"The Eagle" By David Welle

Commander John Koenig sat in the small meeting room near Command Center, waiting for Captain Alan Carter, the chief Eagle pilot of Moonbase Alpha, to return with a list of names drawn by random computer "lottery." Meanwhile, John looked over their notes again.

Alan let himself into the room, sat down at the table, across from John, and laughed. "Well, I got the list from Sandra, and it is quite interesting what one of the names is." He pushed the list across to John, who did not take long to make a sound indicating he recognized Alan's meaning.

"What are the chances of that?" Alan then asked.

"Well, one in... about thirty-five, I suppose—though I know what you mean."

"It probably does not need saying, but I don't see the point in re-drawing," Alan offered.

"No, absolutely not," John agreed. "I think this is a good thing anyway."

"We'll need to add some more detail, though, and time is running out to get this done."

"Yes, you're right, on both counts."

"Should I get some coffee?"

"Good idea."

"So you say," Alan quipped.

It was neither a common nor a rare request for Maya to receive.

"Maya, your name came up for a mission we would like for you to take part in," the Commander told her.

"Yes, Commander," she, the science officer and sole Psychon among the Alphans, immediately said, always ready to contribute. "What is the nature of the mission?" she asked, wanting to know how to prepare for it.

"Sorry, I cannot give any details at this point. Your name was drawn randomly."

Oh, a surprise training mission, she thought, then replied, "Okay, I will gather my generalized equipment kit."

"Good. The Eagle will be on Pad Two; meet in the assembly area in fifty minutes."

"Yes, Commander."

As Maya headed away to gather the equipment, change uniforms, and otherwise get ready, she mused...

There were frequent random practices or tests during pauses between true missions. Sometimes they were for or of her individually, regarding her infrequently-used Eagle piloting skills that she had been trained in years before. These were required for all pilots with relatively low flight-activity levels. Other times, they were for other areas of individual skill. Sometimes, however, the exercises were in larger random, semi-random, or non-random groups, as a practice in teamwork and mission skills. These were required for all individuals, regardless how often they got off-Moon. Only some of these required an actual Eagle mission.

From what she understood, some of these procedures had been in place before Breakaway, some were implemented post-Breakaway, before her arrival, and some after as well, as the senior officers translated hard experience into "lessons learned" and new procedures.

She wondered which type of mission this was.

Maya, as usual, came to the assembly area some minutes early, using the time to talk briefly with others already there or arriving. She had long ago made arriving early a habit, just to be punctual; but two of her earliest friends here had personally persuaded Maya that she should also use the opportunity to engage others in further conversation, something she had first found difficult, then useful, then also sometimes just pleasant to do. Small'talk, as the Alphans called it, had not come easily to her. Oh, she had learned to mimic it quickly enough, completely of her own accord, instinctively making that one of her first steps in trying to fit in and integrate. However, learning to do it completely from her own thoughts, beyond nearly exactly following their words, had taken more effort.

Psychons had a different style to use between initial greetings and deeper discussion, yet Maya had found the Alphan style was not that much different in purpose, even if in form; and she had gotten somewhat used to it over the years, and now actually tended to enjoyed the opportunities most of the time, though she still sometimes felt awkward about it.

Per usual, no one knew what the practice was about, though as the crowd swelled, it was even clearer this must be some sort of teamwork exercise, and not Eagle piloting practice. Like Maya, each person was carrying one or two carry-on cases, probably their most typical, generalized equipment as well.

By the time the Commander arrived, with Alan as it turned out, both already in their pressure suits, helmets in hand, the number of those waiting for them included her, Bill Fraser, and six others. The nature of the training session eluded Maya, as those gathered fit no particular skills pattern she could discern; but that was no surprise, as half of such missions gave her no real clue as to what sort of skills were to be practiced. Sandra might have recognized the pattern rapidly, but she was not present.

The commander, after Alan checked off people from a list, led everyone into the travel tube, and within minutes, all were aboard the Eagle. This was not a reconnaissance or laboratory Eagle, but one with more banks of seats in it, and no specific science station, so Maya simply took a seat on the port side, where there was a pair of empty seats right at the front. A few moments later, another Alphan sat next to her, with a friendly re-greeting. She was a woman Maya did not know well but who had been friendly to her almost from the beginning. Maya decided to take the opportunity to "chat" a little while, before the launch.

