ragged and tired. "Come over here. Our location is five miles west of the ship. We've got our distress flag up, so you'll be able to find us easily. Don't ask questions. Just get here ASAP."

"Roger," replied Gemini, and swung the skimmer around to head in the direction Brea had indicated.

She saw the distress flag almost as soon as she was in range, the bright orange piece of plastic on a long rod sticking up well above the treetops. She brought the skimmer down in a smooth landing and her crew hopped out of the small craft and ran over to Brea, who was standing there waiting for them.

Garonen was in the lead, having been the one sitting in the seat closest to the exit that was nearest to Brea. He stopped abruptly. "Umm... guys? I would suggest that if you have a weak stomach, you don't come any closer."

"Why?" Gemini asked nervously. "What's wrong?"

They all stepped forward, unnerved by Garonen's cryptic words and the grim expression on Brea's face.

"I can handle it," Anorian said, striding ahead of everyone else. "We men are just naturally stron-" He paused and turned a sickly green color. Beginning to heave, Anorian stumbled away and ran back to the skimmers.

"Oh, no." An unidentified voice from the back of the small group said it for all of them.

Dana was last in the crowd of her crewmates. She thought she smelled blood... but... Ahead, she heard several gasps and an exclamation. She started to add things up. Alex gone, the smell of blood, something disturbing, gasps... She shook the thought from her head.

Suddenly, Kamira stopped alongside everyone else. Dana pushed past her. "What?" She stopped short and felt a wave of nausea overtake her. "Oh, God..." The words escaped from her lips as she stepped backward. Kamira grabbed her arm as she started to slip to the ground. Regaining her balance, she shook Kamira's hold from her arm.

She forced herself to look back at Alex's body. His face, or what was left of it, had a horrible expression on it, as if he had died in agony. His remaining eye stared up at nothing, bloodshot red, but the blood seemed to dissipate quickly, because almost instantly it was dark brown again. Or was she just imagining that?

His body was twisted and broken, with giant bloody hunks ripped out of it. They were so deep that Dana could see the flash of white bone in some of them.

Brea averted her gaze, refusing to look at him. "We'll need to," she swallowed hard, "Bring back his body for burial."

"What could have done this?" asked Lamara, ashen-faced.



Everyone started at the sound of the not-quite-voice they had heard, not with their ears, but in their mind. Nobody had noticed the brown-furred avian that had silently landed behind them, but now they all turned and looked at it.

Anorian caught site of the rat-like bird and screamed. Everyone turned to look at him as Anorian pulled out his PLS and fired. "Aghhh! Alien! Kill it!!"

"What the-"

"-Who are-"

Brea asked, rather shakily, "-What is a zy-lo-whatever?" She wasn't going to hang around asking dumb questions about "who are you" and "what are you doing here" when there was something like this running around. Something that had killed one of her crewmembers and could quite possibly kill all the rest of them, herself included, if Alex's remains were anything to go by.

She noted and wondered about the twisted syntax of the alien. Maybe it was because its "universal mind-translation" thing or whatever it was didn't work too well on humans, or maybe because there was no mind-translation thing.

But if there wasn't, how did the creature know Standard? She halted her train of thought as the alien continued.



"You are an... oooruffian?" asked Kal, stumbling slightly over the unfamiliar word.



"Did you hear that?" whispered Garonen to Chris. "The last group! Do you think it's talking about the Federation base that was supposed to have been set up here?" He looked worried, small ridges forming between his eyebrows.

Dana shuddered as she thought about that crew being duly slaughtered by these zylogig things. Another oooruffian landed beside the first and began gesticulating wildly and tugging on the first. The crew couldn't hear what he was presumably talking to the other about.

The first oooruffian eyed the humans steadily and seemed to reply to the other. The oooruffian thought/spoke again.



The second oooruffian glided gently into the sky. The first spread its wings.

"Wait," Brea called after, "You said something about shape-shifting?"



Before any other questions could be asked, the oooruffian took off and gracefully joined its companions soaring through the sky.

* * *



"Well," said Brea later on the ship, "we can't leave, but we can send out the optitrope coordinates. Someone will pick them up and send a rescue ship."

Everyone looked hopeful. Brea grimaced. What she hadn't mentioned was that setting out the optitrope settings while on a planet is like putting out a buoy in an endless ocean, then hoping for someone to see it. Even if someone did eventually pick up the signals, any rescue could take years to arrive, perhaps never arriving at all.

Gemini caught her eyes, and Brea knew from the grim look in them that the medic knew also. Emerald green eyes met icy green ones as Brea shook her head a fraction of an inch. It wouldn't do to start a panic.

Breaking the awkward silence, Lamara said, "I should probably get back to work on that animal. It's been sitting there for a long time now. If I don't get to work soon, I probably won't be able to get any more information on it. Come on, Kamira."

A few minutes later, they ran back to the bridge, panic in their eyes.

"Captain! The animal is gone!"

Brea was feeling panicky too about now, but she forced herself to remain calm. "OK, let's see. Was anyone in the Lab after you left?"

They shook their heads mutely. Brea stepped over to the 'com.

"OK, people, we need some info. If anyone was in the Lab after Kamira and Lamara left day before yesterday, please report it immediately. The animal is missing. Thank you." They waited for several minutes. No one reported.

Brea sighed. "Well, it's gone for good, I guess. Sorry. Maybe we can catch another one."

"Don't hold your breath," Lamara muttered.

"Not unless you want Dana and... uh... someone... to... uh..." Kamira started to joke, then remembered, "uhhh... never mind. Forget it."

* * *

"It's all my fault."

Dana sat in the galley glumly staring at the blank, featureless metal counter. Kamira, Lamara, and Gemini were seated at the counter with her.

"What do you mean?" Lamara frowned. "What's all your fault?"

Gemini got up and went over to the cooling unit. She came back with four cold cans, which she plunked down on the counter. She slid one to each of them. Dana looked at the design on the can and swallowed, forcing down nausea.

Diet Coke.

"No, thanks," she whispered, and pushed it away from her, feeling slightly sick.

Gemini shrugged and popped hers open, taking a large gulp of the carbonated liquid.

"Dana, what do you mean, it's all your fault?" Lamara repeated.

Dana stared bleakly off at nothing. "Alex. It's my fault."

Gemini let out an incredulous breath of air. "Dana, you didn't kill him. How can it be your fault?"

When Dana's stubborn expression didn't change, Gemini widened her icy-green eyes slightly. "Dana... you didn't kill him..." She let her sentence trail off, making it sound more like a question than a statement.

Dana forced a weak smile. "No, I didn't kill him... but I must have caused his death."

Kamira took a sip of her soda and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the counter. "I think you lost me. Alex's death was an accident, caused by a zylogig, whatever that is. How could you have caused his death?"

Dana shook her head, her bright hair flying about her face. "He was in here... eating a candy bar. Pay Day. No, wait. Alex hates... hated... Pay Day. It was a Snickers. Yeah. A Snickers. Anyway, I came in to get a drink, and he started to stare at me. It was one of those really irritating, stupid stares, and it made me mad. So I started yelling at him, but he just sat there. Which made me even madder for some reason. But anyway, it ended with me storming out of here. And the last words I spoke to him were, 'I never want to see you again. At least, not while you're alive.'"

By the time she was finished with her story, Dana held a very haunted look in her eyes. "I did it. I jinxed him somehow, and now he's dead. And it's all my fault."

Gemini got up, walked over, and sat down next to Dana. "Dana, it's not your fault. I repeat, it's not your fault."

"Yes, it is. I, like, jinxed him or something."

Lamara intervened. "Dana, how can that be possible? Just by saying something, you can't make that thing happen. I mean, if that were true, my brother and sister, and even my parents, would be dead several times over."

"God has a morbid sense of humor," Dana muttered in reply.

Lamara opened her mouth to say something else, but before she could, Brea's voice was heard over the 'com.

"Officers Stewart and Roberts, report to Deck 5 near the south transporter. I've found your beast."

Kamira and Lamara looked at each other in astonishment.

"She found it? But how? And why on Deck 5? What's it doing up there?" Lamara wondered.

"I dunno," Kamira replied. "But if you'll excuse us, Dana, Gemini, we'll go check it out."

Dana waved her hand at them. "Go on. No reason why you should be forced to stay at my pity party." They left and Dana turned to Gemini. "You can leave, too, if you want, you know."

She shook her head. "Dana, you've got to realize that you did not in any way cause Alex's death. There's no possible way that angry words could have had any effect on his life, or, in this case, death. Trust me, it was just a fluke."

Dana forced a smile for the second time. "You're probably right, Gemini. It was silly of me to think like that. I guess it was just the shock..."

Gemini smiled and stood up. "There, see? You're starting to act rational already. I bet by tonight you won't have any doubt that none of this is your fault."

Dana nodded. "Okay, I guess you're right..."

She watched as Gemini exited the galley, tossing her empty Diet Coke can in the collection bin. Dana stood up and took her untouched can over to the cooling unit, where she put it back. She returned to her seat on the stool, and resumed staring blankly into space.

Dry-eyed, she whispered, "It was all my fault."

* * *

Kamira and Lamara hurried down to Brea, anxious to retrieve the beast. But when they got there, Brea was standing with a rather dumbfounded look on her face.

"Where is it?" Lamara asked with a frown. "I don't see it."

"Neither do I," Brea replied. "It's the strangest thing..." She trailed off.

"What happened?" asked Kamira.

"Well, I called you guys, and then I thought I heard a noise down the hall. But when I turned the corner, I didn't see anything. When I came back, it was gone."

"Gone?" Lamara repeated. "How? It just got up and walked away?"

"I don't know. Oh, and I thought you were going to examine it, Lamara?"

Lamara frowned. "I did."

"Well, when I found it, it sure didn't look like it. There were no cuts or anything... wait a second, I'm not even sure it looked the same." Brea had seen it when she'd stopped by the Lab to check on Lamara's progress.

"Maybe it was a different animal..." Kamira offered.

"That just wandered in here and died?" Lamara asked scornfully.

"It's possible," replied Kamira defensively.

"Well," Lamara challenged, "how did it disappear if it was dead?"

"How should I know?" asked Kamira, throwing her hands in the air. "It was just an idea."

Brea's 'com chirped. She answered it and listened to Kal's voice on the other side. "O'Conner? I can't hear you. Can you call the wall 'com? I'm next to the one in Section B on the 5th Floor. Ok? Alright. Ok. Ok." She put the 'com away and answered the wall 'com as it chirped almost immediately.

Kamira and Lamara looked on as Kal's image appeared on screen. "Captain?"

"O'Conner? What's the problem?" Brea stepped aside a little so Lamara and Kamira could see.

"Well... we have a little... situation."

"What kind of situation? Is it serious? Was there another... accident?"

"Oh, no. Nothing like that. But it's Alex..." Kal looked flustered, as though he didn't believe what he was saying.

"What about him?" Brea purposely didn't say his name.

"Garonen and I went to retrieve his body but... it was gone."

"Well you must have been looking in the wrong spot." Brea said assuringly.

"No, we left the distress flag up so it had to be the right spot. The flag wasn't moved either. I checked."

"Maybe local wildlife dragged it away to scavenge it." Lamara suggested. "It's quite possible."

"Weird. First Lamara's animal, and now..." Brea trailed off, not wanting to finish her sentence, "All the bodies are disappearing."

"Maybe everything on the planet turns to zombies when they die!" Kamira offered, grey eyes glinting maliciously.

"Zombies?" Lamara's eyes opened wide and the color drained from her face.

"Wow, you really have been up too long Lamara. Let's get you to bed." Kamira laughed.

"O'Conner, I want you to take Officer Smythe and... well anybody else you can get, and go search for him. He's got to be there somewhere." Brea instructed.

"Ok, I'll get Dana. She's right here on the bridge with me." Kal said looking to his left.

"Uhh... why don't you take Officer Johnson instead? She's still shaken up from what's happened."

"Aye Captain. We'll leave immediately. That is, as soon as you get down here to take the bridge."

"Yes, I'll be right there." Brea turned off the 'com.

Suddenly, they all heard footsteps. They turned and saw Dana running toward them down the hall.

"Officer Pendrell, what-" Brea started to ask.

Dana kept running, and pushed right through the middle of them.

"Dana!" Brea shouted. "What do you think you're doing?"

She kept running. Brea, Kamira, and Lamara looked at each other.

"What is wrong with her?" Brea asked, anger and concern vying for position on her face.

Kamira glanced at Dana's dwindling form. "Well... she was pretty upset over Alex's death. They were like brother and sister, you know... attached at the hip but wishing each other was--uh..." Kamira winced at what she almost said and then tried to cover, "She kept saying it was her fault he died. Maybe... I don't know."

Brea placed her hands on her hips. "Okay, you guys keep looking around. I'll be on the bridge."

She sprinted off in the direction Dana had gone.

Lamara looked at Kamira. "How did she get down here so fast? Kal said she was right there."

Kamira shrugged. "Why would she want to be down here anyway? I mean, her quarters are on Level 3, just like everybody else, there's nothing she'd want up here. She's just strange, I guess."

"I guess," Lamara muttered, looking anything but convinced.

* * *

Brea sat on the darkened bridge in front of the computer screen that night, pondering what to say. What words could possibly describe their predicament? She had to get them help somehow. She owed it to her crewmembers at the very least, the Federation at the most.

She activated the record program, took a deep breath, and began talking. Her emerald-green eyes seemed to burn directly into the screen as she spoke. There was nothing "nice" now about her demeanor. She was being completely and devastatingly formal, as protocol required.

But it went deeper than that. She wanted Winthrop, and anyone else he might show the video to, to recognize the seriousness of their situation. After all, this was only a delivery mission, however high-priority the shipment.

"Federation Leader Winthrop. This is Captain Brea Marlson of the Luna. The ship has crashed on a planet in the attempt to map it. Coordinates are 24.19 by 23.02 by 83.67. Request a rescue ship, as the Luna is badly damaged. There appears to be another race of beings inhabiting the planet, one that is very aggressive. One crewmember was killed by them, and two more died in the crash. We think it all too likely that whatever killed our crewmember will soon come after the rest of us."

Brea stopped and stared directly into the screen. She had rehearsed this part over and over again in front of her mirror, trying to get exactly the right tone and facial expression to augment her words. "If you don't come soon, don't bother to come at all, because you won't find anything but a shipful of corpses. Luna out."

She turned off the computer and sat in silence, wondering just how true her words would prove to be.

* * *

Lamara was in the Lab, catching up on some work she had been neglecting, when suddenly she noticed some black goo lying on the floor. "Yuck!" she said in disgust.

She bent down to pick it up. As soon as she touched it, it shrank away from her probing fingers. She shrank away also.

It was warm and pulsating. It left a thick, clearish-white trail behind it, almost like mucus. Lamara picked it up with both hands and quickly transferred it to the examination table as it oozed through her fingers. She rubbed them in distaste. A thick, gooey substance clung to them. She thought she felt a slight tingle, but dismissed the notion as all in her head.

She poked the blob experimentally, and it quivered like Jell-O. Then, Lamara's heart began to beat faster as another black blob oozed up onto the table and merged with the first.

She caught her breath in a choked gasp as it began to bubble and grow. She tried to run from the room, but the door was jammed... again. It was funny, but it felt more like it was locked than jammed. Lamara shook her head. "No!" she cried. Why, oh why hadn't she had the damn thing fixed? She turned and picked up a sharp instrument as, behind her, the blob completed its change. Suddenly, she had an idea. With trembling fingers and a numb brain, Lamara opened a 'com frequency and tried to punch in the code for the bridge.

The blob was now a massive feline shape, with sharp, cruel teeth and claws. Lamara began to whimper and turned back to the 'com. It read "This frequency is busy. Please try again later." Now, beginning to sob, Lamara pushed "disconnect" and typed "108-853-1185".

She turned towards the huge cat and pressed herself against the wall. The creature seemed to be licking some wound on its paw, but stopped abruptly and growled ferociously. The 'com read "dialing" and she heard the low chirping noise the 'com made.

As the feline bared its white teeth, Lamara crouched into a fighting stance and thrust forward her makeshift weapon.

The creature seemed to hesitate, then pounced. Lamara dodged to the side and held her knife in the creature's path. It split in two with an agonizing groan.

Black goo boiled and bubbled out of it as it fell to the floor. Her "knife" flashed and melted. But then, impossibly, the two halves of the creature rolled together and merged once more.

Lamara let out a frightened whimper as it struggled to its feet and snarled at her. It pounced once more, and she stumbled backward trying to escape its sharp claws and teeth.

Her back hit the side of an examination table, and, stunned, she watched as the creature bit into her left leg. She attempted to shake her leg free, but its teeth were like an iron bear trap. Wide-eyed, she groped for the scissors that lay nearby. Her sweaty palms could barely grip the metal as she grabbed it.

Screaming, Lamara thrust the scissors into the cat's shoulder. The beast cried out and let go of her leg, growling angrily. It shook its head violently, trying to rid itself of the metal embedded in its shoulder.

Lamara took advantage of its momentary distraction. She limped toward the door and banged on it frantically. The 'com on the wall still made a low chirping noise as Lamara eyed it expectantly. "Come on, come on!" she breathed. "Kamira pick up!" Lamara turned toward the beast, which was still struggling with the scissors. "Help me!" she screamed into the door. Sweat rolled into her eyes and her heart seemed to beat impossibly loud and slow. Her breath was rapid and she gasped for breath.

The creature finally shook the scissors from its shoulder, and they landed with a clang. Lamara turned slowly toward the beast, which was walking slowly towards her. She sidestepped the creature, following the countertop. The creature turned, forcing Lamara to walk backward. Limping, Lamara put her arms out to balance herself, knocking over the test tubes, flasks and chemical jars from the counter to the floor. The glass shattered, and her boots crunched as she walked backwards over it.

From the wall, a voice said "Hello?" and Kamira's tired image appeared. "Hello?" she repeated, yawning part way through the first syllable.

Lamara screamed as the creature pounced again. Dodging to the side and landing on the floor, Lamara just barely missed it. "Kamira! The Lab... I... aaaah!" she shouted at the top of her lungs, trailing off as the beast nearly skewered her foot with its claws. Crawling to get underneath the lab table, Lamara cut her hands on bits of broken glass that had sprayed outward when the glass had fallen onto the floor.

"Hello? Who is this?" the voice from the com said. "Is this some sort of joke?" Sighing, the image faded to black as the link was disconnected.

Lamara rolled onto her back and covered her face with her bleeding hands. Sobbing lightly, Lamara looked through her fingers to see the black beast turn hungrily toward her. It pounced once again, and, helpless, she could only wait. It advanced as, sobbing for breath, she looked wildly around for cover.

The creature leapt onto her chest and ripped out her throat with its sharp fangs. Lamara died with nothing more than a grisly, choked gurgle.

Suddenly, there was nothing but a black blob on her chest.

The zylogig continued to feed.

* * *

Kamira entered the Lab with a clipboard in hand and a pencil behind her ear. "Lamara? Did you find the animal? Lama..." Kamira stopped in shock as she stared at Lamara's lifeless body lying on the Lab floor. Blood pooled everywhere, and Kamira was standing in one of the larger pools.

Kamira's mouth dropped open and she screamed, accidentally dropping the clipboard in the pool as it slid through nerveless fingers. Anorian came running to her side.

"Kamira, what's..." He trailed off as he followed her gaze. "Oh God, not again," he mumbled as he doubled over, clutching his stomach. Anorian ran out of the Lab and presumably to the bathroom.

Kamira backed up slowly, expecting herself to wake up, or for Lamara to jump out and scream "Gotcha!", but the scene still remained, as mortifying and bloody as ever. She placed a hand to her mouth and continued to shuffle backwards, leaving bloody boot prints on the once clean linoleum.

Bumping into the examination table, she tore her gaze from Lamara and stared at the floor for a moment. She felt dizzy and her head began to spin. Placing a hand to her head, she locked her gaze on the doorway, and then glanced once more at her friend's body. She wobbled out of the lab, into fresher air, and fought the uncontrollable urge to vomit, right then and there. She ran to Brea's quarters.

* * *

Brea's sleep was interrupted by someone pounding on her door.

"Go 'way! Unless the ship is on fire, leave me alone," she moaned.

"S..Sorry, Captain," Kamira replied shakily. "I can't do that. I think... you need to see this."

Brea sighed heavily and rolled out of bed, grabbing for her robe as she did so. "All right," she said as she opened the door, "but this better be important." She should have known from Kamira's formal tone that something was wrong, but she was still too sleep-mazed to think anything through.

Kamira didn't say a word, but, with head slightly down, silently led Brea to the Lab.

"Oh dear God..." Brea exclaimed, turning her back to the gory scene that lay before her.

"Yes." Kamira swallowed hard. "I think we have an emergency on our hands."

Her eyes as wide as pancakes, Brea turned to Kamira, her face a pale green, "I think you're right."

* * *

The next day, after the burial at dawn, Brea called a meeting on the bridge. "OK, guys, we're in trouble. These... things - zylogigs - have already killed Alex and Lamara. We need a plan. Any ideas?"

The crew sat around the bridge in their usual positions, all facing the captain.

Five of the chairs were empty. Chris was missing.

"Uh, yeah." Anorian said standing up, "I have an idea: GO HOME!"

"Anorian, we are trying our best here. The engines are fried and we don't know how many more aliens are on board. I have done everything I can short of evacuating everyone in skimmers and hiding us in a mountain." Brea sighed.

"Could-could we do that? Anorian asked.

Brea rolled her eyes.

Chris entered the bridge covered in black soot and grease. "I've been working full time on the engine," he said wiping sweat off his brow and taking a seat.

"What have you to report on that?" Brea asked, mentally crossing her fingers.

"I don't know..." Chris scratched his head out of habit. "It's like every time I fix something, something else is broken. I did an assessment last night. With only 1 mechanic and 2 or 3 others capable of helping out, it could take up to a month... or we could be done by next Thursday... It just depends on how fast things go."

"I can get you some more helping hands if you need them," Brea offered.

"That would be great!" Chris exclaimed.

"Kal, Anorian... Dana and... Garonen will help you out as soon as the meeting is adjourned."

"Thank you, sir." Chris hastily added, "I mean ma'am."

"We have successfully assembled the optitrope and sent the message you taped, Brea," Kal reported.

"Ok, so the message should reach FHQ by next week, if the subspace conditions hold up." Anorian said, "So we should be rescued in oh... 3 years!"

"Or in 3 weeks." Garonen cheerfully pointed out.

"Either way we're dead." Dana's voice was low and unusually rumbling, as though she hadn't had anything to drink in days.

"What do you mean?"

"We've averaged 1 death per day since we crashed. Mathematically, the rest of us will be gone in 8 days."

"Officer Pendrell, contain yourself. Anyone else find anything out?" Brea asked looking around.

"I analyzed the reports Lamara made about the beast, and it appears that under the first layer of epidermis, there was an extremely thick layer of mucus membrane," Kamira said excitedly. "I analyzed the neural pathways and it appears that it was a very complex being probably capable of shape shifting."

Anorian's eyes widened, "Did I just hear you correctly? You mean, that beast was a zylogiggy? They really can change shape?"

"Uh, huh," Kamira nodded.

"Whoa, wait a minute." Chris said thinking back, "The oooruffian said something about zylogigs' eyes... beware the eyes."

"I remembered that," Kamira said, avoiding his eye contact, "And so I looked at what she put down for the eyes. It just says that they looked alive and somewhat red under the top black layer. Red as though there was a layer of blood or something. Nothing really helpful."

"Wow!" Garonen said, the realization of her discovery just setting in. "This is exciting! Now we know what zylogigs are really capable of, what form they probably choose to be in, and that we really can trust the oooruffians!"

"That's not even the exciting part!" Kamira continued, "Even though there weren't any real internal organs to speak of, the neural network was extremely well wired and still in very good condition despite its injuries. In fact, the center of the neural net, which actually was not damaged much at all, seemed to be in the center of the beast, not inside the head as Terran creatures almost always seem to have theirs located. So it was pretty much protected from all damage. I would bet my money that that center was responsible for all aspects of the beast's living: thinking, eating, breathing and so on. I can't believe I missed it before!"

"Meaning?" Anorian said shaking his head, "This time, don't use so many big words."

"Meaning that the beast we found probably wasn't dead."

An eerie silence filled the room. "Then...we don't even know how to kill them," Dana said quietly. "We don't even know if we can..."

"What?" Kal asked.

"I said, that for all we know these... things are invincible. They could be, like, a dominant race or something. These creatures could mean the end of the whole human race! You heard the oooruffian! Shape shifters! They can look like anything anytime they want!"

"Officer Pendrell."

"You've seen what these things did to Alex and Lamara."

"Officer Pendrell."

"What do you think they'll do to us? Say: 'Jeez, you guys got a plan, let's leave you alone?'"

"Officer Pendrell!" Brea interrupted. Dana turned to face the captain. Her eyes were welling up with tears. "You've been dismissed from this meeting."

"I didn't ask to be excused-"

"You're.... excused." Brea stated almost plaintively.

Without changing the expression on her face, Dana drew in a deep breath, nodded, and quickly left the bridge.

"I think Dana has a point," Garonen said, after he was sure Dana was out of hearing range. "We don't even know if these things are killable."

"Killable?" Anorian repeated.

"Or whatever. You know, able to be killed?" Garonen explained.

"Well they should be." Kamira said, "All we have to do is get through the thick and incredibly tough membrane and destroy the inner brain..." She trailed off as she realized how discouraging it must have sounded.

"It almost sounds too easy." Anorian said dryly.

"We can't lose hope," Brea insisted. "Right, guys?" She glanced around the bridge.

No one said anything.

"Uh.... does this mean that Dana won't be helping me with the engine?" Chris added timidly.

* * *

Dana had decided to go to the last place someone would look for her - the Lab. She lay down on an examination table and cried.

"We are going to die here," she thought. "Here, a hundred million miles from nowhere, with no one to even hear us scream."

Dana rolled over and looked at the floor. A black blob sat on the floor motionless, with only a slight hint of quiver to it.

Dana sat up and looked at it. Was this a zylogig? Was this the horrible creature that had killed her crewmates? Was it her turn to die?

She didn't know the answer to the last question, nor if she wanted to find out.

A hot rage grew inside her as she stared at the heap of black ooze. The ooze started to pulsate. Then it started for the examination table.

Dana realized it wasn't coming for the table. It was coming for her!

"Oh, no you don't!" she cried as she jumped off the table. This thing didn't look so tough, but it had (presumably) killed Lamara and Alex, so it had to be dangerous. The zylogig changed directions and came for her. In desperation, Dana ran to the shelf of various chemicals.

The blob went faster.

She pushed jar after jar onto the floor, but the blob just went around the puddles. She pushed the last one off, and as it broke, a gas filled the air from the jar. The blob instantly dissolved.

Dana's mouth dropped open, and she knelt down to examine the label of the broken jar: Xenophyll.

She wasn't familiar with the name, but the stuff had to be pretty potent if it had killed the blob, which by now she was pretty sure was a zylogig. But just the same, the name sounded strangely familiar to her. Maybe she'd heard Kamira talk about it or something.

She started to go to the bridge, but stopped. She felt woozy and sat down hard. She smiled stupidly as she watched the room go around and around and wondered if Brea had eaten the zylogig yet and why Alex wasn't in the computer...

Kamira went into the Lab and found broken bottles and puddles all over, Dana lying among them. She coughed and choked and opened the vents. Then she dragged Dana out into the fresher air of the corridor. After only a few moments Dana blinked and sat up slowly. Kamira immediately began to yell.

"You idiot!" exclaimed Kamira. "What did you think you were doing? You can't go throwing chemicals around and expect to just walk away! Some of those are very dangerous, especially when mixed! Didn't you take chemistry at the Academy? You could have blown up the ship!"

Dana, who had been listening meekly to the flow of talk, now held up her hand to stop Kamira.

"But it killed the zylogig!"

Kamira stopped dead. "What? What are you talking about?"

"The chemical! Um, Xenophyll! There was a zylogig on the floor, at least I'm pretty sure it was a zylogig, and it was coming after me! I panicked and started throwing stuff at it, but it didn't work. Then I threw a bottle of Xenophyll at it, and... and it just dissolved!"

Kamira's eyes hardened. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure! I was standing right next to it!"

"Well, then, I think we should go see Brea. If what you're telling me is true, we may have just found a way to get rid of the zylogigs."

* * *

"Kamira, what would be the effect of a lot of this Xenophyll chemical flooding the ship?" Brea, Kamira, and Dana were in a late-night planning conference. Dana looked around the small table at the other two. She was tired, and she wanted nothing more than to go back to her quarters and fall on her bed.

"Fat chance," she thought wryly.

Kamira thought a moment. "Well, it's pretty potent stuff, so no one dares to use a lot of it. I mean, some scientist guy back in 2436 had a giant vat of it, and the fumes killed him within ten minutes, even though he had a mask on. Irreversible brain damage occurs after eight minutes of exposure. I really couldn't say, but I know we have to get all the water off the ship, because water neutralizes it. We'd have massive damage to the ship, but if we keep the flooding away from the food and water supplies and the major equipment, we should be all right, at least as far as essentials."

"I think we can do that. What about the hull and structures?"

"I don't know. I'm pretty sure that they haven't tested its potency on 6 feet of titanium alloy before. It should hold up, but no promises."

"We could get A.." Brea corrected herself, "Dana to check on that on the computer."

"I'll get right on that." Dana said beginning to get up. Brea stopped her with a firm hand.

"Kamira, if we completely flooded the ship, we could still get home, right?"

"Well, there are always risks... but of course, you know, if we do this, we probably won't be able to get home ourselves. It might fry the engines or something. And we can't be sure we get all of the zylogigs, but the chances of killing all of them would have to be in the high nineties, as there aren't many places on the ship one would be able to hide from the liquid or the gas."

Brea nodded grimly. "We'll just have to take that risk."

Chapter 5

Dana's face was illuminated by the blue glow from the computer screen as she sat in the darkened computer room. It was nearly 3:00, and she knew she wasn't getting much sleep tonight... this morning... whatever. The search on Xenophyll brought up a total of 3 articles. The first one turned out to be totally irrelevant, as it was mainly a story about the opening of a new chemical plant.

The second was of more use. She read:

"Dr. Armond Jackson sustained major injuries as his lab partner Dr. Raymond Grill died in the accident on Friday. It occurred early in the morning, at around 1:00 AM, when they filled the vat with Xenophyll for testing. Dr. Jackson and Dr. Grill fastened their safety masks in place and prepared for the tests. Within moments of exposure to the gases that later filled the air, Dr. Grill passed out on the spot. Dr. Jackson was able to reach the phone to dial 9-1-1, before passing out as well. The paramedics were just in time to rescue Dr. Jackson. But Dr. Grill had died only moments before. The duo were working on an experiment involving the effects of Xenophyll on Xenomorphs, a frequent experiment in Xenobiology. Police say the masks were working properly, and that they had only been exposed to the Xenophyll for about 8 minutes. Experts say that that is enough to kill. Dr. Jackson had been lucky, and now recovers in Gimmey Memorial Hospital in stable condition. He reportedly said that he would "never work with that **** again.", making a total of two scientists who will never see Xenophyll again."

Dana cocked her head curiously. She pushed the back button and clicked on the third article titled: "Xenophyll". A screen came up with a picture of a molecule of Xenophyll, and a picture of what it looked like.

Dana read out loud to herself: "Xenophyll is made up of a sulfur, carbon and yetium base with argon blah blah blah... very toxic and lethal... blah blah blah... ooh, has been proven to be a great tool in the construction industry, as it sears through most of the pure metals known to man... nothing about titanium though... several experiments involving xenomorphs... where have I heard that?" Dana paused. "That sounds incredibly familiar... other than in the previous article... ah well, I'm probably just tired... let's see... blah blah blah... dissolves human tissue on contact? Eww... I sure don't want to deal with it... and... blah blah blah... should be handled with great care. That's it." Dana rubbed the bridge of her nose and sighed. "That's not very useful. We already knew all that. At least now I can get some sleep." Dana stretched her legs as she switched off the computer, leaving herself in complete darkness. She got to her feet and stumbled towards the light switch panel. But not before bumping into something... no... someone.

She shrieked out in surprise and jumped backwards, trying to get away from... whatever it was. The lights came on, and she found herself staring at the grinning face of Chris. Dana sighed and grinned coyly at him. "What are you trying to do? Scare me to death?"

Chris shrugged, "I heard someone mumbling to themselves and came to check. When I heard it was you, I decided to keep you company."

Dana yawned and started to walk past him. "Well, I've finished up my work here."

"What were you doing?" Chris asked, following her out.

"Looking up something," Dana said, basically baiting him on.

"What were you looking up?" Chris persisted.

"A chemical," Dana said almost musically.

"Which chemical?" Chris inquired monotonously.

"Well, I'm sure you can keep your mouth shut..." she said sarcastically, stopping in the hall, "but we're going to do this anyway so let me tell you." Dana paused.

"Yes?" Chris prompted.

"Xenophyll," Dana said.

"What's that?" he asked, leaning casually against the wall.

"A highly dangerous chemical that killed one of those aliens," Dana said in an eerily calm voice.

"Really?" Chris said contemplatively. "It really killed one?"

"I saw it with my own eyes," she affirmed. Dana gave Chris a searching look. He looked so lifeless... so... tired? That wasn't the exact look...

"What are 'we going to do' with it?" Chris said, half to himself.

