THE DARK PLANET
It was a murky world where the sun never peaked over the gently sloping mountains of Chrib. One of two moons shown brightly above. The other, farther away, was not as visible this afternoon.
"I think he's afraid of me." The woman spoke aloud but quietly, brushing dark hair away from hazel eyes. Her skin was once tanned and healthy but now her pale flesh was splotched with tiny crimson sores. Her face was gray and, despite the cool of the afternoon air, she was constantly feverish.
A fog had rolled in and the women could barely see the trees off in the distance. But they did see tiny pin-points of light that indicated the men, while working, were also on watch.
Helena had heard Lea's sorrowful lament and wished she could offer more than sympathy. It hadn't been easy for any of them. How many times during the last month had she and so many others cried for the loss of a good friend or loved one. John Koenig's eulogies were becoming less moving as their frequency increased. Just how many times could he say that the deceased individual was gone but through her they had learned more and a cure could now be found?
A treatment was not forth-coming. Helena had tried everything and now, having come to terms with her failure, sat on a cot close to what would normally be a comforting campfire. She called over to the agitated Lea, "Come sit." Helena held tightly onto the blanket wrapped around her slim shoulders and sipped slowly the broth from a much used tin cup.
"Are the men exploring the south section again?" Lea asked as she reached for a heavier jacket laying at the foot of Dr. Russell's cot. She looked out at the pin points of light.
"Yes, Tony and Bill claim to have seen movement there."
"I suspect animal life."
"I wish all the men didn't feel they had to go. Makes it lonely here for us."
A chilly breeze ruffled leaves near them and caused the fire to shift and crackle.
"We all knew the sacrifices we would have to make when we decided to move here …" Helena began.
"I miss the sun." Lea spoke, not wanting to listen to Dr Russell. She had heard it all before and Helena, having been ill herself for far too long, was now feeble and absurd. "I'd give anything to feel the sun's warmth on my skin again."
"You'll have to make do with a lamp."
"And so will my children and children's children." Lea said bitterly, sitting heavily on a mat in front of the campfire.
Silence followed for several seconds.
Helena pulled the blanket from around her shoulders, resting it on her lap, and craned her neck, her face clearly visible in the moonlight.
Lea tried not to gasp but could not prevent it. In the low firelight, Dr. Russell's wasted, pale features were more pronounce then they had been even only a few days ago. The classic hollowness of her cheeks and deep set eyes were all the more haunting now that she had lost so much weight. The stress and strain of attempting, all in vain, to find a cure had added to her burden - and illness.
"Is Jason ignoring you?" Helena asked, disregarding the younger woman's expression. She knew how she looked and didn't need confirmation. Helena had seen it in John's eyes every morning for the last month.
They awoke in their bed and he would turn over, hopeful. But then he would see her deterioration and his demeanor would snap into an expression she knew very well - duty. Inside she knew he was feeling dire dread. Yet, he refused to show a belief in failure. He would not allow her to see his despair even if he truly believed they were all doomed. He would ask, "Better?"
And she would always reply, "Yes, I think so. I'll do more testing today …"
But he knew, they both knew, nothing was better. She and so many others were dying. Helena recalled hearing him talk with Alan last week. They did not know she was listening in.
"It's entirely my fault. The Exodus. The women. Our future. Helena…. Dear God, Helena …." John's tone was utter misery.
And Carter, hand on his shoulder, tried to comfort his friend, giving the Commander words of encouragement and understanding but recognizing the pointlessness of it all.
No wonder John, like the other men, chose to leave his woman for days at a time. When the men returned they all slowly walked into their camp, wondering who was the next to be found dead.
A week ago Koenig had returned from just such an exploration and when he saw her alive but not very well, he smiled. Their reunion was entirely joyless but he tried so hard to make it appear that he was pleased. Helena felt sorry for him and, in that moment, wished she could die just to put him out of his misery. It was absurd, she knew, but when she was gone he would be released from a sort of torment only a man in love, a Commander of men (and women), could understand.
"When we received my medical report he was devastated." Lea whispered, "He thought I was the one hold out and would live. Jason just closed down."
"Most of the men are behaving the same way. It's survivor's guilt."
"But it's not their fault or our fault. It's just very bad luck. Tragic."
"Everything checked out." Helena agreed, "It should have worked. Still, knowing that does not change a thing."
Lea sneezed and Helena's head jerked upward slightly. Didn't Sandra sneeze violently just before she …?
Again, both were silent.
Lea scooted back away from the fire and stretched out her legs. She then leaned her back on a stack of sandbags. "After tomorrow it won't matter anymore. When the men come back it will be all over."
"You don't know that for sure."
Lea looked over again at Helena's gray pallor, "Some of us may have longer then others. A day or two more and it will be done."
Helena could not agree with Lea's assertion but she would not disagree with it either. "I'm going to take a nap." She shifted position and reclined on the cot, "If the men come back tonight, wake me."
"I will." Lea promised.
HE TURNED ON THE RECORDER.
"Planet Chrib status report. Three months, five days, and ten hours since Operation Exodus. This is the Commander reporting.
