This is a work of fan fiction and the characters and concepts of and the Gerry & Silva Anderson respectively. This story must not be sold or distributed for financial gain of any sort.
The Alphans encounter a rogue asteroid in space. Victor Bergman and his colleagues visit the structure, unprepared for the secret it hides...
Victor Bergman opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling of his quarters, unsure of where he was for a moment. He sat up in bed and rubbed the back of his neck, still caught in that half-asleep state where the memory of dreaming is very vivid. A smile crossed his lips and the corners of his eyes creased up in nostalgic delight.
"Ah, Mother, I wonder what you'd make of my life now?" he whispered, putting his feet on the hard floor beneath his bed.
He'd been dreaming of a long ago incident in his childhood; an event that had lain buried in the back of his mind for years. As a ten year old, he'd discovered a hive of wild bees, nesting in the base of a hollow tree near the little cottage his family had rented one summer. The young Victor was fascinated by the industrious insects, studying their behaviour at every opportunity. Soon, observation wasn't enough for such a bright boy. He wanted to know more, so he hatched a plan to capture some of the bees and examine them under the little microscope that his father had given him on his previous birthday. With a jar in one hand and a net he'd made from a handkerchief in the other, he did the unthinkable. He covered the entrance to the hive and waited for a few bees to fly into his trap. What he got was a whole army of the insects, swarming angrily after him.
Victor was so seriously bitten that he'd been forced to spend two days in hospital, enduring the pain of numerous bee stings and several lectures from his distraught parents.
"You must be more careful of yourself Victor," his mother had implored him, as she bathed his stings with calamine lotion. "One of these days your curiosity is going to land you in some kind of trouble that your father and I won't be able to rescue you from!"
At the time Victor had thought she was being an old worry wort, but as he grew older, he came to understand that his mother had recognised something in him that she also shared. An insatiable curiosity about everything in the universe; a curiosity that sometimes had to be satisfied at all costs. What trouble it caused his mother during her lifetime he would never know, but as he sat on the bed with his memories more than half a century later, Victor realised that it was the reason he was now stranded on a runaway moon, uncountable light years from the planet of his birth.
He stood up from his bed with a sigh and looked about his quarters, wondering what had disturbed his sleep. The communications post was silent, as was his commlock. His computer terminal was switched to standby and the lights were turned down low. The clock at his bedside showed 0415 hours and mentally, Victor shrugged. As he grew older, he found that he needed less and less sleep. He knew that this was a normal side effect of ageing and was quite grateful for it. Here on Alpha, there was always work for him to do. Perhaps his body was trying to tell him it'd had enough rest for one night.
Whistling softly under his breath, Victor changed into his uniform and decided to grab a cup of Alphan coffee up in Main Mission. He yearned for a decent cup of English breakfast tea, but the small and precious store of it that he still owned was being saved for the day the Alphans found a new home. It was sealed tightly in a canister in the back of his wardrobe and there it would stay, until that time. Victor firmly believed it would come- one day...
All was quiet in Main Mission when he arrived, or as quiet as the large operations room could be. The monotonous click and beep of computers continued whatever the hour. David Kano, whose turn it was to man the graveyard shift, had his head bent industriously over the keyboard at his desk. He was so preoccupied with what he was doing that he didn't hear Victor approaching.
"Well I'll be damned," he muttered to himself, tapping away.
"Anything interesting, Kano?" asked Victor.
The operative got such a start that he almost fell off his seat.
"Professor!" he exclaimed. "You shouldn't sneak up on people like that."
Victor couldn't help but chuckle at the expression on Kano's face.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Are you the only one on duty?"
"Paul and Sandra are due on shift in fifteen minutes, and I sent Tanya off half an hour ago, as it was so quiet up here. Then I found this..."
Kano brought up some data on the monitor on his console.
"I was trying to work out whether it warranted alerting the Commander."
"Print what you've got so far," said Victor, suddenly interested.
He strode to the wall and waited for Computer to spit out the data for him. When it came, he frowned in disbelief.
"Why wasn't this noticed sooner?" he asked.
Kano shook his head in consternation.
"It wasn't there Professor, I swear it. There has been nothing of interest within range of us for weeks."
"I think you'd better call the Commander immediately," said Victor thoughtfully. "Because this is definitely something of interest."
It didn't take long for Main Mission to come alive with personnel. Minutes after Kano put a call through to John Koenig, he strode into the room. Paul Morrow and Sandra Benes followed next, ready to begin their respective shifts. Tanya Alexander was called back to assist Sandra with data collection on Kano's object and Doctor Helena Russell walked in with her; she had no doubt met Tanya in the corridor and heard ot the discovery.
Victor took a moment to watch them all, knowing that each and every one of them would secretly be hoping that a habitable planet had come within the range of Alpha. Sadly they'd be disappointed again, as it wasn't the case. The object was far too small.
"What do you make of it Victor?" asked the Commander, coming to stand beside him.
He heaved a sigh and shook his head.
"I don't know John. It's very unusual, to say the least. From what I can see at a first glance, it's a small asteroid that appears to have a hollow core. There's something rather odd though; it's surrounded by quite a thick atmosphere, which is interfering with our sensor readings at times."
"Maybe it's some sort of a ship," said John. "Kano said it suddenly appeared in that sector of space."
"I must admit that I considered that myself," replied Victor. "But the information we have at the moment doesn't support the idea. And no signs of life have been detected."
Helena Russell came to stand beside them and he passed some of the data over to her. She looked tired, her naturally pale complexion and ice blonde hair accentuating the dark circles beneath her eyes. Victor worried about her sometimes; he knew that she drove herself hard down in Medical Center, without taking sufficient time away from her work. The same could be said of her commander, who was standing on the other side of him. He thought to himself that if ever there were two people made for each other, John and Helena were it. He had a sneaking suspicion that they were slowly coming to the same conclusion themselves, but they were very quiet about it.
"Commander, our moon and the object are moving towards each other at almost exactly the same speed," said Kano. "We should pass within ten thousand kilometres of it in exactly twenty hours."
Victor raised his eyebrows. In his opinion, that was way too close for comfort. It would cause little more than some minor geological disturbances to the Moon's surface if the object truly was hollow, and that wouldn't be sufficient to damage the moonbase. But if their readings were wrong due to the atmospheric interference and it was a solid body...
For the umpteenth time he wished that he could devise a way of steering the stubborn lump of rock that they were travelling on out of harm's way.
"John, we need to know what we're dealing with before then," he said quietly.
The Commander nodded.
"We'll man an advance exploration party. One man from Security, you, me, Sandra Benes as data analyst, Peter Morris from geology and Larry West as pilot, since Alan Carter is still off flight duties with a broken collar bone."
"I should go too, Commander," said Helena Russell. "If the asteroid has an atmosphere, I'd like the opportunity to study it up close."
John Koenig hesitated for a moment.
"Is that really necessary, Doctor?" he asked.
Helena nodded, throwing him a stubborn look.
"I think so," she said.
"Okay," he reluctantly agreed. "We leave in forty minutes."
Victor grinned to himself as he went to laboratory to pick up some instruments that he wanted to take with him on the flight. Helena wasn't about to be left out, just because John was feeling a subconscious urge to protect her. Sparks would always fly between the two of them, no matter how close their relationship became.
As Eagle One heaved itself vertically off the launchpad, the strange asteroid was just becoming visible to the naked eye of those on the base. Victor observed it with interest via a monitor on their Eagle, studying the stream of data that Sandra was passing to him. The more he saw of the celestial object, the less he understood it. The atmosphere that shouldn't have been there, the speed at which it was travelling, its hollow nature...
"Ah, this is baffling," he sighed, leaning back in his seat. "Every bit of data we've got suggests that the asteroid is inhabited, and yet we still don't detect any signs of life. Even the atmospheric difficulties can't account for it."
"There may life forms there that our sensors can't recognise, or they may be deliberately hiding themselves," said Helena, looking over his shoulder. "It's happened before."
"Of course, there is that possibility," Victor murmured.
He remembered the occasion where Tony Cellini had lost his life fighting a monster that didn't really seem to exist, and shook his head sadly.
"If anything sentient is living on that rock and they're not hostile, then why haven't they responded to our signals?" wondered John. "We've got messages beaming towards it on all known frequencies, but nothing's coming back to us."
"Perhaps their technology isn't powerful enough to punch its way through their atmosphere," Helena replied softly, as she gazed at the image on the monitor.
"One thing's certain," said Victor. "When our moon passes close by the asteroid, the gravitational effect on it will be quite extreme. Let's hope there really aren't any living beings on it, because if there are, I don't like their chances of survival."
The three looked on, as they drew nearer to their destination. The strange asteroid glowed in the blackness of space, its atmosphere a deep golden colour.
"According to the data we've been able to gather so far, it shouldn't even be that strange shade of yellow," Victor sighed.