After the launch, small'talk disappeared and more speculation started again among the group; but it did not get far before declining, so Maya looked around again. They were well into flight now, the pilot module doorway was closed, and she could tell, from the specific engine noises she was hearing so far, that this was apparently not a low flight, but sub-orbital. She abruptly realized that this recognition put her in a slightly awkward spot. As an officer, was she supposed to be supporting the mission by keeping its parameters under wraps? Or was she simply part of a team and the practice already begun, such that she should share her observations? After a few moments thought, she opted for the latter, turning her head and indicating her observation aloud. Bill, a well-practiced Eagle pilot, sitting on the starboard side, immediately replied he had come to the same conclusion as well. Neither statement improved the speculative quality of the discussion, however. No one had a good guess regarding the nature of the exercise.

Roughly mid-flight, the Commander contacted Maya via commlock. "Maya, have everyone suit up. Visors up. Channel Seven."

"Yes, commander," she replied.

She smiled briefly at the thought of bouncing around in 0.1624 Psychon gravity again, but set that aside, wondering why she was given this order rather than it going to everyone at once, via intra-Eagle relay, or someone coming back to deliver it. She had observed curious and sometimes outright strange requests made during practice missions, however, that were rarely if ever made during regular missions. It seemed to be some aspect of training, perhaps meant to gauge reactions to more unexpected variations on typical actions. In this case, she wondered if the Commander was testing her leadership skills, which she still considered a work in progress.

She stood, turned to face everyone, and called for attention. Being the center of attention of any more than a few people at a time was still difficult for her in many ways; but this crowd included one of her long-time friends, namely Bill, some of her acquaintances, and though she barely knew the remainder, they too at least listened with neutral or respectful gazes.

She expanded, per procedure, on some of the terse orders she had received. "Everyone, I have received orders we all need to suit up, including helmets on, a visor check, but visors up for now. Tune to Channel Seven." She thought for a second about the quantity of people, and realized only one side at a time could initially retrieve their flight suits. "Everyone on the starboard side can retrieve their flight suits first. Bill, can you please supervise the safety checks?"

She had almost forgotten the key point of "delegation" of some tasks to the most qualified people, when appropriate; and though the commander had not said anything one way or another, it was also something she was supposed to take the initiative to do so when she felt it was the correct action. In this case, it clearly was, and she admonished herself for nearly missing it. Maybe dividing the Eagle was supposed to be Bill's to do as well, so she hoped that he was not offended.

"Of course," Bill said with a smile as he stood, so she let her concern fade as she sat back down and watched the starboard group get their suits, then stood back up with the port group when it was time for them to get their suits.

Their personal suits had been, as usual, pre-loaded on the Eagle before any of them had boarded. In a couple minutes, everyone, including Maya, was busy donning them, with Bill keeping the closest eye on others, but Maya feeling she should watch a little as well, given the number of people. Suddenly, the Eagle did not seem so large; with eight people all getting into suits at once, all about the passenger module.

Everyone had to practice getting into spacesuits from time to time, as part of emergency procedures, so all were reasonably proficient, though Maya took note of a possible case for efficiency improvement she could later note with Tony, who was not present but saw to such details. In some ways, she still did not like her duty to report such observations, but also saw it as completely necessary overall, and had long ago realized, from her experience and what some of her friends had told her, that unless someone was a repeat offender, that some simple reminders were all that were needed. Maya received some from time to time as well, and she always made sure she did not repeat the same mistakes after being told.

Everyone, per drilled-in procedures, checked their own seals and readouts where they could, then helped each other check seals, the backpack, the front pack, and otherwise assure each others' safety, with Bill making final checks, including on Maya's, with Maya then returning the action for Bill. He caught her gaze at one point, and nodded. She knew he was quietly informing her & his task was complete for now. In acknowledgement, she nodded back.

Then they all sat and buckled in. After landing, they repeated a few final safety checks, to assure that sitting down in a pressure suit had not created any problem, as well as Fraser initiating comm checks to verify everyone was on the same frequency. In minutes, Bill again gave her a nod, to indicate all was nominal.

