"We need another player," Sandra said.
"How about Mike?" Alan suggested.
"Mike," she said, "has told me that he hates this game, he thinks it is childish and pointless. Which I believe to mean he never wins."
"We can play with four people," Tanya said. "It is better with five or six, but four is enough."
"Ah!" The petite Bornean sprang to her feet. "Just the person! Professor!"
The other three looked at each other. Bergman wasn't what they would have called 'just the person', but he came into the rec room in obediance to Sandra's call.
"Yes, Sandra?" he asked. "What can I do for you?"
"Professor," she said, "do you like to play Cluedo?"
"Oh, my," he said, his face lighting up. "I haven't played that game in, well, years. I should love to join you."
"Wonderful, Professor," said Tanya, bringing him a chair. "Paul is usually Professor Plum, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind being Mr. Green, instead."
"Please call me Victor," he said, "and, Paul, no, please. I was the youngest of four boys, and I always was Mrs. White when we played." His nimble fingers pulled the small white piece out of the box. "I used to win often; I shan't change my luck now."
"Right," said Alan. "Let's get set up then."
Bergman took a few moments to read over the rules while Sandra shuffled the cards and filled the envelope, but when they started, he played like a demon. Tanya won the first game (Colonel Mustard, in the Conservatory, with the Spanner), and it was early enough they started another.
As Alan set up the board for the next game, Tanya leaned in a little and asked, "Victor, do you think we will find another planet?"
He shrugged, his mobile features reflecting a mixture of doubt and enthusiasm. "Who can say, Tanya? The universe is a huge place, much bigger than we can begin to comprehend."
"We're not finding one anytime soon," Alan said. "I mean, even granting that whatever happened last week tossed us in the middle of a stellar cluster"
"Ummm?" said Bergman.
"Space is big. From earth, at light speed it would have taken four years to reach Proxima, and we're not travelling anything like that fast."
"Well, that's true, of course," Bergman said, taking a quick glance around the table and apparently realizing that wasn't news to any of them. "It will doubtless be a long trip. But just think of all the things we'll see!"
"You sound like Alan," Paul said.
"Oh?" Bergman turned those bright eyes on him.
Alan shrugged. "I was merely quoting 'Ulysses' at him."
"Joyce? Or Tennyson?"
"Tennyson," said Alan.
"He wants to sail beyond the western stars," Paul said; a quick glance from Tanya made him review his tone and decide he'd better be more flip and less affectionate.
"Why western?" asked Sandra.
"In European mythand Alan is European for this purposethe West is the place where all the good things are, not the East," Bergman said. "But east or west"
"Home is best," Paul capped the quote involuntarily.
"'Home'," said Tanya unexpectedly, "'is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.'"
"'I should have called it something you somehow haven't to deserve'," Sandra finished the Frost quote almost automatically.
"Home is where you hang your hat," Alan contributed.
Bergman laughed, and, after a moment, the others did too.
"I suppose Alpha is home for us all, now," Sandra said.
"We could be in much worse places," nodded Bergman. "And in much worse company."
"Very true," Paul said, adding, in case he was giving himself away again, "even if one of us is a murderer."
"Oh, Paul," said Tanya. "It could be Mr. Green!"
Mike Ryan was up in one of the Eagles, holding his position where the asteroid had imploded. And Alan was as itchy as Paul had ever seen him. He hated someone else doing these things, Paul thought, but he personally was glad it wasn't Alan this time. Watching as that asteroid had been grabbed by an at-the-time-unidentified something, pulled into a new course, and shattered into dust had been disturbing; the thought of it happening to an Eagle was worse; the thought of it happening to Alan was unbearable. He spared a guilty moment's thought for SandraRyan's being Meta probe backup crew had put their relationship on hold, but it was moving along nicely now, to judge by what little Sandra could be persuaded to say and what rather quite a lot Mike didn't mind 'sharing', as the Yanks said. Paul wondered if Mike would like it if he and Alan 'shared', but put that unprofitable thought away and turned his full attention back to the panel in front of him.
Mike's cheerfully American tones came over the speaker. "There's only one thing for me to do, Commander. I'll have to get in closer."
"Negative, Mike," Koenig said almost automatically.
"Sir," Mike protested, "all it has is a lot of gravity. With my screens on maximum I should be all aright. What's the problem?"
Paul looked at Koenig; he was indecisive. Are all pilots insane, Paul wondered desultorily, or is it just astronauts? Koenig was still hesitating.
"Alpha is headed right into this thing, Commander," Mike said. "We have to find out what it is."
The door opened and Paul glanced over to see Bergman enter, looking worried. He missed Koenig's decision, but apparently it was a go, as Mikewith that cheerful heterosexual assumption that all the world loves him in lovesaid, "Sandra? Don't go away, I'll be right back."
"I will be waiting," she said softly.
But Paul's eyes were caught on the readings in front of him and he stepped ruthlessly on the Precious Moment. "Commander, his anti-gravity screens: the needle's still in the red."
Alan chimed in, "Confirmed, Commander."
And Bergman called, "John!", his voice urgent.
"Abort, Mike! Abort," called the commander. "Pull out! You're heading right into it. Blast yourself out of there."
"Full...power," Mike's strained voice came over the speakers. "Full... Power."
"Get him out, Alan," ordered Koenig.
"He's accelerating. We can't hold him." Alan's voice was nearly calm.
The explosion was final. The loss of all telemetry merely confirmed it. As Koenig and Bergman, shaken, turned to go into the commander's office, Sandra fainted. Paul knelt by her, but he looked at Alan.
And that night he said, "Damn it, Alan. You can't blame yourself for Mike's death. Bergman"
"Bergman hasn't got anything to do with it," Alan answered angrily.