Sandra Benes smiled at him.
"You know the saying Professor; there are more things on Heaven and Earth..."
Victor looked up at her and chuckled, appreciating her gentle sense of humour.
"But we're not about to land an exploration party on either of those places my dear," he replied. "We're only visiting a simple asteroid!"
John Koenig went to the pilot section of the Eagle and strapped himself in, taking a moment to give his pilot a smile of encouragement. Alan was very impressed with young Larry West, and had spoken about him on several occasions. A number of seasoned pilots had been lost shortly before Breakaway, when the mysterious fatal illnesses had begun to appear on the base. They were almost irreplaceable and there was a dearth of experience in the Flight Section that worried John sometimes. Alan felt Larry would go part of the way to rectifying the situation, and that they were lucky to have him. And John knew that as Chief Pilot, Alan was rarely wrong about such things. This was Larry's first big mission and John hoped it would go well for him; help to build his confidence.
"What's our ETA Larry?" he asked.
"Thirty minutes Sir," was the crisp reply. "Confirmed with Moonbase."
"Good," said John, eager to unravel the mystery.
Eagle One arrowed its way around the asteroid, eventually touching down on a flat area of rock, near the edge of what appeared to be a very old crater. Its edges were worn away by time into little more than a gentle slope downward, with rocky ridges poking out of the landscape at various intervals. Peter Morris was eager to exit the craft, as he'd detected large amounts of tiranium and milgonite nearby and he was convinced that it would be simple for the Alphans to send other ships and mine some of the precious minerals, before the asteroid got too close to their moon and began to experience the expected geological upheavals.
"This is brilliant!" he enthused. "There's a breathable atmosphere here and lots of minerals. It's like a gift from the gods!"
"Calm down Peter," warned Helena. "I don't want you out there without a suit- at least not initially. We don't know for sure how safe it is."
The geologist's impatience was obvious to all, but Helena would not be budged on the matter. Safety first was paramount on these expeditions, as far as she was concerned.
"Okay, we'll divide into two groups," said John, coming aft. "Helena, Victor and Sandra in one. Peter and I in the other. Larry will remain behind with the Eagle, as will James from Security. We'll keep in contact via our commlocks, atmosphere permitting. Make sure you check in with Larry at ten minute intervals. Don't take any risks, don't waste any time. We're here to confirm the data we received on Alpha at this early stage. Any mineral hunting can be done later, provided it's safe to. Is that clear, Morris?"
Peter nodded reluctantly.
Victor grinned to himself. The two young men on this mission were keen as mustard. Too keen. They had yet to learn the value of patience, but it would come. Given the chance, both Larry and Peter would excel in their chosen fields. He pushed his helmet over his head and watched Helena do the same, glad that she and Sandra were on his team and he wouldn't have to keep an eye on the over enthusiastic Peter. It would leave him more time to concentrate on his work. John's voice came through the earpiece in his helmet.
"Let's go," he said, as the Eagle's hatch slid open.
Victor stepped out behind Helena and into the lighter gravity of the asteroid, bouncing as he landed on the hard ground below the ship.
At John's signal, the two parties set off in opposite directions. Victor led Helena and Sandra towards the edge of the old crater, hoping to use the instruments they were carrying to make some measurements of the density of the rock below them.
"The air here is unusually warm," said Helena, through a light static.
Victor could hear the note of uncertainty in her voice and knew that she was feeling nervous. Personally, he felt nothing but curiosity. In many respects the asteroid seemed to be like any other; nothing more than a dead world in miniature. It just had some very unusual properties that were scientifically fascinating, and the findings from it could turn out to be extremely useful at a later date. Out here in space, knowledge was almost as precious a resource as milgonite, or tiranium.
"There's an energy source here somewhere," he murmured thoughtfully. "Are you picking up anything Sandra?"
"Yes Professor," replied Sandra. "I do not understand it."
Victor stepped forward to look at the readings on the multimeter she was carrying, and almost fell into a small circular hole in the rocky surface beneath his feet. It was just big enough for a man to fit through, and when he took a torch off his belt and shone it down the hole, he could see that it went around a bend. It was lit by a soft golden glow that seemed to be coming from somewhere deep within the asteroid.
"Be careful Professor," said Sandra, staring down the hole.
"This place is more like Swiss cheese than an asteroid," he laughed shakily. "We should warn the others; that hole was almost invisible in this strange light."
Victor looked up and suddenly realised that Helena was no longer with them.
"When did you last see Doctor Russell?" he asked Sandra.
The data analyst looked about in surprise.
"She was right here, Professor."
They both stared down at the hole.
"Oh, no," Sandra whispered in shock. "What if she has fallen?"
Victor couldn't believe it.
"We'd have heard something," he said. "She would have called out."
"Maybe the communications unit in her helmet is damaged," suggested Sandra. "Helena!" shouted Victor. "Can you hear me?"
There was no response so with a sinking feeling, he switched frequencies and called John.
"How the hell could she have disappeared?" John shouted, his voice cutting in and out. "Stay put- we'll be there in five minutes."
Victor listened as John reported Helena missing to Larry, back at the Eagle. A request would have to be put through to Alpha for backup, if they couldn't find her quickly. Sandra put a hand on his arm and through the visor of her helmet, he could see tears in her eyes.
"Professor, if Doctor Russell has fallen down that hole, what are the chances of.... well.... her survival?"
Victor patted her gloved hand.
"I honestly don't know, my dear," he replied. "In the meantime, I'm going to take off my helmet and try shouting down the hole. The atmosphere is supposed to be breathable but if anything happens to me, get it back on quickly please."
Taking a deep breath and hoping fervently that it wouldn't be his last, Victor pulled his helmet off. As Helena had mentioned, the air he sucked into his lungs was warm, and extremely humid. But there was something else. An odd smell.
"How strange," he said, speaking into his upturned helmet so Sandra could hear him clearly. "There's a smell here that's rather sweet, and very musty at the same time."
Sandra reached up to remove her own helmet and Victor grabbed her hands.
"Not yet," he said, shaking his head. "Wait and see if I'm still all right in a few minutes."
Victor knelt at the edge of the hole and peered down into it. The smell was stronger here, and it made him feel slightly light headed. A part of his mind wondered what chemicals were causing the reaction, and why they hadn't detected them back on the Eagle.
"Helena!" he shouted again. "Helena, are you down there?"
There was still no answer, although Victor fancied he heard a shuffling sound from deep within the hole, just out of sight.
"It's possible she's wedged down there and can't reply," he sighed, standing back up again. "We're going to have to send a man down when John gets here."
"It's been more than five minutes Professor," said Sandra. "And they haven't been in contact again."
Victor snatched at his commlock and raised it to his face.
"John, are you having difficulty locating us?" he asked.
There was nothing but static, so Victor tried to raise Larry West on the Eagle.
He got the same result. Switching to a more powerful frequency, he tried Alpha direct, but it was useless.
"What is going on?" asked Sandra, an edge of panic beginning to creep into her voice.
"I don't know," said Victor, a dozen different possibilities crossing his mind. "We'll leave a beacon here and head back to the Eagle. It looks like our communications problems have dramatically worsened. We need to get some equipment and try to contact Alpha from the Eagle, to let them know what's happening. I'm sure John will have the same idea and we'll meet him and Peter back there."
Helena Russell slowly became aware of a deep continuous hum, as she regained consciousness. She felt it vibrate through her body in a strange, hypnotic rhythm, rising and falling periodically in a singsong fashion. Trying to ignore the sound, Helena focused her foggy mind on where she was and what had happened to her, but she could remember nothing particularly helpful. One moment she'd been standing behind Sandra on the surface of the strange asteroid and the next, she was here, listening to this unnerving hum. She opened her eyes and saw nothing but a golden yellow sheet- a kind of silken tent which hung all around her. Moving her hands was almost impossible but as her senses returned, she realised that her space suit and clothes had been removed, and she was tightly bound with some sort of wide, sticky cloth.
"Help," she moaned. "Where am I?"
The air around her was filled with a cloying sweet moisture that made her want to vomit and she swallowed hard, afraid that if she did, she would choke to death.
A shadow on the other side of the sheet approached and on seeing the shape of it, Helena began to scream, certain now that she was about to die. The shape entered her tent and a moment later, a great puff of musty gas filled the airspace underneath it. Helena's screams died away as she inhaled the gas and her last conscious
thoughts were of John Koenig, and the wish to warn him of the danger here...
Victor and Sandra arrived back at the Eagle, to find it empty. There was no sign of the Commander or Peter, and Larry and the guard had disappeared from his post. Sandra sat down in the passenger module and tried valiantly not to break down.
"Where have they all gone?" she whispered.
Victor shook his head.
"I think it's now safe to assume that there's some sort of life form on this asteroid, even though we still can't detect it," he said.