"Brea and Kamira want to flood the ship with Xenophyll," Dana said after a pause.

"Brea and Kamira?" Chris started. "So... are you saying you don't want to?"

Dana smiled. "Let's not get caught up in semantics. But, I'm not sure it's such a good idea. I'm not so sure it would kill them."

"You just said..."

"I know, but what I mean is, what if we miss one? Just one, and if we go back to Terra with that one, we would be literally dead."

"But do we have a choice?"

"I... I don't know. Not really. We didn't come up with any alternatives."

"Well then, what choice do we have?" Chris said, putting a hand on her shoulder.

"Right. I'm sure you're right... it has to work," Dana grinned, continuing to walk down the hall. "After all, if it doesn't, we won't be around to place the blame."

* * *

Kamira and Dana were in the Lab, with a bucket of Xenophyll and several sheets of metal. Kamira's long hair was tied back in two braids, and Dana's was in a ponytail. Both wore goggles and Federation heavy duty gas masks with three breathing filters in each. They had to be careful.

Dana read through the checklist of supplies. "Xenophyll in melt-proof glass bucket?"

"Check."

"Titanium, 1 foot in thickness?"

"Check."

"Water?"

"Check."

"Gas mask working?"

"Mine is, yours?"

"Yes. Looks like we're ready to begin the experiment," Dana said, pushing record on the holo-vid. She looked into the camera and spoke to the holo-vid. "It is 0800 hours, Federation Standard Time. Outside it is just starting to get light. This is the experiment titled: Experiment 413 - Xenophyll vs. Titanium... Kamira named it."

"Dana! Stick to the script!" Kamira said, putting a hand on her shoulder.

Dana rubbed her tired eyes and yawned. "All right, all right... is it still recording?"

Kamira walked toward the Xenophyll. "Yes, it is."

"We are going to see how fast Xenophyll can bore its way through titanium. We hypothesized that any acid would probably take around 20 minutes to burn through, so Xenophyll might take 15. The procedure is as follows: Take the metal-" Dana turned around and put her hand on the microphone as she did. "Kamira, do we really have to go through the procedure?"

"Just do it already." Kamira put her hands on her hips and waited impatiently. "I should have done it myself."

Uncovering the microphone, Dana said to Kamira, "Well, you picked the short straw so I got to choose." She turned to the holovid. "Ok, you take the metal, and pour the Xenophyll onto it. Then you measure how long it takes for it to completely go through. Find the average of three trials, and go with that. Satisfied?"

Kamira sighed. "Let's begin."

Dana got up and set the 3 by 3 by 1 foot sheet of metal between the two lab tables and made sure it was secure. She put a steel pan full of water underneath the metal in case of a drip. Brea wouldn't like more holes in the Lab floor. After knocking those chemicals on the floor, Brea made sure Dana had learned her lesson by forcing her to help Kamira out with the experiment after only 4 hours sleep, all that she'd been able to get after cleaning up the mess.

Kamira lifted the glass bucket of Xenophyll onto the table. "Pouring exactly two cups of Xenophyll onto the titanium in three separate spots," she narrated. "Start the timers."

Dana started the timer as soon as the Xenophyll had been poured. The gas rose into the air, and on cue, Dana turned the vents to lead straight outside. She looked on as the acid began to eat right through the titanium. Dana and Kamira exchanged bewildered looks. This stuff was eating through much faster than they ever imagined.

"The Xenophyll seems to be eating through much faster than I expected," Kamira said to the camera. "It's almost all the way through, after only 1.3 minutes. Dana, be ready with the clock."

Dana put her finger on the button to stop the timer, but didn't press yet. "Ready. I'll stop it at the first hole in the metal." She was on the floor watching the bottom of the metal. "And... there. It's through. At 1 minute 40 seconds. There's the next one, and the next. 1 minute 40, 1 minute 47, and 1 minute 49."

Kamira did the math in her head. "About 1 minute 46 seconds per foot? With three feet of titanium... it would eat through the hull in around... 5 minutes 15 seconds." She stopped the holo-vid and turned toward Dana. "We've got to tell Captain Marlson."

***

Brea, Kamira and Gemini sat at the computer running through simulations. It was 8:30, barely half an hour having passed since they performed the experiment. Dana had stumbled off to her quarters, mumbling about sleep, so Kamira reported the results herself. Brea called Gemini down to consult with, and they decided to use the computer to see what would happen if they flooded the ship.

"So," Brea was saying, "in these three areas, the hull would breach first, right? At about 5 minutes and 20 seconds?"

"That's what the computer says," Kamira affirmed.

"And then the rest of the hull would breach in another minute, two, three, tops?" Brea continued.

"Yes." Kamira nodded.

"So the question is, what do we do to keep the hull from breaching? We can't take off with a non-existent hull."

"Yes, in fact, I think the furthest we should allow the acid to eat is probably all but six inches. Anything below six inches would be risky. If the shields failed..." Kamira trailed off.

"So... water neutralizes it?" Brea asked.

"Yes, but you need an awful lot of it," Kamira said quickly.

"How much?"

"Well... Dana pointed this out..." She pulled out a printed sheet. "For every gallon of Xenophyll... it would take 35 gallons of water to completely neutralize it."

"And how much Xenophyll are we going to use?" Brea asked slowly.

"That depends... since the gas takes a while to form, we'd have to leave it on longer, but if we do, then we have to use less so the hull doesn't breach..." Kamira thought for a moment. "Unless we only use a little bit and use something to stimulate the gas... like heat."

"We could do that? Turn up the heat and use a little bit?" Brea asked, her eyes lighting up.

"I say 'a little bit' as in 'less than what would be required'," Kamira said, turning to face Brea.

"How much heat are we talking about?" Gemini asked, speaking for the first time in a while.

"We'd need environmental controls to be at least 110 degrees 5 minutes prior to the flood. If we needed to we could crank it up even more."

Brea cocked her head, "How much Xenophyll is still needed?"

"About... oh... 60, 70 gallons..." Kamira did the calculations almost instantly in her head. Being a math whiz, it was easy. "And for water that would be between 2100 and 2500."

"Gallons?!" Brea caught her breath.

Kamira nodded and said slowly, "I'm not sure if the sprinkler systems could get enough out in time."

Brea started tapping away on the computer. "Let's see." After about 5 minutes of quick typing, Brea turned with a hopeful look on her face to Kamira. "I said to use 70 gallons of Xenophyll and split it among the three flooding mechanisms. I told it to leave at least six inches if titanium wall space on the exterior walls, and input the time it took for one foot, for three feet, and how much water is required. It should so us the optimal time and where the gas gets to..." She sighed, pushing a button. "Here we go."

The computer screen showed the Xenophyll flooding in 4 screens. 3 hypothetical "cameras" that actually showed what the flooding would look like in each of the three areas, and the 4th screen showed the map of the ship. One aerial view and one side view.

Kamira held her breath and watched. The Xenophyll poured from the vats. The sprinkler system came on after only about 40 seconds. The gas was flowing everywhere as planned.

On the map, the places that turned green were places the Xenophyll gas (or liquid) had reached. So far it looked like about half the ship had turned green.

"Are you sure you want to do this, you guys?" Gemini asked tentatively. "I know I haven't been up all night like you and so I don't have all the facts I'm sure. But that is a point in and of itself. I had a good night's rest and you two are operating on zero hours of sleep and the first step in making well-thought out decisions is to have enough sleep."

"You sound like my high-school counselor." Kamira grumbled.

"Do you have another idea, Officer Anderson?" Brea asked curiously.

"No. I don't. I... honestly haven't been functioning normally since... the unfortunate incidents. Thinking isn't a strong-point of mine any more." She tried to joke. "I just think... that we need to really sit down and think this through. If we screw up and destroy the hull or the engine we won't be able to get home at all."

"I know." Brea looked away. "We don't have any choices."

Soon, 3 minutes 40 seconds had gone by. Most of the ship had turned green on the map, and the readouts on the bottom screen showed that 85% of the acid had either been neutralized or turned into vapor.

"I won't do it unless everyone agrees," Brea said suddenly.

"I think we have to do this," Kamira added.

Gemini made a face. "If this simulation works... I'm in."

Then, 4 minutes 15 seconds. The sprinklers abruptly shut off and the readouts said that the remaining liquid Xenophyll was 100% neutral. The gas was still flowing around, but there appeared to be 5 or 6 places the gas hadn't gotten to yet. The titanium was, at the thinnest, 6 inches.

Brea and Kamira turned and grinned at each other. "Let's go tell everyone."

***

Operation Xenophyll was almost ready to start

There were only three people in the Luna: Gemini, Kamira, and Anorian. They had some final preparations to make. Kamira and Anorian set off the timer and reported in to Brea.

"Timer set and running, fifteen minutes as requested."

"Copy," Brea acknowledged.

"OK, captain, we're leaving the ship now."

"Copy that."

They walked out of the Lab, collected Gemini, and walked down the corridors to the exit. They hadn't gone more than halfway when they saw something that made them all stop and stare.

Alex was standing down a cross-corridor with an ax, banging on a pipe. Even as they watched, a hole appeared in the pipe and water gushed out.

"Alex? Alex! What are you doing?" Gemini yelled over the noise of the water. Alex didn't answer, but chopped the pipe all the way in half. More water rushed out. He turned and stared at them. His eyes briefly glowed bright red, but only for a split second. Then the glow was gone.

Kamira shuddered. "I don't know what that is," she said, "but it's definitely not Alex."

"And I'm guessing I know what it is," said Anorian.

Kamira looked at him in puzzlement. "What?" she asked.

Anorian sighed exasperatedly. "Think about it," he said. "What would be the only thing that it could be? It's not Alex, and it's not one of us, so..."

Gemini's eyes widened. "A zylogig."

Anorian nodded.

"But..." Kamira sputtered. "But that would mean..."

"They can look like us, too," Anorian finished for her.

"We've got to catch it!" Gemini exclaimed. "Hey!" she yelled at "Alex."

"Alex" turned and ran down the corridor. They chased after him, but the decompression doors slamming down stopped them. The doors were set to trigger in case of any emergency. Anorian rushed to the control panel and tried to open them, but it was unresponsive. They were trapped, and the water was steadily rising.

"Captain? Brea, come in!" Anorian yelled over the 'com.

"What's going on? Why aren't you guys out yet? What's that noise?"

"We're trapped!" Kamira had grabbed the 'com. "We saw Alex down the corridor, hacking at the water pipe with an ax, except it wasn't Alex, if you know what I mean. It must have been a zylogig. Anyway, the decomp doors came down, and the water is rising very fast."

"Anorian, can we stop the timer?"

"Um, that's a negative, captain. It's set on invincible mode. Short of destroying it, there's no way we can stop it."

"Oh, great," Gemini grumbled. "We're either going to get drowned, eaten by that zylogig, or gassed to death."

"Or escape!" Kamira's eyes held a defiant fire. "I'm not going to give in, do you hear me? I'm NOT GOING TO DIE!"

With the last four words, she turned and banged the wall with her fist in impotent rage. And with absolutely no fuss whatsoever, a piece of the wall slid back to reveal a control panel.

* * *

Kamira's mouth dropped open in astonishment. She turned to the others and found them mirroring her expression.

"What the..."

PSSSSSHHHH!

The water continued to gush from the pipes. Kamira knelt to get a closer look at the control panel. It wasn't a door-opening panel, but it was something. The water was up to Kamira's knees now.

"Anorian!" Kamira called, not looking up from the panel. "Anorian?"

Gemini, who was standing directly behind Kamira and looking over her shoulder, spun around to see Anorian slumping in the water. "Oh my..."

Gemini sloshed through the water and checked Anorian's pulse. "His pulse is weak. I...I think he fainted," Gemini announced. She smiled slightly.

"You think? You're a medic, you're supposed to know these things!" She sounded hysterical.

"Kamira, please calm down. It isn't anyone's fault that he fainted. It's just a biological response."

"But I need him to identify the type of panel we have here," Kamira whined.

"No way he can do it now, he's out cold," explained Gemini. "What do you want me to do, wave my magic wand and wake him up?"

Kamira closed her eyes, as if this were all just a bad dream. A bad dream that would be all gone when she opened her eyes, and she would be back home in her nice, warm, snug bed.

But when she opened her eyes, everything was still the same; the water still gushed from the broken pipe and Gemini still hovered over Anorian. She was still in the sealed-off corridor.

Gemini came up to the panel. "It's not a control to the door, but we have these in sick bay," she told Kamira. "I think one of these opens the maintenance hatch. If I can only figure out which one..."

"How are you going to do that? None of them are labeled," Kamira pointed out.

"I could try and read this circuit design..." Gemini knelt by the diagram sticker that was on the panel door. "It should tell me where the power is directed to in each of these buttons..."

"I know!" Kamira said. "Let's just push all of them!"

Gemini stopped Kamira's twitching hand from getting to the controls. She shook her head. "No, that would be a very bad idea."

"Why?" Kamira questioned defiantly.

"Because one of these increases pressure from the pipes, and one of them sucks the oxygen from the room, but I don't know which ones," Gemini explained sheepishly. "I mean, it's not like it's every day I need to increase the pressure in some pipes up in sick bay or cut off my oxygen supply. The only buttons I use are the mechanic call buttons!"

Kamira grabbed the sides of her face. "This can't be happening," she moaned at the ceiling, as if it were entirely all its fault. The water still gushed from the pipe. It was up to their waists and rising fast.

Kamira went to Anorian and tried to slap him awake.

"Okay!" Gemini shouted over the noise of the rushing water. "I think... I think I know which one it is."

"Are you sure?" Kamira asked quickly.

"I'm pretty sure," said Gemini in a quieter tone.

"You have to be completely sure," Kamira insisted.

"All right, all right, I'm completely 99.9% sure," Gemini assured her. Kamira glanced warily at the pipe, which was located up above her, mounted on the wall up near the ceiling. The water in the corridor was up to her shoulders.

Gemini pushed a large red button on the panel. A strange computer noise sounded and a louder gushing noise came from the pipe. More water streamed out.

"Well, there's that other .1%," said Kamira dryly. The water rose even faster. It would no doubt reach the ceiling in a matter of seconds. "I think we have about 30 seconds," Kamira breathed.

"One thing I forgot to mention," Gemini said, spitting out a mouthful of water. She was treading water. "The shaft is against the floor, and it will only open for about six seconds before it shuts automatically. It's a safety measure, to insure that nothing can get in, or out, unless it's one crewmember for repair purposes."

Kamira raised her eyebrows, blowing a piece of wet hair out of her face. "You forgot?" she asked angrily. "How could you forget something like that?"

Gemini shrugged apologetically. "I didn't forget, I just forgot to tell you."

"Won't it flood with water if it's on the bottom?" Kamira asked.

"No. There's grating at the bottom of the shaft, so any water that goes in there will drain out," she explained. "I thought that was common knowledge," she added hotly.

"Look, you overgrown blonde, not everyone can fool around with the maintenance shafts all day. Some of us have work to do," Kamira snapped.

"Kamira, this isn't the time to be fighting!" Gemini shouted. "We're gonna die if we don't do something!"

"Maybe you shouldn't have pushed the wrong button! Or at least have let me push all of them! We might be out of here if you hadn't stopped me!" Kamira fumed.

"Or we could be dead! If you had drained the oxygen from the room, we would have been dead 5 minutes ago!" she retorted.

"Oh, now you want to go down as having saved the day, huh?" Kamira snorted.

"Look, Anorian's coming to," Kamira said quickly.

Anorian looked around and saw that the water was about nine inches from the ceiling.

Kamira, who had been holding Anorian up, let go and let him swim for himself.

"Don't just stand there," Gemini ordered. "Help me open the shaft."

"Where - where am I?" Anorian asked.

"How's this: I'll tell you after you open the shaft!" Kamira snapped.

Anorian's dazed eyes darted around the room, "Oh, yeah. I thought this was a dream, though..."

"Believe me, it's not."

Anorian winced pushing himself up against the ceiling. He gasped for air as the water rose higher. "Alright you guys, take a deep breath cause I don't think we'll be getting another shot at this."

Anorian drew in a deep breath and Gemini did the same, then Kamira followed.

Grasping the wall for leverage, he made his way down to the floor where the shaft was located. Kamira was close at his back, and so he was careful not to kick his legs. Two small bubbles and a large one escaped from his mouth as he carefully doublechecked the control panel. Anorian pushed a button and the shaft opened, sucking in water quickly. The vacuum pulled him in, and he felt Kamira on his heels.

SLAM!

The door slammed shut behind her. The water gushed forward carrying her and Anorian several yards before they hit the metal grating. Kamira skidded forward, scraping her arms and bruising her ribs and face. Finally, she ran into Anorian, and ground to a halt. Kamira choked on her breath as she struggled to turn herself around. Coughing desperately, she flung herself back at the door.

"Gemini!" Kamira screamed. She pounded on the door. "How do you get this open?" she asked, banging on it.

"You can't, not from here, anyway," Anorian explained.

"Open the door, open the door, come on!" she whispered. Kamira listened to the banging on the other side for a moment. Then it stopped. Silence followed.

"NO! NO! NO!" Kamira screamed. Her wet hair draped her face like blinds being drawn and undrawn as sobs shook her body.

Anorian took her shoulder gently and they crawled slowly through the shaft.

Kamira repressed her urge to cry and took a deep breath. She pulled out her 'com and punched in Brea's code. It began to sizzle in her hand. "Ouch!" she yelped as she threw it down hard. The water had shorted it out.

"Mine's broken, too," Anorian said, banging his on his knee then finally tossing it aside.

"Well, how do we get out of here?" Kamira asked, looking down each of the many tunnels they had to choose from. She blinked water from her eyes. She couldn't see all too well, as her glasses had water spots and streaks all over them.

"I, I don't know," Anorian admitted. "Chris is the only one who knows these tunnels. And besides tunnels, there are trap doors that are in the floor. They aren't really traps, like Indiana Jones or anything, they're just shortcuts from the levels below to get up here."

Kamira's mouth dropped. "So we have absolutely no idea where we are?"

"No, we know we are somewhere east of the corridor. At least, I think it's east. If I had my PDA, I could find out where we are," Anorian said wistfully.

"Yeah, and if I had a genie I could just wish us out of here, but I don't see a genie, do you? And I don't see your PDA either," Kamira retorted. "Maybe we should go right," she said, more humbly. It was more of a question than a statement. Kamira looked at Anorian.

"Ladies first," he said, motioning for her to go in front of him.

"Anorian? Do you remember those lectures back at the academy? When they told us we might, you know, die out on a mission or... how did they put it? Oh yeah, 'in the line of duty'. I remember working on biochemistry homework through most of them." She laughed. "I guess you can imagine why I never took them seriously.... And now here I find myself... well, in this situation I'm in, and I don't know if I can take it. Maybe I'm not cut out for this, I mean, maybe I should be back on Terra running my own lab or something."

"What, like 'Roberts Labs'?"

"Well I don't think I'd name it after me, for one."

"But just think, Kamira," Anorian said, "No more new planets, no more Jumps, no more up close alien research. You'd have to get someone else to bring you the specimens instead of being there with them. You wouldn't get to study the surroundings and see for yourself where they're coming from..."

"There are holopictures and videos that I could have assistants take for me. So I could see the surroundings myself." Kamira argued.

"There's a difference between seeing, and actually being there, though, isn't there? I mean... wouldn't you hate to just... keep your feet on the ground?"

Kamira chuckled. "Anorian, I've got to hand it to you. You aren't much of a 'manly' man, but you are a true philosopher. I never knew that about you." She laughed, "Why, I thought you-"

Swoosh! Bang! Bong! Thump!

Silence.

"Anorian?" Kamira froze and looked behind her.

He was gone.

"Must have been one of those trap doors," she thought, carefully turning herself around. Kamira crawled slowly back the way she came feeling along the floor for any evidence of a door. She managed to crawl back several hundred feet, without sign of a door, or a different vent he might have gone down. Kamira made her way back to the approximate place she was when Anorian disappeared, but she, again, could find nothing.

Kamira screamed in frustration and pounded on the grating with both fists and her knees. Suddenly, she fell through and disappeared.

* * *

"They should be here by now," Garonen said, looking at his solar rotation meter, now set to the new time of this planet. "The ship should flood with Xenophyll in eight minutes and counting."

Sighing, Brea turned around. "All right, Garonen, can you run a life form check on the ship and see... see if they made it?"

Garonen nodded and went to the laptop they'd brought outside. "I see two humans alive," Garonen announced. He smiled happily, but then he remembered there had been three that had gone in.

"They've separated. It appears that one is in the maintenance shaft, the other... Hey!" Garonen's laptop shut off with a mechanical groan. Kal, Brea, Dana, and Chris all gathered around Garonen.

"What happened?"

"I don't know! It just shut off!" Garonen explained, making odd gestures with his hands. The laptop started to sizzle and bake. Everyone jumped back and Garonen shoved it off his legs. Black ooze poured from the circuits in the back.

"That black crap's everywhere!" Chris exclaimed.

"What are we going to do?" Garonen said slowly.

"I'm not sure we can do anything short of going in there ourselves," Brea said quietly.

"Kamira and Anorian and Gemini are still in there!" Dana exclaimed. "We can't just leave them!"

"Minus one," someone added quietly.

"All right, everyone," Brea announced. "We'll have to shut off the flooding long enough to get our people out of there. We can't shut it down with the computer we brought out here... obviously..." She gestured to the now defunct laptop. "But we can shut it off manually from the bridge computer. I will go to the bridge to shut off the flooding. The rest of you will be in a buddy system. Officers O'Connor and Smythe, you are looking for crewmembers in the main halls and corridors. Officers Pendrell and Muldrich, go through the vents and look for whoever was still in there at the time. Do not lose your buddy. Anyone without a buddy, save me and Officers Anderson, Roberts, and Johnson, will be considered hostile and short on sight. If something happens to your buddy, contact me on the 'com. Each of you have a working 'com? Good. When you find someone, contact me, and hightail it out of there..." Brea trail off. "Let's go!" she shouted encouragingly. Everyone ran to the ship.

* * *

"Whoooooooa!" Anorian yelled as he slid down the trap door. He fell into Deck Five's Lab. He rubbed his head where he had hit it in the shaft.

"I hope I don't have any more surprises," he thought as he walked into the hallway. Then he saw it.

A big black blob was oozing down the hallway toward him. He stared at it as it began to take shape. It turned into a black beast with horns. It looked like the creature Lamara had done an autopsy on, except more... alive.

It grunted, then ran after Anorian. Anorian ran down the hall in the other direction. He turned right, right again, then left, and down four flights of stairs, then right again.

SMACK!

He ran right into someone! "AAAGGGHHH!" he screamed. He felt hands grab him.

"Whoa, whoa, it's okay, Anorian, it's me," said a woman's voice. Anorian looked up at the woman. It was Brea. He sighed in relief.

"Oh, captain! There's a monster chasing me and..." Anorian looked at Brea again. She held a very blank, uncomprehending stare.

Then her eyes glowed red.

But only for an instant.

Anorian squinted and backed away, thinking aloud, "Beware the eyes..." A look of realization came upon his face. "You're not Brea!" he yelled.

He continued running down the hall, straight into Brea. "You again?" asked Anorian furiously. "Why, I oughta..." He pulled out his PLS and pointed it at her.

"Officer Johnson, what's wrong?" Brea asked. "Put down the gun, it's me! Brea! Your captain!"

"NO! No, you're one of them!" Anorian said accusingly.

"No, I'm not! What are you talking about?" Brea said, taking a step forward.

"Just step back!" he commanded, charging up the PLS.

"Anorian, it's really me! We have to get out of here! Put down your weapon, and that's an order!" Brea said.

Anorian stared hard into her eyes. They remained green and held his gaze. He lowered the PLS. It really was Brea. It had to be. He slipped the PLS in his uniform.

"What did you mean 'one of them'?" Brea questioned.

"The zylogigs can morph to look like us!" Anorian blurted.

Brea's eyes widened. "Oh God..." She shook her head as if to clear it. "Come on, Officer Johnson! We have to shut down the flooding on the bridge."

"Why?" Anorian asked, crossing his arms.

Maybe it wasn't Brea after all.

"I'll explain on the way," Brea said, already starting to run down the hall. Anorian had no choice. He followed.

* * *

"We should start looking here," Chris said, opening the hatch to the maintenance shaft. Dana reluctantly climbed in. Chris followed.

"Which way?" Dana asked.

"Just keep going straight until I tell you to turn," he said.

Dana crawled through the shaft easily and stealthily. She stopped. There was a slithering noise coming towards them.

"Can I turn now?" she whispered.

"Yeah, turn right," Chris directed.

"Are you sure?" Dana asked.

"Of course."

"Just asking," Dana said, as she crawled in the direction Chris had said. The slithering got louder. "Maybe left would have been more effective," Dana said. It was more of a question than a statement.

"Good idea." Chris complied. He turned around and went back. Dana did the same. Still the slithering got louder.

"What's going on?" Dana asked apprehensively.

"I don't know," Chris answered. They stopped in their tracks.

"Maybe we could go back and go straight," Dana suggested. Chris nodded, but as they were about to go back, Dana shrieked. The zylogig was behind them and slithering fast.

"GO!" Dana screamed. Chris practically flew through the shaft, Dana at his heels. They heard now not a slither, but a pitter-patter of feet. Suddenly Chris stopped.

"GO!" Dana urged.

"I can't," Chris said, turning to face her, his face a sickly green.

Dana looked past him and her eyes fell on a bundle of cables laying on the floor of the shaft. They were disconnected from the ceiling from one end, and were sparking dangerously. They might be able to get over them... or they could be electrocuted. Dana turned to face Chris, her eyes wide.

They were trapped.

* * *

Brea and Anorian stepped onto the bridge. Anorian opened the computer's frequency and Brea spoke to the computer. "This is Captain Brea. Stop flooding sequence Omega One now."

The computer buzzed. "Not able to comply," it said in a mechanical voice.

"Why not?" Brea questioned.

"You are not authorized to override this operation."

"Authorization code 'Marlson-39-Alpha.' Override security lockdown."

After a loud buzzing, the computer replied, "Unable to comply. You do not have security clearance."

"This is Captain Brea Marlson, authorization code 'Marlson-39-Alpha'! Halt flooding sequence Omega One!" Brea growled.

"You are not authorized to override that command."

"Who is?"

"Alex Reed."

"DAMMIT!" Brea yelled. "HE IS DEAD!"

"Please clarify your request."

"Anorian, how much time do we have?" Brea asked, turning around.

"Uhh... 5 minutes 14 seconds," Anorian answered.

"Ok. We're gonna have to work fast." Brea dashed off the bridge.

***

Garonen and Kal walked down the hall on Deck One. The hallway was darkened, a precaution they took for when the Xenophyll flooded the area, as it might short out the electrical systems.

"You think we'll see any of those, uh, zethogiles?" Garonen asked.

"Zylogigs," Kal corrected.

"Yeah, any zeelojigs?"

Kal sighed. "No," he answered confidently.

"M-m-me neither," said Garonen. They entered the engineering room and looked around.

"I don't see anyone, but I'll look up here on the catwalk," Kal said, starting up the ladder.

"I'll stay here..." Garonen said, giving a scared whimper. "I thought I heard something up there."

Kal looked around for a bit, then turned around to face Garonen. "See? There's not a zylogig in sight-" Kal's eyes widened and his mouth dropped. "Garonen! Look out!"

Garonen turned around just in time to see a replica of himself pull his fist back to issue a blow. He got smacked in the face and stumbled backward.

Kal began to climb down the ladder. "Hang on, Garonen!" Kal leaped onto the other Garonen's back and grabbed its neck in a chokehold. It made a noise somewhere between a snarl and a howl and flipped Kal over its back to slam him down onto the hard steel of the deck. Kal felt all the air rush out of his lungs at the impact, and he coughed spasmodically.

The zylo-Garonen ripped the rail off of the ladder and swung the metal rod over its head in preparation to hit Garonen. Garonen yanked out his PLS and aimed it with a shaky hand at the zylogig. "S-stop it," he warned. "I'll shoot. Really, I will."

The zylogig didn't appear to be interested. It let out an unearthly shriek and charged. Garonen yelped and fired. Zylo-Garonen wasn't even affected, but one of the shots hit the metal piece and sent it flying. The zylogig didn't seem to care, however. It seemed just as content to rip Garonen apart with its bare hands as to beat him to death.

Kal struggled to his feet. "Hang in there, little buddy! I'm coming!" He gasped for air and frantically looked around. His eyes fell on the piece of metal that the zylogig had dropped. Having seen the zylogig shrug off multiple blasts from Garonen's PLS like it was swatting flies, Kal elected to go for this instead of trying to shoot it. He dove for the piece of railing and with a kamikaze war scream leaped at the zylogig and with one blow smashed its head in.

Breathing hard, Garonen got to his feet and straightened his uniform. He looked down at the dead zylogig, a crimson puddle spreading around its crushed head. Grey matter could be seen poking through the jagged bits of white skull bone.

"Are you... okay?" Kal panted.

Garonen slowly looked up from the bleeding corpse on the floor to Kal. Slowly, the corners of his mouth tugged into a smile. And his eyes slowly changed from their normal violet color to a bright blood red.

Kal felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He swallowed. "Oh shit."

* * *

Kamira looked around.

She was truly lost. She didn't know these shafts - there wasn't any reason for her to be in them.

"Anorian?" she yelled. "Anorian!" She listened. No answer. "I don't suppose there's a 'You Are Here' map anywhere around here," she muttered.

Kamira glanced around. All the passageways looked exactly the same - blank, featureless grey metal.

"Oh well, any direction's as good as any other," she thought out loud, as she decided to go straight. Then she heard talking. It sounded like Dana and Chris! But it seemed to come from all directions.

"Chris! Dana! I'm here!" Kamira yelled. "I'm here!" She looked around helplessly. "Wherever I am!"

* * *

*Brea and Anorian scene*

***

Dana stared helplessly at the bundle of sparking cables, then heard a scratching from behind. She spun around and saw a strange green monkeylike creature coming towards them. It looked friendly and cute, but the glowing red eyes were like a warning beacon.

"Dana, the eyes..." Chris whispered.

"They glowed," she finished. "Do you think that's what the oooruffian..." She trailed off as she saw the monkey-creature approach. Dana's eyes grew wide with terror. Chris backed up as far as he could without risking destruction. Dana pressed herself against Chris.

The monkey-creature came closer. Dana searched the shaft, azure eyes flicking frantically around. She saw a blue button next to Chris.

"What's that do?" she asked, pointing to it.

Chris looked at it and a slow smile spread across his face. "Watch," he said, as he let his hand hover over the button. The monkey-creature came closer and closer, until...

SWISH!

A trap door opened, and the creature fell through with a screech.

Dana grinned at Chris and began to crawl back to where they had started. She carefully stepped over the hole in the shaft and turned right.

"Wait. Do you hear that?" she asked, straining her ears.

"Not again," Chris murmured.

"No, it's someone...yelling," Dana said slowly.

Then Chris heard it too.

"Help! I'm here! I'm here! Dana! Chris! I'm here!" the voice called. It was distant, and it sounded hollow, echoed.

"We're coming!" Dana shouted. "Keep yelling so we can find you!"

The voice continued to shout. It sounded like...Kamira. Dana crawled through the shaft towards the voice.

"Kamira?" she shouted.

"Yes! I'm here!" the voice answered.

Dana turned a corner and found Kamira sitting in the shaft with her arms wrapped around her knees.

"Kamira!" Dana shouted, blowing a piece of hair out of her face.

"Dana!" Kamira said, starting to crawl to her. She looked behind Dana and saw Chris. Kamira pushed her glasses higher on her nose as Chris approached.

"Where's Gemini and Anorian?" he questioned.

Kamira looked down. "Gemini... didn't make it."

"Oh," Dana breathed. "I'm sorry." She gave Kamira a comforting hug. She knew Kamira and Gemini had been close.

"And I don't know where Anorian is," Kamira continued.

"Don't worry," Chris said hopefully. "Kal, Garonen, or Brea will find him."

"Right," Dana agreed. "But right now we should contact the captain." She got out her 'com.

* * *

*Kal and zylogig scene goes here(?)*

Chapter 6

*formerly Brea getting her arm shot off... put in Brea telling C, D, and K to shut off the flooding at the switch, zylogig cuts off Brea's arm with sharp (or blunt hehe) object?*

* * *

"Chris, which way to the, uh, cargo bay?" Dana asked as she looked around the maintenance shaft.

"The quickest way would be through the shaft. This way," Chris answered, leading the way. Dana and Kamira followed him through twisting and turning passages, until...

SWISH!

A hatch opened in front of Chris and he climbed out onto a catwalk. Dana clumsily tumbled out after Kamira. There were huge vats of Xenophyll here.

"This is the place where the flooding starts," Chris announced.

"There should be a switch around here somewhere," Dana said, looking around.

"It's probably on the lower level," Chris said, looking for a way down.

Dana went to a section of the catwalk that appeared melted.

"Looks like the ladder decided to get a tan," she said dryly, pointing to a lump of metal on the floor that gleamed in the bright overhead lights.

"Well," Chris said, pointing to a sheet of metal that was welded against the catwalk.

"Ouch, that's a long way to fall," Dana mused. The catwalk was at least 30 yards up. This room was the largest room on the whole ship. The makeshift slide, however, only went down 25 yards.

"Do we have a choice?" Chris asked, sitting down on the metal slide. He allowed himself to slide down.