The Commander and Alan appeared soon after, the former picking up a moderate-sized box which had been stowed before the flight, the latter picking up a similarly-stowed tripod and a smaller box. The exercise was to be recorded, it seemed, as about half the practices involving larger groups were.

When the Commander turned to her, she reported all was ready.

"Okay," the Commander replied to Maya's brief report; then ordered "visors down" to the whole group.

Then, since the Commander and Alan took the front, at the door, Maya elected to filter to the back of the group. Bill joined her back there.

Finally, the door opened, and as people moved forward in an orderly fashion, Maya heard gasps from many in the group, carried over Communications Channel Seven, making her realize this was likely to be a difficult challenge.

Yet when she reached the door, she only felt puzzlement, for there was virtually nothing out there. For an exercise, she could not guess at what purpose the set up two hundred meters in front of them would actually serve, nor the others' reactions to it. It was clearly a training site that Maya simply had not been introduced to yet, but one they recognized as challenging.

She awkwardly, as the rest, walked down the stairs, onto a simple, low, fixed platform, the most basic Eagle pad in existence. There was a lot of silence over the communication channel as they then followed the commander and the pilot off the platform and across the moon dust, bouncing as they went. It was fun, even as Maya tried to decipher the purpose of the scene and exercise. As they approached a pair of poles halfway there, one with a sign admonishing, "No moon dust kick-up," everyone slowed, walking the final one-hundred meters more gradually, allowing Maya a better opportunity to observe an object partially surrounded by an irregular, arc-like shape by various low, vertical pillars which did not extend all the way around. The pillars did not comprise a laser barrier, nor a force field barrier, for each pole was short, and joined by a simple chain that could be easily jumped. A trust boundary, Maya realized.

Almost twenty meters on the other side of it was the primary object, which she could see well. Behind it, there was a secondary object she could not yet see clearly. Around the primary, mostly on one side, were some small tertiary objects lying or standing about on the ground. A few more of those were close to the trust boundary. Equipment and instructions to be used in the exercise? She wondered.

The primary object was about three meters tall, stocky but still relatively small, and probably an automated space probe. For some reason, it seemed partially familiar, so she tried to place it among the pictures she had seen of the alien probes the Alphans had encountered in their first year after Breakaway. She could not identify it as such, however.

When they reached the trust boundary, they all stopped, Maya observing the Commander and Alan stopping somewhat further back and apart, to set up the camera system, obviously leaving the rest to take in the scene and prepare for the exercise. If the others knew something about this exercise area, which it seemed clear they did, they were not choosing to share the information with Maya for some reason. Even Bill was not. She wondered why, and debated whether to break the unusual silence to ask.

No one had any instruments out at first, apparently waiting for the start of the central part of the exercise, even though it was more typical for most to take the initiative to do so immediately, as that was generally allowed, unless specifically forbidden.

All of this was puzzling Maya, causing her to debate whether she had missed an order somewhere, even though she did not think she had. She debated taking the initiative, and was about to do so, when Bill did so first, taking out his camera and soon starting to "snap" images.

Maya removed her favorite general scanner from her equipment kit. The sensor was the fourth "generation" of a device she had initially created in her first two months on Alpha. She had made the first version from cast-off pieces of damaged Alphan technology she had found useful to analyze, break down, and, with the Commander's permission, build back up, partially in repair, partially in new patterns she knew would give readings the Alphans were not previously scanning for. It was so successful that a couple months after becoming the Science Officer, she had requested and received permission and supplies to build a second-generation instrument with better Alphan materials. Some time later, that one had ended up too damaged to repair; but in what Maya thought was a lovely orbit ("coming full circle," she thought the Alphans would say), another person had requested the chance to take apart and analyze her cast-off item, just as curious at its workings as she had immediately been about the workings of Alphan technology. The third and fourth generation ones, in later years, included yet more improvements based on her experience, coming up with "new" designs based somewhat distantly on small bits of her Psychon knowledge she had found ways of adapting to (and expanding) the Alphan technological base, as well as from suggestions from others on things she could perhaps try to scan for, and suggestions from the one who had sought out her defunct second-generation scanner to analyze. She had made a few copies of the third-generation instrument for others to use as well, and the fourth-generation instrument, of which she now held the prototype, was to soon become the first to go into small-scale mass production.