Sandra's eyes were wide and moist with fear.
"Professor, what if the others are... what if we can't get them back?"
"It's too early to think like that," he replied, trying to sound reassuring. "Come on; let's see if we can make contact with Alpha. That's your department, so concentrate on getting that job done, for the moment."
While Sandra busied herself in the command module, Victor looked over their supply of weaponry, taking a large laser rifle from the rack for himself, and one for Sandra too. He also strapped an extra hand laser to his leg, feeling slightly foolish but reasoning that two hand lasers and a laser rifle would be hard to defeat, whatever sort of a life form you were. Next he secured the Eagle's hatch so that it couldn't be opened by commlock from the outside. Larry West wouldn't have left his ship without good reason, and there had been a security guard there to assist him if there was trouble. It made sense that since there was no sign of a struggle on board the men might have been tricked into stepping outside. If John Koenig himself requested entry, Victor wasn't about to let him in until he was sure that it was safe to do so.
"It is no use Professor," said Sandra, when he walked to the front of the ship. "Our signal is being jammed, and I cannot get around it."
Victor shook his head, his brow creased in thought. He knew that the rational thing to do at this point was to return to Moonbase and get help, but the thought of leaving the rest of their party behind without knowing their fate was abhorrent to him. Eventually he hit on a compromise.
"We'll have to lift off and get outside the atmosphere of the asteroid," he said. "With luck, we'll be free of the influence of whatever's jamming our communications then."
Sandra nodded her agreement and they each took a seat, preparing for liftoff.
Victor wasn't much of a pilot, so when he fired the main motors of the Eagle and an alarm went off, his first thought was that he'd done something wrong.
"It is a fault in the passenger module hatch seal," said Sandra, checking their instruments.
"Leave it," said Victor. "I don't want that hatch opened under any circumstances. We can seal off the module, or even leave it behind if necessary."
"Let me visually check it," suggested Sandra, unbuckling herself and heading aft. "You've locked it, so nothing can get in."
Victor was concentrating on the Eagle's controls, when he heard a small scream and a burst of laser fire. Nauseating gas filled the passenger section and he hastily tried to shut the command module's connecting door, before he succumbed to it. Cursing himself, he knew that he hadn't been quick enough when his sight began to fail him and his knees buckled. Fighting the gas every step of the way, he eventually dropped to the floor, his laser rifle lying useless at his side.
"It's been far too long," said Controller Paul Morrow, impatiently pacing the floor of Main Mission.
"Take it easy Paul, we know the atmosphere around the asteroid is interfering with communications," sighed Kano, who was not as concerned. "It was on the cards that a loss of contact might occur, so- "
"I'm sure there's something wrong, dammit!" Paul snapped, interrupting him. "The Commander would have had Larry take the Eagle off the asteroid to report if necessary, rather than remain out of contact. I want two more ships ready for liftoff on pads three and five. We'll give them another hour and then if there's still no signal from them, we send a rescue mission."
Kano gave Paul a long look, and then relayed his orders. He understood that part of the controller's concern stemmed from the fact that Sandra Benes was on the mission, but he still felt offended at his rudeness. He stared at the image of the approaching asteroid on the big screen, wishing he'd never set eyes on it.
Victor's first thought when he awoke, was that he'd been dreaming of his boyhood again. Just as it had back at the little summer holiday cottage when he sat near the bee hive, a steady humming pulsed through his body.
"Bees," he whispered groggily, before he remembered what had happened to him.
He gingerly sniffed the air, recognising the musty smell of the gas that in large concentrations, apparently caused unconsciousness. He'd smelt it before, coming from the hole in the asteroid surface and guessed that he was somewhere inside the asteroid now. Then there was the sweet, incredibly moist air. Once again he was reminded of bees and he opened his eyes, half expecting to find himself surrounded by honeycomb. Like Helena before him, Victor discovered that he was naked and bound to a flat pallet by a wide, sticky band of cloth. Above him hung another yellow tent- like silken sheet, obscuring his view of the area outside it.
Victor thought about the significance of being captured and bound, and despite the warmth of the air, he shivered. Was he to be some alien's next meal? And where were his clothes? Where were his weapons, and his commlock? And most importantly, where were John, and the others?
A movement outside the surrounding sheet caught Victor's eye and he lay as still as could be, while a strange shape approached. Pretending that he was unconscious, he gritted his teeth and slitted his eyes, waiting to see what would happen. Slowly the front of his tent was pulled open, and he was confronted by the sight of a grotesque brown creature that seemed more insectile than humanoid. Standing the height of a large man, its segmented body was covered with a hard carapace that dripped slimy moisture, and its head was almost entirely dominated by a massive set of jaws. Six pairs of tiny eyes were set deep into its forehead and a strange clear sac hung in folds around its neck.
Victor managed to remain silent as the alien moved towards him on spindly legs and began to methodically cut through his bonds with its outsized jaws. His mind went into overdrive, examining the creature and its strange, almost robotic movements, wondering when would be the best time to try to escape and hoping he could avoid being the next meal of whatever it was they were dealing with here.
Halfway through its unbinding of him, the alien suddenly stopped work. Tilting its head to one side, it seemed to be listening to something.
Taking instructions from a higher authority, thought Victor. Perhaps it's a drone!
He began to hope that he could outsmart the terrible creature, surreptitiously observing its behaviour. After standing still and listening to something for an agonising minute, it turned back to Victor and continued to cut at his bonds with its jaws, being careful not to touch him. Apparently he was someone else's meal. Maybe someone important. At last the sticky material was pulled away from him. The alien leaned forward and opened its jaws wide, intending to pick him up. At that moment, Victor summoned all of his strength and pushed himself down the pallet. He didn't stop to confront the creature but burst out from underneath the tent, hearing the sound of its jaws click shut as it missed him.
Victor's tent had been in a small round chamber, off a long narrow tunnel lined with similar chambers. He peered into the very next one and seeing it was empty, jumped inside and hid behind the folds of yellow silk. A furious high pitched whining sound echoed down the tunnel and moments later the creature scuttled from his former prison, moving away at high speed and gnashing its jaws together in agitation. Victor stayed in the small chamber for a minute or two, gathering his wits and feeling the ever present wave of humming wash over him, competing with the steady beat of his own mechanical heart.
The chamber he was standing in was empty, but there were signs that it had been recently occupied. Sticky bands of cloth were still lying where they had been freshly cut, and behind the palette lay a large Alphan man's boot. Victor knew that there was no time left to waste. Checking underneath the palette, he found fragments of uniform material. Glancing at the strips of sticky cloth, he suddenly realised that the bonds which had held this person to his palette were partly made from his own clothes. What had happened to his commlock and laser gun? After a short search, Victor found them. They were completely ruined; covered in a sticky goo and stuck firmly to part of the cloth.
Peering out of the chamber to make sure that the coast was clear, Victor hurried warily back to his own chamber. Pushing the palette aside, he searched for his own weapons. He found what he was looking for immediately.
Two hand laser guns.
One was ruined in the same manner as the laser in the adjacent chamber had been- actually incorporated into his bonds and covered in a sticky goo. The other was miraculously unharmed. Only one strand of sticky material was attached to its butt. Victor tore it loose, smiling to himself at the small victory. Then he ripped a strip of golden cloth from the roof of the chamber and wrapped it around his waist. Clasping his laser, he stepped out into the tunnel and went in search of the other Alphans.
"I'm leaving you in charge of the base, David," said Paul. "We'll maintain an open radio channel with Alpha at all times, placing one Eagle in orbit around the asteroid to act as a relay station. If you lose contact with us, don't send anyone else."
Kano nodded sombrely, now equally as concerned as Paul about the lack of communication with Eagle One.
"I'm not happy with this," protested Alan Carter. He'd discharged himself from Medical Center against Bob Mathias' advice and was standing at his desk, pale faced but determined.
"Please; you've got to let me fly one of the Eagles," he begged. "I'm the most experienced pilot you've got, and there may just be a situation down there where that experience will come in handy."
Paul could see the wisdom in this, even though Alan wasn't really fit for duty. He nodded reluctantly.
"Okay, you take the second Eagle."
Alan grinned, and exited Main Mission, heading for the Eagle hangar.
Victor crept stealthily along the narrow tunnel, keeping his laser pointed directly in front of him, ready to shoot at the slightest movement. In spite of the predicament he was in he couldn't help but think of the absurdity of the costume he was wearing, knowing how ridiculous he must look. A scrawny, pale, elderly man, tiptoeing along in his bare feet, wearing nothing but a golden loincloth...
He passed several empty chambers before he found one that contained another silken tent. From behind it, he heard a very human groan. Slipping inside, he pushed the tent material away, exposing a tightly bound and very groggy Larry West.