He reached the end on the slide and fell the rest of the way to the hard metal floor.

"Chris!" Kamira yelled. "Are you okay?"

Chris groaned and got up. "I'm fine, come on down."

"I'll pass," Kamira said, sitting down on the catwalk, legs dangling over the edge. "I think I'm going to be needing all my brain cells. Right, Dana? Dana?" Kamira looked for Dana, but she was already sliding down the slide.

"Whooooa!" she screamed as she fell off the slide to the floor. Chris knelt down to help her up, but she jumped up enthusiastically.

"Woo hoo! Let's do it again!" she cried, throwing her arms in the air. Her grin was as wide as her face.

A computer voice sounded. "WARNING! Xenophyll release in 30 seconds. All personnel evacuate the ship. Repeating, Xenophyll release imminent. All personnel evacuate ship."

The grin on Dana's face twisted into a look of horror. "Chris, close the door!" she screamed as she ran for the switch. Chris started running to the other side of the room. Dana was only three feet from the switch.

The vats stood on either side of the switch.

"WARNING! Release of Xenophyll commencing!" the computer said. Dana stopped in her tracks. The doors on the vats opened.

"Dana, Chris, RUN!" Kamira yelled from the catwalk. She knelt down and leaned forward, as if she could give Dana and Chris extra speed by doing so. Xenophyll started to pour from the vats. Dana turned around and ran.

"There are no ways up!" She saw Chris trying to close the door at the other end of the room. The Xenophyll came at her like a tidal wave.

*Dana runs toward door. Chris struggles with controls. He sets it to go down with a 5-second delay. Dana gets out, looks back for Chris. Chris doesn't make it, slowly eaten by acid.*

Chris frantically tried to close the door. They had to contain this.

SLAM! The door shut.

Chris then tried to open the drains to the outside of the ship. He got one drain opened when he turned and saw the acid coming toward him. The last thing he did was close all the vents in the room with one push of a button.

Then the acid consumed him. It burned away at his flesh and he inhaled it as he went under. He felt his internal organs burst as the acid penetrated his body. There was a moment of intense agony, then... nothing.

Kamira watched as Chris's grinning skeleton bobbed up and down in the Xenophyll. No sooner had all the Xenophyll spilled from the vats than the gas started to fill the air.

The acid would drain eventually, but with only one drain open, it could take hours. They would be dead by then. Plus, it would eat through the hull in a short time.

Now was probably a good time to leave.

The gas was rising. Kamira began to have trouble breathing. She felt sleepy, as if she could just lie down and take a nap. But she couldn't. If she did that, she would never wake up again.

*everybody meets up, bridge thing, Brea death*

* * *

"We can't go home," Kamira insisted. It was that night, and they were sitting near the ship with a fire blazing.

"Why not?" Dana was rebellious.

"We'll assume everyone not here is dead. Shoot on sight if you see anyone else. Even if you see us, be absolutely sure it is us. What do you think will happen if we arrive on Terra with a zylogig on board, even if we do manage to fix the ship?"

Dana's eyes grew wide. She knew, all right.

"So what are we going to do?" asked Anorian.

"The emergency backup plan."

Anorian's mouth dropped open. "The sleep chambers?"

"The sleep chambers. We can sleep until help comes - if help comes. If our message even got through. I'd say we have a pretty good chance, however. We were obviously important to Winthrop. Don't you think he'd want to save us if he knew we were in danger?"

* * *

Dana stepped into the sleep chamber as the glass door slid shut. She mouthed a silent goodbye to Kamira and Anorian as the gases started to flow around her. She closed her eyes and slept.

Kamira watched the monitor closely for any signs of a malfunction before gingerly stepping inside the next chamber. Anorian punched the activation buttons on the outside. And as the door slid shut, Kamira sighed, but the sound was cut short by the soundproof glass door.

Anorian looked on as Kamira drifted into a lifeless sleep. The heart monitors and biometers attached to each chamber showed similar readouts. Everything was going according to the manual he held in his hand. Even though he was an expert on this sort of thing, he read it over again before proceeding.

Hopefully the solid steel door would hold the zylogigs out...for a while. It could only be opened with an authorized Life Support Card. Usually only Life Support Techs and Search and Rescue teams had them.

He touched a red button on a sleep chamber across the room and waited for a tone. He set the timer for 2 minutes, and pushed enter. The screen blinked menacingly for him to push the purple 'activate' button. Anorian put the manual on top of his chamber, in hopes the zylogigs, if they were able to get in, wouldn't find it. If he took the manual in with him, it might cause complications with the machine.

He slid the door open and hesitated before pushing the purple button. The timer started to count down. 2:00...1:59...1:58...

Anorian took a deep breath, and stepped in. He slowly exhaled, and looked around the room warily. He was tired and felt like sleeping right then and there.

The 1 minute warning tone sounded as he slid the glass door shut. He rested against the cushy pads of the back wall, waiting for it to start working. Anorian tried to count the seconds go by, but by the time he got to '0:00' the 30 second warning sounded.

He stood in the sleep chamber, watching the slumbering faces of Dana and Kamira. They looked so peaceful. A shudder ran down his spine. "What if something goes wrong?" he thought. Anorian had always been hesitant about this sleep chamber thing. He just didn't trust this plan. It seemed flawed, somehow. But his only other option was to wait around until help came ... if it ever did.

And seeing as how the zylogigs were still running around loose, that might not be such a good idea.

The Luna was gutted, almost nothing left. Just the sleep chambers, the food and water supplies, the bridge controls, and the computers. And some of those had been damaged by the Xenophyll flowing through the ship.

The ten second warning bell rang out.

The computer counted down out loud and he closed his eyes. 5...4...3...2...1... Sleep Chamber #13 activated.

Chapter 1
October 31, 2456

She walked through the corridors, suppressing an urge to bounce with excitement. Her very blood felt fizzy, as if she had a carbonated drink flowing through her veins. It was all she could do to keep from giggling maniacally out loud. She had that good-day feeling, the kind she used to get as a child on the morning of her birthday. Now what was she so happy about?

Then, she caught sight out of the viewport in the corridor. She was in space! She walked a bit more, and then she saw the sleep chambers. Three of them had been used. Her grin grew so wide she thought she might split at the ears. She was on the Luna!

She fairly ran through the corridors, barely able to contain her excitement. Without consciously thinking about it, she arrived on the bridge. All was as it should be... except for one thing.

Where was the rest of the crew?

Almost before she had finished the thought, there was a strange sound in the hallway: THUNK! THUNK! DRAG! She froze, and crouched behind a console. Alex's face came into view. She jumped up excitedly.

"Ale..." Her words trailed off as she stared at him in shock. He was a gruesome sight. Hunks of skin and muscle had been ripped off, exposing his skeleton. His clothes were in tatters, and as he moved toward her, she could smell a stench of fetid decay off of him.

"Alex?" she said in a trembling voice. In response, the gross-looking corpse that had once been her best enemy, Alex Reed, raised his decayed head and lifted his worm-eaten arms toward her.

She shrieked. "Go away! You're not supposed to be here! You're dead!"

The Alex-corpse made no sound. Instead, it began to walk toward her, arms held out as if to smother her with Death's embrace. Again she heard the sound she'd heard earlier: THUNK! THUNK! DRAG! Only this time it was much louder and closer. She realized that it was the sound of him walking.

She shrieked again and ran. She ran and ran and ran, not particularly caring which direction. She turned a corner - and found Anorian standing there, his face red and his eyes bugged out from the effects of his sleep chamber malfunction. She suppressed a shudder as she remembered the awful, awful day when she had awoken and found that the three survivors of the Luna crisis were now down to two.

Anorian stepped toward her and she backed away. He herded her through the ship, the menace of his presence keeping her at bay, even though in life he had been her friend.

Eventually, though it seemed like an eternity to her, they arrived at the airlock. She had a sinking feeling about what he had planned, so she raced for a suit locker. She dashed in and slammed the door right in Anorian's horrible bloated face.

She quickly donned her suit, and she had reason to hurry, for Anorian was now attempting to break down the door. Theoretically, this was impossible, since the lockers were made from triple-strength steel-titanium alloy, but that statement was belied as the door began to cave in. She quickly finished sealing the suit, and just in time, too.

Anorian broke through the door and grabbed at her with atrophied arms. She had no power to resist him - her fear was too great, paralyzing her. Anorian dragged her over to the airlock door, and pressed the "Open" button. She tried to scream, but the plasti-steel of her suit faceplate muffled the sound. "And besides," she thought confusedly, "who would be there to hear or help anyway?"

All the air was sucked out of the lock in a torrential whirlwind of air. She struggled to find purchase for her scrabbling gloved fingers in the gusty maelstrom of the ship's air rushing out into the vacuum of space. For one precious instant her fingers found a handhold.... But then her grasp was ripped away, and she was being sucked out into the cold black vastness of space.

The cold, steely points of light that were distant stars and galaxies surrounded her, mocking her, as she was tumbled end over end. She felt a moment of panic, but then remembered she was wearing a suit and relaxed.

But only for an instant.

Chris suddenly appeared in front of her. She had to make an attempt at guessing his identity, for he was merely a stripped skeleton, a clear liquid dripping off him. She shrieked and activated her jetpack to get away from the ghastly apparition. But it didn't work; Chris somehow stayed exactly the same distance from her no matter how fast she went. Then he began to float closer.

She turned her thrusters to maximum. Chris came nearer. He grabbed at her with bony fingers. She cried out as the acid dripping off him ate through her suit and began to feast on her flesh. Suddenly, her suit exploded off her and flew out into the blackness.

On one side, her skin was frozen solid by the deep-freeze of space, and on the other she felt as if she were on fire from the acid. She couldn't breathe, and began to cough up blood from hemorrhaging lungs. Her eyes began to fill with blood from the force of her efforts to breathe. She couldn't breathe, couldn't see, couldn't even scream.

The last things she saw with blackening vision were Dos, Redux, Alex, Lamara, Gemini, Garonen, Kal, Chris, Brea, and Anorian in a semi-circle, floating before her and grinning evilly. She could see the evidence of their terrible deaths still scarring them. They spoke as one.

"You are with us now..."

"NOOOOOO!"

Dana Pendrell jerked upright in bed, breathing hard and sweating, with the last vestiges of a scream hanging in the air. Her bedclothes were strewn all over in total disarray, with most of her pillows on the floor. Dana closed her eyes wearily and let her hands support her sagging head.

The nightmares again.

She got up out of bed and crossed over to her dresser and switched on the lamp. She glanced disconsolately at the two small round objects sitting on the flat surface of the dresser. She knew she shouldn't take the sleeping pills again, but it seemed she had no choice.

Dana looked morosely into the mirror. Her straight red hair, cut pixie-fashion around her face, was mussed and tangled, and dark smudges beneath her blue eyes marred her alabaster skin. She sighed and put her head in her hands again, elbows leaning on the dresser. She just couldn't face taking the pills again. Besides, they would send her to sleep again.

Sleep would bring the nightmares again.

And the nightmares were the last thing she wanted.

* * *

Breakfast the next morning was a subdued, somber affair. Dana and Kamira just picked at their food. Both were tired and listless. A general depletion of spirit haunted the room. No one said much.

The captain, Aldebarr Mitchell, silently posted the work roster for the week and left. Dana and Kamira looked at each other and followed suit, after checking their chores. In deep space, everyone had to do their part to keep the ship running smoothly. Captain Aldebarr saw no difference between being in deep space or crash-landed on a planet. Everyone had a job to do.

They walked through the halls silently. "Dana? Kamira?"

They both turned and saw Altaire Morgan, who was medic, coming down the hall towards them. Her pale blue eyes were wide and her light blond hair trailed behind her, nearly floating.

Kamira answered her in a slightly less than friendly tone. "Yes, Altaire?"

Altaire faltered at her annoyed demeanor. "Um, well, I was, uh, wondering, if, um, you could, um..."

Dana sighed. "Spit it out, Altaire. What do you want?"

Altaire almost looked relieved at the terse command to make her request. "Well, I was, um, wondering, if, uh, you could, uh, tell us about what happened before you got here? Because, if you did, then maybe we could form a strategy to get rid of the aliens." She licked her lips nervously, flicking a wayward strand of hair to her back. Dana noticed how no one on the Savior's crew called them zylogigs. It was always 'aliens'.

Dana and Kamira thought a moment. "All right. Is there somewhere we can talk?"

Altaire motioned behind her. "In the MU." They went in and sat down.

Dana began to tell the story.

"Well, we were on our mission, and we were about to map a planet called... Sulros, yes, that was it. It's what Captain Brea named the planet we're on. Anyway..." Dana mentally went back to when the red 'Danger' lights in engineering went on, but the 'coms and alarms weren't working. She remembered very little about what happened just before and after they crashed, but she tried to go back.

She remembered the stunning colors of the planet, the purple grass, blue water, green forests, yellow sand. But everything was out of sequence. Everything was blurred.

Except for the deaths.

The deaths were crystal clear and they haunted her. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw the face of another crewmember, dying, reaching out to her, pleading for help. Even those she hadn't seen actually die. Those spaces were filled in by the other's accounts of what they had seen, or her all-too-vivid imagination.

At night, nightmares of the crew danced in her head, and they taunted her. To them, she was a misfit.

Not because of her scars from the escape.

But because she was alive.

Dana realized that she was clenching the armrests of her chair and shaking violently. She opened her closed eyes and blinked back a tear. She had already cried herself to sleep when the pills wouldn't work, and couldn't let anyone know. She had always been strong and tough.

Drawing in a shaky breath, she looked at Altaire.

"Dana, are you al..."

"I'm fine," Dana lied with a sniff. "As I was saying, we crashed on the planet, and... and... I... I don't remember."

Altaire looked perplexed. "If you don't remember the exact order things happened in, that's okay..."

"No," Dana interrupted, swallowing hard, "I just don't remember."

Altaire pursed her lips and thought a moment. She forced a smile. "All right, no problem." She turned to Kamira. "What happened?"

Kamira bit her lip. "I only remember one thing that I haven't already told you." She remembered telling how the rest of the crew had died, but it was unreal, as if it hadn't been her, but someone else. "This one word may not mean much, but it's all I remember."

Altaire raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms in curiosity.

Kamira took a deep breath. "Xenophyll."

* * *

Altaire stood in the counselor's office and leaned on the wall, the standard seafoam green and salmon pink color scheme on the walls making her eyes hurt. The Federation was notorious for bad décor. Claire Burgen sat at her artificial wood desk and shuffled through the stacks of papers and folders that were stacked on her desk.

"Ah," Claire said, picking out two slim folders and leafing through them. "You say they don't remember?" Claire asked, studying the dossier in her hand.

"Yes," Altaire confirmed. "What do you think, Counselor Burgen?"

Claire smiled. "Please call me Claire. We're all friends on this ship." She tucked a loose strand of her very dark hair behind her ear and glanced over the dossier again.

"All right... Claire," Altaire said, forcing herself to smile pleasantly. Claire's ruby lips glistened in the bright florescent light that glimmered down from the ceiling. Altaire licked hers reflexively and realized that they were dry and chapped.

"Odd," she thought. "You shouldn't get chapped lips on a ship with controlled temperature, humidity, and air pressure."

Claire interrupted her thoughts. "It says here on Dana's profile that she showed great potential and had a photographic memory. Same comments on Kamira's," she reported, sliding the dossiers across the table so Altaire could see them.

Altaire picked them up and glanced over the folders. In the pictures both women were smiling, but Altaire couldn't recall either ever smiling while aboard the Savior.

"So what do you think is wrong?" she asked, replacing the folders on Claire's desk.

Claire pursed her lips and thought of what to say.

"We examined them both when we found them. They had slight head wounds but no concussions or major injuries that would cause memory loss, correct?" She waited for Altaire's nod before continuing. "I think that the experience was so traumatic that they were able to suppress the memories."

Claire looked to Altaire, who looked clueless. "In other words, somehow these... events triggered a reaction in their minds, causing them to block out any given facts about what happened."

Altaire furrowed her brow. "How would they remember the deaths of the crew?"

Claire bit her lip. "Like I said, sometimes only certain facts are suppressed, and other times the whole time block is unmemorable."

Altaire narrowed her eyes. "So, how do we get those memories back?"

Claire sighed. "Well, it is possible to retrieve those memories through regressive hypnosis."

Altaire raised an eyebrow. "I sense a big 'but' coming."

"But," Claire continued, "It requires full participation and willingness of the patients."

Altaire nodded. "I think I can manage that."

* * *

Dana sat back in the cushy leather chair. Despite its softness and full length back and seat, she couldn't get comfortable. She wished Kamira were here, but she had to be left out of the room so Dana's memories wouldn't get into her head and cause her to report false events.

Claire sat in front of Dana in an easy chair and Altaire sat in the corner, as would a sinister villain watching his enemy be tortured. Dana looked down at the coffee table that rested beside her. On it was a tape recorder, with a fresh tape inserted.

Claire sat in a relaxed position with one leg crossed over the other. Because she was a counselor, she wore a dress suit instead of the standard uniform. She had a clipboard in hand and tapped a pen on her leg. Swallowing, she decided to get down to business.

"Dana, are you ready?"

Dana tensed up. "Yes," she answered meekly, lying through her teeth.

Claire looked to the LCD clock on the wall set to Federation Standard Time. "Captain Aldebarr should be joining us..."

As if on cue, Aldebarr walked through the door and it slid shut behind him. "Sorry I'm late," he apologized. "The Vargan slug we have down in the Lab tried to eat my uniform as I was taking a shortcut."

Altaire looked to Claire, who was struggling to contain her laughter. The women looked to each other, hiding grins of surprise. As Aldebarr looked to each in the room, he noticed them starting to laugh.

"What?" he asked in his "always serious" tone.

Most un-counselor-like, Claire giggled. Altaire burst out laughing, and even Dana cracked a smile. Claire cleared her throat and straightened up. "Sir, you, uhh..." She pointed at his uniform. "You missed a spot."

Aldebarr looked down at his light grey uniform. On it was a spot of bright green Vargan slug-spit. Aldebarr smiled. "Oh, yes, a slug eating my uniform..." He laughed. "That is rather humorous."

Dana giggled as Aldebarr burst out laughing. He took his seat over to the left of Dana's, next to the wall. He wiped a tear of mirth from his eye. "Whooo!"

He crossed one leg over the other and abruptly snapped back to seriousness. He leaned the chair back against the wall, defying gravity to tip him over so he would fall flat on his back.

Claire put her tongue to the inside of her upper lip to silence her giggles. "Now then." Claire reached across the table and pushed "Record" on the tape recorder. "Let's begin."

Dana nodded and shifted in her seat to get more comfortable.

"Have you ever been hypnotized before?" Claire asked.

Dana breathed deeply. "No."

Claire asked another question. "Are you familiar with the technique I'm going to use?"

Dana looked around the room, but never directly at Claire. "Yes, I've, um... read about this procedure, but I'm not fully convinced of its effectiveness."

Claire nodded and noted something on her clipboard. She looked back at Dana, who was sitting in the chair looking about as relaxed as a balloon folded into a neat, tight little ball of rubber. Claire smiled to try and calm her down, but Dana only raised the corners of her mouth slightly and quickly in a responsive twitch that didn't reach her eyes.

"Now I want you to relax and get comfortable, Dana," Claire said in a soothing tone. Dana squirmed into a more comfortable position and looked to Claire. She put her hands on the cool, slick surface of the leather armrests and allowed herself to rest her head on the back of the seat.

"Now close your eyes and go back to the place we talked about earlier."

Dana hesitantly closed her eyes and thought. "This isn't working," she said after a few seconds.

Suddenly, Dana shouted, "Oh, god!" Claire scribbled furiously on her clipboard and Aldebarr watched intently. Altaire, forgotten in the corner, stared, her pale blue eyes wide.

"Oh, god!" Dana repeated.

"Dana, what do you see?" Claire asked, leaning forward.

"The ship, it crashed!" Dana began in a hysterical tone. "NO!"

"What is it?" Claire probed.

"Redux and Dos..." Dana's sentences were broken and she shouted every so often. "No! There's a... a black beast and he's chasing us! ALEX! RUN! Aaaaagghh! It's on me! NO! Go away! Leave me alone! Get off me! No! I kick it and we run and, oh god, it... it smashed into the wall! Oh, oh, oh god oh god oh god oh god..."

Claire put down her clipboard. "Dana, do you want to stop?"

Dana shook her head from side to side. "No." She swallowed.

"We... we try to get a sense of the planet... What was that? Oh, no! Alex! Alex, NO! It was a zylogig! No! We... try to get rid of them, and... Where's Lamara? Oh, no, she's dead too! We... we... we decide to flood the ship with Xenophyll... Oh, no! We can't do that!"

"Why?" Claire asked. Dana winced.

"It would be bad... very bad... So, we try to shut off the switches, but... Oh, NO! We missed it! HELP! The acid's coming! I... I... CHRIS! NOOOO! Not him too! Kamira, what do I do? I don't want to die! But... but I can't swing over! Okay, I'll... I'll try." Dana shrieked and stopped moving.

"Dana, do you want to stop?" Claire asked.

"No, I... I... We're running, trying to get out, and... Oh, GOD! Brea's arm! BREA! NO! Please, God, no! She blew herself up! We run out of the ship, just as it explodes! No no no no no no NOOOOOO!"

Dana was breathing hard and her eyes were squeezed shut. Her forehead was spotted with perspiration. A single tear trickled out of one eye.

"We... get into the sleep chambers, it's our only hope. And... and then, and then I wake up," Dana said more calmly.

Claire reached her hand out to Dana, and held her hand gently. "Dana, I want you to come back," she said soothingly. "Come back to the Savior, where it's safe. You're safe now, Dana."

Dana opened her eyes and blinked slowly. She released her grip on the armrest and let go of Claire. She looked around the room in confusion as if to try and figure out where she was. Dana sighed and let her head fall back limply on the back of the chair. She closed her eyes and thought.

Claire turned off the tape recorder and turned to Aldebarr.

This was certainly puzzling.

* * *

Dana was shaken from the hypnosis. She listened to the tape over and over again, but she still didn't remember. Claire had said that the method she'd used wouldn't allow her to remember the images of the hypnosis, but she might remember after listening to the tape.

Dana sighed as she turned off the tape recorder and ejected the copy of the tape Claire had given her. She flopped back on her bunk with exhaustion, hoping this moment of peace would last for more than two seconds. The old-fashioned clock that hung on her wall ticked loudly and she could hear talking out in the hall.

Dana tried to piece together what she'd said. "It must have really happened," she thought. "All I did was think of the Luna, so no images were suggested or implanted." She sighed.

"But why can't I remember?" Dana whispered to herself.

She heard a knock on the door and recognized it as Kamira's.

"Come in!" she yelled. The door opened with a swoosh and Kamira slowly walked in, the door sliding shut behind her. She bit her lip. Dana swallowed before speaking.

"Well?"

Kamira sat down at Dana's desk. "I listened to the tape, but still..."

"I can't remember, either," Dana said. "Maybe it's better this way."

Kamira shook her head, putting her chin in her hand. "I just don't understand."

Dana looked to Kamira. "We shouldn't worry about it. Claire told me that if I really want to remember, I should listen to the tape while I sleep."

Kamira nodded. "Okay."

Dana sighed again, this time a bit sadly. "Only, I don't know if I want to remember."

Dana and Kamira sat in silence.

* * *

Dana was getting ready for bed when she eyed the tape player nervously, as if it were some animal she wasn't quite sure of not to bite off her hand. She gulped, put the tape in, and pressed "Play". She snuggled into bed and drifted into a deep sleep.

She awoke to a bright flash that blinded her. She was walking on the Luna. Another flash. She was in engineering and the lights were flashing red. She could hear Chris and Dos screaming in terror and fear. Another bright flash. She found herself on a strange, alien planet. Memories of the Luna came back to her rapidly, separated by flashes of light that grew more and more frequent. The flashes went so fast now that all she could see was white.

Dana sat straight up and realized that she had been dreaming. She was drenched in a cold sweat and breathing hard. Glancing at the digital clock on the bedside table, she saw that it was 7:20. She looked around her darkened quarters and fell back hard on her bed.

She remembered.

* * *

Aldebarr sat in Claire's office, next to Altaire.

"Maybe if we went to the Luna and poked around, we'd have a better clue of just what the situation is here," Aldebarr suggested.

"That would be too dangerous," Altaire objected, tossing her hair back over her shoulder out of her eyes. She licked dry lips and frowned. "There probably wouldn't even be anything left anyway."

Aldebarr thought a moment. "But how can we be sure?"

Altaire answered, "Well, we can hypnotize one of them again and..."

"Absolutely not!" Claire interrupted. "Those two have gone through enough already! More could simply aggravate their trauma."

Aldebarr cut in, "But how will we ever know then? For certain?" There was a soft, timid knock at the doorway, where the door was already open.

Dana stood in the entrance.

"I'll tell you how," she said. "I want to go back to the Luna."

Claire, Altaire, and Aldebarr looked at each other simultaneously.

* * *

"Why not?" Dana asked testily. She sat in the lounge on Deck 3 with Aldebarr, Altaire, and Kamira.

"Because going onto the Luna would be too dangerous!" Altaire argued.

"But I'm prepared!" Dana exclaimed. "What are our other options? What else can we possibly do? Wait here until we die?"

Altaire fell silent. Dana grinned inwardly.

Maybe she was getting through to them.

"If we could get back to the Luna, maybe we could find some way to destroy the zylogigs."

Altaire shook her head and looked down. "You're all crazy," she mumbled.

Aldebarr ignored the comment. He nodded and looked to Altaire. "Assemble the usual team, and ... uh... get these two ladies ready."

Dana's eyes lit up with excitement and anticipation as Altaire sighed and went to the 'com.

* * *

Within the hour, the usual team of Search and Rescue people was arranged. Dana hadn't met any of them previously, and neither had Kamira, apart from hurried introductions when they'd first been brought on board and occasional run-ins. But seeing as how they'd kept to their quarters the whole time, that wasn't too surprising.

Aldebarr introduced the group. "This is the team that has rescued countless members of countless crews of countless missions. This is the Search and Rescue team... plus a few more... of the Savior. Well, introduce yourselves to our guests!"

He motioned to the line of men and women standing proudly in their light grey uniforms. Dana and Kamira were now suited up in uniforms identical to theirs. Previously, Dana and Kamira had been wearing jeans and white T-shirts, the standard outfit for rescuees.

The first woman in line stepped forward and raised her chin slightly. "Terri Madison, Search and Rescue." She said it like it was an unconscious act, one that she'd done umpteen times before.

Her blue eyes spoke of boredom, and her expressionless face was a perfect mask of professionalism. The woman tossed her wavy, sandy blond hair over her shoulder and stepped back.

Next to her was a tall man with stunningly black hair. He had a twinkle in his amber eyes that showed his love for what he did. "Steve Shilman, Navigation." He stepped back in line, and a very tall woman came forward.

She wore a bright expression and a warm smile, much different from the others. She introduced herself cheerily, seeming hyper. "I'm Erin Powell, and I'm with the Search and Rescue division!"

The woman next to her rolled her dark eyes and stepped forward before Erin had the chance to step back. "Marissa Marlson, Weapons Tech."

Dana raised an eyebrow and looked at Kamira, who was mirroring her expression, standing openmouthed.

"Marlson?" Dana mouthed silently.

Kamira shrugged.

Dana turned back to Marissa. "Um, excuse me," she said humbly. "Did you say... Marlson?"

Marissa smiled slightly. "Yeah, your captain was... my sister." Dana's eyes grew wide and her mouth opened a crack. Marissa stepped back and watched the man beside her move forward.

"Deneb Peterson, Disaster Specialist," he muttered, not making eye contact. His bright blue eyes were dull and distracted, as if he saw no reason to go out to the Luna. He stepped back.

A handsome man stepped up. He flashed his shiny white teeth in Dana's direction and raised his eyebrows suggestively. "Sean Ares, Medical Assistant." He was muscular and a full foot taller than Dana.