"He didn't know it was a, what's he calling it, black sun until Mike was already too close."
"Yeah, if he'd figured it earlier we wouldn't have let Mike get that close. I know that. That's not the point."
"What is?" Paul asked; he thought he knew, but...
"Mike wasn't taking it seriously enough. You heard him; he was flirting with Sandra instead of watching his controls"
"And that's your fault how?" Paul demanded. "He was an idiot, but you didn't tell him to be."
"But if I'd been up there, I'd have been paying attention."
"Yes, I expect you would have done. But Koenig told you to send someone. He didn't tell you to go."
"Alan, you can't do it all, anymore than I can. I remember you telling me I had to ease off, let other people do their jobs. You do, too."
Alan stared at him, and then turned abruptly to stare out the window.
Paul stayed where he was, sitting cross-legged on the bed. After a minute, he said, softly, "I know, I think, what's on your mind. But, honestly, you picked Mike because you thought he was the best man you had to pick. You sent him, and he died. But, Alan, listen to me: you didn't send him to die."
"He's still dead." That didn't sound as bleak as earlier.
"Yes. He is. But it's not your fault. You weren't there to tell him to pay attention. You didn't decide to send him closer."
"People keep dying on me," Alan said, so softly Paul almost couldn't hear him.
"And it's not your fault," Paul said intensely, "because you live. Being in command means this sort of thing happensKoenig has to live with today, too." He took a deep breath and a chance. "Denny wasn't your fault." Alan stiffened, but Paul kept on going. "That gunner wasn't your fault. Your mother wasn't your fault. Sparkman and Warren weren't your fault. Whoever else, Astro-Five or whoever, they weren't your fault. And Mike's not your fault. You aren't God."
There was a long silence. Paul slid off the bed and came up behind Alan, taking gentle hold of his shoulders. For just a moment, the Australian resisted, and then, with a sigh, he capitulated and leaned back against the taller man. Paul wrapped his arms around him and laid his cheek on the dark blond hair; Alan reached up and put his hands on the arms that encircled him.
"I know you," Paul said after a few moments of standing there. "I know you well enough to know you'll never send someone into harm's way to keep yourself safe, much as I might sometimes prefer otherwise. You have to know that, too, Alan. It is not," he tightened his hold, "your fault."
"It's not that I want to die," said Alan, "especially not now."
"I know that, too."
"It's your job, sometimes," Paul said. "I know that, too."
"Mighty knowing, aren't you?" Alan said, as if the conversation had gotten too serious to bear for another minute.
"I went to Oxford," Paul accepted the mood change. Only on television did you alter someone's whole worldview in thirty-five minutes. This might be only a start, but it was a good start. It was enough to be going on with.
The senior staff was gathered in the commander's office. Bergman and Koenig were still trying to deal with Mike's death. Alan had already moved onand this time, thanks to Paul, he didn't think he'd revisit the issue in his dreamsand was more concerned with tomorrow than yesterday. He didn't seem to be the only one. Paul waited for a pause and pretended it was a full stop.
"But you think we can avoid it?" he asked.
Bergman launched into a full-bore lecture on black suns and their destructive gravitational fields. It sounded to Alan like a long, a very long, way of saying 'no', so he tuned it out and, safe in the back rank, looked at Paul instead. The Englishman, standing there politely attentive, with one hand on a hip, hardly looked like the man who had, only a few hours ago, been driving Alan completely out of his mind... What a way to go. If he had to die, well, at least he had known Paul...
David Kano decided to add his two cents. "Its force is immeasurable," he said. "Even Computer can not determine it."
Alan looked at him, knowing he was perilously close to laughing out loud. David wasn't as worth looking at as Paul, even objectively, but one look at his lover's dark eyes and he would laugh, and that would offend the computer tech.
"But, Professor," Paul was relentless. "You didn't answer my question. Do you think we can avoid it?"
"I thought I did," Bergman said gently.
Yeah, thought Alan. That was a 'no'.
But it wasn't a death sentence. Bergman did have a plan: using the antigravity towers that stabilized Alpha at nearly one G, he planned to create a force field that would use the black sun's gravity against itself, sheilding Alpha as they passed through. Koenig had stripped all the Eagles of the engines to power the new force shield, and they'd have to scramble to get it fully operational...
David said, disbelievingly, "But... Computer will have to be deactivated for the force field!"
Alan didn't try to stop from snickering this time.
"Yes, well," said Bergman, "it can do with a rest."
"It's a long shot," said Koenig.
A no-hoper, you mean, thought Alan.
"But there's nothing else we can do."
You got that right. Unfortunately.
Alan held the hovering Eaglethe last one still operationalabove the target and watched as Koenig and Bergman approached ground zero. He was shaking his head at the tacticit hardly mattered if anyone was there; the commander thought it would improve morale if they survived and he was probably right, but it was such grandstandingwhen Paul's voice came over the primary channel.
"Commander, you've got a full house. We're all with you. Good luck."
"We're all set, Alan," Koenig said.
Alan smiled. "Commander, there's still time to change your mind." He'd hate to fry them.
"If we had any sense, we would," Koenig answered. "Make it good, Alan. Come in as low as you can."
"Well, hang onto your hats." Reflexively he closed his helmet and dove on the screen. At the last possibly moment he began firing and pulled up at the same time. The screen held. He could hear the celebrating over his headset, but he was staring into the black sun, and somehow he didn't feel like joining in.
Dr. Russell left Koenig's office, the set of her shoulders unhappy. Paul watched her go and wondered what was going on her between her and the commander, between them and the rest of Alpha. They had been three hours closeted togetherwell, as much as you could be in a room as big as thatbut she didn't look happy.