"Professor, thank God it's you," he mumbled. "I saw this creature and... and I thought it was coming back to get me."
"How long ago did you see it?" asked Victor, tugging at Larry's bonds and using the butt of the laser to help loosen them.
"Dunno... five minutes ago maybe," replied Larry. "It was very agitated. Poked its head in here and gave me a hell of a fright."
Victor struggled on with trying to release Larry, cursing his own frailty and simultaneously praying that the creature wouldn't come back, or bring some of its fellows.
"Turn your head away," he finally said, making sure that his laser was set to 'stun'.
As carefully as he could, Victor used short, sharp bursts of laser fire to sear through the cloth at Larry's side. He was lucky enough not to hit the pilot and at last he was able to tear enough of the binding away for Larry to get his arm out and assist him. Within minutes, the pilot was free and sitting up.
"Have you any idea where the Commander and the others are?" asked Victor, tearing a piece of silk down and handing it to the young pilot so he could make a loincloth too.
"I don't know," replied Larry. "I saw nothing after those critters somehow got the Eagle hatch open and gassed me. Everything happened very quickly."
"Well everyone was taken, so it's more than likely that they're here somewhere," sighed Victor. "There's another problem, too. I don't know how much time has elapsed since we landed on the asteroid, but it's getting closer to our moon all the time. If we don't leave this tunnelled area soon, this whole place might come down around our ears."
Larry stood up, shaking his head to clear away the last of the gas.
"We need to find the others fast, then," he said.
Victor was about to agree, when he heard a familiar clicking noise coming from outside the chamber.
"Wait," he hissed. "Pull the tent back around us as best you can and lie down again. Quickly!"
The young pilot did as he was told, and Victor slid underneath the pallet, hoping that they wouldn't be noticed. A dozen insectile shapes marched past their door and the pair lay as still as they could. Within seconds, they heard an unearthly scream and the shapes passed by once again- only this time, one of them was carrying a struggling human form in its jaws.
Larry whimpered as he saw the creatures go past and Victor put a restraining hand on his arm.
"Be quiet," he whispered. "If they discover us now, we can do nothing to help that person."
Helena awoke to the strange sensation of having something sweet dribbled into her mouth. Coughing and spluttering, she turned her head away and opened her eyes to find herself still trapped in the same nightmarish place. The sticky cloth bonds that bound her had hardened like cement and dug into her arms if she tried to move. As far as she could see, the situation was hopeless. Without help, it would be impossible for her to escape.
There was a tube hanging over her bed and the sweet dark liquid that had been dripping down on her continued to pour from it. Realising that she was incredibly thirsty, Helena gingerly tilted her head back and allowed another few drops to wet her mouth. The risk was worth it- she was certain that she would die if she didn't take some fluids in this hot, humid environment.
I'm being fed, she thought. I'm being kept alive for some reason.
The liquid slaked her thirst and tasted good, so against her better judgement, she began to drink a considerable amount of it. A feeling of peace soon stole over her and she lay in a contented, drugged haze, sipping automatically at the fluid as it continued its steady drip.
John Koenig stared furiously about his small silken prison, trying to think of a way to escape his bonds. He could feel them gradually hardening as time passed and guessed that soon, they would set hard. He wasn't sure of where he was but like Victor, guessed that it must be somewhere beneath the surface of the asteroid. He and Peter Morris had been heading in the direction of Victor's team after receiving the news about Helena's disappearance. One minute Peter had been in front of him and the next, he'd vanished down a hole. As John ran forward to see what had happened, he felt something grab him from behind and wrench his helmet from his head. In a matter of seconds, his lungs were filled with a musty smelling gas. Then he remembered nothing until he woke up a prisoner.
Very faintly John could hear a woman weeping, and this increased his fury. The others were somewhere nearby but he dared not call out. He too, had seen the shadows pass by. Attracting the attention of those monsters would not be a good idea.
He rammed his arms against his restrictive bonds, hoping to create enough give in them to slide out underneath them. Again and again he pushed, but progress was slow. Too slow.
"Goddammit," he whispered to himself. "There has to be a way out!"
When Victor was sure that the immediate danger had passed, he released his grip on Larry's arm and stood stiffly up.
"I wonder who they took?" said Larry, a note of raw fear in his voice. "It was a man; I could tell that much from the screaming."
Victor looked at the young pilot and knew that he was very close to cracking.
"We must keep calm if we're to get out of this alive," he said quietly. "Between the two of us, we might just manage to save the others and make it back to Alpha, but you have to play your part."
Larry took a deep breath and nodded.
"What are we going to do now?" he asked.
Victor had been thinking; running over the little they knew about where they were being held prisoner, and the nature of their captors. He'd come up with a plan of sorts, but it wasn't much. For once, his quick mind refused to think of something better. He heaved a sigh and held out his hand laser.
"I want you to take this," he said. "If we assume that these aliens are as similar to insects as they first appear, then it's my belief that several other members of our party are stored in other chambers nearby. It shouldn't be too difficult to locate them. You search for them Larry, and use the gun to release them in the same way that I did for you. If you see an alien, shoot on sight."
"What about you, Professor?" asked Larry.
"I'm going deeper into the asteroid, or hive, or whatever this place is," replied Victor. "I'll try to find the other two."
Larry looked at Victor in surprise.
"But I only saw them carry off one person!" he said.
Victor shook his head.
"Someone else had been taken from the chamber next to mine. I saw a man's boot there. This means that they've taken at least two of our party, and I've got my theories about what they're going to do with them."
Larry was not stupid, and had been thinking along similar lines to Victor. If their rescue attempt failed, they'd be an alien meal for sure.
"You take the gun; you'll need it more than I will," he argued. "It's suicidal to go after them without one."
"You can't release the others without that gun," said Victor firmly. "Now it's the only one we've got, and you're going to take it. No more arguments."
Larry looked at the Professor with admiration. He'd had very little to do with him before, as he was one of Alpha's most senior personnel and tended to keep himself to himself. He had a vaguely eccentric air about him at times, and the young pilot had not realised that he was also a very courageous and quick thinking man. Now he knew better. He also knew it was very unlikely that unarmed, the Professor could rescue the two of their party who'd been taken elsewhere and still manage to make it out alive.
"Let me be the one to go further into the asteroid," he said. "If you'll pardon me for saying so, I'm younger than you and can probably get there faster. Besides, if anything should happen... well, you're more valuable to Alpha than I am."
Victor chuckled mirthlessly.
"Ah Larry, that's debatable," he replied. "No; you must go and release those of us who are still bound up here in the chambers. In fact, I insist that you do it."
Larry reluctantly took the laser and peered out of the chamber door.
"Good luck Professor," he said, before slipping away.
"And good luck to you too, my young friend," murmured Victor, as he watched Larry run in the opposite direction to the one he was about to take himself.
There wasn't an alien to be seen as Victor set off on his journey, and he wondered why the place wasn't swarming with them. After all, this was apparently their food storage area, and an important place to protect. As he walked, he considered that maybe these creatures had no enemies. The asteroid had originally seemed uninhabited, so perhaps they were the only living beings on it.
The chambered area of tunnel soon ended and Victor began to sweat, as there was nowhere to hide if one of the creatures did happen along. Every sound he made seemed amplified in the humid atmosphere, and he fancied that his mechanical heart beat a little faster with the amount of adrenaline coursing through his veins. It wasn't possible, but nevertheless, the thought persisted. Sometimes he wished that his heart was still made of flesh- that he could feel that fluttering. It would have lent him a touch of vigour that he often felt he was lacking.
As he drew closer to the end of the tunnel, it bifurcated. Now he had to make a choice between going left and right and he stood undecided, trying to sense which was the correct path. Finally, he felt the low alien humming pulse through him, and tried to pinpoint the source. It seemed to be emanating from the right tunnel, so this was the one he decided to take. It was much darker than the chambered tunnel, whose walls had a dull yellow phosphorescent glow of their own, and Victor feared the threat of discovery even more, as he fumbled his way along it. As he put his hands on one of the walls, he felt a stream of water wash over them and became aware of a trickling sound, somewhere just above his head height.
"Oh, thank Christ," he whispered, as he looked up and saw that he'd stumbled across a smaller shaft close to the roof of the tunnel.
Victor heaved himself up and into a hole that was barely big enough for him to squeeze through, landing in a stream of fast running, tepid water. He guessed that the shaft might be one of many, acting as a kind of vascular system that allowed water from somewhere deep within the asteroid to flow around the aliens' network of tunnels, keeping the air here at the correct humidity for them. The shaft very narrow and low, but just big enough for him to scramble along on his knees. It ran parallel to the tunnel, with gaps every now and then, through which some of the warm water trickled.
Slowly crawling through the dark shaft, Victor found himself fighting a sudden feeling of claustrophobia, and his body began to protest loudly at the unusual physical punishment he was putting it through. He was exhausted and wondered for a brief moment if he was going to be able to continue. Then he remembered the cries of the man that the aliens had carried away.