She rolled her eyes and put her finger in her mouth, as if to say, "Gag me!" as he stepped back in line. The last man in line had light brown hair and green eyes. He didn't step forward as he introduced himself. "Robbie Glass, Search and Rescue." Dana nodded and turned to Aldebarr. Kamira looked from crewmember to crewmember, trying to remember faces. She fanned herself with her hand and whispered to Dana, "Whew! It's hot in here!" Dana nodded. "Yeah. Maybe it's our outfits," she suggested. "We also have two crew members missing," Aldebarr explained to them. "Nara Jacobsen, Lieutenant, and Zach Truman, Engineering. They are on watch right now." He turned to the line. "Altaire and Erin, I need you to stay here and help man the ship," he instructed. "I didn't realize how limited our crew was until now," he apologized. Altaire and Erin nodded understandingly. Altaire didn't look the least bit disappointed. They followed the captain to the doorway. Aldebarr turned to Terri, who was head of the Search and Rescue division. "You know what to do, Terri. Show these ladies the way." He left the airlock where the crew was standing. Terri nodded curtly and ordered the team to head out. She showed Kamira and Dana the way to the main door, where she pushed a button on the wall and entered a 5-digit code on the keypad mounted on the wall. The huge metal door opened with a SWOOSH! A wave of warm air hit the trio and bright yellow light from the sun poured into the doorway. Dana and Kamira looked in awe at the planet, so familiar, yet still untouched. They could barely contain their excitement as they stepped out onto the purple grass. It swayed hypnotically in the breeze as they made their way through it. The Savior was a little over a mile away from the wreckage of the Luna and behind some rock formations, so the ship wasn't visible from where they stood. The distance was standard operating procedure. Damaged ships could leak dangerous chemicals or explode without warning. "We should be able to see it just over this hill," Terri said as they ascended a grassy hill. The rest of the crew was ahead of them by about 50 yards. They had taken the quick way out. Dana caught her breath as she reached the top of the hill. Still some distance away was the Luna, or what was left of it, anyway. Kamira gaped open-mouthed at the scene spread out before her as memories flooded back. Terri seemed unaffected and continued down the hill. Dana and Kamira collected their wits and followed Terri down the slope. Though it was only a mile from that point, it seemed to take an eternity. Kamira gasped as something whizzed by overhead in the otherwise deserted world. She recognized it as a friendly oooruffian, a furry flying telepathic creature that they had encountered on the search for Alex. Although, remembering the shape-shifting capabilities of the zylogigs, Kamira chose to avoid all creatures, for safety reasons. Terri led the way with Dana and Kamira side by side behind her. Ahead of them, Dana could see the rest of the crew, looking like tiny black bugs in the distance, starting to go inside. "Why aren't they waiting for us?" Kamira wondered aloud. Terri, who had been oblivious to the crew ahead, shaded her eyes and mumbled something under her breath. Without a word of warning, she sprinted ahead through the knee-high grass. Dana and Kamira hesitated before running after. Dana wasn't quite sure why they were running, but Terri seemed motivated, so she thought it might be a good idea to follow. Terri stopped when she caught up to the crew. She shoved someone hard and they seemed to be engaged in a heated argument. Dana finally caught up with Kamira at her heels. She could now hear the argument that was going on. "What were you thinking?" Terri yelled, throwing her hands exasperatedly up into the air as if to say, 'look at the morons I have to put up with'. Sean was standing before her, a look of puzzlement on his face. "What do you mean?" His dark eyes were wide and frightened. Terri narrowed hers at him, the icy-blue stare seeming to plunge right into his brain. "Don't give me that! You know perfectly well what I'm talking about!" Sean looked past Terri at Dana, who had her arms crossed over her chest. She was breathing heavily from running, face flushed with exertion. "I... I'm sure I don't..." Sean said innocently. Terri cut him off. "Aldebarr said I was in charge! He didn't want the Medical Assistant to lead my crew in!" Sean raised his eyebrows. "No, he said I could lead them in." Terri looked over her shoulder at Dana and Kamira, then back at Sean. "I'm sure he said me," she said, a little less heatedly. "I heard him say Sean could command, though I'm not sure why," Marissa said. Terri's mouth dropped a little. "Well... maybe he said it after we left." Sean nodded, then looked thoughtful. "Though I remember you there when he said it..." Sean trailed off as Terri pushed past. "Well, now that I'm here, we'll go in my way. In order to search this ship in one day, we'll have to team up into two teams of three and one pair. I'm leader, so I will pick pairs." Terri looked to each of the other people. "Deneb and I will survey damages in and around the ship; Kamira, Robbie, and Marissa, you take the upper decks and shafts; Dana, Steve, and Sean, you take the lower levels. Be careful; the upper decks could give way at any time." Terri went around the ship with Deneb, and Kamira's team entered the Luna first. They were followed by Dana's. Kamira, Robbie, and Marissa were silent as they ascended the stairs to the upper levels. Sean, mercifully, waited until the other teams were out of hearing range to begin talking. "So, Dana..." Dana interrupted, "Let me show you around." She directed her statement at Steve, the navigator. Steve brightened. He was eager to map out the Luna and any finds they might make. Dana pushed past Sean to the airlock. Sean rubbed his arm with a slightly hurt look. People had been pushing past him all day. Dana swallowed hard as she saw the charred, blackened ruins of the Luna. As she walked down the broken corridors, her footsteps echoed eerily on the bare walls. Sections of wall were missing, and holes riddled the floor and ceiling. In one spot, Dana could see all the way up through the ceiling to at least Deck 10. She sighed, letting the reality of the disaster sink in. Steve poked his head in doorways, noting locations on his electronic notepad. "What was this room?" he asked. Dana already knew, but she looked in anyway. She saw that the room was nearly bare and there was a hole in the wall looking out to the odd terrain. The whole southwest section of wall was blown out, and black streaks covered the wall and floor. They all emanated from the center of the room. Though most of the room was just blackened ruins, Dana recognized the computers built into the walls, and the seat in the center where the captain would sit. Dana walked onto the bridge. Chapter 2 Kamira, Marissa, and Robbie reached Deck 18, where the main Lab was. Kamira watched her footing as metal gave way before them, carefully testing each plank with her weight before stepping onto one. Her eyes lit up as they entered the Lab. Kamira saw that the room was burned and partly melted, like the rest of the ship, but not completely destroyed. She walked to the examination table, remembering back to when her friend Lamara had dissected the black beast. She shuddered to think of how she had found Lamara, lying in pools of her own blood, her throat ripped out by the enemy. Kamira walked to a bare shelf and knelt down to the floor, where bits and pieces of broken glass remained. She remembered how Dana had panicked when the zylogig had come after her and thrown chemicals off the shelf at it. That was when they had discovered that zylogigs could be killed with Xenophyll, a clear acid. Only one problem. Dana had forgotten to mention the weird side effect Xenophyll had on them. It made the new generation stronger, even though it killed the adults. So then they'd... Kamira cut herself off sharply. Just because she could remember didn't mean she wanted to. * * * A flood of memories overwhelmed Dana as she stood on the bridge. Her and Alex, fighting... Walking onto the bridge for the first time and gasping in awe as they were launched forward into a field of stars... The meeting where they'd tried to figure out how to get rid of the zylogigs... Her horror as Brea, minus an arm, threw herself into the roiling mass of pullpips/zylogigs... The grim realization of the final explosion... Dana blinked back tears as she walked over to stand on the charred spot in the center of the bridge. She bent down to touch the burnt floor. Brea had sacrificed herself for them... for no reason whatsoever. The others had been standing silently in the doorway. Even Sean showed some sense, which, for him, was unusual. Now they came forward and entered the bridge. Steve looked around in awe at the massive damages. "Wow," he said. "You guys must have been through a lot before we found you. You really weren't kidding when you sent that distress signal, were you?" Sean just whistled softly. Dana slowly stood up straight. She had a funny look on her face. "What's that?" she whispered. * * * Terri and Deneb were still outside. They walked around the ship, marveling at how much it had taken already, and wondering if it would stand any more. Terri straightened from where she'd been inspecting a burned patch on the hull. "Deneb?" He looked up from his position a bit further down the hull. "Come here a sec, would you?" He walked over to her and crouched down beside her. "What?" he asked. Terri pointed to one of the myriad holes that covered the ship. "Look at this. All the other holes have been consistent with blasts or burns. But this one looks like something... something just melted the hull. See? It flowed right through. And look at the vegetation. It's all burned away. There's practically nothing left." Deneb studied the indicated piece of hull. "Mmm, you're right," he said quietly. "Wow. Look at those melt patterns." "Do you think a... whatchamacallit... zylogig melted its way in?" Deneb shook his head. "No, from the way this hole looks, I'd say something melted its way out." Terri's eyes widened. "That Xenophyll stuff Dana and Kamira were talking about?" Deneb nodded. "Probably." "But... but the hull is a foot thick!" Terri sputtered. "How could anything possibly eat its way through that? It would have to be unimaginably powerful stuff to do that." Deneb pondered. "Well, Kamira did say that it was strong stuff." Terri shook her head. "No wonder they called for help! This is incredible damage!" Deneb nodded. "It's amazing how much those two women have been through already. I'm surprised at how well they're handling this crisis." * * * "What's wrong, Dana?" Steve asked with a worried frown. "Don't you hear it?" She was pressed up against the wall, eyes wide, breathing hard, glancing from side to side nervously. Steve and Sean looked at each other. "Um, no," said Sean. Dana closed her eyes. It was getting closer. She could hear it. TAP! TAP! SCRATCH! She reopened her eyes and stared wildly about. Sean shot Steve a worried look. "What d'you think is wrong with her?" he whispered, as if afraid she might hear. He needn't have worried. "I don't know," Steve replied. Dana closed her eyes again. TAP! TAP! SCRATCH! TAP! TAP! SCRATCH! CRASH! Dana opened her eyes and screamed. "AAAAAHHHHH!" She stopped. There was nothing there. The bridge remained as before. Empty. Echoing. Cold and dead. She collapsed to the floor, sobbing, wondering if she would ever be free of the menacing shadows that haunted her day and night. * * * Kamira and Marissa walked around Deck 18's Lab, inventorying and categorizing the various objects. Robbie poked around looking at damages. Suddenly, a piercing scream cut through the still air like a knife. Kamira jerked sharply and dropped the container she was holding. It shattered on the floor with a crunch. Kamira paid no attention, however. Her face was pale, as if she'd seen a ghost. "That was Dana!" They ran down to the bridge, Kamira in the lead. They found Dana hunched up on the floor, shaking and sobbing. Kamira knelt down beside her. "Dana? Are you okay?" Marissa shot a basilisk glare at Steve and Sean. "What happened?" Steve glanced sidelong at Sean, raising an eyebrow as if to ask for his opinion. Marissa's gaze got harder. Sean's dark eyes widened fearfully and he looked around the room in a panic. "We didn't do anything! She... she just freaked out! She started babbling about hearing something, and then she just... she just snapped!" Marissa halted his panicked monologue with an upraised hand. She brought out her 'com and spoke into it. "Savior? This is Marissa. Do you copy?" The answer came back. "Yes, I can hear you." It was Aldebarr. "What's wrong?" "We need Altaire over here. There's something wrong with Dana, and Sean is absolutely no use whatsoever." "Copy that," said Aldebarr. He was smart enough not to waste time asking stupid questions. "Continue with your exploration after Altaire has seen to Dana and return before it gets dark." "Copy," Marissa acknowledged. "Luna out." After a few moments, Altaire arrived, along with a bag of various medical tidbits. "What's the matter with Dana?" she asked. Dana took in a shuddery breath. "I'm fine," she said, starting to get up off the floor. Kamira pushed her back down, but not hard. "No, you're not fine," she admonished. "Altaire, get over here and check her out." Altaire walked over to them, indicating to Sean with a flick of her head that he was to join her. Sean looked torn between happiness that he finally had an excuse to get close to Dana, and wariness for himself. He looked as if he were afraid that she could freak out again at any time. He approached her as if she were the caged imported Earth lion in the zoo. Dana almost laughed at him. In contrast, Altaire came over without a qualm. She spoke in a low, soothing voice to Dana as she examined her with various instruments, too quietly for the others to hear. Kamira and the others watched anxiously, and Sean dithered about, looking nervous and handing Altaire things as she needed them. He approached them with trepidation, not wanting to get too close. Altaire finished her examination and sat back on her heels. She looked up at Kamira and the others, who had been watching worriedly. "Well, there's nothing physically wrong with her. I'm no psychiatrist, but I think that maybe coming back to the Luna has been too much for her. She went into shock subconsciously, causing her to have hallucinations including her memories of this place." "But then why wasn't Kamira affected?" asked Dana. Altaire shrugged. "It just depends on the type of person, how much that person witnessed... there are hundreds of variables. No one has ever really figured out why this happens to some people and not others. It has nothing to do with you personally, just your circumstances, experiences, and general frame and mechanism of mind." Dana stood up cautiously, fighting back the surge of dizziness that was the aftereffect of the medical examination. "Well, since I've no physical problem, I should be able to continue exploring, correct?" Altaire looked uneasy. "Well, theoretically, yes, but I wouldn't recommend it. You could suffer more hallucinations, or even a total mental breakdown." Dana looked evenly at the other woman, bright blue eyes meeting pale blue ones. "I'm willing to take that risk." Altaire sighed. " I suppose that short of strapping you down, there's no way I can prevent you." She dug through her bag of medical supplies, coming out with a translucent pouch containing about five oblong white pills. "Here. These are tranquilizers, pretty powerful ones. If you start feeling panicky again, take one. Just one! You can OD on these very easily. Have someone remember when you took it, just in case you forget, and don't take another for at least 8 hours. You'd better take one now, too." Dana nodded, accepting the pouch and stuffing it into a pocket. "As long as we're here," Kamira broke in, "could we stay on the bridge?" Robbie frowned. "Why?" Marissa glared at him before answering Kamira. "OK, let's look around." They dispersed, each looking around in their own fashions, trying to evoke some memory, some clue, as if the dead ship would miraculously return to life - and with it its crewmembers - if they could only find the right piece of information, the right answer. Marissa walked slowly around the bridge, running her fingertips lightly over every available surface. She meandered across the room until she came to the chair where the captain would sit. Hesitantly, one hand resting lightly on the back of the seat, she looked at it, then sat down and closed her eyes. Everyone else assumed a muted silence, respecting her evident grief. Marissa's eyes reopened. In a low, choked voice, she said, "Tell me about my sister. Everything." * * * Caught off guard by the sudden request, Dana and Kamira just looked at Marissa for a second, startled, then moved into the chairs facing her. Robbie, Sean, Steve, and Altaire found seats also. There was a moment of silence. Kamira closed her grey eyes, thinking back to that day - it seemed so long ago! - when she had stood so proudly in Winthrop's conference room. She remembered the tall, slender, auburn-haired woman whose emerald-green eyes had been alight with surprise and gratitude as she'd been told of her promotion as clearly as if it had been only a few hours ago. Poor Brea! She would have been better off as a lowly lieutenant rather than have assumed the rank of Captain and Mission Commander. At least she would have been spared the horror that had turned out to be the Luna mission. She opened her eyes and looked at Marissa. "Brea was a good captain - and a good friend to all the subordinates - from the start." She stopped. A tear trickled its way down her cheek. Kamira took a breath and continued. "Even when she was disciplining us, it was always because it was necessary, not like some captains who take out their bad moods on the subbies. The mission was going perfectly - until one time when we disconnected the Stellar Drive because gravitational readings indicated a planetary body. It was beautiful - purple and brown and yellow and turquoise and white. All four moons were in sight; one grey, one yellow, one sort of a greenish color, and one red, like the old Solar System's fourth planet. It was the most spectacular thing any of us had ever seen. Brea ordered Alex and Redux to plot a mapping orbit and implement it. I don't know what went wrong. I was in the Lab with Lamara..." She broke off. It still hurt to say her dead friend's name. "I was in the Lab with Lamara, when the alarms went off. They were on the proximity frequency, telling us we were too close to something. We got tossed around a bit, and Lamara fell into a corner of the exam table and broke her arm. Not seriously - just a minor fracture, more of a nuisance than anything else. Brea gave the order to evacuate after the final bounce. That was our first glimpse of the planet's surface. We were never supposed to see it." Kamira blinked back a flood of hot tears that threatened to spill down her face. "Not now!" she told herself firmly. "After we get back, you can go to your quarters and cry your eyes out. But for now, stay strong, stay cool!" She took a breath and continued her narrative. "All we were supposed to do was map the planet and add information about whether we thought it was habitable for humans." Kamira stopped and looked at Marissa. She was hanging onto every word, anxiously searching for something. What, Kamira didn't know, but she would do her best to help Marissa find it. She continued. "You know the rest." Everyone had been given copies of Dana and Kamira's tapes to study, broken phrases and all. Marissa nodded almost imperceptibly. "When the explosion went off that told us Brea had set off her mines... well, we knew then, but we didn't want to admit it. We stubbornly clung to hope - futile, maybe, but it was all we had. But there was no denying it after the internal self-destruct went off. Brea had given her life for us - for nothing. She hoped that we could somehow get off the planet, go home. We let her down. I'm sorry, Marissa. But at least your sister was faithful to the end - to the Federation, and to us." Kamira ended her narrative. A few tears that had escaped her determined control were sliding down her cheeks, and Dana looked stricken. Marissa's eyes were wet. "Thank you," she whispered. She got up and left the bridge. * * * Aldebarr paced around the bridge, watched by Erin, Nara, and Zach. "They should be here by now!" he fumed. "What in space is keeping them? I left explicit orders to be back before dark!" Nara glanced sidelong out the viewport at the setting sun with cool cobalt-blue eyes, not turning her head. "Maybe the zylo-whatevers still hang out over there and they got munched," she offered with a shake of her short, curly black hair. "Yeah," Zach said, a hopeful look in his brown eyes. He pushed a lock of blond hair out of his face impatiently. Erin got up from her seat and put a hand on Aldebarr's shoulder. "I'm sure they're all right," she said soothingly. "They probably just lost track of the time." Nara snorted derisively and turned back to look out of the window again. She gazed out towards the setting sun and the direction the Luna lay, as if trying to catch a glimpse of the exploration party. Golden light poured in from outside, bathing everything in its gentle radiance, but Aldebarr was too worried to think about frivolous externals. "Where can they be?" he repeated, resuming his pacing. The other three moved their eyes back and forth like victims being hypnotized, watching him pace, adding their own worries to the situation. * * * Marissa sat up on Deck 3, dangling her legs down the giant hole in the floor. She was lost in thought. She wished she'd never gotten to this stupid planet, never heard the terrible news about her sister. Mentally, she went back to the day they'd found Dana and Kamira - the real Dana and Kamira. Not to mention the other guy, the one whose sleep chamber's breathing apparatus had malfunctioned and he'd suffocated - what was his name again? Oh, yes - Anorian. She remembered everything with a preternatural clarity that hurt her. They'd immediately fought, assuming that the Savior's crew was the aliens - no, the zylogigs. Funny name, Marissa mused. She wondered how they'd found that out. Of course, the crew had never even heard of zylogigs, assuming the false Luna crewmembers were real. They'd learned otherwise after the sabotage attempt on the Savior's engines by the zylogigs. Zach was still trying to fix it. It had taken a while, but they'd eventually convinced the two survivors of their authenticity. It had taken even longer to draw them out about what had happened. "Marissa?" Sean called. "Marissa? Sorry to disturb you, but, um, we should be getting back. It's getting dark!" Marissa dropped through the large hole in the floor and landed directly in front of Sean. He jumped nervously. "Uh, come on. Everyone's still on the bridge." Marissa's eyes were red. She followed Sean silently to the bridge. The rest of the Luna exploration team was waiting for her. "Let's go," said Kamira. "There's nothing for us here." * * * They were greeted at the airlock by a furious Aldebarr. "Where have you people been? I told you to be back before dark!" Aldebarr looked to each of the crewmember's faces. He stopped at Marissa. Immediately he knew as he gazed at her tear-stained face and reddened eyes. His expression softened as Marissa started to explain. "It's my fault, sir. The rest of the crew wanted to leave. I thought I was gauging my time correctly, but this planet is much smaller, so the sun sets much faster than..." Aldebarr cut her off with a wave of his hand and a tiny smile. "I understand." The rest of the crew filed onto the ship. Quavering slightly, Marissa went to her cabin. "So, did you find anything?" Zach asked eagerly. "Nothing useful," Dana answered softly. Dead tired, she began to stagger off to her quarters. Dana was almost to her quarters when Terri caught up to her. "Dana, Aldebarr wanted me to pass this along." "What?" she sighed tiredly. "We're going back tomorrow. This time, we'll have to write up an official report on any findings since nothing useful was found today." Dana closed her eyes. "Count me out." Terri cocked her head to the side. "Why? You're the one who wanted to go back." "I'm too tired. My muscles ache, my head aches, even my hair aches," Dana whined. Terri tried to look hopeful. "Wait till tomorrow, you'll feel better then." "Yeah, maybe," Dana said doubtfully. Terri started to walk away. "Oh, and remember," she called, turning around, "we'll have some serious exploring to do tomorrow. Most of the ship hasn't even been touched yet." Dana nodded as she walked into her cabin. She didn't even bother to change her clothes or take her sleeping pills. "So tired," she slurred as she tumbled into bed. Dana soon drifted into a deep sleep. * * * "Help! Dana, open the door! Open the door! Help us, Dana!" Voices called her. Dana opened her eyes. Fire was everywhere. She ran to the window. Houses were burning and others were just gone. She knew the bomb had dropped. Planes flew overhead and the siren outside warned of an attack, but it was already too late. Her parents were across the hall. Eight-year-old Dana could hear them screaming and banging on the door. "Why won't they open it?" she thought, running into the hall. A fiery blaze engulfed her and she ran back into her room. Gasping for breath, Dana screamed out, "Mom! Dad!" She stood, paralyzed, as the ceiling fell in and fire spouted up in fountains of flames. They lapped at the walls and melted the wallpaper, sending it sliding in rivulets down the blackened artificial wood walls. The noxious smoke hurt her lungs when she tried to breathe. For one long moment, she stood stupefied. Breaking free from her shock, Dana tried to run back to the window so she could climb out, but the fire closed in on all sides. Dana screamed. She opened her eyes and her gaze darted around the room. It was dark and cool. She was dotted with perspiration and her hands felt cold and clammy. The sheets were uncomfortably snug and she batted them off of her. Dana closed her eyes. "Fine. You win," she thought silently. "I give up." Dana groped for the sleeping pills and popped one in her mouth. She'd gotten so good at taking them that she didn't even need any water. Dana swallowed hard. "That's odd," she thought; they seemed bigger than usual. But maybe that was just because of the large lump in her throat, an aftereffect of the emotionally harrowing dream. She sighed and took the other. She'd been prescribed 2 every time she went to bed or awoke from a nightmare. She wasn't to take more than 12 in 24 hours. Dana opened her eyes and looked at the clock briefly. It was 2:31. Dana fell back asleep almost instantly. * * * Dana awoke late, at about 9:20, but she wasn't worried at all. She felt calm, at ease and peaceful with the world. Dana stretched her cramped muscles luxuriously. "In fact," she said to herself, "I feel downright... tranquil." Dana froze in shock at what she'd just said. "Tranquil?" she whispered. She looked at her bedside table. The pouch of tranquilizers lay open and one lay on the table itself. She looked down at her clothes. Instead of the clothes she wore yesterday, Dana was dressed in a nightgown. Suddenly, she felt quite sick as she crawled over the bed to the bedside table. She opened the pouch. 1 pill remained. Dana counted down on her fingers. 1 on the table, 1 in the pouch, and 1 taken on the ship. That left two. Dana stared, horrified, at the two remaining fingers she held up. "My sleeping pills! Where are they?" She searched for her bottle of pills. It was on the floor beneath the bedside table. Dana realized that she had taken 3 tranquilizers altogether. 1 at about 8:00 PM on the ship, and 2 at about 2:30 AM. "That's much less than 8 hours, not to mention taking two at once!" she breathed. Suddenly, the room began to spin. Dana didn't know if it was because of the overdose or because her mind was panicking. She felt sick to her stomach and queasy. She tried to stumble to the 'com, but she tripped over her own feet and fell hard onto the carpeted floor. Her vision blurred as she looked up at the 'com that was mounted on the wall above her. She reached her hand up for it. It felt as if someone were sitting on it, weighing her arm back down to the ground. Too tired to fight and too sick to try, Dana let her head fall limply to the floor. Her fingers twitched as she tried once more with her last ounce of strength to reach the 'com. Feeling defeated and exhausted, Dana closed her eyes and gave in. Chapter 3 "Dana!" Kamira called. She stood in the hall outside Dana's cabin. "Dana, we're leaving!" Kamira pounded on the door with her fist. She waited impatiently for an answer. Kamira stopped pounding and listened. Fear wove its icy-taloned way up her spine and plunged a cold spear of panic into her brain. No sound came from Dana's room. The metal of the door was cold as Kamira pressed her ear against it. Maybe Dana was hurt, or sick, or... Kamira shuddered as she thought: or had been attacked. Marissa walked past. "Marissa, can you open this door?" Kamira asked, running up to her. Marissa furrowed her brow. "Why?" Kamira took a quick glance back at the door. "She's not answering me. She might be in trouble," she explained. Not wasting any time, Marissa got her security override card and slid it through the computer next to the door. The door opened with a "swoosh" that sounded like a vacuum. Kamira stepped in - and almost stepped on Dana, who was sprawled out on the floor. Her right hand was extended in the direction of the 'com that hung on the wall. Kamira checked Dana's pulse. She gasped upon touching her neck. "She's burning up." Kamira moved bright hair from Dana's face and felt her forehead. Marissa went to the 'com. "Altaire, we have a situation here in..." Marissa poked her head out the door above the control panel. "...room 42 on Deck 5," Marissa continued. "We need medical assistance... now!" Altaire's reply, which Kamira only faintly heard, sounded a trifle alarmed. A "situation" was code for a major medical predicament. Marissa stood over Dana and Kamira. Kamira was cradling Dana's head in her lap and stroking back her hair. Marissa noted that Dana was still wearing the clothes she'd had on the day before. She began to walk around the room, scouting for anything odd or out of the ordinary. Marissa noticed that the pouch of tranquilizers lay open on the bedside table. One tranquilizer was on the table and three more were in the pouch. A bottle of sleeping pills was on the floor. The bedspread was crumpled and unmade, and the pillows were out of place. Within minutes, Altaire and Sean arrived with bags of equipment in hand. Altaire took her medical scanner and scanned for Dana's vital signs. She made a curious grunt. "Sean, we need to get her to the MU, now! Get the stretcher." Sean got a worried look on his face as he started to the MU for the stretcher, but then he stopped. "Are you sure we have time? It looks pretty bad." Altaire cocked her head as if it were a new perspective on the problem. "You're right," she said at last. "We can't waste any time. We should be able to carry her without harming her." Sean nodded and waited for further instructions. Altaire ordered him to carry Dana's top half while she carried Dana's legs. "1, 2, 3, up!" Altaire commanded. Sean had Dana's upper body in his arms as Altaire lifted her knees. Marissa rolled her eyes at the look of pure pleasure on Sean's face. She knew Sean had been trying to hit on Dana since she'd been picked up from the Luna. Sean was handsome, in a freakish sort of way, Marissa thought. He just wasn't Dana's type. In Marissa's mind, Dana was off limits to Sean. And by the way she'd been talking about her experiences on the Luna, it seemed that Dana had already been taken. Marissa continued to scout the room. Her eyes fell upon the bedside table again. On it was something she hadn't noticed before. Marissa bent over and reached out her hand to touch it. Her fingers landed in a thin puddle of mucus-like substance. Marissa furrowed her brow and looked at her fingers. She rubbed the substance between her fingers and examined it closer. She looked past her fingers, back at the bedside table. The puddle looked to be more than a puddle. The puddle looked more like a trail. * * * Sean's look of pleasure quickly turned to one of concern. Dana's head was burning and all sweaty in his arms, and she looked to be scarcely breathing. Sean shifted her so he could feel her pulse. He knew Altaire had already scanned her with the biometer, the one that scanned for all the major vital signs like pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure, but Altaire almost always kept the results to herself. "Some teamwork," he thought. Sean counted in his mind in time with Dana's rapid, fluttery pulse. He sighed. "She's not going to make it, is she?" Altaire looked thrown off balance by this remark, but quickly recollected her wits. "No!" she said. Her words slipped off her tongue with uncharacteristic icy severity. "I've never lost a patient before, and I'm not about to start now." Sean admired Altaire for her compassion and devotion to helping people. He also admired the way she could control herself and hold back her emotions, like the loudness and anger she was undoubtedly holding back right now. They finally made it to the MU. Sean backed up to an examination table. "1...2...3... up!" Altaire ordered. Sean and Altaire lifted Dana onto the table. He carefully set her head down on the hard metal. As if on cue, the second Sean let go of Dana, Kamira stormed in with a flustered look on her face. Upon seeing her friend, Kamira's look softened to one of worry. "What's wrong with her?" Altaire didn't bother to look at her. "I don't know." She paused. "Yet." Kamira watched Altaire perform tests on Dana, drawing blood, X-raying her, and et cetera. Sean seemed to always be in the way. Altaire almost collided with him several times before she finally sighed and ordered him to take Kamira to the lounge. "I need to work, Sean. If you're just going to stand there sulking, then you might as well do it in the lounge. Take Kamira with you. This is no place for her." Sean nodded and touched Kamira softly on the arm. Kamira hesitated. "She'll be all right... right?" Altaire didn't change her expression. "We'll see," she replied softly. Sean turned Kamira around with his hand and gently led her to the lounge. Altaire shook her head slowly and peered back into her microscope. * * * Aldebarr stormed down the hallway. His boots made loud thuds on the floor as he made his way down to the MU. He didn't know what was going on, but he was bent on finding out. "Aldebarr!" Marissa called after him. "Calm down, we just couldn't find you!" "I do have a 'com, you know," he replied. "We couldn't reach you," Marissa said, catching up to him. "It said it was disconnected." "When were you planning on telling me? I should have been notified." "But..." Marissa started. Aldebarr cut her off. "Let's just get down there and see how bad it is." Aldebarr had huge strides, and it took two of Marissa's to match one of his. Aldebarr reached the MU and pushed his way in with Marissa at his heels. "What is going on here?" he demanded. Altaire looked up from her microscope, startled. Aldebarr looked to the examination table. On it was a slight figure with a sheet drawn over her. Fiery hair hung off the edge of the table. Aldebarr recognized the figure as the usually energetic Dana. Only now, she looked pale and lifeless. He approached the table and stood over her. Marissa came to stand by his side. Altaire waited by the computer for it to print out her report. "It's very odd," she stated matter-of-factly. Aldebarr didn't shift his gaze away from the small, pale face belonging to the figure lying on the table. Altaire walked around the other side of the examination table. She read from the report. "The blood screening shows a high count of hemologenic sedative particles. It's consistent with the tranquilizer known as Karmac." Aldebarr blinked. "In English, please?" Altaire sighed. "There are unnaturally high numbers of particles belonging to a sedative known as Karmac. The thing is," Altaire paused and flipped through the report. "Karmac was the tranquilizer I gave Dana." Aldebarr nodded knowingly. "The amounts are consistent with a common overdose." Marissa was deep in thought. "And how much... Karmac do you need to take to OD?" Altaire thought. "Well, you can OD on as little as two pills in less than 8 hours." She looked down at Dana. "But for her to have gone into such a violent shock, Dana must have taken at least three." "Well, then," Marissa said slowly, "how many did you give her?" Altaire shrugged. "Standard amount. I gave her one pouch with 5 pills. But she took one on the Luna, so now there should be only one or two in the pouch for her to be having such a bad reaction." Marissa put a hand on her hip and cocked her head. "And you say she took one when you gave them to her?" "Yes, but look..." "But then she couldn't have," Marissa breathed. "What?" Altaire narrowed her eyes. "What are you..." Marissa interrupted wide-eyed, "There were four pills in the pouch on her bedside table. She couldn't have taken three!" Altaire shook her head. "But that's impossible! These reports show that she has at least 3 tablets in her bloodstream..." "But there's 4 in her room!" Marissa argued. "You gave her 5!" Aldebarr waved his hand for silence. "We'll go check it out," he said, then continued, "In a minute. For now, I need to know the details on Miss Pendrell's condition." He turned to Altaire, who batted an eye at Marissa before reading from the report. "For now she's stable." Altaire motioned to the monitors. "As you can see, I'm monitoring her vital signs and she seems to be doing all right. Aldebarr looked down at Dana. She looked so peaceful. "When will she regain consciousness?" He looked back to Altaire. Altaire ran a hand through her hair and sighed. "She might wake up in 5 minutes, she might wake up in a year, or she might not wake up at all. We'll just have to wait and see." Aldebarr nodded but said nothing as he turned around and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He closed his eyes for a long moment and then opened them slowly. "Which room is Dana's?" Without hesitation, Marissa recited the number: "Room 42 on Deck 5." Aldebarr straightened and strode briskly out of the MU. Marissa gave a curt nod of acknowledgement to Altaire before turning around and chasing Aldebarr out the door. * * * Sean led Kamira into the lounge. She seemed shaken at first, but looked to be fine by the time he led her to a chair. "Let go of me, Sean, you... you... buck-toothed weasel!" Kamira shook her arm free of Sean's grasp. "Oh, yeah, she's back to normal," Sean muttered as he idly touched his teeth. He took a seat directly across from her and leaned back. He blew out a long breath of air and smoothed back his hair. His eyes stared blankly at the table. When he raised them, he saw that Kamira was staring at him, her grey eyes icy-cold. Sean raised an eyebrow and glanced from side to side. "What?" Kamira nodded as if to say, "as if you didn't know". A sneer escaped one corner of her mouth. "People like you make me sick." Sean shifted nervously in his chair. "What?" he repeated. "You don't even care," she marveled incredulously. "You don't even care about her. All you care about is getting to touch her." Sean opened his mouth to protest but he quickly shut it when he saw the look in her eyes. Sean thought, then gave about sixty percent of his best smile. "No," he said. "I do care. If she doesn't pull through, then