And Koenig didn't sound happy, calling Paul to come in. He nodded to Tanya and walked up the three risers into the office. Koenig closed the doors behind him. "Yes, sir?" Paul asked.
"Paul," Koenig said, and then paused. "The Bergman force field worked this morning, but the hard fact is, it's probably not going to save Alpha. It's a long shot, very long."
"Yes, sir." Paul had gathered as much from what Alan hadn't said at lunch.
"We still have the one Eagle flight-capable. I've decided to turn it into a survival ship."
"A survival ship, sir?" Paul asked, feeling a sudden hollow inside.
"Yes. Six or eight people, with as many supplies as we can cram into an Eaglea couple of months' worth, if we're careful... if they're carefulthey would be able to escape the black sun if they left in time."
"And go where, sir?"
"That I don't know. Somewhere. Anywhere would be a better chance of living than Alpha will realistically have."
Paul nodded, accepting it. "Which six, sir?"
"I haven't picked them. I don't know if any person could make that choice. I know you're not in IT, Paul, but you can program Computer for a database search, can't you?"
"Yes, sir." Oh, God...
"Good. We need Computer to select the best six people to carry on. I've started a list of qualifications... and we'll need three of each sex. Computer will have to sort through the personnel on Alpha, pick out the best six as a whole... And, Paul. No one else is to know about this."
"Sir, if we're to provision an Eagle, Medical and Logistics will have to know."
"Doctors Russell and Mathias will be in charge of actually provisioning it. Send Mathias a couple of Logistics people who" He paused.
"Won't ask questions," Paul supplied. "Yes, sir, I can do that."
"Good. No one else is to know," he repeated. "When I've finished with the qualifications, I'll want you to write me a query. We'll run it; Kano doesn't need to know, either. I want to keep this as quiet as we can for as long as we can, Paul. We don't need a panic, or people trying... Well."
Trying to live. "Yes, sir. I understand."
"Good... I think we'll be working through the night, Paul."
He managed a smile. "Well, sir, after tomorrow, we'll have all the off time we can handle, won't we?"
Koenig shook his head. "Yes, I suppose we will. Thank you, Paul."
He went back into Main Mission. Working through the night was the best thing about this situation, as far as he was concerned. No trying to keep this survival ship secret from Alan in a one-on-one situation, knowing that Alan would be going.
Knowing that Alan would be walking away.
And that he'd be in charge of making sure that Alan did.
"Six hours?" Koenig stared at him as though he had made a mistake. "I thought we had twelve."
Paul refrained from shrugging and answered, calmly, "Six. David said it was impossible to determine the amount of mass available to the black sun in this sector. Its gravitational force increases every minute, pulling us towards it faster than was originally calculated."
Koenig stared at the printouts. "We need more time to get the survival ship ready."
"Well, these figures may be the answer," Paul, quashing his emotions, handed over another printout. "With the force field activated, we might slow down enough to buy the time."
"Paul, I want to save power till the last possible moment." They were already running on low power; the outlying areas were shut down and dark, and it was beginning to get cold. It would get colder.
He was good at this part of his job: the inflexible bearer of bad tidings, the pointer-out of unpalatable truths. "It's either Alpha, sir, or the survival ship."
Koenig looked at him and then nodded, accepting it. "If we have to, we have to. Call Victor, Paul. If he's asleep, wake him and apologize, but tell him we must start the force field now."
Paul nodded. Bergman probably wasn't asleep, despite the timefour in the morningany more than he, or Koenig, or most of the senior staff was. Bergman was old but he was tougher than he looked.
"And, Paul," the commander stood up. "Have you finished the database query?"
"Yes, sir. It's coded and ready to input."
"Good. Do it, please, and route the answer to my terminal, please."
"Yes, sir." Paul nodded and watched Koenig walk back into his office. He wondered if Koenig was wondering if he'd been as fair and unbiased in writing those qualifications as he was concerned himself about his own translating them into SQL, assuming that Computer's Query Language could be called Standard. He was fairly certain that Kano, had he been consulted, would have told them no qualifications were necessary, that Computer could pick the best six simply from being told to pick six (Christ, it even sounds like a state lottery). But Koenig had painstakingly put in the human side, he'd called it, and almost certainly Dr. Russell would go, not Dr. Mathias...
Just as, almost certainly, Alan would go. You'll never send someone into harm's way to keep yourself safe: just a couple of days ago he'd said that. And now... Ah, Christ, could things get worse? Because Alan was the best pilot on Alpha. If the survival ship was to have its best chance, Alan had to go. And Paul was very glad about that, but... would Alan be?
Damn it, Morrow; just do your bloody job. He shook himself, blamed it on the late hour, and punched in the query, and then called Bergman.
They had fixed the faulty gravity tower. They hoped. It had cost them time when it blew. It had nearly cost them Bergman, but the mechanical heart that confined him to Alpha had withstood the electrical discharge better than one of flesh and blood would have, and he was back on his feet, ready for the next attempt to start the force field. The last attempt. If if didn't work this time, they were out of time. All of them.
Paul looked over at the commander. "Twelve minutes to countdown, sir." And an hour before we launch the survival ship. Which is still a bloody secret. Me and the doctors, Bergman... And even I haven't seen that list. Alan's got to be on it... he's got to...
His thoughts were interrupted by Sandra handing Koenig a paper. "Reports from all service sections."
"Sandra," said Koenig. "About Mike"
"Please, Commander. No need to say anything." That was a plea, in fact, that he didn't.
Koenig nodded. "Paul, tell Professor Bergman I want him here for the test."
Paul nodded, glancing sympathetically at Sandra.
And David said, "We have less than four hours before entering the black sun."
Sandra listened as Paul made the stand-by announcement for the final force field test. "Paul?" she asked quietly. "What if it does not work?"