"Come on, old chap," he muttered to himself. "As you said to Larry, just keep calm. Those men need your help."
As Victor crawled on, the humming noise continued to vibrate through his body in a strange alien rhythm. He wondered what it could mean. Was it a form of communication? Did it have any bearing on the whereabouts of the two missing Alphans? With luck, he would soon find out.
A scuffling sound in the tunnel below him made Victor come to a nervous halt. Peering through one of the gaps in the rock, he saw the dark shapes of a line of aliens hurry by. They were heading back the way he came and he offered up a silent prayer that Larry would find the others and release them in time. Once the aliens had passed he continued on his way, his back and knees being scraped red raw by constant contact with the rock walls of the shaft. After thirty minutes of hard slog and several tense pauses as aliens passed by, the tunnel came to an end. To Victor's amazement, the water shaft did not; it continued on out over a massive open pit which glowed with the same kind of phosphorescence that was present in the chambered area of the asteroid.
The pit was seething with aliens; they busily scuttled here and there, tending an enormous field of something that looked uncannily like giant mushrooms. Victor was reminded of the fungi that Paul Morrow had collected and eaten, when the people of the planet Ariel had temporarily given their moon an atmosphere. In this case he speculated that a symbiotic relationship existed between the alien creatures and the fungi they tended. Great globs of dark coloured sap bubbled out on to the flat, mushroom- like tops of the plants every few seconds, and an alien would scurry over and harvest the liquid, filling the expandable sac at it's neck. For a scientist, it was fascinating to watch.
"I wonder what they want with us, then," Victor whispered to himself, moving on and across the glowing 'mushroom' field. "They already have a food supply."
He crawled forward as fast as he could, as time was getting short and this was definitely not the source of the humming, even though the noise was very loud here. Victor was becoming more and more certain that once he found the source, he would find the two missing Alphans. He just hoped that whoever they were, they were still alive.
Paul Morrow stared at the golden asteroid with suspicion, while his craft hovered a hundred metres above it's surface. A constant communications link was being maintained between his Eagle and Alan Carter's, which was waiting just outside the asteroid's atmosphere and feeding everything straight back to Moonbase Alpha. So far it was a little staticy, but otherwise fine.
"We now have Eagle One in our sights Alan," he said. "The passenger module hatch is open and the whole ship is covered in some kind of strange gauzy material that looks vaguely like a thick spider's web. A great part of the Eagle's outer casing has actually begun to dissolve, and the rear motors look like they might have sustained some damage. I doubt the ship is spaceworthy."
"Any sign of the Commander and the others?" asked Alan.
"None," replied Paul, his brow creasing with worry. "The area looks deserted and we're getting no response from the Eagle. I wouldn't expect one though, from the state it's in. We're going to head back up into orbit and get away from the atmosphere, while I think about the situation. If there's something corrosive down here, we need to know about it before we proceed any further."
Alan sat in his own craft and worried. If Eagle One was so damaged, what had happened to her passengers? Was it really something undetectable in the asteroid's atmosphere that had done this to the craft, or an attack by some sort of weird life form? Either way, it didn't augur well for the survival of the landing party.
John Koenig was in the process of trying to slowly wriggle out from underneath his cloth bonds when he heard a faint noise. Looking up, he saw Larry West slip into his tent and grin with relief.
"Am I glad to see you Commander," he whispered.
"The feeling's mutual," said John, noting the laser in his hand. "Can you get me out of this restraint?"
"The Professor showed me how. Just close your eyes and you'll be free in a jiffy."
John did as Larry instructed and waited while his bonds were burnt away. Unfortunately, they were now set so hard that the young pilot had to attack them with the laser on both sides of his body. The beam passed within millimetres of his commander twice, badly scorching his forearms.
"I'm sorry Sir," he said, an expression of mortification on his face.
"Don't be- you just saved my life," replied John, seeing Larry's loincloth and ripping some gold silk down to cover his own nakedness. "You mentioned the Professor; is he down here too?"
"Two of us have been taken somewhere else by our alien captors, but the Professor said everyone else would be in this tunnel full of chambers. He's gone to rescue the two who've been taken away and told me to find the rest of you. He said we have to get back to the ship and off the asteroid, before it passes Alpha."
"What about these two people who were taken?" asked John. "Do you know who they are?"
"No Sir, we didn't," said Larry. "We were sure they were men though, so since you're here, it must be Peter Morris and that guy from Security. To tell you the truth I only saw one, but the Professor said he knew there was another. Sir, he was most insistent that we get out of here quickly. The aliens might be using us as a food source; that's why we've been kept in these chambers."
"I understand," John nodded, feeling strangely relieved that the two members of their party who'd been taken away were men. It meant that Helena Russell was probably still around here. He mentally shelved the reason he felt this way, figuring that right now it wasn't important. It could be dealt with at a later time when they were safely back on Alpha and he was alone in his quarters- if they ever made it back to Alpha.
Taking the laser from Larry, he signalled for him to follow and crept from the chamber, heading in the direction of the crying he'd heard earlier. A dozen metres further along the tunnel, was another chamber. Tearing through the silken tent inside it he found Sandra Benes, her frightened and tear stained features telling him that she'd been the one making the noise. If Victor was correct, then only Helena Russell remained to be accounted for. As quickly as he dared, John burned through Sandra's bonds and ran back out into the tunnel.
"Help her wrap some of that material around herself and then follow me," he instructed Larry. "I'll see if I can find Doctor Russell."
Helena's was the last chamber in the tunnel and when John burst in, he couldn't be sure that she was actually inside it, at first. A thin brown tube was hanging from the roof and it disappeared inside a much thicker and longer restraint than the other Alphans had been wrapped in. It was so long that it even covered Helena's face and to John, it resembled a fat golden cocoon. Only two air holes and a hole for the tube were present and the restraint was actually growing thicker as he watched. The figure beneath it lay unmoving and despite the humid air, John went cold. If Helena was in there, surely she must be dead.
Rushing over, he peered down through the cocoon.
"Helena," he whispered. "Helena, can you hear me?"
Beneath the bonds, Helena moved her head. John saw that the tube was hanging directly above her mouth, and that she was lazily swallowing a thick dark liquid that dripped from it. He yanked at the tube with an angry gesture, pulling it from the roof and tossing it aside.
"What have they done to you?" he gasped.
A shadow behind him made him turn around, just in time to confront one of the alien creatures. It came towards him, it's jaws angrily clicking open and shut, its six unblinking eyes focused on his destruction. Raising his laser, John fired at point blank range and the creature dropped like a stone, a similar brown liquid to that which Helena had been drinking leaking out from the sac beneath it's jaws.
Turning back to Helena, John carefully hacked away at the thick cocoon surrounding her with his laser, until he had enough of it peeled back to lift her out.
"Golden man come to wake me up," she slurred, her pinpoint pupils staring up at him. "Let me sleep. Go 'way."
"Doctor Russell- Helena, come on! Stand up!" he shouted, shaking her.
Helena's knees buckled and she collapsed on the floor like a rag doll, just as Larry and Sandra entered the chamber. Sandra put her hands over her mouth when she saw the dead alien, stifling a scream.
"We heard laser fire up here," said Larry, staring at Helena as she moaned and tried to crawl back to her prison. "We... we thought you might need help."
John tore a strip of cocoon cloth down and wrapped Helena in it, before picking her up and slinging her over his shoulder in a fireman's lift.
"These monsters seemed to have had a different plan for Doctor Russell," he explained. "They were feeding her something; drugging her. And she was completely covered in a cocoon of material when I came in here."
"Perhaps they intended to do that to all of us," said Larry. "They just hadn't got started yet."
"Could be; now let's get these ladies back to the ship," said John, grimacing as Helena struggled to return to the source of the dark liquid she'd been ingesting.
"No, no," she yelled, making a lot of noise. "I stay. I want to stay!"
"Doctor Russell, be quiet," begged Sandra, looking at her with wide eyes.
She'd never seen Helena behave in such a manner, and it was frightening.
"I'm going to have to stun her," said John, as Helena managed to wriggle out of his grasp and back to the floor.
With a shaking hand, he raised his gun and fired. Helena lay deathly still and he slung her over his shoulder once more, handing the laser to Larry.
"Let's go," he said grimly.