I'll have to find someone else to drool over." Kamira stifled a derisive laugh. "Oh, and you'd have so much trouble finding one," she said sarcastically. "Yeah, well, I don't just give my feelings to anyone, you know," Sean mused. "Yeah, and you really seem to be able to tell when someone's uninterested," Kamira said, hardening her expression. The 'com chirped before Sean was able to retort. "I'll be right back," he said, flashing his white teeth and sliding out of his seat. He went to the 'com. Altaire's face appeared. Sean loved the concept of 'coms that hung on the wall. The hand-held ones also came in handy, but they were only audio, not visual like the wall 'com. "Sean, we need you up here after all," Altaire said. "We?" Sean repeated. Altaire looked up. "Okay... I." "You... what?" Sean asked. Altaire sighed. "I need you." Sean cut her off. He clutched his chest. "You? Need me?" he asked with mock astonishment. "Altaire, I never knew..." Altaire rolled her eyes in disgust. "Just get up here." The 'com switched off. Sean turned to Kamira. "Excuse me, but there's someone who 'needs' me. I will see you later... popsicle," he said, noting her cold look. "Oh, yeah? You... you... noodlehead!" Sean poked his head back in the doorway. "You know, you really seem to be losing your touch." Before Kamira could argue, Sean had slipped back out. "Ooh!" she screamed furiously. * * * Aldebarr passed Rooms 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41. Finally, he came to 42. Marissa a few steps behind, he walked into Dana's room. Nothing was really out of place. A crumpled bedspread, pills on the table, and a prescription pouch on the bedside table. Marissa knew instinctively that the pouch was the one Altaire had given Dana. It wasn't printed on it or anything. Marissa just knew. It was a feeling in the pit of her stomach. She felt like if she opened it, something would leap out and maul her face. Marissa moved past Aldebarr and snatched the pouch. "See?" she indicated the inside of it. "4 pills. Just like I said." Aldebarr nodded in approval. "I never doubted you." Marissa beamed. She had been trying to get on Aldebarr's good side longer than she could remember. Right now, Marissa was only a weapons tech. In other words, she got to repair weapons and fire the small arms. To her they were small, anyway. Nara, as lieutenant, got to fire all the big stuff. When they actually got into situations where they needed the guns, and not some dumb old boring rescue mission. Land, pick up some poor idiots who probably caused the problem in the first place, take off, and start all over again. She was sick of it! "I don't know why those reports came out the way they did, but..." Aldebarr trailed off. Marissa wasn't listening. If she got promoted, she would be able to fire the Savior's defense systems and the lasers and tracking missiles. Then she would be able to cruise away and battle the Fallacians first hand. "That is, if I ever get off this wretched hunk of flying space debris," she thought bitterly. She'd gone on one mission. One. And then she'd been assigned to this stupid rescue ship because the Federation felt she was "too high-strung for mission work". Too high-strung? Ha! She'd show them. She'd show everyone. Aldebarr was at the 'com. "Altaire, there are 4 pills inside the pouch. I don't know what to tell you..." Marissa blew a strand of dark brown hair out of her face. She bit her lip and paced around the room in a small circle. Suddenly, she snapped her fingers. Aldebarr glanced over his shoulder at her, then continued his conversation with Altaire. Marissa knelt down in front of the bedside table and touched the surface lightly. It was dry. She touched it harder in another area. It was dry as well. Marissa opened her mouth. She looked at her finger. She frowned and slammed her whole palm down on the table in frustration. Marissa had been staring across the room, but now her eyes darted cautiously back to her hand. Slowly, carefully, she lifted it. A clear mucus-like liquid clung to her palm. Strands of the substance stretched as they were pulled from the table. Marissa opened her mouth in disgust and she could feel her lips curl into a look indicating the same. A hand fell on her shoulder, and she bit back a cry of surprise. "Wh-what is that?" Aldebarr asked, leaning over her shoulder. "I don't know," Marissa replied, looking at her hand. Even to herself, she sounded panicked. "I'll get Altaire. Again." Aldebarr trotted back to the 'com. Marissa wanted to wipe her hand on something, but she wasn't sure if she should. She felt a tingling in her fingers, but told herself it was probably just in her head. "I hope," she added silently. * * * Altaire stood at the 'com arguing, "I'm not a scientist." The voice on the other end argued back, "But you know this sort of stuff." Altaire looked into the 'com, seeing the flustered look on the man's face. She knew arguing with the captain of your ship was probably a bad idea, but she couldn't go around pretending to be a biologist, scientist, ecologist, or whatever. She was a medic. And in case Aldebarr had forgotten, she was trying to save one of his crewmember's lives. A passenger, really, but it amounted to the same thing. Altaire sighed. "All right. Just... just..." She sighed again and paused. "Just give me a sec, all right?" Aldebarr nodded once and the 'com switched off. "He can be a real fool sometimes," Altaire mumbled. Sean entered the MU, banging the heavy metal doors open, and headed for Dana. Altaire stepped in his way. "Change of plans." Sean raised an eyebrow. "You're going down to get a sample from Dana's room." Sean opened his mouth to protest as he raised a finger. Altaire didn't give him a chance. "Now!" Sean nodded quickly. "Right." He pointed to the door and at himself, then at Altaire and the door. He stifled the urge to say, "yes, ma'am," and sidestepped over to the door. "Take a vial, a bag, and here." Altaire threw him a pair of rubber gloves. "Just like in training. Count this as your practical." Sean forced a smile, but knew it looked pained. He grabbed a vial, a sample bag, and 2 labels from underneath the counter. It was stocked with lots of medical "goodies" like cotton balls, Q-Tips, baggies, Band-Aids, and cream. Sean noticed how a lot of that stuff was named so little kids wouldn't be afraid of it. "We're not kids, so why do we call them that?" he thought. Sean knew exactly what Dana would say if she heard him. She'd say: "We don't call them that, you do." Or, "Some of us aren't kids." Sean chuckled. Altaire glared at him. "Well, are you going, or are you just going to stand there chuckling like an idiot all day?" Sean didn't bother to retort. He closed the cupboard with his foot and ran down the hall, vial, bag, tweezers, and gloves in hand. * * * Robbie and Nara were on the bridge gazing out onto the terrain. "Do you think we'll ever get out of here?" Nara asked absently. "What do you mean?" Robbie said, not really listening. "What do you mean, 'what do I mean'?" Nara snapped irritatedly. Robbie shrugged. "I don't know. I was just trying to bug you." Nara raised her eyebrows. "What are you doing here anyway? Shouldn't you be working on something or something?" Robbie asked. "Why are you bothering me?" Nara asked heatedly. "Who died and made you queen? Anyway, you initiated this conversation, didn't you?" Robbie said, flashing his teeth in a sly smile. "Why do you answer a question with a question?" Nara asked cryptically. "And how does that make you feel?" Robbie grinned. Nara sighed. She did have work to do. "Listen, Searchie." Nara looked to the "Search and Rescue" badge on Robbie's uniform. "Why don't you go and play with your little Searchie friends?" Robbie paused defiantly. "Why don't you make me?" Nara narrowed her cobalt-blue eyes, giving him the famous "no mercy" stare. Robbie got a very nervous look on his face. "Never mind, you win." He jumped out of his seat and ran off the bridge. Nara turned around in her seat to face the computer again. She cracked her knuckles. "Yup," she said quietly. "I've still got it." Robbie walked down the hall mumbling to himself. Suddenly, someone grabbed him from behind. "Whoa!" He heard someone laughing. "Ha, ha. Very funny, Deneb." Robbie turned around and raised his pale green eyes to meet the blue ones of Deneb. Zach approached from behind him. "I told you he wouldn't think it was funny." Robbie looked past Deneb. "Say, you've been pretty quiet since we landed here. What's up with you? Usually you're right out there with Deneb playing pranks and making trouble." Zach's cheeks turned pink, then he flushed. "Let's go down to the lounge. I'll tell you there." * * * Kamira sat in the lounge, steaming. Sean made her soooo mad! Suddenly, she heard footsteps outside. She immediately assumed it was Sean and grinned maliciously. She had a good one for him. Kamira watched the figure walk in and opened her mouth to comment, but stopped in mid-breath. "Oh! I thought you were Sean." The man raised his eyebrows in surprise and pointed to himself. "Me?" Kamira nodded. "You know, I don't recall meeting you." She squinted. The man grinned. "I'm Robbie. Actually, I think we met when we went out to the Luna, but you didn't pay much attention to me." Kamira grinned sheepishly. "I was pretty wrapped up in myself... But I'm sure I would have recognized you. We were in the same group, right?" Robbie thought aloud. "Yes, we were." Kamira shook her head in confusion. "Do you look... different than you did yesterday?" Robbie laughed at her off-color question and ran a hand through his curly, light brown hair. "Do you mean this?" He pointed towards his eye. Kamira gasped. For the first time she noticed the black and blue bruise encircling Robbie's left eye. "Oh my gosh, I didn't even notice! That could be it..." Robbie nodded. "That's not all, Deneb volunteered to cut my hair, then bleach it for free!" Kamira smiled. "That would make one look different, not to mention very... interesting." Behind Robbie entered a blond man and one she recognized as Deneb. The blond man saw Kamira and immediately turned away. "I'm Zach," he said curtly. Kamira whispered to Robbie, "Is he shy?" Robbie nodded briskly. Kamira reached across the table with her hand in a gesture of welcome. "I'm Kamira." Zach looked uneasily at her hand, as if he were deciding whether or not she was offering him poison. Reluctantly, he grabbed her hand lightly. Kamira shook it and let go. Deneb and Robbie chuckled. Kamira couldn't see Zach's face, but she was betting it was very red. After an odd moment of silence, Kamira looked uneasily to Robbie. "So, uh, how did you get that?" Robbie smiled broadly. "According to the code of chivalry, I... ahem... fell down." Kamira raised her eyebrows. "Ah, I see. Wink wink." She winked on cue. "Listen, should I..." Zach turned around abruptly. "No. I've got something to tell you guys." He looked to Kamira, who was getting up from her seat. "You'd better sit down for this one." * * * Sean entered Room 42 with his equipment. Marissa was kneeling and looking at her hand, stricken. Sean walked in casually and pulled out the tweezers he'd grabbed on the way out. He wrinkled his nose. "Eeew," he said in a monotone as he saw the goo all over the table and Marissa's hand. Marissa's face was twisted into a look of panic and disgust. "Sean, what do I do?" she asked him frantically. Sean thought aloud, "Well, I should probably take a sample from your hand and the table, but..." Marissa cut in, "Come on, already!" "Okay, okay!" Sean replied. "Hold still." Sean grabbed Marissa's wrist and attempted to pluck the goo off with his tweezers, but he quickly abandoned that idea when all he got was a little scoop at a time. At this rate, he'd be plucking goo all day. He decided to try scraping it off with the side of the tweezers. This idea worked, and he got a great deal of the goo off her hand and into the bag, where it clung tenaciously to the sides. Sean grinned. Altaire was going to have a fun time trying to get it out. "Now, go straight to the MU to have Altaire check you out and clean your hand," he instructed. Marissa didn't wait for a second invitation. "Thanks!" she said, already standing. She practically ran out the door. Sean used an alcohol wipe to wipe the goo from the tweezers. It was a doctor's trick Altaire had taught him to carry them around. Doctors always needed everything sterile. He scraped the substance from the table and placed it in the jar. Sean sealed the bag and vial and put a label on each. The bag was labeled, "Goo From Marissa's Hand", and the vial was labeled, "Goo On Table". Altaire didn't mind if the labels were a little less than scientific, since she got so few of them that it was always easy to tell them apart. Aldebarr came back in from the hallway. "Hey, are you all right?" Sean asked. He nodded. "Yeah, I'm just, uh, not feeling well." Sean came closer. "You look sick." He reached out to feel Aldebarr's forehead. "No! Don't touch!" Aldebarr backed away. "Okay, you're right. I probably have goo on my hands." Sean shrugged and trotted back to the MU. * * * Robbie, Kamira, Deneb, and Zach sat around the table in the lounge. Robbie's mouth hung open in surprise. When he looked to Deneb and Kamira, he saw that they were mirroring his expression. Finally, after minutes of silence, Robbie cleared his throat and spoke. "I noticed your band before, but I never thought you were engaged." Deneb shook his head. "Zach, you told me before that you were engaged. But all you ever told me was that she was pretty, blond, and had green eyes." Kamira was still speechless. Zach seemed a little furious. "Well, now you have her name, okay?" Deneb continued, "And you never told me that she was on the Luna." Zach took a deep breath. "When we were sent out here, I didn't tell anyone for fear of being pulled. We were the only rescue ship in this galaxy at the time! I didn't want to just leave the crew there for another ship to rescue. I... I was hoping she was still alive, but..." Zach lowered his head. Kamira moved her mouth, but still no sound came out. Finally she said, "I'm so sorry. When I came here, I described her death so crudely. If I had known..." Zach cut her off. "But I thought you knew." Kamira shook her head. "She... she never mentioned me?" Kamira noticed how he wasn't using her name. She figured it was too painful. "No, she... Gemini..." Kamira swallowed. "...only mentioned that she was engaged to a handsome man named Zach. Gemini said she wouldn't give us the last name... just... just because." Zach nodded. Kamira continued, "I just never made the connection. I mean, Zach is a pretty common name, and..." Robbie snickered. Kamira ignored him. Then Robbie began to roar with laughter. "What?" Kamira snapped irritatedly. Robbie said through laughs, "Well, no wonder you didn't make the connection!" He laughed again. "You were looking for a handsome man!" Kamira rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Why don't you either get up or shut up?" Robbie tried to control his laughter. "Okay, okay!" He sealed his lips, but when he looked around the room at all the serious faces, he couldn't help bursting out laughing again. "All right! I know! I'm going!" Kamira pushed Robbie out the door. He walked down the hall towards the transporter, still laughing. When he got to the deserted Deck 11, Robbie's laughter turned to mumbles of anger. Suddenly, the lights zapped out with an electrical "buzz!". Robbie stopped in his tracks. "Oh, great," he muttered. Only the ghostly, weird-looking bluish back-up lights stayed on. The fluorescent lights and floodlights were all out. The eerie lighting sent a shiver down Robbie's spine. He pulled out his portable 'com, pushed the button for the bridge, and waited. Nothing happened. Then he realized that the energy cube must have run out. Robbie saw that at the end of the hallway, a floodlight was on. "Odd," he thought. "Maybe only this wing is out." Not wanting to be left in the spooky half-darkness, Robbie started down to the end of the hallway. Hearing the echo of his boots, Robbie paused. Was there someone else in the hall? He could have sworn... "It's just the echo," Robbie assured himself. When he started forward again, the noise started again. It sounded like... rustling. No, a more accurate description would be... slithering. "Hello?" Robbie called out meekly. Hearing nothing but the echo, he began once more to walk towards the light. Now, he thought he heard footsteps. When he realized that it was only his own heart beating, Robbie scolded himself for being so scared. Now he was sure, however, that there was someone in there with him. He could hear someone besides himself breathing. Robbie spun around. Nothing. The throbbing blue light coming from behind him made him slightly queasy. When he turned back, he half expected to see some huge monster standing there, ready to gobble him up. Instead, just more nothing. Finally convincing himself it was all in his head, Robbie continued down the hall. He was almost to the light, when - "Whoa!" A hand seemed to reach out of the wall and grab his shoulder. The hand pulled him in with such force that Robbie lost his balance. "Deneb, I told you, it's not..." Robbie stopped. The hand pulled him into a dark corridor. A blue light flashed overhead slowly. Now, Robbie stared into the face of Nara. Her face was blue from the overhead light, and she seemed ghostly. "Oops, guess I was wrong." Nara came closer. "Hey, Nara, if you wanted to see me, why didn't you just say so?" he said, backing slowly into the wall. Robbie looked down. Nara had something in her hand. "Nara?" Nara raised her arm in a striking position. "Wrong again," she hissed. "Hey, no!" Robbie yelled. He raised his hands to protect himself from the blows of the razor she carried, but they were quickly lacerated. Robbie cried out as the sharp metal cut through an artery. Nara held his wounded hand back against the wall with her free hand and struck him again with the blade. He caught her wrist just before the razor struck his throat. His arm quivered with the effort of trying to hold her away. Before Robbie knew what was happening, Nara spun him around and held him in a headlock. "Enough!" she said. The voice didn't sound like hers. It was pained and rusty, and sounded unused. With one swift movement, she slid the razor blade across his throat, cutting deep. Robbie gurgled blood, and in the blue light it looked purplish. Nara stepped back and let her arm fall to her side. Robbie clutched his throat and gasped for air, but only inhaled the blood streaming from his veins. He tried to speak through cut vocal cords, but his words merely came out as a choked spurt of blood. Nara watched him collapse into a bloody heap. The blood gushing from his throat pooled around his head and made a satin pillow for it: Rest In Peace. Nara crouched down and looked at him hard. She dipped her finger in the ribbon of blood that streamed from his wrist. She lifted her finger and looked at it hungrily. Nara put the finger to her lips and stuck it in her mouth. She smiled wickedly. She stood up and looked back at the twisted remains of Robbie's body before running down the hall. Chapter 4 Marissa walked down the long row of shower stalls. She had a white fluffy towel and an examination gown folded over the crook of her arm. Sean was supposed to have her uniform dry cleaned and put in the MU for her. Altaire had ordered for Marissa to take a shower in the MU's shower stalls. They were all completely empty because no one else had to take a shower for medical reasons. "Maybe for hygiene reasons, however," Marissa thought. All the quarters had shower stalls in them, but because Altaire wanted to temporarily quarantine her, Marissa was to shower in the medical shower that was adjacent to the MU. Altaire had to analyze the substance from her hand and make sure it wasn't toxic or harmful. Marissa decided to take the next to last stall on the right. That way, the towel rack would be right there when she needed it. She put the towel and gown through the rack and slipped out of the medical gown she was already wearing. Marissa's dark brown hair hung in strings. She hadn't washed it in days. So much had been happening, she hadn't had time to. Marissa turned the knobs inside the stall. Steam began to fill the air. Marissa waited for it to get to a reasonable temperature before she jumped in. Soap, shampoo, and conditioner were in little dispensers built into the wall for easy use. The water patted down and sounded soothing as it hit the tiled linoleum in rhythm to the sound of the hiss of the water coming out of the spout. The water spattered onto Marissa's shoulders, arms, and head, and ran down her body to her feet. Marissa turned around and let the water sink into her hair and beat on her scalp. The steam was intoxicating as it swirled around her and into her nostrils. She got some shampoo in her hand and rubbed it through her hair, letting the water foam it up. She massaged it into her scalp and hair. Suddenly, Marissa heard a sound. She stopped and held still. It sounded like... footsteps. Marissa poked her head out of the stall, dripping with foam. "Hello?" Receiving no answer, she absently stepped back into the stream of water. It ran into her hair and down her face. Marissa shrieked as the soap ran into her eyes and stung. She jumped out of the shower and reached for her towel. Suddenly, she felt it in her hand, even though she was nowhere near the rack. Marissa wiped her eyes to see Aldebarr standing there before her. She screamed again and hastily wrapped the towel around herself. "Aldebarr!" she gasped. "What are you doing here? Is something wrong?" She noticed he was staring rather blankly into her eyes. Marissa looked down at his hand. He held a razor. "Aldebarr, did something happen?" Marissa asked in a worried tone of voice. Now she saw something drip off the razor to splash onto the floor. When she looked at the floor to see what had splattered, Marissa saw a round spot of blood. "What are you doing here?" she asked again, starting to sidestep away from him. Aldebarr caught her by the wrist. "No!" she screamed. Marissa didn't know that the heavy metal door to the MU was closed, so no one would hear. "Help me!" she screamed. "Help!" Marissa tried to wriggle away, but Aldebarr had incredible strength. "NO!" Marissa used her other hand to ward off blows from the razor as he struck her again and again. She was wrestled to her knees, and the razor was brought near her neck. Finally, Aldebarr prevailed, and he ran the razor through her throat with a quick stabbing motion, chopping her windpipe in two. He hadn't made a sound throughout the entire scuffle. Marissa mouthed words but no sound came out. "Why?" she seemed to say. Then she fell limply onto the floor. Aldebarr got to his feet and ran from the room. Marissa remained sprawled on the linoleum on her back, head lolling to the side. Blood stained the floor and the once-white towel, and steam choked the room. The blood ran along the floor, spreading more than it would have on its own in the water that ran out from the stalls. It pooled around her, dyeing the skin that came in contact with it bright red. The last thing Marissa knew was the incredible pain in her neck and blood-filled lungs. The water continued to gush from the spout. * * * Altaire looked up from her computer screen, distracted by a sudden thought. She looked at the clock and frowned. Marissa should have been back by now. She'd told her to come back after her shower so she could make sure Marissa had gotten all of the goo off, and to make sure she'd be okay. Funny stuff, this goo, Altaire mused. It was vaguely mucus-like, but different. The med computers couldn't identify it for her. For a moment she allowed herself to fantasize: a new substance, discovered by her, named after her. Her being interviewed by the top scientists in the Federation, giving reports on the news in a calm tone like the veterans. She shook off her idle dreams and pulled out her handheld 'com. It would probably never happen. Especially since they didn't seem to have any way to get off the planet. And anyway, she admitted to herself, she hadn't really discovered it. Marissa had. She dialed Sean's code. "Yo. Sean here." "Cut the chatter, Sean. Go find Marissa and get her in here. She was supposed to come after her shower, but I guess she forgot." "Roger, Altaire. Over and out." Altaire continued to type up her report. * * * Sean headed for the shower room. "Do this, Sean. Do that, Sean. Do whatever I say, Sean," he grumbled to himself. Sure. Make him go look for Marissa. Just because she'd forgotten her stupid appointment. He entered the room, pushing open the heavy metal doors. Sean coughed as he breathed in a lungful of steam. He could hear the shower still going, too. "Marissa?" he called. "Marissa, you in here?" No answer. He sighed and headed to the back of the room to turn off the shower. As he neared it, squinting through the thick steam, he didn't watch where he was going. Sean slipped on the soaked tile floor, then tripped over something lying on the ground. He landed hard on his stomach. "Unh!" he grunted. He turned his head... and screamed in horror. Marissa lay on the water-soaked linoleum, sightless dark eyes, now cloudy with death, staring straight at him. Blood still flowed from her neck, which had been slashed. It pooled on the floor around her and on the towel she wore, spreading through the water much faster than it would have by itself. Her mouth was open in what looked like a frozen scream of terror and pain. Sean scrambled to his feet. He fumbled for his 'com. With fingers that were frozen numb, he punched out Altaire's code. "Altaire, I'm in the shower room. Get in here right away." * * * Claire sat behind her desk. She'd lain low yesterday, not wanting to be "volunteered" for a Luna exploration team. She leaned forward on her desk and sighed as Dana's tape finished playing. Claire had listened to both tapes over and over again. She knew there must be more information in there somewhere. She just felt like she was missing something. She noted something on her ever-present clipboard, then allowed her head to fall back loosely. She rotated it around on her neck several times to ease taut muscles. Maybe, now that they remembered everything, she could have one of them come in, and she could interview them. This looked to be a good idea, so she punched in Dana's 'com code. It seemed like forever before it was answered. But Dana didn't answer it. "Hello?" came a voice out of the speaker. Claire frowned. "Altaire? Is that you?" There was an impatient sigh from the other end. "Yes, of course it's me. Who else would it be? Now what is it? And could you please make it fast? I just got an emergency call from Sean. He's probably screwed something up again." Claire shook her head in confusion. "But what are you doing on Dana's 'com?" She could hear the frown in Altaire's voice. "Because Dana... Oh! Claire! You wouldn't know, would you? Dana OD'd on some tranquilizers, and I've got her unconscious down here in the MU. Hey, listen, would you do me a favor? Could you come sit with her while I go see what Sean wants? I don't want to leave her unattended." "Well, sure, but..." Claire began. Altaire interrupted her. "Okay, great. I'll wait till you get down here." "But..." Claire started to say again. Altaire gave her no chance to finish before she disconnected the 'com. Claire sat in bewilderment. How on earth had Dana OD'd? Where would she have gotten the drugs? And why did no one ever tell her anything? Claire walked into the MU, looking harassed. Altaire was waiting, a bag of medical supplies in hand. "What are those for?" Claire asked. Altaire shrugged, pale blond hair falling in front of her with the movement. She impatiently flicked it to her back. "Sean gave me an emergency call, so I assume it was for medical reasons." "Ah. I see," Claire said, although she really didn't. Why just assume it was something medical? "I've got to go now," Altaire said. "I should be back pretty soon, hopefully not with another patient." She rolled her eyes. "That's all I need right now. Call me on my 'com if you see anything, anything at all, change on these monitors or she wakes up." Claire nodded her compliance. Altaire left the MU, and Claire pulled up a chair next to the table Dana was lying on. "Wouldn't a bed be more comfortable?" Claire wondered. Ah, well. She supposed Altaire had her reasons. She poked around, looking at the various monitor screens. Some of them, like the heart rate one, she understood. Others she could fathom no use for. She soon tired of this, and sat down again. She waited, and waited, and waited. Claire sighed as there was no sign of activity. Great. Just what she wanted to do all day - babysit for a vegetable. She liked Dana, but hospital situations made her squeamish. She sighed and hoped Altaire got back soon. Suddenly, her 'com chirped. She pulled it out. "Yes? Claire here." "Claire? I need you up on Deck 13." It was Aldebarr. "Well, I'm in the MU, and..." "Yes, yes, very good. Just get down here." He disconnected. Claire sighed. She looked around for a piece of paper. Spying a scrap, she pulled her pen out of her pocket and scribbled a note to Altaire. Then she left the MU. The monitors above Dana began to beep urgently. * * * Sean paced the floor in the shower room, looking at his solar rotation meter every few seconds. "Where is she?" he muttered. He couldn't rid himself of the image of Marissa lying on the floor, blood dripping off her neck. Sure, she'd been annoying and bossy, but he'd give his left arm just to be insulted by her one more time. He'd give his left arm, because he needed his right to ogle Dana with. That was, assuming Dana ever woke up. Sean jumped as Altaire barged through the heavy doors. He looked at the medical bag in her hand. "Uh, I don't think you'll be needing that," he said. She frowned. "Whyever not?" Sean didn't bother to answer. He just took her by the elbow and gently led her down to the other end of the room. "Ugh!" Altaire turned away, putting her hand to her mouth and squeezing her eyes shut. She spun back to Sean. "How did this happen?" Sean shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. I came in to look for her, just like you said to. I heard the shower still running, but she wouldn't answer me. I went back there, and... well, there she was." Altaire furrowed her brow. "How in the world..." She trailed off. Reluctantly, she turned back to Marissa. "Hmm. Looks like her throat was cut." Sean rolled his eyes. "Thank you Ms. Super Doctor Woman. I didn't call you down here to state the obvious for me." Altaire glared at him. "Notice I said, 'looks like'. Things aren't always what they seem." Sean shrugged. "It's got me convinced," he muttered. Altaire sighed. She closed Marissa's staring eyes, then turned to Sean. "Help me get her up to the MU. I'll want to perform a complete autopsy immediately." * * * Claire didn't waste any time. Aldebarr didn't like to be kept waiting. She would normally have taken the stairs, but she was in a hurry, so she used the transporter. She stepped off onto Deck 13. Aldebarr was waiting for her. "Claire!" he said. "Good, you're here. Come with me." Claire frowned. Of course she was here. Where else would she be? You didn't ignore a summons from the captain. Not if you valued your life, anyway. She followed him to a lounge. "What did you want me all the way up here for?" she asked. "You could easily have come to see me." Aldebarr looked uncomfortable. "Well, I... I just didn't feel like it." Claire smiled. "That's not too surprising, considering what happened last time." Aldebarr looked puzzled. "You know," Claire prompted, "the Vagan slug?" He looked bewildered a moment longer, then narrowed his eyes and appeared to concentrate. Then he burst out laughing. "Oh, yes. Of course! The Vagan slug. How could I forget?" Claire frowned. His laugh sounded a bit strange. "But then, we haven't had much to laugh about lately," she thought. He was probably just out of practice. She knew she was. Claire frowned deeper and touched her temples lightly. All of a sudden, she had the worst headache. She shook her head in an instinctive reflex. Now was not the time to be getting sick. "What did you want me for, Aldebarr?" He sat down in a cushy chair and motioned for her to take a seat. She did so. "I want you to tell me all about the human brain," he began. Claire bit her lip. Was it just her, or had he put a slight emphasis on "human"? What other kind of brain would she be talking about? Monkey? Fish? Frog? Not likely! Aldebarr wasn't paying any attention to her. "All about the human brain," he repeated. "How it works, how it does everything it does... and how much stress it can take before it snaps." Ah. Claire had a sudden feeling she knew where this was going. "Well," she began tentatively, "it's different for each person, because each person is different. But I'd have to say there's only so much a mind can take." Aldebarr continued to question her for what seemed like forever. And all the time, her headache seemed to be getting worse. Finally, Aldebarr let her go. Claire walked out gratefully. She was too drained to take the stairs, so she headed for the transporter. As she walked, she wondered why Aldebarr was giving her the third degree. And the kind of questions he'd asked her - you'd think the man had never taken biology or psychology at the Academy! Claire entered the transporter and pushed a button. The transporter began to sink. But after only a few moments, it stopped. The doors opened. Claire frowned. Why had it stopped on Deck 11? It was all dark, too. "Must've been a power outage in this section," she thought. She stepped out to look - and the doors of the transporter slammed shut. There was a "whoosh" as it left. "Hey!" Claire shouted. She ran back to it and punched the button over and over. She cursed as it did not respond and kicked futilely at the doors. If she remembered correctly, there should be another transporter at the other end of the deck. Maybe that one would be working. However, Claire didn't feel like walking all that way. She'd just take the stairs. The blue emergency back-up lights throbbed on and off, making everything look like a cheap, sleazy disco club. She went over to the door that gave access to the stairs. It was locked. "What? No!" The stair doors were never locked. They didn't even have locks! Claire was beginning to feel a little panicky about now. She brought out her 'com and turned it on. Static. She frantically fiddled with the various buttons and gizmos, trying to make it work. Nothing but more static. Claire leaned weakly against the wall and slipped the 'com back in her pocket. She slowly slid down the wall until she was sitting with her back against it. Now what? Claire closed her eyes. Then she reopened them. Well, if she couldn't get out this way, she'd go somewhere else. She got up off the floor and began to walk down the corridors. Before she had gone halfway, a decompression door slammed down right in her face. Claire blinked, startled, then touched her face to make sure it was all still there. A chill came over her as she had a sudden thought. The transporter, the stairs, the decomp door... Someone obviously wanted her here. "But who?" Claire muttered. "And why?" A fresh chill came over her as she thought: Maybe the question wasn't who, but what. She jerked her head up sharply as her keen hearing picked up a sound. Muffled footsteps. * * * Altaire and Sean carried their gruesome burden back to the MU. Altaire gasped as they entered. A loud alarm assailed her ears and she winced in pain. Dropping her half of Marissa's body, she raced over to the monitors. "What's going on?" Sean called over the noise. "I knew this would happen!" Altaire berated herself. Turning to Sean, she called, "Victims of a Karmac overdose commonly go into a second phase of shock. If not treated right away, the victim usually dies. Enough talk! Get moving!" Altaire did take the time to turn off the alarms before racing over to Dana. The med computer chimed in with a voice specifically modulated to be calm and soothing. "Vital signs below acceptable levels. Please take immediate action. Repeating, vital signs below acceptable levels. Please respond immediately." Altaire cursed. She checked the biometer monitors. She cursed again and looked up at Sean. "It's not good. Get the crash cart, just in case." Sean's dark eyes widened. In all the years he and Altaire had been together as medics on the Savior, the crash cart had only been brought out twice, and one of those times it hadn't even been needed. Sean ran for it. Altaire ignored him and began pulling on her gloves. She went over to the table and checked Dana's vital signs herself. She shook her head and looked up at Sean. "Sean! Get me..." Her words were cut off. BEEEEEEEEP! Altaire cursed again, and Sean raised his eyebrows. He hadn't known she had such a vocabulary. "Flatline," Altaire said tersely. "Beginning CPR." Sean watched tensely. Every muscle and nerve in his body seemed to be taut. "It's not working!" Altaire barked after a few very long moments. Her voice was high with nervousness. Sean couldn't remember ever seeing her do emergency procedures, except for that one time. And that time, she'd almost lost the man. He'd never done it before, except in med school on the practice dummy, so he could see how she'd be nervous. "Get me the crash cart!" He pulled it over to her. She grabbed it as if she were drowning and it was a life preserver. "Clear!" Dana's body jerked with the electrical current flowing through it. Sean knew his job. He looked at the biometer. "Unresponsive." He hoped he wouldn't squeak. Altaire primed the equipment again. "Clear!" Dana jerked again. Sean said a silent prayer in his mind. "Come on, Dana," he thought. "Don't do this. Don't you dare die on me. Come on! I promise, I'll never bug you again. Just don't die!" Out loud, he said, "Unresponsive." Altaire looked up at him. "If we don't get it these next few times," she said tersely, "we're not going to get it at all. She's been out for a while..." She didn't have to finish. Sean knew exactly what she meant. If a person was out longer than about six minutes, irreparable brain damage could occur. He looked at the clock. Dana had been out for about three minutes. "Please, please, please," Sean chanted under his breath. "Clear!" Dana jerked again. Holding his breath, Sean checked the monitor. "Unresponsive!" Three minutes, thirty seconds. "Clear!" Dana jerked once again. Nothing. Four minutes. Altaire readied the equipment for another, perhaps futile try. Then - Beep! Beep! Beep! The heart monitor showed a steady, normal rhythm. Altaire relaxed. Well, sort of. At least she lost that horrible tense look. She checked Dana's vital signs again. Then she had the computer double-check them. "All vital signs within normal limits," the computer said. Altaire and Sean both breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief. Altaire straightened and snapped back to her usual professional self. "She's not out of the woods yet. We'll have to keep a close watch on her. If I ever get my hands on Claire..." She didn't finish, but the implied threat in her voice made Sean shiver. He would not like to cross an angry Altaire. He stepped forward to check on Dana himself, when his foot slid out from under him and he landed flat on his back. "Oof!" he grunted. Sean sat up and picked up the thing he had slipped on. It was a piece of paper. "What the..." he muttered. He opened it, then looked to Altaire. "It's a note," he said. "From Claire." Altaire made an impatient movement. "Well, don't just sit there staring at it! Read the darn thing!" "Altaire," Sean read. "Aldebarr called me on the 'com. He wants a word with me. Sorry, but I've gotta go. Claire." Altaire seemed a little less mad. "She could have called me," she said. "Yes, I'm sure she could have," Sean agreed. "Shut up!" snapped Altaire. "Stop acting like a toady!" "Sorry," Sean mumbled. * * * Claire retraced her steps back along the hallway. The blue emergency lights made everything look spooky and unreal. The footsteps had stopped now. "Hello?" she called. "Is anyone there?" Receiving no answer, she continued in the direction they had been coming from. She looked down and noticed faint footprints on the floor, outlined in some strange purplish-looking substance. How had those gotten here? And what were they? She followed them. They seemed to go into a dark alcove. Claire swallowed, then followed them in. At the very back of the alcove was a blue light. Eyes fixed on it, she ventured further in. Claire stopped, frozen, when her foot hit something on the floor with a dull "thud". She stood stone-still for a second, then slowly looked down. She jumped back in horror, stifling a scream. Robbie was lying on the floor, razor in hand. Dried blood encrusted a gaping slash on his neck. More blood, sticky as it dried, had pooled on the floor around him. Claire looked down and realized that she had blood on her shoes. She shuddered convulsively and tried to scrape it off onto the deck. Her breath was coming faster than it should. She forced herself to take slow, deep breaths. Now was not the time for an asthma attack. Especially since no one on board except Altaire knew she even had asthma. It would be very bad if she passed out up here and no one even noticed. Claire compelled herself to look back at Robbie. She bent closer to examine his wounds. She frowned. Why was he holding the razor in his wounded hand, the one with the slashed wrist? Claire heard a noise, and looked up sharply. Hearing nothing more, she hurriedly finished her examination. Looking at the ribbon of blood that had come from his lacerated wrist, Claire furrowed her brow. She touched the area beside the fingerprint in the now-dry blood. Whoever had killed him had dipped his or her finger in Robbie's blood for some reason. She knew he'd been murdered. Whoever had done it had tried to make it look like a suicide, but not very effectively. First of all, they'd put the razor in the wrong hand. And who committed suicide with a razor, anyway? Second, there was the fingerprint and bloody footprints. She now recognized that the substance had been blood. Last, but not least, there were all the little cuts on his hands and arms. She'd heard of hesitation wounds, but this was ridiculous! The wounds looked like they'd been ripped out of the skin. Claire suppressed a shudder as she thought: they probably had. Her head jerked up again as she heard something once more. She rose to her feet and picked her way through the blood on the floor to stand at the entrance to the corridor. Claire poked her head out and peered into the still gloom, tucking a strand of dark hair that had fallen in her face behind her ear. She didn't see anything. She stepped out into the corridor. She normally didn't carry her phaser around, because a person with her job didn't have much use for one, but now she wished she had it. "Like a baby with a security blanket," she thought. Claire took a few more cautious steps. She stopped. Was there an echo in the room? Testing, she stepped a few more feet. This time, there was definitely a footstep or two before the sound faded into silence. Claire turned around. Seeing nothing, she turned slowly in a circle. The blue lights cast eerie shadows where anything might lurk. "Hello?" she called. "Is anyone there? Hello?" She began to back slowly away to the transporter. "Hello?" The footsteps were coming towards her now. They seemed to come from all directions, echoes bouncing off the metal walls. Claire tried the various doors, but found that they were all locked. Now the footsteps were running. Claire looked about wildly for somewhere to hide. The footsteps were coming closer. She backed away in the direction of the transporter. She was beginning to breathe faster again. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Her quickened breathing echoed off the walls in rhythm to the running footsteps. Claire frantically glanced around. "Hello? Who's in here?" Her voice was high with the strain of terror. She backed up further. A hand fell on her shoulder. "YEEEEEK!" Claire screeched loudly and leaped away. She whirled around, prepared to go down fighting. Claire stopped. Her body went limp and she placed a hand over her racing heart. "Zach! Never do that to me again! What are you doing up here?" Zach frowned. "I could ask you the same question. But as for me, the bridge instruments showed a power outage up here. I'm here to fix it." Claire blew out a breath. "Oh. I'm here because Aldebarr called me up to Deck 13. But then the transporter malfunctioned, and I couldn't get down the stairs, and then there was the decomp door..." Claire trailed off. Zach was looking at her blankly. "What are you talking about?" he asked. Claire looked evenly at him, her dark brown eyes meeting his. "Someone - or something - wants us here, Zach. And I think I know why." Zach furrowed his brow, blond hair falling in his face. "Why?" Claire motioned for him to follow her. "Come with me." He followed her, his curiosity sparked. She didn't have to say a word. She simply led him to where Robbie's body lay in the corridor. "Go in." He went. Then he came back out, a funny look on his face. "Claire, what exactly are you trying to do here?" Claire opened her mouth and looked at him as if to say, "what are you talking about?" He motioned with his hand into the passage. She went in, frowning. Then she stopped and gasped in shock. Robbie was still lying there, but things had totally changed. Now the razor was lying beside him, and it looked like there were more cuts than before. But that was not what Claire was looking at. The crimson footprints remained. And they were still leading away from Robbie. But now the floor bore the bloody imprint of her own boots. Chapter 5 Kamira stopped outside the door of the MU. She tapped on it timidly. The door slid back to reveal Altaire. "Yes?" Altaire looked exhausted, Kamira thought. Her usually well-groomed pale blond hair was all mussed, and she had dark circles under her eyes that suggested she hadn't been sleeping well. "I... I just wanted to know how Dana was doing, and... and if I could possibly see her?" Altaire gazed at her a moment, then sighed. "Okay. Come on in." Kamira entered, and the door slid shut behind her. "Come with me," Altaire said. Kamira followed her into her office. She declined to sit down, leaning against the wall instead. Altaire looked straight at her. "What I am about to tell you is classified information. You are to tell this to no one. I'm only telling you this because you're her friend and fellow crewmember. Got it?" Kamira nodded. Altaire sighed and looked down. "Dana's heart stopped today." Kamira felt herself go numb. "NO! NO! NO!" her mind screamed. Altaire must have seen the look of shock on her face, because she hurried to finish. "Sean and I managed to resuscitate her, but she remains weak. The prognosis is uncertain. I just don't want anyone to know how serious it is. I haven't even gotten a chance to tell Aldebarr yet." Kamira looked at Altaire with calm grey eyes. "And you? What do you think?" Altaire wouldn't meet her gaze. "Honestly?" "Honestly." Altaire still wouldn't look at her. "If she doesn't make it through the end of the day, I won't be surprised." Kamira nodded slowly. There was silence for a long moment. "May I see her?" Kamira asked abruptly. Altaire looked up and shrugged. "I don't see why not," she said. Kamira pushed herself off the wall and followed Altaire out the door. But instead of the examination table, Dana had been moved to a room. "I didn't want her out where just anyone would walk in and see her. She is entitled to some privacy," Altaire said in response to Kamira's questioning look. Kamira suspected that Altaire had other, more obscure reasons, but she kept quiet. Altaire opened the door and stepped back to allow Kamira to enter. She stayed outside. The door slid shut as Kamira walked into the room. Dana lay in the bed, still unconscious. Kamira stepped over and dragged a chair to the bedside. She sat down and took Dana's hand. It was burning hot. "Come on, Dana," Kamira whispered. "Please wake up. Don't leave me here all alone." She closed her eyes as she thought of how much they'd been through together. She reopened her eyes in shock as she remembered the last time she'd been doing exactly this. Dana had fallen three stories off the Federation building, and her, Gemini, and Alex had gone to her room to check on her. That had been back before the launch - before the crash. Before Gemini, Alex, and everyone else but her and Dana had been mercilessly and horribly slaughtered. Kamira abruptly let go of Dana's hand. She jumped as Sean opened the door and walked in. "What are you doing in here?" Kamira asked sharply. Sean looked startled to see her there. "Altaire sent me in to check Dana's vitals. We're doing it every hour now." "Oh," Kamira said, sounding suspicious. Sean ignored her and walked over to Dana. First he scanned her with the biometer, then checked her himself. He noted the information on the clipboard that he carried. Then he looked at Kamira. "And what are you doing in here, popsicle?" he asked. She stiffened. "I am checking on my friend, in case you didn't notice. You're finished in here. Get out!" Sean glared at her. "Excuse me, but it is a free galaxy, you know." Kamira narrowed her eyes at him. "You have no reason to be here," she said loftily. Sean shrugged. "No official reason, no." "Oh, I see," Kamira said, lifting her eyebrows. "No official reason. Am I to infer from that that you have some unofficial reason to be here?" He grinned. "Apart from bugging you? No, not really." Kamira let out an exasperated sigh. She was about to reply, when Altaire came into the room. She looked at Sean. "Sean, did you by any chance happen to bring back the pouch of pills?" Sean looked at her contritely. "Oops." Altaire sighed, much as Kamira had. "Figures. I'm going up to get them. Anyone coming? I want to analyze those things." "I'll go," Kamira spoke up, glad for any excuse to get away from Sean. No such luck. He grinned maliciously at her before saying, "Me too." Kamira groaned quietly. Altaire shrugged. "The more the merrier, I guess. Now are we going, or are we going to stand here yakking till the day we die?" Kamira shot a sideways glance at Sean. "We're going." Altaire led the way out the door. When they reached Dana's quarters, Aldebarr was standing outside, a no-nonsense look on his face. "What are you doing here?" he asked. His tone was slightly less than friendly. Altaire looked startled at his brusque manner. She licked her lips. "I just came for Dana's pouch of pills..." Aldebarr cut her off with an upraised hand. "I don't think so. Those things are dangerous! Look what just one of them did to Dana!" "But that's exactly why I want them!" Altaire cried in frustration. "I'm going to analyze them, see if possibly something went wrong! And I'm still sure she must have somehow taken more than one." Aldebarr crossed his arms over his chest. "Oh, no you don't." "Well, what are you going to do, then? Just leave them lying there? Why are you acting so funny about this? You're positively paranoid!" Aldebarr shifted his weight nervously. "Well, I... I'm... I'm just worried about Dana. I guess it's just the stress..." Altaire looked evenly at him. "So you'll let me take the pills?" Aldebarr seemed not to have much choice. "Yes," he said slowly. Altaire walked past him into the room, a look of triumph on her face. Kamira and Sean remained outside. It took Altaire only a few seconds to retrieve the pills. "Got it," she said. "Now I've got to get back and start the analyzing process. But I think that can wait until tomorrow." Kamira suddenly realized just how late it was, and how tired she felt. "You go ahead," she told Altaire and Sean. "I think I'll go to my quarters for a while." Sean looked disappointed that he wasn't going to get to bug Kamira anymore. Kamira ignored him and left. Sean sighed and left also. "Oh, well," Altaire heard him mumble under his breath. "There's always tomorrow." * * * Claire stepped out of the small alcove containing Robbie's body in shock. "But... but it wasn't like that before!" she sputtered. Zach shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you, Claire. Just what exactly are you trying to pull?" "I'm not trying to pull anything!" she exclaimed. "Well, Robbie was very obviously killed," Zach explained. "And according to your own story, you were the only one up here since then. What do you think I'd be thinking right now? What would you be thinking right now?" Claire stared at Zach, her brown eyes going huge. "Zach, you can't possibly be insinuating that I..." She couldn't finish. Zach held up his hands. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Don't jump to conclusions here. I'm just saying that it looks pretty suspicious." Claire turned away. "I can't believe that for even one second you could think..." She stopped. She turned back, frowning. A flash of red light had caught her eye, like one of the emergency lights going haywire. Seeing nothing, she looked at Zach, the unspoken question on her lips freezing as she saw the expression on Zach's face. It quickly vanished, however, when he noticed that she was looking at him. Claire shivered. "Uh, listen, Zach, I... I think I'm going to go to my quarters..." She trailed off nervously. "Zach? Why - why are you looking at me like that?" "Like what?" he asked, his voice dangerously soft. Claire began to back away. He looked... different. Hateful. Vicious. Hungry. "I'll... I'll just leave now. Okay?" Zach stepped closer, closing the distance between them. Claire let out a sharp gasp as her back bumped into the wall. She pressed herself up against it, staring wide-eyed at a Zach who had suddenly, inexplicably changed. He advanced, dark eyes boring into hers. Claire squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her hands to her temples. Shooting pains ripped through her head, and her mind cried out in silent agony. Zach gave a low chuckle. Claire opened her eyes - and screamed in horror and fear. Zach's face and body collapsed in on themselves, like melting wax. Then, they reformed... but not as they had been. Zach now looked exactly like her. "You - you're not Zach!" Claire cried. The Zach-thing laughed horribly. The sound sent a chill down Claire's spine. "What gave you your first clue, sweetie?" Panic sank its icy talons into Claire's brain. Numbness spread throughout her body. Her breath began to come faster. Claire froze. Oh no! She could feel an asthma attack beginning. She began to start wheezing. "Hey!" The Zach-thing, now a Claire-thing, cuffed her sharply across the face. "None of that!" "I... I can't... I can't help it," Claire wheezed. She gasped for air. "Well, how do you stop it, then?" the Claire-thing asked. "I don't want you dying on me - not yet, anyway." Claire was beginning to feel dizzy from lack of oxygen. "In... inhaler... left... pocket..." She slumped down to sit on the floor, bracing her back against the wall, head lolling to one side. Through a hazy mist, she felt the Claire-thing digging through her pocket. Then it stuffed the inhaler into her hand. "Use it!" it growled. Claire fumbled with it with clumsy fingers for a moment. Spots danced in front of her eyes. The Claire-thing kicked her, hard. "Now!" it shouted. Claire lifted it to her mouth. She lowered it and took a deep breath. Sweet, cool air flooded her lungs. She exhaled and took another deep breath. The Claire-thing hauled her roughly to her feet. "Come on!" Claire stumbled as it dragged her down the hall. "What are you doing?" she asked frantically. The Claire-thing laughed. "I'm going to take your place! Your friends will never suspect a thing - especially not while I've got you to give me information. And then my friends and I will feast on their flesh, dripping with blood. Their dying screams will be lullabies for our young. We-" "STOP!" Claire cried in anguish. It shrugged. "You asked." There was a moment of silence, then Claire spoke. "Who - what are you?" "You don't know?" it sneered. Claire shivered. It was so strange to see her own face threatening her. "N - no," she admitted. It snickered. "You pathetic little fools! We are the true rulers of this planet." Claire stared at it, an idea slowly working its way into her brain. And it wasn't pretty. Then, the Claire-thing confirmed her worst suspicions. "We are the zylogigs." Dana's words from the tape came back to Claire: "Alex! Alex, NO! It was a zylogig... a zylogig... zylogig..." "Why?" she whispered. "Why the killing, why the fear? Why?" It shrugged. "Simple. You intruded on our territory. All intruders must die. And it has been a long, long time since we have had fresh new meat. We are hungry. But not for long!" Claire shivered. Suddenly, a spark of anger and rage flared up in her. What right did these... these things have to do this to them? She wrenched her arm from the zylogig's grasp and viciously kicked out behind her. The zylogig let out a gasp and crumpled, apparently not expecting such a violent retaliation. Claire ran, attempting to get away before it could recover. This time, when she reached the stairs, the door opened. She ran headlong down the stairs at top speed. On Deck 3, she ran straight into someone. "Oof!" Claire grunted as the wind was knocked out of her. She looked up at whoever she'd inadvertently stuck her nose in their chest. She extricated herself from Sean's arms, which he'd thrown about her to prevent her from landing on the floor. "Sorry," she mumbled, staring down at the floor. "So there you are," he said. "What are you doing rushing around like that?" Claire looked at him. "It's after me, Sean," she said seriously. As she expected, he began to laugh. "Good one, Claire. Who's after you? The boogie-man?" "No," she gritted out. "It said it was a zylogig and it wanted to take my place and kill you all. Sean, it changed its shape! It changed into me!" Sean thought a moment. "Well," he said, "if you're going to be so paranoid, how do you know that I'm not an 'it'?" Claire stared at him. * * * Altaire walked into the MU, carrying her hard-won pouch of pills in hand. Why was Aldebarr acting so funny about them? Maybe he really was just worried, she mused. Then she snorted inwardly. Right! And she was the leading candidate for Federation Leader after Winthrop. She put the pills in a cupboard, too tired to test them tonight. Before she went to bed, she'd check on Dana, she thought. Altaire went over to Dana's room and opened the door. Then she stopped in shock, one foot poised in the air. Dana was gone. She raced over to the bed. It was slightly disheveled, but otherwise just as she'd seen it last. Altaire looked frantically around the room. "Dana?" she called, as if Dana were hiding somewhere just waiting for her chance to jump out and yell "BOO!" and then laugh maniacally. "Dana!" Receiving no answer, she slowly sank down to sit on the bed. She closed her eyes and thought, reviewing all she knew about OD patients. "A Karmac overdose patient may slip very suddenly from one state to another. He or she may awake abruptly. Often when this happens, the patient is disoriented and/or tired." Altaire stopped her train of thought. "May awake abruptly," she whispered to herself. She closed her eyes. There was a very sick woman roaming about somewhere - one who might collapse or have a relapse at any time. And she could be anywhere! The Savior was even bigger than the Luna, and the Luna was pretty big. The situation did not look good. Dana remained weak. What if she were lying sick or hurt somewhere, unable to call for help? Altaire reached for the 'com on the wall to make a ship-wide broadcast. * * * Dana floated in a sea of black nothingness. She felt incredibly calm and peaceful. Slowly she became aware of her surroundings. She was lying on her back on something soft. Her eyes flickered open. She moved them around the darkened room, her muzzy consciousness wondering where she was. The last thing she remembered was slumping to the floor, straining to reach for the 'com. Her eye caught the digital clock on the wall. The numbers glowed blue: 9:07 PM. "It's been about 12 hours since I fainted," Dana realized. Unless, of course, she'd been out for a few days. She tried to sit up, but failed. Her body seemed to be 4 times its normal weight. All she could manage was a few inches before her head dropped back onto her pillows. She felt incredibly drained, as if there were some invisible tube sucking out her energy. She struggled to keep her eyes open until someone came in, but it was a losing battle. Eventually, her eyes slid shut and she drifted off to sleep - real sleep, this time. * * * Dana opened her eyes sleepily. Instead of feeling tired, she felt happy and light-hearted. Immediately she sprang out of bed and ran to her window. She was in space! There, right outside her window, was a planet. It was a multitude of colors; yellow, blue, red, green, and purple. Dana turned around and faced the center of the room. The cerulean blue walls glimmered and her vanity dresser still looked new. Dana recognized the room as her cabin on the Luna. Even though the Luna was crashed on Sulros and broken beyond repair, being on it still made perfect sense to her. Dana wandered out of the blue room and into the halls. Suddenly, an alarm rang out and the red warning lights flashed wildly. She realized that they were the engineering warning lights. She began to run down the hall in the direction of Engineering and Computers. She didn't notice, however, that the halls began to get gradually darker. Finally she got to Engineering, where a flash of déjà vu hit her. This was what had happened when the ship had crashed! She had walked in, when it had crashed. Dana realized that the ship crashing must have all been a dream! She started to walk in... and caught her breath. Dana quickly put a hand to her open mouth. There, before her, stood Alex. He looked exactly how they had found him so many weeks ago. Only now, he looked more decayed. He looked more... dead. Alex was clutching his stomach with one hand and supporting himself on the main computer terminal with the other. His facial expression was one of pain and horror. "Dana," he said in a dry, cracked voice. It sounded like he hadn't used his vocal cords in a long time. "Dana!" Dana grimaced at the sound of his voice. "Alex... Alex, what is it?" she asked slowly. "I didn't... the ship... Winthrop!" Alex tried to form a cohesive sentence. "Winthrop... my ship!" Dana shook her head. "I can't understand you. Winthrop my ship? What does that mean?" Alex's expression twisted into one full of remorse. "I didn't... want... to hurt anyone!" His breathing sounded ragged and labored. Dana took a step closer. "What are you talking about?" Alex took a deep breath and tried to continue. "I didn't... mean to... it was Winthrop!" Dana widened her eyes. "Winthrop?" Alex nodded. Dana took a step forward. "Look," Alex said, pointing at the screen of the terminal. Gathering courage, Dana stepped forward and looked at the screen. "Alex, what is this?" Alex struggled to form the words. "Silent... Arrow," he intoned in a raspy, hoarse whisper. Dana looked at the screen. A cylinder-like canister was onscreen. Stats flew around it. She recognized them from her Physics course. "But..." Dana turned to face Alex. "But these stats are impossible. Nothing could have these!" Alex nodded and pointed to the cylinder. "Silent Arrow," he insisted. He pointed down. "Here?" Dana asked. "This," she pointed to the picture, "is here?" Alex nodded again. Dana turned back to the screen. "But what is it?" Then she recognized the type of gases in holding tank one. Cobalt disulphide. In holding tank two was lithium baronoxide. This had to be... "A bomb?" Dana asked. Suddenly, the room shook and swayed and started to spin. Alex disappeared and the computers fizzled out. The room was a shambles. Dana stood in the center of the room, now fully awakened from her dream. She was now all alone on the deck of the Luna. * * * Altaire lunged for the 'com and slapped down the 'transmit' button. "Everybody! I want a ship-wide search! Dana's missing!" She flicked off the 'com and raced out of the MU, her tiredness forgotten. On her way out, she ran into Aldebarr. He looked furious. Altaire gulped. Uh oh. "What happened?" he fairly bellowed. "Where is she?" Altaire was nervous, but she kept her cool. "Sir, if I knew where she was, would I have called a ship-wide search? I walked in and she was gone. That's all I know." Aldebarr rubbed his chin pensively. "Did someone move her?" Altaire shook her head. "No, the only people who would do that would be me or Sean, and Sean would have told me." "Would he really?" Aldebarr asked, arching an eyebrow. Altaire's jaw dropped. "Are you saying... someone may have abducted her?" He nodded. "Or something." Altaire shrugged. "Well, if someone did, then she was either unconscious or cooperative." Aldebarr frowned. "Why?" "Because when I went in, there was no sign of a struggle," Altaire explained. "Everything was just like I left it." "Hmm," he said thoughtfully. "And what's your theory?" Altaire moved her hands about helplessly. "To the best of my knowledge, there's no reasonable explanation. But..." she added, as Aldebarr looked ready to explode again - "But there may be a slightly unreasonable one." "Let's hear it," said Aldebarr, crossing his arms over his chest. Altaire licked her lips. "Well," she began, "a victim of an overdose of this particular drug may awake abruptly, flicker in and out of consciousness, that sort of thing. I believe Dana may have awakened, become confused, and wandered off. We've got to find her before... before something happens," she ended lamely. Aldebarr wasn't having any of it. "Altaire?" he said warningly. "What aren't you telling me?" She shifted her weight uneasily from foot to foot. "It may be nothing, sir," she faltered, gazing up at him with large, frightened eyes that spoke differently. He glared at her, his eyes smoldering. "Tell me!" Altaire shrank back against the wall, suddenly and inexplicably terrified of this man who abruptly seemed like a complete stranger. She pressed her back against the cool metal, taking comfort from its solidity and strength. "There is a slight possibility... Dana may have a relapse and pass out somewhere and probably die," Altaire blurted out, running the last few words together. Aldebarr closed his eyes. "Oh, great." Altaire opened her mouth to say something, but quickly shut it as Kamira came dashing down the hall. "What happened?" she gasped out, face flushed. She was breathing hard from running. Kamira was dressed in sleep clothes and looked as though she'd been awakened abruptly. "Why is Dana missing?" Altaire sighed. "I wish I knew." "What's going on?" Kamira asked next. "What's a ship-wide search? Can I help somehow?" "Oh, of course, you wouldn't know," Aldebarr cut in. "When a ship-wide search is called, each crewmember has a sector of the ship to search. The system was initiated because of various bomb scares and threats and things like that on rescue ships." "Can I help search?" Kamira asked. Aldebarr pondered a moment. Then he shrugged. "Sure. Why not?" He looked to Altaire. "Altaire, if you wouldn't mind, could Kamira..." Altaire sighed. "Okay. Kamira, come with me." Kamira followed Altaire to the beginning of her sector. She helped Altaire check rooms, her mind racing all the while. Was Dana all right? Had she been abducted? If so, by who? The zylogigs? And as she thought, a rather unpleasant notion wormed its way into her brain. Was she the only Luna crewmember left? * * * "Melina!" Winthrop bellowed. His pretty secretary stepped into the room. "Yes, sir?" she asked respectfully. "Any report from Vaga 3?" "No, sir." He didn't even have to specify. Both knew exactly what he meant. Winthrop leaned back in his chair. "How about Betelgeuse?" he asked, naming the checkpoint closest to Vaga 3. "No, sir." "We've still got the last coordinates the Luna crew sent us, right?" Winthrop inquired. "Yes, sir," Melina replied. Winthrop steepled his fingers. "Good. Get Wilson in here." "Right away, sir." Winthrop tapped his fingers together impatiently until there was a knock on the door. "Come in!" he called out. Wilson entered. "You wanted to see me?" he asked. "Yes," Winthrop replied, getting up from his desk. He moved over to the window and stood looking out, hands clasped behind his back. "We still have the coordinates the Luna crew sent us with the distress signal, am I correct?" Wilson shifted his weight and sighed quietly. The Luna again. Couldn't Winthrop accept the fact that the mission had failed? In Wilson's book, the Luna was a complete write-off. "Yes, sir, I believe we do," he answered cautiously. Winthrop wasn't going to dispatch another rescue ship, was he? "Then correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it should be possible to send a broadbeam message in that general direction, should it not?" Wilson cleared his throat. "Theoretically, yes, sir, but depending on conditions, it could take months to reach them!" Winthrop turned from the window and held up a finger. "Or days." "Sir," Wilson protested, "it's very unlikely that we'll have ideal conditions anytime soon in that region..." He trailed off at Winthrop's glare. "I don't care! I want it done, and I want it done yesterday!" Wilson sighed. "We don't even know if the mission can still be successful." Winthrop narrowed his eyes. "Just what exactly are you implying, Major Wilson?" "What I'm saying, sir, is that in their message they mentioned that three crewmembers had been killed. It's a very good possibility that one of them may have been Krycek." Winthrop raised an eyebrow. "Must you always be so negative? Tsk tsk, Wilson! Have a little faith in our man!" "Sir," Wilson said stiffly, "I'm just stating the facts." He quickly ran through the math in his head. "There's a 25% chance that Krycek was among those killed." Winthrop shook his head and smiled. "You know how much I hate it when you do that." Wilson blinked, puzzled. "Do what?" Winthrop chuckled softly, then snapped back to seriousness. "Never tell me the odds, Wilson," he said quietly, quoting from an ancient movie. "Never tell me the odds." Chapter 6 Sean tramped down the hall, feeling irritated. It was Altaire's job to keep tabs on Dana - he was only supposed to help. Altaire was the one responsible for her. And just how, exactly, did you lose someone who was supposedly comatose? It just didn't make sense to him. He stopped, opened a door, poked his head in. Nothing. Sean continued on his way, now thinking about Claire. "I wonder what's up with her?" he mused to himself. She'd gone all wide-eyed and then run off. It was as if she'd really seen the boogie-man. He opened another door and poked his head in again. Still nothing. He sighed, stopping for a moment to lean against the wall. Why, oh why, did Dana have to pick now to disappear? Sean straightened as he heard a noise. "Hello?" he called out. "Dana?" An arm seemed to grow out of the wall. A hand beckoned him. Sean moved slowly down the hall towards it. When he reached the small alcove, a shadowy figure stepped out. "Hello, Sean," Dana said. Sean just stood there dumbly. "I'm glad you finally came along," she continued. "I was getting tired of waiting." Finally finding his voice, Sean stammered out, "For... for what?" Dana smiled a predatory smile and ran a hand through her hair. "Why, for you of course, silly." She took a step closer to him and slipped a hand up his arm to rest on his shoulder. Sean spread his hands and grinned foolishly. "Well, hey, you didn't have to go through all this just to get my attention, you know." Dana shrugged languidly. "A girl does like to play her games now and then." Sean cast her a sidelong glance. "And what game are we playing now?" "Oh, you know," she demurred, sliding up her other hand. Now both arms were around his neck. "Guy meets girl... guy and girl hate each other and fight all the time... guy and girl always end up together in the end. It's inevitable." Sean frowned. "Dana? Are you on something?" She smiled. "Just love, babe." Sean raised his eyebrows. "Babe?" "Uh huh." Dana sighed happily, then giggled. "Dana?" Sean inquired. "Are you drunk?" "No," Dana giggled again. "Whyever would you think that?" "Well..." Sean hesitated. "You're acting a bit - funny, that's all." "Funny?" she breathed. "Would that be funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?" "Definitely funny weird," he stated emphatically. She smiled enigmatically and ran one of her hands through his hair. "You know," she said softly, "a gal like me could get really attracted to a guy like you." Sean's grin grew even more foolish. "Really? You were acting like you hated me there for a while." Dana made a dismissive gesture behind his back as if to flick away an annoying insect. "Oh, come on. Couldn't you see I was just playing hard to get?" "Well, I... uh..." Sean was abruptly stricken speechless as she stepped in closer and kissed him on the mouth. She stepped back and smiled, bright blue eyes shining softly up at him. Suddenly, Sean's vision blurred. He stumbled backwards and bumped into the wall. He slid to the floor, his muscles feeling like jelly. "Now," Dana said quietly, exultantly, "Now you are mine." He blinked up at her stupidly. "Huh?" She didn't answer, but knelt down beside him. Sean's vision wasn't so blurry that he couldn't recognize the gleam of light off metal. Dana had pulled a knife on him. "Dana?" he slurred through slack facial muscles. "What do you think you're doing?" She smiled sweetly. "I'm going to kill you." "Uh, I was kind of hoping for something else," was all a dumbstruck Sean could think to say. Dana stepped forward and slashed at his throat with the knife. Sean managed to block the attack with his hand. She grabbed his arm to hold him still. "No!" Sean cried, wrenching his arm from her grasp. He started to run down the halls, screaming, "Help! Help me! Please! Somebody! Anybody!" He cradled his wounded hand as he rounded a corner. "Sean!" a sugar-sweet voice called from behind him. "You can't resist me, Sean. Come back, sweetie!" Sean tripped over his own feet and fell hard on his face. He groaned and struggled to his feet. Blood dripped off his hand as he went. He ran slower and slower as he got more and more tired. He was breathing hard, as if he had been running for miles instead of the few feet he'd actually run down the corridor. "Sean! Seanie!" The voice was coming closer. "Leave me alone!" he cried, leaning against a wall for support. It was strange, but he was exhausted. His vision was cloudy and he was unusually tired. He looked back down the hall and saw Dana coming around the corner. She held the knife at her side. "Help me! Help! Please!" Sean started to limp away, half dragging one side of his body. He looked over his shoulder. Dana was stalking steadily closer. Sean finally collapsed in exhaustion. Her footsteps came nearer, getting louder as they did so. He rolled over and watched her approach. He closed his eyes. When he reopened them, he saw Dana staring down at him. She raised the knife into a striking position. Then she hesitated, her attention seeming to be attracted by something else for a second. "No, wait. You would make good food." She grabbed his arm again and pulled him to his feet. She started to drag him down the hall, but as he regained his balance Sean smacked Dana upside the head with his free arm. She fell to the ground almost immediately and silently, too surprised to do anything other than collapse. As she fell, she dropped the knife and her grip on his arm was loosened. Sean began to run again. He came to the end of the hall, where the main Lab was. Sean tried the door. Locked. He pulled out his keycard and slid it through the slot located to one side of the door. He staggered in and fell heavily to his hands and knees. Sean forced himself back upright. There had to be somewhere to hide. Dana stormed down the hall. "I'm tired of playing games with you!" she raged. "Sean! Come out! You don't understand how it works here, Sean!" Sean hugged his knees tightly as he sat in the cramped little cupboard. He managed to slide the door shut even though it was a very tight squeeze. He listened as the voice and the footsteps grew nearer. "Just give it up, Sean! You know you can't win! I know what you're thinking, Sean! You can run, but you can't hide from me! You can never hide." He shivered and pressed himself further in, up against the back of the cupboard. The hard metal was cold through his uniform. The door to the Lab slid open. "Sean? Sean! Come out, come out, wherever you are!" Sean began to breathe faster in panic. He was shaking all over with the effort of stopping himself from passing out. "I know you're in here! You might as well make it easy on yourself and come out! I'll reward you with a quick and painless death if you do." His heartbeat quickened as he heard Dana approaching his hiding place. Her footsteps stopped right outside it. The door slid back, revealing Dana's feral expression, half-hidden by her mass of fiery hair as she bent down to put her head near the door. She favored him with a predatory grin. "Boo." "Yaaaaahh!" Sean jumped. Dana's grin twisted into a snarl. "No more funny business! You're coming with me, and you're coming now!" She took hold of his arm and yanked him out, then twisted it in a punishing submission hold. "Yow!" Sean protested. She dragged him out the door of the Lab. He fought and struggled every step of the way, but he found that Dana had amazing strength. "Hey, Dana," he began conversationally as he stopped struggling. "Yes, Sean?" "Watch the birdie!" She frowned, puzzled. "Birdie? What bird-" Sean whirled as well as he could so that he was now in front of her and punched her in the face, hard. "Aah!" Her hands flew up to her head. Sean turned and ran for his life. * * * Erin glanced nervously to the door. Idly she imagined what would happen if Aldebarr were to come in and find them not searching. Right after Altaire's 'com broadcast, Aldebarr had made one reinforcing it. If he knew they weren't doing as they'd been ordered... "Erin!" She jumped, then turned back to Zach. "Huh?" He sighed exasperatedly. "I said, for the third time, would you please hand me the ion calibrator? It should be somewhere on the worktable." "Oh. Sorry." She moved over to the table and picked up the tool, then handed it to Zach. "Thanks," he said absently, already sliding himself back under where the primary engine mountings were. She listened to him tinkering with the guts of the engine. "You think Aldebarr'll be mad that we aren't looking for Dana?" Erin wondered aloud. "Hey, does he want off this rock or what?" came Zach's voice, slightly muffled. "And besides..." He slid himself out and gave Erin a sly wink. "What Aldebarr don't know won't hurt him." Zach slid back under. Erin began pacing. "I still don't know..." She heard Zach give an irritated sigh. "Look, Erin. If it'll make you happier, you can go search. However, the work goes faster if there's someone to help. Stupid aliens..." His voice trailed off as he became absorbed in his project. Erin was about to reply, when the door burst open and Sean staggered in. 