"Then all our worries are over," Paul said, maintaining his image in spite of his churning stomach and screaming nerves. It earned him a quick smile.
Koenig said, "Kano, essential services program. Shut down."
For a moment, Paul thought David might refuse. But then he turned and hit the row of switches. Blackness overtook much of the room. "Computer on minimum capacity."
"Now we'll have to think for ourselves," said Koenig.
Even in the dimness by the mainframe Paul could see David wasn't amused. "Ten seconds," he said. "Full power, sir?"
"Everything we have, Paul."
"Five seconds... four... three... two... one... zero."
And the field came on. And this time, it held.
"Take over, Paul," Koenig turned to go to his office to, Paul fervently hoped, announce the survival ship crew.
"What about Computer?" David predictably asked.
"It remains on minimum capacity." Koenig started to turn again.
But it was too late. Paul winced as Alan entered Main Mission. He was clearly pissed off. "Commander, I gotta talk to you."
Koenig braced himself.
"What's this about a survival ship? Somebody going somewhere?" Alan's voice was hostile.
Koenig remained on the step up to his office, increasing his height advantage over the blond pilot. Paul could have told him, that tactic didn't work with the Aussie, even when he wasn't as angry as this. It just exposed your belly... "Somewhere," Koenig said. "Yes."
Alan took a step backward and looked at Paul. He couldn't meet Alan's eyes, couldn't bear them to be accusing him of the truth, of lying; he had to look away. Alan turned to David. "Did you know about this?" Receiving a headshake, he turned again. "You, Sandra?" She too shook her head; she too looked stunned and disbelieving. He didn't even ask Paul... well, he had. And gotten his answer. He turned to Koenig. "I didn't believe it," he said. "Eagle Five is nearly loaded and ready to go and I wasn't informed, Commander." And that was part of it, too; the Eagles were his babies, his turf as the Yanks put it. "None of us were." His gaze was unwavering as he said something probably nobody else on Alpha would have the sheer self-confidence to put into words. "I can't speak for the rest but I care about dying, how I die. Staying here on Alpha with everybodyI'd already accepted that. But now there's going to be six or seven lives on that ship"
"Six," Koenig said, as unwavering.
"Well," said Alan, "I should be one of those six, Commander. Because if anyone can get them 'somewhere', I can."
The words hung in the air, but it was impossible to think of them as fear-bred. Even Koenig, Paul could tell, knew better than that. Koenig knew them for the accusation they were.
"You through, Alan?" Koenig asked.
Apparently he was. Silence held sway in the room. Then Koenig turned and resumed his twice-interrupted walk into his office. Paul looked at Alan again, and this time their eyes met. Paul almost staggered at the force of the emotion in the Australian's green gaze; he braced himself on the console and stared, drinking in the message there and barely listening to Koenig's explanation of why they were sending out the survival ship in the first place.
"Above us once again is the Bergman force field. But ahead of us is still the black sun. The realistic fact which faces us now is that the force field only offers us a slim hope that Alpha will survive beyond the next few hours. A few of us, however, have a chance to escape the black sun. I decided to reserve one Eagle as a survival ship."
He decided, you Pommy idiot. Not you. I pushed him, he decided, you're out of it. Hear me, Morrow. Out of it... Paul held on to that message, trying desperately to believe it was true.
"It's been fuelled and equipped with supplies to carry six personsthree men and three women. Perhaps this effort will prove a futile one but I believe it must be made. Departure time is 0800, forty-three minutes from now."
That did penetrate. He scribbled the time on his schedule sheet, adding in stages and constructing a time-line...
"I instructed Central Computer to select the people most likely, in every way, to ensure the survival of mankind in space."
Alan's eyes pulled at Paul again. He instructed. If there was cheating, he did it. Paul hoped that was true. Hoped he hadn't somehow overstated qualifications... clung to Alan's belief in his integrity.
"Here are the six names. The men: astronaut Alan Carter"
Paul honestly couldn't tell how he felt. Numb. Dead already. But glad.
"Flight engineer George Osgood, communications controller Toshiro Fujita. The women: Doctor Helena Russell" That might have been cheating on Koenig's part, Paul knew. Probably had been. "Data analyst Sandra Benes" Oh, good. "Professor Angela Robinson. This list is final." Koenig cut the comm and walked away to stare out the window at the approaching black sun.
Paul, not taking his eyes off Alan, keyed in his own microphone. "Will the survival ship crew please report to Eagle Departure Area Two in twenty minutes, ready for departure?" Then he keyed it off.
"Paul?" He turned to see Sandra staring at him. "PaulI don't want to... can't someone else go in my place?"
He put his hands on her shoulders. "You heard him, Sandra. The list is final."
Alan's hand grazed his elbow lightly. "I think I've got a preflight to run, Paul." Their eyes met over tiny Sandra's neat cap of black hair. Paul wished like hell he could hug him, or something... and then Alan was gone.
Paul picked up his timeline and stared at it with eyes that saw nothing at all.
Paul was drinking coffee, trying to warm his fingers on the cup when David came up and said, a little apologetically, "My figures show less than two hours."
Paul made up his mind. "Do me a favor, David? Mind the shop." He left before David could answer. What did it really matter at the moment?
Sandra, Professor Robinson, Osgood and Fujita were waiting in the travel tube to the departure lounge. Paul came in and sat next to Sandra; she looked at him gratefully. Nobody else had come... Paul realized that, not surprisingly, there was a certain amount of resentment that these people were going to get to live. And with only twenty minutes to assimilate it, there wasn't enough time to get over that... Dr. Russell showed up at last, Professor Bergman accompanying her only as far as the door. As soon as she sat down the travel tube started.