Victor came close to panic when the humming suddenly stopped. After hearing it for so long its absence made him feel disoriented and he swayed in the watery shallows, clutching at his head. What could its cessation mean? He struggled on past the mushroom fields and down, deeper into the heart of the asteroid. At last he could see the open end of the water shaft. Cautiously crawling forward and peering over the edge of it, he watched the water cascade down into a deep pool at the edge of a blindingly beautiful golden cavern. Steam shimmered up from its surface, giving the air here an even higher moisture content than anywhere else on the asteroid. Silken curtains hung in weird hexagonal shapes from the roof of the cavern, reminding Victor strongly of bees' honeycomb. The same weird phosphorescent light glowed from the rock surfaces here as it did back in the mushroom field and the prison chambers. It lent the whole scene an air of complete unreality. Then his eyes were drawn to the middle of the cavern floor.. .
Lying on a vast bed of silk, was a massive grey and brown striped alien. Its bulky ovoid body dwarfed a chitinous brown head and six tiny legs that obviously were of no use to it at all. It was sucking greedily on a red bubbling mass, periodically uttering short low humming sounds of satisfaction to an army of the insectile alien creatures who were standing respectfully in a circle around it. Victor drew a sharp breath when he realised that it was feasting on the remains of a human being. A second man lay nearby, and despite the partially dissolved state of his face, he could see that it was Peter Morris. He was too late; there was nothing he could do to save either Peter, or what was left of the other man.
Who is the second unfortunate? Victor wondered. Is it John?
He fervently hoped not. Moonbase Alpha would be lost without its commander.
It wasn't hard to see that the repulsive looking alien who was in the process of feasting on the Alphans was the leader- the Queen of the alien hive. Victor knew he'd been right when he'd guessed that the other aliens he'd encountered were nothing more than drones. They existed to serve her, harvesting the solution from the field of fungus and apparently, capturing stray aliens specifically for her pleasure. They were so like bees or ants or wasps back on Earth that it was uncanny. The musty gaseous smell was very intense in the chamber and Victor began to feel lightheaded. Placing a hand on the edge of the shaft, he accidentally loosened a few tiny stones and they trickled down, falling with a noisy splash into the pool below him. The alien Queen interrupted her feeding frenzy and raised her head. The incredible humming that Victor had been following began to vibrate through his body once more, and he jammed his hands over his ears in a useless attempt to shut out the noise.
"Ah, you are the rogue. The one who first escaped my servants," he clearly heard through the hum.
The Queen's voice seemed to echo through Victor's brain and he couldn't be sure whether she was actually speaking his language, or her thoughts were being translated by his own mind. Either way, communication with her was clearly not a problem. At her words, every drone in the cavern had turned to face him and took a step in the direction of the water shaft. Victor thanked the stars that the shaft was a good distance from the base of the cavern, and hoped the aliens couldn't climb. He shivered as he felt their collective gaze on him, absorbing his features... and....
"You've no eyes," he whispered, staring at the queen.
Words vibrated through his head once more.
"My servants are my eyes. They are part of me and through them, I see you clearly."
Keep it talking, Victor told himself. Give yourself time to think.
"Your servants are your eyes," he said. "But how can this be? They are separate from you. Autonomous."
"Not autonomous," was the reply. "Separate, but a part of me, working independently from my body. Still directed by me, for the good of my existence."
A collective mind! thought Victor. Could this alien truly be a collective mind?
This was a theory that he and many others had often contemplated back on Earth, in connection with hives of bees and colonies of ants. It had only ever been a theory, though. Ants used complex trails of pheromones to communicate with each other and bees danced their stories. But- if this creature was truly a collective mind, then there was a possibility that it was highly intelligent. Perhaps he could reason with it. Try to persuade it to let them go, or at least Larry and the others.
"Your servants harvest the juice from the fungus for you," he said. "If the fungus is your food source, why did you capture us and... er, use two of our number for the same purpose?"
"These questions are amusing," hummed the Queen. "I had not thought your species capable of them. I will indulge you with the answers, so that you may understand the importance of your flesh."
Her servants moved back to her side and Victor heaved a sigh of relief. Apparently she was willing to talk for the moment and didn't see him as a threat. The Queen began to speak again, and he brought his attention to bear on what she was saying.
"My hive travels at random throughout the universe. I live comfortably here at its heart, sustained by the nectar collected by my servants. Occasionally alien species such as yourself are attracted to the hive, no doubt by its great beauty. Then my world becomes a trap. With luck, more than one alien will stumble upon us at a time, which makes it possible for me to reproduce."
"You need aliens to reproduce?" asked Victor, fascinated in spite of his fear.
"Although the fungal nectar allows me to live, I need extra nourishment in order to become fertile," explained the Queen. "After feeding, some of my servants will couple with me. The amount of nourishment I have been able to receive determines the number of eggs I lay. Most of these eggs will hatch themselves, to become more servants. A single one will become another such as myself, provided there is enough alien nourishment. The special egg will be placed in a cocoon next to the body of an alien and cast out into space, together with a small colony of fungus . On hatching it must feed immediately on the alien body, in order to survive. Then it drifts until it finds a suitable place to begin its own hive.
"You have escaped your chamber in the hope that you may leave my hive. The others of your species have done the same, and even managed to destroy one of my servants. You must accept that there is no point to your struggle. Once you land here, you can never leave. The craft you arrived in has been destroyed. Do you understand?"
In spite of the fatigue he felt, in spite of the humming that hammered through his brain, Victor was thinking fast. This creature was intelligent to a degree, but it had a limited, inward looking intelligence. Apparently, it didn't know of their moon's close proximity to the hive and the danger it represented. He imagined the hive as a kind of giant ball of honey, attracting aliens to it as it rolled along through space. The Queen had to do nothing but live in solitary splendour at its heart, served by her minions and being fed occasionally by the poor unfortunates who happened to become caught in her sticky trap. Now he understood why their chambers had not been better guarded- and why a swarm of aliens had not descended upon them from the moment he'd first escaped. The Queen, in her arrogance, truly thought there was no way off the asteroid / hive for them. She didn't know about the fleet of Eagles back at Moonbase Alpha...
"Alien! Do you understand what I have told you?" the Queen demanded to know.
"Oh, indeed I do," said Victor, in a respectful voice. "It is our destiny to serve you, by allowing you to ingest our flesh. We are here in your hive and can never leave, so we must give in to your greater need."
"Exactly," hummed the Queen, sounding very satisfied with his answer.
"There is a small problem," said Victor. "The others of my species do not understand your motives- your needs. They must be persuaded. They have a weapon and if your servants approach them, they will use it. This would be wasteful. Since there is no way for us to leave the hive and you must eventually have us, let me go and explain to them that a peaceful acceptance would be best. Then we shall return to our chambers and await your summons."
The humming stopped for a moment and the Queen was silent, thinking. Her servants once again moved forward.
"It is not the way of any life form to give up their existence so easily," she said. "Why would you do it?"
Victor knew he'd made a mistake. She was suspicious of his motives now.
"I wish to be spared," he said quickly. "I cannot leave the hive, but I can survive here. In fact, I can do better than survive here. I can reproduce. There are females among my group and if you spare one of them, we can supply a ready source of nourishment for you at regular intervals. It would be a trade, you see. Our lives for your nourishment."
"Wouldn't you prefer to simply leave my hive?" asked the Queen.
Victor wracked his brains for another believable answer.
"No I would not," he replied, trying to sound convincing. "My companions and I were fugitives from our world. We came here in our ship, hoping desperately for a place to live, as we had only days to survive. I am their leader and can persuade my people to return to their chambers. Although they will not know it, their deaths will be a small price to pay for my life and the life of one female, here in this beautiful hive."
The Queen was silent again, and Victor held his breath, hoping she'd believe him. He'd tried to appeal to her survival instinct; it had probably never crossed her limited mind that alien flesh could be bred, in just the same way as the fungus gardens were tended for the Queen's benefit. With luck, she would see it was a good idea and give him the chance to escape. Eventually, she spoke.
"All right you pitiful creature, you may go back the way you came. Your companions are close to the surface of the hive and one of my servants will accompany you, to show you where they are. If you can persuade them to acquiesce, I may consider letting you and a single female live. There is one condition, though; if any harm should come to my servant, or you fail to convince your companions to do as I wish, I will send a swarm of my servants out to bring you back by force. They will gas you all until you are dead."
"I understand," said Victor.
He turned around in the narrow shaft and to his horror, discovered an alien servant standing directly behind him. It must have sneaked into the shaft while he was conversing with the Queen.
Don't underestimate her, he warned himself, as he followed it back in the direction he'd previously travelled.
"Remember I will be watching your progress," came the Queen's voice, buzzing through his head...
John Koenig's scorched arms throbbed painfully as he carried the unconscious Helena through the warren of tunnels, searching for an exit to the asteroid's surface. He was beginning to give up hope of ever finding a way out, and wondered if they'd be crushed down here when their moon passed by.
"Don't you find it odd that we haven't run into any more of those creatures?" asked a nervous Larry West. "We've all escaped, so you'd think they'd have mounted a search party by now."
"Perhaps there are not many aliens living on the asteroid," commented Sandra.