'Staggered' was an apt word, Erin thought as he collapsed on the floor. "Close... the door..." Sean gasped out. Zach came crawling out from underneath the engine. "Sean? What for?" "She's gone nuts! She's trying to kill me! And she said something about wanting to eat me!" Sean looked really panicked. "What?" Erin asked. "She's gonna kill me!" Sean screamed. "Who?" both Erin and Zach shouted simultaneously. Sean's dark eyes looked up at them as if pleading them to do something. "Dana," he whispered. Then he fainted. Erin and Zach looked at each other. "Dana?" Zach said. "But..." "But she's missing," Erin finished. They locked gazes. "Apparently not anymore," Zach stated grimly. "What - what should we do?" Erin asked. Zach threw his hands up in the air helplessly. "I don't know! How often do we have to deal with a homicidal maniac on board the ship?" "Maybe we should tell Aldebarr. He'll know what to do." "Do you know where he is? I'm not just going out there to wander around looking for him with a killer on the loose!" "We don't know for sure that Dana's a killer," Erin reminded him. "Sean was probably just exaggerating." Zach crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm still not going out there." Erin sighed in annoyance. "Okay, okay! Let me think. Umm... He's probably on the bridge." Seeing Zach about to argue, she hastily added, "No, I'm sure of it. He's on the bridge." "And what are we going to do about Sean?" Zach wanted to know. She shrugged. "I dunno. Just leave him. He'll wake up eventually." Erin and Zach left the room, closing the door behind them so Sean wouldn't freak out or anything when he woke up. Zach preceded Erin down the hallway. Suddenly getting an impish idea, she sneaked up behind him, grabbed his shoulders, and yelled, "BOO!" "YAAAAAAH!" Zach jumped about two feet straight up in the air. He whirled around. "Erin!" She favored him with a sweet smile. "You were expecting maybe Dana the serial killer?" Zach just glared at her a moment. He turned to keep walking, but then stopped and turned back, glancing at Erin suspiciously. "You'd better go first." She shrugged and complied. Grinning, Zach walked behind her a few feet, then launched himself at her with a kamikaze scream. However, Erin was waiting. She dodged to the side and stuck out her foot. Zach landed on the floor with a bump. He glared up at her. "Hey!" She grinned at him playfully. "Always watch your back." * * * Dana blinked, stunned. She looked around the room. Where was Alex? And why was the room all dark? It looked damaged, too. What was going on? Then recent events caught up with her and she lost her momentary confusion. But one thing still nagged at her. The last thing she remembered, she'd been in the MU on the Savior. How had she ended up in Computers on the Luna? She glanced around the room. She'd had the weirdest dream... Suddenly, Dana froze. In her dream, Alex had been standing against the far wall, leaning on what she had assumed to be the main computer terminal. But the main computer was at the right wall. Dana looked to where she'd seen the other computer. But all she saw was a blank metal wall, faintly gleaming in the moonlight that streamed into the room through a large hole in the wall at her back. "What the..." she muttered to herself. Dana stepped over to the wall and ran a hand over the smooth, cool metal. Had there been another computer unit here, one that had somehow been destroyed? She closed her eyes, trying to remember. Dana's azure eyes snapped open. No, she couldn't recall anything ever being over there. Yet in her dream, she clearly remembered the computer. Dana went to the main computer, praying that the power would work. She switched it on and held her breath. For a few moments, nothing happened. But then, with a low groaning hum, the computer slowly came on. For a second, she just stood there, wondering how to extract the information she needed. Then she was hearing Alex's awful, hoarse voice again: "Silent Arrow. Silent Arrow..." Dana typed in, 'Query: Keywords Silent Arrow'. The computer blinked and flashed, then a message popped up on the screen. 'One file found'. She tried to open the file, but was met with a request for a passcode. "Hmm," Dana muttered out loud. Then she grinned to herself. If Alex had somehow been in on this, whatever it was... She typed in 'Krycek', and hit the 'Enter' button. The computer flashed some more. Then - 'Passcode accepted' flashed onscreen. Dana allowed herself a satisfied smile. Some things never changed. Including Alex's password. She'd found out the passcode into his private files... oh, ages ago... and then discovered that he'd used the same passcode for all his files. She snorted. Idiot. She had a different code for each file she had and changed them often. It was a tribute to Alex's arrogant nature that he used his own name. Dana read through the file, growing more horrified with each passing second. There was a bomb on board this ship? And, if the stats she'd seen in the dream were anything to go by, it was the bomb to end all bombs. She now believed that what she'd seen in the dream was real. Dana skimmed through the file once more, but it didn't say anything about where the bomb was located, or how to access it. Dana gulped. She felt sick to her stomach just thinking about how much destructive potential they'd been sitting on - figuratively - all this time. Or was it something like reaction-sickness from her overdose? No, Dana decided, it was pure horror. A second later, her mouth dropped open in shock. She reread the section her eyes had fallen on, just to make sure she hadn't made a mistake. She hadn't. Her horror evaporated, to be replaced by sheer, white-hot rage. Winthrop had set them up! Didn't he know the risks he was taking in doing this? She shuddered to think of what might have happened had they been a little less lucky in the crash. BOOM! No more Luna. And most likely, no more Sulros as well. Just like that, an entire planet wiped out. The mission statement said that Alex was to deliver the bomb to the officials on Vaga 3. From there, an elite troop of commandos would perform a suicide mission and drop the bomb on Fallacia. Dana trembled in anger. That was fighting dirty! How many of the other crewmembers had known, she wondered. Brea, almost certainly. For an absurd moment, she wondered if everyone except her had known, but then she passed the idea off as just plain stupid. Just thinking about all the security problems made her head spin. And it just wasn't practical to have so many people in on something like this. She was fairly certain Kamira hadn't known - in the days after the Savior had come, they'd had many long talks together, about anything and everything they could think of, neither wanting to be left alone with her thoughts. Dana felt sure Kamira would have said something. And even if she hadn't - Dana was pretty good at reading people. She would have been able to tell if Kamira had been hiding something from her. Dana sat down to mull over her options. What should her next course of action be? One thing was for sure - she was not leaving this ship until she'd found the bomb. But everyone on the Savior was probably very worried about her. "Let's be realistic here," she thought to herself. "Very worried? Ha! Let's make that 'full-blown panic'. That would probably be closer." When she'd left to go to the Luna, whenever that had been, she doubted that she'd left a note. Then Dana noticed that she was wearing her 'com. "Well, now, isn't that convenient?" she thought wryly. She moved over to stand in front of the large hole in the wall so as to appear to be outside. That way, no one would ever guess that she was on the Luna. There was no way she was going to tell the others about this. She knew what would happen if she did. As soon as they found the bomb, Aldebarr would lock it away for "study" and it would never be seen again - until it ended up on the Fallacians' doorstep. Dana intended to do some "studying" of her own. She switched on her 'com and patched into the Savior's ship-wide broadcast channel. "Savior, this is Dana Pendrell. I'm all right, but something pretty big has come up. Please don't come looking for me. I'll be back as soon as I can." She quickly turned it off just as an irate-looking Aldebarr patched himself into the transmission. She didn't want to have to deal with that right now - especially not when she felt so tired all of a sudden. Dana stumbled through the corridors, and opened the door to the first cabin she came to. She ought to be able to stay here comfortably for a long while - there was food and water on board that no one had bothered to remove. Later she'd move to her own room, but for now she was too weary to take another step. Looking around the room, she made a mental note to change "later" to "sooner", as she identified the room as the one formerly belonging to Alex. But for now, she was too tired to care. She took one shuffling step towards the bed - "Hello, Dana." An all-too-familiar voice spoke from somewhere in the room. "It's good to see you again." She froze. Alex Krycek stepped out of the shadows. Chapter 7 The zylogig slept. It was the oldest one, ancient beyond imagining from its peers' point of view. It was the ruler. Long ago, when some unknown genetic anomaly had created it, it had begun to eat. It gorged itself until it grew to mammoth proportions. And then, one by one, it created offspring. Like a giant amoeba, it split itself into two, three, four, tearing little pieces off itself, until they were many. The children had offspring of their own. The species of the zylogig was born. Eventually, they refined their reproductive process, laying eggs instead of simply splitting. The eggs required constant attention and feeding, and anything even remotely close to the nest was ripped apart. They ate, and they reproduced. In the beginning, they were simply blobs of black ooze, and none of the other creatures were afraid. They could easily escape from the slower zylogigs, who had to slither and could not run or fly or swim. But then, during the darkest time, when food was scarce and they must all surely die, one of their number learned the art of shapeshifting. Who can tell how it came to know it? Perhaps the idea came to it while stretching to reach something and a section of itself temporarily changed into a long, thin string; perhaps it practiced in secret, over and over, until it could change into whatever it wanted. Perhaps then it went to the others and proudly showed off its new skill, and then the others began to copy it. Who can tell? All that matters is that the zylogigs became shapeshifters. They found that getting food now was easy. All they had to do was to change into the likeness of the animal they wished to eat. It had no clue as to their real identity until too late. For a time, they feasted. But then, the animals got smarter. The zylogigs found that they not only had to look like a particular animal - they had to act like it also. And so the zylogigs developed the skill of telepathy. They drained the information they needed from the brains of the creatures they wished to emulate. With this new skill, they were almost indistinguishable from the real animal when they shapeshifted. Soon, all the other animals were gone; the zylogigs had eaten them all. All except for one species. The oooruffians were smart, and quick. They alone were able to penetrate the disguises of the zylogigs. When the rest of the available animals were gone, there was again no food, except for here and there an unwary oooruffian. It was then that they learned the talent of merging. The mass of one zylogig could flow into another, keeping the two intelligences separate, and flow back out unharmed. Merging also allowed them to shift into larger and larger forms, giving them the mass they needed to do it. When food was scarce, they would just merge. Food for one, in a merge, was food for all. The zylogig slept. It was waiting. It had been sleeping, and growing, for centuries. It was immeasurably old and impossibly large. Soon, it would wake. The Destruction Time was near. It always woke for the Destruction Time, once every century. There was always food then - the bodies of the dead littered the ground, and its kind feasted. Yes, it would wake soon. And it would be hungry. * * * Kamira literally fell into bed. She was exhausted, both from ordinary fatigue and the earlier relentless tension about Dana. She hoped that Dana was safe, wherever she was. After her 'com broadcast, Aldebarr had dismissed everyone. He had stayed behind, trying to contact Dana again, so far without success. At the time of the message, Kamira had been suspicious, thinking that maybe it was a zylogig trying to trick them. But then she decided it wasn't. For one thing, Dana's eyes didn't glow red. Kamira had seen that happen before several times. Also, it didn't feel like a zylogig. Every time she'd seen one, she'd gotten a subtle sense of something being wrong. She knew Dana very well, and she was almost certain it really was her. As she turned over on her side to sleep, Kamira just hoped that she hadn't been wrong. "Kamira... Kamira!" Kamira jolted awake. "Who's there?" she called out. "Kamira... Dana is safe." The mysterious voice was male, and seemed to come from everywhere. And is seemed oddly familiar... "Dana is all right," the voice continued. "She's with me. I promise I'll take care of her..." Kamira sat up abruptly, eyes wide in shock. "Alex?" she breathed. "Don't worry..." came a faint echo. Then her room shivered and seemed to melt. She found herself lying on her back in bed, staring up into the darkness. Kamira shuddered. What a strange dream! Being a scientist, she'd never been one to believe in portents and omens, but now... Alex had said, "She's with me." Was Dana dead? Kamira rolled onto her stomach and buried her face in her pillow. "Oh, Dana," she whispered, her voice slightly muffled by the pillow. "Dana... Dana... Dana..." She started to sob, saying Dana's name over and over and, "no, no, no." Kamira cried for a while, and then gradually calmed down. Slowly she began to pull herself back together. "Let's think this through rationally," she thought. "Just because you had a weird dream doesn't mean it's the end of the world." Kamira realized that she was probably just overtired, which was most likely why she'd freaked out that way. However, she still wasn't reassured. "Stop it," she told herself. "You had an extremely weird dream. That's all that happened. Dana's fine! And Alex is long dead. He can't do anything. Geez, maybe Dana's nightmares are rubbing off on me." Kamira sighed and decided to do the only reasonable thing. She rolled over and went back to sleep. * * * "Captain Aldebarr! Captain Aldebarr!" Erin and Zach dashed onto the bridge, rather breathless. Aldebarr looked up from the computer. "Yes, now what?" he asked irritatedly. "It's Dana," Zach explained. Aldebarr's full attention immediately snapped to him. "You've found her?" "Well, actually," Erin cut in, "Sean did." Aldebarr stood up excitedly. "Where?" "Well, sir, he didn't say. You see..." and Zach told him what Sean had said. Aldebarr rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Hmmm. Well, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Dismissed. I need to get back to work." "What?" Zach said incredulously. "That's it? We've got a crazed killer on board and you wouldn't worry about it too much? I don't believe this!" Erin took his arm. "Come on, Zach. Let's just go." He shook her off. "You can." He looked to Aldebarr with a winning smile. "Need any help? I'm great with computers." Aldebarr seemed to hesitate for a moment, then relaxed. "All right. Have a seat." Zach sat, as Erin left shaking her head. "What I'm trying to do is reach Miss Pendrell's 'com, but it keeps saying my transmission is blocked." Zach pursed his lips. "Hmm. Well, then, let's try..." He tapped the keys. A computer noise sounded. Zach cracked his knuckles. "We are in. I've just convinced the ship's 'com net that we have a top-level security override." "Good," Aldebarr said with satisfaction. Then he paused. "What does that do?" Zach sighed. Apparently he was used to technological stupidity. "It makes it do whatever is necessary to get through, up to and including cutting off transmissions in progress, turning 'coms on if they're off, that sort of thing." Aldebarr appeared to be absorbing this; then he nodded. "Continue." Zach tapped a few more keys. "Dana's 'com number?" Aldebarr told him. Zach punched it in, and a screen sparked to life, filled with static. "Connecting," Zach said with pride. Aldebarr leaned forward as the connection completed. The static resolved - into a picture of a man with dark hair and eyes. Aldebarr, Zach, and the man stared at each other for a long moment. Then Aldebarr seemed to snap out of his trance-like daze. "Cut the connection, you fool!" he hissed at Zach. Zach shook himself and reached for the keyboard. The man abruptly disappeared, and the screen resumed its normal, tranquil milky grey. For one interminable instant, silence reigned. Then, tentatively, Zach spoke. "Who was that? He's not on the crew..." Aldebarr turned on him, seeming a bit shaken himself. "You didn't see anything here tonight." "But..." Zach started. "That's an order!" Aldebarr roared. "Yes sir!" Zach said, turning pale. He stood, obviously waiting for something. Aldebarr lost no time in giving it to him. "Dismissed!" "Yessir!" Zach all but ran off the bridge. Aldebarr sank into a chair to think. He knew that face... Then the reference came to him. And he started to think really hard. * * * Alex jerked his head up as he heard the sound of footsteps. , he sent with the special effort he'd learned he needed to communicate. , the reply came back. Before he could inquire further, the door slid open. Alex's jaw dropped as Dana stepped through. He remembered that day in the galley, thinking about how much she'd changed since the crash. It was like that, times ten. She looked as if she were being chased by a horde of ravening demons. The little details he'd noticed before were now much more pronounced. She looked like hell. All this he noticed as she stumbled towards the center of the room. Dana stopped and looked around, as if only now seeing her surroundings. She'd obviously realized whose room this was. But she seemed to shrug off the disturbing echoes of the past and took another step forward. Alex decided to act. He rose up from where he'd been sitting with his back against the far wall. "Hello, Dana," he said. "It's good to see you again." He took a step towards her and watched as she went completely white. "Alex..." she whispered, seemingly in shock. Then she fainted dead away on the floor. "Nice to see you, too," Alex said, staring down at her motionless form. He bent down and checked her vital signs, just in case. Then he straightened up in shock. He sat back on his heels. "Oh my God... Dane, what in the world happened to you?" he whispered. he sent. came the reply. Alex waited impatiently until the door opened and in walked a short, squat creature with its wings pulled back out of the way. "Over here," he said to the oooruffian. "There's something wrong with her." The oooruffian blinked its large, shockingly blue eyes in what approximated surprise. Alex nodded assent. Among the oooruffian culture, females were greatly revered, since they were the egg-layers. The oooruffian, whom he'd come to think of as Splotch, since oooruffians did not have names, moved over to Dana's limp form with the natural, somewhat eerie grace all oooruffians seemed to possess. Alex watched in fascination as Splotch jumped from the floor to perch on Dana. He leaned forward, spreading his wings slightly so that they were level with the dark splotch above his eye that had given him his name, and began to hum. The deep tone vibrated through the air, jarring Alex's teeth. The oooruffian closed his eyes and continued to hum. Alex watched and waited until the hum was silenced and Splotch opened his eyes, jumping off of Dana. He blinked his big blue eyes mournfully. Alex felt his blood freeze. "What do you mean?" "Poison?" Alex asked, raising his eyebrows. Splotch shook his head violently, one of the many human mannerisms he had picked up, and attempted to explain further. he clarified. "Like an overdose?" Alex asked, sending with the word a mental explanation. the oooruffian confirmed. "Oh, my God," Alex muttered for the second time. If Dana had actually attempted suicide... Some of his anxiety must have gotten across to Splotch, for he hurried to assure Alex, . "Well, what do we do with her?" Alex asked. "I mean, we can't just leave her lying there on the floor." said Splotch. "Is that safe?" "But she's sick," Alex protested. That ended the argument. Alex stepped over to Dana and picked her up. She was surprisingly light, as if she'd lost weight. She was also frighteningly still. The slight movement of her chest as she breathed and the slow, weak beat of her heart were the only signs that she was even alive. "It's as if she used her last strength to get here," he observed to Splotch. "But why?" As he gently laid Dana in the bed, his back was turned, so he did not see the knowing expression on the oooruffian's face. Alex turned back around, having settled Dana in. "All yours, buddy. Just don't screw up, or I'm gonna have to hurt you. That's one of my crewmates, and Brea would have my hide if anything happened to her." Splotch assured him primly. Alex took a chair and watched as the oooruffian again closed his eyes. A second later, he opened them. , he said, heading for the door. "That's it?" Alex asked, rather surprised. He had expected something more like the first performance. Splotch remained unperturbed. , he said calmly. He stepped out the door. As it slid shut, he sent one last thought. * * * Aldebarr looked up at the soft tap on his door. He got up to answer it, smiling slightly to himself. The door slid back to reveal Nara and Dana. They stepped inside and Aldebarr slid the door shut behind them. He walked around them until they were facing him. Then he held out his hands, palms up. Understanding what he wanted, Dana and Nara placed their palms on his - Nara's left on his left, and Dana's right on his right. Several moments passed, then they reopened their eyes. Aldebarr smiled at Dana and Nara. They smiled back. In unison, their eyes briefly glowed red. Aldebarr spoke three words. "Good work. Continue." Dana and Nara bowed low and left. Alone, Aldebarr continued to stand there, and his smile grew even wider. * * * Alex shifted in his chair. It had been over an hour, and Dana still hadn't so much as moved. He had to admit, he was worried. There was something seriously wrong with her. He couldn't say how he knew - he just did. And he was getting seriously worried. What would happen if - he even hesitated to think the words - if she didn't make it? He remembered Dana's words to him up on the ledge of the Federation building, chaos surrounding them. "Like you care." And his own response, "I do." At the time, he'd been worried about whether or not he'd get a share of the blame. But now, looking back on those words, and in his present state of mind, he wondered if in actual fact, he had meant more than he knew. No, he decided, that was ridiculous. However, he did hope she made it. He didn't want to have to go search for someone else to fight with. Alex couldn't deny that he rather enjoyed their sparring. He didn't even mind it that much when she won - a rarity for him. He knew that she'd always be there, ready and waiting for whatever revenge he tried. He couldn't even remember now which of them had started it, or what they'd done to start it. It seemed like they'd been fighting forever. Fleetingly, he wondered what their relationship would have been like had they not started to hate each other. He remembered their dance at the Luna launch party back at Federation HQ. Of course, it hadn't been entirely voluntary, but hey, who knew? If they hadn't been such fierce enemies, they might have even ended up together. Alex laughed that idea off in a hurry. No way. Not ever. But still... he couldn't help but wonder. His attention was suddenly caught by Dana as she moaned and thrashed in the bed. "The cold..." she murmured. "The cold is the only way... cold..." The words degenerated into meaningless sounds pouring from her lips, which in turn escalated into piercing, frantic screams as Dana arched her back and struggled violently against some unseen enemy. Alex launched himself out of his chair and jumped onto the bed. He grabbed her wrists and held them down, pressing the rest of her writhing body to the mattress with his own weight in an attempt to stop her wild antics. She fought him the whole way. Dana continued to scream, and tried to bite him, using the only part of her body that she could still move. "This girl is unconscious?" he thought incredulously. he shouted mentally. Suddenly, Dana sighed and went limp. Alex stopped kneeling on her and got up cautiously, ready to move quickly if she started to freak out again. The door opened, and Splotch speeded in. He closed the door and turned to face Alex, his eyes flashing with urgency. Alex's dark eyes widened for a second, then he closed his eyes and concentrated. Zylogigs tracked by thought and brainwave patterns - therefore, Alex wouldn't give them anything to track. He sat quietly on the floor by Dana’s head, he felt his heartbeat grow slower and his breathing became deeper. Deep in concentration, he wasn’t aware of anything anymore. Suddenly something hit the metal floor, hard, making a loud, echoing noise. He opened his eyes in time to see a metal pot bouncing in front of him. He realized that Dana kicked it off his bed. He leaned forward to silence it, and vainly tried to concentrate on nothing, but he felt numb, followed by a piercing pain behind his eyes: the zylogig found him. He froze. Splotch shrieked, obviously frightened. Alex scrambled to his feet and started to lift Dana out of bed. He barely heard Splotch’s frenzied commands after that, but obeyed, the blood pumping in his temple and his vision blurred. He stumbled down the hallway, Dana in arms, clomping his feet in time to his rhythmically beating pulse. Alex thought of nothing but the quarters he left, as Splotch instructed, and continued trotting down the hall. Blindly stumbling through halls and doorways, careful to not be conscious of where he was or was going to, Alex stepped inside a dark, cool room and behind him the door slid shut. The click from the other side sent a shiver through Alex’s chest. A small light came on, basking everything in a faded yellow glow--the last of the Luna’s regular power. Alex saw his breath and he shivered again. * * * Alex sat against the wall scratching his head thoughtfully. He eyed Dana, sprawled on the floor in the corner. She was so pale and her hair appeared brittle and thin. Her body was limp, and lips had a purple tint. A numbing flash went through his chest and arms, and he felt suddenly sick. Was Dana dead? He could see no breath escaping from her mouth as he saw his own, and her chest made no movements. He slowly got onto his knees and moved toward her. Alex reached out tenatively for her shoulder. He felt her cool, moist shoulder and paused. He transferred a small amount of weight onto her exhaled heavily. He suddenly felt afraid to reach out and touch her neck. He didn’t want to know if she was... But he had to. Shifting, he outstretched his other hand and lightly touched the side of her throat. He breathed a sigh of relief, a weight in his lungs escaping into the open air. He paused a moment longer, and brushed a strand of hair from her face. He watched as her eyelids parted, revealing a pair of dazed, blue eyes. She gasped, as if for air, and Alex quickly withdrew his hands. She looked at him with wide eyes and sat up quickly. “You, stay away, now!” Dana frantically crawled across the freezer. “Dana, it’s me!” Alex said getting to his knees. “Oh no! I’ll get help. You don’t move! Where’s my ‘com? Give me my ‘com.” She was hiding behind a stack of boxes. “Dana, it’s me--Alex.” “No, no. No. You are not. Alex is dead, I saw him die--I saw him.” She spoke rapidly, emotion coating her speech. “Dane, that wasn’t me. That was a zylogig. Or rather... an alien. You see, they can shapeshift, you know, change into anything they w--” “Screw you!” she screamed. “Stop patronizing me! Alex is dead!” Alex took a step forward. “No! Stay where you are or I’ll shoot!” “Dane, you don’t have a weapon. I know.” “No! I have my PLS. My good old PLS...” She started to trail off, frantically searching for words “And I’ll blast your ass if you don’t move back! Now!” Alex took another step forward. “The beast destroyed your PLS. Remember? I was there.” Dana faltered, “No...” “And you had no weapon on you when I brought you here.” “Alex is dead. Stop trying to confuse me and back the hell up!” Dana’s voice faltered again. “Dane.” Alex stepped around the boxes. “It’s me.” Dana lunged at him from where she was crouching, and beat frantically at him with her weapon--a frozen fishstick. Alex gently restrained her arms attempting to hush her. She still lashed out desperately, strength failing, but Alex held on. Dana collapsed into him, sobbing, the fishstick dropping from her hand. He held her, “Shhhhhh. It’s alright. You’re safe. Shhhhh.” “Zach!” Nara cried, charging onto the bridge. “there’s something I need to...” she halted as she saw Deneb and Zach seated next to Aldebarr. “Uh... tell you...” Zach looked up curiously. “Yeah?” Nara winced, “Ummm, I need you down in... the lab. The lab because there’s... uhh...” She felt blood pumping in her ears and her throat was hot and sticky. Aldebarr squinted almost menacingly at her, and suddenly she felt as though his gaze had penetrated her skull. She closed her eyes as a sharp pain in her head peaked and dropped off. Deneb cocked his head, “WHat’s going on in the lab that’s so--” “No time for games in the lab Nara,” Aldebarr cut in. “I need you and Zach to take a skimmer out to the Lunaand bring back Dana. I now believe she’s there, and not alone either.” The last part he said half to himself. Nara gasped, “You mean there could be those nasty things in there with her?” Aldebarr’s face twitched. “Yes. There could be those... Creatures in there with her. Which is why it’s impeccable that you two leave immediately.” Deneb perked up. “Does that mean there’s time for games in the lab for me?” Aldebarr sighed. “No, I have a very differen’t job for you.” * * * * * * Scene here ******* “Zach,” Nara whispered once they were outside. “What?” Zach opened the shuttle bay and tugged a skimmer out onto the grass. “There’s something very wrong going on here.” Nara whispered. “Yeah? well can it wait till I get this thing running?” “I guess.” Nara shifted her weight uneasily and looked around, watching for any movement. She hadn’t just imagined it; something very wrong was going on. *** Altaire sank the electronic scalple into pale flesh and drew it toward her, creating a long red incision on Marissa’s cold chest. She spoke into a recorder. “The results from the bioscan being inconclusinve, I’ve decided to manually investigate the inside of the victim’s torso. I still maintain my original hypothesis that the cause of death is strangulation with one huge hand... or hand-like objec, but there may be a clue inside the victim’s organs. For example, the victim may have been drugged.” Altair carefully prodded Marissa’s insides with metal rods. “I’m finding that... the liver is... healthy... so are the kidnees, and the stomach... stomach contents include... ooh, something that looks like pills... no... just bread... and some... strange green.. oh... vegetables... probably... lettuce... and... blood? from... no... just bacon... hmmm... BLTs... And I’m also finding...” She prodded and poked for another 20 minutes. “I’m also finding... nothing...” She slammed her rods down on the counter. “Not a damned thing.” She exhaled. “How to reexamine the neck, and arms for a final ruling.” TECHNICAL AUTOPSY STUFF, TOO LAZY TO TYPE... SKIPS HALF A PAGE HERE... “It appears that there are 4 distinct marks--” A sudden banging of metal against metal made her jump and she looked around frightened. Silence. Altaire shook it off as unstable instruments toppling in a cupboard. “2 to 3 marks.... SKIPS 3/4 PAGE HERE... The cuts are--”A louder rumbling of metal caught Altaire by surprise and she spun around, searching for the origing. Muist be the cupboards Sean always piled things so carelessly... where Was sEan, He was supposed to have reported for duty and hour ago. Briefly she wondered if he was the attacker, and he was hiding now that he might be discovered. The attacker had to have by muscular, and at leaast as tall as marissa... Sean matched the description alright. And he was the one who “found her”. She tried to put it out of her head. “The cuts are short... SKIPS 1/2 PAGE... must be frum attempted punches, or--” A louder clashing and crashing made Altaire gasp and straighten up. There was no denying it--something was in the MU. Altaire crept carefully to the coupboard in question, held her breath, and, hldling up her electric scaplep, was ready to strick. With a slippery hand, she grasped the handeldi ndentation inad slid it back furiously. In a cascade of metal pans, rods,and cups, out fell a screaming heap. Altaire screamed and leapt backewards, brandishing her scaple. Then she recognized the ahsape that lay huddled onthe floor. It rocked, quaking wiht fear. “Sean?” the creature lifted it’s head, and Altaire breathed a sight of relierf Sean looked out through bleary eyes. “ALtaire? IS it you? “What happened, Sean?” She bent down to look at thim. “And what were you doing in my cupboard?” “I was so scared, I==” He looked up at Altaire. She was taken aback by the sincerity in his eyes. A slight glimmer in them indicated tears. Sean gave up trying to talk and simply resumed his fetal position, shaking. Altaire suppressed a smile as she thought, “This man is no murderer.” *** Deneb SCENE HERE IS WRITTEN, BUT NO TIME Alex looked up warily at another clump of wires, gadgets and mismatched pipes, and sighed. Lying flat on his back, Alex reached up with his nubulator and gave a clump of pipes a rough twist which was immediately followed by a snap and a rushing noise. A brown liquide spewed out in random directions, most of it landing on Alex’s face or uniform. He spat and sputtered as he raced to undo his latest mistake. Through squinted ey;es he finally found the spot to put in his nubulator, and twisted it again the other way. This time the movement was followed by a loud CRACk, and a louder gushing, as a river of noxious black liquid squirted Alex in the face. He squeezed his eyes shut putting his hands out to divert the stream, and he coughed madly for air. “Woah, woah!” said a voice nearby. “Let me fix that!” Alex vainly tried to wriggle out of the way as Zach slid in next to him. He grabbed the nubulator from Alex and in one swift movement, closed the open pipe. “These things are a bit tricky.” he said turning to Alex who was busily wiping fluid from his eyes. “You’ll get the hang of it. Just don’t do anything more for a while--I gotta go see the captain.” Zach slid away, a sly grin on his boyish face. Alex slithered into the open carfully, blindly groping for his dust rag. He grasped the soft cotten and wiped the residue out of his eyes. He was just getting around to wiping the rest of his face off when Dana walked by, 50 misc. tools in tow. Dropping them noisily on a nearby table Dana gave Alex a wry look. “You know, you’re not supposed to try and EAT the engine fluid.” “You know, you’re not supposed to try and BREAK the expensive tools.” Alex countered as Dana crossed back to the door. “Don’t worry,” Dana grinned, spinning around to look at him as she stepped out, “You’ll get the hang of it.” The door to the engine room shut as Alex opened his mouth to retort. He sighed instead. Splotch waddled clumsily toward Alex, a heavy wrench in arms. Alex furrowed his brow and let a smile creep onto his lips. He wiped his face once more and put the towel down, taking the wrench from Splotch. “Why do you say that? Does she look sick?” Splotch sat down in front of him. He paused. Alex was used to this. Splotch’s grammar had improved greatly since their first meeging, but he still required time to sort out his thoughts about how to phrase things. He probably wasn’t better at grammar because he was learning Standard, but most likely because he and Splotch spent so much time together that they understood eachother more clearly. Alex picked up his glass of water off the floor and began to gulp it down thirstily. Splotch cut in, Alex spewed a mouthful of water. He hurredly picked up his rag to clean it up. “What!?” he blinked. Splotch said. Alex scratched his head, “Well... it’s not that simple...” Splotch seemed to realize something “Humans don’t have ‘Alphamales’ Splotch.” “No! I never-” “No. I mean, I don’t know...” “Splotch, no, I--” Alex laughed. “Splotch, I don’t know how it works with oooruffians, but humans... are a bit odd.” Splotch shook his head. “On Terra we try to treat males and females as equals. That means that if they want to go on dangerous voyages, they can.” “Some of them.” Alex laughed. “Yes... and no. The male often tries to attract many females, but the females are also trying to attract many males. So sometimes a male is attracted to a female who is also attracted to him.” Alex spoke slowly, weighing each word. Alex chuckled, “Not always.” Splotch cocked his head as Alex continued. “The two spend time together and see if they can love eachother. Then, if they do love eachother, they get married, or rather, become lifelong mates--or so I’ve been told.” Alex smiled, satisfied with his answer. He new it was simplistic and optimistic, but he hoped it would satisfy Splotch. Splotch blinked once, Alex groaned. “Let’s just say it’s where you really really like someone, and you’d do anything for them, even risk your life.” Alex closed his eyes warily. “No, I did that because I had to... for my job as an officer. Love is... a feeling Splotch. You can’t just tell by your actions if you’re in love.” “Well there are different kinds of love, like love for your children, or for your brother, or the love of a good friend. Like how I love you.” Alex grinned at Splotch. He hoped that would keep him quiet. Splotched seemed to smile. “Thanks, little buddy.” Alex began to reorganize the tools on the floor. Splotch made a high pitched sound that resembled laughter. * * * * * * * * * “Zach!” Nara cried, charging onto the bridge. “there’s something I need to...” she halted as she saw Deneb and Zach seated next to Aldebarr. “Uh... tell you...” Zach looked up curiously. “Yeah?” Nara winced, “Ummm, I need you down in... the lab. The lab because there’s... uhh...” She felt blood pumping in her ears and her throat was hot and sticky. Aldebarr squinted almost menacingly at her, and suddenly she felt as though his gaze had penetrated her skull. She closed her eyes as a sharp pain in her head peaked and dropped off. Deneb cocked his head, “What’s going on in the lab that’s so--” “No time for games in the lab Nara,” Aldebarr cut in. “I need you and Zach to take a skimmer out to the Luna and bring back Dana. I now believe she’s there, and not alone either.” The last part he said half to himself. Nara gasped, “You mean there could be those nasty things in there with her?” Aldebarr’s face twitched. “Yes. There could be those... Creatures in there with her. Which is why it’s impeccable that you two leave immediately.” Deneb perked up. “Does that mean there’s time for games in the lab for me?” Aldebarr sighed. “No, I have a very different job for you.” * * * * * * Altaire sank the electronic scalple into pale flesh and drew it toward her, creating a long red incision on Marissa’s cold chest. She spoke into a recorder. “The results from the bioscan being inconclusinve, I’ve decided to manually investigate the inside of the victim’s torso. I still maintain my original hypothesis that the cause of death is strangulation with one huge hand... or hand-like object, but there may be a clue inside the victim’s organs. For example, the victim may have been drugged.” Altaire carefully prodded Marissa’s insides with metal rods. “I’m finding that... the liver is... healthy... so are the kidneys, and the stomach... stomach contents include... ooh, something that looks like pills... no... just bread... and some... strange green.. oh... vegetables... probably... lettuce... and... blood? from... no... just bacon... hmmm... BLTs... And I’m also finding...” She prodded and poked for another 20 minutes. “I’m also finding... nothing...” She slammed her rods down on the counter. “Not a damned thing.” She exhaled. “How to reexamine the neck, and arms for a final ruling.” Altaire tugged on her gloves and pushed a strand of hair out of her face. She gingerly fingered Marissa’s throat. “The throat has been crushed. Bones 231, 232, and possibly 234 are fractured, though I’ll have to wait until the x-fays are done rendering on the computer to be sure. It appears that there are 4 distinct marks--” A sudden banging of metal against metal made her jump and she looked around frightened. Silence. Altaire shook it off as unstable instruments toppling in a cupboard. “4 marks that resemble fingers. It appears the victims esophagus was crushed by a single thumb, but these abraisions on the side of the neck must be from the fingers wrapping around the neck. The attacker used his left hand. It appears that she was lifted off the ground, judging by the marks directly under her chin and at the base of the skull under her ears. “The cuts on her hands were made from a very slim, sharp object, possibly a small knife or... no, the tear of the skin around these marks is smooth, not jagged; this is from a razor blade. The location of the cuts, on the palms and underside of the forearms, clearly indicatethat they were defensive. These cuts were made when she was alive, judging by the blood flow and clotting of the wounds. Why would the attacker abandon his weapon and then strangle her? The cuts are--” A louder rumbling of metal caught Altaire by surprise and she spun around, searching for the origing. Must be the cupboards Sean always piled things so carelessly... Where was Sean? He was supposed to have reported for duty and hour ago. Briefly she wondered if he was the attacker, and if he was hiding now that he might be discovered. The attacker had to have by muscular, and at least as tall as Marissa... Sean matched the description alright. And he was the one who “found her”. She tried to put it out of her head. “The cuts are short, and most of them not very deep. The victim must have been moving quickly, attempting to ward off her attacker. 