This instrument revealed the probe had no active power source, and had none of the specific bounce-backs typical even of inactive Alphan gravity generators. There was no apparent need for the latter, as none of the voids were anywhere near a person's size. The only voids she could find were for simple chemical propellants, chemical reaction chambers, and inter- or intra-component space. There was simply no room for occupants of humanoid or even much smaller size.

Yet the design suddenly struck her as seeming human. It had four spindly legs, was covered with some gold paneling or foil, and some of the other details looked rather human-generated, though hardly unique enough to be certain of that, especially at the moderate distance she stood from it.

Moving a few meters to one side, to get a better view of the secondary object, she abruptly realized what that object was: a pole, on which was the flag of a nation state of Earth.

From that and the silence—no, solemnity, Maya finally realized—of the crowd, she started realizing this was probably not an exercise at all, but some historical observance. She abruptly grew even more anxious to hear what would be said, presumably by the Commander, yet also wondered, out of long habit, why she had been included, when this, now that she thought of it in light of her new hypothesis, seemed to be much more highly significant to the Terrans than to the Psychon. Her curiosity was definitely "peaked" now, however.

Maya, having no further information to scan for, put away her scanner, and Bill soon finished with his camera, but did not stow it.

Though Maya happened to recognize the flag as Terran in origin, she had actually paid very little attention to any Earth history, for two main reasons. One was because she had never really had much interest in history in any context, not even regarding Psychon beyond most of the basics and a few details—a failing of Maya's that she never had the time nor patience to correct, now to her continued regret regarding her home world. The other was because what glimpses she got of Earth history showed a chaotic people that did not seem that true to the general (if not always completely consistent) Alphan spirit she had observed. Even the Alphans were complex and difficult for her to grasp at times even now, years after her arrival, and she had found that a sufficient challenge given all her other tasks. Furthermore, she had received the strong impression from the Commander that their world-wide war of Earth year A.D. 1987 had left the Terrans a changed people, and she knew the Alphans had to be even more changed by their incredible experiences, perhaps even, to a tiny degree, them having come to their current degree of acceptance of Maya herself. Old human history was just too troubling and distant a thing to Maya. Now, it seemed she might get another, gentler (she hoped) glimpse of it.

The Commander and Alan, their camera-related task now complete, slowly stepped around the crowd and forward to the immediate outside of the trust boundary, one of them holding something flat with his arm. Even the Commander did not cross the boundary. Abruptly, she realized why the trust boundary was some moderate distance from the probe: there seemed to be a lot of footprints around the probe, and it seemed the footprints required preservation, even though the footprints no longer seemed as crisp as they might have once been, perhaps from the shocks the Moon had been through. Still, no one crossed the trust boundary. Why were footprints immediately around an unmanned probe ship so important?

Maya then heard the Commander's voice over the comm link.

"Koenig to Moonbase Alpha."

"Moonbase Alpha receiving, Commander," came Sandra's calm, professional voice.

"Do you have our relay?"

"Yes, your relay is strong and stable."

"Open up the channels to the whole base."

"Relay is open, and you are now patched into all of Moonbase."

"Attention, all sections Alpha. This is Commander Koenig. Captain Carter recently reminded me of an upcoming anniversary, one which was celebrated every five years starting with the twentieth, a tradition we have decided to continue, this time by the two of us bringing eight randomly-drawn Alphans to this site. Sandra, is your relay ready?"

"Ready."

"Proceed."

After a moment's pause, new, unfamiliar, static-filled voices came over Maya's helmet speaker. She could not discern many of the words, and what she did catch, struck her as a stream of complex landing and navigation readouts, read verbally.

"Coming down nicely... 200 feet, 4 1/2 down... 5 1/2 down... 5 percent... 75 feet... 6 forward... lights on... down 2 1/2... 40 feet down 2 1/2, kicking up some dust... 30 feet, 2 1/2 down... faint shadow... 4 forward... 4 forward... drifting to right a little... O.K..."

"30 seconds."

"Contact light! O.K., engine stop... descent engine command override off..."

"We copy you down, Eagle."

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed!"

There was a long pause, and Maya started realizing what this might be. Then...

"I'm at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It's almost like a powder. Ground mass is very fine.