"No; I don't buy that," said Larry. "There were enough to detect us and capture us pretty damned quickly."
John, who'd only been half listening to their speculations, signalled for silence.
"Look up ahead," he panted. "There's our way out."
Moving forward with renewed vigour, they reached a hole in the asteroid surface and scrambled out.
"Free!" cheered Larry.
"Not yet," warned John.
He could just make out the shape of Eagle One on the horizon and they had quite a distance to walk to it. Looking up, he saw that their moon was very close, and his heart sank. Would there be time for him to see these three safely aboard the Eagle and then go back and look for Victor? He wasn't sure.
"Paul, I'm picking up evidence of life forms on the surface!" shouted Alan.
Paul Morrow was seeing the same thing on the instruments in his Eagle.
"I see four- no, there are five. Maybe six. How about you?"
"It's confusing," said Alan. "There seems to be a whole lot more. Something's wrong with our readings again."
"There are definitely four in a group approaching Eagle One and a couple have appeared a short distance behind them," said Paul. "I'm going down."
"I'm backing you up, mate," replied Alan, breaking protocol and readying his ship to follow him in. "Moonbase Alpha; we're going to be temporarily out of contact!"
There was a dismayed silence, when the Commander and his small party finally arrived at what remained of Eagle One. He gently lowered the still unconscious Helena to the ground and stood with his hands on his hips, surveying the giant golden shroud that covered the ship. In desperation, Larry ran forward and began to tear at webbing that covered the open hatch with his bare hands.
"Don't do that!" John warned him. "We can't be sure that this stuff is exactly the same as the material they used to wrap us up with; look how it's slowly dissolving the outer casing of the ship."
Larry stared at his hands and saw a mass of red lines, where he'd come into contact with the webbing. Hastily, he wiped them on a corner of the gold loincloth he was wearing.
"What are we to do, Commander?" asked Sandra. "We are trapped."
"We'll wait here for backup," said John. "We've been out of contact with Alpha for far too long and Paul is bound to send a rescue party."
"I hope he makes it soon," groaned Larry, who's hands were beginning to feel as though they were on fire.
Two distant figures walking towards the Eagle caught John's attention. One of them was Victor, and the other was an alien. At first glance, there didn't seem to be a problem between them and John wondered what Victor was up to.
"Give me the laser," he ordered.
Larry handed the weapon over and then John walked forward to meet Victor.
When the alien creature finally led Victor out onto the surface of the hive and he looked up and saw how little time there was left to execute his plan, his knees began to shake and he stumbled.
"You must hurry," said the alien, and Victor knew it was the queen herself speaking- watching him. "I need the other members of your group soon, if I am to produce another queen. You must remember that your survival depends totally upon your persuasive techniques."
"How could I forget," muttered Victor, forcing his exhausted body into a jog.
As he drew closer to the other Alphans, he saw that John was still alive and smiled with relief. He came to a stop a few metres from the Eagle, which was a ruin, and waited for the Commander to approach him.
"I'm relieved to see you, John," he said.
"Likewise," replied John, staring at the alien, who was standing close behind him. "Who's your friend?"
Victor frowned and rolled his eyes, trying desperately to communicate the situation to John without words.
"I have to explain something to you," he said out loud. "This little world is not an asteroid, but a hive for a swarm of alien creatures who are controlled by a single, magnificent queen. There is no way out of this place now- just take a look at what's been done to the Eagle. Nobody can help us, so we might as well surrender and return to the chambers until the queen decides what must be done with us. Once we're safely there, I'll explain what's going on in greater detail. It's very important that we return to the chambers now, and since I am the leader of our group, I order it."
John raised his eyebrows and Victor hoped like hell that he'd go along with him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw two bright dots appear in the blackness above him. Second by second they grew larger; at last help was at hand. In a few minutes, he'd be able to dispense with the charade but if he timed it wrongly, the Queen would have a hoard of drones up here and gassing them, before they could board the rescue Eagles and escape.
"Okay Victor," John said slowly. "Like you said, you're the boss. Tell me; where are Peter and the fellow from security? Larry said you went deeper into the asteroid to rescue them."
Victor shook his head slightly.
"They're assisting the Queen right now," he replied. "In time we will assist her too, but for the moment, it's best not to ask too many questions."
The alien drone clicked its jaws and Victor could sense the Queen's anxiety. He could also hear the roar of the approaching Eagles' engines, and wondered incredulously why the alien could not.
John looked up.
"We have company," he said.
With those words, pandemonium broke loose. Victor jumped to one side, yelling,
"Shoot the alien now John!"
Koenig did as Victor asked, just as the ground beneath his feet began to shake.
Sandra screamed as the creature fell and then Larry began to scream too, for a different reason.
"My hands, my hands!" he yelled, running wildly in circles. "They've dissolved! Aaaaagh!"
The others looked at poor Larry, who's hands had disappeared completely. All that remained were two stumps at his wrists, and the damage was continuing. If they couldn't do something to help him quickly, his forearms would be next. John glanced at Helena, who was still blissfully unconscious, and wished he had her expertise.
"Hang on Larry," he said, trying to calm the young pilot down. "Help is nearly here."
But Larry was beyond help. The substance that was dissolving his flesh-the same substance that the Queen used to dissolve her meals-had leaked into his bloodstream and travelled to his brain. He madly threw himself at the hatch of Eagle One, covering his body in more sticky threads of corrosive material, but managing to burst through it. John's first instinct was to rush in and try to prevent Larry from harming himself further, but Victor put a hand on his arm.
"Leave him," he said. "He's lost to us and we've got something else to contend with."
True to the Queen's word, dozens of drone aliens were pouring out of holes and onto the surface of the hive. And every one of them was heading straight for the little group of Alphans. Suddenly, the ground beneath their feet heaved and a massive crevasse opened up, not twenty metres in front of Eagle One. The approaching moon was finally beginning to exert its superior pull over the small asteroid.
Waves of steam rose from the crevasse, together with the now-familiar sweet musty smell. Fortunately the geological disturbance stalled the alien hordes, but even as they threw themselves at the crevasse in an attempt to get across it, they began to exude puffs of gas. Traces of it wafted across to the Alphans, making them dizzy.
"There is nowhere safe for the rescue Eagles to land," wailed Sandra. "It will be overwhelmed by aliens."
Victor watched as the Eagles came closer, firing their retros and obviously trying to work out how best to approach the situation. From behind him, a roar of igniting engines added to the pandemonium.
"Get down!" yelled John, dropping to his knees and shielding Helena with his own body. "Larry's taking off!"
Eagle One shuddered under its anchor of webbing and then tore itself free, moving over their heads and heading out over the crevasse. One engine exploded, showering white hot debris conveniently down on the aliens and decimating their numbers, before it continued on forward, only metres above the ground.
"I wonder if Larry knows what he's doing?" said Victor.
"Watch out!" cried Sandra, as the ground shook again and more cracks opened up around them.
Sitting in their respective Eagles, Paul and Alan knew that they had no time to lose. The nightmare situation that had broken out below them was growing worse by the minute and if they didn't get their people out right away, they'd either be killed by the aliens, or fall down one of the crazy patchwork of fissures that were opening up in the asteroid's surface. With great care, they fired their Eagles' lasers into the crowd of aliens, driving them away from the crevasse and the Alphans, creating a minute or two of much needed breathing space.
"I can only make out four people down there," said Alan. "I don't know where the others are.
"We'll have to winch them up; there's no other way of getting them aboard," said Paul. "Let's hope that whoever- or whatever- was flying that damaged Eagle stays out of our way."
"I'll move in first," replied Alan. "Keep firing; we don't want any extra passengers hopping aboard the winches."
With one eye on the distant Eagle One, which was now on the brink of losing another motor and stuck in a circling pattern less than two kilometres away, Alan brought his ship down low over the four Alphans. Bill Fraser, who was co-piloting, rushed to the passenger module and opened the hatch. The humid, stinking atmosphere hit him full in the face as he set up the craft's personnel winch and began to lower it. He coughed in revulsion, squinting down at the melee below.
"Everything okay back there?" called Alan.
"Yes," Bill responded. "I hope they realise what we're doing."
"John, you and Helena must go first," said Victor, as he looked up at the Eagle hovering above them. "Helena is in greatest need of attention and we can wait, can't we Sandra."
Sandra did not reply. She was beyond caring; the sight of the swarm of approaching aliens and a whiff or two of their gas had been too much for her and she stood on the brink of fainting, swaying to and fro. Victor grabbed her arm and tried to support her, as John threw him a grateful look and passed him the laser. He quickly strapped the oblivious Helena into the safety harness and then clipped himself to it, holding tightly to her limp body. Victor gave the thumbs- up sign to Bill Fraser and he started the winch as the Eagle moved away.
"See you up there," called out John.