4 cuts on the bicep areas indicate the victim must have attempted to fight back, and 2 cuts on the knuckles of the right hand must be frum attempted punches, or--” A louder clashing and crashing made Altaire gasp and straighten up. There was no denying it--something was in the MU. Altaire crept carefully to the coupboard in question, held her breath, and, holding up her electric scalpel, was ready to strike. With a slippery hand, she grasped the handle indentation and slid it back furiously. In a cascade of metal pans, rods,and cups, out fell a screaming heap. Altaire screamed and leapt backewards, brandishing her scalple. Then she recognized the shape that lay huddled on the floor. It rocked, quaking with fear. “Sean?” The creature lifted it’s head, and Altaire breathed a sight of relief. Sean looked out through bleary eyes. “Altaire? Is it you?” “What happened, Sean?” She bent down to look at thim. “And what were you doing in my cupboard?” “I was so scared, I--” He looked up at Altaire. She was taken aback by the sincerity in his eyes. A slight glimmer in them indicated tears. Sean gave up trying to talk and simply resumed his fetal position, shaking. Altaire suppressed a smile as she thought, “This man is no murderer.” ******* “Zach,” Nara whispered once they were outside. “What?” Zach opened the shuttle bay and tugged a skimmer out onto the grass. “There’s something very wrong going on here.” Nara whispered. “Yeah? well can it wait till I get this thing running?” “I guess.” Nara shifted her weight uneasily and looked around, watching for any movement. She hadn’t just imagined it; something very wrong was going on. *** Alex’s thoughts were interrupted by the loud thunder of metal banging metal. He jumped slightly and turned his head just enough to see Dana’s slender legs standing not 3 feet away. “How long have you been in here?” Alex asked, mentally holding his breath. “Long enough.” Alex could hear the smile on her lips. Without looking at her, he made a dismissive gesture, hoping she’d lose interest. He sensed her grin growing wider. “So, the truth comes out: Alex has a soft spot: for ugly rodents!” “Maybe that’s why I like you so much.” Alex snickered. Dana glared at him, “You’re just sore because I caught you putting the moves on your rodent.” She laughed picking up one half of Alex’s sandwich from a stand nearby. Dana took a bite as he lunged side ways, futily trying to get it back. She snickered, stepping backwards, just out of his reach. Alex sighed resuming his position on the floor. “First of all, he’s not a rodent,” he paused, “second, you couldn’t have heard what he said that prompted me to say what I did.” Through partailly chewed sandwich Dana laughed and said, almost unrecognizably, “What? Did he say ‘I love you,’ first?” Alex rolled his eyes and then smirked, his expression hidden from dana’s eyes. “No... He was commenting about... Well you, actually.” Dana stopped chewing and swallowed hard. Alex smiled. “Oh?” she tried to sound disinterested. “And uh, what did he say?” Alex shrugged, “Nothing much... but he did say he thought you were quite interesting.” Dana’s voice perked up. “Really?” “Oh yeah!” Alex said picking up a dirty ratchet “One minute you can be quite normal and the next... completely irrational, pyschotic, and temperamental.” Dana made a high pitched, irritated sound and through the remnants of the sandwich at Alex. “You think you’re so great because you two can communicate silently! Big deal! He’s just a scruffy ball of fur, and you...” Dana made a slight pause and then screamed, “You’re just a coward who left his crewmates to die!” Alex heard the door to the engine room slide shut and knew she’d gone. He carefully plucked the sandwich pieces from his head and shoulder, dropping them with distaste. He sighed wiping mayonaise from his hair with the cotton rag. Splotch crawled out from his hiding spot under a control box. “Yes.” Alex said distractedly, eyes unfocused and blank. Splotch looked at Alex, and took a few steps toward him. “No,” Alex said forcing a smile, “she just... reminded me of something.” Splotch searched his thoughts. Alex turned to face Splotch, pain showing on his broad face, “Splotch, what if she’s right? What if it IS my fault? I didn’t go back, and I might have been able to--” Alex started to nod, and then froze. “I though you didn’t know when it happened. You said none of you knew about it and--” “Oh.” He smiled fainly. “Still, she thinks it’s my fault.” Splotch concluded, “Yes?” Alex cocked his head. “Why do you say that?” Splotch imitated Alex’s shrug. Alex laughed. “Maybe, Spotch, maybe.” ********* Nara looked down. Purple, green, blue, yellow, all flashing by as though spinning in a blender. Her eyes watering with sick pain, Nara held her writhing stomach, gently massaging it in an effort to cool the burning nausea. Her hair blew in all directions, partially obscuring her vision. “Zach?” She had to shout to be heard over the roar of wind and engine. “Can you put it in 1st for a second?” Zach’s fingers danced across the controls, and Nara felt the skimmer slow. The tension in her stomach slowly eased. “What was that thing you wanted to tell me earlier? Sorry I was a bit short with you, but everything’s, you know, broken around here. Makes me mad. Anyway, what is it that’s so secret Aldebarr can’t know about it.?” Zach turned the steering wheel and the skimmer veered right. Nara closed her eyes tight as the force of the turn pushed her into Zach. As the skimmer straightened out, Nara said close to Zach’s face “That wasn’t Aldebarr.” Zach glanced at her. No trace of humor on her face. “What are you talking about?” “I found the real Aldebarr in a closet when I was putting the mop away.” Zach laughed out loud. “That’s great! Now we’ll tell Sean, too. I’ll bet he’ll think it’s really funny too--” “No Zach.” Nara interrupted, “It’s true. I swear! Remember those aliens? They can change shape? So why couldn’t they have--” “No. That can’t be! We have security cameras and, and, and... systems! We have protocols!” “Zach, please, I’m sure. I know what I saw. I swear!” Zach turned quickly toward her, a menacing look on his face. “Who else have you told!?” Nara was taken slightly aback by his violent tone. “Uhh... why?” Any trace of hostility abrubtly left his face as he smiled, “I just want to make sure you didn’t tell anyone else--in case they’re aliens, too.” “Oh. No, you’re the only one.” She murmured. Nara turned her head and looked at the passing scenery. It was mostly yellow now, but she could make out the individual boulders below. Nara’s eyes widened as something clicked in her brain. “Zach! This isn’t the way to the--” Before she could finish, Zach leapt wildly at her, PLS in hand. Nara screamed and kicked her legs violently, landing one foot on his face, and the other on his chest. He grunted, landing on his back. The PLS slid out of his hand and across the deck of the skimmer. Nara threw herself onto the gun, as Zach reached futily for it. Fumbling with the ray gun she couldn’t breathe as he crawled toward her like a giant spider. He grabbed the barrel of the PLS, Nara’s hands wrapped around the handle. She cried out as Zach tugged hard, forcing her body to wrench forward. Nara kicked her leg out blindly as she grappled with the PLS, catching Zach in the shin. He screamed an unnatural sounding shriek as he pushed her with all his weight and she tumbled backward. The PLS flew up into the air and over the side of the skimmer. Nara whimpered faintly as she hit her head on the floor and her vision clouded. Zach growled and corrected the skimmer’s course, putting it back into auto-pilot. Nara watched him break off the copper railing of the skimmer, it came off impossibly clean and easy. She struggled to think, but all she could think about was Zach, coming at her with the copper pipe in hand. Nara searched vainly for a weapon and watched Zach leap over the seat. He came down hard, making the entire skimmer bounce. He screamed again, bringing the pipe down towards Nara’s head. She rolled over the back seat, missing the copper by inches. He swung again, hitting the seat. Nara shrieked as a huge dent appeared above her face. She rolled into the back loading bay as the back of the seat flew off with a sickening crash of copper hitting metal and cushion. Zach swung blindly, crushing the fire extinguisher. Suddenly with a loud boom and hiss, white gaseous liquid spewed out and choked the air. Zach screamed and covered his face as the chemical reached his eyes. Even more frantically he swung the railing back and forth. He smashed a side panel, a seat, and a med kit. Nara jumped to her feet, scooped up the fire extinguisher and smashed it into Zach’s face with all her strength. His alien cry of pain was grossly accompanied by a bone breaking crack, and he fell to the floor. Nara, breathless, grabbed the controls of the skimmer, pushed buttons, and turned dials. Nothing happened. The scenery rushed by faster and faster, the two of them heading into the imminant doom on the horizon: a collosal mountain range. Tears forming in her eyes and shaky with adrenaline, she struggled with the skimmer computer, and then the ‘com. “Hello?” she cried into the mouthpiece, “Please! Someone?!” Somebody should be on the bridge, she thought, someone will hear me. ******* Aldebarr sat alone on the bridge, all entry ways blocked and the room warm and dark. A small red light blinked on and off on the ‘com board. Aldebarr pushed the green button labeled “Skimmer #8.” He bared a toothy grin as he awaited Zach’s report. “Hello?” He blinked as the unexpected voice flitered through the speaker with a grainy, staticy feeling to it. Did she kill him? What if she comes back and warns the others? He felt a wave of cold sweat come over him as his human form expressed his panic. “Please! Someone?!” Aldebarr recognized the tone of her voice and smiled. She’s afraid. “Aldebarr? Sean? Claire?! Marissa! Somebody please?!” The voice became more static filled--the skimmer must have been moving further away. Toward something that would disrupt the signal. Mountains. There was an increased rushing noise accompanying her voice--wind. “Zach... he, he attacked me! Right after I told... Oh my God...” The voice trailed off as though talking to herself. “He was one of them. Please! Whoever is on the bridge: Aldebarr is an alien! Look for the real one in the closet. The closet! Oh my God! I can’t stop it! Someone help! I... Oh my God... I think I killed him.” Aldebarr listened, but her voice did not continue. There was the constant sound of wind and static, but nothing else. Straining to hear, he picked up the rustling of clothing, then gentle footsteps. The relative silence broke when a horrified scream pierced the airwaves. A loud thump was folllowed by scrabbling of metal and a cry of pain. Thump! Thump! Crash! Squeek! Crash! Boom! Thump! Another scream and a shout. Aldebarr listened as a final scream was followed by the inceasant rushing wind. ******** Nara’s body shook with adrenaline and fear. She winced in pain, rubbing her arm where a white mouth-shaped impression still throbbed. She hurredly wiped a tear from her face and spoke into the mouth pice. “I...” She paused and glanced over her shoulder. A sprawled figure lay on the floor, surrounded by the continuously spewing white smoke-like chemical. “Oh my God...” Nara felt her stomach shudder and bubble, “I think I killed him.” She said it half to herself. Quaking with fear, Nara placed the ‘com piece back on the controls. She closed her eyes and bit her lip resolutely. Slowly, she turned around and took a step toward the lifeless form half-obscured by a white cloud. Another step. Hands trembling she reached forward to test his pulse. She leaned closer, still out of reach. Nara could barely control her arms as her slender pale fingers hovered 6 inches from his blood covered neck. Nara paused and drew back suddenly. It’s like I’m watching myself in a really bad horror movie. Collect yourself. Of course he’s dead, there’s no need to touch him. I just need to stop the skimmer or turn it around. Nara drew in one last assuring look at Zach’s crushed head which was covered with blood, his sandy hair matted red to his skull. Nara nearly fell forward as she darted to the controls. Mountains... Coming closer... Her numb brain forced coherant thought. Skimmer stuck in 2nd drive... steering wheel stuck... what about the vertical adjuster? Tenatively, she placed her hand on the adjuster and looked at her hand, shaking and pale, blanketed with warm sun. Suddenly, her hand went cold and dark, masked in shadow, and she instinctively withdrew her hand. Without thinking she turned her whole body around, and caught a glimpse of Zach’s looming figure before being knocked aside by a powerful blow to her head. Nara screamed at the second of impact and was knocked to the floor with a tremendously loud thump. Her vision cloudy and blurred, Nara wriggled on the metal floor toward the promising cover of the front seat. Nara crawled fast, Zach went faster. He grabbed her by the neck and she yelped in pain. Nara drew in a sharp breath and swung her legs, knocking Zach’s feet askew, and throwing him off balance. He fell backwards, the momentum of the skimmer forcing him to slide into the back loading bay. Zach was on his feet again before Nara could pull herself up. He charged, ramming into her chest, sending both of them to the floor with a loud CRASH! Zach grabbed her head and banged it on the floor furiously. Nara resisted and brought her knees up hard as her vision went black and then was restored. She ached and her head cried out as a splitting pain in the back of her skull made her nauseous. She got her knee under his ribs and kicked outward, Zach landing on his back a few feet away. Nara weakly pulled herself up, her back against the side of the skimmer. She screamed as she saw Zach coming at her again, this time shouting something. She squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself as a crushing force slammed into her body. The force of it threw Nara off balance and backward over the side of the skimmer. Nara screamed once more as she lost her grip of the railing, falling straight down to the rocky terrain of sun-baked Sulros. ********* “Sir!” A voice came through the speaker. “I have disposed of her. It proved to be very difficult; she was very strong-willed.” Aldebarr breathed a sigh of relief “Good. I need you to get to the Luna right away and bring me that girl.” “Yes sir, I just need to--” Aldebarr jumped as a deafening boom blew out the speaker. The red light next to “Skimmer #8” went out abruptly, leaving nothing but silence. Aldebarr winced as he felt another mind completely disappear from his sensory range. ********* BOOM! The skimmer’s front end smashed into the mountain face, the back end crushing like a tin can. It exploded in a fiery blast of white-hot metal and hellish heat. ********* In future scenes I have planned: 1. Deneb, assigned by Aldebarr to search for all the crewmembers of the Savior and find out what they are currently doing, so he was on the bridge when he saw Nara and Zach take the skimmer, so then he says “I know where N. and Z. are because I saw them leave in the skimmer,” but then there they are and he’s confused and Zach’s confused but Nara is really sinister-like-happy. 2. Zach goes to (check equipment, take out a skimmer, something like that) and he finds Skimmer 8 missing. So then he’s really ticked off. Um Those are all the things I can think of that are coming up. I can’t think of any other notes I wanted to give you, now. oh yeah. I didn’t include that scene where Nara finds Aldebarr, tho you already saw the basic bare-bones of it that I had ... sometime before. soooooooo.... I think that’s all I can think of for now. Dana stood near the airlock on the Savior, her mind a frenzied turmoil of hope and worry. She hoped that this crazy scheme would somehow work. She worried for her friend. She clutched the backpack she held even tighter as, as if summoned by her thoughts, the transporter door slid back and out stepped Kamira. She glanced towards Dana and her burden as if she'd expected to see her there all along. Kamira walked towards Dana, moving with her now-characteristic limp. She nodded towards the backpack. "Is everything in there?" she asked, breaking the slightly awkward silence. Dana nodded, glad to be rid of it. For some inexplicable reason, it made her extremely nervous. "I checked and double-checked. Everything you asked for is in there... plus a few 'extras' Deneb thought might be useful." She passed Kamira the backpack. Kamira took it and opened it, sorting through the contents as she knelt on the floor. She closed the bag, strapped it on, and stood up painfully from where she'd been crouching. "This is good," she said almost shyly. "Thanks." Dana simply nodded. Kamira walked slowly over to the airlock keypad, and Dana followed, wanting to stay near her friend until the very last second possible. The airlock opened with its characteristic swoosh, and a cool gust of wind breezed in from outside. The sky was a dull grey color, and dark clouds in the distance bruised the horizon, looking ominous and oppressive. Dana knew they didn't have much time before the catastrophical electric storms began. As a prelude, the ship was already iced over as a result of the metal being covered in water droplets that froze on the surface. It was all the surviving crewmembers could do to keep the ship ice-free. Kamira turned to step out the airlock. "Kamira?" She turned back at the soft question Dana made of her name. Dana gazed pleadingly up at her. "Do you have to go?" She sighed. "Dana, we've been through this. Please don't make it any harder than it already is." "But why can't we just get everyone on board, launch, and then start the timer?" "Because," Kamira explained patiently, "it was never meant to be remote-detonated. There is no timer, remember? The plan was for a suicide squad to go in and detonate it themselves. Didn't you read the report?" Dana narrowed her eyes at Kamira, planting her hands on her hips. "But how do you know how to work the damn thing? It is a top-secret bomb, after all." Kamira shrugged. "It was pretty simple. That's the idiot-proof Federation for ya. I read the file, which was extraordinarily comprehensive, and I studied the bomb several times. It wasn't that hard to figure out." Dana turned her back on Kamira, crossing her arms over her chest as if trying to protect herself form the devastating fear she felt. When she spoke, her voice was thick with suppressed emotion. "Well, then, someone else should be able to figure it out perfectly well." Her voice rose to almost a wail. "You're my best friend! I just don't see why you have to go!" Kamira stepped around her so that they were face to face. Dana was biting her lip, her face twisted into a mask of anguish. "Dana..." Kamira said softly. "I'm sorry. I have to do this. You know that." "I know," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "I just don't want to lose you!" Kamira looked down at her sadly. "Dana, it'll be all right. At least one of us will get home. I don't have anything to go home to. You have..." "You have me," Dana interrupted. Kamira smiled. "I know. I will always." Dana sniffed slightly and nodded, but she wasn't convinced. Kamira stepped forward and gave her a hug. Dana stood there for a second, tears threatening to spill down her face, then threw her arms around Kamira and hugged her back tightly. Dana was the one who broke the embrace. Smiling through her tears, she said, "Well, get going, then. You've got a planet to explode and a shipful of people to save." Kamira nodded slowly and smiled back. Dana walked with her to the airlock. They stared at each other for a long moment. "Goodbye," Dana whispered. "I'll miss you." "I'll miss you, too," Kamira answered. She straightened up and set off in the direction of the Luna at a shuffling run, slightly hampered by her limp. Dana stood there for a second, gazing after her friend, now just a dark dot on the hillside. She bit her lip and turned to go back inside the ship. And from the deepest, darkest recesses of her mind, a small, pain-filled whimper came. "Why?" * * * "Preliminaries for flight check almost done, Altaire." "Good." Altaire straightened from where she was bent over a computer keyboard. "Lemme make a double-check with the nav computer." She punched in numbers with quick, practiced strokes of her fingers. "Alex? What's the situation with the bomb?" Alex pulled out his 'com. "Kamira?" "Yeah?" "This is the Savior. What's your progress?" "Pretty good, Savior. About ten more minutes, I think. Don't worry, I'll give you a yell before I set this thing off and blow the planet sky-high." Alex smirked. "You better, or else I'll never speak to you again." She laughed. "Bomb squad out." "Ten minutes, people," Alex announced to the room in general. "Dana, what's the atmospheric conditions report?" Altaire asked, not looking up from her computer screen. Dana didn't answer. She sat at her station staring out the viewport. The storm clouds had grown more pronounced now, filling over half the dull sky with black. The wind had picked up, whipping the strange purple grass about frantically. "Dana!" She jumped. "What?" "What's the atmospheric conditions?" She checked her monitor. "Uh, below 53 degrees all over the ship. That's well below zylogig tolerances. You know, the reason for that is probably because they are so gelatinous and they have to shapeshift, which would take a lot of energy, so they would have... to keep... warm... Uh, the only place they could be hiding now would be in or near the engines, and if any are, they'll get fried when we lift off. I would imagine that any that are on the surface right now are dead. If what the oooruffians told us is correct, they should all be hiding out somewhere underground. They can't tolerate the ice that comes along with the storms." "Good." Fifteen minutes passed, during which the ship was a flurry of activity. But no matter how fast they hurried, the storm was faster. The wind started to howl over the ship, making it almost impossible to hear anything. Here and there, lightning started to appear sporadically on the horizon. The oooruffians in the interior of the ship started to kick up a racket. "There's something wrong," Alex said abruptly, standing up from his station. Dana, the closest one to him and therefore the only one able to hear him, stood and caught his arm. "Alex? What are you doing?" He shook her loose. "We should have gotten a warning signal by now. Something's wrong. I'm going over there." "What?" Dana couldn't believe her ears. "You're going back to the bomb? You're crazy!" She pulled on his arm, leading him away from the door. "Oh, no you don't!" "What if something went wrong? I don't think Kamira's completely sure..." "She'll figure it out! Don't go!" In her mind, she added, "You're the only one I have left!" "Why does everyone I know want to blow themselves up?" she cried in frustration. Altaire noticed them. "What's going on?" she hollered over the noise of the wind. "I'm going to the Luna!" Alex replied. "And don't try to stop me!" She gazed at him. "I don't think I could!" She went back to frantically pushing buttons. Alex jogged off the bridge in the direction of the airlock, Dana following on his heels. As they got to the door, she stepped in front of the control panel. "Alex..." Dana tried desperately. "It'll be all right. Don't worry." He stopped and looked at her. "What's wrong? What do you care, anyway?" He let a lopsided grin slip from one side of his mouth. She frowned. "You're the only friend I've got left! Of course I care!" She stopped suddenly, fighting the urge to slap her hand over her mouth. What in the galaxy had she just said? Friend? Alex stared at her for a second, seemingly in disbelief. "Friend?" he asked softly, repeating her thoughts. She nodded hesitantly, knowing in that instant that it was true. Somewhere, somehow, in this whole horrible adventure, they had become friends. Or at least not-enemies. "Well, an experience like this does tend to bring people together," she quipped, trying to be funny but failing miserably. Alex took a step closer to her. "Dana..." he said quietly, his gaze never leaving hers. "I'll come back. I promise. I promise, Dane." She glanced down, not willing to believe him. "Right," she whispered. He put a hand on her shoulder and she looked back up at him, her azure eyes wide and fearful. "Good-" Dana started, but she never got to finish. Alex bent down and kissed her quickly, lightly on the mouth. Before she could react, he had straightened up and sprinted off for the Luna. Dana blinked. Then she put her hand to her face and gave a little smile. She gazed out the airlock door into the raging storm. "Dana?" Altaire's voice pulled her back from her reverie. "There you are! Goddammit! Close that door! We need to finish the diagnostics! Let's hope Zach was as good a mechanic as he said he was." Altaire grabbed Dana by the wrist and dragged her back onto the bridge. * * * Alex stepped onto the Luna. "Kamira?" he called. The only answer was his own voice echoing hollowly through the dead ship. He started down the hall to the cargo bay. Just outside the door, he stopped as he stepped in something squishy. He yelled and jumped back as he looked down and saw a black blob. It didn't do much, however, although it appeared to be trying to slither towards him. But it was too cold for it. The zylogig gave one last convulsive twitch and was still. Worried now, Alex stepped over the dead zylogig and into the cargo bay. He entered the room, hearing his footsteps echo. Piles of metal lay all over the room. He was sure they hadn't been there before. "Kamira?" Alex glanced up - and found the reason for the piles. Most of the ceiling had caved in. He looked around, and located a blue patch in one of the piles of metal. "Kamira? Are you in there?" There was silence from underneath the heap of ceiling in front of him. He moved most of it away, and uncovered Kamira down to the chest. Blood dripped from the side of her head, and she twitched feebly, groaning. "Are you all right?" he asked. "I don't know," she whispered, turning her head to face him. Her grey eyes were wide, and he saw that she was chalk white. "I can't get this big piece off me." She compressed bloodless lips in pain. He uncovered her the rest of the way, stopping twice to dive out of the way of falling metal. Kamira moaned as he lifted the heavy metal sheet off of her. It had a sharp edge, which had cut her badly. "Can you get up?" he asked. She reached up her hand, and he pulled her up. She leaned on him heavily, but she could stand. "We have to get you back to the ship," Alex said. Kamira shook her head. "No," she said. Alex stared at her. "What do you mean, no? Listen, I'll take you back, and then I'll come back and set the bomb off myself." "We don't have time!" Kamira insisted. "Listen!" Alex listened, and heard the first rumblings of thunder that heralded the beginning of the devastating electrical storms that this planet cycled through. "Go back to the ship!" Kamira ordered. Alex hesitated, visibly torn. "But what about you?" he cried. "I'll be okay! Just go! I'll set it off somehow." He paused one more moment, then nodded. He quickly hugged Kamira, then dashed out the door and through the maze of hallways. Arriving outside the ship, he stopped in shock. Alex watched the Savior rise into the air... without him. * * * "NO!" Dana screamed. "What are you doing?" "We have to go now!" Altaire insisted. "We have no time! Look!" Outside the viewport on the bridge, everyone could see the bright flashes on the horizon. Fires erupted from where the bolts of pure electricity struck. Dana could hear the crowd of oooruffians in the interior rooms of the ship begin to shriek. They knew what was happening. Fierce gusts of wind blew back the purple grass and the strange, subtly alien trees. The ship rocked slightly under the onslaught. The howling of the wind nearly drowned out the distant rolls of thunder. "Lifeform scan shows only us and the oooruffians. We're clear, Altaire, unless there's something in or under the engines." "Good. Deneb, launch us." "But Alex! What about Alex?" Deneb, at the controls, said, "Listen, Dane, we have to go now." Dana lowered her eyes as she registered the special name that Kamira and Alex had for her. "My God," she said in a dead voice. "Look, Dana," Altaire said, exasperated, "it's a choice between our lives or his. I'm sorry if I sound selfish here, but I want to make it off this rock alive." "Just wait a few more minutes! Just a few more! I'm sure he'll be here! We can't just leave!" Dana was hysterical. She ran over to Deneb and tried to stop him from prepping the ship to launch, attempting to prevent him from getting to the controls. He shoved her away. "No! You can't do this!" She backed away from the controls into a chair. "No," she mumbled weakly. She collapsed into the chair, tears streaking her face, as the Savior slowly lifted off the ground and lumbered into the atmosphere, electrical discharges already sparking off the hull. * * * Alex ran back to Kamira. "They left!" he said in a state of shock. "They left without me!" "But... but I was just going to set off the bomb!" she said, horrified. He glanced at the digital readout. It read, "armed". Alex closed his eyes. "I can't believe this. I promised Dana... I promised her, dammit!" Kamira looked at him sadly. "I'm sorry... you don't deserve to share my fate." He nodded sarcastically. "Thanks. That really helps. Now if you had an extra ship or something..." Kamira interrupted him, her face lighting up. "Wait! We do! We have a flitter, remember?" Alex looked at her like she was crazy. "It's busted, remember? The crash totaled it." "No!" She appeared very excited. "Zach fixed it! He didn't want me to tell anyone because he was afraid someone might panic and take it." "But it only carries one person!" Alex protested. Kamira smiled sadly. "I know." "I can't just leave you here!" "You were about to before the Savior lifted off, and when I was supposed to set off the bomb." "Yeah, but..." "Alex," she interrupted firmly, "look at me. I'd never last long enough to get home. Anyway, someone has to set off the bomb." A particularly large gust of wind rocked the ship, and she fell against a large piece of metal. Kamira cried out in pain. "Go!" He stared at her for a moment. "Go, Alex. I'll give you eight more minutes. Tell Dana... well, tell her that she was a good friend, and I'll miss her." Alex nodded, resolving to carry out her last request no matter what. "Oh, and Alex?" He looked at her. "Tell her sometimes rats aren't so bad." Alex grinned and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "You're the best." He stepped back and smiled before running down the hall. * * * The crewmembers on the bridge were in a panic. "Deneb! Watch out for the - aah!" "I see it, I see it!" "Oh, god, here comes another one!" "I'm trying, I'm trying! It's a little hard to miss these things when you don't know where they're coming from!" "We're gonna die!" Lightning flashed everywhere, creating sparks off the metal hull. This made it rather difficult for Deneb to see where he was going, so he just kept the nose pointed upwards, flying blind. Wind buffeted the ship, sending it sliding in all directions. Deneb fought to keep it on course. They were in the cloud cover now, with lightning coming from all over the place, not just from up above. "Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!" "We're gonna die! We're gonna die!" "Watch out watch out watch out... oh, no!" The ship flew directly into a burst of lightning, white-hot light filling everyone's vision and effectively blinding them for a few moments. "I can't see! My eyes!" "Deneb, you have to see!" "Well I can't!" "We're gonna die! We're gonna die!" "Oh, that's reassuring." Dana sat huddled in a chair, shaking, not paying any attention to the light show outside. They'd left without Alex! Why? One thing kept repeating through her mind, echoing through her empty brain. "All alone... all alone... you're all alone now..." "I think I can see a little better now." "You think? What's that supposed to mean?" "Well, instead of black, I see grey with black blurs." "Just don't hit any of the black blurs, please." "He's gone, gone before you even had a chance to tell him that you loved him. You did love him, even if you didn't realize it until after he left you. You fool!" "We're gonna die! We're gonna die!" "Shut up!" "But we're gonna die!" "If we're gonna die, I don't want to die being irritated by you!" "I'm sorry!" "Don't be sorry, be quiet!" "Who asked you?" "Will you all shut up and let me fly?" Deneb leaned forward at the controls, trying to make out something, anything, in the clouds to use as a landmark. The wind continued to fight with him, trying to rip control of the ship away. Lightning flashed again and again, becoming more frequent by the second. One flashed extremely close, forcing everyone to cover their eyes, and the sharp smell of ozone filled the bridge. A sizzling sound filled the air as it struck the ship. "Whoa!" Deneb yelled. "What's wrong?" "Were we hit?" "We're gonna die!" "Our shields just got fried. Next hit'll take out the nav systems and probably propulsion." "I don't care. I don't care anymore. Why should I? If I die, what will it matter? I don't want to be the only survivor. Not again. I loved him, and we left him behind! If I die, at least I'll be happy. At least I'll be with him." Deneb shifted the throttle to maximum speed. The ship leaped forward, cutting through the clouds like a hot knife through butter. With one last, almost vengeful flash of lightning, they were out of it and into the calm black serenity of space. Everyone looked at the planet through the rear viewscreen on the computer console. Even through the thick cloud covering, they could see the flash as the bomb detonated. A hole appeared in the clouds, and they watched, fascinated, as the surface of the planet seemed to melt in on itself. More and more of the surface area turned an angry red, dotted with black and yellow blotches, as the melt effect spread. "Uhhh, Deneb?" "Yeah?" "You'd better get us going. Any second now, it's going to..." BOOM! Deneb engaged the Stellar Drive just as the planet exploded outward in a shower of rock and debris. The Savior rode the shockwave into the weird singularity that the Stellar Drive caused. An unidentified voice somewhere on the bridge spoke into the silence. "It's over. We're going home." Someone, Dana couldn't see who through the hot tears blinding her, even though she was determined not to let them spill, came over and knelt in front of her chair. "Dana, we're out. We're going home. It'll be all right." The sound of the words Alex had last spoken to her sent her off into a fresh flood of tears. She nodded her head at the speaker, but inwardly she was crying out in pain. Alex was gone. And it would never be all right again. * * * Dana stood in the graveyard, gazing at the cold, grey granite tombstone. She hugged herself, pulling her coat tighter about her slender form as snow drifted down to land on her hair and shoulders. A tear rolled down her cheek as she stared at it. Such a small, insignificant thing to remember someone who had meant so much to her. She slowly bent down and placed a single red rosebud on the fresh soil, the bright color in stark contrast to the dull dirt. As she straightened, she couldn't help whispering, "Why?" It was all she could do to keep from bursting into sobs. The funeral hadn't been enough. She wanted something more than empty speeches, something more than false offers of sympathy, something more than the cloying perfume of too many flowers, something more than cold, unfeeling rock. Dana wondered if she would ever recover from her tragic losses. "Why?" she whispered. "Why did you have to be the one? Why did you have to go and volunteer? Someone else could have done it. But it had to be you, didn't it?" She forced a weak smile. "But then, you always were the brave one, weren't you, though?" As she stood by the tombstone with her head bent, an arm suddenly slipped around her shoulders. She glanced up. Alex was looking down at her, sadness in his dark eyes. "I miss her so much," Dana choked. "I know," Alex agreed softly. "I miss her, too." They both stared at the grave for a moment. "It's not fair." Dana swallowed and narrowed her eyes in an attempt to clear the tears. Alex remained silent, but he nodded slightly. "Why?" She turned to him, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. "Why us? Why the Luna? What did we ever do to deserve what happened to us?" He shook his head. "I don't know." She looked up at him, and he tightened his arms around her. "Let's go home," he said quietly. Dana nodded. "You go ahead. I'll catch up in a second." She watched him walk off, his hands buried in his pockets, then resumed staring at the gravestone, which read: Kamira Kay Roberts 2432-2456 Loyal Federation Officer Killed in the Line of Duty on the Planet Sulros "Goodbye," she whispered. Then she trudged out into the bleak winter landscape to where Alex waited for her, a smile on his face that was echoed in his dark eyes. As she approached, he opened his arms and she slid into them. She knew she would never forget her dead crewmates, but she couldn't let her horrible experiences control her. After all, she had Alex. And that was something.