"We returned to camp yesterday morning. It was as we expected. Animal life. A new food source; a wingless bird to be exact. Although tough it should cook down well and is edible.
"We had a small committee meeting last night and decided to dispense with building houses. For now our tents will serve us well for at least a couple years. If the weather gets bad we can always retire to the caves just west of our encampment. It's not as if we have families that will …
"We are concentrating our energies on an observation tower. It will serve two purposes. We will be able to watch the planet's surface for signs of life and also watch the heavens for beings such as ourselves. Most important we must prevent intelligent life from ever making the mistakes we made.
"In our haste to find a home we ignored a prime ingredient for survival. Sadly, our women have paid the price. We forgot logic when it came to the unfamiliar. We inhabited a planet filled with unknown diseases and undetectable life forms. We brought our women to a world where they were not immune to germs which are in the very air we breathe. It happened slowly at first but then one right after the other they died. All women. Maya was the first and I thought Tony Verdeschi would go mad with grief but others quickly followed … Sandra … Yasko … Alibe … They all died.
"This morning the last of the Alphan women perished ... Dr. Helena Russell, who fought hard for months to find an antidote, finally succumbed. Botanist Lea Marigold died two hours ago. They were both buried in the cemetery just behind Eagle 3.
"Our Eden has become Hell. We knew the sun would never shine but it did not matter … Everything looked so promising. Computer swore it would work. We knew there would be sacrifices but ALL of us were more than willing to fight for survival and work for our common goal. But we were too anxious and as soon as the moon and our Alpha left the planet's orbit, significant trouble started. The planet began to alter and the temperature changed. The land became infertile and … and ….
"Oh God … I miss Helena! I want Helena … Helena!"
"No!" He awoke, tears streaming from his eyes down his cheeks. He panted heavily in fear and grief. John Koenig sat up quickly in his bed. The hallucination was so cruel, the fear heart-breaking and real. He could feel himself shaking as he wiped his eyes with his pajama sleeve.
"Commander," Dr. Ed Spencer put a hand on his shoulder and eased Koenig back into the bed, "It's okay. You had a bad dream. You've been asleep for a long while. It was the cloud, remember? The Beta Cloud."
Koenig looked about the moonbase's Medical Center. No, he thought, a nightmare! A terrible, terrible nightmare! But yes, he remembered the cloud and the creature that sprang from it.
Tony and Maya fought it. And they won. He saw Tony Verdeschi, bruised and broken but healing in his bed, Maya fussing over him. Others, including Alan Carter were there.
And a part of the nightmare remained - "Helena!"
"Here." Spencer assured, waving to the bed beside his own. He knew Koenig would want to see her as soon as he woke.
"Is she okay?" he asked, trying hard to keep the panic from his voice.
"She hung in there as long as she could but the sleeping sickness finally took her down." Perhaps not the best choice of words, Spencer quickly added, "She will be fine, Commander. Everyone will be well now that the danger has passed."
Koenig could not stop looking at her, "Are you sure?"
He could not shake off the vision, a part of his nightmare, of her dying in his arms. As Helena breathed her last breath she looked up at him. She was so sorry she failed, so desperately apologetic that all their plans had not been realized, and she was mostly apologetic that she was leaving him alone … He lay in their bed, holding her, feeling her die, and an hour later when Tony and Alan came in to take her away he would not give her up … He held her and would not let go. John Koenig had gone briefly mad.
"Yes, I'm certain, Commander." Spencer assured then turned away when another patient called to him.
Koenig felt better but needed more. He looked about at all his recovering people - both men and women - then carefully pushed his covers aside. He swung his long legs over the side of the bed, stood, and approached the sleeping Helena. She did not look ill, he thought, just sleeping.
Thank you, God.
He picked up her hand, feeling its warmth in his own. He gently touched her smooth right cheek, marveling not for the first time at her high cheekbones and full, soft lips. But most of all, he was so deeply grateful that she was healthy and alive. What would he do without her?
"John." A pajama clad Alan approached, appearing tired but in good spirits. "Rough patch there." he said.
"Yeah," Koenig nodded, squeezed Helena's hand gently and laid it by her side. "Let's hope this is the last of it for awhile. We could use some peace."
"We could really use some old fashion hope." Alan added, "This took a toll on the base's morale."
"I know, I felt it too. I had the worst dream …" Koenig shook it away. He could not help another glance at Helena.
Alan smiled mildly, understanding where John's attention was diverted, "She is a trooper, never giving up, until she just couldn't stay awake." His expression changed to one of soft envy, "In case you don't already know it, John, you are a very lucky man."
"I know it, Alan."
He knew it well.
A few more habitable planets remained open to them in the next few months. Soon they would be facing a void that was as bleak as it was unknown. Unless the Alphans were cast into a dangerous space warp or black sun, carrying them into new space, they would have to call Alpha home for an undetermined period of time.
Yes, the Commander thought. Changes. He and Helena had talked about it before. The more the better. Changes.
Original story: November 1984
Edit and additions: March 2012
Reference: Season Two episode: THE BETA CLOUD.