Moments later he was gone, and a second Eagle was positioning itself above Victor and Sandra. Sandra could barely stand and Victor had to use all of his strength to help her into the safety harness. One of the clips on it was jammed, and he sweated and struggled with it.
"Keep still Sandra," he puffed, as he heard the sound of another Eagle approaching.
Looking up, he saw that Eagle One was heading back towards them, careering along at breakneck speed.
"Go! Go!" he yelled up at Paul, snapping the clip into place. "You'll have to come back for me."
Paul shouted something to his co-pilot and his Eagle accelerated away, with Sandra swinging dangerously at the end of the rope. Victor hit the ground and put his hands over his ears as the belly of Eagle One passed less than ten metres above him. The ground heaved again and rocks and debris clattered around him. Then above it all, he heard a familiar, humming voice.
"You sought to trick me. It is you, the rogue, who is responsible for the destruction of my hive. My last task will now be to ensure the survival of a new Queen, and you shall be her sustenance."
Victor lifted his head and watched in horror, as the bulbous body of the Queen alien heaved herself out of the deep crevasse and onto the ground just a short distance from him. A few of her minions still swarmed around her, although many had been destroyed by the Eagles' laser fire and the exploding engine. They advanced menacingly at her side. Hanging from the Queen's rear was a string of glistening black eggs and they continued to spew forth from her, even as she moved. One egg alone was a bright golden colour and this she had somehow detached, and carried under her chin.
"Come, let us cocoon you," she said, advancing slowly towards him, as the other aliens began to once again send puffs of gas in his direction. You will have the honour of being the new Queen's first meal.
"No thank you," said Victor, backing away and raising his laser. "I don't intend to be anyone's meal."
He fired directly at the Queen, with no effect.
"Your puny stings may damage my servants but they leave me quite unharmed," she laughed.
The paralysing gas began to grow thick in the air and Victor shook his head, trying to resist it. He held his breath and looked up, as the rescue Eagle approached a second time. A burst of laser fire flew from its nose, scattering some of the Queen's servants, but the gas was so thick now that it didn't matter whether they continued to produce it or not. Victor's knees buckled and he fell, as his mechanical heart began to protest at the lack of oxygen in his body and skip a few beats.
"No," he gasped, letting the air out of his lungs and breathing in the gas against his will.
"Hang on Professor," shouted a voice directly above him.
Victor rolled over on his back and saw a blurred image of Paul Morrow hanging from beneath the Eagle. He weakly lifted up his arms and felt a line wrap around his chest. Seconds later, he was flying through the air...
The two rescue Eagles hovered above the disintegrating asteroid, their shocked pilots watching as Eagle One suddenly rose higher above the asteroid, and then lost a second engine, beginning a death spiral back towards the crumbling surface.
"Larry, Larry; can you hear me?" called Alan Carter. "Lift her nose up. Get her nose up and assume the crash position!"
He'd been trying to contact the young pilot ever since John Koenig had been winched aboard and had explained who was piloting the ship.
Bill Fraser stood behind his seat, an expression of horror on his face.
"It's no use," he whispered. "From what the Commander said, I don't think he'd understand what you're saying, even if he could hear you."
They shielded their eyes with their hands as the ship slammed into the asteroid and exploded in a spectacular ball of flame, engulfing everything around it within a one kilometre radius.
"Look at the creature," gasped Alan, magnifying a ground image on one of the Eagle's monitors. "It's on fire!"
The alien Queen and the last of her servants were caught in the edge of the fireball and in moments, she exploded herself. A brief flash of bright blue flame marked her demise.
"Good riddance, if you ask me," said Bill, taking his seat.
"Alan, Bill, take us home please," said a weary John Koenig, poking his head into the command module.
"With pleasure Sir," replied Alan.
Victor lay on a bed in a private room in Medical Center, staring glumly at a piece of golden silk, which was lying crumpled on a nearby chair. Every bone and muscle in his body ached, and even his brain seemed to throb with exhaustion. After Paul had lifted him to the safety of the Eagle, he'd lain prone on his back for most of the trip back to Alpha, with an oxygen mask pressed to his face. He'd been dimly aware of the shouts of dismay from the crew when Eagle One had exploded, taking young Larry West with it, and also aware of the grim cheers when the alien Queen had met her end. Everything else was just a blur.
Now, twelve hours later, the episode was truly over. The moon and the asteroid / hive had passed each other by and as originally predicted, Alpha had suffered no ill-effects from the chance meeting. Bob Mathias had reassured him that after a few days rest he would be fine and that his mechanical heart had suffered no damage from the experience. Thankfully, Helena Russell was awake and talking and the burns on John's arms would heal without scarring.
But still Victor stared at the silk, his usual optimism completely absent.
"Can I come in?" asked a voice from the doorway of his room.
It was the Commander. Both his forearms were swathed in bandages and he had charcoal circles of fatigue under his deep set eyes, but he was smiling.
"Of course," replied Victor, wearily propping himself up with a couple of pillows. "How is Helena?"
"She's going to be just fine, thank God," sighed John, tossing the silk on to the end of Victor's bed and pulling the chair up so that he could sit beside him.
He briefly explained to Victor about how he'd found Helena in a drugged state, and wrapped in a cocoon.
"She didn't want to be rescued and put up a hell of a fight," he said. "I had to stun her to get her out of there and for quite, a while I was worried that the stun coupled with the drug might have done her some permanent damage. I never would have forgiven myself..."
"You did the right thing John," said Victor, a bleak look in his eyes. "Helena must have been the Queen's choice for her offspring."
John stared at Victor, thinking to himself that he'd never seen his friend look so drained, or so traumatised.
"What do you mean by the Queen's choice?" he asked. "Look; I guess it's a long story, but do you think you're up to explaining what happened to you back there?"
Victor nodded and cleared his throat. Then he began his tale, starting from the moment that he woke up a prisoner in the chamber and finishing with his arrival at Eagle One with the alien. The telling took some time, and Bob Mathias peered into the room twice. Each time John frowned and waved him away, sensing that Victor needed to tell the story in full and uninterrupted, to get a clearer picture of what had happened down on the asteroid himself.
"I don't think I'll ever completely understand why the Queen could not sense the danger above her, in the form of our Eagles and our Moon," he concluded. "It was as if she was only aware of what was actually touching the surface of her hive."
"A collective mind," he murmured. "But she wasn't so intelligent, was she. Her thinking was very regimented and she was unable to imagine unpredictable events."
"Can insects?" Victor wondered. "I doubt it. They are like tiny computers, their neurones pre-programmed to perform certain tasks. A honey bee, for instance, can remember the position of certain flowers in relation to the sun and communicate this to its fellows by executing a complex dance. It does all this with a brain no bigger than a pinhead. It appears to be intelligent, but it cannot think outside the square.
"The alien Queen and her drones may have operated as a collective consciousness in order to survive, but they were just as pre-programmed in their own way. They couldn't think outside their immediate environment, possibly because they'd evolved without ever having to. It was lucky for us that they couldn't."
John found his own eyes drawn to the piece of silken cloth, where it now lay on the end of Victor's bed.
"Not lucky for poor Larry, or Peter, or James," he said sadly. "All promising young men; we can't afford to lose many like them Victor."
"No," Victor agreed, thinking fondly of young Larry, who had tried so hard to remain brave and do the right thing under terrifying circumstances. "And in spite of the threat she posed to us, the alien Queen was a unique life form and is a loss to the universe also. Nobody won here John. Nobody."
The two men sat in companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Eventually, John stood up and rested a hand on Victor's shoulder.
"I'd better go back and check on Helena, before heading off for a sleep," he said. "I've got a suspicion that she's pretty embarrassed about the fact that when I found her in that chamber, she was totally out of her mind, not to mention stark naked. She usually likes to maintain a good level of self-control."
"Well we all lost our clothes John," replied Victor, trying to summon up a grin. "I imagine it's all around the base by now that we were rescued wearing nothing but a few bits of yellow cloth."
John laughed properly at this, and then raising his hand, he left the room.
When he was alone again Victor turned on his side and shut his eyes, willing himself to rest; wishing his errant brain would stop thinking for a little while and give him some peace. For there was something that it kept turning back to of it's own accord. Something else that he didn't understand and something he hadn't mentioned to John. The dream. The dream of his childhood, before the alien hive had ever been detected by Kano up in Main Mission. Was the resurfacing memory of his encounter with bees as a child purely coincidental, or had he sensed the approach of the alien Queen? It was something to puzzle over; an intangible that would more than likely never have a scientific explanation. Finally, thankfully, exhaustion allowed Victor to temporarily shelve the problem. There would be time enough when he woke up again to ponder the imponderables.
Ah mother, I really do wonder what you'd make of my life now, were his final thoughts, as he drifted off to sleep....
Copyright (c) 1999. Reprinted with permission.