At the other end, they filed off, Sandra and Paul last; Paul stopped in the exitway and Sandra paused, too. Alan was standing opposite them, in doorway of the Eagle, flight-suited and watching, one arm braced almost casually on the hatch. Sandra touched Paul's arm. "It was thoughtful of you to come, Paul," she said, making him feel both good and guilty at the same time... something Alan told him he was far too good at. "You didn't have to," she added.
"I wanted to," Paul said, making himself look at her and smile.
She started a smile but couldn't finish it, reached up and gave him a quick little one-armed hug, and then, head down, hurried aboard past Alan.
Who straightened and held Paul's eyes with his own for several long seconds. "I'll send you a post card," he said finally.
Paul tried to smile and gave him a thumb's up.
And then Alan was gone. Again.
Paul made his solitary way back to Main Mission. Once there he ignored all the looks and took up his position. "Alan," he said, pleased to hear how steady his voice was. "One minute to lift off."
"Right," said Alan, professionally impersonal.
Paul watched the seconds drift by, each one taking an eternity. "Fifteen seconds," he said, and then, "Alan. Good luck."
"And to you," Alan said intensely before backing off and adding, "All of you."
And then he was gone. Yet again. This time for ever.
Ninety minutes later Paul took another turn around the dark and deserted Main Mission. Despite his space suit and the thick fisherman's sweater he was wearing, it was cold. He was cold. But he thought he'd have been cold if they'd been in the Sahara.
The door opened from the Commander's office and he and Professor Bergman came out. Paul gathered the remnants of his professional self together and said, "Central Computer's deactivated itself. One hundred percent of power facilities are feeding the main generator units. The force field is functioning"
"Paul." Koenig interrupted, with an odd smile on his facewhy not, in the face of such outrageously stereotypical English stiff-upper-lip-and-carry-on idiocy? He'd have laughed at it himself, and Alan would have been rolling on the floor. God. Alan.... The commander said, "Thank you. But there's really nothing more you can do. You're relieved."
"Very good, sir," he said instead of pleading to stay where he could occupy himself with something. He started to leave, and then, moved by an obscure impulse, turned and said, "Well, I never thought it would end this way."
He walked slowly through the corridors to his quarters. He'd almost gone to Alan's, but he'd decided he wouldn't be able to bear that. Besides, though he wanted to be left alone, he didn't want to actually be alone. He supposed that was a human thing, not wanting to die alone. He walked past the rec rooms; most of them were full of people playing some sort of game to distract themselves. A very serious poker game involving Smitty and some other tech types with stakes in the thousands; David Kano and Ranjit Singh taking each other on for the last time at chess; a trilingual Scrabble game among four astrophysicists; a cut-throat Yahtzee game... If Sandra had been there, she'd have organized Cluedo. He blinked back tears.
He went into his own quarters. After a moment he decided to leave the door open; he didn't particularly want visitors, but the contact, just the sound of others, would stop him from doing anything like breaking down. He couldn't do that. He wanted to. He wanted to shut the door and cry, but he couldn't. It wasn't done... and Morrows don't do what isn't done. Not usually, anyway.
He snorted to himself and pulled out his guitar. That was the thing, something complicated, Baroque, requiring concentration. He began playing at random, but then his fingers settled into Scarlatti. And yes, it was sort of cheating to play lute on guitar, but so what. And the transcription was certainly complicated enough to occupy much of his mind. The rest of it was, of course, thinking about Alan. God, let him live. He closed his eyes, playing by rote, and remembered the past month. Only a month. All of a lifetime...
He looked up. Tanya was standing in the door, her arms wrapped around herself.
"Mind if I share the music?" she asked shyly.
He shook his head. She came in and sat on the foot of his bed, listening. They didn't speak, only kept each other silent company. He didn't know what she was thinking. His thoughts were simple:
Alan. Be safe, soldier mine. Please...
Alan headed the Eagle away from the black sun at full speed. It was the last thing he wanted to do, but it was his job. His duty. And the five other people on board were depending on him to do it.
He just wished he'd actually ever gotten the words "I love you" said out loud to Paul before he'd left.
Bloody hell. He'd thought, once, that nothing could have been worse than feeling Denny's life slip away between his fingers, watching the last bit of awareness fade from those beautiful grey eyes. But this was worse. Leaving Paul behind to die. Not being there when he did.
"Got any idea where you're going, Carter?" Osgood, sitting in the co-pilot's seat, asked.
"Well, yeah, but"
"We're not going to anywhere," Alan relented. "We're running, mate. As hard and as fast and as straight-line as we can, away from that thing. We need to put a hell of a lot of distance between us and it before we start thinking about a destination."
"Well, sure. But do you have one in mind?"
"Look, George, I found out about this whole thing a couple of minutes before you did. No, I don't. Maybe the professor has some notion. When we get to a stopping place, we'll talk about it. Okay?"
For a moment, Alan wondered if he'd left anyone behind on Alpha. But he couldn't make himself care. Not yet. At the moment, thinking about Alpha, on anybody's behalf, was too dangerous. All he could think about was flying.
Just heading and speed.
No one else.
Just his passengers; his crew; his responsibility.
And not what time it was. Not the minutes clicking down, Alpha's existence running out like...
Nothing. No thoughts at all. Just actions. Just hand on the yoke, eyes flicking between gauge and control panel and starfield.
The universe in a pair of dark eyes...
Paul. I love you. I'm so bloody sorry...
The guitar faded in his hands, though he could feel it still, hear it still. He looked up; Tanya was fading, too. He was fadinghe could see the walls, the bed through their figures. The cold was gone... then he was alone in a place of shimmering light and sound. It was what Bach would be if you could see it, what the stars might be if you could hear them. A presence, immense and warm and so alive... "Alan? Alan?"
He is not here. A woman's voice, full of love, near and yet distant.