"I'm going to step off the LM now.

"That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."

The sequence of recorded, obviously ancient, voices ceased, and even Maya could recognize what the event was: the humans' first manned landing on what had then been Earth's natural satellite. The recording must have been over a century or two old, at least, Maya thought. Were Terrans landing on the Moon in the A.D. 1700's or 1800's? Maybe the 1600's, the Psychon guessed.

Still, why the unmanned probe? Was it a support craft?

After nearly a full minute, Alan Carter began to speak, reading from a flat object about 30 centimeters on a side—perhaps a plaque of some sort—which both he and the Commander held.

"Thirty-five years ago, one man took his—and mankind's—first steps on the surface of another world. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, of the Apollo 11 mission, became the first of many who were to follow in their footsteps: eight more Apollo missions, soon followed by the Selene program, and onto the establishment of Moonbase Alpha.

"The path was created by many, but here in front of us is where, on July 20, 1969 A.D., their tiny spaceship named the Eagle landed, so the two men inside could walk on the Moon, explore, and learn. They then launched, in the Eagle's upper half, back into space, leaving this lower stage behind, along with their footprints, a flag, and some other equipment. They rendezvoused with Michael Collins orbiting above, and together, the Apollo 11 crew took their samples, scans, knowledge, and experience with them, back to Earth.

"They and all who followed allowed us to build a platform from which we could further human exploration of Earth's star system and beyond. Five years ago, others assembled here to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary, even as we were preparing to launch a mission to Meta."

Now, the Commander began speaking instead.

"A mere five years later, we know the entire platform has moved far beyond that goal, to instead wander among the stars, meeting alien worlds and peoples, and leaving our people struggling to find a new place out here. Though we have little doubt Armstrong and Aldrin would be surprised so much change has occurred in thirty-five short years, and though the Moon no longer orbits its mother planet, we like to think they would be proud of what has been accomplished in such short time.

"Those two men once stood alone on the Moon, right over there, looking around them at the Moon and the Earth beyond. Now, ten of us, representing all Alphans, stand between two Eagles, looking at the same Moon but new stars. There are now hundreds of people on the Moon, from every part of a once-warring Earth, and one from Psychon, another world altogether. Yet we all stand together, 1772 days after Breakaway, and 12,784 days after this historic landing, to honor the accomplishments of those first two men, of all of those people that came before and after, to blaze the trail we now walk, and of all of those who assisted them.

"Regardless of where we go from here, the Moon has known many Eagles, soaring towards lofty goals. We refer not just to the various spaceships of that name, but our own striving people. May we never lose sight of this, regardless of what happens in the future."

With that, silence descended, as Alan and John reached over to set down some sort of framework just on the opposite side of the trust boundary, then set the plaque onto the framework, as a marker to remain there, joining a few others that had been sitting there.

Maya, as the other Alphans did, stared at this and at the tiny half-Eagle which had touched down here, and had opened up such vast new horizons for their people and wrought so much change, not just for them, but for peoples in the stars beyond, including Maya as well.

Thirty-five Earth years. Thirty-five years from the Eagle to gravity-generator-equipped Eagles? Thirty-five years from landing on the Moon to making a mark among the stars? Such a short time for such a young civilization. These humans had constantly amazed her, in so various ways, but this just reinforced one of the strong positives of this complex people, that they could strive and hope for so much, in so little time, when starting from so little, and from chaos besides.

When she had the chance to approach the other, older plaques, she read them with interest; but they were written in a more terse, distant tone that she could not relate to as well as the speech she had just heard.

She felt extremely honored to be part of the assembly, and by now knew better than to actually ask why her name had not been set aside in favor of a human's, for the answer had always the same from the Commander and many others whenever she was surprised at being included by chance or choice: she was an Alphan.

Yet though she rarely asked "why" any more, and even the sense of surprise at their including her was slowly and fitfully fading into increasing acceptance they simply wanted her presence most of the time now; it never failed to warm her heart to be included. In this case, the two organizers had even changed the speech at least a little, she realized, to give some extra details she doubted any of the Terrans needed to hear.

Maya might not be human, but on this day, as she walked back to Eagle 11—perhaps one of the "descendants" of the Eagle behind her—she felt even more a part of the Alphan journey than ever.