"Where is he?" Paul turned, seeking the speaker and seeing no one. "Who are you?"
I cannot say; I do not find my name in you.
Paul paused by a crystalline spraying of music. "Am I dying?"
"Alan? Is he dying? Whoever you are, can you save him?"
He is not here.
"I know that! Where is he?" The music and the starlight shivered, fell back into their proper forms. "Wait! Where are you? Wait..." But he knew it was too late, and when he opened his eyes, he was back in his room, the experience and its memory fading like a dream, and Tanya was there, and in the hallway people were laughing.
They had come through. They had lived.
And they had sent the others away.
The control panel in front of him began to vanish; stars showed through it as if it were made of fine cloth. His hands, too, thinned; he couldn't feel the yoke any more, or the seat, or the suit. He turned to look at Osgood, riding in the copilot's seat, and the man was staring at him as though he were seeing a ghost, but it was Osgood fading. The Eagle fading... He was floating, without a body, amid the stars, and he could hear the heartbeat of the universe. And then, between one pulse and the next
For a momentor an eternity, he couldn't tell; Time seemed to have no existencehe could hear the others, hear or feel or sense somehow
Osgood, fear running like a hamster on a wheel through his mindand he heard a guitar playing something not-quite-familiar, complicated and almost joyful, and his name called, and then There is the way. A voice like the night wind in the mountains, like his mother, like the call of the unknown.
Fujita, stillness like a raked sand garden, acceptance laid over everything
Sandra, a deep pool of grief
Russell, sorrow and longing and an unexpected corruscation of hope
Robinson, elegantly precise equations drifting across her mind, the mathematics of the cosmos, of destruction and rebirth and awe
"The way to what?" he asked, turning though he seemed to have no body to turn, and looking with eyes that didn't exist at a ribbon of moonlight across an ocean that wasn't there.
He is there.
"Paul?" he asked, reaching out to touch the pathway and feeling it flow around his fingers like warm water.
He is there.
He was back in the Eagle, the stars fading or the Eagle gaining solidity, and one last time he heard the voice, There is the way.
And then they were back in normal space, and Osgood was grabbing his arm and asking, "Carter? For the love of God, man, what just happened?"
And outside the window ran a ribbon of light, like the path of the moon across the sea.
Osgood took a seat behind Fujita and Robinson while Alan leaned against the bulkhead separating the passenger module from the cockpit. Out the side window he could see the translucent lane stretching through the starfield.
"What do we do now?" Russell asked.
"Look, what just happened," Alan began.
"What did just happen?" she echoed, and she, and all of them, had a look in their eyes that he probably had himself.
"I don't know," he answered honestly. "But it wasn't, well, usual. And I think the black sun must have caused it."
"Why?" Osgood demanded. "We weren't going towards it. We were going away from it, weren't we?"
"Occam," Robinson said. "Why complicate it? Not that it matters at the moment."
"Right," Alan agreed. "The point is, here we are. And it's not where we were. There's no black sun over there, for one thing. There's a planetary nebula instead. And the stars are all wrong."
"So, we should go that way," Alan pointed at the glowing path.
"Why that way?" Osgood's response cinched it; nobody else could see it. "Why not toward that sun over there?"
"We've got no reason to think there's a planet there that can sustain life," Alan said, trying to be as convincing as he could. "And let's face itthe six of us aren't really going to start the human race over."
"Two did it once," Russell said quietly.
"A fable," Fujita said. "Carter's right. Though I don't see why any direction is better."
"Because," Alan said carefully, "if we came through that, an unshielded Eagle, and survived, then Alpha certainly survived. And Alpha lies that way."
"If our relative positions are the same?" asked Robinson.
"Yeah. I feel it."
"Feel?" said Osgood.
"That's why he's here," Sandra said. "He's the pilot." Her dark eyes rested on him speculatively. "If he is sure..."
"Then we should listen to him."
Aland glanced out the window again. The path was fading a little bit.
"What are you looking at?" Russell rose, peering out past Sandra.
"The way," Alan said, and then more certainly, "the way to Alpha."
"Yeah. LookI dunno what happened to us"
"None of us do," Russell said.
"But we aren't where we were. Nothing's right. We don't know where we are"
"You mean you don't," Osgood said. "Maybe the professor does."
All eyes went to Robinson. She looked back at them calmly, the green light from the nebula glowing on her near-black skin. "I have no idea," she said. "I can recognize none of these stars. As far as I can tell we could arbitrarily assign a galactic direction to each of usright, left, up, down, forward, backand play rock-paper-scissors till only one remains, and that would be as good a way to determine which way to go as any other. Captain Carter has an idea. If all you dislike about it is that it's intuitive," she shrugged. "I vote with him, if we are voting; if we are not, he is the pilot, isn't he?"
"I am with Alan," said Sandra.
Dr. Russell looked at him, her blue eyes questioning.
"I'm sure," Alan said.
She nodded. "That's a good enough for me. Fujita?"
He nodded once. "Any way is the same to me. I have no way to make a decision."
Osgood shrugged. "Okay. Fine. Let's go."
Osgood had gone to the passenger module to sleep. They were all sleeping, Alan thought, holding the Eagle on course above the path that stretched out before him. At a moment when it seemed to run straight enoughrather, when it didn't take the Eagle somewhere it might be pulled off by spatial perturbations of one sort or another, for the path seemed to ignore gravity altogetherthat he could leave it for a moment, he'd put his head in back and checked on them. They'd all been sleeping then, even, finally, Sandra.
Now he stretched, edged the temperature down a degree to help himself stay awake, and wondered if he'd lost his mind. He didn't think he had; didn't they say if you asked that, you hadn't? They'd flown a lot longer already than he'd thought they should have if, as Robinson had said, their position relative to Alpha had stayed the same. But it hadn't taken him much thought to figure why: the black sun had been causing Alpha to accelerate toward it more every minute. With the figures, he might have done the math; as it was, he reckoned that towards the end the moon had been moving so fast it might take them days to catch it. That wasn't a real problem; they had supplies for weeks, after all. And Russell could give him some amphetamines, something to keep him awake, if need be.
The funny thing was, how little he questioned their eventual arrival. Alpha's ultimate safety. The proverbial happy ending. That was the oddity: Alan Carter accepting a happy ending. But there was no doubt in him at all. The Voice had left him no room for doubt. So maybe he was mad, after all. Hearing voices... seeing things.
Maybe. He banked the Eagle slightly to the right, pulling against something that wanted to shift him off course. Gravity was the old familiar enemy, the comfortable one whose tricks you knew and could use to your advantage. The enemy who always played fair, never changing the rules on you. There had been a time or two in his life when Alan had thought about surrendering, letting go, spiralling into oblivion on the inevitable curve of physics. He never had. And now he was surrendered to something non-physical, in every way.
Well... he smiled to himself, remembering Paul's very physical reality. But that beloved body wasn't as important as the soul it housed, or the love that lay between them like... like this path of not-quite moonlight. His body might be subject to gravity, but his spirit was subject only to that soul.
And if this was insanity, and then so be it.
"Alan?" The soft voice came from the entranceway behind him. "Do you mind if I keep you company a while? Or, rather, if you keep me company?"
"Of course not, Sandra," he said.
She settled into the vacant co-pilot's chair like a cat, drawing her feet up underneath her and looking out the window before them. After a while she said, "Will we get back to Alpha?"
"Yeah," he said. "I'm sure of it."
"I can see you are," she said. "You can truly see the way, out there, can't you?"
"Yeah," he said again. "I can. Clear as day."
"I don't know," he admitted.
"Did you," Dr. Russell's voice came from behind him; as she paused he looked over his shoulder to see her standing in the entranceway. She came into the cockpit and leaned up against the co-pilot's seat. "Did you, either of you... hear or see anything while we were..." she shrugged slightly, a woman who couldn't find the words she wanted and was irritated at her failure, "wherever we were?"
"I did not," said Sandra. "But I think, somehow, that there were things there to see and hear."
"Did you?" Alan asked.
"I heard chimes," Russell said, her voice low. "Like a carillon from a church, far away. I saw lights and drifting clouds. I felt safe. Warm."
Alan made another course correction.
"What do you see, Alan?" Russell asked. "What did you hear?"
"I see the way," he said, looking out over it. "I touched it. It was as real as anything I've ever felt. And something, or Somebody, told me 'there's the way'." He shrugged. "I dunno what happened back there, but I know where I'm going."
"I know where I'm going, and I know who's going with me," Helena sang softly, and then broke off, embarrassed. "Oh, Sandra, I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Sandra said. "I know who I love and my dear knows who I'll marry... It's a lovely song."
"It is, but I don't know why I thought of it."
Sandra looked at Alan, but all she said was, "This day has been unusual."
Russell laughed. "That's an understatement, I'd say. And that's actually why I came. You should sleep, Alan."
He shook his head. "No. I can go on quite a while, and nobody else can fly. If I sleep, we lose time, maybe get lost. I'm fine, Doc. Really."
She gave him a long, clinical stare, and then nodded. "All right. For now. Sandra, you should sleep, though."
"I've been asleep," she said. "I, too, am fine. I would like to stay here a while, with Alan."
"What good is it being the doctor if nobody will listen?" Russell complained, but she went away and left them alone.
"They will be waiting for us, won't they?"
"I dunno," he said. "But we'll catch 'em up, don't worry."
She smiled slightly. "I will be glad to see them. To see Paul... and he will be glad to see us. To see you."
"Yeah," he said, not caring how or when she'd guessed.
"I'm glad for you," she said. "You both."
Sandra resumed watching the stars, and Alan flew. And the path ran before them, leading them home.
"No sign of the survival ship," Koenig said for the hundredth time. Today.
Paul wished the commander would let it go. They'd survived, against all the odds. But the Eagle was gone. It was, if Bergman was right, on the other side of the Universe. If he wasn't, it was still a very long way away. They were alive, Alan and Sandra and Dr. Russell and the others, and that was enough. This constant harping on whether the mysterious voice, the entity in the black sun, if there had been one in the first place, would reunite them with their lost ones... it was going to drive Paul mad.
"So much for your fancy theories of cosmic intelligence," Koenig said to Bergman, sounding as if he'd finally decided to give up.
Bergman said, "Well, I knew it was impossible."
In the silence that followed, Paul thought, then why the hell did you keep on about it for so damned long? And then the quality of the silence caught him, even in his pain, and he looked at Koenig. The commander was staring out the main window. Paul turned to look.
"Was it?" Koenig whispered.
Eagle Five was dropping neatly through the black of the lunar sky.
Something broke inside Paul. He dropped the clipboard he was holding, feeling like he hadn't felt since he was six and still believed in Father Christmas and had found the pony at the end of the golden cord tied to his bed... "They're coming back!" someone shouted, and he realized it was him.
Then the whole Main Mission erupted in cheers, and the staff headed for the Eagle Lounge. Paul hesitated a moment, seeing the commander just standing there. He recognized the emotion on the dark face: it would have been on his if he'd dared. "Commander," he urged. "Come on."
Koenig started, and then smiled broadly and followed him.
Paul looked at Alan, cornered by Bergman and Koenig, and he smiled, covering it by putting his hands on Sandra's shoulders and hugging her. But he was listening to the other three.
"It's impossible," Koenig was insisting. "You must have followed us into the black sun."
Alan shook his head, smiling. "We went in the opposite direction," he said again, not insistent himself, just certain.
Bergman said, "You must have followed us."
Dr. Russell, at Koenig's elbow, agreed with Alan. "We didn't."
Paul couldn't keep quiet. "We went right through it," he said, ostensibly to Sandra, but over her head he was talking to Alan, the man who wanted to see the new things. "It was fantastic."
Alan smiled at him.
Koenig was insistently talking to him. "But how? If you didn't follow us through, how did you find Alpha again?" Alan, still smiling at Paul, reluctantly turned his gaze to the commander. "A million light years," Koenig finished.
"Right across the universe," Bergman said in tones of hushed wonder.
Alan looked from one them to the other, and then, in his most practical voice, said, "Well, I'm an astronaut, professor, not a philosopher."
"Something brought us home," said Dr. Russell.
Alan was looking at Paul again as Koenig echoed her, "Yes. Home."
The minute the door shut behind him Paul flung himself on Alan, knocking the commlock unheeded to the floor. He wrapped his arms around the lean Australian who was his universe and held him tightly until his trembling ceased, and then their mouths met and for what seemed as long a time as the passage through the black sun they knew nothing but each other.
"God, Alan," Paul said finally. "God. You came back."
"I said I would," Alan said.
"Y'know," Alan was a bit embarrassed. "I asked the others if they heard anything while we were inside that thing. Dr. Russell thought she heard something, like chimes she said. The othersnothing."
"You heard something?" Paul had pulled away far enough to look into Alan's eyes.
"There was a voice," Alan said flatly, and then his tone softened with wonder. "A woman's voice. She kept repeating, 'There is the way. He is there.' And there was a shining path... It was like flying an airplane over the ocean, keeping on the moonlight on the water. Like the moon's path across the universe.... And the voice..." he stopped, out of words.
"The commander and Bergman heard it, too," said Paul. "Bergman thinks it was the Mind of the Universe."
"Whatever," Alan shrugged, reverting to normal. "Like I told the professor, I'm no bloody philosopher."
"No," Paul agreed, and then laughed and pulled the other man close, feeling his arms come around him to hold on just as tight. "No, thank God, you're not. You're a pilot. And you flew home from one side of the black sun to the otherone side of the universe, they're saying, to the other."
"Home?" Alan asked, his breath warm against Paul's throat, that he'd thought would never be warm again. "Like the commander was saying, you mean? Alpha?"
"No." Alan shook his head under Paul's hand. "You, Paul. I flew back to you. Either side's the same to me if you're there. I am not leaving you again."
"You hardheaded Pommy bastard," Alan said, "will you listen to me? I love you." Paul's hold tightened at the words. "I love you."
"Oh, god, Alan." Paul almost sobbed that, and Alan's hand pulled his head down for a kiss.
And then their hands were frantic on each other's body, pulling clothes off and making sure of each other. They fell onto the bed, need to affirm life driving them, and nothing at all was real but each other.
Paul collapsed trembling on Alan's body, trying to cover him with his own. The blond wrapped his arms around him, holding on as tightly. "Ummm," he said softly. "I've been waiting for that."
"I came straightway," Paul said.
"Straightway after taking Sandra home."
Paul couldn't decipher the tone. Surely Alan knew that was because, well partly because she was alone and partly because he couldn't do what he'd wanted to, couldn't grab Alan in front of God and everybody and hugging Sandra was a poor second but if she was real, substantial and there, then Alan was too... He couldn't think of anything to say, but then he didn't have to, as Alan hugged him again and said,
"Oh, come on, Paul. I'm well aware of the fact that there's nothing between you and Sandra. I'm not jealous of her. Or you... But I'm also aware that it was her you hugged and her you talked to, and her you walked back to her quarters after the party."
"Alan" Paul started, trying to find the words to reassure him.
Alan laughed at him. Paul didn't mind, though he didn't understand. After the past two days, the sound of Alan's laughter was the single sweetest sound he could hear. He wanted to hear it for the rest of his life, even if he didn't always know just what he'd done to call it up. "Paul, relax, man. You're here now, aren't you?"
"I'm thinking about you."
"Stop that," Alan said. "You've got that Labrador face again. You worry too much."
"It's an occupational hazard," Paul admitted.
"S'pose so... But this isn't your job, chook." He ran his hand through Paul's hair.
God, Paul thought. I almost never heard that again... He shivered.
Alan pulled him closer, drawing the blanket up. "Still cold?"
"No," Paul nestled up to him. "Nice and toasty, thank you... Just still a little, I don't know, disbelieving."
"I'm back. I'm not going anywhere again."
"I mean it. I'm not going off again. If I have to break my ass teaching somebody else to fly, I will."
"I'd rather you didn't," Paul couldn't help murmuring. "I like it in one piece."
"Galah," Alan said fondly and Paul burrowed closer. "All I meant about Sandra was, I want to tell everyone."
"You'll lose your job," Paul said, without thinking, an automatic response.
Alan laughed. "Oh, Paul, did you even listen to yourself just then? Lose my job? You think Koenig's going to fire me?"
"Oh..." Paul knew he was blushing. "Well, right..."
"And even if I thought there was a donkey's chance of my ever seeing Oz againwhich you must admit is bloody unlikely, mateI'd still want to. After all, aren't you blokes hiring?"
"What?" Paul said giddily. "Youa Pom?"
"Hey," Alan growled. "Watch your mouth."
Paul raised his head and kissed him, languorously and deeply.
"Better yet," Alan whispered against his throat when he could, "let me."
"Forever," Paul said.
|1: Voluntary||2: Breakaway||3: Black Sun|
|Autumn Afternoon | Ilya's Wedding | Something... | Last Corner | Morgans|
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